The Winners Curse Page 20

’’I\m sorry,’’ Arin muttered. ’’I tripped.’’

Kestrel felt the heat in the way everyone looked at her. At him. At her, standing next to him. She saw Neril, still visible at the threshold between the reception hall and the shield chamber, turn and take in the scene. The woman rolled her eyes. She grabbed a slave by the elbow and pushed him toward Kestrel and Arin.

’’Kestrel, don\ drink any wine tonight,’’ Arin said.

’’What? Why not?’’

Neril\s slave came closer.

’’You should keep your head clear,’’ Arin told her.

’’My head is perfectly clear,’’ she hissed at him, out of earshot of the murmuring crowd. ’’What is wrong with you, Arin? You ask to accompany me to an event you don\ think I should attend. You\ e silent in the carriage the entire way here, and now ’’

’’Just promise me that you won\ drink.’’

’’Very well, I won\ , if it\s important to you.’’ Did this moment, like others at Irex\s dinner party, hide some past trauma of Arin\s that she couldn\ see? ’’But what ’’

’’Arin.’’ It was Neril\s slave. The man seemed surprised to see Arin, yet also pleased. ’’You\ e supposed to follow me.’’

* * *

When Arin entered the kitchens, the Herrani fell silent. He saw their expressions change, and it made him feel as if something sticky had been wiped on his skin, the way they looked at him.

As if he were a hero.

He ignored them, pushing past footmen and serving girls until he reached the cook, roasting a pig on a spit over the fire. Arin grabbed him. ’’Which wine?’’ he demanded. Once the poison was served, destruction would fall on every Valorian in this house.

’’Arin.’’ The cook grinned. ’’I thought you were supposed to be at the general\s estate tonight.’’

’’Which wine?’’

The cook blinked, finally absorbing the urgency in Arin\s voice. ’’It\s in an iced apple wine, very sweet, sweet enough to mask the poison.’’

’’When?’’

’’When\s it going to be served? Why, right after the third round of dancing.’’

26

Beyond its entryway, the ballroom rang with laughter and loud talk. Heat seethed over the threshold and into the hall where Kestrel stood.

She wove her fingers into a tight lattice. She was nervous.

She looked nervous.

No one must know how she felt.

Kestrel pulled her hands apart and stepped inside the ballroom.

There was a sudden valley of silence. If the windows had been open and air had rushed through them, Kestrel would have heard the chandeliers tinkle, it was so quiet.

Faces chilled. One by one, they turned away.

She sought the crowd for a friend and hadn\ realized she\d been holding her breath until she noticed Benix. She smiled. She moved toward him.

He saw her. She knew that he saw her. But his eyes refused to see her. It was as if she were transparent. Like ice, or glass, or something equally breakable.

She stopped.

Benix turned his back. He went to the other side of the room.

Whispers began. Irex, far away but not far enough, laughed and said something in Lady Faris\s ear. Kestrel\s cheeks prickled with shame, yet she couldn\ retreat. She couldn\ move.

She saw the smile first. Then the face: Captain Wensan, coming to her rescue, weaving past people. He would ask Kestrel for the first dance, and her appearance would be salvaged, at least for now, even if her reputation was ruined. And she would say yes, for she had no choice but to accept the captain\s pity.

Pity. The thought of it chased the blush from her face.

She scanned the crowd. Before the captain could reach her, she approached a senator standing alone. Senator Caran was twice Kestrel\s age. Thin-haired, thin-faced. His reputation was spotless, if only because he was too timid to break ranks with society.

’’Ask me to dance,’’ she said quietly.

’’Pardon me?’’

At least he was speaking with her. ’’Ask me to dance,’’ she said, ’’or I\ll tell everyone what I know about you.’’

His gaping mouth clamped shut.

Kestrel didn\ know any of Caran\s secrets. Perhaps he had none. She was counting, however, on his being too afraid to risk whatever she might say.

He asked her to dance.

He wasn\ , obviously, the ideal choice. But Ronan hadn\ arrived, and Benix still wouldn\ meet her gaze. Either he had changed his mind about her since the duel or his courage failed him in the absence of Ronan and Jess. Or maybe he was simply no longer willing to sink his reputation along with Kestrel\s.

The dance began. Caran remained silent the entire time.

When the instruments slowed to an end, a lute picking a light tune downward until there was no more music, Kestrel broke away. Caran gave her an awkward bow and left.

’’Well, that didn\ look very fun,’’ said a voice behind her. Kestrel turned. Gladness washed over her.

It was Ronan. ’’I\m ashamed of myself,’’ he said. ’’Heartily ashamed, to be so late that you had to dance with such a boring partner as Caran. How did that happen?’’

’’I blackmailed him.’’

’’Ah.’’ Ronan\s eyes grew worried. ’’So things aren\ going well.’’

’’Kestrel!’’ Jess threaded through milling people and came close. ’’We didn\ think you\d come. You should have told us. If we\d known, we\d have been here from the first.’’ Jess took Kestrel\s hand and drew her to the edge of the dance floor. Ronan followed. Behind them, dancers began the second round. ’’As it was,’’ Jess continued, ’’we barely made it into the carriage. Ronan was so listless, saying he saw no point in coming if he couldn\ be with you.’’

’’Sweet sister,’’ said Ronan, ’’is it now my turn to share private things about you?’’

’’Silly. I have no secrets. Neither do you, where Kestrel is concerned. Well?’’ Jess looked triumphantly between them. ’’Do you, Ronan?’’

He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and thumb, brows rumpling into a pained expression. ’’Not anymore.’’

’’You look lovely, Kestrel,’’ Jess said. ’’Wasn\ I right about the dress? And the color will go perfectly with the iced apple wine.’’

Kestrel felt giddy, whether from the relief of seeing her friends or because of Ronan\s forced confession, she wasn\ sure. She smiled. ’’You chose the fabric of my dress to coordinate with wine?’’

’’A special wine. Lady Neril is very proud of it. She told me months ago that she planned to import several casks from the capital for the ball, and it occurred to me that it is simply too easy to match a dress only to jewels, dagger, and shoes. A glass of wine in one\s hand is rather like a jewel, isn\ it, a large, liquid one?’’

’’I\d better have a glass then. To complete my ensemble.’’ Kestrel didn\ quite forget her promise to Arin not to drink, but rather willed it away along with everything else about him.

’’Oh, yes,’’ said Jess. ’’You must. Don\ you think so, Ronan?’’

’’I don\ think. I am thinking of nothing other than what Kestrel could be thinking, and whether she will dance with me. If I\m not mistaken, there is one final dance before this legendary wine is served.’’

Kestrel\s happiness faltered. ’’I\d love to, but ... won\ your parents mind?’’

Ronan and Jess exchanged a glance. ’’They\ e not here,’’ Ronan said. ’’They\ve left to spend the winter season in the capital.’’

Which meant that, were they here, they would object as would any parents, given the scandal.

Ronan read Kestrel\s face. ’’It doesn\ matter what they think. Dance with me.’’

He took her hand, and for the first time in a long while, she felt safe. He pulled her to the center of the floor and into the motions of the dance.

Ronan didn\ speak for a few moments, then touched a slim braid that curved in a tendril along Kestrel\s cheek. ’’This is pretty.’’

The memory of Arin\s hands in her hair made her stiffen.

’’Gorgeous?’’ Ronan tried again. ’’Transcendent? Kestrel, the right adjective hasn\ been invented to describe you.’’

She attempted a light tone. ’’What will ladies do, when this kind of exaggerated flirtation is no longer the fashion? We shall be spoiled.’’

’’You know it\s not mere flirtation,’’ Ronan said. ’’You\ve always known.’’

And Kestrel had, it was true that she had, even if she hadn\ wanted to shake the knowledge out of her mind and look at it, truly see it. She felt a dull spark of dread.

’’Marry me, Kestrel.’’

She held her breath.

’’I know things have been hard lately,’’ Ronan continued, ’’and that you don\ deserve it. You\ve had to be so strong, so proud, so cunning. But all of this unpleasantness will go away the instant we announce our engagement. You can be yourself again.’’

But she was strong. Proud. Cunning. Who did he think she was, if not the person who mercilessly beat him at every Bite and Sting game, who gave him Irex\s death-price and told him exactly what to do with it? Yet Kestrel bit back her words. She leaned into the curve of his arm. It was easy to dance with him. It would be easy to say yes.

’’Your father will be happy. My wedding gift to you will be the finest piano the capital can offer.’’

Kestrel glanced into his eyes.

’’Or keep yours,’’ he said hastily. ’’I know you\ e attached to it.’’

’’It\s just ... you are very kind.’’

He gave a short, nervous laugh. ’’Kindness has little to do with it.’’

The dance slowed. It would end soon.

’’So?’’ Ronan had stopped, even though the music continued and dancers swirled around them. ’’What ... well, what do you think?’’

Kestrel didn\ know what to think. Ronan was offering everything she could want. Why, then, did his words sadden her? Why did she feel like something had been lost? Carefully, she said, ’’The reasons you\ve given aren\ reasons to marry.’’

’’I love you. Is that reason enough?’’

Maybe. Maybe it would have been. But as the music drained from the air, Kestrel saw Arin on the fringes of the crowd. He watched her, his expression oddly desperate. As if he, too, were losing something, or it was already lost.

She saw him and didn\ understand how she had ever missed his beauty. How it didn\ always strike her as it did now, like a blow.

’’No,’’ Kestrel whispered.

’’What?’’ Ronan\s voice cut into the quiet.

’’I\m sorry.’’

Ronan swiveled to find the target of Kestrel\s gaze. He swore.

Kestrel walked away, pushing past slaves bearing trays laden with glasses of pale gold wine. The lights and people blurred in her stinging eyes. She walked through the doors, down a hall, out of the palace, and into the cold night, knowing without seeing or hearing or touching him that Arin was at her side.

* * *

Kestrel didn\ see why carriage seats had to face each other. Why couldn\ they have been designed for moments like these, when all she wanted to do was hide? She took one look at Arin. She had given no order for the carriage lamps to be lit, but the moonlight was strong. Arin was silvered by it. He was staring out the window at the governor\s palace dwindling as the carriage trundled toward home. Then he tore his gaze from the window with a sharp turn of the head and sagged against his seat, face filled with something that looked like shocked relief.

Kestrel felt a flicker of instinctive curiosity. Then she reminded herself bitterly that this was what curiosity had bought her: fifty keystones for a singer who refused to sing, a friend who wasn\ her friend, someone who was hers and yet would never be hers. Kestrel looked away from Arin. She swore to herself that she would never look back.

Softly, he said, ’’Why are you crying?’’

His words made the tears flow faster.

’’Kestrel.’’

She drew a shaky breath. ’’Because when my father comes home, I will tell him that he has won. I will join the military.’’

There was a silence. ’’I don\ understand.’’

Kestrel shrugged. She shouldn\ care whether he understood or not.

’’You would give up your music?’’

Yes. She would.

’’But your bargain with the general was for spring.’’ Arin still sounded confused. ’’You have until spring to marry or enlist. Ronan ... Ronan would ask the god of souls for you. He would ask you to marry him.’’

’’He has.’’

Arin didn\ speak.

’’But I can\ ,’’ she said.

’’Kestrel.’’

’’I can\ .’’

’’Kestrel, please don\ cry.’’ Tentative fingers touched her face. A thumb ran along the wet skin of her cheekbone. She suffered for it, suffered for the misery of knowing that whatever possessed him to do this could be no more than compassion. He valued her that much. But not enough.

’’Why can\ you marry him?’’ he whispered.

She broke her word to herself and looked at him. ’’Because of you.’’

Arin\s hand flinched against her cheek. His dark head bowed, became lost in its own shadow. Then he slipped from his seat and knelt before hers. His hands fell to the fists on her lap and gently opened them. He held them as if cupping water. He took a breath to speak.

She would have stopped him. She would have wished herself deaf, blind, made of unfeeling smoke. She would have stopped his words out of terror, longing. The way terror and longing had become indistinguishable.


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