“It’s a story that’s been told so many times in fiction it’s hackneyed, you know? You come to that part in the book and you say to yourself, ‘Oh, for pity’s sake, are they going to drag that old chestnut out again? Nobody thinks this is plausible.’ But in my case … it’s true.” Hadrian sighed and glanced across at Marion Eletsky, who was sitting on a downed log on the opposite side of the pleasant forest path. Ardenai was reclined a little to one side, legs stretched out in front of him, using the log as a backrest. They were both listening, pleasant faced and receptive, and it gave him courage.
He’d made up his mind to tell the truth, to have it all out in the open, and he’d been walking here, organizing his thoughts and formulating his speech, when they’d appeared from the opposite direction – Marion and Ardenai – jogging along laughing about the snacking habits of the Equi, and how many meals in a day the average Equi would consume given the opportunity. They’d nodded, said good morning, and would have passed him by, but on impulse he’d hailed them, sat them down and plunged in. Now he paused. Having blurted out his introduction and thus committed himself, he had the luxury of thinking for a moment. He looked at the Firstlord.
“When did you first know I wasn’t who I said I was?”
Marion jumped a little and looked at Ardenai, who simply shrugged and replied, “You talk first, since you’ve gotten off to such a good start.”
Keats paced a bit, then turned, running one hand through his close-cropped, sandy hair. “I was born Denny Strathmore, Dennis Strathmore, and that’s who I was until I was twenty, and I’d finished my two years of pre-college. I was one of those kids that never got noticed, you know? Raised by a single mom who kept me fed and kept shoes on my feet and clothes on my back, but who had not one opportunity to get me lessons of any kind, or special tutoring of any kind. I had good grades but not spectacular. Not poor enough to merit special circumstances, not rich enough to know anybody with any influence. I was invisible. My one hope was to get into SGAU-Med. I applied twice. I was turned down twice.”
He flipped his hands up and shook his head, lost in thought. “I roomed with this other kid, dumb as a toilet seat, book smart, but not a lick of common sense. He applied to the University and damned if he didn’t get in. Threw the letter in his desk like it was nothing, of no value. Said he wasn’t even sure he’d take them up on ‘their offer’. Daddy was a big shot of some kind – only met him once. He couldn’t stand Hadrian, and Hadrian couldn’t stand him. So anyway … Hadrian Keats was big on doing dangerous shit – kayaking the white water, mountain climbing, backpacking way to hell and gone back in the woods, stratoschuting, racing planes … you name it, he did it, and he had the resources to do it right.
“So … midsummer of our second year, school’s already out and we’re ready to go our separate ways. He persuades me to go out in the middle of fucking nowhere and climb down this cliff with him that nobody’s ever managed to make. We might have had a chance, but he was snorting something, I don’t know what, and he gets it into his head that he can fly, like a bird. I try to stop him, he whacks me with a skillet, and when I wake up, Hadrian Keats, is at the bottom of this cliff … stark naked … where I can’t get to him, and nobody’s going to find him for about a hundred years, and he looks like something really heavy ran over him and just … splattered him, so I know damned good and well he’s dead.
“Well, I have a day or so to think about things, because my head hurts too bad to go anywhere … and in the course of going through the stuff in the tent … finding all his identification … beginning to put things together without really meaning to … I swear to God, I didn’t mean to … but things go through your head, you know, like … both of us had perfect teeth, so no dental records. Nobody ever comes out here, and he’s going to be a scattered all over hell in a couple of weeks from predation and desiccation. And after a while all I could think about was that letter, lying in that drawer, with all my dreams attached. So I took his gear and his clothes, and his ID, left what I’d brought, and I went back to school and got that letter, figuring I wasn’t going to be able to pull this off anyway … but I did. I went to SGAU-Med, got stellar grades, and for twenty years I worked my ass off to be the best doctor I could.
“Then, four years ago, before she was decommissioned and we got Belesprit, I get assigned to the SGA Blyth Spirit, and there’s this young, handsome Equi prince who’s the Wing Commander. And one day he says in the course of some inane conversation, ‘All Equi are telepathic, but my sire, Ardenai, is extremely powerful. The harder you try to hide something from him, the quicker he knows it. You’ll get to meet him next week.’ For the first time in a lot of years, I was scared, so I started reading up on the Equi’s powers of telepathy, and came across something that said anger worked as a damping field … but then you told me last night that I was using it to amplify rather than block … and that, as they say, is that.” He plopped onto the grass, wrapped his arms around his knees, and waited.
“If you’d have kept a low profile, you’d have made it,” Marion growled. “But you were justifiably proud of your accomplishments, and just a bit arrogant, and it was just too damned hard to stay quiet, wasn’t it?”
Keats nodded. “Yes, it was. So, are you going to arrest me?”
“He has no authority here,” Ardenai said. “I’m placing you under house arrest pending an inquiry. In the meantime, I expect you to continue to perform your duties as physician and observer. If anyone else finds out about this conversation, other than Teal, it will be because you have told them, not I.”
“So, you have me, don’t you?” Keats gave him a rueful smile. “Indulge me. Tell me when you knew I wasn’t who I said I was.”
“I never did,” Ardenai smiled. “I was getting incredibly strong waves of guilt from you, that you considered yourself a criminal, and a killer, and that you were afraid I’d find out and you’d have to kill me, too. Which is pretty silly, considering that you could have attempted that any number of times and you chose not to. We have discovered now that you are not a criminal, as much as you are an opportunist, and that the only person you killed, was you.”
“You’re sure about that?” Marion asked, scowling first at Keats, then Ardenai.
“He’s telling the truth. At least from his point of view,” Ardenai replied, rising to brush himself off. “If you two wish to continue this conversation, please do so. I have things I must accomplish before lunch, and I do feel a snack coming on. If you’ll excuse me.” He gave the two officers a brief nod, and bounded away on his long legs.
“He has destroyed my life, and it’s made him hungry,” Keats said quietly. “That’s how much we mean in the Equi scheme of things, Marion.”
“You destroyed your life, not him,” Eletsky retorted, “and considering where and when he could have had this out of you and by what means, and in front of whom, I’d consider myself damned lucky if I were you. I’m guessing he’ll even speak on your behalf, which is more than I feel like doing right now. Excuse me. I’m hungry, too,” and Marion trotted away after the Equi, his feet hitting the ground just a little too hard, fists and teeth both clenched as he ran.
Had it not been for the scouts which rode apart in silence, two by two, and the pounding bells of the Horse Guard as they drilled in close formation – had it not been for the worry which clouded Ardenai’s eyes as he paced or stood staring into the forest at odd moments – had it not been for those things, the officers of Belesprit would have felt themselves to be on a most delightful holiday. They were given every freedom to ride, or swim, walk in the fragrant woods, read, sleep, play games or study.
Winslow Moonsgold scurried around talking natural medicines with Pythos, ancient Declivian culture with Gideon, and watching the drummers, trying to learn the codes, rhythms and techniques of the great Equi drums. If he found time to sleep, nobody caught him at it.
Pythos, in turn, made time to entertain Hadrian Keats, and they spent time together discussing genetic engineering, and telepathy, and, rather specifically, how many out of the way places needed good doctors. If Hadrian had any idea he was with the most powerful telepath on the planet it didn’t bother him, and certainly Pythos didn’t mention it, as he was by nature a self-effacing creature.
Kehailan read and enjoyed the gardens as well as the intimate companionship of friends. He spent long hours in the evening with his father and Teal, attempting to understand the strategies which had been undertaken, and mentally weaving them into the strategies of the SGA, in case that became a necessity.
Marion often joined them for those discussions, and during the day he ran wind-sprints or cross-country with the Firstlord, and wrestled, and swam the strong, cold currents of the river. He was small, but wiry and exceptionally strong – a fine swimmer and tireless runner. He was also an excellent horseman, and gladly added his mallet to the informal polo matches which occasionally took place in the cool of early evening. When they grew tired of exercise, he and Ardenai debated cultural issues, and comparative history, and, with Teal, made music together, as they were all accomplished instrumentalists and singers.
Oonah spent most of her time with Ah’nora, mushrooming, gardening, cooking, sewing and weaving while they spoke of a woman’s place in the scheme of things, about mating and childbirth and the raising of children and husbands; absorbing the Calumet culture and storing it for future reference and delectation.
Tim practiced with the Horse Guard, observing when it grew too complicated for his level of expertise, and often joined Gideon for his lessons in horsemanship or archery. Occasionally, in the sultry afternoons, he and Kehailan slipped away together to speak of more intimate things and enjoy one another’s company, and once or twice Oonah excused herself from Ah’nora’s company and joined them to watch or participate.
Most of Gideon’s time was spent with Teal, who was Master of Horse, and with Seglawi, who was Captain of Arms. With them he learned to ride, and began to learn the rudiments of handling a crossbow and forearm knives. He studied most often beside Jilfan, but Jilfan learned only because it was expected of him. He preferred reading with Kehailan, or mushrooming and herb gathering with Oonah and Ah’nora. Once they encountered Pythos and Winslow in the woods, studying medicinal herbs, and they teamed up to hunt berries and other wild edibles.
Everyone took a turn helping in the kitchen and the garden, even Ardenai, and often they ate in the kitchen, laughing and talking without any sense of rank. Indeed, rank seemed to exist only in terms of responsibility, not personal importance, and this was enlightening for Gideon, who had been raised with the notion that people had importance relative to their position in society. It was explained to him when he questioned the practice, that status was an artificial social concept, and could be very misleading when it came to seeking out the people who actually knew the answers, and that, to the Equi, authority and responsibility were synonyms.
The person most conspicuously absent from any diversion, was Io. She was up at dawn, occasionally before even the Firstlord, drilling her squads. They could be heard late at night, and nothing moved within a ten hour ride of South Hold that the captain didn’t know about. The village of South Hold was thoroughly prepared, as was the main complex at the Stud, for the possibility that Sarkhan might get past their first line of defense. When Io was through, it was a dead certainty he would not get by their second. No one teased her about her diminutive stature, nor the size of her ears, nor the wealth and hue of her hair. No one noticed those things in the presence of Ah’riodin, Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus. She was every inch a warrior, her demeanor professional, her knowledge of her subject above reproach. She was impressive of stride and voice, and the fact that she shared a bed at night with the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, seemed part of another existence.
Then, in the pre-dawn of what was to be a sweltering day, Ardenai came bolt upright in bed, bathed in cold sweat and gasping for air. He sat panting, trying to get his breath back, and Io’s hand came to rest on his. “Is he here?” she asked, and Ardenai shook his head, choking as he attempted to swallow.
“I … don’t know. Something … stirs.”
She gave him water, and made love to him to relax him, but he did not go back to sleep. He paced instead, and at breakfast he requested that the observers stay a little closer to the confines of the main complex. He told them why, reminding them that they were only observers. They were in no case to be put in harm’s way. He seemed edgy and out of sorts, so they didn’t ask questions, they simply observed, as they had been instructed.
Io went off with her squads of Horse Guard, and Ardenai spent part of his morning working personally with Gideon and Tolbeth. The boy was becoming an excellent rider, and Ardenai allowed himself to relax enough to appreciate the fact. He picked up a large square of cloth which could be popped open with the flip of a wrist, and stepped into the arena with Gideon. “Now, find your seat, and watch her ears. Whichever ear moves, that’s the direction she’s going to jump if she bolts. Are you ready?”
“Ready,” Gideon nodded.
“You’re not ready. You’re like a steel rod up there. You’ll either snap in half, or go flying. Relax. Make her want to go to sleep with you. Give her the cue to drop her head.”
The Declivian did as he was told.
“Watch her ears,” Ardenai instructed, and brought the cloth up. “See, she’s going to jump right,” he said, and popped the cloth open.
The mare shied to the right, and Gideon was still astride when she stopped with a snort and planted her feet. “Tell her she’s a good girl,” Ardenai said, smiling, and watched the boy stroking the mare. What a loving husband and good father he would make … and Pythos said it would never happen. The venereal diseases which had ravaged him as a child had left him both sterile and impotent. How terribly, terribly unfair. The Firstlord shook his head and veiled the sadness in his eyes. There had been little time for serious discussions with Pythos regarding possible surgeries, but time would most assuredly be made when this was over. Ardenai wondered if Winslow Moonsgold might not be a fine ally in all this. He would speak to him when time allowed. If … time allowed. His time amongst the living. “Again,” Ardenai said, and this time he didn’t tell Gideon which ear twitched.
Nearer lunchtime, Kehailan, Pythos and Marion saw Io coming out of the stable and into the arena on a big copper stallion, just as Ardenai was returning from his second run of the day. He jumped the fence at the edge of the woods, saw his wife, and veered toward the stables, clearing the five rail fence in a straight-armed vault to catch the reins on her horse. The others were too far away to hear what was said, but Ardenai’s face was not at all pleasant.
“Io,” he was saying with thinly veiled frustration, “did I not make myself clear when I asked you to stay away from this horse?”
Io looked down at him and blinked, ascertaining that he was not joking, which he most assuredly did not seem to be. “You said you wanted me to use my judgment in riding him, Firstlord. I am doing that. We are working in the arena, not across open ground.”
“Well, I don’t want you riding him at all. He needs to go back to Teal. He’s too big for you to properly grip with your legs, there’s a lot of fear in him yet, and if he jumps out from under you, you’ll be hurt. Go get another horse, please.”
Her jaw settled into a firmer line, and her gaze hardened. “Ardenai, I am the captain of the Horse Guard …”
“You’re also my wife! A little, short-legged girl with my baby in her belly,” Ardenai snapped, “and I want you to do as I say and get off of there.”
“No,” she said. “Remember? No surprises. I will continue to take the chances I have always taken, and be who I have been. In addition to that, I will be your consort, but not instead of. My value to you as a person is as a cavalry officer. Aside from that I am a nuisance at worst and a convenience at best. It is not rational to give up real value for simple convenience. Let go of my horse. Please.”
“Ah’riodin,” Ardenai said quietly, “one thing you will learn as you grow older, is that life is full of surprises. If you think I will be mesmerized enough by your fire to allow you to ride out of here on this horse and get yourself injured or killed, you are mistaken. It is not your place to assume anything of what your value may be to me, but you can certainly assume it involves being alive. Now, unless you want your men to see you dragged from that kraaling horse like a disobedient little brat, you will step calmly down, offer him to me, and go get yourself another mount.”
Their eyes locked, and the air smoked for a time, then Io gave him a single, curt nod, Ardenai lifted her down, and they were hidden from view by the stallion’s neck. The horse was led back into the stable, and when he reappeared, it was Ardenai who rode him, Io pacing alongside on Kadeth. They began to work the horses in tandem, the greener learning from the well-seasoned, and Pythos nodded his approval.
“I ssee that this time around being in love hass not made your ssire foolissh,” he said to Kehailan. “I am pleassed. He putss the hellcat in her placce. Kept there, sshe will sserve him long and well.”
“So that’s what you think happened over there just now?” Marion chuckled. Pythos gave him a questioning look. “They may have reached some sort of an agreement, but I’m betting it’s not the one you think it is. When a woman looks at a man like that …” he shivered graphically, “it bodes a cold night’s sleep.”
“And only the horssefliess will ever know,” Pythos hissed.
Kehailan arched a dark, questioning eyebrow. “Do you really think my sire is in love with Io? Is it not a cyclical fascination which will pass?”
Marion chuckled. “The word love just scares the pants off you, doesn’t Kee?”
“The word, no. The emotion, yes. I admit it. When it’s applied so freely to someone like Ardenai, who seems to fall so deeply in love, and who’s finally getting his strength back after my mother’s death …”
“Thee conssiderss love a weaknesss?” Pythos hissed, turning down the corners of his lipless mouth in disapproval.
“Frankly, yes,” Kehailan said, scowling first at Pythos, and then at Marion, who was snickering up his sleeve. “The times it has touched me in one form or another, I have found it … unbalancing.”
“Did thee enjoy it? Being unbalancced, I mean?”
“We were discussing my sire, not me,” Kehailan said stiffly, and Marion laughed.
“When I happened across you and Tim and Oonah yesterday afternoon, you seemed pretty damned balanced to me, kid.”
“Recreation among friends is not at all the same thing as love, Marion. You know that,” Kee said. “I do care for Tim, and I care for Oonah, because intercourse is most pleasurably accomplished with those we … have feelings for …”
“Oops, almost said love,” Eletsky teased.
“Stop,” Kehailan demanded, giving him a disgusted look. “The kraaling pheromone level around here is making everybody crazy, and you’re not immune to it, Marion, or you wouldn’t be joking about private matters. Now hear me. I’m concerned about Ardenai. If he were having recreational sex with Io, I wouldn’t be nearly as worried, but she’s … he’s gone and married the girl, and I’m afraid that if he’s really falling in love with her, it could pull his focus away from Sarkhan and the Telenir, and that could get him killed.”
“Yess,” the old serpent hissed, bobbing his head, “Love iss a terrible rissk. And Ardenai doess love Io, as he lovess Equuss – as passt, pressent, and future. Any emotion that sstrong, hass inherent dangerss. It alsso hass tremendouss power to sstrengthen and ssusstain. Being in love iss not weaknesss, Kehailan. Being weak in love, iss weaknesss.”
“I suppose I have to agree with you. I just … never thought he’d … fall in love again,” Kehailan replied, and for a time his eyes were sad. Especially not with her.
“Sorry to have teased you,” Marion said, and gave Kehailan’s shoulders an affectionate, one-armed hug. “I have to go. I have a hot date of my own just after lunch, and I want to file yesterday’s report before then.”
He first upbraided himself for being indiscreet, then filed his report, ate a light lunch, and went to squat on his heels with Gideon in one of the box-stalls in the afternoon heat, watching Ardenai and Teal stalking one another, reading one another’s faces, the movement of a finger, the rippling of a muscle in preparation to spring. Graceful as serpents and quicker as they struck – hard – giving no quarter and expecting none, practicing the most physical aspects of Equi discipline. It had been going on for nearly half an hour when Ardenai was momentarily distracted and Teal saw his opening. In a split second, the Firstlord was slammed hard into the side of the box, landing on his back with the wind knocked out of him.
He crawled into a corner, sweat soaked and momentarily vanquished, and Teal crooked a finger at Gideon. “You. Yes, the young man who knocked me off my horse onto the cold, hard ground. You are next to be bedded on this straw beneath my feet.”
“So,” a cool voice said, “this is where I find the Firstlord of Equus, brawling half naked in a galactic backwater.”
By then Ardenai had staggered to his feet, eyes wide, jaw slack in dumbfounded disbelief, realizing what had distracted him. “Oh no,” he managed, shaking the sweat from his hair. “Oh no. All this has been for nothing.”
“And that is how you greet your mother?” Ah’krill snapped icily, “By saying ‘Oh no’? You honor me.”
“Forgive me,” Ardenai said, and bowed formally in her direction. “I do honor thee. I treasure thee as I do our world. For that very reason I am dismayed. What I had sought to spare you, I fear you have brought along.”
“Turn around,” she said, and Ardenai gave her a questioning look. “Turn around,” she said again, and Ardenai did so, standing quietly, feeling Ah’krill’s fingers touching, barely touching his back.
“Now face me,” she said, and Ardenai obeyed. For a long minute Ah’krill looked at him in silence. “Always have you been a man to go where duty takes you,” she said at last, “I commend you. I weep to see you so marred.”
“I am honored,” Ardenai said, forcing himself to smile. “Will you allow me to see to your refreshment at the house rather than in the stable?”
“Of course,” she said.
Ardenai motioned her on ahead and as they stepped out into the sunshine he realized everyone else already knew of her presence, and had for some time. “Captain Ah’riodin was kind enough to escort us the last few miles,” Ah’krill said, gesturing in passing at the still mounted squad, and Ardenai dismissed them with a wave and a subtly panicked eyebrow.
“I am surprised to find you participating in so aggressive an activity in this heat,” Ah’krill said as they walked toward the house. “Are you in season? But of course you are, how silly of me not to notice sooner, since you have taken the whole place with you. Actually, just about every Equi we passed on the way here has been affected. Not a particularly kind thing to do to those who trust you, Dragonhorse.”
Ardenai felt the color rise in his face, and he said with some annoyance, “I must thank you for whatever potion you gave me at the Rising Ceremony. It has protracted this thing to a ridiculous degree, Mother. And I can only assume your observation is being voiced in retaliation for what was said by me in the presence of the Great Council?”
“That would be an irrational thing for me to do, Dragonhorse. It is indicative of your own emotional stress that you consider me capable of such action.”
“You are correct, of course. Again, I must ask your forgiveness.”
“Ardenai,” she said firmly, “Stop it. You forget your position, and mine. You now rule Equus, not I. I am your mother. I bore you a hundred years ago, and only now am I able to speak to you as my son. Do you think I have not counted the days? Do you think I have not looked, and wondered? As I did, so will you in years to come – at the children, the girls, the young women – seeking something of yourself in their faces. What you did was difficult. You mated without any desire to do so. But to carry that child, knowing you must give it up, guiding a planet while your back aches and your belly swells, that, too, is difficult.”
Ardenai knit his brows, trying to follow his mother’s thoughts, trying to figure out what this had to do with the fact that he now ruled Equus in her stead. Perhaps she was just venting a little. He smiled. “Of that I am sure,” he said, opening the door for her and motioning her inside the cool dimness of the sitting room nearest the rohanth beds. “Being a father was difficult enough. Having a pregnant wife, knowing the danger she was in because she carried my son, knowing I could lose them both, made for a very long gestation. Had I known for certain that I would lose Kehailan, what would I have done, I wonder?” He paused, looked at his mother, and shook his head. “I do commend you. What you have done, I could not. And I am happy … to be joined with you again. Please, be seated. May I offer you something to drink?”
She nodded. Ardenai poured them both blood fruit juice and came to sit across from her, offering her the glass. “If you will excuse me for a few minutes, I will dress more appropriately, Ah’krill.”
“I will not,” she said, arching her brows. “I have waited seasons, and traveled through five sectors to speak with thee. Now, speak.”
Ardenai did so – bemused, but meticulous – as was his custom.
Ah’nora slipped in, bringing fruit and sweets on a tray, and would have left just as quietly as she had come, but Ardenai broke his thought and called after her. “Ah’nora, I would speak briefly with thee,” he said, and rose, excusing himself momentarily from his mother. He led the younger woman out the door on the far side of the room and said quietly, “I want you out of here as soon as possible.”
Her eyes asked a question, and he shook his head as he looked down at her.
“We can take care of ourselves for a bit. I need to know you and the baby are safe. Is there someplace you can go?”
“To my brother in South Hold village.”
“Go. Right after supper. Ask Teal to take you.”
She nodded, then shyly reached up and touched his cheek with the tips of her fingers. “Please, be careful,” she whispered, “a boy needs his father.”
Ardenai caught her fingers and kissed them and said, “I’ll send for you.”
She nodded, and was gone. Within minutes Io was there with a long-sleeved tunic, and he knew Ah’nora had told her he was becoming chilled. He smiled, nodded his thanks, and dismissed her without further comment.
The late afternoon turned to evening, and still Ah’krill questioned him. As the lamps were lighted Io came in again, stepped to one side, and waited until Ardenai finished his thought and acknowledged her. “Dinner will be ready soon,” she said. “Will you dine with us, or separately, Firstlord?”
Ardenai looked at Ah’krill for a decision. “We will dine with the rest of you,” she said. Io nodded and slipped out, and Ah’krill turned her attention back to Ardenai. “Have I exhausted you yet?”
“If I say yes, will you take your foot off my neck?” he asked, and Ah’krill gave him a look askance.
She recovered quickly, realizing he was teasing her, and shook her silvering head. “Not yet. I am not yet satisfied with your explanations.”
“I cannot sit at table in such a state as this, I’m afraid, so please allow me to continue this conversation while I bathe. You have had a tiring journey. Would you like to join me?”
“Yes, I would,” she said simply, and he ushered her through the house to the atrium. It was empty, though it had been very recently in use, and they were no sooner in the water than a young woman in the robes of the Akoliti came quietly in bearing fragrant scrubsand, clotted-soap, and clean robes for both of them. She would have dropped her own garment and entered the water, but Ah’krill stopped her. “That is not necessary,” she said, holding up a hand. “My son can bathe the spots I cannot reach. You may go.” The woman re-fastened her garment, and disappeared.
“May I now ask you a question?” Ardenai smiled, and his mother nodded.
He ducked himself and then surfaced to begin the scrubbing process. “Why in the name of the Creator Spirit are you here, woman? What part of ‘Stay where you are and observe,’ escaped you, my dear?”
“A fair enough question,” she sniffed, “though not asked in a particularly thoughtful manner. But still, I will answer it. Your message, sent through Josephus, was brief, but very much to the point. What I found most interesting was your admonition to watch Sarkhan. I took your advice. I held him over a slow fire and made note of what color he turned. From that, I decided to make his task easy for him. He has waited so long to accomplish it, why force him to try tricking us, when he can simply try killing us instead? We are both here. The need for subterfuge is gone. I made myself transparent enough that he knows I will be here. He will also realize at some point that he is sandwiched between us and the Seventh Galactic Alliance. He can do nothing. He is helpless. We have him.”
“Good thoughts,” Ardenai said, standing under one of the waterfalls to rinse his hair, “but most probably incorrect. What you would do, or I would do, is not what he will do. It is true that your arrival has left him a single option. If he is indeed sandwiched between us and the SGA, he must kill us all. No one must live to tell our side of it … or his, for that matter. Most of his own men will die, as well, or I miss my guess. Wash my back, will you? Gently, please?”
“You seem convinced that Sarkhan is Telenir, though I do not think he is. I think he is just another in a long line of petty usurpers, maddened by the need for power. In any case, if he is a Wind Warrior, or thinks he is, we know little of them aside from an ancient poem set to music. That epic tells us they have a strict code of honor. Pretenders to the title or not, they will act honorably – at least Senator Konik will.” She sighed and looked sad. Konik had always been so kind and gracious. Gallant, was such an old-fashioned word, and yet he was … gallant.
“Let us assume I am correct, for the sake of argument,” Ardenai said, cutting into her thoughts. “They might have acted honorably if they’d had to convince the High Priestess of Equus they did so. Now that you’re here, they don’t, do they? Those who act honorably will die, Ah’krill. They will act to live, and to win. As a ruler you should know that. Thank you.”
“You are angry,” she said, washing her arms, her eyes seeming intent on her task. “How disturbing.”
“Angry? No. I’m frustrated, and I’m frightened half out of my wits at this point. My mother is here, she who is the religious authority on Equus … here, with me. My closest companions are here, Pythos and Teal. My son is here, and his companions. The son of my choosing, and my stepson. All here. All three of them. My wife is here …”
“Stepson? Wife? Ardenai, we have spoken for these hours together and you have failed to mention anything about the subject. Why is that?” She clapped her hands, and the akolyte appeared instantly, holding out a large towel which Ah’krill folded around her tall, ample proportions, allowing the girl to dry her.
“I was trying to be kind,” Ardenai sighed, wading out after his mother. “Assuming I had already done enough to dismay you, I decided to let the subject alone for the time being. Since you pointed out the fact that I’m cycling, it must be rather obvious. You might therefore conclude that I made the decision to marry and the choice of a wife, too quickly.” He reached for a towel, snapped it around his waist, and reached for a second to dry himself off.
“You think you did not?” The older woman asked, slipping into the robe which the akolyte held open for her.
At that moment Io appeared to call them to dinner, and held out a robe for him. He slipped it on, then took her hand. “I chose a friend of many years. The daughter of a friend. I chose someone whose opinion I respect, whom I find intelligent, uplifting, and desirable.” He nodded formally to his mother, and gestured at the woman beside him. “Abeyan Ah’riodin Ardenai Morning Star, Firstwife of Equus. So says Physician Pythos. So say we all.”
Ah’krill returned the nod and smiled as she stood in front of them. “A most excellent choice, Dragonhorse. I approve. Ahimsa, I wish thee peace.” She touched their hands where they touched each other, turned, and left the room.
When Ardenai finally crawled into bed in the wee hours of the next morning, he was shaking with cold and mental exertion. Io pulled him against her, and he laid his head on her shoulder with a sigh of relief. “Whatever must come, I hope it comes quickly,” he said.
Io snugged the blankets around his shoulders, kissed his forehead, carefully rubbed his back to warm him as she spoke. “Things have not changed, Beloved, but only your relative position to them. Ah’krill is correct. The Telenir are men of honor. Sarkhan must proceed as though he intends an honorable confrontation, or risk a mutiny. He must challenge us and gather us together on a field of battle if he hopes to destroy us. He knows he cannot ambush us, or pick us off one by one. As you said at supper, someone might live to tell the tale. All we have to do to keep him honest is make sure certain members of our entourage are conspicuously absent from the confrontation. That, and keep him outflanked.”
Ardenai adjusted his head on Io’s shoulder so he could look at her. “And why has this come to you and escaped me?” he asked.
“I’d like to say it’s because I’m the penultimate strategist,” she smiled, “but it’s because I’m a woman. I had a feeling Ah’krill would come, and I prepared myself mentally for it.”
“What?” He raised up on one elbow, and gave Io a puzzled look even the dimness of the room couldn’t hide.
“Aw … I was just getting you warm enough that I could stand having you near me,” she said. “Why are you up there looking at me like that?”
“Because you astound me. Why did you think Ah’krill would come? It’s a foolish, ill-advised thing to do, and of all the fools I know … my mother isn’t one of them.”
“And her decision was not foolish. It was rational, but from her standpoint, not yours. You are the future of Equus. If you are lost to the Telenir, Equus is lost to the Telenir, whether Ah’krill is there or not. Better to be here and see for herself what happens. Better to know, than to wait. Better to end with a bang than a whimper, as some ancient poet said … I can’t remember which one.”
“T.S. Eliot. ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’ The Hollow Men, OE 1925. So,” Ardenai muttered, ignoring the fact that his wife was now laughing at him, “that’s the female version of the way to make a rational decision. Ah’ree was a rational woman, after all. She was rational as females comprehend the concept of rationality. If only I could apologize for all the times I teased her.”
“You can apologize to me,” Io snapped. “You have the blankets.”
“I think, that is not my only error,” Ardenai chuckled. “Surprise, surprise. Kiss me, Wife. Take me away from here.”
He tarried again with her in the morning, allowing her to fan his passion to an oblivion which was blessed relief. He relaxed in her arms, and said, “Unless I miss my guess, Sarkhan will be upon us today.”
She stroked his head where it lay on her breast, and he could feel the vibration of her voice as she spoke. “You are correct.”
“You are certain?”
“Yes. But I have it in hand. Go and bathe. Pythos awaits thee, remember? You promised you’d oil his scales.”
Ardenai kissed her and made his way to the bathing pools, feeling oddly refreshed and optimistic, and stronger than he had for a while. He’d been eating every chance he got. Perhaps the heat cycle was finally letting go. He thought about these things, and what this heat cycle had brought him – a new wife, a baby daughter – so much to look forward to. So much to fear losing if he lost to the Telenir.
“What troubless thee?” the old physician asked drowsily.
“Nothing,” Ardenai replied, pouring more oil into the palm of his hand. “Nothing troubles me. Roll over. I was just thinking about things … and the discussion Io and I had last night about logic and logical decisions, and all that it implied. It is of no importance.”
“Don’t be too ssure. Women usse innuendo the way men usse logic – as a tool, or a weapon, or a gift, as the mood takess them. What did sshe ssay?”
“That Ah’krill made a rational decision in coming here. Which reminds me, she and I … my mother and I, I mean, had rather a nasty argument last night. Not about that …”
“The fact that my wife is settled with a daughter.”
“Sshe iss not pleassed?” Pythos asked blandly, though his eyes had taken on rather a malevolent glow Ardenai couldn’t see from his vantage point. “Sshe ressentss the little priestesss?”
“I don’t know,” Ardenai sighed, missing the implication. “We didn’t actually get to that part. I assumed she was upset because I have again taken a wife who is not a thoroughbred Equi, and I … kind of blew up and didn’t let her finish.”
The old dragon shrugged. “Sshe iss not upsset for that reasson. Io iss but one of three wivess, which iss in part why that rule wass sset in the firsst placce – to accommodate ssuch a match. Many of the wivess which rosse with their hussbandss were not high Equi. Thee knowss that, and sso doess sshe.”
“Still, I’m wondering if I need to apologize. Have you seen her?”
“Sshe who iss thy mother walkss with the golden-eyed prince. Wass thee not going to meet thy mother for an early breakfasst?”
“Yes,” Ardenai muttered. “I was occupied, and I … more or less forgot.”
“Occupied with that little Papilli pouncer of yourss? Iss that why thee forgot the mosst powerful woman on thy homeworld?”
“I was making love to my wife!” Ardenai said hotly. “If Sarkhan comes upon us today, I may be dead by nightfall. We may all be dead!”
Pythos hissed with amusement. “Now, the truth from thy lipss, Hatchling.”
“Oh, fine,” Ardenai chuckled. “She made me forget … everything. Not for long. Less than an hour, but I forgot about people, things past and present. There was nothing but her, the two of us, and wanting her … which, I might add, is a nice change from just wanting sex. Not since Ah’ree and I were …”
“SSTOP!” Pythos hissed, sitting up on the table. “Right there. Thee iss about to undo the good thee hass done thysself.”
Ardenai looked put upon, but his eyes were affectionate, even as he made a fending motion with his hands. “I assume I am to hear this whether or not it is my wish?”
“Thee can walk out.”
“I am hardly dressed for a graceful exit. Tell me, Pythos, what good was I about to undo?”
“Tell me insstead. I have not heard Io compare thee to Ssalerno.”
“Perhaps there has been no need for comparison,” Ardenai said stiffly. “In my entire life I have been bonded to only one woman besides Io, and that was Ah’ree. I lived with her for over fifty years. Every reference I have as to how a marriage should work, how a relationship should progress, what constitutes passion, understanding, desire, partnership, friendship and compatibility, is based on those years with that woman. I can offer Io no greater gift than those things which Ah’ree taught me. That does not mean I am comparing the two of them. I would never go … into detail in that manner. Ree was Ree, and Io is Io. However,” Ardenai said, shaking a long, blunt finger at Pythos, “I am me. Only one person. A single frame of reference for two very different women. Surely you must realize that a frame of fifty years will be more influential than one spanning a matter of days.”
There was silence. Pythos looked at Ardenai, Ardenai back at the physician. Pythos, slid off the table, put on the emerald green robe which matched his scales, and held up Ardenai’s robe for him. “Does this mean you approve, or disapprove of my answer?” the Equi asked.
“Oh, kind Firsstlord, thine ansswer wass far more kindly than thiss old sserpent’s quesstion merited. I try thee, I tesst thee, I jesst at thy expensse, and sstill thee allows me to go on sserving thee. Why iss that?”
“Because I allow nothing and you do not serve me, that’s why,” Ardenai snorted, fastening the robe. “You do try me. You test me. You vex me. And in you, in your service to Equus, in the way you view things as they are and could be, I see what I one day desire to become, my father. Mentally, that is. You can forget the scales, and I’ve never been able to figure out how you keep a robe on this tube you call a body. Frankly, I don’t know why you bother with robes at all. I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
“It iss, indeed, a mosst dessir