The cheery bustle and hum of the forum market could be heard from several streets away. Honoria noted Abiba's footsteps behind her quickening with anticipation, then slowing again as she realized that she was about to outpace her mistress. Honoria smiled to herself. "I daresay that not all the best apples will have been picked over already, Abiba," she said, over her shoulder.
"Of course not, my lady," said Abiba, after a moment. Her voice was a respectful murmur, but Honoria could imagine the frown on her face. People told her that her cook was sullen, but Honoria did not care. A woman who could make even barley gruel taste like the ambrosia of the gods was due some leeway for moodiness.
The shadow of the forum gateway was sharp as a knife blade under the brilliant autumn sun, and the two women passed through it to the crowded market. Honoria waved Abiba and her baskets away to the produce stalls and circled the crowded center, heading for one of the small shops that ringed the forum. The striped curtain of the doorway, blue and green on creamy white, was looped and tied open on this brilliant day, and as she stepped inside, she had to blink against the dimness before she could see properly.
"Livia Honoria! How your presence brightens my humble shop!" The stocky cloth merchant beamed as he rose from his stool behind the counter stacked with folded lengths of both sturdy and lighter-weight linen cloth, along with native woolen stuff
"You have a forward tongue, Cilo," she said, frowning in theatrical disapproval. He placed one hand on his chest and bowed his curly head.
"You wound me, my lady. I had no intent to offend such a long-term customer."
"Straighten up, rogue, and attend. One said to me that you had some genuine silk."
"I have silk from both Rome and Cos," said Clio, his spine stiffening. "No one in Britain has such a collection as mine! But I do not keep it out here, in such easy reach of the door and all comers."
"Yes, I know. I will have to go to that disreputable den you call your office."
"Exactly so, my lady. Rufus, attend me!"
At the sound of his shout, a lad of perhaps twelve years appeared through the doorway in the back of the shop. "Father?"
"You have finished your sums?"
"Yes, I have!"
"Then earn your keep a bit more by watching the shop front while I show the lady what I have in the back room."
The boy wrinkled his freckled nose but came to sit in his father's place on the stool. Honoria followed the shopkeeper through the doorway.
In the pleasantly cluttered little room at the back, stacked high with bolts of fabric and baskets of thread and yarn, Cilo waved her to the only chair and leaned against the doorpost. "Have you news of the latest shipment, my lady?"
"Safely landed, Glaucus tells me. Are you prepared for another?"
"Just say the word."
"Eburus says that he does not expect any movement until the next Kalends, so you have some time yet."
"Thank the gods for that. A breathing space never hurts. Now, what can I send off with you?"
"A new veil wouldn't go amiss. I'm quite bored with my old one. Is that actually Roman silk?"
"Would I lie to you?"
"Would you not? Blue would be appropriate for Fontinalia. I will need to help place garlands at the fountains. I think it a bit much at my age, but honor must when duty calls."
He held up a veil of splendid cerulean blue and named a price, which she countered swiftly. The bargaining went longer than need be, for they both enjoyed the sport. In the end, Honoria got what she wanted at somewhat below market price. But when she paid, she made up the difference with a couple of denarii. "Let the boy buy himself some sweetmeats. He is growing like a weed. I remember how they are at that age."
"As you say, my lady. He will eat me out of house and home!" Smiling, he bowed her out of the shop.
Abiba was waiting by the entrance to the forum, her baskets piled high with bright fruits and vegetables. "You look well pleased, my lady," she observed.
"I had the best of Cilo in the price of a silk veil," Honoria said. "And did you do well in your own bargaining?"
"Perhaps too well," said Abiba, after a moment.
"Maccus. The rude dog. Twenty years ago, I'd have knocked his lights out."
"The greengrocer's man? Perhaps I should have a word with his master."
Abiba shook her close-cropped head, but Honoria could detect a flush in her dark cheeks. "I can't hide behind your skirts, my lady."
"That is well said, but let me know if his rude ways interfere with the business of my household. I look after my own, Abiba."
The cook nodded and hoisted her baskets. They were silent until they arrived at the villa and Abiba turned to go into the kitchen. Then: "Abiba? Have you given any thought to what I asked last week?"
Abiba set the baskets down on the floor and crossed her muscular arms, looking at her mistress sidewise and with unaccustomed shyness. "I still say no, my lady. There's no place for me in Britain as a freed woman. And I can't return to my homeland. I scarce speak the tongue of my mother, these days. And like as not, they're all dead."
"I think you could do very well with a cookshop."
"And serve fellows like that Maccus and smile, when I know what they say of me behind my back? No, my lady. I know you mean it kindly, but I like my place here."
"I thank you for that accolade, then. What will you be making for supper?"
"You'll know when you get it, my lady," said Abiba, with a return of her usual stubborn spirit.
Honoria smiled and glanced at the baskets of fresh produce. "I look forward to my discovery."
Four days later, on an evening just before the end of the month, Abiba showed Eburus the butcher to Honoria's study to settle the bill. After the cook had left, Eburus' shoulders drooped and he looked around furtively.
"Whatever's the matter, man?"
"Is anyone about?"
"You have just seen Abiba go back to her pans, and I have sent Gleva out for lamp oil. She'll spend some time talking with the shopkeeper, who is her great friend. And you know how I trust Volumnia."
"Aye, she's a good one. More clever and close-mouthed than she gives out. Well. The truth of it is, Tibiana's is no use any more. Some soldiers has been and turned the place out. It took all her play-acting not to be sent off for closer questioning."
Honoria sank into her reading chair. "Dear gods. Do we not have one coming in the next day or so?"
"That we do, m'lady. A young fellow from Lindum."
"Well, there's nothing for it. We'll have to put him in our shed."
"I was hoping you'd say that, m'lady."
"Did someone betray us with regard to Tibiana's workshop?"
"It looks that way. Gaius Longus has his suspicions."
"What does he propose?"
Eburus mimed cutting his throat. Honoria closed her eyes briefly, as though in pain. "He must be certain before he takes such an action."
"As you say, m'lady. But Gaius is a steady fellow."
"Have you taken counsel with Cilo on the matter?"
"Aye. He says the same."
"Then we are agreed." She shook her head. "Ill deeds for ill times. Send me word when we are to receive our visitor, Eburus. It will be safest after midnight, and come through the back lot. And although it will make ill telling, please keep me apprised of what has become of the one who did this to us."
"There is nothing more to be said about the affair, I think. Let us now look at this account of yours."
After Eburus had departed and Gleva had arrived home with the jars of lamp oil and a mouthful of gossip for the kitchen, Volumnia brought her mistress a draft of watered wine and some nuts and little apples. She found Honoria gazing at the garden as though in a dream, the light of the autumn sunset painting her stony face with rose and saffron and gold.
"Oh, my lady! What has happened?"
Honoria started to assume the expression that she would use for Gleva, or even Abiba, in this situation. But she had no reason to do so with Volumnia. "Volumnia, I was telling you half a year since that we might have need of the old shed in the garden."
She watched the moods chase across Volumnia's face: confusion, distress, disbelief, and at last, resolution. Honoria nodded.
"Oh, my lady!" whispered Volumnia. "As bad as that?"
"Exactly so. We may be making use of it one or two nights hence."
"Well, then." Volumnia knitted her plump face in thought. "We'll want a basket of hard bread in there. A jug of water. Perhaps an apple or two. A chamber pot. Rugs."
"Excellent. And no one … ."
"Have no fears, my lady. That's how we're in such a fix, isn't it? Someone has spoke where he shouldn't. Now, I was thinking just this week gone that the garden chairs could go in that shed now: the weather has been proper cold for autumn. Your Volumnia will take care of it."
Honoria felt a little of her tension ease. "Don't ever change, Volumnia my dear."
"As though I ever would, at my age! Now, let me have Abiba make you a spiced milk posset. You look to have taken a chill in the belly from this news."
Honoria let her oldest friend settle her with a shawl around her shoulders and watched Volumnia bustle off to the kitchen. She knew, as certain as she knew that winter was coming, that she could trust Volumnia with almost anything. But even Volumnia was not to know what had sent the wind up Honoria's back. It was not the horror of the idea of killing the one who threatened their work against Allectus the Traitor that kept her entranced, but the thought that she would rather wield the knife herself.
That night, as she lay in her solitary bed, sleepless, she thought of Marcellus Calidus Naso, her husband, dead these thirty years and more. He had called her his hard-headed sweetheart and bought her books, against the advice of his more traditional-minded father. As she tried to recall the aspect of Naso's face, she saw instead Flavius, as she had seen him last year, lean and weary and no longer in any wise the plucky little rascal whom she had raised. Would he understand such murderous thoughts from the woman who had taught him his letters and told him stories of their ancestors?
Troubled, she arose and silently draped her shawl over her nightgown, then walked soft-footed to the altar in the atrium. The tiles of the floor were cold against her bare feet, and the altar lamp was down so low that her hands barely cast a shadow as she added a little wine to the offering dish. She bowed her head and prayed that her actions would bring no shame upon her household and her family. Then she waited silently some little while, in case the gods should speak in her heart. But all she felt was the same determination to seek justice in whatever way was needed.
Two nights later, reading by a shaded lamp in her study, she heard the faint sound of a snatch of a tune whistled outside in the back garden. Volumnia appeared in the doorway carrying another lamp, unlit, and nodded. "It's them, my lady," she said, her voice hardly louder than breath. "Shall I show them the way?"
"Wait. I'll come with you. What sort of a host does not greet guests to her home?"
Volumnia's eyes widened, but she made no attempt to argue. The two women drifted like shadows through the columned peristyle, past the little rooms where Abiba and Gleva slept near the kitchen, and into the rear courtyard, dimly lit by the sinking half moon. They walked softly past the brush pile and into the wilder back lot, where the native plants and small trees had things their own way. There among the neglected outbuildings was the little stone shed, almost never used now that the household had no gardener of its own and depended instead on hired labor, but with its oaken door sound and locked and hinged in good, solid iron. Now they could hear the soft rustle of someone – or more than one – coming through the brush where the family property's boundaries lay.
"Who comes?" called Honoria, softly.
"The two you expect," said Eburus, after a moment.
"We are ready for you: come ahead."
Eburus emerged from the tangle of buckthorn and young hazel, trailed by a wiry young man well-muffled in a dark cloak. Honoria and Volumnia led the two men back to the shed, and Volumnia produced the key from the long sleeve of her woolen tunic. The door, its hinges oiled and tended against just this need, swung open silently. Once they were all crowded inside, Honoria lit the little lamp, shielding the one shuttered window from the light cast by the tiny flame of the trimmed wick, and showed the fugitive the rugs, the water, and all else that Volumnia had made ready for him.
"I'm afraid we cannot leave you the lamp. It would be too easy for someone to spot the light through the shutter," she said and turned to Eburus: "How long will he need to stay hidden?"
"Our friend in the marketplace has a load of wool going south the morning after next. I'll be back afore dawn for this 'un."
The young man sank down on the rugs, putting back his hood. His hair was of no particular color, not bright like Flavius', nor dark like Justin's, but his face showed the same shadows, shadows that a young man ought not have at all. "My lady. I thank you for your generosity, and your mercy."
Honoria thought of what she would like to do to the traitor to their work, and as long as she was on this trail, to Allectus himself. She shook her head. "Let us not speak of mercy, young man. I simply seek justice."