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Chapter no 24

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

CINDER CROUCHED AGAINST THE WALL THAT BORDERED THE palace, the coolness

from the stone soaking into her T-shirt. The crowd had gone, the only memory of them left in trampled signs. Even the guards had abandoned the courtyard, though the intricate iron gate remained locked. Two stone qilins were perched above Cinder’s head, occasionally sending out a magnetic pulse that hummed in her ears.

Her hand had finally stopped trembling. The warnings across her vision had finally disappeared. But the confusion remained, persistent as ever.

She was Lunar. Fine.

She was a rare breed of Lunar, a shell, who couldn’t twist the thoughts and emotions of others and was immune to the tampering herself.

Fine.

But then why had Levana’s glamour affected her the same as everyone else?

Either Dr. Erland was wrong, or he was lying. Maybe she wasn’t Lunar at all, and he’d been mistaken. Maybe her immunity was due to something else.

She released a frustrated groan. Never had the curiosity to know her background, her history, been so intense. She needed to know the truth.

The humming of the gates on their buried tracks startled her. Cinder looked up, spotting a pristine white android rolling toward her on the cobblestones.

“Linh Cinder?” It held out a scanner.

Blinking, she clambered to her feet, braced against the wall for support. “Yes?” she said, extending her wrist.

The scanner beeped and, without having come to a complete stop, the android turned its torso 180 degrees and started rumbling back toward the palace. “Follow me.”

“Wait—what?” Her gaze darted fearfully up toward the balcony where the Lunar queen had stood.

“His Imperial Highness has requested a word with you.”

Checking her gloves, Cinder cast a look toward the road that would take her away from the palace, back to the safety of being an invisible girl in a very big city. Releasing a slow breath, she turned and followed the android.

The palace’s elaborate, two-story entry doors were gilded in gold and nearly blinding with the sun glinting off their sheen as they opened. The lobby beyond was blessedly cool and filled with grand jade sculptures, exotic flowers, the voices and footsteps of dozens of harried diplomats and government employees, combined with the calming song of bubbling water— but Cinder hardly noticed any of it. She was filled with panic at the possibility of finding herself face-to-face with Queen Levana, until she found herself face-to-face with Prince Kai instead. He was waiting against a carved pillar.

He straightened when he saw her and almost smiled, but not one of his brilliant, carefree smiles. In fact, he looked exhausted.

Cinder bowed her head. “Your Highness.” “Linh-mèi. Nainsi told me you were waiting.”

“They weren’t letting people into the palace. I just wanted to be sure she got to you all right.” She tucked her hands behind her. “I hope your national-security issues will be resolved soon.” Cinder attempted a lightness in her voice, but Kai’s expression seemed to falter.

He dropped his gaze to the android. “That will be all,” he said, and waited until the android had disappeared into an alcove by the entrance, before continuing. “I apologize for taking up your time, but I wanted to thank you personally for fixing her.”

She shrugged. “It was an honor. I hope…I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

Kai’s gaze squinted suspiciously, and he glanced over his shoulder as two well-dressed women passed by, one talking animatedly, the other nodding in agreement, neither paying Cinder and Kai any attention. When they had passed, Kai let out a breath and turned back to her. “Something’s come up. I need to go talk to Dr. Erland.”

Cinder nodded in understanding, perhaps too forcefully. “Of course,” she said, backing away toward the massive doors. “Now that Nainsi’s back, I’ll just—”

“Would you like to walk with me?” She paused mid-step. “Excuse me?”

“You can tell me what you found. What was wrong with her.”

She wrung her hands, unsure if the tingling on her skin was delight, or something closer to dread. The knowledge of the queen’s presence lingered, unavoidable. Still, she found herself fighting down a stupid grin. “Sure. Of course.”

Kai seemed relieved as he cocked his head toward a wide corridor. “So… what was wrong with her?” he said as they made their way through the majestic lobby.

“A chip,” she said. “The direct communication chip interrupted her power connection, I think. Removing it was all it took to wake her up.”

“Direct communication chip?”

Cinder scanned the people milling around them, none of whom seemed at all interested in the crown prince. Nevertheless, she lowered her voice when she answered. “Right, the D-COMM. Didn’t you install it?”

He shook his head. “No. We use D-COMMs for international conferencing, but beside that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Why would someone put one in an android?”

Cinder pressed her lips, thinking of the things Nainsi had been saying when she’d awoken. Nainsi had probably been relaying that same information when she’d gone unconscious, most likely over the direct communication link.

But who had received it? “Cinder?”

She pulled on the hem of her glove. She wanted to tell him that she knew about his research, that someone else probably knew too, but she couldn’t say anything in the middle of the crowded palace corridors.

“Someone must have had access to her, right before she malfunctioned. In order to install the chip.”

“Why would anyone install her with a faulty chip in the first place?”

“I don’t think it was entirely faulty. It does seem that some data was sent over the link before Nainsi shut down.”

“What—” Kai hesitated. Cinder noticed the nervousness in his eyes, the tensing of his posture. He craned his head closer to her, barely slowing his pace. “What kind of information can be sent over direct comms?”

“Anything that can be sent over the net.”

“But if someone was accessing her remotely like that, they couldn’t…I mean, she would have to allow access to any information they received, right?”

Cinder opened her mouth, paused, closed it again. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how a direct comm would function in an android, especially one that wasn’t equipped for it in the first place. But there’s a chance that whoever put that chip in her was hoping to gather information. Possibly…specific information.”

Kai’s gaze was distant as they crossed an enclosed glass bridge into the research wing. “So how do I find out who put that chip in her, and what they

learned?”

Cinder gulped. “I tried to initiate the link, but it seemed to have been disabled. I’ll keep trying, but at this point, I have no way of knowing who was on the other end. As for what they learned…”

Catching on to the hint in her tone, Kai stopped walking and turned to face her, eyes burning.

Cinder lowered her voice, speaking in a rush. “I know what it is you were looking for. I heard some of the information Nainsi had discovered.”

don’t even know what she discovered yet.” She nodded. “It’s…interesting.”

His gaze brightened and he inched toward her, craning his neck. “She’s alive, isn’t she? Does Nainsi know where to find her?”

Cinder shook her head, fear clawing at her, knowing that Levana was somewhere in these very walls. “We can’t talk about this here. And Nainsi will know more than I do anyway.”

Kai frowned and stepped back, but she could see his thoughts still churning as he proceeded to the elevator bank and gave directions to the android there.

“So,” he said, folding his arms while they waited. “You’re telling me that Nainsi has some important information, but some unknown person may also have that information.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Cinder. “Also, the chip itself was unusual. It wasn’t silicon or carbon. It was like no chip I’d ever seen before.”

Kai peered at her, brows knit. “How so?”

Cinder held up her fingers as if pinching the chip between them, envisioning it. “Size and shape, it looked just like a normal chip. But it was shimmery. Like…tiny gemstones. Pearlescent, kind of.”

The color drained from Kai’s face. A second later, he shut his eyes with a grimace. “It’s Lunar.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Their ships are made out of the same stuff. I’m not sure what it is but—” He cursed, kneading his thumb across his temple. “It must have been Sybil, or her guard. They arrived days before Nainsi broke down.”

“Sybil?”

“Levana’s thaumaturge. The minion that does all her dirty work.”

Cinder felt like a clamp was suffocating her lungs. If the information had gone to this Sybil, it had almost certainly gone to the queen.

“Elevator B for His Imperial Highness,” said the android as the doors of the second elevator opened. Cinder followed Kai into it, unable to resist glancing up at the camera on the ceiling. If Lunars had infiltrated a royal

android, they could have infiltrated anything in the palace.

She brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear, her paranoia forcing her to act normal as the doors closed. “I take it things aren’t going too well with the queen?”

Kai grimaced as if it were the most painful topic in the world and fell back against the wall. Cinder’s heart stirred, watching as his royal demeanor slid off him. She dropped her gaze to the toes of her boots.

“I didn’t think it was possible to hate anyone as much as I hate her. She’s evil.”

Cinder flinched. “Do you think it’s safe to…I mean, if she put this chip in your android…”

Understanding flickered over Kai’s face. He looked up at the camera, then shrugged. “I don’t care. She knows I hate her. Trust me, she’s not trying very hard to change that.”

Cinder licked her lips. “I saw what she did to the protestors.”

Kai nodded. “I shouldn’t have let her face them. Once it gets on the netscreens about how fast she controlled them, the city will be chaos.” He folded his arms, scrunching his shoulders up toward his ears. “Plus, she’s now under the impression that we’re intentionally harboring Lunar fugitives.”

Her heart skipped. “Really?”

“I know, it’s absurd. The last thing I want is more power-hungry Lunars running rampant in my country. Why would I—? Argh. It’s so frustrating.”

Cinder rubbed her arms, suddenly nervous. She was the reason Levana believed Kai was harboring Lunars. She hadn’t considered that being noticed by the queen could put Kai in jeopardy too.

When Kai fell silent, she risked a glance at him. He was staring at her hands. Cinder snapped them up against her chest, checking the gloves, but they were fine.

“Do you ever take those off?” he asked. “No.”

Kai tilted his head, peering at her as if he could see right through to the metal plate in her head. The intensity of his gaze didn’t mellow. “I think you should go to the ball with me.”

She clutched her fingers. His expression was too genuine, too sure. Her nerves tingled. “Stars,” she muttered. “Didn’t you already ask me that?”

“I’m hoping for a more favorable answer this time. And I seem to be getting more desperate by the minute.”

“How charming.”

Kai’s lips twitched. “Please?” “Why?”

“Why not?”

“I mean, why me?”

Kai hooked his thumbs on his pockets. “So if my escape hover breaks down, I’ll have someone on hand to fix it?”

She rolled her eyes and found herself unable to look at him again, staring instead at the red emergency button beside the doors.

“I mean it. I can’t go alone. And I really can’t go with Levana.”

“Well there are about 200,000 single girls in this city who would fall over themselves to have the privilege.”

A hush passed between them. He wasn’t touching her, but she could feel his presence, warm and overpowering. She could feel the elevator growing hot, despite the fact that her temperature gauge assured her it hadn’t changed.

“Cinder.”

She couldn’t help it. She looked at him. Her defenses withered a bit upon encountering the openness in his brown eyes. His confidence had been replaced with worry. Uncertainty.

“200,000 single girls,” he said. “Why not you?”

Cyborg. Lunar. Mechanic. She was the last thing he wanted.

She opened her lips, and the elevator stopped. “I’m sorry. But trust me— you don’t want to go with me.”

The doors opened and the tension released her. She rushed out of the elevator, head down, trying not to look at the small group of people waiting for an elevator.

“Come to the ball with me.”

She froze. Everyone in the hallway froze.

Cinder turned back. Kai was still standing in elevator B, one hand propping open the door.

Her nerves were frazzled, and all the emotions of the past hour were converging into a single, sickening feeling—exasperation. The hall was filled with doctors, nurses, androids, officials, technicians, and they all fell into an awkward hush and stared at the prince and the girl in the baggy cargo pants he was flirting with.

Flirting.

Squaring her shoulders, she retreated back into the elevator and pushed him inside, not even caring that it was with her metal hand. “Hold the elevator,” he said to the android as the doors shut them in. He smiled. “That got your attention.”

“Listen,” she said. “I’m sorry. I really am. But I can’t go to the ball with you. You just have to trust me on that.”

He gazed down at the gloved hand splayed across his chest. Cinder pulled

away, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Why? Why don’t you want to go with me?”

She huffed. “It’s not that I don’t want to go with you, it’s that I’m not going at all.

“So you do want to go with me.”

Cinder locked her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t.” “But I need you.”

Need me?”

“Yes. Don’t you see? If I’m spending all my time with you, then Queen Levana can’t rope me in to any conversations or…” He shuddered. “Dancing.”

Cinder reeled back, her gaze losing focus. Queen Levana. Of course this was about Queen Levana. What had Peony told her, ages ago? Rumors of a marriage alliance?

“Not that I have anything against dancing. I can dance. If you want to dance.”

She squinted at him. “What?”

“Or not, if you don’t want to. Or if you don’t know how. Which is nothing to be ashamed of.”

She started to rub her forehead, a headache developing, but stopped when she realized her gloves were filthy. “I really, really can’t go,” she said. “You see…” I don’t have a dress. Adri won’t allow it. Because Queen Levana would kill me. “It’s my sister.”

“Your sister?”

She wet her throat and dropped her gaze to the polished blackwood floor. Even the elevators were exquisite in the palace. “Yes. My little sister. She has the plague. And it just wouldn’t be the same without her, and I can’t go— won’t go. I’m sorry.” Cinder was surprised to find the words ringing true, even to her ear. She wondered if her lie detector would have gone off if it could see her.

Kai slipped back against the wall, hair fringing his eyes. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“You couldn’t have.” Cinder rubbed her palms down her sides. Her skin had grown hot beneath the gloves. “Actually, there’s something…I’d like to tell you. If that’s all right.”

He listed his head, curious.

“I just think she’d like you to know about her is all. Um…her name is Peony. She’s fourteen, and she’s madly in love with you.”

His eyebrows rose.

“I just thought that if, by some crazy miracle, she might survive—do you

think you could ask her to dance? At the ball?” Cinder’s voice chafed her throat as she said it, knowing that crazy miracles didn’t happen. But she had to ask.

Kai’s gaze burned into her, and he gave her a slow, determined nod. “It would be my pleasure.”

She dipped her head. “I’ll let her know to look forward to it.” From the edge of her gaze, Cinder saw Kai slip a hand into his pocket and ball it into a fist.

“People are probably getting suspicious out there,” said Cinder. “The rumors will be spreading like mad.” She put an awkward chuckle into the statement, but Kai didn’t match it. When she dared to look up at him again, he was staring unfocused at the paneled wall behind her, his shoulders heavy.

“Are you all right?”

He started to nod, but stopped. “Levana thinks she can play me like a puppet.” His brow creased. “And it just occurred to me that she might be right.”

Cinder fidgeted with her gloves. How easy it was to forget who she was speaking to, and all the things he must have on his mind, things so much more important than her. Even more important than Peony.

“I feel like I’m going to ruin everything,” he said.

“You won’t.” She itched to reach out to him, but held back, wringing her hands. “You’re going to be one of those emperors that everyone loves and admires.”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

“I mean it. Look how much you care, how hard you’re trying, and you’re not even emperor yet. Besides.” She folded her arms, burying her hands. “It’s not like you’re alone. You have advisers and province reps and secretaries and treasurers and…I mean, really, how much harm can one man possibly do all on his own?”

Kai half laughed. “You’re not really making me feel better, but I appreciate the effort.” He raised his eyes to the ceiling. “I shouldn’t be telling you all this, anyway. It isn’t your problem to worry about. It’s just…you’re easy to talk to.”

She shuffled her feet. “It is kind of my problem. I mean, we all have to live here.”

“You could move to Europe.”

“You know, I’ve actually been considering that lately.”

Kai laughed again, the warmth returning to the sound. “If that’s not a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.”

She ducked her head. “Look, I know you’re royalty and all, but people are

probably getting really impatient for this ele—” Her breath snagged as Kai leaned forward, so close she was sure for a heartbeat he meant to kiss her. She froze, a wave of panic crashing into her, and barely managed to look up.

Instead of kissing her, he whispered, “Imagine there was a cure, but finding it would cost you everything. It would completely ruin your life. What would you do?”

The warm air enclosed her. So close, she could catch a faint soapy smell coming from him.

His eyes bored into hers, waiting, a tinge desperate.

Cinder wet her mouth. “Ruin my life to save a million others? It’s not much of a choice.”

His lips parted—she had no choice but to look at them and then immediately back into his eyes. She could almost count the black lashes around them. But then a sadness filtered into his gaze.

“You’re right. There’s no real choice.”

Her body simultaneously yearned to close the gap between them and push him away. The anticipation that warmed her lips made it impossible to do either. “Your Highness?”

She tilted her face toward him, the subtlest of movements. She listened to his wavering breath and this time, it was his eyes dropping to her lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sure this is horribly inappropriate, but…it seems that my life is about to be ruined.”

Her brow drew together, questioning, but he didn’t elaborate. His fingers, light as a breath, brushed her elbow. He craned his head. Cinder couldn’t move, barely managing to wet her lips as her eyes slipped shut.

Pain exploded in her head. Raced down her spine.

Cinder gasped and folded over, gripping her stomach. The world lurched. Acid burned her throat. Kai cried out and caught her as she stumbled forward, easing her onto the elevator floor.

Cinder shuddered against him, light-headed. The pain was doused as quickly as it had started.

Cinder lay panting, hunched over Kai’s arm. His voice began to filter past her eardrums—her name, again and again. Muffled words. Are you all right? What happened? What did I do?

She was hot, her hand sweating in the glove, her face burning. Like before, when Dr. Erland had touched her. What was happening to her?

She licked her lips. Her tongue was cotton in her mouth. “I’m all right,” she said, wondering if it were true. “It’s gone. I’m fine.” She squeezed her eyes shut and waited, afraid that the slightest movement would bring the pain back again.

Kai’s fingers pressed against her brow, her hair. “Are you sure? Can you move?”

She attempted a nod and forced herself to look at him.

Kai gasped and jerked away, his hand freezing inches from Cinder’s brow.

Fear clamped her gut. Was her retina display showing?

“What?” she asked, ducking her face behind her hand, running nervous fingers over her skin, her hair. “What is it?”

“N-nothing.”

When she dared meet Kai’s gaze again, he was blinking rapidly, confusion filling his eyes.

“Your Highness?”

“No, it was nothing.” His lips turned upward, unconvincingly. “I was seeing things.”

“What?”

He shook his head. “It was nothing. Here.” He stood and coaxed her up beside him. “Maybe we should see if the doctor can squeeze you into his busy schedule.”

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