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Chapter no 28

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

THE UNCOMFORTABLE SILENCE OF THE DINING HALL WAS broken only by the

clatter of chopsticks against porcelain and the shuffling of servants’ feet. Only human servers were present—a concession to Levana’s avid distrust of androids. She claimed it went against her people’s morals, and the laws of nature, to bestow fake emotions and thoughts on man-made machines.

Kai knew, however, that she just didn’t like androids because she couldn’t brainwash them.

Sitting opposite the queen, Kai found himself struggling not to look at her

—it was both a temptation and a repellent, and both feelings irritated him. Torin was beside him, and Levana was flanked by Sybil and the second thaumaturge. The two Lunar guards stood against the walls. Kai wondered if they ever ate.

The emperor’s seat at the end of the table would remain empty until the coronation. He did not want to look at that empty chair, either.

Levana made a grand, flourishing gesture, drawing everyone’s attention to her, though it resulted in nothing more than taking a sip of tea. Her lips curled as she set the cup down, her gaze meeting Kai’s. “Sybil tells me your little festival is an annual occurrence,” she said, the cadence of her voice swooning like a lullaby.

“Yes,” Kai said, lifting a shrimp wonton between his chopsticks. “It falls on the ninth full moon of each year.”

“Ah, how lovely for you to base your holidays on the cycles of my planet.”

Kai wanted to scoff at the word planet but sucked it back down into his throat.

“It is a celebration of the end of the Fourth World War,” said Torin.

Levana clucked her tongue. “That is the problem with so many little countries on a single globe. So many wars.”

Something splattered on Kai’s plate. He looked down to see that the wonton’s filling had been squeezed from its wrapper. “Perhaps we should be

glad the war happened, then, and forced the countries to conglomerate as they did.”

“I hardly think it harmed the well-being of the citizenry,” said Levana. Kai’s pulse throbbed in his ears. Millions had died in World War IV;

whole cultures had been devastated, dozens of cities reduced to rubble— including the original Beijing. Not to mention the countless natural resources that had been destroyed through nuclear and chemical warfare. Yes, he was quite sure some harm had come to the citizenry’s well-being.

“More tea, Your Highness?” said Torin, startling Kai. He realized he’d been gripping his chopsticks like a weapon.

Grumbling inwardly, he sat back, allowing a servant to refill his cup.

“We can give credit to the war for bringing about the Treaty of Bremen,” said Torin, “which has thus far been beneficial to all countries in the Earthen Union. We hope, of course, to see your signature on the document someday soon, Your Majesty.”

The queen’s lips tightened against her teeth. “Indeed. The good of the treatise is thoroughly discussed in your history books. And yet, I cannot help but feel that Luna—a single country ruled by a single government—provides an even more ideal arrangement. One that is fair and beneficial to all inhabitants.”

“Assuming that the ruling government is fair,” said Kai.

A flash of contempt set the queen’s jaw but almost instantly faded into a serene smile. “Which of course Luna has, as is evidenced by hundreds of years without a single uprising—not even the smallest protest. Our history books attest to that.”

Shocking. Kai would have grumbled if he hadn’t felt Torin’s glower upon him.

“It is a testament that every ruler strives for,” said Torin.

The servants came forward and whisked away the first course, replacing it with silver tureens.

“My queen is as eager to forge a bond between Luna and Earth as you are,” said Sybil. “It is a shame that an agreement could not be reached under the rule of your father, but we are hopeful that you, Your Highness, will be more accepting of our terms.”

Kai again strove to loosen his grip, lest he accidentally leap across the table and jab a chopstick into the witch’s eye. His father had tried every compromise imaginable to forge an alliance with Luna, except the one thing he could not agree to. The one thing he was sure would signal the end of freedom for his people. A marriage to Queen Levana.

But nobody objected to Sybil’s comment. Not even himself. He couldn’t

get the image from today’s meeting out of his head. The Lunar mutations, the army of beast-like creatures. Waiting.

It chilled him not only because of what he’d seen, but of what he could imagine he hadn’t seen. If he were right, then Levana had put her army out for show—as a threat. But he knew she wouldn’t give her hand away so easily.

So what else was she hiding? And did he dare risk finding out? Marriage. War. Marriage. War.

The servants simultaneously lifted the silver domes from the trays, releasing clouds of steam scented of garlic and sesame oil.

Kai mumbled a thank-you to the servant over his shoulder, but the words were interrupted by a gasp from the queen. She shoved her chair away from the table. The legs screeched across the floor.

Startled, Kai followed the queen’s gaze to her plate. Instead of thinly cut pork tenderloin and rice noodles, the plate harbored a small hand mirror set into a shimmering silver-white frame.

“How dare you?” Levana turned blazing eyes on the servant who had delivered the meal—a middle-aged woman with fine gray hair. The servant stumbled back, her eyes round as the mirror.

Levana stood so fast her chair tumbled to the floor behind her. A chorus of chair legs creaked on the floor as everyone stood.

“Speak, you disgusting Earthen! How dare you insult me?” The servant tossed her head, mute.

“Your Majesty—” Kai started. “Sybil!”

“My Queen.”

“This human has shown disrespect. It is not to be tolerated.”

“Your Majesty!” said Torin. “Please, calm yourself. We do not know that this woman is to blame. We mustn’t jump to conclusions.”

“Then she must be made an example of,” said Sybil, quite coolly, “and the true perpetrator can thus suffer the guilt, which is often a far worse punishment.”

“That is not how our system works,” said Torin. His face had flushed red. “While you reside in the Commonwealth, you will abide by our laws.”

“I will not follow your laws so long as they permit disobedience to flourish,” said Levana. “Sybil!”

Sybil rounded the queen’s fallen chair. The servant backed away, bowing, muttering apologies and begging for mercy and not knowing what she said.

“Stop it! Leave her alone!” said Kai, rushing toward the servant.

Sybil snatched a knife from the service table and held its handle out

toward the woman. The woman took the knife, crying, pleading as she did so.

Kai’s jaw dropped. He was both disgusted and mesmerized as the servant turned the blade toward herself, clutching the handle with both hands.

Sybil’s beautiful face remained complacent.

The servant’s hands trembled and slowly lifted the knife until the glistening edge was poised at the corner of her eye. “No,” she whimpered. “Please.”

Kai’s entire body shook as he realized what Sybil meant to force the woman into. Heart racing, he squared his shoulders. “I did it!”

The room stilled, silenced, but for the woman’s bumbling sobs.

Everyone turned to Kai. The queen, Torin, the servant with the tiny inflamed scratch beside her eyelid, the knife still in her hand.

“I did it,” he repeated. He looked at Sybil, who watched him without expression, and then at Queen Levana.

The queen fisted both hands at her sides. Her dark gaze seethed. Her complexion shimmered. In a single, tilting moment, she was hideous, with her ragged breath and sneering coral lips.

Kai ran his dry tongue across the roof of his mouth. “I ordered the kitchen to put the mirror on your tray.” He pressed his arms firmly against his sides to keep them from shaking. “It was meant as a friendly joke. I understand now that it was an ignorant decision, and a joke that would not cross cultural lines, and I can only apologize and ask for your forgiveness.” He leveled his gaze at Levana. “But if forgiveness is not in your power, then at least direct your anger toward me and not the servant, who would have had no idea that the mirror was there. The punishment should be all mine.”

He had thought the tension bad during the appetizer course, but now he was choking on it.

Levana’s breathing returned to normal as her eyes weighed her options. She did not believe him—it was a lie, and everyone in the room knew it. But he had confessed.

She opened her fists, stretching her fingers out against the material of her dress. “Release the servant.”

The energy dispersed. Kai felt his ears pop as if the air pressure in the room had changed.

The knife clattered to the floor and the servant stumbled back, crashing into a wall. Her shaking hands flattened over her eyes, her face, her head.

“Thank you for your honesty, Your Highness,” Levana said, her tone flat and hollow. “Your apology is accepted.”

The crying woman was led away from the dining room. Torin reached across the table, picked up the silver dome, and covered the mirror. “Bring

our most honored guest her entrée.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Levana. “I have quite lost my appetite.” “Your Majesty—” said Torin.

“I will retire to my quarters,” said the queen. She was still battling Kai across the table, her eyes cold and calculating, and he unable to look away. “I have learned something valuable about you tonight, young prince. I hope you have learned something about me, as well.”

“That you prefer to rule through fear rather than justice? So sorry, Your Majesty, I’m afraid I already knew that about you.”

“No, indeed. I hope you noticed that I am capable of choosing my battles.” Her lips curved, her beauty returning full force. “If that’s what it takes to win the war.”

She departed from the room like a feather, as if nothing at all had happened, her entourage falling into step behind her. Only when the guards’ clopping feet had drifted down the halls did Kai slump into the nearest seat, head hanging over his knees. His stomach was heaving. Every nerve shook.

He heard a chair being set upright and Torin settle beside him with a heavy sigh. “We should find out who was really at fault for the mirror. If it was someone on the staff, they should be suspended for so long as the queen is staying at the palace.”

Kai lifted his head far enough to peer over the table’s edge, seeing the towering silver dome in front of the queen’s abandoned chair. Inhaling a breath, he reached forward and uncovered the mirror, then grasped its slender handle. It was smooth as glass but sparkled like diamonds when he twisted it in the dim lighting. He had only seen material like that once before. On a spaceship.

Holding the mirror’s face toward Torin, he shook his head, disgusted. “Mystery solved,” he said, turning the mirror around so that his adviser could see the strange Lunar rune carved into the back of the frame.

Torin’s eyes widened. “She was testing you.”

Kai let the mirror tip back onto the table. He rubbed his brow with outstretched fingers, still shaking.

“Your Highness.” A messenger clicked his heels from the doorway. “I have an urgent message from the Secretary of Public Health and Safety.”

Kai tilted his head, squinting at the messenger through his bangs. “Couldn’t she send a comm?” he said, checking his belt with his free hand before remembering that Levana had requested no portscreens at their dinner. He grunted and sat up. “What’s the message?”

The messenger stepped into the dining room, his eyes bright. “There’s been a disturbance at the District 29 quarantine. An unidentified person

attacked two med-droids, disabling one of them, and then escaped.” Kai frowned, straightening. “A patient?”

“We’re unsure. The only android that would have recorded a good visual was the one that was disabled. Another android caught glimpses of the act from afar, but only of the perpetrator’s back. We’ve been unable to get an accurate ID. The perpetrator didn’t seem ill, though.”

“Everyone at the quarantines is ill.” The messenger hesitated.

Kai gripped the arms of the chair. “We have to find him. If he has the disease—”

“It appeared to be a female, Your Highness. And there’s more. The footage we have shows her speaking to another patient, moments after she attacked the first med-droid. A young boy by the name of Chang Sunto. He was admitted to the quarantine yesterday with stage two letumosis.”

“And?”

The servant cleared his throat. “The boy seems to be recovering.” “From what? The attack?”

“No, Your Highness. Recovering from the disease.”

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