Ky hurriedly dumped her supplies out on the bench, threading the massive needle with a thin length of leather. She laid out the snapped bridle the Infantry’s Stable Master had sent over for her to repair the day before. It hadn’t been sent with a high priority, but now she needed an excuse to walk it back over.
Her mind was spinning. What was Aleth’s game, asking about her personal life? Was that seriously the only reason that he was paying her so much attention – he had some sort of a thing for skinny stable boys? She swallowed hard. That one was going to end badly for her, if ever she’d heard something that would end badly.
Ky quickly pressed the needle into leather and forced it through with a pair of pliers, then stabbed it through the other broken end of the bridle. She pulled them snug together then made another stitch, repairing it as quickly as she could while maintaining the quality of work she’d come to boast in.
How had everything gotten so out of hand? It’d started as a simple falsehood. Pulling off a pre-pubescent boy hadn’t been all that difficult – it just took a haircut and a change of clothes, and a bit of finesse when it came to privacy whilst grooming. It’d gotten progressively more difficult as she aged, having to add the chest binding and pay mind to making her voice gruff when she spoke. But she’d been managing it fine.
And now this.
The thought of being one of Makata’s play-things still sent a chill down her spine like it had the very first day she’d come to the palace, before she even knew what the word “harem” meant. And yet that’d be nothing compared to what would happen to her if her stable boy act was uncovered. She had no choice but to maintain the false persona at this point, but she was much less certain about her performance now than she’d ever been before.
Ky picked up the aging bridle and tugged on both ends as she finished stitching, testing her work. The mending held tight. She grabbed a rag and dumped some leather oil onto it, quickly polishing the bridle until the leather gleamed. She left the oiled rag on top of the new stitching to stain it as dark as possible in the time she had so that the repair wouldn’t be quite so obvious from a distance, as she quickly put away all of the mending tools.
Ky lifted the rag and checked her work one last time, then tossed the rag in a bin and grabbed the bridle. She briskly walked down the hallway, never slowing as she called into Broer’s office. “Walking this bridle back to the barracks, I’ll be back in a minute!”
She hurried out of the barn before he could respond, cutting to the left and following the narrow path along the castle wall that led down to the entrance of the barracks, which were housed to the left and behind of the castle, opposite the Royal Stables where she worked. She walked as quickly as she could without drawing attention to herself, grateful that this path avoided the Courtyards and Gardens and every other place a high-born person might be.
A few minutes later, Ky reached a small gate guarded by a soldier on either side. They both looked thoroughly bored as she approached. The one on the right lazily held up his hand. “And where do you think you’re going?”
“I was asked to mend this bridle,” Ky answered gruffly, holding it up as proof. “I’m just returning it.”
The soldier hesitated a moment then shrugged, stepping out of the way. “You know how to get to the stable?”
“Yes, sir,” Ky answered.
She didn’t have to “sir” the common soldiers – enlistees were on the same social status as she was: the very bottom rung. But she found that they tended to give her less trouble if she stroked their ego a bit, and this was an easy way to appease them.
She walked through the gate and followed the path along the wall to her right, nearer the palace than the training grounds. There were hundreds of soldiers milling about off to her left, many training with swords, or hand to hand, or learning to march in formation. She maintained her brisk pace, eyes flicking around at all of the men she could get a good look at.
Finally, just up ahead, she saw the soldier she was looking for. He was tall and lanky, with a mop of gray scraggly gray hair. His skin was tanned and leathery, and his face looked tired as he walked along the path, looking at the ground ahead of him more than he looked around. Ky hurried up to him, speaking with a low voice. “Mr. Rifkin.”
He looked up. His intrigue turned to surprise and then dismay as he saw her. He grabbed her arm and shoved her towards the stable, as he hissed at her. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
“We’ve got a big problem,” she whispered back.
“You sure as heck better, to be coming here,” he spit, pushing her into the room off to the left. He whirled around on her, standing close. “You shouldn’t be here and you know it. What if the Lieutenant saw you? Your disguise won’t hide you from someone who knew you from before.”
“I needed to talk to you,” Ky insisted. He was right, of course, and the mention of Borrond made her stomach feel a little sicker than it already did. It was risky coming here, no doubt, but she didn’t know what else she could do.
“Well what is it, then?” Rifkin asked.
“Do you know anything about the king’s current guest?”
“Ky,” Rifkin said warningly.
“It’s important,” Ky snapped. “Just answer my question.”
“No,” he huffed a sigh. “I didn’t even know he had a guest. Why?”
“His name is Aleth Klev,” Ky said.
Rifkin hesitated a moment, brows worrying as he looked down at her. “I’ve heard that name before…”
“What have you heard about it?”
“He’s a dangerous man.”
Ky swallowed hard. “Just how dangerous?”
“Oh, dear gods, Ky, you didn’t get yourself wrapped up with Lord Klev did you?” Rifkin rubbed his face. “How do you always manage to draw so much negative attention? Why can’t you just behave for once?”
“I was behaving!” Ky hissed. “Broer made me take Zivyn out to the king, and Lord Klev was there, and demanded I bring his chest to his room and he started interrogating me. I don’t know why he’s so interested in me, but it’s not going to end well if something isn’t done about it.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well I sure don’t know either!” Rifkin groaned, biting his lip. “What did you tell him? Does he know about me?”
“No,” Ky said, waving her hand dismissively. “I wouldn’t tell him about you and you know it. But he sure was prodding at the story we made up. Asking me for a full name, where I’m from, how I ended up in the stables instead of the barracks with the “other boys” taken from my sector. And he keeps coming for me; won’t leave me alone.”
Rifkin’s concern was justified, and yet she couldn’t help but feel a little insulted that he’d thought she’d just give him up like that. Their fates were thoroughly intertwined at this point: self-preservation meant looking out for Rifkin, and vice versa. If one of them went down, it’d be the end of both of them.
“Gods, I should’ve just left you in the harem,” he huffed. Ky’s eyes snapped to his face, hurt. “I don’t mean that. Apologies. I’m just… how the heck did we get here, Ky? How?”
“I don’t know.”
The plan had seemed solid when they’d first devised it. She’d made a friend in Rifkin, and most of the other enlisted soldiers, when she stabbed Borrond. She acted on the defiance they all longed they could, in the face of the Lieutenant’s dictatorship of their squadron. In turn he’d helped her along into her place in the stables, to save her from the harem.
“And worse yet—” Ky said.
“There’s a worse?”
“Oh, is there,” she replied. “I think Aleth is uh… well… he, uh… suggested he… thinks I’m good-looking.”
“Oh gods,” Rifkin spat, rubbing his face again. “Try to save you from one pedophile and make you attractive to another.”
“Heh.” Ky cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Seems so.”
“I’ll never understand why those high-born men can’t find grown ups who want to sleep with them,” Rifkin snarled. “Men, women, do who you want – but no, they go after the children.”
“What are we going to do?” Ky asked, crossing her arms as she shrank a bit at the thought of Aleth having his way with her. That’d be worse than having gone to Makata’s harem, her secret identity aside.
“Well you can’t let him get you in that position, obviously.”
“And how do I stop that?”
Rifkin was silent for a long moment, then sighed heavily. “Heck if I know… look, this is what you’re gonna do. You go back to the stable, and you make yourself as busy as you possibly can. Make sure you always have an excuse for why you can’t be alone with him. I’ll try to think up another way to help in the meantime.”
“Be safe.” He pulled her into a quick dad-hug. She returned the embrace, some of the tension instantly melting out of her shoulders. He held on to her for a long moment, then pushed her towards the door, taking the bridle from her hands. “And get out of here, before you’re seen by you-know-who.”