Weekend Wind Down – The Arse End of the Empire

Dai watched the familiar countryside roll by and tried to forget, rather than obsess about, the fact that he was lying to his bride of less than a month – and on two issues. Well, lying by omission. He had promised himself he was not going to keep anything from her about his working life. She had lived it herself and her security clearance had been higher than his until his sudden promotion.
Even his friend, and newly appointed Senior Investigator, Bryn Cartivel had warned him. Slapping him on the back the day before Dai’s wedding as they were taking a final drink in the Londinium taberna that had seen so much of their custom over the previous eight years.
“Two bits of advice from a long-married man to one about to take the plunge. One is never forget she is always right, even when you think you are and two – never – and I mean never – keep secrets from her.” Bryn burped loudly and adopted a fatherly look. “You see, if you get to the day you think you’re always right and she’s wrong or start finding there are things you can’t tell her – well, that’s the day your marriage hits the rocks.”
“You can’t tell your wife everything,” Dai protested. “I mean half the stuff from work is -”
“Everything she wants to know,” Bryn cut over his protest, then dropped a heavy wink. “But then my Gwen she’d know if I was keeping things from her. She’s descended from a long line of Druids on her mother’s side.”
The trouble was Bryn was right and these were things Julia would want to know – things Dai wanted to tell her. But it was not in his hands. These were secrets he had been ordered to keep from her.

The first had arisen in a conversation with the Tribune in charge of the praetorians in Britannia – Decimus Lucius Didero, foster-brother to Julia. He had summoned Dai on the pretext of a meeting about some legality around the marriage and had not been at all repentant about his duplicity.
“This is serious, Llewellyn and is a big part of how I swung this post your way. Our intelligence people are saying that a lot of dangerous contraband is getting in through the coast there and Viriconium is the hub of it. We need someone who is accepted by the British community and who we can trust. You fit the bill.”
“And here I was thinking I got the job on my merits as an Investigator alone.” Dai made no attempt to keep the cynicism from his tone. He had been wondering why this had come his way and was not too surprised to find it had been for reasons other than those put out for public consumption.
Decimus grinned at him.
“Well my sister falling for your baby-blue eyes helped as well,” he admitted, then he switched back to the clipped tones of before. “As if the smuggling isn’t enough we are talking a major anti-Roman group somewhere in the area and they have their fingers deep in our pies. We need to know who they are and how they are being financed and supplied before they start out on a major terrorist campaign. I’m sending you out with twenty of my lads under their own decanus, a good man Brutus Gaius Gallus. You may need them. We have no idea how high or deep this thing goes – even the Magistratus is not in the clear. So trust no one there and I mean no one.”
Dai took a moment to digest the implications. He had known it was going to be hard enough taking on a post he had been over-promoted to fill. But he had been looking forward to learning his way in and doing so with Julia’s sharp insight and wisdom to help. But Decimus had just taken that fond daydream of a bucolic honeymoon easing into things and blown it away. He realised now why, when he had asked for permission to relocate with some of his old team he had not met with more resistance.
“Julia will need…”
“Julia will not be told anything about it, Llewellyn.” Decimus sounded almost ferocious. Then he drew a breath and sighed. “She has been through too much, I am not having her dragged into this. She needs a chance to have some simple happiness with no more to worry about than what colour she wants to paint the guest bedroom.”
Which, Dai reflected rather grimly, probably showed more of wishful thinking on Decimus’ part than any true understanding of what Julia would want or need.
“I think she might notice Brutus Gaius Gallus and his men hanging around,” Dai said pointedly. “My wife is many things, but she is neither unintelligent nor unobservant.” And you of all people should know that, he added in the privacy of his own mind.
“Relax, Llewellyn. They have an official reason for being there and wandering around wherever. Amongst his other talents, Gallus once served as a bandmaster and all the men with him can play instruments. They are going to be there to learn some traditional British music as part of a ‘Hearts and Minds’ Arts initiative – a real one, believe it or not, from those effete, money-wasting idiots in Rome. But it gives them the cover we need for this, so some good comes out of it.”
It was sounding more and more complex and Dai’s heart plummeted.
“So you are pitching me in against smugglers, terrorists, corrupt Roman administrators, and whoever is behind them?”
Decimus pulled a face.
“You about have the size of it. But you are not exactly going in alone. You’ll have my praetorians and your own people and as soon as you have anything solid we can act on I’ll bring half a legion in to clean up if need be. But we can’t pounce until we have a target.”
“Don’t you have undercover people doing that kind of stuff? I don’t see how I’m going to succeed where they have failed.”
“This is deep Britannia, Llewellyn,” the Tribune reminded him. “The arse end of the Empire, hanging over the edge half the time. Hell man, you should know you grew up there. These are people who only trust someone they have known from birth and who has a British pedigree you could unroll from there to Londinium. We don’t have that many such people just lying around – in fact we have one. You.”
There was no answer to that and Dai had finished the meeting being briefed about what little was known of the situation in Viriconium and along the coast. It left him in a foul mood.
Decimus had stated very firmly that he needed to establish his bona fides by being anti-Roman from the first, as much as his position allowed. The problem, Dai found, was that it was feeling like no kind of act. Returning home triggered all the reminders of why he struggled with the two-tier Roman way of life. His resentment at being plunged into a cauldron of intrigue when he had expected to be starting a new life with his beloved as its focus, made him fractious and snappy. The fact that he found Julia was getting the brunt of it when she deserved it least of anyone, just added to his frustration and misery.

From Dying for a Poppy, one of the Dai and Julia Mysteries by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago.

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