Winter(10)By: Marissa Meyer
“Of course,” she said, moving back toward the door. “Of course you want to see everyone.”
She stifled a sigh, realizing she was going to have to train herself not to stare at him quite as often as she was used to, otherwise there would be no chance of hiding the fact that, despite all his attempts to persuade her otherwise, she was still hopelessly in love with him.
Jacin awoke with a jolt. He was damp and sticky and smelled like sulfur. His throat and lungs were burning—not painfully, but like they’d been improperly treated and they wanted to make sure he knew about it. Instinct told him he was not in immediate danger, but the fuzziness of his thoughts set him on edge. When he peeled his eyes open, blaring overhead lights burst across his retinas. He grimaced, shutting them again.
Memories flooded in all at once. The trial. The lashings. The forty mind-numbing hours spent tied to that sundial. The mischievous smile Winter shared only with him. Being carted to the med-clinic and the doctor prepping his body for immersion.
He was still at the clinic, in the suspended-animation tank.
“Don’t move,” said a voice. “We’re still disconnecting the umbilicals.”
Umbilicals. The word sounded far too bloody and organic for this contraption they’d stuck him in.
There was a pinch in his arm and the tug of skin as a series of needles were pulled from his veins, then a snap of electrodes as sensors were pried off his chest and scalp, the cords tangling in his hair. He tested his eyes again, blinking into the brightness. A doctor’s shadow hung over him.
“Can you sit?”
Jacin tested his fingers, curling them into the thick gel substance he was lying on. He grasped the sides of the tank and pulled himself up. He’d never been in one of these before—had never been injured enough to need it—and despite the confusion upon first waking, he already felt surprisingly lucid.
He looked down at his body, traces of the tank’s blue gel-like substance still clinging to his belly button and the hairs on his legs and the towel they’d draped across his lap.
He touched one of the jagged scars that cut across his abdomen, looking as if it had healed years ago. Not bad.
The doctor handed him a child-size cup filled with syrupy orange liquid. Jacin eyed the doctor’s crisp lab coat, the ID tag on his chest, the soft hands that were used to holding portscreens and syringes, not guns and knives. There was a pang of envy, a reminder that this was closer to the life he would have chosen, if he’d been given a choice. If Levana hadn’t made the choice for him when she selected him for the royal guard. Though she’d never made the threat aloud, Jacin had known from the beginning that Winter would be punished if he ever stepped out of line.
His dream of being a doctor had stopped mattering a long time ago.
He shot back the drink, swallowing his thoughts along with it. Dreaming was for people with nothing better to do.
The medicine tasted bitter, but the burning in his throat began to fade.
When he handed the cup back to the doctor, he noticed a figure hovering near the doorway, ignored by the doctors and nurses who puttered around the storage cells of countless other tanks, checking diagnostics and making notations on their ports.
Thaumaturge Aimery Park. Looking smugger than ever in his fancy bright white coat. The queen’s new favorite hound.
“Sir Jacin Clay. You look refreshed.”
Jacin didn’t know if his voice would work after being immersed in the tank, and he didn’t want his first words to the thaumaturge to be a pathetic croak. He cleared his throat, though, and it felt almost normal.
“I am to retrieve you for an audience with Her Majesty. You may have forfeited your honored position in service to the royal entourage, but we still intend to find a use for you. I trust you are fit to return to active duty?”
Jacin tried not to look relieved. The last thing he wanted was to become the personal guard to the head thaumaturge again—especially now that Aimery was in the position. He embraced a particular loathing for this man, who was rumored to have abused more than one palace servant with his manipulations, and whose leering attentions landed far too often on Winter.
“I trust I am,” he said. His voice was a little rusty, but not horrible. He swallowed again. “May I request a new uniform? A towel seems inappropriate for the position.”
Aimery smirked. “A nurse will escort you to the showers, where a uniform will be waiting. I will meet you outside the armory when you’re ready.”
* * *
The vaults beneath the Lunar palace were carved from years of emptied lava tubes, their walls made of rough black stone and lit by sparse glowing orbs. These underground places were never seen by the queen or her court, hence no one worried about making them beautiful to match the rest of the palace with its glossy white surfaces and crystalline, reflection-less windows.
Jacin sort of liked it down in the vaults. Down here, it was easy to forget he was beneath the capital at all. The white city of Artemisia, with its enormous crater lake and towering spires, had been built upon a solid foundation of brainwashing and manipulation. In comparison, the lava tubes were as cold and rough and natural as the landscape outside the domes. They were unpretentious. They did not do themselves up with lavish decorations and glitz in an attempt to conceal the horrible things that happened inside their walls.
Even still, Jacin moved briskly toward the armory. There was no residual pain, just the memory of each spiked lash and the betrayal of his own arm wielding the weapon. That betrayal was something he was used to, though. His body hadn’t felt entirely his own since he became a member of the queen’s guard.
At least he was home, for better or worse. Once again able to watch over his princess. Once again under Levana’s thumb.
He cleared Winter from his thoughts as he turned into the armory. She was a danger to his hard-earned neutrality. Thinking about her tended to give him an unwanted hitch in his lungs.
There was no sign of Aimery, but two guards stood at the barred door and a third sat at the desk inside, all wearing the gray-and-red uniforms of royal guards identical to Jacin’s but for the metallic runes over the breast. Jacin ranked higher than any of them. He’d worried he would lose his position as a royal guard after his stint with Linh Cinder, but evidently his betrayal of her counted for something after all.
“Jacin Clay,” he said, approaching the desk, “reporting for reinstatement under the order of Her Majesty.”
The guard scanned a holograph chart and gave a terse nod. A second barred door filled up the wall behind him, hiding shelves of weaponry in its shadows. The man retrieved a bin that held a handgun and extra ammunition and pushed it across the desk, through the opening in the bars.
“There was also a knife.”
The man scowled, as if a missing knife were the biggest hassle of his day, and crouched down to peer into the cupboard.
Jacin dropped the gun’s magazine, reloading it while the man riffled through the cabinet. As Jacin was tucking the gun into his holster, the man tossed his knife onto the desk. It skidded across, off the surface. Jacin snatched it from the air just before the blade lodged itself in his thigh.
“Thanks,” he muttered, turning.
“Traitor,” one of the guards at the door said beneath his breath.
Jacin twirled the knife beneath the guard’s nose and sank it into the scabbard on his belt without bothering to make eye contact. His early rise through the ranks had earned him plenty of enemies, morons who seemed to think Jacin had cheated somehow to earn such a desirable position so young. When really the queen just wanted to keep a closer eye on him and, through him, Winter.
The click of his boots echoed through the tunnel as he left them behind. He turned a corner and neither flinched nor slowed when he spotted Aimery waiting by the elevator.
When he was six steps away, Jacin came to a stop and clapped a fist to his chest.
Stepping aside, Aimery swooped his arm toward the elevator doors. The long white sleeve of his coat swung with it. “Let’s not keep Her Majesty waiting.”
Jacin entered without argument, taking up his usual spot beside the elevator’s door, arms braced at his sides.
“Her Majesty and I have been discussing your role here since your trial,” said Aimery once the doors had closed.
“I’m eager to be of service.” Only years of practice disguised how abhorrent the words tasted in his mouth.
“As we wish to once again have faith in your loyalty.”
“I will serve in whatever way Her Majesty sees fit.”
“Good.” There was that smile again, and this time it came with a suspicious chill. “Because Her Royal Highness, the princess herself, has made a request of you.”
Jacin’s gut tightened. There was no way to stay indifferent as his thoughts started to race.
Please, please, you hateful stars—don’t let Winter have done something stupid.
“If your service meets with Her Majesty’s expectations,” Aimery continued, “we will return you to your previous position within the palace.”
Jacin inclined his head. “I am most grateful for this opportunity to prove myself.”
“I have no doubt of it, Sir Clay.”
The elevator doors opened into the queen’s solar—an octagonal room made up of windows on all sides. The cylindrical elevator itself was encapsulated in glass and stood at the room’s center so that no part of the view would be obstructed. The décor was simple—thin white pillars and a glass dome overhead, mimicking the dome over the city. This tower, this very room, was the highest point in Artemisia, and the sight of all those buildings white and glittering beneath them, and an entire jewelry case of stars overhead, was all the decoration the room required.