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She was a walking disaster and she knew it. She’d be lucky if they let her into the ball at all.

But she would deal with that when she got there.

The elevator was empty as she made her way to the parking garage. She rushed toward the abandoned car, the boots clipping awkwardly on the concrete floor as she tried not to trip on the too small foot and sprain her ankle. She could feel it precariously attached at the end of her leg. Not having had time to connect it to her wired nervous system, she felt like she was dragging around a paperweight. She tried to ignore it, thinking only of Kai and the announcement he was supposed to make that night.

She reached the dark corner of the garage, already sweating from her exertion, and knowing it would only get worse once she got out into the city’s relentless humidity. Before her, the car was sandwiched between two sleek, chrome-accented hovers. Its awful orange paint was dulled by the garage’s flickering lights. It didn’t belong.

Cinder knew how it felt.

She slipped into the driver’s seat, and the smell of old garbage and mildew embraced her. At least she’d replaced the seat’s stuffing and covered it in a scavenged blanket so she didn’t have to worry about sitting on rat droppings. Still, she could only imagine what stains the car’s frame and floorboards were leaving on Peony’s dress.

Shoving her thoughts to the back of her mind, she reached under the steering column and grasped the power supply and circuit wires she’d already stripped and wrapped. She fumbled for the brown ignition wire.

Holding her breath, she tapped the wires together.

Nothing happened.

A drop of sweat rolled down the back of her knee. She flicked them together again. Again. “Please, please, please.”

A spark lashed out from the wires, followed by unhappy clattering from the engine.

“Yes!” She pressed her foot down on the accelerator, revving the engine, feeling the car thrum and rumble beneath her.

Cinder allowed one overwhelming cry of relief, then jammed her foot into the clutch and pulled the transmission out of neutral, reciting the instructions she’d downloaded a week ago and had been studying ever since. How to drive.

Maneuvering out of the garage proved the most difficult part. Once on the road, her way was guided by solar streetlamps and the pale yellow glow from apartment windows—the city’s constant light was a blessing, as the car’s headlights had been busted out. Cinder was surprised at how rocky the roads were, how much garbage and debris littered the pavement since hovers no longer required an open path. The ride was jerky and harsh, and yet Cinder felt a surge of power with every turn of the wheel, press of the accelerator, rattle of the stick shift, screech of rubber.

A warm breeze blew through the missing back window, tousling Cinder’s hair. The clouds had reached the city and hung threateningly above the skyscrapers, casting the evening in a gray shroud. Toward the other horizon, the sky was still wide open and proudly displaying the ninth full moon of the year. A perfect sphere in the blackened sky. A white, ominous eye trans-fixed upon her. Ignoring it, Cinder floored the accelerator, pushing the car to go faster—to fly.

And it flew. Not smoothly or gracefully like a hover but with all the roar and power of a proud beast. She couldn’t help a grin, knowing that she had done this. She had brought this monstrosity back to life. It owed her now and it seemed to know it.

She would have made it, she thought, as the palace came into view, towering over the city atop its jagged cliff. She would have been nearing the city limits by now. Picking up speed. Watching the lights blur past. Racing for the horizon and never looking back.

A splatter of rain hit the cracked windshield.

Cinder gripped the steering wheel tighter as she started up the twisting, winding drive to the palace entrance. There were no hovers to compete with—she would be the last guest to arrive.

She crested the hill, reveling in the rush of escape, of freedom, of power—and then the torrent began. Rain drenched the car, blurring the palace’s lights. The sound pounded against the metal and glass. Without headlights, the world disappeared beyond the windshield.

Cinder jammed her foot into the brake pedal.

Nothing happened.

Panic surged through her and she desperately pumped the stiff brake. A shadow loomed against the storm. Cinder screamed and covered her face.

The car collided with a cherry blossom tree, rocking Cinder with a jolt. Metal crunched around her. The engine sputtered and died. The seat belt burned across her chest.

Shaking, Cinder gaped at the storm that surged against the windshield. Wet maroon-colored leaves fell from the overhead branches, sticking to the glass. She reminded herself to breathe as adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her control panel’s recommended course of action: take slow, measured breaths. But the breaths choked her as much as the seat belt did, until she reached a trembling hand toward the latch and peeled it off her.

A leak revealed itself along the weather stripping of her door’s window, dripping down onto her shoulder.

Cinder fell back against the headrest, wondering if she had the strength to walk. Maybe if she just waited out the monsoon. Summer storms like this never lasted long; it would be a drizzle in a blink.

She held up her sodden gloves and wondered what, exactly, she was waiting for. Not pride. Not respectability. Being soaked could almost be an improvement at this point.

Gasping for a full breath, she pulled at the door handle and kicked with her booted foot to force it open. She stepped out into a downpour, the rain cool and refreshing on her skin. Slamming the door shut, she turned to survey the damage, pushing her hair back off her forehead.

The front end of the car was crumpled around the tree’s trunk, the hood folded like an accordion to the passenger-side fender. Her heart broke a little as she looked at the wreckage—all her hard work, destroyed so quickly.

And—the thought occurring a second later—there was her chance for escape. Gone.

Shivering in the rain, she shoved the thoughts aside. There would be other cars. Right now, she had to find Kai.

Suddenly, the rain stopped pounding down on her. She glanced up at the umbrella overhead, then turned around. A greeter was staring at the car wreck with round eyes, his hands gripping the umbrella handle.

“Oh, hi,” she stammered.

The man’s disbelieving stare found its way to her. Her hair, her dress. He looked more repulsed by the second.

Cinder snatched the umbrella from him and flashed a smile. “Thanks,” she said and dashed across the courtyard into the yawning double doors of the palace, dropping the umbrella at the stairs.

Guards dressed in crimson uniforms lined the corridor, directing guests away from the elevator dock and toward the ballroom in the south wing, as if the clinking glasses and orchestral music weren’t clear enough. The walk to the ballroom entrance was long and tedious. Cinder didn’t know if the guards let their stoic gazes land on her as she passed by, wet boots squishing, and she dared not meet their eyes if they did. All her focus was busy being directed down her wiring into her lump of a foot.

Be graceful. Be graceful. Be graceful.

The music grew louder. The hall was ornamented with dozens of ornate stone statues—gods and goddesses long forgotten. Hidden cameras. Disguised ID scanners. She felt a spark of paranoia, remembering that she still carried Peony’s ID chip, stashed away in her leg compartment. She imagined alarms blaring and lights flashing when they realized that she had two ID chips inside her—which would be suspicious, if not outright illegal—but nothing happened.

Emerging from the hallway, she found herself at the top of a grand staircase that cascaded into the ballroom. A row of guards and servants flanked the stairs, their faces as unreadable as those in the hall. The high ceiling had been hung with hundreds of crimson paper lanterns, each one glimmering with rich, golden light. The far wall was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the gardens. Rain pummeled the glass, almost louder than the orchestra.

The dance floor had been set up in the center with round tables surrounding the space. Each table was bedecked with lavish orchid centerpieces and jade sculptures. The walls of the room were lined with folding silk screens hand painted with designs of cranes and tortoises and bamboo, ancient symbols of longevity that hinted at a single defining message: Long live the Emperor.

From her vantage point, she could see the entire room, thriving with vibrant silks and crinolines, rhinestones and ostrich plumes. She sought out Kai.

He wasn’t hard to find—dancing. The crowd parted for him and his partner, the most beautiful, most graceful, most divine woman in the room. The Lunar queen. Cinder couldn’t stifle a gasp of bewilderment at the sight of her.

Her stomach flipped, the momentary awe turning to revulsion. The queen held a poised smile, but Kai’s expression was as unfeeling as stone as they waltzed across the marble floor.

Cinder stepped back from the stairs before the queen noticed her. She scanned the crowd, convinced that Kai had not made his announcement yet, or the atmosphere in the room wouldn’t be so jolly. Kai was fine. He was safe. All she had to do was find a way to speak with him, somewhere private, and tell him the queen’s plans. Tell him the queen knew about his search for her niece. Then it would be up to him to put off accepting the queen’s terms until—

Well, Cinder knew nothing could put Queen Levana off forever without convincing her to start the war she’d been threatening for so long.

But maybe, just maybe, Princess Selene could be found before that happened.

Letting out a slow breath, Cinder stepped out of the massive doorway and ducked behind the nearest pillar, stumbling on her tiny foot. Gritting her teeth, she glanced around, but the nearby guards and servants remained as disinterested as a concrete wall.

Cinder plastered herself against the column, trying to smooth back her hair so she could at least pretend to be fitting in.

The music ceased and the crowd began to applaud.

She dared to peer down at the dance floor and saw Kai and Levana parting ways—he with a stiff bow and she with the grace of a geisha. As the orchestra started again, the entire ballroom joined in the dancing.

Cinder followed the queen’s glossy brunette curls heading toward a staircase on the other side of the room, the crowd parting eagerly before her. She scanned for Kai again, and found him heading in the opposite direction—toward her.

Holding her breath, she inched away from the protective column. This was her chance. If only he would look up and see her. If only he would come to her. She could tell him everything and then slip away into the night and no one would ever have to know she’d been there at all.

She bunched the silver gown up in her fists, her eyes boring holes into the emperor’s head, willing him to look up. Look up. Look up.

Kai froze with a look of mild perplexity, and Cinder thought with a jolt that she’d succeeded—had she just used her Lunar gift?


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