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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Riches Anthony

«Fortress of Spears», Anthony Riches

Anthony Riches



Rome, August, AD 182

The first of the young senator’s bodyguards died slowly, choking to death on the cobbles with his sword only half drawn from its scabbard. He stared up at his killer with bulging eyes while the assassin turned away from him and drew his gladius, facing the younger of the two men with a grim smile. He had stepped out of a side alley in a street whose sudden quiet should have been enough of a warning to an experienced man, punching a half-fist into the veteran soldier’s throat before the bodyguard had the time to realise that he was under attack. The senator and his remaining protector fell back a few paces, both men staring in amazement at their companion as he writhed and kicked in the throes of his death spasm.

Another man stepped from the alley’s shadows in the killer’s wake, and leaned against the wall of a shop in the late afternoon’s warmth, his face set in an expression of boredom. Where the bodyguard’s murderer was heavyset, with arms that rippled with hard muscle, the man that accompanied him was tall and thin. His voice, when he spoke, was agreeable, and almost soothing in the softness of its tone.

‘Greeting, Tiberius Sulpicius Quirinius. Forgive me, but I can’t help thinking that you’ve made something of a blunder in your choice of protection today. Hiring retired soldiers is all very well, but they do tend to know more about throwing spears at barbarians than the dangers of the streets, as your man here is so noisily demonstrating. And the savings to be had from hiring a boy to do a man’s work are so often outweighed by the resulting costs. Wouldn’t you agree, Senator Quirinius, given that you chose to chance a district as rough as the Subura with only these two innocents for protection?’

The prostrate bodyguard shuddered in one last desperate effort to breathe through his ruptured throat, and then sagged back to lie still on the stones. Quirinius drew himself up, staring at the taller of the two men with an air of confidence that he was a long way from feeling.

‘What in Hades do you think you’re doing? Who are you, to challenge an unarmed senator of Rome in the open street?’

The thin man smiled widely, spreading his hands in greeting.

‘Who am I, Senator? I’m Tiberius Varius Excingus, and I’m one of the Emperor’s corn officers. This is my colleague, Quintus Sestius Rapax. He’s a praetorian officer, believe it or not, but he’s never lost the taste for killing even after his richly deserved promotion to centurion. As to what we’re doing? Well, you might be a senator, but you’re clearly still wet behind the ears, or you might have been a little more careful in the last few hours.’

The praetorian’s eyes were alive with calculation as he stepped in to face the remaining bodyguard. He nodded to the boy, barely fifteen from the look of it, then pointed back with his sword at the uniformed men who were guarding the far end of the street from prying eyes, his voice harsh from years of bellowing orders across parade grounds.

‘You’re staying to fight, then, eh, boy? You can still save yourself, if you run now. My men will let you leave, if you drop the sword and walk away.’ He waited, watching the conflicting emotions play out on the boy’s face. ‘No?’ The bodyguard shook his head, wide eyed and clearly terrified, but either unwilling or simply unable to turn and run, and the praetorian laughed softly. ‘Just as well. They’d probably have killed you, if only for fun – or just because you’ve seen my face. And you, Senator, will you not be joining the fight? You’ve got no weapon, I suppose. Only a fool would have walked into a trap like this without a blade of some nature, but I suppose it’s a little too late for you to reflect on that…’

He stamped forward, smashing aside the boy’s raised sword with his own and putting a bunched fist into his face, hard enough to break his nose, then thrust the blade up into his defenceless victim’s chest before he could recover from the blow, dumping him on his back in a fast-spreading puddle of blood. The senator looked about him, seeking a means of escape, but the shops that lined the street were closed, and the killer’s walk towards him was more saunter than stalk. The taller of the two men spoke again, strolling across the street’s cobbles until he was close enough for the senator to see the thin scar that lined the left side of his face.

‘The bad news, Senator, is that you’re not the only person you’ve doomed with your loose talk, and I’m afraid that the damage can’t be limited to these two poor individuals. I’m told you have a young wife and an infant son, and so, regrettably, our next call will have to be on the pair of them. You have sisters too, I believe? Believe me, Senator, when the throne decides to remove a threat it does so in a particularly thorough way, to ensure that nobody stays alive who might later seek their revenge.’

Quirinius spread his hands, his voice wavering in desperation.

‘Couldn’t I…’

‘Pay us off? You don’t have enough money, Senator. Call on our better nature? I’m really not sure whether I’ve got one, but I can assure you that my colleague Rapax here most certainly does not. He enjoys these little diversions far too much to have any underlying decency. No, Senator, the time to be having second thoughts about all this was before you walked into Praetorian Prefect Perennis’s office and told him your story regarding the death of his son, and exactly who it was that killed him. You blurted out that the fugitive Marcus Valerius Aquila was the murderer, and is hiding with an auxiliary cohort of Tungrians in northern Britannia under the name of Marcus Tribulus Corvus far too easily, I’m afraid.’

Rapax stepped closer to the young noble, smiling easily into the other man’s eyes, then looked down at the stream of urine puddling around his feet. He shook his head, his voice a hoarse growl tinged with the barest hint of irritation. ‘Take a moment to compose yourself, boy. A man should go to meet his gods with dignity.’

The senator stared helplessly back at the assassin’s stone-hard face, his knees shivering with the imminence of his death. The praetorian raised his sword and expertly stabbed the point into the conjunction of shoulder and neck, watching dispassionately as Quirinius slumped slowly to the cobbles. The life faded from his eyes, blood gushing down his toga and staining the white linen crimson as it poured from the artery Rapax had opened. Excingus shook his head sadly.

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