Winter Page 3

“I suggest you stop playing with words. My patience with you is already thin.”

Winter’s heart shriveled. Not Jacin. She could not sit here and watch them kill Jacin.

She would bargain for him, she decided, though the plan came with a flaw. What did she have to bargain with? Nothing but her own life, and Levana would not accept that.

She could throw a fit. Go into hysterics. It would hardly be a stretch from the truth at this point, and it might distract them for a time, but it would only delay the inevitable.

She had felt helpless many times in her life, but never like this.

Only one thing to be done, then. She would throw her own body in front of the blade.

Oh, Jacin would hate that.

Ignorant of Winter’s newest resolve, Jacin respectfully inclined his head. “During my time with Linh Cinder, I uncovered information about a device that can nullify the effects of the Lunar gift when connected to a person’s nervous system.”

This caused a curious squirm through the crowd. A stiffening of spines, a tilting forward of shoulders.

“Impossible,” said Levana.

“Linh Cinder had evidence of its potential. As it was described to me, on an Earthen, the device will keep their bioelectricity from being tampered with. But on a Lunar, it will prevent them from using their gift at all. Linh Cinder herself had the device installed when she arrived at the Commonwealth ball. Only when it was destroyed was she able to use her gift—as was evidenced with your own eyes, My Queen.”

His words carried an air of impertinence. Levana’s knuckles turned white.

“How many of these hypothetical devices exist?”

“To my knowledge, only the broken device installed in the cyborg herself. But I suspect there still exist patents or blueprints. The inventor was Linh Cinder’s adoptive father.”

The queen’s grip began to relax. “This is intriguing information, Sir Clay. But it speaks more of a desperate attempt to save yourself than true innocence.”

Jacin shrugged, nonchalant. “If my loyalty cannot be seen in how I conducted myself with the enemy, obtaining this information and alerting Thaumaturge Mira to the plot to kidnap Emperor Kaito, I don’t know what other evidence I can provide for you, My Queen.”

“Yes, yes, the anonymous tip Sybil received, alerting her to Linh Cinder’s plans.” Levana sighed. “I find it very convenient that this comm you claim to have sent was seen by no one other than Sybil herself, who is now dead.”

For the first time, Jacin looked off balance beneath the queen’s glare. He still had not looked at Winter.

The queen turned to Jerrico Solis, her captain of the guard. Like so many of the queen’s guards, Jerrico made Winter uncomfortable, and she often had visions of his orange-red hair going up in flames and the rest of him burning down to a smoldering coal. “You were with Sybil when she ambushed the enemy’s ship that day, yet you said before that Sybil had mentioned no such comm. Have you anything to add?”

Jerrico took a step forward. He had returned from their Earthen excursion with a fair share of bruises, but they had begun to fade. “My Queen, Thaumaturge Mira seemed confident we would find Linh Cinder on that rooftop, but she did not mention receiving any outside information—anonymous or otherwise. When the ship landed, it was Thaumaturge Mira who ordered Jacin Clay to be taken into custody.”

Jacin’s eyebrow twitched. “Perhaps she was still upset that I shot her.” He paused, before adding, “While under Linh Cinder’s control, in my defense.”

“You seem to have plenty to say in your defense,” said Levana.

Jacin didn’t respond. It was the calmest Winter had ever seen a prisoner—he, who knew better than anyone the horrible things that happened on this floor, in the very spot where he stood. Levana should have been infuriated by his audacity, but she seemed merely thoughtful.

“Permission to speak, My Queen?”

The crowd rustled and it took a moment for Winter to discern who had spoken. It was a guard. One of the silent ornamentations of the palace. Though she recognized him, she didn’t know his name.

Levana glowered at him, and Winter imagined her calculating whether to grant the permission or punish the man for speaking out of turn. Finally, she said, “What is your name, and why do you dare interrupt these proceedings?”

The guard stepped forward, staring at the wall, always at the wall. “My name is Liam Kinney, My Queen. I assisted with the retrieval of Thaumaturge Mira’s body.”

A questioning eyebrow to Jerrico; a confirming nod received. “Go on,” said Levana.

“Mistress Mira was in possession of a portscreen when we found her, and though it was broken in the fall, it was still submitted as evidence in the case of her murder. I wonder if anyone has attempted to retrieve the alleged comm.”

Levana turned her attention back to Aimery, whose face was a mask that Winter recognized. The more pleasant his expression, the more annoyed he was. “In fact, we did manage to access her recent communications. I was about to bring forward the evidence.”

It was a lie, which gave Winter hope. Aimery was a great liar, especially when it was in his best interests. And he hated Jacin. He would not want to give up anything that could help him.

Hope. Frail, flimsy, pathetic hope.

Aimery gestured toward the door and a servant scurried forward, carrying a shattered portscreen and a holograph node on a tray. “This is the portscreen Sir Kinney mentioned. Our investigation has confirmed that there was, indeed, an anonymous comm sent to Sybil Mira that day.”

The servant turned on the node and a holograph shimmered into the center of the room—behind it, Jacin faded away like a phantom.

The holograph displayed a basic text comm.

Linh Cinder plotting to kidnap EC emperor.

Escape planned from north tower rooftop, sunset.

So much importance pressed into so few words. It was just like Jacin.

Levana read the words with narrowed eyes. “Thank you, Sir Kinney, for bringing this to our attention.” It was telling that she did not thank Aimery.

The guard, Kinney, bowed and stepped back into position. His gaze flickered once to Winter, unreadable, before attaching again to the far wall.

Levana continued, “I suppose you will tell me, Sir Clay, that this was the comm you sent.”

“It was.”

“Have you anything else to add before I make my verdict?”

“Nothing, My Queen.”

Levana leaned back in her throne and the room hushed, everyone awaiting the queen’s decision.

“I trust my stepdaughter would like me to spare you.”

Jacin didn’t react, but Winter winced at the haughtiness in her stepmother’s tone. “Please, Stepmother,” she whispered, the words clumping on her dry tongue. “It’s Jacin. He is not our enemy.”

“Not yours, perhaps,” Levana said. “But you are a naïve, stupid girl.”

“That is not so. I am a factory for blood and platelets, and all my machinery is freezing over…”

The court burst into laughter, and Winter recoiled. Even Levana’s lips twitched, though there was annoyance beneath her amusement.

“I have made my decision,” she said, her booming voice demanding silence. “I have decided to let the prisoner live.”

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