He was scarcely in a position to be recognized as noble, but Ardenai was getting his traveling legs under him and cultivating a close-cropped beard to hide his sharp featured, too-easily- recognized face. He took his papers from the man who had stamped them, put his knapsack over his shoulder, and ambled onto the largely featureless street of a sprawling agricultural outpost in sector six.
Too early yet for pursuit to be very hot. He had time to sleep, a luxury he hadn’t afforded himself on the freighter from Equus, even though two of the scruffy individuals who’d boarded with him were members of the Horse Guard. They were now on their way ahead, and he was alone. He wasn’t frightened. Very little frightened Ardenai for long, but he did admit that he had let himself grow soft since Ah’ree’s death, and that he was relatively unprepared for this present challenge. He would have to harden his mind and his body if he was going to survive as a laborer.
It would have been easier on him to go to Terren, or Declivis to seek employment in technology. Unfortunately, it would also have been a deadly mistake. Ardenai was left-handed, and being left-handed called attention to itself, regardless. Left-handed Terrenes were relatively rare, one in a hundred. Left-handed Declivians, one in a thousand. A left-handed Equi occurred once in every three hundred and fifty thousand births. By his own admission the only thing Ardenai could do right-handed was play polo, and there just wasn’t that much need for polo players. Even disguised, he could not take the risk. Technology was definitely out. He therefore came to Demeter to seek a laborer’s job, perhaps as a horse-handler. Harden up. Use both hands. Keep his mouth shut. He was irrationally, uncomfortably close to Equus. His reasoning for this being that as the search fanned out further into the system, he would just slip in behind it. Until then, he need only keep a low profile.
Not easy. He had to tell himself constantly, don’t walk too fast. Don’t stand too tall. Keep your chin down. Look vacant. Sound vacant. Mumble, but not too much. Right hand. Right hand. Veil your eyes. Be nondescript. Be like everyone else.
Ardenai had never been like everyone else a day in his life. Physically, mentally, intellectually, he was most formidable, and having to keep a lid on his every move was exhausting work in itself. He checked into a rooming house where neither the lights nor the clientele seemed too bright, went to his room, and collapsed on the bed with a sigh of relief. Trying to walk at less than his full stature was ruining his back.
He lay there staring at the dust particles floating in the sunlight, enjoying the breeze blowing in through the open window, and pondering his next problem. Food. He looked like a mongrel, he’d have to eat like one. No more eating six meals throughout the day plus nibbles of this and that. No more well-ordered, grain-based, vegetable-rich diet available to him at all hours without thought or request on his part. He’d have to decide for himself what and when to eat, and he’d have to eat all manner of strange combinations of food, perhaps even flesh. That fact alone made him wish for his home, his horses, his family, his students, his wife. Her, most of all. Always her. His Ah’ree, whose very name was like a soft sigh on the fragrant night air. Her gentle presence had filled his life from the days of his youth. Her absence in this made him feel eerily transparent and vulnerable. Almost imperceptibly he pressed his elbows and upper arms against his sides, remembering her embrace. The pain of constricting his biceps brought him back to the present, and made him realize how sheltered, how pampered and self-indulgent he really was by hard standards.
“Enough,” he said aloud. He had others to worry about now. Billions of others. He undressed, bathed, then practiced looking dull witted as he dressed again and combed the chewed off mess that passed for his hair. He laughed without humor, uncombed it with his hands, and went down to supper.
The food assailed his nostrils, and so did the people he ate with. Even stubble-faced, even dull witted he was attractive, and the women at the table were quick to note his addition. He had time to wish Pythos had left his ears alone. It was widely rumored that most Equi males tended to run hottest in cycles. Had he looked full-Equi, and had no color in his sclera, they might have figured they were wasting their time. As it was, they flirted, and he smiled back, saying little, half afraid he’d say the wrong thing, half afraid he’d throw up the slop he was eating if he opened his mouth.
“These are not the hands of a laborer,” the woman next to him observed, running her palm slowly across the back of his left hand, and Ardenai sensed the danger of silence.
“These, are the hands of a horseman,” he replied, turning them over for her inspection. “I keep gloves on them, and I treat them well. With them, I can make a horse something to be treasured, or something to be slaughtered.”
“Very nice,” she purred, still stroking, and Ardenai forced himself to leave his hand where it was. He smiled instead, and said thank-you, and returned to the unidentifiable victuals. Having to eat right handed, and using a fork rather than eating sticks, meant that he was only getting part of the food into his mouth, and the rest decorated the edges of his plate. At least he had part of this right. He ate like a two-year-old.
There was talk of Equus, and the strange goings on, and his opinion was called for, and he said he thought probably they’d figure it out because the “Equuans” were known for it, but it sure seemed odd to an outsider, didn’t it? The talk turned from Equi nobility to Equi horseflesh, and again his opinion was called for. They talked about the Equi Horse Guard, and saddles, and training methods, and a man down the table said, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be looking for work, would you?”
Ardenai cocked one eyebrow his direction, “Might be,” he said.
“They’re hiring at that first plantation in the southwest zoning. Lots of horses and livestock. Might need a man your size.”
“What has size got to do with horseflesh?” Ardenai asked, curious in spite of himself, and the man laughed.
“You haven’t seen the horses, or the owner. He’d like you. He’d like you a lot.”
“Delightful prospect,” Ardenai muttered. A warning pain stabbed him in the stomach, and as nonchalantly as possible he said thank you for the information, excused himself from the table and his companions, and headed for the back door.
Five seconds after he made it to the alley, his guts stabbed him one more time and emptied themselves into the dirt. He wretched again, head pounding from the force of it, and slumped to the ground, realizing for the first time really, physically, what kind of trouble he was in, and wishing miserably for the moons of home.
He slept far too hard and too long, and awoke disgusted with himself, grateful that Sarkhan’s men hadn’t murdered him in his sleep. They could have. He told himself that despite what Pythos said, the dull witted part of this had to go or he’d be a corpse in short order. Agreed, Pythos had probably meant it to be an act confined to public display, not a lifestyle, but he was sour, and his head hurt, and having someone to blame was momentarily gratifying.
Breakfast wasn’t so bad. He got by with hot tea, rolls and fruit, and thoughts of Kehailan and Io. She’d promised to tell Kee what was happening. She’d have done that by now. He wondered what else she’d managed to do. Hot headed, foolhardy, unpredictable – thoroughly brilliant and intuitive – hopefully those qualities would keep her alive.
He sighed to himself as he meandered outside to look for a shuttle south, watching Io grow up in his mind’s eye, hearing her laugh with Ah’ree – feeling her head against his breast as she curled in his lap to sleep. “Tell me about my mother,” she’d ask, and Ardenai would stroke those ears shaped like butterfly’s wings, and tell her again about the beautiful, brave lady who had married a High Equi prince and come far from her world to live, and how she, Io, was being raised to reflect that lady, so her father could remember the laughter that had died almost as soon as Io entered life. No, it didn’t seem fair, did it?
Ah’ree, too, had nearly died giving birth to Kehailan. To this day Ardenai felt the chill of it. Had it not been for Pythos, he’d have lost his wife and his son. As it was, he had gently but firmly forbade his wife ever to become settled again, and took it upon himself to see that she didn’t. But Luna, Io’s mother, and Abeyan, her father, had prayed long and hard for a child, despite Pythos’ warning against it. Kehailan was already thirteen when there was, miraculously, a settling for Luna. She, Ah’din and Ah’ree had rejoiced – commenced sewing and weaving, painting and planning. Abeyan had been beside himself with excitement. How long they had waited for this! Three days after Io was born, Luna was dead. Ardenai could still feel his old friend, sobbing in his arms. He squeezed his eyes shut, shook himself mentally, and double checked to make sure he was boarding the right shuttle. Again he upbraided himself. He was wandering around in a fog. Things hid in the fog.
It was a pleasant half hour through green rolling hills that had been cleared of jungle, perfect for pasture and farmland. They followed a river valley, thick with deciduous hardwoods. There were plantations scattered wide apart, many with fine barns, paddocks, and exercise arenas, even the occasional race track or hunt course. The horses were sleek and well fed, and, as it was spring on this side of Demeter, many foals frolicked beside their indulgent dams. The shuttle slowed to a stop where another valley branched away from the river they’d been following, and a sprawl of buildings marked a plantation. The yellow flag atop the stone entry announced that the owner was hiring today, and, because the man at last night’s dinner table had described the place, Ardenai got off the shuttle with those men wishing to interview. The machine shot silently on its way, and Ardenai and the others walked up toward the house.
It was the first time it had occurred to him that he’d have to compete for a job. Like a good Equi, he’d had three, concurrent careers – one in each of the major disciplines. He taught. He was a quantum psi design engineer, and he and his father bred mounts for the Horse Guard. But he’d never had to compete in a situation where there were more men than jobs. He’d simply learned his crafts and a space had been created so he could apply them. When, at the request of the Great House, he had become a statesman and ambassador, his careers had become avocations for a time, but his father … his foster father, he ruefully corrected the thought … had insisted that he continue to apply himself diligently to the time honored skills of the Equi horseman. Today, he was especially grateful.
The man who sat under a massive old tree on the front lawn of the main house, was dumpy and of mongrel, heavy atmosphere breeding. He tended to be slightly unpleasant, and had a leering, predatory look which immediately set Ardenai on his guard. On instinct, he glanced around for any children playing nearby. Men like this liked children. Ardenai made it a point not to be first, and spent the time observing the man, and the facility.
When it was his turn, he was given a quick up and down – the full bottom lip was given a long, second look and the man said, “Well now, Mister … Grayson, is it? What is your field of expertise?”
“I’m a horse trainer,” Ardenai replied.
“And how good are you?”
“Fair. Maybe better.”
“Let me see your boots,” the man said, and Ardenai obliged him by pulling up his pant legs on the insides to expose that part of the boot where foot met shaft. Expensive, hand-made, and worn from the rubbing of stirrup iron against leather. He dropped the trouser legs back in place. “Care to show me just … what you can do?”
Neither the look nor the implication escaped the Equi. “Assuming you refer to horses, of course I will,” he replied evenly.
The man, who had introduced himself to everyone as Squire Fidel, eyed him a moment, realized this one would do just so much and no more to get a job, and waved him aside. The boots were worn. That was a good sign. He was a powerfully built bastard. That was better yet. “Wait over there,” he said. “Let me get through the rest of these men.”
It didn’t take him long. He hired four, three for the fields and one for his bed, or so Ardenai reckoned from the looks which were exchanged, dismissed the others, and beckoned Ardenai to follow him up to the barns.
It was a pleasant walk. The air was tropical and a little too heavy for Ardenai to breathe comfortably yet, but full of the mingled smells of horses and blooming hadas vine. That was another reason he’d come here. The planet he’d chosen for his confrontation with Sarkhan was much like this one in temperature and atmosphere. Here, though, was more modern agriculture. Vast fields sloped away from the main house – green, irrigated, fruitful. Behind and to one side, row on row of huge trees formed a jungle. In front, and to Ardenai’s right, the stables spread themselves toward the valley floor.
Squire Fidel told the other four men to wait, and walked with Ardenai into the breezeway of the nearest structure. Most of the way down the smell of straw and horse manure grew fetid, and Ardenai gave Fidel a questioning glance. So far, the place had been immaculate. He answered the questioning look with a gesture toward his left and just ahead. “Can’t do a thing with the sonofabitch since the day after he arrived. That was a week ago,” he said, and at the sound of his voice the entire stall began to vibrate. There was an earsplitting squeal and a huge horse lunged against the stall door, ears back, eyes blazing malevolently. He touched the pulsewire that thwarted his escape, gave another squeal, and retreated to the far side of the stall.
“Ride him and the job is yours,” Fidel said with an evil smile. “Of course, you could make this easy on yourself.”
Ardenai ignored him and focused on the horse. “Riding this animal won’t cure what ails him,” he said. “Why does he hate you so much?”
Fidel shrugged. “I really don’t know. But it’s not just me. It’s everybody.”
Ardenai looked from man to horse and back again. “I can go in there, and wrestle him, and best him, and further traumatize him, and prove to you and to him that I can be more aggressive than he can, and you’ll have exactly the horse you have now. Or, I can try to figure out what’s wrong with him, and you’ll have the horse you paid for. Which do you want?”
Fidel, to his credit, said, “I’d rather have the horse than the spectacle. Give it your best.”
“First, tell me where you bought him.”
“Got him from a stable on Anguine II.”
“And did you see him before he arrived here?”
“Damn right I did,” Fidel groused. “Beautiful animal. Smooth as ice over a hunt course. Seemed gentle enough. I did contact the owner, you know, right after the tranquilizers wore off from shipping and he went stark raving nuts. Bastard says he shipped me a perfectly good horse, and what I did to him is my problem. Can you believe that? Damn Equuans.”
Ardenai didn’t correct him. He squinted around the stable and asked, “Is this as bright as you can make it in here?”
“I’d like to take a look at him, a really good look, and I can’t do that in this light, or with you in here with me. And turn off that pulsewire.”
Again Fidel’s appraised him, beady green eyes nearly disappearing in the folds of cheek as he screwed up his fat face. “I’ll turn the lights on and the wire off on my way out,” he said, and went off chuckling. He turned at the opening and called, “Oh, by the way, you’re hired, regardless. I like your style, Mr. Grayson.”
Ardenai gave him a wave and turned to the stall and the horse within. “Come here,” he said softly, making an ancient gesture of beckoning. “Come here, beautiful one, and tell me what the matter is.”
“I can tell you that,” said a quiet voice from somewhere over Ardenai’s shoulder, and he turned and peered upward into the relative darkness of the hay mow and into the bright gold eyes of a scruffy teenaged boy who was crouching there. “The men abused him. His … genitals, you know, they were hanging down because of the tranquilizers, and some of the men were fondling and putting their … mouths on everything, and making jokes and … I think one of them put a piece of wire around the horse’s … manhood, someplace … and said it was a cock ring … and then the horse began to wake up, and they got scared because he was nervous in a new place, and when he … pulled back up inside himself, I think the wire went, too.”
Ardenai scowled at the boy. He was dirty. His hair was an unkempt mop. His clothes were not much more than rags. The Equi could smell him, even at this distance. “And you didn’t say anything?”
“I … no. I didn’t,” he said quietly, and both his gaze and his voice were firm. “Not to Fidel. I did try myself to help him, you know, at night when the rest of them were in bed, but I don’t know anything about horses, and he was in pain, and angry, and I didn’t know how to make him …” he looked terribly guilty, and vastly relieved at the same time. “I’m glad you’re here. He groans when there’s no one to hear him, and swings his head from side to side.”
“You don’t make him, you ask him,” Ardenai smiled. “Thanks for the information. What’s your name?”
“I’m Gideon,” the young man said, and in the next, silent second, he was gone.
Two hours later the rear door of the stallion’s stall was slid open and he walked slowly out into the sunlight, soft muzzle just brushing Ardenai’s shoulder. Fidel and the others crept timidly to the paddock fence, not speaking, just looking. “Well, I’ll be a go to hell,” the man breathed.
Ardenai stopped, and the horse stopped with him. He made a slight gesture with his right hand behind him, and the horse turned with him to face the four men. “One of your men,” Ardenai said, looking pointedly at the Tarkelian next to Fidel, “Put wire around the base of this animal’s phallus to see if he could give him a bigger erection, to see how much of it he could get down his throat, on a bet with a man you fired two days ago.”
“How … the hell do you know that?” Fidel asked, though the expression on the Tarkelian’s face confirmed the accusation.
“Would you not remember who did you such grievous harm as that?” Ardenai asked mildly. “I asked him. He told me. He needs clean water, green grass, natural shade, and I will need some herbs to treat his injuries. With any luck, he’ll be fine, but he won’t be jumping around much for a while. I’d suggest you turn him out for a few weeks and then start working him.”
“Whatever you say,” Fidel murmured, and began walking up toward the house, leaving the Tarkelian still standing beside the paddock fence. He took a few moments to give Ardenai a long, cold glare, then turned on his heel and followed after his boss, who was by now bellowing for Gideon to see that Mr. Grayson got a bunk.
After supper that night, with perhaps a dozen men sitting around the bunkhouse, a man with a halting, unintelligent voice said, “Hear the news?”
“What news?” another yawned. “New shipment of whores in town?” This got a laugh, and a ragged round of cheers, but the first speaker went on.
“Naw, that whole thing with Equus, you know, with the Rising Warlord or whatever he calls himself …”
“Not hardly news,” said the second man.
“Yeah, well this is,” said the first. “They think he’s took a powder to … to raise an army and unseat his dear old mum. Equus’uz put a price on his head.”
“Shit, you can’t get anything straight, can you, piss face,” said a third man, rolling up off his bunk. “It was the Captain of the Horse Guard who went off and tried to get somebody or another to help her raise an army to overthrow the Firstlord, and Equus put a price on her head. That’s how the story goes. But it’s a damned short story. She’s already dead.”
Ardenai felt himself go cold all over, and fought the urge to lunge up out of his bunk and choke information out of the speaker. Instead he shrugged, “I got in just yesterday. If there’d been news that big, I’d have heard it on the trip.”
“Yeah, well,” said the Tarkelian, “Maybe you don’t hear everything, big man. I heard this story, too, on the receiver up at the big house. She is very, very dead, and so is some other mucketymuck in the Horse Guard, some relative of Ardenai’s. Word has it Ardenai Firstlord discovered she was playing both ends against the middle and had her shuttle blown up as she was leaving SeGAS-5. They recovered what was left of the shuttle. If you don’t believe me, ask Fidel. He heard the story.”
“I believe you,” Ardenai said nonchalantly. “Got no reason not to.”
“I hear they were lovers,” said a voice from the corner.
“Lovers? She was his daughter,” said another.
“Both,” said the sarcastic man at the table, and the place broke into raucous laughter.
“Hey, does anybody know how they do it on Equus?” somebody yelled, and began a graphic demonstration with the poor fool who had spoken first. At that point Ardenai rolled off his bunk and said he was going out for a breath of air before bed.
“Nice work with Squire Squat today,” the young man whispered, the young man named Gideon, and Ardenai gave him a thumbs up and a tacit thank-you as he went out the door.
He walked quickly, rigid-backed a long way into the jungle of trees. Then he stopped, slid slowly down the tree trunk onto his haunches and let his head fall forward into his hands. “Precious Equus, do not be dead,” he whispered, “the two of you cannot be dead.” and again he could feel that heaviness against his breast, the weight of Abeyan’s head, sobbing for Luna.
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.