Pridie Idus Apriles MDCCLXXVIII Anno Diocletiani
It was much too beautiful a day for saying farewell.
The sun was shining in a mild, blue sky, where the clouds that drifted were picture-book white and fluffy. Spring had sprung with enthusiastic abandon and the fruit trees in the orchards around the Villa Papaverus were smothered with blossoms. It had been a long, cold winter and now new life was bursting out everywhere as warmth returned.
The small squad of Praetorians stood on the apron of gravel in front of the house, standing as if on parade before the Emperor. But the formal leave taking had already been done, yesterday, in Viriconium, when they had marched through the streets having performed an open-air concert in the Forum before the Magistratus and other local officials and dignitaries.
This was different. This was just a rag-tag group of Romans and Britons, citizens and servants. Dai had deliberately avoided wearing a toga. For this event, he wanted to be simply Dai Llewellyn the man, not Submagistratus Llewellyn of Demetae and Cornovii. Beside him, Julia his very pregnant wife, had also avoided anything dressy. She was clad in a simple maternity tunic and long skirt. For this was not the formal dismissal of the vexillation of Praetorians that had been billetted in his villa for the last seven months, this was the parting of friends. This departure had already been delayed past the original time, but the day had finally come.
Dai himself had come to know almost all of these men to some greater or lesser extent, but everyone in the household had befriended one or more. Some had gone beyond friendship and two of the Praetorians had requested – and been granted – early release and the necessary documentation to remain and marry local women. And, with room for tragedy as much as happy-ever-after, three of the younger women who had been working in the villa were now waiting by the gate, packed up, happy glowing faces, to travel with their lovers to Londinium. Dai hoped Julia had spoken to them and told them they would always be welcome back, even if they came with an unacknowledged infant or two in tow. Relationships between Citizens and those who were not, were seldom formalised as the legal barriers to doing so were very high and the pressure these young men would be under from family and friends to marry a Citizen would be immense.
There had been hugs and tears all around, but now, formed up smartly, the Praetorians looked every inch the disciplined elite fighting force they were trained to be. At the front of the squad, facing them, stood Brutus Gaius Gallus. He had been Praetorian Decanus Gaius until the previous day and although he was standing with his spine rigid and his jaw chiseled from granite, Dai was fairly sure he could see a slight overbrightness in the older man’s eyes. It was he who snapped out a final salute and then the troop was marching through the gate to where two army trucks were waiting to take them back to Londinium. Dai wondered why Gallus had chosen to take early retirement and had an odd suspicion that it might have been on orders from the Tribune in charge of the Praetorians in Britannia – Decimus Lucius Didero.
“I’m going to miss them,” Julia said softly. Dai put an arm around her.
“Me too,” he admitted, thinking of the number of times he had needed to call on the Praetorians to provide military back-up since he had started working here the previous September. It was going to be tough without them.
“They were actually rather good musicians,” Julia was saying. “We had some lovely concerts. Now we’ll need to hire in when we hold a party.” She gave a sigh of regret. Dai looked at her sharply and she turned her face up so he could see the sparkle of mischief in her eyes.
“I had you with that one, admit it.”
Dai smiled a little wryly. “I’m probably an easy target.”
Julia reached up and drew his head down to hers for a kiss.
“Not often,” she said as she stepped out of his embrace. “But talking of parties, I have one to finish organising for tonight.”
Dai had almost forgotten that.
For today was not only a day of farewells it was also a day of celebration. They were having a family party to welcome home his sister, Cariad. She had been away for the last three months, relaxing on a small secluded island in the Mare Nostrum in the care of an asclepieion, recuperating from nearly falling victim to a murderer.
But Dai struggled to find in the return of Cariad any cause for celebration. His sister was a serial adulterer who cared nothing for anyone or anything except herself, her own desires and her own social ambitions – not her husband nor even her two children. That she was married to Dai’s immediate superior, the local Magistratus, who adored her beyond reason and forgave her every failing, made the situation even more embarrassing to handle.
But he refrained from saying anything as Julia chivvied the household back to work and was about to return to his own administrative labour, when Gallus intercepted him.
“Submagistratus, I have a favour to ask of you.”
Gallus was a man typical of his class and status. You could slice and dice through him at any point and the solid soldier would be left in every piece. He had the typical legionary contempt for civilians – a contempt that extended to the Vigiles which Dai had served for many years. If the last few months had led Gallus to give Dai some grudging respect for his abilities, it had manifested in a patronising attitude, which was unspoken but omnipresent. And that grated.
Dai squeezed out a polite smile. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s the matter of my application to join the Vigiles. The Magistratus informed me that whilst he had approved it, since I would be working in your district I would need your formal approval as well.”
It took a moment for Dai to recover. He suspected that his jaw must have dropped slightly open, but was struggling so much for words that he could not be sure.
“You? You are applying to join the Vigiles?” Not, Dai realised, his finest moment of tactful diplomacy.
Gallus’ expression became even more severe than usual and his eyebrows lowered into a frown.
“I’ve already been approved for it.” He sounded defensive. “This is just a matter of courtesy as you are -”
Dai lifted a hand, feeling acutely awkward. “No. I mean – I know. You just said.” He took a steadying breath, “I am simply very surprised. The last time I heard you say the word ‘vigiles’ it was with the words ‘namby-pamby’, ‘play-soldiers’ and ‘glorified lost and found service’ attached, as I recall.”
At least Gallus had the decency to look a little uncomfortable at the memory.
“Yes. Well – uh – that – that was different. And it was a while ago.”
“About two weeks.”
Gallus cleared his throat and came to attention.
“Submagistratus Llewellyn, I apologise for any prior comments I may have made that in anyway disparaged or demeaned the Vigiles. They were inappropriate.”
Gallus expression shifted slightly.
“You agree to approve my appointment as an Investigator to the local vigiles?”
“I agree your comments were inappropriate.” As a form of revenge it was petty, Dai knew, but then the digs from Gallus had been too. Dai saw something harden in the other man’s face and realised that his own behaviour was rapidly becoming equally ‘inappropriate’.
“Look,” he said, his tone conciliatory, “before we make anything formal, why don’t you go and spend a few days working with SI Cartivel and his team? See if you fit in. See if you suit the work and if it suits you. I don’t see any point you signing up if not. You can go down to the Vigiles House this afternoon and I’ll let them know to expect you.”
For a moment the grey eyes of the older man held his gaze with the familiar, appraising look that Dai found so profoundly irritating. Then Gallus saluted smartly.
“As you instruct, Submagistratus.”
Dai watched him walk smartly towards the gates and then made his own way into the house. His Senior Investigator and friend of many years standing, Bryn Cartivel, was going to love this. Not.