Ruat Caelus Part 3

Caelus lay awake in Dormios' spare room, listening to Gaius' gentle snores. He was exhausted from the day's training, but he couldn't sleep; the stars were out again, joined by just a few clouds, bright in that mysterious shade of blue closely related to that seen in the dawn, and they winked at him until he couldn't stand it, and he let himself out through the window.

The night was unspoiled by light or laughter. A light burned in Dormios' study, probably Skiouros wasting his master's paper on another contract revision. An owl hooted in the forest. A cool breeze tingled on his skin.

The door to the garden tower was still barred, so he climbed up again. The girl noticed him when he was halfway up, her face poking over the side of the tower like a tiny moon rising.

"You're a very good climber," she said as he reached the top. "I tried climbing the tower today and I didn't make it past the door."

"Thank you," he said, and heaved himself onto the roof. She retreated to her blanket and stared at him.

Her expression was blank. Her eyes glittered in the night. She spoke and the air was still.

"What do you want?"

This took him aback. What did he want? The magic of the first night was gone. The stars were no longer reeling in the heavens; before him crouched a girl, not a goddess. The night was only beautiful.

"I wanted to see you," he said. She nodded, as if he had spoken something profound, then, carefully, as if she were weighing the phrases before placing them on her tongue, responded.

"I saw you fighting with the men today," she said. "You were gallant."

Her mouth moved as if she were searching for words. "Do you... like them?"

"The militia?" He held the speed of his speech back, straining not to launch into an excited babble, for the sake of the strange peace around her words. "I do like them. They're good, at heart. And Esson is like a brother to all of us."

Her smile was dainty and half-hidden by the blanket. "Do you like Astiri?"

He spoke without thinking. "I love it."

She patted the bare stone beside her. "Sit with me."

He crouched by her side, and followed her finger to the Sitting Hero, or Heracles fighting a snake, or Heracles fighting the Dragon. "What do you think of those stars?"

He gazed into the sky until his eyes dried out. "If I had to say..."

She waited.

"If I had to say, I'd say it looks angry."

She nodded. "There's danger for us there. But look at the Eagle."

A fox barked. The wind rustled the leaves in the trees.

"I can't see anything."

Her look of disappointment was almost unbearable, and he hastened to change the subject. "I want to keep stargazing with you."

"I would like that." She covered her face with her blanket, but her eyes twinkled with a smile.

"Could you unbar the door at night? Or give me a secret knock-"

"No. Men are wild beasts."

"Do you want to make me climb this every night?"

Her brow wrinkled. "It does look strenuous. But I can't let you in the tower. It's women-only."

"You can trust-"

"Women. Only."

Something about her fierce expression made him smile, and she smiled in return. "But you can bring a ladder."

"A ladder?" Anosis scratched his head, thick curly hair around a bald spot. "What do you need a ladder for?"

"Stargazing. I found a good spot."

Esson's booming voice echoed around the corner, singing something indecipherable in an odd Greek dialect. They straightened to attention.

In the lazy days before harvest season the training had become a regular public spectacle. The negotiations in Dormios' house were far more important but far more dull, so the sparring was seen as a proxy. During breaks the wives and mothers of the militiamen brought water.

Anosis and Plautos' sister splashed a spoonful of water in Gaius' face before tending to her brothers. "I showed off again?" he asked Caelus.

"No more than usual."

The edge of the crowd broke into murmuring, then parted. Plautos spat out his water. A slender girl in a white dress came forward, bearing a bucket of water.

"I don't believe it," said Anosis. The girl brought the water to Caelus, set the bucket on the ground, and handed him a ladle full. He thanked her and drank.

Esson crouched beside them with a sound like rushing wind. "What a surprise, Roman," he said. "You've proven your boldness in arms to be second only to mine, but who could have thought your boldness in love would be enough to warm the heart of our own dear Nepho?"

"That's your name?" Her face seemed too pale for the realm of daylight, but she wore the same enigmatic smile. "I'm... sorry I didn't ask."

"That's right," she said. "Nepho, like a cloud. Don't worry. The stars cared not for our names."

"Mine is Caelus," he said. "Like the sky."

The night was brilliant again. A sliver of moon gleamed near the horizon. A meteor streaked from the Eagle.

"Two," said Nepho.

"They were ribbing me about it for the rest of the day," said Caelus. Another light flared in the sky. "Three. You must be famous."

"I warned them of a flood once, long ago. They were very grateful."

She was curled against his side, arms wrapped around his. "But then I warned them of a whirlwind, and it did come, but it only knocked a few windows open. They acted like they didn't mind, but I know they were very worried."

"That's why you haven't told them about the sign in Heracles?"

"What would I say? 'A great danger is coming!'" She quavered her voice like a traveling soothsayer. "'What danger I know not, but danger! Danger!' And then I ask them for money. Four."

They lay together, silent in the night.

"Did you give them as good as you got? Your friends." She sounded mildly worried.

"Oh, of course," he said. "And I got to leave early. They needed me at the negotiation. Skiouros was in Rome too long, forgot all but the most learned Greek, and Dormios speaks in low Greek when he's heated."

"Are they going well?"

"I think they are. Tertius is a champion at finding solutions that make everyone happy. I doubt it takes more than another day."

"And then you will go."

A falling star went by, uncounted.

"And then I must go."

"What are we going to do without each other?"

His heart ached, and he looked into the sky and he wanted to fall in, to wrap the girl in his arms and drift through the skies forever, a new constellation for the two of them.

She fell asleep first, and he covered her with her blanket and descended the ladder with heavy steps.

He woke early from uncomfortable dreams and took a walk to clear his mind. The house of Dormios was ghostly in the dawn light, like a waypoint to the netherworld, its ancient stone walls out of their natural use, blasphemous by their emptiness. The agora was misty and blue.

Someone was sleeping in the middle. "A beggar?" mumbled Caelus, more bleary than he had thought he was. Dormios took great care to ensure beggars had roofs to sleep under.

The man was wiry and tanned, like most of the laborers of that region, and his hands were pressed to his side. Caelus knelt to inspect him. He was shivering, barely breathing.

He stirred and weakly opened his eyes. Caelus looked back with growing horror. "Bandits," the man said. "Great. Danger." Under his hands was a bandage, stained dark, seeping blood.