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The words propelled her on.

When she finally reached the apartment, she found the hallways eerily quiet. Everyone was either down at the festival or getting ready for the ball. The shouts that could normally be heard behind closed doors had been swapped for girlish laughter.

Cinder tucked the crutches beneath her sore arms and used the wall to guide her to the door.

The apartment seemed empty as she entered it, but she could hear the floors creaking as Adri and Pearl moved around their bedrooms toward the back. Hoping she might be able to make it through the whole evening without seeing either of them, Cinder hobbled to her small room and closed the door behind her. She had just thought to start packing in earnest when someone knocked at the door.

Sighing, she opened it. Pearl was in the hallway, wearing her golden gown, all silk and seeded pearls and a neckline that plunged just how Adri had requested.

“Could you have come home any slower?” she said. “We’ll be leaving as soon as the coronation is over.”

“Well, I’m sure I could have come home faster, except someone stole my foot.”

Pearl glared briefly, then stepped back into the hallway and did a half spin, letting the skirt billow around her ankles. “What do you think, Cinder? Will the prince notice me in this?”

Cinder barely restrained the urge to slime her own filthy hands over the dress. Instead, she peeled off her work gloves and tucked them into her back pocket. “Is there something you needed?”

“Yes, actually. I wanted to ask your opinion.” Pearl hitched up her skirt to reveal mismatched shoes on her tiny feet. On her left foot was a small velvet boot the color of fresh milk that laced up her ankle. On her right foot was a gold sandal tied with sparkling ribbons and tiny heart-shaped charms. “Given that you’re so close to the prince, I thought I would ask if you think he would prefer the gold slippers or the white?”

Cinder pretended to think. “The boots make your ankles look fat.”

Pearl smirked. “The metal plating makes your ankle look fat. You’re just jealous because I have such lovely feet.” She sighed in mock sympathy. “What a shame you’ll never know the pleasure.”

“I’m just glad you found at least one body part that’s lovely.”

Pearl tossed her hair, a smug grin on her face. She knew that Cinder’s jest had no grounding, and Cinder was irritated when the low insult brought her no pleasure.

“I’ve been rehearsing my conversation with Prince Kai,” said Pearl. “Of course, I intend to tell him everything.” She swayed so her skirt caught the light. “First, I’m going to tell him all about your ugly metal extremities and how much of an embarrassment you are—what a disgusting creature they turned you into. And I’m going to make sure he also realizes how much more desirable I am.”

Cinder leaned against the door frame. “I wish I would have known about this little crush of yours earlier, Pearl. You know, before she passed away, I was able to obtain a promise from His Highness that he would dance with Peony tonight. I could have asked the same for you, but I guess it’s too late for that now. Shame.”

Pearl’s face flushed. “You shouldn’t even say her name,” she said, her voice a harsh whisper.

Cinder blinked. “Peony?”

The anger in Pearl’s eyes grew intense, overtaking the childish taunts. “I know you killed her. Everyone knows it was your fault.”

Cinder gaped at her, unbalanced by the sudden switch from the immature boasts. “That’s not true. I never got sick.”

“It’s your fault she was at the junkyard. That’s where she caught it.”

Cinder opened her mouth, but her jaw just hung.

“If it wasn’t for you, she would be going to the ball tonight, so don’t try to pretend like you would have done her any favors. The best thing you could have done for Peony would have been to leave her alone. Then maybe she’d still be here.” Tears were pooling in Pearl’s eyes. “And you try to pretend like you cared about her, like she was your sister, and that’s not fair. She was sick and you were…meeting the prince, trying to catch his attention, when you know how she felt about him. It’s sick.”

Cinder folded her arms, protecting herself. “I know you don’t believe this, but I really did love Peony. I do love her.”

Pearl sniffed once, loudly, as if to stop the crying before it could overtake her. “You’re right. I don’t believe you. You’re a liar and a thief, and you don’t care about anyone but yourself.” She paused. “And I’m going to make sure the prince knows it.”

The door to Adri’s bedroom opened, and she stepped out wearing a white and magenta kimono embroidered with elegant cranes. “What are you two bickering about now? Pearl, are you ready to go?” She eyed Pearl with a shrewd eye, trying to determine if anything still needed work.

“I can’t believe you’re going,” said Cinder. “What will people think, when you’re still in mourning?” She knew it was a button she shouldn’t push, an unfair comment when she’d heard them both crying through the thin walls, but she was not in a mood to be fair. Even if she’d had a choice, she wouldn’t have gone. Not without Peony.

Adri fixed a cold glare on her, lips pulled taut. “The coronation is starting,” she said. “Go wash the hover. I want it to look brand new.”

Glad she wouldn’t be forced to sit through the coronation with them, Cinder made no argument as she grabbed her crutches and headed back for the door.

One more evening.

She turned on her netlink as soon as she reached the elevator, delegating the coronation proceedings to a corner of her vision. It was still the pre-ceremony. A parade of government officials was marching into the palace, swarmed by a sea of journalists and cameras.

She picked up a bucket and soap in the storage room before hobbling toward the parking garage, half listening as the newscaster explained the symbolism behind different elements of the coronation. The embroidery on Kai’s robe, the designs in the crests that would be raised when he took his vows, the number of times the gong would be struck when he ascended to the dais, all practices that had been around for centuries, cobbled together from the many cultures that had come together to form the Commonwealth.

The news continuously switched between the festival in the city center to the occasional shot of Kai during his preparations. Only these latter bits snagged Cinder’s attention away from the bucket of sudsy water. She couldn’t help imagining she was in the palace with him, rather than this dim, cool garage. Kai shaking hands with some unknown delegate. Kai greeting the crowd. Kai trying to steal a private conversation with his adviser. Kai turning toward her, smiling at her, glad she was by his side.

The momentary glimpses of him made Cinder’s heart feel soothed, rather than injured. It was a reminder that much bigger things were happening in the world, and Cinder’s yearning for freedom and Pearl’s taunts and Adri’s whims and even Kai’s flirting with her did not fit into that bigger picture.

The Eastern Commonwealth was crowning its new emperor. Today, the whole world was watching.

Kai’s clothing blended old and new traditions. Turtledoves embroidered across his mandarin collar signified peace and love. Draped over his shoulders was a midnight-blue cloak embroidered with six silver stars, signifying the peace and unity of the six Earthen kingdoms, and a dozen chrysanthemums, signifying the twelve provinces of the Commonwealth and how they would flourish under his reign.

A royal adviser stood beside Kai on the platform. The first rows of the crowd were made up of government officials from every branch and province. But Cinder’s eyes were always drawn back to Kai, magnetically latching onto him again and again.

Then a small entourage came down one of the aisles, the last to take their seats—Queen Levana, along with two thaumaturges. The queen was wearing a delicate white veil that draped to her elbows, hiding her face and making her look more like a phantom than a royal guest.

Cinder shivered. She didn’t think any Lunars had ever been present at a Commonwealth coronation. Rather than making her feel hopeful for the future, the sight filled Cinder with a lump of anxiety. Because Levana’s haughty stance suggested that she belonged there more than any of the Earthen citizens. As if she were the one about to be coronated.

The queen and her entourage claimed their reserved seats in the first row. Those seated around them tried, unsuccessfully, to hide their distaste at being so close to her.

Cinder pulled the sopping rag from the bucket and put her apprehension to work, scrubbing Adri’s hover to a fine gleam.

The coronation began with a thunder of drums.

Prince Kai kneeled on a silk-covered platform as a slow parade of men and women passed before him, each dropping a ribbon or medallion or jewel around his neck. Each was a symbolic gift—long life, wisdom, goodness of heart, generosity, patience, joy. When all of the necklaces had been placed on him, the camera zoomed in on Kai’s face. He appeared surprisingly serene, his eyes lowered but his head held high.

As was customary, a representative from one of the other five Earthen kingdoms had been selected to officiate the coronation in order to show that the other countries would honor and respect the new sovereign’s right to govern. They had selected the European Federation’s Prime Minister Bromstad, a tall, blond man with broad shoulders. Cinder had always thought that he looked more like a farmer than a politician. He held out an old-fashioned paper scroll that contained all the promises Kai was making to his people when he accepted the role of emperor.

As both of the prime minister’s hands gripped either end of the scroll, he spoke a series of vows, and Kai repeated after him.

“I solemnly swear to govern the peoples of the Eastern Commonwealth according to the laws and customs as laid down by generations of past rulers,” he recited. “I will use all the power bestowed on me to further justice, to be merciful, to honor the inherent rights of all peoples, to respect the peace between all nations, to rule with kindness and patience, and to seek the wisdom and council of my peers and brethren. All this, I promise to do today and for all the days of my reign, before all the witnesses of the Earth and heavens.”

Cinder’s heart swelled as she scrubbed the hood. She had never seen Kai look so serious, or so handsome. She feared for him a bit, knowing how nervous he must be, but in that moment he was not the prince who had brought a broken android to the market or almost kissed her in an elevator.

He was her emperor.

Prime Minister Bromstad lifted his chin. “I hereby proclaim you Emperor Kaito of the Eastern Commonwealth. Long live His Imperial Majesty.”

The crowd burst into cheers and animated chants of “Long live the Emperor” as Kai turned to face his people.

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