The Winners Curse Page 28

Arin had known that. ’’Do you care?’’

A breath of disgust.

’’We need a leader,’’ Arin said. ’’We need to win. How doesn\ matter.’’

’’You\ve been studying,’’ she said, and Arin realized he had quoted from one of her father\s books on warfare. ’’You\ve been taking texts from my library, reading about Valorian battle formations and methods of attack.’’

’’Wouldn\ you?’’

She flipped an impatient hand.

He said, ’’It\s high time my people learned something from yours. You have, after all, conquered half of the known world. What do you think, Kestrel? Would I make a good Valorian?’’

’’No.’’

’’No? Not even when I have such ingenious strategies that my general would steal them?’’

’’And what are you, that you would let him?’’ Kestrel stood, straight-shouldered and slender, like a sword.

’’I am a liar,’’ Arin slowly said the words for her. ’’Coward. I have no honor.’’

There it was again. That look, livid with hidden things.

A secret.

’’What is it, Kestrel? Tell me what\s wrong.’’

Her face hardened in a way that told Arin he would get no answer. ’’I want to see Jess.’’

The plant lay scraggly and limp on the table.

Arin wondered what, exactly, he had hoped it would make better.

* * *

Snow sifted onto the walk leading to the carriage. Kestrel was grateful for the plant Sarsine carried with her, but the evening had soured her thoughts, twisted her insides with anxiety. She thought of Cheat. She considered Arin\s plan a cunning one, horribly likely to work.

It was more urgent than ever that she escape.

Yet how could she, in Arin\s courtyard, surrounded by Herrani who looked increasingly less like ragtag rebels and more like members of an army?

If she did escape, what would happen to Jess?

Sarsine ducked into the carriage. Kestrel was about to follow when she glanced over her shoulder at the house. It shimmered darkly, glazed by the evening snow. Kestrel saw the architectural whorl that was her suite of rooms on the building\s east side. The tall stone rectangle was her rooftop garden, though it seemed double its width.

The door.

Kestrel remembered the locked door in her garden and realized several things.

The door must lead to another garden that mirrored hers. This was why that high wall appeared twice as wide from the outside.

That other garden connected to the west wing, which glowed with windows as large as those in her suite, with the same diamond-pane details.

Most important, the roof of the west wing sloped downward. It ended over a room on the ground floor that might have been the library or parlor.

Kestrel smiled.

Arin wasn\ the only one with a plan.

* * *

’’Only for Jess,’’ Kestrel told the Herrani healer, and didn\ care that dozens of people were dying at her feet. She dogged the healer, unwilling to risk that one leaf might go to someone else, even though she saw other faces she recognized under the violet mask of the poison.

She chose Jess.

When the drink was prepared and tipped into Jess\s mouth, the girl gagged. Liquid trickled down her chin. The healer calmly caught it with the rim of the bowl and tried again, but the same thing happened.

Kestrel took the bowl from the healer. ’’Drink this,’’ she told her friend.

Jess moaned.

’’Do it,’’ Kestrel said, ’’or you\ll be sorry.’’

’’What a lovely bedside manner you have,’’ Sarsine said.

’’If you don\ drink,’’ Kestrel said to Jess, ’’you\ll be sorry, because you\ll never have the chance to tease me again, to see how I want too much and do such foolish things to get it. You\ll never hear me say that I love you. I love you, little sister. Will you please drink?’’

A click came from Jess\s throat. Kestrel took it to be assent, and set the cup to her lips.

Jess drank.

Hours passed. The night deepened. Jess gave no hint of recovery, Sarsine fell asleep in a chair, and somewhere Arin was readying for a battle that could come as early as the dawn.

Then Jess inhaled: a thin, watery breath. But better. Her eyes cracked open, and when she saw Kestrel she rasped, ’’I want my mother.’’

It was what Kestrel had whispered to her once, when they were little girls sleeping in the same bed, their feet cold and soft and touching. Kestrel held her friend\s hand now and did what Jess had done for her then, which was to murmur soothing things that were barely words and more like music.

Kestrel felt the feeble pressure of Jess\s fingers against hers.

’’Don\ let go,’’ Kestrel said.

Jess listened. Her eyes focused, and widened, and woke up to the world.

* * *

’’You should tell Arin,’’ Sarsine said later in the carriage.

Kestrel knew that she wasn\ talking about Jess. ’’I won\ . Neither will you.’’ Disdainfully, she said, ’’You\ e afraid of Cheat.’’

Kestrel didn\ add that she was, too.

* * *

That night, Kestrel tried the locked garden door again. She pulled against the knob with all her strength. The door was massive. It didn\ even rattle.

She stood, shivering in the snow. Then she went back into her rooms and returned with a table, which she set against the wall in the far corner. She climbed onto the table, and was still nowhere tall enough to reach the top of the wall. She hoped the corner\s angles would give her hands and feet leverage to push upward.

The wall was too smooth. She slid back down. Even with a chair on top of the table, the wall was too high for her, and putting anything on top of the chair would be precarious. She was likely to fall onto the stones.

Kestrel climbed down and studied the garden in the lamplight thrown from her sunroom. She chewed the inside of her cheek, and was wondering whether books stacked on the chair on top of the table would make a difference when she heard something.

The grate of a heel against pebbles. It came from beyond the door, on the other side of the wall.

Someone had been listening.

Was listening still.

As quietly as she could, Kestrel took the chair down from the table and went inside.

* * *

Before Arin left for the mountain pass, during the coldest hours of the night, he found time to order that every piece of furniture light enough for Kestrel to move be taken from her suite.

34

As his people positioned themselves in and around the pass, Arin thought that he might have misunderstood the Valorian addiction to war. He had assumed it was spurred by greed. By a savage sense of superiority. It had never occurred to him that Valorians also went to war because of love.

Arin loved those hours of waiting. The silent, brilliant tension, like scribbles of heat lightning. His city far below and behind him, his hand on a cannon\s curve, ears open to the acoustics of the pass. He stared into it, and even though he smelled the reek of fear from men and women around him, he was caught in a kind of wonder. He felt so vibrant. As if his life was a fresh, translucent, thin-skinned fruit. It could be sliced apart and he wouldn\ care. Nothing felt like this.

Nothing except

And that was another thing war did. It helped Arin forget what he couldn\ have.

There was a skittering sound. It rattled through the pass, growing louder until one of Cheat\s messengers emerged and ran straight for the commander. Arin wasn\ far from Cheat\s side, but even if he had been he probably would have heard the boy\s gasp. ’’Coming,’’ he said. ’’They\ e coming.’’

After that, it was all buzz and haste. Checking that the cannons were properly packed, then checking again. Cutting fuses from long, thin coils of flammable cord. Huddling under the dun-colored cloth.

Arin peered through a hole cut into the sheet. His eyes burned from not blinking.

But of course he heard them before he saw them. The percussion of thousands of marching feet. Then the Valorian front lines emerged from the pass. Arin waited, and waited, for Cheat\s first shot.

It came. The cannonball ripped through cloth, drove through the air, and smashed into the cavalry. It split horses and people into chunks. Arin heard screaming, but he blocked it out.

The stone-colored sheets were gone no need for them now and Arin was heaving a ball into the gut of a cannon, firing, doing it again, hands black with powder, when a woman appeared at his side. She yanked at his sleeve. ’’Cheat is hurt,’’ she said.

The Valorians were firing back, arrows and crossbow quarrels piercing the air with terrifying accuracy. Arin sucked in a breath. He ran.

Arrows whistled past him.

He dove behind the boulders that partially shielded Cheat\s cannon. The man was stretched out on his back, face sprayed with black powder. Herrani clumped around him, staring down with shock.

’’No!’’ Arin shouted at them. ’’Eyes on the Valorians, not him!’’ They startled, then returned to what they were doing, which was blowing as many holes as they could into the Valorian formations.

’’Except you.’’ Arin grabbed the nearest man by his shirt. ’’Tell me what happened.’’ Arin crouched and patted Cheat\s arms, chest, looking for blood. ’’No wounds. Why are there no wounds?’’

’’He just fell back,’’ said the man. ’’When the cannon went off, the blast knocked Cheat off his feet. He must have hit his head.’’

Arin\s laugh was wild. The first moment of battle, and the commander had gone unconscious. Hardly a good omen.

He dragged Cheat more securely behind the boulders and snatched a spyglass from the man\s pocket. It had been taken from the general\s villa. It was of fine quality.

A little too fine. Through it, Arin saw that the Valorian cavalry kept their seats and horses under control, even on a treacherously steep slope bombarded with cannon. They were advancing.

Then Arin saw worse. As he watched, some soldiers behind the front lines craned their necks to scan the sides of the pass. There was a bright flash of an arm guard as a Valorian drew an arrow, sighted a target above in the cliffs, and shot.

One of the four Herrani charged with setting off kegs of black powder fell from the cliff. Arin swore. He watched, and could do nothing, as the other three Herrani were spitted with crossbow quarrels.

That was it, Arin thought. That was the end of everything. If they couldn\ split the Valorian battalion in two by bringing rocks down the pass, the Herrani would be quickly trampled under an experienced army that was already recovering from surprise.

But the last Herrani on the mountainside clung to the cliff, somehow still alive.

She fell. She flipped in the air and caught fire. That was when Arin noticed the small keg clutched in her arms. She hit the ground, and exploded. Fire raged through the Valorian army.

It was as much of a second chance as Arin would get.

’’Target the archers,’’ he ordered those manning Cheat\s cannon. ’’The crossbows. Spread the word. Turn all fire on that squadron.’’

’’But the Valorians are getting closer ’’

’’Do it!’’

Arin poured a sack full of as much black powder as it could hold. He grabbed a coil of fuse, slung the sack over his shoulder, and ran to the base of the cliff.

It was insane, what he was doing. God-touched, as if someone had cursed him with the names of the gods of madness and death when he was a cradled baby. Because Arin was racing for a slim goat path scratched into the cliff. Then he was on the path, and he was going to break his ankles before he got as high as that loose-looking jumble of boulders netted by the black branches of winter bushes. And if he didn\ break his bones first, he would be sighted and shot.

He was.

Pain blazed in his thigh. The shaft of an arrow jutted from his flesh. Another grazed his neck. He faltered, then forced a fresh burst of speed. Arin\s heartbeat shuddered in his ears, loud as cannon fire.

A rise of rock to his left offered cover. He ran along it, high up into the pass. Then he crouched, shaking and swearing as he bled all over the sack of black powder. He jammed it into the base of a crumbling stony heap and fumbled with the fuse.

He lit a match and held it until his fingers burned and the fuse caught.

Then up. Up, as if his entire body was made of that word, scrambling to get above the coming blast.

It came. It ruptured the mountainside. It flung boulders off the cliff.

The ground slid out from under Arin\s feet. He fell in a shower of rocks.

35

Kestrel heard the cheering from far away.

Her spirits sank. Valorian soldiers didn\ cheer when they won. They sang.

Arin\s plan had worked.

Kestrel went to a diamond-paned window that overlooked the courtyard and, beyond it, the city. She flung it open. Winter air rushed in, specks of snow pricked her cheeks. She leaned past the windowsill.

A small group of horsemen were approaching the house, their pace slow enough to match Javelin, whose rider slumped over his neck.

Surely the Herrani wouldn\ cheer if Arin was dead, or dying?

Fool, Kestrel told herself. Dead men can\ ride.

A storm of feeling confused her, and Kestrel didn\ know if her emotions were what they ought to be, because she didn\ know what she felt. She couldn\ even think.

Then the horses stopped. Arin slipped off Javelin, and there was a scuffle among the Herrani as each fought to get to him first. People supported him, nudged shoulders under his arms.

Arin\s face was white with pain and blackened with patches of dirt and bruises. His torn clothes were stained crimson. Bright, bloody flags. One foot was bare.

He tipped his head back, caught Kestrel\s gaze, and smiled.

Kestrel shut the window and shut her heart, for what she felt when she saw Arin limp up the path wasn\ anything she had expected. She shouldn\ feel this, not this:


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