If he were happy at his raised position, it was impossible to tell. His lips were neutral, his gaze reserved as he stood on the dais and the applause of the crowd surged around him.
After a long moment of his own serenity clashing with the tornado of praise, a podium was brought to the stage for the emperor’s first address. The crowd quieted.
Cinder dashed water over the vehicle.
Kai stood expressionless for a moment, staring at the edge of the platform, his fingers gripping the podium’s sides. “I am honored,” he began, “that my coronation coincides with our most revered holiday. 126 years ago, the nightmare and catastrophe that was the Fourth World War ended, and the Eastern Commonwealth was born. It grew out of the unification of many peoples, many cultures, many ideals. It was strengthened by a single enduring belief that together, we as one people are strong. We have the ability to love each other, no matter our differences. To help each other, no matter our weaknesses. We chose peace over war. Life over death. We chose to crown one man to be our sovereign, to guide us, to uphold us—not to rule, but to serve.” He paused.
Cinder pulled her focus away from the retina display long enough to give the hover a quick inspection. It was too dark to tell if she’d done a decent job, but she had lost interest in perfection.
Content, she dropped the wet rag into the bucket and sank against the concrete wall behind the row of parked hovers, giving the tiny screen her full attention.
“I am the great-great-great-grandson of the first emperor of the Commonwealth,” Kai continued. “Since his time, our world has changed. We continue to face new problems, new heartaches. Though a war between men has not been fought on Earthen soil in 126 years, we now fight a new battle. My father was fighting a war against letumosis, the pestilence that has ravaged our planet for over a dozen years. This disease has brought death and suffering to our doorstep. The good people of the Commonwealth, and all our Earthen siblings, have lost friends, family, loved ones, neighbors. And with these losses, we face loss of trade and commerce, a downturn of economy, worsened living conditions. Some have gone without food because there are not enough farmers to toil the land. Some have gone without heat as our energy supplies dwindle. This is the war we now face. This is the war my father was determined to end, and I now vow to take up that torch.
“Together we will find a cure for this disease. We will defeat it. And we will return our great country to its former splendor.”
The audience applauded, but Kai showed no sign of joy at his words. His expression was resigned, dark.
“It would be naive of me,” he said when the audience had quieted, “not to mention a second kind of conflict. One no less deadly.”
The crowd rustled. Cinder leaned her head back against the cold wall.
“As I am sure you are all aware, the relationship between the allied Earthen nations and Luna has been strained for many generations. As I am sure you are also aware, the sovereign of Luna, Her Majesty Queen Levana, has honored us with her presence for this past week. She is the first Lunar sovereign to step foot on Earth for almost a century, and her presence indicates hope that a time of true peace between us is fast approaching.”
The screen panned out, showing Queen Levana in the front row. Her milky hands were folded demurely in her lap, as if she were humbled by the recognition. Cinder was sure she fooled no one.
“My father spent the last years of his life in discussion with Her Majesty in hopes of seeing an alliance to fruition. He did not live to see the result of those discussions, but I am determined that his efforts will live on in me. It is true that there have been obstacles on this road to peace. That we have had difficulties finding a common ground with Luna, a solution that would serve both parties. But I have not given up hope that a resolution can be found.” He took a breath, then paused with his lips still parted. His gaze dropped down to the podium. His fingers locked around the edges.
Cinder leaned forward as if she could get a closer look at the prince as he struggled with his next words.
“I will—” He paused again, straightened, and focused his eyes on some distant, invisible point. “I will do whatever needs to be done to ensure the well-being of my country. I will do whatever needs to be done to keep you all safe. That is my promise.”
He peeled his hands from the podium and walked off before the crowd could think to applaud, leaving a sprinkle of concerned but polite clapping behind him.
Cinder’s heart strangled her as the screen allowed another glimpse of the Lunars in the front row. The veil may have hidden the queen’s conceit, but the smug grins on her two attendants could not be mistaken. They believed they had won.
CINDER WAITED HALF AN HOUR BEFORE LIMPING BACK TO the elevator. The apartment building had come to life again. She kept herself plastered to the wall, crutches tucked behind her, as her neighbors danced by in their fine clothes. A few pitying glances turned on Cinder as she kept out of their way, careful not to smudge any of the beautiful dresses, but mostly her neighbors ignored her.
Making it to the apartment, she shut the door behind her and listened for a moment to the blissful emptiness of the living room. She ran a mental checklist of everything she wanted to grab, green text scrolling across her vision. In her room, Cinder spread out her blanket and filled it with her few belongings—oil-stained clothes, tools that had never made their way back to the toolbox, silly little gifts that Iko had given to her over the years, like a “gold ring” that was actually a rusted washer.
Both Iko’s personality chip and Peony’s ID chip were tucked safely in her calf compartment, where they would stay until she found a more permanent home for them.
She shut her eyes, suddenly tired. How was it that with freedom so close on the horizon, she suddenly had the overwhelming desire to lie down and take a nap? All those long nights fixing the car were catching up with her.
Shaking off the feeling, she finished packing as fast as she could, trying her best not to think of the risks she was taking. She would be considered a runaway cyborg for real this time. If she were ever caught, Adri could have her imprisoned.
She kept her hands moving. Trying not to think of Iko, who should have been at her side. Or Peony, who should have made her want to stay. Or Prince Kai.
She would never see him again.
She knotted the blanket corners with an angry tug. She was thinking too much. She just had to leave. One step at a time and soon she would be in the car, and all this would be behind her. Settling the makeshift bag over her shoulder, she hobbled her way back to the hall and down to the labyrinth of underground storage spaces. Limping into the storage room, she dropped the bag onto the floor.
She paused for only a moment to catch her breath before she continued, unlatching the top of the handheld toolbox and shoveling everything off the desk into it. There would be time for sorting later. The standing toolbox that came nearly to her chest was much too big to fit into the car and would have to be left behind. Her gas mileage would have been ruined with all that weight in the back, anyway.
She surveyed the room where she’d spent most of the past five years. It was the closest thing to a home she’d ever known, even with the chicken wire that felt like a cage and the boxes that smelled of mildew. She didn’t expect to miss it much.
Peony’s crumpled ball gown was still draped over the welder. It, like the toolbox, wouldn’t be coming with her.
She moved to the towering steel shelves against the far wall and began rummaging for parts that would be useful for the car or even her own body should anything malfunction, throwing the pieces of miscellaneous junk into a heap on the floor. She paused as her hand stumbled across something she’d never thought she would see again.
The small, battered foot of an eleven-year-old cyborg.
She lifted it from the shelf, where it had been tucked out of sight. Iko must have saved it, even after Cinder had asked her to throw it away.
Perhaps in Iko’s mind, it was the closest thing to an android shoe she would ever own. Cinder cradled the foot against her heart. How she had hated this foot. How overjoyed she was to see it now.
With an ironic smile, she slumped into her desk chair for the last time. Pulling off her gloves, she eyed her left wrist, trying to picture the small chip just beneath the surface. The thought brought Peony to mind. Her blue-tipped fingers. The scalpel against her pale white skin.
Cinder shut her eyes, forcing the memory away. She had to do this.
She reached for the utility knife on the corner of her desk, the blade soaking in a tin can filled with alcohol. She shook it off, took a deep breath, and rested her cyborg hand palm up on the desk. She recalled seeing the chip on Dr. Erland’s holograph, less than an inch away from where skin met metal. The challenge would be getting it out without accidentally splicing any important wires.
Forcing her mind to quiet, her hand to still, she pressed the blade into her wrist. The pain bit into her, but she didn’t flinch. Steady. Steady.
A beep startled her. Cinder jumped, pulling the blade away and spinning around to face the wall of shelving. Her heart pummeled against her ribs as she scanned all the parts and tools that would be left behind.
It beeped again. Cinder’s eyes dropped to the old netscreen that was still propped against the shelves. She knew it was disconnected from the net, and yet a bright blue square was flashing in the corner. Another beep.
Setting down the knife, Cinder slinked away from her chair and kneeled before the screen.
On the blue square was scrawled:
DIRECT LINK REQUEST RECEIVED FROM UNKNOWN USER. ACCEPT?
Tilting her head, she spotted the D-COMM chip still inserted in the screen’s drive. The small green light beside it glowed. In the shadow of the screen, it looked like any other chip, but Cinder remembered Kai’s response when she’d described the chip’s shimmery silver material. A Lunar chip.
She grabbed a dirty rag from the pile of junk and pressed it against the barely bleeding wound. “Screen, accept link.”
The beeping stopped. The blue box disappeared. A spiral turned over on the screen.
“Hello hello hello—is anybody there?”
Whoever she was, she sounded on the verge of a breakdown. “Please, oh, please, someone answer. Where is that stupid android? HELLO?”
“Hell-o?…” Cinder leaned in toward the screen.
The girl gasped, followed by a short silence. “Hello? Can you hear me? Is somebody—”
“Yes, I can hear you. Hold on, something’s wrong with the vid-cable.”
“Oh, thank heavens,” the voice said as Cinder set aside the rag. She set the screen facedown on the concrete and opened the door to its control panel. “I thought maybe the chip had gotten damaged or I’d programmed it with the wrong connection ID or something. Are you in the palace now?”
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