The Winners Crime Page 94

Arin shrugged that thought away. Now, standing on the ship\s deck, his face to the raw dawn, it seemed silly.

No one had noticed him. No one had cared. He\d made it to the harbor. The wind had been high and fair and seaward. His ship had cast off.

It was as he sailed from the bay that something finally changed. He\d seen, in the moonlight, Valorian double-masters, the kind heavy with cannon, gun decks on two levels. They rode in his wake. It wasn\ that Arin had gone unnoticed just that he had been noticed too late. There had been a delay. Some slowness to realize. Arin had the image of Valorians scrambling to catch up and catch him. But his ship plowed the waves. His captain had been a master sailor in the height of Herran\s naval prowess. The wind favored them. It skipped them over the sea. It threw a scarf of dark cloud over the moon. By daybreak, the Valorian ships were gone.

It was a brief respite. The Valorians knew where he\d go. The empire was coming, and so was war, but Arin focused on listening to the wind gust the sails. He watched the sun lift dripping over the horizon. He let the sea air cram his lungs, and he felt free.

Arin unwrapped a small cloth bundle. Kestrel\s dagger gleamed. Now that it didn\ hurt him to look at it, he could see its beauty better. The sun set its ruby on fire and showed its pink heart. The chased gold became a liquid swirl. Arin weighed the weapon in his hand. Really, it weighed barely anything at all.

Yes, it was beautiful. But beauty seemed a feeble reason to keep something he didn\ want.

Arin dropped the dagger in the sea.

He sailed home.

* * *

The wagon stopped. The horses needed to be watered.

The sun was up now. It came in through the wagon\s small, barred window. It showed Kestrel her shackled wrists, limp in the lap of the same pretty blue gown she had been wearing last night. Though the wagon had stopped, Kestrel still felt jolted, sore. Her eyes were swollen. The sunlight hurt.

But something brought her to her feet. A voice in another language as familiar to her as her own. Someone outside had spoken in Herrani.

Kestrel went to the window. She couldn\ see the guards. She couldn\ see anything at first;the light was too bright. But then she saw the peaks of empty mountains. She heard the Herrani voice again: a man, talking to the horses. She heard the swing of an empty metal bucket. Footsteps in grainy dirt.

’’Please,’’ she called softly in his language. The footsteps stopped. Her shackles rattled as she fumbled to get a finger and thumb up her left sleeve. She pinched the moth she had hidden there and pulled it free. She put her hand through the bars. ’’Take this.’’

Slowly, the footsteps neared. She still couldn\ see him, but imagined him standing just below her hand. Kestrel stretched. Her wrist strained, and her hand began to go numb. She offered the moth held in her fingertips.

Had he taken it? Had it fallen? It was gone.

’’Give it to your governor,’’ Kestrel whispered. ’’Tell Arin ’’

There was a cry, a heavy thump. Valorian curses, boots scuffing dirt. ’’What did she give you?’’ said one of the Valorian guards.

’’Nothing,’’ said the Herrani.

The door to the wagon flung open. Kestrel shrank into a corner. The guard was a large shadow against the achingly white light. He advanced. ’’What did you give him?’’

Outside, the rough sounds continued. Protests. An unceremonious search. But what, after all, would the guard outside see? A battered moth. Nothing precious. Nothing important. Just an ordinary thing, blending into everything else.

The guard grabbed her shoulders. Her shackled hands went up. She hid behind them.

All over, people were waking up to an ordinary day, as ordinary as a moth. Kestrel grieved for an ordinary day. She squeezed her eyes shut at the thought of how it would be, her perfect ordinary morning. A horse ride with Arin. A race.

I\m going to miss you when I wake up, she\d told him as she\d dreamed on the palace lawn.

Don\ wake up.

On that perfect, ordinary morning, she would pour tea for her father. He would stay, and he would never leave to be anywhere else.

Someone was shaking her. Kestrel remembered that it was the guard.

She remembered that it was her eighteenth birthday. She laughed, chokingly, to imagine the emperor explaining her absence to everyone gathered for her recital. She thought she was laughing, but then that sound tore along its edges. It clawed at her throat. Her face was wet. Tears stung her lips.

Her birthday. I remember the day you were born, her father had said. I could hold you with one hand.

The guard hit Kestrel across the face. ’’I said, what did you give him?’’

You had a warrior\s heart, even then.

Kestrel spat blood. ’’Nothing,’’ she told the guard. She thought of her father, she thought of Arin. She told her final lie. ’’I gave him nothing.’’

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