The bartender nodded to her, reaching out to take her coin purse. He didn’t
make eye contact. But, then, she supposed she didn’t need him to.
turned and glanced around again. The two aggressors had already been escorted
out of the room by the soldiers. She glanced back at Rek. “The girl is safe?”
safe,” Rek agreed with a nod.
nodded tiredly and rubbed her face again. “Alright, then.” She turned and
started for the door. The crowd parted immediately to give her a wide berth.
She did her best to ignore them entirely, keeping her sour gaze straight ahead.
they were outside, she finally let her shoulders slump as she took a deep
breath. It was a warm summer evening, but it felt a bit chilly now that they’d
exited the stuffy warmth of the crowded tavern. Especially since Akeno’s shirt
was a little damp with sweat. Still, it was better than nothing. And she was
grateful for the coverage.
was on her heels and wrapped his arm around her shoulders the instant they were
alone outside. His voice was quiet and gentle as he asked, “are you okay?”
stopped walking and nodded, leaning against him for a moment, letting him
support her weight. “Just exhausted… and angry.”
nodded again, closing her eyes, and heaving a deep sigh. “So tired.”
get you home, then.” He tightened his grasp for the briefest moment in the hint
of a side-hug, then he pulled away and started for the stable. They weren’t
supposed to show affection in public and they both knew it. People would talk.
opened her eyes and followed him, shoulders slouching.
okay?” Rek appeared at her right shoulder, looking at her in concern.
fine.” She nodded tiredly, glancing over at him. “Just wanna get home.”
He nodded, matching her pace.
rounded the corner into the stable, and saw a couple soldiers already there,
saddling their horses.
The soldier nearest them nodded to her, then Rek and Akeno. “Sirs.”
Rek returned the nod, striding forward to take the reins the soldier held out
to him. “Thank you, Ty. Get some rest, okay?”
sir.” The young man nodded, umber skin damp with sweat as he looked up into the
face of his commander. “You too, sir.”
offered a tired smile and nod, then strode outside, leading his horse behind
soldier walked forward with Jerica’s horse. She took his reins with a nod of
thanks and shuffled outside tiredly, throwing her arm around her horse’s neck
and leaning against him heavily. “Hey buddy. Who’s a good boy? My little baby.
was a gift from Zander for her twelfth birthday, and she cherished him greatly.
Zander was the absent uncle who she wished wasn’t so absent. She knew it wasn’t
his fault – he was a busy man with a lot going on, and he came by as often as
he could. But she missed him terribly. And Ranofer reminded her of him. So she
doted on him shamelessly, especially when she was as drunk as she was now.
boy,” she murmured as she got him outside and then clumsily attempted to mount
him. It was awkward and took her several tries to even get her foot in the
stirrup, much less heft herself up. And then once she did, she nearly
overcorrected and tossed herself off the other side. She was too tired and sore
and drunk for this. But before long she was seated and slouched down in the
saddle scratching his shoulder. “Take me home, buddy.”
gave a little snort of acknowledgment. At least she was going to pretend that’s
what that meant. She glanced up and saw Rek off to her right and Akeno to her
left, both also on their horses – Akeno’s bare chest illuminated by the
moonlight. Her gaze lingered a moment longer than it should have and she bit
her lip and turned away, urging Ranofer forward.
party of three chitchatted a bit as they made their way through the winding
city and up the slight incline than led to the Palace, but Jerica was mostly in
her own little world. Blood rushed around her temples too loud for her to be
able to focus on conversation. And it felt like each breath took every bit of
her energy reserves to be able to draw it. She was grateful to have people she
trusted with her, so they could be sure they stayed safe and she wouldn’t have
to be on high alert on the ride home.
and Rek dismounted outside the Royal Stables and led their horses inside like
they were supposed to. Jerica rode Ranofer directly into his stall, despite the
dozens – perhaps hundreds, at this point – of times she’d been chastised to
dismount outside. She slid off his back and then stumbled into the wall before
she caught her balance. Her body felt like it weighed as much as Ranofer did
groaned and rubbed her face – carefully – then sighed and started fumbling with
Ranofer’s girth to unfasten his saddle. Why was life so hard right now? Her
brain was slow, her hands were clumsy, her body was heavy.
She turned her head with a grimace as she heard Rek’s voice behind her.
get Ranofer,” Rek offered, striding into the stall and putting a hand on her
shoulder to massage it for a moment. “How about you get to bed? You’ve gotta be
fine.” Jerica shook her head, then winced again as it sent a stabbing pain through
her head. She rubbed her face with a sigh.
that as it may…” He gently turned her and guided her towards the door. “You’ve
done enough for tonight. I’ll grab the horses – it’s the least I can do, since
you two dealt with the drunks. It’s okay.”
he needs grain,” she muttered, deciding it wasn’t worth the argument.
a brush down.” Jerica stumbled as she crossed the threshold, but Rek steadied
know,” he said patiently. “I know Ranofer’s nightly routine as well as I know my
own. I’ve got this handled. Get to bed. Please.”
grumbled but nodded and shuffled forward. “Thanks.”
Rek!” Akeno nodded to him, then turned and matched Jerica’s pace as she strode
towards the door – near enough to steady her if needed, but not touching her
for now. “Have a good night.”