Boys! The sudden thought knocked aside all speculation about bakers and business deals and murderers and even about Virana, locked in her lonely room awaiting interrogation. Holy gods, he had made no provision for anyone to watch the boys!
Albanus ran back down the ramp from the granary and across to the prefect’s house, deliberately avoiding catching the eye of the the guards on the door. What would he do if the boys weren’t there? A military base was full of ways for unsupervised children to injure themselves. Even if they couldn’t get hold of any weapons, there were workshops with iron tools and raging furnaces, working animals with massive hoofs, heavy vehicles…
He had never been so pleased to hear the sound of a class out of control. He wondered how long they had been like that. Evidently the prefect was elsewhere, or someone would have been sent to silence them.
“Good morning, boys!” The shrieks of childish laughter descended into stifled snorts as he entered the room.
“You’re very late!” observed Lucius.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” said Marcus, who seemed to have a curious collection of black dots across his face.
“I must apologise, boys,” he said, noting that the black dots were also on his neck and his tunic. “I was unexpectedly delayed.”
“We’ve been waiting for hours,” Lucius told him. He too seemed to be afflicted with dots and streaks. As, now Albanus looked closely, were the other boys. Along with the walls, the floor and even the window.
“A man came looking for you,” Lucius said. “But it’s all right, we covered for you.”
“We told him you’d been called to see Pa.”
Albanus swallowed. You really shouldn’t have—”
“See, before I thought it was you who told Pa about me watching the shipwreck, but Pa says it wasn’t.”
“No,” Albanus agreed, wondering what this had to do with anything. “It wasn’t.”
“So I thought it was only fair to do the same for you.”
Albanus said, “I see,” and then, curious, ”Who really did tell your father that you were out?”
Lucius told him, then held out a sealed writing tablet. “That man who came looking for you brought this.”
Albanus glanced at the letter, noted that several black dots had spread in tiny lines along the grain of the wood, and slipped it into his belt. It wasn’t important now. “Has someone been flicking ink?”
The laughter, not very well buried, erupted again. There was a cacophony of blame and outrage and pointing as every boy called out out a name that wasn’t his own.
Albanus held up one hand for silence and eventually the boys grew curious enough to tell each other to shut up.
“I have to go out again,” he told them.
When the chorus of “Again?” had subsided, he said, “Tomorrow we will be back to normal lessons. But for today I want you to clean your wax tablets and write me three lines in Greek about what you want to be when you grow up, and I want you to behave sensibly while I’m gone.”
Having expressed this futile hope, he gathered up all the inkwells and took them away with him. He then surprised the maid by crouching to hide them behind the kitchen door.
When he did not answer to “You can’t leave them there!” she called after him, “When’s that Virana coming back?”
But he was halfway to the prefect’s office and there was no point in turning back to tell her that if he didn’t get this right, Virana might never be coming back at all.
Eunus looked up from whatever he was reading and said, “Yes?” in a tone that meant “Go away”.
“I need to see the prefect, sir” Albanus told him. “It’s very urgent.”
Eunus closed the tablet, tied it shut and slipped it back into one of his polished wood filing-boxes before saying, “Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Albanus admitted, “But it’s extremely urgent, sir. It’s to do with Centurion Curtius’s enquiry into the murder of the baker.”
Eunus’s eyebrows rose. “I’m surprised Centurion Curtius doesn’t want to speak to the prefect himself.”
“He can’t, sir,” Albanus said. “He doesn’t know about this yet, and he’s busy.”
“The prefect has gone to a meeting over at Segedunum,” Eunus said. “Perhaps I can help?”
“Or perhaps it isn’t really all that urgent.”
“It can’t wait, sir. They’re going to interrogate the prefect’s kitchen maid at midday and she can’t confess because I’m absolutely sure she didn’t do it. It’s—” He broke off. “Can I tell you something in confidence, sir?”
Eunus gestured to the slave who was waiting in the corner, and who now left the room and closed the door behind him.
“I think, sir,” said Albanus, leaning closer to Eunus’s desk so as not to be overheard outside the room, “The murder of the baker has something to do with the sale of wheat from the fort granary.”
“The sale of wheat?”
“I think there’s been some sort of swindle going on.”
The clerk’s round face creased into a frown. “I doubt it. They keep very careful records.”
“I just want the chance to look into it, sir. But the centurion’s under orders to get a result by this evening, and unless the prefect gives him more time, poor Virana—”
“The one who’s not very bright?”
“She’s very kind-hearted, sir,” Albanus assured him. “I can understand why the centurion suspects her, but he doesn’t know her.”
“And you know her very well indeed.”
“Well enough to know that she didn’t do it, sir.”
Eunus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She is a fine-looking girl,” he observed.
“I think I can find out who really did it,” Albanus explained. “If there’s anything you can do to help…”
“Hm.” Eunus paused. “It would be a shame to see her hurt.”
The clerk put both palms down on his desk as if he had made a decision. “Leave it with me,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
It was the best he was likely to get. Albanus left the prefect’s house and ran for the building site, aware that the sun was now very high in the sky and praying that Centurion Curtius was still where he had last seen him.