Scarlet Page 24


Cinder gripped her shaking hand with the steady cyborg one. She was tired of everyone deciding her life for her. She was ready to figure out who she really was—not what anyone else told her to be.

“Uh … Cinder?”

“Europe.” She pressed her back into the crate, forcing herself to sit straight, to feign certainty. “We’re going to Europe.”

A brief silence. “Any reason in particular?”

She met his gaze and pondered a long moment, before choosing her words. “Do you believe in the Lunar heir?”

Thorne propped his chin on both palms. “Of course.”

“No, I mean, do you believe she’s still alive?”

He peered at her as if she were being cute. “Because it was so vague the first time. Yes, of course I think she’s alive.”

Cinder drew back. “You do?”

“Sure. I know some people think it’s all conspiracy theories, but I’ve heard that Queen Levana was really paranoid for months after that fire, when she should have been ecstatic because she was finally queen, right? It’s like she knew the princess had gotten away.”

“Yeah, but … those could only be stories,” Cinder said, not knowing why she was trying to dissuade him. Perhaps because she’d never believed any of it, until she’d known the truth.

He shrugged. “What does this have to do with Europe?”

Cinder shifted to face him more fully, crisscrossing her legs. “There’s a woman who lives there, or at least, she used to live there. She used to be in their military. Her name is Michelle Benoit, and I think she might be connected to the missing princess.” She took in a slow breath, hoping she hadn’t said anything that could give her secret away.

“Where did you hear this?”

“An android told me. A royal android.”

“Oh! Kai’s android?” Iko said, excitedly changing the screen to one of Kai’s fan pages.

Cinder sighed. “Yes, His Majesty’s android.”

Unbeknownst to her at the time, her cyborg brain had recorded every word that the android, Nainsi, had spoken, as if it had known that Cinder would someday need to draw on this information again.

According to Nainsi’s research, a Lunar doctor named Logan Tanner had brought Cinder to Earth when she was still a child, after Levana’s murder attempt had failed. He’d eventually been incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital and committed suicide, but not before passing her off to someone else. Nainsi had thought that someone else was an ex–military pilot from the European Federation.

Wing Commander Michelle Benoit.

“A royal android,” Thorne said, showing the first sign of speculation. “And how did it get this information?”

“That, I have no idea. But I want to find this Michelle Benoit and see if it was right.”

And hope that Michelle Benoit had some answers that Dr. Erland didn’t. Perhaps she could tell Cinder about her history, about those eleven long years lost to her memory, about her surgery and the surgeons and Linh Garan’s invention that had kept Cinder from using her Lunar gift until Dr. Erland had disabled it.

Perhaps she had her own ideas about what Cinder should do next. Ideas that left her some choices for the rest of her life.

“I’m in.”

She started. “You are?”

“Sure. This is the biggest unsolved mystery of the third era. There’s got to be someone out there offering a reward for finding this princess, right?”

“Yeah, Queen Levana.”

Thorne tilted toward her, nudging her with his elbow. “In that case, we already have something in common with the princess, don’t we?” He winked, setting Cinder’s nerves on edge. “I just hope she’s cute.”

“Could you at least try to focus on the important things?”

“That would be important.” Thorne pulled himself up with a groan, still sore from all the rearranging. “Hungry? I think there’s a can of beans in there calling my name.”

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

When he had gone, Cinder hefted herself up onto the nearest crate and rolled out her shoulders. The news was still broadcasting on the screen, muted. A ticker read, “Hunt continues for Lunar fugitive Linh Cinder and crown traitor Dmitri Erland.”

Her throat constricted—crown traitor?

She shouldn’t have been surprised. How long had she expected it to take them to figure out who had helped her escape?

Cinder sank onto her back, feet dangling off the crate, and stared at the maze of pipes and bundled wires that cluttered the ship’s rafters. Was she making a mistake by going to Europe? It was a draw she didn’t think she could resist. Not only because of what Nainsi had said, but because of Cinder’s own jumbled memories too. She’d always known that she’d been adopted in Europe and she had the faintest recollection of it. Only drug-muddled memories that she’d always thought might be part dream. A barn. A snow-covered field. A gray sky that never ended. And then a long, long train ride bringing her to New Beijing and her new family.

She felt compelled to go there now. To figure out where she had been during all those lost years and who had taken care of her, who else knew her biggest secret.

But what if she was only avoiding the inevitable? What if this was just a distraction to keep her from going to Dr. Erland and accepting her fate? At least the doctor could teach her how to be Lunar. How to protect herself from Queen Levana.

She didn’t even know how to use her glamour. Not properly anyway.

Pursing her lip, she held her cyborg hand up over her face. Its metal plating shone almost mirror-like beneath the ship’s dim lights. It was so pristine, so well crafted—it did not seem like her hand. Not yet.

Tilting her head, Cinder held up her other, human hand beside it and tried to imagine what it would be like to be fully human. Two limbs made of skin and tissue and bones. Blood pumping in faintly blue veins beneath the surface. All ten fingernails.

An electric current traipsed down her nerves and her cyborg hand began to morph in her vision. Little wrinkles appeared in her knuckles. Tendons stretched beneath her skin. The edges softened. Warmed. Turned to flesh.

She was looking at two hands, two human hands. Small and dainty with perfectly sculpted fingers and delicate, rounded nails. She flexed the fingers of her left hand, forming a fist, then stretched them out again.

An almost giddy laugh fell out of her. She was doing it. She was using her glamour.

She did not need gloves anymore. She could convince everyone that this was real.

No one would ever know she was cyborg again.

The realization was stark and sudden and overwhelming.

And then—too soon—an orange light flickered in the corner of her vision, her brain warning her that what she was seeing was a lie. That this was not real, would never be real.

She sat up with a gasp and squeezed her eyes shut before her retina scanner could start to pick up on all the little inaccuracies and falsehoods like it had done with Levana’s glamour when Cinder had begun to see through it. She was annoyed with herself—disgusted at how easily the desire had come to her.

This was how Levana did it. She kept a hold on her people by tricking both their eyes and their hearts. She ruled with fear, yes, but also with adoration. It would be easy to abuse a person when they never recognized it as abuse.

It was not so different from when she’d glamoured Thorne. She’d owned his mind without even trying to and he’d jumped at the chance to do her bidding.

She sat shivering for a while, listening to Thorne banging around in the galley and humming to himself.

If this was her chance to decide who she was, who she wanted to be, then the first decision was an easy one.

She would never be like Queen Levana.

Twenty

The track’s magnets had gone silent, replaced with the sounds of their own footsteps in the brush and the caws of migrating birds. Only a suggestion of sun filtered down through the thick tree cover, and the forest smelled of tree sap and the coming of autumn.

Time seemed to stretch on for eons, although Scarlet’s portscreen indicated that not even an hour had passed when they came across the stopped train. Scarlet first noticed sounds that didn’t belong to the forest—the crunching of treads on dirt and gravel as dozens of androids circled the perimeter.

Wolf abandoned the tracks, pushing through the brush and leading them into the security of the woods. Scarlet tucked away the port so she could use both hands to climb fallen logs and keep twigs and spiderwebs out of her hair. After a while, she tugged her hood over her head, lessening her vision but feeling better protected from the things that reached and jabbed at her.

They climbed up an embankment, using the roots of a pine tree that looked about to topple over onto the tracks. On higher ground, Scarlet could see the dappled glint of sunlight off the train’s metal roof. The occasional passenger cast a shadow against the windows. Scarlet could not imagine being among them. Surely everyone knew what the “medical emergency” was by now. How long would it take to test every passenger for the plague and determine who could be let go? How long could they keep healthy people quarantined?

Or would they let them go at all?

To prevent escapees, a small army of androids patrolled around the train, their yellow sensors shuffling over the windows and doors, occasionally darting toward the forest. Though Scarlet didn’t think they could see her so high above the tracks, she nevertheless crept back from the embankment and slowly, slowly unzipped her hoodie. Wolf glanced back just as she was pulling her arms from the sleeves, glad she was wearing a much more camouflage-worthy black tank top underneath. She cinched the hoodie tight around her waist.

Better? she mouthed, but Wolf only glanced away.

“They’ll have noticed we’re missing,” he whispered.

The nearest android spun toward them and Scarlet ducked, worried that even her hair could draw attention.

When the android rolled away again, Wolf slinked forward, holding back a tree branch for Scarlet to pass beneath.

They moved at a tractor’s pace, crouched low to keep out of sight. It seemed every step Scarlet took sent another creature scurrying away for cover—a squirrel, a tiny swallow—and she feared that the androids would be able to track them by the disturbed wildlife alone, but no warning alarm came from the tracks.

They stopped only once, when a streak of blue light danced on the trunks over their heads. Scarlet followed Wolf’s lead and pressed herself nearly to the ground, listening to the pounding of her heart, the rush of adrenaline in her ears.

With a start, she felt Wolf’s warm fingers pressing into her back. They were steady against her, calming, as she watched the android’s light scan back and forth, darting into the forest canopy. She risked the slightest tilt of her head until she could see Wolf beside her, immobile, every muscle taut—except the fingers of his other hand, which were tapping, tapping, tapping against a large rock, expelling the nervous energy that had nowhere else to go.

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