Chapter no 30

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)

CINDER SAT INSIDE HER BOOTH, CHIN CUPPED IN BOTH palms, watching the huge netscreen across the crowded street. She couldn’t hear the reporter’s commentary over the chaos, but she didn’t need to—he was reporting on the festival that she was stuck in the middle of. The reporter seemed to be having a lot more fun than she was, gesturing wildly at passing food vendors and jugglers, contortionists on miniature parade floats and the tail end of a passing lucky dragon kite. Cinder could tell from the hubbub that the reporter was in the square just a block away from her, where most of the events took place throughout the day. It was a lot more festive than the street of vendor booths, but at least she was in the shade.

The day would have been busy compared to market days—lots of potential customers had sought prices on broken portscreens and android parts

—but she had been forced to turn them all away. She would be taking no more customers in New Beijing. She would not have been there at all if Adri hadn’t forced her to come, dropping her off while she and Pearl went shopping for last-minute ball accessories. She suspected that Adri really just wanted to watch as everyone gawked at the limping, one-footed girl.

She couldn’t tell her stepmother that Linh Cinder, renowned mechanic, was closed for business.

Because she couldn’t tell Adri that she was leaving.

She sighed, blowing a misplaced lock of hair out of her face. The heat was miserable. The humidity clung to Cinder’s skin, pasting her shirt to her back. Along with the budding clouds on the horizon, it promised rain, and lots of it.

Not ideal driving conditions.

But that wouldn’t stop her. Twelve hours from now, she would be miles outside of the city, putting as much distance between herself and New Beijing as she could. She had gone down to the garage every night that week after Adri and Pearl were in bed, hopping along on homemade crutches so she could work on the car. Last night, for the first time, the engine had roared to


Well, more like sputtered to life and spewed out noxious fumes from the exhaust that made her cough like mad. She had used nearly half of the plague-research money Erland had wired her on a big tank of gasoline that, if she were lucky, would carry her at least into the next province. It would be a bumpy ride. It would be a stinky ride.

But she would be free.

No—they would be free. Her and Iko’s personality chip and Peony’s ID chip. They were going to escape together, like she’d always said they would.

Though she knew she could never bring Peony back, she hoped that someday she would at least find another body for Iko. Some other android shell, perhaps—maybe even an escort with their tauntingly ideal feminine shapes. She thought Iko would like that.

The netscreen changed, showing the other favorite news story of the week. Chang Sunto, miracle child. Plague survivor. He’d been interviewed countless times about his unbelievable recovery, and every time it sparked a little glow in Cinder’s silicon heart.

Footage of her mad dash from the quarantines had been played repeatedly on the screens too, but the recording never showed her face, and Adri had been too distracted—by the ball and the funeral that Cinder had not been invited to attend—to realize the mystery girl was living under her own roof. Or perhaps Adri just paid her such little attention that she wouldn’t have recognized her anyway.

Rumors abounded about the girl and Chang Sunto’s miraculous recovery, and while some had talked of an antidote, no one was coming clean. The boy was now under the surveillance of the palace research team, which meant that Dr. Erland had a new guinea pig to play with. She hoped it would be enough, given that her role as research volunteer was over. She hadn’t had the heart to tell the doctor that yet, though, and the guilt clawed at her upon seeing a new monetary deposit every morning. Dr. Erland had made good on his promises

—he’d set up an account ID-linked so that only Cinder could access it, not Adri, and had made almost daily payments from the research and development fund. So far he’d asked for nothing in return. His only comms had been to tell her he was still making use of her blood samples and to remind her not to return to the palace until the queen was gone.

Cinder frowned, scratching her cheek. Dr. Erland had never had the chance to explain to her why she was so special when he was also immune. Her curiosity lingered in the back of her thoughts, but not as strongly as her determination to run away. Some mysteries would have to remain unsolved.

She pulled her toolbox toward her on the table, fishing through it for no

other reason than to keep her hands busy. The boredom of the past five days had led her to meticulously organize every last bolt and screw. Now she’d taken to counting, creating a digital inventory in her brain.

A child appeared across her worktable, silky black hair pulled up in pigtails. “Excuse me,” she said, pushing a portscreen onto the table. “Can you fix this?”

Cinder cast her bored eyes from the child to the port. It was small enough to fit into her palm and covered with a sparkling pink shell. Sighing, she picked up the port and flipped it over in her hands. She pressed the power button but only gobbledygook filled the screen. Twisting her lips, she smacked the corner of the screen twice on the table. The girl jumped back.

Cinder tried the power button again. The welcome screen beamed up at


“Give that a shot,” she said, tossing it back to the kid, who stumbled to

catch it. The girl’s eyes brightened. She flashed a grin with two missing teeth before scurrying into the crowd.

Cinder hunched over, settling her chin down on her forearms and wishing for the thousandth time that Iko wasn’t trapped inside a tiny scrap of metal. They would be poking fun at the vendors with their damp, rosy faces, fanning themselves beneath the canopies of their booths. They would talk about all the places they were going to go and see—the Taj Mahal, the Mediterranean Sea, the transatlantic maglev railway. Iko would want to go shopping in Paris.

When a shudder ran through her, Cinder buried her face in her elbow.

How long would she have to carry their ghosts around with her? “Are you all right?”

She jumped and raised her eyes. Kai was leaning against the corner of the booth, one arm propped on the door’s steel track, the other hidden behind him. He was wearing his disguise again, the gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, but even in the sweltering heat, he managed to look perfectly composed. His hair just tousled, the bright sun behind him— Cinder’s heart started to expand before she clamped it back down.

She didn’t bother to get up, but she did mindlessly tug her pant leg down to cover as many of the wires as possible, once again grateful for the thin tablecloth. “Your Highness.”

“Now, I don’t want to tell you how to run your business or anything,” he said, “but have you considered actually charging people for your services?”

Her wires seemed to be struggling to connect in her brain for a moment before she remembered the little girl from moments before. She cleared her throat and glanced around. The girl was sitting on the sidewalk with her dress stretched over her knees, humming to the music that streamed up from the

tiny speakers. Shoppers mulled about, swinging bags against their hips and snacking on tea-boiled eggs. The shopkeepers were busy sweating. No one was paying them any attention.

“I don’t want to tell you how to be a prince, but shouldn’t you have some bodyguards or something?”

“Bodyguards? Who would want to harm a charming guy like me?”

When she glared up at him, he smiled and flashed his wrist at her. “Trust me, they know exactly where I am at all times, but I try not to think about it.”

She picked a flat-head screwdriver from the toolbox and started twirling it over her fingers, anything to keep her hands preoccupied. “So what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be, I don’t know. Preparing for a coronation or something?”

“Believe it or not, I seem to be having technical difficulties again.” He unhooked the portscreen from his belt and peered down. “You see, I figured it’s probably too much to hope that New Beijing’s most renowned mechanic is having trouble with her port, so I figured there must be something wrong with mine.” Screwing up his lips, he whapped the corner of his portscreen on the table, then checked the screen again with a heavy sigh. “Nope, nothing. Maybe she’s been ignoring my comms on purpose.”

“Maybe she’s been busy?”

“Oh, yes, you look completely overwhelmed.” Cinder rolled her eyes.

“Here, I brought you something.” Kai put the portscreen away and pulled his hand out from behind him, producing a long, flat box wrapped in gold foil and a white ribbon. The paper was gorgeous, the wrapping job less so.

Cinder dropped the screwdriver with a clatter. “What’s that for?”

A flash of hurt crossed his face. “What? I can’t buy you a gift?” he asked, in a tone that nearly stopped the electric pulses in her wiring.

“No. Not after I’ve ignored six of your comms in the last week. Are you dense?”

“So you did get them!”

She propped her elbows on the table, sinking her chin into both palms. “Of course I got them.”

“So why are you ignoring me? Did I do something?”

“No. Yes.” She squeezed her eyes shut, massaging her temple. She’d thought the hard part was over. She would disappear, and he would go on with his life. She would spend the rest of her life watching as Prince, no, Emperor Kai gave speeches and passed bills. As he went on diplomatic missions around the world. As he shook hands and kissed babies. She would watch him marry. She would watch as his wife gave him children—because the whole

world would watch it happen.

But he would forget about her. Which is what needed to happen. How naive of her to think it could be so simple.

“No? Yes?”

She fumbled, thinking it should have been easy to blame her silence on Adri, her cruel stepmother who had refused to let her leave the house, but it was not that easy. She couldn’t risk giving him hope. She couldn’t risk anything that might change her mind.

“It’s just that I…”

She drew back, knowing she should tell him. He thought she was a mere mechanic, and he was, perhaps, willing to cross that social divide. But to be both cyborg and Lunar? To be hated and despised by every culture in the galaxy? He would understand in a moment why he needed to forget her.

More than that, he probably would forget her just as quickly.

Her metal fingers jerked. Her right hand was burning hot beneath the cotton.

Pull off the gloves and show him.

She mindlessly reached for the hem, fingering the grease-stained material. But she couldn’t. He didn’t know. She didn’t want him to know.

“Because you kept going on and on about the stupid ball,” she said, cringing at her own words.

He dropped a cursory glance to the gold box in his hands. The tension melted until his arms dropped to his sides. “Stars, Cinder, if I’d known you were going to embargo me for asking you on a date, I wouldn’t have dared.”

She cast her gaze skyward, wishing he’d been at least a little annoyed with her response.

“All right, you don’t want to go to the ball. Got it. I won’t mention it again.”

She fidgeted with the fingertips of her gloves. “Thanks.” He set the box down on the table.

She shifted uncomfortably, unable to reach for it. “Don’t you have something important to be doing? Like, running a country?”

“Probably.” Leaning forward, he flattened one hand on the desk and leaned over, straining to see into Cinder’s lap. Her heart jolted and she scooted herself closer to the table, thrusting her foot as far out of his line of sight as possible.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Fine. Why?”

“You’re usually the prime example of royal etiquette, but you didn’t even

stand up. And I was so prepared to be the gentleman and urge you to sit back down again.”

“So sorry to steal that proud moment from you,” she said, sinking lower in her seat. “But I’ve been here since dawn and I’m tired.”

“Since dawn! What time is it now?” He reached for his portscreen. “13:04.”

He paused with his hand on the gadget at his waist. “Well. It’s time for a break then, right?” He beamed. “Might I have the honor of treating you to lunch?”

Panic sparked in the back of her head and she sat up straight. “Of course not.”


“Because I’m working. I can’t just leave.”

He raised an eyebrow at the piles of neatly organized screws on the table. “Working on what?”

“For your information, I’m expecting a big parts order to come in and someone has to be here to receive it.” She was proud that the lie sounded so believable.

“Where’s your android?”

Her breath snagged. “She’s…not here.”

Kai took a step back from the table and made a show of looking around. “Ask one of the other shopkeepers to look after your booth.”

“Absolutely not. I pay money to rent this booth. I’m not just going to abandon it because some prince shows up.”

Kai inched toward the table again. “Come on. I can’t take you to the…B-word; I can’t take you to lunch. Short of my unplugging the processor on one of my androids, this could be the last time we ever see each other.”

“Believe it or not, I’d actually kind of resolved myself to that fact already.”

Kai rested his elbows on the table, ducking so that the hood concealed his eyes from her. His fingers found a screw, began twisting it between them. “Will you be watching the coronation, at least?”

She hesitated before shrugging. “Of course I will.”

With a nod, he used the tip of the screw to scratch beneath his thumbnail, though Cinder couldn’t see any dirt beneath it. “I’m supposed to make an announcement tonight. Not at the coronation but at the ball. About the peace negotiations we’ve been having the past week. It won’t be recorded because of Levana’s ridiculous no-cameras policy, but I wanted you to know.”

Cinder stiffened. “Has there been any progress?”

“I guess you could say that.” He peered up at her but couldn’t hold the

gaze long. Soon he was staring past her, at all the abandoned parts. “I know this is stupid, but part of me felt like if I could come see you today, if I could convince you to go with me tonight, then maybe I could still change things. It’s dumb, I know. It’s not like Levana cares if I, you know, might have actual feelings for someone.” He craned his head again, tossing the screw back onto its pile.

Cinder’s entire body tingled at his words, but she gulped, forcing the giddiness away. She reminded herself that this was the last time she would ever see him.

“You mean you’re…” The words dried out. She dropped her voice. “But what about Nainsi? About the things she…the things she knew?”

Kai stuffed his hands into his pockets, the troubled look vanishing. “It’s too late. Even if I could find her. It couldn’t happen today, or even before…. And then there’s the antidote, and I…I just can’t wait on that. Too many people are dying.”

“Has Dr. Erland learned anything?”

Kai nodded, slowly. “He’s confirmed it as a real antidote, but he says they can’t duplicate it.”

“What? Why?”

“I guess one of the ingredients is only found on the moon. Ironic, huh? And then there was the boy who recovered last week, and Dr. Erland’s been running tests on him for days, but he’s being very secretive about it. He says I shouldn’t get my hopes up that the boy’s recovery could lead to any new discoveries. He hasn’t said it outright, but…I’m getting the impression that the doctor is losing hope of finding an antidote anytime soon. An antidote other than Levana’s, at least. It could be years before we make anymore headway, and by that time…” He hesitated, eyes haunted. “I just don’t know that I could watch so many people die.”

Cinder lowered her gaze. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do.”

Kai pushed himself back from the table, standing again. “Were you still thinking about heading to Europe?”

“Oh, yes, actually. I kind of was.” She sucked in a deep breath. “Do you want to come with?”

He conceded a short laugh and pushed his hair back from his face. “Yes.

Are you kidding? I think that’s the best offer I’ve ever had.”

She smiled up at him, but it was short-lived. A single blissful moment of pretend.

“I need to get back,” he said, peering down at the thin gold-covered box. Cinder had nearly forgotten about it. He nudged it across the table, pushing a

neat row of screws along with it. “No. I can’t—”

“Sure you can.” He shrugged, seemingly uncomfortable, which was an oddly charming look on him. “I’d thought for the ball, but…well, whenever you have the chance, I guess.”

Curiosity boiled inside her, but she forced herself to push the box back toward him. “No, please.”

He laid his hand firmly over hers—she could feel his heat even through the thick glove. “Take it,” he said, and flashed his signature prince-charming grin, as if he were completely unfazed. “And think of me.”

“Cinder, here, take these.”

Cinder jumped at Pearl’s voice and wrenched her hand out from Kai’s grip. Pearl swiped an arm across her work desk, sending bits and screws clattering to the pavement, then slammed a stack of papered boxes down in their place.

“Put them somewhere near the back, where they won’t get stolen,” said Pearl, gesturing airily toward the back of the booth. “Somewhere clean if such a place exists.”

Heart thumping, Cinder reached for the boxes and pulled them toward her. Her thoughts raced down to her empty ankle, how she would have to limp to the back of the booth, how there would be no way to hide her deformity.

“What, no please or thank you?” said Kai.

Cinder flinched, wishing Kai had already gone before Pearl ruined the last moments she would ever see him.

Pearl bristled. She tossed her long hair over one shoulder as she turned toward the prince, eyes darkening. “Who are you to—” The words disappeared, leaving her lips puckered in surprise.

Kai pocketed his hands and eyed her with barely veiled disdain.

Cinder wrung her fingers into the twine that tied Pearl’s boxes. “Your Highness, please meet my stepsister, Linh Pearl.”

Pearl’s lips parted, jaw dropping as the prince gave her a curt bow. “A pleasure,” he said, his tone too sharp.

Cinder cleared her throat. “Thank you again for your generous payment, Your Highness. And, uh, best of luck at your coronation.”

Kai’s gaze softened as he peeled it away from Pearl. A hint of a shared conspiracy touched the corners of his lips, something too suggestive to go unnoticed by Pearl. He dipped his head to her. “I guess this is good-bye then. My request still stands, by the way, if you change your mind.”

To Cinder’s relief, he didn’t elaborate, just turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Pearl followed him with her eyes. Cinder wanted to as well, but she forced herself to look at the stack of shopping boxes. “Yes, of course,” she said, as if the prince’s interruption hadn’t happened. “I’ll just put these on the shelf back here.”

Pearl slammed her hand down on top of Cinder’s, halting her. Her eyes were wide, disbelieving. “That was the prince.”

Cinder feigned indifference. “I fixed one of the royal androids last week.

He was just coming to pay me.”

A crease formed between Pearl’s eyebrows. Her lips tightened. Her suspicious gaze fell down to the thin gold box that Kai had left behind. Without hesitation, she snatched it up.

Cinder gasped and swiped for the box, but Pearl danced out of reach. Cinder had her knee up on the table, prepared to lunge over it, when she realized what a catastrophe that would be. Pulse racing, she froze and watched as Pearl tore the bow and let it drop to the dusty ground, then shredded the gold paper. The box beneath was simple and white, unmarked. She lifted the lid.

Cinder tilted her head up, trying to peer inside as Pearl gawked down at the gift. She could see crinkles of tissue paper and something white and silky. She analyzed Pearl’s face, trying to judge her reaction, but could only pinpoint confusion.

“Is this a joke?”

Saying nothing, Cinder slowly backed up, lowering her knee off the table. Pearl tilted the box so Cinder could see. Inside was the finest pair of gloves she could have imagined. Pure silk and shining silver-white. They were tall enough to cover her elbows, and a row of seed pearls along the hems

added the simplest touch of elegance. They were gloves fit for a princess.

It did seem like a joke.

A sharp laugh exploded from Pearl. “He doesn’t know, does he? He doesn’t know about your—about you.” She clutched the gloves, ripping them from their tissue bed, and let the box tumble into the street. “What did you think was going to happen?” She waved the gloves at Cinder, the empty fingers wagging helplessly. “Did you think the prince might actually like you? Did you think you might go to the ball and dance with him in your pretty new gloves and your—” She scanned Cinder’s clothes, the filthy cargo pants, the stained T-shirt, the tool belt strapped around her waist, and laughed again.

“Of course not,” said Cinder. “I’m not going to the ball.” “Then what use does a cyborg have of these?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t—He just—”

“Maybe you thought it wouldn’t matter,” said Pearl, clicking her tongue.

“Is that it? Did you think the prince—no—the emperor would find it in his heart to overlook all your…”—she twirled her hand—“shortcomings?”

Cinder squeezed her fists, trying to ignore the sting of the words. “He’s just a customer.”

The mocking light died in Pearl’s eyes. “No. He’s the prince. And if he knew the truth about you, he wouldn’t have given you a passing glance.”

Resentment flared in Cinder’s chest. She leveled Pearl with her own glare. “Which is about as much as he gave you, right?” She wished she’d held her tongue the moment the words were out, but the outrage that flushed over Pearl’s face was almost worth it.

Until Pearl threw the gloves to the ground, then grasped the toolbox atop the table and heaved it over on top of them. Cinder cried out at the crash that followed, nuts and bolts skittering halfway across the road. The crowd stopped to stare at them, at the mess.

Pearl angled her nose toward Cinder. Her lips barely creased. “You’d better get that cleaned up before the festival closes. I’ll require your help tonight. After all, I have a royal ball to attend.”

Cinder’s wires were still humming as Pearl grabbed her shopping boxes and marched away, but she wasted no time in hopping over the desk and crouching down beside the toppled toolbox. She turned the box right-side up but ignored the loose parts, reaching instead for the gloves at the bottom of the pile.

They were caked with dirt and dust, but it was the bits of smeared grease that made her heart sink. Cinder draped them over her knee and tried to smooth the wrinkles from the silk, only smearing the oil. They were beautiful. The most beautiful things she’d ever owned.

But if there was one thing she knew from years as a mechanic, it was that some stains never came out.

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