After lunch, when the saddle horses waited at the gate, the pack horses beside them, Ardenai took his brother-in-law aside and told him exactly where they would be. “Where the hot springs cascade down into that wide pool in the river … near the great bend. If you need us come and get us, or waken the drums,” he said, “but only if you need us.”
“Understood, really.” Teal said, and lost control of a spreading grin.“What?”
“Ardi, you have no idea how much your sister and I have wanted this for you,” Teal laughed. He kissed him lingeringly on the temple, and walked him to his horse.
They rode for an hour or so in the pleasant afternoon sun, enjoying the peace and quiet. Ardenai rode in silence, and Io respected that. She sensed that he was troubled. Some of the reasons why she knew. Some she could only guess at. But his face had lines in it that hadn’t been there before, and he was slightly too thin, and lately when he spoke it seemed forced, as though he was having trouble concentrating. That could be the heat cycle, she thought. This was going to be terribly difficult for him. He had adored his wife … too much. Had been far too dependent on her. And now, pretty much in his own mind, he’d married his daughter. Io shook her head and veiled her thoughts more deeply, lest she disturb her husband.
Her husband. Her fondest dream had come true. She was married to Ardenai, for whom she had burned seemingly forever. Soon now, she would need to coax him into setting his head against her for intimate purposes, and she spent some time figuring out how she was going to do that without traumatizing him, or sullying Ah’ree’s memory. She wondered if Pythos was correct in his assessment. He usually was about such things, and she began preparing herself mentally for what would come. She wondered about Ardenai, and if he was strong enough for this. Most Equi males ate like horses for weeks before their seventh cycle, their accelerated metabolisms building the reserves of energy they would need for their exertions. At the time he should have been stuffing himself with six or seven meals a day and sleeping when he wasn’t eating, Ardenai had been half starved, and too weak to sit up in bed for more than a few minutes, and yet coming strongly enough into heat that even an off-worlder could see it. It made her chuckle inside to think of Thatcher, the mine boss, saying he’d find her an Equi in his seventh cycle. Little did he know. Still, it worried her that Ardenai was having to endure this new level of heat, and was glad both for Pythos’ forewarning, and the decoctions he had discreetly sent along with her in case they were needed.
They crested a rolling hill, ambled rather steeply down a white dusted path between huge boulders, and stopped where a bend in the river had formed a small ox-bow lake and the water had slowed enough to warm a little. There were trees, and a grassy, flower-sprinkled meadow, and, on a close facing precipice, a toss of rocks and boulders between which trickled a hot spring that grew ever cooler with each pool it passed through, until it steamed into the little lake, and drifted away. On a flat spot that was slightly elevated, near a stand of huge Equi pines, stood an elegant pavilion, newly pitched, with comfortable chairs and a fire laid and ready to be lit. The Great Seal of Equus flew to the left, the pennants of the Horse Guard to the right. Everything in preparation. Ah’nora, or Teal … or both of them in tandem … had been very, very busy this day. Nothing to do. Ardenai sighed to himself. Everything … was entirely too prepared. There was nothing left as a distraction. He felt his gut tighten uncomfortably, but he smiled as best he could and gestured, palms up. “This must be the spot.”
“I love this place, but … are there fish?”
“I know for a fact there are,” he said, swinging one leg over his horse’s head and sliding out of the saddle. “We will get to that part later. Right now I’m hoping that we can be alone awhile, so we can talk, and … get used to each other in this new role.”
“Far better than fishing,” Io nodded, and allowed him to lift her from the saddle. “It’s a beautiful spot for a …” she started to say, honeymoon, and then thought better of it. It probably wasn’t a term he even knew, though Ah’ree had, being half Terren.
“… rest,” she finished, knowing it wouldn’t be that, either.
They unsaddled the horses and turned them out to graze, then unpacked the supplies. Ah’nora had sent more than enough food, all of it already beautifully prepared and packaged to keep, so they knew there would be little need for a fire beyond ambience and evening light. They had the hot pools for warmth, as well as fleecy-beds and soft woolen comforters … and, Io thought hopefully, each other. Finally, there was no more fussing they could do around camp, and they were once again confronted with one another’s presence.
Having been in more than one sexual situation where high black boots and tight fitting britches had become an awkward barrier to intimacy, and assuming her new husband was going to be uncomfortable with nudity for a while, Io stretched lazily and commented, “That was hot work. I think I’ll change into my robe and sandals. Would you care to do the same?”
“A good idea,” he nodded, but when she gestured him into the tent, he balked. “You go ahead,” he said. “I can wait.”
She emerged shortly in traditional sleeveless, pale green priapic robes and high lacing sandals, and again gestured him into the spacious enclosure. “I have laid out your things,” she said. This time, to her relief, he went, and when he returned, he was wearing much the same garments, except that his robes were pale blue – as his wedding tunic had been – the color of Equi blood. “You look much more like you are on holiday now,” she smiled, and he gave her a gracious nod of acknowledgment. “And much more relaxed.” That last was a lie, but she wanted to encourage his efforts. He held out his hand to her, and they walked back along the stream, eyes peeled all too well for small animals and interesting plants.
“For a man who wanted to talk, you haven’t said two words,” Io teased gently. By now she was wading in the stream, carrying her sandals, and though she spoke to him, she didn’t meet his eyes.
“I said I wanted to talk,” he replied. “I did not say I knew where or how to begin. Here we are, out meandering around in robes which say we are freshly wed and about to experience intimacy, and I don’t have any idea how to go about getting started, or even if we should … because I swore to myself I wouldn’t … though parts of me wish I would.” He shook his head and looked away. “Please, don’t be offended. You’re a beautiful woman. I guess I’ve just forgotten ….” He trailed off and shrugged.
“You can’t have forgotten all of it,” Io smiled, and Ardenai stopped to look across the rill at her as she stepped onto the opposite bank. “Actually, it is my opinion that you have failed to forget enough, Firstlord.”
“You have an idea then?” he asked, hopping the stream to join her. He caught her around the waist and set her on a squared off boulder, and as he stepped closer, she wrapped her legs around his waist and left them there. Her thighs, conditioned to be sensitive to the movements of a horse beneath a saddle, told her that the robe was all he had on, and she enjoyed feeling the roundness of his muscular buttocks beneath her bare feet.
“Of course I have ideas. I’m a strategist, remember?”
“Oh, good, I suppose. I am not sure…. It has been a long time.”
“How did you go about it with Ah’ree?” His ears pinned back a little and his face hardened into the familiar lines which, even on this occasion her name elicited. Io gave him a warning look in return and said, “Beloved, Ah’ree is here with us, and she will always be here, right beside you. I know this. You know this. Please, don’t let her get between us any more than she already has, please.”
“Ah’ree was different,” he grimaced, tightening up to turn away, but her legs kept him from stepping back from her. She smiled, unfastened the top frogs of his robe, and began gently, slowly, massaging his chest and shoulders, giving special attention to his nipples, and the cleft where neck and collarbone met.
He thought about it for a moment, then acquiesced with a gentle sigh. “For one thing, I wasn’t … under so much pressure.
Too, we were young, and we were relative strangers. You, I have known since the day you were born. Your father would kill me if he knew what I was thinking at this moment … what I’ve thought in more than one moment past I might add, if I were honest, which obviously I am not.”
He shook his head, and again he would have turned away from her, but she was amazingly strong, and though she smiled, she held him to his place against the boulder and close to her body. She unfastened the top of her robe, took his hands, set them to the sides of her breasts, and held them there with her elbows as she spoke. “Remember, my sire is now remarried, and to a much younger woman who adores him. He will understand the attraction.” She paused to teethe a bit along the cords of his neck. “Now, let’s look at this logically, Ardenai Firstlord. Number one, there will be no surprises. I’ve already done my worst to you, I was left in your care, and I cut all my hair off when you thought I was asleep, and got you in one of the worst fights you ever had with Ah’ree.”
“It was no fight,” he amended soberly. “She yelled and I listened.”
“Number two, you’ve already done your worst to me.” Io looked away from the fond green eyes and into the brook. “You have always belonged, belong now, and always will belong to another woman. I accept that. I am willing to be your friend, and your consort, and leave Ah’ree’s memory as your wife alone. No surprises, especially not in being … assigned a mate you do not wish to have. One who may be very demanding, and not so understanding as I will be. I care for you, you care for me, and we have that to build on, if only in friendship.”
“You sound quite resigned to all this,” Ardenai said, touching her cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I suppose you’ve heard this from Pythos quite as much as I have of late?”
“I haven’t had to hear it. I’m on his side. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with building on other people’s good ideas. Oh, and I happen to be in love with you, if that matters.”
Ardenai cupped her face in his hands and dropped his forehead against hers. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but … I do want this to be more than a marriage of convenience. Truly, I do care for thee, Lady Io. Thou art become Abeyan … Io … Ardenai … Morning Star …” he breathed, “Firstwife of Ardenai, Primuxori of Equus.”
“And I am in love with thee, Ardenai Firstlord of Equus. I desire thee. I await thy pleasure,” she whispered back, and slid her arms around his neck as she spoke, adjusting his head gently but firmly until their noses touched, as well as their foreheads.
“I am … much of a mind to kiss thee,” he murmured, cocking his head and moving his mouth toward hers, and she responded by kissing him lingeringly on the lips.
“Let me show you which kiss will please a little Papilli pouncer,” she whispered, unfastening the bottom half of her robe and hitching it aside, “relax your jaw.”
She inserted her tongue into his mouth, and he responded without hesitation and with more than a little experience, which surprised and pleased her. Within a minute he was shaking, and his kisses were deep and passionate. His thumbs stroked her nipples, and his teeth moved gently up the sides of her neck as he bit her in preparation to mount. She tightened her legs around him to bring herself slightly over the edge of the boulder, then skillfully, discreetly opened the bottom half of his robe, and with a touch he hardly felt, set the slick, wet head of his phallus against her opening. He groaned, and she lowered her legs enough to clasp his buttocks. He groaned again, and began to push, and Io tightened her legs around him and took him in. She cried out, throwing her head back. His hands, which had been on her breasts, slid under her butt and pulled her tight, his teeth sank deeper into her neck, and he pushed hard – one, two, three times, and with hoarse sobs of pleasure, he released.
They quivered together, groaning.
He licked the side of her neck, then gently lifted her away from the boulder and dropped to his knees, lowering her slowly until they were lying flat in the grass. “That granite’s kraaling hard on bare knees,” he whispered, nuzzling her. “All right so far?”
“Mmmmm,” she said, and let her head fall back into his cupped palms. “Again.”
“With all my heart,” he whispered, and rolled with her in his arms.
Io was sitting up once again to allow their bodies to cool, and when she looked down at him, that old, familiar twinkle lit her eyes. “I really think we could become quite accomplished,” she said, “given enough time and practice.” She blew in a concentrated stream across his wet chest, then across her own. “Thank goodness the sun’s gone behind the cliff, or we’d cook for sure.”
“I don’t suppose, when you unpacked all that stuff back at camp, you found a priapic bench, did you?” Ardenai asked. “I’m enjoying the petting and nickering, but I’m going to want to get serious very, very soon.”
“There was no need to bring one,” she grinned, “There’s already one here … carved out of the soapstone over by the hot pools, or so I’m told.”
“And who would tell thee such a thing?” Ardenai gasped in mock dismay, sliding one hand behind his head and cocking an inky eyebrow her direction.
“Girls talk,” she said matter-of-factly, putting her palms down on his chest and slowly beginning to push up off him. “Ah’nora thought … we might have need of such an article, given that we are freshly wed. Furthermore, I know, that you know … perfectly well and from experience … that it’s there, and that you are testing me to see how thorough I can be in a short amount of time. The answer – pretty thorough. Right now though, I have need of privacy for a few minutes, and then a dip in that lake, I think, and then I shall go back to camp and get some padding for that soapstone … if my lord will so permit me.”
“Your lord will even give you your robe,” he smiled, pulling it out from where it was serving as a neck pillow and tossing it in her direction.
She took note of how he sat up, and where his hands were placed, and smiled quietly to herself. They may have bathed together as a family for years, but in this instance, starting off with clothing had been the right thing to do. She turned her back, slipped on the sweat-soaked robe, made a little hiss of disgust, promptly took it off again and walked in the direction of the trees, scuffing into her sandals and trailing the robe behind her.
Ardenai watched her, wondering if she was going to expel semen so soon. Equi females were well trained to squat and push out spent ejaculate to prevent settling. It wasn’t foolproof, of course, but coupled with other measures, it was effective should an accident occur. At this moment, in his state of mind, he didn’t really care whether he’d impregnated her or not. Being careful had certainly been the last thing on his mind, and if Pythos was so kraaling anxious to have him married and copulating, he could deal with a settled female.
The Firstlord shook himself a little, and forced himself back into his own mind. The dragonhorse may have taken him, but for a few minutes it needed to give him back so he could think. This was only foreplay – petting – he was not yet ejaculating sperm, only semen. Simple Equi biology. Comforting.
He stood up, retrieved his robe from where he’d tossed it, and went back to the lake for a desultory splashing of his own. He didn’t know if he’d impregnated a woman? Unheard of. Worse, he hadn’t cared. He’d had not one thought in his head except sex – no sense of responsibility whatsoever. It had been wonderful. He wanted to do it again, and looked impatiently around for his wife. Allowing himself such explosive release, even during petting, when he was not yet generative, was novel for him. He’d spent years controlling nearly every encounter so as not to risk Ah’ree. For the barest, guiltiest instant, he was glad he didn’t have to do that anymore.
Io came from the direction of the camp carrying several things which she took around the corner to a place amid the boulders surrounding the hot pools before walking back to the lake. She made a long shallow dive into the water, which surprised Ardenai. He’d thought she’d wade in to her waist and call it good, as he had. The water was surprisingly cold. Apparently, it surprised her, as well – or something had. She surfaced wearing a stunned look, and ran her hands down her flanks and across her flat belly.
“What?” Ardenai asked, “Did you run into something down there?”
“I think I did, yes indeed,” she gasped.
“Did you hit a rock? Are you hurt?”
I’m … fine,” she said thoughtfully, and gave him a reassuring smile before wading back out into deeper water.
When she returned, she was cold to the touch, and only brushed against him on her way to the steaming blue pools, dragging a clean robe behind her through the grass. Io rolled into one of the deeper pockets, stroking her arms and her sides with such sensuality that Ardenai began to breathe hard before she was even out of the water. When she came out she gave him a sidelong, inviting glance, and walked deliberately to the priapic bench. There was no coyness, and no false modesty. She mounted it on hands and knees, then dropped her forearms to the cushions so she was resting her weight on them with her butt elevated, spread her legs into a traditional crouch, and waited for instructions.
She felt his hands exploring at her inner thighs, stroking upward, lifting her slightly toward him as he adjusted her position. There was a moment’s pause, and his tongue licked her posterior clitoris. She moaned with pleasure and arched her back more deeply, improving his angle. She had known, somehow, that he would know what he was doing, but this … she gasped at the subtle touch of his teeth, then his tongue awhile, in almost lazy fashion … and then she felt his body coming down on top of hers in the traditional coital position. His teeth finding her neck, his hands her breasts, his phallus finding her opening. He must be standing completely astraddle of the bench, she thought, his legs were so wide apart. He must have tremendous power in his thighs. He could snap her like a twig, this gentlest of souls whom she so adored.
He bit down harder where her shoulder met her neck, and grunted as he pushed. She could feel him release. He rested for a minute or so, the teeth in her neck turning to softly kissing lips, though he said nothing to her. He began to fondle her breasts, and breathe hard, and he pumped … three deep strokes, three shallow strokes, three deep strokes … and released again. He laid more heavily on her, bit down more fiercely, pushed quickly in short, jerky strokes, grunting hoarsely, but no longer crying out as he peaked. He was catching his rhythm now, and would begin to ejaculate more often, and with a much greater ratio of sperm to semen. As his ancillary exterior testicles emptied, the primary testes high in his pelvic cavity would begin to disgorge themselves, the semen nearly black against the pale blue motile sperm. Should an Equi woman so much as twitch with orgasm, allow a nanoth of an opening in her canalic iris at this point, she would be settled in a heartbeat if not protected.
She shifted slightly to get more comfortable, and bit his fingers hard where his hand hung over her shoulder. He responded with a slap more ceremonial than serious, and ejaculated again without stroking at all. He was locked sinuously around her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she knew his eyes were closed, his cheek resting against the cushion of her long, wet hair, which was knotted at the nape of her neck. His breathing was shallow and rasping. Several times a minute he would jerk spasmodically and make a grating sound in his throat as he released, and then seem almost to sleep before repeating the process.
His thighs began to quiver and he stepped back to the shaft of the bench, still locked around her, still entranced. Being dragged backward on the bench adjusted her angle enough to stimulate an orgasm in her, but she didn’t fight it. She didn’t need to. She hadn’t really meant for him to know so soon, but … this felt so very, very good. Perhaps he wouldn’t notice. She would take her pleasures … quietly.
They remained coupled until dusk, when the first of the huge Calumet moons rose over the trees. She could hear him beginning to grind his teeth in an attempt to regain himself rather than pass out, and he shook his head several times to clear it. He released once more, a more conscious effort, and this time he raised up off her back to allow the breeze to pass, his hands gentle as he wiped away the sweat which had formed between them. “Are you getting tired?” he asked, very quietly, and it was the safe, comforting voice of the very first teacher she’d ever had. “Do you have your jacket? Do you need a little nibble?
Would a nice nap make you feel better? You’re doing a wonderful job of that, Io. Do I need to repeat myself, Ah’riodin?”
“Io? Fledermaus, are you getting tired? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she smiled, rotating her shoulders like a lithoped kneading a blanket. “I would like to do something different with my elbows for a few minutes.”
“As you wish,” he said, and immediately withdrew, though she could tell he was still erect. That act alone spoke to his monumental self-control. “Would you like your robe for a bit? I should build a fire against the chill.”
She elevated herself slowly into a sitting position, and as she did he could see the marks he had left on her back, and the chafing on her elbows and knees despite the padding on the bench. With a moan and a look of pure self-loathing he pulled her up to him and held her fiercely against his breast. “Eladeus, what am I doing?” he whispered. “What have I done? Io, I’m sorry.” At that point he realized he needed her body for support. His knees were like pudding and his back felt positively broken. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” she asked, momentarily baffled by his dismay. She pushed back to look at him, and swallowed the gasp which rose in her throat. His eyes were glowing the fiery orange-red of a full dragonhorse … and there were tears running down his face.
She wondered if it had finally hit him. It was bound to, and he would have to work through it, since there was no going back at this point. “Believe me when I tell you that I am having a wonderful time,” she chuckled, and laid her head back against his chest. His sweat was turning cold, and he was beginning to tremble a little, as was she. Papilli, too, were sensitive to chill. “Let me get thy robe, Husband.”
“No,” he said firmly, and moved her to arm’s length. “I can get my own robes. I want you to go back to camp and get some rosemary branches and some clotted-soap so I can scrub my stink off you.”
“But you’re still …” she made a slight gesture and grimaced.
“After your bath, you shall go make us a nice pot of hot tea, and find us something to eat, while I swim the dragonhorse into submission in that lake yonder.”
“But …” She was stopped dead by the look of realization which suddenly crossed his face.
“That lake! Precious Equus,” he gasped, and caught her face hard in his hands, forcing her to look in his eyes. “The cold water!
Your primary iris was open the whole time on the bench. Were you already with child when I mounted you there?”
She nodded slightly in his grip and moved her eyes away, though she couldn’t move her head. “Please,” she whispered, “don’t be angry. I didn’t know … I didn’t even know it was there until I dove into that cold water and my iris tightened, and … up it went. By the time my iris opened again … it was lodged tight – like it had a mind of its own … which of course it does.”
Ardenai realized he was holding her head much too tight, and abruptly released her, berating himself for being so rough. He walked away to get the fresh robes she’d brought, and when he turned back, shrugging into his garment, she was crying, great tears rolling from her eyes and splashing onto the backs of her small hands, which she was using without much success to try to stem the flow from her eyes and nose.
“What?” he said, bending his head to look into her face. He got no response except more tears, and since she was shivering with cold, he took each of her arms in turn and stuck them through the armholes of her robe, as he’d stuffed her into her winter coat when she was a babe.
He pulled her over to the bench and sat down so he was looking slightly up, rather than down at her. He squeezed her hands and brought them to his lips, tasting the salt of her tears, and said as gently as he could, “What’s the matter, Fledermaus, why do you cry so?”
She shook her head, and angrily jerked the clip out of her hair, allowing it to cascade damply over her shoulders and down her back. She wiped at her eyes and nose, sniffed a little, and began to sob again. “I’m sorry,” she cried. “I am so sorry ….”
The Firstlord patted his knee, and coaxed her on to it. “Apparently we’re both sorry, but I just don’t know why you would be. Are you hurt? Is there something wrong with the settling? Why do you say you’re sorry?” Never ask more than one question at a time, he reminded himself, and realized he was treating her like a baby, not as his wife, with whom he’d been locked in coitus for hours, and who now, apparently, bore his child. He hugged her, then set her off his knee, and onto the bench beside him, reaching a towel from the small stack beside them and proffering it. “What have I done to upset thee, Firstwife?”
She quieted herself to a series of gasping hiccups, and mopped her face rather too hard with the towel, as though she were punishing herself. “It’s me who did it. I didn’t think you were generative yet, so I wasn’t paying any attention. I just …” she made an angry little gesture, “bam! I’ve done it again! Pregnant in a first encounter. First Salerno, and now you. I’m just soooo sorry! I know you didn’t want me to bear you any children, but …” The look on his face stopped her speech yet again. “If you want,” she said in a rush, “maybe Pythos can …”
“Stop! What are you saying? Where on the ten tribute worlds of Equus did you get a crazy idea like that, Io? You’d never terminate a pregnancy of your own volition, and you know it. Neither would I. Where is your head?”
“Please don’t yell at me,” she sobbed. “I know you don’t want me to having babies.”
“I … What? That is just insane. If you want to have a dozen babies, and Pythos says it’s safe for you, I will certainly do my part, and gladly. There isn’t a man on Equus who loves children more than I do. You know that. Where are you getting this …” the word which came immediately to mind was, lunacy, but he quickly thought better of it. “This absurdity?” Even that sounded sharp, but it was out now.
“This morning …” she stammered, wiping fitfully at her flushed and tear-streaked face and looking not a whet more than six years old. “You said you didn’t want me for breeding stock, and you didn’t think of me that way, and I know I’m funny looking – I’ve heard them all – garden troll, flickernick, Mustard Seed, fairy, elf, fruit bat, butterfly baby. What if we have funny looking little fruit bat babies, and they’re running all over the Great House under everybody’s feet, and …”
“Precious Equus!” he exclaimed, trying manfully not to laugh, “Are you one of those females who settles and promptly loses her mind for five and a half seasons? Because if you are, you need to tell me now so I can get Pythos to prescribe something for one of us, or both of us – me, for sure. Oh…. No … I’m sorry. Don’t start to cry again. Please. Don’t cry, Io. What I said this morning was …” he gave it some thought. “All right, maybe that is what I said, but you were so beautiful, standing up on that log with those flowers in your hair, and I was trying so hard not to just snatch you off there and maul you on the spot … and anyway, what I meant to say, had I not been trying with most of my mind to talk myself out of attacking you, was this. There are many beautiful Equi women I could choose to marry, or Ah’krill could choose for me, and they would be tall like me, and have green, ophidian eyes like me, and ears like me, and they would be good, dutiful wives, I’m sure. But never could I turn to them with the depth of feeling I have for thee, Abeyan Ah’riodin Ardenai Morning Star. You are as different from me as day from night, winter from summer, red from green, and for that reason our marriage will always be fresh. There will always be new things to learn about one another. Never … hear this … never has another woman satisfied me as you have this day, nor could another woman ever. Never could another woman have advised me and kept me alive as you have. I owe you my life, Io. You are my friend, my hetaera, my political advisor, my ambassador to the stars. It is you whom I will hold forth as the most precious commodity of Equus. That you bear my child … is more than I can even yet fathom … but that you are all those other things as well, is more than any man could ever hope for, wish for, dream of, and all of it is mine.” He exhaled sharply and grinned. “That’s more or less what I meant to say.”
She smiled, and sniffed, and gave him a very wet kiss on the mouth before laying her head on his chest and drawing a deep, sobbing breath. How tired she must be, he thought, wrapping his arms around her protectively. Up before dawn, riding field maneuvers all morning, galloping home to get married and grab a bite of lunch before riding out again to be ridden until nightfall by someone over four hands and a hundred pounds her master. “I would not have had thee cry this day,” he whispered. “Nor would I have had you regret our baby. But, if I’d had any idea I was going to be generative initially, I’d have told you, so that you had a choice.”
“Remember what I told you this morning? I said that more than anything I wanted to be your mate, and bear your children. I am happy.”
“Then I am happy,” he murmured. “Have we a son, or a daughter?”
“A little girl,” she sighed.
He held her close against him and kissed her hair, and chuckled with delight. “A daughter …” the Firstnight’s chant of a thousand voices, the smoke from the thuribles returned to him, “… for the Great House of Equus. A daughter for the Great House of Equus. She’s a little priestess! That decoction they gave me the night of the passing ceremony must have left me with motile sperm in my ancillary testes. That possibility would have occurred to me if I’d been thinking properly. “I’m really sorry, Io. It was irresponsible of me.”
“Well, I’m glad,” Io sighed. “She’s beautiful, and I love her.”
“And that is all that matters,” he said, and sat rocking her a bit until her breathing returned to normal. “Now, I’m going for a swim, and you’re going to get what we need for a nice bath before supper.”
“We should go back to the bench for another while. That water’s cold,” she objected, and he waggled a finger under her nose.
“If it could settle you, it can settle me,” he said firmly. “Please do as I ask you … just this once, see what it feels like. I may have to ask you to do it again, you know.”
As they lay together on the fleecy-beds that night, wrapped in a soft woolen comforter … fed, bathed, pleasantly tired … Io glimpsed something out of the corner of one sleepy eye. She blinked, and looked again. It was the glint of moonlight on one of the golden armbands of Equus, its wearer propped on one elbow, smiling down at her. “Do you need me?” she yawned, trying to wake herself up.
“No,” he said, stroking her hair back out of her face, “I was just thinking.”
“About what?” Please tell me you’re not one of those people who never needs sleep. Please tell me you’re not contemplating sex at this hour.
He shook his head, startling her into realizing he’d heard her thoughts. “I would not do that to you. I was thinking about what our daughter will be like, and what we shall name her, and about what gift I could give Pythos that would ever, in even a small way, repay him for forcing me into marriage with you.”
“Ah, such a romantic way you have of putting it,” she said, snuggling deeper into the comforter and rolling onto her side away from him. “Never underestimate the appeal of a tassssssty wood rat. Now go to sleep. If you peak tomorrow you’ll need your strength.”