Fairest, p.10
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       Fairest, p.10
 

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Annotel pursed his lips. He would be stuck now that Levana had made the comparison. “I am sure she is a wise choice,” he said. “If this is your final decision, I think the families will approve.”

  “We will see. I have a month still to consider.” She smiled, but then she spotted Evret down the hall. He was one of the guards waiting outside the conference room. Seeing him, she felt herself deflate. No matter how confident she became in her role of queen regent, every time her eyes fell on her husband, she felt like that same love-struck sixteen-year-old girl all over again.

  She hoped to pass a smile his way, but Evret did not look at her as he and his comrade pulled open the doors.

  Wetting her lips, Levana stepped inside.

  As the doors shut, the family representatives stood. Levana approached the dais where the throne stood.

  The queen’s throne.

  This room was among her favorites in the palace, and her appreciation for it had increased drastically the moment she’d first taken her seat in that magnificent chair. The room glinted and shimmered, all glass and white stone. From her position, she could see all of the members of the court seated around the intricately tiled floor, and directly opposite her was the magnificent view of Lake Artemisia and the white city.

  Sitting there, Levana truly felt like the ruler of Luna.

  “Be seated.”

  Chairs were still shuffling as she straightened her spine and gestured leisurely at Head Thaumaturge Haddon. “You may proceed.”

  “Thank you, Your Highness. I am pleased to report that your experiment regarding strict work hours in the outer sectors is going well.”

  “Oh?” Levana was not surprised, but she pretended that she was. She had read a study from Earth a few months ago about how efficiency and productivity dropped without regularly scheduled breaks. She suggested that they program chimes to sound at regular intervals in the manufacturing domes, to remind workers when to take mandatory breaks, and then extend the workday to cover that lost time. The court had not been sold on the strategy at first, worried that it would be too difficult to enforce such a drastic increase in the workday, and that there were already complaints of the people being overworked in the outer sectors. But Levana insisted that, with this new schedule, the days would in fact go faster, and the solution would benefit everyone, the workers most of all.

  “Productivity is up eight percent in the three sectors where we implemented the change,” Haddon continued, “with no apparent loss of quality.”

  “I am pleased to hear it.”

  Haddon read through the reports, feeding her the numbers on the successful increase of trade between sectors, and telling her how delighted the Artemisian families were with the new artisanal delights Levana had commissioned for their city. What’s more, the research teams were making good progress with both the genetically engineered army and the biochemical disease, and reported that it might be ready to unleash on Earth within the next eighteen months.

  No one came out and said it, but Levana could tell that the court was pleased with how she had stepped up to fill her sister’s role, and far outdone the example that Channary, and even their parents, had set. She was the queen Luna had been waiting for, and since she had taken power, the city was thriving, the outer sectors were flourishing, everything was exactly as Levana knew it should be.

  “We are planning to roll out the labor program throughout the rest of the general manufacturing sectors in the coming months,” Haddon continued. “I will give regular updates as we progress. That said, I’m afraid we have noticed some … potential drawbacks.”

  Levana listed her head to one side. “And those would be?”

  “With such frequent breaks during the workdays, the civilians are given more chances for socializing, and we’ve noticed that these interactions are continuing even after the workday has ended.”

  “And this is a problem?”

  “Well … perhaps not, Your Highness.”

  Annotel spoke up. “In the past, there has been concern of civil unrest when the people spend too much time being idle and … having ideas.”

  Levana laughed. “Unrest? What reason would my people have to be unhappy?”

  “None, of course, Your Highness,” said Haddon. “But I wonder if we have yet fully recovered from the murders on your parents. It is only that there will always be a few … bad seeds, in the outer sectors. We would hate to give them too much time to infect the others.”

  Levana folded her hands in her lap. “While I cannot imagine the people deciding they’re unhappy with our rule, I concede to your point. Why don’t we implement a mandatory curfew after work hours? Give people time to go home, and let them stay there. That’s the time to be with their families, anyway.”

  “Do we have the manpower to enforce that?” one of the nobles asked.

  “Unlikely,” said Haddon. “As a guess, we would need a forty percent increase in sector guards.”

  “Well then, hire more guards.”

  Looks were traded across the throne room, though no one argued the simplicity of this solution.

  “Of course, My Queen. We will see that it is done.”

  “Good. You said there was another problem as well?”

  “Not an immediate problem, but all of our projection reports show that this amount of production isn’t sustainable in the long term. If we continue at these rates, we’ll drain our resources. The available terra-formed land we have is already working at near-maximum capacity.”

  “Resources,” Levana drawled. “You’re telling me that we cannot continue to grow our economy because we are living on a rock.”

  “It is disheartening, but it is the truth. The only way to continue with this output is if we reopen trade agreements with Earth.”

  “Earth will not trade with us. Don’t you understand that this is the entire point of developing the disease and antidote that we discuss at every meeting? Until we have that, then we have nothing to offer the Earthens that they do not already have.”

  “We have land, Your Highness.”

  Levana bristled. Though Haddon’s voice didn’t waver, she could see the hesitation in his eyes. With good reason.

  “Land,” she repeated.

  “All of the sectors together still take up only a fraction of Luna’s total surface. There is plenty of low-gravity real estate that could be quite valuable to Earthens. They could build spaceports that would require less fuel and energy to conduct their travel and exploration. That is what we could offer them. The same arrangement that the Lunar colony was first formed on.”

  “Absolutely not. I will not return us to the political strength of a colony. I will not be dependent on the Earthen Union.”

  “Your Highness—”

  “The discussion is over. When you have another suggestion for how we can get around our dilemma of taxed resources, I will be open to hearing it. What next?”

  The meeting continued amiably enough, but there was a tension in the court that never fully dissolved. Levana tried to ignore it.

  She was the queen Luna had been waiting for. She would solve this problem too—for her people, for her country, for her throne.

  * * *

  “I’m telling you, I’m good at this,” said Levana, pacing giddily around the bedroom.

  “I’m sure you are,” said Evret, laughing as Winter brought him a pair of Levana’s shoes from the closet. “Thank you, darling,” he said, setting the shoes aside. Winter gleefully darted back toward the closet. Looking up, Evret beamed. “This is the happiest I’ve seen you in a long time.”

  It was the happiest Levana had felt in a long time. “I’ve never been good at anything,” she said. “Channary was the better dancer, the better singer, better at manipulation, better at everything. But ha! I am a better queen, and everyone knows it.”

  Evret’s smile became hesitant, and she knew he was uncomfortable speaking ill of the dead, but Levana didn’t care. It had been almost a year since Channary
s death, and she’d felt like even a day of mourning was too much. She suspected that the poor seamstress who would never walk again would agree with her.

  Winter scurried by, handing her father another pair of shoes. He patted her head, where her hair had grown into wild curls that haloed her round face. “Thank you.”

  She skipped away again.

  “And the people. I think they’re really starting to love me.”

  “Love you?”

  Levana stopped pacing, caught off guard by the mocking in his tone.

  Evret’s smile quickly fell, as if he had caught the derision too late. “Sweetheart,” he said, a name that he’d started using for her not long into their marriage. It simultaneously served to make her heart patter, and to make her question if he called her this so that he wouldn’t accidentally call her Solstice. “You are no doubt a good queen, and doing great things for Artemisia. But the people don’t know you. Have you even been to the outer sectors?”

  “Of course I haven’t. I’m the queen. I have people who go out there and report back.”

  “You’re the queen regent,” he corrected. Levana flinched—she was coming to despise the word regent. “And while I’m sure that the reports you get are very accurate, it still wouldn’t allow for the people to get to know you, their ruler. They can’t love a stranger. Thank you, Winter. And besides, whenever you do your news broadcasts, you always…”

  She narrowed her eyes, waiting.

  “It’s just … you never show your face, when they record you. Rumors are starting, you know. People think you’re hiding something. And love begins with trust, and trust can’t be formed if people think you’re hiding something.”

  “Glamours don’t work through video. You know that. Everyone knows that.”

  “Then don’t show them your glamour.” He gestured at her face. “Why not just be yourself? They’ll admire you for it.”

  “How would you know? You’ve never seen me!”

  He was momentarily taken aback, his dark eyes blinking up at her. Winter, too, stopped in the doorway, carrying yet another pair of glittering shoes.

  Evret stood and cleared his throat. “You’re right, but whose fault is that?”

  “Papa?” said Winter, cocking her head. “Why is Mother yelling?”

  Levana rolled her eyes. This was how it had been since the day Winter started speaking. She addressed her father only. Levana was just the bystander, a mother in title only.

  “No reason, darling. Why don’t you go play with your dolls?” Nudging Winter toward the playroom, Evret poured himself a drink from a small tray on the side table. “You do realize that you have been my wife now for more than three years,” he said, watching the amber liquid splash over the ice cubes. “I have not fought you. I have not left. But I’m beginning to wonder if this will ever become a real marriage, or if you plan on living this lie until one of us is dead.”

  Levana’s diaphragm quivered unexpectedly, warning her that she might cry, telling her that his words hurt more than she admitted on the surface.

  “You think our marriage is a lie?”

  “As you just said—even I have never seen what you really look like.”

  “And that’s what’s important to you? That I be beautiful, like she was.”

  “Stars above, Levana.” He pressed the glass onto the table without taking a drink. “You’re the one who impersonates her. You’re the one who hides. I’ve never wanted that. What exactly are you afraid of?”

  “That you would never look at me again! Trust me, Evret. You would never see me the same way.”

  “You think I’m that shallow? That I care at all what you look like under your glamour?”

  She turned away. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

  “I think I do. I know—there are scars, burns of some sort. I’ve heard the rumors.”

  Levana grimaced.

  “And I know your sister said you were ugly from the time you were a baby, and I can only imagine the kind of damage that does to a person. But … Levana…” Sighing, Evret came up behind her, settling his warm hands on her shoulders. “I had a wife once that I could talk to about anything. That I trusted implicitly. I think, if you and I are going to make this work, we need to at least try to have that too. But that will never happen if you’re always going to hide from me.”

  “That will never happen,” Levana hissed, “if you constantly insist on comparing me with her.”

  He turned her around to face him. “You compare yourself with her.” He cupped her face. “Let me see you. Let me judge for myself what I can or can’t handle.” He gestured to the window. “Let the people judge for themselves.”

  Levana gulped, afraid to realize that she was considering it.

  Was it true, that he could never know her, trust her, love her, so long as she hid behind this glamour of beauty and perfection?

  “No, I can’t do it,” she whispered, pulling herself out of his grip. His face fell, and a moment later his hands did too. “Maybe you’re right about the people. No—you are right. I’ll plan a tour through the outer sectors. I’ll let them see me.”

  “Your glamour, you mean.”

  She grated her teeth. “Me. This is all that matters, so please, don’t ask me again.”

  Shaking his head, he returned for his drink.

  “Trust me,” Levana said emphatically, even as her vision blurred. “It’s better this way. I’m better this way.”

  “That’s the problem,” he said, unable to look at her as he took a sip. “I don’t trust you. I don’t even know how to start.”

  * * *

  The idea came to her slowly. At first, it was merely a horrible, guilty fantasy. That there was no Selene. That Channary had died, alone and childless. That Levana was already the true queen.

  Then one day, as she was watching Winter and Selene playing with blocks on the floor of their nursery, babbling in a language only they understood, Levana had a fantasy of Selene dying.

  Putting one of those blocks in her mouth and choking on it.

  Slipping in the bathtub, and her nanny being too distracted to notice.

  Tripping on her own uncertain feet and tumbling down the hard palace steps.

  The daydreams disgusted her at first—all over an innocent child, with big brown eyes and messy brown hair too frequently left uncombed—but she told herself they were just that, daydreams. There was no harm in imagining some innocent mistake that would lead to the baby dying, and the country mourning, and Levana being crowned the queen, now and forever.

  Over time, the fantasies became more violent.

  In a frustrated fit, her nanny would throw Selene off the balcony.

  Or, rather than tripping over her own feet, some jealous child from the aristocracy would push her down the stairs.

  Or a disillusioned shell would sneak into the palace and stab her sixteen times in the chest.

  Even as Levana became afraid to think that these were her own thoughts, she could hear herself justifying them.

  She was a great queen. Luna was better off with her, not some ignorant child who would be a spoiled, self-absorbed brat by the time she took her throne.

  The transition when Selene turned thirteen would be difficult and confusing for the people. It could take years for them to get on track again.

  Channary had been a terrible ruler. No doubt her daughter would be the same.

  No one would love this country like Levana did. No one.

  She deserved to be the queen.

  Because she had never truly hated the child, she believed she was being practical in her rationalization. Her thoughts didn’t come from envy or resentment. This was about the good of Luna. The betterment of everyone around her.

  Months ticked by, and she found herself inspecting the few moments she spent with her niece for weaknesses. Wondering how she would do it, if the opportunity came. Wondering if she could get away with it.

  Levana didn’t realize she was maki
ng a plan until the plan was already half formed.

  It was the right thing to do. The only choice a concerned queen could make.

  It was a sacrifice and a burden that she couldn’t hand to anyone else.

  She chose a day, almost without realizing she had chosen it.

  The opportunity presented itself so clearly. Her imagination sparked. It was as though some unseen ghost was whispering the suggestion into her ear, coaxing her to take advantage of this chance that might not come again.

  Winter had an appointment with Dr. Eliot that day. Levana would ensure that she was the one who would get Winter from the nursery. She would send Evret on some other task. The nanny would be there. Supposedly there was a new nanny, one that people didn’t know well yet, one that may not be entirely trustworthy. Levana would coerce her, making sure it seemed like an accident. She would …

  Would what?

  This was the part that Levana could not figure out.

  How did you kill a child?

  There were so many possibilities, but every one of them made her feel like a monster for even considering it. At first she tried to think how best to make sure the child didn’t suffer. She didn’t want to cause her pain; she only wanted her dead. Something that would be over quickly.

  Then, on Selene’s third birthday, they decided to host a party. Something intimate. It had been Evret’s idea, and Levana was so delighted to see him wanting to plan something, as a family, that she didn’t argue. It was only the two of them, and little Winter, of course, and the Clay family, as always. All gathered together in the palace nursery, drinking wine and laughing like normal people, like there was nothing strange about this mingling of royalty and guards. The children played, and Garrison’s wife gave Selene a stuffed doll that she’d made, and the palace pastry chef brought up a little cake shaped like a crown. In each of the cake’s tines was a tiny silver candle.

  Evret tried to show Selene how to blow out the candles, while wax dripped into the frosting. Winter, too, wanted to take part in the celebration, and baby spittle was left all over the pretty cake before young Jacin Clay got annoyed and blew out the candles himself. They all laughed and clapped, and Levana stared at the black smoke curling upward and knew how she was going to do it.

 
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