Gideon snugged the soft wool of the comforter closer around his shoulder and winced at the high pitched howl of the wind in the huge Equi pines outside his bedroom window. The last of the moons had gone down and the sun had not yet begun to rise, but it didn’t sound much like weather for a birthing day celebration. He sighed. He’d been looking forward to this more than he wanted to admit. Not that anybody would be in much of a mood to celebrate, least of all his sire.
He pulled himself up onto one elbow and cocked his head to listen, wondering if the wind was as cold as it sounded. Except for the wind, the ancient house was silent. Only the slight warmth of the alabaster walls told him that water flowed through them, through the floors, heating the structure as it had for thousands of years. Canyon keep. Home. He had a home, and a family. What else could possibly matter more than that? He smiled. He could always go to the beach another time. He flopped back down for a bit, but there was no sleep in him. It was his birthing day! Today, here, people would remember that. He didn’t think he could wait to hear it the first time.
Again he listened, straining his ears for any sound of his father. Was he home safe in bed, or was he out in this? Perhaps pressing matters had kept him at the Great House. He could be pacing back and forth like a big, graceful protoped, debating even yet with MalDor over the issue of cleomitite mining on Calumet. Or maybe he’d agreed to a meeting with the delegation from Lebonath Jas that had appeared out of nowhere three days ago. Gideon had been at the Great House for their arrival. Interesting looking people, with their pallid skins and their large, colorless eyes and white hair. Backward in their behavior by Equi standards, but fascinating. They were secretive in the extreme, spoke condescendingly, and, Gideon thought, the ones he’d gotten close to didn’t smell all that good, either. They seemed to be nocturnal, so meeting at night would be the courteous thing to do. His father, ever courtly and gentle of spirit, would honor them in such a manner. Their unexpected arrival in the midst of the furor over the Telenir and the disappearance of Konik, had given Ardenai even more to think about. Certainly, he was not here in his bed at Canyon keep.
Gideon sighed again. Certainly the ruler of a great world was not to be expected at the birthing day party of an adopted boy – the castoff son of a Declivian whore – who had managed to attach himself to a powerful and magnanimous prince. What was he thinking to imagine that Ardenai would come? He rubbed at the soft edges of his blanket, just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming the whole thing, to make sure he wasn’t huddled under a thin rag on the dirty wood floor of his mother’s two room flat, where he’d be stumbled over by his drunken dam, or kicked awake to fetch for her or her current bed mate. Or sleeping in his bunk on Squire Fidel’s plantation on Demeter, where he’d be cuffed awake, or pissed on as a joke while he slept. He grinned again, and slyly, remembering the fate of the last man who’d decided to urinate on him while he was asleep. That unfortunate soul had run afoul of the big stranger who’d turned out to be the Thirteenth Dragonhorse. How much fun would it be to walk back into that bunkhouse – today – with his father.
Gideon rolled his head ever so slightly to the right, playing the game of daring himself to look. The tall, powerful figure of Grayson was not in the top bunk next to him. There was no bunk next to him. He was in his own comfortable bed, which snuggled into the corner of his spacious room like a big, soft wedge of Ah’din’s homemade cream pie, its intricately carved head and footboards seeming a friendly fence, keeping out the bad things which had haunted his young life.
Gideon flipped the covers aside and got out of bed. It was foolish to lie here and let these fantasies and speculations eat at him. He’d go peek into his father’s room. If he went outside, he could look in through the windows. That way he’d know how cold the wind was, and he’d know if Ardenai was going to be home to help him celebrate his birthing day. Even as he thought it, he felt a little petty. He told himself again that there were more important things afoot than celebrating. A week’s frantic search had turned up no sign of Konik, and only eight hundred and fifty of the Telenir could be accounted for after the final round-up. Had they been kidnapped, as Ardenai insisted had happened to Konik, or were they in hiding, and for what reason? Ardenai had employed every man, every mind, every strategy at his disposal, including reinforcements from the Seventh Galactic Alliance, and come up completely empty. Finally, he’d had to put the search into the hands of others and return to the affairs of the Great House, and of his own harvest.
The boy wrapped himself in a heavy woolen robe, wiggled his feet into lined, knee-high moccasins, and opened the door which led onto the main patio of the north garden. He hunched his shoulders against the wind and stood there a moment – long enough to realize that it wasn’t all that cold. The breath of the Creator Spirit always sounded frigid as it whipped through the pine boughs. He should have remembered that. He smiled to himself and hurried across the sand-colored pavers toward his sire’s wing of the house, giving the sky a brief glance to ascertain that there were no clouds to rain on his celebration. The season was fast changing. More rain was a possibility. The huge harvesters ran day and night, their lights just visible on the hills past the barns, trying to finish ahead of the imminent and sometimes terrible storms. The old people who told the weather said this winter was going to be long and cold.
There were no clouds, only the last of the Equi moons, sinking on the western horizon, pulling a few faint stars along behind. He slipped up to the bank of casements on the northwest side of his father’s bedchambers and peeked in. It was utterly black. He closed his eyes for a few moments to allow his pupils to dilate, and looked again. Not a chance. He couldn’t see a thing. He huffed with annoyance and was rethinking his strategy when an amused baritone touched his thoughts.
Did you really think I would miss my son’s first birthing day party?
Gideon jumped. I … Sire, I didn’t mean to … I mean, no … I…
Organize your thoughts, Gideon. What did you not mean to do?
Gideon now felt very foolish indeed, standing outside Ardenai’s bedroom window in the small hours of the morning like a lovesick suitor. He took a deep breath and brought his thoughts to the forefront, suppressing his emotions and realizing he was still very sleepy. Sire, forgive me. I did not mean to waken you, nor to make you think that I didn’t think you’d be home for my birthing day, or to make you think that I thought it was important enough that you ought to be, you know. And I didn’t mean to intrude on … anything you and Io might be … doing. Is she home, by the way?
Mmmmm … tucked into her accustomed spot beneath my chin – and very warm and cuddly she is, too. I love you, son. Blessed birthing day. Now go back to bed and let us sleep, will you?
“Of course,” the boy murmured aloud, turning away, then added, Did you…?
Not yet. But Equus is just so big. The galaxy is just so big. Nik will be found in good time. Go to bed before you freeze and I wake myself the rest of the way, and both of us start the day on an unhappy note.
Gideon hugged himself as he trotted back to his room. Ardenai was home. The business of finding Konik had not been greater than the business of being home for his son’s birthing day. The business of the Great House of Equus, the Kohathis, the Lebonathi, had not been greater than the business of being home for his son’s birthing day.
Hubris is not a particularly endearing trait, came the stern thought, and Gideon realized with a twinge of fear just how powerfully invasive his father could be if the mood took him
“Sorry,” he said aloud, and crawled back into his warm, soft bed.
The next time he awoke the room was full of daylight, and his bed was … alive! Something was wriggling under the comforter, over his toes and feet and legs, something which tickled and scratched and made little chuffing sounds like a tiny steam engine. Gideon’s eyes flew open and he went up on his elbows with a squawk and a giggle, expecting to find his aunt’s lithoped under the covers with him, probably in pursuit of a spinklemaus, brought as a prize from the barn. Mikilosh occasionally did things like that.
Instead of Mikilosh, he found himself looking into the laughing face of someone he didn’t know. A young man roughly his own age, who said, “Blessed birthing day, Gideon. I’m your cousin, Criollo.”
Before Gideon could acknowledge the introduction, there was another scrambling, this time up the center of his chest, and a black button nose on a pointed muzzle, and two bright brown eyes in a light brown, foxy face, poked out from under the covers at him.
Gideon crowed with delight and seized the intruder. “What are you?” he exclaimed, hoisting the little creature up to examine it. It was a dog. A tiny, wiggling dog, with a freckled belly, short, rakishly floppy ears, and an amazingly long, frantic tongue.
“He’s a miniature Caspian terrier,” Criollo said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “He’s just about as big as he’s going to get, because of course you can’t bring a dog onto Equus until it’s been neutered or spayed, and they have to be four months old to do that, but what’s there is all dog. I hope you like him.”
“Oh, I do,” Gideon breathed, holding the pup just out of tongue’s reach, and stroking the sleek, spotted coat with one admiring hand. “Thank you … I’m Gideon,” he began, remembering his manners, and Criollo burst out laughing. He sounded exactly like his sire.
“I’m glad, because if you’re not Gideon, I’ve given your puppy to somebody else.”
Gideon pulled the pup under his chin and arched a questioning eyebrow. “I … I love the dog, of course, but … how … I mean,” he glanced around and lowered his voice a little despite the fact that they were obviously alone, “I don’t think my grandsire wanted me to have a dog, because he thinks they’re kind of useless, even the big ones, and he thought it might start an unfortunate fad of some kind if the son of the Firstlord had a dog, you know, since they’re not native to the planet … or upset Ah’krill if I took it to Thura with me, and now here you are …”
“With a dog. Yes. Well, what can you expect from a cousin in his third year of final form, after all? Colts that age can be so heedless and impulsive. It was a whim. Your sire and grandsire will disapprove, no doubt, but being polite, and for the sake of family relations, they’ll let you keep the little rascal, though my mother’s fat, spoiled lithoped is going to be scandalized.”
“Oh,” Gideon said, and a slow smile crossed his face as he snuggled the gently snoring pup. “But who told you I wanted a dog?”
“One of the family nickered in somebody’s ear,” Criollo grinned. “I am but the agent of delivery. Would you like me to take him so you can get bathed and dressed?”
Gideon started to hand him over, then hesitated and tucked him back under his chin. “I could just put him here on my bed. All of a sudden he’s sound asleep.”
“Don’t delude yourself,” Criollo advised. “He’s been my companion for two days now, and I can tell you this, he’s saving himself. If he wakes up and there’s no supervision and he’s in a strange place … there will be chaos. Here, I’ll sit with him and wait for you.”
“Thanks,” Gideon said, and reluctantly handed over his prize.
A dog. He had a dog of his very own. He couldn’t bathe fast enough, barely had the patience to properly comb his hair for want of holding that dog. A series of short yips told him the pup was awake once again, and he heard Criollo’s laugh as he stepped out of the small lavage in his room and started rummaging for something to put on.
“You could have gone to the main pools,” his cousin said. “You had plenty of time before breakfast.”
“We bathed for over an hour last night,” Gideon replied, and it was true. At High Harvest, when they all spent long days in the fields, hauling hay, running harvesters, tending horses from dawn until dark, or putting up food for the winter in the huge kitchen of Canyon keep, a long evening soak was especially welcome. They’d laugh, and discuss the day, and drink some of Teal’s fine wine, or cinnamon orange tea, and groom one another while they chatted and snoozed in the big thermal pools beneath the house.
“The family is waiting for us,” Criollo said, and handed Gideon his puppy. “That’s a beautiful painting of the sunrise there on your wall. One of your Sire’s, I assume?”
“Yes, one of Ardenai’s,” Gideon smiled. “He painted it while he was recovering from his illness and gave it to me as a birthing day gift.” His sire. He belonged to someone. He wondered if the novelty of that thought would ever, ever wear off. He doubted it very much.
Gideon took time to study his companion as they walked toward the kitchen. He could see both Teal and Ah’din in Criollo’s features, and when Criollo looked back at him and grinned, his eyes sparkled with mischief, just like his grandsire’s. Gideon couldn’t help wondering if they’d be friends – maybe even best friends, like Ardenai and Teal.
The puppy wiggled in his arms, wanting down, and Gideon was suddenly keenly aware of who waited in the kitchen. Teal, who had recently begun advising Ardenai on top of being Master of Horse and Captain of the Horse guard, and who valued his quiet times at home. Ah’din, who never seemed to sit still, and who would be less than pleased with a puppy underfoot and into her weaving baskets. His sire, who carried the weight of an ancient government on his shoulders with Io beside him.
If they’d come for breakfast as they often did, there would also be Krush, who thought dogs were good for nothing but chewing up shoes and tack, Ah’rane, who had said quietly but firmly that she would not advocate for a dog in this house … And yet … someone had nickered in Criollo’s ear. Who? Gideon sighed and snuggled the puppy close under his chin. This could be a very short acquisition.
“You’re squashing your dog,” Criollo observed, and gave the faltering Gideon a gentle push into the fragrant, sunlit kitchen.
They were all there – his whole family – even Pythos, who had temporarily given up residence in the myrianotus tree for the occasion, and Kehailan, still in his SGA uniform. When the two boys walked in, all conversation ceased abruptly.
“What in the ten tribute worlds of Equus is that thing with the birthing day boy?” Krush asked, pointing at the puppy, who was peeking out between Gideon’s encircling fingers.
“That’s my son,” Teal said. “You remember him … home from Oporens Academy on Anguine II? Has the room next to Gideon’s?”
“The other thing,” Krush amended, poker faced.
“Well, it’s too small to be a horse,” Teal said blandly. “Definitely not a horse. Which is a good thing. The women in this family object to having horses in here under usual circumstances, though there has been the occasional foal by the cookstove for a bit.”
“Too small even to be a pony,” Ah’din added. “Too quiet for a duck.”
“Too small for a dog,” Ah’rane chuckled, “so that whole argument’s laid to rest.”
“It iss too ssmall to be a wood rat, although it lookss tassty enough,” Pythos hissed, flicking his long tongue in the pup’s direction. “Doesst thee have … planss for it?”
“Too small for a lithoped,” Io said, winking at the boys as she set flatwraps on the table.
“Not the right shape for a spinklemaus,” Ardenai smiled, “though it has those beady eyes that spinkles have. Please, tell us. We’re intrigued. Did you catch it under the bed, or did old fat Mikilosh drag it in and spit it up on your comforter?”
“Old fat Mikilosh has caught more spinkles and rats than you have, brother dear,” Ah’din snapped, quick in the defense of her beloved ped, and Ardenai burst out laughing.
“Of that I have no doubt,” he managed, and caught her hand to kiss it as she brushed past him. “I’ve never been much of a rat catcher, much to my chagrin.”
Ah’din shot him a look, then a smile, and turned back to the boys. “Tell us, Gideon, what have you there?”
“It’s a dog,” Gideon squeaked. “It’s a …” he glanced at Criollo, visualizing those first minutes in the bedroom. “… miniature …something … terrier.”
“Caspian,” Kehailan added helpfully, and all eyes turned to him. “What? Because I know what kind of dog it is, I’m behind this?”
“That, and because you don’t have to live here, yes.” Ardenai growled softly, but his eyes were twinkling.
Kehailan snorted. “I also know that it was originally bred tiny like that to keep rats out of the prisons on Caspia, and that Ah’brianne’s old dog, Sawkus is a Newland Potiffur mix developed on Declivis as a herding breed about four hundred years ago.” He paused and colored just a bit, realizing that his enthusiasm had become unmistakable. “I … I’m rather fond of dogs, that’s all.”
“And you wanted your little brother to have one,” Ardenai said flatly.
Kehailan just pursed his lips and arched his brows, and said nothing.
“I could … give him back,” Gideon whispered, beginning to turn in his cousin’s direction.
“Oh no, I don’t want him.” Criollo said, backing away. “I’m just the delivering agent, remember? Turn him loose in the hay barn. He’s bred for the express purpose of catching tiny pests. Supposedly he’s a ratter to match any …” he gave his mother a nervous glance, “to match any ped. Not my choice of words, just purported prowess.”
“Not so hasty,” Krush admonished, wagging a finger. “Here, let me examine the beast. Careful now, I don’t want to get my arm taken off.”
Gideon handed him over, and Krush held the little fellow in his cupped hands to examine him. “You,” he said softly, dropping his head close to the pup’s foxy little face, “are absolutely adorable. Probably useless, but adorable. None of us will be able to top this. The rest of the day will be details. Here, take your dog. Blessed birthing day, Grandson.”
The table exploded with laughter and applause, which sent the pup wiggling out of Gideon’s grasp and bounding deer-like around the room over various objects at an amazing rate of speed and with an athletic grace which brought more than one admiring nod.
“Let him run,” Krush advised, and pulled out a chair for Gideon before turning to embrace Criollo. “Who set you on the path of a puppy if not Kehailan?”
Criollo just shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll never tell,” he said, and turned his good-looking grin toward his uncle. “Ardenai Firstlord, congratulations on your marriage to the lovely former Captain of the Horse Guard. Lovely former Captain, blessings in your marriage to my favorite, albeit only, uncle.”
Io gave him a gracious nod and said, “We have been told that we are not a very likely couple, but we are nonetheless a very happy one, and we thank you for your felicitations.”
“Sire,” Kehailan said, impatient to get back to the subject at hand, “We were discussing the ramifications of the Lebonathi delegation …”
“A conversation for another time,” Ardenai smiled. “Perhaps this evening at the main fire. For now, we give ourselves over to the celebration of Gideon’s birthing day.”
“As you wish,” Kehailan acquiesced. “Gideon, what is your outing to be?”
“The shore,” he sighed. “I’ve never been to the shore.”
“And we’re picnicking,” Ah’rane said, “so you had best lose that uniform for the day, and put on something more casual, Tactical Wing Commander Ah’ree Kehailan Ardenai.”
Kehailan nodded and smiled, his black eyes flashing with affection for his granddam. The thought of the shore was not a particularly inviting one, but … he would go to please her, and his father. Perhaps he could steal some of Ardenai’s time to further discuss the Lebonathi delegation, and what their arrival on the doorstep of Equus might mean to the political stability of this particular spatial extension.
It was well known that Lebonath Jas and Lebonath Tras were more than a little xenophobic, and it was unprecedented for them to send a delegation anywhere for any reason. Nobody knew a single thing about them, but speculation was rampant that they were seeking an alliance, and perhaps the opportunity to join the SGA. Ah’krill had visited there with a delegation about … what … two years ago? Had it been that long? Longer? His sire had been invited. Perhaps Ardenai should have made himself put aside his grief and go, Kehailan thought, passing a steaming platter of mazea cakes and helping himself to one of them as it went by. He realized his father was watching him out of the corner of one eye, and tried not to look as frustrated as he felt at the moment.
He put aside his speculations as best he could, and focused on his family. It was unusual for him to be home so much. It was as if Marion Eletsky knew … now that Ardenai was Firstlord, Kehailan’s responsibilities to Equus would increase exponentially. It was surprising, really, mostly to Kehailan. He’d always considered himself an outsider, someone of mixed blood who was a prince of the Great House only because his father was of royal blood. Now, here he was in the thick of things and rather pleased to be so. Occasionally of late he’d speculated about where that might lead someday. What he might find himself doing.
“Kee, look up!” Ardenai called from the hayloft, and a bale of sweet-smelling hay dropped at his feet. Kehailan waved and grinned, popped the cords of twisted straw which held the bale together, and began tossing thick flakes of the stuff to the eager horses which lined the aisle. Krush and Gideon were feeding from the other end of the huge barn, Criollo and Teal putting out the grain, and Kehailan found himself enjoying the activity. His dislike of the agrarian lifestyle was legend, and he wondered as he took in the sounds and smells of the early morning and the horses, if he might just be changing as he got a little older. He had long ago made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the keeping of horses, nor did he want to be a keeplord, nor did he want to play polo, nor deliver foals on a cold Omphas morning, nor walk behind a pony-plow in the family garden, nor harvest grain, nor look for stray animals in the middle of the night. But now … somehow … things seemed smoother, as though all the shaking and stirring of late had finally homogenized the diverse elements of Kehailan’s life into something which flowed together and seemed richer than it had, and sweeter.
A soft muzzle brushed his forearm and he dropped the hay into Tolbeth’s manger before stopping a moment to stroke her soft, bay shoulder. “You’re welcome,” he smiled.
There was a sudden movement in the doorway, and a bounding of brown and white that set even gentle Tolbeth’s eyes bulging with alarm. She was jerking up a warning hoof when Kehailan snatched up the pup and stepped back out of the stall with him. “You’d best be careful, young man,” he said, offering the tiny dog up for Tolbeth to sniff over the door, “You’ll be a small smear on a very large wall.” The mare stuck out her nose until her head was nearly parallel to the floor, snorted a couple of times in what was obviously contempt, and went back to her breakfast. “You’ll have some confidences to win, and it’ll take some time,” Kehailan advised. He stroked the puppy under its chin with one finger, and set it back on the floor.
In a moment Gideon was beside him, looking concerned, then relieved when he saw the dog. “Thanks. I suppose I ought to give him a name so I can call him,” he grinned.
“A good idea. We can work on that at the shore,” Kehailan smiled, and realized with a flood of relief that he no longer resented Gideon, that he had grown to admire, and then to love this sincere and intelligent young man. “Come on, little brother, the sun is long since up and the tide is going out. The women will be packed and waiting for us.”
They went shoulder to shoulder toward the house, and Ardenai watched them with a deep sense of pleasure, and relief no less than Kehailan’s. “I do think my sons are growing rather fond of one another,” he said to his father, and Krush nodded.
“And a fine brace they are. Our wives are waiting for us. Teal, are you coming, and where is Criollo? I’m not used to having my whole family at home all at once.”
It was novel, and delightful, and they piled into the little flyers with much laughter and high spirits. They’d talked about riding the horses down to the beach, but it was nearly half a day’s journey by that mode, and they’d opted instead to take the Equi flyers, which would get them there quickly and optimize Gideon’s first experience at the shore. If Kehailan suspected that they’d done it partially so that he wouldn’t have to ride a horse all that way, he kept it to himself, and there wasn’t really any evidence that it had been a factor in their decision-making.
The day was warm and beautiful despite the season, and the flyers swept low over the waterfall and followed the river down the wide, steep-sided canyon which led to the sea. The grass was gold with the kiss of first frosts, the deciduous trees beginning to release their leaves to the ground’s embrace. Caves dotted the sides of the canyon on both sides, and as they meandered from side to side they talked about the different ones, and the adventures to be had there, and of some of the ancient paintings which were to be found inside.
The tang of the salt grew sharper, and with a slight bend to the northeast, it sprang into view. Marshes, then a long, white sand beach, split by the Little Sister’s rush to the great waters of the North Viridian. Falcons rose crying from the sea stacks and spiraled into the air as the flyers circled down and settled on the east side of the river, and fifty yards or so back on the sand. “Is this a good spot?” Ardenai asked, “or would you rather go to the beach at Falconstones? If we went there, we could get out the boat and go sailing.”
“This is wonderful,” Gideon breathed, stepping out of the flyer and onto the beach. “This … is perfect. Thank you so much.” He put the puppy down beside him, and sat down in the warming sand to remove his boots and socks. In an instant, he was littered with sand as the pup began to dig, spinning in a circle and throwing sand indiscriminately in all directions in his quest for something only he was privy to. The rest of the family carried blankets and food and supplies to a vantage point close to both the river and the breakers, and spread themselves out to enjoy the day.
It was Pythos who lingered behind, observing Gideon, who did not move when the others did. He sat where he had first landed, slowly running his fingers through the temperate, alabaster sand and watching it trickle from his palm onto his knees. The old dragon toddled over on his short, powerful legs and coiled beside the boy, waiting, saying nothing. When Gideon finally looked up, there was wonder in his golden eyes.
“Who am I,” he said at last and softly, “that I should deserve this?”
“Desserve what?” Pythos hissed, opening one bulging yellow eye to more than a slit.
“This,” the Declivian gestured, taking in the beach and himself with a sweep of his hand. “I am wearing clothes that have never belonged to anybody else but me. Even the boots. My … sire had these boots made for me, and Ah’din made me this tunic with her own hands. As busy as she is, she made this for me. I have a warm bed to sleep in at night, with a lavage that is not only indoors, but all mine. I have enough to eat at every single meal. I have a place to bathe. I have the unspeakable luxury of pets. I have a horse of my own and a dog of my own. Pythos, I have a family, and I really think they love me, at least they say they do. I have a father, and grandparents, an aunt and an uncle, even a cousin … and a big brother … and I have you, so I have the best of medical care. And we are all gathered here to celebrate my birthing day. Mine. I just … I can’t fathom what I’ve done to deserve such riches.”
“Thee iss a child of the Wisdom Giver. That iss enough.”
“Then why do others who revere the Wisdom Giver, have so much less?”
The serpent turned his frond-like hands upward in a questioning gesture and made the noise that Gideon had come to recognize as a chuckle of bemusement. “Thee asskss very hard quesstionss, young princcce. Thiss one knowss only that with much richnesss, comess much ressponssibility. Perhapss, becausse thee took up a heavy burden of ressponssibility without being assked, thou art rewarded in kind. Thiss iss more than thee can imagine desserving …”
“And your help when I was in direst need was more than I could ever have imagined you giving,” Ardenai said, coming up to sit quietly on the other side of Gideon.
“That was the catalyst, then?” Gideon asked, turning to Ardenai.
Ardenai stared out to sea for a bit before answering. “No,” he said at last. “You, the force of your personality on a day to day, routine basis, the depth of your desire to succeed, made what you did a very natural extension of who you are. The fact that you saved me was an act of heroism. The fact that you stayed with me from that moment on, sharing the danger, the pain, the unknown, the fear … that … was the act of a kinsman, a brother. Now I will tell you something I haven’t told you before. I loved you from the time I met you. Had you not come with me at the outset, when all was said and done, and the fighting was over, I would have gone back to Demeter for you. You didn’t need to do one, single thing beyond the everyday, to make me love you. Eladeus willed that we should be together.”
Gideon sighed, and a weight he didn’t know he’d been carrying, lifted from his heart. He put his hand on Ardenai’s updrawn knee, and set his forehead momentarily against the broad shoulder. “As surely as if I were the seed of your body, you have given me life,” he said softly, “and I thank you.”
The sleek little flyer in whose shade they were sitting chimed softly as its proximity beacon sensed another vessel, and Gideon tensed as a rather large shuntcraft glided up the canyon and settled close by. What if it were Ah’krill?
“It’s not,” Ardenai said flatly, as though the boy had spoken aloud. “She hasn’t spoken to me in a week, and I don’t suppose she will for a while yet. I wounded her pride by sending her back to the Great House with Abeyan. I angered her by separating her from Jilfan. She will remain aloof until she needs something of me.”
“I hope you’re right,” Gideon muttered, and stood up, brushing the sand off his trousers with his hands. “I don’t …recognize this shunt. It’s not Equi, is it?”
“No,” Ardenai chuckled, realizing whose it was.
Just then the door slid open and a familiar figure filled the doorway. “Josephus!” Gideon exclaimed, and ran to help his father’s old friend get down the steps and onto the sand.
Ardenai hurried up behind him, extending his hands. “Ahimsa, I wish thee peace!” he said. “What brings you?”
“Just a short layover,” Josephus chuckled, tucking one of them under each massive arm. “I have a few hours, so I thought I’d stop by the house and say hello, and they told me you was all down here, so anyways, here I am. Here, here, what’s this dancing about our feet all in a dither?”
The pup had arrived, dripping mud from the river and all smiles, bearing a dead spinklemaus in his jaws. “This is my dog,” Gideon said proudly. “His name is … well, I don’t know yet, but Criollo, my cousin, gave him to me for my birthday.”
Josephus let his eyes get wide. “So it’s today is it? That mystical, wonderful seventeenth year is upon you, is it? Well, that’s pretty amazing that I should arrive on such a momentous occasion. I do hope I’m in time for some of your auntie’s apple cake. And there’s the old dragon hisself. Pythos, it’s good to see you.”
“Thee iss mosst welcome, friend of my friend,” Pythos hissed, and the four of them made their way across the sand, with the pup bounding proudly ahead with his trophy.
Josephus kicked his boots off, settled his bulk in the warm sand, and gladly accepted a drink and a sweet cake. “Hope I’m not wearing out my welcome, beings as I was here for some time just shortly ago,” he said, nodding to Ah’din and Ah’rane.
“Never,” Ah’din laughed. “Anyone who can thread a floor loom as well as you can has a permanent welcome at my hearth.”
“Good to know,” Josephus grinned. “Boy seems to be working real well into the family.”
The conversation turned that direction, and Ardenai was content to stretch out beside Kehailan on the sand and listen, and soak up the last of the season’s warm sunshine.
The last shunt to arrive brought Timor, his wife Ah’mae, and Ah’brianne, who, Gideon thought, seemed just a little too happy to see Criollo. On the other hand, she seemed no less happy to see him, and she adored the puppy. They had brought their own puppy, Rhorus, who was huge, but no older than Gideon’s pup, and the two dogs romped happily, unaware of the comic picture they presented.
“You didn’t bring Sawkus?” Gideon asked, walking beside her in the wet sand at the waves’ edge.
“Sawkus was delighted to be rid of him for the day,” Ah’brianne chuckled, and her bright eyes flashed with sunlight as she smiled at him.
The puppy flew by, then stopped abruptly and began to dig at the water’s edge, making exuberant chuffing noises, and shoving his little terrier nose eye-deep into the rapidly growing hole.
Gideon watched him for a bit, and his looked softened to a memory which stood in his golden eyes and caused Ah’brianne to ask, “What are you thinking?”
Gideon looked momentarily startled, then chuckled and shook his head. “I … don’t have many happy memories of being little,” he said quietly, “but there was this place not too far from where I lived, and I would go there sometimes … the Museum of Transportation. They had all kinds of things in there that traveled on the land, and under and over it, and they had trains from our planet, and others, as well.” He sighed with pleasure at the memory. “They even had a replica of an ancient model train that had been a children’s toy. It was black, and on its side it said, Lionel, in big gold letters, and it made little chuffing noises, just like he’s doing. I wanted that little train more than anything else in the world.”
“Only now he’s more choking and gagging,” Criollo observed. “I think he’s probably inhaled a bit too much sand.”
“Lionel,” Gideon said again, scooping up the puppy and wiping his face with the corner of his shirt, “Lionel. I like that. You move just like that little train used to, and I’ve wanted a dog more than I ever wanted that toy.”
“Here’s to Lionel,” Criollo said with a solemn wink. ‘Let’s hope he’s easy to … train.”
There was a communal groan, but the name was decided on, and the puppy was released back to tumble with Rhorus.
They spent the day feasting on bulging flatwraps, crisp vegetables, fruit and sweets, and laughing and running on the beach playing scoops, which didn’t sound like a game that required skill and agility, but of course it did. They played old against the young, boys against the girls, with Pythos and Josephus serving as audience. During a quiet time, they sat and listened while Pythos told them the story of the ancient city of Destrier, long buried in the desert sands of Viridia. His hissing, sibilant tones, coupled with the cool breeze blowing off the Viridian Sea, made the hair stand up on the back of Gideon’s neck, and he shivered with delight at the tale. He’d never had anybody take time to tell him a ghost story before. Josephus added a tale or two of his own, as well as the interstellar gossip surrounding the arrival of the Lebonathi delegation. When the adults seemed fairly settled into that particular conversation, Criollo and Gideon forded the chilly river with Ah’brianne and headed west down the beach.
The young people spoke of school, and of returning to the Great House. That meant Gideon would have not just one friend in school there, but two, and it strengthened his determination to go. His father and grandfather, his whole family, had been tutoring him at length for seasons, and his confidence was on the rise. Before Ah’brianne left that afternoon she exacted a promise from him to attend at least a few of old Master Breton’s classes, and Gideon agreed.
Ardenai and Io, too, strolled together and spoke of the need to return to the Capital, and Ardenai’s eyes were sad as he gazed out toward the setting sun. “I always hate to leave this place,” he said, bending to kiss the top of his wife’s head. They stopped, and sat in the sand, and watched the sun go down without speaking further. “Still, I suppose we must,” he sighed, and Io nodded.
“We’ll be back in just a few days,” she said, patting his arm, “and we do have that meeting with the Lebonathis on Scoligyre nightfall. I’m looking forward to that, aren’t you? Who are these fascinating people, exactly, and why have they come so far to see you?”
“Good questions,” Ardenai smiled, rose to his feet, and pulled her up beside him. “I would like you to stay with me for a while, at least until we see what the delegates want of us. Others can continue the search for Nik in the meantime.”
Io nodded her assent and pulled his hand over her shoulder, stroking his fingers as they strolled back toward the rest of the family, by now packing things up and stuffing them into the flyers. “It’s cooling off rapidly,” she observed, walking a little closer to her husband to share his warmth. “We are moving into Oporens. Perhaps that’s good. Things will feel less hectic when harvest is over and Oporens is behind us.”
“Yes,” Ardenai nodded, but his mind was not on the harvest; it was elsewhere – on the affairs of the Great House, the sudden disappearance of an honorable man, and the mysterious delegation from Lebonath Jas. “It begins, it ends, and begins again,” he said. “Well, enough of that. Let’s go home.”