The relationship between Solus and the Young Aristocrat was something that no one really understood. It was perhaps the only matter in which the lowly slaves and the honored mystikos of the Rosy Dawn stood equal. Equally bewildered.
Athis had slowly eased into her position within the cult since those first few terrifying months, and Solus had been a large part of that. Pervicas, who’d been a slave in the cult’s service far longer than her, hadn’t seen anything like him before. He was undoubtedly a slave, but the way he carried himself and the way others responded to him, instinctively, was evocative of an honored citizen far more than a bonded man.
He was kind to the rest of them, if distant. Since their first meeting Athis had done her best to overcome his intimidating aura and had soon realized that while he was peerless in certain realms, he was far from perfect. He’d never cooked a day in his life. He had little interest in maintaining the gardens, and regularly took on disproportionate work from other slaves to avoid the task.
Athis had taken it upon herself to teach him what few things she could. Pervicas could crack jokes and make eyes at them all she wanted, but it was really just her way of giving thanks for everything he did for them. Truly.
Solus existed as a silent pillar within the enslaved class of the Rosy Dawn’s brutal hierarchy. He was a bulwark against the whims of the mystikos, a safe haven for any females caught outside of their quarters and a supporting hand to any males struggling beneath the weight of a day’s punishing work. What he lacked in affability he more than made up for with strength of character. He was inexhaustible and utterly fearless.
Unfortunately, Athis was not the only one to notice this.
For weeks after that night in the courtyard, Athis had been terrified for her fellow slave. For a slave to speak out against an initiate was cause for severe lashing. To speak out against an honored philosopher was grounds for execution. To go beyond that, to lay hands upon the son of the kyrios, Lio Aetos himself? She had been utterly convinced that his fate was sealed, and that all of the Young Aristocrat’s interest in him was nothing but a long, drawn out execution.
Yet he lived. Months passed, and he continued to defy the social order. The Young Aristocrat did not grow tired of him like Pervicas had worriedly suggested he might. In fact, on the rare occasion that a mystiko had the temerity to strike him for some slight or another, Lio Aetos himself would suddenly arrive at the opportune moment to rebuke his junior initiate and whisk Solus away on some little adventure or another.
It was almost as if they were friends. But that was impossible. It was more likely for lions to mingle with wolves than for an Alikon to make friends with a slave. And more than that, there was something about the way they interacted the few times she’d seen it in motion. Like predators sizing one another up. Like dogs about to fight.
Athis wished he would stop. Whatever it was he was doing to draw the Young Aristocrat’s eye, she wished with all her heart that he would stop it. They all did. It seemed like every day one of them had a story to share at dinner about some mad thing Solus had done, or would have done had they not rushed to stop him.
He’d quickly occupied a cherished space in their sorry community. It terrified them to see him tempt the fates with such flagrant disregard. After all, a slave suffered tribulations just as well as a Tyrant.
But there was little they could do when each day only seemed to bind Solus and the Young Aristocrat more tightly together.
“Where do we sit?” Athis whispered, nervously brushing down her dinner attire. The cloth was soft and pure white, of a quality she’d never experienced in her living memory. It made her feel anxious just wearing it. The braids they’d done each other’s hair in only compounded the feeling. She felt like an imposter.
There were many holidays that the Scarlet City celebrated, and even more that the Rosy Dawn Cult celebrated on top of that. The vast majority were days like any other to the slaves of the cult. If anything, some brought extra work. The initiation rites were a rare exception, a two day respite that every slave relished.
The Kronia was another. It was a day of festival and celebration, and it went a step further than the rites. Slaves were not merely excused from their duties for the day. They were given fresh clothes of the cult’s own make and allowed to run wild among the estates and recreational buildings. And come dinner, they were served by their masters and allowed to eat alongside them as equals.
It was a day that Pervicas and the rest of the senior girls had been speaking of excitedly since the rites had ended. When it finally came, it was almost as if Athis had woken up from a nightmare that had been plaguing her for years. She donned clean, comfortable clothes and walked outside freely. She enjoyed a relaxed morning, exchanging pleasant conversation with her fellow female slaves and even some of the honored daughters of the cult. She watched and cheered that afternoon as the boys among their number started an impromptu series of games, and cheered even harder when a few mystikos joined in and Solus handed them their heads.
Now it was time for dinner, where slaves would eat meals prepared by cultivators and dine with them shoulder-to-shoulder. It was a prospect that worried and excited her in equal measure.
The pavilion had been prepared in much the same way it had for the initiation rites. The horrifying damage that had been done to the central plaza had been repaired by the joint efforts of slaves and junior initiates in the days following, and the elder philosophers had worked such wonders on the finer details of the space that it looked as if it had never been damaged to begin with. Long wooden tables and benches filled with chattering slaves and mystikos abounded. The heroes of the cult stood their same vigil on their outskirts, and the faceless statue jutted up proudly in its fountain, sparkling waters gushing from its extended palm.
Already, initiates in fine scarlet and white robes were emerging from the kitchens with platters of food in their hands. They had to choose a spot, and quickly, before the choice was made for them. Equals for the day or not, Athis had felt more than a few sets of eyes on her during the day. She had no desire to find out who they belonged to.
Pervicas, who had been assessing the pavilion, suddenly lit up and waved her arm in the air. “Solus! Hey, over here!”
The man in question, easily spotted among even the cultivators of the cult due to his size, cocked his head their way and waved. Another slave was walking in step with him, a mess of red hair and a lush beard marking him as Tasos. He was older than them by a few years, and had taken to accompanying Solus on certain tasks when he could. Or minding him, as he would say.
Athis and Pervicas hurried through the crowds to reach them, and Athis flushed as Tasos looked them both up and down admiringly.
“Those suit you,” he said. Pervicas scoffed, but she was clearly pleased. Athis snuck a quick glance at Solus, but he was surveying the tables, looking for an open space for the four of them. For some reason that disappointed her, just a bit.
“Thank you,” she said to Tasos. Then, shyly, she ventured, “You wear those well, Solus.”
The attire of the Rosy Dawn’s mystikos, pure white with scarlet trim, really did look all too natural on his imposing frame. It had been a terrible shock to see him wearing it the day after the rites ended. Even though the male slaves had insisted up and down that it was the Young Aristocrat himself who’d come and stolen him away in the night for the ceremony, she’d still been worried sick those first few days that some mystiko would take offense to a slave wearing their colors and strike him down. It had yet to happen, though.
Storm gray eyes glanced her way, and though he didn’t admire her like Tasos had, he did favor her with a faint smile. “Thank you. It’s a skill I had to learn.”
A skill? Athis looked to Pervicas, confused, but she only shrugged.
“There’s a space,” he declared, striding forward. Throngs of slaves and initiates alike parted, most without real conscious acknowledgement of having done so. It was just what happened when Solus was around. Athis had long gotten used to it.
They sat together on the same bench, Pervicas nudging her meaningfully towards the empty space on Solus’ left. Tasos sat down on his right, and Pervicas took the space to her left. There were already platters of olives, dates, goat cheeses and other morsels scattered across the table. Solus and Tasos wasted no time, grabbing handfuls of everything and digging in ravenously. Athis, for her part, took a vine of grapes and popped a couple in her mouth, savoring their sweet tang.
They spoke idly of the games, the ones they’d played earlier and the true ones to come, and of the dancing and festivities that would carry on into the night after dinner. They savored good food and the good company of friends without obligation. Once again, the feeling of being awoken from a long nightmare suffused her. Her elbow bumped Solus’ as they reached for the same hunk of cheese. He smirked lightly, offering it to her.
This was how life should always be.
Alas, all good things end.
A tanned, muscular arm came between them, holding a platter of roasted swordfish filets. It smelled divine as it was placed in front of them on the table, but Athis abruptly found herself without an appetite.
On this day, it was the duty of the masters to serve the slaves. That did not mean the pillars of the Rosy Dawn were to cook food and carry platters themselves, though. They sat as a family at a central table in the pavilion, perpendicular to the rest, and entertained their personal servants with wine and food prepared and served by the rest of the cult. To expect anything more was pure absurdity.
So why, oh why, was the Young Aristocrat serving them fish?
“Only the finest for our diligent slaves,” he said, setting down the platter in his other hand. This one was overflowing with mouthwatering slabs of goat’s meat, seared and lathered with fragrant spices and herbs. “Now, allow this humble sophist to join you for a meal.”
Lio Aetos laid scarlet eyes upon her, and Athis couldn’t breathe. Terror locked her limbs up. Those eyes pierced through her, judging her and finding her hopelessly wanting. She had to get out of the way. She couldn’t get out of the way. She couldn’t breathe-
“That seat is taken,” Solus said flatly, tearing off two chunks of fresh bread that another mystiko had just placed down and putting a slab of goat meat and cheese between them. Those scarlet eyes flickered away from her, dangerous and amused.
“Ho, you’d deny me a place at your table? Does your audacity know no limits?”
“Today, slaves are equal to masters,” Solus replied simply, taking a bite of his sandwich. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste. Some distant, less terrified part of Athis wondered how long it had been since he’d eaten red meat.
“So they are, but you forget-” The Young Aristocrat leaned on Solus’ shoulder. Pervicas’s hand gripped hers under the table, and Athis squeezed it until her knuckles bled white. “You aren’t just a slave anymore, Sol. A junior initiate pays respect to his seniors, don’t you know?”
“You’ve never paid anyone respect.”
“Naturally not,” he said easily. “As I have no seniors. Now move, girl, or be moved.”
Solus’ eyes narrowed. Oh no.
“This seat is open!”
Lio Aetos raised an eyebrow as Tasos sprung from his seat, hurriedly excusing himself from the table. Athis watched him quickly move to another table, weathering jeers and catcalls from mystikos that had been watching, and wondered if she pitied or envied him.
She had her answer when Pervicas hissed, flicking her eyes at the central table. The Young Miss, Lydia Aetos, peerless marble beauty of the Rosy Dawn, was glaring furiously their way. Her brother and sister, Castor and Rena Aetos, were casting worried looks between her and their elder cousin. She looked like she was debating coming over and lashing them all. Then the youngest of the cousins, Myron Aetos, who had been boredly picking at his food until that moment, finally noticed the trajectory of their gazes.
The young prodigy’s eyes lit up and he immediately excused himself from the table, making a beeline towards them. Then, to Athis’ horror, it got worse. The Young Miss herself slammed her palms to the table and stood, stalking after her little cousin.
“You eat like an animal,” Lio Aetos was saying, gathering olives and figs in one hand while he sorted through the platter of swordfish in search of the best cut. “You realize you won’t be getting food like this again anytime soon. You should be savoring it.”
Solus grunted, taking another large bite of his sandwich. “Work makes a man hungry. You wouldn’t understand.”
Athis saw the mystikos at their table wince, expecting the worst. And why shouldn’t they? If any other slave had said something like that to the Young Aristocrat, they’d have been dead. If any other initiate had said something like that to the Young Aristocrat, they might have been dead. Yet Lio Aetos simply laughed, flicking an olive at Solus’ face and cackling when he turned and caught it in his mouth.
They acted like belligerent brothers, and the effect was only compounded when the young prodigy made himself known, squirming into the space between them and grabbing eagerly for a pile of figs. The Young Aristocrat moved them just out of his little cousin’s reach, a mischievous smirk on his lips that forced even Athis to admit that the whispers and gossip about his looks were more than warranted.
Athis looked back, heart hammering, and found the Young Miss looking down on her with piercing blue eyes. Up close like this, she really was ethereally beautiful. From her thickly lashed eyes to her full lips and the royal slope of her neck, she looked like someone had spent the best years of their life chiseling her from a block of marble. Not to mention the, ah, fullness of her figure. Athis felt her the tips of her ears burning as she realized she was staring.
Lydia Aetos didn’t comment on her roving eyes, though they’d certainly been noticed. Instead, she looked pointedly at the narrow space between her thighs and Solus’ on the bench.
“Could you make room?” she asked politely. Athis hurried to oblige, shimmying sideways against Pervicas who hissed at the next slave down to move as well. They managed enough space for the Young Miss to sit, though their thighs were touching. It felt almost sinful.
“Lean back, junior, I can’t see my cousins,” she immediately demanded of Solus. He wordlessly obliged, offering her a platter of fresh bread. She gave him an ugly look, but took a loaf and joined in on the conversation that Lio was having with Myron. Athis traded a look with Pervicas. In the end, there was nothing they could do but grab themselves some meat and bread.
They had dinner in the company of kings, going back and forth over wine and good food as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
For Solus, it simply was.