Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Backs together, they thrust their way to a standing position.
‘First it was sherbet,’ he said, ‘then it was milk.’
Claudia’s eyebrows furrowed. ‘You took the trouble to sniff the contents of the jug before it landed on your head?’
‘You were the only one who was knocked out,’ he chuckled. ‘Tonight, when I went to my room for my sword after Macer set up the hue and cry, I realized, somewhat belatedly, that my milk had been laced.’
‘Ah, yes. That mysterious movable ulcer.’
‘Please!’ he protested. ‘Do you know how long I’ve gone without a drink?’
Gently she knocked her head back against his. ‘The longest I’ve ever seen you without liquor, Marcus Cornelius, is thirty paces. Now are you going to get us out of here or not?’
It took a complicated set of hop-skip-and-jumps, which in the dark proved often painful what with jutting shelves and unexpected crates, but eventually they found what they were looking for. At some stage in its history, a bronze cooking pot had been left on an unattended stove for a jagged hole to burn through. How thoughtful of it to wait in the store to be patched.
‘How is it,’ he asked, manoeuvring the vessel into position and rubbing off the thick crust of verdigris with his thumb, ‘that wherever Claudia goes, trouble trots beside her?’
‘Me? I’m just your average little catalyst.’ She heard the rope grate against the rough, serrated bronze. They all had their secrets, Tulola, Pallas, Sergius, Euphemia, even Taranis the Celt. Her stumbling into their lives merely accelerated the situation. She concentrated on the rope, rasping and scraping. Surely, yes surely she could detect a bit of give in it?
‘I could get used to this,’ he said languidly.
Claudia’s mouth twitched at one side. Half an hour of wiggling up and down, back to bare back, loin cloth to thong? ‘I’ll bet you could.’
Twang! As the strands burst free, they massaged the weals, then Orbilio spotted a tallow and suddenly there was light.
‘Can you reach?’ she asked, pinching her nose against the stinky candle. ‘It’s quite a way up, that rope.’
‘Forget it, there’ll be guards posted all round this building. Listen! Can you hear that?’
‘Yes. Rats.’ She’d seen two so far, and that was just since the light went on. Any bigger and Gisco could harness them to his chariots.
‘No, no. Can’t you hear a low, gurgling sound?’
‘Water?’ she ventured.
‘Exactly. Now hold this candle, will you?’
Arm’s length was still too close for the evil pong. ‘What are you looking for?’
Save your breath, Claudia. The Boy Wonder is in a world of his own. With a gleeful yelp, he pounced on a rusty iron sieve. ‘We need to trace the run of the pipes.’
‘What pipes?’ In candlelight, she could see verdigris on her arm, rope burns all over, and a couple of scratches on her shins.
Orbilio tested the handle of the sieve. ‘Sergius diverted part of his stream—those beasts need a lot of fresh water—this is the runaway.’
‘Sewage, you mean?’
‘Whatever,’ he said cheerfully, prodding the handle into the compacted soil. ‘Pushed for space,’ he tried another spot, ‘he laid underground pipes for his outbuildings to go over the top.’
‘Do we sift our way out? That’s radical.’
He looked up and grinned. ‘That’s what I like about you, always willing to try out new ideas.’ A couple more exploratory probes. ‘I know two waste pipes meet, one from the monkey house, one—’
‘How do you know?’
‘I always check the lie of the land, my dear. You never know when—’
‘—a Gisco might be after you.’
He shot her a ha-ha-very-funny look as he prodded the soil. ‘Here we are.’ There was a dull clunk as iron connected with terracotta.
‘I still don’t get it.’ It came out nasal, on account of her hand clamped over her nose.
‘Well,’ he proceeded to tap his way along the pipe, ‘each channel is four hands square at best.’ He paused to swipe the perspiration from his eyes. ‘It would be far more comfortable if we could find the junction, where it widens to accommodate both outlets. Can you hold that candle steady?’
Claudia willed the muscles in her hand to change from jelly into steel. He’s talking about escaping…
through the sewer?
‘How—’ She cleared her throat. ‘How far does it go, do you know?’ They could easily get stuck! Buried alive…
‘At a guess? Two hundred paces.’
‘Maybe three or four. Look.’ He pointed to a dark, damp mound.
‘A blockage,’ he corrected, shovelling frantically. ‘Which has put such a strain on the joints, we don’t have the bother of how to smash our way through.’
‘It’s quicker if we both dig,’ Claudia offered. Any excuse to dump this revolting lump of goat fat. As she balanced the candle on a shelf, Orbilio jumped up as though scalded.
‘Holy, holy shit!’ he said.
In the bright halo of light, a hand was sticking out of the earth.
As Orbilio clawed at the soil, she saw the arm was attached to a torso, and the torso attached to a neck, which still bore the deep mark of the garotte. Attached to the neck was a head with a crown of baby-fine hair, and a thin pink nose.
‘Macer!’ Claudia gulped. Orbilio’s expression was grim as he hauled the body out of the drainage pipe.
‘Look again,’ he said roughly.
For it was not the Prefect who lay dripping in his lap. It was his nephew.
To this day, Claudia could not say how she made it out of that store room. At some stage, Orbilio must have pushed her headlong into the sewer. He must have told her to keep her head up, perhaps he showed her how to drag herself down the channel by her elbows. Certainly they were red raw when she emerged, gasping and spluttering, into the pond, as were her knees and her feet. It could even have been that he had jerked on her hair from time to time, to keep her face out of the swirling waters and save her from drowning. She just did not know.
Dawn was beginning to break in the Vale of Adonis as Orbilio tumbled into the pool after her, the air sweet and fresh and full of birdsong, as though nothing so sordid as murder could have happened under its disappearing stars. Since the goddess Aurora had not yet placed her rosy kisses on the sky, the water remained a translucent shade of grey as Claudia splashed around in it. He watched the graceful motion of her arms, the lithe movement of her long, long legs. She needed to wash away the effluent, she said, and he pretended to go along with it, and for the first time since he met her, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio did not feel a surge in his loins. True, she wore nothing but a breast band and thong, which, wet, served to accentuate her secrets, rather than hide them. But it was an overwhelming tenderness that coursed through Orbilio’s veins as she splashed and swam, and the feeling took him completely by surprise. He was not entirely sure he liked it.
She had done well, he thought, hauling himself out of the water. Swoons and hysterics were not part of her psyche, but she blamed herself for Salvian’s death and there was little he could do to dissuade her.
‘He told me,’ she’d wailed, cradling Salvian in her arms. ‘He told me he knew who the murderer was. I could have saved him, Marcus. I could have saved this boy’s life, but I laughed at him instead.’
Since he’d had no real answer, Orbilio reminded her sternly that time was a luxury they did not possess as he prised away a large section of the terracotta piping using a shelf as a lever. Now something was wrong. It prickled his skin and it prickled the hairs on the back of his scalp. Something was very wrong. And the danger that stalked them was almost bestial in form.
‘Claudia, we have to go.’ She had washed away as much of Salvian’s blood as was possible. The stains that were left were all in her mind.
To his surprise, she did not protest. ‘I’m cold,’ was all she said, hugging her arms tight round her shoulders.
‘It’s still early in the year,’ he replied, and his words were unconvincing.
He knew they both still saw the face of the junior tribune, rash-red from the razor, heard the clank of his ill-fitting armour. Seventeen, and almost a father. Seventeen, and more than a match for Tulola. Seventeen—yet much more of a man than his uncle.
‘We have to tell Macer,’ Claudia said, wringing her hair with her hands. But when she looked round, Orbilio was sprinting to the far side of the pond. His eyes were fixed on a coloured rag, dusky pink mixed with red. ‘My tunic!’ she cried.
He was hunkered over it. ‘Don’t touch it,’ he growled.
But it was too late. ‘I’m freezing,’ she protested, grabbing it out of his hands. ‘What the—?’ The red was blood. Fresh, dripping blood. And the tunic had been ripped to shreds.
There was a tenseness about him she had never seen before. ‘Be quiet,’ he warned. ‘And don’t move a muscle.’
Stealthily he padded towards the tree line, his eyes sweeping the ground. Claudia heard the snapping of a branch.
He returned with a piece of wood no thicker than her wrist, with two rough points at the ends. ‘Take this,’ he said. As a weapon it did not look convincing, but Claudia’s nails dug into the bark as he went off in search of a more promising defence.
Her eyes scanned the valley. The slaves would just about be stirring by now, another half-hour and pans would start to sizzle in the kitchens. At her feet, the tunic seemed to have a life force all of its own. It had turned into something evil and ugly, she half expected it to pulsate, to scuttle across the grass, to…
From the woods behind her came the rapid whirring of a hundred wingbeats. Finches, tits, stonechats and robins. Woodlarks, jays, warblers and an owl. Claudia felt her skin crimple. Dammit, Marcus Cornelius, what’s keeping you?
For a moment, she thought she saw movement. A pale blur among the branches. Stop this! You’re starting at shadows. Like dusk, dawn light plays strange tricks, and why shouldn’t a flock of birds stretch their wings? No reason at all, Claudia told herself, gripping the stake with both hands.
At the far side of the villa, the gazelle would also be stretching their thin, graceful legs, and Barea would be bringing out his stallion for an early-morning gallop. What she wouldn’t give to be astride that big, black horse at the moment! The fastest nag to reach Narni since Pegasus.
something moving. Up in the trees. Swinging. Swishing.
‘Marcus!’ she yelled.
There was a flash of white. Muted. Soft.
‘What?’ He came crashing through the woods. ‘What is it?’
And then he saw it. The pale underbelly. The danger in bestial form…
With a snarl, the cheetah pounced upon the victim it had been stalking so silently.
With no weapon to defend himself, Orbilio threw up his hands—but it was no match for a hundred-pound cat hurtling out of the canopy. He could see every sinew, every black spot on the bright yellow pelt. Her pink nose. Her long, white whiskers. He could smell her breath on his face, fishy, stale. He saw strands of saliva, saw her awesome white fangs.
They would be the very last thing he saw in this life…
In mid-leap, it twisted and jerked. The snarl changed, became deeper, guttural. He felt a surge of liquid hot on his face. As the cheetah crashed down on top of him, a shudder rippled through its powerful frame. It convulsed twice, and twice more, then lay still. And the liquid he tasted was its blood.
Dazed, he looked round. Sticking clean through its neck was the point of his rough-hewn stake.
Marcus Cornelius Orbilio heaved the cat’s corpse clear of his body and scrambled to his feet. He wanted to thank her for saving his life, he wanted to tell her how lovely she looked, hair wild, cheeks flushed, body almost naked. He wanted to ask her to marry him.
Instead he was sick on the spot.
Claudia was still shaking as she lifted the hasp on the orchard gate. It was reaction, of course. Read nothing more into it. A man’s life was in danger, she had a weapon to hand at the time. That was all. She’d have done the same for anyone, and heaven knows it was easy enough. She’d seen the cheetah long before Orbilio, watched it spring. Hell, the damned cat practically impaled itself!
Smoke was rising from the kitchens and the slave barracks.
This was a set-up, start to finish, she thought. We were supposed to find Salvian. We were supposed to escape. Then—tragic accident. Cuddles gets loose and, tut-tut, two people torn to shreds. As Claudia’s tunic lay in one baited heap, no doubt Orbilio’s doubled the odds somewhere else, and when the cat had finished with them…well, that was not a pretty thought. Pallas said they start with the heart and the kidneys, but what the hell does he know? This was the man who swore it only took gazelle!
She paused to feel the first rays of the sun on her face. Her hair was almost dry now, the tangles would be excruciating. She opened the door to one of the outbuildings. It was the hay store, where Corbulo nearly came to a sticky end and quickly she shut it again. The next shed stored farm implements. Right. We’re in business. A workman’s coarse tunic lay discarded on a plough. Bit short on personal hygiene, Claudia thought, slipping it over her head, but not as bad as Taranis. She sauntered along the shed. Hoes, hurdles, sleds, drags—aha, what have we here? She weighted a pair of sheep shears in her hand. Probably more for the camels these days, it was a long time since sheep grazed these pastures.