The Winners Curse Page 10

Kestrel looked up from her piano to see him standing by the doors she had left open, then glanced at the Bite and Sting set lying on a table by the garden windows.

’’Not at all,’’ said Kestrel. ’’I have been busy.’’

His gaze flicked to the piano. ’’So I\ve heard.’’

Kestrel moved to sit at the table and said, ’’I\m intrigued by your choice of room.’’

He hesitated, and she thought he was ready to deny any responsibility of choice, to pretend that a ghost had left that tile on the piano. Then he shut the doors behind him. The room, though large, felt suddenly small. Arin crossed the room to join her at the table. He said, ’’I didn\ like playing in your suite.’’

She decided not to take offense. She had asked him to be honest. Kestrel mixed the tiles, but when she set a box of matches on the table, he said, ’’Let\s play for something else.’’

Kestrel didn\ move her hand from the box\s lid. Again she wondered what he could offer her, what he could gamble, and she could think of nothing.

Arin said, ’’If I win, I will ask a question, and you will answer.’’

She felt a nervous flutter. ’’I could lie. People lie.’’

’’I\m willing to risk it.’’

’’If those are your stakes, then I assume my prize would be the same.’’

’’If you win.’’

She still could not quite agree. ’’Questions and answers are highly irregular stakes in Bite and Sting,’’ she said irritably.

’’Whereas matches make the perfect ante, and are so exciting to win and lose.’’

’’Fine.’’ Kestrel tossed the box to the carpet, where it landed with a muffled sound.

Arin didn\ look satisfied or amused or anything at all. He simply drew his hand. She did the same. They played in intent concentration, and Kestrel was determined to win.

She didn\ .

’’I want to know,’’ Arin said, ’’why you are not already a soldier.’’

Kestrel couldn\ have said what she had thought he would ask, but this was not it, and the question recalled years of arguments she would rather forget. She was curt. ’’I\m seventeen. I\m not yet required by law to enlist or marry.’’

He settled back in his chair, toying with one of his winning pieces. He tapped a thin side against the table, spun the tile in his fingers, and tapped another side. ’’That\s not a full answer.’’

’’I don\ think we specified how short or long these answers should be. Let\s play again.’’

’’If you win, will you be satisfied with the kind of answer you have given me?’’

Slowly, she said, ’’The military is my father\s life. Not mine. I\m not even a skilled fighter.’’

’’Really?’’ His surprise seemed genuine.

’’Oh, I pass muster. I can defend myself as well as most Valorians, but I\m not good at combat. I know what it\s like to be good at something.’’

Arin glanced again at the piano.

’’There is also my music,’’ Kestrel acknowledged. ’’A piano is not very portable. I could hardly take it with me if I were sent into battle.’’

’’Playing music is for slaves,’’ Arin said. ’’Like cooking or cleaning.’’

Kestrel heard anger in his words, buried like bedrock under the careless ripple of his voice. ’’It wasn\ always like that.’’

Arin was silent, and even though Kestrel had initially tried to answer his question in the briefest of ways, she felt compelled to explain the final reason behind her resistance to the general. ’’Also ... I don\ want to kill.’’ Arin frowned at this, so Kestrel laughed to make light of the conversation. ’’I drive my father mad. Yet don\ all daughters? So we\ve made a truce. I have agreed that, in the spring, I will either enlist or marry.’’

He stopped spinning the tile in his fingers. ’’You\ll marry, then.’’

’’Yes. But at least I will have six months of peace first.’’

Arin dropped the tile to the table. ’’Let\s play again.’’

This time Kestrel won, and wasn\ prepared for how her blood buzzed with triumph.

Arin stared at the tiles. His mouth thinned to a line.

A thousand questions swam into Kestrel\s mind, nudging, fighting to be first. But she was as taken aback as Arin seemed to be by the one that slipped out of her mouth. ’’Why were you trained as a blacksmith?’’

For a moment, Kestrel thought he wouldn\ answer. His jaw tightened. Then he said, ’’I was chosen because I was the last nine-year-old boy in the world suited to be a blacksmith. I was scrawny. I daydreamed. I cringed. Have you looked at the tools in the forge? At the hammer? You\d want to think carefully about what kind of slave you\d let pick that up. My first slaver looked at me and decided I wasn\ the type to raise my hand in anger. He chose me.’’ Arin\s smile was cold. ’’Well, do you like your answer?’’

Kestrel couldn\ speak.

Arin pushed his tiles away. ’’I want to go into the city.’’

Even though Kestrel had said that he could, and knew that there was nothing wrong with a slave hoping to see his sweetheart, she wanted to say no. ’’So soon?’’ she managed.

’’It\s been a month.’’

’’Oh.’’ Kestrel told herself that a month must be a long time to go without seeing the person one loves. ’’Of course. Go.’’

* * *

’’I\ve made about thirty weapons,’’ Arin told the auctioneer. ’’Mostly daggers, good for close-range attack. A few swords. I\ve bundled them, and will drop them over the southwest wall of the general\s estate tonight, four hours before dawn. Make sure someone\s waiting on the other side.’’

’’Done,’’ said Cheat.

’’You can expect more. What about the black powder kegs?’’

’’They\ e secure.’’

’’I wonder if I should try to recruit any of the general\s slaves. They could be useful.’’

Cheat shook his head. ’’It\s not worth the risk.’’

’’If we didn\ have people in Senator Andrax\s house, we never would have been able to steal the black powder. All our man had to do was take his master\s key and return it to its proper place afterward. We might be missing a similar opportunity at the general\s.’’

’’I said no.’’

Arin\s heart seemed to be punching its way out of his chest, he was so angry. But he knew that Cheat was right, and his mood wasn\ the auctioneer\s fault. It was his own. Or hers. He wasn\ sure what bothered him more about that last Bite and Sting game: that he had played into her hands, or that she had played into his.

’’What about the girl?’’ Cheat said, and Arin wished that he had asked him any other question.

Arin hesitated, then said, ’’Reports of Lady Kestrel\s military skill are exaggerated. She won\ be a problem.’’

* * *

’’Here.’’ Kestrel handed her old nurse a small ceramic pot. ’’Syrup for your cough.’’

Enai sighed, which triggered another bout of coughing. She leaned against the pillows Kestrel had tucked behind her shoulders, then raised her eyes to the cottage ceiling. ’’I hate autumn. And the god of good health.’’

Kestrel sat at the edge of the bed. ’’Poor Amma,’’ she said, using the Herrani word for mother. ’’Shall I tell you a story, like you used to do for me when I was sick?’’

’’No. You Valorians are bad storytellers. I know what you\ll say. \We fought. We won. The end.\’’

’’I think I can do better than that.’’

Enai shook her head. ’’Best to recognize the things you can\ change, child.’’

’’Well, then when you\ e better, you\ll come to the villa and I will play for you.’’

’’Yes. I always like that.’’

Kestrel left her side and moved around the two-room cottage, unpacking a basket of food and tidying up.

’’I met Smith,’’ Enai called.

Kestrel\s hands stilled. She returned to the bedroom. ’’Where?’’

’’Where do you think? In the slaves\ quarters.’’

’’I thought you didn\ go there,’’ Kestrel said. ’’You shouldn\ go outside until you\ e better.’’

’’Don\ fuss. I went there a few days ago, before I fell ill.’’

’’And?’’

Enai shrugged. ’’We didn\ speak much. But he seems to be well liked. He\s made friends.’’

’’Like who?’’

’’He and the groom that new one, I forget his name get along. At meals, Smith usually sits with Lirah.’’

Kestrel focused on drawing Enai\s blanket into a neat line across the woman\s chest. She made it neater still, thinking of Lirah\s oval face and sweet voice. ’’Lirah is kind. She is a good friend for him to have.’’

Enai reached for her hand. ’’I know you regret the purchase, but there are worse places for him to be.’’

Kestrel realized that she no longer did regret the purchase and frowned. What kind of person had she become, to feel that way?

’’I gave him house privileges,’’ she said, knowing that her tone was defensive. ’’He also often serves as my escort into the city.’’

Enai swallowed some syrup and made a face. ’’Yes, I heard from the others. Does society talk about it?’’

’’About what?’’

’’About Smith. Does society talk about him appearing as your escort?’’

’’Not to my knowledge. There was some gossip about the price I paid for him, but everyone\s forgotten that.’’

’’That may be, but I would think he\d still draw attention.’’

Kestrel searched the woman\s face. ’’Enai, what are you trying to say? Why would people talk about him?’’

Enai studied the very plain syrup pot. Finally, she said, ’’Because of how he looks.’’

’’Oh.’’ Kestrel was relieved. ’’Once he\s dressed in house attire he doesn\ appear so rough. He holds himself well.’’ This thought seemed ready to give rise to other thoughts, but she shook her head. ’’No, I don\ think he would give anyone cause to complain about his appearance.’’

Enai said, ’’I\m sure you\ e right.’’

Kestrel had the sense that the woman\s words were less an agreement than a decision to let some unspoken matter drop.

15

Enai\s words troubled Kestrel, but not so much that she changed her ways. She continued to bring Arin with her on visits into society. She enjoyed his sharp mind even his sharp tongue. She had to admit, however, that their conversations in Herrani created a false sense of privacy. She thought this was due to the language itself;Herrani had always felt more intimate than Valorian, probably because after her mother\s death her father had had little time for her, and it was Enai who had filled the void, distracting Kestrel from her tears by teaching her the Herrani word for them.

Kestrel frequently had to remind herself that Arin knew her language as well as she did his. Sometimes, when she caught a glimpse of him listening to an absurd dinner conversation, she wondered how he had mastered Valorian so completely. Few slaves did.

Not long after her second game of Bite and Sting with Arin, they went to Jess\s home.

’’Kestrel!’’ Jess embraced her. ’’You\ve neglected us.’’

Jess waited for an explanation, but when Kestrel mentally sifted through her reasons the strategy lessons with her father, hours of practice at piano, and two Bite and Sting games that took up much more time in her mind than they had actual hours she said only, ’’Well, I\m here now.’’

’’And ready with an apology. If not, I shall take my revenge on you.’’

’’Oh?’’ Kestrel followed Jess into the parlor, listening to Arin\s footsteps behind them soften as he moved from the marble hallway to the carpeted floor. ’’Should I be afraid?’’

’’Yes. If you don\ beg my forgiveness, I won\ go with you to the dressmaker\s to order gowns for the governor\s Firstwinter ball.’’

Kestrel laughed. ’’The first day of winter is ages away.’’

’’But your apology, I hope, isn\ .’’

’’I am very, very sorry, Jess.’’

’’Good.’’ Jess\s brown eyes glittered with mirth. ’’I forgive you, on the condition that you let me choose your gown.’’

Kestrel gave her a helpless look. She glanced at Arin, who was standing against the wall. Though his expression was bland, she had the impression he was laughing at her.

’’You dress too modestly, Kestrel.’’ When Kestrel began to protest, Jess caught one of her hands with both of hers and shook it. ’’There. It is agreed. It is done. A Valorian honors her word.’’

Kestrel sank onto a sofa next to Jess, admitting defeat.

’’Ronan will be sorry to have missed you,’’ Jess said.

’’He is out?’’

’’He is visiting Lady Faris\s household.’’

Kestrel lifted one brow. ’’Then I am sure her charms will soothe any regret he might have in missing me.’’

’’Don\ tell me that you\ e jealous. You know what Ronan feels for you.’’

Kestrel became acutely conscious of Arin\s presence in the room. She glanced at him, expecting the bored expression he usually wore in Jess\s company. It wasn\ there. He seemed oddly intent. ’’You may go,’’ she told him.

It looked like he might disobey. Then he spun on his heel and strode from the room.

When the door had shut behind him, Kestrel told Jess, ’’Ronan and I are friends.’’

Jess huffed with impatience.

’’And there is only one reason young men of his set visit Lady Faris,’’ Kestrel continued, thinking of Faris\s baby and his dimpled smile. She considered the possibility that the child was Ronan\s. This didn\ trouble her which did trouble her. Shouldn\ she care? Didn\ she welcome Ronan\s attention? Yet the idea that he had fathered a child skimmed the surface of her mind and slipped in quietly, without a splash or gulp or quiver.


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