Winter, p.7
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       Winter, p.7
 

         Part #4 of The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer  

  Making the model without him hadn’t been as much fun, but she did enjoy the sensation of being in control of this tiny galaxy, when she was in control of so very little of her own life.

  “What do you think?”

  With a resigned sigh, Jacin stepped forward to examine the contraption that gave each planet its own orbital path. “How did you make it?”

  “I commissioned Mr. Sanford in AR-5 to design and build the framework. But I did all the painting myself.” She was pleased to see Jacin’s impressed nod. “I hoped you might be able to help me with Saturn. It’s the last one to be painted, and I thought—I’ll take the rings, if you want to do the planet…” She trailed off. His expression had hardened again. Following his fingers, she saw him batting Luna around the Earth—the way Mr. Sanford had given Luna its own little orbit around the blue planet was nothing short of brilliant, in Winter’s opinion.

  “I’m sorry, Highness,” said Jacin, standing upright again. “I’m on duty. I shouldn’t even be in here, and you know that.”

  “I’m quite sure I don’t know that. It seems you can guard me even better from in here than out there. What if someone comes in through the windows?”

  His lips quirked into a wry smile. No one was going to come in through the windows, they both knew, but he didn’t argue the point. Instead, he stepped closer and settled his hands on her shoulders. It was a rare, unexpected touch. Not quite the Eclipse Waltz, but her skin tingled all the same.

  “I’m glad to be on your guard now,” he said. “I would do anything for you. If you did have an assassin under your bed, I would take that bullet without a second thought, without anyone having to manipulate me.”

  She tried to interrupt him, but he talked over her.

  “But when I’m on duty, that’s all I can be. Your guard. Not your friend. Levana already knows I’m too close to you, that I care about you more than I should—”

  Her brow drew together, and again she tried to interject, thinking that statement deserved further explanation, but he kept talking.

  “—and I am not going to give her anything else to hold over me. Or you. I’m not going to be another pawn in her game. Got it?”

  Finally, a pause, and her head was swimming, trying to hold on to his declaration—what do you mean you care about me more than you should?—without contradicting his concerns.

  “We are already pawns in her game,” she said. “I have been a pawn in her game since the day she married my father, and you since the day you were conscripted into her guard.”

  His lips tensed and he moved to pull his hands away, the extended contact overstepping a thousand of his professional boundaries, but Winter reached up and wrapped her hands around his. She held them tight, bundling both of their hands between them.

  “I just thought…” She hesitated, her attention caught on how much bigger his hands were compared with the last time she’d held them. It was a startling realization. “I thought it might be nice to step off the game board every now and then.”

  One of Jacin’s thumbs rubbed against her fingers—just once, like a tic that had to be stifled.

  “That would be nice,” he said, “but it can’t be while I’m on duty, and it really can’t be behind closed doors.”

  Winter glanced past him, at the door she’d shut when he’d come in to check for a fictional assassin. “You’re saying that I’m going to see you every day, but I have to go on pretending like I don’t see you at all?”

  He pried his hands away. “Something like that. I’m sorry, Princess.” With a step back, he morphed seamlessly into the stoic guard. “I’ll be in the corridor if you need me. Really need me.”

  After he’d gone, Winter stood gnawing at her lower lip, unable to ignore the momentary bits of elation that had slipped into the cracks of an otherwise disappointing meeting.

  I care about you more than I should.

  “Fine,” she murmured to herself. “I can work with that.”

  She gathered up the little compact of paints, a few paintbrushes, and the fist-size model of Saturn waiting for its kaleidoscope of rings.

  This time, Jacin started a little when she emerged in the corridor. The first time he’d been expecting her, but this must have been a surprise. She bit back a grin as she walked around to his other side and slid down the wall, planting herself on the floor next to him with crisscrossed legs. Humming to herself, she spread her painting supplies out before her.

  “What are you doing?” Jacin muttered beneath his breath, though the hallway was empty.

  Winter pretended to jump. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, peering up at him. “I’m afraid I didn’t see you there.”

  He scowled.

  Winking, she turned her attention back to her work, dipping a paintbrush into rich cerulean blue.

  Jacin said nothing else. Neither did she. After the first ring was completed, she leaned her head against his thigh, making herself more comfortable as she picked out a sunburst orange. Overhead, Jacin sighed, and she felt the faintest brush of fingertips against her hair. A hint, a suggestion of togetherness, before he became a statue once more.

  Nine

  “Evaporated milk … kidney beans … tuna … more tuna … oh!” Cress nearly toppled headfirst into the crate as she reached for the bottom. She grabbed a jar and emerged victorious. “Pickled asparagus!”

  Iko stopped digging through the crate beside her long enough to shoot her a glare. “You and your taste buds can stop bragging anytime now.”

  “Oh, sorry.” Pressing her lips, Cress set the jar on the floor. “Good thing we opened this one. The galley was starting to look pretty scarce.”

  “More weapons in here,” said Wolf, his shoulders knotted as he leaned over another one of the crates. “For a planet that’s seen a century of world peace, you manufacture a lot of guns.”

  “There will always be criminals and violence,” said Kai. “We still need law enforcement.”

  Wolf made a strangled sound, pulling everyone’s attention toward him as he lifted a handgun from the crate. “It’s just like the one Scarlet had.” He flipped the gun in his palms, running his thumbs along the barrel. “She shot me in the arm once.”

  This confession was said with as much tenderness as if Scarlet had given him a bouquet of wildflowers rather than a bullet wound.

  Cress and the others traded sorrowful looks.

  Kai, who was standing nearest to Wolf, dropped a hand onto his shoulder. “If she’s in Artemisia,” he said, “I will find her. I promise.”

  A slight dip of his head was the only indication Wolf had heard him. Turning, he handed the gun, handle first, to Cinder, who was sitting cross-legged in the center of the cargo bay, organizing what weaponry they had found. It was an impressive haul. It was a shame that when it came to fighting Lunars, weapons in the hands of their allies could be as dangerous as weapons in the hands of their enemies.

  “This one’s all medical supplies and common medicines,” said Iko. “If we could find one with replacement escort-droid vertebrae and synthetic-tissue paneling, we’d be getting somewhere.”

  Cress smiled sympathetically. Iko was wearing the silk wrap top she’d worn to impersonate a member of the palace staff during the emperor’s kidnapping, and its high collar almost covered the damage that had been done to her bionic neck and clavicle during the fight on the rooftop—but not quite. She’d gotten creative with scraps of miscellaneous fabric to hide the rest of her injury, which was as much as they could do until Cinder had the parts to finish her repairs.

  “Is this what I think it is?” Having returned his focus to his own crate, Kai held up a carved wooden doll adorned with bedraggled feathers and four too many eyes.

  Cinder finished unloading the handgun and set it next to the others. “Don’t tell me you’ve actually seen one of those hideous things before.”

  “Venezuelan dream dolls? We have some on display in the palace. They’re incredibly rare.” He examined its back. “What
is it doing here?”

  “I’m pretty sure Thorne stole it.”

  Kai’s expression filled with clarity. “Ah. Of course.” He nestled the doll back into its packaging. “He’d better plan on giving all this stuff back.”

  “Sure I’ll give it back, Your Majesticness. For a proper finder’s fee.”

  Cress swiveled around to see Thorne leaning against the cargo bay wall.

  She blinked. Something was different about him. The blindfold he’d been wearing since his eyesight had begun to return weeks ago was now around his neck, and he was exceptionally clean-cut, like he’d gotten a closer shave than usual, and he was …

  Electricity jolted down her spine.

  He was looking at her.

  No. Not just looking. There was an intense inspection behind that gaze, along with a curious bewilderment. He was surprised. Almost … captivated.

  Heat rushed up her neck. She gulped, sure that she was imagining things.

  Worldly, confident Captain Thorne could never be captivated by plain, awkward her, and she’d been disappointed by such wishful thinking before.

  One corner of Thorne’s mouth lifted. “The short hair,” he said, with half a nod. “It works.”

  Cress reached up, grasping at the wispy ends that Iko had trimmed into something resembling a hairstyle.

  “Oh!” said Iko, launching to her feet. “Captain! You can see!”

  Thorne’s attention skipped over to the android seconds before she launched herself over Cress and into his arms. Thorne stumbled against the wall and laughed.

  “Iko?” Thorne said, holding her at arm’s distance and drinking her in. The dark, flawless skin, the long legs, the braids dyed in varying shades of blue. Accepting the scrutiny, Iko gave a twirl. Thorne clicked his tongue. “Aces. I really know how to pick them, don’t I?”

  “Sight unseen,” said Iko, flipping her braids off her shoulder.

  Deflating, Cress began filling up her arms with canned goods. Definitely wishful thinking.

  “Excellent,” said Cinder, standing up and brushing off her hands. “I was beginning to worry we wouldn’t have a pilot for when it’s time to take Kai back to Earth. Now I just have to worry about not having a competent one.”

  Thorne leaned against the crate Cress was organizing. She froze, but when she dared to peer up through her lashes, his attention was on the other side of the cargo bay. “Oh, Cinder, I’ve missed seeing your face when you make sarcastic comments in an attempt to hide your true feelings about me.”

  “Please.” Rolling her eyes, Cinder started organizing the guns against the wall.

  “See that eye roll? It translates to ‘How am I possibly keeping my hands off you, Captain?’”

  “Yeah, keeping them from strangling you.”

  Kai folded his arms, grinning. “How come no one told me I had such steep competition?”

  Cinder glared. “Don’t encourage him.”

  With flushed cheeks, gritted teeth, and three stacks of cans cradled in her arms, Cress spun toward the main corridor—and sent the top can of peaches sailing off the stack.

  Thorne snatched it from the air before Cress could gasp.

  She froze, and for a moment it was there again—the way he was looking at her, causing the world to blur and her stomach to swoop. It was a good catch, to be sure, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been paying more attention to her than she thought.

  Thorne beamed at the peaches. “Lightning-fast reflexes. Still got them.” He took some canned corn off the stack. “Want help?”

  She fixated on the cans. “No-thank-you-I’ve-got-it.” Her words were all rushed and full of nerves as another blush flamed across her face. It occurred to her she’d been blushing from the moment he walked in, with his cavalier smile and his eyes that saw right through her.

  She wanted to climb into one of those crates and pull down the lid. He hadn’t had his eyesight back for five minutes and already she’d turned back into the anxious, giddy, flustered girl she’d been when they met.

  “All right,” Thorne said slowly, nestling the cans back into her arms. “If you insist.”

  Cress dodged around him and made her way to the galley. It was a relief to dump the food onto the counter and take a moment to stabilize herself.

  So he could see again. It didn’t change anything. He didn’t think she was irresistible when he first saw her over that D-COMM link ages ago, and he wasn’t going to think she was irresistible now. Especially not when Iko was right there. Android or not, she was the one with pearly teeth and coppery eyes and …

  Cress sighed, halting the envy before it could go any further. It wasn’t Iko’s fault Thorne wasn’t interested in a tiny, skittish girl. In fact, she was happy for Iko, who took more delight in her new body than most humans ever did.

  Cress just wished she could have half her confidence. If she had the guts to throw herself into Thorne’s arms, to wink and make flirtatious comments and pretend like none of it mattered …

  Except it did matter, or it would have, if she dared try it.

  Just friends, she reminded herself. They were only friends, and would only be friends from here on out. It was a friendship that was to be cherished, as she cherished all the friendships she’d made aboard this ship. She wouldn’t ruin it by wishing things could be more. She would be grateful for what affection she did have.

  Cress let out a slow breath and stood straighter. It wouldn’t be so hard, pretending this was all she wanted. Imagining she was satisfied with his companionship and platonic fondness. Now that he could see again, she would be extra vigilant in making sure any of her deeper feelings didn’t show through.

  Thorne was her friend and her captain, and nothing more.

  When she returned to the cargo bay, the lightheartedness had dissipated. Hearing her, Thorne glanced over his shoulder, but she fixed her eyes resolutely on Kai.

  “I understand this is sooner than we’d expected,” Kai was saying, “but now that Thorne can finally see again, what are we waiting for? We can leave tomorrow. We could leave now.”

  Cinder shook her head. “There’s so much to do. We still have the video to edit, and we haven’t confirmed which route we’re going to take to the outer sectors, and—”

  “All things you don’t need my help for,” interrupted Kai. “All things you can be working on while I’m doing my part. People are dying every day. My people are being attacked at this very moment, and I can’t do anything for them up here.”

  “I know. I know it’s hard—”

  “No, it’s torture.” Kai lowered his voice. “But once you take me back, I can talk to Levana. Negotiate a new cease-fire and start putting our plan into motion—”

  “Get to Scarlet sooner,” said Wolf.

  Cinder groaned. “Look, I get it. It’s been a really long month and we’re all anxious to move forward, it’s just … our strategy—”

  “Strategy? Look at us—we’re spending our time unpacking pickled asparagus.” Kai shoved a hand through his hair. “How is this a good use of our time?”

  “Every day we wait, our chances of success get better. Every day, more of her army is heading to Earth, leaving Levana and the capital unprotected. The weaker she is, the better chance we have of this revolution succeeding.” She pointed at the netscreen, even though it was turned off. “Plus, the Union has been fighting back. She’s lost a lot of soldiers already and maybe she’s beginning to feel a little concerned?”

  “She’s not concerned,” said Wolf.

  Cinder frowned. “Well, at least she may have realized this war won’t be won as easily as she’d hoped, which means she’ll be that much more thrilled to hear Kai has returned and the wedding is back on. She’ll be eager to reschedule it right away.” She looped her fingers around her left wrist, where skin met metal.

  Cress bit her lip, watching the fear and nerves flash across Cinder’s face. Though she always did her best to hide it, Cress knew Cinder wasn’t always as brave a
s she pretended. It was sort of comforting to think they might have this in common.

  Kai’s shoulders dropped and his voice lost its desperation when he took a step closer to her. “I understand you want to feel like you’re ready—like we’re all ready. But, Cinder … we’re never going to feel that way. At some point, we have to stop planning and start doing. I think that time is now.”

  It took her a moment, but she finally met his gaze, then shifted to look at each of them in turn. Though Thorne was their captain, they all knew Cinder was the one that held them together.

  “We’re all risking our lives,” she said. “I just don’t want to risk them unnecessarily. I want to make sure we’re prepared to—” She froze, her eyes unfocusing. Cress recognized the look from when Cinder was seeing something on her retina display.

  Blinking rapidly, Cinder turned back to Kai, stunned. “Ship, turn on cargo bay netscreen, Commonwealth newsfeed.”

  Kai frowned. “What’s going on?”

  The netscreen flickered to life. It showed Kai’s chief adviser—Konn Torin—standing at a podium. Before the audio signal could connect, though, Cinder said, “I’m so sorry, Kai. Your palace is under attack.”

  Ten

  They watched the newsfeed in silence, the cameras trembling as android-manned hovers circled the palace below. Many of the gardens were smoking from fires set by the queen’s soldiers, statues toppled and the massive gate torn to shreds, but the palace itself remained untouched. So far the single regiment of the Commonwealth’s military stationed at the palace had kept the enemy at bay while they waited for reinforcements to arrive.

  The siege on New Beijing Palace went against the strategies the wolf soldiers had been using throughout the war. They had become infamous for their guerilla attacks and scare tactics, as concerned with making the people of Earth terrified of them as they were with winning actual battles. To date, there had been no real battles at all—only skirmishes and surprise attacks, resulting in too much bloodshed and too many nightmares.

 
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