Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
They were never meant to be together. As a general's daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can't help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other.
Set in a new world, The Winner's Curse is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
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She shouldn’t have been tempted.
This is what Kestrel thought as she swept the sailors’ silver off the impromptu gaming table set up in a corner of the market.
“Don’t go,” said one sailor.
“Stay,” said another, but Kestrel cinched her wrist-strap velvet purse shut. The sun had lowered, and caramelized the color of things, which meant that she had played cards long enough to be noticed by someone who mattered.
Someone who would tell her father.
Cards wasn’t even her favorite game. The silver wouldn’t begin to pay for her silk dress, snagged from the splintery crate she had used as a stool. But sailors were much better adversaries than the average aristocrat. They flipped cards with feral tricks, swore when they lost, swore when they won, would gouge the last silver keystone coin out of a friend. And they cheated. Kestrel especially liked it when they cheated. It made beating them not quite so easy.
She smiled and left them. Then her smile faded. This hour of thrilling risk was going to cost her. It wasn’t the gambling that would infuriate her father, or the company she had kept. No, General Trajan was going to want to know why his daughter was in the city market alone.
Other people wondered, too. She saw it in their eyes as she threaded through market stalls offering open sacks of spice, the scents mingling with salty air that wafted from the nearby port. Kestrel guessed the words people didn’t dare whisper as she passed. Of course they didn’t speak. They knew who she was. And she knew what they would say.
Where was Lady Kestrel’s escort?
And if she had no friend or family available to escort her to the market, where was her slave?
Well, as for a slave, they had been left at her villa. Kestrel did not need them.
As for the whereabouts of her escort, she was wondering the same thing.
Jess had wandered off to look at the wares. Kestrel last saw her weaving like a flower-drunk bee through the stalls, her pale blond hair almost white in the summer sun. Technically, Jess could get in as much trouble as Kestrel. It wasn’t allowed for a young Valorian girl who wasn’t a member of the military to walk alone. But Jess’s parents doted on her, and they hardly had the same notion of discipline as the highest-ranking general in the Valorian army.
Kestrel scanned the stalls for her friend, and finally caught the gleam of blond braids styled in the latest fashion. Jess was talking to a jewelry seller who dangled a pair of earrings. The translucent gold droplets caught the light.
Kestrel drew closer.
“Topaz,” the elderly woman was saying to Jess. “To brighten your lovely brown eyes. Only ten keystones.”
There was a hard set to the jewelry seller’s mouth. Kestrel met the woman’s gray eyes and noticed that her wrinkled skin was browned from years of working outdoors. She was Herrani, but a brand on her wrist proved that she was free. Kestrel wondered how she had earned that freedom. Slaves freed by their masters were rare.
Jess glanced up. “Oh, Kestrel,” she breathed. “Aren’t these earrings perfect?”
Maybe if the weight of silver in Kestrel’s purse hadn’t dragged at her wrist she would have said nothing. Maybe if that drag at her wrist hadn’t also dragged at her heart with dread, Kestrel would have thought before she spoke. But instead she blurted what was the obvious truth. “They’re not topaz. They’re glass.”
There was a sudden bubble of silence. It expanded, grew thin and sheer. People around them were listening. The earrings trembled in midair.
Because the jewelry seller’s bony fingers were trembling.
Because Kestrel had just accused her of trying to cheat a Valorian.
And what would happen next? What would happen to any Herrani in this woman’s position? What would the crowd witness?
An officer of the city guard called to the scene. A plea of innocence, ignored. Old hands bound to the whipping post. Lashes until blood darkened the market dirt.
“Let me see,” Kestrel said, her voice imperious, because she was very good at being imperious. She reached for the earrings and pretended to examine them. “Ah. It seems I was mistaken. Indeed they are topaz.”
“Take them,” whispered the jewelry seller.
“We are not poor. We have no need of a gift from someone such as you.” Kestrel set coins on the woman’s table. The bubble of silence broke, and shoppers returned to discussing whatever ware had caught their fancy.
Kestrel gave the earrings to Jess and led her away.
As they walked, Jess studied one earring, letting it swing like a tiny bell. “So they are real?”
“How can you tell?”
“They’re completely unclouded,” Kestrel said. “No flaws. Ten keystones was too cheap a price for topaz of that quality.”
Jess might have commented that ten keystones was too great a price for glass. But she said only, “The Herrani would say that the god of lies must love you, you see things so clearly.”
Kestrel remembered the woman’s stricken gray eyes. “The Herrani tell too many stories.” They had been dreamers. Her father always said that this was why they had been easy to conquer.
“Everyone loves stories,” Jess said.
Kestrel stopped to take the earrings from Jess and slip them into her friend’s ears. “Then wear these to the next society dinner. Tell everyone you paid an outrageous sum, and they will believe they’re true jewels. Isn’t that what stories do, make real things fake, and fake things real?”
Jess smiled, turning her head from side to side so that the earrings glittered. “Well? Am I beautiful?”
“Silly. You know you are.”
Jess led the way now, slipping past a table with brass bowls holding powdered dye. “It’s my turn to buy something for you,” she said.
“I have everything I need.”
“You sound like an old woman! One would think you’re seventy, not seventeen.”
The crowd was thicker now, filled with the golden features of Valorians, hair and skin and eyes ranging from honey tones to light brown. The occasional dark heads belonged to well-dressed house slaves, who had come with their masters and stayed close to their sides.
“Don’t look so troubled,” Jess said. “Come, I will find something to make you happy. A bracelet?”
But that reminded Kestrel of the jewelry seller. “We should go home.”
“Aha,” said Jess. She seized Kestrel’s hand. “Don’t let go.”
This was an old game. Kestrel closed her eyes and was tugged blindly after Jess, who laughed, and then Kestrel laughed, too, as she had years ago when they first met.
The general had been impatient with his daughter’s mourning. “Your mother’s been dead half a year,” he had said. “That is long enough.” Finally, he had had a senator in a nearby villa bring his daughter, also eight years old, to visit. The men went inside Kestrel’s house. The girls were told to stay outside. “Play,” the general had ordered.
Jess had chattered at Kestrel, who ignored her. Finally, Jess stopped. “Close your eyes,” she said.
Curious, Kestrel did.
Jess had grabbed her hand. “Don’t let go!” They tore over the general’s grassy grounds, slipping and tumbling and laughing.
It was like that now, except for the press of people around them.
Jess slowed. Then she stopped and said, “Oh.”
Kestrel opened her eyes.
The girls had come to a waist-high wooden barrier that overlooked a pit below. “You brought me here?”
“I didn’t mean to,” said Jess. “I got distracted by a woman’s hat—did you know hats are in fashion?—and was following to get a better look, and…”
“And brought us to the slave market.” The crowd had congealed behind them, noisy with restless anticipation. There would be an auction soon.
Kestrel stepped back. She heard a smothered oath when her heel met someone’s toes.
“We’ll never get out now,” Jess said. “We might as well stay until the auction’s over.”
Hundreds of Valorians were gathered before the barrier, which curved in a wide semicircle. Everyone in the crowd was dressed in silks, each with a dagger strapped to the hip, though some—like Jess—wore it more as an ornamental toy than a weapon.
The pit below was empty, save for a large wooden auction block.
“At least we have a good view.” Jess shrugged.
Kestrel knew that Jess understood why her friend had claimed loudly that the glass earrings were topaz. Jess understood why they had been purchased. But the girl’s shrug reminded Kestrel that there were certain things they couldn’t discuss.
“Ah,” said a pointy-chinned woman at Kestrel’s side. “At last.” Her eyes narrowed on the pit and the stocky man walking into its center. He was Herrani, with the typical black hair, though his skin was pale from an easy life, no doubt due to the same favoritism that had gotten him this job. This was someone who had learned how to please his Valorian conquerors.
The auctioneer stood in front of the block.
“Show us a girl first,” called the woman at Kestrel’s side, her voice both loud and languid.
Many voices were shouting now, each calling for what they wanted to see. Kestrel found it hard to breathe.
“A girl!” yelled the pointy-chinned woman, this time more loudly.
The auctioneer, who had been sweeping his hands toward him as if gathering the cries and excitement, paused when the woman’s shout cut through the noise. He glanced at her, then at Kestrel. A flicker of surprise seemed to show on his face. She thought that she must have imagined it, for he skipped on to Jess, then peered in a full semicircle at all the Valorians against the barrier above and around him.
He raised a hand. Silence fell. “I have something very special for you.”
The acoustics of the pit were made to carry a whisper, and the auctioneer knew his trade. His soft voice made everyone lean closer.
His hand shifted to beckon toward the open, yet roofed and shadowed structure built low and small at the back of the pit. He twitched his fingers once, then twice, and something stirred in the holding pen.
A young man stepped out.
The crowd murmured. Bewilderment grew as the slave slowly paced across the yellow sand. He stepped onto the auction block.
This was nothing special.
“Nineteen years old, and in fine condition.” The auctioneer clapped the slave on the back. “This one,” he said, “would be perfect for the house.”
Laughter rushed through the crowd. Valorians nudged each other and praised the auctioneer. He knew how to entertain.
The slave was bad goods. He looked, Kestrel thought, like a brute. A deep bruise on the slave’s cheek was evidence of a fight and a promise that he would be difficult to control. His bare arms were muscular, which likely only confirmed the crowd’s belief that he would be best working for someone with a whip in hand. Perhaps in another life he could have been groomed for a house; his hair was brown, light enough to please some Valorians, and while his features couldn’t be discerned from Kestrel’s distance, there was a proud line in the way he stood. But his skin was bronzed from outdoor labor, and surely it was to such work that he would return. He might be purchased by someone who needed a dockworker or a builder of walls.
Yet the auctioneer kept up his joke. “He could serve at your table.”
“Or be your valet.”
Valorians held their sides and fluttered their fingers, begging the auctioneer to stop, stop, he was too funny.
“I want to leave,” Kestrel told Jess, who pretended not to hear.
“All right, all right.” The auctioneer grinned. “The lad does have some real skills. On my honor,” he added, laying a hand over his heart, and the crowd chuckled again, for it was common knowledge that there was no such thing as Herrani honor. “This slave has been trained as a blacksmith. He would be perfect for any soldier, especially for an officer with a guard of his own and weapons to maintain.”
There was a murmur of interest. Herrani blacksmiths were rare. If Kestrel’s father were here, he would probably bid. His guard had long complained about the quality of the city blacksmith’s work.
“Shall we start the bidding?” said the auctioneer. “Five pilasters. Do I hear five bronze pilasters for the boy? Ladies and gentlemen, you could not hire a blacksmith for so little.”
“Five,” someone called.
And the bidding began in earnest.
The bodies at Kestrel’s back might as well have been stone. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t look at the expressions of her people. She couldn’t catch the attention of Jess, or stare into the too-bright sky. These were all the reasons, she decided, why it was impossible to gaze anywhere else but at the slave.
“Oh, come now,” said the auctioneer. “He’s worth at least ten.”
The slave’s shoulders stiffened. The bidding continued.
Kestrel closed her eyes. When the price reached twenty-five pilasters, Jess said, “Kestrel, are you ill?”
“We’ll leave as soon as it’s over. It won’t be long now.”
There was a lull in the bidding. It appeared the slave would go for twenty-five pilasters, a pitiful price, yet as much as anyone was willing to pay for a person who would soon be worked into uselessness.
“My dear Valorians,” said the auctioneer. “I have forgotten one thing. Are you sure he wouldn’t make a fine house slave? Because this lad can sing.”
Kestrel opened her eyes.
“Imagine music during dinner, how charmed your guests will be.” The auctioneer glanced up at the slave, who stood tall on his block. “Go on. Sing for them.”
Only then did the slave shift position. It was a slight movement and quickly stilled, but Jess sucked in her breath as if she, like Kestrel, expected a fight to break out in the pit below.
The auctioneer hissed at the slave in rapid Herrani, too quietly for Kestrel to understand.
The slave answered in his language. His voice was low: “No.”
Perhaps he didn’t know the acoustics of the pit. Perhaps he didn’t care, or worry that any Valorian knew at least enough Herrani to understand him. No matter. The auction was over now. No one would want him. Probably the person who had offered twenty-five pilasters was already regretting a bid for someone so intractable that he wouldn’t obey even his own kind.
But his refusal touched Kestrel. The stony set of the slave’s shoulders reminded her of herself, when her father demanded something that she couldn’t give.
The auctioneer was furious. He should have closed the sale or at least made a show of asking for a higher price, but he simply stood there, fists at his sides, likely trying to figure out how he could punish the young man before passing him on to the misery of cutting rock, or the heat of the forge.
Kestrel’s hand moved on its own. “A keystone,” she called.
The auctioneer turned. He sought the crowd. When he found Kestrel a smile sparked his expression into cunning delight. “Ah,” he said, “there is someone who knows worth.”
“Kestrel.” Jess plucked at her sleeve. “What are you doing?”
The auctioneer’s voice boomed: “Going once, going twice—”
“Twelve keystones!” called a man leaning against the barrier across from Kestrel, on the other side of its semicircle.
The auctioneer’s jaw dropped. “Twelve?”
“Thirteen!” came another cry.
Kestrel inwardly winced. If she had to bid anything—and why, why had she?—it shouldn’t have been so high. Everyone thronged around the pit was looking at her: the general’s daughter, a high society bird who flitted from one respectable house to the next. They thought—
They thought that if she wanted the slave, he must merit the price. There must be a reason to want him, too.
And the delicious mystery of why made one bid top the next.
The slave was staring at her now, and no wonder, since it was she who had ignited this insanity. Kestrel felt something within her swing on the hinge of fate and choice.
She lifted her hand. “I bid twenty keystones.”
“Good heavens, girl,” said the pointy-chinned woman to her left. “Drop out. Why bid on him? Because he’s a singer? A singer of dirty Herrani drinking songs, if anything.”
Kestrel didn’t glance at her, or at Jess, though she sensed the girl was twisting her fingers. Kestrel’s gaze didn’t waver from the slave’s.
“Twenty-five!” shouted a woman from behind.
The price was now more than Kestrel had in her purse. The auctioneer looked like he barely knew what to do with himself. The bidding spiraled higher, each voice spurring the next until it seemed that a roped arrow was shooting through the members of the crowd, binding them together, drawing them tight with excitement.
Kestrel’s voice came out flat: “Fifty keystones.”
The sudden, stunned quiet hurt her ears. Jess gasped.
“Sold!” cried the auctioneer. His face was wild with joy. “To Lady Kestrel, for fifty keystones!” He tugged the slave off the block, and it was only then that the youth’s gaze broke away from Kestrel’s. He looked at the sand, so intently that he could have been reading his future there, until the auctioneer prodded him toward the pen.
Kestrel drew in a shaky breath. Her bones felt watery. What had she done?
Jess slipped a supporting hand under her elbow. “You are sick.”
“And rather light of purse, I’d say.” The pointy-chinned woman snickered. “Looks like someone’s suffering the Winner’s Curse.”
Kestrel turned to her. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t come to auctions often, do you? The Winner’s Curse is when you come out on top of the bid, but only by paying a steep price.”
The crowd was thinning. Already the auctioneer was bringing out someone else, but the rope of excitement that had bound the Valorians to the pit had disintegrated. The show was over. The path was now clear for Kestrel to leave, yet she couldn’t move.
“I don’t understand,” said Jess.
Neither did Kestrel. What had she been thinking? What had she been trying to prove?
Nothing, she told herself. Her back to the pit, she made her foot take the first step away from what she had done.
Nothing at all.
Text copyright © 2014 by Marie Rutkoski