By Laura Schiller
Based on: Lunar Chronicles
Copyright: Marissa Meyer
"Cinder, I found it!" chirped Iko, dropping her human friend's new foot onto the worktable right next to Prince Kai's broken android. Cinder stole an uncomfortable look at the prince; if she weren't a cyborg, she would have been blushing crimson.
Watching the curiosity with which he eyed the metal appendage, she barely paid attention to Iko's proud list of specifications and how she had haggled with the dealer. The only thing that registered in her brain was: " … so it should fit you perfectly, don't you think?"
That hit her like an electric shock. Her neural pathways raced, thinking of ways to distract the prince from what he'd just heard.
"Fit you?" Kai repeated.
"Of course," said Iko. "Who else? We've been saving up for years, your Highness. Her old foot was so small she could barely stand upright – "
"Iko!" Cinder hissed through gritted teeth. "His Highness does not want to hear this."
"No, no. It's all right, Linh-mei. I take it you're a cyborg?" The tone of his voice – touched with nervous laughter, kindness, and not a hint of judgment or disgust – made her look up.
By some miracle, her answer came out neither weak nor impolite. "Yes, Your Highness."
Prince Kai smiled, his eyes lit up like antique coins, a mischievous boy who had just discovered a secret.
"No wonder you're the best mechanic in the city," he said, patting his android on the head. "I trust I'll leave my Nainsi in good hands."
Her heart turned over. Catching sight of Iko in her peripheral vision, who had only just realized their handsome customer's identity and was rapturously clasping her grippers, made her shake her head, amused but sympathetic. She had more in common with her giddy assistant than she'd ever admit.
"Iko, allow me to introduce His Imperial Highness, Prince Kaito. Please excuse me for not bowing … um … I'm in the middle of upgrading my foot, as you can see."
"Of course. Iko-mei, it's a pleasure to meet you." He dipped his head lightly in the little android's direction, and she giggled.
"Prince Kai! You are even more handsome in person!"
More than that, though Cinder, with a private glow of joy. More than I ever expected. I'll never make fun of Peony's crush again.
"Since it's probably too much to hope for that New Beijing's most renowned mechanic is having trouble with her port, I figured there must be something wrong with mine."
Cinder's heart twisted. He knew perfectly well there was nothing mechanical about this problem. Yet here he was, sweet and funny and self-deprecating, making it so hard for her to keep turning him down. Here he was, hurt and confused, wondering if their break in communication was his fault, even though that was the furthest thing from the truth.
He had brought her a gift wrapped in gold ribbon, obviously by his own hands, considering how crooked it was. He had asked her to the ball – three times.
Would he still want her there if he knew exactly what she was?
Pull of the gloves and show him, her conscience insisted.
It was a terrifying solution, but also the simplest. Either he would recoil from her, never contact her again, and make the business of repairing her broken heart so much easier … or …
She gritted her teeth and pulled off her right glove, baring her tarnished steel hand for him to see.
He took two steps back, eyes wide, mouth falling open. She swallowed, fighting back the familiar headache of trying to cry without tear ducts.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, hiding her hand under the table. "That's why I didn't stand up, you see? I have – I had a prosthetic foot too, but my guardian took it."
His shoulders shook with silent, faintly hysterical laughter. "You're sorry for not standing up? Cinder, I – "
"I'm also Lunar," she blurted out, before she lost her nerve. "Sorry for interrupting, Your Highness. But it's true. if you don't believe me, ask Dr. Erland. He saw it in my blood samples."
Kai's face darkened. "You – you mean you're – how is that even possible?"
"It's a long story."
"I thought Lunars were morally opposed to … wait a minute. How do I know you're not manipulating me?"
She squirmed. His suspicious frown was almost as bad as she'd imagined. At least he wasn't coming his guards to arrest her – yet.
"You met Queen Levana," she pointed out. "Can you tell when she's manipulating you?"
He shuddered with contempt, hunching further into the gray hoodie that served as his market camouflage. "Yes, actually. Like she's prying my brain with tongs." His expression cleared, ever so slightly, accusation fading to confusion. "You never do that."
She explained as best she could: about Linh Garan's failsafe device, her loss of memory, her adoption, how she identified as Earthen no matter what her DNA was. As she listened, to her immense relief, Kai's sharp eyes grew softer and softer. Slowly, he retraced his steps until he was leaning into the booth again, then placed his gift on the table. Right in front of her, as if he still wanted her to have it.
"I believe you," he said.
The cynical, world-weary part of her was just a little alarmed at his easy trust. She was trusworthy, of course, but in the world of politics, an attitude like that would get him into trouble. The rest of her was just breathlessly, aching relieved.
Relieved and grateful. And other things that went without saying, which caused her retina scanner to warn her once again about her high concentration of endorphins.
"Good stars," she choked out. "I'm so glad."
"Now … aren't you going to open that?" he prompted, smiling softly.
"If you insist, Your Highness."
Inside was the finest pair of gloves she could have imagined, pure silk and shining silver-white. They were tall enough to cover her elbows, and a row of seed pearls along the hems added the simplest touch of elegance. They were gloves fit for a princess.
He slid one of them onto her metallic right hand as gently, as naturally, as if it were made of flesh and blood. Although she had no sense of touch in that hand, it was still the best feeling of her life.
Kai could not believe it. Absolutely not.
There was Linh Cinder, his Cinder, lying in a battered heap at the bottom of the palace staircase. The gloves he'd given her charred and melted, her dress thrown up, revealing a cybernetic hand and leg, torn wires coming out of her ankle. Her foot, of all the disturbing things, lying centimetres away. An eye-piercing, breathtaking Lunar glamour on the face he'd thought he loved.
Oh, Cinder …
She had lied to him. Just like Levana, she had maintained a false façade to deceive him. And here he'd seriously believed that, aside from Konn, she was the only one he could trust. She had possibly ruined all chances of a peace treaty with Luna for the foreseeable future. He should be angry. He was angry. So why were her heartbroken eyes, formerly gray and now a breathtaking, swimming-pool blue, all he could see? Was she manipulating him?
But her body shimmered, and she was Cinder again, grease and all, and he was still trapped in the silent pleading of her eyes.
She had come here to save him. She had risked public humiliation, injury, even death, just to warn him about Levana's plot to kill him. She was no spy, no manipulator. She honestly cared.
She cared for him, even though he was about to decide her death.
He knelt down and handed over her foot, meeting his eyes so she could read, if not quite forgiveness, a lack of anger.
"You should have told me," he whispered.
She reattached her foot, clumsily, her damp hair sticking to her face. The shaky breath she let out might have been a tearless, cyborg sob.
"I'm so sorry, Kai … "
"No. No, my love. I'm the one who should be sorry."
It was all he got to say before the Queen, her entourage and the crowd caught up with them.
As Levana and Sybil began to sneer about the 'disgusting creature' below them, Kai had a narrow escape from ordering his own guards to shoot them where they stood. But as Konn had so often told him, he was the Emperor, not a lovesick teenager. He had sworn an oath only hours ago to always do right for his people. He could not break it now – not even for Cinder.
He got to his feet and faced Levana, sheltering Cinder (if only symbolically) behind him.
"She will be taken into custody. She will be imprisoned until we can decide what to do with her. But if you kill her tonight, I swear I will never agree to any alliance with Luna."
Forgive me, Cinder.