The Young Griffon
Sooner or later in life, you ran up against the feeling of being unwanted. Some time, in some place, by some person. It was only natural that man could not please every soul among heaven and earth. Even a man like me.
Especially a man like me.
It was a palpable sensation, something that could be felt if you had the sense for it. A formless blade that could slip between your ribs alongside a smile and pleasant conversation. Humanity was infinitely complex. Our little interactions with one another were the same. I didn’t have to tell a man that I hated him for him to know. I didn’t even have to strike him. I could do it with a glance.
The conveyance of contempt was an art that every Young Aristocrat mastered early in life. As a prodigy of that art, I had a keen eye for the contempt of others. I knew when I wasn’t wanted. I knew when someone was trying to hide that fact from me. But as Sol and I weaved through the crowds of mourning citizens, I noticed a distinct lack of unwant.
Most paid little and less mind to us as we moved past them, my Rosy Fingers of Dawn raised like one of the countless torches congregating in the city’s agora. The eyes that did take notice of us lingered, but that only made sense. Sol stalked through the crowd like he was going to war, a storm in his eyes - never mind the fact that he was always like that.
And I was myself.
Drawing attention was natural, but the lack of contempt was surprising. The uninvitation that I had expected wasn’t there, and that told me a few things about the man that had died.
I’d connected the dots moments after Sol had. The sanctuary city of Olympia looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. But the docks hadn’t shown any signs of such a thing and those would have been hit the hardest. The other possibility was a cultivator’s work, but that was even less likely. To strike at Olympia was to strike at the heart of the free Mediterranean. There wasn’t a dog nation on this earth with the courage to do that.
But if the cultivator in question wasn’t an invader? If he was inside the sanctuary city when he struck, and his attack was no attack at all?
Any man’s dying breath can stir the hearts of his family. Perhaps it can even scatter an anthill. A Tyrant’s dying breath can stir the hearts of an entire city.
And level it.
“It’s easy to forget.” Slipping past a pair of crying women in purple slips of cloth, I noted the perfect affectation of their sobs. Their skin was lustrous in the torchlight. “For all their strength and influence, for all the cities they scatter in their wake. Even Tyrants die some day.”
“Thus always,” Sol murmured.
I glanced at him in askance but he only shook his head, frowning.
“We need information,” he said instead, scanning the crowd. His eyes settled on a throng of men with youthful features and gray beards, commiserating with one another. Their torches illuminated ornate tunics, glimmering rings and armbands.
I caught him by the arm when he made to walk their way. Sol looked back at me, annoyed.
“Those aren’t the men we want to talk to,” I explained, raising an eyebrow. “Haven’t you noticed? There’s no one worth listening to out here on the fringes.”
Several heads turned at that, ugly looks and whispered threats. Some of those ugly looks died as soon as they laid eyes on me. Citizens, no matter how wealthy or respected, knew they had no business even looking unfavorably upon an initiate of a greater mystery cult. Their clothing and ornaments were finer than mine, but a cultivator’s tattered attire would always be worth more than a citizen’s finest silks.
The gaggle of vain old men and the sobbing sisters I’d brushed past were reflected in a thousand faces, a thousand different styles. An important man had died, and every able body in Olympia with two drachma to rub together had come to claim their place in the spectacle. Like flies swarming a lion’s corpse. It was the way of things.
“We can do better than flies,” I told him, flicking a rosy finger at a glaring man with more ire than sense. He cursed and flinched back from the flying embers of my pneuma. “If you want to talk to scavengers, at least find yourself a crow.”
“Cultivator or not, it doesn’t matter,” Sol said, shrugging me off. “I only want to know what we’re walking into.”
He moved through to the group of youthful graybeards. The crowds parted naturally around him as he did. It was faint, nearly drowned out by the press of so many different souls, but now I could feel that formless aura of his that caused it, whereas before I could only infer it. One of the benefits of my new standing.
I waited patiently while he spoke to the old men. From the looks of it, they were all too happy to share their thoughts.
“You shouldn’t be walking around like that tonight, young man. It’s disrespectful.” I blinked, looking down at an old woman. She looked her age, all snow white hair and wrinkled, weathered skin. There were laugh lines around her eyes, though she was currently scowling.
I tilted my head. “Did I ask for your opinion?”
Her pneuma rose and lashed out like a serpent, striking my arm. She slapped me with her soul. It was a pitiful thing, due as much to the lack of real heat behind it as to the difference in our standing. For all her years, she was still only in the Civic Realm. Oddly enough, she didn’t seem to care. I flexed my pneuma once. She scoffed.
“Rude boy,” she said, removing one of several embroidered shawls draped over her shoulders. “So what if you’re stronger than a crone. I’d offer you a laurel, but you already have two.” She pressed the pure white shawl with its fine gold embroidering insistently against my bare chest. “Put this on. This is a funeral, not a bathhouse.”
I considered the shawl. “This isn’t really my style,” I told her. She grumbled and pulled a couple more off her shoulders, each a different color, and presented them to me impatiently.
“Quickly now, take one. You’re a strong young man, surely you can pick your clothes without your mother’s help?”
“I don’t have a mother,” I informed her.
“That explains it.” She squinted in the low light of the torches and my own rosy fingers. Then, nodding once, she took the white and gold shawl from my hands. She replaced it with one that was entirely gold, though a shade darker than the embroideries on the first. “This will suit you nicely. Make you look presentable, though there’s nothing I can do for that arrogant face.”
“You’re an audacious old woman,” I said, amused. The shawl, which had nearly touched the ground when she wore it, was just large enough to cover my torso. The material was light and comfortable on my skin, and it parted easily when I shifted my arms. “I suppose I’ll wear this. What do I owe you?”
“Some respect,” she said, reaching up and patting me firmly on the cheek. “You boys always forget, this world is larger than any one man. Tonight is proof enough of that. Worry less about standing and other such nonsense, and more about your manners. They’re a virtue too, you know.”
With that, she wandered off into the crowd. I watched her go.
“You were right,” Sol admitted sourly, a trio of young citizens moving absently from his path as he returned. “All they know is that a cultivator has died. They didn’t have anything meaningful to say.”
I hummed. “No, I think I was wrong too.”
Sol looked me up and down. Admiring my new shawl, no doubt. “Who did you mug for that?”
I smirked faintly, moving deeper into the crowd.
Each stage of cultivation was an opening of the eyes. The Civic Realm was the first ascension, where cultivators initially perceived their pneuma and the pneuma of others. It was a crude sense, obviously. My father described it as a blind man sticking his hand into a fire to see that it was hot. It didn’t allow for nuance. Though when I’d asked what sort of nuances I was missing, my father had only brushed me off to my studies.
Stepping into the Sophic Realm had come with several benefits, and one was a new depth of perception. I hadn’t noticed it in the days that Sol and I spent alone on the Eos. I’d felt the first wisp of it when we raided the pirate vessel, but I hadn’t been able to fully grasp it then. It was only here, in this crowd of thousands, that I couldn’t help but see.
There was a new dimension to the pneuma I felt in the air. Before, as a Civic cultivator, I’d been able to sense the quantity of a cultivator’s pneuma and little more. The intensity, maybe. Now, I was sensing… eddies.
Like whirlpool tides, I could feel the brush of swirling wind as the pneuma of those around me reacted to my own. It was a passive, innocuous thing. Citizens parted around me as I advanced deeper into the crowd, but their pneuma moved first. Before they even noticed me, I could feel their pneuma reacting to mine, shying away.
There was an added layer to it when it came to Sol. Citizens moved only after they noticed me, oblivious to the eddies of my soul, but for Sol it was different. Men and women moved unconsciously from his path, stepping in synchronicity with their pneuma as it shied away.
I’d noticed it from the beginning, the way people gravitated to and from him without any conscious intention. Now, I could see the ripples of that formless quality in motion.
“I wonder,” I said, tracing the eddies of a few souls scattered around us. Advanced cultivators of the Civic Realm, and a few from the Sophic Realm. “Will I always feel this blind?”
I’d always been able to distinguish between the Civic and the Sophic realms, and I’d expected my Sophic perception to be a simple refinement of that. Instead, I noticed now that of the two advanced cultivators closest to my right - one at the eighth rank of the Civic Realm and the other at the third of the Sophic Realm - the junior cultivator’s pneuma had the larger presence. It parted the waves of vital energy more aggressively than the Sophic cultivator’s pneuma despite the gulf between them. I had my ideas as to why, but that’s all they were. Ideas.
I could see more than I ever had before, but I felt twice as blind.
“My mentor used to tell me that no man really knows anything,” Sol said contemplatively. “All his years of learning just clarified that fact to him. Maybe this is the same.”
“Maybe that’s why all the gods have blank faces,” I mused, only half joking. “They’re the blindest of us all.”
“How profound,” a crow cawed. A Heroic cultivator’s pneuma pressed against mine like a tide, urging me back. I observed it thoughtfully as it broke like waves against a rock.
He was young, not much older than us if I judged it right. How much of that was true youth and how much was the boon of cultivation was always a coin flip, especially in the higher realms, but I was confident it was the former. It showed in how he carried himself. As he drifted our way through the crowd, he moved the same way Nikolas had in the days leading up to his wedding. Carefully, as if the people around him were made of eggshells.
He wasn’t used to his new standing. A newly minted hero, his control over his own strength was still unsteady. Sol shot me a warning look. In some ways, a fresh hero was more dangerous than men like my uncles. To a junior, anyway.
They weren’t very good at holding back.
The Heroic cultivator planted his feet and stood before us, blocking our path deeper into the agora. He was slightly shorter than both of us, but that didn’t stop him from looking down his nose at us. It would have been as amusing as when Heron did it, if not for the weight of his presence. An entire realm’s difference wasn’t so easily ignored.
“I admire your dedication, cultivating virtue even here, when Olympia has gathered to mourn,” he said, making it clear that he didn’t. “But there is a time and a place for stretching new muscles. This isn’t it.”
“Apologies, friend,” I said easily. “It’s difficult to tell where the symposia ends and the funeral begins.”
The hero’s expression darkened, looking past us to the masses of gossiping citizens and lesser philosophers. Something in his pneuma pulsed, pressing more insistently on those around him. Interesting.
“Shameful as it is, I can’t disagree with that,” he admitted. Dark brown eyes flashed as they turned back to us. “A man has died, and most of the people here don’t even know his name. They just know he was powerful, and that’s enough for them to show. They can hardly even pretend to care.”
“What sort of dogs show up to a stranger’s funeral uninvited?” Sol asked, without a hint of irony. The heroic cultivator studied us both for a moment. I carefully did not smile.
“You’d be surprised,” he finally said, his stance relaxing. He plucked irritably at the green-gray material of his cult attire, revealing a short blade at his hip as it shifted. “Even a dog can be loyal. These people, though…” He shook his head.
“But that doesn’t mean we should sink to their level,” he continued firmly. “If you’re here to mourn, then mourn.”
“Of course,” I said, and threw an arm over his shoulder. The hero stiffened. Sol closed his eyes, resigned. “But mourning is best done amongst friends, isn’t it? Unless these new eyes of mine deceive me, it seems you’re here alone.”
“... I am,” the cultivator admitted warily. I smiled winningly, striking the perfect balance between sympathy and camaraderie. In my peripheral, Sol looked faintly ill.
“Tell me, who was he to you?”