Winter(7)

By: Marissa Meyer



It took Kai a moment to hear her over his frustration, but then his expression cleared and he grinned.

“Yep,” she said, shutting the panel. “That’s the one.”

“I mean it, Cinder. I want to be useful. I want to help.”

She turned back to face him. Frowned. Considered.

“Wire cutters,” she said.

He tensed, a trace of doubt clouding his expression. But then he lifted his chin. Trusting.

With the slightest nudge at Kai’s will, she urged his arm to reach around her and pull the wrench from her back pocket. It was no more difficult than controlling her own cyborg limbs. A mere thought, and she could have him do anything.

Kai blinked at the tool. “That’s wasn’t so bad.”

“Oh, Kai.”

He glanced at her, then back to the wrench as his hand lifted the tool up to eye level and his fingers, no longer under his control, began to twirl the wrench—over one finger, under the other. Slow at first, then faster, until the gleaming of the metal looked like a magic trick.

Kai gaped, awestruck, but there was an edge of discomfort to it. “I always wondered how you did that.”

“Kai.”

He looked back at her, the wrench still dancing over his knuckles.

She shrugged. “It’s too easy. I could do this while scaling a mountain, or … solving complex mathematical equations.”

His eyes narrowed. “You have a calculator in your head.”

Laughing, she released her hold on Kai’s hand. Kai jumped back as the wrench clattered to the ground. Realizing he had control of his own limb again, he stooped to pick it up.

“That’s beside the point,” said Cinder. “With Wolf, there’s some challenge, some focus required, but with Earthens…”

“All right, I get it. But what can I do? I feel so useless, milling around this ship while the war is going on, and you’re all making plans, and I’m just waiting.”

She grimaced at the frustration in his tone. Kai was responsible for billions of people, and she knew he felt like he had abandoned them, even if he hadn’t been given a choice. Because she hadn’t given him a choice.

He was kind to her. Since that first argument after he’d woken up aboard the Rampion, he was careful not to blame her for his frustrations. It was her fault, though. He knew it and she knew it and sometimes it felt like they were caught in a dance Cinder didn’t know the steps to. Each of them avoiding this obvious truth so they didn’t disrupt the mutual ground they’d discovered. The all-too-uncertain happiness they’d discovered.

“The only chance we have of succeeding,” she said, “is if you can persuade Levana to host the wedding on Luna. So right now, you can be thinking about how you’re going to accomplish that.” Leaning forward, she pressed a soft kiss against his mouth. (Eighteen.) “Good thing you’re such a great talker.”





Five

Scarlet pressed her body against the steel bars, straining to grasp the tree branch that dangled just outside her cage. Close—so close. The bar bit into her cheek. She flailed her fingers, brushing a leaf, a touch of bark—yes!

Her fingers closed around the branch. She dropped back into her cage, dragging the branch closer. Wriggling her other arm through the bars, she snapped off three leaf-covered twigs, then broke off the tip and let go. The branch swung upward and a cluster of tiny, unfamiliar nuts dropped onto her head.

Scarlet flinched and waited until the tree had stopped shaking before she turned the hood of her red sweatshirt inside out and shook out the nuts that had attacked her. They sort of looked like hazelnuts. If she could figure out a way to crack into them, they might not be a bad snack later.

A gentle scratching pulled her attention back to the situation. She peered across the menagerie’s pathway, to the white wolf who was standing on his hind legs and batting at the bars of his own enclosure.

Scarlet had spent a lot of time wishing Ryu could leap over those bars. His enclosure’s wall was waist high and he should have been able to clear it easily. Then Scarlet could pet his fur, scratch his ears. What a luxury it would be to have a bit of contact. She had always been fond of the animals on the farm—at least until it was time to slaughter them and cook up a nice ragoût—but she never realized how much she appreciated their simple affection until she had been reduced to an animal herself.

Unfortunately, Ryu wouldn’t be escaping his confinement any sooner than Scarlet would. According to Princess Winter, he had a chip embedded between his shoulder blades that would give him a painful shock if he tried to jump over the rail. The poor creature had learned to accept his habitat a long time ago.

Scarlet doubted she would ever accept hers.

“This is it,” she said, grabbing her hard-earned treasure: three small twigs and a splintered branch. She held them up for the wolf to see. He yipped and did an enthusiastic dance along the enclosure wall. “I can’t reach any more. You have to take your time with these.”

Ryu’s ears twitched.

Rising to her knees—as close to standing as she could get inside her cage—Scarlet grabbed hold of an overhead bar, took aim with one of the smaller twigs, and threw.

Ryu chased after it and snatched the stick from the air. Within seconds, he pranced back to his pile of sticks and dropped the twig on top. Pleased, he sat back on his haunches, tongue lolling.

“Good job, Ryu. Nice show of restraint.” Sighing, Scarlet picked up another stick.

Ryu had just taken off when she heard the padding of feet down the path. Scarlet sat back on her heels, instantly tense, but relieved when she spotted a flowing cream-colored gown between the stalks of exotic flowers and drooping vines. The princess rounded the path’s corner a moment later, basket in hand.

“Hello, friends,” said Princess Winter.

Ryu dropped his newest stick onto the pile, then sat down, chest high as though he were showing her proper respect.

Scarlet scowled. “Suck-up.”

Winter tilted her head in Scarlet’s direction. A spiral of black hair fell across her cheek, obstructing her scars.

“What did you bring me today?” Scarlet asked. “Delusional mutterings with a side of crazy? Or is this one of your good days?”

The princess grinned and sat down in front of Scarlet’s cage, uncaring that the path of tumbled black rock and ground covers would soil her dress. “This is one of my best days,” she said, settling the basket on her lap, “for I have brought you a treat, with a side of news.”

“Oh, oh, don’t tell me. They’re moving me to a bigger cage? Oh, please tell me this one comes with real plumbing. And maybe one of those fancy self-feeders the birds get?”

Though Scarlet’s words were laced with sarcasm, in truth, a larger cage with real plumbing would have been a vast improvement. Without being able to stand up, her muscles were becoming weaker by the day, and it would be heaven if she didn’t have to rely on the guards to lead her into the next enclosure, twice a day, where she was graciously escorted to a trough to do her business.

A trough.

Winter, immune as ever to the bite in Scarlet’s tone, leaned forward with a secretive smile. “Jacin has returned.”

Scarlet’s brow twitched, her emotions at this statement pulling in a dozen directions. She knew Winter had a schoolgirl’s crush on this Jacin guy, but Scarlet’s one interaction with him had been when he was working for a thaumaturge, attacking her and her friends.

She’d convinced herself that he was dead, because the alternative was that he killed Wolf and Cinder, and that was unacceptable.

“And?” she prodded.

Winter’s eyes sparkled. There were times when Scarlet felt like she’d hardened her heart to the girl’s impeccable beauty—her thick hair and warm brown skin, her gold-tinged eyes and rosy lips. But then the princess would give her a look like that and Scarlet’s heart would skip and she would once again wonder how it was possible this wasn’t a glamour.

Winter’s voice turned to a conspiratorial whisper. “Your friends are alive.”

The simple statement sent the world spinning. Scarlet spent a moment in limbo, distrusting, unwilling to hope. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. He said that even the captain and the satellite girl were all right.”

Like a marionette released, she drooped over her knees. “Oh, thank the stars.”

They were alive. After nearly a month of subsisting on dogged stubbornness, finally Scarlet had a reason to hope. It was so sudden, so unexpected, she felt dizzy with euphoria.

“He also said to tell you,” Winter continued, “that Wolf misses you very much. Well, Jacin’s words were that he drove everyone rocket-mad with his pathetic whining about you. That’s sweet, don’t you think?”

Something cracked inside Scarlet. She hadn’t cried once since she’d come to Luna—aside from tears of pain and delirium when she was tortured, mentally and physically. But now all the fear and all the panic and all the horror welled up inside her and she couldn’t hold it back, couldn’t even think beyond the onslaught of sobs and messy tears.

They were alive. They were all alive.

She knew Cinder was still out there—word had spread even to the menagerie that she had infiltrated New Beijing Palace and kidnapped the emperor. Scarlet had felt smug for days when the gossip reached her, even if she didn’t have anything to do with the heist.

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