He couldn’t remember venturing this deep into the labyrinthine corridors and arbitrary passages of the Antonia Fortress. He’d never needed to. He took one tentative step forward and paused, put out his hand and felt the stone wall—damp. He inhaled acrid smoke, burning pitch from the torches. Why had Priscus asked him to meet in this dank and dreary hallway? Located as it was deep in the bowels of the building—the cloaca, he would have said—Priscus must have had a great need for secrecy—routine in Roman politics. Half the torches were dark and those that still glowed sent tendrils of smoke to the ceiling. Had they been extinguished recently? If so, by whom and why? Lighted or dark, they lined either side of the corridor and projected from sconces at angles as if to salute any passerby. He hesitated and peered into the darkness. Like one of his hunting dogs when it caught the scent of a stag in flight, he went into full alert, unmoving and listening. If he had shared the dog’s cropped ears, they would have been twitching this way and that. The only sound he heard was the beating of his own heart.
He strained to see into the hallway’s depths. It was impossible to determine where it led or how long it might be. It could as easily disappear into an abyss as come to an abrupt halt a few cubits farther along. Then, it might end at an intersecting wall or continue for a half mile and out into the night air beyond the city walls to the north. He knew the last wasn’t the case, but this inky hallway with half its torches unlit created that illusion. Perhaps the fort’s builder, the first Herod, in assembling this monument to the late and, for most, unlamented Mark Antony, thought a siege inevitable or that Antony would retreat from Egypt to Judea with his Ptolemaic Queen to make his stand against Octavian. Or perhaps it was simply another manifestation of that King’s diseased and suspicious mind. Throughout the year the space housed a resident contingent of legionnaires with a Centurion in command. It could have served as well if half or a quarter its current size.
Priscus’ message made it clear he wanted to meet at this place, that he had something important to tell him, and that it required privacy. The message had been vague and the legionnaire who bore it nearly inarticulate, but he’d no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary so he’d come as asked. Priscus, after all, was a loyal member of his entourage and a serving officer. On the other hand, he knew that all Roman politics operated on intrigue and duplicity. He shuddered. He didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he were afraid.
He took another tentative step forward and reached up to free one of the lighted torches from its bracket. He held it aloft squinting into the darkness, straining to make out what lay further on. He touched its flame to the still-smoking pitch-soaked fabric at the end of a nearby staff. It burst into flame and a bit of his anxiety waned as the light penetrated deeper into the gloom. He lit another and moved on. As he leaned forward to light a third, he stumbled against a form lying at his feet. Startled, he jerked his foot back. He looked again and recoiled at the sight of a corpse. He took a deep breath, knelt, and rolled the body over. A dagger had been thrust in the man’s chest. Its gilded and stone-studded hilt protruded from his bloody short toga. The knife’s angle was all wrong. He lifted the torch to cast light on the dead man’s face. Aurelius Decimus’ lifeless eyes stared at the ceiling, the expression of shock at his unexpected demise still frozen on his face. None of this made any sense. He dismissed the notion that Aurelius Decimus had committed suicide. No one with that man’s enormous ambition would consider such an action. Furthermore, to fall on one’s dagger or sword took a measure of courage that he knew this man did not possess. Not suicide. That meant that someone had stabbed him, murdered him. It seemed so unlikely. A man murdered in the depths of the Antonia Fortress, the very symbol of Roman preeminence and a safe haven for its citizens. Yet, here the ambitious Aurelius lay in an expanding pool of blood.
He regained his feet and glanced around, uncertain what to do next. And what had happened to Priscus? Footsteps scraped against the stones behind him—several pairs, in fact. He stood and faced about.
“Priscus? Is that you? Come here.”
“Pontius Pilate, Emperor’s Prefect of Judea and Overseer of the Palestine, tu deprenditur discurrent caede.”
“I am to be arrested for murder? I only this moment arrived and found this man lying here. I did not murder anyone, Cassia.” “Yet our friend Aurelius Decimus lies dead at your feet, Prefect. The dagger in his chest is yours, I believe.” Was it? It was.
“And I can see no reasonable explanation for your presence in this remote part of the Fortress other than an assignation with him in order to remove the one man who could have sent you back to Rome in disgrace.”
“My dagger? Sent back? Cassia, what am I being accused of?” “Assassination, Prefect, as you well know. Sicarius.”