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But then she noticed a spot of gold beside Kai, a frilly sleeve brushing his arm. Her breath caught.

It was Pearl, brushing her fingertips against Kai’s elbow. She was full of dazzling smiles and fluttering lashes as she dipped into a curtsy.

Stomach clenching, Cinder sank back against the pillar.

Pearl started to talk, and Cinder monitored Kai’s expressions as her pulse pounded in her ears. At first, he only attempted a weary smile, but soon there was confusion. Surprise. An uncertain frown. She tried to guess what Pearl was saying: Yes, I am the girl from the festival this morning. No, Cinder is not coming. We wouldn’t disrespect this momentous occasion by allowing my ugly cyborg stepsister to attend. Oh—didn’t you know she’s cyborg?

Cinder shuddered, her eyes glued to the two of them. Pearl was going to tell Kai everything, and there was nothing she could do but watch and wait for the horrible moment when Kai realized he’d been flirting with a cyborg. He would want nothing more to do with her. He wouldn’t want to hear her excuses. She would be forced to stumble after him to tell him the reason she’d come, feeling like the disgrace she was.

Someone cleared his throat, and Cinder jumped out of her growing anxiety, nearly twisting her ankle. One of the servants had evidently gotten tired of standing motionless and impartial and was now looking her over with barely veiled revulsion.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, with a tightness to his voice. “I must scan your ID.”

Cinder instinctively pulled her hand away from him, pressing her wrist against her stomach. “Why?”

His eyes darted to the row of guards, ready to call on them to have her escorted out at any moment. “To ensure you’re on the guest list, of course,” he said, holding up a small handheld scanner.

Cinder pressed her back into the pillar, nerves humming. “But—I thought every citizen in the city was invited.”

“Indeed, they are.” The man grinned, looking almost gleeful at the prospect of disinviting the girl before him. “But we must ensure that we are receiving those who responded to their invitations. It’s a security measure.”

Gulping, Cinder glanced out toward the dance floor. Kai was still being hounded by Pearl, and now Cinder could see Adri hovering not far off, looking primed to jump into the conversation should Pearl say anything to embarrass her. Pearl had not dropped her shy, flirtatious charm. She stood with her head bowed and one hand gingerly pressed against her collarbone.

Kai still looked perplexed.

Goose bumps racing up her arms, Cinder turned back to the courtier and attempted to channel Peony’s cheerful innocence. “Of course,” she said. Holding her breath, she stretched out her arm. She was concocting a number of excuses, justifications—her RSVP must have gotten mixed up with someone else’s, or perhaps there was confusion as her stepmother and sister had already arrived without her, or—

“Ah!” The man jolted, his eyes staring at the small screen.

Cinder tensed, wondering what her chances were of knocking him out with a quick blow to the head without any of those guards noticing.

His bewildered eyes took another turn over her dress, her hair, and then returned to his screen. She could see the internal struggle as his smile slowly turned up, attempting politeness. “Why, Linh-mèi, what a pleasure. We are so glad you could join us tonight.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “You are?”

The man gave her a stiff bow. “Please forgive my ignorance. I’m sure His Imperial Majesty will be glad you’ve arrived. Please, step this way, and I will have you announced.”

She blinked, dumbly following his arm as he stepped toward the stairs. “Have me what?”

He tapped something into his portscreen, before glancing back at Cinder. His gaze swooped over her again as if he couldn’t believe what he was about to do, but his polite smile didn’t fade. “All personal guests of His Imperial Majesty are duly announced, as recognition of their import. Of course, they don’t usually arrive so…late.”

“Wait. Personal guests of…oh. Oh! No, no, you don’t have to—”

She was silenced by the blare of recorded trumpets through invisible overhead speakers. She ducked at the sound, eyes widening, as the short melody faded. At the last trill of the horns, a majestic voice boomed through the ball room.

“Please welcome to the 126th Annual Ball of the Eastern Commonwealth, a personal guest of His Imperial Majesty: Linh Cinder of New Beijing.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

THE BALLROOM TEMPERATURE SPIKED AS HUNDREDS OF faces turned toward Cinder.

Perhaps the crowd would have turned away a moment later, indifferent, if they hadn’t found the emperor’s personal guest to be a girl with damp hair and mud splatters on the hem of her wrinkled silver dress. As it was, the gazes halted, pinning Cinder to the top of the stairs. Her mismatched feet stuck to the landing as if concrete had hardened around them.

She looked at Kai, his jaw hanging as he took her in.

He’d expected her to come the entire time. He’d reserved a spot for her as his personal guest. She could only imagine how he was regretting that decision now.

Beside him, Pearl’s face had begun to burn beneath the glowing chandeliers. Cinder looked at her stepsister, at Adri, took in their speechless mortification, and reminded herself to breathe.

It was already over for her.

Pearl had almost certainly told Kai that she was cyborg.

Soon, Queen Levana would see her too and know she was Lunar. She would be taken, maybe killed. There was nothing she could do about it now.

But she had taken the risk. She had made the decision to come.

It would not go to waste.

She squared her shoulders. Lifted her chin.

Gathering up the full silk skirt, she fixed her gaze on Kai and made her way slowly down the steps.

His eyes softened into something almost like amusement, as if such a ragged appearance was all one could expect from a renowned mechanic.

A murmur rippled through the crowd and as the heel of Cinder’s boot hit the marble floor with forced precision, the sea of gowns began to shuffle aside. Women whispered behind their hands. Men craned their necks to catch the hushed gossip.

Even the servants had stopped to watch her, holding trays of delicacies aloft. The scent of garlic and ginger clouded around them, twisting Cinder’s stomach into knots. She realized suddenly how famished she was. All the preparations for running away had left little time for eating. Coupled with her anxiety, it almost made her feel faint. She did her best to ignore it, to be strong, but nervousness was expanding through her taut muscles with every step. Her pulse was a drumbeat inside her head.

Every eye swept over her, mocking her. Every head turned to whisper, rumors already taking flight. Cinder’s ears rang, picking snatches of conversation—A personal guest? But who is she? And what is that stuff on her dress?—until Cinder adjusted the audio interface, silencing the words.

Never in her life had she been so glad she could not blush.

Kai’s lips twitched, and though he still looked baffled, he did not look angry or disgusted. Cinder gulped. As she got nearer, her arms burned to wrap around herself, to cover her filthy, wrinkled, water-stained dress as best she could, but she didn’t allow them. It would have been futile, and Kai didn’t care about her dress.

If anything, he was probably trying to discern how much of her was metal and silicon.

She kept her head high, even as her eyes stung, even as panic filled her vision with warnings and precautions.

It was not her fault he had liked her.

It was not her fault she was cyborg.

She would not apologize.

She focused only on walking, one thudding step after another, as the crowd parted before her, then closed again in her wake.

But before she reached the emperor, a figure pushed out of the crowd and into her path. Cinder froze, halted by the seething glare of her stepmother.

She blinked, dumbfounded, as reality stumbled in on the still, silent moment. She’d forgotten that Adri and Pearl were there.

Blotchy red cheeks showed through Adri’s translucent white makeup, and her chest was heaving beneath the modest neckline of her kimono. The confused tittering hushed, pushing the questions toward those in the back of the crowd who couldn’t see what was happening but could no doubt feel the tension expanding around them.

Adri’s hand snatched forward, capturing Cinder’s skirt in her fist. She shook the material. “Where did you get this?” she hissed, her voice low as if she were afraid of causing more of a scene than Cinder already had.

Setting her jaw, Cinder stepped back, whipping the dress away from her stepmother. “Iko saved the dress. Peony would have wanted me to have it.”

Behind her mother, Pearl gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. Cinder glanced at her and found Pearl looking down at her feet with horror.

Cinder shuddered, imagining her cyborg leg visible for all to see, until Pearl pointed at her feet and shrieked, “My boots! Those are my boots! On her!”

Adri’s eyes narrowed. “You little thief. How dare you come here and make a mockery of this family.” She jutted her finger over Cinder’s shoulder toward the grand staircase. “I command you to go home this instant before you embarrass me further.”

“No,” she said, clenching her fists. “I have as much right to be here as you do.”

“What? You?” Adri’s voice started to rise. “But you’re nothing but a—” She caught her tongue, even now unwilling to share the mortifying secret about her stepdaughter. Instead, she raised her hand over her shoulder, palm flat.

The crowd gasped and Cinder flinched, but the strike did not come.

Kai stood beside her stepmother, one hand firmly wrapped around Adri’s wrist. Adri turned to him, her face burning with anger, but the look quickly fell away.

She shriveled back, stammering. “Your Majesty!”

“That is enough,” he said, his voice gentle but stern, and released her. Adri shrank into a pathetic curtsy, head bobbing.

“I am so sorry, Your Majesty. My emotions—my temper—this girl is…I am sorry she has interrupted…she is my ward—she should not be here…”

“Of course, she should.” There was a lightness to his words, as if he believed his presence alone could dissolve Adri’s hostility. He fixed his gaze on Cinder. “She is my personal guest.”

He glanced around over the heads of the shocked audience, toward the stage where the symphony had gone silent. “This is a night for celebration and amusement,” he said loudly. “Please, let the dancing resume.”

The band started, shakily at first, until music again filled the ballroom—Cinder could not recall when it had died out, but her hearing was still dulled to the swarming noise around her.

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