vague smell of wine betrayed the fact he had just returned to barracks from the centurion's mess.
'Cold night, sir.' Piso smiled.
'Bloody cold!' Macro nodded. 'How's our new boy working out?'
'Fine, sir. Just fine.' Piso exchanged a look with Cato. 'In fact, he's going to make an excellent clerk one day.'
'So you think young Cato is ready to step into your shoes?'
'I didn't say that, sir. There's still quite a bit to learn. But he's got a talent for it and no mistake. We were just looking over some of his requisition statements. Would you care to have a look, sir?'
Macro shook his head. 'Another time. When I'm not so busy. Anyway, I'm sure he's doing as well as you say. And so you should, what with all that education you've picked up.'
'Yes, sir,' Cato replied, wondering slightly about the change of tone in Macro's voice. 'It's proved to be very useful, sir.'
'Yes.' Macro stared at him silently for a moment, his expression unreadable. 'Anyway, that's not why I'm here. It's about time you got some field experience. There's a detachment being sent to a local settlement tomorrow morning. The local chief sent a Roman tax-collector packing after cutting out his tongue. Seems the chief's related to some troublemaker trying to make a name for himself on the other side of the Rhine. Anyway, Vespasian's sending the Third cohort to arrest the chief and confiscate all precious metals and stones to compensate the tax-collector. One of the centurions of the Third got kicked unconscious by a mule this afternoon and the optio's already in the hospital. I've been ordered to take temporary command of his century — you're coming with me.'
'Oh! Will there be a fight, sir?'
'Doubt it. Why?'
'It's just that we haven't trained with real weapons yet.'
'Don't worry about it. Borrow some kit from one of our lads. Shouldn't need it though — as soon as those Germans see us coming they'll do everything they can to get rid of us. We just go in, make the arrest, requisition whatever we can find and leave. Should be home by nightfall.'
'Oh…' Cato could not keep the disappointment from his voice. He had hoped that the excursion might keep him out of Pulcher's reach for a few days at least.
'Don't worry, son,' Macro said kindly, having misread Cato's expression. 'You'll get to see some fighting one day, I promise. But it's good that you're keen to get stuck in. No good being a soldier unless you enjoy your work.'
Cato smiled weakly. 'Yes, sir.'
'Right then!' Macro clapped him on the shoulder, shoving him backwards good-naturedly. 'See you at dawn by the north gate. Full armour, cloak and provisions for the day.'
'Yes, sir. If it's all right with Piso, I'd like to get an early night, sir.'
Macro turned to his clerk, eyebrows raised.
'Certainly!' Piso smiled. 'If the centurion pushes those men like he pushes us you'll need all your energy for tomorrow.'
After the door had closed behind Cato and his footsteps could be heard fading down the corridor, Macro turned back to his clerk.
'What do you think of him?'
'He's got a knack for paperwork; neat hand and a good memory.' Piso paused for a moment.
'But…?' Macro filled in.
'I'm not sure if he's cut out for army life, sir. Seems a bit too soft.'
'You ever met anyone from the palace who wasn't? Too much good living — that's their trouble. Most of 'em wouldn't last five days in the army, but so far that lad's kept up. What he lacks in fitness he makes up with determination. You know, I think we might be able to make something out of young Cato after all.'
'If you say so, sir.'
'I say so, but you don't think so, eh Piso?'
'To be honest, no, sir. Determination's one thing but fighting requires quite different qualities. I don't think he's got what it takes.' Piso paused. 'There's a rumour going round that he's a coward.'
'Yes, I've heard. But you know how it is with rumours — there's nothing in most of 'em. We have to give the lad a chance.'
Piso was struck by a sudden insight.