Fairest, p.17
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       Fairest, p.17
 

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  “What did it say?” asked Levana.

  Aimery nodded at the servant, who turned on the node. A holograph shimmered into the center of the room—behind it, Jacin faded away like a phantom.

  The holograph displayed a basic text comm.

  LINH CINDER TO KIDNAP EC EMPEROR. ESCAPE PLANNED FROM NORTH TOWER ROOFTOP AT SUNSET.

  So much importance pressed into so few words. It was just like Jacin.

  Levana read the words with narrowed eyes. “Fascinating. Thank you, Sir Kinney, for bringing this to our attention.” It was telling that she did not thank Aimery, and Winter shifted with embarrassment on his behalf, her own internal pleasure barely surfacing amid the cloud of dread. Levana continued, “I suppose you will tell me, Sir Clay, that this was the comm you sent.”

  “It was, My Queen.”

  “Have you anything else to add before I make my verdict?”

  “Nothing, My Queen.”

  Levana slowly leaned back in her throne and the room hushed, everyone breathlessly awaiting the queen’s decision.

  “I trust my stepdaughter would like me to spare you,” said Levana.

  Winter winced at the haughtiness in her tone. Jacin had no reaction at all.

  “Please, stepmother,” she whispered, barely able to form the words around her dry tongue. “It’s Jacin. He is not our enemy.”

  “Not yours, perhaps,” Levana said, her gaze ever pinned on the prisoner. “But you are a naïve, stupid girl.”

  “That is not so, My Queen. I am a factory for blood and platelets, and all my machinery is freezing over.…”

  The court burst into laughter, and Winter recoiled. Even Levana’s lips twitched, though there was annoyance beneath the amusement.

  “I have made my decision,” she said, her booming voice demanding silence. “I have decided … to let the prisoner live.”

  Winter released a cry of relief. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but it was too late to stifle the noise.

  There were more giggles from the audience, but Jacin’s eyes stayed stoically glued to the queen.

  “Have you any other insights to add, Princess?” Levana hissed through her teeth.

  Winter gathered her emotions as well as she could. “No, My Queen. Your rulings are always wise and final, My Queen.”

  “This ruling is not finished.” The queen’s voice hardened as she addressed Jacin again. “Your inability to kill or capture Linh Cinder will not go unpunished, especially as your incompetence led to her successful kidnapping of my betrothed. For this crime, I sentence you to thirty self-inflicted lashings to be held on the central dais, followed by forty hours of penance. Your sentence shall commence at tomorrow’s light-break.”

  Winter flinched, but even this punishment could not destroy the fluttery relief in her stomach. He was not going to die. She was not a girl of ice and glass at all, but a girl of sunshine and stardust, because Jacin wasn’t going to die.

  “And Winter…”

  She jerked her attention back to her stepmother, who was eying her with disdain. “If you attempt to bring him food, I will have his tongue removed in payment for your kindness.”

  She shrank back into her chair, a tiny ray of the sunshine extinguished. “Yes, My Queen.”

  Three

  Winter was awake hours before light brightened the dome’s artificial sky, having hardly slept. She did not go to watch Jacin receive his lashings on the city’s central dais, knowing that if he saw her, he would have kept himself from screaming in pain. She wouldn’t do that to him. Let him scream. He was still stronger than any of them.

  She dutifully nibbled at the cured meats and cheeses that were brought in for her breakfast. She allowed the servants to bathe her and dress her in pale pink silk. She sat through an entire session with Master Gertman, a third-tier thaumaturge and her longstanding tutor, pretending to try to use her gift and apologizing when it was too hard, when she was too weak. He did not seem to mind. Anymore, he spent most of their sessions gazing slack-jawed at her face and Winter didn’t know if he would be able to tell if she really did glamour him for once.

  The day had fully come and gone, one of the maidservants had brought her a mug of warmed milk and cinnamon and turned down her bed, and finally Winter was left alone.

  Her heart began to pound with anticipation.

  She slipped into a pair of lightweight linen pants and a loose top, then pulled on her night robe so that it would look as if she were wearing her bedclothes underneath. She had thought of this all day, the plan forming slowly in her mind, like tiny puzzle pieces snapping together. Willful determination had kept any hallucinations at bay.

  She fluffed her hair so that it might look like she’d woken from a deep slumber, turned off the lights, and climbed up onto her bed. The dangling chandelier clipped against her brow and she flinched, stepping back and catching her balance on the thick mattress.

  Winter braced herself with a breath full of intentions.

  Counted to three.

  And screamed.

  She screamed like an assassin was driving a knife into her stomach.

  She screamed like a thousand birds were pecking at her flesh.

  She screamed like the palace was burning down around her.

  The guard stationed outside her door burst inside, weapon drawn. Winter went on screaming. Stumbling back over her pillows, she pressed her back against the headboard and clawed at her hair.

  “Princess! What is it? What’s wrong?” His eyes darted wildly around the dark room, searching for an intruder, a threat.

  Flailing an arm behind her, Winter scratched at the wallpaper, tearing off a shred. It was becoming easier to believe that she was truly horrified. There were phantoms and murderers closing in around her.

  “Princess!” A second guard burst into the room. He must have heard her from down the hall. He flipped on the light and Winter ducked away from it. “What’s going on?”

  “I don’t know.” The first guard had crossed to the other side of the room and was checking behind the window drapes.

  “Monster!” Winter shrieked, bulleting the statement with a sob. “I woke up and he was standing over my bed—one of—one of the queen’s soldiers!”

  The guards traded looks, and the silent message was clear, even to Winter.

  Nothing’s wrong. She’s just crazy.

  “Your Highness—” started the second guard, as a third appeared at the doorway.

  Good. There were usually only three guards stationed in this corridor, between her bedroom and the main stairway.

  “He went that way!” Cowering behind one arm, Winter pointed toward the chambers that housed her washroom and dressing closet. “Please. Please don’t let him get away. Please find him!”

  “What’s happened?” asked the newcomer.

  “She thinks she saw one of the mutant soldiers,” grumbled the second guard.

  “He was here!” she screamed, so loud she felt the words tearing at her throat, but she pressed on. “Why aren’t you protecting me? Why are you standing there? Go find him!”

  The first guard looked sorely annoyed, as if this charade had interrupted something more than just standing in the hallway, staring at a wall. He holstered his gun, but said, with authority, “Of course, Princess. We will find this perpetrator and ensure your safety.” He beckoned the second guard and the two of them stalked off toward the washroom.

  Winter turned her pleading eyes on the third guard, falling into a crouch on the bed. “You must go with them,” she urged, her voice fluttery and weak. “He is a monster—enormous—with gaping teeth and claws that will tear them to shreds. They can’t defeat him alone, and if they fail—!” Her words turned into a wail of terror. “He’ll come for me, and there will be no one to stop him. No one will save me!” She pulled at her hair, her entire body quivering.

  “All right, all right. Of course, Highness. Just wait here, and … try to calm yourself.” Looking grateful to leave the mad princess behind, he
took off after his comrades.

  No sooner had he disappeared through the open door did Winter slip off the bed and shrug out of her robe, leaving it draped over a chair.

  “The closet is clear!” one of the guards yelled.

  “Keep looking!” she yelled back. “I know he’s in there!”

  Snatching up the simple hat and shoes she’d left by the door, she fled.

  Unlike her personal guards, who would have questioned her endlessly and insisted on escorting her into the city, the guards who were manning the towers outside the palace hardly stirred when she asked that the gate be opened for her departure. Without guards and fine dresses, and with her bushel of hair tucked up and her face tucked down, she could pass for a servant in the shadows.

  As soon as she was outside the gate, she started to run again.

  There were aristocrats milling around the tiled city streets, laughing and flirting in their fine clothes and glamours. Light spilled from open doorways, music danced along the window ledges, and everywhere was the smell of food and the clink of glasses and shadows kissing and sighing in darkened alleyways.

  It was like this always in the city. The frivolity, the pleasure. The white city of Artemisia—their own little paradise beneath the protective glass.

  At the center of it all was the dais, a circular platform where dramas were performed and auctions held, where spectacles of illusion and bawdy humor often drew the families from their mansions for a night of revelry.

  Public humiliations and punishments were frequently on the docket.

  Winter was panting, both frazzled and giddy with her success, as the dais came into view. Then she saw him and the yearning inside her nearly buckled her knees. She had to slow to catch her breath.

  He was sitting with his back to the enormous sundial that stood at the center of the dais, an instrument as useless as it was striking during these long nights. Ropes bound his bare arms and his chin was collapsed against his collarbone, his pale hair hiding his face. As Winter neared him, she could see the raised hatchmarks of the lashings across his chest and abdomen, scattered with dried blood. There would be more on his back. His hand would be blistered from gripping the lash. Self-inflicted, Levana had proclaimed the punishment, but everyone knew that Jacin would be under the control of a thaumaturge. There was nothing self-inflicted about it.

  She wondered if Aimery had been the one to do it. He had probably volunteered, and relished in every wound.

  Jacin raised his head as she reached the edge of the dais. Their eyes clashed, and for a moment, she was staring at a man who had been beaten and bound and mocked and tormented all day by passing onlookers, and for that one moment, she thought he must be broken. Just another one of the queen’s broken toys.

  But then one side of his mouth lifted, and the smile hit his startling blue eyes, and he was as bright and welcoming as the rising sun.

  “Hey, Trouble,” he said, leaning his head back against the dial.

  With that, the terror from the past weeks slipped away as if they had never happened. He was alive. He was home. He was still Jacin.

  She pulled herself onto the dais. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” she said, crossing to him. “I didn’t know if you were dead or being held hostage, or if you’d been eaten by one of the queen’s soldiers. It’s been driving me mad not knowing.”

  He quirked an eyebrow at her.

  She scowled. “Don’t comment on that.”

  “I wouldn’t dare.” He rolled his shoulders as much as he could against his bindings. His wounds gapped and puckered with that slight movement, and his face contorted in pain, but it was brief.

  Pretending she hadn’t noticed, Winter sat cross-legged in front of him, inspecting the wounds. Wanting to touch him. Terrified to touch him. That much, at least, had not changed. “Does it hurt very much?”

  “Better than being at the bottom of the lake.” His smile turned wry, lips chapped from the harsh Earthen sun. “They’ll move me to a suspension tank tomorrow night. Half a day and I’ll be good as new.” He squinted. “That’s assuming you’re not here to bring me food. I’d like to keep my tongue where it is, thank you.”

  “No food. Just a friendly face.”

  “Friendly.” His gaze raked over her, his relaxed grin still in place. “That’s an understatement.”

  She dipped her head, turning away just enough to hide the three scars that trailed down her right cheek. For years, Winter had assumed that when people stared at her, it was because the scars disgusted them. A rare disfigurement in their world of perfection. But then a maid had told her they weren’t disgusted, they were in awe. She said the scars made Winter interesting to look at and somehow, odd as it was, even more beautiful. Beautiful. It was a word that Winter had heard tossed around all her life. A beautiful child, a beautiful girl, a beautiful young lady, so beautiful, too beautiful … and the stares that came with the word never ceased to make her want to don a veil like her stepmother’s and hide from the whispers.

  Jacin was the only person who could make her feel beautiful without it seeming like a bad thing. She couldn’t recall him ever using the word, or making any such deliberate compliment. It was always hidden behind careless jokes that made her heart pound so fast.

  “Don’t tease,” she said, flustered at the way he looked at her, at the way he always looked at her.

  “Wasn’t teasing,” he said, all nonchalance.

  In response, Winter reached out and punched him lightly on the shoulder—where there weren’t any wounds.

  He flinched, and she gasped—ready to apologize—but his eyes stayed warm. “That’s not a fair fight, Princess.”

  She reeled back the apology. “It’s about time I had the advantage.”

  He looked past her, into the streets. “Where’s your guard?”

  “I left him behind. Searching for a monster in my closet.”

  With that, the sunshine smile was gone, hardened into exasperation. “Princess, you can’t go out alone. If something happened to you—”

  “Who’s going to hurt me here, in the city? Everyone knows who I am.”

  “It just takes one idiot, too used to getting what he wants and too drunk to control himself.”

  Flushing, she clenched her jaw.

  Jacin looked immediately regretful. “Princess—”

  “I’ll run all the way back to the palace. I’ll be fine.”

  He sighed, and she listed her head, wishing she’d brought some sort of medicinal salve for his cuts. Levana hadn’t said anything about medicine, and the sight of him tied up and vulnerable—and shirtless, even if it was a bloodied shirtless—was making her fingers twitch in odd ways.

  “I just wanted to be alone with you,” she said, focusing on his face. “We never get to be alone anymore.”

  “It’s not proper for seventeen-year-old princesses to be alone with young men who have questionable intentions.”

  She laughed. “And what about young men who she’s been best friends with since she was barely old enough to walk?”

  He shook his head. “Those are the worst.”

  She snorted—an actual snort of laughter that served to brighten Jacin’s smile again.

  But the humor was bittersweet. The truth was, Jacin only touched her when he was helping her through a particularly awful hallucination. Otherwise, he hadn’t deliberately touched her in years. Not since she was fourteen and he was sixteen and she’d tried to teach him the Eclipse Waltz with somewhat embarrassing results.

  These days, she would have auctioned off the Milky Way to make his intentions a little less honorable.

  Her smile started to fizzle, and then his did, too. “I’ve missed you,” she said.

  His gaze dropped away and he shifted in an attempt to get more comfortable against the dial. Locking his jaw so she wouldn’t see how much every tiny movement pained him. “How’s your head?” he asked, once her words had cloaked them both.

  “The visions come and go
,” she said, “but they don’t seem to be getting worse.”

  “Have you had one today?”

  She picked at a small, natural flaw in the linen of her pants, thinking back. “No, not since the trials yesterday. I turned into a girl of icicles, and Aimery lost his head. Literally.”

  “Wouldn’t mind so much if that last one came true.”

  She shushed him.

  “I mean it. I don’t like how he looks at you these days.”

  Winter glanced over her shoulder, but the courtyards surrounding the dais were empty. Only the distant bustle of music and laughter reminded her that they were in a metropolis at all.

  “You’re back on Luna now,” she said. “You have to be careful what you say.”

  “You’re giving me advice on how to be covert?”

  “Jacin—”

  “There are three cameras on this square. Two on the lampposts behind you, one embedded in the oak tree behind the sundial. None of them have audio. Unless she’s hiring lip-readers now?”

  Winter scowled. “How can you know that for sure?”

  “Surveillance was one of Sybil’s specialties.”

  Winter crossed her arms. “She could have killed you yesterday. You need to be careful.”

  “I know, Princess. I have no interest in returning to that throne room as anything other than a loyal guard.”

  A burst of lights overhead caught Winter’s eye and she glanced up. Through the dome, the flames of a dozen spaceships were already fading as they launched themselves from Luna’s ports and streaked across the star-scattered sky. Heading toward Earth.

  “Soldiers,” said Jacin, following her gaze. She couldn’t tell if he’d meant it as a statement or a question. “How’s the war effort?”

  “No one tells me anything. But Her Majesty seems pleased with our victories so far … though still furious about the missing emperor, and the canceled wedding.”

  “Not canceled. Just delayed.”

  “Try telling her that.”

  He grunted.

 
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