Sybil’s smile had frozen on her face.
“Well,” she said as the doors opened to the third floor, “you are young.”
He dipped his head, pretending she’d given him a compliment, then faced Torin. “If you have a minute to spare, perhaps you could walk with me to Dr. Erland’s office? You may have questions I’ve not thought of.”
“Of course, Your Highness.”
Neither of them acknowledged the thaumaturge or her guard as they left the elevator, but Kai heard her sugared voice behind them—“Long live the emperor”—before the doors shut.
He growled. “We should have her incarcerated.”
“A Lunar ambassador? That’s hardly a show of peace.”
“It’s better treatment than they would give us.” He raked a hand through his hair. “Gah—Lunars.”
Realizing that Torin had stopped following, Kai dropped his hand and turned around. Torin’s gaze was heavy. Worried.
“I know this is a difficult time for you.”
Kai felt his hackles rise in self-defense and tried to nudge them back down. “This is a difficult time for everyone.”
“Eventually, Your Highness, we will have to discuss Queen Levana and what you intend to do about her. It would be wise to have a plan.”
Kai stepped closer to Torin, ignoring a group of lab technicians that were forced to swarm around them. “I have a plan. My plan is to not marry her. Diplomacy be damned. There. End of discussion.”
Torin’s jaw flexed.
“Don’t look at me like that. She would destroy us.” Kai lowered his voice. “She would turn us into slaves.”
“I know, Your Highness.” His sympathetic eyes diffused Kai’s mounting anger. “Please believe me when I say I would not ask it of you. Just as I never asked it of your father.”
Kai backed away and slumped against the corridor wall. Scientists bustled past in their white coats, android treads whirred on the linoleum, but if anyone noticed the prince and his adviser, they didn’t show it.
“All right, I’m listening,” he said. “What’s our plan?”
“Your Highness, this is not the place—”
“No, no, you have my attention. Please, give me something to think about other than this stupid disease.”
Torin took a calculated breath. “I don’t think we need to rewrite our foreign affairs policy. We’ll follow your father’s example. For now, we’ll hold out for a peace agreement, a treatise.”
“And if she won’t sign it? What if she gets tired of waiting and decides to follow through on her threats? Can you imagine a war right now, with the plague, and the economy, and…she would destroy us. And she knows that.”
“If she wanted to start a war, she would have done it by now.”
“Unless she’s just biding her time, waiting for us to get so weak we won’t have any choice but to surrender.” Kai scratched at the back of his neck, watching the bustle of the corridor. Everyone so busy, so determined in their search for an antidote.
If there were an antidote.
He sighed. “I should have married. If I’d already married, Queen Levana wouldn’t even be an issue. She’d have to sign a peace treaty…if she wanted peace.”
At Torin’s silence, he forced himself to look back at the adviser, surprised to find a rare warmth in his face.
“Perhaps you’ll meet a girl at the festival,” said Torin. “Have a whirlwind romance, a happily ever after, and have no more worries for the rest of your days.”
Kai tried to glare at him but couldn’t maintain it. Torin so rarely joked. “Brilliant idea. Why didn’t I think of it?” He turned, bracing his shoulder against the wall, and folded his arms over his chest. “Actually, maybe there’s one option that you and my father haven’t considered yet. Something that’s been on my mind lately.”
“Do tell, Your Highness.”
He lowered his voice. “Lately, I’ve been doing a little research.” He paused, before proceeding. “On…on the Lunar heir.”
Torin’s eyes widened. “Your Highness—”
“Just hear me out,” Kai said, raising his hands to silence Torin before he could be chastised. He already knew what Torin would say: Princess Selene, Queen Levana’s niece, was dead. She had died in a fire thirteen years ago. There was no Lunar heir.
“There are rumors every day,” Kai continued. “Sightings, people claiming they helped her, theories…”
“Yes, we’ve all heard the theories. You know as well as I there’s no substance to them.”
“But what if they’re true?” Kai crossed his arms and ducked his head toward Torin, voice trailing to a whisper. “What if there’s a girl out there who could usurp Levana? Someone even stronger?”
“Are you listening to yourself? Someone stronger than Levana? You mean someone like her sister, who had her favorite seamstress’s feet chopped off so she would have nothing better to do than sit and make her fine dresses?”
“We’re not talking about Queen Channary.”
“No, we’re talking about her daughter. Kai, the entire bloodline, every last one of them has been greedy, violent, corrupted by their own power. It’s in their blood. Believe me when I say that Princess Selene, even if she were alive, would be no better.”
Kai realized his arms were aching from squeezing them so hard, his skin gone white around his fingertips. “She can’t very well be worse,” he said. “And who knows? If the rumors are right, and she has been on Earth all this time, maybe she would be different. Maybe she would be sympathetic to us.”
“You’re basing this wishful thinking on rumors.”
“They never found a body….”
Torin pursed his lips in a thin line. “They found what was left of one.”
“It couldn’t hurt to do some research, could it?” said Kai, beginning to feel desperate. His heart had been set on the idea for so long, his research harbored so close to his heart. He couldn’t bear to think it had all been just wishful thinking, although the possibility had always lingered in the back of his mind.
“Yes, it could hurt,” said Torin. “If Levana were to find out you were considering this, it would destroy our chance at procuring a treaty. We shouldn’t even be talking about this here—it’s dangerous.”
“Now who’s listening to rumors?”
“Your Highness, this is the end of this discussion. Your objective right now must be to prevent a war, not worrying about phantom Lunar princesses.”
“What if I can’t prevent it?”
Torin opened his palms, looking weary after the argument. “Then the Union will fight.”
“Right. Excellent plan. I’m so comforted now that we’ve had this talk.”
He turned away and marched blindly toward the labs.
Sure, the Earthen Union would fight. But against Luna, they would lose.
“YOUR CONTROL PANEL IS MARVELOUSLY COMPLEX. SOME OF the highest technology I’ve ever seen in a cyborg.” Dr. Erland spun the holograph one way and then the other. “And look at this wiring along your spine. It melds almost perfectly with your central nervous system. Pristine workmanship. And ah! Look here!” He pointed to the holograph’s pelvis. “Your reproductive system is almost untouched. You know, lots of female cyborgs are left infertile because of the invasive procedures, but from the looks of it, I don’t suspect you will have any problems.”
Cinder sat on one of the exam tables, chin settled atop both palms. “Lucky me.”
The doctor wagged a finger at her. “You should be grateful your surgeons took such care.”
“I’m sure I’ll feel much more grateful when I find a guy who thinks complex wiring in a girl is a turn-on.” She kicked her heels against the metal base of the table. “Does this have anything to do with my immunity?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” The doctor took a pair of spectacles from his pocket and slid them onto his face, still staring at the holograph.
Cinder tilted her head. “Don’t they pay you enough for corrective eye surgery?”
“I like the way these feel.” Dr. Erland dragged the holograph down, revealing the inside of Cinder’s head. “Speaking of eye surgery, do you realize you’re missing tear ducts?”
“What? Really? And I thought I was just emotionally withdrawn.” She pulled her feet up, hugging her knees. “I’m also incapable of blushing, if that was going to be your next brilliant observation.”
He turned around, his eyes magnified behind their spectacles. “Incapable of blushing? How so?”
“My brain monitors my body temperature, forces me to cool down if I get too warm, too fast. I guess just sweating like a normal human being wasn’t enough.”
Dr. Erland pulled his portscreen out, punched something in. “That’s really quite smart,” he muttered. “They must have been worried about your system overheating.”
Cinder strained her neck, but couldn’t see the little screen on his port. “Is that important?”
He ignored her. “And look at your heart,” he said, gesturing at the holograph again. “These two chambers are made primarily of silicon, mixed with bio tissue. Amazing.”
Cinder pressed her hand against her chest. Her heart. Her brain. Her nervous system. What hadn’t been tampered with?
Her hand moved to her neck, tracing the ridges of her spine as her gaze traveled over the metal vertebrae, those metallic invaders. “What’s this?” she asked, stretching forward and pointing at a shadow on the diagram.
“Ah, yes, my assistants and I were discussing that earlier.” Dr. Erland scratched his head through the hat. “It looks to be made of a different material than the vertebrae, and it’s right over a central cluster of nerves. Perhaps it was meant to correct a glitch.”
Cinder wrinkled her nose. “Great. I have glitches.”
“Has your neck ever bothered you?”
“Only when I’ve been under a hover all day.”
And when I’m dreaming. In her nightmare, the fire always seemed to be hottest beneath her neck, the heat trickling down her spine. The unrelenting pain, like a hot coal had gotten beneath her skin. She shuddered, remembering Peony in last night’s dream, crying and screaming, blaming Cinder for what had become of her.
Dr. Erland was watching her, tapping his portscreen against his lips.
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