Winter, p.3
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       Winter, p.3
 

         Part #4 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer  

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

  Her smile started to fizzle. “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.

  “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 if that last one came true.”

  She shushed him.

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

  Winter glanced over her shoulder, but the courtyards surrounding the dais were empty. Only the distant bustle of music and laughter reminded her 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 glared. “How can you know for sure?”

  “Surveillance was one of Sybil’s specialties.”

  “Nevertheless, the queen 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 rumble overhead caught Winter’s attention. Through the dome, the lights of a dozen spaceships were fading as they streaked across the star-scattered sky. Heading toward Earth.

  “Soldiers,” Jacin muttered. She couldn’t tell if he 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 … though still furious about the missing emperor, and the canceled wedding.”

  “Not canceled. Just delayed.”

  “Try telling her that.”

  He grunted.

  Winter leaned forward on her elbows, cupping her chin. “Did the cyborg really have a device like you said? One that can keep people from being manipulated?”

  A light sparked in his eyes, as if she’d reminded him of something important, but when he tried to lean toward her, his binds held him back. He grimaced and cursed beneath his breath.

  Winter scooted closer to him, making up the distance herself.

  “That’s not all,” he said. “Supposedly, this device can keep Lunars from using their gift in the first place.”

  “Yes, you mentioned that in the throne room.”

  His gaze burrowed into her. “And it will protect their minds. She said it keeps them from…”

  Going crazy.

  He didn’t have to say it out loud, not when his face held so much hope, like he’d solved the world’s greatest problem. His meaning hung between them.

  Such a device could heal her.

  Winter’s fingers curled up and settled under her chin. “You said there weren’t any more of them.”

  “No. But if we could find the patents for the invention … to even know it’s possible…”

  “The queen will do anything to keep more from being made.”

  His expression darkened. “I know, but I had to offer something. If only Sybil hadn’t arrested me in the first place, ungrateful witch.” Winter smiled, and when Jacin caught the look, his irritation melted away. “Doesn’t matter. Now that I know it’s possible, I’ll find a way to do it.”

  “The visions are never so bad when you’re around. They’ll be better now that you’re back.”

  His jaw tensed. “I’m sorry I left. I regretted it as soon as I realized what I’d done. It happened so fast, and then I couldn’t come back for you. I’d just … abandoned you up here. With her. With them.”

  “You didn’t abandon me. You were taken hostage. You didn’t have a choice.”

  He looked away.

  She straightened. “You weren’t manipulated?”

  “Not the whole time,” he whispered, like a confession. “I chose to side with them, when Sybil and I boarded their ship.” Guilt washed over his face, and it was such an odd expression on him Winter wasn’t sure she was interpreting it right. “Then I betrayed them.” He thumped his head against the sundial, harder than necessary. “I’m such an idiot. You should hate me.”

  “You may be an idiot, but I assure you, you’re quite a lovable one.”

  He shook his head. “You’re the only person in the galaxy who would ever call me lovable.”

  “I’m the only person in the galaxy crazy enough to believe it. Now tell me what you’ve done that is worth hating you for.”

  He swallowed, hard. “That cyborg Her Majesty is searching for?”

  “Linh Cinder.”

  “Yeah. Well, I thought she was just some crazy girl on a suicide mission, right? I figured she was going to get us all killed with these delusions of kidnapping the emperor and overthrowing the queen … to listen to her talk, anyone would have thought that. So I figured, I’d rather take a chance and come back to you, if I could. Let her throw her own life away.”

  “But Linh Cinder did kidnap the emperor. And she got away.”

  “I know.” He shifted his attention back to Winter. “Sybil took one of her friends hostage, some girl named Scarlet. Don’t suppose you know—”

  Winter beamed. “Oh, yes. The queen gave her to me as a pet, and she’s being kept in the menagerie. I like her a great deal.” Her brow creased. “Although I can’t tell if she’s decided to like me or not.”

  He flinched at a sudden unknown pain and spent a moment re-situating himself. “Can you get her a message for me?”

  “Of course.”

  “You have to be careful. I won’t tell you if you can’t be discreet—for your own sake.”

  “I can be discreet.”

  Jacin looked skeptical.

  “I can. I will be as secretive as a spy. As secretive as you.” Winter scooted a bit closer.

  His voice fell, as if he were no longer certain those cameras didn’t come with audio. “Tell her they’re coming for her.”

  Winter stared. “Coming for … coming here?”

  He nodded, a subtle dip of his head. “And I think they might actually have a chance.”

  Frowning, Winter reached forward and tucked the strands of Jacin’s sweat- and dirt-stained hair behind his ears. He tensed at the touch, but didn’t pull away. “Jacin Clay, you’re speaking in riddles.”

  “Linh Cinder.” His voice became hardly more than a breath and she tilted closer yet to hear him. A curl of her hair fell against his shoulder. He licked his lips. “She’s Selene.”

  Every muscle in her body tightened. She pulled back. “If Her Majesty heard you say—”

  “I won’t tell anyone else. But I had to tell you.” His eyes crinkled at the corners, full of sympathy. “I know you loved her.”

  Her heart thumped. “My Selene?”

  “Yes. But … I’m sorry, Princess. I don’t think she remembers you.”

  Winter blinked, letting the daydream fill her up for one hazy moment. Selene, alive. Her cousin, her friend? Alive.

  She scrunched her shoulders against her neck, casting the hope away. “No. She’s dead. I was there, Jacin. I saw the aftermath of the fire.”

  “You didn’t see her.”

  “They found—”

  “Charred flesh. I know.”

  “A pile of girl-shaped ashes.”

  “They were just ashes. Look, I didn’t believe it either, but I do now.” One corner of his mouth tilted up, into something like pride. “She’s our lost princ
ess. And she’s coming home.”

  A throat cleared behind Winter and her skeleton nearly leaped from her skin. She swiveled her torso around, falling onto her elbow.

  Her personal guard was standing beside the dais, scowling.

  “Ah!” Heart fluttering with a thousand startled birds, Winter broke into a relieved smile. “Did you catch the monster?”

  There was no return smile, not even a flush of his cheeks, which was the normal reaction when she let loose that particular look. Instead, his right eyebrow began to twitch.

  “Your Highness. I have come to retrieve you and escort you back to the palace.”

  Righting herself, Winter clasped her hands in front of her chest. “Of course. It’s so kind of you to worry after me.” She glanced back at Jacin, who was eyeing the guard with distrust. No surprise. He eyed everyone with distrust. “I fear tomorrow will be even more difficult for you, Sir Clay. Do try to think of me when you can.”

  “Try, Princess?” He smirked up at her. “I can’t seem to think of much else.”

  Four

  Cinder lay on the ground, staring up at the Rampion’s vast engine, its ductwork, and revolving life-support module. The system blueprints she’d downloaded weeks ago were overlaid across her vision—a cyborg trick that had come in handy countless times when she was a working mechanic in New Beijing. She expanded the blueprint, zooming in on a cylinder the length of her arm. It was tucked near the engine room’s wall. Coils of tubing sprouted from both sides.

  “That has to be the problem,” she muttered, dismissing the blueprint. She shimmied beneath the revolving module, dust bunnies gathering around her shoulders, and eased herself back to sitting. There was just enough space for her to squeeze in between the labyrinth of wires and coils, pipes and tubes.

  Holding her breath, she pressed her ear against the cylinder. The metal was ice cold against her skin.

  She waited. Listened. Adjusted the volume on her audio sensors.

  What she heard was the door to the engine room opening.

  Glancing back, she spotted the gray pants of a military uniform in the yellowish light from the corridor. That could have been anyone on the ship, but the shiny black dress shoes …

  “Hello?” said Kai.

  Her heart thumped—every single time, her heart thumped.

  “Back here.”

  Kai shut the door and crouched down on the far side of the room, framed between the jumble of thumping pistons and spinning fans. “What are you doing?”

  “Checking the oxygen filters. One minute.”

  She placed her ear against the cylinder again. There—a faint clatter, like a pebble banging around inside. “Aha.”

  She dug a wrench from her pocket and set to loosening the nuts on either side of the cylinder. As soon as it was free, the ship fell eerily quiet, like a humming that became noticeable only after it stopped. Kai’s eyebrows shot upward.

  Cinder peered into the cylinder’s depths, before sticking her fingers in and pulling out a complicated filter. It was made of tiny channels and crevices, all lined with a thin gray film.

  “No wonder the takeoffs have been rocky.”

  “I don’t suppose you could use some help?”

  “Nope. Unless you want to find me a broom.”

  “A broom?”

  Raising the filter, Cinder banged the end of it on one of the overhead pipes. A dust cloud exploded around her, covering her hair and arms. Coughing, Cinder buried her nose in the crook of her elbow and kept banging until the biggest chunks had been dislodged.

  “Ah. A broom. Right. There might be one up in the kitchen?… I mean, the galley.”

  Blinking the dust from her eyelashes, Cinder grinned at him. He was usually so self-assured that in the rare moments when he was flustered, it made all of her insides swap wrong side up. And he was flustered a lot lately. Since the moment he’d woken up aboard the Rampion, it was clear that Kai was twelve thousand kilometers outside of his element, yet he adapted well in the past weeks. He learned the terminology, he ate the canned and freeze-dried meals without complaint, he traded his fancy wedding clothes for the standard military uniform they all wore. He insisted on helping out where he could, even cooking a few of those bland meals, despite how Iko pointed out that—as he was their royal guest—they should be waiting on him. Thorne laughed, though, and the suggestion seemed to make Kai even more uncomfortable.

  While Cinder couldn’t imagine him abdicating his throne and setting off on a lifetime of space travel and adventure, it was rather adorable watching him try to fit in.

  “I was kidding,” she said. “Engine rooms are supposed to be dirty.” She examined the filter again and, deeming it satisfactory, twisted it back into the cylinder and bolted it all in place. The humming started up again, but the pebble clatter was gone.

  Cinder squirmed feetfirst out from beneath the module and ductwork. Still crouching, Kai peered down at her and smirked. “Iko’s right. You really can’t stay clean for more than five minutes.”

  “It’s part of the job description.” She sat up, sending a cascade of lint off her shoulders.

  Kai brushed some of the larger chunks from her hair. “Where did you learn to do all this, anyway?”

  “What, that? Anyone can clean an oxygen filter.”

  “Trust me, they can’t.” He settled his elbows on his knees and let his attention wander around the engine room. “You know what all this does?”

  She followed the look—every wire, every manifold, every compression coil—and shrugged. “Pretty much. Except for that big, rotating thing in the corner. Can’t figure it out. But how important could it be?”

  Kai rolled his eyes.

  Grasping a pipe, Cinder hauled herself to her feet and shoved the wrench back into her pocket. “I didn’t learn it anywhere. I just look at things and figure out how they work. Once you know how something works, you can figure out how to fix it.”

  She tried to shake the last bits of dust from her hair, but there seemed to be an endless supply.

  “Oh, you just look at something and figure out how it works,” Kai deadpanned, standing beside her. “Is that all?”

  Cinder fixed her ponytail and shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s just mechanics.”

  Kai scooped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. “No, it’s impressive,” he said, using the pad of his thumb to brush something off Cinder’s cheek. “Not to mention, weirdly attractive,” he said, before capturing her lips.

  Cinder tensed briefly, before melting into the kiss. The rush was the same every time, coupled with surprise and a wave of giddiness. It was their seventeenth kiss (her brain interface was keeping a tally, somewhat against her will), and she wondered if she would ever get used to this feeling. Being desired, when she’d spent her life believing no one would ever see her as anything but a bizarre science experiment.

  Especially not a boy.

  Especially not Kai, who was smart and honorable and kind, and could have had any girl he wanted. Any girl.

  She sighed against him, leaning into the embrace. Kai reached for an overhead pipe and pressed Cinder against the main computer console. She offered no resistance. Though her body wouldn’t allow her to blush, there was an unfamiliar heat that flooded every inch of her when he was this close. Every nerve ending sparked and thrummed, and she knew he could kiss her another seventeen thousand times and she would never grow tired of it.

  She tied her arms around his neck, molding their bodies together. The warmth of his chest seeped into her clothes. It felt nothing but right. Nothing but perfect.

  But then there was the feeling, always lurking, always ready to cloud her contentment. The knowledge that this couldn’t last.

  Not so long as Kai was engaged to Levana.

  Angry at the thought’s invasion, she kissed Kai harder, but her thoughts continued to rebel. Even if they succeeded and Cinder was able to reclaim her throne, she would be expected to stay on Luna as their new queen
. She was no expert, but it seemed problematic to carry on a relationship on two different planets—

  Er, a planet and a moon.

  Or whatever.

  The point was, there would be 384,000 kilometers of space between her and Kai, which was a lot of space, and—

  Kai smiled, breaking the kiss. “What’s wrong?” he murmured against her mouth.

  Cinder leaned back to look at him. His hair was getting longer, bordering on unkempt. As a prince, he’d always been groomed to near perfection. But then he became an emperor. The weeks since his coronation had been spent trying to stop a war, hunt down a wanted fugitive, avoid getting married, and endure his own kidnapping. As a result, haircuts became a dispensable luxury.

  She hesitated before asking, “Do you ever think about the future?”

  His expression turned wary. “Of course I do.”

  “And … does it include me?”

  His gaze softened. Releasing the overhead pipe, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “That depends on whether I’m thinking about the good future or the bad one.”

  Cinder tucked her head under his chin. “As long as one of them does.”

  “This is going to work,” Kai said, speaking into her hair. “We’re going to win.”

  She nodded, glad he couldn’t see her face.

  Defeating Levana and becoming Luna’s queen was only the beginning of an entire galaxy’s worth of worries. She so badly wanted to stay like this, cocooned in this spaceship, together and safe and alone … but that was the opposite of what was going to happen. Once they overthrew Levana, Kai would go back to being the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth and, someday, he was going to need an empress.

  She might have a blood claim to Luna and the hope that the Lunar people would choose anyone over Levana, even a politically inept teenager who was made up of 36.28 percent cybernetic and manufactured materials. But she had seen the prejudices of the people in the Commonwealth. Something told her they wouldn’t be as accepting of her as a ruler.

  She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be empress. She was still getting used to the idea of being a princess.

 
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