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  Cinder gathered up the material of her skirt in both hands, hope stirring inside of her. He understood her warnings. He understood the mistake he would be making if he agreed to marry Levana. She had succeeded.

  But then he turned toward her, and the hope shattered at seeing the helplessness etched in deep lines across his brow.

  “Thank you for warning me, Cinder. At least I won’t be going into this blindly. ”

  She shook her head. “Kai. You can’t. ”

  “I don’t have a choice. She has an army that could destroy us. An antidote that we need…. I have to take my chances. ”

  Cinder stumbled back as if his words had landed the blow that he had protected her from before. He was going to marry Queen Levana.

  Queen Levana would be empress.

  “I’m sorry, Cinder. ”

  He looked as crushed as Cinder felt, and yet while her body became heavy and immoveable, Kai somehow found the strength to turn away with head lifted and start walking toward the platform at the far end of the ballroom, where he would announce his decision to those who had gathered.

  She searched her brain for anything she could do to change his mind. But what else was there?

  He knew Levana would still start a war. He knew Levana would probably try to kill him after the wedding. He probably knew about more cruel and evil deeds she’d committed than Cinder did, and none of it made a difference. Somehow, he was still naive enough to think that more good than bad could come from the union. He would not stop it from happening.

  The only other person who had the power to stop the marriage alliance was the queen herself.

  A fist clenched over Cinder’s heart.

  Before she knew what she was doing, she was storming after Kai. She grabbed his elbow and spun him back around to face her.

  Without hesitating, Cinder wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him.

  Kai froze, his body as tense as an android’s against her, but his lips were soft and warm. Though Cinder had intended for it to be a short kiss, she found herself lingering. Hot tingles coursed through her body, surprising and scary but not unpleasant, surging like electricity through her wires. This time, they did not overwhelm her. This time, they did not threaten to burn her from the inside out.

  The desperation melted and, for the briefest of moments, the ulterior motives were gone. She found herself kissing him for no other reason than she wanted to. She wanted him to know that she wanted to.

  She didn’t realize how badly she wanted Kai to kiss her back until it became quite clear that he wouldn’t.

  Cinder pried herself away. Her hands lingered on his shoulders, still shaking from the raw energy inside her.

  Kai gaped at her, lips left hanging open, and though Cinder’s gut reaction was to back away and apologize profusely, she swallowed it down.

  “Perhaps,” she said, testing her voice before raising it loud enough that she was sure the crowd would hear her. “Perhaps the queen will not accept your proposal, once she finds out you’re already in love with me!”

  Kai’s eyebrows rose higher. “Wha—?”

  Beside him, the adviser took in a hissing breath, and a series of gasps and rustles passed through the crowd. It occurred to Cinder that the music had stopped again as the musicians stood and tried to get a look at what was happening.

  A burst of jovial, tittering laughter split through the awkwardness. The sound, though filled with the sweetness of a child’s giggle, sent a chill down Cinder’s spine.

  Pulling her hands away from Kai’s neck, she slowly turned. The crowd followed the noise as well, swiveling in unison like puppets on strings.

  And there was Queen Levana.

  She was leaning against one of the columns that flanked the doorway to the gardens, holding a goblet of gold wine in one hand and pressing the fingers of the other against her smiling red lips. Her figure was perfection. Her posture could not have been more poised had she been carved from the same stone as the pillar. She wore a royal blue dress that shimmered with what were probably diamonds yet gave the very distinct impression of stars in an endless summer sky.

  The orange light blinked beside Cinder’s vision. The queen’s glamour, the endless lie.

  In addition to the queen, a Lunar guard stood just within the doorway, stark red hair swept up from his brow like a candle flame. A man and woman dressed in the distinctive uniforms of royal thaumaturges also lingered nearby, awaiting their mistress’s order. Every one of them was strikingly beautiful and, unlike their queen, their beauty didn’t seem to be an illusion. Cinder wondered if that was a requirement for serving the Lunar throne—or if she just happened to be the only Lunar in the galaxy who hadn’t been born with brilliant eyes and flawless skin.

  “How charmingly naive,” said the queen, followed by another spill of laughter. “You must misunderstand my culture. On Luna, we consider monogamy to be nothing more than archaic sentimentality. What do I care if my husband-to-be is in love with another…”—she paused, her dark eyes sweeping over Cinder’s dress—“woman?”

  Terror wrapped around Cinder’s throat as the queen’s eyes seemed to pierce right through her. The queen knew she was Lunar. She could tell.

  “What does concern me,” continued Queen Levana, her voice a sweet lullaby that sharpened with her next words, “is that it appears my betrothed has fallen in love with an insignificant shell. Am I mistaken?”

  The thaumaturges nodded in agreement, their eyes fixed on Cinder. “She certainly has the smell of one,” said the woman.

  Cinder wrinkled her nose. According to Dr. Erland, she wasn’t actually a shell, and she wondered if the woman was making that insult up to mock her. Or maybe she was smelling the gasoline fumes from the car.

  Suddenly, her netlink recognized the woman, and Cinder forgot about the affront. She was the diplomat who had been in New Beijing for weeks, whose picture had been all over the news feeds, though she’d never paid her much attention.

  Sybil Mira, head thaumaturge to the Lunar queen.

  Mistress Sybil, the girl had said over the D-COMM chip. This was the woman who had forced her to make the spy equipment, who had put the chip in Nainsi.

  Cinder tried to relax, surprised that her control panel hadn’t short-circuited with all the adrenaline coursing through her veins. What she wouldn’t have given for a weapon, even a measly screwdriver to protect herself with—anything other than this useless foot and slight silk gloves.

  Kai abandoned Cinder, marching toward the queen. “Your Majesty, I apologize for this disruption,” he said, Cinder only catching his words as she adjusted her audio interface. “But we need not make a scene in front of my guests. ”

  The queen’s charcoal eyes flashed with the warm ballroom light. “It seems you’re perfectly capable of making a scene without my help. ” Her smile turned to a playful pout. “Oh, dear, it seems that I’m more hurt than I thought I was by your fickleness. I believed I was to be your personal guest tonight. ” Again, her eyes caressed Cinder’s face. “You can’t think her prettier than me. ” She reached out a fingernail and traced it along Kai’s jaw. “My dear, are you blushing?”

  Kai slapped Levana’s hand away, but before he could respond, she turned toward Cinder and her expression filled with disgust. “What is your name, child?”

  Cinder downed a painful gulp, barely forcing her name from her throat. “Cinder. ”

  “Cinder. ” A condescending laugh. “How fitting. Ashes. Dirt. Filth. ”

  “That’s enough—” started Kai, but Levana breezed past him, the sparkling dress swaying over her hips. She held her wine glass aloft, as if prepared to compliment the prince on such a pleasant dinner party.

  “Tell me, Cinder,” she said, “what poor sapling Earthen did you steal that name from?”

  Cinder’s hand went to her wrist and gripped the silk glove and flesh that concealed her ID
chip, barely sore from the small incision she’d made earlier. A weight settled in the pit of her stomach.

  The queen sniffed. “You shells,” she said, her voice rising for the crowd. “You think you’re so clever. So you stole a chip from a dead Earthen’s wrist. So you managed to slip into the government’s system. So you think you pass as human, that you can exist here without any repercussions. You are fools. ”

  Cinder clenched her jaw. She wanted to explain that she had no memory of being anything but Earthen—anything but cyborg. But who would she be pleading her case to? Certainly not the queen. And Kai…Kai, who was tossing glances between her and the queen, trying to fit the puzzle pieces of Levana’s words together in his head.

  The queen turned back to the emperor. “Not only harboring Lunars but also cavorting with them. I am disappointed in you, Your Majesty. ” She clucked her tongue. “The fact that this girl lives within your borders proves that you are in violation of the Interplanetary Agreement. I take the blatant disregard of such a statute quite seriously, Emperor Kaito. In fact, it could warrant a call to war. I insist that this traitor be taken into captivity and returned to Luna immediately. Jacin?”

  A second Lunar guard stepped out of the crowd, equally handsome to the others, with long blond hair and serious ice-blue eyes. Without warning, he grasped Cinder’s wrists, pinning them behind her. She gasped, her gaze flying wildly toward the gathered audience as alarmed cries rippled through it.

  “Stop!” Kai rushed toward Cinder and grabbed her elbow. He tugged her toward him and she stumbled, but the guard did not loosen his grip.

  The guard pulled Cinder back again and her arm, made slippery by the silk gloves, was torn from Kai’s grip. She found herself plastered against the Lunar. His chest was solid behind her and a faint hum buzzed in her head, like static electricity in her hair.

  Magic, she realized. Bioelectricity humming inside him. Could everyone hear it from so close, or was this another sign of her awakening gift?

  “Let her go!” Kai said, appealing to the queen. “This is absurd. She isn’t a fugitive—she isn’t even Lunar. She’s just a mechanic!”

  Levana quirked one slender eyebrow. Her glittering eyes surpassed Kai, staring into Cinder with a gaze both beautiful and cruel.

  Warmth was building in Cinder’s spine, steady and growing hot. She feared a meltdown. The pain would come, and she would collapse and be useless.

  “Well, Cinder?” said Queen Levana, swirling the pale wine. “It seems you’ve been keeping secrets from your royal superiors. Do you wish to refute my claim?”

  Kai turned to her, and she could sense his desperation, even if she couldn’t look at him. She focused only on the queen, her jaw aching with hatred.

  She was glad that no tears would betray her humiliation. Glad that no blood in her cheeks would betray her anger. Glad that her hateful cyborg body was good for one thing as she clutched onto her shredded dignity. She leveled her glare at the queen.

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