Hooking her thumbs into the belt loops of her pants, Cinder leaned against the counter that held all the machines that had seemed so threatening before.
She was immune.
She was important.
The money was tempting, of course. If she could prove her self-sufficiency, she might be able to annul Adri’s legal guardianship over her. She could buy back her freedom.
But even that insight dulled when she thought of Peony.
“You really think I can help?”
“I do. In fact, I think every person on Earth could soon find themselves immensely grateful to you.”
She gulped and lifted herself onto an exam table, folding both legs beneath her. “All right, just so long as we’re clear—I am here on a volunteer basis now, which means I can leave at any point I want to. No questions, no arguments.”
The doctor’s face brightened, eyes shining like lanterns between the wrinkles. “Yes. Absolutely.”
“And I do expect payment, like you said, but I need a separate account. Something my legal guardian can’t access. I don’t want her to have any idea I’ve agreed to do this, or any access to the money.”
To her surprise, he didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”
She sucked in a steadying breath. “And one other thing. My sister. She was taken to the quarantines yesterday. If you do find an antidote, or anything that even holds promise as an antidote, I want her to be the first one to get it.”
This time, the doctor’s gaze faltered. He turned away and paced to the holograph, rubbing his hands down the front of his lab coat. “That, I’m afraid I cannot promise.”
She squeezed her fists together. “Why not?”
“Because the emperor must be the first to receive the antidote.” His eyelids crinkled with sympathy. “But I can promise your sister will be second.”
PRINCE KAI WATCHED THROUGH THE GLASS AS A MED-DROID inserted an IV into his father’s arm. Only five days had passed since the emperor had shown the first signs of the blue fever, but it felt like a lifetime. Years’ worth of worry and anguish rolled into so few hours.
Dr. Erland had once told him of an old suspicion that bad things always came in threes.
First, his android Nainsi had broken before she could communicate her findings.
And now his father was sick, with no hope for survival.
What would happen next? What could be worse than this?
Perhaps the Lunars would declare war.
He cringed, wanting to take back the thought the second he had it.
Konn Torin, his father’s adviser and the only other human allowed to see the emperor in such a state, clapped a hand on Kai’s shoulder. “It will be all right,” he said, without emotion, in that peculiar way he had of reading another person’s thoughts.
Kai’s father moaned and opened swollen eyes. The room was quarantined on the seventh floor of the palace’s research wing, but the emperor had been made as comfortable as possible. Numerous screens lined the walls so he might enjoy music and entertainment, so he might be read to. His favorite flowers had been brought in droves from the gardens—lilies and chrysanthemums filling the otherwise sterile room. The bed was dressed in the finest silks the Commonwealth had to offer.
But none of it made much of a difference. It was still a room made to keep the living separate from the dying.
A clear window separated Kai from his father. He was squinting up at Kai now, but his eyes were empty as glass.
“Your Majesty,” said Torin. “How are you feeling?”
The emperor’s eyes crinkled at their corners. He was not an old man, but the illness had aged him quickly. His complexion was yellow and pallid, and black and red splotches stippled his neck.
His fingers lifted from the blankets, the closest thing he could manage to a wave.
“Is there anything you need?” Torin asked. “A glass of water? Food?”
“An Escort5.3?” Kai suggested.
Torin cast the prince a disapproving glare, but the emperor wheezed a small chuckle.
Kai felt his eyes misting and had to look away, down at fingertips pressed into the windowsill.
“How much longer?” he said, quiet so his father wouldn’t hear.
Torin shook his head. “Days, if that.”
Kai could feel Torin’s gaze on him, understanding but also harsh.
“You should be grateful for the time you have with him. Most people don’t get to see their loved ones when they’re taken away.”
“And who wants to see their loved ones like this?” Kai looked up. His father was struggling to stay awake, his eyelids twitching. “Med, bring him water.”
The android rolled to the emperor’s side and lifted his backrest, guiding a glass of water to his lips and wiping away the dribble with a white cloth. He did not drink much but seemed refreshed when he had sunk again into the pillows.
“I’m here,” Kai said, his breath fogging the glass.
“Be strong. Trust…” His words broke into a cough. The med-droid held a towel to his mouth, and Kai caught a glimpse of blood against the cotton. He shut his eyes, measuring his breath.
When he opened them again, the med-droid was filling the IV with clear liquid, something to ease the pain. Kai and Torin watched as the emperor sank into a motionless sleep. Like watching a stranger. Kai loved him but couldn’t quite connect the sick man before him with the vibrant father he’d had a week ago.
A shudder ran through him, and Torin squeezed his shoulder. Kai had forgotten his hand was there.
Kai said nothing, staring at his father’s chest as it rose and fell.
The fingers on his shoulder tightened briefly, then fell away. “You are going to be emperor, Your Highness. We must begin to prepare you. We’ve already put it off too long.”
Too long. One week.
Kai pretended not to hear him.
“As His Majesty said, you must be strong. You know I will help in any way I can.” Torin paused. “You’re going to be a fine leader.”
“No. I’m not.” Kai tugged a hand through his hair, pulling it back from his scalp.
He was going to be emperor.
The words rang hollow.
The true emperor was there, in that bed. He was an imposter.
“I’m going to go talk to Dr. Erland,” he said, stepping back from the glass.
“The doctor is busy, Your Highness. You shouldn’t keep distracting him.”
“I just want to ask if there’ve been any developments.”
“I’m sure he will tell you immediately if there are.”
Kai set his jaw and fixed his gaze on Torin, the man who had been his father’s adviser since before Kai was born. Even now, standing in the same room with Torin made him feel like a child, gave him a peculiar urge to be unruly. He wondered if he would ever get over that.
“I need to feel like I’m doing something,” he said. “I can’t just stand here watching him die.”
Torin’s eyes dropped. “I know, Your Highness. It’s hard for all of us.”
It’s not the same, Kai wanted to say, but held his tongue.
Torin turned away from him, facing the window, and bowed his head. “Long live the emperor.”
Kai repeated the words, whispering around the dryness in his throat. “Long live the emperor.”
They were silent leaving the visitors room and walking down the hallway to the elevators.
A woman was waiting for them. Kai should have expected it—she was always nearby these days, when she was the last person on Earth he wanted to see.
Sybil Mira. Head thaumaturge to the Lunar Crown. Exceptionally beautiful, with waist-length black hair and warm, honeyed skin. She wore the uniform befitting her rank and title: a long white coat with a high collar and bell-shaped sleeves, embroidered along the hems with runes and hieroglyphs that meant nothing to Kai.
Five paces behind her stood her ever-present, ever-silent guard. He was a young man as handsome as Sybil was beautiful, with blond hair pulled into a low ponytail and sharp features that Kai had yet to see an expression on.
Sybil’s lips curved as Kai and Torin approached, but her gray eyes remained cold.
“Your Imperial Highness,” she said with a graceful dip of her head. “How fares the honorable Emperor Rikan?”
When Kai didn’t respond, Torin answered, “Not well. Thank you for your concern.”
“I am most displeased to hear that.” She sounded about as displeased as a cat who’d just cornered a mouse. “My mistress sends her condolences and a wish for a speedy recovery.”
She fixed her eyes on the prince, and her image seemed to shudder before him like a mirage. Whispers filled his head. Respect and admiration, compassion and concern.
Kai tore his gaze from her, silencing the voices. It took a moment for his racing pulse to steady.
“What do you want?” he said.
Sybil gestured toward the elevators. “A word with the man who will soon be emperor…should the fates deem it so.”
Kai glanced at Torin, but the face that met him was unsympathetic. Tact. Diplomacy. Always. Especially when it came to the cursed Lunars.
Sighing, he half turned to the waiting android. “Third floor.”
The sensor flashed. “Please proceed to elevator C, Your Highness.”
They boarded the elevator, Sybil floating into it like a feather upon a breeze. The guard entered last, staying by the door and facing the three of them as if the thaumaturge were in mortal danger. His icy gaze made Kai uncomfortable, but Sybil seemed to forget the guard was even there.
“This is a tragic time for His Majesty to fall ill,” she said.
Kai gripped the rail and faced her, pressing his hatred into the polished wood. “Would next month have been more convenient for you?”
Her patience didn’t falter. “I speak, of course, of the alliance discussions my mistress has been engaged in with Emperor Rikan. We are most eager for an agreement that will suit both Luna and the Commonwealth.”
Watching her made him feel dizzy, off balance, so he tore his gaze away and watched the numbers above the doors descend. “My father has been attempting to secure an alliance with Queen Levana since she first took the throne. She has always declined.”
“He has yet to meet her sensible demands.”
Kai locked his teeth.
Sybil continued, “My hope is that, as emperor, you will be better able to see reason, Your Highness.”
Kai was silent as the elevator passed floors six, five, four. “My father is a wise man. At this time, I have no intention of altering any of his previous decisions. I do hope we will be able to come to an agreement, but I’m afraid your mistress will need to lower her very sensible demands.”
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