The sun was low as they strolled together along the firm golden sand just above the water. The air was filled with the rush of the waves rolling towards the beach, and the occasional cry of a gull soaring on the breeze that plucked at their clothes and sent the loose strands of Virana’s hair flying across her face.
“I feel sad for those sailors who drowned,” she said. “They died trying to bring food.”
Ahead of them lay the the rocks where the last remnants of the lost ship had washed up. Albanus was silent, reflecting that he would not be seeing this view much longer.
“What are you thinking?”
He was thinking about this afternoon’s meeting with the prefect, which had lasted only as long as it took to find out that his services as tutor were no longer required. Hardly a surprise, but still, irrationally, a disappointment.
He was thinking about the timely reply from a friend tucked into his belt: the letter that had arrived this morning offering him a job down south in Aquae Sulis.
He was thinking that asking Virana to marry him had seemed a perfect idea when it wasn’t possible, and now it was possible, he could see all the things that could go wrong. The age difference. The difference in background. What if she grew tired of him and left him? What if he grew tired of her? How easy would it be to share a home with someone so perpetually enthusiastic?
He was thinking how ridiculous it was that the man who had marched into a murderer’s office this morning and tricked him into hunting out incriminating documents—and who had then fought him to try and save them—could not make this simplest of decisions this evening because he was overwhelmed by the thought of all the things that might go wrong.
He heard, “Are you cross with me?”
“No! Not at all!”
“I can go away if you like.”
“No! I’m sorry. I was just…”
“Can I ask you something, then? How did you find out it was Eunus?
He hesitated. He couldn’t admit to his irrational jealousy of a man who held a job he could have done so much better himself, even without the fancy polished filing boxes. Instead he spoke the other truth, the truth of reason, which was that he had come to suspect there was something amiss about the grain deliveries to the bakery. “When I spoke to Rosula she seemed very scared. She pretended not to know the most basic things about the business, which was very odd when she was helping to run it. You knew when the grain was delivered, but she said she didn’t.”
Virana beamed. “So I helped you?”
“You did,” he agreed. “Then once I’d tied that down, it had to be someone who could forge the prefect’s approval. Eunus destroyed the incriminating documents but he couldn’t show any money at all being paid to the army for the grain because he was taking it himself.”
Virana nodded. “I think he thought I was not very clever.” she said. “But I think he was too crafty for his own good.”
Albanus glanced ahead to where a wave was flinging itself against the rocks. It collapsed and tumbled back in a confusion of white waterfalls. There was a moment’s respite, then the next one came. “I knew Eunus was up on the cliff because one of the boys mentioned it,” he said. “Both he and Simmias were counting on that ship coming in to solve their problems. Simmias wanted the grain for the bakery and Eunas wanted it to refill the fort supplies before anyone started asking why they were so low.”
“But killing Simmias would not help the ship.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But then I remembered what you said to me about telling the boys that I’d go to their fathers, and what happened when I tried it.”
She said, “What did happen?”
“They threatened to tell the prefect that I was talking to you instead of teaching,” he explained. “Which isn’t quite the same as pushing me over a cliff, but it’s the same principle. Apparently Simmias threatened to tell the prefect what had been going on if Eunus didn’t give him more grain at a price he could afford. So Eunus panicked and silenced him.”
She said, “He has confessed?”
Albanus hesitated. He was still uneasy about the use of the questioner to interrogate Eunus, even though Curtius had proudly pointed out that Eunus had squealed like a pig before being touched. He said, “I think he could see it was best to tell the truth.”
“Good. I expect they sent the questioner to see him.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry you had to worry about that.”
She turned to him, surprised. “I stopped worrying after you came to see me,” she said. “I knew you would do something. And then when it took a long time I remembered you told me things move very slowly in the army, so I just went back to sleep.”
Albanus gulped. Virana, who clearly had no idea of the danger she had been in, slipped her arm into his. “And here I am, walking along the beach, and the gods aren’t angry with me after all—are you all right? Why have you stopped?”
“The gods,” he said. “I promised that if they saved you I would give them something better than I’ve even given them before.”
“What have you given them before?
He thought about it. “Fruit,” he said. “Incense. Flowers. A raisin bun once, but that wasn’t ideal.”
“You must give them bread,” she said immediately. “Bread is precious. Think of all the men who have died for it. I will bake you the finest loaves you have ever seen, and brush them with egg on top so they are golden, and we will put them on all the altars in town, and perhaps the gods will be pleased with us both.”
Bread. Of course. Why had he not thought of that himself?
Because he was hopeless at practicalities, and Virana was very good at them. Because if you had a good woman by your side, then even though there were many things that could go wrong, there were very many that could go right. And besides, he could not picture himself enjoying a lone existence in faraway Aquae Sulis.
Albanus took a deep breath of salty air. “Virana,” he said, “there is something I need to ask you.”