Main Cress: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 3]

Cress: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 3]

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In this third book in Marissa Meyer's bestselling Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder and Captain Thorne are fugitives on the run, now with Scarlet and Wolf in tow. Together, they’re plotting to overthrow Queen Levana and prevent her army from invading Earth.

Their best hope lies with Cress, a girl trapped on a satellite since childhood who’s only ever had her netscreens as company. All that screen time has made Cress an excellent hacker. Unfortunately, she’s being forced to work for Queen Levana, and she’s just received orders to track down Cinder and her handsome accomplice.

When a daring rescue of Cress goes awry, the group is splintered. Cress finally has her freedom, but it comes at a higher price than she’d ever expected. Meanwhile, Queen Levana will let nothing prevent her marriage to Emperor Kai, especially the cyborg mechanic. Cress, Scarlet, and Cinder may not have signed up to save the world, but they may be the only hope the world has.

Year:
2014
Publisher:
Feiwel & Friends
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
0312642970
ISBN 13:
9780312642976
ISBN:
LUyeAgAAQBAJ
Series:
Lunar Chronicles #3
File:
EPUB, 489 KB
Download (epub, 489 KB)

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Year:
2013
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 540 KB
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The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.





For Jojo, Meghan, and Tamara





*high fives*





Contents





Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Book One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Book Two

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Book Three

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Book Four

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

Chapter Fifty-Three

Chapter Fifty-Four

Chapter Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Six

Chapter Fifty-Seven

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Chapter Fifty-Nine

Chapter Sixty

Chapter Sixty-One

Acknowledgments

Copyright





BOOK

One


When she was just a child, the witch locked her away in a tower that had neither doors nor stairs.





One





Her satellite made one full orbit around planet Earth every sixteen hours. It was a prison that came with an endlessly breathtaking view—vast blue oceans and swirling clouds and sunrises that set half the world on fire.

When she was first imprisoned, she ha; d loved nothing more than to stack her pillows on top of the desk that was built into the walls and drape her bed linens over the screens, making a small alcove for herself. She would pretend that she was not on a satellite at all, but in a podship en route to the blue planet. Soon she would land and step out onto real dirt, feel real sunshine, smell real oxygen.

She would stare at the continents for hours and hours, imagining what that must be like.

Her view of Luna, however, was always to be avoided. Some days her satellite passed so close that the moon took up the entire view and she could make out the enormous glinting domes on its surface and the sparkling cities where the Lunars lived. Where she, too, had lived. Years ago. Before she’d been banished.

As a child, Cress had hidden from the moon during those achingly long hours. Sometimes she would escape to the small washroom and distract herself by twisting elaborate braids into her hair. Or she would scramble beneath her desk and sing lullabies until she fell asleep. Or she would dream up a mother and a father, and imagine how they would play make-believe with her and read her adventure stories and brush her hair lovingly off her brow, until finally—finally—the moon would sink again behind the protective Earth, and she was safe.

Even now, Cress used those hours to crawl beneath her bed and nap or read or write songs in her head or work out complicated coding. She still did not like to look at the cities of Luna; she harbored a secret paranoia that if she could see the Lunars, surely they could look up beyond their artificial skies and see her.

For more than seven years, this had been her nightmare.

But now the silver horizon of Luna was creeping into the corner of her window, and Cress paid no attention. This time, her wall of invisi-screens was showing her a brand-new nightmare. Brutal words were splattered across the newsfeeds, photos and videos blurring in her vision as she scrolled from one feed to the next. She couldn’t read fast enough.

14 CITIES ATTACKED WORLDWIDE

2-HOUR MURDER SPREE RESULTS IN 16,000 EARTHEN DEATHS

LARGEST MASSACRE IN THIRD ERA

The net was littered with horrors. Victims dead in the streets with shredded abdomens and blood leaking into the gutters. Feral men-creatures with gore on their chins and beneath their fingernails and staining the fronts of their shirts. She scrolled through them all with one hand pressed over her mouth. Breathing became increasingly difficult as the truth of it all sank in.

This was her fault.

For months she had been cloaking those Lunar ships from Earthen detection, doing Mistress Sybil’s bidding without question, like the well-trained lackey she was.

Now she knew just what kind of monsters had been aboard those ships. Only now did she understand what Her Majesty had been planning all along, and it was far too late.

16,000 EARTHEN DEATHS

Earth had been taken unaware, and all because she hadn’t been brave enough to say no to Mistress’s demands. She had done her job and then turned a blind eye to it all.

She averted her gaze from the pictures of death and carnage, focusing on another news story that suggested more horrors to come.

Emperor Kaito of the Eastern Commonwealth had put an end to the attacks by agreeing to marry Lunar Queen Levana.

Queen Levana was to become the Commonwealth’s new empress.

The shocked journalists of Earth were scrambling to determine their stance on this diplomatic yet controversial arrangement. Some were in outrage, proclaiming that the Commonwealth and the rest of the Earthen Union should be preparing for war, not a wedding. But others were hastily trying to justify the alliance. With a swirl of her fingers on the thin, transparent screen, Cress raised the audio of a man who was going on about the potential benefits. No more attacks or speculations on when an attack might come. Earth would come to understand the Lunar culture better. They would share technological advances. They would be allies.

And besides, Queen Levana only wanted to rule the Eastern Commonwealth. Surely she would leave the rest of the Earthen Union alone.

But Cress knew they would be fools to believe it. Queen Levana was going to become empress, then she would have Emperor Kaito murdered, claim the country for her own, and use it as a launching pad to assemble her army before invading the rest of the Union. She would not stop until the entire planet was under her control. This small attack, these sixteen thousand deaths … they were only the beginning.

Silencing the broadcast, Cress set her elbows on her desk and dug both hands into her hive of blonde hair. She was suddenly cold, despite the consistently maintained temperature inside the satellite. One of the screens behind her was reading aloud in a child’s voice that had been programmed during four months of insanity-inducing boredom when she was ten years old. The voice was too chipper for the material it quoted: a medical blog from the American Republic announcing the results of an autopsy performed on one of the Lunar soldiers.

The bones had been reinforced with calcium-rich biotissue, while the cartilage in major joints was infused with a saline solution for added flexibility and pliability. Orthodontic implants replaced the canine and incisor teeth with those mimicking the teeth of a wolf, and we see the same bone reinforcement around the jaw to allow for the strength to crush material such as bone and other tissue. Remapping of the central nervous system and extensive psychological tampering were responsible for the subject’s unyielding aggression and wolf-like tendencies. Dr. Edelstein has theorized that an advanced manipulation technique of the brain’s bioelectric waves may also have played a role in—

“Mute feed.”

The sweet ten-year-old’s voice was silenced, leaving the satellite humming with the sounds that had long ago been relegated to the back of Cress’s consciousness. The whirring of fans. The thrumming of the life support system. The gurgling of the water recycling tank.

Cress gathered the thick locks of hair at the nape of her neck and pulled the tail over her shoulder—it had a tendency to get caught up in the wheels of her chair when she wasn’t careful. The screens before her flickered and scrolled as more and more information came in from the Earthen feeds. News was coming out from Luna too, on their “brave soldiers” and “hard-fought victory”—crown-sanctioned drivel, naturally. Cress had stopped paying attention to Lunar news when she was twelve.

She mindlessly wrapped her ponytail around her left arm, spiraling it from elbow to wrist, unaware of the tangles clumping in her lap.

“Oh, Cress,” she murmured. “What are we going to do?”

Her ten-year-old self piped back, “Please clarify your instructions, Big Sister.”

Cress shut her eyes against the screen’s glare. “I understand that Emperor Kai is only trying to stop a war, but he must know this won’t stop Her Majesty. She’s going to kill him if he goes through with this, and then where will Earth be?” A headache pounded at her temples. “I thought for certain Linh Cinder had told him at the ball, but what if I’m wrong? What if he still has no idea of the danger he’s in?”

Spinning in her chair, she swiped her fingers across a muted newsfeed, punched in a code, and called up the hidden window that she checked a hundred times a day. The D-COMM window opened like a black hole, abandoned and silent, on top of her desk. Linh Cinder still had not tried to contact her. Perhaps her chip had been confiscated or destroyed. Perhaps Linh Cinder didn’t even have it anymore.

Huffing, Cress dismissed the link and, with a few hasty taps of her fingertips, cascaded a dozen different windows in its place. They were linked to a spider alert service that was constantly patrolling the net for any information related to the Lunar cyborg who had been taken into custody a week earlier. Linh Cinder. The girl who had escaped from New Beijing Prison. The girl who had been Cress’s only chance of telling Emperor Kaito the truth about Queen Levana’s intentions should he agree to the marriage alliance.

The major feed hadn’t been updated in eleven hours. In the hysteria of the Lunar invasion, Earth seemed to have forgotten about their most-wanted fugitive.

“Big Sister?”

Pulse hiccupping, Cress grasped the arms of her chair. “Yes, Little Cress?”

“Mistress’s ship detected. Expected arrival in twenty-two seconds.”

Cress catapulted from her chair at the word mistress, spoken even all those years ago with a tinge of dread.

Her movements were a precisely choreographed dance, one she had mastered after years of practice. In her mind, she became a second-era ballerina, skimming across a shadowy stage as Little Cress counted down the seconds.

00:21. Cress pressed her palm onto the mattress-deploy button.

00:20. She swiveled back to the screen, sending all feeds of Linh Cinder beneath a layer of Lunar crown propaganda.

00:19. The mattress landed with a thunk on the floor, the pillows and blankets wadded up just as she’d left them.

00:18. 17. 16. Her fingers danced across the screens, hiding Earthen newsfeeds and netgroups.

00:15. A turn, a quick search for two corners of her blanket.

00:14. A flick of her wrists, casting the blanket up like a wind-caught sail.

00:13. 12. 11. She smoothed and tugged her way to the opposite side of the bed, pivoting toward the screens on the other side of her living quarters.

00:10. 9. Earthen dramas, music recordings, second-era literature, all dismissed.

00:08. A swivel back toward the bed. A graceful turning down of the blanket.

00:07. Two pillows symmetrically stacked against the headboard. A flourish of her arm to pull out the hair that had gotten caught beneath the blanket.

00:06. 5. A glissade across the floor, dipping and spinning, gathering up every discarded sock and hair tie and sending them into the renewal chute.

00:04. 3. A sweep of the desks, collecting her only bowl, her only spoon, her only glass, and a handful of stylus pens, and depositing them into the pantry cabinet.

00:02. A final pirouette to scan her work.

00:01. A pleased exhalation, culminating in a graceful bow.

“Mistress has arrived,” said Little Cress. “She is requesting an extension of the docking clamp.”

The stage, the shadows, the music, all fell away from Cress’s thoughts, though a practiced smile remained on her lips. “Of course,” she chirped, swanning toward the main boarding ramp. There were two ramps on her satellite, but only one had ever been used. She wasn’t even sure if the opposite entrance functioned. Each wide metal door opened up to a docking hatch and, beyond that, space.

Except for when there was a podship anchored there. Mistress’s podship.

Cress tapped in the command. A diagram on the screen showed the clamp extending, and she heard the thump as the ship attached. The walls jolted around her.

She had the next moments memorized, could have counted the heartbeats between each familiar sound. The whir of the small spacecraft’s engines powering down. The clang of the hatch attaching and sealing around the podship. The vacuum as oxygen was pushed into the space. The beep confirming that travel between the two modules was safe. The opening of the spacecraft. Steps echoing on the walkway. The whoosh of the satellite entrance.

There had been a time when Cress had hoped for warmth and kindness from her mistress. That perhaps Sybil would look at her and say, “My dear, sweet Crescent, you have earned the trust and respect of Her Majesty, the Queen. You are welcome to return with me to Luna and be accepted as one of us.”

That time had long since passed, but Cress’s practiced smile held firm even in the face of Mistress Sybil’s coldness. “Good day, Mistress.”

Sybil sniffed. The embroidered sleeves of her white jacket fluttered around the large case she carried, filled with her usual provisions: food and fresh water for Cress’s confinement and, of course, the medical kit. “So you’ve found her, have you?”

Cress winced around her frozen grin. “Found her, Mistress?”

“If it is a good day, then you must have finally completed the simple task I’ve given you. Is that it, Crescent? Have you found the cyborg?”

Cress lowered her gaze and dug her fingernails into her palms. “No, Mistress. I haven’t found her.”

“I see. So it isn’t a good day after all, is it?”

“I only meant … Your company is always…” She trailed off. Forcing her hands to unclench, she dared to meet Mistress Sybil’s glare. “I was just reading the news, Mistress. I thought perhaps we were pleased about Her Majesty’s engagement.”

Sybil dropped the case onto the crisply made bed. “We will be satisfied once Earth is under Lunar control. Until then, there is work to be done, and you should not be wasting your time reading news and gossip.”

Sybil neared the monitor that held the secret window with the D-COMM feed and the evidence of Cress’s betrayal to the Lunar crown, and Cress stiffened. But Sybil reached past it to a screen displaying a vid of Emperor Kaito speaking in front of the Eastern Commonwealth flag. With a touch, the screen cleared, revealing the metal wall and a tangle of heating tubes behind it.

Cress slowly released her breath.

“I certainly hope you’ve found something.”

She stood taller. “Linh Cinder was spotted in the European Federation, in a small town in southern France, at approximately 18:00 local ti—”

“I’m well aware of all that. And then she went to Paris and killed a thaumaturge and some useless special operatives. Anything else, Crescent?”

Cress swallowed and began winding her hair around both wrists in a looping figure eight. “At 17:48, in Rieux, France, the clerk of a ship-and-vehicle parts store updated the store inventory, removing one power cell that would be compatible with a 214 Rampion, Class 11.3, but not notating any sort of payment. I thought perhaps Linh Cinder stole … or maybe glamoured…” She hesitated. Sybil liked to keep up the pretense that the cyborg was a shell, even though they both knew it wasn’t true. Unlike Cress, who was a true shell, Linh Cinder had the Lunar gift. It may have been buried or hidden somehow, but it had certainly made itself known at the Commonwealth’s annual ball.

“A power cell?” Sybil said, passing over Cress’s hesitation.

“It converts compressed hydrogen into energy in order to propel—”

“I know what it is,” Sybil snapped. “You’re telling me that the only progress you’ve made is finding evidence that she’s making repairs to her ship? That it’s going to become even more difficult to track her down, a task that you couldn’t even manage when they were on Earth?”

“I’m sorry, Mistress. I’m trying. It’s just—”

“I’m not interested in your excuses. All these years I’ve persuaded Her Majesty to let you live, under the premise that you had something valuable to offer, something even more valuable than blood. Was I wrong to protect you, Crescent?”

She bit her lip, withholding a reminder of all she’d done for Her Majesty during her imprisonment. Designing countless spy systems for keeping watch on Earth’s leaders, hacking the communication links between diplomats, and jamming satellite signals to allow the queen’s soldiers to invade Earth undetected, so that now the blood of sixteen thousand Earthens was on her hands. It made no difference. Sybil cared only about Cress’s failures, and not finding Linh Cinder was Cress’s biggest failure to date.

“I’m sorry, Mistress. I’ll try harder.”

Sybil’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll be very displeased if you don’t find me that girl, and soon.”

Held by Sybil’s gaze, she felt like a moth pinned to an examination board. “Yes, Mistress.”

“Good.” Reaching forward, Sybil petted her cheek. It felt almost like a mother’s approval, but not quite. Then she turned away and released the locking mechanisms on the case. “Now then,” she said, retrieving a hypodermic needle from the medical kit. “Your arm.”





Two





Wolf pushed himself off the crate, hurtling toward her. Cinder braced herself against the instinctive panic. The anticipation of one more hit tightened every muscle, despite the fact that he was still going easy on her.

She squeezed her eyes shut moments before impact and focused.

Pain shot through her head like a chisel into her brain. She gritted her teeth against it, attempting to numb herself to the waves of nausea that followed.

The impact didn’t come.

“Stop. Closing. Your. Eyes.”

Jaws still clenched, she forced one eye open and then the other. Wolf stood before her, his right hand in mid-swing toward her ear. His body was still as stone—because she was holding him there. His energy was hot and palpable and just out of reach, the strength of her own Lunar gift keeping him at bay.

“It’s easier to have them closed,” she hissed back. Even those few words put a strain on her mind, and Wolf’s fingers twitched. He was struggling against the confines of her control.

Then his gaze flickered past her, as a thump between her shoulder blades sent Cinder tumbling forward. Her forehead collided with Wolf’s chest. His body released just in time for him to steady her.

Behind her, Thorne chuckled. “It also makes it easier for people to sneak up on you.”

Cinder spun around and shoved Thorne away. “This isn’t a game!”

“Thorne is right,” said Wolf. She could hear his exhaustion, though she wasn’t sure whether it came from the constant melee or, more likely, his frustration at having to train such an amateur. “When you close your eyes, it makes you vulnerable. You have to learn to use the gift while still being aware of your surroundings, while still being active within them.”

“Active?”

Wolf stretched his neck to either side, eliciting a few pops, before shaking it out. “Yes, active. We could be facing dozens of soldiers at a time. With any luck, you’ll be able to control nine or ten—although that’s optimistic at this point.”

She crinkled her nose at him.

“Which means you’ll be vulnerable to countless more. You should be able to control me while still being fully present, both mentally and physically.” He took a step back, pawing at his messy hair. “If even Thorne can sneak up on you, we’re in trouble.”

Thorne cuffed his sleeves. “Never underestimate the stealth of a criminal mastermind.”

Scarlet started laughing from where she sat cross-legged on a plastic storage crate, enjoying a bowl of oatmeal. “‘Criminal mastermind’? We’ve been trying to figure out how to infiltrate the royal wedding for the past week, and so far your biggest contribution has been determining which of the palace rooftops is the most spacious so your precious ship doesn’t get scratched in the landing.”

A few light panels brightened along the ceiling. “I fully agree with Captain Thorne’s priorities,” said Iko, speaking through the ship’s built-in speakers. “As this may be my big net debut, I’d like to be looking my best, thank you very much.”

“Well said, gorgeous.” Thorne winked up toward the speakers, even though Iko’s sensors weren’t sensitive enough to pick up on it. “And I would like the rest of you to note Iko’s proper use of Captain when addressing me. You could all stand to learn a thing or two from her.”

Scarlet laughed again, Wolf raised an eyebrow, unimpressed, and the cargo bay’s temperature clicked up a couple degrees as Iko blushed from the flattery.

But Cinder ignored them all, downing a glass of lukewarm water while Wolf’s admonishments spun through her head. She knew he was right. Though controlling Wolf strained every ability she had, controlling Earthens like Thorne and Scarlet usually came as easy to her as replacing a dead android sensor.

By now, she should have been able to do both.

“Let’s go again,” she said, tightening her ponytail.

Wolf slipped his attention back to her. “Maybe you should take a break.”

“I won’t get a break when I’m being chased down by the queen’s soldiers, will I?” She rolled her shoulders, trying to re-energize herself. The pain in her head had dulled, but the back of her T-shirt was damp with sweat and every muscle was trembling from the effort of sparring with Wolf for the past two hours.

Wolf rubbed his temple. “Let’s hope you never have to face off against the queen’s real soldiers. I think we stand a chance going up against her thaumaturges and special operatives, but the advanced soldiers are different. More like animals than humans, and they don’t react well to brain manipulation.”

“Because so many people do?” said Scarlet, scraping her spoon against the bowl.

His glance flickered toward her, something in his eyes softening. It was a look Cinder had seen a hundred times since he and Scarlet had joined the crew of the Rampion, and yet seeing it still made her feel like she was intruding on something intimate.

“I mean they’re unpredictable, even under the control of a thaumaturge.” He returned his focus to Cinder. “Or any other Lunar. The genetic tampering they undergo to become soldiers affects their brains as much as their bodies. They’re sporadic, wild … dangerous.”

Thorne leaned against Scarlet’s storage crate, fake-whispering to her, “He does realize that he’s an ex–street fighter who still goes by ‘Wolf,’ right?”

Cinder bit the inside of her cheek, smothering a laugh. “All the more reason for me to be as prepared as possible. I’d like to avoid another close call like we had in Paris.”

“You’re not the only one.” Wolf started to sway on the balls of his feet again. Cinder had once thought this indicated he was ready for another sparring match, but she’d lately begun to think that’s just how he was—always moving, always restless.

“Which reminds me,” she said, “I’d like to get some more of those tranquilizer darts, whenever we land again. The fewer soldiers we have to fight or brainwash, the better.”

“Tranquilizer darts, got it,” said Iko. “I’ve also taken the liberty of programming this handy countdown clock. T minus fifteen days, nine hours until the royal wedding.” The netscreen on the wall flickered to life, displaying an enormous digital clock counting down by the tenth of a second.

Three seconds of staring at that clock made Cinder sick with anxiety. She tore her gaze away, scanning the rest of the netscreen and their ongoing master plan for putting a stop to the wedding between Kai and Queen Levana. A list of needed supplies was jotted down the left side of the screen—weapons, tools, disguises, and now tranquilizer darts.

In the middle of the screen was a blueprint of New Beijing Palace.

On the right, a ridiculously long preparation checklist, none of which had yet to be checked off, though they’d been planning and plotting for days.

Number one on the list was to prepare Cinder for when she would inevitably come face-to-face with Queen Levana and her court again. Though Wolf hadn’t said it outright, she knew her Lunar gift wasn’t improving fast enough. Cinder was beginning to think that item could take years to reach satisfactory completion, and they had only two more weeks.

The rough plan was to cause a distraction on the day of the wedding that would allow them to sneak into the palace during the ceremony and announce to the world that Cinder was truly the lost Princess Selene. Then, with all the world’s media watching, Cinder would demand that Levana relinquish the crown to her, ending both the wedding and her rule in one fell swoop.

Everything that was supposed to follow the wedding blurred in Cinder’s mind. She kept imagining the reactions of the Lunar people when they discovered that their lost princess was not only cyborg, but also entirely ignorant of their world, culture, traditions, and politics. The only thing that kept her chest from being crushed by the weight of it all was the knowledge that, no matter what, she couldn’t possibly be any worse of a ruler than Levana.

She hoped they would see it that way too.

The glass of water sloshed in her stomach. For the thousandth time, a fantasy crept into her thoughts of crawling beneath the covers of her crew-issued bunk bed and hiding until all the world forgot there had ever been a Lunar princess in the first place.

Instead, she turned away from the screen and shook out her muscles. “All right, I’m ready to try again,” she said, settling into the fighting stance that Wolf had taught her.

But Wolf was now sitting beside Scarlet and polishing off her oatmeal. Mouth full, he dipped his eyes to the floor and swallowed. “Push-ups.”

Cinder dropped her arms. “What?”

He gestured at her with the spoon. “Fighting isn’t the only type of physical exertion. We can build your upper body strength and train your mind at the same time. Just try to stay aware of your surroundings. Focus.”

She glowered for five full seconds before dropping to the ground.

She’d counted to eleven when she heard Thorne push himself away from the crate. “You know, when I was a kid, I was tricked into thinking that princesses wore tiaras and hosted tea parties. Now that I’ve met a real princess, I must say, I’m kind of disappointed.”

She didn’t know if he meant it as an insult, but these days the word princess set every one of Cinder’s nerves on edge.

Exhaling sharply, she did just as Wolf had instructed. She focused—easily picking up on Thorne’s energy as he passed by her on his way toward the cockpit.

She was lowering into the fourteenth push-up when she forced his feet to stall beneath him.

“Wha—”

Cinder pushed up and swung one leg forward in a half circle. Her ankle collided with the back of Thorne’s calves. He cried out and fell, landing on his backside with a grunt.

Beaming, Cinder glanced up at Wolf for approval, but both he and Scarlet were too busy laughing. She could even see the sharp points of Wolf’s canine teeth that he was usually so careful to keep hidden.

Cinder stood and offered Thorne a hand. Even he was smiling, though it was coupled with a grimace as he rubbed his hip.

“You can help me pick out a tiara when we’re done saving the world.”





Three





The satellite shuddered as Sybil’s podship disconnected from the docking clamp, and Cress was left alone again in the galaxy. Despite how Cress yearned for companionship, it was always a relief when Sybil left her, and this time even more than usual. Normally her mistress only visited every three or four weeks, just often enough to safely take another blood sample, but this was the third time she’d come since the wolf-hybrid attacks. Cress couldn’t remember her mistress ever seeming so anxious. Queen Levana must have been growing desperate to find the cyborg girl.

“Mistress’s ship has detached,” said Little Cress. “Shall we play a game?”

If Cress hadn’t been so flustered from yet another visit, she would have smiled, as she usually did when Little Cress asked this question. It was a reminder that she wasn’t entirely without companionship.

Cress had learned, years ago, that the word satellite came from a Latin word meaning a companion, or a minion, or a sycophant. All three interpretations had struck her as ironic, given her solitude, until she’d programmed Little Cress. Then she understood.

Her satellite kept her company. Her satellite did her bidding. Her satellite never questioned her or disagreed or had any pesky thoughts of her own.

“Maybe we can play a game later,” she said. “We’d better check the files first.”

“Certainly, Big Sister.”

It was the expected response. The programmed response.

Cress often wondered if that’s what it would be like to be truly Lunar—to have that sort of control over another human being. She would fantasize about programming Mistress Sybil as easily as she’d programmed her satellite’s voice. How the game would change then, if her mistress was to follow her orders for once, rather than the other way around.

“All screens on.”

Cress stood before her panorama of invisi-screens, some large, others small, some set on top of the built-in desk, others bracketed to the satellite walls and angled for optimal viewing no matter where she was in the circular room.

“Clear all feeds.”

The screens went blank, allowing her to see through them to the satellite’s unadorned walls.

“Display compiled folders: Linh Cinder; 214 Rampion, Class 11.3; Emperor Kaito of the Eastern Commonwealth. And…” She paused, enjoying the rush of anticipation that passed through her. “Carswell Thorne.”

Four screens filled up with the information Cress had been collecting. She sat down to review the documents she’d all but memorized.

On the morning of 29 August, Linh Cinder and Carswell Thorne escaped from New Beijing Prison. Four hours later, Sybil had given Cress her orders—find them. The command, Cress later discovered, came from Queen Levana herself.

Scrounging up information on Linh Cinder had taken her only three minutes—but then, almost all the information she’d found was fake. A fake Earthen identity written up for a girl who was Lunar. Cress didn’t even know how long Linh Cinder had been on Earth. She’d simply popped into existence five years ago, when she was (supposedly) eleven years old. Her biography had family and school records prior to the “hover accident” that had killed her “parents” and resulted in her cyborg operation, but that was all false. One had to follow Linh Cinder’s ancestry back only two generations before they hit a dead-end. The records had been written to deceive.

Cress glanced at the folder still downloading information on Emperor Kaito. His file was immeasurably longer than the others, as every moment of his life had been recorded and filed away—from net fangroups to official government documentation. Information was being added all the time, and it had exploded since the announcement of his engagement to the Lunar queen. None of it was helpful. Cress closed the feed.

Carswell Thorne’s folder had required a bit more legwork. It took Cress forty-four minutes to hack into the government records of the American Republic’s military database and five other agencies that had had dealings with him, compiling trial transcripts and articles, military records and education reports, licenses and income statements and a timeline that began with his certificate of birth and continued through numerous accolades and awards won while he was growing up, through his acceptance into the American Republic military at age seventeen. The timeline blinked out after his nineteenth birthday, when he removed his identity chip, stole a spaceship, and deserted the military. The day he’d gone rogue.

It started up again eighteen months later, on the day he was found and arrested in the Eastern Commonwealth.

In addition to all the official reports, there was a fair amount of swooning and gossiping from the many fangroups that had sprouted in the wake of Carswell Thorne’s new celebrity status. Not nearly as many as Emperor Kai had, of course, but it seemed that plenty of Earthen girls were taken with the idea of this handsome rake on the run from the law. Cress wasn’t bothered by it. She knew that they all had the wrong idea about him.

At the top of his file was a three-dimensional holograph scanned in from his military graduation. Cress preferred it to the infamous prison photo that had become so popular, the one in which he was winking at the camera, because in the holograph he was wearing a freshly pressed uniform with shining silver buttons and a confident, one-sided grin.

Seeing that smile, Cress melted.

Every. Time.

“Hello again, Mr. Thorne,” she whispered to the holograph. Then, with a giddy sigh, she turned to the only remaining folder.

The 214 Rampion, Class 11.3. The military cargoship Thorne had stolen. Cress knew everything about the ship—from its floor plan to its maintenance schedule (both the ideal and the actual).

Everything.

Including its location.

Tapping an icon in the folder’s top bar, she replaced Carswell Thorne’s holograph with one of a galactic positioning grid. Earth shimmered into existence, the jagged edges of its continents as familiar to her as Little Cress’s programming. After all, she had spent half her life watching the planet from 26,071 kilometers away.

Encircling the planet flickered thousands of tiny dots that indicated every ship and satellite from here to Mars. A glance told Cress that she could look out her Earth-side window right then and spot an unsuspecting Commonwealth scouting ship passing by her nondescript satellite. There was a time when she would have been tempted to hail them, but what would be the point?

No Earthen would ever trust a Lunar, much less rescue one.

So Cress ignored the ship, humming to herself as she cleared away all the tiny markers on the holograph until only the Rampion’s ID remained. A single yellow dot, disproportionate in the holograph so that she could analyze it in the context of the planet below.

It hovered 12,414 kilometers above the Atlantic Ocean.

She called up the ID of her own orbiting satellite. If one were to attach a string from her satellite to the center of the Earth, it would cut right through the coast of Japan Province.

Nowhere near each other. They never were. It was a huge orbiting field, after all.

Finding the coordinates of the Rampion had been one of the greatest challenges of Cress’s hacking career. Even then, it had taken her only three hours and fifty-one minutes to do it, and all the while her pulse and adrenaline had been singing.

She had to find them first.

She had to find them first.

Because she had to protect them.

In the end, it had been a question of mathematics and deduction. Using the satellite network to ping signals off all the ships orbiting Earth. Discarding those with trackers, as she knew that the Rampion had been stripped. Discarding those that were clearly too big or too small.

That left mostly Lunar ships, and all of those were, of course, already under her dominion. She’d been disrupting their signals and confusing radar waves for years. There were many Earthens who believed Lunar ships were invisible because of a Lunar mind trick. If only they’d known that it was actually a worthless shell causing them so much trouble.

In the end, only three ships were orbiting Earth that fit the criteria, and two of them (no doubt illegal pirating ships) wasted no time in landing on Earth once they realized there was a massive space search going on that they were about to be caught in the middle of. Cress, out of curiosity, had later scanned Earthen police records in their proximity and found that both ships had been discovered upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Silly criminals.

That left only one. The Rampion. And aboard it, Linh Cinder and Carswell Thorne.

Within twelve minutes of pinpointing their location, Cress scrambled every signal that posed any risk of finding them using the same method. Like magic, the 214 Rampion, Class 11.3, had vanished into space.

Then, nerves frazzled from the mental strain, she’d collapsed onto her unmade bed and beamed deliriously at the ceiling. She’d done it. She had made them invisible.

A chirp resounded from one of the screens, pulling Cress’s attention away from the floating dot that represented the Rampion. Cress spun toward it, flinching when a strand of hair caught in the chair’s wheels. She yanked it out with one hand and nudged the screen out of hibernation with the other. A flick of her fingers and the window was enlarged.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES OF THE THIRD ERA

“Not another one,” she muttered.

The conspiracy theorists had been slobbering over themselves ever since the cyborg girl had disappeared. Some said that Linh Cinder was working for the Commonwealth government, or Queen Levana, or that she was in cahoots with a secret society determined to overthrow one government or another, or that she was the missing Lunar princess, or that she knew where the Lunar princess was, or that she was somehow tied to the spread of letumosis, or that she had seduced Emperor Kaito and was now pregnant with a Lunar-Earthen-cyborg thing.

There were almost as many rumors surrounding Carswell Thorne. They included theories on the real reason that he was in prison, such as plotting to kill the last emperor, or how he’d been working with Linh Cinder for years prior to her arrest, or how he was connected to an underground network that had infiltrated the prison system years ago in preparation for the day when he would require their assistance. This newest theory was suggesting that Carswell Thorne was, in fact, an undercover Lunar thaumaturge meant to assist Linh Cinder with her escape so that Luna would have an excuse for starting the war.

Essentially, nobody knew anything.

Except for Cress, who knew the truth of Carswell Thorne’s crimes, his trial, and his escape—at least, the elements of the escape she’d been able to piece together using prison surveillance video and the statements from the on-duty guards.

In fact, Cress was convinced that she knew more about Carswell Thorne than anyone else alive. In a life in which newness and novelty were so rare, he had become a fixture of fascination to her. At first, she was disgusted by him and his apparent greed and recklessness. When he’d deserted the military, he’d left half a dozen cadets and two commanding officers stranded on an island in the Caribbean. He had stolen a collection of second-era goddess sculptures from a private collector in the Eastern Commonwealth and a set of Venezuelan dream dolls on loan to a museum in Australia to potentially never be seen in public again. There were additional claims of an unsuccessful robbery of a young widow from the Commonwealth who owned an extensive collection of antique jewelry.

Cress had continued to dig, entranced by his path of self-destruction. Like watching an asteroid collision, she couldn’t look away.

But then, strange anomalies had begun to creep up in her research.

Age eight. The city of Los Angeles spent four days in panic after a rare Sumatran tiger escaped from the zoo. Video surveillance of the cage showed the young Carswell Thorne, there on a field trip with his class, opening the cage. He later told the authorities that the tiger had looked sad locked up like that, and that he didn’t regret it. Luckily, no one, including the tiger, had been hurt.

Age eleven. A police report was filed by his parents claiming they’d been robbed—overnight, a second-era diamond necklace had gone missing from his mother’s jewelry chest. The necklace was traced to a net sales listing, where it had recently sold for 40,000 univs to a buyer in Brazil. The seller was, of course, Carswell himself, who had not yet had a chance to send off the necklace, and was forced to return the payment, along with an official apology. That apology, made public record to prevent other teens from getting the same idea, claimed that he was only trying to raise money for a local charity offering android assistance to the elderly.

Age thirteen. Carswell Thorne was given a weeklong school suspension after fighting with three boys in his grade, a fight he had lost according to the school’s med-droid report. His statement proclaimed that one of the boys had stolen a portscreen from a girl named Kate Fallow. Carswell had been trying to get it back.

One situation after another was brought to Cress’s attention. Theft, violence, trespassing, school suspensions, police reprimands. Yet Carswell Thorne, when given a chance to explain, always had a reason. A good reason. A heart-stopping, pulse-racing, awe-inspiring reason.

Like the sun rising over Earth’s horizon, her perception began to change. Carswell Thorne wasn’t a heartless scoundrel at all. If anyone bothered to get to know him, they would see that he was compassionate and chivalrous.

He was exactly the kind of hero Cress had been dreaming about her entire life.

With that discovery, thoughts of Carswell Thorne began to infiltrate her every waking moment. She dreamed of deep soul connections and passionate kisses and daring escapades. She was certain that he simply had to meet her, just once, and he would feel the same way. It would be like those epic love affairs that exploded into existence and burned white hot for all eternity. The type of love that time and distance and even death couldn’t separate.

Because if there was one thing Cress knew about heroes, it was that they could not resist a damsel in distress.

And she was nothing if not in distress.





Four





Scarlet pressed a cotton pad to the corner of Wolf’s mouth, shaking her head. “She may not get in many hits, but when she does, she makes them count.”

Despite the bruise creeping around his jaw, Wolf was beaming, his eyes bright beneath the medbay’s lights. “Did you see how she tripped up my feet before she swung? I didn’t see it coming.” He rubbed his hands giddily on his thighs, his feet kicking at the side of the exam table. “I think we might finally be getting somewhere.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re proud of her, but I think it would be nice if next time she hit you with her nonmetal hand.” Scarlet pulled the cotton away. The wound was still bleeding where Wolf’s lip had broken on his upper canine, but not as bad as before. She reached for a tube of healing salve. “You might be adding a new scar to your collection, but it kind of matches the one on this side of your mouth, so at least they’ll be symmetrical.”

“I don’t mind the scars.” He shrugged, his eyes taking on a mischievous spark. “They hold better memories now than they used to.”

Scarlet paused with a dab of ointment on her fingertip. Wolf’s attention had affixed itself to his own knotted hands, a hint of color on his cheeks. Within seconds, she was feeling extra warm herself, remembering the night they’d once spent as stowaways aboard a maglev train. How she’d traced her fingers along the pale scar on his arm, brushed her lips against the faint marks on his face, been taken into his arms …

She shoved him on the shoulder. “Stop smiling so much,” she said, dabbing the salve onto the wound. “You’re making it worse.”

He quickly schooled his features, but the glint remained in his eyes when he dared to look up at her.

That night on the maglev remained the only time they’d kissed. Scarlet couldn’t count the time he’d kissed her while she was being held captive by him and the rest of his special operative “pack.” He had used the chance to give her an ID chip that ultimately helped her escape, but there had been no affection in that kiss, and at the time she’d despised him.

But those moments aboard the maglev had caused more than one sleepless night since coming aboard the Rampion. When she had lain awake and imagined slipping out of her bed. Creeping across the corridor to Wolf’s room. Not saying a word when he opened the door, just pulling herself against him. Curling her hands into his hair. Wrapping herself up in the sort of security that she’d only ever found in his arms.

She never did, though. Not for fear of rejection—Wolf hadn’t exactly tried to conceal his lingering gazes or how he leaned into every touch, no matter how trivial. And he had never taken back what he said after the attack. You’re the only one, Scarlet. You’ll always be the only one.

Scarlet knew he was waiting for her to make the first move.

But every time she found herself tempted, she would see the tattoo on his arm, the one that marked him forever as a Lunar special operative. Her heart was still broken from the loss of her grandmother, and the knowledge that Wolf could have saved her. He could have protected her. He could have prevented it all from happening in the first place.

Which wasn’t fair to him. That was before he’d known Scarlet, before he’d cared. And if he had tried to rescue her grandmother, the other operatives would have killed him too. Then Scarlet really would be alone.

Maybe her hesitation was because, if she were honest with herself, she was still a little afraid of Wolf. When he was happy and flirtatious and, at times, adorably awkward, it was easy to forget that there was another side to him. But Scarlet had seen him fight too many times to forget. Not like the restrained brawls he and Cinder had, but fights where he could ruthlessly snap a man’s neck, or tear an opponent’s flesh from his bones using nothing but his own sharp teeth.

The memories still made her shudder.

“Scarlet?”

She jumped. Wolf was watching her, his brow creased. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She called up a smile, relieved when it didn’t feel strained.

Yes, there was something dark inside him, but the monster she’d seen before was not the same as the man seated before her now. Whatever those Lunar scientists had done to him, Wolf had shown time and again that he could make his own choices. That he could be different.

“I was just thinking about scars,” she said, screwing the cap back onto the ointment. Wolf’s lip had stopped bleeding, though the bruise would last a few days.

Cupping his chin, Scarlet tilted Wolf’s face away from her and pressed a kiss against the wound. He inhaled sharply, but otherwise became as still as rock—an unusual feat for him.

“I think you’ll survive,” she said, pulling away and tossing the bandage into the trash chute.

“Scarlet? Wolf?” Iko’s voice crackled through the wall speakers. “Can you come out to the cargo bay? There’s something on the newsfeeds you might want to see.”

“Be right there,” said Scarlet, stashing away the rest of the supplies as Wolf jumped down from the exam table. When she glanced over at him, he was grinning, one finger rubbing against the cut.

In the cargo bay, Thorne and Cinder were seated on one of the storage crates, hunkered over a deck of paper cards. Cinder’s hair was still a mess from her recent semi-victory over Wolf.

“Oh, good,” said Thorne, glancing up. “Scarlet, tell Cinder she’s cheating.”

“I’m not cheating.”

“You just played back-to-back doubles. You can’t do that.”

Cinder crossed her arms. “Thorne, I just downloaded the official rulebook into my brain. I know what I can and can’t do.”

“Aha!” He snapped his fingers. “See, you can’t just download stuff in the middle of a game of Royals. House rules. You’re cheating.”

Cinder threw up her hands, sending cards fluttering throughout the cargo bay. Scarlet snatched a three out of the air. “I was taught that you can’t play back-to-back doubles either. But maybe that was just how my grandma played.”

“Or maybe Cinder’s cheating.”

“I am not—” Clenching her jaw, Cinder growled.

“Iko called us out here for something?” said Scarlet, dropping the card back onto the deck.

“Oui, mademoiselle,” said Iko, adopting the accent that Thorne often imitated when talking to Scarlet, though Iko sounded much more authentic. “There’s breaking news coming out on the Lunar special operatives.” The netscreen on the wall flickered, as Iko hid the ticking clock and palace blueprint and replaced them with a series of vids—reporters and grainy footage of armed military personnel coaxing half a dozen muscular men into a secured hover. “It seems that since the attack, the American Republic has been conducting investigations into the operatives, and a sting operation is going down right now in the three Republic cities that were attacked: New York, Mexico City, and São Paulo. They’ve already rounded up fifty-nine operatives and four thaumaturges, to be held as prisoners of war.”

Scarlet stepped closer to the screen, which was showing footage from Manhattan Island. It appeared that this particular pack had been hiding out in an abandoned subway line. The operatives were bound at their hands and ankles and each one had at least two guns trained on him from the surrounding troops, but they all looked as carefree as if they were picking wildflowers in a meadow. One even flashed an amused grin at the camera as he was herded past. “Do you know any of them?”

Wolf grunted. “Not well. The different packs didn’t usually socialize, but I’d see them in the dining hall, and sometimes during training.”

“They don’t seem too upset,” said Thorne. “Evidently they’ve never tasted prison food.”

Cinder came to stand beside Scarlet. “They won’t be there for long. The wedding is in two weeks, and then they’ll be released and sent back to Luna.”

Thorne hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. “In that case, this seems like a pretty big waste of time and resources.”

“I disagree,” said Scarlet. “The people can’t keep living in fear. The government is trying to show that they’re doing something to keep the massacres from happening again. This way, they can feel like they have some sort of control over the situation.”

Cinder shook her head. “But what happens when Levana retaliates? The whole point of the marriage alliance was to hold her temper in check.”

“She won’t retaliate,” said Wolf. “I doubt she’ll even care.”

Scarlet glanced at the tattoo on his forearm. “After all the work she’s gone through to create you … them?”

“She wouldn’t jeopardize the alliance. Not for the operatives, who were only meant to serve one purpose to begin with—to launch that first attack and remind Earth that Lunars can be anyone, anywhere. To make them afraid of us.” He began to shuffle restlessly from foot to foot. “She’s done with us now.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Iko, “because now that they’ve discovered how to track the operatives, everyone expects the rest of the Union to follow suit.”

“How did they find them?” asked Cinder, adjusting her ponytail.

A sigh of air whooshed through the cooling system. “It turns out, Lunars have managed to reprogram a bunch of the med-droids stationed at plague quarantines all over the world. They’ve been harvesting ID chips from the deceased and shipping them off to these operatives to be reprogrammed and inserted into their bodies, so they could blend in with society. Once the government figured out the connection, they just had to follow the trail of the ID chips, and they were led straight to the packs’ operation bases.”

“Peony…” Cinder shifted closer to the netscreen. “That’s why the android wanted her chip. You’re telling me it would have ended up inside one of them?”

“Spoken with true derision for our canine friends,” said Thorne.

Cinder massaged her temple. “I’m sorry, Wolf. I don’t mean you.” She hesitated. “Except … I do, though. Anyone. She was my little sister. How many people have died from this disease, only to have their identities violated like this? Again, no offense.”

“It’s all right,” said Wolf. “You loved her. I would feel the same if someone wanted to erase Scarlet’s identity and give it to Levana’s army.”

Scarlet stiffened, heat rushing into her cheeks. He certainly wasn’t insinuating …

“Aaaaw,” squealed Iko. “Did Wolf just say that he loves Scarlet? That’s so cute!”

Scarlet cringed. “He did not—that wasn’t—” She balled her fists against her sides. “Can we get back to these soldiers that are being rounded up, please?”

“Is she blushing? She sounds like she’s blushing.”

“She’s blushing,” Thorne confirmed, shuffling the cards. “Actually, Wolf is also looking a little flustered—”

“Focus, please,” said Cinder, and Scarlet could have kissed her. “So they were taking ID chips from plague victims. Now what?”

The lights dimmed as Iko’s giddiness diminished. “Well, it won’t be happening anymore. All American androids assigned to the quarantines are being evaluated and reprogrammed as we speak, which will no doubt carry into the rest of the Union.”

On the screen, the last operative in Manhattan was being loaded into the armored hover. The door clanged and locked shut behind him.

“It does take care of one threat, at least,” said Scarlet, thinking of the pack that had kept her prisoner. That had killed her grandmother. “I hope Europe hunts them down too. I hope they kill them.”

“I hope they don’t think their job is done after this,” said Cinder. “Like Wolf said, the real war hasn’t even begun yet. Earth should be on high alert right now—preparing for anything.”

“And we should be making sure we’re ready to stop this wedding and put you on the throne,” added Scarlet, noting how Cinder flinched at the mention of becoming queen. “If we can pull this off, the war may never go any further than it already has.”

“I have a suggestion,” said Iko, replacing the news story of the Lunar operatives with an ongoing report for the upcoming wedding. “If we’re going to be sneaking into New Beijing Palace while Levana is there, why don’t we just assassinate her? Not to be all cold-wired murderer about it, but wouldn’t that solve a lot of our problems?”

“It’s not that easy,” said Cinder. “Remember who we’re talking about here. She can brainwash hundreds of people at once.”

“She can’t brainwash me,” said Iko. “Or you.”

Wolf shook his head. “It would take an army to get close enough. She’ll have countless guards and thaumaturges with her. Not to mention all the Earthens she could use as shields, or turn into weapons themselves.”

“Including Kai,” Cinder said.

The ship’s engine sputtered, causing the walls to quake. “You’re right. We can’t risk that.”

“No, but we can tell the world that she’s a fraud and a murderer.” Cinder planted her hands on her hips. “They already know she’s a monster. We just need to show them that no one is safe if she becomes empress.”





Five





“Screen four,” said Cress, squinting at the grid of icons. “High Jack to … D5.”

Without waiting for the animated jester to cartwheel to his new space, she shifted her attention to the next game. “Screen five. Claim rubies and daggers. Discard crowns.”

The screen sparkled, but she had already moved on.

“Screen six.” She paused, chewing on the tips of her hair. Twelve rows of numbers filled up the screen, some slots left blank, some tinted with colors and patterns. After her brain twisted around an equation she wasn’t sure she could have done a second time, the puzzle lit up before her, the solution as clear as a moonrise over Earth. “3A, insert yellow 4. 7B is black 16. 9G is black 20.” The grid melted away, replaced with a second era singer swooning into a microphone, the audience swelling with applause.

“Congratulations, Big Sister,” said Little Cress. “You won!”

Cress’s victory was short-lived. She rolled onto her side and reassessed the first game. Seeing the move that Little Cress had made since her last turn squelched her pride. She’d backed herself into a corner. “Screen one,” she murmured, swooping her hair over one shoulder and mindlessly knotting the dampened ends around her fingers. Five knots later and her victory on screen six was forgotten. Little Cress was going to win this one.

She sighed and made the best move she could, but it was immediately followed by Little Cress’s king moving to the center of the holographic labyrinth and claiming the golden chalice. A laughing jester appeared, gobbling down the rest of the game board.

Cress groaned and pulled her hair off her neck, waiting for whatever task her younger self would randomly select for her.

“I won!” said Little Cress, once the holograph had disappeared back into the screen. The other games automatically locked themselves. “You now owe me ten minutes of country-western line dancing, as guided by the following video, followed by thirty jump-squats. Let’s begin!”

Cress rolled her eyes, wishing she hadn’t been quite so perky when she’d recorded the voice. But she did as she was told, sliding off the bed as a mustached man in a large hat appeared on the screens, thumbs hooked into his belt loops.

A couple years ago, upon realizing that her living accommodations offered few opportunities to be active, Cress had gone on a fitness kick. She’d installed all the games with a program that chose from a variety of fitness activities, which she would be required to perform from every time she lost. Though she’d often regretted the program, it did help keep her from becoming cemented to her chair, and she kind of enjoyed the dancing and yoga routines. Although she was not looking forward to those jump-squats.

Just as the twang of a guitar announced the start of the dance, a loud chime delayed the inevitable. Thumbs locked into her pretend-belt loops, Cress glanced around at the screens.

“Little Cress, what—”

“We have received a direct communication link request from Unknown User: Mechanic.”

Her insides spun as if she’d just done a backflip.

Mechanic.

With a cry, she half stumbled, half fell toward the smallest screen, hastily tapped in the fitness-routine override code, checked the firewall and privacy settings, and saw it. A D-COMM request, and the most innocent of questions.

ACCEPT?

Mouth dry, Cress smoothed both palms over her hair. “Yes! Accept!”

The window faded away, replaced with blackness, and then—

And then—

There he was.

Carswell Thorne.

He was tilted back in a chair, the heels of his boots propped up in front of the screen. Three people stood close behind him, but all Cress could see were the blue eyes staring back at her, directly back at her, beginning to fill with the same breathless awe she felt.

The same wonder.

The same enchantment.

Though they were separated by two screens and vast amounts of empty space, she could feel the link being forged between them in that look. A bond that couldn’t be broken. Their eyes had met for the first time, and by the look of pure amazement on his face, she knew he felt it too.

Heat crept up into her cheeks. Her hands began to shake.

“Aces,” Carswell Thorne murmured. Dropping his feet to the ground, he leaned forward to inspect her closer. “Is that all hair?”

The bond snapped, the fantasy of one perfect true-love moment disintegrating around her.

Sudden, overwhelming panic clawed up Cress’s throat. With a squeak, she ducked out of view of the camera and scrambled beneath the desk. Her back struck the wall with a thud that rattled her teeth. She crouched there, skin burning hot and pulse thundering as she took in the room before her—the room that he was now seeing too, with the rumpled bedcovers and the mustached man on all the screens telling her to grab her imaginary partner and swing them around.

“Wha—where’d she go?” Thorne’s voice came to her through the screen.

“Honestly, Thorne.” A girl. Linh Cinder? “Do you ever think before you speak?”

“What? What did I say?”

“‘Is that all hair?’”

“Did you see it? It was like a cross between a magpie nest and ball of yarn after it’s been mauled by a cheetah.”

A beat. Then, “A cheetah?”

“It was the first big cat that came to mind.”

Cress hurriedly tried to finger-comb the tangles around her ears. Her hair hadn’t been cut since she’d been put into the satellite and now hung past her knees, but Sybil didn’t bring sharp objects into the satellite and Cress had long ago stopped worrying about keeping it neatly braided. After all, who was going to see her?

Oh, to have styled her hair that morning. To have worn the dress that didn’t have a hole in the collar. Had she even brushed her teeth since she’d eaten breakfast? She couldn’t remember, and now she was sure that she had bits of spinach from her freeze-dried eggs Florentine stuck between them.

“Here, let me speak to her.”

Shuffling from the screen.

“Hello?” A girl again. “I know you can hear me. I’m sorry my friend is such a wing nut. You can just ignore him.”

“That’s usually what we do,” said the other feminine voice.

Cress searched hastily for a mirror or anything that could pass for one.

“We need to talk to you. I’m … This is Cinder. The mechanic who fixed the android?”

The back of Cress’s hand smacked into her clothes hamper. It collided with her wheeled chair, which was launched halfway across the room where it hit the far desk and sent a half-full cup of water tipping and wobbling. Cress froze, her eyes going wide as the glass teetered toward the memory drive that housed Little Cress.

“Um, hello? Is this a good time?”

The cup came to rest straight and still once more, not a drop having spilled.

Cress slowly exhaled.

This was not how this meeting was supposed to go. This was not the fantasy she’d dreamed up a hundred times. What had she said in all those dreams? How had she acted? Who had that person been?

All she could think of was the burning mortification of the country-western dancer (now face your partner and do-si-do!) and her magpie-nest hair, her sweating palms and her deafening pulse.

She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus, to think.

She was not a silly little girl hiding beneath her desk. She was—she was—

An actress.

A gorgeous, poised, talented actress. And she was wearing a sequined dress that sparkled like stars, one that would mesmerize anyone who saw her. She was not one to question her own power to charm those around her, any more than a thaumaturge would question her ability to manipulate a crowd. She was breathtaking. She was—

Still hiding under the desk.

“Are you there?”

A snort. “Yeah, this is going really well.” Carswell Thorne.

Cress flinched, but her breaths were becoming less sporadic as she cocooned herself in the fantasy. “This is a drama set,” she whispered, quiet enough that they couldn’t hear her. She forced it into her imagination. This was not her bedroom, her sanctuary, her prison. This was a drama set, with cameras and lights and dozens of directors and producers and android-assistants milling about.

And she was an actress.

“Little Cress, pause fitness programming.”

The screens halted, the room going silent, and Cress crawled out from beneath the desk.

Cinder was sitting before the screen now, with Carswell Thorne hovering over her shoulder. Cress glanced at him long enough to catch a smile that was perhaps meant to be apologetic, but only served to make her heart skitter.

“Hi,” said Linh Cinder. “Sorry to surprise you like that. Do you remember me? We spoke a couple weeks ago, on the day of the coronation and—”

“Y-yes, of course,” she stammered. Her knees started to shake as she surreptitiously dragged her chair back toward her and sat down. “I’m glad you’re all right.” She forced herself to focus on Linh Cinder. Not on Carswell Thorne. If she only refrained from meeting his gaze again, she would manage. She would not fall apart.

And yet the temptation to fix her eyes on him was still there, tugging at her.

“Oh, thanks,” said Cinder. “I wasn’t sure … I mean, do you follow Earthen news? Do you know what’s been happening since—”

“I know everything.”

Cinder paused.

Cress realized her words had come out all mushed together, and she reminded herself to enunciate when she was playing such a sophisticated role. She forced herself to sit up a bit straighter.

“I follow all the newsfeeds,” she clarified. “I knew you were spotted in France, and I’ve been tracking your ship, so I knew it hadn’t been destroyed, but I still didn’t know whether you’d been injured, or what had happened, and I’ve been trying to establish the D-COMM link but you never responded.” She deflated a little, her fingers tying knots into her hair. “But I am glad to see that you’re all right.”

“Yes, yes, she’s fine, we’re fine, everybody’s fine,” said Thorne, perching an elbow on Cinder’s shoulder and leaning toward the screen with furrowed brows. Meeting his eyes was unavoidable, and an involuntary squeak slipped past her lips—a sound she’d never heard herself make before. “Did you just say you’ve been tracking our ship?”

She opened her mouth, but shut it a moment later when no sound followed. Finally, she managed a brittle nod.

Thorne squinted at her as if trying to figure out if she were lying. Or merely an idiot.

She longed to crawl back beneath the desk.

“Really,” he drawled. “And who do you work for again?”

You are an actress. An actress!

“Mistress,” she said, forcing the word. “Mistress Sybil. She ordered me to find you, but I haven’t told her anything—and I won’t, you don’t have to worry about that. I—I’ve been jamming the radar signals, making sure surveillance satellites are faced the other way when you pass, that sort of thing. So no one else could find you.” She hesitated, realizing that four faces were gaping at her as if all her hair had just fallen out. “You must have noticed that you haven’t been caught yet?”

Lifting an eyebrow, Cinder slid her gaze over to Thorne, who let out a sudden laugh.

“All this time we thought Cinder was casting some witchy spell on the other ships and it’s been you?”

Cinder frowned, but Cress couldn’t tell who her annoyance was directed at. “I guess we owe you a huge thanks.”

Cress’s shoulders jerked into an uncomfortable shrug. “It wasn’t that difficult. Finding you was the hardest part, but anyone could have figured it out. And sneaking ships around the galaxy is something Lunars have been doing for years.”

“I have a price on my head large enough to buy the Province of Japan,” said Cinder. “If anyone could have figured it out, they would have by now. So, really, thank you.”

A blush crept down her neck.

Thorne jabbed Cinder in the arm. “Soften her up with flattery. Good strategy.”

Cinder rolled her eyes. “Look. The reason we’re contacting you is because we need your help. Evidently more than I realized.”

“Yes,” Cress said emphatically, unwrapping the hair from her wrists. “Yes. Whatever you need.”

Thorne beamed. “See? Why can’t you all be this agreeable?”

The second girl smacked him on the shoulder. “She doesn’t even know what we want her to do yet.” Cress really looked at her for the first time. She had curly red hair, a collection of freckles over her nose, and curves that were unfairly exaggerated next to Cinder, who was all angles in comparison. The man beside her dwarfed them both and had brown hair that stuck up in every direction, faded scars that hinted at more than his share of scuffles, and a recent bruise on his jaw.

Cress tried her best to look confident. “What do you need help with?”

“When I talked to you before, on the day of the ball, you told me that you’ve been spying on Earth’s leaders and reporting back to Queen Levana. And you also knew that once Levana became empress, she planned on having Kai assassinated so she could have total control of the Commonwealth and use that power to launch a full-scale attack on the other Earthen countries.”

Cress nodded, perhaps too vigorously.

“Well, we need the people of Earth to know what lengths she’s willing to go to in order to stake claim to Earth, not just the Commonwealth. If the other leaders knew that she’s been spying on them all this time, and that she has every intention of invading their countries the first chance she gets, there’s no way they would condone this wedding. They wouldn’t accept her as a world leader, the wedding would be canceled, and … with any luck, that’ll give us a chance to … er. Well, the ultimate goal is to dethrone her entirely.”

Cress licked her lips. “So … what do you want me to do?”

“Evidence. I need evidence of what Levana’s planning, of what’s she’s been doing.”

Pondering, Cress sank back in her chair. “I have copies of all the video surveillance from over the years. It would be easy to pull up some of the most incriminating vids and send them to you over this link.”

“That’s perfect!”

“It’s circumstantial, though. It would only prove that Levana is interested in what the other leaders are doing, not necessarily that she plans on invading them, and I don’t think I have any documentation about her wanting to murder His Majesty, either. It’s largely my own suspicions, and speculation on the things my mistress has said.”

“That’s fine, we’ll take whatever you have. Levana already attacked us once. I don’t think Earthens will take much convincing that she would do it again.”

Cress nodded, but her enthusiasm had waned. She cleared her throat. “My mistress will recognize the footage. She’ll know it was me who gave it to you.”

Cinder’s smile began to fade, and Cress knew she didn’t need to clarify her point. She would be killed for her betrayal.

“I’m sorry,” said Cinder. “If there was any way for us to get you away from her, we would, but we can’t risk coming to Luna. Getting through port security—”

“I’m not on Luna!” The words tumbled out of Cress, coaxed on by a twist of hope. “You don’t have to come to Luna. I’m not there.”

Cinder scanned the room behind Cress. “But you said before that you couldn’t contact Earth, so you’re not…”

“I’m on a satellite. I can give you my coordinates, and I checked weeks ago if your Rampion has compatible docking gear and it does, or at least the podships that come standard with it do. You … you still have the podships, right?”

“You’re on a satellite?” said Thorne.

“Yes. Set to a sixteen-hour polar orbit around Earth.”

“How long have you been living in a satellite?”

She twisted her hair around her fingers. “Seven years … or so.”

“Seven years? By yourself?”

“Y-yes.” She shrugged. “Mistress restocks my food and water and I have net access, so it isn’t so bad, but … well…”

“But you’re a prisoner,” said Thorne.

“I prefer damsel in distress,” she murmured.

One side of Thorne’s mouth quirked up, into that perfect half smile he’d had in his graduation photo. A look that was a little bit devious, and all sorts of charming.

Cress’s heart stopped, but if they noticed her melting into her chair, they didn’t say anything.

The red-haired girl leaned back, removing herself from the frame, though Cress could still hear her. “It’s not like we can do anything that will make Levana want to find us even more than she already does.”

“Plus,” said Cinder, exchanging looks with her companions, “do we really want to leave someone in Levana’s care who knows how to track our ship?”

Cress’s fingers began to tingle where her hair was cutting off circulation, but she hardly noticed.

Thorne tilted his head and peered at her through the screen. “All right, damsel. Send over those coordinates.”





Six





“Moving on to the dinner service. Her Lunar Majesty did approve the traditional eight-course feast following the ceremony since last we spoke. For that, I suggest we begin with a quartet of sashimi, followed by a light soup. Perhaps imitation shark’s fin soup, which I think would strike a nice balance between old traditions and modern sensibilities.” The wedding planner paused. When neither Kai, who was laid out on his office’s sofa with one arm draped across his eyes, nor his chief adviser, Konn Torin, offered any objections, she cleared her throat and continued, “For our third course, I thought a nice braised pork belly with green mango relish. That would then lead into our vegetarian entrée, for which I recommended potol with poppy seeds on a bed of banana leaves. For the fifth course I was going to talk to the caterers about some sort of shellfish curry, maybe with a vibrant coconut-lime sauce. Does Your Majesty have any preference on lobster, prawns, or scallops?”

Kai peeled his arm off his face, just enough to peer at the wedding coordinator through his fingers. Tashmi Priya must have been well into her forties, and yet she had the sort of skin that hadn’t aged a day past twenty-nine. Her hair, on the other hand, was making a slow transition into gray, and he thought it might have accelerated over the past week, as she was the one person in charge of communicating the bride’s wishes to the rest of the wedding coordinators. He didn’t for a moment underestimate the stress she was under to be working with Queen Levana.

Luckily, it seemed to him that she was very, very good at her job. She’d accepted the role of planning the royal wedding without a moment’s hesitation, and hadn’t balked once at Levana’s demands. Her professional perfectionism was evident in every decision she made, even in how she presented herself, with deceptively subtle makeup and not a hair astray. This simplicity was set against a wardrobe of traditional Indian saris, lush silk shot through with jewel tones and complicated embroidery. The combination gave Priya a regal air that Kai knew, at that moment, he was lacking.

“Scallops, lobster…,” he murmured, struggling to pay attention. Giving up, he covered his eyes again. “No, I have no preference. Whatever Levana wants.”

A brief silence before he heard the click of fingernails against her portscreen. “Perhaps we’ll come back to the feast menu later. As for the ceremony, do you approve of the queen’s choice of Africa’s Prime Minister Kamin as your officiant?”

“I can think of no one more suitable.”

“Excellent. And have you given any thought to your wedding vows?”

Kai snorted. “Delete anything that has to do with love, respect, or joy, and I’ll sign on the dotted line.”

“Your Majesty,” said Torin, in that way he had of making the title of respect sound like a chastisement.

Sighing, Kai sat up. Torin was in the seat opposite Priya, his hand wrapped around a short glass filled with nothing but ice cubes. He was not normally one to imbibe, which reminded Kai that these were trying times for everyone.

He slid his attention back to Priya, whose expression was professionally impassive. “What do you suggest, for the vows?”

Her eyelids crinkled at the corners, almost apologetically, and he detected something horrible about to come his way. “Her Lunar Majesty has suggested that you write your own vows, Your Majesty.”

“Oh, stars.” He fell back down into the cushions. “Please, anything but that.”

A hesitation. “Would you like me to write them for you, Your Majesty?”

“Is that in your job description?”

“Ensuring that this wedding goes smoothly is my job description.”

He peered up at the ornate tasseled chandeliers that lined the ceiling. After a complete sweep of the office that had taken his security team a week to complete, they had found a single recording device, smaller than his fingernail, embedded in one of those chandeliers. It was the only device they had found. There was no question that it was Lunar, and that Kai had been right all along—Levana was spying on him.

His personal quarters had also been swept, though nothing had been discovered there. To date, these were the only rooms where he allowed himself to speak freely about his betrothed, though there was always a warning hum in his head. He really hoped the security detail hadn’t missed anything.

“Thank you, Tashmi-jiĕ. I’ll think on it.”

With a nod, Priya stood. “I have an appointment with the caterer this afternoon. I’ll see if he has any input on the remaining courses.”

Kai forced himself to stand, though the action was surprisingly difficult. The stress of the past weeks had caused him to lose a few pounds, and yet he felt heavier than ever, as if the weight of every person in the Commonwealth were pressing down on him.

“Thank you for everything,” he said, bowing while she gathered her color swatches and fabric samples.

She returned his bow. “We will speak again in the morning, before Thaumaturge Park’s arrival.”

He groaned. “Is that tomorrow already?”

Torin cleared his throat.

“I mean—fantastic! He was such a joy to have around the first time.”

Priya’s smile was fleeting as she slipped out the door.

Restraining a melodramatic sigh, Kai crumpled back onto the sofa. He knew he was being childish, but he felt he had the right to lash out occasionally, especially here in the privacy of his own office. Everywhere else he was expected to smile and proclaim how much he was looking forward to the wedding. How beneficial this alliance would be for the Commonwealth. How he had no doubt that his marriage to Queen Levana would serve to unite the people of Earth and Luna in a way that hadn’t been seen for centuries and would no doubt lead to greater appreciation and understanding of each other’s cultures. It was the first step toward doing away with years of hatred and ignorance and who on Earth did he think he was fooling, anyway?

He hated Levana. He hated himself for giving in to her. He hated that his father had managed to keep her and her threats of war at bay for years and years, and within weeks of Kai taking the throne, he’d let everything fall apart.

He hated that Queen Levana had probably been planning this from the moment it was announced that Emperor Rikan, Kai’s father, was ill, and that Kai had played right into her hands.

He hated that she was going to win.

The ice in Torin’s glass clacked and popped as he leaned forward. “You look pale, Your Majesty. Is there anything I can assist you with? Anything you would like to discuss?”

Kai pushed his bangs off his forehead. “Be honest, Torin. Do you think I’m making a mistake?”

Torin considered the question for a long moment, before setting the glass aside. “Sixteen thousand Earthens were killed when Luna attacked us. Sixteen thousand deaths in only a few hours. That was eleven days ago. I cannot fathom how many lives were spared because of the compromise you made with Queen Levana.” He steepled his fingers over his lap. “And we cannot forget how many lives will be saved once we have access to her letumosis antidote.”

Kai bit the inside of his cheek. These were the same arguments he’d been repeating to himself. He was doing the right thing. He was saving lives. He was protecting his people.

“I know the sacrifice you’re making, Your Majesty.”

“Do you?” His shoulders tensed. “Because I suspect she’s going to try to kill me. Once she has what she wants. Once she’s been coronated.”

Torin inhaled sharply, but Kai got the impression that this wasn’t news to Torin after all. “We won’t let that happen.”

“Can we stop it?”

“Your wedding will not be a death sentence. We have time to figure out a way. She … still wants an heir, after all.”

Kai couldn’t stifle a grimace. “Very, very small consolation.”

“I know. But that makes you valuable to her, at least for the time being.”

“Does it? You know the reputation Lunars have. I’m not sure Levana cares one bit who fathers a child, as long as someone does. And wasn’t Princess Selene born without anyone knowing who her father was? I’m really not convinced Levana needs me for anything other than saying ‘I do’ and handing her a crown.”

Much as he hated to admit it, the thought was almost a relief.

Torin didn’t try to argue against him. He just shook his head. “But the Commonwealth does need you, and they will need you that much more once Levana becomes empress. Your Majesty, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Kai recognized an almost fatherly tone. There was affection there, where normally there was only patience and veiled frustration. In some ways, he felt like Torin had become the true emperor once his father had passed away. Torin was the solid one, the decisive one, the one who always knew what was best for the country. But looking at his adviser now, that impression began to shift. Because Torin had a look that Kai had never seen directed toward himself before. Respect, maybe. Or admiration. Or even trust.

He sat up a little straighter. “You’re right. The decision has been made and now I have to make the best of it. Waiting to be trampled under Levana’s whims won’t help anything. I have to figure out how to defend myself against her.”

Torin nodded, just shy of a smile. “We will think of something.”

For a moment, Kai felt peculiarly bolstered. Torin was not an optimist by nature. If he believed there was a way, then Kai would believe it too. A way to stay alive, a way to protect his country even after he’d cursed them all with a tyrant for an empress. A way to protect himself from a woman who could control his thoughts with a bat of her lashes.

Even as her husband, he would continue to defy Levana for as long as he could.

Nainsi, Kai’s android assistant, appeared in the office doorway, holding a tray with jasmine tea and hot washcloths. Her sensor light flashed. “Daily reports, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, thank you. Come in.”

He took one of the washcloths off the tray as she rolled by, chafing his fingers with the steaming cotton.

Nainsi set the tray on Kai’s desk and turned to face him and Torin, launching into the day’s reports that blissfully had nothing to do with wedding vows or eight-course dinners.

“Lunar Thaumaturge Aimery Park is scheduled to arrive tomorrow at 15:00, along with fourteen members of the Lunar Court. A list of guest names and titles has been transferred to your portscreen. A welcome dinner will commence at 19:00, to be followed by evening cocktails. Tashmi Priya will be in attendance at both the dinner and cocktail reception to begin communicating wedding plans to Thaumaturge Park. We’ve extended an invitation for Her Lunar Majesty to join us via netscreen conferencing, but our offer was not accepted.”

“How disappointing,” Kai drawled.

“We are expecting a resurgence of protestors outside the palace with the arrival of the Lunar court, which will likely continue through the date of the wedding ceremony. We have arranged for military reinforcements, beginning tomorrow morning, to ensure the security of our guests. I will alert you should any protests become violent.”

Kai stopped cleaning his hands. “Are we expecting them to be violent?”

“Negative, Your Majesty. The head of palace security has stated this is only a precaution.”

“Fine. Go on.”

“The weekly letumosis report estimates thirty thousand plague-related deaths during the week of 3 September throughout the Commonwealth. The palace research team did not have any progress to report on their ongoing search for an antidote.”

Kai traded withering looks with Torin. Thirty thousand deaths. It almost made him wish the wedding were tomorrow, so he could get his hands on Levana’s antidote that much sooner.

Almost.

“We have received word that the American Republic, Australia, and the European Federation have all instituted manhunts for the Lunar soldiers responsible for the attacks, and claim to be holding multiple suspects as prisoners of war. So far, Luna has not threatened retaliation or made any attempt to bargain for their freedom, other than the previously made agreement that all soldiers will be removed from Earthen soil following the coronation ceremony on the twenty-fifth.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Kai muttered. “The last thing this alliance needs are more political complications.”

“I will keep you posted on any developments, Your Majesty. The last item to report is that we’ve received word from Samhain Bristol, parliament representative from Toronto, East Canada Province, United Kingdom, that he has declined his invitation to attend the wedding ceremony, on behalf of his refusal to accept Lunar Queen Levana as a suitable world leader within the Earthen Union.”

Torin groaned, as Kai rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Oh, for all the stars. Does he think anyone feels like she would be a suitable leader?”

“We can’t blame him for this position, Your Majesty,” said Torin, though Kai could hear the irritation in his tone, “or for wanting to make this statement. He has his own people to be concerned with.”

“I’m aware of that, but if this starts a trend among the Union leaders, Levana will be livid. Can you imagine her response if no one shows up for the wedding?” Kai dragged the now-cool washcloth down his face. “She’ll see this as a personal offense. If we’re trying to avoid another attack, I don’t think angering her is the way to do it.”

“I agree,” said Torin, standing and adjusting his suit jacket. “I will schedule a comm with Bristol-dàren and see if we can’t come to a compromise. I suggest we keep this information close for the time being, as to avoid giving our other invited guests any wayward ideas.”

“Thank you, Torin.” Kai stood and matched Torin’s bow, before his adviser slipped out of the office.

Kai barely resisted the urge to collapse back on the sofa. He had another meeting in thirty minutes, and there were still plans to review and reports to read and comms to respond to and—

“Your Majesty.”

He started. “Yes, Nainsi?”

“There was one additional report that I thought might be best to discuss with you in private.”

He blinked. There were very few subjects that he didn’t discuss with Torin. “What is it?”

“An association was recently discovered by my intelligence-synapses. It involves Linh Cinder.”

His stomach dropped. It would be that topic—that one topic that he couldn’t talk to even his most trusted adviser about. Every time he heard her name, he was filled with barely constrained panic, certain that Cinder had been found. She had been taken into custody. She had already been killed. Even though he should have been glad that his country’s most-wanted fugitive had been captured, the thought made him ill.

“What about her?” he said, tossing the washcloth back onto the tray and perching on the arm of the sofa.

“I may have deduced the reason that she was in Rieux, France.”

The tirade of worried thoughts evaporated as quickly as they had come. Sensing a headache, Kai massaged the spot above his nose, relieved that one more hour had come and gone and Cinder was still missing. Which meant she was still safe.

“Rieux, France,” he said, reorienting himself. Everyone had known that the ship Cinder was on would need to return to Earth eventually, for fuel and possible maintenance. Her choice of a small town—any small town—had never struck him as suspicious. “Go on.”

“When Linh Cinder removed the D-COMM chip that had temporarily shut down my programming, I transmitted information to her about Michelle Benoit.”

“The pilot?” Kai had practically memorized the information Nainsi had gathered regarding everyone who had even the most tenuous connection to the missing Princess Selene. Michelle Benoit had been one of their top suspects for someone who had possibly helped to hide the princess.

“Yes, Your Majesty. Linh Cinder would have known her name and her previous affiliation with the European military.”

“So?”

“After retiring, Michelle Benoit purchased a farm. That farm is located near Rieux, France, and it was on that property where the stolen ship first landed.”

“So Cinder went there because … do you think she was looking for Princess Selene?”

“That is my assumption, Your Majesty.”

He jumped to his feet and began pacing. “Has anyone spoken to Michelle Benoit? Has she been questioned? Did she see Cinder, talk to her?”

“I am sorry, Your Majesty, but Michelle Benoit disappeared over four weeks ago.”

He stalled. “Disappeared?”

“Her granddaughter, Scarlet Benoit, has gone missing as well. We know only that she boarded a maglev train in Toulouse, France, en route for Paris.”

“Can’t we track them?”

“Michelle Benoit’s ID chip was found in her home the day she went missing. Scarlet Benoit’s ID chip, it appears, has been destroyed.”

Kai slumped. Another dead-end.

“But why would Cinder go there? Why would she care about finding Princess…” He hesitated. “Unless she’s trying to help me.”

“I cannot follow your reasoning, Your Majesty.”

He faced Nainsi again. “Maybe she’s trying to help me. Cinder knows that if she finds the princess, it could be the end of Levana’s rule. I wouldn’t have to marry her. She would probably be executed for treason. Cinder risked her life going to that farm, and she did it … she may have done it for me.”

He could hear Nainsi’s fan whirring, before she said, “I might suggest the alternate explanation that Linh Cinder’s motives stem from Queen Levana’s desire to have her found and executed, Your Majesty.”

Face flushing, he dropped his gaze to the hand-woven rug beneath his feet. “Right. Or that.”

But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Cinder’s new objective was about more than self-preservation. After all, she’d come to the ball to warn him against marrying Queen Levana, and that decision had nearly gotten her killed.

“Do you think she found anything? About the princess?”

“I have no way of discerning that information.”

He paced around his desk, staring thoughtfully at the vast city beyond his office window, glass and steel glinting in the afternoon sunlight. “Find out everything you can about this Michelle Benoit. Maybe Cinder is onto something. Maybe Princess Selene is still out there.”

Hope fluttered again, brightening with every moment. His search for the princess had been abandoned weeks ago, when his life had become too tumultuous to focus on anything other than keeping war at bay. Pacifying Queen Levana and her temper. Preparing himself for a life at her side, as her husband … and that, only if he was lucky enough not to be murdered before their first anniversary.

He’d been so distracted that he’d forgotten the reason he’d been searching for Princess Selene in the first place.

If she was alive, she would be the rightful heir to the Lunar throne. She could end Levana’s reign.

She could save them all.





Seven





Dr. Dmitri Erland perched on the edge of his hotel bed, with the worn cotton quilt pooling around his ankles. All his attention was on the battered netscreen on the wall, the one where the sound cut out randomly and the picture liked to tremble and flicker at inopportune moments. Unlike the last time a Lunar representative had come to Earth, this time the arrival was being internationally broadcast. This time, there was no hiding the purpose of the visit.

Her Majesty, the Queen, had gotten what she wanted. She was going to become empress.

Though Queen Levana herself would not be arriving until closer to the ceremony date, Thaumaturge Aimery Park, as one of her closest lackeys—er, advisers—was coming early as a show of “goodwill” to the people of the Commonwealth and planet Earth. That, and to ensure all wedding arrangements were being made to suit Her Majesty’s preferences, no doubt.

The shimmering white spaceship with its decorative runes had landed on the launchpad of New Beijing Palace fifteen minutes ago, and still showed no sign of opening. A journalist from the African Union was droning on and on in the background about trivial wedding and coronation details—how many diamonds were in the empress’s crown, the length of the aisle, the number of expected guests, and of course, yet another mention that Prime Minister Kamin herself had been selected as the ceremony’s officiant.

He was glad for one thing to result from this engagement, at least. All this ballyhoo had taken the media’s attention off Miss Cinder. He’d hoped that she would have had the sense to take this serendipitous distraction and come find him, quickly, but that had not yet happened. He was growing impatient and more than a little worried for the girl, but there was nothing he could do but wait patiently in this forsaken desert and continue with his research and plan for the day when all his hard work would finally come to fruition.

Growing bored of the broadcast, Dr. Erland removed his spectacles and spent a moment huffing on them and rubbing them down with his shirt.

It seemed that Earthens were quick to forget their prejudices when a royal wedding was involved, or perhaps they were simply terrified to speak openly about the Lunars and their tyranny, especially with the memory of the wolf-hybrid attacks so fresh in the collective memory. Plus, since the announcement of the royal engagement, at least two members of the worldwide media who had declared the alliance a royal mistake—a netgroup administrator from Bucharest-on-the-Sea and a newsfeed editor from Buenos Aires—had committed suicide.

Which Dr. Erland suspected was a diplomatic way of saying “murdered by Lunars, but who can prove it?”

Everyone was thinking the same thing, regardless of whether or not they would say it. Queen Levana was a murderer and a tyrant and this wedding was going to ruin them.

But all his anger was eschewed by the knowledge that he was a hypocrite.

Levana was a murderer?

Well, he had helped her become one.

It had been years—a lifetime, it seemed—since he was one of the leading scientists on Luna’s genetic engineering research team. He had spearheaded some of their greatest breakthroughs, back when Channary was still queen, before Levana took over, before his Crescent Moon was murdered, before Princess Selene was stolen away to Earth. He was the first to successfully integrate the genetics from an arctic wolf with those of a ten-year-old boy, giving him not only many of the physical abilities that they’d already perfected, but the brutal instincts of the beast as well.

Some nights he still dreamed of that boy’s howls in the darkness.

Erland shivered. Pulling the blanket over his legs, he turned back to the broadcast.

Finally, the spaceship door lifted. The world watched as the ramp hit the platform.

A gaggle of Lunar nobility arose from the ship first, bedecked in vibrant silks and flowing chiffons and veiled headdresses, always with the veiled headdresses. It had become quite the trend during Queen Channary’s rule, who, like her sister, refused to reveal her true face in public.

Erland found himself leaning closer toward the screen, wondering if he could identify any of his long-ago peers beneath their cloaks.

He had no luck. Too many years had passed, and there was a good chance that all those telling details he’d memorized were glamour created anyway. He, himself, had always given off the illusion of being much taller when he was surrounded by the narcissistic Lunar court.

The guards were next, followed by five third-tier thaumaturges, donning their embroidered black coats. They were all handsome without any glamours, as the queen preferred, though he suspected that few of them had been born with such natural good looks. Many of his coworkers on Luna had made lucrative side businesses offering plastic surgery, melatonin adjustments, and body reconstruction to thaumaturge and royal guard hopefuls.

In fact, he’d always been fond of the rumor that Sybil Mira’s cheekbones were made out of recycled plumbing pipes.

Thaumaturge Aimery came last, looking as relaxed and smug as ever in the rich crimson jacket that so well complimented his dark skin. He approached the waiting Emperor Kaito and his convoy of advisers and chairmen, and they shared a mutually respectful bow.

Dr. Erland shook his head. Poor young Emperor Kai. He had certainly been thrown to the lions during his short reign, hadn’t he?

A timid knock rattled the door, making Dr. Erland jump.

Look at him—wasting his time with Lunar processions and royal alliances that, with any luck, would never be realized. If only Linh Cinder would stop gallivanting about Earth and space and start following directions for once.

He stood and shut off the netscreen. All this worrying was going to give him an ulcer.

In the hallway was a squirrelly boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen, with dark hair cut short and uneven. His shorts hung past his knees and were frayed at the hems and his sandaled feet were coated in the fine sand that covered everything in this town.

He was holding himself too tall, like he was trying to give the impression that he wasn’t at all nervous, not one little bit.

“I have a camel for sale. I heard you might be interested.” His voice trembled on the last word.

Dr. Erland dropped his spectacles to the end of his nose. The boy was scrawny, sure, but he didn’t appear malnourished. His dark skin looked healthy, his eyes bright and alert. Another year or so, and Erland suspected he’d be the taller of the two of them.

“One hump or two?” he asked.

“Two.” The boy took in a deep breath. “And it never spits.”

Erland tilted his head. He had had to be careful about who he told this code language to, but news seemed to be spreading quickly, even into neighboring oasis towns. It was becoming common knowledge that the crazy old doctor was looking for Lunars who would be willing to help him with some experimentation, and that he could pay them for their assistance.

Of course, the spreading knowledge of his semi-celebrity status, complete with Commonwealth want ads, hadn’t hurt either. He thought many people who came to knock on his door were merely curious about the Lunar who had infiltrated the staff of a real Earthen palace … and who had helped the true celebrity, Linh Cinder, escape from prison.

He would have preferred anonymity, but this did seem to be an effective method for gathering new test subjects, which he needed if he was ever going to copy the letumosis antidote the Lunar scientists had discovered.

“Come in,” he said, stepping back into the room. Without waiting to see if the boy followed, he opened the closet that he had transformed into his own mini laboratory. Vials, test tubes, petri dishes, syringes, scanners, an assortment of chemicals, all neatly labeled.

“I can’t pay you in univs,” he said, pulling on a pair of latex gloves. “Barter only. What do you need? Food, water, clothing, or if you’re willing to wait on payment for six consecutive samples, I can arrange one-way transportation into Europe, no documentation required.” He opened a drawer and removed a needle from the sterilizing fluid.

“What about medication?”

He glanced back. The boy had barely taken two steps into the room.

“Shut the door, before you let in all the flies,” he said. The boy did as he was told, but his focus was now caught on the needle. “Why do you want medicine? Are you sick?”

“For my brother.”

“Also Lunar?”

The boy’s eyes widened. They always did when Dr. Erland threw out the word so casually, but he never understood why. He only asked for Lunars. Only Lunars ever knocked on his door.

“Stop looking so skittish,” Dr. Erland grumbled. “You must know that I’m Lunar too.” He did a quick glamour to prove himself, an easy manipulation so that the boy perceived him as a younger version of himself, but only for an instant.

Though he’d been tampering with bioelectricity more freely since he’d arrived in Africa, he found that it drained him more and more. His mind simply wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and it had been years since he’d had any consistent practice.

Nevertheless, the glamour did its job. The boy’s stance relaxed, now that he was somewhat sure that Dr. Erland wouldn’t have him and his family sent to the moon for execution.

He still didn’t come any closer, though.

“Yes,” he said. “My brother is Lunar too. But he’s a shell.”

This time, it was Erland’s eyes that widened.

A shell.

Now that had true value. Though many Lunars came to Earth in order to protect their non-gifted children, tracking those children down had proven more difficult than Erland had expected. They blended in too well with Earthens, and they had no desire to give up their disguise. He wondered if half of them were even aware of their own ancestry.

“How old?” he said, setting the syringe down on the counter. “I would pay double for a sample from him.”

At Erland’s sudden eagerness, the boy took a step back. “Seven,” he said. “But he’s sick.”

“With what? I have pain killers, blood thinners, antibiotics—”

“He has the plague, sir. Do you have medicine for that?”

Dr. Erland frowned. “Letumosis? No, no. That isn’t possible. Tell me his symptoms. We’ll figure out what he really has.”

The boy looked annoyed at being told he was wrong, but not without a tinge of hope. “Yesterday afternoon he started getting a bad rash, with bruises all over his arms, like he’d been in a brawl. Except he hadn’t. When he woke up this morning he was hot to the touch, but he kept saying he was freezing, even in this heat. When our mother checked, the skin under his fingernails had gone bluish, just like the plague.”

Erland held up a hand. “You say he got the spots yesterday, and his fingers were already turning blue this morning?”

The boy nodded. “Also, right before I came here, all those spots were blistering up, like blood blisters.” He cringed.

Alarm stirred inside the doctor as his mind searched for an explanation. The first symptoms did sound like letumosis, but he’d never heard of it moving through its four stages so quickly. And the rash becoming blood blisters … he’d never seen that before.

He didn’t want to think of the possibility, and yet it was also something he’d been waiting for years to happen. Something he’d been expecting. Something he’d been dreading.

If what this boy said was true, if his brother did have letumosis, then it could mean that the disease was mutating.

And if even a Lunar was showing symptoms …

Erland grabbed his hat off the desk and pulled it on over his balding head. “Tak