The Rosy Dawn was a cult that pursued the mysteries of heaven. Its purpose was wholly divorced from issues of blood-based hierarchy; by its nature, it valued performative excellence over filial ties. And yet.
Heron gagged as I buried my fist in his gut.
My father’s line reigned supreme.
“You’re familiar with the concept of social standing, yes?” I asked Sol, leaning away from a burning right cross and shifting my feet. I jabbed through my cousin’s guard, breaking his nose with a sharp crack. “Even animals recognize hierarchy, surely Rome has come that far.” Sol squinted at me, no doubt weighing the pros and cons of joining the fight on my cousin’s side.
“Then you know that within every society, civilized or not, there is social order. When one man stands above another it’s only natural that his word carries greater weight.” Heron exhaled a seething breath, his pneuma spiraling around his right fist. Predictably, it was only a feint to draw my attention away from a left hook. I ducked the left and lunged in before he could turn the right into a true strike, planting my shoulder in his gut and lifting him off his feet.
“The Scarlet City is built upon the backs of four social classes,” I explained, wrapping both arms around my cousin’s head and twisting at the hips, slamming him to the stone. “Slaves are the lowest of the four, obviously. Freedmen are technically their betters, occupying the third rank. Metics, foreigners that have won citizenship, are second class. And then there are the true Alikons, the natural-born citizens.”
Heron found his feet quickly, pneuma blazing as he advanced his virtuous technique to a higher level. Ho, that looked lethal. Striking your own cousin with those shining hands? How cruel.
“The slave covets the life of a freedman. The freedman covets the life of a metic, who covets the life of an Alikon. We’re all united by terrible ambition.”
“Stop talking!” Heron snapped, advancing with a flurry of punches that blazed like comets. They were burning hot as I diverted them.
“But there is division within the classes, too. A metic that works for an Alikon is lesser to the metic who peddles his own wares, is he not? A slave who works a trade to pay his freedom price is naturally above the slave that languishes in worthless duties, is that not so?”
“And a nephew to the kyrios is lesser to the son,” Sol finished for me. I grinned, sweeping my cousin’s feet and kicking him down the steps when he tried to catch his fall with a handstand.
“The citizen is lesser to the noble, and the noble is lesser to the heir,” I agreed. “My cousins occupy a leading class within the leading class. The Aristois. Did your tutor ever teach you that word, slave?” Sol sneered. I’d take that as a yes. “I exist on a level even higher than that. Heron covets that space and resents me for occupying it. It consumes him.”
“Difficult to blame him,” Sol mused while I deflected Heron’s blazing charge up the steps. His rosy cultivation had spread from the tips of his fingers all the way to his elbows now, and seared any eye that looked upon them. “Bad enough that you were born to the ruling brother by chance. That you’re insufferable on top of it? I’d be furious as well.”
I barked a laugh, catching burning fists that would have shattered and immolated the body of any cultivator below the fifth civic rank. Our fingers interlocked as Heron strained against me with everything he had, soul blazing. I looked him in the eyes and tightened my grip.
“You misunderstand,” I told Sol, without breaking eye contact. “Aristois is a word with two meanings. Best by birth, yes. But best by virtue just the same. My father was the oldest son of my grandfather, but he was also the strongest of the four. That’s why he leads today.”
Heron roared in impotent rage, and then in pain as my grip tightened past the point his body could bear. He fell to one knee, straining against me with broken hands and flickering, dying light.
“The reason I exist above you is not that I had the good fortune of being born, cousin.” I pressed down. His rosy light faded, and I told him the truth.
“It’s because I am better than you.”
“You don’t even want it,” Heron hissed, defeat in his eyes. “Any of it!”
I raised an eyebrow. “What does that matter?”
Finally, his body gave out. He bitterly conceded and the trial by hunger ended.
His cultivator’s soul starved.
Sol was pensively silent as we moved on to the next stage of the rites.
The third ascendant trial was the least physical, but most arduous by far. The trial by spirit was a simple test of will and brute force, judged holistically by the elders and easy to pass. This was how the vast majority of junior initiates rose to senior status. The trial by hunger was brutally decisive, won and lost without any input from the ruling class. This was how personal vendettas and greed were settled.
The trial by reason was a test of virtue conducted by the pillars of the Rosy Dawn themselves. It was not a holistic process. There were correct and incorrect answers, made evident by the manifestation of virtue that was a cultivator’s pneuma. The elders were known to favor certain initiates over others, and those biases were reflected in their judgements.
My uncles had no such weakness.
Fotios and Stavros Aetos, the twin eagle pillars of the Rosy Dawn, were men that other men paid to hear stories of. Built in my grandfather’s image, they shared my father’s massive frame as well as his dark curls, and their skin was burnished bronze. Their eyes burned an unearthly blue, their virtuous spirits lighting them from within. There was an unmistakable gravity that accompanied them, conveyed through their every word and motion.
They were both captains of the heroic realm. Legendary cultivators so far beyond the average cultivator that they were a separate existence entirely. It was said that even the lowest hero was beloved by the Muses and reviled by the Fates. They were slayers of monsters, champions of humanity.
That these two had returned from their epic journeys alongside my father, two decades ago, and subjugated themselves to their brother in service of the cult only added to Damon Aetos’ absurd renown.
On any other day my uncles would have had far more pressing concerns than the business of mystikos, but during the rites they were the arbiters of virtue for those who sought ascendancy through reason. Mystikos gathered in the hallowed gymnasium, normally reserved for Damon Aetos and his brothers alone, and presented their souls for judgement.
Unlike the trial by spirit, there was no upper limit to how high a member of the Rosy Dawn could ascend through reason. This was how honored philosophers were born. Every respected elder within the Rosy Dawn had at some point gathered in the kyrios’ gymnasium and laid bare his soul. For this reason, and because meeting the twin eagles and being found wanting was in many ways worse than death, only the cult’s absolute finest had gathered within the filial gymnasium to test their fate.
“What is the first virtue?” Fotios intoned.
“And what is justice?” Stavros prompted the mystiko.
“Justice is the providence of strength,” the man said, back straight and proud as he stood before the twin eagles. “It is the unshakeable foundation upon which enlightened civilization is built. It is the unspoken contract between virtuous men. Vengeance against vice, light in endless night. Justice isn’t something the eyes can see, but it can be felt in every corner of the soul.”
The twin pillars closed their eyes in solemn contemplation. In reality, I knew my uncles well enough to know that they were restraining the urge to slap the young man across his face. It hadn’t been a particularly good answer. Fotios reigned his irritation in first, and spoke.
“Show us your justice, then.”
The hopeful ascendant’s pneuma rose, denser and more vibrant than any of the younger generation by orders of magnitude. Sophic realm. He held out his hand, palm up, and his pneuma spiraled into it. A ball of light formed, invisible to the eye but easily felt even on the fringes of the gymnasium where Sol and I were observing.
The mystiko inhaled sharply. The ball rippled and split apart into four shards, each warped and chaotic. He grit his teeth, sweat beading on his brow. My uncles watched impassively.
He exhaled, and his intent turned the four writhing shards of spirit light into blades. They fanned out around him, hanging in the air. Unseen, but lethally sharp. The mystiko gestured and each blade flew through the room, following its own distinct trajectory as it weaved through pillars and initiates alike.
The mystiko’s body jerked as the spirit blades were ripped from his control in an instant. My uncles, having plucked them from the air with their own heroic pneuma, considered them briefly before dismissing them. They shared a glance, wordlessly exchanging profound judgement that could likely be vocalized as “these worthless children”, and made their decision.
“The Rosy Dawn recognizes your virtuous heart, senior mystiko,” Fotios said. He smiled faintly, a forced gesture. “You are not yet ready to join the ranks of the elder philosophers, but we commend your effort. The cult is glad to have you.”
It was a kinder judgement than Stavros would have rendered. Hells, it was a kinder judgement than I would have given. The trial thus ended, the mystiko immediately dropped to one knee and gave thanks to the twin eagles for their consideration, struggling to contain his dejection. Respects paid, he rose and fled the gymnasium with as much grace as he could manage. It wasn’t much.
Another senior initiate swiftly approached.
“What is the first virtue?” my uncle asked.
“And what is courage?”
And so it went.
“What do you think, slave?” I asked hours later as we left the gymnasium. Precious few of the ascendant prospects had received favorable judgement, and for good reason. My eyes had glazed over more than once, listening to some of those sophists speak.
I was more than ready for the feasting and celebration. Those that had ascended by each of the three trials would revel in their hard won renown for the night, telling stories to the new blood and basking in their starry-eyed praise. It would carry us through the night and into the dawn. Then, tomorrow, the initiation of the new members would truly begin.
“What do I think of what?” Sol asked. There had been something on his mind since I’d beaten down my cousin. Even now, he had that pensive air about him.
“What is the first virtue?” I prompted. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t hesitate.
I snorted. “So says the slave.”
“There are four cardinal virtues,” I said, ticking four fingers off one by one. “Justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance. In every story worth telling of every man worth remembering, at least one has been present. Is that not so?”
“But you say freedom comes first?”
“Can a slave not be wise? Can they not be bold?” I asked. “Can your eyes not see justice while your wrists are shackled? If I offered you a cup of wine would you not be able to restrain yourself from drinking it?”
“I’m capable of all of those things,” he said evenly.
“And yet you are not free.”
The slave tilted his head.
“Neither are you.”
I’d never heard such an absurd thing in my life. My pneuma rose. “Excuse me?”
He was as he had always been. Since that very first day, in that courtyard under the stars. He weathered my wrath without hesitation, meeting my eyes without fear.
“What is the purpose of a man?” he asked.
“To climb Olympus Mon,” I answered at once. “To challenge the Fates and win.”
“When a man is born, the Fates weave his future and swaddle him in it,” he recited. It was a common saying among the cults, the foundation of one of the greater mysteries. “Men cultivate virtue so that they can cast off that swaddling weave.”
“If the Fates are defied, who else can tell a man to die?” I finished his thought.
“A man that other men tell stories about can be wise, brave, tempered, or just. He can be all of these things at once. Or he can be none of them.” His dark brows furrowed. “None of it matters if he can’t control his own destiny. Glory is the product of action. Action requires agency.
“If you decided to leave this place, here and now, and never return, would you be able to do it? Would your father allow it? Would your status allow it?”
I stared at him, silent.
“No. It wouldn’t, and you couldn’t. Because you exist within this hierarchy just like everyone else. Your status doesn’t matter. Renown is worthless alone.”
Sol disdained me with his eyes, and finally spoke the words he’d been thinking since the day we met.
“I may be a slave. But you aren’t any more free.”