“It isn’t fair,” Gianni Scala said bitterly, circling me in the pit. His blade, a finely wrought bronze that shimmered in the setting sunlight, hissed quietly through the air. “Why should heaven reward you for disdaining all that you’ve been given? You treat this life like a joke, you always have, and you’re rewarded for it at every turn!”
As the Daylight Games had progressed, the Young Aristocrat of the Burning Dusk had fallen further and further into despair. He was a diligent student of his cult’s teachings. A fierce athlete. Had I not been present, he would have dominated nearly every single event.
But I was present. And so he lost, and kept losing. My jumps, both long and high, were superior. My discus and my javelin, superior. My sprints and my horse races, superior. In every way that mattered, I was superior. We were the perfect reflections of our fathers.
I grimaced and spat.
“We are filial sons!” He kept on. “It’s our duty to bear the torches of our fathers!” Despair had all but taken him, but still he attempted to distract me with self-righteous scolding while he searched desperately for an opening. The martial trials were entities in and of themselves within the games. Triumphing here would bring him more than enough renown.
We had each conquered three opponents in armed combat to reach this final match. Gianni, to his credit, had not suffered a single scratch. Blade work had always been his specialty as far back as I had known him. As well as I knew that, he knew that pankration was mine. He had no hope of victory in the unarmed events to come. This was his final chance.
He surged forward, having apparently found his mark. His blade caught the light of the falling sun and erupted in blood-orange flames as he swung down, from heaven to earth.
It was an obvious truth that not all cultivation techniques were created equal. They were manifestations of a man’s virtuous soul, shaped by his unfaltering will and the experiences that had molded him throughout his life. Intent and execution were the dual forces that determined a technique's overall quality, but it was also possible for the origins themselves to be a contributing factor.
It was a well-kept secret among the two premier cults of the Scarlet City that our foundational techniques were tied to our mysteries. The Rosy-Fingered Dawn was a technique that waxed and waned in strength as the sun blazed its way through heaven. It was strongest at the dawn, when the sun’s first rays breached the far horizon. At the zenith of midday it was as weak as it could be. Because at that point, the Burning-Edged Dusk began to gain in strength.
That the non-combative events had been portioned for the first half of the day, when the Burning Dusk Cult’s foundational technique was at its weakest, was no coincidence. The Burning Dusk had long enjoyed a position of disproportionate influence within the Scarlet City, and the structure of its Daylight Games reflected this.
Could Damon Aetos have changed these orders, restructured things in favor of the Rosy Dawn? Without question. Such a thing was well within his power. He’d simply chosen not to.
The Burning-Edged Dusk was at its strongest when utilized with a falling strike, in the light of the setting sun. Gianni brought his blade down upon me with every ounce of strength in his body, steam seething through his clenched teeth. My own blade rose up to meet it. The Rosy-Fingered Dawn was strongest when it climbed, in the light of the rising sun. At this time of day, I could only fulfill one of those two conditions.
Unfortunately, a technique could not triumph on origins and mysticism alone. Triumph was the providence of tyrants. Execution was king. Damon Aetos had not bothered to alter the city in pursuit of cheap advantages because he had no need for them.
My waning blade of dawn struck his sword and shattered it.
“Have you ever left this city, Gianni?” I asked, idly rolling my shoulder. My rival, laughable as that statement was, glared silently as we circled one another.
The games were nearly at their end, now. After armed combat had come wrestling and then boxing, both of which the heir to the Burning Dusk had abstained from competing in. In average circumstances it would have been a terrible loss in standing to do such a thing as his cult’s leading athlete, but I doubted anyone would hold it against him, given his inevitable opponent. It was understandable that he’d save his body for the final event, the only one that mattered. Pankration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had found myself slowly unwinding as I progressed through the wrestling and boxing trials. They soothed my raging soul, provided a balm to my heart. Unarmed combat had always been my style. How conflict ought to be. It was simple. It was profound.
It was free.
Gianni ducked and lunged forward in two quick steps, attempting to box me out of the ring. I blocked what could not be avoided, met his raised knee with my own and relished the crunch of bone striking bone. Gianni winced, faltering ever so slightly as he tried to pivot on that wounded knee, and I shoved him back with two palms to his chest.
I could have done more, obviously. But instead I paced around him, wondering.
“I’ll take your silence as a no,” I said. “But surely you’ve thought about it. Pretend for a moment the cults did not exist. If you could go somewhere, anywhere in this world, where would it be?”
“Nowhere,” Gianni spat. “My place is here.”
This sanctimonious liar.
“You would go nowhere,” I repeated scornfully. “You would see nothing? Where is your curiosity? Where is the passion of your soul!?”
I struck him once, twice, a cross and a right hook to the kidney that folded him over my fist. The crowds screamed and raved, having known from the start how this would go. I swept his feet out from under him and rode him to the sand. He thrashed and kicked, flipping like a beached fish in an effort to escape my hold. His hands were alight, his foundational technique at the height of its power as the scarlet sun touched the peak of the western mountain range.
It wasn’t even close to the fight Sol had given me with shackles around his wrists. Ah, there was the rage again. I snarled and drove my right forearm into the back of Gianni’s neck, pinning him to the sand.
“Have you never wondered what life is truly like? The real thing, not this caricature our fathers made for us. Don’t you wish your first Daylight Games had been real? A competition attended by real cultivators and not these handpicked dregs? You know as well as I do that we were the only athletes that mattered today. You know that it was by design, not by virtue!”
He struggled out of the press and flipped himself onto his back, wound both legs around me, attempting to put me in a counter hold. It was sloppy. It was weak. I smashed my forehead into his nose, breaking it.
“I pity your father,” Gianni wheezed. “That you are his son.”
I sneered. “And I pity the slave that praises his master.”
This time, I didn’t allow him to escape the press of my choke. He struggled and spat until his last conscious breath, but he had never had a chance. The Fates had decided things for him long in advance, and he’d thanked them for the privilege.
The noise was deafening. I stood up, tall and triumphant in the last light of the setting sun, and looked up at my family. Grudging approval from my uncles. Vibrant cheers from Myron and Rena, nearly enough to bring a smile to my face. Lydia was nearly aglow with pride. Even Heron and Castor could do nothing less than applaud me.
I locked eyes with my father. Damon Aetos nodded once. Nothing more. There was no pride, no joy. After all, I had only done what was expected of me.
I stood there and accepted the praise and adoration of fifty thousand men, and more beyond the stadium’s rim. I accepted laurel leaf crowns, one for every event that I had won, which was all of them. I played along to the crowd, piled each of them on top of the other until they toppled off my head and into the sand. I offered them to the second and third place athletes of various events, and when they stiffly declined, I shrugged and wore them around my neck, my biceps, everywhere they would fit.
Dusk finally slipped into night, and torches were lit up and down the aisles of the Scarlet Stadium to illuminate the closing ceremonies. Their flickering light made shadows of the spectators, fifty thousand faces obscured and featureless. I realized that it made no difference.
I basked in their orchestrated worship. And I understood.
They were all slaves. Every single one of them. And so was I.
This city was the chain.
My pneuma rippled and burst inside my soul, expanding past the limits that had constrained it for the past year of my life. That nearly forgotten rush of ecstasy pounded through my veins, filling me with joy. My virtuous heart swelled in my chest.
I ascended from the ninth rank of the Civic Realm to the tenth.
My cousins went wild in the stands. The spectators were even worse. I strode out of the victor’s circle clothed in laurel leaf crowns, head held high and proud, like the good little heir that I was. I passed a thousand grasping hands, each one reaching out from the torch-thrown shadows to touch my oiled skin. To catch triumph with their worthless fingers.
“That’s it?” A slave asked me as I passed, his dark features illuminated by the torch in his hand.
He looked how I felt. Lost.
“I guess it is,” I said, and kept on walking.