Squire Fidel squirmed uncomfortably under those electric blue eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, desperately hoping to sound sincere, “but what can I do? He was here, I swear he was. My men will tell you he was here.”
“Yet no one saw him … bleed, but you?” Konik sounded scornful. “Very thin, don’t you agree? You have not one shred, not a single shred of evidence to back up your story. Perhaps you are a spy, paid to confuse us in our search for this man.”
“I can assure you, I haven’t made a single credit from this,” Fidel said sadly, palms up in a helpless gesture, “nor would I have taken the reward. I was only trying to do my duty.”
“And why did you tell us he traveled alone, if you did not seek to confuse the issue?”
“Kind Sir, I believed he traveled alone. Not until two horses returned to the stables the next afternoon did I think to check on my men. When I did check, Gideon was missing.”
“Can you describe him?”
Fidel nodded and licked his lips. He’d studied that one more than once. “A good-looking Declivian mix in his teens, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Nearly six feet, and slender – not filled out yet. Thick, pale blond hair worn short,” he drew a line with his hands on his neck just above his shoulders, “golden eyes – very gold – as gold as Ardenai’s arm bands in clarity. He should be easy to spot.”
“He would have been,” Konik growled, hiding a shudder of disgust. “Stay where I can contact you,” he said, and left Fidel muttering obscenities in the dust of the barnyard.
Before many minutes had passed, hardly time enough for a tall cool drink, another hovercat arrived, and this one had two men in it, a black-skinned Terren and another damned Equi, this one bigger than the last. “My name is Davis,” the Terren smiled, alighting from the vehicle as it settled onto its pads. “And this is, ah …”
“Morgan,” the Equi said with a gracious nod. “We have been asked by the gentleman who was just here … Senator Konik … to look around and see what we can find.”
Fidel’s eyes narrowed. “He said he was a Legate, or some such I never heard of. He didn’t say he was a senator.”
“A slip of the tongue on my part,” the Equi said quickly. “Please forgive me. This has been a most trying investigation, as you can well imagine, and Legate Konik was only recently promoted.”
“So, may we look?” the Terren asked, and Fidel gestured disgustedly toward the stables and outbuildings.
“There he worked. There he lived. If you find anything, there will it be. I’ve been called a crazy man and liar enough today. I’m going to go sit in the shade and have a nice, long drink.” He turned on his heel and stalked off toward his chair, turning briefly to snap, “And don’t scare the horses. Grayson, or whoever he was, left me with the finest stable of jumpers on Demeter. I don’t want them ruined.”
Eletsky nodded and fell back into step with Kehailan. “I saw you register something just then. What was it?”
“My mother’s father’s mother … my great grandmother … was Lillian Grayson.”
“Then he may actually have been here?”
“He may well have been. If he was,” Kehailan said grimly, “I’ll know it.”
Eletsky looked toward the paddocks and gestured. “Can those horses tell us anything?”
“Don’t be silly, Marion.” Kehailan said absently, and Eletsky bit back a laugh. Kehailan disliked horses with a passion. He watched as the commander turned all his powers of observation to the task of finding Ardenai. He didn’t say anything, he just tagged along at a discreet distance, applying his own well developed senses to his surroundings.
Kehailan went into the stables, and Eletsky went into the bunkhouse. The men were in the fields, and the place was empty. Eletsky gave it a quick once over and decided it would yield nothing. Too bad they could only pretend they’d talked to Konik. More’s the pity, they didn’t dare risk asking the same questions twice, lest Fidel tip Konik and Konik realize he was being followed. The listening device they’d managed to plant earlier in Konik’s hovercat should have functioned well and picked up any and all conversations. Unfortunately, because the air was so humid, they’d gotten about half the conversation, and the rest sounded like a very large aquarium being serviced.
Marion was just meandering about, looking for anything, when Fidel hollered, “Over further, by the pipe rack. Can’t your legate give instructions any better than that?” Eletsky looked up, waved and smiled, comprehending nothing but moving in the direction Fidel was waving. “Right there!” the man hollered, and Marion looked down.
Now he could see where the grass had been trampled and matted, uprooted in places by something gouging into it. He squatted on his boot heels to study the area, and as he straightened up, a dark smear on the edge of the pipe rack caught his eye. It could be blood. Equi blood darkened almost to black as it dried, but he didn’t want to touch and risk destroying it. This was better left to Kehailan and the sensitive equipment he carried, and Eletsky went to find him. “Kee?” he called softly at the barn door, and the commander’s voice said,
“Over here, Marion, to your left and ahead of you.”
Eletsky followed the sound, and found the commander on his knees in a pile of straw. “Look,” Kehailan said. It was Gideon’s computator. “My sire designed this ed-comp, and my sire has programmed it for someone else, very recently.”
“Positive,” Kehailan said, rocking back onto his butt in the straw. “This model is a little newer than my first computator, but this is bit for bit the same program I learned with.”
“Could it have become a standard learning program?” Eletsky asked, not wanting to see his friend get his hopes too high.
“Yes, but not for this machine,” Kehailan said. “It isn’t conclusive, of course, but …”
“Come with me, then,” Marion said, “I have something which may prove more valuable.” He hauled Kee up by one arm and led him from the stable to the pipe rack, where he pointed to the smear.
Kehailan looked at it for a long time, as though he could see his father’s reflection in it somehow, then he took the long, slim instrument which hung in a pouch around his neck, and pointed it at the dark pattern on the pipe rack. He turned in a very slow circle with the little instrument in his hand, then turned it off and made the circle again, using only his eyes. He squatted on his heels and reached gingerly to touch the smear of blood. “According to the anthroscope, this is the blood type most common in full blooded Equi,” he said, “and minute fragments of Ardenai’s skin. His head hit this metal post, hard, and he fell … there, unconscious … bleeding profusely. There were … others here. Males – Turls, Nargawerlders. And someone very human; Declivian, or a Declivian-Terren mix probably, as there are very few markers different from Terrenes. Konik was here, the freshest sign, and he … registers as High Equi …” he looked up at Marion. “Fascinating. He’s an Equi. A royal. That shoots Ardenai’s theory.”
“Or confirms it,” Marion said, cocking his balding head slightly to one side and tugging thoughtfully at his moustache. “There’s something about a twin in that saga, and I think it refers to the two planets, or the two peoples.”
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Kehailan said, a tinge of bitterness in his tone, “how surprised I am that Konik is Equi? What in kraa else would he be? He’s spent his life seeing physicians for various things.”
“And do you think they noticed?” Marion asked. “Unless I’m very mistaken, he has blue eyes. All full blooded Equi – High Equi, have some shade of green eyes, don’t they? Kehailan nodded. “I think your dad’s right about the Telenir, and I think when you start turning over rocks, you’re going to find a Telenir physician or two.”
“For all the good that does us now,” Kehailan growled. He stood up abruptly and pointed. “Ardenai was bound with heavy chain and carried from here in that direction. Toward the house.”
“Chain?” Marion echoed, wincing in spite of himself. “You’re sure about the chain?”
“Positive. His weight increased by nearly thirty percent. He was here, he is gone. If only we could have caught more of the conversation between Fidel and Konik. Now I suppose we’ll have to try getting him to repeat everything. Shit … shit … shit!”
Captain Eletsky looked in surprise at his old friend, and realized the man’s hands were shaking. Was his wing commander on the verge of tears? He looked it. Abruptly, like touching a pulse wire, Eletsky realized he’d never asked Kehailan how he felt about his father being Firstlord of Equus. Things had gone from pageantry to flight in a breath, it seemed. There’d been no time for philosophical discussions, or sharing feelings. One way or another, the man had lost his sire, if not to death, then to a vast calling beyond anything Kehailan must ever have imagined. And now this. Bad enough to have Dad turn out to be king, now he’s missing, and bleeding … a lot. Marion shook his head. Just how was he supposed to phrase this, and what would the commander’s reaction be? He was intensely private most of the time. What could he say?
“Don’t say anything,” Kehailan advised aloud, gave Marion a ghost of a smile, and headed back toward the main house.
Gideon thanked the man in the galley for the bucket of ice, and for the sandwich, and walked back to the cabin. The door slid silently open, only because he’d taken it upon himself to lubricate the thing, and closed with equal silence, leaving Ardenai undisturbed in the bunk. He appeared to be sleeping, but as Gideon eased the ice bucket onto the table, his eyes fluttered open. “I thought I told you to get some sleep,” Gideon said, sitting down beside him.
“I have slept,” Ardenai murmured. “Not well or deeply, but I have slept.”
Gideon put a hand on Ardenai’s forehead, then adjusted the blanket over him. He was shivering despite the cabin’s warmth, and though his face registered little, his eyes were dry with pain and fever.
Gideon took some of the ice, wrapped it in a towel, and, carefully as he could, snugged it around Ardenai’s bare arm. “Filthy little beast,” he muttered. “A filthy, murdering little beast. His knife was as filthy as he was.”
“Gideon,” Ardenai said quietly, “do not waste your strength with anger. After all, they are dead, and we are alive.”
“Now that, is tenuous, my friend,” Gideon replied, adjusting the ice-pack. “And we’re about out of options at this point. If we don’t get you some help, you’re going to be as dead as they are.”
“There are always options,” Ardenai said, touching Gideon’s hand. “You worry too much, too soon. I’m tougher than I look.”
“And you’re sicker than you’re letting on,” the Declivian retorted. “Even at that, you’re a very sick boy.”
Ardenai just snorted soundlessly and let it go. There was a point beyond which he couldn’t hide the truth. He tried shifting in the bunk to ease his back, and bright flashes of orange and yellow burst before his eyes. His system was full of poison. He quieted his mind and reached deeper inside, searching for healing.
There was a banging at the door, and Gideon stiffened. “You might as well answer it,” the Equi said. “It has no lock.”
Gideon nodded and did as he was told, hackles up, ready for a fight if need be. The ship’s captain was standing outside, three glasses in one hand, bottle in the other. “Three days is one helluva long time for your dear old daddums to have a hangover,” he said affably. “I thought maybe, a little hair off the dog that bit him?”
“No … thank you …” Gideon began, but the captain had already pushed past him into the room. He stood there, looking at Ardenai, and Gideon knew, he knew. They’d been discovered. His eyes darted quickly from the closing door to Ardenai’s face, to any possible weapon, and back to Ardenai.
“We’ve had this discussion,” Ardenai said quietly. “You need to quit thinking of violence as an antidote for fear. This is a perfectly innocent person. It is when we involve innocent people that disagreements become skirmishes, skirmishes become battles, battles become wars. Never involve the innocent.”
“Allow them to involve themselves. They make stronger allies that way,” the captain smiled, sitting in the chair Gideon had vacated. “Hello, Ambassador. I see you’ve decided to join the …well, not quite human race.”
“Hello, Josephus,” Ardenai replied, and his face lit up with pleasure. “How have you been? You look well.”
“I look fat and old,” he chortled. “You haven’t aged a day.”
“I’ve taken to dyeing my hair,” Ardenai said solemnly.
“Beard’s a nice touch. I like you clean shaven, but it works.”
“Clean shaven’s easy when you don’t usually grow a beard in the first place,” Ardenai said. “This thing has been a ridiculous amount of work and I cannot wait to be shed of it.”
By this time Gideon had moved from behind the captain and come to stand next to Ardenai’s left shoulder. “You two know each other,” he said, his voice full of accusation. “Ardenai, you knew who he was before we ever got on this ship.”
“The ambassador is not one to call in a favor, my boy, even when he has one coming,” the captain said, and laid a huge paw against Ardenai’s flushed face. “Even when he needs one. What happened?”
Gideon eased the ice-pack away from Ardenai’s arm, loosened the makeshift bandage, and showed Josephus the ugly, festering wound. “Mongrel Turls, digging for gold,” he muttered.
“Let me have a look?” Josephus asked. Ardenai nodded, squeezing his eyes shut, and Josephus probed as gently as he could at the damage. “Reasonably minor wound with major complications,” he said finally. “Anyways, I don’t have nothing on board that will stop it at this point. We can clean it out, and irrigate it, but the best we can do is slow it down and make you a little more comfortable. I wish I’da known sooner.”
“Don’t give me that, Captain,” Gideon said, “when you walked through that door you knew exactly who you were going to find. I saw it in your face. You must have known all along. You turned the authorities away on purpose the other night.”
“Good guess,” Josephus smiled, standing up to pat Gideon’s shoulder. “About seventy-five percent wrong, but a good guess, anyways. I did turn the authorities away on purpose … because they were hunting a man I got great affection and respect for. I didn’t recognize him when you boarded, probably because he made sure I didn’t. You, on the other hand, have become real recognizable. Once I heard the ambassador wasn’t alone, but with a tall, topaz-eyed Declivian kid, I knew right where both of you was. So does my crew. You’ve worked with ‘em every day and eaten with ‘em half a dozen times, Gideon.”
The Declivian turned away and his face was stricken. “I never considered myself of any consequence. I thought as long as Ardenai Firstlord stayed incognito, so did I.”
“Well, you’re an intergalactic celebrity now, and every bit as sought after as the gentleman you’re with.”
“I see,” Gideon said. “On the bright side, I guess this means I don’t get pawned off on Kehailan when we get to SeGAS-7.”
“Correct, of course,” Ardenai muttered, and even as weak as he was, he looked very upset.
“Grayson, I am so sorry!” Gideon exclaimed, tears standing suddenly in the golden eyes. “I only wanted to help you and be with you. I honestly did not mean to cause you more trouble!”
“You’re sorry?” Ardenai asked in amazement. “Gideon, it is I who am sorry. I was hoping to spare you further danger. Now I cannot do that. You’re trapped. Josephus and his crew are being sucked in. Can you see how this sort of thing escalates? It’s tragedy enough that Io and my dear friend Teal have lost their lives on my account ….” He trailed off – closing his eyes, clenching his teeth against sickness, exhaustion, and despair.
He opened his eyes again when Josephus’s hand closed around his forearm. “Ardi,” Josephus smiled, “if you’re thinking little Captain Hellcat and Master Teal died in that shuttle explosion, I think you’re wrong.”
“What?” Ardenai gasped, “They’re alive?”
“Can’t prove it, but I have every reason to think so,” Josephus said, and on Ardenai’s face registered a hope that had been all but gone. “See, they piled all the pieces of wreckage up in one of them shuttle bays until Equi authorities could pick ‘em up. Well, I went in there with everybody else to take a look … only I wasn’t looking just for a souvenir, so I stayed and looked a little longer. That shuttle didn’t blow up. It blew out, if you follow me. It was detonated from a single flash point. I think it was rigged.”
Ardenai managed a smile and said, “I’m impressed with your sleuthing, Josephus. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“I don’t” he said, and guffawed, slapping his knee, “and you know I don’t. I was in there with Kee, and Marion Eletsky … Marion and me is old poker buddies … anyways, what’s his name, the science guy on the SGAS Belesprit … ah … Moonsgold? That crazy asshole with the two chins, anyways … they’re side by side, by the way, instead of one under the other, like mine. Have you met him? Nice fellah. Anyways … he went over every inch of that wreckage with an anthroscope, and a big one, and he said there was not one single fragment of hominoid flesh, residual DNA, or organic matter anywheres on the interior of that wreckage. I think you can hold forth every hope that your lady is alive, and your beloved kinsman, as well.”
“Thank you,” Ardenai sighed, barely above a whisper, and his eyes closed again. Perhaps they were waiting, after all. Perhaps he would get to the appointed place and Io would be waiting. She, and Pythos, and Teal and the others. Perhaps the war would yet be won and the victory savored in the presence of friends. Ardenai relaxed into that effervescing hope and allowed his burning eyes to close.
As gently as he could, Josephus cleaned and irrigated the wound on Ardenai’s arm, wrapping it with clean bandages, and the infection subsided a bit. They covered him in warmer blankets, and made him drink some hot vegetable broth, and watched him until his face relaxed into a semblance of sleep.
“How long have you known him?” Gideon asked, leaning back from dinner in the captain’s quarters.
“Oh, the ambassador and me go back a long ways. Many years.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“Terren. The ambassador had been asked to fill in as the Seventh Galactic Alliance Jurisdictional Magistrate for that sector. I got hauled up in front of him.”
“Can I ask?”
“Sure,” Josephus grinned, and gestured outward, “the grand old rust bucket herself. She was a little younger then, and so was I, and, like now, she was all I had. I’d taken out a load-mortgage to have her overhauled after Dad died. I couldn’t find enough loads to meet the contract, Hudson’s Bay Company tried to repossess her, and I ran. They caught me and hauled me before the magistrate du jour, who, on Wednesdays, was the Ambassador from Equus, a man reportedly not happy to be assigned back to Terren, even temporarily. I’ll tell you, I looked at those dragon’s eyes, and that granite jaw, and I figured I was a gonner. I’d be in rehab forever.”
“And?” Gideon asked, eyes alight with the tale.
“And, he didn’t ask me if I’d run with the ship, he asked me why. I told him she was all I had, and all I’d ever done. She was my inheritance from my dad. I’d spent my life savings, everything, on her. Anyways, he stood up, right then, cleared his docket and he says, ‘It’s such a nice day for a field trip. Show me this ship of yours.’ So down we went to dry dock. Ardenai rolls up his sleeves, and goes over every inch of this ship. He went down in the holds, he pulled the covers on the engines, inspected the circuitry, the galley, the crew’s quarters … every inch of her. Asked me all kinds of questions. Then he marches me, and the snooty guys from the Hudson’s Bay Company, back to his chambers.
“‘Gentlemen,’ says he, ‘That ship has had excellent care. The only reason for giving a vessel care like that, is so it will function well for many years. It is therefore my conclusion that this man has every intention of paying for his ship by making his load quota for you. Logically, if you take the ship, he has no way to make the runs. Return the ship to her captain and crew, and bring the contracts to me for re-negotiation.’ They had to do it, a’course. He swatted my ass with some nasty interest, but … here I am.”
“And that was that,” Gideon smiled.
“Even that would’a been more’n enough. But he gave me my first steady work … a contract I hold to this day … hauling grain from Demeter to the Great House of Equus. That’s how I met the lady Io … little hellcat herself. She was tiny back then, without a mother and the apple of her daddy’s eye. Abeyan spoiled her something fierce whenever he was around. Over the years I watched her grow up …”
“Into a lovely young lady, of course.”
“No,” Joseph laughed, “into a bigger hellcat … or at least a more accomplished one. She like to drove poor Ardi crazy with some of the stuff she did.”
“I didn’t think the Equuans …” he self-corrected at Josephus’s raised eyebrow, “the Equi,” he received a nod, “put up with that sort of behavior.”
“Oh, I’m making her out to be worse than she was. But she was headstrong as hell. Her father was gone a lot and he wanted the baby to have a woman’s touch, you know, so much of her care fell to Ardenai’s wife, Ah’ree … oh, my God, she was a beautiful woman … funny thing was, Ah’ree and Ardenai gave Io the only discipline she ever got. Anyways, I stayed in touch with our friend in there. Quite a man, that one.”
“And in the middle of quite a mess,” Gideon sighed, pouring the two of them another cup of coffee – real coffee. Gideon had never had real coffee.
Josephus cocked a grey eyebrow. “In the middle? Are you quite sure he’s in the middle?”
Gideon looked puzzled, and Josephus gave him his almost perpetual good-natured grin in return. “As a rule, the conductor stays to the front of the orchestra. Don’t underestimate the ambassador. Stand back, play your part, and watch the master orchestrate a victory. You will see things come together you never thought possible, m’boy. I guarantee it.”
“What I see, is a man burning up with fever and dying of blood poisoning.”
“Look again,” Josephus advised. “I see a man among friends, holding his own, going where he needs to go. The aches and pains are of no consequence to him. He’s High Equi. Hell, he’s the Thirteenth Dragonhorse! He’s as good as they get.”
Gideon was comforted, but privately unconvinced. He gave the captain a brief idea of what Ardenai was trying to do, but Josephus seemed already to have a pretty good idea, perhaps by long association, perhaps for other, less admirable reasons which Gideon could only guess at. Just to be on the safe side he kept the flow of information, and his absences from Ardenai, to a minimum.
A day later, and still three full days out from SeGAS-7, Josephus radioed that he had a sick crewman. He was trying to contact the medical center at the base, and instead reached Belesprit, meandering in from SeGAS-5. He was greeted by Bonfire’s throaty growl, saying, “This is the Seventh Galactic Alliance science vessel, Belesprit. May we be of assistance? We are much closer than the base, and our ship’s physician would be happy to render aid.”
Josephus was delighted. Could they shuttle him out? Indeed they could. They’d send a shunt out with Doctor Hadrian Keats, just as soon as they could locate him aboard ship. Josephus said he would be most grateful for the help.
“I really wish it was anybody but Hadrian Keats,” Ardenai sighed, propped in place with pillows. He was too weak to hold his head up, but not too weak to think straight, and he was thinking hard. Keats had absolutely no love for him. Given the opportunity, he’d turn in both Ardenai and Gideon. “I don’t want to have to … redistribute information in his synapses, but I really don’t see that I’ll have much choice in the matter.”
“What horrible thing did you do to him?” Gideon asked, wringing out a cool cloth and blotting at the Equi’s temples and forehead.
Ardenai sighed listlessly and shrugged against his pillows. It was obvious he didn’t care to talk about it. It was also obvious to Gideon that he desperately needed a doctor, and a good one, not some Alliance meat cutter with a chip on his shoulder. “I honestly don’t know. He’s hated me since the moment we met, and never, in so many words, has he told me why. Keats has such an odd, hostile mind. And yet … it’s just like a sponge, you know? He’s constantly throwing out messages and bits of emotional … reaction, without really meaning to. I suppose that’s good for our current purposes, but it hasn’t helped our relationship, and he’s not going to be happy to see me.”
“Grayson,” Gideon ventured, seeming busy with the cloth, “You knew … before we ever got near it … that this was Josephus’s ship, didn’t you?”
The Equi’s eyes didn’t open. “Mmmmm,” he said, with a slight downward motion of his chin.
“I thought I’d chosen this ship, but I didn’t, did I? You put it on my heart that I was to choose a grain carrier, and that I was to choose this one.”
“I like that phrasing,” Ardenai managed, though the urge to sleep was becoming overwhelming. What if he was too sick to keep control of Keats? That would be disaster. He took a couple of deep breaths, willing himself back into a strong enough state to school another’s mind if he had to. He didn’t like the word, manipulate. Never had. “It was a subtle, unspoken suggestion, nothing more.”
Keats arrived on board all bustle and concern, hurried Josephus along to the injured man’s cabin, and stopped dead in his tracks, looking from Gideon to the bed and back again. “You,” he said, and turned around as if to leave, but the door had already closed, leaving him alone with Ardenai, Gideon, and Josephus, who stood with his arms folded across his massive chest, barring the only exit. He glared at the door for a minute, then turned back around and glared at Ardenai with his close set, slightly protruding eyes. “You.”
The Equi sighed. “I told Pythos this disguise wasn’t good enough.”
“Neither is his,” Keats said, jerking his head at the Declivian. “And just what the hell do you have planned for me, Ardenai Firstlord? Apparently I am now your prisoner.”
“Yes indeed. I look like I’m taking prisoners, don’t I?” Ardenai sighed. “Doctor Keats, I have absolutely no idea what you have against me, or what you think I’m going to do to you, and you would be gratified to know …” Ardenai paused, closed his eyes, gasped for air and control of the situation, “… how much I wish you were not here. As it is, I have no choice, and so you have no choice.”
Keats took a sharp breath and a step back. “I don’t?”
“No,” the Equi said flatly, “you do not.” He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them Keats was bending over him, reading his vital signs.
“A fever like this would kill a normal man, you know that. Blood poisoning should have killed you a couple days ago. Must hurt like holy hell. I sure hope so, anyway.” He sat down, talking half to Ardenai, half to himself, muttering about people who yapped harmony one day and went to war with legends the next, all the while unwrapping the bandage on Ardenai’s left arm. “After what you went through having these damned arm-bands put on, what’d you cover ‘em up for? Never mind, I don’t want to know. If you told me I still wouldn’t know. I should take this entire skin graft off of here.”
“Why? Because it’s rotten, that’s why. How’d you get this?”
“The two gentlemen who initially captured me, wanted to be absolutely sure they had the right man. I do need that graft in place. I still have places to go.”
“I’ll just bet you do.” Keats turned his attention from Ardenai’s arm, and pushed gently around the wound over his eye. “Good thing your head’s hard. That’s a nasty concussion. You’re lucky to be alive, whether you believe in luck or not. Why didn’t Captain what’s-his-name tell Kehailan you’re here? He’s been worried half to death for weeks …”
“Doctor,” Ardenai said quietly, “far be it from me to tell you your business …”
“Don’t then. Hold still. This will bring the fever down and reduce the infection so I can work. It may make you a little sick to your stomach, or a lot sick to your stomach. It’ll wear off in seventy-two hours or so.”
Ardenai shook his head. “Doctor, in less than seventy-two hours we will be on SeGAS-7, running for our lives. I cannot take the risk that someone will see a pattern, and …” he seized up with pain, and Keats took the opportunity to mutter,
“What pattern? There’s no pattern. Sorry. I know that hurts, even if you won’t admit it.”
“Oh, I will freely admit, it hurts. But … I just can’t stop for it. I have to keep moving … we, have to keep moving. I am seen on Demeter. The ship of a man I have known for years is seen on Demeter. Now neither is seen on Demeter, but the ship is on its way to SeGAS-7. My son is on SeGAS-7 …”
“No, he’s not. He’s on Demeter … or on his way back, maybe.”
“What? What’s he doing on Demeter?”
“Looking for you. He and Eletsky are trailing some guy named Konik. Ring a bell?”
Ardenai thought a moment, watching Keats numb up the skin that had been so recently a beautiful, coiled python, and was now inflamed and tattered. “Pythos was so pleased with those … I should have valued them for that reason alone.” he said, mostly to himself. “Konik … yes. He is rather deep in the entourage of Sarkhan, I’m afraid.” He made the comment in a casual tone, and then watched Keats without seeming to.
“Not so deep anymore,” Keats muttered, intent on Ardenai’s arm. “He came aboard Belesprit disguised as an Equi agent, disguised as a quantum psi technician. He was neither, of course. He got caught poking around Kee’s cabin. Anyway, details aside, Marion pretended to believe his story about being an Equi agent looking for you, and let him go. They’ve been following him ever since, hoping, I suppose, to find you at the end of the trail. Oh, and Kee thinks the guy is a … Telenir? Make sense?”
Ardenai nodded slightly, observing the doctor’s willingness to share any and all information, despite two complete strangers listening in. “As much as one could expect, given the situation,” he replied. “Why does Kehailan think he’s Telenir?”
“Because the captain of your Horse Guard says he is.” Ardenai jumped, and Keats immediately looked apologetic. “I should have said that in the past tense, I guess. She said, in the past tense, he was. We haven’t seen her since she and Teal supposedly died, though all indications are they didn’t.”
The Firstlord caught his breath and focused his attention on the doctor. “Carefully, coherently if at all possible – when did Kee see Io, and what did she tell him? Had she made further contact with Konik or Sarkhan?”
“You need to relax. No, relax … as in, un-tense your muscles, Dragonhorse. You’re shaking, and I can’t work on you like that. Kee saw Io two days before her shunt blew up. And she told him … that … you had a theory about Sarkhan, so she went to see Sarkhan, and she told him the theory, only she said it was hers, not yours, and she tried to make him think she was selling out to him. Selling you to him? Anyway, I didn’t quite get that part, but I guess he jumped about like you did just now. Upshot being … your theory is right. Is that the one about the ditty of the Wind Warriors being history rather than melodic fiction? Or something ….”
“Please … stop talking,” Ardenai groaned, and pressed his fist against his mouth.
“Boy, are you clammy! Are you going to make it?”
“Make what?” he managed around his fist.
“A mess, probably. Not to worry, I can’t imagine there’s anything in your stomach. You’ll probably just get the dry heaves. Hate those things.”
“No.” Ardenai grated, clamping his jaws together, “I will not,” and he didn’t. He suffered in silence, sweat trickling down his temples into his beard, until Keats began cursing under his breath.
“Give in!” he said. “Just … puke. You don’t have to prove you’re God, you know.” He became aware of Gideon’s hostile golden gaze just over his left shoulder, and applied himself to his craft without further comment.
Josephus had no more than gotten docked at SeGAS-7, and his engines idled down, when the SGA authorities boarded his ship, looking for the Firstlord. The reason? He had killed the lady Io and Commander Teal in a Seventh Galactic Alliance domain. No more sulking in private. No more diplomatic immunity. Ardenai was wanted by his own government for murder.
“I find them charges ludicrous,” the captain said, arms akimbo in defiance, “but what I think don’t matter anyways, because Ardenai Firstlord isn’t here. Not him, not his Declivian friend. I do tell you this much for sure. If I’da seen him, I’da helped him. If I do see him, I will help him, and it would behoove you fellas to do likewise. The Dragonhorse IS the government, and he can have your scrawny asses shoved out the nearest airlock.”
The man in the SGA Adjutant’s uniform was not impressed. He asked to see the man who had needed assistance. Doctor Keats showed him to a cabin where the cook lay, recovering from an emergency appendectomy. Then SGA Security searched the ship. Thoroughly. They found nothing. Nobody. No clue that there ever had been any extraneous personnel.
“And yet you left Demeter with two men who had booked passage to SeGAS-7. Where are they?” the adjutant asked.
“They booked passage,” Josephus shrugged. “They got on. They got back off.”
“Why did they get off?”
“Because their wives came and got ’em off,” Josephus grinned. “Anyways,” he said, and his smile faded, “I got a ship to unload and move down the line so the next ship can unload. I don’t like having you here, and I don’t like what you’re doing. Ardenai Firstlord, would never have killed Io, no matter what she did. He loves her deeply. I love him. He’s my friend, and my mentor, and I want your officious, sonofabitch butt off my ship.”
“You, are hardly in a position to dictate,” the man sniffed, tightening his long upper lip in disdain. “And you, Doctor Keats. You know Ardenai Firstlord. Are you his friend, too?”
“Mister,” the doctor drawled, edging away from Josephus, who was bristling dangerously, “if you’re looking for someone who loves that Equi, don’t look at me. Ardenai is most definitely not my friend. He is, however, a man of duty, and of honor, and of the law.”
“Meaning,” Keats growled belligerently, “I don’t like what you’re doing, either. I have a man in there I’d like to get to the base hospital, if you’re quite through snooping around here.”
“I will be through, when Ardenai Firstlord is in custody. Not before. It will be simple enough to discern if you are lying. Either of you. Any of you. And if you are, you will be punished,” He caught the gleam in Josephus’s eye, turned on his heel, and exited only slightly faster than was graceful.
“Do you believe that?” Josephus said angrily. “Who does he think he is, barging on here, accusing …” he paused, and looked puzzled. “I wonder … where Ardenai is really.”
“No idea, hm?” Keats asked casually, and the troubled gaze turned his direction.
“Funny you should ask that, Doctor. I really feel … like I should know. Well, anyways, I meant what I told that pompous so and so. Here, I’ll help you with Walter.”
“No need. I’ll send somebody back for him,” Keats said, accepted the captain’s thanks, and walked down the main concourse shaking his head. He reached his cabin on Belesprit, activated the door and stepped into the dim interior. A chair swiveled slowly on its base, and Ardenai was looking at him, inscrutable and slightly amused.
Well, he passed that test, the Firstlord was thinking, but he said, “I was beginning to be concerned.”
“Don’t lie to me!” Keats exploded. “The way you manipulate people? You’re concerned about any of them – of us? I doubt that. Captain Josephus truly, honestly, does not know you were ever on his ship. You vacuumed out his mind. You just … sucked out what you didn’t want in there. You’re a damned dangerous man! Far more than even I was willing to admit. You brain-washed a whole crew, you blue blooded bastard!” Keats was not a brave man, and to his credit he knew this. He glared at the Equi, fascinated and afraid. “What will you do to me afterwards, wipe my mind clean like you did the captain’s?”
“You could have told him I was there. You could have told the adjutant,” Ardenai said by way of reply. “It would have been a simple enough matter, would it not?”
Keats growled under his breath for a moment or two, searching for words among the anger. “I … your son is my friend,” he said finally. “I did it for him, not you. And I feel sorry for that boy you have prisoner. My God, you … you made me change his eye color! He had beautiful eyes.”
“He will again, Doctor. Rest easy. You have such a penchant for dramatics. As one wipes fingerprints from a glass, so I wiped my immediate presence from Josephus’s memory. The glass remains intact. My presence, and Gideon’s, is all that is missing. He is thereby protected, and repaid for his kindness. He’ll realize soon enough that I was there.”
“So now you’re God. You decide who should and should not be a hero. Who can and cannot do what he thinks is right. We’re all pawns to be used in your power games.”
Ardenai winced, but he didn’t answer. He just turned his chair away from Hadrian Keats and faced the empty chair beside the desk. Keats came over, sat in the chair, and modulated his tone. “Ardenai, you made me perform surgery on someone who didn’t need it, just so you …”
“Stop it!” the Equi snapped. “I did not do anything of the kind. Modifying Gideon’s eye color was strictly cosmetic and temporary. Precious Equus, look at what Pythos did to me! As to that man’s appendix, was it not inflamed?”
“Yes. I assumed you caused it. I mean, hell, you can cause anything else! You take that ancient old computator on an ancient old vessel, you mess around with it for half a day and suddenly it’s talking on intimate terms with … some computator someplace else, probably in this very office, and then, at the appointed time in the appointed place, you’re just … gone. You and Gideon, both.”
“And you’re acting as though I told you nothing about it,” Ardenai replied. “Are you really so dense that you can’t remember what was discussed? I explained to you exactly what would take place, and you agreed to it. You are equating the manipulation of machines with the manipulation of living beings, Doctor. The cook’s appendix was beginning to infect his system, and it showed in his eyes. I simply pointed it out. I had no idea I was frightening you to the point where you would cease to reason for yourself. I shall beg your forgiveness, and take my leave, in that case.”
“Still sick, so weak you wobble …. You really do have a death wish since your wife died.” His eyes and body language repented instantly, but the words were out, and because he was afraid, and the fear made him angry, he refused to take them back. The Equi didn’t turn a hair.
“I’ll go wake Gideon,” Ardenai said, “and get out of your … mind.”
“You’re not going to touch me or my mind!” the doctor yelped. “But if you had a shred of decency you’d get yourself out of his, before you get him killed. Go, but leave him here.”
“Would that I could, Doctor. As it is, I cannot. I will not risk it. Even if I could safely erase that much of his memory without touching the deeper parts of his mind, I cannot erase Gideon from the memory of everyone else who has seen him with me. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not the consummate monster, after all. Please excuse me.” He rose and walked toward the rear of Keats’s cabin, and Gideon stepped forward to meet him.
“I am here,” he said simply, and handed Ardenai one of the backpacks. “Doctor Keats, thank you for your hospitality, and for helping us. I’m sorry we frightened you.”
“You think that’s it?” Keats retorted, getting out of the chair. “You think that’s why I object to helping you?”
“It seems pretty obvious to me,” Gideon muttered, and Ardenai cut him off with the lifting of one eyebrow.
“Doctor Keats is a man who takes risks, even though it is uncomfortable for him to do so. That takes courage. He is someone my son considers a friend, and I trust my son’s judgment. Remember what was said between Josephus and me earlier. Never involve the innocent. Allow them to involve themselves.”
“That’s right,” the doctor growled, “Go ahead. Manipulate me some more. I dare you!”
“It would never occur to me,” Ardenai said smoothly, and Keats backed away from him.
“Don’t touch me!” he warned sharply.
“No, of course not,” the Equi smiled. He parked one muscular hip on the edge of the desk and allowed the knapsack to slide temporarily to the floor, then fixed Keats with a long, quiet gaze. “It has been a beautiful day, has it not?”
“It certainly has,” the doctor smiled.
“You have been busy, have you not?”
“I have,” Keats said.
“A nap sounds good about now, does it not?” Ardenai said quietly.
“Yes, it does,” The doctor sighed, and collapsed obligingly into Ardenai’s waiting arms. The Firstlord scooped him up and carried him over to the bed, while Gideon stood there watching, trying to figure out what Ardenai was doing.
The Equi saw it in his eyes. “This is not what you are thinking … or maybe it is,” he chuckled. He eased the doctor down on the pillows, put the book he’d been reading on his chest, activated it at the bookmark, and stepped back. “If I had reached for him, I’d have scared him to death.”
“He still seems … unconscious,” Gideon observed.
“He told me not to touch him,” the Equi pointed out, “but he invited me to manipulate him. I chose to take him at his word.” There was a pause and a self-deprecating snort. “And … yes … I recognize sarcasm when I hear it, so don’t bother asking.” He stepped forward again, lifted the doctor’s upper body, and sat down with Keats’s head in his lap. “I do not wish to compromise his better judgment, but neither do I want him compromising mine. I cannot consider the wishes of one man when a whole world rides on what he might say to others.”
Gideon sat down at the foot of the bed and looked at the peacefully snoring doctor, then up into the Firstlord’s dark eyes. “I can see that you didn’t hurt him,” he said tentatively, “but … he told you not to touch him, and you know that, and you did it anyway. Isn’t that kind of …” the boy groped for an appropriate word, “violating someone? And not just kind of, but actually, because you are so much stronger than he is ….”
Ardenai made a slightly frustrated gesture to wave the comment away and smiled to soothe the boy. “Sometimes the ends really do justify the means, Gideon. Sometimes, when you are the one with the power, you have to use it as best you can according to what your own good judgment tells you. As you say, and as you can see, the man is not hurt, nor will he be.”
Gideon nodded, though he still looked unsure. “So, if you are choosing this man’s course at this point, since you, as you say, have the power, could you … put it into the doctor’s head to cooperate with you?”
“Then why don’t you?” he exclaimed, suddenly angry. “Grayson, you are doing the right thing! He knows the story that Io told Kehailan. Kehailan believes it. Captain Eletsky believes it, or they wouldn’t be out there.” He waved vaguely toward the ceiling. “Hadrian Keats should believe it too, if he’s loyal to the Seventh Galactic Alliance. He’s just a coward. He’s an ill-tempered old Corvus eagle.”
Ardenai’s aquiline profile became embarrassingly apparent as he turned away, and Gideon heard him snicker. “There are a lot of us ill-tempered old birds out there,” he said, still in profile, and looking toward the door. “It comes from standing by our convictions. I absolutely will not probe his mind to find where his opinions lie. That would be both unnecessary and unethical. To change his opinion … that would be … punishment for a crime he has not committed. I will darken my most recent passage through Hadrian’s mind for one reason only, to protect Josephus and the others. Keats is not one to think far enough ahead to realize that Sarkhan will compare their stories. So will the Seventh Galactic Alliance, though I don’t believe the so-called investigation is actually theirs. And Keats would be pathetically easy to break or trip up. He would blurt everything out, and the least prestigious person, probably Josephus, would be dishonored and possibly hurt. I cannot have that. This will just take a moment.” He closed his eyes, and sat silently for ten seconds or so, absently stroking the doctor’s hair. “There,” he said, and stood up. He replaced the book he’d disturbed, picked up his traveling pack, and gestured toward the door. “Gideon, are you ready?”
“Sure,” he replied, still deep in thought, “I just… I really think that when someone says not to touch them – their minds or their bodies or whatever, that you should honor that, regardless of the consequences. Just because you’re using your mind and not your …” he squelched the next word, but his open thought took Ardenai’s breath away.
He stared with disbelief at the boy. “Precious, Equus,” he managed. “You think I raped him, don’t you?”
Gideon winced. “I’m not sure what I think,” he said at last.
The eyes that searched his face were wounded. “I am suddenly responsible for keeping billions of people safe, Gideon. Do you think figuring out how to do that is easy? Right from wrong? Good, from greater good, evil from the lesser of evils? I am erasing a conversation, an experience … nothing more than what a person would forget anyway over the course of weeks or seasons. I am not assailing who he is, what he believes, what he needs in order to be himself. I’m making him forget something, like I could make you lose count if I interrupted you in the midst of the problem. That’s all. I promise. I swear to you.”
Their eyes met, lingered, and Gideon looked away. “I still want to know which way we’re walking,” he said.
“Think about it, and we will talk later,” Ardenai sighed. The boy was disappointed in him, and he felt that weight add itself to his shoulders. “In the third docking ring, just off the main concourse there is a prototype Imperial Storm Class clipper, built by the Great Shipyards on Andal to honor the Rising of The Thirteenth Dragonhorse. I thought perhaps you would like to go for a spin with me. Delta TimeWhip technology, latest thing.”
Gideon looked from the small, sleeping doctor to the big, grave-faced Equi and back again. “You choose to invade his mind despite him asking you not to, but even though you’re already in there you won’t cause him to help us so we can maybe make some legitimate progress, and now we’re stealing a prototype TimeWhip clipper. I truly am struggling with this.”
“So am I, Gideon,” Ardenai said, gave the boy a slap on the back, and they slipped out into the dimly lit corridors of the slumbering Belesprit.
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.