The Winner's Kiss (The Winner's Trilogy #3) by Marie Rutkoski

Chapter 1

He told himself a story.

Not at first.

At first, there wasn’t time for thoughts that came in the shape of words. His head was blessedly empty of stories then. War was coming. It was upon him. Arin had been born in the year of the god of death, and he was finally glad of it. He surrendered himself to his god, who smiled and came close. Stories will get you killed, he murmured in Arin’s ear. Now, you just listen. Listen to me.

Arin did.

His ship had sped across the sea from the capital. Now it nosed in among the fleet of eastern ships docked in his city’s bay, nimble sloops of war, flying their queen’s colors of blue and green. The sloops were Arin’s, at least for now. The Dacran queen’s gift to her new allies. The ships were not as many as Arin would have liked. Not as heavy with cannon as he would have liked.

But:

Listen.

Arin told his ship’s captain to sidle up along the largest of the Dacran sloops. After giving his captain orders to dock and find Arin’s cousin in the city, Arin boarded the sloop. He approached the commander of the eastern fleet: Xash, a lean man with an unusually high-bridged nose and brown skin gleaming in the late spring sun.

Arin looked into Xash’s eyes—black, always narrowed, and lined with the yellow paint that indicated his status as naval commander. It was as if Xash already knew what Arin would say. The easterner smiled slightly.

“They’re coming,” Arin said.

He explained how the Valorian emperor had arranged for the water supply to Herran’s city to be slowly poisoned. The emperor must have sent someone months ago into the mountains near the aqueduct’s source. Even from the deck of Xash’s ship, Arin could see the arched trail of the Valorian-built aqueduct. It was faint in the distance, snaking down from the mountains, carrying something that had weakened the Herrani, making them sleep and shake.

“I was seen in the capital,” Arin told Xash. “A Valorian ship chased mine almost to the Empty Islands. We must assume that the emperor knows that I know.”

“What happened to the ship?”

“It turned back. For reinforcements, prob ably—and the emperor’s orders.” Arin spoke this man’s language in a clipped tone, his accent heavy, the syllables quick and hard. The language was new to him. “He’ll strike now.”

“What makes you so sure there’s poison in the city’s aqueducts? Where did you get this information?”

Arin hesitated, unsure of the Dacran words for what he wanted to say. “The Moth,” he answered in his own language.

Xash narrowed his eyes even more.

“A spy,” Arin said in Dacran, finally finding the right word. He spun the gold ring on his smallest finger and thought of Tensen, his spymaster, and how the Valorian ship that had followed him could be a sign that Tensen had been arrested even as Arin had left the imperial palace. The old man had insisted on staying behind. He could have been caught. Tortured. Forced to speak. Arin imagined what the Valorians would have done . . .

No. The god of death set a cold hand on Arin’s thoughts and curled tight around them. You’re not listening, Arin.

Listen.

“I need paper,” Arin said out loud. “I need ink.”

Arin drew his country for Xash. He sketched Herran’s peninsula swiftly, his pen sweeping the curves. He hatched the islands scattered south of the peninsula’s tip, peppering the sea between Herran and Valoria. He tapped Ithrya, a large, rocky island that created a thin strait between them and the peninsula’s tip. “The spring currents in the strait are strong. Difficult to sail against. But if a Valorian fleet’s coming, this is the route they’ll take.”

“They’ll take a strait that’s hard to navigate?” Xash was skeptical. “They could sail around the three islands and turn north to hug the peninsula all the way up to your city.”

“Too slow. Merchants love that strait. This time of year, the currents are strongest, and push ships from Valoria right up to Herran’s doorstep. Shoots them fast through the strait. The emperor expects to attack a weakened city. He doesn’t expect resistance. He’ll see no reason to wait for what he wants.” Arin touched east of Ithrya Island and the peninsula’s end. “We can hide here, half the fleet just east of the peninsula, half on the eastern side of the island. When the Valorian fleet comes through, they’ll come through fast. We’ll flank them and attack from either side. They won’t be able to retreat, no matter what the winds. If they try to sail back into the strait, the currents will spit them out.”