|Ardenai stood at the window watching Io and Gideon walk slowly arm in arm in the late afternoon sunshine.
“It pleases me that they are fond of one another,” he said. He accepted a glass of wine from Pythos, nodded his thanks, and sat on the wide mahogany sill overlooking the gardens. “He comforts her, I think, where I cannot.”
“Give her time,” Pythos said, resting his hand on the Firstlord’s shoulder. “Woundsss heal sslowly here. Sshe musst deal with the pain of natural healing, and with a dissfiguring sscar to remind her of what sshe conssiderss a terrible misssjudgment on her part, and with the feeling that thy … needss are not being adequately met.”
Ardenai snorted humorlessly. “My needs, as you so euphemistically put it, burned themselves out rather quickly in the heat of emotional upheaval. Putting my head against a woman’s, is about the last thing on my mind just now.”
“Doess sshe know thiss?”
Ardenai shrugged, eyes far away as he chewed his lower lip a moment or two in contemplation. “I have told her. She has heard. Whether she has listened, and what she believes, I don’t know. I do know she grieves for the child, and she fears that the loss of fertility will be permanent. I have tried to tell her that even her life is more than I dared hope for, and that no matter what the outcome, having her is enough. But she fears the worst, and, I think, just now she dwells on it.”
“Her fertility is part of her sself. It iss of tremendous importancce to her, and … thee knowss … it will be of import to thy mother, as well.”
“Oh yes,” the Firstlord rejoined sarcastically, “My dam expects the mare in the hitch which draws the wagon of State to be fecund. She found time to bring that up to me before she left. Well, my wife was injured and her baby lost, trying to protect that woman, and she needs to remember that.” Ardenai stood up from the window and turned to face the physician. “I have been thinking, having been more or less my own captive audience these last several days … that …” he brought up an index finger and shook it, studying the floor as he paced, forming his words thoughtfully, “from what I know of the biology of hominoids, it would be impossible to actually teach a sperm much of anything, or to carry it, untrammeled for half a millennium or so, but fertilized ova …” the mottled green eyes came up and met the physician’s, “… would be storable, and teachable. I was formed, not just from the body of Kehailan, but from a female, as well. I may have been implanted into Ah’krill, but she is not my mother. I do not share her DNA. Please tell me I’m right in this. Please tell me I’m not actually related to that pillar of dogmatic arrogance.”
The old doctor writhed in a hissing chuckle, and flicked his tongue at the Firstlord. “Thee may well be correct in thy thinking, but ssince only we and the High Priestess know the truth of thy concception, the truth will be of little conssequencce, exccept to comfort thysself with disstancce. And thy disrespect sshe will ssensse, and sso will others. It iss beneath thee. Besst lose it before it becomess habit, Hatchling.”
Ardenai snorted and turned back again to the window. Nervous as a lithoped, Pythos thought. Full of energy better burned off physically, than mentally. “Perhapss thee sshould take Kadeth out for ssome exerccisse thiss evening,” he suggested.
“In the morning,” Ardenai said, dismissing the idea with an absent wave. “I’m going to speak again with Konik here in a few minutes.” That worried, deep thinking look crossed his face. “That one puzzles me, Pythos. I almost understand, and yet I don’t. I’m still trying to figure out whether he has some ties to, some love for our world, or his own, for that matter, having never been there, or whether this is all just a matter of doing the honorable thing, completely detached from any end.”
“And now the honorable thing, includess death?”
“I’m afraid so. I’m not comfortable leaving him alone, which means his privacy is constantly being violated.”
“Gideon tellss me thee claimss to be a gambling man. Take a rissk,” the doctor suggested.
A smile crossed the Firstlord’s face, and he gestured toward the window, and the pair of young people who were again on their way. “Of all the bets I’ve made, and of all the prizes I hope to win, having those two be whole again, to be able to make generative choices, is the desire of my heart.”
“I meant with Konik,” Pythos chuckled. “Thy betss are incredibly well hedged when it comess to thy wife, and the child of thy heart.”
“I knew what you meant,” Ardenai smiled. “Do you think Hadrian Keats will actually do what I sent him to do, then?”
“Abssolutely, I do. I think once his fragile ego iss mended, he will rather enjoy hiss work, not that he will ever admit it to thee. Hass thee told Gideon where thee ssent the good doctor, and for what purposse?”
Ardenai glanced up, and then away, which was answer enough. “I’d prefer he didn’t know. When the time comes for him to make a choice about his procreative abilities, I want it to be a choice, not an obligation based on the efforts of others on his behalf. I told Keats the same thing. This has to be research for its own sake, not just a means to an end for one young man.”
“He won’t ssee it that way, and neither will Gideon; thee knowss that.”
“I do,” Ardenai chuckled, “but allow me to entertain my delusions for a bit. I’m going to go speak with Konik. Will I see you at dinner?”
The old doctor nodded, and Ardenai gave him a stiff, respectful bow as he exited the room and headed down the spoke which housed the legate’s chambers. He stood a moment in front of the door and composed his thoughts before knocking and entering. Tarpan looked up from where he was reading in a chair by the window, and beyond him – listless, angry – still grey-faced with pain, Konik looked up as well.
“You appear much better today,” Ardenai said.
“Hardly comforting to one who wishes death,” Konik replied. “How can I persuade you?”
“You can’t,” Ardenai replied, sitting beside him. “I need to persuade you, instead.”
“I am Telenir, Ardenai Firstlord, not Equi,” Konik said.
He had one of the gentlest, most resonant voices Ardenai had ever heard – a voice that made him want to relax and go to sleep. How could a man with a voice like that be in any way evil? Ardenai shook his head without meaning to, answering his own mental query.
“I admire you, your people, your way of life, but it was never meant to be mine,” Konik continued. “I was bred and raised up by my grandsire to be a creature of duty. I saw my duty. I tried. I failed. Sarkhan is dead and his forces scattering to the four winds by now. What good does it do to extend my life long enough to face a tribunal? It only brings shame to my family. Better that I should die now, and with honor.”
“Hopefully, prolonging it does more good than ending it, Nik. Whether you are Telenir or not, remember that you are also an Equi senator, and you have served our worlds long and well. It is not my intention to torment you, but rather to understand your thinking in this. Enlighten me. Convince me you are of no worth, and I shall grant your request for death. I’ll kill you myself.”
“How easily you say it,” Konik snorted. “It has been my experience that men who would kill so easily do not pace the halls every night begging Eladeus to forgive them for taking a life.”
Ardenai looked startled, then defensive. “It is not my experience that those who truly plan to overthrow a government, spend most of their lives serving it first, and then offer up their own life to save it.”
Konik adjusted himself in the bed, gasping with the effort of using his arms to straighten himself. “This discussion avails us nothing, and you do not call this torment?”
“No,” Ardenai snapped, “I do not. A week ago, two weeks ago, I would have apologized. Today, no. Each day you ask me to do something completely irrational and give me not one rational reason for doing so. Are you so afraid of your life and your people, that death is better than facing them, Wind Warrior? Does Ah’davan mean so little to you?”
Konik winced, but smelled the bait and left it. “Has it occurred to you, Firstlord, that I may have cost my government the planet Equus?”
“Not for one minute,” Ardenai replied, pouncing out of the chair and striding to the window. “Sarkhan would never have left this place alive, not you, nor your men, and you know it. The plan itself may have been brilliantly conceived in ages past, but nearly impossible to execute, and easily foiled this day and age.”
“You underestimate yourself,” Konik said. “Few would have seen through it until it was too late. We have so many in place … had so many in place … so many years and lives wasted on this ….”
The man was opening up at last and the Firstlord’s face was alive with curiosity. “What were all these people going to do, exactly? Certainly there were not enough of them to rise up in violence.”
“No,” Konik said with a rueful smile. “They had lines to say. All of them the same. That was all.”
“Oh, of course,” Ardenai said slowly, and nodded with understanding. “We … I … support Sarkhan’s claim to be Firstlord of Equus.”
“Exactly. As I said, you underestimate yourself. What you saw, what you guessed at, what you risked, and the way you chose to play the game even yet astounds me.”
“I am honored,” Ardenai said with a gracious nod, “though I did not work alone. I had Pythos, and Teal, and, of course, my wife.”
Konik’s face softened instantly. “And how is the lady feeling by now?”
“Better,” Ardenai sighed. “Physically, at least.”
Konik matched his sigh. “Not for anything, would I have wished her hurt, Ardenai …”
“You didn’t want anybody hurt, Nik. I know that, and so do you if you’d just let up on yourself. Neither of us wanted anybody hurt. The fact that both of you are alive, seems a sign to me from the Wisdom Giver that this might yet be mended between our peoples. I admire you and your perception of honor. Your life is my gain, and my government’s. I will pin you to the wall, or the bed, and harangue you for as long as it takes to convince you of my peaceful intent regarding you, personally, and the Telenir.”
“Of that, I need no convincing,” Konik sighed. “Let us palaver; what harm can it do? Indeed, ‘How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown.’ That’s what they sent us forth with, you know. Those lines, millennia ago, or so they tell me. Little did they know that those unknown accents would become our own, that unborn state … something many of us … shit … nearly all of us … came to believe was unnecessary, and undesirable. Equus, does not need to change. It is the Telenir, who need to change. That thought, and others like it, make me a traitor to my cause, and useless to you as a bargaining chip.”
“I think it early yet to establish comparative value, Nik. And I am going to try as Firstlord never to bargain with human lives. Now, I must ask if you consider diplomatic overtures a serious possibility, or do you simply consider me a serious fool?”
“Ardenai, I have seen you attempt things only a fool would do. I have seen you risk the fate of your world and the Alliance on a whole string of insane and illogical actions. And yet, in those actions you have appeared wise, and noble. If you are a fool, you have raised it to an art form. Overtures to the Telenir would be no more insane than anything else you’ve done lately.”
Ardenai chuckled. “Let me think about that a minute. I think you said it might be worth the risk?”
“I might have said that, insofar as I know the Telenir, which is precious little.”
“I know one thing. In order to make the risk acceptable on anyone’s part, there is much I must learn of your planet, its people, your government and its function, your goals as a race, your inner strife and outward strength. This, only you can teach me. Will you do it?”
Konik was silent and his eyes thoughtful for some time. “Another risk. A great risk. A gamble, for that is the word foremost in your mind just now. I have never been a gambling man, Ardenai Firstlord, which is why I was a decent soldier.”
“Ah’ria Konik Nokota, you are lying through your teeth. No man in his right mind, soldier or otherwise, would have taken the risks you did on that parade ground unless he was a gambler of the highest order. You risked your very life to defend a vow of honor, made to an enemy, by a man who had no plans to keep that vow. Sarkhan sent you out there to die, yet you honored him.”
“I honored the vow and not the man,” Konik smiled.
“You honored me, and the world we share,” Ardenai said quietly, “and I thank you. I would be further honored if you would choose to aid me in my quest for peace between our people. But … I understand the necessity of thought, as well. I know you have more than just yourself to consider in this.” He read Konik’s troubled blue eyes, and went on in a gentler tone. “I do wish I had word of your family, but I don’t. Of course, I don’t have word of mine, either. Let us assume things have gone well in our absence.”
“Let us at least hope and pray so,” Konik added.
Ardenai’s brow twisted with concern. “You don’t think … I don’t have any idea how radical the Telenir faction is on Equus … they wouldn’t have harmed your family, would they? They think you a prisoner of war, not a traitor.”
“I am a prisoner of war, not a traitor,” Konik replied. “I just don’t know which alliance is where.” He turned his face pointedly away from Ardenai and looked out the arched casement and into the gardens and the forest beyond. “It is a convoluted tale we spin. We’ve been here so long, we’ve become Equi. There was always this lofty goal of infiltrating and overthrowing the government of Equus, which existed outside the realm of everyday existence, and we spoke of it from time to time in elevated terms. But for many of us, even the generations before us, it had long since ceased to be reality. Indeed, we were drafting a plan to present to the government of the Wind Warriors, seeking a petition of peace. Since that isn’t exactly what they had in mind, we were being cautious, trying to appeal to their … our sense of pride and honor as a people, trying to point out that the Equi think the same way, but exemplify the traits in a different manner. Most of us thought this the best way to solve the problem.”
“Except for Sarkhan.”
“Except for Sarkhan, his half-brother Sardure and his father, Saremanno,” Konik nodded. “And a few dozen others – my grandfather among them. When the rest of us tried to reason with Sarkhan, he threatened to bring down the Wind Warriors upon us Telenir who were serving on Equus, to make examples of us. People died. It frightened many of the Telenir who had families, and they ceased to take up voice in the cause of peace. They were more afraid of the Wind Warriors than they were of the Equi government officials who might discover their traitorous activities.”
“Have any of you ever been to Telenir, or even met, pardon the term, a real Telenir?”
“It has always been considered an extremely risky trip. Only Sarkhan has actually gone, and his family before him. His was the family designated to rule nearly three thousand years ago. He, it is … was … who trumpeted the royal bloodline of Kabardin, who, according to Sarkhan was the father of the modern Telenir … which should have told me something right there. They were both mad, murdering bastards. It was funny, really,” Konik said, though his eyes were hostile, “Sarkhan never married. The Wind Warriors would not send him a royal bride, and he refused to set his head against any but a royal consort. She who would rule beside him. So he remained single. As far as I know, he is the last of his line unless he has a wife on Telenir. If so, she’s a very lonely woman.”
“What about Sardure?”
“Ah yes, that one. I guess the line isn’t quite dead, is it? Equally crazy, but totally out of favor with the family these last months. What he may know of the Wind Warriors …” Konik exhaled sharply, pulled his eyes from the window, and looked at Ardenai. “I will teach you what I know, but it will be precious little. Sarkhan became so afraid of having his power usurped, that it has been years since he’s shared anything of any real import – just ranting – no policies. His family was the only one who could actually make contact with the homeworld, you know. We only knew we were Telenir because we had been raised to be so. There are times I wonder if he ever contacted anybody on Telenir. If he was ever the designated seed, or if we had long since been abandoned by the government who sent us, and we were being manipulated by one, corrupt and pretty much insane family. Now that, would be truly funny, and it would make more sense than anything else.”
Ardenai refrained from mentioning that he’d had those same thoughts. “Perhaps as a people you have collective memories – most especially the elders – and perhaps they will choose to share them with me, and with you, as we seek to shift the focus of your mission from one of conquest to one of diplomacy.”
Konik’s head cocked slightly as he contemplated what the Firstlord had said, and what he had implied. “They will have little choice but to tell you what they know,” he said.
“They will have a choice,” Ardenai said firmly, and parked his hip on the window ledge. “They are, each of them, citizens of Equus. They have not raised their hand against another citizen, nor done anything of a criminal nature, nor have you. They are free, and will remain free, under the protection of the government which has always protected them, and which they have served. You, too, are free, my friend.”
Both Konik and Tarpan looked amazed, and Konik said, “I know soldiering is not your iron suit, but even you could not have missed the fact that I rode in here with every intention of killing you, or of seeing you killed.”
“If you live another hundred and fifty years, and we are debating this upon our death-beds, you will not convince me of that, Senator. You saved my mother’s life, and you saved mine, and I am firmly convinced that if it had come down to it, you’d have killed Sarkhan yourself to prevent the spread of his madness to an ordered world government. You have served your Affined World as a senator. You have served on the agricultural council, and the antiquities council. You are an excellent polo player, a brilliant test pilot and a fine mechanical engineer. Equus needs you. I need you. I will give you time, and your freedom. It is difficult to think with someone always watching you. Consider yourself a guest, a friend of the family, as you have always been. Do no more than Pythos says you may do, for he is both caring and perceptive.”
Ardenai motioned to Tarpan, walked to the door, then paused and turned back to Konik. “Forgive me,” he said. “I have assumed what your needs are, based on what mine would be. Do you wish to be alone, or would you prefer company?”
“I prefer the option, thank you.”
“Are you able to manage yourself in and out of there without undue discomfort?”
“Yes,” Konik smiled, and it was genuine, lighting his muscular, good looking face and brilliant eyes. “I will be fine. Do not concern yourself.”
“I shall have Gideon or Tarpan check in on you later. Perhaps you will join us walking wounded for a little supper later on.”
Konik nodded, and Ardenai quietly shut the door. “I don’t know whether or not that was wise,” he said, answering the question on Tarpan’s face, “but the man is useless in his present state, both to us and to himself. If we are to gain him, we must risk him, as well. He is an honorable man. He is also an Equi, or I miss my guess. He will do the honorable thing.”
“Agreed,” the younger man nodded. They walked down the hall and out into the garden before Tarpan spoke again. “Much have you learned here of the nature of war,” he said, glancing at Ardenai’s profile. “Not all of it has been pleasant, but war seldom is. It has changed you. Hurt you, deepened you … softened you, I think, though not in a negative sense. You seem … less sure of yourself, though no less sure of your purpose. You seem younger, somehow, than you did on Equus. You look younger, though your eyes are old, and sadder than they once were.”
“And you’re telling me this because?” Ardenai grinned.
“Because if you’re trying to hide it you are not succeeding.”
“Should I be trying to hide it?” Ardenai asked, slowing his pace and linking his arm through Tarpan’s. “Is it disturbing you somehow? Am I going to be an embarrassment to Equus and her people? Is this because of my pathetic performance on the parade grounds the other day? ”
“More than one question at a time confuses the little ones, Ardenai Teacher,” Tarpan replied with a chuckle. “Nothing about you disturbs me, nor will it disquiet those of your people who have truly lived. Those who have not, those who expect a stereotype, and who are stereotypical in and of themselves …”
“Will be given pause,” Ardenai said. “Their unpredictable leader, and his elfin Primuxori and his golden-eyed child.” He stopped abruptly and looked at his companion. “Do I need to tell you how deeply aware I am of the uncharacteristic image I’m going to present? I’m a little too evolved, or devolved even for seven hundred years, even without the pythons.” He extended his arms and wiggled his fingers to make them ripple. “One of the reasons I chose to keep these … restore these … is because they represent the ability to shed the old and expand into the new; the eternal constant of the need to change and grow. When I left Equus all those ages of the soul ago, I considered myself a typical Equi. Maybe even the stereotypical Equi of whom you spoke. And now,” he sighed, “I pause, and I ask myself, if I am typical, are all Equi capable of this kind of metamorphosis, and if I’m not typical enough, does it truly serve the best interests of the Equi worlds for me to take the reins of government? The Firstlord is supposed to be a typical Equi, is he not?”
“And does anyone answer you?” Tarpan asked in quiet amusement.
“Of course. Why talk to yourself if you’re not going to get any answers? I answer me, and all the different mes talk at once, then whichever one is strongest at the moment wins out, and I listen to what he has to say. And yet, when I ask how best I may serve my government, I fall silent inside, unable to determine whether I am hitting a stone wall or falling into an endless void.”
“Perhaps the true unknown and unknowable is before thee.”
“And behind me… and all around me. I’d hoped, at some point, to leave uncertainty behind and go back to existence as I knew it.”
“That door has shut. That Ardenai … my beloved teacher … is no more. He has been discarded as the pupal stage of a higher purpose, as a snake sheds his skin. The Ardenai which emerged from the dust of that battlefield, is not a typical Equi, but a true Equi. He belongs to that high strung, highly curious, risk-taking faction of Equi who are empire builders, world shakers, peace makers and rulers. The sort of Equi which any Equi with spirit desires to be. I see an Equi honed to the razor sharp cutting edge of absolute power. If you were sure, absolutely sure of yourself, your self-control, your ability to handle that power … Eladeus have mercy on us. You would be a dictator such as the galaxy has never seen. And I am convinced that what you are, and what you feel, you were bred to for that very reason. That means, you are a typical citizen and a typical Dragonhorse. Ahimsa, serve in peace, my leader.”
Ardenai burst out laughing, and gave Tarpan a gentle cuff for his insolence. Then he linked his arm back through Tarpan’s and began to walk again, his boots crunching through the first of the lazily tumbling leaves. “Odd, isn’t it?” he asked in that deep, serene, beautifully dictioned voice of his. “This place? At times it seems almost tropical, and at other times harsh and cold. Today it is Oporens, but tomorrow, perhaps it will be Enalios again. One never knows.” Again he was silent, walking slowly enough not to drag Tarpan, who was shorter legged. “Tell me,” he said at last, “how is it that you youngsters seem to know more and see more clearly than those of us who have grown sharper of profile and longer of tooth? I don’t remember ever having had that advantage.”
“You didn’t,” Tarpan shrugged. “We have someone to look up to that you didn’t have. The young men who council you, have your reflection to augment their ability.”
Ardenai chuckled, but without humor. “The young men who admire me, didn’t pay close attention to that battle a few weeks back. The second hostilities actually began, I was worse than useless. I had no idea how to stay out of everyone’s way. Teal killed a man who was going to shoot me in the back, because I didn’t have the sense to look behind me. An arrow shot by a dying man, coming at a snail’s pace and meant for my mother, managed to wobble into my path and I welcomed it, first with my arm-band, then with my forehead. I felt like I needed eyes in the back of my head.”
Tarpan stopped and stared at him. “Are you trying to tell me, Ardenai Teacher, that you do not have eyes in the back of your head? You will never convince me. I never got away with a single thing in your classes, not Creppia Nonage, not Music History. And believe me, I tried. If ever a man had eyes in the back of his head, it is thee.”
“You’re laughing at me. I’m stung to the quick.”
“I’m laughing at your need to be perfect in every way at every moment in every situation. Teal killed a man who was going to shoot you in the back, because it was Teal’s job to kill anyone who tried to shoot you in the back. That’s what military strategy is, a series of scenarios, of contingencies with theoretical solutions for each. You were assigned one task – kill Sarkhan. You killed Sarkhan, quickly and efficiently. I know that gives you no pleasure, but it was your assigned job on that warground, and you performed it. In that sense, you were perfect.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai laughed. “In that case, I’ll stop while I’m ahead, and give up the business of being a warrior. It has caused me to spend much too much time in bed, and not nearly enough time in the saddle. Tomorrow morning, I think, we shall go with your squad and Gideon, and visit the cleomitite mines of Baal-Beeroth, and our friend, Mister Thatcher, yes?”
Tarpan nodded. “And what about our friend, Legate Senator Konik?”
“He, like every other male I know, is drawn to the lady Io, and she to him. We will let them rest awhile in Pythos’ tender care. Let them grant one another their own unique blend of diplomatic immunity unbothered by the brisk tattoo of war bells on cantering hocks.”
Io, was not pleased. She understood, but she was not pleased. Her eyes said so in their coolness, and the way her teeth held her jaw closed.
“Please do not think I’m trying to aggravate you,” her husband said, warming his hands at the fire in their bedchamber. “It is simply the most expeditious way of doing things just now. Very soon we must prepare to leave for Equus. Before we can do that we must know where we stand with Konik. And as for me, I will not leave here with those mines still operating. I have not forgotten the filth and the darkness, the desperate thirst and the endless pain. I was there but a short time. Perhaps there are men who have suffered much longer, and no less unjustly. I cannot leave it alone.”
“Nor would I ask you to,” Io replied, knees drawn up in the big bed. “I’m aggravated because I can’t go and I want to. I smell like this house and this bed when I’d rather smell like horses and leather. I’m aggravated because I know you’ll do fine without me, and perhaps better, which is just as well.”
“Not true,” Ardenai said, coming to sit next to her on the edge of the bed. He took her hand, kissed it, and held it against his breast. “I hope you are not making plans to retire, either in particular or in general. I will, if I must, forbid thee to do so. I need thee helping me hold the reins of government.”
Io dropped her eyes and slowly, without anger, she pulled her hand away from his. “How long do you suppose we will skirt the issue before we finally discuss it?” she asked. “Every word of every conversation must be so carefully planned, and still the innuendo creeps in or is read in. Ardenai, we are strangers. The relationship we had is gone. Everything is ruined.”
“And which of us do you no longer love?” Ardenai asked gently. “Is it me, or is it you? Io, this cannot be allowed to fester and spread its poison. If you blame me for what happened, say so. If you blame yourself, say so. Let’s at least talk. I have loved you since the day you were born. To see you in pain, pains me.”
“It is not my wish to cause you pain, Firstlord, but I do so,” she sighed, and her eyes began to mist. “I have always done so, and the transgressions seem to grow worse with the passing years.”
“Practice makes perfect,” Ardenai smiled, but he hurt for the pain in her eyes. “I do not suppose it has crossed your iron-clad mind that we lost our daughter no more accidentally than we gained her?”
“I kept that which was not meant to be passed. I could have shut her out, I think. Instead of diving in that cold water a second time and welcoming her, I could have gotten out, and tried to push her back, but … I didn’t. If I hadn’t been pregnant in the first place, there would have been none of this grief, none of this pain, nothing to be lost from this. I am ashamed. I was selfish, and I am ashamed.”
“How could you have been truly open to me and not to her, as well? If I had not told you ten thousand times over the years what a pest you were …” He exhaled sharply and took up her hand again. “Listen to me. The settling was an accident, yes, an accident on my part, not yours, but it was certainly not a mistake. She was a gift, Io. Something not planned for, but willingly received, as is proper with gifts. I’ve been given no say at all in this, and you’re assuming I didn’t want that little girl. For thirty years and more you have been cajoling me into and out of all kinds of outrageous stuff. When did you give up on it? From the second you knew you were settled, you started apologizing for that little life inside you. Just because I was startled, doesn’t mean I was annoyed. Surely you could sense that, Io. If I didn’t want her, I wouldn’t have saved what I could of her. Pythos was far more capable of that than I, but … I did want her, however much of her was left. I wanted her, and the part of her that is now me, or vice versa, is hurt by your attitude. When did you decide I wouldn’t accept your settling? When did you decide someone, you or I, must be made the villain in this?”
“I had no time to decide anything. Perhaps that is what’s wrong. Perhaps because I wanted her for the wrong reasons, and had no time to change my mind, her death is a terrible loss.”
Ardenai nodded slightly, watching her face in the firelight, the tears glowing in amber streaks as they spilled unchecked and seemingly unnoticed. “Tell me,” he said softly, “tell me what the reasons were that were so wrong you cannot forgive yourself?”
Again she pulled her hand away, this time to wad it up with the other in her lap, twisting them as though she were washing away dirt. “I just … wanted to prove to you … that I could really, truly be a wife to you. Not just a toy, or an advisor, or a convenient way of getting out of marrying Ah’nis, but a real wife, with all the trimmings. Oh, that sounds so stupid and shallow and dishonorable when I say it. I promised you I would be your friend and your Primuxori and leave Ah’ree’s memory as your wife alone, and an hour or so later I see my opportunity and make a liar out of myself. I truly did want to replace her you know. I truly wanted to be the one who made you forget Ah’ree.”
“Horrors, girl, what a thing to admit!” Ardenai exclaimed, and she started a little. “That you wanted to be a wife to me? And a good one? That you wanted to so fulfill me I would let go of Ah’ree’s memory and take up my life again? You’re admitting that you wanted to make me a happy and fulfilled husband and father, and yourself a wife and mother of equal fulfillment in the bargain? That’s truly disgusting, and it’s certainly not what marriage is supposed to be all about. Once you get things fixed, and you’re fecund, I certainly hope such a thing will never, ever cross your pouncing little Papilli mind again. You must promise.”
Io looked up from the blanket and into Ardenai’s laughing eyes – and she sniffed – and threw her arms around his neck, losing her grief in his kisses and the strength of his embrace.
“I love thee, Lady Io,” Ardenai murmured, kissing her hair. “I am … in love with thee, beloved wife. None other would I have but thee were I offered all the women on all the Equi worlds. Promise me that if you can, you’ll bear me half a dozen little fruit bat babies to terrorize and scandalize my mother and the entire palace. Most important, promise that, no matter what happens, you will never leave me. I would die of boredom in a week.”
“Perhaps better than what I’ll get you into,” she laughed, still crying. “Fruit bat babies and all.”
“Better with a bang than a whimper, as my wife would say … and some OE poet I cannot seem to recall. That reminds me, Konik quoted Julius Caesar today. Well, he quoted Shakespeare’s Caesar … and Macbeth, as well. A man of some depth, Konik. Light him with your beautiful smile and peer inside for me, will you? I do count on you for such things, such … gentle diplomacy.”
She nodded against his shoulder, sniffed again – endearingly as ever, and drew a deep, sobbing breath. “I love you,” she said. “I will never leave thee, my sire. My teacher. My husband. My friend.”
“I love you,” he replied, “And I forgive you for cutting your hair off.”
She curled in his arms to sleep that night, as she had in babyhood, and Ardenai lay with his chin on top of her head and listened to her even breathing, and felt the firmness and the warmth of her, and began looking forward with her rather than back.