The Winners Curse Page 11

Well, if the baby was his, he had been conceived more than a year ago. And if Ronan was with Faris now, what promise was there between him and Kestrel?

’’Faris is notorious,’’ she told Jess. ’’Plus, her husband is in the capital.’’

’’Young men visit her because her husband is one of the most influential men in the city, and they hope Faris will help them become senators.’’

’’What price do you think she makes them pay?’’

Jess looked scandalized.

’’Why would Ronan mind paying?’’ Kestrel said. ’’Faris is beautiful.’’

’’He would never.’’

’’Jess, if you think you can convince me that Ronan is an innocent who has never been with a woman, you are mistaken.’’

’’If you think Ronan would prefer Faris over you, you are mad.’’ Jess shook her head. ’’All he wants is a sign of your affection. He has given you plenty.’’

’’Meaningless compliments.’’

’’You don\ want to see it. Don\ you think he is handsome?’’

Kestrel couldn\ deny that Ronan was everything she might hope. He cut a fine figure. He was witty, good-natured. And he didn\ mind her music.

Jess said, ’’Wouldn\ you like for us to be sisters?’’

Kestrel reached for one of Jess\s many shining, pale braids. She slipped it out of the girl\s upswept arrangement, then tucked it back in. ’’We already are.’’

’’Real sisters.’’

’’Yes,’’ Kestrel said in a low voice. ’’I would like that.’’ She had always wanted to be part of Jess\s family, ever since she had been a child. Jess had the perfect older brother and indulgent parents.

Jess made a delighted sound. Kestrel looked at her sharply. ’’Don\ you dare tell him.’’

’’Me?’’ Jess said innocently.

* * *

Later that day, Kestrel sat with Arin in the music room. She played her tiles: a pair of wolves and three mice.

Arin turned his over with a resigned sigh. He didn\ have a bad set, but it wasn\ good enough, and beneath his usual level of skill. He stiffened in his chair as if physically bracing himself for her question.

Kestrel studied his tiles. She was certain he could have done better than a pair of wasps. She thought of the tiles he had shown earlier in the game, and the careless way in which he had discarded others. If she didn\ know how little he liked to lose against her, she would have suspected him of throwing the game.

She said, ’’You seem distracted.’’

’’Is that your question? Are you asking me why I am distracted?’’

’’So you admit that you are distracted.’’

’’You are a fiend,’’ he said, echoing Ronan\s words during the match at Faris\s garden party. Then, apparently annoyed at his own words, he said, ’’Ask your question.’’

She could have pressed the issue, but his distraction was a less interesting mystery compared to one growing in her mind. She didn\ think Arin was who he appeared to be. He had the body of someone born into hard work, yet he knew how to play a Valorian game, and play it well. He spoke her language like someone who had studied it carefully. He knew or pretended to know the habits of a Herrani lady and the order of her rooms. He had been relaxed and adept around her stallion, and while that might not mean anything he had not ridden Javelin Kestrel knew that horsemanship among the Herrani before the war had been a mark of high class.

Kestrel thought that Arin was someone who had fallen far.

She couldn\ ask if that was true. She remembered his angry response when she had asked why he had been trained as a blacksmith, and that question had seemed innocent enough. Yet it had hurt him.

She did not want to hurt him.

’’How did you learn to play Bite and Sting?’’ she asked. ’’It\s Valorian.’’

He looked relieved. ’’There was a time when Herrani enjoyed sailing to your country. We liked your people. And we have always admired the arts. Our sailors brought back Bite and Sting sets a long time ago.’’

’’Bite and Sting is a game, not an art.’’

He folded his arms across his chest, amused. ’’If you say so.’’

’’I\m surprised to hear that Herrani liked anything about Valorians. I thought you considered us stupid savages.’’

’’Wild creatures,’’ he muttered.

Kestrel was sure she had misheard him. ’’What?’’

’’Nothing. Yes, you were completely uncultured. You ate with your hands. Your idea of entertainment was seeing who could kill the other first. But’’ his eyes met hers, then glanced away ’’you were known for other things, too.’’

’’What things? What do you mean?’’

He shook his head. He made that strange gesture again, lifting his fingers to flick the air by his temple. Then he folded his hands, unfolded them, and began to mix the tiles. ’’You have asked too many questions. If you want more, you will have to win them.’’

He showed no sign of distraction now. As they played, he ignored her attempts to provoke him or make him laugh. ’’I\ve seen your tricks on others,’’ he said. ’’They won\ work with me.’’

He won. Kestrel waited, nervous, and wondered if the way she felt was how he felt when he lost.

His voice came haltingly. ’’Will you play for me?’’

’’Play for you?’’

Arin winced. In a more determined tone, he said, ’’Yes. Something I choose.’’

’’I don\ mind. It\s only ... people rarely ask.’’

He stood from the table, searched the shelves along the wall, and returned with a sheaf of sheet music. She took it. ’’It\s for the flute,’’ he said. ’’It will probably take you time to transpose it for the piano. I can wait. Maybe after our next game ’’

She fanned the paper impatiently to silence him. ’’It\s not that hard.’’

He nodded, then sat in the chair farthest away from the piano, by the glass garden doors. Kestrel was glad for his distance. She settled on the piano\s bench, flipping through the sheet music. The title and notations were in Herrani, the pages yellow with age. She propped the paper on the piano\s rack, taking more time than necessary to neaten the sheets. Excitement coursed through her fingers as if she had already plunged her hands into the music, but that feeling was edged with a metallic lace of fear.

She wished that Arin hadn\ chosen music for the flute, of all instruments. The beauty of the flute was in its simplicity, in its resemblance to the human voice. It always sounded clear. It sounded alone. The piano, on the other hand, was a network of parts a ship, with its strings like rigging, its case a hull, its lifted lid a sail. Kestrel always thought that the piano didn\ sound like a single instrument but a twinned one, with its low and high halves merging together or pulling apart.

Flute music, she thought with frustration, and would not look at Arin.

Her opening notes were awkward. She paused, then gave the melody over to her right hand and began inventing with her left, pulling dark, rich phrases out of her mind. Kestrel felt the counterpoint knit itself into being. Forgetting the difficulty of what she was doing, she simply played.

It was a gentle, haunting music. When it ended, Kestrel was sorry. Her eyes sought Arin across the room.

She didn\ know if he had watched her play. He wasn\ looking at her now. His gaze was unfocused, directed toward the garden without really seeming to see it. The lines of his face had softened. He looked different, Kestrel realized. She couldn\ say why, but he looked different to her now.

Then he glanced at her, and she was startled enough to let one hand fall onto the keys with a very unmusical sound.

Arin smiled. It was a true smile, which let her know that all the others he had given her were not. ’’Thank you,’’ he said.

Kestrel felt herself blush. She focused on the keys and played something, anything. A simple pattern to distract herself from the fact that she wasn\ someone who easily blushed, particularly for no clear reason.

But she found that her fingers were sketching an outline of a tenor\s range. ’’Do you truly not sing?’’

’’No.’’

She considered the timbre of his voice and let her hands drift lower. ’’Really?’’

’’No, Kestrel.’’

Her hands slid from the keys. ’’Too bad,’’ she said.

16

When Kestrel received a message from Ronan inviting her to go riding with him and Jess at their estate, she remembered something her father had said recently about evaluating an enemy.

’’Everything in war hinges on what you know of your adversary\s skills and assets,’’ he had said. ’’Yes, luck will play some part. The terrain will be crucial. Numbers are important. But how you negotiate the strengths of your opponent is more likely to decide the battle than anything else.’’

Arin wasn\ Kestrel\s enemy, but their Bite and Sting games had made her see him as a worthy opponent. So she considered her father\s words. ’’Your adversary will want to keep his assets hidden until the final moment. Use spies if you can. If not, how might you trick him into revealing the knowledge you seek?’’ The general had answered his own question: ’’Nettle his pride.’’

Kestrel sent a house slave to the forge with a request for Arin to meet her in the stables. When he arrived, Javelin was already saddled and Kestrel was waiting, dressed for riding.

’’What is this?’’ Arin said. ’’I thought you wanted an escort.’’

’’I do. Pick a horse.’’

Warily, he said, ’’If I am to go with you, we need the carriage.’’

’’Not if you know how to ride.’’

’’I don\ .’’

She mounted Javelin. ’’Then I suppose you must follow me in the carriage.’’

’’You\ll get in trouble if you ride alone.’’

She gathered the reins in her hands.

’’Where are you going?’’ Arin demanded.

’’Ronan invited me to ride on his grounds,’’ she told him, and kicked Javelin into a canter. She rode out of the stables, then out of the estate, pausing only to tell the guards at the gate that a slave would be following her. ’’Probably,’’ she added, spurring Javelin through the gate before the guards could question the irregularity of it all. She turned Javelin down one of the many horse paths Valorians had carved through the greener parts of the city, creating roads only for riders traveling at a good speed. Kestrel resisted the urge to slow her horse. She pressed him still further, listening to hooves hit the dirt with its blanket of fire-colored leaves.

It was some time before she heard galloping behind her, and then she did ease up, instinctively wheeling Javelin around to see the blur of horse and rider coming down the path.

Arin slowed, and sidled alongside Kestrel. The horses whickered. Arin looked at her, at the smile she couldn\ hide, and his face seemed to hold equal parts frustration and amusement.

’’You are a bad liar,’’ she told him.

He laughed.

She found it hard to look at him then, and her gaze dropped to his stallion. Her eyes widened. ’’That is the horse you chose?’’

’’He is the best,’’ Arin said seriously.

’’He is my father\s.’’

’’I won\ hold that against the horse.’’

It was Kestrel\s turn to laugh.

’’Come.’’ Arin nudged the stallion forward. ’’Let\s not be late,’’ he said, and yet, without discussing it, they rode more slowly than was allowed on the path.

Kestrel no longer doubted that ten years ago Arin had been in a position much like hers: one of wealth, ease, education. Although she was aware she had not won the right to ask him a question, and didn\ even want to voice her creeping worry, Kestrel couldn\ bear remaining silent. ’’Arin,’’ she said, searching his face. ’’Was it my house? I mean, the villa. Did you live there, before the war?’’

He yanked on the reins. His stallion ground to a halt.

When he spoke, Arin\s voice was like the music he had asked her to play. ’’No,’’ he said. ’’That family is gone.’’

They rode on in silence until Arin said, ’’Kestrel.’’

She waited, then realized that he wasn\ speaking to her, exactly. He was simply saying her name, considering it, exploring the syllables of the Valorian word.

She said, ’’I hope you\ e not going to pretend you don\ know what it means.’’

He shot her a wry, sidelong look. ’’A kestrel is a hunting hawk.’’

’’Yes. The perfect name for a warrior girl.’’

’’Well.’’ His smile was slight, but it was there. ’’I suppose neither of us is the person we were believed we would become.’’

* * *

Ronan was waiting in his family\s stables. He played with the gloves in his hands as he stood watching Kestrel and Arin ride toward him.

’’I thought you would take the carriage,’’ Ronan said to Kestrel.

’’To go riding? Really, Ronan.’’

’’But your escort.’’ His eyes cut to Arin sitting easily on the stallion. ’’I didn\ think any of your slaves rode.’’

Kestrel watched Ronan tug at the gloves\ fingers. ’’Is there a problem?’’

’’Now that you are here, certainly not.’’ Yet his voice was strained.

’’Because if you don\ like the way in which I have come, you may ride to my house the next time you invite me, then escort me back to your estate, then see me safely home again, and go back the way you came.’’

He responded to her words as if they had been flirtatious. ’’It would be my pleasure. Speaking of pleasure, let\s take some together.’’ He mounted his horse.

’’Where is Jess?’’

’’Sick with a headache.’’

Somehow Kestrel doubted that. She said nothing, however, and let Ronan lead the way out of the stables. She turned to follow, and Arin did the same.


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