Adri never talked about her husband, and few memories of him lingered in the apartment. The only reminder that he’d even existed was found in a row of holographic plaques and carved medallions that lined the fireplace’s mantel—achievement awards and congratulatory prizes from an international technology fair, three years running. Cinder had no idea what he’d invented. Evidently, whatever it was hadn’t taken off, because he’d left his family almost no money when he had died.
On the screen, the prince’s speech was interrupted when a stranger stepped onto the platform and handed a note to Prince Kai. The prince’s eyes clouded over. The screen blackened.
The pressroom was replaced with a desk before a blue screen. A woman sat behind it, expressionless but with whitened knuckles atop the desk.
“We interrupt His Imperial Highness’s press conference with an update on the status of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Rikan. The emperor’s physicians have just informed us that His Majesty has entered into the third stage of letumosis.”
Gasping, the seamstress pulled the pins from her mouth.
Cinder pressed herself against the door frame. She had not even thought to give Kai her condolences, or wishes for the emperor’s return of health. He must think her so insensitive. So ignorant.
“We are told that everything is being done to ensure His Imperial Majesty’s comfort at this time, and palace officials tell us that researchers are working nonstop in their search for a vaccine. Volunteers are still urgently needed for antidote testing, even as the cyborg draft continues.
“There has been much controversy regarding the 126th Annual Peace Festival due to the emperor’s illness, but Prince Kaito has told the press that the festival will continue as scheduled and that he hopes it might bring some joy in this otherwise tragic time.” The anchor paused, hesitating, even with the prompter before her. Her face softened, and her stiff voice had a warble when she finished. “Long live the emperor.”
The seamstress murmured the words back to the anchor. The screen went black again before returning to the press conference, but Prince Kai had left the stage, and the audience of journalists was in upheaval as they reported to their individual cameras.
“I know a cyborg who could volunteer for plague testing,” said Pearl. “Why wait for the draft?”
Cinder leveled a glare at Pearl, who was nearly six inches shorter than she was despite being a year older. “Good idea,” she said. “And then you could get a job to pay for your pretty dress.”
Pearl snarled. “They reimburse the volunteers’ families, wire-head.”
The cyborg draft had been started by some royal research team a year ago. Every morning, a new ID number was drawn from the pool of so many thousand cyborgs who resided in the Eastern Commonwealth. Subjects had been carted in from provinces as far-reaching as Mumbai and Singapore to act as guinea pigs for the antidote testing. It was made out to be some sort of honor, giving your life for the good of humanity, but it was really just a reminder that cyborgs were not like everyone else. Many of them had been given a second chance at life by the generous hand of scientists and therefore owed their very existence to those who had created them. They were lucky to have lived this long, many thought. It’s only right that they should be the first to give up their lives in search for the cure.
“We can’t volunteer Cinder,” said Peony, bunching her skirt in her hands. “I need her to fix my portscreen.”
Pearl sniffed and turned away from both of them. Peony scrunched her nose at her sister’s back.
“Stop bickering,” said Adri. “Peony, you’re wrinkling your skirt.”
Cinder stepped back into the hallway as the seamstress returned to her work. Iko was already two steps ahead of her, eager to escape Adri’s presence.
She appreciated Peony coming to her defense, of course, but she knew in the end it wouldn’t matter. Adri would never volunteer her for the testing, because that would be the end of her only income, and Cinder was sure her stepmother had never worked a day in her life.
But if the draft chose her, no one could do anything about it. And it seemed that lately a disproportionate number of those chosen were from New Beijing and the surrounding suburbs.
Every time one of the draft’s victims was a teenage girl, Cinder imagined a clock ticking inside her head.
“YOU’RE GOING TO THE BALL!” IKO TAPPED HER GRIPPERS together in an imitation of clapping. “We have to find you a dress, and shoes. I will not allow you to wear those awful boots. We’ll get some new gloves and—”
“Could you bring that light over here?” Cinder said, yanking out the top drawer of her standing toolbox. She riffled through it, spare bolts and sockets jangling as Iko scooted closer. A wash of bluish light dispersed the dimness of the storage room.
“Think of the food they’ll have,” said Iko. “And the dresses. And music!”
Cinder ignored her, selecting an assortment of varying tools and arranging them on Iko’s magnetic torso.
“Oh, my stars! Think about Prince Kai! You could dance with Prince Kai!”
This made Cinder pause and squint into Iko’s blinding light. “Why would the prince dance with me?”
Iko’s fan hummed as she sought an answer. “Because you won’t have grease on your face this time.”
Cinder fought down a chuckle. Android reasoning could be so simplistic. “I hate to break this to you, Iko,” she said, slamming in the drawer and moving on to the next, “but I’m not going to the ball.”
Iko’s fan stopped momentarily, started up again. “I don’t compute.”
“For starters, I just spent my life savings on a new foot. But even if I did have money, why would I spend it on a dress or shoes or gloves? What a waste.”
“What else could you have to spend it on?”
“A complete set of wrenches? A toolbox with drawers that don’t stick?” She slammed in the second drawer with her shoulder to emphasize her point. “A down payment on my own apartment where I won’t have to be Adri’s servant anymore?”
“Adri wouldn’t sign the release documents.”
Cinder opened the third drawer. “I know. It would cost a lot more than a silly dress anyway.” She grabbed a ratchet and a handful of wrenches and set them on top of the toolbox. “Maybe I’d get skin grafting.”
“Your skin is fine.”
Cinder glanced at Iko from the corner of her eye.
“Oh. You mean your cyborg parts.”
Shutting the third drawer, Cinder grabbed her messenger bag from the work desk and shoveled the tools into it. “What else do you think we’ll—oh, the floor jack. Where’d I put that?”
“You’re being unreasonable,” said Iko. “Maybe you can trade for a dress or get one on consignment. I’ve been dying to go into that vintage dress store on Sakura. You know the one I mean?”
Cinder shuffled around the random tools that had collected beneath the worktable. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going.”
“But it does matter. It’s the ball. And the prince!”
“Iko, I’m fixing an android for him. It’s not like we’re friends now.” Mentioning the prince’s android sparked a memory, and a moment later Cinder pulled the floor jack out from behind its tread. “And it doesn’t matter because Adri will never let me go.”
“She said if you fixed the hover—”
“Right. And after I fix the hover? What about Peony’s portscreen that’s always acting up? What about—” She scanned the room and spotted a rusty android tucked away in the corner. “What about that old Gard7.3?”
“What would Adri want with that old thing? She doesn’t have a garden anymore. She doesn’t even have a balcony.”
“I’m just saying that she has no real intention of letting me go. As long as she can come up with things for me to fix, my ‘chores’ will never be done.” Cinder shoved a couple jack stands into her bag, telling herself that she didn’t care. Not really.
She wouldn’t fit in at a formal ball anyway. Even if she did find dress gloves and slippers that could hide her metal monstrosities, her mousy hair would never hold a curl, and she didn’t know the first thing about makeup. She would just end up sitting off the dance floor and making fun of the girls who swooned to get Prince Kai’s attention, pretending she wasn’t jealous. Pretending it didn’t bother her.
Although she was curious about the food.
And the prince did know her now, sort of. He had been kind to her at the market. Perhaps he would ask her to dance. Out of politeness. Out of chivalry when he saw her standing alone.
The precarious fantasy crashed down around her as quickly as it had begun. It was impossible. Not worth thinking about.
She was cyborg, and she would never go to the ball.
“I think that’s everything,” she said, masking her disappointment by adjusting the messenger bag over her shoulders. “You ready?”
“I don’t compute,” said Iko. “If fixing the hover won’t convince Adri to let you go to the ball, then why are we going to the junkyard? If she wants a magbelt so bad, why doesn’t she go dig through the trash to find one?”
“Because ball or no, I do believe she would sell you off for pocket change if given a reason. Besides, with them off to the ball, we’ll have the apartment to ourselves. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
“It sounds great to me!”
Cinder turned to see Peony heaving herself through the doorway. She still wore her silver ball gown, but now the hems along the neck and sleeves were finished. A hint of lace had been added at her cleavage, accentuating the fact that, at fourteen, Peony had already developed curves that Cinder couldn’t begin to hope for. If Cinder’s body had ever been predisposed to femininity, it had been ruined by whatever the surgeons had done to her, leaving her with a stick-straight figure. Too angular. Too boyish. Too awkward with her heavy artificial leg.
“I’m going to strangle Mom,” said Peony. “She’s making me loony. ‘Pearl needs to find a husband,’ ‘My daughters are such a drain,’ ‘No one appreciates what I do for them,’ yap yap yap.” She wobbled her fingers in the air in mockery of her mother.
“What are you doing down here?”
“Hiding. Oh, and to ask if you could look at my portscreen.” She pulled a handheld screen from behind her back, offering it to Cinder.
Cinder took it, but her eyes were on the bottom of Peony’s skirt, watching as the shimmering hem gathered dust bunnies around it. “You’re going to ruin that dress. Then Adri will really be a tyrant.”
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