The Winners Curse Page 3

Harman\s anxiety eased somewhat. ’’A blacksmith?’’ Slaves were sometimes named by masters for their work. ’’We could use that. I\ll send him to the forge.’’

’’Wait. I\m not sure that\s where I want him.’’ She spoke to Smith in Herrani: ’’Do you sing?’’

He looked at her then, and Kestrel saw the same expression she had seen earlier in the waiting room. His gray eyes were icy. ’’No.’’

Smith had answered in her language, and his accent was light.

He turned away. Dark hair fell forward. It curtained his profile.

Kestrel\s nails bit into her palms. ’’See to it that he has a bath,’’ she told Harman in a voice she hoped was brisk rather than frustrated. ’’Give him appropriate clothes.’’

She started to walk down the hallway, then stopped. The words flashed out of her mouth: ’’And cut his hair.’’

Kestrel felt the chill of Smith\s gaze on her back as she retreated. It was easy, now, to name that expression in his eyes.

Contempt.

3

Kestrel didn\ know what to say.

Her father, fresh from a bath after a hot day of training soldiers, watered his wine. The third course was served: small hens stuffed with spiced raisins and crushed almonds. It tasted dry to her.

’’Did you practice?’’ he asked.

’’No.’’

His large hands paused in their movements.

’’I will,’’ she said. ’’Later.’’ She drank from her cup, then ran a thumb over its surface. The glass was smoky green and finely blown. It had come with the house. ’’How are the new recruits?’’

’’Wet behind the ears, but not a bad lot.’’ He shrugged. ’’We need them.’’

Kestrel nodded. The Valorians had always faced barbarian invasions on the fringes of their territories, and as the empire had grown in the past five years, attacks became more frequent. They didn\ threaten the Herran peninsula, but General Trajan often trained battalions that would be sent to the empire\s outer reaches.

He prodded a glazed carrot with his fork. Kestrel looked at the silver utensil, its tines shining sharply in the candlelight. It was a Herrani invention, one that had been absorbed into her culture so long ago it was easy to forget Valorians had ever eaten with their fingers.

’’I thought you were going to the market this afternoon with Jess,’’ he said. ’’Why didn\ she join us for dinner?’’

’’She didn\ accompany me home.’’

He set down his fork. ’’Then who did?’’

’’Father, I spent fifty keystones today.’’

He waved a hand to indicate that the sum was irrelevant. His voice was deceptively calm: ’’If you walked through the city alone, again ’’

’’I didn\ .’’ She told him who had come home with her, and why.

The general rubbed his brow and squeezed his eyes shut. ’’That was your escort?’’

’’I don\ need an escort.’’

’’You certainly wouldn\ , if you enlisted.’’

And there they were, pressing the sore spot of an old argument. ’’I will never be a soldier,’’ she said.

’’You\ve made that clear.’’

’’If a woman can fight and die for the empire, why can\ a woman walk alone?’’

’’That\s the point. A woman soldier has proved her strength, and so doesn\ need protection.’’

’’Neither do I.’’

The general flattened his hands against the table. When a girl came to clear away the plates, he barked at her to leave.

’’You honestly don\ believe that Jess could offer me any protection,’’ Kestrel said.

’’Women who are not soldiers don\ walk alone. It\s custom.’’

’’Our customs are absurd. Valorians take pride in being able to survive on little food if we must, but an evening meal is an insult if it\s not at least seven courses. I can fight well enough, but if I\m not a soldier it\s as if years of training don\ exist.’’

Her father gave her a level look. ’’Your military strength has never been in combat.’’

Which was another way of saying that she was a poor fighter.

More gently, he said, ’’You\ e a strategist.’’

Kestrel shrugged.

Her father said, ’’Who suggested I draw the Dacran barbarians into the mountains when they attacked the empire\s eastern border?’’

All she had done then was point out the obvious. The barbarians\ overreliance on cavalry had been clear. So, too, had been the fact that the dry eastern mountains would starve horses of water. If anyone was a strategist, it was her father. He was strategizing that very moment, using flattery to get what he wanted.

’’Imagine how the empire would benefit if you truly worked with me,’’ he said, ’’and used that talent to secure its territories, instead of pulling apart the logic of customs that order our society.’’

’’Our customs are lies.’’ Kestrel\s fingers clenched the fragile stem of her glass.

Her father\s gaze fell to her tight hand. He reached for it. Quietly, firmly, he said, ’’These are not my rules. They are the empire\s. Fight for it, and have your independence. Don\ , and accept your constraints. Either way, you live by our laws.’’ He raised one finger. ’’And you don\ complain.’’

Then she wouldn\ say anything at all, Kestrel decided. She snatched her hand away and stood. She remembered how the slave had used his silence as a weapon. He had been haggled over, pushed, led, peered at. He would be cleaned, shorn, dressed. Yet he had refused to give up everything.

Kestrel knew strength when she encountered it.

So did her father. His light brown eyes narrowed at her.

She left the dining hall. She stalked down the northern wing of the villa until she reached a set of double doors. She threw them open and felt her way through the dark interior for a small silver box and an oil lamp. Her fingers were familiar with this ritual. It was no trouble to light the lamp blind. She could play blind, too, but didn\ want to risk missing a note. Not tonight, not when today she had done little but fumble and err.

She skirted the piano in the center of the room, skimming a palm across its flat, polished surface. The instrument was one of the few things her family had brought from the capital. It had been her mother\s.

Kestrel opened several glass doors that led into the garden. She breathed in the night, letting its air pool inside her lungs.

But she smelled jasmine. She imagined its tiny flower blooming in the dark, each petal stiff and pointed and perfect. She thought again of the slave, and didn\ know why.

She looked at her traitor of a hand, the one that had lifted to catch the eye of the auctioneer.

Kestrel shook her head. She wouldn\ think about the slave anymore.

She sat in front of the instrument\s row of black and white keys, nearly a hundred of them.

This wasn\ the kind of practice her father had had in mind. He had meant her daily sessions with the captain of his guard. Well, she didn\ want to train at Needles, or anything else her father thought she should learn.

Her fingers rested on the keys. She pressed slightly, not quite hard enough for the hammers inside to strike the loom of metallic cords.

She took a deep breath and began to play.

4

She had forgotten him.

Three days passed, and the lady of the house seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that she had purchased a slave to add to the general\s collection of forty-eight.

The slave wasn\ sure he felt relieved.

The first two days had been blissful. He couldn\ remember the last time he had been allowed to be lazy. The bath had been amazingly hot, and the soap made him stare through the steam. The lather was richer than he\d had in years. It smelled like memories.

It left his skin feeling new, and though he\d held his head rigid while another Herrani slave cut his hair, and though he kept lifting his hand to sweep aside locks that were gone, on the second day he found that he didn\ mind so much. It gave him a clear view of his world.

On the third day, the steward came for him.

The slave, having no orders, had been wandering the grounds. The house was off-limits, but he was content to consider it from the outside. He counted its many windows and doors. He lay on the grass, letting its warm green static tickle his palms, glad that his hands weren\ too calloused to feel it. The yellow ocher of the villa walls glowed in the light, then faded. He listed in his mind which rooms of the house grew dark at which time of the day. He gazed up at orange trees. Sometimes, he slept.

The other slaves did their best to ignore him. At first, they shot him looks that varied from resentment to confusion to longing. He couldn\ bring himself to care. As soon as he\d been directed to the slaves\ quarters, housed in a building that looked almost exactly like the stables, he caught on to the pecking order of the general\s Herrani. He was last.

He ate his bread like the rest of them, and shrugged whenever asked why he hadn\ been assigned to a task. He answered direct questions. Mostly, though, he listened.

On the third day, he was making a mental map of the outbuildings: the slaves\ quarters, the stables, the barracks for the general\s private guard, the forge, small sheds for storage, a little cottage near the garden. The estate, particularly for being still part of the city, was large. The slave felt lucky that he had so many free hours to study it.

He was sitting on a gentle hill near the orchard, at a height that let him see the steward striding toward him from the villa long before the Valorian arrived. This pleased the slave. It confirmed what he had come to suspect: that General Trajan\s home would not be easy to defend if attacked in the right way. The estate had probably been given to the general because it was the largest and finest in the city, and ideal for maintaining a personal guard and horses, but the tree-covered slopes surrounding the house would have advantages for an unfriendly force. The slave wondered if the general truly didn\ see this. Then again, Valorians didn\ know what it was like to be attacked at home.

The slave stopped his thoughts. They threatened to plow up his past. He willed his mind to be frosted earth: hard and barren.

He focused on the sight of the steward huffing up the hill. The steward was one of the few Valorian servants, like the housekeeper, whose positions were too important to be assigned to Herrani. The slave assumed that the steward was well paid. He was certainly well dressed, in the gold-shot fabrics Valorians favored. The man\s thin yellow hair flew in the breeze. As he came closer, the slave heard him muttering in Valorian, and knew himself to be the target of the man\s irritation.

’’You,’’ the steward said in heavily accented Herrani. ’’There you be, lazy good-for-nothing.’’

The slave remembered the man\s name Harman but didn\ use it. He didn\ say anything, just let Harman vent his anger. It amused him to hear the man butcher his language. The steward\s accent was laughable, his grammar worse. His only skill was a rich vocabulary of insults.

’’You come.’’ Harman jerked a hand to indicate that he should be followed.

The slave quickly realized he was being led to the forge.

Another Herrani was waiting outside. He recognized her, though he saw her only for meals and at night. Her name was Lirah, and she worked in the house. She was pretty;younger than him, probably too young to remember the war.

Harman began talking at her in Valorian. The slave tried to be patient as Lirah translated.

’’Lady Kestrel can\ be bothered to place you, so I’’ she blushed ’’I mean, he’’ she nodded at Harman ’’has decided to set you to work. Usually the general\s guard see to their own weapon repair, and a Valorian blacksmith from the city is hired on a regular basis to forge new weapons.’’

The slave nodded. There were good reasons why the Valorians trained few Herrani blacksmiths. One had only to look around the forge to understand. Anyone could see the heavy tools and guess the strength it would take to manipulate them.

’’You will do this from now on,’’ Lirah continued, ’’so long as you prove to be competent.’’

Harman took the silence that followed as an invitation to speak again. Lirah translated. ’’Today you will make horseshoes.’’

’’Horseshoes?’’ That was too easy.

Lirah gave him a sympathetic smile. When she spoke, it was in her own voice, not the stilted repeating of Harman\s. ’’It\s a test. You\ e supposed to make as many as you can before sunset. Can you shoe a horse, too?’’

’’Yes.’’

Lirah seemed to regret this answer on his behalf. She told the steward, who said, ’’That\s what he\ll be doing tomorrow, then. Every horse in the stable needs to be shod.’’ He snorted. ’’We\ll see how this animal gets along with the other ones.’’

Before the war, Valorians had admired, even envied yes, envied the Herrani. After, it was as if the spell had been broken or a new one had been cast. The slave never could quite believe it. Somehow, ’’animal’’ had become possible. Somehow, the word named him. This was a discovery ten years old and yet remade every day. It should have been dulled by repetition. Instead, he was sore from its constant cut of surprise. He was sour with swallowed anger.

The pleasant, trained expression on Lirah\s face hadn\ faltered. She pointed to the coal bin, kindling, and heaps of raw and used iron. The steward set a box of matches on the anvil. Then they left.

The slave looked around the forge and debated whether he should pass the test or fail.

He sighed, and lit a fire.

* * *

His holiday was over. On his first day in the forge, the slave made more than fifty horseshoes enough to appear dedicated and skilled, but not so much that he drew attention. The following day, he shod all the horses, even those whose shoes were new. The groom warned that some of the animals could be dangerous to handle, especially the general\s stallions, but the slave had no trouble. He made sure, however, that the task took the whole day. He liked listening to the horses\ low whickers and feeling their gentle, warm breath. Also, the stables were a decent place to hear news or they would have been, if a soldier had come to exercise a horse.


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