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Authors: Ruth Downie

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BOOK: Tabula Rasa
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He considered getting up to find Tilla, but it was dark, he had no idea where she was, and besides, he suspected he was not entirely sober. He could hardly stumble around the house waking up sleeping bodies to find out which one he was married to, and it seemed Tilla had no plans to come and fetch him. Valens was right: No good came of mixing with the wife’s friends and relations.


He woke feeling bleary and foolish. Nobody had attacked him in the night. Conn returned his sword as he left. Ruso dismissed the murmur of “I am no happier with this friendship than you are, Roman,” as an attempt to salvage some British pride. Whatever the son thought, he had the old man’s approval.

Had he been feeling brighter on his walk back to the fort, he would have enjoyed the sound of the birds celebrating another sunny morning. He would have savored the smell of fresh bread from the ovens over in the ramparts. Unfortunately he felt more like the dead hen that was still lying on the desk.

Pertinax was still alive. “No hemorrhage, no excessive swelling, no unexpected pain,” reported Valens. He was annoyingly cheerful, having persuaded the deputy to stay awake at the bedside while he himself just dropped in a couple of times to check that nothing more needed to be done. “He’s taken some poppy but he’s lucid enough to insult me.”

“That’s good news.”

“Hm.” Valens settled himself on the pharmacist’s table. “You look done in. Good night, then?”

“Absolutely,” Ruso lied, hoping he did not smell of stale beer and farmyard. He pointed at the hen. “Why is this thing still here?”

“Ah!” Valens looked pleased with himself. “I found out about that. I think your clerk should be returning very soon. He’s on cook duty tonight so he arranged to buy a decent dinner from some chap with local contacts. A man called Mallius turned up half an hour ago wanting to be paid.”

“When did Candidus arrange this?”

“Some time ago, I think,” said Valens, unhelpfully vague. “So tell me, exactly how mad and manipulative are these people of Tilla’s?”

“I’m not sure,” said Ruso, who was not going to breathe a word to Valens about the wedding blessing. “The eldest son’s a nasty piece of work but the old man means well enough. I think he’s genuinely concerned about Tilla. Do you mind?” He pointed at his friend’s footwear, restraining the urge to cry, “Boots!” in the outraged tone adopted by Serena on the rare occasions when she and Valens were in the same room and speaking to each other.

“Sorry.” Valens swung his feet down from the stool and made a halfhearted attempt to brush off the clumps of dried mud. “Apart from Pertinax it’s been pretty quiet. Your centurion dropped in to ask what I thought of an invisible rash on his neck, and there was one admission in first watch with chest pains. Probably indigestion. He’s in Room Five.” Valens glanced at Pandora’s cupboard. “I wasn’t sure what to do about notes.”

Ruso sighed. “Nobody is.”

“Perhaps Albanus will give you a hand when he turns up.”

“If he’s not too busy trying to find his nephew.” Ruso’s brief nostalgia for the days when he had enjoyed Albanus’s willing and intelligent assistance was interrupted by the sound of approaching voices. Rising above them, the scurrying of feet culminated in a thump on the door before it burst open to reveal the rumpled fair hair and pink cheeks of his deputy, Gallus, who declared, “Sirs, it’s the legate!”

Valens leapt up. “I’ll be off, then.”

“If you run into my clerk—”

“I’ll slap his wrists and send him over.” With that, Valens slipped out of the room and moments later the outside door slammed.

Ruso thrust a myrrh pastille under his tongue in an attempt to sweeten his breath, and pulled his tunic straight. Then he shut the door to hide the chicken and went to head off the new arrivals before they all decided to visit Pertinax at once.

To his relief the legate decided to go in with only Ruso for company, leaving his trail of followers to wait outside.

Pertinax made an effort for his senior officer but Ruso could see he was struggling. The great man had the sense to leave after wishing the patient well, telling him he would send his personal physician, and assuring him that everything was under control. When he was gone Pertinax sank back on his pillow and closed his eyes with obvious relief.

Ruso watched the legate stride off down the street to rejoin his entourage, and decided to view the offer of the personal physician as a compliment to Pertinax rather than an insult to himself. If the next few days did not bring fever or hemorrhage or gangrene or any of the other horrors that could undermine a surgeon’s best efforts, the prefect would be fit to be sent across to Magnis. Valens could deal with him and with the legate’s physician too.

He was about to start his delayed ward round when a figure detached itself from the group. For a brief and unrealistic moment he thought it might be a sobered-up Fabius come to thank him for his efforts yesterday, but instead it was Fabius’s deputy, looking very different without the coating of mud.

Ruso unslung the lucky charm and handed it back. “Thank you.”

Daminius grinned. “I knew you’d be all right, sir. It’s never let me down yet.”

“Perhaps you should lend it to Pertinax. Is the quarry still closed?”

The grin faded. “The chief engineer’s inspecting it this morning, sir. Meantime the lads aren’t sorry to be out of it.”

“Nor am I,” Ruso assured him.

“We appreciate what you did, sir. If you ever need a favor, you know where we are.”

Ruso was not going to let the offer lie. “If you happen to hear of the whereabouts of a clerk called Candidus, just transferred over here from Magnis . . .”

“I met him when he arrived, sir. I’ll get the lads to keep an eye out. They’ll be spread around till we get back to work, so somebody might know something.” Daminius glanced at the legate’s party retreating down the street. “Mind you, there’s talk of shoring up and getting going again at the other end.”

It was clear from his tone what he thought of that. Ruso had already heard the suggestion that the accident had been caused by working saturated ground with haste rather than care, perhaps spurred on by the rumors that the Sixth were ahead of their building schedule and the Second Augusta were already finished and packing to march south to Isca for the winter.

An alarming thought slipped into Ruso’s mind: the thought that Candidus might have been making his way along the lip of the quarry just as Pertinax had been. That his missing clerk might even now be lying a few hundred paces south of the main road, buried under tons of rubble, while his feathered dinner lay slowly decomposing on his desk.

Moments later he left Pertinax’s room reassured that the prefect had been alone up there. Thinking rationally, he could see the utter improbability of Candidus vanishing for a couple of days and then returning to wander around in the sight of any senior officer, let alone one as fearsome as Pertinax. He was worrying about nothing. The lad had probably decided that the challenge of sorting out Pandora’s cupboard was too much for him and slipped away to Coria for a few days’ unofficial leave. He would stroll in one morning full of innocence and excuses, trusting that Ruso would pretend to believe him because his uncle was a friend. With luck, he would turn up before Albanus did.

Meanwhile, Ruso needed to get the kitchen to do something with that hen. Then there was a ward round to be done, and over at the camp a queue would already be forming outside the medical tent.

Chapter 9

Market days in the autumn meant a chilly start in the dark, but by the time they got there the sun had chased away the nip of frost and everyone had cheered up. His da went off with the other men, which meant he would stumble back in a good mood—or a very bad one. His stepmother went to catch the early bargains. Aedic was left in charge of Petta’s son, who was not yet old enough to notice that Aedic called him “the unbrother” when Petta wasn’t listening.

He took the unbrother down to the river and made him take his clothes off because Petta said if he came back with his clean tunic messed up again, there would be trouble. Everyone who wasn’t being made to help his parents was down there, and as Aedic had hoped, everyone wanted to hear the story of the soldier having his leg sawn off.

Everyone except Matto, who pointed out that he hadn’t actually seen the sawing happen. “Anyway,” Matto said, “am I showing you how to catch trout or not?”

The one-legged soldier was forgotten. Instead there was a lot of peering into the water and stumbling about on feet numb with cold. Nobody managed to find a trout, let alone tickle one. Matto said it was Aedic’s fault for bringing the unbrother. The unbrother couldn’t stay still or keep quiet. He had frightened the fish away.

“There weren’t any fish anyway,” Aedic told him, not seeing why he should get the blame just because Matto had bragged about something and then couldn’t do it. “I never saw one.”

“You don’t
them under there,” said Matto. “You

“You have to see the tail.”

Matto said, “Don’t.”

“Yes you do. My da says.”

“What does your da know?” said Matto. “He’s a drunk.”

He was not going to get dragged into that. “My da’s caught hundreds of trout,” he said. “How many have you caught?”

“Liar!” said Matto, so quickly that Aedic knew he didn’t want to answer.

“Go on, how many?”

“Loads,” said Matto. “Anyway, you’re lucky we let you join in. After what everybody says about you.”

the liar!” was not much of an answer, but he didn’t know what Matto was talking about. What
they say about him?

“Ha!” said Matto, making sure everyone was listening, “Everybody knows you’re a soldiers’ bumboy!”

There were shouts of laughter as Aedic yelled, “I am not!”

The unbrother, excited by the argument, waved his arms about. “Bumboy! Bum-bum-bum—”

“Shut up!” he shouted. It was all the unbrother’s fault for squealing and splashing in the first place. “I am not!”

He was facing Matto now, each standing on a rock with the water gurgling in between. Matto was at least a handspan taller, and heavier, and his rock was higher. Everyone else had gathered round to watch the fight. “I am not!”

“Not what?”

“Not what you said. You take that back.”

“Everybody’s seen you. Hanging around, trying to talk to them.”

“I just do jobs for them!” Aedic wished he hadn’t stayed to try and catch the stupid trout. Matto’s family had been turned off their land too. The army had given them a farm miles away that the soldiers had stolen from its owners, but it was mostly rock and bog, and the family had nothing good to say about people who dealt with Romans. “Lots of people do jobs for them!”

“Ha! I bet you love the soldiers. I bet when nobody’s looking you

His shouts of “No I don’t!” were lost under shrieks of laughter and howls of “Kissy-kissy!” from the other boys. His face was hot. Matto’s “Look at him going red! It’s true!” just made it worse.

“Anyway,” he shouted, desperate to stop them before the whole world thought he kissed the soldiers, “I know something you don’t!”

Matto said, “Who cares?”

But for a happy moment the shouting died away. They wanted to know.

Matto said, “What is it, then? Another thing you didn’t see happen?”

Aedic swallowed. Why had he said that? What was he thinking? He might have got it all wrong. It could be one of those times where you said what you thought was true and all the grown-ups laughed at you and then repeated what you’d said to each other while you tried to smile as if you’d made a joke on purpose. “Not telling.”

Matto had a smirk on his face, as if he’d finally proved how stupid Aedic was. The son of a drunk. The soldier-kisser. “Liar,” he breathed. Then he moved his mouth slowly round the words, “Bumboy.”

Aedic squared his shoulders. “It’s about the emperor’s wall.”

“What about it?”

“There’s a dead body inside it.”

For a moment nobody spoke. There was a look on Matto’s face that said he wasn’t expecting
and he didn’t know how to answer. Aedic stood taller as the others crowded round his rock.


“Who is it?”

“Who put it there?”

“Was it dead when it went in?”

“Was it buried alive?”

Matto narrowed his eyes. “How do you know?”

Trust Matto to ask something like that. “I know . . . somebody who saw them put it in there.”

“Who’s that, then?”

“He’s making it up.”

“I am not!”

“Tell us who saw it, then!”

“Tell us where it is!”

“Is it one of us or one of them?”

“He’s lying. Look at him! Liar!”

“It’s true,” Aedic insisted.

“Tell us who saw it,” said Matto, “else we’ll know you’re lying.”

He took a deep breath. “I swore not to tell.”

BOOK: Tabula Rasa
5.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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