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“Fourteen.”

“Then I think this will be sufficient.” He poured a quarter of the antidote into the beaker. Corking the vial, he turned back to Cinder. “You do realize it came from Queen Levana. I do not know what her plan could be, but I know it will not be for the greater good of Earth. This could very well be a trick.”

“My sister is already dying.”

He nodded and held it out to her. “That is what I thought.”

Cinder’s stood up and took the vial, cradling it in her palm. “You’re sure?”

“On one condition, Miss Linh.”

Gulping, she clutched the vial against her chest.

“You must promise me not to come near this palace again so long as Queen Levana is here.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

PRINCE KAI ARRIVED AT THE MEETING SEVENTEEN MINUTES late. He was met with the disgruntled looks of Torin and four other government officials all sitting at a long table, along with an additional dozen faces peering out from their respective netscreens on the paneled wall before him. Ambassadors from every Earthen country—the United Kingdom, the European Federation, the African Union, the American Republic, and Australia. One queen, two prime ministers, one president, one governor-general, three state representatives, and two province representatives. Text along the bottom of the screens helpfully displayed their names, titles, and country affiliations.

“How kind of the young prince to grace us with his presence,” said Torin, as the officials around the table stood to welcome Kai.

Kai waved Torin’s comment away. “I thought you could use my guidance.”

On the wall of screens, Prime Minister Kamin of Africa grunted most unladylike. Everyone else remained silent.

Kai moved to take his regular seat when Torin stopped him and gestured at the chair at the end of the table. The emperor’s chair. Jaw clenching, Kai switched seats. He looked up at the grid of faces—although each of the world leaders was thousands of miles away, staring into their own wall of netscreens, it felt as if their eyes were focused on him, disapproving.

He cleared his throat, trying not to fidget. “Is the conference link secure?” he asked, the question bringing back his concerns over the direct communication chip Cinder had found inside Nainsi. The screens in this room were equipped with D-COMMs so they could hold international meetings without fear of anyone listening in through the net. Had the chip inside Nainsi been put there by one of Levana’s cronies for the same reason—secrecy, privacy? If so, what exactly had she learned?

“Of course,” said Torin. “The links have been verified for nearly twenty minutes, Your Highness. We were just discussing Earth’s relationship with Luna when you deigned to join us.”

Kai clasped his hands together. “Right. Now, is that the one where the dominatrix queen throws a tantrum and threatens war every time she doesn’t get her way? That relationship?”

No one laughed. Torin’s gaze focused on Kai. “Is this timing inconvenient for you, Your Highness?”

Kai cleared his throat. “I apologize. That was inappropriate.” He met the faces of the Earth’s leaders, watching him from thousands of miles away. He gripped his hands beneath the table, feeling like a child sitting in on his father’s meetings.

“Obviously,” said President Vargas from America, “the relationship between Earth and Luna has been strained for many years, and the rule of Queen Levana has only made things worse. We can’t put blame on any one party, but the important thing is that we fix it, before—”

“Before she starts a war,” finished a province representative from South America, “as the young prince already observed.”

“But if the reports on the net are not mistaken,” said Governor-General Williams of Australia, “communication between Earth and Luna has begun again. Can it be true that Levana is on Earth now? I could hardly believe the news when I heard it.”

“Yes,” said Torin, as all eyes switched to him. “The queen arrived yesterday afternoon, and her head thaumaturge, Sybil Mira, has been a guest in our court for just over two weeks.”

“Has Levana informed you of her purpose for this visit?” said Prime Minister Kamin.

“She claims that she wants to reach a peace agreement.”

One of the American Republic reps guffawed. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

President Vargas ignored the comment. “Quite suspicious timing, isn’t it? So soon after…” He didn’t finish. No one looked at Kai.

“We agree,” said Torin, “but we could not refuse the request when it came.”

“It does seem she was always more apt to discuss an alliance with the Commonwealth than any of us,” said President Vargas, “but her requests were always unsatisfactory. Have those requests changed?”

Kai watched from the corner of his eye as Torin’s chest slowly expanded. “No,” he said. “To our knowledge, Her Majesty’s requests have not changed. Her aim continues to be a marriage alliance with the Commonwealth’s emperor.”

Although the faces in the room and on the screens tried to remain static, the discomfort ratcheted around them. Kai gripped his hands so tight that crescent moons were left from his fingernails. He had always despised the diplomacy of these meetings. Everyone thinking the same thing, no one brave enough to say it.

And of course they would all be sympathetic to Kai’s fate, and yet glad that it wasn’t any of them. They would be angry that Queen Levana could infiltrate any Earthen country with her dictatorship, and yet certain that it would be an improvement over infiltrating Earth with her army.

“The Commonwealth’s position,” continued Torin, “has also not changed.”

This did seem to jolt the crowd.

“You won’t marry her?” said Queen Camilla of the United Kingdom, the wrinkles on her forehead deepening.

Kai squared his shoulders in defense. “My father was firm in his decision to avoid such an alliance, and I believe his reasons are as applicable today as they were last week, or last year, or ten years ago. I must consider what is best for my country.”

“Have you told this to Levana?”

“I have not lied to her.”

“And what will be her next move?” said Prime Minister Bromstad of Europe, a fair-haired man with kind eyes.

“What else?” said Kai. “She intends to add more bargaining chips to the pile until we cave.”

Stares clashed through the screens. Torin’s lips had gone white, his eyes urging Kai to tread lightly. Kai could guess that Torin hadn’t intended to mention the antidote, at least until they could plan their next move—but letumosis was a pandemic that affected all of them. They at least had a right to know that an antidote might exist. Assuming Levana hadn’t lied to him.

Kai took in a deep breath, splaying his palms out on the table. “Levana claims to have found a cure for letumosis.”

The netscreens seemed to crackle with surprise, though the gathered leaders were all too stunned to speak.

“She brought a single dosage with her, and I’ve passed it off to our research team. We won’t know if it’s a true antidote until they’ve had a chance to study it. If it is real, then we need to find out if we can replicate it.”

“And if we can’t replicate it?”

Kai looked at the Australian governor-general. He was older than Kai’s father had been by many years. They were all so much older than him. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I will do what has to be done for the Commonwealth.” He enunciated Commonwealth very carefully. True, they were an alliance six countries and a single planet strong. But they all had their own loyalties, and he would not forget his.

“Even then,” said Torin, “we can yet hope to make her see reason and convince her to sign the Treaty of Bremen without a marriage alliance.”

“She will refuse,” said a state representative from the EF. “We mustn’t fool ourselves. She is as stubborn—”

“Of course, the Commonwealth’s imperial family is not the only royal bloodline she could harbor hopes of marrying into,” said the African state representative. He said this knowing that his own country could not be a choice, as it was not a monarchy. Any marriage bond would be too superficial, too transient. He continued, “I think we should explore all possible options so that we can be sure to have an offer prepared, no matter what Levana decides to do next. An offer that we, as a group, feel would best benefit the citizenry of our entire planet.”

Kai had followed the group’s attention to Queen Camilla of the UK, who had an unmarried son in his early thirties, closer to Levana’s age than Kai was. He noted how passive the queen was trying to appear and had to keep himself from looking smug. It felt nice to turn the tables.

And yet, politically, there was no doubt that Kai was the best option in Queen Levana’s eyes. The prince from the United Kingdom was the youngest of three siblings and may never become king. Kai, on the other hand, would be coronated next week.

“What if she refuses anyone else?” said Queen Camilla, lifting an eyebrow that had seen too many youth surgeries over the years. When no one responded to the question, she continued. “I don’t mean to raise undue alarm, but have you considered that her reason for coming to Earth might be to secure this alliance through force? Perhaps she intends to brainwash the young prince into marrying her.”

Kai’s stomach flipped. He could see his unease mirrored in the faces of the other diplomats. “Could she do that?” he asked.

When no one was quick to answer, he turned to Torin.

It took far, far too long for Torin to shake his head, looking frighteningly uncertain. “No,” he said. “Perhaps, in theory, but no. In order to keep up the ruse, she could never leave your side. As soon as you were no longer under her influence, you could prove that the marriage wasn’t legitimate. She wouldn’t risk that.”

“You mean we hope she wouldn’t risk it,” said Kai, not feeling very comforted.

“What about Levana’s daughter, Princess Winter?” said President Vargas. “Has there been any discussion of her?”

“Stepdaughter,” said Torin. “And what should we discuss in regards to the Lunar princess?”

“Why can’t we form a marriage alliance with her?” said Queen Camilla. “She can’t be any worse than Levana.”

Torin folded his hands atop the table. “Princess Winter was of another mother and her father was a mere palace guard. She has no royal blood.”

“But Luna might still honor a marriage alliance through her,” said Kai. “Wouldn’t they?”

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