Scarlet Page 31


Thorne waved his hand. “They already showed the clips. And now you’ve achieved the dream of every red-blooded girl under the age of twenty-five.”

“Right, my life is a real dream come true.”

Thorne wiggled his eyebrow. “Maybe not, but at least dreamy Prince Kai knows your name.”

“Emperor Kai,” she said, frowning at him.

“Precisely.” Thorne cocked his head toward the front of the ship. “They’re starting a press conference, to talk about you. Thought you wouldn’t want to miss”—Thorne fanned himself, swooning—“his heavenly, chocolate-brown eyes, and perfectly tousled hair, and—”

Cinder sprang off the bed, shoving Thorne into the door frame as she marched past him.

“Ow,” he said, rubbing his arm. “What’s got your wires crossed?”

“I’m adjusting the channel now.” Iko’s voice followed Cinder through the cargo bay and into the cockpit, where the main screen was showing Emperor Kai at a podium before an audience of journalists. “The conference is just starting, and he looks so handsome today!”

“Thanks, Iko,” said Cinder, claiming the pilot’s seat.

“Hey, that’s my—”

She silenced Thorne with a wave and adjusted the screen’s volume.

“—thing we can to find the escaped convicts,” Kai was saying. The circles beneath his eyes suggested that it had been a long time since he’d experienced a proper night’s rest. Nevertheless, seeing him made Cinder both warm with longing and miserable when she thought of the last few moments she’d seen him. Her, having just tripped on the garden steps and lying sprawled on the gravel pathway with her wires sparking out of her ankle.

He—disgusted, baffled, disappointed.

Betrayed.

“We’ve deployed our fastest ships with the most advanced search technology and the best pilots in order to track down the fugitives. They’ve been lucky in their evasion of us so far, but we don’t expect that luck to last. The class of ship they’re inhabiting is not meant for extended periods of orbit. Eventually they will have to return to Earth, and we’ll be ready for them.”

“What kind of ship are they on?” asked a lady in the front row.

Kai checked his notes. “It’s a stolen military cargo ship from the American Republic—a 214 Rampion, Class 11.3. Its tracking devices have been stripped, which is largely responsible for the difficulties we’ve had in apprehending them.”

Thorne proudly poked Cinder in the back.

On the screen, Kai nodded at another journalist near the back.

“You said our military would be waiting for them when they return to Earth. How long do you suspect that to be, and are you abandoning the space search in the meantime?”

“Absolutely not. Our primary objective is to find them as soon as possible, and we plan to continue the search in space until they’re found. However, my experts project the ship will be returning to Earth anytime from two days to two weeks, depending on their fuel and power reserves, and we will be prepared for that return if necessary. Yes?”

“My sources have told me that this cyborg, this Linh Cinder—”

“That’s you,” Thorne whispered with another jab. She batted him away.

“—was given a VIP invitation to the annual ball and was, in fact, an invited guest of yours, Your Majesty. Do you refute that claim?”

“A what?” Thorne asked.

“VIP invitation?” said Iko.

Cinder scrunched up her shoulders, ignoring them both.

On the screen, Kai shifted back from the podium, arms fully extended as if to give himself space to breathe, before clearing his throat and nearing the mic again. “I do not refute the claim. I met Linh Cinder two weeks prior to the ball. As many of you know, she was a renowned mechanic here in the city and I had hired her to fix a malfunctioning android. And, yes, I did invite her to the ball as a personal guest.”

“What?”

Cinder flinched from the shriek that pierced through the cockpit’s speakers.

“When did this happen? It better have happened after Adri dismantled me because if he asked you to the ball and you didn’t tell me—”

“Iko, I’m trying to listen!” Cinder squirmed in her seat. Kai had asked her to the ball before Iko’s body had been taken apart and sold off. Cinder had had the chance to tell her, but at the time she’d been determined not to accept the invitation, so it hadn’t seemed that important.

When Kai called on another journalist, Cinder realized she’d missed an entire question.

“Did you know that she was cyborg?” asked a woman in an unhidden tone of disgust.

Kai stared at her, appearing confused, then let his gaze dance over the crowd. He shuffled his feet closer to the podium, a wrinkle forming on the bridge of his nose.

Cinder bit the inside of her cheek and braced herself for adamant disgust. Who would ever invite a cyborg to the ball?

But instead, Kai said simply, “I don’t see that her being cyborg is relevant. Next question?”

Cinder’s metal fingers jolted.

“Your Majesty, did you know that she was Lunar when you extended this invitation?”

Looking like he might keel over from exhaustion, Kai shook his head. “No. Of course not. I—naively, it seems—was under the impression that there were no Lunars in the Commonwealth. Other than our diplomatic guests here at the palace, of course. Now that it’s been brought to my attention how easy it is for them to blend in with the populace, we will be taking additional security measures to both keep Lunars from emigrating here, as well as to find and export any that may be within our borders. I have every intention to comply with the statutes of the Interplanetary Agreement of 54 T.E. on this matter. Yes, second row.”

“Regarding Her Majesty, Queen Levana, has she or any of the Lunar court commented on the escape of the convict?”

Kai’s jaw tensed. “Oh, she’s had a thing or two to say about it.”

Behind Kai, a government official cleared his throat. The irritation quickly evaporated from Kai’s face, replaced with tactful vacancy.

“Queen Levana wants Linh Cinder to be found,” he amended, “and brought to justice.”

“Your Majesty, do you think these events may have harmed the diplomatic proceedings between Earth and Luna?”

“I don’t think they helped.”

“Your Majesty.” A man stood, three rows back. “Witness accounts from the ball seem to indicate that Linh Cinder’s arrest was part of an agreement between yourself and the queen, and that letting her go could be cause for war. Is there reason to believe the cyborg’s escape could lead to a greater threat to our national security?”

Kai moved to scratch behind his ear, but caught the nervous tick and placed his hand back on the podium. “The word war has been thrown around between Earth and Luna for generations. It is my prerogative, as it was always my father’s, to avoid that at all costs. I assure you, I am doing everything in my power not to further unravel our fragile relationship with Luna, starting with finding Linh Cinder. That’s all, thank you.”

He stepped off the stage to a wave of unanswered questions, and was pulled into a whispered conversation with a group of officials.

Pouting, Thorne slumped into the copilot’s seat. “He didn’t mention me. Not once.”

“Me either,” said Iko, without pity.

“You’re not an escaped convict.”

“True, but His Majesty and I met once, at the market. I felt like we had a really strong connection. Didn’t you think so, Cinder?”

The words slipped meaninglessly through Cinder’s audio interface. She didn’t respond, unable to tear her focus away from Kai.

He was being forced to take responsibility for her actions. He was being unfairly faced with the repercussions of her decisions. In the aftermath of her escape, he alone had to deal with Queen Levana.

Shutting her eyes against the sight of him, she rubbed her throbbing temple.

“But I’m a wanted fugitive, like Cinder,” Thorne continued. “They do realize I’m missing, don’t they?”

“Maybe they’re grateful,” Cinder muttered.

Thorne grumbled something incoherent, followed by a long silence during which Cinder massaged her brow and tried to convince herself she’d done the right thing.

Spinning, Thorne kicked his feet onto the armrest of Cinder’s chair, nudging her elbow off it. “Now I understand why you’ve been so immune to my charms. I had no idea I was competing with an emperor. That’s a tough hand to beat, even for me.”

She snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. I hardly know him, and now he despises me.”

Thorne laughed, hooking his thumbs behind his belt loops. “I have great instincts when it comes to amore, and he does not despise you. Plus, he asked a cyborg to the ball? That takes guts. I generally dislike royalty and government officials on principle, but I have to give him credit for that.”

Standing, Cinder shoved Thorne’s feet off her chair, freeing her path to the door. “He didn’t know I was cyborg.”

Thorne tilted his head as she passed. “He didn’t?”

“Of course not,” she said, marching out of the small cockpit.

“But he knows you’re cyborg now and he still likes you.”

She spun back to him, pointing toward the screen. “You got that from a ten-minute conference in which he said he’s doing everything in his power to hunt me down and turn me over for execution?”

Thorne smirked. In a terrible, snotty voice that Cinder guessed was meant to be a Kai impersonation, he said, “‘I don’t see that her being cyborg is relevant.’”

Rolling her eyes, Cinder spun away.

“Hey, come back!” Thorne’s boots hit the ground behind her. “I have something else to show you.”

“I’m busy.”

“I promise not to make fun of your boyfriend anymore.”

“He’s not my boyfriend!”

“It’s about Michelle Benoit.”

Cinder sucked down a slow breath, and turned back around. “What?”

Thorne hesitated, as if afraid to move in case he set her off again, before inclining his head toward the cockpit’s dash behind him. “Come take a look at this.”

Heaving a sigh, Cinder trudged back toward him. She settled her elbows on the back of Thorne’s chair.

Thorne dismissed the news channel. “Did you know that Michelle Benoit has a teenage granddaughter?”

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