The eve of Nikolas Aetos’ wedding arrived with snow flurries and songs. Spirit wine flowed freely and freshly butchered meats abounded. Mystikos spent the morning conducting their own mock games for the entertainment of our guests, while the honored philosophers traded discourse with the young heroes in the afternoon. When evening came they all gathered to enjoy a feast with my elder cousin’s companions.
This entire day was itself a celebration in preparation for the ceremonies tomorrow. The only portion of the cult not present for the pavilion feast was the Aetos family itself. Instead we were to welcome the newest addition to the family with a grand symposia, hosted in the main estate.
I’d cleansed myself in the bath house with my cousins and donned my finest cult attire for the occasion. The quiet slap of my bare feet against the marble floors of the hall were the only sound to be heard as I made my way to the symposia chambers. The pavilion feast was already well underway. My own would begin soon enough. Then, tomorrow, the wedding. After that, farewell to Nikolas once more. Then…
I paused. In the low light of the sunset, I saw something truly ludicrous taking place in my courtyard. My legs carried me into the gardens and pools of their own volition.
“What are you doing?” I asked the slave tending to one of my ancestors’ filial pools.
“What does it look like?” Sol asked. I tilted my head.
“It looks like you’re draining the pool with a spoon.”
And so he was. As I watched incredulously, the slave dipped a shallow silver spoon into the filial pool and deposited its meager contents into the clay jar beside him. There were seven more jugs off to the side, and three of them were full. How long had he been doing this?
“Why are you doing this?” I asked, when it became clear that he was letting his actions speak for him. He glanced up at me, storm gray eyes flickering with something that was almost annoyance, almost amusement.
“Your cousin’s orders.”
I blinked. “Heron?” Sol nodded, and I found myself laughing. Once it started it didn’t stop. I gripped his shoulder as a brace, nearly doubled over in mirth. “He made you use a spoon?” I finally gasped.
“And you’re actually doing it?” This was too much.
“It was an order from on high.” He shrugged and dipped his spoon back into the water, depositing another few drops into the jar. “Besides, what else is there to do?” My laughter died down to low chuckling, and then faded to a thoughtful silence. I considered the filial pool and its sunkissed waters.
What else was there to do?
“Tell me something, slave,” I said, dipping my spoon into the pool. Sol hummed. “How long do you plan to suffer this?”
“Suffer what? Enslavement?”
“Obviously,” I said. He stared at me for a moment, lost for words. “Has it not lost its lustre yet? Or is it the kiss of the whip that gives you pleasure? I knew Romans were deviants, but still.”
“You’re still upset about the games?” Sol asked. I snorted, dipping my spoon. It really would have been faster to just use our cupped palms.
“What am I, a woman? No, I’m genuinely asking. There’s only so much a man can do to punish himself before it becomes gratuitous. If you keep this up there won’t be anything left of you for the Fates to torment.”
His expression shuttered, right on cue. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, that’s where you’re mistaken. I’m the only one who knows what I’m talking about.” I grabbed one of the full jars and dumped it back into the pool. Sol glared murderously at me, but hells, what else was there to do?
“Day in and day out, we’re all just staring up at heaven. Waiting for the sun to rise and thinking to ourselves that this is the day we’ll finally catch it in our hands.” I filled my spoon with water and deposited it in an empty jug, then grabbed another full jug and dumped it back in the pool. “We cultivate virtue so that we can someday break bread with the gods, but what does cultivating virtue mean, really?”
“You’re about to tell me,” Sol muttered. I bared my teeth in a grin and flicked a spoonful of water at his face.
“We exist, body, mind, and spirit. The philosophers preach that the tripartite soul is a balancing act, that we must restrain with reason the hunger in our souls if we are to ascend. Disdain our heart’s natural passions in the pursuit of virtue. Why? For what purpose? Is it our filial duty to be dull?”
“Temperance is virtue,” Sol said.
“Virtue is performative excellence,” I corrected him. “We agreed before that a man’s purpose was to ascend the divine mountain and throw off his destined threads. Whatever path leads him there, by default, is a virtuous one. Isn’t that so?”
Sol eyed me.
“Results are all that matter. Cultivation is all that matters. If I strangled you here and now, drowned you in this pool, and in so doing ascended to the Sophic Realm, the act would become virtuous by default. Isn’t that so?”
Sol tapped the fingers of his free hand against the pool’s marble rim, his manacle’s severed chain swaying to and fro. “A man is more than just a number,” he said.
“More than just a rank,” I added. He ignored me. Continued to play dumb.
“It isn’t enough to be blessed by heaven,” he said. “Cultivation only makes us more of what we already are.”
Therein lay the issue. There was a reason that some men rose to perilous heights on the shoulders of virtue while others languished in the lowest realms despite living as they should. Heroes and Tyrants were the product of epics. Beloved by the Muses and reviled by the Fates, they were all connected by a common thread. Wicked or kind, monstrous or just, they were interesting. Nikolas had given himself fully to this concept. Enslaved himself to it.
“My cousin would disagree,” I informed Sol. He only shrugged.
“Why should I care what a Greek thinks?”
I laughed. “Exactly! Who cares what they all think? Who cares what heaven has to say? We exist in three parts, and each of them is king inside our soul. Why should we disdain one for the other? Why should we cultivate virtue at the expense of our dignity?”
He was the only one that understood. The rest of them were too deeply immersed in it. They’d been born into this world, had never thought to wonder what existed beyond it. It was only natural they would respond as they did.
“My cousins think I’m jealous,” I said, resting an elbow on the rim of the pool and fully facing the slave. “They think I covet Nikolas’ advanced cultivation. My aunts and uncles think I envy his circumstances.”
“Do you?” Sol asked.
“Do I envy him for having a longer leash than I do? Of course not. He’s still a dog.” Silver spoons dipped into crystalline water. At some point the sun had given way to the stars. It was a dead moon night. “My cousins pity me for my bottlenecks, as if they were the disease themselves and not merely the symptom. My aunts and uncles scorn me for my impatience, as if these token journeys my father hands out are what I actually want.”
“What do you want, then?” He paused in his own spooning, looking at me. For a moment even his faint, ever present contempt gave way to honest curiosity.
“I have no idea.”
Sol rolled his eyes.
“My virtuous heart can’t lie,” I told him, grinning. “But I know that whatever it is, it’s not something a slave’s eyes can see.”
“Seems you’ll never know, then.” Ho, how cruel.
“And what about you?” I asked. “What does the son of Rome desire?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”
I frowned, propping my cheek up on my free hand. I stirred my spoon idly in the pool, flicking small streams into an open jar with unerring precision. “That right there. I despise that about you.”
This was why he hadn’t taken my hand in the Scarlet Stadium. This was why he suffered the daily indignities of a slave, never once bothered to sell his skills for coin. He had no intention of paying his freedom’s price. He had no desire to be a citizen of the Scarlet City. Because even if he was, it wouldn’t matter.
“Most slaves only serve one master. But not you,” I said. “Even if my father let you go, it wouldn’t make a difference to you. Would it?”
He shook his head once.
“You can’t wallow forever.” I watched his fist clench, his jaw flex. Pathetic. He was so close. And yet here he was. Pathetic. “You had aspirations before, didn’t you? There’s an entire world out there, lands that enlightened eyes have never seen before. Don’t you ache to see them? To experience everything this world has to offer?”
“For what purpose? Why?” He demanded, frustrated not because he didn’t feel that desire, but because he did. Because his hunger was at war with his spirit, and his reason was lost. He was drowning, but his tripartite soul would not let him die.
“Because this world exists.” I said simply. “Because we can.”
What other reason did a man need?
We talked about the places we would go, the things we wanted to see. We drained those filial pools with our spoons, and when the sun rose I left him to join my family in a joyous ceremony. My aunts and uncles were furious with me for missing the symposia, of course, and my cousins weren’t far behind. But there were more important things to focus on.
The wedding was beautiful beyond words. The bride and the groom joined hands around an ornamented blade and sacrificed their first animal as husband and wife, to the cheers of their companions. A grand feast followed, with the men occupying one set of tables and the women occupying another, and after that came all manner of wedding games.
When the time finally came to consecrate the marriage, to lift the lover’s veil, the bride and the rest of my eldest cousin’s companions were treated to the memorable sight of a star falling from heaven to earth.
Their heroic pneuma blanketed the mountaintop, virtuous hearts rising to confront the threat, but they needn’t have bothered. Nikolas Aetos held his wife steady and watched fondly as Damon Aetos blew a hole in the eastern mountain range, revealing the path to the greater mystery of the Rosy Dawn Cult.
It was only natural that an Aetos’ wife would be inducted into the cult, after all.
Nikolas swept his veiled bride into his arms and went charging down into the yawning abyss, calling for his companions to follow him. They didn’t hesitate, eyes blazing with excitement as they descended into the abyss. My aunts and uncles followed suit. My father was the last to go. He sealed the chasm behind him, leaving the rest of the cult to their after party.
I turned and left the pavilion, accepting a jug of spirit wine from a mousy slave as I did. By the time I found him it was empty, and my pneuma was aglow.
“How would you like to be free?” I asked, and Sol looked up from tuning his lyre. Somehow, this one was even uglier than the last.
“Don’t you have anything better to be doing?” he asked, annoyed.
“I don’t,” I said confidently, and gripped his manacles in both hands. My pneuma drove into them, warping them, until they cracked apart. That was all it took. “And now neither do you.”
Sol stared at his wrists uncomprehendingly. The manacles were utterly ruined, joined only by the thinnest slivers of iron. All he had to do was take them off.
“From this moment on, your life is your own,” I told him. “If you’re still a slave tomorrow, it’ll be because you chose it.”
He would come with me or he wouldn’t. Either way, I wouldn’t begrudge him his decision. My heart was singing. The ocean called.
Freedom was a distant shore.