The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 14

Devnum Docks

“Join the Praetorians, they said,” Mettius Volusa Carantus griped, as water poured off his helmet. “See the Empire, they said. The only part of the Empire I’ve seen is this stinking city. You can’t farm in the fields in weather like this, meaning I could have stayed inside where it was warm and dry. Well, at least dry.”

“If you’d stayed working for Servius Gratius, you would have been complaining about that. At least we don’t have to listen to him huffing air through that fat head of his anymore.”

“But we’d be dry,” Mettius said, although more to just whine than anything else.

He’d learned quickly in training that complaining was one of the best ways to pass time as a soldier. Admittedly, he hadn’t stayed a soldier long, or at least not a legionnaire, but the same method worked well for a Praetorian. Desiderius wasn’t wrong though, he was glad he didn’t have to listen to Gratius and his yelling any longer. It was strange to think that a year ago he and Desiderius had been slaves, working in Gratius’ fields, barely fed, living a life with no future. Then the Sword had come and changed everything. He freed them and told them they were vital in the fight to save the Empire.

Gratius had tried to convince them to stay, offering wages of half what the factories were paying, not that Mettius wanted that any more than he wanted to stay in the fields. His father had done manual labor as a slave his whole life, the brutal end of which Mettius had been forced to watch. Injured and without the hand that he’d lost in the accident with the plow horse, Gratius had thrown him out to starve, which he hadn’t been far from before he was thrown out. Mettius had found chances to visit him in the poor house, taken in by the Daughters of Spes, who did their best to help the poor and sick in the city. Every visit he’d looked closer and closer to death’s door, until the time a daughter pulled him aside to tell him that his father had succumbed to the wasting disease that had swept through the poor house.

No, Mettius had vowed to not end up like his father, giving his physical health over to make someone else rich. He’d heard that the legions were taking in freed slaves. He and Desiderius left the day they were told of their freedom, with only the clothes they were wearing, to join the legion. It had been an experience, but he’d also had better clothes and more food than he’d had in his entire life. True, the Battle of Venonis had been terrifying, pushing with his shield against what seemed like the entire world trying to break through, but he’d survived. And then came the chance to move to the Praetorians.

Himself, a child born to slaves who were themselves children of slaves, was now a monitor, second in command of dío Contubernium, éna Maniple, twenty-third Praetorian Centuria, guarding the Devnum dockyards. Of course, one day he might make it to decanus, in charge of the contubernium, and he’d be the one sending men out into the rainy night while he ‘took care of something.’

“Let’s go check on Voconius and Mattavius and make sure they haven’t slipped off to some place dry, leaving their post unguarded,” Mettius said.

He’d hesitated putting those two together, but the south side of the docks was usually the quietest and in this rain he wanted his best men watching the north side. The morning patrols had reported unusual activity on that side of the dockyard, and Mettius didn’t want anything happening on his watch.

He’d wished he had more than the ten men in his contubernium to patrol on a night like this, or nine rather, with their commander staying inside the guard hut where he could stay dry. It could be worse, Mettius contented himself. After the Battle of Venonis, the guard had been changed to the new unit structure as a test for the legions, which meant increasing the contubernium from eight men to ten. On a night like this, two more men was a lot, considering how large the dockyard was.

Mettius could only imagine what having a full maniple and its five contubernium would have meant for patrolling the dockyards instead of just the one. Fifty men would have made this a lot easier to cover. Unfortunately, the Praetorian Guard was still stretched thin, with only two cohorts assigned to cover all of the Roman province, which was not enough. He was just contemplating being promoted to optio in charge of a full maniple when movement caught his eye.

At first, he thought it was an animal or maybe a trick of light from the shadows being thrown off by the lantern he carried.

“What?” Desiderius said when Mettius pulled his horse up, leaning forward and staring into the night.

“I thought I saw something,” he said, still trying to make out shapes in the inky darkness. “Ride around that way and cut back towards the berm.”

Desiderius gave a nod and pulled his sword as he rode away, following instructions. Mettius didn’t look to see where he went, trusting Desiderius to understand what he wanted as he cut in the other direction. He could almost make out Desiderius coming back towards him when he saw it. The form of a man hurtling over the berm.

“He went over,” Mettius yelled, sliding off his horse and throwing himself over the berm after the figure, holding the lantern high as he slid down the sandy slope, trying to keep the light from going out.

He could see the person running south, away from him as he landed and pulled his sword. The man must be desperate, because here on the beach, he had nowhere to go. Maybe he panicked and hoped they hadn’t seen him clearly, thinking that going over the berm would hide him. It hadn’t worked, and he was now caught between Mettius and Desiderius, who was running towards them, with the ocean to one side and a steep sandy climb to the other. The man halted as he saw Desiderius, allowing Mettius time to get close enough to see him clearly.

He was dressed in a worker’s trousers and tunic, and had the look of someone who spent a lot of time in the sun, but Mettius was certain this man didn’t work at the docks. Besides the fact that work halted in the evening when the light dropped too much, Mettius had seen a lot of dock hands over the last several months, and this man had the wrong look for one of those. If he had to guess, he worked as a farmer or something similar. To an outside observer, dockworkers and farmers might have the exact same look of manual labor, but Mettius had worked in the ground all of his life. He could see the difference.

“Halt,” Mettius said, holding his sword up. “What are you doing here?”

The man looked at Mettius and then Desiderius on his other side, at their swords, and then over Mettius’s shoulder and towards the berm. Mettius could see the man contemplating how to get away and if he could make it over the sand and back into the night before they skewered him through.

“I ... got lost,” he said, stumbling over his words. “It was dark, and I thought you were brigands.”

“This close to Devnum, wearing legionary armor and liveried horses? Where were you lost from? Where is your farm? Or do you work on one of the larger estates?”

“I’m from Clo ... what farm?”

Nothing the man said sounded true. The question startled him, and he’d almost answered, proving Mettius’s guess, before clumsily trying to cover it up.

“I think you should come with us.”

“That’s not necessary. I’m sorry for the trouble, but if you’ll just let me go, I’ll...”

“You can either come with us or I can put this gladius through your chest,” Desiderius said. “Which do you prefer?”

The man threw one last panicked glance at the sea berm before Mettius watched the fight go out of him, his shoulders and head dropping.


“I’m sorry to bring you out this late, but I thought you’d want to see this,” Ramirus said as Lucilla came through the door, her clothes rumpled and disheveled looking from hastily being thrown on, pulling off a soaked cloak that she had thrown over herself as protection from the rain.

“They said you caught someone?” Lucilla asked waving off his apologies.

“Yes. The Praetorians patrolling the dry docks found a man near them that shouldn’t have been there.”

“In this weather?” she asked.

Ramirus worked out of the palace complex, so Lucilla had only had to step outside briefly to cross between buildings, and her feet and sandals were soaked and muddy from that short journey.

“That is what made the guards suspicious in the first place, and he was in the dark without a lantern or torch. He then ran from them, but didn’t make it far before they caught him.”

“Do we know who he is?”

“Not yet. We’ve just started the questioning, but I didn’t want to wait until we finished to let you know what was happening. One of the guardsmen grew up as a field slave before the Consul freed him and says he is pretty sure the man is a farmer or works on one of the large estates.”

Lucilla gave a sigh and Ramirus nodded. She’d been pushing hard for Ramirus to catch and deal with the last of the insurgents, but so far they had only been able to identify small pockets, and knew they were missing a lot, including Decius Sestius Gorgonius. They’d captured and executed his son, but the current leader of the insurrectionists was still in hiding. Ramirus had gotten close to him a few times, but the man moved constantly, making it hard to pin him down. What they did know was that most of Decius’s support came from the large landholders outside of the city. Men who’d lost the most when the slaves were freed and were benefiting the least from the new technology and materials the Consul had introduced.

Ramirus had already proven several treasonous and had their land and property seized by the Empire, but they were certain there were several they had missed.

“Do we know who he worked for? What he was doing out there?”

“Not yet, but it’s still early. The interrogation has just begun. By the morning, we’ll know everything he does.”

“Which means next to nothing, if he’s anything like the others we’ve caught.”

“We’ll know what he was doing out there,” Ramirus countered.

“We know what he was doing out there. He was either trying to gather information on our ships to send back to Carthage or trying to destroy or damage some of the ships under construction, or maybe both. It’s why we have the guard patrolling the docks in the first place. What it isn’t doing is getting us any closer to the people planning these attacks and coordinating everything. We still have no clue who took those documents from Hortensius’s factory, and yet you and Faenius have been investigating for more than a month. I know you are stretched thin with operations here and on the continent, in preparation for our next campaign, and I know Faenius is still short on men, but we need results.”

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