Back inside the prefect’s house, Albanus was amazed that the boys were so quiet. Surely they were not sitting in their places, composing Greek sentences about their illustrious futures?
They weren’t. The room was empty. A face, composed of deliberately-smudged ink spots, gazed at him from the wall. For a moment Albanus was baffled: then he realised. For him, midday was the moment when he had—he hoped—managed to buy Virana some time before the questioner got to work on her. For the boys, it was lunchtime.
He hurried back down the corridor. If his fragile plan was to succeed, he must find Eunus immediately. And Curtius, who had just agreed to follow him here (but hadn’t) must be there when he did.
The prefect’s outer office was unlocked. Inside, Eunus’s slave was on his hands and knees amidst a landslide of writing-tablets. The contents of two of the fancy polished filing boxes seemed to have been upended all over the floor. Albanus’s “Where is he?” produced only a shrug.
One of the household slaves was crossing the courtyard. Albanus strode out to intercept him. “Have you seen Eunus?”
“Try the kitchen, sir.”
Albanus hurried on, calling over his shoulder, “If you see a centurion, send him after me!”
The maid was sitting at the big kitchen table chopping up cabbage, her bandaged foot propped up on a stool. Behind her, hunched over the glowing coals of the kitchen grill, was Eunus.
“Stop!” shouted Albanus, dodging around the table cursing himself for wasting time looking in on the boys.
The maid thrust the cabbage and the knife away from her, “What’s the matter?”
Eunus had grabbed the poker and was ramming it into the coals. By the time Albanus got there, a flame was rising from the grill. “Stop!”
Eunus swung round with the poker raised. “Stand back!”
Where was Curtius? Albanus snatched the stool from under the maid’s foot and jabbed at the poker. Eunus lost his grip and it clattered to the floor. The clerk made a grab for the cabbage knife. Albanus thrust again with the stool. Caught off balance, Eunus staggered back and fell against the wall.
The maid was at the door, shouting for help. Albanus twisted round and swept the stool across the cooking surface. The iron grill, the hot coals and the slivers of wood Eunus was burning crashed onto the tiled floor and skittered in all directions.
The maid’s screams turned to, “Fire!” Albanus grabbed the nearest jug and poured wine over the scattered mess.
He had scarcely managed to snatch up the half-burned slivers of wood when Eunus was on him, and then they were locked together and rolling across the floor, kicking and struggling and crashing into the table-legs. The maid was shouting and trying to whack them both with a broom and Eunus’s hands were pressing into Albanus’s throat and now nothing mattered except that he needed to get some air in, but the grip around his throat was like an iron band.
Then there were other voices: men’s voices. Loud. Issuing orders. The pressure on Albanus’s throat lifted and someone was hauling him to his feet.
Albanus leaned forward to rest on the table, gasping for air. He was vaguely aware of centurion Curtius and a couple of other guards crowded into the kitchen, the sound of water sloshing over the floor, and a breathless Eunus spluttering that he had been attacked and that Albanus should be locked up.
“And me, sirs!” cried the maid. “He attacked me as well! He ran in here shouting like a madman and pulled the stool out from under me!”
Albanus mustered the strength to straighten up. One of the men placed the stool underneath him and he slumped onto it.
The centurion said, “I see you started without me.”
Albanus, his fingers exploring the damage around his throat, croaked an apology. “He was burning the records, sir. I had to stop him.”
Curtius scowled, and ordered everyone but Albanus and Eunus out of the room.
Albanus wriggled awkwardly, retracted one arm into the sleeve-hole of his tunic, and took out a couple of wet, charred slivers of wood that had once been the same shape as the ones he had seen in the granary. “I saved them, sir.”
“Do they show what you were expecting?”
Albanus cupped one hand around his rescued treasures so that Eunus could not see them. He turned so that the light from the window illuminated the blackened surface. Here was the proof of his theory that Eunus had been forging the prefect’s authority—except he couldn’t read a word of it. The ink had been obliterated by the burning. He forced a confident nod. This was not the time to be embarrassed about lying. “Absolutely, sir.”
“So,” said the centurion to Eunus, “Simmias the baker was being supplied from our granary—”
Eunus scowled at Albanus and replied, “With official permission, sir.”
Curtius said, “And the prefect will confirm that?”
Eunus lifted his chin. “The prefect doesn’t see everything that crosses my desk, sir. Some things are delegated. I dealt with it.”
The centurion hesitated, and looked at Albanus. Albanus didn’t believe Eunus for a moment, but could no longer prove that the clerk had forged the official slips to release the supply of grain. Without them, it was quite possible that the prefect would rather believe Eunus than his son’s unreliable tutor.
There was another way, though… “There should be records of the income from the grain coming into the unit’s coffers, sir.” Albanus hoped desperately that Eunus hadn’t been bright enough to forge those as well. If he had, Virana was lost.
“He knows nothing about it, sir!” declared Eunus. “The income would be included in general totals, it wouldn’t be possible to trace—”
“Well it should be!” put in Albanus. “Otherwise how do you know men aren’t helping themselves?”
“I want those records, Eunus,” Curtius told him. “Now. Not when you’ve had time to write some.”
Eunus took a breath, clasped his hands together and lowered his head as if he were preparing to share bad news. When he looked up he said, “Sir, this man can’t be trusted. He’d say anything to save the girl. She got him into this, and he’s besotted with her. He’s been neglecting his classes ever since she wormed her way into this house, and now he’s slandering me to—”
Albanus shouted, “This is not about Virana!” and instantly regretted it.
The centurion reached for the wine jug, peered into the bottom and handed it across to him. The trickle of wine was mildly soothing, and Albanus tried again. “Everyone’s tried to make this about sex, sir, but it’s about the other things everybody wants. Food and money.”
“Simmias wanted to keep his business going and everyone needs to eat. But the grain here was running out—probably because he’d been given so much of it—and he was told he couldn’t have any more until the supply ship came in.”
“Then he would have bought from someone else, you fool!” snapped Eunus. “It’s only April. Other dealers will have supplies. Why would I stab a man in the back because we couldn’t sell him something he could buy somewhere else? If anything it’s more likely he would attack me, don’t you think?”
He looked at the centurion for confirmation of this winning argument, but neither of them spoke. “Well?”
Curtius glanced at Albanus. “Nobody else knew he was stabbed in the back,” he said. “I only found out myself yesterday.”
Eunus swallowed. “It’s just an expression! You can’t possibly think I—”
“Find me those records,” Curtius told him. “Then we’ll go to the prefect and see what he thinks. And if he doesn’t believe you either, I’ve got a man who’s just turned up here who’s very good at getting answers to questions.”
He strode to the door and called in the guards. Stepping back, he stumbled over something and bent to retrieve it, turning it upside down to examine it. “Have you two pen-pushers been flinging inkpots at each other?”
This was not the time to marvel at the spillproof nature of inkpots. Albanus said, “I was hiding them from the boys, sir.”
The centurion shook his head and left, muttering something about a madhouse.