“It’s what the princess would want.” Kinney crossed back to the door, careful not to bump into Jacin as he passed him. “Her Highness persuaded the queen to give my sister the maid’s position instead of killing her, so I owe her a lot.” He tipped his head toward Cress. “Whoever you are, I never saw you.”
Jacin didn’t try to stop him as he slipped out the door.
Cress’s heart was still hammering. “I’m glad you didn’t kill him,” she whispered.
“I’m undecided, myself.” His gaze slid around the room, evaluating what, Cress couldn’t tell. “We’ll wait until the wing is mostly cleared, but then it’s time to leave.”
She clutched the portscreen, both excited and terrified to be leaving her prison, and her sanctuary.
“Jacin, did Levana threaten to hurt someone, if you didn’t kill Winter?”
“Of course she did. That’s how she operates.”
Her heart cracked, for him, for Winter, for victims she didn’t even know. “Who?”
He turned away and started rummaging through a drawer, but she could tell the action was just to occupy himself. “No one,” he said. “No one important.”
“Don’t they have any newsfeeds on this star-forsaken rock?” Kai grumbled, sliding his fingers along the base of the holograph, Luna’s version of the ever-present netscreen.
“We are in a dictatorship, Your Majesty,” said Torin, his arms folded as he stared out the window, toward the sparkling lake below. “Do you believe the newsfeeds would be reliable even if they had them?”
Ignoring him, Kai swiped his finger again.
He had sent a message to the queen that morning that the wedding would, unfortunately, have to be postponed if he wasn’t allowed to meet with his adviser prior to the ceremony, as his adviser was the one most educated on the vows and customs that would cement the wedding as a recognized political union.
Somewhat to his surprise, she assented.
It was a relief to see Torin again and assure himself that his adviser hadn’t been harmed, but that relief was matched with his growing frustration and restlessness. The queen’s broadcasting networks were his newest cause for complaint. They seemed to contain a whole lot of mindless drivel and nothing useful at all.
“I want to know what’s going on out there,” he said, flipping off the holograph. “I know it’s started. I know Cinder’s done something.”
Torin shrugged, somewhat apologetically. “I have no more answers than you do.”
“I know. I don’t expect you to. It’s just so frustrating to be stuck here when she’s—when they’re all out there! Doing … whatever it is they’re doing!” He joined Torin at the window and clawed a hand into his hair. “How can the people here stand to be cut off from the rest of the country? Without any media, they have no way of knowing what’s happening in the other sectors. Doesn’t it drive them crazy?”
“I would think not,” said Torin. “Look at the splendor they are able to enjoy, thanks to the labor of the outer sectors. Do you think the people here want their illusion of paradise destroyed by witnessing the squalor in the rest of the country?”
Kai scowled. He’d known that already, and he regretted how naïve his question sounded. But he couldn’t understand it. He still remembered the day Nainsi told him the statistics of poverty and homelessness in the Commonwealth, back when he was ten years old. Nainsi had impressed upon him how good the numbers were. How, even though the numbers had crept upward since the spread of letumosis, they still remained lower than they had been in the decades following World War IV. Even still, Kai had gone a week of near-sleepless nights, thinking of all those people, his people, who had nowhere to sleep and no food to eat, while he was so comfortable and cared for in his palace. He had even written up a proposal about how they could lease out parts of the palace to the citizens with the most need, offering up half of his own private quarters if that would help, but while his father had promised to read the proposal, Kai doubted he’d ever taken it seriously.
He could recognize, now, how childish the proposal had been, but he still couldn’t imagine not wanting to do anything to help the citizens of the Commonwealth, just like he couldn’t imagine how the members of Levana’s court could lack compassion for the people who had built the paradise they got to enjoy.
“Your face has healed well,” said Torin. “I’m sure it will be hardly noticeable in the wedding photos.”
It took Kai a moment to comprehend him. “Oh—right.” Reaching up, he felt for his cheek, where Wolf had punched him. It was only sore to the touch now, and without any mirrors to see himself, he’d forgotten all about it.
“I guess that ruse didn’t do me much good,” he muttered, shoving his hands into his pockets.
“It was a valiant effort, nevertheless,” said Torin. “Speaking of your time away, have you seen the report from the American military that came through this morning?”
He spun around. “Of course not—she took my portscreen.”
Torin grimaced sympathetically. “Right. I will leave you with mine.”
“Thank you, Torin. What report?”
“It appears they’ve found your friends’ ship orbiting in space, abandoned. They’re towing it back to the Republic now to begin searching it for evidence to be used against your kidnappers. Once they’re found, of course.”
Kai rubbed the back of his neck. “They knew it would happen, but still, Thorne won’t be happy when he finds out.”
“It was a stolen ship. Regardless of whose side he’s on now, the man is a thief and a deserter. I find it difficult to be sympathetic to his loss.”
Kai couldn’t keep down a wry smile. “I don’t disagree, but when we see Thorne again, maybe I should be the one to break this news to him.”
He let his gaze travel out to the edge of the lake, where the water met with the encompassing dome. It looked like the end of the world out there. Civilization inside a perfect capsule, all sparkling and pristine. Beyond it, nothing but wasteland. On the horizon he could see the edge of another dome and he wondered which it was.
He had chosen his words carefully. When they saw Thorne again, not if. Because that’s how he had to think about all of his allies, his friends. That’s how he had to think about Cinder if he was going to make it through this. He wondered where she was right now, how far she’d gone. Was she safe?
A tap at the door startled Kai, but the surprise was suffused with dread. “So it begins,” he muttered. “Enter.”
It wasn’t a wedding stylist, though, but one of his own guards in the doorway, holding a small package wrapped in strips of colored velvet. “Pardon the interruption. This was delivered by a servant as a wedding gift from Her Majesty the Queen. We’ve tested it for chemicals or explosives and have deemed it safe to open.” He held the package toward Kai.
“You mean she doesn’t intend to blow me up before the ceremony?” said Kai, taking the box. “How disappointing.”
The guard looked like he wanted to crack a smile, but he resisted. Bowing again, he retreated into the corridor.
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