Scarlet Page 55


“Well, what if…” Scarlet listed her head. “You said they control when your animal instincts will overpower your own thoughts, right? But fighting and hunting aren’t the only instincts wolves have. Aren’t wolves … monogamous, for starters?” Her cheeks started to burn and she had to look away, scratching her fork into a set of initials. “And isn’t the alpha male the one who’s responsible for protecting everyone? Not only the pack, but his mate too?” Dropping the fork, she threw her hands into the air. “I’m not saying I think you and I are—after just—I know we just met and that’s … but it’s not out of the question, is it? That your instincts to protect me could be as strong as your instincts to kill?”

She held her breath and dared to look up. Wolf was gaping at her openly and for a second he seemed almost mortified—but then he grinned, the look warm and bewildered. Scarlet caught a glimpse of his sharp canines, her stomach flipping at the sight of them.

“You could be right,” he said. “That makes some sense. On Luna, we’re kept so far removed from the rest of the citizenry that there’s never any chance of falling in…”

Scarlet was glad when he started to blush too.

He scratched his ear. “Maybe that’s it. Maybe Jael’s control worked against him, because my instincts were telling me to protect you.”

Scarlet attempted a nonchalant smile. “There you have it. As long as there’s an alpha female nearby, you should be just fine. That shouldn’t be hard to find, right?”

Wolf’s expression iced over and he looked away. His tone became uneasy again. “I know you must want nothing to do with me. I don’t blame you.” Wolf scrunched up his shoulders, and met her with an expression full of regret. “But you’re the only one, Scarlet. You’ll always be the only one.”

Her pulse fluttered. “Wolf—”

“I know. We met less than a week ago and in that time I’ve done nothing but lie and cheat and betray you. I know. But if you give me a chance … all I want is to protect you. To be near you. For as long as I’m able.”

Biting her lip, she reached forward, pulling his fingers away from the can. She found that the label had been shredded beneath his mindless fidgeting. “Wolf, are you asking me to be … your alpha female?”

He hesitated.

Scarlet couldn’t help it—she burst into laughter. “Oh—I’m sorry. That was mean. I know I shouldn’t tease you about this.” Still grinning, she made to retract her hand, but he was suddenly gripping it, refusing to relinquish the touch. “You just look so scared, like I’m going to disappear at any minute. We’re stuck on a spaceship, Wolf. I’m not going anywhere.”

His lips twitched, his nervousness beginning to ease away, though his hand stayed tense over hers.

“Alpha female,” he murmured. “I sort of like that.”

Beaming, Scarlet gave a mild shrug. “It could grow on me.”

Forty-Seven

Cinder lay on her back, staring up into the guts of the Rampion’s engine. Only her cyborg hand moved, flipping the small, shimmering D-COMM chip up and over her fingers, one by one. She was mesmerized by how the chip’s odd material caught the lights from the motherboard on the wall and reflected them, sending rubies and emeralds twinkling across all the wires and fans and humming power converters. Mesmerized, but without really seeing them. Her thoughts were stretched between thousands of miles.

Earth. The Eastern Commonwealth. New Beijing and Kai, who was now engaged to Queen Levana. Her stomach turned, and she kept recalling the venom in his voice when he’d talked to her about the queen. She tried to imagine what he was going through now. Did he have any other choice? She couldn’t be sure. She wanted to say yes, that anything—war, pestilence, slavery—would be better than choosing Levana as empress, but she didn’t know if it was true. She didn’t know if he’d ever had a choice, or if this decision had always been inevitable.

Her thoughts turned away from Earth, toward Luna. A country she didn’t remember, a home she’d never known. Queen Levana was no doubt celebrating her victory at this moment, giving no thought to all those lives she’d just taken.

Queen Levana. Cinder’s aunt.

The D-COMM chip click, click, clicked against her fingers.

“Cinder? Are you in here?”

Her fingers stilled with the chip balanced on her pinkie knuckle. “Yeah, Iko. I’m here.”

“Maybe next time we’re on Earth you can pick up some sensors? I feel like I’m eavesdropping having the audio on all the time. It’s becoming awkward.”

“Awkward?”

The running lights brightened, reminding Cinder of a blush. She wondered if it was intentional.

“Scarlet and Wolf are saying gushy things in the galley,” Iko said. “Normally I like gushy things, but it’s different when it’s real people. I prefer the net dramas.”

Unexpectedly, Cinder found herself smiling. “I’ll do my best to get some sensors next time we’re on Earth.” She resumed her fiddling. The chip flipped, clacked, flipped, rolled. “How are you feeling, Iko? Are you getting used to being the auto-control system? Is it getting easier?”

Something hummed on the computer panel. “The shock has worn off, but it still feels like I’m pretending to be much more powerful than I really am, and I’m going to let everyone down. It’s a lot of responsibility.” The yellow running lights brightened by the floor. “But I did well in Paris, didn’t I?”

“You were brilliant.”

The temperature of the engine room spiked. “I was kind of brilliant.”

“We’d all be dead if it weren’t for you.”

Iko let off an unusually pitchy noise, one that Cinder thought might be a nervous giggle. “I guess it’s not so bad being the ship. You know, so long as you need me.”

Cinder smirked. “That’s very … big of you.”

One of the engine fans slowed. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

Laughing, Cinder practiced spinning the chip like a top on the tip of her finger. It took a few tries before she got the hang of it and could watch it sparkle and dance without much effort.

“How about you?” Iko said after a moment. “How does it feel to be a real princess?”

Cinder flinched. The chip tumbled off her finger and she barely caught it. “So far it’s not nearly as fun as one would imagine. What were you saying about having too much power and responsibility and feeling like you’re going to let everyone down? Because that all sounded pretty familiar.”

“I thought that might be the case.”

“Are you mad that I didn’t tell you?”

A long silence followed, tying Cinder’s stomach in knots.

“No,” Iko said, finally, and Cinder wished that her lie detector worked on androids—or spaceships. “But I’m worried. Before, I figured that Queen Levana would tire of searching for us, and eventually we’d be able to go home, or at least go back to Earth and live normal lives again. But that’s never going to happen, is it?”

Cinder gulped and started flipping the chip over her fingers again. “I don’t think so.”

Click, click, click.

She exhaled a long breath and flipped the chip one last time, clutching it in her fist.

“Levana’s going to murder Kai after they’re married. She’ll be coronated as empress, and then she’ll kill him, and she’ll have the entire Commonwealth under her control. After that, it will only be a matter of time before she invades the rest of the Union.” She swept her hair off her forehead. “At least, that’s what this girl told me. The queen’s programmer.”

She loosened her grip, suddenly afraid that her metal fist would crush the chip while she was distracted.

“But I like Kai.”

“You and every other girl in the galaxy.”

“Every girl? Are you finally including yourself in that count?”

Cinder bit her lip. She knew Iko was thinking back to all the times Cinder had teased Peony for her hopeless crush on the prince, pretending to be immune to such silliness herself. But that all seemed a long, long time ago. She could hardly remember the girl she was back then.

“I just know that I can’t let him marry Levana,” she said, her voice snagging. “I can’t let him go through with it.”

She held up the chip between her thumb and forefinger. Her new hand still felt too new. So clean, so untarnished. She squinted and let the electric current flow from her spine, warming up her wrist until the hand looked human. Skin and bone.

“I concur,” said Iko. “So what are you going to do?”

Cinder gulped and let the glamour change. The flesh of her hand became metal again—not flawless titanium, but plain steel, battered with age, grime caked into the crevices, a little too small, a little too stiff. The cyborg hand she’d replaced. The one she’d always hidden—usually with heavy, work-stained cotton. Once with silk.

The girl she’d been back then. The one she’d always tried to keep hidden.

An orange light blinked at the corner of her eye. She ignored it.

“I’m going to let Wolf train me. I’m going to become stronger than she is.” She flipped the chip again. It was awkward at first, making sure the fingers in the illusion moved just how they were supposed to, that the joints flexed and moved at the right time. “I’m going to find Dr. Erland, and he’s going to teach me how to win against her. Then I’m going to track down the girl who programmed this chip, and she’s going to tell me everything she knows about Luna and its security and all the queen’s secrets.”

Click. Click. Click.

“And then I’m going to stop hiding.”

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