The Winners Curse Page 23

The harbormaster gave them, voice trembling. Kestrel saw Arin rub his cheek, considering the man, surely thinking, as she thought, that any plan of Arin\s to take or burn the ships would require as many people as possible. No one should be left on shore to guard the harbormaster, who was now useless.

Killing him was the obvious and quickest next step.

Arin hit the man\s head with the side of his fist. It was a precise strike, aimed at the temple. The man slumped over his desk. His breath stirred the pages of his ledger.

’’We have two choices,’’ Arin told his people. ’’We\ve done well up to this point. We\ve taken the city. Its leadership has been removed or is under our power. Now we need time, as much as possible before the empire learns what\s happened. We have people guarding the mountain pass. The only other way to bring news to the empire is by sea. We take the ships, or we burn them. We must decide now.

’’Either way, our approach is the same. Storm clouds are blowing in from the south. When they cover the moon, we\ll row small launches in the darkness, hugging the bay\s curve until we can come around the boats and approach their sterns. Each prow is pointed toward the city and its light. We\ll be on the dark side of the open sea while the sailors gather at the bow, watching the city\s fire. If we hope to seize all the ships, we split into two teams. One will start with the biggest and deadliest: Captain Wensan\s. The other waits at the nearest largest ship. We take Wensan\s ship, then turn its cannons on the second one, which will be overrun by the second group. With those two ships, we can force the surrender of the next nearest and largest and continue to shrink the possibility for the merchants to fight back. The fishermen have no cannons, so they\ll be ours after the sea battle. We\ll sink any ship that tries to flee the bay. Then we will not only buy the time we need, we will also have the ships as our weapons against the empire, as well as any goods they have on board.’’

Apparently Arin wasn\ half as clever as Kestrel had thought, to discuss such a plan in front of her. Or he thought she could do no harm with the information. Maybe he didn\ care what she heard. Still, it was a decent plan ... except for one thing.

’’How will we seize Wensan\s ship?’’ a Herrani asked.

’’We\ll climb its hull ladder.’’

Kestrel laughed. ’’You\ll be picked off one at a time by Wensan\s crew as soon as they realize what\s happening.’’

The room went still. Spines stiffened. Arin, who had been facing the Herrani, turned to stare at Kestrel. The look he gave her prickled the air between them like static.

’’Then we\ll pretend we\ e their Valorian sailors who have been on shore,’’ he said, ’’and ask for our launches to be winched up to the deck from the water.’’

’’Pretend to be Valorian? That will be believable.’’

’’It will be dark. They won\ see our faces, and we have the names of sailors on shore.’’

’’And your accent?’’

Arin didn\ answer.

’’I suppose you hope that the wind will blow your accent away,’’ Kestrel said. ’’But maybe the sailors will still ask you for the code of the call. Maybe your little plan will be dead in the water, just like all of you.’’

There was silence.

’’The code of the call,’’ she repeated. ’’The password that any sane crew uses and shares with no one but themselves, in order to prevent people from attacking them as you so very foolishly hope to do.’’

’’Kestrel, what are you doing?’’

’’Giving you some advice.’’

He made an impatient noise. ’’You want me to burn the ships.’’

’’Do I? Is that what I want?’’

’’We\ll be weaker against the empire without them.’’

She shrugged. ’’Even with them, you won\ stand a chance.’’

Arin must have felt the mood in the room shift as Kestrel\s words exposed what everyone should have known: that the Herrani revolution was a hopeless endeavor, one that would be crushed once imperial forces marched, as planned, through the mountain pass to replace the regiments sent east. They would lay siege to the city and send messengers for more troops. This time, when the Herrani lost, they would not be enslaved. They would be put to death.

’’Start loading the launches with those barrels of pitch,’’ Arin told the Herrani. ’’We\ll use them to burn the ships.’’

’’That won\ be necessary,’’ Kestrel said. ’’Not when I know Wensan\s code of the call.’’

’’You,’’ Arin said. ’’You know it.’’

’’I do.’’

She didn\ . She had, however, a good guess. She had a limited range of possibilities all the birds in ’’The Song of Death\s Feathers’’ and the memory of the way Captain Wensan had looked at the kestrel plate. She would have bet gold on which code he would have chosen for the evening of the ball. Kestrel could read an expression as if looking through shifting water to see the grainy bottom, the silt rising or settling, the dart of a fish. She had seen Wensan making his decision like she could see the suspicion in Arin\s eyes now.

Her certainty wavered.

Arin. Didn\ Arin disprove her ability to read others? For she had thought him truthful in the carriage. She had thought that his lips had moved against hers as if in prayer. But she had been wrong.

Arin tugged Kestrel out of the harbormaster\s house. The door slamming shut behind them, Arin marched her to the far end of an empty pier. ’’I don\ believe you,’’ he said.

’’I think you have had quite an intimate knowledge of my household. What\s delivered, what letters leave. Who comes, who goes. I think you know that Captain Wensan dined at our house the night before this one.’’

’’He was your father\s friend,’’ Arin said slowly.

’’Whose ship brought my mother\s piano from the capital when I was a child. He was always kind to me. And now he\s dead. Isn\ he?’’

Arin didn\ deny it.

The moonlight was dimming, but Kestrel knew that Arin could see the sorrow seep into her face.

Let him see it. It served her purposes. ’’I know the password,’’ she said.

’’You would never reveal it.’’ Clouds blotted the moon, casting Arin\s features into shadow. ’’You\ e taunting me. You want me to hate myself for what I\ve done. You will never forgive me, and you certainly won\ help me.’’

’’You have something I want.’’

The cold dark seemed to pour around them.

’’I doubt it,’’ Arin said.

’’I want Jess. I will help you seize the ships, and you will give her to me.’’

The truth can deceive as well as a lie. Kestrel did want to barter for the chance to help Jess, or at least be by her side if death came. Yet Kestrel also counted on this truth to be so believable that Arin wouldn\ see that it disguised something else: that she needed at least one fishing boat to remain in the harbor.

’’I can\ just give her to you,’’ Arin said. ’’Cheat will decide what happens to the survivors.’’

’’Ah, but you seem to be entitled to special privileges. If you can claim one girl, why not two?’’

His mouth twisted in what looked like disgust. ’’I\ll arrange for you to see her as soon as I can. Will you trust my word?’’

’’I have little choice. Now, to the purpose. You told Cheat that you went to the ball to collect information from the harbormaster\s slave. You will share that information with me.’’

’’That\s not why I went to the ball.’’

’’What?’’

’’There is no information. I lied.’’

Kestrel raised one brow. ’’How very surprising. Didn\ you just make a promise and ask me to trust your word? Really, Arin. You must sort out your lies and your truths or even you won\ know which is which.’’

Silence. Had she wounded him? She hoped so.

’’Your plan to seize the ships is solid enough,’’ she said, ’’but you\ll need to finesse a few important details.’’ She told him what she had in mind. She wondered if Arin knew that accepting her help would increase his people\s suspicion that they were lovers, that he was collaborating with a Valorian who didn\ necessarily have their best interests at heart. She wondered if he knew that if he achieved his objective tonight, the winning would be undermined by the way he had won it.

Arin probably did. He must know that there was no such thing as a clear win.

But Kestrel doubted that he would guess that Captain Wensan had taught her how to sail. Even if Arin somehow knew that she could, she thought his mind was too occupied to notice that a fishing boat was her best chance of escape to the capital.

When she saw the opportunity to flee, she would take it. She would bring the hounds of the empire howling down on this city.

29

Arin had worked on the harbor before. He\d been sold out of the quarry into another forge, and when his second blacksmith master had died, Arin was part of the goods divided by the heirs. His name was still listed as Smith, but he had hidden the skills of that trade from his new owners and was sold at a loss to the shipyards. He had never sailed, yet he knew a Herrani ship when he saw it. He had dry-docked them along with other slaves, had hauled on ropes to tip the massive things onto their sides at low tide. Then he had waded in the mud to scrape the hardened sea life off the hull, shards of barnacles flaking around him, cutting skin, hatching thin red lines. He remembered the taste of sweat in his mouth, water oozing up his calves, and everything quick, so quick, so that the slaves could drag on the pulleys and flip the boat again and clean its other side before the tide rose.

Then the Valorians would take their stolen ship and sail away.

As he rowed the launch toward Wensan\s ship, which was Herrani-made and studded with Valorian cannon, Arin remembered the exhaustion of that work, but also how it had corded his muscles until the ache in his arms became stone. He was grateful to the Valorians for having made him strong. If he was strong enough, he might live through this night. If he lived, he could reclaim the shreds of who he had been, and explain himself to Kestrel in a way she would understand.

She sat silent next to him in the launch. The other Herrani at the oars watched as she lifted her bound hands to tug at the black cloth covering her hair. It was an awkward business. It was also necessary, since a new twist in the plan called for Kestrel to be seen and recognized.

The Herrani watched her struggle. They watched Arin drop an oar in its lock to offer a hand. She flinched hard enough that her shifted weight shook the boat. It was only a slight tremor along wood, but they all felt it.

Shame ate into his gut.

Kestrel pulled the cloth from her head. Even though clouds swelled in the sky, swallowing the moon and deepening the dark around them, Kestrel\s hair and pale skin seemed to glow. It looked like she was lit from within.

It wasn\ something Arin could bear to see. He returned to the oars and rowed.

Arin knew, far better than any of the ten Herrani in the launch, that Kestrel could be devious. That he shouldn\ trust her plan any more than he should have fallen for her ploys at Bite and Sting, or followed her blindly into the trap she had set and sprung for him the morning of the duel.

Her plan to seize the ship was sound. Their best option. Still, he kept examining it like he might a horse\s hoof, tapping the surface for a flaw, a dangerous split.

He couldn\ see it. He thought that there must be one, then realized that the flaw he sensed lay inside him. Tonight had cracked Arin open. It had brought the battle inside him to a boiling war.

Of course he was certain that something was wrong.

Impossible. It was impossible to love a Valorian and also love his people.

Arin was the flaw.

* * *

Kestrel watched the other four launches slip along the inky water. Two drew alongside Wensan\s ship and paused by the hull ladder, hidden by the dark and the angle of the hull as it sloped inward from the broad main deck to the ship\s narrow section at the waterline. To see those launches, sailors on the main deck would have to hang over the sides.

The sailors raised no cry of alarm.

Two more launches approached the next largest ship, a two-master with one row of cannons, a clear second player to Wensan\s three-masted ship with double gun decks.

The Herrani glanced at Arin. He nodded, and they began to row with no interest in stealth, only speed. Oars rattled in their locks, dunked and splashed and swept in the water. When the launch reached Wensan\s ship, sailors were already ringing the rail, looking far below at them. Their faces were blurs in the dark.

Kestrel stood. ’’Riot in the city!’’ she called to sailors, stating what they could no doubt see for themselves beyond the harbor and the city walls. ’’Bring us aboard!’’

’’You\ e none of ours,’’ a voice floated down from the main deck.

’’I\m a friend of Captain Wensan\s: Kestrel, General Trajan\s daughter. The captain sent me along with your crew for my protection.’’

’’Where\s the captain?’’

’’I don\ know. We were separated in the city.’’

’’Who\s there with you?’’

’’Terex,’’ called Arin, careful to roll the r. One by one, the Herrani in the launch shouted names given by the harbormaster of the ship\s missing sailors. They said them quickly, some swallowing syllables, but each gave a passable version of the pronunciations Kestrel had drilled into them when they had first left shore.

The sailor spoke again: ’’What\s the code of the call?’’

’’I am,’’ Kestrel said with all the confidence she didn\ feel. ’’My name: Kestrel.’’

A pause. A few sharp seconds during which Kestrel hoped she was right, hoped she was wrong, and hated herself for what she was doing.


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