The Winners Curse Page 25

’’Oh, no? Too many people heard you call her a spoil of war.’’

’’It\s not true.’’

Sarsine threw her hands up in the air. ’’Then why did you say it?’’

’’Because I couldn\ think of any other way to save her!’’

Sarsine stood still. Then she leaned over him and shook his shoulder as if waking him from a nightmare. ’’You? Save a Valorian?’’

Arin captured her hand. ’’Please listen to me.’’

’’I will when you say something I can understand.’’

’’I did your lessons for you, when we were children.’’

’’So?’’

’’I told Anireh to shut up when she made fun of your nose. Do you remember? She pushed me down.’’

’’Your sister was too beautiful for her own good. But all this was long ago. What\s your point?’’

Arin held both her hands now. ’’We share something, and probably not for very long. The Valorians will come. There will be a siege.’’ He groped for what to say. ’’By the gods, just listen.’’

’’Oh, Arin. Haven\ you learned? The gods won\ hear you.’’ She sighed. ’’But I will.’’

He told her about the day he had been sold to Kestrel, and every day since. He held nothing back.

When he finished, Sarsine\s expression had changed. ’’You\ e still a fool,’’ she said, but gently.

’’I am,’’ he whispered.

’’What do you plan to do with her?’’

Arin tilted his head helplessly against the carved back of his father\s chair. ’’I don\ know.’’

’’She demanded to see a sick friend. Said you made her a promise.’’

’’Yes, but I can\ do it.’’

’’Why not?’’

’’Kestrel hates me, but she still speaks to me. Once she sees Jess ... she\ll never do that again.’’

* * *

Kestrel sat in the sunroom. It was warm, filled with potted plants and their mineral, almost milky fragrance. The sun was already high above the skylight. It had burned through the ripples of rain left on the glass from the night\s storm, which had drummed out the fire in the city. From the southernmost window, Kestrel had watched the flames fade.

It had been a long night, a long morning. But Kestrel didn\ want to sleep.

Her eyes fell on a plant. The Herrani word for it was damselthorn. It was large and thick-stemmed, at least as old as the war. It had leaves that looked like flowers, because their green became a brilliant red in the sun.

Despite herself, Kestrel thought of Arin\s kiss. How it had flared a light inside her, and transformed her from plain leaf into fire.

Kestrel opened the sunroom door and stepped into a high-walled rooftop garden. She breathed the chilled air. Everything was dead here. Fans of brown leaves. Stems that would snap as soon as touched. Stones lay strewn in artful patterns on the ground, in gray, blue, and white, the shape of birds\ eggs.

She passed her hands over the cold walls. There were no rough edges, nothing that might give her fingers or toes purchase. She couldn\ climb. There was a door set into the far wall, but where it led Kestrel would probably never know. It was locked.

Kestrel stood, considering. She bit her lips hard. Then she walked back into the sunroom and brought out the damselthorn.

She smashed the pot on the stones.

* * *

The day aged. Kestrel watched the light outside yellow. Sarsine came and saw the wreckage of plants in the garden. She gathered the ceramic shards, then had a group of Herrani search the suite for more.

Kestrel had made certain to hide some wicked-looking shards in places where they would be found. But the best one that could cut a throat as easily as a knife she had hung outside from the window. She had tied it with a strip of cloth, dangled it into the thick evergreen ivy that climbed the walls outside the bathing room, and closed the window on the strip\s edge, securing it between the frame and the sill.

It wasn\ discovered, and Kestrel was left alone again.

Her eyes itched and her bones turned to lead, yet she refused to sleep.

Finally she did something she had been dreading. She tried to unbraid her hair. She yanked at the plaits, swore as they snarled into knots. The pain kept her awake.

So did the shame. She remembered Arin\s hands sinking into her hair, the brush of a fingertip against the hollow behind her ear.

Sarsine returned.

’’Bring me scissors,’’ Kestrel said.

’’You know I won\ do that.’’

’’Because you\ e afraid I\ll kill you with them?’’

The woman didn\ answer. Kestrel glanced at her, surprised at the silence and the way Sarsine\s face had become thoughtful, curious.

’’Cut it off then,’’ Kestrel said. She would have done it herself with the makeshift dagger hiding in the ivy if it wouldn\ have raised questions.

’’You might regret cutting your hair, a society lady like you.’’

Kestrel felt another wave of tiredness. ’’Please,’’ she said. ’’I can\ bear it.’’

* * *

Arin\s sleep was fitful, and when he woke he was disoriented to be in his father\s rooms. But happy, in spite of everything, to be there. Maybe it was the happiness, and not the place, that was disorienting. It was an unfamiliar feeling. Old and somewhat stiff, as if its joints ached when it moved.

He passed a hand across his face and got to his feet. He had to leave. Cheat wouldn\ begrudge Arin his homecoming, but plans had to be made.

He was walking down the stairs of the west wing when he saw Sarsine on the floor below. She was coming from the east wing, a basket in her arms. He stopped.

It looked like she held a basketful of woven gold.

Arin leaped down the stairs. He strode up to his cousin and seized her arm.

’’Arin!’’

’’What did you do?’’

Sarsine jerked away. ’’What she wanted. Pull yourself together.’’

But Arin saw Kestrel as she had been last night before the ball. How her hair had been a spill of low light over his palms. He had threaded desire into the braids, had wanted her to sense it even as he dreaded that she would. He had met her eyes in the mirror and didn\ know, couldn\ tell, her feelings. He only knew the fire of his own.

’’It\s just hair,’’ Sarsine said. ’’It will grow back.’’

’’Yes,’’ said Arin, ’’but not everything does.’’

* * *

Afternoon tipped toward evening. It was almost one full day since the Firstwinter ball, and more since Kestrel had slept. She stayed awake, staring at the outermost door to her rooms.

Arin opened it. Then he stepped back, inhaling as if she had frightened him. His hand tightened on the doorjamb, and he stared. Yet he said nothing of the fact that she still wore her black dueling uniform. He didn\ mention the jagged ends of hair brushing her shoulders.

’’You need to come with me,’’ he said.

’’To see Jess?’’

His mouth thinned. ’’No.’’

’’You said you would take me. Apparently there is no such thing as Herrani honor.’’

’’I will as soon as I can. Right now, I can\ .’’

’’When?’’

’’Kestrel, Cheat is here. He wants to see you.’’

Her hands curled shut.

Arin said, ’’I can\ say no.’’

’’Because you\ e a coward.’’

’’Because if I do, things will go worse for you.’’

Kestrel lifted her chin. ’’I will come,’’ she said, ’’if you never again pretend that anything you do is on my behalf.’’

Arin didn\ comment on the obvious: that she had no choice in the matter. He simply nodded. ’’Be careful,’’ he said.

* * *

Cheat wore a Valorian jacket Kestrel was sure she had seen on the governor the night before. He sat at the right hand of the empty head of the dining table, but stood when Kestrel and Arin entered. He approached.

His eyes dragged over her. ’’Arin, your slave looks positively wild.’’

Lack of sleep made her thoughts broken and shiny, like pieces of mirrors on strings. Cheat\s words spun in her head. Arin tensed beside her.

’’No offense,’’ Cheat told him. ’’It was a compliment to your taste.’’

’’What do you want, Cheat?’’ Arin said.

The man stroked a thumb over his lower lip. ’’Wine.’’ He looked straight at Kestrel. ’’Get some.’’

The order itself wasn\ important. It was how Cheat had meant it: as the first of many, and how, in the end, they translated into one word: obey.

The only thing that kept Kestrel\s face clean of her thoughts was the knowledge that Cheat would take pleasure in any resistance. Yet she couldn\ make herself move.

’’I\ll get the wine,’’ Arin said.

’’No,’’ Kestrel said. She didn\ want to be left alone with Cheat. ’’I\ll go.’’

For an uncertain moment, Arin stood awkwardly. Then he walked to the door and motioned a Herrani girl into the room. ’’Please escort Kestrel to the wine cellar, then bring her back here.’’

’’Choose a good vintage,’’ Cheat said to Kestrel. ’’You\ll know the best.’’

As she left the room, his eyes followed her, glittering.

She returned with a clearly labeled bottle of Valorian wine dated to the year of the Herran War. She placed it on the table in front of the two seated men. Arin\s jaw set, and he shook his head slightly. Cheat lost his grin.

’’This was the best,’’ Kestrel said.

’’Pour.’’ Cheat shoved his glass toward her. She uncorked the bottle and poured and kept pouring, even as the red wine flowed over the glass\s rim, across the table, and onto Cheat\s lap.

He jumped to his feet, swatting wine from his fine stolen clothes. ’’Damn you!’’

’’You said I should pour. You didn\ say I should stop.’’

Kestrel wasn\ sure what would have happened next if Arin hadn\ intervened. ’’Cheat,’’ he said, ’’I\m going to have to ask you to stop playing games with what is mine.’’

It was almost alarming how quickly Cheat\s rage vanished. Revealing a simple tunic beneath, he stripped off the spattered jacket and used it to mop up wine. ’’Plenty more clothes where this came from.’’ He tossed the jacket aside. ’’Especially with so many dead. Why don\ we get down to business?’’

’’I would be grateful if you did,’’ said Arin.

’’Listen to him,’’ Cheat said to Kestrel in a friendly tone. ’’So quick to slip back into his high-class ways. Arin was never a commoner, even when breaking rock. Not like me.’’ When Kestrel was silent, Cheat said, ’’I have a small task for you, my girl. I want you to write a letter to your father.’’

’’I assume that I\m to tell him that all is well, so that you can keep the secret of your revolution as long as possible.’’

’’You should be glad. Such letters of misinformation are keeping Valorians like you alive. If you want to live, you must be good for something. Though I get the sense that you\ e not interested in being good. Remember, you don\ need all of your fingers to write a letter. Probably three on one hand will do.’’

Arin\s breath was a hiss.

’’And stain the pages with my blood?’’ Kestrel said coolly. ’’I doubt that will convince the general that I\m in good health.’’ When Cheat started to reply, Kestrel cut him off. ’’Yes, I\m sure you have a long list of inventive threats you\d enjoy making. Don\ bother. I\ll write the letter.’’

’’No,’’ said Arin. ’’You\ll transcribe it. I\ll dictate. Otherwise, you\ll find a way to warn him through code.’’

Kestrel\s heart sank. That had, in fact, been her plan.

Paper and ink were set before her.

Arin said, ’’Dear Father.’’

Her pen wavered. She held her breath against a sudden pain in her throat. But it was for the best if the inked letters sloped and wobbled, she decided. Her father might see the distress in her handwriting.

’’The ball went better than expected,’’ Arin continued. ’’Ronan has asked me to marry him, and I have accepted.’’ He paused. ’’This news must disappoint you, but you will have to bring glory to the empire\s army for both of us. I know you will. I also know that you cannot be surprised. I made clear to you my wishes regarding a military life. And Ronan\s affection has been clear for some time.’’

Kestrel lifted her pen, wondering when Arin had become aware of something she had refused to see for so long. Where was Ronan now? Did he despise her as much as she did herself?

’’Be happy for me,’’ Arin said. It took her a moment to realize that these words were meant for the page. ’’Now sign.’’

It was exactly the kind of letter Kestrel would have written in normal circumstances. She felt how deeply she had failed her father. Arin understood her heart, her thoughts, the very way she would speak to someone she loved. And she didn\ know him at all.

Arin took the letter and studied it. ’’Again. Neatly this time.’’

She wrote several copies before he was satisfied. The final letter was in a firm hand.

’’Good,’’ Cheat said. ’’One last thing.’’

Kestrel rubbed tiredly at the ink on her skin. She could have slept then. She wanted to. Sleep was blind, it was deaf, and it would take her away from this room and these men.

Cheat said, ’’Tell us how long we have before the reinforcements come.’’

’’No.’’

’’Now might be the time when I start making my inventive threats.’’

’’Kestrel will tell us,’’ Arin said. ’’She\ll see the wisdom of it.’’

Cheat raised his brows.

’’She\ll tell us once she sees what we can do to her people.’’ Arin\s expression was trying to tell her something his words didn\ . Kestrel focused, and realized she had seen this look in his eyes before. It was the careful gleam of Arin striking a bargain. ’’I\m going to take her to the governor\s palace, where she\ll see the dead and the dying. She will see her friends.’’


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