She opened the book.
“Don’t,” said Arin. “Please.”
But she had already seen the inscription.
For Arin, it read, from Amma and Etta, with love.
This was Arin’s home. This house had been his, this library his, this book his, dedicated to him by his parents, some ten years ago.
Kestrel breathed slowly. Her fingers rested on the page, just below the black line of writing. She lifted her gaze to meet Irex’s smirk.
Her mind chilled. She assessed the situation as her father would a battle. She knew her objective. She knew her opponent’s. She understood what she could afford to lose, and what she could not.
Kestrel closed the book, set it on a table, and turned her back to Arin. “Lord Irex,” she said, her voice warm. “It is but a book.”
“It is my book,” Irex said.
There was a choked sound behind her. Without looking, Kestrel said in Herrani, “Do you wish to be removed from the room?”
Arin’s answer was low. “No.”
“Then be silent.” She smiled at Irex. In their language, she said, “This is clearly not a case of theft. Who would dare steal from you? I’m certain he meant only to look at it. You can’t blame him for being curious about the luxuries your house holds.”
“He shouldn’t have even been inside the library, let alone touching its contents. Besides, there were witnesses. A judge will rule in my favor. This is my property, so I will decide the number of lashes.”
“Yes, your property. Let us not forget that we are also discussing my property.”
“He will be returned to you.”
“So the law says, but in what condition? I am not eager to see him damaged. He holds more value than a book in a language no one has any interest in reading.”
Irex’s dark eyes flicked to look behind Kestrel, then returned to her. They grew sly. “You take a decided interest in your slave’s well-being. I wonder to what lengths you will go to prevent a punishment that is rightfully mine to give.” He rested a hand on her arm. “Perhaps we can settle the matter between us.”
Kestrel heard Arin inhale as he understood Irex’s suggestion. She was angry, suddenly, at the way her mind snagged on the sound of that sharp breath. She was angry at herself, for feeling vulnerable because Arin was vulnerable, and at Irex for his knowing smile. “Yes.” Kestrel decided to twist Irex’s words into something else. “This is between us, and fate.”
Having uttered the formal words of a challenge to a duel, Kestrel stepped back from Irex’s touch, drew her dagger, and held it sideways at the level of her chest like a line drawn between him and her.
“Kestrel,” Irex said. “That isn’t what I had in mind when I said we might solve the matter.”
“I think we’ll enjoy this method more.”
“A challenge.” He tsked. “I’ll let you take it back. Just this one.”
“I cannot take it back.”
At that, Irex drew his dagger and imitated Kestrel’s gesture. They stood still, then sheathed their blades.
“I’ll even let you choose the weapons,” Irex said.
“Needles. Now it is to you to choose the time and place.”
“My grounds. Tomorrow, two hours from sunset. That will give me time to gather the death-price.”
This gave Kestrel pause. But she nodded, and finally turned to Arin.
He looked nauseated. He sagged in the senators’ grip. It seemed they weren’t restraining him, but holding him up.
“You can let go,” Kestrel told the senators, and when they did, she ordered Arin to follow her. As they left the library, Arin said, “Kestrel--”
“Not a word. Don’t speak until we are in the carriage.