Ilesias, followed by Nuninibas and Didi on their horses, rode Killer up the ramp, into the stable. “It’s all right, Nuris.” he said to the boy coming to take the horse. The Mahid horses had mostly settled down since the grooms and horse boys all knew the commands, but Killer still had a tendency to take a dislike to anyone on the ground and snap at them or lash out with a forehoof. “I’ll clean him up myself.” He grinned. “We were playing chase with the new puppies all the way around Sunrise,” he said, using the short form of the “Glorious Sunrise Hails Muunas Gazebo”.
“You could look after our horses,” Nuni said, but Ili and Didi frowned at him.
“It’s good if you look after your own animals sometimes,” Didi said. “For the good of your character,” she continued, quoting from their lessons. “Besides, if I didn’t, my papas wouldn’t let me go on the caravan round if I couldn’t or didn’t look after my own pony.”
Nuni just sniffed and dismounted. The horseboys had buckets of tools for the three of them and the stable hall had a star shape to it so that five horses could be cross-tied and worked on at the same time, facing into the centre.
Killer danced in place as Ili took the light saddle off, jerking his head up and down against the ties, digging at the scrupulously clean brick floor with his hooves. “What’s wrong with you?” Ili stood under his nose. “Equus, cease assail.”
That stopped the floor scraping. “Why don’t you try the eye-ridges rub?” Didi said.
Nuninibus ran the brush down his horse’s flank, efficiently, but briskly. “Because the horse is being an idiot you want to waste time calming him down? He’s got to be tired because we galloped and trotted and cantered all over the place.”
“He’s just jumpy today,” Ili said. “He was shaking about something when we walked them in.” He clucked up at Killer. “You want your eyebrows rubbed?”
The horse snorted and backed and threw up his head when Ili reached up, but Ili soothed him and he let him put his fingertips on his face. Then as Ili began rubbing slow, steady circles with his palms up over his eyes and eyebrows his head came down more and he blew, and relaxed. “Soo. Soo there you are,” Ili crooned into the ears, now pricked toward him. “Killer’s an idiot. Big, galumphing idiot.” He made his words sing-song and matched the motion of his hands.
Ili dug his fingers into Killer’s mane at the poll and stopped when the big horse flinched. “Sooo. Sooo.”
“Come on, Ili! Why not leave him? They’ve gotten a new batch of horse-boys in and grooms and we have two essays to write and you have a picture to paint for next week, and the music master really wants you to practice more.”
“Why don’t you two head down to the school room? You’re right, Nuni. I’ll just be a bit longer.”
“Sure.” Nuninibas handed the brush and cloth to the hovering boy, who took them up eagerly, leading the roan back down the hall to his own loose box. “Come on, Didi.”
“Yes, Nuni, I’m coming,” she said, but didn’t set the hoof she had in her hand down. When he left, whistling, she set it down gently, ran her hand up her bay’s leg. “Something not right, Ili?” she asked softly.
“I don’t believe what he’s tellin’. Nobody here’d hurt a horse.”
“Din’t they get all the Mahid horses out for the candidates to use in the trials?”
“You’re right. There’s not enough of them for them to leave Killer, or even Nasty out of it.” He raised his voice. “Stable master!”
The boy ran to fetch him and in the time it took to get him back, Ili and Didi were washing their hands, finished their grooming. “Serin, Serina,” he said. “The exalted needed this one?”
“Master Nel Marii. I’m sorry but I think someone should check Killer. He’s acting like someone’s been… heavy handed with him.”
“Oh? Would the exalted care to explain to this ignorant one, why the most high thinks so?”
“He’s flinching when I touch his poll, like someone slugged him there. And his old spur scars are all tender. He’s bruised.” Ili laid a hand on Killer’s neck and the horse shuddered slightly. Stable master Marii’s eyes narrowed.
“This execrable one sees. And will pull the names of bodyguard candidates who had access to the most high’s favourite horse.”
“I don’t think I want anybody like that guarding me,” Ili said. “If they don’t care about the horse then they don’t care about people. Minis and Tanifas say so. An’ if they know he’s my favourite horse, and they figure I won’t notice if they treat him rough? I don’t think I’d like that person.”
“This lowly one is grateful for the exalted’s attention to the horseflesh, and we shall see who this person is. This one thanks the Coronet.”
“Thank you, Ser Marii. I’m really, really, really angry that someone smart enough to get this far would be so dumb and hurt my horse. But… I’m not going to yell or make any loud noises because it’d make stuff worse.”
“Indeed, Coronet.” Didi was just giving a chunk of carrot to her horse and turned to watch Ili pull a small apple out of his pocket for Killer.
“Someone that mean, that Mahid, to hurt my horse…” Ili whispered. He stepped away from the horse who was relaxed now and crunching happily.
“They'll find him, or her, Ili,” Didi said. “You should let them. And you and I can get the padded sticks out if you need to pound on somebody.”
“Thanks, Didi,” but his head was down, thinking. She nodded at Ser Marii who was running careful hands over Killer as they left.