Kai was looking at her again. She gulped and found that she was shaking—with anger and terror and nerves and the sensation of being captured by his brown eyes. Her mind was blank, not sure if she wanted to thank him or turn away and keep yelling at her stepmother, but he didn’t give her a chance to do either.
Kai reached forward and took her hand, and before she realized what was happening, he had plucked her away from her stepmother and stepsister and taken her into his arms.
They were dancing.
Heart hammering, Cinder pried her gaze away from him and looked over his shoulder.
They were the only ones dancing.
Kai must have noticed it too, for he floated his hand briefly away from her waist, gesturing to the gawking crowd, and said in a tone that was part encouragement, part command, “Please, you are my guests. Enjoy the music.”
Awkwardly, those nearby traded glances with their own partners, and soon the floor was filling with bustled skirts and coattails. Cinder risked glancing toward where they had abandoned Adri and Pearl—they were both standing still amid the shuffling crowd, watching as Kai expertly guided Cinder farther and farther away from them.
Clearing his throat, Kai murmured, “You have no idea how to dance, do you?”
Cinder fixed her gaze on him, mind still reeling. “I’m a mechanic.”
His eyebrows raised mockingly. “Believe me, I noticed. Are those grease stains on the gloves I gave you?”
Mortified, she glanced at their intertwined fingers and the black smudges on the white silk gloves. Before she could apologize, she felt herself being gently pushed away and spun beneath his arm. She gasped, for a moment feeling light as a butterfly, before she stumbled on her undersized cyborg foot and fell back into his embrace.
Kai grinned, coaxing her back to arm’s length, but he didn’t tease her. “So. That’s your stepmother.”
“Right, my mistake. She seems like a real treasure.”
Cinder scoffed and her body started to ease. Without sensation in her foot, it felt like trying to dance with a ball of iron soldered to her ankle. Her leg was beginning to ache from carrying it, but she resisted the urge to limp, picturing ever-graceful Pearl in her ball gown and heels, and wished her body into conformity.
At least her body seemed to be memorizing the pattern of the dance steps, making each movement slightly more fluid than the last, until she almost felt as if she knew what she were doing. Of course, the tender pressure of Kai’s hand on her waist didn’t hurt.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “About her, and my stepsister. Can you believe they think I’m the embarrassment?” She made it sound like a joke, but she couldn’t help analyzing his response, bracing for that moment when he asked her if it were true.
If she really were cyborg.
Then, as his smile started to crumble, she realized the moment had come far too soon, and she desperately wished she could take the comment back. She wished they could go on pretending forever that her secret was still safe. That he still did not know.
That he still wanted her to be his personal guest.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kai said, his voice lowering even though the noise of laughter and tapping heels had filled the air around them.
Cinder opened her mouth, but her words snagged in her throat. She wanted to refute Pearl’s claim, to call her a liar. But what would that get her? More lies. More betrayal. The fingers of her metal hand tightened on his shoulder, the hard, unforgiving confines of the limb. He didn’t flinch, just waited.
She wanted to feel relief now that they had no more secrets. But that wasn’t entirely true either. He still didn’t know she was Lunar.
She opened her mouth again, unsure what she was going to say until the faint words came to her. “I didn’t know how.”
Kai’s eyes softened, little wrinkles forming in their corners.
“I would have understood,” he said.
Almost imperceptibly, he inched closer, and Cinder found her elbow crawling up his shoulder in a way that felt impossibly natural. Still, he did not back away. Did not shudder or tense.
He knew, but he wasn’t disgusted? He would still touch her? Somehow, unbelievably, he still even, maybe, liked her?
She felt she would have cried if it had been an option.
Her fingertips tentatively curled around the hair at the back of his neck, and she found that she was shaking, sure he would push her away at any moment. But he didn’t. He did not pull away. Did not grimace.
His lips parted, just barely, and Cinder wondered if maybe she wasn’t the only one having trouble breathing.
“It’s just,” she started, running her tongue across her lips, “it isn’t something I like to talk about. I haven’t told anyone who…who…”
“Who didn’t know her?”
Cinder’s words evaporated. Her?
Fingers stiffening, she eased them out of his hair and settled her palm back on his shoulder.
The intensity in his gaze melted into sympathy. “I understand why you didn’t say anything. But now I feel so selfish.” His jaw flexed, his brow turned up with guilt. “I know, I should have guessed after you told me she was sick to begin with, but with the coronation and Queen Levana’s visit and the ball, I just…I guess I forgot. I know that makes me the biggest jerk in the world, and I should have realized that your sister had…and why you were ignoring my comms. It makes sense now.” He drew her closer, until she could almost lay her head on his shoulder, but she didn’t. Her body had gone rigid again, the dance steps forgotten. “I just wish you would have told me.”
Her gaze shifted over his shoulder, focusing on nothing. “I know,” she murmured. “I should have told you.”
She felt as though all her synthetic parts were squeezing together, crushing her inside.
Kai didn’t know.
And yet to have felt the comforting presence of acceptance, only to be confined by secrecy again, was even more unbearable than lying to him to begin with.
“Kai,” she said, shaking herself from the misery that threatened her. She pushed back to arm’s length, returning them to the acceptable distance of strangers—or of a mechanic dancing with her emperor. For the first time, Kai missed a dance step, eyes blinking in surprise. She ignored the guilt scratching at her throat.
“I came here to tell you something. It’s important.” She glanced around, ensuring that no one could hear them. Though she caught a few jealous scowls targeting her, no one was close enough to hear over the music, and the Lunar queen was nowhere to be seen. “Listen. You can’t marry Levana. No matter what she wants, no matter what she threatens.”
Kai flushed at the queen’s name. “What do you mean?”
“She doesn’t just want the Commonwealth. She’s going to start a war with Earth either way. It’s just that being empress here will pave the way for her.”
It was his turn to look around, simultaneously molding his look of panic into cool indifference, though up close, Cinder could see the worry in his eyes.
“And there’s more. She does know about Nainsi…about what Nainsi found out. She knows you were trying to find Princess Selene, and she’s taken the information you found and is hunting her down now. She has people out looking for her…if they haven’t found her already.”
Eyes widening, Kai looked back at her.
“And you know,” she continued, not allowing him to interrupt, “you know that she won’t forgive you for trying to find the princess.” She gulped. “Kai, as soon as you marry her, and she has what she wants…she’s going to kill you.”
The color drained from his face. “How do you know all this?”
She took in a deep breath, somehow exhausted from getting all the information out, as if she’d only reserved enough energy to bring her to this moment. “The D-COMM chip I found in Nainsi. There was this girl, its programmer…ugh. It’s complicated.” She hesitated, thinking she should give the chip to Kai while she had the chance. He may be able to get more information out of the girl, except in her hurry to leave for the ball, she’d stashed it in her calf compartment. Her gut sank. To retrieve it now would be to reveal herself to Kai and everyone around her.
She gulped, shoving aside the rising distress. Was saving her own pride more important to her?
“Is there somewhere we can go?” she asked. “Away from the crowd? I’ll tell you everything.”
He glanced around. In their dancing, they had traveled almost the entire length of the ballroom, and now they stood before a set of massive doors that opened out onto the royal gardens. Beyond the steps, a willow tree was weeping from the heavy rain, a coy pond nearly overflowing. The pummeling of the storm came in waves, almost drowning out the noise of the orchestra.
“The gardens?” he said, but before he could move, a shadow fell across them. Glancing up, Cinder saw the unhappy expression of a royal official, looking at Kai with lips so tight they’d started to go white. He did not acknowledge Cinder.
“Your Majesty,” he said, his face drawn. “It is time.”
CINDER LOOKED UP AT THE MAN, HER LINK TO THE NET database informing her that he was Konn Torin, royal adviser. “Time?” she said, turning back to Kai. “Time for what?”
Kai stared at her, part apologetic, part afraid. Her gut twisted.
Time to seal the fate of the Eastern Commonwealth.
“No,” she hissed. “Kai, you can’t—”
“Your Majesty,” said Konn Torin, still without deigning to meet Cinder’s eye. “I have allowed you your freedom, but it is time to put an end to this. You are embarrasing yourself.”
Kai let his gaze fall, before shutting his eyes altogether. He rubbed at his brow. “Just a moment. I need a moment to think.”
“We do not have a moment. We have been over this time and again—”
“There’s new information,” Kai said, his tone harsh. Konn Torin’s face darkened, and he cast a suspicious glare at Cinder. She shivered at the disapproving frown—for once, this was hatred directed at her not because she was a cyborg, but because she was a normal girl, unworthy of the attention of the emperor.
For once, she couldn’t disagree.
If the understanding showed on her face, the adviser ignored it. “Your Majesty. With all due respect, you no longer have the luxury of being a lovesick teenager. You have a duty to fulfill to your people now.”
Dropping his hand, Kai met Konn Torin’s gaze, his eyes hollow. “I know,” he said. “I will do what is best for them.”
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