The Winners Curse Page 21

Yet his hands held hers, and she could do nothing.

He said, ’’I want the same thing you want.’’

Kestrel pulled back. It wasn\ possible his words could mean what they seemed.

’’It hasn\ been easy for me to want it.’’ Arin lifted his face so that she could see his expression. A rich emotion played across his features, offered itself, and asked to be called by its name.

Hope.

’’But you\ve already given your heart,’’ she said.

His brow furrowed, then smoothed. ’’Oh. No, not the way you think.’’ He laughed a little, the sound soft yet somehow wild. ’’Ask me why I went to the market.’’

This was cruel. ’’We both know why.’’

He shook his head. ’’Pretend that you\ve won a game of Bite and Sting. Why did I go? Ask me. It wasn\ to see a girl who doesn\ exist.’’

’’She ... doesn\ ?’’

’’I lied.’’

Kestrel blinked. ’’Then why did you go to the market?’’

’’Because I wanted to feel free.’’ Arin raised a hand to brush the air by his temple, then awkwardly let it fall.

Kestrel suddenly understood this gesture she\d seen many times. It was an old habit. He was brushing away a ghost, hair that was no longer there because she had ordered it cut.

She leaned forward, and kissed his temple.

Arin\s hand held her lightly to him. His cheek slid against hers. Then his lips touched her brow, her closed eyes, the line where her jaw met her throat.

Kestrel\s mouth found his. His lips were salted with her tears, and the taste of that, of him, of their deepening kiss, filled her with the feeling of his quiet laugh moments ago. Of a wild softness, a soft wildness. In his hands, running up her thin dress. In his heat, burning through to her skin ... and into her, sinking into him.

He broke away, barely. ’’I haven\ told you everything,’’ he said. The carriage jostled, swaying the weight of his body against hers, then away again.

Kestrel smiled. ’’Do you have more imaginary friends?’’

’’I ’’

A distant explosion rumbled through the night. One of the horses screamed. The carriage shook, knocking Kestrel\s head against the window frame. She heard the driver\s shout, the crack of a whip. The carriage ground to a halt. The hilt of Kestrel\s dagger jabbed her side.

’’Kestrel? Are you all right?’’

Dazed, she touched the side of her head. Her fingers came away wet.

There was a second explosion. The carriage jerked again as the horses shied, but Arin\s hand held Kestrel steady. She looked out the window, toward the city, and saw a faint glow in the sky. ’’What was that?’’

Arin was silent. Then: ’’Black powder. The first explosion was at the city guards\ barracks. The second was at the armory.’’

That might have been a guess, but it didn\ sound like one. Half of Kestrel\s mind knew exactly what it meant if Arin knew this, but the other half slammed a door on this knowledge, letting her understand only what it meant if he was correct.

The city was under attack.

Sleeping city guards had been killed.

Enemies were ransacking weapons from the armory.

Kestrel scrambled out the carriage door.

Arin was right behind her. ’’Kestrel, you should get back in the carriage.’’

She ignored him.

’’You\ e bleeding,’’ he said.

Kestrel looked at the Herrani driver hauling on the reins and swearing at the shifting horses. She saw the growing light over the city\s center, a sure sign of fire. She stared up the road. They were only minutes away from her estate.

Kestrel took a step toward home.

’’No.’’ Arin seized her arm. ’’We need to go back together.’’

The horses quieted. The uneven rhythm of their snorts and stamped hooves floated into the night as Kestrel thought about Arin\s word: need.

The door she had slammed shut in her mind sailed open.

Why had Arin told her not to drink the wine?

What had been wrong with the wine?

She thought of Jess and Ronan, and all the dancers at the ball.

’’Kestrel.’’ Arin\s voice was low but insistent, the beginning of an explanation she did not want to hear.

’’Let me go.’’

His hand fell, and Kestrel saw that he saw that she knew. She knew that, whatever was happening tonight, it was no surprise to him. That whatever awaited her at home was as dangerous as black powder or poisoned wine.

Both Arin and Kestrel were aware that her options here on this road, isolated, at night were few.

’’What is going on?’’ The Herrani driver climbed down from his seat. He came close, then stared out over the dark crest of a hill at the city\s faint glow. He met Arin\s eyes. ’’The god of vengeance has come,’’ he breathed.

Kestrel drew her dagger and pressed it to the driver\s throat. ’’Curse your gods,’’ she said. ’’Unhitch a horse.’’

’’Don\ ,’’ Arin told the driver, who swallowed nervously against Kestrel\s blade. ’’She won\ kill you.’’

’’I\m Valorian. I will.’’

’’Kestrel, there will be ... changes, after tonight. But give me a chance to explain.’’

’’I don\ think so.’’

’’Then think about this.’’ In the moonlight, Arin\s jaw hardened into a black line. ’’What would your next move be, after killing your driver? Will you attack me? Would you succeed?’’

’’I\ll kill myself.’’

Arin took a step back. ’’You wouldn\ .’’ Yet there was fear in his eyes.

’’An honor suicide? All Valorian children are taught how, when we come of age. My father showed me where to stab.’’

’’No. You wouldn\ . You play a game to its end.’’

’’The Herrani were enslaved because they were too poor at killing and too cowardly to die. I told you I didn\ want to kill, not that I wouldn\ . And I never said I was afraid of death.’’

Arin looked at the driver. ’’Unhitch both horses.’’

Kestrel held the knife steady as the driver stripped the first horse of its gear.

When she mounted its bare back, Arin lunged for her. She had expected this, and had the advantage of height and a wooden-heeled shoe. She kicked his brow, saw him reel. Then she dug one hand into the horse\s mane and forced it to gallop.

Kestrel could see well enough by the moon to avoid deep ruts in the road. She concentrated on that, not on the betrayal seared into her skin. Branded on her mouth. The shoes fell from her feet and braids whipped her back.

It wasn\ long before she heard the beating of hooves behind her.

* * *

The gate to the estate was open and the path strewn with the bodies of the general\s guard. Kestrel saw Rax, his dead eyes staring. A short sword was buried in his gut.

Her horse was hurtling across the grounds to the house when the quarrel of a crossbow whined through the air and punched into the beast\s side.

The horse screamed. Kestrel was thrown to the ground. She lay there, stunned. Then the fingers of her right hand realized what they no longer held and began scrabbling for the knife.

Her hand closed around its hilt just as a boot materialized in her line of sight. The heel drove into the winter dirt, the sole hovering over her knuckles.

’’It\s the lady of the house,’’ said the auctioneer. Kestrel stared up at him, at the crossbow he held so easily, at the way he appraised her, moving from bare feet to torn dress to bleeding forehead. ’’The piano player.’’ His boot lowered and rocked a slight pressure over the bones of her fingers. ’’Drop the knife or I\ll crush your hand.’’

Kestrel dropped it.

He grabbed the back of her neck and hauled her up. Her breath came quickly, in short bursts of fear. He smiled, and she saw him again as he had been in the pit, pitching the sale of Arin. This slave has been trained as a blacksmith, the auctioneer had said. He would be perfect for any soldier, especially for an officer with a guard of his own and weapons to maintain.

No Valorian in the city had a guard of his own save General Trajan.

Kestrel saw again how the auctioneer had met her eyes that day. His delight when she had bid, his expression when others had joined. He hadn\ been excited to see the price drive higher, Kestrel realized. He had been anxious.

As if the sale of Arin had been meant for her, her alone.

The ground trembled with approaching hooves.

The auctioneer\s smile grew wider as Arin dragged his horse to a halt. The auctioneer motioned toward the shadows of trees. Armed Herrani appeared. They trained their weapons on Kestrel.

The auctioneer walked toward Arin, who dismounted. He placed one palm against Arin\s cheek. Arin did the same to him. They stood, creating an image Kestrel had seen only in dust-covered Herrani art. It was a gesture of friendship as deep as family.

Arin\s eyes met hers.

’’You are the god of lies,’’ she hissed.

27

They marched her to the house. Kestrel said nothing as rocks and twigs cut into her bare feet. When the auctioneer pushed her into the entryway, she left bloody footprints on the tile.

But she was distracted from this by another sight. Harman, her steward, floated facedown in the fountain, blond hair rippling like sea grass.

The general\s slaves crowded the hallway beyond the fountain, shouting questions at the armed men, whose answers were a jumble of phrases like We\ve seized the city, The governor\s dead, and, over and over, You\ e free.

’’Where\s the housekeeper?’’ said the auctioneer.

There was a shuffling among the slaves. It wasn\ so much that the Valorian housekeeper was thrust forward as that the slaves stepped away to reveal her.

The auctioneer seized the woman\s shoulders, backed her up against the wall, pressed a broad arm across her chest, and drew a knife.

She began to sob.

’’Stop,’’ Kestrel said. She turned toward the slaves. ’’Stop this. She was good to you.’’

They didn\ move.

’’Good to you?’’ the auctioneer said to them. ’’Was she good to you when she made you clean the privies? When she beat you for breaking a plate?’’

’’She wouldn\ have hurt anyone.’’ Kestrel\s voice rode high with the fear she could no longer contain. It made her say the wrong thing. ’’I wouldn\ have allowed it.’’

’’You don\ give orders anymore,’’ the auctioneer said, and cut the woman\s throat.

She sagged against the wall\s painted flowers, choking on her blood, pressing hands to her throat as if she could hold everything inside. The auctioneer didn\ step away. He let her blood splash him until she slid to the floor.

’’But she didn\ do anything.’’ Kestrel couldn\ stop herself, even though she knew that it was stupid, utterly stupid, for her to speak. ’’She only did what I paid her to do.’’

’’Kestrel.’’ Arin\s voice was sharp.

The auctioneer turned to face her. He raised his knife again. Kestrel had just enough time to remember the sound of a hammer against anvil, to think of all the weapons Arin had forged, and to realize that if he had wanted to make more on the side it wouldn\ have been hard.

The auctioneer advanced on her.

Not hard at all.

’’No,’’ said Arin. ’’She\s mine.’’

The man paused. ’’What?’’

Arin strolled toward them, stepping in the housekeeper\s blood. He stood next to the auctioneer, his stance loose and careless. ’’She\s mine. My prize. Payment for services rendered. A spoil of war.’’ Arin shrugged. ’’Call her what you like. Call her my slave.’’

Shame poured into Kestrel, as poisonous as anything her friends must have drunk at the ball.

Slowly, the auctioneer said, ’’I\m a little worried about you, Arin. I think you\ve lost clarity on the situation.’’

’’Is there something wrong with treating her the way she treated me?’’

’’No, but ’’

’’The Valorian army will return. She\s the general\s daughter. She\s too valuable to waste.’’

The auctioneer sheathed his knife, but Kestrel couldn\ sheathe her dread. This sudden alternative to death didn\ seem like a better one.

’’Just remember what happened to your parents,’’ the auctioneer told Arin. ’’Remember what Valorian soldiers did to your sister.’’

Arin\s gaze cut to Kestrel. ’’I do.’’

’’Really? Where were you during the assault on the estate? I expected to find my second-in-command here. Instead, you were at a party.’’

’’Because I learned that a slave to the harbormaster would be there. He gave me valuable information. We still have to deal with the merchant ships, Cheat. Send me. Let me do this for you.’’ The need to please this man was clear on Arin\s face.

Cheat saw it, too. He sighed. ’’Take some fighters. You\ll find more at the docks. Seize all the ships or burn them. If even one leaves to alert the empire that we\ve taken the city, this is going to be a very short-lived revolution.’’

’’I\ll take care of it. They won\ leave the harbor.’’

’’Some might already have. The sailors on board will have heard the explosions.’’

’’All the more reason for them to wait until their shipmates on shore return.’’

Cheat acknowledged this with a grimace of guarded optimism. ’’Go. I\ll mop up what\s left at the governor\s house.’’

Kestrel thought of her friends. She stared at the blood on the floor. She wasn\ watching or listening as Arin strode toward her. Then the auctioneer said, ’’Her hands.’’

She glanced up. Arin\s gaze flicked toward her fists. ’’Of course,’’ he said to the auctioneer, and Kestrel understood that they had just discussed the best way to threaten her.


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