Ky was silent for a long moment, trying to think through what Alcan had said. She knew he was a good friend, but she’d never suspected that he would risk his own safety to protect her secret. “Wait. So, you knew even before the soldiers came to look for me?”
“Well, no,” he admitted. “I had no reason to suspect you before that. But that made all the pieces fall into place… and made me like you more.”
Ky looked up at his smirk and smiled despite herself.
“I still can’t believe you did that.”
Ky thought back to that moment, shaking her head. It had been one of the most stressful moments of her life, and she still remembered it clear as could be. She’d have taken another interrogation by the soldiers over another moment with Aleth, any day.
The soldiers came stomping into the stable. Ky peered out of the stall, then quickly ducked back inside, eyes going wide as her heart instantly began to race. Why were the soldiers here? It’d been a full week since she’d come to the stables – had she done something wrong? Made some goof-up that tipped Broer or Alcan off, and made them call for the soldiers?
“Everybody in the hall now!” a booming voice echoed through the stable.
Ky pressed her back against the wall, mind racing for her next move. Should she obey and go out to the hall? Was her disguise strong enough to stand up to their scrutiny, if the soldiers were here looking for her? Or would it be better to make a run for it and see how far she got before she took an arrow to the back? Ky looked up at the rafters overhead, desperately trying to think of a way that she could heft herself up to them without being seen.
“Is this everyone?”
“Missing my newest hand.” Broer’s voice carried.
Ky sighed silently. So much for hiding without her absence being noticed. She took a deep breath and stepped into the hallway, lifting her chin and striding towards where the soldiers were standing with Broer and Alcan. Running could always happen as a backup plan, if her disguise failed.
The soldier in charge looked her over as she approached, then roughly gestured for her to stand next to Alcan. He barked orders at his men to begin searching every inch of the stable as he stood in front of them, then turned his attention on Broer.
“Seen anything out of the ordinary?”
“No, sir,” Broer answered.
“No unusual people milling around the barn? Anyone trying to stow away? Equipment missing?”
“Well if you see anything out of the ordinary, you let me know.”
“Yes, sir,” Broer answered. He hesitated a moment. “Can I ask what – or who – it is that you’re looking for?”
“A girl went missing from the harem,” the officer answered, snapping at one of his soldiers that approached, ordering him into another stall to search.
“Must be a looker, to make the king search this hard for her.”
“Nah,” the officer waved his hand dismissively. “Just a troublemaker. She stabbed a lieutenant when she was being brought in from the mountains last week, and it’s come to our attention that she’s somehow escaped from the harem. Have to figure out where the little jerk is.”
Ky kept her gaze fixed on the floor in front of her, keeping her expression carefully neutral. As long as her heart didn’t rip through her chest, everything was going to be okay. But at this moment, with how hard it beat against her ribcage, she wasn’t sure if it was going to stay put or not.
“You just got these two hands?”
“Yes, sir,” Broer answered. “We only care for the king’s and his guests’ horses, so I generally only have one assistant at a time. Alcan is about to head into the castle to be a palace boy, so he’s helping me train my new boy.”
“That’d be this one?”
Ky saw the officer’s feet come into view. She still didn’t look up, mouth dry, desperately trying to swallow back the fear that bubbled up inside her.
“That it would.”
“How long have you had him?”
“About a week.”
“You get brought in from the Mountains, too?” the officer asked. He smacked Ky’s shoulder with the back of his hand, hard enough to make it smart, but not hard enough to really hurt her. “Look at me when I talk to you, boy.”
Ky finally looked up, forcing herself to take a deep breath. The soldier’s face was as tired and weathered as every other soldier’s, and his blue eyes seemed bored. Suddenly they sharpened as he looked down at her, narrowing suspiciously.
“I say you from the Mountains, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” she answered gruffly, forcing her voice to be confident.
“How’d you get so banged up?” he asked suspiciously, gesturing at her face.
She took another deep breath. She hadn’t had a mirror since the haircut, to have any idea how beat up she still looked. Her left eye was still a bit tender, but she felt mostly better, and wasn’t sure how long the bruises would linger.
“My mouth runs faster than my fists can move, sir,” she answered. “I smarted off to one of the older boys in my sector and he didn’t take too kindly.”
“See, now, that’s mighty suspect, boy,” the officer said, giving her a shove backward. She stumbled into the wall behind her. “You being a brand-new boy, beat up the same way that girl would be about now.”
“I ain’t no girl,” Ky spat.
“I guess there’s only one way to find out, ain’t there?”
Ky’s head was light, chest tight. She forced herself to keep scowling at him, resisting the urge to look for a path to escape. If she was going to make a run for it, she had to have the element of surprise. Otherwise he’d just grab her and slam her into the wall again, if he suspected she’d try it.
“Drop your trousers.”
“You wanna have a look at my boy?” Ky asked skeptically.
“That gonna be a problem?” the soldier asked, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword as he loomed over her threateningly. “Don’t got one to show me?”
“No, I got one,” Ky spat. “Just didn’t realize that’s the sort of welcome I’d get here in the City. Ain’t you even gonna buy me dinner first, before you go demanding I take my pants off?”
The officer’s fist came towards her face too fast for her to dodge it if she’d wanted to. It slammed into her face so hard it knocked her off balance, driving her into the ground in a single motion. She grabbed her face, pain ripping through her entire skull.
The officer cursed at her.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it,” Ky said, spitting out a mouthful of blood from her split lip. “No shame in looking at another man’s member, if that’s what gets you off. I might even let you touch it if you ask real nice.”
The officer’s kicked her, hard, in the ribs. She coughed, clutching her side, writhing on the ground as she struggled to draw a breath. “I see what you mean about that smart mouth.”
The soldier stomped down on her crotch. She howled, clutching at herself as he removed his foot, writhing and muttering curses. It hadn’t hurt near as badly as the first kick had, but she had to put on a show if she wanted to survive this – the only question was how dramatic of a show she should put on, to convince a bunch of people who would actually know what that’d feel like to be kicked there if she were as male as she claimed.
Another soldier walked up just then. “Stable is clear, sir.”
“You best learn to mind your betters, boy,” the officer snarled, kicking her again for good measure, then turned towards Broer. “You see anything out of the ordinary, let me know.”
“I just can’t believe it actually worked,” Ky said. “I thought my cover was blown for sure.”
Alcan chuckled. “It was well played, for sure, getting him so flustered he forgot to make you obey his order. But made me start wondering, since you never did produce any evidence that you’re Kyber instead of Kybernia.”
Ky choked on a laugh that escaped. “Kybernia?”
“Well I don’t know what your real name is. I’m guessing it’s not Kyber.”
“Kylia,” she offered gently. The name felt strange to say after so many years of being Kyber. She looked down. “Ky is what everyone always called me, though.”
“Ky works,” Alcan answered.
They were silent for several long moments. Ky focused on keeping her breathing even and regular, desperately trying not to let herself obsess about the time with Aleth. That’s not how she’d imagined her first time would be.
“I’m going to die.”
“It was just sex,” Alcan answered. “I’m sure it wasn’t fun, but it’s not going to kill you.”
“What about the king?” Ky asked, wrapping her arms around herself protectively. “Aleth’s going to tell him that I’m actually Kybernia instead of Kyber.”
“I don’t know that he’ll particularly care,” Alcan answered. “I mean… you can do the job, so what does it matter if you’re actually a girl?”
“I’m supposed to be in his harem,” she said, curling up into an even smaller ball. She couldn’t even imagine what the other girls from her township must have gone through these past few years. She hated a single time. “I don’t think he’ll appreciate that I adopted a false persona for the sole purpose of avoiding his bedroom.”
“There’s no guarantee that he’s going to tell the king,” Alcan pointed out. “Don’t stress about things that haven’t even happened yet.”
“What am I going to do?”
“You’re going to go right back to work and pretend like nothing happened,” Alcan answered. “There’s not much more you can do. Just take things one step at a time. Come on.”
Alcan bent down and helped Ky get up, then put his arm around her shoulders and walked her until they were at the ladder. He let her climb down first, then wrapped her in a tight hug for several moments then stepped away.
“I’m sorry this happened to you, Ky,” Alcan said. “But I hope this is all behind you, and that Aleth will leave you alone now that he’s gotten what he wanted. I’ll see what I can do in the meantime to help.”