Cinder, p.16
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       Cinder, p.16

         Part #1 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer  
Page 16


  She just couldn’t understand why.

  Clearing her throat, Cinder backed toward the exit. “I should go then, let you get back to work,” she said, tapping the wrench against her palm. “I guess…um…I’ll be back to make sure the med is performing properly? Say…tomorrow?”

  “Perfect,” said the doctor. “I also have your ID number in case I ever need to find you. ” His smile darkened, just barely, as if to say that Cinder’s “volunteer” status would only last so long as she did return voluntarily. She was valuable now. He had no intention of letting her walk out forever.

  “I’ll see you out,” said the prince, flashing his wrist by the scanner. The door breezed open.

  Cinder held up her gloved hands, the wrench locked in her grip. “No, no, that’s fine. I can find my way. ”

  “Are you sure? It’s no trouble. ”

  “Yes. Positive. I’m sure you have very important…royal…government…research things. To discuss. But thank you. Your Highness. ” She attempted an awkward bow, glad that at least this time she had both feet firmly attached.

  “All right. Well, it was nice to see you again. A pleasant surprise. ”

  She laughed ironically, surprised to find his expression serious. His eyes warm upon her, and a little curious.

  “Y-you too. ” She backed out the door. Smiling. Trembling. Praying there were no grease spots on her face. “I’ll comm you, then. When your android is ready. ”

  “Thank you. Linh-mèi. ”

  “You can call me Cin—” The door shut between them. “—der. Cinder. Would be fine. Your Highness. ” She sagged against the corridor wall, thumping her knuckles against her forehead. “I’ll comm you. You can call me Cinder,” she mimicked, then bit down on her lip. “Don’t mind the babbling girl. ”

  He was the fantasy of every girl in the country. He was so far out of her realm, her world, that she should have stopped thinking about him the second the door had closed. Should stop thinking about him immediately. Should never think about him again, except maybe as a client—and her prince.

  And yet, the memory of his fingers against her skin refused to fade.

  Chapter Fifteen

  CINDER HAD TO DOWNLOAD A MAP OF THE PALACE’S RESEARCH wing to find her way to the exit. Her nerves were on edge, with the prince, with Peony, with everything. She felt like an imposter roaming the slick white halls with her head bent, avoiding eye contact with the scientists and white-plated androids. Even if she really was a volunteer now. A valuable one.

  She passed a waiting room—complete with two netscreens and three cushioned chairs—and froze, her gaze catching on the window.

  The view.

  The city.

  From ground level, New Beijing was a mess—too many buildings crammed into too little space, the streets untended, power lines and clotheslines strung across every alley, intruding vines scurrying up every concrete wall.

  But from here, atop the cliff and three stories up, the city was beautiful. The sun was high, and its light sang off of glass skyscrapers and gold-tinted roofs. Cinder could see the constant movement of huge netscreens and flashing hovers as they darted between the buildings. From here, the city hummed with life—but without all the technochatter.

  Cinder sought out the cluster of slender blue glass and chrome buildings that stood sentry over the market square, then tried to trace the roads north, searching for the Phoenix Tower apartments, but they were tucked behind too much city and too many shadows.

  Her awe slipped away.

  She had to go back. Back to the apartment. Back to her prison.

  She had to fix Kai’s android. She had to protect Iko, who wouldn’t last a week before Adri got the idea in her head to dismantle her for scrap metal, or worse—replace her “faulty” personality chip. She’d been complaining about the android being too opinionated since the day Cinder had come to live with her.

  Besides, she had nowhere else to go. Until Dr. Erland was able to figure out how to deposit the payment into Cinder’s account without Adri finding out, she had no money and no hover, and her only human friend was a prisoner herself in the quarantines.

  She balled her fists.

  She had to go back. But she wouldn’t stay long. Adri had made it quite clear that she saw Cinder as worthless, a burden. She’d had no qualms dismissing her when she found a lucrative means to do it, a way that could keep her free of guilt because, after all, they needed to find an antidote. Peony needed an antidote.

  And maybe she’d been right to do it. Maybe it was Cinder’s duty as a cyborg to sacrifice herself so all the normal humans could be cured. Maybe it did make sense to use the ones who had already been tampered with. But Cinder knew she would never forgive Adri for it. The woman was supposed to be the one to protect her, to help her. If Adri and Pearl were her only family left, she would be better off alone.

  She had to get away. And she knew just how she was going to do it.

  THE LOOK ON ADRI’S FACE WHEN CINDER ENTERED THE apartment almost made the whole ghastly ordeal worthwhile.

  She’d been sitting on the sofa, reading on her portscreen. Pearl was at the far end of the room, playing a holographic board game in which the game pieces were modeled after the girls’ favorite celebrities—including three Prince Kai look-alikes. It had long been her and Peony’s favorite, but Pearl was now battling strangers over the net and looked both bored and miserable about it. When Cinder walked in, both Pearl and Adri gaped at her, and a miniature version of the prince fell onto his virtual opponent’s long sword. Pearl paused the game too late.

  “Cinder,” said Adri, setting her portscreen on a side table. “How are you—?”

  “They ran some tests and decided I wasn’t what they wanted. So they sent me back. ” Cinder pulled up a tight-lipped smile. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll still recognize your noble sacrifice. Maybe they’ll send you a thank-you comm. ”

  Eyeing Cinder with disbelief, Adri stood. “They can’t send you back!”

  Cinder peeled off her gloves and stuffed them into her pocket. “You’ll have to file an official complaint, I guess. So sorry to barge in. I can see you were very busy running your household. If you’ll excuse me, I’d better go try to earn my keep so you might actually blink an eye the next time you find a convenient way to get rid of me. ”

  She marched into the hallway. Iko was poking her shiny head out of the kitchen, her blue sensor bright with astonishment. Cinder was amazed at how quickly her emotions switched from bitter to relieved. For a time, she’d thought she would never see Iko again.

  The momentary joy faded when Adri bustled into the hallway behind her. “Cinder, stop. ”

  Though tempted to ignore her, Cinder did stop and turn back to face her guardian.

  They stared at each other, Adri’s jaw working as she stumbled over her surprise. She looked old. Years older than she had before.

  “I will be contacting the research facility to check your story and make sure you aren’t lying about this,” she said. “If you did something…if you ruined this one chance I had to help my daughter—” The anger in Adri’s voice broke, then rose into shrill yelling. Cinder could hear her burying tears beneath her words. “You cannot be that useless!” She pulled her shoulders back, gripping the doorjamb.

  “What else do you want me to do?” Cinder yelled back, flailing her hands. “Fine, contact the researchers! I didn’t do anything wrong. I went there, they ran some tests, and they didn’t want me. I’m so sorry if they didn’t ship me home in a cardboard box, if that’s what you were hoping for. ”

  Adri pulled her lips taut. “Your position in this household has not changed, and I do not appreciate being spoken to in such a disrespectful manner by the orphan that I accepted into my home. ”

  “Really?” said Cinder. “Would you like me to list all the things I didn’t appreciate being done to me today? I’ve had
needles poked at me and prongs stuck in my head and poisonous microbes—” She caught herself, not wanting Adri to know the truth. Her true value. “Honestly, I don’t care so much what you do and don’t appreciate right now. You’re the one who betrayed me, when I’ve never done anything to you. ”

  “That is enough. You know very well what you’ve done to me. To this family. ”

  “Garan’s death wasn’t my fault. ” She turned her head away, angry white spots flecking in her vision.

  “Fine,” said Adri, her voice losing none of its superiority. “So you’ve returned. Welcome home, Cinder. But so long as you continue to live in my home, you will continue to obey my orders. Do you understand?”

  Cinder planted her cyborg hand against the wall, fingers splayed out, grounding herself. “Obey your orders. Right. Like, ‘Do the chores, Cinder. Get a job so I can pay my bills, Cinder. Go play lab rat for these deranged scientists, Cinder. ’ Yes, I understand you perfectly. ” She glanced back over her shoulder, but Iko had ducked back into the kitchen. “As I’m sure you will understand that I just lost half a day of perfectly good work hours, and I’d better borrow your Serv9. 2 to get caught up. You don’t mind, do you?” Without waiting for a response, she stormed back to her closet of a bedroom and slammed the door behind her.

  She stood with her back against the door until the warning text on her retina had gone away and her hands stopped shaking. When she opened her eyes, she found that the old netscreen, the one Adri had shoved off the wall, had been heaped on the pile of blankets she called a bed. Bits of plastic had spilled over onto her pillow.

  She hadn’t noticed if Adri had already bought them a new one or if the living room wall was empty.

  Sighing, she changed her clothes, eager to be rid of the smell of antiseptic that lingered on them. She shoved the spare plastic pieces into her toolbox and tucked the screen beneath one arm before venturing back out into the apartment. Iko hadn’t moved, half-hidden in the kitchen doorway. Cinder cocked her head toward the front of the apartment, and the android followed.

  She did not look into the living room as she passed, but she thought she heard the strangled sound of Prince Kai dying from Pearl’s game.

  They had barely stepped out into the main corridor—fairly quiet for once with the neighbor children off at school—when Iko wrapped her gangly arms around Cinder’s legs. “How is this possible? I was sure you’d be killed. What happened?”

  Cinder handed the toolbox to the robot and headed for the elevators. “I’ll tell you everything, but we have work to do. ” She waited until they were alone and on their way to the basement before filling Iko in on all that had happened, leaving out only the part about Prince Kai coming in and finding her unconscious on the floor.

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