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“Believe it or not, I’d actually kind of resolved myself to that fact already.”

Kai rested his elbows on the table, ducking so that the hood concealed his eyes from her. His fingers found a screw, began twisting it between them. “Will you be watching the coronation, at least?”

She hesitated before shrugging. “Of course I will.”

With a nod, he used the tip of the screw to scratch beneath his thumbnail, though Cinder couldn’t see any dirt beneath it. “I’m supposed to make an announcement tonight. Not at the coronation but at the ball. About the peace negotiations we’ve been having the past week. It won’t be recorded because of Levana’s ridiculous no-cameras policy, but I wanted you to know.”

Cinder stiffened. “Has there been any progress?”

“I guess you could say that.” He peered up at her but couldn’t hold the gaze long. Soon he was staring past her, at all the abandoned parts. “I know this is stupid, but part of me felt like if I could come see you today, if I could convince you to go with me tonight, then maybe I could still change things. It’s dumb, I know. It’s not like Levana cares if I, you know, might have actual feelings for someone.” He craned his head again, tossing the screw back onto its pile.

Cinder’s entire body tingled at his words, but she gulped, forcing the giddiness away. She reminded herself that this was the last time she would ever see him.

“You mean you’re…” The words dried out. She dropped her voice. “But what about Nainsi? About the things she…the things she knew?”

Kai stuffed his hands into his pockets, the troubled look vanishing. “It’s too late. Even if I could find her. It couldn’t happen today, or even before…. And then there’s the antidote, and I…I just can’t wait on that. Too many people are dying.”

“Has Dr. Erland learned anything?”

Kai nodded, slowly. “He’s confirmed it as a real antidote, but he says they can’t duplicate it.”

“What? Why?”

“I guess one of the ingredients is only found on the moon. Ironic, huh? And then there was the boy who recovered last week, and Dr. Erland’s been running tests on him for days, but he’s being very secretive about it. He says I shouldn’t get my hopes up that the boy’s recovery could lead to any new discoveries. He hasn’t said it outright, but…I’m getting the impression that the doctor is losing hope of finding an antidote anytime soon. An antidote other than Levana’s, at least. It could be years before we make anymore headway, and by that time…” He hesitated, eyes haunted. “I just don’t know that I could watch so many people die.”

Cinder lowered her gaze. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”

Kai pushed himself back from the table, standing again. “Were you still thinking about heading to Europe?”

“Oh, yes, actually. I kind of was.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Do you want to come with?”

He conceded a short laugh and pushed his hair back from his face. “Yes. Are you kidding? I think that’s the best offer I’ve ever had.”

She smiled up at him, but it was short-lived. A single blissful moment of pretend.

“I need to get back,” he said, peering down at the thin gold-covered box. Cinder had nearly forgotten about it. He nudged it across the table, pushing a neat row of screws along with it.

“No. I can’t—”

“Sure you can.” He shrugged, seemingly uncomfortable, which was an oddly charming look on him. “I’d thought for the ball, but…well, whenever you have the chance, I guess.”

Curiosity boiled inside her, but she forced herself to push the box back toward him. “No, please.”

He laid his hand firmly over hers—she could feel his heat even through the thick glove. “Take it,” he said, and flashed his signature prince-charming grin, as if he were completely unfazed. “And think of me.”

“Cinder, here, take these.”

Cinder jumped at Pearl’s voice and wrenched her hand out from Kai’s grip. Pearl swiped an arm across her work desk, sending bits and screws clattering to the pavement, then slammed a stack of papered boxes down in their place.

“Put them somewhere near the back, where they won’t get stolen,” said Pearl, gesturing airily toward the back of the booth. “Somewhere clean if such a place exists.”

Heart thumping, Cinder reached for the boxes and pulled them toward her. Her thoughts raced down to her empty ankle, how she would have to limp to the back of the booth, how there would be no way to hide her deformity.

“What, no please or thank you?” said Kai.

Cinder flinched, wishing Kai had already gone before Pearl ruined the last moments she would ever see him.

Pearl bristled. She tossed her long hair over one shoulder as she turned toward the prince, eyes darkening. “Who are you to—” The words disappeared, leaving her lips puckered in surprise.

Kai pocketed his hands and eyed her with barely veiled disdain.

Cinder wrung her fingers into the twine that tied Pearl’s boxes. “Your Highness, please meet my stepsister, Linh Pearl.”

Pearl’s lips parted, jaw dropping as the prince gave her a curt bow. “A pleasure,” he said, his tone too sharp.

Cinder cleared her throat. “Thank you again for your generous payment, Your Highness. And, uh, best of luck at your coronation.”

Kai’s gaze softened as he peeled it away from Pearl. A hint of a shared conspiracy touched the corners of his lips, something too suggestive to go unnoticed by Pearl. He dipped his head to her. “I guess this is good-bye then. My request still stands, by the way, if you change your mind.”

To Cinder’s relief, he didn’t elaborate, just turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Pearl followed him with her eyes. Cinder wanted to as well, but she forced herself to look at the stack of shopping boxes. “Yes, of course,” she said, as if the prince’s interruption hadn’t happened. “I’ll just put these on the shelf back here.”

Pearl slammed her hand down on top of Cinder’s, halting her. Her eyes were wide, disbelieving. “That was the prince.”

Cinder feigned indifference. “I fixed one of the royal androids last week. He was just coming to pay me.”

A crease formed between Pearl’s eyebrows. Her lips tightened. Her suspicious gaze fell down to the thin gold box that Kai had left behind. Without hesitation, she snatched it up.

Cinder gasped and swiped for the box, but Pearl danced out of reach. Cinder had her knee up on the table, prepared to lunge over it, when she realized what a catastrophe that would be. Pulse racing, she froze and watched as Pearl tore the bow and let it drop to the dusty ground, then shredded the gold paper. The box beneath was simple and white, unmarked. She lifted the lid.

Cinder tilted her head up, trying to peer inside as Pearl gawked down at the gift. She could see crinkles of tissue paper and something white and silky. She analyzed Pearl’s face, trying to judge her reaction, but could only pinpoint confusion.

“Is this a joke?”

Saying nothing, Cinder slowly backed up, lowering her knee off the table.

Pearl tilted the box so Cinder could see. Inside was the finest pair of gloves she could have imagined. Pure silk and shining silver-white. They were tall enough to cover her elbows, and a row of seed pearls along the hems added the simplest touch of elegance. They were gloves fit for a princess.

It did seem like a joke.

A sharp laugh exploded from Pearl. “He doesn’t know, does he? He doesn’t know about your—about you.” She clutched the gloves, ripping them from their tissue bed, and let the box tumble into the street. “What did you think was going to happen?” She waved the gloves at Cinder, the empty fingers wagging helplessly. “Did you think the prince might actually like you? Did you think you might go to the ball and dance with him in your pretty new gloves and your—” She scanned Cinder’s clothes, the filthy cargo pants, the stained T-shirt, the tool belt strapped around her waist, and laughed again.

“Of course not,” said Cinder. “I’m not going to the ball.”

“Then what use does a cyborg have of these?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t—He just—”

“Maybe you thought it wouldn’t matter,” said Pearl, clicking her tongue. “Is that it? Did you think the prince—no—the emperor would find it in his heart to overlook all your…”—she twirled her hand—“shortcomings?”

Cinder squeezed her fists, trying to ignore the sting of the words. “He’s just a customer.”

The mocking light died in Pearl’s eyes. “No. He’s the prince. And if he knew the truth about you, he wouldn’t have given you a passing glance.”

Resentment flared in Cinder’s chest. She leveled Pearl with her own glare. “Which is about as much as he gave you, right?” She wished she’d held her tongue the moment the words were out, but the outrage that flushed over Pearl’s face was almost worth it.

Until Pearl threw the gloves to the ground, then grasped the toolbox atop the table and heaved it over on top of them. Cinder cried out at the crash that followed, nuts and bolts skittering halfway across the road. The crowd stopped to stare at them, at the mess.

Pearl angled her nose toward Cinder. Her lips barely creased. “You’d better get that cleaned up before the festival closes. I’ll require your help tonight. After all, I have a royal ball to attend.”

Cinder’s wires were still humming as Pearl grabbed her shopping boxes and marched away, but she wasted no time in hopping over the desk and crouching down beside the toppled toolbox. She turned the box right-side up but ignored the loose parts, reaching instead for the gloves at the bottom of the pile.

They were caked with dirt and dust, but it was the bits of smeared grease that made her heart sink. Cinder draped them over her knee and tried to smooth the wrinkles from the silk, only smearing the oil. They were beautiful. The most beautiful things she’d ever owned.

But if there was one thing she knew from years as a mechanic, it was that some stains never came out.

Chapter Thirty-One

IT WAS A LONG WALK HOME. ADRI AND PEARL HAD LEFT THE market without her, anxious to get ready for the ball, which had been a relief to Cinder at first, but after the first mile of walking with her makeshift crutches digging into her under-arms and messenger bag banging against her hip, she was cursing her stepmother with each limping step.

Not that Cinder was in any big hurry to get home. She couldn’t imagine what preparations she could assist Pearl with, but she didn’t doubt they would be designed to torture her. One more evening of servitude. One more evening.

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