Chapter no 36

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


“Welcome to the world of true politics.” Levana took a sip of her wine.

Despite her blood-red lips, no mark was left on the glass.

“This is not the time or the place to be having this discussion,” he said with a barely restrained growl.

“Isn’t it? It seems to me that this discussion involves every being in this room. After all, you want peace. You want to keep your citizenry safe. They are both admirable goals.” Her gaze slid to Cinder. “You also want to save this hapless creature. So be it.”

Cinder’s heart thudded, her eyesight flickering as she refocused it on Kai. “And you?” said Kai.

“I want to be empress.”

Cinder squirmed against the guard. “Kai, no. You can’t do it.” He turned back to her. His eyes were turbulent.

“It won’t make a difference,” Cinder said. “You know it won’t.” “Silence her,” ordered Levana.

The guard clamped a hand over her mouth, pulling her hard against his chest, but he could not keep her eyes from pleading. Don’t do it. I’m not worth it, you know that.

Kai paced to the doorway. He gazed out at the raging storm for a moment, shoulders quaking, before he turned and swept his gaze over the ballroom. The ocean of color, silk and taffeta, gold and pearls. The frightened, confused faces around him.

The annual ball. 126 years of world peace.

He released a strangled breath and pulled his shoulders taut. “I thought I’d made my decision quite clear. Only hours ago, I told my country that I would do anything to keep them safe. Anything at all.” He opened both palms, pleading, toward the queen. “I acknowledge readily that you are more powerful than all Earthen kingdoms combined, and I have no desire to test our forces against yours. I also recognize that I am ignorant in the ways of

your culture and your people, and I cannot condemn you for the way you have governed them. I trust you have always had the best interests of your people at heart.” He met Cinder’s gaze. His shoulders became rigid. “But it is not the way that I will have the Commonwealth governed. We must have peace, but not at the expense of freedom. I cannot—I will not marry you.”

The air sucked out of the room, low rushed whispers scattering in the crowd. Relief swelled in Cinder, but it was squashed when Kai met her gaze, and he could not have looked more miserable. He mouthed, simply, “I’m sorry.”

She wished she could tell him it was all right. She understood. This was the decision she’d wanted him to make from the start, and nothing would change that.

She was not worth starting a war over.

Levana’s lips were pinched, her face static but for the slow drawing back of her ears, the almost imperceptible clenching of her jaw. Cinder’s retina scanner flickered madly in the corner of her sight, scrolling through numbers and bits of data, but she ignored it like she would an annoying gnat.

“You have made your decision?”

“Yes,” said Kai. “The girl—the fugitive will be held in our prison until your departure.” He lifted his chin as if reconciling himself to the decision. “I have meant no disrespect, Your Majesty. I do wish with all my heart that we can continue our discussions for an acceptable alliance.”

“We cannot,” said Levana. The glass in her hand shattered, sending bits of crystal cascading to the hard floor. Cinder jumped, a chorus of screams burst from the crowd as they drew back, but the Lunar guard seemed immune to the outburst. “My requirements were made quite clear to your father, as they have been made quite clear to you, and you are a fool to deny them.” She tossed the glass’s thin stem at the column. Wine dribbled from her fingertips. “Do you insist on denying my requests?”

“Your Majesty—” “Answer the question.”

Cinder’s retina scanner lit up, as if a spotlight had been dropped down on the queen. She gasped. Her knees collapsed, and she slumped against the guard, who jerked her back upright.

She shut her eyes, sure she was imagining things, then opened them again. The diagram realigned. Lines pinpointing the exact angles of Levana’s face. Coordinates showing the placement of her eyes, the length of her nose, the width of her brow. A perfect illustration overlaid the perfect woman—and they were not the same.

Cinder was still gawking at the queen, trying to make sense of the lines

and angles that her scanner was showing her, when she realized that the arguing had ceased. Her reaction had been so abrupt that everyone’s attention had returned to her.

“Stars,” she whispered. Her scanner was seeing beyond the illusion. Unscathed by the Lunar glamour, it knew where the true boundaries of the queen’s face were, the imperfections, the inconsistencies. “It really is an illusion. You’re not beautiful.”

The queen paled. The world seemed to have frozen around the diagrams in Cinder’s gaze, the tiny points and measurements revealing the queen’s greatest secret. She could still see the queen’s glamour, her high cheek bones and full lips, but the effect was hidden beneath the truth of the diagram. The longer she stared, the more data her display gathered, gradually filling in Levana’s true features.

She was so entranced with the slow revealing that she didn’t notice Levana curling her long fingers at her side. It was not until an electric current seemed to shimmer in the air that Cinder snapped her focus away from the scribblings in her vision.

The queen flexed her fingers. The guard pulled away, releasing Cinder’s wrists.

Planting her feet, Cinder barely caught herself from toppling forward—at the same time that her hand reached back, as if with a mind of its own, and snatched the gun from the guard’s holster.

She stiffened, feeling the heavy gun so abruptly, unexpectedly in her steel hand.

Her finger slipped over the trigger as if it were an extension of her. The gun felt comfortable in her palm. But it shouldn’t have. She’d never held one before.

Her heart thudded.

Cinder lifted the gun, pressing the barrel against her own temple. A shuddering cry escaped her. A strand of hair clung to her parched lips. Her eyes darted to the left, unable to see the gun or the traitorous hand holding it. She looked at the queen, the crowd, Kai.

Her whole body was shaking, but for the confident arm holding the gun poised to kill her.

“No! Leave her alone!” Kai rushed for her, grasping her elbow. He tried to yank it away, but she was immobilized, solid as a statue. “Let her go!”

“K-Kai,” she stammered, terror seizing her. She urged her hand to drop the gun, urged her finger to pull away from the trigger, but it was useless. She squeezed her eyes shut. Her head throbbed. INCREASING LEVELS OF ADRENALINE. CORTISONE. GLUCOSE. HEART RATE INCREASING.


Her finger twitched, briefly, then solidified again.

She imagined what the gun would sound like. She imagined the blood. She imagined her brain shutting down, feeling nothing. BIOELECTRICAL MANIPULATION DETECTED. INITIALIZING RESISTANCE PROCEDURE

IN 3…2…

Her finger slowly, slowly pulled down on the trigger.

Fire exploded in her spine, racing along her nerves and wires, slithering down the metal braces in her limbs.

Cinder screamed and forced the gun away from her head. Arm straight, barrel pointed at the ceiling. She stopped fighting it. Pulled the trigger. A chandelier shattered above her, glass and crystal and sparks.

The crowd screamed and surged for the exit.

Cinder crumpled to her knees and doubled over, cradling the gun against her stomach. Pain tore through her, blinding her. Fireworks burst in her head. It felt as if her body were trying to dispel all her cyborg parts—explosions and sparks and smoke tearing at her flesh.

Kai’s voice over the tumult in her ears made her realize that the pain was subsiding. She felt hot to the touch, like someone had thrown her into a kiln, but the pain and heat had moved to her exterior, to her skin and fingertips rather than eating her up inside. She opened her eyes. White dots speckled her gaze. Her display was flashing red warnings. Diagnostics scrolled through the corner of her vision. Her temperature was too high, her heart rate too high, her blood pressure too high. Some foreign substance had invaded her blood that her system did not recognize and could not dispel. Something is wrong, her programming screamed at her. You are sick. You are ill. You are dying.

But she did not feel like she was dying.

Her body felt so hot she was surprised she didn’t incinerate the fragile dress. Sweat sizzled on her brow. She felt different. Strong. Powerful.

On fire.

Shaking, she sat back on her heels and stared at her hands. The left glove had started to melt, forming patches of gooey, silky skin on her white-hot metal hand. She could see electricity sizzling across the steel surface, but she couldn’t tell if it was her human or cyborg eyes detecting it. Or maybe, not human. Not cyborg.


She raised her head. The world was covered in a cool gray mist, as if everything had frozen—except for her. Her body was beginning to cool. Her skin paling, her metal dulling. She tried to cover her metal hand, stupidly, in case Kai had been too blinded by the flash to notice it.

She caught the queen’s eye. Levana’s rage seemed to hiccup when their gazes met. The queen gasped and drew back a step. For a moment, she looked almost afraid.

“Impossible,” she whispered.

Cinder called forth every nanobyte of strength she possessed in order to stand, and pointed the gun at the queen. She pulled the trigger.

The red-haired guard was there. The bullet hit him in the shoulder. Levana didn’t even flinch.

Cinder’s brain caught up with her body as blood dripped over the guard’s armor.

Cinder dropped the gun and ran. Knowing the frenzied crowd was impenetrable, she barreled toward the nearest exit, the massive doors that led into the gardens. Past the guard, past the queen, past her entourage, glass crunching beneath her stolen boots.

The hollow echo of the stone patio. A puddle splashing onto her legs. The fresh, cool smell of rain that had turned to a drizzle.

The stairway stretched before her. Twelve steps and a Zen garden, a towering wall, a gate, the city—escape.

On the fifth step, she heard the bolts snap. The wires tore loose, like tendons stretched to the max. She felt the loss of power at the base of her calf, sending a blinding warning signal up to her brain.

She fell, screaming, and tried to block her fall with her left hand. A shock of pain jolted up her shoulder and into her spine. Metal clattered against stone as she crashed down to the gravel pathway.

She lay sprawled on her side. Holes frayed her glove where she’d tried to catch her fall. Blood stained the beautiful cream-colored silk over her right elbow.

She struggled to breathe. Her head felt suddenly heavy, and she let it slump against the ground, little pebbles digging into her scalp. Her roaming eyes squinted up at the sky, where the storm had fizzled out but for a foggy mist that clung to Cinder’s hair and lashes, refreshing against her hot skin. The full moon sought to break through the cloud cover, burning a slow hole above her as if it planned to swallow up the whole sky.

Movement drew her eye back to the ballroom. The guard who had been holding her reached the stairs and froze. Kai was beside him a second later and screeched to a halt, grasping the railing to stop himself.

His eyes drunk her in—a gleam of metal fingers, the wires sparking at the end of her battered metal leg. His jaw fell, and he looked momentarily as if he might be sick.

More pounding at the top of the stairs. The man and woman appeared in

their thaumaturge uniforms, and the guard she’d shot, undeterred by his oozing wound. Kai’s adviser and, finally, Queen Levana herself. Her glamour had returned full force, but all her beauty could not hide the fury contorting her features. Gathering her sparkling skirt in both hands, she moved to stomp down the steps toward Cinder, but the lady thaumaturge stopped her with a gentle hand and gestured up to the wall of the palace.

Cinder followed the movement.

A security camera was on them—on her. Seeing everything.

The last remnants of strength fled from Cinder, leaving her exhausted and weak.

Kai crept down the stairs as if sneaking up on a wounded animal. Stooping, he picked up the rusted cyborg foot that had fallen out of the velvet boot. His jaw flexed as he studied it, perhaps recognizing it from the day they’d met at the market. He would not look at her.

Levana’s lip curled. “Disgusting,” she said from the doorway, safely hidden from the camera’s view. Her words were loud and unnaturally forced compared to her usual lilting voice. “Death would be merciful.”

“She wasn’t a shell after all,” said Sybil Mira. “How did she hide it?” Levana sneered. “It matters not. She’ll be dead soon enough. Jacin?”

The blond guard descended a single step toward Cinder. He was holding his gun again, the one Cinder had dropped.

“Wait.” Kai stole down the remaining stairs until he stood on the pathway before her. It seemed he had to force himself to meet her gaze, and he flinched at first. Cinder could not read him, the ever-changing mix of disbelief and confusion and regret. His chest was heaving. He tried to speak twice before words would come, quiet words that would never leave Cinder’s head.

“Was it all an illusion?” he asked.

Pain lanced through her chest, squeezing the air out of her. “Kai?” “Was it all in my head? A Lunar trick?”

Her stomach twisted. “No.” She shook her head, fervently. How to explain that she hadn’t had the gift before? That she couldn’t have used it against him? “I would never lie—”

The words faded. She had lied. Everything he knew about her had been a


“I’m so sorry,” she finished, the words falling lamely in the open air.

Kai peeled his eyes away, finding some place of resignation off in the

glistening garden. “You’re even more painful to look at than she is.”

Cinder’s heart shriveled inside her until she was sure it would stop beating altogether. She reached her hand to her cheek, feeling the damp silk against her skin.

Setting his jaw, Kai turned back to the queen. Cinder stared up at the back of his crimson shirt with the peaceful turtledoves embroidered along the collar. One hand still clutched her cyborg foot.

“She will be taken into custody,” he said, with little strength behind his words. “She will be imprisoned until we can decide what to do with her. But if you kill her tonight, I swear I will never agree to any alliance with Luna.”

The queen’s glare darkened. Even if she agreed, Cinder would eventually be given back to the moon. And as soon as Levana had her in her power, a noose would be put around her neck.

Kai was buying her time. But probably not much. What she couldn’t fathom was why.

Cinder watched the queen fight with her temper, knowing she could kill both her and Kai in a blink.

“She will be my prisoner,” Levana finally conceded. “She will be returned to Luna and tried under our judicial system.”

Translation: She would die.

“I understand,” said Kai. “In return, you will agree not to wage war against my country or planet.”

Levana tilted her head up, looking down her nose at him. “Agreed. I will not wage war against Earth for this infraction. But I would tread lightly, young emperor. You have tried my patience greatly this night.”

Kai took in a single breath, dipped his head at her, and then stepped aside as the Lunar guards trudged down the steps. They lifted Cinder’s broken body off the gravel path. She tried her best to stand, peering at Kai, wishing she could have just one moment to tell him how sorry she was. One breath to explain.

But he didn’t look at her as she was dragged past him. His eyes were locked on the dirty steel foot clasped in both hands, his fingertips white from gripping it too hard.

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