Tactical Wing Commander Ah’ree Kehailan Ardenai twisted miserably on his bed, seeking sleep which would not come. His store of tales about how to get to sleep, even his attempts at meditation had failed, and he lay staring into the darkness. Far away he could hear the sound of space-locks and the comings and goings of various sized vessels. They were in the belly of Seventh Galactic Alliance Shipyard Five for, as Captain Eletsky put it, a little fine tuning. And they might actually have needed it. Many ships went back after their maiden voyage and had things tightened up a little here and there. But their maiden voyage had been to Equus, and now they were in a place where ten times ten thousand people had heard his sire shake the foundations of Equus and the galaxy. That one man, if he chose, could bring most of the commerce in the galaxy to a grinding halt with a single word – the motion of a single hand – and at least a thousand of these people had told him so in the last few days.
Kehailan found himself back on his bare feet, pacing the carpet off the floor of his quarters. Why? Why had Ardenai been so indiscreet, so impolite, so … irrational? The man had been a teacher for years, and a statesman – an ambassador. He sat on the Education Council. He just was not an irrational man. Why? Why had Kehailan been shut out of his father’s thoughts? None of this made any sense. On top of the irrational fear that his father had gone mad from pain, or stress, or grief, was the very real fear that he was being hunted down like an animal so his arms could be sawn off. He could be captured and brainwashed to become someone’s puppet. They could be torturing him ….
Kehailan gave himself the verbal command, “Stop. If Ardenai comes to you for help, you’ll be too crazed and exhausted to help him.” But Ardenai would not come here. Kehailan knew that with absolute certainty. Wherever the Firstlord was going, it wasn’t here, and he wouldn’t be asking his only son for help. That hurt. It added an almost physical pain to the grief and confusion. It made Kehailan feel like a failure, and he hated it.
The crew had all been very kind. Winslow and Oonah, Marion and Tim. Bonfire had offered her version of comfort on more than one occasion, and Kehailan had gratefully accepted.
Hadrian had stayed away, but that was to be expected. It was Kehailan’s theory that Keats disliked him because he was a telepath, and disliked his father even more because he was an extremely powerful one. He’d tried to explain that for the Equi, telepathy was just unspoken words – speech – not mind reading, but it had availed him nothing. Keats knew the Equi could read thoughts, and that’s what had stuck, not the fact that they chose not to.
Oonah had been Kehailan’s companion often these last few days. She’d spoken of her time as Ardenai’s guest, his courtliness, his deep concern for his son and his people. This was not a man to act in anger. There was something more to this than met the eye. Kehailan had nodded his thanks and forced a smile, but he was ashamed; more ashamed to admit, even to himself, that that was how he felt. Ardenai Firstlord, a man Kee thought he knew, had railed against the intelligence of his own people and stormed off somewhere to … what? Why? The commander snarled under his breath and flopped back onto his bed.
“He does surprise me,” said the senator, mouth turned down in appraisal. “He secrets himself to lick his wounds and let his wrath fester. This is something I would never have suspected in Ardenai. He has always been duty bound, honor bound, leading the charge with the flag of the faith by being deadly dull. Long before this announcement I have suspected he would wear the golden arm bands. Long have I seen in him the classic Equi morals, physique, and intelligence. It pleases me to match wits with one so thoroughly unlikeable. And you …”
He shifted in his chair, adjusting his feet to the fire, and looked with some desire at the woman in front of him, even as he shook his head. “What, exactly, is in this for you, that you would betray the man who rocked you as a baby, was your teacher, your mentor, and your life-long friend? Why do you seek me out to rise up against him?”
Io held her hands out to the flames, turning her back to him for a few moments before showing him her profile in the firelight. “Surely you can answer both those questions, Sarkhan. Perhaps I can answer them in one explanation. I am a warrior, not a logician. I am the captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus. What does that mean? Nothing! I command one thousand hand-picked soldiers at any one time. A mere thousand. I am the personal body guard of Ardenai Firstlord, and no more. My father commands a paltry few thousand riders. There are less than a hundred thousand in the entire Cavalry of the Great House of Equus. Equus needs a standing, modern military of its own. For two years since I became Captain of the Horse Guard I have advocated it to deaf ears. I am a warrior. I wish to be allied with a warrior race. If not for Equus, then against it.”
“A pretty story, but hardly a compelling one, Captain. I happen to admire Ardenai Firstlord a great deal. My family has served the Great House for nearly five hundred years, now. What makes you think in that pretty head of yours that I would actually foment revolution?”
“Because you are not Equi,” Io smiled, still looking at him over one shoulder, and he jumped a rewarding distance.
“I am as loyal as any,” he said quickly, but his eyes betrayed him. “I do agree with you that Equus needs a standing military. But …” he realized he was taking the wrong tack and paused for a moment. “Again I ask, why do you think I am the one to help you kindle your revolution?”
“Because you are not Equi,” she repeated, and turned to face him. “You are a Telenir, and not a very cautious one.” That comment brought him spluttering from his seat, but Io held up her hand and he subsided. “You have been sloppy. If I know about your little plot to overthrow the government, then surely Ardenai does. How, exactly, do you plan to do this?” Sarkhan was silent for a long time, assessing the situation, and the woman. “It is always wise to be suspicious,” she said in an admiring tone. “Perhaps I come to seek your weaknesses, or to drag a scented bag across the trail of the quarry. Perhaps I come only to confirm in my own mind that it is indeed you who are the enemy of the man to whom I am devoted. You have certainly shown no hesitancy in revealing that to me.”
“But you are far too logical a woman to take such a risk, Captain. You mask it well, but there is greed in your eyes and your demeanor. There is a need to be on the winning side. Perhaps because you are not truly Equi, but an exceedingly odd looking mongrel, ingratiating herself into the good graces of the Great House through the influence of her father and Ardenai Firstlord.”
“I,” she said smoothly, though her eyes flashed with anger, “am one of Ardenai’s closest confidants. If you want him, you will have to go through me to get him, or chase your tail through the stars for another seven hundred years, until the rising of the fourteenth Dragonhorse, Wind Warrior.”
He settled back into his chair and turned his profile to her, propping his elbow on the arm of his chair, jaw working as he chewed the side of his index finger. His breathing told her he was agitated, perhaps even shocked, his mind going in a dozen directions at once. Again she changed her tack, reading his body language to her advantage. “Things are fresh, yet,” she said in a resigned tone. “Perhaps hastening to do the Firstlord harm works to our disadvantage, Sarkhan. You have seen his mood. Perhaps he will undo himself. Perhaps, we should allow some time to pass. With luck he will not disappear to rule from exile, or return with an army of his own.”
“No!” he said sharply. “No, Captain! If we are to hunt him, we must hunt him now. I must acquire those golden arm-bands one way or another. I want them. I want him! I want to hack his arms out of them, and …” he caught himself and exhaled sharply. “Or so I would feel if I were indeed Telenir … which I am not.”
Io took her cloak off the back of another chair and made a show of putting it on. “I don’t believe you know exactly what or who you are, Senator, or how to go about getting what you want. You are going to undo everything you and others have worked for, and I want no part of it. I had best be gone.”
“You’re assuming I’ll let you go,” he sneered.
“You have no choice,” she smiled. “If I am testing you, and I don’t come back, that which I suspicion will be fact in the ears of those I confided in, and you will be taken. If you believe me that I wish to help you, and you hold me against my will, not only will I not help you, but I cannot. I cannot be a prisoner and a free agent at the same time, now, can I? How can I track Ardenai on his flight through the galaxy if I am chained to your bedpost?”
Sarkhan regarded her with a mix of admiration and animosity … and not a little lechery. The thought of having her chained to his bedpost had immediately sent some very unsettling images through his head and into his loins. With some effort he gathered himself. “You think … he may have left the planet?”
“I know he has,” she said from the doorway. “I put him on a shuttle to SeGAS-5 three days ago. He went to counsel with Kehailan … and others.”
“He what? You what?” Sarkhan spluttered. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
“I told you during our ride this afternoon, information has its price. If you want me, you know where to find me.” She gave him a jaunty wave, a flip of her long riding cape, and was gone.
“Are you there?” he growled into the space, and a handsome, powerfully built man stepped from the shadows.
“I did,” Konik said, coming to occupy the chair next to Sarkhan.
“What do you think?”
“I think,” he sighed, “that we are in ruins. We cannot win. I realized that the second Ardenai gave that speech. My father realized it a hundred and fifty years ago. The best we can do is cut our losses before they become casualties, and consider once again that these are people with whom we want peace, not war. These are an admirable people. Surely you cannot have lived here all your life and your parents, and theirs before them, and not seen that. There is still time to come forward and negotiate in good faith – be openly a part of this society instead of closet outcasts. Ardenai Firstlord is the most honorable of men …”
“Coward!” Sarkhan spat, and turned his head away, jaw working, eyes blazing. “Your parents were cowards, and they are dead! Are your daughters and your grandchildren cowards as well? Your friends and neighbors? Perhaps it is time they joined your parents and your sister in the dirt. Why did my father choose to replace Sardure with the likes of you? My brother would have rejoiced with me! He would have killed Ardenai and licked his blood off the knife, gutted the high priestess and danced upon the table of the high council, waving her still-beating heart and shouting my name! And what is it you intend to do, Konik? You, who ingratiated yourself into Saremmano’s favor with your purring voice and the wiles of a traitor.”
Konik felt the impact of the words. He gave his silvering head an almost imperceptible shake and sat waiting until the hands beside him ceased to tremble with rage. “Which is it, exactly?” he asked, trying to keep a level tone, “Is it the thought of personal power which so woos you to indiscretion, or is it the unbearable thought that the child has become more powerful than the father?”
“How dare you! We were sent here to conquer!” Sarkhan said, and sprang from his chair to pace the floor like a caged animal. “We were sent here to conquer these people!”
Konik observed him for some time, face passive, alarm for more than his family flickering in his blue eyes. “No. We were sent here to observe, assess, assimilate …”
“In order to conquer!” Sarkhan barked. “In order to conquer! Look …” he pointed a shaking finger, “even the captain of the Horse Guard knows which side is the winning side! Even she, who rumor has it shares a bed with Ardenai, turns to me! ME! Knowing that I shall soon come into that which is rightfully mine! Mine is the true royal line of the Great House of Equus and the Wind Warriors! Mine is the line of Kabardin! She knows!”
“That much is certain,” Konik muttered. “And you believe that she is actually willing to change sides?”
Sarkhan stopped pacing and faced Konik. “You do not believe her?”
“I do, My Lord Sarkhan …”
“Sarkhan Firstlord,” he snapped.
“As you wish. I believe her when she says she came here to drag a scented bag across the path. I believe she came to ascertain beyond doubt that you are who she and Ardenai think you are. I believe the two of them are deeply in love with one another. She would never betray him for any reason. I believe she came to confuse you.”
“You are wrong,” Sarkhan said, throwing himself into a beautifully carved armchair which groaned with complaint. “High Equi do not love, any more than their precious horses love, no more than the serpents from which they descended. They mount one another as horses do, not face to face, but merely to copulate. They do not understand the concept of love. But, like horses, they understand power, and being in control of the herd. She, wants power. It is not the stallion who truly controls the herd, it is the lead mare. The stallion is the protector only. Their roles appear to be reversed, but under pressure, they will revert.”
Konik chose not to respond with a personal comment – something about projecting one’s own proclivities onto others. He got a clear picture of his beautiful wife in his mind – his kind and loving Ah’davan – then said, “And if you are wrong then what, kill the Captain of the Horse Guard? Cut out her heart and dance on a table with it?”
Sarkhan missed, or ignored the sarcasm. “No, no. That could be dangerous,” he said, his oiliness of speech beginning to return with his self-control. “It could reflect badly on the profile we wish to maintain.”
Konik shook his head, trying to hang on to his own self-control in the face of Sarkhan’s headlong charge into disaster. “My … Firstlord Sarkhan, we have no profile to maintain with Ardenai. It’s obvious he knows who hunts him, and thousands of years of history to tell him why he’s being hunted at all.”
“Despite what the greedy little captain would have us believe? She chooses to play both ends against the middle, perhaps?”
She chooses to play you, you arrogant fool, Konik thought. You have destroyed in an hour that which we have spent generations building. He cleared his throat. “You know already where my thoughts lie, Firstlord.”
“Which is why your family serves mine,” he sneered. “Publicize it widely, but not too obviously, that the lady has been up to no good, and let Ardenai kill her. He cannot possibly risk betrayal now, can he?”
“No,” Konik agreed, “Not if he thinks for one minute that she actually betrayed him. Which he will not.”
“Then you kill her,” Sarkhan said. “And make it look like he did it. We cannot lose.”
“Your usual logic, Firstlord,” Konik said. “I shall attend the details.” He rose from the chair and, with a slight bow in Sarkhan’s direction, exited the room. Once outside, out of sight and out of earshot, he gave the ornate stone wall a resounding blow with one fist, followed by a swift kick that sent a pain shooting up his leg, but he paid it no mind. He went home, made sure Ah’davan was resting comfortably, and in another hour his shuttle had lifted off on its way to SeGAS-5 and the moorage of the SGAS Belesprit.
“Be it as you wish, Sarkhan,” he said quietly into the darkness, “Since you insist on being fodder, gladly will I feed you to him. Maybe then I can get back to my life. Maybe … all of us can get back to our lives.”
“I’m awake, I’m awake,” Io mumbled, rubbing at her face. She rolled onto her back and squinted up at Teal. “Where are we?”
“Two hours out,” he said.
She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, gratefully accepting the sweet white coffee he held out to her. “You are my hero,” she whispered, blowing across the cup.
“Are you talking to me, or the coffee?”
“Both.” She set the cup aside, then yawned and stretched, wincing a little as she popped her slender neck.
“If you’d cut some of that hair off, your neck wouldn’t bother you so much,” Teal observed.
“This from the man with waist-length hair.”
“And a thick neck.”
Io ignored the comment. “I wonder if he’s all right?” she said, as much to herself as to her companion. “I wonder if he’s been able to get any sleep.”
“Ardi?” he asked, and she nodded. “So, did you tell him you’re in love with him? You said you were going to.”
Io glared pointedly up into the laughing eyes of the Master of Horse, and just shook her head. They were so alike in so many ways, these kinsmen. Teal was slightly the broader chested of the two, a bit thicker in the waist, but in no way heavyset. Classically handsome as was his brother-in-law, and if possible, merrier. He laughed with his whole body, and right now he was laughing at her, quietly, but laughing. She squirmed. “Well … I almost did. If he’d just WAKE UP and look at me …”
“Oh, he sees you. He thinks you’re still six years old. But he sees you.”
“Well, I’m not, am I!” she groused, flouncing out of bed and into the forward part of the clipper where the food replicator was located.
“I don’t know,” Teal said to her receding back, “in those pink pajamas with your hair tossed around like that … you could pass. Probably a little too tall for a six-year-old. Maybe if you used your full name – Ah’riodin – instead of Io. Change things up a bit.”
“The name he used to use just before he swatted my butt. Perfect,” she retorted. “Replicator, nectar bread with sunflower butter. My mother named me Io. My father’s parents came up with that whole Ah’riodin business, and I don’t much like it.” She plopped her plate down onto the small table but instead of eating, she sat and studied her hands for a bit. “Do you think he’s all right, Teal?”
He brought his plate and sat beside her, giving her thigh a comforting pat. “You care for him too much to trust him in the face of hardship, Io. Just because you cannot bear the thought of him suffering, does not mean he cannot bear to suffer.”
“Just what I needed,” she said with some annoyance, “your phallically adjusted view of just how much your brother-in-law can take before he cracks.”
“If you don’t want my opinion, and I’m the only other one here with you, perhaps you shouldn’t have asked,” the man chuckled.
“Well, Teal, I think being rational in the face of emotional upheaval, is a ludicrous reaction,” Io replied, turning again to study his face. One could read so much more in a man’s face than in his words. He appeared neither perturbed nor alarmed, which was some comfort to her.
“You forget, my Captain that I have served with you in more than one Alliance battle. If you … a mere slip of a girl, can control your emotions and be rational enough to survive the rigors of the battlefield, then surely a male of the species, most especially the one bred to be the Thirteenth Dragonhorse, will fare much better, don’t you think?”
“I think … you’re horrible!” she laughed. “But you’re probably right. I’ve seen Ardenai in action. He’s an incredible horseman, he’s strong, he’s intelligent, he’s inventive, he’s ….” she trailed off and her smile faded.
“Alone, I know,” Teal said, and reached to squeeze her hand, partly in comfort, partly to stop her playing mercilessly with her food. “I’m worried too. Don’t give up, my friend. This was planned to the last degree, and so far I think our cinch is tight. Tell me how you fared with Senator Sarkhan. What thinks he?”
“He, thinks shockingly little,” Io replied, grateful for the subject change, “and when he does, he has not the vaguest notion what to believe. He is a very transparent villain, and not a crafty one. I left there with serious doubts as to his part in all of this. I mean … he has no subtlety, no finesse. I can’t imagine him as anybody’s choice for a leader, which makes me think he’s not the one we’re after, even though he truly believes he is. Does that make any sense? The fact that he admitted openly to me what he is doing, disturbs me. It tells me that, had I tried to kill him, I would not have succeeded. It tells me also that he plans either to discredit me or kill me. He can’t possibly trust me.”
“It tells me he’s a lunatic,” Teal muttered, “and lunatics can be very dangerous people.”
“Well, he may come across as a madman, and he may be just a pawn after all, but I do know that what he lacks in subtlety, he gains in deadliness of intent, and he does hate Ardenai,” Io responded.
“And where in all of this does Senator Konik fit, I wonder?” Teal said. “You will not live long enough to convince me that he is in any way an evil man. I’ve known him too well for too long. He is one of the kindest, most thoughtful souls …” he huffed with annoyance and stopped his thought. “Of course he’s also a highly trained and very efficient killer and I’m not about to forget it. I wonder if he is actually the king in waiting and Sarkhan is just the pawn.”
“Makes a lot more sense,” Io sighed, sipping her coffee. “So many aspects to so many people,”
“Will we persevere, then, in the direction we are going? You could be in danger as great as the Firstlord’s.”
“I doubt that. Besides, we have no choice. Unless all the pieces of the puzzle come together as appointed, Ardenai will perish, and with him, perhaps Equus, and even the Alliance.”
“What makes you say that?” Teal asked, for in her face he saw something he wasn’t used to seeing, fear. Not just momentary startlement, for she was high strung, but deep, intelligent, heartfelt fear.
“I do not think a man as weak as Sarkhan can possibly be acting alone, or even within a small circle. It makes no sense. Not even with Ah’ria Konik Nokota beside him.”
“You are correct in thinking it makes no sense,” Teal nodded, and relaxed, realizing her fear was not of invasion, but of losing Ardenai.
He applied himself to his breakfast and allowed himself time to think. Io was so beautiful, and so smart. She was a little … what was the word he wanted … skittish … but she’d been handed a lot of responsibility the last couple of years. Why couldn’t Ardenai look past Ah’ree’s death and see how much Io loved him? Maybe Teal could get his beautiful and gentle wife to speak to Ardenai on Io’s behalf. Ardi always listened to Ah’din. He picked up his train of thought.
“But … I think, I hope, you are not correct about the rest. If Ardenai thinks the Wind Warriors are upon us, then I think so, too. But he also thinks that they have not yet begun their journey from their hiding place among the stars. They will not do that until word comes to them that the Great House is ready to fall. If we can stop Sarkhan, and Sarkhan alone, word will not go out to the Telenir.”
“We’re basing all of this on a ballad thousands of years old,” Io scowled, slouching in her chair. It made her look pouty, and it made Teal want to laugh.
He remembered his long-suffering brother-in-law walking around with her tucked under one arm like a saddle, trying to calm her down with soft words as she screamed and hollered. Teal could see why it was hard for Ardenai to move past that. But there had been times … not often he admitted, but times … when Ardi had looked at her in a way one never, ever looked at a child. The man knew, on some still inadmissible level, he knew. Teal hoped to Eladeus Ardenai would get the chance to figure it out, instead of dying in the dust of some far-off planet.
“We are strong and of one mind amongst ourselves,” Teal said soothingly. “Krush and Ah’rane and Ah’din are well guarded. Criollo is safe at school. We will now warn Kehailan. Once he is apprised of the situation, he will be all the ally he needs for himself.”
“I will warn Kehailan,” Io corrected gently. “Do not land. The six chevrons on this shuttle are a large target, even in a very big sky. I will use the scrambleshaft. Pick me up in two days.”
He nodded, “I will be there. We have time yet. Let’s go take a nice bath, and I’ll try to work some of the kinks out of your neck.”
An hour later Io was dressed, taking leave of Teal, and focusing a shaft down into a deserted corridor near one of the huge, crowded reception areas of Seventh Galactic Alliance Strategic base five. The papers she presented, and the nondescript character of her demeanor and attire, along with a tight fitting cap to hide her hair and her obviously Papilli ears, made her just another SGA Swing Technician. She was attractive, but because she kept her head down to hide her blue Papilli eyes, and kind of lumbered along, she was unnoticed except for passing glances. She was swallowed by the crowd, her small stature affording her greater anonymity.
She forced herself not to race even though she knew Sarkhan was close behind her in one form or another. He had to be. He could not risk failing to check out the lead she had given him. Probably he would not risk sending such a message ahead, even if there were anyone here to receive it. No, someone had to be coming in person. She wondered if it would be Konik. She knew he’d heard her conversation with Sarkhan; she’d sensed his presence close by.
What if, she wondered, threading her way through the colorful twist of races, what if Ardenai had come this way? What if she had endangered him, as well as Kehailan? What if Sarkhan had taken his chances and sent a message? What if she found both Ardenai and Kehailan dead? Even as she told herself it was nonsense, she was fighting the urge to run. She looked around, wondering how many of these people might be Telenir. She wondered how Sarkhan was getting messages back to his home world, or if he was. Perhaps the first was yet to be sent. What would it say? “Ardenai Firstlord is dead. Equus is ours.” She gave herself a little shake and smiled in passing at the women who had spoken to her.
It was slightly past the dinner hour. Couples sauntered idly, hand in hand from the cafes and lounges along the concourse. Groups laughed and jostled as they went into these same establishments to have a few drinks and watch the entertainment. The smells of a hundred or more worlds mingled in her nostrils.
Kehailan, she was positive, would not be among the crowds. She assumed he would be on board Belesprit, his quarters there being more comfortable than anything the base had to offer. Too, he would be brooding, avoiding the public eye in light of how his father had behaved. A cruel ploy to keep a man easy to find, but probably in Kehailan’s case, very effective. It meant, of course, that others would find him easily, and Io’s military expertise told her he was being carefully watched. Another reason his father wanted him penned by shame aboard Belesprit. He was, for the moment, relatively safe, and because his emotions would be running high, probably incapable of making mental contact with his sire.
As she neared Belesprit, Io flipped up the hood on her traveling cloak. Those who watched Kehailan might know her, as well, and be they friend or foe, she didn’t want to be recognized. She presented her papers, requested permission to come aboard, and made her way through the ship, which was largely deserted. She buzzed at the door of Kehailan’s quarters, but no one answered.
She was raising a fist to knock when a long, slender hand closed over hers and a cool voice asked, “Looking for me?”
“Obviously,” she said without looking up. The door opened, and Kehailan gave her a gentle shove inside as the door hissed shut behind them. He caught her by one shoulder, spun her around, and jerked the cloak back off her head.
“Well, well. Little Io the fruit bat baby,” he said mockingly. “I might have known.”
“I can tell you’re thrilled to see me,” she said, looking a little puzzled. “I came to speak of your sire.”
“The word which precedes you regarding my sire,” Kehailan said, “is that you are for sale to the highest bidder.”
“Is that so?” she smiled, clapping her hands together. “Good! Delighted to hear it. Apparently, Sarkhan does risk communicating by artificial means. I have one of the fastest shuttles on the planet, and the news beat me here.”
“The news, came from the government of Equus,” he muttered. “Usually a most reliable source.”
“Is that so?” she said again, shrugging out of her cloak, “and what is this we hear of you, Kee? Word has reached the sensitive ear of the Great House that it is you who would profit most in the loss of your father. His inheritance, his place on the council, and perhaps the chance to wiggle out from under that dark cloud of inferiority which he casts upon you. Perhaps under the Telenir, you, too, could rule.”
“That’s not true!” he gasped. “I am … I love … surely you cannot know me and think this is true!”
“Surely you cannot know me and think I would be for sale to the highest bidder. Besides which, we’re not a moneyed society, so it couldn’t possibly be a message from the Great House, now could it?”
“Wealth comes in many forms …” He caught her grin and huffed with annoyance. “You made that whole thing up, didn’t you?”
“No, as a matter of fact, I did not. I did do you the courtesy of quashing it where I found it.”
“Thanks,” he said. They stood looking at one another for a few moments, reassessing one another, then Kehailan dropped his eyes and chuckled without humor. “I feel like I’m in one of those stories my sire tells … used to tell his creppia nonage class.” He took her traveling cloak, gestured her into a chair and said, “Please, tell me about him. Is he … well?”
“Better than you fear him to be,” she smiled, and as he poured her a drink she began the long process of filling him in.
As she spoke, Kehailan began to relax. His posture softened, and his eyes flooded with relief. “I knew,” he said quietly, “Even as I doubted inside, I knew. My sire has always been a man of honor, and of brilliance. He put this all together so quickly. Amazing, even for him.”
“Not quite true,” Io smiled. “All of Equus has known for seven hundred years that this leader would be male. From that point of departure, one may extrapolate at leisure. It was simply an added luxury that Ardenai the literary scholar, turned out to be the designated successor. It saved us having to convince another person that our collective theory wasn’t lunacy.”
“And where is he?” Kehailan asked.
“That, I do not know, nor can I tell you where he is going. I can tell you only to wait. Keep your eyes and ears open, ascertain what you can. Be silent, and wait. Those are the things he has told me to tell you. And, that he loves you.”
“I am greatly relieved,” Kehailan said. “In what way can I help?”
“Believe the truth,” Io said soberly. “Be ready to convince your shipmates, and if need be, your fleet and the Seventh Galactic Alliance, that your sire’s theory is correct, and that when and if we call for help, we need it immediately.”
“That much I will do,” he replied. “Is there anything else?”
“Hopefully not. Hopefully there will be no need for SGA intervention. Ardenai wants to nip this very early, before it becomes a full blown confrontation. He wants to lure Sarkhan into a relatively minor clash – one on one. Like the old song says.”
“Kill or be killed.”
“In either case, he has accomplished his purpose,” she said gently. “Sarkhan is either killed or exposed at that point. Your grandmother will continue to rule until such time as the seed which sprouts even now is old enough to take up the reins of government. The line will continue. Equus will continue.”
“As usual, his thinking is flawless. Of course I don’t believe it for a minute, and neither does he, but it does roll trippingly off the tongue, does it not?” Kee gazed for a few moments at one of the paintings on his wall, one his sire had done. “Io …” he said after a space, groping for a vocabulary which eluded him. “Please … just … don’t let anything happen to him.”
“Those, were his instructions to me regarding thee, Kehailan. He loves thee, and I love thee both. I will do everything in my power to keep him safe.” She rose, and Kehailan with her. “There is one more thing you can do. When you go back out on patrol, try to convince Captain Eletsky that Sector Two needs watching, will you?”
He nodded. “If you see my sire, tell him … I … miss him, will you?” The color rose in his face and he hastened to add, “At least let me feed you, and offer you a bed for the night.”
“My presence endangers you, and my image as an opportunist. Otherwise, I’d be pleased to stay and beat you at chess.”
“You would stay a long time to do that,” Kehailan said, and his eyes twinkled. “How can we best get you out of here?”
“By indeterminate scramble back to the far reception concourse. It is time for the Lady Io to appear from Equus. Please, Kee, be careful, will you?”
“Likewise, I’m sure. Here, put on your cloak. We can speak as we walk.”
Again she told him, hold his peace and watch his back. Briefly, she touched his cheek, smiled, and disappeared in a blue and maroon swirl for parts unknown.
“I just wonder where he is,” Kehailan said aloud. “I wonder if he’s all right.”
Check back next week for the next chapter in this exciting serial from the Dragonhorse Rising universe. To learn more about Dragonhorse Rising and the world of the Equi, go to: http://www.dragonhorserising.com . You can also follow them on the Dragonhorse Rising Facebook page.