Hello! Here’s the final week of CARPE DIEM, a new story that’s been published in instalments and featuring Albanus from the MEDICUS series.
If you didn’t catch the earlier weeks, they’re in previous 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 most of the other writers taking part in this challenge, and Douglas Jackson’s is at https://dougsbookblog.blogspot.com/ .
Albanus was already out of bed and fumbling with his bootlaces by the time the trumpet sounded first watch. Over at the stables, the yawning groom scowled at his permission slip, recognised the mark of Centurion Curtius, and grunted assent.
“I was told to ask for Midnight,” said Albanus.
The man grunted again. “You’d better not be in a hurry, then.”
The gate guards made no comment as Midnight shambled past them and out of the fort. Albanus wondered if perhaps, for the first time ever, he really did look like a man who knew how to control a horse.
Outside, the shops were still shuttered and the houses were silent, but already a small queue had formed outside the bakery.
He steered the horse onto the right-hand fork in the road and found himself almost immediately out in open countryside. He needed to pay attention now. He must stop running over the speech he had been intermittently worrying about all night. Yesterday evening, seeking directions for this trip, he had been assured that, “You can’t miss it,” but it was surprising what you could miss if you weren’t concentrating. He kicked the horse into a bone-jarring trot that made him grab at the front horns of the saddle, and was relieved to reach his next landmark: the milestone beside the wooden bridge.
After that came the oak tree with the broken branch where he must turn left, and then about a mile further on along the winding native track the claim that “You can’t miss it,” turned out to be true.
Not because he had spotted the widow’s family farm, or the baker’s widow herself, but because he had just bounced around yet another bend when two shaggy-haired native men stepped out of a gateway and seized either side of Midnight’s bridle.
“Who are you?” demanded the one on the left.
Albanus hoped that coming here alone and unarmed was not about to prove a catastrophic mistake. “Good morning!” he announced brightly. “My name is Albanus. I’m hoping you can help me find someone called Rosula. She used to live at the bakery outside the fort. I’ve brought some information for her.”
“Who are you?”
After a moment’s confusion, he realised his mistake. The native had memorized the correct Latin phrase, but he wasn’t equipped to cope with anything more than a one-word answer. Albanus put both reins in one hand and pointed toward his own chest. “Albanus.” He pointed at the man. “Who are you?”
The man gazed at him blankly. Albanus wanted to grab him and shake him. It was the sort of obstinate non-co-operation that came across as stupidity: the sort cited in barrack rooms as proof that it was pointless trying to reason with a Briton. Perhaps he should have brought a bribe. Trying to think what he had to offer, it dawned on him that they would want the horse.
It was the horse itself who broke the impasse. Spotting a lush snack, Midnight lumbered towards the verge, dragging his captors with him. Albanus was jerked forward and off balance. He grabbed the saddle and tried to disguise his tumble as a dismount while the horse calmly lowered its head to eat.
“Rosula?” he tried again, wondering what they would do with him if Rosula wasn’t an option.
The man scowled, and indicated that Albanus should remove his cloak. Finally he seemed satisfied that this fool had not only come alone on a horse he couldn’t control, but had come with no weapons. He pointed toward the muddy gateway. “Rosula.”
Ahead of them, three round houses clustered around a cobbled yard. One had smoke drifting lazily up through the cone of thatch.. A hairy, long-limbed dog ran out from somewhere, barking furiously and sending a flock of brown hens flapping and scuttling for cover One of the men shouted in his native tongue and the dog fell silent, still eyeing him with suspicion. A couple of skinny children and a goat were also staring at him.The children’s tunics were the colour of dung.
The man shouted again and Albanus recognised his name being used. A woman appeared in the doorway of one of the houses, brushing something off her skirts. Albanus remembered the broad shoulders and the curly hair from the couple of times he had visited the bakery in daylight, but this was not the confident woman who had hefted huge baskets of bread and exchanged coarse banter with her customers. Rosula had lost weight. Her face was pale beneath the curls, and her eyes were shadowed.
The centurion had been right about one thing: the sight of her instantly banished any thought that she might have had a hand in her husband’s death.
She stepped forward to stand a few paces from where Albanus held the horse and said in Latin, “I told the centurion everything. He said I could come home. He said nobody would pester me any more.”
Albanus bowed and introduced himself. “I came to offer condolences,” he said, aware that he was hanging onto Midnight as much for reassurance as to stop the horse wandering across to munch on the weeds around the depleted haystack. “I would also like to make a confession and an apology. Would you allow me to do that?”
When she did not reply he carried on. “I believe that on the night your—the night you lost your husband, you noticed your lodger Virana had a visitor.”
“I have left all that behind now. I told the centurion everything.”
“It was me,” Albanus blurted out, abandoning his practised speech. “It was me. I’m most terribly sorry. It’s not something I’m proud of. Of course we had no idea about your husband. It was a—a difficult evening, what with the shipwreck, and the storm, and….” And what? What was he talking about? Getting a bit wet while you watched other people in trouble was hardly an excuse for cavorting while this woman’s husband was lying dead at the foot of a cliff.
“I thought you should know,” he said, “In case you were worried about who might have been in your house.”
“I am not worried.”
“I’ve been working with Centurion Curtius,” he went on, grasping at the frayed threads of his prepared speech. “We are both determined to get justice for your husband.”
When she did not speak he said, “I was hoping you might have remembered something else that might help. Anything at all.”
“The centurion said there would be no more questions.”
If the centurion had made such a promise then he was an idiot, but it would not help to say so. “Anyone who might feel they had a grudge against your husband, perhaps?”
“My husband was well liked. Everyone came to his funeral.”
According to Virana many of the mourners had been there out of nosiness, but Virana’s understanding of events was not always shared by everyone else. Or indeed by anyone else. “A business rival, perhaps?” he tried. “Anyone at all who might want to do your husband harm?”
The woman sniffed. “My husband never talked to me about business.”
“Did he owe money to anyone?
“I told you. We never talked about business.”
Albanus wanted to shout, “Virana is locked up! She worked hard for you for months and she put up with your ghastly husband and now they are sending someone to torture her!” Instead he said, “I see. Thank you. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“I told the centurion everything.”
“That girl brought men into my house.”
Albanus felt his body tense. The horse tossed its head and jerked free. He said, “Do you know of any other men who might have, ah—?”
“How would I know? Little tart. I was glad when she left.”
He regained his grip on the bridle, if not on his composure. “One last thing,” he said. “There are new tenants in the bakery, but the grain stores are very low and they don’t know where to get more. Who shall I tell them to ask?”
She shrugged. “My husband dealt with all that.”
“Is there a regular order?”
“I don’t know. My husband—”
“How often does the grain come?”
She glowered at him. “I have said everything to the centurion! Why are you bothering me with this? My husband—”
“Who delivers it?”
She stared at him. “I have children to look after,” she told him. “I have said everything I have to say. I don’t know anything else.”
Behind him, a voice said, “You go now.”
He turned to see the men closing in on him from both sides.
They were both carrying unsheathed knives. Not the sort of domestic knives that had killed Simmias. Bigger. The sort they weren’t supposed to have in their possession because, according to the official line, the Army took care of all their defence needs.
“I’m just leaving,” he assured them, waving one hand toward the gate and muttering a plea of, “Move!” to Midnight and a silent prayer of thanks to the gods when the horse complied.
He squelched out through the gateway, still on foot. In a moment he was going to have to get back up on the horse, but he wasn’t going to attempt it while the natives were watching.
Back inside the fort and mercifully no longer on horseback, Albanus managed to sprint past the prefect’s house without being seen by anyone who might ask why he wasn’t in there teaching. He passed the building site, where Curtius was standing beside a pile of timber with a couple of his men. Finally reaching the old granary, he ran up the wooden ramp onto the loading platform that had waited in vain for the delivery of wheat from the sunken ship.
The double doors were open, exposing the rows of wooden bays inside. A grey-haired soldier in a work tunic was perched on one of the partitions. Beneath him a small brown and white terrier was tottering on its hind legs, straining to reach whatever was in his outstretched hand.
The man glanced across as Albanus entered. He tossed the scrap in the air and the dog leapt and snapped it up. Then he swung down from the partition and strolled towards the entrance. “Have you got your chit?”
“I don’t want grain, sir. I’m working for Centurion Curtius.”
“And the centurion wants?”
“Some advice,” Albanus explained. “Urgently. He’s investigating the murder of the baker Simmias.”
“Good,” the man observed. “I hope they crucify the bugger who did it. I can’t go out for a quiet drink without people pestering me about bread. Anybody’d think we’d got a magical flour mine in here. You tell them nothing goes out without authority, and they look at you as if you’ve just insulted their mother.”
“They opened the bakery this morning,” Albanus told him. “One loaf per family.”
“What I’m trying to understand,” said Albanus, “Is why the baker would have run out of grain so early in the season. It’s months till harvest. Is there a shortage?”
The man leaned against the nearest wooden upright and folded his arms. “He ran out because we haven’t sent him any. And at a guess, he didn’t like the prices anywhere else.”
Albanus blinked. “We—this granary supplied a commercial baker?” There was something distasteful about the notion of demanding grain from the local farmers as taxes and then passing it back to a man who used it to run a business.
“He paid for it,” The man clearly sensed his unease. “Nothing went out without the prefect’s say-so. Like I said. No chit, no grain.”
“But we stopped the supply?”
“We can’t spare it.” The man nodded towards the rows of wooden grain bins extending away into the gloom. “There’s a lot of empty space down there. Ready for what was on the ship that went down.”
Albanus frowned. “I thought every base was supposed to hold twelve months’ supply for all the men in the unit?”
The man grunted. “Sounds easy, don’t it?”
Albanus regretted his tone. “Sorry. I don’t mean to suggest you’re doing anything wrong.”
“The harvest’s different every year. And then they move the men around. And then there’s damp, and insects, and—” The man turned away suddenly and called, “—rats!”
The dog came racing out from behind a partition, kicking up a cloud of dust. “Good boy.” His master tossed something into the air and the dog leapt up again and caught it. “Not so many rats lately…” The man bent down to fuss the dog. “Thanks to Mino here.”
Albanus said, “It’s more complicated than I realised.”
“Things often are.”
“Who handles the payment for the grain?”
The man shrugged. “Not me, mate. I’ve got more than enough to do.”
Albanus had yet to see any evidence for this claim, but perhaps April was the slack season in the granary business. “So,” he said, “How did it work? Simmias would arrive with an authorisation slip of some sort…”
The man reached behind the door and produced a handful of thin wooden slips with spidery writing on them in black ink. “We get sent one of these.”
“You keep them?” Albanus asked, suddenly hopeful.
“Not for the sales.”
His hopes sank again.
“They get taken away. It’s something to do with collecting the money.” The man stopped. “What’s this got to do with murdering the baker?”
“I don’t know,” Albanus confessed. “But I need to find out. Very quickly.”
Boys! The sudden thought knocked aside all speculation about bakers and business deals and murderers and even about Virana, locked in her lonely room awaiting interrogation. Holy gods, he had made no provision for anyone to watch the boys!
Albanus ran back down the ramp from the granary and across to the prefect’s house, deliberately avoiding catching the eye of the the guards on the door. What would he do if the boys weren’t there? A military base was full of ways for unsupervised children to injure themselves. Even if they couldn’t get hold of any weapons, there were workshops with iron tools and raging furnaces, working animals with massive hoofs, heavy vehicles…
He had never been so pleased to hear the sound of a class out of control. He wondered how long they had been like that. Evidently the prefect was elsewhere, or someone would have been sent to silence them.
“Good morning, boys!” The shrieks of childish laughter descended into stifled snorts as he entered the room.
“You’re very late!” observed Lucius.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” said Marcus, who seemed to have a curious collection of black dots across his face.
“I must apologise, boys,” he said, noting that the black dots were also on his neck and his tunic. “I was unexpectedly delayed.”
“We’ve been waiting for hours,” Lucius told him. He too seemed to be afflicted with dots and streaks. As, now Albanus looked closely, were the other boys. Along with the walls, the floor and even the window.
“A man came looking for you,” Lucius said. “But it’s all right, we covered for you.”
“We told him you’d been called to see Pa.”
Albanus swallowed. You really shouldn’t have—”
“See, before I thought it was you who told Pa about me watching the shipwreck, but Pa says it wasn’t.”
“No,” Albanus agreed, wondering what this had to do with anything. “It wasn’t.”
“So I thought it was only fair to do the same for you.”
Albanus said, “I see,” and then, curious, ”Who really did tell your father that you were out?”
Lucius told him, then held out a sealed writing tablet. “That man who came looking for you brought this.”
Albanus glanced at the letter, noted that several black dots had spread in tiny lines along the grain of the wood, and slipped it into his belt. It wasn’t important now. “Has someone been flicking ink?”
The laughter, not very well buried, erupted again. There was a cacophony of blame and outrage and pointing as every boy called out out a name that wasn’t his own.
Albanus held up one hand for silence and eventually the boys grew curious enough to tell each other to shut up.
“I have to go out again,” he told them.
When the chorus of “Again?” had subsided, he said, “Tomorrow we will be back to normal lessons. But for today I want you to clean your wax tablets and write me three lines in Greek about what you want to be when you grow up, and I want you to behave sensibly while I’m gone.”
Having expressed this futile hope, he gathered up all the inkwells and took them away with him. He then surprised the maid by crouching to hide them behind the kitchen door.
When he did not answer to “You can’t leave them there!” she called after him, “When’s that Virana coming back?”
But he was halfway to the prefect’s office and there was no point in turning back to tell her that if he didn’t get this right, Virana might never be coming back at all.
Eunus looked up from whatever he was reading and said, “Yes?” in a tone that meant “Go away”.
“I need to see the prefect, sir” Albanus told him. “It’s very urgent.”
Eunus closed the tablet, tied it shut and slipped it back into one of his polished wood filing-boxes before saying, “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Albanus admitted, “But it’s extremely urgent, sir. It’s to do with Centurion Curtius’s enquiry into the murder of the baker.”
Eunus’s eyebrows rose. “I’m surprised Centurion Curtius doesn’t want to speak to the prefect himself.”
“He can’t, sir,” Albanus said. “He doesn’t know about this yet, and he’s busy.”
“The prefect has gone to a meeting over at Segedunum,” Eunus said. “Perhaps I can help?”
“Or perhaps it isn’t really all that urgent.”
“It can’t wait, sir. They’re going to interrogate the prefect’s kitchen maid at midday and she can’t confess because I’m absolutely sure she didn’t do it. It’s—” He broke off. “Can I tell you something in confidence, sir?”
Eunus gestured to the slave who was waiting in the corner, and who now left the room and closed the door behind him.
“I think, sir,” said Albanus, leaning closer to Eunus’s desk so as not to be overheard outside the room, “The murder of the baker has something to do with the sale of wheat from the fort granary.”
“The sale of wheat?”
“I think there’s been some sort of swindle going on.”
The clerk’s round face creased into a frown. “I doubt it. They keep very careful records.”
“I just want the chance to look into it, sir. But the centurion’s under orders to get a result by this evening, and unless the prefect gives him more time, poor Virana—”
“The one who’s not very bright?”
“She’s very kind-hearted, sir,” Albanus assured him. “I can understand why the centurion suspects her, but he doesn’t know her.”
“And you know her very well indeed.”
“Well enough to know that she didn’t do it, sir.”
Eunus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She is a fine-looking girl,” he observed.
“I think I can find out who really did it,” Albanus explained. “If there’s anything you can do to help…”
“Hm.” Eunus paused. “It would be a shame to see her hurt.”
The clerk put both palms down on his desk as if he had made a decision. “Leave it with me,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
It was the best he was likely to get. Albanus left the prefect’s house and ran for the building site, aware that the sun was now very high in the sky and praying that Centurion Curtius was still where he had last seen him.
Back inside the prefect’s house, Albanus was amazed that the boys were so quiet. Surely they were not sitting in their places, composing Greek sentences about their illustrious futures?
They weren’t. The room was empty. A face, composed of deliberately-smudged ink spots, gazed at him from the wall. For a moment Albanus was baffled: then he realised. For him, midday was the moment when he had—he hoped—managed to buy Virana some time before the questioner got to work on her. For the boys, it was lunchtime.
He hurried back down the corridor. If his fragile plan was to succeed, he must find Eunus immediately. And Curtius, who had just agreed to follow him here (but hadn’t) must be there when he did.
The prefect’s outer office was unlocked. Inside, Eunus’s slave was on his hands and knees amidst a landslide of writing-tablets. The contents of two of the fancy polished filing boxes seemed to have been upended all over the floor. Albanus’s “Where is he?” produced only a shrug.
One of the household slaves was crossing the courtyard. Albanus strode out to intercept him. “Have you seen Eunus?”
“Try the kitchen, sir.”
Albanus hurried on, calling over his shoulder, “If you see a centurion, send him after me!”
The maid was sitting at the big kitchen table chopping up cabbage, her bandaged foot propped up on a stool. Behind her, hunched over the glowing coals of the kitchen grill, was Eunus.
“Stop!” shouted Albanus, dodging around the table cursing himself for wasting time looking in on the boys.
The maid thrust the cabbage and the knife away from her, “What’s the matter?”
Eunus had grabbed the poker and was ramming it into the coals. By the time Albanus got there, a flame was rising from the grill. “Stop!”
Eunus swung round with the poker raised. “Stand back!”
Where was Curtius? Albanus snatched the stool from under the maid’s foot and jabbed at the poker. Eunus lost his grip and it clattered to the floor. The clerk made a grab for the cabbage knife. Albanus thrust again with the stool. Caught off balance, Eunus staggered back and fell against the wall.
The maid was at the door, shouting for help. Albanus twisted round and swept the stool across the cooking surface. The iron grill, the hot coals and the slivers of wood Eunus was burning crashed onto the tiled floor and skittered in all directions.
The maid’s screams turned to, “Fire!” Albanus grabbed the nearest jug and poured wine over the scattered mess.
He had scarcely managed to snatch up the half-burned slivers of wood when Eunus was on him, and then they were locked together and rolling across the floor, kicking and struggling and crashing into the table-legs. The maid was shouting and trying to whack them both with a broom and Eunus’s hands were pressing into Albanus’s throat and now nothing mattered except that he needed to get some air in, but the grip around his throat was like an iron band.
Then there were other voices: men’s voices. Loud. Issuing orders. The pressure on Albanus’s throat lifted and someone was hauling him to his feet.
Albanus leaned forward to rest on the table, gasping for air. He was vaguely aware of centurion Curtius and a couple of other guards crowded into the kitchen, the sound of water sloshing over the floor, and a breathless Eunus spluttering that he had been attacked and that Albanus should be locked up.
“And me, sirs!” cried the maid. “He attacked me as well! He ran in here shouting like a madman and pulled the stool out from under me!”
Albanus mustered the strength to straighten up. One of the men placed the stool underneath him and he slumped onto it.
The centurion said, “I see you started without me.”
Albanus, his fingers exploring the damage around his throat, croaked an apology. “He was burning the records, sir. I had to stop him.”
Curtius scowled, and ordered everyone but Albanus and Eunus out of the room.
Albanus wriggled awkwardly, retracted one arm into the sleeve-hole of his tunic, and took out a couple of wet, charred slivers of wood that had once been the same shape as the ones he had seen in the granary. “I saved them, sir.”
“Do they show what you were expecting?”
Albanus cupped one hand around his rescued treasures so that Eunus could not see them. He turned so that the light from the window illuminated the blackened surface. Here was the proof of his theory that Eunus had been forging the prefect’s authority—except he couldn’t read a word of it. The ink had been obliterated by the burning. He forced a confident nod. This was not the time to be embarrassed about lying. “Absolutely, sir.”
“So,” said the centurion to Eunus, “Simmias the baker was being supplied from our granary—”
Eunus scowled at Albanus and replied, “With official permission, sir.”
Curtius said, “And the prefect will confirm that?”
Eunus lifted his chin. “The prefect doesn’t see everything that crosses my desk, sir. Some things are delegated. I dealt with it.”
The centurion hesitated, and looked at Albanus. Albanus didn’t believe Eunus for a moment, but could no longer prove that the clerk had forged the official slips to release the supply of grain. Without them, it was quite possible that the prefect would rather believe Eunus than his son’s unreliable tutor.
There was another way, though… “There should be records of the income from the grain coming into the unit’s coffers, sir.” Albanus hoped desperately that Eunus hadn’t been bright enough to forge those as well. If he had, Virana was lost.
“He knows nothing about it, sir!” declared Eunus. “The income would be included in general totals, it wouldn’t be possible to trace—”
“Well it should be!” put in Albanus. “Otherwise how do you know men aren’t helping themselves?”
“I want those records, Eunus,” Curtius told him. “Now. Not when you’ve had time to write some.”
Eunus took a breath, clasped his hands together and lowered his head as if he were preparing to share bad news. When he looked up he said, “Sir, this man can’t be trusted. He’d say anything to save the girl. She got him into this, and he’s besotted with her. He’s been neglecting his classes ever since she wormed her way into this house, and now he’s slandering me to—”
Albanus shouted, “This is not about Virana!” and instantly regretted it.
The centurion reached for the wine jug, peered into the bottom and handed it across to him. The trickle of wine was mildly soothing, and Albanus tried again. “Everyone’s tried to make this about sex, sir, but it’s about the other things everybody wants. Food and money.”
“Simmias wanted to keep his business going and everyone needs to eat. But the grain here was running out—probably because he’d been given so much of it—and he was told he couldn’t have any more until the supply ship came in.”
“Then he would have bought from someone else, you fool!” snapped Eunus. “It’s only April. Other dealers will have supplies. Why would I stab a man in the back because we couldn’t sell him something he could buy somewhere else? If anything it’s more likely he would attack me, don’t you think?”
He looked at the centurion for confirmation of this winning argument, but neither of them spoke. “Well?”
Curtius glanced at Albanus. “Nobody else knew he was stabbed in the back,” he said. “I only found out myself yesterday.”
Eunus swallowed. “It’s just an expression! You can’t possibly think I—”
“Find me those records,” Curtius told him. “Then we’ll go to the prefect and see what he thinks. And if he doesn’t believe you either, I’ve got a man who’s just turned up here who’s very good at getting answers to questions.”
He strode to the door and called in the guards. Stepping back, he stumbled over something and bent to retrieve it, turning it upside down to examine it. “Have you two pen-pushers been flinging inkpots at each other?”
This was not the time to marvel at the spillproof nature of inkpots. Albanus said, “I was hiding them from the boys, sir.”
The centurion shook his head and left, muttering something about a madhouse.
The sun was low as they strolled together along the firm golden sand just above the water. The air was filled with the rush of the waves rolling towards the beach, and the occasional cry of a gull soaring on the breeze that plucked at their clothes and sent the loose strands of Virana’s hair flying across her face.
“I feel sad for those sailors who drowned,” she said. “They died trying to bring food.”
Ahead of them lay the the rocks where the last remnants of the lost ship had washed up. Albanus was silent, reflecting that he would not be seeing this view much longer.
“What are you thinking?”
He was thinking about this afternoon’s meeting with the prefect, which had lasted only as long as it took to find out that his services as tutor were no longer required. Hardly a surprise, but still, irrationally, a disappointment.
He was thinking about the timely reply from a friend tucked into his belt: the letter that had arrived this morning offering him a job down south in Aquae Sulis.
He was thinking that asking Virana to marry him had seemed a perfect idea when it wasn’t possible, and now it was possible, he could see all the things that could go wrong. The age difference. The difference in background. What if she grew tired of him and left him? What if he grew tired of her? How easy would it be to share a home with someone so perpetually enthusiastic?
He was thinking how ridiculous it was that the man who had marched into a murderer’s office this morning and tricked him into hunting out incriminating documents—and who had then fought him to try and save them—could not make this simplest of decisions this evening because he was overwhelmed by the thought of all the things that might go wrong.
He heard, “Are you cross with me?”
“No! Not at all!”
“I can go away if you like.”
“No! I’m sorry. I was just…”
“Can I ask you something, then? How did you find out it was Eunus?
He hesitated. He couldn’t admit to his irrational jealousy of a man who held a job he could have done so much better himself, even without the fancy polished filing boxes. Instead he spoke the other truth, the truth of reason, which was that he had come to suspect there was something amiss about the grain deliveries to the bakery. “When I spoke to Rosula she seemed very scared. She pretended not to know the most basic things about the business, which was very odd when she was helping to run it. You knew when the grain was delivered, but she said she didn’t.”
Virana beamed. “So I helped you?”
“You did,” he agreed. “Then once I’d tied that down, it had to be someone who could forge the prefect’s approval. Eunus destroyed the incriminating documents but he couldn’t show any money at all being paid to the army for the grain because he was taking it himself.”
Virana nodded. “I think he thought I was not very clever.” she said. “But I think he was too crafty for his own good.”
Albanus glanced ahead to where a wave was flinging itself against the rocks. It collapsed and tumbled back in a confusion of white waterfalls. There was a moment’s respite, then the next one came. “I knew Eunus was up on the cliff because one of the boys mentioned it,” he said. “Both he and Simmias were counting on that ship coming in to solve their problems. Simmias wanted the grain for the bakery and Eunas wanted it to refill the fort supplies before anyone started asking why they were so low.”
“But killing Simmias would not help the ship.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But then I remembered what you said to me about telling the boys that I’d go to their fathers, and what happened when I tried it.”
She said, “What did happen?”
“They threatened to tell the prefect that I was talking to you instead of teaching,” he explained. “Which isn’t quite the same as pushing me over a cliff, but it’s the same principle. Apparently Simmias threatened to tell the prefect what had been going on if Eunus didn’t give him more grain at a price he could afford. So Eunus panicked and silenced him.”
She said, “He has confessed?”
Albanus hesitated. He was still uneasy about the use of the questioner to interrogate Eunus, even though Curtius had proudly pointed out that Eunus had squealed like a pig before being touched. He said, “I think he could see it was best to tell the truth.”
“Good. I expect they sent the questioner to see him.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry you had to worry about that.”
She turned to him, surprised. “I stopped worrying after you came to see me,” she said. “I knew you would do something. And then when it took a long time I remembered you told me things move very slowly in the army, so I just went back to sleep.”
Albanus gulped. Virana, who clearly had no idea of the danger she had been in, slipped her arm into his. “And here I am, walking along the beach, and the gods aren’t angry with me after all—are you all right? Why have you stopped?”
“The gods,” he said. “I promised that if they saved you I would give them something better than I’ve even given them before.”
“What have you given them before?
He thought about it. “Fruit,” he said. “Incense. Flowers. A raisin bun once, but that wasn’t ideal.”
“You must give them bread,” she said immediately. “Bread is precious. Think of all the men who have died for it. I will bake you the finest loaves you have ever seen, and brush them with egg on top so they are golden, and we will put them on all the altars in town, and perhaps the gods will be pleased with us both.”
Bread. Of course. Why had he not thought of that himself?
Because he was hopeless at practicalities, and Virana was very good at them. Because if you had a good woman by your side, then even though there were many things that could go wrong, there were very many that could go right. And besides, he could not picture himself enjoying a lone existence in faraway Aquae Sulis.
Albanus took a deep breath of salty air. “Virana,” he said, “there is something I need to ask you.”