The Winners Curse Page 9

’’How do I know what?’’

’’That this was a writing room. I have never heard of such a thing.’’ She began to position her own tiles. It was only when she saw their designs that she wondered whether Arin had really been polite in looking away, or if he had been deliberately provoking her.

She concentrated on her draw, relieved to see that she had a good set. A tiger (the highest tile);a wolf, a mouse, a fox (not a bad trio, except the mouse);and a pair of scorpions. She liked the Sting tiles. They were often underestimated.

Kestrel realized that Arin had been waiting to answer her question. He was watching her.

’’I know,’’ he said, ’’because of this room\s position in your suite, the cream color of the walls, and the paintings of swans. This was where a Herrani lady would pen her letters or write journal entries. It\s a private room. I shouldn\ be allowed inside.’’

’’Well,’’ said Kestrel, uncomfortable, ’’it is no longer what it was.’’

He played his first tile: a wolf. That meant one less chance for her to add a wolf to her hand. She set down her fox.

’’But how do you even know to recognize the room?’’ Kestrel pressed. ’’Were you a house slave before?’’

His finger twitched against a tile\s blind side. Kestrel hadn\ meant to upset him, but saw that she had.

’’All Herrani aristocratic houses had writing rooms,’’ he said. ’’It\s common knowledge. Any slave could tell you what I just did. Lirah could, if you asked her.’’

Kestrel hadn\ quite realized that he knew Lirah or at least, well enough to drop her name casually into the conversation. Though of course he did. She remembered how quick Lirah was to tell her of Arin\s whereabouts earlier. The girl had spoken as if the answer had already been trembling on the surface of her mind, like a dragonfly on water, long before Kestrel had asked.

Kestrel and Arin played in silence, discarding tiles, drawing new ones, playing others, speaking only to bet.

Then Arin\s hands paused. ’’You survived the plague.’’

’’Oh.’’ Kestrel hadn\ noticed that her loose, slashed sleeves had slipped back to reveal the skin of her inner arms. She touched the short scar above her left elbow. ’’Yes. Many Valorians caught the plague during the colonization of Herran.’’

’’Most Valorians weren\ healed by a Herrani.’’ He stared at the scar.

Kestrel drew the sleeves over her skin. She picked up a match and turned it around in her fingers. ’’I was seven at the time. I don\ remember much.’’

’’I\m sure you nevertheless know what happened.’’

She hesitated. ’’You won\ like it.’’

’’It doesn\ matter what I like.’’

She set down the match. ’’My family had just arrived. My father didn\ fall ill. I suppose he had a natural immunity. He has always seemed ... invulnerable.’’

Arin\s face tightened.

’’But my mother and I were very sick. I remember sleeping next to her. Her skin was hot. The slaves were told to separate us, so that her fever wouldn\ drive mine and mine hers, but I always woke up in her bed. My father noticed that no Herrani seemed very affected by the plague and if they caught it, they didn\ die. He found a Herrani physician.’’ She should have left it at that. Yet Arin\s gray gaze was unwavering, and she felt that to say no more would be a lie he would easily see. ’’My father told the doctor to heal us or be killed.’’

’’So the doctor did.’’ Arin sounded disgusted. ’’For fear of his life.’’

’’That\s not why.’’ Kestrel looked down at her tiles. ’’I don\ know why. Because I was a child?’’ Kestrel shook her head. ’’He cut my arm to bleed the disease. I suppose that\s what all Herrani doctors did, if you recognize the scar. He stopped the blood. He stitched the wound. Then he turned the knife on himself.’’

Something flickered in Arin\s eyes. Kestrel wondered if he was trying, as she often did when she looked in the mirror, to see her as a child, to see whatever it was in her that the doctor had decided to save. ’’And your mother?’’ he said.

’’My father tried to cut her in the same way the doctor had cut me. I remember that. There was a lot of blood. She died.’’

In the silence, Kestrel heard a falling leaf scratch the glass of the window, opened out toward the dimming sky. It was warm, but summer was almost over.

’’Play your tiles,’’ Arin said roughly.

Kestrel turned them over, taking no joy in the fact that she had surely won. She had four scorpions.

Arin flipped his. The sound of ivory clacking against the wooden table was unnaturally loud.

Four vipers.

’’I win,’’ he said, and swept the matches into his hand.

Kestrel stared at the tiles, feeling a numbness creep along her limbs. ’’Well,’’ she said. She cleared her throat. ’’Well played.’’

He gave her a humorless smile. ’’I did warn you.’’

’’Yes. You did.’’

He stood. ’’I think I\ll take my leave while I have the advantage.’’

’’Until next time.’’ Kestrel realized she had offered him her hand. He looked at it, then took it in his own. She felt the numbness ebb, only to be replaced by a different kind of surprise.

He dropped her hand. ’’I have things to do.’’

’’Like what?’’ She tried for a lighthearted tone.

He answered in kind. ’’Like contemplate what I am going to do with my sudden windfall of matches.’’ He widened his eyes in pretend glee, and Kestrel smiled.

’’I\ll walk you out,’’ she said.

’’Do you think I will lose my way? Or steal something as I go?’’

She felt her expression turn haughty. ’’I am leaving the villa anyway,’’ she said, though she had had no such plans until the words left her mouth.

They walked in silence through the house until they had reached the ground floor. Kestrel saw his stride pause, almost imperceptibly, as they passed the closed doors that hid her piano.

She stopped. ’’What is your interest in that room?’’

The look he gave her was cutting. ’’I have no interest in the music room.’’

Her eyes narrowed as she watched him walk away.

13

Kestrel\s first lesson with her father took place in their library, a dark room with inset shelves jammed end-to-end with beautifully bound volumes. Only some were in her language;the empire had little literary tradition. The majority of the books were in Herrani, and if few Valorians spoke that language well, fewer still could read it, for the alphabet was in a different script. Yet all Valorian colonizers had kept their conquered libraries intact. They looked nicer that way.

Her father stood, looking out the window. He didn\ like to sit. Kestrel settled into a reading chair as a deliberate gesture of difference.

He said, ’’The project of the Valorian empire began twenty-four years ago when we took the northern tundra.’’

’’An easy territory to conquer.’’ Kestrel couldn\ prove herself to the general with a sword, but at least she could show him that she knew her history. ’’Its people were few, scattered into distant tribes who lived in tents. We invaded in the summer, with little life lost on either side. It was a trial, to see if Valoria\s neighbors would object to our expansion. It was also a symbolic victory, meant to encourage our people. But the tundra offers no agriculture, little meat, and few slaves. It\s mostly worthless.’’

’’Worthless?’’ The general opened one of the drawers lining the walls below the bookshelves and pulled out a scrolled map, which he unfurled and pinned to a table with glass weights. Kestrel stood and came close to study the outline of the continent and the empire\s reaches.

’’Perhaps not worthless,’’ she conceded. She pointed to the tundra, which maintained a thin strip of land over much of the empire\s north until the frozen territory stretched east and widened, dipping south to curve around the northeastern corner of the empire. ’’It provides Valoria with a natural barrier against a barbarian invasion. The tundra isn\ a friendly land for war, particularly now that it\s defended by us.’’

’’Yes. But the tundra has another value to us, one that you can\ see by looking at this map. It\s a state secret, Kestrel. I\m trusting you to keep it.’’

’’Of course.’’ She couldn\ help a thrill of intrigue as well as happiness to be brought into her father\s confidence, though she knew that this was exactly what he wanted her to feel.

’’Spies were sent into the tundra well before we attacked. We do this with every territory we want to acquire;the tundra wasn\ special in this. But what the spies found there was: mineral deposits. Some silver, which has been mined and helps fund our wars. More important, there is a vast amount of sulfur, a key ingredient in making black powder.’’

He smiled when he saw her eyes widen. Then he described in great detail the preparations for invasion, the initial skirmishes, and how the tundra was won by General Daran, who had seen promise in Kestrel\s father when he was a young officer and tutored him in the ways of war.

When her father finished, Kestrel touched the Herran peninsula. ’’Tell me about the Herran War.’’

’’We wanted this territory long before I took it. Once I did, Valorian colonists were eager for a piece of the prize. For decades before the war, the Herrani flaunted their country\s wealth, its goods, its beauty, its rich land its near perfection, not least because it might as well have been an island.’’ The general swept a finger around the peninsula, bordered on almost all sides by the southern sea except where a mountain range separated it from the rest of the continent. ’’The Herrani considered us nothing more than stupid, bloody savages. They liked us enough to send ships to our mainland with luxuries for sale. They didn\ seem to think that every alabaster bowl or sack of spice was a temptation to the emperor.’’

Although Kestrel knew most of this, it was as if the story she had known was a rough sculpture, and her father\s words sharp blows with a chisel, chipping details into marble until she could see the true shape hidden inside the stone.

’’The Herrani believed they were untouchable,’’ he said. ’’They were almost right. They had mastered the sea. Their navy was far more sophisticated than ours, both in ships and training. Even if our navy had been more of a match for theirs, the sea was against us.’’

’’The green storms,’’ said Kestrel. Storm season was coming. It would last until spring, with squalls appearing out of nowhere along the sea routes and slamming into the shores, turning the sky an eerie green.

’’Invasion by sea was suicide. By land it was impossible. There was no way to bring an army through the mountains. There was one pass, yet it was so narrow that an army would have had to squeeze through it almost in single file, and slowly, making it easy for Herrani forces to whittle away at ours until we were nothing.’’

Kestrel knew what her father had done, but she hadn\ realized something until now. ’’You got all that black powder from the earlier conquest of the tundra.’’

’’Yes. We used it to pack the mountains and explode our way through that pass, widening it until the army could sweep down to victory. The Herrani weren\ prepared for a land invasion. Their strength was at sea.

’’And their folly was in their early surrender. Of course, once I seized the city there was little they could do. Yet they still had their navy: a fleet of almost a hundred swift ships with cannon. I doubt they could have won the city back;the sailors would have had to come on land eventually and their numbers were smaller than ours, not very capable against cavalry. But their ships could have harassed us. Engaged in pirate attacks. They could have brought war to Valorian waters and used that damage to negotiate better terms of surrender. But I had the city and its people and a reputation.’’

Kestrel turned. She tugged a book of Herrani poetry off the shelf and paged through it. Her father was no longer looking at her, but into the past.

’’So the Herrani surrendered,’’ he said. ’’They chose life as slaves over none at all. They gave us their ships, and with them our navy became the greatest in the known world. Every Valorian soldier can sail well now. I made sure you learned, too.’’

Kestrel found the passage she was searching for. It was the beginning of a canto about a journey to magical islands where time had no meaning. It was a call to sailors to steer the ship toward open water. Set keel to the wave-breaks, she read. Set forth on the brine-hearted sea.

’’There are many reasons we won,’’ her father said, ’’and I will teach them to you. But the most fundamental reason is simple. They were weak. We were not.’’

He took her book and closed it.

* * *

Her meetings with the general were not frequent. He was busy, and Kestrel was grateful. Their conversations tipped her too easily between fascination and revulsion.

More leaves drifted from the trees. Summer warmth drained from the air. Kestrel barely noticed, for she stayed indoors, finding that she was able to forget most of what she had learned from her father while she played the piano. She played almost every free hour, now that she could. Music made her feel as if she were holding a lamp that cast a halo of light around her, and while she knew there were people and responsibilities in the darkness beyond it, she couldn\ see them. The flame of what she felt when she played made her deliciously blind.

Until the day she found something waiting for her in the music room. A small, ivory tile was balanced on the exact middle key of the piano. The Bite and Sting piece had been set facedown. The blank side looked up.

It searched her like a question ... or an invitation.

14

’’I began to think that you wouldn\ play someone you couldn\ beat,’’ said Arin.


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