Fairest, p.16
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       Fairest, p.16

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 
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  Tearing her gaze from the man, she stared at her own hands, still clawed around her gauzy white skirt. Her fingers too, she saw, had been bitten with frost. It was sort of pretty. Glistening and shimmering and cold so very cold …

  “Your queen has asked you a question,” said Aimery.

  Winter flinched, as if he’d been yelling at her.

  Focus. She must try to focus.

  She lifted her head again and inhaled.

  Aimery was wearing white now, having replaced Sybil Mira as the queen’s head thaumaturge. The gold embroidery on his coat shimmered as he paced around the captive.

  “I am sorry, Your Majesty,” the man said, his voice restrained. Winter couldn’t tell if he was disguising hatred for his sovereign, or merely trying to keep from turning into a blubbering mess. “My family and I have served you loyally for generations. I am a janitor at that med-clinic, and I’d heard rumors, you see. It was none of my business, so I never cared, I never listened. But … when my son was born a shell…” He whimpered. “He is my son.”

  “Did you not think,” said Levana, her voice loud and crisp, “that there might be a reason your queen has chosen to keep your son and all the other ungifted Lunars separate from our citizens? That we may have a purpose that serves the good of all our people by containing them as we have?”

  The man gulped, hard enough that Winter could see his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I know, My Queen. I know that you use their blood for some … experimentation. In your laboratories. But … but you have so many, and he’s only a baby, and…”

  “Not only is his blood valuable to the success of our war efforts and our political alliances, the likes of which I cannot expect a janitor from the outer sectors to understand, but he is also a shell, and his kind have proven themselves to be dangerous and untrustworthy, as you will recall from the assassinations made on King Marrok and Queen Jannali eighteen years ago. Yet you would subject our society to this threat?”

  The man’s eyes were wild with fear. “Threat, My Queen? He is a baby.” He paused. He did not look outright rebellious, but his lack of remorse would be sending Levana into a fury soon enough. “And the others that I saw in those tanks … so many of them, children. Innocent children.”

  The room seemed to chill.

  Clearly, he knew too much. The shell infanticide had been in place since the rule of Levana’s sister, Queen Channary, after a shell sneaked into the palace and killed their parents. Many citizens, but certainly not all, had been convinced that the precaution was necessary, and no one would be pleased to know that their babies had not been killed at all, but really locked away and used as tiny blood platelet manufacturing plants.

  Winter blinked, imagining her own body as a blood platelet manufacturing plant.

  Her gaze dropped again to her fingers, and she saw that the ice had extended nearly to her wrists now.

  That would not be beneficial for the platelet conveyor belts.

  “Does the accused have a family?” asked the queen.

  Aimery bobbed his head. “Records indicate a daughter, age nine. We have not been able to locate her, but a search is underway. He has also two sisters, two nephews, and one niece. All live in Sector GM-12.”

  “No wife?”

  “Dead five months past, of regolith poisoning.”

  The prisoner watched the queen, desperation pooling in his eyes.

  The court began to stir, their vibrant clothes shifting and fluttering. This trial had gone on too long. They were growing bored.

  Levana leaned against the back of her throne. “You are hereby found guilty of trespassing and attempted theft against the crown. This crime is punishable by immediate death.”

  The man shuddered, but his face remained pleading, hopeful. It always seemed to take them a few seconds to comprehend such a sentence.

  “Your family members will each receive a dozen public lashings, to remind everyone in your sector that they cannot possibly comprehend the inner workings of our government and that I will not tolerate my decisions being questioned again.”

  The man’s head started to droop, his jaw going slack.

  “Your daughter, when she is found, will be given as a gift to one of the court’s families. There, she will be taught the obedience and humility that one can assume she has not learned beneath your tutelage.”

  “No, please. Let her live with her aunts. She hasn’t done anything!”

  “Aimery, you may proceed.”

  “Please!”

  “Your Queen has spoken,” said Thaumaturge Aimery. Though he didn’t raise his voice, it rumbled through the throne room into the ears of the lower-ranking thaumaturges, the guards, the court, the waiting servants, and the queen—the only judge and jury. His voice was suffocating. “Her word is final.”

  Aimery drew a knife from one of his bell-shaped sleeves and held the handle out to the prisoner, whose eyes had gone wide with hysteria.

  The room grew colder. Winter noticed that her breaths were turning to fogged ice crystals. She shivered and squeezed her arms tight against her body.

  The prisoner took the knife handle. His hand was steady. The rest of him was trembling.

  “Please. My little girl—I’m all she has. Please. My Queen. Your Majesty!”

  He raised the blade to his throat.

  This was when Winter looked away. When she always looked away. She watched her own fingers burrow into her dress, her fingernails scraping at the fabric until she could feel the sting on her thighs. She watched the ice climb over her wrists, toward her elbows. Where the ice touched, her flesh went numb.

  She imagined lashing out at the queen with those ice-solid fists. She imagined her hands shattering into a thousand icicle shards.

  It was at her shoulders now. Her neck.

  Even over the popping and cracking of the ice, she heard the cut of flesh. The burble of blood. A muffled gag. The hard slump of the body.

  Bile squirmed up Winter’s throat. The cold had stolen into her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, reminding herself to be calm, to breathe. She could hear Jacin’s steady voice in her head, his hands gripping her shoulders. It isn’t real, Princess. It’s only an illusion.

  Usually it helped, even just the memory of him coaxing her through the panic. But this time, it seemed to prompt the ice on. Encompassing her rib cage. Gnawing into her stomach. Hardening over her heart. Freezing her from the inside out.

  Listen to my voice.

  Jacin wasn’t there.

  Stay with me.

  Jacin was gone.

  It’s all in your head.

  She heard the clomping of the guards’ boots as they approached the body. The corpse being slid toward the ledge. The shove. Moments later, the splash down below.

  The court applauded with quiet politeness.

  Winter felt her toes snap off. One. By. One.

  She was almost too numb to notice.

  “Very good,” said Queen Levana. “Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is duly carried out.”

  “Yes, My Queen.”

  Winter forced her eyes open. The ice had made its way up her throat now, was climbing over her jawline. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.

  In the center of the room, a servant was cleaning the blood from the tiles. Aimery was rubbing his knife with a cloth. He met Winter’s gaze and his smile was searing. “I am afraid the princess has no stomach for these proceedings.”

  The nobles in the audience tittered—Winter’s disgust of the trials was a source of merriment to most of Levana’s court.

  She heard the rustle of her stepmother’s gown as the queen turned to peer down at her, but Winter couldn’t look up. She was a girl made of ice and glass. Her teeth were brittle, her lungs too easily shattered.

  “Yes,” said Levana. “I often forget she’s here at all. You’re about as useless as a rag doll, aren’t you, Winter?”

  The audience chuck
led again, louder now, as if the queen had given permission to mock the young princess. But Winter couldn’t respond, not to the queen, not to the laughter. She kept her gaze pinned on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.

  “Oh no, she isn’t quite as useless as that,” Aimery said, still smiling. As Winter stared, a thin crimson line drew itself across his throat, blood bubbling up from the wound. “The prettiest girl on all of Luna? She will make some member of this court a very happy bride someday, I should think.”

  “The prettiest girl, Aimery?” Levana’s light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.

  Aimery seamlessly slipped into a bow. “Prettiest only, My Queen. But no mortal could compare with your perfection.”

  The court was quick to agree, offering a hundred compliments at once, though Winter could still feel the leering gazes of more than one noble attached to her.

  Aimery took a step toward the throne and his severed head tipped off, thunking against the marble and rolling, rolling, rolling, until it stopped right at Winter’s frozen feet.

  Still smiling.

  She whimpered, but the sound was buried beneath the snow in her throat.

  It’s all in your head.

  “Silence,” said Levana, once she’d had her share of praise. “Are we finished?”

  Finally, the ice found her eyes and Winter had no choice but to shut them against Aimery’s headless apparition, enclosing herself in cold and darkness.

  She would die here and not complain. She would be buried beneath this avalanche of lifelessness. She would never have to witness another murder again.

  “There is one more prisoner still to be tried, My Queen.” Aimery’s voice echoed in the cold hollowness of Winter’s head. “Sir Jacin Clay, royal guard, pilot, and assigned protector of Thaumaturge Sybil Mira.”

  Winter gasped and the ice shattered, a million sharp glittering bits exploding across the throne room and skidding across the floor. No one else heard them. No one else noticed.

  Aimery, head very much attached, was watching her again, as if he’d been waiting to see her reaction. His smirk was subtle as he returned his attention to the queen.

  “Ah, yes,” said Levana. “Bring him in.”

  Two

  The doors to the throne room opened, and there he was, walking stiffly between two guards, his wrists corded behind his back. His blond hair was clumped and matted, strands of it clinging to his jaw. It appeared to have been a fair while since he’d last showered or enjoyed a full meal, but Winter could detect no obvious sign of abuse.

  Her stomach flipped. All the heat that the ice had sucked out of her came rushing back to the surface of her skin.

  Stay with me, Princess. Listen to my voice, Princess.

  He was led to the center of the room, devoid of expression. Winter jabbed her fingernails into her palms.

  Jacin didn’t look at her. Not once.

  “Jacin Clay,” said Aimery, “you have been charged with betraying the crown by failing to protect Thaumaturge Mira, an action which ultimately resulted in her untimely death at the hands of the enemy, and also by failing to apprehend a known Lunar fugitive despite nearly two weeks spent in said fugitive’s company. You are a traitor to Luna and to our queen. These crimes are punishable by death. What have you to say in your defense?”

  Winter’s heart thundered like a drum against her ribs. She tore her gaze from Jacin and looked pleadingly up at her stepmother, but Levana was not paying any attention to her.

  “I plead guilty to all stated crimes,” said Jacin, drawing Winter’s attention back, “except for the accusation that I am a traitor.”

  Levana’s fingernails fluttered against the arm of her throne. “Explain yourself.”

  Jacin stood as tall and stalwart as if he’d been in uniform, as if he were on duty, not on trial. “As I’ve said before, I did not apprehend the fugitive while in her company because I was attempting to convince her that I could be trusted, in order to gather information that I could later relay to my queen.”

  “Ah yes, you were spying on her and her friends,” said Levana. “I do recall that excuse from when you were captured. I also recall that you had no pertinent information to give me, only lies.”

  “Not lies, My Queen, though I will admit that I underestimated the cyborg and her abilities. She was clearly disguising them from me.”

  “So much for earning her trust.” There was mocking in the queen’s tone.

  “Knowledge of the cyborg’s skills was not the only information I sought, My Queen.”

  “I suggest you stop playing with words, Sir Clay. My patience with you is already thin.”

  Winter’s heart shriveled. Not Jacin. She could not sit here and watch them kill Jacin.

  She would bargain for him, she decided, though the decision came with an obvious flaw. What did she have to bargain with? Nothing but her own life, and she knew Levana would not accept that.

  Perhaps she could throw a fit. Go into hysterics. It would hardly be a stretch from the truth at this point, and it might distract them for a time, but she knew it would only delay the inevitable.

  She had felt helpless so many times in her life, but never like this.

  Only one thing to be done, then.

  She would throw her own body in front of the blade.

  Oh, Jacin would hate that.

  Ignorant of Winter’s newest resolve, Jacin respectfully inclined his head. “During my time with Linh Cinder, I uncovered information about a device that can nullify the effects of the Lunar gift when connected to a person’s nervous system.”

  This caused a curious squirm through the crowd. A stiffening of spines, a tilting forward of shoulders.

  “Impossible,” said Levana.

  “Linh Cinder had evidence of its potential, My Queen. As it was described to me, on an Earthen, the device will keep their bioelectricity from being tampered with. But on a Lunar, it will prevent them from using their gift at all. Linh Cinder herself had the device installed when she arrived at the Commonwealth ball. Only when it was destroyed was she able to use her gift—as was evidenced with your own eyes, My Queen.”

  His words carried an air of impertinence and Winter noticed Levana’s knuckles go white.

  “How many of these hypothetical devices exist?”

  “To my knowledge, only the broken device installed in the cyborg herself. But I suspect it would only require the patents and blueprints to make another. The inventor was Linh Cinder’s adoptive father.”

  The queen’s grip began to relax. “This is intriguing information, Sir Clay. But it speaks more of a desperate attempt to save yourself than true innocence.”

  Winter pressed her lips tight together.

  “I agree, My Queen. But if my loyalty to the crown cannot be seen in how I conducted myself with the enemy, obtaining this information and alerting Thaumaturge Mira to the plot to kidnap Emperor Kaito, I don’t know what other evidence I can provide for you, My Queen.”

  “Yes, yes, the anonymous tip that Sybil received, alerting her to Linh Cinder’s plans.” Levana sighed. “I find it very convenient that this comm you claim to have sent was seen by no one other than Sybil herself, who is now dead.”

  For the first time, Jacin looked off-balance beneath the queen’s glare. He still had not looked at Winter.

  The queen turned to her captain of the guard. “Jerrico, you were with Sybil when she ambushed the enemy’s ship that day, and yet you said before that Sybil had mentioned no such comm. Have you anything to add?”

  Jerrico took a step forward. He had returned from their Earthen excursion with a fair share of bruises on his face, but they had begun to fade. He fixed his eyes on Jacin. “My Queen, Thaumaturge Mira seemed confident that we would find Linh Cinder on that rooftop, but at the time, she did not mention receiving any outside information—anonymous or otherwise. When the ship landed, it was Thaumaturge Mira who ordered Jacin Clay to be taken into custody.”

  Jacin’s eyebrow twitched
. “Perhaps she was still upset that I’d shot her.” He paused, before adding, “While under Linh Cinder’s control, in my defense.”

  “You seem to have plenty to say in your defense,” said Levana.

  Jacin didn’t respond, just held her gaze with casual indifference. It was the calmest Winter had ever seen a prisoner in that room—he, who knew better than anyone the horrible things that happened on this floor, in the very spot where he stood. Levana should have been infuriated by his audacity, but she seemed merely thoughtful.

  “Permission to speak, My Queen?”

  The crowd rustled and it took a moment for Winter to discern who had spoken. It was a guard. One of the silent ornamentations of the palace. Though she recognized him, she did not know his name.

  It took a moment for Levana to respond, and Winter could imagine her calculating whether to grant the permission, or punish the man for speaking out of turn. Finally, she nodded.

  The guard stepped forward, staring at the wall, always at the wall. “My name is Liam Kinney, My Queen, and I was also a part of the team on the rooftop that day, along with Thaumaturge Mira.”

  A questioning eyebrow to Jerrico; a confirming nod received.

  “As it was, I also assisted with the retrieval of Thaumaturge Mira’s body. We found her in possession of a portscreen. Though it was largely destroyed in the fall, it was nevertheless submitted as potential evidence in the case of her murder. I only wondered if anyone had attempted to retrieve the alleged comm.”

  Levana turned her attention back to Aimery, whose face was a mask that Winter recognized. The more pleasant his expression, the more annoyed he was. “In fact, our team did manage to access her recent communications,” he said. “I was just about to bring forward the evidence.”

  It was a lie, and that gave Winter some hope. Aimery was a great liar, especially when it was in his best interests. And he hated Jacin, which meant he would not want to give up anything that could potentially save him.

  Hope. Frail, flimsy, pathetic hope.

  Aimery gestured toward the door and a servant scurried forward, carrying a shattered portscreen and a holograph node on a tray. “This is the portscreen that Sir Kinney mentioned. Our investigation has confirmed that there was, indeed, an anonymous comm sent to Sybil that morning.”

 
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