The Winners Curse Page 15

It wasn\ that she feared the duel, Kestrel thought as she shut the wardrobe door. She didn\ balk at first blood, which could be no worse than she had received in training sessions. She didn\ dread losing to Irex. Defeat at a duel brought no shame in the eyes of society.

But Kestrel\s reasons for fighting might.

Does society talk about him? Enai had asked. Kestrel pressed a palm against the wardrobe door, then rested her forehead against her fingers. Society would talk about Arin now, if they hadn\ before. She imagined news of the duel spreading among Irex\s guests, who must have been shocked and enthralled by the details. A mistress to fight on behalf of her thieving slave? Had it ever been done?

Obviously not.

She could expect an audience at the duel. What would she tell them? That she sought to protect a friend?

Her easy sleep had been a lie. Nothing was easy about this.

Kestrel straightened. The challenge to duel had been issued, received, and witnessed. There was no dishonor in losing, but there was in cowering.

She pulled on a simple dress, intending to visit the barracks, where she hoped to confirm that her father wouldn\ return from his training session before the next day. Kestrel knew she couldn\ keep the duel a secret. Even her father couldn\ fail to hear the gossip this would stir. Still, she would prefer for him to arrive after the fact.

When she opened the outermost door to her suite, she found a slave in the hallway, her arms drooping under the weight of a small chest.

’’Lady Kestrel,’’ she said. ’’This just arrived from Lord Irex.’’

Kestrel accepted it, but her hands had gone limp with the realization of what the box must hold. Her fingers could not close.

The chest dropped to the hallway\s marble floor, spilling its contents. Gold pieces spun and rolled, ringing like small bells.

Irex had sent the death-price. Kestrel didn\ need to count the coins to know that they numbered five hundred. She didn\ need to touch the gold to remember what she had won from Irex at Bite and Sting, and to think that he might become a better player someday, if he understood the psychology of intimidation enough to pay a death-price before a duel had begun.

She stood motionless, washed by acid fear. Breathe, she told herself. Move. But she could only stare as the slave chased the errant coins and another girl came down the hall to help refill the chest.

Kestrel\s foot moved forward. Then another step, and another, and she was ready to run from the sight of spilled gold until a memory sliced through her mindless panic. She saw Irex\s dimpled smile. She felt his hand gripping hers. She saw weapons on walls, him flipping a Bite and Sting tile, his boots crushing Lady Faris\s lawn, heel digging a divot of grass and dirt. She saw his eyes, so dark they were almost black.

Kestrel knew what she had to do.

She went downstairs to the library and wrote two letters. One was to her father, the other to Jess and Ronan. She folded them, stamped the wax seals with her seal ring, and put the writing materials away. She was holding the letters in one hand, the wax firm yet still warm against the skin, when she heard footsteps beating down the marble hall, coming closer.

Arin stepped inside the library and shut the door. ’’You won\ do it,’’ he said. ’’You won\ duel him.’’

The sight of Arin shook her. She wouldn\ be able to think straight if he continued to speak like that, to look at her like that. ’’You do not give me orders,’’ Kestrel said. She moved to leave.

He blocked her path. ’’I know about the delivery. He sent you a death-price.’’

’’First my dress, and now this? Arin, one would think you are monitoring everything I send and receive. It is none of your business.’’

He seized her by the shoulders. ’’You are so small.’’

Kestrel knew what he was doing, and hated it, hated him for reminding her of her physical weakness, of the same failure that her father witnessed whenever he watched her fight with Rax. ’’Let go.’’

’’Make me let you go.’’

She looked at Arin. Whatever he saw in her eyes loosened his hands. ’’Kestrel,’’ he said more quietly, ’’I have been whipped before. Lashes and death are different things.’’

’’I won\ die.’’

’’Let Irex set my punishment.’’

’’You\ e not listening to me.’’ She would have said more, but realized that his hands still rested on her shoulders. A thumb was pressing gently against her collarbone.

Kestrel caught her breath. Arin startled, as if out of sleep, and pulled away.

He had no right, Kestrel thought. He had no right to confuse her. Not now, when she needed a clear mind.

Everything had seemed so simple last night in the close dark of the carriage.

’’You are not allowed,’’ Kestrel said, ’’to touch me.’’

Arin\s smile was bitter. ’’I suppose that means we are no longer friends.’’

She said nothing.

’’Good,’’ he said, ’’then you can have no reason for fighting Irex.’’

’’You don\ understand.’’

’’I don\ understand your godsforsaken Valorian honor? I don\ understand that your father would probably rather see you gutted than live with a daughter who turned away from a duel?’’

’’You have very little faith in me, to think that Irex would win.’’

He raked a hand through his short hair. ’’Where is my honor in all this, Kestrel?’’

They locked eyes, and she recognized his expression. It was the same one she had seen across the Bite and Sting table. The same one she had seen in the pit, when the auctioneer had told Arin to sing.

Refusal. A determination so cold it could blister the skin like metal in winter.

She knew that he would stop her. Perhaps he would be cunning about it. Maybe he would go to the steward behind her back, tell him of the theft and challenge, and ask to be brought before the judge and Irex. If that plan didn\ suit Arin, he would find another.

He was going to be a problem.

’’You\ e right,’’ she told him.

Arin blinked, then narrowed his eyes.

’’In fact,’’ she continued, ’’if you had let me explain, I would have told you that I had already decided to call off the duel.’’

’’You have.’’

She showed him the two letters. The one addressed to her father was on top. She let the mere edge of the other letter show. ’’One is for my father, telling him what has happened. The other is for Irex, making my apologies and inviting him to collect his five hundred gold pieces whenever he likes.’’

Arin still looked skeptical.

’’He\ll also collect you, of course. Knowing him, he\ll have you whipped until you\ e unconscious and even after that. I\m sure that when you wake up, you\ll be very glad that I decided to do exactly as you wanted.’’

Arin snorted.

’’If you doubt me, you\ e welcome to walk with me to the barracks to watch as I give my father\s letter to a soldier, with orders for its swift delivery.’’

’’I think I will.’’ He opened the library door.

They left the house and crossed the hard ground. Kestrel shivered. She hadn\ stopped to fetch a cloak. She couldn\ risk that Arin would change his mind.

When they entered the barracks, Kestrel looked among the six off-duty guards. She was relieved, since she had counted on finding only four, and not necessarily Rax, whom she trusted most. She approached him, Arin just a step behind her.

’’Bring this to the general as swiftly as you can.’’ She gave Rax the first letter. ’’Have a messenger deliver this other letter to Jess and Ronan.’’

’’What?’’ Arin said. ’’Wait ’’

’’And lock this slave up.’’

Kestrel turned so that she wouldn\ see what happened next. She heard the room descend into chaos. She heard the scuffle, a shout, the sound of fists thudding against flesh.

She let the door shut behind her and walked away.

* * *

Ronan was waiting for her beyond the estate\s guarded gate. From the looks of things, he had been waiting for some time. His horse was nosing brown grass as Ronan sat on a nearby boulder, throwing pebbles at the general\s stone wall. When he saw Kestrel ride through the gate on Javelin, he flung his handful of rocks to the path. He remained sitting, elbows propped on his bended knees as he stared at her, his face pinched and white. He said, ’’I have half a mind to tear you down from your horse.’’

’’You got my message, then.’’

’’And rode instantly here, where guards told me that the lady of the house gave strict orders not to let anyone even me inside.’’ His eyes raked over her, taking in the black fighting clothes. ’’I didn\ believe it. I still don\ believe it. After you vanished last night, everyone at the party was talking about the challenge, yet I was sure it was just a rumor started by Irex because of whatever has caused that ill will between you. Kestrel, how could you expose yourself like this?’’

Her hands tightened around the reins. She thought about how, when she let go, her palms would smell like leather and sweat. She concentrated on imagining that scent. This was easier than paying heed to the sick feeling swimming inside her. She knew what Ronan was going to say.

She tried to deflect it. She tried to talk about the duel itself, which seemed straightforward next to her reasons for it. Lightly, she said, ’’No one seems to believe that I might win.’’

Ronan vaulted off the rock and strode toward her horse. He seized the saddle\s pommel. ’’You\ll get what you want. But what do you want? Whom do you want?’’

’’Ronan.’’ Kestrel swallowed. ’’Think about what you are saying.’’

’’Only what everyone has been saying. That Lady Kestrel has a lover.’’

’’That\s not true.’’

’’He is her shadow, skulking behind her, listening, watching.’’

’’He isn\ ,’’ Kestrel tried to say, and was horrified to hear her voice falter. She felt a stinging in her eyes. ’’He has a girl.’’

’’Why do you even know that? So what if he does? It doesn\ matter. Not in the eyes of society.’’

Kestrel\s feelings were like banners in a storm, snapping at their ties. They tangled and wound around her. She focused, and when she spoke, she made her words disdainful. ’’He is a slave.’’

’’He is a man, as I am.’’

Kestrel slipped from her saddle, stood face-to-face with Ronan, and lied. ’’He is nothing to me.’’

Ronan\s anger dimmed a little. He waited, listening.

’’I never should have challenged Irex.’’ Kestrel decided to weave some truth into her story, to toughen the fabric of it. ’’But he and I have an unfriendly history. He made me an offer last spring. I turned him down. Since then, he has been ... aggressive.’’

She had Ronan\s sympathy then, and she was grateful, for she didn\ know what she would do if he and Jess turned their backs on her. She needed them not only today, but always.

’’Irex angered me. The slave was just an excuse.’’ How much easier everything would be if that were so. But Kestrel wouldn\ let herself consider the truth. She didn\ want to know its shape or see its face. ’’I was thoughtless and rash, but I\ve drawn my tiles and must play them. Will you help me, Ronan? Will you do as I asked in my letter?’’

’’Yes.’’ He still looked unhappy. ’’Though as far as I can see, there is little for me to do but stand and watch you fight.’’

’’And Jess? Will she be at the duel?’’

’’Yes, as soon as she is done weeping her eyes out. What a fright you\ve given us, Kestrel.’’

Kestrel opened a saddlebag and passed Ronan the purse with the death-price. He took it, recognizing it by its weight and the fact that her letter had told him to expect it. Softly, he said, ’’You frightened me.’’

She embraced him, stepping into his arms. They relaxed around her. His chin rested on top of her head, and she felt his forgiveness. She tried to push away thoughts of Arin on the auction block, of the look in his eyes when he asked where his honor was, of him swearing at her guards in his tongue. She held Ronan more tightly, pressing her cheek against his chest.

Ronan sighed. ’’I\ll ride with you to Irex\s house,’’ he said, ’’and see you safely home after you\ve won.’’

* * *

The path to Irex\s house was clotted with carriages. Society had turned out in force for this duel: Kestrel saw hundreds of well-dressed men and women talking excitedly, their breath fogging the late autumn air. Ronan dismounted and so did she, letting their horses range to join the others.

Kestrel scanned the crowd ringed around the clearing in the trees. People smiled when they saw her, but they were not kind smiles. There were coy looks, and some faces held a morbid fascination, as if this were not a duel but a hanging, and the only question was whether the criminal\s neck would break instantly. Kestrel wondered how many people gathered in the lowering sun knew that Irex had already paid the death-price.

Kestrel felt cold and hard. A walking skeleton.

Ronan slid an arm around her. She knew this was as much to prove a point to society as to soothe her. He was shielding her reputation with his own. She hadn\ asked him for this, and the fact that he had seen something missing in her plan made her feel both relieved to have him at her side and more afraid than before.

’’I don\ see my father.’’ Kestrel\s fingers trembled. Ronan caught her hands in his, and even though his eyes were filled with doubt, he gave her a showy grin meant for the crowd. Loudly, he said, ’’How chilly your hands are. Let\s get this dull thing over with, shall we, and then go somewhere warm?’’

’’Kestrel!’’ Benix detangled himself from the crowd, holding Jess\s hand and waving boisterously at his friends. Benix had a jolly swagger as he walked toward them, but Jess couldn\ play the game so well. She looked awful. Her eyes were red, her face splotched.

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