The Winners Curse Page 26

Jess.

31

’’Don\ provoke Cheat,’’ Arin said as they stepped out of the carriage and onto the dusky path that led to the governor\s palace, which looked eerie to Kestrel because its impressive façade was the same as the night before, but the lights burning in the windows were now few.

’’Kestrel, do you hear me? You can\ toy with him.’’

’’He started it.’’

’’That\s not the point.’’ Gravel crunched under Arin\s heavy boots as he stalked up the path. ’’Don\ you understand that he wants you dead? He\d leap at the chance,’’ Arin said, hands in pockets, head down, almost talking to himself. He strode ahead, his long legs quicker than hers. ’’I can\ Kestrel, you must understand that I would never claim you. Calling you a prize my prize it was only words. But it worked. Cheat won\ harm you, I swear that he won\ , but you must ... hide yourself a little. Help a little. Just tell us how much time we have before the battle. Give him a reason to decide you\ e not better off dead. Swallow your pride.’’

’’Maybe that\s not as easy for me as it is for you.’’

He wheeled on her. ’’It\s not easy for me,’’ he said through his teeth. ’’You know that it\s not. What do you think I have had to swallow, these past ten years? What do you think I have had to do to survive?’’

They stood before the palace door. ’’Truly,’’ she said, ’’I haven\ the faintest interest. You may tell your sad story to someone else.’’

He flinched as if slapped. His voice came low: ’’You can make people feel so small.’’

Kestrel went hot with shame then was ashamed of her own shame. Who was he, that she should apologize? He had used her. He had lied. Nothing he said meant anything. If she was to feel shame, it should be for having been so easily fooled.

He ran fingers through his cropped hair, but slowly, anger gone, replaced by something heavier. He didn\ look at her. His breath smoked the chill air. ’’Do what you want to me. Say anything. But it frightens me how you refuse to see the danger you risk with others. Maybe now you\ll see.’’ He opened the door to the governor\s home.

The smell struck her first. Blood and decaying flesh. It pushed at Kestrel\s gut. She fought not to gag.

Bodies were piled in the reception hall. Lady Neril was lying facedown, almost in the same place where she had stood the night of the ball, greeting guests. Kestrel recognized her by the scarf in her fist, fabric bright in the guttering torchlight. There were hundreds of dead. She saw Captain Wensan, Lady Faris, Senator Nicon\s whole family, Benix ...

Kestrel knelt next to him. His large hand felt like cold clay. She could hear her tears drip to his clothes. They beaded on his skin.

Quietly, Arin said, ’’He\ll be buried today, with the others.’’

’’He should be burned. We burn our dead.’’ She couldn\ look at Benix anymore, but neither could she get to her feet.

Arin helped her, his touch gentle. ’’I\ll make certain it\s done right.’’

Kestrel forced her legs to move, to walk past bodies heaped like rubble. She thought that she must have fallen asleep after all, and that this was an evil dream.

She paused at the sight of Irex. His mouth was the stained purple of the poisoned, but he had sticky gashes in his side, and one final cut to the neck. Even poisoned, he had fought.

Tears came again.

Arin\s hold tightened. He pushed her past Irex. ’’Don\ you dare weep for him. If he weren\ dead, I would kill him myself.’’

* * *

The sick were laid out on the ballroom floor. The smell was worse here: of vomit and the tang of human waste. Herrani moved among the pallets, wiping faces with wet cloths, carrying away bedpans, and it was strange to see them still acting like slaves, to see pity in their eyes, and to know that it was only pity that made them care for people they themselves had tried to destroy.

A Herrani glanced up, registered Kestrel\s presence, and began asking Arin questions, but Kestrel didn\ hear. She left his side. She stumbled in her haste, searching among the pallets, looking for wide brown eyes, a snub nose, a small mouth.

Kestrel almost didn\ recognize her. Jess\s lips were violet, her eyelids swollen shut. She was still wearing her ball gown, an airy green confection that looked horribly wrong on her now.

’’Jess,’’ Kestrel said. ’’Jess.’’

The girl\s breath hitched, then changed to a wheeze. It was the only sign she gave of consciousness.

Kestrel sought Arin. He was standing against the far wall. He wouldn\ meet her gaze.

She strode to him. Grabbed him. Pulled him toward her friend.

’’What is this?’’ she demanded. ’’What poison did you use?’’

’’I didn\ ’’

’’It was something you\d have easy access to, in the countryside, maybe. A plant?’’

’’Kestrel ’’

’’You could have harvested it months ago, let it dry, then powdered it. It had to be colorless, to mix with the iced wine.’’ Kestrel raced through memories of everything Enai had ever told her about local plants. ’’Simberry? No, it couldn\ have worked so quickly ’’

’’It was nightlock.’’

’’I don\ know what that is.’’

’’A spring root, sun-dried, then ground.’’

’’So there\s an antidote,’’ Kestrel insisted, though Arin had indicated nothing of the kind.

He took some time to answer. ’’No.’’

’’Yes, there is! The Herrani were the best doctors in the world. You would never have let a poison exist without finding a cure for it.’’

’’There\s no antidote ... only something that might help.’’

’’Then you should be giving it to them!’’

He turned her shoulders so that she couldn\ see the rows of pallets. ’’We don\ have it. No one planned for survivors. The herb we\d need should have been gathered in the fall. It\s winter. There will be none left.’’

’’Yes, there will. There\s been no snow yet. No frost. Most plants don\ die until the first frost. Enai said so.’’

’’True, but ’’

’’You will find it.’’

Arin was silent.

’’Help her.’’ Kestrel\s voice broke. ’’Please.’’

’’It\s a delicate plant. They might have all died in the cold, and I\m not sure I\ll be able ’’

’’Promise me you\ll look,’’ Kestrel said, as if she had not sworn that his promises were worth nothing.

’’I will,’’ he said. ’’I promise.’’

* * *

He insisted on taking her to his house first.

’’I can go with you into the mountains,’’ she said. ’’I can search, too.’’

His smile was dry. ’’You\ e not the one who spent hours as a child poring over botany books, wondering why one species of tree had four-fingered leaves, and another, six.’’

The swaying of the carriage made Kestrel drowsy. Hours of lost sleep weighted her eyelids. She struggled to keep them open. Outside the window, dusk had given in to the night.

’’You have less than three days,’’ she murmured.

’’What?’’

’’Before the reinforcements arrive.’’

When he said nothing, Kestrel voiced what he must be thinking. ’’I suppose it\s not the time for you to be hunting in the mountains for a plant.’’

’’I promised I would go. So I will.’’

Kestrel\s eyes slipped shut. She faded in and out of sleep. When Arin spoke again, she wasn\ sure whether he expected her to hear him.

’’I remember sitting with my mother in a carriage.’’ There was a long pause. Then Arin\s voice came again in that slow, fluid way that showed the singer in him. ’’In my memory, I am small and sleepy, and she is doing something strange. Every time the carriage turns into the sun, she raises her hand as if reaching for something. The light lines her fingers with fire. Then the carriage passes through shadows, and her hand falls. Again sunlight beams through the window, and again her hand lifts. It becomes an eclipse.’’

Kestrel listened, and it was as if the story itself was an eclipse, drawing its darkness over her.

’’Just before I fell asleep,’’ he said, ’’I realized that she was shading my eyes from the sun.’’

She heard Arin shift, felt him look at her.

’’Kestrel.’’ She imagined how he would sit, lean forward. How he would look in the glow of the carriage lantern. ’’Survival isn\ wrong. You can sell your honor in small ways, so long as you guard yourself. You can pour a glass of wine like it\s meant to be poured, and watch a man drink, and plot your revenge.’’ Perhaps his head tilted slightly at this. ’’You probably plot even in your sleep.’’

There was a silence as long as a smile.

’’Plot away, Kestrel. Survive. If I hadn\ lived, no one would remember my mother, not like I do.’’

Kestrel could no longer deny sleep. It pulled her under.

’’And I would never have met you.’’

* * *

Kestrel was dimly aware of being lifted. She wound her arms around someone\s neck, buried her head against his shoulder. She heard a sigh, and wasn\ sure if it was hers or his.

There was the rocking motion of being carried upstairs. She was settled onto something soft. Shoes were pulled from her feet. A thick blanket drew up to her chin, and someone murmured the Herrani blessing for dreams. Enai? Kestrel frowned. No, the voice was all wrong for Enai, but who would say those words, if not her nurse?

Then the palm on her forehead was gone. Kestrel decided she would solve the puzzle later.

She slept.

* * *

The horse slipped on a scree of small rocks. Arin kept his seat as the animal floundered, then splayed its hooves and caught its balance.

Things would be even worse, Arin thought grimly, when he had to ride down instead of up the path. He had been searching for almost a full day. The little hope he\d had of finding the plant dwindled.

Finally, he dismounted. The mountain was a barren gray-brown, no trees, and he could see, up ahead, the treacherous gash the Valorians had poured through ten years ago. He saw a shimmer of metal. The weapon of a Herrani, clothes camouflaged as he or she along with several others guarded the pass.

Arin slipped behind an outcropping of rock, pulling his horse after him. He wedged the reins in a crack between two boulders. Arin shouldn\ be seen and neither should his horse.

He ought to be up there, guarding the pass, or at least striving in some way to keep his country.

His. The thought never failed to thrill him. It was worth death. Worth almost anything to become again the person he had been before the Herran War. Yet here he was, gambling the frail odds of success.

Looking for a plant.

He imagined Cheat\s reaction if he could see him now, scouring the ground for a wrinkle of faded green. There would be mockery, which Arin could shrug off, and rage, which Arin could withstand even understand. But he couldn\ bear what he saw in his mind.

Cheat\s eyes cutting to Kestrel. Targeting her, stoking his hatred with one more reason.

And the more Arin tried to shield her, the more Cheat\s dislike grew.

Arin\s hands clenched in the cold. He blew on them, tucked his fingers under his arms, and began to walk.

He should let her go. Let her slip into the countryside, to the isolated farmlands that had no idea of the revolution.

If so, what then? Kestrel would alert her father. She\d find a way. Then the full force of the empire\s military would fall on the peninsula, when Arin doubted that the Herrani could deal even with the battalion that would come through the pass in less than two days.

If he let Kestrel go, it was the same as murdering his people.

Arin nudged a rock with his boot and wanted to kick it.

He didn\ . He walked.

Thoughts chipped at his sanity, proposing solutions only to reveal problems, taunting him with the certainty that he would lose everything he sought to keep.

Until he found it.

Arin found the herb threading up through a patch of dirt. It was a pitiful amount, and withered, but he tore it from the ground with a fierce hope.

He lifted his eyes from his dirty hands to see that he had again come into view of the mountain pass. An idea robbed his breath.

The idea was as small as the leaves in Arin\s hand. But it grew, put down roots, and Arin began to see how the Valorian reinforcements might be beaten.

He saw how he might win.

32

When Kestrel awoke in the bed, she didn\ want to think about how she had gotten there.

Then the day was swallowed whole. Cold crept into the house, the dusk seemed to weigh on Kestrel\s shoulders, and her mind filled with Arin, and Jess.

She heard a key turn in a lock. Kestrel sprang to her feet, realizing only then that she had been sitting and staring at nothing. She wound through the rooms of the suite until she was before the last door, and it opened.

Sarsine. ’’Where is Arin?’’ she said.

Better to reveal nothing. ’’I don\ know.’’

’’That\s a problem.’’

Silence.

’’It\s a problem for you,’’ Sarsine clarified, ’’because Cheat\s here, demanding to see Arin, and since my feckless cousin is nowhere to be found, Cheat wants to speak with you instead.’’

Kestrel\s pulse slowed, the way it used to when Rax was readying some kind of swift assault, or when her father asked a question and she didn\ know the answer. ’’Tell him no.’’

Sarsine laughed.

’’This is your family home,’’ Kestrel said. ’’He is your guest. Who is he to command you?’’


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