The Winners Curse Page 19

But she would not think of Arin.

She dressed for dinner with care.

* * *

Kestrel recognized the man\s voice drifting down the hall from the dining room, but couldn\ place it at first. ’’Thank you for not requisitioning my ship,’’ he was saying. ’’I would have lost a great deal of profit maybe even the ship itself if the empire had borrowed it for the war effort.’’

’’Don\ thank me,’’ said Kestrel\s father. ’’If I had needed it, I would have taken it.’’

’’Not big enough for you, Trajan?’’ the voice teased. Kestrel, hovering outside the door, suddenly knew who it was. She remembered being a little girl, a gray-haired man\s easy smiles, sheaves of sheet music brought to her from far-off territories.

’’On the contrary, Captain Wensan,’’ she said, entering the room. The men rose from their seats. ’’I believe my father has not taken your ship for the military because it is one of the best, loaded with cannon, and he doesn\ like to leave the harbor unprotected when he leaves tomorrow.’’

’’Kestrel.’’ The captain didn\ take her hand in greeting, but rested his briefly on her head, as one did with a beloved child. She felt no disappointment that he, and not Ronan, was their guest. ’’You overestimate me,’’ Wensan said. ’’I\m a simple merchant.’’

’’Maybe,’’ Kestrel said as the three sat at the table in their expected places, her father at the head, she at his right, the captain at his left. ’’But I doubt the two decks\ worth of ten-pound cannon are there for decoration.’’

’’I carry valuable goods. The cannon keep pirates away.’’

’’As do your crew. They have quite the reputation.’’

’’Fine fighters,’’ her father agreed, ’’though they don\ have the best memory.’’

The captain gave him a keen glance. ’’You can\ possibly have heard about that.’’

’’That your crew can\ remember the code of the call to save their lives?’’

The code of the call was the password sailors on deck demanded from shipmates in launches far below on the water when it was too dark to see who had rowed up from shore.

’’I inspected each ship and crew before deciding which to take for battle,’’ said Kestrel\s father. ’’I like to be thorough.’’ He studied his plate. It was empty, waiting for the first course. He touched its white rim, shifting it to center its design of a bird. There was something deliberate in his gesture.

Wensan looked at the plate, then at his own, Kestrel\s, and the three others on the table in honor of the family dead. ’’You certainly are.’’ He added unnecessarily, ’’I agree.’’

A message was being passed between the two men. Kestrel considered the porcelain her father must have chosen tonight for a reason. Her household had countless sets of dishes with various patterns. This particular set was of Valorian design, each showing a bird of prey: falcon, kite, lanceling, harrow owl, osprey, and kestrel. They referred to a marching song Valorian children learned.

’’Are you using the birds from \The Song of Death\s Feathers\ as passwords for your ship?’’ Kestrel asked the captain.

Wensan showed only a moment\s surprise, and her father none. Kestrel had always been quick to guess secrets.

Mournfully, Wensan said, ’’It\s the only thing the crew can seem to keep straight. The password must change every night, you know. The order of bird names in the song is an easy pattern to remember.’’

The general rang for slaves to bring the first course. Wensan began spinning stories of his travels, and Kestrel thought that perhaps this was why her father had invited him: to lift her spirits. Then she looked more closely at the captain\s plate and realized that this was not the reason.

His plate showed the kestrel.

Clearly, it wasn\ because the captain was an old friend that her father hadn\ requisitioned his ship, or because its cannon might protect the harbor. It was a trade. A favor that demanded repayment. ’’I agree,’’ Captain Wensan had said, looking at his plate.

He had agreed to watch over Kestrel in her father\s absence.

Kestrel became aware that she had gone still. Her eyes lifted to her father, who said, ’’Captain Wensan will be attending the Firstwinter ball.’’

Slaves came bearing food, and served. Kestrel looked at the three empty plates, two for her father\s brother and sister, who had died in battle, and the harrow owl for her mother. Kestrel wondered if things would have been different if her mother had lived. Maybe Kestrel and her father wouldn\ communicate in code, or strategize against each other, and for each other. Maybe Kestrel could speak her heart.

What would she say? That she knew her father wanted the captain to watch over her, yes, but also to make certain that she didn\ err, didn\ sin against society and him?

She could say that she didn\ blame his lack of faith when she no longer trusted herself.

She could say that she saw her father\s love as well as his worry.

’’How nice for Captain Wensan,’’ she said with a smile, reaching for her knife and fork. ’’I\m sure he will enjoy the ball. I, however, am not going.’’

* * *

At dawn, Kestrel took the carriage into the city and down to the harbor. Her father had said that he didn\ want her to see him off, so she hadn\ been there during the gray hours as the ships made ready to set sail. But she stood in the cold sunrise on the almost empty docks. The wind rose, and salty air knifed through her cloak.

She saw the ships, two hundred strong, sailing toward open water. Only six merchant ships remained, including Captain Wensan\s, rocking against their anchors. A handful of fishing boats clung to the shore, too small to do the military any good. She idly counted them.

Kestrel wondered if the general was on the deck of one of the warships, and if he could see her.

The fleet glided away, almost like dancers in a dance where one doesn\ touch.

Happiness depends on being free, Kestrel\s father often said, and freedom depends on being courageous.

She thought of the muslin-wrapped ball gown.

Why shouldn\ she go to the ball? What had she to fear?

The stares?

Let them stare. She was not defenseless, nor did she need her father\s protection, or the captain\s.

Kestrel had been injured, but she wasn\ anymore.

* * *

The cloth was almost liquid. The dress lay cool against her skin, falling in simple, golden lines, pale as a winter sun. It left her arms bare, and was low enough to show the wings of her collarbone.

The dress was easy to slip on a slave had only to fasten a few tiny pearl buttons that ran up the low back and Kestrel was accustomed to belting the jeweled dagger around her waist herself. But once she was alone she knew her hair would be trouble, and she wasn\ going to call for Lirah, the person most able to help.

She sat at her dressing table, eyeing her reflection warily. Her hair was loose, spilling over her shoulders, a few shades darker than the dress. She gathered a handful and began to braid.

’’I hear you\ e going to the ball tonight.’’

Kestrel glanced in the mirror to see Arin standing behind her. Then she focused on her own shadowed eyes. ’’You\ e not allowed in here,’’ Kestrel said. She didn\ look again at him, but sensed him waiting. She realized that she was waiting, too waiting for the will to send him away.

She sighed and continued to braid.

He said, ’’It\s not a good idea for you to attend the ball.’’

’’I hardly think you\ e in a position to advise me on what I should or shouldn\ do.’’ She glanced back at his reflection. His face frayed her already sheer nerves. The braid slipped from her fingers and unraveled. ’’What?’’ she snapped. ’’Does this amuse you?’’

The corner of his mouth lifted, and Arin looked like himself, like the person she had grown to know since summer\s end. ’’\Amuse\ isn\ the right word.’’

Heavy locks fell forward to curtain her face. ’’Lirah usually does my hair,’’ she muttered. She heard Arin inhale as if to speak, but he didn\ .

Then, quietly, he said, ’’I could do it.’’

’’What?’’

’’I could braid your hair.’’

’’You?’’

’’Yes.’’

Kestrel\s pulse bit at her throat. She opened her mouth, but before she could say anything he had crossed the room and swept her hair into his hands. His fingers began to move.

It was strange that the room was so silent. It seemed that there should have been some kind of sound when a fingertip grazed her neck. Or when he drew a lock taut and pinned it in place. When he let a ribbon-thin braid fall forward so that it tapped her cheek. Every gesture of his was as resonant as music, and Kestrel didn\ quite believe that she couldn\ hear any notes, high or low. She let out a slow breath.

His hands stilled. ’’Did I hurt you?’’

’’No.’’

Pins disappeared from the dressing table at a rapid rate. Kestrel watched small braids lose themselves inside larger ones, dip in and under and out of an increasingly intricate design. She felt a gentle tug. A twist. A shiver of air.

Although Arin wasn\ touching her, he was touching no living part of her, it felt as if a fine net had been cast over Kestrel, one that hazed her vision and shimmered against her skin.

’’There,’’ he said.

Kestrel watched her reflection lift a hand to her head. She couldn\ think of what to say. Arin had drawn back, hands in his pockets. But his eyes held hers in the mirror, and his face had softened, like when she had played the piano for him. She said, ’’How...?’’

He smiled. ’’How did a blacksmith pick up such an unexpected skill?’’

’’Well, yes.’’

’’My older sister used to make me do this when I was little.’’

Kestrel almost asked where Arin\s sister was now, then imagined the worst. She saw Arin watch her imagine it, and saw from his expression that the worst was true. Yet his smile didn\ fade. ’’I hated it, of course,’’ he said. ’’The way she ordered me around. The way I let her. But now ... it\s a nice memory.’’

She rose and faced Arin. The chair stood between them, and she wasn\ sure whether she was grateful for that barrier or not.

’’Kestrel, if you must go to the ball, take me with you.’’

’’I don\ understand you,’’ she said, frustrated. ’’I don\ understand what you say, how you change, how you act one way and then come here and act another.’’

’’I don\ always understand myself either. But I know I want to go with you tonight.’’

Kestrel let the words echo in her mind. There had been a supple strength to his voice. An unconscious melody. Kestrel wondered if Arin knew how he exposed himself as a singer with every simple, ordinary word. She wondered if he meant to hold her in thrall.

’’If you think it\s stupid for me to go to the Firstwinter ball,’’ she said, ’’you can be certain that it is far worse for me to take you along.’’

He lifted one shoulder. ’’Or it could send a bold message of what we both know to be true: that you have nothing to hide.’’

* * *

The governor\s wife, Neril, faltered for only the briefest of moments when she saw Kestrel in the receiving line for the ball. But the governor thought highly of General Trajan and, more important, relied upon him. This made the men allies which, in turn, meant that Neril had to be careful around the general\s daughter, as Kestrel knew very well.

’’My dear!’’ said Neril. ’’You look stunning.’’ Her eyes, however, didn\ rest on Kestrel. They darted behind her to where Arin stood.

’’Thank you,’’ said Kestrel.

Neril\s smile was stiff. Her gaze didn\ leave Arin\s face. ’’Lady Kestrel, could I beg a favor? You see, half of my slaves fell ill tonight.’’

’’So many?’’

’’They\ e faking, of course. But beating the lies out of them won\ make me any less shorthanded tonight. A whipped slave could hardly serve my guests, at least not with the necessary poise and posture.’’

Kestrel didn\ like where this was going. ’’Lady Neril ’’

’’May I borrow your slave tonight?’’

Kestrel sensed the tension in Arin as clearly as if he stood next to her, shoulder brushing hers, instead of behind her, barely out of sight. ’’I might need him.’’

’’Need him?’’ Neril dropped her voice: ’’Kestrel, I am doing you a favor. Send him to the kitchens now, before the ball has truly begun and more people notice. I doubt he\ll mind.’’

Kestrel watched Arin as she went through the charade of translating Neril\s Valorian for him. She thought that, yes, he would mind. Yet when he spoke, his voice was humble. His words were in Valorian, as if he no longer cared who knew how well he spoke the empire\s language. ’’My lady,’’ he said to Neril. ’’I don\ know the way to your kitchens, and it would be easy to get lost in such a grand house. One of your slaves could guide me, but I see they are all busy...’’

’’Yes, fine.’’ Neril waved an impatient hand. ’’I\ll send a slave to find you. Soon,’’ she added, that last word directed at Kestrel. Then she turned her attention to the guests next in line.

The governor\s home was Valorian-built, after the conquest, so the reception hall led to a shield chamber, where embossed shields studded the walls and flared in the torchlight as guests chatted and drank.

A house slave placed a glass of wine in Kestrel\s hand. She lifted it to her lips.

It was knocked away. It smashed at her feet, wine splashing near her shoes. People broke off their conversations and stared.


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