By the second day after the shipwreck a flurry of rumours had already spread, bred and died. Contrary to the assertions of the doom-mongers, the unit’s pay chest was not lying at the bottom of the sea. Nor had there been any wealthy passengers whose property—or indeed whose bejewelled persons—might wash up on the next tide.
The cargo, according to the survivors, had been mostly sacks of wheat. The guard over the beach was relaxed and a few locals turned up to squabble over salvaged firewood. Life, for most, seemed to have returned to normal.
The following evening Albanus set out on his daily after-dinner stroll around the perimeter track inside the little fort: a short and undemanding circuit beneath the ramparts that usually allowed him to settle his mind after the trials of the day. It was hard to believe that only three days ago this same walk had seen him buffeted by winds and rain, and shouted at by an officer who thrust a heavy coil of rope into his hands and ordered him to deliver it to the rescue team—“And run, man!” Tonight the sky was paling into a delicate pink sunset and the warble of a blackbird rang out in the still air. The steep grass slopes of the ramparts were spattered with April dandelions and pleasant smells of cooking wafted out of the barrack buildings. A couple of the soldiers who tramped past him even deigned to nod a greeting.
His thoughts on putting together a series of Handy Phrases in Greek were interrupted by the scurry of non-military footsteps.
“They said you were here!” Virana fell into step with him. “Have you heard about the fight?”
Still half-focused on Handy Phrases, Albanus had to stop himself mentally translating ‘What are you doing in the fort at this hour?’ into Greek.
“Everybody’s talking about it!” Virana continued. “I was there!”
He said, “Where?”
“At the funeral. Did you see them rush her into the infirmary on a stretcher?”
“I was probably teaching.”
“She’ll have a broken nose at the very least. And she was spitting teeth out.”
Not knowing where to start with this, Albanus kept walking.
“And the soldier is going to be in big trouble with his centurion.”
Albanus came to a halt. He raised both hands as if they might fend off the torrent of words. “Virana, would you mind very much starting again? I think I must have missed something. Whose funeral?”
When she said, “Simmias,” it was obvious. Earlier today he had seen what must have been the smoke from the murdered baker’s pyre forming a black smudge across the sky.
He was about to ask who had the broken nose, but to his alarm Virana suddenly bent over in front of him and was seized by a peculiar convulsive shaking of the head. He reached out an arm. “Are you all right?”
As suddenly as they had started, the convulsions stopped. She crouched down, lifting away the hair that had tumbled over her face. “I knew they were there somewhere!” she announced, triumphantly retrieving a couple of stray hairpins from the gravel. Upright once more, she twisted her wayward hair into a bun and rammed the pins back in. “I wanted to tell you all this earlier,” she said, “only I had the dinner to do. But anyway, you can see me whenever you want now, because I’m here.”
This was undoubtedly true. Hoping to catch at least one of the facts that were hopping around the conversation like fleas, he said, “Why are you here?”
“Rosula doesn’t want me living at at the bakery now Simmias is gone,” she said. “I mean, she never wanted me there when he was there either. That was one of the things they argued about. But he said I could stay so I did.”
“I see,” said Albanus.
“The prefect’s wife says I can sleep in the corner of the kitchen,” she said. “I just roll the blankets out when everyone’s gone and it’s lovely and warm. Anyway, don’t you want to know about the funeral?”
He said, “I’m surprised you were allowed to go.”
“They sent me out to buy eggs,” Virana explained. “Only the man who was selling them had gone to the funeral, so I had to go too. You wouldn’t believe how many people were there.”
“Really?” Albanus had not held a high opinion of the murdered baker. Not since Virana had confided that as soon as his wife Rosula and their children went out, the man neglected his work to chase her around the bakery. Albanus had felt it was his duty to confront him, but at the time Virana had been afraid of losing both job and home. Since he didn’t especially want a jobless, homeless Virana on his hands, and since the baker was twice his size, Albanus had not needed much persuading to hold his gallantry in check. Now he said, “I didn’t know Simmias was so popular.”
“It’s because of all these rumours about who murdered him,” she explained. “Everybody wanted to see if someone would confess.”
This seemed unlikely. “And did they?”
“No, but the butcher’s wife and that one who lives two doors down from her—you know, Simmias’s niece. She’s got a big fat baby with one of the soldiers.”
Albanus said, “Ah,” in a way that he hoped would forestall further description. Otherwise he feared a long digression to establish the identity of the soldier—or was it his woman?—with the ginger hair.
“I knew you’d know,” Virana continued. “So, the ginger one started shouting ‘Murderer!’ at Rosula, and the butcher’s wife—she’s Rosula’s cousin—told her to shut up and when she wouldn’t, she jumped on her and there was a big fight and the ginger one’s man got involved and now the butcher’s wife is in the infirmary and the soldier is in big trouble.”
Albanus was beginning to sense some shape to the story. “So there’s a quarrel between the family of Simmias and the family of his widow?”
“Oh, they never got along,” Virana assured him. “It’s probably worse because people are hungry now the bakery’s shut. Anyway, the prefect is furious and there’s a curfew outside and anyone caught discussing the murder is going to be arrested and that officer you lodge with—what’s his name?”
“Yes. He has been told to find out once and for all who really did murder Simmias.”
“Good.” Albanus knew nothing about keeping order in the civilian settlements that sprouted like fungi on the outside of every fort, but even he could see that this was what the prefect should have done in the first place.
“So if I find anything out, shall I tell you so you can tell him, or shall I go straight to him? It’ll be easy now I’m here all the time.”
Albanus weighed the options of being expected to convey Virana’s gossip to Curtius himself, or having Virana arriving at the centurion’s office announcing that Albanus had told her to come. “I’ll do it,” he said. “The centurion’s a very busy man.”
Virana lunged forward and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re very clever,” she told him. “I’m sure he’ll soon work it out if you help.”
With that she was gone, turning the corner to head back to the prefect’s house.
He turned to see a couple of soldiers strolling toward him. “Cheer up mate,” observed one of them.
“Yeah,” put in his companion, grinning. “If you don’t want her, send her to us.”
On the way back to his cramped room in Curtius’s house it dawned on Albanus that for the first time in his life, he was wishing he was all alone in a room with a gaggle of small boys and a Greek lexicon.