Cinder screamed and forced the gun away from her head. Arm straight, barrel pointed at the ceiling. She stopped fighting it. Pulled the trigger. A chandelier shattered above her, glass and crystal and sparks.
The crowd screamed and surged for the exit.
Cinder crumpled to her knees and doubled over, cradling the gun against her stomach. Pain tore through her, blinding her. Fireworks burst in her head. It felt as if her body were trying to dispel all her cyborg parts—explosions and sparks and smoke tearing at her flesh.
Kai’s voice over the tumult in her ears made her realize that the pain was subsiding. She felt hot to the touch, like someone had thrown her into a kiln, but the pain and heat had moved to her exterior, to her skin and fingertips rather than eating her up inside. She opened her eyes. White dots speckled her gaze. Her display was flashing red warnings. Diagnostics scrolled through the corner of her vision. Her temperature was too high, her heart rate too high, her blood pressure too high. Some foreign substance had invaded her blood that her system did not recognize and could not dispel. Something is wrong, her programming screamed at her. You are sick. You are ill. You are dying.
But she did not feel like she was dying.
Her body felt so hot she was surprised she didn’t incinerate the fragile dress. Sweat sizzled on her brow. She felt different. Strong. Powerful.
Shaking, she sat back on her heels and stared at her hands. The left glove had started to melt, forming patches of gooey, silky skin on her white-hot metal hand. She could see electricity sizzling across the steel surface, but she couldn’t tell if it was her human or cyborg eyes detecting it. Or maybe, not human. Not cyborg.
She raised her head. The world was covered in a cool gray mist, as if everything had frozen—except for her. Her body was beginning to cool. Her skin paling, her metal dulling. She tried to cover her metal hand, stupidly, in case Kai had been too blinded by the flash to notice it.
She caught the queen’s eye. Levana’s rage seemed to hiccup when their gazes met. The queen gasped and drew back a step. For a moment, she looked almost afraid.
“Impossible,” she whispered.
Cinder called forth every nanobyte of strength she possessed in order to stand, and pointed the gun at the queen. She pulled the trigger.
The red-haired guard was there. The bullet hit him in the shoulder.
Levana didn’t even flinch.
Cinder’s brain caught up with her body as blood dripped over the guard’s armor.
Cinder dropped the gun and ran. Knowing the frenzied crowd was impenetrable, she barreled toward the nearest exit, the massive doors that led into the gardens. Past the guard, past the queen, past her entourage, glass crunching beneath her stolen boots.
The hollow echo of the stone patio. A puddle splashing onto her legs. The fresh, cool smell of rain that had turned to a drizzle.
The stairway stretched before her. Twelve steps and a Zen garden, a towering wall, a gate, the city—escape.
On the fifth step, she heard the bolts snap. The wires tore loose, like tendons stretched to the max. She felt the loss of power at the base of her calf, sending a blinding warning signal up to her brain.
She fell, screaming, and tried to block her fall with her left hand. A shock of pain jolted up her shoulder and into her spine. Metal clattered against stone as she crashed down to the gravel pathway.
She lay sprawled on her side. Holes frayed her glove where she’d tried to catch her fall. Blood stained the beautiful cream-colored silk over her right elbow.
She struggled to breathe. Her head felt suddenly heavy, and she let it slump against the ground, little pebbles digging into her scalp. Her roaming eyes squinted up at the sky, where the storm had fizzled out but for a foggy mist that clung to Cinder’s hair and lashes, refreshing against her hot skin. The full moon sought to break through the cloud cover, burning a slow hole above her as if it planned to swallow up the whole sky.
Movement drew her eye back to the ballroom. The guard who had been holding her reached the stairs and froze. Kai was beside him a second later and screeched to a halt, grasping the railing to stop himself.
His eyes drunk her in—a gleam of metal fingers, the wires sparking at the end of her battered metal leg. His jaw fell, and he looked momentarily as if he might be sick.
More pounding at the top of the stairs. The man and woman appeared in their thaumaturge uniforms, and the guard she’d shot, undeterred by his oozing wound. Kai’s adviser and, finally, Queen Levana herself. Her glamour had returned full force, but all her beauty could not hide the fury contorting her features. Gathering her sparkling skirt in both hands, she moved to stomp down the steps toward Cinder, but the lady thaumaturge stopped her with a gentle hand and gestured up to the wall of the palace.
Cinder followed the movement.
A security camera was on them—on her. Seeing everything.
The last remnants of strength fled from Cinder, leaving her exhausted and weak.
Kai crept down the stairs as if sneaking up on a wounded animal. Stooping, he picked up the rusted cyborg foot that had fallen out of the velvet boot. His jaw flexed as he studied it, perhaps recognizing it from the day they’d met at the market. He would not look at her.
Levana’s lip curled. “Disgusting,” she said from the doorway, safely hidden from the camera’s view. Her words were loud and unnaturally forced compared to her usual lilting voice. “Death would be merciful.”
“She wasn’t a shell after all,” said Sybil Mira. “How did she hide it?”
Levana sneered. “It matters not. She’ll be dead soon enough. Jacin?”
The blond guard descended a single step toward Cinder. He was holding his gun again, the one Cinder had dropped.
“Wait.” Kai stole down the remaining stairs until he stood on the pathway before her. It seemed he had to force himself to meet her gaze, and he flinched at first. Cinder could not read him, the ever-changing mix of disbelief and confusion and regret. His chest was heaving. He tried to speak twice before words would come, quiet words that would never leave Cinder’s head.
“Was it all an illusion?” he asked.
Pain lanced through her chest, squeezing the air out of her. “Kai?”
“Was it all in my head? A Lunar trick?”
Her stomach twisted. “No.” She shook her head, fervently. How to explain that she hadn’t had the gift before? That she couldn’t have used it against him? “I would never lie—”
The words faded. She had lied. Everything he knew about her had been a lie.
“I’m so sorry,” she finished, the words falling lamely in the open air.
Kai peeled his eyes away, finding some place of resignation off in the glistening garden. “You’re even more painful to look at than she is.”
Cinder’s heart shriveled inside her until she was sure it would stop beating altogether. She reached her hand to her cheek, feeling the damp silk against her skin.
Setting his jaw, Kai turned back to the queen. Cinder stared up at the back of his crimson shirt with the peaceful turtledoves embroidered along the collar. One hand still clutched her cyborg foot.
“She will be taken into custody,” he said, with little strength behind his words. “She will be imprisoned until we can decide what to do with her. But if you kill her tonight, I swear I will never agree to any alliance with Luna.”
The queen’s glare darkened. Even if she agreed, Cinder would eventually be given back to the moon. And as soon as Levana had her in her power, a noose would be put around her neck.
Kai was buying her time. But probably not much.
What she couldn’t fathom was why.
Cinder watched the queen fight with her temper, knowing she could kill both her and Kai in a blink.
“She will be my prisoner,” Levana finally conceded. “She will be returned to Luna and tried under our judicial system.”
Translation: She would die.
“I understand,” said Kai. “In return, you will agree not to wage war against my country or planet.”
Levana tilted her head up, looking down her nose at him. “Agreed. I will not wage war against Earth for this infraction. But I would tread lightly, young emperor. You have tried my patience greatly this night.”
Kai took in a single breath, dipped his head at her, and then stepped aside as the Lunar guards trudged down the steps. They lifted Cinder’s broken body off the gravel path. She tried her best to stand, peering at Kai, wishing she could have just one moment to tell him how sorry she was. One breath to explain.
But he didn’t look at her as she was dragged past him. His eyes were locked on the dirty steel foot clasped in both hands, his fingertips white from gripping it too hard.
SHE LAY ON HER BACK, LISTENING TO THE STEADY TAPPING OF her metal fingers against the white resin floor of her white resin prison cell. Of all the thoughts that should have been taking up her mind, a single moment seemed captured in her thoughts, stuck on endless repeat.
Market day, the humid air, the smell of Chang Sacha’s sweet rolls permeating the city square. Before any of this had happened—before Peony had gotten sick, before Levana had come to Earth, before Kai had asked her to the ball. She was just a mechanic, and he was the prince with all the charms she pretended to be immune to. And he was there, before her, while she tottered on a single foot and tried to calm her rapidly beating heart. How she could barely meet his gaze. How he leaned forward, forced her to see him, smiled.
That moment. That smile.
Again and again and again.
Cinder sighed and changed the tempo of her tapping fingers.
The net was rife with vids from the ball. She had watched exactly 4.2 seconds of the footage via her netlink—her in her dirty ball gown tumbling down the steps—before shutting it off. The footage made her look like a madwoman. Surely, every human on Earth would bid her good riddance when Queen Levana claimed her and took her back to Luna. For her “trial.”
She heard the guard’s footsteps, muffled, on the other side of the cell door. Everything around her was white, including the brilliantly bleached cotton jumpsuit they’d put her in when she’d been forced to discard Peony’s destroyed gown and the bits of silk glove that hadn’t already been melted or ripped away. They hadn’t yet bothered to turn out the eye-straining lights either, leaving her restless and exhausted. She was beginning to wonder if it would be a relief when the queen came for her, if maybe she would at least be allowed a moment’s sleep.
And she’d only been there for fourteen hours, thirty-three minutes, and sixteen seconds. Seventeen seconds. Eighteen.
The door clunked, startling her. She squinted at the tiny window that had opened up in the door, seeing the shadow of a man’s head on the iron gate. The back of his head. None of the guards would look at her.
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