The Winners Curse Page 5

But she hadn\ noticed. She was too busy rubbing the horse\s neck.

After all, why would she notice anything a slave had said?

The horse leaned against her like an overgrown kitten. ’’I named him when I was young,’’ she murmured.

He glanced at her. ’’You are young.’’

’’Young enough to want to impress my father.’’ There was a wistfulness in her face.

He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. He replied in a way that showed no awareness that she had shared something that sounded like a secret. ’’The name suits him,’’ he said, even though the big beast was far too affectionate with her for that to be entirely true.

She looked away from the horse and straight at him. ’’Yours doesn\ suit you. Smith.’’

Perhaps it was the surprise. Or the trick of her flawless accent. Later, he would tell himself that it was because he was sure her next step would be to rename him, as Valorians sometimes did with their slaves, and if that happened he would surely do or say something stupid, and then all his plans would be in ruin.

But to be honest, he didn\ know why he said it. ’’Smith is what my first slaver called me,’’ he told her. ’’It\s not my name. It\s Arin.’’

7

The general was a busy man, but not so busy that he wouldn\ find out if Kestrel flouted his wishes. Since the day of the auction, Kestrel felt watched. She was careful to attend her training sessions with Rax, the captain of her father\s guard.

Not that Rax would mind if she didn\ turn up in the practice room adjoining the guards\ barracks. When she had been a child and ferocious in her need to prove herself, Rax had been, in his own way, kind. He did little more than observe that she had no natural talent for fighting. He smiled at her efforts and saw to it that she was adequate at all weapons a soldier needed to wield.

But as years passed, so did his patience. She became careless. She would drop her guard in fencing. Her eyes wouldn\ stop dreaming, even when he shouted. She let arrows go wide, head tilted as if listening to something he couldn\ hear.

Kestrel remembered his mounting suspicion. The warnings he had given her to stop trying to protect her hands. She held her practice sword too gingerly, shrank back if it seemed possible Rax\s attack could endanger her fingers, and took body blows that would have killed her had his sword been steel and not wood.

One day when she was fifteen, he wrenched her shield away and smashed the flat of his sword against her exposed fingers. She dropped to her knees. She felt her face go white with pain and fear, and knew she shouldn\ have wept, shouldn\ have cradled her fingers to her, shouldn\ have hunched her body to hide her hands from further assault. She should not have confirmed what Rax already knew.

He went to the general and told him that if he wanted a musician, he could buy one at the market.

Kestrel\s father forbade her to play. But one of her few true military skills was going without sleep. In this, she rivaled the general. So when the swelling in her left hand had gone down and Enai had unwound the stiff wrapping that had held her fingers rigid, Kestrel began to play at night.

She was caught.

She remembered running after her father, pulling on his arms, his elbow, his clothes as he strode to the barracks in the middle of the night for a mace. He ignored her begging.

He would have easily destroyed the piano. It was too big, and she too small, for her to stand in the mace\s way. If she had blocked the keys, he would have broken the case. He would have crushed its hammers, snapped its strings.

’’I hate you,’’ she had told him, ’’and my mother would, too.’’

It wasn\ her wretched voice, Kestrel later thought. It wasn\ the tears. He had seen grown men and women weep over worse. That wasn\ what made him drop the mace. But even now, Kestrel didn\ know whether he had spared the instrument for love of her or love of the dead.

’’What\s it to be today?’’ Rax drawled from his bench at the other end of the practice room. He ran a hand over his grizzled head, then over his face as if he could wipe away the obvious boredom.

Kestrel meant to answer him but found herself looking at the paintings along the walls, though she knew them well. They showed girls and boys leaping over the backs of bulls. The paintings were Valorian, just as this particular building was Valorian-built. Blond, reddish, even chestnut hair streamed in banners behind the painted youths as they vaulted over the bulls\ horns, planted palms on the beasts\ backs, and flipped over the hindquarters. This was a rite of passage, and before it had been banned by the same law that forbade dueling, it was something all Valorians had had to do when they turned fourteen. Kestrel had done it. She remembered that day well. Her father had been proud of her. He had offered any birthday gift she desired.

Kestrel wondered if the slave if Arin had seen the paintings, and what he might think of them.

Rax sighed. ’’You don\ need to practice standing and staring. You\ e good at that already.’’

’’Needles.’’ She pushed thoughts of the slave from her mind. ’’Let\s work on Needles.’’

’’What a surprise.’’ He didn\ say that they had done that yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. Needles was the one technique he could reasonably bear to see her try to hone.

Rax hefted a broadsword as she strapped the small knives to her calves, waist, and forearms. Each blunted practice blade could fit easily in her palm. Needles were the only weapons that let her forget they were weapons.

Rax lazily blocked the first one that spun from her fingers across the room. His blade knocked hers out of the air. But she had more. And when it came to close hand-to-hand fighting, as Rax always made sure it did, she might actually be able to beat him.

* * *

She didn\ . Kestrel limped across the grass to Enai\s house.

On her fourteenth birthday, Kestrel had asked her father for the woman\s freedom. By law slaves belonged to the head of a household. Enai was Kestrel\s nurse, but she was the general\s property.

He had not been pleased at the request. Yet he had promised Kestrel anything.

And although Kestrel was now grateful Enai had chosen to remain at the villa, that she would be there today when Kestrel knocked on her door, sweaty and disheartened, she remembered how her happiness had dissolved when she had told Enai about her birthday gift, and the Herrani had stared at her.

’’Free?’’ Enai had touched her own wrist, where the brand would be.

’’Yes. Aren\ you ... glad? I thought you would want this.’’

Enai\s hands fell to her lap. ’’Where would I go?’’

Kestrel saw, then, what Enai did: the difficulties of an old Herrani woman alone however free in her occupied country. Where would she sleep? How would she earn enough to eat, and who would employ her when Herrani couldn\ employ anyone and Valorians had slaves?

Kestrel used some of the inheritance settled on her after her mother\s death to have the cottage built.

Today, Enai scowled when she opened the door. ’’Where have you been? I must be nothing to you, that you should ignore me for so long.’’

’’I\m sorry.’’

Enai softened, tucking a scraggly lock of Kestrel\s hair back into place. ’’You certainly are a sorry sight. Come inside, child.’’

A small cooking fire chittered on the hearth. Kestrel sank into a chair before it, and when Enai asked if she was hungry and was told no, the Herrani gave Kestrel a searching look. ’’What\s wrong? Surely by now you\ e used to being beaten by Rax.’’

’’There is something I am afraid to tell you.’’

Enai waved this away as nonsense. ’’Haven\ I always kept your secrets?’’

’’It\s not a secret. Practically everyone knows.’’ What she said next sounded small for something that felt so big. ’’I went to the market with Jess more than a week ago. I went to an auction.’’

Enai\s expression grew wary.

’’Oh, Enai,’’ Kestrel said. ’’I\ve made a mistake.’’

8

Arin was satisfied. He was given more orders for weapons and repair, and took the absence of complaints from the guard to mean his work was valued. Though the steward frequently demanded more horseshoes than could possibly be necessary, even for stables so large as the general\s, Arin didn\ mind that rote and easy labor. It was mind numbing. He imagined his head was filled with snow.

As his newness to the general\s slaves wore away, they spoke more with him during meals, grew less cautious with their words. He became such a common feature in the stables that he was soon ignored by the soldiers. He overheard accounts of training sessions outside the city walls. He listened, knuckles whitened as they gripped a horse\s bridle, to awed tales of ten years ago, of how the general, then a lieutenant, had razed a path of destruction from this peninsula\s mountains to its port city and brought an end to the Herran war.

Arin unclenched his fingers, one by one, and went about his business.

Once, at dinner, Lirah sat next to him. She was shy, sending sidelong looks of curiosity his way well before she asked, ’’What were you, before the war?’’

He lifted a brow. ’’What were you?’’

Lirah\s face clouded. ’’I don\ remember.’’

Arin lied, too. ’’Neither do I.’’

* * *

He broke no rules.

Other slaves might have been tempted, during the walk through the orange grove that stood between the forge and the slaves\ quarters, to pluck a fruit from the tree. To peel it hurriedly, bury the bright rind in the soil, and eat. Sometimes as Arin ate his meals of bread and stew he thought about it. When he walked under the trees, it was almost unbearable. The scent of citrus made his throat dry. But he didn\ touch the fruit. He looked away and kept walking.

Arin wasn\ sure which god he had offended. The god of laughter, maybe. One with an idle, cruel spirit who looked at Arin\s unprecedented streak of good behavior, smiled, and said it couldn\ last forever.

It was almost dusk and Arin was returning from the stables to the slaves\ quarters when he heard it.

Music. He went still. His first thought was that the dreams he had almost every night were spooling out of his head. Then, as notes continued to pierce through wavering trees and dart over the whir of cicadas, he realized that this was real.

It was coming from the villa. Arin\s feet moved after the music before his mind could tell them to stop, and by the time his mind understood what was happening, it was enchanted, too.

The notes were quick, limpid. They struggled with each other in gorgeous ways, like crosscurrents at sea. Then they stopped.

Arin looked up. He had reached a clearing in the trees. The sky grayed into purple.

Curfew was coming.

He had almost regained his senses, had almost turned back, when a few low notes stole into the air. The music now came in slow strokes, in a different key. A nocturne. Arin moved toward the garden. Past it, ground-floor glass doors burned with light.

Curfew had come and gone, and he didn\ care.

He saw who was playing. The lines of her face were illuminated. She frowned slightly, leaned into a surging passage, and dappled a few high notes over the troubled sound.

Night had truly fallen. Arin wondered if she would lift her eyes, but wasn\ worried he would be seen in the garden\s shadows.

He knew the law of such things: people in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark.

9

Yet again, the steward stopped Kestrel before she could leave the villa. ’’Going into the city?’’ he said, blocking the garden door. ’’Don\ forget, my lady, that you need ’’

’’An escort.’’

’’The general gave me orders.’’

Kestrel decided to irritate Harman as much as he did her. ’’Then send for the blacksmith.’’

’’Why?’’

’’To serve as my escort.’’

He started to smile, then realized she was serious. ’’He is unsuitable.’’

She knew that.

’’He\s sullen,’’ Harman said. ’’Unruly. I understand he broke curfew last night.’’

She did not care.

’’He simply does not look the part.’’

’’See to it that he does,’’ she said.

’’Lady Kestrel, he is trouble. You are too inexperienced to see it. You don\ see what\s right in front of you.’’

’’Do I not? I see you. I see someone who has ordered our blacksmith to make hundreds of horseshoes over the two weeks he has been here, when his primary value to us is weapons making, and when only a fraction of the horseshoes made can be found in the stables. What I do not see is where those surplus shoes have gone. I imagine I might find them on the market, sold for a nice profit. I might find them transformed into what is no doubt a lovely watch.’’

Harman\s hand went to the gold watch chain that trailed out of his pocket.

’’Do as I say, Harman, or you will regret it.’’

* * *

Kestrel could have sent Arin to the kitchens upon their arrival at Jess\s house. Once indoors, she had no official need of an escort. But she told him to remain in the parlor while she and Jess sat, drinking chilled osmanth tea and eating hibiscus cakes with peeled oranges. Arin stood stiffly against the far wall, the dark blue of his clothes blending with a curtain. Yet she found him hard to ignore.

He had been dressed to society\s expectations. The collar of his shirt was high, the mark of Herrani aristocratic fashion before the war. All male house slaves wore them. But they did not, if they were wise, also wear expressions of obvious resentment.

At least his long sleeves hid the muscle and scars that showed a decade\s worth of labor. This was a relief. Kestrel thought, however, that the slave was hiding more than that. She watched him out of the corner of her eye. She had a theory.


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