The Winners Curse Page 18

Cold without, color within. This was how it had been.

Arin watched the fire flare crimson. Then he went outside and surveyed the grounds, saw through leafless trees that no one was near. He could steal a few minutes.

When he stepped back inside the forge, he leaned against the anvil. With one hand he pulled a book from its hiding place behind the kindling box, and in the other he held a hammer so that, if in danger of being caught, he could more quickly pretend to have been working.

He began to read. It was a book he had seen in Kestrel\s possession, one on the history of the Valorian empire. He had taken it from the library after she had returned it, weeks ago.

What would she say, if she saw him reading a book about his enemy, in his enemy\s tongue? What would she do?

Arin knew this: her gaze would measure him, and he would sense a shift of perception within her. Her opinion of him would change as daylight changed, growing or losing shadow. Subtle. Almost indiscernible. She would see him differently, though he wouldn\ know in what way. He wouldn\ know what it meant. This had happened, again and again, since he had come here.

Sometimes he wished he had never come here.

Well. Kestrel couldn\ see him in the forge, or know what he read, because she couldn\ leave her rooms. She couldn\ even walk.

Arin shut the book, gripped it between rigid fingers. He nearly threw it into the fire.

I will have you torn limb from limb, the general had said.

That wasn\ why Arin stayed away from her. Not really.

He forced his thoughts from his head. He hid the book where it had been. He busied himself with quiet work, heating iron and charcoal in a crucible to produce steel.

It took some time before Arin realized he was humming a dark tune. For once, he didn\ stop himself. The pressure of song was too strong, the need for distraction too great. Then he found that the music caged behind his closed teeth was the melody Kestrel had played for him months ago. He felt the sensation of it, low and alive, on his mouth.

For a moment, he imagined it wasn\ the melody that touched his lips, but Kestrel.

The thought stopped his breath, and the music, too.

24

When no one was looking, Kestrel practiced walking around her suite. She often had to rest a hand against a wall, but she could make it to the windows.

She never saw what she wanted, which made her wonder whether this was mere chance or if Arin was avoiding her so completely that he took other paths across the grounds than those that passed through her view.

She couldn\ handle the stairs, which meant that a visit to the music room on the ground floor was impossible unless she consented to be carried, and she didn\ . Yet Kestrel caught her fingers playing phantom melodies on the furniture, on her thighs. The absence of music became an ache inside her. She wondered how Arin could bear not to sing, if he was indeed a singer.

Kestrel thought of the long flights of stairs, and forced her weak muscles to work.

She was standing in her visiting room, hands holding the carved back of a chair, when her father entered.

’’There\s my girl,’’ he said. ’’On her feet already. You\ll be a military officer in no time with an attitude like that.’’

Kestrel sat. She gave him a slight, ironic smile.

He returned it. ’’What I meant to say is that I\m glad you\ e better, and that I\m sorry I can\ go to the Firstwinter ball.’’

It was good that she was already sitting. ’’Why would you want to go to a ball?’’

’’I thought I would take you.’’

She stared.

’’It occurred to me that I have never danced with my daughter,’’ he said. ’’And it would have been a wise move.’’

A wise move.

A show of force, then. A reminder of the respect due to the general\s family. Quietly, Kestrel said, ’’You\ve heard the rumors.’’

He raised a hand, palm flat and facing her.

’’Father ’’

’’Stop.’’

’’It\s not true. I ’’

’’We will not have this discussion.’’ His hand lifted to block his eyes, then fell. ’’Kestrel, I\m not here for that. I\m here to tell you that I\m leaving. The emperor is sending me east to fight the barbarians.’’

It wasn\ the first time in Kestrel\s memory that her father had been sent to war, but the fear she felt was always the same, always keen. ’’For how long?’’

’’As long as it takes. I leave the morning of the ball with my regiment.’’

’’The entire regiment?’’

He caught the tone in her voice. He sighed. ’’Yes.’’

’’That means there will be no soldiers in the city or its surroundings. If there\s a problem ’’

’’The city guard will be here. The emperor feels they can deal with any problem, at least until a force arrives from the capital.’’

’’Then the emperor is a fool. The captain of the city guard isn\ up to the task. You yourself said that the new captain is nothing but a bungler, someone who got the position because he\s the governor\s toady ’’

’’Kestrel.’’ His voice was quelling. ’’I\ve already expressed my reservations to the emperor. But he gave me orders. It\s my duty to follow them.’’

Kestrel studied her fingers, the way they wove together. She didn\ say Come back safely, and he didn\ say I always have. She said what a Valorian should. ’’Fight well.’’

’’I will.’’

He was halfway to the door when he glanced back and said, ’’I\m trusting you to do what\s right while I\m gone.’’

Which meant that he didn\ trust her not quite.

* * *

Later that day, Lirah brought Kestrel\s lunch. The slave wouldn\ look at her. She set the tray down on a low table near the divan where Kestrel rested, and her movements were hurried, shaky. She spilled some tea.

’’There\s no need to rush,’’ Kestrel said.

The girl\s hands quieted, but her breath became uneven and harsh. A tear slipped down her cheek.

Kestrel suddenly understood why Lirah was rushing: because it was unbearable to stay any longer than necessary in the same room as her mistress.

Her mistress, who everyone thought had taken the lover Lirah wished were hers.

Kestrel should have felt pity. An urge to explain that what Lirah believed what the whole city must believe wasn\ true. Instead, Kestrel couldn\ help gazing at the girl\s beauty, at the way tears made her green eyes greener. She wondered what Arin\s sweetheart must be like, if Lirah couldn\ change his choice.

As Kestrel tried to imagine the girl in the market Arin\s girl a slow thought came to her.

Was this why Arin avoided her? Because the scandal had reached his sweetheart\s ears?

A surge of anger pushed up Kestrel\s throat.

She hated her. She hated that faceless, nameless woman.

’’Fetch me a parasol,’’ Kestrel told Lirah. ’’And get out.’’

* * *

The parasol wasn\ a very good cane. Its tip dug into the hard, grassless earth, and the folded frame creaked as Kestrel limped across the grounds. But it brought her where she needed to go.

She found Arin walking through the bare orange grove, horse tack draped over his shoulder. It jangled when he stopped and stared at her. He stood, shoulders stiff. As Kestrel came close she saw that his jaw was clenched, and that there was no trace of what her guards had done to him. No bruises. Nor would there be, not for something that had happened nearly a month ago.

’’Did I shame you?’’ Kestrel said.

Something strange crossed his face. ’’Shame me,’’ Arin repeated. He looked up into the empty branches as if he expected to see fruit there, as if it weren\ almost winter.

’’The book. The inscription I read. The duel. The way I tricked you. The order I gave to have you imprisoned. Did I shame you?’’

He crossed his arms over his chest. He shook his head, his gaze never wavering from the trees. ’’No. The god of debts knows what I owe.’’

’’Then what is it?’’ Kestrel was trying so hard not to ask about the rumors or the woman in the market that she said something worse. ’’Why won\ you look at me?’’

’’I shouldn\ even be speaking with you,’’ he muttered.

It dawned on her why it had never made sense that Rax had been the one to release Arin. ’’My father,’’ she said. ’’Arin, you don\ have to worry about him. He\ll be leaving the morning of the Firstwinter ball. The entire regiment has been ordered east to fight the barbarians.’’

’’What?’’ He glanced at her, eyes sharp.

’’Things can be as they were.’’

’’I don\ think so.’’

’’But ... you are my friend.’’ His expression changed, though not in a way Kestrel could read. ’’Just tell me what\s wrong, Arin. Tell me the truth.’’

When he spoke, his voice was raw. ’’You own me. How can you believe I\ll tell you the truth? Why would I?’’

The parasol trembled in Kestrel\s grip. She opened her mouth to speak, yet realized that if she did, she wouldn\ be able to control what she said.

’’I will tell you something you can trust is true.’’ Arin\s eyes held hers. ’’We are not friends.’’

Kestrel swallowed. ’’You\ e right,’’ she whispered. ’’We\ e not.’’

* * *

Arin nearly got his throat cut.

’’The god of life preserve you,’’ Cheat gasped. He staggered back, his knife glinting in the shadows of his small bedroom. ’’What the hell are you doing here? Breaking into my home like a thief in the night. Climbing through the window. You\ e lucky I saw your face in time.’’

’’There\s something I have to tell you.’’

’’Start with why you couldn\ come by the auction house at a decent hour. I thought you had a free pass. What about the girl\s seal ring?’’

’’Unavailable.’’

Cheat squinted up at Arin, tapping the flat of the short blade against his thigh. In the dim light of a streetlamp, a slow grin spread across his face. ’’Had a falling-out with your lady, did you? A lovers\ quarrel?’’

Arin felt his face go dark and tight.

’’Easy, lad. Just tell me: are the rumors true?’’

’’No.’’

’’All right.’’ Cheat held up his hands as if in surrender, the knife held loosely. ’’If you say they\ e not, they\ e not.’’

’’Cheat. I broke curfew, scaled the general\s wall, and stole through a guarded city to speak with you. Don\ you think we have more important things to discuss than Valorian gossip?’’

Cheat cocked one brow.

’’The general is leaving to fight in the east. He\s taking the entire regiment. The morning of the Firstwinter ball. It\s the opportunity we\ve been waiting for.’’

Cheat dropped the knife to a table. He let out a breath that swelled into laughter. ’’This is beautiful,’’ he said. ’’Perfect.’’

Arin saw, in his mind\s eye, Kestrel\s delicate face. He saw her bandaged knee. How her knuckles had whitened. He heard her voice crack.

’’The revolution will happen the night of the ball,’’ Cheat said. ’’Black powder kegs will be in place. I\ll lead the assault on the general\s estates. He\ll leave his personal guard behind, so we can expect resistance. But it\s nothing we can\ handle, with your weapons, and seizing that property will be an important victory. Meanwhile, those high society Valorians at the ball will find a poisoned surprise in their wine. Arin.’’ Cheat frowned at him. ’’Don\ look like that. Even you can\ find a flaw in this plan. It\ll come off nicely. The city will be ours.’’ Cheat rested a hand on Arin\s shoulder and gripped it. ’’Freedom will be ours.’’

Those words sliced through the knots tangled within Arin. He slowly nodded. He turned toward the window.

’’What\ e you doing?’’ Cheat said. ’’You risked enough coming here, and you\ll risk the same returning to the estate. Stay. I can hide you until the assault.’’

Why won\ you look at me? Kestrel had said. The hurt in her voice had hurt him. It hurt him still. It made him remember how his father had given him a blown-glass horse for his eighth nameday. Arin remembered its tapered legs, the arched neck: a thing of starlike clarity. He had fumbled, and it had smashed on the tiles below.

’’No,’’ Arin told Cheat. ’’I\m going back. I need to be there when it happens.’’

25

The walk to the orange grove had helped Kestrel\s knee, if nothing else. The stiffness had eased, and she forced herself to walk more every day. Soon she had only the barest of limps, then none at all. She returned to her music, let her fingers fly, let wild notes riddle her mind until she couldn\ think. It was bliss not to think, not to remember the cold orange grove, and what she had said and done and asked and wanted.

Kestrel played. She forgot everything but the music unfurling around her.

* * *

The day before Firstwinter, the Valorian housekeeper delivered a muslin-wrapped package to Kestrel. ’’From the dressmaker\s,’’ she said.

Kestrel held the package and almost seemed to see a gleam through the muslin.

She set it aside.

That evening, a slave brought a note from her father. There is someone here who wishes to see you.

Ronan, perhaps. The thought didn\ make her glad. It came and went and didn\ touch her, except when she realized that it hadn\ touched her and that it should have.

There was something wrong with her. She should be glad to see her friend. She should hope Ronan was more than that.

We are not friends, Arin had said.


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