Cinder found the vid-cable disconnected from its plug; it must have come loose when Adri had knocked it off the wall. Cinder screwed it in and a flood of blue light splattered across the floor. “There we are,” she said, righting the screen.
She jolted back when she saw the girl on the other side of the connection. She must have been close to Cinder’s age and had the longest, waviest, most unruly mess of tangled blonde hair imaginable. The golden nest around her head was tied in a big knot over one shoulder and cascaded in a jumble of braids and snarls, wrapping around one of the girl’s arms before descending out of the screen’s view. The girl was fidgeting with the ends, fervently winding and unwinding them around her fingers.
If it weren’t for the mess of hair, she would have been pretty. She had a sweet heart-shaped face, giant sky-blue eyes, and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose.
She was somehow not at all what Cinder had been expecting.
The girl looked equally surprised at seeing Cinder and her cyborg hand and dreary T-shirt.
“Who are you?” the girl asked. Her eyes darted behind Cinder, taking in the dim lighting and the chicken wire. “Why aren’t you at the palace?”
“I wasn’t allowed to go,” Cinder answered. She squinted at the room behind the girl, wondering if she were looking at a home on the moon…but it did not look like any home at all. Rather, the girl was surrounded by metal walls and machines and screens and computers and more controls and buttons and lights than a cargo ship’s cockpit.
Cinder folded her legs, letting her footless calf dangle more comfortably over her thigh. “Are you Lunar?”
The girl’s eyes fluttered, as if caught off guard by the question. Instead of answering, she leaned forward. “I need to speak with someone at New Beijing Palace right away.”
“Then why don’t you comm the palace information board?”
“I can’t!” The girl’s shriek was so unexpected, so desperate that Cinder nearly fell over. “I don’t have a global comm chip—this is the only direct link I’ve been able to get down to Earth!”
“So you are Lunar.”
The girl’s eyes widened to near perfect circles. “That’s not—”
“Who are you?” said Cinder, her voice raising. “Are you working for the queen? Are you the one who installed the chip in that android? You are, aren’t you?”
The girl’s eyebrows drew together, but rather than looking irritated at Cinder’s questions, she appeared frightened. Even ashamed.
Cinder clenched her jaw against the onslaught of questions and took in a slow breath before asking, steadily, “Are you a Lunar spy?”
“No! Of course not! I mean…well…sort of.”
“Sort of? What do you mean—”
“Please, listen to me!” The girl clenched her hands together, as if fighting an internal battle. “Yes, I programmed the chip, and I am working for the queen, but it’s not what you think. I’ve programmed all the spyware that Levana’s used to watch Emperor Rikan these past months, but I didn’t have a choice. Mistress would kill me if…stars above, she will kill me when she finds out about this.”
“Mistress who? You mean Queen Levana?”
The girl squeezed her eyes tight, her face contorted with pain. When she opened her eyes again, they were glistening. “No. Mistress Sybil. She is Her Majesty’s head thaumaturge…and my guardian.”
Recognition pinged in Cinder’s head. Kai had suspected the queen’s thaumaturge of putting the chip in Nainsi in the first place.
“But she’s more like a captor, really,” the girl continued. “I’m nothing to her but a prisoner and a sla-ave.” She hiccupped on the last word and buried her face in a bundle of hair, sobbing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m an evil, worthless, wretched girl.”
Cinder felt her heart tug in sympathy—she could relate to being a slave for her “guardian,” but she couldn’t recall ever being afraid that Adri might actually kill her. Well, other than that time she sold her off for plague research.
She clenched her jaw against the mounting pity, reminding herself that this girl was Lunar. She had helped Queen Levana spy on Emperor Rikan, and on Kai. She briefly wondered if the girl was only manipulating her emotions now, before she remembered that Lunars couldn’t control people through the netscreens.
Blowing some hair out of her face, Cinder leaned forward and yelled, “Stop it! Stop crying!”
The crying stopped. The girl peered up at her with big, watery eyes.
“Why were you trying to get a hold of the palace?”
The girl shrank back and sobbed, but the tears seemed to have been startled out of her. “I need to get a message to Emperor Kai. I need to warn him. He’s in danger, all of Earth…Queen Levana…and it’s all my fault. If I’d only been stronger, if I’d only tried to fight, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s all my fault.”
“Stars above, would you stop crying?” said Cinder before the girl could dissolve into hysterics again. “You need to get a hold of yourself. What do you mean Kai’s in danger? What have you done?”
The girl hugged herself, her eyes pleading with Cinder as if she alone could offer forgiveness. “I’m the queen’s programmer, like I said. I’m good at it—hacking into netlinks and security systems and the like.” She said this without a hint of arrogance on her wavering voice. “For the last few years, Mistress has been asking me to connect feeds from Earth’s political leaders to Her Majesty’s palace. At first, it was just court discussions, meetings, document transfers, nothing very interesting. Her Majesty wasn’t learning anything that your emperor hadn’t already told her, so I didn’t think much harm could come of it.”
The girl twisted her hair around both sets of knuckles. “But then she asked me to program a D-COMM chip that she could install in one of the royal androids, thinking then she could spy on the emperor outside of the netlinks.” She raised her eyes to Cinder. Guilt was scrawled across her face. “If it had been any other android, any android in the entire palace, she still wouldn’t know anything. But now she does know! And it’s all my fault!” She whimpered and pulled the lock of hair into her mouth like a gag.
“Wait,” Cinder held up her hand, trying to slow the girl’s rapid words. “What exactly does Levana know?”
The girl pulled the hair out as tears started to slip down her cheeks. “She knows everything that android knew, everything she’d been researching. She knows that Princess Selene is alive and that Prince—I’m sorry, that Emperor Kai was searching for her. She knows that the emperor wanted to find the princess and instate her as the true Lunar queen.”
Dread squirmed in Cinder’s stomach.
“She knows the names of the doctors who helped her escape and this poor old woman in the European Federation who housed her for so long…. Her Majesty’s already sent people to hunt her down, using the information Kai had. And when they find her—”
“But what will she do to Kai?” Cinder interrupted. “Levana’s already won. Kai all but said he was going to give her what she wants, so what does it matter now?”
“He tried to usurp her! You don’t know the queen, her grudges. She’ll never forgive this. I have to get a message to him, to somebody at the palace. He has to know it’s a setup.”
“A setup? What kind of setup?”
“To become empress! Once she’s in control of the Commonwealth, she intends to use her army to wage war on the rest of Earth. And she can do it too—her army…this army…” She shuddered, ducking her head as if someone had swiped at her.
Cinder shook her head. “Kai wouldn’t allow it.”
“It doesn’t matter. Once she’s empress, she’ll have no more use of him.”
Blood rushed in Cinder’s ears. “You think—but she would be an idiot to try to kill him. Everyone would know it was her.”
“Lunars suspect she killed Queen Channary and Princess Selene, but what can they do about it? They might think of rebellion, but as soon as they’re in her presence, she brainwashes them into compliance again.”
Cinder rubbed her fingers over her brow. “He was going to announce it at the ball tonight,” she murmured to herself. “He’s going to announce his intent to marry her.” Her heart was racing, thoughts spilling over in her brain.
Levana knew he had been searching for Princess Selene. She would kill him. She would take over the Commonwealth. She would wage war on…on the whole planet.
She grasped her head as the world spun around her.
She had to warn him. She couldn’t let him make the announcement.
She could send him a comm, but what were the chances he was checking them during the ball?
Cinder peered down at her drab clothes. Her empty ankle.
Peony’s dress. The old foot that Iko had saved. The silk gloves.
Her head bobbed before she knew what she was agreeing to, and she used the shelves to pull herself to standing. “I’ll go,” she muttered. “I’ll find him.”
“Take the chip,” said the girl on the screen. “In case we need to contact each other. And please, don’t tell them about me. If my mistress ever found out—”
Without waiting for her to finish, Cinder bent over and pulled the chip from its drive. The screen went black.
THE SILK DRESS FELT LIKE POISON IVY SLIDING OVER CINDER’S skin. She stared down at the silver bodice with its trim of delicate lace, the full skirt, the tiny seed pearls, and wanted to shrivel inside the gown and disappear. This was not her dress. She was a fake in it, an imposter.
Oddly, the fact that it was wrinkled as an old man’s face made her feel better.
She snatched the old foot from the shelf—the small, rusted thing she’d woken up with after her operation, when she was a confused, unloved eleven-year-old girl. She’d sworn to never put it on again, but at this moment it might have been made of crystal for how precious it looked to her. Plus, it was small enough to fit into Pearl’s boots.
Cinder fell into her chair and whisked out a screwdriver. It was the most hurried fix she’d ever done, and the foot was even smaller and more uncomfortable than she’d remembered it, but soon she was on two feet again.
The silk gloves felt too fine, too delicate, too flimsy, and she worried she might snag them on some poorly placed screw. At least they too were covered in grease smudges, completing the affront.
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