The companions proceeded down a short, very high, very wide hall and turned right into an alabaster chamber elegantly hewn from living rock, that stretched up and away forever in all directions. Gideon had to force himself to look only as far as his peripheral vision would take him, and keep his mouth shut, when he wanted to crane his neck and gape.
“This is the Hall of Ceremonies,” Kehailan said in the barest whisper and right against Gideon’s ear, and it felt as though every assembled dignitary from a hundred worlds had heard it, too. “When we refer to the Great House of Equus, this is what personifies it. When the Great Council meets in public session, this is where it’s held.”
First, they walked a short distance to their right, to the outside end of the great hall, where Ah’krill sat on a seven-tiered rostrum, surrounded by dozens of priestesses, all in pure white and pale green. The high priestess herself was resplendent with cleomitites and emeralds, which flashed in gold settings about her neck, wrists, and fingers. She stood, inscrutable, watching them approach. There was a tall, blonde priestess standing beside and slightly below her. A woman with a beautiful, haughty face. Gideon saw his father’s shoulders jerk slightly in recognition … or maybe annoyance … then he nodded to the woman before turning to his mother. He bowed respectfully and said, “I am here. I am ready.”
“A man of thy word. Take the place which is now thine, Ardenai Firstlord, and thy retinue with thee,” she said, and gestured with a heavily bejeweled hand to the opposite end of the hall where an immense and ancient tapestry emblazoned with the seal of the Great House of Equus, hung in the center of the room. She struck the gong next to her, and there commenced a throbbing of ceremonial drums which put Gideon’s heart in his throat.
They walked, accompanied by the drums and the cheers for what seemed to Gideon an eternity, the length of the impossibly long chamber, while the flags of Equus and the affined worlds dipped respectfully at Ardenai’s passage and the huge tapestry folded slowly up and away, revealing their destination. They stopped, all seven of them, maintaining their spacing, and from the corner of his right eye Gideon could see people he recognized. Jilfan, a tall, sober man beside him who was probably Abeyan. All the senior officers from Belesprit, Marion and Winslow both giving the young man a subtle thumbs-up amid the applause.
There was no throne, per se, but another identical and elegantly curving rostrum rising in seven tiers, seven seats in the lowest tier, nine in the second, eleven in the third, and so on, for a total of ninety-one arm-chairs. These were plushly upholstered in maroon wool, while the ones at Ah’krill’s end were pale green. Those along both sides in the lower level, were upholstered in pale blue.
There was a boulevard-width passage to either side of the rostrum, just like the opposite end, and a pair of high and elegant archways which lead … somewhere. Gideon couldn’t tell. The ones at the other end, led to daylight. These, led into darkness.
The two rostrums were much shorter in width than the banks of seats they formed ends for, and they differed in shape, but were no grander in design, Gideon decided. It was all grand, the sky-high palace in a flickernick tale, with gleaming floors and banks of flags, and huge pillars wrapped with the colors of the Great House of Equus and her tribute worlds.
Kehailan was seated immediately to his father’s left hand with Konik beside him, Gideon to Io’s right with Teal and Pythos beside him, and they sat there … four solid hours. Gideon had ample time to do some math, scribing subtly with one index finger against the thick, upholstered arm of his chair to help him keep track of the numbers.
Seven tiers of seats to each side of them in the long banks, two hundred and ten feet at least to the tier with an expanse at each end. Eighty-four plushly padded armchairs, each with its own writing surface in each row. Room for five hundred and eighty-eight people on each side; ninety-one more in the section they occupied, another ninety-one for the priestesses. That made … he wished he had a scriber … one thousand three hundred and fifty-eight chairs plus the public galleries, which stretched forever away above the tiers of dignitaries. Room for a hundred thousand, and yet room to spare. And every seat was filled, he was sure of it. Huge place – superb acoustics – and a million things to look at, tens of thousands of visible faces and still, after a while, Gideon wanted to squirm. He’d been too nervous to eat earlier, and now he was hungry, which wasn’t helping.
Ardenai, at least, got to get up and pace. He walked from one end of the rostrum to the other – one end of the Great Council to the other – addressing whomever questioned him. Not all Equi here this day, but representatives from the tribute worlds, the many worlds of the Seventh Galactic Alliance, and the United Galactic Alliance, as well. Much to be explained, and many questions to be answered on a multiplicity of levels. Gracious and thorough, patient and lucid, the Thirteenth Dragonhorse responded. Yes, he was well, thanks to Pythos. Firstwife Ah’riodin and Senator Konik were also healed, though not yet strong. A fact which must be considered in the length of these proceedings.
“Commendable,” Abeyan said, his face and voice an open challenge, “keeping alive so valuable and volatile a prisoner as Ah’ria Konik Nokota.”
“Perhaps you missed what I said outside,” Ardenai responded pleasantly. “Senator Konik is not a prisoner, nor his family, nor any Telenir who is also an Equi citizen, so far as I know.” There was a buzz in the council chamber which could have been response to either the words between the two men, or the heat which flashed between them. “Senator Konik is a free man and a loyal Equi, as well as a loyal Telenir. He is capable of honor and of sacrifice to the cause of peace. When the time comes, he has agreed to escort my personal envoy to the Wind Warriors with an overture of friendship from Equus, and if the Alliance wishes, from them, as well.”
Again a murmur arose. Louder this time, accompanied by nods and smiles from the off-worlders. “And who among us is equal to such a challenge?” Abeyan asked, looking around him with a palms-up gesture of question. “Surely you do not plan to leave your duties again so soon, Firstlord?”
“No, not I,” Ardenai replied, ignoring the obvious jab. “Many are equal, but I have come to realize that some are more ideally suited. The Telenir have many of our traits, yes, but they are a war-like people, as well. I have yet much to learn before any delegation leaves this planet, but I am thinking that when the time comes I will send someone who understands and appreciates that kind of strategic thinking.”
“Again you speak of many,” Abeyan said. “Me, of course. Master of Horse Teal …”
“Teal, perhaps, though I do not think it will be so,” Ardenai responded. “No. I speak of one in particular, Kinsman. Someone of whom we have spoken often as a person brave without recklessness, merry without foolishness.” Ardenai paused and turned to face the center dais. “Someone whose charm may succeed where diplomacy has failed.” Utter silence. Almost, no one breathed, but their collective gaze turned with the movement of the Firstlord’s hand. “Most reluctantly, I am thinking … Equus will be represented before the Wind Warriors by the Lady Io, wife and warrior that she is.”
Abeyan exploded in anger. “If you cannot kill her one way, do it another, is that it, Dragonhorse? You force her into a marriage that is tantamount to incest, impregnate her, and cause her to lose my granddaughter by your inept foolishness, then propose sending her, a female who is little more than a child herself, off to certain death so you can marry a fecund mare …”
“Master Captain Abeyan, your speech borders treason!” Ah’krill said sharply, and her voice sounded like she was beside them though her face was so far away as to be nearly unrecognizable. Ardenai’s hand came up to silence her.
“It is not treason to love one’s child,” he said quietly. “I knew how he would feel, because it is how I would feel under the same circumstances. My only regret is that we could not have had this conversation in private where it belongs.”
“Do not use creppia nonage tactics to mollify me,” Abeyan snarled, and at that point, Io stood up.
The hall was instantly hushed, for her eyes were blazing with tears and anger. She did not ask to speak, she simply stared at her father until his mouth closed, and then said, “I am an Equi, young in years but well able to make my own choices. I have long advised and am now Firstwife to your Liege Lord, whom I have loved all my life. I know what he wishes in these matters. I also know he does not wish me to go at all. Nevertheless, I have spent many days with Konik, and I trust him. Before I leave here I hope to understand equally well the wishes of the Telenir government. I was injured by my own inattentiveness, and my husband has suffered no less deeply than I because of it. The price has been paid and the matter will not be discussed here or anywhere else. I can choose to stay home and mourn the death of our daughter, or I can represent my government in a matter of great importance. My husband considers me capable in this, and I am honored. I choose to go forward, and it is I, who choose. The Dragonhorse was somewhat less than … enthusiastic.”
“For purely selfish reasons,” Ardenai added softly, having arrived at her side. He took her hands and pressed them between his own to calm her. “One does not part willingly with such a treasure. At the same time I realize I can make no more open handed gesture on the part of my government and myself than the sending of one so precious to me. It pleases me to offer so costly a sacrifice on the altar of peace.”
“Abraham Lincoln,” Oonah said in a voice meant only for Captain Eletsky, but the dimples deepened slightly in Ardenai’s cheeks, even as he kissed the palms of his wife’s hands, and nodded to her to be seated.
Io returned the nod and sat back down, still shaking with emotion. Gideon’s hand came to rest over hers and he whispered, “Nice going. Maybe they’ll decide to take this brawl outside and we can sneak off for a bite of supper … since they didn’t offer us lunch.”
“Are you hungry again?” she scowled, turning slightly to look at him.
“Again? You mean in this lifetime? Yes, I am, and now you’ve set dear old Dad off on a tangent that may last another four hours.”
“Just remember, that chair is a lot more comfortable than your little painted stool is going to be,” Io smirked. She was silent for a few moments, then whispered, “Gideon, did I embarrass Ardenai?”
“The fact that you made him so proud he nearly made love to you on the spot? That probably embarrassed him. It was a little obvious that he’s crazy about you. What …who, I mean, sorry … is the … entity speaking?”
Io looked, then inclined her head back toward Gideon. “That is MalDor. In the Equi council he represents the parasectra of Kohath Zadok, five planets which are part of the constellation group we know as Mydrus. His kinsman ValDem represents them in the SGA chambers. Eloquent, the both of them. Slightly too concerned with Kohath Zadok as the center of all that matters, but intelligent, and if persuaded, reasonable.”
“Seems a tad hot just now.”
“Your sire cut off the nearest and richest cleomitite supply, and the Kohathis are very fond of their precious gems, as you can see.”
“And when it is restored,” MalDor bellowed, “what will be our cost, I ask you?”
“Less to you than to the men who have been slaving there, Ambassador. Might I suggest if you are concerned with the efficiency of the mines at Bal-Beeroth, you send some of your people to help with the reorganization? I was going to ask you in private to do that, but now will do as well. Your people are miners of great renown. The Alliance and Equus would welcome and value your expertise.”
“And Kohath Zadok would welcome the absence of your meddling,” MalDor muttered, looking down to study the opulent rings on his hands. He became aware of a sudden, ominous silence, and looked back up into the fixed gaze of the Dragonhorse. “Yes … Firstlord?”
“Did it ever, even once occur to you, who are among the chiefest of buyers, to inspect those mines? To make sure your goods are coming from an acceptable source? That is part of your responsibility as a buyer, you know. Monstrosities like this thrive because of people like you, who are concerned only with the product and the price. I think I will … request more specifically … that you turn your hand to the rehabilitation of those mines.”
By now MalDor was quaking just a little. “Yes, Firstlord. I will send …”
“You, MalDor,” he said quietly, almost gently. “I believe it will refresh your mind as to what it means to organize, and rethink for the good of those less fortunate than you. I will look forward to your reports.”
“As you wish,” MalDor said with a slight bow, and sat back down with a deep sigh of relief.
Gideon leaned into Io. “Can he do that?”
“Send MalDor to Calumet against his will?”
Io turned her head on her neck to look straight at Gideon. “Do you still not understand who he is and what he can do?”
Hush you two. Ardenai wiggled his fingers very slightly behind his back, but in their direction, and said, “Since we have been thus sidetracked, are there any questions at all as to where Equus stands on the subject of slavery, or the oppression of living things in general?” He raised a quizzical eyebrow and waited. It was quiet. “Is there anything I may clarify for any of you without leaving the present arena of discussion?” Again, there was silence.
“Thank you, Firstlord, for your graciousness in this matter and over these last hours,” said Ambassador Sta’dan of Corvus. “We rejoice in your safe return, and welcome your wisdom in these proceedings.” He crossed his elbows to slap his upper arms in the way of Corvi applause, and the chamber was filled with various noises and shouts as the others joined in.
Ardenai nodded deeply, once in each direction, once to his mother, and returned to his seat. “I hope this is over for a day or two,” he said through his teeth.
“Are you tired?” Io asked, her hand closing over his bare forearm. It was cool in the depths of the Great House, and she wondered if he was getting chilled.
“I am concerned that you are. I would wish for our companions and our keep.”
Granted. Ah’krill raised her hand and said, “Our Firstlord has been in conference across five sectors for the last sixteen days in a row. We shall allow him time to rest from his journey and visit his keep and his family, and all of us, most especially our keeplords, must see to the harvest. This date, we shall celebrate from now on as an Equi holiday, as it marks the day of the safe return of the Arms of Eladeus Incarnate, and the dawning of a new era.” Ardenai’s sigh of relief was short lived. “For those who wish to question him further, the Firstlord will be available in the royal apartments from the twentieth hour until the penult hour tonight, and then he is to be given time to see to his keep and his harvest. You are dismissed.”
Ardenai took Io’s arm and walked with her into the corridor which led to the private sections of the old palace, their companions following behind them. “I was hoping to go home tonight,” he said softly, and Io could sense the disappointment in his voice.
“Soon, Beloved,” she said, patting his arm, and he stopped to catch her face in his large, capable hands. He was still smiling down at her, thinking about how good a kiss would taste, when Kehailan walked up in the company of Marion, and the rest of Belesprit’s bridge crew.
“I have already been here for some time,” he explained, “so my apartments are feeling a little more … livable. We’re heading that way, and I was wondering if my brother could join us awhile?” He turned and included the younger man in the conversation. “If you would like to come with us.”
“Thank you,” Gideon smiled, glancing at Ardenai and Io. “I think these two would welcome some privacy after two Equi weeks in the air.”
Ardenai nodded. “Only if you are comfortable going with your brother.”
“Tarpan and Daleth will be there,” Kehailan said, “and perhaps Jilfan will join us.” He felt the atmosphere stiffen and quickly added, “He has been most attentive to Ah’krill’s wishes, and she has come to depend on him for many things. I am sure that when he is free he will seek your company.”
“Thank you,” Io smiled, but she was drooping noticeably, and Ardenai led her away toward the lift which led upward to their apartments. “Before we actually had to face them, apartments that haven’t been occupied for … oh, half a millennium or more, didn’t sound quite so intimidating,” she said, leaning her head on his upper arm as they walked. “Now the thought is not nearly as pleasant.”
Ardenai, too, had been looking forward to sleeping in his big bed at Canyon keep, where they could open the floor to ceiling casements and allow the fragrant night wind and the sound of the river to sweep through their slumber. “Well,” he said, trying to smile, “Think of it this way, Io. It’s solid rock. What could be wrong?”
“Don’t ask,” she sighed, and the image of a cave, with beds and furniture hacked out of stone, filled both their minds as they stepped into the elevator which rose a thousand hands or more on the outside of the cliff. They stepped off the lift and stopped in the wide cross corridor, looking at the immense, darkened archway in front of them and to their left. The first of the royal apartments. The most ancient apartments of the Firstlord and his Primuxori. Their eyes moved up the full fifty-four hands of the height of the massive double doors, then across the thirty-six hands of their width, then they looked slowly at each other. “Ardi,” Io said softly, “Do you know … who you are?”
“You’ve already asked that question today,” he replied, scarcely above a whisper, and chuckled humorlessly as he stared up at the intricately carved entryway. “Do you know who you are?”
He could hear Kehailan and the others coming up behind them from one of the side corridors, and the normalcy of their approach was comforting. Steadying. “What I have figured out is that I am a fortunate new husband with a most charming and intelligent wife,” he said, and to Io’s delight he swept her up in his arms. “Over the threshold with thee, my bride and on to a whole new set of challenges.”
Io put her arms around his neck, kissing him thoroughly even by newlywed standards, and they heard Gideon say, “In answer to your question, Kehailan, don’t bother asking. They have other plans.”
“Obviously,” Kehailan gasped, hiking his brows, and Ardenai realized his apprehension was making him indiscreet, even for this relative privacy.
He chose not to embarrass his wife by acting penitent. He laughed instead, saying, “You shall receive no apologies from me. In this section of the palace there are only those who know us best just now, and the thought of going into an apartment, unoccupied for century upon century, is most disquieting. We find solace in that which is familiar.”
“Don’t despair just yet,” Oonah Pongo laughed, and Kehailan nodded.
“Sire, we have had the benefit of being here for several days, and in that time the apartment before you was opened, cleaned, and furnished for your occupancy. Since Oonah and I were already here, we … let ourselves in and made some suggestions. You are welcome to make changes, of course, but we did hope to make it a little more welcoming than it was.” Kehailan pushed in on the great doors, and as they swung silently open he bowed with a flourish in Ardenai’s direction. “Do go in. Be comfortable. If you would care to join us later, you are welcome to do so. We’ll be right next door.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai smiled, stepped inside with Io still in his arms, and the door swung silently shut behind them. Slowly, he let Io down to stand beside him, and together they surveyed the interior. “My, my,” he said at last, and Io burst into a fit of her wonderful laughter.
“A space created from the ancient times of more opulent monarchs,” she said.
“The appropriate word escapes me.”
“Probably not, snug?”
“Definitely not. Nor cozy, even as shunt-bays go. I think perhaps … excessive?”
“Well, it is certainly beautiful, and clean,” Io said. “It has some bright touches …”
“Probably Oonah’s, or Kee’s. And … the sun flowers and lupines are here, as well. That’s nice. Makes it smell fresh.”
“… and we’ll get our exercise. We could dance.”
“We could play polo,” Ardenai snorted.
“It will be cool in the summer.”
“Oh yes, count on that. And frigid in the winter.”
“Perhaps not. The floors are warm, probably from the hot springs in the cliff behind us”
He looked down and realized she had taken off her sandals and was standing barefooted. “This is a good thing. The ancient architects were wise indeed.”
“The wall hangings are most gracious.”
“Agreed, and the stonework is superb. It dates to the time of the old palace itself. This should have been turned into a museum thousands of years ago. Timeless, this stone. Intimidating, in that timelessness. Reminding us we were not always modest and conservative as a people.”
“Reminding us how transitory we are as living beings,” she added. “This looks a little like one of the pleasure domes the Papilli manufacture and lease out. I like it.”
“You, are a pouncer,” Ardenai laughed, “I’m shocked to think you would have any knowledge whatsoever of … pleasure domes.” He felt a tug in his loins, and realized, hungry and tired as he was, how much he wanted to set his head against her, to forget all about the business of the day and lose himself in her.
“Ardenai?” He looked down at her, hoping she hadn’t read his lascivious thoughts. “How do they plumb solid rock do you suppose?”
“Why … I don’t suppose they do,” he said, working himself up to a tease. He knew his wife’s lavage habits by now, and they could be demanding, even by female standards.
“Then … where do you suppose it is?”
“Yes,” she said with some annoyance, “It. Doesn’t this place come with a map, or a directory, or an owner’s manual? I’ve been sitting for the whole afternoon, and I need … IT. Now.”
“Oh. Well then, let’s think about this a minute. I do believe this part of the structure … and by that I mean the royal apartments, the apartments of the Eloi, and so on, covers well over five hundred thousand square feet on this floor alone. If all the floors are the same, which I’m assuming they’d have to be, being solid Equi alabaster, not that soft, Terren alabaster that carves so nicely … anyway, that would make it a rectangle at least a thousand feet long and five hundred feet deep…wide… right? I think that’s what the history books tell us.” He began to survey the place at length, pointing first one way then the other as he spoke. “There are six royal apartments, and they take up the whole length on this side of this level, if my history classes serve me right. This is the biggest of them, but we can’t really assume it’s twice as big, so let’s assume fifty percent or so, and we’ll have to allow for the thickness of the walls, which can’t be counted into the size of the apartment, surely. Now, if the walls are eighteen hands, or six feet, thick, and considering that our apartments corner on the opposing precipice from where water could logically be brought in for purposes of bathing and flushing … actually that’s rather nice, because it means we have windows on two sides rather than one, but … it is going to be a sprint. I’m thinking…” he pointed, “way over thataway someplace – toward the outside wall. Better get your little legs moving.”
“You, are a miserable pain in the ass!” Io snapped, punched him in the gut with her fist, and stomped off toward the upper levels, leaving Ardenai howling with mirth in the middle of the entry.
When he’d quit laughing he took the time to do some exploring of his own. It was opulent, but hardly a shunt-bay. It was airy and open, the privacy of the huge windows guarded by the precipice on which they cornered. The tiles in the central entresol gleamed like mirrors, reflecting the plants, and a small fountain added the restful sound of water which the Equi so highly prized. To one side of the formal sitting and dining areas there was a relatively cozy step-down corner where a pair of friction fires danced in a huge fireplace. There were thick, long haired rugs, soft pillows, and an octagonal lounge, upholstered in wool forming a horseshoe around a table in front of the fireplace. Nice, he thought, turning around.
A wrapping of four very wide steps down to the right, and Ardenai found what would be his private conference room, the Firstwife’s study, and the family dining room as well. Up a level from the main hearth he found half a dozen sleeping chambers for family, five at one end, a larger one at the other, and an ornate, centralized bathing pool. There was a sweeping balcony overlooking the city, with exterior stairs leading to the top of the hill on which they’d landed. He found his study, and a beautiful and well-kept library for his personal use. The third level up, yielded several elegant and commodious guest chambers, each with its own lavage, and access to the park just above them.
Going back down a level, and entering the sleeping chamber which was largest and closest to his study, he found his wife. She had removed her cape and dress and tumbled in her underbodice and briefcloth onto the heavily curtained bed, where she lay spread-eagle, her head on several pillows, gazing out the casements at the huge trees and the highest rooftops of the city.
Ardenai had unstrapped his forearm knives and was laying them on the dresser when Io said, “Come here, you,” and patted the bed next to her, “I would beg a boon of thee.”
She slid over, and Ardenai stepped up onto the sleeping platform and stretched his length with a sigh beside her. “How may I serve thee, my wife?” he asked.
Io rolled languidly onto one elbow and bent to flick his earlobe with her tongue. “At the risk of shocking you …”
“But dear, the children are right next door,” Ardenai teased, easing over to face her.
“And the walls are six feet thick, remember? Are you … reticent?”
“Concerned,” Ardenai replied, and his eyes had ceased to smile. “Pythos has said nothing to me regarding such activities.”
“I asked him not to. You had enough on your mind, and it’s only been three or four days since he said we might resume intimacy without worry. This has really been the first opportunity to mention it.”
“You wouldn’t be fabricating such a report to get your own way, would you?” Ardenai smiled.
“Set your head against mine if you wish and look deeper than my desire for thee,” Io retorted. “Decide for yourself if it is a fabrication.” Tired, this one. As much in need of distraction as he was.
“I shall set my head against thee, but only to see how best to please thee,” he murmured, and her fingers unfastened the frogs which held his tunic.
She leaned across him to bite gently at his nipples, and he groaned softly with pleasure as he felt his phallus begin to slide from its sheath. “A moment to get rid of the extraneous bits,” he said, and stood up to remove his clothing, the circlet of gold around his head, and the heavy gold collar and bracelets. When he was naked, he lifted her to her feet and unfastened her garments, allowing them to fall to the floor as he bent to lick and suckle her breasts. He took a step down off the platform and repeated the process without the need to bend his back at such an angle. She tasted so good – warm and fragrant – as she trembled against him.
He pulled her up to kiss her, long and deep, one hand behind her head, one hand stroking his phallus, rubbing it against her opening. “Which way?” he gasped, “Quickly,” and she turned from him and positioned herself on the edge of the bed, presenting to him in traditional fashion. He leaned across her, groaning, fumbling, shaking with the need to penetrate her … and yet he entered a little at a time, without pushing hard, making sure she could take his length without pain. When she pushed up with a hoarse cry of pleasure and set herself full against him, he pushed back, gasping, setting his teeth against her neck, stroking her breasts as he thrust in, her cries compelling his own as they climaxed.
He rested across her back for a few moments, then murmured in her ear, “Am I hurting thee?”
“Thou art pleasuring me as no other,” she replied.
“May I remain then a bit longer?” he asked. She groaned and moved against him in reply, and he began to thrust again, three deep strokes, three shallow, three deep … then he pushed full and stroked no more, quivering as he released without movement or sound – allowing himself to feel the strength of her contractions – allowing them to draw forth his release while he listened to her cries – like a wild animal in a bestiary foreign but fascinating.
He withdrew his phallus, still rigid, and pulled her gently backward off the bed. Then he turned her to face him, took her in his arms, and placed her on her back on the luxurious bedclothes. “I would have thee again,” he said, “but face to face, if you can take my weight.”
She held up her arms to him and he laid astraddle of her, suckling her breasts, nuzzling at her neck, his fingers exploring her primary iris, as if trying to make love to all of her at once. “I like that,” she whispered, pushing her head back into the pillows, and he suckled her, pinching gently at her anterior clitoridis until she cried out with pleasure, and he could feel the surge of her body around his fingers. Quickly, he mounted her, and released without penetrating fully, keeping his weight on his elbows.
“I fear my weight and my size against your tender belly,” he said, almost apologetically.
“I’m fine,” she smiled, running a finger down the dimple in his cheek. It was childlike in his dignified adult face, and endearing. “Let’s see how it goes, and if I feel any pain at all, I promise I’ll say so immediately, and we can go to that priapic bench I see there … set to overlook the city. How nice.”
“Would you prefer that now?”
“I would prefer thy tongue in my mouth just now,” she said, and he arched himself to oblige her, groaning as she pinched his nipples, and ran her hands in long strokes down his sides and his flanks. She braced her feet to separate her legs further, and Ardenai could feel her hand touching the shaft of his phallus where he entered her.
She touched his mind and filled his thoughts with fierce images of putting a baby in her belly, and of holding her, sweat-slick on the birthing stool, aroused by her groans and screams as she spread herself and pushed in a gush of liquid, the baby’s head hard and round as it slid out of her, his head hard and round as it slid in, gushing liquid, and on her birthing heat he would push himself inside her, and fill her with his get, and put another baby in her. He became aware that he was ejaculating, and that she was crying out, but he didn’t know if it was with pleasure or pain, and he realized that if she’d asked him to stop, he hadn’t heard her. The second he could, he put his hands down and picked himself up to look at her, concern filling his eyes, but she gave him a languid, slightly come-hither smile, and said, “That was very nice, thank you. A little abrupt … but nice.”
“Coming, or going?” he queried, and she laughed and tucked a stray black lock back into his braid.
“Both. But I am a happy woman. Much more relaxed. Did you like the image I gave you?”
“Let us just say you are married to a happy man,” he murmured, kissing her lips, her neck, and the point of her shoulder.
He rolled to bring her above him so she could cool off, and she smiled down at him – tumbled hair and burned cheeks and swollen lips – and murmured, “I wish thee to know that I love thee,” and the tears brimmed in her eyes as she flattened out to kiss him. “Thou art life to me. All passionate and all uplifting.”
“Don’t,” Ardenai groaned. “Please. Do not tell me how much you love me, and cause me to love you more, and then … blackmail me into sending you to Telenir.”
“It never occurred to me,” she whispered, biting gently at his neck.
“It most assuredly did. Ouch! Little beast. That will not change the way I think on the matter. No, no … don’t laugh … now see what you have done? These bedclothes are probably a thousand years old or more, and ….” he paused, exasperated. “You never listen to me, do you? And you’re never going to.”
“I do so listen to you,” Io said later, and Ardenai looked up from the beautiful, six foot floor harp which had been his sire’s … Kehailan Firstlord of Equus, the Twelfth Dragonhorse.
“Peace,” he murmured, closed his eyes and went back to his music, enjoying the fire and the feel of a full stomach. They had descended from their bath to find dinner laid for them in warming trays on an elegantly set table complete with candles and fine cloth. It had made them glance with amusement at one another, and speculate as to who, and how many, and when, and how much they’d heard. And they realized that here, their private lives might not be so private as they would like and were used to.
There was a bell to which Io responded, assuming it was someone come to clear the dishes, and Abeyan’s voice said, “I trust I have not come as you are retiring?”
“No,” Io replied, and by then Ardenai was standing up. “We finished dinner shortly ago and were resting our meal. Please come in, Sire.”
There was no hug, no warmth in Abeyan’s eyes. Never in all the years Ardenai had watched those two greet one another had he seen such coolness. It hurt him, knowing he was the cause. It also left him momentarily awkward and tongue tied, a condition alien to his nature and experience. He gestured to a seat on one angle of the deep couch by the fire and sat opposite. Io stood looking at them both, then smiled at her father and sat down close to Ardenai, tucking her bare feet under her, and leaning against his muslin robed shoulder.
“So,” Abeyan said, “You have chosen.”
“I have chosen to marry a friend,” She responded. “That does not exclude you, does it? He is my husband. You are my sire. There is no competition between those roles.” Abeyan said nothing. “Not a very rational response to the situation, this silence,” Io said. “You two were as brothers. I love you both.”
“One does not marry his niece,” Abeyan growled. “It is immoral and unclean, and no amount of power and public adoration can change that fact.”
“It is a fact,” Ardenai said quietly, “but it is not a reality. Io and I are not related, and you know it.”
“Is it only blood which forms relationships?” Abeyan demanded. “Then how came we to be as brothers?”
“Through mutual trust and affection, and a common set of goals,” Ardenai replied. “And uppermost, the goal of Io’s well-being. You know this, too. Things have not changed.”
“How can you sit there and say that?” Abeyan asked angrily, and his eyes blazed with frustration. “Look at her, her neck welted and red where thou hast bitten her in coitus … you filthy, perverted … bastard! If I could, I would kill you! And you say things have not changed? Does this mean you have done this to her since childhood? If so, the penalty is death!” His fists were knotted, and he leaned forward with bared teeth, his upper lip curling in hatred.
“You have lost your senses!” Ardenai exclaimed, half expecting the man to come off the couch at him. He sat forward in a posture which was subtly more defensive, and at the same time more intimate. “Abeyan, this is not a logical reaction. You stand in the stirrups of my words and ride away from reason. When I said things had not changed, I meant only that I love Io no less now than I did when she was a baby. I love her differently, but not any less. And if you think she’s the only one with love bites, I’d be happy to show you mine. The woman bites like an angry mare and calls it nibbling. Trust me, I’m not any less surprised than you to find myself in love with such a savage as this … but I am. Deeply, and forever. And that, too, will never change. Our keeping ceremony is tomorrow. Come see if she will have me of her own accord. It is your privilege.”
Io patted his hand, and tried smiling again at her father, though Ardenai could feel her trembling slightly against him. “Sire,” she said, “please listen to us. I know you only want to protect me because of your love for me, but this attitude of yours is foolish and immature. I am a grown woman with a son who will soon be a young man himself. I am capable of choosing, and choosing well. I was alone, and free to do that. Ardenai was alone, and free to choose. I knew, even before Ah’ree’s death, that I could very easily fall in love with Ardenai. See, even he looks surprised, though I’ve told him this a dozen times. He still has this jaded image of himself as the old family friend, exciting though he is sexually, and charismatic in the extreme. I have been in love with him my whole adult life, burned for him and wanted his children, my whole adult life. You know what sort of man he is – kind, gentle, intelligent and powerful. I consider him quite a catch. I am happy. Be happy for me, as I was happy for you when you married your young Ah’kra.”
“Daughter,” Abeyan said, and Ardenai was relieved to hear a normal tone come out of him, “When I married Ah’kra, she was considerably older than you are now, and I was younger than Ardenai. You are not yet to the age when most Equi women marry for even the first time. You are in many ways still an adolescent, with adolescent views.”
“Now that, is nonsense,” Io laughed. “Equi women marry late because they have tremendously long life spans and they can afford the luxury of waiting. That does not mean they need all that time to grow up. I am blessed with Papilli blood. I am aging more rapidly than my thoroughbred counterparts, and I was sexually mature far younger than they.”
“You are not aging fast enough to make up for sixty-five years, Io!”
Ardenai winced involuntarily. He was tired, and perturbed by the tack of the conversation. “Your father is right, of course,” he muttered. “There is an age difference. One that may grow more pronounced as time goes on, but …”
“DAMN!” Io exploded, bounding to her feet. She was no less tired, and no more pleased than he was, and she read his admission as betrayal. “Precious Equus, Ardi! I thought you were on my side! I know there’s an age difference! What do you think I am, an idiot? I also know how old you’re likely to be when you die, and if I’m lucky, I might be still doddering around when that time comes. If I am, I’ll throw myself onto the pyre with thee, and consider my life well lived! And tell me, what does age have to do with anything? Do you think I desire you only for the passion of your body? If I did, would I choose to go to Telenir? No! I would stay home in your bed and at your beck and call! You are my friend! My companion in intellectual pursuits! I desire you because of who you are and have been! I …”
“Do you realize you’re yelling at your sire’s commanding officer in front of your sire, who is your commanding officer,” Ardenai asked, pinching the corners of his mouth between thumb and forefinger, admiring the cobalt flash of her irises even as he resisted the urge to stand up and swat her butt.
“You see?” she exclaimed, no more quietly than before, “You see the things you care about? Protocol, in the face of heartbreak! And you think I’m immature? At least I have the common sense to be dismayed when I ought!”
Ardenai turned to Abeyan with a gesture of apology. “Please forgive my wife. She’s tired. She forgets her position as Firstwife. You are right, of course. The fact that she bore a child as a child, makes her no less a child now, does it?”
“As you have so keenly observed, Firstlord, that is no child,” Abeyan sighed. “And pandering to my temper will not make it so. That is a very mature, and very calculating young woman. One who assumes if she can be abrasive enough to offend our sensibilities we will form an alliance against her, thus reuniting ourselves.”
“Another possibility,” Ardenai nodded, turning his gaze to the slender figure near the fire. “She is as manipulative and scheming as she is beautiful. She weaves her web and casts it, and woe to him who is caught. He is caught forever. The shape of the web may change, but never its power to hold.”
Io stepped stiff-backed from the hearth and nodded icily in Ardenai’s direction. “Firstlord, forgive my outburst. It was unbefitting my surroundings, my lord you, and my station. May I serve you and your guest in any way before I retire?”
“No,” Ardenai replied. “You may bid your father goodnight and take yourself to bed. You are exhausted, and your health will not yet tolerate such depleting. I will speak to my Senior Field Officer alone.”
Ardenai discreetly excused himself for a few minutes so Io and Abeyan could be alone, and when he returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses, Abeyan was by himself at the fire. “Will you sit with me?” Ardenai asked. Abeyan nodded, and they passed the shank of the evening in quiet conversation, much as they had done for many years.
Gideon came in and was introduced, though Jilfan never put in an appearance. “Are we to have problems from him, also?” Ardenai asked, gesturing Gideon into a spot on the couch. “Was he with Kehailan?”
“Not there, either, Sire. It is said that he rarely leaves Ah’krill’s side, nor does he wish to. They have found one another and are content in the finding. Master Abeyan?”
“So I hear. A good match, Ardenai.”
“Not mine, but theirs. I am pleased. I trust Io will be, as well.”
Abeyan flexed his hands back and studied his cuticles. “It is also said Jilfan believes there is no room for him in the life of the man who married his mother.”
Ardenai looked concerned. “Have I given him that impression?” he asked, as much of himself as the others. “Truth be told, I hardly know him. I hardly knew his sire past creppia nonage, nor his paternal grandparents. The boy and I are strangers. I have made overtures, but he’s having none of it so far.”
“Too,” Abeyan said, “You have Gideon, whom you have adopted, and upon whom you dote as shamelessly as ever I doted on Io. There is one difference. I had only Io. I had no one else to …” he paused, searching his vocabulary. “… to try to work into that special relationship. No one to wound by inadvertent exclusion. I see pain in your eyes, Ardenai, and I would not have it there. You have done nothing wrong, nor has Gideon. You bring out the best in one another, or so the stories go, and that is a most enviable circumstance.”
“Forgive me, Gideon, but I am appalled to be so transparent,” Ardenai murmured, and rose to stand by the fire, stretching his hands to the warmth.
“Do not misread yourself,” Abeyan said. “Remember, I have the collective senses of the Horse Guard at my fingertips. I see with many eyes, hear with many ears, evaluate from many perceptions. Many days have I spent with you on Calumet without ever having left my apartments.”
“Then you know that a lot of Jilfan’s problem stems from what he sees as his own inadequacies,” Gideon began, then paused, studying his father’s face. Abeyan was right, there was pain in Ardenai’s eyes. The near physical pain of exhaustion. He’d pushed himself, sleeping little, all the way from Calumet. Always, he’d seemed to be in pourparler with one person or another, either face to face or by SGA conferencing, meeting in transit with those whose territories they passed through on their journey, until his voice was raspy and his throat was sore. Tonight, he swallowed with difficulty, and he was cold, Gideon could sense it. It had grown much too late to be sitting in a muslin robe and bare feet, especially in this mausoleum.
“What are you thinking?” Ardenai asked, and Gideon realized he’d stopped speaking in mid-thought.
“Only that Jilfan needs time to find himself as a person of merit, and an adequate space in which to do it. I think you should both make yourselves available, and let him come to you. He has friends, and a mother to talk with. And two older brothers. He’ll be all right.”
“His paternal grandparents raised him very strictly, when Io was not around. It may not be so simple as you think for him to relax with himself,” Abeyan said.
“He’s Io’s son. He has Io’s genes,” Gideon smiled, as if that said everything. He slapped his knees and stood up to warm himself. “Tea, anyone? Sire, a heavier robe?”
Ardenai nodded, but Abeyan declined and took his leave of them. When Ardenai returned from showing him out, there were two steaming mugs of tea on the center table, a heavy woolen robe draped over Gideon’s arm, and a pair of knee high moccasins, lined with shearling wool, warming by the fire. “Here,” the boy said and held up the robe for Ardenai to shrug into. “The blue matches the tops of your ears. Why did you sit there and let yourself get so chilled?”
“Too intent on maintaining civilities, I suppose,” Ardenai replied, accepting the moccasins and sliding into them with a sigh of pleasure. “Until a few minutes ago, I actually felt a little too warm. Thank you for this, and the tea. Where … did you find the kitchen?”
Gideon pointed. “Around there, close to the family dining room. That whole wall opens up under the middle part of the upper level staircase. You mean you haven’t eaten yet? These people need to take better care of you.”
“They brought dinner in. Io said there was no kitchen in here.”
“There isn’t. There’s just that thing that spits food and eats dishes, like on the clipper, only bigger.”
“Yes. A kitchen. Or what passes for one in apartments such as these, where people are assumed to be too busy to cook, and where there is a central kitchen in the building.”
“Oh. In that case, the kitchen is next to the little dining room, just like at Kehailan’s, which is why I know where it is. More or less the same chambers, apparently, though this one is larger and more opulent… slightly to the cold and echo-y side, I might add, just like his.”
“I’m trying to think of it as, historic,” Ardenai chuckled. “Pleasant evening?”
“Very. After two weeks on a clipper with four adults, all of whom want me to excel as a scholar, an evening of relative mindlessness was delightful. I’m sorry yours wasn’t so good. You mentioned a struggle to maintain the peace. Did you manage?”
“By the bloody nubs of my fingers, yes. We have established an uneasy truce, no more. For a while the conversation would flow, and then we would look at one another, and we were strangers, mutually trespassing on one another’s most valued property.”
“Io is not property, Sire. She is a person.”
Ardenai glared at him through the steam from his tea. “You choose at this point to become insensitive to implication?”
“Of course not. I see the trespass; you into his life to take his daughter, he back to make you feel guilty. But because Io is a person, and has made her decision, you must leave her out of it. That is what I meant by her not being property. You do not walk back and forth over her, but over each other. I am sorry. I know you have dreaded this possibility.”
“This is perhaps a wound which time must heal,” Ardenai said. He rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in his upturned palms, and contemplated the intricate grain in the wood of the central table. “Fascinating, this new vantage point of mine. As an ambassador from Equus, I saw only the good points of my world – expounded only those – believed them. Now, I look down through the veneer which protects us from the scrutiny of others, and I see fear, anger, jealousy, pettiness. Because it is expressed in civil tones does not make it civility. I fear we have worked long and hard as a race, and in some ways accomplished very little. Perhaps we should not have chosen to move backward. Perhaps a stable, immovable base, no matter how comforting, is counterproductive, inexpedient to true, unbridled progress.”
“Isn’t that kind of the definition of civilization?” Gideon asked, stretching out on the luxuriant wool carpet in front of the hearth to toast his backside. “That need to recognize both the strong points and the weak ones, and try to get them more balanced?”
“Is it? Gideon, civilization is found in relationships. Do you know what makes you so warm, and so wise? That which is loosely called humanity. Your innate ability to feel and to care and to project yourself into the position of others.”
“Exactly those things which make you the leader you are, my friend. Are you saying your people do not have these qualities?”
Ardenai shook his head slowly from side to side. “I … no. I’m not sure what I’m saying, because I’m not sure what I’m feeling. It’s probably just this whole thing with Abeyan, and the coolness I’m feeling from Ah’krill.”
“Then let me tell you what I felt, and saw, my first day as an Equi citizen, in my hours sitting in the chambers of the Great Council. I feel wisdom here, and a deep, serene sort of kindness which is giving, not lending in nature. I see a world of people who adore you, and who would follow you anywhere, so you’d best be careful where you lead them. You speak of the ability to project oneself into the position of others? I can do it, and not very well, with one person at a time. You are clear headed enough to do it for a whole world. You object to anger and jealousy expressed in civil tones? I have seen it expressed with guns, knives, fists, open palms, penises, and spit. The Equi way is better. It is not perfect, maybe, but of enviable maturity, nevertheless. I, for one, am glad to be here.”
Ardenai was quiet for a long time – eyes closed – only the occasional shifting of his fingers indicating that he was awake. “So,” he said at last. “Thus endeth my first day as the absolute ruler of all Equus. Why does that sound so kraaling funny? I’m more worried about whether there are dental picks in the lavage than I am about the impression I made on the Great Council.”
“Face it, Dad. You’re no despot,” Gideon laughed. “Fortunately, Equus doesn’t need one. Probably wouldn’t tolerate one for very long, despite what history tells us. That’s where Sarkhan made his mistake, in thinking she would. He approached the whole campaign from the wrong angle, or so says Konik. You, are what Equus needs. Someone to listen, to arbitrate, to nudge here and pull back there, step in when necessary, step back the rest of the time, and to be there always, as a father should be. As you are now doing for me.”
“And as my sire has always done for me,” Ardenai said firmly, rising from the couch and extending his hand to Gideon. “Up. Off the floor and off to bed with you, young man. Tomorrow you shall meet the ultimate keeplord and his gentle wife. Tomorrow, all praises to the Wisdom Giver, we shall be truly home.”