The Winners Curse Page 16

Benix swept Kestrel into a bear hug, then pretended to duel with Ronan a move that amused some of those watching, but brought fresh tears to Jess\s eyes. ’’This is not a joke,’’ she said.

’’Oh, sister,’’ Ronan teased. ’’You take things too seriously.’’

The crowd shifted, disappointed that Kestrel\s arrival hadn\ triggered any emotional explosions among her closest friends. As people turned away, Kestrel saw a clear path to Irex, tall and black-clad in the center of the space marked for the duel. He smiled at her, and Kestrel was so thrown out of herself that she didn\ know her father had arrived until she felt his hand on her shoulder.

He was dusty and smelled of horse. ’’Father,’’ she said, and would have tucked herself into his arms.

He checked her. ’’This isn\ the time.’’

She flushed.

’’General Trajan,’’ Ronan said cheerfully. ’’So glad you could come. Benix, do I see the Raul twins over there, in the front, closest to the dueling ground? No, you blind bat. There, right next to Lady Faris. Why don\ we watch the match with them? You, too, Jess. We need your feminine presence so we can pretend that we\ e only interested in the twins because you\d like to chat about feathered hats.’’

Jess squeezed Kestrel\s hand, and the three of them would have left immediately had the general not stopped them. ’’Thank you,’’ he said.

Kestrel\s friends dropped their merry act, which Jess wasn\ performing well anyway. The general focused on Ronan, sizing him up like he would a new recruit. Then he did something rare. He gave a nod of approval. The corner of Ronan\s mouth lifted in a small, worried smile as he led the others away.

Kestrel\s father faced her squarely. When she bit her lip, he said, ’’Now is not the time to show any weakness.’’

’’I know.’’

He checked the straps on her forearms, at her hips, and against her calves, tugging the leather that secured six small knives to her body. ’’Keep your distance from Irex,’’ he said, his voice low, though the people nearest to them had withdrawn to give some privacy a deference to the general. ’’Your best bet is to keep this to a contest of thrown knives. You can dodge his, throw your own, and might even get first blood. Make him empty his sheaths. If you both lose all six Needles, the duel is a draw.’’ He straightened her jacket. ’’Don\ let this turn into hand-to-hand combat.’’

The general had sat next to her at the spring tournament. He had seen Irex fight and directly afterward had tried to enlist him in the military.

’’I want you to be at the front of the crowd,’’ Kestrel said.

’’I wouldn\ be anywhere else.’’ A small crease appeared between her father\s brows. ’’Don\ let him get close.’’

Kestrel nodded, though she had no intention of taking his advice.

She walked through the throngs of people to meet Irex.

21

Private conversation between Kestrel and Irex was impossible, which probably pleased him. He liked to be heard as well as watched, and seemed to have no interest in stepping away from the crowd until he and she would move to their assigned places at opposite ends of the circular space, marked with black paint on the dead grass.

’’Lady Kestrel.’’ He spoke clearly for the listening audience. ’’Did you receive my gift?’’

’’And brought it back here.’’

’’Does this mean that you forfeit? Come, agree to send me your slave and give me your hand. I\ll prick your little finger. First blood will be mine, our friends will go home happy, and you will join me for dinner.’’

’’No, I like the plans as they stand. With you in your place, and me fifty paces away from you.’’

Irex\s dark eyes became slits. His mouth, which some might have called charming, dropped its grin. Irex turned his back to her and went to take his place. She took hers.

Irex, as the challenged, had appointed a friend to call the start of the duel. When the young man shouted ’’Mark!’’ Irex snatched a dagger from his arm and threw.

Kestrel neatly dodged the blade, having expected he would take the offensive. The dagger sang through the air to bury itself in a tree.

Their audience shrank away from the dueling circle. Sideline casualties had happened before, and Needles was a particularly dangerous game to watch.

Irex appeared unworried that his first attempt had failed. He crouched, slipping a Needle from its sheath at his calf. He weighed it, watching Kestrel. He feinted, but if she was skilled at anything it was seeing through a bluff, particularly when Irex had no real desire to hide his feelings. He rushed forward, and threw.

His speed was terrifying. Kestrel hit the ground, her cheek scraping dirt, then shoved herself up before Irex could catch her in so vulnerable a position. As she stood, she saw something gleam on the ground: the very end of her braid, sheared off by the knife.

Kestrel\s breath came quickly. Irex held his position at about thirty paces from her.

She balanced on her toes, waiting, and saw that Irex\s anger at her insult was gone, or had mixed itself with pleasure to the point where he seemed to be in a good humor. His first throw had been wild, and not smart, since he had drawn a Needle from one of the two easiest points of access. When Needles became hand-to-hand, it was a disadvantage to have few knives, and to have lost those at the forearms, or even the hips. Kestrel knew he knew that, or he wouldn\ have thrown his second Needle from his calf. He was cocky, but he could be cautious. That would make Kestrel\s task harder.

She could almost feel her father\s frustration. People were shouting suggestions at her, but she didn\ hear her father\s voice. She briefly wondered if it was hard for him not to yell at her to throw a few Needles of her own. She knew that this was what he wanted. It was the sensible thing for a weaker fighter to do: hope to end the duel early with a strike anywhere.

But she wanted to get close to Irex, close enough to speak without anyone overhearing. She would need every knife she had once she was within arm\s reach of him.

Irex cocked his head. He was either mystified that Kestrel wasn\ taking the only sensible strategy or disappointed that she was doing little at all. He had probably expected more of a fight. Kestrel had taken great pains never to reveal her very ordinary skills at weapons, and society assumed that the general\s daughter must be an excellent fighter.

He hung back, showing no interest in emptying more sheaths. He didn\ advance, which was a problem if Kestrel couldn\ lure him to her, she would have to come to him.

The shouts were incoherent now. They swelled to something like a roaring silence.

Kestrel\s father would say that she should stand her ground. Instead she pulled her two calf daggers and sped forward. A blade spun from her hand and went wide a terrible throw, but one that distracted Irex from the second, which might have struck him had he not ducked and launched a Needle of his own.

She skidded on the dry grass to avoid the knife. Her side hit the earth just as the Needle punched into the ground next to her leg. Her mind iced over, sealed itself shut.

He was quick, too quick. She hadn\ even seen his hand move.

Then Irex\s boot kicked her ribs. Kestrel gasped in pain. She forced herself to her feet and swept an arm knife out of its sheath. She sliced the air in front of her, but Irex danced back, knocked the blade out of her hand, and rolled to claim it as his own.

Her chest heaved. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. She fleetingly imagined her father closing his eyes in dismay. Never arm your opponent, he always said.

But she had what she wanted. She and Irex were in the circle\s center now, too far from the shouting audience for their conversation to be overheard.

’’Irex.’’ Her voice was thin and weak. ’’We need to talk.’’

He kicked in her knee. She felt something grind and give just before she crumpled to the ground. The force of her fall drove the kneecap back in place. She cried out.

The shock was too great for pain. Then it came: a spasm that tunneled from her leg into her brain.

It wasn\ fear that forced Kestrel to her feet. She was stupid with pain and didn\ have room to feel anything else. She didn\ know how she managed to get up, only that she did, and Irex let her.

’’I never liked you,’’ he hissed. ’’So superior.’’

Kestrel\s vision was whitening. She had the odd impression that it was snowing, but as the whiteness ate its way toward Irex\s face she realized there was no snow. She was about to faint.

Irex slapped her face.

That stung her to life. She heard a gasp, and wasn\ sure if it came from the crowd or her own throat. Kestrel had to speak now, and quickly, or the duel was going to end with Irex crushing her well before he finished things off with a Needle. It was hard to find the air for words. She drew a dagger. It helped, a little, to feel its solidity against her palm. ’’You are the father of Faris\s baby.’’

He faltered. ’’What?’’

Kestrel prayed she wasn\ wrong. ’’You slept with Senator Tiran\s wife. You fathered her child.’’

Irex brought his guard back up, the dagger fire-bright in the setting sun. But he bit the inside of his cheek, making his face go lopsidedly lean, and that slight trace of worry made her think that maybe she would survive this duel. He said, ’’What makes you say that?’’

’’Strike a blow easy for me to block and I\ll tell you.’’

He did, and the sound of her blade pushing his back made Kestrel stronger. ’’You have the same eyes,’’ she said. ’’The baby has the trick of a dimple in his left cheek, as you do. Faris looked pale as we took our places to fight, and I notice that she is at the front of the crowd. I don\ think she\s worried about me.’’

Slowly, he said, ’’Your knowing a secret like that doesn\ make me feel less inclined to kill you.’’

She took a shuddery breath, glad that she was right, glad that he hesitated even as the crowd continued to shout. ’’You won\ kill me,’’ she said, ’’because I have told Jess and Ronan. If I die, they will tell everyone else.’’

’’No one would believe them. Society will think they mourn you and seek to damage me.’’

’’Will society think that when they begin to compare the boy\s face to yours? Will Senator Tiran?’’ Limping, she circled him, and he allowed it, though he drew a second Needle and held them both ready. He shifted his feet swiftly while she tried not to stumble. ’’If Ronan has any difficulty starting a scandal, he\ll feed it with money. I have given him five hundred gold pieces, and he will bribe friends to swear that the rumor is true, that they witnessed you in bed with Faris, that you keep a lock of the boy\s hair close to your heart. They will say anything, true or not. Few people are as rich as you. Ronan has many friends like poor Hanan who would gladly take gold to ruin the reputation of someone no one really likes.’’

Irex\s arms slackened. He looked slightly ill.

Kestrel pressed her advantage. ’’You slept with Faris so that she would encourage her husband to help you gain a seat in the Senate. Maybe you did it for other reasons, too, but this is the one we care about. You should care, because if Tiran suspects you, he won\ just withhold his help. He\ll turn the Senate against you.’’

She saw the fight drain out of him.

’’Even though this duel has broken no rules, it\s not been clean,’’ she said. ’’You began a brawl. Society will murmur its disapproval even before Ronan and Jess destroy your reputation.’’

’’Society will disapprove of me?’’ Irex sneered. ’’Your reputation is not so lily white. Slave-lover.’’

Kestrel wobbled on her feet. It took her a moment to speak, and when she did, she wasn\ sure that what she said was true. ’’Whatever people say about me, my father will be your enemy.’’

Irex\s face was still sharp with hate, but he said, ’’Very well. You can live.’’ His voice became hesitant. ’’Did you tell the general about Faris?’’

Kestrel thought of her letter to her father. It had been simple. I have challenged Lord Irex to a duel, it had said. It will take place on his grounds today, two hours before sunset. Please come. ’’No. That would have defeated my purpose.’’

Irex gave Kestrel a look, one that she had seen before on the faces of her opponents in Bite and Sting. ’’Purpose?’’ he said warily.

Kestrel felt triumph surge through her, stronger even than the pain in her knee. ’’I want my father to believe that I\ve legitimately won this duel. You are about to lose. You\ll throw the match, and give me a clear victory.’’ She smiled. ’’I want first blood, Irex. My father is watching. Make this look good.’’

22

After the duel, the general had to help Kestrel onto her horse, which only went a few steps before she swayed in the saddle. Her right knee throbbed. It felt as if some knot inside had slipped and was unraveling, pressing hot coils against the inner wall of her skin.

Her father halted Javelin. ’’We can borrow a carriage.’’

’’No.’’ What point was there in having defeated Irex if she couldn\ keep her seat on a horse? Kestrel hadn\ realized she had such pride. Maybe she didn\ want her father\s military life, but it seemed she wanted his approval as much as she had as a girl.

The general looked as if he might argue, then said only, ’’That was a decisive win.’’ He mounted his horse and set the pace.

It was slow, yet Kestrel grimaced with every jolt of the stallion\s hooves. She was glad when night dyed the sky. She felt her face thinning with pain, but reminded herself that not even her father could see through the dark. He couldn\ see her dread.

She kept expecting his question: why had she challenged Irex to a duel?


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