“Two down, one to go,” Sarkhan muttered, pushing over the queen on his chessboard. “I like the rumor I hear. I especially like the one about Ardenai doing away with the lady Io. Somehow I doubted he would.”
“Apparently he did, though. I didn’t do it,” said Konik, who was sitting opposite him at the small table.
“But you were there?”
“I was there. I saw the craft explode just after it entered visual range, saw the fragments, saw a piece of gold shield that was recovered. It was the Great House of Equus, and it was her personal clipper. She left here in it. It’s rather ironic that Ardenai killed his best friend, who is also his sister’s husband, in the process of getting rid of Ah’riodin.”
“And you saw both the bodies? That bastard Teal isn’t still skulking around someplace?”
“Be realistic,” Konik snorted. “There was nothing left.”
“There were fragments of spacecraft,” Sarkhan persisted.
“Much tougher than fragments of people, my … Sarkhan Firstlord.”
“It sticks in your throat, doesn’t it, Legate Konik? That I am the Thirteenth Dragonhorse.”
“That you hope to be,” he corrected quietly. “No, it does not stick, so much as it seems … premature.”
Sarkhan looked disgusted and knocked over another chess piece with a flip of thumb and forefinger. “I hear another rumor. I hear Equus has put a price on Ardenai’s head for the killing of Captain Io and Master of Horse Teal.”
“Nonsense. The council isn’t even in session, you know that. You’re on it. So am I. Ah’krill would never do something like that of her own accord, even if she had the authority, which she does not. As Dragonhorse, Ardenai is above any and all laws. If she was going to try to have him killed she’d have to be very, very subtle about it. She hasn’t made one nicker in a fortnight, much less the issuing of a bounty on the head of the Firstlord.”
“Nevertheless, I like the idea that she might. Dress as one of the Horse Guard, wave some credits around. Put some teeth in this thing.”
Konik, who had long since given Sarkhan up for mad, just shook his head. It would do no good to explain that, as a senator from Anguine II and one of the best polo players in the Great House leagues, his face was well known, and he couldn’t pass himself off as a member of the Horse Guard if he wanted to – nor could he remind Sarkhan that within the AEW, credits meant absolutely nothing. Instead he said, “What can that help?”
“What can it hurt? Every day Ardenai and those golden arms of his dig deeper into some hole. He wasn’t on SeGAS-5. Maybe the rumor about him raising an army is true.”
“I started that rumor.”
“Is it true?” Sarkhan exclaimed, then caught himself and slouched into a black rage as Konik chuckled and shook his head.
“No, My Lord. It’s just a rumor, remember? Ardenai has no need for an army. As head of the AEW, Ardenai has literally millions of troops from eleven worlds at his beck and call, among them both the Amberians and the Phyllans. The ultimate fighting force. I’m sure everyone has figured that out by now.” He glanced at Sarkhan. “Or they should have.”
“There is no logic here,” Sarkhan grated. “No logic. Nothing to work against. No logic!” He slapped over the chess pieces, and Konik wanted to laugh in spite of himself. “Let’s kill the high priestess. That will bring him back here! I’ll have Sardure cut her heart out and deliver it to the high council … unless you want to kill her yourself.”
For the hundredth time, Konik felt a stab of panic for more than his own family. “Firstlord Sarkhan,” he said, trying to sound convincing, “we still have one, lone man. Someone who prefers to potter around in his garden, play his guitharp; someone who has chosen to teach creppia nonage and play polo in his spare time, fleeing for his life.”
“Do we? Are you sure about that?” Sarkhan asked, his voice dripping sarcasm. “Even I do not rate Ardenai as one, lone man whose intellect extends only so far as a five-year-old’s. Ardenai was bred to be bigger, faster, smarter than any Equi, and Equi are bigger, faster and smarter to begin with than most races in the galaxy. At this point he ceases to be a gardener, or a musician, or a teacher, does he not? He becomes the one thing standing between us and a takeover that does not involve years of carnage and expense.”
Though he admitted the truth of the statement, Konik was not impressed by it. “Since when does our glorious, untouchable and mysterious Mahdi frown on carnage?”
“Since it became so expensive!” Sarkhan hissed. “You fool! Think! Why did he put us here? Why have we been rotting away here for generations? Because one day Equus would designate its male heir. That’s why we are here! If we fail to accomplish a coup, our worries will be over for sure, along with our exile to this place which should, by rights, be ours. Instead of glory, we will have worms, death worms to keep us company! Does that make all this less amusing?”
“I was never amused,” Konik lied, and, at that moment, he wasn’t. What if Sarkhan actually decided to go off on his own and start killing innocent people? What would Konik do then, and what would be the cost to his family and those Telenir who spoke for peace? At what point would starting ridiculous rumors become ineffective in keeping Sarkhan occupied? What if Saremanno caught on to what he was doing, or Sardure came out of his pout long enough to figure out what was happening? And always, at the back of Konik’s mind as her condition degenerated, how long could his beloved Ah’davan take the stress of having him gone?
“So … where is he? How can he possibly be disguising himself to travel?” Sarkhan muttered.
Konik shook himself. “Not as anything short, right-handed, or female. Definitely something bigger than a flower pot, I would say.”
Sarkhan flared, angry enough to kill him, then he saw the look on the legate’s face and subsided. “What are you saying, exactly?” he growled.
“I’m saying, he cannot be what he cannot be. He cannot be where he will not fit or cannot breathe. He cannot be in a cargo hold. He cannot be walking or traveling freely about. Half the people in the United Galactic Alliances have seen his face, his eyes, his profile, his stride and stature, not to mention that voice of his. How much of that could he have changed in the time he had? He is one of three things, logically. He is hiding in plain sight doing something unexpected, he is moving toward the arena of challenge, and that can be only so many places, or he is already there.”
“So,” Sarkhan said, leaning back in his chair, studying his fingers as they tapped together. “So. I think, you may have redeemed yourself, Legate Konik. Where is he then, on Equus? Here, with us?”
“I think not.”
“The lady Io said he wasn’t.”
Sarkhan squirmed like an annoyed child. “Did we not establish that Ardenai was never on SeGAS-5?”
“No, My Lord, we did not. We established only that no one had seen him on SeGAS-5, and that we could not find him there. We did not see Wing Commander Kehailan, either, yet we know he has to be there.”
“And Kehailan serves aboard an SGA Vessel. Equus is the most powerful member of the Seventh Galactic Alliance. Surely they would grant asylum to their cowardly and beleaguered would-be leader, would they not?”
“One would think so,” Konik said, but for a startling moment, Sarkhan’s words stung his patriotism. He drew a quick breath and shook off the feeling of intellectual weightlessness which accompanied the vacillation. “One would think so,” he said again.
“But you are not convinced?”
“I am convinced of nothing. I am willing to explore almost anything.”
“Good. Let us begin with the SGAS Belesprit,” Sarkhan said, and they ordered fresh drinks and settled themselves in a shady corner of the big stone patio to make their plans.
Gideon, too, was planning – wondering. His brilliant gold eyes, full of admiration, watched the tall, athletic man in the ring. How easily he rode, and with such easy, light-handed grace as he put another horse over the jumps. He never raised his voice or his hand against an animal. The communication seemed impossibly intuitive, and yet … there it was … in the slight shift of his waist in the saddle, just a look at the body part moved a hip or rump where he wanted it. How much the young Declivian wished he could ride like that, and yet … the man was unapproachable. Take him away from the horses, and he turned to stone. That first day here he had smiled. Now, he didn’t. The squire wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, but he left his crew alone to do their work. Surely he wasn’t to blame for Grayson’s attitude. He had nothing but praise for the man.
Gideon sighed. He climbed down from the fence, and went back to stacking straw. A questioned burned in his mind, and he phrased it to himself over and over, practiced it in a whisper, preparing himself for the moment when Grayson would bring the horse he was riding back to the barn. He heard Grayson’s mount trot by, blowing quietly, being cooled out to be put away. A few minutes later Grayson came in, leading the mare. He put the animal in her stall, and when he turned around, Gideon was standing there.
“You do just appear, don’t you?” Grayson said in that deep voice that rumbled up from somewhere in the depths of his chest, and Gideon felt himself quail inside.
“I … I’d be happy to put … I mean, I’d be happy to brush him for you,” he ventured.
“Her,” Grayson corrected, but his voice was pleasant enough. “Thank you,” he said, handed Gideon the brush, and started to walk away. Gideon opened his mouth, but the words just would not come out. He sighed and was turning to brush the horse, when he realized Grayson had stopped in the breezeway. “What was your question?” he asked, and returned a few steps toward the boy and the mare.
The boy was quiet for a moment or two, realizing that this big stranger had read his mind. An alarming thought for Gideon. “I …”
Always that hesitation, Ardenai thought. This young man has learned the hard way not to ask questions. What a shame. He took another few steps and stopped close to him, but not too close. “You have been wanting to ask me something for quite some time now. What is it?”
“You don’t know?” the boy gulped, and Ardenai had to smile.
“You’ll have to tell me,” he said, and picked up a soft brush. He started brushing on the mare’s off side, and she sighed with pleasure, letting her head drop and her ears relax.
“That first day you were here. I … I told you about the stallion?”
“Yes. Thank you. He would have died, you know.”
Gideon nodded. “But I didn’t tell you who, for sure, had done it. You told Squire Fidel that the horse told you.”
“How did he do that, Sir? I mean, you read my mind just now. Do you read their minds, too?”
“I read your body language just now,” Ardenai said, looking over the horse’s back and giving him a reassuring smile. “Just like I read his. When that stallion saw the Tarkelian leaning against the fence, he went rigid all over, his body ceased to flex at the shoulder, and his head came up. All those things are signs of fear. The rest, was supposition.”
“But you were right.”
“Tarkelians have very readable faces, and some disgusting habits,” Ardenai said. “Is there anything else?”
“They can get very rough around here, as you’ve probably noticed,” the boy said. “I … wanted to thank you for not telling anybody that I told you anything.”
“Declivians are easily readable, too,” the man said, and opened the door to the pasture so the mare could run free. “Thank you for your help.” A short time later he trotted out into the sunshine on yet another mount.
After dinner, when the others were laughing and talking and playing cards, and Grayson had strode off for his usual evening ramble, Gideon slipped out and went to the stable, but not to see the horses. In the area where he’d been stacking straw, carefully wrapped in an old horse blanket and secreted in a corner, was something Gideon prized greatly. He turned on a light, removed the object from its wrappings, and sat down to study it yet again.
So bent was he on his endeavors that it wasn’t until he saw the riding boots that he realized he wasn’t alone. His gaze traveled upward, and finally reached Grayson’s black eyes. “Ah, hullo, Mister Grayson,” he said, embarrassed to have been discovered, but vastly relieved that it wasn’t one of the others from the bunkhouse. They might have taken his prize, or broken it, or broken him.
“Hello, Mister Gideon,” the man replied.
“Just Grayson. What have you there?”
“An educational computator,” he shrugged, trying to look as if it didn’t matter. “It’s something to do in the evenings. Where is it that you go every night?” He shrank inside, wondering if the question was impudent, wondering if he’d be sent sprawling for it, but this man … was fascinating, and he seemed so kind, and … smart. Unlike anyone Gideon had ever met.
“I walk,” Grayson said, squatting easily on his heels beside the boy. “I spend some quiet time thinking about the day’s activities, and I go to the river for a swim and a bath.” He gave the boy a sideways glance, and Gideon was suddenly aware of his dirty skin and clothing. That’s what was different about Grayson. He had no smell to him. “I don’t think the people around here get as many baths as the horses, do you?”
“It’s … soap can be so hard on your skin,” Gideon muttered, and the big man laughed.
“The forest yields many herbs both fragrant and gentle. I’ll show you some time if you’d like. So, tell me about your machine, here.”
“Well, it’s an old one, but the squire said if I can fix it I can have it. If I can fix it, then maybe I can …” He faltered and rethought what he was going to say. “I can learn to use it. If I know how to use a computator, I might be able to get a better job. It’s supposedly one that tutors you.”
“The chorus of the ages,” Grayson replied, running his hand across the little box. “Does this thing have all its parts?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure yet,” the boy hedged.
“To what extent, if any, will it function?”
“Don’t know that yet, either.” Gideon was loosening up. There was something about the way Grayson asked questions that made him feel encouraged rather than defensive.
“Do you have any idea at all what you’re doing, young man?”
“Not yet. I hope to.”
“You, sir, are a dreamer,” Grayson stated flatly, straightened to his full height, and strode away.
“You bet I am. It’s all I’ve got,” Gideon called after him, and went back to his probings.
The next evening, when he slipped out into the sweltering twilight and unwrapped his computator, it worked. It lit up and asked him what he wanted it to do. “Tell me who fixed you,” Gideon smiled, but he knew. When he finally went back in, he caught Grayson’s eye and nodded. Grayson nodded back, touched his lips with a long, blunt forefinger, and nothing more was said. Gideon laid in bed and hugged himself. That ed-comp was fully programmed, and it didn’t just teach you how to use a computator. It taught you how to read and write! Tomorrow night, he vowed. Tomorrow night I’ll ask Grayson about those bathing herbs. A man who could read and write should be clean.
“My sire taught me much of what I know about quantum psis,” Kehailan was saying – flat on his back – squinting up into one of the long banks of components. “Right now I could use his expertise.”
“You’ll have to settle for mine,” Amir Cohen smiled, down on his knees next to the wing commander, and the man who had put the glitch in the system slipped quietly into Kehailan’s cabin.
Nothing. Nobody. Another dead end. Konik shook his head in disgust. A week it had taken him to get his papers in order to board the SGAS Belesprit. Another five days he had searched this miserable maze from one end to the other, prowling at night like a Mingus bat, using his degree in Mechanical Engineering to work as a structural technician by day. If Ardenai was on this ship, had ever been on this ship, he was indeed smaller than a flower pot, and devoid of DNA.
The door hissed open, Konik spun around, and Kehailan had a pultronel leveled at his mid-section. “Good evening … Senator Konik, isn’t it? Find what you were searching for?”
Konik just looked at him. The wing commander leaned toward a console and said, “Captain Eletsky, will you come to my cabin for a moment, please?” When the captain replied in the affirmative, Kehailan walked around the desk and stood, studying Konik. “I assume it was you who tampered with my tactical display.” he said, not unpleasantly. “Would you mind telling me why?”
Konik shook his head and sulked, rubbing fitfully at the back of his neck. A second later his hand flashed forward, there was a small explosion, Kehailan was down, and Konik was gone.
Eletsky jumped through the open door just as Kehailan was wobbling to his feet. “What the hell happened?” he demanded. “Who jumped you?” He got an arm around the woozy commander and lowered him to the edge of his bed.
“It was …” he had to think a moment “… that senator from … ah, what’s his name …”
“Shit, forget it!” Eletsky exclaimed, and sprang for the communications panel. “Seal the ship!”
Kehailan held up an index finger. “Konik,” he said, and dropped his head back into his hands.
Alarms sounded, doors slid shut, and in a short time Konik again faced Kehailan. This time he also faced Marion Eletsky and Timothy McGill, and half a dozen members of SGA Security.
“As I was saying,” Kehailan muttered, holding a cold pack to his forehead, “I assume it was you who tampered with my computators?”
“Who the hell are you, anyway?” Eletsky demanded. “What gives you the right to attack my wing commander?”
“I, am a representative of the Great House of Equus,” Konik said smoothly, “and he pointed a weapon at me. I simply reacted as I am trained to do. I am seeking the wing commander’s father, and this seemed a very logical spot to begin.”
“Why the secrecy?” Eletsky snapped. “A simple question would have sufficed. He’s not here.”
“Are you so sure? Prince Kehailan isn’t harboring him in some deep hole aboard ship?”
“Belesprit has no deep holes,” Eletsky replied, and Kehailan added,
“My sire is not here, nor has he been. Besides, what business is it of yours where he goes or whom he sees? He is a free agent … and your sovereign lord, I might add.”
“He,” Konik said in a slightly mocking tone, “is in line for questioning in the death of the Captain of the Horse Guard and the Master of Horse.”
A spasm, either pain or annoyance, crossed Kehailan’s face. “Nonsense. Io was like a daughter to my father – like a sister to me. Teal was his kinsman. Look elsewhere for your demons.”
“I’ll do that. Good day to you,” Konik said.
“Right after we check the validity of your papers,” Eletsky said pleasantly. “Until then, consider yourself our guest.” He nodded to a member of ship’s security. “Please show Senator Konik to the guest quarters.”
When Konik was out of earshot Eletsky turned to McGill and Kehailan. “Well, what do you think, friend or foe?”
“Definitely foe,” McGill said, easing Kehailan’s hand away from the angry bruise welling up on his forehead.
“Definitely,” Kehailan agreed, tossing the cold pack onto the table in disgust. “No Equi would approach this situation in such a manner.”
Timothy picked up the cold pack and placed it firmly back against the commander’s forehead, eliciting a soundless grunt of pain. “So where does that leave us? Hold that where it belongs, Kee, or I’ll go get Doctor Keats.”
“Please, no,” Kehailan muttered, and sagged into the hand holding the cold pack.
“Is he Equi, or is he a Wind Warrior?’ Eletsky asked, not expecting an answer. “We know one thing, whatever he really is, he really is after Ardenai. I say we turn him loose and follow him home … or wherever.”
“Think he’ll keep going now?” McGill asked, and Marion shrugged.
“Whether he does or not, he’s all the lead we have. We have to try something.”
“Agreed,” Kehailan nodded. “Someone, somewhere, has to know where Ardenai is.”
Two creatures did, or thought so, and had come to their conclusion through an unforeseen but, for them, fortuitous event. Three nights before, in the wee hours before dawn, the man they knew as Grayson has sat bolt upright in bed and exclaimed, “Fire! I can smell it! There’s a fire in one of the barns.” He had been out of bed, into his boots and out the door in seconds, the others pounding along behind.
As they’d come around the end of the bunkhouse they had seen the flames, already through the roof of the smaller hay barn, licking dangerously close to the stable. “Gideon, Markis, with me!” Grayson had cried, and stretched to a full run that left the others panting behind him. While the rest of the crew had manned the pumps and the buckets, Grayson had run into the stable and begun taking the horses from their stalls to their paddocks, while Gideon and Markis vaulted from one paddock to the next, opening the gates and driving the frightened animals out into the pastures, closing the gates behind them so they couldn’t return to the fire.
It had been later, when the fire was reduced to a smolder, the sun was nearly up, and they were sitting in a grimy heap on the bunkhouse lawn, that Gideon had said quietly, “Grayson, you’re bleeding.”
He’d looked down, and hastily clapped a hand over the wide scrape on his left forearm. But others had seen it. Where the blood had not dried to black, it was such a pale blue it was nearly clear. “I suppose I should go wash that,” he’d grunted, and no more had been said.
Now, the two little men stood whispering together, studying a much folded poster. Mongrels they were, probably Nargawerld, stunted further by interbreeding with Turls.
“I tell you he be Ardenai Firstlord,” hissed one to the other. “His picture have I seen. Reward there be. See here. See poster?”
“Fine. Maybe so. He be Ardenai Firstlord. He be one big smackin’ hammer. We grab, he twist heads off shoulders, yes?” he made a graphic motion and a squishing sound. “Fine. No thanks.”
The other shook his ratty head. “Not grab, fool. Not grab. Trap.”
The one made a hitting motion, hairy fist to his forehead. “Whack! Trap! Accident seem. He bleed red, we say sorry. He bleed blue again today we truss up and get …”
There seemed to be a gap in the plans at that point, because the one scratched his head with his broken black claws for some time before answering. “Don’t know.” he said, cracking a louse between his teeth, “Somebody. Somebody with credits. Yes?”
“Now! See what he do? Fine time.”
The other mongrel agreed. Ardenai was moving the heavy pipes used to construct jumps and temporary corrals. He stacked a dozen pipes, set a pin, left a space and moved up until the stack was eighteen hands high, then moved to the end of that stack, and began again. He had been doing this for half an hour or so, and was very nearly finished. He was shirtless, and wet with perspiration, but moving smoothly, and at a good pace, enjoying the exercise, letting his mind wander back to Io, and Ah’ree, and the smell of the pines at Canyon keep … the quacking of Ah’ree’s pet ducks….
Gideon stepped out of the stable in time to see Ardenai reach up, set another pipe in place and turn away, just as a furry hand reached for the pin behind Ardenai’s shoulder. There was a sudden rumble as the pipes came loose, and Ardenai, caught off balance, was thrown hard into the corner of the pipe rack. He dropped like a stone, blood spurting from the gash above his right eye as the pipes cascaded over him.
The two little mongrels danced in a mad circle, holding each other and chanting, “Blue blood! Blue blood! We rich!” So preoccupied were they that they didn’t see Gideon until he was right on them.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, rolling pipes aside and kneeling beside Grayson.
“Him Ardenai Firstlord! Him Ardenai Firstlord!” they chattered, too excited to realize they were broadcasting their good fortune. “We rich! We rich!”
“Morons,” Gideon muttered, laying his palm against Grayson’s temple. “I hope you haven’t killed him.”
“Just as good dead.”
“I doubt that,” Gideon said. “You do realize, he’s not a full blooded Equi. The ears aren’t right. Neither are the eyes. The blood’s just a fluke. He could be any half-breed Equi and look like this. He could very easily be a Caspian mix. The prisons on Caspia are hell holes. You’d spend a lot of time treading water for attempted murder.”
They put their heads together for a few moments, chattering furiously. Gideon looked at the pale blue blood, and despaired. He could see by the rise and fall of Grayson’s back that he was breathing, but…
“Arm-bands!” one of the little mongrels exclaimed suddenly, and they danced again in momentary hysteria. Then one of them whipped out a knife, and before Gideon realized what was happening, slashed diagonally across Grayson’s bare arm from shoulder to elbow. Blood poured out, and then, as the skin was peeled back by the blade of the knife … a glimmer of gold.
“Ardenai, Ardenai!” they gibbered, whirling one another around on the grass.
“What are you going to do with him?” Gideon asked, heart pounding crazily in his throat.
“Truss up! Haul in! You help? We pay!”
“I help, you stab,” Gideon said in disgust. “Get Squire Squat to help you.” He walked off toward the bunkhouse, taking Grayson’s tunic off the end of the pipe rack as he went.
They shackled Ardenai’s hands together behind his back with tractor chain, wrapping it once around his neck and tightening it just until he struggled to breathe. Even for the two of them he was much too big to carry. One stood guard and the other one went to the main house. Squire Fidel would know what to do. Squire Fidel would know who to call.
Very soon, the squire was standing over Ardenai. He kicked him gently with one foot, and Ardenai groaned just enough to let them know he was coming around. Between the three of them they shouldered him, and staggered up to the main house. They propped him in a corner, and the little mongrels showed Fidel the golden arm-band they’d uncovered.
“Why, Mister Grayson, you’re a man of many surprises,” Fidel smiled, but Ardenai was too groggy to say anything. “I hate to lose such a fine horse handler, but I suppose business is business, aye, gentlemen?”
“Aye, gentlemen? Aye, gentlemen?” they laughed. “Call! Call!”
“By all means,” Fidel said, and as he turned away his eyes were beginning to narrow. Wouldn’t do to contact the wrong people. This man was the newly crowned monarch of a mighty system, tractor chain notwithstanding. Wouldn’t do to split that fabled reward too many ways, regardless of what it might be. Land? Prestige? A government position? He shivered slightly with anticipation and turned back around. “Do you men happen to have that reward poster?”
One of them did, folded and filthy in his trouser pocket. They had been too dense to recognize the transmission code they needed, but Fidel was not. When it came to any kind of reward, he was a very sharp individual. He poured both of them a tall strong drink to celebrate their good fortune, and went to his sending unit.
Try as he might, he didn’t have the power to get through to the source without relay, and if he relayed a message, he’d have half the Alliance to deal with. Ardenai Firstlord would have to be transported, or Fidel would have to go to town to use a more powerful device. He poured the little mongrels another drink. “Did you tell anyone else about this?” he asked casually.
“No,” they said, shaking their ugly, oversized heads. Gideon had seen it. They hadn’t told him. Being literalists, and drunk, they did not mention his part in it.
“Good,” Fidel nodded. He added a small something to their third drink. Something their taste buds were too numb to pick up on. When they stopped laughing, and their eyes had glazed over in death, Fidel dragged one over and dumped him down the basement stairs. The other, he dragged outside into the shrubbery.
After dinner he went down to the bunkhouse, dropped off a couple big bottles of Declivian summer brandy, and asked cheerfully if anybody needed anything from town. No one did.
“By the way,” Gideon yawned, sitting up in his bunk, “those two little simians you gave me to work with last week disappeared on me this afternoon.”
“They have been fired,” Fidel replied. “You won’t see them again.”
“Good,” Gideon muttered, and flopped back down. A death knell if ever he’d heard one, and he’d heard a few in his short life.
He left a minute or two after Fidel, and followed him at a discreet distance. When Fidel went into the house, Gideon peeked into the hovercat. Grayson wasn’t there. Cautiously, Gideon looked through a window, and inadvertently stepped on a dead mongrel. He stumbled backward, one foot cracking down on the shrubbery. He held his breath and waited. There was no response. Again he crept to the window, and this time he could see Grayson, chained in the corner, still unconscious.
Fidel hauled at him a few times, but it was a lost cause. With the tractor chain around his neck, Ardenai weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Without the tractor chain around his neck, he was deadly. Fidel, being too greedy to ask for help and split the reward, and too squeamish to kill a prince as he had the mongrels, opted for town and the more powerful sending unit. He spent some time bent over the Equi Firstlord, gagged him with rags, then turned out the lights and went out the door, locking it behind him.
Gideon faded into the trees beside the house, and in the deepening twilight, Fidel passed within yards of him without seeing him. The hovercat glided silently away, and after considerable exploration, Gideon crept through an open window into the Squire’s black and stinking basement. The smell accounted for the window being open, but the Squire was a trusting man to go off and leave it so. Gideon felt his way along the wall, hurried up the stairs, and knelt beside Ardenai, patting his shoulder in the hope of rousing him. Immediately the black eyes came open, awake, and alert. “You, are in big trouble!” Gideon hissed, taking the gag out of Ardenai’s mouth, and to his amazement Ardenai grinned at him.
“An intuitive lad, indeed,” he managed, and gasped for air.
Gideon pushed him forward from the waist, and began working the chains loose. As they dropped away, Ardenai choked, then grasped the length around his neck, lifted it with Gideon’s help over his head, and let it drop onto the floor behind him. He gasped a few times, then his breathing deepened. “Thank you,” he said, rubbing at the bruises on his throat. “Gideon, how did you get in?”
“There was an open window in the basement. Everything else was locked, and I was afraid someone would hear me breaking a window up here. You better wash your face and find a shirt. We gotta get out of here, now!”
But Ardenai didn’t move. He was still staring, wide-eyed, at the boy. “How did you say you got in here?”
“Through a basement window.”
“You came in here, past whatever creature … a Turlac Orka, I think … that he has shut in that cellar? Are you incredibly brave, or just barking mad?”
“What?” Gideon quavered.
“You didn’t see it? You didn’t smell it? Where to you think his worn-out lovers go, Gideon?”
“I don’t know! I mean, no,” Gideon groaned. “I mean, yes, kind of.” He looked suddenly over his left shoulder and sprang into a crouch. “Oh hell! Oh shit! I left the basement door open!”
Together they paused and listened. Drag, slap, wheeze. Drag, slap, wheeze, growing rapidly closer. “So much for a shirt,” Ardenai muttered, pushed Gideon into a sprint ahead of him, and together they dove through a window, landing amid a hail of glass on the hapless little mongrel.
“I wondered where Fidel had stored his pet’s dessert,” Ardenai grimaced as he stood up. “Gideon, a thousand thanks.”
“And now you’re just going to walk in the bunkhouse, get your things, and leave, right?”
“I thought I’d wash my face in the horse trough first,” Ardenai said. He bent down, picked up the dead mongrel, and tossed him in the window they’d just exited. “Luckily this one’s the second course and not the first, or you’d have been dinner before you got halfway across that basement.”
“Very cold thing to do, Mister Grayson, or Lord Ardenai, or whoever you are.”
“But expedient. After all, he is already dead.”
Ardenai took a few steps, reeled, and dropped to his knees as Gideon caught him under the arms and hauled him up again. “You seem a tad under the weather to make a getaway.”
“Gideon, I have to. Once Fidel makes that call, this sector is going to be crawling with all manner of people who wish me dead. I have to go now, while I can still walk onto a freighter, or a cruiser, and leave. A few hours …”
“Ardenai Firstlord, for surely you are he, consider how you look. Consider that royal blue blood on your face and in your beard, and the armband that shows where they slashed your skin.”
“What?” Ardenai gasped, and for the first time, he realized the damage they’d done to his arm. “Oh, no,” he murmured. “Well, I’ll just have to slip in while the others are asleep, and …”
“… about then Fidel will be back. Come on. I’m going to stash you in the barn and go get our stuff. We can take horses and cut through the jungle to town. Walk. Fast.”
“Did you program my computator?”
“I designed your computator … as a study aid for my students … about fifty years ago.”
Gideon gave him a startled look, then remembered how long Equi lived, and kept walking. “Well, you’re going to owe me a new one if we get out of this.”
“Gideon, you do not have to go with me,” Ardenai said, and stopped, gasping for air, inside the protective darkness of the stable.
“Yes, I do.”
“I don’t know. I just do. Here, lie down and rest for a few minutes. I’ll be back.”
Ardenai nodded, saying nothing. He eased himself onto the pile of straw, and touched gingerly at the welt over his eye. It occurred to him that Fidel would be in a hurry – a big hurry – to get home. He forced himself up again, and when Gideon returned with the knapsacks, Ardenai had his face washed, and two horses saddled. “Problems?” he asked, gratefully taking the tunic Gideon held out to him.
“After that brandy Fidel left? Let’s put it this way, we have more than we came with.”
“This, from the man who just fed somebody to Slosho the killer seal? And I assume the horses are borrowed?”
“Point taken,” Ardenai muttered, “But the horses definitely are borrowed. Ever ridden one?”
“No. I was too afraid of you to ask. Hold still and let me wrap that arm. You’ll have blood everywhere, and people will notice, which wouldn’t be good, now, would it? ”
Ardenai moved the arm away from his body and watched while Gideon tightened a long strip of relatively clean cloth around the wound. He pulled his tunic on, hiding the bandage, then gestured for the boy to mount. “Thank you. Were you really afraid of me? Other foot in the stirrup or you’ll be facing backwards.”
Gideon switched to his left foot. “You were … very distant. But knowing who you are, I think I know why.”
“Another time,” Ardenai said, adjusting Gideon’s hips in the saddle seat and mounting his own horse. “We must go quickly. Keep your heels down and your back straight but relaxed. Keep the horse between you and the ground, as the old saying goes.”
They set off across the open fields at an easy canter, and Gideon found it exhilarating despite the circumstances. In the trees they walked, trotted when they could, and cantered through the clearings and fields of alcibus for most of the night. Occasionally Ardenai’s head would fall forward, then his shoulders would tense, and he would pull himself upright again with a voiceless gasp of effort.
“You need a doctor,” Gideon said, and Ardenai nodded.
“I know a good one. Unfortunately, there is the small problem of getting off this planet.”
“We’re nearly to town. I can see lights.”
“And I can hear people. That does not mean they’re going to let us leave.”
They dismounted, Ardenai sent the horses home with a word and a pat of farewell, and the two of them struck out on foot. It wasn’t far to walk. The jungle encroached nearly onto the main street. They stayed in the dimly lit alleyways, hoping Ardenai’s size and the fact that there were two of them would keep them from getting jumped. In half an hour they’d reached the space port, and sat for a minute in the shadows to rest.
“We are fortunate,” Ardenai said. “On this planet ships launch directly into the atmosphere, no shuttles.” He let his head fall forward nearly to his knees, and Gideon noted with worry the whitened knuckles on the man’s fists.
“Are you okay for a bit yet?” he asked, laying his hand on Ardenai’s back. “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
“I’m good, thank you,” he replied, and raised his head. “What shall we try for, horses, grain, or fertilizer?”
“No one who was not running for his life would try booking passage on a fertilizer yacht, Mister Grayson. I would suggest grain as a first choice.”
“I commend your good taste,” Ardenai said, and they hauled themselves up and began walking again. There was no lack of freighters, even at this hour. Agricultural commodities flowed day and night here. Ardenai gestured toward a ship, they conferred in whispers for a moment, then reeled around the end of a loading elevator, good arm in torn arm, Ardenai’s face more or less hidden against Gideon’s shoulder. “Oops, oops, here we are,” Gideon mumbled, peering at the freighter’s captain. “My dear old dad and me … my old buddy … would very much like to go home … sir … we would.”
“Where, exactly is home, young man?”
“Uh … where you going?”
“SeGAS-7 … or eight, or nine.”
Gideon raised a triumphant finger. “Thash home.”
“All of ‘em?” the captain grinned, and Gideon peered up drunkenly into his heavy-set, good natured face.
“Any of ‘em. Whee … I mean, we … can we go … my poor old daddums and me?”
The captain eyed them both. “Yeah, I guess you can,” he said. “You puke, you clean it up. C deck, third door down on the right. I’ll expect you to work for your passage.” He waved over his shoulder in that general direction and turned his attention back to his shipping manifest.
“I wonder do she flap her wings to fly,” Gideon muttered, appraising the vessel, and Ardenai replied that he didn’t care how it was done, as long as it was done with alacrity. Gideon pushed a button. Pushed it again and the cabin door shrieked open. “Aw, this place is threadbare,” he complained.
“Only if one cares,” Ardenai replied, stepping in behind him. “It’s no more threadbare than I am right now.” He sat down on the bottom bunk, gave the pillow a couple of tentative slaps, and gazed at the rising dust.
“Not much of a palace for the leader of eleven worlds,” Gideon said, sitting down next to Ardenai. “I’m used to this kind of thing, but you …”
“I, am grateful to be here. I could well be somewhere dead, or having my arms hacked off. I owe you a great deal, Gideon. When we reach SeGAS-7, I’ll contact my ….” He paused, and the grief he felt telegraphed itself across his face. “I’ll contact someone at the Great House, or my son, Kehailan, and hand you over for safekeeping until this is finished. Then … we can decide a future for you.”
Gideon studied Ardenai … the Thirteenth Dragonhorse … how absolutely, completely amazing … a minute or two in silence, the bruises, the dark, worried eyes, the determined set of a mouth that was slightly too soft for the sharply chiseled profile. “Why?” he asked at last. “Why is this happening to you? Are you … causing it, somehow, or just permitting it?”
Ardenai leaned forward, elbows on his knees so he’d clear the upper bunk, and cocked his head to look at Gideon. “What an extraordinarily astute question. I usually hear that question as it applies to Eladeus, and I can assure you, that is not me. I commend you, but I am not sure I have an answer. I know what needs to happen for things to go as they should for me and my world. Some of them I have set in motion, some others have started, and some are just fate, karma or blind luck. In all of it, I hope somewhere to find the will of the Wisdom Giver. Does that help?”
“I think so. I’m working on it.”
“You’re a dreamer, that should make it easier,” Ardenai said quietly, looking away. “Far better than learning to program a computator, Gideon, is the ability to dream of building one, of bettering yourself for the good of others. The ability to envision the need for any given thing, must precede the designing of that thing if it is to have purpose, no matter how fleeting.”
“And which are you at this point, creator or technician?”
“I am a technician,” Ardenai replied in amusement, looking back at Gideon. “I seek to maintain that which is already in place. I am attempting to manipulate components in such a manner that they will function as a unit. This involves the removal of extraneous parts. Hopefully, I am not one of them.”
“Now I understand,” Gideon grinned. “And I admire your ability to believe. I know this can’t be easy for you in any respect, to do something controversial and not be able to defend your reasons for doing it.”
“That is where friends come in, Gideon. Those people who trust our judgment.” Ardenai rubbed his face, winced, and straightened up off the bunk. “I sadly fear … I have lost two of the best, but … I have gained one in return.”
“Who?” the boy asked.
“Why, you, of course,” Ardenai said, giving him a puzzled look. “Who else would I mean?”
Gideon looked incredulous. “Me?” he gasped. “Me? But you … you’re …” he stopped and considered what he was about to say, then, he smiled a slow, shy smile. “I … have never had a friend before.”
“Well, you have one now,” Ardenai said, and the look on his face told Gideon the concept of being friendless was totally foreign to him.
“You … are my friend.” Gideon said, testing the words one at a time. “You … programmed my ed-comp so I could start to learn how to … to use it. Why did you do that? You didn’t even know me.”
“I did it because I could,” Ardenai said, his attention wandering with the throb in his head. “It’s a characteristic of teachers. Why are we still on the ground?”
Gideon got up and came to stand beside him. “Aw, I wish you hadn’t said that. If we’re caught on this scow, we’re caught. There’s no place here to run.”
“Not we,” Ardenai rumbled, shaking a finger at Gideon, “Me. You remember that. If we get caught – no matter what is said, no matter what is done – you keep your mouth absolutely shut and your hands to yourself. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” he grumbled. “I don’t like it, and I …”
“…will do as you’re told, Lad. If you do not survive, neither does the truth of what happened. If Io … is dead, and Teal with her, that is half the truth. One quarter lies yet with Pythos, one quarter with me. Whom they have told, I do not know. I know one thing only. I have an honorable and intelligent young companion. Him, I will not risk.”
Gideon ducked his head. “Firstlord, I understand,” he said. “I’ll obey your wishes, but I won’t like it. Say, you look really tired. You lost a lot of blood. Why don’t you lie down and I’ll go see why we’re still here.”
“Good idea. You are, by the way, in the clear with Fidel. Our gibbering little bounty hunters did not mention to him that you saw what happened.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. You rest,” Gideon said, and the door shrieked shut behind him, punishing Ardenai’s pounding head. He stretched out on the bunk as best he could and closed his eyes, but he did not sleep.
Gideon made his way nearly back to the entry port of the ship before he heard voices and blended back to listen.
“You sure you haven’t seen this man?”
“Of course I seen him. I seen him a dozen times. Everybody in the galaxy’uz seen him. That’s Ardenai, Firstlord of Equus. The Thirteenth …” “I know who it is, thank you. I meant tonight,” the voice said patiently.
“I told you once, I seen twenty-four prostitutes and twenty-six drunks. Two of the drunks was together. I have not seen a man traveling alone. I have not seen a big Equi in royal robes or anything else, for that matter. If I’da seen a man worth a reward like they’re sayin’, I’da grabbed him myself. As far as anybody suspicious, they’re all suspicious.”
“May we search your ship?”
“Sure, but I been standing here the whole time. Nobody boarded but two very drunk men booking passage home. Neither of ‘em had black hair, nor external ear bones. Neither of ‘em was even remotely Equi. Obviously, they wasn’t alone. I just can’t help you.”
“What about your crew?”
“What about my crew? We’re together a dozen years or more by now. I didn’t hire no Equi in the last day or two, or the last year or two. We’re loaded, and we’re holding up an incoming SGA freighter. If you’re gonna look, look and get out of here, will you? I don’t got all night and day!”
“Nor have we. Thank you for your time,” the voice said. He spoke to someone else, and Gideon tensed, backing further into the shadows, expecting them to board. They did not. After a few minutes he heaved a sigh of relief and started back for the cabin. He could hear the captain, banging down the heavy metal cargo doors, and the ship began to vibrate as its engines fired. No time-whip on this old baby. It would be a long haul to SeGAS-7.
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.