The Winners Curse Page 30

Kestrel clenched her jaw.

’’Think, Kestrel. Why would I give Cheat the key to your suite, only to kill him?’’

She shook her head. She didn\ know.

Arin passed a hand over his brow. The blood smeared. He tried to rub it away with his sleeve, but when he looked at her there was still a red streak above his gray eyes. The viciousness that had filled his face when he had entered the room was gone. Now he just looked young.

He stood, went to tug his sword out of the body, and felt the dead man\s pockets. He pulled out a thick iron ring with dozens of keys. He turned it, staring as the keys slid and rang.

Arin shut them up inside his fist. ’’My house,’’ he said thickly. He looked at Kestrel. ’’Keys can be copied.’’ His eyes pleaded with her. ’’I have no idea how many sets Irex\s family had. Cheat could have had this one, somehow, even before Firstwinter.’’

She saw how what he said might be true. She didn\ think anyone could fake the horror on Arin\s face when he first saw Kestrel on the floor. Or the way he looked now: as if what had happened to her was happening to him.

’’Believe me, Kestrel.’’

She did ... and she didn\ .

Arin undid the ring, slipped off two keys, and set them in Kestrel\s hand. ’’These are for your suite. Keep them.’’

She gazed at the dull metal on her palm. She recognized one key. The other ... ’’Is this one for the garden door?’’

’’Yes, but’’ Arin looked away ’’you wouldn\ want to use it.’’

Kestrel had guessed that Arin lived in the west wing suite, and that it had been his father\s as hers had been his mother\s. But it wasn\ until then that she understood what the two gardens were for: a way for husband and wife to visit each other without the entire household knowing.

Kestrel stood, because Arin was standing and she had had enough of crouching on the floor.

’’Kestrel...’’ Arin\s question was something he clearly hated to ask. ’’How badly are you hurt?’’

’’As you see.’’ Her eye was swelling shut, and the carpet had skinned her cheek raw. ’’My face. Nothing more.’’

’’I could kill him a thousand times and still want to do it again.’’

She looked at Cheat\s slumped body as it soaked the carpet with blood. ’’Somebody had better clean that up. It won\ be me. I\m not your slave.’’

Quietly, he said, ’’You\ e really not.’’

’’I might believe you if you gave me the whole set of keys.’’

The corner of his mouth twitched. ’’Ah, but would you have any respect for my intelligence?’’

* * *

When night fell, Kestrel tried the garden door. Arin\s garden was as bare as hers, the walls as smooth. His sunroom was dark, but the hallway that led from it to the rest of the suite was a glowing tunnel.

Somewhere in the layers and shapes of illuminated rooms, a long shadow moved.

Arin, awake.

She slipped back inside her garden and locked the door.

The shaking that had consumed her earlier after returned. It was deep inside this time. Even if she had stepped into the garden with the thought of escape, when she saw Arin\s shadow she knew that she had really come for his company.

She couldn\ bear to be alone.

Kestrel began to pace, pebbles scattering under her feet.

If she kept moving, maybe she could forget Cheat\s weight. Her hot, stinging face. The moment when she understood that there was nothing she could do.

Arin had done it. Then he had shouldered the body and carried it away. He rolled up the gory rug and took that away, too. He probably would have repaired the door, which hung splintered on its hinges.

But Kestrel told him to leave. He did.

Arin was becoming the sort of person her father admired. Remorseless. Able to make a decision, walk through it, and close it behind him. Kestrel felt that Arin was a shadow of herself or rather of who she was supposed to be.

General Trajan\s daughter would not be in this position.

She would not be frightened.

Her feet ground into the rocks.

Then she heard something, and stopped.

When the first note opened into the cold dark, Kestrel didn\ understand what it was. A sound of pure, low, belled beauty. She waited, and it came again.

Song.

It welled like sap from a tree, golden beads on wood. Then a rich glide. A singer testing his range.

Loosening. Arin\s voice lifted beyond the garden wall. It poured around her fear, and into it. The wordless warmth of music took a familiar shape.

A lullaby. Enai had sung it to Kestrel long ago, and Arin sang it to her now.

Maybe he had seen her in his garden, or heard her restless walk. Kestrel didn\ know how he knew that she needed his comfort as much as she needed the stone wall between them. Yet when the song stopped and the night resonated with a silence that was itself a kind of music, Kestrel was no longer afraid.

And she believed Arin. She believed everything he had ever said to her.

She believed his silence on the other side of the wall, which said that he would stay there as long as she needed.

When Kestrel went inside, she carried his song with her.

It was a candle that lit her way and kept watch while she slept.

* * *

Arin woke. His throat still felt full of music.

Then he remembered that he had killed his friend and that the Herrani had no leader. He searched himself for regret. He found none. Only the cold echo of his own harrowed rage.

He rose and splashed water on his face, ran it through his hair. The face in the mirror didn\ seem to be his, exactly.

Arin dressed with care and went to see what the world looked like.

In the hallways beyond his suite, he caught guarded glances from people, some who had been Irex\s servants, some who had worked in this house during his parents\ time. They had picked up where their lives had left off. When Arin, uncomfortable, had said that they didn\ need to fill their old roles, they had told him that they\d rather clean and cook than fight. Payment could come later.

Other Herrani lived in Arin\s house, fighters who were rapidly becoming soldiers. They, too, watched Arin pass, but said nothing about the body he had carried through the house yesterday and buried on the grounds.

The lack of questions made him edgy.

He passed the open library door, then stopped, returned. He pushed the door wider to see Kestrel more fully.

A fire burned in the grate. The room was warm, and Kestrel was browsing the shelves as if this were her home, which Arin wanted it to be. Her back to him, she slid a book from its row, a finger on top of its spine.

She seemed to sense his presence. She slid the book back and turned. The graze on her cheek had scabbed over. Her blackened eye had sealed shut. The other eye studied him, almond-shaped, amber, perfect. The sight of her rattled Arin even more than he had expected.

’’Don\ tell people why you killed Cheat,’’ she said. ’’It won\ win you any favors.’’

’’I don\ care what they think of me. They need to know what happened.’’

’’It\s not your story to tell.’’

A charred log shifted on the fire. Its crackle and sift was loud. ’’You\ e right,’’ Arin said slowly, ’’but I can\ lie about this.’’

’’Then say nothing.’’

’’I\ll be questioned. I\ll be held accountable by our new leader, though I\m not sure who will take Cheat\s place ’’

’’You. Obviously.’’

He shook his head.

Kestrel lifted one shoulder in a shrug. She turned back to the books.

’’Kestrel, I didn\ come in here to talk politics.’’

Her hand trembled slightly, then swept along the titles to hide it.

Arin didn\ know how much last night had changed things between them, or in what way. ’’I\m sorry,’’ he said. ’’Cheat should never have been a threat to you. You shouldn\ even be in this house. You\ e in this position because I put you there. Here. Forgive me, please.’’

Her fingers paused: thin, strong, and still.

Arin dared to reach for her hand, and Kestrel did not pull away.

37

She had been right. The Herrani quickly took Arin as their leader, either because they had always admired him or because they had liked Cheat\s flair for savagery and assumed that if Arin had killed him he must have been the better monster.

He was certainly the better strategist. Whole swaths of the peninsula began to fall under Herrani control as squadrons were sent to capture farmlands. Food and water were stockpiled, enough for a year of siege or so Kestrel overheard from guards at the entrances of the house.

’’How can you possibly hope to succeed against a siege?’’ Kestrel asked Arin during one of the rare times he was home and not leading an assault in the countryside. They sat at the dining room table, where Kestrel wasn\ allowed a knife for the meal.

At night, Kestrel treasured the memory of Arin\s song. But by day, she could not ignore basic facts. The missing knife. How any easy way out of Arin\s home was guarded, even ground-floor windows. Guards eyed her warily as she passed. Kestrel possessed two keys that did little more than prove that she remained under a privileged form of house arrest.

Was she to earn her freedom one key at a time?

And when her father returned with the imperial army as he inevitably would what then? Kestrel tried to imagine turning traitor and counseling the Herrani through the coming war. She couldn\ . It didn\ matter that Arin\s cause was just, or that Kestrel now allowed herself to see that. She couldn\ fight her own father.

’’We can withstand a siege for some time,’’ Arin said. ’’The city walls are strong. They\ e Valorian-built.’’

’’Which means that we will know how to bring them down.’’

Arin swirled his glass, watching the water\s clear spin. ’’Care to bet? I have matches. I hear they make very fine stakes.’’ There was the quirk of a smile.

’’We aren\ playing at Bite and Sting.’’

’’But if we were, and I kept raising the stakes higher to the point where you couldn\ bear to lose, what would you do? Maybe you\d give up the game. Herran\s only hope of winning against the empire is to become too painful to retake. To mire the Valorians in an unending siege when they\d rather be fighting the east. To force them to conquer the countryside again, piece by piece, spending money and lives. Someday, the empire will decide we\ e not worth the fight.’’

Kestrel shook her head. ’’Herran will always be worth it.’’

Arin looked at her, his hands resting on the table. He, too, had no knife. Kestrel knew that this was to make it less obvious that she wasn\ to be trusted with one. Instead, it became more.

’’You\ e missing a button,’’ he said abruptly.

’’What?’’

He reached across the table and touched the cloth at her wrist, on the spot of an open seam. His fingertip brushed the frayed thread.

Kestrel forgot that she had been troubled. She had been thinking about knives, she remembered, and now they were talking about buttons, but what one had to do with the other, she couldn\ say.

’’Why don\ you mend it?’’ he said.

She recovered herself. ’’That is a silly question.’’

’’Kestrel, do you not know how to sew a button?’’

She refused to answer.

’’Wait here,’’ he said.

Arin returned with a sewing kit and button. He threaded a needle, bit it between his teeth, and took her wrist with both hands.

Her blood turned to wine.

’’This is how you do it,’’ he said.

He took the needle from his mouth and pierced it through the cloth.

* * *

’’This is how you build a fire.’’

’’This is how you make tea.’’

Small lessons, sprinkled here and there, between days. Through them, Kestrel sensed the silent history of how Arin had come to know what he did. She thought about it during the long stretches of time when she didn\ see him.

Days passed after Arin had sewn the button tight to her sleeve. Then an empty week went by after he\d struck fire to kindling in the library fireplace, then even longer since he\d placed a hot cup of perfectly steeped tea in her hands. He was gone. He was fighting, Sarsine had said. She would not say where.

With her newfound if limited freedom, Kestrel often wandered through the wings where people worked. Some doors were barred to her. The kitchens were. They hadn\ been before, on that horrible day with Cheat by the fountain, but they were now that everyone knew that Kestrel could roam the house. The kitchens had too many knives. Too many fires.

But there were fires lit regularly in the library and in her suite, and Kestrel had learned how to make one anywhere. Why not set fire to the house and hope to escape in the confusion?

One day, she studied the fringe on her sitting room curtains and clutched kindling hard enough to get splinters. Then her grip loosened. A fire was too dangerous. It could kill her. She told herself that this was why she returned the small sticks of wood to the hearth, and dropped them back into the kindling box. It wasn\ because she couldn\ bear the thought of destroying Arin\s family home. It wasn\ because a fire might also kill the Herrani who lived here.

If she escaped and sent the imperial army to the city, wasn\ that the same as bringing death to every Herrani in this house? To Arin?

She was angry, then, at his foolishness for teaching her such an obviously dangerous skill as building a fire. She was angry at what the idea of his death did to her.

Kestrel slammed shut the lid on the kindling box, and on the sudden grief of her thoughts. She left her rooms.

She roamed the wing of servants\ quarters: a corridor of small rooms set close together, with chalk-white, identical doors, at the back of the house. Today Herrani were emptying them out. Framed canvases went by. Kestrel watched a woman shift a large, iridescent oil lamp in her arms to rest on her hip like a child.


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