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Ruat Caelus (Part 1)

in swordsofstvalentine •  7 months ago

The house was brightly lit with lamps and torches, and the shriek of flutes and the twang of lyres resounded from the windows. Caelus Geminius of Rome leaned against the front door, guarding more against vagrants than thieves, though it seemed Dormios had invited the whole town to his feast. No lights burned in the other buildings across the small, grass-covered agora; the house of Dormios of Astiri presided over a circle of orange light in the midst of a black cosmos.

"I'll take this watch. Have some food." Gaius was taller than Caelus by a hair, darker of skin and narrower of eye, and was the captain of Tertius Nautius' two-man guard on their trip to Greece.

Caelus put his hand over his eyes and looked inside, mind reeling at the unfamiliar faces, eyes burned by the decadent brightness. "I will later," he said. "You know I never have an appetite the night after a long march."

Gaius' expression was mild and piercing. Caelus gave in. "I'll go around to the kitchen," he said. His captain clapped him on the back. "Smile at the maids for me."

He set a roundabout course to the kitchen through the neighborhood. Only a few houses were between the agora and the short, perfunctory city wall, which cut between Dormios' fields and his orchards.

The silence of the night brought a thrill to Caelus' sore body. The cool breeze of early autumn carried the still-odd scents of Greece, the song of strange birds, and the stars were out.

There was an old watchtower in the midst of Dormios' orchard. It was circular, made of rough stones mortared together, towering over the city wall, and by its weathering it seemed much older. A wooden door faced the town, barred from the inside, and the rest of the circumference was tilled as a vegetable garden.

Caelus picked through an eggplant patch and laid his head against the tower wall. The stones seemed a causeway into Heaven, a bridge to the Milky Way that burned brightly above. His breath caught in his throat, and without a glance backward he climbed the wall, hand over hand, and his muscles burned as he climbed the second story, but at last he hauled himself onto the top and collapsed on his back, and the stars shone with a clearness so absolute he felt as if he were the one in the sky, as if at any moment he might topple from the tower and fall in, plummeting toward the unimaginable world below.

When his breath returned, he sat up, and saw the glow of Dormios' feast, still bright, but bright among brothers, like a wild star had camped in Astiri, and all around were Dormios' lands, expansive but humbly kept, a shadow of his grandfather's wealth.

Another pair of lights glittered beneath the stars. Caelus stopped, swept his head back, and caught a pair of eyes, dark as night, gleaming in the midst of a round, pale face. A girl was on the tower, sitting up against the opposite wall, covered in a rough blanket, staring.

He scrambled to his feet, stood at attention, and bowed. The girl set aside her blanket and slowly, gently, stood up, revealing a slender body in a thin white dress, older than she had seemed from her face alone. She returned the gesture and sat back down.

"Did you come here to watch?" she asked, her Greek soft and distant but somehow plain to hear.

"Watch..." he echoed, and looked up. The stars hung exactly as they had before. He caught movement in the corner of his eye. The girl pointed to the south, blanket hanging from her arm like the tattered robe of a shade, and as he looked to where she pointed a meteor dashed across the sky, a brilliant line of white in the black between stars.

She lowered her arm. His jaw hung open.

"How did you know?"

She smiled, an expression so small it was almost lost in the blanket. "Sometimes they come in groups," she said, "and you can watch them drop out of a constellation for days. The Eagle's been dropping sparks since yesterday."

"The Eagle?"

She pointed somewhere high in the western sky. Caelus peered into the depths. The girl glanced at him.

He sat down next to her, and thought he heard a muffled, high-pitched squeak, but when he looked at her she was all composure again. She pointed again. "That white star. It's the Eagle's back, and the wings are there, and there."

"That one? My mother called it the She-Wolf. She said the bright star is her eye, and she's curled up, there, and there, and those two stars on either side are Romulus and Remus, and they're..."

"Suckling." He blushed, and thought he could hear a hint of satisfaction in her voice. "The Roman founders. Raised by a wolf. Do other Romans see this?"

"I don't know."

They kept their eyes on the Eagle/She-Wolf. No meteors were immediately forthcoming.

"I didn't see you when Dormios showed us the farm," said Caelus.

"I saw you," she said, and her gaze made a rare break from the sky as she glanced into his eyes. "Are the Romans taking over?"

"Well, that's what Tertius, he's my employer, that's what he wants. Dormios, he just wants to borrow enough to hire more workers, start producing enough to reach where the farm was in his grandfather's day, before..."

"Before Mummius burned Corinth."

"Well, he didn't exactly... Anyway, they're trying to negotiate just how exactly to get the farm rich and Tertius rich and Dormios rich, and them and Dormios' wife -"

"Phaidrion."

"Phaidrion, and Skiouros, that's Tertius' personal Greek, they're trying to work out the perfect contract, but Tertius doesn't know any Greek and Dormios doesn't know any Latin, so we'll probably be here a while."

The answer seemed to satisfy her. As Caelus wrapped up his explanation he realized again that he was on a tower in Greece with a woman who could predict shooting stars; with the atmosphere he had arrived in, it had seemed only natural.

"What do you... what are you doing, up here?"

She stared at the sky. "I watch the stars for Dormios, and when I find information that might help him I pass it on. In exchange, he provides me with food and shelter, and I'm cared for by Xenullis, his herbalist. You met her?"

"We met an old woman picking weeds over by the river," he said. "Wrinkled face, big like a man?"

The girl nodded solemnly.

"Wait, you said finding information? From the stars?"

She took a deep breath. A meteor streaked out of the west.

"It's something fortune-tellers in Babylon do," she said, "and I do have some of their books, translated into Greek, but I hardly read them now. When I read stars, it's not like reading a sign, it's like reading a stranger's face, and the sky is still strange, even to me."

"I don't understand." The sky glittered at him, not seeming to be any kind of face. "How could anything have less to do with us than..."

She fluttered her blanket at him. He caught a glimpse of pale, smooth feet before he brought his arms up, his eyes closed to the wind.

"The blanket didn't touch you, but you felt it move, didn't you?"

Her dark eyes were shining, and her mouth was spread in a triumphant smile, still delicate for all her effort.

"Nothing happens by itself. Everything leaves a trace, everything spreads its influence, and the stars are not exempt. They respond to us, and we respond to them."

She settled back down, and drew her blanket around her shoulders.

"But not in a way that's easy to read. The Babylonians spent years, between them hundreds of years, trying to come up with a system, but it doesn't work. I've tried my own, I've got the walls downstairs covered in calculations, but the only way I've been able to actually see anything is by watching the stars and tracking how I feel."

Another star fell, then another, and the sky was quiet again.

"But I felt something kind when I looked at the Eagle last night. That's how I knew the Romans did not bring misfortune. It's also why I wasn't surprised to see you here tonight."

He couldn't argue.

"Can you teach me?" he asked, genuinely curious.

She seemed surprised. "I... I haven't tried that before." She glanced around the heavens, as if asking for help. "Ah. There. Below the Eagle, by the horizon, there's a Bull With a Man's Head, or the Greeks call it the Centaur. It usually means wisdom, or teaching..."

Her small body pressed against his as she gestured. He smiled at her enthusiasm, at her beauty, and followed her lecture as best as he could, until the day's march caught up with him and, despite the chill and the company, he drifted into sleep.

Part 2

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A classical tale, huh? Gotta say, I wasn't expecting that. Looking forward to the next installment, and perhaps some sword-on-sword action!