“All those sticky buns,” Iko said as they passed a close-up shot of the blackened booth.
Cinder bit the inside corner of her cheek. Neither of them had ever sampled the acclaimed sweets of the market bakery. Iko didn’t have taste buds, and Chang Sacha didn’t serve cyborgs.
Towering offices and shopping centers gradually melded with a messy assortment of apartment buildings, built so close that they became an unending stretch of glass and concrete. Apartments in this corner of the city had once been spacious and desirable but had been so subdivided and remodeled over time—always trying to cram more people into the same square footage—that the buildings had become labyrinths of corridors and stairwells.
But all the crowded ugliness was briefly forgotten as Cinder turned the corner onto her own street. For half a step, New Beijing Palace could be glimpsed between complexes, sprawling and serene on the cliff that overlooked the city. The palace’s pointed gold roofs sparkled orange beneath the sun, the windows glinting the light back at the city. The ornate gables, the tiered pavilions that teetered dangerously close to the cliff’s edge, the rounded temples stretching to the heavens. Cinder paused longer than usual to look up at it, thinking about someone who lived beyond those walls, who was up there perhaps this very second.
Not that she hadn’t known the prince lived there every time she’d seen the palace before, but today she felt a connection she’d never had before, and with it came an almost smug delight. She had met the prince. He had come to her booth. He knew her name.
Sucking in a breath of humid air, Cinder forced herself to turn away, feeling childish. She was going to start sounding like Peony.
She shifted the royal android to her other arm as she and Iko ducked beneath the overhang of the Phoenix Tower apartments. She flashed her freed wrist at the ID scanner on the wall and heard the clunking of the lock.
Iko used her arm extensions to clop down the stairs as they descended into the basement, a dim maze of storage spaces caged with chicken wire. As a wave of musty air blew up to meet them, the android turned on her floodlight, dispersing the shadows from the sparse halogens. It was a familiar path from the stairwell to storage space number 18-20—the cramped, always chilly cell that Adri allowed Cinder to use for her work.
Cinder cleared a space for the android among the worktable’s clutter and set her messenger bag on the floor. She swapped her heavy work gloves for less grungy cotton ones before locking up the storage room. “If Adri asks,” she said as they made their way to the elevators, “our booth is nowhere near the baker’s.”
Iko’s light flickered. “Noted.”
They were alone in the elevator. It wasn’t until they stepped out onto the eighteenth floor that the building became a crawling hive—children chasing each other down the corridors, both domestic and stray cats creeping tight against the walls, the ever-constant blur of netscreen chatter spilling from the doorways. Cinder adjusted the white-noise output from her brain interface as she dodged the children on her way to the apartment.
The door was wide open, making Cinder pause and check the number before entering.
She heard Adri’s stiff voice from the living room. “Lower neckline for Peony. She looks like an old woman.”
Cinder peered around the corner. Adri was standing with one hand on the mantel of the holographic fireplace, wearing a chrysanthemum-embroidered bathrobe that blended in with the collection of garish paper fans that covered the wall behind her—reproductions made to look antique. With her face shimmering with too much powder and her lips painted horrifically bright, Adri almost looked like a reproduction herself. Her face was made up as if she’d been planning to go somewhere, although she rarely left the apartment.
If she noticed Cinder loitering in the doorway, she ignored her.
The netscreen above the heatless flames was showing footage from the market. The baker’s booth had been reduced to rubble and the skeleton of a portable oven.
In the center of the room, Pearl and Peony each stood swathed in silk and tulle. Peony was holding up her dark curly hair while a woman Cinder didn’t recognize fidgeted with her dress’s neckline. Peony caught sight of Cinder over the woman’s shoulder and her eyes sparked, a glow bursting across her face. She gestured at the dress with a barely silenced squeal.
Cinder grinned back. Her younger stepsister looked angelic, her dress all silver and shimmering, with hints of lavender when caught in the fire’s light.
“Pearl.” Adri gestured at her older daughter with a twirling finger, and Pearl spun around, displaying a row of pearl buttons down her back. Her dress matched Peony’s with its snug bodice and flouncy skirt, only it was made of stardust gold. “Let’s take in her waist some more.”
Threading a pin through the hem of Peony’s neckline, the stranger started at seeing Cinder in the doorway but quickly turned away. Stepping back, the woman removed a bundle of sharp pins from between her lips and tilted her head to one side. “It’s already very snug,” she said. “We want her to dance, don’t we?”
“We want her to find a husband,” said Adri.
“No, no,” the seamstress tittered even as she reached out and pinched the material around Pearl’s waist. Cinder could tell Pearl was sucking in her stomach as much as she could; she detected the edges of ribs beneath the fabric. “She is much too young for marriage.”
“I’m seventeen,” Pearl said, glaring at the woman.
“Seventeen! See? A child. Now is for fun, right, girl?”
“She is too expensive for fun,” said Adri. “I expect results from this gown.”
“Do not worry, Linh-ji. She will be lovely as morning dew.” Stuffing the pins back into her mouth, the woman returned her focus to Peony’s neckline.
Adri lifted her chin and finally acknowledged Cinder’s presence by swiping her gaze down Cinder’s filthy boots and cargo pants. “Why aren’t you at the market?”
“It closed down early today,” said Cinder, with a meaningful look at the netscreen that Adri didn’t follow. Feigning nonchalance, Cinder thrust a thumb toward the hall. “So I’ll just go get cleaned up, and then I’ll be ready for my dress fitting.”
The seamstress paused. “Another dress, Linh-ji? I did not bring material for—”
“Have you replaced the magbelt on the hover yet?”
Cinder’s smile faltered. “No. Not yet.”
“Well, none of us will be going to the ball unless that gets fixed, will we?”
Cinder stifled her irritation. They’d already had this conversation twice in the past week. “I need money to buy a new magbelt. 800 univs, at least. If income from the market wasn’t deposited directly into your account, I would have bought one by now.”
“And trust you not to spend it all on your frivolous toys?” Adri said toys with a glare at Iko and a curl of her lip, even though Iko technically belonged to her. “Besides, I can’t afford both a magbelt and a new dress that you’ll only wear once. You’ll have to find some other way of fixing the hover or find your own gown for the ball.”
Irritation hardened in Cinder’s gut. She might have pointed out that Pearl and Peony could have been given ready-made rather than custom dresses in order to budget for Cinder’s as well. She might have pointed out that they would only wear their dresses one time too. She might have pointed out that, as she was the one doing the work, the money should have been hers to spend as she saw fit. But all arguments would come to nothing. Legally, Cinder belonged to Adri as much as the household android and so too did her money, her few possessions, even the new foot she’d just attached. Adri loved to remind her of that.
So she stomped the anger down before Adri could see a spark of rebellion.
“I may be able to offer a trade for the magbelt. I’ll check with the local shops.”
Adri sniffed. “Why don’t we trade that worthless android for it?”
Iko ducked behind Cinder’s legs.
“We wouldn’t get much for her,” said Cinder. “Nobody wants such an old model.”
“No. They don’t, do they? Perhaps I will have to sell both of you off as spare parts.” Adri reached forward and fidgeted with the unfinished hem of Pearl’s sleeve. “I don’t care how you fix the hover, just fix it before the ball—and cheaply. I don’t need that pile of junk taking up valuable parking space.”
Cinder tucked her hands into her back pockets. “Are you saying that if I fix the hover and get a dress, I can really go this year?”
Adri’s lips puckered slightly at the corners. “It will be a miracle if you can find something suitable to wear that will hide your”—her gaze dropped to Cinder’s boots—“eccentricities. But, yes. If you fix the hover, I suppose you can go to the ball.”
Peony flashed Cinder a stunned half smile, while her older sister spun on their mother. “You can’t be serious! Her? Go with us?”
Cinder pressed her shoulder into the door frame, trying to hide her disappointment from Peony. Pearl’s outrage was unnecessary. A little orange light had flickered in the corner of Cinder’s vision—Adri had not meant her promise.
“Well,” she said, attempting to look heartened. “I guess I’d better go find a magbelt then.”
Adri flourished her arm at Cinder, her attention once again captivated by Pearl’s dress. A silent dismissal.
Cinder cast one more look at her stepsisters’ sumptuous gowns before backing out of the room. She had barely turned toward the hallway when Peony squealed.
Freezing, Cinder glanced back at the netscreen. The plague alerts had been replaced with a live broadcast from the palace’s pressroom. Prince Kai was speaking to a crowd of journalists—human and android.
“Volume on,” said Pearl, batting the seamstress away.
“…research continues to be our top priority,” Prince Kai was saying, gripping the sides of a podium. “Our research team is determined to find a vaccine for this disease that has now taken one of my parents and threatens to take the other, as well as tens of thousands of our citizens. The circumstances are made even more desperate in the face of the outbreak that occurred today within the city limits. No longer can we claim this disease is relegated to the poor, rural communities of our country. Letumosis threatens us all, and we will find a way to stop it. Only then can we begin to rebuild our economy and return the Eastern Commonwealth to its once prosperous state.”
Unenthusiastic applause shifted through the crowd. Research on the plague had been underway since the first outbreak had occurred in a small town in the African Union over a dozen years ago. It seemed that very little progress had been made. Meanwhile, the disease had surfaced in hundreds of seemingly unconnected communities throughout the world. Hundreds of thousands of people had fallen ill, suffered, died. Even Adri’s husband had contracted it on a trip to Europe—the same trip during which he’d agreed to become the guardian of an eleven-year-old orphaned cyborg. One of Cinder’s few memories of the man was of him being carted away to the quarantines while Adri raved at how he could not leave her with this thing.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com