“You said we were going monster hunting,” Myron, my littlest cousin, grumbled, petulantly swiping wheat stalks out of his face. “You’re a liar. Lio the Liar.”
Spring had turned to summer, and we were traversing one of the Rosy Dawn’s many farms. Located on the other side of the eastern mountain range from the city, the cult’s agricultural lands stretched nearly to the coast on the horizon, where the Ionian Sea loomed. Fields of barley and wheat and vast olive orchards made up the bulk of the cult’s yearly crops, though there were small fig orchards scattered throughout the landscape as well.
The land was practically swarming with slaves and had been for weeks now. It was harvesting season, and this year was shaping up to be a plentiful one.
Idly, I smacked the back of my cousin’s head for his cheek. He yelped and went stumbling into the stalks.
“My virtuous heart won’t tolerate such insults,” I informed him seriously. He pouted, shaking wheat seeds out of his curly blond hair. “Especially when the monster I promised you is just up ahead.” He looked eagerly to where I was pointing, palming the little dagger he carried on his belt, only to groan.
“That’s just a slave,” Myron complained. In the distance, a crouching slave carved methodically through stalks of wheat with a sickle. A tall reed basket sat beside him, which he deposited the stalks into as he went.
“What did you think I meant by hidden monster, little cousin?” I asked, amused. His nose scrunched up as if I had just served him a great indignity.
“Something dangerous, like a harpy or a chimera or-”
I waved a hand. He’d list every nightfire story he’d ever heard if I let him.
“You don’t think he’s dangerous?” I asked. By this point, we were close enough for even Myron to sense if there was any latent pneuma in the air. He focused intently on the slave, who either hadn’t heard us approach or didn’t care to acknowledge us. Myron’s expression twisted in disdain.
“He isn’t using any pneuma. I knew he was just a slave.”
“Ho, then by all means, strike him down. I’ll see that you aren’t punished for it.” I waved a hand invitingly. Myron, for all his faults, was not his older brother - Heron wouldn’t have hesitated, but he eyed the slave with sudden uncertainty.
“Kill him?” he asked.
“If you can,” I said obligingly. “Unless a slave is too frightening an opponent for you.”
He scowled. “I don’t need to kill him to prove you’re a liar. Watch me!” With that, he dashed forward.
Pneuma within the sixth rank of the civic realm propelled my littlest cousin across the earth at breakneck speed. The slave had paused in his harvesting to stand and stretch, and he turned at the sound of pounding feet just in time for Myron to leap with all the grace of an olympic long jumper, bronze dagger whipping like a snake’s fang towards the slave’s shoulder. It wasn’t a fatal blow, even with the strength of a cultivator behind it.
And then it wasn’t a blow at all, as the slave struck the blade from my cousin’s hand with his sickle. Myron didn’t have time even to voice his shock, because the slave then palmed the boy’s face with his free hand and dunked him into the tall reed basket.
We both watched silently as the boy’s pale legs kicked wildly. I glanced at the hidden monster.
“Sol,” I greeted.
“How goes the harvest?”
Myron howled in outrage, muffled by all of the wheat stalks he’d been stuffed into. I wondered why he didn’t just tear his way out of the basket. It wasn’t as if it would require any particular effort on his part. He was a cultivator, after all.
I kicked the basket over, spilling my cousin and a sizable amount of wheat onto the ground.
“What was that act for?” I asked him, genuinely curious. Myron hacked and spat, glaring mutinously at me while he fruitlessly tried slapping his tunic clean.
“I wasn’t acting,” he said hotly. “I couldn’t pull myself out!”
“Was the reed basket too strong for you? Couldn’t break through?”
He rolled his eyes. “He’s stronger than me. Why would I break his things?”
“Wise,” Sol said approvingly.
“He’s a slave,” I chided my littlest cousin. “His things are our things.”
“But you said he was a hidden monster! He countered my attack!”
“Those things are also true,” I agreed. “But he’s still a slave. Don’t be afraid to treat him like one.”
“Who is this?” Sol asked, ignoring my words with ease that came from months of practice. He knelt and gathered the scattered stalks back into the basket, then returned to work with his sickle.
“My youngest cousin, Myron Aetos,” I introduced him, patting his shoulder. “I’m minding him for the day. You met his brother at the symposia.” Sol acknowledged that fond memory with a grunt. “Myron, this is Solus. He’s worth more than most of the other initiates here combined, but feel free to bother him if you’re ever bored.”
“Someone trusted you with a child?” Sol asked doubtfully.
“Naturally. He’s come up against a block in his cultivation recently. My uncle asked me to help him through it.” I went from patting his shoulder to patting his head, deftly avoiding his attempts to swat my hand away. “And if I must suffer this, I see no reason why you shouldn’t suffer it too.”
“Where does he stand?” Sol asked, and though he didn’t look back there was a note of interest in his voice.
“Civic Realm, sixth rank,” Myron declared, frustrated. For a boy his age, only nine years old, it was an absurd level. But for Myron it was not nearly enough, and it was especially not enough now that his growth had finally slowed to something resembling normal cultivation on the precipice of the seventh rank.
“What’s your path?”
Myron looked down, fists clenching. “I don’t have one.”
Sol froze. He looked incredulously back at me. Unfortunately, the truth really was that ludicrous.
Men cultivated virtue, that they might cast off destiny’s threads and ascend Olympus Mons. Each virtue was itself a path that a cultivator walked, a stairway to heaven that they built with their own heart and soul. If cultivation was the journey, then virtue was the guiding light of constellations in the night sky.
In theory, it was possible to set sail beneath a starless sky and arrive at the intended shore. In practice, though? It was a miracle that Myron had progressed as far as he had in such a short life. That he would eventually hit a block had been inevitable. The only question was whether he would be allowed to overcome that block in his own time, the natural way, or whether my uncle would step in.
Sol shook his head and stood, wiping sweat from his brow and running fingers through damp black hair. For some odd reason he always kept it short, shorn on the sides nearly to the scalp and barely a finger’s length on top. He shaved his face entirely. Romans.
“No wonder, then,” he said, tossing his sickle underhand. Myron caught it deftly, eyeing the farming implement curiously. He switched his grip on it a few times, attempting to gauge the sublime technique that Sol had used to so easily disarm him. “It’s just a sickle. Not a particularly good one, either. Now come here.”
Myron looked to me for confirmation, and I shrugged. He hesitantly approached the slave, who crouched back down and motioned for him to do the same.
“You’re young. No older than ten, I’m guessing?” Sol asked. Myron nodded, reaching out and grasping a few stalks of wheat and hacking at them with the sickle. Sol plucked the tool from his hand and demonstrated the proper form, then gave it back to him.
“When I was around your age my father brought me to the legions, and I began to learn the way of the world in a way that I had not been capable of inside the protective walls of our villa at the city’s edge.” He took the sickle, demonstrated a faulty twist of the wrist in Myron’s technique and then the correct form, before again handing it back. “There are an infinite number of things that a man can do to advance his cultivation, but there is a chaotic way to do things and there is an ordered way to do things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think of cultivation as a naval journey,” I said, laying down on my side with an arm propping my head up while they worked. “Your undying soul is the ship and you are its captain. You can rig your sails to catch only the favorable winds and man your oars with the finest men, and chart the stars at night to track your path. Or you can disdain the oars and let the sails fly free, sleep soundly through the night and trust the gods to deliver you to heaven.”
“A cultivator follows virtue the same way a captain follows the stars,” Sol explained. “When I was introduced to the legions, and witnessed thousands of men following thousands of different virtuous paths, I was eager to join them. They were awe-inspiring, powerful and determined in the way I had always wanted to be. But they would not teach me what I wanted to learn.
“Instead, they taught me how to play their games. They taught me how to properly maintain my body, how to hone my mind with discipline. They broadened my experiences, but they would not advise me in my cultivation. Not a single one.”
“Why not?” Myron demanded, horribly frustrated. His experience had been much the same within the cult. I saw the thrust of Sol’s point, though, and so threw my own drachma down on the table.
“There is a saying that the elders are quite fond of,” I mused. “A young man is like a puppy that only plays with an argument. He’s easily convinced into and out of all opinions, until eventually he believes nothing at all.”
“Your father won’t guide you onto his own path, will he? Even though you’ve asked him many times.” Sol didn’t need to wait for Myron to nod. He already knew he was right. “He isn’t trying to stifle you. It’s the opposite. Philosophy is the study of virtue, and it is a poison to the mind if you don’t have the life experiences to give it proper context. Your father doesn’t want to stifle you by exposing you to these things before you’re ready to decide your true path.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” Myron asked. “I can’t progress anymore. I go to the gymnasium every day, I attend extra hours with the instructors, and it isn’t good enough anymore! What am I doing wrong?”
“You’re doing the same things you’ve always done,” I said. Sol nodded, correcting Myron’s posture as his frustration bled into his harvesting. “It’s a miracle you’ve made it as far as you have, but this was bound to happen. You’ve been sailing without oarsmen or stars to guide you, cousin. Be thankful the winds have merely stopped blowing.”
“The legionaries could not, or would not, stifle me by exposing me to paths I wasn’t ready to walk. But they introduced me to new things. New aspects of life that I had never experienced before. Virtue is performative excellence. And there is excellence to be found in every action.” Sol took the sickle and swiped it once, cleanly, through a bundle of wheat stalks. Myron blinked, sky blue eyes widening. “You’ve made it this far by achieving excellence in the tasks you were given as a young aristocrat. Now you need to try something new.”
“We can’t give you the answer,” I said, amused. “But you can add a few oarsmen to your ship, and start rowing until the winds return.”