He was sitting in a comfortable chair among a very colorful audience. Feathers and sparkles and chiffons abounded, each guest determined to catch the eye. He'd pick one that was the strangest, but then he would see an elaborate parasol or a swarm of butterflies dancing around a person's head, and he'd reconsider all over again. Eight platforms took prominence in the vast room, proudly displayed like exhibits. Cinder, Jacin, Winter, Scarlet, Wolf, Kai, Iko... and Cress.
All tightly bound. And he was sitting, unfettered and calm, in a place of luxury.
He jumped up, eyes scanning the crowd to find the best route. He needed to get to them. He was going to save them.
He was just beginning to weave through the crowd when he froze. His feet were like pedestals, holding him firm. Thaumaturge Park was smiling his easy smile, his eyes pinning him there as much as the manipulation. He opened his mouth to call to his friends, but his tongue was limp. He sucked in a panicked breath.
He was going to fail. He was going to live, and all his friends would die, and he would never live it down, and Cinder would never be queen, and-
"Ah, look who it is?" said Levana, smiling. "The brave young captain."
His lips twitched, almost making it to a glare, but they too fell slack. Every fiber of his body in possession of somebody else. His mind trapped in a useless liability.
A liability. His blood ran cold at the very moment Levana's face shone with glee.
"The plan has changed, Aimery," she said. "The shell will not cooperate."
On legs of led, he walked up to the platform, stopping right in front of Cress. Her beautiful blue eyes filled with horror and she backed away. The sneering thaumaturge held a knife out to him, and he took it. Its handle was elaborate, its blade pristine. So beautiful.
It was steady as it lifted, inch by inch, toward Cress's face, even as the rest of his body trembled.
"Cress," he whispered. "Cress, I'm sorry. I..."
He watched her face grow paler and paler as the knife grew closer and closer. But her eyes did not fill with forgiveness or acceptance, but betrayal. Betrayal and blame and hatred.
"Save me," she demanded. "Fight her. Aren't you supposed to be a hero?"
Sharp reality splattered into him like a spray of cold water, and he gasped, disoriented. Everything was so distinct all of a sudden, so jarring...
And he was not killing Cress, and he was not in Levana's presence, and it had only been a dream...
Carswell Thorne wiped the sweat from his brow, fingered the tangled blankets to ensure they were really there, and took a cool, clean breath. The fan hummed, almost comfortingly.
Stars. After nineteen years, he was still having nightmares. But the message his brain was sending him could be easily interpreted.
Cress's death had been his fault.
Not because he'd been responsible for it, but because he'd been underground with Scarlet and Iko and the princess. Because he'd let it happen. Because... maybe, if he'd been there, he could've done something.
He would never outrun the haunting vision of her heart-shaped face, the echoing sound of her voice, the dreams. The blame. The sense of utter helplessness.
Because even after all these years, he hadn't overthrown Levana. He was still in space, still searching for a plan that would work with only an Earthen and an android on his side.
Scarlet, Iko, Winter and him had tracked down the Rampion using a stolen Lunar podship. His own ship was so sentimental to him-having taken him and Cinder safely into space back when they were fugitives-and he'd felt so relieved when they'd found it. Despite their group being split in two, despite Cress being at the palace, he'd had the nerve to be grateful.
But he'd also felt helpless and powerless, entering into that safety. They all had as they'd returned to their ship and watched their friends being captured through the netscreens.
The queen's plan had unfolded like an intricate paper fan. The marriage. The poisoning of Winter. The execution of Cinder. The reclaim of power.
He could've saved Winter, too. She'd wandered off as they were about to make their getaway, borne on a whim or a real need, he couldn't know. They'd found her, dark, ringed splotches all up and down her arms. The sign of Letumosis.
For Winter's death, Thorne really had witnessed it, and couldn't have done anything about it. He'd watched as she murmured about mirrors and her lost father and the walls that bled and her heart filling with icicles. Listened as her words became more delirious, until they stopped altogether.
Iko-the only one immune to Letumosis-had dove for her, holding her hand and talking to her up until those bright, animated eyes went blank.
Thorne knew Iko had taken the loss of the princess the hardest. She despised being useless, and that was the most powerless she had ever felt. It was the most powerless they had all felt, watching as months and months of meticulous work vanished like some sick magic trick.
The one good thing about the rag-tag group being so inactive all these years was that no one recognized them anymore. Thorne was still devilishly handsome, of course. Nonetheless, he could stop in Australia to buy a new pair of shoes, and no one paid him any mind. No one even questioned the Rampion in orbit, even without Cress there to hide them.
Thorne groaned. Now that his spiral of uncontrollable thought had officially concluded-it always came back to Cress-it was time for his daily routine. Get up, eat breakfast, pretend nothing was wrong, watch the newsfeeds, pretend some more, and eat again. Day after day after sickening day.
He took a breath. And another. This was not the captain he knew. The captain he knew would've had a plan all those years ago. He definitely would've found one by now.
Thorne jumped up, spurring his star-forsaken brain into action. Pulling on his clothes and shaving. Calling up his smile.
He dashed out of the washroom and into the galley. Iko was humming, a robotic twang clear in the melody, and organizing cans.
"Good morning, Captain!" she trilled. Her voice held little enthusiasm, as always.
"Good morning. Sorting cans, I see? Just like the old times," he said, his voice lacking the chipper confidence it had once possessed.
She nodded. "That's right! Just imagining what it would be like to have taste buds. That, and I like to keep it tidy."
A huffing sound made Thorne jump, and he turned to see Scarlet in the doorway, curls askew from sleep.
"Tidy? You've lived here this long and you're still thinking about tidiness?"
"I am, yes," Iko said. "I don't think we're ever moving, so I might as well keep playing my role."
"I hope we don't live here forever," said Scarlet. "I am not dying with Thorne and you-no offense-as the only people to manage my funeral."
"Excuse me!" said Thorne. "Not only am I a criminal mastermind, but I also happen to be an amazing funeral manager, thank you very much. What are those called?"
"Morgue-ticians?" said Iko. Her lips turned up in a smirk.
Thorne raised his eyebrows and Scarlet tilted her head. There was a few beats of silence before Iko threw up her hands.
"It's a pun! Get it? Because morgues are dark and dismal, and so are funerals, and, conveniently, there were two words that sounded alike, so when you combine them-"
Thorne winced. "Are you... practicing your wordplay, Iko?"
"Why yes, Captain. I'm so glad you noticed," she said, beaming. "I'm getting more and more human every day. Soon, you won't even remember that I was once an android servant for a bratty family in New Beijing."
Her blue braids and warm brown skin did make her much more human. But there were still wires and chips and programming beneath that synthetic notion of humanity, despite her attempts to hide them.
"Right. Here's the thing," he said, smiling at Iko. "Being the most clever person on this ship-"
"I beg to differ," said Scarlet.
"-I feel the need to give you some advice on the art of wordplay."
"I'm listening. I turned my audio interface all the way up," said Iko.
"When you make puns, they have to actually be good," said Thorne, leaning forward. "It's a tricky balance, but I know you can do it."
Scarlet cleared her throat. "That's very helpful, Thorne, but seriously. Can't we live in some remote village or something? I'm not dying in orbit."
"Madame Benoit!" said Thorne, mimicking Scarlet's accent. "You are a real genius. Why did we not think of this before?"
"Oh no," said Scarlet. "I get the picture, you don't have to-"
"We can land in a tiny desert and settle down for the rest of our days while people come from far and wide to see us! It'll be like a museum, and eventually some Lunars will get curious, and we'll go down in history as the people who didn't want to die in orbit."
She glared. "I know we're still on the run, but who remembers the companions of the Selene imposter anyway? Especially you."
"Was that an insult?"
"Time to watch the newsfeeds!" sang Iko, turning her head up to the ship's speakers. "Oh, and Scarlet?"
"Do you think I'd be a good morgue-tician?"
Scarlet smiled bitterly. "That's not what it's called-but I do know I'd go out in style, at least."
Iko smiled. "Well, you still have forty or so years to go, so we don't have to talk about that yet."
Thorne reached up to cover his ears. "You're absolutely right."
"Don't worry," said Iko. "We've been eating a lot of vegetables, so we've got a ways to go." She paused. "Well... you've been eating nutritiously. I've been forced to sit and watch."
"Anyway..." said Scarlet, hands on hips. "Ship, show global newsfeeds."
The screens flickered to life, showing a conference room in the European Federation.
"...holding a Selection in order to find a bride for His Royal Highness, Prince Obsidian Blackburn."
Iko's tower of canned fruit went clattering and bouncing across the deck as she swooned. "Prince Obsidian?" she shrieked. "He's so-"
"Don't even start," said Scarlet. "He's evil, remember?"
"But he's like Kai times a million! He's the most beautiful man alive!" said Iko. "Don't you think he's cute?"
Scarlet huffed. "No comment."
A hush fell over the trio as Iko realized the magnitude of her statement. Scarlet's former boyfriend had been captured, just like the rest. The queen had managed to apprehend him, so he was either dead or fighting in her army. Two very unfortunate options.
"The Selection was held a generation ago on Earth, when America's new prince found his now-deceased bride. Thirty-five girls were randomly chosen and brought to the palace. Now, Queen Levana has sent forms to be filled out by every eligible young woman on Earth."
"Did anyone hear about this?" said Thorne.
"We're on the same ship," said Scarlet. "How could we have heard of it?"
"Just wondering. Why would Levana want a bunch of Earthens in her-"
"The Selection will consist of seventeen young ladies from Luna and eighteen from Earth-His Highness is welcoming cyborgs, Lunars, Earthens and shells."
"Mute," said Iko, though it sounded like she was admonishing a child rather than giving a command to a screen.
It took a minute for the news to sink into the collective brains of the group. When the silence stretched too tight for Thorne's liking, he raised an eyebrow.
"Why would she do that?"
"She's planning something," said Scarlet darkly. "All those Earthen ships, coming to Luna... and shells..."
"Shells are accepted now, right?" said Iko. "The infanticide is over."
"Yes," said Thorne. "I still don't get it, though."
Iko sighed. "I wish I could enter. I'd love to be Luna's queen."
Scarlet jumped. "Luna's queen... they obviously aren't going to pick an Earthen. So why are they allowing them?"
"To pretend like she doesn't have a diabolical plan, and that she's actually always loved the idea of having an Earthen queen. She would be... 'like the daughter she never had.'" Those last six words were spoken in a flawless impression of Levana's voice.
"How do you do that?" said Thorne.
"Iko's strange talents aside..." said Scarlet. "I think we need to make a new plan."
"A new plan? Oh, please tell me you have a plan, because I've been dying to find one for... how long has it been?"
Scarlet glared at Thorne. "Part of the reason I'm saying this is because I couldn't stand another day living with you."
"I could," said Iko. "I've been waiting for you to propose for years now."
Thorne laughed to conceal the pang that shot through him. Smiled to pretend he was fine. He was fine. Not thinking about Cress, and not feeling guilty all over again, and certainly not going crazy. He didn't realize he'd been drowning out Scarlet's voice until she was beside him.
"Thorne, are you listening? I thought you said you wanted to hear this plan," said Scarlet.
He nodded. "Of course I was listening," he said. "Of course. But, uh... it's such a good plan, I'd like it in writing. Iko, did you record it in your brain so I can-"
"Oh, spare the theatrics. I'll tell you again," said Scarlet, sighing. "I was saying that we could... we should have someone on the inside, somehow - a spy in the Selection."
"Problem is, we don't know anyone who could enter," said Thorne.
"Excuse me? I'm still young and beautiful, I can enter."
"People would recognize you," said Scarlet. "Just stopping at the store is one thing, but this... this Selection? It'll be broadcast everywhere."
"Thorne," said Iko, a glint in her eyes. "How much money do you have?"
"I'd love to tell you I've got thousands to spare, but unfortunately, my account has been depleted," he said, sighing sadly. "Why? Off to buy a Prince Obsidian portscreen greeter?"
"Alas, Lunars don't offer those. They're too scared, remember? But no, I was asking because... I've been dying to get this new body..."
She went to work on the netscreen, opening up a new tab. It was a catalogue of escort-droid models. Thousands of hair colors-long and sleek, short and springy,- eyes-shimmery or striking-and skin tones filled the screen. Thorne whistled, examining all the models as they scrolled lazily past. They'd become even more detailed over the years, despite being made of silicone, wire and a hundred other materials he'd never know.
"Iko, are you seriously thinking about- wait." Scarlet's eyes brightened.
"I'm a genius, aren't I?" said Iko. "I can apply for coordinator or something. Obviously, being a Selected would be too far of a long shot. But, they're probably looking for someone willing to manage a gaggle of random girls."
"We need to get money," said Scarlet. "But... that could work."
It was a good idea. If they could find the resources for it, Iko would be an amazing spy. Especially since she was great at pretending humanity... a 'shell' coordinator who couldn't be controlled? Just what Levana might need.
Thorne raised his eyebrows. "You sure your wires won't overheat? I mean, you've developed a high tolerance, after seeing me every day, but..."
Iko fanned her face, sighing. "I'll try my best not to melt in his presence. No promises, though."
"There were princesses enough, but it was difficult to find out whether they were real ones."
Obsidian stifled a groan, his foot stopping midway to the next step. He was exhausted, drained after another public appearance, and not at all in the mood to deal with... whoever that was.
He knew the voice. Well, technically, he didn't know the owner. It didn't matter, though. He recognized the cloying tone and barely-disguised squeal. It was either a noble's daughter or a lovesick servant.
He was thinking the first one.
He turned, smiling at the girl. "Hello! Astra, is it?"
"Asteria," she said, coming closer. "My name is Asteria."
Sid fought the urge to gag as he took her in. She was in a poofy, tutu-esque dress that seemed to engulf her, with all its lace and fluff and tulle. Her hair fell around her face in hot pink corkscrews that seemed to be in great abundance. Her cheeks shimmered, each feature sculpted from clay.
She had that air about her, the one that always came with the glamours. Uniform. Perfect. Breathtakingly beautiful. Still, he thought she'd gone a little overboard with this look.
She ducked her head flirtatiously, showing off her long neck. "I heard the news."
"Oh?" The only thing he'd heard today was mindless gossip. Oh, and the trial proceedings, though he tended to tune those out.
"Yes. Some thaumaturges were talking about it in passing," she said.
"I see," he said, hoping his smile was still as disarming as usual. His legs were shaky from maintaining a glamour for an hour, and he didn't exactly have the patience for starstruck girls at the moment. He'd need to work on that when the time came for picking a bride.
"I'm planning to enter." She leaned close to him, smiling her sweetest.
What was she talking about? Entering what?
"Uh... good for you!" He smiled, sweeping into a bow. "It was great talking to you, but I have a meeting with the queen." He was careful not to add a 'see you soon' at the end of that sentence because- well, he hoped he wouldn't.
She looked wounded, backing away. "Alright. I hope I get picked."
Obsidian was just continuing up the staircase when he froze.
Stars and aces and spades, she was beautiful. Her hair was so thick and her eyes sparkled, and when she smiled... it was like she'd encapsulated all the bright splendor of Artemisia in that smile.
And he would do anything to please her. He shouldn't have been so cold toward her, and he was going right back down those stairs to apologize. He was ashamed to have ever felt annoyed by her presence.
Turning back, he descended the step he'd just mounted, apologies and pleas poised on his tongue.
The girl smiled. "Something to say?"
What was he thinking? What had come over him?
He gasped, eyes wide. He'd just been manipulated. This... this girl had just used her gift on him. He'd been overpowered, if only for a moment.
He recovered quickly, regarding her with newfound coldness. "I hope we never meet again," he said, before turning and running up the stairs.
Hurrying down the hall, he brushed past the stone-still guards and slammed the door to his room, collapsing on the bed.
He knew what they said about him. He saw the sympathetic observers and the baffled thaumaturges and the way the queen squirmed when his gift failed him. He knew he was a mockery.
It was because of his father. Because of the alliance. Because the king was an Earthen and, despite his mother being the most powerful Lunar in the whole planet, his own gift was pathetic.
Just this afternoon, he'd suffered through another trial. It had taken a serious amount of effort to keep his smile, to hide his shaking hands, to quench the fire in his eyes as he witnessed another death. Most of that had been glamoured away, though. He didn't have that much raw willpower, despite what he pretended.
Pretended. It was a common word in Artemisia, a common practice. Pretending beauty, pretending to possess power over others, pretending not to be bothered by the mindless deaths and the sneering thaumaturges and... everything about this place.
But these people didn't have to pretend. They were beautiful-or, they could be, with their gift. They did have quite a lot of power over others. And the deaths didn't bother them. Not in the slightest.
Obsidian had to pretend he didn't notice the astonished looks and the tilted heads. To feign ease and charm and confidence. To view the sneers from his mother as beneath his notice.
It wasn't that he blamed them. He knew that if he were as gifted as them, he'd sit placidly by and enjoy everything life had in store for him. He'd know that he could make every citizen in Luna bow to his will with ease, and he'd laugh. He'd gladly take the chalice that his mother constantly sipped from.
He shook himself out of his thoughts. Now that his legs had steadied and the spots in his periphery vanished, he was back to his normal self. All that remained was the residual effect of the manipulation and his fading pride, now missing a sizable chunk.
He looked around the room, wondering what to do with the afternoon. He could take a leaf from the guards' books and stare at the wall. He could practice his gift... Or he could talk to his father.
It would be best to practice. He often indulged himself with the thought that his gift would improve in time, that his incompetence was temporary. But that always resulted in splitting headaches and no progress at all, so that was out.
Staring at the wall was another option. It had become his favorite and only hobby, since seeking his mother's approval had gotten old fast. He had to admit, he might be clinging onto that one, just a little. Besides that, he didn't exactly have many promising talents, besides the aforementioned skill of pretending.
The third option, then? It didn't exactly benefit him in any way. A prince shouldn't need comfort from his father. A prince should be independent. Then again, a real Lunar prince should have full access to his gift, so he wasn't exactly thriving in that area.
His resolve crumbled easily. He knew his father was an Earthen, he knew he should be doing better things with his life- but his father and him shared a lot of similarities. They were both looked down on by the Lunar court, and they both stuck out like Asteria's ridiculous dress because of their... oddities. Both muffins in a world of lavishly decorated cupcakes.
Sid stood from his bed, straightened his tie and left the room. It was time to clear his head. His dad had a way of helping him do that.
Passing the guards once more and receiving no reaction, he crossed the polished marble hallway filled with spinning holographs of royals past. A revolving portrait of Princess Winter-with her black curls and perfect skin and naturally beautiful face-smiled down at him as he turned the corner. Her face; the only natural thing in Artemisia.
He supposed that was why she'd been shunned. Why she was dead. Because people didn't trust her. They didn't trust him either, but at least the people in the sectors adored Winter. People thought he was handsome, yes, but Winter? She was too beautiful to be real.
Obsidian gasped. His father was beside him, lips pulled tight to hide a smirk.
"I just came to find you. Got lost in thought?"
"I guess so." He laughed, but a bout of nausea was washing over him.
He should've felt his father's energy from around the corner. He should've known he was coming.
It was just because he was distracted. He was in his own head, and wasn't really paying attention. Yes, that was it.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" he asked, trying to recover.
Kai's smile fizzled for the briefest of moments before he recovered. "I was hoping you'd heard about it from someone else."
Obsidian raised an eyebrow. "Heard what?"
"Let's go to my office," said Kai. "It's no big deal, I just wanted to... show it to you on a node. It's easier to do it that way."
Sid laughed. "Or is it because you think I'll probably need to sit down when I hear the news?"
Kai grimaced. "That too."
As they climbed another flight of stairs, Sid searched his mind for something that could be amiss. Was there more hate mail? More pointless resulrts from a doctor analyzing his genes? Something from his mother?
His heart beat faster as he realized that must be it. Could he have done something that brought the queen over the edge? Did his glamour flicker at the trial without him knowing?
The door swung open, revealing the crisp little office with the holograph nodes on the walls and the large desk in the center. It was the only lackluster room in the palace.
Kai pulled up a chair from the corner of the room-it was designated for Sid, since he came here so often-and sat down. Sid joined him at the desk, still jittery.
"Can you tell me in five words?" he asked cautiously.
Kai laughed regretfully. "Not even close."
"Yikes. Is it terrible?"
"You're not in trouble, if that's what you're wondering," said Kai.
Sid paused. "Really?"
"Really," said Kai, laughing. "Let's see, maybe I can say it in five words..." He paused, then smiled. "Time to pick a wife?"
Sid groaned. "Did Levana pick for me?"
"No, actually," said Kai. "You get to pick yourself. Well... from thirty-five people that she selects, but..."
"So... yes," said Obsidian. "Why thirty-five?"
"Did you hear of the Selection America had?"
Selection. Hadn't Asteria said something about that? "I don't pay attention to Earthen news," he said. "But I did hear something about a Selection today... from a girl..."
"Do you know what it is?" said Kai, doing a terrible job of hiding the hope in his eyes.
Sid smirked. "Nope, I don't. I promise not to be mad, though."
Kai raised his eyebrows. "Do you have that power?"
Obsidian laughed. "I guess not, but I'll try my best."
Kai took a breath. "Part of the problem is explaining it. But basically, thirty-five girls will be... 'randomly' selected and brought to the palace. You eliminate them one by one until you've found your bride."
"What's the catch?"
"Ah, you know your mother too well," said Kai, laughing. "Half of the girls will be from Earth, and half will be from Luna."
If Sid's throat wasn't so dry, he'd have choked. "You mean... Earthens?"
"And shells and cyborgs too," said Kai dryly.
"Why?" said Sid. "Why would she want to do that?"
"If I knew the reason for everything she did, I'd be a lucky man indeed," drawled Kai.
Earthens. Coming to the palace?
It wasn't that he hated them. In fact, he sometimes pitied them. But there was an automatic distaste that came with the word, for every Artemisian. He often imagined he was above them because he was kind and noble and sincere. But, even as he thought of shells coming to the capitol, he was thinking of their lack of gift, how they couldn't be controlled.
Good stars, he was much more like them than he allowed himself to realize.
"Are you mad?" said Kai.
Sid laughed suddenly at his father's uncertainty. "I'm shocked, confused and overwhelmed, but not mad."
Kai sighed. "My feelings exactly. I guess it's good that she's branching out, letting our two societies grow closer."
"Ha," said Obsidian. "She... she wants peace though, right? She wants what's best for her people?"
Kai sighed. "I... really have no idea."
Hey hey! I hope you enjoyed that chapter! First of all, I just want to say that I'm blown away by all the support y'all have been giving me so far! Thank you, thank you to all those that have reserved, reviewed or just given me a kind word. It means so much, and I hope this chapter didn't disappoint.
You might be wondering about the quote... in the original series, Meyer puts quotes at intervals in the story to juxtapose with the original story and foreshadow. This fanfic is inspired by Princess and the Pea, so that's where that quote came from. Thorne didn't have a quote, since he's one of the OGs. Sid and your girls will get quotes, since they're the mains.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this chapter, it was so fun to write! Constructive criticism is always welcome. Speaking of which, thank you to my amazing betas! I couldn't have done this without you. ALSO, huge thanks to BradiLain for making the cover! I hope you all like it. See you soon!
P.S. Sorry about the randomness of these updates; they'll come weekly, if not semi-weekly. Thanks!