The Winners Curse Page 33

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* * *

A bright, brittle dawn. Its colors were hallucinatory, and Kestrel found herself thinking that pink was colder than orange, and yellow not much better. Then she realized that this wasn\ a rational thought and that she was shivering in her thin jacket. She forced herself to move.

Her hands chapped and bled in the freezing wind, ripped against the ropes. Her mouth became a dry cave. Thirst and cold were far more painful than hunger or fatigue. She knew that a few days without water could kill a person, even in the best conditions.

Yet hadn\ Kestrel learned to steel herself against need?

She remembered Arin\s face when she had reached for her knife.

She forced herself to forget it. She focused on the waves\ swell and slam, steered past a bare, rocky island, and recited what she would say in two days\ time if the wind held.

* * *

It didn\ . The sails slackened during her second night. Her boat drifted. She tried not to look at the sky, because sometimes she saw glitter even though she knew the stars were hidden beneath clouds.

A dangerous sign. She was weakening.

Her body raged with thirst. She tore the cabin apart, thinking that a flask of fresh water must be somewhere. All she found was a tin cup and spoon.

Sleep, then. She\d sleep until the wind picked up. Kestrel tied the sails in the direction of the capital, then cut two pieces of twine. She rigged a chime out of the cup and spoon to wake her if the wind rose.

Kestrel slipped back into the cabin. Everything was still. No wind. No waves. No tilt and roll of the boat.

She focused on that nothingness, imagined it as ink spilling over everything she could possibly think or feel.

She slept.

* * *

It was a jagged, haunted sleep where her mind whirred through the words she was supposed to say when she reached the capital.

She struggled against images of Arin holding a plant, a bloody sword, her hand. She tried to wring the life out of the memory of her skin against his. Instead it beaded bright in her dark mind, strung itself out like liquid jewels, distilled down the way alcohol does, or a volatile chemical, growing stronger when forced to reduce.

Her half-asleep self said: Arin let you go because a Valorian invasion was inevitable. At least this way, he knows when to expect it.

Kestrel heard music, and it called her a liar.

Liar, the bell rang.

And kept ringing, and ringing, until Kestrel wrenched awake and out of the cabin to see the cup and spoon clanging.

Against a vicious green sky.

Green storm.

* * *

Waves vomited over the deck. Kestrel had lashed herself to the tiller and could do little more than hang on, watch the wind shred the sails, and hope she was still pointed west as the boat sheered off crests of water and pitched down, and sideways, and down.

Arin let you go so that you would die, just like this.

But even dizzy, her mind saw no sense in that.

Kestrel worked again through the words she was supposed to say, spun them out from her like knitting she had seen slaves do. She tested the words\ fabric, their fiber, and knew she couldn\ speak them.

She would not.

Kestrel swore by Arin\s gods that she would not.

* * *

No wind. She couldn\ see much. Salt water had bleared her eyes. But she heard the boat scrape against something. Then came voices.

Valorian voices.

She stumbled off the boat. Hands caught her, and people were asking questions she didn\ fully comprehend. Then one made sense: ’’Who are you?’’

’’I am Lady Kestrel,’’ she croaked. Unbidden wretched, wrong all the words she had memorized poured out before she could shut her mouth. ’’General Trajan\s daughter. Herrani have taken the peninsula...’’

39

She woke when someone dribbled water past her lips. She came instantly alive, begging for more as it was doled out in excruciatingly small sips. Kestrel drank, and thought of things whose beauty was raw and cool.

Rain on silver bowls. Lilies in snow. Gray eyes.

She had done something, she remembered. Something cruel. Unforgivable.

Kestrel forced herself up on her elbows. She lay on a large bed. She still saw badly, but well enough to observe that the softness cushioning her body was a fur so rare and valuable its animal had been hunted nearly to extinction, and that the man who held a cup of water wore the robes of the Valorian emperor\s physician.

’’Brave girl,’’ he said. His smile was kind.

Kestrel saw it and understood that she had succeeded. She had reached the capital, had been recognized and believed.

No, she tried to say. I didn\ mean it. But her mouth didn\ work.

’’You\ve been through an ordeal,’’ the doctor said. ’’You need to rest.’’

There was an odd taste on her tongue, a faint bitterness whose taste turned into a numb feeling that prickled down her throat.

A drug.

The numbness held her down until sleep took over.

* * *

She dreamed of Enai.

Kestrel\s sleeping self knew that this was not real, that the dead are gone. But she longed to sidle near Enai, to shrink into a small girl and not glance up, not search the woman\s face for the blame that must be there.

Kestrel wondered how Arin\s ghost would look at her.

He would stalk her dreams. He would show visions of himself killed in battle. He would make his mouth a mockery of the one she knew. His eyes would fill with hate.

That was how one looked at a traitor.

’’You\ve come to curse me,’’ Kestrel told Enai. ’’There is no need. I curse myself.’’

’’Sly child,’’ Enai said, as she had done when Kestrel had been naughty. But this was not the same thing, Kestrel wanted to say, as stuffing sheet music into the rafters of Rax\s practice room and pulling them down to read when she was alone and supposed to be drilling herself in combat. It was not the same thing as a sharp word. A prank played.

Kestrel had bought a life, and loved it, and sold it.

Enai said, ’’A story, I think, to make you feel better.’’

’’I\m not sick.’’

’’Yes, you are.’’

’’I don\ need a story. I need to wake up.’’

’’And do what?’’

Kestrel didn\ know.

Enai said, ’’Once there was a seamstress who could weave fabric from feeling. She sewed gowns of delight: sheer, sparkling, sleek. She cut cloth out of ambition and ardor, idyll and industry. And she grew so skilled at her trade that she caught the attention of a god. He decided to acquire her services.’’

’’Which god is this?’’

’’Hush,’’ Enai said. In that way of dreams, Kestrel found herself in her childhood bed, the one carved with hunting animals. Enai sat by her, shoulders elegant and straight in lines Kestrel had always tried to imitate. The woman continued her story. ’’The god came to the seamstress and said, \I want a shirt made of solace.\

’’\The gods have no need of such a thing,\ said the seamstress. The god looked at her.

’’The girl knew a threat when she saw it.

’’She met his demand, and when the god tried on the shirt, it fit perfectly. Its colors changed him, made his face seem not quite as pale. The seamstress studied him and had thoughts she knew weren\ wise to share.

’’The god paid her in generous gold, though she hadn\ named a price. He was pleased.

’’Yet it was not enough. He returned, ordered a cloak of company, and left even before the seamstress agreed to do it. They both knew that she would.

’’She was putting the finishing touches on the cloak\s hem when an old woman entered the shop and looked at all the things she couldn\ afford to buy. The woman reached across the counter where the seamstress sat at her work. Wizened fingers wavered over the cloak of company. Faded eyes became so starred with longing that the seamstress gave her the cloak and asked nothing in return. She could make another one and quickly.

’’The god, however, was quicker still. He returned to her village sooner than he\d said. Who did he see but the elderly woman sleeping by her fire, wrapped in a cloak that was far too big for her? What did he feel but the grip of betrayal, the swift, deep dart of jealousy that should shame a god?

’’He came to the seamstress\s shop in that silent way of his, like ice forming in the night. \Give me the cloak,\ he demanded.

’’The seamstress held her needle. It was no weapon against a god. \It\s not ready,\ she said.

’’\Liar.\’’

The word dropped with its own weight. Kestrel said, ’’Am I the seamstress in this story, or the god?’’

Enai continued as if she hadn\ heard. ’’He would have destroyed her then, but another path of vengeance occurred to him. A better means to wreak her misery. He knew that she had a nephew: a little boy, the only scrap of family remaining to her. She paid for his care out of her earnings, and he was sleeping now in a neighboring town, snug under the watchful gaze of a nurse the god could distract, and trick, and lull.

’’He did. He left the seamstress\s shop and slipped up to the slumbering boy. There was no pity for the small, rounded limbs, the cheeks flushed with sleep, the smudge of wild hair in the dark. The god had stolen children before.’’

Kestrel said, ’’This is the god of death.’’

’’When the god drew back the blanket, his finger brushed against the child\s nightshirt. He went still. Never, in all his immortal years, had he touched anything so beautiful.

’’The shirt had been sewn from the cloth of love. He felt the plush of velvet, the skim of silk, the resilient woof and weft that would not fray. Yet there was one thing to it that didn\ belong: a small, damp circle the size of a fingertip.

’’Or a god\s tear.

’’It dried. The cloth smoothed once more. The god left.

’’The seamstress, meanwhile, grew anxious. She hadn\ heard from her best and worst customer for days. It didn\ seem possible that she could have escaped him so lightly. One didn\ defy the gods, and never this god. A fissure of thought began in the seamstress\s mind. A suspicion. It widened into an earthquake that shattered her, for she suddenly saw, as the god had, the surest way to bring her to despair.

’’She rushed to the neighboring town and the nurse\s house. Her hand trembled against the door, for death was what she would find behind it.

’’It flung open. The boy clambered into her arms, chiding her for being so long away this time, asking why she had to work so hard. The seamstress caught at him, held him until he complained. When she fluttered fingers over his face, certain that death had crept under his skin somehow and would burst forth in an hour, or a minute, if not now, she saw that the boy\s forehead had been marked.

’’Marked by the sign of the god\s protection. His favor. It was a gift without price.

’’The seamstress returned to her shop and waited. Her hands, for once, were not busy. They were calm strangers. They waited, too, but the god didn\ come. So the seamstress did something frightening. She whispered his name.

’’He came, and was silent. He wore nothing she had made, but his own clothes. They were impressively cut, an assured fit. Yet the seamstress didn\ know how she had ever missed their threadbare state. The fabric had rubbed down to thin clouds.

’’\I wish to thank you,\ she said.

’’\I do not deserve thanks,\ said the god.

’’\Nevertheless, I want to give it.\

’’The god did not reply. Her hands did not move.

’’He said, \Then weave me the cloth of yourself.\

’’The seamstress set her hands in his. She kissed him, and the god stole her away.’’

The story billowed through Kestrel, a fierce wind that smarted the eyes and bled tears down her cheeks.

’’Oh, now,’’ Enai said. ’’I thought the story was encouraging.’’

’’Encouraging? The seamstress dies.’’

’’That\s a grim interpretation. Let\s say instead that she chose. The god let her choose, and she did. You, Kestrel, haven\ made your choice.’’

’’I have. Don\ you know that I have? By now the emperor has sent his messenger hawks to my father. War has already begun. It is too late.’’

’’Is it?’’

* * *

Kestrel woke. Her body was dim with hunger and shaken by dreams, but she got to her feet with a purpose. She dressed. Slaves came to her, their faces a map of the empire, of the northern tundra and southern isles, the Herran peninsula. She ignored that their number showed the emperor\s respect for her. She ignored that the ceiling of her room was so high that she couldn\ discern the color of the paint. She prepared herself to meet the emperor.

Kestrel was taken to a state room and left alone with the man who ruled half the world.

He was thinner than the statues of him, his silver hair cropped in the military style. He smiled. An emperor\s smile is a gold-and-diamond thing, a fortress, a sword held out hilt first at least when the smile is the kind he offered her then. ’’Have you come to claim your reward, Lady Kestrel? The attack on Herran began two days ago, while you slept.’’

’’I\m here to ask you to stop the attack.’’

’’Stop ?’’ The lines on his face sank deep. ’’Why would I do that?’’

’’Your Imperial Majesty, have you ever heard of the Winner\s Curse?’’

40

’’The empire suffers from it,’’ Kestrel said. ’’It can no longer afford to keep what it has won. Our territories have grown too large. The barbarians know this. It is why they dare attack.’’

The emperor waved a dismissive hand. ’’They are mice nibbling at the grain.’’

’’You know it, too. That is why you attack them, to make it seem as if the empire\s resources are bottomless, our military unmatched, when really we are stretched as thin as old cloth. Holes have begun to appear.’’


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