Cress winced around her frozen grin. “Found her, Mistress?”
“If it is a good day, then you must have finally completed the simple task I’ve given you. Is that it, Crescent? Have you found the cyborg?”
Cress lowered her gaze and dug her fingernails into her palms. “No, Mistress. I haven’t found her.”
“I see. So it isn’t a good day after all, is it?”
“I only meant … Your company is always…” She trailed off. Forcing her hands to unclench, she dared to meet Mistress Sybil’s glare. “I was just reading the news, Mistress. I thought perhaps we were pleased about Her Majesty’s engagement.”
Sybil dropped the case onto the crisply made bed. “We will be satisfied once Earth is under Lunar control. Until then, there is work to be done, and you should not be wasting your time reading news and gossip.”
Sybil neared the monitor that held the secret window with the D-COMM feed and the evidence of Cress’s betrayal to the Lunar crown, and Cress stiffened. But Sybil reached past it to a screen displaying a vid of Emperor Kaito speaking in front of the Eastern Commonwealth flag. With a touch, the screen cleared, revealing the metal wall and a tangle of heating tubes behind it.
Cress slowly released her breath.
“I certainly hope you’ve found something.”
She stood taller. “Linh Cinder was spotted in the European Federation, in a small town in southern France, at approximately 18:00 local ti—”
“I’m well aware of all that. And then she went to Paris and killed a thaumaturge and some useless special operatives. Anything else, Crescent?”
Cress swallowed and began winding her hair around both wrists in a looping figure eight. “At 17:48, in Rieux, France, the clerk of a ship-and-vehicle parts store updated the store inventory, removing one power cell that would be compatible with a 214 Rampion, Class 11.3, but not notating any sort of payment. I thought perhaps Linh Cinder stole … or maybe glamoured…” She hesitated. Sybil liked to keep up the pretense that the cyborg was a shell, even though they both knew it wasn’t true. Unlike Cress, who was a true shell, Linh Cinder had the Lunar gift. It may have been buried or hidden somehow, but it had certainly made itself known at the Commonwealth’s annual ball.
“A power cell?” Sybil said, passing over Cress’s hesitation.
“It converts compressed hydrogen into energy in order to propel—”
“I know what it is,” Sybil snapped. “You’re telling me that the only progress you’ve made is finding evidence that she’s making repairs to her ship? That it’s going to become even more difficult to track her down, a task that you couldn’t even manage when they were on Earth?”
“I’m sorry, Mistress. I’m trying. It’s just—”
“I’m not interested in your excuses. All these years I’ve persuaded Her Majesty to let you live, under the premise that you had something valuable to offer, something even more valuable than blood. Was I wrong to protect you, Crescent?”
She bit her lip, withholding a reminder of all she’d done for Her Majesty during her imprisonment. Designing countless spy systems for keeping watch on Earth’s leaders, hacking the communication links between diplomats, and jamming satellite signals to allow the queen’s soldiers to invade Earth undetected, so that now the blood of sixteen thousand Earthens was on her hands. It made no difference. Sybil cared only about Cress’s failures, and not finding Linh Cinder was Cress’s biggest failure to date.
“I’m sorry, Mistress. I’ll try harder.”
Sybil’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll be very displeased if you don’t find me that girl, and soon.”
Held by Sybil’s gaze, she felt like a moth pinned to an examination board. “Yes, Mistress.”
“Good.” Reaching forward, Sybil petted her cheek. It felt almost like a mother’s approval, but not quite. Then she turned away and released the locking mechanisms on the case. “Now then,” she said, retrieving a hypodermic needle from the medical kit. “Your arm.”
Wolf pushed himself off the crate, hurtling toward her. Cinder braced herself against the instinctive panic. The anticipation of one more hit tightened every muscle, despite the fact that he was still going easy on her.
She squeezed her eyes shut moments before impact and focused.
Pain shot through her head like a chisel into her brain. She gritted her teeth against it, attempting to numb herself to the waves of nausea that followed.
The impact didn’t come.
“Stop. Closing. Your. Eyes.”
Jaws still clenched, she forced one eye open and then the other. Wolf stood before her, his right hand in mid-swing toward her ear. His body was still as stone—because she was holding him there. His energy was hot and palpable and just out of reach, the strength of her own Lunar gift keeping him at bay.
“It’s easier to have them closed,” she hissed back. Even those few words put a strain on her mind, and Wolf’s fingers twitched. He was struggling against the confines of her control.
Then his gaze flickered past her, as a thump between her shoulder blades sent Cinder tumbling forward. Her forehead collided with Wolf’s chest. His body released just in time for him to steady her.
Behind her, Thorne chuckled. “It also makes it easier for people to sneak up on you.”
Cinder spun around and shoved Thorne away. “This isn’t a game!”
“Thorne is right,” said Wolf. She could hear his exhaustion, though she wasn’t sure whether it came from the constant melee or, more likely, his frustration at having to train such an amateur. “When you close your eyes, it makes you vulnerable. You have to learn to use the gift while still being aware of your surroundings, while still being active within them.”
Wolf stretched his neck to either side, eliciting a few pops, before shaking it out. “Yes, active. We could be facing dozens of soldiers at a time. With any luck, you’ll be able to control nine or ten—although that’s optimistic at this point.”
She crinkled her nose at him.
“Which means you’ll be vulnerable to countless more. You should be able to control me while still being fully present, both mentally and physically.” He took a step back, pawing at his messy hair. “If even Thorne can sneak up on you, we’re in trouble.”
Thorne cuffed his sleeves. “Never underestimate the stealth of a criminal mastermind.”
Scarlet started laughing from where she sat cross-legged on a plastic storage crate, enjoying a bowl of oatmeal. “‘Criminal mastermind’? We’ve been trying to figure out how to infiltrate the royal wedding for the past week, and so far your biggest contribution has been determining which of the palace rooftops is the most spacious so your precious ship doesn’t get scratched in the landing.”
A few light panels brightened along the ceiling. “I fully agree with Captain Thorne’s priorities,” said Iko, speaking through the ship’s built-in speakers. “As this may be my big net debut, I’d like to be looking my best, thank you very much.”
“Well said, gorgeous.” Thorne winked up toward the speakers, even though Iko’s sensors weren’t sensitive enough to pick up on it. “And I would like the rest of you to note Iko’s proper use of Captain when addressing me. You could all stand to learn a thing or two from her.”
Scarlet laughed again, Wolf raised an eyebrow, unimpressed, and the cargo bay’s temperature clicked up a couple degrees as Iko blushed from the flattery.
But Cinder ignored them all, downing a glass of lukewarm water while Wolf’s admonishments spun through her head. She knew he was right. Though controlling Wolf strained every ability she had, controlling Earthens like Thorne and Scarlet usually came as easy to her as replacing a dead android sensor.
By now, she should have been able to do both.
“Let’s go again,” she said, tightening her ponytail.
Wolf slipped his attention back to her. “Maybe you should take a break.”
“I won’t get a break when I’m being chased down by the queen’s soldiers, will I?” She rolled her shoulders, trying to re-energize herself. The pain in her head had dulled, but the back of her T-shirt was damp with sweat and every muscle was trembling from the effort of sparring with Wolf for the past two hours.
Wolf rubbed his temple. “Let’s hope you never have to face off against the queen’s real soldiers. I think we stand a chance going up against her thaumaturges and special operatives, but the advanced soldiers are different. More like animals than humans, and they don’t react well to brain manipulation.”
“Because so many people do?” said Scarlet, scraping her spoon against the bowl.
His glance flickered toward her, something in his eyes softening. It was a look Cinder had seen a hundred times since he and Scarlet had joined the crew of the Rampion, and yet seeing it still made her feel like she was intruding on something intimate.
“I mean they’re unpredictable, even under the control of a thaumaturge.” He returned his focus to Cinder. “Or any other Lunar. The genetic tampering they undergo to become soldiers affects their brains as much as their bodies. They’re sporadic, wild … dangerous.”
Thorne leaned against Scarlet’s storage crate, fake-whispering to her, “He does realize that he’s an ex–street fighter who still goes by ‘Wolf,’ right?”
Cinder bit the inside of her cheek, smothering a laugh. “All the more reason for me to be as prepared as possible. I’d like to avoid another close call like we had in Paris.”
“You’re not the only one.” Wolf started to sway on the balls of his feet again. Cinder had once thought this indicated he was ready for another sparring match, but she’d lately begun to think that’s just how he was—always moving, always restless.
“Which reminds me,” she said, “I’d like to get some more of those tranquilizer darts, whenever we land again. The fewer soldiers we have to fight or brainwash, the better.”
“Tranquilizer darts, got it,” said Iko. “I’ve also taken the liberty of programming this handy countdown clock. T minus fifteen days, nine hours until the royal wedding.” The netscreen on the wall flickered to life, displaying an enormous digital clock counting down by the tenth of a second.
Three seconds of staring at that clock made Cinder sick with anxiety. She tore her gaze away, scanning the rest of the netscreen and their ongoing master plan for putting a stop to the wedding between Kai and Queen Levana. A list of needed supplies was jotted down the left side of the screen—weapons, tools, disguises, and now tranquilizer darts.
In the middle of the screen was a blueprint of New Beijing Palace.
On the right, a ridiculously long preparation checklist, none of which had yet to be checked off, though they’d been planning and plotting for days.
Number one on the list was to prepare Cinder for when she would inevitably come face-to-face with Queen Levana and her court again. Though Wolf hadn’t said it outright, she knew her Lunar gift wasn’t improving fast enough. Cinder was beginning to think that item could take years to reach satisfactory completion, and they had only two more weeks.
The rough plan was to cause a distraction on the day of the wedding that would allow them to sneak into the palace during the ceremony and announce to the world that Cinder was truly the lost Princess Selene. Then, with all the world’s media watching, Cinder would demand that Levana relinquish the crown to her, ending both the wedding and her rule in one fell swoop.
Everything that was supposed to follow the wedding blurred in Cinder’s mind. She kept imagining the reactions of the Lunar people when they discovered that their lost princess was not only cyborg, but also entirely ignorant of their world, culture, traditions, and politics. The only thing that kept her chest from being crushed by the weight of it all was the knowledge that, no matter what, she couldn’t possibly be any worse of a ruler than Levana.