Chapter no 12

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


his father’s arm. Only five days had passed since the emperor had shown the first signs of the blue fever, but it felt like a lifetime. Years’ worth of worry and anguish rolled into so few hours.

Dr. Erland had once told him of an old suspicion that bad things always came in threes.

First, his android Nainsi had broken before she could communicate her findings.

And now his father was sick, with no hope for survival. What would happen next? What could be worse than this? Perhaps the Lunars would declare war.

He cringed, wanting to take back the thought the second he had it.

Konn Torin, his father’s adviser and the only other human allowed to see the emperor in such a state, clapped a hand on Kai’s shoulder. “It will be all right,” he said, without emotion, in that peculiar way he had of reading another person’s thoughts.

Kai’s father moaned and opened swollen eyes. The room was quarantined on the seventh floor of the palace’s research wing, but the emperor had been made as comfortable as possible. Numerous screens lined the walls so he might enjoy music and entertainment, so he might be read to. His favorite flowers had been brought in droves from the gardens—lilies and chrysanthemums filling the otherwise sterile room. The bed was dressed in the finest silks the Commonwealth had to offer.

But none of it made much of a difference. It was still a room made to keep the living separate from the dying.

A clear window separated Kai from his father. He was squinting up at Kai now, but his eyes were empty as glass.

“Your Majesty,” said Torin. “How are you feeling?”

The emperor’s eyes crinkled at their corners. He was not an old man, but the illness had aged him quickly. His complexion was yellow and pallid, and

black and red splotches stippled his neck.

His fingers lifted from the blankets, the closest thing he could manage to a wave.

“Is there anything you need?” Torin asked. “A glass of water? Food?” “An Escort5.3?” Kai suggested.

Torin cast the prince a disapproving glare, but the emperor wheezed a small chuckle.

Kai felt his eyes misting and had to look away, down at fingertips pressed into the windowsill.

“How much longer?” he said, quiet so his father wouldn’t hear. Torin shook his head. “Days, if that.”

Kai could feel Torin’s gaze on him, understanding but also harsh.

“You should be grateful for the time you have with him. Most people don’t get to see their loved ones when they’re taken away.”

“And who wants to see their loved ones like this?” Kai looked up. His father was struggling to stay awake, his eyelids twitching. “Med, bring him water.”

The android rolled to the emperor’s side and lifted his backrest, guiding a glass of water to his lips and wiping away the dribble with a white cloth. He did not drink much but seemed refreshed when he had sunk again into the pillows.


“I’m here,” Kai said, his breath fogging the glass.

“Be strong. Trust…” His words broke into a cough. The med-droid held a towel to his mouth, and Kai caught a glimpse of blood against the cotton. He shut his eyes, measuring his breath.

When he opened them again, the med-droid was filling the IV with clear liquid, something to ease the pain. Kai and Torin watched as the emperor sank into a motionless sleep. Like watching a stranger. Kai loved him but couldn’t quite connect the sick man before him with the vibrant father he’d had a week ago.

One week.

A shudder ran through him, and Torin squeezed his shoulder. Kai had forgotten his hand was there.

“Your Highness.”

Kai said nothing, staring at his father’s chest as it rose and fell.

The fingers on his shoulder tightened briefly, then fell away. “You are going to be emperor, Your Highness. We must begin to prepare you. We’ve already put it off too long.”

Too long. One week.

Kai pretended not to hear him.

“As His Majesty said, you must be strong. You know I will help in any way I can.” Torin paused. “You’re going to be a fine leader.”

“No. I’m not.” Kai tugged a hand through his hair, pulling it back from his scalp.

He was going to be emperor. The words rang hollow.

The true emperor was there, in that bed. He was an imposter.

“I’m going to go talk to Dr. Erland,” he said, stepping back from the glass.

“The doctor is busy, Your Highness. You shouldn’t keep distracting him.” “I just want to ask if there’ve been any developments.”

“I’m sure he will tell you immediately if there are.”

Kai set his jaw and fixed his gaze on Torin, the man who had been his father’s adviser since before Kai was born. Even now, standing in the same room with Torin made him feel like a child, gave him a peculiar urge to be unruly. He wondered if he would ever get over that.

“I need to feel like I’m doing something,” he said. “I can’t just stand here watching him die.”

Torin’s eyes dropped. “I know, Your Highness. It’s hard for all of us.”

It’s not the same, Kai wanted to say, but held his tongue.

Torin turned away from him, facing the window, and bowed his head. “Long live the emperor.”

Kai repeated the words, whispering around the dryness in his throat. “Long live the emperor.”

They were silent leaving the visitors room and walking down the hallway to the elevators.

A woman was waiting for them. Kai should have expected it—she was always nearby these days, when she was the last person on Earth he wanted to see.

Sybil Mira. Head thaumaturge to the Lunar Crown. Exceptionally beautiful, with waist-length black hair and warm, honeyed skin. She wore the uniform befitting her rank and title: a long white coat with a high collar and bell-shaped sleeves, embroidered along the hems with runes and hieroglyphs that meant nothing to Kai.

Five paces behind her stood her ever-present, ever-silent guard. He was a young man as handsome as Sybil was beautiful, with blond hair pulled into a low ponytail and sharp features that Kai had yet to see an expression on.

Sybil’s lips curved as Kai and Torin approached, but her gray eyes remained cold.

“Your Imperial Highness,” she said with a graceful dip of her head. “How fares the honorable Emperor Rikan?”

When Kai didn’t respond, Torin answered, “Not well. Thank you for your concern.”

“I am most displeased to hear that.” She sounded about as displeased as a cat who’d just cornered a mouse. “My mistress sends her condolences and a wish for a speedy recovery.”

She fixed her eyes on the prince, and her image seemed to shudder before him like a mirage. Whispers filled his head. Respect and admiration, compassion and concern.

Kai tore his gaze from her, silencing the voices. It took a moment for his racing pulse to steady.

“What do you want?” he said.

Sybil gestured toward the elevators. “A word with the man who will soon be emperor…should the fates deem it so.”

Kai glanced at Torin, but the face that met him was unsympathetic. Tact.

Diplomacy. Always. Especially when it came to the cursed Lunars.

Sighing, he half turned to the waiting android. “Third floor.”

The sensor flashed. “Please proceed to elevator C, Your Highness.”

They boarded the elevator, Sybil floating into it like a feather upon a breeze. The guard entered last, staying by the door and facing the three of them as if the thaumaturge were in mortal danger. His icy gaze made Kai uncomfortable, but Sybil seemed to forget the guard was even there.

“This is a tragic time for His Majesty to fall ill,” she said.

Kai gripped the rail and faced her, pressing his hatred into the polished wood. “Would next month have been more convenient for you?”

Her patience didn’t falter. “I speak, of course, of the alliance discussions my mistress has been engaged in with Emperor Rikan. We are most eager for an agreement that will suit both Luna and the Commonwealth.”

Watching her made him feel dizzy, off balance, so he tore his gaze away and watched the numbers above the doors descend. “My father has been attempting to secure an alliance with Queen Levana since she first took the throne. She has always declined.”

“He has yet to meet her sensible demands.” Kai locked his teeth.

Sybil continued, “My hope is that, as emperor, you will be better able to see reason, Your Highness.”

Kai was silent as the elevator passed floors six, five, four. “My father is a wise man. At this time, I have no intention of altering any of his previous decisions. I do hope we will be able to come to an agreement, but I’m afraid

your mistress will need to lower her very sensible demands.” Sybil’s smile had frozen on her face.

“Well,” she said as the doors opened to the third floor, “you are young.” He dipped his head, pretending she’d given him a compliment, then faced

Torin. “If you have a minute to spare, perhaps you could walk with me to Dr. Erland’s office? You may have questions I’ve not thought of.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

Neither of them acknowledged the thaumaturge or her guard as they left the elevator, but Kai heard her sugared voice behind them—“Long live the emperor”—before the doors shut.

He growled. “We should have her incarcerated.”

“A Lunar ambassador? That’s hardly a show of peace.”

“It’s better treatment than they would give us.” He raked a hand through his hair. “Gah—Lunars.

Realizing that Torin had stopped following, Kai dropped his hand and turned around. Torin’s gaze was heavy. Worried.


“I know this is a difficult time for you.”

Kai felt his hackles rise in self-defense and tried to nudge them back down. “This is a difficult time for everyone.”

“Eventually, Your Highness, we will have to discuss Queen Levana and what you intend to do about her. It would be wise to have a plan.”

Kai stepped closer to Torin, ignoring a group of lab technicians that were forced to swarm around them. “I have a plan. My plan is to not marry her. Diplomacy be damned. There. End of discussion.”

Torin’s jaw flexed.

“Don’t look at me like that. She would destroy us.” Kai lowered his voice. “She would turn us into slaves.”

“I know, Your Highness.” His sympathetic eyes diffused Kai’s mounting anger. “Please believe me when I say I would not ask it of you. Just as I never asked it of your father.”

Kai backed away and slumped against the corridor wall. Scientists bustled past in their white coats, android treads whirred on the linoleum, but if anyone noticed the prince and his adviser, they didn’t show it.

“All right, I’m listening,” he said. “What’s our plan?” “Your Highness, this is not the place—”

“No, no, you have my attention. Please, give me something to think about other than this stupid disease.”

Torin took a calculated breath. “I don’t think we need to rewrite our foreign affairs policy. We’ll follow your father’s example. For now, we’ll hold

out for a peace agreement, a treatise.”

“And if she won’t sign it? What if she gets tired of waiting and decides to follow through on her threats? Can you imagine a war right now, with the plague, and the economy, and…she would destroy us. And she knows that.”

“If she wanted to start a war, she would have done it by now.”

“Unless she’s just biding her time, waiting for us to get so weak we won’t have any choice but to surrender.” Kai scratched at the back of his neck, watching the bustle of the corridor. Everyone so busy, so determined in their search for an antidote.

If there were an antidote.

He sighed. “I should have married. If I’d already married, Queen Levana wouldn’t even be an issue. She’d have to sign a peace treaty…if she wanted peace.”

At Torin’s silence, he forced himself to look back at the adviser, surprised to find a rare warmth in his face.

“Perhaps you’ll meet a girl at the festival,” said Torin. “Have a whirlwind romance, a happily ever after, and have no more worries for the rest of your days.”

Kai tried to glare at him but couldn’t maintain it. Torin so rarely joked. “Brilliant idea. Why didn’t I think of it?” He turned, bracing his shoulder against the wall, and folded his arms over his chest. “Actually, maybe there’s one option that you and my father haven’t considered yet. Something that’s been on my mind lately.”

“Do tell, Your Highness.”

He lowered his voice. “Lately, I’ve been doing a little research.” He paused, before proceeding. “On…on the Lunar heir.”

Torin’s eyes widened. “Your Highness—”

“Just hear me out,” Kai said, raising his hands to silence Torin before he could be chastised. He already knew what Torin would say: Princess Selene, Queen Levana’s niece, was dead. She had died in a fire thirteen years ago. There was no Lunar heir.

“There are rumors every day,” Kai continued. “Sightings, people claiming they helped her, theories…”

“Yes, we’ve all heard the theories. You know as well as I there’s no substance to them.”

“But what if they’re true?” Kai crossed his arms and ducked his head toward Torin, voice trailing to a whisper. “What if there’s a girl out there who could usurp Levana? Someone even stronger?”

“Are you listening to yourself? Someone stronger than Levana? You mean someone like her sister, who had her favorite seamstress’s feet chopped

off so she would have nothing better to do than sit and make her fine dresses?”

“We’re not talking about Queen Channary.”

“No, we’re talking about her daughter. Kai, the entire bloodline, every last one of them has been greedy, violent, corrupted by their own power. It’s in their blood. Believe me when I say that Princess Selene, even if she were alive, would be no better.”

Kai realized his arms were aching from squeezing them so hard, his skin gone white around his fingertips. “She can’t very well be worse,” he said. “And who knows? If the rumors are right, and she has been on Earth all this time, maybe she would be different. Maybe she would be sympathetic to us.”

“You’re basing this wishful thinking on rumors.” “They never found a body….”

Torin pursed his lips in a thin line. “They found what was left of one.”

“It couldn’t hurt to do some research, could it?” said Kai, beginning to feel desperate. His heart had been set on the idea for so long, his research harbored so close to his heart. He couldn’t bear to think it had all been just wishful thinking, although the possibility had always lingered in the back of his mind.

“Yes, it could hurt,” said Torin. “If Levana were to find out you were considering this, it would destroy our chance at procuring a treaty. We shouldn’t even be talking about this here—it’s dangerous.”

“Now who’s listening to rumors?”

“Your Highness, this is the end of this discussion. Your objective right now must be to prevent a war, not worrying about phantom Lunar princesses.”

“What if I can’t prevent it?”

Torin opened his palms, looking weary after the argument. “Then the Union will fight.”

“Right. Excellent plan. I’m so comforted now that we’ve had this talk.” He turned away and marched blindly toward the labs.

Sure, the Earthen Union would fight. But against Luna, they would lose.

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