Stars above, p.27
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       Stars Above, p.27

         Part #4.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
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  He turned his head and smirked down at her. “Nope. But I might tell them what an honor it was for me to be able to marry two of my closest friends, who happen to love each other very much.”

  Her grin widened. “That won’t satisfy them at all.”

  “I know. That’s half the appeal.”

  Cinder took Kai’s hand and squeezed it. “There’s something I want to show you. Do you think anyone would notice if we slipped away for a bit?”

  He raised an eyebrow at her. “Given that we make up a full quarter of the guest list, I would be a little insulted if they didn’t notice.”

  “It was a rhetorical question.”

  “Then by all means, lead the way.”

  She stood and headed for the back door.

  Darkness had fallen and the fields were lit only by the moon and the stars, casting the world in a wash of silver-blue. Cinder paused on the short porch, listening for the sounds of voices or footsteps or android treads, but it seemed the paparazzi had gotten bored with waiting for their prey to emerge from the farmhouse and retreated for the night.

  Still holding Kai’s hand, she led him across the drive to the enormous hangar that housed Scarlet’s podship. Not wanting to turn on the hangar’s light and alert someone to their presence, she shut the door and turned on the flashlight in her cyborg finger, letting the thin beam of light guide them around the podship and a cluster of toolboxes stacked up on the floor. She found the cabinet at the back of the hangar, just where it had been the last time she’d been there. Releasing Kai’s hand, she crouched down and felt around the floor of the cabinet until her fingers brushed against the latch she knew was there. She yanked it upward, revealing an eerie blackness and a series of plastic rungs set into the concrete wall, disappearing into the shadows below.

  Kai grunted in surprise. “You have my attention.”

  Cinder shone the flashlight down into the hatch to see where she was heading before she grabbed the first rung and lowered herself down. Kai followed fast behind.

  As soon as she heard his feet hit the ground, Cinder said, “Lights on.”

  A generator started to hum, and overhead lights flickered to life, brightening the space that was as large as the hangar above, but intended for a much different purpose. Cinder swallowed as she looked around. Nothing had changed since she and Thorne had discovered this place two years before. She wondered if Scarlet had ever come down here to see the room her grandmother had kept a secret for so long—if she was curious, or willing to let it lie abandoned and forgotten for eternity.

  There was the suspended animation tank where she had rested for most of her childhood.

  There was the operating table where she had been transformed into a cyborg.

  There were the machines that had kept her alive and stimulated her brain and monitored her vital signs, all while she went on sleeping her dreamless sleep.

  The silence that engulfed her and Kai was as thick as the metallic-scented air of the secret room until Kai brushed past her and went to stand beside the empty tank. A blue gel in its base still showed the faint imprint of a child’s body.

  “This is where she kept you,” he murmured.

  Cinder licked her lips and glanced around. Part of her thought of the room as a sanctuary—the one place in the world that could have kept her safe for so long. But another part of her couldn’t help picturing it as a dungeon. “I was down here for eight years.”

  “Do you remember any of it?”

  “No, I was unconscious until the very end. I do have one faint memory of climbing up that ladder and leaving the hangar. It’s pretty hazy, though. If Thorne and I had never come here, I would have always thought it was a dream.”

  Leaving the tank, Kai paced around the room, taking in the tools made for attaching cyborg prostheses and integrating complicated wiring into the human nervous system. The bright lights, now turned off, that hovered like octopus tentacles over the operating table. He scanned the netscreens on the wall, but didn’t try to turn them on. After making a complete circle around the room, he paused and said, “Imagine how proud she would be.”

  “Michelle Benoit?”

  He nodded. “She’d be so proud of Scarlet, and of you. I can only begin to imagine the sacrifices she made to keep you safe, and all so one day you could face Levana and end her tyranny. You not only succeeded, but you signed the Treaty of Bremen and dissolved the Lunar monarchy. You’ve changed the course of history in ways that I’m sure she never could have predicted, and now…” His mouth quirked to one side as he glanced up in the direction of the farmhouse. “… Now her granddaughter is married to a Lunar. Openly. Happily. When just a few years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible.” His smile turned to melancholy. “I’m sorry I never got to meet her.”

  “Me too,” said Cinder.

  Lacing their fingers together, Kai lifted the back of her hand to his mouth. “Was there any reason in particular you wanted to show me this?”

  “I’m not sure. I figured you know all about my biological family and the world I was born into, and you’ve of course had the great pleasure of meeting my adoptive family on numerous occasions, so this was the last piece of the puzzle.” She waved her free arm around the room. “The missing link to my past.”

  Kai looked around one more time. “It’s pretty creepy, actually.”

  “I know.”

  After another moment of reverent silence, Kai said, “I’m surprised Thorne hasn’t asked if he can start leading guided tours down here. I bet you could charge a hefty admission fee.”

  Cinder snorted. “Please don’t plant that idea in his head.”

  “Scarlet would never allow it anyway. Come on.” He started heading back toward the ladder. “It’s my turn to show you something.”

  They could still hear music spilling out from the farmhouse, but Kai passed by it and headed into the fields that surrounded them. They hadn’t gone far before the mud from recent sprinklers sucked at their feet. They walked for a long time, stepping over the rows of sugar beets, letting the moonlight guide them. After a while the sound of music disappeared in the distance, and another sound took its place—the melodic burble of a small creek.

  At the end of the field, the land dipped down into a narrow ravine that the creek had carved over time. There were a few trees scattered along its banks, the roots sometimes emerging from the tiny cliff side before plunging down into the soft silt. Kai found a grassy spot where they could watch the subtle glint of moonlight off the foaming water, and they sat beside each other. His arm wound its way around Cinder’s waist.

  “All right, I give up,” said Cinder. “How did you know this was here?”

  “Wolf mentioned it last night when he was showing us around the farm. The creek marks the end of their property. That side belongs to the neighbor.”

  “It’s very nice,” she said somewhat haltingly, “but … why are you showing me a creek?”

  “We’re not looking at the creek.” He pointed up. “We’re looking at the stars.”

  She laughed and tilted her head back. The moon had begun to dip toward the horizon, three-quarters full and surrounded by swirls of stars that could never be seen from a metropolis like New Beijing.

  “Also very nice,” she said. “But believe it or not, I’ve actually seen these stars before.”

  “Well, aren’t you hard to impress,” he said wryly.

  “Sorry. What I meant was, this is breathtaking.”

  “Thank you. I thought it would be nice to look up at the night sky with you beside me for once, rather than just wishing you were beside me.”

  Cinder felt a pang of guilt for being so flippant before, when the truth was …

  “I do that too,” she said. “I’ll look out at the stars and pretend you’re with me, or wonder if you’re looking at the same constellations that I am, maybe at that same moment.” She nestled her body against his and smiled when Kai kissed the top of her head. It felt so natural. Like they’d d
one this every night for years, rather than having been separated for most of that time.

  “I have a confession,” Kai mumbled into her hair.

  She tilted her head to peer at him. “Careful. There could be paparazzi hiding behind these trees. Any confessions might end up on tomorrow’s newsfeeds.”

  He pretended to consider this for a moment, eyes twinkling, before he said, “I could live with that.”

  She sat up straighter so she could turn to look at him. “Out with it, then.”

  “When I was figuring out what to say for the wedding, I kept thinking about you and me.”

  Cinder jolted. “I knew it!”

  Kai’s eyebrows shot upward.

  “I mean, there seemed to be a lot of overlap,” she added. “Especially that part about defying race and distance and physiological tampering.”

  He cocked his head, grinning as he inspected her. “Actually, I was referring more to the part about finding someone who complements you and makes you stronger. And being with someone not because you have some political agenda, but because … you love them.”

  She gazed at him, and he gazed back for a long, long moment, until finally Kai shrugged and admitted, “And, fine, what you said too.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Cinder.” Kai pulled one leg onto the bank, turning his body so they were facing each other. He took her hands between his and her heart began to drum unexpectedly. Not because of his touch, and not even because of his low, serious tone, but because it occurred to Cinder all at once that Kai was nervous.

  Kai was never nervous.

  “I asked you once,” he said, running his thumbs over her knuckles, “if you thought you would ever be willing to wear a crown again. Not as the queen of Luna, but … as my empress. And you said that you would consider it, someday.”

  She swallowed a breath of cool night air. “And … this is that day?”

  His lips twitched, but didn’t quite become a smile. “I love you. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I want to marry you, and, yes, I want you to be my empress.”

  Cinder gaped at him for a long moment before she whispered, “That’s a lot of wanting.”

  “You have no idea.”

  She lowered her lashes. “I might have some idea.”

  Kai released one of her hands and she looked up again to see him reaching into his pocket—the same that had held Wolf’s and Scarlet’s wedding rings before. His fist was closed when he pulled it out and Kai held it toward her, released a slow breath, and opened his fingers to reveal a stunning ring with a large ruby ringed in diamonds.

  It didn’t take long for her retina scanner to measure the ring, and within seconds it was filling her in on far more information than she needed—inane words like carats and clarity scrolled past her vision. But it was the ring’s history that snagged her attention. It had been his mother’s engagement ring once, and his grandmother’s before that.

  Kai took her hand and slipped the ring onto her finger. Metal clinked against metal, and the priceless gem looked as ridiculous against her cyborg plating as the simple gold band had looked on Wolf’s enormous, deformed, slightly hairy hand.

  Cinder pressed her lips together and swallowed, hard, before daring to meet Kai’s gaze again.

  “Cinder,” he said, “will you marry me?”

  Absurd, she thought.

  The emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth was proposing to her. It was uncanny. It was hysterical.

  But it was Kai, and somehow, that also made it exactly right.

  “Yes,” she whispered, “I will marry you.”

  Those simple words hung between them for a breath, and then she grinned and kissed him, amazed that her declaration didn’t bring the surge of anxiety she would have expected years ago. He drew her into his arms, laughing between kisses, and she suddenly started to laugh too. She felt strangely delirious.

  They had stood against all adversity to be together, and now they would forge their own path to love. She would be Kai’s wife. She would be the Commonwealth’s empress. And she had every intention of being blissfully happy for ever, ever after.

  CHAPTER ONE

  THREE LUSCIOUS LEMON TARTS glistened up at Catherine. She reached her towel-wrapped hands into the oven, ignoring the heat that enveloped her arms and pressed against her cheeks, and lifted the tray from the hearth. The tarts’ sunshine filling quivered, as if glad to be freed from the stone chamber.

  Cath held the tray with the same reverence one might reserve for the King’s crown. She refused to take her eyes from the tarts as she padded across the kitchen floor until the tray’s edge landed on the baker’s table with a satisfying thump. The tarts trembled for a moment more before falling still, flawless and gleaming.

  Setting the towels aside, she picked through the curled, sugared lemon peels laid out on parchment and arranged them like rose blossoms on the tarts, settling each strip into the still-warm center. The aromas of sweet citrus and buttery, flaky crust curled beneath her nose.

  She stepped back to admire her work.

  The tarts had taken her all morning. Five hours of weighing the butter and sugar and flour, of mixing and kneading and rolling the dough, of whisking and simmering and straining the egg yolks and lemon juice until they were thick and creamy and the color of buttercups. She had glazed the crust and crimped the edges like a lace doily. She had boiled and candied the delicate strips of lemon peel and ground sugar crystals into a fine powder for garnish. Her fingers itched to dust the tart edges now, but she refrained. They had to cool first, or else the sugar would melt into unattractive puddles on the surface.

  These tarts encompassed everything she had learned from the tattered recipe books on the kitchen shelf. There was not a hurried moment nor a careless touch nor a lesser ingredient in those fluted pans. She had been meticulous at every step. She had baked her very heart into them.

  Her inspection lingered, her eyes scanning every inch, every roll of the crust, every shining surface.

  Finally, she allowed herself a smile.

  Before her sat three perfect lemon tarts, and everyone in Hearts—from the dodo birds to the King himself—would have to recognize that she was the best baker in the kingdom. Even her own mother would be forced to admit that it was so.

  Her anxiety released, she bounced on her toes and squealed into her clasped hands.

  “You are my crowning joy,” she proclaimed, spreading her arms wide over the tarts, as if bestowing a knighthood upon them. “Now I bid you to go into the world with your lemony scrumptiousness and bring forth smiles from every mouth you grace with your presence.”

  “Speaking to the food again, Lady Catherine?”

  “Ah-ah, not just any food, Cheshire.” She lifted a finger without glancing back. “Might I introduce to you the most wondrous lemon tarts ever to be baked within the great Kingdom of Hearts!”

  A striped tail curled around her right shoulder. A furry, whiskered head appeared on her left. Cheshire purred thoughtfully, the sound vibrating down her spine. “Astounding,” he said in that tone he had that always left Cath unsure whether he was mocking her. “But where’s the fish?”

  Cath kissed the sugar crystals from her fingers and shook her head. “No fish.”

  “No fish? Whatever is the point?”

  “The point is perfection.” Her stomach tingled every time she thought of it.

  Cheshire vanished from her shoulders and reappeared on the baking table, one clawed paw hovering over the tarts. Cath jumped forward to shoo him back. “Don’t you dare! They’re for the King’s party, you goose.”

  Cheshire’s whiskers twitched. “The King? Again?”

  Stool legs screeched against the floor as Cath dragged a seat closer to the table and perched on top of it. “I thought I’d save one for him and the others can be served at the feasting table. It makes His Majesty so happy, you know, when I bake him things. And a happy king—”

  “Makes for a happy kingdom.” Cheshir
e yawned without bothering to cover his mouth and, grimacing, Cath held her hands in between him and the tarts to protect from any distasteful tuna breath.

  “A happy king also makes for a most excellent testimonial. Imagine if he were to declare me the official tart baker of the kingdom! People will line up for miles to taste them.”

  “They smell tart.”

  “They are tarts.” Cath turned one of the fluted pans so the blossom of the lemon-peel rose was aligned with the others. She was always mindful of how her treats were displayed. Mary Ann said her pastries were even more beautiful than those made by the royal pastry chefs.

  And after tonight, her desserts would not only be known as more beautiful, they would be known as superior in every way. Such praise was exactly what she and Mary Ann needed to launch their bakery. After so many years of planning, she could feel the dream morphing into a reality.

  “Are lemons in season this time of year?” asked Cheshire, watching Cath as she swept up the leftover lemon peels and tied them in cheesecloth. The gardeners could use them to keep pests away.

  “Not exactly,” she said, smiling to herself. Her thoughts stole back to that morning. Pale light filtering through her lace curtains. Waking up to the smell of citrus in the air.

  Part of her wanted to keep the memory tucked like a secret against her chest, but Cheshire would find out soon enough. A tree sprouting up in one’s bedroom overnight was a difficult secret to keep. Cath was surprised the rumors hadn’t yet spread, given Cheshire’s knack for gossip-gathering. Perhaps he’d been too busy snoozing all morning. Or, more likely, having his belly rubbed by the maids.

  “They’re from a dream,” she confessed, carrying the tarts to the pie safe where they could finish cooling.

  Cheshire sat back on his haunches. “A dream?” His mouth split open into a wide, toothy grin. “Do tell.”

  “And have half the kingdom knowing about it by nightfall? Absolutely not. I had a dream and then I woke up, and there was a lemon tree growing in my bedroom. That is all you need to know.”

 
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