The Winners Curse Page 32

’’What is it, Kestrel?’’

She shook her head. She set the violin back on the wall.

’’Ask me.’’

She remembered standing outside the governor\s palace and refusing to hear his story, and was ashamed once more.

’’You can ask me anything,’’ he said.

Each question seemed the wrong one. Finally, she said, ’’How did you survive the invasion?’’

He didn\ speak at first. Then he said, ’’My parents and sister fought. I didn\ .’’

Words were useless, pitifully useless criminal, even, in how they could not account for Arin\s grief, and could not excuse how her people had lived on the ruin of his. Yet again Kestrel said, ’’I\m sorry.’’

’’It\s not your fault.’’

It felt as if it was.

Arin led the way out of his old suite. When they came to the last room, the greeting room, he paused before the outermost door. It was the slightest of hesitations, no longer than if the second hand of a clock stayed a beat longer on its mark than it should. But in that fraction of time, Kestrel understood that the last door was not paler than the others because it had been made from a different wood.

It was newer.

Kestrel took Arin\s battered hand in hers, the rough heat of it, the fingernails still ringed with carbon from the smith\s coal fire. His skin was raw-looking: scrubbed clean and scrubbed often. But the black grime was too ingrained.

She twined her fingers with his. Kestrel and Arin walked together through the passageway and the ghost of its old door, which her people had smashed through ten years before.

* * *

After that, Kestrel sought him out. She used the excuse of those lessons he had given her. She said that she wanted more. She acquired a number of menial skills, like how to blacken boots.

Arin was easy to find. Although raids on the countryside continued, he increasingly relied on lieutenants to lead the sorties. He spent more time at home.

’’I don\ know what he thinks he\s doing,’’ Sarsine said.

’’He\s giving officers under his command the chance to prove their worth,’’ Kestrel said. ’’He\s showing his trust in them and letting them build their confidence. It\s sound military strategy.’’

Sarsine gave her a hard look.

’’He\s delegating,’’ Kestrel said.

’’He\s shirking. And for what, I\m sure you know.’’

This struck a bright match of pleasure within Kestrel.

Like a match, it burned out quickly. She recalled her promise to Jess to make the Herrani pay.

But she did not want to think about that.

It occurred to her that she had never thanked Arin for bringing her piano here. She found him in the library and meant to say what she had come to say, yet when she saw him studying a map near the fire, lit by an upward shower of sparks as one log fell on another, she remembered her promise precisely because of how she longed to forget it.

She blurted something that had nothing to do with anything. ’’Do you know how to make honeyed half-moons?’’

’’Do I...?’’ He lowered the map. ’’Kestrel, I hate to disappoint you, but I was never a cook.’’

’’You know how to make tea.’’

He laughed. ’’You do realize that boiling water is within the capabilities of anybody?’’

’’Oh.’’ Kestrel moved to leave, feeling foolish. What had possessed her to ask such a ridiculous question anyway?

’’I mean, yes,’’ Arin said. ’’Yes, I know how to make half-moons.’’

’’Really?’’

’’Ah ... no. But we can try.’’

They went into the kitchens. A glance from Arin cleared the room, and then it was only the two of them, dumping flour onto the wooden worktable, Arin palming a jar of honey out of a cabinet.

Kestrel cracked an egg into a bowl and knew why she had asked for this.

So that she could pretend that there had been no war, there were no sides, and that this was her life.

The half-moons came out as hard as rocks.

’’Hmm.’’ Arin inspected one. ’’I could use these as weapons.’’

She laughed before she could tell herself it wasn\ funny.

’’Actually, they\ e about the size of your weapon of choice,’’ he said. ’’Which reminds me that you\ve never said how you dueled at Needles against the city\s finest fighter and won.’’

It would be a mistake to tell him. It would defy the simplest rule of warfare: to hide one\s strengths and weaknesses for as long as possible. Yet Kestrel told Arin the story of how she had beaten Irex.

Arin covered his face with one floured hand and peeked at her between his fingers. ’’You are terrifying. Gods help me if I cross you, Kestrel.’’

’’You already have,’’ she pointed out.

’’But am I your enemy?’’ Arin crossed the space between them. Softly, he repeated, ’’Am I?’’

She didn\ answer. She concentrated on the feel of the table\s edge pressing into the small of her back. The table was simple and real, joined wood and nails and right corners. No wobble. No give.

’’You\ e not mine,’’ Arin said.

And kissed her.

Kestrel\s lips parted. This was real, yet not simple at all. He smelled of woodsmoke and sugar. Sweet beneath the burn. He tasted like the honey he\d licked off his fingers minutes before. Her heartbeat skidded, and it was she who leaned greedily into the kiss, she who slid one knee between his legs. Then his breath went ragged and the kiss grew dark and deep. He lifted her up onto the table so that her face was level with his, and as they kissed it seemed that words were hiding in the air around them, that they were invisible creatures that feathered against her and Arin, then nudged, and buzzed, and tugged.

Speak, they said.

Speak, the kiss answered.

Love was on the tip of Kestrel\s tongue. But she couldn\ say that. How could she ever say that, after everything between them, after fifty keystones paid into the auctioneer\s hand, after hours of Kestrel secretly wondering what it would sound like if Arin sang while she played, after wrists bound together and the crack of her knee under a boot and Arin confessing in the carriage on Firstwinter night.

It had felt like a confession. But it wasn\ . He had said nothing of the plot. Even if he had, it still would have been too late, with everything to his advantage.

Kestrel remembered again her promise to Jess.

If she didn\ leave this house now, she would betray herself. She would give herself to someone whose Firstwinter kiss had led her to believe she was all that he wanted, when he had hoped to flip the world so that he was at its top and she was at its bottom.

Kestrel pulled away.

Arin was apologizing. He was asking what he had done wrong. His face was flushed, mouth swollen. He was saying something about how maybe it was too soon, but that they could have a life here. Together.

’’My soul is yours,’’ he said. ’’You know that it is.’’

She lifted a hand, as much to block his face from her sight as to stop those words.

She walked out of the kitchen.

It took all of her pride not to run.

* * *

She went to her rooms, yanked on her black dueling clothes and boots, and reeled in her makeshift knife out of the ivy. She bound the strip of cloth that held it around her waist. She went into the garden and waited for nightfall.

Kestrel had always thought that the rooftop garden was her best chance for escape. Yet she couldn\ see how to take it.

She swept her gaze over the four stone walls. Again, she saw nothing. Kestrel stared hard at the door, but what good could that do her? The door led to Arin\s suite, and Arin

No. Kestrel was thinking that no, she would not go through that door, she could not, when it suddenly struck her that she had her answer.

It was little use considering the door as a way to pass through the wall. The door was a means to get up it.

Kestrel set her right hand on the doorknob and her left toes on the lower hinge. Her left hand braced against the stony line of the doorjamb, and she pushed herself up onto that hinge, balancing on such a small thing, just a strip and nub of metal. Then right foot up to meet her hand on the doorknob. She shifted her weight and stood to grasp the top hinge before she dug her fingers into the crack where the top of the door met stone.

Kestrel climbed up the door and onto the top of the wall that separated her garden from Arin\s. She balanced along it until she reached the roof.

Then she was moving down its slope, running to reach the ground.

38

Arin dreamed of Kestrel. He woke, and the dream faded like perfume. He didn\ remember it, yet it changed the air around him. He blinked against the dark.

When he heard the sound, he realized he had been expecting something of this kind for a long time.

Light feet on the roof.

Arin scrambled out of bed.

* * *

Kestrel jumped onto the first floor, slid down its roof on her stomach, felt her toes nudge into a hollow. The gutter. She twisted to grasp it, then hung from the stone edge above the ground. She dropped.

The impact jarred and her bad knee twinged, but she caught her balance and sprinted for the stables.

Javelin whickered the instant she entered.

’’Shh.’’ She led him from his stall. ’’Quietly, now.’’ There was no need for a lamp that might be seen from the house. Kestrel could feel her way in the dark to grab the tack that she needed. Easy. She had memorized the locations of bridle and bit and everything else on that day in the stables. She saddled Javelin quickly.

When they emerged into the night air, Kestrel glanced at the house. It slumbered. There was no cry of alarm, no soldiers pouring from its doors.

But there was a small light in the west wing.

It was nothing, she told herself. Arin had probably fallen asleep while a lamp burned.

Kestrel breathed in the scent of horse. It was how her father smelled when he came home from a campaign.

She could do this. She could make it to the harbor.

She mounted Javelin and dug her heels in.

* * *

Kestrel streaked through the Garden District, urging Javelin down horse paths to the city center. It wasn\ until she had almost reached its lights that she heard another rider in the hills behind her.

Ice slid down Kestrel\s spine. Fear, that the rider was Arin.

Fear, at her sudden hope that it was.

She pulled Javelin to a stop and swung to the ground. Better to go on foot through the narrow streets to the harbor. Stealth was more important now than speed.

Beating hooves echoed in the hills. Closer.

She hugged Javelin hard around the neck, then pushed him away while she still could bear to do it. She slapped his rump in an order to head home. Whether he\d go to her villa or Arin\s, she couldn\ say. But he left, and might draw the other rider after him if she was indeed being pursued.

She slipped into the city shadows.

And it was magic. It was as if the Herrani gods had turned on their own people. No one noticed Kestrel skulking along walls or heard her cracking the thin ice of a puddle. No late-night wanderer looked in her face and saw a Valorian. No one saw the general\s daughter. Kestrel made it to the harbor, down to the docks.

Where Arin waited.

His breath heaved white clouds into the air. His hair was black with sweat. It hadn\ mattered that Kestrel had been ahead of him on the horse path. Arin had been able to run openly through the city while she had crept through alleys.

Their eyes met, and Kestrel felt utterly defenseless.

But she had a weapon. He didn\ , not that she could see. Her hand instinctively fell to her knife\s jagged edge.

Arin saw. Kestrel wasn\ sure what came first: his quick hurt, so plain and sharp, or her certainty equally plain, equally sharp that she could never draw a weapon on him.

He straightened from his runner\s crouch. His expression changed. Until it did, Kestrel hadn\ perceived the desperate set of his mouth. She hadn\ recognized the wordless plea until it was gone, and his face aged with something sad. Resigned.

Arin glanced away. When he looked back it was as if Kestrel were part of the pier beneath her feet. A sail stitched to a ship. A black current of water.

As if she were not there at all.

He turned away, walked into the illuminated house of the new Herrani harbormaster, and shut the door behind him.

For a moment Kestrel couldn\ move. Then she ran for a fishing boat docked far enough from its fellows that she might cast off from shore unnoticed by any sailors on the other vessels. She leaped onto the deck and took rapid stock of the boat. The tiny cabin was bare of supplies.

As she lifted the anchor and uncoiled the rope tethering the boat to its dock, she knew, even if she couldn\ see, that Arin was talking with the harbormaster, distracting him while Kestrel prepared to set sail.

In winter. With no water or food, and surely very little sleep if she was to make a voyage that would take, at best, three days.

At least there was a strong wind.

She was lucky, Kestrel told herself. Lucky.

She cast off for the capital.

* * *

Once she\d sailed from the bay and the city lights had dimmed, then disappeared, Kestrel couldn\ see the shore. But she knew her constellations, and the stars were as pure and bright as notes struck from high, white piano keys.

She sailed west. Kestrel moved constantly over the small deck, tacking the lines, letting the wind furl out the mainsail. There was no rest, and that was good. If she rested she would grow cold. She would allow herself to think. She might even fall asleep, and then risked dreaming of how Arin had let her go.

She memorized what she would say when she reached the capital\s harbor. I am Lady Kestrel, General Trajan\s daughter. Herrani have taken the peninsula. You must recall my father from the east and send him to stamp out the rebellion.


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