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Chapter no 26

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

PRINCE KAI ARRIVED AT THE MEETING SEVENTEEN MINUTES late. He was met with

the disgruntled looks of Torin and four other government officials all sitting at a long table, along with an additional dozen faces peering out from their respective netscreens on the paneled wall before him. Ambassadors from every Earthen country—the United Kingdom, the European Federation, the African Union, the American Republic, and Australia. One queen, two prime ministers, one president, one governor-general, three state representatives, and two province representatives. Text along the bottom of the screens helpfully displayed their names, titles, and country affiliations.

“How kind of the young prince to grace us with his presence,” said Torin, as the officials around the table stood to welcome Kai.

Kai waved Torin’s comment away. “I thought you could use my guidance.”

On the wall of screens, Prime Minister Kamin of Africa grunted most unladylike. Everyone else remained silent.

Kai moved to take his regular seat when Torin stopped him and gestured at the chair at the end of the table. The emperor’s chair. Jaw clenching, Kai switched seats. He looked up at the grid of faces—although each of the world leaders was thousands of miles away, staring into their own wall of netscreens, it felt as if their eyes were focused on him, disapproving.

He cleared his throat, trying not to fidget. “Is the conference link secure?” he asked, the question bringing back his concerns over the direct communication chip Cinder had found inside Nainsi. The screens in this room were equipped with D-COMMs so they could hold international meetings without fear of anyone listening in through the net. Had the chip inside Nainsi been put there by one of Levana’s cronies for the same reason—secrecy, privacy? If so, what exactly had she learned?

“Of course,” said Torin. “The links have been verified for nearly twenty minutes, Your Highness. We were just discussing Earth’s relationship with Luna when you deigned to join us.”

Kai clasped his hands together. “Right. Now, is that the one where the dominatrix queen throws a tantrum and threatens war every time she doesn’t get her way? That relationship?”

No one laughed. Torin’s gaze focused on Kai. “Is this timing inconvenient for you, Your Highness?”

Kai cleared his throat. “I apologize. That was inappropriate.” He met the faces of the Earth’s leaders, watching him from thousands of miles away. He gripped his hands beneath the table, feeling like a child sitting in on his father’s meetings.

“Obviously,” said President Vargas from America, “the relationship between Earth and Luna has been strained for many years, and the rule of Queen Levana has only made things worse. We can’t put blame on any one party, but the important thing is that we fix it, before—”

“Before she starts a war,” finished a province representative from South America, “as the young prince already observed.”

“But if the reports on the net are not mistaken,” said Governor-General Williams of Australia, “communication between Earth and Luna has begun again. Can it be true that Levana is on Earth now? I could hardly believe the news when I heard it.”

“Yes,” said Torin, as all eyes switched to him. “The queen arrived yesterday afternoon, and her head thaumaturge, Sybil Mira, has been a guest in our court for just over two weeks.”

“Has Levana informed you of her purpose for this visit?” said Prime Minister Kamin.

“She claims that she wants to reach a peace agreement.”

One of the American Republic reps guffawed. “I’ll believe it when I see

it.”

President Vargas ignored the comment. “Quite suspicious timing, isn’t it?

So soon after…” He didn’t finish. No one looked at Kai.

“We agree,” said Torin, “but we could not refuse the request when it came.”

“It does seem she was always more apt to discuss an alliance with the Commonwealth than any of us,” said President Vargas, “but her requests were always unsatisfactory. Have those requests changed?”

Kai watched from the corner of his eye as Torin’s chest slowly expanded. “No,” he said. “To our knowledge, Her Majesty’s requests have not changed. Her aim continues to be a marriage alliance with the Commonwealth’s emperor.”

Although the faces in the room and on the screens tried to remain static, the discomfort ratcheted around them. Kai gripped his hands so tight that

crescent moons were left from his fingernails. He had always despised the diplomacy of these meetings. Everyone thinking the same thing, no one brave enough to say it.

And of course they would all be sympathetic to Kai’s fate, and yet glad that it wasn’t any of them. They would be angry that Queen Levana could infiltrate any Earthen country with her dictatorship, and yet certain that it would be an improvement over infiltrating Earth with her army.

“The Commonwealth’s position,” continued Torin, “has also not changed.”

This did seem to jolt the crowd.

“You won’t marry her?” said Queen Camilla of the United Kingdom, the wrinkles on her forehead deepening.

Kai squared his shoulders in defense. “My father was firm in his decision to avoid such an alliance, and I believe his reasons are as applicable today as they were last week, or last year, or ten years ago. I must consider what is best for my country.”

“Have you told this to Levana?” “I have not lied to her.”

“And what will be her next move?” said Prime Minister Bromstad of Europe, a fair-haired man with kind eyes.

“What else?” said Kai. “She intends to add more bargaining chips to the pile until we cave.”

Stares clashed through the screens. Torin’s lips had gone white, his eyes urging Kai to tread lightly. Kai could guess that Torin hadn’t intended to mention the antidote, at least until they could plan their next move—but letumosis was a pandemic that affected all of them. They at least had a right to know that an antidote might exist. Assuming Levana hadn’t lied to him.

Kai took in a deep breath, splaying his palms out on the table. “Levana claims to have found a cure for letumosis.”

The netscreens seemed to crackle with surprise, though the gathered leaders were all too stunned to speak.

“She brought a single dosage with her, and I’ve passed it off to our research team. We won’t know if it’s a true antidote until they’ve had a chance to study it. If it is real, then we need to find out if we can replicate it.”

“And if we can’t replicate it?”

Kai looked at the Australian governor-general. He was older than Kai’s father had been by many years. They were all so much older than him. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I will do what has to be done for the Commonwealth.” He enunciated Commonwealth very carefully. True, they were an alliance six countries and a single planet strong. But they all had their

own loyalties, and he would not forget his.

“Even then,” said Torin, “we can yet hope to make her see reason and convince her to sign the Treaty of Bremen without a marriage alliance.”

“She will refuse,” said a state representative from the EF. “We mustn’t fool ourselves. She is as stubborn—”

“Of course, the Commonwealth’s imperial family is not the only royal bloodline she could harbor hopes of marrying into,” said the African state representative. He said this knowing that his own country could not be a choice, as it was not a monarchy. Any marriage bond would be too superficial, too transient. He continued, “I think we should explore all possible options so that we can be sure to have an offer prepared, no matter what Levana decides to do next. An offer that we, as a group, feel would best benefit the citizenry of our entire planet.”

Kai had followed the group’s attention to Queen Camilla of the UK, who had an unmarried son in his early thirties, closer to Levana’s age than Kai was. He noted how passive the queen was trying to appear and had to keep himself from looking smug. It felt nice to turn the tables.

And yet, politically, there was no doubt that Kai was the best option in Queen Levana’s eyes. The prince from the United Kingdom was the youngest of three siblings and may never become king. Kai, on the other hand, would be coronated next week.

“What if she refuses anyone else?” said Queen Camilla, lifting an eyebrow that had seen too many youth surgeries over the years. When no one responded to the question, she continued. “I don’t mean to raise undue alarm, but have you considered that her reason for coming to Earth might be to secure this alliance through force? Perhaps she intends to brainwash the young prince into marrying her.”

Kai’s stomach flipped. He could see his unease mirrored in the faces of the other diplomats. “Could she do that?” he asked.

When no one was quick to answer, he turned to Torin.

It took far, far too long for Torin to shake his head, looking frighteningly uncertain. “No,” he said. “Perhaps, in theory, but no. In order to keep up the ruse, she could never leave your side. As soon as you were no longer under her influence, you could prove that the marriage wasn’t legitimate. She wouldn’t risk that.”

“You mean we hope she wouldn’t risk it,” said Kai, not feeling very comforted.

“What about Levana’s daughter, Princess Winter?” said President Vargas. “Has there been any discussion of her?”

“Stepdaughter,” said Torin. “And what should we discuss in regards to the

Lunar princess?”

“Why can’t we form a marriage alliance with her?” said Queen Camilla. “She can’t be any worse than Levana.”

Torin folded his hands atop the table. “Princess Winter was of another mother and her father was a mere palace guard. She has no royal blood.”

“But Luna might still honor a marriage alliance through her,” said Kai. “Wouldn’t they?”

Torin sighed, looking like he wished Kai had kept his mouth shut. “Politically, perhaps, but it does not change the fact that Queen Levana is in the difficult position of needing to marry and produce an heir who will continue the bloodline. I do not think she will agree to marry off her stepdaughter so long as she requires a suitable marriage arrangement.”

“And there is no hope,” said the African prime minister, “that the Lunars will ever accept Princess Winter as a queen?”

“Only if you can convince them to give up their superstitions,” said Torin, “and we all know how deeply those are in-grained in their culture. Otherwise they will always insist on an heir of the royal bloodline.”

“And what if Levana never has an heir? What will they do then?” Kai slid his gaze to his adviser and raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not sure,” Torin answered. “I’m sure the royal family has plenty of distant cousins who would be eager to stake their claim to the throne.”

“So if Levana must marry,” said the South American representative, “and she will marry only a Commonwealth emperor, and the Commonwealth emperor refuses to marry her, what then? We are at a stalemate.”

“Perhaps,” said Governor-General Williams, “she will make good on her threats.”

Torin shook his head. “If her desire were to start a war, she’s had plenty of opportunities.”

“It seems clear,” shot back the governor-general, “that her desire is to be empress. But we don’t know what she has planned if you won’t—”

“Actually, we do have an idea,” said President Vargas, his voice heavy. “I’m afraid we no longer need to speculate if Levana intends to start a war against Earth. Our sources lead me to believe that war is not only likely but imminent.”

An uneasy rustle shifted through the room.

“If our theories are correct,” said President Vargas, “Levana is planning to move against Earth within the next six months.”

Kai leaned forward, fidgeting with the collar of his shirt. “What theories?” “It seems Queen Levana is building an army.”

Confusion swept through the room.

“Certainly the moon has had an army for some time,” said Prime Minister Bromstad. “It is hardly news, nor is it controversial. We cannot request that they forgo the keeping of an army entirely, much as we might like to.”

“This is not the moon’s normal army—soldiers and thaumaturges,” said President Vargas, “nor is it like any army we keep on Earth. Here are some photographs that our orbiting operatives were able to obtain.”

The president’s image faded and was replaced with a fuzzy picture, as if taken from very far away. Satellite photos taken without sunlight. Nevertheless, in the grainy picture, Kai could make out rows and rows of men standing. He squinted, and another picture flickered onto the screen, closer up, showing the backs of four of the men from up above, but, Kai noticed with a shock, these were not men. Their shoulders were too wide, too hunched. Their barely discernible profiles too stretched. Their backs were covered in what appeared to be fur.

Another picture came on the screen. It showed a half dozen of the creatures from the front, their faces a cross between man and beast. Their noses and jaws protruded awkwardly from their heads, their lips twisted into perpetual grimaces. White spots erupted from their mouths—Kai could not see them clearly, could not tell for sure, but they gave him the distinct impression of fangs.

“What are these creatures?” asked Queen Camilla.

“Mutants,” answered President Vargas. “We believe they are genetically engineered Lunars. This is a project that we assume has been going on for many decades. We have estimated six hundred of them in this holding alone, but we suspect there are more, likely in the network of lava tubes beneath the moon’s surface. There could be thousands—tens of thousands for all we know.”

“And do they possess magic?” It was a hesitant question posed by the Canadian province rep.

The picture disappeared, showing the American president again. “We do not know. We have not been able to see them train or do anything other than stand in formation and march in and out of the caverns.”

“They are Lunar,” said Queen Camilla. “If they are not dead, then they possess magic.”

“We have no proof that they kill their ungifted infants,” interrupted Torin. “And as exciting as it is to look at these pictures and create wild speculations, we must keep in mind that Queen Levana has not yet attacked Earth, and we have no evidence that these creatures are intended for such an attack.”

“What else could they be intended for?” said Governor-General Williams. “Manual labor?” said Torin, daring anyone to deny the possibility. The

governor-general sniffed but said nothing. “We should, of course, be prepared should a war come to pass. But in the meantime, our priority needs to be forming an alliance with Luna, not alienating it with paranoia and distrust.”

“No,” said Kai, propping his chin on his fist. “I think this is the perfect time for paranoia and distrust.”

Torin scowled. “Your Highness.”

“It seems you’ve all missed the very obvious point of those pictures.” President Vargas puffed out his chest. “What do you mean?”

“You say they’ve probably been building this army for decades?

Perfecting whatever science they’ve used to create these…creatures?” “So it would seem.”

“Then why have we only noticed it now?” He waved his hand at the screen where the images had been. “Hundreds of them, standing out in the open as if they have nothing better to do. Waiting to have their pictures taken.” He folded his arms on top of the table, watching as uncertain expressions turned toward him. “Queen Levana wanted us to see her spook army. She wanted us to take notice.”

“You think she’s trying to threaten us?” said Prime Minister Kamin.

Kai shut his eyes, seeing the rows of beasts fresh in his mind. “No. I think she’s trying to threaten me.”

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