Summer had come and gone. The Daylight Games loomed on the horizon of tomorrow’s dawn. It was the privilege of those that would compete to spend the day before the games resting and basking in the encouragement and adulation of their peers. Legends would be made tomorrow, and a new champion would don the laurel wreath.
I’d chosen to take a bath.
The Rosy Dawn’s gymnasiums contained baths, as all proper establishments of its type did, but just as the pillars of the cult enjoyed a private gymnasium of sublime quality, so too did they enjoy an unparalleled bath house. The myriad pools, ranging from scalding hot to frigidly cold, had been carved out of the rock face of the mountain itself. The warm side of the grand corinthian building was perpetually cloaked in steam, emitted from the mountain’s own natural hot springs.
It was empty but for myself, my slave, and my littlest cousin. No one but an Aetos would dare pass through its hallowed pillars.
I hummed, elbows propped up on the cool stone of the hot spring’s rim as I unwound. My head hung back, a warm cloth draped over my eyes. For all that it chafed, the life of a Young Aristocrat came with undeniable benefits.
“Tell me, slave,” I murmured. “Did they have baths as good as these in Rome?”
“The baths at the forum were better,” he said, somewhere off to the right. Myron, who had gotten bored soon after entering and started splashing around, paused in interest. “What we lacked in natural springs we made up for with ingenuity. The greatest of them had rooms for steam as well as baths heated by hypocausts, mosaic floors, and fine marble walls. They were open to anyone with two denarii and on holidays they were free.”
“Sounds filthy,” I said. “This place is for cleansing. Why should I share bath water with every wretch that has two silver bits to rub together?”
“You would understand if you spent time in your own city.” He sighed. “There’s pneuma in every living thing, and there’s virtue just the same. The baths are one of a thousand ways to expose yourself to new aspects of life. Even the lowest of men can be wise.”
“Like you,” Myron declared.
“The young kyrios is too kind.” Myron squawked at the teasing nickname. “The only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.”
I lifted the corner of the cloth covering my eyes. There it was. That distant, wistful look.
“Tell me more.”
He blinked. “More of what?”
“You said the baths were one of a thousand ways,” I said. “You may not be wise, but you’re worldly, aren’t you? Tell me about your life. I want to hear it.” He looked surprised. Ho, how insulting. Surely I wasn’t that bad.
“So do I!” Myron chimed in, kicking off from the far side of the spring and paddling over. “What were the legions like? How’d you get so strong? How many places did you conquer-”
“One at a time, cousin,” I said, flicking a jet of water in his face. He shouted and splashed me back, only for Sol to dunk him when he wasn’t looking.
“The legions,” Sol said thoughtfully, while Myron coughed and spluttered. “I was young when my father was called up, everything seemed so much larger than life. I’d only ever been to the forum a few times by that point, and always under supervision. I lived my life ensconced in our villa until that day.”
“Your father had some influence,” I said. I’d known it, but saying the words gave them new weight. “Legionaries don’t bring their sons to war.”
Sol considered me. He knew. He’d known from the start, just as I had. Our origins rhymed.
“He was a captain,” he finally said. “An infantryman from the moment he could hold a sword. When I was young he’d tell me stories of his time in the ranks. The first century he was ever assigned to, the first men that he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in combat.” He smiled faintly. “The first centurion that handed him his head. He used to say that those were the cruelest years of his life, but also the best.”
“He married into money, then,” I mused.
“He did,” Sol acknowledged. He ran a hand through his hair, frowning. “It was like most marriages of its kind. Politically driven. Loveless. My father had gained enough renown in his service to warrant the match, but my mother’s family and friends never let them forget his roots. It made her bitter.
“But it allowed him to climb the ranks. And that was what mattered.”
“Where did he stand?” Myron asked eagerly. A common question, when it came to cultivators. Where did he stand, among heaven and earth?
Sol hummed. “By your standards, he was at the peak of the Sophic Realm.”
“Oh,” Myron said, failing to fully conceal his disappointment. The cloth covering my eyes hit the surface of the pool. I realized I’d sat fully up.
“Sophic Realm,” I repeated, incredulous. “Your father?”
It didn’t make any sense. The son was built upon the foundation of the father. To be at his level, at his age, with such a worthless father? It defied reason.
“My father was a good man,” Sol said firmly. “He lived his life for Rome, and for the legions that raised him.”
“I’m not questioning your father’s character,” I said, waving an impatient hand. “I’m questioning-”
“He was a man that other men respected,” the audacious slave continued, speaking over me without care. “Renowned for his tactics in war and his generosity in victory. Men followed him without question.”
“So you learned from him?” Myron pressed, curious as I was to know how a man of such subpar cultivation could produce a son like Sol. Myron’s father was a peerless Hero. Damon Aetos was Damon Aetos. It only made sense that we would excel. But Sol?
The slave and junior initiate was silent for a moment too long.
Ah. So that’s what it was.
“I learned many things from my father,” Sol seemingly confirmed. I settled back onto the rim of the stone pool, propping my head upon one hand. “Until the day he died, he was always teaching me.”
I watched Myron’s excitement crumble. It was too easy, sometimes, to forget how young he was. Only nine years old. Excitable and easy to tease, yes, but learned far beyond any of his peers. Still a child, though. All this time, and he’d likely never once seriously considered what circumstances could have brought Sol here in chains to begin with. It was a child’s naivety to expect only the best for those close to them.
And Sol was someone close to him. I doubted it was a conscious decision he’d made, to make friends with a slave. At some point, my littlest cousin had simply been pulled in by his presence. He was far from the only one.
“Did he teach you to shave the hair off your face?” I asked. Myron looked at me in shock. He was young. He had yet to learn that the only men who desired pity were the ones that didn’t deserve it. Sol eyed my challenging smirk.
He scoffed. “Of course. A clean face is the mark of a civilized man.”
“A clean face is the mark of a boy,” I said mockingly. “Or a ‘man’ who can’t grow a proper beard.”
“Any pleb can grow a beard,” Sol said, sneering. “What differentiates men from beasts is our ability to refine ourselves.”
“A beard is natural.”
“So is shitting.”
“I suppose it’s understandable that a Greek would prefer a luscious beard,” Sol mused. “They hide a weak jaw rather well.” Myron looked between us, wide eyed.
Gray eyes met mine. “You’re tempting the fates, slave.” Slowly, I smiled. “Myron, fetch me a knife.”
He hesitated. “Lio-”
He leapt from the pool and was out of the bath house in seconds. I considered the audacious Roman across from me.
“Back then, when you first met Myron, you knew exactly what ailed him because you’d experienced it yourself. A terrible ambition, restrained by a father who cared.” I spoke casually. The humor in his eyes immediately died. “You told him it was a father’s love that stayed my uncle’s hand.”
“I thought that sounded right, but I personally have no experience in such an upbringing. From the moment I was born, the path that I’d walk to heaven was already decided.” I raised a hand from the water, palm up, and light bloomed between my fingers.
Sol stared at me, silent.
“But the odd thing was,” I continued, in the very same tone, “You spoke of the consequences of premature virtue with just as much confidence. You warned him off the way a ruined drunk warns a boy off his first cup of wine. And that, I did have experience in. So tell me slave, because my knowledge of your legions is admittedly deficient. Who stands above the captain?”
He didn’t speak. His eyes were haunted.
“My father forced justice upon me,” I said, walking through the water until I stood nose to nose with him. “Who forced you, and upon which path? Who made you what you are today?”
Myron chose that moment to come rushing back in, bare feet slapping against stone tiles in quick step. He slid to a stop beside the pool, panting lightly, with something like fear in his eyes. There was a sheathed blade in his hands. The kind used by members of the cult for ritual sacrifice.
“He was just teasing you, Lio,” Myron tried one last time, desperately. “You don’t have to do this.” How cute.
“No, cousin. I’m afraid I do,” I said, pulling the blade from its sheath.
I flipped it in my grip and held it out to Sol, handle first. They both stared at it in bewilderment.
“I have an important day tomorrow, and I would hate to look anything less than divine,” I said pleasantly. “Shave me.”
Sol took the knife, turning it over in his hand. “You can’t be serious.”
My silence spoke for me.
There would be hell to pay, of course. The Rosy Dawn’s Young Aristocrat arriving to his first Daylight Games with a shaved face? That was an embarrassment that couldn’t be ignored. My uncles would be absolutely furious, and Lydia may well fall out of love with me. The elders would surely suffer deviations in their cultivation, or at least their daily bowel movements.
It became harder to care with every dawn. The knowledge that there was another world out there, shaping men like Sol from the basest materials while I languished up on this mountain? It made me wonder. It kept me awake.
I was stagnating while others thrived. It was enough to drive a man mad. Enough to make demons of his soul.
My virtuous heart would not allow it.