“Am I boring you, young Aetos?” an old man asked me. He was a philosopher, eighth rank within the sophic realm, with a beard that hung down to his chest and bushy white eyebrows. He was in the midst of sorting a book’s worth of loose papers spread across the table between us, each sheet covered in numeric equations and geometric formations. He was the cult’s resident master of the pythagorean virtues and had been a tutor of mine since I was a boy.
He was also, yes, boring me.
“You are,” I told him freely. “I think I’ve had my fill of you for today.”
For a man of such advanced cultivation, he was easy enough to read. He resented our time together. I’d known that much since I was a boy. He suffered from the same delusions that many of the cult’s elders did- that they continued to exist for any reason other than my father’s mercy, and that they would ever contribute anything to the world that my father had not already mastered and internalized.
It made it hard to take any of them particularly seriously. This one was particularly surly about the private instruction my father demanded all his elder philosophers give to his son, to the point that he made even otherwise interesting topics miserable.
“Your father expects these forms to be finished by dinner,” the elder warned. As much as I knew he’d love to send me on my way, within these walls the word of Damon Aetos was absolute.
“Naturally.” So I swept the papers into a messy stack and rolled them up, utterly ruining the sorting he’d been doing. His expression tightened. His pneuma flickered, ever so slightly. Alas, he held his tongue. “I’ll deliver them myself.”
“If the work is not properly done-”
“It will be on my head,” I finished, standing from the table and turning my back on him. “As always your instruction has been invaluable. Truly, I had eyes before today, but now I finally see.”
“The pleasure is mine,” he said, a model of restraint.
They were all so dull.
“Slave, with me,” I called without breaking stride. A dozen heads whipped around at the sound of my voice, but I trusted they had enough sense to know I wasn’t talking to any of them. I continued on down the hall, pondering the best place to finish my busy work and enjoy the sun while it was still bright in the sky.
Why did I not hear footsteps?
I stopped and looked behind me. There were a few initiates chatting with one another, leaning against the rails looking out into the courtyard, but no one else. I frowned, doubling back to the kitchen entrance.
Once more a dozen slaves looked up from their work in unison, radiating confusion and anxiety in varying amounts. All but one, stood over a table in the back with a mound of dough in his hands. Beside him, the same slave girl that I’d seen teaching him to knead dough the other day tugged frantically at his sleeve, eyes wide as she looked at me. He brushed her hand off absent-mindedly and drove his palms into the dough.
Men and women scrambled to get out of my way as I entered the kitchen. The girl watched me approach with naked terror.
“Slave,” I said, softly, standing directly beside him. “Are you ignoring me?”
“I’m making bread,” Sol responded.
“And that takes precedence over me?” I asked curiously.
The girl sucked air through clenched teeth, looking for all the world like she wanted to leap past me and slap her hands over his mouth to silence him. The rest of the kitchen’s staff stood frozen in their work, eyeing me like a goat eyes a mountain cat. I considered him.
“Fair enough,” I decided, sweeping the rest of the table’s contents to the floor and tossing down my papers. The girl and another slave scrambled to gather the materials up while I sat myself on the tabletop, picking a sheet at random and glancing over it.
“What do you know of the quadrivium?” I asked him, pulling a slotted stick of reed from behind my ear and filling in the papyrus sheet. “Rome has discovered numbers by now, hasn’t it?”
“We prefer to use our fingers.”
I snorted, picking up another sheet of papyrus. More arithmetic, this time couched in the logistics of a supply chain between Álikos and the Rosy Dawn. It was nothing I didn’t already know. The elder knew that, which meant my father knew it too. Yet here I was wasting my time with it anyway.
“It’s all the same work,” I said, exasperated. “Work orders, internal disputes, negotiations with city vendors. Day in and day out. What lesson am I supposed to learn from endless repetition, other than that the life of a kyrios is miserably dull?”
“Strong foundations build tall cities.”
“And many hands make light work.” I flicked a few sheets over his way. He continued kneading his dough, but I was patient.
Sol could act as stoic as he liked, but at the end of the day a cultivator needed more stimulation than a lump of dough and endless chores.
Soon enough he was leaning against the table, poring over a papyrus sheet with that same focused intensity he’d applied to making bread. Slaves cast furtive glances to us every now and then, especially the girl with the dark braided hair, but none of them spoke. The scent of fresh fruits and baking bread hung heavy in the room.
“This is light work,” Sol mused, tapping the second reed stick I’d brought with me rhythmically against a papyrus sheet. “All arithmetic, as well. When do you do practical work?”
“When it pleases me,” I said, setting aside another finished sheet.
Sol rolled his eyes. “Better a slave than father to a Greek.” There came a crash and a panicked curse as someone dropped a dish. I only grinned.
“Enlighten this lowly sophist,” I said mockingly. “What was your sublime cultivating regimen?”
He considered me out of the corner of his eye for a moment, then flipped the sheet he’d been working on and began writing on its blank side. A soldier’s regimented schedule came to life on the page, down to the absurd portioning of time for things like maintaining armor and stretching before exercise. He may as well have been drawing a picture of a cell on the page.
“Numbers require theoretical and practical application in balance with one another,” he said, as he went. “The quadrivium is worthless if its four points aren’t given equal attention. Musical practice in the afternoons, astronomy after dusk. Drills hone the body…”
“I think I’d rather be a slave,” I admitted, watching him portion narrower and narrower blocks of time. Hm. I leaned forward, tapping a block simply labeled ‘dice’. “And how does this balance the soul?”
We went back and forth like that. Dinner came and went, discussions of daily routines and the benefits of tightly scheduled leisure turned to the topic of military life in general. We ate at that table, and when the girl with the dark braid nervously asked if the Young Aristocrat would like anything else for the night I waved her out with the rest of them.
It was nearly dawn when Sol flatly informed me that he had work to do in the morning, and was too busy to entertain me all night and day.
I dropped the work forms off in my father’s study as the rosy-fingered dawn breached the heavens. They were late. My tutor had surely been reprimanded for his negligence the night before. A tragedy, to be sure.
My bed was soft, the sheets cool and inviting, but I was still too invigorated for sleep.
“... too busy for me, eh?”
I gave up and went looking for my slave.