“This is an awful thing to admit not knowing,” Gideon said as they were eating a hurried breakfast, “but where exactly are we?” He reached for another piece of cheese-stuffed toast, and gestured out the large, steeply vaulted casement to his left with it before bringing it to his mouth. “And don’t say, Equus, because I can see you getting ready to do that. I honestly don’t know what continent we’re on, or the name of the city we’re in. You’ve always just said, ‘The Great House,’ or ‘The Great Council,’ but the city must have a name as well.”
“You do know there are three continents, right?” Kehailan asked, looking over his cup.
Gideon nodded. “Um hm. Andal, Benacus, and Viridia, plus the island chain known as Achernar, which is where most of the serpent people live, and the big islands of Dragonspine, Old Reefs and Anchor…” he thought a moment, then recited, “and the smaller islands of Shelt and Claw.”
“Correct,” Ardenai smiled.
“Plus we have two big ice caps, one at the top and one at the bottom,” Io put in. “And you’re pronouncing the mid-continent wrong. The emphasis goes on the first syllable. BEN -uh – kus, not Ben – AHH – kus.”
“Benacus,” Gideon repeated, and got a nod of approval from Io. “Is that where we are?”
“No,” Ardenai said, biting into a peach and leaning over his plate to catch the juice. He swallowed and said, “We’re on the most ancient continent of Viridia, not far from the westernmost tip, close to the sea, and smack on the equator. Not that it won’t snow here. It does, and it will. Even though we get considerable heat in the summers, it gets chilly everywhere, because we are a cool planet. As we go home today we will be traveling inland nearly to the center of the continent, and then north to the sea again.”
“Correct,” his father said, and took another bite of peach. “The Viridian Sea. Here, we are on the straits of Viridia. When we get to my father’s keeps, we will be on the North Viridian Sea. If we went the other way, we’d be on the South Viridian Sea.” Ardenai wiped his hands on his napkin and dabbed at his chin. “At least we got home in time for the late peaches. The city we are in is called Thura, or The City of The Great House of Equus. It is our planetary capital. There are three continental capitals, plus capital cities for each of the regions on each of the continents and each of the islands. We do need to finish up, or we’re going to miss our tube.”
“I wish I was coming along,” Kehailan said, “but … duty calls. We need to get back to SeGAS-5 and pick up a science team for the Vandaval system. Something about studying a gas giant. I have arranged for the time we will need as a family at Mountain hold, and if nothing else, I’ll meet you there.” He rose from the table, kissed Io, embraced his father and Gideon, and strode out.
“Gee, Dad,” Gideon said, staring after him. “He looks really spruce. I wanna be a space-man, too.”
“Believe me, little fella, you are,” Ardenai retorted, and made shooing motions toward the door. “We do need to go.”
Io hung back a little, and Ardenai’s strong arm came around her waist as he propelled her toward the door. “He knows where to find us if he chooses to come,” he said quietly in her ear, kissing its tip as he did so, and she nodded sadly. They looked up and down the long, wide hall before stepping into the lift, but Jilfan was nowhere to be seen.
Io sighed but said nothing, and as they exited through one of the side doors of the Great House and into the awakening streets of Thura, her mood lifted and she began pointing things out to Gideon as they walked. The rising sun was slanting onto the broad, white-cobbled avenues, brushing them to gold with its long, slim fingers of light, and Gideon thought he had never seen anything so beautiful and clean.
“This is such a huge city,” he said, “surely people don’t walk everywhere, but I don’t see any conveyances of any kind. Do the people ride horses, or what? I don’t see any horse … sign of them.”
“Horses are for parks and countryside,” Io chuckled. “We ride them in the city only on state occasions, like yesterday. And we do walk a great deal. It’s one of our national pass-times. As you can see by the numbers of runners and joggers out this morning, that, too, is a favored exercise. As to actual conveyances, most of the market carts stay to the back alleys unless they are street vendors. There are tracks up from the tube system for them to travel on. We almost never see a vehicle of any kind on the avenues.”
“And as for the manner in which the people themselves travel if they wish to go any distance, or if they choose not to walk to someplace closer by, you’re about to be introduced to one of the ancient wonders of Equus,” Ardenai smiled. He nodded to a woman who greeted them, and gestured toward a stone archway between two buildings. “Right this way.”
They entered a tunnel … though that’s not what it seemed to be … it was too light and airy, and considerably much too large for a tunnel … but it sloped gently down, and as Gideon looked past the people and the many greetings, he realized that a wide center section of the floor was moving, half in each direction, and that many of the people were whizzing in both directions at the pace of a fast trot. To their far left, he could see market carts, loaded with fresh produce and other goods, moving briskly along tracks which also moved in both directions. Another three or four minutes’ walk put them in the center of a hub from which other tunnels extended, each with a number above it.
“Districts,” Ardenai explained, pointing toward one with his chin and steering Io in that direction. “We decided long ago that if our world was going to have breathable air and drinkable water, we were going to have to do away with the combustion engine, which we did. Most of our power is geothermal, as our world is volcanically very active, and we are blessed with a superfluity of exceptionally hot, highly pressurized water. We also use a great deal of wind and solar power. We use the ocean waves and currents to power factories, city lights, all kinds of things. And this,” he said as they approached the platform, “is what generates the fire in our fireplaces at the Great House. It’s a precursor of time whip technology. This is an older, slower version. It was designed by a friction engineer named Balearic, to honor the rising of the Eighth Dragonhorse, which, much to his surprise, turned out to be him. Anyway, it’s been around about thirty-five hundred years, but it’s extremely efficient, as you will see. It works like a slingshot, using the power of the planet’s rotational force. You do realize we’re spinning extremely fast, over a thousand miles an hour?”
“Um hm,” Gideon said, trying to look everywhere at once. There was a soft hiss, a breath of hot air, and where nothing had been a moment before, a gleaming silver tube with a pointed nose sat waiting. It was behind a very heavy pane of something clear, and represented everything Gideon had ever imagined when he’d pictured far-away planets and alien ways of life.
After ten seconds of something that sounded like a huge fan blowing … or maybe the sound of something sucking … the pane shot upward and disappeared, and the whole side of the thing opened up without making a sound. It was empty. There were rows of comfortable seats, reclining armchairs with footrests which faced each other across a wide aisle, and they entered with everyone else and sat down.
“Just made it,” Ardenai said. “But just is good enough.”
“There are cargo carriers, also,” Io explained, “and horse haulers. This one is just for passengers. Some people find it a little disconcerting when it first starts. It feels like it’s leaning back and launching itself, but the feeling passes quickly.”
“How do the horses like it?” Gideon asked uneasily. “And … where’s Pythos? When did we lose Pythos? I haven’t seen him or Teal since we left the Great Council yesterday.” Gideon sounded a little alarmed, and Ardenai realized how new everything was for him, and how intimidated he must be feeling.
“I’m guessing that even as we speak Pythos is already sprawled in the branches of the biggest of the myrianotus trees in our garden,” he chuckled. “I had to stay last night to accept visitors. He didn’t. He and Teal both went straight to Ah’din’s kitchen for dinner. We’ll see them here in a bit.”
“They got there that fast?” Gideon scowled. “Didn’t you say we’re going nearly halfway across the continent?”
“Um hm, in your terms, thirty-two hundred and seventy-two miles,” Ardenai said. “And we’ll have to change tubes once.”
Despite the Firstlord’s long, split-sleeved tunic and lack of any other ornamentation, people were making polite note of him behind their hands, and it was embarrassing Ardenai, which amused Gideon. On how many worlds could the planetary leader go about his business untrammeled by security or pageantry? Not on Declivis, for sure, and that was still Gideon’s only measure of the universe.
Io engaged herself in conversation with the woman sitting next to her, and Ardenai leaned his chair back and closed his eyes. He looked comfortable, and Gideon was tempted to do the same thing, but there was a soft, building … noise … not quite a whine … but a sound as though something with incredible tensile strength were being stretched to the breaking point … not loud, but intense … Ardenai’s hand closed over his … and for the space of five seconds Gideon felt as though his intestines were being whirled around the inside of his ribcage like water being swung overhead in a bucket – first one way, then the other.
The sound stopped, Gideon’s guts slopped into the center of his body, and he sagged and exclaimed, “OH HELL, OH SHIT! Oh … I mean … golly gee whiz, that was an unpleasant little surprise, Dad. You couldn’t have told me just a bit about what to expect?”
“Doesn’t pay to tense up,” Ardenai drawled, and his eyes were twinkling with mischief. “Really, it doesn’t. Do you feel … better?”
“Than what?” he shuddered, still wondering if he’d wet his pants. “Surely they don’t do that to horses. It would scare them to death. Surely pregnant women don’t ride this thing? Please tell me the ones for getting around the city don’t do this!”
Ardenai fought back his laughter and worked on a concerned, parental look. “The locals are much, much slower. This is a long-distance express,” he said comfortingly. “Equi anatomy is slightly different from yours. We’re a little better anchored inside. On the way back we’ll put a binder on you, and you won’t feel the slingshot so much. As to the horses, those transports are considerably slower also.”
“Forget the binder. Remind me to nicker next time,” Gideon muttered, and began to look around. “We’re outside!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t realize this whole … vehicle was a big window. It looked solid.”
“It is solid, and we’re not outside,” said the girl who had come to sit across from Gideon. She had long, thick auburn hair pulled back at the crown, and those green Equi eyes, and a nice, even smile. “I’m Ah’brianne,” she said. “Timor Ah’brianne Ah’mae. You must be Ardenai Gideon Morning Star.”
“What makes you think that?” he asked, half teasing, “and what do you mean, we’re not outside?”
“I’m assuming you’re Gideon because you’re sitting between the Firstwife and the Firstlord of Equus, who was also my creppia nonage teacher and still is my neighbor. Hello, Ardenai Teacher,” she smiled, and for the first time there was a hint of shyness.
“Hello, Ah’brianne, it’s good to see you,” Ardenai grinned, and leaned back again in his chair, closing his eyes.
“Come, sit with me, so we don’t holler back and forth and disturb your parents,” she said.
His parents? The notion was startling enough to make Gideon jump a little and color in the face as he glanced at Io, seeing if she was offended. She just gave him a bland look and made a little motion with her hand that said, well, get over there, so he went. He settled himself, realizing there was no longer any sense of motion at all. “What do you mean, we’re not outside?” he said again.
“We’re seeing the outside,” she explained, “It’s being projected in here, but we’re actually several hundred hands under the surface of Equus. Of course it’s not all of the outside, because we’re moving so fast it would just be a blur. The satellite imaging is far enough ahead of us that we can enjoy the view.”
“Just how fast are we moving, or do I want to know?” Gideon smiled
“Oh, not very fast after being in space, like you were,” Ah’brianne replied wistfully. “At top speed we’ll only go seven and a half transonics, or about fifty-seven hundred miles an hour. You were going times-light! What did it feel like?”
“Well, the takeoff was a lot smoother,” Gideon muttered. “Other than that, it felt like we were at a standstill, just like this does. Doesn’t this thing produce an awful lot of heat from the friction? How can it go that fast on the ground … in the ground?”
“The tunnel is super-cooled, and the friction is transferred to heat and power generation,” Ah’brianne shrugged. “It’s ancient technology, but it works, and it would be expensive, disruptive, and unnecessary to upgrade to something more modern.”
“So do you even have roads …” he poked a finger ceilingward, “… up there?”
“Of course we do,” she laughed, and Gideon realized she was pretty in a freshly-scrubbed woodsy sort of a way. He remembered Ardenai’s story of how he’d met Ah’ree, and how he’d realized what a pretty girl she was. “Do you think we just ride through the swaying grasses to get from place to place?” she asked with this … tone in her voice, and Gideon realized that while she might be pretty, she was brassy, and bossy, too, probably.
“I have no idea what to think. This is my first full day on Equus,” Gideon replied. “Tell me about Viridia.”
“Sure,” she said, removing her sandals and tucking her feet up beside her on the seat. “Viridia is the oldest settled continent. The Serpents settled the islands, of course, but as far as hominoids go, Viridia bears the oldest life-signs. We’re,” she paused to convert, “sixty-seven hundred and nineteen miles West to East, and fourteen hundred and ten miles North to South, so we’re long and narrow. We’re mostly rolling grasslands, steep canyons, and rocky outcrops, reasonably high hills, but not many high mountains. Only three major ranges, two on the western half of the continent, and then kind of a spine that runs down parts of the center, but it’s not so high as the others. Only about three thousand feet. What else?”
“Cities, towns, industries?”
Ah’brianne shook her head. “Viridia is a continent of keeps. Most of the industry is on Andal, or, more precisely, under Andal. Here, we raise horses, and crops like perennial alcibus and phaselus, mazea, chenopodium quinoa, and einkorn, which are all staples of our diet. And all kinds of fruit and nuts, except for ice-pomes.” She thought a moment. “We do raise regular varieties of pomes, though. I think they are a relative of what you would call … apples?” He nodded. “As a rule it doesn’t get cold enough long enough here for most varieties of ice-pomes. They come from Benacus, as a rule. But we raise lots of soft fruit, like blood fruit, sundrops, rhax vines, prunes, peaches and dragon’s eyes. Nuts, like ammons, klavis, and rugostum. And of course oranges, lemons and verdanbutters to the far south closest to Achernar. The Equi couldn’t survive a day without their oranges. We flavor everything with them. Sun flowers, too. Hundreds of thousands of acres of sun flowers. We’ll be coming up on them soon, so watch the monitors. It’s late Enalios, so early harvest is getting underway.”
She gestured toward the images, giving Gideon a split second to wonder if she’d ever stop talking about the first question, so he could ask her another, and if she’d get it answered before they got to their destination. The thought made him chuckle inside. “You’ll get to see the big harvesters working as we go by. And they’ll be working on our own keeps, as well. Anyway, there are five major cities on Viridia, four of them on the seacoast. One to the far west, that’s Thura, where we just came from. Two on the south coast, one on the east coast, and one in the middle, that’s Pomonar, the regional capital, where we’ll change trains – tubes.”
Gideon heard himself groan, and flushed with embarrassment. “It’s a local, and it has a section for horses, so it’s considerably slower,” Ah’brianne said quickly, sensing his discomfort. “We’ll be there in just a few minutes. Look, those are vineyards – Rhax vines – those are for wine. We’re neighbors, you know.”
“I heard you telling Ardenai. How close are you?”
“No more than seven furlongs or so … slightly less than a mile. We tend to measure the older keeps in terms of furlongs.”
“You’re close,” Gideon said. “I pictured the keeps as being huge, Sea keep and Canyon keep both. I guess they’re not.”
“Oh, but they are, over four hundred furlongs to a long side, and two hundred … look, the sun flowers!” They watched the red and gold fields, spreading in all directions like paint spilled on a bright green carpet.
“Amazing,” Gideon murmured. “What do you use them for?”
“Everything,” the girl said. “We make oil out of the seeds, eat them whole, make flour out of them, grind them to cook with, along with other seeds and nuts, and the residue becomes animal fodder.”
“You have domestic animals other than horses?”
“We have sheep for wool, milk and cheese, and some llamas and alpacas, as well, imported from the high places of Calumet and Terren,” Ah’brianne grinned. “Actually wool growing is a bigger industry on Benacus than it is here, at least the more exotic, higher elevation creatures. And we have some dogs imported from Calumet or Demeter. Big ones, mostly, for herding, and for protecting the sheep and smaller animals, but they have to be spayed or neutered before they can be brought onto the planet, lest they become feral and upset the ecology. That’s because we don’t have any native dogs of any kind, which I think is strange. We have horses and sheep, and wild kine and all kinds of what we call protopeds and you call … pants, or something like that, why not dogs? Some keeps use them, some keeps don’t. The dogs, I mean. We have lithopeds, too. That’s what we call the smallest …” she made claws and a meowing sound, and gave him a quizzical look. “Like in the house and the barn?”
“Cats?” The term she’d used registered. “And panthers. Is that what you meant?”
“Yes. Protopeds – panthers, not pants.” She giggled, ending in a little snort. “Cats – peds. And as I said, there are sheep, because we wear a lot of wool, and we Equi do love cheese, though many people stick strictly to products made from grains or vegetables. Anyway, as I was saying about the nature of keeps …” she slowed down momentarily, and gave him another quizzical look, “am I boring you?”
“Absolutely not. Please go on,” Gideon urged, smiling politely. The rate at which she could talk, the way she could spread her thoughts all over the place and still keep track of all of them … was amazing. He was both fascinated and impressed, and highly amused.
“Most of the keeps are rectangles, or something close, so in many cases there’s a point where four keeps come together. It was traditional for the four keeplords to build their homes in that area, keep naves, as they’re called, so that in case of emergency, one has neighbors. Your sire and his sire live exceptionally close, just a furlong or so apart. Mostly because that’s how the thermal pools distributed themselves in this area, which determined to a great extent where the most ancient dwellings were constructed, and too, because those two keeps, plus the third, which will probably be yours when you marry, by the way, and the fourth, which we lease from them, have been held as one in their family for many statute generations, so there’s no easement boundary.”
“Seems like you could get around pretty fast to get help if you needed it,” Gideon observed, indicating the tube.
“We have huge storms here, Gideon. Terrifying storms, sometimes. The kind of storm that can bat an Equi flyer right out of the air. The tubes may cease to function for days at a time. It’s rare, but it does happen at least once every cold season. It’s good to have neighbors, like Krush and Ah’rane, and Ardenai and Ah’ree …” she caught herself too late, and glanced in the Firstlord’s direction to see if he’d heard her. If he had, it wasn’t apparent. He was talking to the man next to him about the quality of horseshoes, and the comparative merits of the new membium alloy the Anguines were so excited about. Io, too, was engaged in conversation. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “Like Ardenai and Io. And of course Teal and Ah’din. They’re just the most wonderful people of all. They’re my fostering parents … in case I ever lost mine they would raise me as their own.”
“I’m confused. Who has the fourth keep?” Gideon asked, and Ah’brianne pointed with her chin. “Your sire. And his sire,” she said. “When I said those keeps had been in your family for many ages, I meant it. Keeps can’t be broken down, or split up, and they do not change hands unless the entire family dies out. That’s what I meant by the keep that would be yours. Huge holdings between the two of them, and not all here, I might add. Upland keep could be Ah’din and Teal’s, but they’re happier being with Ardenai, and Kehailan’s certainly no keeplord. He’s suspicious of anything with more legs than he has.”
“What if the keeplord doesn’t have any sons who want to farm? Then what?”
“Some lucky family gets to use it, like us,” she grinned.
Gideon looked puzzled. “I thought … there wasn’t any …” he shook his head and dug in his mind for the right way to phrase this. “I didn’t think anybody on Equus had any more than anybody else on Equus.”
“No one has to be hungry,” she twinkled. “There is no lack of education, or health care, or access to services. Every citizen has the opportunity to become what he wants to be, and every citizen is warm, and fed, and well-schooled. Every citizen has time off to travel, or engage in hobbies. We have all that. But we have people who value different things, and whose needs are simple by choice. We also have people who are slothful, or stupid, unambitious or just unwell. That kind of thing can’t be legislated, you know. There
are ample opportunities to succeed, but it’s not a requirement of citizenship.” There was that tone of voice again. Was she being sarcastic with him, and if so, why? Did he strike her as slothful or stupid? “But remember, we also have a Royal House, The Great House of Equus. Before your sire was Firstlord, he was a prince, like his sire before him. Like you are now. You will have opportunities for acquisition which may … pass others by. But that’s okay,” she hastened to add, seeing his discomfort. “On Equus, those of the Great House are not the idle rich. They work harder than any of us, and more is expected of them. Your sire being a prime example.”
“I’m not sure if this is a rude question to ask,” Gideon said, “so please tell me if it is, so I’ll know.” She nodded. “Is your sire a prince?”
“Yes. And it’s a fine question. My great-great grandsire and his wife on my father’s side were farmers on Calumet. They moved here when my great grandsire was a schoolboy. My sire is an agricultural specialist. My mother is a master weaver. We’re here.”
“What?” Gideon gasped, “Already? Oh, is this thing going to go through any kind of a reverse … whiplash performance, because if it is, I’ve got to grab something …” like my liver, he added under his breath.
“No. Look at the walls, Gideon. We’re here. We’re stopped. Come on.” She linked her arm through his and pulled him along with the other passengers getting off, greeting with nods and laughter those she knew, which seemed to be most of them. “We’re in Pomonar, which is our major central city, and our regional capital. It’s also the largest city on Viridia outside Thura. I think I told you that. Sometimes on the weekends we get together and come here for concerts or plays or other entertainments. You’re welcome to come with us.”
“Who is us?” Gideon queried, pulling his hips around a lady with a large market basket, and bumping Ah’brianne in the process. “Sorry,” he murmured, but she only giggled and tightened her grip on him.
“Young people from the keeps in the area, and from our village. Colts our age. It’s not anything the Firstlord’s son would bring embarrassment by doing. Does that worry you? Being the Firstlord’s son, knowing what kind of an example you have to set? Knowing that everybody’s judging your every move? It would worry me a lot, I’m afraid.”
“It wasn’t bothering me until now,” Gideon winced. “Where are we, is this our tube?”
“Yes. This is platform two. This tube will take us to the little village of Falconstones, on the coast, and after that we’ll travel by flyer.”
This tube was larger across, obviously built to trundle things as well as people, and the seating was not so luxurious, but it was comfortable, rather like the old atom powered buses Gideon had ridden as a small boy. He looked around for Ardenai and Io, and caught a nod from the Firstlord as he and Io settled further back on the tube. There was a rush like a roller coaster, but no more, and they were once again underway. Ah’brianne pointed out things as they passed … or seemed to pass … Gideon corrected his thought. Rolling fields, huge orchards, more sun flowers, and horses … everywhere. The most beautiful horses Gideon had ever seen in his life. There were huge horses, pulling farm machinery, like he’d seen on Calumet. He saw children on ponies, and horses being worked over fences and in arenas and round pens. They passed several farms, green and sweet-looking with lots of grass and long, low barns built of stone, with heavy sod roofs. Ah’brianne said they were small dairies, though he saw no sheep, and she said it was probably milking time. Within minutes, she said, “We’re here,” and Gideon could feel the tube glide to a stop.
When they exited, even before he could see it, Gideon could smell the sea. He’d only seen it once in his life, at a distance, when he and Ardenai had been sold to the slavers on Hector. Now, he hurried up to the surface and looked around, breathing in the salt air, hearing the cry of the sea birds, and savoring the breeze. Ah’brianne was chattering away, and despite her kindness, it was beginning to grate on Gideon’s nerves. The person he really wanted to share this moment with, was his sire. He began looking around, trying to figure out how to escape with a modicum of grace.
Are you in distress? Came Ardenai’s query. You look rather wild in the eyes.
His father’s voice startled him a little, but they’d been practicing, so Gideon squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated. C a n y o u h e a r m e ?
Perfectly well. No need to shout. What’s the matter?
It’s this girl. She’s very nice, but she’s asked me to go to town with her and the other young people our own age. Ardenai, I’ve never been a child, or a young person my own age. I wouldn’t have any idea what to do or how to act. She’s asked me if I want to go riding with her. I told her I didn’t have a horse, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade her. What does she want from me?
She just wants to be friends. She’s a very nice young woman from a very nice family, and you have nothing to fear from her. Nevertheless, if her chatter is becoming irksome, I shall rescue thee.
Please, yes. Thank you.
“Gideon,” came Ardenai’s unmistakable baritone, “attend, if you please, my son.”
He turned toward the sound, and gave his sire a wave. “I must go,” he said. “It was nice to meet you. I hope we’ll see each other again some time.”
“I’m right next door at Lea keep,” she grinned, gave his arm a little pat and vanished into the Hoplegyr crowd of market-goers.
Gideon trotted over to where Ardenai and Io were leaning against a pipe railing, looking down into the sea, and leaned with them, contemplating the surge of water below. “Amazing,” he breathed. “I thought there would be … what do you call them … beaches? And big, crashing waves.”
“There are,” said the Firstlord, “behind that outcropping and stretching away east of us there are two white sand beaches, complete with breakers, a very popular holiday destination when the weather’s hot. This is just a deep, sheltered cove, which makes it nice for a marina, where we tie our boats. See the one the color of wine with the diagonal gold stripes on its bow, and the tall mast? That one belongs to our family. Are you ready to go on to the keep, or would you rather feel the sand between your toes first?”
Gideon looked longingly in the direction of the sand, but he said, “There are beaches near Thura. You have been away from your home and family for a very long time. Let’s go on.”
Ardenai nodded and smiled. “Thank you,” he said. He turned back to Io, putting an arm around her shoulder and bending to kiss her softly on the cheek. “What’s the matter Fledermaus? You’re very quiet this morning.”
“I am wondering if …” she shrugged. “I just have a lot on my mind that we haven’t talked through, I guess. But there will be time for that later. Right now, let’s get you home.”
Ardenai took a deep breath and began to comprehend. “It’s your home, too, and my parents, are going to be so happy to have you in the family.”
“Unlike my sire?”
“I didn’t mean that. My parents have always loved you as a person, Io. The fact that you are now my wife, only adds to their affection. Come on, let’s get the flyer.”
It was an odd feeling, and it settled on the three of them despite their best efforts – that sense that they were suddenly a cobbled-together family, and that the man who had left alone as a Creppia Nonage teacher one Drasterigyre morning, was returning as the Firstlord of Equus, the Arms of Eladeus Incarnate, the Thirteenth Dragonhorse; bringing a new wife, and a new son, and pretty much a whole new dimension of life to the quietude of Canyon keep.
They got the sporty little Equi flyer from the place Ardenai had left it that fateful day, lifted off, and headed west, down the coast. “That was the village of Falconstones, by the way,” he said into the thickening silence. “It’s called that because the sea falcons nest in great numbers on those sea stacks just off the marina. They make a real mess of the boats, but they were there first, so there they stay.”
“Ah’brianne told me that,” Gideon sighed, and it made Ardenai chuckle.
“Talked holes in your hide, did she? She’s just trying to make you feel at home. You should have heard this one talk when she was that age … well, maybe a little younger. Papilli grow up fast. ”
Gideon’s face twisted with the question. “Just exactly how old is Ah’brianne, anyway?”
“Don’t focus on age,” Ardenai advised, “it’ll throw you. Remember that we Equi don’t figure age exactly as you do, and that we take much longer to get from puberty to maturity than Declivians do, and accept the fact that Ah’brianne is just about where you are in the growing up process.”
He deftly piloted the craft inland, crossing over a large estuary filled with birds. “This is where Canyon keep begins,” he said. “Its long side goes east along the coast, the short side goes south, so Falconstones is very close to our northeast corner. Lea keep lies beside it, sharing its long side, extending the short side further south, inland, following the river. Sea keep goes west along the coast and north from the central nave … where the four keeplords’ homes are … Upland keep goes west and south, lying beside Sea keep to the south. Right now we’re cutting diagonally across Canyon keep from northeast to southwest.”
“Ah …” Gideon did some mental mapmaking. “Got it. I think. We’re traveling more or less south, away from the sea. Therefore, the sea is to the north of us, Lea keep is to the south of us, which means it’s in front of us and to our left. Falconstones is east of us and back north to our left, and your sire is west of us to our right. Right?”
“Right. Go to the head of the class,” Ardenai chuckled, and Gideon flushed with pleasure.
They were following a wide gorge with rather shallow but precipitous sides in which Gideon could see caves, both large and small, and a verdant, heavily treed bottom through which ran a wide river of leisurely pace. The canyon rose to a steep, narrow mouth with a silver tongue of a waterfall spilling out of it, and beyond it, still climbing away, rolled the endless prairies of Viridia. From this vantage point it looked as though all of those prairies might drain down this graceful throat into the welcoming paunch of the sea. It was spectacular, and Gideon pictured himself riding a horse across that green expanse, and swimming in that river, and exploring in the caves, and wondering if … just maybe … he could make some friends his own age. He’d never known anyone, not a single person, his own age. If he had, he couldn’t remember.
Where the canyon flared out into a series of huge rock outcrops, in an area dotted with evergreen and deciduous trees, several large structures could be seen. Gideon guessed they were barns and stables, some free-standing, some seeming to be part of the rocks themselves, or set into caves. There was a neat collection of stone cottages, each with its own garden, and there were corrals, round pens, and training arenas of various sizes, including what appeared to be a hunt course and a polo field. This, put Squire Fidel’s holdings to shame, and for some odd reason, the thought delighted Gideon.
As they skimmed low over the main house, Pythos’ sleepy voice murmured, We are all at your house, Beloved, and Ardenai swung momentarily east to the other side of the river before lowering the craft again and setting it gently in a large, semi-circular courtyard where five people stood waiting. Gideon recognized two of them: Teal, and Jilfan.
Io clapped her hands with delight, and as her laughter rippled out of the open flyer, Krush’s boomed in.
“Well, it’s about time you two sparring partners got together!” he laughed, hurrying toward them, “and I see the new baby’s already up off the floor and ready to do a day’s work in the fields! Welcome home, all of you!” By that time Ardenai was out of the flyer and in his father’s arms, and Jilfan and Ah’din were hugging Io, and Gideon stepped out to find himself being held at arm’s length by one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen in his life. “And you, Ardenai Gideon Morning Star, are so very welcome here!” she said, and embraced him with such tenderness that it brought tears to his eyes. He knew who she was, of course; she looked just like her son, but she said it anyway. “I am your grandmother, Ah’rane.”
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I am so blessed to be here.”
“Give me that boy!” Krush demanded, and Gideon found himself released by Ah’rane and squeezed until his bones cracked by a good looking man slightly shorter and more wiry than Ardenai, whose hair was turning silver, and whose grip was absolutely phenomenal. He was again held at arm’s length and studied. “Welcome home, Gideon,” he said in a voice which carried laughter just beneath the surface. “Your uncle Teal thinks the world and all of you. I need to sneak off and hug that new daughter-in-law of mine, but I’ll be back for you.”
He turned with amazing quickness and swept Io off her feet and into his arms with a shout of laughter. “You finally got him!” he crowed. “I knew you would! I’m so glad. You’re going to be so good for him! And how are you feeling, little one? Am I roughing you up too much?”
Gideon watched Ardenai smile and walk slowly into his mother’s arms as if savoring every step of the experience, and an arm came around his shoulder. “I need to hug you, as well,” said the soft, shy voice, and Gideon looked into the third pair of beautiful, jungle green eyes. “I’m Ah’din. We’re so very happy to have you join our family.”
“Indeed,” said a familiar voice, and Teal was hugging him, too. At that point it really hit him. Teal, Master of Horse, warrior extraordinaire, was his uncle.
“Thank you,” Gideon said, and realized it would do for his entire vocabulary. “Thank you.”
Ardenai sighed deeply and relaxed in his mother’s embrace, lips against her neck, enjoying the familiar fragrance of her skin and hair. “I have a question I need to ask you,” he said, and his eyes twinkled mischievously as he pulled back to look at her. “I … well, people are saying that I’m … adopted. Am I adopted?”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you’re not adopted,” his mother said, and burst into peals of the merriest laughter Gideon had ever heard. It was like music, and he was enchanted. “Who would tell thee such an outrageous thing, Ardi?”
“Oh, I have missed you so much,” Ardenai laughed. He held her back to feast his eyes on her. “I’m sorry for any alarm I’ve caused you, Mother. I would have gotten word to you had I been able to.”
“You’re forgetting that Josephus was here. He told us quite a bit of the story,” she said, and took his face in her hands. “Still, it’s the last time I’m sending a shopping list with you, young man. Are you in good health? You’re thin, and your face … feels very hot. Ardi, you’re running a fever.”
He took her hands, pressed them together, and kissed them. “I’m in good health. The hard exercise has done me good. I’m going to get Pythos to spend some time sanding and priming on me here soon. I’m eating like a horse, and,” he chuckled and looked abashed, “I lost that list someplace. I’m sorry. It’s probably in the clothes I was wearing. I lost those, too. All told, it was rather a rough day in the city for me. People did bad things to me without even asking.”
“I got that impression from the cosmoscope,” she said with a smile and a shudder. “But after all, you found a fine wife, and a beautiful son, and most important, you found your way home. Now, I need to go welcome your new bride to the family before your father mauls her completely to death. Are you home for a bit?”
“Yes. Go on. I’ll keep your spot for you.” He patted his chest, and his mother walked away with a gentle laugh to embrace Io.
“Welcome home,” Ah’din said, and Ardenai caught her up with a laugh of pure joy.
“Precious Equus! I am so glad to be home! My beautiful sister.” He stopped speaking suddenly, and took a deep breath, and fought back sudden tears. It was over. This part was over, the loneliness was past.
She, too, took his face in her hands and looked worried. “Mother is right, Ardi. You have a fever.”
“It’s just the excitement of being home, nothing more,” he laughed. He put one arm around his sister, one arm around Gideon, and together they walked through the fragrant and bountiful gardens and up a series of sweeping shallow steps and broad patios to the big front door. “We must stop here,” he said. “I have a duty to perform.” As the words came out of his mouth the door opened, and in the doorway stood Abeyan.
Ardenai was visibly startled, then relieved, and he smiled at his old friend. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Io will be so happy.”
When Io drew abreast with Jilfan and Krush, Ardenai bowed formally to her, and held out his hand. “Wife,” he said, “this is the home I offer thee, and these the family. Will you have me?”
“I will have thee,” she responded, beaming at her father, and Ardenai took her in his arms and kissed her thoroughly.
As was tradition he led her to each room, then into their bedroom, accompanied by the family, who paused in the doorway. “We are home,” he said, seating her gently on the huge, hand carved mahogany bed. “Mother, will you and Abeyan attend us, please?”
“We will attend thee,” they responded, and stepped into the room with the couple, closing the door behind them.
Ardenai took a deep breath to steady himself, then swallowed his embarrassment, stood before his wife and undressed, one piece of clothing at a time, starting with his tunic and ending with his briefcloth. Then he extended his phallus from its sheath, so she could ascertain his length and girth. She nodded. She unfastened the frogs which held the top of her robe and exposed her breasts to him, then dropped her undergarments, but not the robe itself, and nodded again. “I am thine,” she said. He took her hands, kissed them as he had at their marriage ceremony, and led her to the priapic bench where he had led Ah’ree on their wedding night. “What is mine, I give thee,” she said. She raised the back of her robe, knelt, and presented for him.
“What is mine, you may have,” he replied. He focused on her, the shape of her, the ripeness, and grew hard, his semen beginning to drip, providing added moisture with which to penetrate. He laid himself along her back, took his phallus in one hand, using his fingers as a depth gauge, and mounted her slowly and carefully, knowing this would be good practice for that time when she was heavy with child, or when he was mounting a woman who had never been with a man. When he was fully inserted he pushed gently, and she braced her elbows and pushed up toward him, moaning with pleasure, her motions demanding more. He straightened up then, and caught her thighs, and pulled her back, and up, so the entry was more direct, and she cried out with pleasure at the position, and he groaned, and lifted a little more, bringing his legs closer together and driving his phallus into her, feeling keenly the strong waves as she peaked, and with equal keenness, Abeyan’s eyes from a few feet away. She was enjoying having him watch, Ardenai could sense it. He held himself until she was well satisfied, then lowered her and let himself release. As he began to ejaculate he withdrew, pushed her robe up further, and finished by ejecting his semen onto the small of her back and her buttocks, indicating to Abeyan that he was able to control himself, even in the heat of passion.
When he’d stopped shuddering, and dropped his head to breath a space, Ah’rane came over with a damp towel, fragrant with pineapple basil, and wiped the mottled blue, viscid material away. She spoke so quietly to Io that neither man heard, then said, “I am satisfied with this coupling,” and left the room.
From his seat at the main hearth of the huge hub which formed the living areas of the house, Gideon saw her depart with the towel in her hand, and cocked an eyebrow in the direction of Teal and Krush. “What’s that all about, or do I want to know?”
“The father of the bride, and the mother of the groom, watch the couple have sexual intercourse…” Krush began, and Gideon writhed in his chair.
“Eww, El’Shadai, that’s just barbaric!” he squeaked, clapping his hands to his cheeks.
“Only if you consider sexual intercourse something to be ashamed of, or to be hidden away,” Krush said, and was quiet as Teal’s thoughts momentarily touched his own. “It’s a cultural thing,” he went on, “Probably comes from watching horses all the time,” he grinned at Gideon. “As a rule, we do keep our love lives private.”
“I know it sounds intrusive, but it’s a very old tradition,” Teal chuckled. “It allows the father to make sure his daughter is not being hurt, and it allows the mother, who is assumed to be an experienced lover, to give her son advice about how to be gentler, or more effective. It really makes sense if you think about it.”
“But they were both with trainers growing up, and they’ve been married for over a season now, certainly long enough to have figured out what’s right and what’s wrong with their technique.”
“It wouldn’t matter if they’d been married for years,” Krush said. “When they have intercourse in their home for the first time, they are supervised. I’m pretty sure more than a few couples forgo this, but because Ardenai is Firstlord, he knows sooner or later it will be questioned. He wants everything in place to please Ah’krill and her ilk.”
“Did you go through this?” Gideon asked, flipping a hand toward the bedroom and looking into Krush’s open, good humored face.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And Teal had me standing in front of him, as well, and that was on their wedding night. Their very first time. I was comforted to know that he would never hurt my daughter, that his training was sufficient.”
“So where’s Abeyan?”
“He probably wants to see Ardi sweat,” Krush chuckled. “He’s not very happy about the age difference, or so he says. I think he’s grasping enough that the thought of anyone taking anything he considers his, is abhorrent to him.” He looked over his shoulder to see where Jilfan was, and turned back when he heard laughter from the kitchen area of the hub. “Forgive me. It is not my place to assume the thoughts of another. This may go on for a while, and they’ll want to rest a bit and freshen up. Why don’t you and your uncle and I go walk about a bit and familiarize you with things?”
“I’d like that,” the boy smiled, rising from the chair, and he realized he was nearly as tall as his grandsire. It made him proud, as though they were really related, and then it made him feel foolish. “If you could just show me the lavage first, I’d appreciate it,” he murmured.
“Let me show you your room,” Teal said. “Ah’din’s been fussing over it. Sire, if you would please tell my wife where we’re going?”
Krush nodded and got to his feet, taking his heavy pottery mug with him in the direction of the kitchen, and Teal gestured Gideon through one of the archways which flanked the fireplace. “This house is so wide in the front. It has that wide front porch,” Gideon said. “Does it still have eight spokes like the one at South Hold?”
Teal looked at him, eyes lighting with pleasure. “You are just going to love being a part of this house!” he said enthusiastically. “This house is huge – built to shelter an extended family – ancient in design, dating to the Equi Awakening – the original Equi sunburst. Instead of having eight spokes with knobs on the end, this house has seven big fins and a central hub – like a windmill. Picture one in your mind, then set it flat on the ground, remove the fin in front of you, and push the others back to form a slightly obtuse angle. Can you see that in your mind?”
“Maybe I could if I knew what an obtuse angle was,” Gideon muttered, slightly embarrassed.
“Look,” Teal said. He put his hands together so his thumbs were on top and just the tips of his fingers touched. “If I close this, by bringing my palms closer together, I’m creating an acute angle, less than ninety degrees. If I push it the other way from ninety degrees, but not back to a straight line, I’m creating an obtuse angle.”
“Got it,” Gideon said.
“Can you see the shape now?” Teal asked, forming it with his hands.
“I think so, yes,” he grinned. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. If you’re still shaky on it, we’ll grab the Equi flyer and go up for a bird’s perspective. Come. Ah’din and I debated a bit about which room should be yours. We weren’t sure which view you’d like best, but we decided on the one facing north. It makes the room a bit cool, but there’s a fireplace, and the floors and walls throughout the house are thermal, so if you just turn that blue valve in the lavage, you can heat your room to your liking. The trees and the river are beautiful from here, plus you can see the horses if you lean a bit.”
Gideon wanted to laugh, and jump up and down and clap his hands like a child, not so much because he had a room to call his own, but because this busy man and his equally busy wife had cared enough about him – Gideon – to fuss over choosing a room for him. Little did they know, he’d have been content to curl by the fire the rest of his life… or maybe they did know. Gideon smiled at Teal and blushed with the thought.
Teal opened the door and ushered Gideon into a room which had a pleasing series of gently angling walls. “Part of a fin,” Gideon said, mostly to himself, and Teal nodded and smiled. The V shaped back wall was devoted to casements, with seats and bookcases full of books under the shorter ones in the center. Flanking them were two more casements which were the width of a door and stretched from floor to ceiling. A door-height piece of glass in each of these opened out into the back gardens and the woods and river beyond. All the casements were the same shape, rising with straight sides, then tapering in almost to a point, like the roof of a tall, slender house. Huge Equi pines stood outside, and Gideon could hear the wind gently soughing through them on its way in from the sea. There was a big, wonderfully eccentric bed molded into one corner and extending like a fan into the room. It had a bowed footboard made of heavy wood which gleamed a deep, burnished red, and it was clothed with soft, cream colored sheets, a creamy wool comforter, and a scattering of fluffy pillows in various sizes and colors. Near the small fireplace, there was an arm chair with blue wool upholstery and a green woolen lap robe tossed over one arm. There was a long, rather shallow desk with a reading lamp, a closet with hanging space and shelves, and behind the fireplace, a small lavage with a basin, a water closet, and a shower. “It’s perfect,” Gideon said. “This is all mine? I’d be happy to share it. It’s so … big.”
“It’s all yours, though you share this fin of the house with your brother, and your cousin, Criollo, who is my son. You’ll meet him here someday soon,” Teal said. “And … there’s a snug little room for Jilfan, if he wants it. He gestured out through the open casement. “Let’s walk around the house and meet your grandsire. I think he’ll expect us to do that. I’ll wait outside for you.”
Gideon relieved himself at leisure, partly because it felt good, and partly because he wanted time to absorb what was happening. He was home. Not in a walk-up, two room, cold water flat with a single, fly-specked window, where he slept on the floor behind the couch, and listened to his mother having sex and fighting with a different man every night, but in a house of white stone, with beautiful gardens, and trees and horses. A house where there was enough room for him, and enough food, and more than enough affection. He had a father who loved him, and grandparents who were amazing people, and Teal was now his kinsman. He had a room all his own, and an education to be had for the asking. He’d even met a girl who seemed to like him. Not that being a girl mattered, he told himself. She was his age, and she liked him. And … she was a girl.
He thought about what Ardenai and Io were doing in their chambers at this moment, and looked down at himself, giving his organ a little shake, and wondering what it would be like to have it grow rigid enough to insert into someone else – knowing he should desire that – wanting to desire that, for all the good it would do him. There was a distant memory of pain, and a child’s screams for help which were never answered, and with a cold gasp he fastened his pants, dashed water on his hands and face, and nearly ran from the lavage to Teal’s side.
“You needn’t have hurried,” Teal smiled, but he read fear in the boy’s eyes, and put an arm around him as they walked. “Out here somewhere,” he said as they passed through one of the autumn gardens, “yes … there …” he pointed up into a tree with the spreading branch habit of a Calumet sycamore, but the bark and leaves of a blanched aspen, “if you look closely, you will see your friendly serpent physician, robes and dignity cast aside. Taking the long rest he has so richly earned.”
Gideon could see him – barely – green among the green leaves, twined about a limb which slanted slightly upward. His arms dangled limply, stubby legs hanging to either side of the branch, head twisted at an odd angle. He looked perfectly comfortable. Actually, he looked dead as a door hinge, but Gideon didn’t say so for fear Pythos wasn’t as asleep as he seemed.
Krush hailed them and they stepped up their pace, walking toward the river bridge and a set of long, low stables with gleaming white slabschist sides and thick roofs which were alive and growing. Were all the roofs like that? Gideon turned around and looked back up the slope to the main house. It blended so perfectly into its surroundings he almost couldn’t see it, and they were only a hundred yards away. When he focused on it, that roof was alive, also. With a thrill which ran up his spine he realized this house was a living thing, carved from the native alabaster eons ago, and rooted to this spot for eternity. “Amazing,” he said, and the two men with him laughed and nodded.
Across the river and another two hundred yards had them walking the packed earth of the horse complex. It reminded Gideon again of South Hold, of the parade grounds, and momentarily, of death.
“Now I know your father will want you to have a horse,” Krush said, leading the way into one of the stables. “So I thought you might like to take a look at a few in advance.” He gestured toward a stall with a large paddock behind, “We have Ethelred the Bold. What do you think?” Gideon looked over the stall door and laughed. Ethelred was asleep, and no taller than Gideon’s waist. He was ancient and moth-eaten, his lips and ears slack with contentment. “He was Io’s when she was a babe. Like Io, he can be a little wild at times. Might be a little too much horse for you just yet.”
They walked further on, and Krush gestured again. “This is Pavil, one of Ardi’s polo ponies. He’s not quite finished, but he’ll make a nice mount.”
Pavil was big and black, and while he was beautiful, he was not inviting. “Really, I don’t need a horse,” Gideon said, though every bone in his body belied his words.
“We’ll find you one, don’t you fret,” his grandsire said. “Let’s just keep looking.”
He met Teal’s favorite horse, Duffy, a black and white spotted gelding with pale blue eyes and a sweet face, and Ah’din’s palomino gelding, Thicket. Ah’rane’s roan mare, Spreckles, Criollo’s tall paint, Bimini, and Krush’s silver stallion, Beckett, who was absolutely beautiful … even Io’s little copper mare, Eubie, which Krush had brought from the stables of the Great House as a welcome home surprise.
“Then we have this one,” Krush said, crimping a grin. “She just got here last night. See what you think, and if you like her, she’s yours.”
Gideon looked into the long, sunny paddock beyond the stall, and shouted with joy. “Tolbeth? It’s Tolbeth!” he exclaimed. “It’s Tolbeth!” He hugged Krush, hugged Teal, vaulted the stall door, and ran to his mare, calling her name as she jogged toward him, nickering in reply.
“Brushes are in the maroon boxes,” Krush called after him.
“Your saddle’s in the tack room at the end of this run,” Teal added. “She could use some exercise.”
The boy waved absently, but whether he’d comprehended or not was anybody’s guess. “I do like that boy,” Krush said. “Make a keeplord out of that one.”
“As your son said you would,” Teal chuckled. He sobered and added, “Shall we go back to the house and see if Abeyan’s taken his hand off the throttle yet?”
He had. Finally. Ardenai sprawled bonelessly beside Io on the big bed, stale and sweating, but loathe to get up and go to the effort of bathing. “You must be half-cooked in that robe,” he said to the ceiling.
“No. I’m cooked. Period.”
“We could have taken it off.”
“And have him see that scar on my belly? He’d be wearing your phallus as a belt by now, with your teeth for clasps. Besides, it was … pleasant. It made me feel virginal.”
“Well, good. The rest of this ceased to be pleasant early on, wouldn’t you say?”
“No, I enjoyed it, and it didn’t go on nearly as long as I would have liked it to,” Io said, and Ardenai could hear the smile in her voice. “I think my sire enjoyed it, as well, and I was happy to give him that pleasure. I think he was being you, remembering my mother. She was a little thing, too. But you would know that better than I.”
“Yes,” Ardenai said. “And you may well be right.” He shifted, and caught his breath.
“Are you all right?”
“I ache all over,” he admitted, and added a chuckle. “I considered myself quite the athlete, now I don’t know. I wasn’t worth much this morning.”
“You seemed a little flushed earlier,” Io said. “After spending two weeks in a pressurized atmosphere, conferencing with everybody and their kin, and then having to deal with the stress and the humidity, I’m not surprised you’re a little out of form.”
There was a gentle tap on the door, and when Io said, “Come in,” a serving cart of hot tea and chilled fruit appeared, and then Ah’rane’s smiling face. “Oh, you angel,” Io breathed, and got up to help her while Ardenai pulled a sleeveless muslin robe over his head and got up on the other side of the bed.
He stood a few seconds, realizing he was a little woozy, and then managed a smile for his mother as he came to give her a kiss. “Thanks for the help,” he said. “I wish you’d stayed.”
“If I’d stayed, there would have been a fight,” she said ominously. “Please, have a snack and then sleep until lunch time. I’ll call you with time enough to bathe.”
“Absolutely not,” Ardenai said, kissing her hair in passing. “I came home to see my family and to enjoy our keep and our gardens. I can’t do that from my bed, no matter how inviting it may seem. Besides, this is our Keep Day. It’s a day to celebrate, not slumber. I’m just going to take a quick bath, and I’ll join you ladies on the patio in a few minutes, if that’s suitable.”
“Marginally,” his mother said dryly, “but we’ll let it pass.” The tea tray rolled on out into the garden, and Ardenai headed for the bathing pool, with Io saying that when he was done and could keep his mother company, she’d indulge, as well … not that she needed it, mind you.
He only needed to freshen up a little, he told himself, dropping his robe and wading in. The water did feel good. He’d been too warm, but now he felt a little too cool, and the heat from the thermals was comforting as he settled into it. Part of him felt … fussy, and he searched his mind, trying to ascertain where his little Ah’leah might be. He dropped to clean himself, and when he looked, his groin and the tops of his thighs were covered with tiny red bumps, tender to the touch. “Friction burns,” he chuckled. “That’s a first. Or is it a heat rash? Oh, well ….”
He could have slept and enjoyed it, but he forced himself to get dressed, loose fitting trousers and a muslin button up shirt, and join the females. That was where Krush and Teal found them. They were joined by Ah’din and Jilfan, and, after her bath, Io, as well, accompanied by Abeyan. The conversation was animated and filled with laughter, and after a while the noise began to wear on Ardenai. He excused himself for a bit and wandered apart through the gardens, then down along the river, and finally out to the stables. Why was he so dratted sleepy? He rubbed fitfully at his stiffening neck and shook his head to clear it.
Kadeth seemed more than ready for some exercise, so he saddled up and rode out with half a mind to find Gideon and Tolbeth. He passed down the side of the thundering waterfall, marveling at it, as always, and settling into the joy of being home. Home on Equus. Home at Canyon keep. Home with his parents, his wife, and his sons. His son, singular, he corrected himself. Jilfan did not want to be Ardenai’s son, and did not want to be thought of as such. Ardenai reminded himself to respect that.
He got as far as the sun-warmed ledges and tall green grass along the river, turned Kadeth out to graze, and succumbed to the urge to close his eyes, just for a few minutes. If Gideon had gone this way, he had to come back this way, Ardenai reasoned. This was the wagon track coming up out of the canyon on this side of the river. He’d stop to observe the waterfall, because that’s the kind of person Gideon was. He’d see Kadeth, and be over. Simple. Ardenai stretched out with a sigh and was instantly asleep.
He awoke to the sound of Io’s persistent voice. “Ardenai, can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you,” he said irritably, “you’re right in my ear.”
“You’re going to get a bee sting if you’re not careful. There’s a nest under this ledge.”
“There’s always been a bee’s nest under this ledge. We haven’t been stung yet, have we?” There was something about the sound of Io’s voice that was disconcerting. What was it? He felt her come and sit astride him, bouncing up and down on him as if he were a cushion. “Ouch, that hurts,” he said groggily. “How many times do I have to tell you that? You can ruin a person’s insides that way.”
“Well, it can’t be helped, because you have to get up, and I’m getting you up,” she said. Ardenai pried his eyes open to discover it was late afternoon, and that Io was sitting astraddle of him, her hair going in twenty-seven different directions, eyes wide with excitement, the gaps in her teeth making her sound a bit like Pythos.
Something clicked into place, and Ardenai sat bolt upright, grasping the child’s arms to keep her from toppling off the boulder and into the river. “Io, is that you?” he squinted, frowning. His head hurt like kraa, and he couldn’t remember for the life of him how he’d gotten here.
“No, it’s the blood fruit girl of ancient Thura,” she quavered, making fangs and claws. “Of course it’s me, silly. Ah’ree says you need to wake up so we can go home. There’s school tomorrow.”
Ardenai felt his mouth go slack. “Ah’ree,” he breathed. “Where?”
“Right here,” a warm voice chuckled, and Ardenai turned his head and looked into the laughing brown eyes of his beloved wife. “I thought I’d add my persuasive talents to the cause.”
“Ree,” he said softly, and his eyes filled with tears of joy and relief. He reached and caught her hand, pulling her to him, and she was as solid as the rock upon which they sat. She was real. “Oh, Precious Equus, I have had the wildest dream of my entire life. Was I asleep long?”
“An hour or so,” she said, kissing his cheek. “You must have really been tired, and you’re half-baked from the sun. What did you dream about?”
“Well,” he shook his head and laughed, “I dreamed I became The Thirteenth Dragonhorse.”
“Really?” she exclaimed, letting her eyes grow wide. “However did you fit it into your schedule?”
“It became my schedule.”
“I fled through the stars, pursued by the Telenir …”
“You’re teaching that in class again, aren’t you? It always gives you nightmares,” Ah’ree said, tossing a pebble into the river. “So, did you escape?”
“I … did. Yes. I was aided by a blond haired young Declivian, and … Io was the Captain of the Horse Guard. And I …” he paused and shook his head. “It’s all too bizarre.”
“And what about me?” she grinned, cocking her head to smile into his eyes, “was I in your dream?”
He swallowed hard and looked away from her into the river. “You were dead, Ree, and nothing mattered. I just went through the motions, nothing more.”
She patted his hand and then took it into her lap, rubbing his arm as she studied his face. “And did you marry Io?”
Ardenai jumped like she’d stuck him. “How did you know that?” he demanded.
“Well, you promised you would, remember? Yesterday? We were out in the gardens.”
“Ah … yes. You know, I’ll bet that’s what set this whole thing off, that silly promise to Io. Because in my dream, she brought it up to me. Oh …” he sighed, and stretched, and caught his wife in his arms. “I’m so glad that’s over and I’m just a teacher again. Are we ready to go home, my love?”
“I think so,” she grinned, and he got to his feet and pulled her up beside him.
“Where’s the child? Why in the ten tribute worlds of Equus would I ever be insane enough to marry that marauding little beast? And I suppose we’ll have to shake the bushes for Pythos? Where did he get to?”