I think you should leave immediately,” Ardenai said. “It has been three days. By now this affair is common Alliance knowledge. It does us no good in allowing too much time for rumor, nor does it benefit the Great House of Equus to be without a leader in the Council.”
“I agree,” Eletsky replied, looking around the breakfast table. “If we leave by high sun today we can be back on board Belesprit by late tomorrow night.”
“And what of us?” Teal asked, “And of you, Ardenai?”
“I … will stay here awhile,” the Firstlord replied. “Io has not awakened since she was injured, nor has Konik. It will be many days, perhaps weeks before they can make the journey to the CAC. Pythos, I will keep here with me, and Gideon. Tarpan and his squad, also. The rest of you are much needed at home.”
“What would you have us do?” Teal asked.
“You, Teal, I would have as Captain of the Horse Guard.” He acknowledged the look which crossed his brother-in-law’s face with a raised hand and an understanding nod. “I know your heart lies in your duties as Master of Horse, and there is none better. But you know my wife’s mind in these affairs better even than I do, and it is you who can best convey and convince, so I must ask you to double up on your duties. If Io … when Io is herself again, we shall consult her wishes insofar as we can.” Teal gave him a gracious nod, and Ardenai smiled. “Thank you. I must also ask you to see to our guests, our greater household, and the more pressing affairs of the family until I return. Oh yes, and the computator code which will free Josephus’s ship so he can go back to work. Remind me to give that to you. Will you do these things?”
“Of course,” he smiled.
“And Jilfan, to you I entrust my mother.” Ardenai closed his eyes and shifted back in his chair, the angle of his body and the set of his jaw making it painfully obvious that he was not rested. “To all of you, I would commend my stepson. Pythos says the blood transfusion Jilfan gave his mother has strengthened her chances for survival.”
“We thank you,” Kehailan said. “May your sacrifice be returned to you in the life of your mother.”
“Thank you,” the boy replied, and his face was imperiously dignified. “I will do as you ask, Firstlord.” It made Ardenai smile. Twice, Ardenai had said to him that he might refer to the Firstlord as his father, the first time, he had politely demurred. The second time he had pointedly refused. He said he was the son of Salerno, and while he was honored, he was not swayed. The boy was strong inside, and Ardenai had a feeling he was going to be trouble, perhaps in a small way, perhaps in a big way, but he was going to be trouble. Ah well, better to be trouble than to be nothing at all, as Krush would say.
“Kehailan, my son, I would have you as my … our …representative in this before the Alliance – you and Timothy. Though both of you are young, I think your cool heads best for the task. Lay to rest what rumors you can. Take the crys-tels Tim made with the hand-cranks, and show people the truth.” He paused with a self-deprecating chuckle. “At least show them the facts.” Kehailan gave him a curt nod and the ghost of a smile.
“Marion Eletsky, I would suggest the SGA give Sarkhan’s nest a good shaking to see what falls out. Teal, Ah’krill, do the same for the Great Council. Though we think not, Sarkhan may indeed be the weak arm of an otherwise powerful foe. Even if he isn’t, he has made a wondrous distraction for them – a time in which to burrow deeper into our collective skin. Give it a good scratching, just in case. To Konik’s family, I have given sanctuary. Seek them out, and ascertain their desires. Assure them that Konik is in good hands, and that he will be returned to them. Oonah, begin sending messages to the Telenir and to anyone else who is listening, telling them exactly what has happened, and offering to confabulate. Use your judgment as to what you say, and run it by Marion, just in case.”
She nodded and flashed him one of her beautiful smiles. “I’ll do my best,” she said.
“And what of me,” Keats said from down the table. “I am, like the Telenir, your prisoner.”
Ardenai fixed him in his gaze.
“I have also decided to serve as your judge, which is my right. I have a very specific sentence picked out for you, which I will discuss with you before you leave. If you carry it out, to the letter and to the best of your ability, Hadrian Keats will indeed be dead, and Dennis Strathmore will find himself a graduate of SGAU-Med, and an officer in the SGA – or vice versa. You may keep whichever name suits you best. Where you will find yourself assigned, I cannot guarantee, but you will have no criminal record.”
“You can do that?” Keats breathed, and his hands were shaking.
“Yes. I can do that.” Again his eyes closed and he pressed his fingers against his forehead in an effort to think over the pain in his skull. Ah’krill said his name rather sharply and his eyes came open. “Sorry,” he said. “I find myself flagging mentally this morning. What have you to say, Ah’krill?”
“That you are flagging mentally,” she responded. While her tone was not unkind, it bore a certain firmness with brought the color up in Ardenai’s face. “It comes from weeping all night at the bedside of one who apparently knows more of duty than does her husband. You are sending others to do that which is your responsibility as Firstlord of Equus. I am but High Priestess. You command the political entity which is now the outward face of Equus. You allow yourself to be turned by grief and emotional weakness away from your duties and into a state unbecoming your people, and your station. Your unwillingness to leave causes me to question your willingness to lead.”
Every face at the table looked startled – Equi and Terren alike – and Ardenai took a deep uneven breath, as though something hurt inside. “Mother,” he said calmly, “It is not that I am unwilling to leave here and do my duty. I am unwilling to leave here and risk Io’s life in two days of primitive travel to reach the ship. To leave without her, is unthinkable.”
“Is it? Why? Pythos can care for her.”
“Of course he can. That is beside the point. I accepted the armbands of Equus. I have gone to all manner of effort to protect and honor what they stand for. I took Io as my Primuxori. I can do no less for her. What sort of man would I be if I honor my nation and dishonor my wife?”
“It is not dishonor to put the concerns of eleven worlds above the needs of one couple, Ardenai.”
“Of course, you are correct,” the Firstlord sighed. “I see that I won’t convince you there’s any kind of rationality to my decision. Indeed, there probably isn’t. But I know what it is like to be injured, and to have someone there who loves you. Just to hear their voice, feel the touch of their hand, can mean the difference between life and death. I have ignored my own needs in an effort to serve Equus. I will not ignore the needs of my wife in an effort to serve your whim. What would she think if she awoke and found me gone?”
“She would think what I would like to,” Ah’krill replied icily, “that you are the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, honoring your duty to your people.”
“And so I would be,” Ardenai said, and that half-smile crossed his face. “But she will not find it so. She will find her husband beside her. Do not think I am backing away from a confrontation to stay here. I have done my duty in this. In doing so, I have lost my daughter, and my wife may yet die. If you can prove to me that Equus needs a figurehead more than Io needs her husband, I will go. Otherwise, I stay.”
“Ardenai, this is appalling,” Ah’krill said quietly. “Think of the example you set for your companions; for all of Equus.”
“Can you not let this go, Woman? All of Equus is not here!” the Firstlord exclaimed, trembling with anger. “As for the rest of you, Teal, would you leave your wife? Tarpan, would you leave yours?”
“A very unfair question,” Ah’krill said, “Which of us do they cater to, their High Priestess, or their political ruler? You put those whom you call friends, in a very hard place.”
The flush of anger drained from Ardenai’s face, he and drew breath to make apologies, but his kinsman’s slow, gentle tenor cut in. “Personally, I would see to my wife’s needs. You are right, of course, the question was indiscreet, and under ordinary circumstances I would not approve. But, of the man asking the question, and his motive for doing so, I approve, always. It is unkind of you, Ah’krill, to take a man who has absorbed the essence of a girl child, who is exhausted and grief-stricken, yet still trying to do his best, and push him into asking such a thing.”
“Your wife is the sister of the Firstlord of Equus …” Ah’krill began, but Ardenai put his hands up, exhaling sharply in displeasure.
“Stop. Please. And the rest of you, forgive us our infighting. Kehailan, you especially, forgive me. You have put up with so much. My actions in no way reflect the teachings, or the wishes of my people. Teal is right. I am exhausted and grief-stricken. My mother is right. The fear of losing my wife has caused me to lose my wits as well. You will be repaid for what you are now suffering at my hands. When this is all over, and I am walking serenely in the halls of the Great House speaking with my colleagues, step from the shadows and look as if you are about to mention this. The price I will pay for your silence will keep you comfortable for the rest of your life.”
“Sounds fair to me,” Marion said with a smile. “You see, we realize far better than you think, what you’re going through. What may be a terrible job of handling it for you, is far better than any of us could hope to do under the same circumstances. We will do what we can to help simplify this time for you. Let me know what ships you have and where you need your people. Anything you need, just say the word. We are your friends, and we are here to help you.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai nodded. “Again you come to my rescue, Marion. I am racking up a debt I cannot repay. As to ships and men and where they need to be, Teal and Daleth know best. I have not concerned myself … a great deal with how everyone got here.”
He stood up, dismissed the group, and beckoned to Eletsky and Teal.
“I would speak to you,” he said, and stepped to one side. “Again, I ask your forgiveness. I sat … all night ….” Ardenai pushed his fist against his mouth and stood for a few moments with his eyes closed. “Pythos holds out very little hope for Io. When I try to touch her thoughts she shrinks away from me, and I do not know why. Please, just get the boy out of here, lest he see his mother die. Get Ah’krill out of here. I cannot take the scrutiny. I’m ready to start screaming, and if I do, I want to do it with some privacy. In thirty-two days – exactly one half season – I will walk into the Great Council Chamber of Equus, either with my wife, or alone, but I will be there to assume my duties.”
“I shall see that it is known,” Teal said. “What else can we do?”
“You can drop Doctor Keats on Declivis, at a place Doctor Moonsgold will tell you about. He is going to do some research for me, and learn certain … techniques. I’ll speak to him here in a minute. Do we have a horse transport in orbit?”
“I think so,” Teal frowned. “Yes, I’m sure we do. Shall I take it?”
“No. I want it left here for Tarpan to take. I’m going to use Kadeth at Canyon keep for a couple of years, and I know Gideon will be pleased to have Tolbeth, as well. I want you to go with Marion on Belesprit. They have the best facilities for incarcerating our prisoners. If it suits your plan, take Jilfan and my mother, as well, if Captain Eletsky will be so kind?”
“The honor is all mine,” the captain drawled, and flashed his white teeth in a most charming smile.
When the others had cleared the kitchen, Ardenai beckoned Hadrian Keats back in and sat him down. “This is your sentence,” he said. “Make no mistake, I will know if you do not go where I tell you, and if you do not do as I say.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Keats muttered, and eyed the Equi Firstlord with more than a tinge of his old dislike.
“You will be going to Declivis for the foreseeable future, to an institute on the island continent of Dorset. It is called Materia Medica, perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
The doctor shook his head. At the word, Declivis, his look had hardened, and his expression was closed. Ardenai chose to ignore the pout, and went on with what he was saying. “They do a great deal of research there into sexually transmitted disease, and how it affects the body and its organs. They have also been leaders in the research needed to restore function and generative power to those so affected. I’ve heard it said they have some near-miraculous procedures they’re perfecting. I want you to lend them a hand in their research, and in turn, I want you to learn what they have to teach you. If you need tools or technology, you are to let me know, and I will see that you get them.”
“Oh, I get it,” Keats said. “This is about fixing Gideon. The day his pecker stands up and spurts little towheaded, fox-eyed grandkids for you, I walk, don’t I?”
“Um hm,” Ardenai nodded. “At that point, it will be your choice to stay, or go.”
“Now tell me something, just to satisfy my curiosity, okay?”
“Why aren’t you sending me off to research how to repair the damage done to your wife by that arrow?”
Ardenai did not rise to the bait. “Pythos says the physical damage isn’t all that bad, and he knows how to make those repairs better than anyone alive.”
Keats began to chuckle under his breath, and his face was unpleasant. “But he can’t fix Gideon, or he won’t fix Gideon?”
Ardenai gave Hadrian a look which caused the laughter to die in his throat. “I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself,” he said quietly. “If you’d prefer, I can snap your neck. No one will question my actions. I can do a partial mind-wipe in less than a minute and you will cease to exist as you – only your skills will remain. I can send you to a Caspian prison to tread water. I can leave you here to practice medicine as they did on Terren a few thousand years ago. Or, you can go to a modern research facility and be part of an excellent research team. They’re not on the galactic medical map yet, but you just might be the man to change that. If Gideon benefits in the process, what’s the harm?”
I see your point,” Keats said, rising from the table. “Rest assured, Firstlord, I will do my best. On that, you have my word.” He got as far as the door and turned back. “I do hope … Io gets better. I’ll be in touch once I get settled in.”
Later, when everyone was preparing to depart, and Ah’krill was sitting for a bit with Io, Kehailan took Ardenai aside and said, “This is going to be really hard for me, but it is something I have to do. I should have done it years ago in honor of my mother. As it is, I honor her memory, and your presence in my life.” Then he put his arms around his father, and held him and said, “I love you, more than anything. No matter what happens, know that you have my abiding admiration for you, and my abiding faith in your ability.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai said, and laid his head against the side of Kehailan’s neck, breathing in the familiar smell of him. “I wish I could find the words to convince you of how much you mean to me.”
“Don’t try,” Kehailan said. “Not now. Turn your thoughts to your wife and leave them there until such time as they are no longer needed, or will no longer help. Only then will you rest. I must go. They’re waiting for me.”
“I know. Thank you for your help in all of this, Kee. Please, take care of Jilfan as best you can, and if you see Abeyan … tell him … I am deeply sorry. Come, let us find Ah’krill and get you on your way.”
They walked arm in arm, first to Io’s room to fetch the High Priestess, and then out to where the entourage waited. “My thoughts will be with you as you explain a military contingent complete with prisoners and corpses to the Calumet Port Authority,” Ardenai said to Eletsky. He spent a moment with each of them, thanking them personally, then stepped back, said, “Ahimsa, I wish thee peace,” and with the ancient gesture, put the entourage in motion.
They made the loop in front of the house at a brisk trot, war bells jingling on the primary squad. Teal gave him a nod as he passed, and a slow, jungle green wink. Ardenai watched their passage down the long, tree lined access road. No dust today. Last night’s rain had settled it. Nasty footing for a fight. How careful the planning, how quick the battle, how painful the aftermath. Ardenai sighed.
“Need a hug?” Gideon asked at his elbow, and Ardenai shook his head.
“Thank you, no. I need to get a grip on myself; my thoughts, my reactions, my vocabulary. I need to make myself think, period. My mind won’t even finish a sentence. How can a man talk to himself if he can’t finish a sentence, I ask you?”
“You’re going to have to sleep,” Gideon said. “I know you don’t want to, but you saw what happened this morning because you didn’t have the mental reserves to control your tongue and your temper.”
“I made a fool of myself.”
“Yes, you did. More precisely, you made a Terren of yourself. Could have been worse, though.”
“Yes. I could have behaved as Nargawerlders do … or Declivians.”
“Horrors! Not those cesspit Declivians! Can I interest you in an early lunch, or a sssnack, perhaps? I see something rustling in the shrubbery over there.”
Ardenai chuckled softly and turned with a shake of his head back toward the kitchen door. “Gideon,” he asked, “how do you keep your perspective?”
“Easy. I have none to lose. I have not risked my life, my family and my sanity to save my world. My daughter is not dead. I have not, while still grieving for my first wife, realized I love my second wife, only to face losing her, too. I have neither embarrassed my son, nor myself in my own expectations, nor are my standards for behavior as relentless as yours. My only perspective lies in the framework of serving you, and being your friend.” Gideon opened the door for Ardenai and together they walked into the warm, fragrant kitchen, with its shining woodwork and chuffing iron cook stove. “I don’t mean to harp, but please eat something. You look … a hundred years old, and you’ve been shaking like a leaf all morning.”
“I am a hundred years old,” Ardenai smiled. “And I’m still young … for me. Now how do I look?”
“Like you’re holding on to your self-control with the bloody nubs of your fingers. Why don’t you go snooze with Io. I’ll bring you something in a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai nodded. He walked to the kitchen door, then turned and looked at the youth. “Gideon, I know you consider my mental state beyond credence, but I tell you this. You have saved not only my life, but my sanity. What has been accomplished, has been your doing as surely as mine.” Again he turned, and walked slowly toward the flared spokes of the bedroom wings. How much he wanted to be with Io, and how he dreaded going in there. Dreaded it. He clenched his teeth, making himself reach for the handle, making himself open the door, making himself … look at her, so pale against the white sheets … her beautiful hair, dusty and tangled, escaping the braid which held it.
Ardenai sat beside her on the edge of the bed, took her hand and pressed it against his lips as he gazed down at her. On impulse, almost as if he were unaware of what he was doing, he unfastened her braid, gently spread her hair out around her face, and began to groom it with the karpah shell brush from the dressing table. “Well, Fledermaus, our guests, our children, are on their way, and we have our privacy. You know, I think sharing that privacy with them has given us a bit better understanding of one another, don’t you?”
He wrapped a strand of her hair around his finger, as Ah’ree had done, then pulled his finger out, watching the long, obedient curl forming itself across her shoulder and breast. “Of course, of all of us, you have the least need to understand, because your innate sense of the balance between beings is so excellent. What an advisor on galactic affairs you are. A touchstone to the hearts of many worlds, and to mine, in particular.
“You should have been there to see what transpired between my mother and me after breakfast this morning. High comedy with all the stock characters, and I, of course, played the idiot. In a dozen ways I told her, ‘I love my wife,’ and I realize, I have never told you. Anyway, I became more and more irrational until Teal finally shut me up. He’s gone now, along with our prisoners and the corpses we created, back to Equus to await our arrival, to tell my mother and my sister that I may yet make it home for dinner, and to tell them that I will be bringing a second, beautiful wife home with me. How fortunate can one man get?”
He was silent awhile, then spoke again, softly. “And you,” he said, still running the brush in long strokes through the curls in his hand, “what have you to say for yourself, sulking there behind the chair in my study, hm? So the other children tell you there are no females in the Equi Horse Guard – that it is unfeminine and unrealistic to think of such things. So what? If you do not want your dreams assailed, don’t share them, but don’t give them up. Come, sit here with me. Tell me what you think about the wondrous order of things. Tell me, if you could be anything you wanted, what would it be? Remember what you told me, lip sticking out to here? ‘A man. I wish to be a man, like you, and Kehailan, and my father.’
“That was the superior position in your mind, and yet how firmly you controlled every man you ever touched, including me, and Kehailan, and your father. And then, always the determined one, you married. Far too young you were, and we were dismayed. As usual, it availed us nothing. Of Salerno, I can say little, and your years together, because things changed little from where I stood. You pursued the career you had chosen, Salerno pursued his. You were on one side of the galaxy, he on another. To see you … settled with child, was a shock for me. To know that you had been with a man. I think it is a universal truth among civilized people that we cannot imagine our parents or our children in sexual situations, perhaps because at those times we are so frighteningly vulnerable.”
Ardenai sighed, put the brush back on the dressing table and stood looking out the window, remembering the first time he’d ever made love to Ah’ree. Their wedding night. Terrifying. Highly amusing. He had been so nervous, so afraid of frightening her or hurting her, and his mind had abandoned him, leaving him fumbling and flustered. “Forgive me, Ah’ree. You’d think I’d never …” the flash of her eyes had stopped the comment, and everything else for a few minutes, and he’d spluttered his way through an explanation of how Equi heat cycles were dealt with on Equus among Equi. All quite proper, but very different from the way things were done on Terren. Not that he’d been in heat. He’d hastened to assure her of that, lest she fear for her safety with him. “We are different, Ah’ree, and you must change your thinking if you hope to be comfortable here with us.” She had smiled … and kissed his mouth … and let her robe slide slowly to the floor. It was she, who had been in heat.
“And what do you suppose your father will think when he finds out about us? If it is difficult to imagine your family in sexual situations, try coping with the fact that a trusted old friend – key words being trusted, and old – has seduced your young daughter. No, I take back the word, seduction, and will defend my right to do so. Even I am not so guilt-ridden as to forget who seduced whom amongst the meadow flowers, you little pouncer.”
Ardenai stroked Io’s cheek with the back of his fingers, eyes, despite his best efforts, slowly beginning to fill with more tears than he knew he had left. “Why, in the ten tribute worlds of Equus, did you think I didn’t want you to bear me little fruit-bat babies who would run screaming through the halls of the Great House? I would have welcomed them, and the noise, and the craziness and now it’s all gone, isn’t it? We have lost our baby, and I … have lost you. I touch your thoughts to pull you close to help me grieve for her, and you pull away until now I am afraid to touch you at all – afraid you will recede beyond recall. I have lost you, too, and I don’t understand why. I just … please … I love you so much, and I want you back.” He knelt beside the bed, laid his head in his arms, and wept in utter, helpless exhaustion.
“Are you … trying to ruin my skin?”
Ardenai’s head snapped up so hard his neck cracked. “Io!” he gasped, wiping at his eyes and nose and praying he wasn’t hallucinating. Her eyes … came drowsily open, and she rubbed at her face like a child after a nap.
“This is the second salt-water bath you’ve given me today.”
“It has been three days, Io, and it’s about the tenth salt-water bath I’ve given you,” Ardenai replied, catching her hand as she stroked his cheek. “You frightened me.”
“I frightened me, too,” she managed, nearly too weak to talk. “I …” her eyes filled with tears, and she caught her breath, wincing in pain.
“Hush. If not for your sake, then mine. I’ve had all the terror I can handle in the last few days,” he said, kissing her hand as he spoke. “Nearly lost both my girls.”
Io looked puzzled and Ardenai tapped his forehead with an index finger. “You … have her?” Io whispered. “You have her?”
Ardenai nodded. “I have both of you, and I want to keep it that way. Your eyes tell me you’re in pain. Let me find Pythos.”
Io frowned. “You don’t have far to look. Pythos is right here.”
Ardenai glanced briefly to each side, and felt himself going cold all over. “No, Io. Pythos is not here. Close your eyes. Rest.”
“Ardenai, Pythos is right beside you – about to touch your left shoulder,” Io said. She pointed … and Ardenai looked over his shoulder … and there was nothing there. No one. “Ardenai!” she cried in alarm.
“Io, don’t get up!” he said sharply, “you’re pale as …death ….” Then he fell … and rolled, end over end, into the suffocating darkness.
Moonsgold drove the buggy all that warm afternoon with Keats smoldering in silence beside him until he could stand it no more. “What?” he said at last. “What the hell have I done to you now, Hadrian? I’ve smelled burning flesh mile after mile, and I’m sick and tired of it.”
Keats brought his head around in slow motion, and fixed the Declivian in a beady-eyed stare. “This was your idea, wasn’t it? You put him up to this, didn’t you? You couldn’t stand the fact that I was Chief Medical Officer aboard the SGA’s newest Science vessel – flagship for the entire Seventh Galactic Science Contingent – and that you were a secondary physician, so you arranged for my comeuppance. Well, it’s a dandy, let me tell you. I hope you’re happy, you split-chinned sonofabitch.”
“Damned right,” Moonsgold retorted. “Absolutely. I already had a job – but it was only head of the Science Wing, and any slouch can do that. I said to myself, I said, ‘Winnie, old brick, let’s see if we can get Hadrian Keats in a whole hell of a lot of trouble, so we can have his job, too.’ Not that I have time to even do mine like it should be done, but I didn’t let that stop me, not for a minute. I decided to make it look like you’d stolen somebody’s identity way back when, and gone to medical school on somebody else’s credit. Then, here’s the best part, I got Ardenai, Firstlord of Equus, and one of the most powerful telepaths in the Alliance, to pretend like he’d read your mind, so you’d confess to all of this and he’d send you to Declivis to research venereal disease as your punishment. El’Shadai, I’m good.”
They glared at each other for a few moments, and then Keats looked away to stare at the buggy wheel. There was a light spot on it, and he could see it flashing by as the wheel spun, seeming to spread like spilled paint to encompass the entire rim. “It just seems damned convenient,” he said after a few minutes.
“Now that, it does,” Moonsgold agreed. “Convenient for you, at least. Have you thought of all the places he could have sent you?”
“Please, don’t you rattle them off, too. Everybody’s told me what a lucky son-of-a-gun I am. Why don’t I feel lucky?”
“Because it wasn’t your choice,” Moonsgold said. “Because you’re not in control. Because your voice isn’t the loudest one in the room for a change. For pity’s sake, Hadrian, he could have locked you up! Instead he’s sending you to a place where there’s some truly exciting research going on – a place where you get to be part of a research team. You even said he’d promised technological support. How much better than that does it have to get for you? Technically, you’re a criminal, yet you’re being given a plum assignment. I’d shut up, if I were you.”
“And how did he find out about this, MedicusMedicus, or whatever the hell it’s called?”
“It did come up in conversation early on,” Moonsgold admitted, focusing on the road in front of them, “but it came up in conjunction with Gideon, not you. I told him about the place for the boy’s sake, not as a place to send you for punishment. Declivis is my home, after all. I don’t exactly consider it the hell-hole of the galaxy, and I don’t think Ardenai does, either. It’s pretty. You’ll like it there. They have four seasons on Dorset. Spring can be windy, and the summers are a little on the muggy-buggy side, but the autumns can be really quite nice, and the winter skiing is just …”
“Aw, shut up,” Keats muttered.
“Boys, boys,” Eletsky chuckled as he trotted by. He moved to the head of the line, reining his horse in to keep pace with Teal’s. “Decided yet how you want to work things?”
“Ah … yes,” Teal replied, and it was obvious Marion had broken his train of thought.
“Sorry. I missed the faraway look in your eye.”
“No need to apologize. Best I get on with the business at hand and quit brooding.”
Eletsky studied the big, soft-spoken Equi. Handsome, like his brother-in-law. They might have been blood relatives, had the Equi not been so careful about that kind of thing. But then … Ardenai and Ah’din weren’t really brother and sister, were they? Interesting possibility to consider. “Brooding about what, or may I ask?”
“This place. What went on here. I used to look forward to coming here with the squads and the recruits. Now ….” he sighed and shook his head. “In answer to your question, yes. I have decided how best things will work. In large part, we’ll go with Ardenai’s idea. But Ah’krill says her own ship circles above us, and that woman, I do not want to travel with at this juncture. So, into her ship, we will place Jilfan, Ah’krill, and her retinue, and hurry them home to Equus. I’ll ask the AEW to provide escort through each sector, just in case. Ardenai forgot, and so did I, that Konik must have a clipper in orbit, so Daleth and I will take that to drop Doctor Keats off on Declivis. If you have room, we can send the squad of Horse Guard with you, the horses can be held near the CAC to ride home with Tarpan, and we can leave Ardenai the clipper which Kehailan and Oonah Pongo brought, which should amuse him, since it’s the one he lost on Hector. We may find more ships in orbit yet – the ones that brought the rest of the Telenir and their mounts. Those, I’m not counting on.”
“We will check them out as we leave,” Eletsky smiled. “Teal, may I ask you something?”
“Certainly,” he said, cocking his head as he turned it in that characteristic Equi attitude of listening.
“Are you … should I, be worried about Ardenai?”
“Should you? Probably not. Am I? Not really. But I do hurt for him. I’ve known Ardi all his life. We went all through school together. I married his little sister. We have shared our home at Canyon keep together for well over half a century. Together, we went off to do battle on behalf of Equus and the Alliance, I in my way, and he in his. I watched him marry his first wife. I saw what he went through with her, how desperately he loved her, and tried to save her. I’ve watched him win debates in the Council, win planets into the Alliance, win polo matches, win sack races against other Creppia Nonage classes. For him, all those things are winning. This, was not winning. The loss of that tiny, new life outweighed any victory, and perhaps the body count is not yet complete.”
Marion looked around at the beautiful, wild countryside, and tried again to put all the pieces of this together. “Tell me,” he said after a bit, “you have served with Io in battle, haven’t you?”
“Yes. She’s a brilliant strategist.”
“So I hear. Why then, was she hit? There just was not that much action overall.”
“You know the answer to that, Marion, and so does Ardi. She was worrying about her husband when she should have been watching herself. If she dies …” he shook his head and stopped the thought. “It grows late. Let’s ride on ahead a bit and select a campsite for the night, shall we?”
Ardenai’s eyes flew open and he sobbed for air, even as the oxygen seared his lungs. He was bathed in clammy sweat and desperately sick to his stomach. It was dark. Still dark, and painfully cold. He moved his eyes without moving his head – wanting to see this suffocating terror which sat on his chest – wanting to roll out from under it if he could. But what if he fell again? Started rolling again? Fell from where? Where was he? How had he gotten here? Where had he been? Why was it dark? Why did he hurt like this, like he’d been beaten for no reason, squeezed and crushed? Why was he being held against his will? How could he escape when he couldn’t understand? How could he scream if his throat wouldn’t open? He groaned, deep in his middle, desperate to hear himself make a sound, to ascertain that he was awake, or even alive. Gentle fingers touched his cheek and forehead.
“Shhhhh.” The familiar hiss. The touch of that comforting tongue – familiar mind – drawing him up to see where he was. “Thee iss all right. Do not be afraid. It iss over. Thee iss awake. Look around.” There was a moment’s pause. “Ardenai, Beloved, open thosse eyes and look around. Take a breath. Think about it, and make thysself take a breath.”
Something pushed hard on his chest. He took in a rush of air as though he was nearly drowned, and realized he could breathe. His eyes, which he’d thought were already open, opened again, and he sagged in a retching, sweat-soaked heap against the pillows. There was a fire burning. Gideon was lighting a lamp. He could smell cinnamon and orange peel. He moved his left arm to the side. Nothing. With another gasp he sat up to look, then collapsed into Pythos’ arms, gagging dryly and sobbing with the effort.
“Sshe’s not here,” Pythos said, and his fingers moved to quiet the hysteria in Ardenai’s eyes. “Shhhhh, Ssave thy sstrength. Thee has had a very trying afternoon. Here, drink a little ssomething.”
Ardenai sipped at the warm liquid, then closed his eyes and tried to think. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes and tried to sit up. Nothing happened. “Pythos,” he managed, not really recognizing the voice or the fear in it, “I was talking to Io. I know I was. She was here!”
“Shhhhh. Be calm. What happened?”
Again the Firstlord closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
“I can’t!” he gasped, terror again squeezing at his throat. “I can’t!”
“Yess, thee can. Think,” the physician insisted, still holding Ardenai close in his arms. “What happened when thee wass talking to Io?”
“She looked to be in pain, so I said … I would find you. And she said, you were here, and she pointed ….”
“And wass I here?”
“She started to get out of bed, and I heard her saying my name, and …”
“Ardenai, stop. Listen only to my voice. Wass I here?”
“No! But Io’s face … changed … to that color Sarkhan was when I looked at him last night. She’s dead!” he cried. “Eladeus, she’s dead!” He gagged, and panted for air.
“Shhhhh,” Pythos soothed, using his fingers to quiet Ardenai’s mind without influencing his thoughts. “Look again, Beloved. Thee iss talking to Io. Sshe ssayss I am here. Am I?”
“No,” Ardenai groaned. “Pythos, just leave me. I wish to be alone.”
“Why does thee wissh to be alone?”
“I don’t know!” Ardenai said through his teeth. “I …”
“Yess, thee doess! Think. Listen only to my voice, and think!”
“Think. Funny word. Say it a few times and it ceases to have meaning. About, is another one. No meaning at all when you consider it.”
“Good. Why doess thee wissh to be alone, my hatchling?”
“Because I do not wish to answer your questions.”
“My head hurts, terribly, and my eyes, and if I could throw up I’d feel better. Please, I just want to go back to sleep and know nothing. I’m not ready … to know anything.”
“Now it begins to ssink into thy tiny mammalian brain, doess it not? Good. Here thee iss. All our guessstss are gone. Thee iss sstanding in the kitchen with Gideon. He asskss if thee iss hungry, and thee ssayss no. He ssayss he’ll bring thee ssomething. Thee ssayss thank you. Thee tellss him how much he meanss to thee, and that’ss good. That feelss good insside. But now thee hass to walk down the hall, and open thiss door, and facce Io. Iss sshe alive, iss sshe dead? When thee finally openss the door, what doess thee ssee?”
Ardenai swallowed hard. “I see Io, lying in the bed.”
“Iss sshe alive?”
“I do not know,” Ardenai whispered. “I’ll die without her! Pythos, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid. Thee will not die. Look. Iss sshe alive? Just look. Get it over with.”
“Yes,” Ardenai whispered, and exhaled sharply. “Yes. She is alive.”
“How does thee know thiss?”
“She is breathing. I touch her. She is warm. I … brush her hair. I talk to her.”
“You’re ssure sshe’ss alive?”
“Good!” the Physician hissed. “Now, DON’T CRY. The lasst thing thee needss to do iss get down on thy kneess and cry ssome more. Insstead, give her a gentle kisss, walk around the bed, and lie besside her. Thee is about to ssleep and know nothing. But firsst, thee needs a cover. Ssit up and reach for the ssleeping robe at the end of the bed. Now, before thee lies down again, look around the room. Iss Io all right besside thee?”
“Doess the sstove need tending?”
“Every lasst thing iss as it sshould be?”
“Iss thee sstill looking?”
“What elsse doess thee ssee of import?”
Ardenai swallowed hard, squeezing his eyes shut – slogging through the hardening muck in his brain.
“Io iss here. Io iss alive. Am I here?”
There was a long pause, then a lightening of the Firstlord’s features. “…Yes,” he said wonderingly. “Yes, you are. Curled up beside the fire. How long have you been there?”
“Ssince before thee walked in,” Pythos said, and flicked the exhausted Firstlord with his tongue.
“Then Io … was right.” Ardenai drew a deep breath, rubbed at his burning eyes, and his voice grew surer of itself. “You were behind me. You were there all the time. So when did I …” he flipped his hands “… lose touch? I remember talking to my wife. I remember what I said. I remember thinking about Ah’ree. But I do not remember you. Why don’t I remember you?”
“I am the one who told thee thy wife was dead, remember? I am the one who took her, pried her from thy arms, who made thee let go of her body.”
The tears in Ardenai’s eyes sparkled in the firelight, spilling as he nodded. “I remember you telling me Ah’ree was dead. In my dreams, I have struggled against that voice ….”
“A pronouncement thee abssolutely did not think thee could sstand to hear again.”
“I have dreaded the possibility.”
“Enough to eliminate it from thy mind. A very logical sself-defensse mechanissm, especially for a tiny child, except that thee eliminated me with it.” Pythos took a glass of dark liquid from the table beside the bed, lifted Ardenai back into a semi-sitting position and helped him with the drink. “It will ssoothe thy throat and thy sstomach. Take a little more. Good.” Pythos eased him back down on the pillows, and gave him an extra flick of the tongue on his cheek. “When Io ssaid I wass there, and thee couldn’t ssee me, thee panicked becausse thee thought sshe wass going into the delirium before death. In truth, it was thysself who wass having the delussion.”
“So …” Ardenai drew a deep breath to steady himself, still trying to place himself in reality. “Is my wife all right? Is Io alive?”
Pythos motioned to Gideon, who went into the next room, leaving the door ajar, then he turned back to the Firstlord, and his eyes hardened. “O’ Godlike and all-knowing Ah’krill Ardenai Morning Sstar, Firsstlord of Equus, Wissest of the Wisse … the nexsst time ssomeone older and wissser yet, tellss thee to be cognizant of danger, besst heed him. The nexsst time ssomeone older and wissser sslitherss up besside thee and tellss thee to have a little recreational ssex to reasssure thy body that it iss adult and that it iss male, besst heed him, yess? The nexsst time ssomeone older and wissser tells thee that the entity to which thee hass given ssanctuary CANNOT THINK AND THEREFORE CANNOT REASON … besst heed him!”
Ardenai flushed uncomfortably at Pythos’ caustic tone, and his eyes were embarrassed. “Oh,” he breathed, and made a sharp sound of exasperation, “the baby. That’s why it was dark and I couldn’t breathe and so on and so forth. That’s why I haven’t been able to do anything but … cry.”
“Correct,” the serpent hissed, still speaking with some annoyance, now that the danger was over. “Thee busied thy arrogant little sself attempting to out-think her, when, as I told thee, sshe is not capable of thought. Sshe iss too rudimentary to do anything but react, which iss why thy sself-touted ability to out-think even the most immature Creppia Nonage sstudent, gained thee nothing but a falsse ssensse of ssecurity. Sshe could well have killed thee, Dragonhorsse, and then who would comfort this lovely one?”
There, in Gideon’s arms, was Io. This time she had her arms around his neck, her head on his breast, and Ardenai could see that she was smiling drowsily at him, not dead. Not dead. Of course she wasn’t dead.
Gideon tucked Io in bed next to Ardenai, and Pythos said, “Jusst a ssafety precaution, moving the lady.”
“Which is his polite way of telling you, you had a wow of a case of the DT’s this afternoon,” Gideon said. “I was scared. You’re a big man, and a strong man. You’re hell to hold when you’re crazy.”
Ardenai just shuddered. If Gideon had been wrong, or exaggerating, Pythos would have corrected him. Pythos said nothing. “Please forgive me,” he whispered. “I am so sorry to have been such a fool. I am so sorry to have caused trouble and raised fear in those I love most.”
“We forgive thee,” Pythos hissed. “Now, forgive thysself. Resst a bit, and when thy sstomach hass ssettled, I sshall help thee out of that uniform and take thee for a nicce sscrubbing. Right now, it iss my turn. Come, Gideon, let uss leave the old wedded couple alone. You, are about to get your firsst lessson in how to oil a ssea sserpent.”
“Gideon,” Ardenai said, crooking a finger, and Pythos hissed,
“You amazssse me! You do! Sso weak and battered thee cannot ssit up, yet thee findss the sstrength to put thiss child up to missschief!”
Ardenai, already half asleep, looked puzzled, then amused. “Ah yes … that. I was going to thank the boy, but this will serve as well. When the old lizard goes to sleep, as he invariably does, oil the bottoms of his feet and then … startle him. I only did it once, when I was six. I do remember it, though. Most entertaining.”
“I ssee it iss time to tell tales out of sschool,” Pythos hissed, motioning Gideon to walk in front of him. “Very well. I have ssome of my own. Let me tell thee firsst, though, that after oiling the bottomss of ‘the old lizard’s feet,’ he couldn’t ssit down for a week.”
“They seem to be getting along well,” Io noted, in the tone of someone having Hesychgyre breakfast in bed.
“Um hm. And they will continue to do so, though they got a bit of a rough start.” The Firstlord got his elbows under him, and rolled on the pillows to look at Io. “And you, Firstwife, are you getting along well? We, too, seem to have gotten off to a rough start, but things will get better. I know they will.”
She sighed, and gave him just the ghost of a smile. “Do you really think so?”
“It is both my thought, and my prayer,” Ardenai replied, hitching onto his side to take her hand and press it to his lips. “As long as you are alive, Fledermaus, I have all the hope in the world.”