There was something wrong with his cousin.
Objectively, Myron knew that Lio had always been an agitator. His earliest memories of his cousin were acts of defiance- Lio had a bad habit of giving credit only when credit was due, and that naturally grated on some of the older mystikos. It had led to more than one senior attempting to educate the Young Aristocrat in the early days when he was still refining his virtue, unerringly to their detriment.
But his attitude had always been tempered by a noble restraint, an unspoken acknowledgement that he was the one and only son of Damon Aetos and with that came responsibilities. Lio did what was expected of him. He excelled. And he knew that he could get away with things that others couldn’t as a result.
Since the initiation rites, though, something had changed. It was a small thing. If asked, Myron wouldn’t know how to describe it. But it was there. And it was growing by the day.
“Your mind is wandering.” The cousin in question poked his forehead. Myron flinched. He hated when he did that!
“It is not!” he denied, though it surely had been.
They were meditating in the courtyard, among the filial pools and the statues of the cult’s past kyrioi. Lio had offered to give him a few pointers, seemingly on a whim, the day before. Myron had made a big show of deliberating heavily on the offer, not wanting to be teased for his excitement, but something told him he’d been seen through. Even without the allure of advancing his cultivation, Lio knew he’d never let slip an opportunity to spend time with his older cousin.
“Perhaps we’ve been at it too long,” Lio mused, glancing up. The sun had been newly risen when they started. It was at its zenith now. “Let’s call it a day-”
Myron flushed, cursing himself for the outburst. Lio considered him with that scarlet-eyed amusement that all of his cousins despised. It was a look that made you feel like an ant making demands of a lion. It was a look backed by arrogance that, somehow, had not once been humbled in seventeen years of life.
It was also, according to Lydia, maddeningly attractive. She’d always been a little strange when it came to him.
“I can keep going,” Myron said, firming his posture and inhaling deeply. Lio chuckled, resuming his own meditative stance- though calling it that was an insult to the elders, really. He’d simply draped himself over the stone rim of one of the filial pools, head resting on the crook of his elbow as he circulated his pneuma.
Pneuma was the vital life force that fueled cultivation. It was virtue made manifest, and ultimately, its refinement was what drove cultivators. Each realm of cultivation, from civic to tyrannic, further refined the soul into something approaching divinity. Each realm revealed to the cultivator a new aspect of their soul, something always known but from birth forgotten. The refinement of that new element was key to ascending to the next realm. And so it went.
To enter the Civic Realm one had to first become aware of their soul. Manipulating your pneuma was impossible if you couldn’t see it, feel it, or sense it in your blood. While every living thing possessed pneuma, that knowledge alone was not enough to make one aware of their own vital breath.
Myron had discovered his pneuma while riding on his father’s shoulders, watching his oldest cousin set sail across the Ionian Sea with tears in his eyes. The Aetos family had all been present at the docks to see him off, even Lio and Uncle Damon. In that moment, the salty sea breeze filling his lungs and sorrow making his heart clench, Myron had realized exactly what the Aetos family was. He’d realized, dimly, the space he occupied within it. And that had been enough.
Once a cultivator was able to sense their pneuma, they were able to exercise it. The challenge of the Civic Realm was consolidation and fortification. A man could chisel himself a divine body with calisthenics and combat, and he could broaden his mind with philosophy and learning, but he could not bid his pneuma to multiply unless he did both. And even then, it was not always that simple.
Myron had reached the seventh rank of the Civic Realm after only three years of active cultivation. His tutors and peers called it an absurd feat. His mother cooed and called him her little prodigy. It was his father and his uncles that Myron gauged his success by, however, and they had only ever been satisfied. Never impressed. Never joyful. Only ever content with his progress.
He knew why. At his age, nine years old, his eldest cousin had already long reached the Sophic Realm. And here was little Myron, languishing in the Civic Realm without a virtue in his heart. It vexed him. It made him want to try harder.
So he did. Every day his pneuma grew. And every day he utterly exhausted it, until he fell into bed without a spark of energy left. Some of the mystikos said it was counterintuitive to exhaust his reserves as he was trying to build them, but Myron was an Aetos. He knew the truth.
The soul was a muscle like any other. It had to be broken down before it could be built back up.
It was nearly evening when Lio decided he’d had enough. Myron followed him through a brief series of stretches, pondering the best way to broach the topic that had been on his mind for days now. When it came to Lio, direct was almost always the best approach- at least, it was the only approach that had a chance of getting an answer. But something, some gut feeling, told him that this wasn’t the time to be direct.
Instead he asked, “Have you started training for the games?”
Summer was nearing its end, and that only meant one thing to the mystikos of the Rosy Dawn. The Scarlet City’s Daylight Games were nearly upon them. Now that the initiation rites were concluded it was all that was talked about among the cult. Who would be chosen to represent the Rosy Dawn this year, who would be sent by the Burning Dusk Cult, and who was favored to ultimately win it all.
The Scarlet City’s annual games were a spectacle like none other, and while, by their nature, they couldn’t match the profound wonder of the initiation rites, they were still an incredible experience. Both the Rosy Dawn and the Burning Dusk pooled their resources with the city each year to throw a city-wide celebration for the winner, and during the games themselves there were vendors of every kind come from far and wide to peddle their exotic wares. It was a non-stop spectacle, and without a doubt Myron’s favorite time of the year.
“Training for the games?” His cousin repeated, rocking back and forth as he stretched out his hamstrings. “Why would I do that?”
Myron gaped. He couldn’t be serious. Even he had limits!
“You’re representing the Rosy Dawn! You’re our top contender!”
“And?” Lio prompted him, as if anything else had to be said.
“You have to win!”
Lio tilted his head. “Why?”
“Because-” Myron struggled to formulate an answer to a question that should have been common sense. He was being teased, wasn’t he? That was just like Lio. Still, he answered. “Because you’re the Young Aristocrat! You represent the Rosy Dawn, but more than that, you represent Uncle Damon. If you lose it’ll look bad on him.”
“Why should my father’s reputation matter to me?” Lio asked curiously. There was an undercurrent of something in his voice. Myron frowned, uneasy.
“Because you’re his son.”
He didn’t know how else to explain it.
“I’m his son,” Lio mused, running a hand through his wild blond mane. It had long been a subject of gossip that the Young Aristocrat shared none of his father’s defining features. Damon Aetos’ dark curls and blue eyes were nowhere to be seen in Lio. His stoic glare was something his son had never cared to mimic.
But every so often, the heir to the kyrios did something that left no doubt as to his parentage. And as Lio turned away from him to look upon the statue of their ancestor, standing in its filial pool, his stance was its mirror image.
“I am his son,” Lio said, almost to himself. “And I am a part of the Rosy Dawn, aren’t I?”
“We all are,” Myron said hesitantly. His cousin hummed.
“I suppose I have no choice but to win.”
Myron clenched and unclenched his fists. He wasn’t sure what to say.
It didn’t matter. Whatever Lio had been deliberating on, he found his answer.
Myron watched, stunned, as his cousin stepped into the filial pool and walked through its sacred waters. He stood nose-to-nose with the marble statue, looking it up and down. And then he reached up around its neck and undid the clasp of its golden chain necklace. The pendant, a radiant scarlet gem, flashed where the sunlight touched it.
“What-?” Myron whispered in horror. His cousin clasped the necklace around his own neck and strode out of the pool. He looked pleased.
“I won’t be training for the games, cousin, but worry not.” Lio ruffled his hair, and for once Myron didn’t have the presence of mind to shake him off. The Young Aristocrat grinned fiercely.
“I’ll win them regardless."