The Winners Curse Page 17

But he didn\ ask, and soon it became impossible for her to think of anything other than staying on her horse. She bit her lip. By the time they reached home, her mouth tasted of blood.

She wasn\ aware of passing through the gate. The house simply appeared, bright and sort of trembling at the edges. She vaguely heard her father say something to someone else, and then his hands were at her waist, lifting her off Javelin as if she were a child.

He set Kestrel on her feet. Her knee buckled. She felt a sound choke her throat, and blacked out.

* * *

When Kestrel opened her eyes, she was lying in her bed. Someone had built a fire, which sent ripples of orange light over the ceiling. An oil lamp burned on the night table, casting her father\s face into extremes of shadow and bone. He had drawn a chair close and perhaps had been sleeping in it, but his eyes were alert.

’’Your knee needs to be tapped,’’ he said.

She looked at it. Someone her father? had cut away the right legging at her thigh, and below the sheared black cloth her knee was swollen to twice its normal size. It felt tight and hot.

’’I don\ know what that means,’’ Kestrel said, ’’but it doesn\ sound very nice.’’

’’Irex dislocated your kneecap. It slipped back into place, but the blow must have torn your muscle. Your knee\s filling with blood. That\s what\s causing you so much pain: the swelling.’’ He hesitated. ’’I have some experience with this kind of wound, on the battlefield. I can drain it. You\ll feel better. But I would have to use a knife.’’

Kestrel remembered him cutting her mother\s arm, blood weaving through his fingers as he tried to close the wound. He looked at her now, and she thought that he was seeing the same thing, or seeing Kestrel remember it, and that they were mirroring each other\s nightmare.

His gaze fell to his scarred hands. ’’I\ve sent for a doctor. You can wait until she comes, if you prefer.’’ His voice was flat, yet there was a small, sad note that probably only she would have heard. ’’I wouldn\ suggest this if I didn\ feel myself capable and if I didn\ think it would be better to do it now. But it\s your choice.’’

His eyes met hers. Something in them made her think that he would never have let Irex kill her, that he would have pushed into the ring and planted a blade in Irex\s back if he had thought his daughter might die, that he would have thrown away his honor with hers.

Of course, Kestrel couldn\ be sure. Yet she nodded. He sent a slave for clean rags, which he eased under her knee. Then he went to the fire and held a small knife in the flames to sterilize it.

He returned to her side, the blackened knife in his hand. ’’I promise,’’ he said, but Kestrel didn\ know whether he meant to say that he promised this would help her, or that he knew what he was doing, or that he would have saved her from Irex if she had needed saving. He slid the knife in, and she fainted again.

* * *

He had been right. Kestrel felt better the moment she opened her eyes. Her knee was sore and wrapped in a bandage, but the fevered swelling was gone, and a great deal of pain with it.

Her father was standing, his back to her as he looked out the dark window.

’’You\d better release me from our bargain,’’ she said. ’’The military won\ take me now, not with a bad knee.’’

He turned and echoed her faint smile. ’’Don\ you wish that were so,’’ he said. ’’Painful though it is, this isn\ a serious wound. You\ll be on your feet soon, and walking normally before a month\s out. There\s no permanent damage. If you doubt me and think I\m blinded by my hope to see you become an officer, the doctor will tell you the same thing. She\s in the sitting room.’’

Kestrel looked at the closed door of her bedroom and wondered why the doctor wasn\ in the room with them now.

’’I want to ask you something,’’ her father said. ’’I\d prefer she didn\ hear.’’

Suddenly it seemed as if Kestrel\s heart, not her knee, was sore. That it had been cut into, and bled.

’’What kind of deal did you make with Irex?’’ her father asked.

’’What?’’

He gave her a level look. ’’The duel was going badly for you. Then Irex held back, and you two seemed to have quite an interesting conversation. When the fighting resumed, it was as if Irex was a different person. He shouldn\ have lost to you not like that, anyway unless you said something to make him.’’

She didn\ know how to respond. When her father had asked his question she was so horribly grateful he wasn\ probing into her reasons for the duel that she missed some of his words.

’’Kestrel, I just want to make sure that you haven\ given Irex some kind of power over you.’’

’’No.’’ She sighed, disappointed that her father had seen through her victory. ’’If anything, he\s in my power.’’

’’Ah. Good. Will you tell me how?’’

’’I know a secret.’’

’’Very good. No, don\ tell me what it is. I don\ want to know.’’

Kestrel looked at the fire. She let the flames hypnotize her eyes.

’’Do you think I care how you won?’’ her father said softly. ’’You won. Your methods don\ matter.’’

Kestrel thought about the Herran War. She thought about the suffering her father had brought to this country, and how his actions had led to her becoming a mistress, and Arin a slave. ’’Do you really believe that?’’

’’Yes,’’ he said. ’’I do.’’

* * *

Arin heard the door to the barracks creak. The sound brought him immediately to his feet, for only one person would come to his cell this late at night. Then he heard the first heavy footfall, and his hands slackened around the metal bars. The footsteps coming were not hers. They belonged to someone big. Solid, slow. Probably a man.

Torchlight pulsed toward Arin\s cell. When he saw who carried it, he pulled away from the bars. He saw a child\s nightmare come to life.

The general set the torch in a sconce. He stared, taking in Arin\s fresh bruises, his height, his features. The general\s frown deepened.

This man didn\ look like Kestrel. He was all mass and muscle. But Arin found her in the way her father lifted his chin, and his eyes held the same dangerous intelligence.

’’Is she all right?’’ Arin said. When he received no response, he asked again in Valorian. And because he had already damned himself with a question he couldn\ bear not to ask, Arin said something he had sworn he would never say. ’’Sir.’’

’’She\s fine.’’

A feeling flowed into Arin, something like sleep or the sudden absence of pain.

’’If I had my choice, I would kill you,’’ said the general, ’’but that would cause more talk. You\ll be sold. Not right away, because I don\ want to be seen reacting to a scandal. But soon.

’’I\ll be spending some time at home, and I will be watching you. If you come near my daughter, I will forget my better judgment. I will have you torn limb from limb. Do you understand?’’

23

Letters came. During the first days after the duel, Kestrel ripped into them, eager for anything to distract her from being confined to her bed, desperate to learn what society thought of her now. Surely she had gained some respect by beating the city\s finest fighter?

But the letters were mostly from Jess and Ronan and filled with false cheer. And then came the note.

Small, folded into a thick square. Stamped with a blank seal. Written in a woman\s hand. Unsigned.

Do you think you are the first? it read. The only Valorian to take a slave to her bed? Poor fool!

Let me tell you the rules.

Do not be so obvious. Why do you think society allows a senator to call a pretty housegirl to his rooms at a late hour? Or for the general\s daughter to take long carriage rides with such an exquisite ’’escort’’?

It is not because secret liaisons are impossible. It is because pretending they are impossible lets everyone turn a blind eye to the fact that we can use our slaves exactly as we please.

Kestrel felt her face burn. Then it crumpled, just like the paper in her fist.

She would throw the letter in the fire. She would forget it, forget everything.

But when she shifted her right leg out from underneath the blankets, her knee screamed in protest. She sat at the edge of the bed, looking at the fire, then at her bare feet flat against the floor. She trembled, and told herself it was because of the ache in her bandaged knee. Because her legs couldn\ bear her own weight. Because she couldn\ do something so simple as get out of bed and walk across the room.

She tore the letter into a snowfall of paper.

That first night after the duel, Kestrel had woken to find her father gone. A slave was sleeping in the chair drawn close to the bed. Kestrel had seen the lines under the woman\s eyes, the awkward crook of her neck, and how her head bobbed back and forth in the way of someone who needed sleep. But Kestrel shook her.

’’You have to do something,’’ Kestrel had said.

The woman blinked, bleary-eyed.

’’Go tell the guards to let Smith out. He\s imprisoned in the barracks. He ’’

’’I know,’’ the woman had said. ’’He\s been released.’’

’’He has? By whom?’’

The slave looked away. ’’It was Rax\s decision. He said you could complain to him if you didn\ like it.’’

Those last words sounded like a lie. They didn\ even make sense. But the woman patted her hand and said, ’’I saw Smith myself, in the slaves\ quarters. He\s not too worse for wear. Don\ worry, my lady.’’ The face of the woman, whose name Kestrel had forgotten, filled with such sympathy that she had told her to leave.

Kestrel remembered the woman\s expression. She looked at the shredded letter and saw again its written words so snide, so understanding.

They didn\ understand. No one did. They were wrong.

Kestrel slipped back under the blankets.

Some hours later, she called for a slave and asked her to open a window. Cold air poured in, and Kestrel shivered until she heard a distant ringing, the sound of hammer against anvil. Arin must know that she couldn\ come to him. Why didn\ he come to her?

She could make him. If she sent an order, he would obey.

But she didn\ want his obedience. She wanted him to want to see her.

Kestrel flinched at this thought and the pain it brought with it.

She knew that even if everyone believed the wrong thing of her, they were also too close to being right.

* * *

’’You should have let me visit earlier,’’ Jess said, her cheeks radiant from the brisk air outside. ’’It\s been a week since the duel.’’

Kestrel sank back against the pillows. She had known the sight of Jess would hurt, would remind her that there was a life outside this bedroom. ’’Ronan isn\ allowed.’’

’’I should say not! I\m not letting him see you until you\ e better. You look awful. No one wants to kiss an invalid.’’

’’Thank you, Jess. I\m so happy you\ve come.’’

Jess rolled her eyes. She started to speak, then her gaze fell on the nightstand. ’’Kestrel. You haven\ been opening your letters.’’

They had collected in a pile, like a nest of coiled snakes.

’’What would the letters tell me?’’ Kestrel said. ’’That my reputation is as ruined as ever?’’

’’It\s nothing we can\ fix.’’

Kestrel guessed what Jess might say: that she should go with Ronan to the Firstwinter ball. Ronan would be willing. He would be glad. It would stop some of the gossip and start a different kind.

It was a solution of sorts.

Kestrel smiled a little. She shook her head. ’’You\ e so loyal.’’

’’And clever. I have an idea. The ball is not long from now and ’’

’’I\m bored, sitting in bed all these hours. Why don\ you distract me, Jess? Better yet, why don\ I do something for you? I owe you.’’

Jess smoothed the hair off Kestrel\s forehead. ’’No, you don\ .’’

’’You have stood by me. I\ll make it up to you. Once I\m well, I\ll wear whatever you like.’’

Jess jokingly pressed a palm to Kestrel\s brow. ’’You must be feverish.’’

’’I\ll teach you to play Bite and Sting so that no one will beat you.’’

Jess laughed. ’’Don\ bother. I don\ like games.’’

’’I know.’’ Kestrel felt her smile leave. ’’It\s one of the things I admire about you.’’

Jess\s expression turned quizzical.

’’You never hide who you are,’’ Kestrel said.

’’Do you think that you do? Do you think I don\ realize that even though you have asked me to distract you, you are trying to distract me?’’

Kestrel winced.

’’You\d be better at it,’’ Jess said, ’’if you weren\ bedridden. And miserable.’’

Kestrel reached for her hand and gripped it. ’’I meant what I said.’’

’’Then stop playing games. There is an obvious answer to your problems.’’

She realized that Jess had more on her mind than the ball. Kestrel\s hand slipped away.

Jess sighed. ’’Fine. We won\ talk about Ronan. We won\ talk about marriage. We won\ talk about the fact that as much as you like to win, you\ e acting as if you\ e determined to lose.’’

* * *

Arin stoked the forge\s fire. Not for warmth but for color. He craved it in the cold months. He had been a sickly child, and this time of year reminded him most of his home, of feeling cooped up inside, not knowing that one day he would dream of those painted walls, the curtains in a sweep of indigo, the blue of his mother\s dress.


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