The late-afternoon sun was turning the whitewashed walls of houses to gold by the time Brasidas finally left the kings' palace. He paused briefly to take in the sight, and felt an almost involuntary smile curve his lips. He was finally home. Finally done reporting to the kings on the outcome of his latest campaign. Finally at leisure, as much as any Spartan ever was: leisure enough to take his time walking home, and to wash the road dust off before heading to his syssition for supper.
The sound of training or sparring on-going somewhere was a near constant in Sparta at any hour of the day, and Brasidas felt his smile widen a fraction as he heard the clattering weapons and stamping feet grow louder as he drew closer to a particular house. Nikolaos was also back from the battlefront, he had heard, and clearly he was wasting no time in idleness.
The fighters came into sight as he turned a corner. Nikolaos, as expected, and—
Brasidas blinked in surprise. He'd seen Nikolaos' boy Alexios in passing before: a sturdy child with a fearless glance, as he recalled, but you could say the same of almost any boy in Sparta.
Now it seemed that as much difference as a season's campaign could make in a war, a season's growth could make still more difference in a boy. Alexios had shot up like a reed, straight and tall, and Brasidas would wager that he'd overtop his father one day. His newly broadening shoulders promised future strength and solidity for his still-lanky body. And, Brasidas noted with approval, he moved with grace and confidence, keeping up with Nikolaos and meeting him blow for blow with a real spear instead of the blunt staff that younger boys trained with.
Nikolaos and Alexios had not yet noticed him, but Myrrine was also watching the sparring from the doorstep, and she caught Brasidas' eye. She gave him a mischievous grin, mimed stabbing with a spear, and nodded toward her husband and son. Brasidas hesitated for a moment, but after all, it was every Spartan man's right and duty to be a teacher to every Spartan boy. He unslung his spear from his back and waited for the right moment, then gave a loud war cry and lunged at Alexios. The boy spun in near-panic and knocked Brasidas' spear away with a wild swing that left his guard wide open (Brasidas or Nikolaos would have to drill him on that later), but which was powerful enough to sting Brasidas' hands as his spear absorbed the blow.
The sparring match stumbled to a halt at the interruption, and Brasidas grinned at the startled Alexios. "You're quick," he said. "Well done."
"I— thank you, sir," Alexios replied.
Brasidas turned to Nikolaos, nodding respectfully. "General Nikolaos. Welcome home."
Nikolaos nodded back, smiling. "Brasidas. Welcome home to you, as well."
There was a glint in Nikolaos' eye that Brasidas knew from serving under his command: it meant that the general had just spotted an opening in an enemy formation, and was about to pounce.
"In fact, Brasidas, you're just who I wanted to see. With how Alexios has grown, I think it's time for him to start learning how a man conducts himself among men. Would you take him to your syssition some evening, so he can learn from your fine example?"
Well, that had Brasidas pinned as neatly as a spear to the throat. He could hardly refuse such a direct request for such a respectable role in Alexios' mentoring, not to Nikolaos' face.
...Not that he necessarily wanted to refuse. He thought of the grace in Alexios' steps and the concentration on his face as he sparred. It would be no great hardship to sit with him, to wrap an encouraging arm around his shoulders, to watch that fierce-eyed concentration turned toward answering the questions Brasidas' mess-mates would test Alexios with.
"What do you say?" he asked, turning to Alexios. "Would you like to join my syssition this evening?"
Alexios blinked, surprised to be asked for his opinion. "I don't know yet whether I would like it, sir," he said after a moment. "I haven't tried it yet."
Brasidas burst out laughing, followed by Myrrine and finally Nikolaos. Alexios, seeing that Brasidas wasn't offended, grinned shyly at him.
"Go on, Alexios," Nikolaos said, clapping his son on the shoulder. "Put away your spear and then go with Brasidas."
Alexios nodded and ran into the house, casting one last look at Brasidas over his shoulder as he went. Nikolaos stepped up to Brasidas, clasping him on the arm and fixing him with a serious look.
"You're a good man, Brasidas. I would be honored—this family would be honored—if you could inspire Alexios to serve Sparta as nobly as you do."
"I'm honored to be given the chance," Brasidas replied with all sincerity.
Nikolaos gave him another nod and a smile, then followed Alexios into the house. Brasidas was left standing by the door with Myrrine, who crossed her arms and eyed him critically. If Nikolaos' earlier expression had reminded him of the general's cunning on the battlefield, Myrrine's was now reminding him of the boyhood experience of being in the training yard when the great King Leonidas' daughter stopped by to watch and critique. She had amused herself by arriving unannounced, catching a dozen different boys' mistakes and loudly pointing them out, then departing as suddenly as she had come. No one had been safe from her sharp eye, least of all Brasidas.
"You've turned out well enough, I suppose," she said, as though she knew exactly what he had been thinking. "You may take Alexios to supper with you tonight." And as for doing more— well, we shall see, she didn't need to add.
"Thank you," Brasidas said with a wry smile.
Then Alexios was coming back to the door, running up to Brasidas with his face alight with curiosity and excitement, and Brasidas smiled back at him. He put his hand on Alexios' shoulder as they turned to walk away side by side, and he couldn't help feeling that this would change both their lives.