The Winners Curse Page 29

A stark, shattering relief.

* * *

’’A hero.’’ Cheat stared down at Arin stretched on his bed.

Arin started to shake his head, then winced in pain. ’’Just lucky.’’

’’Damned lucky. A tangle of bushes kept you from going over the cliff, you were practically buried under a pile of rocks, and still you didn\ break anything.’’

’’I feel as if I broke everything.’’

Cheat had an odd expression on his face.

Arin said, ’’You were lucky, too.’’

’’To get knocked on my backside and miss the battle? I don\ think so.’’ But Cheat shrugged, sat on the edge of the bed, patted Arin\s bruised shoulder, and chuckled when Arin swore. ’’There\s always next time. Tell me what happened after you were fished out from under the rocks.’’

’’The plan worked. The Valorian officers in the front and rear were cut off from each other by the landslide, which wiped out a good amount of their middle ranks. They surrendered. I think we managed to make sure no messengers escaped out the Valorian side of the pass. I sent the wounded to the governor\s palace. Might as well turn that place into the hospital it\s become.’’

’’Our wounded, you mean.’’

Arin propped himself up on one elbow. ’’Both sides. I took prisoners.’’

’’Arin, Arin. We don\ need any more Valorian pets. We\ e already up to our eyeballs in aristocrats. At least their letters sow misinformation in the capital. And they provide some entertainment.’’

’’What would you have had me do, kill them all?’’

Cheat opened his hands as if the answer lay on his palms.

’’That\s shortsighted,’’ Arin said, too weary to care about giving offense. ’’And beneath us.’’

Cheat\s silence gained a hard edge.

’’Look at it this way,’’ Arin said more carefully. ’’One day we might be in a position to trade prisoners. This wasn\ the last battle. Some of us might be captured during the next.’’

Cheat stood. ’’We can discuss this later. Who am I to keep our hero from his rest?’’

’’Please stop calling me that.’’

Cheat tsked. ’’People will love you for this,’’ he said.

But he didn\ sound as if that was a good thing.

* * *

The possibility of a future no longer felt frail to the Herrani. Before the battle, they had largely continued living where they had been slaves if they didn\ have original homes to return to. Now empty Valorian houses were sized up. Cheat\s permission was sought to move into one place or another, but sometimes people\s eyes slid to Arin before they spoke. Then Cheat invariably said no.

Arin worked to construct their fighters into a proper army. He made a list of people who had distinguished themselves during the battle and suggested that they be made officers. The titles he wrote were the same as those used by the Herrani military before the conquest.

Cheat frowned at the list. ’’I suppose you want to bring the monarchy back, too.’’

’’The royal family is dead,’’ Arin said slowly.

’’So what are you, the next best thing?’’

’’I never said that. And that has nothing to do with naming officers.’’

’’Oh no? Look at this list. Half of them are former blue bloods, like you.’’

’’Half of them aren\ .’’ Arin sighed. ’’It\s just a list, Cheat. You decide.’’

Cheat gave him a measuring look, then scratched out some names and wrote in others. He signed with a flourish.

Arin said they should begin taking land outside the city, capturing farms and bringing in grain and other foodstuffs to prepare for a siege. ’’The Ethyra estate would be a good first choice.’’

’’Fine, fine.’’ Cheat waved a hand.

Arin hesitated, then offered him a small but full and heavy satchel. ’’You might find these books interesting. They\ e on Valorian wars and history.’’

’’I\m too old for the schoolroom,’’ Cheat said, and left Arin with his hand outstretched.

* * *

Kestrel began to hate her rooms. She wondered what kind of family Irex had had, that a lock workable only from the outside had been added to a suite so sumptuous that it must have belonged to his mother. The lock was Valorian brass, intricate and solid. Kestrel knew it intimately by now, since she\d spent enough time testing it to see if it could be picked or forced.

If she had to choose which aspect of the suite she despised most, it would have been a hard call between the lock and the garden, though these days she nursed a particular grudge against the curtains.

She hid behind them to watch Arin leave the house, and return very often on her horse. Despite the way he had looked after the battle, his injuries weren\ serious. His limp lessened, the bandage on his neck disappeared, and the raging bruises muted into ugly greens and violets.

Several days passed without any words between him and her, and that set Kestrel on edge.

It was hard to rub out the memory of his smile exhausted, sweet.

And then that waterfall of relief.

Kestrel sent him a letter. Jess was likely to recover, she wrote. She asked to visit Ronan, who was being held in the city prison.

Arin\s reply was a curt note: No.

She decided not to press the issue. Her request had been due to a sense of obligation. She dreaded seeing Ronan even if he agreed to speak with her. Even if he did not loathe her now. Kestrel knew that to look upon Ronan would be to come face-to-face with her failure. She had done everything wrong ... including not being able to love him.

She folded the one-word letter and set it aside.

* * *

Arin was leaving the general\s villa, which had become the army\s headquarters, when one of the new officers saluted him. Thrynne, a middle-aged man, was examining a batch of Valorian horses captured from the battle. ’’These will do well for our march on the Metrea estate,’’ he said.

Arin frowned. ’’What?’’

’’Cheat\s sending us to capture the Metrea estate.’’

Arin lost his patience. ’’That\s idiotic. Metrea grows olives. Do you want to live on olives during a siege?’’

’’Er ... no.’’

’’Then go to Ethyra, where they will have stores of grain, plus livestock.’’

’’Right now?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Should I ask Cheat first?’’

’’No.’’ Arin rubbed his brow, deeply tired of treading so cautiously around Cheat. ’’Just go.’’

Thrynne took his troops.

When Arin saw Cheat the next day, no mention was made of the commander\s order or how it had been overturned. Arin\s friend was cheerful and suggested Arin visit his ’’Valorian cattle,’’ by which he meant the prisoners from the battle. ’’See if conditions are the way you\d like them,’’ Cheat said. ’’Why don\ you go there tomorrow afternoon?’’

It had been a while since Cheat had asked him to do anything. Arin took the request as a good sign.

* * *

He brought Sarsine with him. She had a gift for organization, and had already shaped the governor\s palace into something that began to look like a proper hospital. Arin thought she might know what to do about potential overcrowding in the prison.

Except that overcrowding turned out not to be a problem.

Blood slicked the prison floor. Bodies lay crumpled in cells. All the Valorian soldiers had been killed shot through the prison bars or speared in their sleep.

Arin\s stomach clenched. He heard Sarsine gasp. His boots stood in a dark puddle of blood.

Not all the prisoners were dead;those who had been captured the night the revolution began were still alive, staring at Arin with horror. They were silent ... afraid, perhaps, that they would be next. But one of them stepped close to the bars of his cell, his body lean, face handsome, movements elegant in that way that Arin had hated. Envied.

Ronan didn\ speak. He didn\ need to. His scathing expression was worse than words. It blamed Arin. It called him an animal, rooting in blood.

Arin turned away. He strode down the long hall, trying not to feel as if he was fleeing, and confronted a guard. ’’What happened?’’ he demanded, though he knew the answer.

’’Orders,’’ the guard said.

’’Cheat\s?’’

’’Of course.’’ She shrugged. ’’Should\ve been done long ago, he said.’’

’’And you didn\ think that there was anything wrong with this? With killing hundreds of people?’’

’’But we had orders,’’ another guard spoke. ’’They\ e Valorians.’’

’’You\ve turned this prison into a slaughterhouse!’’

One of the Herrani hawked and spat. ’’Cheat said that you\d be like this.’’

Sarsine grabbed Arin\s elbow and dragged him out of the prison before he did something stupid.

Arin blinked at the iron sky. He took huge, clean breaths of air.

’’Cheat is a problem,’’ Sarsine said.

Breathe, Arin commanded himself.

Sarsine twisted her fingers. Then, quickly, she said, ’’There\s something I should have told you earlier.’’

He looked at her.

’’Cheat hates Kestrel,’’ she said.

’’Of course he does. She\s the general\s daughter.’’

’’No, it\s more than that. It\s the hatred of someone who is not getting what he wants.’’

Sarsine explained exactly what she thought Cheat wanted.

It scalded Arin. The knowledge bubbled up within him: a brew of anger and disgust. He had not seen. He had not understood. Why was it only now that he learned that Cheat had sought to be alone with Kestrel, and in such a way?

Arin lifted a hand to stop Sarsine\s words, because on the heels of his last thought came another, even worse:

What if Cheat had meant the murders in the prison to be more than a show of power over Arin?

What if they were a distraction?

* * *

Kestrel rested her forehead against a window in her sitting room and gazed out at the empty courtyard. She willed the cold glass to freeze her brain, because she didn\ think she could bear her own thoughts for much longer or her own ineptitude. How was it that she was a prisoner still?

She was cursing herself when a hand stole up the nape of her neck.

Her body knew how to react before her mind did. Kestrel stamped her heel down on the man\s instep, punched an elbow into the spot below the ribs, slipped under a thick arm

and was caught by the hair. Cheat dragged her to him. He used his whole body to push her away from the windows and up against a wall.

His hand pressed down on her mouth. She twisted her head to the side. Cheat\s thumb dug in under her chin and jerked her face to meet his.

The other hand found her fingers and squeezed hard.

’’Don\ struggle,’’ he said. ’’Soft things don\ break.’’

36

He tried to pull her down to the floor. She wrenched a hand away and drove the heel of it into his nose. She felt it crunch. Blood spurted between her fingers.

Cheat grunted, gasped. His hands flew to the broken nose, muffling sounds, catching blood.

Freeing Kestrel.

She pushed past him. She was thinking, Knife. Her makeshift ceramic knife, hidden in the ivy. She had a weapon, she wasn\ defenseless, this wouldn\ happen, she wouldn\

Cheat backhanded her across the face.

The blow knocked Kestrel off her feet. Then she was on the floor, cheek against carpet, blinking at the woven patterns. She forced herself up. She was shoved back down. She heard a dagger scrape out of its sheath, and Cheat was saying things she refused to understand.

Then there was a crash.

Kestrel couldn\ wonder what that sound was, couldn\ even breathe under Cheat\s weight. But he suddenly scrambled to his feet. He was no longer looking at her.

He was staring at Arin, who had slammed through the door.

Arin strode into the room. His sword was raised. His face was so pale and tight that it seemed to be made only of bones and fury.

’’Arin,’’ Cheat said soothingly. ’’Nothing happened.’’

Arin swung, and his blade would have cut Cheat\s head from his neck if the other man hadn\ ducked. Cheat began speaking as if they were arguing over a game whose rules had been forgotten. He said that it wasn\ fair that Arin had the bigger weapon, and that old friends shouldn\ fight. The Valorian girl had attacked him.

’’Look at my face,’’ Cheat said. ’’Just look at what she did to me.’’

Arin thrust his sword into Cheat\s chest. There was the grind of metal on bone. A choking sound, a rush of blood. Arin pushed in up to the hilt. The sword\s point pierced through Cheat\s back and the man sagged, folding in on himself, pouring red onto Arin, but Arin\s expression didn\ change. It was all hard lines and murder.

Cheat\s eyes went wide. Disbelieving. Then dull.

Arin let go. He knelt on the floor next to Kestrel. His bloody hand lifted to her bruising cheek, and she recoiled at the wet touch, then let herself be gathered into Arin\s arms, held gently against his raging heart. She inhaled.

A gulp of air. Sharp. Shallow. Again.

She began to shake. Teeth rattled in her head. Arin was saying Shh, as if Kestrel was crying, which made her realize that she was. And she remembered that Arin wasn\ shelter but a cage.

She pushed herself away. ’’Key,’’ she whispered.

Arin\s hands fell to his sides. ’’What?’’

’’You gave Cheat the key to my rooms!’’ Because how else, how else had Cheat crept in so quietly? Arin had invited him, opened his home, offered his possessions, offered her

’’No.’’ Arin looked sick. ’’Never. You must believe that I would never do that.’’


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