Stars above, p.17
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       Stars Above, p.17
 

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Winter nodded. “Guards never are.”

  She had no idea if her mother—her biological mother—had been skilled with her gift. No one ever spoke of her, and she knew better than to ask.

  “But we do know, don’t we, that you are not as talentless as your father, because Master Gertman tells me that at one point you showed marvelous promise. In fact, he feels that you were once one of his most outstanding students, and he is as baffled as anyone over your current lack of ability. I wonder if this isn’t all due to some … psychological trauma. Perhaps pertaining to that suicide?”

  “Maybe, but I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe I need to see a doctor rather than a tutor.” Winter barely smothered her own smirk. A doctor. What might they prescribe for the girl who was going crazy, who heard monsters clawing at her door nearly every night?

  But she would not mention that. She knew what was wrong with her. She knew how to make the visions stop. But she wouldn’t give in to them. She was stronger than the monsters.

  “No,” said Levana. “I have another idea, Princess. A bit of added motivation, to assist with your studies.”

  She opened a drawer, smiling serenely. Every movement was graceful and precise. The queen moved like a dancer, always. So controlled. So lovely to watch, even now, despite the cruelty that Winter knew lay beneath her beauty.

  She waited, expecting a lesson plan or some trivial instructions for practicing her gift.

  Instead, the queen produced a knife.

  The handle was carved from milky crystal and the blade was obsidian black. Like her stepmother, it was both threatening and exquisite. Winter’s stomach dropped. Her head spun with alarm, but her feet were cemented to the carpet. “Stepmother?”

  “You will learn to use your gift, Winter. You will not embarrass me and this crown any more than you already have.” Pacing toward her, Levana held out the knife, handle first.

  It took a while, but finally Winter forced herself to take it. Her hand was shaking, but she knew that she took the knife of her own will. She was not being coerced.

  Not yet.

  She had seen this scene play out dozens of times in the throne room. Criminals being sentenced to self-inflicted death.

  “I don’t understand.”

  “You are a very pretty child.” Levana’s expression remained poised. Winter’s arm still trembled. “We would not want to ruin that prettiness, now would we?”

  Winter swallowed.

  “Manipulate me, Winter. Go ahead.”

  “What?” she squeaked, certain she’d heard wrong. She’d only practiced on malleable servants in the past. She wasn’t sure she could manipulate her stepmother even if she tried—and she wasn’t going to try. She couldn’t, not after working so hard to free herself of her Lunar instincts.

  But what was the queen planning?

  Images of her own throat being slit flashed through Winter’s thoughts.

  Her heart pounded.

  “Prove that you are capable of a simple little manipulation,” said Levana. “That you aren’t a waste of my time and my protection. That you aren’t the mockery of a princess the people of Artemisia believe you are. Just one little tiny manipulation, and … I will let you go.”

  Winter looked down at the knife in her hand.

  “Or,” Levana continued, her tone sharpening, “if you fail, I will give you a new reason to practice your glamour. I will give you something to hide. Believe me, I know how strong that motivation can be. Do you understand?”

  Winter did not understand.

  She nodded anyway.

  Her fingers tightened around the cool handle.

  “Go on, then. I will even let you choose what manipulation you will perform. A glamour. An emotion. Make me take that knife back from you if you can. I won’t fight you.” Levana’s smile was patient, almost maternal, if Winter had known what a maternal smile looked like.

  It took a long, long time for the smile to fade.

  A long, long time for Winter to consider her choice.

  Her decision.

  Her vow.

  I will never use my gift. Not ever again.

  “I’m sorry,” Winter whispered around her dry throat. “I cannot.”

  The queen held her gaze. Passive at first, before Winter saw fury spark in her eyes, an anger that burned hot with loathing. But it soon faded, smothered with mere disappointment.

  “So be it.”

  Winter flinched as her hand began to move of its own accord. She slammed her eyes shut against Levana’s detached expression and saw the vision again. A deep cut in her throat. Blood spilling across the floor.

  Her breath caught as the tip of the blade grazed her neck. Her body went rigid.

  But the knife didn’t cut her throat. It continued up, up, until the sharp point settled against the corner of her right eye.

  Her gut twisted. Her pulse thundered.

  She gasped as the blade cut into the soft flesh beneath her eye and was dragged slowly down her cheek. She could feel tears welling behind her eyelids from the stinging-hot pain, but she kept her eyes shut and refused to let them fall.

  The blade stopped at her jaw and her hand lowered, taking the knife with it.

  Winter gulped down a shuddering breath, dizzy with horror, and opened her eyes.

  She was not dead. She had not lost an eye. She could feel blood dripping down her cheek and throat and catching on the collar of her dress, but it was only a single cut. It was only blood.

  She blinked rapidly, dispelling any tears before they could betray her, and met her stepmother’s hardened glare.

  “Well?” Levana said through her teeth. “Would you like to try again before your beauty is marred further?”

  Beauty, thought Winter. Of course. It meant so much to the queen, and so very little to her. The pain she could tolerate. The scar she could accept.

  A new resolve straightened her spine. She would not allow the queen to win this battle. She refused to lose herself to the queen’s mind games.

  “I cannot,” she said again.

  The knife came to her face again, drawing another parallel line beside the first. This time, she kept her eyes open. She was no longer afraid of crying, though the blood felt like warm, thick tears on her cheek.

  “And now?” Levana said. “Go on, Winter. A simple manipulation. Prove your worth to this court.”

  Winter held her gaze. Her stepmother’s face had lost its calm facade. She was openly livid. Even her shoulders were trembling with restrained rage.

  They both knew this was no longer about a princess making a mockery of the royal family. Levana must have sensed the quiet defiance brewing inside her.

  The queen could make anyone do anything. She had only to think it, and her will was done.

  But not this. She could not force Winter to do this.

  It was a struggle for Winter to keep a proud smile from her face as she said firmly, “I will not.”

  Levana snarled and the knife rose again.

  * * *

  When the queen released her, Winter refused to run back to her chambers. She walked like royalty, head high and feet clipping steadily on the marble. She didn’t even consider using her glamour to hide the three gashes and the blood that dripped down her neck, staining her dress. She was proud. Her wound was proof that she had been to battle and survived.

  People stopped to stare, but no one asked about the three cuts in her flesh. No one stopped her. Her guards, sworn to defend their princess at all costs, said nothing.

  The queen would be proven wrong. Winter’s skin would be permanently marred, but she would not let the scars bully her into submission. The wounds would become her armor, and a constant reminder of her victory.

  She might be broken. She might be crazy. But she would not be defeated.

  When she reached the wing to her private quarters, she drew up short.

  Jacin was waiting for her outside her chamber doors. Beside him stood Head Thaumaturge Sybil Mira in he
r pristine white coat.

  Jacin was staring at the ground, his face tense.

  Sybil was smiling, a hand on Jacin’s shoulder. And when they both looked at Winter—

  Jacin appeared shocked, first, though it fast turned to horror, while Sybil …

  Winter shuddered.

  Sybil Mira looked not surprised at all, and not the tiniest bit sympathetic. Levana must have told her what she was planning. Maybe it had even been Sybil’s idea—Winter knew that the head thaumaturge had a great amount of influence over the queen.

  “What happened?” Jacin said, shrugging off Sybil’s hand and rushing toward her. He went to place his palm over her bloodied cheek but hesitated. He covered his hand with his sleeve first before pressing the material against her.

  “Shall I call for a medic, Your Highness?” said Sybil, folding her hands into her own sleeves.

  “I’m fine, thank you. You can step aside so that I might retire to my quarters.”

  “If you are sure I cannot be of service.” Sybil did step aside, even bowed her head, but an amused smile lingered on her lips as Winter brushed past her. Jacin stayed with her, step for step, applying pressure to the cheek that she had not dared touch. It hadn’t stopped stinging, and the pain was a persistent reminder of what she had endured and the choices she had made. She would never regret those choices, scars or no.

  “Who did this?” Jacin demanded as Winter shoved through her bedroom door, leaving her personal guard outside.

  “I did, of course,” she said, to which he stared, aghast. She snorted bitterly. “My hand did.”

  His eyes blazed, full of murder. “The queen?”

  She had only to stay silent to confirm it.

  Rage cascaded over his face, but he turned away too fast for Winter to appreciate the depth of it. He pulled her into the powder room and set her on the edge of the tub. Within minutes, he had cleaned the wounds and applied a generous amount of healing salve.

  “I shouldn’t have left you,” he muttered through gnashed teeth as he applied a makeshift bandage of cotton strips. Winter was impressed that he was able to keep his hands so calm, while his expression was so furious.

  He would make a great doctor.

  “You had no choice,” she said. “Neither of us did.”

  “Why would she do this to you? Is she jealous?”

  She met his flashing gaze. “Why would the queen be jealous of me?”

  His anger sizzled. “How does this benefit her?”

  “She said that she wanted me to learn to use my gift, so that I would stop making a mockery of the crown. She thought that if I … she thought this would motivate me to learn to use my glamour.”

  Understanding dawned on his face. “To hide the scars.”

  She nodded. “I also think she wanted to remind me that I’m … that I belong to her. That I’m nothing but a pawn in her game, to be used as she sees fit.” She slumped, letting go of the composure she’d fought so hard for. “But I am not her pawn. I refuse to be.”

  Jacin stood with his hands strangling a towel for a long moment, looking like he wanted to keep working, keep cleaning, keep bandaging, but he’d already done all he could. Finally, with a huff, he sat beside her on the tub’s edge. His anger was fading, replaced with guilt. “If she thinks you’re intentionally not using your gift, she might see it as rebellious.” His tone was subdued now, though his fingers showed no mercy to the towel. “I think she is jealous. Because people like you. They respect you. And you don’t have to manipulate them for it.”

  “I’m not trying to do anything,” said Winter. “I just … I just don’t want to be like her. Like them!”

  Jacin smiled, but it was tired. “Exactly. What could be more threatening than that?”

  She sagged further, settling her face into her hands, careful not to press against her stinging cheek. Then she frowned and peered up at Jacin from the corner of her eye. “What did Thaumaturge Mira want?”

  He inhaled sharply. For a moment she thought he wouldn’t say anything, but finally he spoke. “She came to tell me that I would need to find new housing accommodations if my plan is to stay in Artemisia until my internship begins next year.”

  Her brow creased. “New housing? Why wouldn’t you stay here in the palace?”

  “Because my parents are leaving.”

  She straightened.

  “My father’s been transferred to one of the outer sectors, as a security guard.”

  Her heart thumped. “A demotion? But … why?”

  Jacin started to shake his head, but then stopped and met her gaze, and instantly Winter knew why.

  She was spending too much time with this boy.

  She was in love with this boy.

  And that would not fit into Levana’s perfectly constructed plans for her. That could cause problems for the queen and whatever alliance she planned to cement using Winter’s hand as the purchase price.

  Send his family away, and the boy would leave too.

  She pressed a hand over her mouth.

  “My parents don’t seem to mind,” said Jacin. “I think they’re both relieved to be getting out of Artemisia. All the politics.” And the manipulations, he didn’t say, but didn’t have to.

  “You’re leaving me,” she breathed.

  Jacin pursed his lips. He looked terrified as he snaked his hand beneath her arm, entwining their fingers together. Their hands fit like a lock and key. It had been years since they had simply held hands, and she wished they had never stopped.

  “No,” he said. “I’m not leaving you.”

  She raised her eyes. There was a determined set to his jaw that surprised her. “But where will you go, if you can’t stay here?” she asked. “And besides, when your internship starts you’ll have to leave anyway, and then…”

  “Thaumaturge Mira gave me another option. Or…” He gulped. “The queen gave me another option. They’ve invited me to join the palace guard. I could begin training as early as next week.”

  Her eyes widened and she yanked her hand away. “No. No. Jacin, you can’t. What about being a doctor? What about—”

  “I could stay with you, Winter. I could stay here in the palace.”

  “Until they send you off to one of the outer sectors, you mean.”

  “They won’t do that.”

  “How can you be sure?”

  “Because I’ll be the most loyal guard Her Majesty has ever known.”

  His expression was withdrawn. Haunted.

  Winter’s hand went slack in his grip.

  Levana would threaten her, maybe even threaten her life.

  Maybe she already had, which was how they’d gotten Jacin to consider it in the first place.

  He would do anything they asked if he thought he was protecting her.

  “You know how we all take aptitude tests in year fourteen?” Jacin said, unable to look at her. “I tested high for a potential pilot role. Thaumaturge Mira said she could use me as her personal guard and transporter.”

  “No, Jacin. You can’t. If you do this, you’ll never be able to get out.”

  Releasing her hand, he stood up and began pacing the powder room floor. “I don’t know what else to do. I can’t leave you here, especially now, after this.” He waved a hand toward her cheek and Winter placed her palm over the washcloth. The blood hadn’t yet soaked through.

  “I don’t want you to be a guard, Jacin. Not after … what happened to my father…” Her voice cracked.

  Killed by a thaumaturge, with no hope at all of defending himself. Because he was weak. Jacin was weak. She was weak.

  Against the queen and her court, they had no hope at all.

  Pawns. Just pawns.

  “I think you should go,” she said.

  He stared at her, hurt.

  “With your parents, I mean. I think you should go with them. In a year, apply for your medical internship and be the doctor you’ve always wanted to be. This is what you want, Jacin. To help people. To sa
ve people.”

  “Winter, I…”

  She gasped, her gaze catching on the wall over Jacin’s shoulder. A frosted-glass window was there, letting in enough daylight to make the entire room glow rosy and gold.

  But the light was being blotted out.

  By blood.

  Crimson, thick, sticky blood, oozing from the mortar that held in the glass windowpane, dripping thickly down the sides and pooling on the sill.

  She started to tremble. Jacin spun around, following the look. He was silent a long moment before saying, “What? What’s wrong?” He looked back at her.

  Something splattered on Winter’s forearm.

  She tilted her head back.

  The ceiling.

  Covered in it.

  Red, everywhere. The tang of iron on her tongue. Her mouth was thick with it.

  Her chest convulsed with panic and nausea. She shoved herself to her feet and spun in a full circle, watching as the blood came down from the ceiling, soaking into the gilt wallpaper and wood moldings, puddling on the tile floor.

  “Winter. What is it? What are you seeing?”

  The blood reached her toes.

  She turned and shoved past him, scrambling out of the powder room.

  “Winter!”

  Her bedroom was no better. She froze in the middle of it. Blood had made a waterfall over her bed, staining the linens in crimson, squishing in the carpet beneath her feet. The door into the corridor had a bloodied curtain dripping from the jamb.

  No getting through.

  No getting away.

  She stumbled and teetered on her weak legs, then tripped toward the only escape—the doors that led to the balcony. She heard Jacin screaming behind her, and she hoped he would follow, hoped he would not get stuck here in the suffocating stench, the incessant dripping—

  She threw open the doors.

  Her stomach hit the protective barrier. Her hands latched on to the rail. The blood kept coming. Pouring out of the bedroom, spilling over the balcony, dribbling down to the garden.

  It was the palace. The whole palace was bleeding.

  It would fill up the entire lake.

  Gasping for air, she hauled one leg up and threw herself over the rail.

 
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