The Winners Curse Page 31

Like every other colonial family, Irex\s had turned the servants\ quarters into storage and had had an outbuilding constructed to house their slaves. Privacy was a luxury slaves didn\ deserve, or so most Valorians had thought ... to their undoing, since forcing their slaves to sleep and eat together in one collective space had helped them plot against their conquerors. It amazed Kestrel, how people set their own traps.

She remembered that kiss in the carriage on Firstwinter night. How her whole being had begged for it.

She had baited her own trap, too.

Kestrel moved on. She took the stairs down to the work-rooms. The lower level was warmed throughout by the kitchens\ constant fires. She passed the still room. The laundry, with its sails of hung sheets. She saw people busy in the scullery, where tubs were filled with pots and steaming water, and bare, copper-lined sinks waited for the washing of porcelain dining sets.

She walked past the scullery, then paused to feel a chill breeze curl around her ankles. A draft. Which meant that somewhere nearby, a door had been left open to the outside.

Was this Kestrel\s chance to leave?

Could she take it?

Would she?

She followed the current of cold air. It led her to a dry pantry, whose door was ajar. Grain sacks were stacked inside.

But this was not the source of the draft. Kestrel continued down the empty hallway. At its end, a pale blade of light cut across the floor. Cold flowed in.

The door to the kitchen yard was open. A few snowflakes swirled into the hallway and vanished.

Maybe now. Maybe now was the moment when she would flee.

Kestrel took another step. Her heartbeat trembled in her throat.

Then the door sang wide on its hinges, light flooded the hallway, and Arin walked in.

She bit back a gasp. He, too, was surprised to see her. He straightened suddenly under the weight of the grain sack over his shoulder. Quick as thought, his eyes went to the open door. He set down the sack and locked the door behind him.

’’You\ e back,’’ she said.

’’I\m leaving again.’’

’’To steal more grain from a captured country estate?’’

His smile was perfectly mischievous. ’’Rebels must eat.’’

’’And I suppose you use my horse in these battles and thefts of yours.’’

’’He\s happy to support a good cause.’’

Kestrel huffed and would have turned to wend her way back through the workrooms, but he said, ’’Would you like to see him? Javelin?’’

She stood still.

’’He misses you,’’ said Arin.

She said yes. After Arin had stacked his final load of grain in the pantry and given her his coat, they walked out into the kitchen yard and crossed its slate flagstones to reach the grounds and the stables.

It was warm inside the stables. It smelled like hay, leather, grassy manure, and somehow sunshine, as if it had been stored here for the winter. Irex\s horses were sleek beauties. High-spirited. Several of them stamped in their stalls as Kestrel and Arin entered, and another tossed its head. But Kestrel had eyes for only one horse.

She went straight to his stall. He towered over her, but lowered his head to push against her shoulder, breathe gustily over her uplifted hands, and lip the ends of her hair. Kestrel\s throat tightened.

She had been lonely. She thought that loneliness shouldn\ hurt so much not when there was everything else. But here was a friend. Running a hand down Javelin\s velvet nose reminded her of how few she had.

Arin had been hanging back, but now he came near. ’’I\m sorry,’’ he said, ’’but I need to ready him to ride. Daylight\s fading. I have to leave.’’

’’Of course you do,’’ she said, and was horrified to hear the choked sound of her voice. She felt Arin looking at her. She felt the question in his gaze, the way he saw her near tears, and this hurt, too, more than the loneliness, because it made her know that her loneliness had been for him, that it had sent her wandering through the house, looking for yet another little lesson.

’’I could stay,’’ he said. ’’I could leave tomorrow.’’

’’No. I want you to go now.’’

’’Do you?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Ah, but what about what I want?’’

The softness in his voice made her lift her gaze. She would have answered him how, she wasn\ sure if Javelin\s attention hadn\ turned to him. The stallion began nuzzling Arin as if he were the horse\s favorite person in the world. Kestrel felt a pang of jealousy. Then she saw something that sent thoughts of jealousy and loneliness and want right out of her head, and just made her mad. Javelin was nibbling a certain part of Arin, whuffling around a pocket exactly the right size to hold a

’’Winter apple,’’ Kestrel said. ’’Arin, you have been bribing my horse!’’

’’Me? No.’’

’’You have! No wonder he likes you so much.’’

’’Are you sure it\s not because of my good looks and pleasing manners?’’ This was said lightly not quite sarcastically, yet in a voice that nevertheless told Kestrel that he doubted he possessed either of these things.

But he was pleasing. He pleased her. And she could never forget his beauty. She had learned it all too well.

She blushed. ’’It\s not fair,’’ she said.

He took in her rising color. His mouth curved. And although Kestrel wasn\ sure that he could interpret what effect he was having on her simply by standing there and saying the word pleasing, she knew that he always knew when he had an advantage.

He pressed it. ’’Doesn\ your father\s theory of war include winning over the other side by offering sweets? No? An oversight, I think. I wonder ... might I bribe you?’’

Kestrel\s fingers clenched. It probably looked like anger. It wasn\ . It was the instinctive gesture of someone dangerously tempted.

’’Open your hands, Little Fists,’’ said Arin. ’’Open your eyes. I haven\ stolen his love for you. Look.’’ It was true that in the course of their conversation, Javelin had turned away from Arin, disappointed by the empty pocket. The horse nosed Kestrel\s shoulder. ’’See?’’ Arin said. ’’He knows the difference between an easy mark and his mistress.’’

Arin was an easy mark. He had offered to bring her to the stables, and here was the result: from where Kestrel stood, she could see the open tack room, how it was organized, and everything she would need to saddle Javelin quickly. Speed would matter when she escaped. And she would, she must, it was just a matter of getting out of the house at the right time, the right way. Javelin would be the fastest means to reach the harbor and a boat.

When Arin and Kestrel left the stables, the snow had stopped and everything was crystalline. Kestrel wasn\ sure if it had grown colder or only seemed that way. She shivered inside Arin\s coat. It smelled like him. Like dark, summer earth. She would be glad to give the coat back. To see him slip it on in preparation for whatever mission would carry him away from here. He clouded her head.

She inhaled the cold air and willed herself to be like that breath ... a relentless, icy purity.

* * *

What would Kestrel\s father think, to know how she wavered, how close she came sometimes to wanting to remain a favored prisoner? He would disown her. No child of his would choose surrender.

She went, under guard, to see Jess.

The girl\s face was gray, but she could sit up and eat on her own. ’’Have you heard anything about my parents?’’ Jess asked.

Kestrel shook her head. A few Valorians civilians, socialites had returned unexpectedly early from their stay in the capital for the winter season. They had been stopped in the mountain pass and imprisoned. Jess\s parents hadn\ been among them.

’’And Ronan?’’

’’I\m not allowed to see him,’’ Kestrel said.

’’You\ e allowed to see me.’’

Kestrel remembered Arin\s one-word note. Carefully, she said, ’’I think that Arin doesn\ consider you to be a threat.’’

’’I wish I were,’’ Jess muttered, and fell silent. Her face seemed to sink in on itself. It was unbelievable to Kestrel that Jess Jess could look so withered.

’’Have you been sleeping?’’ Kestrel asked.

’’Too many nightmares.’’

Kestrel had them, too. They began with Cheat\s hand on the back of her neck and ended with her gasping awake in the dark, reminding herself that the man was dead. She dreamed about Irex\s baby, dark eyes fixed on her, and sometimes he would speak like an adult. He accused her of making him an orphan. It was her fault, he said, for having been blind to Arin. You cannot trust him, the baby said.

’’Forget your dreams,’’ Kestrel told Jess, even though she couldn\ follow her own advice. ’’I have something to cheer you up.’’ She handed her friend a folded pile of dresses. Once, her clothes would have been too tight for Jess. Now they would hang on her. Kestrel thought about that. She thought about Ronan, in prison, and Benix and Captain Wensan and that dark-eyed baby.

’’How do you have these?’’ Jess ran a hand over silk. ’’Never mind. I know. Arin.’’ Her mouth twisted as if drinking the poison again. ’’Kestrel, tell me it isn\ true what they say, that you are truly his, that you are on their side.’’

’’It isn\ .’’

With a glance to make certain no one overheard, Jess leaned forward and whispered, ’’Promise that you will make them pay.’’

It was what Kestrel had hoped Jess would say. It was why she had come. She looked into the eyes of her friend, who had come so close to death.

’’I will,’’ Kestrel said.

* * *

Yet when she returned to the house, Sarsine had a smile on her face. ’’Go into the salon,’’ she said.

Her piano. Its surface gleamed like wet ink. An emotion flooded through Kestrel, but she didn\ want to name it. It wasn\ right that she should feel it, simply because Arin had given back to her something that he had more or less taken.

Kestrel shouldn\ play. She shouldn\ sit on that familiar velvet bench or think about how transporting a piano across the city was no mean feat. It meant people. Pulleys. Horses straining to haul a cart. She shouldn\ wonder how Arin had found the time and begged his people\s goodwill to bring her piano here.

She shouldn\ touch the cool keys, or feel that delicious tension between silence and sound.

She remembered that Arin had refused to sing for who knows how long.

Kestrel didn\ have that particular kind of strength.

She sat and played.

* * *

In the end, it wasn\ hard to guess which rooms had been Arin\s before the war. They were silent and dusty. Any children\s furniture had been removed, and the suite was fairly ordinary, its windows hung with deeply purple curtains. It looked as if for the past ten years it had served as a guest suite for the lesser sort of visitors. Its only unusual qualities were that its outer door was made of a different, lighter wood than those in the rest of the house ... and that the sitting room had instruments mounted on the walls.

Decoration. Perhaps Irex\s family had found the child-size instruments quaint. A wooden flute was tilted at an angle over the mantelpiece. On the far wall was a row of small violins, growing larger until the last, which was half the size of an adult violin.

Kestrel came often. One day, when she knew from Sarsine that Arin had returned home but she had not yet seen him, she went to the suite. She touched one of his violins, reaching furtively to pluck the highest string of the largest instrument. The sound was sour. The violin was ruined no doubt all of them were. That is what happens when an instrument is left strung and uncased for ten years.

A floorboard creaked somewhere in one of the outer chambers.

Arin. He entered the room, and she realized that she had expected him. Why else had she come here so frequently, almost every day, if she hadn\ hoped that someone would notice and tell him to find her there? But even though she admitted to wanting to be here with him in his old rooms, she hadn\ imagined it would be like this.

With her caught touching his things.

Her gaze dropped. ’’I\m sorry,’’ she murmured.

’’It\s all right,’’ he said. ’’I don\ mind.’’ He lifted the violin off its nails and set it in her hands. It was light, but Kestrel\s arms lowered as if the violin\s hollowness were terribly heavy.

She cleared her throat. ’’Do you still play?’’

He shook his head. ’’I\ve mostly forgotten how. I wasn\ good at it anyway. I loved to sing. Before the war, I worried that gift would leave me, the way it often does with boys. We grow, we change, our voices break. It doesn\ matter how well you sing when you\ e nine years old, you know. Not when you\ e a boy. When the change comes you just have to hope for the best ... that your voice settles into something you can love again. My voice broke two years after the invasion. Gods, how I squeaked. And when my voice finally settled, it seemed like a cruel joke. It was too good. I hardly knew what to do with it. I felt so grateful to have this gift ... and so angry, for it to mean so little. And now...’’ He shrugged, a self-deprecating gesture. ’’Well, I know I\m rusty.’’

’’No,’’ Kestrel said. ’’You\ e not. Your voice is beautiful.’’

The silence after that was soft.

Her fingers curled around the violin. She wanted to ask Arin a question yet couldn\ bear to do it, couldn\ say that she didn\ understand what had happened to him the night of the invasion. It didn\ make sense. The death of his family was what her father would call a ’’waste of resources.’’ The Valorian force had had no pity for the Herrani military, but it had tried to minimize civilian casualties. You can\ make a dead body work.


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