Scarlet Page 51


“Southern—” Kai glanced at Torin just as his adviser shut his eyes, wearied by the same realization. “Was it a town called Rieux?”

Huy’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”

Kai groaned and rounded to the back of his desk. “Levana’s men attacked Rieux, the only non-major city they went after. They must have been able to track her too. That’s why they were there.”

“We must alert the other Union leaders,” said Torin. “At least we know she isn’t attacking at random.”

“But how did they find her? Her sister’s ID chip was our only lead. How else could she be…” He trailed off, yanking both hands through his hair. “Of course. She knew about the chip. I’m such an idiot.”

“Your Majesty?”

He spun back toward Huy, but it was Torin that caught his eye. “Don’t you say this is paranoia. She is listening. I don’t know how she does it, but she is spying on us. This very office is probably bugged. That’s how she knew about the chip, that’s how she knew when my office was open and she could barge in here unannounced, that’s how she knew when my father died!”

Torin’s expression darkened, but for once he made no snide comment about Kai and his ridiculous theories.

“So—we’ve found her then? Cinder?”

Embarrassment flickered over Huy’s brow. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. Once the attack began, she managed to get away in the chaos. We found the ID chip on a farm outside of Rieux, next to signs of a ship’s takeoff. We’re working on rounding up anyone who might have seen her, but unfortunately … all three officers who first identified her were killed in the attack.”

Kai began to shake, his entire body burning up from the inside out. He cast furious eyes up to the ceiling, half screaming. “Well, see that, Your Majesty? If it wasn’t for your attack, we would have had her! I hope you’re pleased with yourself!”

Huffing, he crossed his arms over his chest and waited for his blood pressure to drop again. “Enough of this. Call off the search.”

“Your Majesty?” said Torin.

“I want all available military and enforcement officers focused on finding these men who are attacking us and putting an end to this. That’s our new priority.”

As if relieved by the decision, Huy gave a curt bow and clipped out of the office, leaving the door open in his wake.

“Your Majesty,” said Torin, “while I don’t disagree with this course of action, we have to consider how Levana will react. We should consider the possibility that this attack, awful as it is, is only an annoyance compared to what she is truly capable of. Perhaps we should attempt to placate her before she can do any further damage.”

“I know.” Kai faced the screen and the muttering, frightened news anchors. “I haven’t forgotten those pictures that the American Republic had.”

The memory still sent a chill down his back—hundreds of soldiers standing in formation, each one a cross between a man and a beast. Protruding fangs and enormous claws, hunched shoulders and a fine layer of fur up their broad arms.

The men who were attacking all over Earth were vicious and wild and brutal, that much was clear. But they were still only men. Kai suspected they were just the precursor to what Levana’s beast army could become.

And he’d thought he couldn’t loathe her anymore. Not after she’d purposely withheld the letumosis antidote from him. Or attacked one of his servants to prove a political point. Or forced him to betray Cinder, for no other reason than she’d escaped from Luna years ago.

But he could not have fathomed this cruelty.

Which is why he would forever hate himself for what he was about to do.

“Torin, will you give me a moment?”

“Your Majesty?” Torin’s eyes were wrinkled in the corner, as if carved into his skin. Perhaps they’d all aged unfairly this week. “You want me to leave?”

He bit the inside of his cheek and nodded.

Torin’s lips perched, but it seemed a long time before he could form any words. Kai could see knowledge on his adviser’s face—Torin knew what he was planning.

“Your Majesty, are you sure you don’t wish to discuss this? Let me offer guidance. Let me help you.”

Kai tried to smile, but it came out nothing more than a painful grimace. “I can’t stand here, safe in this palace, and not do anything. I can’t let her kill anyone else. Not with these monsters, not by withholding the letumosis antidote, not by … whatever she has planned next. We both know what she wants. We both know what will stop this.”

“Then let me stay and support you, Your Majesty.”

He shook his head. “This isn’t a good choice for the Commonwealth. It may be the only choice, but it will never be a good one.” He fidgeted with his collar. “The Commonwealth should not be able to blame anyone but me. Please, go.”

He saw Torin take in a slow, painful breath, before bowing deeply. “I will be right outside should you need me, Your Majesty.” Looking supremely unhappy about it, Torin left, shutting the door behind him.

Kai paced before the netscreen, his gut twisting with anxiety. He straightened his shirt, wrinkled from a long day, but at least he’d still been in his office when the alert had come. He believed he might never experience a full night of sleep again after this.

After what he was about to do.

In his frenzied thoughts, he couldn’t help thinking of Cinder at the ball. How happy he’d been to see her descending the stairs into the ball room. How innocently amused he’d been at her rain-drenched hair and wrinkled dress, thinking it was a fitting look for the city’s most renowned mechanic. He’d thought she must be immune to society’s whims of fashion and decorum. So comfortable in her own skin that she could come to a royal ball as the emperor’s own guest with messy hair and oil stains on her gloves and keep her head high as she did so.

That was before he knew that she’d rushed to the ball to give him a warning.

Cinder had sacrificed her own safety to plead with him not to accept the alliance. Not to marry Levana. Because after the marriage ceremony was done and she had ascended to the throne of the Eastern Commonwealth, Levana intended to kill him.

He felt sick to his stomach, knowing that Cinder was right. He knew that Levana wouldn’t hesitate to dispose of him as soon as he’d served his purpose.

But he had to stop these murders. He had to stop this war.

Cinder was not the only one capable of sacrificing herself for something greater.

Inhaling, exhaling, he faced the screen.

“Establish vidlink to Queen Levana of Luna.”

The small globe in the corner turned over only once before it brightened with the image of the Lunar queen, draped in her lacy white veil. He imagined her face old and haggard and decrepit beneath its sheath, and it didn’t help.

Kai sensed she’d been waiting for his comm. He sensed she’d been listening in on everything, and already knew precisely what his intentions were. He sensed she was smirking behind the veil.

“My dear Emperor Kaito, what a pleasant surprise. It must be quite late in New Beijing. About two hours and twenty-four minutes past midnight, is that correct?”

He swallowed his disgust as best he could and opened his hands wide to her. “Your Majesty, I beg you. Please stop this attack. Please call off your soldiers.”

The veil shifted as she listed her head to the side. “You beg me? How delightful. Do go on.”

Heat flooded his face. “Innocent people are dying—women and children, bystanders, people who haven’t done anything to you. You’ve won, and you know it. So please, end it now.”

“You say I’ve won, but what is my prize, young emperor? Have you captured the cyborg girl who started all this? She is the one you should be appealing to. If she turns herself over to me then I will call off my men. That is my offer. Do let me know when you are prepared to bargain with me. Until then, good night.”

“Wait!”

She folded her hands. “Yes?”

His pulse thrummed painfully against his temples. “I can’t give you the girl—we thought we had her, but she’s gotten away again, as I suspect you already know. But I can’t let you continue to murder innocent Earthens while we try and find another way to track her.”

“I’m afraid that’s not my problem, Your Majesty.”

“There’s something else you want, something I can offer. We both know what that is.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you speak of.”

Kai didn’t realize he was gripping his hands, practically pleading with her, until his knuckles started to ache. “If your offer of a marriage alliance still stands, I accept. Your prize for calling off your men will be the Commonwealth.” His voice broke on the final word and he clamped his jaw shut.

He waited, breathless, knowing that every second that passed meant more bloodshed on the streets of Earth.

After an agonizing silence, Levana tittered. “My dear Emperor. How could I resist such a charming proposal?”

Forty-Four

As the ship entered neutral orbit, Scarlet released the air from her burning lungs and slumped into the pilot’s seat. Moaning, all the aches and wounds catching up to her at once, she turned herself around to face the ship’s bay.

Linh Cinder was sitting on the floor with her legs splayed out before her. Wolf, unconscious, was spread-eagle on his back. A streak of blood followed him from the ramp where he’d been dragged. The other man was flopped onto his stomach.

“You’re a pilot,” said Cinder.

Linh Cinder.

Princess Selene.

“My grandma taught me. She was a pilot in—” The words evaporated, her heart aching. “But your ship does pretty well on its own.”

“So glad to be of service,” said the disembodied voice. “I’m Iko. Is anyone hurt?”

“Everyone’s hurt,” said Cinder, groaning.

Scarlet hobbled over to Wolf’s body and sank down beside him.

“Are they going to be all right?”

“I hope so,” said Cinder, “but I’ve never stuck around long enough to see the aftereffects of these darts.”

Scarlet unzipped her shredded hoodie and tied it over the open wound on Wolf’s arm. “You said you had bandages?”

She could see Cinder’s dread at being forced into action again, but soon Cinder pushed herself up and disappeared through a door on the far side of the cargo bay.

A low moan drew her attention to the stranger. He rolled onto his back, cringing.

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