Galba shot Arrius a filthy look when he finally arrived for his last staff meeting. He sat nursing his habitual cup of overly spiced mulsum, a dismal expression on his tired face and a rather less habitual hangover. Last night it seemed that the entire garrison of Deva had wanted to say goodbye to Gaius Arrius, and so they had, even the legate.
“You’re late!” he hissed as his tribune sat down.
“Well, then, now that we’re all here…” Galba shot a pointed glance at Arrius, who prudently looked straight ahead – “let’s tie up all those loose ends, shall we?” He nodded at Priscus, the XX frumentarius. “What’s the news on those raids, Priscus?”
“Well, sir, Arrius here and I interrogated a witness, sir, you might know him? He’s a horse-trader, trades horses with the Hibernians all the time, name of Owain ap Powyll?”
Galba laughed. “The whole town knows Owain! He’d sell his mother for a profit, if she were horse-faced enough! And that’s your witness?”
Arrius felt obliged to take over from a suddenly very unhappy-looking Priscus.
“I know, I know. Never mind. Owain was on a visit five days ago with his sister and her family, her husband’s a fisherman on the coast some fifteen miles up the coastal road to Luguvallium, when they all saw three ships, definitely Hibernian in style, sailing past from the north. You know those Hibernians…they advertise who they are from twenty miles away…Anyway, they were sailing pretty close to the shore, and it wasn’t hard to see who was in it. So far as Owain and his sister could tell, everyone including the crew was drunk, except for one.” Arrius paused for effect and winked at Priscus.
Somewhat recovered, Priscus took up the thread. “Ah! Yes…well, Owain swore on his own life and even the Emperor’s for that matter, that he saw Ciarán mac Broccan.”
For a moment, Galba looked confused. “Ciarán mac Broccan? He’s a …wait, isn’t he one of those plagues we pay to leave us alone? Priscus, do you happen to have that list of Hibernian client kings?”
Priscus nodded over to Ajax, who reluctantly shuffled over with a series of wax tablets.
“Here sir…” Ajax opened the appropriate tablet and pointed the stylus at the name, and here…” he opened another tablet, “is what we’ve paid him so far.”
“Gods, man, he could buy Eboracum for that!”
“Yes, sir, and a fair chunk of Londinium, too!”
“Did Owain say anything else we might find relevant?” Galba asked after a long and highly pregnant pause.
“He did, actually…” Priscus went on, “he said that his sister had told him that this Ciarán was the very same who has been raiding all along the western coast from Isca to Deva. Not often, and not always thoroughly, but just enough to terrify the folks who live there. Ciarán and his men have taken cattle, grain and women, mostly and everyone else they’ve killed, and everything else, they’ve burned or razed to the ground.”
“Arrius, you’ve confirmed this?”
Arrius jumped. It had been a very long night. “Yes, sir. Priscus and I took a few men to see this sister of Owain’s, the day before yesterday. She certainly didn’t mince her words, and confirmed everything he had said. She also gave several highly creative suggestions as to what we should do to Ciarán, if we find him. Just to make sure, we visited several farms on the way back to Deva, and they all said the same thing, and the same name.”
“And now Ciarán has deigned to take three of our supply ships…” Galba clutched his head. “Glaucus, any word on when we can expect replacements?”
“Yes, sir, Postumianus has just sent word that there’ll be sent supplies from both Eboracum and Londinium, this time under escort, just to be safe.”
“Thank the Gods there’s at least one public official who knows how to do his job, because I evidently don’t!”
“T o be fair, sir –” Bassus, one of the junior tribunes, felt he should contribute his own two as’ worth, “you have just returned from campaign.”
“That’s no damn excuse for letting a Hibernian madman raid my territory!” Galba slammed his fist down on the table. “We have all returned from that blasted campaign, and while we were away making life miserable for the Maeatae, that pestilential Ciarán was making life miserable for us! Damn him to Hades! And just to make my headache worse, he’s outside my jurisdiction!”
“Well, not entirely…” Arrius stated the obvious. “You could always take him off the Imperial payroll.”
“Damn right I’ll take him off the payroll! I’ll take him off life altogether, if I ever get a chance!” Galba sighed and seemed to calm down a bit. He threw his now lukewarm mulsum down an unsuspecting throat and coughed when the cinnamon began to burn.
“Question is,” he went on after another pause, “what do I do with him?”
“Winter’s coming, sir, which should give you time to think of something once he comes back.” Priscus was trying to be diplomatic. Judging from Galba’s expression, he was failing miserably.
“What really upsets me, of course,” Galba glared down the full length of the table at his senior tribune, “is that right at the moment I need my broad-striped tribune and all his hare-brained ideas, he’s recalled to Rome!”
Arrius flashed a grin. “I am sorry, sir! Really! Couldn’t be helped, you know…but…”
“Well, sir, think a moment. It’s always been prudent Imperial policy to pay off anyone we can’t subdue otherwise, right? Except, of course, in those cases when the greedy bastards want it all and more…like, for instance, the Maeatae this past summer…Anyway, Ciarán will not receive another as from us, I should think that’s obvious. But I have some slight experience with those Hibernians, sir. Slippery as fish and nowhere so reliable! They often have a terrible habit of using one enemy to get rid of another…and maybe that’s something we could use to our advantage?”
Everyone in the room leaned back in their chairs and braced themselves for an onslaught. Arrius was infamous for pacing the room and thinking out loud at staff meetings, and even today, his last day in Deva, was no exception. Already, he was out of his chair and on his feet, pacing the room.
“Think about it. What do we know about the state of affairs in Hibernia? Well, we know that they’re not averse to recruiting a little outside help when they need to take care of one of their own, right? There was that king, back in the days of Agricola…what was his name…never mind, can’t remember anyway. And even the present High King, as he calls himself, didn’t he gather up an army here in Britannia all those years ago, what was it, sixteen years ago, just to make sure he had enough of an army to really slaughter his enemies in style?” Arrius sat down and lifted his eyebrows to his audience. “His Hibernian enemies, mind you, and that should tell us something rather important.” He stood and began pacing again.
“So, Ciarán mac Broccan is obviously having trouble on the home front, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother to come at all. And another thing – if he wasn’t having trouble with his own, why would he even stoop to take our money? Priscus, do you remember anything about the terms of the agreement Lupis made with Ciarán?”
Priscus had to think a moment.
“Err, yes, it was the standard-issue cliental agreement, as I recall. He got paid to leave us alone here in Britannia, and we had a friendly face in Hibernia, if we should ever need it, more or less.”
“Aha!” Arrius pointed his finger at Priscus. “That’s it exactly! Well, has anyone stopped to think what would happen if Ciarán plays stupid convincingly enough, assures us a thousand times over that he had nothing whatsoever to do with those raids, nope, those stolen supply ships were never him, must have been one of his pesky neighbors, and then begs us for assistance when he needs to get rid of said pesky neighbors? Look around you, people – Deva, and even Britannia for that matter, is literally crawling with mercenaries these days, all thanks to the damn Caledonian campaign! Lately, there’s even been talk around the legions that given what we’ve done this past summer, there might not even be a point in continuing the campaigns, all those vexillations and auxiliaries will get sent home, and meanwhile, there will be all these idle mercenaries, twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone like Ciarán mac Broccan to spend all those bribes we’ve paid him that he can’t spend in Hibernia. ”
Galba saw it immediately, and from the looks on Glaucus’ and Tillius Rufus’ faces, so did they. “Mithras!”
“But, but…” again, reflected Arrius, it would be Bassus who would voice objections, but then, he hadn’t been junior tribune long, “it’s not like they can just up and march off to Hibernia just because Ciarán shows up and says he needs so many men! Postumianus will need to be informed, and…”
“Well, it’s something you should think about over the winter, at the very least.” Arrius glared at Bassus. How the man had become junior tribune was beyond him, he never questioned an order. Ever. Maybe that was why.
“We all know what kind of man Ciarán really is. He’s just about the nastiest piece of business across the sea, from what I’ve heard. Remember that.” Arrius sat down.
“Finished already, Gaius Arrius?” Galba was surprised. “It’s not like you not to have thought out at least four plans and three alternatives by now.”
“Not today, sir, I’m leaving for Eboracum this afternoon.”
Galba groaned. “Thanks for the reminder!”
“We’ll miss ya, tribune.” Tillius Rufus looked sad.
Arrius looked around the room. Six years was a long time to get to know these men, and during the three years of his tribunate and three summers of campaigning, he had gotten to know them well.
“If it’s any consolation, Rufus, I’ll miss you, too!”
“Well, you haven’t left us just yet, young man,” his legate reasserted his authority, “and we’re nearly done here?”
“Yes…” they all murmured the length of the table and pushed back their chairs.
“Good! We’ll meet later and discuss the Hibernian problem in more detail. Gaius Arrius, Carbo, Rufus, in your office, if you please, and Ajax…”
Ajax woke up. “Yes, sir?”
“I believe the occasion calls for some decent wine, no, not that Gaulish swill we’ve all been suffering through, some respectable Salernian, yes, and make sure it’s chilled.”
Galba pushed Arrius ahead of him through the door. “Arrius, your office, now!” he growled.
Arrius turned back toward his legate in the door and whispered, “Hangover that bad, sir?”
“You have no idea…”
They were soon settled in Arrius’ office with some decent Salernian in their cups, and his slaves had disappeared with the last book buckets and wax tablets for the legion archives, his tapestries and a thick Parthian rug along with the odds and ends he had accumulated in his six years in Britannia. Arrius sighed a long, drawn-out sigh. There wasn’t much to pack, for he had few extravagant habits, and spent most of his money at Iolanthe’s house in Eboracum rather than on Briton souvenirs.
“So, then, Arrius. Looking forward to getting back to Rome?” asked Galba.
“Do you know…what I’m looking forward to the most is seeing my father again. We parted badly, and it’s been, well, six years. Gods! Six years! How did I survive Britannia for six years?”
Tillius Rufus stretched out a pair of hairy, battle-scarred legs in front of him and finally said what they all had been thinking, but were too polite to say.
“The question you should be asking yourself, tribune, is how you’ll survive the next six months in Rome. Antoninus has it in for you, and I doubt he’ll forget.”
Arrius had conveniently forgotten all about Antoninus. “And here I was looking forward to sunshine and olive groves…Damn it, Rufus, you do know how to burst my bubbles!”
Galba sipped his wine. “He’s right, you know. You shouldn’t have captured Cadaracus.”
Arrius rolled his eyes. “I know, I know, my impulsiveness will get the best – or the worst – of me one of these days. And now Severus wants me for quaestor, and it would be just my rotten fortune they all say he’s dying in Eboracum right now, so I’ll get packed off to, oh – ” he winked at Rufus, a veteran – “the Parthian border, or Judea.”
“Or killed off outright, once Severus is dead, your father’s estates confiscated, your family dishonored…” Carbo hit the nail on the head.
“Is that what you think will happen, Carbo?” Arrius’ voice went very quiet, and he was almost whispering. In Deva, even the walls sometimes had ears.
“Well…” Carbo drawled. “You saw him in Eboracum, and in Caledonia. What do you think?”
“I think you’re right, is what I think. What’s worse is what in Hades I can do about it. My father, as you know, has retired to our villa in Cumae due to ill health, and there’s really noone else but me now…both my uncles were killed in Commodus’ proscriptions, and finally, it looked as if the venerable if moth-eaten gens Arria had managed to spawn a future consul, and then I had to ruin it in Caledonia. Cacat!”
“Incidentally, why did you have to get Cadaracus?” Galba asked offhandedly. He held up his hands. “No, I’m not about to give you a hard time about that, the report has been filed, Severus is happy, let him shut up his tempest of a son, I’m just curious.”
Arrius ran his fingers through his hair and emptied his cup. For a long moment, he stared blank-faced into the wall, and Galba wondered whether he should repeat his question.
“Two reasons, really. First, because I rather suspected this would be my last campaign for a while and I just thought I might as well make a splash while I could.” He reached for the flagon of wine and poured himself a measure, and then added water. “It would give me and my men something to do. Everyone else was busy winding down the campaign, getting ready to return home to the garrisons, and with Glaucus making everyone’s lives miserable, we really didn’t have that much to do.”
“Of course, we went along,” interjected Carbo, “to make sure he came back alive…”
“And didn’t mess up the whole operation…” went on Rufus. “And second of all,” Arrius continued unperturbed, “because I knew I could get him. That Maeatan scout had a grudge the size of the Circus Maximus against Cadaracus, and I figured another opportunity as good as this one wouldn’t come around again anytime soon.”
Galba shrugged. “It happens. What was the scout’s grudge?”
For the first time since the staff meeting, Arrius gave a huge grin. “The oldest grudge of all, legate. Cadaracus stole his woman!”
“Was she worth stealing?”
The change in Arrius’ demeanor was as instantaneous as it was startling. Immediately, the face that had so often reminded Galba of those old statues of Sulla, with the same red-gold coloring, went as blank and still as a plaster wall. There was a long, ominous pause, so long that Carbo’s caligae creaked. Then, just when Galba, Carbo and Rufus were uneasily eyeing each other and wondering who should be the first to break the silence, Arrius finally answered.
“I suppose she was.”
They all let out surreptitious sighs of relief.
“Anyway…” Arrius stretched in his chair and reached for his cup, “we got him. I guess he’s dead in Eboracum by now. And my official testimony still applies, you know – someone had to do something, someone had to break the deadlock we’ve all been in these past five years, and I just thought it might as well be me. Antoninus couldn’t catch a hare in Caledonia if he tried. Far too busy greasing the palms of the legions…And speaking of greasing…now that I’ve ruined my chances of a career, what in Hades do I do?” He ran his fingers through his hair, slammed down the contents of his cup, and slumped in his chair.
“An excellent question!” replied Carbo. “So far as I can tell, you’re pretty well screwed from all angles! Even Isosceles would agree!”
Arrius had to smile. Carbo had kept him entertained with his acid remarks ever since he had become tribune.
Galba cleared his throat. “It does look pretty dire. Severus’ gout has been getting worse by the hour, and we know how that story will unfold…But if I were you, young man…” he favored Arrius with an avuncular stare – “I don’t think I’d do much of anything at all until you’ve had the opportunity to speak to your father. He may be retired from the Senate, but he managed to survive through Commodus, Didius Julianus, Clodinus and Severus’ takeover, not to mention that messy bit of business with Plautianus, and with his reputation and dignitas intact. No mean feat, if you ask me. If anyone knows, it will be your father.” He sipped his wine while he thought. “Of course, if you could get a chance to speak to Severus when you’re in Eboracum…”
“Gods, man!” exclaimed Arrius. “He’s the bloody Emperor and this mess is all to do with his son! What do you think he’d say?”
Galba shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just a legate, what do I know? Well, for one thing…I know Severus. I’ve known him since Pannonia, and that’s a long time. The man is not stupid by any stretch of the imagination, and that being the case; Severus would be the first to appreciate your predicament. He has you primed for one of the quaestores Augusti, which puts you right in sight of Antoninus’ murderous plans, and in Antoninus’ mind, you should be dead, probably, if for no other reason than for showing him up. Those Africans, man…so touchy!”
They all laughed. Galba came from Lugdunum, and had often said the same thing about himself in unguarded moments.
Arrius leaned forward in his chair, hands cupped around the base of his goblet. “And?”
“And…I don’t know…Everyone knows the Augusta keeps Severus’ pretty inaccessible these days, and if it isn’t her, then it’s that fat cat Castor…but Severus knows you well from the summer before last, and, well…I’ll send a note to Postumianus when you leave. I’ve never pulled rank for anyone, but just this once…!” Galba pointed in the air, and they all laughed again.
“Seriously, though, Arrius…” Carbo leaned forward, all earnest – “you have a few disadvantages. Antoninus loathes your freckled hide, we all know that, and we all know why. Geta isn’t much better, but he’s not entirely unreasonable. There’s that old story with Sulpicia, you know…and certainly there’ll be a few Senate gossips who will gladly dig out that old dirt again, and finally, even if you are an Arrian…” Carbo’s voice dropped, “you are also the son of a Hibernian freedwoman and former slave. You know those snobs – they’ll throw that in your face when you least expect it.”
Again, Arrius’ mobile face shut down in an instant. “I do know.” He changed the subject. “Carbo, did you get the money from Timaeus? Remember, we agreed – a thousand sesterces a year, and not one as more!”
Carbo nodded. “Yes, I did. I’ll make certain to pass it on and her as well. You never know which senatorial twit will develop a liking for redheads!”
Galba looked bemused. “Who..Brecca?”
Arrius grinned again. “Hush money, Galba. I want to make sure I never see her again! Gods, the woman won’t shut up…”
“They never do!”
“Well, any road…” Rufus finally spoke up and brought them all back to the matter at hand, “you’ll have a little time to decide what to do. And besides your meeting with Postumianus, what are you going to do in Eboracum?”
A grin spread all over his face like good olive oil, Arrius replied, “I’m meeting up with my very old friend Lucius Sabius Niger. For some strange reason, I have no idea why, Lucius Sabius is in Eboracum these days. And…” he paused for effect – “I’m taking him to Iolanthe’s.”
There was a collective sigh. “Ah!”
“Lucky man!” breathed Rufus and Carbo. The house of Iolanthe in Eboracum was famous throughout Britannia, if only you could afford it. Arrius had often entertained them on the march with stories about the house of Iolanthe.
“Lucky man, my eye” muttered Galba. “Iolanthe’s house is the gods’ way of saying you have far too much money and not nearly enough sense!”
“Well…Lucius has always said I have far too much money, and I know he has no sense, so it’s the perfect solution. I’ll be on a ship soon enough as it is…”
“Oh, yes, I nearly forgot…” began Galba, when they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
It was Ajax, Galba’s deceptively sleepy secretary.
“Sir…Bassus and Libo are waiting in your office with Priscus.” Galba rose to his feet. “Tell them all that I’ll be right there…Oh! Arrius…”
Arrius paused on his way out the door as Timaeus waited outside impatiently.
“I’ve arranged for an escort to Eboracum. They’ll be ready around the eighth hour.” Galba frowned as he saw the mutinous expression on Arrius’ face.
“Damn it, Arrius, it is the last time you’ll be traveling with imperium, you know…might as well enjoy the perks while you can!”
Arrius clasped Galba’s arm. “I’ll miss you, legate.”
Galba clasped back. “I’ll miss you too, young man, especially once I see your replacement!” He followed Ajax down the corridor.
“Domine…” Timaeus had been waiting a long time.
“Damn it, does everyone want a piece of me now I’m leaving?”
“About your bed, domine…you did want it packed up and sent back with the rest of your baggage?”
Carbo and Rufus had tactfully disappeared. They would say their goodbyes later.
Arrius took a deep breath. “Yes, Timaeus, I want it dismantled and packed and sent back to Cumae, if you have to haul it down to Rutupiae on your back!”
He couldn’t decide what was worse – leaving Deva after six years or dealing with a clearly frantic Timaeus.
Gods, to get back on the road again…no slaves to deal with, no men to take care of, no orders to heed, nothing but the road, fields and sky and the horse between his legs…
It was high time to leave.
Well past the appointed eighth hour of the day, the escort Galba had arranged were waiting restlessly just outside the gates of the garrison, fresh, rested – and restive – horses chomping on their bits and stomping their hooves in their eagerness to be off. So was Galba, and he was not happy about it.
“Damn it, Ajax, where is he? He can’t have spent the rest of the day packing!”
“We’ve looked everywhere, sir! Everywhere!”
Galba turned toward Carbo and Rufus, who stood there looking long-faced.
“All right, you two…confess! Where is he?”
“Dunno, sir!” proclaimed Rufus. “Honest, we don’t!”
“Carbo? Do you have something to say?”
Carbo looked straight ahead. “No, sir. I have no idea whatsoever where Gaius Arrius might be.” His caligae creaked.
Galba sighed. Well, then, nothing for it than to send them all off…
“Sir! Sir! Where do you want this, sir?”
Galba turned around. It was Timaeus, nearly buried under a large, beautiful, rolled-up Parthian rug that glowed in the late-afternoon sunshine.
“Arrius’ rug? Why should I know where he wants it?”
“No, no…you misunderstand, sir…My master left this for you, and…” Timaeus dropped one end of the extravagant rug into the dust at the gates and rummaged in his tunic pockets.
Galba opened the note.
“Vale, legate! I hate goodbyes! Meanwhile, take good care of my rug… Vale, Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus.”
Galba stared down Carbo. “Carbo, oil your damned caligae! And where is Arrius?”
It was Rufus, not Carbo, who muttered “He’s left with the couriers, sir.”
“The couriers! But they left at midday!”
“They did,” agreed Carbo.
“Sir…” Timaeus brought Galba back to the moment with a jolt, “where do you want your rug?”