The Winners Curse Page 35

Arin\s belief was cruel. Yet she said nothing to change it. If he knew the true conditions of the emperor\s offer, he would never accept it.

’’As pleasant as it would be to discuss the details of my upcoming wedding,’’ she said, ’’more important matters are at hand. The emperor has a message for you.’’

Arin\s eyes had darkened. His tone was biting. ’’Message?’’

’’Freedom, for you and your people. He appoints you governor. You are, of course, to swear loyalty to the emperor, receive his emissaries, and answer to him. But unless a matter doesn\ directly concern the empire, you may govern your people as you see fit.’’ Kestrel handed him a sheet of paper. ’’A list of Herran\s expected taxes and tributes, to be paid for the honor of being part of the empire.’’

Arin crumpled it in his fist. ’’This is a trick.’’

’’Surrender now, and accept his generous proposal, or surrender soon, when my father breaks down your wall, and see the end of the Herrani people. It could be a trick, but you will choose it.’’

’’Why would the emperor do this?’’

Kestrel hesitated. ’’Why?’’

’’If real, it is a generous offer. And it makes no sense.’’

’’I advise you not to question the emperor\s wisdom. If you see a good opportunity, take it.’’ Kestrel swept a hand to indicate her finery: the white furs, the gold, the jewels. ’’I certainly did.’’

There was an awful tension in Arin, one that reminded Kestrel of his childhood violin. He had been strung too hard for far too long. When he finally spoke, his reply came in a low growl. ’’I agree.’’

’’Then give orders to open the gate. My father will enter and escort all Valorians in your city back to the capital.’’

’’I agree,’’ Arin said, ’’under one condition. You mentioned emissaries. There will be one emissary from the empire. It will be you.’’

’’Me?’’

’’You, I understand. You, I know how to read.’’

Kestrel wasn\ so sure of that. ’’I think that will be acceptable,’’ she said, and wanted to turn away from how much she wanted this condition. How she would seize any chance to see him, even with the purpose of enforcing the emperor\s will.

Since she could not turn away from her own wanting, she turned away from him.

’’Please don\ do this,’’ he said. ’’Kestrel, you don\ know. You don\ understand.’’

’’I see things quite clearly.’’ She began to walk to meet her father, in whose eyes she had, at last, done something to make him proud.

’’You don\ ,’’ Arin said.

She pretended not to hear him. She watched the white sky dissolve into snow and shiver apart over the leaden sea. She felt icy sparks on her skin. The snow fell on her, it fell on him, but Kestrel knew that no single flake could ever touch them both.

She didn\ look back when he spoke again.

’’You don\ , Kestrel, even though the god of lies loves you.’’


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