Winter(4)By: Marissa Meyer
Unlike her personal guards, who would have questioned her endlessly and insisted on escorting her into the city, the guards who were manning the towers outside the palace hardly stirred when she asked for the gate to be opened. Without guards and fine dresses, and with her bushel of hair tucked up and her face tucked down, she could pass for a servant in the shadows.
As soon as she was outside the gate, she started to run.
There were aristocrats milling around the tiled city streets, laughing and flirting in their fine clothes and glamours. Light spilled from open doorways, music danced along the window ledges, and everywhere was the smell of food and the clink of glasses and shadows kissing and sighing in darkened alleyways.
It was like this always in the city. The frivolity, the pleasure. The white city of Artemisia—their own little paradise beneath the protective glass.
At the center of it all was the dais, a circular platform where dramas were performed and auctions held, where spectacles of illusion and bawdy humor often drew the families from their mansions for a night of revelry.
Public humiliations and punishments were frequently on the docket.
Winter was panting, both frazzled and giddy with her success, as the dais came into view. She spotted him and the yearning inside her weakened her knees. She had to slow to catch her breath.
He was sitting with his back to the enormous sundial at the center of the dais, an instrument as useless as it was striking during these long nights. Ropes bound his bare arms and his chin was collapsed against his collarbone, pale hair hiding his face. As Winter neared him, she could see the raised hash marks of the lashings across his chest and abdomen, scattered with dried blood. There would be more on his back. His hand would be blistered from gripping the lash. Self-inflicted, Levana had proclaimed the punishment, but everyone knew Jacin would be under the control of a thaumaturge. There was nothing self-inflicted about it.
Aimery, she heard, had volunteered for the task. He had probably relished every wound.
Jacin raised his head as she reached the edge of the dais. Their eyes clashed, and she was staring at a man who had been beaten and bound and mocked and tormented all day and for a moment she was sure he was broken. Another one of the queen’s broken toys.
But then one side of his mouth lifted, and the smile hit his startling blue eyes, and he was as bright and welcoming as the rising sun.
“Hey, Trouble,” he said, leaning his head back against the dial.
With that, the terror from the past weeks slipped away. He was alive. He was home. He was still Jacin.
She pulled herself onto the dais. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” she said, crossing to him. “I didn’t know if you were dead or being held hostage, or if you’d been eaten by one of the queen’s soldiers. It’s been driving me mad not knowing.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her.
She scowled. “Don’t comment on that.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” He rolled his shoulders as much as he could against his bindings. His wounds gapped and puckered with the movement and his face contorted in pain, but it was brief.
Pretending she hadn’t noticed, Winter sat cross-legged in front of him, inspecting the wounds. Wanting to touch him. Terrified to touch him. That much, at least, had not changed. “Does it hurt very much?”
“Better than being at the bottom of the lake.” His smile turned wry, lips chapped. “They’ll move me to a suspension tank tomorrow night. Half a day and I’ll be good as new.” He squinted. “That’s assuming you’re not here to bring me food. I’d like to keep my tongue where it is, thank you.”
“No food. Just a friendly face.”
“Friendly.” His gaze raked over her, his relaxed grin still in place. “That’s an understatement.”
She dipped her head, turning away to hide the three scars on her right cheek. For years, Winter had assumed that when people stared at her, it was because the scars disgusted them. A rare disfigurement in their world of perfection. But then a maid told her they weren’t disgusted, they were in awe. She said the scars made Winter interesting to look at and somehow, odd as it was, even more beautiful. Beautiful. It was a word Winter had heard tossed around all her life. A beautiful child, a beautiful girl, a beautiful young lady, so beautiful, too beautiful … and the stares that attended the word never ceased to make her want to don a veil like her stepmother’s and hide from the whispers.
Jacin was the one person who could make her feel beautiful without it seeming like a bad thing. She couldn’t recall him ever using the word, or giving her any compliments, for that matter. They were always hidden behind careless jokes that made her heart pound.
“Don’t tease,” she said, flustered at the way he looked at her, at the way he always looked at her.
“Wasn’t teasing,” he said, all nonchalance.
In response, Winter reached out and punched him on the shoulder.
He flinched, and she gasped, remembering his wounds. But Jacin’s chuckle was warm. “That’s not a fair fight, Princess.”
She reeled back the budding apology. “It’s about time I had the advantage.”
He glanced past her, into the streets. “Where’s your guard?”
“I left him behind. Searching for a monster in my closet.”
The sunshine smile hardened into exasperation. “Princess, you can’t go out alone. If something happened to you—”
“Who’s going to hurt me here, in the city? Everyone knows who I am.”
“It just takes one idiot, too used to getting what he wants and too drunk to control himself.”
She flushed and clenched her jaw.
Jacin frowned, immediately regretful. “Princess—”
“I’ll run all the way back to the palace. I’ll be fine.”
He sighed, and she listed her head, wishing she’d brought some sort of medicinal salve for his cuts. Levana hadn’t said anything about medicine, and the sight of him tied up and vulnerable—and shirtless, even if it was a bloodied shirtless—was making her fingers twitch in odd ways.
“I wanted to be alone with you,” she said, focusing on his face. “We never get to be alone anymore.”
“It’s not proper for seventeen-year-old princesses to be alone with young men who have questionable intentions.”
She laughed. “And what about young men who she’s been best friends with since before she could walk?”
He shook his head. “Those are the worst.”
She snorted—an actual snort of laughter that served to brighten Jacin’s face again.
But the humor was bittersweet. The truth was, Jacin touched her only when he was helping her through a hallucination. Otherwise, he hadn’t deliberately touched her in years. Not since she was fourteen and he was sixteen, and she’d tried to teach him the Eclipse Waltz with somewhat embarrassing results.
These days, she would have auctioned off the Milky Way to make his intentions a little less honorable.
Her smile started to fizzle. “I’ve missed you,” she said.
His gaze dropped away and he shifted in an attempt to get more comfortable against the dial. Locking his jaw so she wouldn’t see how much every tiny movement pained him. “How’s your head?” he asked.
“The visions come and go,” she said, “but they don’t seem to be getting worse.”
“Have you had one today?”
She picked at a small, natural flaw in the linen of her pants, thinking back. “No, not since the trials yesterday. I turned into a girl of icicles, and Aimery lost his head. Literally.”
“Wouldn’t mind if that last one came true.”
She shushed him.
“I mean it. I don’t like how he looks at you.”
Winter glanced over her shoulder, but the courtyards surrounding the dais were empty. Only the distant bustle of music and laughter reminded her they were in a metropolis at all.
“You’re back on Luna now,” she said. “You have to be careful what you say.”
“You’re giving me advice on how to be covert?”
“There are three cameras on this square. Two on the lampposts behind you, one embedded in the oak tree behind the sundial. None of them have audio. Unless she’s hiring lip-readers now?”
Winter glared. “How can you know for sure?”
“Surveillance was one of Sybil’s specialties.”
“Nevertheless, the queen could have killed you yesterday. You need to be careful.”
“I know, Princess. I have no interest in returning to that throne room as anything other than a loyal guard.”
A rumble overhead caught Winter’s attention. Through the dome, the lights of a dozen spaceships were fading as they streaked across the star-scattered sky. Heading toward Earth.
“Soldiers,” Jacin muttered. She couldn’t tell if he meant it as a statement or a question. “How’s the war effort?”
“No one tells me anything. But Her Majesty seems pleased with our victories … though still furious about the missing emperor, and the canceled wedding.”
“Not canceled. Just delayed.”
“Try telling her that.”
Winter leaned forward on her elbows, cupping her chin. “Did the cyborg really have a device like you said? One that can keep people from being manipulated?”