Winter(2)By: Marissa Meyer
Winter heard her toes snap off. One. By. One.
“Very good,” said Queen Levana. “Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is carried out.”
The ice was in her throat now, climbing up her jaw. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.
She raised her head as a servant began washing the blood from the tiles. Aimery, rubbing his knife with a cloth, met Winter’s gaze. His smile was searing. “I am afraid the princess has no stomach for these proceedings.”
The nobles in the audience tittered—Winter’s disgust of the trials was a source of merriment to most of Levana’s court.
The queen turned, but Winter couldn’t look up. She was a girl made of ice and glass. Her teeth were brittle, her lungs too easily shattered.
“Yes,” said Levana. “I often forget she’s here at all. You’re about as useless as a rag doll, aren’t you, Winter?”
The audience chuckled again, louder now, as if the queen had given permission to mock the young princess. But Winter couldn’t respond, not to the queen, not to the laughter. She kept her focus on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.
“Oh, no, she isn’t quite as useless as that,” Aimery said. As Winter stared, a thin crimson line drew itself across his throat, blood bubbling up from the wound. “The prettiest girl on all of Luna? She will make some member of this court a happy bride someday, I should think.”
“The prettiest girl, Aimery?” Levana’s light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.
Aimery slipped into a bow. “Prettiest only, My Queen. But no mortal could compare with your perfection.”
The court was quick to agree, offering a hundred compliments at once, though Winter still felt the leering gazes of more than one noble attached to her.
Aimery took a step toward the throne and his severed head tipped off, thunking against the marble and rolling, rolling, rolling, until it stopped at Winter’s frozen feet.
She whimpered, but the sound was buried beneath the snow in her throat.
It’s all in your head.
“Silence,” said Levana, once she’d had her share of praise. “Are we finished?”
Finally, the ice found her eyes and Winter had no choice but to shut them against Aimery’s headless apparition, enclosing herself in cold and darkness.
She would die here and not complain. She would be buried beneath this avalanche of lifelessness. She would never have to witness another murder again.
“There is one more prisoner still to be tried, My Queen.” Aimery’s voice echoed in the cold hollowness of Winter’s head. “Sir Jacin Clay, royal guard, pilot, and assigned protector of Thaumaturge Sybil Mira.”
Winter gasped and the ice shattered, a million sharp glittering bits exploding across the throne room and skidding across the floor. No one else heard them. No one else noticed.
Aimery, head very much attached, was watching her again, as if he’d been waiting to see her reaction. His smirk was subtle as he returned his attention to the queen.
“Ah, yes,” said Levana. “Bring him in.”
The doors to the throne room opened, and there he was, trapped between two guards, his wrists corded behind his back. His blond hair was clumped and matted, strands of it clinging to his jaw. It appeared to have been a fair while since he’d last showered, but Winter could detect no obvious signs of abuse.
Her stomach flipped. All the warmth the ice had sucked out of her came rushing back to the surface of her skin.
Stay with me, Princess. Listen to my voice, Princess.
He was led to the center of the room, devoid of expression. Winter jabbed her fingernails into her palms.
Jacin didn’t look at her. Not once.
“Jacin Clay,” said Aimery, “you have been charged with betraying the crown by failing to protect Thaumaturge Mira and by failing to apprehend a known Lunar fugitive despite nearly two weeks spent in said fugitive’s company. You are a traitor to Luna and to our queen. These crimes are punishable by death. What have you to say in your defense?”
Winter’s heart thundered like a drum against her ribs. She turned pleading eyes up to her stepmother, but Levana was not paying her any attention.
“I plead guilty to all stated crimes,” said Jacin, drawing Winter’s attention back, “except for the accusation that I am a traitor.”
Levana’s fingernails fluttered against the arm of her throne. “Explain.”
Jacin stood as tall and stalwart as if he were in uniform, as if he were on duty, not on trial. “As I’ve said before, I did not apprehend the fugitive while in her company because I was attempting to convince her I could be trusted, in order to gather information for my queen.”
“Ah, yes, you were spying on her and her companions,” said Levana. “I do recall that excuse from when you were captured. I also recall that you had no pertinent information to give me, only lies.”
“Not lies, My Queen, though I will admit I underestimated the cyborg and her abilities. She was disguising them from me.”
“So much for earning her trust.” There was mocking in the queen’s tone.
“Knowledge of the cyborg’s skills was not the only information I sought, My Queen.”
“I suggest you stop playing with words. My patience with you is already thin.”
Winter’s heart shriveled. Not Jacin. She could not sit here and watch them kill Jacin.
She would bargain for him, she decided, though the plan came with a flaw. What did she have to bargain with? Nothing but her own life, and Levana would not accept that.
She could throw a fit. Go into hysterics. It would hardly be a stretch from the truth at this point, and it might distract them for a time, but it would only delay the inevitable.
She had felt helpless many times in her life, but never like this.
Only one thing to be done, then. She would throw her own body in front of the blade.
Oh, Jacin would hate that.
Ignorant of Winter’s newest resolve, Jacin respectfully inclined his head. “During my time with Linh Cinder, I uncovered information about a device that can nullify the effects of the Lunar gift when connected to a person’s nervous system.”
This caused a curious squirm through the crowd. A stiffening of spines, a tilting forward of shoulders.
“Impossible,” said Levana.
“Linh Cinder had evidence of its potential. As it was described to me, on an Earthen, the device will keep their bioelectricity from being tampered with. But on a Lunar, it will prevent them from using their gift at all. Linh Cinder herself had the device installed when she arrived at the Commonwealth ball. Only when it was destroyed was she able to use her gift—as was evidenced with your own eyes, My Queen.”
His words carried an air of impertinence. Levana’s knuckles turned white.
“How many of these hypothetical devices exist?”
“To my knowledge, only the broken device installed in the cyborg herself. But I suspect there still exist patents or blueprints. The inventor was Linh Cinder’s adoptive father.”
The queen’s grip began to relax. “This is intriguing information, Sir Clay. But it speaks more of a desperate attempt to save yourself than true innocence.”
Jacin shrugged, nonchalant. “If my loyalty cannot be seen in how I conducted myself with the enemy, obtaining this information and alerting Thaumaturge Mira to the plot to kidnap Emperor Kaito, I don’t know what other evidence I can provide for you, My Queen.”
“Yes, yes, the anonymous tip Sybil received, alerting her to Linh Cinder’s plans.” Levana sighed. “I find it very convenient that this comm you claim to have sent was seen by no one other than Sybil herself, who is now dead.”
For the first time, Jacin looked off balance beneath the queen’s glare. He still had not looked at Winter.
The queen turned to Jerrico Solis, her captain of the guard. Like so many of the queen’s guards, Jerrico made Winter uncomfortable, and she often had visions of his orange-red hair going up in flames and the rest of him burning down to a smoldering coal. “You were with Sybil when she ambushed the enemy’s ship that day, yet you said before that Sybil had mentioned no such comm. Have you anything to add?”
Jerrico took a step forward. He had returned from their Earthen excursion with a fair share of bruises, but they had begun to fade. “My Queen, Thaumaturge Mira seemed confident we would find Linh Cinder on that rooftop, but she did not mention receiving any outside information—anonymous or otherwise. When the ship landed, it was Thaumaturge Mira who ordered Jacin Clay to be taken into custody.”
Jacin’s eyebrow twitched. “Perhaps she was still upset that I shot her.” He paused, before adding, “While under Linh Cinder’s control, in my defense.”
“You seem to have plenty to say in your defense,” said Levana.
Jacin didn’t respond. It was the calmest Winter had ever seen a prisoner—he, who knew better than anyone the horrible things that happened on this floor, in the very spot where he stood. Levana should have been infuriated by his audacity, but she seemed merely thoughtful.
“Permission to speak, My Queen?”
The crowd rustled and it took a moment for Winter to discern who had spoken. It was a guard. One of the silent ornamentations of the palace. Though she recognized him, she didn’t know his name.