Scarlet felt weird for having such a thought.
Everyone relaxed. Everyone but Scarlet and Wolf, whose arm turned to iron around her.
Leaning against the door, Maha surveyed the room with a fluttery smile. “They were giving out sugar,” she chirped, “in celebration of the queen’s upcoming…” She trailed off, noticing Scarlet with Wolf’s arm across her shoulders.
Winter stood up, drawing Maha’s surprise to her. Scarlet scrambled to her feet, but Maha’s attention was caught on the princess now. Her jaw had fallen.
Winter curtsied. “You must be Mother Kesley. I am Princess Winter Hayle-Blackburn, and I’m frightfully sorry about the crackers.”
Maha stared, speechless.
“I hope you don’t mind our intrusion into your hospitality. Your wolf cub welcomed us. He’s surprisingly tender, given the teeth. And the muscles.” Winter raised her eyes to the chipping plaster around the door. “He rather reminds me of another wolf I once knew.”
“Your … Your Highness,” stammered Maha, looking like she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid or honored.
“Mom,” said Wolf, “this is Scarlet. She’s the one we told you about—that was taken off our ship by the thaumaturge. She’d been held prisoner in the palace, but she’s … she escaped. This is her. This is Scarlet.”
Maha had not yet managed to pull up her jaw. “The Earthen.”
Scarlet nodded. “Mostly. My grandfather was Lunar, but I never met him. And I have no … um, gift.”
With that statement, it occurred to Scarlet that Maha probably did have the gift. They all did to some degree, didn’t they? Even Wolf had had it, before the scientific tampering took it away.
But it was impossible to imagine this petite woman abusing it like it was abused in the capital. Was that naïve? How hard it must be to navigate society here, never knowing who was controlling and who was being controlled.
“Hello, Scarlet,” said Maha, composing herself enough to smile. “Ze’ev failed to mention he was in love with you.”
Scarlet could feel her cheeks turning as red as her hair.
Thorne muttered, “How could you not tell?”
Cinder kicked him.
Wolf gripped Scarlet’s hand. “We didn’t know if she was alive. I didn’t want to tell you about her if … if you never met her…”
Scarlet squeezed his hand. He squeezed back.
In the back of her head, she heard her grandma’s voice, reminding her of her manners. “I’m so pleased to meet you. I … um. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Maha set the box of rations by the door and crossed the tiny room, wrapping Scarlet up in a hug. “I look forward to getting to know you.” Releasing Scarlet, she turned back to Wolf and settled her hands on his shoulders. “When they took you away, I feared you would never know love at all.” She embraced him, and her smile was as bright as a bouquet of blue daisies. “This has all been so much. So very much.”
“Are we almost done with the gushing and the weeping?” said Thorne, massaging his temple. “When do we start planning a revolution again?”
This time, it was Iko that kicked him.
“I knew you were in love with him.” Winter tapped her fingers against her elbow. “I can’t understand why no one ever listens to me.”
Scarlet glared, but there was no ire behind it. “You’re right, Winter. It’s a complete mystery.”
Linh Pearl stepped off the elevator, clutching the strings of her purse against her shoulder. She was shaking—livid with rage. Since Cinder had made that spectacle at the ball and been revealed to be not only an insane cyborg but an even more insane Lunar, Pearl’s world had crumbled around her.
At first it had been minor inconveniences—annoying, but tolerable. With no servant cyborg and no money to hire new help, Pearl was now expected to help around the apartment. Suddenly she had “chores.” Suddenly her mother wanted her to help with the shopping and to cook her own meals and even do the dishes when she’d finished, even though it had been her stupid decision to sell off their only functioning android.
But that she could have lived with, if her social life hadn’t simultaneously splintered along with her dignity. Overnight, she had become a pariah.
Her friends had dealt with it well enough at first. Filled with shock and sympathy, they flocked around Pearl like she was a celebrity, wanting to know everything. Wanting to offer their condolences, knowing that her adopted stepsister had been such a terror. Wanting to hear every horrific story of their childhood. Like a girl who’d barely escaped death, she had been the center of all their conversations, all their curiosity.
That had dwindled, though, when Cinder escaped from prison and remained at large for too long. Her name became synonymous with traitors and it was dragging Pearl down with it.
Then her mother—her ignorant fool of a mother—had unknowingly aided Cinder in the kidnapping of Emperor Kai by giving her their wedding invitations.
She’d traded them for napkins. Napkins.
And it had baffled her. Hours before they were to attend the royal wedding, already dressed in their finest, her mother had torn the apartment apart, frantically digging through every drawer, crawling on her hands and knees to peer beneath the furniture, searching every pocket in her wardrobe. Cursing and swearing over and over that she’d had them, she’d seen them just that morning, when that awkward woman from the palace had brought them and explained the mishap and where could they have gone?
They missed the wedding, naturally.
Pearl had screamed and cried and hidden in her room to watch the newsfeeds—the live footage that had gone from talk of wedding traditions and palace décor to a devastating account of an assault on the palace and the disappearance of Emperor Kai.
Linh Cinder was behind it all. Her monstrous stepsister, once again, had ruined everything.
It had taken two days for the palace’s security team to trace the invitations of a Bristol-dàren (who had been at home in Canada, enjoying a bottle of fine wine) back to the actual invitations that had been given to Linh Adri and her daughter, Linh Pearl. Only then did her mother understand. Cinder had made her out to be an idiot.
That had been the last straw for Pearl’s friends.
“Traitors,” Mei-Xing had called them, accusing Pearl and her mother of helping the cyborg and putting Kai in danger.
Furious, Pearl had stormed out, screaming that they could believe whatever they wanted for all she cared. She was the victim in all of this, and she didn’t need so-called friends to throw these accusations at her. She had enough to deal with as it was.
She’d expected them to chase after her, apologies in tow.
She walked all the way home with her fists clenched at her sides.
Cinder. This was all Cinder’s fault. Ever since Peony—no, ever since their dad had caught the plague and been taken away from her. Everything was Cinder’s fault.
Karim-jiĕ, their neighbor in 1816, didn’t move aside as Pearl barreled past. Her shoulder smacked the woman against the wall and Pearl paused long enough to glare at her—was the old hog turning blind now, as well as lazy?—but she was met with a haughty snort.
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