Stars above, p.14
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       Stars Above, p.14

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Jacin started to laugh. “What she said, then.” He made a great show of pulling on the tassel. The curtains didn’t budge, but Winter played along, screaming in anguish and rolling around on the carpet as if she’d just been thrown into a den with the most dangerous feral wolf of all time.

  Jacin held the sword toward the ceiling. “Now I must find my princess and return her safely to the palace, where I will be rewarded with great honor.”

  “Honor?” Winter sneered. “Aren’t you going to ask for riches, or something? Like a mansion in AR-4?”

  Shaking his head, Jacin stared dreamily toward outer space. “Seeing my princess’s smile when she is returned safely home is all the reward that I need.”

  “Ew, gross.” Winter threw a pillow at his head, but Jacin dodged it and hopped down from the bed.

  “Now then—with the pirate vanquished I have only to find her spaceship.”

  Winter pointed at the glass doors that opened out onto her balcony. “It’s out there.”

  Chest puffed like a proud hero, Jacin strutted to the doors.

  “Hold on!” Winter jumped to her feet and grabbed a belt from her wardrobe. She fluffed her thick curls around her face, trying to leave Vile Velamina behind and return to her sweet, demure princess role instead.

  On the balcony, she made a great show of tying herself to the rail.

  “You do realize,” Jacin said, watching apprehensively, “that if anyone looked up here right now, they’d think you really were in trouble.”

  “Pffft. No one would believe that you could manipulate me so easily.”

  His jaw twitched, just a little, and Winter felt a sting of guilt. Though he pretended otherwise, she knew Jacin was sensitive about how poorly his Lunar gift was developing. At almost eight years old he should have been starting glamour practice and emotional manipulation, but it was becoming apparent that Jacin had inherited his father’s lack of skill. He was almost as ungifted as a shell.

  Winter knew it was bad—shameful, even—to have so little talent, especially here in the capital city of Artemisia.

  On the other hand, her gift had started developing when she was only four, and was becoming stronger every day. She was already meeting once a week with a tutor, Master Gertman, who said she was growing up to be one of the most talented pupils he’d ever had.

  “All right, I’m ready,” she said, cinching the belt around her wrists.

  Jacin shook his head. “You’re crazy, is what you are.”

  She stuck her tongue out at him, then tossed her hair off one shoulder and screwed up her face in distress. “Won’t some strong, brave hero come save me from these awful pirates? Help! Help!”

  But Jacin’s frown remained, his attention caught on something over her shoulder. “Who’s that, in the throne room?”

  Winter glanced back. Her chambers were in the private wing of Artemisia Palace, where the royal family slept, just down the hall from her father and stepmother’s rooms. They were on the third floor, with a marvelous view of Lake Artemisia below, and she could see most of the opposite wing of the palace, which wrapped around the lake’s far side.

  At the very center of the palace was the throne room. It was the only room that had a balcony jutting far out over the lake’s waters—with no rail or barrier to provide protection if anyone stepped too close to the edge.

  And there was a woman standing there, peering into the waters below.

  Winter didn’t recognize her, but the uniform of a palace servant was clear even from far away.

  “What’s she doing?” she asked.

  She had barely finished speaking before Jacin turned and started to run.

  Heart thumping, Winter scrambled to undo the belt around her wrists. “Wait—Jacin! Wait for me!”

  He did not wait, and it didn’t occur to Winter to use her gift to force him to wait until he was already out her bedroom door. Finally she managed to get the belt undone. With one hurried look back toward the throne room, relieved to see that the woman hadn’t moved, she bolted after Jacin.

  Her guard—her real guard—startled when she burst out into the corridor and followed at a fast clip as she flew down the hallway, around the familiar white-stone curves of the palace. No one tried to stop her, though guards and nobility and thaumaturges alike stepped out of her way as she barreled past.

  From a distance she watched Jacin’s white-blond hair disappear through the enormous black doors of the throne room. The doors had almost shut again when she wedged her arm between them and shoved her way inside.

  Jacin stood only a few steps into the room and Winter nearly crashed into him, catching herself on his outstretched arm instead.

  “No!” the woman gasped. “Take her out of here. Her Highness needn’t see this.” Her voice was wobbly and cracked, her eyes bloodshot. She was young, maybe in her early twenties, and she was pretty in a natural way. No glamour was creating her rosy skin or thick brown hair, but neither was a glamour hiding the hollowness of her cheeks or the wild panic in her eyes. Everything in her expression suggested a brokenness, a desperation, and a heartbreak later Winter understood.

  The woman stood barely half a step from the balcony’s edge. She intended to jump.

  Of her own will.

  Winter’s jaw hung open. How could anyone wish that for oneself?

  “Please,” Winter said, taking a hesitant step forward. “Step back now. It’ll be all right.”

  Jacin planted a hand on Winter’s shoulder, as if he meant to hold her back, but with a twitch of her thoughts Winter sent his hand right back to his side. She heard his unhappy intake of breath but ignored it as she stepped beyond his reach.

  Behind her, she heard the clomp of her guards’ footsteps as they caught up, the bang of the doors admitting them.

  But they were only guards. They had as much talent as Jacin or Winter’s father—which is to say, almost none at all. They could not help this poor woman.

  She could, though. She could save her.

  Gulping, Winter took another step.

  The woman had started to cry. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please go away, Your Highness. Please let me do this.” She hid her face behind her hands and Winter noticed a purple-yellow bruise on her arm.

  “It will be all right now. You can trust me.”

  Just come back.

  The woman recoiled, and her expression began to change. No longer frightened, but rather dark and determined. She clenched her jaw and looked down at the lapping waves. The lake was unfathomably deep and spread all the way to the horizon, as far as one could see.

  Her toe crept back, teetering toward the edge.

  Horror expanded in Winter’s chest. The woman needed help, needed her help …

  She squeezed her fists and, with her mind, reached for that toe. She was aware of the danger—if she accidentally knocked the woman off-balance, then she might send her off the balcony even while she was trying to save her.

  But it was instinctual, as it had been from her first lessons with Master Gertman.

  She was careful. She was slow and gentle. She eased her will into the woman’s toe and the sole of her foot and her ankle and up to her knee and her thigh.

  She brought the woman’s foot steadily down.

  The woman whimpered. “No. Please. Please.”

  “It’s all right,” Winter cooed, urging forward the other leg now. One step.

  A second step.

  The woman retreated, ever so slowly, from the balcony’s edge.

  After the third step, she sagged, the strength draining from her, and Winter allowed her to collapse onto the glass floor.

  Relief rushed through her and she went to the woman, kneeling beside her and placing a hand on her shoulder. The woman’s sobs came harder.

  “You’re all right now,” said Winter. “You’re safe.”

  When the woman only cried harder, Winter did her best to comfort her. She persuaded the woman that it was true, that she was safe and everything wo
uld be all right. She imprinted pleasant emotions on the surface of her mind. It was the most difficult of the manipulations that Lunars were capable of—to change not only people’s vision or to bend their bodies to one’s will, but to change the very depth of their own feelings.

  But Winter believed she could do it. She had to do it. This was what she’d been practicing for.

  She chose happiness. A soft blanket of joy settling over the woman’s thoughts. She didn’t stop until a grateful smile stretched over the woman’s mouth, warming Winter to the core.

  “Th-thank you, Princess,” the woman said, her voice listless and trembling.

  Winter beamed back. “You’re welcome.”

  She had nearly forgotten Jacin and her guards watching them until more footsteps crashed into the room.

  “What is the meaning of this?”

  She froze, all sense of comfort vanishing at her fingertips. As if a string had been cut, the servant moaned and crumpled onto her side.

  Swallowing hard, Winter glanced back. Her stepmother, Queen Levana, along with a handful of guards and her two highest-ranking thaumaturges—Sybil Mira and Aimery Park—all stood scowling at the display. Winter and Jacin and the woman whose smile had already collapsed into an empty look.

  Winter’s personal guard stammered what explanation he could, and Winter looked away, unable to bear her stepmother’s disapproving frown.

  “It seems the girl is in need of assistance.” This was Thaumaturge Park, his voice like a gentle stream over smooth rocks. He had the loveliest voice of any person in the court, and yet hearing it always sent chills down Winter’s spine.

  “She needs to be put back to work,” said Queen Levana. “I will not abide idleness in my palace. If she creates such a disturbance again, she will be dealt with in court. Now—I want everyone out of my throne room this instant.”

  The servant curled in on herself, limp as a helpless doll.

  Winter tried to give the servant a gift of tranquility as the guards dragged her away, but the woman’s expression was so desolate that she had no way of knowing if she’d succeeded.

  * * *

  “What happened in the throne room today, Winter?”

  Her heart jumped and she craned her head back to look at her father as he set aside the holographic storybook he’d just finished reading. Winter’s emotions had been jumbled all afternoon—torn between pride that she had rescued that poor woman and distress that she had needed rescuing in the first place.

  Here in the palace, they were always surrounded by a wealth of art and splendor, food and entertainment. Workers, even regular servants, were said to be treated more fairly in Artemisia than any other place on Luna. So what could be so bad that she would consider taking her own life?

  “There was a servant who was … she was going to jump from the throne room, into the lake,” said Winter. “I think … I think she wanted to hurt herself. So I stopped her.”

  Her father nodded, and she could tell he’d already heard the story, probably from the guards who had been on duty at the time. Everyone liked her dad. Despite being married to the queen, the other guards still treated him like a friend, and more than once Winter and Jacin had gotten in trouble when her personal guards had told him of their mischief.

  “Are you all right?”

  She nodded. “I don’t understand why she wanted to do it, though.”

  Her father was silent for a long time before he tightened his arm around Winter’s shoulders, drawing her against his chest. His heartbeat was comforting and steady.

  “I’m proud of you for trying to do the right thing,” he finally said, though the way he said it made Winter frown. Trying? “But I need you to understand that there are often other ways to help someone than by manipulating them with your gift. It’s usually best to talk to them first and then figure out how best to help them.” He hesitated before adding, “When you use your gift on someone without their permission, you’re taking choice and free will away from them, and that isn’t fair.”

  Winter pulled away, no longer comforted by his heartbeat. She turned to stare at him. “She was going to jump. She would have died.”

  “I understand, Winter. I’m not saying you did anything wrong, and I know you were doing what you felt was the right thing to do. And maybe it was. But … it’s becoming clear that you’re going to be talented, much more talented than I ever was. And while I’m proud of you, I also know that being strong with our gift can sometimes lead to us making poor decisions. Decisions that can hurt the people around us if we aren’t careful.”

  Winter’s jaw tightened, and she was surprised at the hurt and anger that began to churn in her stomach. Her father didn’t understand. He couldn’t possibly understand—after all, he couldn’t have helped that woman today. Not like she had.

  Winter had saved the woman’s life. She was a hero.

  Her lip started to tremble, and her father’s face softened. He pulled her back against him again and kissed the top of her head.

  “You’re not in trouble,” he said. “I hope that girl will get the help she needs now, and that she’ll thank you someday. I just need you to know … there are people in this palace, and on all of Luna, who see manipulation as the quickest way to solve every problem. While it might be useful at times, it’s rarely the only way, or the best way. And the person you would manipulate … they do deserve to have a choice. Do you understand?”

  She nodded, but she was pretty sure that he didn’t understand.

  She loved her father with all her heart, but he would never know what it was like to help someone with a mere thought. To give them happiness or to change how they saw the world.

  She was going to use her gift to help people. To make Artemisia better.

  Saving that servant had been only the beginning.

  * * *

  For the months that followed, Winter focused more on her studies than ever before. Her glamour became stronger. Her thoughts became sharper. She practiced on Jacin when she could, though after that first talk with her father, she made sure to always ask his permission.

  She kept her eye out for the servant who was still alive because of her. Winter always reserved a special smile for her, and every time their paths crossed in the palace, she made sure to give her an extra boost of pleasant emotions.

  She made sure the woman was proud of the great work she did here in the palace.

  She fed her contentment from living in such a beautiful city.

  She coaxed her into feeling loved and appreciated, safe and calm—a steady drip of every good emotion Winter could think to give her, so she might never feel tempted to end her life again.

  A year passed, then two, then three—but Winter started to notice a change in what she had begun to think of as a quiet companionship between her and the servant. She noticed that when the woman saw Winter coming, she would often change directions before Winter could get close enough to alter her thoughts. She was avoiding her.

  Winter couldn’t understand why.

  Then one afternoon, during her weekly session with Master Gertman, he told Winter that she had become so strong in her gift and so far exceeded his expectations that she might be talented enough to someday become a thaumaturge. It was a great honor. A role reserved for only the most talented Lunars in their entire kingdom.

  Winter preened like a peacock all afternoon. She bragged about it to Jacin, and was annoyed when he didn’t look nearly as impressed as she thought he ought to.

  She went to bed that night with a pleased grin on her lips.

  Hours later, she was awoken by the deafening sound of a gunshot coming from her father’s room.

  She would have nightmares for years to come. Her father’s blood. The thaumaturge who had shot him, now lying dead, too, in the room’s corner. Winter still standing in her nightgown and the feel of disbelieving tears on her cheeks and how she was unable to move, like her toes had been stitched to the carpet.

  It was Selene all over
again. One moment the person she loved most in the whole world was there, and then they were gone. Selene, taken by fire and smoke. Her father, by a thaumaturge and a gun.

  In the years to come, it would not be the blood or her father’s dead eyes or the guards rushing past her that Winter would most remember.

  It was her stepmother. The queen. Wracked by such heartbroken sobs that Winter thought they might never stop echoing in her head. Those wails would haunt her nightmares all her life.

  At nine years old, Winter had begun to realize that it wasn’t normal for a queen to be married to a guard. She had begun to understand that there was something strange about such a match, even embarrassing.

  But hearing her stepmother’s cries that night, she had understood why Levana had chosen her father. She loved him. In spite of the rumors and the glares and the disapproving frowns, she had loved him.

  From that night, Winter had started to fear the thaumaturges. They were not honorable members of the court. They were not her friends or her allies.

  She would never be one of them, no matter how much praise her gift brought her.

  * * *

  Winter gasped awake, her stepmother’s sobs still echoing in her head, leftover remnants from the nightmare. She was drenched in cold sweat.

  It had been years since her father’s murder, and months since she’d dreamed of it, but the shock and horror felt the same every time.

  Not bothering to wait for her pulse to slow, Winter pushed herself from the bed. She fumbled around in her wardrobe for a pair of soft-soled slippers and pinned back her wild curls before slipping into the corridor.

  If the guard who stood watch at her door was surprised to see her up in the middle of the night, he didn’t show it. It was not a rare occurrence. There had been a time when she sneaked down nearly every night to the palace wing where the guards and their families lived, back when the nightmare had plagued her in earnest. Those nights when she and Jacin would fix themselves mugs of melted cream-and-chocolate and watch stupid dramas on the holograph nodes. When he would pretend that he didn’t notice her crying as she pressed her face against his shoulder.

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