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Cinder squirmed. “I have a question.”

“Yes?” said the doctor, pocketing the screen.

“You said before that I wasn’t contagious after my body got rid of those microbes.”

“That’s correct.”

“So…if I had contracted the plague naturally, say…a couple days ago, how long before I was no longer contagious?”

Dr. Erland puckered his lips. “Well. One can imagine that your body is more efficient at ridding itself of the carriers every time it comes in contact with them. So if it took twenty minutes to defeat them all this time…oh, I would think it would have taken no longer than an hour the time before that. Two at the most. Hard to say, of course, given that every disease and everybody works a little differently.”

Cinder folded her hands in her lap. It had taken a little more than an hour to walk home from the market. “What about…can it cling to, say, clothing?”

“Only briefly. The pathogens can’t survive long without a host.” He frowned at her. “Are you all right?”

She fiddled with the fingers of her gloves. Nodded. “When do we get to start saving lives?”

Dr. Erland adjusted his hat. “I’m afraid we can’t do much until I’ve had a chance to analyze your blood samples and map your DNA sequencing. But first I wanted to get a better grasp on your body makeup, in case it could affect the results.”

“Being cyborg can’t change your DNA, can it?”

“No, but there have been studies suggesting that human bodies develop different hormones, chemical imbalances, antibodies, that sort of thing, as a result of the operations. Of course, the more invasive the procedure, the more—”

“You think it has something to do with my immunity? Being cyborg?”

The doctor’s eyes glowed, giddy, unnerving Cinder. “Not exactly,” he said. “But like I said before…I do have a theory or two.”

“Were you planning on sharing any of those theories with me?”

“Oh, yes. Once I know I am correct, I plan on sharing my discovery with the world. In fact, I have had a thought about the mystery shadow on your spine. Would you mind if I tried something?” He took off the spectacles and slid them back into his pocket, beside the portscreen.

“What are you going to do?”

“Just a little experiment, nothing to worry about.”

She twisted her head as Dr. Erland walked around the table and placed the tips of his fingers on her neck, pinching the vertebrae just above her shoulders. She stiffened at the touch. His hands were warm, but she shivered anyway.

“Tell me if you feel anything…unusual.”

Cinder opened her mouth, about to announce that any human touch felt unusual, but her breath hiccupped.

Fire and pain ruptured her spine, flooding her veins.

She cried out and fell off the table, crumpling to the floor.

Chapter Fourteen

RED LIGHT PIERCED HER EYELIDS. GOING HAYWIRE, HER retina display was sending a skein of green gibberish against the backdrop of her lids. Something was wrong with her wiring—her left fingers kept twitching, pulsing uncontrollably.

“Calm down, Miss Linh. You’re perfectly all right.” This voice, calm and unsympathetic in its strange accent, was followed by one much more panicked.

“Perfectly all right? Are you crazy? What happened to her?”

Cinder groaned.

“Only a little experiment. She’s going to be fine, Your Highness. See? She’s waking up now.”

Another strangled protest before she could pry her eyes open. The lab’s whiteness would have blinded her but for the two shadows cutting through it. Her eyes focused the shapes into Dr. Erland’s wool hat and sky blue eyes, and Prince Kai with strands of black hair hanging unkempt across his brow.

As the retina display began running the basic diagnostic test for the second time that day, she shut her eyes again, faintly worried that Prince Kai would notice the green light at the base of her pupil.

At least she had her gloves on.

“Are you alive?” Kai said, pushing her mussed hair back from her forehead. His fingers felt hot and clammy against her skin before she realized that she was the one who was feverish.

Which shouldn’t have been possible. She couldn’t blush, couldn’t have a fever.

Couldn’t overheat.

What had the doctor done to her?

“Did she hit her head?” Kai asked.

The twitching stopped. Cinder pressed her hands against her body in an instinctual effort to hide them.

“Oh, she’s fine,” Dr. Erland said again. “Had a bit of a scare—but no harm done. I am sorry for that, Miss Linh. I didn’t realize you would be so sensitive.”

“What did you do?” she said, careful not to slur her words.

Kai slipped an arm beneath her and helped her sit up. She flinched against him and tugged down her pant leg in case the metal gleam of her shin was visible.

“I was merely adjusting your spine.”

Cinder squinted at the doctor, not needing the little orange light to tell her he was lying, but it popped up anyway.

“What’s wrong with her spine?” Kai’s hand slid down to her lower back.

Cinder sucked in a breath, a shiver racing along her skin. She feared the pain would come back, that the prince’s touch would somehow override her system like Dr. Erland’s had—but nothing happened, and soon Kai lessened the pressure of his touch.

“Nothing is wrong with it,” said Dr. Erland. “But the spinal region is where many of our nerves congregate before sending messages up to our brains.”

Cinder watched Dr. Erland with wild eyes. She could already imagine how quickly Kai would pull away from her when the doctor told him he was supporting a cyborg.

“Miss Linh was complaining of a bothersome pain in her neck…”

She squeezed her fists together until her fingers began to ache.

“…and so I gave her a bit of an adjustment. It’s called chiropractic, a very old practice, and yet amazingly effective. She must have been more out of alignment than I realized, and so the sudden realigning of the vertebrae created a temporary shock to her system.” He grinned at the prince, eyes devoid of concern. The orange light persisted.

Cinder gaped, waiting for the doctor to continue, to move past his inane lie and start telling the prince all of her secrets. She was a cyborg, she was immune to the plague, she was his new favorite guinea pig.

But Dr. Erland said nothing else, only smiled at her with mischievous eyes that filled her with suspicion.

Feeling Kai’s gaze upon her, Cinder turned to him, meaning to shrug as if Dr. Erland’s explanation made no more sense to her than it did to him, but the intensity of Prince Kai’s gaze snatched away her words.

“I hope he’s telling me the truth, because it would be a shame for you to die when we’ve just had the pleasure of meeting.” His eyes glinted, as if sharing a secret joke, and she forced the fakest laugh she’d ever heard from her own lips. “Are you all right?” he said, taking her hand into his—one arm still around her back. “Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

He helped her to her feet. Not a sign of the excruciating pain remained.

“Thank you.” She backed away from him, brushing herself off, even though the lab floor was immaculate. Her thigh bumped the exam table.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, hands falling to his sides and hanging awkwardly for a second before finding their way into his pockets.

Cinder opened her mouth, but was interrupted by Dr.

Erland clearing his throat.

“You two have met?” he asked, bushy eyebrows disappearing into his cap.

Kai answered. “We met yesterday. At the market.”

Cinder shoved her hands into her pockets, mirroring Kai, and discovered the wrench. “I’m, um, here…because…uh—”

“One of the med-droids was acting up, Your Highness,” interrupted Dr. Erland. “I requested that she come take a look at it. Her mechanic business has exceptional ratings.”

Kai began to nod, but stopped and scanned the room. “What med-droid?”

“It isn’t here anymore, of course,” said Dr. Erland, his voice chipper as if lying were a fun game. “It’s probably off drawing blood as we speak.”

“R-right,” said Cinder, forcing her jaw to stop hanging open like an idiot’s. “I already fixed it. Good as new.” She pulled out the wrench and twirled it over her fingers like hard evidence.

Though Kai appeared confused, he nodded as if the story wasn’t worth questioning. Cinder was grateful that the doctor had so easily devised a story, but it also unnerved her. What reason did he have to keep secrets from the Crown Prince, especially when he could be nearing a breakthrough on plague research? Didn’t Kai deserve to know about it? Didn’t everyone?

“I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to look at Nainsi?” Kai asked.

Cinder stopped twirling the wrench and clutched it with both hands to keep herself from fidgeting. “No, not yet. I’m sorry. It’s been…the last twenty-four hours…”

He shrugged her words away, but the gesture was stiff on him. “You probably have a client list a mile long. I shouldn’t expect royal treatment.” His mouth twitched. “Although I guess I do anyway.”

Cinder’s heart tripped as his grin caught her by surprise, every bit as charming and unexpected as it had been at the market. Then her eye spotted the holograph behind him, still showing her inner workings—from the metal vertebrae to her bunched wires to her perfectly intact ovaries. She snapped her gaze back to Kai, pulse racing.

“I promise to take a look at it as soon as I can. Before the festival. Definitely.”

Kai turned, following her gaze to the holograph. Cinder squeezed her fists together, nerves twisting in the base of her stomach, as Kai recoiled from the image.

A girl. A machine. A freak.

She bit her lip, resigning herself to never receiving another of the prince’s heart-stopping smiles, when Dr. Erland stepped toward the holograph and turned the netscreen off with a flick. “My apologies, Your Highness, patient confidentiality. That was from today’s draft subject.”

Another lie.

Cinder strangled the wrench, equal parts gratitude and suspicion filling her.

Kai shook off his surprise. “That’s actually why I came down here. I was wondering if you’ve made any progress.”

“Hard to say at this point, Your Highness, but we may have found a potential lead. I’ll of course keep you posted on any developments.” He smiled innocently, first at Kai, then at Cinder. The look was clear—he would not tell Kai anything.


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