The day suddenly seemed much hotter than it had when Ky was riding inside the carriage. Tadaaki kept the horses at the unrelenting trot they’d been traveling at, forcing Ky to maintain a slow jog to be able to keep up. The length of rope securing her to the carriage was short, forcing her to stay close.
She sprinted as close to the carriage as she could, giving her an extra second before the rope was pulled tight, and bent down to try to untie the knots around her ankles. It would be easier if she could simply work on the end tied off to the carriage, but Aleth had been careful to ensure that it was out of her reach. Her ankles would have to do.
If only she could get her legs free, she could run into the woods that lined either side of the path and disappear. Aleth and Tadaaki might be stronger, but she was quick, and would have the element of surprise on her side.
Ky developed a rhythm of nearing the carriage, bending down for a moment to work at the knot, and then popping back upright to keep pace. She was getting so close. She’d worked one of the knots loose, and had almost gotten her finger through a loop she was making in the second knot. She needed just one more –
She yelped as suddenly the rope went taut, yanking her off her feet. It surprised her more than hurt, until the carriage continued to jostle down the path, rocks digging into her back. Aleth stuck his head out the window and looked down at her with a faux pity. “You’d better either figure out how to get up, or tell me your father’s name, soon – if you want any flesh left on your back.”
Ky clamped her mouth shut. Aleth smirked and disappeared inside the carriage. She grunted as a large rock in the path dug into her back, stripping the skin raw. Ky used her abdominal muscles to throw herself forward, trying to get her footing.
Instead, she ended up on her right side, still being dragged along, small gravel scraping her arms and face as the horses never slowed their pace. She put her hands under her chest and pushed, hard, stumbling forward as she finally got half-way to her feet. She stumbled forward several steps, finally recovering her balance.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to keep running, unable to take a break to catch her breath after the exertion of finding her footing once more. Her entire back stung, and the arm of her tunic was torn, revealing scratched that dribbled blood onto the fabric. Sweat dripped off her neck and soaked the collar of her tunic.
She’d never been so exhausted in her entire life.
The muscles in her legs felt so tight. Her breaths came in puffs and gasps, and yet the exertion fueled her defiance. If Aleth meant to turn this into a battle of wills, he’d picked the wrong ego to challenge. She was just as stubborn as she was strong.
Aleth stuck his head out every hour or so to gloat or ask if she’d changed her mind, and each time he did he was met with a glare and a venomous silence. When the carriage pulled to the side of the road, Ky’s legs felt rubbery, making it hard to stand. She put her hand on the back of the carriage to steady herself, entire body trembling, panting as she watched Aleth climb out of the carriage.
The hot afternoon sun had soaked all of the layers of clothes she had on with sweat, not leaving so much as a single inch of her dry. The blood on her tunic had dried and crusted over, but there was still a smear on her arm from the sweaty tunic irritating the scratches.
Aleth wrinkled his nose as he approached and untied her ankles. “You stink.”
“Yea, verily,” Ky agreed sarcastically, still panting to catch a breath.
Aleth opened the chest strapped to the back of the carriage, pulling out the bundle of clothes Tadaaki must have stashed there for her. He thrust the bundle into Ky’s hands, along with a bar of soap and a towel, and then gestured over the hill to their left. “Go wash in the stream.”
Ky hesitated, looking between the stream and Aleth. Bathing had started out as – and continued to be – one of the most difficult parts of maintaining her persona. There was a small stream that twisted through the palace grounds and she would occasionally go for swims there, fully clothed, to clean herself and her clothes. But otherwise there didn’t seem to be a good way to balance pretending to be male with staying clean.
“I’m not going to peek.” Aleth rolled his eyes. “I thought we already established that your type doesn’t excite me. Now go. Wash.”
Ky walked down the hill, casting another glance back towards Aleth and Tadaaki. They were still marginally in view, but neither was looking in her direction. She knew there wasn’t a chance he’d let her go off out of sight – and she did need a bath, so this would have to be good enough for the moment.
She stripped off her sweaty clothes and got into the cool water. It chilled her as it swirled by, but the sensation of actually being allowed to take a proper bath once more was thrilling. Usually she either bathed without soap, or simply used the lye sediments that servants pretended was soap. It’d been years since she’d been entrusted with a real bar of soap.
She dried off quickly and dressed herself in the clean clothes from the bundle. She knelt on the bank and began wrapping her sweaty clothes the same way she’d wrapped the bundle the first time. She grabbed her copies of the Book and started to wrap them inside the bundle again, and then thought better of it. Instead, she glanced up the hill at Aleth and Tadaaki to ensure they still weren’t watching, and then unfolded the papers and began to read in the dimming light as the last rays of sunlight were dying in the sky.
Her eyes landed on the words she’d read over and over during her time at the castle. Bless those that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She needed to forgive Aleth – whether he deserved it or not.
She was a Follower, and she needed to act like it, regardless of the terrible treatment she was being subjected to. The Father surely knew what was happening, and He was in control. Aleth would get his just recompense. She just had to trust and obey.
Ky closed her eyes and silently prayed, begging for the strength and patience she would need to survive her time with Aleth. He might be able to separate her from Alcan and Rifkin and Broer – but the Father was something he could never take away from her.
“Ky!” Aleth’s voice cut the time short. “I don’t hear anything down there!”
“I’m here.” Ky’s eyes snapped open. She quickly folded the papers, and shoved them into her pocket, afraid that the sweat from her bundle would damage the papers if she wrapped them back up.
“Well you should be up here.”
“Coming!” She grabbed the bundle of dirty clothes and walked back up the hill.
Aleth was kneeling beside a fire he’d started in the center of the dirt road, back towards her as she approached. Directly in front of him was a stone cliff-face, and up the road to the left was a small clearing where Tadaaki was readying the horses for the evening.
She glanced between the men, wondering which one she should approach. Her instincts urged her to go help with the horses – it’d be the natural thing to happen now, readying the horses for sleep before she readied herself. And yet, a small voice in her mind figured Aleth would want her to go to him for orders. She took a deep breath and walked towards the fire, tossing her bundle of clothes down off to the right.
Aleth stood. “Come here.”
Ky hesitated a moment. Aleth raised his eyebrows, challenging her to disobey, and took a threatening step towards her. Ky instinctively took a step backwards, closer to the cliff, trying to distance herself from him. Aleth stepped forward swiftly and grabbed her wrists, slamming her against the cliff, and then pinning her hands over her head.
He stood uncomfortably close, using his own body to keep hers pressed against the bare rock behind her. She cowered, entire body tense, eyes fixed on the shoulder of his tunic. “What do you want from me?”
“I want control,” Aleth hissed. He squeezed her wrists even tighter. “I want complete and instant obedience. You will do exactly what I say, exactly when I say it, and it will be so natural that you don’t even think before obeying.”
Ky fearfully looked up at his face, tears welling up in her eyes. His pupils were dilated, teeth clenched, brow covered in sweat as he glared down at her. She looked away again. He shook her, forcing her gaze back towards his face.
“You’re mine now,” he said. “You’re my little pet, and you can consider this the training period, to get you housebroken. You’ll find I’m not a cruel master if you obey – I don’t kick my dogs for the fun of it – but if you think you can defy me, I will discipline.”
Aleth held her for a moment longer, then released his grasp. She stood trembling, rubbing her smarting wrists, fear cutting off whatever comeback she might have had. She didn’t want to be his. She didn’t want to be trained. All she wanted was a warm meal and a good sleep.
“What’s in your pocket?”
Ky’s eyes snapped back to his face. His gaze was locked on her right pocket.
“Nothing,” Ky said quickly, reaching down to smooth the pocket. She could feel the edge of the paper barely peeking out above the top of her pocket.
Aleth’s right hand darted out, wrapping around her neck and slamming her against the cliff once more. To her surprise, he didn’t choke her. Instead, he reached out with his other hand and snatched the paper from her pocket, then released her, turning his back as he unfolded it and tipped it towards the firelight to read.
“A Follower,” Aleth said slowly. “Well you’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”
Ky stood behind him, watching tensely as he looked through her few scraps of paper. It’d taken her months of work to get her own copy of the Book. Few people had even a fraction of the number of verses she’d copied down, and it would take ages to get her hands on another copy if he took these from her.
“It’s a pity you don’t know how to read…” Aleth said slowly, voice smug. “I’m sure these would be important to you if you knew what they said.”
As suddenly as he’d snatched them, he tossed them into the fire.
“No!” Ky dove forward as the flames instantly engulfed the paper. She’d risk burns for the sake of getting the verses back.
Aleth lurched forward just as quickly, throwing his arm out to block her path. His forearm slammed against her chest, hand curling around her side and giving her a swift push backwards. By the time she’d recovered her balance, the paper was nothing more than a flake of black ash in the edge of the fire.
Aleth bent down next to the fire pit and picked up a plate of food he’d put together.
Ky stood in a dazed silence, staring at the remains of the Book, a deep rage throbbing through her on a visceral level. She’d felt as angry as she had the day Borrond stabbed her father, all those years ago. Every fiber of her being screamed for revenge. She didn’t need safety; didn’t need his good favor. She needed to make clear what she thought of him.
Without a second thought, she lunged towards him.