Stars above, p.16
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       Stars Above, p.16

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Seeing how excited he got when he talked about it made her heart warm, but she also dreaded to think of the years he would spend away from her. He could be stationed at any med-clinic on all of Luna. There was a slim chance he could end up in Artemisia, at their med-clinic or in one of their laboratories, but it was more likely he’d end up in the less desirable outer sectors, at least for the first few years of his training.

  Winter hated the thought of him leaving, even temporarily, but she would never tell him so for fear he would give up his dream in order to stay with her. She wouldn’t be able to forgive herself if he did that. “Lunar sickness?” She cupped her cheek in one hand, sitting cross-legged on the carpet and staring up at the holograph. It showed a very dull brain diagram.

  “That’s the common term. The official name is Bioelectric Suppression Psychosis.”

  “I’ve never heard of it.”

  “It’s very rare. It happens whenever a gifted Lunar chooses not to use their gift for an extended period of time. The only cure they know of is … well, to start using the gift again.” Jacin’s jaw was tight as he swiveled the holograph one way and then the other. “It doesn’t come up very often, though, because why would a gifted Lunar forgo using their gift?” He glanced at her, and he seemed concerned, but not judgmental. He had never once, since Winter had told him of her conviction, tried to persuade her to change her mind.

  “And what will it do?” she said, leaning back against the sofa. “This Lunar sickness?”

  His shoulders drooped. “It will make you go crazy.”

  She tilted her head to one side and refrained from laughing, but only barely. “Well, I’m already crazy, so that doesn’t sound so bad at all.”

  His lip twitched, but the smile was halfhearted at best. “I’m serious, Winter. People who suffer from it have frequent hallucinations. Sometimes bad ones. Being chased or attacked. Seeing … monsters.”

  Her playfulness drooped and she inspected the brain diagram, but it was just a brain. How frightening could that be?

  “I already have nightmares and I survive them just fine,” she said. “I’ll survive this too.”

  Jacin hesitated. “I just want you to be ready. And…” He fixed his eyes on her. “If ever you change your mind, I’ll understand. Everyone would understand. You don’t have to do this, Winter. You can manipulate people without being cruel, you know.”

  She shook her head. “I didn’t think I was being cruel when I pulled that woman back from the ledge.”

  Jacin lowered his eyes.

  “It has to be this way,” said Winter. “I will accept this side effect. I will accept any amount of monsters my mind wants to give me, but I will not become a monster myself.”

  * * *

  She was beginning to think that Jacin had only been trying to frighten her with all that sickness and psychosis talk. Five months had passed and she felt more grounded than ever—more in control of her decisions and willpower than she’d felt her whole life. Her thirteenth birthday was on the horizon, and her choice to live only by the skills that did not require manipulation had made her more aware of what those skills were.

  Politeness, it turned out, was almost as effective when you wanted someone to do something for you. And kindness went further toward lasting admiration than any amount of mind control.

  Word was spreading, too, about her lack of a gift. Though no one could call her a shell, it was becoming apparent that her Lunar abilities were inferior to the other sons and daughters of Artemisia’s families. Some thought it a shame that their beloved princess was turning out to be so weak-minded, but others, she sensed, weren’t so easily fooled by Winter’s failings. The servants had started to give her appreciative smiles whenever she passed them. The looks of fear that she noticed in her stepmother’s presence ceased to exist around Winter, and this alone made her happier—and stronger—than any amount of tutoring had ever done.

  There were changes, too, in how members of Artemisia’s aristocracy acted around her, though Winter sensed it had less to do with her gift and more to do with the growth spurt that had finally arrived, forcing the seamstresses to work overtime to keep her in hemlines that reached the floor and sleeves that didn’t ride up her forearms.

  “Her Highness is growing into a fine lady indeed,” she had heard one of the thaumaturges say in court, and though the queen had snorted her disagreement, Winter had seen multiple conferring nods before she bashfully lowered her head. “Of course, no beauty could ever compete with yours, My Queen,” the thaumaturge had continued, “but we will all be proud to have such a beautiful princess in our midst. She does our court proud, I think.”

  “She will do our court, and this family, proud,” Levana had said derisively, “when she learns to control her glamour like a proper member of the gentry. Until then, she is nothing but a disappointment.” She’d cut a glower at Winter. “To me, and no doubt to her father.”

  Winter had squirmed in her seat, embarrassed.

  But it had not changed her decision.

  Besides, Winter’s instincts told her Levana was wrong. Her father would have been proud.

  As for Levana herself, Winter couldn’t help but wonder if it was jealousy that had prompted her to lash out. Except, jealousy of what? That someone had called her beautiful, when everyone knew that Queen Levana was the most beautiful of all?


  * * *

  The queen—who had never acted warmly toward Winter, even when she’d been a child—grew even colder in the weeks that followed. Always watching Winter with wary eyes, her red lips twisted in annoyance. Winter couldn’t guess why Levana was inspecting her. She had very little concept of what she looked like, other than what Jacin told her and the compliments others paid. Mirrors had been banned in Artemisia since before her father’s death.

  “You are looking lovely as ever, Your Highness,” said Provost Dunlin, brushing a kiss against Winter’s hand. She pulled herself from her thoughts and forced herself not to recoil. Though the gala being held in the great hall was crowded and loud with music and laughter, she knew her stepmother was always near and always watching. She would not be pleased to see Winter spurning the court’s respect. No matter how gross and slimy some of them made her feel.

  “You are gracious as ever, Provost Dunlin,” she said, and though she smiled, it was a reserved one.

  “My son has been paying you many compliments since we saw you at your birthday celebration,” he said, waving his son over. Alasdair was a little older than Jacin, but shorter and significantly rounder, and he could claim about as much charm as his father.

  He grinned at Winter, though, as if he were entirely unaware of this fact, and kissed her hand as well.

  “A pleasure to see you again, Alasdair,” said Winter.

  “The pleasure is all mine.” Alasdair’s gaze slipped down to Winter’s chest, and her gut tightened.

  She ripped her hand out of his grip—but her disgust was momentary. Another second and she was flushed with satisfaction at the compliment, pleased with the flattery. She was maturing, and it was nice to know that the handsome, eligible men of the court were taking notice …

  Winter had to excuse herself to keep from turning into a stammering fool. She glanced up at her stepmother, who was watching her curiously, even as Head Thaumaturge Sybil Mira prattled on about something or other.

  Queen Levana raised her eyebrow, and Winter hastened a curtsy in her direction before slipping out of the hall.

  The feelings of flattery fell off her shoulders, slowly at first, then faster and faster until all that was left was a twist of loathing.

  That filthy scum had been manipulating her. Her. Though she expected glamours from the court, only the queen and her thaumaturges ever dared to influence Winter’s emotions. Alasdair hadn’t even been particularly subtle about it, which repulsed Winter more, knowing how easily he’d caught her unprepared. She shuddered, feeling more violated than she would have imagined a basic mind tri
ck could make her feel. She knew that some Lunars were able to put up barriers around their minds, but it took practice and a skill that she didn’t possess. She hated this court. She hated the lies and the fraud of it all.


  She halted.

  The corridor was quiet here, though not completely deserted as women came and went from the washroom. Palace guards stood statue-like along the walls. She let her gaze travel over the lines of their faces, thinking maybe Jacin’s father, Garrison Clay, was among them—but no. She did not know any of these men.

  Winter …

  She shivered. Her breaths turned to tatters.

  “Your Highness, are you all right?” asked one of the servants who stood nearby.

  Ignoring her, Winter took off running in the direction of the voice.

  It was him. It was him.

  She skidded around a corner, away from the private wing of the royal family, where she’d last seen him alive, and toward the guard quarters. The place where her father had lived before Winter was born. Before Levana had claimed Evret Hayle as her husband and tied their fates together forever.

  Winter …

  His voice rumbling and warm, just how she remembered.

  Winter …

  She saw his open smile. Remembered how tall he was, how strong. How he could throw her into the air and catch her every time.

  Winter … Winter …


  She gasped and spun around just as Jacin grabbed her elbow. She blinked the daze away. Looked back down the corridor, past the guard quarters, toward the servant halls.


  “What are you doing here?”

  She met Jacin’s eyes again. He was looking at her gown, frowning. “Why aren’t you at the gala?”

  “I heard him,” she said, taking Jacin’s hand into both of hers. Gripping so hard that part of her feared she would crush his fingers, but he didn’t even flinch.


  “My father.” Her voice splintered. “He was here. He was calling to me and I … I followed him and … and…”

  Her heart rate began to slow. Realization crept through the bewilderment at the same moment that Jacin’s confusion turned to concern.

  Releasing him, she pressed a palm to her own forehead. No fever. She wasn’t ill.

  Before she had time to be frightened of what it meant, he was holding her, telling her that it would be all right. He was there. He would always be there.

  That was the first of the hallucinations.

  They kept coming.

  They got worse.

  Hungry beasts crawled out of the shadows in the night, scratching at the floor beneath her bed.

  Bodies hung from the chandeliers over the tables in the dining hall.

  A necklace of jewels would tighten around her neck, strangling her.

  Usually Jacin was there, as he’d been all her life. He would make light of it and force her to laugh about the absurdity of whatever trick her mind was playing. He would talk her through each episode with his steady rationality, leaving no room for her to doubt his words. He would hold her and let her cry, and it was during one of these embraces when Winter realized with all the force and clarity of a solar flare—

  She was in love with him. She had always, always been in love with him.

  * * *

  “I brought you something,” said Jacin, smiling impishly when he spotted her. He was sprawled out on a bench in the gardens, his legs stretched out before him. It seemed he would never stop growing, even though his legs and arms no longer fit his body.

  He was holding a white box that was emblazoned with the seal of Winter’s favorite candy maker.

  Her eyes widened. “Petites?”

  “Mom took me for new boots this morning and I made her stop for some.”

  Winter hopped up onto the bench, sitting on its back so that her feet were tucked under Jacin’s knee. Though the biodomes of Luna were temperature- and climate-controlled, there was always an extra chill beside the lake, warranting the closeness. She did not hesitate, as soon as the box was open, to pop one of her favorite candies into her mouth. The sweet-sour burst of apples melted across her tongue.

  “S’pose you wan’ one?” she said through her full mouth, pretending resentment as she held the box out for Jacin.

  He smirked. “So generous, Your Highness.”

  She wrinkled her nose at him and took another bite.

  There had been a time—right after she’d realized how hopelessly in love with her best friend she was—when she had become awkward and reserved. When she had thought that she must become a lady when she was near him, as she was expected to be in the presence of any suitor … should she ever have a suitor. She smiled demurely when he made a joke and she touched him only timidly and she sat like a proper princess when they were together.

  That time had lasted for about three hours, until Jacin had given her a strange look and asked what was wrong with her.

  There was no point in pretending to be someone else now. Jacin knew every one of her secrets, every habit and every flaw. There would be no hiding them, and besides, those three hours had served only to make him uncomfortable, not enamored.

  A cold voice cut through their candy devouring, shooting a tinge of anxiety along Winter’s spine.


  A single word, her own name, that brought more dread with it than a thousand threats.

  Jacin jumped to his feet, swiping any candy bits off his mouth as he bowed to the queen.

  Winter was slower to follow, but she, too, lowered into a curtsy as her tongue dug out bits of candy from between her teeth.

  “Hello, Stepmother,” she said.

  The queen’s glare was focused on Jacin. “You are dismissed, Jacin. Go find some way to be useful.”

  “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, still in his bow, and a second later he was marching away from them, back toward the palace. The stiffness to his stride made Winter curious if he was mirroring the strut of the guards or if Levana was controlling his limbs.

  “Did you need something, Stepmother?”

  Levana stared at her for a long time.

  A very long time.

  Winter could read nothing behind her glamour, her placid expression, her breathtaking beauty. She had heard some rumors lately that she, Winter, the gangly princess with the unruly hair, might someday surpass the queen’s beauty. She laughed every time she heard such nonsense, knowing that it could be only empty flattery.

  Finally, one side of Levana’s lips curved upward. Maybe it was meant to be comforting, but it failed.

  “Come with me, Winter.”

  She turned and headed back toward the palace without waiting to see if Winter would follow, because of course she would.

  “You are spending too much time with that boy,” Levana said as they stepped beneath the portico overhang and back into the bright-lit corridors of the palace. “You are getting older. You are no longer a child, and soon you will have suitors and perhaps even requests for marriage. You must be aware of propriety and expectations. That is your role in this family. That is the part you will play on behalf of the crown.”

  Winter kept her eyes focused on the floor. Nothing the queen was saying was news to her, but she had never broached the subject so openly. She did know what was expected of her, and marrying the son of a palace guard wasn’t it. She ignored the fact that Levana herself had married a man from the working class when she’d been just a princess. Winter’s father. A lowly palace guard himself.

  The sneers and derision from the court continued even to this day, thirteen years after their marriage and four years after her father’s death. It was a mistake that Winter would not be allowed to make for herself.

  She would marry for political gain.

  Jacin would go off and become a doctor and she might never see him again.

  “Of course, Stepmother,” she said. “Jacin is only a friend.”

It was the truth. He was a friend, albeit one she would cut out her heart for.

  Levana took her to the elevator and they rode it to the top floor, to the queen’s solar. A private place that Winter had rarely entered.

  The room was beautiful—the highest place in all of Artemisia. The walls were made of glass and she could see the entire city, all the way to the walls of the dome and beyond into the desolate landscape of Luna. Far off on the horizon, she spotted the glow of the other nearby sectors.

  It occurred to Winter for the first time how odd it was that her stepmother was alone. No thaumaturge loitering at her elbow. No simpering member of the court trying to earn her favor. Only a single guard was posted at the solar’s door, and Levana sent him away.

  Winter’s stomach began to churn.

  “Master Gertman tells me that you have not been improving in your lessons,” said Levana, floating around a desk. “In fact, he says that you have not shown any sign of the Lunar gift in nearly a year.”

  Winter felt a sting of betrayal, though she knew it wasn’t fair. The tutor was doing his job, and keeping the queen apprised of Winter’s progress was a part of it.

  Her tutor could not be blamed for Winter’s choices.

  Lowering her gaze, Winter did her best to look embarrassed. “It’s true. I don’t know what happened. I thought things were going well, but then … well, there was that suicide. You remember? The servant who threw herself into the fountain?”

  “What of it?”

  Winter shrugged sadly. “I tried to stop her once before. I used my gift to bring her away from the throne room ledge and it worked. I thought I’d done so well. But then … after she died, it was as though my gift began to weaken.” She frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I try. I try so hard. But it’s like … it’s like my gift is broken.”

  To her surprise, tears were starting behind her lashes.

  Quite the actress she was becoming.

  Levana sneered. She did not look even remotely sympathetic. “I had hoped you would progress well and become a useful member of this court, but it seems that you might take after your father after all.” She paused. “You are aware that he was not adept at his gift, either.”

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