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.