“Tell me again, but truthfully this time.”
I stifled a yawn. Suffering my father’s attention was ever an unpleasant experience, but doing so half asleep and stiff from a fight was a special kind of torture. I’d been roused from a dead sleep at the break of dawn, only a couple hours after Sol and I had parted ways, and informed by a nervous slave that my father required my presence in the courtyard. His expression upon my arrival made his mood all too clear.
I’d known there would be consequences for the mess we’d made, but I’d hoped to get half a night’s sleep first. Hell, I was still half-drunk on spirit wine.
“I’ll tell you again, father, I was the first to leave the symposia. How am I to know what those burdens to the earth did with their whores in my absence?”
My father gave me a look. Nearly every slave doing morning maintenance of the gardens suddenly realized they had forgotten a crucial tool or alternative task that took precedence, and hurried back into the estate. Feh. Cowards.
“Those burdens to the earth are your sworn brothers. And within these walls, they are your responsibility.” My father’s pneuma swept down on me, tightly controlled and utterly dominant, like an eagle with talons spread. I winced as a migraine started to form.
Damon Aetos was imposing by any standard, and that was while in a good mood. Even seated with legs and arms crossed, his stature was imposing. At his full height he stood head and shoulders taller than the average philosopher within the cult, who themselves were head and shoulders taller than the average citizen. His pristine white tunic with its scarlet trim did little to hide his powerful tanned build, a perfect match to any one of the sculptures within the courtyard. His beard was full, distinguished. His eyes were sky blue.
My father was a harsh man, but fair. My furthest memories of him were lessons taught and re-taught until properly learned. Swift punishment for failure - and for success, new lessons. Every action he took was heavy with intent. To hear the elder philosophers of the cult tell it, it was his work alone that had pulled the Rosy Dawn Cult up from the brink of ruin decades ago, and his vision primarily that drove it forward each day to greater heights.
It was easy to believe them, when Damon Aetos was a philosopher in the Realm of Tyrants.
“You didn’t deny what I called them,” I pointed out. Unfortunately for my father, I was his son. If I cowered at every sharp look or scowl he sent my way I’d have never left my room as a child.
“Only a fool denies that the sun rises.” He snorted. “And only a fool feels the need to point it out. The difference between you and the rest of the initiates is already clear. What do you think constantly referencing it will accomplish?”
“I enjoy their reactions,” I said honestly.
“Finally a true statement.” The talons of his pneuma released me, and I sighed in relief as the pressure behind my eyes relaxed. “Let’s see if you can manage another. I’ll ask one last time. Who dared to defile our filial pools with their blood last night?”
“It’s a mystery, father.” And so it was. We’d both been beaten bloody by the end of things, but who was to say when the bleeding had started and whose had stained the clear waters red? Could have been mine, could have been Sol’s, could have been both. Truly a mystery worthy of the Rosy Dawn.
Damon Aetos was spectacularly unimpressed. “Ignorance is your answer, then. So be it.” He stood and regarded the statue within the tainted pool. They were of a height with one another. “You’ll clean this pool yourself. And all the rest, while you’re at it.”
Son of a bitch.
“I should have hung you out to dry,” I snarled, dunking a bucket into the soiled pool and dumping its contents into a larger clay jug. The slaves that had fled my father’s presence had yet to return. That left me alone with the one slave that had been audacious enough to continue working in close proximity to a displeased Tyrant.
Sol shrugged, filling his own jug.
Maintaining the courtyard was a daily ritual. The filial pools were drained and that water was used for the gardens. The marble pools were then thoroughly cleaned, each and every one, and refilled from the rivers that wound throughout the Rosy Dawn Cult’s estate lands. It was a time-consuming process that was normally attended to by several sets of hands.
It was also slave work. Literally anything else would have been a better use of my time. I could have been asleep.
“Pain in my ass. All because I pointed out that your city’s a pile of salted ash-”
A clay jug filled with water shattered against my head, drenching me. I looked up, wide eyed.
Sol hummed a soft tune as he went about his work sans jug.
My bucket soared on eagle wings.
Álikos, the scarlet city, was a vast expanse of civil engineering that wound like a serpent through the valley gap between two mountain ranges in the southernmost reach of the Mediterranean. The city’s wealth was reflected in its architecture, even the poorest sections boasting stone-walled homes with the distinct scarlet-baked clay roofs that gave the city its name. Rivers ran like veins through the valley, dividing the city into districts bridged by stone arches.
The wealthiest districts of the city radiated outward from a central point - the Scarlet Stadium. It was a massive edifice, a half dome carved into the earth that could seat tens of thousands of spectators. Gymnasiums, bath houses, and wealthy estates alike rippled out like waves around it, each one built on smooth stone foundations and supported by columns of scarlet stone.
Be it for business, recreation, or simple living, every citizen coveted proximity to the grand venue where the city’s finest gathered to compete.
Throughout the valley city, and especially on the banks of the rivers that cut through it, life flourished. Olive and fig trees abounded. Bird song was thick where the trees grew closest together, and cows, goats, and sheep were common sights, especially at the edges where the city brushed up against the mountains.
At the peak of the western mountain range, where the sun touched the earth as day turned to night, the Burning Dusk Cult’s estate rose gaudy and proud on pillars of twilight stone. It sprawled across the top of the mountain, and in the moments before the sun vanished fully from the sky its rooftops glowed like fire.
Perched atop the opposing eastern mountain range was the Rosy Dawn Cult. It was, naturally, superior in every way.
Regardless, it was still on top of a mountain.
The rivers were not.
“Tell me, slave-”
“Right. Tell me, Sol.” His eyes rolled. “Who taught you how to fight?” I adjusted the yoke over my right shoulder. Eight clay jugs full of water swayed back and forth as we scaled the mountain path leading to the main estate. With any luck, it would be our last trip from the river.
“... My father, at first,” Sol eventually said. He had a yoke of his own slung over his left shoulder. “Later, when I was ten, the legions.”
“That young?” I asked, surprised.
“I wasn’t serving at first. My father was called up and chose to bring me with him. The legionaries thought I was amusing - they would offer to show me techniques and spar with me while my father was busy.” There was something fond and wistful in his eyes as his eyes gazed upon something I couldn’t see. It made him look like a different person entirely. “By the time my mother made it out to our camp the next summer and demanded that I return home, I had already decided the ranks were where I belonged.”
“I didn’t realize the legions knew how to fight,” I mused. Then, before the touchy slave tackled me down the mountain, I amended, “Properly, I mean. Unarmed, man to man.”
“The legions are roaming cities that exist to do war. Why would single unarmed combat be a priority?” There it was, that disdainful gaze. Like looking in a mirror. “Lack of need does not equate to lack of ability. There were always at least a few men looking for a brawl during leisure hours. Only, they didn’t strip down and slather themselves in oil first.”
“Ho, is the Roman looking down on me? My body is chiseled from marble and it was my own hands that did the work. Why should I be ashamed of it?”
“Pride is a vice.”
“Pride is virtue if your heart is true.”
Sol frowned pensively. We scaled the mountain in silence, the midday sun beating down on our backs. I had missed two meals and a private morning instruction with one of the elder philosophers of the cult, but I found myself not caring all that much. Tending the pools and gathering water was slave work, but it was rigorous and the company was good. Honestly, I might have preferred it this way.
The more we spoke, the more I was convinced that Sol was not just another cultivator from a far-flung barbarian culture. The way he carried himself, his upbringing, they painted a vivid picture. Our origins rhymed.
This slave was no slave at all.
He was a young patrician.
When we had nearly reached the top of the mountain where the rough stone merged seamlessly with marble steps, Sol finally spoke again. Gray eyes narrowed in confusion.
“But why the oil?”