Main Scarlet: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 2]

Scarlet: The Lunar Chronicles [Book 2]

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The second book in The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer. This is not the fairytale you remember. But it's one you won't forget. SCARLET BENOIT'S grandmother is missing. The police have closed her case. The only person Scarlet can turn to is Wolf, a street fighter she does not trust, but they are drawn to each other. Meanwhile, in New Beijing, Cinder will become the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive - when she breaks out of prison to stay one step ahead of vicious Queen Levana. As Scarlet and Wolf expose one mystery, they encounter Cinder and a new one unravels. Together they must challenge the evil queen, who will stop at nothing to make Prince Kai her husband, her king, her prisoner . . . ***Red Riding Hood-meets-Percy Jackson in a thrilling new spin on Grimm by Marissa Meyer, the author of Cinder.***

Year:
2013
Publisher:
Penguin UK
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
8484418928
ISBN 13:
9780141971841
ISBN:
yYn4vxHd3nEC
Series:
Lunar Chronicles #2
File:
EPUB, 540 KB
Download (epub, 540 KB)

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The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.





For Mom and Dad, my best cheerleaders.





Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Book One

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Book Two

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Book Three

Twenty-Four

Twenty-Five

Twenty-Six

Twenty-Seven

Twenty-Eight

Twenty-Nine

Thirty

Thirty-One

Thirty-Two

Thirty-Three

Thirty-Four

Book Four

Thirty-Five

Thirty-Six

Thirty-Seven

Thirty-Eight

Thirty-Nine

Forty

Forty-One

Forty-Two

Forty-Three

Forty-Four

Forty-Five

Forty-Six

Forty-Seven

Acknowledgments

Colophon

About the Author

Scarlet’s story continues.…

Copyright





BOOK

One

She did not know that the wolf was a wicked sort of animal, and she was not afraid of him.





One

Scarlet was descending toward the alley behind the Rieux Tavern when her portscreen chimed from the passenger seat, followed by an automated voice: “Comm received for Mademoiselle Scarlet Benoit from the Toulouse Law Enforcement Department of Missing Persons.”

Heart jumping, she swerved just in time to keep the ship’s starboard side from skidding against the stone wall, and threw down the brakes before reaching a complete stop. Scarlet killed the engine, already grabbing for the discarded portscreen. Its pale blue light glinted off the cockpit’s controls.

They’d found something.

The Toulouse police must have found something.

“Accept!” she yelled, practically choking the port in her fingers.

She expected a vidlink from the detective assigned to her grandmother’s case, but all she got was a stream of unembellished text.

28 AUG 126 T.E.

RE: CASE ID #AIG001; 55819, FILED ON 11 AUG 126 T.E.

THIS COMMUNICATION IS TO INFORM SCARLET BENOIT OF RIEUX, FRANCE, EF, THAT AS OF 15:42 ON 28 AUG 126 THE CASE OF MISSING PERSON(S) MICHELLE BENOIT OF RIEUX, FRANCE, EF, HAS BEEN DISMISSED DUE TO LACK OF SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE OF VIOLENCE OR NONSPECIFIC FOUL PLAY. CONJECTURE: PERSON(S) LEFT OF OWN FREE WILL AND/OR SUICIDE.

CASE CLOSED.

WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATRONAGE OF OUR DETECTIVE SERVICES.


The comm was followed by a video ad from the police, reminding all delivery ship pilots to be safe and wear their harnesses while engines were running.

Scarlet stared at the small screen until the words turned into a screaming blur of white and black and the ground seemed to drop out from beneath the ship. The plastic panel on the back of the screen crunched in her tightening grip.

“Idiots,” she hissed to the empty ship.

The words CASE CLOSED laughed back up at her.

She released a guttural scream and slammed the port down on the ship’s control panel, hoping to shatter it into pieces of plastic and metal and wire. After three solid whaps, the screen only flickered in mild irritation. “You idiots!” She threw the port at the floorboards in front of the passenger seat and slumped back, stringing her curly hair through her fingers.

Her harness cut into her chest, suddenly strangling, and she released the buckle and kicked open her door at the same time, half falling into the alley’s shadows. The grease and whiskey scent from the tavern nearly choked her as she swallowed her breaths, trying to rationalize her way out of the anger.

She would go to the police station. It was too late to go now—tomorrow, then. First thing in the morning. She would be calm and logical and she would explain to them why their assumptions were wrong. She would make them reopen the case.

Scarlet swiped her wrist over the scanner beside the ship’s hatch and yanked it up harder than the hydraulics wanted to let it go.

She would tell the detective that he had to keep searching. She would make him listen. She would make him understand that her grandma hadn’t left of her own free will, and that she most certainly had not killed herself.

Half a dozen plastic crates filled with garden vegetables were crammed into the back of the ship, but Scarlet hardly saw them. She was miles away, in Toulouse, planning the conversation in her head. Calling on every last persuasion, every ounce of reasoning power she had.

Something had happened to her grandmother. Something was wrong and if the police didn’t keep looking, Scarlet was going to take it to court and see that every one of their turnip-head detectives was disbarred and would never work again and—

She snatched a gleaming red tomato in each fist, spun on her heels, and pummeled the stone wall with them. The tomatoes splattered, juice and seeds spraying across the piles of garbage that were waiting to go into the compactor.

It felt good. Scarlet grabbed another, imagining the detective’s doubt when she’d tried to explain to him that up and disappearing was not normal behavior for her grandma. She pictured the tomatoes bursting all over his smug little—

A door swung open just as a fourth tomato was obliterated. Scarlet froze, already reaching for another, as the tavern’s owner draped himself against the door frame. Gilles’s narrow face was glistening as he took in the slushy orange mess Scarlet had made on the side of his building.

“Those better not be my tomatoes.”

She withdrew her hand from the bin and wiped it down on her dirt-stained jeans. She could feel heat emanating from her face, the erratic thumping of her pulse.

Gilles wiped the sweat off his almost-bald head and glared, his default expression. “Well?”

“They weren’t yours,” she muttered. Which was true—they were technically hers until he paid her for them.

He grunted. “Then I’ll only dock three univs for having to clean off the mess. Now, if you’re done with target practice, maybe you could deign to bring some of that in here. I’ve been serving wilted lettuce for two days.”

He popped back into the restaurant, leaving the door open. The noise of dishes and laughter spilled out into the alley, bizarre in its normality.

Scarlet’s world was crashing down around her and nobody noticed. Her grandmother was missing and nobody cared.

She turned back to the hatch and gripped the edges of the tomato crate, waiting for her heart to stop hammering behind her sternum. The words from the comm still bombarded her thoughts, but they were beginning to clear. The first wave of aggression was left to rot with the smashed tomatoes.

When she could take in a breath without her lungs convulsing, she stacked the crate on top of the russet potatoes and heaved them out of the ship.

The line cooks ignored Scarlet as she dodged their spitting skillets, making her way to the cool storage room. She shoved the bins onto the shelves that had been labeled in marker, scratched out, and labeled again a dozen times over the years.

“Bonjour, Scarling!”

Scarlet turned around, pulling her hair off her clammy neck.

Émilie was beaming in the doorway, eyes sparkling with a secret, but she pulled back when she saw Scarlet’s expression. “What—”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Slipping past the waitress, she headed back through the kitchen, but Émilie made a dismissive noise in the back of her throat and trotted after her.

“Then don’t talk. I’m just glad you’re here,” she said, latching on to Scarlet’s elbow as they ducked back into the alleyway. “Because he’s back.” Despite the angelic blond curls that surrounded Émilie’s face, her grin suggested very devilish thoughts.

Scarlet pulled away and grabbed a bin of parsnips and radishes, passing them to the waitress. She didn’t respond, incapable of caring who he was and why it mattered that he was back. “That’s great,” she said, loading a basket with papery red onions.

“You don’t remember, do you? Come now, Scar, the street fighter I was telling you about the other … oh, maybe that was Sophia.”

“The street fighter?” Scarlet squeezed her eyes shut as a headache started to throb against her forehead. “Really, Ém?”

“Don’t be like that. He’s sweet! And he’s been here almost every day this week and he keeps sitting in my section, which definitely means something, don’t you think?” When Scarlet said nothing, the waitress set the bin down and fished a pack of gum from her apron pocket. “He’s always really quiet, not like Roland and his crowd. I think he’s shy … and lonely.” She popped a stick into her mouth and offered another to Scarlet.

“A street fighter who seems shy?” Scarlet waved the gum away. “Are you listening to yourself?”

“You have to see him to understand. He has these eyes that just…” Émilie fanned her fingers against her brow, feigning heatstroke.

“Émilie!” Gilles appeared at the door again. “Stop flapping those lips and get in here. Table four wants you.” He cast a glare at Scarlet, a silent warning that he’d be docking more univs from her fee if she didn’t stop distracting his employees, then pulled back inside without waiting for a response. Émilie stuck her tongue out after him.

Settling the basket of onions against her hip, Scarlet shut the hatch and brushed past the waitress. “Is table four him?”

“No, he’s at nine,” Émilie grumbled, scooping up the load of root vegetables. As they passed back through the steamy kitchen, Émilie gasped. “Oh, I’m so daft! I’ve been meaning to comm and ask about your grand-mère all week. Have you heard anything new?”

Scarlet clenched her jaw, the words of the comm buzzing like hornets in her head. Case closed.

“Nothing new,” she said, then let their conversation get lost in the chaos of the cooks screaming at each other across the line.

Émilie followed her as far as the storeroom and dropped off her load. Scarlet busied herself rearranging the baskets before the waitress could say something optimistic. Émilie attempted the requisite “Try not to worry, Scar. She’ll be back” before backing away into the tavern.

Scarlet’s jaw was starting to ache from gnashing her teeth. Everyone talked about her grandma’s disappearance as if she were a stray cat who would meander back home when she got hungry. Don’t worry. She’ll be back.

But she’d been gone for over two weeks. Just disappeared without sending a comm, without a good-bye, without any warning. She’d even missed Scarlet’s eighteenth birthday, though she’d bought the ingredients for Scarlet’s favorite lemon cake the week before.

None of the farmhands had seen her go. None of the worker androids had recorded anything suspicious. Her portscreen had been left behind, though it offered no clues in its stored comms, calendar, or net history. Her leaving without it was suspicious enough. No one went anywhere without their ports.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not the abandoned portscreen or the unmade cake.

Scarlet had also found her grandmother’s ID chip.

Her ID chip. Wrapped in cheesecloth spotted red from her blood and left like a tiny package on the kitchen counter.

The detective said that’s what people did when they ran away and didn’t want to be found—they cut out their ID chips. He’d said it like he’d just solved the mystery, but Scarlet figured most kidnappers probably knew that trick too.





Two

Scarlet spotted Gilles behind the hot top, ladling béchamel sauce on top of a ham sandwich. She walked around to the other side, yelling to get his attention, and was met with annoyance.

“I’m done,” she said, returning the scowl. “Come sign off on the delivery.”

Gilles shoveled a stack of frites beside the sandwich and slid the plate across the steel counter to her. “Run that out to the first booth and I’ll have it ready when you get back.”

Scarlet bristled. “I don’t work for you, Gilles.”

“Just be grateful I’m not sending you out to the alley with a scrub brush.” He turned his back on her, his white shirt yellowed from years of sweat.

Scarlet’s fingers twitched with the fantasy of chucking the sandwich at the back of his head and seeing how it compared to the tomatoes, but her grandma’s stern face just as quickly infiltrated the dream. How disappointed she would be to come back home only to find that Scarlet had lost one of their most loyal clients in a fit of temper.

Grabbing the plate, Scarlet stormed out of the kitchen and was nearly bowled over by a waiter as soon as the kitchen door swung shut behind her. The Rieux Tavern was not a nice place—the floors were sticky, the furniture was a mismatch of cheap tables and chairs, and the air was saturated with grease. But in a town where drinking and gossiping were the favorite pastimes, it was always busy, especially on Sundays when the local farmhands ignored their crops for a full twenty-four hours.

While she waited for a path to clear through the crowd, Scarlet’s attention landed on the netscreens behind the bar. All three were broadcasting the same news footage that had filled up the net since the night before. Everyone was talking about the Eastern Commonwealth’s annual ball, where the Lunar queen was a guest of honor and where a cyborg girl had infiltrated the party, blown up some chandeliers, and tried to assassinate the visiting queen … or maybe she’d been trying to assassinate the newly coronated emperor. Everyone seemed to have a different theory. The freeze-frame on the screens showed a close-up of the girl with dirt smudges on her face and strands of damp hair pulled from a messy ponytail. It was a mystery how she’d ever been admitted into a royal ball in the first place.

“They should have put her out of her misery when she fell on those stairs,” said Roland, a tavern regular, who looked like he’d been bellied to the bar since noon. He extended a finger toward the screen and mimed shooting a gun. “I’d have put a bullet right through her head. And good riddance.”

When a rustle of agreement passed through the nearest patrons, Scarlet rolled her eyes in disgust and shoved toward the first booth.

She recognized Émilie’s handsome street fighter immediately, partly due to an array of scars and bruises on his olive skin, but more because he was the only stranger in the tavern. He was more disheveled than she’d expected from Émilie’s swooning, with hair that stuck out every direction in messy clumps and a fresh bruise swelling around one eye. Beneath the table, both of his legs were jogging like a windup toy.

Three plates were already set out before him, empty but for splatters of grease, bits of egg salad, and untouched slices of tomato and lettuce.

She didn’t realize she’d been staring at him until his gaze shifted and collided with hers. His eyes were unnaturally green, like sour grapes still on the vine. Scarlet’s grip tightened on the plate and she suddenly understood Émilie’s swooning. He has these eyes …

Pushing through the crowd, she deposited the sandwich on the table. “You had le croque monsieur?”

“Thank you.” His voice startled her, not by being loud or gruff as she’d expected, but rather low and hesitant.

Maybe Émilie was right. Maybe he really was shy.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to just bring you the whole pig?” she said, stacking the three empty plates. “It would save the servers the trouble of running back and forth from the kitchen.”

His eyes widened and for a moment Scarlet expected him to ask if that was an option, but then his attention dipped down to the sandwich. “You have good food here.”

She withheld a scoff. “Good food” and “Rieux Tavern” were two phrases she didn’t normally associate with each other. “Fighting must work up quite an appetite.”

He didn’t respond. His fingers fidgeted with the straw in his drink and Scarlet could see the table beginning to shake from his bouncing legs.

“Well. Enjoy,” she said, picking up the dishes. But then she paused and tipped the plates toward him. “Are you sure you don’t want the tomatoes? They’re the best part, and they were grown in my own garden. The lettuce too, actually, but it wasn’t wilted like this when I harvested it. Never mind, you don’t want the lettuce. But the tomatoes?”

Some of the intensity drained from the fighter’s face. “I’ve never tried them.”

Scarlet arched an eyebrow. “Never?”

After a hesitant moment, he released his drinking glass and picked up the two slabs of tomato and shoved them into his mouth.

His expression froze mid-chew. He seemed to ponder for a moment, eyes unfixed, before swallowing. “Not what I expected,” he said, looking up at her again. “But not horrible. I’ll order some more of those, if I could?”

Scarlet adjusted the dishes in her grip, keeping a butter knife from slipping off. “You know, I don’t actually work—”

“Here it comes!” said someone near the bar, spurring an excited murmur that rippled through the tavern. Scarlet glanced up at the netscreens. They showed a lush garden, flourishing with bamboo and lilies and sparkling from a recent downpour. The red warmth of the ball spilled down a grand staircase. The security camera was above the door, angled toward the long shadows that stretched out into the path. It was beautiful. Tranquil.

“I have ten univs that say some girl’s about to lose her foot on those stairs!” someone shouted, followed by a round of laughter from the bar. “Anyone want to bet me? Come on, what are the odds, really?”

A moment later, the cyborg girl appeared on the screen. She bolted from the doorway and down the stairs, shattering the garden’s serenity with her billowing silver gown. Scarlet held her breath, knowing what happened next, but she still flinched when the girl stumbled and fell. She crashed down the steps and landed awkwardly at their base, sprawled across the rocky path. Though there was no sound, Scarlet imagined the girl panting as she rolled onto her back and gawked up at the doorway. Shadows cut across the stairs and a series of unrecognizable figures appeared above her.

Having heard the story a dozen times, Scarlet sought out the missing foot still on the stairs, the light from the ballroom glinting off the metal. The girl’s cyborg foot.

“They say the one on the left is the queen,” said Émilie. Scarlet jumped, not having heard the waitress approach.

The prince—no, the emperor now—crept down the steps and stooped to pick up the foot. The girl reached for the hem of her skirt, tugging it down over her calves, but she couldn’t hide the dead tentacle wires dangling from their metal stump.

Scarlet knew what the rumors were saying. Not only had the girl been confirmed as a Lunar—an illegal fugitive and a danger to Earthen society—but she’d even managed to brainwash Emperor Kai. Some thought she’d been after power, others riches. Some believed she’d been trying to start the war that had so long been threatened. But no matter what the girl’s intentions were, Scarlet couldn’t help a twinge of pity. After all, she was only a teenager, younger than Scarlet even, and she looked wholly pathetic lying at the base of those stairs.

“What was that about putting her out of her misery?” said one of the guys at the bar.

Roland jutted his finger toward the screen. “Exactly. I’ve never seen anything so disgusting in my life.”

Someone near the end leaned forward so he could look around the other patrons at Roland. “I’m not sure I agree. I think she’s kind of cute, pretending to be all helpless and innocent like that. Maybe instead of sending her back to the moon, they should let her come stay with me?”

He was met with robust laughter. Roland thumped his palm on the bar, rattling a mustard dish. “No doubt that metal leg of hers would make for a real cozy bedmate!”

“Swine,” Scarlet muttered, but her comment was lost in the guffaws.

“I wouldn’t mind the chance to warm her up!” someone new added, and the tables rattled with cheers and amusement.

Anger clawed its way back up Scarlet’s throat and she half slammed, half dropped the stack of plates back onto the booth’s table. She ignored the startled expressions around her and shoved through the crowd, circling to the back of the bar.

The bewildered bartender watched on as Scarlet pushed some liquor bottles out of the way and climbed up onto the counter that stretched the length of the wall. Reaching up, she opened a wall panel beneath a shelf of cognac glasses and plucked out the netlink cable. All three screens went black, the palace garden and cyborg girl vanishing.

A roar of protest bellowed up around her.

Scarlet spun to face them, accidentally kicking a bottle of wine off the bar. The glass shattered on the floor, but Scarlet barely heard it as she waved the cable at the incensed crowd. “You all should have some respect! That girl’s going to be executed!”

“That girl’s a Lunar!” a woman yelled. “She should be executed!”

The sentiment was enforced with nods and someone lobbing a crust of bread at Scarlet’s shoulder. She planted both hands on her hips. “She’s only sixteen.”

A brash of arguments roared up, men and women alike clambering to their feet and screaming about Lunars and evil and that girl tried to kill a Union leader!

“Hey, hey, everyone calm down! Give Scarlet a break!” Roland yelled, his confidence bolstered by the whiskey on his breath. He held his hands out toward the jostling crowd. “We all know crazy runs in her family. First that old goose runs off, and now Scar’s defending Lunar rights!”

A parade of laughter and jeers marched past Scarlet’s ears, but were muddled by the sound of her own rushing blood. Without knowing how she’d gotten off the counter, she was suddenly halfway over the bar, bottles and glasses scattering, her fist connecting with Roland’s ear.

He yelped and spun back to face her. “What—”

“My grandma’s not crazy!” She grabbed the front of his shirt. “Is that what you told the detective? When he questioned you? Did you tell him she was crazy?”

“Of course I told him she was crazy!” he yelled back, the stench of alcohol flooding over her. She squeezed the fabric until her fists ached. “And I bet I wasn’t the only one. With the way she keeps herself holed up in that old house, talks to animals and androids like they’re people, chases folk away with a rifle—”

“One time, and he was an escort salesman!”

“I’m not one tinge surprised that Granny Benoit split her last rocket. Seems to me it’s been coming a long while.”

Scarlet shoved Roland hard with both hands. He stumbled back into Émilie, who’d been trying to get in between them. Émilie screamed and fell back onto a table in her effort to keep Roland from crushing her.

Roland regained his balance, looking like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to smirk or snarl. “Better be careful, Scar, or you’re going to end up just like the old—”

Table legs screeched against tile and then the fighter had one hand wrapped around Roland’s neck, lifting him clear off the floor.

The tavern fell silent. The fighter, unconcerned, held Roland aloft like he was nothing more than a doll, ignoring Roland’s gagging.

Scarlet gaped, the edge of the bar digging into her stomach.

“I believe you owe her an apology,” the fighter said in his quiet, even tone.

A gurgle slipped out of Roland’s mouth. His feet flailed in search of the ground.

“Hey, let him go!” a man yelled, leaping off his stool. “You’re going to kill him!” He grasped the fighter’s wrist, but he might have grabbed an iron bar for as much as the limb budged. Flushing, the man let go and pulled back for a punch, but as soon as he swung, the fighter’s free hand came up and blocked it.

Scarlet staggered back from the bar, dully noting a tattoo of nonsensical letters and numbers stamped across the fighter’s forearm. LSOP962.

The fighter still seemed angry, but now there was also the tiniest bit of amusement in his expression, like he’d just remembered the rules to a game. He eased Roland’s feet back to the ground, simultaneously releasing him and the other man’s fist.

Roland caught his balance on a stool. “What’s wrong with you?” he choked out, rubbing his neck. “Are you some lunatic city transplant or something?”

“You were being disrespectful.”

“Disrespectful?” barked Roland. “You just tried to kill me!”

Gilles erupted from the kitchen, shoving through the swinging doors. “What’s going on out here?”

“This guy’s trying to start a fight,” someone said from the crowd.

“And Scarlet broke the screens!”

“I didn’t break them, you idiot!” Scarlet yelled, though she wasn’t sure who had said it.

Gilles surveyed the dead screens, Roland still rubbing his neck, the broken bottles and glasses littering the wet floor. He glowered at the street fighter. “You,” he said, pointing. “Get out of my tavern.”

Scarlet’s gut tightened. “He didn’t do any—”

“Don’t you start, Scarlet. How much destruction were you planning on causing today? Are you trying to get me to close my account?”

She bristled, her face still burning. “Maybe I’ll just take back the delivery and we’ll see how your customers like eating spoiled vegetables from now on.”

Rounding the bar, Gilles snatched the cable out of Scarlet’s hand. “Do you really think you’re the only working farm in France? Honestly, Scar, I only order from you because your grandmother would give me hell if I didn’t!”

Scarlet pursed her lips, holding back the frustrated reminder that her grandmother wasn’t here anymore so maybe he should just order from someone else if that’s what he wanted.

Gilles turned his attention back to the fighter. “I said get out!”

Ignoring him, the fighter held his hand out to Émilie, who was still half curled against a table. Her face was flushed and her skirt was soaked through with beer, but her gaze glowed with infatuation as she let herself be pulled to her feet.

“Thank you,” she said, her whisper carrying in the uncanny silence.

Finally, the fighter met Gilles’s scowl. “I will go, but I haven’t paid for my meal.” He hesitated. “I can pay for the broken glasses as well.”

Scarlet blinked. “What?”

“I don’t want your money!” Gilles screamed, sounding insulted, which came as an even further shock to Scarlet, who had only ever heard Gilles complain about money and how his vendors were bleeding him dry. “I want you out of my tavern.”

The fighter’s pale eyes darted to Scarlet, and for a moment she sensed a connection between them.

Here they were, both outcasts. Unwanted. Crazy.

Pulse thrumming, she buried the thought. This man was trouble. He fought people for a living—or perhaps even for fun. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

Turning away, the fighter dipped his head in what almost looked like an apology and shuffled toward the exit. Scarlet couldn’t help thinking as he passed that despite all signs of brutality, he looked no more menacing now than a scolded dog.





Three

Scarlet pulled the bin of potatoes out from the lowest shelf, dropping it with a thud on the floor before lugging the crate of tomatoes on top. The onions and turnips went beside it. She’d have to make two trips out to the ship again and that made her angrier than anything. So much for a dignified exit.

She grabbed the handles of the lower bin and hoisted them up.

“Now what are you doing?” Gilles said from the doorway, a towel draped over one shoulder.

“Taking these back.”

Heaving a sigh, Gilles braced himself against the wall. “Scar—I didn’t mean all that out there.”

“I find that unlikely.”

“Look, I like your grandmother, and I like you. Yes, she overcharges and you can be a huge sting in my side and you’re both a little crazy sometimes—” He held up both hands defensively when he saw Scarlet’s hackles rising. “Hey, you’re the one who climbed up on the bar and started making speeches, so don’t try to say it’s not true.”

She wrinkled her nose at him.

“But when it comes right down to it, your grand-mère runs a good farm, and you still grow the best tomatoes in France year after year. I don’t want to cancel my account.”

Scarlet tilted the bin so that the shiny red globes rolled and thumped against one another.

“Put them back, Scar. I’ve already signed off on the delivery payment.”

He walked away before Scarlet could lose her temper again.

Blowing a red curl out of her face, Scarlet set the crates down and kicked the potatoes back to their spot beneath the shelves. She could hear the cooks chortling over the dining room drama. The story had already taken on a legendary air from the waitstaff’s telling of it. According to the cooks, the street fighter had broken a bottle over Roland’s head, knocking him unconscious and crushing a chair in the process. He would have taken out Gilles too, if Émilie hadn’t calmed him down with one of her pretty smiles.

With no interest in correcting the story, Scarlet dusted her hands on her jeans and paced back into the kitchen. A coldness hung in the air between her and the tavern staff as she made her way to the scanner beside the back door—Gilles was nowhere to be seen and Émilie’s giggles could be heard out in the dining room. Scarlet hoped she was only imagining the dropped glances. She wondered how fast the rumors would spread through town. Scarlet Benoit was defending the cyborg! The Lunar! She’s clearly split her rocket, just like her … just like …

She swiped her wrist beneath the ancient scanner. Out of habit, she inspected the delivery order that appeared on the screen, making sure Gilles hadn’t shorted her like he often tried and noting that he had, in fact, deducted three univs for the smashed tomatoes. 687U DEPOSITED TO VENDOR ACCOUNT: BENOIT FARMS AND GARDENS.

She left through the back door without saying good-bye to anyone.

Though still warm from the sunny afternoon, the shadows of the alley were refreshing compared with the sweltering kitchen and Scarlet let it cool her down while she reorganized the crates in the back of the ship. She was behind schedule. It would be late evening before she got home. She would have to get up extra early to go to the Toulouse police station, otherwise she would lose a whole day in which no one was doing anything to recover her grandmother.

Two weeks. Two whole weeks of her grandmother being out there, alone. Helpless. Forgotten. Maybe … maybe even dead. Maybe kidnapped and killed and left in a dark, wet ditch somewhere and why? Whywhywhy?

Frustrated tears steamed her eyes, but she blinked them back. Slamming the hatch, she rounded to the front of the ship, and froze.

The fighter was there, his back against the stone building. Watching her.

In her surprise, a hot tear leaked out. She swiped at it before it could crawl halfway down her cheek. She returned his stare, calculating if his stance was threatening or not. He stood a dozen steps from the nose of her ship and his expression seemed more hesitant than dangerous, but then, it hadn’t seemed dangerous when he’d nearly strangled Roland either.

“I wanted to make sure you were all right,” he said, his voice almost lost in the jumbled noise from the tavern.

She splayed her fingers on the back of the ship, annoyed at how her nerves were humming, like they couldn’t decide if she should be afraid of him or flattered.

“I’m better off than Roland,” she said. “His neck was already starting to bruise when I left.”

His eyes flashed toward the kitchen door. “He deserved worse.”

She would have smiled, but she didn’t have the energy after biting back all the anger and frustration of the afternoon. “I wish you hadn’t gotten involved at all. I had the situation under control.”

“Clearly.” He squinted at her like he was trying to figure out a puzzle. “But I was worried you might draw that gun on him, and such a scene may not have helped your case. As far as not being crazy, that is.”

Hair prickled behind her neck. Scarlet’s hand instinctively went to her lower back, where a small pistol was warm against her skin. Her grandma had given it to her on her eleventh birthday with the paranoid warning: You just never know when a stranger will want to take you somewhere you don’t mean to go. She’d taught Scarlet to use it and Scarlet hadn’t left home without it since, no matter how ridiculous and unnecessary it seemed.

Seven years later and she was quite sure not a single person had ever noticed the gun concealed under her usual red hoodie. Until now.

“How did you know?”

He shrugged, or what would have been a shrug if the movement hadn’t been so tense and jerky. “I saw the handle when you climbed up on the counter.”

Scarlet lifted the back of her sweatshirt just enough to loosen the pistol from her waistband. She tried to take in a calming breath, but the air was filled with the onion and garbage stink of the alley.

“Thanks for your concern, but I’m just fine. I have to go—behind on the deliveries … behind on everything.” She stepped toward the pilot’s door.

“Do you have any more tomatoes?”

She paused.

The fighter shrank back further into the shadows, looking sheepish. “I’m still a little hungry,” he muttered.

Scarlet imagined she could smell the tomato flesh on the wall behind her.

“I can pay,” he quickly added.

She shook her head. “No, that’s all right. We have plenty.” She shuffled backward, keeping her eyes on him, and reopened the hatch. She grabbed a tomato and a bundle of crooked carrots. “Here, these are good raw too,” she said, tossing them to him.

He caught them with ease, the tomato disappearing in his large fist and his other hand gripping the carrots by their lacy, leafy stems. He surveyed them from every angle. “What are they?”

A surprised laugh tumbled out of her. “They’re carrots. Are you serious?”

Again, he seemed embarrassingly aware of having said something unusual. His shoulders hunched in a vain attempt to make himself seem smaller. “Thank you.”

“Your mom never made you eat your vegetables, did she?”

Their gazes clashed and the awkwardness was immediate. Something shattered inside the tavern, making Scarlet jump. It was followed by the roar of laughter.

“Never mind. They’re good, you’ll like them.” She shut the hatch and rounded to the door again, whisking her ID across the ship’s scanner. The door opened, forming a wall between them, and the floodlights blinked on. They accentuated the bruise around the fighter’s eye, making it seem darker than before. He flinched back like a criminal in a spotlight.

“I was wondering if you could use a farmhand?” he said, the words slurred in his rush to get them out.

Scarlet paused, suddenly understanding why he’d waited for her, why he’d stalled so long. She scanned his broad shoulders, bulky arms. He was built for manual labor. “You’re looking for work?”

He started to smile, a look that was dangerously mischievous. “The money’s good at the fights, but it doesn’t make for much of a career. I thought maybe you could pay me in food.”

She laughed. “After seeing the evidence of your appetite in there, I think I’d lose my shirt with a deal like that.” She flushed the second she’d said it—no doubt he was now imagining her with her shirt off. Yet, to her shock, his face remained serenely neutral, and she hurried to fill the space before his reactions caught up. “What’s your name, anyway?”

That awkward shrug again. “They call me Wolf at the fights.”

“Wolf?” How … predatory.”

He nodded, entirely serious.

Scarlet swallowed a grin. “You might want to leave the street fighter bit off your resume.”

He scratched at his elbow, where the strange tattoo could barely be seen in the dark, and she thought maybe she’d embarrassed him. Perhaps Wolf was a beloved nickname.

“Well, they call me Scarlet. Yes, like the hair, what a clever observation.”

His expression softened. “What hair?”

Scarlet settled her arm on top of the door, resting her chin. “Good one.”

For a moment he seemed almost pleased with himself and Scarlet found herself warming to this stranger, this anomaly. This soft-spoken street fighter.

A warning tingled in the back of her head—she was wasting time. Her grandmother was out there. Alone. Frightened. Dead in a ditch.

Scarlet tightened her grip on the door frame. “I’m really sorry, but we have a full staff already. I don’t need any more farmhands.”

The glint faded from his eyes and in an instant he was looking uncomfortable again. Flustered. “I understand. Thank you for the food.” He kicked at the stem of a dead firework on the pavement—a remnant from last night’s peace celebrations.

“You should head to Toulouse, or even Paris. There are more jobs in the cities, and people around here don’t take too kindly to strangers, as you may have noticed.”

He tilted his head so that his emerald eyes glowed even brighter in the wash of the ship’s floodlights, looking almost amused. “Thanks for the tip.”

Turning, Scarlet sank into the pilot’s seat.

Wolf shifted toward the wall as she started the engine. “If you change your mind about needing a hand, I can be found at the abandoned Morel house most nights. I may not be great with people, but I think I’d do well on a farm.” Amusement touched the corners of his lips. “Animals love me.”

“Oh, I’m sure they do,” Scarlet said, beaming with fake encouragement. She shut the door before muttering, “What farm animals don’t love a wolf?”





Four

The captivity of Carswell Thorne had gotten off to a rocky start, what with the catastrophic soap rebellion and all. But since being transferred to solitary, he’d become the personification of a well-mannered gentleman, and after six months of such commendable behavior, he’d persuaded the only female guard on rotation to lend him a portscreen.

He was quite sure this would not have succeeded if the guard wasn’t convinced he was an idiot, incapable of doing anything other than counting the days and searching for naughty pictures of ladies he’d known and imagined.

And she was right, of course. Thorne was mystified by technology and couldn’t have done anything useful with the tablet even if he had had a step-by-step instruction manual on “How to Escape from Jail Using a Portscreen.” He’d been unsuccessful in accessing his comms, connecting to newsfeeds, or scouting out any information on New Beijing Prison and the surrounding city.

But he sure did appreciate the suggestively naughty, if heavily filtered, pictures.

He was scrolling through his portfolio on the 228th day of his captivity, wondering if Señora Santiago was still married to that onion-smelling man, when an awful screeching disrupted the cell’s peacefulness.

He peered upward, squinting at the smooth, glossy white ceiling.

The sound ceased and was followed by shuffling. A couple thuds. More grinding.

Thorne folded his legs atop his cot and waited while the noise grew louder and closer, hiccupped and continued. It took him some time to place this new strange noise, but after much listening and pondering he was convinced it was the sound of a motorized drill.

Maybe one of the other prisoners was remodeling.

The sound stopped, though the memory of it lingered, vibrating off the walls. Thorne glanced around. His cell was a perfect cube with smooth, shiny white wall panels on all six sides. It contained his all-white cot, a urinal that slid in and out of the wall with the press of a button, and him in his white uniform.

If someone was remodeling, he hoped his cell would be next.

The sound started again, more grating this time, and then a long screw punctured through the ceiling and clattered to the center of the cell’s floor. Three more dropped after it.

Thorne craned his head as one of the screws rolled beneath his cot.

A moment later, a square tile fell from the ceiling with a bang, followed by two dangling legs and a startled cry. The legs wore a white cotton jumpsuit that matched Thorne’s, but unlike his own plain white shoes, the feet attached to those legs were bare.

One wore skin.

The other a plating of reflective metal.

With a grunt, the girl released her hold on the ceiling and fell into a crouch in the middle of the cell.

Resting his elbows on his knees, Thorne tilted forward, trying to get a better look at her without moving from his safe position against the wall. She had a slight build and tanned skin and straight brown hair. Like her left foot, her left hand was made of metal.

Stabilizing herself, the girl stood and brushed off her jumpsuit.

“I’m sorry,” Thorne said.

She spun toward him, eyes wild.

“It seems that you’ve stumbled into the wrong jail cell. Do you need directions to get back to yours?”

She blinked.

Thorne smiled.

The girl frowned.

Her irritation made her prettier, and Thorne cupped his chin, studying her. He’d never met a cyborg before, much less flirted with one, but there was a first time for everything.

“These cells aren’t supposed to be occupied,” she said.

“Special circumstances.”

She surveyed him for a long moment, her brows knitting together. “Murder?”

His grin grew. “Thank you, but no. I started a riot on the yard.” He adjusted his collar, before adding, “We were protesting the soap.”

Her confusion grew, and Thorne noticed that she was still in her defensive stance.

“The soap,” he said again, wondering if she’d heard him. “It’s too drying.”

She said nothing.

“I have sensitive skin.”

Her mouth opened and he expected sympathy, but all that came out was a disinterested “Huh.”

Drawing herself up, she kicked the fallen ceiling tile out from beneath her feet, then proceeded to turn in a full circle, surveying the cell. Her lip curled in annoyance. “Stupid,” she muttered, nearing the wall to Thorne’s left and placing a palm against it. “One room off.”

Her eyelashes suddenly fluttered as if dust were stuck in them. Growling, she smacked her palm against her temple a few times.

“You’re escaping.”

“Not at this very moment,” she said through her teeth, roughly shaking her head. “But, yes, that is the general idea.” Her face lit up when she spotted the port in his lap. “What model portscreen is that?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea.” He held it up for her. “I’m putting together a portfolio of the women I’ve loved.”

Pushing herself from the wall, she snatched the portscreen away and flipped it over. A tip of her cyborg finger opened, revealing a small screwdriver. It wasn’t long before she’d undone the plate on the underside of the port.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking your vid-cable.”

“What for?”

“Mine’s on the fritz.”

She pulled a yellow wire from the screen and dropped it back into Thorne’s lap, then sank cross-legged to the floor. Thorne watched, mystified, as she tossed her hair to one side and unlatched a panel at the base of her skull. A moment later her fingers emerged with a wire similar to the one she’d just stolen from him, but with one blackened end. The girl’s face contorted in concentration while she installed the new cable.

With a pleased sigh, she shut the panel and tossed the old cable next to Thorne. “Thanks.”

He grimaced, shrinking away from the wire. “You have a portscreen in your head?”

“Something like that.” The girl stood and ran a hand over the wall again. “Ah, that’s much better. Now how do I…” Trailing off, she pushed the button in the corner. A glossy white panel slid up into the wall, ejecting the urinal with smooth precision. Her fingers fished into the gap left between the fixture and the wall, searching.

Inching away from the neglected cable on his cot, Thorne cleared his mind of the image of her opening a plate in her skull, once again calling up the personification of a gentleman, and attempted to make small talk while she worked. He asked what she was in for and complimented the fine workmanship of her metal extremities, but she ignored him, making him briefly question if he’d been separated from the female population for so long that he could be losing his charm.

But that seemed unlikely.

A few minutes later, the girl seemed to find what she was looking for, and Thorne heard the motorized-drill sound again.

“When they locked you up,” Thorne said, “didn’t they consider that this prison might have some security weaknesses?”

“It didn’t at the time. This hand is kind of a new addition.” She paused and stared hard at one corner of the alcove, as if trying to see through the wall.

Maybe she had X-ray vision. Now that he could find some good uses for.

“Let me guess,” Thorne said. “Breaking and entering?”

After a long silence of examining the retracting mechanism, the girl wrinkled her nose. “Two counts of treason, if you must know. And resisting arrest, and unlawful use of bioelectricity. Oh, and illegal immigration, but honestly, I think that’s a little excessive.”

He squinted at the back of her head, a twitch developing in his left eye. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

The screwdriver in her finger began to spin again. Thorne waited until there was a lull in the grinding. “What’s your name?”

“Cinder,” she said, followed by another swell of noise.

When it died down: “I’m Captain Carswell Thorne. But usually people just call me—”

More grinding.

“Thorne. Or Captain. Or Captain Thorne.”

Without responding, she wriggled her hand back into the alcove. It seemed like she was trying to twist something, but it must not have budged, as a second later she sat back and huffed with frustration.

“I can see that you’re in need of an accomplice,” Thorne said, straightening his jumpsuit. “And lucky for you, I happen to be a criminal mastermind.”

She glowered at him. “Go away.”

“That’s a difficult request in this situation.”

She sighed and dusted the flecks of white plastic from her screwdriver.

“What are you going to do when you get out?” he asked.

She turned back to the wall. The grinding persisted for a while before she paused to roll her neck, working out a crick. “The most direct route out of the city is north.”

“Oh, my naive little convict. Don’t you think that’s what they’ll be expecting you to do?”

She jabbed the screwdriver into the alcove. “Would you please stop distracting me?”

“I’m just saying we might be able to help each other.”

“Leave me alone.”

“I have a ship.”

Her gaze darted to him for only a beat—a look of warning.

“A spaceship.”

“A spaceship,” she drawled.

“She could have us halfway to the stars in less than two minutes, and she’s just outside the city limits. Easy to get to. What do you say?”

“I say if you don’t stop talking and let me work, we won’t be getting halfway to anywhere.”

“Point taken,” Thorne said, holding up his hands in surrender. “You just think it over in that pretty head of yours.”

She tensed, but kept working.

“Now that I’m thinking of it, there used to be an excellent dim sum bar just a block away too. They had mini pork buns that were to die for. Rich and succulent.” He pinched his fingers together, salivating over the memory.

Face scrunching up, Cinder started to massage the back of her neck.

“Maybe if we have time we could stop in and pick up a snack for the road. I could use a treat after suffering through the tasteless junk they call food in this place.” He licked his lips, but when he refocused on the girl, the pain on her features had tightened. Sweat was beading on her brow.

“Are you all right?” he asked, reaching for her. “Do you need a back rub?”

She swatted him away. “Please,” she said, hands braced between them. She struggled to draw in a shuddering breath.

As Thorne stared, her image wavered, like heat rising off maglev tracks. He stumbled back. His heartbeat quickened. A tingle filled his brain and raced down his nerves.

She was … beautiful.

No, divine.

No, perfect.

His pulse thumped, thoughts of worship and devotion swimming through his head. Thoughts of surrender. Thoughts of compliance.

“Please,” she said again, hiding behind her metal hand. Her tone was desperate as she slumped against the wall. “Just stop talking. Just … leave me alone.”

“All right.” Confusion reigned—cyborg, prison mate, goddess. “Of course. Anything you like.” Eyes watering, he stumbled backward and sank blindly down to his cot.





Five

Scarlet’s thoughts seethed as she hauled the empty crates out of the back of her ship and through the hangar’s yawning doors. She’d found her portscreen on the floor of the ship and it was now in her pocket, the message from the law enforcement office burning against her thigh as she mindlessly traipsed through her evening routine.

She was perhaps most angry with herself now, for being distracted, even for a minute, by nothing more than a handsome face and a veneer of danger, so soon after she’d learned that her grandma’s case had been closed. Her curiosity about the street fighter made her feel like a traitor to everything important.

And then there was Roland and Gilles and every other backstabber in Rieux. They all believed her grandma was crazy, and that’s what they’d told the police. Not that she was the most hardworking farmer in the province. Not that she made the best éclairs this side of the Garonne River. Not that she’d served her country as a military spaceship pilot for twenty-eight years, and still wore a medal for honorable service on her favorite checkered kitchen apron.

No. They’d told the police she was crazy.

And now they’d stopped looking for her.

Not for long though. Her grandma was out there somewhere and Scarlet was going to find her if she had to dig up dirt and blackmail every last detective in Europe.

The sun was sinking fast, sending Scarlet’s elongated shadow down the drive. Beyond the gravel, the whispering crops of cornstalks and leafy sugar beets stretched out in every direction, meeting up with the first spray of stars. A cobblestone house disrupted the view to the west, with two windows glowing orange. Their only neighbor for miles.

For more than half her life, this farm had been Scarlet’s paradise. Over the years, she’d fallen in love with it more deeply than she’d known a person could fall in love with land and sky—and she knew her grandma felt the same. Though she didn’t like to think of it, she was aware that someday she would inherit the farm, and she sometimes fantasized about growing old here. Happy and content, with perpetual dirt beneath her fingernails and an old house that was in constant need of repair.

Happy and content—like her grandmother.

She wouldn’t have just left. Scarlet knew it.

She lugged the crates into the barn, stacking them in the corner so the androids could fill them again tomorrow, then grabbed the pail of chicken feed. Scarlet walked while she fed, tossing big handfuls of kitchen scraps in her path as the chickens scurried around her ankles.

Rounding the corner of the hangar, she halted.

A light was on in the house, on the second floor.

In her grandmother’s bedroom.

The pail slipped from her fingers. The chickens squawked and darted away, before clustering back around the spilled feed.

She stepped over them and ran, the gravel skidding beneath her shoes. Her heart was swelling, bursting, the sprint already making her lungs burn as she yanked open the back door. She took the stairs two at a time, the old wood groaning beneath her.

The door to her grandma’s bedroom was open and she froze in the doorway, panting, grasping the jamb.

A hurricane had come through the room. Every drawer was pulled out from the dresser, clothes and toiletries had been dumped onto the floor. The quilts from the bed were piled haphazardly at its foot, the mattress at an angle, the digital picture frames beside the window all pulled from their brackets, leaving dark spots on the wall where the sunlight hadn’t managed to fade the painted plaster.

A man was on his knees beside the bed, tearing through a box of her grandmother’s old military uniforms. He jumped up when he saw Scarlet, nearly hitting his head on the low oak beam that spanned the ceiling.

The world spun. Scarlet almost didn’t recognize him—it had been years since she’d seen him, but it could have been decades for how much he had aged. A beard was taking over his normally clean-shaven jawline. His hair was matted on one side, sticking up straight on the other. He was pale and gaunt, like he hadn’t had a proper meal in weeks.

“Dad?”

He clutched a blue flight jacket to his chest.

“What are you doing here?” She surveyed the chaos again, heart still pounding. “What are you doing?”

“There’s something here,” he said, his voice rough and unused. “She’s hidden something.” He peered down at the jacket, then tossed it onto the bed. Kneeling, he started digging through the box again. “I need to find it.”

“Find what? What are you talking about?”

“She’s gone,” he whispered. “She’s not coming back. She won’t ever know and I … I have to find it. I have to know why.”

The smell of cognac swirled through the air and Scarlet’s heart hardened. She didn’t know how he’d found out about his mother’s disappearance, but for him to just assume all hope was lost, so easily, so quickly, and to think he would be entitled to a single thing that belonged to her, after he’d abandoned them both. To go so many years without a single comm, only to show up drunk and start tearing through her grandmother’s things—

Scarlet had the sudden urge to call the police, except she was mad at them too.

“Get out! Get out of our house!”

Unfazed, he started to pile the mishmash of clothes back into the box.

Face burning, Scarlet rounded the bed and grabbed his arm, trying to yank him to his feet. “Stop it!”

He hissed and fell back onto the old wooden floorboards. He scurried away from her as he would from a rabid dog, clutching his arm. His gaze was stark madness.

Scarlet drew back, surprised, before planting clenched fists on her hips. “What’s wrong with your arm?”

He didn’t answer, just kept nursing the arm against his chest.

Setting her jaw, Scarlet stomped toward him and grabbed his wrist. He yelped and tried to pull away, but she held firm, shoving his sleeve up to his elbow. Scarlet gasped and let go, but the arm continued to hang in midair, like he’d forgotten to retract it.

The skin was covered in burn marks. Each one a perfect circle and placed in a neat, perfect row. Row upon row upon row, circling his forearm from wrist to elbow, some shining with wrinkled scar tissue, others blackened and blistering. And on his wrist, a scab where his ID chip had once been implanted.

Her stomach turned.

Back against the wall, her father buried his face in the mattress, away from Scarlet, away from the burns.

“Who did this to you?”

His arm fell, curling against his stomach. He said nothing.

Scarlet pushed herself off the wall and ran to the bathroom in the hallway. She returned a moment later with a tube of ointment and a roll of bandages. Her father hadn’t moved.

“They made me,” he whispered, his hysteria fading.

Scarlet eased his arm away from his stomach and began to dress the wound, as tenderly as she could despite her shaking hands. “Who made you do what?”

“I couldn’t get away,” he continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “They asked so many questions and I didn’t know. I didn’t know what they wanted. I tried to answer them, but I didn’t know…”

Scarlet glanced up from her work as her father tilted his head toward her and stared blankly across the tousled blankets. Tears had pooled in his eyes. Her father—crying. It was almost more shocking than the burns. Her chest clamped and she froze, the bandage wrapped halfway up his forearm. She realized that she did not know this sad, broken man. This was only a shell of her father, her charismatic and selfish and worthless father.

Where anger and hatred had flared before, there was now an aching sense of pity.

What possibly could have caused this?

“They gave me the poker,” he continued, his eyes wide and distant.

“They gave you—? Why—?”

“And they brought me to her. And I realized, she was the one with the answers. She was the one with the information. They wanted something from her. But she just watched … she just watched me do it, and she cried … but they asked her the same questions, and she still wouldn’t answer them. She wouldn’t answer them.” His voice hiccupped, his face flushing with sudden anger. “She let them do this to me.”

Struggling to gulp, Scarlet finished off the wrapping and leaned against the mattress, her legs beginning to tremble. “Grand-mère? You saw her?”

His attention flashed back to her, crazed again. “They had me for a week and then they just let me go. They could tell she didn’t care about me. She wouldn’t give in for me.”

Without warning, he pushed forward and clambered toward Scarlet on his knees, grasping her arms. She tried to shrink away but he held her firm, his fingernails digging into her skin. “What is it, Scar? What’s so important? More important than her own son?”

“Dad, you have to calm down. You have to tell me where she is.” Her thoughts stammered. “Where is she? Who has her? Why?”

Her father’s eyes searched her, panicked and shimmering. Slowly, he shook his head and dropped his attention to the floor. “She’s hiding something,” he mumbled. “I want to know what it is. What is she hiding, Scar? Where is it?”

He turned to rustle through a drawer of old cotton shirts that had clearly already been riffled through. He was sweating now, his hair damp around his ears.

Scarlet used the bed frame to hoist herself onto the mattress. “Dad, please.” She tried to sound soothing, though her heart was thumping so hard it hurt. “Where is she?”

“Don’t know.” He dug his fingernails into the space between the molding and the wall. “I was at a bar in Paris. They must have drugged my drink, because next I woke up in a dark room. It smelled damp, musty.” He sniffed. “They drugged me when they let me go too. One minute I was in that dark room, then I was here. I woke up in the cornfield.”

With a shudder, Scarlet pulled her hands through her hair until the curls knotted up around them. They’d brought him here, to the same place they’d kidnapped her grandmother. Why? Did these people know that Scarlet was his only family—did they think she would be the best person to take care of him?

That didn’t make any sense. Clearly they weren’t worried about her dad’s well-being. So what else? Was leaving him here a message to her? A threat?

“You must remember something,” she said, her voice taking on a tinge of desperation. “Something about the room, or something someone said? Did you get a good look at them? Could you describe one of them to a profiler? Anything?”

“Was drugged,” he said, quickly, but then his brow drew together as he struggled to think. He made to touch his burn marks, but then let his hand fall into his lap. “Wouldn’t let me see them.”

Scarlet barely resisted the urge to shake him and scream that he had to think harder. “Did they blindfold you?”

“No.” He squinted. “I was afraid to look.”

Frustrated tears were beginning to sting her eyes and Scarlet tilted her head back, gulping down patient breaths. Her worst fears, those sneaking, horrible suspicions, were true.

Her grandmother had been kidnapped. Not just kidnapped, but kidnapped by cruel, brutal people. Were they harming her as they’d harmed her son? What would they do to her? What did they want?

Ransom?

But why hadn’t they asked Scarlet for anything yet? And why had they taken her father too, but then let him go? It didn’t make sense.

Terror clouded her thoughts as all the possible horrors streamed through her imagination. Torture and burning and dark rooms …

“What did you mean, when you said they made you? What did they make you do?”

“Burn myself,” he whispered. “Handed me the poker.”

“But how—”

“So many questions. I don’t know. I never knew my father. She doesn’t talk about him. I don’t know what she does here in her big ancient house. What happened on the moon. Don’t know what she’s hiding—she’s hiding something.” He pulled weakly at the blankets on the bed, glancing halfheartedly beneath the sheets.

“You’re talking nonsense,” Scarlet said, her voice breaking. “You have to think harder. You have to remember something.”

A long, long silence. Outside, the chickens were clucking again, their scaly feet scratching across the gravel.

“Tattoo.”

She frowned. “What?”

He placed a finger over one of the burns, on the inside flesh of his arm, just below his elbow. “The one who handed me the poker had a tattoo. Here. Letters and numbers.”

Her vision prickled with bright lights and Scarlet gripped the rumpled quilt, for a moment feeling like she could faint.

Letters and numbers.

“Are you sure?”

“L … S…” He shook his head. “I can’t remember. There was more.”

Her mouth ran dry, hatred overtaking the dizziness. She knew that tattoo.

He’d pretended to be kind. Pretended he only needed honest work.

When—days? hours?—before, he’d tortured her father. Kept her grandmother prisoner.

And she’d almost trusted him. The tomato, the carrots … she’d thought she was helping him. Stars above, she’d flirted with him, and all the while, he knew. She recalled those moments of peculiar amusement, the glint in his eyes, and her stomach twisted. He’d been laughing at her.

Ears ringing, she peered down at her dad, who was turning out the pockets of a pair of pants that probably hadn’t fit her grandmother in twenty years.

She stood. The blood rushed to her head, but she ignored it. Marching to the corner of the room, she grabbed her grandma’s portscreen from where her father had tossed it onto the floorboards.

“Here,” she said, throwing the port onto the bed. “I’m going to the Morel farm. If I’m not home in three hours, comm the police.”

Dazed, her father reached out and grasped the port. “I thought the Morels were dead.”

“Are you listening to me? I want you to lock all the doors, and don’t leave. Three hours and then comm the police. Do you understand?”

Again he succumbed to that frightened, child-like expression. “Don’t go out there, Scar. Don’t you get it? They used me as bait for her and you’ll be next. They’ll come for you too.”

Clenching her jaw, Scarlet zipped up her hoodie to her chin. “I intend to find them first.”





Six

CARSWELL THORNE

ID #0082688359

BORN 22 MAY 106 T.E., AMERICAN REPUBLIC

FF 437 MEDIA HITS, REVERSE CHRON

POSTED 12 JAN 126 T.E.: EX–AR AIR FORCE CADET, CARSWELL THORNE, HAS BEEN CONVICTED AND SENTENCED TO A SIX-YEAR PRISON SENTENCE AT THE END OF A SPEEDY TWO-WEEK TRIAL …


Green text trekked across Cinder’s vision, documenting the crimes of one Carswell Thorne, who had already led a very productive life of lawbreaking despite having just turned twenty a few months ago: one count military desertion, two counts international theft, one count attempted theft, six counts handling of stolen goods, and one count theft of government property.

That last conviction hardly seemed to do the crime justice. He’d stolen a spaceship from the American Republic’s military.

Hence, the spaceship that he was so proud of.

Though he was currently serving a six-year sentence in the Eastern Commonwealth for attempted theft of a second-era jade necklace, he was also wanted in Australia and, of course, his own America, and would be standing trial and no doubt serving time in both countries for the harm he’d done there as well.

Cinder slumped against a breaker panel, wishing she hadn’t checked. Escaping from prison herself was bad enough, but assisting the escape of this criminal—a real criminal—and doing it in a stolen spaceship?

Swallowing hard, she peered back through the opening she’d made between the mechanical room and the prisoner’s cell. Carswell Thorne still sat on his cot with his elbows propped on his knees, thumbs twiddling.

She wiped her damp palm on her bleached-white jumper. This was not about Carswell Thorne. This was about Queen Levana and Emperor Kai and Princess Selene. The innocent child Levana had tried to murder thirteen years ago, but who had been rescued and smuggled down to Earth. Who remained the most-wanted person in the world. Who just happened to be Cinder herself.

She’d known for less than twenty-four hours. Dr. Erland, who had known for weeks, decided to inform her that he’d run DNA tests proving her bloodline only after Queen Levana had recognized her at the annual ball and threatened to attack Earth if Cinder wasn’t thrown into jail for being an illegal Lunar emigrant.

So Dr. Erland had sneaked into her prison cell and given her a new foot (hers had fallen off on the palace steps), a state-of-the-art cyborg hand with fancy gadgets that she was still getting used to, and the biggest shock of her life. He’d then told her to escape and come meet him in Africa, like that would be no more difficult than installing a new processor on a Gard3.9.

This order, simultaneously so simple and so impossible, had given her something to focus on other than her newfound identity. Good thing too because when she dwelled on that, her entire body had a tendency to seize up, leaving her useless, and this was a bad time to be suffering from indecision. Regardless of what she would do when she got out, she was sure of one thing: not escaping meant certain death when Queen Levana came to claim her.

She peered back at the inmate again. If she had a close destination in mind, and a working spaceship at that, it could be the key to her escape.

He was still twiddling his thumbs, still obeying her command—just leave me alone. The words had been fire in her mouth when she’d said them, while her blood had boiled and her skin had burned. The sensation of overheating was a side effect of her new Lunar gift—powers that Dr. Erland had managed to unlock after a device implanted on her spine had kept her from using them for so many years. Although it still seemed like magic to her, it was really a genetic trait Lunars were born with that allowed them to control and manipulate the bioelectricity of other living creatures. They could trick people into seeing things that weren’t real or experiencing made-up emotions. They could brainwash people into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Without argument. Without resistance.

Cinder was still learning how to use this “gift” and she wasn’t entirely sure how she’d managed to control Carswell Thorne, just as she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to persuade one of the jail guards to move her to a more convenient cell. All she knew was that she’d wanted to strangle this inmate when he wouldn’t stop talking, and her Lunar gift had surged at the base of her neck, spurred on by stress and nerves. She’d lost control of it for a moment and in that breath Thorne had done precisely what she’d wanted him to do.

He’d stopped talking and left her alone.

Her guilt had been instantaneous. She didn’t know what kind of effect it had on a person, all that brain manipulation. And, more than that, she didn’t want to be one of those Lunars who took advantage of her powers just because she could. She didn’t want to be Lunar at all.

She huffed, blowing a strand of hair away from her face, and ducked through the hole that had been created when she’d pried the urinal out of the wall.

He looked up as she came to a halt before him, arms akimbo. He was still dazed, and though she hated to admit it, he was actually rather attractive. If a girl happened to like that square-jaw, bright-blue-eyes, devilish-dimples kind of thing. Although he was in desperate need of a haircut and a good shave.

She took in a stabilizing breath. “I forced you to do what I wanted you to do, and I shouldn’t have. It was an abuse of power and I’m sorry.”

He blinked down at her metal hand and the screwdriver sticking out from one finger joint. “Are you the same girl who was just here?” he asked, his voice surprisingly clear, even with his heavy American accent. For some reason, she’d expected him to slur his words after the brain manipulation.

“Of course I am.”

“Oh.” His brow furrowed. “You seemed a lot prettier before.”

Bristling, Cinder considered retracting her apology, but instead crossed her arms over her chest. “Cadet Thorne, was it?”

“Captain Thorne.”

“Your records say you were a cadet when you deserted.”

He frowned, still puzzled, before he brightened and cocked a finger toward her. “Portscreen in the head?”

She bit the inside of her cheek.

“Well, if you wanted to be technical about it,” he said. “But I’m a captain now. I prefer the sound of it. Girls are much more impressed.”

Cinder, unimpressed, gestured toward the mechanical room on the other side of the wall. “I’ve decided you can come with me if we can make it to your ship. Just … try not to talk too much.”

He was off his cot before she finished speaking. “It was my irresistible charm that convinced you, wasn’t it?”

Sighing, she retreated through the hole, careful to step over the disconnected plumbing. “So this ship of yours. It is the stolen one, right? From the American military?”

“I don’t like to think of it as ‘stolen.’ They have no proof that I didn’t plan on giving it back.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

He shrugged. “You have no proof either.”

She squinted back at him. “Were you planning on giving it back?”

“Maybe.”

An orange light blinked on in the corner of Cinder’s vision—her cyborg programming picking up on the lie.

“That’s what I thought,” she muttered. “Is the ship traceable?”

“Of course not. Removed all the tracking equipment ages ago.”

“Good. Which reminds me.” Holding up her hand, she retracted the screwdriver and, after two attempts, released the stiletto knife. “We need to remove your ID chip.”

He drew half a step back.

“Don’t tell me you’re squeamish.”

“Of course not,” he said with an uncomfortable laugh, cuffing his left sleeve. “It’s just … is that thing sterilized?”

Cinder glowered.

“I mean—I’m sure you’re very hygienic and all, it’s just…” He trailed off, hesitated, and then held his hand out toward her. “Never mind. Just try not to hit anything important.”

Bending over his arm, Cinder angled the blade to his wrist as carefully and gently as she could. There was a faint scar there already, presumably from when he’d cut out another ID chip when he’d first been on the run from law enforcement.

His fingers twitched at the invasion, but otherwise he was still as stone. She extracted the bloodied ID chip and tossed it into a bundle of cords on the floor, before cutting a strip of cloth from his sleeve and letting him wrap it around the wound.

“Is it just me, or is this a big moment in our relationship?”

Cinder scoffed. Turning away, she pointed at a grate near the ceiling. It was surrounded by tethered wires that snaked out from the breaker panel and disappeared into dozens of holes along the walls. “Can you boost me up there?”

“What is it?” Thorne asked, already lacing his fingers together.

“Air duct.” Cinder stepped onto his palms and ignored his grunt as he lifted her. She’d expected it, knowing that her metal leg made her a lot heavier than she looked.

With the added leverage, she had the grate removed in seconds. She set it quietly atop some overhead plumbing pipes, then pulled herself into the opening without hesitation.

She called up the blueprint of the jail’s interior structure to check the direction while she waited for Thorne to clamber up behind her. Switching on her built-in flashlight, Cinder started to crawl.

It was hot and clumsy work, with her left leg scraping against the aluminum every few inches. Twice she stopped to listen, thinking she heard footsteps somewhere below. Would there be an alarm when their escape was discovered? She was surprised there hadn’t been one yet. Thirty-two minutes. She’d left her cell thirty-two minutes ago.

The sweat dripping off her nose and the rapidness of her heartbeat made the time stretch on and on, as if the clock in her head had gotten stuck. Thorne’s presence was already filling her with doubts. This was going to be hard enough with just her—how was she going to sneak both of them out?

The thought passed through her skull, startling and clear.

She could brainwash him.

She could convince him that he wanted to tell her where the ship was and how to get to it, and then she could make him decide that he didn’t want to come with her after all. She could send him back. He would have no choice but to listen to her.

“Everything all right?”

Cinder released the air that had stuck in her throat.

No. She wouldn’t take advantage of him, or anyone. She’d gotten on just fine without any Lunar gift before, she would get on just fine now.

“Sorry,” she muttered. “Just checking the blueprint. We’re almost there.”

“Blueprint?”

She ignored him. Minutes later she rounded a corner and saw a square of checkered light on the duct’s ceiling. A tinge of relief, of hope, fluttered inside her as she inched her head out over the grate and peered down.

She saw an expanse of concrete with a small puddle of standing water beneath her and, not six steps from that, another grate, this one larger and round.

A storm drain. Right where the blueprint said it would be.

The drop was a full story, but if they could make it without breaking any legs, this was almost going to be easy.

“Where are we?” Thorne whispered.

“Underground loading dock—where they bring in food and supplies.” As gracefully as she could, she climbed over the grate and maneuvered back around so that she and Thorne could both peer through the grid.

“We need to get down there, to that storm drain.”

Thorne frowned and pointed. “Isn’t that the exit ramp over there?”

She nodded without looking.

“Why aren’t we trying to get there?”

She peered up at him, the grate casting peculiar shadows across his face. “And just walk to your spaceship? In bright white prison uniforms?”

He frowned, but any response was silenced by the sound of voices. They ducked back.

“I didn’t see him dancing with her, my sister did,” said a woman. Her words were coupled with footsteps, then a rolling door being hoisted up on clunky rails. “Her dress was soaking wet and wrinkled as a garbage bag.”

“But why would the emperor dance with a cyborg?” said a man. “And then for her to go off and attack the Lunar queen like that … no way. Your sister was seeing things. I bet the girl was just some crazy person who wandered in off the streets. She was probably bitter over some cyborg injustice.”

The conversation was cut short by the rumbling of a delivery ship.

Cinder dared to peer through the grate again and saw a ship wheeling its way beneath them, backing up toward a recessed loading bay and stopping directly between Cinder and Thorne and the storm drain.

“Morning, Ryu-jūn,” said the man as the pilot descended from the ship. The rest of their greetings were drowned out by the hydraulics hissing on an adjustable platform.

Taking advantage of the noise, Cinder used her screwdriver to remove the grate. When she gave Thorne a nod, he carefully eased it up.

Sweat trickled down Cinder’s neck and her heart was palpitating so hard she thought it might bruise the inside of her rib cage. Lowering her head, she peered around the dock, checking for any other signs of life and spotted, not arm’s distance away on the concrete ceiling, a rotating camera.

She jerked back inside, pulse hissing in her ears. Luckily the camera had been facing the other direction, but still, there was no way they would both make it down undetected. Then there were the three workers unloading the delivery to deal with, and every moment gone was one more moment toward some guard discovering their empty cells.

She shut her eyes, imagining where the camera was, before snaking her arm out. Her hand floundered, flat against the ceiling—the camera was farther than it had seemed in that momentary glance—but then her fingers found it. She grasped the lens and squeezed. The plastic was crushed as easy as a plum in her titanium fist, making a satisfying crunching sound that seemed deafeningly loud.

She listened, relieved as the same sounds of shuffling and chatting continued below.

Their time was up. It wouldn’t be more than a minute now before someone realized a camera had been disabled.

Raising her head, she nodded at Thorne and pulled herself forward over the opening.

She dropped onto the roof of the delivery ship and it clanged and shuddered beneath her. Thorne followed, landing with a muffled grunt.

The talking silenced.

Cinder spun around as three figures emerged from the loading bay, their faces contorted in confusion.

They spotted her and Thorne standing atop the ship and froze. Cinder could see them taking in the white uniforms. Her cyborg hand.

One of the men reached for the portscreen on his belt.

Clenching her jaw, Cinder held her hand out to him, thinking only of how he could not get to his port, could not send out an alarm. Thinking of his hand petrified in space just centimeters from his belt.

At her will, his hand stalled and hung motionless.

His eyes filled with terror.

“Don’t move,” said Cinder, her voice hoarse, guilt already clawing at her throat. She knew she was every bit as panicked as the three people standing before her, and yet the fear on their faces was unmistakable.

The burning sensation returned, starting at the top of her neck and spreading down through her spine, her shoulders and hips, stinging where it met her prostheses. It wasn’t painful or sudden like it had been when Dr. Erland had first unlocked her Lunar gift. Rather, it was almost comforting—almost pleasant.

She could sense the three people standing on the platform, the bioelectricity rolling off them in waves, crackling in the air, ready to be controlled.

Turn around.

In unison, the three workers turned around, their bodies stiff and awkward.

Close your eyes. Cover your ears. She hesitated before adding, Hum.

Instantly, the buzz of three people humming filled what had become a silent delivery dock. She hoped it would be enough to keep them from hearing the grate open in the concrete floor. Her only hope was that they would assume she and Thorne had left through the dock exit or smuggled themselves aboard a delivery ship.

Thorne was staring, slack jawed, when Cinder turned back to him. “What are they doing?”

“Obeying,” she said heavily, hating herself for making the command. Hating the hums that filled her ears. Hating this gift that was too unnatural, too powerful, too unfair.

But the thought to release her control over them never crossed her mind.

“Come on,” she said, half jumping, half sliding off the ship. She crawled beneath it and found the grate between the landing wheels. Though her hands were shaking, she managed to twist the grate a quarter turn and pull it up.

A shallow pool of standing water glistened up at her in the darkness.

The fall wasn’t far, but her bare feet landing in the oily water made her queasy. Thorne was beside her in a second, replacing the grate over the hole.

There was a round concrete tunnel set into the wall, barely reaching Cinder’s stomach and filled with the stench of garbage and mildew. Wrinkling her nose, Cinder crouched and crawled into it.





Seven

The cluster of icons on Emperor Kai’s netscreen was growing denser by the hour, not only because there were so many things for the new emperor to read and sign, but because he wasn’t putting much effort into reading or signing any of them. With fingers buried in his hair, he gazed blankly at the inset netscreen panel currently elevated out of his desk and watched the icons multiply with a growing sense of dread.

He should have been sleeping, but after countless hours of staring at the shadows above his bed, he’d finally given up and decided to come here instead and attempt to do something productive. He was dying for a distraction. Any distraction.

Anything to chase away the thoughts that kept rotating around in his brain.

So much for those good intentions.

Taking in a measured breath, Kai glanced up at the empty office. It was supposed to be his father’s office, but the room struck Kai as far too extravagant to be a place for work. Three ornate tasseled lanterns were lined up on a red-and-gold ceiling, hand-painted with elegant dragons. A holographic fireplace was set into the wall to his left. A sitting area with carved cypress furniture surrounded a miniature bar in the far corner. Silent videos of Kai’s mother shimmered from picture frames by the door, sometimes paired with flashes of Kai growing up, and sometimes all three of them together.

Nothing had changed since his father’s death, except the room’s owner.

And perhaps the smell. Kai seemed to recall the aroma of his father’s aftershave, but now there was the distinct stench of bleach and chemicals—remnants of the cleaning crew scrubbing the room raw after his father first had contracted letumosis, the plague that had killed hundreds of thousands of people all over Earth in the past decade.

Kai’s attention fell from the pictures and snagged on the small metal foot that sat on the corner of his desk, its joints caked with grease. Like a revolving wheel, his thoughts came full circle yet again.

Linh Cinder.

Stomach tightening, he set down the stylus that he’d been gripping and reached for the foot, but his fingers stalled before they could get to it.

It belonged to her, the pretty young mechanic at the market. The girl who was so easy to talk to. The girl who was so authentic, who didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t.

Or so he’d thought.

His fingers tightened into a fist and he drew back, wishing he had someone he could talk to.

But his father was gone. And now Dr. Erland was gone too, having resigned from his position, and left without even saying good-bye.

There was Konn Torin, his father’s, and now his, adviser. But Torin, with his ever-present diplomacy and logic, would never understand. Kai wasn’t sure he even understood what it was he felt when he thought of Cinder. Linh Cinder, who had lied to him about everything.

She was cyborg.

He couldn’t dismiss the memory of her lying at the base of the garden steps, a foot disconnected from her leg, a white-hot metal hand having melted away the remnants of a silk glove—gloves that had been his gift to her.

He should have been repulsed by her. Reliving the memory again and again, he tried to be repulsed by the sparking wires and her grime-packed knuckles and the knowledge that she had fake neural receptors taking messages to and from her brain. She was not natural. She was probably a charity case, and he couldn’t help but wonder if her family had paid for the operation or if it had been government funded. He wondered who had taken such pity on her that they’d determined to give her a second life when her human body had been so damaged. He wondered what had caused her body to be that damaged in the first place, or if perhaps she was born disfigured.

He wondered and wondered and knew he should have been more disturbed by each unanswered question.

But he wasn’t. It was not her being cyborg that had curdled his stomach.

Rather, his repugnance had started the moment his vision of her flickered as if she were a broken netscreen. He’d blinked, and she was no longer a helpless, rain-soaked cyborg, but the most intensely beautiful girl he’d ever laid eyes on. She was blindingly, breathtakingly stunning, with flawless tanned skin and shining eyes and an expression so ravishing it threatened to buckle his knees.

Her Lunar glamour had been even more striking than Queen Levana’s, and her beauty was painful.

Kai knew that’s what it had been: Cinder’s glamour, fading in and out even as he stood above her, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

What he didn’t know was how many times she’d glamoured him before that. How many times she’d tricked him. How many times she’d made him out to be a complete fool.

Or had the girl at the market, muddied and disheveled, been the real girl after all? The girl who had risked her life to come to the ball to give Kai a warning, unsteady cyborg foot and all …

“It doesn’t matter,” he said to his empty office, the disconnected foot.

Whoever Linh Cinder was, she was no longer his concern. Soon Queen Levana would be returning to Luna, and she would take Cinder back as her prisoner. It was the arrangement Kai had agreed to.

At the ball, he had been forced to make a choice, and had refused Levana’s offer of a marriage alliance once and for all. He was determined to never subject his people to life beneath such a heartless empress, and by that point Cinder had been his last bargaining chip. Peace, in exchange for the cyborg. His people’s freedom, in exchange for the Lunar girl who had dared to defy her queen.

It was impossible to know how long such an arrangement would last. Levana still refused to sign the peace treaty that would ally Luna with the Earthen Union. Her desire to be either empress or conqueror would not be sated long by the sacrifice of a mere girl.

And next time, Kai didn’t think he would have anything else to offer.

Crumpling his hair, Kai pulled his attention back to the amendment on the netscreen and read the first sentence three times, waiting for the words to register. He had to think of something else, anything else, before the never-ending questions drove him insane.

A monotone voice interrupted him, making him jump. “Entrance requested for Royal Adviser Konn Torin and Chairman of National Security Huy Deshal.”

Kai glanced at the time. 06:22.

“Entrance granted.”

The office door breezed open. Both men were dressed for the day, though Kai had never seen either of them so disheveled. It was clear they’d gotten up in a hurry, although he suspected from the dark circles beneath Torin’s eyes that he hadn’t gotten much more sleep than Kai had.

Kai stood to greet them, tapping the corner of the netscreen that sent it sinking back into the desktop. “You’re both getting an early start.”

“Your Imperial Majesty,” said Chairman Huy with a deep bow. “I’m glad to find you awake. I’m sorry to inform you of a breach of security that requires your immediate attention.”

Kai froze, his thoughts racing ahead to terrorist attacks, out-of-control protestors … Queen Levana declaring war. “What? What happened?”

“There’s been a jailbreak from New Beijing Prison,” said Huy. “Approximately forty-eight minutes ago.”

Nerves knotting up his shoulders, Kai glanced at Torin. “A jailbreak?”

“Two inmates have escaped.”

Kai pushed his fingertips into the desk. “Don’t we have some sort of protocol in place for this?”

“Generally speaking, yes. However, this is an extraordinary circumstance.”

“How so?”

The lines deepened around Huy’s mouth. “One of the escapees is Linh Cinder, Your Majesty. The Lunar fugitive.”

The world turned over. Kai’s gaze dropped to the cyborg foot, but he snapped it back up. “How?”

“We have a team analyzing the security footage in order to determine her exact method. We understand she was able to glamour a guard and persuade him to move her to a separate wing of the prison. From there, she was able to breach the air duct system.” Suddenly embarrassed, Huy held up two clear bags. One contained a cyborg hand, the other a small, blood-crusted chip. “These were found in her cell.”

Kai’s jaw worked, but he was dumbfounded by the sight. He was simultaneously intrigued and unnerved by the dismembered limb. “Is that her hand? Why would she do that?”

“We’re still working on the details. We do know, however, that she made her way into the prison’s loading dock. We are working to secure all possible escape routes from there.”

Kai paced toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the palace’s west-facing gardens. The whispering grasses still glittered with morning dew.

“Your Majesty,” said Torin, the first he’d spoken, “I would advise you to deploy military reinforcements to track down and recover the fugitives.”

Kai massaged his brow. “Military?”

Torin spoke slowly. “It is in your best interest to do everything in your power to recover her.”

Kai found it difficult to swallow. He knew that Torin was right. Any hesitation would be seen as a sign of weakness, and possibly even suggest that he’d assisted with the escape. Queen Levana would not take kindly to it.

“Who’s the other fugitive?” he asked, stalling for time while he struggled to grasp the implications. Cinder—a Lunar, a cyborg, a fugitive, who he’d all but sentenced to death.

Escaped.

“Carswell Thorne,” said Huy, “an ex-cadet for the American Republic air force. He deserted his post fourteen months ago after stealing a military cargo ship. At this time we don’t consider him dangerous.”

Kai neared his desk again, seeing that the fugitive’s profile had been transferred to the screen. His frown deepened. Perhaps not dangerous, but young and inarguably good-looking. His prison photo showed him flippantly winking at the camera. Kai hated him immediately.

“Your Majesty, we need you to make a decision,” said Torin. “Do you grant permission to send in military reinforcements to secure the fugitives?”

Kai stiffened. “Yes, of course, if that’s what you think the situation requires.”

Huy clicked his heels and marched back toward the door.

Kai wanted to call him back immediately as a thousand questions filled his brain. He wanted the world to slow down and give him time to process this, but the two men had both gone before the hesitant “wait” fell from his mouth.

The door shut, leaving him alone. He stole a single glance at Cinder’s abandoned foot before collapsing over his desk and pressing his forehead onto the cool netscreen.

He couldn’t help but imagine his father sitting at this desk, faced with this situation, and knew he would have been sending comms already, doing everything he could to find the girl and apprehend her, because that’s what would be best for the Commonwealth.

But Kai wasn’t his father. He wasn’t that selfless.

Knowing it was wrong, he couldn’t help but wish that wherever Cinder had gone, they would never find her.





Eight

The Morels were all dead. Their farm had been deserted for seven years, since both parents and a troop of six children had all been carted to the Toulouse plague quarantines during a single October, leaving behind a collection of rotting structures—the farmhouse, the barn, a chicken coop—along with a hundred acres of crops left to fend for themselves. An arched storage building that had once housed tractors and hay bales remained intact, standing solitary in the midst of an overgrown grain field.

An old, dusty pillowcase, dyed black, still flapped off the house’s front porch, warning neighbors to stay away from the diseased house. For many years, it had done its job, until the ruffians who ran the fights had sought it out and claimed it for their own.

The fights were already underway when Scarlet arrived. She sent a hasty comm to the Toulouse police department from her ship, figuring she had at least twenty or thirty minutes before they responded, useless as they were. Just enough time to get the information she needed before Wolf and the rest of society’s outcasts were taken into custody.

Downing a few breaths of chilled night air that did nothing to settle her rapid-fire heartbeat, she marched into the abandoned storage building.

A writhing crowd shouted up at a hastily constructed stage, where one man was beating his opponent in the face, fist flying over and over with sickening steadfastness. Blood started to leak from his opponent’s nose. The crowd roared, egging on the dominating fighter.

Scarlet skirted around the audience, hanging close to the sloping walls. Every surface within reach was covered in vivid graffiti. Straw littered the ground, trampled nearly to dust. Rows of cheap lightbulbs were strung on bright orange cords, and more than a handful of them were flickering and threatening to burn out. The hot air reeked of sweat and bodies and a sweetness from the fields that didn’t belong.

Scarlet hadn’t expected there to be so many people. There were well over two hundred onlookers, and she didn’t recognize any of them. This crowd wasn’t from small-town Rieux—likely many of them had come in from Toulouse. She spotted a number of piercings and tattoos and surgical manipulations. She passed a girl with hair dyed like a zebra’s and a man on a leash being dragged around by a curvy escort-droid. There were even cyborgs in the crowd, the rarity made stranger by the fact that none of them were hiding their cyborgness. They flaunted everything from polished metal arms to black, reflective eyeballs that protruded eerily from their sockets. Scarlet did a double take when she passed a man showing off a small netscreen implanted into his flexed bicep, laughing at the stiff news anchor inside it.

The crowd roared suddenly—guttural and joyful. A man with the tattoo of a spine and rib cage tracking down his back was left standing on the stage. Scarlet couldn’t see his opponent beyond the dense crowd.

She tucked her hands into the pockets of her hooded sweatshirt and continued her search of the unfamiliar faces, the strange fashions. She was drawing attention in her plain jeans with the ripped knees and ratty red sweatshirt that her grandma had given her years ago. Usually the hoodie was like camouflage in a town of equally careless dressers, but now she was dressed like a chameleon in a room full of Komodo dragons. Everywhere she turned, curious gazes followed her. With ruthless defiance, she glared back at them all, and kept searching.

She reached the back wall of the building, still stacked high with plastic and metal crates, without spotting Wolf. She backed herself into a corner for a better viewpoint and tugged the hood forward over her face. Her handgun dug into her hip.

“You came.”

She jumped. Wolf had materialized out of the graffiti and was suddenly beside her, green eyes catching the dusty flickers of the lightbulbs.

“I’m sorry,” he said, shuffling back half a step. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Scarlet ignored the apology. In the shadows she could just make out the edge of the tattoo on his arm, which had seemed so unimportant hours before but was now burned into her memory.

The one who handed me the poker had a tattoo.…

Heat rushed to her face, the rage she’d buried in return for calm practicality rising to the surface. She closed the distance between them and thumped her locked fist into his sternum, ignoring how he towered a full head above her. Her hatred made her feel like she could crush his skull with her bare hands.

“Where is she?”

Wolf’s expression was blank, his hands limp at his sides. “Who?”

“My grandmother! What have you done with her?”

He blinked, his expression at once confused and speculative, like she was speaking in another language that he was slow to translate. “Your grandmother?”

Gritting her teeth, she slammed her fist harder into his chest. He flinched, but it seemed to be more from surprise than pain. “I know it was you. I know you took her and you’re keeping her somewhere. I know it was you who tortured my dad! I don’t know what you’re trying to prove, but I want her back and I want her back now.”

He shot a furtive glance over her head. “I’m sorry … they’re calling me to the stage.”

Pulse pounding against her temples, Scarlet simultaneously grabbed his left wrist and yanked out her gun. She pressed the barrel against his tattoo.

“My dad saw your tattoo, despite your attempts to keep him drugged up. I find it unlikely that there are two identical tattoos like this, and that you happen to show up in my life the same day my dad’s kidnappers let him go after a week of torturing him.”

His eyes momentarily cleared, but the look was followed by a deep frown, accentuating a pale scar on the side of his mouth. “Someone kidnapped your father … and your grandmother,” he said, slowly. “Someone with a tattoo like mine. But they let your father go today?”

“Do you think I’m an idiot?” she yelled. “Are you really going to try and convince me you had nothing to do with it?”

Wolf peered up toward the stage again and she tightened her grip on his wrist, but he made no move to walk away. “I’ve been at the Rieux Tavern every day for weeks. Any of the waitstaff can vouch for that. And I’ve been here every night. Anyone will tell you so.”

Scarlet scowled. “Sorry if the people around here don’t exactly seem like the trustworthy types.”

“They’re not,” he said. “But they do know me. Watch. You’ll see.”

He tried to slip around her but Scarlet turned with him, her hood slipping back. She dug her nails into his skin. “You’re not leaving until you—” She paused, looking past Wolf at the crowd by the platform.

Everyone was watching them, appreciative looks darting up and down Scarlet’s body.

A man on the platform was leaning against the ropes, smirking. He raised his eyebrows when he saw he’d caught Wolf’s and Scarlet’s attention. “Looks like the wolf has found himself a tender morsel tonight,” he said, his voice magnified by speakers somewhere overhead.

A second man stood on the stage behind him, leering at Scarlet. He was twice the size and a foot taller than the one who had spoken and entirely bald. His hair had been replaced with two rows of bear’s teeth implanted like gaping jaws into his scalp.

“Think I’ll be taking that one home after I’ve destroyed dog-boy’s pretty face!”

The audience laughed at the taunts, making cat calls and whistling to one another. Someone nearby asked Wolf if he was afraid to test his luck.

Unruffled, Wolf turned back to Scarlet. “He’s undefeated,” he said in an explanatory tone. “But so am I.”

Annoyed that he could think for a second she cared, Scarlet sucked in a furious breath. “I already commed the police and they’ll be here any minute. If you just tell me where my grandmother is, you can leave, you can even warn your friends if you want. I won’t shoot you and I won’t tell the police about you. Just—just tell me where she is. Please.”

He peered down at her, calm despite the growing rowdiness of the crowd. They’d started chanting something, the words muffled by the blood flowing through Scarlet’s ears. She thought for a second he was crumbling. He was going to tell her, and she would keep her word long enough to find her grandma and get her away from these monsters who had taken her.

Then she would have his head. Once her grandma was safe at home, she would track him down, and whoever else had helped him, and make them pay for what they’d done.

Perhaps he noticed the darkening bitterness on her face, because he reached for her hand and gently pried up her fingers. On gut instinct she dug the gun into his ribs, though she knew she wasn’t going to shoot. Not without answers.

He didn’t seem worried. Maybe he knew it too.

“I believe your father did see a tattoo like mine.” His head dipped toward her. “But it wasn’t me.”

He pulled away. Scarlet dropped her arm, letting the gun hang limp at her side, and watched the chanting crowd part for him. The onlookers were intimidated, but also amused. Most were smiling and jostling one another. Some were moving through the crowds, scanning wrists, collecting bids.

He may have been undefeated, but it seemed clear that most bets had been placed on his opponent.

She squeezed the gun until the textured metal of the handle left an imprint on her palm.

A tattoo like mine …

What had he meant by that?

He’d only been trying to confuse her, she determined as Wolf launched himself over the stage’s ropes, agile as an acrobat. The coincidence was too much.

No matter. She’d given him a chance, but the police would be here soon and take him into custody. She would get her answers, one way or the other.

Shaking with frustration, she tucked the gun back into her waistband. The thrumming in her temples was beginning to mellow and she could make out the crowd’s chanting now.

Hunter. Hunter. Hunter.

Dizzy from the heat and rush of adrenaline, she glanced toward the building’s enormous opening, where she could see overgrown weeds and wheat stalks lit by the moon. She noticed a woman with close-cropped hair glaring at her like a jealous girlfriend. Scarlet returned the look before shifting her attention to the stage. Lingering at the back of the crowd, she pulled up her hood again, drawing her face beneath its shadows.

The crowd surged forward, carrying Scarlet closer to the fight.

Hunter had ripped off his shirt, displaying a mass of raw muscle as he rattled the crowd. The row of teeth embedded on his head glinted as he bowled from one side of the stage to the other.

Wolf was tall, but he looked like a child next to Hunter. Nevertheless, he was all composure in his corner of the platform, radiating arrogance with one foot up on the ropes, practically lounging.

Hunter ignored him, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. Growling. Cursing. Working the crowd into a frenzy.

The one who handed me the poker …

Scarlet’s gut twisted. She needed Wolf. She needed answers. But in that moment, she wouldn’t have minded seeing him ripped to shreds on that stage.

As if sensing her onslaught of rage, Wolf’s gaze flickered toward her. The smug amusement dropped away.

Scarlet hoped it showed on her face just who she was rooting for.

A holograph flickered to life, hanging over the announcer’s head. The words slowly rotated and flickered.

HUNTER [34] VS. WOLF [11]


“Tonight, our reigning, undefeated champion—Hunter!” cried the announcer. The crowd bellowed. “—takes on undefeated newcomer, Wolf!” Mixed boos and cheers. Evidently not everyone had bet against him.

Scarlet was hardly listening, straining hard at the holograph. Wolf [11]. Eleven wins, she suspected. Eleven fights.

Eleven nights?

Her grandmother had been missing for seventeen days and counting. But her father—hadn’t he said they’d only kept him for a week? She frowned, frustrated from the calculations.

Hunter yelled, “We’re having wolf for dinner tonight!”

Hundreds of hands slapped against the edge of the platform like a roll of thunder.

Wolf’s concentration darkened into something thirsty but patient.

The holograph flashed bright red, then evaporated with the sound of a bellowing horn.

The mediator dropped down into the crowd, and the fight began.

Hunter threw the first punch. Scarlet gasped, the movement almost too quick to follow, but Wolf ducked easily and skirted out from Hunter’s shadow.

Hunter was impressively fast for his bulk, but Wolf was faster. A series of blows were deflected, until Hunter’s fist finally connected with a sickening crunch. Scarlet recoiled.

The crowd erupted, pushing and screaming against her. The frenzy was palpable, the