Scarlet Page 18


“You’re doing everything you can?” Levana flattened her palms on Kai’s desk. Their glares battled over the netscreen that still showed the empty prison hallway, frozen in time. “You’re telling me, young emperor, that you didn’t assist her escape? That your intention from the start hasn’t been to humiliate me on your soil?”

Kai sensed that she wanted him to fall to his knees and silently plead for forgiveness, to promise to move the Earth and heavens to satisfy her—but his anger overwhelmed his fear. With his ability to speak removed, he folded his arms over the back of his chair and waited.

From the corner of his eye he could see Torin and Huy, still as statues but for dark scowls. Sybil Mira, with her hands innocently tucked into her ivory sleeves, must have been holding them at bay with her Lunar mind magic.

Nainsi, the only being in the room that the Lunars couldn’t control with mind tricks, was being physically held by the blond guard, turned so that her sensor—and built-in camera—couldn’t capture the proceedings.

The queen’s fingertips whitened against the desk. “You expect me to believe that you didn’t encourage this escape? That you had nothing to do with it?” Her expression tightened. “You certainly don’t seem too upset about it, Your Majesty.”

Bewilderment stirred in Kai’s gut, but his face remained neutral. Years of rumors and superstitions circulated in his thoughts—rumors that Levana knew whenever anyone was talking about her, anywhere on Luna, even on Earth—but he suspected a much more plausible reason for her uncanny ability to know what she shouldn’t know.

She’d been spying on him, and his father before. He knew it—he just didn’t know how.

Realizing that she was waiting for a response, Kai quirked an eyebrow and flourished a hand toward his mouth.

Levana seethed and pushed herself back from the desk. She stretched her neck until she was staring down her nose at him. “Speak.”

Sensation returned to his tongue and Kai threw a thankless smile at Aimery. He then proceeded to do the most disrespectful thing he could think of—he pulled his chair back from his desk and sat down. Tipping back, he folded his hands over his stomach.

Anger sizzled behind Levana’s charcoal eyes until she was almost—briefly—unbeautiful.

“No,” Kai said. “I did not encourage the fugitive to escape or assist her in any way.”

“What reason do I have to believe that, after you seemed so enchanted with her at the ball?”

His brow twitched. “If you’re going to refuse to take my word, why don’t you just force a full confession out of me and be done with it?”

“Oh, I could, Your Majesty. I could put any words into that mouth of yours that I wanted to hear. But, unfortunately, we are not mind readers, and I am concerned only with truth.”

“Then allow me to give it to you.” Kai hoped he seemed more indulgent than annoyed. “Our preliminary investigation has shown that she used both her Lunar and cyborg abilities to escape from her cell, and while she may have had assistance from within the palace, it was done without my knowledge. I’m afraid we were unequipped to keep a prisoner who is both cyborg and Lunar. We will, of course, be working on strengthening our prison system for the future. In the meantime, we are doing everything in our power to track down the fugitive and apprehend her. I made a bargain with you, Your Majesty, and I do intend to keep my end.”

“You’ve already failed your end of the bargain,” she spat, but then her face softened. “Young emperor, I certainly hope you didn’t fancy yourself in love with this girl.”

Kai’s grip tightened until his knuckles screamed. “Any feelings I may have imagined for Linh Cinder were clearly nothing more than a Lunar trick.”

“Clearly. I am glad you recognize that.” Levana folded her own hands demurely before her. “I am done with this charade and am returning to Luna, immediately. You have three days to find the girl and deliver her to me. If you fail, I will send my own army to find her, and they will tear apart every spaceship, every docking station, and every home on this pathetic planet until she is found.”

White spots flashed in Kai’s vision and he shoved himself back to his feet. “Why don’t you say what you mean? You’ve been wanting a reason to invade Earth for ten years and now you’re using this one escaped Lunar, this nobody, to accomplish it.”

The corners of Levana’s lips tilted. “You seem to misunderstand my motives, so I will say precisely what I mean. I will someday rule the Commonwealth, and it is your decision whether that is to be through a war or through a peaceful and diplomatic marriage union. But this has nothing to do with war and politics. I want this girl, or I want her corpse. I will burn your country to the ground looking for her if I must.”

Levana pulled away from the desk and drifted out of the office, her entourage falling in step behind her with neither expression nor comment.

When they had gone, Huy and Torin each melted in front of Kai, looking like they hadn’t taken a breath since the queen’s entrance. And perhaps they hadn’t—Kai didn’t know what Sybil had been doing to them, but he could guess it hadn’t been comfortable.

Nainsi swiveled on her treads. “I am so sorry, Your Majesty. I never would have given her access, but the door was already open.”

Kai silenced her with a wave. “Yes, how coincidental that she chose the one time when the door wasn’t shut and coded to barge in here, isn’t it?”

Nainsi’s processor whirred, no doubt running the odds.

Kai rubbed one hand down his face. “It doesn’t matter. Everyone, out. Please.”

Nainsi vanished out the door, but Huy and Torin lingered.

“Your Majesty,” Huy said. “With all due respect, I need your permission—”

“Yes, fine, whatever you need to do. Just, I need a moment. Please.”

Huy clicked his heels. “Of course, Your Majesty.” Though Torin looked more apt to argue, he didn’t, and soon the door was hissing behind them both.

With the click of the latch, Kai let himself crumble into his chair. His entire body was shaking.

It was suddenly so clear that he wasn’t ready for this. He wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to fill his father’s shoes. He couldn’t even keep Levana out of his own office—how was he going to protect an entire country from her—an entire planet?

Spinning his chair around, he raked his hands back through his hair. His attention swept over the city below, but was soon pulled up to the glaring blue sky, cloudless. Somewhere beyond it was the moon and the stars and tens of thousands of cargo ships, passenger ships, military ships, delivery ships, vying for space beyond the ozone. And Cinder was in one of them.

He couldn’t help it, but a part of him—maybe a large part of him—hoped Cinder would just disappear, like a fading comet’s tail. Just to spite the queen, to keep from her this one thing she so desperately wanted. It was only her vanity, after all, that had set off this tirade. Because Cinder had made that one foolish comment at the ball, suggesting that Levana wasn’t beautiful after all.

Kai massaged his temple, knowing that he had to give up these thoughts. Cinder had to be found, and soon, before millions were murdered in her place.

It was all politics now. Pros and cons, give and take, trades and agreements. Cinder had to be found, Levana had to be appeased, Kai had to stop acting cheated and indignant and start acting like an emperor.

Whatever he’d once felt for Cinder—or thought he’d felt for her—was over.

Fifteen

Cinder turned off the shower and propped herself against the fiberglass wall while the nozzle dripped onto her head. She would have liked to stay in longer but was worried about using up the water supply, and judging from the half-hour shower Thorne had taken, she clearly couldn’t rely on him for conservation.

Nevertheless, she was clean. The smell of sewage was gone, the salty sweat rinsed away. Stepping out of the communal shower, she rubbed her hair with a starchy towel, then spent a moment drying all the crevices and joints of her prosthetics to protect against rust. It was habit, even though her new limbs already had a protective coating. Dr. Erland, it seemed, hadn’t skimped on anything.

Her soiled prison uniform was balled in a corner on the tiled floor. She’d found a discarded military uniform in the crew quarters—oversize charcoal-gray pants that had to be belted in at her waist and a plain white undershirt, which wasn’t much different from the cargos and T-shirts she was used to, back before she’d become a fugitive of the law. All that was missing were her ever-present gloves. She felt naked without them.

She threw the towel and prison uniform into the laundry chute and unlatched the shower room door. The thin corridor revealed an open doorway to the galley on her right, and the cargo bay packed full with plastic crates to her left.

“Home sweet home,” she murmured, wringing droplets from her hair as she ambled toward the cargo bay.

There was no sign of the so-called captain. Only the faint running lights along the floor were on, and the darkness and the silence and the knowledge of all the empty space around the ship, stretching out for eternity, gave Cinder the peculiar sensation that she was a phantom haunting a shipwreck. She picked her way through the obstacle course of storage bins and sank into the pilot’s seat in the cockpit.

Through the window she could see Earth—the shores of the American Republic and most of the African Union visible beneath the swirling cloud cover. And beyond it—stars, so many stars swirling and misting into countless galaxies. They were both beautiful and terrifying, billions of light-years away, and yet seeming so bright and close it was almost suffocating.

All Cinder had ever wanted was freedom. Freedom from her stepmother and her overbearing rules. Freedom from a life of constant work with nothing to show for it. Freedom from the sneers and hateful words of strangers who didn’t trust the cyborg girl who was too strong and too smart and too freakishly good with machines to ever be normal.

Now she had her freedom—but it wasn’t anything like she’d envisioned.

Sighing, Cinder pulled her left foot onto her knee, shoved up her pant leg, and opened the hollow compartment inside her calf. The compartment had been searched and emptied when she’d been admitted into prison—just one more invasion—but the most valuable contents had been ignored. No doubt the guard performing her search had thought the chips nestled into the wiring were a part of Cinder’s own programming.

Three chips. She plucked them out, one by one, laying them out on the arm of her chair.

There was the shimmering white D-COMM chip. It was a Lunar chip, made from some material Cinder hadn’t seen before. Levana had ordered it to be installed in Nainsi, Kai’s android, and used it to gather confidential information. The girl who had programmed the chip, supposedly the queen’s personal programmer, had later used it to contact Cinder and tell her that Levana was planning to marry Kai … and then kill him and use the power of the Eastern Commonwealth to invade the rest of the Earthen Union. It was this information that had sent Cinder running to the ball only a few short days ago—what seemed like a lifetime ago.

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