The Winners Curse Page 24

A clank. A metallic unwinding.

Hooked pulleys were being lowered from the main deck. There was an eager clatter as Herrani attached them to the launch.

Arin, however, did not move. He stared at Kestrel. Perhaps he hadn\ been convinced that she had known the password. Or perhaps he couldn\ believe she would betray her own kind.

Kestrel looked at him as if looking through a window. What he thought didn\ matter. Not anymore.

The roped pulleys creaked. The launch was lifted dripping out of the water. It jerked and swayed as sailors on board hauled on the ropes. Then it began to climb.

Kestrel couldn\ see the hull ladder along the stern or the Herrani in the other launches on the water below. They were vague, night-colored shadows. But she noticed a ripple of movement up the hull. Herrani were scaling the ladder.

It wasn\ too late for her to cry warning to the sailors on board.

She could choose not to betray them. She didn\ understand how her father could do this again and again: make decisions that fed lives into the jaws of a higher purpose.

Yet would it be worth it, if Kestrel secured an escape route to alert the capital?

That, she supposed, might depend on how many Valorians died on Wensan\s ship.

Kestrel\s cool calculation appalled her. This was part of what had made her resist the military: the fact that she could make decisions like this, that she did have a mind for strategy, that people could so easily become pieces in a game she was determined to win.

The launch swayed higher.

Kestrel pressed her lips shut.

Arin glanced at the black cloth that had covered her hair, then at her. He must have considered gagging Kestrel with it, now that she had completed her role in the plan. That\s what she would have done in his place. But he didn\ , which made her feel worse than if he had. It was pure hypocrisy for him not to live up to a ruthlessness she now knew him to be capable of.

As was she.

The launch drew level with the main deck. Kestrel had just enough time to register the shock on the sailors\ faces before the Herrani in the launch leaped onto the deck, weapons raised. The small boat rocked wildly, empty save for Kestrel.

Arin ducked the slice of a sailor\s knife, beat it away with his own, and punched the man\s throat. The sailor staggered back. Arin hooked the legs out from under him at the same moment he delivered another blow. The sailor was down.

It was like that all over the deck. Herrani hammered at Valorians, many of whom had had no time to draw weapons. As the sailors dealt with the sudden threat they had brought aboard, they didn\ see the second one: more Herrani climbing onto the deck from the hull ladder. As Kestrel had planned, this second wave attacked the Valorians from the back. Trapped, the sailors quickly surrendered. Even though more sailors were pouring up from the decks below, they did so through narrow hatches, like mice emerging from tunnels. The Herrani attacked them one by one.

Blood stained the planks. Many of the fallen sailors didn\ move. From the swaying launch, Kestrel could hear the man Arin had attacked first. He was clutching his throat. The noises he made were horrible, something between gasping and choking. And there was Arin, shouldering through the fray and landing blows that might not kill, but would still hurt and bruise and bleed.

Kestrel had seen this in him on the day that she had bought him. A brutality. She had let herself forget it because his mind had been so finely tuned. Because his touch had been gentle. Yet this was what he had become.

This was what he was.

And what of her, orchestrating the fall of a Valorian ship into enemy hands? Kestrel couldn\ quite believe it. She couldn\ believe it had been so relatively easy. Valorians were never ambushed. They never surrendered. They were brave, they were fierce, they would rather die than be taken.

Her launch swayed to a stop. She stood and faced the water far below. Earlier that night, when she had threatened to kill herself, she had said it without considering whether she could. Making the threat had been the right move. So she had made it.

Then Cheat had set his boot on Kestrel\s fingers.

There was no music after death.

She had chosen to live.

Now she stood in the launch, knowing that if she hit the water\s surface from this height, something was likely to break and she would sink quickly without the use of her bound hands.

What would Kestrel\s father choose for her? An honorable death, or life as Arin\s prize? She closed her eyes, imagining the general\s face if he had seen her surrender to Cheat, if he could see her now.

Could she really find a way to sail to the capital? Was it worth it to stay alive to see Jess, if only to watch her friend die?

Kestrel listened to the slap of waves against the ship, the cries of struggle and death. She remembered how her heart, so tight, like a scroll, had opened when Arin kissed her. It had unfurled.

If her heart were truly a scroll, she could burn it. It would become a tunnel of flame, a handful of ash. The secrets she had written inside herself would be gone. No one would know.

Her father would choose the water for Kestrel if he knew.

Yet she couldn\ . In the end, it wasn\ cunning that kept her from jumping, or determination. It was a glassy fear.

She didn\ want to die. Arin was right. She played a game until its end.

Suddenly, Kestrel heard his voice. She opened her eyes. He was shouting. He was shouting her name. He was barreling past people, driving a path between the mainmast and the railing alongside the launch. Kestrel saw the horror in him mirror what she had felt when facing the water.

Kestrel gathered the strength in her legs and jumped onto the deck.

Her feet hit the planks, the force of movement toppling her. But she had learned from fighting Rax how to protect her hands. She tucked them to her, pressed the hard knots of her bonds against her chest, fell shoulder first, and rolled.

Arin hauled her to her feet. And even though he had seen her choice, must have seen it still blazing on her face, he shook her. He kept saying the words he had been shouting as he had neared the railing. ’’Don\ , Kestrel. Don\ .’’

His hands cradled her face.

’’Don\ touch me,’’ she said.

Arin\s hands fell. ’’Gods,’’ he said hoarsely.

’’Yes, it would be rather unfortunate for you, wouldn\ it, if you lost your little bargaining chip against the general? Never fear.’’ She smiled a brittle smile. ’’It turns out that I am a coward.’’

Arin shook his head. ’’It\s harder to live.’’

Yes. It was. Kestrel had known there would be no escape tonight, and probably not for some time to come.

Her plan had worked brilliantly. Even now, the seized ship was turning its cannons on the two-master where more Herrani waited, ready to pounce on the sailors once they were distracted by the surprise of cannon fire. After that vessel fell into Arin\s hands, the others in the harbor would fall, too.

It began to rain. A fine, icy spray. Kestrel didn\ shiver, though she knew she should, from apprehension if not from cold. She had chosen to live, and so should be afraid of what living in this new world would mean.

30

Kestrel was taken down the reception hall of Irex\s home no, Arin\s. Valorian weapons winked at her from their mounts on the walls, asking why she didn\ knock her nearest guard off balance and seize the hilt of a blade. Even with hands bound, she could do damage.

Arin had been the first into the house. He strode ahead of her, back turned. He moved so eagerly that his emotion was obvious. He would be easy to surprise. A dagger between the shoulder blades.

Yet Kestrel made no move.

She had a plan, she told herself, one that didn\ include her death, which was the logical course of events should she kill Arin.

The Herrani pushed her down the hall.

A dark-haired young woman was waiting in the atrium by the fountain. When she saw Arin, her face filled with light and tears. He almost ran across the short space between them to gather her in his arms.

’’Sister or lover?’’ Kestrel said.

The woman looked up from their embrace. Her expression hardened. She stepped away from Arin. ’’What?’’

’’Are you his sister or lover?’’

She walked up to Kestrel and slapped her across the face.

’’Sarsine!’’ Arin hauled her back.

’’His sister is dead,’’ Sarsine said, ’’and I hope you suffer as much as she did.’’

Kestrel\s fingers went to her cheek to press against the sting and cover a smile with the heels of her tied hands. She remembered the bruises on Arin when she had bought him. His surly defiance. She had always wondered why slaves brought punishment upon themselves. But it had been sweet to feel a tipping of power, however slight, when that hand had cracked across her face. To know, despite the pain, that for a moment Kestrel had been the one in control.

’’Sarsine is my cousin,’’ Arin said. ’’I haven\ seen her in years. After the war, she was sold as a house slave. I was a laborer, so ’’

’’I don\ care,’’ Kestrel said.

His shadowed eyes met hers. They were the color of the winter sea the water far below Kestrel\s feet when she had looked down and imagined what it would be like to drown.

He broke the gaze between them. To his cousin he said, ’’I need you to be her keeper. Escort her to the east wing, let her have the run of the suite ’’

’’Arin! Have you lost your mind?’’

’’Remove anything that could be a weapon. Keep the outermost door locked at all times. See that she wants for nothing, but remember that she is a prisoner.’’

’’In the east wing.’’ Sarsine\s voice was thick with disgust.

’’She\s the general\s daughter.’’

’’Oh, I know.’’

’’A political prisoner,’’ Arin said. ’’We must be better than the Valorians. We are more than savages.’’

’’Do you truly think that keeping your clipped bird in a luxurious cage will change how the Valorians see us?’’

’’It will change how we see ourselves.’’

’’No, Arin. It will change how everyone sees you.’’

He shook his head. ’’She\s mine to do with as I see fit.’’

There was an uneasy rustle among the Herrani. Kestrel\s heart sickened. She kept trying to forget this: the question of what it meant to belong to Arin. He reached for her, pulling her firmly toward him as her boots dragged and squeaked against the tiles. With the flick of a knife, he cut the bonds at her wrists, and the sound of leather hitting the floor was loud in the atrium\s acoustics almost as loud as Sarsine\s choked protest.

Arin let Kestrel go. ’’Please, Sarsine. Take her.’’

His cousin stared at him. Eventually, she nodded, but her expression made clear that she thought he was indulging in something disastrous. ’’Follow me,’’ she told Kestrel, and led the way from the atrium.

They had not gone far before Kestrel realized that Arin must have returned to the reception hall. She heard the sound of weapons ripped off walls and flung to the floor.

The harsh noise echoed throughout the house.

* * *

Rooms radiated from the suite\s center: the bedroom, an utterly quiet space lit with gray as the coming dawn filtered through the windows. The suite was elegant the way a pearl is: smooth and pure. Its colors were muted, though Kestrel knew, from what Arin had once said long ago, that they had meaning. Despite its ornate Valorian furniture, this had been the suite of an aristocratic Herrani woman.

Sarsine said nothing, only lifted the apron of her house uniform so that it made a cradle. She began filling it with mirrors, a candle snuffer, a heavy marble inkpot ... objects bulged the cloth and threatened to rip through.

’’Fetch a basket,’’ Kestrel said, ’’or a trunk.’’

Sarsine glared, because they both knew she would have to do just that. There were too many things in the suite that could become weapons in the right hands. Kestrel hated to see them leave, but was glad that when they did, at least it would feel as if she had given an order and Sarsine had obeyed.

But Sarsine went to the outermost door and called for assistance. Soon, Herrani were trooping in and out of the rooms, carrying fireplace pokers. A copper pitcher. A clock with pointed hour and minute hands.

Kestrel watched it all go. Apparently, Sarsine could see almost as many threats in everyday objects as Kestrel did. No matter. Kestrel could always unscrew a leg from one of the tables.

But she would need more than a weapon to escape. The suite was too high to jump from a window to the ground. Only one room, and one door, led to the rest of the house and it seemed to have a very solid-looking lock.

When the Herrani had filed out, leaving Sarsine alone with her, Kestrel said, ’’Wait.’’

Sarsine didn\ lower the thick key in her hand.

’’I\m supposed to see my friend,’’ Kestrel said.

’’Your days of social calls are over.’’

’’Arin promised.’’ A lump rose in Kestrel\s throat. ’’My friend is ill. Arin said that I could see her.’’

’’He didn\ mention that to me.’’

Sarsine pulled the outermost door shut behind her, and Kestrel didn\ beg. She didn\ want to give her the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurt to hear the key grate in the lock, and to hear the bolt thud home.

* * *

’’Just what do you think you\ e doing, Arin?’’

He looked up at Sarsine, blearily rubbing his eyes. He had fallen asleep in a chair. It was full morning. ’’I couldn\ sleep in my old rooms. At least here, in Etta\s suite ’’

’’I\m not talking about your choice of bedchamber, though I can\ help but notice how conveniently close it is to the east wing.’’

Arin winced. There was usually only one reason why a man kept a conquered woman prisoner after a battle. ’’This isn\ what it seems.’’


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