“Oh dear, oh dear gods, oh dear!” Albanus hurried across the short distance between Centurion Curtius’s office and the prefect’s house. “Oh dear and holy gods, whatever I did to deserve this, forgive me! If you just save Virana I shall bring you something really special. Wh—” He stopped. Even in this state he was not going to say ‘Whatever you want.’ Anyone who knew the old Greek tales knew that rash promises were the path to disaster. “I shall bring you something better than I have ever brought you before,” he promised, pivoting on his heel and striding toward the guards, who stepped forward to block the entrance to the prefect’s house.
“Lesson preparation,” he told them. “I need to write up the poem I’m teaching tomorrow.”
They stepped back and let him pass. He went straight to the kitchen, where the regular maid was hunched over a table doing something complicated with a plucked fowl.
She looked up as he came in. “They’ve took her,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“How’m I going to manage by myself? I can’t hardly walk.”
He said, “Where have they taken her?”
“The lad with the chicken said a little room at the back of the infirmary.”
“I see,” said Albanus. “Is she—do you know anything else?”
“I know she’s lucky not to be put in with the men. They got nowhere for locking up women, see?”
Albanus thanked her and left. Behind him he heard, “You shoulda’ married her while you had the chance, master teacher!”
He barely heard, “Short poem, was it?” from one of the guards.
The kitchen maid’s words rang in his head as he hurried down the darkening street past the silent hulk of the new granary.
The wretched woman was right, of course. He should have asked Virana to marry him months ago. If he had done that, none of this would have happened. What he had seen as a problem—being relentlessly pursued by an enthusiastic young woman with an ample bosom and warm smile and untidy hair—would never have been a problem for most men. Any other single man of his age and appearance would have literally seized the opportunity with both hands and thanked the gods for their undeserved bounty. Now he was too late, and it was all his own fault.
As usual, he had wasted time considering all the things that might go wrong, instead of taking action. Just as he had with the Medicus. They had been exciting years, yes, but in truth his chief feeling at the time had been one of anxiety. Largely over what sort of trouble that uncontrollable wife was going to get the Medicus into next. And over how any of them could possibly get out of it.
Nobody challenged him as he entered the infirmary. The staff were used to people wandering about at odd hours and he had been here—was it really only this morning?— to visit the butcher’s wife. Someone had a good memory, because as he strode into the building trying to look purposeful, an orderly called, “They sent her home this afternoon.”
Albanus thanked him and left. He had seen what he needed to see: a guard standing outside a door at the far end of the corridor.
As he expected, nobody was guarding the little barred window that opened out onto the narrow gap between the infirmary and the building behind it. There were no footholds on the smooth surface of the infirmary wall, so he hurried away again in search of something to stand on. Finally stealing a suitably sturdy wooden box from an empty workshop, he was able to step up, take hold of the bars and peer in through the window.
He could make out nothing in the gloom of the unlit room. “Virana?” he whispered.
A male voice said, “Next door, mate.”
Albanus thanked him and moved the box further along. “Virana?”
There was an answering sniff and a rustle of straw and fabric. “I am here!” Her voice was thick, as though she had been crying. Then she was reaching up toward him, her fingers clutching at his. “I knew you would come!”
“Are you all right?”
“They kept asking who was in my room but I didn’t tell them!”
“I know,” he said. “That was very good of you. I’ve seen the centurion and told him I was with you that evening.”
“That big one with the tuft in front of his bald patch?”
“He’s horrible.” She sniffed again. “They’re all horrible, and I don’t know why. I only try to be nice to people and help them but they were all so nasty to me and nobody likes me and I don’t know—” She started to sob. “I don’t know what to do!”
He wanted to take her in his arms. He wanted to promise her this would soon be over and everything would be all right. He could do neither. Instead he heard himself say feebly, “Oh dear.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing.” He could at least tell her that with confidence. “You did nothing wrong. And I’m going to do everything I can to get you out of here.”
Her hands wrapped around his own, so that they were both holding the bars now. “Thank you.”
It struck him that perhaps she had not understood whatever Curtius had said about the questioner. He must try not to sound panicked. “Virana, we have to find out who really did kill Simmias. So I need you to think very carefully.”
“Did he have any enemies?”
Silence. Then, “I don’t know. Sorry.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Try this one. You said he and Rosula used to argue. What did they argue about?”
She hesitated. “About me, I think,” she said. “But it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do anything, I—”
“I know you didn’t,” said Albanus, cursing his own failure to confront Simmias about hounding her. “Anything else?”
“Oh, everything. Whose job it was to do things. Who hadn’t put something away. Where the money went. The sorts of things people argue over.”
“Who worked at the bakery, exactly?”
“It was just me,” she said. “And him and Rosula, and their little boy helped. Some nights I was so tired I could hardly climb up to my room.”
“Do you know where he got the grain from?”
Another sniff. “A man used to bring it at the start of every month on a cart. But I never saw who he was. And I don’t know where he came from. That’s no use, is it?”
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “Do you think they were short of money?”
“Everybody’s short of money,” she said. “But I know Rosula didn’t kill him. She was back at the bakery.” She tightened her grip around his fingers. “And you told them that you were with me. Why don’t they come to let me out?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Things sometimes move very slowly in the army.”
So that was it: she thought that the only question they wanted answered was the identity of the mystery man in her room at the bakery. She had no idea that the professional questioner would still be coming for her at midday tomorrow. It was a small mercy that might allow her to sleep tonight. But sooner or later, once the questioner started at her, she would confess to whatever they wanted. Anyone would: some of them at the mere sight of the equipment. And then it would all be over.
He wasn’t going to think about that. “Try and get some rest tonight,” he suggested. “Are you warm enough? Have you eaten?”
She was, and she had. “Albanus?”
“Do you think the gods are angry because I gave my baby away?”
He was stunned. It was not something he had even considered. “I think,” he said, “that giving your baby to the Medicus and Tilla was the kindest thing I have ever seen anyone do. Why would the gods be angry?”
“Because they gave her to me.”
“And you made sure she is well looked after,” he said. “Now try and get some sleep.”
“I’ll try,” she promised. Her fingers squeezed his own, then relaxed their grip and he was free.
He was clambering down from the box when he heard, “Albanus?” He paused with one hand still on the bars, ready to haul himself up again. “Yes?”