Kai’s fingers covered hers. Only then did she realize she’d grabbed him with her cyborg hand.
“I’m sorry,” said Kai. “You don’t need to worry about all that right now. Torin and I are taking care of everything. Making sure the injured are taken care of, getting the city cleaned up … oh, and the antidote. We’re preparing some big shipments for Earth, and the technicians have been working to produce more batches. We’ve already sent more than a thousand doses home with the diplomats and they say we’ll have triple that amount ready to go out tomorrow evening, although…” He hesitated, a shadow crossing his face. “The antidote is produced using shell blood, and there’s a whole complicated mess of laws surrounding the shells, and the antidote, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing anything without you. That’s something we’re going to have to deal with, when you’re ready.” He trailed off, though Cinder could see the struggle warring in his eyes. The relief of having the antidote at his disposal, coupled with the horrible things Levana had been doing to obtain it.
She tried to smile, but she knew how drained she must look. “Thank you, Kai.”
He shifted his head, chunks of hair falling across his brow. “I’m sorry. I should let you sleep. It’s just … it’s really good to see you awake. To talk to you about all this.”
“How long was I out?”
“Almost three days.”
She turned her eyes toward the ceiling. “Three days. What a luxury.”
“A much deserved one.” Kai lifted her hand and pressed his lips against her knuckles. “Take your time recovering. The hard part is over.”
He hesitated. “Well. The dangerous part is over.”
“Can you do something for me?”
Kai frowned, like he didn’t want to encourage any crazy ideas, but the moment was brief. “Anything.”
“Have all the Earthen leaders gone back to Earth?”
“No. We were able to sneak all the Earthens out of Artemisia during the fighting, once we got the ports open, but most of them came back after they learned you succeeded. I think they’re all waiting to meet you.”
“Can you call a meeting? You, me, the Earthen leaders … and … does Luna … do I have a cabinet, or a prime minister or anything?”
His lip twitched like he wanted to tease her, but he withheld the urge. “Normally the head thaumaturge would act as second in command, but Thaumaturge Aimery is dead. Your court is in sad disarray right now, I’m afraid.”
“Well, whoever you think should be invited then, to an official meeting. An important one.”
“And my stepmother. Is she still here?”
He frowned. “Actually, yes. She and her daughter have been given a spot aboard one of our representatives’ ships, but it won’t be leaving until tomorrow.”
“Bring her too. And maybe that doctor that was just here.”
“Cinder, you need to rest.”
“I’m fine. I have to do this—as soon as possible, before anyone else tries to kill me.”
He grinned, but it was a tender look. “You have to do what, exactly?”
“Sign the Treaty of Bremen.” Saying the words brought a real smile to her lips. “I want to make our alliance official.”
Jacin slumped in the visitor chair, watching the doctor check Winter’s vitals with no small amount of envy. He wished he was the one to administer to her needs, to know from a readout of life statistics how she was faring and what he could do to make her better. Instead he had to sit there and pretend to be patient and wait for the doctor to inform him, once again, there was nothing to be done. They just had to wait and see if she would recover.
Jacin hated the word. Every time it was said he could hear Winter’s voice, haunted and afraid. I do not know that even a sane person could recover from this. So how can I?
“Her heartbeat is still accelerated,” said the doctor, putting away his portscreen, “but at least she’s sleeping. We’ll check on her again when she wakes up.”
Jacin nodded, holding back any of the multiple retorts he had. When she wakes up kicking and screaming. When she wakes up crying. When she wakes up howling again like a sad, lonely wolf. When she wakes up and nothing has changed.
“I don’t get it,” Jacin grumbled, letting his gaze rest on Winter’s forehead—at least she was calm in her sleep. “It should have made her better, using her gift. Not worse. She shouldn’t be like this, after so many years of fighting it.”
“All those years are precisely what caused it.” The doctor sighed, and he too looked wistfully down on the princess. Too wistfully. Jacin bristled. “It might help to think of the brain and our gift like a muscle. If you don’t use that muscle for many years, and then one day you decide to push it to its full potential, you’re more likely to strain it than strengthen it. She did too much, too quickly, and it … damaged her mind, quite extensively.”
I am destroyed, she’d said. Not damaged. Destroyed.
And that was before Aimery had even shown up.
As soon as the doctor left, Jacin scooted his chair closer to Winter’s bed. He checked the padded restraints on her limbs—they were secure, but not too tight. She had often woken up with violent thrashing and clawing, and one medical assistant had nearly lost an eye before they decided it was best to secure her. Jacin hated watching them do it, but even he agreed it was for the best. She had become a danger to others and to herself. Her teeth had even left an impressive gash on his own shoulder, yet he still couldn’t fathom that it was Winter lashing out. Sweet, gentle Winter.
Broken, destroyed Winter.
Jacin let his fingers lie on her wrists longer than was necessary, but there was no one to chastise him now, other than himself.
The rash from the disease grew fainter every day. He doubted it would leave many scars, and what it did leave would be largely unnoticeable on her dark skin. Not like the scars on her cheek that had paled over time.
He both hated and admired those scars. On one hand, they reminded him of a time she’d been suffering. Of a time when he hadn’t been able to protect her.
On the other hand, they also reminded him of her bravery and the courage that so few people saw in her. In her subtly defiant way, she had dared to go against Levana’s wishes and the expectations of their society time and again. She had been forced to choose her battles, but choose them she had, and both her losses and her victories had cost her so much.
The doctors were at a loss for what to do with her. They had little experience with Lunar sickness. Few people chose to let their sanity deteriorate like she had, and they could only guess what the long-term effects might be.
And all because she refused to be like Levana and Aimery and all the rest of the Lunars who abused and manipulated and used others to fulfill their own selfish desires.
Even in her last desperate act, when she had used Scarlet’s hand to kill Aimery, Jacin knew she had done it to save him, not herself. Never herself.
Just like he would do anything to save her.
He dragged a hand down his face, overcome with exhaustion. He’d spent every night since the fight at her side and was surviving on little nourishment and even less sleep.
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