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Cinder leaned back against the wall, sensing the start of a headache. “Look, I appreciate that you care about me, I really do. But even if I could find a way out of here, do you realize how livid Levana would be? You yourself said there will be horrible consequences if she doesn’t get what she wants. I am not worth starting a war over.”

His eyes brightened behind the spectacles. He looked young for a moment, almost giddy. “Actually, you are.”

She cocked her head, squinting at him. Maybe he really was mad.

“I tried to tell you when you were in my office last week, but you had to run off to see your sister—ah, and I am sorry about your sister, by the way.”

Cinder bit the inside of her cheek.

“Anyway, you see, I had your DNA sequenced. It informed me not only that you are Lunar, not only that you are not a shell, but also something of your heritage. Your bloodline.”

Cinder’s heartbeat quickened. “My family?”

“Yes.”

“And? Do I have one? My parents, are they…” She hesitated. Dr. Erland’s eyes had saddened at her outburst. “Are they dead?”

He pulled his hat off. “I’m sorry, Cinder. I should have gone about this a better way. Yes, your mother is dead. I do not know who your father is or if he is alive. Your mother was, shall we say…known for her promiscuity.”

She felt her hopes shrivel. “Oh.”

“And you have an aunt.”

“An aunt?”

Dr. Erland squeezed the hat in both hands. “Yes. It’s Queen Levana.”

Cinder blinked at him.

“My dear girl. You are Princess Selene.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

SILENCE FILLED THE STERILE WHITE AIR BETWEEN CINDER and Dr. Erland, filled the fogginess in Cinder’s head. The confusion did not leave her face. “What?”

The doctor reached forward and put his hand over Cinder’s. “You are Princess Selene.”

She jerked away from him. “I don’t—what?”

“I know. It seems unbelievable.”

“No, it seems…that’s impossible. Why would you joke about this?”

He smiled softly and patted her hand again. Which is when Cinder realized that her vision was clear. No orange light was plaguing her.

The breath left her. Her gaze fell to the empty wires poking out from her ankle.

“I know it will take time for you to come to terms with this,” said Dr. Erland, “and I wish I could be here to help you through it. And I will. I will tell you everything you need to know when you get to Africa. But now, it is imminent that you understand why you cannot let Levana take you. You are the only one who can dethrone her. Do you understand?”

She shook her head, dazed.

“Princess—”

“Don’t call me that.”

Dr. Erland wrung the hat in his lap. “All right. Miss Linh, listen to me. I have been searching for you for so many years. On Luna, I knew the man who brought you to Earth and performed your surgery. I tracked him down in an attempt to find you, but by then he’d already started to lose his mind. All I could get out of him was that you were somewhere here, in the Commonwealth. I knew I was looking for a cyborg, a teenager—and yet there were so many times when I thought I would go crazy myself before finding you. Before being able to tell you the truth. And then you were there—suddenly—in my lab. A miracle.”

Cinder raised a hand, cutting him off. “Why? Why did they make me a cyborg?”

“Because your body was too badly damaged in the fire,” he said, as if the answer were obvious. “Your limbs could not have been rescued. It’s amazing you were able to survive at all, and that you’ve managed to stay hidden for all these—”

“Stop. Just stop.” Cinder flexed her beat-up prosthetic hand before folding it around the fingers of the brand-new limb the doctor had brought her. Her eyes darted around the cell, her breath coming in short gasps. She shut her eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over her.

She was…

She was…

“The draft,” she whispered. “You set up the draft to find me. A cyborg…in the Eastern Commonwealth.”

Dr. Erland stirred, and when she dared to look up again, guilt had filled his eyes. “We’ve all had to make sacrifices, but if Levana isn’t stopped—”

Releasing the new prosthesis, Cinder covered her ears and buried her face against her knee. The draft. All those cyborgs. So many people convinced that it was the right thing. That it was better them than humans. Once a science project, always a science project.

And he’d only wanted to find her.

“Cinder?”

“I’m going to be sick.”

Dr. Erland pressed a hand to her shoulder, but she shook it off. “Nothing that has happened is your fault,” he said. “And now I’ve found you. We can begin to make it right again.”

“How can I make anything right? Levana’s going to kill me!” Gasping, Cinder lifted her head. “Wait. Does she know?”

Her memory answered her first—Levana at the top of the stairs, frightened. Furious. She hid her face again. “Oh, my stars, she does know.”

“Your glamour is unique, Cinder, so much like Queen Channary’s. Levana would have known right away who you are, although I doubt anyone else has figured it out yet, and Levana will try to keep it hidden as long as she can. Of course, she will waste no time in killing you. I am sure they are planning their departure even at this moment.”

Cinder’s mouth grew dry.

“Look at me, Cinder.”

She obeyed. And though the doctor’s eyes were breathtakingly blue and filled with pity and almost even comforting, she somehow knew that he was not doing anything to manipulate her mind. This was just an old man who was determined to dethrone Queen Levana.

An old man who had somehow placed all his hopes on her.

“Does Kai know?” she whispered.

Dr. Erland shook his head, sadly. “I cannot approach him so long as Levana is present, and this is not something I can send via a comm. She will have taken you before I have a chance to see him. Besides, what could he do?”

“If he knew, he would release me.”

“And risk Levana turning her wrath against his entire country? Levana would find a way to kill you long before you had any hope of taking back the throne. Kai would be a fool to do something so rash, not without a plan.”

“But he deserves to know. He’s been looking for her. For…he was looking for…”

“Many people have been looking for you. But finding you and being able to reinstate you as queen are two very different goals. I have planned this moment for a long time. I can help you.”

Cinder gawked at him as panic gripped her lungs. “Reinstate me as queen?”

The doctor cleared his throat. “I understand you are frightened right now, and confused. Do not think too much. All I’m asking is that you find a way out of this prison. I know you can do that. Then come to Africa. I will guide you through the rest. Please. We cannot let Levana win.”

She couldn’t respond, couldn’t even begin to fathom what he was asking of her. A princess? An heir?

She shook her head. “No. I can’t. I can’t be a queen or a princess or—I’m nobody. I’m a cyborg!”

Dr. Erland folded his hands together. “If you won’t let me help you, Cinder, then she will have already won, won’t she? Soon Queen Levana will take you away. She will find a way to marry Kai and become empress. She will wage war against the Earthen Union and, I have no doubt, be victorious. Many will die, the rest will become slaves, just like us Lunars. It is a sad fate but unavoidable, I suppose, if you are not willing to accept who you truly are.”

“That isn’t fair! You can’t just throw this on me and expect me to be able to do anything about it!”

“I don’t, Miss Linh. All I expect is for you to find a way out of this prison and come meet me in Africa.”

She stared at him, mouth agape, as those words gradually seeped into her brain.

Escape from prison.

Go to Africa.

It seemed almost simple when he said it like that.

The doctor must have seen something change in her face for he lightly tapped her wrist again, then stood with the groans of old joints growing older. “I believe in you,” he said as he reached the doorway and rapped on the grate. “And whether or not he knows it right now, Kai believes in you too.”

The cell door opened, Dr. Erland tipped his hat to her, and he was gone.

Cinder waited until two sets of footsteps had ricocheted down the corridor before shuddering and collapsing over her knees, folding her hands over her ears. Her brain was downloading information faster than she could sort it: old articles about the princess’s disappearance, interviews with conspiracy theorists, images of the scorched rubble of the nursery where her burned flesh had been found. Dates. Statistics. The transcript of Levana’s coronation as the crown passed to her, next in line for the throne.

Princess Selene’s birth date. 21 December 109 T.E. She was almost a month younger than she’d always believed. It was a small fact, an insignificant fact, and yet for a moment she had the distinct impression that she had no idea who she was anymore. No clue who she was supposed to be.

And then came the cyborg draft. All the names of those who had been drawn flashed before her. Their pictures, their ID numbers, their birth dates, the dates they’d been pronounced dead, honorably, for their sacrifice for the good of the Commonwealth.

She heard a clock ticking inside her head.

Cinder’s breath came in jagged gasps as the information flooded her brain. Panic churned in her stomach. Bile seeped into her mouth, burning as she swallowed it down.

Queen Levana would come for her, and she would be executed. That was her fate. She’d been resolved to it. She’d been prepared for it. Not to be an heir. Not to be a queen or a savior or a hero.

It would be so simple to let it happen. So simple not to fight back.

Amid the jumbled information clattering through her head, her thoughts landed again on that same quiet moment captured in time.

Kai’s carefree smile at the market.

Huddling in a ball, Cinder cut off the netlink.

The noise silenced. The images and videos snipped to black.

If she didn’t try to stop Levana, what would happen to Kai?

Though she tried to block out the question, it continued to plague her, echoing in her thoughts.

Maybe Dr. Erland was right. Maybe she had to run. Maybe she had to try.

She felt for the prosthetic limbs in her lap and wrapped her hands around them. Lifting her head, she looked up at the grate in the prison door. The guard had never closed it.

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