Page 27


Her hand had finally stopped trembling. The warnings across her vision had finally disappeared. But the confusion remained, persistent as ever.

She was Lunar. Fine.

She was a rare breed of Lunar, a shell, who couldn’t twist the thoughts and emotions of others and was immune to the tampering herself.

Fine.

But then why had Levana’s glamour affected her the same as everyone else?

Either Dr. Erland was wrong, or he was lying. Maybe she wasn’t Lunar at all, and he’d been mistaken. Maybe her immunity was due to something else.

She released a frustrated groan. Never had the curiosity to know her background, her history, been so intense. She needed to know the truth.

The humming of the gates on their buried tracks startled her. Cinder looked up, spotting a pristine white android rolling toward her on the cobblestones.

“Linh Cinder?” It held out a scanner.

Blinking, she clambered to her feet, braced against the wall for support. “Yes?” she said, extending her wrist.

The scanner beeped and, without having come to a complete stop, the android turned its torso 180 degrees and started rumbling back toward the palace. “Follow me.”

“Wait—what?” Her gaze darted fearfully up toward the balcony where the Lunar queen had stood.

“His Imperial Highness has requested a word with you.”

Checking her gloves, Cinder cast a look toward the road that would take her away from the palace, back to the safety of being an invisible girl in a very big city. Releasing a slow breath, she turned and followed the android.

The palace’s elaborate, two-story entry doors were gilded in gold and nearly blinding with the sun glinting off their sheen as they opened. The lobby beyond was blessedly cool and filled with grand jade sculptures, exotic flowers, the voices and footsteps of dozens of harried diplomats and government employees, combined with the calming song of bubbling water—but Cinder hardly noticed any of it. She was filled with panic at the possibility of finding herself face-to-face with Queen Levana, until she found herself face-to-face with Prince Kai instead. He was waiting against a carved pillar.

He straightened when he saw her and almost smiled, but not one of his brilliant, carefree smiles. In fact, he looked exhausted.

Cinder bowed her head. “Your Highness.”

“Linh-mèi. Nainsi told me you were waiting.”

“They weren’t letting people into the palace. I just wanted to be sure she got to you all right.” She tucked her hands behind her. “I hope your national-security issues will be resolved soon.” Cinder attempted a lightness in her voice, but Kai’s expression seemed to falter.

He dropped his gaze to the android. “That will be all,” he said, and waited until the android had disappeared into an alcove by the entrance, before continuing. “I apologize for taking up your time, but I wanted to thank you personally for fixing her.”

She shrugged. “It was an honor. I hope…I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Kai’s gaze squinted suspiciously, and he glanced over his shoulder as two well-dressed women passed by, one talking animatedly, the other nodding in agreement, neither paying Cinder and Kai any attention. When they had passed, Kai let out a breath and turned back to her. “Something’s come up. I need to go talk to Dr. Erland.”

Cinder nodded in understanding, perhaps too forcefully. “Of course,” she said, backing away toward the massive doors. “Now that Nainsi’s back, I’ll just—”

“Would you like to walk with me?”

She paused mid-step. “Excuse me?”

“You can tell me what you found. What was wrong with her.”

She wrung her hands, unsure if the tingling on her skin was delight, or something closer to dread. The knowledge of the queen’s presence lingered, unavoidable. Still, she found herself fighting down a stupid grin. “Sure. Of course.”

Kai seemed relieved as he cocked his head toward a wide corridor. “So…what was wrong with her?” he said as they made their way through the majestic lobby.

“A chip,” she said. “The direct communication chip interrupted her power connection, I think. Removing it was all it took to wake her up.”

“Direct communication chip?”

Cinder scanned the people milling around them, none of whom seemed at all interested in the crown prince. Nevertheless, she lowered her voice when she answered. “Right, the D-COMM. Didn’t you install it?”

He shook his head. “No. We use D-COMMs for international conferencing, but beside that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Why would someone put one in an android?”

Cinder pressed her lips, thinking of the things Nainsi had been saying when she’d awoken. Nainsi had probably been relaying that same information when she’d gone unconscious, most likely over the direct communication link.

But who had received it?

“Cinder?”

She pulled on the hem of her glove. She wanted to tell him that she knew about his research, that someone else probably knew too, but she couldn’t say anything in the middle of the crowded palace corridors.

“Someone must have had access to her, right before she malfunctioned. In order to install the chip.”

“Why would anyone install her with a faulty chip in the first place?”

“I don’t think it was entirely faulty. It does seem that some data was sent over the link before Nainsi shut down.”

“What—” Kai hesitated. Cinder noticed the nervousness in his eyes, the tensing of his posture. He craned his head closer to her, barely slowing his pace. “What kind of information can be sent over direct comms?”

“Anything that can be sent over the net.”

“But if someone was accessing her remotely like that, they couldn’t…I mean, she would have to allow access to any information they received, right?”

Cinder opened her mouth, paused, closed it again. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how a direct comm would function in an android, especially one that wasn’t equipped for it in the first place. But there’s a chance that whoever put that chip in her was hoping to gather information. Possibly…specific information.”

Kai’s gaze was distant as they crossed an enclosed glass bridge into the research wing. “So how do I find out who put that chip in her, and what they learned?”

Cinder gulped. “I tried to initiate the link, but it seemed to have been disabled. I’ll keep trying, but at this point, I have no way of knowing who was on the other end. As for what they learned…”

Catching on to the hint in her tone, Kai stopped walking and turned to face her, eyes burning.

Cinder lowered her voice, speaking in a rush. “I know what it is you were looking for. I heard some of the information Nainsi had discovered.”

“I don’t even know what she discovered yet.”

She nodded. “It’s…interesting.”

His gaze brightened and he inched toward her, craning his neck. “She’s alive, isn’t she? Does Nainsi know where to find her?”

Cinder shook her head, fear clawing at her, knowing that Levana was somewhere in these very walls. “We can’t talk about this here. And Nainsi will know more than I do anyway.”

Kai frowned and stepped back, but she could see his thoughts still churning as he proceeded to the elevator bank and gave directions to the android there.

“So,” he said, folding his arms while they waited. “You’re telling me that Nainsi has some important information, but some unknown person may also have that information.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Cinder. “Also, the chip itself was unusual. It wasn’t silicon or carbon. It was like no chip I’d ever seen before.”

Kai peered at her, brows knit. “How so?”

Cinder held up her fingers as if pinching the chip between them, envisioning it. “Size and shape, it looked just like a normal chip. But it was shimmery. Like…tiny gemstones. Pearlescent, kind of.”

The color drained from Kai’s face. A second later, he shut his eyes with a grimace. “It’s Lunar.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Their ships are made out of the same stuff. I’m not sure what it is but—” He cursed, kneading his thumb across his temple. “It must have been Sybil, or her guard. They arrived days before Nainsi broke down.”

“Sybil?”

“Levana’s thaumaturge. The minion that does all her dirty work.”

Cinder felt like a clamp was suffocating her lungs. If the information had gone to this Sybil, it had almost certainly gone to the queen.

“Elevator B for His Imperial Highness,” said the android as the doors of the second elevator opened. Cinder followed Kai into it, unable to resist glancing up at the camera on the ceiling. If Lunars had infiltrated a royal android, they could have infiltrated anything in the palace.

She brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear, her paranoia forcing her to act normal as the doors closed. “I take it things aren’t going too well with the queen?”

Kai grimaced as if it were the most painful topic in the world and fell back against the wall. Cinder’s heart stirred, watching as his royal demeanor slid off him. She dropped her gaze to the toes of her boots.

“I didn’t think it was possible to hate anyone as much as I hate her. She’s evil.”

Cinder flinched. “Do you think it’s safe to…I mean, if she put this chip in your android…”

Understanding flickered over Kai’s face. He looked up at the camera, then shrugged. “I don’t care. She knows I hate her. Trust me, she’s not trying very hard to change that.”

Cinder licked her lips. “I saw what she did to the protestors.”

Kai nodded. “I shouldn’t have let her face them. Once it gets on the netscreens about how fast she controlled them, the city will be chaos.” He folded his arms, scrunching his shoulders up toward his ears. “Plus, she’s now under the impression that we’re intentionally harboring Lunar fugitives.”

Her heart skipped. “Really?”

“I know, it’s absurd. The last thing I want is more power-hungry Lunars running rampant in my country. Why would I—? Argh. It’s so frustrating.”

Cinder rubbed her arms, suddenly nervous. She was the reason Levana believed Kai was harboring Lunars. She hadn’t considered that being noticed by the queen could put Kai in jeopardy too.

When Kai fell silent, she risked a glance at him. He was staring at her hands. Cinder snapped them up against her chest, checking the gloves, but they were fine.

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