“You’re sure?” Eletsky mumbled, peering up at his Chief Medical Officer out of one sleepy eye and slapping around for his glasses. “Did this just hit you, or what?”
“Would I be standing here in the middle of the night if it had come to me last evening at dinner? I tell you, Kehailan was right, and he and Oonah went off in the right direction. Ardenai is on Calumet, along with two squads of Equi Horse Guard, Master Teal and Ah’riodin, hopefully.”
“Hopefully?” Marion echoed, sitting up in bed and putting on his glasses. He blinked to focus on Keats. “There you are. Why hopefully?”
“How should I know? It’s just … there. That uncertainty about those two. Look, he’s obviously used my brain for a scratch pad, and this is what it says. He’s on Calumet, and we’re supposed to join him – six of us. I assume, since Kehailan and Oonah Pongo are already there, four more of us. Specifically, you, me, Winslow and Tim.”
“Too bad we didn’t catch Konik,” Eletsky said, shrugging into his robe, “he has led us a merry chase. However, I think we’d better stop looking for him and break orbit. I’ll call up the landing parties and get us under way. Hadrian, thank you. You can go on back to bed if you want.”
“That’s it? Go on back to bed? I want to strangle that man for invading my private thoughts like this.” He turned away, muttering. “What the hell right does he have to invade my body and pry into my thoughts? Replace my thoughts with his thoughts, after I told him not to, to leave me to hell alone? I resent it.”
“You should be flattered that the Thirteenth Dragonhorse entrusts you with such things,” Marion said, and Keats answered with a derisive snort as he wandered back to his quarters.
Ardenai slipped into the warm, fragrant kitchen and smiled at the woman who was working there, shaping yeast rolls and setting them in pans which another, much younger girl was sprinkling with cinnamon and sugar and moving to a warm place to rise. Ah’nora was a tall woman, and slender, though not small, with soft brown hair, and the remarkable green eyes and clear skin of the High Equi. It caused the Firstlord to marvel yet again at how alike they all were. Their skin tones ranged from fair, like hers, through light olive, like his, to a rich mid-olive like Krush, and Teal’s son, Criollo. The hair color differed from rich brown to blue-black, with the occasional blond or redhead. The height and weight varied a bit, but they were amazingly homogenous, and he’d always wondered if they had looked vastly different in the long-ago time, before eons of peace and prosperity had brought travel, and understanding, and matings near and far which had blended them into a deep and serene gene pool.
“Ardenai Firstlord, may I serve you?” Ah’nora asked, brushing flour from her hands and moving his direction.
“I would not have you stop what you are doing,” he smiled, coming back to the present, “but when you have finished, I would speak with you,” he jerked his chin, “by the garden pool.”
He was pottering in the flowers, snapping the spent heads off rohanth bushes when she joined him a few minutes later. “Are these always so lush and beautiful,” he asked, “or is this an especially good year for rohanth?”
“They always do well,” Ah’nora said, watching his face and wondering what was on his mind. “They don’t seem to care what the weather does. They go on about the business of blooming.”
“As you do, or so I hear.” He’d been working on what he was going to say, and he hoped he’d remember it. He went to the garden bench, patted the seat beside him, and turned to her as she sat, rather shyly, beside him. “Ah’nora, thank you for the provisions you sent with Io and me. They were deeply appreciated.”
“It is what I do,” she smiled. “You are welcome.”
“It is not all you do,” he replied. “You take responsibility for the running of this hold, as did thy mother before thee, and hers before her.”
“Yes, for many generations,” she said proudly.
“And yet you have not been properly honored for that by the Great House,” Ardenai said. “No priestess nor Firstlord has fostered here, no prince nor princess has been born here of his get. I would ask your permission to change that.”
Her eyes were bright, and her smile spread across her gentle features. “You would send us a nursling to foster? We would be deeply honored, Dragonhorse.”
“No,” Ardenai said. “I would not send a child here, but would ask instead that a child come from here, or better yet, stay here. A prince of the Great House.”
She looked puzzled, yet her hands were beginning to tremble in her lap. “I … don’t understand,” she said quietly.
“I would have you bear a son for the Great House,” he said. “My son,” and she began to cry. Ardenai sat there, looking calm, patting her hand and smiling at her, while every fiber of his being demanded that he run as fast as he could in the opposite direction. Still, while his somewhat stodgy brain might be his own again, his loins recognized this as a very attractive female, and he knew she would let him mount her. He fought the conflicting emotions within him, wishing he had on robes instead of those kraaling tight riding britches, knowing he couldn’t just jump her on the spot – knowing at some deep and ultimately calming level that this truly was an honor for her, and a duty for him, and a hedge against extinction should anything happen to him in the near future. If necessary, this tiny bundle of cells would live seven hundred years in the womb of a serpent to be born as the Fourteenth Dragonhorse.
Ah’nora wiped her eyes and took a steadying breath. “You do me a great honor. I accept,” she said quietly, and flashed him a truly lovely smile.
“Thank you. I shall have Io attend us.” Ardenai rose from the bench. “You will not have to be alone with me, nor will it be a long process, I promise,” he said, and bowed as he left her.
Io, too, had mixed emotions about having her bridegroom set his head against another so soon. But it was practical, for more than one reason. Ardenai’s ancillary testes were still flooded with motile sperm of both sexes and he could accomplish the mating in a matter of minutes. The thought of watching him mount another was titillating, and she entertained it as she watched her husband stride away from Ah’nora to their chambers. This was something she’d have to get used to, she supposed. Something both of them would have to get used to. She applied a smile, and walked to where Ah’nora was still sitting on the garden bench. “Come with me,” she said, and Ah’nora jumped noticeably.
“Did you want longer to anticipate this?” Io asked, sincerely wanting to know.
“I … no. Actually, I won’t be able to think of another thing anyway, with this on my mind. It’s best accomplished now, isn’t it?”
“It would seem so,” Io said, and held out her hand. “Come, let me bathe thee.”
Certainly Ah’nora was not dirty, but it was the ceremonious thing to do, and often the oil stimulated arousal. The woman was in heat, as were most of the females in the hold, and Io crimped a grin as she remembered Teal’s gentle teasing over lunch the day before, preparing her for what she would find when they arrived back. It amused her to think that the Equi had to cycle to be generative, but then she was Papilli, and already settled with a tiny princess of her own.
She brushed and braided Ah’nora’s long hair, dressed her in a pale green robe, and led her by the hand into the ithyphallic chamber which adjoined the bathing pools. The art on the walls, the rugs on the floor, the furnishings, all spoke of overt sexuality, their only purpose to stimulate the libido and make one receptive to sexual intimacy. Io wasn’t even being mounted, only watching, yet she could feel sharp waves in her lower abdomen, and her anterior clitoridis, the more sensitive of the two, began to pulse. She could wait. Ardenai was still in heat. Her turn would come very shortly after Ah’nora’s, or she missed her guess.
“Sit,” Io said, gesturing toward a low, narrow-seated but comfortable chair, one made for a woman to straddle to sit in a man’s lap. Ah’nora perched on it, smiling nervously and shaking like a leaf in the wind. It made Io ask, “You have … done this before?”
“Oh yes,” Ah’nora said. “I was married, and had a little boy, but my family was lost to me. Now, I shall have another. Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” Io smiled, and sat nearby. “You are not afraid of being hurt, are you?”
“No. A man with eyes like that, and a mouth like that, would never hurt a woman.”
Io nodded and looked away, a sharp pang of jealousy lancing through her. “Perhaps, you would be more comfortable if I left you alone with the Firstlord?”
It was that comment Ardenai heard as he entered the chamber, and he smiled and crooked a finger at her to attend him. When they were outside he looked down at her with a scowl and hissed, “You’re not thinking of leaving me alone with her, are you? Because that’s just not acceptable. I don’t know this woman in more than a passing way. I wouldn’t know what … I mean, if she was to … please say you’re not going to leave me alone with her.”
“Relax,” she chuckled, noting that his ears were pinned back with fear. “I was just having a few moments of jealousy. I’m fine now.” She took his arm and scooted him back inside, smiling at Ah’nora as she did so. “I’m going to let you two get acquainted for a bit,” she said, and sat Ardenai down on the priapic bench. She gestured for Ah’nora to join him, and then retired to a shadowed corner of the room. “If you need me, I’ll be right here,” she said quietly.
Io watched as Ardenai took Ah’nora’s hands and spoke quietly to her for a few minutes, then carefully placed his forehead against hers – sending his thoughts and his desires to her, reading hers in return. He’d said he was going to do that. “It’s not going to be like it was for that poor young priestess,” he’d said firmly. “I will not have intercourse with another before I’ve set my head against her. I want Ah’nora to enjoy this, and to come out of it feeling like a person, not an object.” It was obvious the first part was working well. The woman was breathing harder, and her mouth was open, though Ardenai’s did not seek it. He did unfasten the top of her robe to caress her breasts, then unfastened the bottom half, slid it off her shoulders and dropped it to one side. He made no more than a subtle gesture, and she moved obediently to position herself for him.
Io looked away, then forced herself to look back, hearing her husband’s irritated voice during the morning’s discussion. “This is not about you and me and our relationship, Io. This is about Equus. About my duty to her as Firstlord, and your duty to her as Firstwife. One of my duties is to assure the line, and one of your duties is to assist in the matings. It doesn’t say anywhere that we have to like it, but we might as well, since, one way or another, we’re going to be doing this for a long time.”
His robes were on the floor, his lean, muscular body stretched out across Ah’nora’s as his teeth found her neck. What an extraordinarily handsome man he was, Io thought, trying to ignore Ah’nora’s sharp cries of pleasure. He’d always been handsome, without having to grow into it, without having it change the way he perceived himself. Ardenai straightened up and caught the woman by her upper thighs, eyes squeezed shut in concentration. He was having to think rather than enjoy himself, she realized, and was inordinately pleased by the notion. Ah’nora’s groans, her body language, her panting breath, all said she was climaxing, and in seconds, he had her – a half dozen hard slams and a long, shuddering pause – and he draped himself lightly once more across her back to rest himself.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly, and reached from behind to stroke her forehead. She nodded, and he withdrew, immediately tucking his intromittent organ into its protective sheath, so that only the head protruded. “Come to me,” he said, and when she got up from the bench to face him, he caught her up in his arms and carried her, laughing, into the next room where the cold pools waited. “This should settle the matter,” he said, and waded in with a gasp of merriment to dunk her in the icy water.
She let out a squeal, then threw her arms around his neck, still laughing, and said, “I have a son, Ardenai Firstlord! We … have a son. Thank you.”
He waded back out with her, and Io was there to hand them their robes. “Ah’nora, I thank you,” said Ardenai with a gracious nod and a kiss on the forehead. “Because things may be troublous for a bit yet, I think keeping this … arrangement quiet for now would be safest for you and for your babe.”
“I understand,” she said simply. “I will say nothing.”
“Then, if you need nothing further from me or my wife, you may go with the thanks of Equus.”
“I am honored to have been of service,” she said formally. She scuffed into her sandals, fastened her robe around herself, and nodded her way out of the room.
Io turned to go also, but Ardenai caught her arm and spun her back so that she landed against him with a thud. “So much for the business of hedging death,” he murmured. “Are you still angry with me?”
“I do think this has grown out enough to catch it in an overbraid,” she smiled, pushing his heavy forelock back from his face. “We should try it this afternoon. What makes you think I’m angry with you?”
“Oh, I don’t know … a couple dozen things you said this morning. Maybe it was my imagination.”
She made an apologetic little face, and led him over to sit with her on the recently vacated bench. “Please try to understand, Ardi. I have wanted you my entire adult life.”
“And now you have me,” he said. “Are you thinking that I do not understand the terms of our contract, Ah’riodin? I can assure you, I do.”
“I would like to think you do,” she said coolly, “and I know that you speak sincerely of this just being duty to Equus, but still there is this fear in me. And the fact that you need two more wives who could easily replace me in your affections, doesn’t help matters any.”
“It is something only you can fix, I’m afraid,” he said, and bent to nuzzle her neck. “I must do what I must do. But as to what I want to do, and with whom … I’m like old Bartemus. Do you remember him?”
She thought a moment, and chuckled. “Of course I do. He was the crankiest horse I’ve ever met.”
“Because you were not Krush,” Ardenai smiled. “He was cranky with me because I was not Krush. He was a one man horse, and for my father, he would do absolutely anything, but as far as he was concerned, the rest of us did not exist except as moving shadows which had little or nothing to do with what he considered reality.” Ardenai cupped her chin with one forefinger and tilted it toward him. “I’m a one man horse, Io. And I am yours now. I have promised it, and that makes it so.”
She grinned up at him, and her hands slid inside his robe. “And would old Bartemus enjoy the pleasure of a little canter this afternoon?”
“With his usual rider and no one else? Yes, he would,” Ardenai whispered, and nothing more was said about anger, or duty to Equus.
There was time for pleasure, and for a nap, before a dinner at which the Firstlord ate well, and laughed much, which pleased his physician. And when they had gathered at the main hearth for the evening, Ardenai dropped more wood on the fire against the chilly drizzle outside and turned with a sigh of contentment to pick up his glass of cider and contemplate the room. Kehailan, playing the big floor harp while Teal sat nearby with Catrio, mending a bridle. Four of the younger members of the Horse Guard bent over a table, thoroughly engrossed in a game of Vincere. Jilfan and Tarpan playing Tally Pegs with Pythos, and losing despite the odds. Io, closer to the fire, curled in a high backed leather chair, sketch pad in her hand, drawing various people in the room. Gideon, arms folded on the game table, staring at the chess board, waiting for Ardenai. Tarpan’s new bride, Ah’keena, stretched out on the floor nearly under Ardenai’s feet, engrossed in an old book of maps while Ah’nora showed Oonah how to thread one of the beautiful floor looms. The tall, Calumet mahogany walls, glowing in the light of the lamps. The ancient tapestries. The thick wool carpets spaced on the dark wood floors, the lingering fragrance of oranges and cinnamon.
“This night have I seen in my mind,” he murmured almost to himself, though Io looked up and smiled. “At those times when I truly began to believe that I was too exhausted, or too ill, or too afraid to go on – when I felt one more step, one more stroke of the scourge, one more minute of aching cold or desperate thirst would be more than I could bear – I would see this room, with these companions in it. I could see them, hear them as I do now. I could smell the oil in the wood, and the cinnamon in the tea.” He shook his head, and his eyes were veiled and soft. “We have not the victory yet, but we are together, and I am content this night. With thee,” he said, looking at Io, “I am content.”
“I am honored,” she said, and blushed, and went back to her sketches.
“And you, Gideon,” Ardenai said, returning to his chair at the game table. “Are you content to be here?”
“Where would I be but where you are?” the youth smiled. “You have given me friendship, and guidance, and purpose. You share your home and your family with me. How could I possibly not be content?”
“And when this is over, and to be with me is to be in the rarified intellectual atmosphere of the Great House of Equus, then what?”
Gideon looked across the table at Ardenai and scowled. “If you’re trying to throw my game off, you’re succeeding. Dragonhorse, look around you. None of us wants to leave this place. It is serene. It is beautiful and fruitful and verdant. The food on the table tonight we gathered this afternoon. This is an innocent way of life, and we are happy, all of us. And yet each of us knows we must leave here. We must do what we came to do, and leave. We came here in service to you. We will leave in service to you, no matter where that takes us. Check. You’re not concentrating.”
“You think not? You think you can make gallant speeches, and woo my heart into betraying my head?” Ardenai pursed his lips and sat with his chin in his right palm, contemplating the chessboard. “Perhaps … yes, you can. Perhaps I should trade places with Kehailan. This is a time for me more suited to playing the floor harp than gaming with ruthless Declivians.”
Gideon smiled at him. “I will give you time to study the board if you will answer a personal question for me.”
“You may ask.”
He lowered his voice. “You … and Io?”
Ardenai gave him a strange look. “And what?”
“I asked you first.”
“Ardenai, can we start this over again?”
“Which?” the Equi smiled, taking a sip of cider and setting the glass aside.
“I’m winning the chess game. The question about you and Io, has been altogether lost.”
“Gideon, it was never asked. Without some semblance of subject matter I can’t answer you.”
“I assume my voice was without sufficient … innuendo,” the boy grinned. “Very well, again.” He tried for a deeper scoop in the first word. “You … and Io?”
“Ah ha. Um hm.”
“Check, and mate.”
“You were baiting me!” Gideon yelped.
Of course I was. It’s a game.” Ardenai laughed.
“Never lose at chess to my father and then reveal that you are displeased,” Kehailan advised, giving the big harp a rest. “It delights him no end. Ardenai Firstlord, would you care to trade the harp for the chessboard? It has been too long since I have heard your music.”
“Please,” Catrio nodded. “But sing for us, as well. Sing us the Legend of the Wind Warriors.”
Ardenai shook his head and laughed. “Of all the things I do not wish to sing this evening, that, is at the top of my list. I have studied it until I’m singing it in my sleep.”
“He’s not joking,” Io said blandly.
“Then the Ballad of Wielkopolski’s Battle,” Tarpan said, and several others called for its singing.
“As you wish,” Ardenai nodded, “but it does not lend itself to a floor harp. Is there a guitharp in here somewhere?”
“Over there,” Jilfan pointed, then, remembering his manners, bounced up and went to get it for the Firstlord.
Ardenai sat, checking the tuning, and as he began to play the rollicking old song, and the others gathered around to join him, Io sat rubbing her belly subtly with the forefingers of her right hand and thinking. How beautifully the Firstlord sings and plays, Ah’leah. Can you hear him? And how everyone is drawn to him, knowing he loves them. He will hold you, and sing to you as he did me, and he will encourage your dreams and your ambitions, and correct your excesses when necessary, and kiss your hurts, and see that you are safe and warm. And you shall be beautiful, and no one will laugh at you and say you are funny-looking, because you will look like your father. And you shall have the finest education, not because you are a princess of the Great House of Equus, and the firstborn daughter of Ardenai Firstlord, but because your parents are citizens of Equus, as it should be. And hopefully you will have challenges, for they build character. You will be loved, Little One, and loving, like your father, and hopefully you will choose to serve the Great House of Equus, but in choosing to serve I hope only that you choose wisely, so that you may serve with joy.
Kehailan, thoroughly embarrassed, was wondering disgustedly if one single person in this room, if one single person on the whole kraaling planet of Equus had escaped being either in Ardenai’s Creppia Nonage class … or in his music history classes at Enalios Lycee … those had always been packed to the walls. How else would they know such a ludicrously silly song? Couldn’t they have chosen something a little more dignified than this old nonsense about a farmer battling Diabolus with his own pitchfork, and couldn’t the Firstlord of the Equi worlds have insisted on it? They sang like they were in a Declivian tavern. Even Ah’nora had set aside the tray of sweet ammon bars she was bringing in to pass around and joined them, laughing as she learned the words. And now, they’d talk about the meter, and the always fascinating fact that it followed the usual rhyme pattern of a ballad, being iambic pentameter, as opposed to the ancient songs, of which at least the choruses were usually anapestic hexameter, and feminine rhyme, wouldn’t they? Of course they would, and Ardenai would ask them questions, and they’d salivate to be the first to answer … ah, yes … there’s the person who remembers that The Legend of the Wind Warriors is written in trochaic heptameter, masculine rhyme, which is rare, indeed … and then … they’d sing some other song they’d all learned together someplace … the whole jolly group of them … like some bad joke of a camp for over-achievers.
Kehailan chose not to notice that he was in the midst of the most elite force of fighters his planet had to offer, and looked away in annoyance. It was then that he saw Io, and the slight movement of her hand, and he knew instantly what it meant. Because no announcement had been made, he assumed it was not yet public knowledge … though for what reason he could not fathom. He’d imagined Io would be shouting it from the rooftops. She bore the child of the Firstlord. Probably thinking about fine horses and beautiful clothes and parading the child like some pampered pet, letting it run wild through the royal apartments when the Great Council was in session. She had become Primuxori of Equus. She’d always been possessive of Ardenai in the extreme, and now she had him.
He remembered with distaste Io clinging like a tick to Ardenai’s neck, defying Kehailan to try getting a moment of his father’s time. And where was Abeyan, who had wanted that child enough to kill his wife to get her, where had he been in all this? Off on one diplomatic mission or another, tying up Ah’ree as though she were a wet-nurse, forcing Ardenai to give up the little spare time he had … for Kehailan … and give it to Io. And now she was settled – pregnant – with his father’s child. The thought of it made him a little sick – the image he got of the two of them having sexual intercourse. He’d always thought of Io as the baby sister he’d never wanted, and now she was his step-mother, carrying the baby brother, or maybe the baby sister, he’d never wanted. There would be two generations of them to come between him and his father.
Not that it would change Ardenai’s perception of his eldest son. Kehailan had chosen off-world pursuits, had chosen to be a tactician and technician for the SGA rather than the Great House, and it had sealed his fate. It was Io who had fought for entry into the Horse Guard, with Ardenai right behind her, rather than Abeyan, whose job it should have been. It was Io who had turned out to be the brilliant student, even with a baby hanging from her breast between classes. It was Io who had turned something as shameful as settling outside marriage, into a triumph in everyone’s eyes, hadn’t even been censured, and he knew who’d fixed that, though a marriage had occurred almost immediately.
It was Io whom everyone loved and admired, whom everyone thought beautiful and accomplished and brave. It was Io who had turned out to be the ultimate soldier, who had ridden with the Horse Guard to victory after victory on worlds where the people were so backward, the terrain so rough, the environment so hostile, nothing but the most basic of weapons and tactics could be used. And now Ardenai … who had always thought she was a pest, who had held her in his arms and rocked her, and changed her clothes and tucked her in bed … had set his head against her and put a baby in her belly. The thought of it … made him shudder.
“Are you cold?” Ardenai’s voice asked him, and Kehailan jumped, realizing the singing was over, and that his father was standing beside him.
“Ah … no. I was just thinking,” Kehailan said, forcing a smile.
“It has been too many years since we matched wits across a chessboard, my child. Come, take Gideon’s place, and let’s play a quick game.”
“Gideon,” said Teal, beckoning, “I would speak to you of your riding lesson today. Come sit by me. We shall discuss again the body language of horses.”
Kehailan and Gideon traded places, and as Ardenai set up the chessboard, and Io took a turn at the floor harp, Kehailan ventured, “Are you taking the boy back to Equus with you?”
“Certainly, if he wishes to go,” Ardenai said. “He chooses to be with me, and I could ask for no better companion. He is honest and open and he learns quickly. For those characteristics he will be welcomed. He loves horses, and working in the open air. I think he may be the penultimate keeplord that seems to have skipped a couple generations when I was born, and then you. I think your grandfather will embrace Gideon with all his heart. I worry a little that he will find my station and his part in it … too different from the life he is used to. I’ve thought a time or two of trying to prepare him for what our life is really going to be like on Equus, but … I do not want to appear to discourage him, lest he think he is unwelcome. And too, I’m not sure myself what to expect.”
“I understand,” Kehailan said. Something in his tone spoke of resignation, and made Ardenai raise one black brow to contemplate his son.
“Are you sure?” he said gently. “Kehailan, if you need to discuss this, to be comfortable with this, we will do so. So much has been sprung on you these last two days. I’ve married your little brat of a foster sister, I’ve taken to my heart a ragtag boy from a backwater planet, who cannot compare to you in looks or intelligence, and yet I seem to love him … more than I love you … which is not a fact at all, but it is your perception, and therefore must pass for truth. I have tried a hundred times over the years to tell you how very much I love you, and respect the decisions you have made for your life, and somehow, you cannot hear my words, and I am sorry for that. But know this, Gideon is no more precious to me than you are, and I want you to be able to welcome him, comfortably, into our extended family.”
Kehailan frowned as he did when a thought was new and perplexing, and stared at the tapestry on the wall behind Ardenai’s left shoulder. After a while he looked at his father and said, “The young man saved your life, and for that, I love him. If you do not prepare him for life on Equus, and the myriad duties which will face him as companion to the Firstlord, he may get there, become discouraged and leave. Nevertheless, that would be his decision. If you attempt to prepare him, and so discourage him that he does not go with you in the first place, it has, in essence, been your decision. You care for him, and he for you. He wants to be where you are, wherever that may be. That kind of loyalty, that kind of love, is hard to find. I would say, do nothing to discourage it.”
Ardenai sat with his chin propped on his thumbs, and his eyes misted nearly to black as he contemplated his son. “You sound like your mother,” he said, “and you look like her … so much.” He tightened his fist against his lips and sat, staring at the chessboard.
“You honor me by saying so,” Kehailan said gently, then cleared his throat. “That does not mean I am going to let you beat me, Sire. I remember your tactics.”
“And I yours,” Ardenai replied, taking a deep breath to steady himself. “Things have not changed, not really. By necessity appearances have changed, that is all. Your move.”
“You have spoken of this with Io?” Kehailan asked, trying to sound casual as he studied the board. “This … order of alliances?”
“Yes, more precisely, she has spoken of it to me. There is much to be said for friendship and familiarity in any relationship, Kehailan. She knows where she stands with me in this contract. She knows me, what I will and will not tolerate. I know her. I know she does not care a scoop of grain for what I will and will not tolerate. From that lack of understanding we shall build a fire and warm ourselves.”
“I commend you for not deluding yourself, Sire,” Kehailan said, sucking in on his cheeks to keep his face straight. “But regardless of what you think you know, and what understandings you have reached, you have made the little fruit bat your wife. She is no longer a playmate, she is a partner. She may remain the Captain of your Horse Guard, but she is also the mistress of your household. She can no longer be above you in one area and below you in another, behind you in some aspects, ahead of you in others. She gave up the right to be tolerated as a child when she came as a woman to your bed. You have taken her as your wife; you owe her the courtesy of allowing her to be one. Your move.”
“After that?” Ardenai chuckled, his eyes expressing admiration even Kehailan could read. “Kehailan, you are as ruthless as Gideon.”
“Thank you, Dragonhorse. Your move.”
“Kee,” Ardenai began. Paused. Moved a chess piece. “We have spoken of many things since your arrival yesterday. Some more pleasant than others. But you have said nothing about …” Ardenai tapped his upper arm, his fingernail making a clicking sound on the metal. “…these.”
“Oh, those. Yes. Aside from the atrocious burn scars above and below them, they’re very nice. I especially like the way they shimmer in the lamplight.”
“Thank you my son. That is obviously what I was asking. Your move.”
There was silence for a bit as the two men concentrated, then Kehailan said, “I talked to the woman who is your birth mother … Ah’krill … High Priestess of all Equus … awe inspiring for me. And she wanted me to call her, Grandmother. Very strange sensation, let me tell you. But you, have always been my leader, my example. I could not look up to you more than I already do, no matter what you became.”
Ardenai smiled without looking up from the board, and Kehailan could swear he was blushing with pleasure. “What more could a father wish to hear than that? Especially from a son like you. Your move, I think.”
“Yes. And yet, I am the grandson of Ah’krill. I am the son of Ah’krill Ardenai Morning Star, Firstlord of Equus. My sire, is the absolute ruler of the most powerful government in the UGA. I must realize …” he moved his knight, “… that what was my example, is now example to Equus and the galaxy. Your move. I do not think I have even begun to realize what has happened. Have you?”
“No, not from a governing standpoint. I’ve had too many other things on my mind. I know that if I survive this, I will return to many questions, and to the final ceremonies which set me in place … and perhaps hold me there against my will. Here, it is easy to laugh, and to admire the beauty of my young wife in the firelight, and enjoy the company of my friends, and play chess with my only son. Very soon, things will be different. Your move.”
“But not tonight,” Kehailan reminded him. “You have earned the peace of this night by your pain and your devotion.” Kehailan eyed his father a moment, and gestured at the armbands. “May I ask how they put those on, really? There is no seam that I can see, and judging by the terrible scarring, I’m truly afraid that what we tell outsiders is true.”
“It is true,” Ardenai said gently. “A mold is put over the arm, and they are … poured on in molten form. They are indeed immovable and imbedded in the flesh.” Kehailan swallowed hard and looked away, and Ardenai said, “No matter, it is done. Perhaps in another few hundred years, when the next male rises to govern, even this will have passed from tradition.”
“I hope so,” Kehailan said, again moving a chess piece. “The thought of anyone suffering that kind of pain, of you suffering like that … did they give you nothing beforehand, did they not deaden your arms first?”
“They do it according to tradition, Kee. I lost consciousness near the end of it, or so I hear from Teal, who was with me, along with Io and Pythos and Ah’krill. I did not go through it alone, and I have no memory of it, really.”
Kehailan looked at Io, playing the huge old floor harp, pink toes peeking out from under her robes, thick, red-gold braid covering her right breast, then looked at his tall, stately father, with his jet black hair and sharply chiseled face. “I can hardly wait to hear what your mother is going to say.”
Ardenai broke his concentration to look up at his son. “Which mother, about what?”
“What Ah’rane is going to say, I’m sure will be positive, but I was thinking of Ah’krill, and what she’ll say about you and Io. Do you really think she’s beautiful?” He gestured in the direction of the harpist.
“I believe I’ve already said as much. She is not beautiful with great dignity, as your mother was …”
“She is not dignified at all. She has the endearing ears of a fruit bat, and eyes like those disturbingly blue flowers on a Sycharian saucer plant. She has chubby cheeks and a sunburned nose and freckles on her arms. Her teeth look big and white and brand new, as though she just cut them. She has entirely too much hair, all of it curly and disobedient, all of it the color of a fresh, ripe peach, which is not a color at all. Except for the … chest, she could be ten years old, maybe less.”
“Trust me,” Ardenai said, casting a fond eye in her direction, “she knows things only grown women with experience know about … things.”
“Sire, she may know … things, but she looks … like an elf. You have wedded an elf. Face it. Put a diaphanous little gown on her, and gossamer wings on her back, and what do you have? A flickernick. A snowmallow. An elf. A pixie. One who laughs during affairs of State. You do not have someone even remotely passing for a royal consort.”
Ardenai stared at Kehailan for a long moment, then all his air escaped through his nose, and he clapped his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “Sorry,” he said at last, wiping his eyes, “I’m sure you’re trying to make a valid point …”
“No, actually, I was trying to break your concentration,” Kehailan said, and the twinkle in his eyes spread to a slow, good-looking smile. “I know what it is like to be lonely, and I am long since used to it. You are not. Have the heels on her boots built up. You’ll look fine together.”
“I’m happy you think so. Wouldn’t want to embarrass the foals. Check.”
Kehailan narrowed his eyes and glared across the table. “Then too, you might consider wearing her on a chain around your neck.”
Ardenai thought about that later, propped up on one elbow, covers down around his waist, watching Io as she slept. She did have ears like a fruit bat. They were very large, very flat, with extended tips and delicate, fluted lobes. Even with her hair combed out full around her face and shoulders, those tips managed to peek out. In sleep her long, curled lashes brushed her cheekbones. Ardenai found her fragile, and elegant, which surprised him, and more beautiful as he really looked at her. He could also see telltale signs of encroaching maturity, little lines around the eyes and mouth, subtle things that were somehow comforting. Her body was hard and muscular, but it bore some scars, and a place or two where gravity and pregnancy had kissed her gently in passing.
His heat cycle was leveling off, and as he cooled a little, Ardenai became more aware of what he had done, and possibly what he had not. Had he been subtle enough in so great a transition between relationships? Even thinking about the word, subtle, made him shake his head in dismay. He’d had all the subtlety of a charging Gaknar. And had he been gentle enough with one so small? Heaven knows he’d not been careful enough, and the thought of another little Io tearing around the house was most disquieting. At the same time he was thrilled, and he admitted it. When the danger had passed for them and they could announce that she was settled with a little daughter … what a joyful time that would be for them. Hopefully Kehailan would come to accept all this. He knew Io was settled. His mind had been steaming with jealousy regarding both Gideon and Io for half the evening, though he’d tried gallantly both to cool it, and to veil it, but from his father, he could not. And those things he’d called her with his outrageous teasing – Ardenai had to laugh, because they’d come out of his mouth first, years ago. Horrified. Standing in the doorway of the study with Io under one arm and a weaver’s shears in his opposing hand.
“Oh, Kehailan, see what our little fledermaus has done to herself. What am I going to do? The child is bald! She is totally bald! Abeyan is going to have a few choice words to say if I live that long, which I probably will not. I number myself even now among the walking dead. Your mother is going to break my neck, and that’s to put me out of my misery after the rest of what she does to me. Io, you … forget the saucer blossom eyes, child, I’m in no mood. You have done an unacceptable thing. Why?”
She had shrugged her little shoulders up to her ears, and turned her mouth way down, and giggled, “I wanted to. It’s my hair.”
“That is not an acceptable response ….” He’d heard Ah’ree’s footsteps then, back from her ride with Ah’din and Ah’rane, and heard her call to him. “We’re in here,” he sighed, and Kehailan had rolled his eyes and shrunk down in his chair.
“Well, hi. What are you three … oh … Ardi….”
“Oh, Ardi? Ree, is my hair gone? No. I have my hair. Kehailan has his.”
“And this baby is bald, husband. Why is this baby bald?”
“Kee, run for it. Take Io with you. Ah’ree, sweet one, she got the weaver’s shears and cut her hair off.”
“She certainly did,” Ah’ree had snapped, “every last beautiful curl. How could you, Ardenai? You promised you’d take care of her.”
“I did,” he’d squeaked. “I fed her. I put her down for a nap. I told her to go to sleep.”
“You what? This is a baby, not one of your computators that you can do this or that to and predict the outcome! Would you go off and leave your creppia nonage class alone? You should have checked on her. Ardi, she might have cut the tips of her ears off! She might have killed herself, then how would you feel the rest of your life?”
This night, alone. As it was, he had Io, and a thousand shining memories. Carefully, so as not to waken her, he touched her cheek with his forefinger, and wondered what their daughter would be up to when she was three.