“Did you … ache when you were there?” Gideon asked, and Ardenai nodded.
“Every place Thatcher had kicked me, the hand he ground his boot heel into, every place that whip had touched me …” Ardenai sighed, lighting his eyes to ease the mood. “I think it was the dampness, and our collective imaginations. That’s what I think. Are you still in pain?”
“No,” Gideon smiled. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“Ready then to face the eyes and ears of the Great House of Equus, my son?”
Gideon nodded, but the color drained from his face. Now, only hours away from Equus, he was beginning to panic. Not just his mind, but his blood and his bladder as well, and he knew the sort of decorum his father would expect. Even Io was quiet and reserved. She was elegant, fragile as Menorquin sea crystal, silent as her namesake. She stood now behind Ardenai, slender hands resting protectively on his shoulders, looking forward as he was to the stars of home.
Ardenai reached up and caught her hand where it rested on his right shoulder, bringing it to his lips. “It has been a long journey for you, Fledermaus. Are you tired?”
“No,” she replied, and smiled. “I’m too excited to be tired.”
“Then tomorrow will come,” Ardenai chided, still holding her hand, “and you will think differently.”
“Think, perhaps. Feel, no. I’m excited. My son is waiting. My father is waiting …”
“Ah, yes. My old friend.”
“Ardenai, are you really nervous about what my father will say?”
“What he will say, and what he will do. Yes. What could be done to get you dishonored or killed I have brought upon you. Your father trusted me, and I valued that trust. Now, it may be gone and our friendship with it.”
“Well, just see that you don’t make the first hostile move,” Gideon said absently, running his hands along the clipper’s polished railings and glancing nervously out the front screen. “You can do such a thing without realizing it, sometimes. Give the man a chance to say what’s on his mind. He loves his daughter. He has the right to be afraid for her. Fear can lead to an emotion closely resembling anger which, in reality, is relief.”
“Are you quite through?” Ardenai drawled. “If you are …”
“This is the Seventh Galactic Alliance Ship Belesprit, calling Imperial Equi Clipper Dominus. IEC Dominus, are you hearing us?”
In the time it took Ardenai to respond and greet Oonah Pongo, Gideon’s stomach had tied itself in a knot and crawled most of the way up his throat. He forced himself to sit up straight and veil his expression. He felt it just for an instant, the barest flick of a green-gold eye before the screen brightened. “We have been sent by the Seventh Galactic Alliance to serve as your escort,” Marion smiled. “Welcome home, Ardenai Firstlord. You, and your companions.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai smiled. “Ahimsa. I wish thee peace. You honor us with your presence.”
“But will I honor Equus with mine?” Gideon said through his teeth.
“We have four hours before we enter orbit around Equus,” Eletsky was saying, “and we’d like to bring you on board for a brief tour and a visit, give you a chance to stretch your legs a bit before the next round of festivities.”
“That sounds good,” Ardenai said. “I have people here who need to run off some steam before they have to face their adoring public.”
“I have people here, as well,” Marion said cryptically. “We’ll just suck you right up into the shunt deck, if that’s all right with you.”
Ardenai nodded, cut power to the clipper, and Gideon watched in wonder as they were tractored slowly upward, through huge doors which retracted to allow the fifty foot clipper to pass with ease, and into a gleaming white space at least six stories tall and far larger than the parade grounds at South Hold Stud. The door to the clipper hissed open, the honor guard outside snapped to attention, and Ardenai said, “We might as well practice. I’ll step out and then reach back for Io, like so … now you, Gideon.”
The Declivian stepped out, hooked his toe on something, he never could figure out what, and would have gone sprawling if Konik hadn’t caught him from behind and set him on his feet again.
“It’s okay,” Marion laughed, “A bad dress rehearsal always makes for a good performance. Do come in and be comfortable for a bit. We have time for a celebratory glass of Teal’s good Viridian wine. Physician Pythos, Senator Konik, right this way, please.” He made a bow and a sweeping gesture that was both graceful and slightly humorous without being in the least disrespectful. They found themselves surrounded by Winslow Moonsgold, Timothy McGill, and Oonah Pongo, and Gideon found himself walking with Kehailan.
“This is Bonfire Dannis,” Kehailan was saying. “Bonfire, this is my brother, Gideon. Bonfire is a Phyllan, and one of the best navigators in the SGA. She’s also second in command. And this is Amir Cohen. He’s Demetrian. He’s our chief of Onboard Technologies ….”
Ardenai, too, was nodding politely through the introductions, though his attention had been drawn off to one side, where a group of small children stood, round-eyed, watching the proceedings with their teacher. Amir’s eyes followed the Firstlord’s, and he muttered apologetically, “They’ve been studying all the named Dragonhorses this term. I hope you don’t mind. This is an incredible thrill for them.”
“It’s a thrill for me, too,” Ardenai chuckled. “I haven’t seen anybody that short in ages. May I go and say hello, or will I scare them to death?”
“We don’t expect you to take your valuable time …” Amir began, but Ardenai was already on his way over to the children.
“Well, there he goes,” Kehailan said to no one in particular. “Kiss him good-bye.”
“We’ll just wait a minute for him,” Marion began, and Io laughed.
“We won’t wait for him, because he’s not going to wait for us. We no longer exist. Watch.”
Ardenai nodded politely to the teacher, asked if he could speak to the children and lowered himself onto his boot heels to contemplate the young man front and center. “Hello there. I’m Ardenai. I’m Commander Kee’s father. Who might you be?”
“I’m Yuthef Cohen,” he said soberly. “Ith that an Equi cavaowy unifom, Thir?”
“No. This is the uniform of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus. The cavalry tunics are black with seven silver chevrons stacked on the right breast, and Horse Guard uniforms are silver green with six silver chevrons all in a row, because …”
“…because, when there is no Dragonhorse, which is most of the time, the Horse Guard protects the priestesses, and their color is silver green,” said the pert little girl next to Yussef. “You knew that, you silly.”
“Yeth,” the little boy said, “I did. I’m justh nervoth.”
“Why?” she asked, smiling at Ardenai. “You look like a very nice person to me.”
“She doesn’t know, does she?” Ardenai said very quietly, with a wink at Yussef.
“She thinkth you’wuh who you thaid you aw,” he replied soberly.
“And so I am. Did Commander Kee tell you I’m a teacher?”
The little boy nodded and glanced toward the waiting group of adults. “You bwought the faiwy-wady with you. The pwetty haiwed wady from the Wything Cewemony. I appwethiated the hortheth and the big dwums.”
“That’s my wife. That’s Io.” He read the child’s face and bit back laughter. “She’s not Commander Kehailan’s mother, though. Kehailan’s mother … died. Io is my second wife.”
By this time the little girl was twitching with enthusiasm and the need to speak. “My name is Reynalda. I have all my teeth. We’ve been studying Equus, because this is the year of the Firstlord’s rising. We have lots of neat stuff in our room. Want to come see?”
“I’d like that, if it’s all right with your teacher.” He looked up and got a nod from the young Equi.
“I became a teacher because of you,” he said quietly, smiling down at the Firstlord. “You probably don’t remember me,” he added shyly, “but I was in your creppia nonage class for just one year. I’m …”
“Orlov, right?” Ardenai laughed, and rose to embrace him. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“Yes, Ardenai Firstlord. How did you remember?”
“Your teacher was exceptionally good at cutting things out and assembling them,” Ardenai said to the children. “He made wonderful models of things.”
“He still does,” Reynalda said, and reached for Ardenai’s hand. “Come on, we’ll show you the ones he helped us make.”
He left without a backward glance, and Io nodded after him. “Told you,” she said. “He’ll regain consciousness in a few minutes and realize what he’s done, but he won’t really care. He needs to relax a bit, and for him, children are better than wine.”
Gideon looked at the others and said, “Would you mind if I … followed them? I … Ardenai loves children more than anything else in this world, and I’ve never seen him with any. I’m sorry. Does that make it sound like a trip to the viewseum?”
“It is a trip to the viewseum,” Kehailan chuckled. “Come on, I’ll take you. It’s easier than trying to tell you where to turn.”
“Physician Pythos,” said Moonsgold, gesturing toward the bay doors, “let me show you our medical facilities. I’m kind of filling in right now until we get a new Ship’s Physician, or a new head of the science wing, one of the two.”
Oonah Pongo slipped her arm through Io’s and said, “Let me show you the ship. Or would you rather have a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea? How are you feeling? You look wonderful ….”
Marion turned to Konik and said, “Which leaves you and me, Senator Konik. Walk with me, will you?” The man nodded curtly and followed Eletsky through the bay doors and down a wide corridor. He wondered if Marion had something unpleasant in store, or if he was just the designated babysitter. Apparently everyone else had an assignment.
Marion stopped, opened a door, and nodded Konik inside. Three women, two men, and two small children stood up as one and turned their direction. “Addie!” Konik exclaimed, and ran to take her in his arms. “Ah’nia, Ah’rika … Eladeus be praised! I’ve been so worried ….” Marion let the door close with himself on the outside, grinned, and strode off in the direction of Orlov’s classroom.
He was nearly to his destination when he spotted Gideon, leaning against the bulkhead with his arms folded, staring out into the passing starscape. His face wore no expression, but the slight hunch of his body said he was uncomfortable. Marion cruised up beside him, slowing down so as not to startle the boy, and said quietly, “I thought you were going to watch Dad and the kids for a bit.”
Gideon turned to look at him. “How do all of you know that he adopted me?” he asked. “Did he tell you in advance or something?”
“He sent the papers with me, and told me to tell everybody once they were filed. That way you wouldn’t be a complete surprise.”
“I kind of thought that,” Gideon sighed. “He’s worried about me, isn’t he? I mean, worried that nobody will accept me?”
Marion’s bright face softened with sudden understanding. “He loves you, boy … like life itself. Like he loves Kee, and Io, and Equus. It wouldn’t matter a bit to him whether they all loved you, or none of them loved you. The reason he wanted it shared, is so that you didn’t have ten thousand people walk up to you and ask if the rumor about Ardenai adopting you was true. This way, he walks into the Great Council, introduces Io as his wife and you as his son, and it’s just a formality. There’s no need to dwell on it. He can move right on to other things, and remove you from the direct scrutiny of the public eye until you’re more comfortable.”
“Captain Eletsky, I’m afraid I’m never going to be comfortable,” the boy gulped. “I … the closer we get to this, the more scared I get. I fell out of the clipper here, what am I going to do there? What was I thinking? For the love of El’Shadai, Ardenai is the mighty ruler of many worlds, and I am the snot-nosed, uneducated whelp of a Declivian whore! This can’t be happening to me. None of this can be happening to me!”
“Have you ever eaten ice cream?” Marion asked, and Gideon blinked at him.
“Have you ever eaten ice cream?”
“I’ve never even heard of it,” Gideon scowled.
“Time you did,” Marion replied, and linked his arm through Gideon’s.
“What can it help?” Gideon mumbled, and Marion did his best impression of Amir Cohen.
“What can it hurt? Things will be fine. Just relax.”
Io said the same thing, and Ardenai, but Gideon was still so nervous that his teeth were chattering, his hands shaking so badly he couldn’t fasten the frogs on his snow white tunic. Ardenai finally brushed the boy’s hands aside and began to work the fasteners. “Gideon, if you say that one more time, I swear, I will carry you off this clipper ass-end up like a sack of wheat. You will honor Equus by your presence, simply because of who you are. You will not disgrace me, because, after what you have done for me, there is nothing you could do that would disgrace me.”
“Shouldn’t you be landing this thing?” Gideon squeaked.
“We’re in a tractor beam, being lowered very, very slowly to the landing pad. If we were not, I suppose my son would step naked onto Equi soil, yes? But as it is, I can dress him.”
“He used to dress me,” Io confided, leaning into Gideon. “He does a fine job. You’ll look wonderful, I promise.”
“I’m terrified,” Gideon whispered. “I really am. I loved the ice cream, but it didn’t help, and now I’m afraid it’s going to make me puke. I’m terrified.”
Ardenai could see it was true. “Why?” he asked gently.
“I don’t know, my father. If I disgrace you …”
“Please,” Ardenai chuckled, “don’t try putting this off on me. I know thee much too well to be deceived. There. Now we will add a three quarter length cape to help hide your trembling knees.” He swung the deep purple cape over Gideon’s shoulders and fastened the frog in the front. “A true son of Equus thou art, and mine,” he said, and gave Gideon’s shoulders a squeeze. He turned Gideon to look in the reflector, and the boy, despite his nerves, had to admit, he looked every inch a prince – sleeveless tunic and flowing cape, black riding tights and high black boots – his long hair, pale against the dark cape, blunt cut and flowing past his shoulders.
Io stood beside him in an ankle-length, sleeveless dress of pure white shimmer which was belted with a golden dragonhorse, a long, purple cape cascading from the shoulders, and Ardenai was…
“What are you wearing?” Gideon scowled, noting Ardenai’s simple, silver-green Horse Guard uniform.
“I’m wearing exactly what I left in,” Ardenai said. “Right down to the hair clasp. Less hair in the braid, but that can’t be helped just yet.” He stretched out his arms, and gave them a twist from side to side. “The gold collar, the bracelets, the circlet, which gives me a headache by the way, the forearm knives, and a summer uniform. The gold doesn’t exactly go with the silver chevrons, but the less change they see, the better they’ll like it.” He scrutinized the green and gold pythons coiling down his arms, their snouts resting just past his wrists, barely touching the backs of his hands. “You watch, within a month everyone who is fashion conscious will be wearing snakes to all the formal occasions.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Io giggled, and just then there was the gentle bump of landing on the ground rather than in space dock.
They moved forward, and there was a hiss as the clipper’s door came open. Again Gideon rehearsed it mentally, mopped at his brow with the back of his hand and felt the caress of Pythos’ sympathetic tongue against his cheek.
Konik’s encouraging hand rested momentarily on Gideon’s shoulder. “I’m scared too,” he whispered, and Gideon smiled in spite of himself.
Ardenai ducked slightly to get his six foot six inch frame through the opening … two, three, four … reached back with his right hand for Io … two, three, four … what was that incredible sound? … Five, six … Gideon stepped out into the warm, windswept sunlight of Equus, and the roar of tens of thousands of onlookers.
He was stunned. The city was huge. It stretched, gleaming white, for miles in every direction, dotted with trees and green belts … they must be elevated here … yes, on a hill … no … a cliff … they were in an immense, elegantly paved courtyard slightly below the roofline and to one side of a building, blinding white in the sun, the likes of which Gideon had never seen. It appeared to be carved from the native stone of the mountain on which it stood. Below them, spilling first in a curve to the right, then back to the left, tier after tier of graceful plazas flowed down the cliff’s face to meet the confluence of broad avenues below. As far as the eye could see, those avenues teemed with cheering people.
His legs moved him automatically away from the clipper toward the crowd on the plazas below them. By now Pythos and Konik would have exited behind him. He felt a slight vacuum, and realized the clipper had been lifted out of the way. His father and Io were proceeding forward to a spot where a group of dignitaries waited … some of whom he recognized … yes … Teal and Daleth, Tarpan and Kehailan … and a class of a dozen or so extremely sober creppia nonage students.
Ardenai and Io came to the edge of the parapet and stopped. Teal stepped up beside Io, Konik to their outside. Pythos stood beside Ardenai, then motioned Gideon up beside him, and Kehailan stepped up on Gideon’s other side. If it hadn’t been for the curve of balustrade atop the parapet, it would have been an alarming drop, as the steps flowed off to their left and down, arcing back to the right before touching the next plaza. The boy was still looking discreetly about, amazed by the architecture and the scope of the setting, when he realized the crowd had quieted.
Ardenai stood slightly forward of the rest of them, and a tiny boy approached him, holding out a single flower.
“Hello, Ardenai Teacher,” he smiled, and the Firstlord smiled back.
“Hello, Mahruss,” Ardenai replied. “You’ve grown these last seasons.”
“Yes,” the child responded, pleased. He glanced to one side in response to a hiss, and recovered his mission. “All these flowers …” he gestured to the large bouquets which lined the balustrade on both sides, “represent each student you have touched in the years you have taught. The sun flowers are us … I mean, your creppia nonage students … we picked them ourselves yesterday,” he added, in what was obviously an ad lib. The crowd chuckled fondly, and Gideon realized they could clearly hear every word that was being said. He looked for microphones, but none were in immediate evidence.
The balustrade itself is a microphone, Pythos conveyed, and Gideon smiled, giving him the briefest nod of thanks. It registered with him, that when Pythos was communicating telepathically, there was no hiss in his sibilant consonants, and the thought made him smile a little more yet. A thought? All praise to El’Shadai, he could think. And he hadn’t fallen out of the clipper. Life was good.
“The Oporens lupine is for all … I mean each … of your Lycee students, and the golden field lilies represent the students you taught who have died. There aren’t many of those. And this flower is for you,” he said formally, thrusting it out from his chest to arm’s length in a motion resembling a military salute. “It represents the whole of us as a people. Welcome home. We’re glad you’re safe.” There was another hiss and the little one cocked his head a moment while something was whispered in his ear. He nodded, and looked a little abashed. “I was supposed to say, greetings, Ardenai Firstlord, not Ardenai Teacher. But we’re still glad you’re home safe and here’s still your flower.”
Ardenai squatted on his boot heels to take it from him, took both his little hands, and gave him a lingering kiss on the forehead. “I’ll be in to see all of you soon,” he whispered, though he might as well have said it at the top of his lungs. It made Gideon very glad not to have gas on his stomach.
There was a roar of applause as Mahruss stepped back. The Firstlord straightened up, and turned to the multitudes below him, making the ancient gesture of greeting.
“Ahimsa, I wish thee peace,” he said, and smiled. “I am so glad to be safe at home, feeling the warm sun of Equus on my shoulders, and your love and good wishes around me. I would not be here, and safe, if it were not for the people beside me, each of them coming to my aid, even saving my life, when I could not do it for myself. You know this beautiful one as the Captain of our Horse Guard, and my friend of many years … and represented by one of the sun flowers in these bouquets, here, as well as by one of the lupines, as is often the case, I think. Though I still cannot believe my luck, she is now my wife, and your Primuxori.” There was a roar of approval from the crowd, and Ardenai kissed the tip of one of her ears. “We hope someday to add a couple sun flowers of our own to those vases,” he chuckled, and added laughter to the applause as he tucked Mahruss’ flower behind his wife’s ear. When it had died down he continued. “You also know Teal, Master of Horse, currently also Captain of the Horse Guard, and my kinsman, who saved my life on the wargrounds of Calumet, and Physician Pythos, who saved Io’s life, and my sanity. It is in his honor that I wear these beautiful and ancient chain tattoos upon my arms. Daleth and Tarpan left Equus at my side, went ahead of me, and returned with me. My son, Kehailan, and his companions aboard the SGAS Belesprit, were invaluable Paracletes in this amazing adventure we have had. When there is time, I’ll tell you all about it, I promise. The young man next to Kehailan, is Gideon, who saved my life before he knew who I was, and who has stayed with me every step of the way. I recognized in him the very best qualities of an Equi citizen, and I have bound him to me as a son, and to you as a prince of the Great House.” Again there was a mighty cheer, and Gideon felt himself flaming with embarrassment, the very pavers seeming to vibrate beneath him from the sound and movement of the incredibly huge crowd.
“We have entered a new era of understanding with the Telenir,” Ardenai said. “We know now for certain that they are more than a legend. We have among us a most extraordinary man, Senator Ah’ria Konik Nokota, from Anguine II. He and his family have served Equus all their days. Senator Konik is also Legate Konik, and a Wind Warrior.” There was a rushing murmur, and Ardenai talked over it. “He has agreed to help us bridge the gap between our people and theirs, our world and theirs. We were met on a field of honor, and it was with the greatest honor that he acted, on behalf of both worlds. He is our first dual citizen, I think, and one who comports himself exceedingly well. He has agreed to lead a delegation to Telenir to petition for peace, and when I know more about that, I will tell you. Know this, he saved my life, and the life of High Priestess Ah’krill, and if for no other reasons than those, he will always be one of our most honored citizens.
“What I left here to do, I have done, though not alone, and not without trials. I am both more and less than the man who left here, though no less an Equi citizen, and no more glad to be back on Equi soil than I have ever been. It is good to be home. It is good to breathe the air of my homeworld once again. It is good to see all of you. I will serve you with all my heart.”
He stepped back, nodded deeply at the cheers of the people, and turned left, proceeding with Io and the rest down a flight of steps carved from the face of the cliff and easily the span of ten mounted horsemen. Indeed, on each step they descended and facing crosswise on the step, stood one mounted member of the Horse Guard, many who had served with the Firstlord and Io on Calumet. On the opposite side of the step stood a softly chanting priestess, swinging a copper thurible, and the smell of horses and incense mingled together in the late morning air.
Gideon glanced to one side and realized that Kehailan was still beside him, strikingly handsome in the full dress blues of the Seventh Galactic Alliance, and that Teal was walking with Pythos and Konik. “Glad you’re here,” he said, knowing it was truly a whisper amid the cheers of the crowd, “I hate being terrified alone.”
“You are still terrified alone, since I am not afraid,” Kehailan smiled. He looked calmly into the thronging, cheering thousands below and veiled his twinkling black eyes, though his strong hand squeezed Gideon’s forearm.
There was the sudden thunder of Equi ceremonial drums, and for a full minute, their throbbing, complex rhythms were all one could hear. The crowd was utterly silent. Then a single gong sounded. Deep throated, echoing in the clear, dry air. With a sensation that made the hair stand up on his arms and the back of his neck, Gideon could hear the hollow ringing of Ardenai’s boot heels as he entered the Great House of Equus.