Chapter no 18

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


blocking her way with outstretched spindly arms. “Patients are strictly forbidden from leaving the quarantine area,” it said, nudging Cinder back into the shadows of the doorway.

Cinder swallowed her panic and halted the robot with a palm against its smooth forehead. “I’m not a patient,” she said. “I’m not even sick. Here.” She held out her elbow, displaying a small bruise from being stuck with too many needles the past two days.

The android’s innards hummed as it processed her statement, searching its database for a logical reaction. Then a panel opened in its torso and the third arm, the syringe arm, extended toward Cinder. She flinched, her skin tender, but tried to relax as the android drew a fresh sample of blood. The syringe disappeared into the android’s body and Cinder waited, rolling her sleeve down over the hem of her glove.

The test seemed to take longer than at the junkyard, and a sinking panic was crawling up Cinder’s spine—what if Dr. Erland had been wrong?—when she heard a low beep and the android backed away, clearing her path.

She released her breath and did not look back at the robot or any of its companions as she crossed the hot asphalt. The hover was still waiting for her. Settling into the backseat, she told it to take her to New Beijing Palace.

Having been unconscious the first time she’d been brought to the palace, Cinder found herself plastered to the hover’s window as she was taken up the steep winding road to the top of the harsh cliffs that bordered the city. Her netlink fished for information, telling her that the palace had been built after World War IV, when the city was little more than rubble. It was designed in the fashion of the old world, with hearty dosages of both nostalgic symbolism and state-of-the-art engineering. The pagoda-style roofs were made of gold-tinged tiles and surrounded by qilin gargoyles, but the tiles were actually galvanized steel covered with tiny solar capsules that created enough energy to sustain the entire palace, including the research wing, and the gargoyles

were equipped with motion sensors, ID scanners, 360-degree cameras, and radars that could detect approaching aircrafts and hovers within a sixty-mile radius. All that was invisible, though, the technology hidden in the ornately carved beams and tiered pavilions.

What captured Cinder’s eye was not modern technology but a cobblestoned road lined with cherry blossom trees. Bamboo screens framing the garden entrances. Through a peep window, a steadily trickling stream.

The hover did not stop at the main entrance with its crimson pergolas. Instead, it rounded to the northern side of the palace, nearest the research wing. Though this part of the palace was more modern, less nostalgic, Cinder still noticed a squat Buddha sculpture with a cheery face off the pathway. As she paid for the hover and walked toward the automatic glass door, a subtle pulse tugged at her ankle—Buddha scanning visitors for weapons. To her relief, the steel in her leg did not set off any alarms.

Inside, she was greeted by an android who asked for her name and told her to wait in the elevator bank. The research center was a hive of activity— diplomats and doctors, ambassadors and androids, all roaming the halls on their separate missions.

An elevator opened and Cinder stepped into it, glad to be alone. The doors began to close, but then paused and opened again. “Please hold,” said the mechanical voice of the elevator operator.

A moment later, Prince Kai darted through the half-open doors. “Sorry, sorry, thanks for hold—”

He saw her and froze. “Linh-mèi?”

Cinder pushed herself off the elevator wall and fell into the most natural bow she could, simultaneously checking that her left glove was pulled up over her wrist. “Your Highness.” The words were a rush, spit out automatically, and she felt the need to say something more, to fill the space of the elevator, but nothing came.

The doors closed; the box began to rise.

She cleared her throat. “You should, um, just call me Cinder. You don’t have to be so—” Diplomatic.

The corner of the prince’s lip quirked, but the almost smile didn’t reach his eyes. “All right. Cinder. Are you following me?”

She frowned, hackles rising before she realized he was teasing her. “I’m just going to check on the med-droid. That I looked at yesterday. To ensure it doesn’t have any remaining bugs or anything.”

He nodded, but Cinder detected a shadow lingering behind his eyes, a new stiffness to his shoulders. “I was on my way to talk to Dr. Erland about his progress. I heard through the grapevine that he may have made progress

with one of the recent draft subjects. I don’t suppose he said anything to you?”

Cinder fidgeted with her belt loops. “No, he didn’t mention anything. But I’m just the mechanic.”

The elevator came to a stop. Kai gestured for her to exit first and then joined her as they made their way to the laboratories. She watched the white floor pass beneath her feet.

“Your Highness?” interrupted a youngish woman with black hair that hung in a tight braid. Her gaze was fixed on Prince Kai, all sympathy. “I am so sorry.”

Cinder’s gaze shifted to Kai, who tipped his head at the woman. “Thank you, Fateen.” And kept walking.

Cinder frowned.

Not a dozen steps later, they were halted again by a man carrying a handful of clear vials in his fists. “My condolences, Your Highness.”

Cinder shivered as her feet came to a pause beneath her.

Kai stopped and peered back at her. “You haven’t seen the net this morning.”

A heartbeat later, Cinder was accessing her netlink, pages flashing across her eyesight. The EC news page, a half-dozen pictures of Emperor Rikan, two pictures of Kai—the prince regent.

She clapped a hand to her mouth.

Kai seemed surprised, but the look quickly faded. He ducked his head, his black bangs falling into his eyes. “Good guess.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

He tucked his hands into his pockets and gazed down the hallway. Only now did Cinder notice the faint rim of red around his eyes.

“I wish my father’s death were the worst of it.”

“Your Highness?” Her netlink was still scanning for information, but nothing seemed worse than Emperor Rikan having passed away last night. The only other noteworthy tidbit was that Prince Kai’s coronation had been scheduled for the same evening of the Peace Festival, to take place before the ball.

He met her gaze, surprised, as if he’d forgotten who he was speaking with. Then, “You can call me Kai.”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“No more ‘Your Highness.’ I get enough of that from…everyone else.

You should just call me Kai.” “No. That wouldn’t be—”

“Don’t make me turn it into a royal command.” He hinted at a smile.

Cinder scrunched her shoulders up by her ears, suddenly embarrassed. “All right. I suppose.”

“Thank you.” He cocked his head toward the hall. “We should go, then.”

She had nearly forgotten that they were in the research hall, surrounded by people, everyone politely ignoring them as if they were not even there. She started down the hallway, wondering if she’d spoken out of place, and awkward beside the prince who was suddenly just Kai. It didn’t feel right.

“What was wrong with the android?”

She scratched at an oil stain on her glove. “Oh, I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. I’m working on her, I swear.”

“No, I meant the med-droid. That you fixed for Dr. Erland?”

“Oh. Oh, right. Um. It was…it had…a…dead wire. Between its optosensor and…control panel.” Kai lifted an eyebrow and she wasn’t sure that she’d convinced him. She cleared her throat. “You, uh, said something was worse? Before?”

When Kai said nothing for an awkward moment, she shrugged. “Never mind. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No, it’s all right. You’ll find out soon enough.” He lowered his voice, inclining his head toward her as they walked. “The Lunar queen informed us this morning that she is coming to the Commonwealth on a diplomatic mission. Supposedly.”

Cinder nearly tripped, but Kai kept walking. She stumbled after him. “The Lunar queen is coming here? You can’t be serious.”

“I wish I weren’t. Every android in the palace has spent the morning taking down every reflective surface in the guest wing. It’s ridiculous—like we have nothing better to do.”

“Reflective surfaces? I always thought that was just superstition.” “Evidently not. Something about their glamour…” He twirled a finger

around his face, then stopped. “It doesn’t really matter.” “When is she coming?”


Cinder’s stomach plummeted. The Lunar queen? Coming to New Beijing? A chill crawled down her arms.

“I’ll be making an announcement in half an hour.”

“But why would she come now, when we’re in mourning?” A grim smile. “Because we’re in mourning.”

Kai paused. With a glance around the hallway, he inched toward Cinder, lowering his voice. “Look, I really appreciate your helping with the med-droids, and I’m sure the best mechanic in the city has a million jobs to prioritize, but at the risk of sounding like a spoiled prince, could I ask that you

move Nainsi to the top of your list? I’m starting to get anxious about getting her back. I—” He hesitated. “I think I could use the moral support of my childhood tutor right now. You know?” The intensity in his eyes did not try to hide his true meaning. He wanted her to know he was lying. This had nothing to do with moral support or childhood attachments.

The panic behind the prince’s eyes spoke volumes. What information could that android have that was so important? And what did it have to do with the Lunar queen?

“Of course, Your Highness. Sorry, Prince Kai. I’ll take a look at her as soon as I get home.”

She thought she spotted gratitude hidden somewhere beneath all his worry. Kai gestured at a door beside him, labeled DR. DMITRI ERLAND. He opened the door and ushered her in.

Dr. Erland was sitting at a lacquered desk, poring over a screen set into the surface. When he spotted Kai, he leaped to his feet, simultaneously snatching up his wool cap and rounding the desk toward them.

“Your Highness—I am so sorry. What can I do to help you?”

“Nothing, thank you,” said Kai, a practiced reaction. Then he pulled his shoulders back, reconsidering. “Find a cure.”

“I will, Your Highness.” He pulled his hat on. “Of course I will.” The conviction in the doctor’s face was almost startling, but also comforting. Cinder immediately wondered if he’d found something new in the hours since she’d last seen him.

She thought of Peony, alone in the quarantine. Though it was an awful thing to think, and she immediately chastised herself for it, she couldn’t help it—with Emperor Rikan dead, Peony was the first in line for an antidote.

Kai cleared his throat. “I found your pretty new mechanic down in the lobby, and she tells me she’s here to check on the med-droids again. You know I could get you funding for some upgraded models if you require it.”

Cinder started at that simple word—pretty—but neither Kai nor Dr. Erland looked at her. Teetering on her feet, she scanned the room. A floor-to-ceiling window captured a perfect view of the lush palace gardens and the city beyond. Open shelves were filled with objects both familiar and unusual, new and ancient. A stack of books—not portscreens, but solid, paper books. Jars filled with leaves and dried flowers, jars filled with finely labeled liquids, jars filled with animal specimens and formaldehyde. A series of rocks and metals and ores, all finely labeled.

It was the office of a witch doctor as much as an acclaimed royal scientist. “No, no, they only needed a touch of maintenance,” Dr. Erland was saying, lying as smoothly as he had the day before. “Nothing to worry about,

and I would hate to have to program a new model. Besides, if we didn’t have any malfunctioning androids, what excuse would we have for asking Miss Linh back to the palace from time to time?”

Cinder glared at the doctor, half-mortified, but the start of a smile grew on Kai’s face.

“Doctor,” said Kai, “I heard a rumor that you’ve made some sort of a breakthrough in the past few days. Is it true?”

Dr. Erland pulled the spectacles from his pocket and set to cleaning them with the hem of his lab coat. “My prince, you should know better than to ask after rumors like that. I hate to give you hope before I know anything concrete. But when I do have solid information, you will be the first to see the report.” He slid the glasses onto his nose.

Kai tucked his hands into his pockets, seemingly satisfied. “Right. In that case, I’ll leave you be and hope to see a report cross my desk any day now.”

“That could be difficult, Your Highness, considering you do not have a desk.”

Kai shrugged and turned to Cinder. His eyes softened a little with a polite bow of his head. “I hope our paths will cross again.”

“Really? In that case, I guess I’ll keep following you.” She regretted the joke for half a breath before Kai laughed. A real laugh, and her chest warmed.

Then the prince reached for her hand—her cyborg hand.

Cinder tensed, terrified that he would feel the hard metal, even through her gloves, and yet even more afraid to pull away lest he find it suspicious. She mentally urged the robotic limb to go soft, to be pliant, to be human, as she watched Kai lift the hand and kiss the back of it. She held her breath, overwhelmed and embarrassed.

The prince released her, bowed—his hair falling into his eyes again—and left the room.

Cinder stood frozen, her wired nerves humming.

She heard Dr. Erland grunt in curiosity, but the door opened again as soon as it had closed.

“Gracious,” Dr. Erland muttered as Kai stepped back inside. “Pardon me, but might I have one more brief word with Linh-mèi?” Dr. Erland flicked his wrist toward her. “By all means.”

Kai turned to her, still in the doorway. “I know this sounds like very poor timing, but trust me when I say my motives are based on self-preservation.” He inhaled a sharp breath. “Would you consider being my personal guest at the ball?”

The floor dissolved beneath Cinder. Her mind blanked. Surely, she hadn’t heard correctly.

But he just stood, patient, and after a long moment raised both his eyebrows in a mute prompt.

“E-excuse me?”

Kai cleared his throat. Stood straighter. “I assume you are going to the ball?”

“I-I don’t know. I mean, no. No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to the ball.”

Kai drew back, confused. “Oh. Well…but…maybe you would change your mind? Because I am, you know.”

“The prince.”

“Not bragging,” he said quickly. “Just a fact.”

“I know.” She gulped. The ball. Prince Kai was asking her to the ball. But that was the night she and Iko would be running away, if the car was fixed in time. The night she would escape.

Besides, he didn’t know who, what, he was asking. If he knew the truth… how mortified would he be if anyone found out?

Kai shifted on his feet, casting a nervous glance toward the doctor.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Thank you—I…Thank you, Your Highness. But I must respectfully decline.”

He blinked. His eyes fell as he processed her response. Then he lifted his chin and attempted a grin that was almost painfully dejected. “No, it’s all right. I understand.”

Dr. Erland leaned back against his desk. “My sincerest condolences, Your Highness. In more ways than one, it seems.”

Cinder cast him a frosty glare, but he focused his attention on cleaning his spectacles again.

Kai scratched behind his neck. “It was nice to see you again, Linh-mèi.”

She flinched at the return of the formality and made to speak, her voice catching at apologies, explanations, but the prince didn’t wait for them. The door was already shutting behind him.

She snapped her jaw shut, thoughts sparking in her head. Dr. Erland clucked his tongue, and Cinder prepared to rail at him with those budding explanations, but he turned away before she could and paced back to his seat.

“What a shame you cannot blush, Miss Linh.”

You'll Also Like