Hello! Here’s the complete Week 3 of CARPE DIEM, a new story being published in instalments and featuring Albanus from the MEDICUS series. Week 4 will start on Monday.
If you didn’t catch Weeks 1 and 2, they’re in earlier blog posts starting here. You can also find the instalments on Facebook. Better still, check out https://authorswithoutborders.org – you’ll find great stories from almost all the other writers taking part in this challenge. Douglas Jackson’s is at https://dougsbookblog.blogspot.com/ .
Albanus had a headache. As soon as the last of his pupils had gone, he loaded up his satchel and headed for freedom. He managed to scuttle around the courtyard and out of the house without seeing Virana.
The headache was not helped by a cacophony of hammering from the new granary being built in the centre of the fort. Hurrying past, he caught a glimpse of Centurion Curtius halfway up a ladder. High above, men were were dotted about on the framework of the roof, gradually encasing the vast space below them with wooden shingles. The ground next to this granary was already being cleared for the next one. If Arbeia was to distribute food to the forts being built all along the emperor’s wall, then a great deal more storage would have to be built very fast. The last thing the centurion needed was Albanus interrupting with the news that the injured butcher’s wife had had nothing useful to say, and Albanus certainly wasn’t going to give him the chance to delegate any more of the murder investigation.
Back in his rented room, Albanus threw the satchel onto his bed and made a hasty retreat. The longer he stayed in a place where he was likely to be found, the more chance there was that someone would find him in it. Since everyone who was likely to make demands of him was now inside the fort—the centurion, Virana, his pupils and (more likely) their fathers— he headed out between the hefty fort gates toward the huddle of civilian streets outside.
He knew almost nobody out here, which at the moment he felt to be a very good thing. The nearest building was a snack bar, where the enticing young lady who was lolling against the open shutters saluted him with a raised flagon. “You look like a man who’s earned a drink, sir! Come on in and sit down!”
He thanked her for her offer and explained about his headache. Then he told her that no, he didn’t think wine and a lie-down would be just the thing, and carried on.
Past the end of the street, far beyond the weaver’s workshop and the fish-seller and the vegetable stall, an innocent blue sea sparkled in the sun. Albanus turned away. He was not sure he would ever want to set foot on a ship again. He was not even sure he would want to walk along the beach, or skim pebbles over the waves. Knowing about shipwrecks was one thing. Watching one happen had been quite another.
His thoughts were interrupted by the hollow bang and rattle of a fist striking closed shutters “Open up!” shouted a woman’s voice.“We know you’re in there!”
Albanus’s curiosity had a brief battle with his weariness, and knocked it aside. As he turned the corner he saw a woman, a couple of small children and a middle-aged man standing outside Simmias’s bakery. The shutters rattled as the woman thumped them again. “Open up!”
Evidently neither of these two knew about the back door that Virana had used to smuggle him into the building on the night of the shipwreck. But perhaps they did know something about the murder. Perhaps he would, after all, have something useful to report to Centurion Curtius. He must find a way to ask.
The woman put her face close to a gap in the shutters and shouted. “We want bread!”
“Come back in the morning!” came a muffled male voice. “One loaf per family!”
“I’ve got six kids!”
“That’s not my fault, is it?”
The man looked up as Albanus approached. “Don’t bother, pal. Nothing till tomorrow. And don’t expect much then, either.” He frowned. “You new around here?”
“From the fort,” Albanus explained. Then, hoping to lead the conversation in a useful direction, “Where’s the baker?”
“I wouldn’t go wandering around on your own out here, then.”
“Bit of a dust-up yesterday. One of the lads had a go at the butcher’s missus. Knocked a few teeth out.” The man leaned closer. “You ask me, she brought it on herself.”
“Nobody did ask you,” pointed out the mother-of-six. Addressing Albanus, she said, “The baker died, the girl who was there got a better job and the wife’s taken the kids back to her own people. There’s a couple of fellers in there now trying to get things going again, but…” She shrugged.
“Turns out there was next to no grain left to mill,” explained the man. “They’ve had to send all the way over to Segedunum.”
This was not going as well as Albanus had hoped. Having initially asked where the baker was, he could hardly admit to knowing that he had been murdered. It would be even more awkward to interrupt a conversation about the availability of flour to ask how the baker had died so that he could then ask who might have murdered him.
He tried to think what the Medicus would have done in the circumstances, but that didn’t help. The baker’s murder was old news. Now people wanted to know when his business would open up again, especially since the local farmers had refused to help out by supplying grain.
“Perhaps they’ve run out themselves,” he suggested. “It’s nearly May.”
“They always say they haven’t got anything,” said the man, who Albanus guessed must be a military veteran. “Then you send a tax collector out with a few lads for security, and all of a sudden, they find it.”
“Still, it’s not his problem, is it?” demanded the mother-of-six, addressing the veteran but apparently talking about Albanus. “That lot inside the gates never go hungry.” Turning to Albanus, she said, “How about sending us some out from the fort?”
“You could put in a request, “ Albanus told her, adding, “I’m only a teacher, I’m afraid.” before she could accuse him of stealing bread out of her six children’s mouths. Then, seeing an opening, “Why do you think there isn’t any grain? Do you think the baker had trouble paying for it?”
“I doubt it,” said the woman. “Not with what he was charging. No wonder somebody did away with him.”
The man said nothing. Albanus, conscious that the moment had come, tried to sound casual. “Does anyone know who did it?”
There was a silence. They were both staring at him. The man said, “Who did you say you were, exactly?”
Albanus’s head felt as though one of the builders was nailing shingles to the inside of his skull. “I’m just a teacher,” he repeated. “I teach some of the officers’ sons.”
The mother-of-six gathered her two small children into the folds of her skirts. “He’s a spy,” she told the veteran.
“No!” Albanus protested. “I was just wondering—”
“If you’re from the fort,” said the veteran, stepping away from him, “then you know damn well that talking about the murder can get us arrested.”
Pointing out that the woman had started it was not going to help.They didn’t look convinced when he explained that he had forgotten about the prefect’s order. They were unmoved by his apologies. He was conscious of them watching him as he hurried away down the street, and it was all he could do not to break into a run.
Finally back in the safety of the fort, Albanus wedged his door-latch shut, lay down on his bed with his eyes closed and wondered if it was possible to die of a combination of headache and embarrassment. Outside, he could hear military boots tramping up and down the corridor and once or twice the voices of Centurion Curtius and his staff. Someone knocked on his door. He did not answer, and whoever it was went away.
It seemed a very long time before his heart and his skull stopped thundering in unison. And then, like the first primrose of spring, a thought came to him. His trip outside might, after all, have revealed something of interest.
Albanus must have drifted off to sleep, because when someone banged on the door and shouted, “Are you all right in there?” it took him a moment to work out where he was. Sorry!” he called. “I was asleep.” He rolled out of bed, stumbled across the room and was alarmed to find that he was trapped. “Something’s wrong with my door!”
“I’ll try,” suggested the man on the other side. “Stand back.” The door trembled and the latch jiggled about, but to no avail.
“Wait!” called Albanus. “I think I can do it from—ah!” He leapt back as the door burst open.
“Centurion wants to see you,” announced his visitor. “And you want to get that latch looked at.”
“I will,” Albanus promised, closing the door and bending to retrieve the mangled remains of the wooden pen that he himself—as he now remembered— had shoved into the latch so that he wouldn’t be disturbed. Still, at least the headache had cleared. And now he recalled that he had something potentially interesting to tell Centurion Curtius about the murder enquiry.
The centurion, however, had an announcement of his own. “This murder,” he said, settling back into an alarmingly flimsy chair and leaning back with his hands behind his head. “No need to go around questioning half the neighbourhood. I’ve found out who did it. That’s the value of selecting your targets, see?”
Albanus blinked. “Sir?”
“I should have guessed,” the man continued. “It’s always the women who cause the trouble.”
“It was a woman, sir?”
“Or a man acting on her behalf.”
It was not clear whether Curtius was being cryptic because the murderer’s identity was a secret, or because he was enjoying gloating. Either way, Albanus was not going to indulge him. “So was it the wife, sir?”
“The wife?” The tuft of hair on top of the centurion’s forehead shifted forward with the scowl. “No. She was at home all night with a six-year old and a baby with a cough. Besides, now he’s dead she’s lost her means of support. People are shouting at her in the street demanding bread. This morning I had a couple of my men help her clear her things out and take her back to her own people. It’s not her.”
In the pause that followed Albanus wondered briefly if the mother-of-six might be involved, then thought of the battered butcher’s wife and the one with the ginger hair who had allegedly started the fight at the funeral. None seemed an especially likely candidate.
“You won’t guess,” the centurion told him as if he had been listening to Albanus’s thoughts. “I’ve uncovered someone new. Former member of staff with a grudge.”
“A woman, sir?” Had Virana mentioned a woman with a grudge? He couldn’t remember.
“Turned out to be a bit loose with her favours. Tried to get her claws into the husband. When they got rid of her she told everyone Simmias had groped her.”
Albanus swallowed. Curtius’s chief suspect wasn’t someone Virana might have mentioned. It was Virana herself. “But if she’d already left, sir, why would she bother to—”
“She had a grudge against the wife, see? You’d be amazed what goes through these women’s heads. ‘If I can’t have him, nor can you.’ That sort of thing. You can’t reason with them.” Curtius lowered his hands and leaned forward. “Turns out she’d lost the job, but she was still living there on the night of the murder.”
“She can’t have been that bad, sir, or they’d have thrown her out completely.”
“They wanted to. But the wife was too soft-hearted. The girl gave her some sob story about having no family around here and nowhere to go.”
“Sir, I’m really not sure—”
“Anyway—and this is the interesting bit—the wife heard a man in the girl’s room on the night of the murder.”
Albanus gulped. How could he have been fool enough to think they hadn’t been heard? The sounds of mother and baby coughing in the room downstairs had been clear enough.
“When the wife got up next morning her husband hadn’t come home and both the man and the girl were gone. See? Under the cover of all that confusion at the shipwreck, the girl got the man to murder the baker for her, and then they both went back to his house to rub the wife’s nose in it.”
“Ah! You know the name?”
“Virana works in the prefect’s kitchen, sir, she—”
“Not now she doesn’t. So far she’s refused to name the man. But she’ll think differently when the questioner gets here tomorrow. Then we’ll—”
“No, sir!” Albanus’s shout was so loud that for a moment the centurion stared at him in astonishment. Albanus himself could barely believe what he had just done. He heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed men were poised outside for a summons to come and take him away.
“Sir,” Albanus repeated at a more acceptable volume. “Virana is not the person we’re looking for. Please may I speak? There are some things I need to tell you.”
When Albanus had finished talking, the centurion looked him up and down and said, “You?”
Curtius’s tone suggested that this made no sense to him whatsoever. Which Albanus could fully understand, because he himself had never understood what a girl like Virana might see in a scrawny schoolmaster with thinning hair and very average looks. “I know it’s hard to believe, sir.”
The centurion remained silent for a moment. Then he said, “Is that why you volunteered to help with the enquiries?”
“I didn’t volunteer, sir,” Albanus confessed. “Virana put me forward and—well, it was difficult to refuse, really.”
“I’m sorry to have made things so awkward, sir. But whatever the widow’s told you about Virana, I swear by all the gods that she is the last person who would murder anybody. She was with me at the time of the shipwreck. The prefect saw us together. He even spoke to her.”
“She was with you the whole time?”
Albanus hesitated, but there was no point in lying: when Curtius finally realised he needed to question all the witnesses, the truth would come out. “She joined me as the ship went down, sir. Not long after I spoke to the prefect’s son, standing by the men with the artillery.”
Curtius let out a long sigh. “I suppose that gives you less time to have murdered him on her behalf.”
Now it was Albanus who was incredulous. “Me, sir?”
“That would also be hard to believe,” the man agreed. “Although you seem to have trouble refusing her anything. And since we don’t know when the baker was stabbed nor when he went over the cliff, it could be either of you before you met, both of you as a pair, or anybody else on that bloody clifftop.” As an afterthought, he added, “Except the men who were roped together.”
“Have any other witnesses come forward, sir?
Albanus wished he had not dissuaded the centurion from offering a reward for information. “Maybe the widow was the one who got somebody to do it for her.”
“Doubtless because she wanted to be poor and homeless.”
“I heard they argued a lot, sir. Partly about the girl, but also about other things. Virana might be able to tell you more. And you’ve established that the widow had a family to go home to.”
Curtius fixed him with what was probably a long-practised stare: the one that said he had better stop talking if he didn’t want to be in worse trouble. But Albanus dared not stop until he had said it all.
“You asked me to question the butcher’s wife, sir. The one who was injured in the—”
“I know who I asked you to question.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Well, she said Simmias wasn’t very good at paying his debts. And it turns out he’d almost run out of supplies.”
“That’s no reason to kill him.”
“No, sir.” Albanus swallowed. Where had he been going with this? Nowhere. It was just, he realised, a distraction from Virana. And now a smell of fried chicken was wafting into the room. He was keeping the centurion away from his dinner. “Anyway, sir,” he continued, “whatever the widow might have thought, the girl wasn’t chasing the baker. She’d already complained to me that he was the one chasing her. That’s why she was glad to find another job.”
The centurion leaned back and adopted his hands-behind-the-head pose again. “So what did she want you to do about it?”
“Nothing, sir. She was afraid of losing her job and her lodgings.”
Albanus did not like the sound of ‘Hm’.
“Well, she’s certainly worked her magic on you.” Curtius leaned forward again. “Let me give you some very disappointing news, schoolmaster. According to the widow, the girl’s not fussy who she beds. Before she came here she abandoned a baby that could have been fathered by any one of the recruits in Eboracum.”
“That’s not true, sir!”
The centurion’s grey eyes widened. “She did know who the father was?”
“Er—I believe not, sir, but the baby was adopted by the Medicus I used to work for. It wasn’t abandoned.”
“A lot of local girls have ambitions to pair up with a military man, sir.”
“As the widow said. She’s a husband-hunter.”
“I believe some of the recruits took advantage of her good nature, sir.”
“And what about you?”
Albanus felt his glorious memories of the intimacy in that little room above the bakery suddenly crushed by the grip of shame. He swallowed. He must not allow himself to be side-tracked here. “I should have known better, sir. Virana is very young and very naïve. But in all the time I’ve known her, she’s never shown any interest in a married man.” Even though he had detected a certain flustered tone in the Medicus whenever he had dealings with Virana in the absence of his wife. “She dealt with the baker by getting away from him,” he pointed out. Then, because that smell from the kitchen wouldn’t be helping Curtius’s temper, he got to the point. “Sir, please can I put in a request that you consider an immediate release?”
The word was spoken with that special technique that the best centurions used: that of tersely expressing their mind while showing no expression whatsoever, then remaining motionless while you squirmed. Albanus thanked the gods that he had now seen it so often he could pretend it wasn’t intimidating. “Then sir, if you might just call off the questioner—”
“If it wasn’t her, who was it?”
Albanus drew himself up to his full height, which was not great. “I’ll find out, sir.”
“The prefect wants someone in custody by tomorrow night. At present she’s the best name we have. I’m not giving you two the chance to run away into the sunset together. Now bugger off. If you can find me someone better, come back.”
“Will you call off the questioner, sir? Now that you know it was me in the bakery and—”
Albanus was conscious of forcing all his muscles to stay still against their will. Conscious, too, that the wrath of Centurion Curtius was nothing to the terror Virana must already be feeling if she knew a professional questioner was on the way. The only part of him that moved was the part that repeated, “Will you call off the questioner, sir?”
The centurion’s grey eyes stared into his own. There was a long and deadly serious re-enactment of the childish who-blinks-first game. Albanus felt his skin begin to twitch. He blinked. He carried on staring. He reminded himself to breathe. Finally the centurion said,
“The questioner goes in at midday tomorrow.”
“Oh dear, oh dear gods, oh dear!” Albanus hurried across the short distance between Centurion Curtius’s office and the prefect’s house. “Oh dear and holy gods, whatever I did to deserve this, forgive me! If you just save Virana I shall bring you something really special. Wh—” He stopped. Even in this state he was not going to say ‘Whatever you want.’ Anyone who knew the old Greek tales knew that rash promises were the path to disaster. “I shall bring you something better than I have ever brought you before,” he promised, pivoting on his heel and striding toward the guards, who stepped forward to block the entrance to the prefect’s house.
“Lesson preparation,” he told them. “I need to write up the poem I’m teaching tomorrow.”
They stepped back and let him pass. He went straight to the kitchen, where the regular maid was hunched over a table doing something complicated with a plucked fowl.
She looked up as he came in. “They’ve took her,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“How’m I going to manage by myself? I can’t hardly walk.”
He said, “Where have they taken her?”
“The lad with the chicken said a little room at the back of the infirmary.”
“I see,” said Albanus. “Is she—do you know anything else?”
“I know she’s lucky not to be put in with the men. They got nowhere for locking up women, see?”
Albanus thanked her and left. Behind him he heard, “You shoulda’ married her while you had the chance, master teacher!”
He barely heard, “Short poem, was it?” from one of the guards.
The kitchen maid’s words rang in his head as he hurried down the darkening street past the silent hulk of the new granary.
The wretched woman was right, of course. He should have asked Virana to marry him months ago. If he had done that, none of this would have happened. What he had seen as a problem—being relentlessly pursued by an enthusiastic young woman with an ample bosom and warm smile and untidy hair—would never have been a problem for most men. Any other single man of his age and appearance would have literally seized the opportunity with both hands and thanked the gods for their undeserved bounty. Now he was too late, and it was all his own fault.
As usual, he had wasted time considering all the things that might go wrong, instead of taking action. Just as he had with the Medicus. They had been exciting years, yes, but in truth his chief feeling at the time had been one of anxiety. Largely over what sort of trouble that uncontrollable wife was going to get the Medicus into next. And over how any of them could possibly get out of it.
Nobody challenged him as he entered the infirmary. The staff were used to people wandering about at odd hours and he had been here—was it really only this morning?— to visit the butcher’s wife. Someone had a good memory, because as he strode into the building trying to look purposeful, an orderly called, “They sent her home this afternoon.”
Albanus thanked him and left. He had seen what he needed to see: a guard standing outside a door at the far end of the corridor.
As he expected, nobody was guarding the little barred window that opened out onto the narrow gap between the infirmary and the building behind it. There were no footholds on the smooth surface of the infirmary wall, so he hurried away again in search of something to stand on. Finally stealing a suitably sturdy wooden box from an empty workshop, he was able to step up, take hold of the bars and peer in through the window.
He could make out nothing in the gloom of the unlit room. “Virana?” he whispered.
A male voice said, “Next door, mate.”
Albanus thanked him and moved the box further along. “Virana?”
There was an answering sniff and a rustle of straw and fabric. “I am here!” Her voice was thick, as though she had been crying. Then she was reaching up toward him, her fingers clutching at his. “I knew you would come!”
“Are you all right?”
“They kept asking who was in my room but I didn’t tell them!”
“I know,” he said. “That was very good of you. I’ve seen the centurion and told him I was with you that evening.”
“That big one with the tuft in front of his bald patch?”
“He’s horrible.” She sniffed again. “They’re all horrible, and I don’t know why. I only try to be nice to people and help them but they were all so nasty to me and nobody likes me and I don’t know—” She started to sob. “I don’t know what to do!”
He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to promise her this would soon be over and everything would be all right. He could do neither. Instead he heard himself say feebly, “Oh dear.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing.” He could at least tell her that with confidence. “You did nothing wrong. And I’m going to do everything I can to get you out of here.”
Her hands wrapped around his own, so that they were both holding the bars now. “Thank you.”
It struck him that perhaps she had not understood whatever Curtius had said about the questioner. He must try not to sound panicked. “Virana, we have to find out who really did kill Simmias. So I need you to think very carefully.”
“Did he have any enemies?”
Silence. Then, “I don’t know. Sorry.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Try this one. You said he and Rosula used to argue. What did they argue about?”
She hesitated. “About me, I think,” she said. “But it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do anything, I—”
“I know you didn’t,” said Albanus, cursing his own failure to confront Simmias about hounding her. “Anything else?”
“Oh, everything. Whose job it was to do things. Who hadn’t put something away. Where the money went. The sorts of things people argue over.”
“Who worked at the bakery, exactly?”
“It was just me,” she said. “And him and Rosula, and their little boy helped. Some nights I was so tired I could hardly climb up to my room.”
“Do you know where he got the grain from?”
Another sniff. “A man used to bring it at the start of every month on a cart. But I never saw who he was. And I don’t know where he came from. That’s no use, is it?”
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “Do you think they were short of money?”
“Everybody’s short of money,” she said. “But I know Rosula didn’t kill him. She was back at the bakery.” She tightened her grip around his fingers. “And you told them that you were with me. Why don’t they come to let me out?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Things sometimes move very slowly in the army.”
So that was it: she thought that the only question they wanted answered was the identity of the mystery man in her room at the bakery. She had no idea that the professional questioner would still be coming for her at midday tomorrow. It was a small mercy that might allow her to sleep tonight. But sooner or later, once the questioner started at her, she would confess to whatever they wanted. Anyone would: some of them at the mere sight of the equipment. And then it would all be over.
He wasn’t going to think about that. “Try and get some rest tonight,” he suggested. “Are you warm enough? Have you eaten?”
She was, and she had. “Albanus?”
“Do you think the gods are angry because I gave my baby away?”
He was stunned. It was not something he had even considered. “I think,” he said, “that giving your baby to the Medicus and Tilla was the kindest thing I have ever seen anyone do. Why would the gods be angry?”
“Because they gave her to me.”
“And you made sure she is well looked after,” he said. “Now try and get some sleep.”
“I’ll try,” she promised. Her fingers squeezed his own, then relaxed their grip and he was free.
He was clambering down from the box when he heard, “Albanus?” He paused with one hand still on the bars, ready to haul himself up again. “Yes?”
Back in the lamplit hall of the infirmary, Albanus paused to bow to the Tungrian god of healing. The statue carried on staring at a point somewhere just above Albanus’s head, quite unaware—or so Albanus hoped—that the agitated mortal now begging for his support had never bothered to find out his name.
Having paid his respects, Albanus set out to search for whoever was in charge. To his relief the orderly who had recognized him earlier that evening had vanished. At the far end of the gloomy corridor that smelled of vinegar and faintly of vomit, he could just make out the figure of the guard outside Virana’s door. So close! There must be a way of getting her out. Why couldn’t he think of one?
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice from a room to the right. “Listen to me. Either you both shut up and do exactly what my staff tell you, or I toss a coin and whoever loses gets thrown out. Which is it to be?”
He had found his man.
Moments later a tall, lean figure with wild hair and a bloodstained leather apron strode out of the room and headed back the way Albanus had just come, toward the entrance hall.
“Sir?” Albanus had to run to keep up. “Might I have a word?” Could Virana hear his voice? She would know he was here. She was not entirely surrounded by strangers.
The man did not pause in his stride. “I’ve finished now. Come to surgery in the morning.”
“I’m on duty in the morning, sir.” Gods above, what was he going to do about that? He couldn’t abandon Virana in order to lead seven boys through Greek verb conjugations.
The doctor slowed a little and glanced down at him. “You’re that tutor feller, aren’t you?”
“It won’t take a moment sir.”
The doctor sighed, and abandoned his escape attempt. “What is it?”
“It’s confidential, sir.”
The man flung open the nearest door, hastily retreated with “Sorry!” and tried the next one.
“Right,” he announced when they were both safely inside a room which was empty of both patients and furniture. It smelled as though it needed some major work with a scrubbing-brush. “What can I do for you? Or are you asking for a friend?”
“I’m working for Centurion Curtius, “Albanus explained. “Investigating the murder of the baker.”
“I thought that was dealt with.”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Well the quicker they find a replacement, the better. People don’t like doing without bread. Turns out the lack of it makes them violent.”
“The bakery opens again tomorrow, sir. One loaf per family.”
“Good. Meanwhile I’ve got four injured men in here because a bunch of men from Block Three were kind enough to donate their personal wheat rations to their pal’s hungry kids. And then someone caught his girl out in the street selling the bread she’d made from it. So naturally there was a fight, and now we have to waste our time—” He caught Albanus’s expression, and stopped. “Sorry. Long day. What was it you wanted?”
“I’m just checking some details, sir. I wondered if someone here examined the body.”
The doctor frowned. “I’ve already told Curtius we did. Don’t you people speak to each other?”
Apparently not. “If you could just confirm what you said, please, sir.”
“The body was examined by me. It was definitely the baker and he was definitely dead.”
“Cause of death?”
“Has the centurion had a lapse of memory?”
“There may be a trial, sir. I just need to confirm that the centurion’s understanding is exactly what’s written in your records.”
A smile tweaked at the corners of the doctor’s mouth. “And to make sure I’ve actually got some records?”
Albanus cleared his throat. “I used to be clerk to a medicus with the Twentieth, sir. I do understand that records aren’t the first priority at a busy—”
“Who was your medic?”
But yet again, the name Gaius Petreius Ruso meant nothing.
“My records,” said the doctor, “which I have in fact taken the trouble to write up, state that the baker drowned, possibly after being knocked unconscious by a fall onto rocks from a height.”
Albanus stared at him. “So it could have been an accident?”
“No. That was what killed him, but somebody stabbed him just before he fell. The wound would have hampered any attempt to save himself. That, and the broken bones caused by the fall.”
“Can you tell me anything about the weapon?”
“Not a big knife. Probably the sort of thing most people carry for cutting up food. Just the one wound. If you ask me, I’d say he was on the cliff edge one moment and gone the next.”
“How much strength would have been needed?”
The angular shoulders lifted in a shrug. “The woman could have done it. If he was caught off balance, a five-year-old could have done it. As long as they could reach up to here—” He twisted round, raising one fist behind him and jabbing his thumb into the middle of his back and slightly to the left “—with the knife.”
The “Oh dear,” came out before Albanus could help himself.
“You might add that to Curtius’s notes: I don’t remember him asking.”
This evidence was not at all what Albanus had wanted to hear, but he thanked the man anyway.
“Anything else? I’m late for an appointment with a beef stew.”
Albanus took a deep breath. “Sir, the young woman being held at the far end of the corridor—”
“Can’t help you there, I’m afraid. We were just told to hand over the room. Which is why we’ve got two men from opposite sides of that fight having to share further up.” The doctor paused. “Are you really working for Curtius? Or are you checking up on him?”
“Absolutely not, sir!” Albanus stopped. “I mean, I’m not checking up on him. He told me to—to see if I can find out any more details that might be useful. And to make sure the young woman was, er—” He was not a good liar, and he knew it.
The man eyed him for a moment. “She’s not in a palace,” he said, “but our people are keeping her fed and watered and I’m told we left the bed in there.”
Albanus was thanking him again when a head appeared around the door. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but you said to call you if there was any change with Room Nine. The suppurating groin.”
The doctor closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.
The orderly said, “Are you all right, sir?”
“Of course. Who wouldn’t give up a fine beef stew for the chance to spend time with a suppurating groin?”
When he was gone Albanus leaned back against the wall and put both hands over his face. If only he had listened to Virana’s pleas for marriage. If only he had sought her out earlier on the evening of the shipwreck. If only his own Medicus were here. As it was, he was dealing with this all on his own, and to his shame the only thing he could now think of doing was to go back to his room and try to get some sleep before the dreadful day dawned and he had to come up with something—anything—to stave off Virana’s midday appointment with the questioner.