“A time for rethinking many things,” Ardenai said. “A time for seeking out those areas in which I have been an observer and not a participant, and adjusting my perception.”
“You seem this morning somehow more ready for such tasks,” Gideon smiled, and Ardenai nodded. They rode easily at the back of the squad in a slow, ground-eating canter which had already put many miles between them and the stud at South Hold.
Ardenai jerked his chin forward in a pointing motion, and Gideon looked in time to see Tarpan reach over and pat the forearm of the girl beside him. “See,” Ardenai said quietly, “the good my wife has done by her stubbornness? Today Tarpan shares the beauty of the countryside with she who is his wife. There were no women in the Equi Horse Guard before Io. Never had there been. She changed all that, and it was not an easy task. Abeyan indulged her in many ways, but at that point he drew a very hard line. She was his. The cavalry was his. The decision was his. And it was, no. She fought him all the way to the Great Council of Equus, and she won. Not emotionally, nor charmingly as you might imagine, but logically and legally …”
“And you helped her,” Gideon grinned. “She told me so.”
“I encouraged her to follow her very best inclination,” Ardenai amended. “I in no way abetted defiance for its own sake, nor would I. The girl is a splendid rider, archer, fighter, and thinker. She is fearless without ruthlessness, cautious without cowardice. She was a splendid candidate for her chosen field of endeavor, had worked very hard to accomplish it, and I upheld her right to be considered.”
“Yet when Kehailan did the same thing, you opposed him. Rather bitterly, so I hear. Why is that?”
“”Kehailan was different,” Ardenai sighed, looking at other things. “He was the only child his mother would ever have, and, understandably, she wanted him to stay close. I felt he was turning his back on his family, his mother, and I was …”
“Hurt.” Gideon supplied.
“Are you still hurt?”
“I still miss him,” Ardenai said, looking again at Gideon and smiling, noting how easily he sat in his saddle, how his tan showed against the pale wealth of his hair and sky blue tunic. The boy was filling out. Even his voice was stronger and deeper. “I miss walking and talking and working with him on a daily basis. But, I am convinced that, for him, he made the right decision.”
“And now that you rule Equus, you may order him home if you wish.”
Ardenai laughed, and reined his horse lightly around a large puddle in the road. “You do not know Kehailan very well yet, Gideon. I may rule Equus, but I certainly do not rule that young man. I have known all sorts of stubborn individuals in my lifetime – stupid, tenacious, fierce, admirable – all sorts. Kehailan, exemplifies the apex of that particular trait. To order him home,” Ardenai shook his head and laughed again. “Ah, Gideon, he would either defy me openly or hate me privately. What have I then accomplished?”
“Nothing,” Gideon replied, and he seemed suddenly pensive. “It’s just that ruling seems such a lonely occupation. I would not have you lonely.”
A sliver of ice jabbed at the base of the Firstlord’s spine. “Have you decided then not to join me on Equus?”
“Did I say that?”
“No,” Ardenai snapped, “but you implied it.”
“No, you inferred it,” Gideon corrected, and even though he glared, Ardenai recognized the boy’s academic accomplishments. “The only thing I meant to imply, Firstlord, is my pain at knowing I am neither truly an Equi, nor truly your son. I assumed I would be largely excluded from public life for those reasons.”
Ardenai heaved a huge sigh of relief, unaware that he’d been holding his breath, and he felt Kadeth relax again beneath him. “You were wrong,” he replied, “on all counts, I might add. I depend on your council and shall keep you beside me. I am having a little stool, brightly painted, made that you might sit at my feet, and a costume with a ruffled collar, and a cap and bells.”
“Gee, thanks,” Gideon laughed, unsure where the conversation was going. Ardenai had a strange, almost fierce look in his eyes, and Gideon couldn’t help but wonder if he’d actually angered the man.
“As to not being truly Equi,” Ardenai said, raking his hair back and using both hands to clip it in place as Kadeth cantered along, “any Equi will tell you it is a state of mind, not blue blood and multi-chambered ears. However, if you desire multi-chambered ears, you may ask Pythos for some.”
“I’d rather be able to tuck my poor, naked penis,” Gideon said, straight-faced. “But I want to be able to do what Kadeth does, and tuck it all the way in so it’s a real phallus. I find having the head protruding just that little bit makes it seem like you can’t quite finish the job, you know? Maybe if there’s a dead pony, I can …”
“That is not the discussion we’re having right now, young man,” Ardenai said, and his eyes laughed in a face that was dead serious. “As to not truly being my son … again, you are wrong. Along with the instruction sheets for your little stool and your cap and bells, I sent back to Equus all the needed documentation to make you legally and bindingly mine. You are my son. As surely as if you had sprung from my not quite retractable phallus, you belong to me. Thou art become Ardenai Gideon Morning Star, Prince of the Great House of Equus. I thought perhaps you would prefer my name to your dam’s.”
Tolbeth came to an abrupt halt, and Ardenai reined in as well, turned Kadeth to face Gideon, and sat waiting – not scrutinizing, not evaluating – just waiting in easy silence. Gideon looked back at him, his golden eyes swimming with tears … making no attempt to say anything … nothing registering on his face. Then he blinked, and the tears spilled, and instead of knuckling them away in embarrassment, he caught them with his fingers, looked at them, touched them with his tongue, savoring each one, lost in his own thoughts. He sat thus a long minute or two, then drew a breath to steady himself, nodded deeply and graciously toward the Firstlord and said, “Equus honors me. With my mind and my heart will I serve thee always, my father.”
“I am content,” Ardenai smiled, returned the nod, and wheeled his horse to catch up with the others.
That evening after they had eaten and each walked apart as was the Equi custom, Ardenai felt Gideon’s arm slip though his and they paced in silence, stride matching stride, breathing in the night damp fragrances of grass and lichens and looking up at the stars. “Soon, but not soon enough for me,” Ardenai murmured, “we shall look up to the stars and the seven moons of home, you and I. And Io. We shall walk as a whole family with your grandparents, your uncle and his family … discussing the wondrous order of things, and tasting the night.”
“El’Shadai be praised for his mercy. All of us have lived to see that day.”
“Ardenai … Sire …”
“Yes?” What a fine, straight profile the young man had, even in this light. How easy to feel that surge of pride. Gideon, son of Ardenai. Eladeus was indeed most merciful and giving.
“Pythos tells me I must cease to feel conversations and begin again to hear them. Why what?”
“Why me? I didn’t even have to ask.”
“Kehailan did not ask, either. I wanted him. I wanted you. If I’d asked you to be joined to me as my son, or put you in the position of asking me, it might have unduly influenced your decision to stay with me. I didn’t want to do that to you. Kehailan was mine, yet he chose to leave. I could do no less for the younger of my sons.”
“Would you please just stop walking for a minute?” Gideon asked with some annoyance, and Ardenai did so, chuckling to himself. Then Gideon took the Firstlord’s arm and turned him until they faced one another. “I have a father. A real father. A dad of my very own. Thank you. So much! All right,” he said abruptly, “I want my hug. Can I have my hug now, please?”
“Yes,” Ardenai whispered, and took Gideon in his arms and held him tight and said, “I love thee, my son. Thank you for my life, and for being a part of my life.”
“Dragonhorse?” Gideon said from the doorway, and Ardenai looked up from his paperwork. “The Elder Authorities are here to speak with you.”
“Thank you. Show them in, and then sit here beside me. I would have you learn from this.”
Gideon nodded, disappeared, and Ardenai turned his eyes on Thatcher, seated to his left at the side of the big desk, a stack of files in front of him. “Still wondering if this is a joke?” the Equi asked evenly.
Thatcher looked at the files, then at his fingernails and finally at Ardenai. He’d looked up from his desk and seen them standing there – the two of them – filling the doorway and projecting that … absolute power into the room, felt the terror of recognizing those almond-shaped eyes, the down-turned mouth and those damned snake tattoos, all at the same time. God! Then, he’d recognized the arm-bands.
The boy, he’d recognized at once as Reed, but the raven haired Equi nobleman … what a shock. God, what a shock. To know he had whipped and kicked into unconsciousness a man who ruled half the galaxy, who was even bigger and uglier as an Equi than he’d been as a … whatever the hell kind of mongrel he’d been posing as. To know he’d sold that man to someone, God only knew who ….
“Lady Io. She commands the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus.”
And some giggling queer who was probably … “Teal, Master of Horse, and my kinsman. And you remember my younger son, Gideon.”
Oh yes. Kicked him in the balls at least once. Doomed. Doomed.
Ardenai hadn’t laid a hand on him. Didn’t need to. Thatcher had stepped aside, opened his files, closed his mouth and the mines. The men sat now, resting, eating a good meal. Waiting, like Thatcher. Ardenai had not swooped in as an avenging angel and released them all. No, not him. He was making Thatcher account for each and every man. Which were truly convicts, which were slaves? Flying papers, please. Internment papers, please. Bills of sale, please. Ah, one for a Mister Grayson, sold as a stud to one Jezzra Beor. He’d keep that particular sales slip for his wife. Oh, had he failed to mention that the Captain was also his wife? She looked a little different without the wig and the fake jaw and the weird eyes, but it was the same person. Quite the little comedienne. Deadly if provoked, but otherwise cuddly and amusing. She would enjoy this particular memento. “Death certificates, please.”
Junior certainly didn’t look like Daddy, and yet he did. He acted like him and sounded like him and their minds kind of thought together in shorthand. Doomed. God, he’d kicked Ardenai repeatedly in the kidneys just for the morbid curiosity of seeing if he’d piss blue blood. He had, too, nearly fainted doing it. At the time, it had been funny to hear a big man squeak like that. Blue? Then how come the boy had red blood?
“His mother had red blood. Next file, please.”
“I am Ardenai Firstlord of Equus.”
Yes, you are. And you’re an ugly sonofabitch, too – cold and ugly.
“My son Gideon, and Mister Thatcher, no first name apparent. Gentlemen, please be seated.”
Ask him for some authority to be here. Ask him what gives him the right to come looming in here and rob Calumet of a valuable export like cleomitite.
It didn’t matter. Nobody asked. Didn’t have to. Thorough bastard. Long winded to a fault. Cold. Ugly. Thorough. Relentless. Three days Thatcher sat in that chair and accounted for every man who had faced the hell of the mines in the last five years. Beyond that, there had been another superintendent. No files, no memories, no headstones.
Ardenai had finished with Thatcher and gone on to the Calumet Elder Authorities. These men were being shipped in under their noses, right under their noses, with practically no substantiating paperwork and no follow-up whatsoever. “An explanation, if you please. It will give you some practice for when you explain it to the Seventh Galactic Alliance.” Oh yes, he would be bringing in Alliance mediators and Alliance personnel to protect the interests of his government. One needed to guard one’s reputation, and the Equi had a reputation for being just and merciful, did they not? Of course. Hell, he was his government, and they knew it, skinny, goat bearded, psalm singing old farts. Half of them paid to look the other way and the other half blind. He, of course knew all this … somehow.
Not a pleasant week. Not at all. Ardenai walked out when The Seventh Galactic Alliance officials walked in. Briefed them, turned over his notes and just walked out. He and Junior had to get home to the little woman and then back to Equus. Things to do, you know. If an efficiency expert was needed to get things going again as a legitimate operation with paid employees and decent working conditions, he could provide one. As a matter of fact, he’d go ahead and send one along. Knew just the man for the job.
“Mister Thatcher,” he’d nodded. That was all. Turned on his heel and left. He did have a whip scar on the side of his neck. A nice one. Hopefully his kidneys still hurt.