Fairest, p.1
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         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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Fairest


  The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.

  This book is for the readers.

  The Lunartics. The fans.

  Thank you for taking this journey with me.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Begin Reading

  Acknowledgments

  Teaser

  Copyright

  Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

  Who is the Fairest of them all?

  She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back. White sparks floated in her vision but the mercy of unconsciousness wouldn’t come. Her throat was hoarse from screaming. The smell of her own burning flesh invaded her nostrils. Smoke stung her eyes. Blisters burbled across her skin, and entire swaths of flesh peeled away, revealing raw tissue underneath.

  The pain was relentless, the agony never ending. She pleaded for death, but it never came.

  She reached out with her good hand, trying to drag her body from the fire, but the bed of coals crushed and collapsed under her weight, burying her, dragging her deeper into the embers and the smoke.

  Through the haze she caught a glimpse of kind eyes. A warm smile. A finger curled toward her. Come here, baby sister …

  Levana gasped and jolted upward, limbs tangled in heavy blankets. Her sheets were damp and cold from her sweat, but her skin was still burning hot from the dream. Her throat felt scratched raw. She struggled to swallow, but her saliva tasted like smoke and made her cringe. She sat in the faint morning light shuddering, trying to will away the nightmare. The same nightmare that had plagued her for too many years, that she could never seem to escape.

  She rubbed her hands repeatedly over her arms and sides until she was certain the fire wasn’t real. She was not burning alive. She was safe and alone in her chambers.

  With a trembling breath, she scooted to the other side of the mattress, away from the sweat-stained sheets, and lay back down. Afraid to close her eyes, she stared up at the canopy and practiced her slow breathing until her heartbeat steadied.

  She tried to distract herself by planning who she would be that day.

  A thousand possibilities floated before her. She would be beautiful, but there were many types of beauty. Skin tone, hair texture, the shape of one’s eyes, the length of a neck, a well-placed freckle, a certain grace in the way one walked.

  Levana knew a great deal about beauty, just as she knew a great deal about ugliness.

  Then she remembered that today was the funeral.

  She groaned at the thought. How exhausting it would be to hold a glamour all day long, in front of so many. She didn’t want to go, but she would have no choice.

  It was an inconvenient day for her focus to be shaken by nightmares. Perhaps it would be best to choose something familiar.

  As the dream receded into her subconscious, Levana toyed with the idea of being her mother that day. Not as Queen Jannali had been when she died, but perhaps as a fifteen-year-old version of her. It would be a sort of homage to attend the funeral wearing her mother’s cheekbones and the vivid violet eyes that everyone knew were glamour-made, though no one would have dared say so aloud.

  She spent a few minutes imagining what her mother might have looked like at her age, and she let the glamour settle over her. Moon-blonde hair sleekly pulled into a low knot. Skin as pale as a sheet of ice. A little shorter than she would become full grown. Pale pink lips, so as not to detract from the vibrancy of those eyes.

  It calmed her, sinking into the glamour. But no sooner had she tested the look than she felt the wrongness of it.

  She did not want to go to her parents’ funeral in the garb of a girl-now-dead.

  A tap fluttered at the door, interrupting her thoughts.

  Levana sighed, and quickly fell into another costume that she’d dreamed up days before. Olive skin, a graceful slope to her nose, and raven-black hair cut adorably short. She shifted through a few eye colors before landing on a striking gray-blue, topped off with smoldering black lashes.

  Before she could second-guess herself, she embedded a silver jewel into the flesh beneath her right eye.

  A teardrop. To prove that she was in mourning.

  “Come in,” she called, opening her eyes.

  A servant entered carrying a breakfast tray. The girl curtsied in the doorway, not lifting her gaze from the floor—which rendered Levana’s glamour unnecessary—before approaching the bed.

  “Good morning, Your Highness.”

  Sitting up, Levana allowed the servant to set the tray across her lap and tuck a cloth napkin around her. The servant poured jasmine tea into a hand-painted porcelain cup that had been imported from Earth several generations ago, and garnished it with two small mint leaves and a drizzle of honey. Levana said nothing as the servant uncovered a tray of tiny cream-filled pastries, so that Levana could see what they looked like whole, before using a silver knife to saw them into even tinier bite-size pieces. While the servant worked, Levana eyed the dish of bright-colored fruits: a soft-fuzzed peach set into a halo of black and red berries, all dusted with powdered sugar.

  “Is there anything else I can bring for you, Your Highness?”

  “No, that will be all. But send the other one up in twenty minutes to prepare my mourning dress.”

  “Of course, Your Highness,” she answered, although they both knew there was no other one. Every servant in the palace was the other one. It didn’t matter to Levana who the girl sent up, so long as whoever it was could properly stitch her into the sleek gray gown the seamstress had delivered the day before. Levana didn’t want to bother with glamouring her dress today in addition to her face, not with so many other thoughts in her head.

  With another curtsy, the servant ducked out of the room, leaving Levana to stare down at her breakfast tray. Only now did she realize how very un-hungry she was. There was an ache in her stomach, perhaps left over from the horrible dream. Or she supposed it could have been sadness, but that was doubtful.

  She felt no great loss at the death of her parents, who had been gone now for half the long day. Eight artificial nights. Their deaths were terribly gory. They were assassinated by a shell who used his invincibility against the Lunar gift to sneak into the palace. The man had shot two royal guards in the head before making his way to her parents’ bedroom on the third floor, killing three more guards, and slitting her mother’s throat so deeply the knife severed part of her spine. He had then gone down the hallway to where her father was lying with one of his mistresses and stabbed him sixteen times in the chest.

  The mistress was still screaming, blood spurts across her face, when two royal guards found them.

  The shell murderer was still stabbing.

  Levana had not seen the bodies, but she had seen the bedrooms the next morning, and her first thought was that all that blood would make for a very pretty rouge on her lips.

  She knew it was not the proper thing to think, but she also did not think her parents would have thought anything better had it been her murdered instead of them.

  Levana had managed to eat three-quarters of a pastry and five small berries when her bedroom door opened again. She was immediately angry at the intrusion—the servant was early. Only on the heels of her annoyance did she check that her glamour was still in place. This, she knew, was the wrong order of concern.

  But it was her sister, not one of the faceless servants, who swept into her bedroom. “Channary!” Levana barked, pushing the
tray away from her. The tea slopped over the sides of the cup, pooling in the saucer beneath. “I have not given you permission to enter.”

  “Then perhaps you should lock your door,” said Channary, sliding like an eel across the carpet. “There are murderers about, you know.”

  She said it with a smile, wholly unconcerned. And why shouldn’t she be? The murderer had been promptly executed when the guards found him, bloodied knife still in hand.

  Not that Levana didn’t think there could be more shells out there, angry enough and crazy enough to attempt another attack. Channary was a fool if she thought otherwise.

  Which was part of the problem. Channary was simply a fool.

  She was a beautiful fool, though, which was the worst kind. Her sister had lovely tanned skin and dark chestnut hair and eyes that tilted up just right at the corners so that she looked like she was smiling even when she wasn’t. Levana was convinced that her sister’s beauty was glamour-made, certain that no one as horrible on the inside could be so lovely on the outside, but Channary would never confess one way or the other. If there was a chink in her illusion of beauty, Levana had yet to find it. The stupid girl wasn’t even bothered by mirrors.

  Channary was already dressed for the funeral, though the dull gray color of the fabric was the only indication that it was made for mourning. The netted skirt jutted out nearly perpendicular to her thighs, like a dancer’s costume, and the body-hugging top was inset with thousands of silver sparkles. Her arms were painted with wide gray stripes spiraling up each limb, then coming together to form a heart on her chest. Inside the heart, someone had scrawled, You will be missed.

  Altogether, the look made Levana want to gag.

  “What do you want?” asked Levana, swinging her legs out from beneath the blankets.

  “To see that you won’t be embarrassing me by your appearance today.” Reaching forward, Channary tugged at the flesh beneath Levana’s eye, an experiment to see if the embedded gemstone would hold. Flinching, Levana knocked her hand away.

  Channary smirked. “Thoughtful touch.”

  “Less fraudulent than claiming you’re going to miss them,” said Levana, glaring at the painted heart.

  “Fraudulent? To the contrary. I shall miss them a great deal. Especially the parties that Father used to throw during the full Earth. And being able to borrow Mother’s dresses when I was going shopping in AR-4.” She hesitated. “Though I suppose now I can simply take her seamstress as my own, so perhaps that is no great loss after all.” With a giggle, she sat down on the edge of the bed and snatched a berry from the breakfast tray, popping it onto her tongue. “You should be prepared to say a few words at the funeral today.”

  “Me?” It was an appalling idea. Everyone would be watching her, judging just how sad she was. She didn’t think she could fake it well enough.

  “You’re their daughter too. And—” Suddenly, inexplicably choked up, Channary dabbed at the corner of her eye. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to do it all on my own. I’ll be overwhelmed by grief. Perhaps I will faint and require a guard to carry me to someplace dark and quiet to recover.” She snorted, all signs of sadness vanishing as quickly as they had come. “That’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps I can stage it to happen next to that new young one with the curly hair. He seems quite … obliging.”

  Levana scowled. “You’re going to leave me alone to guide the entire kingdom in mourning, so that you can frolic with one of the guards?”

  “Oh, stop it,” said Channary, covering her ears. “You’re so annoying when you whine.”

  “You’re going to be queen, Channary. You’re going to have to make speeches and important decisions that will affect everyone on Luna. Don’t you think it’s time you took that seriously?”

  Laughing, Channary sucked at the grains of sugar left on her fingertips. “Like our parents took it so seriously?”

  “Our parents are dead. Killed by a citizen who must not have thought they were doing a very good job.”

  Channary waved her hand through the air. “Being queen is a right, little sister. A right that comes with an endless supply of men and servants and beautiful dresses. Let the court and the thaumaturges deal with all the boring details. As for me, I am going to be known throughout history as the queen who never stopped laughing.” Tossing her hair off her shoulder, she surveyed the bedroom, its gold-papered walls and hand-embroidered draperies. “Why aren’t there any mirrors in here? I want to see how beautiful I look for my tear-filled performance.”

  Crawling from the bed, Levana pulled on a robe that had been laid out on the sitting chair. “You know very well why there aren’t any mirrors.”

  To which Channary’s grin widened. She hopped up from the bed as well. “Oh, yes, that’s right. Your glamours are so becoming these days I’d almost forgotten.”

  Then, quick as a viper, Channary backhanded Levana across the face, sending her stumbling into one of the bedposts. Levana cried out, the shock causing her to lose control of her glamour.

  “Ah, there’s my ugly duckling,” Channary cooed. Stepping closer, she grabbed Levana’s chin, squeezing tight before Levana could raise her hand to soothe her already-flaming cheek. “I suggest you remember this the next time you think to contradict one of my orders. As you have so kindly reminded me, I am going to be queen, and I will not tolerate my commands being questioned, especially by my pathetic little sister. You will be speaking for me at the funeral.”

  Turning away, Levana blinked back the tears that had sprung up and scrambled to reinstate her illusion. To hide her disfigurements. To pretend that she was beautiful too.

  Spotting movement in the corner of her eye, she saw a maid frozen in the doorway. Channary hadn’t closed it upon entering, and Levana was quite certain the maid had seen everything.

  Smartly, the servant lowered her gaze and curtsied.

  Releasing Levana’s chin, Channary stepped back. “Put on your mourning dress, little sister,” she said, once again wearing her pretty smile. “We have a very big day ahead of us.”

  * * *

  The great hall was filled with grays. Gray hair, gray makeup, gray gloves, gray gowns, gray stockings. Charcoal jackets and heather sleeves, snowdrop shoes and stormy top hats. Despite the drab color palette, though, the funeral guests looked anything but mournful. For in those grays were gowns made of floating ribbons and sculpted jewelry and frosted flowers that grew like tiny gardens from bountiful poufed hair.

  Levana could imagine that the Artemisian seamstresses had been kept very, very busy since the assassination.

  Her own dress was adequate. A floor-length gown made of gray-on-gray damask velvet and a high lace neckline that, she guessed, looked lovely with the cropped black hair of her glamour. It was nothing as showy as Channary’s tutu, but at least she maintained a bit of dignity.

  On a dais at the front of the room, a holograph was showing the deceased king and queen as they had once looked in their summery youth. Her mother in her wedding gown—barely older then than Levana was now. Her father seated upon his throne, broad shouldered and square jawed. They were artist-rendered portraits, of course—recordings of the royal family were strictly prohibited—but the artist had captured their glamours almost perfectly. Her father’s steely gaze, the graceful way her mother fluttered her fingers when she waved.

  Levana stood beside Channary on the dais, accepting kisses on her hands and the condolences of Artemisia’s families as they filtered past. Levana’s stomach was in knots, knowing that Channary planned on shirking her duties as eldest and forcing her to give the speech. Though she had been practicing for years, Levana still had the irrational fear every time she addressed an audience that she would lose control of her glamour and they would see her as she truly was.

  The rumors were bad enough. Whispers that the young princess was not at all beautiful, had in fact been grotesquely disfigured by some tragic accident in her childhood. That it was a mercy no one would ever have to look on her. That the
y were all lucky she was as skilled at her glamour as she was, so they wouldn’t have to tolerate such ugliness in their precious court.

  She bowed her head, thanking a woman for her lie about how very honorable her parents had been, when her attention caught on a man still a few persons back in the line.

  Her heart tripped over itself. Her movements became automatic—nod, hold out your hand, mumble thank you—while all the world receded into a blur of grays.

  Sir Evret Hayle had become a royal guard in her father’s personal entourage when Levana was just eight years old, and she had loved him ever since, despite knowing that he was nearly ten years her senior. His skin was ebony dark, his eyes full of intelligence and cunning when he was on duty, and mirth when he was relaxed. She had once caught flecks of gray and emerald in his irises, and ever since was mesmerized by his eyes, hoping to be close enough one day to witness those flecks again. His hair was a mess of tightly coiled locks, long enough to seem unruly, short enough to be refined. Levana didn’t think she’d ever seen him outside of his guard uniform, which very precisely indicated every muscle in his arms and shoulders—until today. He was wearing simple gray pants and a tunic-style shirt that was almost too relaxed for a royal funeral.

  He wore them like a prince.

  For seven years she had known him to be the most handsome man in the entire Lunar court. In the city of Artemisia. On all of Luna. She had known it even before she was old enough to understand why her heart pounded so strongly when he was near.

  And now he was coming closer. Only four people dividing them. Three. Two.

  Hand beginning to tremble, Levana stood a little straighter and adjusted her glamour so that her eyes were a little brighter and the jewel in her skin glittered like an actual tear. She made herself a bit taller too—closer to Evret’s height, though still small enough to seem vulnerable and in need of protection.

  It had been many months since she had reason to stand so near to him, and here he was, coming to her, with sympathy in his eyes. There were those flecks of gray and emerald, not a figment of her imagination after all. He was not playing the role of guard, for once, but of a mourning Lunar citizen. He was taking her hand and raising it to his mouth, though the kiss landed in the air above her knuckles. Her pulse was an ocean in her ears.

 
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