The Winner’s Crime (Excerpt)

A royal wedding is what most girls dream about. It means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making.

As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement: that she agreed to marry the crown prince in exchange for Arin’s freedom. But can Kestrel trust Arin? Can she even trust herself? For Kestrel is becoming very good at deception. She’s working as a spy in the court. If caught, she’ll be exposed as a traitor to her country. Yet she can’t help searching for a way to change her ruthless world… and she is close to uncovering a shocking secret.

Marie Rutkoski’s follow-up to The Winner’s Curse reveals the high price of dangerous lies and untrustworthy alliances. The truth will come out, and when it does, Kestrel and Arin will learn just how much their crimes will cost them. The Winner’s Crime is available March 3rd from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

 

1

 

She cut herself opening the envelope.

Kestrel had been eager, she’d been a fool, tearing into the letter simply because it had been addressed in Herrani script. The letter opener slipped. Seeds of blood hit the paper and bloomed bright.

It wasn’t, of course, from him. The letter was from Herran’s new minister of agriculture. He wrote to introduce himself, and to say he looked forward to when they would meet. I believe you and I have much in common and much to discuss, he wrote.

Kestrel wasn’t sure what he meant by that. She didn’t know him, or even of him. Although she supposed she would have to meet with the minister at some point—she was, after all, the imperial ambassador to the now independent territory of Herran—Kestrel didn’t anticipate spending time with the minister of agriculture. She had nothing to say on crop rotation or fertilizer.

Kestrel caught the haughty tone of her thoughts. She felt the way it thinned her mouth. She realized that she was furious at this letter.

At herself. At the way her heart had leaped to see her name scrawled in the Herrani alphabet on the envelope. She had hoped so hard that it was from Arin.

But she’d had no contact with him for nearly a month, not since she’d offered him his country’s freedom. And the envelope hadn’t even been addressed in his hand. She knew his writing. She knew the fingers that would hold the pen. Blunt-cut nails, silver scars from old burns, the calloused scrape of his palm, all very at odds with his elegant cursive. Kestrel should have known right away that the letter wasn’t from him.

But still: the quick slice of paper. Still: the disappointment.

Kestrel set aside the letter. She pulled the silk sash from her waist, threading it out from under the dagger that she, like all Valorians, wore strapped to her hip. She wound the sash around her bleeding hand. She was ruining the sash’s ivory silk. Her blood spotted it. But a ruined sash didn’t matter, not to her. Kestrel was engaged to Prince Verex, heir to the Valorian empire. The proof of it was marked daily on her brow in an oiled, glittering line. She had sashes upon sashes, dresses upon dresses, a river of jewels. She was the future empress.

Yet when she stood from her carved ebony chair, she was unsteady. She looked around her study, one of many rooms in her suite, and was unsettled by the stone walls, the corners set insistently into perfect right angles, the way two narrow hallways cut into the room. It should have made sense to Kestrel, who knew that the imperial palace was also a fortress. Tight hallways were a way to bottleneck an invading force. Yet it looked unfriendly and alien. It was so different from her home.

Kestrel reminded herself that her home in Herran had never really been hers. She may have been raised in that colony, but she was Valorian. She was where she was supposed to be. Where she had chosen to be.

The cut had stopped bleeding.

Kestrel left the letter and went to change her day dress for dinner. This was her life: rich fabric and watered silk trim. A dinner with the emperor… and the prince.

Yes, this was her life.

She must get used to it.

 

The emperor was alone. He smiled when she entered his stone-walled dining room. His gray hair was cropped in the same military style as her father’s, his eyes dark and keen. He didn’t stand from the long table to greet her.

“Your Imperial Majesty.” She bowed her head.

“Daughter.” His voice echoed in the vaulted chamber. It rang against the empty plates and glasses. “Sit.”

She moved to do so.

“No,” he said. “Here, at my right hand.”

“That’s the prince’s place.”

“The prince, it seems, is not here.”

She sat. Slaves served the first course. They poured white wine. She could have asked why he had summoned her to dinner, and where the prince might be, but Kestrel had seen how the emperor loved to shape silence into a tool that pried open the anxieties of others. She let the silence grow until it was of her making as well as his, and only when the third course arrived did she speak. “I hear the campaign against the east goes well.”

“So your father writes from the front. I must reward him for an excellently waged war. Or perhaps, Lady Kestrel, it’s you I should reward.”

She drank from her cup. “His success is none of my doing.”

“No? You urged me to put an end to the Herrani rebellion by giving that territory self-governance under my law. You argued that this would free up troops and money to fuel my eastern war, and lo”—he flourished a hand—“it did. What clever advice from one so young.”

His words made her nervous. If he knew the real reason she had argued for Herrani independence, she would pay for it. Kestrel tried the painstakingly prepared food. There were boats made from a meat terrine, their sails clear gelatin. She ate slowly.

“Don’t you like it?” said the emperor.

“I’m not very hungry.”

He rang a golden bell. “Dessert,” he told the serving boy who instantly appeared. “We’ll skip ahead to dessert. I know how young ladies enjoy sweet things.” But when the boy returned bearing two small plates made from porcelain so fine Kestrel could see light sheer through the rims, the emperor said, “None for me,” and one plate was set before Kestrel along with a strangely light and translucent fork.

She calmed herself. The emperor didn’t know the truth about the day she had pushed for an end to the Herrani rebellion. No one did. Not even Arin knew that she had bought his freedom with a few strategic words… and the promise to wed the crown prince.

If Arin knew, he would fight it. He’d ruin himself.

If the emperor knew why she had done it, he would ruin her.

Kestrel looked at the pile of pink whipped cream on her plate, and at the clear fork, as if they composed the whole of her world. She must speak cautiously. “What need have I of a reward, when you have given me your only son?”

“And such a prize he is. Yet we’ve no date set for the wedding. When shall it be? You’ve been quiet on the subject.”

“I thought Prince Verex should decide.” If the choice were left to the prince, the wedding date would be never.

“Why don’t we decide?”

“Without him?”

“My dear girl, if the prince’s slippery mind cannot remember something so simple as the day and time of a dinner with his father and lady, how can we expect him to plan any part of the most important state event in decades?”

Kestrel said nothing.

“You’re not eating,” he said.

She sank the clear fork into the cream and lifted it to her mouth. The fork’s tines dissolved against her tongue. “Sugar,” she said with surprise. “The fork is made of hardened sugar.”

“Do you like the dessert?”

“Yes.”

“Then you must eat it all.”

But how to finish the cream if the fork continued to dissolve each time she took a mouthful? Most of the fork remained in her hand, but it wouldn’t last.

A game. The dessert was a game, the conversation a game. The emperor wanted to see how she would play.

He said, “I think the end of this month would be ideal for a wedding.”

Kestrel ate more of the cream. The tines completely vanished, leaving something that resembled an aborted spoon. “A winter wedding? There will be no flowers.”

“You don’t need flowers.”

“If you know that young ladies like dessert, you must also know that they like flowers.”

“I suppose you’d prefer a spring wedding, then.”

Kestrel lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Summer would be best.”

“Luckily my palace has hothouses. Even in winter, we could carpet the great hall with petals.”

Kestrel silently ate more of the dessert. Her fork turned into a flat stick.

“Unless you want to postpone the wedding,” said the emperor.

“I’m thinking of our guests. The empire is vast. People will come from every province. Winter is a terrible time to travel and spring little better. It rains. The roads become muddy.”

The emperor leaned back in his chair, studying her with an amused expression.

“Also,” she said, “I’d hate to waste an opportunity. You know that the nobles and governors will give you what they can—favors, information, gold—for the best seats at the wedding. The mystery of what I’ll wear and what music will be played will distract the empire. No one would notice if you made a political decision that would otherwise outrage thousands. If I were you, I would enjoy my long engagement. Use it for all it’s worth.”

He laughed. “Oh, Kestrel. What an empress you will be.” He raised his glass. “To your happy union, on the day of Firstsummer.”

She would have had to drink to that, had not Prince Verex entered the dining room and stopped short, his large eyes showing every shift of emotion: surprise, hurt, anger.

“You’re late,” his father said.

“I am not.” Verex’s hands clenched.

“Kestrel managed to be here on time. Why couldn’t you?”

“Because you told me the wrong hour.”

The emperor tsked. “You misremember.”

“You’re making me look the fool!”

“I am making you look nothing of the kind.”

Verex’s mouth snapped shut. His head bobbed on his thin neck like something caught in a current.

“Come,” Kestrel said gently. “Have dessert with us.”

The look he shot her told Kestrel that he might hate his father’s games, but he hated her pity more. He fled the room.

Kestrel toyed with her stub of a sugar fork. Even after the prince’s noisy course down the hall had dwindled into silence, she knew better than to speak.

“Look at me,” the emperor said.

She raised her eyes.

“You don’t want a summer wedding for the sake of flowers, or guests, or political purchase,” he said. “You want to postpone it for as long as possible.”

Kestrel held the fork tightly.

“I’ll give you what you want, within reason,” he said, “and I will tell you why. Because I don’t blame you, given your bridegroom. Because you don’t whine for what you want, but seek to win it. Like I would. When you look at me, you see who you will become. A ruler. I have chosen you, Kestrel, and will make you into everything my son cannot be. Someone fit to take my place.”

Kestrel looked, and her look became a stare that searched for her future in an old man capable of cruelty to his own child.

He smiled. “Tomorrow I’d like for you to meet with the captain of the imperial guard.”

She had never met the captain before, but was familiar enough with his role. Officially, he was responsible for the emperor’s personal safety. Unofficially, this duty spread to others that no one discussed. Surveillance. Assassinations. The captain was good at making people vanish.

“He has something to show you,” the emperor said.

“What is it?”

“A surprise. Now look happy, Kestrel. I’m giving you everything that you could want.”

Sometimes the emperor was generous. She’d seen audiences with him where he’d given senators private land in new colonies, or powerful seats in the Quorum. But she’d also seen how his generosity tempted others to ask for just a little more. Then his eyes went heavy-lidded, like a cat’s, and she would see how his gifts made people reveal what they really wanted.

Nonetheless, she couldn’t help hoping that the wedding could be put off for longer than a few months. Firstsummer was better than next week, of course, but still too soon. Much too soon. Would the emperor agree to a year? More? She said, “Firstsummer—”

“Is the perfect date.”

Kestrel’s gaze fell to her closed hand. It opened with a sweet scent and rested empty on the table.

The sugar fork had vanished against the heat of her palm.

 

 

2

 

Arin was in his father’s study, which he probably would never be able to think of as his own, no matter how old the ghosts of his dead family grew.

It was a clear day. The view from the study window showed the city in detail, with its ruined patches left by the rebellion. The pale wafer of a winter sun gave Herran’s harbor a blurry glow.

Arin wasn’t thinking of her. He wasn’t. He was thinking of how slowly the city walls were being rebuilt. Of the hearthnut harvest soon to come in the southern countryside, and how it would bring much-needed food and trade to Herran. He wasn’t thinking of Kestrel, or of the past month and a week of not thinking of her. But not thinking was like lifting slabs of rock, and he was so distracted by the strain of it that he didn’t hear Sarsine enter the room, or notice his cousin at all until she had shoved an opened letter at him.

The broken seal showed the sigil of crossed swords. A letter from the Valorian emperor. Sarsine’s face told Arin that he wouldn’t like what he was about to read.

“What is it?” he asked. “Another tax?” He rubbed his eyes. “The emperor must know we can’t pay, not again, not so soon after the last levy. This is ruinous.”

“Well, now we see why the emperor so kindly returned Herran to the Herrani.”

They had discussed this before. It seemed the only explanation to such an unexpected decision. Revenues from Herran used to go into the pockets of the Valorian aristocrats who had colonized it. Then came the Firstwinter Rebellion and the emperor’s decree, and those aristocrats had returned to the capital, the loss of their land named as a cost of war. Now the emperor was able to bleed Herran dry through taxes its people were unable to protest. The territory’s wealth flowed directly into imperial coffers.

A devious move. But what worried Arin most was the nagging sense that he was missing something. It had been hard to think that day when Kestrel had handed him the emperor’s offer and demands. It had been hard to see anything but the gold line that had marked her brow.

“Just tell me how much it’ll cost this time,” he said to Sarsine.

Her mouth screwed into a knot. “Not a tax. An invitation.” She left the room.

Arin unfolded the paper. His hands went still.

As governor of Herran, Arin was requested to attend a ball in the Valorian capital. In honor of the engagement of Lady Kestrel to Crown Prince Verex, read the letter.

Sarsine had called it an invitation, but Arin recognized it for what it was: an order, one that he had no power to disobey, even though he was supposedly no longer a slave.

Arin’s eyes lifted from the page and gazed upon the harbor. When Arin had worked on the docks, one of the other slaves was known as the Favor-Keeper.

Slaves had no possessions, or at least nothing that their Valorian conquerors would recognize as such. Even if Arin had had something of his own, he had no pockets to hold it. Clothes with pockets went to house slaves only. This was the measure of life under the Valorians: that the Herrani people knew their place according to whether they had pockets and the illusion of being able to keep something private within them.

Yet slaves still had a currency. They traded favors. Extra food. A thicker pallet. The luxury of a few minutes of rest while someone else worked. If a slave on the docks wanted something, he asked the Favor-Keeper, the oldest Herrani among them.

The Favor-Keeper kept a ball of thread with a differentcolored string for each man. If Arin had had a request, his string would have been spooled and looped and spindled around another one, perhaps yellow, and that yellow string might have wound its way about a green one, depending on who owed what. The Favor-Keeper’s knot recorded it all.

But Arin had had no string. He had asked for nothing. He gave nothing. Already a young man then, he had despised the thought of being in debt to anyone.

Now he studied the Valorian emperor’s letter. It was beautifully inked. Artfully phrased. It fit well with Arin’s surroundings, with the liquid-like varnish of his father’s desk and the leaded glass windows that shot winter light into the study.

The light made the emperor’s words all too easy to read.

Arin crushed the paper into his fist and squeezed hard. He wished for a Favor-Keeper. He would forsake his pride to become a simple string, if only he could have what he wanted.

Arin would trade his heart for a snarled knot of thread if it meant he would never have to see Kestrel again.

 

He consulted with Tensen. The elderly man studied the uncrumpled and flattened invitation, his pale green eyes gleaming. He set the thick, wrinkled page on Arin’s desk and tapped the first line of writing with one dry finger. “This,” he said, “is an excellent opportunity.”

“Then you’ll go,” said Arin.

“Of course.”

“Without me.”

Tensen pursed his lips. He gave Arin that schoolmaster’s look that had served him well as a tutor to Valorian children. “Arin. Let’s not be proud.”

“It’s not pride. I’m too busy. You’ll represent Herran at the ball.”

“I don’t think that the emperor will be satisfied with a mere minister of agriculture.”

“I don’t care for the emperor’s satisfaction.”

“Sending me, alone, will either insult the emperor or reveal to him that I’m more important than I seem.” Tensen rubbed his grizzled jaw, considering Arin. “You need to go. It’s a part you must play. You’re a good actor.”

Arin shook his head.

Tensen’s eyes darkened. “I was there that day.”

The day last summer when Kestrel had bought him.

Arin could feel again the sweat crawling down his back as he waited in the holding pen below in the auction pit. The structure was roofed, which meant that Arin couldn’t see the crowd of Valorians ranged above at ground level, only Cheat in the center of the pit.

Arin smelled the stink of his skin, felt the grit beneath his bare feet. He was sore. As he listened to Cheat’s voice rise and fall in the bantering singsong of an expert auctioneer, he pressed tentative fingers to his bruised cheek. His face was like a rotten fruit.

Cheat had been furious with him that morning. “Two days,” he’d growled. “I rent you out for only two days and you come back looking like this. What’s so hard about laying a road and keeping your mouth shut?”

Waiting in the holding pen, not really listening to the drone of the auction, Arin didn’t want to think about the beating and everything that had led up to it.

In truth, the bruises changed nothing. Arin couldn’t fool himself that Cheat would ever be able to sell him into a Valorian household. Valorians cared about their house slaves’ appearance, and Arin didn’t fit the part even when his face wasn’t half-masked in various shades of purple. He looked like a laborer. He was one. Laborers were not brought into the house, and houses were where Cheat needed to plant slaves devoted to the rebellion.

Arin tipped his head back against the rough wood of the pen’s wall. He fought his frustration.

There came a long silence in the pit. The lull meant that Cheat had closed the sale while Arin wasn’t paying attention and had stepped into the auction house for a break.

Then: a locust-like whir from the crowd. Cheat was returning to the pit, stepping close to the block on which another slave was about to stand.

To his audience, Cheat said, “I have something very special for you.”

Each slave in the holding pen straightened. The afternoon torpor was gone. Even the old man, whose name Arin would later learn was Tensen, became sharply alert.

Cheat had spoken in code. “Something very special” conveyed a secret meaning to the slaves: the chance to be sold in a way to contribute to the rebellion. To spy. Steal. Maybe murder. Cheat had many plans.

It was the very in what Cheat had said that made Arin sick with himself, because that word signaled the most important sale of all, the one they’d been waiting for: the opportunity for a rebel to be placed in General Trajan’s household.

Who was there, above in the crowd of Valorians?

The general himself ?

And Arin, stupid Arin, had squandered his chance at revenge. Cheat would never choose him for the sale.

Yet when the auctioneer turned to face the holding pen, his eyes looked straight into Arin’s. Cheat’s fingers twitched twice. The signal.

Arin had been chosen.

“That day,” Arin told Tensen as they sat in the winter light of his father’s study, “was different. Everything was different.”

“Was it? You were ready to do anything for your people then. Aren’t you now?”

“It’s a ball, Tensen.”

“It’s an opportunity. At the very least, we could use it to find out how much the emperor plans to take of the hearthnut harvest.”

The harvest would be soon. Their people needed it badly for food and trade. Arin pressed his fingertips against his brow. A headache was building behind his eyes. “What is there to know? Whatever he will take will be too much.”

For a moment, Tensen said nothing. Then, grimly: “I’ve heard nothing from Thrynne for weeks.”

“Maybe he hasn’t been able to get out of the palace and into the city to reach our contact.”

“Maybe. But we have precious few sources in the imperial palace as it is. This is a dicey time. The empire’s elite are pouring out gold to prepare themselves for the most lavish winter season in Valorian history, what with the engagement. And the colonists who once lived in Herran grow increasingly resentful. They didn’t like returning their stolen homes to us. They’re a minority, and the military is solidly with the emperor, so he can ignore them. But all signs point to the court being a volatile place, and we can never forget that we are at the emperor’s mercy. Who knows what he’ll choose to do next? Or how it will affect us? This”— Tensen nodded at the invitation—“would be a good means to look into Thrynne’s silence. Arin, are you listening? We can’t afford to lose such a well-placed spy.”

Just as Arin had been well-placed. Expertly placed. He hadn’t been sure, that day in the market, how Cheat had known that Arin was the perfect slave to pitch. Cheat had a knack for spotting weakness. An eye for desire. Somehow he had peered into the heart of the bidder and had known how to work her.

Arin hadn’t seen her at first. The sun had blinded him when he stepped into the pit. There was a roar of laughter. He couldn’t see the mass of Valorians above. Yet he heard them. He didn’t mind the prickling shame spidering up his skin. He told himself that he didn’t. He didn’t mind what they said or what he heard.

Then his vision cleared. He blinked the sun away. He saw the girl. She raised one hand to bid.

The sight of her was an assault. He couldn’t quite see her face—he did not want to see her face, not when everything else about her made him want to shut his eyes. She looked very Valorian. Golden tones. Burnished, almost, like a weapon raised into the light. He had trouble believing she was a living thing.

And she was clean. A purity of skin and form. It made him feel filthy. It distracted him for a moment from noticing that the girl was small. Slight.

Absurd. It was absurd to think that someone like that could have any power over him. Yet she would, if she won the auction.

He wanted her to. The thought swept Arin with a merciless, ugly joy. He’d never seen her before, but he guessed who she was: Lady Kestrel, General Trajan’s daughter.

The crowd heard her bid. And at once it seemed that Arin was worth something after all.

Arin forgot that he was sitting at his father’s desk, two seasons later. He forgot that Tensen was waiting for him to say something. Arin was there again in the pit. He remembered staring up at the girl, feeling a hatred as hard as it was pure.

A diamond.

 

Excerpted from The Winner’s Crime © Marie Rutkoski, 2015

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