Ky went into the tack room and sat on a bucket next to the saddles to polish their buckles. Usually, she found this job dull and monotonous, but at the moment she was thankful to have a sedentary job so that her body could rest, rather than being jostled about in the saddle or straining herself with manual labor.
Ky looked up as she finished the sixth saddle in the row. Broer was standing in the doorway, uncertainly, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to say next. Ky hesitated a moment. “Yes?”
“Lord Klev is about to depart.” Broer’s voice was far gentler than it usually was when he spoke to her. “Can you hitch the horses to the carriage? I need to oversee our shipment being unloaded in the grain stall.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered, standing up. She stepped towards him, decidedly refusing to cringe as a fresh stab of pain ran through her abdomen. He didn’t move. She looked at him curiously. Something was off.
Broer was a kind overseer, but he wasn’t gentle. He barked orders, not made requests for her to do her job – and he certainly didn’t justify why he couldn’t do something himself. He knew fully well that she could hitch the carriage to the horses. She’d done it dozens of times.
It suddenly hit her.
She looked at his face again and saw a trace of sympathy in his eyes, understanding where this bizarre behavior was coming from. “Alcan told you.”
Broer hesitated, then nodded. “He did.”
Ky faltered, biting her lip. “Did he… tell you everything?”
“About you being… a…” Broer gestured vaguely. “Yeah.”
Ky cringed. “I’m sorry.”
“What could you possibly have to be sorry about?” Broer scoffed.
“I’ve been lying to you since the moment I met you,” Ky said, frowning. “I broke your confidence and for that I apologize.”
“In order to break my confidence, you have to have it first.” Broer put his hand up, cutting off whatever response she might be able to come up with. “Don’t take that the wrong way. But heck, Ky, you took a thorough thrashing just to avoid proving yourself to that soldier. Which suggested to me that either you have a problem with authority and taking orders, or you have something to hide that would be worth taking a beating over. Since you take my orders, I kind of just assumed it was the latter.”
Ky was silent for a moment, a fresh wave of bewilderment running through her at his nonchalant acceptance of her lie. “Did everyone know?”
Broer chuckled. “As far as I’m aware, Alcan and I are the only ones who pieced that together. But, then, Rifkin and us were the only people you spent time with regularly, and I’m guessing Ol’ Rif had something to do with this.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Why didn’t you turn me in?” Ky questioned. “If you knew this whole time?”
“Well, I didn’t see how that’d benefit anything.” Broer lifted his shoulder carelessly in a half-shrug. “You clearly had your reasons for wanting to stay in the stables. You did good work and got as much done as Alcan did. And you keep the mood light. I like having you around.”
Broer flashed a quick smile, then stepped backward out of the stall. “Now go get those horses hitched up, so we can send him on his way and out of our hair as soon as possible.”
“Yes sir.” Ky grabbed the harnesses and took them to the carriage in the shed. She went back to the barn and quickly brushed each horse in turn, then took them from their stalls to secure them to the network of leather straps at the front of the carriage. She brought Aleth’s riding mount out and tied him to the back of the carriage, and then secured his tack to the back of the carriage next to where the chest went.
“Bad news, Ky,” Broer said, coming over to inspect her work.
Ky swallowed hard. She wasn’t sure she could handle any more bad news just then. “What?”
“I took the receipt from our grain delivery in to the treasurer,” Broer said. “And I got intercepted by Lord Klev… he requested that you bring out the carriage when it’s ready. Asked for you by name. I tried saying I had you busy with other things, but he started threatening me with telling Makata I argued with him and… I don’t see much of a choice here.”
Ky sighed deeply. “He doesn’t tend to leave people with many options.”
The choice he’d set up for her was clear: face him again, or disobey his orders and risk bringing Makata’s wrath down upon herself and now Broer as well. She wouldn’t drag her friends down with her, if Aleth meant to end her now. She had to steel herself and take what was coming to her.
“I’m sorry, Ky.”
Ky lifted a shoulder. “Not your fault.”
She absently-mindedly stroked the muzzle of the horses standing next to her, trying to find courage in the familiarity of tending to the animals. The one thing in her life that still made sense. She took a deep breath and clucked to the horses, leading them towards the courtyard.
“Ky!” Rifkin stopped her just before she rounded the corner that led into the courtyard where she was supposed to wait with the carriage. He panted, sweat beading on his brow. “Stop. Wait.”
“What is it?” Ky asked.
Rifkin shook his head, entire body heaving as he tried to draw a breath. He threw his hand up, gesturing for her to wait. “Just give me a minute.”
Ky bit her lip, waiting impatiently for Rifkin to catch his breath so he could explain what it was that had gotten him so out of breath in the first place. She felt the knot in her gut tightening with each moment that passed.
“What are you doing?” he asked at last.
“I was told to bring the carriage out for Lord Klev.”
“Are you insane?” Rifkin ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head. “You can’t face him again after…well… you know.”
Ky sighed. Oh, did she know. “Alcan came to speak with you.”
“He did,” Rifkin agreed, cringing. “I… am truly sorry, Ky. If I knew a way to protect you from that I would have done it.”
“I know you would have.”
“I swear it,” Rifkin said earnestly. “There’s no excuse for anyone treating you that way.”
“Thanks.” Ky smiled sadly at him. It was a sweet sentiment, even though they both knew it wouldn’t actually change anything about what had happened.
“Didn’t you tell Broer what happened?” Rifkin asked. “Why is he making you take the horses out? He should know better.”
“It’s not his fault. Lord Klev demanded I bring them out. He can’t disobey that without risking his own neck.”
“Well there ought to be some necks other than yours being risked right now,” Rifkin said, taking the reins from her. “You go find somewhere nice and out of the way where you can stay for a bit. I’ll take these out to the Courtyard.”
“I can’t let you do that, Mr. Rifkin,” Ky argued.
“I’m not asking,” Rifkin said firmly. “I’ll say there was an emergency that needed your help. Heaven knows you know more about horses than just about anyone else in this castle, it’d be believable enough. Now get out of here.”
Ky hesitated, then slowly nodded, taking a step backwards. That just might work – have an external party intervening with a story for why she couldn’t be the one to bring the horses. If Broer was asked he could honestly say that the last time he’d seen her she was taking the horses towards the Courtyard. And with any luck, no one would see her again until well after Aleth was on his way once again.
“And just who might you be?”
A chill shot straight up Ky’s spine as she whirled around to find Aleth rounding the corner. His harsh gaze was fixed upon Rifkin as he stormed towards them, his coachman, Tadaaki, close at his heels.
“Sir,” Rifkin murmured, averting his eyes.
“Your uniform suggests to me that you’re not nearly high enough in rank to have the authority to undermine my instructions,” Aleth hissed, stalking towards him.
Ky’s chest instantly went tight once more. Her mind’s eye leapt back a few hours, to Aleth storming forward to corner her in the bedroom, rather than to loom over Mr. Rifkin next to the horses. She had to stop this. She couldn’t let Mr. Rifkin take the fall for her trying to get away from Aleth, any more than she could let Broer disobey on her behalf.
“What are you doing here?” Ky forced herself to step forward, steeling her nerves as she positioned herself squarely in front of Mr. Rifkin, facing Aleth and Tadaaki. “Shouldn’t you be saying your farewells to the king?”
Aleth’s eyebrows shot up and he looked at her challengingly. “And you think you’re in any position to lecture me about what I should and shouldn’t do?”
The next moment passed so quickly Ky could barely keep it clear, who was doing what. Aleth grabbed her arm roughly. She tensed and started to pull away, but his grasp was just as iron-clad as it was earlier in the bedroom. Mr. Rifkin stepped forward, reaching out to remove Aleth’s hand from Ky – but Tadaaki was quicker, and shoved Rifkin away.
Aleth pulled Ky forward.
“Let me go!”
“No,” Aleth answered tersely. Tadaaki stepped squarely between her and Rifkin, cutting off the only source of help she might have had. Aleth focused his gaze on Rifkin. “You had better decide to make better choices and walk away, while that’s still an option for you.”
Rifkin hesitated a long moment, eyes flicking between Aleth and Ky.
“Go,” Ky said. “There’s no point in you getting caught in this mess. I’ll be okay.”
“You being okay or not is entirely contingent upon your behavior these next few minutes,” Aleth said threateningly. “Take the reins back.”
Ky grudgingly reached out to take the reins from Mr. Rifkin. As soon as they were in her hands, Aleth started half-leading half-dragging her towards the courtyard. She stumbled after him resentfully, not sure whether she was more angry or afraid in that moment. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to be calm.
Aleth finally turned loose of her once they were standing by the landing where she’d first seen him, the day before. There were various soldiers milling about, ensuring the area was secure before Makata was to be there.
“You best stand here and tend the horses like you’re supposed to,” Aleth hissed, jamming his finger in her face threateningly. She narrowed her eyes, jaw clenched. “Or I swear to you, your life is about to get much worse.”
He turned his gaze on Tadaaki. “Go fetch my chest and secure it to the carriage while I say my farewells.”
“Yes, sir.” Tadaaki immediately stepped up to the platform and started towards the castle to do as he was told.
Aleth stepped up to the platform as well. Ky took a deep breath, wishing there was a way to clear the fluttering in her stomach, eyes flicking around for any mode of escape that would be feasible. Aleth flagged down the nearest soldier. “Are you an officer?”
The voice sent a brick straight to the pit of Ky’s stomach.
“What’s your name and rank?”
“Lieutenant Borrond Mikaelson, sir.”
Ky’s eyes snapped up towards him, mouth instantly going dry. He looked exactly how she’d remembered him – except that he lacked the devil horns that she generally imagined him with anytime she thought of him. His blond hair was scruffy and curled at the base of his neck. His eyes were a stormy gray, but harsh, and even now, as he was careful to stay respectful, his expression was bordering on a scowl.
“Can I trust that you’ll keep everything under control, Lieutenant?”
Borrond’s chest instantly puffed up with pride, and he lifted his chin. “Yes, sir.”
“Excellent,” Aleth said. “Please ensure that my horses – and the stable boy – stay put exactly as they are now.”