Swords Around the Throne

Start Reading

Swords Around the Throne

About Ian Ross


About the Twilight of Empire series

Table of Contents



Te uero, Constantine, quantumlibet oderint hostes, dum perhorrescant... Cautior licet sit qui deuinctos habet uenia perduelles, fortior tamen est qui calcat iratos.

But let our enemies hate you as much as they please, Constantine, provided that they are in terror of you... Certainly to keep one's foes bound by pardon is more prudent, but it is more courageous to trample them down in their fury.

Panegyrici Latini VI

Qui insultaverant deo, iacent, qui templum sanctum everterant, ruina maiore ceciderunt, qui iustos excarnificaverunt, caelestibus plagis et cruciatibus meritis nocentes animas profuderunt.

They who insulted God are laid low; they who cast down the holy temple are fallen with greater ruin; and those who tormented the just have poured out their evil souls amidst punishments inflicted by Heaven, and amidst deserved tortures.

De mortibus persecutorum

(On the Deaths of the Persecutors)

Historical Note

305, the emperor Diocletian stunned the world by abdicating after a reign of twenty years. He left the Roman Empire ruled by the system he had created, later known as the Tetrarchy: two senior and two junior emperors sharing power between them.

The following year, Constantius, the new senior emperor of the west, died while on campaign in Britain. His troops, in defiance of the protocols of imperial succession, elevated his son Constantine to rule in his place. Galerius, senior emperor of the east, was forced to recognise the usurper, while still supporting his own appointees Flavius Severus and Maximinus Daza.

Only a few months later, in the city of Rome, Maxentius, son of the former emperor Maximian, seized power with the support of the ancient Senate and the Praetorian Guard. His father soon emerged from retirement to rule Italy at his side.

307, there are six emperors in power, ruling a divided Roman world. Each builds his power base, secures his frontiers and prepares his troops.

All know that the future holds nothing but confrontation.


Treveris, April

It was the hour of the beast hunts.

Across the oval of bright sand, four long-horned bulls from southern Gaul charged and veered, as a pair of men on horseback and two more on foot lunged with spears and javelins. Above them, the amphitheatre rose in tier upon tier of seats, and the voices and laughter of twenty thousand spectators merged into a low steady drone. The bulls were wounded; the sand was scarred and streaked with red, and the rich stink of animal sweat and fresh blood reached the spectators. But many of them paid only partial attention to what was happening. This was not the main attraction of the day, after all.

For now, men hunted beasts. Soon, beasts would be hunting men.

A little below and to the left of the imperial podium, an unremarkable-looking middle-aged man sat alone in the crowd. He was dressed plainly, and wore no ornament besides the red leather belt that marked him as one of the emperor's functionaries. His bland face showed no expression; his greying brown hair was styled in an ugly and unfashionable bowl cut. For all of his power, and his growing reputation in the imperial offices, Julius Nigrinus, Tribune of Notaries, was still a forgettable figure, and deliberately so.

He had chosen his position well; it was a good place to speak without being heard. But even so, he did not turn to the man beside him as they talked. Both sat casually, as if enthralled by the violent drama of the bull hunt, and to a nearby observer they would not have appeared to be talking at all.

‘Was our source forthcoming as usual?' Nigrinus asked.

‘Oh, yes,' the other man said, twitching a smile. He had a greasy sheen to his face, and his hair was slickly oiled. His fingers were chunky with cheap rings, and his short cloak was secured with an enamelled brooch portraying a lion mauling a fallen captive. He rubbed his fingers together. The rings glittered. ‘He has an expensive mistress to support!'

Nigrinus tightened his lips. This man, Flaccianus, was distasteful to him. So, by the sound of it, was his source in that morning's private meeting of the imperial
. Weak men, Nigrinus thought, with their ungovernable vices.

‘So? What does he have to report?'

has come from Rome,' Flaccianus said, rolling the words around in his mouth. His eyes flickered between the bull hunt and Nigrinus's shoulder. ‘An offer of marriage, between the sister of the usurper and our own Augustus, Constantine. A marriage alliance, in other words. Us and them against Galerius and his people. West versus east.'

‘This is Maximian's daughter, Fausta? She's of marriageable age?'

‘Oh, yes. Fourteen or so,' Flaccianus said, in an artfully strangled whisper. ‘But the strange thing is that I
think our Augustus was already married...'

‘Did you?' Nigrinus replied, no trace of warmth in his voice. ‘Apparently you were mistaken. And
you thought such a thing you had best
it. Such a suggestion could soon become dangerously undiplomatic.'

Flaccianus shifted in his seat and let out a slow chuckle. It was unconvincing; Nigrinus could tell that his warning had struck home.

‘What of the emperor's opinion?' he said. ‘Is it known?'

Flaccianus sucked in his greasy cheeks, then shook his head. ‘Our source could report nothing,' he said. ‘He's only a
, after all, a mere court usher...'

‘He takes my money all the same. Next time, tell him I want everything. He'll be well paid.'

‘And what do I get out of the arrangement?'

‘You are an officer of the
agentes in rebus
,' Nigrinus said blankly. ‘Providing information is your job.'

‘Yes. But not to you,
.' Flaccianus yawned, long and insolent. ‘I don't know who you're working for, do I?' He stood up. ‘You must excuse me, I need to piss.'

Nigrinus watched the other man as he bobbed his way down the steps to the lavatories. It galled him having to do business with a man like Flaccianus, but if he wanted inside information, he had to use lateral channels, however distasteful.

Everyone has a flaw, everyone a weakness. Learn their weakness and you might turn them to your purpose. Such had always been Nigrinus's maxim, and it had served him well so far. Flaccianus, for example, had certain sexual tastes which Nigrinus found despicable, but they at least made him a malleable informer.

Down in the arena the last of the bulls was on its knees, blowing bloody froth. The stalls were full of motion now, people shifting from seat to seat, vendors moving between them with baskets of hot nuts and flasks of iced water. High at the rim of the amphitheatre, pump-nozzles emitted hazy gusts of perfume. From somewhere came the sonorous drone of a water organ.

Turning in his seat, Nigrinus gazed up towards the imperial podium. He could just make out the figure of the emperor in the blueish shade beneath the white and gold canopy. The podium was ringed with a cordon of bodyguards, white-uniformed men of the Corps of Protectores. They wore no armour, but carried their swords openly, forbidding anyone to trespass on the sacred imperial precinct. Constantine sat tall and erect on his folding stool, his gold-embroidered robe falling stiffly from his shoulders, his heavy-boned face blank and grave. Already he had perfected the statue-like immobility and calm that people expected of their emperors. Only thirty-three, and already ruler of a quarter of the Roman world.

Nigrinus himself was proud to have played a small part in that success: the operation he had directed in northern Britain two years before had been vital in getting Constantine posted to join his father's field army, who then acclaimed the son on the father's death. An effective operation indeed, although at one point it had looked dangerously close to unravelling: some idiot of a centurion stumbling back across the frontier with stories of treason and conspiracy. Nigrinus had managed to hold that problem down; he had not even been forced to kill the centurion. Such people can have their uses, after all.

Everyone has a flaw, everyone a weakness.

But what, he thought, of the emperor's council, the senior ministers of the consistorium, the military commanders and the eunuchs? All of them had their ambitions, their schemes and alliances. All their secret vices, their closely held treacheries, their closet corruptions. And Nigrinus made it his business to discover as much of what these men concealed as he could. Such knowledge was a tool; it was also a defence.

A sudden brassy surge of trumpets broke into Nigrinus's thoughts, and he turned his attention back to the arena. The dead bulls were being hauled away by gangs of slaves with ropes and chains, while other slaves heaped fresh sand to cover the slick of blood. Meanwhile, on the balcony above the northern gateway, a rotund figure in a blinding white ceremonial toga was commencing an oration. The crowd, hushed momentarily by the trumpets, soon resumed their mumbling. Nigrinus put one finger in his ear and tried to concentrate on what the orator was saying.

Other books

Always on My Mind by Susan May Warren
Crash Landing by Lori Wilde
A Very Good Man by P. S. Power
Justicia uniforme by Donna Leon
Five Alarm Lust by Elise Whyles
Death Benefit by Cook, Robin
Life of Secrets by Bowen Greenwood
Kill Your Darlings by Max Allan Collins
The Bridges Of Madison County by Robert James Waller
The President's Vampire by Farnsworth| Christopher

readsbookonline.com Copyright 2016 - 2024