The Winners Curse Page 6

’’The Trenex cousins are at it again,’’ said Jess, and began describing their latest feud.

Arin looked bored. Of course he would, as someone with no understanding of the Valorian conversation. Yet Kestrel suspected he would look the same way even if he were following everything said.

And she thought that he was.

’’I swear,’’ Jess continued, fiddling with the earrings Kestrel had bought that day in the market. ’’It\s only a matter of time before one of the cousins is dead and the other must pay the death-price.’’

Kestrel remembered Arin\s one word of Valorian to her: no. How light his accent had been. He had also recognized Javelin\s name. Perhaps this was not so unusual;Arin was a blacksmith and probably had made javelins for Valorians. Still, it struck her as an odd word for him to know.

Really, it was the ease with which he had recognized it that had given her pause.

’’I can\ believe Lady Faris\s picnic is in only a few days!’’ Jess chattered on. ’’You\ll stop here an hour before, won\ you, and come in our carriage? Ronan told me to ask you.’’

Kestrel imagined sharing the close quarters of a carriage with Ronan. ’’I think it\s best if I go separately.’’

’’Only because you have no sense of fun!’’ Jess hesitated, then said, ’’Kestrel, could you try to be more ... normal at the party?’’

’’Normal?’’

’’Well, you know, everyone thinks you\ e a bit eccentric.’’

Kestrel did know.

’’Of course, people love you, they do. But when you freed that nurse of yours, there was talk. It would have been forgotten, except that you always do something else. Your music is an open secret not that it\s wrong, exactly.’’

They\d had this conversation before. The problem was Kestrel\s devotion. If she had played occasionally, like her mother, it would have escaped notice. If the Herrani hadn\ prized music so highly before the war, that, too, might have changed things. But in the eyes of Valorian society, music was a pleasure to be taken, not made, and it didn\ occur to many that the making and the taking could be the same.

Jess was still speaking. ’’... then there was the auction ’’ She glanced self-consciously at Arin.

Kestrel did, too. His face was impassive, yet somehow more alert.

’’Are you embarrassed to be my friend?’’ Kestrel asked Jess.

’’How can you say that?’’ Jess looked genuinely hurt, and Kestrel regretted her question. It had been unfair, especially when Jess had just invited her to attend the picnic with her family.

’’I\ll try,’’ Kestrel told her.

Jess was relieved. She did her best to dispel the tension by predicting, in minute detail, which foods would be served at the party and which sweethearts were most likely to behave scandalously. ’’All the handsome young men will be there.’’

’’Hmm,’’ said Kestrel, turning her glass in a full circle where it rested on the table.

’’Did I tell you Faris will debut her baby at the picnic?’’

’’What?’’ Kestrel\s hand stopped.

’’The little boy is six months now, and we should have perfect weather. It\s the ideal opportunity to introduce him to society. Why do you look so surprised?’’

Kestrel shrugged. ’’It\s a bold move.’’

’’I don\ see why.’’

’’Because the baby\s father is not Faris\s husband.’’

’’No,’’ Jess whispered in mock horror. ’’How do you know?’’

’’I don\ , not for certain. But I visited Faris at home recently and saw the baby. He is far too beautiful. He doesn\ resemble Faris\s older children one bit. Actually’’ Kestrel tapped her glass ’’if it is true, the best way to hide it is to do exactly as Faris plans. No one would believe a society lady would brazenly debut an illegitimate child at the season\s biggest party.’’

Jess gaped, then laughed. ’’Kestrel, the god of lies must love you!’’

Kestrel seemed to feel rather than hear the sharp intake of breath from across the room.

’’What did you say?’’ Arin whispered in Valorian. He was staring at Jess.

She glanced between him and Kestrel, uncertain. ’’The god of lies. The Herrani one. Valorians don\ have gods, you know.’’

’’Of course you have no gods. You have no souls.’’

Kestrel rose to her feet. He had advanced on them. She thought of when the auctioneer had commanded him to sing and the slave\s anger had practically trembled off his skin. ’’That\s enough,’’ she ordered.

’’My god loves you?’’ Arin\s gray eyes were narrow. His chest heaved once. Then he screwed his fury down, deep inside him. He held Kestrel\s gaze, and she saw that he was aware he had betrayed exactly how well he knew her language. In a determinedly even voice, Arin asked Jess, ’’How do you know he loves her?’’

Kestrel started to speak, but Arin lifted a hand to stop her. Shocked, Jess said, ’’Kestrel?’’

’’Tell me,’’ Arin demanded.

’’Well...’’ Jess tried to laugh. ’’He must, mustn\ he? Kestrel sees the truth of things so clearly.’’

His mouth went cruel. ’’I doubt that.’’

’’Kestrel, he is your property. Aren\ you going to do something?’’

These words, instead of making her act, were paralyzing.

’’You think you see the truth,’’ he said to Kestrel in Herrani, ’’because people let you believe it. If you accuse a Herrani of a lie, do you think he will dare deny it?’’

A horrible thought struck her. She felt the blood trickle icily from her face. ’’Jess. Give me your earrings.’’

’’What?’’ Jess was woefully confused.

’’Loan them to me. Please. I\ll bring them back.’’

Jess unhooked the earrings and set them in Kestrel\s outstretched hand. The golden glass droplets glimmered up at her. Or were they glass? The Herrani jewelry seller in the market had said they were topaz before faltering under Kestrel\s accusation that they were not.

Kestrel had paid more than glass was worth, but not nearly as much as jewels would cost. Maybe they had been topaz, and the seller too afraid to insist on the truth.

Shame shuddered through Kestrel. The room had fallen silent, Jess fidgeting with the lace cuffs on her sleeves, Arin looking maliciously glad that his words to Kestrel had shot home.

’’We\ e leaving,’’ she told him.

He gave no further sign of resistance. She knew it wasn\ out of fear that she would punish him. It was because he was now secure in the certainty that she never would.

* * *

Kestrel burst out of the carriage and strode into the shop of the most reputed Valorian jeweler in the city. Arin followed.

’’I want to know if these are real.’’ Kestrel dropped the earrings with a rolling clatter onto the table in front of the jeweler.

’’Topaz?’’ he asked.

She found it hard to speak. ’’That\s what I\m here to find out.’’

The jeweler peered at the droplets through a lens, then said, ’’Hard to tell. I\d like to compare them with stones I know are true. It might take a while.’’

’’Take your time.’’

’’My lady.’’ Arin spoke in his language, his voice all politeness, as if his outburst in the parlor had never happened. ’’May I walk around the market?’’

She glanced at him. It was an unusual request, and he couldn\ have been very hopeful that it would be granted, especially not after his earlier behavior.

’’You\ e indoors,’’ he said, ’’and so don\ need an escort at the moment. I\d like to see a friend.’’

’’A friend?’’

’’I do have friends.’’ He added, ’’I\ll come back. Do you think I would get far if I tried to run away?’’

The law was clear on captured runaways. Their ears and nose were cut off. Such disfigurement didn\ impede a slave\s ability to work.

Kestrel found that she couldn\ bear the sight of Arin\s face. She rather hoped he would run away, that he would succeed and she would never see him again.

’’Take this.’’ She pulled a ring off her finger, one stamped with a bird\s talons. ’’You\ll be questioned if you walk alone without a brand of freedom, or my seal.’’

She dismissed him.

* * *

Arin wanted to see her bright hair chopped and stuffed under a work scarf. He wanted her in prison. He wanted to hold the key. He could almost feel its cold weight. The fact that she hadn\ claimed his god\s favor somehow didn\ temper his resentment.

A seller in the market cried his wares. The sound cut into Arin\s thoughts, stilling the black spin of them. He had a purpose here. He needed to get to the auction house. And he needed to clear his head.

Nothing should dampen his mood now, not even that bitter taste in the back of his throat. He let the sun bathe his face and inhaled the dust of the market air. It tasted fresher even than that of the general\s citrus grove, because at least he could pretend to be free while he breathed it. He walked, thinking of the things he had learned in the parlor. His mind touched them, considering their shapes and sizes as if they were beads on a string.

He dwelled momentarily on one particular fact: his new mistress had freed a slave. Arin let this information slip along the string in his mind, click against the other beads, and be silent. It had no bearing on his situation.

There was much in the previous hour that he didn\ understand. He had no idea why the girl had looked anxious, clutching those earrings. All he knew was that he had somehow gained the upper hand if not without cost. She\d be careful, now, with what she said in Valorian within his hearing.

Arin was stopped only once on the way to his destination, and the soldier allowed him to pass. It didn\ take him long to reach the auction house, where he asked to see Cheat, who relished his Valorian nickname to the point that no one knew what he had been called before the war. ’’Cheat is the perfect name for an auctioneer,’’ he always said.

Cheat strode into the waiting room. When he saw Arin, he grinned. The wicked flash of teeth reminded Arin of what the auctioneer tried to hide from many people. Cheat was short, and while also thickset, he liked to cultivate an easy-going air, a lazy posture. Few would think that he was a fighter. Until he smiled.

’’How did you pull this off?’’ Cheat sketched a hand in the air to outline Arin standing before him, well dressed and unaccompanied.

’’Guilt, I think.’’

’’Good for you.’’ The auctioneer beckoned him toward the holding cell. They slipped inside, then opened a narrow door within, one hidden from the view of any Valorian who might linger in the waiting room to collect a purchase. Arin and Cheat stood in the windowless room\s darkness until the auctioneer lit a lamp.

’’We can\ count on you getting more opportunities like this,’’ Cheat said, ’’so you\d better say everything, and say it fast.’’

Arin gave an account of the past two weeks. He described the layout of the general\s villa, drawing a rough map with the scrap of paper and charcoal stub Cheat thrust at him. He sketched the grounds with their outbuildings, and indicated where the land was hilly and where flat. ’’I\ve only been inside the house once.’’

’’Think you can change that?’’

’’Maybe.’’

’’What have you learned about the general\s movements?’’

’’Nothing unusual. Training sessions outside the city walls. He\s rarely home, yet never far from it.’’

’’And the girl?’’

’’She pays social calls. She gossips.’’ Arin decided not to say that there had been something too shrewd in her comments about Lady Faris\s baby. Nor did he mention the complete lack of surprise on her face when he had spoken in Valorian.

’’Does she talk about her father?’’

Did that conversation in the stables count? Not to Cheat, it wouldn\ . Arin shook his head. ’’She never discusses the military.’’

’’Doesn\ mean she won\ . If the general has a plan, he might include her. Everyone knows he wants her to enlist.’’

Arin hadn\ meant to say it. Yet it slipped out and sounded like an accusation: ’’You should have told me she was a musician.’’

Cheat squinted at him. ’’It wasn\ relevant.’’

’’Relevant enough for you to try to sell me as a singer.’’

’’Thank the god of chance I did. She wasn\ biting at the opportunity for a blacksmith. Do you know how long I\ve tried to place someone at that house? You nearly wrecked everything with your childish defiance. I warned you what it would be like in the pit. All I did was tell you to sing for the crowd. All you had to do was obey.’’

’’You\ e not my master.’’

Cheat ruffled Arin\s short hair. ’’Course not. Look, lad, the next time I set you up as a spy in a high-ranking Valorian\s household, I promise to tell you what the lady likes best.’’

Arin rolled his eyes. He moved to leave.

’’Hey,’’ said Cheat, ’’what about my weapons?’’

’’I\m working on it.’’

* * *

Out of the corner of her eye, Kestrel saw Arin walking into the jeweler\s in time to hear the old man say, ’’I\m sorry, my lady, but these are false. Just pretty bits of glass.’’

Kestrel sagged in relief.

’’No need to be too disappointed,’’ the jeweler told her. ’’You can tell your friends they\ e topaz. None will be the wiser.’’

Later, in the carriage, she said to Arin, ’’I want you to tell me the truth.’’

His face seemed to pale. ’’The truth?’’

She blinked. Then she understood the miscommunication. She couldn\ help a twinge of offense: Arin believed her the sort of mistress who would pry into a slave\s personal life, to want details about a meeting with a friend. She studied him, and his hand made an odd gesture, lifting toward his temple to brush away something invisible. ’’I\m not trying to invade your privacy,’’ she said. ’’Your secrets are your own.’’


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