Cinder, Page 2Marissa Meyer
She was used to the little orange light. It came up all the time.
It meant that someone was lying.
“National security,” she said. “Funny. ”
The prince listed his head, as if challenging her to contradict him. A strand of black hair fell into his eyes. Cinder looked away.
“Tutor8. 6 model,” she said, reading the faintly lit panel inside the plastic cranium. The android was nearly twenty years old. Ancient for an android. “She looks to be in pristine condition. ”
Raising her fist, she thunked the android hard on the side of its head, barely catching it before it toppled over onto the table. The prince jumped.
Cinder set the android back on its treads and jabbed the power button but nothing happened. “You’d be surprised how often that works. ”
The prince let out a single, awkward chuckle. “Are you sure you’re Linh Cinder? The mechanic?”
“Cinder! I’ve got it!” Iko wheeled out of the crowd and up to the worktable, her blue sensor flashing. Lifting one pronged hand, she slammed a brand-new steel-plated foot onto the desk, in the shadow of the prince’s android. “It’s a huge improvement over the old one, only lightly used, and the wiring looks compatible as is. Plus, I was able to get the dealer down to just 600 univs. ”
Panic jolted through Cinder. Still balancing on her human leg, she snatched the foot off the table and dropped it behind her. “Good work, Iko. Nguyen-shìfu will be delighted to have a replacement foot for his escort-droid. ”
Iko’s sensor dimmed. “Nguyen-shìfu? I don’t compute. ”
Smiling through locked teeth, Cinder gestured at the prince. “Iko, please pay your respects to our customer. ” She lowered her voice. “His Imperial Highness. ”
Iko craned her head, aiming the round sensor up at the prince, who towered more than three feet above her. The light flared as her scanner recognized him. “Prince Kai,” she said, her metallic voice squeaking. “You are even more handsome in person. ”
Cinder’s stomach twisted in embarrassment, even as the prince laughed.
“That’s enough, Iko. Get in the booth. ”
Iko obeyed, pushing aside the tablecloth and ducking under the table.
“You don’t see a personality like that every day,” said Prince Kai, leaning against the booth’s door frame as if he brought androids to the market all the time. “Did you program her yourself?”
“Believe it or not, she came that way. I suspect a programming error, which is probably why my stepmother got her so cheap. ”
“I do not have a programming error!” said Iko from behind her.
Cinder met the prince’s gaze, was caught momentarily dazzled by another easy laugh, and ducked her head back behind his android.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“I’ll need to run her diagnostics. It will take me a few days, maybe a week. ” Tucking a strand of hair behind one ear, Cinder sat down, grateful to give her leg a rest while she examined the android’s innards. She knew she must be breaking some rule of etiquette, but the prince didn’t seem to mind as he tipped forward, watching her hands.
“Do you need payment up front?”
He held his left wrist toward her, embedded with his ID chip, but Cinder waved a gloved hand at him. “No, thank you. It will be my honor. ”
Prince Kai looked about to protest but then let his hand fall. “I don’t suppose there’s any hope of having her done before the festival?”
Cinder shut the android’s panel. “I don’t think that will be a problem. But without knowing what’s wrong with her—”
“I know, I know. ” He rocked back on his heels. “Just wishful thinking. ”
“How will I contact you when she’s ready?”
“Send a comm to the palace. Or will you be here again next weekend? I could stop by then. ”
“Oh, yes!” said Iko from the back of the booth. “We’re here every market day. You should come by again. That would be lovely. ”
Cinder flinched. “You don’t need to—”
“It’ll be my pleasure. ” He dipped his head in polite farewell, simultaneously pulling the edges of the hood farther over his face. Cinder returned the nod, knowing she should have stood and bowed, but not daring to test her balance a second time.
She waited until his shadow had disappeared from the tabletop before surveying the square. The prince’s presence among the harried crowd seemed to have gone unnoticed. Cinder let her muscles relax.
Iko rolled to her side, clasping her metal grippers over her chest. “Prince Kai! Check my fan, I think I’m overheating. ”
Cinder bent over and picked up her replacement foot, dusting it off on her cargo pants. She checked the plating, glad that she hadn’t dented it.
“Can you imagine Peony’s expression when she hears about this?” said Iko.
“I can imagine a lot of high-pitched squealing. ” Cinder allowed one more wary scan of the crowd before the first tickle of giddiness stirred inside her. She couldn’t wait to tell Peony. The prince himself! An abrupt laugh escaped her. It was uncanny. It was unbelievable. It was—
“Oh, dear. ”
Cinder’s smile fell. “What?”
Iko pointed at her forehead with a pronged finger. “You have a grease splotch. ”
Cinder jerked back and scrubbed at her brow. “You’re kidding. ”
“I’m sure he hardly noticed. ”
Cinder dropped her hand. “What does it matter? Come on, help me put this on before any other royalty stops by. ” She propped her ankle on the opposite knee and began connecting the color-coordinated wires, wondering if the prince had been fooled.
“Fits like a glove, doesn’t it?” Iko said, holding a handful of screws while Cinder twisted them into the predrilled holes.
“It’s very nice, Iko, thank you. I just hope Adri doesn’t notice. She’d murder me if she knew I’d spent 600 univs on a foot. ” She tightened the last screw and stretched out her leg, rolling her ankle forward, back, wiggling the toes. It was a little stiff, and the nerve sensors would need a few days to harmonize with the updated wiring, but at least she wouldn’t have to limp around off-kilter anymore.
“It’s perfect,” she said, pulling on her boot. She spotted her old foot held in Iko’s pincers. “You can throw that piece of junk awa—”
A scream filled Cinder’s ears. She flinched, the sound peaking in her audio interface, and turned toward it. The market silenced. The children, who had switched to a game of hide-and-seek among the clustered booths, crept out from their hiding spots.
The scream had come from the baker, Chang Sacha. Baffled, Cinder stood and climbed on top of her chair to peer over the crowd. She spotted Sacha in her booth, behind the glass case of sweet breads and pork buns, gawking at her outstretched hands.
Cinder clamped a hand over her nose at the same moment realization skittered through the rest of the square.
“The plague!” someone yelled. “She has the plague!”
The street filled with panic. Mothers scooped up their children, masking their faces with desperate hands as they scrambled to get away from Sacha’s booth. Shopkeepers slammed shut their rolling doors.
Sunto screamed and rushed toward his mother, but she held her hands out to him. No, no, stay back. A neighboring shopkeeper grabbed the boy, tucking the child under his arm as he ran. Sacha yelled something after him, but the words were lost in the uproar.
Cinder’s stomach churned. They couldn’t run or Iko would be trampled in the chaos. Holding her breath, she reached for the cord at the booth’s corner and yanked the metal door down its rail. Darkness cloaked them but for a single shard of daylight along the ground. The heat rose up from the concrete floor, stifling in the cramped space.
“Cinder?” said Iko, worry in her robotic voice. She brightened her sensor, washing the booth in blue light.
sp; “Don’t worry,” Cinder said, hopping down from the chair and grabbing the grease-covered rag from the table. The screams were already fading, transforming the booth into its own empty universe. “She’s all the way across the square. We’re fine here. ” But she slipped back toward the wall of shelves anyway, crouched down and covered her nose and mouth with the rag.
There they waited, Cinder breathing as shallowly as possible, until they heard the sirens of the emergency hover come and take Sacha away.
THE EMERGENCY SIRENS HADN’T FADED BEFORE THE HUM OF another engine rumbled into the square. The market’s silence was split by feet thumping on the pavement and then someone spitting commands. Someone else’s guttural response.
Slinging her messenger bag across her back, Cinder crept across the dusty floor of her booth and pushed past the tablecloth that draped her work desk. She slipped her fingers into the gap of light beneath the door and inched it open. Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square. An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men—all wearing gas masks—as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can. Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
“What’s happening?” Iko asked from behind her.
“They’re going to burn Chang-ji’s booth. ” Cinder’s eyes swept along the square, noting the pristine white hover planted near the corner. Other than the three men, the square was abandoned. Rolling onto her back, Cinder peered up into Iko’s sensor, still glowing faintly in the dark. “We’ll leave when the flames start, when they’re distracted. ”
“Are we in trouble?”
“No. I just can’t be bothered with a trip to the quarantines today. ”
One of the men spouted an order, followed by shuffling feet. Cinder turned her head and squinted through the gap. A flame was thrown into the booth. The smell of gasoline was soon met with that of burned toast. The men stood back, their uniforms silhouetted against the growing flames.
Reaching up, Cinder grabbed Prince Kai’s android around its neck and pulled it down beside her. Tucking it under one arm, she slid the door open enough to crawl through, keeping her eyes on the men’s backs. Iko followed, scooting against the next booth as Cinder lowered the door. They darted along the storefronts—most left wide open during the mass exodus—and turned into the first skinny alley between shops. Black smoke blotted the sky above them. Seconds later, a hoard of news hovers buzzed over the buildings on their way to the market square.
Cinder slowed when they’d put enough distance between them and the market, emerging from the maze of alleys. The sun had passed overhead and was descending behind the skyscrapers to the west. The air sweated with August heat, but an occasional warm breeze was funneled between the buildings, picking up whirlwinds of garbage from the gutters. Four blocks from the market, signs of life appeared again on the streets—pedestrians pooling on the sidewalks and gossiping about the plague outbreak in the city center. Netscreens implanted into building walls showed live feeds of fire and smoke in downtown New Beijing and panicked headlines in which the toll of infected mounted by the second—even though only one person had been confirmed sick so far as Cinder could tell.