The Winners Curse Page 34

The emperor\s smile showed its sharp edge. ’’Careful, Kestrel.’’

’’If you won\ hear the truth, it\s only a matter of time before the empire falls apart. The Herrani never should have been able to rise against us.’’

’’That problem will be solved. As we speak, your father is crushing the rebellion. The city walls will fall.’’ The emperor relaxed in his throne. ’’General Trajan isn\ leading a war, but an extermination.’’

Kestrel saw every vulnerable part of Arin\s body, his face disappearing in a welter of blood.

Arin had let her go.

He might as well have cut his own throat.

Fear rose, thick as bile. She swallowed it. She took her thoughts and arranged them like gaming tiles.

She would play, and she would win.

’’Have you considered the cost of another Herran war?’’ she asked the emperor.

’’It will be less than losing the territory.’’

’’So long as the city walls hold, the Herrani can live through a long siege that will bleed your treasury.’’

The emperor\s mouth pinched. ’’There is no other option.’’

’’What if you could keep the territory without a war?’’

He must have heard, as Kestrel did, her father\s voice coming out of her mouth. That cadence of calculated certainty. The emperor\s posture didn\ change, and neither did his expression. But a finger lifted off the throne and tapped once against its marble, the way it might against a bell to hear the sound of its ring.

Kestrel said, ’’Give the Herrani their independence.’’

That finger slashed through the air to point at the door. ’’Leave.’’

’’Please hear me out ’’

’’Your father\s service to the empire will mean nothing to me your service will mean nothing if you speak another insolent, insane word.’’

’’Herran would still be yours! You can keep the territory, so long as you let them govern it. Give them citizenship, yet make its leader swear an oath of fealty to you. Tax the people. Take their goods. Take their crops. They want their freedom, their lives, and their homes. The rest is negotiable.’’

The emperor was silent.

’’Our governor is dead anyway,’’ Kestrel said. ’’Let the Herrani supply a new one.’’

Still he said nothing.

’’The new governor would, of course, answer to you,’’ she added.

’’And you think the Herrani would agree to this?’’

Kestrel thought of the two keys Arin had set on her palm. A limited freedom. Yet better than none. ’’Yes.’’

The emperor shook his head.

’’I haven\ mentioned the best part about a swift end to the Herran revolution,’’ she said. ’’Right now, the east thinks you have retreated. The barbarians congratulate themselves. They have heard, through spies or captured messenger hawks, of the difficulty that mires you in Herran.’’ These were guesses, but they became belief when she saw the emperor\s face. Kestrel pressed on. ’’The barbarians know that a siege against city walls well built will take time, so they pull back from the front lines where we fought them and return to their queen to share the good news. They leave a few token battalions to occupy land they think they won\ have to defend. But if you were to send our forces back, and catch the barbarians by surprise...’’

’’I see.’’ The emperor folded his hands and set the peaked knuckles against his chin. ’’But you overlook that Herran is a colony. The homes the Herrani want back belong to my senators.’’

’’The barbarians have gold. Enrich the disappointed senators with plunder from the east.’’

’’Even then. What you propose would not be popular.’’

’’You are the emperor. What do you care for public opinion?’’

His brows lifted. ’’A comment like that makes me wonder whether you\ e naïve or attempting to manipulate me.’’ He studied her. ’’You are too clever to be naïve.’’

Kestrel knew better than to speak.

’’You are the daughter of the most fabled general in Valorian history.’’

She didn\ see what shape the emperor\s thoughts were forming.

’’You are also not unattractive.’’

Her eyes flew to his.

He said, ’’I have a son.’’

Yes, she knew, though what the heir to the empire had to do with

’’An imperial wedding,’’ he said. ’’One that would make the military love me. One that would distract the senators and their families, so that their chief point of concern is how to receive an invitation. I like your plans for Herran and the east, Kestrel, but I\ll like them even more if you marry my son.’’

One didn\ stammer before an emperor. Kestrel drew her breath and held it until she could speak calmly. ’’Perhaps your son would prefer someone else.’’

’’He wouldn\ .’’

’’We\ve never even met.’’

’’So?’’

The emperor\s face became narrow with something Kestrel recognized as cruelty at the same moment she remembered that her father had always respected him. He said, ’’Is there some reason you do not seize the chance to become my daughter? Some reason that you argue so ardently for the Herrani? Rumors race around the capital, and I am not the only one to have heard of your duel with Lord Irex.

’’No, Kestrel, a face of innocence will not work. We have already agreed that you are too intelligent for innocence. You may be glad that I don\ require it in a daughter-in-law. I do, however, require a choice. Agree to marry my son, and I will lift the siege, send our forces back east, and cope with the political consequences. Refuse, and there will be a second Herran war, and different consequences.

’’Choose.’’

41

When Arin saw the vast Valorian fleet muscle into the harbor, he was relieved. When they destroyed the few ships taken on Firstwinter night, he was relieved, even as flaming wood scattered the water and the tindered wrecks sank.

The Herrani found courage in what they thought was Arin\s fearlessness. He couldn\ imagine their reaction if they knew that he had invited the war, and that the look on his face was joy.

He had felt more than seen the green storm that had ripped up the coast two days after Kestrel had left. The storm had barreled inside him, scoured out everything until he was a hollow space howling with the knowledge of what he had done, with the image of a small fishing boat tipped over, pushed under. He imagined a mouth filled with seawater, the way Kestrel would fight it. Her limbs loosening, then lost in a maze of waves.

The beginning of the siege probably meant Arin\s death. But it also meant that Kestrel was alive.

So the Herrani thought his face held the mad delight of a warrior at the sight of battle. He let them believe it. You are the god of lies, Kestrel had said. He looked at his people and smiled, and the smile was a lie but like writing in a mirror, whose reflection is the inverse of a truth.

After she had left, Arin ordered that the piers in the harbor be destroyed.

But when the Valorians arrived, they dropped anchor as close to shore as possible and sent engineers in small boats. Docks were swiftly rebuilt under guard, and the Herrani could do little but watch and wait behind the walls. Arin had set cannons along the battlements, but the harbor was out of range. Opening the gates and sending people to disrupt the reconstruction of the piers was suicide, so the Herrani watched the sun set and rise on the Valorian forces come ashore to unload siege engines. They hauled cannon. They wheeled kegs of black powder. They ranged horses and infantry. And they had somehow already sent soldiers around the city to the side that faced the mountains. Arin had reports of the insignias stitched on their jackets and knew that they represented the Rangers, an elite brigade who served as scouts and were skilled at subterfuge. They quickly melted into the rocks and bare trees.

A month before, Arin had ordered the digging of a trough around the city. When the days before the green storm had brought warm winds that made the winter ground soggy, the Herrani jammed debris into the muddy trough furniture, chopped trees, broken bottles. The ground had frozen again.

Arin watched a man step to the edge of the deep, littered rut. His face was obscured by a helmet, but Arin would have known, even without the imperial flag painted across the man\s armor, who it was. He had seen the general\s measured step before, the weight of the way he moved.

General Trajan inspected the trough. He glanced at the horses being unloaded from ships. Arin saw him see the difficulty of bringing his army across the trough the disorder, the broken horse legs, glass wedged into hooves and stabbing through boots. He went to speak with a knot of engineers.

Planks of wood appeared. Foundations were laid. In a week, the Valorians crossed their makeshift bridges and came within reach of the wall.

* * *

They kept a wary distance after the Herrani lobbed flaming clumps of pitch taken from the shipyards and balled around paper and wood. There were casualties. A Valorian supply wagon was struck and burned. But other soldiers stepped forward to fill the gaps in ranks, and the remaining wagons were pulled to the rear lines.

The engineers began to build three mounds.

’’Kill them,’’ Arin told his best archers few that they were, having only an innate knack for bows and crossbows and the little practice that seizing the countryside had brought.

The god of war favored them. The engineers dropped.

Yet soldiers took over the work. The mounds of earth and rock continued to rise, and were reinforced by wood from the disassembled bridges. They began to form towers. Arin knew it was a matter of time before the towers reached the height of the wall, bridges were made to span the gap, and the Valorians crossed over.

’’Tunnel under the wall,’’ Arin told his soldiers. ’’Dig underground until you reach those towers. Then empty them from the bottom.’’

* * *

It took only a few days before the Valorians realized why the towers seemed to sink. Arin heard the general bark an order. Shovels drove into the ground around the towers. When they broke through to the tunnels, soldiers dropped down inside.

’’Seal the tunnels!’’ Arin shouted.

He was obeyed. The Valorians didn\ manage to enter the city that way. It was closed off to them, just as it was to the Herrani left to die in the tunnels.

* * *

The towers mounted. Arin had only a small arsenal of cannonballs and black powder, but he used most of it to explode the towers.

The Valorians pulled catapults forward. They shot fire into the city.

It began to burn.

* * *

A snowfall hissed down onto the fire, helped put it out. It was three weeks since Kestrel had left, and Arin exhausted, sooty with smoke remembered how confidently he had assured her that the Herrani could withstand a year of siege.

As if all that was necessary was a good stock of grain and water.

He used the last supply of cannon artillery to destroy the catapults. After that, the Herrani had only the wall and what they could throw off it to protect themselves.

There was a lull in enemy activity. Arin thought the snow had dampened their determination, or that the general was plotting his next move. But when something burst against the mountainside wall and it trembled like a living thing, Arin realized the lull had been part of the plot.

Rangers were blasting through the wall.

* * *

Herrani poured boiling water and tar down onto the Rangers. They screamed. They fell. But General Trajan had heard, as well as Arin, the sound of his success. He brought his troops, which Arin now realized had been positioned for this moment, around the city. Soon they would bring the brunt of their power to bear against the weakened wall. They\d ram through chunks of stone. They\d punch at the crumbling façade until a hole appeared and widened. They\d drag the hole open with grappling hooks cranked by siege engines. They would enter the city.

It would be a massacre.

Arin had taken position on the mountainside wall. He didn\ see a ship enter the harbor.

But he saw a hawk a small one, a kestrel swoop over the city and dive toward the general.

The man pulled a tube from its leg and opened it. He went still.

He disappeared into the ranks of soldiers.

The Valorian army stopped its assault.

Then Arin\s feet were moving along the wall, racing to face the sea, and although he couldn\ have said that he knew what had happened, he knew that something had changed, and in his mind there was only one person who could change his world.

Another hawk was perched on the seaside battlements. It eyed him head cocked, beak sharp, talons tight on stone. Snow laced its feathers.

The message it bore was short.

Arin,

Let me in.

Kestrel

42

Kestrel watched the gate heave open. Arin stepped through, and it slammed behind him so that the closed wall was to his back as the sea was to hers. He started toward her. Then his eyes flashed, as her father\s had when she\d met him moments before, to her forehead. Arin\s face whitened.

Across her brows was a glittering line of gold dust and myrrh oil. It was the Valorian sign of an engaged woman.

She forced herself to smile. ’’You don\ trust me enough to let me inside the city, Arin? Well, I understand.’’

’’What did you do?’’

The brokenness of his voice broke Kestrel. Yet she held the pieces of herself together.

’’But Ronan...’’ Arin trailed off. ’’How, Kestrel? Who?’’

’’Congratulate me. I am to marry the heir to the empire.’’

She saw him believe it. She saw betrayal wash across his features, then understanding. She saw his thoughts.

Hadn\ she pulled away from his embrace, escaped across his roof, and nearly drawn a weapon on him?

Who was he, to her?

And Kestrel liked to win. Wasn\ the someday role of empress a tempting stake? Power might persuade where Ronan hadn\ .


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