Caelus was immersed in darkness. He drifted in anger and pain, lost in a formless dream. A terrible stench filled his nostrils and he jerked awake.
The darkness remained, but with the smell of sweat and night soil, and the warmth of bodies and the sound of breathing.
"Quiet," whispered Gaius. "Be... quiet."
"Where are we?" he whispered back.
"We," whispered Skiouros, "are in an outhouse. That pretty one with the gables."
"I hoped it was Dis."
"It should have been Dis," said Gaius.
"What do you remember?"
"We were fighting the bandits. We were losing. They... they got Esson."
Gaius sighed, the pain fresh.
"They brought out the oracle girl," he said, "and you lost your mind."
Caelus' head ached as he strained for the memory. "I would."
"You ran out of the house screaming. Went straight for her. The bandit king laid you out. We thought you were dead."
"I didn't put up a fight?"
"You tried," said Skiouros. "The man moves like a snake. Caught you straight on the temple. Split your helmet."
"We snuck you out when they were building the bonfire," said Tertius in a low voice. "They're sure to have sentries around the town, like we should have. We can wait here until morning and try to run then."
"Not without her," said Caelus, his voice louder than intended.
"Ssh. If we walk fast, we can make Therme in a day and a half, come back with a legion," said Skiouros. "We can rescue her then."
"We can't," said Tertius. "Between the slaves here and those at their camp, they're sure to be loading their boats heavy. They'll be long gone when the legions arrive."
"What are you trying-"
The Greek was cut off. "This is no time for lies, Skiouros. If I keep Caelus because of one I'll lose his respect, which I value highly. Caelus. We have lost. I would have run away sooner but for Phaidria's hope of a miracle. Now that hope is gone. Nepho is gone."
Caelus convulsed in anger, flailing about for the door. Sweaty hands held him back until he calmed.
"She will be sold to some wealthy Persian as a maid for his daughter, if she's lucky, or as a concubine. She will die in bondage. Agesilaus will raid more towns until he is caught. There is nothing you can do about it. Do you understand?"
He spoke in Latin, the sensible tongue, and though Caelus hated it he could not deny it.
"When the gods gave man reason they knew men like Agesilaus would be a hazard of it. That is why they gave us organization, and that is why my work is so vitally important. What do you think can stop him? Or stop the next one?"
Caelus felt his head throbbing, remembered a flash of white, a leering grin beneath a helmet.
"Rome can. Victoria in a chariot, with a sword in one hand and a bag of money in the other. The legions can stop robbers and bandits, but men like him will only rise to the challenge. What I'm doing is setting him another challenge, showing him a man can become wealthy and renowned without splitting skulls or burning houses. I want him to see that he is losing money - losing money! - by robbing people, that if he did as I do he could be rich as a king yet beloved by all, not cowering in some secluded bay waiting for the storm to pass.
He listened, chin to his chest. His hand rested on graffiti carved into the wooden wall of the outhouse, and he aimlessly traced it with his finger.
"Come with me!" Tertius' voice was raised almost to a normal speaking voice, but it reverberated like a shout.
Caelus felt the angular shapes of the Latin alphabet under his fingers, and in the darkness he read the inscription one letter at a time.
"Come with me," he repeated. "You need to put yourself aside, and think of another Caelus, and another Nepho, in another town, whose sweet young love you might have saved if you had simply been alive."
"I love her more than life itself," said Caelus, and his voice quavered as the words came out, and he realized it.
"You met her three days ago," said Skiouros.
"My friend would not trifle with such words," said Gaius.
"I cannot keep you," he said. "Gaius, let him out." They fumbled and groaned as they pulled away from the door, and Gaius opened the latch, to sweet night air, an orange glow, and cruel laughter in the distance.
Caelus stumbled from the outhouse, and Gaius shut the door.
Tertius quivered, and tried to hold back his sobs, but they escaped him, muffled, whimpering, each one a prayer.
Caelus crept around the houses to the agora. As he approached, the light of the bonfire drowned out the stars; compared to their pure light the agora was a circle of darkness, cut off from the heavens.
All the tools and furniture the bandits couldn't carry with them were in a pile, with all the wood for the winter. The town square was Agesilaus sat on the decorated chair from the temple. The townspeople were bound with rope, huddled in a tight group, surrounded by soldiers.
He scanned the group for Nepho, desperately seeking a way to pull her out, his head pounding, his mind running slowly while his heart tried to beat its way out of his ribcage.
She was at the base of Agesilaus' throne, so rumpled he had missed her at first. She stared into the sky, her expression distant, listless.
Caelus turned, a half-formed plan of approaching from the back in his mind, perhaps wearing a bandit's clothing, but the world spun before him and he collapsed on the ground. By the time he had his arms under him a pair of soldiers had arrived. They held him by his shoulders and brought him before their leader.
"So I did see Romans," said Agesilaus, in a refined, temperate Greek. "Are you a spy for the procurator?"
Caelus caught his breath, held back his vomit. "I am Caelus Geminius of Rome. I am here as a guard for Tertius Nau-"
One of the soldiers punched him in the gut, and he vomited on the ground. Nepho stared at him in pain and horror.
"Did you know I was coming?" asked the bandit king. "Was Esson in your party?"
"Esson retired here," said Caelus. "He was a man of peace!"
The soldier pulled his arm back for another blow. As Agesilaus nodded at him Nepho let out a shriek.
Caelus had never heard her even raise her voice. The sound was heartrending, inhuman. The soldiers by Agesilaus' throne backed away.
"Hear ye, hear ye, you who call themselves the sons of Lacedaemonia!" Nepho's voice was loud and deep, and her eyes rolled back in their sockets. "Hear the voice of Athena, who you dishonor by your brigandage!"
The soldiers gathered from around the camp, close enough to see, far enough away that she might not touch them, backing farther away as she continued.
"By my decree have the Achaians been cursed in battle and the Romans blessed. By their conquest they have glorified me."
"Though you slaughter your own mothers, harm not this Roman!"
Caelus stared in awe, awe that broke down into pity, as he heard her voice waver.
Her gambit seemed to have worked. The soldiers beside him let him go and backed away. A murmuring arose from the armed body. Nepho collapsed, shuddering.
"Do not touch him!" shouted Agesilaus. He stood, hand raised. "Was that the voice of the goddess we have heard?"
Assents from the crowd. Nods. Mutterings.
"Let it not be known that Agesilaus, king of Sparta, hates the divine! Let us heed the council of... oh... what's this?"
His arms twitched. His eyes rolled back. He threw his head back and roared.
"Hear ye! Hear ye! Son of the she-wolf!"
The murmurings turned from fearful to wondering.
"Hear the voice of Ares, he who destroys! I seek carnage, and the reign of terror, and this king is my champion! Let our wills be decided in single combat!"
Agesilaus' affected ecstasy ended in an instant, and he looked at Caelus with sharp eyes of triumph. Nepho stared helplessly. The bandits cheered.
Someone handed him a sword. He stared at it. It seemed a pair of swords in a pair of hands. His vision doubled as he watched the bandit king approach.
He raised his sword in a defensive stance. Agesilaus ignored it entirely. His sword flicked out faster than Caelus could follow. Caelus felt a burning pain in his left arm as Agesilaus' sword lashed out again, this time at his thigh.
He countered. Agesilaus was gone. Something hit the back of his head. More cheers from the troops. More groans from the captives. A cut in his right arm. Holding the sword was torture. Standing was torture. Thinking was torture.
He held the sword. He stood. He thought of Nepho.
He bled from a dozen places. Agesilaus towered over him. The bonfire leaped like a volcano's mouth. Overhead something burned, shot white from the Eagle, and burst.
For an instant night fled. Astiri was bright and green and brown, rich in color after the garish bonfire, the blasphemous firelight; a vision of a peaceful village where soldiers come to find peace. All eyes looked upward, and the light intensified, and all eyes burned - all eyes but those of Caelus, for he was the sky of summer, he was the blue of midday, and he knew that light.
He sprinted at the staggering bandit king, and up beneath the muscle-shaped breastplate he shoved his borrowed sword, through skin and bowel and heart, and Agesilaus, last king of the Spartans, fell over dead.
The light of the meteor faded. The agora was again lit by a bonfire, but the soldiers that surrounded it lay prostrate, in worship and awe of the hero and his oracle, and she ran and embraced him, and covered his mouth in sweet kisses and his cheeks in hot tears.
And with bloody arms he held her close, her heart to his, connected more deeply and mysteriously than the stars are to the earth, and above they burned, holding their secrets close once more.