The Young Miss-tocrat
Nikolas Aetos disdained a gangway, didn’t even wait for his ship to near the docks, before leaping from the deck at an absurd distance and landing adroitly before the three pillars of the Rosy Dawn Cult.
“Uncles,” he greeted warmly, arms spread wide.
A truly amazing sight followed. Lydia’s own father laughed, breaking formation with his brothers to wrap his nephew up in a tight embrace. Uncle Stavros was not far behind, wrapping him up and slapping his back with a fierce grin and a rib about his nephew’s slender frame. The ever stone-faced twin eagles radiated joy.
And then something even more unbelievable happened. Damon Aetos himself stepped forward and clasped forearms with his nephew, a fond smile on his lips. In her living memory, Lydia couldn’t recall ever seeing such an expression on her uncle’s face.
“Welcome home, nephew,” spoke the kyrios.
Nikolas returned the smile, crinkled eyes burning sky blue with the light of his virtuous soul. He stood tall, of a height with Lydia’s father and Uncle Stavros, and rippling with muscle despite her uncle’s jokes. His hair was cropped short at the sides, black as night, and his skin was heavily bronzed. He bore a burnished chest plate over a red tunic and stylized greaves as easily as he would a silk robe.
His pneuma rolled off of him like heat from a flame. If his eyes hadn’t been a clear enough sign, the intensity of his presence left no doubt. Their eldest cousin had left as an unprecedented prodigy with an indomitable determination to win glory.
He had returned to them as a Hero.
Watching the four of them trade greetings was an eerie thing. Lydia wasn’t the only one to notice it, either. Her mother and aunt stood entranced by the sight. Nikolas Aetos looked like he belonged among his uncles. For a moment, it was if the fourth Aetos brother had never died.
It felt that way, too, when his gaze moved past his uncles and settled on them. It was a powerful sensation, all too similar to the one she felt whenever her father or uncles felt the need to flex their presence. But all thoughts of pressure and intimidation fled her mind when she saw that familiar shining grin, the one she remembered from her childhood.
“Look at you two!” Niko exclaimed, striding excitedly past his uncles. Lydia wanted to rush forward to meet him, but she couldn’t bring herself to pull her hand from Lio’s. It didn’t end up being an issue. Niko swept them both up in his arms, squeezing them tight. “Who told you to grow while I was gone!? Where did my baby cousins go?”
Lio snorted, clapping his cousin’s back. He was nearly as tall as Niko, his feet still firmly on the docks while hers dangled in the air. Lydia, for her part, wrapped her free arm around her eldest cousin’s neck and returned the hug with all her strength.
“Who told you to leave?” Lio returned wryly. “You’ve missed all the fun.”
“Without a doubt,” Niko agreed, lowering her back to her feet and giving them a conspirator’s grin. “But the wider world has its own appeal, too. It’s one thing to hear the stories, and quite another to live them for yourself.”
Lio smiled lightly. “I wouldn’t know.”
“You will,” Niko promised, gripping his shoulder. He glanced her way mischievously. “Provided you keep our little swan happy, of course.”
They exchanged a few more pleasantries before Niko’s aunts descended on him, the marble beauties of the Rosy Dawn cooing and fawning over their eldest nephew while he tried valiantly to maintain his heroic bearing. The other cousins were soon to follow, Heron and Myron pounding down the docks with Castor and Rena not far behind. It was a joyous reunion. Even if it was only a temporary thing, the Aetos family was whole again.
Lydia watched fondly as Niko swung a giddy Myron through the air, marveling at how much he’d grown. She squeezed Lio’s hand again, glancing up at him. His head was tilted to the side, scarlet eyes looking back at the approaching ship.
No, not the ship.
Niko had arrived a week ahead of his wedding. He used that time to re-familiarize himself with the cult and all that he’d missed in his absence from it, to catch up with old friends within the ranks of the mystikos and the honored philosophers both, and especially to make the rounds and introduce everyone to his blushing bride-to-be.
Iphys Rosi, soon to be Iphys Aetos, was a rose worthy of her name. She wasn’t as tall as Lydia’s mother or her aunt, but she was no less striking for it. She wore her hair in a long braid the color of harvested wheat, tied with multiple strips of blue silk. Her eyes were a kind hazel flecked with gold, even as her Heroic soul lit them like a flame. Rena had immediately found a kindred spirit in the woman, and it had warmed Lydia to her immensely to see them interact.
More than even that, though, Niko had done his level best to spend as much of his time as he possibly could before the wedding with his cousins. They ate all of their meals together, attended the gymnasium together, and shared stories long into each night. Somehow, Niko was as eager to hear their banal tales of life in the cult as they were to hear about his heroic adventures. To that end, he insisted that for every story he told, each of them told one in return.
Myron complained that such a ratio was far from fair, but there was little he could do to persuade a heroic cultivator. Besides, Lydia knew that he enjoyed the praise that their eldest cousin heaped upon them. He was just too proud to show it.
The only one truly reluctant to share was Lio.
“Come now, cousin,” Niko finally insisted, three days before the wedding. “How can the Young Aristocrat stay silent while his cousins take all the glory? I’ve been here four days and I don’t know you any better for it.”
They sat around a fire in the shadow of the eastern mountain range, telling stories after dark. Iphys was up in the main estate with her new aunts and a bevy of slaves, undergoing preparation for the wedding. Lydia’s father and uncles were handling their own preparations, though they’d stolen Niko away more than once over the last few days to discuss things that Niko wouldn’t speak to.
“There’s little to say,” Lio said. He was laid out across the fire from his eldest cousin, head propped up on his palm while he gazed lazily into the flames. “We’re all familiar with life in the Rosy Dawn. I’m more interested in hearing about the lands across the sea.”
“I’m familiar with my life in the Rosy Dawn,” Niko said, leaning forward. “I want to hear about yours. Surely you have a few tales to tell. I refuse to believe Uncle Damon’s son has not been living an interesting life.”
Lio smiled faintly. Something about it made Lydia’s stomach lurch with unease. It bid her to speak.
“Lio won the Daylight Games.”
Niko blinked, surprised. An unspoken tension in the air suddenly eased. “He did? Which event?”
“All of them,” she said, pride warring with her concern. “He went undefeated.”
“And it wasn’t even close,” Myron added. “They gave him so many laurel crowns that he had to wear them on his arms!”
“He was incredible,” Rena said softly.
“He could have done worse,” Heron grudgingly admitted. Castor, sitting beside him, chuckled and draped an arm across his shoulders.
“Now, now, it’s alright to be honest. Our senior brother brutalized the competition.”
“Is that so?” Niko asked. Lio hummed, neither confirming nor denying it. “You cheeky brat, I only won three events when I competed, and you mean to tell me you swept the whole lot? Tell me all about it!” For some reason, Lio didn’t puff up with pride as any of them surely would have. The knowledge that he had triumphed so absolutely where even their prodigal cousin had struggled didn’t seem to fill him with any particular joy.
His eyes only narrowed. That faint, gnawing dread compounded.
“We competed in different games, cousin,” Lio finally said. Modestly, almost. Since when had Lio become modest? “You’d have won just as easily. More, even. Even back then, your cultivation was far beyond what mine is now.”
“Nonsense,” Niko said, waving a hand. Myron and Rena exchanged nervous looks. “The Lio I remember was never too far behind me. He wasn’t modest about it, either. Where do you stand now, fifth rank? Sixth?”
Niko’s eyes flickered in honest shock. “Captain of the Sophic Realm? Already?” Lydia’s eyes clenched shut.
“Civic,” came Lio’s mild reply.
“... Ah, I see. So it’s like that.” Niko sighed, leaning back. “You know, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Captain of the Civic Realm at your age is impressive by any metric. Especially under these conditions.”
Please stop talking, Lydia silently asked.
“What do you mean by that?” Heron asked.
“Well, there’s only so much you can do on top of a mountain, no matter what the elders say,” Niko reasoned. “My time abroad has exposed me to things I had never even heard of in my childhood days here. Our uncles provide the best education they can, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d have liked better to grow up, but at a certain point an eagle has to spread its wings and fly.”
“Some men feel the itch worse than others. We call it wanderlust,” Niko said, winking and nudging Myron with an elbow. “But you’ll all get a chance to scratch it soon enough. The business of a cult like the Rosy Dawn is endlessly demanding. I’m sure Uncle Damon is just waiting until you hit the Sophic Realm to send you out, Lio. How long have you been at the tenth rank?”
He didn’t wince. He didn’t have to. “Soon enough, then. How about we exchange a few pointers before I leave? I may be able to offer you some insight.”
“Of course, cousin,” Lio said. He smiled, scarlet eyes glinting in the firelight. “Now, I think it’s your turn. Tell me about your time in the north.”
Niko accepted the cue for what it was, and the storytelling continued on late into the night. Slowly, one by one, they each drifted off to sleep. Myron was the first to go, his age asserting itself as he splayed across Rena’s lap. The poor girl wasn’t far behind, and after a few more hours of valiant struggle Heron and Castor gave in as well. Lydia was the last to drift off, wrapped up in Lio’s arms with her back to his chest.
The last thing she saw before sleep claimed her, glancing up, was his eyes. Raptly focused on Niko as he spoke.
Growing colder with every word.