Scarlet Page 35


“Wolf.”

He did not turn to her. Did not flinch or sigh or respond. He was a statue. He was a pawn.

The thaumaturge made a sad sound. “No matter.” Then, after a silence in which Scarlet felt the stairs crumbling beneath her, he said, “Omega Kesley was to inform you that our objectives have changed. Her Majesty is no longer concerned with identifying Selene.”

Wolf’s fingers twitched.

“Nevertheless, it has become clear to me that Madame Benoit has not yet given up all her secrets. Perhaps we can find another use for the mademoiselle.”

Wolf’s chin lifted, just slightly. “If she’d had any additional information, she would have told me. I am sure her trust was complete.”

Scarlet half slumped onto the marble rail, grasping the base of the headless statue to keep from sinking to the ground.

“I’m sure you’ve done very well,” said the thaumaturge. “Don’t be alarmed. I will see that your efforts are given proper recognition.”

“Who’s Beta Wynn?” said Scarlet. “What was his task in Toulouse?” Her voice was weak, filled with disbelief as she teetered on the stairs. She struggled to believe this was all a nightmare. Soon she would wake up on the train, in Wolf’s arms, and this would all happen very differently. But she did not wake up, and the thaumaturge was eyeing her with dark, sympathetic eyes.

“Beta Wynn’s task was to kill your father in a manner that would not raise suspicions,” he said, with no more reservation than if he were giving her the time of day. “I did offer your father a chance. If he had found something useful on Madame Benoit’s property, I think I truly would have considered letting him live, perhaps kept him as a slave. But he failed in the time we gave him, so I was forced to have him silenced. He knew too much about us, you see, and he had served his usefulness. I’m afraid we have little tolerance for useless Earthens.”

He grinned, the look twisting Scarlet’s gut—not because it was a cruel smile, but because it was a kind one. “You appear to be ill, Mademoiselle. Perhaps you will need some rest before you’re fit to see your grandmother. Rafe, Troya, won’t you see the lady to her prepared room?”

They emerged from the shadows, two men who were nothing but blurs in Scarlet’s consciousness. They lifted her by her elbows, not bothering with ties or cuffs.

Her mind flashed and before she knew it, she was reaching for her waistband.

Wolf’s hand was there first, one arm brushing against her side. Her breath caught and she was frozen, staring wide-eyed into his face. His emerald eyes hollow as his fingers lifted the back of her sweatshirt and pulled out the gun.

He was going to kill them.

He was going to protect her.

Flipping the gun around so that he gripped the barrel, Wolf held it out to one of her captors.

When his severity melted, hinting at something like regret, Scarlet set her jaw. “A Loyal Soldier to the Order of the Pack?”

She saw the pain in his gulp. “No. Lunar Special Operative.”

The room spun.

Lunar. He was Lunar. He worked for them.

He worked for the queen.

Scarlet turned her head away and forced her legs to be strong, refusing to be carried away like a child as they guided her to another set of stairs, stairs that led down to the opera house’s sublevels. She refused to give them the pleasure of a struggle.

The thaumaturge’s voice followed behind her, all benevolence. “You have my leave to rest until sunset, Alpha Kesley. I can see that your trials have wearied you.”

Twenty-Eight

Kai paced the length of his office from door to desk, desk to door. Two days had passed since Levana had issued her ultimatum: Find the cyborg girl, or she would attack.

Time was running out and every hour filled Kai with growing dread. He hadn’t slept for over forty-eight hours. With the exception of five press conferences in which he still had nothing new to report, he hadn’t left his office in that time either.

Still, no sign of Linh Cinder.

No sign of Dr. Erland.

Like they’d simply vanished.

“Gah!” He pulled his hands back through his hair until his scalp stung. “Lunars.”

The speaker on his desk hummed. “Royal android Nainsi has requested entrance.”

Kai released his hair with a deflated groan. Nainsi had been good to him the past few days, bringing vast amounts of tea and saying nothing when she took the still-full-but-now-cold cups back out hours later. She encouraged him to eat and reminded him when a press conference was coming up or that he’d neglected to return the Australian Governor-General’s comms. If it weren’t for the title, “Royal android Nainsi,” he almost would have expected a human to walk through the doors every time she was summoned.

He wondered if his father had felt the same way toward his android assistants. Or maybe Kai was just delirious.

Shooing away the unhelpful thoughts, he rounded to the back of his desk. “Yes, enter.”

The door opened and Nainsi’s treads rolled across the carpet. She was not carrying the tray of snacks he’d expected.

“Your Majesty, a woman by the name of Linh Adri and her daughter, Linh Pearl, have requested an immediate appointment. Linh-jiĕ says she has important information on the Lunar fugitive. I encouraged her to contact Chairman Huy but she insisted she speak with you directly. I scanned her ID and she appears to be who she claims. I wasn’t sure if I should turn her away.”

“That’s fine. Thank you, Nainsi. Send her in.”

Nainsi rolled back out. Kai glanced down at his shirt and buttoned the collar, but determined there was nothing he could do about the wrinkles.

A moment later, two strangers entered his office. The first was a middle-aged woman with hair just beginning to gray, and the other was a teenage girl with thick hair that hung straight down her back. Kai frowned as the two bowed deeply before him, and it wasn’t until the girl attempted a shy grin that he felt like an idiot for his exhaustion-muddled brain not picking up on their names when Nainsi had first announced them. Linh Adri. Linh Pearl.

They were not entirely strangers. He’d seen the girl twice before, once at Cinder’s booth at the market, then again at the ball. This was Cinder’s stepsister.

And the woman.

The woman.

His blood curdled with the memory of her, made worse by the almost bashful, girlish look she was giving him now. He had seen her at the ball too. When she’d been about to strike Cinder for daring to attend in the first place.

“Your Majesty,” said Nainsi, returning behind them. “May I introduce Linh Adri-jiĕ and her daughter, Linh Pearl-mèi.”

They each bowed again.

“Yes, hello,” said Kai. “You are—”

“I was the legal guardian of Linh Cinder,” said Adri. “Please forgive the intrusion, Your Imperial Majesty. I understand you are quite busy.”

He cleared his throat, wishing now he’d left the collar alone. It was already strangling him. “Please, sit down,” he said, gesturing to the sitting area around the holographic fire. “That will be all, Nainsi. Thank you.”

Kai moved to claim the chair, determined not to sit beside either of the women. They in turn perched straight-backed on the sofa so as not to crumple the bows on their kimono-style dresses, and folded their hands demurely atop their laps. The resemblance between the two was remarkable—and of course, nothing at all like Cinder, whose skin had been always sun darkened, whose hair was straighter and finer, and who had carried an understated confidence with her even when she was shy and stammering.

Kai caught himself before he could smile at the memory of Cinder, shy and stammering.

“I’m afraid we were not formally introduced when our paths crossed at the ball last week, Linh-jiĕ.”

“Oh, Your Imperial Majesty is too kind. Adri, please. Truth be told, I am attempting to distance myself from the ward who now carries my husband’s name. And you will, I am sure, remember my lovely daughter.”

He turned his attention to Pearl. “Yes, we met at the market. You had some packages you wished Cinder to store for you.”

He was glad the girl flushed, and he hoped she was remembering how rude she’d been that day.

“We also met at the ball, Your Majesty,” said Pearl. “We discussed my poor sister—my real sister—who recently fell ill and passed away from the same disease that claimed your illustrious father.”

“Yes, I recall. My condolences on your loss.”

He waited for the expected return of sympathy, but it did not come. The mother was too busy examining the office’s lacquered woodwork; the daughter was too busy examining Kai with faux timidity.

He tapped his fingers against the chair’s arm. “My android tells me you have information to impart? Regarding Linh Cinder?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Adri drew her attention back to him. “Thank you for seeing us on such short notice, but I do have some information that I think could be helpful in your search for my ward. As a concerned citizen, I of course want to do anything I can to assist with the search, and ensure she is apprehended before she can do further damage.”

“Of course you do. But forgive me, Linh-jiĕ, I was under the impression you’d already been contacted and questioned by the authorities as a part of the investigation?”

“Oh yes, we both spoke at length with some very nice men,” said Adri, “but since then, something new has come to my attention.”

Kai settled his elbows on his knees.

“Your Majesty, I trust you are familiar with the recorded footage from the quarantines, about two weeks ago, in which a girl attacked two med-droids?”

He nodded. “Of course. The girl who spoke to Chang Sunto, the boy who recovered from the plague.”

“Well, at the time I was very distracted, having just lost my youngest daughter, but since then I’ve taken a closer look at the video and I’m convinced that the girl is Cinder.”

Kai’s brow drew together, already replaying the video in his mind. The girl was never clearly seen—the recording was grainy and shaky and only showed glimpses of her back. “Really,” he mused, trying not to sound speculative. “What makes you think that?”

“It’s difficult to tell on the video itself, and I would not know for sure, except I was having Cinder’s ID tracked that day, as she’d been behaving suspiciously for some time. I know she was near the quarantines that day. Before, I’d thought she was merely attempting to run away from her household duties, but I now see that the little aberration had a much more sinister motive in mind.”

His eyebrows rose. “Aberration?”

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