“What do you mean, nothing works?” Hadrian Keats gasped. “When you said nothing, I didn’t really think you meant … nothing! Damn, Marion, I’ll settle for a Declivian wheelcar, but this?” He gestured at a horse who looked no more pleased than he did about the situation. “I cannot ride a horse. It would be a catastrophe. I will not straddle anything with more legs than I have, who is capable of moving faster than I can. I didn’t want to come in the first place, and now I know why.”
“You could walk,” Timothy McGill suggested, hiding his annoyance with a jest. “Beautiful day for it. Or we could make a litter and drag you.”
“We could rent a buggy,” Moonsgold suggested. “Hadrian could drive it, and we wouldn’t need the extra horse to carry supplies.”
“Good idea …” Marion began, but was cut off by Keats’ yelp of dismay.
“I have no idea how to make a horse pull a buggy!” Keats exclaimed, his voice rising unpleasantly. “I don’t like horses. Why did that … the Firstlord want me along, anyway?”
Moonsgold sighed and cast a longing eye at the pretty buckskin mare he’d selected. “Actually, a buggy sounds good to me, too,” he said, though his tone was unconvincing. “And I have the benefit of knowing how to drive one.”
“At last, a rational suggestion,” Keats growled, and Marion nodded.
“A buggy it is. Tim?”
“I’ll keep the horse, that way I can scout around a bit.”
“Oh, delusions of prehistoria,” Hadrian sneered. “What do you think you’ll find?”
“I’m not sure,” McGill said, keeping a level tone, “but Kehailan is not the nervous type, and he’s worried. We all know who just might be out here, and so I’m going to scout around from time to time, just for my own edification.”
“Voices down,” Eletsky said quietly. “Tim’s right. We have no idea who’s here and who isn’t, or who may tell what to whom. Just because we’re dressed like civilians, doesn’t mean we’re incognito.”
“What?” Keats asked with a twist in his face, and Marion wondered right along with Hadrian why the Firstlord wanted him along. He was a chronic gripe. Always had been, always would be. He was sarcastic to the point of being caustic, and putting him under this much stress was going to pressure-cook his personality into a most unpleasant verbal stew which he’d be ladling out in liberal servings over the course of this mission, or Eletsky missed his guess. Nevertheless, when the Firstlord of Equus summoned, they attended, for such was the wish of the SGA, the AEW, and the Great House of Equus.
“Just … get your gear and let’s get going,” Eletsky snapped, and walked back into the livery stable.
The proprietor, an older Amish gentleman, was both amused and sympathetic, and quickly fitted them out with a spring wheeled buggy. As though he sensed Winslow’s disappointment, he sent the buckskin mare to pull it. He gave them careful instructions on how to reach South Hold, the stud farm owned by the Equi government, and the best spots to camp along the way. If he saw anything unusual in the need of these off-worlders to go there, he said nothing.
Not that races other than the Equi went there frequently, they didn’t. Rarely, in fact. But it wasn’t unheard of. Over the years breeders had come from all over the United Galactic Alliance to purchase those beautiful animals and be schooled in their care. The roads were well maintained, the Equi most gracious and hospitable. Their two-day trip should be pleasant and without incident.
“Amazing,” Marion smiled, reining his horse up close to the buggy. “We are less than five miles from a Controlled Atmosphere Corridor, yet we are in a completely pastoral setting. Look at these farms, Hadrian! Look at the draft horses working.”
“Oh, and smell the horse shit, how romantic,” Keats said dryly, so Moonsgold and Eletsky discussed the passing countryside and left the doctor out of it.
The day progressed to the steady drum of pacing hoofs, and the rolling farmland was left behind. The hills began to increase in pitch, populated by extravagantly wooled sheep and then to grow more heavily wooded and free of all husbandry. The buggies and riders on horseback became further spaced, and by evening, had pretty much ceased. The land seemed no less verdant and hospitable, just more distant. The New Order Amish Mennonites who had settled this sector long ago, preferred living closer together. The Equi, needing elbow room to raise and train their vast herds of horses, had settled the more remote sections. From here, they shipped exotic, sparingly harvested Calumet mahogany, freshly sheared wool, excellent sheep cheese, and their beautiful horses, back to Equus and the AEW.
Their presence, though unseen, was felt – their gently curious observation of that which entered their domain. Most of their group found it comforting. Only Keats seemed edgy. He sat beside the campfire with the others, seeming to enjoy the loamy fragrance and the sounds of a forest going to sleep. Then his head would snap around, and he would hold his breath a moment to listen before pulling back inside himself again.
“What is it?” Tim would ask, “What’s wrong?”
The doctor would shake his head and mutter, “Ghosts. The wilderness gives me the creeps.”
As much as he was annoyed, Eletsky was also concerned. Since Keats had been called upon to treat Josephus’s crewman – whomever that might have actually been – his dislike of the Equi had risen sharply, and his dislike of Ardenai in particular had mounted to near hatred. It was something about which he would not comment, and Eletsky had come to the conclusion that Keats himself didn’t really have an answer for his behavior. The whole bridge crew had felt it, none more keenly than Kehailan, and Marion was sure his Tactical Wing Commander would be displeased to see the doctor arrive with the rest of them. Not that Kee was any less sulky than Hadrian these days. He watched Keats jump again as the fire popped, and found himself hoping Ardenai was close ahead. Perhaps he could help unravel what was wrong with the man. Perhaps, and more likely far, he already knew.
They slept under the sheltering branches of a Calumet Sycamore, rose with the morning mist and proceeded. The night had been chilly, but the day warmed quickly to a pleasant temperature. It was humid, but not unpleasantly so, and both Marion and Tim rode with their shirts off, enjoying the sunshine against their bare skin. At noon, McGill succumbed to Winslow’s sad face and traded the horse he was riding for the reins of the buggy. It lasted two hours before Hadrian’s constant muttering negativism sent him begging back his mount so he could scout ahead. There wasn’t much need, really. It was obvious they weren’t alone, and they weren’t in danger.
Three times in the course of the afternoon Marion or Tim pointed, and a rider could be seen outlined against the hills. He would disappear, and soon a deep throated communications drum would begin to sound. “Savages,” Keats would mutter, and Moonsgold, who was sick unto death of telling him what an amazing system this was, and how subtly the drums were tuned, and how complicated they were to learn, would glare at him and say nothing, and then glare at McGill for taking his horse back.
An hour before dusk, and twenty hours into their trip, they heard a pleasant jingling, and a squad of Equi Horse Guard trotted around a bend toward them, the war bells on their horses’ hoofs marking cadence in the evening air.
“Will you look at that?” McGill breathed.
Eletsky gave a low whistle under his breath. “I have always wondered what they really looked like when they went off to do battle. Now I know.”
The riders who approached at a brisk trot were dressed very trimly – high black boots and black britches, sleeveless silver-green tunics belted at the waist – throwing knives in sheaths on each forearm, crossbows and a quiver of bolts on their backs. These cool-eyed, bare headed Equi were obviously warriors. None more obviously so than the man on the big grey horse to the right in the lead.
“You honor Equus with your presence,” he said, brushing one hand across the other, “Ahimsa, I wish thee peace.”
Marion returned the gesture. “Ardenai Firstlord. I am relieved that you are safe.”
“Thank you,” the Equi nodded, spoke to his nervously dancing horse, and then turned to smile at the others. “Doctor Moonsgold, I presume, since you are the one I have not met … and Timothy, always a pleasure to see you. Doctor …” he paused, and Eletsky saw him start ever so slightly, “… Keats. I trust your trip has been pleasant.”
He looked at Keats and Moonsgold for a long moment, then turned his attention back to Marion. “Kehailan and Oonah Pongo arrived safely. Please, ride ahead with me. I would speak to you. Tim, if it would please you, take my place in the ranks. Ah’keena, please allow Doctor Moonsgold the use of your mount, and bring the buggy along with Doctor Keats?”
The officer nodded, swung off her horse, and took the reins of the buggy. Ardenai waited until McGill and Moonsgold, both beaming, had joined the squad of cavalry, then gestured ahead, touching his horse to an easy canter which Eletsky matched until they were a hundred yards in front of the others.
When they were out of earshot, he eased his horse back to a walk and turned to Marion. “Your horse is getting tired,” he said, and his face grew slightly troubled. “Marion, I have been aware for several years that I’m not Doctor Keats’ favorite person, but the look of hatred he just gave me was alarming. What’s wrong this time?”
“You don’t know either, hm?” Eletsky muttered, and Ardenai regarded him discreetly from the corner of his eye before shaking his head.
“Let’s don’t worry about it tonight. When you are rested and refreshed we will try to figure it out. For now, let us speak briefly of other things. I would discuss with you that which we feel is about to take place, and what your part is to be in it.”
Eletsky’s eyes gleamed with pleasure behind their corrective lenses. “We get a place in the fray do we?”
“You get to observe,” Ardenai corrected with a grin. “On behalf of the SGA. I wanted observers widely varied in their fields of expertise, and above reproach in their reputation. Let me tell you why.”
That briefing took up the short distance they had to travel. It also gave Eletsky a chance to listen, rather than to talk, and thereby tacitly appraise this most formidable aspect of a man he’d always known as Kehailan’s father – firm advocate of education – kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, to be sure, but mostly … kindergarten teacher. He corrected the thought. On Equus it was Creppia Nonage. Oh, the man was a genius, no doubt about it. What he knew about quantum psi computators shamed every so-called expert in the SGA, maybe even the UGA. He sat a horse like he was part of it. He could play polo with the best of them. This was the man with whom he’d sat at table, laughing and telling jokes, and discussing the best way to prepare kukkuk. This was Kehailan’s sire. Ah’ree’s doting, dutiful and occasionally submissive husband.
While this was someone Marion readily conceded intellectually capable of leading the Equi worlds, he was not a man Marion ever pictured galloping about the countryside wearing a pair of forearm knives and carrying a big crossbow Marion knew damned well he could use, and use with deadly force. Yet here he was, golden arm bands, elegantly savage python tattoos the length of both arms, hard muscles and broad chest, piercing draconic eyes and that profile that was by turns frightening and handsome. A man very much in his prime, and in his element.
With a movement that was nothing more than the twitch of a hip, Ardenai turned the dapple grey horse up a tree lined drive, and his attention back to Eletsky. “You have been Kehailan’s friend for a long time,” he said, “yet there is much about us which you do not know. Here, in this atmosphere, where we are closer together and easier to question … not so guarded … perhaps you will find answers for those questions which you still have about us and our culture.” He looked at Eletsky with that pleasantness about the mouth which was almost a smile, and modestly veiled his green-gold eyes with his lashes.
“Many things fascinate me, Ardenai,” Eletsky admitted, “and I thank you for this opportunity to learn ….” he trailed off. “Sorry, I mean ….”
Ardenai grinned at him. “Go on. It’s all right Marion. I meant what I said.”
“Ah … yes … so, why is this called a hold, and your home is a keep, when both of them are what I would call a ranch?”
“A hold is held by the government. A keep is held by an individual,” the Firstlord chuckled. “What’s really on your mind?”
Eletsky thought a moment, and looked a little embarrassed. “Things … your position … has altered so radically so quickly. The first thing I need to learn is what protocol to use with you. My God, you’re the most powerful single entity in the Seventh Galactic Alliance. I don’t even know how to address you these days without being offensive.”
“My God is a bit too formal,” Ardenai laughed, “But Your Most High, Beneficent, and Grand Lordship Ardi is always good.”
“Nothing more? Nothing having to do with superlatively magnificent? Maybe just god-like?”
“That does have a nice ring to it. Add it to the rest.”
“And if I can’t remember it all, or if you have fallen in a well, for instance, and I don’t want to recite all of it to get you rescued? Is Lord Ardenai acceptable?”
“Lord Ardenai makes me uncomfortable without ‘keep’ attached to it. To my own way of thinking only those titles are appropriate which describe a function, such as Firstlord, or Ambassador, or Teacher, and I must admit, I’m going to miss that one most of all.” He sighed and looked away. “What you have always called me, is fine. I suppose Ardenai Firstlord, or Dragonhorse, if we are outside our circle of friends.”
Marion nodded, and gave him a sympathetic look. “Well,” he said, “whatever you’ve been forced to become, at least you’re alive. We were worried about you, you know, and your son was quite beside himself.”
“He still is,” Ardenai snorted, and Marion chuckled with him.
“You need not have worried to such a degree, Marion, though any prayers were much appreciated. It was a strange time for me, but … I put my scholarly talents to work, and I have always worked my body hard, so I was more or less prepared for such … unexpected commotions in my life. After Ah’ree died, I did let myself get a little soft, and this has been the cure of all cures for that.”
“You’re telling me you were prepared for this?”
“Are you believing me?”
“Not for a minute.”
“Then you are still wise,” Ardenai laughed.
“This is beautiful,” Marion said, gesturing toward the vast, sprawling sunburst that was the main house, then at the stables, the trees, the gardens. “A strange place in which to encourage a war.”
“Not to encourage one, Marion, to remove one. Please, dismount and go inside. I will take your horse and put her away.”
“I will take them both,” Gideon smiled, stepping out the kitchen door. Ardenai thanked him, introduced him to Captain Eletsky, and then motioned Marion to go ahead of him into the house.
It was typically unpretentious and welcoming despite its size, and it put Marion in mind of Canyon keep … and Ah’ree’s gracious presence. Ardenai guided Eletsky through the house, told him a bit about it, showed him his room and the bathing pools, then took him back to the great hub where the others had already gathered, and offered him a drink.
“Again, I bid you welcome,” Ardenai said to the assemblage, accepting a glass from Ah’nora’s tray and giving her a brief wink to make her blush. “For those who do not know them already, this is Teal, Master of Horse. Daleth is our Tactical Standard Bearer. Tarpan is Commander of the Secondary Squads. Jomud is our Master of Drums. As for she who is Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House …” Ardenai shrugged slightly and arched an eyebrow in Teal’s direction. “She is probably out somewhere on that big copper stallion.”
“She is not on the copper stallion,” Tarpan said quietly, and at his tone Ardenai was immediately and obviously alarmed. “He balked at a fence and threw her. No harm done, though. She lit on her head.”
“Nevertheless, I will speak to her,” Ardenai replied, crimping a smile, “if to do nothing more than berate her privately for going against my wishes. Where is she?”
Daleth nodded his head toward the entresol, and there, with Oonah Pongo, Kehailan, and Pythos, was Io. She was dressed simply in a sleeveless white woolen robe belted with a purple girdle, her hair swept up around her face and cascading nearly to her waist in back. She paused, opened her hands, smiled and said, “Welcome. You honor Equus with your presence. Ahimsa, I wish thee peace.”
“Well, well, the little princess from the initiation ceremonies,” Keats said, and because he was smiling for the first time since his arrival, Ardenai said nothing. Perhaps Io could…
“My God in heaven, there’s one in the flesh!” Keats gasped, looking at Io’s companions, and Winslow Moonsgold was already laughing with delight as he hurried forward, hands extended in greeting.
“The Serpent Physicians of Achernar,” Ardenai said quietly. “This one’s name is Pythos, and he is many hundreds of years old. Shall I introduce you, Doctor?”
“Thank you, I can introduce myself,” Keats said, and moved pointedly away from Ardenai.
Ardenai and Marion exchanged a glance, and Ardenai moved to the window, gazing out at the final moments of daylight as he collected his thoughts. “This troubles me deeply,” he said at last, sensing rather than seeing Marion beside him. “I need to have a long, long talk with Doctor Hadrian Keats. The thing is, when I try to talk to him, he immediately throws up such a smokescreen of anger and resentment, that real communication is impossible.” he paused and brightened slightly. “Perhaps he’ll talk to Gideon, since he’s not a telepath… at least not yet, but he will be, and a good one.”
“You think it’s the telepath thing that’s got him spooked?”
“Oh, I know it is.” His speculation was interrupted by the arrival of Io, who put her hands together and nodded graciously to Ardenai, then turned to the Captain. “Ah’riodin, this is Marion Eletsky, Kehailan’s good friend, and commanding officer.”
“Captain Eletsky,” she smiled, and he couldn’t help smiling with her. “Kee speaks of you as a brother, and I welcome you as such. If you will excuse me, Dragonhorse, I will go and see if dinner is ready. Our guests must be tired and hungry.”
“Of course,” Ardenai nodded, and the two men watched her exit, her bounty of curls glinting in the light from the gas lamps.
“Exquisite,” Marion sighed. “Now why can’t Kehailan see how perfect she is? Here is this lovely, warm, smiling person right under his nose. Why can’t he fall … just a little bit in love, and marry her?”
Ardenai’s face stayed absolutely straight. “Perhaps because on Equus it is not an accepted practice to marry lovely, warm, smiling people who are already married to someone else.”
“Oh dear,” Marion muttered. “Forgive the social blunder, Ardenai. She just looks so … I mean, I can see that she’s Papilli as well as Equi, but you folks are usually older than that when you marry, aren’t you? Anyway, I do apologize. I should have known there’s a lucky young man out there somewhere.”
“In here, actually,” Ardenai said coolly. “And you assume much. You assume he is lucky to be married to such a hothead as that, and you assume because she is a child, he is a child.”
“Hopefully,” Eletsky said, still looking after her. “I know the Equi think differently than we Terrenes do about physical … properties. But fiery youth is best mated to fiery youth, don’t you agree?”
“Fiery youth is relative, Eletsky. We Equi live two hundred and fifty years.”
“And how old are you when you stop … appreciating the potential of a woman like that?”
“That, you will have to ask someone considerably older than I,” Ardenai replied. “And where did you get the notion that we Equi think differently about physical attributes than Terrenes do? Most of your notions of physical beauty and sexual attractiveness you got from us in the first place, along with your language base, two of your major religions, most of your literature and half your music.”
“Oh no. Now I’ve given you the language thing. You win on that one. It’s historical fact that Ancient High Equi is the base language for Greek, Latin and Old High German, but if you’re going to start in again trying to convince me that William Shakespeare and George Frederick Handel were Equi Lycee professors on sabbatical, along with Gustav Holst and Aristotle, Ming Li Wei, and half the other people we revere, you’re going to be talking a long, long time,” Marion said.
“Come with me to the library of the Great House, and I’ll prove it to you, Marion. See our plays, which pre-date yours by eons. Visit our music library. Look at the form and notation patterns and see just where your great classics came from.”
Marion snorted. “The notion that most of our music came originally from Equi forms, is just nonsense. How would we have gotten them, discarding your crazy idea that they were brought by cultural missionaries? And you can’t really cite collective cultural memory, since physically and culturally you Equi recall many characteristics of what ancient history tells us were OE Amerindians, long since extinct …”
“Nonsense. Just because we bang on drums and ride horses … not the same drums and certainly not the same horses …”
Marion held up a finger. “You had star travel far sooner than we did, so it’s much more likely that you got your more sophisticated and urbane forms from us and carted them off home to Equus. Lycee professors on Sabbatical … now that’s nonsense, Ardi, and I don’t care what plays and preludes you show me in your archives.”
Ardenai, delighted to be taking up the familiar debate, was opening his mouth with a response when Kehailan walked over to join them. “I trust you gentlemen are engaged in some intellectually uplifting discussion,” he said, glancing from face to face.
“Indeed,” Ardenai said, and despite his best efforts, his eyes began to dance with mischief. “Until we changed the subject to anthroculturalism, your captain was lusting after my wife.”
“Really?” Kehailan replied, ignoring Marion’s horrified gasp. “Captain Eletsky, while I might be able to understand your … attraction, I really must object. We Equi have definite standards about such things, and my sire can be formidable when provoked.”
“Actually,” Ardenai chuckled, putting an arm around Marion’s shoulder, and giving him an affectionate shake, “It was a wife for you that he had in mind, Kee.”
Kehailan just closed his eyes and cringed. “Oh, no, no-no. She is better suited for a man of Ardenai’s passion,” he said. “You have been the butt of one of my sire’s merciless teasings, and you have acquitted yourself well. I commend you.”
“I’m truly confused!” Eletsky sputtered, beginning to laugh. “Is she really …”
“Yes,” Ardenai replied. “She is. A fact I think I shall try to keep from Doctor Keats for the moment. Perhaps if he does not realize to whom she is wed, he will talk to her. We need to find out what’s wrong with him.”
“Aside from the obvious,” Kehailan muttered, patting his own backside, and Io called them to supper.
Afterward, when their meal had rested and the house grew cool, Ardenai suggested they adjourn to the bathing pools to relax and confabulate before retiring. The boys were made welcome, and Pythos encouraged Hadrian Keats to join them, as well. “Thiss iss an anccient cusstom. Here thee will learn much, and come away clean in the bargain. It iss my favorite time of the evening.”
Keats considered this proposal. On the one hand, he had no desire to be in the company of Equi, most especially the Dragonhorse, but on the other hand, he was face to face with one of the serpent physicians of Achernar, which was a prestigious occasion. What questions might he answer if cajoled? What could be learned from this ancient personage? “On … your recommendation, Doctor, I’ll go,” Keats said finally. “But I have to know first … what is worn?”
“Within the family, or among closse friendss or assocciates, just the sskin, as iss most comfortable and conducive for bathing and grooming. On occassionss ssuch as thiss, the maless will wear a briefcloth, what Terrenes might call a …” he thought a long moment, then shrugged with his usual ripple and rattle of scales. “A briefcloth. I, not being an anthropoid, will wear what I alwayss wear. Dragon hide. Come, thee will not be embarrasssed, I asssure thee.”
“Again, on your say so,” Keats nodded and followed Pythos, Moonsgold loping annoyingly alongside.
What he had expected to be a council of war with Ardenai snarling at its head, turned out to be a discussion of philosophy and ideals, led mostly by Pythos. They touched on the Equi way of looking at things as was to be expected, but mostly it was a discussion of absolutes which knew no cultural boundaries.
Ardenai sat quietly between Gideon and Jilfan, leaning close to answer their questions as the conversation progressed. “Please clarify that,” he would ask from time to time, one assumed not for his own edification, and Pythos, or whomever was talking at that point would do so.
Here, now, Ardenai was a scholar – a teacher – concerned with the education of the boys beside him. He was a gentle person, not a warrior. He was the laughing, devoted keeplord Marion remembered, and the thought of having violence visited against him made Eletsky’s blood boil.
Even Hadrian Keats, especially Keats, had turned in dismay from the lash marks on Ardenai’s back and shoulders, and now, even resting against a smooth rock in the soaking pool, one of them showed, like a snake’s tail, curling over his right shoulder to lie against his collar bone.
Gideon leaned toward him, Ardenai put his head against the boy’s, and nodded in quiet reply.
“Pythos,” he said, “Gideon has a question which I think should be phrased directly to you.”
“Of coursse, though he sstill hass not ansswered mine of ssome weekss ago.”
“Sir?” Gideon responded politely, despite Io’s warning grimace from across the pool.
“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” the serpent hissed, and Gideon turned bright red. “Ssurely thee hass a guesss by now, hatchling.”
Gideon’s head came up, and despite his flushed cheeks, his voice was calm. “I had ceased to wonder, Physician. Having you care for me and tend my hurts, having sat at your feet and learned these many evenings, I see you only as who you are. I do not care what, per se. You, are you.”
“Thy responsse pleasses me,” Pythos beamed. “And from the look on his facce, I would ssay thee has pleassed the Firsstlord, as well. We commend thee. What iss thy quesstion?”
Gideon smiled and stole a glance at Ardenai, trying not to look as proud as he felt to be praised among strangers. “Physician Pythos, you have lived many centuries. You have had hundreds upon hundreds of years to go about viewing the galaxy in all its various stages of development, all its peoples, all its many attitudes and views. What I’m wondering is, with the physical appearance of your race, have you been able to do that? I mean, are you allowed to be who you are so you can present what you have to offer intellectually?” The youth shook his head in frustration. “Darn,” he muttered, “I’m not saying it just right.”
“I believe I undersstand, neverthelesss. It wass mosst tactful of thee not to usse the word, hideousss. When thee has traveled more widely, and are more educated, thee will come to undersstand that very few culturess actually have a revulssion of ssnakes, sserpents and dragon-kind in general. In the majority of culturess we repressent eternal life. It iss only where ccertain religionss have been prominent that we have found sserpents equated with Diaboluss, or Ssatan. I ssay thiss only to inform, Gideon, not to admonissh, sso do not be embarrasssed. Where we are acccepted, we have contributed. Where we are unacccepted, we have obssserved. There were then and are yet more than a few placcess where, had we landed and introduced oursselvess, we would have been dragged to the nearesst zoological garden and incarccerated. I and the Equi with me.”
“Always the Equi. How did you come to be so fond of them in particular?” Keats asked with some resentment.
“They don’t believe in zoos, for one thing,” Moonsgold quipped, and his expression brought laughter which made Hadrian’s face sourer than ever.
“That, mosstly,” the old doctor chuckled, flicking his tongue in appreciation of the joke. “But the Equi had about them a ssensse of maturity and ressponssibility which transscended itss cosst, both physically and rationally; a willingness to weigh the factors …”
“You’re stonewalling,” Keats said, and subconsciously or not, his lip took on just the hint of a sneer.
Moonsgold looked apologetically at Pythos, as though his comment had caused Hadrian’s. “Not everything can be explained in fifteen words or less, Doctor Keats,” he said. “Let the physician speak.”
“Yes, do that,” Ardenai said with a slow, formal nod toward the old doctor. “Tell Doctor Keats that his suspicions are correct.”
“As you wissh,” the serpent responded. “It’ss not exactly a dark ssecret. We did not come to the Equi. We dessigned the Equi. They have alwayss been ourss, and we are devoted to them.”
There was a startled Terren silence, and more than one Equi chuckled to see those mouths ajar, like a silent protracted note in some mental chorus. But Moonsgold seemed not in the least startled. He flashed his infectious grin and his bright gold eyes sparkled with curiosity. “That’s what the Equi flag tells us, isn’t it? I’ve thought so.”
“What do you mean?” Ardenai asked. He liked this Declivian. Open. Kind. Excellent example for Gideon.
Moonsgold collected his thoughts a moment before speaking. “Equus Legatum, which looks like the historical horse, Equus Caballus, isn’t. Not on Equus. Equus Legatum is actually a combination of two species, a mammal and a reptile, though the reptile genes don’t show except in the eyes, and small scales on the chin and lips.”
Pythos nodded once. “Therein liess the ssecret, my friend. I think you have it.”
“Behind The Equi sunburst upon which the horse runs, is the silver-green background which represents the continuum of the Eloi, of that I am certain. The purple edging represents the encircling protection the Dragonhorse provides when he rises. But the horse … isn’t just a horse, is it? It’s the Equi people as well, because you share your genetic makeup with both horses and reptiles. Maybe? Am I close?”
“Abssolutely!” Pythos hissed, eyes alight with pleasure. “Of coursse that flag meanss ssomething different to everybody. It’ss like religion … everyone adjustsss it sso it’ss a comfortable fit.”
“These people …” Keats gestured, palms up at the Equi, “are genetically engineered? So that old thing about them having oil in their blood, might not be so far from the truth?”
It was a ludicrous statement, and Moonsgold roared with laughter, jolting Keats. “Oil for blood’s about as true as that old thing about those cess-pit Declivians, who have …” Gideon burst out laughing and said it with him, “… shit for brains!”
Pythos wrapped his arms around himself and hissed with laughter, coiling in and out of the water until everyone was laughing to watch him. “Oh!” he gasped at last, shaking his scales until they rattled like soft grass in the breeze, “Doctor Moonssgold, we musst sspend more time together. We … need to write a paper together, a medically bassed comparisson between the rumorss about Equi and the rumorss about Declivianss. We sshall pressent it at the next medical conferencce, and be a sscandal!”
“I’d love to do that!” the Declivian exclaimed, and Ardenai made note of the look of sheer loathing which crossed Keats’s narrow face.
I believe the time has come for that one, the Firstlord thought, looking to Teal, all his fear is turning to hatred. Enough hate will make even him dangerous.
His kinsman gave him a slow nod which escaped the others. He could be a very weak link in all of this. Why is he here, anyway?
So I can have a talk with him without distractions.
You mean, without an escape route?
Something like that, yes. Too, he’s a very competent physician, and Eladeus only knows how many of them we may need on the wargrounds before this is over. “Pythos, do go on.”
“Oh, yess. Thank you, Beloved. As I wass ssaying,” he sniffed, still wiping laughter from his eyes, “ah … when Equuss wass in her infanccy, as thee knows if thee paid attention in classs, there were two ssentient life-formss; one was hominoid, and the other reptilian. The reptilian life-forms thrived, and advancced very rapidly, because they had been sseeded there in colonies, and were already well established mentally and physsically, but the more primitive hominoid seedlings sstruggled to ssurvive. They battled hunger, diseasse, and at the very outsset, each other. All that kept them alive was their sstrong alliancce with Equus Legatum, the horsse, which had been sseeded there earlier with the reptilian population. Now I ssupposse, it wass a cold winter’s night, and ssome Achernarean sscientissts, tired of the ussual ssports, began to disscuss what the possibilities would be for a blended race, if the besst traitss of the hominoids were to be combined …hybridized over time, as it were …” he gave Keats a glance, “…with the besst traits of the Achernareans, and, indeed, even the trussty horsse …”
“Oh, I get it! That’s why an Equi male can tuck his …ah …” Gideon’s enthusiasm for the subject suddenly turned to an uncomfortably red face. “Ah …”
“Phallus, just like a horse,” Ardenai chuckled. “True. Looks the same, works the same. A bonus if you spend your life astride a saddle. Of course in our case the head won’t retract completely.”
“Exccellent protection,” the serpent agreed, “And in the earliesst timess, having the added warmth about the testes, produccced more female offsspring. Tell me what elsse thee hass noticced about Equi which reminds thee of a horsse, Gideon.”
“Well, probably the most obvious is no canine teeth. And your teeth are slightly larger than most hominoid species. There’s the pronounced heat cycles. And the gestation period is about eleven months – pardon, five and a half seasons – same as a horse. Ah … you eat like horses …” he scowled at the snickers and said, “well, you do. You graze all the time. You eat six meals a day, and you snack and piece between meals. And you drink a lot of water. I noticed that Ardenai suffered most when he couldn’t get enough to drink. You’re vegetarians, obviously, and I’ve noticed that, like horses, the Equi have very sweet, pleasant breath, even in the morning. Your ears move like horse ears, only not nearly as much, and they look more like the inside of a seashell, than like horse ears. You all tend to be long-legged and extremely fast and athletic, like horses.”
“Very good, though the earss came on the original model,” Pythos hissed. “The fact that they move sslightly to convey, either voluntarily or involuntarily, emotionss ssuch as anger and fear, may have been a sside-effect of the melding processs. Jilfan, what characteristicss are reptilian?”
“We have ophidian eyes,” Jilfan stated. “That means our pupils are shaped like a snake’s. And we have vestigial inner lids. Most people don’t even know they have them. Wanna see me close mine? I’ve been practicing.” He did so, giving Gideon a semi-opaque stare that made Gideon wince and then poke him until he stopped. “And we get cold really easily, like snakes do. We spend long hours locked in coitus, like snakes. And … we have watery blood rather than sticky blood. The shape of our skin cells under a microscope closely resembles the scales of a snake, and the configuration of our muscles is more constrictive than in other hominoids, which makes us tremendously strong and limber – athletic, like Gideon said.”
“Exccellent,” the old doctor praised, and gave Io a nod of approval.
“So it worked?” Moonsgold asked, leaning forward. “I mean, the way the founders hoped it would?”
“We think sso,” Pythos said. “Thiss iss truly anccient hisstory, and recordss are exsstremely ssketchy. We do know that the hominoidss which were not part of the exssperiment, died out after another few thousand yearss. And there were a few thingss that didn’t go as planned. The whole thing with heat ccycless in highly ssophisticated hominoidss wass rather unfortunate when it came time for them to sschedule conferencces and ssuch, esspecially ssince both ssexess ccycle. But by and large a little blending of DNA sstrengthened the hominoids of Equus, who developed ultimately into the beautiful sspecimens you ssee here. Intelligent, sstrong, artisstic, rational, ccertainly ssuccessful.”
“And just how much tampering did you serpent people do over the millennia to keep them that way?” Keats asked.
“Abssolutely none, as far as I know,” Pythos replied blandly. “Oncce the sspecciess wass no longer endangered, it wass left alone to develop on its own.”
“And you have co-existed side by side all this time?” Oonah asked.
The big serpent bobbed his head. “Yess. There aren’t many populationss of Ophidians … Ssea Dragons … left on the west and mid-continentss of Equuss, thosse called Andal and Benacuss, though we are alwayss mosst welcome. But we do live in other placcess, the mosst ancient continent of Viridia, for instance, though it ssnowss there, too, which we find …” he shuddered involuntarily, “Unpleasant. Mainly we live on that chain of sseveral dozen large islandss which lie ssouth of and between Andal and Benacuss, known collectively as Achernar. They and the sea around them are warmer and more tropical, and sssuit uss well.”
“Thank you!” Moonsgold exclaimed. “This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing this with us. I’m sure each of us has a thousand questions for you, Physician Pythos, I chief among them. But first, while I am still thinking, I must ask, is this something you would prefer we did not share with those outside this circle?”
“It iss kind of thee to assk, rather than ssimply going ahead as thee ssees fit,” Pythos replied.
Keats immediately drawled, “As opposed to just … hijacking people without their consent … bringing them someplace light years from nowhere for God knows what purpose, just because one has the power to do that sort of thing?”
Ardenai focused on the doctor, who puffed up and glared despite the apologetic groan of his shipmates. “I am sure Doctor Keats has his concerns about why we are here, and I will say only this aside from actual strategy, which we should probably talk a little about at this point. I am attempting to do one thing, and one thing only, save Equus, our own Seventh Galactic Alliance, and the United Galactic Alliance, because I’m assuming Telenir is somewhere within those boundaries, from a war. It is my opinion that while the Wind Warriors will go to endless effort to infiltrate us, and destroy us from within, they cannot, will not, even in alignment with some of our neighbors who do not belong to the SGA or the UGA, attempt an all-out war. They do not have that most important element, a proper foothold. To gain that, they must first gain Equus, which is situated firmly in the spatial center of the Seventh Galactic Alliance. This they feel they must do according to tradition, honorably and legitimately to their way of thinking, by gaining the arm-bands of Equus, and I happen to be wearing them on a most permanent basis.
“Here in this environment, a confrontation can be accomplished with a minimum of complications, distractions, publicity, and loss of life. We have Equi observers and now SGA observers, lest there be any questions as to what went on here between Sarkhan and myself. That, Doctor Keats, is why you and your companions are here.”
“Why Sarkhan?” Marion asked, rubbing warm water up his arms and resettling his glasses on his nose. “Or should I say, how Sarkhan? Of all the millions of Equi on three continents and a thousand islands, how did you narrow it to one person?”
“The luxury of time, and the benefit of being able to speculate amongst intelligent people,” Ardenai smiled, lowering himself a little deeper into the water. He winced slightly as the deepest of the scars on his back contacted the stone, and looked apologetic.
“And making the perhaps incorrect assumption that the Legend of the Wind Warriors is history, not a cautionary flickernick-tale,” Teal added with a grin.
“Absolutely.” Ardenai nodded. “My poor, longsuffering companions have heard the legend from me a thousand times. So, beginning rather at random to try to make sense of it as it might apply to us, and knowing that this was the two year period in which the next Dragonhorse would rise, we eliminated all those who did not avail themselves of political spheres. We eliminated all females, all males too young or too old to rise, which was a mistake, by the way. But it got us down to thousands, not millions. We made another wild guess that this person would get as close as possible to the proceedings of the Great Council, partly to keep an eye on potential rivals, partly because a successful usurpation would have to include a good knowledge of how the government works on Equus. Now, we were down to hundreds. That took a good long while. Then, we began to observe behavior and attitude.”