“I’m right here, Gideon,” the old physician hissed, hurrying up beside him. “Wass he unconssciouss when thee found him?”
“No … not exactly, but he wasn’t conscious, either. He was really disoriented, and he had no idea who I was. I think he was delirious. I really do. I didn’t want to leave him, so I tried to send Tolbeth back to get help, but she doesn’t know where home is yet, and neither does Kadeth. We have to go! Now!”
“Thiss issn’t Calumet, Gideon. Teal and Krush have already gone. Ssee, the flyer iss not there.”
“Why didn’t you go with them?” the boy demanded, tears standing in his eyes.
“They were gone by the time Io woke me. Thee ssounded a general alarm when thee rode up here. Thee can’t exsspect people not to be alarmed, now can thee?”
“I’m sorry,” Gideon said. “I just thought … this whole damned thing was over. I was so happy that things were going to be all right.”
“Thingss will sstill be all right,” Pythos hissed, flicking his tongue against Gideon’s cheek. “I could usse thy help, though. Go put Tolbeth in her sstall, and then help me carry some thingss, pleasse.” Gideon nodded, ran to his horse, and was cantering down the hill as the Equi flyer soared into sight. It slowed and dropped into Gideon’s path, and instead of going to the stables, he headed back toward the mouth of the canyon, presumably to get Kadeth. “Good,” Pythos said. “Ssomething for him to do.”
The flyer landed on the patio behind Ardenai’s chambers, and Pythos hurried back through the house. By the time he arrived, Ardenai was stretched on the bed, and Krush was easing his boots off while Io tucked a blanket around him.
“Let me ssee him,” Pythos said quietly, and the others stepped aside and let him make a quick, cursory examination. “He will be better off in the ssmall thermal room besside the pools, I think. All of my thingss are there, and I can do a more thorough analysis.” He picked the Firstlord up with surprising ease and hurried through the house with him, Io running ahead to make sure the bed had linens, as it was seldom used except when someone was ill, or in labor, or in need of extra warmth for some reason. It was one of the serpent’s favorite winter places to sleep, and he placed Ardenai on the bed and looked around, making sure everything was as it should be.
This room had no windows, and was of rough, native stone, the rest of the house having been constructed around and above these boulders and the thermal pools which bubbled out of them on the other side of the wall. There was a high rock ledge from which fragrant herbs grew, bending down into the room, and above it a roof casement which provided light and additional warmth. There was a bed, a table, a comfortable chair, and in the corner a birthing stool, a stored baby box, and a priapic bench. As always, the room was immaculate, and very warm. Pythos dropped his robes onto the floor, and began very carefully removing the Firstlord’s clothing.
The removing of Ardenai’s shirt revealed sides and armpits covered with tiny red blisters, and the serpent began to hiss under his breath. He unfastened Ardenai’s trousers and looked at the blistered flesh which spread from his belly, under his briefcloth to the tops of his thighs. Pythos waggled his head and gave Teal a hooded look. “Io,” he said, “I need thee to go to thy chamberss, and bring me everything Ardenai hass worn ssince your arrival here, clean or not. And anything he might have brought with him. Take thy time, and leave nothing out.” He waited until she was gone, then turned back to his examination. “Thiss iss Ah’krill’ss doing,” he muttered, and the others standing around the bed added puzzlement to their worry. “Sshe’ss given Ah’leah cradle bumpss.”
“Isn’t that a baby disease, and a fairly innocuous one?” Krush asked, face lined with worry as he contemplated his son.
“Issn’t Ah’leah a baby?” the old dragon responded. “I have to hand it to her. Thiss iss brilliant.”
“Why would she do that?” Teal frowned. “What difference would it make? And why did you send Io off on some …” The serpent cut him off.
“It would make a differencce if Ah’leah had to be removed to ssave the Firstlord. Cradle bumps don’t usually bother children too much, but they can be fatal in adultss.”
“She wants the baby?” Teal whispered, and his eyes changed shape as he considered the ramifications. “She wants their baby, their little priestess, and she’s willing to kill her son to get her granddaughter? I don’t believe that, not even from her.”
Krush groaned, and the serpent said, “Not time for that, yet. He may fight thiss off on his own. Go, and let me ssee what I can do to make him more comfortable. Krush, thee and Teal, keep Gideon and your wives calm. And sstay closse. I may need thee in a russsh.” Io returned with a small pile of clothing, and Pythos gestured her into the chair, where she curled and contemplated him, her face a mask of misery. He stood a minute or two, looking up through the roof casement, then lay down beside the Firstlord, taking him
in his arms as he coiled around him and set his forehead against Ardenai’s.
In a warm, moist place, lighted only by the steady thrumming of a great heart, two beings spoke of the wondrous order of things. Beloved, is thee there? Asked the first.
Yes, came the boy’s voice. I am here, my mother.
And how art thou this fine morning?
I am well. What are we going to study today? Are we going to do more with universal computations? I have enjoyed those lessons very much.
Ancient languages, then?
Not that, either, Beloved. Today we are going to talk about life, and death.
Because tonight I will place thee in the womb of she who will one day be called thy mother. She is Ah’krill, High Priestess of Equus.
But … you are my mother. You are my father.
Today. Tomorrow, others will assume my titles.
And why are you doing this?
Because it is time for thee to be born, and to take thy human form.
I am happy here with you. I do not wish to leave you.
We will never be separated, me and thee. When thee is born, I will be the first thing thee sees, I promise, and I will be with thee thy entire life.
And then what?
I will be the last thing thee sees before thy body dies, and together we will continue our journey, as we are doing now – only we will be pure energy and bright light and all-encompassing compassion.
Why can’t we do that now?
Because it is thy fate to be Firstlord of Equus. It is what the Wisdom Giver has willed for thee. This thee must do in the shape of a man. The world is a beautiful place. Thee will like it here, and while thou art here, thee will be able to remember nothing else.
Oh. There was a long pause. Why is that?
Because it is best. It helps one focus on one’s tasks.
My mother, if becoming a man causes me to forget you, I will think I am alone. That frightens me.
On the deepest level, where things matter most, thee will never forget me, and I will always be there for thee, to keep thee safe, and informed, and on thy intellectual toes.
Toes. Will I have feet, then?
Yes. And a better sense of what is literal and what is figurative. It is nearly time, Beloved. Is thee ready for the next part of our adventure?
I am ready to do what you say I must, came the sad reply.
A sense of movement, and then of floating again, and terrible loss – of consciousness and self. A new heartbeat – different in rhythm and strength. A different pump. And singing, a different voice, and of growing, and seeing … toes … and fingers … arms and legs, of beginning to sense things, a second, beating heart.
And suffocating pain and being pushed, hard, thrust out in a rush of water … squeezed amid screams. And light … such light … and the last scream … and the first, searing breath of air, and … Pythos.
Thee does remember, then?
As you said I would, my father. My oldest and dearest friend.
Is thee able to think in the present at all?
I … do not know when that is.
Can thee sense what is happening?
No. Not really. I think I might be sick.
How old are you, Beloved?
I do not know. Very old, I think. Many hundreds of years.
How old is the body of the man?
That, I do not know. It fails. There is fire in the head, and in the chest. It burns away around me.
Art thou alone?
There was a long pause. No. There is a child here with me. She is sick, too.
What can thee tell me about her?
Her name … is … Ah’leah. She says … she was supposed to … be … the next High Priestess of Equus. But … something went wrong. She should have died then, but did not. She … does … not … want to be here with me. With us. She is angry. No. Not angry, but … disappointed. She is sick. She wants to live, or to die, but not to be here. Why does that make me so sad?
Because thee has tried very hard to save her. She would have been born as thy daughter.
But you said Ah’ree could have only one child. I think even Kehailan was too much for her.
Ardenai sat bolt upright, smelling the smoke, feeling the heat of the fire. “Ree!” he cried, “Ree, wake up! The house is on fire!”
Together they stumbled out of bed and raced for the door. Ardenai put the back of his hand against it and jerked back. It was red hot. He ran for the window, hearing Ree screaming for her baby. He hit the casement with his shoulder, his full body weight slamming behind it. The glass crumbled and he grabbed Ah’ree and dove through into the brief coolness of the night. “Stay here!” he commanded, and ran along the outside of the wall to the casement he knew was Kehailan’s room. He touched it, and it was cool. He grabbed a large stone from the rockery near the fountain and slammed it into the glass – and again – and it yielded passage to him. The noise had made the baby cry, and made him easier to find as the room filled with smoke. Out of the crib, a blanket over his face, and back out the window with the flames behind them and into Ah’ree’s arms.
“I must go back!” Ardenai cried. “We’ve left one!”
“No,” Ah’ree said. “No, Ardenai. We only have the one.” Do not go back. Stay where it is cool and thou art safe. Doest thou hear me. Do not go back.
“There is another. Another son! Can’t you hear him? Can’t you hear him screaming? We’ve left one of our children!” And he turned, and ran back into the flames.
“I’ve losst hiss thoughtss. Io, get Teal, now,” Pythos demanded, and she ran to the main hearth where the rest of the family sat waiting.
“Pythos wants you,” she said, pointing to her kinsman, and he rose and hurried away. “He’s delirious,” she said simply, and followed Teal back to the thermal room.
When she got there, Pythos was starting a fluid pump. “He’ss burning up,” he hissed, wrapping Ardenai’s forearm tightly with the first wide band of enterodermal jacerei. Pythos inflated the device, activating the jets of cool water, and Ardenai jumped, and moaned softly with pain, but did not awaken. “Bring me ssome cool, wet towelss, four of them.”
“Where’s Teal? Didn’t he come in here as I asked him to?”
“He’ss ssending a messsage to Ah’krill. I fear only sshe can fixss thiss, cursse her.”
“That fast? He was right ahead of me. And …” she looked puzzled, and more than a little alarmed. “What can Ah’krill do? Why are you cursing her? Is there something I should know?”
Pythos ignored all but the first question. “How long doess it take to ssay, ‘Get Ah’krill here, one way or another’?” He snapped. “He came in one door and went out the other without ever sslowing down. A most efficccient man.” Io took the hint and retreated to do his bidding, moving through the rough opening between the thermal room and the bathing pools to fetch cold water and a stack of towels for him. Pythos wrapped Ardenai’s other forearm with a second wide band, and Io, returning with a pitcher and basin, winced as the skin of her husband’s hand turned white, then purple under the high pressure, before regaining its normal color. Pythos repeated the process with even bigger bands around each of Ardenai’s thighs, and turned the pump on full. He pulled back the sheet and took the head of Ardenai’s phallus in his hand, extending it enough to insert a catheter tube.
“I’ll give you exactly one hour to stop that, you evil woman.”
“You make me evil,” Ah’ree smiled, biting playfully at his chin as she stroked his phallus. “Please, Ardi, let’s have another baby. Think of how much fun it would be. Luna is pregnant. They could grow up together. Maybe they’d even get married, if we have a boy.” She slid astraddle of him on the big bed, and he could feel her heat beginning to build, feel the wetness of her opening as she sat up and guided him into her, pushing herself down onto his phallus and swaying seductively back and forth. “I don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl. You could just … let yourself go.” She leaned forward – a tall woman – and allowed her full breasts to brush, first one and then the other, against his lips. “Please,” she groaned, “Please.” She said it faster, and faster, and then she was crying out, and he was grinding his teeth because she’d ambushed him without a skin, and he had to think … so hard, work so hard … because he, too, was in heat, and generative … and he didn’t trust her to protect herself, so great was her desire for another child.
She sensed it, and her eyes grew hurt, and then hard, and she glared down at him. “I will not risk thee,” he said softly, reaching up to take her upper arms. “I will not risk thee. You are my life, Ah’ree. Please try to understand.” The anger in her eyes cooled … and it felt so good … to be cool. He laughed with her and she batted water at him and swam a short distance away, calling for Io.
“She gets so far away sometimes,” Ah’ree said. “I can barely see her.”
“That means she can barely see us, then, doesn’t it?” Ardenai whispered, gliding over to join her and standing waist deep on the sandy bottom. He pulled Ah’ree close to him to kiss her, sliding the fingers of one hand under her sarong to fondle her anterior clitoridis as he pushed the top down far enough to expose her breasts. “Your nipples are hard, and you’re already wet,” he teased, nuzzling her. “I think we need to be planning a little getaway very soon.” She made to push him away, then relented and walked up the bank, casting him a long, voluptuous look as she dropped with a splash to her hands and knees in the shallows and presented up to him.
There was a splash of water on the floor of the thermal room and another scream from Ah’ree. Ardenai held her naked body close against his, their sweat mingling as Ah’ree fought to bring this new life into the world. “The head iss pressenting,” Pythos hissed, and she spread her legs a little further apart and crouched a little more, elbows and forearms resting on the smooth mahogany of the birthing stool, hands gripping the uprights as generations of Ardenai’s family before her had done. Ardenai tightened his grip under her breasts and felt the strong contractions which seemed to flow like tidal waves through her entire body. She was making deep, guttural sounds – grunts and screams and shrieks, and her head pounded against his chest, back and back and back in terrible pain that had gone on for hours. “Once more,” Pythos said, and she threw her head back and screamed as though she had an arrow in her belly … and Pythos was holding a tiny baby up for them to see.
“She survived it,” Ardenai said to no one in particular. “She took an arrow in the belly and still brought forth a child – and wants another of my get.” It seemed an uncaring, chauvinistic thing to say, and it made him feel masculine. He needed to feel masculine. It was expected of him, though he couldn’t remember why.
He sat upright in bed and moved the sheet to contemplate an erection which would put another babe in her womb, in the womb of all Equus. The people standing around him – a room full – a throng, applauded and nodded their approval of this phallic monolith. It was pulsing and wet and urgent, and he made no attempt to touch it, or stop it, but pulled his knees up and spread his legs apart and watched it, feeling the deep pleasure of urinating, or ejaculating, not caring that he had no control over it. It felt so good. He groaned with pleasure at its release – watching it spray across the bedclothes and up the walls onto the ceiling.
Pythos wet another towel, twisted the excess water out of it and put it back across the Firstlord’s thigh, then checked the catheter and nodded. “Liquid iss moving through him at a good rate. Hiss temperature iss down a little for the time being, and he’ss sstopped thrashing. Thiss might be a good time for Krush and Ah’rane to sspend ssome time with him, yess?” He lifted the towel off Ardenai’s other thigh, and dipped it in cool water. “Well, is thee going, Child?”
Io nodded and went numbly forth to get them, wondering if this was a dream of some kind, terrified by his pain and his delirium – terrified that each lunge, each gasp would be his last, that he was going to have a stroke from the terrible heat – annoyed that Pythos thought his parents needed this quiet time with him more than she did.
But they were so grateful, thanked her so profusely as they hurried to Ardenai’s side, that she felt small and predatory. Her people were butterflies, not spiders; lovers of the light, not the darkness. Lovers of sociality, not solitude. She smiled, and put her arm around Gideon as Krush had put an arm around Ah’din. “I’m sure you were included in this,” she said, walking him back down the ramp which led to the most ancient wing of the house. They looked like wings; as though this old, well-settled space could lift off if it wished and seek new worlds and new dimensions of being. And yet it was solid, and she was grateful.
Gideon did no more than touch him to ascertain that he was breathing, and then went to lean against the warm stone of the wall, unable to stand the pain he could hear rattling in the Firstlord’s throat, unable to look at the spots where the fluid pump was driving tiny, painful jets of water through his skin into his twitching body. Ardenai’s arm jerked a little, and the pump sputtered, and Ardenai grunted with the pain and lay gasping.
“Get up!” Thatcher snarled, aiming another booted kick at the small of the Equi’s back. “I said GET UP, you sonofabitch!”
Ardenai lay panting, eyes glazed with pain and suffocation. He got his elbows to lock, his knees under him, and held that position, gasping, bright spots swimming in front of his eyes, blood pounding in the front of his face. “I cannot … survive … without water,” he said through his teeth. “I will die … of thirst … and your money … will be wasted.”
“You’re lucky I don’t have to piss, or I’d give you water, you ugly bastard. Now get up! Before I lay you wide open.”
Ardenai staggered the rest of the way to his feet, catching himself on the handle of the ore cart. He pushed it forward, but as it moved, his legs did not, and he measured his length on the tracks. “Damn you!” Thatcher cried in frustration, “Feel the bite of this for inspiration!” and he brought the whip down with all his might across the Firstlord’s back. His tunic split and his flesh with it – a deep, bloody furrow from the side of his neck to the middle of his back.
Thatcher unchained him from the cart and dragged him off the tracks, kicking and cuffing, and left him there to bleed. Ardenai moved his head slightly, and set his lips against his shoulder where the blood was running down from his neck, grateful for the lash and the moisture it brought.
“There,” Pythos said softly, “that will keep him from jerking away from the pump. He hass no ssensse of paralyssiss,” he added, noting Ah’rane’s look. “He jusst doessn’t remember that he hass muscless in thosse placcess. It’ss not frightening for him, I promisse thee. I have ssimply removed the musscle memory for the time being – as though he were an infant.”
She took his hand and held it without moving his arm, and stroked the sweat-soaked black tendrils off his cheeks and forehead, and stared into his face, willing him back to life. Willing him to know that she was there, and that he was home where he belonged.
“And here he iss,” Pythos had said, placing the baby in her arms.
“He’s really ours?” Krush had asked in wonder, pushing the blanket back to contemplate the infant. “He’s going to be our son?”
“Yess,” Pythos had said quietly. “He is never to be told he iss not thine own. He iss from a blind mating. A princcce of the Great House, as thou art a princcce, Krush, and ass thou art a princccess, Ah’rane. He iss of the mosst anccient and high blood. This is the one you have prepared for these long months. If you are still willing, I will give thee ssomething to sstart thy milk flowing for him, and no one will know he iss not thine own flesh.”
They had looked at each other, and the baby had looked at both of them, and the three of them had looked at Pythos. “Oh, yes. We are more than willing,” Krush had smiled, hugging his family close, and Ah’rane had nodded.
Within hours she had been able to hold him, warm and sleepy in her arms and give him suck, and he had stared up at her with huge, green-gold eyes, and almost, he seemed to smile and recognize her. “This is a very pleasant sensation, to have milk pulled from my breasts,” she had said to Krush. “It is sexually stimulating, and wonderfully satisfying all at the same time. Not that I do not enjoy your attentions, as well.”
“I would not presume to compete with such a master,” Krush had chuckled. “Have you noticed, he looks just like you?” He had kissed her cheek, then slowly, awe in his handsome young face, he had kissed her full breast, and the cheek of his son, feeling the pull of his muscles as he nursed. “He looks just like you. I would like to name him for your grandsire, if you will permit it.”
“Yes,” Ah’rane had smiled, “I’d like that. And you, little one? How do you like the name, Ardenai? Thou shalt be Ah’rane Ardenai Krush.”
“You will never convince me those two are not related,” Gideon said, still leaning against the wall, and he turned his head to contemplate the serpent’s profile. “If she’s not his mother, she’s his sister, or some very close kin. I’d stake my life on it.”
The serpent’s head turned very slowly until yellow eyes met gold. “Thou art a precociouss brat. Sso tell me, if Ah’rane be hiss ssisster, what doess that make Ah’din, being sshe is Ah’rane’ss daughter?”
“His niece?” Gideon shrugged. “I do not know how it was done, only that it was done, probably by you… and carefully … and over a very long period of time, or I miss my guess.”
“Thee thinkss me capable of a great deal,” Pythos said softly, “though whether or not it iss a compliment, I cannot assscertain.”
“It is a compliment, though a fearful one,” Gideon said, and went back to the main hearth, where Krush and Abeyan sat drinking tea and staring into the night, willing Ah’krill to come, wondering if Teal, who had left hours before to seek her on Andal, was having any luck finding her.
“I swear, if she’s had anything to do with this …” Krush began, and his fists knotted on the arms of his chair. He looked at Abeyan, who was a strong supporter of Ah’krill, and bit off the rest of his statement. “I just think … hasn’t the man been through enough?”
Abeyan cocked his head slightly and murmured, “Ah’krill has ears in thy house, Krush. My grandson has become her closest companion since the incident which nearly cost my daughter her life.”
“And you still blame Ardenai for that, don’t you?” Krush growled. “I can hear it in your tone.”
“It was his misjudgment that caused her to be hit,” Abeyan said. “I have analyzed the statements which were made after …”
“It was not my sire’s misjudgment,” Gideon said firmly. “Your pardon, Master Abeyan, but I was there. I saw. Ardenai Firstlord did only what he was supposed to do. We were in very close quarters, dust was obscuring the wargrounds, and Sarkhan was practicing treachery. Io was struck because Tolbeth and I blocked her view of Sarkhan. I’m sure of it.”
“That is the story I heard, and I do not believe it,” Abeyan said. “If Sarkhan were shooting at you, a tall youth on a horse over fifteen hands tall, he would not have hit a smaller person, riding a smaller horse, low on the body.”
“Maybe the arrow was meant, not for me, but for Ah’krill.” Gideon said, “but … then it would have killed Tolbeth. I’ve thought, too, that it might have been meant for Konik, and that when he raised his arms to put Ah’krill across my saddle, the arrow … passed, somehow. I just can’t figure out how it missed the horse.”
“Or the arrow didn’t come from Sarkhan in the first place, but from a traitor within the ranks of Equus,” Abeyan said, leaning forward.
“It was Sarkhan’s arrow,” a voice said, and Teal came into the room from the direction of the thermal pools. “It was the first meant for Konik. The pull on his crossbow was set too high for him and he was trying to compensate, which is how Io was hit and Konik survived. He was a lousy shot. Period.” Teal was grey-faced with exhaustion, and he leaned heavily against the back of one of the lounges, though he did not sit. “Ah’krill is here. I would suggest we attend her and her ministrations and take this up again at another time.” He turned without further comment to retrace his steps, and the others followed him.
Ah’krill and Pythos were eyeing each other, one on either side of the narrow bed, two Akoliti attending in the shadows, and it was obvious that words had been spoken. “Thiss iss not the time for animossity, but later, when we can do it correctly,” Pythos hissed venomously. “Right now, thy sson, the Firsstlord of Equuss, iss lossing ground againsst the fever hiss daughter hass, in ssome sstrange manner contracted. Though it painss me to do thiss, I musst allow thee to take the child lesst sshe kill him, and Equus losse the Thirteenth Dragonhorse.”
“You’re going to let her take our baby? To keep?” Io exclaimed, rising from her chair. “Why didn’t you tell me that? I thought you wanted her to help us, not rob us! I’m the baby’s mother! I’m strong. I could give refuge to the child.”
Pythos shook his head sadly and flicked her with his tongue. “Thee could not, beautiful one. Thee doess not have the telepathic capability necesssary to physsically remove her. I cannot focusss on her and thy hussband at the ssame time. It musst be Ah’krill.”
“Be comforted,” the priestess said. “The child was meant for the Eloi. She was among those who competed for the coveted position of High Priestess. Failing that, she should have died, but did not. She was not spilled as she should have been. It was a tragic fluke that she was given animation at all. I take back what was mine in the first place, and was never meant to be yours at all.”
Io’s eyes grew large, then changed shape, and her mouth came open to speak.
“Not now!” Gideon said sharply. “For the love of El’Shadai, not now! Look at my sire, and the pain which tears him limb from limb – the fever which cooks his body and his brains – and stop your damned, petty bickering, all of you! I care about one thing and one thing only, and so should you, if you are loyal Equi. You should care about him, there in that bed. The rest of us – all the rest of us – young, old, born, unborn, are expendable. He, is not. Fix him first, then fix each other any way you like! I’ll referee!”
“Damn, I do like that boy,” Krush chuckled. “He’s a nail right out of the old horseshoe.” As he spoke he stepped forward and took Gideon by the shoulders and hauled him back from his aggressive stance in the center of the room, kissing him soundly in the process. Ah’rane took Io in her arms and walked her over to stand between herself and Abeyan, and Teal walked slowly to drop his head against Ah’din’s.
“I sshall do what I can to help our Firsstlord undersstand what iss happening, and to put it in persspective. You take the child, Ah’krill, and nothing elsse! I will know if thee tressspassesss. Are we agreed?”
The priestess looked a little surprised, then gave him a single, curt nod. “You misjudge me. Of course I agree.” She held out her hands to the serpent and he leaned across the bed toward her, taking her hands and setting his flat head against her forehead. They stood in this manner for several minutes, then moved as one to set their heads, one against each temple of the Firstlord. They took his hands, and each other’s.
Ardenai awoke with the morning sun welcome in his face, and the need to relieve himself uppermost in his mind. He slipped from the bed so as not to disturb Ah’ree, and went into the lavage. He was grateful that she still slept. She’d had a troublous night, full of pain and confusion, and it broke his heart to see her so. Perhaps if she slept awhile she’d feel better, and he could carry her out into the gardens so she could enjoy the spring flowers and the ducks. There were some tender shoots in the vegetable beds. He would tempt her with those, as well. She had grown so thin, the illness slowly wasting away her body, though her spirit remained as beautiful and serene as ever.
He returned to the edge of the bed and sat beside her to study her in the first rays of morning. She looked so peaceful. Too … peaceful. He reached to stroke her face, to waken her … and she was cold. He jerked his hand back, then put his palms against her temples. There was no pulse. Ardenai groaned like he’d been knifed, and sprang up, grabbing her with both hands and gathering her fiercely against him. “PYTHOS!” he screamed, “PYTHOS! FOR THE LOVE OF ELADEUS, COME QUICKLY!”
“I am here,” came the quiet voice. “Do not dessspair.”
“She’s dead!” he sobbed. “Ah’ree is dead! You must do something!”
“There iss nothing I can do,” he said, putting his arms around both of them, huge tears rolling down the length of his body. “I cannot ssave her. I can only weep with thee for her losss.”
“I can’t let her go! I said I’d be … responsible ….” Ardenai exclaimed, and he began to shake all over, realizing he was in two places at once – In two dimensions – that two were being taken and not just the one.
There was a sudden warmth, and light, and a floating peace, and in it a voice that was Ah’ree’s but not, said, Do not mourn for me, and do not hold me against my will. I go where I was meant to go, to do what I was meant to do, but thee always will I love. Thee always will I love, my father.
“No,” Ardenai cried, “Oh, please … no ….” but the voice was gone, and the presence was gone. There came a vacuous relief that was physical, and a growing emptiness in his heart that was overwhelming. “Oh, Ah’ree, take me with you,” he cried, “please … take me with you.”
“I can’t do that. I have to go now,” Ah’ree said sadly, and Ardenai felt her warmth and her essence slipping through his hands.
“Please, don’t go,” he whispered.
“Pythos says I must,” she smiled, brushing his cheek with one hand. Almost, he couldn’t feel her touch. “But before I go, I must ask you, do you love Io? Are you happy married to Io?”
“Yes,” Ardenai sighed. “Crazy as it sounds, I am. I adore her more every day. But …”
“No buts. No apologies. No more looking back. I am happy for thee. I was not meant to fill your life as memory only. I have given you my whole being, my whole devotion for the span that was granted me. Now you must do that for Io for the span granted her. Be happy, Beloved. You two think of me, and with joy, and try to stay out of each other’s hair, will you?” There was a last ripple of warmth, and then nothing at all. He collapsed, sobbing hysterically, and Pythos pried the corpse from his arms, and placed it on the bed.
“I have her,” Ah’krill said, staggering back a little, and it was Gideon who stepped forward to steady her. “She’s … I don’t … feel very well.”
“We have a place for you to rest and refresh yourself,” Jilfan said, stepping from the doorway to her other side, and between the two of them they walked the High Priestess from the room, her attendants following close behind.
“You and I will chat later,” Pythos shot after her, then turned back to Ardenai, who lay shuddering and sobbing. Quickly he released the jacerei bands from the Firstlord’s arms and lifted him into a more elevated position, padding him in place with pillows which Ah’din hastened to bring him. “Come to me now, Beloved. Hide thysself in my breasst, and be comforted,” he said gently, and flicked his tongue against the feverish cheeks.
Ardenai’s eyes, burned black with fever, came wearily open, and his hand moved in Io’s direction when he focused on her. She came to him, and took it, pressing it to her lips and wetting it with her tears. He swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to think. “I have …lost …” they opened, filled with grief and dismay. He bit his cracked and bleeding lips and regained his composure. “I … Io, I’ve lost … I can’t find Ah’leah … anywhere. I think … she went … with … Ah’ree? But … that makes no sense. I think … she told me … she wasn’t meant …”
“Ah’krill took her,” Io said, trying without success to hide the angry frustration in her voice.
The man looked totally bewildered. “Why …?”
“As you said, Husband, Ah’krill says she was never meant to be ours, and surely she was never meant to share a consciousness with you. You did your best, I know that, but I suppose it’s best this way. This is the second time that the child has nearly killed you, Beloved, because you can’t seem to focus on her enough to ascertain what she needs, as opposed to what you need … so now that’s moot, isn’t it? She is truly gone, and you can go back to being a single entity ….” Io turned and ran sobbing from the room, and Ardenai’s face crumpled with despair.
“I … she’s right, isn’t she? But what was I to do, Pythos? Your skill was … needed to save Io …” He rubbed at his forehead in frustration, wincing at the monumental headache. “I cared more for my wife than my daughter. I … chose the right person to save my wife … and the wrong … person to save my daughter. But who else was there? What in the name of Eladeus did she expect me to do?”
“The only other choicce thee had, was Ah’krill. Thee knowss that.”
“Is she right? Did I … not focus …” he shook his head and drew a ragged breath. “No need to answer. We both know the truth. I was focused on my own affairs … which is how … Io came to … cut her hair off, and how … my daughter came to be lost from us altogether. I thought of Equus … and of … myself only.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled sharply, realizing with terrible guilt and effervescing joy that he felt more stable, more focused, more whole, than he had since that day on the wargrounds of Calumet. “I did want her,” he added weakly. “There was just so much going on, and she rattled around in my head like she was trying to get out all the time, and … it was so hard to focus over her … crying ….”
Krush came to the other side of the bed, and took Ardenai’s hand. “Ardi,” he said, “look at me, son. Now hear me. I want you to consider the possibility that Ah’krill is right about this. I know there’s some thought that she went about this the wrong way …” He paused, realizing too late that he’d slipped. It registered in the flushed countenance of his son, and the annoyed exhalation of his wife.
“Explain,” the Firstlord said, and even in his state, it compelled response.
“This was going to come out sooner or later, and you’re not going to like it one kraaling bit, but…”
“I think sshe gave Ah’leah cradle bumpss,” Pythos hissed. “But until I can assscertain whether or not I am correct, I would like the matter dropped … pleasse.” He fixed Krush with one rolling golden eye, and the keeplord gave him a curt nod of acquiescence.
“As you wish,” he said, but his eyes were on his son. “You’re a man, Ardenai. A male of the species through and through. You’re the Firstlord of Equus. The Dragonhorse! Look at your arms. You have more titles than the average god, and a planet to run – eleven planets to run. I know you feel terrible about the babe, but you had too many responsibilities to Equus to take the time for feminine introspection and you know it. And you don’t have any more time now than you did then, and you’ll have even less in the future, so whipping yourself is foolish. The child was meant to be a priestess. Now, she will be. She’s better off, and so are you. There, I’ve said my say. Now please, rest and get your strength back.” He stood up, kissed Ardenai tenderly on the forehead, and went to make peace with his wife.
“We’ll talk in a minute,” Ah’rane said, patting his arm, and she took her turn sitting beside Ardenai. “I know you think Io is angry at you for losing the babe. She’s not. She’s angry at herself for losing the baby, and there’s nothing you can do to fix that. You need to rest, and get yourself well again. You’re still very sick, and it’s hard to think when you’re sick. Now, it’s been a long night, and I think we could all use a good breakfast, so I’m going to go cook, while Ah’din and Teal take a nap, because Teal had to chase Ah’krill all over two continents to get her here, and he looks hard ridden.”
“And I’m going to go feed horses,” Krush said, smiling at Ardenai. “And maybe I’ll take that golden-eyed son of yours … what a find! He’s a natural with the horses, and with people, too. Anyway, I’m going. You rest yourself. It’s coming harvest season you know. We need you out there on the harvesters, keeplord Ardenai.”
Ardenai tried for a smile as they left, but a wave of nausea kept it from sticking, and he turned his face away lest his parents worry even more. He let his head fall back against the pillows, and Pythos realized he was panting for breath, and very hot. “We have yet a way to go,” he said quietly. “Much as I hate to do thiss to thee, I am going to ressset thosse Jacerei. I sshall numb thy armss thiss time, and ssing thee a ssweet lullaby about tassty tree toadss and ssucculent woodratss and ssucking eggss on a warm Omphass morning.”
“I’ll pay you not to do that,” Ardenai mumbled. He gagged, but there was nothing in his stomach, and a flick of Pythos’ comforting tongue quieted the need to vomit. “I thought … once you had cradle bumps, you couldn’t … get them again,” he said, managing to sound annoyed. “I know I had these … way back there.”
“Indeed,” the old doctor nodded. “Remember, though, thee doessn’t have them. Ah’leah had them.”
“That makes no sense,” Ardenai sighed. He was so tired, groaning softly with every breath he took, and shaking his head fitfully from side to side with the heat building up in the pillows. “I don’t suppose I could … actually have … water to drink?”
“Not without me wearing it,” Pythos chuckled. “Thou art uncomfortably dry?”
“Perhapss a juiccy piece of ssweet fruit to ssuck on?”
“Anything,” Ardenai managed.
Pythos disappeared, and shortly brought him bits of icy cold sugar melon, fresh from the garden, and laved his mouth with unguent to soothe the fever blisters. With the cool sweetness of the fruit to allay his thirst, and cold towels across his groin and thighs to ease his discomfort, he began to drift.
He heard Krush say quietly, “Go, my friend, have something to eat and rest yourself a bit,” and his father came to sit beside him, as Pythos glided out of the room.
Ardenai felt his father’s hand cover his, and he opened his eyes and gave him a fleeting smile. “I think having … these was more fun the first time around,” he said.
“I think you and Teal had them together,” Krush replied. “Abeyan cried for days because his mother wouldn’t let him play with you two. And both of you were more spotted than sick, and you rampaged around your bedroom for a week until all three mothers were thoroughly fed up and distracted. That was a very long time ago.”
“Yes,” Ardenai murmured. “A very long time.”
Krush sensed his melancholy. “Are you ready to hear something funny?” he asked, and Ardenai nodded. “You – we – just got a message from Kehailan. I brought it to read. It says, ‘Ahimsa, I wish peace to all of you, and wish I were there to share the pleasure and deep contentment your homecoming must bring you. I am sending this to let you know that there has been an outbreak of cradle bumps on board. Winnie says Declivians don’t usually get them, but I wanted to let you know, as I doubt Gideon has been properly inoculated, and I would not want to see him get sick. We are experiencing some amazing sights out here, and I will be most anxious to share them with you. Please take care of yourselves, and of one another until we meet again. Kehailan.’”
That same message was circulating at the breakfast table, and Gideon cast a look in Pythos’ direction. “How does this fit with your theory?” he asked. Ah’krill still slept with Jilfan in attendance. Io and Abeyan were nowhere to be seen. Only Ah’rane was there with them, and she, too, looked interested in the reply.
“How, I assk thee, doess it change my theory?” Pythos responded, taking fruit from the tray which Gideon passed him.
“Well,” Gideon said, giving it some thought. “When you said you thought Ah’krill had given my sire cradle bumps, I assumed you thought that one or more of the children at the welcoming ceremony … the thing with the flowers … had been infected. Someone on board Belesprit, that’s a little more farfetched, isn’t it?”
“Frankly, I think the whole thing is a little farfetched, if you’ll forgive me saying so,” Ah’rane added, smiling at Pythos and pouring more juice for Gideon.
“Thee cannot concceive of any dam rissking her sson’ss life, can thee, lovely one?”
“Yes, I can, if the prize was great enough. But taking a single child, no matter what she was supposed to be, at the risk of rendering the Thirteenth Dragonhorse sterile from fever and thus losing this line of the Great House, is just not an acceptable risk. It’s not a big enough prize. Now that’s a woman’s perspective, but I think it’s valid.” Pythos had started a little at her words, and Ah’rane gave him a worried knot of a smile. “You haven’t thought about the sterility issue yet, have you?”
Pythos didn’t answer. He tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling while he mashed fruit in his toothless mouth and swallowed, flicking his tongue with pleasure. “What if, by acquiring the child, one could gain accesss to the thoughtss of the Firsstlord, as well?” he asked, turning his head slightly to focus on Ah’rane.
The woman pulled her brows together in thought, just like Ardenai. She looked, just like Ardenai. It was uncanny. Gideon couldn’t help thinking what an exceptional way that would be to hide a Firstlord from whomever might want to harm him – to have him look exactly like one of his parents – but how had it been accomplished?
“I didn’t think the babe had access to her sire’s thoughts, so much as she had access to his processes,” Ah’rane said slowly. “Which would mean she took precious little information away with her. Certainly she wasn’t sophisticated enough to be able to ascertain which thoughts were of value, was she?”
“No. I’m ssure thee iss correct in thy thinking,” Pythos said. “But what if thee had a beloved wife whose telepathic abilitiess were not ssufficcient to vissit the child on her own … and ccertainly a conssiderate granddam would offer ssuch visssitation, would sshe not? Then, to ssoothe thy wife, thee would vissit her thysself, would thee not, sso that thee could report her good health to her biological mother?”
“I thought,” Gideon interjected, “Ardenai was one of the most powerful telepaths on Equus. He’s going to know if she tries to pick his brain, isn’t he? Besides, he’s powerful enough that he has nothing to fear from her. He’s going to tell her whatever it is she wants to know, anyway. He has no worries about reprisals.”
“I do not know whether the two of thee are sssoothing me, or annoying me,” Pythos hissed. “Let uss ssee … let uss jusst ssee … what our high priestesss ssayss when sshe arissess, sshall we?”
“Assuming she survives my daughter-in-law,” Ah’rane chuckled. “Where is that one, do you suppose, and where is her father?”
Abeyan had taken his leave quietly, holding both Io’s hands in his and telling her how sorry he was for the ills which had befallen her of late. He placed no blame, and kept innuendo from his voice, saying there would be time enough for meaningful discussion when things were back on an even keel. As affairs stood, with both the Firstlord and the High Priestess away from the Great House, and the Firstlord likely to be gone for some time, he felt his presence was needed in the council chambers. Rumors did have a way of spreading, no matter how secretive one tried to be, and someone who could tell the straight story and allay fears, was needed there. Io had nodded, thanked him profusely for coming, and put her arms around him and held him tight for a few moments, grateful beyond words for the arms which tightened around her in reply. He’d taken her face in his hands, then, and fixed her in his gaze, and said, “You are married to one of the most powerful men in the galaxy, and of your own free will. If you do anything, say anything, to dishonor him, or your relationship, you dishonor Equus. Remember that.” Then he’d kissed her forehead, and within moments the little Equi Flyer had skimmed out of sight over the treetops and down the canyon toward the sea.
She felt so lost. More so than she’d ever felt in her life – and alienated from everything and everybody. She didn’t want to see Ardenai for fear, not of what she’d see, but of what she’d think when she saw him. She knew she would never feel the same devotion to him again. Never even love him again. How easily he had let their baby go to that woman. How puzzled he had looked to find her gone, as if she were a piece of tack gone missing, or a misplaced cup of tea. And everybody was going to side with him. Everybody was going to say she was overreacting. And … what was he going to think of her, and the way she’d acted, reacted, in front of Ah’krill, and her father, and his parents? As for Ah’krill, the thought of seeing her any time soon, twisted in Io’s guts like a rope pulled taut enough to strangle. The thought of that woman and her cold, haughty gaze and her jewels and fine clothing, and the tone of her voice when she said she’d only taken what was hers in the first place made Io’s fists ball up.
And Pythos … who was supposedly her friend and physician, who had helped her win Ardenai’s heart, had not helped her save her own daughter. She knew what he was thinking. She was Papilli. A little corrective surgery and she’d be popping out little curly haired babes with never a thought for the one she’d lost. No. Not lost. Worse. Ah’leah had been stolen! Ardenai had let her be stolen. At this moment she wasn’t even sure she wanted the surgery. She knew she never wanted the Firstlord to touch her again. The only thing that sounded inviting was leaving with Konik for the realm of the Wind Warriors, which, hopefully, was far, far away somewhere.
Her father’s words came back to haunt her. If she dishonored her husband, or their relationship, by doing anything or saying anything, she dishonored Equus. She was Primuxori, and the Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus. How she wished the latter were all she was. How she wished she had died with honor on that warground, and Ardenai had married Ah’nora or Ah’nis, or somebody and been miserable. The thought of him grieving for her, crying for her as he had for Ah’ree, was pleasant, and she enjoyed it momentarily before tasting the bitterness in her throat. She sighed and dusted her hands together, wondering as she did so what she thought she was brushing away, then combed her hair with her fingers, and went to check on her husband.
Krush was sitting beside him, speaking softly, and when Io got close enough she realized he was reminding Ardenai of all the crazed things he’d done as a boy. Telling him he’d known from the outset who he was, and who he was destined to become. The second he’d realized how much he looked like Ah’rane, he’d known. Io wondered about that as she settled herself in the easy chair. Krush heard the rustling, and turned to smile at her. “Would you like some time alone with him?” he asked.
“No, she smiled, “you’re fine. I’m sure he’s enjoying the sound of your voice. I’ll just sit here, if that’s all right with you.”
Krush looked puzzled by the statement. “Of course it’s all right with me,” he smiled. “Have you eaten, though? Have you had some rest?”
“Yes,” she lied. “I’m fine.”
“You’re sure you don’t want to be alone?”
“Probably wouldn’t know what to say to him anyway,” Krush said, almost to himself, and returned to his reminiscences.
It startled Io, and made her feel transparent, somehow. Krush had never said anything about having any particularly well developed telepathic abilities, but then again, neither had his son. Both self-effacing men, more likely to laugh at themselves than to brag. Was she wearing her bitterness on her face? She was tempted to go look in a reflector, just to see.
Ardenai shifted in the bed, she could see the restless movement of his legs, and she heard him ask,
“Where’s … Pythos?”
“Having some breakfast, by now I would imagine. He just sprinted by the window in hot pursuit of a marchling. Do you have need of him?”
“No,” Ardenai sighed. “I just wanted to ask him some things, that’s all.”
“Oh … I don’t know. Like, why did he let Ah’krill take Ah’leah without asking me first.”
“Ardi, she was killing you. You weren’t conscious enough to ask.”
“You think she was doing that on purpose? The babe was sick. She couldn’t help that.”
“Do I need to give you the old, ‘You are Equus, and you’ve risked enough’ lecture? Because I can, and I certainly will,” Krush said, sponging gently at Ardenai’s face with cool water. “You need to relax and stop upsetting yourself. Do you think you’re the only father who has ever lost a daughter? Are you the only couple who has ever lost a child? People lose children every day, to disease, to accidents; not just fetuses, but children who are established in the home and the heart. You at least got to know her a little. Most men don’t have that luxury with an unborn. Their wives grieve, and they have no idea how to react, because they haven’t possessed that fetus, that little life. You got to do that. Consider yourself blessed to have met her, lucky to have survived the experience, and let it go. It will bring you nothing but grief and anger and bitterness, and what good will any of them do? Will they make you better able to serve Equus?”
“No,” Ardenai murmured.
“Then please, son, don’t do with this babe what you did with Ah’ree, and let her death take over your life until it seems to your family like you’re dead, too, We’ve missed you these last two and a half years, Ardi, and we want you back.” Ardenai took a ragged breath and closed his eyes, and Krush was quick in repentance. “I’m sorry. That was a thoughtless thing to say when you’re so sick.”
“It would be less thoughtless when I’m not sick?” Ardenai asked, trying manfully to chuckle. “It’s alright. Gideon told me the same thing awhile back. It just … I had a family again … a wife, and a baby on the way … and it meant so much to me … more than what went on that day. Our ‘win’ over the Telenir. What a joke that was. And I made a mess of it, just like I made a mess of raising Kehailan, a mess of saving Ah’leah. I’m a creppia nonage teacher. You’d think I could do a better job with my own children, wouldn’t you?”
“You’re not any worse than the rest of us,” Krush smiled, listening to the fever ramble in Ardenai’s voice, “just a little higher profile all of a sudden.” He laid his hand against his son’s cheek, then pulled the sheet back, and took the towels one by one, dipping them in cool water, wringing them out, and replacing them on Ardenai’s blistered flesh. “Does this hurt?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Ardenai said. “Burns a little, maybe, like blisters will do.”
“Would you like some fruit, or some slivered ice to suck on?”
“No, really, I’m fine. You should go get some rest. Harvest is starting, it’s time to be bringing in the horses for medicating, and here you sit, having to deal with me rather than me helping you, as it should be. I didn’t really feel well when I got up yesterday morning …Or whatever day….”
“I’m a little foggy. I should have thought about the possibilities and stayed where I was.”
“You’re right. You should have realized immediately that your unborn daughter, who was supposed to be absorbing nicely into your subconscious, except that she really didn’t want to be absorbed in the first place, had cradle bumps, and that’s why you felt a little off. Just stop, will you? You feel like shit, you look like shit, you can’t think worth shit, and you’re lying there using what little strength you have to berate yourself. You’re smarter than that. Now act like it.”
“Yes sir,” Ardenai sighed, and resisted the urge to burst out laughing … or maybe crying … but something was definitely trying to get out. “Make me a crys-tel of that, will you? ‘You’re smarter than that. Now act like it.’ I’ll play it like a little mantra a couple times a day after my obligatory prayers.”
“Happy to,” Krush snorted. He caught movement in the doorway, and realized Ah’krill was standing there. “She who is High Priestess is here,” he said formally. “I’m going to take your wife and go have a nice cup of something hot. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Io is here?” Ardenai grimaced. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“Of course she’s here. I assumed you’d assume.” He turned to the young woman and held out his hand. “Let’s go make some coffee, shall we?” he said. He nodded and smiled in Ah’krill’s direction without really looking at her, and piloted Io out of the room, keeping himself between his daughter-in-law and the other woman.
“Please,” Ardenai said, gesturing toward the chair at the bedside, then vaguely at the room, “sit wherever is most comfortable. How are you feeling by now?”
“I’m fine,” Ah’krill smiled. “Fortunately I was inoculated recently for a whole battery of things. I suppose cradle bumps was one of them.”
Ardenai felt a little prickle run along his spine. “Why did you have yourself inoculated?”
“I had that exploratory visit to Lebonath Jas, remember? You were asked to accompany us, but Ah’ree had been in death such a short time, and you … were not feeling up to traveling so far. It was a primitive, even savage place in many ways, and in desperate need. I would recommend further, more intimate contact in the future.” She caught the look in his eye, and stopped her comment. “I assume all of us who went were inoculated for all sorts of things, Dragonhorse, not just me.”
“A wise precaution,” he murmured.
“I did not come in here to work you up,” she said, and her eyes seemed sad. “I only wanted to see how you were feeling. You’re feverish, and your lips look as though talking is painful. I should go.”
“Not yet,” he said. “Tell me, how is my daughter this morning?”
“Sleeping, with the other little priestesses.”
“There are others?”
“Two more,” Ah’krill said, and didn’t wait for his next, obvious question. “One is the daughter of an akolyte. The mother died in childbirth, and the babe died the next day, despite all we could do. The other … is the child I conceived not long after I had you. I wanted a babe to replace you, to fill up that empty space, though I knew it probably wasn’t a very good idea. I convinced an old friend of mine to marry me. He was a confirmed bachelor and busy on other worlds most of the time. He obliged me, and settled me, and considered his job done. But my womb was not as strong as it should have been, and when I began to grow heavy, it tore, and the babe was lost – all but her essence.”
“I’m sorry,” Ardenai said. “Does Pythos know you have them?”
“Does he need to?” Ah’krill asked coolly. “He is your physician, not mine.”
“No. It is not his … he does not need to know.”
“He thinks I made you sick. He thinks I risked your life to gain your daughter. Why would he think that? Why would I do that?”
“I honestly do not know,” Ardenai said, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath, shifting a little in an attempt to get comfortable. Ah’krill rose from her chair and lifted him up a little, resting his head on her upper arm. She flipped the sweat-soaked pillow to the dry side, and adjusted it under his neck and shoulders. “Thank you,” he said. “That feels better.”
“Dragonhorse, tell me the truth. Do you think me capable of this? Of making you so very ill?”
He studied her for a long moment, then closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “No. I do not. But you are my mother. You gave me life. I cannot conceive of you taking it back from me. You would have to be evil indeed before I would see it.”
“Let your wife point it out to you,” Ah’krill muttered. “Just remind them, I did not come here of my own accord. I came because Pythos sent for me, because Teal said you were frighteningly ill. I took the child because Pythos asked me to. Touching your mind, trying to find your daughter in there, was like being in a burning house. She was terrified, and so was I.”
“I did not want that for her, or you. I don’t really remember much. Lots of vivid images that aren’t attached to anything. And then … she was just … gone.”
“She’s right here,” Ah’krill said soothingly. “You may visit her any time you like, though she will become very hard to identify, as she would have had she stayed with you and eventually become a part of your subconscious mind. But for a while, while the pain and the loss are still fresh, you may yet identify her and be comforted. I know Io … would have trouble, as she is not overly telepathic, but you … are always welcome.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai said. He heard movement, and cocked his head to look down the short, rough passage to the bathing pools. Pythos was sprawled, half in and half out of the hottest pool, and Gideon was working him over with scrubsand. He seemed asleep, but Ardenai knew better, just as he knew the timing of this bath was not serendipitous. “Surely you must be hungry,” Ardenai began, and instantly Ah’din appeared in the doorway.
“Please come have some breakfast, or perhaps by now, some lunch,” she said, smiling at Ah’krill, and the priestess rose with a gracious nod as Ah’din continued. “We have not formally met, Priestess. I am Ardenai’s sister, and the wife of Teal. I am Ah’din.”
“Thy family has been most gracious to me, and I am pleased to meet thee,” she said, and bent to give the Firstlord a kiss on the temple. “And you, get some rest. You have duties to perform.” He nodded, gave her a slight smile, and she was gone.
In that moment, a bright yellow eyeball gleamed out of a green, hooded lid, and Pythos’ thoughts touched him. A most interesting conversation, hatchling.
Ardenai huffed a little with annoyance. You might simply have joined us, rather than eavesdropping, my good snake.
Oh, thee knows how mixing the company sometimes changes the gist of a conversation.
Are you still thinking she tried to kill me?
I never thought she tried to kill thee, my child. Only make thee sick unto oblivion. Would thee have yielded the child otherwise?
You’re wrong about her, Pythos.
I am not. Thee has too much of the milk of human kindness in thy veins, Firsstlord. I can only hope thee also still has the finest seed of Equus in thy loins.
This fever may have parboiled thy progeny, my friend. Then what?
You think I’m planning to use my phallus as a measure of justice? I can still rule. Actually, I think it would be rather funny, myself. They might actually have to accept me for my mind rather than my sexual prowess. What a joke. I hate that part of this, I really do. I’d welcome being shed of it.
Thee has responsibilities of a reproductive nature, and a generative phallus will be of more use to thee than that smart mouth.
Well, then. Can you … insert a needle or something into my primary testes and draw material for a sperm count? He shuddered a little at the thought. He didn’t like needles very much, and the thought of one in that particular spot, was not pleasant.
Thee could simply ejaculate for me. It would be faster, and far less painful.
I’m not generative.
Thee is generative.
I’m not generative. I’m ejaculating half a dozen times at the most during any given encounter. That’s not enough to activate my primary testes. And when is this dragonhorse finally going to wear completely off?
It … Is not. Thee is generative. One ejaculation, ten ejaculations. In heat, not so in heat, but never out of heat. Thee is generative at all times now.
“PYTHOS, GET YOUR SCALY GREEN ASS IN HERE!” Ardenai bellowed, and Gideon looked up in alarm.
“Is he in pain?”
“Yess, in a manner of sspeaking. I thank thee for the sscrub, hatchling. I sshall claim my oiling of thee another time. Right now I musst tend thy ssire.”
“Should I come with you? Does he need my help?”
“Delirium takess many formss. Best ssteer clear of thiss awhile, and advisse otherss to do likewisse,” the serpent hissed, removed himself with reluctance from the hot water and warm sand, and toddled into the thermal room, pulling on his robe as he went. “Yess, Firsstlord, wissest of the wisse, O’ mosst intuitive one. How may I sserve thee?”
The outburst had left Ardenai panting, raw throated, and he lay spread-eagle on the bed, trying to cool himself. Pythos pulled back the sheet and changed the towels, then flicked Ardenai with his long tongue, chuckling with fond amusement. “Here, hatchling, put a piecce of ssugar melon in thy mouth. It will help thee get thy voicce back sso thee can sshout ssome more.”
Ardenai crushed the melon against the roof of his mouth, allowing the juice to trickle onto his tongue and down his parched throat. After a minute he said, “Luckily you don’t actually have an ass, or I’d be kicking it … not today, but soon.” The eyes closed with weariness, then opened slowly. “You make me crazed. You know this, of course. Explain yourself, Lizard.”
“As thee wisshes. It iss my theory, that sshe kept thee after the counccil ssession, and had thee hold audiencce rather than coming home, becausse sshe asssumed that the adult onsset of cradle bumpss would have the ssame incubation period as an infant or ssmall child. Sshe wass there with thee, sshe and her physsician. I wass here, an hour away. It wass perfect. When thee did not get immediately ssick, sshe asssumed that sshe had failed in her attempt, and went off on legitimate bussinesss.”
“You really are bound and determined to unearth conspiracy in this, aren’t you? Well, it’s all fascinating, but that’s not what I meant, and you know it. What’s this newest verse in our hymn to propagation? I’m generative?”
“Thee didn’t notice? I think thy wife did.”
“I assumed that was residual.”
“Yess, in a manner of sspeaking. But it wass not ssingular in nature. Nor iss the fact that thee iss sstill jusst a little warm in the loinss.”
The Equi gave him a look which mingled resignation and dismay in equal portions. “Wonderful. Not only am I generative all the time, which lets out any possibility of recreational sex, but I’m in heat all the time? How am I going to think?”
“Doesst thee think with thy phalluss, Firsstlord?” the serpent hissed. “Thee can sstill usse thy brain. If thee checks, thee will find they are sseparate organss.”
Ardenai did not react, though he nodded acknowledgment of the well-placed sarcasm. “So tell me, what made you think this would be easier on me if you sprang it in a series of annoying little hops? What in kraa did you do to me that night in the cave, Pythos? What did Ah’krill do to me with those potions of hers? I want to know, and I want to know now.”
“All thee needed to do, wass assk thy humble sservant,” Pythos replied, and seated himself beside the Firstlord. “Thee never thinkss to assk. Not a good trait in a sstatessman of thy sstature.” He reached for the plate of sugar melon, taking a piece for himself, and then holding a piece out for Ardenai.
“I stand chastised,” Ardenai muttered. “Thank you.” He paused a moment and let the juice moisten his mouth. “Please tell me what you did to me.”
“Please tell me what Ah’krill did to me.”
“Nothing,” Pythos hissed, and began his snaky chuckle.
“Well now I know ever so much more than I did. Thank you. If you did nothing, and Ah’krill did nothing then why ….?” he trailed off and flipped his hands, palms up, in a question, being careful not to put tension on the jacerei bands.
“If thee had not rissen to be Firsstlord, if thee had been, ssay, sshipwrecked on ssome unknown planet ssomewhere, with only thy creppias for company, thiss exact ssame ssequencce of physsical changess would sstill have taken placce. Thiss iss not happening to thee becausse ssomeone iss caussing it to happen, but becausse it iss bred into thee. All Firstlordss risse on their hundredth birthday, becausse sshortly thereafter, thosse mechanissmss which were bred into them and their ilk, kick in, and they do kick hard. Thee hass had ample opportunity to obsserve thiss.” He reached for another piece of melon and gummed it with a hiss of pleasure. “The ssugar melonss are esspeccially ssucculent thiss year. I hope they sstore well. Ssometimess they do, and ssometimess they don’t. It iss all dependent upon the sseasson, one asssumess. I wonder what Sssegens and First Enalios were like thiss year?”
“And you didn’t tell me? We’re not talking about sugar melons, now, or the weather, in case you wondered.”
“I repeat, thee didn’t assk. Thee musst learn to assk quesstionss about thesse thingss, rather than assuming. Would thee like more melon? And then thee musst ssleep, becausse thee iss sstill very ssick. Doess thee sstill ache all over?”
“Yes, I would, and yes, I do,” Ardenai replied, and gave the physician a brief, painful smile. “Physician Pythos, what else can I expect from this new incarnation?”
“Physsically? Thiss iss the worsst of it. Thee will be slightly more eassily aroussed than thee wass before, which iss already pleassing thy little Papilli wife, and each heat ccycle will be a Dragonhorsse, unlesss we can pacccify it. Mountain hold hass thosse faccilitiess, which iss why thee needss to get thysself there ssoon. Thee will find thy … interesst in femaless heightened, but not uncontrollably sso. As I think of other thingss, I sshall tell thee. Iss thee sstill feeling the urge to vomit?”
At the mention of Io, Ardenai’s eyes had ceased to smile, and he took a deep breath and pushed his head back against the pillow. “All of a sudden, yes. We are to have problems, are we not? My little Papilli wife and I? She blames me, and rightly so, for the loss of the child, but also I think for most everything else that’s wrong with her life right now.”
“Conssider that either sshe hass been ssick, or thee hass been ssick, ssince nearly the day thee wass married. Sshe lovess thee, though sshe iss no longer quite sso infatuated, and that’ss good. Sshe loved thee beyond reasson. Sshe ssaw thee as the ideal man. There’ss nothing like marriage and intimacy to clear one’ss vission about ssuch thingss, or sso I am told. Sshe doess not realize thiss iss what iss happening, that the two of thee are leveling off – thee falling more in love with her, and sshe finding hersself sslightly lesss wild about thee. Sshe iss sseeking ansswerss in circumsstancces, and trying to regain her father’ss favor. Give her time. If thee musst, forcce her to comply with thy dessiress, ssexual or otherwisse. Do not allow her to alienate hersself from thee.”
Ardenai snorted voicelessly and stared up into the vining herbs for a few moments before looking again at Pythos. “I will not force her, sexually or otherwise. It’s beginning to feel like we’ve done nothing but fight since we got married. That first day, the day we wed, we conceived our daughter, and we had her to talk about and to plan for, and Sarkhan to talk about and to plan for, and now that we have neither of those things, perhaps … we have nothing at all. I do know I’m off balance by having her madly in love with me one minute and hating my very soul the next. My son, who is not yet seventeen, is more mature than my wife, and suddenly, I’m sick and tired of it. If she wants to go to Telenir with Konik, she’s got my blessing.”
He pounded his head against the pillow once for emphasis. It was all he could manage. And let his eyes shut, aching all over, and beginning to itch like fire, nauseous, weak, worried, guilty, frustrated to know he had duties, so many duties which needed tending while he lay sick unto death with a baby’s disease … and unaware that his wife had turned from the doorway in dismay. She set aside the tray of tea and the favored tidbits she’d prepared for him as an apology, and crept silently back to their chambers