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Winter’s toes had become ice cubes. They were as cold as space. As cold as the dark side of Luna. As cold as—
“… security feeds captured him entering the AR-Central med-clinic’s sublevels at 23:00 U.T.C.…”
Thaumaturge Aimery Park spoke with a serene, measured cadence, like a ballad. It was easy to lose track of what he was saying, easy to let all the words blur and conjoin. Winter curled her toes inside her thin-soled shoes, afraid that if they got any colder before this trial was over, they would snap off.
“… was attempting to interfere with one of the shells currently stored…”
Snap off. One by one.
“… records indicate the shell child is the accused’s son, taken on 29 July of last year. He is now fifteen months old.”
Winter hid her hands in the folds of her gown. They were shaking again. She was always shaking these days. She squeezed her fingers to hold them still and pressed the bottoms of her feet into the hard floor. She struggled to bring the throne room into focus before it dissolved.
The throne room, in the central tower of the palace, had the most striking view in the city. From her seat, Winter could see Artemisia Lake mirroring the white palace and the city reaching for the edge of the enormous clear dome that sheltered them from the outside elements—or lack thereof. The throne room itself extended past the walls of the tower, so that when one passed beyond the edge of the mosaic floor, they found themselves on a ledge of clear glass. Like standing on air, about to plummet into the depths of the crater lake.
To Winter’s left she could make out the edges of her stepmother’s fingernails as they dug into the arm of her throne, an imposing seat carved from white stone. Normally her stepmother was calm during these proceedings and would listen to the trials without a hint of emotion. Winter was used to seeing Levana’s fingertips stroking the polished stone, not throttling it. But tension was high since Levana and her entourage had returned from Earth, and her stepmother had flown into even more rages than usual these past months.
Ever since that runaway Lunar—that cyborg—had escaped from her Earthen prison.
Ever since war had begun between Earth and Luna.
Ever since the queen’s betrothed had been kidnapped, and Levana’s chance to be crowned empress had been stolen from her.
The blue planet hung above the horizon, cut clean in half. Luna was a little more than halfway through the long night, and the city of Artemisia glowed with pale blue lampposts and glowing crystal windows, their reflections dancing across the lake’s surface.
Winter missed the sun and its warmth. Their artificial days were never the same.
“How did he know about the shells?” Queen Levana asked. “Why did he not believe his son to have been killed at birth?”
Seated around the room in four tiered rows were the families. The queen’s court. The nobles of Luna, granted favor with Her Majesty for their generations of loyalty, their extraordinary talents with the Lunar gift, or pure luck at having been born a citizen of the great city of Artemisia.
Then there was the man on his knees beside Thaumaturge Park. He had not been born lucky.
His hands were together, pleading. Winter wished she could tell him it wouldn’t matter. All his begging would be for nothing. She thought there would be comfort in knowing there was nothing you could do to avoid death. Those who came before the queen having already accepted their fate seemed to have an easier time of it.
She looked down at her own hands, still clawed around her gauzy white skirt. Her fingers had been bitten with frost. It was sort of pretty. Glistening and shimmering and cold, so very cold …
“Your queen asked you a question,” said Aimery.
Winter flinched, as if he’d been yelling at her.
Focus. She must try to focus.
She lifted her head and inhaled.
Aimery was wearing white now, having replaced Sybil Mira as the queen’s head thaumaturge. The gold embroidery on his coat shimmered as he circled the captive.
“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” the man said. “My family and I have served you for generations. I’m a janitor at that med-clinic and I’d heard rumors … It was none of my business, so I never cared, I never listened. But … when my son was born a shell…” He whimpered. “He is my son.”
“Did you not think,” said Levana, her voice loud and crisp, “there might be a reason your queen has chosen to keep your son and all the other ungifted Lunars separate from our citizens? That we may have a purpose that serves the good of all our people by containing them as we have?”
The man gulped hard enough that Winter could see his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I know, My Queen. I know you use their blood for … experimentation. But … but you have so many, and he’s only a baby, and…”
“Not only is his blood valuable to the success of our political alliances, the likes of which I cannot expect a janitor from the outer sectors to understand, but he is also a shell, and his kind have proven themselves to be dangerous and untrustworthy, as you will recall from the assassinations of King Marrok and Queen Jannali eighteen years ago. Yet you would subject our society to this threat?”
The man’s eyes were wild with fear. “Threat, My Queen? He is a baby.” He paused. He did not look outright rebellious, but his lack of remorse would be sending Levana into a fury soon enough. “And the others in those tanks … so many of them, children. Innocent children.”
The room chilled.
He knew too much. The shell infanticide had been in place since the rule of Levana’s sister, Queen Channary, after a shell sneaked into the palace and killed their parents. No one would be pleased to know their babies had not been killed at all, but instead locked away and used as tiny blood-platelet-manufacturing plants.
Winter blinked, imagining her own body as a blood-platelet-manufacturing plant.
Her gaze dropped again. The ice had extended to her wrists now.
That would not be beneficial for the platelet conveyor belts.
“Does the accused have a family?” asked the queen.
Aimery bobbed his head. “Records indicate a daughter, age nine. He also has two sisters and a nephew. All live in Sector GM-12.”
“Dead five months past of regolith poisoning.”
The prisoner watched the queen, desperation pooling around his knees.
The court began to stir, their vibrant clothes fluttering. This trial had gone on too long. They were growing bored.
Levana leaned against the back of her throne. “You are hereby found guilty of trespassing and attempted theft against the crown. This crime is punishable by immediate death.”
The man shuddered, but his face remained pleading. It always took them a few seconds to comprehend such a sentence.
“Your family members will each receive a dozen public lashings as a reminder to your sector that I do not tolerate my decisions being questioned.”
The man’s jaw slackened.
“Your daughter will be given as a gift to one of the court’s families. There, she will be taught the obedience and humility one can assume she has not learned beneath your tutelage.”
“No, please. Let her live with her aunts. She hasn’t done anything!”
“Aimery, you may proceed.”
“Your queen has spoken,” said Thaumaturge Aimery. “Her word is final.”
Aimery drew an obsidian knife from one of his bell-shaped sleeves and held the handle toward the prisoner, whose eyes had gone wide with hysteria.
The room grew colder. Winter’s breath crystallized in the air. She squeezed her arms tight against her body.
The prisoner took the knife handle. His hand was steady. The rest of him was trembling.
“Please. My little girl—I’m all she has. Please. My Queen. Your Majesty!”
He raised the blade to his throat.
This was when Winter looked away. When she always looked away. She watched her own fingers burrow into her dress, her fingernails scraping at the fabric until she could feel the sting on her thighs. She watched the ice climb over her wrists, toward her elbows. Where the ice touched, her flesh went numb.
She imagined lashing out at the queen with those ice-solid fists. She imagined her hands shattering into a thousand icicle shards.
It was at her shoulders now. Her neck.
Even over the popping and cracking of the ice, she heard the cut of flesh. The burble of blood and a muffled gag. The hard slump of the body.
The cold had stolen into her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, reminding herself to be calm, to breathe. She could hear Jacin’s steady voice in her head, his hands gripping her shoulders. It isn’t real, Princess. It’s only an illusion.
Usually they helped, these memories of him coaxing her through the panic. But this time it seemed to prompt the ice on. Encompassing her rib cage. Gnawing into her stomach. Hardening over her heart.
She was freezing from the inside out.
Listen to my voice.
Jacin wasn’t there.
Stay with me.
Jacin was gone.
It’s all in your head.
Copyright © 2015 by Rampion Books