Author’s Introductory Note:
This novel continues the tale of Ardenai found in the novella, The Day the City Shook. If you haven’t yet read this, we highly recommend you read it before reading this novel.
-Showandah S. Terrill, Author
Ah’krill’s chin came up, and when there was silence she pointed a bejeweled forefinger at the senator. “We recognize your desire to address this council,” she said, and Sarkhan rose to face her.
He made the Equi gesture of peaceful greeting and said, “Ahimsa. I wish thee peace. I would seek your indulgence for a personal mission. My concern grows each day for Ardenai’s safety. Each day there are more rumors, more sightings, more accusations that he is not … pardon me … a suitable ruler for Equus. This does irreparable damage to our reputation in the Alliance, and his ability to later function as our leader.”
Ah’krill studied him in silence for a moment, taking in the long, narrow face and the sallow green ophidian eyes. Not a face to be trusted, she thought, but she had always found the man disquieting. The eyes shifted restlessly from side to side, then down, and to the left, then back. A man who has convinced himself he needs to watch his back, and, from the way his eyes move, a man fabricating what he thinks we wish to hear. Aloud she added, “I have not heard these rumors, but then, I do not seek them. Tell me, Senator, do you believe they are accurate?”
“No, of course not,” he said hastily. “I do believe, because he is the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, Ardenai must face them and put an end to them. The fact that he has been the purported leader of Equus for turnings of seasons now, and has not come forward … concerns me.” He drew the word out and made a gesture meant to be sincere. It was theatrical instead, and across the table Master of Cavalry Abeyan pushed his knuckles against his mouth, eyes narrowing in appraisal. “I am concerned …” again he stretched the word, “that he may be unable to do so, that he may be being controlled either mentally or physically by some unknown force or factor.”
“Such as?” Ah’krill asked, arching a slender eyebrow. “He seemed very much himself the day he accepted the arm-bands of Equus.”
“But … that speech he gave ….”
“Was the last thing he did that night, not the first. I was with him many hours before that. Ardenai, was Ardenai. He was not under the influence of anything, and I have every reason to think he was buying time and nothing more. I doubt your motives, Senator Sarkhan.”
He managed a wounded look. “Then you must doubt me as a loyal Equi. I wish only the harmony of rightful progression, and rational behavior. You must agree, High Priestess, he did not seem rational, despite your … mothering hopefulness that it was a ruse.”
“To you, perhaps, he seemed irrational.” Her eyes changed shape. “Are you saying that my son is not a loyal Equi?”
The man chewed his lip for a moment, and by the flexing of his long hands he indicated he was fighting to control his temper. “I am saying we are going to continue in limbo until such time as Ardenai’s plans are made known to us. Perhaps it is not his wish to lead us at all. If this be true, we must seek elsewhere for a leader, or seek to persuade him otherwise. But without him, we can do nothing.”
“Are you volunteering for the job?” Abeyan asked blandly. “I could have Master Farrier Landais forge some thinner molds for your arms.”
Sarkhan glared, but did not rise to the bait. “Surely, Abeyan, you cannot think this is going according to plan – to tradition?”
“Perhaps not to tradition,” Abeyan agreed, “but according to plan? Yes, I think it is.”
Sarkhan’s voice rose just a bit. “You thought that speech he gave was rational? You think any of this is rational? You think what your daughter did in turning against the Great House was …”
The deep green dragon’s eyes were inches from his when Abeyan stopped, and though his voice stayed calm, he was trembling with anger. “You would sully my daughter’s Reputation? Her memory? If you question my daughter’s loyalty, you question mine. Are you questioning my loyalty?”
“No,” Sarkhan replied smoothly, and his lip curled ever so slightly. “Of course not. But the rumors …”
“You are entirely too fond of rumor and innuendo,” Ah’krill cut in sharply. “You would be ill advised to go chasing off through the stars following rumors. No. I think it best if you stay safe at home. Ardenai is far more capable than you of taking care of himself. He said he would await anyone who wanted to challenge him in a place of his choosing. We must assume he is doing that. So … unless you are the one rising to the challenge …” she paused and watched it sink in … “having you go off after him can only complicate things for him, don’t you agree?”
Sarkhan caught his breath, then flushed dark with anger. Ah’krill was deliberately insulting him. Abeyan, who had deliberately insulted him as well, had settled back into his chair beside her, and was eyeing him with thinly veiled hostility. “I wish only … to assist … he who is my leader, and my friend, High Priestess.”
“You should not risk yourself unnecessarily, Senator Sarkhan. We shall ask the Seventh Galactic Alliance to initiate a formal search for him.”
“The Seventh Galactic Alliance already seeks him,” Sarkhan snapped. “They think he murdered Ah’riodin and Master Teal.” He caught his own tone, put a hand over his heart and looked at the floor. “May their souls be kept in comfort.”
“You are misled,” she replied icily. “There is no legitimate reason for Ardenai to be sought, and no one seeks him legitimately. Once again your information is faulty. If Ardenai is in danger, it is from his enemies, not his friends. If you consider him to be in danger, it is because you listen to his enemies.”
Sarkhan exhaled sharply and stood, pondering his next move. It had been a mistake to bring up the notion that the SGA was looking for Ardenai to question him. That tack had been abandoned. Why hadn’t he remembered that? He hadn’t remembered because that fool Konik had been gone for weeks. No one to help him keep strategies straight in his head. His brother, Sardure, who would have been the perfect partner in this if not for Konik’s meddling, was sulking in his room, and their father was useless for such things, addle-pated and hide-bound in his thinking. Konik’s faction whining about peace and fellowship. The war was being lost. Lost! Centuries of planning. The golden armbands of Equus which should have been his. Sarkhan’s! He of the lineage of Kabardin, the true line of Dragonhorses ….
“Are you through addressing this body?” Ah’krill asked, cutting into his thoughts. Her eyes seemed to illuminate a hole into the middle of him, and he stepped to one side to deflect the gaze.
He gave her a deep nod and forced a smile. “I can do no more than your pleasure allows me,” he said through his teeth.
“My pleasure requires your presence here,” she said curtly, and looked away from him in dismissal as though he were nothing … as though he had not been bred from seed far older than hers to rule this miserable grassland of a planet … to turn it into a planet of warriors who would one day rule the entire galaxy, not just a portion … “Senator Sarkhan?”
“As you wish, High Priestess,” he whispered, not trusting his voice, turned on his heel with a gracious nod to all, and took his leave.
He took nothing with him. He would be back shortly to claim it – all of it. He was launched and past the monitoring station on the rim of the second moon before those dolts, those fools, were even through with their lunch. If they did try to stop him, he’d say he’d been called away to Corvus … on an emergency. But then, they had no reason to stop him, did they? He gouged his vessel for speed, cursing the fact that Konik had the only TimeWhip clipper Sarkhan could logically get his hands on. Going off in a temper was one thing, and would probably be tolerated, given the bigger problems of the Great House, but doing something downright illegal like commandeering a clipper … could reflect badly on his claim. He laughed at himself. He was not going to ask for the armbands of Equus – he was going to take them … soon … if Konik had done his pathetic little bit. And where was Konik when he was needed? Boot-licking coward that he was….
A step ahead of them all – frighteningly close to Ardenai’s heels. It was he who had found Ardenai’s clipper, following the sightings through five sectors, then slowing, bouncing a signal off his own ship until he got an exact reflection. He’d found the clipper abandoned with nothing on board to tell him a story, found many sets of footprints, found the beginning of the trail they’d left.
He’d hopped that direction, locating in an hour or so the village which it had taken Ardenai and Gideon two and a half days to reach by forced march. Questions there had availed him nothing. It was not a market day, and he had no clue as to where to look next. Konik had sat for a long time, studying star charts, and gazing into the sea. Amazing how serene it became past the pounding of the surf.
This, too, had to be simple behind the fuss and clamor. Ardenai was deep and serene. Logically, he would not continue in confusion longer than he had to in order to lay a smoke screen. This had to become simple at some point. Ardenai was the bait, Sarkhan was the quarry. Where was the trap? No point asking Sarkhan. His logic had fled him. What was left would not even pass for reason. Perhaps … if the mission were to be saved … Sarkhan should be eliminated. Konik had shaken his head and smiled despite himself. So now Ardenai turned them upon themselves. Flawless. Brilliant. He and his young Declivian companion. Declivis. Old Declivian saying, “The brighter the mind, the simpler the machine.” Only decent thing ever to come from Declivis. Suddenly, he’d had it! The brighter the mind the simpler the machine. Ardenai had no need for machines nor machinations. Sarkhan did. Konik had fired up the clipper and swung toward Calumet.
What had taken Ardenai and Gideon two days to walk would have taken Konik five minutes to fly. What had taken the slave traders thirty hours to fly, had taken Konik three, and when he’d entered the Controlled Atmosphere Corridor he’d been exactly ten minutes behind Ardenai, and he knew exactly where he was going. Konik was a logical man. Two plus two, if you thought simply – always, always made four. He’d stood to one side on the docks and watched the freighters unload. There … being dragged from the hold of what was supposed to be a prison ship, convicts. The fourth man out, a tall, well-built blond youth. He was bowed by hunger and fatigue, face burned and peeling, eyes … the wrong color, but alight with intelligence and worry as he looked behind him. And there, no less tired and hungry, Ardenai! All the galaxy held only one set of eyes like that – black, green – the color was of no importance. He staggered and the boy had him in an instant. What a pair! How could these people be so blind as not to see their nobility? And Konik was in a position to do … absolutely nothing. Not one thing. Had he called attention to them, his own purpose and the purpose of his family for generations … would be lost.
He hesitated, and in that instant those eyes touched him, and as they dropped again, Konik saw, or thought he saw, Ardenai smile. Check. But who had who? Konik had shaken his head in frustrated admiration and turned away. There was no way he could pursue Ardenai without losing all communication with his own people, and he couldn’t hope to accomplish his purpose alone. It had obviously been decided how this battle would be fought in the time honored manner of both Equus and Telenir and it would be Sarkhan’s battle, not his. A battle that must be fought. A battle that needed two contestants. He sighed, watching Ardenai’s receding back, and knowing deep in his guts that Sarkhan was in no way a match for the Dragonhorse. Why had they not tried to negotiate a peace? Why must power always come from killing? He had determined where the prisoners were being taken, and left Calumet.
He’d gone back to Hector, caught Ardenai’s clipper in his tractor beam and lifted it at sublight speed halfway around the planet to a space port. He’d contracted for a freighter to take it to Corvus, that being the first planet from which a message could be sent to Equus without the need for relay … or so he told himself. A part of him said he was buying himself time to think … or was he buying time for Ardenai?
He rejected that thought. Above all, he was a man of duty, and he was in service to the Telenir. Besides, it was logical to reason that he couldn’t send a message to Sarkhan. The best he could do was send a message to everyone, and hope … perhaps hope … Sarkhan picked up on it first. This he had done, and now he waited. The clipper sat in the belly of the contracted freighter, and Konik sat to one side, waiting to see who would respond to his little advertisement. The freighter’s captain had been more than agreeable to the handling of negotiations for a piece of the action. Konik had nodded, and smiled to himself.
The fourth morning after Konik’s arrival on Corvus, the first set of familiar faces appeared. Not the set he’d hoped for, but a set he knew would come. To go over the navigational equipment, that big, wolf-faced Phyllan who pulsed with sex drive. Dannis? Was that her name? Bonfire Dannis. That was it. Konik nodded to himself. She must be hard to work around and not get … involved. Bag up the long blue claws and the pointed teeth, and the rest of the body was most inviting.
Amir Cohen had come along to check the time whip drive and the communications array. And there was that very black woman with the lovely voice, Oonah Pongo. She’d worked on a project with Ardenai … something to do with young children and the arts? What her function was, Konik wasn’t sure.
To ask the appropriate questions there was another dark skinned person, this one a deep, warm brown … Terrenes came in such interesting shades … little Marion Eletsky, with his balding head and eyes as bright as his mind. Really a very nice man with no affectations; the kind of person who made a good and trusting friend.
And last out, looking as though he’d been brought for the express purpose of mayhem, that perennial sourpuss, young Prince Kehailan. Well, young by Equi standards, but no longer a youth. He was somewhere in his forties, which meant he was pretty well grown. To see the look on his face, one would think him a brat of eighteen. Not exactly the son Ardenai had expected, Konik thought, watching him. It was no secret they’d had their disagreements. Excellent strategist like his sire, good chess player. More sober than his father – not the sense of humor or the athletic ability … definitely not the intellectual and telepathic capacity of his sire, which was just as well. Konik was uncomfortably close. He veiled his thoughts more deeply, just in case heightened emotions had heightened Kehailan’s abilities as well. It worked that way sometimes, though the other way around was more usual.
“We would like to see the clipper,” Eletsky said pleasantly enough, and in the face of all those Seventh Galactic Alliance uniforms the freighter’s captain wasn’t about to say no. He gestured toward the fifty foot ship, and stepped aside.
“Look it over well,” Eletsky said.
“Take it apart,” Kehailan amended, and turned to the freighter’s captain. “Where is the man who owns the clipper you have here?”
The captain shrugged.
“Your name, sir?” the Equi asked.
“Kais,” the man replied, nearly yawning. “Theseus Kais.”
“Well, Mister Kais, let us begin again,” the Equi said. “How did you come to have the clipper belonging to the Thirteenth Dragonhorse?”
The man’s eyes widened considerably. “Ardenai … of Equus? I didn’t know it was his. I was hired to carry it here and negotiate its sale. That is all.”
“Who hired you to bring it here?” Eletsky asked.
“An Equi. I don’t know his name. Equi cross, maybe. Didn’t look quite right to be all-Equi.”
“Describe him,” Marion demanded.
“Just … an Equi. They all look alike to me.”
“Come on,” Eletsky snapped, “young, old, tall, short, fat, skinny. Which?”
“Not short. Well, maybe for an Equi he was – a little. Not heavy set. Built like a stone wall. Nice shoulders on him. Handsome as hell.”
“Good,” Eletsky nodded. “Coloring?”
“Just … an Equi. Not those dragon-eyed ones, though … I don’t think. Maybe, though. Neh. He was a cross, I think, even though he had those …” he inclined his head toward Kehailan, “sea shell, ram-horn ears. Whatever they call them.”
“Ears,” Eletsky said.
Kehailan slumped momentarily with disappointment. Ardenai definitely did not look like an Equi cross. Or maybe he did these days. Perfect. He didn’t know what his own father looked like. “What else?” he insisted.
“Look, he was just another damned Equuan. Not young, not old. Nice shoulders. He did have a real interesting voice …”
Kehailan turned away in frustration, took a deep breath, then spun back around and seized the man by his shirt, jerking him nearly off the ground. Kais found himself within inches of the smoking black eyes, and at this distance he couldn’t miss the ophidian pupils. As his life flashed in front of him so did his science lessons. Most poisonous serpents have elongated pupils. He was going to die. Soon.
“I want to know where and how you came by this ship, and I want to know right now, or so help me I’ll tear your kraaling head off!” Kehailan snarled. “If you have caused harm to my father, I’ll kill you!”
Eletsky stood slack jawed with shock, unable if he’d wanted to, to rescue the hapless captain. It was Bonfire Dannis who caught Kehailan’s arm and said, “Hector. The ship was lifted here from the planet Hector, Commander. Its navigational circuitry is fused. Come. Look for yourself.” There was a moment’s pause. “You’ll have to put him down to do that, Sweetie, or just tuck him under your arm and bring him along.”
Kehailan glared, pushed the man against the side of the ship, and went on board.
“Now,” Eletsky drawled, “perhaps you’d like to tell me what you know before that gentleman comes back, hm?”
By the time Kehailan returned, Marion had a very good idea who they were looking for, and Kehailan had a good idea where Ardenai had been heading. “They were on course for Calumet, I’m quite sure,” Kehailan said, “but the ship malfunctioned. Prototypes will do that. They set down … and were waylaid before my sire could make repairs. Everything is here. Backpacks, supplies, everything. All we can do is go back to the point where the clipper was picked up, and begin tracking.”
“Kee,” Eletsky said, deciding to save the lecture on alien relations for a later time, “have you asked yourself why the clipper is here?”
The Equi sighed, touched Eletsky with his eyes, and looked away in embarrassment. “Myself? You know that I have, a hundred times in the last five minutes. Kais, who could truly answer, no. That, I failed to do. I failed to ask him rational questions.”
“Now, I thought the questions you asked Captain Kais were very logical … in a demanding sort of way.”
“That,” Kehailan choked, “was unforgivable. I lost my temper.”
He was stricken, and Marion pretended to inspect the ship in order to give him some time to compose himself. He wanted more than anything to put his arms around the young man and tell him it was permissible to hurt for someone he loved. He couldn’t do it of course. Kehailan would have been horrified. How in hell could you do anything for a friend who was so aware … so painfully aware every minute that his blood was not quite pure, that his eyes were a disappointing color, that his horsemanship was not quite up to Equi standards, that his mental capacity did not equal that of his father? And to him it mattered … terribly. Much more so than it had ever mattered to Ardenai or anyone else. Throughout history, someone had to be the son – the son of Handel, the son of Vanner, the son of Karnis the Great, the son of Buldarik, the son of Ahura. Powerful, intelligent men loved their sons for simple reasons, yet the world was full of frustrated sons. Kehailan, instead of playing to his strong points, had tried to hide his weak ones, and he’d done it by distancing himself from those he’d considered superior. Not physical distance, but emotional … refusing to let them see him in what he considered moments of weakness. And that, was his one great weakness. How must he be feeling now? Torn between love for and worry about his father, and the knowledge that his father was now Firstlord of Equus – the best, the brightest, the most perfect – and that he, Kehailan, the vastly inferior son, needed to do something, anything, that would make a difference to someone as powerful as his sire.
“Captain?” the voice said again, and Eletsky came back to himself.
“Yes, Commander, what’s up?”
“As regards your question about the clipper … I believe the vessel may have been brought to Corvus because a signal from here to Equus would not have to be boosted. It would go direct, without any chance of SGA interception. It might be overheard, but it would not be dependent upon relay.”
“It would get through, regardless. Perhaps the message was not meant for any of us, nor is the clipper of any consequence. It is simply a way of letting someone know to come here as quickly as possible.”
“But why lift it all this way? That took days and days. Why not leave it where it was and travel at five times the speed?”
“I have no idea. Perhaps … it is not time that is of the essence, but something else entirely.”
“I would have to agree,” Eletsky nodded, staring at the side of the ship as though seeing images in it. “The description I finally got from Kais was a powerfully built, not overly tall, prematurely greying man with blue eyes and a vibrant, almost hypnotic voice. Sound familiar?”
“Yup. Seems to me if we can get our hands on Konik we can get the answers to a lot of questions.”
“That works in one scenario. But what if the person for whom the message was really meant has already been here? We’ll be even further behind than we already are.”
“But behind what, I wonder?” Eletsky muttered. Again he felt that prickle of uneasiness which accompanied the unknown … perhaps the unknowable. He wished he’d been able to close his ears to all those damned rumors flying from every camp. He shook himself like a wet dog, and ignored Kehailan’s questioning look. “Anyway, tell me what makes you think your dad was headed for Calumet?”
Kehailan’s mouth twitched up at the reference to his sire, and he took a deep, steadying breath. “His trajectory at the time his navigational computer fused, would have taken him directly into the Controlled Atmosphere Corridor for the southeast quadrant of the southeast hemisphere of Calumet. As you know, Calumet is an affined world of Equus. Most of the southeast hemisphere of Calumet is retained by the Great House of Equus. It is from there that the breeding stock for the cavalry mounts of Equus is freshened from time to time. It is also a major training ground for the Horse Guard. My sire knows the place well, and so does Captain Ah’riodin.”
“It’s a logical place to go then, but he never made it.”
“So it would appear,” Kehailan replied. “So it would appear.”
“But appearances can be deceiving,” Marion smiled. “Do you suppose Amir and Bonfire could fix this clipper?”
“In a heartbeat,” Kehailan nodded. “I could fix it myself in an hour or two.”
“Then do it. Fix it, take someone with you, and go on to Calumet.”
“But … I won’t have any way of communicating with you if I find anything, Marion.”
“Either you’ll find him or you won’t. Either we’ll be behind you or we won’t. Nothing too vague there, you think? My point is,” he grinned, “in either case we’ll have covered twice as much ground.”
“Agreed,” Kehailan nodded, “And if we find nothing, we still have the clipper, and a quick way of returning to you … wherever you may be.”
“And who will you take?”
“With your permission, I’ll take Oonah.”
“Cool head, warm heart. Good choice. Done,” Eletsky said. “Get cracking. I want you out of here. As for me, I think I’ll go looking for our friend, Senator Konik.”
“One more thing,” Kehailan said, turning from the clipper’s hatch, “Who, exactly is going to pay the price for this vessel?”
“Walk with me,” Marion grinned, “and look hostile. I bet I can get it for nothing.”