The Caged Dove
Life in the Rosy Dawn Cult was terrifying.
Athis knew it was an ungrateful fear. She knew that her fortune had been immeasurably good to be chosen for service in Scarlet City’s premier cult of greater mysteries. It was said that a slave answered only to their master, but the reality of things was that slaves answered to whoever could freely command them. Forced to choose between insulting a stronger cultivator or parting with a slave, a weak master would always make the latter choice.
Fortunately, there was no man within the Scarlet City stronger than Damon Aetos. Unlike many female slaves, she would never be snatched off the streets in the midst of her work. No man was mad enough to spit in the face of the Rosy Dawn.
But that did not mean she was safe. It did not mean she could rest easy at night. The reputation of the Rosy Dawn’s kyrios protected her from external dangers, but it could not protect her from the cult itself.
“It’s alright,” Pervica whispered, peering out into the halls surrounding the courtyard. “They’re gone.” The faint jeering and laughter of young men echoed in the stone. Athis shivered.
She had been a slave for three months, and she had learned all too quickly that she existed to Damon Aetos only as a tick on a ledger. If she was stolen or damaged by some external source, he would retaliate the same way he would if any trinket or possession of the cult was tampered with by an outsider. If it was one of his own, though?
Well, that was all too easy to overlook.
“Let’s go, before someone else comes by.” Pervica tilted her head and slipped out of the empty bedroom, and Athis hurried behind her.
They raced silently down the halls, clutching woven reed baskets filled with wool to their chests. Once they made it to the women’s quarters they would be safe, and with any luck they would be busy spinning and weaving for the rest of the day. Moments like these were the most terrifying by far. Traveling alone, without any higher authority to protect them from wandering eyes. Utterly exposed to the whim of any cultivators that might happen upon them.
“What’s this? You’re pretty for a slave.”
Athis had been a slave to the Rosy Dawn Cult for three months, but it had only taken a week for her to see what happened to a bonded girl that caught an initiate’s eye. She’d never forget it.
Pervica raced up the stairs to the second floor of the estate, shoulder-length golden hair flying behind her. She was hardly panting at all, while Athis was struggling just to keep up. Pervica had been a slave within the Rosy Dawn for over two years. She’d had much time to learn the ways of the estate. To learn how to navigate its halls, and train her body to do so with speed. Athis didn’t know where she would be if the other girl hadn’t taken her under her wing. Likely nowhere good.
They rounded a corner, so that the gardens and pools of the courtyard were on their left. The women’s quarters were at the end of the hall, a short sprint even for her. They traded relieved smiles, racing forward.
Two mystikos emerged from one of the rooms halfway down the hall, chatting animatedly with one another. Athis’ heart sank. They should have been at the gymnasium with the rest. Yet there they were. Pervicas knew the halls better than most, but even she couldn’t account for bad luck.
Her friend smoothly transitioned from a dead sprint to an unassuming walking gait in the space of two steps while Athis skittered to a stop before hurriedly approximating a more natural pace. It was a pointless effort, of course. Pervicas knew it just as well as she did. These were cultivators, citizens who had won membership within a cult of greater mysteries.
Their only hope now was that they wouldn’t care to stop them.
Athis’ heartbeat thundered in her ears as they approached one another. She didn’t recognize either of them, and if Pervicas did it didn’t show on her face. Her expression was serene. Had she not been looking for it, Athis would never have noticed the bead of sweat on her brow.
The initiates were discussing some recent lessons as they passed. She wasn’t in the right state of mind to truly listen. One of the two glanced her way, and for a moment her heart stopped. Then his gaze slid past her and they crossed.
Athis sighed, shoulders sagging in relief.
Pervicas looked back at her with wide eyes.
“Turn around, girl. Let me get another look at you.”
Oh please, no.
Athis forced herself to turn. The other initiate, the one she hadn’t locked eyes with, was staring at her speculatively. His eyes trailed up and down her body, and she bit her lip as terror and memories from not too long ago of another girl in a similar position assaulted her. She forced herself to take a breath and speak.
“How may I serve, honored mystiko?” she asked, voice tremoring only slightly.
“I can think of a few ways,” he said. He glanced sidelong at his fellow initiate, raising an eyebrow suggestively. The other initiate shrugged.
“Not my type.”
“You always did have poor taste,” he said wryly. The other initiate scoffed.
Against her will, Athis found the image of the man burning itself into her mind’s eye. He was taller than her by several palms, his body powerfully defined as cultivators tended to be. His hair was coarse and brown, the dark shadow of a beard tracing a strong jaw. His leering eyes were hazel with flakes of gold in the irises. Objectively, he was an attractive man. Athis felt her hands start to shake.
“Am I going alone, then? Make a decision,” the other initiate said impatiently. Go with your friend, Athis silently begged him. Their eyes met. She saw his decision as he made it.
“What are you two doing?”
Athis spun around, heart in her throat. A man was stalking down the hall towards them. She was saved. She was saved!
It was only when his eyes roved from Pervicas to her and no further, did she realize this was not a superior member of the cult come to chastise the two mystikos. Then she took him in fully. The state of his clothes, ragged and worn, without any of the cult’s distinctive scarlet trimming. This man was far less than even a citizen. He was another slave.
In fact, she recognized his face. He was a new arrival, even more recent than herself. What had his name been? Sabas? No… Pelonus? Not quite. It was…
“Solus?” Pervicas whispered, confused. Solus. That was it.
“The others have been waiting for that wool,” he said, tilting his head towards their destination at the end of the hall. “Enough talking. Go on. Make haste.” Athis exchanged a bewildered look with Pervicas. Solus had never spoken directly to them before this moment. As far as she knew, he’d never spoken to anyone.
But she wasn’t going to look twice at good fortune. Athis hurried to follow the command, Pervicas at her side.
Alas. Some things were too good to be true.
“Hold it, slave,” the initiate with the leering hazel eyes snapped. Athis froze. “Who gave you the right to interrupt a conversation between mystikos? Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?”
Finally, Solus looked at the two cultivators in the hall. To her astonishment, there was no fear in his eyes. He did not quake with the sudden realization of the insult he’d just offered a sworn initiate of the Rosy Dawn. He merely eyed the initiate up and down, and then shrugged.
“I do not.”
The hazel-eyed initiate’s lips peeled back in a snarl. His companion sighed.
“Of course he doesn’t know you, Xuthus. He’s a slave. He doesn’t know anything.”
She wished he hadn’t said his name. It was so much harder to forget a face when it had a name to match it.
Xuthus scowled, striding up to Solus until they were finger lengths apart. Solus was taller than him by several inches. It only seemed to worsen his mood. Without looking, the cultivator reached out and ripped the reed basket from her arms, shoving it into Solus’ chest. The taller slave didn’t budge, though he did wrap an arm around the basket so it wouldn’t fall.
“Carry the basket yourself. I’ve decided I want some company for the night.”
“There are brothels in the city,” Solus said blithely. “These two are needed on the looms.”
The other initiate whistled. Xuthus’ face twisted in outrage. Pervicas grabbed her by the shoulder to turn her away. The last thing she saw was Xuthus’ arm rearing back and then lashing forward to backhand the intrepid slave.
Athis didn’t see what happened next. She heard it, though.
There was a piercing, shattering crack. And then Xuthus screamed.
When she looked back she could hardly believe her eyes. Xuthus had staggered several steps back and fallen to one knee, gripping his right wrist tightly. His right hand, the one that he had used to presumably backhand the slave’s head from his body, hung limp and misshapen, bone bulging against the skin in several places. Somehow, impossibly, Solus hadn’t moved an inch.
There was nothing to show for the slap except a faint red mark on his right cheek. The mystiko had shattered his hand against Solus’ face.
Xuthus’ friend crouched beside him, looking between his mangled hand and Solus with wary confusion. “What was that? What did you do to him!?” he demanded. Xuthus groaned through clenched teeth.
“Nothing,” Solus said. “I’d suggest a trip to the medico before the brothel. Would you like help getting there?”
“How did you do that?” Athis asked wonderingly as the two initiates fled down the hall, accepting the reed basket when he offered it back. Solus considered her. His gray eyes and dark features that she had found so intimidating the first time she’d seen him seemed, oddly, less so now.
He shrugged again, something faintly amused in his expression. “My mother always said I was hard-headed.”
“Why did you do that?” Pervica asked, perhaps more prudently. “You know what could happen to you, don’t you?” Solus considered that for a moment. But only for a moment.
“I know his type,” he said.
Then he was gone, striding down the hall towards whatever business he had been taking care of in the first place. That was her first experience with Solus. It wouldn’t be the last.
Absurdly enough, it wouldn’t even be the most memorable.
She found herself crossing paths with him more and more, after that. Or perhaps she was just more aware of it. Doing laundry, preparing meals, tending to the children. Each time she found herself noticing some new little detail, some quirk she had been too wary to see before.
His wrists were shackled, like many of the slaves within the Rosy Dawn. Pervicas explained that it was what one did to a slave that had already entered the realm of cultivation. The shackles prevented them from controlling their pneuma.
It was odd, though. She had seen many slaves within the estate with shackles of cold iron around their wrists, but she had never seen them chained together like his were. Pervicas wasn’t sure as to the reason either. If the lack of mobility bothered him, it didn’t show. He performed his duties easily enough.
Especially when it came to tending the children. Child care was generally delegated to the women within the slave ranks, but at times a firm touch was required. It turned out that Solus was adept at entertaining young, rowdy cultivators. He taught them games she had never heard of, showed them how to carve bone dice, and allowed them to practice on him the techniques they had seen their older brothers and sisters utilizing within the gymnasium. He bore it every time with that tolerant amusement of his.
It was during one of those occasions, when they were both minding a group of young cultivators, that he revealed he was a musician.
Athis closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the trunk of an olive tree, idly stroking a young girl’s hair while Solus lulled her and the rest of the children to sleep with the soft sounds of a lyre. One of the boys had brought it with him at his mother’s behest, and after a few minutes of tuneless plucking had declared it broken and cast it down in disgust. Solus had picked it right up and shown him otherwise.
An idea blossomed in her mind’s eye as she listened to him play that afternoon. Pervica thought she was mad for it, and insisted up and down that she would have no part of it, but when Athis slipped away during water gathering the following day to catch a tortoise it was Pervica that helped her kill the animal and clean out its shell.
Assembling the rest of the components was the grueling work of days in-between her usual duties as a slave, and the final product was nothing close to the fine ivory and bronze instrument the young cultivator had so carelessly disdained. Even so, it played fine, and her heart swelled with pride when she presented it to him.
“I’ve wanted to thank you for a while now,” she said. She’d grown comfortable with him since that time. In a way, she felt almost as safe with him around as she did in the women’s quarters. Even so, she felt shy as he carefully accepted the lyre, his expression unreadable.
“You made this?” he asked, running a finger across the sheep’s gut strings.
“I had help,” she admitted. “But… the way you played, I thought it would be a shame to never hear it again.”
Those stony gray eyes crinkled at their edges. It was a small, barely seen thing, but he smiled for her. Her heart raced.
“I’ll play it tonight,” he told her. “After dinner.”
She couldn’t wait.
Dinner came and went, but Athis never got to hear him play. The Young Aristocrat had decided to gather the Rosy Dawn Cult’s finest young initiates for an evening symposia, and Solus had been conscripted for the dinner service. Pervicas and the rest of the girls were already settling in for the night when the party began, and she could only lay awake, waiting, for so long. She drifted off to sleep disappointed.
The crooning of a lyre woke her up. It was faint, drifting through the cracks between the doors like smoke. She lay still, holding her breath and listening intently. No, she wasn’t hearing things. He was playing.
Athis carefully slipped out from under wool blankets, stepping silently over Pervicas and the rest of the girls between her and the door. She eased it open and peered out, making sure the halls were empty before stepping out.
It was only a few steps to the rail that looked down over the courtyard with its shadowed gardens and filial pools, and she crouched beside it, looking down. The pools all but glowed with reflected moonlight, clearly illuminating the two young men lounging by one of them. She recognized them both. For a moment Athis couldn’t breathe.
That Solus was in the courtyard alone for no legitimate purpose, that he had dipped his feet in a filial pool, was shocking enough. But what made her heart clench was the other young man leaning against a pillar and watching over his shoulder as he played. He was as unmistakable to her as Solus.
Everyone within the Rosy Dawn knew the Young Aristocrat’s face.
But as the slave continued to play and the cultivator made no move to stop him, it became clear that Solus wasn’t in trouble. At least not for the moment. Athis watched them through the gaps in the railing, but as the minutes passed and her anxiety for him eased, the music began to take precedence in her thoughts.
He really was talented. Even her pitiful lyre sang like sweet doves in his hands. Athis leaned against the railing, closing her eyes and allowing the melody to fill her senses. Her awareness drifted.
A crash jolted her awake. Athis whipped her head around, looking up and down the halls, but they were empty. Then, realizing where she was and what she had come out here for, she looked down to the courtyards.
Terror overtook her as she watched Solus and the Young Aristocrat crash into a filial pool.
Her hands flew up to cover her mouth as they struck each other over and over. She nearly screamed when the Young Aristocrat wound arms and legs around him like a serpent and wrestled him down into the water. She couldn’t believe her eyes. This couldn’t be real!
Athis stumbled to her feet and rushed back into the women’s quarters, just barely making it back to her spot on the floor without stepping on any of the other girls and curling into a tight ball beneath her blanket.
I just watched a man die.
She didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
The next morning Solus gave her a nod as he passed by, carrying a yoke laden with water jugs. The Young Aristocrat walked in-step beside him with a matching load slung over his shoulder. Carrying water and chatting away like he was just another slave.
Athis turned and watched them go, having stumbled to a dead stop at the sight of him. Alive and well. After striking the Young Aristocrat. He was-
Ah. She’d dropped the laundry.