The Winners Curse Page 2

Kestrel opened her eyes.

’’Imagine music during dinner, how charmed your guests will be.’’ The auctioneer glanced up at the slave, who stood tall on his block. ’’Go on. Sing for them.’’

Only then did the slave shift position. It was a slight movement and quickly stilled, but Jess sucked in her breath as if she, like Kestrel, expected a fight to break out in the pit below.

The auctioneer hissed at the slave in rapid Herrani, too quietly for Kestrel to understand.

The slave answered in his language. His voice was low: ’’No.’’

Perhaps he didn\ know the acoustics of the pit. Perhaps he didn\ care, or worry that any Valorian knew at least enough Herrani to understand him. No matter. The auction was over now. No one would want him. Probably the person who had offered twenty-five pilasters was already regretting a bid for someone so intractable that he wouldn\ obey even his own kind.

But his refusal touched Kestrel. The stony set of the slave\s shoulders reminded her of herself, when her father demanded something that she couldn\ give.

The auctioneer was furious. He should have closed the sale or at least made a show of asking for a higher price, but he simply stood there, fists at his sides, likely trying to figure out how he could punish the young man before passing him on to the misery of cutting rock, or the heat of the forge.

Kestrel\s hand moved on its own. ’’A keystone,’’ she called.

The auctioneer turned. He sought the crowd. When he found Kestrel a smile sparked his expression into cunning delight. ’’Ah,’’ he said, ’’there is someone who knows worth.’’

’’Kestrel.’’ Jess plucked at her sleeve. ’’What are you doing?’’

The auctioneer\s voice boomed: ’’Going once, going twice ’’

’’Twelve keystones!’’ called a man leaning against the barrier across from Kestrel, on the other side of its semicircle.

The auctioneer\s jaw dropped. ’’Twelve?’’

’’Thirteen!’’ came another cry.

Kestrel inwardly winced. If she had to bid anything and why, why had she? it shouldn\ have been so high. Everyone thronged around the pit was looking at her: the general\s daughter, a high society bird who flitted from one respectable house to the next. They thought

’’Fourteen!’’

They thought that if she wanted the slave, he must merit the price. There must be a reason to want him, too.

’’Fifteen!’’

And the delicious mystery of why made one bid top the next.

The slave was staring at her now, and no wonder, since it was she who had ignited this insanity. Kestrel felt something within her swing on the hinge of fate and choice.

She lifted her hand. ’’I bid twenty keystones.’’

’’Good heavens, girl,’’ said the pointy-chinned woman to her left. ’’Drop out. Why bid on him? Because he\s a singer? A singer of dirty Herrani drinking songs, if anything.’’

Kestrel didn\ glance at her, or at Jess, though she sensed the girl was twisting her fingers. Kestrel\s gaze didn\ waver from the slave\s.

’’Twenty-five!’’ shouted a woman from behind.

The price was now more than Kestrel had in her purse. The auctioneer looked like he barely knew what to do with himself. The bidding spiraled higher, each voice spurring the next until it seemed that a roped arrow was shooting through the members of the crowd, binding them together, drawing them tight with excitement.

Kestrel\s voice came out flat: ’’Fifty keystones.’’

The sudden, stunned quiet hurt her ears. Jess gasped.

’’Sold!’’ cried the auctioneer. His face was wild with joy. ’’To Lady Kestrel, for fifty keystones!’’ He tugged the slave off the block, and it was only then that the youth\s gaze broke away from Kestrel\s. He looked at the sand, so intently that he could have been reading his future there, until the auctioneer prodded him toward the pen.

Kestrel drew in a shaky breath. Her bones felt watery. What had she done?

Jess slipped a supporting hand under her elbow. ’’You are sick.’’

’’And rather light of purse, I\d say.’’ The pointy-chinned woman snickered. ’’Looks like someone\s suffering the Winner\s Curse.’’

Kestrel turned to her. ’’What do you mean?’’

’’You don\ come to auctions often, do you? The Winner\s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.’’

The crowd was thinning. Already the auctioneer was bringing out someone else, but the rope of excitement that had bound the Valorians to the pit had disintegrated. The show was over. The path was now clear for Kestrel to leave, yet she couldn\ move.

’’I don\ understand,’’ said Jess.

Neither did Kestrel. What had she been thinking? What had she been trying to prove?

Nothing, she told herself. Her back to the pit, she made her foot take the first step away from what she had done.

Nothing at all.

2

The waiting room of the holding pen was open to the air and faced the street. It smelled of unwashed flesh. Jess stayed close, eyeing the iron door set into the far wall. Kestrel tried not to do the same. It was her first time here. House slaves were usually purchased by her father or the family steward, who supervised them.

The auctioneer was waiting near soft chairs arranged for Valorian customers. ’’Ah.’’ He beamed when he saw Kestrel. ’’The winner! I hoped to be here before you arrived. I left the pit as soon as I could.’’

’’Do you always greet your customers personally?’’ She was surprised at his eagerness.

’’Yes, the good ones.’’

Kestrel wondered how much could be heard through the tiny barred window of the iron door.

’’Otherwise,’’ the auctioneer continued, ’’I leave the final transaction in the hands of my assistant. She\s in the pit now, trying to unload twins.’’ He rolled his eyes at the difficulty of keeping family together. ’’Well’’ he shrugged ’’someone might want a matched set.’’

Two Valorians entered the waiting room, a husband and wife. The auctioneer smiled, asked if they would mind taking a seat, and said he would be with them shortly. Jess whispered in Kestrel\s ear, saying that the couple settling into the low chairs in a far corner were friends of her parents. Did Kestrel mind if she went to greet them?

’’No,’’ said Kestrel, ’’I don\ .’’ She couldn\ blame Jess for feeling uncomfortable with the gritty details of purchasing people, even if the fact of it shaped every hour of her life, from the moment a slave drew her morning bath to when another unbraided her hair for bed.

After Jess had joined the husband and wife, Kestrel looked meaningfully at the auctioneer. He nodded. He pulled a thick key from his pocket, went to unlock the door, and stepped inside. ’’You,’’ Kestrel heard him say in Herrani. ’’Time to leave.’’

There was a rustle and the auctioneer returned. The slave walked behind.

He lifted his gaze to meet Kestrel\s. His eyes were a clear, cool gray.

They startled her. Yet she should have expected to see this color in a Herrani, and Kestrel thought it must be the livid bruise on his cheek that made the expression in his eyes so uncanny. Still, she grew uncomfortable under his gaze. Then his lashes fell. He looked at the ground, letting long hair obscure his face. One side was still swollen from the fight, or beating.

He seemed perfectly indifferent to anything around him. Kestrel didn\ exist, or the auctioneer, or even himself.

The auctioneer locked the iron door. ’’Now.’’ He clasped his hands together in a single clap. ’’The small matter of payment.’’

She handed the auctioneer her purse. ’’I have twenty-four keystones.’’

The auctioneer paused, uncertain. ’’Twenty-four is not fifty, my lady.’’

’’I will send my steward with the rest later today.’’

’’Ah, but what if he loses his way?’’

’’I am General Trajan\s daughter.’’

He smiled. ’’I know.’’

’’The full amount is no difficulty for us,’’ Kestrel continued. ’’I simply chose not to carry fifty keystones with me today. My word is good.’’

’’I\m sure.’’ He didn\ mention that Kestrel could return at another time to collect her purchase and pay in full, and Kestrel said nothing of the rage she had seen in his face when the slave defied him, or of her suspicion that the auctioneer would take revenge. The likelihood of it rose with every moment the slave remained here.

Kestrel watched the auctioneer think. He could insist she return later, risk offending her, and lose the entire sum. Or he could pocket not even half of fifty keystones now and perhaps never obtain the rest.

But he was clever. ’’May I escort you home with your purchase? I would like to see Smith settled in safely. Your steward can take care of the cost then.’’

She glanced at the slave. He had blinked at his name, but didn\ lift his face. ’’Fine,’’ she told the auctioneer.

She crossed the waiting room to Jess and asked the husband and wife if they would escort the girl home.

’’Of course,’’ said the husband Senator Nicon, Kestrel remembered. ’’But what of you?’’

She nodded at the two men over her shoulder. ’’They will come with me.’’

Jess knew a Herrani auctioneer and a rebellious slave were not the ideal escort. Kestrel knew it, too, but a flash of resentment at her situation at the situation she had created made her sick with all the rules that governed her world.

Jess said, ’’Are you sure?’’

’’Yes.’’

The couple raised eyebrows, yet clearly decided that the situation was none of their business except as a piece of gossip to spread.

Kestrel left the slave market, the auctioneer and Smith trailing behind her.

She walked quickly through the neighborhoods that separated this dingy part of town from the Garden District. The cross-hatching of streets was ordered, right-angled, Valorian-designed. She knew the way, yet had the odd sense of being lost. Today, everything seemed foreign. When she passed through the Warriors\ Quarter, whose dense barracks she had run through as a child, she imagined soldiers rising against her.

Though of course any of these armed men and women would die to protect her, and expected her to become one of their own. Kestrel had only to obey her father\s wishes and enlist.

When the streets began to change, to twist in irrational directions and bend like water, Kestrel was relieved. Trees leafed into a green canopy overhead. She could hear fountains behind high stone walls.

She came to a massive iron door. One of her father\s guards peered through its window and swung the door open.

Kestrel said nothing to him or the other guards, and they said nothing to her. She led the way across the grounds. The auctioneer and slave followed.

She was home. But the footfalls behind her on the flagstone path reminded Kestrel that this had not always been her home. This estate, and the entire Garden District, had been made by the Herrani, who had called it by another name when it had been theirs.

She stepped onto the lawn. So did the men, their footsteps now hushed by grass.

A yellow bird trilled and swooped through the trees. Kestrel listened until the song dwindled. She continued toward the villa.

The sound of her sandals on the marble floor of the entryway echoed gently against walls painted with leaping creatures, flowers, and gods she didn\ know. Her footfalls blurred into the whisper of water bubbling up from a shallow pool set into the floor.

’’A beautiful home,’’ said the auctioneer.

She glanced at him sharply, though she heard nothing bitter in his voice. She searched him for some sign that he recognized the house, that he had visited it as an honored guest, friend, or even family member before the Herran War. But that was a foolish notion. The villas in the Garden District had belonged to aristocratic Herrani, and if the auctioneer had been one of those, he wouldn\ have ended up in his line of work. He would have become a house slave, perhaps a tutor for Valorian children. If the auctioneer did know her house, it was because he had delivered slaves here for her father.

She hesitated to look at Smith. When she did, he refused to look back.

The housekeeper came toward her down the long hall that stretched beyond the fountain. Kestrel sent her away again with the order to fetch the steward and ask him to return with twenty-six keystones. When the steward arrived, his blond brows were drawn together and the hands holding a small coffer were tight. Harman\s hands became tighter still when he noticed the auctioneer and slave.

Kestrel opened the coffer and counted money into the auctioneer\s outstretched hand. He pocketed the silver, then emptied her purse, which he had carried with him. With a slight bow, he returned the flat bag to her. ’’Such a pleasure to have your business.’’ He turned to go.

She said, ’’There had better not be a fresh mark on him.’’

The auctioneer\s eyes flicked to the slave and traced his rags, his dirty, scarred arms. ’’You\ e welcome to inspect, my lady,’’ the auctioneer drawled.

Kestrel frowned, unsettled by the idea of inspecting any person, let alone this person. But before she could form a response, the auctioneer had left.

’’How much?’’ Harman demanded. ’’How much, total, did this cost?’’

She told him.

He drew in a long breath. ’’Your father ’’

’’I will tell my father.’’

’’Well, what am I supposed to do with him?’’

Kestrel looked at the slave. He hadn\ moved, but remained standing on the same black tile as if still on the auction block. He had ignored the entire conversation, tuning out the Valorian he probably didn\ fully understand. His eyes were raised, resting on a painted nightingale that graced a far wall. ’’This is Smith,’’ Kestrel told the steward.


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