The Winner's Crime

Free The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

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Authors: Marie Rutkoski
    He lifted his hand from the infantry and settled it on
    the cavalry.
    Kestrel used two fi ngertips to brush invisible lint from
    her dress, fl icking her hand forward, away from her body.
    Verex moved the cavalry two paces forward.
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    So it went, the smugness draining from the lieutenant’s
    face as Verex’s army made signifi cant advances and crucial
    kills. Verex looked to his father, who had appeared on the
    edges of the crowd. When the prince’s asking eyes turned
    again to Kestrel and she saw how hope made them luminous,
    she couldn’t look away. She off ered her silent suggestions. He
    took them.
    The green general toppled the red one.
    The crowd roared for their prince. The emperor folded
    his arms and rocked on the balls of his feet, his expression
    amused, pinned to his son’s.
    But not disapproving.
    Kestrel heard Verex decline to play another game. Now
    that the spectacle was over, the crowd’s attention would
    soon turn to her. There was a Borderlands game at another
    nearby table between a senator’s daughter and Risha, the
    eastern princess who had been kidnapped as a small child
    and raised in the imperial palace as a pampered hostage.
    Kestrel had expected that Risha would be a good Border-
    lands player, but from everything Kestrel had seen, the prin-
    cess possessed (or cultivated) a decided mediocrity at the
    game. There was no excitement to be had at that table. A bit
    farther over was a match between the Herrani minister—
    Tensen, she remembered his name— and a very minor Val-
    orian baron who had probably condescended to play with
    Tensen only for the plea sure of beating him before a crowd.
    Many were watching, widening mirthful eyes when Tensen
    forgot how a gaming piece moved, or seemed to doze off
    between his turns. That farce might hold people’s interest,
    but not for long.
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    And then they would come for her.
    Kestrel’s throat closed when she thought of faking joy
    at her engagement. Yet she would have to do it. She would
    have to dance all night long and into the gray hours of
    morning, until the last reveler had left the ballroom and
    her shoes were worn out and her heart was in shreds.
    Kestrel stood. The emperor wasn’t watching her, at
    least not for now. His eyes were on his son. She threaded
    through the crowd, telling each person who stopped her
    that she had promised a dance to someone else. The ball-
    room was thick with people. Faces clustered around her
    like children’s puppets on sticks.
    Somehow she dodged them, and slipped down a hall-
    way where the air was cooler. No one lingered here. There
    was nothing to see, nothing to do. This area was used only
    in fi ne weather when the balconies lining the hallway were
    open to the palace gardens below. Each balcony was now
    curtained off from the hallway, and Kestrel knew that the
    glass shutters attached to each balustrade had been drawn
    and fastened for the winter. Despite every attempt to ward
    off the cold, it seeped beneath the velvet curtains. It lapped
    over Kestrel’s slippered feet.
    With a quick glance behind to make certain that no
    one was near and no one saw her, she dove through a cur-
    tain and pulled it shut behind her.
    The balcony was a box, its glass walls like black ice:
    sheer slices of the night outside. Light from the hallway
    lined the seam of the curtain and glowed at its hem, but
    Kestrel could barely see her own hands.
    She touched a glass pane. These windows would be
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    open on the night of her wedding. The trees below would
    be in bloom, the air fragrant with cere blossoms.
    She would choke on it. Kestrel knew

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