We awaited glory in the silence of the night. The pit sand was cool beneath our feet. Pre-dawn breeze crept across our naked bodies, raising bumps on our skin. We breathed slowly and deeply, each searching for our tranquil center. No one spoke. No one moved.
Daylight broke over the eastern mountain range and fifty thousand spectators erupted in cheers.
The stadium steps had been filled to capacity since the night before, of course. Admittance to the games was first come, first served, with only the usual vagrant provisions enforced. I had no doubt that more than a few up on those steps had been holding their seats for days. Beyond, at the rim of the massive crater in the earth that was the Scarlet Stadium, thousands more stood looking down, mingling with food carts and merchant stalls.
The residential rooftops of those citizens influential and fortunate enough to have land close to the stadium were likewise packed with wealthy viewing parties. And I knew that somewhere, up in those mountain ranges, the initiates of the Rosy Dawn and the Burning Dusk would be watching eagerly while their elder philosophers provided narration.
The pillars, naturally, enjoyed pride of place within the stands. This respect was afforded to both premier cults of Alikos, although the Rosy Dawn was the only one of the two that truly deserved it. Nonetheless, there at the western edge of the stands, on the fourth tier of the steps, the kyrios of the Burning Dusk sat with his arms crossed. He was flanked by his wife and three of their four children. The fourth was down in the pits with me.
On the eastern side of the great oval steps, Damon Aetos sat the fourth tier with his brothers and all five of my adorable cousins. I raised a hand against the sun’s glare, smiling brightly up at my family.
Naturally, my uncles were furious. Uncle Fotios was without a doubt the more kindly of the two, and even he looked like he wanted to lay a few good smacks across my newly shaved cheeks. Uncle Stavros looked simply murderous. Heron wasn’t far behind his father, face turning scarlet with the sun. Castor was stunned, and Myron sat consoling a mortified Rena, who’d buried her face in her hands.
Lydia stared at me with wide eyes, lips parted in shock.
Damon Aetos raised an eyebrow as we locked gazes. As ever my father was unimpressed, but I’d expected as much. Not every war could be won in a day.
The clarion cry of a salpinx split the air. The cheers of the masses redoubled.
The Daylight Games began.
The Daylight Games were an institution that had existed for over seven hundred years within the Scarlet City. They were a series of trials that any man or woman could compete in, should they meet the qualifications set by the city, testing every element of human athleticism. From sprints, to discus and javelin throwing, all the way to martial combat of every type. Every year, men and women tested the limits of their virtuous souls in pursuit of that laurel leaf crown.
Of course, these games were only an approximation of the real thing. Each of the eight sovereign city-states of the free Mediterranean hosted their own yearly games, but these were only substitutes for the true competition. The event that drew men and women of sublime cultivation from the furthest reaches of the Greek Isles to compete beneath the eyes of gods and men for supremacy.
One per year, for three years, the eight cities sharpened their citizens to a fine edge with local games. But on the fourth, they all paid their respects to the supreme crucible of virtuous men.
Among heaven and earth, the Olympic Games were king.
But these games were not those, and the stakes were far lower. Rather than humanity’s renown and power overwhelming, men and women competed in the Daylight Games for things such as citizenship, political influence, and most of all, bragging rights between cults. Certainly, they dressed it up as filial duty and harped upon the economic implications of the Rosy Dawn losing standing to the Burning Dusk, but none of it mattered.
The Burning Dusk had not been a relevant threat since the day my father returned home from his journeys. On that day, he’d subjugated Alikos in its entirety beneath the Tyrant’s fist. Just as the sun rose in the palm of a bisected corpse god, in my father’s palm rose the Scarlet City.
So long as Damon Aetos drew breath, no game would ever change that fact. It made it difficult to truly care about the reputations at stake. So I didn’t. I’d watched these games seventeen different times from the vantage of those stone steps. This time, I wasn’t going to be watching. I was going to be competing, and I was going to enjoy every minute of it.
“Oil,” I called, and three separate civil volunteers came rushing over with jars of olive oil. I disdained their attempts to rub me down themselves, taking a handful of the spirit oil and massaging it into my skin.
The games were run sequentially, beginning first with the sprints. The vast pitted track that lay at the center of the Scarlet Stadium was large enough for even the strongest Sophic cultivator to heave a discus from one side and never hit the other - provided there was no pneuma involved - but that did not mean it was large enough to conduct every game at once. There were dozens upon dozens of competitors, and games spanning all pursuits. The equestrian events alone would have dominated most of the track.
The sprints were conducted tournament style, in heats of eight, whereupon each heat’s victor would compete in a champion’s heat. And on it would go, until a single competitor stood out above the rest. Already, the first heat was being assembled. Naturally, the competitors from the Rosy Dawn and the Burning Dusk were given pride of place, just as their spectators were.
I would compete in the first heat, and the Young Aristocrat of the Burning Dusk would compete in the last. The rest of our two cults’ competitors would be evenly spread between us. It was undoubtedly an unfair advantage. But it was one that the city had no choice but to award us.
“You know,” I said idly, as I passed a certain initiate of the Rosy Dawn. He was nestled amongst citizens and wealthy metics alike on the first level of the stairs, at eye level with the competitors. “Citizenship is granted to any man who wins a laurel crown. Tell me, slave. How would you like to be free?”
The chaotic noise of the stands was such that none of the nearby competitors or spectators heard me. But he did. I could tell. While wealthy citizens shouted and reached out to touch me, lavishing me in praise and words of encouragement, he sat stock still. Speechless.
“It’s not too late,” I said, holding a hand out. He stared at it like it was a living snake.
The war trumpets sounded for the first heat. The commencement speeches had ended. For a long moment, I stayed exactly where I was. Even as the spectators began to panic, urging me to go take my place at the starting line, I watched the storm gathering in those gray eyes. There would be real consequences if we did this. Tribulations. I realized I couldn’t care less.
Those eyes flickered away. For the first time since I had known him, Sol avoided my gaze. My outstretched hand clenched into a fist.
“Coward,” I snarled, and walked away.
Seven men crouched beside me in the sands. The sun rose behind us, beating on our oiled backs. Rage made my blood thunder in my ears, stole from me my senses. I didn’t hear the call to run. I only saw seven men tear off in a dead sprint, gaining four steps before I finally had the presence of mind to go. An insurmountable lead.
“I’ve been waiting for this, Aetos,” spoke the Young Aristocrat of the Burning Dusk Cult.
Gianni Scala, son of Yianni Scala, crouched beside me among six other victors. The knuckles of his fingers bled pure white as he pressed them to the sands. Every muscle in his body was taught, begging to move.
“Have you?” I asked, distracted. I was still furious. My mind kept wandering back to those shifting eyes. I had known. I hadn’t believed it, hadn’t wanted to believe it. But I had known. That fucking coward.
“You’ve coasted on your father’s laurels your entire life and no one has denied you it. You even came here with a shaved face. Insulted everyone in attendance! But no longer.” He bared his teeth, burning determination in his eyes. “Today the Burning Dusk retakes its scarlet throne!”
“Fool.” None of this mattered. Nothing would change.
The officials raised their flags.
After the sprints came the discus.
After the discus came the javelin.
The horse races.
“Lio Aetos! Lio Aetos! Lio Aetos!”
The officials cried out my name again and again. They may as well have been up in the stands with the rest of the city. Athletes all over the pits gnashed their teeth and pounded the sand with their fists. Cultivators from the Burning Dusk to the furthest reaches of the city’s outskirt villages watched in hateful envy as I took from them what they’d spent their entire lives dreaming of without any particular effort. Without any particular care.
Why hadn’t he taken my hand?
Bronze trumpets let fly their clarion calls. The sun had reached its zenith. The athletic games were over, and now came the martial trials.
Myron came charging out onto the sands with a wrapped blade in his hands. He offered it to me with the same concern that he had offered the ritual knife the day before. A glance up to the stands showed that he wasn’t the only one.
“Are you well, Lio?” My littlest cousin asked quietly. I closed my eyes. Inhaled deeply.
What is the first virtue?
“I will be,” I said, and accepted the blade.
First, the armed trials.