It was such a beautiful autumn day, Gideon had to remind himself that he was working. He also reminded himself that here it was not autumn, but the beginning of Oporens, and that when it was over, October would be gone. Nevertheless, the drifting leaves were familiar, the dry grass, the crispness in the air, and he was happier than he’d ever been in his life.
He and Tolbeth were jogging along beside his grandsire and Beckett, up on the canyon’s rim, searching for stray horses. They all needed to be brought in for their semi-annual medications, and not all of them had been found yet. Twice already today they’d returned to the keep nave with horses, three the first time, seven the second. Krush had said there was a big bay mare with a blue roan colt at her side, who was particularly good at avoiding capture, and this was her usual territory. If she could be found, they’d call it a day.
They’d talked about all kinds of things while they rode: the coming winter months … poetry … what you’d most likely think about if you were a duck … Ardenai’s artistic accomplishments … computators … vegetable gardening … the concept of a personal deity…. Like Ardenai, Krush was easy to talk to. During the Firstlord’s illness it was Krush who had taken over Gideon’s lessons for the most part, and Gideon had quickly come to adore the man nearly as much as he adored Ardenai. They’d gone outside for their science lessons, to study plants and their habits while they gardened and harvested and walked in the meadows and woods. They’d observed rocks and their properties, water and its movement relative to the movement of the planet. As part of that lesson, Krush had taken him deep under the house at Sea keep, to the thermal fusion, or fundere chamber. There, Gideon had gotten his first lessons on thermal dynamism, and a basic idea of how the hot water which bubbled up at a high boil, could be used against itself to increase its temperature by two and a half times or more. Then, they’d gone upstairs again, and into the fragrant kitchen, where Krush and Ah’rane had demonstrated how the huge old cookstove worked, how the top and the ovens were regulated by the injection of hot and cold water in the necessary proportions to maintain an even temperature. The culmination of the lesson had been a wonderful cake, redolent with honey and spices, and topped with fresh, wild azure berries – the first of the season.
They had doctored horses together, and Gideon learned the nature of wounds, and how to treat them. He learned more about the ancient dwellings they occupied, the houses and barns, the towns, the ancient cities, old beyond anything he could conceive of, in a civilization older than he could comprehend, with a population seemingly unchanged for millennia, yet ever-changing and ever-advancing globally and intergalactically. On the surface it seemed paradoxical, but like most things Equi, there was a simple, patient, far-seeing explanation.
As Gideon understood it, the Equi had found themselves astride a runaway economy, with cities getting bigger, education becoming less respected, the air and water becoming increasingly polluted. They studied their history and discovered that time when the population was not straining the resources of their world, when education was at its best, crime at its lowest, mental stability the norm, and had slowly backed into it, sparing no effort and no expense to see that it remained for all time a place where the most people would be the most safe, secure and comfortable.
They had chosen to be a rural, agricultural society, and on the surface they had not changed for thousands upon thousands of years, and nobody minded that. They had done away with internal combustion engines, nuclear power, and many of the material things they had come to consider necessities, improving education, and most important, voluntarily reducing their population through the careful breeding programs of the Great House of Equus. Having accomplished the transformation of their world, they set their minds to the tasks of galactic peace and internal stability. It had made them serene, content without satisfaction, endlessly curious, and incredibly powerful.
What they wished to learn, they found in books, and in study, in contact, and experimentation, in meditation, and schooling. School, they took very seriously, and they spent a very long time there – Twenty-one years of compulsory education – from age five when they toddled off to Creppia Nonage, to age twenty-six, when they finished Final Form. Then, there was Lycee. And if you were a prince of the Great House, or a princess of the Great House, you went. Another four years, at least. Ardenai, Teal, Krush – had gone for ten. Any Equi could go – the high Equi, had to go.
Gideon sighed. He had not a prayer of catching up enough to actually go to school with people his own age. And he’d be expected to go to Lycee until he was thirty, like everybody else, and while they’d still be youngsters, he’d be a grown man, with other things on his mind. He smiled to himself, wondering what, exactly that would be. It wouldn’t be a wife and family, that much was sure. He knew he would always want to be close to his father, but … he was also falling in love with this place … with the notion of being a breeding and bloodlines specialist like his grandsire.
He wondered a little uneasily if he’d also be expected to spend time with a sexual trainer. He didn’t have heat cycles, so he didn’t need to learn how to control them, but the thought of such intrusiveness was unpleasant, and put him in mind of the conversation he’d had with Pythos that first day – to remove the brands, not to remove the brands. The family was used to them, or too polite to mention them, but … would he always be bathing with family? And whom else would he want to bathe with? Nobody. With whom did he wish to train? Nobody. And what part of him could be trained, anyway? He wanted no part of sex, which was just not going to be considered healthy, especially as the son of the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, and then, when he refused training … would his affliction be made public, and would he be pitied, or just laughed at, or considered unworthy to be a son of Ardenai Firstlord?
“You’re not brooding about your sire, are you?” Krush asked, responding to the sigh. “He’s a little weak in the knees just yet, but he’s going to be fine.”
“I know that,” Gideon said. And it was true. Ardenai was better. The last two nights he’d even been at the table for dinner, and had spent a short while visiting afterward – sitting up, looking reasonably comfortable and bright-eyed.
Early this morning Gideon had found him in the east-facing gardens. He had been dressed in loose trousers and an old, paint-spattered tunic and jacket, Ah’ree’s two ducks quacking companionably about his feet. He’d been working in watercolors, painting the Viridian sunrise with a talent which had astounded the boy.
“It gives me something to do as therapy until I can be more productive,” he’d said, and smiled at Gideon. His lips were soft and full again, nearly healed of the terrible cracks and blisters which had accompanied the fever, though his forearms still bore the bruises left by the jacerei bands.
“Well, I think it’s stunning,” Gideon had remarked. “If you’re doing it only to pass the time, you can give it to me when you’re done. Or to your mother,” he’d added, feeling greedy. “I’m sure she’d love one of your paintings.”
“My mother’s house … I assume we’re talking about Ah’rane, not Ah’krill … is so full of my paintings she’d take another only to be polite.”
“Those are yours?” Gideon had gasped. “That huge one of the running horses … is yours?”
“Mmmmm,” Ardenai had responded, but his eyes were on the sunrise, and Gideon had bid him a good morning and gone on to find his grandsire. They’d talk about painting later. Ardenai’s attention span was still short … and so was his temper. Gideon didn’t want to tempt it.
“Io and Teal should be coming home today,” Krush said, trying to start up a conversation. He’d been watching the boy out of the corner of his eye, and whether Gideon would admit it or not, he was a little broody. “And I believe tomorrow the elder contingent of our resident Telenir, along with Senator Konik, will be meeting here, since your sire is not yet strong enough to go to them. That should be interesting to sit in on, and I’m sure there are many who will think so. I hope it’s warm enough for everyone to be outdoors, or we’ll be crowded, I’m afraid. Ah’din and your granddam are already preparing food for the occasion.”
“I hope they don’t wear him out,” Gideon said, remembering to look around for that mare and her babe. “A little over a week ago he was nearly dead, and I just … I wish he’d give himself time to really rest. I think Pythos is worried about him.”
“Neh. If he thought Ardenai wasn’t up for having a palaver here, he’d have said so … and not just to Ardi. He knows one broom-straw won’t sweep a room, especially if the room doesn’t want to be swept.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Gideon nodded. “I hope having Io home to entertain him will keep my sire a little more … relaxed. Not necessarily in that sense of the word,” Gideon hastened to add, and it made Krush want to snicker. The boy was such a prude. He knew there was a very sad story that went with it, and he was worried about this new and precious grandson, but on the surface, it was amusing, especially the expression on the handsome young face. “He’s just been … unsettled, or unhappy, with her away. I know she has duties to the Great House, but she also has duties to my father.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” Krush chuckled. “To take care of your father. But I do hope you’re right. Ardi’s been short tempered and distracted. I keep telling myself that it’s the misery of getting over an adult case of cradle bumps, but I think it’s more than that.”
“I think they had a fight. I think something was said that sent Io to Thura with a kink in her cinch,” Gideon muttered, and Krush burst out laughing.
“Now you’re starting to sound like me. Don’t do that around your grandmother or she’ll lie down and die of despair. And don’t worry about Io and Ardi. They’ve been fighting for thirty-five years. It doesn’t seem to get in the way of their love for each other.”
“They’ve got a lot more to fight about these days,” Gideon said, and Krush reined his horse to a halt and really looked at Gideon.
“Boy, what is on your mind? You sound like the world’s oldest cynic.”
Gideon looked intently to one side, pretending to search for the mare as he spoke. “It’s … my birthing day is coming up, and I was hoping … oh, I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Is that what’s bothering you, your birthing day? Is number seventeen a big one for Declivians?”
“Not that I know of,” Gideon chuckled. “Truth be told, I’ve never been to a birthing day celebration, or had one of my own. I only know when my birthing day is, and how old I am, because I got hold of my birth certificate in order to alter it to get my flying papers.”
“Well, on Equus we celebrate birthing days,” Krush said, swinging off his horse to look over the rim of the canyon. “Excuse me while I water the vegetation. On Equus, when it’s your birthing day, you get to choose anything you want for breakfast. And you get to choose a little excursion someplace, because that’s what we do by way of a gift, we take the birthing day person wherever he or she wants to go, within reason. If your birthing day falls on a work day, you get taken where you want to go at week’s end, Hesychgyre, or Hiergyre, or Hormigyre. Or maybe all three if you’ve chosen to travel and things work out. Have you thought of a place you’d like to see? We’ll go for your birthing day.”
Gideon felt the color rising in his cheeks. “I … if my father is feeling well enough in another week … I know we have to think of him first, but … I have never been to the seashore. I would like to go to the sea and walk in the sand … and taste the salt water and see the breakers up close.” He took a deep breath and added even more to what seemed an enormous request. “And … I’d like a picnic. I’ve never been on a picnic, either. I’d like a picnic at the shore. Is that too much?”
Krush got back on his horse and reached over to slap Gideon on the thigh. “Done,” he said. “It’s an embarrassingly modest request. And when we get home, we’ll eat sweet cakes. That’s the part I like best.”
Gideon had been looking over the canyon’s rim and into the river valley below. He thought he’d seen movement, and now he was sure of it. Horses … moving upriver … two or three singles … mares with foals … what appeared to be a bay mare with a blue foal. “There,” Gideon said, pointing. “What do you see?”
“There she is,” Krush chuckled, and by then they could see the rider, coming behind them. “Looks like Ah’brianne’s got her in with some of their stock. Good. Go on down there and help her get her horses home, then put this halter on Windymere, and bring her home with her foal. Can you do that?”
“I … where … what are you going to do?” Gideon stammered.
“Go back to the main house and help my herdsmen doctor horses, I would assume,” Krush said, giving him a raised eyebrow. “Or maybe I’ll go run one of the harvesters, or one of the balers, or one of the barn shuttles. Are you worried that I’ll have nothing to do, or have I asked you to do something that’s beyond your capabilities?”
“No Sir,” Gideon replied, the color high in his face.
“Glad to hear it. Now, ride back a bit with me, and I’ll show you the way down to the canyon floor. When you get down there, don’t ride straight up on her or you’ll part the horses. Then you’ll have to round them up again.” Krush turned Beckett back toward home and glanced over his shoulder at the reluctant boy behind him. “Well, come on,” he said, and looked forward again before Gideon could see his smile. He hated seeing the fear in Gideon’s eyes, but he reminded himself that the boy needed a life of his own, and that such a life required friends, peers, to make it complete.
They jogged back in silence to the place where a single Equi pine leaned south from the prevailing winds, marking a trail which dropped off the rim of the canyon and switched back to the broad valley below. It was slightly too steep and too narrow for Gideon’s comfort, but Tolbeth gave it a quick study and headed on down at a good pace, tempted by the smell of green grass and water, and the calls of other horses drifting up.
Most of the way down Ah’brianne passed under them on a big black gelding, and Gideon called to her, aided by Tolbeth’s greeting. She looked up and waved, and slowed her pace a little to wait for them. They hit the bottom in a scrabble of fissle stone, and slowly cantered the distance it took to catch up to her.
“My Grandfather sent me to get Windymere and her colt,” he said, reining in beside her.
“And here I thought you were coming to keep me company,” the girl grinned. She really was an impudent little thing. Well, not so little. Like most Equi women she was tall and slender, though not so tall as the Declivian. She spoke to her horse to get him moving again and turned to Gideon. “How is your father?”
“Better,” Gideon said. He started to ask her how she knew that he was sick and then remembered that his father was Firstlord of Equus. Everybody knew he was sick. It still seemed odd to him. Nobody ever appeared to be watching a cosmoscope, or listening to a receiver, yet the Equi were exceptionally well informed.
Fascinating things, Equi cosmoscopes. They just … appeared … projecting themselves at a command across the wall. No. More suspended themselves in front of a wall, the sound coming from no place, an image so sharp it was three dimensional. One could watch the news, or cultural events, or use it as an educational tool. Ah’din had showed him how to activate the one in his room, and how to access the atlases and galactic encyclopedias. How to set worlds spinning in front of his fascinated eyes….
“I hate it when you ramble on so,” Ah’brianne snorted, looking at Gideon and shaking her long, auburn braid.
“I asked how your sire was doing, and you said ‘better.’ Better than what? Better than dead, better than average?”
“Better than he was,” Gideon said, and gave her an apologetic smile. “He’s up, if not around. He’s not strong yet, but he’s … better.”
“Good,” she smiled, and made a throwing motion with her left hand to move the herd dog further away from the horses.
“I miss dogs,” Gideon said, almost to himself. “They make nice companions, I think.”
“I like them too,” Ah’brianne said. “Sawkus,” she jerked her chin toward the big, lion colored dog who was padding along at a distance on huge paws, “is getting old, so we just got a new puppy … so Sawkus can train him. If you come to the nave with me you can meet him. He’s really cute.”
“My Grandsire instructed me to go with and help you,” Gideon said.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t come, right?”
“I … no. I mean, yes. I’d … like to meet your new puppy,” Gideon managed.
“Do I scare you, or what?” Ah’brianne asked, and the tilt of her head, and the way the sun picked up the color in her cheeks, made Gideon chuckle.
“You do. You scare me half to death,” he admitted, then wondered at his own honesty. It was too late to take back the comment, so he took a deep breath and forged ahead with his thoughts. “Not because you’re a girl, or even because you’re you. I just … I’ve never been around other kids much.”
She gave him a quizzical look. “Other what? What’s that word you just used?”
She laughed. “That’s what we call baby goats.”
“But you used a word the day I met you. You said, colts, I think, which was funny to me, because I’d never heard it applied to young humans … hominoids, you know.”
“So, on Declivis, colts are called kids?”
“If they’re really people and not goats they are,” Gideon grinned. “I don’t know what they call goats. I’ve never even met a goat.” They laughed.
“And you’ve never been around … kids your own age? You didn’t have a brother or a sister?”
“No,” Gideon said, and he could feel his smile beginning to freeze into unnatural lines. This was a conversation he didn’t want to have. He moved to counter. “Do you have a sibling?”
“I have an older brother. I made him crazy, like Io made Kehailan crazy, or so he tells me. He still can’t believe Ardenai would marry her. She’s beautiful, but I guess she has quite the temper.” Ah’brianne glanced at Gideon and looked embarrassed. “Sorry. Just neighborhood gossip. There’s no malice meant in it. We’ll bear left here, over this slumped spot in the canyon’s rim. That’s the shortest path to my house. If it was warmer we could stop and go for a swim before we left the river, but it was chilly last night, and the water’s probably down a few degrees today. Besides, the breeze is a little cool for wanting to be naked and wet, don’t you think? We could probably wrestle Windymere into her halter at this point, if you want. She’s tired enough to be cooperative. Your house is just a few furlongs over there through those trees.”
“I … want to see your new puppy,” Gideon said shyly, and Ah’brianne smiled and nodded.
“Right this way” They concentrated on getting their mounts and the horses they were driving over the steep spot, and when they’d leveled off again on higher ground, Ah’brianne took time to study Gideon’s horse. “I don’t remember seeing your mare before. She’s really pretty.”
“Thank you,” Gideon smiled, giving the sweet-faced bay a pat on the neck. “She was my horse on Calumet. My father had her brought here for me as a surprise. He brought the stallion he was riding there, as well. This is Tolbeth.”
“This is Grendith,” the girl said, patting the tall black. “He’s been my horse since I was a little girl.” She sighed, and the pats turned to a gentle stroking. “I suppose sooner or later I’ll have to start training a new horse to take his place, but I really don’t want to think about it. What was life like on Declivis?”
The transition was abrupt and momentarily startling. Gideon had to think. He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want to go into detail, or have her ask a lot of questions. From the way she could talk, he knew she could ask questions faster than he could concoct mild deception, and his father had taught him that lies were always a trap. “I guess … if you come from a good home, and are given some opportunities, life on Declivis can be pretty good, or so I hear. The planet is really overcrowded, and the air quality is bad everywhere. It’s kind of like a big, sprawling, smoky city, at least where I grew up.”
“It doesn’t sound very nice,” she said, not looking at him. “For you, either.”
“No. It wasn’t. I ran away when I was fourteen and went to Demeter. That’s where I met Ardenai.”
“Can you tell me about your adventures with him?” she asked, eyes lighting up with anticipation.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I haven’t asked my sire which stories I can share, or if there are any I shouldn’t share. If you’ll give me time to ask him, so I’m sure I’m not overstepping my bounds, I’d enjoy telling you about some of the places we saw and the things we did.”
“Of course,” she said. “That’s very discreet of you. Are you going to go back to the Great House with him when he goes?”
That, too, gave Gideon pause. He’d never considered that he had the option, though when she mentioned it, he knew he did. “I’m sure … I will.”
“Have you been enrolled in school yet?”
“No. Ardenai’s been teaching me … and Krush, and others from time to time, like Teal, and my granddam, and Pythos … do you know Pythos?”
“He’s my doctor,” the girl smiled. “He delivered me from the womb of my mother. He’s delivered most of the foals around here … the human foals at least. So you’re not enrolled in school?”
“Again, I do not know what my father’s wishes will be,” Gideon said, looking at other things. It was a beautiful ride across the uplands. “Amazing view,” he said, and pointed south and slightly west of their position. “Do I see the river way off in the distance?”
“Yes. This is the Little Sister. It runs for nearly half the width of the continent. Along with its siblings it drains this part of the north slope of the plains. It forms three branches about fifty miles on the other side of Lea keep, so it’s considerably slower coming through here. The Big sister is farthest east, and can be a very rough piece of water. Logically enough, Middle Sister is in the middle. Little sister is farthest west.”
“Does it form the border between Lea keep and Upland keep, as well as Canyon keep and Sea keep?”
“Um hm. Fortunately it’s quiet most of the time, and stays to its bed. You know,” she said a little hesitantly, as though she were putting some thought into what she was going to say for once, “when you go to school here, you can learn whatever you need to, no matter how old you are. It’s nice to have company, and friends to socialize with, and enough people around you to play team sports. It’s really a very pleasant experience.”
Gideon looked at her with some annoyance. She was the most persistent thing he’d ever been around in his life. Of course until now the only female he’d ever been around for very long was his mother. Men’s minds were much more well-ordered … except for Tarkelians. Theirs were slightly on the vacant side. More like women’s minds, or what he’d been led to believe were women’s minds. Ah’din and Ah’rane were certainly not insubstantial. Ah’rane was a Friction-Analysis Engineer. That had come out in the course of learning how the big old cookstove worked. Ah’din was a medical doctor with a Secundoctora in Medicinal Herbs, was a Master Weaver, and she dabbled in textile design, on top of everything else she did. Gideon smiled, and stroked the sleeve of the beautiful tunic she’d made him. Io, was a military strategist, and a much respected one, at an age when some Equi had just left Lycee. Maybe he just hadn’t been around enough women yet to find the mien. It was a possibility. And Io? There was an interesting thought. She obviously hadn’t gone to Lycee for as long as everybody else, or she wouldn’t have been in the cavalry long enough to have made it into the Horse Guard, much less into the top position. He’d have to ask her about that when she got home. Maybe if you grew up faster, you got through with things faster. It only made sense.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Ah’brianne said softly, and her hand brushed his forearm. “I just don’t want you to feel like an outsider. You’re not, you know. This is your home now, and you have a perfect right to all the privileges and benefits of Equi citizenship. Not getting an education when you’re a child, doesn’t mean you can’t ever have one. And it doesn’t mean you have to be isolated by the embarrassment of … not being right where everybody else is in their learning, that’s all.”
He turned, and let his gold eyes bore a hole in her until her mouth closed and she dropped her eyes from his face. Then he said, “What makes you think I don’t have an education? Do I seem stupid to you?”
“Stupid, no. What you seem, is rude,” she snapped. “If you ran away from home at fourteen you were still little. You still had twelve years of school left to go. You’re a lot more than fourteen now, so you’ve been out of school awhile. Getting back into something when you’ve been away, can be hard, especially when you’re surrounded by strangers and a strange system. Why does that bother you so much?”
“I’m … sorry,” Gideon said, and moved his eyes away, dropping the confrontation. “I guess I didn’t get off to a very good start. Not in my first life, and not in this one, either. It is not my intention to give offense. I find myself the son of the Firstlord of Equus, whom I adore, but I was absolutely, completely alone up until Ardenai found me. I’d never had a friend, or anyone who took an interest in me. Now, all of a sudden, everybody’s taking an interest in me, and … I’m feeling the pressure. I know it’s well intentioned. I know it’s me and not you … not them. It’s just … tiring to be … somebody, rather than nobody. Does that make any sense?”
“I guess so,” she said, still slightly offended. She smiled, but only with her mouth, and her body language was stiff and indifferent.
“Where I come from, on Declivis, you’re only required to go to school for eight years, from age six, to fourteen, and that isn’t enforced. If your mother has other things for you to do, nobody comes around and knocks on your door to see why you’re not getting an education. You do what you can. You listen, you observe, you get your hands on books whenever you can … and sometimes you meet people who are willing to teach you things, and talk to you about concepts, ideas, rather than just things, or people. But … Declivis has a whole, hidden population … a whole bunch of people living under the floorboards of civilized society, and it’s a hell of a long way up to the light.”
“Look up,” she said softly. “You made it. You’re here.”
He chuckled and nodded, and when he looked at her, there were tears shining in her eyes, and he wondered why, but he didn’t ask her. He took a deep breath, and patted his willing horse, and looked for a bit at other things until his head cleared. “That first day I met you, you were on the tube coming from Thura,” he said finally. “That was on a Hoplegyre, which is like our Friday, I think. That’s a day when young people are usually in school. Do you … I mean … please explain to me how school works.”
“Sure,” she said, again moving the dog with her hand. “We go to school on Equus for five of the eight days in our week, Humilgyre through Hoplegyre, but because your father had returned home, and all Equus was rejoicing, school was released a day early. I was coming from Thura, because that’s where I’ve chosen to go to school. So has your cousin, Criollo. One week out of four, we serve the Great House as a page … an assistant. We run errands for senators or ambassadors. Right now I’m aiding MalDor, of Kohath Zadok. I am given my lessons for that week, and Master Breton, who oversees the pages in the Great House, makes sure I get them done. We sit for two hours each evening, all of us who are serving that week, and do our work together. Maybe you ….” She thought better of the comment, and broke off.
“But today is a schooling day, is it not? And here you are.”
“It is Oporens High Harvest. Most of us are keeplings. We are needed to get the season’s work done before the storms hit, and they’re supposed to be early this year. We school with our parents in the evenings, and we go on one day of each week to pick up our lessons and turn in our homework, and to ask any questions we may have. When the season turns, we will all go back to schooling as usual.”
“In Thura?” Gideon asked.
“Falconstones for the younger ones, and for those of the older ones who choose not to serve or study within The Great House. Those of us who do serve as pages, or who have a particular thing we want to study, go to Thura. Some of us stay in dormitories in the Great House during the week especially those of us who serve, but we can always come home if we want.”
“And how do you get there? It seems a far piece to travel.”
“Each keep gathers its keeplings, and flies them to a central spot, which happens to be Sea keep for our area, and everybody piles in together and goes to Falconstones, and from there to the tube. It only takes an hour or so all told.”
“And what if the weather’s bad? Or gets bad? How do you get the little ones home?”
“Sometimes we don’t. Often in the season of Aellaeno they have to stay at school, but there is a big kitchen, and dormitories for everybody. It’s kind of fun, because it’s different, and the teachers have things for them to do in the evening. They dance, or sing, or play games or put on plays, and they all have some personal items there so they are comfortable. Our parents know we’re safe when we’re at school. It’s fine.”
“And when my sire was a creppia nonage teacher, did he stay there with you when you were little?”
“Absolutely. If the storm was bad enough, and loud enough that the little ones were afraid, he’d make a big, soft nest on the floor, and all of us would sleep in it together, with him in the middle and us all over him. I don’t know how much sleep he got, but it was really fun for the rest of us.”
“It does sound like fun,” Gideon agreed. “All of you, divided by age of course, stayed in the same place?”
“Um hm. The boys have a wing, and the girls have a wing, except for the creppias. It’s all very proper.”
“I’m sure it is,” Gideon smiled. “Is that where you live?”
“Yes,” she said. “This is Lea keep. Look familiar?”
It did. It was much like both Canyon keep and Sea keep in the way it was laid out, taking advantage of the protection which various rock faces provided, graced with huge Equi pines, and the company of the Little Sister, though here she kept her distance. At Canyon keep the house was separated from the barns by water, because Krush’s father, and Krush’s grandfather, had decided to combine work sites for the stock, and had pretty much stopped using the stone barns and stables of Canyon keep. Now they were used as an overflow facility, and Teal used them for storing his excellent wines.
At Lea keep, the entire keep nave was on the east side of the river, and seemed much more compact, partly because the walking distances were shorter, and partly because Lea keep had no hunt course, and no polo field. “That’s because we don’t raise horses as our primary function,” the girl explained. “We have horses for pleasure. My sire plays polo, too, but he uses the polo grounds at Sea keep. And we have some horses for work. But mainly, my mother has some very exotic, long haired sheep and goats, and my sire is a farmer. We raise hay and grain for the main stables of the Horse Guard in Thura. Have you been there yet?”
Gideon shook his head. “I was only in Thura a few hours,” he said ruefully, “and I haven’t seen anything except the inside of the Great House, and the street leading to the tube station.”
“The stables are amazing, and huge! I’ll take you there … oh, hey, don’t you take off on me, Windymere!” she said, and focused on getting the horses corralled.
The main house looked much the same as the other two Gideon had been in, as did the barns and stables, and both were a hive of activity. People were hurrying to and fro, emptying trundlers loaded with hay into huge lofts, doctoring horses and piteously bleating sheep, storing some grain and mazea, and loading the rest onto transport shuttles.
Ah’brianne herded the horses into a round pen near the closest stable, and hailed a man with surprisingly red hair, who was just coming around the corner of one of the hay barns. “That is my sire,” she said, dismounting to close the gate behind the horses. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
Timor was a pleasant man, more quiet than his daughter, but quick with a smile and a welcome for Gideon, and tumbling awkwardly around his feet, was a wooly puppy with huge paws, an impossibly long red tongue, and brown eyes which popped comically out from under his wiry bangs. The young people put their horses up to rest for a bit, and with Sawkus and the puppy in tow, they went up to the house to meet Ah’brianne’s mother.
Like most Equi women she was tall, slender, and lovely, with coloring which reminded Gideon of Ah’nora, and an easy way of speech which mirrored her daughter’s. Gideon was given no time to feel awkward, and certainly no reason to feel hungry. He was stuffed full of crusty flat bread, warm from the oven, dressed with hot, spiced oil, cheese, and slices of broiled vegetables, and when he’d answered all of Ah’mae’s questions, and she’d gone back to putting up the season’s harvest with the women who were helping her, he and Ah’brianne were allowed to retire to the sunny side of the house to play with the pup.
He didn’t have a name yet, and they spent awhile thinking some up, each a little sillier than the last, and they laughed at his antics, and his sharp teeth, and his playful puppy growls, and Gideon realized that he was comfortable. He was in unfamiliar territory, but he was comfortable … because Ah’brianne was there. He also realized that Timor Ah’brianne Ah’mae, was both intelligent, and pretty, and that being around her might not be such a chore as he had first imagined.