The Winners Curse Page 14

’’No,’’ said Arin. ’’I want to see the house.’’ He opened the door.

They were silent as they walked up the path to the villa. Though not as large as Kestrel\s, it was also a former Herrani home: elegant, prettily designed. Arin fell behind Kestrel, as was expected of slaves, but this made her uneasy. It was unsettling to feel him close and not see his face.

They entered the house with the other guests and made their way into the receiving room, which was lined with Valorian weapons.

’’They don\ belong there,’’ she heard Arin say. She turned to see him staring in shock at the walls.

’’Irex is an exceptional fighter,’’ said Kestrel. ’’And not very modest.’’

Arin said nothing, so neither did Kestrel. She prepared herself for the moment when the line of guests before her dwindled and she had to thank Irex for his hospitality.

’’Kestrel.’’ Irex took her hand. ’’I didn\ think you would come.’’

’’Why wouldn\ I?’’

He pulled her closer. Although his grip on her hand was painful, she let him. People milled around them, and she didn\ think it would help matters to shame Irex in front of his guests. He said, ’’Let\s have no bad blood between us.’’ He smiled, and a dimple bit into his left cheek, making him look oddly childlike at the same time his voice was unpleasant. ’’Did you never wonder why I wanted to play with you at Bite and Sting?’’

’’Because you wanted to beat me. But you won\ .’’ She placed her free hand on top of his that gripped hers. The gesture would look friendly to anyone who watched, but Irex felt her pinch the nerve that forced his hand to release her captive one. ’’This is a lovely party. My thanks to you equals the grace you have shown me.’’

The smile slid from his face. But Lady Faris was behind Kestrel and Arin, eager for attention, so it was easy for Kestrel to step aside and let the woman push close to Irex, saying what a shame it was that her husband couldn\ join her.

A slave in serving dress presented Kestrel with wine, then led the way to an open solarium with a low fountain and hothouse flowers. Musicians played discreetly behind an ebony screen as guests greeted each other, some chatting where they stood, others retreating for quiet conversations on the stone benches lining the fountain.

Kestrel turned to face Arin.

His eyes were dazed with anger, his hands clenched.

’’Arin,’’ she began, concerned, but his gaze flicked away and settled on some point across the room. ’’Your friends are here,’’ he said.

She followed his line of sight to see Jess and Ronan laughing at something Benix had said.

’’Dismiss me,’’ Arin said.

’’What?’’ she said, though in fact he was the only escort in the room. The slaves who threaded through the crowd were servers, and Irex\s.

’’Join your friends. I don\ want to stay here anymore. Send me to the kitchens.’’

She took a breath, then nodded. He spun on his heel and was gone.

She felt instantly alone. She hadn\ expected this. But when she asked herself what she had expected, she had a foolish image of her and Arin sitting on a bench together.

Kestrel looked up at the glass roof, a pyramid of purple sky. She saw the sharp cut of the moon, and remembered Enai saying that it was best to recognize the things one cannot change.

She crossed the room to greet her friends.

* * *

Kestrel ate little at dinner and drank less, though Ronan, who sat to her right, was attentive toward her plate and cup. She was glad when the last course was served and everyone moved into the adjoining ballroom, for she had begun to feel trapped at the table, and Ronan\s talk had a pattern that was too easy to predict. She preferred listening to music. Even in a crowd, she would take a quiet pleasure in whatever the flutist played for the dance. She thought that Arin would, too, if he were here.

’’Kestrel.’’ Ronan touched her long earring to make it swing. ’’You are dreaming. What holds your mind so?’’

’’Nothing,’’ she told him, and was relieved when Benix strode toward them to claim Ronan\s assistance.

’’The Raul twins,’’ Benix said pleadingly, casting his eyes in the direction of the identical sisters. ’’One won\ dance without the other, Ronan, so if you wouldn\ mind...’’

Ronan looked irritated.

’’What?’’ said Benix. When he glanced between Ronan and Kestrel he waved a dismissive hand. ’’We are old friends, we three. Kestrel can spare you for one dance.’’

Kestrel certainly could. But she pretended to be cross in a way that indicated both that she didn\ mind and that she did, a little, when the truth of the matter was that she didn\ care at all. She told the boys she would find Jess and a corner in which they would gossip.

’’Only one dance,’’ Ronan told Benix, and they crossed the room to the twins. The dance began, but Kestrel didn\ seek Jess. She found a chair in the shadows and sat listening, eyes closed, to the flute.

’’Lady Kestrel?’’ said an anxious voice.

Kestrel opened her eyes to see a girl dressed in a Herrani serving uniform. ’’Yes?’’

’’Will you please follow me? There is a problem with your escort.’’

Kestrel stood. ’’What\s wrong?’’

’’He has stolen something.’’

Kestrel rushed from the room, wishing the girl would move more quickly down the villa\s halls. There must be some mistake. Arin was intelligent, far too canny to do something so dangerous. He must know what happened to Herrani thieves.

The girl led Kestrel into the library. Several men were gathered there: two senators, who held Arin by his arms, and Irex, whose expression when he saw Kestrel was gloating, as if he had just drawn a high tile in Bite and Sting. ’’Lady Kestrel,’’ he said, ’’what exactly did you bring into my house?’’

Kestrel looked at Arin, who refused to return her gaze. ’’He wouldn\ steal.’’ She heard something desperate in her voice.

Irex must have, too. He smiled.

’’We saw him,’’ said one of the senators. ’’He was slipping that inside his shirt.’’ He nodded at a book that had fallen to the floor.

No. The accusation couldn\ be true. No slave would risk a flogging for theft, not for a book. Kestrel steadied herself. ’’May I?’’ she asked Irex, nodding at the fallen book.

He swept a hand to indicate permission.

Kestrel stooped to retrieve the book, and Arin\s eyes flashed to hers.

Her heart failed. His face was twisted with misery.

She considered the closed, leather-bound book in her hands. She recognized the title: it was a volume of Herrani poetry, a common one. There was a copy in her library as well. Kestrel held the book, not understanding, not seeing anything worth the risk of theft at least not here, from Irex\s library, when her own could easily serve Arin\s purposes.

A suspicion whispered in her mind. She recalled Arin\s odd question in the carriage. Where are we going? His tone had been incredulous. Yet he had known their destination. Now Kestrel wondered if he had recognized something in the passing landscape that she hadn\ , and if his question had been less a question than the automatic words of someone sickened by a sudden understanding.

She opened the book.

’’Don\ ,’’ said Arin. ’’Please.’’

But she had already seen the inscription.

For Arin, it read, from Amma and Etta, with love.

This was Arin\s home. This house had been his, this library his, this book his, dedicated to him by his parents, some ten years ago.

Kestrel breathed slowly. Her fingers rested on the page, just below the black line of writing. She lifted her gaze to meet Irex\s smirk.

Her mind chilled. She assessed the situation as her father would a battle. She knew her objective. She knew her opponent\s. She understood what she could afford to lose, and what she could not.

Kestrel closed the book, set it on a table, and turned her back to Arin. ’’Lord Irex,’’ she said, her voice warm. ’’It is but a book.’’

’’It is my book,’’ Irex said.

There was a choked sound behind her. Without looking, Kestrel said in Herrani, ’’Do you wish to be removed from the room?’’

Arin\s answer was low. ’’No.’’

’’Then be silent.’’ She smiled at Irex. In their language, she said, ’’This is clearly not a case of theft. Who would dare steal from you? I\m certain he meant only to look at it. You can\ blame him for being curious about the luxuries your house holds.’’

’’He shouldn\ have even been inside the library, let alone touching its contents. Besides, there were witnesses. A judge will rule in my favor. This is my property, so I will decide the number of lashes.’’

’’Yes, your property. Let us not forget that we are also discussing my property.’’

’’He will be returned to you.’’

’’So the law says, but in what condition? I am not eager to see him damaged. He holds more value than a book in a language no one has any interest in reading.’’

Irex\s dark eyes flicked to look behind Kestrel, then returned to her. They grew sly. ’’You take a decided interest in your slave\s well-being. I wonder to what lengths you will go to prevent a punishment that is rightfully mine to give.’’ He rested a hand on her arm. ’’Perhaps we can settle the matter between us.’’

Kestrel heard Arin inhale as he understood Irex\s suggestion. She was angry, suddenly, at the way her mind snagged on the sound of that sharp breath. She was angry at herself, for feeling vulnerable because Arin was vulnerable, and at Irex for his knowing smile. ’’Yes.’’ Kestrel decided to twist Irex\s words into something else. ’’This is between us, and fate.’’

Having uttered the formal words of a challenge to a duel, Kestrel stepped back from Irex\s touch, drew her dagger, and held it sideways at the level of her chest like a line drawn between him and her.

’’Kestrel,’’ Irex said. ’’That isn\ what I had in mind when I said we might solve the matter.’’

’’I think we\ll enjoy this method more.’’

’’A challenge.’’ He tsked. ’’I\ll let you take it back. Just this once.’’

’’I cannot take it back.’’

At that, Irex drew his dagger and imitated Kestrel\s gesture. They stood still, then sheathed their blades.

’’I\ll even let you choose the weapons,’’ Irex said.

’’Needles. Now it is to you to choose the time and place.’’

’’My grounds. Tomorrow, two hours from sunset. That will give me time to gather the death-price.’’

This gave Kestrel pause. But she nodded, and finally turned to Arin.

He looked nauseated. He sagged in the senators\ grip. It seemed they weren\ restraining him, but holding him up.

’’You can let go,’’ Kestrel told the senators, and when they did, she ordered Arin to follow her. As they left the library, Arin said, ’’Kestrel ’’

’’Not a word. Don\ speak until we are in the carriage.’’

They walked swiftly down the halls Arin\s halls and when Kestrel stole sidelong looks at him he still seemed stunned and dizzy. Kestrel had been seasick before, at the beginning of her sailing lessons, and she wondered if this was how Arin felt, surrounded by his home like when the eyes can pinpoint the horizon but the stomach cannot.

Their silence broke when the carriage door closed them in.

’’You are mad.’’ Arin\s voice was furious, desperate. ’’It was my book. My doing. You had no right to interfere. Did you think I couldn\ bear the punishment for being caught?’’

’’Arin.’’ Fear trembled through her as she finally realized what she had done. She strove to sound calm. ’’A duel is simply a ritual.’’

’’It\s not yours to fight.’’

’’You know you cannot. Irex would never accept, and if you drew a blade on him, every Valorian in the vicinity would cut you down. Irex won\ kill me.’’

He gave her a cynical look. ’’Do you deny that he is the superior fighter?’’

’’So he will draw first blood. He will be satisfied, and we will both walk away with honor.’’

’’He said something about a death-price.’’

That was the law\s penalty for a duel to the death. The victor paid a high sum to the dead duelist\s family. Kestrel dismissed this. ’’It will cost Irex more than gold to kill General Trajan\s daughter.’’

Arin dropped his face into his hands. He began to swear, to recite every insult against the Valorians the Herrani had invented, to curse them by every god.

’’Really, Arin.’’

His hands fell away. ’’You, too. What a stupid thing for you to do. Why did you do that? Why would you do such a stupid thing?’’

She thought of his claim that Enai could never have loved her, or if she had, it was a forced love.

’’You might not think of me as your friend,’’ Kestrel told Arin, ’’but I think of you as mine.’’

20

Kestrel slept easily that night. She hadn\ known, before she claimed Arin\s friendship, that this was what she felt. He had fallen silent in the carriage and looked strange, like someone who has drunk wine when he expected water. But he didn\ deny her words, and she knew him well enough to believe that he would if he wished.

A friend. The thought calmed her. It explained many things.

When she closed her eyes, she remembered something her father had often told her as a child, and would say to soldiers the night before a battle: ’’Nothing in dreams can hurt you.’’

Sleep settled on her like velvet.

Then the dawn came, clear and cold. Kestrel\s peace had vanished. She pulled on a dressing gown and hunted through a wardrobe for her ceremonial fighting garb. Her father ordered a new set every year, and this year\s was buried behind dresses. But they were there: black leggings, tunic, and stiff jacket. A worm of misgiving ate through her as she looked at the clothes. She left them where they were for the moment.


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