The Winner’s Kiss (The Winner’s Trilogy #3) – Marie Rutkoski

He told himself a story. Not at first. At first, there wasn’t time for thoughts that came in the shape of words. His head was blessedly empty of stories then. War was coming. It was upon him. Arin had been born in the year of the god of death, and he was finally glad of it. He surrendered himself to his god, who smiled and came close. Stories will get you killed, he murmured in Arin’s ear. Now, you just listen. Listen to me. Arin did. His ship had sped across the sea from the capital. Now it nosed in among the fleet of eastern ships docked in his city’s bay, nimble sloops of war, flying their queen’s colors of blue and green. The sloops were Arin’s, at least for now.

The Dacran queen’s gift to her new allies. The ships were not as many as Arin would have liked. Not as heavy with cannon as he would have liked. But: Listen. Arin told his ship’s captain to sidle up along the largest of the Dacran sloops. After giving his captain orders to dock and find Arin’s cousin in the city, Arin boarded the sloop. He approached the commander of the eastern fleet: Xash, a lean man with an unusually high-bridged nose and brown skin gleaming in the late spring sun. Arin looked into Xash’s eyes—black, always narrowed, and lined with the yellow paint that indicated his status as naval commander. It was as if Xash already knew what Arin would say. The easterner smiled slightly.

“They’re coming,” Arin said. He explained how the Valorian emperor had arranged for the water supply to Herran’s city to be slowly poisoned. The emperor must have sent someone months ago into the mountains near the aqueduct’s source. Even from the deck of Xash’s ship, Arin could see the arched trail of the Valorianbuilt aqueduct. It was faint in the distance, snaking down from the mountains, carrying something that had weakened the Herrani, making them sleep and shake. “I was seen in the capital,” Arin told Xash. “A Valorian ship chased mine almost to the Empty Islands. We must assume that the emperor knows that I know.” “What happened to the ship?” “It turned back. For reinforcements, prob ably—and the emperor’s orders.

” Arin spoke this man’s language in a clipped tone, his accent heavy, the syllables quick and hard. The language was new to him. “He’ll strike now.” “What makes you so sure there’s poison in the city’s aqueducts? Where did you get this information?” Arin hesitated, unsure of the Dacran words for what he wanted to say. “The Moth,” he answered in his own language. Xash narrowed his eyes even more. “A spy,” Arin said in Dacran, finally finding the right word. He spun the gold ring on his smallest finger and thought of Tensen, his spymaster, and how the Valorian ship that had followed him could be a sign that Tensen had been arrested even as Arin had left the imperial palace. The old man had insisted on staying behind. He could have been caught.

Tortured. Forced to speak. Arin imagined what the Valorians would have done . No. The god of death set a cold hand on Arin’s thoughts and curled tight around them. You’re not listening, Arin. Listen. “I need paper,” Arin said out loud. “I need ink.” Arin drew his country for Xash.

He sketched Herran’s peninsula swiftly, his pen sweeping the curves. He hatched the islands scattered south of the peninsula’s tip, peppering the sea between Herran and Valoria. He tapped Ithrya, a large, rocky island that created a thin strait between them and the peninsula’s tip. “The spring currents in the strait are strong. Difficult to sail against. But if a Valorian fleet’s coming, this is the route they’ll take.” “They’ll take a strait that’s hard to navigate?” Xash was skeptical. “They could sail around the three islands and turn north to hug the peninsula all the way up to your city.” “Too slow. Merchants love that strait.

This time of year, the currents are strongest, and push ships from Valoria right up to Herran’s doorstep. Shoots them fast through the strait. The emperor expects to attack a weakened city. He doesn’t expect resistance. He’ll see no reason to wait for what he wants.” Arin touched east of Ithrya Island and the peninsula’s end. “We can hide here, half the fleet just east of the peninsula, half on the eastern side of the island. When the Valorian fleet comes through, they’ll come through fast. We’ll flank them and attack from either side. They won’t be able to retreat, no matter what the winds.

If they try to sail back into the strait, the currents will spit them out.” “You’ve said nothing of numbers. We’re not a large fleet. Flanking the Valorians means splitting our fleet in half. Have you ever been in a sea battle?” “Yes.” “I hope you don’t mean that one in this bay the night of the Firstwinter Rebellion.” Arin was silent. “That was in a bay,” Xash sneered. “A pretty little cradle with gentle winds for rocking babies to sleep. It’s easy to maneuver here.

We are talking about a battle on the open sea. You are talking about weakening our fleet by cutting it in half.” “I don’t think the Valorian fleet will be large.” “You don’t think.” “It doesn’t need to be, not to attack a city whose population has been drugged into lethargy. A city,” Arin said pointedly, “that the emperor believes has no allies.” “I like a surprise attack. I like the thought of pinning the Valorians between us. But your plan only works if the emperor hasn’t sent a fleet that vastly outnumbers us, and can easily sink each of our flanks. It only works if the emperor truly doesn’t know that Dacra”—Xash’s voice betrayed his disapproval—“has allied with you.

The Valorian emperor would love to crush such an alliance with an overwhelming show of naval force. If he knows we’re here, he might very well send the entire Valorian fleet.” “Then a battle along the strait is better. Unless you’d rather they attack us here in the bay.” “I rule this fleet. I have the experience. You’re barely more than a boy. A foreign boy.” When Arin spoke again, it wasn’t with his own words. His god told him what to say.

“When your queen assigned you to sail your fleet to Herran, whom did she name with the ultimate command of it? You or me?” Xash’s face went hard with fury. Arin’s god grinned inside him. “We set sail now,” Arin said. The waters east of Ithrya Island were a sheer green. But Arin, from where his ship lay in wait for the Valorian fleet, could see how the currents pushing out of the strait made a broad, almost purple rope in the sea. He felt like that: like a dark, curling force was working through him. It flooded to the tips of his fingers and warmed him. It spread his ribs wide with each breath. When the first Valorian ship flew out of the strait, Arin was filled with a malicious joy. And it was easy.

The Valorians hadn’t expected them, clearly had no idea of the alliance. The size of the enemy fleet matched theirs. The slenderness of the strait made the Valorian ships sail out into Herran’s sea by twos. Easy to pick off. The eastern fleet drove at them from either side. Cannonballs punched the hulls. The gundecks fogged the air with black smoke. It smelled like a million burnt matches. Arin boarded his first Valorian ship. He seemed to watch all this as if from outside himself: the way his sword cut a Valorian sailor apart, and then another, and on until his blade was oiled red.

Blood sprayed him across the mouth. Arin didn’t taste it. Didn’t feel the way his dagger hand plunged into someone’s gut. Didn’t wince when an enemy sword crossed his guard and sliced his bicep. Arin’s god slapped him across the face. Pay attention, death demanded. Arin did, and after that, no one could touch him. When it was done, and Valorian wrecks were taking on water and the rest of the enemy ships had been seized, Arin could see straight again. He blinked against the lowering sun, its light an orange syrup that glazed the fallen bodies and gave the blood an odd color. Arin stood on the deck of a captured Valorian ship.

His breath heaved and hurt in his chest. Sweat dripped into his eyes. The enemy captain was dragged before Xash. “No,” Arin said. “Bring him to me.” Xash’s eyes were bright with anger. But the Dacrans did what Arin asked, and Xash let them. “Write a message to your emperor,” Arin said to the Valorian captain. “Tell him what he’s lost. Tell him he’ll pay if he tries again.

Use your personal seal. Send the message and I’ll let you live.” “How noble,” Xash said, contemptuous. The Valorian said nothing. He was white-lipped. Yet again Arin marveled at how the Valorian reputation for bravery and honor so often fell short of the truth. The man wrote his message. Are you really a boy, like Xash says? the god asked Arin. You’ve been mine for twenty years. I raised you.

The Valorian signed the scrap of paper. Cared for you. The message was rolled, sealed, and pushed into a tiny leather tube. Watched over you when you thought you were alone. The captain tied the tube to a hawk’s leg. The bird was too large to be a kestrel. It didn’t have a kestrel’s markings. It cocked its head, turning its glass-bead eyes on Arin. No, not a boy. A man made in my image .

one who knows he can’t af ord to be seen as weak. The hawk launched into the sky. You’re mine, Arin. You know what you must do. Arin cut the Valorian’s throat. It was when Arin was sailing home into his city’s bay, his hair hard with dried blood, his clothes stiff with it, that the story slipped inside him. It lay on his tongue and melted like a bitter candy. This is the story Arin told. Once there was a boy who knew how to cower. One night, the gods could see him locked alone inside his rooms, shaking, near vomiting with fear.

He heard what was happening elsewhere in the house. Screams. Things breaking. Harsh orders, the actual words muffled yet still clearly understood by the boy, who retched in his corner. His mother was somewhere beyond that locked door. His father. His sister. He should go to them. He said so to his pointed knees, tucked up beneath his nightshirt as he huddled on the floor. He whispered the words, voice warbling out of control.

Go to them. They need you. But he couldn’t move. He stayed where he was. The door thumped. It shuddered on its hinges. With a splintering crack, the door gave way. A foreign soldier pushed inside. The soldier’s skin and hair were fair, his eyes dark. He grabbed the boy by his bony wrist.

The boy tugged madly back, but it was ridiculous, he knew how pathetic his effort was. He squawked and flailed. The soldier laughed. He shook the boy. Not very hard, more as if trying to wake the child up. Come along nicely, the soldier said in a language that the boy had studied yet never expected to use. And you won’t get hurt. Not getting hurt was very important. The mere promise of it made the child go limp with ugly relief. He followed the soldier.

He was led to the atrium. Every one was there, the servants, too. His parents didn’t see him arrive. He was so quiet. Later, he couldn’t say how things would have been different if it hadn’t been his sister, standing at the far side of the room, who noticed him first. He wasn’t sure how he could have changed what happened after. All he knew was that at the most important moment, he had done nothing. He’d heard there were women in the Valorian army, but the soldiers in his house that night were men. Soldiers stood on either side of his sister. She was tall, imperious.

Her loose hair fell around her shoulders like a black cape. As Anireh’s gaze fell upon him and her gray eyes flashed, the boy realized that he’d never before believed that she loved him. Now he knew she did. She said something low to the Valorians. The boy heard the tone of it, musical in its mockery. What did you say? a soldier demanded. She said it again. The soldier seized her, and the boy understood with a sick horror that this was his fault. It was, somehow, all his fault. They were taking his sister away.

Soldiers were taking her toward a cloakroom used in winter when his family had evening guests. He’d hidden in there before. It was close and dark and airless. This was the point in the story when Arin wished he could reach through time and put his hands over the boy’s small ears. He wanted to deafen the sounds. Close your eyes, he wanted to tell that child. The echo of an old panic fluttered in Arin’s chest. It was crucial that he imagine how he would stop the boy from witnessing what happened next. Why did Arin do this to himself? It made him ache, this effort to try to change his memory of that night. It was compulsive.

Sometimes he thought it hurt more than the actual truth. Yet even now, more than ten years after the Valorian invasion, Arin couldn’t help thinking with desperate fervor about what he should have done differently. What if he’d called out? Or begged the soldiers to let his sister go? What if he’d run to his parents, who were still unaware of his presence in the room, and stopped his father from snatching a Valorian dagger from its sheath? Or his mother. Surely he could have saved his mother. It wasn’t her nature to fight. She wouldn’t have done it if she’d known he was there. He’d stared as she lunged at the soldier holding his sister. Soldiers cut his father down. The cloakroom door shut behind Anireh. A dagger sliced his mother’s throat.

There was a bright plume of blood. Arin’s ears were roaring. His eyes were dry rocks. After the soldiers had yanked him shrieking off his mother’s body, he was led with the servants into the city. The royal palace burned on its hill. He saw the corpses of the royal family hanging in the market, including the prince that Anireh was supposed to marry. It was possible that his sister was still alive, wasn’t it? But two days later Arin would see her body in the street. Even though it didn’t seem like anything worse could happen, Arin swallowed his sobs, was silent in his terror. He did as he was told. Come along nicely, the soldier had said.

He saw an armored man stalking among his troops. Later, Arin would learn that the general had been young at the time of the invasion. But that night the man had seemed ancient, enormous: a fleshand-metal monster. Arin imagined how, if he could, he would kneel before the boy he had been. He’d cradle himself to his chest, let the child bury his wet face against his shoulder. Shh, Arin would tell him. You will be lonely, but you’ ll become strong. One day, you will have your revenge. What had happened with Kestrel was not the worst thing. It did not compare.

Arin thought about this as his ship, with the rest of his victorious fleet, dropped anchor in Herran’s moonlit bay. He ran a thumb along the scar that cut down through his left brow and into the hollow of his cheek. Rubbed at the line of raised flesh. A recent habit. No, it didn’t hurt anymore to think about Kestrel. He’d been a fool, but he’d had to forgive himself for worse. Sister, father, mother. As for Kestrel . Arin had some clarity on who he was: the sort of person who trusted too blindly, who put his heart where it didn’t belong. She might even be married to the Valorian prince by now.

She was playing her games at court. No doubt winning. Maybe her father would write to her from the front and ask for more of the same excellent military advice she had given him when she’d condemned hundreds of people in the eastern plains to starvation. Arin used to clutch his head in disgusted wonder at how fascinated he’d once been by the daughter of the Valorian general. He used to sting at her rejection. Now, though, the thought of Kestrel gave him a cold relief. Ice on a bruise. Gratitude. Because she meant nothing to him. Wasn’t that a gods-given gift, to remember her and feel nothing? Or if he felt something, it was really no more than the way it was to touch his scar and marvel at its long ridge, the nerve-dead skin.

Arin knew that some things hurt forever, but Kestrel wasn’t one of them. She was a wound that had finally healed clean. Chapter 2 She had no one to blame but herself. As the wagon trundled north, Kestrel stared at the changing landscape through the barred window. She watched mountains give way to flat lands with patches of dull, reddish grass. Long-legged white birds picked their way through shallow pools. Once, she saw a fox with a white chick dangling from its teeth and Kestrel’s empty stomach clenched with longing. She would have gladly eaten that baby bird. She would have eaten the fox. Sometimes she wished she could eat herself.

She’d swallow everything—her soiled blue dress, the shackles on her wrists, her puffy face. If she could eat herself up, there’d be no trace left of her or the mistakes she had made. Awkwardly, she lifted her bound hands and knuckled her dry eyes. She thought that maybe she was too dehydrated to cry. Her throat hurt. She couldn’t remember when the guards driving the wagon had last given her water. They were deep into the tundra now. It was late spring—or no, Firstsummer must have already come. The tundra, frozen for most of the year, had come alive. There were clouds of mosquitoes.

They bit every bare inch of Kestrel’s skin. It was easier to think about mosquitoes. Easier to look at the low, sloping volcanoes on the horizon. Their tops had blown off long ago. The wagon angled toward them. Easier, too, to see lakes of astonishingly bright green-blue water. Harder to know that their color was due to sulfide in the water, which meant they were nearing the sulfur mines. Harder to know that her father had sent her here. Hard, horrible, the way he had looked at her, disowned her, accused her of treason. She’d been guilty.

She had done every thing that he believed of her, and now she had no father. Grief swelled in her throat. She tried to swallow it down. She had a list of things to do—what were they? Study the sky. Pretend you’re one of those birds. Lean your forehead against the wagon’s wall and breathe. Don’t remember. But she never could forget for long. Inevitably, she remembered her last night in the imperial palace. She remembered her letter confessing every thing to Arin.

I am the Moth. I am your country’s spy, she’d written. I have wanted to tell you this for so long. She’d scrawled the emperor’s secret plans. It didn’t matter that this was treason. It didn’t matter that she was supposed to marry the emperor’s son on First-summer’s day, or that her father was the emperor’s most trusted friend. Kestrel ignored that she’d been born Valorian. She’d written what she felt. I love you. I miss you.

I would do anything for you. But Arin had never read those words. Her father had. And her world came apart at the seams. Once there was a girl who was too sure of herself. Not everyone would call her beautiful, but they admitted that she had a certain grace that intimidated more often than it charmed. She was not, society agreed, someone you wanted to cross. She keeps her heart in a porcelain box, people whispered, and they were right. She didn’t like to open the box. The sight of her heart was unsettling.

It always looked both smaller and bigger than she expected. It thumped against the white porcelain. A fleshy red knot. Sometimes, though, she’d put her palm on the box’s lid, and then the steady pulse was a welcome music. One night, someone else heard its melody. A boy, hungry and far from home. He was—if you must know—a thief. He crept up the walls of the girl’s palace. He wriggled strong fingers into a window’s slim opening. He pulled it open wide enough to fit himself and pushed inside.

While the lady slept—yes, he saw her in bed, and looked quickly away—he stole the box without realizing what the box held. He knew only that he wanted it. His nature was full of want, he was always longing after something, and the longings he understood were so painful that he did not care to examine the ones that he didn’t understand. Any member of the lady’s society could have told him that his theft was a bad idea. They’d seen what happened to her enemies. One way or another, she always gave them their due. But he wouldn’t have listened to their advice. He took his prize and left. It was almost like magic, her skill. Her father (a god, people whispered, but his daughter, who loved him, knew him to be wholly mortal) had taught her well.

When a gust of wind from the gaping window woke her, she caught the thief’s scent. He’d left it on the casement, on her dressing table, even on one of her bed curtains, drawn ever so slightly aside. She hunted him. She saw his path up the palace wall, the broken twigs of fox-ivy he’d used to clamber up, then down. In some places the ivy branches were as thick as her wrist. She saw where it had held his weight, and where it hadn’t and he’d almost fallen. She went outside and tracked his footprints back to his lair. You could say that the thief knew the moment she crossed his threshold what he held in his tightening fist. You could say that he should have known well before then. The heart shuddered in its cool white box.

It hammered inside his hand. It occurred to him that the porcelain—milky, silken, so fine that it made him angry—might very well shatter. He’d end up with a handful of bloody shards. Yet he didn’t relinquish what he held. You could imagine how he felt when she stood in his broken doorway, set her feet on his earthen floor, lit up the room like a terrible flame. You could. But this isn’t his story. The lady saw the thief. She saw how little he had. She saw his iron-colored eyes.

Sooty lashes, black brows, darker than his dark hair. A grim mouth. Now, if the lady had been honest, she would have admitted that earlier that evening as she’d lain in bed, she’d woken for the length of three heartbeats (she had counted them as they rang loud in her quiet room). She’d seen his hand on her white-covered heart. She had closed her eyes again. The sleep that had reclaimed her had been sweet. But honesty requires courage. As she cornered the thief in his lair, she found that she wasn’t so sure of herself. She was sure of only one thing. It made her fall back a little.

She lifted her chin. Her heart had an unsteady rhythm they both could hear when she told the thief that he might keep what he had stolen.

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