Thorne stepped back.
She grimaced. So much for hoping Levana was caught up enough in her own delusions to stop paying attention.
“What I can’t understand,” Cinder said, easing her tone, “is how you could have done that to me. I was just a kid, and you…” Her heart twisted. “I know those are burn scars you have. I have the same scar tissue where I lost my leg. Knowing what it’s like, living with that—how could you do it to someone else?”
“You weren’t supposed to survive,” Levana snapped, as if that made it better. “At least I would have had the mercy to kill you, to be done with it.”
“But I didn’t die.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed. It is not my fault someone thought you might be worth saving. It is not my fault they turned you into … into that.” She cast a halfhearted gesture toward Cinder.
Cinder clenched her teeth, wanting to argue the point, but she bit her tongue. Levana had been living with her excuses for a long time.
She stole a glance at Thorne. He was sucking on his teeth and staring up at the ceiling. He looked bored.
Cinder tried taking a step backward, like a show of peace, but Thorne stayed where he was.
“Who did it to you, anyway?” she asked, aiming for gentle. “Who hurt you like that?”
Levana sniffed and, finally, dared to look at Cinder. There was all the beauty glistening on the surface, but now that Cinder had seen beneath it, she couldn’t unsee the truth. Whether it was her cyborg programming or Levana’s own weakness, she could see her as she was now. Scarred and deformed.
There was a twinge of sympathy in her stomach, but only a twinge.
“You don’t know?” Levana asked.
“Why should I?”
“You stupid child.” A lock of hair fell over Levana’s face. “Because it was your mother.”
The word mother was foreign to Cinder’s ear. Mother. A woman who had given birth to her, but that was all. She had no memories of her, only rumors—horrifying tales that said Queen Channary was more cruel even than Levana, though her reign had been much shorter.
“My own sweet sister,” Levana purred. “Would you like to hear how it happened?”
But Cinder couldn’t form the word.
“She was thirteen and I was six. She was learning how to use her gift, taking great amounts of pleasure in manipulating those around her—though I was always her favorite target. She was very good. As I am. As you are. It is in our blood.”
Cinder shivered. It is in our blood. She hated to think that she shared blood with anyone in this family.
“At that age, it was her favorite trick to convince me that she loved me dearly. Having never felt love from our parents, it was not a hard thing to get me to believe. And then, when she was sure I would do anything for her, she would torture me. On this particular day, she told me to put my hand into a fireplace. When I refused, she made me do it anyway.” Levana smiled as she told the story, a deranged look. “As you’ve seen, by the time she let me go, it was not only my hand that suffered.”
Bile was filling Cinder’s mouth. A child so young, so impressionable.
It would have been so easy.
Yet a cruelty too impossible to fathom.
“After that, they started to call me the ugly princess of Artemisia, the sad little deformed creature. While Channary was the beautiful one. Always the beautiful one. But I practiced my glamour, and I told myself that someday they would forget about the fire and the scars. Someday I would be queen and I would make sure the people loved me. I would be the most beautiful queen Luna had ever known.”
Cinder tightened her grip on her weapons. “Is that why you killed her? So you could be queen? Or was it because she … did that. To you.”
One of Levana’s perfect eyebrows lifted. “Who says that I killed her?”
“Everyone says it. Even down on Earth we’ve heard the rumors. That you killed your sister, and your own husband, and me, all for your own ambitions.”
A coolness passed over Levana’s face and she leaned slowly back against her throne. “What I have done, I have done for Luna. My struggles, my sacrifices. Everything has been for Luna. All my life I’ve been the only one who cared, the only one who could see the potential of our people. We are destined for something so much greater than this rock, but all Channary cared about were her dresses and her conquests. She was a horrible queen. She was a monster.” She paused, nostrils flaring. “But no. I did not kill her, though I’ve wished a thousand times that I had. I should have killed her before she ruined everything. Before she had you, a healthy baby girl who would grow up to be just like her!”
Cinder snarled. “I don’t know who I would have become if I’d grown up here,” she said, “but I am not like her.”
“Oh, yes,” Levana mused, skipping from word to word like a stream over rocks. “On that note, I believe you are correct. When I first saw your glamour at the Commonwealth ball, I was surprised at how much you resembled her, once the dirt and grime and awful metal extremities were removed. But that seems to be where the similarities end.” Her lips stretched, bloodred, curving around perfect pearl teeth. “No, little niece. You are much more like me. Willing to do anything to be admired. To be wanted. To be queen.”
Cinder’s body went rigid. “I’m not like you, either. I’m doing this because you’ve given me no choice. You had your chance. You couldn’t have just been fair. Been a good ruler who treats her people with respect. And Earth! You wanted an alliance, Earth wanted peace … why couldn’t you just … agree to it? Why the disease? Why the attacks? Did you honestly believe that was the way to get them to love you?”
Levana peered at her, furious and hateful. But then her lips twitched into something resembling a grin. A furious, hateful grin. “Love,” she whispered. “Love is a conquest. Love is a war. That is all it is.”
“No. You’re wrong.”
“Fine.” Levana dragged her fingers along the arm of her throne. “Let us see how much your love is worth. Relinquish all rights to my throne, and I will not kill your friend.”
Cinder’s lips tightened. “How about we put it to a vote? Let the people decide who they want to rule them.”
Thorne took a step back. His left heel was on the edge now, and there was an expression of dismay as he glanced down at the lake below.
Cinder flinched. “Wait. I could promise to relinquish my throne to you, but there are still going to be tens of thousands of people outside demanding for you to abdicate. The secret is out. They know I’m Selene. I can’t take that back.”
“Tell them you lied.”
She exhaled sharply. “Also, the second you kill him, I’m going to kill you.”
Levana cocked her head to one side, and though she had her glamour, Cinder was seeing the woman from the video. That was her good eye, she realized.
“Then I will change the terms of my offer,” said Levana. “Sacrifice yourself, and I will not kill him.”
Cinder glanced at Thorne, who seemed indifferent to the fact they were negotiating with his life. He clicked his tongue at her. “Even I can see that’s a bad deal.”
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