Chapter no 4

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)


bald android treads. “How could you wait so long to tell me? You’ve only been home for, what, four hours?”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” said Cinder, rubbing her shoulder. “There wasn’t a good time, and I didn’t want Adri to know. I don’t want her taking advantage of it.”

“Who cares about what Mom thinks? want to take advantage of this. Good stars, the prince. In your booth. I can’t believe I wasn’t there. Why wasn’t I there?”

“You were busy being fitted in silk and brocade.”

“Ugh.” Peony kicked a broken headlight out of her path. “You should have commed me. I would have been there in two seconds, unfinished ball gown and all. Ugh. I hate you. It’s official, I hate you. Are you going to see him again? I mean, you’ll have to, right? I might be able to stop hating you if you promise to bring me with you, all right, deal?”

“Found one!” Iko called from ten yards ahead. Her floodlight targeted the body of a rusted hover, entrenching the piles of debris behind it in shadows.

“So? What was he like?” Peony said, keeping pace as Cinder hurried toward the earthbound vehicle, as if being near her was now on par with being near His Imperial Highness himself.

“I don’t know,” said Cinder, unlatching the vehicle’s hood and lifting it up on the prop-rod. “Ah, good, it hasn’t been scavenged.”

Iko scooted out of Cinder’s way. “He was polite enough not to point out the giant grease stain on her forehead.”

Peony gasped. “Oh, you didn’t!”

“What? I’m a mechanic. I get dirty. If he wanted me to get all gussied up, he should have commed ahead. Iko, I could use some light in here.”

Iko tilted her head forward, illuminating the engine compartment. On Cinder’s other side, Peony clucked her tongue. “Maybe he thought it was a mole?”

“That makes me feel much better.” Cinder pulled a pair of pliers from her bag. The night sky was clear, and though the lights from the city blocked out any stars, the sharp crescent moon lurked near the horizon, a sleepy eye squinting through the haze.

“Is he as handsome in real life as he looks on the netscreens?” “Yes,” said Iko. “Even more handsome. And awful tall.”

“Everyone’s tall to you.” Peony leaned against the front bumper, arms folded. “And I want to hear Cinder’s opinion.”

Cinder stopped poking the pliers around the engine as the memory of his easy smile rushed into her. Though Prince Kai had long been one of Peony’s favorite topics—she was probably in every one of his net fangroups—Cinder had never imagined that she might share the admiration. In fact, she’d always thought Peony’s celebrity crush was a little silly, a little preadolescent. Prince Kai this, Prince Kai that. An impossible fantasy.

But now…

Something in Cinder’s face must have said enough, because Peony suddenly shrieked and lunged at her, wrapping her arms around Cinder’s waist and hopping up and down. “I knew it! I knew you liked him too! I can’t believe you actually met him! It’s not fair. Did I mention how much I hate you?”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said Cinder, prying Peony’s arms off her. “Now go be giddy somewhere else. I’m trying to work.”

Peony made a face and skipped away, twirling amid the piles of junk. “What else? Tell me everything. What did he say? What did he do?”

“Nothing,” said Cinder. “He just asked me to fix his android.” She peeled away the spiderwebs from what had once been the hover’s solar generator but was now little more than a plastic shell. A cloud of dust kicked up into her face and she pulled away, coughing. “Ratchet?”

Iko plucked the ratchet from her torso and handed it to Cinder. “What kind of android is it?” asked Peony.

Cinder pried the generator from the compartment with a grunt and set it on the ground beside the hover. “An old one.”

“Tutor8.6,” said Iko. “Older than me. And he said he would come back to the market next weekend to pick it up.”

Peony kicked a rusted oil can out of the path before bending over the engine. “The news said the market’s going to be shut down next week because of the outbreak.”

“Oh—I hadn’t heard that.” Cinder wiped her hands on her pants, peering down into the engine’s lower compartment. “I guess we’ll have to drop it off at the palace then.”

“Yes!” Peony jigged in place. “We’ll go together and you can introduce me and—and—”

“Aha!” Cinder beamed. “Magbelt.”

Peony cupped her cheek in her palm, raising her voice. “And then he’ll recognize me at the ball, and I’ll dance with him and—Pearl will be livid!” She laughed, as if angering her older sister were life’s greatest accomplishment.

“If the android’s even done before the ball.” Cinder selected a wrench from the tool belt slung around her hips. She didn’t want to inform Peony that Prince Kai probably wouldn’t be the one signing for deliveries at the palace.

Peony whisked her hand through the air. “Well, or whenever.”

“I want to go to the ball,” said Iko, gazing up at the horizon. “It’s prejudice not to let androids attend.”

“Petition the government then. I’m sure Peony will be happy to take your cause direct to the prince himself.” Cinder clamped onto Iko’s spherical head and forced her to aim the light back into the hood. “Now hold still. I’ve just about got this end detached.”

Cinder stuck the wrench to Iko, then pried the magbelt from its bracket, letting it clatter to the ground below. “One side down, one to go.” She led the way around the hover, clearing a path through the garbage so Iko’s treads wouldn’t get stuck.

Peony followed and climbed on top of the hover’s trunk, folding her legs beneath her. “You know, some people are saying he’s going to be looking for a bride at the ball.”

“A bride!” said Iko. “How romantic.”

Cinder lowered herself onto her side behind the hover’s back bumper and took a small flashlight from her tool belt. “Hand me that wrench again?”

“Didn’t you hear me? A bride, Cinder. As in, a princess.”

“As in, not going to happen. He’s only, what? Nineteen?” Tucking the flashlight between her teeth, Cinder took the wrench from Iko. The bolts in the back had less rust on them, better protected from the overhanging trunk, and took only a few quick turns to loosen.

“Eighteen and a half,” said Peony. “And it’s true. All the gossip links are saying so.”

Cinder grunted.

“I would marry Prince Kai in a heartbeat.” “Me too,” said Iko.

Cinder spit out the flashlight and shuffled to the fourth corner. “You and every other girl in the Commonwealth.”

“Like you wouldn’t,” said Peony.

Cinder didn’t answer as she loosened the final bolt gripping the magbelt. It released and fell to the ground with a clang. “There we go.” She slid out from beneath the car and tucked the wrench and flashlight into her calf compartment before standing. “See any other hovers worth scavenging while we’re here?” Pulling the magbelt out from beneath the hover, she folded it at its hinges, forming a less cumbersome metal rod.

“I did see something over there.” Iko swished the light around the stacks. “Not sure what model.”

“Great. Lead the way.” Cinder nudged the android with the belt. Iko took off, muttering about being stuck in junkyards while Adri was all clean and cozy at home.

“Besides,” said Peony, hopping off the trunk, “the rumor that he’s looking for a bride at the ball is a lot better than what the other rumors are saying.”

“Let me guess. Prince Kai is actually a martian? Or no, no—he had an illegitimate child with an escort, didn’t he?”

“Escort-droids can have children?” “No.”

Peony huffed, blowing a curl off her brow. “Well, this is even worse. They say there’s been talk of him marrying…” She dropped her voice to a harsh whisper. “Queen Levana.”

“Queen—” Cinder froze and clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, glancing around as if someone could be lurking in the piles of garbage, listening. She pulled her hand away but kept her voice down. “Honestly, Peony. Those tabloids are going to rot your brain.”

“I don’t want to believe it either, but they’re all saying it. That’s why the queen’s witchy ambassador has been staying at the palace, so she can secure an alliance. It’s all very political.”

“I don’t think so. Prince Kai would never marry her.” “You don’t know that.”

But she did know. Cinder may not know much about inter-galactic politics, but she knew Prince Kai would be a fool to marry Queen Levana.

The lingering moon caught Cinder’s attention, and a shock of goose bumps covered her arms. The moon had always given her a sense of paranoia, like the people who lived up there could be watching her, and if she stared for too long, she might draw their attention. Superstitious nonsense, but then everything about Lunars was eerie and superstitious.

Lunars were a society that had evolved from an Earthen moon colony centuries ago, but they weren’t human anymore. People said Lunars could alter a person’s brain—make you see things you shouldn’t see, feel things you shouldn’t feel, do things you didn’t want to do. Their unnatural power had

made them a greedy and violent race, and Queen Levana was the worst of all of them.

They said she knew when people were talking about her even thousands of miles away. Even down on Earth.

They said she’d murdered her older sister, Queen Channary, so she could take the throne from her. They said she’d had her own husband killed too so she would be free to make a more advantageous match. They said she had forced her stepdaughter to mutilate her own face because, at the sweet age of thirteen, she had become more beautiful than the jealous queen could stand.

They said she’d killed her niece, her only threat to the throne. Princess Selene had only been three years old when a fire caught in her nursery, killing her and her nanny.

Some conspiracy theorists thought the princess had survived and was still alive somewhere, waiting for the right time to reclaim her crown and end Levana’s rule of tyranny, but Cinder knew it was only desperation that fueled these rumors. After all, they’d found traces of the child’s flesh in the ashes.

“Here.” Iko raised her hand and knocked on a slab of metal jutting from a huge mound of junk, startling Cinder.

She shoved the thoughts aside. Prince Kai would never marry that witch.

He could never marry a Lunar.

Cinder pushed a few rusted aerosol cans and an old mattress aside before she was able to clearly make out the hover’s nose. “Good eye.”

Together they shuffled enough junk out of the way so that the full front of the vehicle could be seen. “I’ve never seen one like this,” Cinder said, running a hand over the pitted chrome insignia.

“It’s hideous,” said Peony with a sneer. “What an awful color.”

“It must be really old.” Cinder found the latch and pulled open the hood. She drew back, blinking at the mess of metal and plastic that greeted her. “Really old.” She squinted into the front corner of the engine, but the undercarriage hid the magbelt clamps from view. “Huh. Point the light over there, would you?”

Cinder lowered herself to the dirt. She tightened her ponytail before squirming under the hover, shoving aside the jumble of old parts that had been left to rust in the weeds beneath it.

“Stars,” she muttered when she was able to look up into its belly. Iko’s light filtered down from above, through cables and wires, ducts and manifolds, nuts and bolts. “This thing is ancient.”

“It is in a junkyard,” said Peony.

“I’m serious. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Cinder ran a hand along a rubber cable.

The light flashed back and forth as Iko’s sensor scanned the engine from above. “Any useful parts?”

“Good question.” Cinder’s vision tinted blue as she connected to her netlink. “Could you read me the VIN by the windshield?” She searched the number as Peony read it to her and had the hover’s blueprint downloaded in minutes, the display creating an overlaid image on top of the engine above her. “Seems to be fairly intact,” she murmured, running her fingertips along a cluster of wires over her head. She followed them with her eyes, tilting her head to trace the path from hoses to pulleys to axles, trying to decipher how it all fit together. How it all worked.

“This is so cool.”

“I’m bored,” said Peony.

Sighing, Cinder searched for the magbelt on the blueprint, but a green error message flashed in her vision. She tried just magnet, and then just belt, finally receiving a hit. The blueprint lit up a rubber band wrapped around a series of gears, encapsulated by a metal cover—something called a timing belt. Frowning, Cinder reached up and felt for the bolts and lock washers that attached the cover to the engine block.

She thought timing belts hadn’t been used since internal combustion had become obsolete.

Gasping, she craned her neck to the side. In the deep shadows beneath the vehicle, she could make out something round beside her, connected to the bars overhead. A wheel.

“It’s not a hover. It’s a car. A gasoline car.”

“Seriously?” said Peony. “I thought real cars were supposed to be…I don’t know. Classy.”

Indignation flared in Cinder’s chest. “It has character,” she said, feeling for the tire’s treads.

“So,” said Iko a second later, “does this mean we can’t use any of its parts?”

Ignoring her, Cinder hungrily scanned the blueprint before her. Oil pan, fuel injectors, exhaust pipes. “It’s from the second era.”

“Fascinating. Not,” said Peony. She suddenly screeched, launching herself back from the car.

Cinder started so fast she whapped her head on the front suspension. “Peony, what?”

“A rat just came out of the window! A big hairy fat one. Oh, gross.”

Groaning, Cinder settled her head back into the dirt, massaging her forehead. That made two head injuries in one day. At that rate, she was going to have to buy a new control panel too. “It must have been nesting in the

upholstery. We probably scared it.”

We scared it?” Peony’s voice carried a shudder with it. “Can we go now, please?”

Cinder sighed. “Fine.” Dismissing the blueprint, she squirmed out from beneath the car, accepting Iko’s offered grippers to stand. “I thought all the surviving gasoline cars were in museums,” she said, brushing the cobwebs from her hair.

“I’m not sure I would label it a ‘survivor,’” said Iko, her sensor darkening with disgust. “It looks more like a rotting pumpkin.”

Cinder shut the hood with a bang, sending an impressive dust cloud over the android. “What was that about having a fantastic imagination? With some attention and a good cleaning, it could be restored to its former glory.”

She caressed the hood. The car’s dome-shaped body was a yellow-orange shade that looked sickly under Iko’s light—a color that no one in modern times would choose—but with the antique style of the vehicle it bordered on charming. Rust was creeping up from the hollow beneath the shattered headlights, arching along the dented fender. One of the back windows was missing, but the seats were intact, albeit mildew covered and torn and probably home to more than just rodents. The steering wheel and dash seemed to have suffered only minor damage over the years.

“Maybe it could be our escape car.”

Peony peered into the passenger’s side window. “Escape from what?” “Adri. New Beijing. We could get out of the Commonwealth altogether.

We could go to Europe!” Cinder rounded the driver’s side and scrubbed the dirt from the window with her glove. On the floor inside, three pedals winked up at her. Though hovers were all controlled by computer, she had read enough about old technology to know what a clutch was and even had a basic idea of how to operate one.

“This hunk of metal wouldn’t get us to the city limits,” said Peony. Stepping back, Cinder dusted off her hands. They were probably right.

Maybe this wasn’t a fantasy vehicle, maybe it wasn’t their key to salvation, but somehow, someday, she would leave New Beijing. She would find a place where no one knew who she was—or what she was.

“Plus, we couldn’t afford the gasoline,” continued Iko. “We could trade in your new foot and still not be able to afford enough fuel to get out of here. Plus, the pollution fines. Plus, I’m not getting in this thing. There’s probably decades’ worth of rat droppings under those seats.”

Peony cringed. “Ew.

Cinder laughed. “All right, I get it. I won’t make you guys push the car home.”

“Whew, you had me worried,” said Peony. She smiled because she hadn’t really been worried and flipped her hair off her shoulder.

Cinder’s eye caught on something—a dark spot below Peony’s collarbone, visible just above the collar of her shirt. “Hold still,” she said, reaching forward.

Peony did the opposite, panicking and swiping at phantoms on her chest. “What? What is it? A bug? A spider?”

“I said, hold still!” Cinder grabbed Peony by the wrist, swiped at the spot

—and froze.

Dropping Peony’s arm, she stumbled back.

“What? What is it?” Peony tugged on her shirt, trying to see, but then spotted another spot on the back of her hand.

She looked up at Cinder, blood draining from her face. “A…a rash?” she said. “From the car?”

Cinder gulped and neared her with hesitant footsteps, holding her breath. She reached again for Peony’s collarbone and pulled the fabric of her shirt down, revealing the entire spot in the moonlight. A splotch of red, rimmed with bruise purple.

Her fingers trembled. She pulled away, meeting Peony’s gaze. Peony screamed.

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