Disclaimer: *Looks in the mirror* Nope - still not Marissa Meyer nor do I own the TLC world or its fabulous characters :D
Chapter warning for mild violence? (This chapter also contains excessive use of italicization - approach with caution. No seriously, I genuinely considered titling this chapter "In which Italics feature prominently". I promise to cut down on them in future chapters!)
As ever, thank you much to people who have followed/left reviews/stuck with reading this fic - it really makes my day! Also sorry people but fall is turning out waaay busier than I'd expected so don't expect any new updates until mid-December..
On with the story!
"Well, isn't this touching?" The Lunar queen's voice was light and poised, and every syllable lilting out of her mouth sent chills down Pearl's spine. She couldn't look at her stepsister.
"I demand to know the meaning of this," the Pr- no, Emperor Kai snapped.
Queen Levana tittered, the sound as clear and bright as windchimes, and gooseflesh erupted across Pearl's arms.
"The meaning of this," Levana repeated mockingly, "is that this poor, sweet Earthen child is the only person left in her family not to have been infected by what I believe you Earthens refer to as the blue fever." She clucked her tongue. "Such a pity."
"Full of confidence in my scientists' abilities, she sought counsel from my head thaumaturge, Sybil, begging for an antidote that might save her mother's life." Pearl couldn't hold back her shiver as she remembered kneeling in front of that white coat, convinced that at any second the thaumaturge would manipulate her into smashing her own face against the ballroom floor for the audacity of even considering an attempt at bargaining with the Lunar court. She was starting to wonder if that would have been a better fate. Her feet felt glued to the floor, and she couldn't work out if it was from fear or the continued manipulation of one of the Lunars nearby.
Levana's blood-red lips curved into a perfect smile, but her eyes were cold as flint. "How could I fail to be moved by such a display of family devotion? I promised the dear child that I would do everything in my power to ensure her mother received one of the very first antidotes I intend on sending to Earth." She turned away from the emperor, her gaze locking onto Cinder and Pearl shuddered again, even though she wasn't its target. Yet.
"The girl was so grateful that she gave me some very interesting information. About a certain Linh Cinder?" Queen Levana's eyes narrowed. "Would it interest you, your Majesty, to know that you have been consorting with a…common shell? A traitor to the Lunar throne?"
The betrayal in the expression of the 'traitor' in question told Pearl that, despite Levana's lie, she knew exactly how much Pearl had told the queen. Her stomach was a mess of guilt. A stupid, unreasonable mess of guilt. Her adoptive sister had already given herself away, anyhow. Before Pearl had even had a chance to say anything, the Lunar queen had already seen her stepsister for the second time. Before Pearl had even considered betray– she squeezed her hands resolutely into fists – uncovering her stepsister's identity, the cyborg had been the one who had wrecked her own chances of slipping unnoticed into the ball.
Pearl didn't think there was any universe in which Queen Levana would have allowed a runaway Lunar to evade her clutches a second time. At some point during the Peace ball, she would have arranged for the cyborg's swift and efficient capture – and a single DNA sample on her arrest would have blown the mechanic's cover wide open. At the very most, Pearl knew she had traded a couple of hours of her stepsister's life to ensure that her real sister still had a mom by the time she left the med-clinic. Provided Levana actually followed through on her promise.
But her mouth was still sour, and the thought of vomiting was becoming an increasingly more appealing option. Emperor Kai took an uncertain step back from her stepsister, an expression of hurt flashing across his face. "Cinder? Is this true?"
"I'm not a shell." Cinder's voice cut through the deadly silence of the ballroom, getting louder with each word as she returned Levana's murderous gaze without flinching. Her spine straightened, resolve in every line of her features. "And for the record, you are the traitor to the Lunar throne." She spun to face the rest of the Earthen guests. "This woman is a liar and a fraud! I –"
An unearthly screech ripped its way out of Pearl's throat and her body dove the last few feet towards her stepsister, knocking the insolent fugitive to her rightful place on the ground. The defector's arrogant words vanished in a yell and then Pearl was punching and scratching every inch of the shell that she could reach. Pearl's lips were curled in a vicious snarl, but her eyes were wide with fear and shock. The cyborg's eyes widened too – this time in understanding – but all the same she delivered a right hook that sent Pearl's head spinning. Pearl let out a howl of anger and she wasn't sure who was the source of it, herself or the Lunar who was controlling her body.
Her hand snapped upwards with a sudden, painful wrench from the muscle connecting her left arm to her torso and Pearl let out a scream of terror as she felt her palm close around the cold handle of something which had just hurtled into it. A glance upwards showed her a blond-haired Lunar guard, his left hand still outstretched in a throwing motion.
"Enough!" Kai bellowed, as Linh Cinder yelped too and punched Pearl's hand with her cyborg fist. Pearl cursed and dropped the knife with a clatter. Both of them dove for it, the blade gleaming up at them amid the silver-lilac fabric of both their skirts. Cinder's gloved hand reached the dagger first but before the cyborg could send it spinning out of the fight, Pearl felt her body pivot ninety degrees. A blur of white and silver – and then what looked like an ankle boot smacked the weapon out of the shell's grasp. For a fraction of a second, the tiny part of Pearl's brain which wasn't either silently screeching in terror or flooded with the thoughts of a thaumaturge wondered how she had somehow changed out of the golden sandals she had been wearing at the start of the night. And how the blade had sliced down her heel without leaving a single mark on the white fabric. Then, the moment was gone, and Pearl's hand lashed out again, ready to catch another weapon to use against the cyborg, and another cool object smacked into her palm.
"I said enough!"
Pearl's body froze, her hand clutched around what appeared to be a Lunar guard's handgun, as the emperor's voice echoed through the ballroom. Cinder struggled a moment longer, before shoving Pearl off her and staggering to her feet. Her expression was wild and panicked as she scanned the ballroom. But her lips were clenched tightly shut and her face was rigid. Too rigid. Pearl's stomach clenched as she realized that she knew the expression of panic on Cinder's face. It was a very specific sort of panic. The sort she had felt herself wearing far too often over the last few days. That expression told Pearl exactly what was happening. A thaumaturge, or perhaps even the queen herself, was controlling Cinder's voice, at the very least. They would not allow Selene even the smallest chance of announcing her identity.
"There will be no more manipulation of my guests, regardless of their alleged birthplace," Kai said, his voice calm and firm. "You may consider the possibility of a marriage alliance void if you or any of your courtiers unlawfully tamper with the bioelectricity of so much as one more of my citizens."
The gun clattered to the ground and Pearl gasped, curling into a ball on the floor. But – she wanted to scream – the action was still a manipulation! She tried to speak. She willed herself to just speak already. But her tongue lay like lead within her mouth. She couldn't even open her lips. Pearl whimpered, as her silk-gloved hands lifted themselves to rest securely under her chin, watching the seed pearls with bleary eyes.
"This shell you persist in calling Linh Cinder is my citizen," Levana's voice spat, and the musical note had completely vanished from her voice. Instead, her words were nothing but a poisonous hiss, her glare switching from the emperor, to Cinder, to…Pearl? "She should have been executed years ago."
"But not tonight." From the flatness of his voice, Pearl could tell that Emperor Kai's face was set in stone. She looked up. It was. Levana's jaw twitched for an instant. Pearl suspected she was calculating. Selene or Kaito. Luna or Earth. The queen nodded at the white-coated thaumaturge. Luna.
The taller Lunar guard with flame-red hair withdrew a gun from his belt. He cleared his throat, seemingly unsure. "My queen?" he asked, bowing and sweeping his hand out, first towards Pearl, then back to Cinder.
Levana tsked. "Good point." The blond-haired guard snapped to attention, his gaze landing on the gun still held limply in Pearl's hand. There was a second - one agonizing instant – where Pearl saw the next few moments play out in front of her eyes as if in a film. The Lunar guard grabbing the gun from her hand. The sound of a shot ringing through the dumbstruck ballroom. Cinder's body slumping to the floor, blood seeping from a wound.
No. This was wrong. This was horrifying. Bile rose in Pearl's throat, her body telling her the simple truth which her mind had been far too busy overthinking and calculating to recognize. In the end, it didn't matter whether Levana honored her word or not and saved her mother's life. Pearl had betrayed her sister to the queen. She had made the wrong choice. But she was frozen in horror and confusion and regret and fear and – and she couldn't pull her gaze away from the silvery-lavender fabric of Peony's ballgown. The ballgown that she was wearing.
The full truth of the situation hit her with the force of a maglev train and Pearl would have screamed if her mouth-turned-traitor weren't still under the full control of a Lunar. The realizations spun through her brain, dizzying and stomach-churning. Cinder had glamoured her, had glamoured her during their confused struggle on the ballroom floor. Cinder, even under the bioelectrical manipulation of other Lunars had kept the illusion going. It was still firmly in place.
Both of them looked like Selene. Levana was going to kill both of them. And – if Levana was preparing two guards to kill them both and manipulating their voices into silence, that meant, despite the manipulation of Cinder, even she wasn't entirely sure which of them was actually her niece.
Or – maybe the queen did know. But Pearl had told her thaumaturge that Cinder was claiming to be the lost princess of Luna. And that Pearl knew Cinder was claiming this. But no-one else. Pearl's saliva was sticky paste. Oh, of course. She was a witness to Cinder's claims. It was only fitting…that they eliminate her too.
Pearl felt a single tear slip down her face. I'm sorry Peony. She had failed. Miserably failed. And now her sister would have no one. There would be no one left.
She felt the guard's fingers brush against hers as he lifted the gun out of her palm. She couldn't look at him. Everything around her was muted.
No, what...? She thought maybe the emperor was talking. He might have been angry. It was hard enough to make out the words filtering through her daze, never mind the emotions behind them. Stop. She vaguely wondered if she was going into shock.
Pearl turned her head so she locked eyes with her sister. I'm sorry, she thought, desperately wishing the words could get through. I'm so sorry.
No…command you…stop…marriage alliance…over…harm either of these citizens or manipulate…security team.
Pity. This was Levana, Pearl guessed. Still. Suppose…easier.
And there was a gun being pushed back into her gloved hand. Back into Cinder's. Two girls, hair dripping, silken ballgowns crumpled, treacherous arms slowly – agonizingly slowly – raising guns up towards their heads. They were stepping closer to each other, now maybe only a foot apart. She couldn't take her eyes off Cinder. They were mirror images of each other.
Mirror images – apart from a spark of green growing in Cinder's pupil. As Pearl watched dimly, the green started to scroll across her sister's eye. Faster and faster.
And Cinder screamed.
Everything happened very quickly after that.
(More dramatic music)
Re Guest: Aww thank you so much, that's so sweet of you! Glad you're enjoying the plot twists :D
Re BookishFlyingGecko: Aghhh a whole paragraph thanks so much! Yep, Pearl definitely didn't realize how dangerous what she was doing is (although I think she's starting to...) Glad you liked Cinder's increasingly forlorn attempts to convince herself that no she is definitely NOT developing feelings Kai, they were very fun to write hehe!
As ever, if you feel like leaving a review + some constructive criticism it's hugely appreciated :)