“I am just concerned that he is out there somewhere, cold and alone and perhaps injured,” Kehailan said. “Almost anything would be better than not knowing.”
Oonah Pongo smiled and patted her horse’s neck as they jogged along. “I’m not going to tell you not to worry about Ardenai,” she said. “I am going to tell you to quit being embarrassed by it. We’re all worried, which is why we’re all out here looking around – Belesprit in space and us down here.”
“Thank you,” Kehailan replied, a ghost of a smile touching his lips. “It was kind of you to come with me. How is your body holding up to the ride?”
“Parts of me are doing better than others by now,” she laughed. “How much farther is it?”
He waved vaguely with his left hand and turned with the packhorse off the wagon track. “Not far. If memory serves me correctly we can cut through that gap in the hills. We’ll water the horses and stretch our legs for a bit. It’s a very pleasant spot to have lunch, and then we’ll turn upstream. The main house is only an hour or so from that point.”
“You have a good memory. You said you haven’t been here since you were a child.”
“True. But in that spot, my father took me fishing. A young boy does not forget his first fishing trip, no matter what else happens in his life.”
They rode in under the trees, and the shade felt good between them and the midday sun. The earth was damp and fragrant, churned by the horses’ hooves. “Kee, may I ask you something?” Oonah asked, and was rewarded by one of his rare and beautiful smiles.
“We’ve ridden for two days, and you’ve spoken of hunting, fishing, and tracking. I’m confused. I didn’t think the Equi …”
“We don’t,” he quickly assured her. “No animal is ever even touched, much less injured. It’s just for fun – for the skill of doing it. The only time the Equi ever destroy an animal is if it endangers the lives of others, or if it cannot be saved. We have a horse like that on rare occasions, and sometimes a wild animal, but basically we’re not into killing things ….” he was leaving something unsaid, and she allowed him that privacy. She wondered if it had to do with the Telenir, and who, exactly, Sarkhan might turn out to be, and what might have to be done in that particular arena.
Whatever it was, she knew he wouldn’t talk to her about it. He’d been broody all the years she’d known the man, and since his father had risen to rule Equus, he was downright sulky. Still, he was handsome – tall, and athletic. Bonfire Dannis and Timothy McGill had both admitted frankly that he was a fabulous lover when he was in heat, and even when he wasn’t, and he was a good friend anytime. The sexual prowess of the Equi was legend, and Oonah couldn’t help wondering, the movement of the horse beneath her adding to her imagination, what it would be like to be bedded by Ah’ree Kehailan Ardenai, Prince of the Great House of Equus.
She glanced over at him, and he was looking at her, grinning. “Sorry,” he said quickly, and began to chuckle, “but … if you were singing that at the top of your lungs, it wouldn’t be coming through any louder. If you wanted to have me set my head against you … to have sexual intercourse with you … why didn’t you just say so?”
She felt herself blushing furiously, and thanked God she had black skin. At least the chortling Equi on the spotted horse wouldn’t know how discomfited she was. “It is in the nature of Terrenes to speculate about alien species,” she said a tad huffily, and he nodded, biting his bottom lip to stop himself laughing.
“Well of course it is,” he murmured. “I have wondered about you, too, from time to time. Perhaps when we reach our destination … we could speculate together at our leisure?”
“An acceptable suggestion,” she nodded, and they rode for some time with a deep silence between them, punctuated by an occasional snicker.
Forty-five minutes or so later, Kehailan whispered, “We are not alone,” and pointed ahead. A grey stallion raised his head and whinnied a greeting. Spaced in the trees, three more horses looked up from their midday naps and called to the three coming in. They rode into the clearing near the lake, reined in, and looked around.
“That pavilion bears the Seal of the Great House,” Kehailan said quietly, “and …six chevrons to this side, so it is …” his voice rose with excitement, “the Captain of the Horse Guard! Is she alive, then? Could my sire be alive, as well?”
From an outcropping close behind and to their left a familiar voice said, “We are, indeed. Welcome.”
“Sire!” Kehailan exclaimed, leaping off his horse to look up. For a moment he saw nothing, then a tall figure dropped gracefully from a ledge between him and the sun, and strode over to him, arms extended. “Oh … Eladeus, thank you ….” Kehailan whispered, and clutched his father to him. “I’ve been worried sick about you!”
“It is good to see you, my son,” Ardenai smiled, holding him at arm’s length. “And you, too, Oonah Pongo,” he said, turning to the still mounted woman. “Are you and that saddle a single entity by now?”
“I’m afraid so,” she smiled. “I think it’s permanent.”
“Here, let me help you,” he said. “Put your hands on my shoulders and push up.” His strong hands closed around her waist, and he lifted her from the saddle and eased her to the ground.
“It’s even better to see you than I thought it would be,” Oonah groaned. She took her hands off his shoulders, and put her palms flat on his chest. “Are you … well?”
He nodded, bending to kiss her forehead. “Yes. Thank you, my friend.”
“Good,” she murmured, and let herself sink the rest of the way to the grassy floor of the meadow, sighing with relief.
“Sire,” Kehailan said, clearing his throat and stepping forward, “How long have you been here? Are you alone?”
“The captain and I have been here … most of a week,” he said, not quite meeting Kehailan’s gaze.
“Planning strategies, one assumes. Or were you fishing?”
“Ah … both. So to speak,” Ardenai replied. He was obviously tempted to tease, but too uncomfortable with his son to do so. “Come, refresh yourselves. Have something to eat and drink. Oonah Pongo, a swim in that cool lake and some leisure time in one of those hot pools might be excellent for what ails you. Kee, you haven’t ridden for a while, would you like a soak?”
“Given the seriousness of the challenge you are facing, I’m surprised to find you here,” Kehailan said. “Wouldn’t this be more efficiently accomplished with others assisting you?”
“Was that a yes, or a no?” Ardenai asked, resisting the urge to guffaw.
“I rushed here, assuming we had a war to fight,” Kehailan said testily. “Since when do you have time for such leisurely activities, Firstlord?”
“Since I dragged him half dead out of a cleomitite mine,” Io smiled. “Doctor’s orders. Hello, Kee. How are you?” She had come from the lake, shrugging into her robe and wringing out her braid as she hurried up behind them, and now she hopped briefly from one foot to the other, jarring the water from her elfin ears and smiling at Oonah. “There we go, now I can hear. Ahimsa. I wish thee peace.”
“Oonah Pongo,” Ardenai smiled, putting an arm around Io’s shoulders, “this is Abeyan Ah’riodin Ardenai, Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus. Io is also my wife.”
“Congratulations!” Oonah laughed, clambering to her feet. Kehailan turned on his heel and walked back toward the horses.
Ardenai realized his mistake too late. He winced, but said nothing lest he embarrass his bride and Oonah Pongo as well. He took his eyes off his son, forced a smile and returned his gaze to the women.
“I’m pleased to meet you,” Oonah said, either not seeing or not acknowledging the sudden rift. “And I’m very happy for both of you!”
“Ardenai speaks highly of you,” Io said, smiling. “And he’s right. A swim and a soak will do you good. Come on, let’s get you out of those riding clothes and into robes. I assume swimming in your skin is to your liking?”
“Absolutely,” Oonah replied, turning with Io toward the tent. She dropped her voice and Ardenai heard her ask, “We didn’t … disturb you, did we? You weren’t in the middle of something interesting?”
“No,” Io laughed as their voices faded. “The communication drums, you know, and we’re surrounded here by the Horse Guard. They’re at a discreet distance, of course, but they would have ….”
Ardenai watched the two women for a moment, then turned and walked up to where Kehailan was sitting in the shade. He sat down beside him, laced his fingers together across his updrawn knees and said, “I am so sorry to have sprung that on you. I wasn’t thinking. It was a bad choice on my part.”
Kehailan gave him an up and down look from the corner of his eye, then looked back at the stick he was peeling. “Which bad choice would that be, exactly?”
“This is not good,” Ardenai said, crimping a smile he knew his son would resent. “We’ve been together five minutes and already you have a list of grievances. Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”
“Why don’t you stop treating me like one of your students? I’ve been worried to a ludicrous degree about you and now I find you …” he made an angry gesture and flung the twig aside, “… cavorting amber-eyed on the grass with a baby my mother cared for, with someone I consider a sister, and you always referred to as … your stolen daughter. And now you spend precious time that could be used for planning what is to be done about the Telenir, having sexual intercourse with this same child? Surely you don’t think Ah’krill will approve such a … frivolous match?”
Ardenai’s voice hardened a little. “I am Dragonhorse. Ah’krill has no choice in the matter.” He turned to look at Kehailan and modulated his tone. “As you well know, son of mine, that time which turns the eyes from white to amber to red and back again, is not under the control of any man. I did not choose this time for the dragonhorse. It was chosen for me, and I could do nothing but respond. It was required of me to take a consort, and the time demanded one. Why not choose someone I already know and care for, who knows me as well as I know her, and whose judgment I trust and value? What’s really bothering you, for surely it can’t be this? This, even you should understand, being Equi, and born to the Great House.”
Kehailan shifted on the grass and returned his father’s gaze. But where Ardenai’s was full of humor and concern, Kehailan’s was charged with anger and resentment. “Oh, it can be this,” he snapped. “Rank and privilege should not usurp morality. You have every woman on eleven planets at your beck and call, and you found it necessary to choose one who grew up under your own roof? I find this most disquieting on a very personal level. Perhaps too, it is that I have made a fool of myself in my concern for your safety. I guess my way here … to find someone who is supposedly Firstlord of the Affined Equi Worlds …”
“Who is Firstlord of the Affined Equi Worlds, Kehailan.”
“I stand corrected. I always do, don’t I, Dragonhorse?”
Ardenai sighed and looked sad. “And so it comes down, not to your concern for your sire, and the continuation of the Great House of Equus, but to your ego, hm? It would have fared poorly in some of the places we have been the last weeks and seasons.”
“You, and your golden-eyed companion of whom we hear so much?”
Ardenai gave him a look that was shading to disgust. “Ego, and jealousy? A very dangerous pair. Be careful of entertaining them, lest they turn and rend thee.”
“You were not there for the whispers, the stares, the rumors, the laughter, the backbiting,” Kehailan said petulantly. “You can only assume what this has been like for me. One minute my sire is a highly respected statesman, a successful keeplord, raising horses for the Great House and teaching his beloved creppia nonage, the next minute he’s the absolute ruler of our continuum of worlds, and the minute after that he’s a madman on the run. Try being in the middle of that.”
Ardenai laughed in spite of himself. “You think I wasn’t in the middle of it, Kee? You were not there for the knives, the chains, the scourging, the hunger, the worry. One minute I’m off to a meeting, carrying a shopping list from the woman I adore, who I think is my mother, only she isn’t. The next, I’m having molten metal poured on my bare skin, the minute after that, I’m at the sharp end of a plan that’s been forming for years to remove this conflict from our world and our people. You were surrounded by your friends, and people who trusted your judgment. I … was blessed by the finding of just one companion in all of this, and in arriving here to find our plan and my dearest friends intact. I’m grateful just to be alive, however fleeting that may be, and I’d like your blessing to be happy.”
“You have it,” Kehailan said, and rose to bow stiffly. “Ahimsa, Dragonhorse, I wish thee peace. I’m sure my mother does, as well.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai sighed. Kehailan’s eyes, belonged to a stranger. “May I offer you refreshment? Some lunch? We could talk.”
“Since you are already … occupied, I would prefer to ride on, I think. I will gather my horses and my companion and be on my way.”
Ardenai shook his head. “No need. Take a fresh horse and go. I shall bring the ladies along later this afternoon, and the Horse Guard will bring the rest of the stock when they pack the camp.” He stood up, busily brushing bits of dry grass from his riding tights to hide his expression. “You unsaddle your horses, and I’ll get you a fresh mount.”
Kehailan said not another word. He saddled the horse his sire brought him, checked his girth, and jogged slowly up river to disappear between the boulders at the north end of the meadow.
Ardenai glanced at the spot where the women were swimming, and saw them looking back at him. He raised a hand which they acknowledged before returning to their conversation. At least he didn’t have to explain Kehailan to either of them; they knew him all too well. He did wonder if Io would be embarrassed, feeling that she was somehow at fault for this rift. Probably she would not. Ardenai and Kehailan had already been at odds by the time Io was old enough to take note of such things. Of course they’d been at odds in no small part because of Io and her demands. He sighed, fighting the weariness which was beginning to overwhelm him. The females wouldn’t want second lunch for a bit yet. He had time to rest. He rolled up three sides of the tent to form a large, airy pavilion, and flopped on the big fleecy-bed with a groan of relief.
He’d slept the best part of an hour when he felt the staccato throb of a slowly cantering horse carrying a superb rider. He put the palm of his hand on the ground beside the bed and listened, then smiled, and withdrew his hand. In a few minutes he heard the horse blowing nearby, and Teal’s slow, gentle tenor saying, very quietly, “Ardi, are you asleep?”
“No,” Ardenai said, sitting up, “I am pleased for your company, Brother Mine.”
Teal pulled the tack off his horse and gestured him toward the others before coming to sit cross-legged on the floor of the tent close to the Firstlord. “Apparently we have been found by the SGA. I passed my nephew riding one of the horses you left with, so ostensibly he found you, as well.”
“Charming as usual, was he? He was wearing his favorite look.”
Ardenai nodded, and pulled his heavy black forelock back with his fingers. “A good part of that was my fault. And you know him. You know he has no idea how to communicate the fact that he’s worried. He translates it as weakness, which angers him, and that’s what comes across. Nevertheless, he is here, and Oonah Pongo as well. She and my wife are probably in the hot pools by now.”
“Then we may speak without my disturbing other, more pleasant activities?”
“Yes,” Ardenai grinned. “I’m all yours. What brings you? Though you are always welcome.”
“Physician Pythos sent me to … check on you, and to give you my ear, as he felt you would need to talk, and as he felt his perspective might not be adequate for this.”
“Why is that?”
“He thought perhaps you would prefer to talk to someone like yourself, who has been less than pleased with himself, and doubted himself, and wondered about himself. A man who has experienced sexual intimacy.”
“He knew,” Ardenai said, looking away toward the lake and the hot springs. “The old dragon knew this, too. What did he tell you?”
“Only that,” Teal smiled. “No more. He said our love for one another would accomplish the rest. As you are my best friend, and as I had several things to speak to you about, I was happy to come.”
Ardenai gestured to his right at a path which meandered into the trees, and said, “Shall we walk?”
“If it is comfortable for thee,” Teal said, deadpan, and stuck out his hand to haul Ardenai to his feet before bursting into peals of merry laughter. “Come, tell me about your week.”
They walked awhile in an easy silence born of companionship since childhood, while Ardenai organized his thoughts and Teal studied him discreetly from the corner of one jungle green reptilian eye. There was an amazing strength in the man, in the way he moved, his very presence. With the fact behind them, how could anyone acquainted with him not have known Ardenai was destined to be the Thirteenth Dragonhorse? Despite seasons of hardship and days of frenetic exertion, he was serene and smiling, exuding that calmness of spirit which drew children and horses to him. Even as a child, a very young man, he had been so. First with the horses, and then with the babes on his father’s several keeps.
“I think,” Ardenai had said at one point, “that I would like to be a teacher when I grow up. I enjoy having the little ones grow calm under my touch, and look to me for instruction. There’s a good kind of power in that, and I like the feel of it.”
There had been only one ripple in their friendship, and that had been the point where Teal began to take serious interest in Ardenai’s younger sister, Ah’din. They’d always been friends, but the very second it crossed Teal’s mind that Ah’din was a beautiful young woman, Ardenai knew it. He had postured like a young stallion with a coveted mare, and Teal had backed off rather than ruin their friendship.
When further schooling had separated the two friends, and Ardenai from Ah’din, Teal had politely made his intentions known to Krush and Ah’rane, and begun his long, gentle courtship. When the marriage had taken place, Ardenai had been no less happy than Teal.
Since Teal had chosen a career which often kept him away from home, and Ardenai had been asked to travel for a time with the diplomatic corps, they had decided to make a home together at Canyon keep, where Ah’din would be almost literally a stone’s throw from her mother’s hearth. Then … home Ardenai had come on furlough, bringing with him a fragile, beautiful woman, and upon his final return, their families had blended into one.
Because of Ah’ree’s delicate health, she and Ardenai had decided to have a child early in their relationship. Kehailan had been born, but no more children after him. While Ah’ree had always been indomitable of spirit, she had been frail of body, and giving birth to Kehailan put a strain on her from which she never fully recovered, or so Ah’din and Ah’rane both thought. A dozen years later, Abeyan and Luna had managed to conceive Io, and when Io was eleven, Teal and Ah’din had ridden the dragonhorse to produce their son, Criollo.
It was a joy, Teal thought, glancing at his friend, to know that there would once again be babes in the keep. Now that it would not bring such pain to Ah’ree to see others bulge with child, he and Ah’din would have the baby they had been wanting. Maybe a little girl this time.
“Io is with child,” Ardenai said abruptly, and Teal snapped back to himself, knowing his thoughts had been open. “It was an accident of course, like most of the rest of this has been so far. She says she is happy… which is a good thing, considering how kraaling careless and thoughtless I was. All those years with my wife … all the care, all the protection, never letting my guard down even for a second … except when we were trying to conceive Kehailan … and now I’ve impregnated this poor girl before we got past the nuzzling and nickering. ”
Teal was trying for a straight face, but his merry eyes were twinkling. “Is this where I can wish you many blessings and an easy pregnancy for your wife, or would you like a hard right cross to the mouth?”
Ardenai blinked. “Do I deserve one?”
“It sounds like you think you do,” Teal chuckled. “I, for one, would opt for the congratulatory slap on the back, myself.”
“I’ll pass on both,” the Firstlord said, rubbing unconsciously at the whip scar licking his collarbone, but he smiled. “Thank you. We will have a daughter next year. Her name is to be Ah’leah.”
“Isn’t that the name Ree had picked out for a little girl?”
Ardenai nodded, veiling his eyes. “It was Io’s choosing, not mine. And it is a pretty name.”
“Yes,” Teal agreed, and they turned out of the deepest of the trees to follow the path along the riverbank.
“It’s not that I don’t want the child,” Ardenai said, still tugging fitfully at the subject. “I just … Io should have had a choice in the matter. She’s just so ….”
“So … what?”
“Young. She’s young.”
Teal pinched the corners of his mouth. “She does not seem so young when she is leading us into battle, Dragonhorse. And she does have a well-started son of her own.”
The comment rather startled Ardenai. He thought a moment. “No, not young … but …”
“Inexperienced?” Teal offered, still stifling a grin.
“Hardly,” Ardenai snorted. “She has an amazing repertoire of …” he glanced at his brother-in-law, who was beginning to flush with suppressed laughter. “Ah … no, she is not inexperienced, but … I mean, not in affairs of state and such ….”
“You had to talk her through this, didn’t you?”
Again there was a snort of amusement. “Somebody had to be talked through parts of this, but it wasn’t her. If she hadn’t stayed … calm … I don’t know ….”
“You are concerned that you frightened her?”
“This frightened both of us, period. No, I am concerned that I may have offended her.”
“You don’t think she knew what she was getting into?”
“Teal, I didn’t know what we were getting into. I think the word I’m groping around for is, vulnerable. I’m afraid I took advantage of her vulnerability. She is in love with me, or so she thinks, and I used that.”
They had paused to watch the blue-green river water cascade through a series of bowls and into a deep, quiet pool, and Teal gestured toward a flat, sun-warmed section of granite, washed smooth by the passing of eons of water. “Sit,” he said gently, and Ardenai was grateful to do so. “Tell me how the days went.”
Ardenai lowered himself onto the shelf of rock, wrapped his arms around his up-drawn knees, and fixed his eyes on the water. “The first day … was amazing. To discover that I could care for as an adult someone I had cared for so much as a child, was an amazing thing. To have her make love to me … to know that she was my wife… to discover that she cared for me in such a manner … the first day was amazing. The first day was Io, and me … and Ah’leah, and while it was mostly nuzzling and petting, and definitely full of surprises, it was good. That day my eyes turned red with the heat of a dragonhorse, though I didn’t notice at the time, since I wasn’t looking at anything but my wife.
“The second morning … when I awoke, horrified at whom I was with and what I had done with her and to her the day before, and wanting only to escape to the safety and predictability of the past, and at the same time having the dragonhorse whipping me into such a frenzy that I could think of nothing but setting my head against her, hour after hour … unable to eat, or to drink, to keep anything on my stomach, or to ask lucid questions … that began to frighten me. And by that afternoon, when we should have been able to rest … it started coming over me in waves … like nothing I have ever experienced … absolute mindlessness ….” he sighed, “and terrible pain. I began to understand the old wives’ tales that say we mate with both females and mares. For the first time, I was glad … Ah’ree … was not here to be subjected to any part of this.” He shuddered and buried his head for a few moments against his knees before raising it again.
“My eyes turned completely black – the sclera, the irises – black as ink. It was like looking through a very heavy veil, and I was terrified. For that twenty-four hours, in waves that lasted four or five hours at a time, with perhaps an hour between them, I had absolutely no control … over myself, over what I was doing – as far as I can remember, which is precious little – I lost it all. Any sense I might have had that as Firstlord I was more than just a man, I lost in those hours– and any residual pride ebbed away. All I had, was Io. And if I had not had her, Teal, I would be dead now. I think Pythos knew that.
“He wasn’t worried that Ah’krill would force me into marrying Ah’ti or Ah’nis. He knows that, when the last word is said, she can’t force me to do anything. He was worried that if I didn’t have a very strong female for this, I wouldn’t survive, and I’m afraid he’d have been right. Most of it is very hazy, and what Io did, I do not know. I’m ashamed to ask what it was. I do remember her holding my head in her lap … and making me drink something … take something? More than once. Somehow we managed to survive it, though she was absolutely exhausted by the dawn of the third day, and so was I. I would have given anything … anything at all … to be able to sit down for a cup of tea with Io, to walk with her, or go for a swim, or a canter in the sunshine, or to discuss any subject rationally … but I had no control over what my body did … to her … that small one. If she hadn’t been Papilli, and in superb condition while I was relatively weak, I’d have killed her, I know it.
“And I know this. I will never subject her to this kind of an ordeal again. If this is to be my lot every hundred and twenty days for … however long ….” He flipped his hands toward the water, but clung to the security of hugging his knees, and Teal could see that the telling was hurting him nearly as much as the doing. “I will never ask her to go through this as my only mate. She may participate, or supervise, or watch, or be a million miles away, but she will never bear the brunt of another imperial dragonhorse. That will be the painful duty of other women … and myself.”
He sighed, and gave Teal a ghost of a self-deprecating smile. “You know, it’s funny. When Pythos told me this would be a dragonhorse cycle, I was upset, because I thought I understood what a dragonhorse cycle was … having been through a few over these many years. This … has been so far above anything I ever experienced or imagined, or dreamed of in my worst nightmare… this, then, is the dragonhorse of the Firstlord.” He picked up a relatively large stone and tossed it into the foam at the bottom of the cascading water, noting that with enough foment, not even something of substance leaves a ripple. He did not mention this, but continued. “I wonder what all he did to me … really … during those hours in the cave that first night, what mechanisms he set in motion that had lain dormant so long? It couldn’t have been simply the decoction they gave me before the ceremony.”
Again he sighed, and Teal began to see the weariness, lurking just beneath the surface. “The third day?” he asked quietly, and leaned into Ardenai’s shoulder to support him in the telling.
“The third day, most of it, was about the same, but by evening …it was a little better. It was that night I began to perceive that I could let my mind go one way and my body another, that I could touch my wife’s thoughts and take her with me away from what we were being forced to do, and go to another, more rational place. We made some plans for Ah’leah, and walked together places in our minds that were familiar to both of us, where civility was the practice. And by morning on the fourth day, we were actually able to verbalize a little … or I was, and as the waves lessened in intensity and duration, I was able to bathe, and to keep a little something on my stomach, and to let poor Io sleep a little from time to time. That night, as I lay in bed, unable to sleep for fear I’d lost myself, and with myself, the woman I have chosen for my Firstwife, I began to perceive that the title of Dragonhorse is symbolic on a multiplicity of levels. Of course it represents the two most prominent facets in our genetic makeup, but it also represents the intensity the Firstlord brings to his heat. Horse on the outside, dragon on the inside, with teeth, and claws, and a libidinous eye, possessed of the need for such sexual tyranny ….” Ardenai shuddered, and again buried his head. This time he did not raise it again. “Teal, for the first time in all of this, I am truly afraid. This is not who I want to be, nor what I want to do. The thought of having to go through this over and over again … makes me wish I were dead… or something.”
Teal heard the desperation born of exhaustion which tinged his voice, and dropped an arm across his friend’s back. “Look at the Equi flag, Ardi. It’s a running horse. Plain old Equus Legatum. A spirit in motion. No fangs, no claws, no scaly tail. It represents our culture and our faith, and it represents you, and our faith in you. I think you should stop dissecting a title twelve thousand years old and shrouded in legend until you’ve rested up a bit and regained your perspective.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Ardenai sighed, and chuckled without humor. “Although I’m afraid my perspective is gone forever.”
“It will come back,” Teal soothed. “Tell me about yesterday. Was yesterday better? More like a wedding trip should be?”
“Ah … yes, yesterday. Yesterday when I woke up, I could see again, and my eyes were the average color for the average Equi in the average heat cycle, which, while it seemed abrupt, was of great comfort to me. We slept late, we had breakfast in bed and slept some more, and … managed to keep the dragonhorse satisfied just with petting and nuzzling … with both of us lying down, which was a blessing. And we talked about how we thought our lives would go once we got home, and what duties she wished to retain and which she would choose to forego as Ah’leah begins to bulge, which won’t be for a few seasons yet. And we talked about Gideon, and Jilfan … bathed … had lunch in bed … had dinner in bed … bathed …” by now he was beginning to chuckle.
“And this morning?”
“Like the first day, but without the strangeness. Just petting and nuzzling …” he paused and really smiled, and sighed with contentment. “I looked at her, and I realized, she was not at all who I thought she was. And at the same time … I had the comfort of knowing that she was exactly who I thought she was, and who she had always been. Eladeus, we made it, didn’t we? We survived this. And she’s still letting me touch her.”
“Yes,” Teal smiled, and for the first time during the conversation they really looked at each other. “The woman loves you, Ardi, and now you know how much.”
“You know … I think I’m beginning to,” Ardenai said. He pulled off his tunic, rolled it up and stretched out on his back in the sunshine, putting the tunic behind his head for a pillow. For a moment he was quiet, gazing up through the branches toward the sky. “I’m also beginning to realize I’m in for the ride of my life,” he chuckled. “Thanks for listening to me whine. What else did you wish to discuss with me?”
“Well, this first thing is very much along the lines we have just been discussing,” Teal began cautiously, “but … there is an injustice which needs righting, and since you are here on Calumet, and since you seem to love this place and its people so much, I think it is you who can rectify the situation.”
“You honor me,” Ardenai said, “What is it?”
“Calumet has been a tribute world, then an affined world to Equus for nearly three thousand years. We have had this colony here, and this part of Calumet as our own personal realm for twenty-five hundred years. And in that time, not a single child of the Great House has been born to these people, not male nor female, nor has a child of the Great House been sent here to foster. The other nine Equi worlds can all claim princes or priestesses and Calumet can claim only horses.”
“You are a prince of the Great House,” Ardenai said reasonably, “Could you not have given of yourself to one of these women?”
Teal shook his head. “It is not my place to do that. I would set my head to a woman other than Ah’din only at the request of the Great House, or with a hetaera, if I was cycling far from home and needed one.”
Ardenai said nothing, rolled over onto his belly, swapped ends, and drank deeply of the water, splashed his face, then resumed his previous position, giving Teal a nod to continue.
“These are loyal Equi, who chose to move far from their home world to settle this place … to serve the Great House. They should be honored in that. There is one, especially who is most worthy.”
“Whom would you have so … honored?” Ardenai asked, the word sticking only slightly in his throat. He drew a deep breath, and tried to push the days of the dragonhorse from his mind. He could still feel Io shaking under him … sobbing quietly with exhaustion … trying to keep her knees and her elbows from buckling … reaching for something, anything, even a large rock, to support herself under the middle … to help her hold his weight…. He jerked to an upright position, startling Teal, who was beginning to relax beside him.
“What? Is he here?” Teal was immediately alert and looking around.
“No, not for some time yet, I think. I just … I’m tired. And you seem tired, too. Is something wrong back at the hold?”
“Ah … no, not exactly,” Teal said, avoiding Ardenai’s concerned gaze.
“It’s just that …” Ardenai prompted, motioning with his hands. “Out with it.”
“It’s just that … as a powerful stallion brings in the mares, it seems when the Firstlord comes into heat, all the females come into heat just from his proximity.”
“Oh.” Ardenai said in a small voice, and swallowed an involuntary and very embarrassed snicker.
“Which makes all the less virile studs randy, too.”
“Oh,” Ardenai said again. “I see.”
“Which makes for a general air of preoccupation. Don’t get me wrong … this is a fine time for such activities. It relaxes everyone and they’ll be sharper mentally, and now that you’re at least leveling off …”
“Enough. I understand. More than I wanted to. Tell me about this woman.”
“Ah’nora, yes. You know her, I think. Old High Equi family. Many generations here on Calumet serving the Great House. A woman of great beauty, brave heart and deep kindness. Her husband drowned trying to save another family when the river rampaged through South Hold Village eight years ago. Her only child, a boy of ten, drowned trying to save his sire. She has stayed here because she is needed, and because this is the only home she has ever known. Another child would be such a blessing to her.”
“I shall speak to her when I get back,” Ardenai hedged. “This would not be a good time to settle her, but perhaps at this time next year. I shall seek her mind in this, and her preference.”
The silence which fell was not a comfortable one. Ardenai could feel the weight of his kinsman’s thoughts. “What I have said does not please thee?”
“Beloved, have you considered the possibility, however remote, that you may not be alive a year from now, or even a season, or a week from now?”
“I don’t dwell on it, but it has crossed my mind.”
“Then … allow this to cross it, as well. You leave no High Equi sons. The Dragonhorse line of the Great House, except for one, tiny, lone priestess, may bleed itself into oblivion on a warground somewhere. I think you owe it to your people to leave at least one High Equi son behind, don’t you? You are generative, she is in heat. It would be no more than a matter of foreplay for you, and adequate stimulation for her, to assure the line.”
Ardenai shook off the look of distaste he could feel marring his features. Teal was absolutely correct, and absolutely proper in his thinking on this. It was he, Ardenai, who was having trouble thinking of himself as a tool rather than a person. As a general rule, the Equi did not subscribe to or condone childbirth outside of marriage, and the ramifications were swift and sure. Apparently, when a Dragonhorse rose, the rules changed, at least for him. But this … so called honoring of women by setting his head against them … did not feel like honor at all. It felt like sexual cynicism, like getting away with something others could not. “I, will speak to Pythos when we get back to the hold,” he said.
“It is you who rule Equus,” Teal said, a little impatiently.
“And now I do not know who my biological father is,” Ardenai reminded him. “I think, in a blind mating such as this, it would be wise to check bloodlines, lest I settle my kin.”
“Of course,” Teal nodded. He mopped his brow, then pulled off his boots and stood up to drop his riding britches and tunic on top of them. “It grows hot,” he said, and stepped off the ledge into the water. He bobbed to the surface and floated, taking a long drink before hauling out to resume his position on the rock. He sat, twisting the water out of his waist-length hair and grinning at his brother-in-law. “Better. You do not think Sarkhan is yet upon us?”
“I know he isn’t. Not yet. Not for some time. Perhaps a season or so.”
“And when he does come, how will he come, do you suppose? How will he choose to try accomplishing his treachery?”
“I’m hoping,” Ardenai said, “That we’ve left him precious few options in that category. This continent is hospitable, but it is sparsely populated in the extreme. There is only one Controlled Atmosphere Corridor every five hundred miles or so. He cannot hope to add warriors to his advantage by sending more down in various spots and having them join up. He can come with less than fifty men, or so I suppose, if those on guard are judicious.”
“Those who operate the CAC for our sector are currently being assisted by the Government of Equus,” Teal said. “People are not entering in such haphazard fashion as they were a few weeks ago.”
Ardenai gave him a wry grin, knowing he was referring to Ardenai and Gideon’s own, somewhat unorthodox arrival here. “And if we look back at the songtelling tradition, at the Legend of The Wind Warriors, and if we assume that it carries at least some truth couched in its poetry, then we can expect a couple of things. This will be an extremely focused fight in the ancient tradition for the honor of ascension, probably one on one, Sarkhan and myself, probably with knives. It must be accomplished according to tradition, or it will not be valid. If … IF …these people are as superstitious and honor-bound as we think they are.”
“And is there any doubt in your mind that you can beat Sarkhan in a confrontation of that kind?”
“None. I have known the man for years. He is lean, but he is not powerful, and he does not move with any particular kind of grace … which makes me wonder what, exactly, he has up his sleeve in the way of treachery.” Ardenai pulled off his boots, dropped his clothes, and stepped off the overhanging ledge into the water as Teal had done. He surfaced with a wide-eyed squawk of dismay. “Precious Equus, that’s cold under the surface! You … could have told me!”
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Teal chuckled. “I was hoping you’d follow suit without dangling a foot first. Of course you have been here a week, and you did take a long drink just a bit ago.”
“Implying what?” Ardenai sniffed, hauling himself out onto the rock and shaking the water from his hair and ears.
“Your lips should have told you something,” Teal grinned, lying back and closing his eyes. “Numb though they probably are from overuse. This sunshine feels good, doesn’t it? I think he’s going to come at us with archers. I think … and so does your wife … that he’ll station archers in ambush, and that if the fight isn’t going the way he wants it to, he’ll use them to a less than honorable outcome.”
“His leadership, his Mahdi, or whatever it is … he is … they are … may not accept him if he has not won honorably. He may win the kingdom and lose the crown. Knowing his overweening ego, I think he will not risk that possibility.”
“He can risk treachery, but not dishonor? You do know he’s barking mad. He may not know the difference.”
“Nik does. I am so sorry he’s mixed up in this,” Ardenai groaned, stretching belly down on the warm stone. “And yet … I’m glad he is, because I know he’s honorable, and I know he’s sane.”
“Sarkhan may just kill him first. Then he can use his forty-eight to kill our forty-eight, and then the civilians – no one to tell the tale.”
“Not that simple. According to that legend upon which I am so kraaling dependent, these are people of honor. They would know the fight was won dishonorably. No … he’ll have to make it look like an honorable win, somehow, to his own people as well as to us. Most especially, I think, it will have to appear so to Legate Konik, and that one Sarkhan will not kill so easily.”
“A distraction, perhaps? You take your eyes off him for a split second, and you’re dead.”
“I think so. I think also ….” Ardenai shook his head slightly against the pillow of his forearms, “… that other factors will play into this, though how I am not sure. It’s just a feeling, a … slight jitter in my brainwaves from far away. Will we be murdered here on this rock if we allow ourselves a nap, do you think?”
“Ummm,” Teal grunted, already half asleep. “I’ve had this place in a very tight net for … a few days now. We’re in no danger.”
“Uhhhhh,” the Firstlord replied, and they slept until Io and Oonah hunted them up for second lunch.
Kehailan rose while the house was still sleeping, put on a briefcloth and a yellow robe and padded barefoot down the spoke which housed the bathing atrium. The door was partially ajar, and at first all he could hear was the gurgle of the hot spring as it welled up from the rocks and flowed into the first pool. Then, as he slipped inside, he could hear his father’s rich, meticulously dictioned speech.
“Brilliant as any cleomitite, I definitely am not – at least not where Kee is concerned. I sprang Io on him like a jack-in-the-box. I was shocked when you suggested it to me … this relationship of ours … but somehow I expected my son not to be, as though if I condoned it, it must be all right and require no further thought.”
“Which iss true,” Pythos hissed.
“It’s not, and you know it. I just … I don’t say the right thing with him, and I don’t seem to do the right thing. When I got out of the Diplomatic Corps, I chose teaching full-time as my primary career, and I think that has always disappointed him … first, that I taught at all, and then that I taught creppia nonage, instead of Final Form or Lycee. He thought I could have focused on something more important, like my computator engineering … staying with diplomacy and taking another ambassadorial assignment… something other than five-year-olds. I know … part of that was his resentment of Io, and I know he had good reason for that. But … I have risen to be Firstlord of Equus, and he’s still unhappy with me.”
Kehailan knew he should withdraw, that this was a private conversation. But something compelled him, and he veiled his thoughts as deeply as he could, and sat on a low bench within long earshot of the discussion. He felt guilty, but he was also fascinated. He’d had no idea his father even thought about him when he wasn’t right in front of him, much less that he would take the time to discuss him with his personal physician. Who exactly that physician was, should have occurred to him, but it didn’t – not just then.
“And thee blamess thysself for thiss?”
“Blame, no… not exactly. But when I cannot seem to get along with a student, I do examine myself, and how I’m approaching that child. Kehailan is no child, as he pointed out yesterday, but he is young yet. I need to rethink my approach. I must be doing something wrong.”
“Perhapss not. Then what?”
“Then nothing has changed … ouch … but I am being asked to bring another son into the world, and I can’t seem to get along with the one I already have.” There was a pause. “I said, ouch! That means stop!”
“No. Sstop, means sstop. Iss it painful when I do that?”
“I think I said so.”
“The fact that nothing mechanical functionsss on thiss planet iss working againsst thee right now. Thy back iss sscarring badly, esspecially thiss deep laccceration againsst thy neck and collarbone. Until I can get thee home, I cannot help thee.”
“If there’s nothing you can do for them right now, why are you trying to remove them with scrubsand?”
“Sstill cranky, yess?”
“Why, because I wish to retain my epidermis? That’s not cranky, that’s rational.”
“I ssee the little fisshies have been nibbling here and there,” Pythos teased, flicking his tongue against Ardenai’s collarbone.
“Stop it!” Ardenai exclaimed, batting water at the doctor. “We’re here to discuss this … thing with Ah’nora, not my sex life.”
“That, too, will be part of thy ssex life, and I do think Teal makess a good point, my hatchling. I do. I’m going to assk that thee do thiss … thing, as thee putss it.”
“How hard will it be to check the bloodlines to make sure it’s a good match? We … I … do not have a great deal of time to spend on this right now.”
“It will take no time at all. Sshe iss a good match for thee, and ccertainly a desserving one. Sshe will be exsstremely pleassed. It wass kind of Teal to think of her.”
“He is a kind man. I love him with all my heart. My sire … Krush, that is … loves him like a son. But you know that. Many years have you kept with us, slept in our myrianotus trees and beside our hot pools.” Ardenai sighed, and Pythos rolled one eye to fix him in his gaze.
“What botherss thee, Beloved?”
“It’s just that I can’t help wondering, and I will always wonder, who my sire really is. Who could be more perfect than Krush? Who could I ever have loved as much as I love him?”
“I can tell thee that,” said the old dragon in an offhand manner, and Ardenai turned to him with his mouth open.
“Then, why haven’t you?”
“Thee hassn’t assked.”
It was true. Ardenai had to admit it. “And if I asked thee now, Physician Pythos?”
“I would tell thee. Thou art Firsstlord of Equuss. It iss thy right to know whatever thee wisshes, or at leasst within thy understanding to know, whether the knowing iss good for thee or not.”
“Then I will ask. Who is my father?”
“It iss I,” the snake hissed quietly. “I am thy father.”
The revelation shocked Ardenai’s highly disciplined mind, and left Kehailan’s wide open. “Perhapss, thy sson sshould join uss at thiss point,” Pythos suggested. “He waitss politely without for hiss turn to usse the poolss.”
“By … all means,” Ardenai managed, and called, “Kehailan … good morning to you. We were just having a most fascinating conver …”
“He knowss,” said the snake.
“No. About the converssation.”
Kehailan nodded to his father, then to the physician, dropped his robe and waded into the soaking pool to sit a few feet away from Ardenai and Pythos, looking slightly embarrassed. “I did not mean to eavesdrop,” he said, and Pythos inclined his head graciously.
“I know that. We are pleassed to have thee join uss.”
As Ardenai turned slightly and the angry, welted scars on his back became apparent, Kehailan remembered his self-centered comments of the day before, and was ashamed. “Sire,” he began, “I … would take back my words from yesterday.”
“And I mine,” Ardenai smiled absently. “But this one … this long green fellow here, has just said the most extraordinary thing to me. Please, do go on.”
“Thee asssumess there iss more?”
“I know you,” the Firstlord smiled. “There has to be.”
“And there iss,” the old physician smiled, flicking Ardenai gently with his tongue. “Thou art my sson, mine own hatchling. I placced thee within thy mother’ss womb at the time appointed. Never did an Equi nobleman sset his head againsst her. Seven hundred yearss ago wert thou given into my keeping. Six hundred yearss I carried thee within my body. More preciouss to me wert thou than life itsself. Years we sspent together, ssleeping, sstudying, waiting for our time to come.”
Ardenai’s face was filled with wonder as he gazed at the old physician in front of him. “Of course,” he breathed, and his face lit with a smile. “For that reason art thou both male and female. I … am the seed of Ah’jin Kehailan Morning Star, Firstlord of Equus. The Twelfth Dragonhorse!”
“Indeed,” the old serpent replied, hissing with delight. “It wass of ssuch amussement to me that you and Ah’ree named your sson for him … I nearly told thee then, just from the wondrouss order of it all. And when thou art two hundred yearss old, as thy father wass, a sson will be lifted from thee, and placced in another jusst like me … and long years will sshe keep with him insside her, and sshe will carry him, and nourish him, and educate him, until it iss time to implant him into a priestesss of the Great Housse. And … he … will do sso, and become thy sson’ss physsician.”
“And thou hast cared for me … all these many years, my father. Thank you. I am more deeply in your debt than ever I can repay thee, not with love, nor devotion nor goods. And I can do nothing but beg yet another boon of thee… which is one of the reasons I asked you to bathe with me this morning.”
“Anything,” the serpent hissed, flicking Ardenai with his tongue.
“Would you … replace those beautiful python chain tattoos which graced my arms these past seasons? I do miss them, and I would wear them to honor thee.”
“Oh … Ardenai,” the physician laughed. “Oh … yess. It would pleasse me to do that for thee, now, thiss very day, if thee sso dessiress. You did like them after all! I am ssssso pleasssssed.”
“This very day,” the Firstlord smiled. Perhaps not as tasty as a wood rat, but certainly a more lasting gift, and one Io had heartily agreed to when they’d finally thought of it.
“Why,” Kehailan began, and both Ardenai and Pythos jumped a little. They’d forgotten his presence. “Why does no one else seem to know, with all the history floating around, that this is how the Firstlord is passed?”
“Becausse it is a most ssacred and anccient ssecret kept by the Eloi and Mountain hold. Only the Firsstlord knowss, his physsician father, and the High Priestess herself,” the serpent replied. “And a very sselect few otherss.”
“And now I know. What’s to stop me from blurting it out in a weak moment? And would it hurt anything if I did?”
“If thee did what?” Pythos asked.
“If I …” Kehailan looked momentarily puzzled. “If I … strange … I seem to have lost my train of thought. Ah yes, there it is. If I said anything yesterday to offend you, Sire, I am sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Ardenai said softly, and realized with regret that his conversation with Pythos would have to be put on hold. “Think nothing more of it. I … you did say something yesterday which puzzles me, and I would like to revisit it, if it does not offend you.”
“Whatever you wish.”
“You said you ‘guessed’ your way here. Has Hadrian Keats said nothing to you?”
“Keats?” Kehailan frowned. “No. He knows, of course, that he must have treated you at some point, because Josephus says he did. But as to any memory of it, I assume you …” Kehailan made a slight erasing gesture, and Ardenai nodded.
“I did. But I also left a message which should have surfaced in the appropriate time frame. I was exhausted, and quite ill at the time. I probably confused things somehow. Ten years from now, when he is vacationing by the sea, Keats will snap his fingers and smile, and say, ‘Ardenai is on Calumet,’ and rattle off the proper coordinates.”