The Winners Curse Page 27

Sarsine shook her head, though the rueful set of her mouth said that she didn\ blame Kestrel for trying. When she spoke, her words weren\ meant as a threat, but Kestrel heard the echo of one whatever Cheat had originally said. ’’If you don\ come with me to see him, he will come here to see you.’’

Kestrel glanced at the walls, thinking of the suite\s pattern of rooms, how they turned inward like a snail shell, giving the impression that one was secreted away from the world, tucked into an intimate, lovely space.

Or trapped.

’’I\ll go,’’ she said.

* * *

Sarsine brought her to the atrium, where Cheat sat on a marble bench before the fountain. Torchlight cast itself around the room, and the fountain\s water tumbled with red and orange streaks.

’’I want to speak with her alone,’’ Cheat told Sarsine.

She said, ’’Arin ’’

’’ is not the leader of the Herrani. I am.’’

’’We\ll see how long that lasts,’’ said Kestrel, then bit her lip. He saw her do it, and they both knew what it meant.

A mistake.

’’It\s fine,’’ Kestrel told Sarsine. ’’Go ahead. Go.’’

Sarsine gave her a dubious look, then left.

Cheat propped his elbows on his knees and gazed up at Kestrel. He scrutinized her: the long, loosely clasped hands, the folds of her dress. Kestrel\s clothes had mysteriously appeared in the suite\s wardrobe, probably while she had slept, and she was glad. The dueling ensemble had served well enough, but wearing a dress fit for society made Kestrel feel ready for different kinds of battle.

’’Where is Arin?’’ Cheat said.

’’In the mountains.’’

’’Doing what?’’

’’I don\ know. I imagine that, since the Valorian reinforcements will come through the mountain pass, he is analyzing its values and drawbacks as a battleground.’’

Cheat gave her a gleeful smirk. ’’Does it bother you, being a traitor?’’

’’I don\ see how I am.’’

’’You just confirmed that the reinforcements will come through the pass. Thank you.’’

’’It\s hardly worth thanking me,’’ she said. ’’Almost every useful ship in the empire has been sent east, which means there is no other way into the city. Anyone with brains could figure that out, which is why Arin is in the mountains, and you are here.’’

A flush began to build under Cheat\s skin. He said, ’’My feet are dusty.’’

Kestrel had no idea how to respond to that.

’’Wash them,’’ he said.

’’What?’’

He took off his boots, stretched out his legs, and leaned back against the bench.

Kestrel, who had been quite still, became stone.

’’It\s Herrani custom for the lady of the house to wash the feet of special guests,’’ said Cheat.

’’Even if such a custom existed, it died ten years ago. And I\m not the lady of the house.’’

’’No, you\ e a slave. You\ll do as I command.’’

Kestrel remembered Arin saying that she could sell herself in small ways. But had he meant this?

’’Use the fountain,’’ Cheat said.

Anger spread through Kestrel, but she knew better than to show it. She sat at the edge of the fountain, dunked his feet in, and washed briskly, the way she had seen slaves work at the laundry. If she had been a slave, she might have been able to pretend that she was washing something else, but she had never washed anything other than herself, so there was no denying that she held skin and flesh and bone.

She hated it.

She lifted the feet out of the fountain and set them on the tiles.

Cheat\s eyes were half-lowered, the blacks of them very bright. ’’Dry them.’’

Kestrel stood.

’’You\ e not leaving,’’ he said.

’’I must fetch a towel.’’ She was grateful for the excuse to get away, to go anywhere, and not come back.

’’Your skirt will do.’’

It was harder, now, to keep her face from flickering with what she felt inside. She stooped, using the hem of her skirt, and wiped his feet.

’’Now oil them.’’

’’I have no oil.’’

’’You\ll find some underneath a tile decorated with the god of hospitality.’’ Cheat pointed at the floor. ’’Press its edge. It will spring open.’’

And there were the vials, covered with ten years\ worth of dust.

’’They\ e in every Herrani house,’’ Cheat said. ’’Your villa, too. Or rather, mine. You know, there\s no need for you to stay here against your will. You could come home.’’

Kestrel splattered oil onto Cheat\s feet and smeared it into the rough skin. ’’No. There\s nothing there I want.’’

She felt his gaze on her bowed head, on her hands moving over his feet. ’’Do you do this for Arin?’’

’’No.’’

’’What do you do for him?’’

Kestrel straightened. Her palms were greasy. She rubbed them into her skirts, not caring that disgust was at least one of the things Cheat wanted to see.

Why, why would he want that?

She turned to leave.

’’We\ e not done,’’ he said.

’’We are,’’ said Kestrel, ’’unless you\d like to see how much my father taught me about unarmed combat. I\ll drown you in that fountain. If I can\ , I\ll scream loud enough to bring every Herrani in this house running, and make them wonder what kind of man their leader is, that a Valorian girl so easily snapped his self-control.’’

She walked away, and he didn\ follow, though she felt his eyes on her until she turned a corner. She found the kitchens, the most populated place in the house, and stood by a fire, listening to the metal clatter of kettles. She ignored the strange looks.

Then she was shaking, as much with fury as anything else.

Tell Arin.

Kestrel waved that thought away. What good would telling Arin do?

Arin was a black box hidden below a smooth tile. A trap door opening beneath her. He wasn\ what she\d thought he was.

Maybe Arin had known that this would happen, or something like it.

Maybe he wouldn\ even mind.

33

Arin bounded across the threshold of his home. He raced through the lit hallways, then drew up short when he saw Cheat glaring into the atrium fountain.

Suddenly, Arin was a twelve-year-old boy again, hands caked with white dust from quarrying as much rock as he could to prove his strength to this man.

’’I worried we\d miss each other,’’ Arin said. ’’I went to your villa first, but was told you had come here.’’

’’Where\ve you been?’’ Cheat was in an ugly mood.

’’Scouting the mountain pass.’’ When this deepened Cheat\s frown, Arin added, ’’Since that\s the path the reinforcements will probably take.’’

’’Of course. Obviously.’’

’’And I know just what to do to them.’’

A glimmer stole into Cheat\s face.

Arin sent for Sarsine, and when she came, he asked her to bring Kestrel. ’’I need her opinion.’’

Sarsine hesitated. ’’But ’’

Cheat wagged a finger at her. ’’I\m sure you run this house well, but can\ you see that your cousin\s bursting at the seams with a plan that might save our hides? Don\ bore him with domestic details, like who\s squabbling with whom ... or whether your special charge isn\ feeling social. Just get the girl.’’

She left.

Arin fetched a map from his library, then hurried to the dining room, where Cheat waited with Kestrel and Sarsine, who gave Arin an exasperated look that said she washed her hands of all three of them. She walked out the door.

Arin spread the map on the table and weighted its corners with rocks from his pockets.

Kestrel sat, armored in stubborn silence.

’’Let\s hear your plan, lad,’’ Cheat said, and looked only at him.

Arin felt that surge of excitement he\d had long ago, when they first began plotting to seize the city. ’’We\ve already taken out the Valorian guards on our side of the mountain.’’ He touched the map, ran a finger along the ribbon of the pass. ’’Now we send a small force through the pass to their side. We select men and women who can best pass as Valorian until the final moment. The imperial guards are removed. Some of our people take their place, others hide in the foothills, and a messenger is sent through the pass to alert our fighters, who have kegs of black powder stationed here’’ Arin pointed to the middle of the pass ’’on either side. We\ll need people who know the mountains and can scramble far up enough to get good height on the Valorians. They\ll also need to be willing to be crushed under any avalanche the explosions trigger. Four people, two for each side, will do.’’

’’We don\ have much black powder left,’’ said Cheat. ’’We should save it for the real invasion.’’

’’We won\ be alive for the invasion if we don\ use the black powder now.’’ Arin flattened his palms on the table, leaning over the map. ’’Most of our forces, about two thousand strong, will be flanking our entry to the pass. A Valorian battalion always has roughly the same numbers, so ’’

’’Always?’’ said Cheat.

Kestrel\s eyes, which had been steadily narrowing as Arin explained his plan, became slits.

’’You\ve learned a lot as the general\s slave,’’ Cheat said approvingly.

That wasn\ exactly how Arin knew details of the Valorian military, but all he said was, ’’The two forces, ours and theirs, will be roughly equal in numbers but not in experience or weaponry. We\ll be the weaker of the two. And the Valorians will have archers and crossbows. They won\ , however, haul heavy cannon when they\ e not planning for battle. That\s where we will have the advantage.’’

’’Arin, we don\ have cannon either.’’

’’We do. We just need to unload them from the ships we seized in the harbor and drag them up the mountainside.’’

Cheat stared, then thumped Arin on the shoulder. ’’Brilliant.’’

Kestrel sat back in her chair. She folded her arms.

’’Once the entire battalion is in the pass,’’ Arin said, ’’and they begin to emerge on our side, our cannons will fire into their front lines. A complete surprise.’’

’’Surprise?’’ Cheat shook his head. ’’The Valorians will send scouts ahead. Once someone sees the cannons, they\ e going to get suspicious fast.’’

’’They won\ see the cannons, because our weaponry and forces will be disguised under shrouds of cloth the color of these.’’ He gestured at the pale rocks. ’’Hemp and burlap sacks taken from the dockyards will do, and we can strip linen from Valorian beds. We\ll blend into the mountainside.’’

Cheat grinned.

’’So our cannons fire into the first lines,’’ Arin said, ’’which will be cavalry. The horses, hopefully, will panic, and if not they\ll still have a hard time keeping their footing on that downward slope. Meanwhile, the black powder kegs go off in the middle of the pass and bring rock down, blocking one half of the battalion from the other. Then our force on the other side of the pass pours in and makes short work of one half of the Valorian battalion, which should be trapped and in chaos. We do the same to the other half. We win.’’

Cheat said nothing at first, though his expression spoke for itself. ’’Well?’’ he turned to Kestrel. ’’What do you think?’’

She wouldn\ look at him.

’’Make her talk, Arin,’’ Cheat complained. ’’You said you wanted to know her opinion.’’

Arin, who had been watching Kestrel\s slight shifts in mood and body and had seen the resentment build, said, ’’She thinks the plan might work.’’

Cheat glanced between the two of them. His gaze lingered on Kestrel, probably trying to see what Arin saw. Then he shrugged in that showy style that had made him such a favorite as an auctioneer. ’’Well, it\s better than anything I\ve got. I\ll go tell everyone what to do.’’

Kestrel shot Arin a furtive glance. He couldn\ read it.

Cheat embraced Arin with one arm and was gone.

Once alone with Kestrel, Arin drew the plant out of his pocket: a handful of green with a wirelike stem and slender-tipped leaves. He set it on the table before her. Her eyes flashed, became jewels of joy. It was treasure, the way she looked at him.

’’Thank you,’’ she breathed.

’’I should have searched for it sooner,’’ he said. ’’You shouldn\ have had to ask.’’ He touched three fingers to the back of her hand, the Herrani gesture that could acknowledge thanks for a gift, but could also be used to ask forgiveness.

Kestrel\s hand was smooth. Glistening, as if it had been oiled.

She drew it back. She changed. Arin saw her change, saw the happiness bleed out of her. She said, ’’What do I owe you for this?’’

’’Nothing,’’ he said quickly, confused. Didn\ he owe her? Hadn\ she fought for him once? Hadn\ he used her trust to upend her world?

Arin studied Kestrel, and realized that it wasn\ so much that she had changed but that she had slipped back into the same huddled anger that had tightened her shoulders the entire time she had been sitting next to Cheat.

Of course Kestrel was angry, having listened to a plot to destroy her people. But as soon as Arin assumed that this was it, his mind returned to that inscrutable look she had given him. He turned it over the way he might a seashell, wondering what kind of creature had lived inside.

He remembered that glance: the flick of brows, the tense line of her mouth.

’’What is the matter?’’ he asked.

She seemed like she wouldn\ reply. Then she said, ’’Cheat will claim your ideas for his own.’’


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