“Two!” cried someone. “There’s another one! See?”
Then a cacophony of voices was yelling encouragement, as if the little figures being flung about in the darkening water might be able to hear. Albanus found himself caught up in the flow of people scrambling down onto the sand as the dripping rescue team raced past them towards the waves.
It was gut-wrenching to watch, but when it was over he was glad he had. He was even happy to be hugged and kissed and danced across the sand by an exhuberant Virana. Neptune had spat not two but three men, bedraggled but alive, out of the crashing surf.
He was thinking it might be time to disentangle himself from Virana when their celebrations were cut short by his employer’s voice demanding to know what he thought he was playing at.
Albanus pushed Virana away with unseemly haste and turned to address the tall figure flanked by two guards. “Sorry, sir. We were celebrating the, er, the—”
“I don’t mean your unbecoming behaviour with—is that my kitchen maid?”
Virana stepped forward. Even in the poor light Albanus could see the men’s gaze flicker across the outline of her ample bosom. Meanwhile she was beaming at the prefect of the third cohort of Tungrians as if they had just been introduced at a party. “It’s an honour to work for you, sir!”
“It certainly is,” agreed the prefect. Then, returning his attention to Albanus: “What were you thinking, letting Lucius come down here at a time like this?”
Albanus gulped. “I didn’t know he was coming, sir.”
“You should have taken him straight home, man! This is no place for a child!”
“No, sir. Absolutely not.”
“Instead you had a bit of a chat and then wandered off and left him!”
“He—he didn’t want to go home, sir.”
“He’s nine years old! What sort of a tutor are you?”
Albanus said nothing. It was clear the the prefect had already decided what sort of a tutor he was.
The prefect turned his attention to one of his men. “I want the whole area cleared and a guard set,” he said. “We don’t want people down here at first light fighting over salvage.” Noticing Albanus still standing there, he added, “Dismissed.”
“Should I continue with lessons in the morning, sir?”
“Do you think I’ve got time to find another tutor overnight?”
“No. Just get on with it.”
Albanus was in such a hurry to get away that he blundered into Virana.
“He spoke to me!” she exclaimed. “The prefect knows who I am and he spoke to me!”
But Albanus had more important things on his mind. “I should have stayed with Lucius. I should have insisted.”
Virana cupped his face in her hands. “Never mind about that silly boy,” she told him. “Three men have been saved from a shipwreck, and the prefect spoke to me!” She planted a kiss on the tip of his nose. “Shall I take you home and cheer you up?”
He had struggled all the way here from the fort bearing a coil of rope that grew wetter and heavier with each step. He had scrambled down slippery cliffs and nearly been drenched by a wave. He had watched, helpless, while a ship sank in front of him, and surely several men must have gone down with it. Finally—and he was not proud of how petty this sounded—he had been told off by his employer.
When Virana took him by the arm, he offered no resistance. He was indeed a man in need of cheering up.