Winter(3)By: Marissa Meyer
Levana glowered at him, and Winter imagined her calculating whether to grant the permission or punish the man for speaking out of turn. Finally, she said, “What is your name, and why do you dare interrupt these proceedings?”
The guard stepped forward, staring at the wall, always at the wall. “My name is Liam Kinney, My Queen. I assisted with the retrieval of Thaumaturge Mira’s body.”
A questioning eyebrow to Jerrico; a confirming nod received. “Go on,” said Levana.
“Mistress Mira was in possession of a portscreen when we found her, and though it was broken in the fall, it was still submitted as evidence in the case of her murder. I wonder if anyone has attempted to retrieve the alleged comm.”
Levana turned her attention back to Aimery, whose face was a mask that Winter recognized. The more pleasant his expression, the more annoyed he was. “In fact, we did manage to access her recent communications. I was about to bring forward the evidence.”
It was a lie, which gave Winter hope. Aimery was a great liar, especially when it was in his best interests. And he hated Jacin. He would not want to give up anything that could help him.
Hope. Frail, flimsy, pathetic hope.
Aimery gestured toward the door and a servant scurried forward, carrying a shattered portscreen and a holograph node on a tray. “This is the portscreen Sir Kinney mentioned. Our investigation has confirmed that there was, indeed, an anonymous comm sent to Sybil Mira that day.”
The servant turned on the node and a holograph shimmered into the center of the room—behind it, Jacin faded away like a phantom.
The holograph displayed a basic text comm.
Linh Cinder plotting to kidnap EC emperor.
Escape planned from north tower rooftop, sunset.
So much importance pressed into so few words. It was just like Jacin.
Levana read the words with narrowed eyes. “Thank you, Sir Kinney, for bringing this to our attention.” It was telling that she did not thank Aimery.
The guard, Kinney, bowed and stepped back into position. His gaze flickered once to Winter, unreadable, before attaching again to the far wall.
Levana continued, “I suppose you will tell me, Sir Clay, that this was the comm you sent.”
“Have you anything else to add before I make my verdict?”
“Nothing, My Queen.”
Levana leaned back in her throne and the room hushed, everyone awaiting the queen’s decision.
“I trust my stepdaughter would like me to spare you.”
Jacin didn’t react, but Winter winced at the haughtiness in her stepmother’s tone. “Please, Stepmother,” she whispered, the words clumping on her dry tongue. “It’s Jacin. He is not our enemy.”
“Not yours, perhaps,” Levana said. “But you are a naïve, stupid girl.”
“That is not so. I am a factory for blood and platelets, and all my machinery is freezing over…”
The court burst into laughter, and Winter recoiled. Even Levana’s lips twitched, though there was annoyance beneath her amusement.
“I have made my decision,” she said, her booming voice demanding silence. “I have decided to let the prisoner live.”
Winter released a cry of relief. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but it was too late to stifle the noise.
There were more giggles from the audience.
“Have you any other insights to add, Princess?” Levana said through her teeth.
Winter gathered her emotions as well as she could. “No, My Queen. Your rulings are always wise and final, My Queen.”
“This ruling is not finished.” The queen’s voice hardened as she addressed Jacin again. “Your inability to kill or capture Linh Cinder will not go unpunished, as your incompetence led to her successful kidnapping of my betrothed. For this crime, I sentence you to thirty self-inflicted lashings to be held on the central dais, followed by forty hours of penance. Your sentence shall commence at tomorrow’s light-break.”
Winter flinched, but even this punishment could not destroy the fluttery relief in her stomach. He was not going to die. She was not a girl of ice and glass at all, but a girl of sunshine and stardust, because Jacin wasn’t going to die.
She jerked her attention back to her stepmother, who was eyeing her with disdain. “If you attempt to bring him food, I will have his tongue removed in payment for your kindness.”
She shrank back into her chair, a tiny ray of her sunshine extinguished. “Yes, My Queen.”
Winter was awake hours before light brightened the dome’s artificial sky, having hardly slept. She did not go to watch Jacin receive his lashings, knowing that if he saw her, he would have kept himself from screaming in pain. She wouldn’t do that to him. Let him scream. He was still stronger than any of them.
She dutifully nibbled at the cured meats and cheeses brought for her breakfast. She allowed the servants to bathe her and dress her in pale pink silk. She sat through an entire session with Master Gertman, a third-tier thaumaturge and her long-standing tutor, pretending to try to use her gift and apologizing when it was too hard, when she was too weak. He did not seem to mind. Anyway, he spent most of their sessions gazing slack-jawed at her face, and Winter didn’t know if he would be able to tell if she really did glamour him for once.
The artificial day had come and gone; one of the maidservants had brought her a mug of warmed milk and cinnamon and turned down her bed, and finally Winter was left alone.
Her heart pounded with anticipation.
She slipped into a pair of lightweight linen pants and a loose top, then pulled on her night robe so it would look like she was wearing her bedclothes underneath. She had thought of this all day, the plan taking form in her mind, like tiny puzzle pieces snapping together. Willful determination had stifled any hallucinations.
She fluffed her hair to look as if she’d woken from a deep slumber, turned off the lights, and climbed up onto her bed. The dangling chandelier clipped her brow and she flinched, stepping back and catching her balance on the thick mattress.
Winter braced herself with a breath full of intentions.
Counted to three.
She screamed like an assassin was driving a knife into her stomach.
She screamed like a thousand birds were pecking at her flesh.
She screamed like the palace was burning down around her.
The guard stationed outside her door burst inside, weapon drawn. Winter went on screaming. Stumbling back over her pillows, she pressed her back against the headboard and clawed at her hair.
“Princess! What is it? What’s wrong?” His eyes darted around the dark room, searching for an intruder, a threat.
Flailing an arm behind her, Winter scratched at the wallpaper, tearing off a shred. It was becoming easier to believe she was horrified. There were phantoms and murderers closing in around her.
“Princess!” A second guard burst into the room. He flipped on the light and Winter ducked away from it. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” The first guard had crossed to the other side of the room and was checking behind the window drapes.
“Monster!” Winter shrieked, bulleting the statement with a sob. “I woke up and he was standing over my bed—one of—one of the queen’s soldiers!”
The guards traded looks and the silent message was clear, even to Winter.
Nothing’s wrong. She’s just crazy.
“Your Highness—” started the second guard, as a third appeared at the doorway.
Good. There were only three guards regularly stationed in this corridor between her bedroom and the main stairway.
“He went that way!” Cowering behind one arm, Winter pointed toward her dressing closet. “Please. Please don’t let him get away. Please find him!”
“What’s happened?” asked the newcomer.
“She thinks she saw one of the mutant soldiers,” grumbled the second guard.
“He was here,” she screamed, the words tearing at her throat. “Why aren’t you protecting me? Why are you standing there? Go find him!”
The first guard looked annoyed, as if this charade had interrupted something more than standing in the hallway and staring at a wall. He holstered his gun, but said, with authority, “Of course, Princess. We will find this perpetrator and ensure your safety.” He beckoned the second guard and the two of them stalked off toward the closet.
Winter turned to the third guard and fell into a crouch. “You must go with them,” she urged, her voice fluttery and weak. “He is a monster—enormous—with ferocious teeth and claws that will tear them to shreds. They can’t defeat him alone, and if they fail—!” Her words turned into a wail of terror. “He’ll come for me, and there will be no one to stop him. No one will save me!” She pulled at her hair, her entire body quivering.
“All right, all right. Of course, Highness. Just wait here, and … try to calm yourself.” Looking grateful to leave the mad princess behind, he took off after his comrades.
No sooner had he disappeared did Winter slip off the bed and shrug out of her robe, leaving it draped over a chair.
“The closet is clear!” one of the guards yelled.
“Keep looking!” she yelled back. “I know he’s in there!”
Snatching up the simple hat and shoes she’d left by the door, she fled.