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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 smiled as he spoke, his voice serene and measured, 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 was the accused's son, taken on 29 July of last year. He is now fourteen months old."
Winter gripped her hands in her lap, hiding them in the folds of her gown. They were shaking again. It seemed like she was always shaking these days. She squeezed her fingers to hold them still. Pressed the bottoms of her feet into the hard floor. Struggled to bring the throne room into focus before it dissolved entirely.
The view was striking from the central tower of the palace. From here, Winter could see Artemisia Lake mirroring the white palace back up to the sky and the city that spread to the very edge of the enormous clear dome that sheltered them from the outside elements-or lack thereof. The throne room itself was built to extend 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 patiently to the trials without a hint of emotion. Winter was used to seeing Levana's fingertips leisurely stroking the polished arm of her throne, not throttling it. But tension had been high in the palace 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.
Winter tore her eyes away from the queen's fingers. The blue planet hung above them in an endless black sky, looking like someone had taken a knife to it and shorn it perfectly in half. They were a week into the long night, and the city of Artemisia was aglow with pale blue lampposts and glowing crystal windows, the lights dancing across the lake's surface and reflecting off the dome's ceiling.
One week. Yet Winter felt that it had been years since she had last seen the sun.
"How did he know about the shells?" Queen Levana asked, her voice echoing off the smooth surfaces of the throne room. "Why did he not believe his son to have been killed at birth?"
Seated around the rest of 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, pitifully outnumbered, was the man on his knees beside Thaumaturge Park. He had not been born so lucky.
His hands were clasped together, pleading. Winter wished she could tell him that it wouldn't matter. All his begging would be for nothing. She felt 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.
Tearing her gaze from the man, she stared at her own hands, still clawed around her gauzy white skirt. Her fingers too, she saw, had been bitten with frost. It was sort of pretty. Glistening and shimmering and cold so very cold ...
"Your queen has 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 again 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 paced around the captive.
"I am sorry, Your Majesty," the man said, his voice restrained. Winter couldn't tell if he was disguising hatred for his sovereign, or merely trying to keep from turning into a blubbering mess. "My family and I have served you loyally for generations. I am a janitor at that med-clinic, and I'd heard rumors, you see. 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, "that 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 that you use their blood for some ... experimentation. In your laboratories. But ... but you have so many, and he's only a baby, and..."
"Not only is his blood valuable to the success of our war efforts and 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 made on 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 that I saw in those tanks ... so many of them, children. Innocent children."
The room seemed to chill.
Clearly, 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. Many citizens, but certainly not all, had been convinced that the precaution was necessary, and no one would be pleased to know that their babies had not been killed at all, but really 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 to her fingers, and she saw that the ice had extended nearly 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. We have not been able to locate her, but a search is underway. He has also two sisters, two nephews, and one niece. All live in Sector GM-12."
"Dead five months past, of regolith poisoning."
The prisoner watched the queen, desperation pooling in his eyes.
The court began to stir, their vibrant clothes shifting and 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, hopeful. It always seemed to take them a few seconds to comprehend such a sentence.
"Your family members will each receive a dozen public lashings, to remind everyone in your sector that they cannot possibly comprehend the inner workings of our government and that I will not tolerate my decisions being questioned again."
The man's head started to droop, his jaw going slack.
"Your daughter, when she is found, will be given as a gift to one of the court's families. There, she will be taught the obedience and humility that 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. Though he didn't raise his voice, it rumbled through the throne room into the ears of the lower-ranking thaumaturges, the guards, the court, the waiting servants, and the queen-the only judge and jury. His voice was suffocating. "Her word is final."
Aimery drew a knife from one of his bell-shaped sleeves and held the handle out to the prisoner, whose eyes had gone wide with hysteria.
The room grew colder. Winter noticed that her breaths were turning to fogged ice crystals. She shivered and 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. A muffled gag. The hard slump of the body.
Bile squirmed up Winter's throat. 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 it helped, even just the memory 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. Freezing her from the inside out.
Listen to my voice.
Jacin wasn't there.
Stay with me.
Jacin was gone.
It's all in your head.
She heard the clomping of the guards' boots as they approached the body. The corpse being slid toward the ledge. The shove. Moments later, the splash down below.
The court applauded with quiet politeness.
Winter felt her toes snap off. One. By. One.
She was almost too numb to notice.
"Very good," said Queen Levana. "Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is duly carried out."
"Yes, My Queen."
Winter forced her eyes open. The ice had made its way up her throat now, was climbing over her jawline. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.
In the center of the room, a servant was cleaning the blood from the tiles. Aimery was rubbing his knife with a cloth. He met Winter's gaze and his smile was searing. "I am afraid the princess has no stomach for these proceedings."
The nobles in the audience tittered-Winter's disgust of the trials was a source of merriment to most of Levana's court.
She heard the rustle of her stepmother's gown as the queen turned to peer down at her, but Winter couldn't look up. She was a girl made of ice and glass. Her teeth were brittle, her lungs too easily shattered.
"Yes," said Levana. "I often forget she's here at all. You're about as useless as a rag doll, aren't you, Winter?"
The audience chuckled again, louder now, as if the queen had given permission to mock the young princess. But Winter couldn't respond, not to the queen, not to the laughter. She kept her gaze pinned on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.
"Oh no, she isn't quite as useless as that," Aimery said, still smiling. As Winter stared, a thin crimson line drew itself across his throat, blood bubbling up from the wound. "The prettiest girl on all of Luna? She will make some member of this court a very happy bride someday, I should think."
"The prettiest girl, Aimery?" Levana's light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.
Aimery seamlessly slipped into a bow. "Prettiest only, My Queen. But no mortal could compare with your perfection."
The court was quick to agree, offering a hundred compliments at once, though Winter could still feel the leering gazes of more than one noble attached to her.
Aimery took a step toward the throne and his severed head tipped off, thunking against the marble and rolling, rolling, rolling, until it stopped right at Winter's frozen feet.
She whimpered, but the sound was buried beneath the snow in her throat.
It's all in your head.
"Silence," said Levana, once she'd had her share of praise. "Are we finished?"
Finally, the ice found her eyes and Winter had no choice but to shut them against Aimery's headless apparition, enclosing herself in cold and darkness.
She would die here and not complain. She would be buried beneath this avalanche of lifelessness. She would never have to witness another murder again.
"There is one more prisoner still to be tried, My Queen." Aimery's voice echoed in the cold hollowness of Winter's head. "Sir Jacin Clay, royal guard, pilot, and assigned protector of Thaumaturge Sybil Mira."
Winter gasped and the ice shattered, a million sharp glittering bits exploding across the throne room and skidding across the floor. No one else heard them. No one else noticed.
Aimery, head very much attached, was watching her again, as if he'd been waiting to see her reaction. His smirk was subtle as he returned his attention to the queen.
"Ah, yes," said Levana. "Bring him in."
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