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Peony stuck out her tongue but then gathered up her skirt in both fists, hiking the hem up to her knees. “So what do you think?” she said, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet.

“You look amazing.”

Peony preened, wrinkling the fabric more in her fingers. But then her cheeriness faltered. “She should have had one made for you too. It’s not fair.”

“I don’t really want to go.” Cinder shrugged. Peony’s tone had such sympathy that she didn’t bother to argue. She was usually able to ignore the jealousy she had toward her stepsisters—how Adri doted on them, how soft their hands were—especially when Peony was the only human friend she had. But she could not swallow the twitch of envy at seeing Peony in that dress.

She brushed the topic away. “What’s wrong with the port?”

“It’s doing that gibberish thing again.” Peony pushed some tools off a stack of empty paint bins, choosing the cleanest spot before sitting down, her full skirts flouncing around her. She swung her feet so that her heels beat steadily against the plastic.

“Have you been downloading those stupid celeb apps again?”

“No.”

Cinder raised an eyebrow.

“One language app. That’s it. And I needed it for class. Oh—before I forget, Iko, I brought you something.”

Iko rolled to Peony’s side as she pulled a velvet ribbon from her bodice, leftover trim from the seamstress. The light in the room brightened when Iko saw it.

“Thank you,” said the android as Peony tied the ribbon around her skinny wrist joint. “It’s lovely.”

Cinder set the portscreen on the work desk, next to Prince Kai’s android. “I’ll look at it tomorrow. We’re off to find a magbelt for Her Majesty.”

“Oh? Where are you going?”

“The junkyard.”

“It’s going to be a bundle of fun,” said Iko, scanning the makeshift bracelet with her sensor again and again.

“Really?” said Peony. “Can I come?”

Cinder laughed. “She’s kidding. Iko’s been practicing her sarcasm.”

“I don’t care. Anything’s better than going back into that stuffy apartment.” Peony fanned herself and absently leaned back against a stack of metal shelving.

Reaching out, Cinder pulled her back. “Careful, your dress.”

Peony surveyed her skirt, then the grime-covered shelves, then waved Cinder’s concern away. “Really, can I? Sounds exciting.”

“It sounds dirty and stinky,” said Iko.

“How would you know?” said Cinder. “You don’t have scent receptors.”

“I have a fantastic imagination.”

Smirking, Cinder half shoved her stepsister toward the door. “Fine, go get changed. But be quick. I have a story to tell you.”

Chapter Four

PEONY SLUGGED CINDER IN THE SHOULDER, NEARLY PUSHING her into a pile of bald android treads. “How could you wait so long to tell me? You’ve only been home for, what, four hours?”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” said Cinder, rubbing her shoulder. “There wasn’t a good time, and I didn’t want Adri to know. I don’t want her taking advantage of it.”

“Who cares about what Mom thinks? I want to take advantage of this. Good stars, the prince. In your booth. I can’t believe I wasn’t there. Why wasn’t I there?”

“You were busy being fitted in silk and brocade.”

“Ugh.” Peony kicked a broken headlight out of her path. “You should have commed me. I would have been there in two seconds, unfinished ball gown and all. Ugh. I hate you. It’s official, I hate you. Are you going to see him again? I mean, you’ll have to, right? I might be able to stop hating you if you promise to bring me with you, all right, deal?”

“Found one!” Iko called from ten yards ahead. Her floodlight targeted the body of a rusted hover, entrenching the piles of debris behind it in shadows.

“So? What was he like?” Peony said, keeping pace as Cinder hurried toward the earthbound vehicle, as if being near her was now on par with being near His Imperial Highness himself.

“I don’t know,” said Cinder, unlatching the vehicle’s hood and lifting it up on the prop-rod. “Ah, good, it hasn’t been scavenged.”

Iko scooted out of Cinder’s way. “He was polite enough not to point out the giant grease stain on her forehead.”

Peony gasped. “Oh, you didn’t!”

“What? I’m a mechanic. I get dirty. If he wanted me to get all gussied up, he should have commed ahead. Iko, I could use some light in here.”

Iko tilted her head forward, illuminating the engine compartment. On Cinder’s other side, Peony clucked her tongue. “Maybe he thought it was a mole?”

“That makes me feel much better.” Cinder pulled a pair of pliers from her bag. The night sky was clear, and though the lights from the city blocked out any stars, the sharp crescent moon lurked near the horizon, a sleepy eye squinting through the haze.

“Is he as handsome in real life as he looks on the netscreens?”

“Yes,” said Iko. “Even more handsome. And awful tall.”

“Everyone’s tall to you.” Peony leaned against the front bumper, arms folded. “And I want to hear Cinder’s opinion.”

Cinder stopped poking the pliers around the engine as the memory of his easy smile rushed into her. Though Prince Kai had long been one of Peony’s favorite topics—she was probably in every one of his net fangroups—Cinder had never imagined that she might share the admiration. In fact, she’d always thought Peony’s celebrity crush was a little silly, a little preadolescent. Prince Kai this, Prince Kai that. An impossible fantasy.

But now…

Something in Cinder’s face must have said enough, because Peony suddenly shrieked and lunged at her, wrapping her arms around Cinder’s waist and hopping up and down. “I knew it! I knew you liked him too! I can’t believe you actually met him! It’s not fair. Did I mention how much I hate you?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said Cinder, prying Peony’s arms off her. “Now go be giddy somewhere else. I’m trying to work.”

Peony made a face and skipped away, twirling amid the piles of junk. “What else? Tell me everything. What did he say? What did he do?”

“Nothing,” said Cinder. “He just asked me to fix his android.” She peeled away the spiderwebs from what had once been the hover’s solar generator but was now little more than a plastic shell. A cloud of dust kicked up into her face and she pulled away, coughing. “Ratchet?”

Iko plucked the ratchet from her torso and handed it to Cinder.

“What kind of android is it?” asked Peony.

Cinder pried the generator from the compartment with a grunt and set it on the ground beside the hover. “An old one.”

“Tutor8.6,” said Iko. “Older than me. And he said he would come back to the market next weekend to pick it up.”

Peony kicked a rusted oil can out of the path before bending over the engine. “The news said the market’s going to be shut down next week because of the outbreak.”

“Oh—I hadn’t heard that.” Cinder wiped her hands on her pants, peering down into the engine’s lower compartment. “I guess we’ll have to drop it off at the palace then.”

“Yes!” Peony jigged in place. “We’ll go together and you can introduce me and—and—”

“Aha!” Cinder beamed. “Magbelt.”

Peony cupped her cheek in her palm, raising her voice. “And then he’ll recognize me at the ball, and I’ll dance with him and—Pearl will be livid!” She laughed, as if angering her older sister were life’s greatest accomplishment.

“If the android’s even done before the ball.” Cinder selected a wrench from the tool belt slung around her hips. She didn’t want to inform Peony that Prince Kai probably wouldn’t be the one signing for deliveries at the palace.

Peony whisked her hand through the air. “Well, or whenever.”

“I want to go to the ball,” said Iko, gazing up at the horizon. “It’s prejudice not to let androids attend.”

“Petition the government then. I’m sure Peony will be happy to take your cause direct to the prince himself.” Cinder clamped onto Iko’s spherical head and forced her to aim the light back into the hood. “Now hold still. I’ve just about got this end detached.”

Cinder stuck the wrench to Iko, then pried the magbelt from its bracket, letting it clatter to the ground below. “One side down, one to go.” She led the way around the hover, clearing a path through the garbage so Iko’s treads wouldn’t get stuck.

Peony followed and climbed on top of the hover’s trunk, folding her legs beneath her. “You know, some people are saying he’s going to be looking for a bride at the ball.”

“A bride!” said Iko. “How romantic.”

Cinder lowered herself onto her side behind the hover’s back bumper and took a small flashlight from her tool belt. “Hand me that wrench again?”

“Didn’t you hear me? A bride, Cinder. As in, a princess.”

“As in, not going to happen. He’s only, what? Nineteen?” Tucking the flashlight between her teeth, Cinder took the wrench from Iko. The bolts in the back had less rust on them, better protected from the overhanging trunk, and took only a few quick turns to loosen.

“Eighteen and a half,” said Peony. “And it’s true. All the gossip links are saying so.”

Cinder grunted.

“I would marry Prince Kai in a heartbeat.”

“Me too,” said Iko.

Cinder spit out the flashlight and shuffled to the fourth corner. “You and every other girl in the Commonwealth.”

“Like you wouldn’t,” said Peony.

Cinder didn’t answer as she loosened the final bolt gripping the magbelt. It released and fell to the ground with a clang. “There we go.” She slid out from beneath the car and tucked the wrench and flashlight into her calf compartment before standing. “See any other hovers worth scavenging while we’re here?” Pulling the magbelt out from beneath the hover, she folded it at its hinges, forming a less cumbersome metal rod.

“I did see something over there.” Iko swished the light around the stacks. “Not sure what model.”

“Great. Lead the way.” Cinder nudged the android with the belt. Iko took off, muttering about being stuck in junkyards while Adri was all clean and cozy at home.

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