On the last morning he awoke as Ah’rane Ardenai Krush, the covers felt good, and he snugged them over one shoulder before checking the motion of his hand to his wife’s side of the bed. She wasn’t there. He sighed and forced his thoughts with practiced determination on to other subjects. No need to run lesson plans through his head. Today was a school holiday, and he had a meeting of the Educational Council in Thura. He’d thought about not going, but High Priestess Ah’krill had called the meeting, and one did not refuse such a summons, even if it was one’s birthing day. He opened his eyes and glanced at the empty pillow beside him before moving his gaze to the huge Equi pines outside the casements of Canyon keep. They were perfectly still. The day would warm. Another birthing day without Ah’ree. Didn’t seem possible.
Maybe there were new foals on the ground this morning. New life. His sire would already be out checking on the mares. His sister would be in the garden, pushing aside the straw which shielded the rows of perennial alcibus to find the earliest spring greens. She always said that picking them first thing in the morning made them the most nutritious and tender. Maybe she’d made flatwraps this morning. She usually did. Warm flatwraps stuffed with creamed sheep cheese, fruit, nuts, honey … sprinkled with cinnamon. That thought got him on his feet and into the lavage.
The fragrance of flatwraps reached his nostrils before he’d even left his wing of the ancient house. He trotted across the main hub and into the wing which housed the enormous family kitchen, swinging his arms in circles and rotating his shoulders to loosen up.
To his surprise Krush was still at the table, eyes veiled slightly against the steam rising from the mug he was holding. Ardenai kissed the top of his father’s head and landed in his usual chair. “It’s late, and you’re still here. No new foals this morning? Where’s Mother?”
“It is not my turn to watch your mother, and I’m not still here, I’m back here,” his father grinned. “I wanted to catch you before you left for the city so I could wish you a proper blessing on your one hundredth birthing day. Are we still on for a sail?”
“We are, absolutely!” Ardenai nodded, reaching for one of the earthenware mugs in the center of the table. “Just you and me?”
“Teal is coming. So is Criollo. We could take two smaller boats and race if you’d like. Breeze is supposed to be up at Falconstones this afternoon.”
“A perfect day,” Ardenai smiled. “I can’t wait.”
The smile pleased his father. Ardenai hadn’t smiled enough the last couple of years – not the deep, truly happy smiles he’d flashed before Ah’ree’s death. Maybe he was finally rounding the corner – ready to get on with his life. Another thought crossed his mind, hidden deep, half-forgotten until today, and Krush forced it aside, reaching instead for the pot next to the cups and pushing it in Ardenai’s direction.
Ardenai was pouring himself a cup of sweet, spicy tea when his mother appeared from the baker’s pantry. She smiled, opened one of the warming ovens and removed a steaming plate, which she placed with some ceremony in front of her son. “The first gift of the day is always the best,” she laughed.
“My favorite breakfast!” he exclaimed. “Thank you. But … you didn’t have to do that. I’m a fully mature man as of today, you know. I can find my own breakfast.”
Ah’rane gave him a squeeze and perched beside him on the corner of the table. “I have watched you find your own breakfast, Ardenai Teacher. You find your sister’s flatwraps, a jar of honey and the cinnamon shaker. This way you’ll last a little longer in that meeting.”
“Yes, you can indulge yourself in an extra argument with Priestess Ah’ti,” his father intoned, and then laughed at the look on Ardenai’s mobile face.
Ah’rane folded her hands in her lap and grew more serious. “Ardi, it’s your birthing day. Do you really have to go?”
He nodded and his mouth twisted just a bit to the side in that manner he had. “I do,” he said, “but Ah’krill has promised it won’t last long.”
Krush snorted. “Really? The Education Council is the longest-winded bunch on the planet.” He rose, kissed his wife’s hair and turned again to his son. “We will meet you at the boat.”
“I will be there,” Ardenai promised.
Ah’rane watched his husband’s retreating back and spoke without looking at Ardenai. “I want you to be careful today,” she said. “If I give you a list, will you pick up some things for me in Thura?”
“Of course,” Ardenai replied, reading the worry in her eyes. “Is … everything all right?”
“Everything is fine,” she said, and smiled. “Your father and I were just having one of our little discussions. You finish your breakfast. I’ll get that list ready and leave it here on the table for you.”
The brilliant whites and new green of late winter on planet Equus had shaded to the pinks and greys of evening on the ship’s main monitor, and the captain of the Seventh Galactic Alliance Ship Belesprit was still leaning forward in rapt attention, hands on his knees, studying his Tactical Wing Commander. “It’s true then? This man, this Firstlord, this Dragonhorse, actually goes from being an ordinary citizen one day, to the absolute ruler of Equus and her affined worlds the next? With no warning whatsoever? Not so much as a tingle of foreknowledge? Kehailan, that’s … how can he do that?”
The young man to whom he was speaking dipped his head in assent, dark brown eyes twinkling with amusement. “Well, he has to know he’s turning a hundred this year, other than that, he’s just an average, everyday member of the Great House of Equus, Marion. At least he was until yesterday.”
Science Chief Winslow Moonsgold jerked his jutting, parallel chins the direction of the main screen which had changed from flowing scenes of the vast agrarian planet below, to the outline of an approaching ship – not large, but graceful. “More Taraxians,” he groused, annoyance registering in the shape of his foxy gold Declivian eyes.
Marion Eletsky looked over his corrective lenses at the screen and sighed. Lovely people, Taraxians, but they talked one’s ear off. “Solafar is their flagship, and here she is,” he said. “Amazing. And all the affined worlds represented, too. Everybody is arriving so quickly. Ah’krill must have put out a summons well before the Dragonhorse was announced.”
“Quite the show of fealty,” Moonsgold grinned, and turned back to Kehailan. “A ship from every member of the Affined Equi Worlds, every sector of the Seventh Galactic Alliance, representatives from the United Galactic Alliance. A proud day for the Great House of Equus, wouldn’t you say, Wing Commander?”
“An amazing day,” Kehailan said softly. “No one living has ever seen this ceremony, and it will not be seen again for seven hundred years. Much as I think it’s outdated and unnecessary, it is the stuff of legend.”
“We’re being hailed by the Taraxian flagship,” said Oonah Pongo, and Eletsky, mumbling under his breath, pushed his chair scooter-fashion to face the main viewer.
“Greetings, Captain, glad you could make it for the festivities,” he said.
Kehailan bit back the snide comment he felt welling up, something about how ridiculous it was to use a term like festivities for such an occasion as this, such a sacred occasion. Not that he thought Equus needed another Dragonhorse, he didn’t. His father didn’t, either. But … it was tradition, and … for some odd reason nobody even understood anymore, it did work. And why he was having to explain every intimate detail to a bunch of curious people … who were his friends, he reminded himself … was both a mystery and an annoyance. Did nobody aboard this ship ever pick up a history book? For a moment he thoroughly resented being here with a half-dozen alien races when he should be with other Equi – just this once.
He nodded from time to time, trying to look at the furry little Taraxian face with its beady eyes and its squeaky, lightning fast vocalizations, but his thoughts were on the scenes of his home world, swirling behind the Taraxian captain’s head. Who would rise to be Firstlord of Equus? He could just imagine his sire, gathered with his class of five and six-year-olds around the viewing screen, recounting the history and legends of the Dragonhorse, telling them all the same things he was telling his crew mates, except that if he were with his father he could relax, and there would be honey cakes and hot challa, and warm, fleecy blankets to wrap up in – and tickling, and giggling. Times like that he actually enjoyed children, though why his father had chosen to teach – and the tiniest ones at that – eluded him. He flicked his dark eyes at his timepiece. Nearly the hour of announcement.
Doctor Hadrian Keats turned a cool, slightly hostile gaze in Kehailan’s direction. “Every ship in the Seventh Galactic Alliance is here, slavering to pledge allegiance to this guy, why in hell do they need us? They dragged us here because of you, didn’t they, Prince Kehailan?” He heaved a sigh and looked studiously bored. “This is taking forever. Most interesting thing so far has been that little Taraxian. I swear to God, my mother used to trap those things in our basement. They got into everything. And what’s with that … thingy they keep flashing at us?” He flipped a languid hand at the huge seal, and swung idly back and forth in his chair, his face an open challenge.
“Thingy?” Kehailan growled, pushing his tongue hard against the back of his front teeth. He caught Marion’s cautionary if sympathetic glance and subsided.
“I can tell you that!” exclaimed the little boy standing in front of the navigational array next to Amir Cohen. “Evewybody knowth that! We’ve justht been lewning about it. Can I tell you? Pleathe?”
“We would love it if you told us,” Eletsky replied. “Thank you for offering, Yussef.”
Keats writhed and grimaced with distaste, but the little boy was already in full animation.
“Ith the Gweat Theal of the Dwagonhothe!” Yussef exclaimed, and began to recite, his excited eyes moving left to right across the remembered page. “Look at the theven …” he paused momentarily and prepared his tongue, “thev…wons, Docto Keath. They awe sthacked to wepwee…sent … how the Equi depend upon one anothew. They sthand fo thingth the Equi hold preth … preth … I can’t thay it ….
“Precious,” his father whispered.
“Thankth. Thath a tongue-twithto, idn’t it?”
By now Keats was smoldering with annoyance and Captain Eletsky could hardly contain his laughter. Only his fear of embarrassing little Yussef kept him from a guffaw at the doctor’s expense. “It is,” he grinned, and gestured for the child to continue.
Yussef collected his thoughts and drew himself up a little. This was important stuff. He was reciting for adults who needed to know these things. “Thith anth … anth …ee …ent …”
“Ancient,” his father whispered.
“Yeth. That word … thtands with only thix thilvo thevwons until a Dwagonhothe witheth, when a theventh thevwon, beawing the image of the thcales of juth … tuth …, ith added at the top. The wownd thape wepwethenth the thield of pwotecthion he pwovidth, the puple backgwound the abtholute powew of the Dwagonhothe …” Yussef stopped as a thought crossed his mind and widened his eyes. “He’th not weally going to be a dwagon, ith he? Not wike in the wegends, with a pwetty hothe body and dwagon’s teeth and cwaws … ith he?”
“No,” Amir chuckled. “He won’t be a horse or a dragon. He’ll be an Equi, like Commander Kehailan, or Orlov Teacher. Dragonhorse is just his title, like Emperor, or Pasha.”
“Or Prince,” Keats muttered.
Kehailan grinned and winked at the little boy. “You did a very good job,” he whispered.
Eletsky mimicked the doctor’s gesture toward the seal. “The thingy’s the seal of the Great House of Equus, Hadrian, and the Thirteenth Dragonhorse is about to rise!” He reached over and whacked Kehailan’s forearm with his palm, and the commander jumped a little despite himself. “Come on, on with the story! Tell us about succession,’” Eletsky prompted, tugging the collar of his jacket open and settling back into a feline slouch which suited his agile frame.
He always reminded the Wing Commander of a little black lithoped, stretching on the hearth, and Kehailan crimped a grin, flashing Eletsky a pair of charming dimples. “Ah … yes,” the Equi nodded, mustering his sobriety and recouping his thoughts. “Equi succession is linear. For thirteen generations the priestesses and the Great Council rule Equus. In the fourteenth generation a male ascends to power. His power is not religious in nature, but secular. He answers to no one. He is Firstlord. His power is absolute over Equus and her ten tribute worlds, which are …”
“Hell, Kee, we all know what they are. Don’t ramble. We may get interrupted again. Go, go!” Eletsky urged, flipping his hands to hurry Kehailan up a little.
“Sounds dangerous, one man with that kind of power,” Moonsgold interjected, and First Officer Bonfire Dannis jabbed him with one of her long Phyllan claws.
“Winnie, don’t sidetrack the man,” she cautioned, her bright pink tongue protruding ever so slightly from between her fangs. “Go on, Kee. When do we get to the sex part? I’ve heard all the stories. I know there’s sex today. Oh, sorry. Is Yussef out of earshot?”
His father nodded and smiled. “He decided to go watch with his class. Less distraction.”
“There really isn’t that much sex to it, I’m sorry to say,” Kehailan said, wishing he’d gone with Yussef. “I mean … at least for you I’m sorry … if you wanted to hear about sex,” he hastened to add, but not before several of the bridge crew had snickered and again brought up some color in his light olive skin. Bonfire’s appetites were legend aboard ship. It was also common knowledge that the commander occasionally … fed her when she hungered. He took a deep breath and plowed on. “The daughter which the Firstlord sires this day will rise to take her granddam’s place as High Priestess, so the female line is never broken.”
“How is it done, assuring children of a certain sex,” Keats asked.
The Wing Commander schooled his expression. It was a very personal question, but it had been … might have been … sincerely asked, and Doctor Keats was not often interested in things Equi. “The Equi male has the capability of passing on the sex of his choosing.”
“How?” Bonfire Dannis breathed, sealing Kehailan’s discomfiture.
“Yeah, how?” the ever-curious Moonsgold echoed.
“By ejaculating only female, or male sperm,” Kehailan shrugged. “How else? Do you people not read?”
There was a long, long moment of deep and introspective silence while people’s eyes moved through that visualization, and it occurred to Kehailan that maybe he should have started this particular history lesson a little sooner. Given them all a primer is what he should have done. He sighed. Too late now. How could they not know these things? Everybody knew these things. The annoyance he was beginning to feel, bit a little deeper.
“Now I’m really confused,” said Eletsky. “You said that Equi leaders don’t know who they are until they’re called upon to lead, that this Firstlord didn’t know yesterday when he had breakfast that he’d be the ruler of a planet today, so how can this be linear?”
“And how can you be sure the bloodline is being kept pure, and being passed?” asked Keats. “This all sounds rather suspect to me – either Eugenics or fabrication – not sure which I like less.”
“We breed the finest horses in the galaxy,” Kehailan responded, plastering his smile back in place. “It is no different. There are those whose life’s work it is to know who is to be mated to whom within the Great House and beyond. It is both a duty and an honor to be mated in such a manner.” The comment and its casualness raised a warning flag few of the bridge crew missed.
Oona Pongo leaned forward slightly in her chair. “What if they don’t want to marry that person?” she asked.
Only Kehailan, who was thoroughly distracted, missed the coolness in her voice.
“It is not a marriage, it is a breeding to produce an offspring,” he reiterated patiently. “Just like breeding horses. Mares go on to other mates and other offspring. So do the women who are chosen. And one of the primary duties of the Firstlord is to sire children. It is traditional, and accepted in our culture.”
“Where does one get in line for that job?” Moonsgold sighed, but Oonah looked unhappy and the man was immediately repentant. Her sweet face and lilting accent hid a heart of steel on the subjects of equity and justice, and he, like the others, lived in dread of Oonah’s famous, Up from Slavery lecture. “I was just being silly. Really.” He rolled one eye in Oonah’s direction and she gave him a curt nod. The lecture would not be forthcoming.
Red-headed, bright-eyed Timothy McGill hastened to fill the silence. “So this man is Ah’krill’s son. But she did not raise him?”
“No. He was fostered from the day he was born.”
“I’ll bet she’s excited to see him. How old is he, anyway?” “Within days one way or the other of being a hundred – just entering full prime of life,” Kehailan smiled.
Oona’s icy stare brought silence. “Don’t bother trying to change the subject, Tim. I’m still upset about the controlled breeding, and about this poor man ripped from the only life he’s ever known, and now he’s having to mate with someone he doesn’t even know or care about? It sounds sad, and contrived, and … forced.”
To the communal consternation of the bridge crew, Kehailan nodded his agreement. “From our perspective it is, Oonah. But this is a thing of deepest and most sacred tradition. This ruler we will see today, this Firstlord …” again his eyes flicked to his timepiece and then to the screen “… has been bred from the finest seed of his line and the strongest genes in our world, to be the prototype of the Equi male. Above all else, it is our prayer that he love justice and mercy, because not all of them have. Physically he will be artistic, articulate, physically powerful, strongly telepathic, and as flawlessly brilliant as any cleomitite. The golden armbands which mark him as the Thirteenth Dragonhorse have been poured in place, and he has now passed his line to a woman he does not know, to a daughter he will not see for fifty years … for the ultimate good of Equus.”
“That really is sad,” Oonah Pongo said again.
There was a thoughtful shrug from Moonsgold. “It’s not entirely sad,” he said. “Think of it this way. Today, a lady who has waited a very long time … a hundred years … an entire lifetime for a Declivian like me, or a Terren like you, will greet her son. It will be interesting to see if they do know one another. Perhaps they go to the same clothier, or the same market. It’s a fascinating prospect.”
Captain Eletsky was scowling, blue eyes shifting slightly from side to side as he reviewed what had just been said. After a few moments of soundlessly moving his jaws he screwed up his face and managed, “Did you say, Poured on? As in molten metal? I assumed they were really just bracelets, and the rest of it was a gruesome legend.”
“I don’t think so,” Kehailan muttered. “In either case we’re about to find out.”
Eletsky cringed a little in spite of himself, then sat up and gestured at the tray arriving from the galley. “The wine coming around is a cleomitite medal vintage from the vineyards of River keep,” he said. “Kehailan’s father gave it to me a month or two ago, and I thought I’d open it in honor of today’s celebration. Actually, I won it off him in a poker game, and right now I need some. Please, Kee, go on with what you were saying.”
Kehailan nodded, lifting a glass of his uncle’s excellent Viridian wine from the tray being passed his direction and wondering momentarily what his uncle was doing. Surely the Master of Horse for the Great House of Equus had important duties on such a day as this. “Thank you. Our history tells us a mold is placed on the biceps, and the molten metal is poured into place, so they are seamless. They cannot be removed without cutting his arms off. A very permanent way of marking the Firstlord.”
“Eww,” Eletsky breathed, shaking his head. “That’s gotta hurt like hell.”
“Think about it,” Kehailan insisted. “Though males rule only once in every seven hundred years, they do rule with absolute power and for life. They’re the ones who have faced usurpers and assassins, and, if my sire is correct, will again. The Dragonhorse has to be strong, and that arm banding is a very good first test.” He sat back and sipped his wine, looking slightly irked.
“Well, big change,” Eletsky said, a bit too heartily. His wing commander might be getting tired of all this outworlder scrutiny, well intentioned though it was, and his quick temper and brooding silences were every bit as famous as his talent and good looks. “Exciting change. The ascension of an Equi male to rule the Great House of Equus. I can hardly wait for the ceremony.”
“This whole Rising Ceremony, immediately follows the arm-banding and the…um … the rest of it?” Timothy McGill asked.
“As far as I know,” the Equi nodded.
The screen brightened and everybody tensed up. The scenes of Equus were replaced by the spiral, symbol of the twelve United Galactic Alliances, then the Corvus eagle, fir tree and sea of the Seventh Galactic Alliance, and last, the Great Seal of the House of Equus, bearing seven silver chevrons. “The child has been conceived,” Kehailan whispered. “The Thirteenth Dragonhorse has risen.” He set his wine glass aside and rubbed at his arms, his heart thumping a little harder in his chest.
A vast, alabaster hall, elegantly carved from the living stone of the planet came into focus. It was quiet. There was no music, no one waving his hat and yelling, “Long live the king!” Four squads of Horse Guard, arrayed in two single columns against the walls, stood utterly still, dwarfed by the enormity of the chamber. No guardsman moved. No horse so much as twitched his head or shifted a foot to cause the war bells on its hocks to sound. Almost, it could have been an elaborate and colorful painting. It held as such for perhaps a minute, then the very mountain into which the hall was carved seemed to shake with the sudden thunder of the great Equi drums. Even Kehailan, who had been expecting their deafening salvo, jumped noticeably and took a deep, steadying breath. As suddenly as they had begun, they stopped. Again, the silence was overwhelming.
The man who walked forward, viewed from behind and above, seemed everything Kehailan said he should be – tall, powerfully built, with broad, sloping shoulders, long legs and a slim waist. His black hair was swept up in a three strand over-braid, tucked under itself at the base of his skull and held with an ornate clasp in the fashion of most Equi males. There was a slim circlet caught by the braid, but if it was ornamented they couldn’t see it. He was dressed simply in the high black riding boots, black riding britches and sleeveless, silver-green tunic of the Equi Horse Guard. Two inches of freshly poured alloy glittered on each of his blackened and blistered biceps. If the man was in pain, or weary, it didn’t show in his stride or the swing of his arms, and the ring of his boot heels on the stone brought goose bumps as surely as martial music could have. Impressive. Very impressive.
Captain Eletsky watched in awe as the Firstlord traversed the great distance to the dais where Ah’krill stood waiting with her priestesses and acolytes around her. This was … absolutely amazing! He was watching galactic history in the making. He was here for this! It was very literally the thrill of a lifetime for him. Despite his fascination, he couldn’t resist sneaking a look at Kehailan.
A split second later he was sitting on his heels in front of him, the ceremony forgotten. “Kee?” Eletsky said firmly, his hands closing over the Equi’s forearms, “Kehailan, what’s wrong? Look at me, my friend!”
“No… You … look at him,” the Equi managed, face registering nothing yet but shock. “Look at the way he carries himself.”
“Marion, look at him!” Kehailan snarled and Eletsky reared back in alarm, swiveling on his haunches to focus on the screen.
The body didn’t tell him much. Tall, even for an Equi. The voice, speaking now in Ancient High Equi, was soft and deep … idling with tremendous power … and … familiar. Very familiar. The charged atmosphere made it hard to focus on anything. Too many telepaths reacting at once. “I … don’t …” and then, it hit him – that voice, registered! Any male, any male, could rise to be Firstlord. “Oh . . . My…God! Oh my God, Kehailan – is that who I think it is? Is that Ardenai?”
Kehailan nodded and swallowed in a half-choke. “I’d stake my life on it,” he whispered.
Marion felt his black skin blanch to cream. “Oh my God! It can’t be!”
“I … think it can. I have watched that man move my whole life, and that hair clasp … was a wedding gift from my mother. Precious Equus,” he whispered to his trembling hands, “My father is the Thirteenth Dragonhorse.” Despite the insane weightlessness of the situation, he burst out laughing.
Bonfire Dannis was quick to sit beside him and drop an arm around his shoulders. “The justice and mercy you were praying for has just arrived,” she said softly giving him a hug. The shaking subsided a little. He drew a steady breath, and looked back at the screen.
Timothy McGill was instantly concerned. “If that’s Ardenai, and I’m pretty sure it is, we ought to think about getting out of here. You’re not safe.”
“Tim,” Kehailan said quietly, “If my sire is now the ruler of the Affined Equi Worlds and someone wants him dead, or me dead, there is no place far enough away to run. We might as well enjoy the ceremony.”
As if hearing his name spoken, the man’s head tilted slightly and turned, just for a moment, and a smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. He paused and turned back, bowing his head so High Priestess Ah’krill could place a heavy gold collar around his neck. He straightened up, bowed stiffly, deeply, and turned to the woman at his mother’s left hand, who proceeded to do something which was partially obscured by the person assisting her.
Now, in profile, it was obviously Ardenai, and Oonah Pongo laughed and clapped with delight. “What a wonderful leader he will be! I like your father so very much!”
“Thank you,” Kehailan said softly, biting his upper lip. “I like him, too.”
“Pardon me for bringing up the obvious here, but isn’t your father a …” Keats paused for emphasis, “… kindergarten teacher?” The disbelief in the voice was unmistakable. “How can he possibly be capable of much beyond … I don’t mean to be rude, but … wiping noses and chanting the alphabet?”
“Doctor, I, too, will restate the obvious,” Kehailan sighed. “Any Equi male can rise to be Firstlord. The career he has chosen is of absolutely no consequence. He rises based on his bloodlines.”
“Ardenai is also one of the finest Quantum Psi Engineers Equus ever produced,” Eletsky snapped. “He designed the computators for this ship and…”
Moonsgold waggled a long, bony finger in their direction. “Hush. Please, everybody. Sorry, but I traveled a goodly distance for this, and I don’t want to miss it. We can be pissed off at each other at our leisure, can’t we? This is fascinating. Damn, now see, we missed part of it. What did that woman just do? A ring, I think. Did she give him a ring? No. Equi men don’t wear rings. A bracelet? A set of bracelets the same width as the armbands. El’Shadai, his poor arms look just … I’m surprised he hasn’t fainted from the pain.”
Ardenai bowed formally to a smaller, younger woman with a mass of red roan curls and long, delicate ears sticking up through her hair like the wings of a butterfly. She strapped a pair of heavy leather sheaths to his forearms, and into them she slipped two knives with handles that appeared to be bone, or antler, secured them in place, then took both of his hands in hers and kissed the back of each one.
He took her hands in his, turned them palms up, and kissed each one, then pressed them together between his own, bowed over them, and stepped back They regarded one another a few moments, and even at a distance it was obvious that her exceptionally large blue eyes were twinkling up at him. She said something, and Ardenai’s mouth twitched up at the corners, flashing a pair of charming and, in the moment, incongruous dimples which matched his son’s.
“Isn’t that part of the Equi marriage ceremony?” Moonsgold asked, eyes still on the screen.
“Same idea. We don’t usually exchange throwing knives at weddings though,” Kehailan muttered, trying to focus on the screen, trying to get his breath back, trying to comprehend what was happening to him and his whole existence. “Especially not throwing knives thousands of years old. They’re pledging together to protect Equus and her people.” Bonfire Dannis asked who the unusually pretty girl might be, and Kehailan’s expression soured. “Ah’riodin is Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus, and the one personally responsible for the ruler’s safety. Until today, she was responsible for Ah’krill. Now, she is responsible for Ardenai. It will be very interesting to see how that shakes out.” He bit at the corner of his bottom lip and lapsed into a brooding silence.
“Well, that woman reinforces my long-held opinion that stature isn’t everything,” the captain said cheerfully, patting his own short legs. “And did we just see her crack a joke during a state occasion? I think she did, because I think your sire very nearly laughed out loud.” There was no answer. “Kehailan?”
The wing commander sighed and nodded. “She would do that,” he muttered. “My parents raised Io, which will make this all the more interesting. If she is teasing him, it is probably to remind him of my mother. She would tease him too, sometimes …”
“She teased him a lot, and I wish she were here to see this,” Eletsky said, knowing Kehailan was too stiff-necked to say it himself. “I know Ardenai still grieves desperately for her.”
“So, we have a little lady in one of the power seats, do we?” Keats drawled, filling the quick, painful silence. “A little lady you obviously don’t like. And from the looks of those ears, she’s not anywhere near full-blooded. I thought the low Equi had to go off-world to excel. You know, like you did.”
“There are no low Equi,” Kehailan said softly. He bit his lip saying nothing more.
Eletsky caught Keats’ attention and made a subtle but quelling gesture, choosing not to say anything aloud to further rattle Kehailan. For a doctor he had a shitty way of treating an obvious case of shock. So he didn’t seem to like Kehailan a lot of the time; was it necessary to embarrass him? Why hadn’t he found the ship of his dreams before they’d transferred off the old Blyth Spirit? Now, as Chief Physician of the Seventh’s new flagship for Science Division, they’d never be rid of the bastard without months of paperwork and hearings.
Kehailan gave Eletsky the briefest of smiles, and the Captain realized he’d been telegraphing his annoyance into the sensitive receptors of his third in command. The Equi lowered one eyelid slightly, chuckled and said, “We will talk later. We may also drink. A lot. See, now he turns forward. Now he will address all of us. This will probably a very long, traditional speech.”
“All praise to El’Shadai,” Moonsgold drawled. “I’m completely lost. I can’t believe you people talked all the way through this! It’s the last time I go to the flickers with the lot of you.”
“I’ll replay it for you,” Oonah said soothingly. “Now you hush, Winnie.”
Ardenai stood a long moment in silence, contemplating the assemblage of galactic dignitaries. His large green eyes flicked over them, then over the Equi High Council, his sharp, handsome features a mask as his head turned slowly from one side to the other, then with equal slowness back to center, leaving the correct impression that he now knew exactly who was in the hall with him.
“You honor Equus by your presence,” he said formally, the palm of his right hand brushing across the back of his left in the ancient gesture of greeting. “Ahimsa. I wish thee peace. I was Ah’rane Ardenai Krush. I am become Ah’krill Ardenai Morning Star, and I am risen to be Firstlord of Equus, the Thirteenth Dragonhorse of my line, the arms of Eladeus. As our present is a reflection of our past, I have borne the pain of these arm-bands as pledge of my loyalty to Equus. Never doubt it. Never question it.” He paused a moment, and took a deep breath.
“We speak with our noses in our feed bags of the fear of the Telenir that comes with every Rising of the Firstlord – the fear of a coup d’état from the Wind Warriors that could sweep us from the stars, as the legend goes, and in the next self-satisfied breath we deny their very existence, for certainly if we, the mightiest and most ancient of the races, have not seen them in our lifetime, then they must be legend only. I tell you with absolute surety, legends do not kill, but the Telenir have, and to what ends? We are still here, and they are still but legend. Cowards, hiding in the clouds.
“To the Wind Warriors I say this. You will not sweep us from the stars, for many are the allies which stand in the path from your doorstep to ours, and speaking thus I alert them to your coming! I would have peace and kinship with you, but if you have designs on my power or my planets, which I know you do, prepare yourselves as we have done for this day. I will not be blown out of the air like the Sixth Dragonhorse. I will not await thee at Mountain hold, where you expect to find me and my family so you can stick us while we sleep as you did the Eighth Dragonhorse and his loved ones.
“You will find me at a place of my choosing! I go there now. Follow me, find me, and we will end this honorably one on one – your leader and the Thirteenth Dragonhorse – winner takes all worlds. But know this – It ends with my reign. I plan, not to lose, but to kill you and end this nonsense, once and for all time. Let the games begin.” He nodded curtly, saluted his astounded mother, and strode out, calm faced, eyes blazing with pain and anger.
A hundred thousand startled voices all spoke at once and the hall reverberated with the shock wave as citizen turned to citizen, senator to senator, priestess to priestess. There was a milling of silver-green, and the war bells sounded on the horses’ hooves as the Horse Guard tried to bring the crowd under control. Even the ships in orbit seemed to feel the ricochet from the chaos below.
“What the HELL kind of a declaration of war was that?” Eletsky exclaimed, turning to the rest of his crew, who, like the Equi, were all talking at once. It was then that he caught the expression on Kehailan’s face. “I mean … that was unconventional. Short though. To the point….”
“Please … excuse me,” Kehailan murmured to no one in particular, and exited no less quickly than his sire. He went at a dogtrot down the long corridor to his quarters and sat, closing his eyes and pressing his fingers painfully into his temples, seeking to touch his father, but there was nothing – no one. He buried his face in his arms, and wept.
Ardenai was still striding alone, breathing in long, calming breaths, through the long halls of the ancient palace, briefly into the brilliant starlight, then into a little used auxiliary corridor, dim and sloping, which took him far beneath the palace to the stables. A black horse stood ready, a black, long sleeved cape thrown across the saddle. Ardenai put on the cape, hiding the bare arms and golden armbands, and trotted his mount down the wide stone pathway to a glimmer of light in the distance.
“Landais, it’s me,” he said to the man at the portcullis. It opened, the horse plunged away into the frosty starlight, and the portcullis closed silently behind them. “Quickly now, Pavil,” Ardenai whispered, leaning over the gelding’s neck, and the horse stretched out to full speed beneath him as Belesprit broke orbit and shot for the nearest star base.
In the Great Hall, confusion still reigned. Ambassador turned to question ambassador, senator to senator, council member to council member with Ah’krill observing in silence, filtering their collective snarl of thoughts for anything of use. Finally she flicked her hand, and a massive gong sounded to quiet the hubbub. “Hear me,” she said. “He who wears the golden armbands of Equus, is he who rules Equus. That cannot be changed but by his death. I cannot fathom Ardenai Firstlord’s motives in this, but I will obey him. I have no choice. Many years have I known him without knowing who he was. I saw no flaw in him then, and I am hesitant to do so now.”
She paused, the deepening lines around her mouth speaking of her bafflement despite the firmness of her voice. “He is a wise and rational man. Of this I am sure. He has his reasons for doing this, and when he returns, he will rule us well. As is customary, we will dismiss for a passing of one half turn of season. The time our Firstlord would traditionally spend at Mountain hold. Then … we will see.”
A tall man with narrow features, resplendent in robes of crimson, hissed, “Finally!” to his companion, and they slipped quickly away amid the noise and confusion to the silence of the palace apartments. “He anticipated us, and now we must act with all haste or he will elude us,” he said. “Legate Konik, check Ardenai’s suite. I must inform the Mahdi. I will be Firstlord!” he laughed. “Soon, I will be Firstlord!”
Padfooting neatly into the shadows and within earshot of the conversation, a slight, softly booted figure nodded and smiled to herself. She waited until the corridor was clear, then sprinted on silent feet back toward the Great Hall.
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.