Monday, May 5, 2014

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski (Winner's Trilogy book 1)

“Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.”

While visiting the market with her friend Jess, Kestrel ends up at an impromptu gambling table. With Jess off looking, Kestrel knows that she will be in trouble with her father, General Trajan, the highest ranking general in the Valorian army, for being unattended. She finds Jess at a vendor booth looking at a pair of Topaz earrings. She hears the price and before thinking, publically calls the woman out for lying; the Topaz stone is really glass. Seeing the attention she has raised, Kestrel backpedals so as not to get the vendor, a freed Herrani slave, in trouble. She pays full price for the earrings and everyone’s attention is diverted. Jess sees that Kestrel is down and offers to buy her some sheet music in the hopes of raising her spirits. She tells Kestrel to close her eyes and grabs her hand. When Jess expectantly stops, the two girls discover that they have expectantly ended up at the slave market. 

Kestrel and Jess find themselves pinned in with no hopes of leaving. The first slave brought out is a young man of nineteen. His hair is brown but his skin is dark from having worked outside. The auctioneer says that the young man would make a fine house slave and the audience laughs at his joke. The bidding starts low. The auctioneer says that he was trained by a blacksmith and the bidding increases but is still low. Kestrel feels ill and Jess promises to get her out as soon as they can leave. The auctioneer asks the audience once again if they think he would make a fine house slave since he can sing. The auctioneer asks him to sing but the slave refuses. Everyone witnesses the request. The auctioneer is furious. Kestrel looks up at the slave and places a high bid. Everyone there sees that the bid was placed by the general's daughter and the bidding skyrockets. Kestrel finally bids fifty keystones, a hefty price, and buys the slave. It is more money than she has on hand and feels sick. The woman standing beside her remakes that she has the Winner's Curse. She got caught up in the moment only to regret it in the end.

Heading down to make payment, Kestrel is surprised that the auctioneer is waiting on her. He says that he couldn’t let anyone else wait on a customer as important as her. Jess asks is she can speak to some friends of her father’s and goes to the other side of the room. Kestrel tells him that she cannot make full payment at this time. She tells the auctioneer that she can pay the rest later. Kestrel is afraid if she leaves the slave behind that the bruise on his cheek now won’t be the only one he has when she returns. Too clever, the auctioneer offers to accompany Kestrel home with her purchase and she reluctantly agrees. Jess and her father’s friends watch them leave and Kestrel knows that she will hear about this from her father. She hates the conformities of her society and the rules she is expected to follow. She also knows that any of her father’s soldiers would lay down their lives for hers. Her father expects her to join the military as well, but that is not what she wants out of her life. At her home, Kestrel sends the housekeeper off to fetch the steward, Harman. She counts out the remainder of the money she owes him and says that there shouldn’t be any fresh marks on Smith, the name of the slave. The auctioneer thanks her for her business and leaves. Harman demands to know how much this new slave was and Kestrel says that she will tell her father. Harman wants to know what to do with him but is pleasantly surprised to find out that he is a blacksmith. He is ready to send him to the forge but Kestrel wants to know if he will sing. Smith says “no” in her own language and turns away, his hair hiding his face. Kestrel tries to appear unfazed and tells Harman to see to it that he has a bath and cuts his hair. When she feels Smith starring at her, it dawns on her that contempt is what she sees in his eyes.

At dinner with her father, Kestrel asks him about his day. General Trajan has been working with the new recruits. He questions where Jess is if she accompanied her to the market earlier in the day. She didn’t and before she explains why, she admits that she spent fifty keystones today. He is more concerned over the fact that she was unaccompanied in the city again and not happy to hear that the auctioneer and slave were her escorts. Kestrel claims she doesn’t need an escort and her father agrees that she wouldn’t if she enlisted. A woman solider is trained to defend herself. She is tired of following customs that she deems absurd. Her father wants her to be a soldier so that she can strategize not fight with him. He reaches for her hand and tells her that the rules belong to the empire. If she joins the fight, she will gain her independence. Don’t and she must accept its constraints. She must live by the law and not complain. Kestrel quietly stands and leaves. She goes down the hall to the room that houses her mother’s piano. She opens the French doors to the night air and breathes in. She begins to play.

After a luxurious bath, the slave spends three days alone without a task assigned to him. He spends his time surveying the general’s estate, memorizing the layout and comings and goings. While sitting on a hill, he notices Harman, the steward, huffing towards him, irritated. He takes him to the forge where another Herrani slave is waiting. He has noticed her at meals and knows that she works in the house. She is flustered by having to translate for Harman. He has decided that since Lady Kestrel cannot be bothered by him, he will put him to work. Today, he will start by making horseshoes. The test will be to see how many he can make in a day. Also, since he knows how to shoe horses, he will be doing that tomorrow. The slave decides to pass the test he has been given. He proves his worth but makes sure that the job takes all day. He does just enough to satisfy but not enough to draw attention. About one week after the auction, Jess sends Kestrel a note asking for her advice on what to wear to Lady Faris’s picnic, the social event of the summer. She ends the note by saying that her brother has been asking about her. Before she can reach the stables, Harman wants to know who her escort will be; her father has left orders. He then asks her what her plans of employment will be for the slave she bought. Kestrel claims to have forgotten him. Place him wherever you see fit.

While working in the stables on afternoon, Kestrel asks Smith to look at her horse’s shoe. It is a huge war horse that she named Javelin. She speaks Herrani well and it unnerves him. Smith speaks before he can think and asks about the horse’s name. When she explains what the Valorian word means, he inadvertently tells her that he knows that. She tells him that she named the horse when she was young and he says that it suits the horse. Kestrel comments that his name doesn’t suit him. He tells her that his name is really Arin. Later, Kestrel goes to see her former nurse, Enai, who she freed. With her mother dead, Enai is who Kestrel seeks for comfort. Kestrel knows Enai has already heard the rumors of her buying Arin. She breaks down to the old woman, admitting that she made a mistake.
Walking back to the barracks one night, Arin hears someone playing the piano and he realizes that he hasn’t been dreaming. He goes to investigate even though it means that he will be late for curfew. Walking around the house, he sees Kestrel playing the piano. With the room lit up, he knows that he can safely watch her from the shadows.

Kestrel takes Arin as her escort to Jess's house. Instead of sending him off to the kitchens, she has him remain in the parlor with her. Dressed for the part, Arin almost blends in with the wall but Kestrel finds him hard to ignore. His clothes hide the scars of ten years' worth of labor but she finds herself thinking that he was hiding much more than scars. Looking bored, she suspects that he was able to follow every word of the Valorian conversation. Gossiping over the picnic, Jess hears that Lady Faris will be presenting her new baby to society. Kestrel thinks it is a bold yet perfect move for her since she suspects that the baby is illegitimate. Shocked, Jess asks why she thinks that. Kestrel has seen the baby and it doesn't look anything like Faris's older children. Jess makes the comment that the god of lies must love her. Kestrel hears the sharp intake of breath from Arin before he says in perfect Valorian, for Jess to repeat herself. She means the Herrani god of lies since the Valorians don't have gods. Kestrel stands up and remembers Arin's actions during the auction and orders him to stand down. He is furious and questions Jess of how she knows that his god loves Kestrel. Trying to play off the situation, Jess comments that "Kestrel sees the truth of things so clearly." Arin doubts that and Jess wants Kestrel to do something with her property. Arin tells her that she sees the truth because people let her believe she does. Thinking back to the day she bought the topaz earrings, Kestrel asks Jess if she can borrow them. She and Arin leave.

Kestrel takes the earrings to a jeweler to see if they are real or not. Arin asks to leave her at the store while he visits a friend. Turns out he goes to see Cheat, the slave auctioneer. Cheat asks Arin to report on everything he has learned at the general's house; layout, the general's comings and goings and any mentions of the military. It seems that Arin has been set up as a spy. He wants to know why Cheat didn't tell him Kestrel was a musician. He did think it seemed relevant. Arin heads back to Kestrel. In the meantime, Kestrel discovers that the earrings are really just glass. She is relieved.

Who was Arin before he became a slave? Why did Kestrel buy Arin? Can he really sing? Why does she consider her purchase a mistake? Who was Arin before he became a slave? Why is he spying on General Trajan? Will Kestrel be able to break from the customs of Valorian society? What happens in Kestrel and Arin’s relationship may cost her everything?

Readers will be eagerly awaiting book two, The Winner’s Crime in 2015.
Book 0.5, Bridge of Snow,  is a free short story that is almost s fairy tale but gives the reader insight into what Arin's life was like when he was a child. It can be found at:

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