Back in the lamplit hall of the infirmary, Albanus paused to bow to the Tungrian god of healing. The statue carried on staring at a point somewhere just above Albanus’s head, quite unaware—or so Albanus hoped—that the agitated mortal now begging for his support had never bothered to find out his name.
Having paid his respects, Albanus set out to search for whoever was in charge. To his relief the orderly who had recognized him earlier that evening had vanished. At the far end of the gloomy corridor that smelled of vinegar and faintly of vomit, he could just make out the figure of the guard outside Virana’s door. So close! There must be a way of getting her out. Why couldn’t he think of one?
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice from a room to the right. “Listen to me. Either you both shut up and do exactly what my staff tell you, or I toss a coin and whoever loses gets thrown out. Which is it to be?”
He had found his man.
Moments later a tall, lean figure with wild hair and a bloodstained leather apron strode out of the room and headed back the way Albanus had just come, toward the entrance hall.
“Sir?” Albanus had to run to keep up. “Might I have a word?” Could Virana hear his voice? She would know he was here. She was not entirely surrounded by strangers.
The man did not pause in his stride. “I’ve finished now. Come to surgery in the morning.”
“I’m on duty in the morning, sir.” Gods above, what was he going to do about that? He couldn’t abandon Virana in order to lead seven boys through Greek verb conjugations.
The doctor slowed a little and glanced down at him. “You’re that tutor feller, aren’t you?”
“It won’t take a moment sir.”
The doctor sighed, and abandoned his escape attempt. “What is it?”
“It’s confidential, sir.”
The man flung open the nearest door, hastily retreated with “Sorry!” and tried the next one.
“Right,” he announced when they were both safely inside a room which was empty of both patients and furniture. It smelled as though it needed some major work with a scrubbing-brush. “What can I do for you? Or are you asking for a friend?”
“I’m working for Centurion Curtius, “Albanus explained. “Investigating the murder of the baker.”
“I thought that was dealt with.”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Well the quicker they find a replacement, the better. People don’t like doing without bread. Turns out the lack of it makes them violent.”
“The bakery opens again tomorrow, sir. One loaf per family.”
“Good. Meanwhile I’ve got four injured men in here because a bunch of men from Block Three were kind enough to donate their personal wheat rations to their pal’s hungry kids. And then someone caught his girl out in the street selling the bread she’d made from it. So naturally there was a fight, and now we have to waste our time—” He caught Albanus’s expression, and stopped. “Sorry. Long day. What was it you wanted?”
“I’m just checking some details, sir. I wondered if someone here examined the body.”
The doctor frowned. “I’ve already told Curtius we did. Don’t you people speak to each other?”
Apparently not. “If you could just confirm what you said, please, sir.”
“The body was examined by me. It was definitely the baker and he was definitely dead.”
“Cause of death?”
“Has the centurion had a lapse of memory?”
“There may be a trial, sir. I just need to confirm that the centurion’s understanding is exactly what’s written in your records.”
A smile tweaked at the corners of the doctor’s mouth. “And to make sure I’ve actually got some records?”
Albanus cleared his throat. “I used to be clerk to a medicus with the Twentieth, sir. I do understand that records aren’t the first priority at a busy—”
“Who was your medic?”
But yet again, the name Gaius Petreius Ruso meant nothing.
“My records,” said the doctor, “which I have in fact taken the trouble to write up, state that the baker drowned, possibly after being knocked unconscious by a fall onto rocks from a height.”
Albanus stared at him. “So it could have been an accident?”
“No. That was what killed him, but somebody stabbed him just before he fell. The wound would have hampered any attempt to save himself. That, and the broken bones caused by the fall.”
“Can you tell me anything about the weapon?”
“Not a big knife. Probably the sort of thing most people carry for cutting up food. Just the one wound. If you ask me, I’d say he was on the cliff edge one moment and gone the next.”
“How much strength would have been needed?”
The angular shoulders lifted in a shrug. “The woman could have done it. If he was caught off balance, a five-year-old could have done it. As long as they could reach up to here—” He twisted round, raising one fist behind him and jabbing his thumb into the middle of his back and slightly to the left “—with the knife.”
The “Oh dear,” came out before Albanus could help himself.
“You might add that to Curtius’s notes: I don’t remember him asking.”
This evidence was not at all what Albanus had wanted to hear, but he thanked the man anyway.
“Anything else? I’m late for an appointment with a beef stew.”
Albanus took a deep breath. “Sir, the young woman being held at the far end of the corridor—”
“Can’t help you there, I’m afraid. We were just told to hand over the room. Which is why we’ve got two men from opposite sides of that fight having to share further up.” The doctor paused. “Are you really working for Curtius? Or are you checking up on him?”
“Absolutely not, sir!” Albanus stopped. “I mean, I’m not checking up on him. He told me to—to see if I can find out any more details that might be useful. And to make sure the young woman was, er—” He was not a good liar, and he knew it.
The man eyed him for a moment. “She’s not in a palace,” he said, “but our people are keeping her fed and watered and I’m told we left the bed in there.”
Albanus was thanking him again when a head appeared around the door. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but you said to call you if there was any change with Room Nine. The suppurating groin.”
The doctor closed his eyes and let out a long sigh.
The orderly said, “Are you all right, sir?”
“Of course. Who wouldn’t give up a fine beef stew for the chance to spend time with a suppurating groin?”
When he was gone Albanus leaned back against the wall and put both hands over his face. If only he had listened to Virana’s pleas for marriage. If only he had sought her out earlier on the evening of the shipwreck. If only his own Medicus were here. As it was, he was dealing with this all on his own, and to his shame the only thing he could now think of doing was to go back to his room and try to get some sleep before the dreadful day dawned and he had to come up with something—anything—to stave off Virana’s midday appointment with the questioner.
James (Kathleen) Ingram says