The Winners Curse Page 22

Her arm went limp when Arin gripped it. She remembered the auctioneer in the pit, in the full heat of summer. This lad can sing, he had said. She remembered the man\s boot on her hand. The fact that the whole city knew her weakness for music. As Arin pulled her from the room, Kestrel thought about how this might be what hurt the most.

That they had used something she loved against her.

* * *

She had sworn to herself not to speak to Arin, but then he said, ’’You\ e coming with me to the harbor.’’

This surprised her into saying, ’’To do what? Why not lock me up in the barracks? It would be a perfect prison for your prize.’’

He continued to walk her down the halls of her home. ’’Unless Cheat changes his mind about you.’’

Kestrel imagined the auctioneer unlocking her cell door. ’’I suppose I\m no good to you dead.’’

’’I would never let that happen.’’

’’What a touching concern for Valorian life. As if you hadn\ let your leader kill that woman. As if you\ e not responsible for the death of my friends.’’

They stopped before the door to Kestrel\s suite. Arin faced her. ’’I will let every single Valorian in this city die if it means that you don\ .’’

’’Like Jess?’’ Her eyes swam with sudden, unshed tears. ’’Ronan?’’

Arin looked away. The skin above his eye was beginning to blacken from where she had kicked him. ’’I spent ten years as a slave. I couldn\ be one anymore. What did you imagine, tonight, in the carriage? That it would be fine for me to always be afraid to touch you?’’

’’That has nothing to do with anything. I am not a fool. You sold yourself to me with the intention of betrayal.’’

’’But I didn\ know you. I didn\ know how you ’’

’’You\ e right. You don\ know me. You\ e a stranger.’’

He flattened a palm against the door.

’’What about the Valorian children?’’ she demanded. ’’What have you done with them? Have they been poisoned, too?’’

’’No. Kestrel, no, of course not. They will be cared for. In comfort. By their nurses. This was always part of the plan. Do you think we\ e monsters?’’

’’I think you are.’’

Arin\s fingers curled against the door. He shoved it open.

He led her to the dressing room, opened the wardrobe, and riffled through her clothes. He pulled out a black tunic, leggings, and jacket and thrust them at Kestrel.

Coolly she said, ’’This is a ceremonial fighting uniform. Do you expect me to fight a duel on the docks?’’

’’You\ e too noticeable.’’ There was something strange about his voice. ’’In the dark. You ... you look like an open flame.’’ He found another black tunic and tore it between his hands. ’’Here. Wrap this around your hair.’’

Kestrel stood still, the black cloth limp in her arms as she remembered the last time she had worn such clothes.

’’Get dressed,’’ said Arin.

’’Get out.’’

He shook his head. ’’I won\ look.’’

’’That\s right. You won\ , because you are going to get out.’’

’’I can\ leave you alone.’’

’’Don\ be absurd. What am I going to do, take back the city single-handedly from the comfort of my dressing room?’’

Arin dragged a hand through his hair. ’’You might kill yourself.’’

Bitterly, she said, ’’I should think it was clear from the way I let you and your friend push me around that I want to stay alive.’’

’’You might change your mind.’’

’’And do what, exactly?’’

’’You could hang yourself with your dagger belt.’’

’’So take it away.’’

’’You\ll use clothes. The leggings.’’

’’Hanging is an undignified way to die.’’

’’You\ll break the mirror to your dressing table and cut yourself.’’ Again Arin\s voice seemed foreign. ’’Kestrel, I won\ look.’’

She realized why his words sounded rough. She had switched, at some point, to speaking in Valorian, and he had followed her. It was his accent that she heard.

’’I promise,’’ he said.

’’Your promises are worth nothing.’’ Kestrel turned and began to undress.

28

He took her horse.

Kestrel saw the logic. Her carriage had been abandoned on the road and the stables were largely empty, since many horses had gone with her father. Javelin was the best of those that remained. In war, property goes to those who can seize and keep it, so the stallion was Arin\s. But it hurt.

He studied her warily as he saddled Javelin. The stables rang with noise: the sounds of other Herrani readying horses to ride, the beasts whickering as they smelled human tension, the thumps of wood under hooves and feet. Yet Arin was silent, and watched Kestrel. The first thing he had done after entering the stables was grab a set of reins, slice the leather with a knife, bind Kestrel\s hands, and place her under guard. It didn\ matter that she was powerless. He watched her as if she weren\ .

Or maybe he was just contemplating how hard it would be to bring a captive on horseback into the city and down to the harbor. This would have given Kestrel some satisfaction if she hadn\ been very aware of what he should do.

Knock her unconscious, if he wanted to keep his prize. Kill her, if he had changed his mind. Imprison her, if she was too much trouble either way.

She saw his solutions as well as he must.

Someone called Arin\s name. He and Kestrel turned to see a Herrani woman leaning against the stable door, sides heaving. Her face was damp with sweat. She looked familiar, and Kestrel realized why at the same time she understood why the woman was here.

She was one of the governor\s slaves. She had come as a messenger, with news of what had happened at the ball after Kestrel and Arin had left.

Arin strode toward the woman. Kestrel tried to do the same, but was hauled back by her guard. Arin glanced at Kestrel, and she didn\ like that look. It was the expression of someone who had just gained leverage.

As if he needed any more.

’’In private,’’ he said to the woman. ’’Then tell Cheat, if you haven\ already.’’

Arin and the governor\s slave stepped out of the stables. The doors slammed shut behind them.

When he returned, he was alone.

’’Are my friends dead?’’ Kestrel demanded. ’’Tell me.’’

’’I will tell you after I have set you on that horse and you haven\ fought me, and after I am seated behind you and you don\ have any clever ideas to shove me off or throw us both. I\ll tell you when we\ve made it to the harbor.’’ He came close. She didn\ say anything, and he must have decided that she agreed, or maybe he didn\ want to hear her voice any more than she wanted to speak, because he didn\ wait for an answer. He lifted Kestrel onto Javelin, then settled behind her in a swift, fluid movement. Kestrel felt the lines of his body fit along hers.

His closeness was a shock. Kestrel decided, however, to agree to the bargain. She didn\ signal Javelin to rear. She didn\ drive her head back into Arin\s jaw. She decided to behave. She focused on what mattered.

That kiss had meant nothing. Nothing. What remained was the hand she had drawn, and how she would play it.

The horses burst from the stables.

* * *

Kestrel felt Arin breathe as soon as they sighted the harbor, and knew it was from relief, since all of the boats she had seen that morning were still there. Kestrel was disappointed, though not surprised, since she knew from her time learning how to sail that crews considered their ships to be islands. Sailors on board wouldn\ consider a threat on land to be a threat to them, and loyalty to their mates on shore would keep them anchored as long as they could safely wait. As for the fishermen who owned the smaller boats, most had homes on shore and would be there, in the thick of black powder smoke and fire and the bodies Javelin had sidestepped as they had ridden through the city. Any fishermen who had been sleeping on their boats weren\ likely to risk sailing to the capital during the height of green storm season, and Kestrel had seen clouds gathering in the night as they\d ridden to the harbor. Small ships were particularly vulnerable.

As Kestrel considered them a tiny idea flickered.

The ships could not be burned. Especially not the fishing boats. She might need one of them later.

Arin dismounted and lifted Kestrel off Javelin. She winced. She pretended it wasn\ because of the touch of his hands but the sting when her cut feet, stuffed into fighting boots, reached the ground.

’’Tell me,’’ she said to Arin. ’’Tell me what happened at the ball.’’

His face was lit with firelight. The burning barracks of the city guard, though not close to the docks, had collapsed into an inferno. The sky around it had an ashy orange halo. ’’Ronan is fine,’’ Arin said.

Kestrel\s breath hitched his phrasing of words could mean only one thing. ’’Jess.’’

’’She\s alive.’’ Arin reached for Kestrel\s bound hands.

She jerked away.

Arin paused, then glanced at the Herrani circling them, well within hearing. They regarded her with open hatred and him with suspicion. He grabbed her wrists and tightened the knots. ’’She\s sick,’’ he said curtly. ’’She drank some of the poisoned wine.’’

The words trembled through Kestrel, and as much as she told herself not to show anything to anyone, especially not to Arin, never him, she couldn\ help that her voice sounded stricken. ’’Will she live?’’

’’I don\ know.’’

Jess is not dead, Kestrel told herself. She will not die. ’’And Benix?’’

Arin shook his head.

Kestrel remembered Benix turning away from her at the ball. The way he had lowered his eyes. But she also remembered his belly laugh, and knew she could have teased him into admitting his wrong. She could have told him that she understood how fragile one felt when stepping out of line and into society\s glare. She could have, if death hadn\ robbed the chance to mend their friendship.

She would not cry. Not again. ’’What of Captain Wensan?’’

Arin frowned. ’’No more questions. You\ e strategizing now. You\ e no longer asking after friends, but stalling me or seeking an advantage I can\ see. He was no one to you.’’

Kestrel opened her mouth, then closed it. She had her answer and no desire to correct him or show anything more of herself.

’’I don\ have time to give you a list of the living and the dead, even if I had one,’’ said Arin. He cast a quick glance at the armed Herrani, then flicked his hand in an order for them to follow. Those who hadn\ already dismounted their horses did so now and moved toward the small building near the centermost docks, the one that housed the harbormaster. As they drew closer, Kestrel saw a new group of Herrani dressed in the clothes of dock slaves. They encircled the building. The only Valorians in sight lay dead on the ground.

’’The harbormaster?’’ Arin asked a man who seemed to be this new group\s leader.

’’Inside,’’ the Herrani said, ’’under guard.’’ His gaze fell on Kestrel. ’’Tell me that\s not who I think it is.’’

’’She doesn\ matter. She\s under my authority, just as you are.’’ Arin shoved open the door, but not before Kestrel caught the defensive set to his mouth and the distaste on the other man\s face. And while Kestrel had already known that the rumors about her and Arin must have been as disturbing to his people as to hers, only now did that knowledge take a shape that felt like a weapon.

Let the Herrani think she was Arin\s lover. It would only make them doubt the intentions and loyalty of the man Cheat had called his second-in-command.

Kestrel followed Arin into the harbormaster\s house on the pier.

It smelled of pitch and hemp, since the harbormaster sold goods as well as working as a kind of clerk, noting in his ledger which ships came and went, and were docked at each pier. The house was stocked with barrels of tar and coils of rope, and the shipyard smell was stronger than even that of the urine that stained the harbormaster\s pants.

The Valorian was afraid. Although the last several hours had already shaken Kestrel\s sense of what she had believed, this man\s fear shook her yet again, for he was in his prime, he had trained as a soldier, his role on the docks was similar to that of a city guard. If he was afraid, what could that mean to the rule that a true Valorian never was?

How could the Valorians have been so easily surprised, so easily taken?

As she had been.

It was Arin. Arin, who had been a spy in the general\s household. Arin, whose sharp mind had been whittling away at a secret plan, carving it with weapons made on the sly, with information she had let slip. Who had dismissed her concerns about the captain of the city guard\s suicide, which could not have been a suicide but a murderous step toward revolution. Arin had waved away the oddity of Senator Andrax selling black powder to the eastern barbarians, and of course Arin had, for he had known that it had not been sold, but stolen by Herrani slaves.

Arin, who had set hooks into her heart and drawn her to him so that she wouldn\ see anything but his eyes.

Arin was her enemy.

Any enemy should be watched. Always identify your opponent\s assets and weaknesses, her father had said. Kestrel decided to be grateful for this moment, crammed into the harbormaster\s house with twenty-some Herrani, and fifty more waiting outside. This was a chance to see whether Arin was as good a leader as a spy and a player at Bite and Sting.

And perhaps Kestrel could seize an opportunity to tip the odds in her favor.

’’I want names,’’ Arin told the harbormaster, ’’of all sailors ashore at the moment, and their ships.’’


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