No one knows better than I just how big our empire is.
My bones ache from its immensity.
I, Draco, am frontiersman and bureaucrat, inspector and scribe. Men fear me for what I represent, the long reach of Rome. I have the ear of emperors. I make and break careers. I wear this power like armor because it’s the only protection I have when making my unloved appearances and blunt reports. I carry no weapon but authority.
The cost of this power is exhaustion. When I was young, traveling Rome’s borders to recommend a strengthened garrison here, a tax office there, my job seemed glamorous. It showed me the world. But I’ve walked, ridden, barged and sailed for twenty thousand miles and now I am old and weary, sent finally to this farthest place, my joints sore from its chill.
I have been ordered to northern Britannia to answer a mystery. A report on revolt and invasion yes, but that is not all of it. I read again the dispatch ordering my mission, sensing the bafflement behind it. A senator’s daughter, lost to the wilderness. Valeria, her name is, beautiful by all accounts, willful, adventuresome, discontented, the spark that ignited blood and fire.
The northern skies outside my window in the grim legionary fortress of Eburacum are gray and blank, offering nothing. I snap at my slave to add more charcoal to the brazier. How I miss the sun!
The tone of the plea I’ve received from the patrician Valens has more of the petulance and self-pity of the endangered politician than it does the heartbreak and guilt of the bereaved father. He is one of the two thousand senators who burden today’s Rome, clinging to an office that provides more opportunities for greed than power. Still, a senator cannot be ignored. I read again.
I wish for a public report on the recent barbarian invasion and a confidential addendum on the disappearance of my daughter. Rumors of her choice have strained relations with my Flavian in-laws and interrupted the financial partnership necessary to sustain my office. It’s important that Valeria’s reputation be restored so that her family can make claim to rightful estate. I trust you understand the delicacy of your mission and the need for discretion.
Retirement should have come long ago but I am a useful kind of man, loyal not to a ruler so much as the idea of Rule. Loyal to stability. Longevity. That means I persist through each change of emperor, each switch of state religion, each reorganization of the provinces. I’m also kept as far away as possible, out on the borders. An idealist can be usefully employed but never completely trusted.
I am here to interrogate survivors, which means I try to find some truth in the web of lies, self-deception and wishful thinking that makes up human memory. Many of the best witnesses are dead and the rest are divided and confused by what happened. They carry in their mood the stink of Hadrian’s Wall, the smell of burned timbers, unburied flesh and abandoned food pots that churn with squirming maggots. The flies come by day and the wild dogs by night, driven off by the desultory crew of sullen slaves, crippled soldiers and pressed Briton laborers working to repair the damage. It is the stink of victory that in truth is a kind of defeat, of stability replaced by uncertainty.
How soon before the barbarians come back again, perhaps for good?
That too, the emperor and Senate want to know.
I have made a list of informants to interview. The handmaiden. The cook. The villa owner. The captured druid. But I start with a soldier, direct and blunt.
The centurion on the field litter before me is named Longinus: a good record, his foot crushed by a battle-ax in the desperate fighting, his eyes dark with sleepless pain and the knowledge he will never walk again. Still, he has glory I can only envy. I question him.
“Do you know who I am?”
“An imperial inspector.”
“You understand my purpose?”
“To do the bidding of emperor and Senate.”
“Yes. And yours?”
“I’m a man of duty. It’s all I’ve ever been.”
“So you will answer any question?”
“When there’s an answer I can give.” Crisp, unhesitating, to the point. A Roman.
“Good. Now, you knew the senior tribune Galba Brassidias?”
“When he was promoted?”
“I brought the news to him.”
“And when was that?”
“The autumn of two years ago.”
“You were a courier?”
Longinus is no simple soldier. He understands I’m surprised that a ranking centurion had been assigned the mission of riding the post. “The news was delicate. Duke Fullofaudes, the commander of northern Britannia, sent me because I’d campaigned with Galba and knew him as well as any man could know him. A hard man, but a good soldier. Galba, I mean.”
“What do you mean, ‘a hard man’?”
“Cavalry. Not the kind to have at banquet. Not a conversationalist. He was a provincial from Thrace who lacked refinement, a superb horseman but never schooled. Solid but grim. The best kind to have on your right side in battle.”
“Of course.” As if I truly know. “And he took the news well?”
Longinus gave a pained smile, remembering.
“None of this will make sense to you unless you’ve served on the Wall.”
It is a careful insult, an attempt to pretend at a vast difference between civilian and soldier. As if a breastplate changes the human heart!
“I have spent my whole life on the Wall,” I growl, giving him a sense of the power behind me. “Rome’s Wall, from Arabia Petraea to your dunghill here. I have traded insults with the arrogant warriors of Sarmatia and sifted rumors of the distant hun. I have smelled the stink of Berber camels and eaten with sentries on the cold palisades of the Rhine, counting the fires of the Germans across the river. Do not think you have to tell me about the Wall.”
“It’s just that it was…complicated.”
“You said you would answer any question.”
He shifts, grimacing. “I’ll answer it. To be honest isn’t simple, however.”
“Life at the border is complex. Sometimes you’re a sentry, sometimes an ambassador. Sometimes a wall, sometimes a gate. Sometimes we fight the barbarians, sometimes we enlist them. For outsiders like the woman to come in…”
“Now you are getting ahead of my questions. I asked for Galba’s reaction to his superior’s appointment, not his justification.”
Longinus hesitates, appraising me. He doesn’t seek to know if I can be trusted. How can you ever be sure of that? Rather, whether I can understand. The hardest thing in life, after all, is to be understood. “You’ve been to the breach where the barbarians broke through?”
“It is the first place I went to.”
“What did you see there?”
The interrogation has been turned around. Longinus wants proof I can comprehend what he tells me. I think before I speak.
“A thin garrison. Sulking craftsmen. A cold pyre, nothing but bones.”
He nods, waiting.
“The wall is being repaired,” I go on, betraying some of what will be in my report, “but not with the same care as before. I measured the lime and the mix is weak. The contractor is corrupt and the imperial foreman untrained. His superior died in the fighting. The mortar will dry to little better than hard sand and will have to be redone.”
I know what he means. The general Theodosius has restored rough order but the treasury has been drained and authority is dissipating. The best builders are moving south. “It should be redone. How well depends on good Romans such as yourself.”
He nods. “You’re observant, Inspector Draco. Realistic. Smart, perhaps. Smart to have gone to so many places and lived as long as you have.” The centurion has approved of me, I realize, and I’m secretly flattered by his approval. A man of action seeing value in me, a man of words! “Maybe even honest, which is rare anymore. So I’ll tell you about Galba and the lady Valeria and the last good days of the Petriana cavalry. The patricians will blame him but I don’t. Do you?”
I think again. “Loyalty is the first virtue.”
“Which Rome did not repay in kind.”
That is the question, isn’t it? Everyone knows what soldiers owe the state – death, if necessary. But what does the state owe its soldiers?
“Galba dedicated his life to Rome and then the influence of this woman took his command away,” Longinus goes on. “She pretended to innocence but…”
“You do not concede that?”
“My experience is that no one is innocent. Not in Rome. Not here, either.”
Innocence is what I’ve come to decide, of course. Treason. Jealousy. Incompetence. Heroism. I pass judgment like a god.
Certainly Longinus is right about having to understand Hadrian’s Wall. In all the empire no place is more remote than this one, none farther north, none farther west. Nowhere are the barbarians more intractable, the weather gloomier, the hills more windswept, the poverty more abject. I listen, my questions sharp but infrequent, letting him not just answer but explain. I absorb, imagine, and clarify, summarizing in my own mind his story. It must have been like this.