Main Winter: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 4]

Winter: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 4]

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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

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For Jesse, who turns every day into a happily ever after.



The young princess was as beautiful as daylight. She was more beautiful even than the queen herself.


Winter’s toes had become ice cubes. They were as cold as space. As cold as the dark side of Luna. As cold as—

“… security feeds captured him entering the AR-Central med-clinic’s sublevels at 23:00 U.T.C.…”

Thaumaturge Aimery Park spoke with a serene, measured cadence, like a ballad. It was easy to lose track of what he was saying, easy to let all the words blur and conjoin. Winter curled her toes inside her thin-soled shoes, afraid that if they got any colder before this trial was over, they would snap off.

“… was attempting to interfere with one of the shells currently stored…”

Snap off. One by one.

“… records indicate the shell child is the accused’s son, taken on 29 July of last year. He is now fifteen months old.”

Winter hid her hands in the folds of her gown. They were shaking again. She was always shaking these days. She squeezed her fingers to hold them still and pressed the bottoms of her feet into the hard floor. She struggled to bring the throne room into focus before it dissolved.

The throne room, in the central tower of the palace, had the most striking view in the city. From her seat, Winter could see Artemis; ia Lake mirroring the white palace and the city reaching for the edge of the enormous clear dome that sheltered them from the outside elements—or lack thereof. The throne room itself extended past the walls of the tower, so that when one passed beyond the edge of the mosaic floor, they found themselves on a ledge of clear glass. Like standing on air, about to plummet into the depths of the crater lake.

To Winter’s left she could make out the edges of her stepmother’s fingernails as they dug into the arm of her throne, an imposing seat carved from white stone. Normally her stepmother was calm during these proceedings and would listen to the trials without a hint of emotion. Winter was used to seeing Levana’s fingertips stroking the polished stone, not throttling it. But tension was high since Levana and her entourage had returned from Earth, and her stepmother had flown into even more rages than usual these past months.

Ever since that runaway Lunar—that cyborg—had escaped from her Earthen prison.

Ever since war had begun between Earth and Luna.

Ever since the queen’s betrothed had been kidnapped, and Levana’s chance to be crowned empress had been stolen from her.

The blue planet hung above the horizon, cut clean in half. Luna was a little more than halfway through the long night, and the city of Artemisia glowed with pale blue lampposts and glowing crystal windows, their reflections dancing across the lake’s surface.

Winter missed the sun and its warmth. Their artificial days were never the same.

“How did he know about the shells?” Queen Levana asked. “Why did he not believe his son to have been killed at birth?”

Seated around the room in four tiered rows were the families. The queen’s court. The nobles of Luna, granted favor with Her Majesty for their generations of loyalty, their extraordinary talents with the Lunar gift, or pure luck at having been born a citizen of the great city of Artemisia.

Then there was the man on his knees beside Thaumaturge Park. He had not been born lucky.

His hands were together, pleading. Winter wished she could tell him it wouldn’t matter. All his begging would be for nothing. She thought there would be comfort in knowing there was nothing you could do to avoid death. Those who came before the queen having already accepted their fate seemed to have an easier time of it.

She looked down at her own hands, still clawed around her gauzy white skirt. Her fingers had been bitten with frost. It was sort of pretty. Glistening and shimmering and cold, so very cold …

“Your queen asked you a question,” said Aimery.

Winter flinched, as if he’d been yelling at her.

Focus. She must try to focus.

She lifted her head and inhaled.

Aimery was wearing white now, having replaced Sybil Mira as the queen’s head thaumaturge. The gold embroidery on his coat shimmered as he circled the captive.

“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” the man said. “My family and I have served you for generations. I’m a janitor at that med-clinic and I’d heard rumors … It was none of my business, so I never cared, I never listened. But … when my son was born a shell…” He whimpered. “He is my son.”

“Did you not think,” said Levana, her voice loud and crisp, “there might be a reason your queen has chosen to keep your son and all the other ungifted Lunars separate from our citizens? That we may have a purpose that serves the good of all our people by containing them as we have?”

The man gulped hard enough that Winter could see his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I know, My Queen. I know you use their blood for … experimentation. But … but you have so many, and he’s only a baby, and…”

“Not only is his blood valuable to the success of our political alliances, the likes of which I cannot expect a janitor from the outer sectors to understand, but he is also a shell, and his kind have proven themselves to be dangerous and untrustworthy, as you will recall from the assassinations of King Marrok and Queen Jannali eighteen years ago. Yet you would subject our society to this threat?”

The man’s eyes were wild with fear. “Threat, My Queen? He is a baby.” He paused. He did not look outright rebellious, but his lack of remorse would be sending Levana into a fury soon enough. “And the others in those tanks … so many of them, children. Innocent children.”

The room chilled.

He knew too much. The shell infanticide had been in place since the rule of Levana’s sister, Queen Channary, after a shell sneaked into the palace and killed their parents. No one would be pleased to know their babies had not been killed at all, but instead locked away and used as tiny blood-platelet-manufacturing plants.

Winter blinked, imagining her own body as a blood-platelet-manufacturing plant.

Her gaze dropped again. The ice had extended to her wrists now.

That would not be beneficial for the platelet conveyor belts.

“Does the accused have a family?” asked the queen.

Aimery bobbed his head. “Records indicate a daughter, age nine. He also has two sisters and a nephew. All live in Sector GM-12.”

“No wife?”

“Dead five months past of regolith poisoning.”

The prisoner watched the queen, desperation pooling around his knees.

The court began to stir, their vibrant clothes fluttering. This trial had gone on too long. They were growing bored.

Levana leaned against the back of her throne. “You are hereby found guilty of trespassing and attempted theft against the crown. This crime is punishable by immediate death.”

The man shuddered, but his face remained pleading. It always took them a few seconds to comprehend such a sentence.

“Your family members will each receive a dozen public lashings as a reminder to your sector that I do not tolerate my decisions being questioned.”

The man’s jaw slackened.

“Your daughter will be given as a gift to one of the court’s families. There, she will be taught the obedience and humility one can assume she has not learned beneath your tutelage.”

“No, please. Let her live with her aunts. She hasn’t done anything!”

“Aimery, you may proceed.”


“Your queen has spoken,” said Thaumaturge Aimery. “Her word is final.”

Aimery drew an obsidian knife from one of his bell-shaped sleeves and held the handle toward the prisoner, whose eyes had gone wide with hysteria.

The room grew colder. Winter’s breath crystallized in the air. She squeezed her arms tight against her body.

The prisoner took the knife handle. His hand was steady. The rest of him was trembling.

“Please. My little girl—I’m all she has. Please. My Queen. Your Majesty!”

He raised the blade to his throat.

This was when Winter looked away. When she always looked away. She watched her own fingers burrow into her dress, her fingernails scraping at the fabric until she could feel the sting on her thighs. She watched the ice climb over her wrists, toward her elbows. Where the ice touched, her flesh went numb.

She imagined lashing out at the queen with those ice-solid fists. She imagined her hands shattering into a thousand icicle shards.

It was at her shoulders now. Her neck.

Even over the popping and cracking of the ice, she heard the cut of flesh. The burble of blood and a muffled gag. The hard slump of the body.

The cold had stolen into her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, reminding herself to be calm, to breathe. She could hear Jacin’s steady voice in her head, his hands gripping her shoulders. It isn’t real, Princess. It’s only an illusion.

Usually they helped, these memories of him coaxing her through the panic. But this time it seemed to prompt the ice on. Encompassing her rib cage. Gnawing into her stomach. Hardening over her heart.

She was freezing from the inside out.

Listen to my voice.

Jacin wasn’t there.

Stay with me.

Jacin was gone.

It’s all in your head.

She heard the clomping of the guards’ boots as they approached the body. The corpse being slid toward the ledge. The shove and the distant splash below.

The court applauded with quiet politeness.

Winter heard her toes snap off. One. By. One.

“Very good,” said Queen Levana. “Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is carried out.”

The ice was in her throat now, climbing up her jaw. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.

She raised her head as a servant began washing the blood from the tiles. Aimery, rubbing his knife with a cloth, met Winter’s gaze. His smile was searing. “I am afraid the princess has no stomach for these proceedings.”

The nobles in the audience tittered—Winter’s disgust of the trials was a source of merriment to most of Levana’s court.

The queen turned, but Winter couldn’t look up. She was a girl made of ice and glass. Her teeth were brittle, her lungs too easily shattered.

“Yes,” said Levana. “I often forget she’s here at all. You’re about as useless as a rag doll, aren’t you, Winter?”

The audience chuckled again, louder now, as if the queen had given permission to mock the young princess. But Winter couldn’t respond, not to the queen, not to the laughter. She kept her focus on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.

“Oh, no, she isn’t quite as useless as that,” Aimery said. As Winter stared, a thin crimson line drew itself across his throat, blood bubbling up from the wound. “The prettiest girl on all of Luna? She will make some member of this court a happy bride someday, I should think.”

“The prettiest girl, Aimery?” Levana’s light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.

Aimery slipped into a bow. “Prettiest only, My Queen. But no mortal could compare with your perfection.”

The court was quick to agree, offering a hundred compliments at once, though Winter still felt the leering gazes of more than one noble attached to her.

Aimery took a step toward the throne and his severed head tipped off, thunking against the marble and rolling, rolling, rolling, until it stopped at Winter’s frozen feet.

Still smiling.

She whimpered, but the sound was buried beneath the snow in her throat.

It’s all in your head.

“Silence,” said Levana, once she’d had her share of praise. “Are we finished?”

Finally, the ice found her eyes and Winter had no choice but to shut them against Aimery’s headless apparition, enclosing herself in cold and darkness.

She would die here and not complain. She would be buried beneath this avalanche of lifelessness. She would never have to witness another murder again.

“There is one more prisoner still to be tried, My Queen.” Aimery’s voice echoed in the cold hollowness of Winter’s head. “Sir Jacin Clay, royal guard, pilot, and assigned protector of Thaumaturge Sybil Mira.”

Winter gasped and the ice shattered, a million sharp glittering bits exploding across the throne room and skidding across the floor. No one else heard them. No one else noticed.

Aimery, head very much attached, was watching her again, as if he’d been waiting to see her reaction. His smirk was subtle as he returned his attention to the queen.

“Ah, yes,” said Levana. “Bring him in.”


The doors to the throne room opened, and there he was, trapped between two guards, his wrists corded behind his back. His blond hair was clumped and matted, strands of it clinging to his jaw. It appeared to have been a fair while since he’d last showered, but Winter could detect no obvious signs of abuse.

Her stomach flipped. All the warmth the ice had sucked out of her came rushing back to the surface of her skin.

Stay with me, Princess. Listen to my voice, Princess.

He was led to the center of the room, devoid of expression. Winter jabbed her fingernails into her palms.

Jacin didn’t look at her. Not once.

“Jacin Clay,” said Aimery, “you have been charged with betraying the crown by failing to protect Thaumaturge Mira and by failing to apprehend a known Lunar fugitive despite nearly two weeks spent in said fugitive’s company. You are a traitor to Luna and to our queen. These crimes are punishable by death. What have you to say in your defense?”

Winter’s heart thundered like a drum against her ribs. She turned pleading eyes up to her stepmother, but Levana was not paying her any attention.

“I plead guilty to all stated crimes,” said Jacin, drawing Winter’s attention back, “except for the accusation that I am a traitor.”

Levana’s fingernails fluttered against the arm of her throne. “Explain.”

Jacin stood as tall and stalwart as if he were in uniform, as if he were on duty, not on trial. “As I’ve said before, I did not apprehend the fugitive while in her company because I was attempting to convince her I could be trusted, in order to gather information for my queen.”

“Ah, yes, you were spying on her and her companions,” said Levana. “I do recall that excuse from when you were captured. I also recall that you had no pertinent information to give me, only lies.”

“Not lies, My Queen, though I will admit I underestimated the cyborg and her abilities. She was disguising them from me.”

“So much for earning her trust.” There was mocking in the queen’s tone.

“Knowledge of the cyborg’s skills was not the only information I sought, My Queen.”

“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.”

Winter released a cry of relief. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but it was too late to stifle the noise.

There were more giggles from the audience.

“Have you any other insights to add, Princess?” Levana said through her teeth.

Winter gathered her emotions as well as she could. “No, My Queen. Your rulings are always wise and final, My Queen.”

“This ruling is not finished.” The queen’s voice hardened as she addressed Jacin again. “Your inability to kill or capture Linh Cinder will not go unpunished, as your incompetence led to her successful kidnapping of my betrothed. For this crime, I sentence you to thirty self-inflicted lashings to be held on the central dais, followed by forty hours of penance. Your sentence shall commence at tomorrow’s light-break.”

Winter flinched, but even this punishment could not destroy the fluttery relief in her stomach. He was not going to die. She was not a girl of ice and glass at all, but a girl of sunshine and stardust, because Jacin wasn’t going to die.

“And, Winter…”

She jerked her attention back to her stepmother, who was eyeing her with disdain. “If you attempt to bring him food, I will have his tongue removed in payment for your kindness.”

She shrank back into her chair, a tiny ray of her sunshine extinguished. “Yes, My Queen.”


Winter was awake hours before light brightened the dome’s artificial sky, having hardly slept. She did not go to watch Jacin receive his lashings, knowing that if he saw her, he would have kept himself from screaming in pain. She wouldn’t do that to him. Let him scream. He was still stronger than any of them.

She dutifully nibbled at the cured meats and cheeses brought for her breakfast. She allowed the servants to bathe her and dress her in pale pink silk. She sat through an entire session with Master Gertman, a third-tier thaumaturge and her long-standing tutor, pretending to try to use her gift and apologizing when it was too hard, when she was too weak. He did not seem to mind. Anyway, he spent most of their sessions gazing slack-jawed at her face, and Winter didn’t know if he would be able to tell if she really did glamour him for once.

The artificial day had come and gone; one of the maidservants had brought her a mug of warmed milk and cinnamon and turned down her bed, and finally Winter was left alone.

Her heart pounded with anticipation.

She slipped into a pair of lightweight linen pants and a loose top, then pulled on her night robe so it would look like she was wearing her bedclothes underneath. She had thought of this all day, the plan taking form in her mind, like tiny puzzle pieces snapping together. Willful determination had stifled any hallucinations.

She fluffed her hair to look as if she’d woken from a deep slumber, turned off the lights, and climbed up onto her bed. The dangling chandelier clipped her brow and she flinched, stepping back and catching her balance on the thick mattress.

Winter braced herself with a breath full of intentions.

Counted to three.

And screamed.

She screamed like an assassin was driving a knife into her stomach.

She screamed like a thousand birds were pecking at her flesh.

She screamed like the palace was burning down around her.

The guard stationed outside her door burst inside, weapon drawn. Winter went on screaming. Stumbling back over her pillows, she pressed her back against the headboard and clawed at her hair.

“Princess! What is it? What’s wrong?” His eyes darted around the dark room, searching for an intruder, a threat.

Flailing an arm behind her, Winter scratched at the wallpaper, tearing off a shred. It was becoming easier to believe she was horrified. There were phantoms and murderers closing in around her.

“Princess!” A second guard burst into the room. He flipped on the light and Winter ducked away from it. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.” The first guard had crossed to the other side of the room and was checking behind the window drapes.

“Monster!” Winter shrieked, bulleting the statement with a sob. “I woke up and he was standing over my bed—one of—one of the queen’s soldiers!”

The guards traded looks and the silent message was clear, even to Winter.

Nothing’s wrong. She’s just crazy.

“Your Highness—” started the second guard, as a third appeared at the doorway.

Good. There were only three guards regularly stationed in this corridor between her bedroom and the main stairway.

“He went that way!” Cowering behind one arm, Winter pointed toward her dressing closet. “Please. Please don’t let him get away. Please find him!”

“What’s happened?” asked the newcomer.

“She thinks she saw one of the mutant soldiers,” grumbled the second guard.

“He was here,” she screamed, the words tearing at her throat. “Why aren’t you protecting me? Why are you standing there? Go find him!”

The first guard looked annoyed, as if this charade had interrupted something more than standing in the hallway and staring at a wall. He holstered his gun, but said, with authority, “Of course, Princess. We will find this perpetrator and ensure your safety.” He beckoned the second guard and the two of them stalked off toward the closet.

Winter turned to the third guard and fell into a crouch. “You must go with them,” she urged, her voice fluttery and weak. “He is a monster—enormous—with ferocious teeth and claws that will tear them to shreds. They can’t defeat him alone, and if they fail—!” Her words turned into a wail of terror. “He’ll come for me, and there will be no one to stop him. No one will save me!” She pulled at her hair, her entire body quivering.

“All right, all right. Of course, Highness. Just wait here, and … try to calm yourself.” Looking grateful to leave the mad princess behind, he took off after his comrades.

No sooner had he disappeared did Winter slip off the bed and shrug out of her robe, leaving it draped over a chair.

“The closet is clear!” one of the guards yelled.

“Keep looking!” she yelled back. “I know he’s in there!”

Snatching up the simple hat and shoes she’d left by the door, she fled.

Unlike her personal guards, who would have questioned her endlessly and insisted on escorting her into the city, the guards who were manning the towers outside the palace hardly stirred when she asked for the gate to be opened. Without guards and fine dresses, and with her bushel of hair tucked up and her face tucked down, she could pass for a servant in the shadows.

As soon as she was outside the gate, she started to run.

There were aristocrats milling around the tiled city streets, laughing and flirting in their fine clothes and glamours. Light spilled from open doorways, music danced along the window ledges, and everywhere was the smell of food and the clink of glasses and shadows kissing and sighing in darkened alleyways.

It was like this always in the city. The frivolity, the pleasure. The white city of Artemisia—their own little paradise beneath the protective glass.

At the center of it all was the dais, a circular platform where dramas were performed and auctions held, where spectacles of illusion and bawdy humor often drew the families from their mansions for a night of revelry.

Public humiliations and punishments were frequently on the docket.

Winter was panting, both frazzled and giddy with her success, as the dais came into view. She spotted him and the yearning inside her weakened her knees. She had to slow to catch her breath.

He was sitting with his back to the enormous sundial at the center of the dais, an instrument as useless as it was striking during these long nights. Ropes bound his bare arms and his chin was collapsed against his collarbone, pale hair hiding his face. As Winter neared him, she could see the raised hash marks of the lashings across his chest and abdomen, scattered with dried blood. There would be more on his back. His hand would be blistered from gripping the lash. Self-inflicted, Levana had proclaimed the punishment, but everyone knew Jacin would be under the control of a thaumaturge. There was nothing self-inflicted about it.

Aimery, she heard, had volunteered for the task. He had probably relished every wound.

Jacin raised his head as she reached the edge of the dais. Their eyes clashed, and she was staring at a man who had been beaten and bound and mocked and tormented all day and for a moment she was sure he was broken. Another one of the queen’s broken toys.

But then one side of his mouth lifted, and the smile hit his startling blue eyes, and he was as bright and welcoming as the rising sun.

“Hey, Trouble,” he said, leaning his head back against the dial.

With that, the terror from the past weeks slipped away. He was alive. He was home. He was still Jacin.

She pulled herself onto the dais. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” she said, crossing to him. “I didn’t know if you were dead or being held hostage, or if you’d been eaten by one of the queen’s soldiers. It’s been driving me mad not knowing.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

She scowled. “Don’t comment on that.”

“I wouldn’t dare.” He rolled his shoulders as much as he could against his bindings. His wounds gapped and puckered with the movement and his face contorted in pain, but it was brief.

Pretending she hadn’t noticed, Winter sat cross-legged in front of him, inspecting the wounds. Wanting to touch him. Terrified to touch him. That much, at least, had not changed. “Does it hurt very much?”

“Better than being at the bottom of the lake.” His smile turned wry, lips chapped. “They’ll move me to a suspension tank tomorrow night. Half a day and I’ll be good as new.” He squinted. “That’s assuming you’re not here to bring me food. I’d like to keep my tongue where it is, thank you.”

“No food. Just a friendly face.”

“Friendly.” His gaze raked over her, his relaxed grin still in place. “That’s an understatement.”

She dipped her head, turning away to hide the three scars on her right cheek. For years, Winter had assumed that when people stared at her, it was because the scars disgusted them. A rare disfigurement in their world of perfection. But then a maid told her they weren’t disgusted, they were in awe. She said the scars made Winter interesting to look at and somehow, odd as it was, even more beautiful. Beautiful. It was a word Winter had heard tossed around all her life. A beautiful child, a beautiful girl, a beautiful young lady, so beautiful, too beautiful … and the stares that attended the word never ceased to make her want to don a veil like her stepmother’s and hide from the whispers.

Jacin was the one person who could make her feel beautiful without it seeming like a bad thing. She couldn’t recall him ever using the word, or giving her any compliments, for that matter. They were always hidden behind careless jokes that made her heart pound.

“Don’t tease,” she said, flustered at the way he looked at her, at the way he always looked at her.

“Wasn’t teasing,” he said, all nonchalance.

In response, Winter reached out and punched him on the shoulder.

He flinched, and she gasped, remembering his wounds. But Jacin’s chuckle was warm. “That’s not a fair fight, Princess.”

She reeled back the budding apology. “It’s about time I had the advantage.”

He glanced past her, into the streets. “Where’s your guard?”

“I left him behind. Searching for a monster in my closet.”

The sunshine smile hardened into exasperation. “Princess, you can’t go out alone. If something happened to you—”

“Who’s going to hurt me here, in the city? Everyone knows who I am.”

“It just takes one idiot, too used to getting what he wants and too drunk to control himself.”

She flushed and clenched her jaw.

Jacin frowned, immediately regretful. “Princess—”

“I’ll run all the way back to the palace. I’ll be fine.”

He sighed, and she listed her head, wishing she’d brought some sort of medicinal salve for his cuts. Levana hadn’t said anything about medicine, and the sight of him tied up and vulnerable—and shirtless, even if it was a bloodied shirtless—was making her fingers twitch in odd ways.

“I wanted to be alone with you,” she said, focusing on his face. “We never get to be alone anymore.”

“It’s not proper for seventeen-year-old princesses to be alone with young men who have questionable intentions.”

She laughed. “And what about young men who she’s been best friends with since before she could walk?”

He shook his head. “Those are the worst.”

She snorted—an actual snort of laughter that served to brighten Jacin’s face again.

But the humor was bittersweet. The truth was, Jacin touched her only when he was helping her through a hallucination. Otherwise, he hadn’t deliberately touched her in years. Not since she was fourteen and he was sixteen, and she’d tried to teach him the Eclipse Waltz with somewhat embarrassing results.

These days, she would have auctioned off the Milky Way to make his intentions a little less honorable.

Her smile started to fizzle. “I’ve missed you,” she said.

His gaze dropped away and he shifted in an attempt to get more comfortable against the dial. Locking his jaw so she wouldn’t see how much every tiny movement pained him. “How’s your head?” he asked.

“The visions come and go,” she said, “but they don’t seem to be getting worse.”

“Have you had one today?”

She picked at a small, natural flaw in the linen of her pants, thinking back. “No, not since the trials yesterday. I turned into a girl of icicles, and Aimery lost his head. Literally.”

“Wouldn’t mind if that last one came true.”

She shushed him.

“I mean it. I don’t like how he looks at you.”

Winter glanced over her shoulder, but the courtyards surrounding the dais were empty. Only the distant bustle of music and laughter reminded her they were in a metropolis at all.

“You’re back on Luna now,” she said. “You have to be careful what you say.”

“You’re giving me advice on how to be covert?”


“There are three cameras on this square. Two on the lampposts behind you, one embedded in the oak tree behind the sundial. None of them have audio. Unless she’s hiring lip-readers now?”

Winter glared. “How can you know for sure?”

“Surveillance was one of Sybil’s specialties.”

“Nevertheless, the queen could have killed you yesterday. You need to be careful.”

“I know, Princess. I have no interest in returning to that throne room as anything other than a loyal guard.”

A rumble overhead caught Winter’s attention. Through the dome, the lights of a dozen spaceships were fading as they streaked across the star-scattered sky. Heading toward Earth.

“Soldiers,” Jacin muttered. She couldn’t tell if he meant it as a statement or a question. “How’s the war effort?”

“No one tells me anything. But Her Majesty seems pleased with our victories … though still furious about the missing emperor, and the canceled wedding.”

“Not canceled. Just delayed.”

“Try telling her that.”

He grunted.

Winter leaned forward on her elbows, cupping her chin. “Did the cyborg really have a device like you said? One that can keep people from being manipulated?”

A light sparked in his eyes, as if she’d reminded him of something important, but when he tried to lean toward her, his binds held him back. He grimaced and cursed beneath his breath.

Winter scooted closer to him, making up the distance herself.

“That’s not all,” he said. “Supposedly, this device can keep Lunars from using their gift in the first place.”

“Yes, you mentioned that in the throne room.”

His gaze burrowed into her. “And it will protect their minds. She said it keeps them from…”

Going crazy.

He didn’t have to say it out loud, not when his face held so much hope, like he’d solved the world’s greatest problem. His meaning hung between them.

Such a device could heal her.

Winter’s fingers curled up and settled under her chin. “You said there weren’t any more of them.”

“No. But if we could find the patents for the invention … to even know it’s possible…”

“The queen will do anything to keep more from being made.”

His expression darkened. “I know, but I had to offer something. If only Sybil hadn’t arrested me in the first place, ungrateful witch.” Winter smiled, and when Jacin caught the look, his irritation melted away. “Doesn’t matter. Now that I know it’s possible, I’ll find a way to do it.”

“The visions are never so bad when you’re around. They’ll be better now that you’re back.”

His jaw tensed. “I’m sorry I left. I regretted it as soon as I realized what I’d done. It happened so fast, and then I couldn’t come back for you. I’d just … abandoned you up here. With her. With them.”

“You didn’t abandon me. You were taken hostage. You didn’t have a choice.”

He looked away.

She straightened. “You weren’t manipulated?”

“Not the whole time,” he whispered, like a confession. “I chose to side with them, when Sybil and I boarded their ship.” Guilt washed over his face, and it was such an odd expression on him Winter wasn’t sure she was interpreting it right. “Then I betrayed them.” He thumped his head against the sundial, harder than necessary. “I’m such an idiot. You should hate me.”

“You may be an idiot, but I assure you, you’re quite a lovable one.”

He shook his head. “You’re the only person in the galaxy who would ever call me lovable.”

“I’m the only person in the galaxy crazy enough to believe it. Now tell me what you’ve done that is worth hating you for.”

He swallowed, hard. “That cyborg Her Majesty is searching for?”

“Linh Cinder.”

“Yeah. Well, I thought she was just some crazy girl on a suicide mission, right? I figured she was going to get us all killed with these delusions of kidnapping the emperor and overthrowing the queen … to listen to her talk, anyone would have thought that. So I figured, I’d rather take a chance and come back to you, if I could. Let her throw her own life away.”

“But Linh Cinder did kidnap the emperor. And she got away.”

“I know.” He shifted his attention back to Winter. “Sybil took one of her friends hostage, some girl named Scarlet. Don’t suppose you know—”

Winter beamed. “Oh, yes. The queen gave her to me as a pet, and she’s being kept in the menagerie. I like her a great deal.” Her brow creased. “Although I can’t tell if she’s decided to like me or not.”

He flinched at a sudden unknown pain and spent a moment re-situating himself. “Can you get her a message for me?”

“Of course.”

“You have to be careful. I won’t tell you if you can’t be discreet—for your own sake.”

“I can be discreet.”

Jacin looked skeptical.

“I can. I will be as secretive as a spy. As secretive as you.” Winter scooted a bit closer.

His voice fell, as if he were no longer certain those cameras didn’t come with audio. “Tell her they’re coming for her.”

Winter stared. “Coming for … coming here?”

He nodded, a subtle dip of his head. “And I think they might actually have a chance.”

Frowning, Winter reached forward and tucked the strands of Jacin’s sweat- and dirt-stained hair behind his ears. He tensed at the touch, but didn’t pull away. “Jacin Clay, you’re speaking in riddles.”

“Linh Cinder.” His voice became hardly more than a breath and she tilted closer yet to hear him. A curl of her hair fell against his shoulder. He licked his lips. “She’s Selene.”

Every muscle in her body tightened. She pulled back. “If Her Majesty heard you say—”

“I won’t tell anyone else. But I had to tell you.” His eyes crinkled at the corners, full of sympathy. “I know you loved her.”

Her heart thumped. “My Selene?”

“Yes. But … I’m sorry, Princess. I don’t think she remembers you.”

Winter blinked, letting the daydream fill her up for one hazy moment. Selene, alive. Her cousin, her friend? Alive.

She scrunched her shoulders against her neck, casting the hope away. “No. She’s dead. I was there, Jacin. I saw the aftermath of the fire.”

“You didn’t see her.”

“They found—”

“Charred flesh. I know.”

“A pile of girl-shaped ashes.”

“They were just ashes. Look, I didn’t believe it either, but I do now.” One corner of his mouth tilted up, into something like pride. “She’s our lost princess. And she’s coming home.”

A throat cleared behind Winter and her skeleton nearly leaped from her skin. She swiveled her torso around, falling onto her elbow.

Her personal guard was standing beside the dais, scowling.

“Ah!” Heart fluttering with a thousand startled birds, Winter broke into a relieved smile. “Did you catch the monster?”

There was no return smile, not even a flush of his cheeks, which was the normal reaction when she let loose that particular look. Instead, his right eyebrow began to twitch.

“Your Highness. I have come to retrieve you and escort you back to the palace.”

Righting herself, Winter clasped her hands in front of her chest. “Of course. It’s so kind of you to worry after me.” She glanced back at Jacin, who was eyeing the guard with distrust. No surprise. He eyed everyone with distrust. “I fear tomorrow will be even more difficult for you, Sir Clay. Do try to think of me when you can.”

“Try, Princess?” He smirked up at her. “I can’t seem to think of much else.”


Cinder lay on the ground, staring up at the Rampion’s vast engine, its ductwork, and revolving life-support module. The system blueprints she’d downloaded weeks ago were overlaid across her vision—a cyborg trick that had come in handy countless times when she was a working mechanic in New Beijing. She expanded the blueprint, zooming in on a cylinder the length of her arm. It was tucked near the engine room’s wall. Coils of tubing sprouted from both sides.

“That has to be the problem,” she muttered, dismissing the blueprint. She shimmied beneath the revolving module, dust bunnies gathering around her shoulders, and eased herself back to sitting. There was just enough space for her to squeeze in between the labyrinth of wires and coils, pipes and tubes.

Holding her breath, she pressed her ear against the cylinder. The metal was ice cold against her skin.

She waited. Listened. Adjusted the volume on her audio sensors.

What she heard was the door to the engine room opening.

Glancing back, she spotted the gray pants of a military uniform in the yellowish light from the corridor. That could have been anyone on the ship, but the shiny black dress shoes …

“Hello?” said Kai.

Her heart thumped—every single time, her heart thumped.

“Back here.”

Kai shut the door and crouched down on the far side of the room, framed between the jumble of thumping pistons and spinning fans. “What are you doing?”

“Checking the oxygen filters. One minute.”

She placed her ear against the cylinder again. There—a faint clatter, like a pebble banging around inside. “Aha.”

She dug a wrench from her pocket and set to loosening the nuts on either side of the cylinder. As soon as it was free, the ship fell eerily quiet, like a humming that became noticeable only after it stopped. Kai’s eyebrows shot upward.

Cinder peered into the cylinder’s depths, before sticking her fingers in and pulling out a complicated filter. It was made of tiny channels and crevices, all lined with a thin gray film.

“No wonder the takeoffs have been rocky.”

“I don’t suppose you could use some help?”

“Nope. Unless you want to find me a broom.”

“A broom?”

Raising the filter, Cinder banged the end of it on one of the overhead pipes. A dust cloud exploded around her, covering her hair and arms. Coughing, Cinder buried her nose in the crook of her elbow and kept banging until the biggest chunks had been dislodged.

“Ah. A broom. Right. There might be one up in the kitchen?… I mean, the galley.”

Blinking the dust from her eyelashes, Cinder grinned at him. He was usually so self-assured that in the rare moments when he was flustered, it made all of her insides swap wrong side up. And he was flustered a lot lately. Since the moment he’d woken up aboard the Rampion, it was clear that Kai was twelve thousand kilometers outside of his element, yet he adapted well in the past weeks. He learned the terminology, he ate the canned and freeze-dried meals without complaint, he traded his fancy wedding clothes for the standard military uniform they all wore. He insisted on helping out where he could, even cooking a few of those bland meals, despite how Iko pointed out that—as he was their royal guest—they should be waiting on him. Thorne laughed, though, and the suggestion seemed to make Kai even more uncomfortable.

While Cinder couldn’t imagine him abdicating his throne and setting off on a lifetime of space travel and adventure, it was rather adorable watching him try to fit in.

“I was kidding,” she said. “Engine rooms are supposed to be dirty.” She examined the filter again and, deeming it satisfactory, twisted it back into the cylinder and bolted it all in place. The humming started up again, but the pebble clatter was gone.

Cinder squirmed feetfirst out from beneath the module and ductwork. Still crouching, Kai peered down at her and smirked. “Iko’s right. You really can’t stay clean for more than five minutes.”

“It’s part of the job description.” She sat up, sending a cascade of lint off her shoulders.

Kai brushed some of the larger chunks from her hair. “Where did you learn to do all this, anyway?”

“What, that? Anyone can clean an oxygen filter.”

“Trust me, they can’t.” He settled his elbows on his knees and let his attention wander around the engine room. “You know what all this does?”

She followed the look—every wire, every manifold, every compression coil—and shrugged. “Pretty much. Except for that big, rotating thing in the corner. Can’t figure it out. But how important could it be?”

Kai rolled his eyes.

Grasping a pipe, Cinder hauled herself to her feet and shoved the wrench back into her pocket. “I didn’t learn it anywhere. I just look at things and figure out how they work. Once you know how something works, you can figure out how to fix it.”

She tried to shake the last bits of dust from her hair, but there seemed to be an endless supply.

“Oh, you just look at something and figure out how it works,” Kai deadpanned, standing beside her. “Is that all?”

Cinder fixed her ponytail and shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s just mechanics.”

Kai scooped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. “No, it’s impressive,” he said, using the pad of his thumb to brush something off Cinder’s cheek. “Not to mention, weirdly attractive,” he said, before capturing her lips.

Cinder tensed briefly, before melting into the kiss. The rush was the same every time, coupled with surprise and a wave of giddiness. It was their seventeenth kiss (her brain interface was keeping a tally, somewhat against her will), and she wondered if she would ever get used to this feeling. Being desired, when she’d spent her life believing no one would ever see her as anything but a bizarre science experiment.

Especially not a boy.

Especially not Kai, who was smart and honorable and kind, and could have had any girl he wanted. Any girl.

She sighed against him, leaning into the embrace. Kai reached for an overhead pipe and pressed Cinder against the main computer console. She offered no resistance. Though her body wouldn’t allow her to blush, there was an unfamiliar heat that flooded every inch of her when he was this close. Every nerve ending sparked and thrummed, and she knew he could kiss her another seventeen thousand times and she would never grow tired of it.

She tied her arms around his neck, molding their bodies together. The warmth of his chest seeped into her clothes. It felt nothing but right. Nothing but perfect.

But then there was the feeling, always lurking, always ready to cloud her contentment. The knowledge that this couldn’t last.

Not so long as Kai was engaged to Levana.

Angry at the thought’s invasion, she kissed Kai harder, but her thoughts continued to rebel. Even if they succeeded and Cinder was able to reclaim her throne, she would be expected to stay on Luna as their new queen. She was no expert, but it seemed problematic to carry on a relationship on two different planets—

Er, a planet and a moon.

Or whatever.

The point was, there would be 384,000 kilometers of space between her and Kai, which was a lot of space, and—

Kai smiled, breaking the kiss. “What’s wrong?” he murmured against her mouth.

Cinder leaned back to look at him. His hair was getting longer, bordering on unkempt. As a prince, he’d always been groomed to near perfection. But then he became an emperor. The weeks since his coronation had been spent trying to stop a war, hunt down a wanted fugitive, avoid getting married, and endure his own kidnapping. As a result, haircuts became a dispensable luxury.

She hesitated before asking, “Do you ever think about the future?”

His expression turned wary. “Of course I do.”

“And … does it include me?”

His gaze softened. Releasing the overhead pipe, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “That depends on whether I’m thinking about the good future or the bad one.”

Cinder tucked her head under his chin. “As long as one of them does.”

“This is going to work,” Kai said, speaking into her hair. “We’re going to win.”

She nodded, glad he couldn’t see her face.

Defeating Levana and becoming Luna’s queen was only the beginning of an entire galaxy’s worth of worries. She so badly wanted to stay like this, cocooned in this spaceship, together and safe and alone … but that was the opposite of what was going to happen. Once they overthrew Levana, Kai would go back to being the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth and, someday, he was going to need an empress.

She might have a blood claim to Luna and the hope that the Lunar people would choose anyone over Levana, even a politically inept teenager who was made up of 36.28 percent cybernetic and manufactured materials. But she had seen the prejudices of the people in the Commonwealth. Something told her they wouldn’t be as accepting of her as a ruler.

She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be empress. She was still getting used to the idea of being a princess.

“One thing at a time,” she whispered, trying to still her swirling thoughts.

Kai kissed her temple (which her brain did not count as #18), then pulled away. “How’s your training going?”

“Fine.” She disentangled herself from his arms and glanced around the engine. “Oh, hey, while you’re here, can you help me with this?” Cinder scooted around him and opened a panel on the wall, revealing a bundle of knotted wires.

“That was a subtle change of subject.”

“I am not changing the subject,” she said, although a forced clearing of her throat negated her denial. “I’m rewiring the orbital defaults so the ship’s systems will run more efficiently while we’re coasting. These cargo ships are made for frequent landings and takeoffs, not the constant—”


She pursed her lips and unplugged a few wire connectors. “Training is going fine,” she repeated. “Could you hand me the wire cutters on the floor?”

Kai scanned the ground, then grabbed two tools and held them up.

“Left hand,” she said. He handed them to her. “Sparring with Wolf has gotten a lot easier. Although it’s hard to tell if that’s because I’m getting stronger, or because he’s … you know.”

She didn’t have a word for it. Wolf had been a shadow of his former self since Scarlet had been captured. The only thing holding him together was his determination to get to Luna and rescue her as soon as possible.

“Either way,” she added, “I think he’s taught me as much about using my Lunar gift as he’s going to be able to. From here on, I’ll have to wing it.” She examined the mess of wires, aligning it with a diagram over her retina display. “Not like that hasn’t been my primary tactic this whole time.” She furrowed her brow and made a few snips. “Here, hold these wires and don’t let them touch.”

Edging against her, Kai took hold of the wires she indicated. “What happens if they touch?”

“Oh, probably nothing, but there’s a small chance the ship would self-destruct.” Pulling out two of the fresh-cut wires, she began to twist them together into a new sequence.

Kai hardly breathed until she’d taken one of the threatening wires out of his grip. “Why don’t you practice on me?” he said.

“Practice what?”

“You know. Your mind-manipulation thing.”

She paused with the cutters hovering over a blue wire. “Absolutely not.”


“I said I’d never manipulate you, and I’m sticking with that.”

“It isn’t manipulation if I know you’re doing it.” He hesitated. “At least, I don’t think so. We could use a code word, so I’ll know when you’re controlling me. Like … what were those called again?”

“Wire cutters?”

“Like wire cutters.”


“Or something else.”

“I’m not practicing on you.” Slipping the cutters into her pocket, she finished splicing the rest of the wires and relieved Kai of his duty. “There, we’ll see how that goes.”

“Cinder, I have nothing better to do. Literally, nothing better to do. My time on this ship has taught me that I have zero practical skills. I can’t cook. I can’t fix anything. I can’t help Cress with surveillance. I know nothing about guns or fighting or … Mostly, I’m just a good talker, and that’s only useful in politics.”

“Let’s not overlook your ability to make every girl swoon with just a smile.”

It took Kai a moment to hear her over his frustration, but then his expression cleared and he grinned.

“Yep,” she said, shutting the panel. “That’s the one.”

“I mean it, Cinder. I want to be useful. I want to help.”

She turned back to face him. Frowned. Considered.

“Wire cutters,” she said.

He tensed, a trace of doubt clouding his expression. But then he lifted his chin. Trusting.

With the slightest nudge at Kai’s will, she urged his arm to reach around her and pull the wrench from her back pocket. It was no more difficult than controlling her own cyborg limbs. A mere thought, and she could have him do anything.

Kai blinked at the tool. “That’s wasn’t so bad.”

“Oh, Kai.”

He glanced at her, then back to the wrench as his hand lifted the tool up to eye level and his fingers, no longer under his control, began to twirl the wrench—over one finger, under the other. Slow at first, then faster, until the gleaming of the metal looked like a magic trick.

Kai gaped, awestruck, but there was an edge of discomfort to it. “I always wondered how you did that.”


He looked back at her, the wrench still dancing over his knuckles.

She shrugged. “It’s too easy. I could do this while scaling a mountain, or … solving complex mathematical equations.”

His eyes narrowed. “You have a calculator in your head.”

Laughing, she released her hold on Kai’s hand. Kai jumped back as the wrench clattered to the ground. Realizing he had control of his own limb again, he stooped to pick it up.

“That’s beside the point,” said Cinder. “With Wolf, there’s some challenge, some focus required, but with Earthens…”

“All right, I get it. But what can I do? I feel so useless, milling around this ship while the war is going on, and you’re all making plans, and I’m just waiting.”

She grimaced at the frustration in his tone. Kai was responsible for billions of people, and she knew he felt like he had abandoned them, even if he hadn’t been given a choice. Because she hadn’t given him a choice.

He was kind to her. Since that first argument after he’d woken up aboard the Rampion, he was careful not to blame her for his frustrations. It was her fault, though. He knew it and she knew it and sometimes it felt like they were caught in a dance Cinder didn’t know the steps to. Each of them avoiding this obvious truth so they didn’t disrupt the mutual ground they’d discovered. The all-too-uncertain happiness they’d discovered.

“The only chance we have of succeeding,” she said, “is if you can persuade Levana to host the wedding on Luna. So right now, you can be thinking about how you’re going to accomplish that.” Leaning forward, she pressed a soft kiss against his mouth. (Eighteen.) “Good thing you’re such a great talker.”


Scarlet pressed her body against the steel bars, straining to grasp the tree branch that dangled just outside her cage. Close—so close. The bar bit into her cheek. She flailed her fingers, brushing a leaf, a touch of bark—yes!

Her fingers closed around the branch. She dropped back into her cage, dragging the branch closer. Wriggling her other arm through the bars, she snapped off three leaf-covered twigs, then broke off the tip and let go. The branch swung upward and a cluster of tiny, unfamiliar nuts dropped onto her head.

Scarlet flinched and waited until the tree had stopped shaking before she turned the hood of her red sweatshirt inside out and shook out the nuts that had attacked her. They sort of looked like hazelnuts. If she could figure out a way to crack into them, they might not be a bad snack later.

A gentle scratching pulled her attention back to the situation. She peered across the menagerie’s pathway, to the white wolf who was standing on his hind legs and batting at the bars of his own enclosure.

Scarlet had spent a lot of time wishing Ryu could leap over those bars. His enclosure’s wall was waist high and he should have been able to clear it easily. Then Scarlet could pet his fur, scratch his ears. What a luxury it would be to have a bit of contact. She had always been fond of the animals on the farm—at least until it was time to slaughter them and cook up a nice ragoût—but she never realized how much she appreciated their simple affection until she had been reduced to an animal herself.

Unfortunately, Ryu wouldn’t be escaping his confinement any sooner than Scarlet would. According to Princess Winter, he had a chip embedded between his shoulder blades that would give him a painful shock if he tried to jump over the rail. The poor creature had learned to accept his habitat a long time ago.

Scarlet doubted she would ever accept hers.

“This is it,” she said, grabbing her hard-earned treasure: three small twigs and a splintered branch. She held them up for the wolf to see. He yipped and did an enthusiastic dance along the enclosure wall. “I can’t reach any more. You have to take your time with these.”

Ryu’s ears twitched.

Rising to her knees—as close to standing as she could get inside her cage—Scarlet grabbed hold of an overhead bar, took aim with one of the smaller twigs, and threw.

Ryu chased after it and snatched the stick from the air. Within seconds, he pranced back to his pile of sticks and dropped the twig on top. Pleased, he sat back on his haunches, tongue lolling.

“Good job, Ryu. Nice show of restraint.” Sighing, Scarlet picked up another stick.

Ryu had just taken off when she heard the padding of feet down the path. Scarlet sat back on her heels, instantly tense, but relieved when she spotted a flowing cream-colored gown between the stalks of exotic flowers and drooping vines. The princess rounded the path’s corner a moment later, basket in hand.

“Hello, friends,” said Princess Winter.

Ryu dropped his newest stick onto the pile, then sat down, chest high as though he were showing her proper respect.

Scarlet scowled. “Suck-up.”

Winter tilted her head in Scarlet’s direction. A spiral of black hair fell across her cheek, obstructing her scars.

“What did you bring me today?” Scarlet asked. “Delusional mutterings with a side of crazy? Or is this one of your good days?”

The princess grinned and sat down in front of Scarlet’s cage, uncaring that the path of tumbled black rock and ground covers would soil her dress. “This is one of my best days,” she said, settling the basket on her lap, “for I have brought you a treat, with a side of news.”

“Oh, oh, don’t tell me. They’re moving me to a bigger cage? Oh, please tell me this one comes with real plumbing. And maybe one of those fancy self-feeders the birds get?”

Though Scarlet’s words were laced with sarcasm, in truth, a larger cage with real plumbing would have been a vast improvement. Without being able to stand up, her muscles were becoming weaker by the day, and it would be heaven if she didn’t have to rely on the guards to lead her into the next enclosure, twice a day, where she was graciously escorted to a trough to do her business.

A trough.

Winter, immune as ever to the bite in Scarlet’s tone, leaned forward with a secretive smile. “Jacin has returned.”

Scarlet’s brow twitched, her emotions at this statement pulling in a dozen directions. She knew Winter had a schoolgirl’s crush on this Jacin guy, but Scarlet’s one interaction with him had been when he was working for a thaumaturge, attacking her and her friends.

She’d convinced herself that he was dead, because the alternative was that he killed Wolf and Cinder, and that was unacceptable.

“And?” she prodded.

Winter’s eyes sparkled. There were times when Scarlet felt like she’d hardened her heart to the girl’s impeccable beauty—her thick hair and warm brown skin, her gold-tinged eyes and rosy lips. But then the princess would give her a look like that and Scarlet’s heart would skip and she would once again wonder how it was possible this wasn’t a glamour.

Winter’s voice turned to a conspiratorial whisper. “Your friends are alive.”

The simple statement sent the world spinning. Scarlet spent a moment in limbo, distrusting, unwilling to hope. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. He said that even the captain and the satellite girl were all right.”

Like a marionette released, she drooped over her knees. “Oh, thank the stars.”

They were alive. After nearly a month of subsisting on dogged stubbornness, finally Scarlet had a reason to hope. It was so sudden, so unexpected, she felt dizzy with euphoria.

“He also said to tell you,” Winter continued, “that Wolf misses you very much. Well, Jacin’s words were that he drove everyone rocket-mad with his pathetic whining about you. That’s sweet, don’t you think?”

Something cracked inside Scarlet. She hadn’t cried once since she’d come to Luna—aside from tears of pain and delirium when she was tortured, mentally and physically. But now all the fear and all the panic and all the horror welled up inside her and she couldn’t hold it back, couldn’t even think beyond the onslaught of sobs and messy tears.

They were alive. They were all alive.

She knew Cinder was still out there—word had spread even to the menagerie that she had infiltrated New Beijing Palace and kidnapped the emperor. Scarlet had felt smug for days when the gossip reached her, even if she didn’t have anything to do with the heist.

But no one mentioned accomplices. No one said anything about Wolf or Thorne or the satellite girl they’d been trying to rescue.

She swiped at her nose and pushed her greasy hair off her face. Winter was watching Scarlet’s show of emotion like one might watch a butterfly shucking its cocoon.

“Thank you,” said Scarlet, hiccuping back another sob. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Of course. You’re my friend.”

Scarlet rubbed her palm across her eyes and, for the first time, didn’t argue.

“And now for your treat.”

“I’m not hungry.” It was a lie, but she’d come to despise how much she relied on Winter’s charity.

“But it’s a sour apple petite. A Lunar delicacy that is—”

“One of your favorites, yeah, I know. But I’m not—”

“I think you should eat it.” The princess’s expression was innocent and meaningful all at once, in that peculiar way she had. “I think it will make you feel better,” she continued, pushing a box through the bars. She waited until Scarlet had taken it from her, then stood and made her way across the path to Ryu. She crouched to give the wolf a loving scratch behind his ears, then leaned over the rail and started gathering up his pile of sticks.

Scarlet lifted the lid of the box, revealing the red marble-like candy in its bed of spun sugar. Winter had brought her many treats since her imprisonment, most of them laced with painkillers. Though the pain from Scarlet’s finger, which had been chopped off during her interrogation with the queen, had faded to a distant memory, the candies still helped with the aches and pains of life in such cramped quarters.

But as she lifted the candy from the box, she saw something unexpected tucked beneath it. A handwritten message.

Patience, friend. They’re coming for you.

She closed the box fast before the security camera over her shoulder could see it, and shoved the candy into her mouth, heart thundering. She shut her eyes, hardly feeling the crack of the candy shell, hardly tasting the sweet-and-sour gooeyness inside.

“What you said at the trial,” said Winter, returning with a bundle of sticks in her arms and laying them down where Scarlet could reach them. “I hadn’t understood then, but I do now.”

Scarlet swallowed too quickly. The candy went down hard, bits of shell scratching her throat. She coughed, wishing the princess had brought some water too. “Which part? I was under a lot of duress, you might recall.”

“The part about Linh Cinder.”

Ah. The part about Cinder being the lost Princess Selene. The true queen of Luna.

“What about it?” she said, bristling with suspicion. Had Jacin said something about Cinder’s plans to reclaim her throne? And whose side was he on, if he spent weeks with her friends but had now returned to Levana?

Winter considered the question for a long time. “What is she like?”

Scarlet dug her tongue into her molars, thinking. What was Cinder like? She hadn’t known her for all that long. She was a brilliant mechanic. She seemed to be honorable and brave and determined to do what needed to be done … but Scarlet suspected she wasn’t always as confident as she tried to appear on the outside.

Also, she had a crush on Emperor Kai as big as Winter had on Jacin, although Cinder tried a lot harder to pretend otherwise.

But Scarlet didn’t think that answered Winter’s question. “She’s not like Levana, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Winter exhaled, as if a fear had been released.

Ryu whined and rolled onto his back, missing their attention.

Winter grabbed a stick from the pile and tossed. The wolf scrambled back to his feet and raced after it.

“Your wolf friend,” Winter said. “Is he one of the queen’s?”

“Not anymore,” Scarlet spat. Wolf would never belong to the queen again. Not if she could help it.

“But he was, and now he has betrayed her.” The princess’s tone had gone dreamy, her eyes staring off into space even after Ryu returned and dropped the stick beside his bars, beginning a new pile. “From what I know of her soldiers, that should not be possible. At least, not while they are under the control of their thaumaturge.”

Suddenly warm, Scarlet unzipped her hoodie. It was filthy with dirt and sweat and blood, but wearing it still made her feel connected to Earth and the farm and her grandmother. It reminded her that she was human, despite being kept in a cage.

“Wolf’s thaumaturge is dead,” she said, “but Wolf fought against him even when he was alive.”

“Perhaps they made a mistake with him, when they altered his nervous system.”

“It wasn’t a mistake.” Scarlet smirked. “I know, they think they’re so clever, giving soldiers the instincts of wild wolves. The instincts to hunt and kill. But look at Ryu.” The wolf had lain down and was gnawing at the stick. “His instincts lean as much toward playing and loving. If he had a mate and cubs, then his instincts would be to protect them at all costs.” Scarlet twirled the cord of her hoodie around a finger. “That’s what Wolf did. He protected me.”

She grabbed another stick from the pile outside her cage. Ryu’s attention was piqued, but Scarlet only ran her fingers over the peeling bark. “I’m afraid I’ll never see him again.”

Winter reached through the bars and stroked Scarlet’s hair with her knuckles. Scarlet tensed, but didn’t pull away. Contact, any contact, was a gift.

“Do not worry,” said Winter. “The queen will not kill you so long as you are my pet. You will have a chance to tell your Wolf that you love him.”

Scarlet glowered. “I’m not your pet, just like Wolf isn’t Levana’s anymore.” This time, she did pull back, and Winter let her hand fall into her lap. “And it’s not that I love him. It’s just…”

She hesitated, and again Winter listed her head and peered at Scarlet with penetrating curiosity. It was unnerving, to think she was being psychoanalyzed by someone who frequently complained that the castle walls had started bleeding again.

“Wolf is all I have left,” Scarlet clarified. She threw the stick halfheartedly across the path. It landed within paw’s reach of Ryu and he simply stared at it, like it wasn’t worth the effort. Scarlet’s shoulders slumped. “I need him as much as he needs me. But that doesn’t make it love.”

Winter lowered her lashes. “Actually, dear friend, I suspect that is precisely what makes it love.”


“These two newsfeeds include statements from that waitress, Émilie Monfort,” said Cress, trailing her fingers along the netscreen in the cargo bay, pulling up a picture of a blonde-haired girl speaking to a news crew. “She claims to be overseeing Benoit Farms and Gardens in Scarlet’s absence. Here she makes a comment about the work getting to be a lot for her, and joked that if the Benoits don’t return soon she might have to start auctioning off the chickens.” Cress hesitated. “Or, maybe it wasn’t a joke. I’m not sure. Oh, and here she talks about Thorne and Cinder coming to the farm and scaring her witless.”

She glanced over her shoulder to see whether Wolf was still listening. His eyes were glued to the screen, his brow set, as silent and brooding as usual. When he said nothing, she cleared her throat and clicked to a new tab. “As far as the finances are concerned, Michelle Benoit did own the land outright, and these bank statements show that the property and business taxes continue to be automatically deducted. I’ll set up payments to go through to the labor android rentals too. She missed last month’s payment, but I’ll make it up, and it looks like she’s been a loyal customer long enough the missed payment didn’t interrupt their work.” She enlarged a grainy photo. “This satellite imagery is from thirty-six hours ago and shows the full team of androids and two human foremen working this crop.” She shrugged and turned to face Wolf. “The bills are being paid, the animals are being tended, and the crops are being managed. Any accounts that were expecting regular deliveries are probably annoyed at Scarlet’s absence, but that’s the worst of it right now. I estimate it can go on being self-sustaining for … oh, another two to three months.”

Wolf didn’t take his forlorn stare from the satellite image. “She loves that farm.”

“And it will be there waiting for her when we get her back.” Cress sounded as optimistic as she could. She wanted to add that Scarlet was going to be fine, that every day they were getting closer to rescuing her—but she bit her tongue. The words had been tossed around so much lately they were beginning to lose their meaning, even to her.

The truth was that no one had any idea if Scarlet was still alive, or what shape they would find her in. Wolf knew that better than anyone.

“Is there anything else you want me to look up?”

He began to shake his head, but stopped. His eyes flashed to her, sharp with curiosity.

Cress gulped. Though she’d warmed to Wolf during her time aboard the ship, he still sort of terrified her.

“Can you find information about people on Luna?”

Her shoulders sank with an apology. “If I could have found out about her by now, I—”

“Not Scarlet,” he said, his voice rough when he said her name. “I’ve been wondering about my parents.”

She blinked. Parents? She had never imagined Wolf with parents. The idea of this hulking man having once been a dependent child didn’t fit. In fact, she couldn’t imagine any of the queen’s soldiers having parents, having once been children, having once been loved. But of course they had—once.

“Oh. Right,” she stammered, smoothing down the skirt of the worn cotton dress she’d taken from the satellite, what felt like ages ago. Though she’d spent a day wearing one of the military uniforms found in her crew quarters, a lifetime spent barefoot and in simple dresses had made the clothes feel heavy and cumbersome. Plus, all of the pants were way too long on her. “Do you think you might see them? When we’re on Luna?”

“It’s not a priority.” He said it like a military general, but his expression carried more emotion than his voice. “But I wouldn’t mind knowing if they’re still alive. Maybe seeing them again, someday.” His jaw flexed. “I was twelve when I was taken away. They must think I’m dead. Or a monster.”

The statement resonated through her body, leaving her chest vibrating. For sixteen years, her father had thought she was dead too, while she’d been told that her parents had willingly sacrificed her to Luna’s shell infanticide. She’d barely been reunited with her father before he died of letumosis, in the labs at New Beijing Palace. She’d tried to mourn his death, but mostly she mourned the idea of having a father at all and the loss of all the time they should have had to get to know each other.

She still thought of him as Dr. Erland, the odd, curmudgeonly old man who had started the cyborg draft in the Eastern Commonwealth. Who had dealt in shell trafficking in Africa.

He was also the man who helped Cinder escape from prison.

So many things he’d done—some good, some terrible. And all, Cinder had told her, because he was determined to end Levana’s rule.

To avenge his daughter. To avenge her.


She jolted. “Sorry. I don’t … I can’t access Luna’s databases from here. But once we’re on Luna—”

“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” Wolf leaned against the cockpit wall and clawed his hands into his unkempt hair. He looked like he was on the verge of a meltdown, but that was his normal look these days. “Scarlet’s the priority. The only priority.”

Cress considered mentioning that overthrowing Levana and crowning Cinder as queen were decent-size priorities too, but she dared not.

“Have you mentioned your parents to Cinder?”

He cocked his head. “Why?”

“I don’t know. She mentioned not having any allies on Luna … how it would be useful to have more connections. Maybe they would help us?”

His gaze darkened, both thoughtful and annoyed. “It would put them in danger.”

“I think Cinder might intend to put a lot of people in danger.” Cress worried at her lower lip, then sighed. “Is there anything else you need?”

“For time to move faster.”

Cress wilted. “I meant more like … food, or something. When did you last eat?”

Wolf’s shoulders hunched closer to his ears, and the guilty expression was all the answer she needed. She’d heard rumors of his insatiable appetite and the high-octane metabolism that kept him always fidgeting, always moving. She’d hardly seen any of that since coming aboard the ship, and she could tell that Cinder, in particular, was worried about him. Only when they were discussing strategies for Cinder’s revolution did he seem rejuvenated—his fists flexing and tightening like the fighter he was meant to be.

“All right. I’m going to make you a sandwich.” Standing, Cress gathered her courage, along with her most demanding voice, and planted a hand on her hip. “And you are going to eat it without argument. You need to keep up your strength if you’re going to be of any use to us, and Scarlet.”

Wolf raised an eyebrow at her newfound gumption.

Cress flushed. “Or … at least eat some canned fruit or something.”

His expression softened. “A sandwich sounds good. With … tomatoes, if we have any left. Please.”

“Of course.” Drawing in a deep breath, she grabbed her portscreen and headed toward the galley.


She paused and turned back, but Wolf was looking at the floor, his arms crossed. He looked about as awkward as she usually felt.

“Thank you.”

Her heart expanded, ballooning with sympathy for him. Words of comfort sprang to her tongue—She’ll be all right. Scarlet will be all right—but Cress stuffed them back down.

“You’re welcome,” she said, before turning into the corridor.

She had nearly reached the galley when she heard Thorne call her name. She paused and backtracked to the last door, left slightly ajar, and pressed it open. The captain’s quarters were the largest of the crew cabins and the only room that didn’t have bunks. Though Cress had been inside plenty of times to help him with the eyedrop solution Dr. Erland made in order to repair Thorne’s damaged optical nerve, she never lingered long. Even with the door wide open, the room felt too intimate, too personal. There was a huge map of Earth on one wall, filled with Thorne’s handwritten notes and markers indicating the places he’d been and the places he wanted to go, along with a dozen to-scale models of different spaceships scattered across the captain’s desk, including a prominent one of a 214 Rampion. The bed was never made.

The first time she’d been in that room she asked Thorne about the map and listened, captivated, while he talked about the things he’d seen, from ancient ruins to thriving metropolises, tropical forests to white-sand beaches. His descriptions had filled Cress with longing. She was happy here on the spaceship—it was roomier than her satellite had been, and the bonds she was forming with the rest of the crew felt like friendship. But she had still seen so little of Earth, and the thought of seeing those things, while standing at Thorne’s side, their fingers laced together … the fantasy made her pulse race every time.

Thorne was sitting in the middle of the floor, holding a portscreen at arm’s length.

“Did you call me?” she asked.

A grin dawned on his face, impishly delighted. “Cress! I thought I heard your footsteps. Come here.” He circled his whole arm, like he could draw her forward with the vacuum it created.

When she reached his side, Thorne flailed his hand around until he found her wrist and pulled her down beside him.

“It’s finally working,” he said, holding up the port again with his free hand.

Cress blinked at the small screen. A net drama was playing, though the feed was muted. “Was it broken?”

“No, the solution. It’s working. I can see”—releasing her wrist, he waved a finger in the screen’s direction—“kind of a bluish light. And the lights in the ceiling.” He tilted his head back, eyes wide and pupils dilated as they tried to take in as much information as they could. “They’re more yellow than the screen. That’s it, though. Light and dark. Some blurry shadows.”

“That’s wonderful!” Although Dr. Erland believed Thorne’s eyesight would begin to improve after a week or so, that week had come and gone with no change. It had now been nearly two weeks since the solution had run out, and she knew the wait had tried even Thorne’s relentless optimism.

“I know.” Crushing his eyes shut, Thorne lowered his head again. “Except, it’s kind of giving me a headache.”

“You shouldn’t overdo it. You might strain them.”

He nodded and pressed a hand over both eyes. “Maybe I should wear the blindfold again. Until things start to come into focus.”

“It’s up here.” Cress stood and found the blindfold and the empty vial of eyedrops nestled among the model ships. When she turned around, Thorne was looking at her, or through her, his brow tense. She froze.

It had been a long time since he looked at her, and back then they’d been scrambling for their lives. That had been before he cut her hair too. She sometimes wondered how much he remembered about what she looked like, and what he would think when he saw her again … practically for the first time.

“I can see your shadow, sort of,” he said, cocking his head. “Kind of a hazy silhouette.”

Gulping, Cress folded the blindfold into his palm. “Give it time,” she said, pretending the thought of him inspecting her, seeing every unspoken confession written across her face, wasn’t terrifying. “The doctor’s notes said your optical nerve would continue to heal for weeks on its own.”

“Let’s hope it starts healing faster after this. I don’t like seeing blurs and shadows.” He twisted the blindfold between his fists. “One of these days, I just want to open my eyes and see you.”

Heat rushed into her cheeks, but the depth of his words hadn’t sunk in before Thorne laughed and scratched his ear. “I mean, and everyone else too, of course.”

She smothered the start of a giddy smile, cursing herself for getting her hopes up again, for the thousandth time, when Thorne had made it quite clear he saw her as nothing more than a good friend, and a loyal member of his crew. He hadn’t tried to kiss her again, not once since the battle atop the palace rooftop. And sometimes she thought he might be flirting with her, but then he’d start flirting with Cinder or Iko and she’d remember that a touch here or a smile there wasn’t special to him like it was to her.

“Of course,” she said, moving back toward the door. “Of course you want to see everyone.”

She stifled a sigh, realizing she was going to have to train herself not to stare at him quite as often as she was used to, otherwise there would be no chance of hiding the fact that, despite all his attempts to persuade her otherwise, she was still hopelessly in love with him.


Jacin awoke with a jolt. He was damp and sticky and smelled like sulfur. His throat and lungs were burning—not painfully, but like they’d been improperly treated and they wanted to make sure he knew about it. Instinct told him he was not in immediate danger, but the fuzziness of his thoughts set him on edge. When he peeled his eyes open, blaring overhead lights burst across his retinas. He grimaced, shutting them again.

Memories flooded in all at once. The trial. The lashings. The forty mind-numbing hours spent tied to that sundial. The mischievous smile Winter shared only with him. Being carted to the med-clinic and the doctor prepping his body for immersion.

He was still at the clinic, in the suspended-animation tank.

“Don’t move,” said a voice. “We’re still disconnecting the umbilicals.”

Umbilicals. The word sounded far too bloody and organic for this contraption they’d stuck him in.

There was a pinch in his arm and the tug of skin as a series of needles were pulled from his veins, then a snap of electrodes as sensors were pried off his chest and scalp, the cords tangling in his hair. He tested his eyes again, blinking into the brightness. A doctor’s shadow hung over him.

“Can you sit?”

Jacin tested his fingers, curling them into the thick gel substance he was lying on. He grasped the sides of the tank and pulled himself up. He’d never been in one of these before—had never been injured enough to need it—and despite the confusion upon first waking, he already felt surprisingly lucid.

He looked down at his body, traces of the tank’s blue gel-like substance still clinging to his belly button and the hairs on his legs and the towel they’d draped across his lap.

He touched one of the jagged scars that cut across his abdomen, looking as if it had healed years ago. Not bad.

The doctor handed him a child-size cup filled with syrupy orange liquid. Jacin eyed the doctor’s crisp lab coat, the ID tag on his chest, the soft hands that were used to holding portscreens and syringes, not guns and knives. There was a pang of envy, a reminder that this was closer to the life he would have chosen, if he’d been given a choice. If Levana hadn’t made the choice for him when she selected him for the royal guard. Though she’d never made the threat aloud, Jacin had known from the beginning that Winter would be punished if he ever stepped out of line.

His dream of being a doctor had stopped mattering a long time ago.

He shot back the drink, swallowing his thoughts along with it. Dreaming was for people with nothing better to do.

The medicine tasted bitter, but the burning in his throat began to fade.

When he handed the cup back to the doctor, he noticed a figure hovering near the doorway, ignored by the doctors and nurses who puttered around the storage cells of countless other tanks, checking diagnostics and making notations on their ports.

Thaumaturge Aimery Park. Looking smugger than ever in his fancy bright white coat. The queen’s new favorite hound.

“Sir Jacin Clay. You look refreshed.”

Jacin didn’t know if his voice would work after being immersed in the tank, and he didn’t want his first words to the thaumaturge to be a pathetic croak. He cleared his throat, though, and it felt almost normal.

“I am to retrieve you for an audience with Her Majesty. You may have forfeited your honored position in service to the royal entourage, but we still intend to find a use for you. I trust you are fit to return to active duty?”

Jacin tried not to look relieved. The last thing he wanted was to become the personal guard to the head thaumaturge again—especially now that Aimery was in the position. He embraced a particular loathing for this man, who was rumored to have abused more than one palace servant with his manipulations, and whose leering attentions landed far too often on Winter.

“I trust I am,” he said. His voice was a little rusty, but not horrible. He swallowed again. “May I request a new uniform? A towel seems inappropriate for the position.”

Aimery smirked. “A nurse will escort you to the showers, where a uniform will be waiting. I will meet you outside the armory when you’re ready.”

* * *

The vaults beneath the Lunar palace were carved from years of emptied lava tubes, their walls made of rough black stone and lit by sparse glowing orbs. These underground places were never seen by the queen or her court, hence no one worried about making them beautiful to match the rest of the palace with its glossy white surfaces and crystalline, reflection-less windows.

Jacin sort of liked it down in the vaults. Down here, it was easy to forget he was beneath the capital at all. The white city of Artemisia, with its enormous crater lake and towering spires, had been built upon a solid foundation of brainwashing and manipulation. In comparison, the lava tubes were as cold and rough and natural as the landscape outside the domes. They were unpretentious. They did not do themselves up with lavish decorations and glitz in an attempt to conceal the horrible things that happened inside their walls.

Even still, Jacin moved briskly toward the armory. There was no residual pain, just the memory of each spiked lash and the betrayal of his own arm wielding the weapon. That betrayal was something he was used to, though. His body hadn’t felt entirely his own since he became a member of the queen’s guard.

At least he was home, for better or worse. Once again able to watch over his princess. Once again under Levana’s thumb.

Fair trade.

He cleared Winter from his thoughts as he turned into the armory. She was a danger to his hard-earned neutrality. Thinking about her tended to give him an unwanted hitch in his lungs.

There was no sign of Aimery, but two guards stood at the barred door and a third sat at the desk inside, all wearing the gray-and-red uniforms of royal guards identical to Jacin’s but for the metallic runes over the breast. Jacin ranked higher than any of them. He’d worried he would lose his position as a royal guard after his stint with Linh Cinder, but evidently his betrayal of her counted for something after all.

“Jacin Clay,” he said, approaching the desk, “reporting for reinstatement under the order of Her Majesty.”

The guard scanned a holograph chart and gave a terse nod. A second barred door filled up the wall behind him, hiding shelves of weaponry in its shadows. The man retrieved a bin that held a handgun and extra ammunition and pushed it across the desk, through the opening in the bars.

“There was also a knife.”

The man scowled, as if a missing knife were the biggest hassle of his day, and crouched down to peer into the cupboard.

Jacin dropped the gun’s magazine, reloading it while the man riffled through the cabinet. As Jacin was tucking the gun into his holster, the man tossed his knife onto the desk. It skidded across, off the surface. Jacin snatched it from the air just before the blade lodged itself in his thigh.

“Thanks,” he muttered, turning.

“Traitor,” one of the guards at the door said beneath his breath.

Jacin twirled the knife beneath the guard’s nose and sank it into the scabbard on his belt without bothering to make eye contact. His early rise through the ranks had earned him plenty of enemies, morons who seemed to think Jacin had cheated somehow to earn such a desirable position so young. When really the queen just wanted to keep a closer eye on him and, through him, Winter.

The click of his boots echoed through the tunnel as he left them behind. He turned a corner and neither flinched nor slowed when he spotted Aimery waiting by the elevator.

When he was six steps away, Jacin came to a stop and clapped a fist to his chest.

Stepping aside, Aimery swooped his arm toward the elevator doors. The long white sleeve of his coat swung with it. “Let’s not keep Her Majesty waiting.”

Jacin entered without argument, taking up his usual spot beside the elevator’s door, arms braced at his sides.

“Her Majesty and I have been discussing your role here since your trial,” said Aimery once the doors had closed.

“I’m eager to be of service.” Only years of practice disguised how abhorrent the words tasted in his mouth.

“As we wish to once again have faith in your loyalty.”

“I will serve in whatever way Her Majesty sees fit.”

“Good.” There was that smile again, and this time it came with a suspicious chill. “Because Her Royal Highness, the princess herself, has made a request of you.”

Jacin’s gut tightened. There was no way to stay indifferent as his thoughts started to race.

Please, please, you hateful stars—don’t let Winter have done something stupid.

“If your service meets with Her Majesty’s expectations,” Aimery continued, “we will return you to your previous position within the palace.”

Jacin inclined his head. “I am most grateful for this opportunity to prove myself.”

“I have no doubt of it, Sir Clay.”


The elevator doors opened into the queen’s solar—an octagonal room made up of windows on all sides. The cylindrical elevator itself was encapsulated in glass and stood at the room’s center so that no part of the view would be obstructed. The décor was simple—thin white pillars and a glass dome overhead, mimicking the dome over the city. This tower, this very room, was the highest point in Artemisia, and the sight of all those buildings white and glittering beneath them, and an entire jewelry case of stars overhead, was all the decoration the room required.

Jacin had been there dozens of times with Sybil, but never for his own audience with the queen. He forced himself to be unconcerned. If he was worried, the queen might detect it, and the last thing he wanted was for anyone to question his loyalty to the crown.

Though an elaborate chair was set on a raised platform, the queen herself was standing at the windows. The glass was crystal clear and showed no hint of reflection. Jacin didn’t know how they’d managed to make glass like that, but the palace was full of it.

Sir Jerrico Solis, the captain of the guard and technically Jacin’s superior, was also there, but Jacin didn’t spare him a glance.

“My Queen,” said Aimery, “you requested Sir Jacin Clay.”

Jacin dropped to one knee as the queen turned. “You may stand, Jacin. How good of you to come.”

Now, wasn’t that sweet.

He did stand, daring to meet her gaze.

Queen Levana was horrifically beautiful, with coral-red lips and skin as pristine as white marble. It was all her glamour, of course. Everyone knew that, but it didn’t make any difference. Looking at her could steal the breath of any mortal man.

However—and Jacin kept this thought very, very quiet in his head—the princess could steal both their breath and their heart.

“Sir Clay,” said the queen, her voice a lullaby now compared with the harshness from the trial. “Aimery and I have been discussing your surprising yet joyful return. I would like to see you reinstated to your previous position soon. Our guard is weaker without you.”

“I am yours to command.”

“I’ve taken into consideration the comm you sent to Thaumaturge Mira prior to her death, along with two years of loyal service. I’ve also had a team looking into your claims about this … device Linh Garan invented, and it seems you were correct. He unveiled a prototype he called a bioelectrical security device at an Earthen convention many years ago. As it happens, this discovery has also solved a mystery that my pack of special operatives in Paris had encountered earlier this year. We now know that Linh Cinder was not the only person to have had this device installed—but that her longtime protector, a woman named Michelle Benoit, had one too. We can only guess how many more might still exist.”

Jacin said nothing, though his heart was expanding at this news. Cinder had seemed sure no more of these devices had been made, but maybe she was wrong. And if she was wrong … if there were more of them out there … he could get one for Winter. He could save her.

“No matter,” said Levana, gliding a hand through the air. “We’re already finding ways to ensure no such invention will ever come to the Earthen market. The reason I called you here was to discuss what is now to become of you. And I have a special role in mind, Sir Clay. One that I think you will not find disagreeable.”

“My opinion means nothing.”

“True, but the opinions of my stepdaughter do yet carry some weight. Princess Winter may not have been born with my blood, but I think the people acknowledge that she is a part of my family, a true darling among the court. And I did love her father so.” She said this with a small sigh, though Jacin couldn’t tell whether it was faked or not. She turned away.

“You know I was there when Evret was murdered,” Levana continued, peering at the full Earth through the windows. “He died in my arms. His last plea was that I would take care of Winter, our sweet daughter. How old were you when he died, Jacin?”

He forced his shoulders to relax. “Eleven, Your Majesty.”

“Do you remember him well?”

He clenched his teeth, not knowing what she wanted him to say. Winter’s father and Jacin’s father had both been royal guards and the closest of friends. Jacin had grown up with plenty of admiration for Evret Hayle, who had kept his position even after marrying Levana, then a princess. He stayed a guard even after Queen Channary died and Selene disappeared and Levana ascended to the throne. He often said he had no desire to sit on the throne beside her, and even less to sit around drinking wine and getting fat among the pompous families of Artemisia.

“I remember him well enough,” he finally said.

“He was a good man.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Her gaze slipped down to the fingers of her left hand. There was no wedding band there—at least, not that she was allowing him to see.

“I loved him very much,” she repeated, and Jacin would have believed her if he believed she was capable of such a thing. “His death nearly killed me.”

“Of course, My Queen.”

Evret Hayle had been murdered by a power-hungry thaumaturge in the middle of the night, and Jacin still remembered how devastated Winter had been. How inadequate all of his attempts to comfort or distract her. He remembered listening to the sad gossip: how Evret had died protecting Levana, and how she had avenged him by plunging a knife into the thaumaturge’s heart.

They said Levana had sobbed hysterically for hours.

“Yes, well.” Levana sighed again. “As I held him dying, I promised to protect Winter—not that I wouldn’t have regardless. She is my daughter, after all.”

Jacin said nothing. His reserves of mindless agreements were running low.

“And what better way to protect her than to instate as her guard one whose concern for her well-being matches my own?” She smiled, but it had a hint of mocking to it. “In fact, Winter herself requested you be given the position as a member of her personal guard. Normally her suggestions are rooted in nonsense, but this time, even I have to acknowledge the idea has merit.”

Jacin’s heart thumped, despite his best efforts to remain disconnected. Him? On Winter’s personal guard?

It was both a dream and a nightmare. The queen was right—no one else could be as trusted as he was to ensure her safety. In many ways, he’d considered himself Winter’s personal guard already, with or without the title.

But being her guard was not the same as being her friend, and he already found it difficult enough to walk the line between the two.

“The changing of her guard happens at 19:00,” said the queen, swaying back toward the windows. “You will report then.”

He wet his throat. “Yes, My Queen.” He turned to go.

“Oh, and Jacin?”

Dread slithered down his spine. Locking his jaw, he faced the queen again.

“You may not be aware that we have had … difficulties, in the past, with Winter’s guard. She can be difficult to manage, given to childish games and fancies. She seems to have little respect for her role as a princess and a member of this court.”

Jacin pressed his disgust down, down, into the pit of his stomach, where even he couldn’t feel it. “What would you have me do?”

“I want you to keep her under control. My hope is that her affection for you will lend itself to some restraint on her part. I am sure you’re aware that the girl is coming to be of a marriageable age. I have hopes for her, and I will not tolerate her bringing humiliation on this palace.”

Marriageable age. Humiliation. Restraint. His disgust turned to a hard pebble, but his face was calm as he bowed. “Yes, My Queen.”

* * *

Winter stood with her ear pressed against the door of her private chambers, trying to slow her breathing to the point of dizziness. Anticipation crawled over her skin like a thousand tiny ants.

Silence in the hallway. Painful, agonizing silence.

Blowing a curl out of her face, she glanced at the holograph of Luna near her room’s ceiling, showing the progression of sunlight and shadows and the standardized digital clock beneath it. 18:59.

She wiped her damp palms on her dress. Listened some more. Counted the seconds in her head.

There. Footsteps. The hard, steady thump of boots.

She bit her lip. Levana had given her no indication if Winter’s request would be accepted—she didn’t even know if her stepmother was going to consider the request—but it was possible. It was possible.

The guard who had been standing statuesque outside her chambers for the past four hours, relieved of duty, left. His footsteps were a perfect metronome to those that had just arrived.

There was a moment of shuffling as the new guard arranged himself against the corridor wall, the last line of defense should a spy or an assassin make an attack on the princess, and the first person responsible for whisking her away to safety should the security of Artemisia Palace ever be compromised.

She squeezed her eyes shut and fanned her fingers against the wall, as if she could feel his heartbeat through the stone.

Instead she felt something warm and sticky.

Gasping, she pulled away, finding her palm stained with blood.

Exasperated, she used the bloody hand to push her hair back, although it instantly tumbled forward again. “Not now,” she hissed to whatever demon thought this was an appropriate time to give her visions.

She closed her eyes again and counted backward from ten. When she opened them, the blood was gone and her hand was clean.

With a whistled breath, Winter adjusted her gown and opened the door wide enough to poke her head out. She turned to the statue of a guard outside her door, and her heart swelled.

“Oh—she said yes!” she squealed, whipping the door open the rest of the way. She trotted around to face Jacin.

If he’d heard her, he didn’t respond.

If he saw her, he showed no sign of it.

His expression was stone, his blue eyes focused on some point over her head.

Winter wilted, but it was from annoyance a