Hands thumped against her like mittened fingers, leaning her back against the seat and feeling her throat. She heard her name but it was far away, trying to reach her across a whole sea of stars and everything was fading fast …
There was a series of loud clicks and the whir of the harness being reeled into the ship’s roof.
Winter collapsed into Scarlet’s arms, both of them crumpled over the center console. Scarlet struggled to lift Winter’s head and open her air passage while keeping the ship from colliding with Luna’s jagged terrain.
Air rushed back into Winter’s lungs. She gasped, swallowing it down hungrily. Her throat was still stinging, but the aches in her chest were fading into the lost depths of the hallucination. She coughed and forced her eyes open. The blood had receded, and now only the remnants of Ryu’s death were left, dried and smeared on her skirt.
“Are you all right?” Scarlet cried, half hysterical.
Winter met her bewildered face, still dizzy from the loss of air, and whispered, “The harness tried to kill me.”
Dragging a hand through her hair, Scarlet fell back into the pilot’s seat. Through the window, half a dozen distant domes were growing larger—a slow growth, giving way to the subtle impression of buildings underneath.
“The harness didn’t do anything,” Scarlet growled. “It’s your brain that’s the problem.”
Winter started to giggle, but it was cut short by sobs. “Y-you’re right,” she stammered, hearing Jacin’s voice in her head.
Stay with me, Princess. Stay with me—
But she was already so far away.
* * *
“My Queen, we have been experiencing minor glitches in the surveillance system. Random power failures that have been occurring throughout the palace.”
Levana stood before the grand windows of her solar, listening to the third-tier thaumaturge present his daily report, though she was lacking her usual focus. Her thoughts were a maze of distractions. Despite using every resource available to her and demanding that her security team review hours and hours of footage from the outer sectors, Linh Cinder and her companions had yet to be found. Wedding preparations were underway, but she had been too livid to even look at her husband-to-be since he’d arrived.
Now she had Winter to concern herself with. The ungrateful wretch of a princess had been nothing but an embarrassment to her since the day Levana had married her father. If Jacin succeeded, she would never again have to listen to her mindless mutterings. She would never again have to defend her from the mocking laughter of the court. She would never again have to see the looks of desire following the doltish girl down the palace corridors.
Levana wanted the princess gone. She wished to let go of the resentment that had plagued her for so long. Her life was beginning anew, finally, and she deserved this fresh beginning without the cumbersome girl dragging her down, reminding her of a too-painful past.
But if Jacin failed …
Levana couldn’t stomach another failure.
She turned to the thaumaturge. “Yes?”
“The technicians need to know how you would like them to proceed. They estimate an hour or two will be required to locate the source of these system glitches and restore the defaults. They might need to disable portions of the system while they’re working on it.”
“Will this take them away from the search for the cyborg?”
“It would, Your Majesty.”
“Then it can wait. The cyborg is our top priority.”
He bowed. “We will keep you updated on further developments.”
Aimery gestured toward the door. “That will be all. Thank you for the report.”
The thaumaturge swept away, but another figure was standing inside the elevator when the doors opened.
Levana straightened at the sight of Jacin Clay. There was a shadow across his face, a loathing that he normally worked so hard to disguise. Levana’s gaze slipped down to his hands. They were covered in blood. There was a stain on the knee of his pants too, dried black.
He stepped off the elevator, but Jerrico stopped him in his tracks, a palm on Jacin’s chest.
“Sir Clay?” she said.
“It’s done.” His tone carried all the horror that the simple words concealed.
A smile tickled Levana’s mouth. She spun away to hide it—an act of generosity. “I know it could not have been easy for you,” she said, hoping sympathy carried in her voice. “I know how you cared for her, but you have done the right thing for your crown and your country.”
Jacin said nothing.
When she could school her face again, Levana turned back. Aimery and Jerrico were impassive, while Jacin looked like he would rip out Levana’s still-beating heart if he had the chance.
She took pity on him, choosing to forgive these rebellious instincts. He had loved the girl, after all, hard as it was to fathom.
“What did you do with the body?”
“I took it to the menagerie’s incinerator, where they take the deceased animals.” None of his anger faded as he recounted the task, though he made no movement toward Levana. Still, Jerrico did not relax. “I killed the white wolf, too, to cover the blood, and left the wolf’s body behind. The gamekeepers will think it was a random attack.”
Levana frowned, her mood dampening. “I did not tell you to destroy the body, Sir Clay. The people must see proof of her death if she is no longer to be a threat to my throne.”
His jaw tightened. “She was never a threat to your throne,” he growled, “and I wasn’t about to leave her there to be pecked apart by whatever albino scavengers you keep down there. You can find some other way to break the news to the people.”
She pressed her lips against a sour taste in her mouth. “So I shall.”
Jacin swallowed, hard, regaining some composure. “I hope you won’t mind that I also disposed of a witness, My Queen. I thought it would be contrary to your objectives if word got out that a royal guard had murdered the princess. People might question if it was under your order, after all.”
She bristled. “What witness?”
“The Earthen girl. I didn’t think anyone would miss her.”
“Ah, her.” With a scoff, Levana brushed her hand through the air. “She should have been dead weeks ago. You have done me a service by ridding me of her.” She tilted her head, examining him. It was amusing to see so much emotion revealed when it was normally so impossible to aggravate him. “You’ve exceeded my expectations, Sir Clay.” She placed a hand on his cheek. A muscle twitched beneath her palm and she tried to ignore the glower searing into her. His anger was expected, but he would soon realize it was for the best.
If he didn’t, she could always force him to.
Levana felt lighter already, knowing she would never have to see her stepdaughter’s face again.
She dropped her hand and floated back to the windows. Beyond the curved dome she could see the barren landscape of Luna, white craters and cliffs against the black sky. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” said Jacin.
She raised an eyebrow.
“I wish to resign from the royal guard. I ask to be reassigned to the sector where my father was sent years ago. This palace holds too many memories for me.”
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