The Young Miss-tocrat
Lio Aetos was returned to them.
For weeks Lydia could hardly believe it. She’d been certain that his victories in the Daylight Games would only drive him further away from his family, deeper into the company of his favored slave. Yet there he was. Back as sudden as he’d left. Eating dinner with them, night after night. Attending sessions in the gymnasium and engaging properly, as he used to. Spending time with her as a fiance should.
It was as if she had been awoken from a nightmare, and every day that followed was bliss. Castor had been the one to propose an explanation after the third night in a row that Lio had shown up for dinner. As soon as it had been said, Lydia berated herself for not realizing it sooner. It made perfect intuitive sense.
Lio Aetos had been stuck at a bottleneck in the ninth rank of the Civic Realm for over a year. Interacting with the Roman had been his way of breaking through that bottleneck. A radically different life experience to broaden his cultivation. Now that he had broken through, there was no need to continue humoring the slave.
It was easy to forget that Lio could struggle with his cultivation as much as any other mystiko within the cult. He had harnessed his pneuma at an unprecedentedly young age and ascended to the upper ranks of the Civic Realm at a breakneck pace, cementing himself early on as a prodigy, but he had never reached their eldest cousin’s heights. That his progress had slowed to such a degree would normally have been cause for great concern. Indeed, had Lio Aetos not been Lio Aetos, her father may have called his status as heir into question himself.
But Lio was himself. It was said that strong foundations built tall cities, and Lio’s foundations were perhaps the strongest of all. It was an absurd prospect in all but the most niche circumstances for a citizen to triumph over a philosopher, whether inside the marble octagon or the symposia chambers, and yet Lio’s was an absurd existence.
He did not hesitate to punch above his station, and he never, ever lost. Whether it was an exceedingly keen eye that allowed him to pick only the battles he knew he could win or some higher providence, no one knew. But his results spoke for themselves.
So yes, it was easy to forget that for all his triumphs, her fiance had been languishing in the ninth rank of the Civic Realm for an untenable amount of time. That didn’t mean it had not been bothering him, though. She only wished she’d known it sooner.
It had resolved itself in the end. He stood now as a captain of the Civic Realm, the tenth and final rank before ascendance to the Sophic Realm. Champion of the Daylight Games. Summer turned to fall, and fall turned to winter. It was as if the Roman had ceased to exist to him.
Things made sense again.
“They’re losing their minds,” Lio said, amused, as slaves ran wild through the central pavilion. They were walking back from their hidden place, the alcove in the mountain’s face that the seven of them had carved out so many years ago. They’d spent the afternoon watching light snows fall across Alikos, just the two of them.
“It was rather short notice,” Lydia said, watching with bubbling excitement as the Rosy Dawn’s servant class rushed to prepare the estates for a celebration the likes of which had not been seen in over a decade. Damon Aetos had given the word to his brothers a month ago, who had passed it onto their children. It was all they could talk about since.
A young pillar of the Rosy Dawn was getting married. The prodigal son of the Aetos line had found himself a girl in the course of his journeys and was returning home to properly introduce her to the family that had raised him. Then, with his uncle’s blessing, he would wed her.
Nicolas Aetos was coming home.
“My, my. Look at you,” A heroic beauty murmured, leaning against the archway that connected Lydia’s room to her younger sister’s. Her mother looked her up and down, something nostalgic and wondering in her eyes.
“What about me?” Lydia asked archly, checking her appearance in a polished bronze mirror. She’d chosen a white silk dress for the occasion, bound at the shoulders by carved bronze eagles, and a scarlet sash was draped diagonally across her chest as a symbol of her status. Her hair had been finely braided by a pair of slaves and wound into a bun at the nape of her neck. It was the color of spun gold, a trait she’d inherited from her mother.
Chryse Aetos crossed the stone tiles and took Lydia’s hair in hand, touching up the braids with deft fingers. Those fingers could - and had - cave in full bronze plate with little effort, but they were gentle and unerringly precise as they undid and redid the braids in her eldest daughter’s hair.
“You went and became a beautiful woman while I wasn’t looking,” Lydia’s mother said. “Who is this marble swan that’s taken the place of my little ugly duck?” A tinkling laugh spilled from her lips as Lydia swatted at her. “Wasn’t it only yesterday that you were begging me to attend lessons in the gymnasium with the boys?”
“Perhaps if you spent less time behind closed doors it wouldn’t come as such a shock,” Lydia said, with no real heat. Nonetheless, her mother feigned a wounded expression, reflected in the bronze mirror.
“My daughter inherited her father’s cruelty. Truly, I am reviled by the Fates.”
Lydia rolled her eyes, fighting a smile. “If anyone is reviled it’s father. He received you for a tribulation, after all.” She yelped as her mother sharply twisted her ear.
“You’re still far too young to be getting cheeky with me,” her mother chided her. Her sea green eyes glowed merrily, backlit by the flames of her heroic soul.
Chryse Aetos was a woman whose presence captivated and intimidated in equal proportion. Lydia had inherited most of her defining traits from her mother, sans the color of her eyes, and it showed in their bronze reflections. Chryse was taller than her by a forearm’s length, taller than most men, the product of a pristine bloodline and her own advanced cultivation. But they shared the same long, lusciously powerful legs. The same smooth skin, the color of polished marble despite the years her mother had journeyed beneath the Mediterranean sun.
Her mother’s arms were muscled in a way that hers weren’t, one of the few signs that she had lived an entire life before her daughter. They could have passed for sisters, standing there before that bronze mirror. Timelessness was a given when one reached her mother’s level of renown.
Lydia had always been awed by her mother. She was gorgeous, yes. Ethereally so. But she was powerful, too. She was no coy maiden or cringing wallflower. She was married to one of the most powerful men in the Scarlet City, one of the more powerful men in the known world, and she stood by her father’s side as an equal. They had traveled the Mediterranean together. They had cultivated virtue together. And they had triumphed, as one. Together.
She’d long admired her mother, and it was for that reason that her opinion was the most difficult to ask for. Still, though, Lydia had never been a coward. She swallowed her fears and raised a hand to grasp her mother’s fingers, lowering them from their work. She stared at her mother’s curious reflection in the bronze.
“Mother,” she said, slowly. “Am I… ready?”
The fire in her mother’s eyes flickered. But when firm hands turned her around, Chryse Aetos was smiling with pride.
“More than I ever was,” her mother said, rubbing her thumbs tanderly across the knuckles of Lydia’s hands. “Already, you are more than that boy will ever deserve.”
“Mother!” she exclaimed, pushing away. “I’m serious!”
Her mother pulled her back with strength that could not be denied and wrapped her up in a tight embrace. Lydia resisted valiantly, but she may as well have been fighting against the ocean tides. Finally, she huffed and surrendered herself to it.
“So am I, my ugly duck,” Her mother whispered. “So am I.”
It was not her wedding day, not yet, but it felt nearly like it as she walked through snow-covered fields to join her fiance at the docks.
Lio greeted her with a faint smile and did not question her when she slipped her hand into his. His hand was large, tan and calloused. She squeezed it once, searchingly, and her heart leapt in her chest when he squeezed back. She smiled brightly up at him and he chuckled.
“Our wedding won’t be long from now,” she said casually, as the rest of their family gathered at the docks. The pillars were all in attendance, her mother and aunt chatting animatedly about the upcoming wedding while her father and uncles stood at the edge of the dock, towering symbols of the Rosy Dawn’s might. The rest of her cousins had yet to arrive.
“Not long at all,” Lio agreed, gazing wistfully at the sea. They were all eager to see their eldest cousin again after all these years. “We might as well make it a dual affair. Get both marriages out of the way while things are set up.”
Lydia smacked his arm, and he laughed.
“Our wedding will be about us,” she said imperiously. “And it will be better than Nico’s wedding in every way, or you will feel this mommy’s wrath. Do you understand?”
Lio looked fondly down at her, his features somehow more pleasing than they had been before he started shaving. The tips of her ears burned. That, Lydia had decided, was one habit he’d picked up from the slave that she would allow.
“Of course, cousin,” he said. “Anything you want.”
Lydia nodded firmly, doing her best to conceal how warm she felt, and turned to watch the horizon with him. Soon enough, a ship appeared on the horizon.
The prodigal son returned.