Ardenai had set aside the painting of the sunrise, opened the valve to the irrigation channel which ran from the river into the expansive gardens, and was sketching the ducks. They were busy snorkeling in the water being laid on the herb beds, and they were so genuinely happy to be thus occupied, that it made him laugh. “I need to learn to enjoy my job as much as you enjoy yours,” he said to them, and leaned back in his chair to rest his eyes and relax a bit.
The remains of the breakfast Ah’din had brought him were still at his elbow, and he sipped his coffee and munched on a flat-wrap. His sister made amazing flat-wraps. Rolled with a filling of sautéed mushrooms, seeds and vegetables, they stayed fresh all day, even in a saddlebag. But for breakfast … she drizzled their insides with honey, then stuffed them with sweet spices, chopped nuts, fruit and soft, white cheese before rolling them and serving them, still warm from the griddle. He had missed them, even dreamed of them a time or two. Now, he closed his eyes, and turned his face up to the sun, and savored every bite – every sensation of being in familiar gardens in a familiar chair, surrounded by familiar sounds and fragrances. He was home. He was centered. He could let himself rest.
He turned his mind inward and examined himself. Nothing ached. Nothing burned. Nothing itched. He could sense that he was a little agitated, a little short tempered, but that was because of Io’s abrupt and largely unexplained departure, and because Pythos kept nagging at him to get his sperm count done, and he wasn’t ready to do that just yet. Soon. But not yet. Either he was generative or he wasn’t. A day or two probably wouldn’t change that. His thought processes seemed lucid enough. He felt pretty sharp, mentally. His recall was quick. His tongue seemed to once again be moving at a normal speed, the words he said made sense. His coordination had returned to normal, along with his extreme left-handedness.
Emotionally, he felt more stable than he had for a while, and he was reasonably sure that could be attributed to his daughter’s absence. He let himself think about it briefly, but he forbad any twinge of guilt. He had visited Ah’leah briefly before Ah’krill returned to Thura, and was comforted by her presence and the fact that she seemed … content. Pythos had raised kraa with him for setting his head against his mother’s, but he felt none the worse for the experience, and truth be told, he actually felt better, knowing the little one was secure and would have purpose within the ranks of the Eloi.
He stretched with his arms up and behind him, first to crack his back, then to flex his shoulders in their sockets. He didn’t feel like running a foot race, or trotting up river to the spot where he usually swam and flinging himself into the water, or seeing if he could hunt somebody up for a little one on one polo match, but he felt like he could put one foot in front of the other and get where he was going. He felt like in another day or two he could go to the barns and put in some work. In a few days, he’d be putting in his fair share.
He put the last of the flat-wrap in his mouth, chewed it slowly, and washed it down with the last of his coffee. It put him in mind of Ah’nora’s wonderful cooking, and he wondered how she was feeling these days, if the baby had moved for the first time. If their thoughts had touched. Probably it was too soon, but still, he needed to contact her, to let her know he was thinking of her and her gift to the Great House. He wanted to be there for the birth of his son, and wondered if that was going to bother his wife. Perhaps, with luck, she’d be settled into another pregnancy by then, and wouldn’t be hurt by the thought of him holding another on the birthing stool.
He heard the plaintive, questioning quack, realized he was being contemplated at very close range by two sets of reproachful duck eyes, and sat up to search his plate for some suitable crumbs. Ah’din, who thought of everything, had included a small bowl of stale crackers, which, Ardenai assumed with a chuckle, were not for him. He leaned forward and held out a cracker, first to one duck, then the other, and laughed again at their delight in simple things. He sketched them there, with their heads cocked questioningly to the side, blue-grey feathers gleaming in the late morning sunshine, waddling busily about discussing crackers and bugs, stopping occasionally to scratch their chins with a flat, clawed foot and look to him for more treats.
“Ardi, those are precious!” said his sister’s soft, laughing voice, and she came from behind him to take the sketch pad in her hand. “I love the way you’ve turned these on here in all directions. You don’t usually do whimsy.”
“Not like you do,” he chuckled. He patted the arm of his chair and she sat, sketch pad still in her hand.
“Do you … have plans for these?” she asked, casting him a mischievous smile and a calculating green eye.
“Why, do you?”
“These would be delightful on fabric. Fat grey ducks on a tan or black background … they’d work well on most any background, even lighter grey.”
“Well, just in case this Firstlord thing doesn’t work out, I suppose I’d better let you have those. I can work on commission and at least feed my growing family.”
Ah’din let the sketch pad rest on her lap, and put her left arm around her brother. “Are you happy?” she asked, leaning to kiss his thick, dark hair. “Things have happened so fast for you. You’ve had so many wild adventures, and changed so much, done such … wild things.”
“Name one,” he challenged, seeing an opening to avoid the original question, the one for which he had no answer.
“Defeating a Telenir lord in hand to hand combat comes immediately to mind,” she said. “And the whole thing with becoming Firstlord of Equus is pretty amazing, though not surprising, really.”
“You’re joking, right?” Ardenai grimaced, squinting up at her.
“No. I assumed the Firstlord would be you, or Teal, I really did. After all, the rising is announced in a framework of five years, and this is the fourth year. How many High Equi princes were turning one hundred in the time that’s left? Our sire has known for years that you would be rising, or so he says now.”
“His rationale being?”
“He says it’s because you look so much like Mother. What are the odds of a fosterling looking so much like his dam? Of course I never knew you were a fosterling, and I’m not sure many others did, either, so I didn’t think anything about you being a reflection of our mother. I look like our mother, too. But I look a little bit like our sire, as well. You don’t.”
“So tell me,” Ardenai chuckled, tipping her off the arm of the chair and into his arms, “What is your theory, baby sister?”
“I think, what your golden-eyed son thinks, that Ah’rane is your sister. Let me up, unless you want to be tickled.” Ardenai sat up a little straighter, and let her sit up as well. She got up from his lap, and assumed a seat in the chair close by, noting that he seemed a little shocked and wondering if she should have said anything. “It’s just something we bantered around during supper one night. Pythos could tell the tale if he chose, which of course he doesn’t. Besides, you would need a common parent, and we know Ah’krill didn’t give birth to mother before she gave birth to you. Is this upsetting you? I didn’t mean to annoy you with silly-talk.”
“What makes you think I’m annoyed,” Ardenai grinned. “I’m intrigued, that’s all. You didn’t … say what I expected you to say when I asked the original question, and so this is all new territory.”
“The question about naming wild things you’d done?” He nodded, and his sister’s eyes narrowed in speculation. “Oh. You were expecting me to say that marrying Io was the craziest thing you could possibly have done.”
“Um hm. I had my defense all prepared.”
“Why do you need a defense, Ardi?” Ah’din leaned forward in her chair, rested her hands on her thighs, and fixed him in her gaze. She looked a little put out with him, and he winced inside. Having Ah’din put out with you, could be quietly … very painful. “Just because you think it was the craziest thing you could have done, doesn’t mean that I do, or that anybody else does, for that matter. Now you listen to me, and pay attention for once. Io, is a beautiful, brilliant woman whom you’ve known for years. I think you’re an amazing catch as husbands go, but as wives go I think Io’s every bit as desirable as you are. Given that you are now the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, with all that implies in song and legend, you couldn’t possibly have done anything smarter than marrying a woman who’s got Papilli blood. She’s going to be up to you, and for you, anytime, anywhere. The fact that she’s younger, gives you the advantage of her stamina, and you may need it, not just sexually, but diplomatically, as well.”
She took a deep breath and sat back up again, folding her arms. “You two have always fought, and you’re always going to fight, because you’re both hard-headed and opinionated and strong willed and too smart for your own good. That doesn’t mean you’re not the perfect couple. You are. If you could spend fifty years dealing with Ah’ree, who was frail and moody and completely dependent on you, you can certainly deal with Io, who is strong and temperamental, who needs you like a mare needs lace underwear, and who loves you with all her heart.”
Ardenai made a fending motion and hunched his shoulders in submission. “I take it you know why she blew out of here like a small and silent storm?” he asked. Ah’din gave him a blank look. Whether it was genuine or contrived he didn’t know, but he knew he wasn’t going to get through it. He sighed, and dropped his eyes to the expectant ducks. “I’m all out of crackers, ladies. You’ll have to settle for bugs.”
“That’s what you need to add to these sketches,” his sister said, picking up the pad, “bugs.” She handed the pad to him, gathered up the breakfast dishes, gave him a peck on the temple, and went back into the house, leaving Ardenai wondering whether she was miffed at him or not.
Ah’din wasn’t usually moody. She was probably missing Teal, who had been home far too little for far too long. It was time to give the man a rest. The Firstlord had been contemplating his advisory staff, and Teal was at the top of the list, right next to Pythos. His kinsman loved his position as Master of Horse, but perhaps … he could be convinced to set it aside, at least for a while. He’d mentioned more than once that he’d enjoy seeing his wife grow heavy with another child, perhaps a daughter this time, and that would turn his thoughts and desires to Canyon keep. From here, the Great House of Equus was little more than an hour away.
The Firstlord smiled, cocking a dark eyebrow after his sister, and began sketching bugs. An advisory staff of eight, he thought, nine being an uneven number with the addition of himself. No deadlocks. The next bug, looked remarkably like Krush Ah’din Teal, and it made him laugh out loud.
Ardenai was sitting in the afternoon shade afforded by the sprawling myrianotus tree on the patio which overlooked the river, when a movement up and to the north shifted his gaze from the list of possible advisors, to the Equi flyer gliding in to settle in the courtyard below him. He set the tablet aside with all good intentions of leaping out of his chair and running down there. He got as far as sliding forward in the chair, and found himself frozen with indecision. He watched Io and Teal get out of the flyer, watched Ah’din run from the front door to embrace her husband … saw Io look around, then up at him, and he gritted his teeth and pushed himself the rest of the way out of his chair, forcing a smile as he forced his legs to move toward her.
She walked a few steps toward him, and then stopped. Her eyes shifted left and right in consideration of her options. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go to him, Ardenai realized. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t sure of him. Before she could sit up, she’d held her arms up to him. She’d crawled to him, toddled to him, run to him, walked beside him to become his bride, presented herself to him as his lover … and she wasn’t sure of him? The very thought of it made him weak in the knees. It made him angry, even as it broke his heart. He felt his mouth come open, but no words came out. He shook his head, and touched her with his eyes before moving slowly forward. She dropped her head and walked in his direction, not in joy, but in obedience. He could see it in the way she carried herself.
When they were close enough that he didn’t have to shout to be heard, he sucked in a big gulp of air, threw away the words he’d practiced, and managed in an awkward rush, “Io, I do love you. Whatever I said, whatever I did to hurt you, I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me.”
She looked up at him and her eyes filled with tears. “I love you, too. Whatever I did to make you feel guilty, whatever I felt inside myself that I took out on you, I’m so very sorry. Please forgive me.”
“Come here,” he said, and folded her in his arms, holding her tight and pressing her head to his chest, kissing her hair and the tips of her elegant ears, thinking about how he wanted to phrase the thoughts and emotions milling around in his brain. Half of him was still thinking about that list of advisors. He really wanted to run a couple of them past his wife, but he knew that wouldn’t do at all … at all just now, if he valued his love life. He kissed her again and murmured, “Why did you … leave so suddenly? I know you must have given me a reason, but I wasn’t thinking very well ….”
“Neither was I,” she sighed, speaking to him without moving her head from the comfort of his broad chest. “I … there was this ugly part of me that felt like you’d let your mother take our baby without a fight. I’m sorry, I know that’s a terrible thing to say. I know how sick you were, and how sick Ah’leah was making you – what she did to you. I just felt so helpless, and after Ah’krill made that comment about taking back what was meant to be hers … I hated her. I was frustrated … and you were the easiest one to take it out on.”
“Have you changed your mind now, about what happened?”
“About Ah’krill, not yet,” she muttered, “but I’m working on it. And Teal made me see what an amazing thing you’d done by taking Ah’leah in the first place, and how it demonstrated your love for me, and for any children we might ever have. He pointed out how much you’d gone through because of her, and how much you were willing to go through in the future, just to keep her consciousness alive for me.”
“And for me,” the Firstlord amended, kissing her hair.
“I know that,” she whispered. “I just needed time to think … and somebody to yell at me. Teal did that perspicaciously and thoroughly. I spent some time with the Horse Guard, and reviewing some cavalry maneuvers … and I went to Achernar for a day … to the Centrum Medea.” At that point she looked up at him, waiting for a reaction.
He took her chin on his index finger and looked into her eyes. “Why? Pythos was right here.”
“Pythos was … not who I wanted to see,” she said. “I wanted to see a stranger. Someone who could make me feel good about myself, or bad about myself and my chances of having another baby … because I was me … not the wife of the Firstlord.”
“And what did you find out?” he asked. Not waiting for an answer he said, “Let’s walk a bit, shall we? At least to a comfortable place to sit out of the sun.”
She nodded, slipped her arm through his, and walked beside him, her boots clicking on the stone pavers in a slow, deliberate cadence. “They said … that the Papilli reproductive system is amazingly regenerative. Apparently everything about Papilli systems is pretty amazing. It makes me wonder why my mother died. Not that I’m blaming Pythos, I’m not. I just wonder. Anyway … I only went for a consultation, but they removed some scar tissue, trimmed things up a bit, smoothed over the scar, and sent me on my way without keeping me.”
Her tone was noncommittal, and Ardenai wondered what he was supposed to say next. “That sounds like wonderful news to me,” he ventured. “I was worried that if you chose to pursue this, you’d have to go through some complicated and time consuming surgeries. So, when can you … we … I’m sure not for a while, but ….”
“About three seasons,” she said, rescuing him. “I am to go in at the turning of Omphas to make sure everything is strong enough to sustain a settling, and to have my tubes untied so that settling can occur.”
“If that is what you wish,” he said. She was being so vague. She had wanted babies so much, and now he felt like it was the farthest thing from her mind. Like she couldn’t care less whether she ever settled or not. Maybe he’d pushed her too far, somehow, and she’d decided she didn’t want any of his get. No little fruit-bat babies to terrorize the royal apartments. He realized that the thought of them being childless … bothered him. “I hope it is,” he added. “But I will understand if you want your freedom to pursue other things. A babe certainly ties you down to his or her schedule.”
“Yes,” she said, seeming a little puzzled. “I’m more worried about the other women whom you were to settle than I am about me. I mean, I have an excuse if we need one, but what about the others?”
“Stop,” Ardenai frowned. “Sit.” He pointed to the rock wall under the myrianotus tree. She sat, and he sat beside her. He shook his head back and forth a couple of times to try to generate an intelligent question, and ended up saying, “What are you talking about?”
Io looked at him, a small crease forming between her eyebrows. “Are you pretending like nothing is wrong, or am I missing something?”
“One of us is missing something, that’s for sure,” he muttered. “Tell me … what you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinking,” she said, “that if you’re not generative …”
“What makes you think I’m not generative?”
She looked at him, round eyed. “I thought … I heard as I was leaving the Centrum …” she looked at his expression, trying to read it, then flipped her hands up and blurted, “Nine-tenths of the population of Equus fears that you’re sterile because of the fever – and not just the people who gossip – everybody.”
“Why would they think that?” Ardenai grimaced. “I … haven’t even been tested yet.”
“Why not?” she demanded. “Do you know how quickly people jump to conclusions about something like this?”
“Do you know how little I care?” he retorted. “I wanted to wait until you were here.”
“I’m sorry,” she said contritely. “I assumed you could just …” she made an apologetic little shrug and the slightest of gestures that made him smile in spite of his annoyance.
“I can just …” he repeated the gesture, then reached and took her hands in his. “But whether that’s how it’s done or not, you’re my wife. You’re the one I care about when it comes to a family, Io. Those other women are a duty. You, are the one I want a baby underfoot with. If we get bad news, you deserve to hear it with me. If we get good news, you deserve to be here to celebrate with me. I waited for you.”
She exhaled with a whoosh of relief, and squeezed his hands. “I’m so sorry I paid attention to rumor. It just seemed so well founded. Not really like a rumor at all ….”
“Becausse it sstarted within the Eloi … for ssome sstrange, sstrange reasson,” came the familiar, laconic hiss, and both Io and Ardenai peered up into the shadowing leaves to see Pythos, draped over one of the branches above their heads.
“You heard it?” Ardenai demanded, “And you said nothing?”
“I ssaid ssomething sseveral timess … without resssponding to rumor. Mentioning the common conccern would sscarcely have made thee any sssweeter. As it wass, thee told me to sstop hisssing like a big, green teapot, and find mysself a placce to ssleep until thy wife got home. Here I am.”
“Oh yes, so I did,” Ardenai replied, looking apologetic. “And you, have you no shame when it comes to eavesdropping?”
“None,” Pythos replied. “I’m a worm of the worsst kind. I have no moralssss at all. If I had not losst the ability to breathe fire sssometime back, I’d sstill be devouring the occasssional maiden insstead of ssucking up ssugar melonss and sstealing eggsss. Thy wife iss here. Let usss get on with thiss, now. Perhapss I can yet do ssome damage control before that meeting on the morrow.”
He began sinuously unwinding himself from the branch, and Ardenai turned to Io, giving her an apologetic smile as he kissed the palms of her hands. “I’d planned on dinner by candlelight first, and perhaps a stroll beside the river to apologize for hurting you, and disappointing you as the sire of our first daughter.”
“Enough. Don’t mention the little priestess again,” Io said, and just for a moment her eyes flashed. She took a bit deeper breath, drew herself up to her full stature, which brought the top of her head and the tips of her ears nearly to Ardenai’s collarbone, and became businesslike. “We can still have dinner by candlelight, and stroll by the river to celebrate … afterward, but I do think Pythos is right. The sooner this thing can be put to rest one way or another, the better off Equus will be.”
“Tell me,” the Firstlord grinned, realizing how completely he loved her and relishing it enough to forget discretion, “if you thought I was sterile, why did you pursue your own fertility?” He realized it might be something he didn’t want an answer to, or something that would anger his elfin bride, but it was out, and he tried not to cringe or look challenging as he stood up and turned to offer his hand.
“Why do you think I did it?” she said with an evil smile. She had him. His ears pinned tight, and he looked thoroughly uncomfortable, which made her giggle. “First of all, I didn’t hear about your ‘condition’ until I was leaving the centrum. But I did think … that if Teal would be so kind as to oblige us, or perhaps our friend Tarpan … maybe even Nik … someone whom we could trust with your secret … that if I was having babies we’d be able to blame the females for not being fecund, at least for a while. It sounds chipped, I know, but it was a plan. I’m just hoping we don’t need it.”
“Me, too,” Ardenai nodded. They walked toward their apartments in silence, Pythos trailing shortly behind. “What is your pleasure in this, my wife? You may take an active part, or you may keep me company, or you may absent yourself all together. Physician Pythos, what is needed of me, aside from the obvious?”
“We sshall need to empty thy ancillaries firsst, and tesst their contentss, and then thy primariess.”
“Empty them?” Ardenai grimaced. “Empty? Really?”
“If posssible,” the physician replied.
“I think,” Io said, preceding him through the open casement door, “You’re going to need all the help you can get.”
The part of Ardenai which could stand aside and observe, admitted freely that his wife was incredibly accomplished at the art of arousal and love making. The way she undressed herself, and him, the sensitivity with which she touched and fondled, suckled and bit, knowing when to be gentle, knowing when to add a little pain to the mix – knowing just when to add stimulation to bring him to a peak with the least amount of effort on his part. An amazing woman. A woman to lose oneself in, to consume like the freshest, sweetest fruit – to immerse oneself in, like warm, flowing water … time after time after time. Fantasy after fantasy.
The afternoon sun had turned across their bed, its angle adding only the slightest warmth, but bathing them with color and lighting her hair to flame as they spent themselves. They rested in one another’s arms awhile, only vaguely aware that Pythos was close by, their mission pleasantly in the background of their exploration.
When Ardenai could do no more, Pythos beckoned to Io, and she took some deep breaths to tighten up before stepping off the sleeping platform. “I’ll meet you in the baths,” she said, kissed his chest, gave him a friendly little pat, and followed Pythos into the adjoining room.
Ardenai was amazed. He was warm, and flushed with blood from the exercise, but he wasn’t sweating, and he wasn’t exhausted. His legs were a little tight, but that was all. Even as he thought that this might be because his sexual prowess was increasing, he was shaking his head and laughing. He knew where the credit lay. Io had once again gotten him through a situation which, had he been left to his own machinations, would have been miserable at best, and would quite probably have required intervention by Pythos and one or more of his potions. “Ugh,” he said aloud, and huffed with relief as he rolled off the bed and onto his feet.
He shrugged into a robe and headed for the bathing pools. Just now a swim sounded good, but he knew that once he cooled off and that river water hit him, he’d regret his impulsiveness. He took the shortcut across the courtyard, dropped his robe beside the coolest of the pools, and slid into the water with a deep sigh of relief. He rested his arms across boulders smoothed by ten generations of his family, and turned his face up to the westering sun.
What would he do, he wondered, if he had lost his generative capabilities? What would that mean for him, and for Equus? He thought back to his illness, and the terrible heat, and the cool towels which had felt so good across his thighs and his abdomen. Surely if all those tiny lives had been in danger he would have sensed it, wouldn’t he? He nodded to himself. He’d have known. He was fine.
It dawned on him as he sank toward slumber, that his wife, who put any trainer, any hetaera he’d ever been with to shame, had come from right here, under his roof. Oh, she’d lived with her father when he was home, and with her father and his new wife after he remarried … when they were home, but largely, Io had come from this spot. Most of what she knew, he or Ah’ree had taught her. Where, then, had this incredible sexual talent come from? Not from him. Certainly not from Ah’ree, bless her spirit. Was this inherent? Was it in the genes? He wondered how to ask her that. He drowsed, searching his mind for her childhood, looking for telltale signs of sexual aptitude, or budding promiscuity. There were none. He was a teacher. He’d have recognized them in a heartbeat. So, where, and when, and with whom….?
He snorted and choked as his face nodded into the water, and pulled himself back up into more of a sitting position. Thinking about Io as a tot, set him thinking about babes in general, the one they’d lost, and the ones they might have, either by his own seed, or Teal’s. What if they had another daughter? Would she inherit her mother’s … skills, and if so, at what point; because he needed to be building fortifications of some kind.
He realized he’d dozed again when he felt Io snuggling against him with no memory of her having come into the pool. “Hi,” he whispered, kissing her hair. “Being with you this afternoon, was … the word escapes me. Amazing, isn’t good enough. I learned a great deal. Thank you.”
“You’re a very good student,” she murmured, resting her head in the hollow of his shoulder. “I wanted to keep your mind on pleasure and off business as much as possible. I hope I didn’t shock you.”
“But you did,” he chuckled. “At least once or twice. I lived to enjoy it, very much. Where did you … ah, go to school for that?”
“You were never with a male trainer?” she asked in a disbelieving tone. “Surely you must have been. You were trained to have sexual intercourse with males, weren’t you?”
“Certainly, I was,” he responded, “I’m not a mannerless lout. But … this was very different. I just wondered where you’d been trained in such a fashion.”
She looked puzzled. “No place. I mean, when you love someone enough, you just want to do things like that with them, don’t you?”
Ardenai thought about that. “I’m not sure it ever crossed my mind. It’s just … I suppose you’re right, and I did enjoy it, and I will again, but I’m not sure the average Equi, or whomever else we’re talking about, thinks … quite like that. We don’t have that kind of imagination.”
“Oh, that wasn’t imagination. I have some things that fit that category, though. I’ll share them with you when you’re stronger. Did you enjoy that birthing stool image I sent you that first night in our apartments at the Great House? It’s Papilli tradition for the father to ejaculate onto the child as it’s being born, to welcome and bless it with fertility and a love for the sensual aspects of life. I think it’s a beautiful thing to do, don’t you? I’d like you to do that with our babes. I wonder if my father did that for me, to honor my mother.”
She snuggled around a little, and yawned, and he just shook his head and stared down at her, not sure whether he should be excited, or apprehensive. He was definitely not going to scream and run, which was his first inclination, nor was he going to mention that he’d been standing with Abeyan when Io was born, and that Abeyan had done nothing more than laugh, cry … and gag a little.
“I suppose Pythos will be along with our results presently?” Ardenai said, shaking off some rather vivid images. “In the meantime we can let our negative imaginations have their way with us, or we can come up with some contingencies. I’ve been thinking about what you said regarding Teal and Tarpan, maybe Nik, and I would prefer Teal, if you …”
“Oh … that’s right,” she said sleepily, “he says to tell you you’re fine. Pythos says, I mean. Both your ancillaries and your primaries are functioning as they should.” He let out a huge groan and slid down in the water, inadvertently dunking his bride, who sputtered and spit and dunked him back. “Now my hair’s wet,” she groused. “Did you mean to do that? I’ll have to go to the supper table with wet hair.”
“And now my hair’s wet, too. See what a bad temper accomplishes?”
She gave him an appraising eye. “This seems a little like foreplay. Are you ready to go again? We can practice making babies for the Great House of Equus.”
Ardenai laughed in spite of his dismay. “Mistress … no. I’m not even remotely ready. Are you able to think of other things than reproduction, because if you are, I’m trying to come up with a list of personal advisors, and I could use your help.”
“You really should settle some female as soon as possible, you know. Nothing puts a rumor to rest like evidence to the contrary,” she observed. “Can we move to one of the warmer pools, please?”
He obliged her, wading out and moving indoors to the warmest of the bathing pools and dropping his robe to settle in again before saying anything. Io drifted toward the stack of fresh linens near the water’s edge, and reached for a towel before turning back.
“I’m sure Pythos has already thought of that. Since Priestess Ah’nis was standing with my mother the other day, I expect she will be my first … challenge. Though not for a while, I hope. I need a little tuck-time first. Could we not talk about sex for a few minutes? Will you help me with my list?”
“Who’s on it so far?” she asked, wringing her hair into the pool. She wrapped the towel around her head like a turban, tucked in the tail, and sat in the shallows across from him, reaching for scrub-sand and branches of foaming rosemary which were in a basket on the ledge beside her. “Come here, I’ll give you a bath.”
He floated over and turned to have his back scrubbed. “You, of course, and Pythos, and Teal. I want eight. I’m thinking seriously of asking Oonah Pongo if she will take a leave of absence from the SGA and join us, or maybe Winslow Moonsgold. I do like him, though Oonah’s expertise as a protocol officer would come in very handy, and when you put Pythos and Moonsgold together you get utter hysteria. At best I’d like Marion Eletsky, but … I have other plans for him, and for Kehailan, as well, which lets out that family member. Ordinarily, I’d want your father on there, but I do think … that’s just too many relatives.”
“Have you thought about Senator Konik?” she asked, rinsing his back and applying scrub-sand to his armbands and the scar tissue surrounding them. “You really should see somebody, Landais, probably, about getting rid of the divot Sarkhan put in your armband. A little heat would do it.”
Ardenai just nodded and tried not to wince at the thought. “Yes, I have thought about Konik. I haven’t decided whether or not to ask him, though I’d value his expertise and wisdom. If I bind him too closely to myself as an Equi, he may lose his value as a Telenir, and that would be worse for him than for us. He feels the need to make up for being part of a plot to overthrow the government, even though he had no intention of doing so. I think I’d like to see how our initial attempt at contact goes, first.”
“Good thinking,” she said. She floated around in front of him, and he took rosemary and scrub-sand, and began scribing gentle little circles on her back. “Be careful whom you choose, lest you cause jealousy amongst the affined worlds. The Menorquins are the oldest of our allies, followed by the Amberians. Maybe you should consider someone from one of those worlds. We settled Anguine Prime and Anguine II and they are closest to us in space. Konik is from Anguine II. If you decide to put off having him advise you, don’t choose another from either of those worlds, lest when you do add him, you have an overbalance.”
“Of course,” he said, bending to kiss her where neck met shoulder. “I didn’t realize you had another side to your neck,” he chuckled. “It’s really very pretty. You should wear your hair up more often.”
“Are we talking about your advisors, or are we back to foreplay?” she asked turning her profile toward him. Really a beautiful woman. How had he gone for so long with her right under his nose, and not noticed she was a woman?
“It makes me wonder what else is right under my nose that I’m not noticing,” he said aloud, and she just rolled her eyes and sighed.
“We need to get out and get dressed,” she said. “Pythos wants Equus to get a look at you for this evening’s newscast. You get to tell everybody that you’re not sterile, though just how you’ll phrase it is a mystery to me.”
“And you were going to tell me this, when?” he scowled, standing up and shaking water out of his hair.
“In time to think about it,” she replied in a casual tone, “but not far enough in advance to angst over it. You did enough of that over the speech you gave to the people your first day back. I’ve laid your clothes out for you, and Ah’din will braid your hair, though I think you might consider cutting it short again. It was very attractive. It would be much easier to take care of, and you could set yet another trend, to go with the snake tattoos, you know. Pythos expects you in the west gardens in forty-five minutes for the broadcast.”
“My life is not my own,” the Firstlord muttered, snapping a towel around his waist and reaching for his robe, “my life is just not my own.”
“It could be worse,” she called after him. “You could be a Terren, or a Declivian. Or a Lebonathi, and have to ride around in a transparent dynamium bubble all the time, because everybody who wants your job is trying to kill you … or a ….”
“Point taken,” came the Firstlord’s irate and retreating baritone. He added something that sounded like, ‘and you’re joining me for this,’ so Io decided she’d better get out and do something with a couple pounds of curly, wet hair. She put it into a loose three strand overbraid, and tucked it under itself in man-fashion … so the back of her neck showed … and put on a long-sleeved tunic and riding tights, and, as intimation she knew would be appreciated, she tucked a small, wild sun flower behind one ear.