The Winners Curse Page 8

’’Not here,’’ she said stiffly.

’’No, not here.’’ His voice was soft. ’’But anywhere, if you want it.’’

’’Exactly what do you think you are doing, Irex?’’

’’You mean, a moment ago? Oh, I don\ know. Maybe I was trying to pick your pocket.’’ His tone hinted at a coarse double meaning.

Kestrel slid her dagger into its sheath. ’’Theft is the only way you will get my gold.’’ She walked from the cover of trees and saw, with shaky gratitude, that the party was still there, that the sound of porcelain and spoons still tinkled over low talk, and that no one had noticed anything.

No one, except perhaps Arin. He was waiting for her. She felt a flash of something unpleasant embarrassment, perhaps, as she wondered how much of this afternoon he had overheard. Dismay to think that he might have witnessed that last exchange with Irex, and misunderstood it. Or was she troubled by something else? Maybe it was the thought that Arin knew perfectly well what had been taking place behind the trees and had made no move to interfere, to help.

It was not his place to interfere, she reminded herself. She had not needed his help.

’’We are leaving,’’ she told him.

* * *

She let her bad mood seethe into the silence of the carriage. Finally, she couldn\ bear the vicious cycle of her thoughts, the way they kept returning to Irex and her stupid decision to humiliate him at Bite and Sting. ’’Well?’’ she asked Arin.

He sat across from her in the carriage, but didn\ lift his eyes to meet hers. He studied his hands. ’’Well, what?’’

’’What do you think?’’

’’About?’’

’’About the party. About anything. About the bargain we made that you could at least pretend to uphold.’’

’’You want to gossip about the party.’’ He seemed tired.

’’I want you to speak to me.’’

He looked at her then. She found that she had clenched her silk skirts in a fist. She let go. ’’For example, I know you overheard about Senator Andrax. Do you think he merits torture? Death?’’

’’He deserves what he gets,’’ he said, and went quiet again.

Kestrel gave up. She sank into her anger.

’’That isn\ what\s bothering you.’’ Arin sounded reluctant, almost incredulous, as if he couldn\ believe the words coming from his mouth.

Kestrel waited.

He said, ’’That man is an ass.’’

It was clear whom he meant. It was clear that no slave should ever say that of any Valorian. But it was magic to hear the words out loud. Kestrel breathed a laugh. ’’And I am a fool.’’ She pressed chilly hands to her forehead. ’’I knew what he\s like. I should have never played Bite and Sting with him. Or I should have let him win.’’

The corner of Arin\s mouth twitched. ’’I enjoyed watching him lose.’’

There was a silence, and Kestrel, though she felt comforted, knew that Arin\s understanding of the afternoon had been fairly complete. He had waited beyond the laran trees, listening to her and Irex. Would he have continued to do nothing, had something else happened?

’’Do you know how to play Bite and Sting?’’ she asked.

’’Maybe.’’

’’Either you do or you don\ .’’

’’Whether I know or don\ doesn\ matter.’’

She made an impatient noise. ’’Because?’’

His teeth flashed in the late, shifting light. ’’Because you would not want to play against me.’’

11

When the general returned home and heard the news about Senator Andrax, he didn\ wait even to wash off the dirt of the previous days. He climbed back on his horse and spurred it in the direction of the prison.

It was afternoon when he strode back into the villa, and Kestrel, who had heard his horse coming from where she sat in one of her rooms, came down the stairs and saw him crouching by the pool in the entryway. He splashed water on his face and palmed it over his hair, which was spiky with sweat.

’’What will happen to the senator?’’ asked Kestrel.

’’The emperor doesn\ like to punish by death, but in this case I think he will make an exception.’’

’’Perhaps the kegs of black powder were stolen, as Andrax claims.’’

’’He was the only one besides myself with a key to that particular armory, and there was no sign of forced entry. I had my key with me and have been away for three days.’’

’’The kegs could still be in the city. I assume that someone has ordered the ships to be kept at port and searched?’’

Her father winced. ’’Trust you to think of what the governor should have done two days ago.’’ He paused, then said, ’’Kestrel ’’

’’I know what you\ e going to say.’’ This was why she had come to her father and broached the subject of the senator\s betrayal: she hadn\ wanted to wait for the general to turn it into a tool to use on her. ’’The empire needs people like me.’’

His brows rose. ’’So you\ll do it? You\ll enlist?’’

’’No. I have a suggestion. You claim that I have a mind for war.’’

Slowly, he said, ’’You have a way of getting what you want.’’

’’Yet for years now my military training has focused on the physical, and all it has done is shape me into a barely competent fighter.’’ Kestrel had an image of Irex standing before her, the dagger held so naturally that it seemed to have grown out of his hand. ’’It\s not enough. You should be teaching me history. We should be inventing battle scenarios, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of battalion order. Meanwhile, I will keep an open mind about fighting for the empire.’’

His light brown eyes were crinkling at the corners, but he made his mouth stern. ’’Hmph.’’

’’You don\ like my suggestion?’’

’’I am wondering what it will cost me.’’

Kestrel readied herself. This was the hard part. ’’My sessions with Rax stop. He knows as well as I do that I have come as far as I can. We are wasting his time.’’

The general shook his head. ’’Kestrel ’’

’’And you will stop pressuring me to enlist. Whether I become a soldier is my choice.’’

The general rubbed his wet palms together, his hands still dirty. The water that dripped from them was brown. ’’Here is my counteroffer. You will study strategy with me as my schedule allows. Your sessions with Rax will continue, but only on a weekly basis. And you will make your decision by spring.’’

’’I don\ have to decide until I am twenty.’’

’’It\s better for us both, Kestrel, if we know soon on what ground we stand.’’

She was ready to agree, but he lifted one finger. ’’If you don\ choose my life,’’ he said, ’’you will marry in the spring.’’

’’That\s a trap.’’

’’No, it\s a bet. A bet that you like your independence too much not to fight alongside me.’’

’’I hope you see the irony in what you have just said.’’

He smiled.

Kestrel said, ’’You will stop trying to persuade me? No more lectures?’’

’’None.’’

’’I will play the piano whenever I like. You won\ say a word about it.’’

His smile shrank. ’’Fine.’’

’’And’’ her voice faltered ’’if I marry, it will be to whom I choose.’’

’’Of course. Any Valorian of our society will do.’’

This was fair, she decided. ’’I agree.’’

The general patted her cheek with a damp hand. ’’Good girl.’’

* * *

Kestrel walked down the hall. The night before her father\s return she had lain awake, seeing the three bee tiles behind her closed eyes, and Irex\s knife, and her own. She had thought about how powerful she had felt in one situation, and how helpless in the other. She studied her life like a draw of Bite and Sting pieces. She believed she saw a clear line of play.

But she had forgotten that it was her father who had taught her that game.

Kestrel had the feeling that she had just made a very bad bargain.

She passed by the library, then stopped and returned to its open door. Two house slaves were inside, dusting. They paused at the sound of her feet on the threshold and looked at her no, peered, as if they could see all her mistakes imprinted on her face.

Lirah, a lovely girl with greenish eyes, said, ’’My lady ’’

’’Do you know where Smith is?’’ Kestrel wasn\ sure what had made her use Arin\s other name. It wasn\ until that moment that she realized she hadn\ shared his true one with anybody.

’’At the forge,’’ Lirah said promptly. ’’But ’’

Kestrel turned and walked toward the garden doors.

* * *

She thought that she had been seeking a light distraction. But when she heard the clang of metal on metal and saw Arin scraping a shaft of steel across the anvil with one set of tools and beating at it with another, Kestrel knew she had come to the wrong place.

’’Yes?’’ he said, keeping his back to her. His workshirt was soaked through with sweat. His hands were sooty. He left the blade of the sword to cool on the anvil and moved to place another, shorter length of metal on the fire, which lined his profile with unsteady light.

She willed her voice to be her own. ’’I thought we could play a game.’’

His dark brows drew together.

’’Of Bite and Sting,’’ Kestrel said. More firmly, she added, ’’You implied you know how to play.’’

He used tongs to stoke the fire. ’’I did.’’

’’You implied that you could beat me.’’

’’I implied that there was no reason a Valorian would want to play with a Herrani.’’

’’No, you worded things carefully so that what you said could be interpreted that way. But that isn\ what you meant.’’

He faced her then, arms folded across his chest. ’’I have no time for games.’’ The tips of his fingers had black rings of charcoal dust buried under the nail and into the cuticle. ’’I have work to do.’’

’’Not if I say you don\ .’’

He turned away. ’’I like to finish what I start.’’

She meant to leave. She meant to leave him to the noise and heat. She meant to say nothing more. Instead, Kestrel found herself issuing a challenge. ’’You are no match for me anyway.’’

He gave her the look she recognized well, the one of measured disdain. But this time, he also laughed. ’’Where do you propose we play?’’ He swept a hand around the forge. ’’Here?’’

’’My rooms.’’

’’Your rooms.’’ Arin shook his head disbelievingly.

’’My sitting room,’’ she said. ’’Or the parlor,’’ she added, though it bothered her to think of playing Bite and Sting with him in a place so public to the household.

He leaned against the anvil, considering. ’’Your sitting room will do. I\ll come when I\ve finished this sword. After all, I have house privileges now. Might as well use them.’’ Arin started to say something else, then stopped, his gaze roving over her face. She grew uneasy.

He was staring, she realized. He was staring at her.

’’You have dirt on your face,’’ he said shortly.

He returned to his work.

Later, in her bathing room, Kestrel saw it. The moment she tilted the mirror to catch the low, amber light of late afternoon, she saw what he had seen, as had Lirah, who had tried to tell her. A faint smudge traced the slope of her high cheekbone, darkened her cheek, and skimmed the line of her jaw. It was a handprint. It was the shadow left from her father\s gritty hand, from when he had touched her face to seal the bargain between them.

12

Arin had bathed. He was wearing house clothes, and when Kestrel saw him standing in the doorway his shoulders were relaxed. Without being invited, he strode into the room, pulled out the other chair at the small table where Kestrel waited, and sat. He arranged his arms in a position of negligent ease and leaned into the brocaded chair as if he owned it. He seemed, Kestrel thought, at home.

But then, he had also seemed so in the forge. Kestrel looked away from him, stacking the Bite and Sting tiles on the table. It occurred to her that it was a talent for Arin to be comfortable in such different environments. She wondered how she would fare in his world.

He said, ’’This is not a sitting room.’’

’’Oh?’’ Kestrel mixed the tiles. ’’And here I thought we were sitting.’’

His mouth curved slightly. ’’This is a writing room. Or, rather’’ he pulled his six tiles ’’it was.’’

Kestrel drew her Bite and Sting hand. She decided to show no sign of curiosity. She would not allow herself to be distracted. She arranged her tiles facedown.

’’Wait,’’ he said. ’’What are the stakes?’’

She had given this careful consideration. She took a small wooden box from her skirt pocket and set it on the table. Arin picked up the box and shook it, listening to the thin, sliding rattle of its contents. ’’Matches.’’ He tossed the box back onto the table. ’’Hardly high stakes.’’

But what were appropriate stakes for a slave who had nothing to gamble? This question had troubled Kestrel ever since she had proposed the game. She shrugged and said, ’’Perhaps I am afraid to lose.’’ She split the matches between them.

’’Hmm,’’ he said, and they each put in their ante.

Arin positioned his tiles so that he could see their engravings without revealing them to Kestrel. His eyes flicked to them briefly, then lifted to examine the luxury of his surroundings. This annoyed her both because she could glean nothing from his expression and because he was acting the gentleman by averting his gaze, offering her a moment to study her tiles without fear of giving away something to him. As if she needed such an advantage.

’’How do you know?’’ she said.


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