They walked side by side, one in emerald green, one in imperial purple, their robes brushing the condensation from the grass as they passed, deep in conversation. A rumble grew more discernible on the early morning air, then the sound of war bells on flying hoofs, and to their left, skirting the forest, came two squads of crack Equi Horse Guard at full gallop. In pairs they cleared the fence and disappeared into the trees, leaving the walkers alone.
“Ah’riodin sssits well thiss beautiful morning, yess?” Pythos said, flicking his long tongue with pleasure.
“Io always sits well,” Ardenai replied absently, peeling the blade of grass he’d picked up along the way. “Her abilities are above reproach.”
“In many thingss,” the serpent physician nodded. “How well sshe getss on with her life desspite the death of her hussband, yess?”
“Ah, the first jab of the day,” Ardenai said, biting down on the grass and working it between his teeth, “I must say you’ve shown remarkable restraint up until now. Of course we’ve only been out ten minutes.”
“It would not have sseemed a jab if thee wass not sso defenssive.”
“I’m not defensive,” he said, eying his companion. “But I am beginning to recognize the tune you’re whistling. Io got over Salerno, why don’t I get over Ree. You know Io married Salerno for no other reason than that her fluttery little Papilli hormones got her pregnant before she’d lost her milk teeth. It was a marriage of convention, nothing more. He went on with his life, she went on with hers. Three years later, he was dead, because he was never particularly bright … go ahead and look at me that way if you like, but you know I’m correct. He got himself ambushed because he wasn’t paying any more attention on that mission than he did in my class when he was six. He’s been dead close to a decade. Now, how old was I when I married Ree, and how long were we married, and how long has she been … gone?”
“And you do not conssider this a defenssive responsse? Ardenai, we musst disscuss thy problem and reach a ssolution for it. Now. Today. Thee will peak ssoon, and it will be too late.”
Ardenai brought his hands up to halt the conversation, and turned to look Pythos full in the face. “No,” he said quietly. “I mean it, Pythos, I’m not ready yet. Look at my eyes. A little yellow in the corners, that’s all. This is nothing. It will pass with minimal discomfort.”
“Thy blood iss ready, and within a matter of hourss … thiss will be like nothing thee hass ever experiencced.” Pythos said gently, knowing he was on painfully sensitive ground. “An imperial dragonhorsse heat is like no other, and it iss upon thee. Thee musst take ssteps to keep from being overwhelmed.”
Ardenai gave him a look askance, and said peevishly, “Stop saying that, Pythos. It is not my dragonhorse cycle.” There was something about the old doctor, the way he looked at Ardenai – the way the sun glinting off his scales gave him an almost ethereal look – something in his usually inscrutable eyes. “What … do you mean, like no other?”
The physician shook his head and hissed. “Do not be afraid. What drivess thee now, drivess all Equi, but thee iss esspecially ssussceptible, becausse it hass been reinforcced for thoussandss of yearss as an important part of what thee iss to do for thy world. Thy mind can ressisst with all itss conssiderable might, and thy loinss will win every time. Thee drank at the cceremony in the Great House to sseal that particular bargain, and from this ccycle forth, in every ccycle wilt thou be the Dragonhorsse, not jusst every sseventh. And sso much more than jusst the Dragonhorsse. Pleasse listen to me.”
“Eladeus, don’t tell me that,” Ardenai groaned. “Am I being sentenced to spend my days as a mindless, rutting beast?”
To his annoyance, the serpent laughed.
“Stop!” he demanded, and Pythos laughed harder, until he collapsed, half coiled around a thick sycamore branch growing low to the ground. Ardenai watched him in disgust … until he realized that he, too, was laughing. “I said, stop!” he barked, and sat down beside his friend, hands on his knees, trying to control the snickers which kept erupting unbidden from deep in his middle. “What has possessed you, you old lizard? Have you no heart at all? This isn’t funny. The only reason you’re laughing is because you haven’t had to endure one of those … things. They … strip your mind away, Pythos.”
“The ssituation iss not funny, I grant thee, but you … oh, how you amusse me. Ardenai, thee hass had heat ccycles ssince thy youth. They are entirely proper and natural. Why, today, does thee contemplate in the depthss of the dragonhorsse the losss of all ccivility?”
“Because YOU used the term, ‘Like no other,’ and then threw in ‘imperial.’ How alarming is that? And … today I am alone,” Ardenai said, throwing his chewed-up blade of grass like a small spear. “I have no mate. I have no one to turn to in order to get this out of my system. I am embarrassed, and …”
“Iss thee embarrasssed to breathe, Firsstlord? Did thee really think all thy dutiess would be of an intellectual nature? Ssilly boy. Ardenai, look around thee. There are noble women here, who carry the puresst blood of the Great Housse in their veins. Ah’nora, Ah’dara, Ah’pia, Ah’riodin. Any one of them would be honored …”
“Don’t say it!” Ardenai gasped. “Don’t let it cross your mind much less your lips.”
“… To be thy wife, thy Primuxori.”
“Why do I even talk? Pythos, this is not going to be a dragonhorse cycle. I won’t let it be. It is a simple heat cycle. I may be disquieted, but I will not be consumed. I will remain in control and it will pass. If I am too uncomfortable … there must be hetaeras here. I will seek one out as is appropriate for …”
“They are no longer appropriate for thee, Firsstlord,” Pythos said soberly. “Thee may no longer sspill thy sseed outsside marriage or a coupling ssanctioned by the Great Housse. There is a hetaera dessignated for thee at Mountain Hold. We could try ssending a messsage … from ssomewhere… to her. Not that it, nor sshe, would arrive in time.”
“Make up your mind!” Ardenai snapped. “I do need sex, I don’t need sex … which is it? Now I can’t even seek companionship in the acceptable manner, as other men may do? I have no desire to think of myself as more than a man, but I have no desire to think of myself as less, either. The more I know of this, the less I like it.” He averted his eyes, gazing away into the green and fragrant woods, and his fingers tapped a nervous rhythm as he stared. He shook his head and Pythos caught a momentary shimmer in the gentle green eyes that might have been tears. “I was with Ah’ree so long …. Please, Creator Spirit, I do not want to set my head against a woman I don’t love. That mating with … Ah’krill only knows who … was bad enough, but I did it, because it was my duty to sire the next High Priestess. It is not my duty to share my discomfort with a stranger, nor is it in any way my desire. And now I am told those who are trained are no longer ‘appropriate’ for me? Precious Equus … what am I supposed to do?”
“My hatchling, my colt,” the old serpent chuckled, “My poor, sstupid Ardenai. Thee iss not lisstening, even to thysself. Remember what thee just ssaid, and lissten to me as I ssay again, doess not Ah’riodin ssit well upon her horsse thiss morning?”
“Pythos, you fill me with dismay,” Ardenai murmured, and began walking again. “First you tell me to choose just any stranger to marry, then you tell me I should choose someone I consider a daughter. My wife and I raised that girl and you know it. Your sense of morality leaves much to be desired.”
“Sso does thy ssensse of reality!” Pythos hissed. “May I remind thee, that thee must be married to three women? Has to be? Must be? No choice? Oh, I ssee that look, Hatchling. They musst all be alive, sso do not try to count Ah’ree ass one of them! What are thy thoughts regarding Priestess Ah’ti? Sshe of the sslender body and upturned breasssts? Your mother the High Priestess hass conssidered her for thee.”
Ardenai snorted. “Ah’krill can consider that one all she wants. Ah’ti and I have served together on the Education Council for years, and I can tell you this – I would have a skewer shoved up my ass, be roasted over a slow fire and fed to a mothering Kel before I would touch that woman. She is arrogant and self-centered, and she is a misandrist. She would in no way serve anyone but herself and her inner circle. I won’t have it.”
“Luck iss with thee. Ah’krill hass chossen another insstead. Doesst thee remember Priestess Ah’niss? Tall, very fair sskinned, with long, blonde hair? Sshe hass …”
“A personality like saddle soap and snot.”
“… Ssupple breasts, a sslender waist, sshapely thighss and rounded buttockss for pressenting up to thee upon the priapic bench, and flexible hipss for bearing fine children …”
“And a personality like saddle soap and snot. If her conversations are any indicator, she has a brain to match. No offense to the lady, of course. If one wanted beauty only … or a concubine …” he sucked momentarily on his bottom lip; a gesture not lost on Pythos, who wondered what the flowing robes concealed.
“Neverthelesss, Ah’krill hass assked me to draw up the contract, and I can find nothing wrong with the union, exccept of coursse that thee conssiderss her arrogant without having any real brainss. When thee arrivess home, thee will be married to her as thy Primuxori – thy firsstwife. Sshe it iss, who will be thy royal conssort and help govern besside thee.”
“What?” Ardenai spun around and began walking backward, heedless of the length of his robe. “I have no intention of spending the rest of my life straddling a priapic bench, and she’s not good for more than that. I need someone who can act as an advisor to me, Pythos, not just rattle her beads and pray for me while she looks down her nose at our people! I need someone who understands the intricacies of diplomacy. Someone I can talk to and get intelligent answers.”
“Ah … yess. A diplomat. Ssomeone with a ssolid background in political sscience and military sstrategiess. Ssomeone who hass dealt extenssively with other racess … don’t trip over that …” it was too late, “little branch there.” Pythos extended his long, frondy fingers and set Ardenai back on his feet. “Perhapss we sshould ssit and disscuss this, yess?”
“No, we should not. I need to get back to the house. The sun is nearly up, and I have much to do today besides discussing my sex life with my cold-blooded dragon physician.”
“Then perhapss thee would honor my yearss by at leasst walking forward, Dragonhorsse?”
Ardenai took a few offhanded swipes at the grass and dirt on his robes, and began walking again, though this time he faced front and kept his eyes on the path. “Yes,” he said, “someone with a solid background in diplomacy, or education, or something in addition to domestic affairs. Someone to share my life, not just my bed. I absolutely do not want Priestess Ah’nis for my firstwife. I’ll simply tell Ah’krill that I …”
“Have already taken a wife. It’ss the only thing that’ss going to work without long and arduouss debate. Thee knowss that. Even sso sshe is going to inssisst on the other two wivess. It iss traditional for your officce, and the High Priestesss iss nothing if not traditional. Thee had besst choosse at leasst one of them while it iss sstill posssible to do sso.”
“Oh … ah ha … we’re back to Ah’riodin, aren’t we? I should have recognized your description of the solid background in political science and so on and so forth. Forget it. It is too great a transition for either of us to make with any success. We’d never get our roles untangled. She’s my baby.”
“Baby? Thee iss the baby! A big, annoying baby!” Pythos exclaimed, jerking Ardenai hard around to face him. He used his short, powerful arms and multiple gripping fingers to square the Firstlord’s shoulders, and held him firmly in place despite Ardenai’s angry expression and pinned ears. “A big, blind, annoying baby! Ssqualling for reassonss you don’t even try to undersstand! Poor little Ardi, thee wants ssomeone to love thee. Ssomeone intelligent. Ssomeone who will make a good advissor. Ssomeone who will be thy friend. And right here under thy royal nosse iss a woman, a grown woman, who lovess thee – yess, and dessiress thee in an adult and overtly ssexual manner! Sshe hass ssaid as much to me more than oncce, and if thee were not ssuch a blind, whining dolt, thee would ssee it, and ssmell it, and tasste it in the air when sshe iss around thee! Everyone elsse can! Sshe resspects thee, and would give thee the bonding thee dessiress … SSTOP SSQUIRMING! Sstand sstill and facce it! Look at her! Sshe’s not three years old, sstanding in the ssink cutting her hair off, sshe’ss a young woman leading the entire Equi Horse Guard. Sshe has two universsity degreess and a quarter-grown sson. Let her grow up, for the ssake of Eladeuss! It iss not immoral to change thy mind about how thee feels toward ssomeone, and if thee were not sso sstiff necked, thee would have admitted the attraction long ago.” He broke off and huffed in annoyance. “Give her a chancce, Ardenai, or it will be forever losst to thee to do sso. Pleasse, if thou lovesst me. Pleasse, take Io to wife.”
“Mercy!” Ardenai cried, pushing the serpent’s hands away. “What in kraa is the matter with you? Every single morning since you let me out of bed you’ve brought me walking, ‘to help me regain my serenity,’ and you’ve worried me like a lithoped with a barn rat. I have other things to think about. Sarkhan will be upon us shortly, and here I am, cycling weeks earlier than usual … reacting to stress like a colt, and there is nothing I can do … to stop it.” He drooped, the anger gone from his voice. “Or so my trusted friend and doctor tells me. Am I … really going to become the dragonhorse every cycle now?”
“Yess, Ardenai. When thee getss to Mountain hold, there will be … cceremoniess, adjusstmentss to be done that will hopefully asssuage the intenssity, but there iss no help for it right now. I am ssorry. Thiss iss a choicce that musst be made. By thee, or for thee. If thee doesst not make it, I will. The two of thee will have a lifetime to untangle thy roless, but at leasst you will have it together.”
“Oh … FINE,” Ardenai said, and he looked absolutely exhausted. “It’s obvious that you have already made the choice for me. Very well. Draw up the contract and I will take the girl – now, today. Marry us, for all the good it will do you. I will do anything to get your scaly, clawed foot off my neck! I will take the Captain for my Primuxori, because it will best serve Equus, but if I find out that you … exaggerated the extent of her feelings for me, so help me, I don’t know what I’ll do to you, Physician mine. One of us trying to get past feeling … like an incestuous and dishonorable beast is going to be bad enough. Io is … an amazing young woman, a Firstwife of whom we can all be proud, and in whom we can all have confidence. Of course … the thought of having sexual intercourse with Io, is … repugnant to me. Let me see, which act would make me hate myself more, I wonder? Do I marry Ah’nis, or do I marry Io? The dolt, or the daughter?” He used his hands to weigh his words, his face a mask of self-loathing. “And if I do choose Ah’nis, what in kraa do I do in the meantime?”
“Often we mate our horssess father to daughter. The foalss are sstrong and beautiful, Ardenai Firstlord.”
“Yes, well in case you haven’t noticed, Pythos, I’m not a horse. I don’t think like a horse, and I have a keener sense of relationships than horses do. The thought of mounting the baby I rocked in my arms, that my wife rocked in her arms … fills me with despair and disgust. The fact that I’ve let you talk me into this, and that some part of me may actually be looking forward to it, makes me hate myself.”
“The baby thee rocked, iss gone,” Pythos said, and his voice was like warm, soothing water, salving the Firstlord’s ragged nerves. “The highly educated woman who awaitss thy passsion, thy intellect, and thy companionsship, hass been mosst patient with thee, but do not expect her to be gentle. Sshe iss, after all, nearly half Papilli. They do not need heat ccycles to be hot.” He looked away at that point, and Again Ardenai had the feeling the physician was hiding something. Probably nothing good. None of it had been so far.
“Just do your official duty and draw up the contract,” Ardenai said through his teeth. “If she signs it, I will sign it as well, and you can marry us this afternoon. But know this, I will not force the girl. It has to be her choice, and know this also, it is certainly NOT mine.” He turned on his heel and stalked up the path to the house.
He nodded to Gideon and said good morning, but he didn’t pause to chat. He hurried into his chambers, and after a few minutes he returned in the sleeveless tunic, slim black pants and high boots of the Horse Guard. He seemed more relaxed, and he had with him a sleepy looking round faced boy a few years younger than Gideon.
“Jilfan, have you met Gideon?” he asked.
“No,” the boy yawned, and his face was pleasant. “I have seen him at a distance, and was instructed to let him rest a bit yet.”
“He has rested enough,” Ardenai smiled. “Begin teaching him what it means to belong to the Great House of Equus.”
Jilfan nodded. “As you wish, Dragonhorse.”
Ardenai returned the nod, extended his hands for them to continue, and strode off toward the stable, muttering something under his breath that sounded like, “Best get used to each other, you’ll be brothers soon enough.”
They gave one another a questioning look. “I hope I haven’t done anything to offend him,” Gideon said. “He hasn’t said ten words to me since we got here.”
“But think of all the time you had alone together,” Jilfan reminded him. “More time have you had, than any of us could ever expect to have. He thinks of other things just now. Be patient.”
Ardenai trotted out of the stable on a big grey horse and made the turn toward Gideon and Jilfan at an easy canter, war bells jingling just above his horse’s fetlocks to identify his position and alliance. When he was clear of the buildings he leaned over the horse’s neck, spoke to it, and the animal flashed away, over the fence and into the woods. “I wish I could ride half that well,” Gideon sighed.
“Half that well may be possible,” Jilfan replied, green eyes twinkling in his young face, and led Gideon off toward the stables. “It would please Ardenai for you to learn to ride.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Um hm,” Jilfan said, nodding with the air of someone who has inside information to share. “That is what he told my mother. I heard him. He was walking with her last evening in the garden.”
“When I saw Ardenai last night, he was with …” Gideon found himself staring at Jilfan, “he was with Io.”
“Yes. She who is my mother. Why do you look so surprised?”
“Well,” Gideon cleared his throat and tiptoed into the subject, “I just … that is … Ardenai speaks of your mother as though she were … a little girl.”
“A source of considerable annoyance,” Jilfan snorted, “as she is obviously not anything of the sort, nor does she wish to be, especially not to Ardenai Firstlord.”
“She does look like a schoolgirl …” Gideon caught himself and grimaced. He’d been teased about his mother enough to know how it felt. “Sorry.” He studied Jilfan a little more closely. “Why … are you here on Calumet if I may ask. I thought this was a military operation.”
“And my grandparents would never have let me come if they’d known about it,” Jilfan nodded. “But they didn’t. Nobody did. I came to visit with my granddam’s brother. Then, suddenly, there was my mother with Captain Teal, and she decided I’d be safer here under her watchful gaze for the time being.” He shrugged. “That’s fine with me. I don’t get to see my mother very often.”
“That must be hard,” Gideon murmured, “and … I’m sorry I referred to your mother as a schoolgirl. Obviously she is nothing of the kind.” He dropped his eyes and hoped he sounded more sincere than he felt.
“No offense taken,” Jilfan shrugged, reaching for a halter and handing another to Gideon. “It’s kind of funny, really, having a mother who looks like my little sister.” He looked up into Gideon’s golden eyes, and the two of them burst out laughing.
“Again,” Gideon said, “No offense.”
“At least not on my part,” Jilfan grinned, opening a stall door. “As for Mother ….” He sighed and shook his head. “These things are best not discussed except by those who are principals in the matter. Come, let us begin. This is Tolbeth, the mare Master of Horse Teal has chosen to be yours. Ardenai agrees.”
“Mine?” Gideon echoed in a whisper, feasting on the sight and warm fragrance of the blaze faced bay in front of him. She had three white stockings, and one white coronet, and over her left eye there was a patch of dark brown extending into the white, as though someone had licked the cream off one edge of a perfectly browned cookie. “Hello, Tolbeth.” He extended his hand, palm up, and the mare stuck her muzzle toward Gideon’s face.
“She wants to smell your breath,” Jilfan explained. “It’s the polite thing to do. Just stand still and exhale firmly, but not with any kind of a whooshing sound, you know. And when she’s smelled your breath, she’ll exhale, and you smell hers. Then she’ll know you.”
“My own horse,” Gideon murmured, and send a silent prayer of thanks to El’Shadai for riches beyond anything he’d ever dreamed of. “Let’s you and I get to know one another, shall we?”
Ardenai’s horse paced along the stream bank, blowing quietly as he cooled down, and Ardenai sought to regain his own mind in the movement of the water. He was beyond quieting, he knew that. It had been less than an hour since he’d gone into the lavage and relieved himself, and still he couldn’t stay tucked. The saddle was becoming uncomfortable. He put a hand down to shift himself, but it did no good. Pythos said coupling with a female would give him some real relief, and he wondered why that was, exactly. He could relieve himself. Since Ah’ree’s death it had been his only means of release, though, truth be told, his heat cycles had been greatly diminished by grief and he hadn’t much cared about such things. But now, even as he tried to think himself through this … he felt himself being consumed, growing hotter and hotter until he felt as though he’d burst into flames if he couldn’t set his head against a female. He thought about what Pythos had said, and ground his teeth in frustration. And when Pythos had spoken of Ah’nis, a woman of whom Ardenai was not in the least fond, he’d still gotten an erection, and now, thinking again of those words, he was quivering all over with the need for release. He was losing himself. He could think of nothing else.
How far this was from the man he considered himself to be. But then, had he ever considered himself in the role of undisputed leader of a world government? Reality had a way of readjusting itself from time to time, didn’t it? And this reality … this marriage to Ah’riodin … he tried to picture himself teething on her neck, stroking her breasts, stretching himself along her back and penetrating her … and his mind went black, even as his intromittent organ rolled full out of its sheath and began to pulse. He swung off his horse with a cry of frustration and dismay, released himself from his riding tights, and watched from someplace far away and safe as his semen arced in thick spurts into the dusty grass along the path.
He took the time to wonder if his behavior was disturbing Kadeth, but the grey stallion looked nonchalant about the Firstlord’s activities, and given leave, went to grazing while Ardenai went to the edge of the stream to wash his face and splash water up his arms. It had been so easy when Ree lived. He would go into heat, regular as clockwork every hundred and twenty days, always cycling for eight days, as was average for Equi males, and they would plan a little getaway for a week or so … someplace quiet and private, or someplace stimulating and exciting, as the mood took them.
When she cycled, she preferred to stay home and make everybody else leave. She could channel heat like a super-conductor. The gardens were immaculate to the point of artificiality, the house was disturbingly clean, the horses were brushed nearly to distraction, and still … there had been time for passion of a sexual nature … while she was gardening, or cleaning house, or brushing horses … or hiking or swimming or riding. She would throw herself down and roll luxuriously like a big, long-haired lithoped, extending her arms up to him and purring, “Make love to me – now, this minute you handsome thing!” And he’d always done his best to cool her feverish passion. When they’d begun to cycle together, as couples often did after a few years of marriage … it had been an experience beyond description. Now … she was dead. Cold, and dead. His beloved of Eladeus.
Today … he would marry another, lest the choice be made for him to even greater detriment. Today … he would marry another woman. And he knew, despite what he’d said to Pythos, that if it came to that, he would force her … not to have sex with him, but to marry him and be Primuxori, yes … because the fear of being wed to a stranger was worse yet. Force Io? It was an oxymoron. Force. What an awful word. It implied misuse of power, and powerful uncertainty.
It made his stomach twist with dread. What was he going to say to her? What would others think? How perverted would this seem to those he respected, and whose respect he valued? What was his brother-in-law going to think? What would Io say to him when he … precious Equus, he couldn’t even think the words. How had he let Pythos talk him into this? Why hadn’t he said no? What were these first few seconds going to be like? What would he say first? What would she say first? Would she laugh at him? Would she look at him with shock, as though he had betrayed a deep and long-standing trust? What was his … what was Ah’krill going to think, say, do? Legally, what could she do? He was Firstlord. For the life of him he couldn’t remember the plan…. What was the plan? What if the council rose up against him for marrying a Papilli cross? Oh kraa, what was Abeyan going to say when he found Ardenai had seduced his only daughter? Their friendship would be in shreds – his old and dear friend…. What if he hurt her? What if?
“Well, I certainly cannot go on like this for very long,” he said aloud with some annoyance. He jerked one forearm angrily across his eyes and nose, gathered up the reins and remounted. “It was one thing to go into heat when I was on familiar ground, doing familiar tasks, but if I get distracted at this juncture … I may not have to worry about such things anymore. You and my wife will both find yourselves riderless.”
Ardenai moved to higher ground, away from the noise of the stream, and asked Kadeth to stand still, then he cocked his head and listened for a bit before moving the stallion down the opposite side of the hill in a southerly direction. Fifteen minutes later a signal drum picked up his position, and when he rode up on the squads, they were expecting him.
“Come, sit, Brother Mine,” Teal called, “We were just having a bite of breakfast. Will you join us?”
“Thank you, no,” he smiled, and turned his gaze on the person sitting beside Teal. “Captain, I would walk apart and speak with thee.”
“Of course,” she said, looking up at him with concern. “May I wash my hands in the stream?”
“We shall walk that way,” he said gravely.
She did exactly as he had done – splashing water onto her face and up her arms, but she scrubbed a little more at her mouth, rinsing off the stickiness of the blood-fruit and leaving her lips slightly colored from the effort. She called her buckskin and white mare and fed her the rest of the fruit, then rinsed her fingers again and came back to join him where he stood under a huge hardwood tree, Kimmis meandering companionably along at her shoulder.
He watched the way she walked, the way her arms swung, and when she tilted her head up to him in an unvoiced question, he noted the fine lines the sun was etching into her face. It was a bit of a shock to him, but she was definitely a grown woman, with smile lines around her eyes, and a soft full mouth like her father’s. She had a nice waist, not thick, but not overly slender, and though she was muscular she had pleasing curves and a nicely rounded butt. She was taller than he remembered her being. And she did have breasts, bound tight for riding. Perhaps that’s why he hadn’t noticed them before. Released from their binder they would be ample enough for a woman her size. She had a very inviting body, and moved with a lithe grace which spoke of flexibility and endurance. He remembered that night in the cave – the first night he had been Dragonhorse, when Pythos had camouflaged him for this … odyssey of his … and how good Io had smelled, and how willingly she had placed her head against his chest beneath his chin – how intimate that moment had been.
“Beautiful day for a canter,” he said at last, drawing a deep, steadying breath and gesturing her ahead of him out through the meadow where the horses had been turned loose to graze.
“Beautiful place for a canter,” Io replied. “We are pleased that you are well enough to join us, Dragonhorse.”
“Thank you, Captain. Apparently I have no ill effects from my meander through the stars.”
She glanced up at him and shook her bright wealth of hair. “I don’t think your time as a slave in the cleomitite mines did you any good,” she said, choosing not to mention that he was gaunt, and obviously running on nervous energy instead of the reserves he should have. “Those welts on your back don’t look very comfortable.”
“It could have been much worse if you hadn’t come when you did. I have not properly thanked you. Nor have I thanked you for seeing that the others got here. You have completed your tasks admirably.”
“You honor me,” she nodded. “The young man who rescued from your first real mishap – the knife wound, the concussion – you remember that one. Anyway, he seems to be doing well.”
Ardenai chose to ignore the gentle jab. “Pythos says Gideon is malnourished.”
“Pythos says you’re malnourished, too,” she smiled. “Apparently it’s curable with food and rest.” They walked a bit in silence and Io said, “When our current business here is finished, I would suggest that we devote some time to getting those mines reorganized. They are making slaves a valuable commodity. Most are brought there under the guise of being convicts, and I would guess that most never leave.”
“I agree,” he said. “We have much to do.”
“Perhaps we should walk in the shade,” she said, taking his arm, “you look flushed, and you are not yet as strong as you might be.”
“Yes … well …” he said in a somewhat pinched tone, “the sun feels good on the whip scars. I’m fine.”
She studied him for a bit out of the corner of her eye, but he was deliberately looking elsewhere all of a sudden. Odd. His eyes had raked her like a garden path a few minutes ago. She cleared her throat. “I believe we are as prepared as we can be for Sarkhan, assuming we left him an adequate trail. I realize things did not quite go as planned a time or two.”
“Just a time or two?” the Firstlord chuckled. “But thanks to you, I live and he pursues me. As Gideon and I were being offloaded to go to the mines, I saw Sarkhan’s Senator Konik … or should I say, Legate Konik. He recognized me, and I him. I should have told you sooner. It … slipped my mind, somehow.” Ardenai was quiet for a bit, content to walk with her arm through his. “There is something … about that man. That Wind Warrior.” he shook his head. “I wish I knew for sure what it was.”
With a gesture from Io, Kimmis returned to her grazing, and they meandered in a loop around the meadow, with Io stopping from time to time, butterfly fashion, to visit the flowers, which she picked and wove into her hair as they walked. There was something on her Firstlord’s mind. His hands were fidgety, and he kept catching his breath as though he were about to say something, then thinking better of it and exhaling sharply with that whuffle so characteristic of his pattern of speech.
“What you need, is a flower,” she said, after yet another episode of catching and exhaling, and she danced away from him into the meadow to pluck a small, bright red sun flower. She returned with it and stood on tiptoe to tuck it behind his ear. “No,” she said, critiquing her handiwork, “It’s just not your look. And you have no buttonholes at all, do you?”
“Not a one, I’m afraid,” he said. “You wear it for me.”
“I can’t do that. It’s your flower, and your responsibility,” she said. “You’ll just have to carry it.” So he did, worrying the petals off it one at a time until only the black eye of it remained. “Did she love thee, or did she love thee not?” Io asked as the last petal fell.
“Hm?” Ardenai looked at her, then at the demolished flower. “Hmmm.”
“The old children’s game, remember? You pull the petals off a flower, and as each one drops you recite, ‘She loves me, she loves me not’, until the last petal is gone. But you taught us in school that each flower has a given number of petals according to its species, so all you have to do is take the number of petals, decide where you want the chant to end, and begin accordingly.”
“The classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy,” he sighed, and smiled down at her. “I introduced Jilfan to Gideon this morning. I had not realized they were so close to an age. Jilfan is growing up.”
“Um hm,” Io said, still looking for flowers, “he was thirteen last season, and to hear him talk, he’s nearly fourteen already.”
“Boy that age needs a father,” Ardenai said abruptly, and flushed with embarrassment.
“He’s been without one a long time,” Io said, then looked up at Ardenai, saw his color … saw more than the color … and glanced hurriedly away, smothering her mirth. “But I’ve been looking long and hard for the right man.”
“Any luck catching one?”
“You make it sound like a fishing expedition,” Io laughed, glad for the chance to release her nervous giggles.
Ardenai stopped and gave her a considering look. “I promised you a fishing trip, and you never got it.”
“I do remember that,” she said, still laughing, “I think I was about ten years old.”
“See? Then remember this, too. I am a man of my word. When we get back to the house I want you to put together whatever it is that women take on extended outings. We … are going fishing.”
“As my lord wishes,” she nodded, and suddenly, she was very sober.
“I … if you don’t want to go …” he said hastily.
“I do. I want to be with you.” She led him to the edge of the trees and stepped up onto a log which brought her to eye level with the tall Equi, and when she put her hands on his shoulders, she realized he was trembling … almost vibrating, with emotion. “What’s this all about, Beloved? Talk to me, my old friend.”
He fought to keep his eyes level with hers, though it nearly choked him to do so. “I… just … don’t know where to begin, Io. I don’t know what to say to explain what’s happening to me …”
“Just say it the best way you can,” she said softly, pushing his thick hair back off his forehead, and the trembling subsided a little under her touch. She could feel the heat rising off him, and realized what Pythos had meant with his cryptic aside yesterday at breakfast, We have another problem which will soon need tending. While she ached for him having to expend energy on a heat cycle at this juncture, she wondered with effervescing hope, if she was going to be asked to attend him in this.
He nodded. “Well … Pythos told me this morning that Ah’krill has selected Priestess Ah’nis as a wife for me. As my Primuxori.” He felt Io stiffen. “And that if I’m not married by the time I get back to Equus, I’ll be stuck with her, and I don’t want that. But in order not to marry her, I’m going to have to be married to someone else already. Here. Before I get there, I mean.” He ventured a look straight into her eyes. “This isn’t making any sense, is it?”
Io gave him a cool look. “Quite the contrary. I understand all too clearly. I thought you said you were a man of your word, Dragonhorse.”
The look she got back was a total blank. “I …… ah …… what?”
“You have forgotten, apparently, that I asked you to marry me when I grew up, and you said you would, and Ah’ree said it was fine with her. Now you have chosen another over me? This is bad news indeed, my Lord. I am embarrassed for thee.”
Ardenai was just … shaking his head … bereft of words and reason, and Io laughed in spite of her attempt to look threatening. “You and I were sitting in the garden swing doing homework, and Ah’ree was snapping spent buds from the rohanth bushes, and the three of us were discussing Equi sexual practices, and the training we would go through before mating … just beginning to hit around the edges of it, you know … and I said I didn’t have to worry about it, because I was going to marry you, and you already knew everything there was to know about such things. Then Ah’ree looked up and smiled at us from under that wide brimmed hat with the big, flowered ribbon around the crown that she always wore in the garden, the one her grandmother had given her, and said she thought it was a very good idea for you to take me as a wife, because maybe we’d occupy each other enough to stay out of her hair that way. Remember? That was one of her favorite expressions. ‘Stay out of Ardenai’s hair, Io. Stay out of Io’s hair, Ardenai. Stay out of my hair, the both of you.’ We were destined from that day.”
“Little Io, Fledermaus, I do love you … but … I’m like a father to you …”
“NO,” she said sharply, and gave his shoulders a snap which startled him. “And cut the little Io shit. I’m sick to death of it, and you cowering behind it. I am not little Io, nor have I been. I may be as a daughter to you, but you are not as a father to me, Ardenai Firstlord. I have loved thee from the time I understood what the word meant, and from the time I understood what it meant to be in love with someone, I have been in love with thee. My passion, my desire, my deepest feelings, have always been for thee. My deepest desire has been to be mated with thee and bear thy children.”
“But …” he blinked stupidly, “Salerno …”
“Was the father of my child, no more. I was fond of him. I wished him no harm. I grieved when he died, because it was sad, not because I was. I see the only love we need to deal with is mine, apparently. And the only grief we need to deal with, is yours.”
He graciously ignored the jab. “Rohanth bushes …” Ardenai murmured, looking over her shoulder into the woods, “so it would have been the end of spring and you would have been …”
“Ten. How come you can remember fishing, but you can’t remember a pledge to marry someone who has been waiting for you for twenty-five years?”
He took a deep breath, and … nodded to himself, she thought … and the mottled green eyes again met hers as his hands caught her waist. “You’re sure I agreed to this?”
“Yes, Firstlord,” she smiled. “You said it was something you could do for Equus – saving the rest of the male population from one such as myself.”
“Well then, we could combine tasks, as we agree that there is much to do. We could get married today at midday, and go on our fishing expedition this afternoon, and we’d have two things promised in the tenth year out of the way by nightfall. I didn’t promise you anything else that year, did I? I’d like to start working on eleven as soon as possible.”
She gasped, and her already large eyes grew huge as she looked at him. “Ardenai, Beloved, are you sure this is what you want? I would be happy to serve thee just as …”
“Oh no, my little Papilli friend,” he said firmly, “I do not think of you in those terms, nor am I considering that part of your notoriously hot bloodline in this decision. I don’t want you for breeding stock, there’s plenty of that already. I want your brains and your intellect and your compassion beside me, guiding Equus. I have asked Pythos to draw up the contract. All that remains is for us to sign it. Will you marry me and be my Firstwife, and help me rule our people wisely and well?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “of course I will, Firstlord.” But the light had diminished in her eyes, and though she returned his kiss, she did not linger overlong. She stepped down from the log and began walking back toward the waiting squads. “Perhaps I should pick more flowers,” she said over her shoulder, and Ardenai wondered what had upset her. He shrugged. She was Papilli. She was female. It would pass.
They returned with the squad at a gallop, and Ardenai excused himself to make preparations while Io hurried off in another direction with Pythos, who had hailed her even before she was off her horse. Gideon offered to take the animals, but Ardenai shook his head and smiled. “Leave them to another, just this once. When the sun reaches its zenith this day I will marry Ah’riodin, and since women put much store in such ceremonies, I would like to make the day memorable for her.”
Gideon was dumbfounded by the suddenness, but he gave the Equi a warm hug and said, “Congratulations, Firstlord! Much happiness.”
“Let us fervently hope so,” he muttered. “Much expediency, at least. Help me bathe, and I must change my clothing and speak to Ah’nora about lunch, and traditional robes for my betrothed.”
“Speak to Ah’nora first, to give her more time to prepare whatever it is you want,” Gideon suggested, and Ardenai chuckled and dropped an arm around the young man’s shoulders.
“Surely Eladeus has put you in my path. Come with me.”
As the hour approached Ardenai sought out Ah’riodin, bearing an ornate wooden chest and fresh sun flowers like the one he’d demolished earlier. “She loved me,” he said simply. He proceeded to weave them, along with pale blue and green ribbons, into her amazingly thick tangle of curls, forcing himself not to think about the times he’d done this for Ah’ree – forcing himself to think only about the times he’d done this for Io while she wriggled impatiently to be off her stool, or off his lap, and on to the fascinating business of being alive. Those times, had been practice for today. After all, he had promised to marry the girl when she grew up, and he was a man of his word. And Ah’ree had said it was a good idea.
How oddly comforting that thought was. He chuckled. Io gave him a questioning look but he shook his dark head and smiled at her. “Pre-wedding jitters,” he said. He opened the small mahogany chest and presented to her the long-sleeved, tightly belted robe of pale green, the color of new life, which Ah’nora had given him earlier. “I shall give thee thy privacy to dress, and I must do the same,” he said with a gallant bow, and left her chambers.
At the appointed time they gathered their friends about them in the garden, signed their contract, and stood before the old physician. “Abeyan Ah’riodin Salerno, come thee here of thine own free will?” he asked.