The netscreen changed, showing the other favorite news story of the week. Chang Sunto, miracle child. Plague survivor. He’d been interviewed countless times about his unbelievable recovery, and every time it sparked a little glow in Cinder’s silicon heart.
Footage of her mad dash from the quarantines had been played repeatedly on the screens too, but the recording never showed her face, and Adri had been too distracted—by the ball and the funeral that Cinder had not been invited to attend—to realize the mystery girl was living under her own roof. Or perhaps Adri just paid her such little attention that she wouldn’t have recognized her anyway.
Rumors abounded about the girl and Chang Sunto’s miraculous recovery, and while some had talked of an antidote, no one was coming clean. The boy was now under the surveillance of the palace research team, which meant that Dr. Erland had a new guinea pig to play with. She hoped it would be enough, given that her role as research volunteer was over. She hadn’t had the heart to tell the doctor that yet, though, and the guilt clawed at her upon seeing a new monetary deposit every morning. Dr. Erland had made good on his promises—he’d set up an account ID-linked so that only Cinder could access it, not Adri, and had made almost daily payments from the research and development fund. So far he’d asked for nothing in return. His only comms had been to tell her he was still making use of her blood samples and to remind her not to return to the palace until the queen was gone.
Cinder frowned, scratching her cheek. Dr. Erland had never had the chance to explain to her why she was so special when he was also immune. Her curiosity lingered in the back of her thoughts, but not as strongly as her determination to run away. Some mysteries would have to remain unsolved.
She pulled her toolbox toward her on the table, fishing through it for no other reason than to keep her hands busy. The boredom of the past five days had led her to meticulously organize every last bolt and screw. Now she’d taken to counting, creating a digital inventory in her brain.
A child appeared across her worktable, silky black hair pulled up in pigtails. “Excuse me,” she said, pushing a portscreen onto the table. “Can you fix this?”
Cinder cast her bored eyes from the child to the port. It was small enough to fit into her palm and covered with a sparkling pink shell. Sighing, she picked up the port and flipped it over in her hands. She pressed the power button but only gobbledygook filled the screen. Twisting her lips, she smacked the corner of the screen twice on the table. The girl jumped back.
Cinder tried the power button again. The welcome screen beamed up at her.
“Give that a shot,” she said, tossing it back to the kid, who stumbled to catch it. The girl’s eyes brightened. She flashed a grin with two missing teeth before scurrying into the crowd.
Cinder hunched over, settling her chin down on her forearms and wishing for the thousandth time that Iko wasn’t trapped inside a tiny scrap of metal. They would be poking fun at the vendors with their damp, rosy faces, fanning themselves beneath the canopies of their booths. They would talk about all the places they were going to go and see—the Taj Mahal, the Mediterranean Sea, the transatlantic maglev railway. Iko would want to go shopping in Paris.
When a shudder ran through her, Cinder buried her face in her elbow. How long would she have to carry their ghosts around with her?
“Are you all right?”
She jumped and raised her eyes. Kai was leaning against the corner of the booth, one arm propped on the door’s steel track, the other hidden behind him. He was wearing his disguise again, the gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, but even in the sweltering heat, he managed to look perfectly composed. His hair just tousled, the bright sun behind him—Cinder’s heart started to expand before she clamped it back down.
She didn’t bother to get up, but she did mindlessly tug her pant leg down to cover as many of the wires as possible, once again grateful for the thin tablecloth. “Your Highness.”
“Now, I don’t want to tell you how to run your business or anything,” he said, “but have you considered actually charging people for your services?”
Her wires seemed to be struggling to connect in her brain for a moment before she remembered the little girl from moments before. She cleared her throat and glanced around. The girl was sitting on the sidewalk with her dress stretched over her knees, humming to the music that streamed up from the tiny speakers. Shoppers mulled about, swinging bags against their hips and snacking on tea-boiled eggs. The shopkeepers were busy sweating. No one was paying them any attention.
“I don’t want to tell you how to be a prince, but shouldn’t you have some bodyguards or something?”
“Bodyguards? Who would want to harm a charming guy like me?”
When she glared up at him, he smiled and flashed his wrist at her. “Trust me, they know exactly where I am at all times, but I try not to think about it.”
She picked a flat-head screwdriver from the toolbox and started twirling it over her fingers, anything to keep her hands preoccupied. “So what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know. Preparing for a coronation or something?”
“Believe it or not, I seem to be having technical difficulties again.” He unhooked the portscreen from his belt and peered down. “You see, I figured it’s probably too much to hope that New Beijing’s most renowned mechanic is having trouble with her port, so I figured there must be something wrong with mine.” Screwing up his lips, he whapped the corner of his portscreen on the table, then checked the screen again with a heavy sigh. “Nope, nothing. Maybe she’s been ignoring my comms on purpose.”
“Maybe she’s been busy?”
“Oh, yes, you look completely overwhelmed.”
Cinder rolled her eyes.
“Here, I brought you something.” Kai put the portscreen away and pulled his hand out from behind him, producing a long, flat box wrapped in gold foil and a white ribbon. The paper was gorgeous, the wrapping job less so.
Cinder dropped the screwdriver with a clatter. “What’s that for?”
A flash of hurt crossed his face. “What? I can’t buy you a gift?” he asked, in a tone that nearly stopped the electric pulses in her wiring.
“No. Not after I’ve ignored six of your comms in the last week. Are you dense?”
“So you did get them!”
She propped her elbows on the table, sinking her chin into both palms. “Of course I got them.”
“So why are you ignoring me? Did I do something?”
“No. Yes.” She squeezed her eyes shut, massaging her temple. She’d thought the hard part was over. She would disappear, and he would go on with his life. She would spend the rest of her life watching as Prince, no, Emperor Kai gave speeches and passed bills. As he went on diplomatic missions around the world. As he shook hands and kissed babies. She would watch him marry. She would watch as his wife gave him children—because the whole world would watch it happen.
But he would forget about her. Which is what needed to happen.
How naive of her to think it could be so simple.
She fumbled, thinking it should have been easy to blame her silence on Adri, her cruel stepmother who had refused to let her leave the house, but it was not that easy. She couldn’t risk giving him hope. She couldn’t risk anything that might change her mind.
“It’s just that I…”
She drew back, knowing she should tell him. He thought she was a mere mechanic, and he was, perhaps, willing to cross that social divide. But to be both cyborg and Lunar? To be hated and despised by every culture in the galaxy? He would understand in a moment why he needed to forget her.
More than that, he probably would forget her just as quickly.
Her metal fingers jerked. Her right hand was burning hot beneath the cotton.
Pull off the gloves and show him.
She mindlessly reached for the hem, fingering the grease-stained material.
But she couldn’t. He didn’t know. She didn’t want him to know.
“Because you kept going on and on about the stupid ball,” she said, cringing at her own words.
He dropped a cursory glance to the gold box in his hands. The tension melted until his arms dropped to his sides. “Stars, Cinder, if I’d known you were going to embargo me for asking you on a date, I wouldn’t have dared.”
She cast her gaze skyward, wishing he’d been at least a little annoyed with her response.
“All right, you don’t want to go to the ball. Got it. I won’t mention it again.”
She fidgeted with the fingertips of her gloves. “Thanks.”
He set the box down on the table.
She shifted uncomfortably, unable to reach for it. “Don’t you have something important to be doing? Like, running a country?”
“Probably.” Leaning forward, he flattened one hand on the desk and leaned over, straining to see into Cinder’s lap. Her heart jolted and she scooted herself closer to the table, thrusting her foot as far out of his line of sight as possible.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Are you all right?”
“You’re usually the prime example of royal etiquette, but you didn’t even stand up. And I was so prepared to be the gentleman and urge you to sit back down again.”
“So sorry to steal that proud moment from you,” she said, sinking lower in her seat. “But I’ve been here since dawn and I’m tired.”
“Since dawn! What time is it now?” He reached for his portscreen.
He paused with his hand on the gadget at his waist. “Well. It’s time for a break then, right?” He beamed. “Might I have the honor of treating you to lunch?”
Panic sparked in the back of her head and she sat up straight. “Of course not.”
“Because I’m working. I can’t just leave.”
He raised an eyebrow at the piles of neatly organized screws on the table. “Working on what?”
“For your information, I’m expecting a big parts order to come in and someone has to be here to receive it.” She was proud that the lie sounded so believable.
“Where’s your android?”
Her breath snagged. “She’s…not here.”
Kai took a step back from the table and made a show of looking around. “Ask one of the other shopkeepers to look after your booth.”
“Absolutely not. I pay money to rent this booth. I’m not just going to abandon it because some prince shows up.”
Kai inched toward the table again. “Come on. I can’t take you to the…B-word; I can’t take you to lunch. Short of my unplugging the processor on one of my androids, this could be the last time we ever see each other.”
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