Her retina display began to panic, noting her increased levels of adrenaline, her racing pulse. Warnings were flashing before her, but she ignored them, surprisingly calm.
“If I had not been brought to Earth,” she said, “I would be a slave under your rule. I will not apologize for escaping.”
In the corner of her gaze, she saw Kai’s face fall, eyes widening as the truth became undeniable. He had been courting a Lunar.
A cry rang out from the trembling crowd. A round of gasps, a soft thud. Adri had fainted.
Gulping, Cinder squared her shoulders.
“I want no apologies,” said Levana, flashing a wicked smile. “I only want to see the wrongs of your life righted, swiftly and surely.”
“You want to see me dead.”
“How bright she is. Yes, I do. And not just you, but all those like you. You shells are a threat to society, a danger to our ideal culture.”
“Because you can’t brainwash us into worshipping you like everybody else?”
The queen’s lips tightened, hardening like plaster on her face. Her voice fell, chilling the room. A sudden burst of rain behind her shook the windows.
“It is not only for my people, but for all Earthens as well. You shells are a plague.” She paused, a lightness returning to her eyes, as if she might laugh. “Quite literally it seems.”
“My Queen,” said the dark-haired woman, “refers to your so-called blue fever that has wreaked such havoc on your citizens. And, of course, your own royal family…may Emperor Rikan rest in—”
“What does that have to do with anything?” said Kai.
The woman tucked her hands into the bell-shaped sleeves of her ivory coat. “Hadn’t your brilliant scientists drawn that conclusion yet? Many ungifted Lunars are carriers of letumosis. They brought it to Earth. They continue to spread it, without concern, it seems, for the lives they are taking.”
Cinder shook her head. “No,” she said. Kai turned to her, unconsciously taking a step away. She shook her head more harshly. “They don’t know they’re doing it. How could they? And, of course, the scientists have figured it out, but what can they do, other than try to find a cure?”
The queen laughed sharply. “Ignorance is your defense? How trite. You must see the truth, the fact that you should be dead. It would be so much better for everyone if you were.”
“And for the record,” said Cinder, her voice rising, “I’m not a shell.”
The queen smirked, unconvinced.
“That’s enough,” said Kai. “I don’t care where she was born. Cinder is a citizen of the Commonwealth. I will not have her arrested.”
Levana did not tear her gaze from Cinder. “Harboring a fugitive is grounds for war, young emperor. You know this.”
Cinder’s visibility dimmed as her retina cascaded a nonsensical diagram over her eyesight. She slammed her eyes shut, cursing. Now was not the time for a brain malfunction.
“But perhaps,” said the queen, “we can reach some sort of a compromise.”
Cinder opened her eyes. The darkened film remained, but the muddled diagram was gone. She focused on the queen just in time to see a cruel tilt of her lips.
“This girl seems to think you love her, and here is your chance to prove it.” She coquettishly dipped her lashes. “So tell me, Your Majesty, are you prepared to bargain for her?”
“BARGAIN,” SAID KAI. “FOR HER LIFE?”
“Welcome to the world of true politics.” Levana took a sip of her wine. Despite her blood-red lips, no mark was left on the glass.
“This is not the time or the place to be having this discussion,” he said with a barely restrained growl.
“Isn’t it? It seems to me that this discussion involves every being in this room. After all, you want peace. You want to keep your citizenry safe. They are both admirable goals.” Her gaze slid to Cinder. “You also want to save this hapless creature. So be it.”
Cinder’s heart thudded, her eyesight flickering as she refocused it on Kai.
“And you?” said Kai.
“I want to be empress.”
Cinder squirmed against the guard. “Kai, no. You can’t do it.”
He turned back to her. His eyes were turbulent.
“It won’t make a difference,” Cinder said. “You know it won’t.”
“Silence her,” ordered Levana.
The guard clamped a hand over her mouth, pulling her hard against his chest, but he could not keep her eyes from pleading. Don’t do it. I’m not worth it, you know that.
Kai paced to the doorway. He gazed out at the raging storm for a moment, shoulders quaking, before he turned and swept his gaze over the ballroom. The ocean of color, silk and taffeta, gold and pearls. The frightened, confused faces around him.
The annual ball. 126 years of world peace.
He released a strangled breath and pulled his shoulders taut. “I thought I’d made my decision quite clear. Only hours ago, I told my country that I would do anything to keep them safe. Anything at all.” He opened both palms, pleading, toward the queen. “I acknowledge readily that you are more powerful than all Earthen kingdoms combined, and I have no desire to test our forces against yours. I also recognize that I am ignorant in the ways of your culture and your people, and I cannot condemn you for the way you have governed them. I trust you have always had the best interests of your people at heart.” He met Cinder’s gaze. His shoulders became rigid. “But it is not the way that I will have the Commonwealth governed. We must have peace, but not at the expense of freedom. I cannot—I will not marry you.”
The air sucked out of the room, low rushed whispers scattering in the crowd. Relief swelled in Cinder, but it was squashed when Kai met her gaze, and he could not have looked more miserable. He mouthed, simply, “I’m sorry.”
She wished she could tell him it was all right. She understood. This was the decision she’d wanted him to make from the start, and nothing would change that.
She was not worth starting a war over.
Levana’s lips were pinched, her face static but for the slow drawing back of her ears, the almost imperceptible clenching of her jaw. Cinder’s retina scanner flickered madly in the corner of her sight, scrolling through numbers and bits of data, but she ignored it like she would an annoying gnat.
“You have made your decision?”
“Yes,” said Kai. “The girl—the fugitive will be held in our prison until your departure.” He lifted his chin as if reconciling himself to the decision. “I have meant no disrespect, Your Majesty. I do wish with all my heart that we can continue our discussions for an acceptable alliance.”
“We cannot,” said Levana. The glass in her hand shattered, sending bits of crystal cascading to the hard floor. Cinder jumped, a chorus of screams burst from the crowd as they drew back, but the Lunar guard seemed immune to the outburst. “My requirements were made quite clear to your father, as they have been made quite clear to you, and you are a fool to deny them.” She tossed the glass’s thin stem at the column. Wine dribbled from her fingertips. “Do you insist on denying my requests?”
“Answer the question.”
Cinder’s retina scanner lit up, as if a spotlight had been dropped down on the queen. She gasped. Her knees collapsed, and she slumped against the guard, who jerked her back upright.
She shut her eyes, sure she was imagining things, then opened them again. The diagram realigned. Lines pinpointing the exact angles of Levana’s face. Coordinates showing the placement of her eyes, the length of her nose, the width of her brow. A perfect illustration overlaid the perfect woman—and they were not the same.
Cinder was still gawking at the queen, trying to make sense of the lines and angles that her scanner was showing her, when she realized that the arguing had ceased. Her reaction had been so abrupt that everyone’s attention had returned to her.
“Stars,” she whispered. Her scanner was seeing beyond the illusion. Unscathed by the Lunar glamour, it knew where the true boundaries of the queen’s face were, the imperfections, the inconsistencies. “It really is an illusion. You’re not beautiful.”
The queen paled. The world seemed to have frozen around the diagrams in Cinder’s gaze, the tiny points and measurements revealing the queen’s greatest secret. She could still see the queen’s glamour, her high cheek bones and full lips, but the effect was hidden beneath the truth of the diagram. The longer she stared, the more data her display gathered, gradually filling in Levana’s true features.
She was so entranced with the slow revealing that she didn’t notice Levana curling her long fingers at her side. It was not until an electric current seemed to shimmer in the air that Cinder snapped her focus away from the scribblings in her vision.
The queen flexed her fingers. The guard pulled away, releasing Cinder’s wrists.
Planting her feet, Cinder barely caught herself from toppling forward—at the same time that her hand reached back, as if with a mind of its own, and snatched the gun from the guard’s holster.
She stiffened, feeling the heavy gun so abruptly, unexpectedly in her steel hand.
Her finger slipped over the trigger as if it were an extension of her. The gun felt comfortable in her palm. But it shouldn’t have. She’d never held one before.
Her heart thudded.
Cinder lifted the gun, pressing the barrel against her own temple. A shuddering cry escaped her. A strand of hair clung to her parched lips. Her eyes darted to the left, unable to see the gun or the traitorous hand holding it. She looked at the queen, the crowd, Kai.
Her whole body was shaking, but for the confident arm holding the gun poised to kill her.
“No! Leave her alone!” Kai rushed for her, grasping her elbow. He tried to yank it away, but she was immobilized, solid as a statue. “Let her go!”
“K-Kai,” she stammered, terror seizing her. She urged her hand to drop the gun, urged her finger to pull away from the trigger, but it was useless. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her head throbbed. INCREASING LEVELS OF ADRENALINE. CORTISONE. GLUCOSE. HEART RATE INCREASING. BLOOD PRESSURE INCREASING. WARNING, WARNING…
Her finger twitched, briefly, then solidified again.
She imagined what the gun would sound like. She imagined the blood. She imagined her brain shutting down, feeling nothing. BIOELECTRICAL MANIPULATION DETECTED. INITIALIZING RESISTANCE PROCEDURE IN 3…2…
Her finger slowly, slowly pulled down on the trigger.
Fire exploded in her spine, racing along her nerves and wires, slithering down the metal braces in her limbs.
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