The Winners Curse Page 13

Although he knew he shouldn\ , Arin traced the braid with one fingertip.

’’That\s not yours,’’ a voice said.

He snatched his hand away. He turned, his face hot. Through the open bedroom door, Arin saw Enai staring at him from where she lay. ’’I\m sorry.’’ He set the lid on the box.

’’I doubt it,’’ she muttered, and told him to come near.

Arin did, slowly. He had the feeling he was not going to like this conversation.

’’You spend a lot of time with Kestrel,’’ Enai said.

He shrugged. ’’I do what she asks.’’

Enai held his gaze. Despite himself, he looked away first.

’’Don\ hurt her,’’ the woman said.

It was a sin to break a deathbed promise.

Arin left without making one.

18

After Enai\s death, Kestrel sat in her rooms remembering how the woman had taught her to paint a tree by blowing through a hollow quill at a pool of ink on paper. Kestrel saw the white page. She felt the ache in her lungs, saw the black branches spreading, and thought this was what her grief felt like, digging roots and twigs into her body.

She had had a mother, and that mother was gone. Then she had had another mother, and that one was gone, too.

Daylight came and went and continued without Kestrel being truly aware that time was passing. She pushed away food that slaves brought her. She refused to read letters. She couldn\ even think of playing the piano, for it was Enai who had encouraged her to keep practicing after her mother\s death. She heard the memory of Enai saying what a pretty melody that was, and could Kestrel play it again? That memory became a refrain of its own: echoing, diminishing, returning. And then Kestrel saw again the skin and bone of Enai\s face, the coughed-up blood, and knew that she was to blame, that she should have insisted on a doctor earlier, and now Enai was dead.

It was late afternoon and she was sitting alone in her breakfast room, blankly staring out a window at bad weather, when she heard rapid, fierce footfalls striding toward her.

’’Stop crying.’’ Arin\s tone was brutal.

Kestrel lifted fingertips to her cheek. They came away wet. ’’You shouldn\ be here,’’ she said, her voice hoarse. The breakfast room was one into which men were not allowed.

’’I don\ care.’’ He tugged Kestrel to her feet, and the shock of it forced her gaze to his. The blacks of his eyes were blown wide with feeling.

With anger. ’’Stop it,’’ he said. ’’Stop pretending to mourn someone who wasn\ your blood.’’

His hand was iron around her wrist. She pulled free, the cruelty of what he had said bringing fresh tears to her eyes. ’’I loved her,’’ Kestrel whispered.

’’You loved her because she did anything you wanted.’’

’’That\s not true.’’

’’She didn\ love you. She could never love you. Where is her real family, Kestrel?’’

She didn\ know. She had been afraid to ask.

’’Where is her daughter? Her grandchildren? If she loved you, it was because she had no choice, and there was no one else left.’’

’’Get out,’’ she told him, but he was already gone.

The light dimmed. The sky through the windows turned emerald. It was the first green storm of the season, and as Kestrel heard the wind pummel the house, she knew that Arin was wrong. He had wanted to punish her for months now. Hadn\ she bought him? Didn\ she own him? This was his revenge. That was all.

The rain drove nails against the windowpanes. The room grew almost black. Kestrel heard Arin\s voice again in her mind and felt suddenly broken. Even if she didn\ doubt her feelings for Enai, there had been truth in his words.

She didn\ notice him return. This storm was loud, the room was dark. She sucked in her breath when she realized he stood next to her. For the first time, it occurred to her to be afraid of him.

But he merely struck a match and touched it to the wick of a lamp. He was soaked with rain. His skin glittered with it.

When she looked at him, he flinched. ’’Kestrel.’’ He sighed. He rubbed a hand through his wet hair. ’’I shouldn\ have said what I did.’’

’’You meant it.’’

’’Yes, but ’’ Arin looked weary and confused. ’’I would have been angry if you did not weep for her.’’ He held out the hand that rested at his side in the shadows, and for an uncertain moment Kestrel thought he would touch her. But he was only offering something on his uplifted palm. ’’This was in her cottage,’’ he said.

It was a braid of Kestrel\s hair. She took it carefully;even so, her smallest finger brushed his wet palm. His hand instantly fell.

She considered the braid, turning the bright ring in her fingers. She knew that it didn\ choose sides between her truth and Arin\s. It wasn\ proof of Enai\s love. Yet it was a comfort.

’’I should go,’’ Arin said, though he didn\ move.

Kestrel looked at his face glowing in the lamplight. She became aware that she was close enough to him that her bare foot rested on the damp edge of carpet where Arin stood, seeping rainwater. A shiver traveled up her skin.

Kestrel stepped back. ’’Yes,’’ she said. ’’You should.’’

* * *

The next morning, her father strode into her visiting room and said, ’’This seclusion of yours has gone on long enough.’’ He stood in front of her chair, feet planted. He often took this stance when he would rather pace. ’’I know your attachment to your nurse, and I suppose, all things considered, it\s understandable. But you\ve missed a training session with Rax, a lesson with me, and I didn\ raise you to fall apart at the slightest difficulty.’’

’’I\m fine, Father.’’ Kestrel poured a cup of tea.

It was only then that he truly looked at her. She was sure there were hollows under her eyes, but she was impeccably dressed for a late autumn day in society.

’’Well,’’ he said. ’’Good. Because I sent for Jess. She\s waiting downstairs in the parlor.’’

Kestrel set the cup on its saucer and rose to greet her friend.

’’Kestrel.’’ The general touched her shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was uncharacteristically hesitant. ’’It\s every child\s duty to survive her parents. My profession isn\ a safe one. I would like Kestrel, when I die, do not mourn me.’’

She smiled. ’’You do not command me,’’ she said, and kissed his cheek.

* * *

Jess was in her element. She whisked Kestrel away in her carriage and stopped in front of the city\s finest dressmaker. ’’You promised,’’ she warned Kestrel as they stepped from the carriage.

Kestrel eyed her. ’’I promised to let you choose the fabric for my gown.’’

’’Liar. I get to choose everything.’’

’’Oh, all right,’’ Kestrel said, because Jess\s enthusiasm made her own sadness ebb. How much damage, anyway, could Jess do?

When they entered the shop, Jess waved away the fabrics Kestrel would have chosen, and sketched designs for the dressmaker that made Kestrel\s eyes widen. ’’Jess. This is for a Firstwinter ball. I am going to freeze. May I please have sleeves?’’

’’No.’’

’’And the neckline ’’

’’Be quiet. Your opinion is not needed.’’

Kestrel gave up, and stood on the block while the dressmaker pinned cloth around her and Jess gave instructions. Then the two young women left Kestrel alone, ducking into the supply room where bolts of fabric shimmered on shelves. Jess whispered, the dressmaker whispered back, and as Kestrel strained to understand their excited confederacy, she began to suspect that Jess was arranging for not one but two dresses.

’’Jess,’’ called Kestrel, ’’did I hear you say that you wanted the evening dress to be embroidered, and the ball gown to be plain?’’

’’Of course. You need a new evening dress, too, for Lord Irex\s dinner party.’’

A pin jabbed into Kestrel\s waist. ’’He\s having a party?’’

’’It is high time. He hopes to be a senator someday, so he must begin to show his friendly side to society. Plus, his parents have traveled to the capital for the winter season. He has the house to himself.’’

’’I\m not going,’’ Kestrel said flatly.

’’You have to go.’’

’’I wasn\ invited.’’

’’Obviously you were. You are General Trajan\s daughter, and if now is the first time you have heard of the party, it\s only because you haven\ opened your letters in more than a week.’’

Kestrel remembered Irex\s threatening leer. ’’No. Absolutely not.’’

’’But why?’’

’’I don\ like him.’’

’’What does that matter? There will be scores of people, and his house is certainly large enough for you to avoid him. Everyone will be there. How will it look if you are not?’’

Kestrel thought of a Bite and Sting game. She had to admit that if Irex\s invitation were a tile and not a piece of paper folded and sealed, she would play it coolly.

Jess drew near and reached for Kestrel\s hands. ’’I don\ like to see you sad. Come with Ronan and me, and we will keep you away from Irex and make you laugh at him. Come, Kestrel. I won\ give up until you say yes.’’

19

When the dress for Irex\s dinner party arrived wrapped in muslin and tied with twine, it was Arin who brought the package to Kestrel. She hadn\ seen him since the first green storm. She didn\ like to think about that day. It was her grief, she decided, that she didn\ want to remember. She was learning to live around it. She had returned to her music, and let that and outings and lessons flow around the fact of Enai\s death, smoothing its jagged edges.

She spent little time at the villa. She sent no invitations to Arin for Bite and Sting. If she went into society, she chose other escorts.

When Arin stepped into her sitting room that was really a writing room, Kestrel set her book next to her on the divan and turned its spine so that he wouldn\ see the title.

’’Hmm,’’ Arin said, turning the packaged dress over in his hands. ’’What could this be?’’

’’I am sure you know.’’

He pressed it between his fingers. ’’A very soft kind of weapon, I think.’’

’’Why are you delivering my dress?’’

’’I saw Lirah with it. I asked if I could bring it to you.’’

’’And she let you, of course.’’

He lifted his brows at her tone. ’’She was busy. I thought she would be glad for one less thing to do.’’

’’That was kind of you then,’’ Kestrel said, though she heard her voice indicate otherwise and was annoyed with herself.

Slowly, he said, ’’What do you mean?’’

’’I mean nothing.’’

’’You asked me to be honest with you. Do you think I have been?’’

She remembered his harsh words during the storm. ’’Yes.’’

’’Can I not ask the same thing of you?’’

The answer was no, no slave could ask anything of her. The answer was no, if he wanted her secret thoughts he could try to win them at Bite and Sting. But Kestrel swallowed a sudden flare of nervousness and admitted to herself that she valued his honesty and her own, when she was around him. There was nothing wrong with speaking the truth. ’’I think that you are not fair to Lirah.’’

His brows drew together. ’’I don\ understand.’’

’’It\s not fair for you to encourage Lirah when your heart is elsewhere.’’

He inhaled sharply. Kestrel thought that he might tell her it was no business of hers, for it was not, but then she saw that he wasn\ offended, only taken aback. He pulled up a chair in that possessive, natural way of his and sank into it, dropping the dress onto his knees. He studied her. She willed herself not to look away.

’’I hadn\ thought of Lirah like that.’’ Arin shook his head. ’’I\m not thinking clearly at all. I need to be more careful.’’

Kestrel supposed that she should feel reassured.

Arin set the package on the divan where she sat. ’’A new dress means an event on the horizon.’’

’’Yes, a dinner party. Lord Irex is hosting.’’

He frowned. ’’And you\ e going?’’

She shrugged.

’’Do you need an escort?’’

Kestrel intended to say no, but became distracted by the determined set to Arin\s mouth. He looked almost ... protective. She was surprised that he should look that way. She was confused, and perhaps this made her say, ’’To be honest, I would be glad for your company.’’

His eyes held hers. Then his gaze fell to the book by Kestrel\s side. Before she could stop him, he took it with a nimble hand and read the title. It was a Valorian history of its empire and wars.

Arin\s face changed. He returned the book and left.

* * *

’’Where are we going?’’ Arin stared out the carriage window at the trees of the Garden District, their bare branches slim and violet in the dusk.

Kestrel fidgeted with her skirts. ’’Arin. You know that we are going to Irex\s party.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said shortly, but didn\ tear his gaze away from the passing trees.

Better he look at them than at her. The velvet dress was a deep red, the skirts deliberately crushed in a pattern highlighted by golden embroidered leaves that twined up toward the bodice, where they interlaced and would catch the light. Conspicuous. The dress made her conspicuous. Kestrel sank into her corner of the carriage, feeling her dagger dig into her side. This evening at Irex\s wouldn\ be easy.

Arin seemed to think the same. He held himself so rigidly on the carriage seat across from her that he looked wooden. Tension seeped into the air between them.

When torches lit the darkness outside the windows and the driver lined up behind other carriages waiting to access the pathway to Irex\s villa, Kestrel said, ’’Perhaps we should return home.’’


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