The Winners Curse Page 7

’’So you want me to inform on other slaves,’’ he said flatly. ’’To report their misdeeds to you. To say if someone steals bread from the larder, or an orange from the grove. I won\ do it.’’

’’That isn\ what I am asking.’’ Kestrel weighed her words before speaking again. ’’You were right. People tell me what they think I want to hear. What I hope is that you will feel free to be honest with me, as you were in Jess\s parlor. I\d like to know how you truly see things.’’

Slowly, he said, ’’That would be valuable to you. My honesty.’’

’’Yes.’’

There was a silence. Then he said, ’’I might feel more free to speak if I were more free to roam.’’

Kestrel heard the bargain in his words. ’’I can arrange that.’’

’’I want the privileges of a house slave.’’

’’They are yours.’’

’’And the right to visit the city on my own. Just once in a while.’’

’’To see your friend.’’

’’My sweetheart, actually.’’

Kestrel paused. ’’Very well,’’ she said.

10

’’Oh, no.’’ Kestrel smiled across the gaming table. She and the other three Bite and Sting players sat on the terrace, in full view of Lady Faris\s guests, who wandered over the grass. ’’You don\ want to do that,’’ Kestrel told the young man sitting opposite her.

Lord Irex\s finger paused on the blank-backed tile he had set down, ready to flip and show the engraving on its hidden side. His mouth tightened, then curled into a sneer.

Ronan glanced at Kestrel from his corner of the gaming table. He, too, knew Irex\s ruthless nature, and they both knew that it served Irex well, at least in hand-to-hand combat. He had won the last spring tournament, an event organized every year to display the weapons skills of Valorians not yet enlisted in the military.

’’I\d listen to her if I were you,’’ Ronan said, idly mixing his ivory tiles. Benix, the fourth player, kept his thoughts to himself. Neither of them knew that Irex had approached Kestrel after taking the spring prize. At the celebratory party hosted by the governor, Irex had edged her into an alcove and made an advance. His eyes had looked almost black, oily with arrogance. Kestrel had laughed and slipped away.

’’I am sure you\ e very pleased to have a pair of foxes,’’ Kestrel told Irex now, ’’but you\ll have to do better.’’

’’I set down my tile,’’ Irex said coldly. ’’I cannot take it back.’’

’’I\ll let you take it back. Just this once.’’

’’You want me to take it back.’’

’’Ah. So you agree that I know what tile you mean to play.’’

Benix shifted his weight on Lady Faris\s delicate chair. It creaked. ’’Flip the damn tile, Irex. And you, Kestrel: Quit toying with him.’’

’’I\m merely offering friendly advice.’’

Benix snorted.

Kestrel watched Irex watch her, his anger mounting as he couldn\ decide whether Kestrel\s words were a lie, the well-meant truth, or a truth she hoped he would judge a lie. He flipped the tile: a fox.

’’Too bad,’’ said Kestrel, and turned over one of hers, adding a third bee to her other two matching tiles. She swept the four gold coins of the ante to her side of the table. ’’See, Irex? I had only your best interests at heart.’’

Benix blew out a gusty sigh. He settled back in his protesting chair, shrugged, and seemed the perfect picture of amused resignation. He kept his head bowed while he mixed the Bite and Sting tiles, but Kestrel saw him shoot Irex a wary glance. Benix, too, had seen the rage that turned Irex\s face into stone.

Irex shoved back from the table. He stalked over the flagstone terrace to the grass, which bloomed with the highest members of Valorian society.

’’That wasn\ necessary,’’ Benix told Kestrel.

’’It was,’’ she said. ’’He\s tiresome. I don\ mind taking his money, but I cannot take his company.’’

’’You couldn\ spare a thought for me before chasing him away? Maybe I would like a chance to win his gold.’’

’’Lord Irex can spare it,’’ Ronan added.

’’Well, I don\ like poor losers,’’ said Kestrel. ’’That\s why I play with you two.’’

Benix groaned.

’’She\s a fiend,’’ Ronan agreed cheerfully.

’’Then why do you play with her?’’

’’I enjoy losing to Kestrel. I will give anything she will take.’’

’’While I live in hope to one day win,’’ Benix said, and gave Kestrel\s hand a friendly pat.

’’Yes, yes,’’ Kestrel said. ’’You are both fine flatterers. Now ante up.’’

’’We lack a fourth player,’’ Benix pointed out. Bite and Sting was played in pairs or fours.

Despite herself, Kestrel looked at Arin standing not too far away, considering the garden or the house beyond it. From his position he would have had a view of Irex\s tiles, and Ronan\s. He would not, however, have been able to see hers. She wondered what he had made of the game if he had bothered to follow it.

Perhaps feeling her gaze on him, Arin glanced her way. His eyes were calm, uninterested. She could read nothing in them.

’’I suppose our game is over then,’’ she told the two lords in a bright voice. ’’Shall we join the others?’’

Ronan poured the gold into her purse and slipped its velvet strap over her wrist, unnecessarily fiddling with the broad ribbon until it lay flat against Kestrel\s skin without a wrinkle. He offered his arm and she took it, resting her palm on the cool silk of his sleeve. Benix fell in step, and the three walked toward the heart of the murmuring party. Kestrel knew, rather than saw, that Arin shifted position and followed, like the shadow line of a sundial.

This was precisely what he was supposed to do as her attendant at Lady Faris\s picnic, yet she had the uncomfortable impression of being tracked.

She brushed aside this thought. It was due to the lingering unpleasantness of playing Bite and Sting with Irex. Well, that young lord\s behavior was not her fault. He had pressed where he was not invited. And he seemed consoled, now, sitting at the feet of Senator Nicon\s pretty daughters and Jess. Pinks, reds, and oranges were this season\s fashion, and the women\s skirts were filled with tulle. Lady Faris\s lawn looked as if the grass had lured sunset clouds to earth and tethered them there.

Kestrel led Ronan to where their hostess sat, sipping lemon water while her baby crawled on the grass beside her under the watchful guard of a slave. Several young men lounged around Faris, and as Kestrel grew near she compared the chubby baby\s face with each of the lady\s favorites, trying to find a match.

’’... of course it is the most shocking scandal,’’ Faris was saying.

Kestrel\s curiosity sharpened. A scandal? If it was of a romantic nature, her estimation of Faris was about to rise. Only a steel-nerved woman would gossip about other people\s follies while her own giggled and clutched at the grass with tiny fists.

’’I love scandals,’’ Ronan said as he, Kestrel, and Benix sat.

’’You should,’’ said Benix. ’’You\ e always causing them.’’

’’Not the ones I most want.’’ Ronan smiled at Kestrel.

Faris rapped his shoulder with her fan, a gesture that appeared to chastise him, but which everyone in the circle knew was an encouragement to continue the witty, flirty banter that would make a success of this party provided that the compliments were turned toward its hostess.

Ronan immediately praised Faris\s low-cut dress with its slashed sleeves. He admired the jewel-encrusted hilt of her dagger, strapped over her sash as all ladies wore their weapons.

Kestrel listened. She saw, yet again, that her friend\s compliments were just bits of art and artifice. They were paper swans, cunningly folded so that they could float on the air for a few moments. Nothing more. Kestrel felt something within her lessen. She didn\ know, however, whether that something was tension, easing into relief, or expectation, dwindling into disappointment.

She plucked a wildflower from the grass and offered it to the baby. He grabbed it, staring with dark-eyed awe at the petals as they crumpled in his grasp. He smiled, and one dimple sank into his left cheek.

Ronan\s flattery had triggered the competition of the other young men present, so Kestrel had to wait some time before the conversation could be brought back to the meat of the matter: the scandal.

’’But you gentlemen are distracting me!’’ Faris said. ’’Don\ you want my news?’’

’’I do,’’ said Kestrel, passing the baby another flower.

’’As you should. Your father won\ be pleased.’’

Kestrel glanced up from the child, and when she did, she saw Arin within earshot, his expression keen.

’’What has my father to do with it?’’ She found it impossible to believe that he had romantically entangled himself. ’’He\s not even in the city. He\s leading a training session a day\s ride from here.’’

’’That may be. But when General Trajan returns, Senator Andrax will pay an even greater price.’’

’’For what?’’

’’Why, for selling kegs of black powder to the eastern savages.’’

There was a stunned silence.

’’Andrax has sold weapons to the empire\s enemies?’’ Benix said.

’’He claims the kegs were stolen. But I ask you, how could they be? They were under his guard. Now they\ e missing. Everyone knows Andrax likes to line his pockets with bribes. What\s to stop him from trading illegally with the barbarians?’’

’’You\ e right,’’ Kestrel said, ’’my father will be furious.’’

Lady Faris began listing in thrilled tones the possible punishments for the senator, who had been imprisoned until the capital could be reached for instructions. ’’My husband himself has gone to discuss the matter with the emperor. Oh, what shall happen to Andrax? An execution, do you think? Banishment to the northern tundra at the very least!’’ Faris\s circle of admirers joined in, concocting punishments so wildly cruel they became morbid jokes. Only Ronan was silent, watching Faris\s baby clamber onto Kestrel\s lap and drool on her sleeve.

Kestrel held the child, her eyes trained on but not really seeing his fine white hair, stirring in the faint wind like dandelion fluff. She dreaded her father\s return. She knew what this news would bring. He would be appalled at the senator\s betrayal and would use the news to urge Kestrel to see the necessity of adding loyal soldiers to the empire\s ranks. His pressure on her would increase. She could not breathe.

’’You\ e good at this,’’ said Ronan.

’’What?’’

He leaned to touch the baby\s head. ’’Being a mother.’’

’’What is that supposed to mean?’’

Ronan looked awkward. Then he said glibly, ’’Nothing, if you don\ like it.’’ He glanced at Benix, Faris, and the others, but they were discussing thumbscrews and nooses. ’’It didn\ mean anything. I take it back.’’

Kestrel set the baby on the grass next to Faris. ’’You cannot take it back.’’

’’Just this once,’’ he said, echoing her earlier words during the game.

She stood and walked away.

He followed. ’’Come, Kestrel. I spoke only the truth.’’

They had entered the shade of thickly grown laran trees, whose leaves were a bloody color. They would soon fall.

’’It\s not that I wouldn\ want to have a child someday,’’ Kestrel told Ronan.

Visibly relieved, he said, ’’Good. The empire needs new life.’’

It did. She knew this. As the Valorian empire stretched across the continent, it faced the problem of keeping what it had won. The solutions were military prowess and boosting the Valorian population, so the emperor prohibited any activities that unnecessarily endangered Valorian lives like dueling and the bull-jumping games that used to mark coming-of-age ceremonies. Marriage became mandatory by the age of twenty for anyone who was not a soldier.

’’It\s just ’’ Kestrel tried again: ’’Ronan, I feel trapped. Between what my father wants and ’’

He held up his hands in flat-palmed defense. ’’I am not trying to trap you. I am your friend.’’

’’I know. But when you are faced with only two choices the military or marriage don\ you wonder if there is a third, or a fourth, or more, even, than that?’’

’’You have many choices. The law says that in three years you must marry, but not whom. Anyway, there is time.’’ His shoulder grazed hers in the teasing push of children starting a mock fight. ’’Time enough for me to convince you of the right choice.’’

’’Benix, of course.’’ She laughed.

’’Benix.’’ Ronan made a fist and shook it at the sky. ’’Benix!’’ he shouted. ’’I challenge you to a duel! Where are you, you great oaf?’’ Ronan stormed from the laran trees with all the flair of a comic actor.

Kestrel smiled, watching him go. Maybe his silly flirtations disguised something real. People\s feelings were hard to know for certain. A conversation with Ronan resembled a Bite and Sting game where Kestrel couldn\ tell if the truth looked like a lie, or a lie like the truth.

If it was true, what then?

She paused, nursing that glow of a laugh that remained inside her, the question she had posed to herself unanswered.

Someone a man came up behind her and snaked an arm around her waist.

Not flirtation. Aggression.

Kestrel sidestepped and spun, pulling her dagger from its sheath.

Irex. His dagger was drawn, too.

’’A fight, dear Kestrel?’’ His stance was easy. He didn\ know how to play Bite and Sting, but his skill at weapons outmatched hers.


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