Stars above, p.23
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       Stars Above, p.23
 

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  Cinder started to smile, too, and though it had a sardonic edge to it, Kai felt like he’d won something. “Believe it or not, she came that way. I suspect a programming error, which is probably why my stepmother got her so cheap.”

  “I do not have a programming error!” Iko’s irate voice screeched from behind one of the towering shelves.

  Kai chuckled again. Cinder caught his eye for a brief moment before she looked away.

  Back at Nainsi.

  The reason he was here. The oh-so-important reason.

  Why was he so distracted?

  He lowered the zipper on his sweatshirt a hair. The heat was becoming unbearable. His shirt would be drenched with sweat by the time he got back to the hover, and he was grateful that it hadn’t yet seeped through the sweatshirt.

  “So what do you think?” he asked.

  “I’ll need to run her diagnostics. It will take me a few days, maybe a week.” Cinder pushed a strand of hair behind one ear and lowered herself into a chair.

  Only then did Kai realize that she’d been trembling a little. Maybe she was dehydrated.

  He thought of offering to go get her some water, but then remembered that she had an android assistant to do those things for her. So instead, he held up his ID-implanted wrist and asked, “Do you need payment up front?”

  Cinder was waving away the suggestion almost before he’d finished. “No, thank you. It will be my honor.”

  He opened his mouth to protest, but hesitated. This wasn’t uncommon when he was dealing with small business owners—they seemed to think that his patronage was payment enough, or maybe the publicity that would be gained from it. Arguing over a payment generally led to the vendor feigning offense and him feeling like a braggart.

  He lowered his hand and shifted his attention to Nainsi again. “I don’t suppose there’s any hope of having her done before the festival?”

  “I don’t think that will be a problem,” said Cinder, shutting Nainsi’s control panel. “But without knowing what’s wrong with her—”

  “I know, I know.” Kai hooked his thumbs on his sweatshirt pockets and rocked back on his heels. Ever since he’d started searching for Princess Selene it had been his dream to announce her survival and imminent reclamation of her throne at the annual ball. It was, after all, a celebration of world peace. He could think of no greater gift to his country than ridding them of Queen Levana, their sneakiest and most deceitful enemy. “Just wishful thinking.”

  “How will I contact you when she’s ready?”

  “Send a comm to the palace.” Kai paused, remembering Sybil Mira—the Lunar Queen’s own minion. Remembering how important it was that she never suspect he was searching for the missing princess, or doing anything else to undermine Levana’s rule. Quickly, he added, “Or will you be here again next weekend? I could stop by then.”

  Iko’s voice chirped from the back, “Oh, yes! We’re here every market day. You should come by again. That would be lovely.”

  Cinder winced. “You don’t need to—”

  “It’ll be my pleasure.”

  It wasn’t a lie. Not only would this allow for him to keep the transaction discreet, but it also meant that he would be picking up Nainsi in person, rather than having her dropped off with some nameless assistant at the palace. It meant he was sure to see Linh Cinder again.

  Maybe he could learn more about her then.

  Maybe he’d make her smile. A real smile.

  Maybe …

  Maybe he needed another hobby.

  He nodded a farewell to her. She returned the nod, but didn’t stand or bow—all professional politeness, without much of the royal courtesy he was used to. It was sort of refreshing.

  Pulling the hood over his face again, he turned and slipped back into the bustling crowd.

  He felt lighter than he had in days as he made his way back to the hover car. He knew that nothing was resolved, not yet. His father was still dying, his country was still in danger, and Nainsi was still unable to share her secrets.

  But there was something about Linh Cinder. Something capable and confident, even if she had been a little nervous to be talking to him. There was something about her that went beyond an unexpected reputation.

  The knot in his chest loosened, just a little. Linh Cinder was going to solve this problem. He knew it. She was going to fix Nainsi, and then he would be able to retrieve the lost information about the princess. He would find Selene and, for the first time in generations, Earth would have a true ally in Luna.

  He was optimistic as he left the weekly market behind. More optimistic than he had been in weeks.

  That mechanic was going to change everything.

  Something Old, Something New

  Cinder squeezed the suitcase shut with a sigh of finality. Iko had been pestering her all week about what she was and wasn’t going to pack, insisting on a variety of gowns and uncomfortable shoes and rolling her eyes at Cinder’s constant reminders that they would be spending most of this trip on a farm. With cows and chickens and mud.

  “Just because you’re not a queen anymore,” Iko had said, her hands fisted on her hips, “doesn’t mean you get to go back to looking like you just rolled out of an engine compartment.”

  Together they had finally agreed on a few pairs of comfortable pants and lightweight blouses, plus a simple emerald-green cocktail dress—“Just in case,” Iko had insisted.

  Cinder stepped back and looked at the suitcase with some trepidation, trying to determine what she’d forgotten, but she knew the nerves writhing in her stomach had nothing to do with what she would wear or the possibility of leaving something behind—after all, they had shops on Earth.

  No, she was nervous to be leaving.

  For the first time since her official abdication, she was leaving Luna.

  She had been back to Earth only once since she’d reclaimed her place upon the Lunar throne. She had kept to her promise and been Kai’s date to the Commonwealth’s ball last year, and it had been … terrifying. But also extraordinary. The people of Earth still weren’t sure what to do with the fact that one of their beloved leaders was not so secretly dating a Lunar, and a cyborg Lunar at that. There had been protests. There had been countless comedy skits taking jabs at a romance that most of the world deemed unconventional, even offensive. There had been jealous, hateful glares from the other guests, and live newsfeeds that criticized everything from Cinder’s gown to her posture to her sarcastic (i.e., tasteless) sense of humor.

  She would have been humiliated, or possibly furious, if it hadn’t also been for the amazing things that had come from that trip.

  Iko had been one of the stars of the ball—the first android to ever receive an official invitation.

  Dozens of kids had asked Cinder to autograph their portscreens, calling her a role model and a hero.

  There had been her elation at seeing her friends again.

  There had been all the Earthens who weren’t against her. In fact, her critics were in the minority, at least according to Iko’s frequent updates and reminders. There were plenty of people who defended her against the outcry, reminding the world that she was the girl who had saved them from Levana and done nothing but show loyalty to Earth and display bravery worth commending.

  And, of course, there was Kai. The way he had looked at her when she first stepped off the spaceship and onto the platform at New Beijing Palace had been encapsulated in her memory. She had long felt a homesickness for Earth. Despite how hard she’d fought to rescue the country she knew so little about, Luna had never felt like home, not even after two years of living here. She’d thought she was homesick for New Beijing, even though her life with Adri hadn’t felt like much of a home, either.

  It wasn’t until that moment, seeing Kai’s smile and being wrapped up in his arms—both of them ignoring the fact that the world was watching—that she realized he was the home she’d been missing.

  In the months since then, relations with Earth had gr
own stronger, and it seemed the Eastern Commonwealth citizens were gradually coming to terms with their emperor’s unusual romantic choice. Cinder’s abdication hadn’t hurt. From the moment she’d announced her plan to dissolve the Lunar monarchy and host elections for a democratic ruling system, the people of Earth had rejoiced. To them, it was the ultimate political statement. The promise that there would never again be a Queen Levana.

  Lunars hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about her choice, but once nominations ensued and election campaigns were under way, the mind-set of the country shifted. There was a potential to this system that hadn’t been there under royal rule: Every one would be represented, and any of their children could grow up to be a leader. It was a new way of thinking, especially for those in the outer sectors, and Cinder had been immensely relieved when her plan gained traction. When the ballots were released, almost every single citizen had cast a vote.

  She had never been so proud of an accomplishment, not even the revolution that had ended Levana’s reign.

  A knock thumped at her door and Iko entered, bouncing like a kangaroo. “They’re here! I just got the comm from port security—the Rampion has arrived!”

  “Good,” said Cinder, with a firm nod at her suitcase. “I’m ready to go.”

  Iko paused and took in the suitcase with a disbelieving frown. “Is that all you’re bringing?”

  “That’s it. Why? How many suitcases are you bringing?”

  “Three, and that was after I pared it down.” She placed a hand on Cinder’s arm. “Don’t worry. If you run out of clothes, I’ll lend you some of mine. Kinney?” Iko glanced back. “Would you be a dear and take Ambassador Linh-Blackburn’s luggage down to the docks?”

  Cinder followed her look. Liam Kinney was hovering in the doorway, arms folded over his chest. Kinney had been one of the royal guards who had sided with Cinder during the revolution, and she’d come to consider him a friend since then. He was no longer a royal guard—there wasn’t any royalty to protect—but he had been keen to take the position of protecting the new Grand Minister and his parliament of elected representatives, and Cinder had been happy to recommend him.

  “With pleasure,” Kinney deadpanned. “In fact, I was hoping that if I came to see you off, I would be asked to do manual labor.”

  Iko shrugged. “If you don’t want to do any heavy lifting, then stop having such impressive muscles.”

  Cinder stifled a laugh as Kinney stepped forward to haul the suitcase off her bed. Though he was pretending to scowl, she could detect redness around his ears. “At least yours is about half the weight of Iko’s,” he said, casting Cinder a grateful look.

  “I had only your comfort in mind,” said Cinder. “Thanks, Kinney.”

  He gave her a bow, a habit that had been impossible to break him of. “My shift starts in an hour, so I won’t be at the dock to say good-bye, but I wanted to wish you both safe travels.”

  “Try to keep that new Grand Minister out of trouble while I’m gone.”

  “I’ll do my best.” He headed back for the door, and a smile so quick and secretive passed between him and Iko that Cinder almost missed it. Iko didn’t take her gaze from him until he was gone.

  “He could have come with us, you know,” said Cinder, glancing around the room one last time.

  Iko shook her head. “He has a painfully strong work ethic. It’s one of his more annoying characteristics.”

  Cinder chuckled. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

  “Speak for yourself.” Iko spun back to her and clapped her hands excitedly. “Are you ready? Can we go?”

  Cinder sucked in another breath. “Yes, I think so.” She frowned. “You don’t think it’s a mistake to leave, do you?”

  “Mistake?”

  “It’s just … the new parliament only took office six weeks ago. What if something goes wrong? What if they need me?”

  “Then they can send you a comm.” Iko settled her hands on Cinder’s shoulders. “You’re an ambassador to Earth now, Cinder. So it’s time you got yourself to Earth and started doing some ambassadorizing.”

  Cinder cocked her head to one side. “That’s not a word.”

  “It should be. Besides, the Grand Minister has had more assistance and transition into his gig than you had when you took the throne. He’ll be fine.” She locked her elbow with Cinder’s and dragged her toward the door. “Now, come on. Paris awaits!”

  “We’re not going to Paris.”

  “It’s close enough for me.”

  Cinder set aside her resistance as she and Iko made their way through the palace-turned-government-headquarters. The white marble. The towering glass windows. The sea of stars in the black sky beyond.

  She couldn’t decide if she was sad or thrilled to be leaving. Iko kept up enough enthusiastic chatter that her worries began to calm, and she was right. Though Cinder had been heavily involved in the transition to the new governmental system—advising the elected leaders as much as she could once they’d taken office—her role was already becoming moot. It had been decided early on that she would continue to be involved in Lunar politics, but as an advisor and ambassador, like Winter. She was in a unique position to continue smoothing the relations between Earth and Luna, after all, and …

  Kai.

  She was desperate to see Kai again. To kiss him. To be in his arms. To laugh at his ironic jokes and watch his eyes crinkle when he laughed at hers.

  It was easy for Cinder to justify the desperation because—unromantic as it may have been—she knew that together, she and Kai had the power to do more for the prejudices between their people than any amount of political discussions could hope to accomplish.

  When she and Iko entered the spaceship docks that were located beneath the palace, the Rampion was the first thing she saw. It was enormous compared to most of the small royal podships lined up in neat rows. Its metal plating was beat-up and dingy, its cargo-toting body almost cumbersome when compared to the sleek designs that surrounded it. But it was beautiful, and its lowered cargo ramp was more welcoming than any red carpet.

  Thorne and Cress were waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp, and when Cress and Iko spotted each other they shared a squeal. Thorne and Cinder shared a cringe, and then they were all smiling and embracing as if they hadn’t seen each other in years—even though they still got together with some regularity. Thorne and Cress’s role in distributing the letumosis antidote to Earth brought them to Artemisia every time there was a new breakout, and it was those intermittent moments of easy friendship that had helped to keep Cinder sane as she struggled to grasp the intricacies of Lunar transportation systems, trade policies, and educational mandates.

  With his arms draped over Cinder’s and Iko’s shoulders, Thorne guided them up the ramp. “How does it feel to be a layperson again, Miss Linh?”

  “Wonderful,” she said. “I never want to hear the words Your Majesty ever again.”

  “Never? Never ever?” Thorne quirked an eyebrow at her. “What if there was an Imperial thrown in between them? Would that change your mind?”

  Cinder clenched her jaw, glad that his teasing couldn’t rile a blush from her. With a sharp elbow jab to his side, she extricated herself from beneath his arm. “How’s the ship been holding up?”

  “Nice dodge,” said Thorne, dropping his other arm from Iko and hooking a thumb over his belt. “But as your question is pertinent, I’ll allow it. There’s actually been a rattle in the compression system for the past month or so.”

  Cinder glanced up at the ceiling of the cargo bay, even though she couldn’t hear anything with the systems powered down.

  “I told him to take it to a mechanic when we were in Dublin last week,” said Cress.

  “And I told her that I already have a mechanic,” said Thorne, pointing at Cinder.

  Cress shrugged apologetically.

  “It’s fine,” said Cinder. “I kind of miss the work, actually. I’ll check it out when we’re in the air.”

>   Thorne clapped his hands. “Great, then let’s get this diplomatic envoy started. Ship, raise the ramp! You all just sit back and relax and we’ll be on Earth in no time.” He turned to head for the cockpit, adding over his shoulder, “I’ve been practicing takeoffs, by the way. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

  As soon as he was out of earshot, Cress turned back to Iko and Cinder with a grimace. “He hasn’t really gotten any better,” she whispered. “Let’s go back to the crew quarters. There’s more to hold on to back there.”

  Cress took the lead, walking the narrow corridor of the Rampion with the air of a hostess welcoming important guests into her home. Cinder grinned at her back, thinking of what a change it was from the first time Cress had been aboard the Rampion—all meek and awkward and barely able to say more than two words without hiding behind Thorne.

  She took them to one of the small crew quarters—a room long left empty. In fact, as Cress was opening the door, it occurred to Cinder that this had been her room for the brief time she’d sought sanctuary on the ship. She stepped inside with a sense of nostalgic awe … and promptly began to laugh.

  The room was full of white crepe paper and tulle, unburned candles and glass lanterns, streamers and small silk bags overflowing with sugared almonds.

  Iko gasped and trailed a finger over an enormous tulle bow. “Is this all for the wedding?”

  Cress nodded, but her expression was worried as she looked around at the scattered decorations. “Wolf told us to bring whatever we thought might be needed, so we stopped at a wedding supply store in the Republic and just about cleaned out their stock.” Chewing on her lower lip, she glanced back at Iko. “Once we got it all piled in here, though, I started to wonder if it was maybe all a bit on the gaudy side?”

  Iko shrugged. “We can work with gaudy.”

  The Rampion began to rumble. Cress and Iko each took a spot on the lower bunk bed that took up one wall of the cabin, but Cinder made her way through the jumble of rose-petal-stuffed baskets and empty glass vases and stacked ivory linens until she came to the round window at the back of the room.

 
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