Albanus woke to find a bright spring sun forcing its way through the tiny pane of green glass above his bed. As he dived into his day tunic he could already hear the tramp of military boots out in the corridor. The centurion’s wife was down in the kitchen, giving orders to the cook. He was late.
He ran the short distance to the prefect’s house and was relieved to find all seven of his pupils still there. He was less pleased to find that none of them was expecting to do any work. The boys were here to listen to Lucius, whose animated account of last night’s adventures seemed to go on much longer than the catastrophe itself. Just when it seemed to be ending, it turned into a lively discussion about the possibility—or not—of using artillery to shoot a rope out to a ship, and whether it would be of any use to the sailors if it got there, and whether you might accidentally hasten the sinking of the ship in the process.
“So,” put in Albanus when he had a chance to interrupt, “what scene in the Odyssey does this remind you of?”
There was a moment’s silence, during which his pupils appeared to be groping inside their memories for any faint recollection of what the Odyssey might be, let alone what was in it.
Albanus said, “Lucius?”
Lucius looked vague. “When they get that giant drunk and stab him in the eye?” he suggested. “If Odysseus had a ballista and a really good aim, he could do it from a safe distance.”
Albanus glanced around his charges. “Anyone else?”
No-one, apparently. “This morning,” he announced, “we’ll look at the story of the six-headed sea monster and the terrifying whirlpool.” He was not sure he wanted to spend the morning thinking about dangers to shipping when there were only three survivors recovering in the infirmary, but at last, thank the gods, he had their attention. There was no limit, it seemed, to the appetite of small boys for gore and ghastliness.
If only he were a natural teacher like his father. Instead, every day he seemed to need a new trick to keep them entertained. On bad days he tried bargaining. He sometimes resorted to threats. He would have considered bribery if he had anything to offer. Today’s trick was to work through the Greek with the promise that they could draw the monster.
“Marcus, don’t write across the wood.”
“There isn’t room in the wax for all six heads,” Marcus explained, holding out his efforts for inspection. “Not if I put in all twelve feet.”
Albanus was about to point out that if he refrained from drawing all the rows of teeth he could make the heads smaller when there was a knock at the door. Virana, clad in her working apron, was beckoning him into the hallway.
Albanus gulped. Virana had been helping out in the prefect’s kitchen for several days now, and he still didn’t know what to make of it. The convenience of the regular housekeeper’s broken ankle was difficult to believe. Was there really an injury under the bandage? Or had she and Virana struck some sort of a bargain, so that one of them could spend all day sitting at the kitchen table with her foot propped up and the other could run around the house poking her nose into all sorts of places that native farm girls never usually got to see?
Reminding himself that the boys could not possibly know where he had spent yesterday evening, he said brightly, “Can I help you?”
“There’s news!” announced Virana
“Thank you for letting me know,” he said. “I’ll come and deal with it after class.”
His attempt to close the door was foiled by her foot. “They have found a body on the beach!”
“Oh.” Sad news, but neither surprising nor urgent.
She leaned closed and hissed, “It is Simmias!”
“Really?” he said, surprised after all. Simmias was not a sailor but Virana’s landlord and former employer over at the bakery.
“What do you think happened to him?”
“Perhaps he fell off the cliff,” he said, hoping the answer would end the conversation.
“He was stabbed!”
Glancing back, he saw that the boys had all stopped drawing and were craning to hear the conversion.
“There is a big fuss. I thought you might be able to help. You are good at finding out who kills people.”
Her foot was no longer holding the door open. “We’ll talk about it later,” he said, closing the door in a manner that he hoped was polite but firm.
To his alarm a hand appeared, grasping the edge of the door. It was swiftly followed by a head. “The Prefect needs to see you,” she said.
Albanus blinked. “Now?”
Silly question. Of course now. So that was what was so urgent. Maybe the prefect had more to say about Albanus’s failure to drag Lucius home yesterday. Maybe he really had found the time to hire a better tutor overnight.
As he finally shut Virana out he heard the scuffle of boys scampering back to their seats and Lucius demanding, “Who’s been stabbed, sir?”
He waited until they were quiet before speaking. “I have been called to see the prefect,” he told them. “I want you to keep on with that drawing while I’m gone, and no talking, because he might want to come and inspect your work.”
The chaos erupted behind him before he was ten paces down the corridor. “Boys!” he muttered to Virana, who had waited to escort him even though the prefect’s office was in the opposite direction to the kitchen. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
Virana had no such doubts. “You should tell them if they don’t behave, you will tell their fathers and their fathers will beat them.”
“But it seems unfair…”
“Would you rather beat them yourself?”
“Well then. Tell them that, then they will behave, and nobody will get a beating and you will have done them a kindness.”
“I’ll think about it,” he promised. Privately, Albanus was not certain that he would have the authority to beat anyone once the prefect had finished with him.