Virtuous Sons: A Greco Roman Xianxia - Interlude 3.2 [Myron Aetos]
The Little Kyrios
In the aftermath of his discourse with his eldest cousin, Myron realized something that should have been evident to him from the beginning. Actions had consequences. He’d been enlightened, that was true, but his parents didn’t see it in quite the same light that he did.
For an entire week, Myron languished in his mother’s care. He wasn’t allowed to see his eldest cousin, let alone speak to him or seek his guidance, and most of his time was spent in bed recovering from his wounds. The one time he had managed to catch his father while his mother was away and begged him for an escape, Stavros Aetos had only shaken his head and ruffled Myron‘s hair, fondly scolding him.
“If you didn’t want to be smothered like this, you shouldn’t have lost.”
The lesson was bitterly learned, but he had no choice. The youngest son of the Rosy Dawn accepted the punishment for his hubris and did what he could while confined to quarters. He studied manically and circulated his pneuma while pretending to sleep. As soon as he could prove that he was healed, he raced out into the central courtyards of the Rosy Dawn in search of fresh air.
He was promptly found by Niko, and before Myron realized what was happening his eldest cousin had thrown him over his broad shoulder like a sack of grain and leapt off of the eastern mountain range.
Myron hollered into the wind, first in terror and then in wild exhilaration. He stretched his arms out and spread his fingers wide, trying to catch the wind in his hands as they hurtled over the Scarlet City. In what felt like no time at all, and simultaneously an eternity later, the western mountain range rushed forward to meet them.
Niko exhaled sharply, the sound of it somehow piercing through the howling of the wind. And though they struck the mountain hard enough that Myron was certain it should have shattered like it did when Uncle Damon conducted the rites, their impact produced no sound and left no marks on the stone. Myron bumped sharply off his cousin’s shoulder, catching himself on his hands and rolling to his feet. It certainly didn’t feel like he had just flown across the full length of a city.
In the distance of a clear blue sky, he heard a faint rumble.
“Good afternoon, cousin,” Niko said, lifting up his left leg just enough to stretch out his ankle, then alternating and pulling his right knee up to his chest. He favored Myron with a wry smile. “Feeling well-rested?”
“I was rested six days ago,” Myron said, and then accusingly added, “You left me to rot!”
“Aunt Raisa was far too furious with me to approach you in your room,” the youngest Hero of the Rosy Dawn explained. “To tell you the truth, Uncle Stavros wasn’t exactly pleased with me either. When a Hero and a Citizen exchange discourse, it’s a very fine line between guidance and gratuity. I had no business being in that octagon with you.”
That wasn’t true, and Myron didn’t appreciate it being phrased that way for his benefit. They both knew that it was him that had no business being in that octagon with Niko.
“I’m the one who challenged you,” he insisted. Though he knew trivialities like facts hardly mattered to his parents when it came to him. Niko laughed and threw an arm around his shoulder, pulling him into a side embrace.
“That you did. But I’m the one that accepted.”
“I didn’t die, and I wasn’t crippled,” he muttered. It was petulant, beneath a young pillar. But sometimes he just couldn’t help it. “We’re cultivators, aren’t we? Why should it matter that you were stronger? No one is favored to win when they challenge the Fates.”
Niko blinked and looked down at him. “Who taught you to say things like that?”
Myron flushed. He’d said the words with confidence, but it was embarrassing to be called out on it. He had no idea how Lio made it sound so natural when he spoke like this.
He was saved from answering by the distant screams of his cousins, rapidly growing closer, and the rising sound of thunder on a cloudless day. One by one, Niko’s Heroic companions came crashing back down to earth with the other young pillars in their arms. Myron watched with some satisfaction as Heron and Rena sprawled onto their hands and knees upon landing – it was nice to know he hadn’t been the only one taken by surprise. Castor, being the most graceful of the five of them by far, managed to catch his balance after only a couple hopping steps, and Niko‘s wife held Lydia around the waist while she got her bearings before letting go.
“What was that!?” Heron gasped, coming shakily up to one knee. He looked to Niko, wild-eyed, and then to the tall, tanned hero in hybrid finery and weathered pirate garb – with a coarse black beard to match – that had carried him clear across the city. “You said it was within spitting distance!”
“It is,” the raggedly rich Heroic cultivator said, canted green eyes burning mischievously. He turned his head and pursed his lips, and with a sound like cracking stone he spat back in the direction of the Rosy Dawn.
Myron watched the spittle shoot through the air faster than an arrow from a bow and vanish into the distance. His upper lip twitched.
“Look!” The Heroine that had carried Rena exclaimed, slapping the noble sailor over the head. “Even the boy is disgusted with you!” He shoved her away, a challenging glint in his smile, and her long red hair shivered and rose up ever so slightly around her as her heroic flames burned.
“Now now,” Iphys Aetos chided, moving over to her husband and wrapping an arm around his waist, sandwiching Myron in between the two of them. “Behave in front of the children.” Even as she said it, she shared an amused little smirk with Niko. Myron got the feeling they had exchanges like this often.
“What’s going on, Niko?” Lydia asked, helping Rena to her feet. “Is this…”
Myron looked between their other three cousins as best he could with his face sandwiched between two powerful thighs, uneasy. Among the three of them, Rena would be the most sympathetic by far to the agreement to pursue that Lydia and Myron had made with Niko. Castor would almost surely betray them to their parents, and Heron – well, he didn’t want to think about how his older brother would react.
This couldn’t be the private tutoring that Niko had promised them, then. Could it?
“I’ve been thinking,” Niko began.
“Impossible,” the Hero that had carried Castor said at once. Niko rolled his eyes, ignoring him.
“Since I exchanged discourse with Myron here-”
“Since you beat the little lord like he owed you money,” the Heroine with the blood red hair corrected him laughingly. Niko ignored her too.
“That you’ve all grown into magnificent Citizens since I left,” he said fondly, favoring each of them with a warm smile, pure white teeth complimenting deeply tanned skin and tousled black hair. “Most of you are grasping at virtue already, and I’m sure sooner than later you’ll all be brushing up against the Sophic realm. I’m proud of you all.”
It was hard not to stand taller at praise from the prodigy of prodigies. Heron puffed up, nudging Castor with an elbow and exchanging pleased grins. Rena ducked her head, smiling with restrained pleasure that only Myron could tell was just slightly smug around its edges.
Lydia accepted the praise, but she didn’t smile. Myron decided to voice what they were both thinking.
“If we’re magnificent, what does that make you?”
That took the wind out of their sails as surely as anything. Myron felt bad, seeing Rena’s face fall and his own brother’s fists clench, the dull edge to Castor’s sigh. But he didn’t regret saying it.
“It makes me Nikolas,” answered the Scarlet Hero. His wife stroked her thumb comfortingly across Myron’s cheek. “Who I am doesn’t take anything away from you, cousin.”
When Myron didn’t reply, Niko reached down and picked him up, sitting him on his broad shoulders. Myron struggled and thrashed like a landed fish, indignant at the childish treatment, but a Hero’s grip was not so easily slipped. Niko started up the mountain path to the Burning Dusk Cult, having landed just outside of its valence estates, and his companions fell into step around him. The young pillars hurried to keep pace.
“That gloom has also been on my mind,” Niko said, slapping Myron‘s hand away when he tried to twist his older cousin’s ear. “It’s one thing to be hungry for the next step. It’s good to have lofty goals, even, so long as you’re honest. But you have to be realistic as well.”
Myron frowned. The sentiment rang false in his ear, like the time Sol had snapped one of the strings on his lyre mid-song. Grating to the senses.
“It’s all unrealistic, from the very start. What’s reasonable about looking up at the stars in the sky and deciding you want them for yourself?” he asked, and immediately felt the tips of his ears burn when the pirate guffawed. The Heroine with the crimson hair hushed him, but she wasn’t quite able to hide her own amusement.
“The little lord is a philosopher already,” the Hero that had carried Castor observed. Myron buried his face in his hands.
When Niko spoke, the amusement of his companions was noticeably absent.
“That right there,” he said quietly. “That’s why we’re here.”
They stepped onto the scarlet steps of the junior mystikos’ quarters, and through the gaps in his fingers Myron saw initiates of the Burning Dusk rushing out of the streets, hiding behind marble pillars and down residential halls. They fled like mice before hunting cats, and the Heroic cultivators among them took no notice of it. As if it was entirely reasonable to have this sort of effect on people.
“What do you know of advancement?” Niko asked, and after a beat added, “That’s a question for all five of you.”
Heron answered first, standing tall. “Cultivators advance exponentially. One rank in a realm above is worth all ten in the realm below.”
“We advance in three parts,” Castor said, biting his lip thoughtfully. “In reason, in spirit, and in hunger.”
“The further we advance, the more impurities we cleanse ourselves of,” Rena murmured.
Lydia glanced east, to the Rosy Dawn and the Ionian Sea beyond. “To advance is to move forward,” she said. “Without ever looking back.”
“Myron?” Niko prompted him.
What else could he say?
“It only makes you more of what you are.”
Niko sighed. “You’re all correct, to various degrees, but what causes advancement? What is the root of the divine struggle? I know your parents haven’t told you yet.”
It was Niko’s wife that supplied the answer, while his companions gazed wistfully up.
“A Citizen can live their entire life without ever advancing to the Sophic Realm, and they be happy,” Iphys said, threading her fingers through her husband‘s. “They can develop their pneuma beautifully, embody their virtue in all things, and never once progress past the tenth rank of the Civic Realm. Aside from being human, there is no particular thread that connects all citizens.”
“But every cultivator in the Sophic Realm and beyond has one thing in common,” Niko continued. He tilted his head back, regarding Myron seriously. “They are all, each and every one of them, discontented.”
“A Philosopher is someone that couldn’t stand a Citizen’s life,” spoke the Heroine with the crimson hair. “Whatever their reasons, whatever their virtues and philosophies. At the end of the day, the final requirement for ascension has always been a refusal to accept life as it is.”
“What does that have to do with the Burning Dusk?” Heron asked. They had progressed past the outer estates now, coming up on the central pavilion with its heroic sentinel statues and grand fountain. The Burning Dusk Cult was a mirror image of the Rosy Dawn in nearly every way, down to the statue of a man standing in the center of the pavilion’s fountain, filling it with a steady stream of water from its palm. The only difference was that it was the opposite hand from the one at the Rosy Dawn’s fountain.
“You’re all impatient to grow, some more than others,” Niko said. Lydia looked away. “And I understand that. I’ve stood in your place. But before I can watch you all tumble off the side of the cliff with a smile and a wave, I have to be sure that it’s your own restlessness driving you. Not our uncle’s.”
Myron sat up ramrod straight on his cousin’s shoulders.
“What are you saying, Niko?” Lydia asked him, razor focused.
“Manufacturing prodigies is something that every great civilization has tried to do since we were first molded from formless clay,” he explained. “It’s never worked on a grand scale, of course, because cultivation is a journey of the soul, and every soul is unique – its own star in the boundless sky.”
“But,” Myron said quietly.
“But,” Niko allowed, “while manufacturing the talent needed to advance is a fool’s dream, manufacturing discontent is not.”
“Not for the kyrios,” Iphys said, her voice hushed. The rest of the heroes exchanged tense looks.
They reached the central pavilion, impossibly deserted for this time of day. The sun was still high in the sky. Niko strode purposefully up to the central fountain in the pavilion.
“Not for Uncle Damon,” he agreed. Then he reared back and kicked the lip of the marble fountain.
The young pillars of the Rosy Dawn stared, aghast, at the shattered remains of the Burning Dusk’s central edifice, and the gaping maw of a tunnel beneath it.
“Did you know,” Niko said conversationally, moving deftly over the rubble, “that the Rosy Dawn and the Burning Dusk used to mingle with one another during their initiation rites? Instead of one day being devoted entirely to the trials of hunger, spirit, and reason, initiates spent one night contemplating the mystery of the dawn, and they spent another night contemplating the dusk.”
They ventured down into the tunnel, so familiar and yet so strange, and only now did someone finally dare to confront them. Myron looked back just in time to see the Heroic pirate in his finery heft a chunk of rubble the size of a chariot in his hands and slam it into place behind them, just as Gianni Scala himself came sprinting down the steps of the main estate towards the pavilion.
“The practice ended after centuries of precedent, when our uncles returned home from their adventures and Uncle Damon took the Rosy Dawn in his hand.” Niko raised his own hand and scarlet flames erupted in his palm, illuminating the mosaics embedded in the walls of the mountain tunnel. “He separated the two cults entirely and forbade them from sharing in their rites. I was able to visit this place once before I left, but only because your fathers smuggled me in.”
Myron had never even heard of such a practice. Looking at the faces of his brother and cousins, he knew that they hadn’t either.
“Why would he do that?” Rena asked weakly.
“There’s a lot that goes into pursuing virtue,” Niko said, prompting a round of firm nods from his companions. “Especially for those of us privileged enough to take part in the cults of greater mystery. These mysteries define us. They make our virtue what it is.”
Niko had said he wanted to make sure that their restlessness was their own.
The bisected corpse of the fallen sun god was only one half of a body.
“What happens if you only see half the mystery?” Myron asked, though he had a sickening feeling that he already knew.
In the scarlet light of his rosy palm, Niko’s smile was bleak.
“They say the father split us at our conception, that every human being is only half of a greater whole. That’s why we seek out companions. It’s why we marry.” Iphys squeezed his hand tight. “It’s human nature to seek completion. It’s only natural to be restless when you only have half of the full picture.
“How can you possibly solve a mystery when you’ve only seen half of it?”
They descended into the cavernous tomb of another bisected corpse from the same fallen sun god, and as they reverently watched the dusk fall into its incomprehensible palm, Myron felt something slide into place within him. Some primal itch that he had never known he needed to scratch until this very moment. He felt his entire soul relax.
And he knew.
Lio would never be satisfied, no matter how far he ventured, no matter what sights he saw. Because a part of him, however large or small, would hunger endlessly for this. For something the outside world couldn’t provide him. Something he should have had from the start. All because of their uncle.
Lio’s father had starved him.
Myron’s pneuma surged, doubling and redoubling as his soul advanced to the eighth rank of the civic realm. It was enough to break the spell the bisected corpse had over the young pillars of the Rosy Dawn, make them turn to him in shock and confused elation. The Heroic cultivators, by contrast, were entirely subdued.
“Are you restless, cousin?” Niko asked with that quiet intent.
Of course, he already knew the answer was yes.