The Winners Curse Page 12

Ronan glanced back, blond hair brushing over his shoulder. ’’Surely you don\ intend for him to join us.’’

Arin\s horse, perfectly calm up until this point, began to shift and balk. It was sensing the tension Kestrel couldn\ see in its rider, who looked impassively at her, waiting for her to translate Ronan\s words into Herrani so that he could pretend it was necessary. ’’Wait here,’’ she told him in his language. He wheeled the horse back toward the stables.

’’You should vary your escorts,’’ Ronan told Kestrel as Arin rode away. ’’That one stays too close to your heels.’’

Kestrel wondered who had orchestrated her ride alone with Ronan, the sister or the brother. She would have chosen Ronan who, after all, had sent the invitation and would have encountered no resistance in asking Jess to stay indoors for the sake of a few private hours. But Ronan\s uncharacteristically foul mood made her think otherwise. He was acting like one might if his matchmaking sister had tricked him into something he didn\ wish to do.

The day, which had been beautiful to her, no longer looked as bright.

Yet when they stopped to sit under a tree, Ronan\s smile returned. He opened his saddlebags to reveal lunch, then unfurled a picnic blanket with a flourish, settled onto it, and stretched out his long form. Kestrel joined him. He poured a glass of wine and offered it.

She lifted a brow. ’’That is a rather large amount of wine for this time of day.’’

’’I hope to ply you with it, and make you say things you won\ regret.’’

She sipped, watching him pour a second cup, and said, ’’Are you not afraid for yourself?’’

He drank. ’’Why should I be?’’

’’Perhaps it is you who will reveal things he\d rather not. I understand you\ve been paying call to Lady Faris.’’

’’Jealous, Kestrel?’’

’’No.’’

’’Pity.’’ He sighed. ’’The sad, dull truth is that Faris has the best gossip.’’

’’Which you will share.’’

Ronan leaned back to rest on one elbow. ’’Well, Senator Andrax has been moved to the capital, where he awaits trial for selling black powder to our enemies. The black powder hasn\ been found, despite the search no surprise there, really. It probably vanished into the east long ago. Now, what else? Senator Linux\s daughter stole quite a few hours with a certain sailor on board one of the ships in the harbor, and has been shut away in her rooms by her parents for the fall season probably winter, too. My friend Hanan has gambled away his inheritance don\ worry, Kestrel, he\ll get it back. Just please, please do not play Bite and Sting with him for a few months. Oh, and the captain of the city guard committed suicide. But you knew that.’’

She almost spilled her wine. ’’No. When did that happen?’’

’’The day before yesterday. You really didn\ know? Well, your father\s away again, I suppose. And you spend too much time sealed inside that villa. How you don\ go mad with boredom is beyond me.’’

Kestrel knew the captain. Oskar had dined at her house. He was a friend of her father\s, and unlike most of his friends he was jovial and well liked.

’’It was an honor suicide,’’ Ronan said, which meant that the captain had fallen on his sword.

’’But why?’’

Ronan shrugged. ’’The pressure of his position?’’

’’He was captain since the colonization. He was excellent at it, and respected.’’

’’Personal troubles, perhaps.’’ Ronan spread his hands. ’’Really, I don\ know, and I wish I\d never brought up such a dreary topic. This day hasn\ gone at all as I had hoped. Could we please talk about something other than suicide?’’

* * *

On the way home, Arin said, ’’Was your ride not pleasant?’’

Kestrel glanced up, startled by his biting tone. She realized she had been frowning, lost in thought. ’’Oh, it was very nice. I\m just troubled by some news.’’

’’What news?’’

’’The captain of the city guard has killed himself.’’

’’Does this ... grieve you? Did you know him?’’

’’Yes. No. Yes, I knew him, as a friend of my father\s, but not well enough to feel his death.’’

’’Then I don\ understand why it should concern you.’’

’’It concerns the whole city. There\s bound to be some disorder as the governor appoints a new captain, and the transition might not go smoothly. Oskar was very good at policing the city and his guards. That isn\ what bothers me.’’ Kestrel shook her head. ’’His suicide is the second thing to happen recently that doesn\ make sense.’’

’’What do you mean?’’

’’Senator Andrax. He loves gold, to be sure, but only because it buys him comfort. Good food, mistresses. He likes bribes: easy money. He won\ sit down at a Bite and Sting table with me, he\s so afraid of losing. How could he risk everything to sell black powder to the barbarians?’’

’’Maybe there is a side of him you have never seen. But he has nothing to do with the captain.’’

’’Except that both events are strange. Oskar had no reason to commit suicide. Even the emperor had praised his performance as captain. His guards admired him. He seemed happy.’’

’’So? You don\ know everything. People are unhappy for many reasons.’’ Arin\s voice was impatient, and she thought that they were no longer talking about the captain. ’’What do you know of unhappiness?’’ he said. ’’What makes you think you can see into the hearts of men?’’

He spurred his horse ahead, and the puzzle about the senator and the captain flew out of Kestrel\s mind as she concentrated on keeping up.

17

Kestrel\s father didn\ dismiss the captain\s death as easily as Ronan and Arin had. During the next lesson in the library, he listened to Kestrel broach the topic, his brow furrowing into deep lines.

’’Did Oskar have enemies?’’ she asked.

’’Everyone has enemies.’’

’’Perhaps someone made life difficult for him.’’

’’Or someone made him fall on his sword.’’ When the general saw her surprise he said, ’’It\s not hard to make murder look like an honor suicide.’’

’’I hadn\ thought of that,’’ she said quietly.

’’And what do you think now?’’

’’If it was murder, he could have been killed by someone likely to inherit his position as captain.’’

Her father rested a hand on her shoulder. ’’The death may be only what it appears: a suicide. But I\ll discuss our concerns with the governor. This matter bears further thought.’’

* * *

Kestrel, however, had little thought to spare. Enai wasn\ getting better.

’’Your cough is starting to worry me,’’ she told her nurse as they sat near the fire in her cottage.

’’I rather like it. It keeps me company. And it brings you to visit more frequently ... when you are not playing Bite and Sting.’’

Kestrel didn\ like the coy look on Enai\s face, or the fact that it was almost impossible to keep anything that happened in the villa private. Those games were private.

In a sharp tone, Kestrel said, ’’Let me send for a doctor.’’

’’He will only tell me that I am old.’’

’’Enai.’’

’’I don\ want to see one. Don\ try to order me around.’’

That silenced Kestrel. She decided not to press the issue. After all, the feverish glaze in Enai\s eyes had vanished long ago. Kestrel, seeking to change the subject, asked about something that Arin had said. It had been like a needle in a dark part of her mind, stitching invisible patterns. ’’Did the Herrani enjoy trading with Valorians before the war?’’

’’Oh, yes. Your people always had gold for Herrani goods. Valoria was our biggest buyer of exports.’’

’’But did we have a reputation for something else? Besides being rich and savage, with no manners.’’

Enai took a sip of tea, peering at Kestrel over the cup\s rim. Kestrel grew uncomfortable, and hoped Enai wouldn\ ask what inspired these questions. But the woman only said, ’’You were known for your beauty. Of course, that was before the war.’’

’’Yes,’’ said Kestrel softly. ’’Of course.’’

* * *

From the window of her dressing room, Kestrel could see the garden. One morning, her hair still loose, she noticed Arin and Lirah talking by the rows of autumn vegetables. Arin wore work clothes and his back was to the window, giving Kestrel no opportunity to read his expression. Lirah\s, however, was as clear as the dawn.

Kestrel realized that she had drawn close to the window. The chill from the glass breathed onto her skin, and her nails were digging into the grain of the sill. She drew back. She wasn\ eager to be caught spying. She pulled her velvet robe more tightly around her and let the view of the rosy sky fill her eyes, but still it seemed that all she saw was Lirah\s frank adoration.

Kestrel sat in front of her dressing table\s hinged mirror, then wondered why she had done such a foolish thing as to look at herself. The mirror\s reflection only proved her displeasure. And why should she care about what she had seen in the garden? Why should she feel that some trust had been breached?

Her reflection frowned. Why should she not feel that way? She had a duty to the well-being of her slaves. There was something dishonorable in Arin accepting Lirah\s attention when he had a sweetheart. Kestrel doubted Lirah knew about the woman in the market.

Kestrel\s hand pushed the oval mirror, spinning it on its hinges until it faced the wall and she stared at its blank, mother-of-pearl back. She refused to consider this anymore. She would not become one of those mistresses who tracked her slaves\ movements and gossiped about them for lack of anything interesting in her own life.

Later that day, Arin came to the music room with a request to visit the city. Kestrel was especially gracious. She gave him her seal ring and told him to take as much time as he liked, so long as he was back by curfew. When it seemed that he might linger, she sat at the piano, making her dismissal clear. Yet she didn\ play until he had left and she felt that he had already walked out of the villa, and was some distance away.

* * *

When Cheat saw Arin, he greeted him in the way Herrani men used to do, with a palm pressed briefly to the side of his face. Arin smiled and did the same. He had known Cheat for years, since he was a boy and had just changed hands from his first slaver to his second. They had met in a quarry outside the city. Arin remembered how the gray rock dust had made everyone look old, powdering hair and drying out the skin. Cheat, however, had seemed almost viciously full of life, and there was no question in the slaves\ quarters at night who led them.

’’Things are going very well,’’ Cheat said to him now. ’’Almost every household in the city has Herrani devoted to our cause and now, thanks to you, they are armed.’’

’’I\ll drop the latest batch of weapons over the wall tonight, but I\m not sure how many more I can make,’’ Arin said. ’’No one\s noticed what I do on the side because I fill the steward\s orders on time, but if someone decides to check, it\ll be clear that iron and steel have gone missing.’’

’’Then stop. Your position is too important to risk. I\ll arrange for someone to raid the city armory before the new captain is appointed to replace Oskar.’’

Cheat had been a city guard before the war. He had taken one look at the twelve-year-old Arin, called him a puppy with big paws, and said, ’’You\ll grow into them.’’ After curfew, he would teach Arin how to fight. Arin\s misery eased, though some of it came back when Cheat flattered and connived his way out of the quarry after a stint of only two years. But the skills Cheat had given him remained.

’’You should plan to raid the armory after the new captain is appointed,’’ said Arin. ’’If it\s noticed then that weapons are missing, it will make him look incompetent.’’

’’Good idea. In the meantime, you and I will keep meeting. We need our moment at the general\s estate. You\ll give it to us.’’

This was when Arin should have told Cheat that Kestrel was beginning to see a pattern of events. He should have revealed that she found something strange in the death of the captain, though she couldn\ know that two of the captain\s slaves had held him while another knelt on the ground with the man\s sword, waiting for the final push.

Arin should have said something to his leader. Yet he didn\ .

* * *

He kept his distance from the villa. It was too easy to slip in Kestrel\s presence.

One day, Lirah came to the forge. Arin was sure that he was being called to serve as Kestrel\s escort somewhere. He felt an eager dread.

’’Enai would like to see you,’’ Lirah said.

Arin set the hammer on the anvil. ’’Why?’’ His interactions with Enai had been limited, and he liked to keep them that way. The woman\s eyes were too keen.

’’She\s very sick.’’

Arin considered this, then nodded, following Lirah from the forge.

When they entered the cottage, they could hear the sounds of sleep from beyond the open bedroom door. Enai coughed, and Arin heard fluid in her lungs.

The coughing subsided, then gave way to ragged breath.

’’Someone should fetch a doctor,’’ Arin told Lirah.

’’Lady Kestrel has gone for one. She was very upset. She\ll return soon, I hope.’’ Haltingly, Lirah said, ’’I\d like to stay with you, but I have to get back to the house.’’ Arin barely noticed her touch his arm before leaving him.

Reluctant to wake Enai, Arin studied the cottage. It was snug and well maintained. The floor didn\ creak. There were signs, everywhere, of comfort. Slippers. A stack of dry wood. Arin ran a hand along the smooth mantel of the fireplace until he touched a porcelain box. He opened it. Inside was a small braid of dark blond hair with a reddish tinge, looped in a circle and tied with golden wire.


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