The Winners Curse Page 4

Or if the girl had.

The slave was judged to be a good buy. Lady Kestrel had a fine eye, Harman said grudgingly, and the slave was given several weapons to repair, as well as orders for new ones.

Every dusk, when the slave walked across the grounds from the forge to his quarters, the villa blazed with light. It was curfew and bedtime for slaves, but the restless Valorians would stay up for a long while yet. They trained to get by on very little sleep, perhaps six hours a night less, if necessary. It was one of the things that had helped them win the war.

The slave was the first to stretch out on his pallet. Each night, he tried to sift through the events of the day and glean useful information from them, but all he had experienced was hard work.

Weary, he shut his eyes. He wondered if those two days of idyll would turn out to have been a stroke of bad fortune. That time had let him forget who he was. It played tricks with his mind.

Sometimes, at the edge of sleep, he thought he heard music.

5

Usually, Kestrel thought of her house as an echoing place, one filled with mostly uninhabited, if lovely, rooms. The grounds, too, were quiet, the noises small: the scratch of a hoe in the garden, the faint thud of horse hooves from the paddock set far back from the house, the sigh of trees. Usually, Kestrel enjoyed how the space and quiet made her senses more awake.

Lately, however, she had no peace at home. She sequestered herself with her music, but found that she played only difficult pieces, with notes clustered thickly together, her fingers chasing each other across the keys. Her sessions left her worn. The stiffness was minor and in localized spots her wrists, the small of her back but when she wasn\ playing she couldn\ ignore the twinges. Each morning she would swear to herself that she would go gently on the piano. Yet at dusk, after hours of feeling suffocated no, as if she were hiding in her own home she would again wrest something demanding from the music.

One afternoon, perhaps eight days after the auction, a note came from Jess. Kestrel eagerly opened it, glad for the distraction. Jess, in her typical swirly writing and short, eager sentences, asked why Kestrel was hiding from her. Would she please pay Jess a visit today? Kestrel\s advice on what to wear to Lady Faris\s picnic was needed. Jess added a postscript: a sentence in smaller writing, the letters bunched and hurried, signaling that she couldn\ resist dropping an obvious hint even at the same time she worried it would bother Kestrel: By the way, my brother has been asking about you.

Kestrel reached for her riding boots.

As she wound through the rooms of her suite, she caught a glimpse in a window of the thatched cottage near the garden.

Kestrel paused, the leather boots in her hand tapping against her thigh. The cottage was not so far away from the slaves\ quarters, which loomed at the border of the window\s view. She felt a tug of discomfort.

Of course she did. Kestrel glanced away from the slaves\ quarters and focused on Enai\s cottage. She hadn\ been to see her old nurse in several days. No wonder the view troubled her, when it showed the sweet little house Kestrel had had built for the woman who had raised her. Well, she would visit Enai on her way to the stables.

But by the time she had finished lacing her boots and gone downstairs, the steward had already discovered through the almost instantaneous gossip of the household that Kestrel was leaving. Harman ambushed her by the parlor door.

’’Going for a ride, my lady?’’

She pulled on a glove. ’’As you see.’’

’’No need to ask for an escort.’’ He snapped his fingers at an older Herrani man scrubbing the floor. ’’This one will do.’’

Kestrel let out a slow breath. ’’I am riding to Jess\s house.’’

’’I\m sure he can ride,’’ Harman said, though they both knew full well this wasn\ likely. Riding was not taught to slaves. Either they had the skill from before the war or never would. ’’If not,’’ Harman said, ’’you can take the carriage together. The general would gladly spare the use of two horses for the carriage to make sure you\ e properly escorted.’’

Kestrel nodded, just barely. She turned to leave.

’’My lady, one more thing...’’

Kestrel knew what that one more thing would be, but couldn\ stop him, for to do so would have been to admit that she knew and wished she didn\ .

’’A week has passed since your purchase of that young slave,’’ the steward said. ’’You\ve given no instructions for his employment.’’

’’I forgot,’’ Kestrel lied.

’’Of course. You have more important things to deal with. Still, I was certain you had no intention of him lazing around, doing nothing, so I assigned him to the forge and to serve as a farrier for the horses. He has done well. My compliments, Lady Kestrel. You are an excellent judge of the Herrani market.’’

She looked at him.

Defensively, he said, ’’I only put him to work in the forge because he was suited to it.’’

She faced the door. When she opened it, she\d see nothing but trees. There was no view from this part of the house that could unsettle her. ’’You made the right choice,’’ she said. ’’Do with him as you see fit.’’

Kestrel stepped outside, her escort wordlessly following.

She didn\ stop by the cottage after all. She walked straight to the stables. The old Herrani groom was there, as always. There was no one else. Kestrel went to stroke the nose of her horse, a big-boned animal bred for war and chosen for her by the general.

When she heard footsteps behind her, the sound of someone new entering the stables, she turned. Two soldiers walked up to the groom and ordered that their horses be saddled. Kestrel looked beyond them and saw the Herrani slave Harman had selected as her escort waiting patiently by the door.

She had no wish to waste time finding out if he could ride. She wanted to leave now. When they reached Jess\s house she would send him to the kitchens so she wouldn\ have to see him until the return home.

’’Ready my carriage first,’’ she told the groom, giving the soldiers a look that dared them to argue. They didn\ , but were visibly irritated. She didn\ care. She had to leave, the sooner the better.

* * *

’’This one?’’

Kestrel looked up from where she sat on a low divan strewn with dresses.

’’Kestrel,’’ said Jess, ’’pay attention.’’

Kestrel blinked. A black-haired girl, Jess\s slave, was tying a sash around her mistress\s waist, drawing in the flowery skirts so that they belled at the hips. Kestrel said to Jess, ’’Didn\ you already try on that dress?’’

’’No.’’ Jess snatched the sash out of the slave\s hands and threw it onto the silken pile next to Kestrel. ’’You hate it, don\ you?’’

’’No,’’ said Kestrel, but Jess was already struggling out of the dress while her slave anxiously tried to undo its buttons before they popped. Pink skirts landed on Kestrel\s lap.

’’What are you going to wear?’’ Jess stood there in her slip. ’’Lady Faris\s picnic is the event of the summer season. You can\ look less than stunning.’’

’’That will pose no problem for Kestrel,’’ said a trim, stylishly dressed man lounging against the jamb of the door he had opened without their hearing. Jess\s brother smiled at Kestrel.

Kestrel smiled back at Ronan, but in a crooked way that showed that she knew his exaggerated brand of flirtation was all the rage among young Valorian men these days and not to be taken seriously. She also knew that this this dress-up session, Ronan\s safe compliments was what she had come for, in the hopes her mind would become too cluttered to think for itself.

He crossed the room, pushed dresses off the divan and onto the floor, and sat next to Kestrel. The black-haired slave, looking besieged, bent to collect the delicate fabrics.

Kestrel felt a sudden impulse to say something sharp, but wasn\ sure to whom. Then the strains of music drifting in from the corridor saved her from embarrassing everyone in the room, including herself.

’’The Senest nocturne,’’ she said, recognizing the piece.

Ronan tilted his blond head against the ornately carved wood that edged the divan. He slunk against its soft back, stretching out his booted legs, and gazed up at Kestrel. ’’I told Olen to play,’’ he said, referring to their Herrani musician. ’’I know it\s one of your favorites.’’

Kestrel listened. The notes were careful, but oddly paced. She tensed at the arrival of a tricky passage and wasn\ surprised to hear it flubbed.

’’I could play,’’ she offered.

Brother and sister exchanged a look. ’’Another time,’’ Ronan said. ’’Our parents are home.’’

’’They won\ notice.’’

’’You\ e too talented.’’ He rested a hand on hers. ’’They will.’’

Kestrel slipped her hand away. Unbothered, Ronan reached for a stray ribbon between them and toyed with the strip of fabric, weaving it around his pale fingers. ’’So,’’ he said, ’’what\s this I hear about your extravagant purchase at the auction? Everyone\s talking about it.’’

’’Or they were,’’ said Jess, ’’until a duel between the Trenex cousins.’’

’’To the death?’’ said Kestrel. Duels had been banned by the emperor, but they were too entrenched a custom to be easily rooted out. They were usually overlooked by the authorities so long as there was no loss of life, and even then the only punishment was a levied fine.

’’No,’’ said Jess excitedly, ’’but blood was drawn.’’

’’Tell me everything.’’

Jess inhaled, ready to spill her gossip, but Ronan raised one ribboned finger and pointed it at Kestrel. ’’You,’’ he said, ’’are changing the subject. Go on. Explain the mystery that cost you fifty keystones.’’

’’There is no mystery.’’ She decided to give a sensible reason that had nothing to do with why she had bought him.

And why had she?

Pity, perhaps. That strange sense of affinity.

Or had it been nothing more than simple, shameful possession?

’’The slave is a blacksmith,’’ Kestrel said. ’’My father keeps a personal guard. We needed someone to maintain weapons.’’

’’That\s what the auctioneer advertised,’’ Jess said, stepping into another dress. ’’The slave was a perfect fit for Kestrel\s household.’’

Ronan raised his brows. ’’To the tune of fifty keystones?’’

’’What do I care?’’ Kestrel wanted to end this conversation. ’’I am wealthy enough.’’ She touched Ronan\s sleeve. ’’And how much’’ she rubbed the silk between her fingers ’’did this cost?’’

Ronan, whose deftly embroidered shirt was easily the same price the slave had been, allowed that a point had been made.

’’He will last longer than this shirt.’’ Kestrel let go of the cloth. ’’I\d say I got a bargain.’’

’’True enough,’’ said Ronan, looking disappointed, though whether because she had pulled away or because her mystery had turned out to be not so mysterious, Kestrel couldn\ say. She preferred the latter. She wanted to forget the slave, and for everyone else to do the same.

’’Speaking of clothes,’’ said Jess, ’’we still haven\ settled on what I am to wear.’’

’’What about this?’’ Kestrel stood, glad for an excuse to leave the divan, and crossed the dressing room to lift out a dress whose sleeve peeked from an open wardrobe. She held it, gazing at the extremely light shade of lilac. She ran a hand under the sleeve and let it fall, admiring its shimmer. It was silvery. ’’The fabric is lovely.’’

’’Kestrel, are you mad?’’ Jess\s eyes were wide. Ronan laughed, and Kestrel realized it was because he thought she had made a joke.

’’I don\ know why I even own that dress,’’ Jess said. ’’The color is so unfashionable. Why, it\s practically gray!’’

Kestrel shot Jess a startled look, but didn\ see her friend\s face. She saw only the memory of the slave\s bitter, beautiful eyes.

6

The slave pulled a strip of red-hot metal from the fire and laid it on the anvil\s face. Still gripping the metal with tongs, he used a hammer to beat it flat and even. Quickly, before it could cool, he set the strip against the horn of the anvil and rang at it until half of it curved. He reminded himself that he needed to bend, too. He needed to take the shape that was expected of him here at the general\s house or he would never achieve what he wanted.

When he was finished, he packed the shoes into a wooden crate. He considered the last one, running a finger along the line of holes where nails would be driven into a horse\s hoof. The horseshoe was, in its own way, perfect. Resilient.

And once nailed to the horse, rarely seen.

He brought the shoes to the stables. The girl was there.

She was fussing over one of the war horses. She had returned with the carriage but looked as if she intended to ride on the grounds;she was wearing boots. The slave kept his distance, stacking the horseshoes among the rest of the tack. Yet she approached, leading the horse.

She hesitated, though he could see no reason why. ’’I\m worried Javelin is throwing a shoe,’’ she said in Herrani. ’’Please check him.’’

Her tone was polite, but the ’’please’’ grated. It was a lie, a pretense that her words were not an order. It was a slick coat of paint on a prison.

And he didn\ like to hear her voice, for she spoke his language too well. She sounded mother-taught. It unnerved him. He focused on the one Valorian word. ’’Javelin,’’ he said, rolling the horse\s name around in his mouth.

’’It\s a weapon,’’ she said. ’’Like a spear.’’

’’I know,’’ he said, then regretted it. No one especially her or the general should discover he understood anything of the Valorian language.


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