The Young Miss-tocrat
There were only so many indignities she could be made to suffer. Surely, at some point, the nightmare had to end.
“Absent again,” Castor observed. Her brother, younger by a year, reclined on a couch to the left of her own, frowning as he rolled an olive between his fingers. “He really is shameless.”
“I tell you every time,” Heron said, on his own couch across the table. “He lost what little sense he had when that slave showed up, and it’s only getting worse with time. Lio would rather spend time with garbage than us, his own family.” His gaze was thick as olive oil on her skin. His motives were as obvious as they’d ever been. So tactless.
“That’s too harsh,” Myron said, stirring a chunk of bread in his spirit wine. His older brother glanced sharply at him but he glared mutinously back. Since he’d broken past his cultivating block weeks ago, ascending to the same seventh rank that Heron currently occupied, he had grown far bolder during their nightly dinners. Though, perhaps his cultivation wasn’t the only thing to blame for that.
“What does it matter if he eats elsewhere? It’s not like any of you went out of your way to invite him. Besides, I like Solus-”
Myron’s mouth shut reflexively, and though he tried to hide it behind a pout, his hands trembled at the weight of her pneuma bearing down on him. He may have been a nigh unprecedented prodigy for his age, but he was still only a boy.
And while his cultivation was a match for his older brother, it was not at all a match for hers.
“Do not say that name in this room,” she said. Her voice brooked no argument. She waited for his sullen nod, and only then did she release her pneuma. Madness. Even here, it was seeping through.
It had long been tradition for the three pillars of the Rosy Dawn Cult to take their dinners together, and it was the same for their children. For as long as she could remember, the young pillars of the Rosy Dawn had shared evening meals in a private chamber separate from the other initiates. It served as an oasis away from the mob, a reinforcement of their status above it. They were the young aristocrats of the Rosy Dawn, elite among elite, and in time they would be the ones that held the sun in their rising palms.
No matter what trials the day brought, she could always look forward to nights with her family. It was a time and a place where she could fully relax and indulge in the little things. Things like teasing her younger siblings, exchanging discourse with her cousins, and flirting with her fiance. Yes, even though she was only recently fifteen years old, she had known her fiance her entire life.
Lydia Aetos had been promised to Lio Aetos the moment she was born.
And now, as their promised wedding date loomed less than a year away, he was drifting away from her. From all of them, really. The boy with the wild grin and unstoppable vitality that had so enchanted her when they were children had slowly changed as years passed, and every one of the younger pillars were forced to grow into the roles their fathers had laid out for them.
The wild grin had dimmed, replaced by a leonine smirk that matched his mane of blond hair and rumbling tenor. His boundless energy and insatiable curiosity had gradually given way to the lazy grace of a predator that knew its place within its domain - above all the rest. It showed in the way he spoke to them - all of them, not just the unrelated initiates. It showed in his actions, the flippancy with which he treated subjects that had received his full focus in the past. These changes by themselves were far from unattractive, in her unbiased eyes, but they were only symptoms of a larger issue.
Lio Aetos had paced around the Rosy Dawn Cult like it was a cage for years. Watching, waiting. All those years she had wondered fruitlessly as to what he was waiting for, what she could do to satisfy him. To revitalize him and return that excitement to his eyes.
She still didn’t know what it was, exactly, that he’d been waiting for. What she did know was that he had found it in a slave.
“Perhaps Myron is right.”
Lydia turned, dismayed, to her younger sister.
“Even you, Rena?”
Rena Aetos winced, looking down into her cup. She ran the tip of one slim finger around its rim. “I don’t think Lio dislikes us. I think he just doesn’t realize how much we miss his company.” Heron scoffed at that, and Castor sneered, but she pushed on. “If we invited him to join us I’m sure he’d come.”
“He would!” Myron agreed at once.
Lydia frowned fiercely. It was absurd that they even had to ask. Family was family, was it not? She was his future wife, was she not? That they would seek each other’s company should have been a given.
Yet here she was, swallowing her pride anyway. When it came to Lio, she was truly hopeless.
“Fine,” she sighed, taking a vine of grapes from the table and settling back onto her lounge. “Tomorrow, I’ll extend an invitation.”
Tomorrow arrived along with its indignities.
Lydia walked the mountaintop peaks with a retinue of the cult’s most promising young women in tow. There was an electric, excited energy amongst the girls, and for good reason- the harvest season was reaching its end, and the Rosy Dawn was beginning to turn its attention to the processes of the cult’s annual initiation.
The initiation rites of the Rosy Dawn were a tradition that traced back all the way to the cult’s beginning, when its founder rose to greet the first dawn and passed down his virtues to his children and his sworn brothers-in-arms, drank spirit wine from the same vessel and contemplated the greater mysteries of the rising sun. Every year that followed, new blood climbed the eastern mountain ranges of the Scarlet City and submitted themselves to the Rosy Dawn, seeking enlightenment to one of life’s greatest mysteries and membership within the strongest group of cultivators in the region.
Beyond admittance of new members, it was also a method for current mystikos to elevate their standing within the cult, and compete for a chance at being sent to the Daylight Tournament within the Scarlet Stadium, come summer’s end. Naturally, this was what excited the current initiates most.
During this time the gymnasiums flooded with eager men and women hoping to advance their cultivation one last time before the rites, torches burned within the cult’s libraries long into the night, and the mountaintop estates abounded with families from the city hoping to win their children a spot on the roster.
Lydia waved a hand, halting her fellow initiates while she moved forward, stepping deftly through perilous outcroppings of rock and tracing a path that only a few had walked over the years.
There was always something to be done, whether one was a slave or an honored elder philosopher. Even she had struggled to slip away from her duties to track down her fiance and ask him to dinner.
It made it all the more galling to find him here, lounging in a depression carved out of the mountain’s face by hand, such that you could be shaded while looking down upon Alikos in all its glory. She had known to search this place despite its isolation from the rest of the estate for a simple reason. They had carved it out together, all of the cousins, years ago. It had been a secret location for them to gather during the day, when they were too impatient to wait for dinner.
Now he shared it with a slave.
Her blood boiled. It was an insult that her virtuous heart could not stand.
“Lio,” she said, her voice deceptively mild. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Cousin,” he greeted, looking up at her. Normally her heart raced when he looked at her with those scarlet eyes of his, so sharp a contrast from the sky blue that the rest of the family bore. But not now. She was too furious to be smitten.
“How dare you defile this place with that garbage?” She jabbed a finger at the slave.
The wretch didn’t even acknowledge her. He sat beside her fiance with his legs crossed, back against the mountain, and his miserable eyes shut. He looked for all the world as if he hadn’t heard her, hadn’t felt her pneuma sweep down and attempt to wring the life from his cursed neck the moment she saw him.
“That judgement is hardly fair,” Lio chided her. Amusement made his eyes shine. “He hasn’t even introduced himself. Go on, slave. Say hello to my cousin.”
“Another one?” the slave asked, eyes still closed. He opened gray eyes, regarding her neutrally. “My name is Solus. How can I serve the Young Mistress?”
“You can die,” she hissed.
“As you wish.”
Before her disbelieving eyes, he stood and walked to the alcove’s edge.
“Belay that,” Griffon commanded, reaching up and grabbing a fistful of the slave’s ragged tunic. He yanked him back from the edge. “Worthless Roman. No one thinks you’re funny.”
“If you must know,” he told her, “we were contemplating the celestial mystery.”
It was a common form of meditation within the cult, one that Damon Aetos himself was said to often practice. The sun was just now descending from its zenith, still a vibrant gold. The view of it from the alcove was breathtaking.
“Why is a slave contemplating the mysteries when there is work to be done?” she demanded.
The slave nodded, eyes once more closed as he resumed his meditation. “I agree.”
The impudence of this man. “Did I ask your opinion, slave?”
“No,” he said. “But you received it.”
Lydia Aetos’ frayed patience finally snapped. She’d had enough of barking dogs.
She threw forth a rosy palm, her pneuma lighting up the alcove with its terrible splendor as her technique surged from her virtuous heart to the tips of her fingers. She would put an end to this herself. Something about this slave had blinded her cousin, but she would help him see. He belonged by her side, he belonged with his family, not here in their old place with that miserable, cursed-
Griffon caught her wrist and pulled her tight to his chest. Her divine technique fizzled and died in her hand. She found herself staring up into curious scarlet eyes, unable to breathe.
“Why are you here, Lydia?” he asked her. Ah. Right.
“Will you come to dinner tonight?” she asked, voice small.
“Of course,” he laughed, and she fell in love again. “We’ll be there.”