Fairest, p.4
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       Fairest, p.4

         Part #3.50 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer
 
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  Once the delighted crowd had finished applauding, the dessert course was served. Levana stared down at the chocolate torte with the sugar sculpture that rose up nearly an arm’s length above her plate, a delicate series of curls and filigree. It looked as though it would shatter with a single touch.

  Levana did not pick up her fork.

  She wasn’t hungry. Her stomach was still in knots over the explosion of fire. She could feel her palms sweating beneath the glamour, and that was the sort of detail that was hard to ignore and could weaken a person’s focus. Having already embarrassed herself, she would not let these people see beneath her glamour too.

  “I’m going to bed,” she said, to no one in particular. If anyone had been paying attention to her, if anyone had cared, they would have heard. But no one did.

  She glanced at Channary, who had called the illusionist over to their table and was feeding him a forkful of chocolate.

  Levana wondered what the illusionist looked like beneath his glamour. He was handsome now, but beneath the surface, he could be anyone.

  They could all be anyone.

  Why couldn’t she be anyone? Why couldn’t she be the one person she wanted to be?

  Perhaps the trouble was that she could never quite figure out who that person was.

  She pushed her chair out, reveling in the loud screech of legs on the hard floor.

  No one looked her way.

  It was not until she had left the dining hall and was alone in the main corridor that someone stopped her.

  “Your Highness?”

  She turned back to see that a guard had followed her into the corridor. Well—three guards, but only two of them were assigned to follow her at a respectful distance and ensure she wasn’t threatened en route to her chambers.

  This third guard was familiar, but only in the way that she knew he had served beneath her parents for some years.

  “What is it?”

  He bowed. “Forgive my intrusion, Highness. My friend, Sir Evret Hayle, asked me to give you this. With joyful birthday wishes.”

  He produced a small box, wrapped in plain brown paper.

  Her heart twisted and she found that she couldn’t approach him to take the gift.

  “Evret Hayle?”

  He nodded.

  It’s a trick, it’s a trick, it’s a trick. Her mind repeated the warning over and over. This was something her sister had set up. Some cruel diversion.

  But her heart fluttered anyway. Her pulse boiled and rushed.

  She dared a glance through the enormous doors back into the dining hall. Evret was stationed at the far end of the hall, but he was smiling kindly at her. As she stared, he placed a fist to his heart, a respectful salute that could have meant nothing.

  Or could have meant everything.

  It was all the confirmation she needed.

  “Thank you,” she said, snatching the box away.

  The guard bowed and returned to his post.

  It took all of Levana’s willpower not to run to her chambers. A maid was there already, waiting to help her undress and wash for bed, but Levana shooed her out without even bothering to have her dress unpinned. Sitting at her mirror-less vanity, she forced herself to pause and to breathe, so that she could remove the plain paper with utmost delicacy. Her fingers trembled as she undid the fastenings, uncrinkled the corners.

  Inside the box were shreds of more brown paper and, nestled among them, a small pendant of planet Earth. Silver, perhaps, though it was tarnished and bent. It seemed very old.

  There was also a card, hand-printed with dreadful penmanship.

  Your Royal Highness,

  I hope that giving you a birthday gift will not be seen as overstepping my station, but I saw this and thought you might like it. May you have only happiness in this your seventeenth year.

  Your friend, and most loyal servant,

  Evret Hayle

  A note was added to the bottom, almost as an afterthought,

  My wife also sends her warmest regards.

  Before she knew what she was doing, Levana had torn off the bottom part of the card, ripping away the mention of his wife and shredding it into tiny pieces. Then she lifted the pendant from the box and cradled it against her chest, smiling, while she read Evret’s words again and again. Interpreting. Dissecting. Again and again and again.

  * * *

  “I’m pleased to report that our bioengineering research and development team has been making great progress these past months,” said Head Thaumaturge Joshua Haddon, standing before the queen’s throne and the audience of aristocrats with his hands tucked into his wide sleeves. “Dr. Darnel believes that the latest advancements in bioelectrical pulse manipulation will result in the successful alteration of natural instincts. With Your Majesty’s approval, the team intends to commence testing on Lunar subjects within the next twelve months.”

  Channary popped a fried squash blossom into her mouth and waved her hand at the thaumaturge. After swallowing, she licked the butter from her fingertips. “Yes, fine. Whatever they think.”

  “Then it shall be done, My Queen.” Checking his report, Thaumaturge Haddon proceeded to the next matter of business, something to do with a method for increasing productivity in the textile sectors.

  Levana wanted to know more about the soldiers. She had heard talk of the ongoing development of bioengineered soldiers for years now. It was a program her father started, perhaps a decade ago, and many of the families snubbed it as a ridiculous concept. Create an army that relied not on their Lunar gift, but on animal instincts? Ludicrous, they called it. Absurd. Monstrous.

  Her father had rather liked that description, Levana recalled. Monstrous was precisely what he meant to achieve, and the research commenced by order of the king. Though he was not alive to see his efforts come to fruition, Levana was intrigued by his fantasy.

  An entire army of half-men, half-beast creatures. Soldiers who had the intelligence of humans, but the sensory perception of wild predators. They wouldn’t fight by expected and predictable means of warfare, but rather by the basest instincts of hunting and survival to terrorize and pillage and devour their enemies.

  The thought gave Levana a chill all along her spine, and not in a bad way. The temptation to control the sort of animalistic strength these soldiers would have made her mouth water. With that sort of power she could forever quiet the mockery that followed her in the palace corridors, the ongoing rumors about the pathetic, ugly little princess.

  “Fine, fine,” said Channary through a yawn, interrupting the thaumaturge mid-sentence. “Whatever you think is best. Are we almost finished?”

  Joshua Haddon didn’t seem at all put off by the queen’s lack of interest in public policy and her country’s welfare, though it took all of Levana’s efforts to keep from rolling her eyes. Despite the occasional distracted thoughts, she legitimately wanted to know what was going on in the outer sectors. She wanted to hear the court’s ideas for improvement. Perhaps they could simply send Channary off for her afternoon nap and allow Levana to handle the rest.

  Though everyone would have laughed her to shreds if she’d suggested such a thing.

  “Only one more issue to discuss, My Queen, before we adjourn.”

  Channary sighed.

  “As I’m sure you are aware, My Queen, our previous rulers, may they rest ever in divine luxury, were in the process of developing a biochemical weapon that we have reason to believe could be quite effective in any negotiation efforts with Earth, especially given our ongoing antagonistic relationship and the possibility that it could someday dissolve into violence.”

  “Oh, stars above,” said Channary, throwing her head back with an overwrought groan. “Is all this jargon necessary? Out with it, Joshua. What is your point?”

  The members of the court sniggered behind their dainty hands.

  Thaumaturge Haddon stood a little straighter. “One of our laboratories has concocted a contagious disease that we believe—though are
yet unable to test—would be fatal to Earthens. As our relationship with Earth has been growing increasingly hostile and may continue to worsen if we’re not able to enter into an alliance and reinstate open trade agreements within the next decade, King Marrok thought this disease could be a means of weakening any Earthen opposition, both in numbers and resources.”

  “And I’m sure my father was entirely correct. You may proceed with your … research. Adjourned.”

  “I must ask for one more moment of your valuable time, My Queen.”

  Huffing, Channary sank back into her seat. “What?”

  “There is still the issue of an antidote.”

  When he didn’t offer further explanation, Channary shrugged at him.

  “As tempting as it may be to one day release this disease on Earth with no concerns for repercussions,” explained Haddon, “some strategists, myself included, feel that an even stronger statement would be to let Earth believe the disease is an act of fate, even punishment. And that should we then offer them an antidote as a means to rid themselves of the disease, it could be the factor that ensures any future alliance discussions being swayed in our direction.”

  “You want to make them sick,” Channary said, slowly and tiredly, “and then you want to make them better? That is the stupidest war tactic I’ve ever heard.”

  “No, it isn’t,” said Levana. The attention of a hundred members of the royal court turned to her, along with the sudden burning gaze of her sister, peering down from her throne. Levana squared her shoulders and refused to be intimidated. “They wouldn’t need to know that the disease had come from us. It would be the best type of warfare—the type that no one thinks is warfare at all. We could weaken Earth without risking any retaliation.” Tearing her focus from the thaumaturge, she looked up at Channary to find that her sister was spilling venom from her eyes. It didn’t bother Levana, though. She had seen the potential where Channary had not. “And then, once they are so downtrodden as to pose no threat to us in the event of full-on war, we open peaceful negotiations. We make our demands, and we offer the one thing they want more than anything else—an antidote to the disease that has crippled them. It would be seen as the ultimate show of goodwill, not only that we have been using our own resources to develop the antidote, but that we would offer to manufacture and distribute it to them, our previous enemies. How could they say no to any of our requests?”

  “That is precisely the strategy we suggest,” said Thaumaturge Haddon. “The young princess stated it very clearly, thank you.”

  Despite the kindness of his words, something in his tone made Levana feel chastised. Like her presence in these meetings was barely tolerated as it was, and certainly no one had invited her to contribute to them.

  “I suppose I see the potential,” said Channary, toying with a lock of hair. “You may continue with developing this antidote.”

  “That is precisely the conundrum we’ve crossed, My Queen.”

  She raised an eyebrow. “Of course there’s a conundrum, isn’t there?”

  “We have already found a means of developing an antidote, and its effectiveness against the infected microbes has been successfully proven through multiple tests. However, that antidote is developed using the blood cells of ungifted Lunars.”

  “Shells?”

  “Yes, My Queen. Shells contain the necessary antibodies for the antidote production. Unfortunately, it has proven both timely and costly to obtain blood samples from shells when their population is so widely scattered throughout the outer sectors, and artificial duplication has thus far not been successful.”

  “Well then, why don’t you cage them up like the animals they are? We’ll call it retribution for the assassinations of my parents.” A new glint entered Channary’s eyes. “That’s quite brilliant, actually. Let everyone know how dangerous shells are, and that the crown will no longer tolerate the leniency we’ve given them over the years. We can enact a new law if that will help.”

  Thaumaturge Haddon nodded. “I think this is a wise course of action, My Queen. To date, Thaumaturge Sybil Mira has been the court’s ambassador with the biochemical research team. Perhaps she is a good candidate to begin drawing up a procedure for the best means of obtaining the blood samples.”

  A young woman stepped out of the line of thaumaturges, dressed in a maroon-red coat, with glossy raven’s-wing hair falling down her back. She was beautiful in the way that all members of the queen’s entourage were beautiful, but there was also something admirable in the way she held herself. A confidence that glimmered. Though her station was beneath the head thaumaturge, her posture and faint smile seemed to indicate that she didn’t much believe herself to be beneath anyone at all.

  Levana liked her immediately.

  “Agreed. I deem Thaumaturge … er…”

  “Sybil Mira, My Queen,” she said.

  “Mira as the official royal representative of … oh, I don’t know.” Channary sighed. “Ungifted affairs. You have my permission, by royal decree, to do what needs to be done for the betterment of … everyone.” Channary’s fingers danced whimsically through the air as she strung the words together, more like she was composing a pretty-sounding poem than issuing a decree that could impact the lives of hundreds of citizens—thousands, once their families were taken into account.

  Still, the thaumaturges bowed respectfully when she finished and, finally, court was adjourned. The audience stood with the queen, but before leaving, Channary fixed her sweet smile on Levana.

  “Dear baby sister,” she cooed. Come here, baby sister. Levana flinched before she could brace herself, but if Channary noticed, she didn’t show it. “I have a fitting with my seamstress this afternoon. Why don’t you come with me? It would benefit you to have some gowns that aren’t quite so … sad.”

  Levana didn’t need to look down at her pale yellow dress, or to see how the color faded into her pale glamoured skin, to know what Channary was talking about. She had lost interest in being noticed. Let Channary be known for how fair and mirthful she was. Princess Levana would earn respect in the court by being intelligent and resourceful. By meeting the needs of her country when the queen was too busy cavorting with her many suitors to care.

  “I am not in need of a new gown, thank you, My Queen.”

  “Fine, don’t try anything on, then. You will make an excellent hat stand while I’m being fitted. Come along.”

  She smothered a groan, the thought of denying her sister already exhausting her.

  Channary swooped ahead, and the thaumaturges and aristocrats all bowed. Walking in her sister’s wake, Levana imagined that she was the one they were really bowing to.

  As she followed her sister into the palace corridor, she spotted Evret coming toward them. Her heart pattered, but Evret didn’t even look at her, merely stopped and saluted the queen as she passed, one fist clapped over his chest. Levana tried to catch his eye, but he stared at the wall over her head, expressionless as a statue.

  Only when she glanced back a few steps later did she realize he had come to change shifts with one of the other guards. The changing of the guard was fast and smooth, like a well-oiled clock. Gulping, Levana faced forward again, lest she walk into a wall. This could be her chance to thank him for the pendant that was, even then, hanging around her neck, tucked beneath the collar of her dress.

  She could hear Evret’s boots clacking behind her. Feel his presence tugging her toward him. The back of her neck tingled, and she imagined him looking at her. Admiring the curvature of her neck. His gaze dropping intimately down her back.

  Her emotions were in tatters by the time they had reached the main corridor of the palace and turned to begin the climb toward Her Majesty’s quarters on the top floor. Channary did not like to take the elevators. She had once told Levana that she felt queenly having to lift her skirts as she went up and down the stairs.

  It had taken all of Levana’s efforts not to ask if that was the same reason she lifted her skirts all those oth
er times too.

  “Your Majesty?”

  Channary paused, and Levana came to a stumbling halt behind her. Turning, she saw a girl not much older than she was, dressed in plain utilitarian clothes. She was breathless and flushed, her hair falling out of a loose bun in messy chunks.

  “I do apologize for my forwardness, My Queen,” said the girl, panting. She fell to one knee.

  Channary sneered, disgusted. “How dare you approach me in such an informal manner? I will have you flogged for your disrespect.”

  The girl shuddered. “I-I do apologize,” she stammered, as if she hadn’t been heard the first time. “I was sent by Dr. O’Connor from the AR-C med-center with an urgent message for—”

  “Did I ask who sent you?” said Channary. “Did I suggest in any way that I cared where you were sent from or whether you had a message or who that message might be for? No, because I do not have the time to listen to every person who would seek an audience with me. There is a method to having your voice heard. Guards, escort this woman away.”

  The girl’s eyes widened. “But—”

  “Oh, stars above, I’ll handle her request,” said Levana. “Go to your fitting, as it is clearly more important than listening to a message from a girl who has run herself ragged trying to get here.”

  Channary snarled. “You will not speak disrespectfully to me in front of one of my subjects.”

  Levana flattened her hands against her skirt, to keep them from becoming fists. “I meant no disrespect, My Queen. Only that you seem to have a lot on your schedule today, so please, allow me to assist you with your royal duties.” She nodded at the girl, who still remained on one knee. “What is your message?”

  The girl gulped. “It is for a royal guard, Your Highness. Sir Evret Hayle. His wife has gone into labor. They fear … the doctor … they have requested that he come see her right away.”

  Levana felt a clamp tighten around her rib cage, forcing all the air from her lungs. She glanced back in time to catch the dawning horror on Evret’s face.

 
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