Days passed. It was amusing, the places you crossed paths with someone.
At dawn, ducking into the kitchens for a morsel and encountering a surly Roman applying altogether too much force to the bread dough he was kneading, to the dismay of the slave girl trying to teach him. Glancing into an open bedroom on the way to the courtyard to see him fitting a sheet over a featherbed with meticulous precision. Paying the youngest of the initiates a visit during their leisure hours, and finding them gleefully playing one of his legion dice games.
And here he was again, attending in the Rosy Dawn’s gymnasium while mystikos of varying ages trained their bodies and minds under the gymnasiarch’s watchful eyes. Sol, for his part, stared sightlessly ahead. Cloth towels were draped over one of his arms, and a jug of olive oil was cradled in the other.
His disgust with the situation was plainly apparent as I approached.
“Be honored, Sol,” I told him, shucking my tunic and tossing it over his shoulder. His upper lip twitched. “It isn’t every day a barbarian lays eyes on our divine cultivation in motion.”
“Where is it?” he asked tonelessly. “All I see is bare ass.”
“Lust is a sin,” I chided him. He sneered fully. “Turn your eyes to the palaestra and try to control your urges, you just might learn something. Ah, first though.” I spread my arms wide, nodding to the jug.
He didn’t hesitate. “Never.”
“The Young Aristocrat demands it.”
“Allow this one to assist the Young Aristocrat!” A man in slave garb interjected. Sol’s teeth clicked together, though I could guess as to the words that had almost left his mouth. The older slave’s frantic movement and tightly controlled terror as he rubbed me down with olive oil spoke volumes. He’d known it too.
“Next time,” I said, amused, and left him to his work.
To reach the palaestra, the marbled octagon where pankration was practiced and refined, one first had to pass through the central plaza where young men gathered to socialize and trade discourse. Mystikos called out cheerfully to me as I passed, some attempting to coax me over to talk or participate in whatever gymnastics they happened to be practicing. Most knew better, though. I accepted friendly slaps on the shoulder and exchanged greetings with initiates as I passed, but my sights were set.
I stepped onto the raised octagon and rolled my shoulders, surveying the current match.
No, that wouldn’t do at all.
“Cease!” The two initiates froze. They were each younger than me, but not by much. They’d been locked in the ground game when I spoke, the larger of the two struggling to submit his opponent with a leg wrapped around his neck and an arm pinned to his side.
“Old Perdix takes time out of his day to watch you two roll, and this is what you give him?” I waved a hand and they hurriedly disengaged from one another, taking a knee in front of me. Each of them heaved for breath, sweat mingling with oil on their bodies as they awaited judgement. I supposed I couldn’t fault their effort. Their form, though? Hells.
Old Perdix watched on in amusement just outside the octagon. He was one of the cult’s elder philosophers, a respected cultivator of advanced rank as well as the cult’s gymnasiarch. The daily physical and mental training of the cult’s young men was his responsibility, and within the gymnasium’s walls his word was second only to my father’s. I waited until he inclined his head, and then I went to work on the initiates.
“Aktis and Sinon, correct?” The two nodded silently. “The palaestra is for pankration. If you’ve come here to rub up against one another like needy whores, the baths are over there.” I hooked a thumb to the pools in question on the opposite side of the plaza, where a dozen mystikos were currently playing a ball game.
“We’re here to fight!” The smaller of the two insisted. His partner nodded firmly.
“So you say. But are you here to learn?”
Their eyes lit up.
It is said that there are as many paths to cultivating virtue as there are ways to climb Olympus Mons. Every path, followed with a clear mind and a virtuous heart, leads to the same place - the peak of the divine mountain, where men become gods and the Fates weave their threads. It is a simple progression. Of course, the climb is rarely straightforward.
There are four cardinal realms, each standing on the shoulders of those preceding it.
At the very base of Olympus Mons is the Civic Realm, where the vast majority of Mediterranean citizens live their lives. While ascension to the Civic Realm is a requirement for citizenship in every city-state, it is not a particularly difficult bar to clear - provided you are a free man, and not a slave. Ascending past that, however, is a different story.
From birth until death, it is not at all uncommon for a citizen of the Scarlet City to never advance past the third rank of the first realm. It is called the Realm of Citizens for a reason. Harnessing the power of one’s own pneuma, their invigorating breath, and bidding it to multiply is the deliberate work of a lifetime.
Cultivation is a race to heaven. It is the refinement of the tripartite soul, an ever precarious balancing act between the three elements of self - cold reason, burning emotion, and ravenous hunger. It is commitment to a life spent tempting heaven’s wrath.
It is no surprise that most choose to tend farms or sell wares instead.
For those that choose to tempt the Fates, and are talented enough to do so, there exists a second realm above the first. The Sophic Realm, where sophists toil. It is widely agreed that this is where the climb truly begins, and it is where the vast majority of cultivators languish until their dying days. The Realm of Philosophers is where government officials and military officers are groomed and selected.
Within the Rosy Dawn Cult, every elder is a philosopher of advanced rank. There are even a few prodigies, too young to be true elders but sophists in their souls, who have ascended to the coveted second realm.
The third realm is one that the common cultivator never reaches. At this state of being the soul becomes an entity of its own, immune to the ravages of time and dazzling in its brilliance. Only men of the highest virtue and the most egregious audacity ever set foot in this hallowed realm. Generals, revolutionaries, and hunters of monsters.
It is the Heroic Realm, and its members are the subject of epics.
Above the third realm, where the heavens obscure all mortal sight with storm clouds and wrath, there is a fourth. For after all, the general is still a soldier following orders. The revolutionary is often put down. The monsters sometimes win.
The Tyrannic Realm is the pinnacle of enlightened cultivation. It is where rulers of men reside. It’s where I’ll be someday.
But cultivation is not the work of a single day, or a single act. It’s a thousand virtuous steps, and each one is a refinement of the body and the mind. It is impossible to have one without the other. A scholar is learned. An athlete is robust.
A cultivator is both. And as this wisdom was passed on to him, so is it his duty to pass it on.
Sinon grunted in agony as I pulled him over my shoulder and slammed him to the stone. He had tried to take me on while standing, but his striking form was as pitiful as his ground game, and I’d easily grappled him. Aktis had already committed to a running tackle by the time I turned, but the fool had lowered his head to avoid my fists. I slammed a knee up into his nose and sent him skittering back across the octagon. The sickening crunch of cartilage echoed as he quickly forced it back into place, eyes watering.
They were both in the fifth rank of the Civic Realm. The difference between us was already absurd without factoring in their utter lack of technique. The former I excuse, as it was only natural that my cultivation surpassed their own. The latter, though?
“Reinforcement is not good enough,” I snapped. They wore their pneuma like armor and trembled behind it just the same. “We are not soldiers! We cultivate virtue, and virtue is performative excellence!”
Sinon regained his feet and rushed me, knowing better than to stop fighting just because I was speaking. I leaned away from a straight cross and slapped a right hook contemptuously aside, headbutting him viciously. He fell flat on his ass, dazed.
I stalked towards Aktis. He feinted a jab and then swung his other elbow at my temple. I caught it in one hand and threw it wide, sending him off balance. I jabbed him once in the kidney and swept his feet out from under him. He lay on his back and wheezed.
“I’m not using any more pneuma than you two right now, and yet look at the difference between us.” I hadn’t even started to sweat. “What have you been doing with your time here?”
“Perhaps they’ve been focusing on more relevant forms of combat.”
I turned and beheld an initiate approaching the octagon, naked but for a belt with a sword strapped to it. He was tall, nearly as tall as me, with long curly blond hair and sharply defined features. There was an eager smirk on his face.
His pneuma rose. Civic Realm, eighth rank.
Castor. I knew him all too well.
“You must be lost, junior brother,” I said blithely. “This is where initiates practice true combat. The sword ring is over in the southwest corner.”
“Senior brother is never there,” Castor returned, unbelting his sword and rotating it in his grip. It was a medium length and had an edge on both sides. A duelist’s blade. “It’s been weeks since our last bout. Can you blame me for seeking your guidance?”
“Come, then,” I invited him. Even stepped aside, so that he could climb up unobstructed. “Drop your sword and step into the octagon.”
He made no move to do so. “Ah, but pankration isn’t my path. That was made clear last time, I’m sure senior can agree. This lowly sophist seeks guidance in his sword forms.”
“I am not carrying a sword,” I pointed out. However, instead of procuring another one as I’d expected, he only smiled brightly.
“That is fortunate. I was hoping to practice against an unarmed opponent.”
Aktis and Sinon stared at him, aghast, and they weren’t alone. The palaestra naturally drew spectators within the gymnasium, especially when I was in the octagon. Dozens of initiates had already been watching my impromptu instruction of my juniors. Now they were waving over others in the plaza, hurriedly spreading the word.
“Excuse me?” I said quietly.
“It’s common knowledge that the Young Aristocrat reigns supreme in the octagon,” Castor said deferentially. “And in your own words, pankration is the pinnacle of martial combat. Is that not so?”
“Then there should be no danger for you to humor this junior initiate in his attempts to broaden his understanding of the sword. Is that not so?” Castor looked to the gymnasiarch, who up until this point had pointedly not said a word. The old philosopher leaned against the side of the marble octagon, considering us both for a moment.
“If the Young Aristocrat deigns to accept, I will moderate,” he eventually said.
Ah, now I understood. I was being called out.
I hated politics.
Through the press of the growing crowd of spectators, I spotted a flash of white cloth. A clothed figure in a sea of naked bodies. Sol remained in the same place I had found him upon entering, but he was no longer staring dully at the far columns of the gymnasium. His head was turned, looking to the crowd.
Looking at me.
“Come then,” I said. Aktis and Sinon scrambled off the octagon while Castor ascended, an eager smile on his face.
“I thank you, senior brother.”
I scoffed. “Take notes.”
Castor’s pneuma roared like a flame, and in an instant he was beside me. His sword lashed for my throat.
I rolled my shoulders, waving off hollers and cheers as I crossed the plaza and grabbed myself a towel. It was poor form to enter the baths while covered in blood.
“You’ll want to head over there once the crowd has thinned,” I informed the slave. “I made a mess.”
Sol hummed thoughtfully. “He wasn’t very good.”
“Few are,” I agreed, scrubbing the oil and sweat from my hair.
“I’d have beaten him in chains.”
A laugh burst from my lips against my will. I raised my hands to heaven, stretching and relishing in my victory, and only laughed harder when I saw Castor staggering out of the gymnasium with the assistance of two other mystikos.
“Ah, that felt good,” I said, feeling light with mirth. “I’m ready for a bath. Care to join me?”
Unfortunate, then, that he was standing where he was.
I kicked him into the pools and dove in after.