“Do you ever take those off?” he asked.
Kai tilted his head, peering at her as if he could see right through to the metal plate in her head. The intensity of his gaze didn’t mellow. “I think you should go to the ball with me.”
She clutched her fingers. His expression was too genuine, too sure. Her nerves tingled. “Stars,” she muttered. “Didn’t you already ask me that?”
“I’m hoping for a more favorable answer this time. And I seem to be getting more desperate by the minute.”
Kai’s lips twitched. “Please?”
“I mean, why me?”
Kai hooked his thumbs on his pockets. “So if my escape hover breaks down, I’ll have someone on hand to fix it?”
She rolled her eyes and found herself unable to look at him again, staring instead at the red emergency button beside the doors.
“I mean it. I can’t go alone. And I really can’t go with Levana.”
“Well there are about 200,000 single girls in this city who would fall over themselves to have the privilege.”
A hush passed between them. He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel his presence, warm and overpowering. She could feel the elevator growing hot, despite the fact that her temperature gauge assured her it hadn’t changed.
She couldn’t help it. She looked at him. Her defenses withered a bit upon encountering the openness in his brown eyes. His confidence had been replaced with worry. Uncertainty.
“200,000 single girls,” he said. “Why not you?”
Cyborg. Lunar. Mechanic. She was the last thing he wanted.
She opened her lips, and the elevator stopped. “I’m sorry. But trust me—you don’t want to go with me.”
The doors opened and the tension released her. She rushed out of the elevator, head down, trying not to look at the small group of people waiting for an elevator.
“Come to the ball with me.”
She froze. Everyone in the hallway froze.
Cinder turned back. Kai was still standing in elevator B, one hand propping open the door.
Her nerves were frazzled, and all the emotions of the past hour were converging into a single, sickening feeling—exasperation. The hall was filled with doctors, nurses, androids, officials, technicians, and they all fell into an awkward hush and stared at the prince and the girl in the baggy cargo pants he was flirting with.
Squaring her shoulders, she retreated back into the elevator and pushed him inside, not even caring that it was with her metal hand. “Hold the elevator,” he said to the android as the doors shut them in. He smiled. “That got your attention.”
“Listen,” she said. “I’m sorry. I really am. But I can’t go to the ball with you. You just have to trust me on that.”
He gazed down at the gloved hand splayed across his chest. Cinder pulled away, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Why? Why don’t you want to go with me?”
She huffed. “It’s not that I don’t want to go with you, it’s that I’m not going at all.”
“So you do want to go with me.”
Cinder locked her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t.”
“But I need you.”
“Yes. Don’t you see? If I’m spending all my time with you, then Queen Levana can’t rope me in to any conversations or…” He shuddered. “Dancing.”
Cinder reeled back, her gaze losing focus. Queen Levana. Of course this was about Queen Levana. What had Peony told her, ages ago? Rumors of a marriage alliance?
“Not that I have anything against dancing. I can dance. If you want to dance.”
She squinted at him. “What?”
“Or not, if you don’t want to. Or if you don’t know how. Which is nothing to be ashamed of.”
She started to rub her forehead, a headache developing, but stopped when she realized her gloves were filthy. “I really, really can’t go,” she said. “You see…” I don’t have a dress. Adri won’t allow it. Because Queen Levana would kill me. “It’s my sister.”
She wet her throat and dropped her gaze to the polished blackwood floor. Even the elevators were exquisite in the palace. “Yes. My little sister. She has the plague. And it just wouldn’t be the same without her, and I can’t go—won’t go. I’m sorry.” Cinder was surprised to find the words ringing true, even to her ear. She wondered if her lie detector would have gone off if it could see her.
Kai slipped back against the wall, hair fringing his eyes. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“You couldn’t have.” Cinder rubbed her palms down her sides. Her skin had grown hot beneath the gloves. “Actually, there’s something…I’d like to tell you. If that’s all right.”
He listed his head, curious.
“I just think she’d like you to know about her is all. Um…her name is Peony. She’s fourteen, and she’s madly in love with you.”
His eyebrows rose.
“I just thought that if, by some crazy miracle, she might survive—do you think you could ask her to dance? At the ball?” Cinder’s voice chafed her throat as she said it, knowing that crazy miracles didn’t happen. But she had to ask.
Kai’s gaze burned into her, and he gave her a slow, determined nod. “It would be my pleasure.”
She dipped her head. “I’ll let her know to look forward to it.” From the edge of her gaze, Cinder saw Kai slip a hand into his pocket and ball it into a fist.
“People are probably getting suspicious out there,” said Cinder. “The rumors will be spreading like mad.” She put an awkward chuckle into the statement, but Kai didn’t match it. When she dared to look up at him again, he was staring unfocused at the paneled wall behind her, his shoulders heavy.
“Are you all right?”
He started to nod, but stopped. “Levana thinks she can play me like a puppet.” His brow creased. “And it just occurred to me that she might be right.”
Cinder fidgeted with her gloves. How easy it was to forget who she was speaking to, and all the things he must have on his mind, things so much more important than her. Even more important than Peony.
“I feel like I’m going to ruin everything,” he said.
“You won’t.” She itched to reach out to him, but held back, wringing her hands. “You’re going to be one of those emperors that everyone loves and admires.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“I mean it. Look how much you care, how hard you’re trying, and you’re not even emperor yet. Besides.” She folded her arms, burying her hands. “It’s not like you’re alone. You have advisers and province reps and secretaries and treasurers and…I mean, really, how much harm can one man possibly do all on his own?”
Kai half laughed. “You’re not really making me feel better, but I appreciate the effort.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling. “I shouldn’t be telling you all this, anyway. It isn’t your problem to worry about. It’s just…you’re easy to talk to.”
She shuffled her feet. “It is kind of my problem. I mean, we all have to live here.”
“You could move to Europe.”
“You know, I’ve actually been considering that lately.”
Kai laughed again, the warmth returning to the sound. “If that’s not a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.”
She ducked her head. “Look, I know you’re royalty and all, but people are probably getting really impatient for this ele—” Her breath snagged as Kai leaned forward, so close she was sure for a heartbeat he meant to kiss her. She froze, a wave of panic crashing into her, and barely managed to look up.
Instead of kissing her, he whispered, “Imagine there was a cure, but finding it would cost you everything. It would completely ruin your life. What would you do?”
The warm air enclosed her. So close, she could catch a faint soapy smell coming from him.
His eyes bored into hers, waiting, a tinge desperate.
Cinder wet her mouth. “Ruin my life to save a million others? It’s not much of a choice.”
His lips parted—she had no choice but to look at them and then immediately back into his eyes. She could almost count the black lashes around them. But then a sadness filtered into his gaze.
“You’re right. There’s no real choice.”
Her body simultaneously yearned to close the gap between them and push him away. The anticipation that warmed her lips made it impossible to do either. “Your Highness?”
She tilted her face toward him, the subtlest of movements. She listened to his wavering breath and this time, it was his eyes dropping to her lips.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sure this is horribly inappropriate, but…it seems that my life is about to be ruined.”
Her brow drew together, questioning, but he didn’t elaborate. His fingers, light as a breath, brushed her elbow. He craned his head. Cinder couldn’t move, barely managing to wet her lips as her eyes slipped shut.
Pain exploded in her head. Raced down her spine.
Cinder gasped and folded over, gripping her stomach. The world lurched. Acid burned her throat. Kai cried out and caught her as she stumbled forward, easing her onto the elevator floor.
Cinder shuddered against him, light-headed.
The pain was doused as quickly as it had started.
Cinder lay panting, hunched over Kai’s arm. His voice began to filter past her eardrums—her name, again and again. Muffled words. Are you all right? What happened? What did I do?
She was hot, her hand sweating in the glove, her face burning. Like before, when Dr. Erland had touched her. What was happening to her?
She licked her lips. Her tongue was cotton in her mouth. “I’m all right,” she said, wondering if it were true. “It’s gone. I’m fine.” She squeezed her eyes shut and waited, afraid that the slightest movement would bring the pain back again.
Kai’s fingers pressed against her brow, her hair. “Are you sure? Can you move?”
She attempted a nod and forced herself to look at him.
Kai gasped and jerked away, his hand freezing inches from Cinder’s brow. Fear clamped her gut. Was her retina display showing?
“What?” she asked, ducking her face behind her hand, running nervous fingers over her skin, her hair. “What is it?”
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