The Son of Rome
The Eos was a ship built for speed. Her hull was sleek and her scarlet sails caught the wind like eagle wings, driving her through the waves at speeds that belied all common sense. It was a beautiful day for her to sail.
It was my first time on an open sea. The taste of salt on the air was all too familiar, but the cresting blue waves, the vast empty horizons, and the steady rolling of the deck beneath my feet were all entirely new experiences. I’d had my doubts when Griffon had suggested sailing, and in particular sailing this ship, but most of my concerns had quickly been put to rest. It was an exhilarating experience.
Still, there were complications to consider.
“They’re going to be furious,” I said, leaning on the rail at the bow. The Ionian Sea stretched out endlessly ahead, clear blue and shimmering in the sun.
“Will they?” Griffon asked behind me, and I could hear the roll of his eyes. “I hadn’t realized. What other profundities does the son of Rome have to offer?”
He’d stacked every single rowing bench on the ship into a bizarre approximation of a throne, and now lounged in it while the ship’s oars and favorable winds steadily propelled us forward. I’d allowed the absurd display, as he was doing the hard sailing. His pneuma intent had grown alongside the rest of his cultivation when he’d ascended, and where there had been ten arms before there were now twenty. Each arm of pure intent heaved on the oars of the Eos.
“More than they would have been if we hadn’t stolen their ship,” I clarified, turning to him and leaning back against the ship’s rail. “Why did you feel the need to slap every face you possibly could on your way out the door?”
The faint cries of sea birds and the rolling slaps of waves against the Eos’ hull hung between us while the former Young Aristocrat of the Rosy Dawn considered his answer. His right cheek rested on his fist, scarlet eyes glittering with the satisfaction of a lion that had just eaten its fill. He’d slipped his scarlet and white robes off his shoulders early on into the voyage so that they hung down around his belt, leaving his torso bare. He looked utterly content.
“Tell me something, Sol,” he said. “Are you familiar with the hero’s journey?”
“Vaguely.” Faint memories of an old man in weathered Alikon cloth, afternoons spent in the vineyards discussing everything under the sun.
“There are an infinite number of paths to the peak of Olympus Mons, but it’s a fact of life that some are more often tread than others,” he explained. “Every man likes to think he’s unique, but all too often we’re just echoes of those that came before us. We all labor within the divine framework. As such, there are certain constants that any man can expect to run up against in the race to divinity.”
Griffon lazily raised his free hand, lifting fingers one by one. “Bottlenecks. Deviations. Trials.”
“Tribulations,” I said. Lightning falling from clear blue skies. Griffon inclined his head.
“It’s the nature of the Fates to decide our lives for us from the moment we’re born. As we draw our first breath, they know. Which among us will be tyrants, and which will be slaves. It’s why they hate men like you and me.” He smiled, something vicious in the quirk of his lips. “They know that their only choice is to kill us in the cradle, because we will never, ever submit.
“To cast off destiny’s threads a man must first live an utterly audacious life. No one is born a Tyrant and there are no shortcuts to the peak of the mountain. How is it, then, that men ascend at all? The Fates know us fully at the moment of birth. Intuitively, there are only two possibilities - that the Fates can be defied. Or that ascension is a lie, and we’re all just dancing to our graves while heaven beats its drums.”
Griffon shrugged. “I choose to believe the former. And because I believe it, it is so. Until the moment I die my life is my own, and so I’ll always be reviled by the Fates. Tribulations are inevitable. Why cringe away from them?”
“So instead,” I said incredulously, “You welcome them with open arms.”
“They’re the best part of the journey, after all.”
My heart and soul for a companion with sense.
“If that’s the case, Olympia is where we part,” I decided. He laid a palm on his bare chest, eyes closing in mock hurt. I snorted. “I have enough madness ahead of me without throwing you onto the pile.”
“Oh? What sort of madness? Is it the kind that howls?”
For some reason that I still wasn’t quite sure of, I’d told him the story of my time in the legions as we ran through the fields of the Rosy Dawn towards the docks. I’d told him as we rigged his cousin’s ship and cut it loose, and as the sun fully rose to light up the Ionian Sea, I’d seen in vivid clarity the hunger in his eyes as he listened.
“It is,” I decided.
“And how is one son of Rome going to tear down an empire of demons?” Griffon asked curiously. “Your legions are dead and gone.”
My fists clenched and unclenched. “How does any man stand against an empire?”
“And you call me mad.” Griffon chuckled. His arms of pankration intent withdrew into his soul all at once, the Eos coasting to a steady halt in the calm waves. “How can a Roman ever hope to raise an army of Greeks against anyone but himself?”
“The legions of the Republic were the finest in the world,” I said, and before he could make a smart remark, continued, “We triumphed over superior numbers and individuals of absurd cultivation as a matter of course. That those dogs drove us from our provinces, flushed us from our city, and tore apart our legions? With smaller numbers?” I snarled and spat over the side of the ship. “They’re dogs, but they’re war dogs. They were built for this work.
“If they only wanted Rome, then fine. I’ll climb that fucking mountain and bury them under the sea with my strength alone. But if they’re the kind of animals I think they are, they won’t stop at just one. They’ll be at your father’s door next, and then I won’t have to raise the army. Damon Aetos will do it for me.”
One way or another, I’d tear that captain’s throat out and eat his beating heart.
“That’s my kind of plan,” Griffon said approvingly. “But there is one flaw in your reasoning, and as your blood brother I can’t help but point it out.”
I sneered. “We aren’t brothers.”
“Worthless Roman, we have been from the start.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. His pneuma was alight. “And as your brother, I must ask the hard questions. First and foremostly, what makes you think that these dogs of Carthage will pose a threat to my father? Just because they thrashed your glorious Republic? The same Republic that never once dared to war with our free city-states?”
“After Gaul, you were next,” I informed him simply. He smirked.
“I’m sure we were. But even if I were to believe that, there’s another flaw in your plan.”
I raised my own pneuma, flexing muscles that had gone unused for months on end. The waves around the Eos shuddered and pulsed.
“You’re under a delusion,” Griffon informed me. “That anything you do will make what’s to come any less mad, any less ruinous. We were marked by the Fates from the beginning and you’ve already begun to suffer their attention. Run from me if you’d like. It won’t make a difference.”
I made to answer but was interrupted by the sound of beating wings. An eagle’s cry split the air, and from the sky dove the predator itself, talons spread wide. I raised an arm, some instinct holding back my pneuma, and it landed roughly on my forearm. Its talons sank into my flesh, would have shredded it if not for the reinforcement of my cultivation.
I stared, lost for words, at the messenger eagle of Rome. It tilted its head left and right, watching me expectantly. It had no scroll on its leg.
“The poets like to say that the Epic doesn’t start until a man ascends to the Heroic Realm,” Griffon mused. The eagle cocked its head and whistled sharply at him. “But the truth is, the winds have been blowing for a year now. The Muses are already watching. How can we do anything but give them a show?”
On the horizon, a ship appeared. It was a light, shallow-bottomed vessel. Its sails were ragged, its oars pumping furiously against the waves. As it breached the far horizon and we became as visible to it as it was to us, its course changed at once.
“Pirates?” I whispered, watching it come for us.
“Heaven beats its drums,” Griffon said, rising from his throne and stretching. “Are you ready to dance?”
I stared at him for a silent moment.
Griffon laughed as the captain’s virtue threw him from the ship. The eagle on my arm shrieked and took flight as twenty arms of pneuma latched onto me and dragged me over the rail with him.