Cinder’s internal warnings went off. Spiking adrenaline. She sucked down a breath. “I went to join the protests, all right? Is that a crime?”
“I was under the impression that you were in the basement, working, as you were supposed to be doing. To sneak out of the house without permission, without even informing me, to attend some gratuitous parade, and all the while Peony is—” Her voice hitched. Adri lowered her eyes, collected herself, but her voice was thicker when she spoke again. “Your records also show you took a hover ride today, to the outskirts of the city, the old warehouse district. It seems clear to me that you were attempting to run away.”
“Run away? No. There is…that’s where…” She hesitated. “There’s an old parts store down there. I was going for parts.”
“Is that so? And pray tell, where did you get the money for the hover?”
Biting her lip, Cinder sank her gaze to the floor.
“This is unacceptable,” said Adri. “I will not tolerate such behavior from you.”
Cinder heard shuffling in the hallway. Glancing around the door, she saw Pearl sneaking from her bedroom, drawn to her mother’s raised voice. She turned back to Adri.
“After everything that I’ve done for you,” continued Adri, “everything we’ve sacrificed, you have the gall to steal from me.”
Cinder frowned. “I didn’t steal from you.”
“No?” Adri’s knuckles whitened. “A few univs for a hover ride I could have overlooked, Cinder, but tell me, where did you obtain the 600 univs in order to pay for your—” Her eyes fell to Cinder’s boots, lips curling in a sneer. “—your new limb? Isn’t it true that that money was reserved for rent and food and household expenses?”
Cinder’s stomach clenched.
“I screened Iko’s memory. 600 univs in just one week, not to mention toying with the pearls that Garan gave me for our anniversary. It makes me sick to think what else you’ve been hiding from me.”
Cinder squeezed her trembling fists against her thighs, glad, for once, that she’d never told Iko about being Lunar. “It wasn’t—”
“I don’t want to hear it.” Adri bunched her lips. “If you hadn’t been out dallying all day you would know that”—her voice rose, bolstered, as if anger alone could keep tears at bay—“that I now have a funeral to pay for. 600 univs would have bought my daughter a respectable plaque, and I intend to get that money back. We’ll be selling off some personal belongings in order to afford it, and you will be required to make up your fair share.”
Cinder gripped the doorjamb. She wanted to tell Adri that no fancy plaque would bring Peony back, but she didn’t have the strength. Shutting her eyes, she planted her brow against the cool wood frame.
“Don’t just stand there, pretending to understand what I can be going through. You are not part of this family. You aren’t even human anymore.”
“I am human,” said Cinder, quietly, the anger drained out of her. She just wanted Adri to stop talking so she could go to her room and be alone and think about Peony. The antidote. Their escape.
“No, Cinder. Humans cry.”
Cinder sank back, wrapping her arms protectively around herself.
“Go ahead. Shed a tear for your little sister. I seem to be all dried up this evening, so why don’t you share the burden?”
“That’s not fair.”
“Not fair?” Adri barked. “What isn’t fair is that you are still alive while she is not. That is not fair! You should have died in that accident. They should have let you die and left my family alone!”
Cinder stomped her foot. “Stop blaming me! I didn’t ask to live. I didn’t ask to be adopted. I didn’t ask to be made cyborg. None of this is my fault! And Peony isn’t my fault either, and neither is Garan. I didn’t start this plague, I didn’t—”
She stopped herself as Dr. Erland’s words crashed down on her. Lunars had brought the plague to Earth. Lunars were at fault. Lunars.
“Did you just short-circuit?”
Cinder shook off the thought and threw a silent glare at Pearl before swinging back toward Adri. “I can get the money back,” she said. “Enough to buy Peony the most beautiful plaque—or a real tombstone even.”
“It is too late for that. You have proven that you have no part in this family. You have proven that you cannot be trusted.” Adri smoothed her skirt over her knees. “As punishment for your thievery and for attempting to run away this afternoon, I have decided you will not be allowed to attend the annual ball.”
Cinder bit back a wry laugh. Did Adri think she was a fool?
“Until further notice,” Adri continued, “you will go only so far as the basement during the week and to your booth at the festival so you can begin repaying me for the money you stole.”
Cinder dug her fingers into her thighs, too incensed to argue. Every fiber, every nerve, every wire was trembling.
“And you will leave your foot with me.”
She started. “Excuse me?”
“I think it a fair solution. After all, you bought it with my money, therefore it is mine to do with as I please. In some cultures they would cut off your hand, Cinder. Consider yourself fortunate.”
“But it’s my foot!”
“And you will have to do without it until you can find a cheaper replacement.” She glowered at Cinder’s feet. Her lip curled with disgust. “You are not human, Cinder. It’s about time you realized that.”
Jaw working, Cinder struggled to form an argument. But legally, the money had been Adri’s. Legally, Cinder belonged to Adri. She had no rights, no belongings. She was nothing but a cyborg.
“You may go now,” said Adri, casting her eyes toward the empty mantel. “Just be sure to leave your foot in the hallway before going to bed tonight.”
Fists clenching, Cinder drew back into the hallway. Pearl plastered herself to the wall, eyeing Cinder with disgust. Her cheeks were flushed with recent tears.
“Wait—one more thing, Cinder.”
“You will find I’ve already begun selling off some unnecessary items. I’ve left some faulty parts in your room that were deemed worthless. Perhaps you can find something to do with them.”
When it was clear that Adri was finished, Cinder stormed down the hall without looking back. Anger sloshed through her. She wanted to rampage through the house, destroying everything, but a quiet voice in her head calmed her. Adri wanted that. Adri wanted an excuse to have her arrested, to be rid of her once and for all.
She just needed time. Another week, two at the most, and the car would be ready.
Then she really would be a runaway cyborg, but this time, Adri wouldn’t be able to track her.
She stomped into her bedroom and slammed the door, falling against it with a hot, shaking breath. She squeezed her eyes. One more week. One more week.
When her breath had begun to settle and the warnings in her vision disappeared, Cinder opened her eyes. Her room was as messy as ever, old tools and parts scattered across the grease-stained blankets that made up her bed, but her eyes immediately landed on a new addition to the mess.
Her gut plummeted.
She knelt over the pile of worthless parts that Adri had left for her to find. A beat-up tread punctured with pebbles and debris. An ancient fan with a crooked blade. Two aluminum arms—one that still had Peony’s velvet ribbon tied around the wrist.
Clenching her jaw, she started sorting through the pieces. Carefully. One by one. Her fingers trembled over every mangled screw. Every bit of melted plastic. She shook her head, silently pleading. Pleading.
Finally she found what she was searching for.
With a dry, grateful sob, she crumpled over her knees, squeezing Iko’s worthless personality chip against her chest.
He had all the stairs coated with pitch, and when Cinderella went running down the stairs, her left slipper got stuck there.
CINDER SAT INSIDE HER BOOTH, CHIN CUPPED IN BOTH palms, watching the huge netscreen across the crowded street. She couldn’t hear the reporter’s commentary over the chaos, but she didn’t need to—he was reporting on the festival that she was stuck in the middle of. The reporter seemed to be having a lot more fun than she was, gesturing wildly at passing food vendors and jugglers, contortionists on miniature parade floats and the tail end of a passing lucky dragon kite. Cinder could tell from the hubbub that the reporter was in the square just a block away from her, where most of the events took place throughout the day. It was a lot more festive than the street of vendor booths, but at least she was in the shade.
The day would have been busy compared to market days—lots of potential customers had sought prices on broken portscreens and android parts—but she had been forced to turn them all away. She would be taking no more customers in New Beijing. She would not have been there at all if Adri hadn’t forced her to come, dropping her off while she and Pearl went shopping for last-minute ball accessories. She suspected that Adri really just wanted to watch as everyone gawked at the limping, one-footed girl.
She couldn’t tell her stepmother that Linh Cinder, renowned mechanic, was closed for business.
Because she couldn’t tell Adri that she was leaving.
She sighed, blowing a misplaced lock of hair out of her face. The heat was miserable. The humidity clung to Cinder’s skin, pasting her shirt to her back. Along with the budding clouds on the horizon, it promised rain, and lots of it.
Not ideal driving conditions.
But that wouldn’t stop her. Twelve hours from now, she would be miles outside of the city, putting as much distance between herself and New Beijing as she could. She had gone down to the garage every night that week after Adri and Pearl were in bed, hopping along on homemade crutches so she could work on the car. Last night, for the first time, the engine had roared to life.
Well, more like sputtered to life and spewed out noxious fumes from the exhaust that made her cough like mad. She had used nearly half of the plague-research money Erland had wired her on a big tank of gasoline that, if she were lucky, would carry her at least into the next province. It would be a bumpy ride. It would be a stinky ride.
But she would be free.
No—they would be free. Her and Iko’s personality chip and Peony’s ID chip. They were going to escape together, like she’d always said they would.
Though she knew she could never bring Peony back, she hoped that someday she would at least find another body for Iko. Some other android shell, perhaps—maybe even an escort with their tauntingly ideal feminine shapes. She thought Iko would like that.
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