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Excerpt from Cress (Book 3 in The Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer:
"SCREEN FOUR," SAID CRESS, SQUINTING AT THE GRID OF ICONS.
"High Jack to . . . D5."
Without waiting for the animated jester to cartwheel to his new space, she shifted her attention to the next game. "Screen five. Claim rubies and daggers. Discard crowns."
The screen sparkled, but she had already moved on.
"Screen six." She paused, chewing on the tips of her hair. Twelve rows of numbers filled up the screen, some slots left blank, some tinted with colors and patterns. After her brain twisted around an equation she wasn't sure she could have done a second time, the puzzle lit up before her, the solution as clear as a moonrise over Earth. "3A, insert yellow 4.7B is black 16. 9G is black 20." The grid melted away, replaced with a second era singer swooning into a microphone, the audience swelling with applause.
"Congratulations, Big Sister," said Little Cress. "You won!"
Cress's victory was short- lived. She rolled onto her side and reassessed the first game. Seeing the move that Little Cress had made since her last turn squelched her pride. She'd backed herself into a corner. "Screen one," she murmured, swooping her hair over one shoulder and mindlessly knotting the dampened ends around her fingers. Five knots later and her victory on screen six was forgotten. Little Cress was going to win this one.
She sighed and made the best move she could, but it was immediately followed by Little Cress's king moving to the center of the holographic labyrinth and claiming the golden chalice. A laughing jester appeared, gobbling down the rest of the game board.
Cress groaned and pulled her hair off her neck, waiting for whatever task her younger self would randomly select for her.
"I won!" said Little Cress, once the holograph had disappeared back into the screen. The other games automatically locked themselves. "You now owe me ten minutes of country- western line dancing, as guided by the following video, followed by thirty jump- squats. Let's begin!"
Cress rolled her eyes, wishing she hadn't been quite so perky when she'd recorded the voice. But she did as she was told, sliding off the bed as a mustached man in a large hat appeared on the screens, thumbs hooked into his belt loops.
A couple years ago, upon realizing that her living accommodations offered few opportunities to be active, Cress had gone on a fitness kick. She'd installed all the games with a program that chose from a variety of fitness activities, which she would be required to perform from every time she lost. Though she'd often regretted the program, it did help keep her from becoming cemented to her chair, and she kind of enjoyed the dancing and yoga routines. Although she was not looking forward to those jump- squats.
Just as the twang of a guitar announced the start of the dance, a loud chime delayed the inevitable. Thumbs locked into her pretend- belt loops, Cress glanced around at the screens.
"Little Cress, what—"
"We have received a direct communication link request from Unknown User: Mechanic."
Her insides spun as if she'd just done a back flip.
With a cry, she half stumbled, half fell toward the smallest screen, hastily tapped in the fitness- routine override code, checked the firewall and privacy settings, and saw it. A D-COMM request, and the most innocent of questions.
A C C E P T ?
Mouth dry, Cress smoothed both palms over her hair. "Yes! Accept!"
The window faded away, replaced with blackness, and then—
There he was.
He was tilted back in a chair, the heels of his boots propped up in front of the screen. Three people stood close behind him, but all Cress could see were the blue eyes staring back at her, directly back at her, beginning to fill with the same breathless awe she felt.
The same wonder.
The same enchantment.
Though they were separated by two screens and vast amounts of empty space, she could feel the link being forged between them in that look. A bond that couldn't be broken. Their eyes had met for the first time, and by the look of pure amazement on his face, she knew he felt it too.
Heat crept up into her cheeks. Her hands began to shake.
"Aces," Carswell Thorne murmured. Dropping his feet to the ground, he leaned forward to inspect her closer. "Is that all hair?"
The bond snapped, the fantasy of one perfect true- love moment disintegrating around her.
Sudden, overwhelming panic clawed up Cress's throat. With a squeak, she ducked out of view of the camera and scrambled beneath the desk. Her back struck the wall with a thud that rattled her teeth. She crouched there, skin burning hot and pulse thundering as she took in the room before her— the room that he was now seeing too, with the rumpled bedcovers and the mustached man on all the screens telling her to grab her imaginary partner and swing them around.
"Wha—where'd she go?" Thorne's voice came to her through the screen.
"Honestly, Thorne." A girl. Linh Cinder? "Do you ever think before you speak?"
"What? What did I say?"
" 'Is that all hair?' "
"Did you see it? It was like a cross between a magpie nest and ball of yarn after it's been mauled by a cheetah."
A beat. Then, "A cheetah?"
"It was the first big cat that came to mind."
Cress hurriedly tried to finger- comb the tangles around her ears. Her hair hadn't been cut since she'd been put into the satellite and now hung past her knees, but Sybil didn't bring sharp objects into the satellite and Cress had long ago stopped worrying about keeping it neatly braided. After all, who was going to see her?
Oh, to have styled her hair that morning. To have worn the dress that didn't have a hole in the collar. Had she even brushed her teeth since she'd eaten breakfast? She couldn't remember, and now she was sure that she had bits of spinach from her freeze- dried eggs Florentine stuck between them.
"Here, let me speak to her."
Shuffling from the screen.
"Hello?" A girl again. "I know you can hear me. I'm sorry my friend is such a wing nut. You can just ignore him."
"That's usually what we do," said the other feminine voice.
Cress searched hastily for a mirror or anything that could pass for one.
"We need to talk to you. I'm . . . This is Cinder. The mechanic who fixed the android?"
The back of Cress's hand smacked into her clothes hamper. It collided with her wheeled chair, which was launched halfway across the room where it hit the far desk and sent a half- full cup of water tipping and wobbling. Cress froze, her eyes going wide as the glass teetered toward the memory drive that housed Little Cress.
"Um, hello? Is this a good time?"
The cup came to rest straight and still once more, not a drop having spilled.
Cress slowly exhaled.
This was not how this meeting was supposed to go. This was not the fantasy she'd dreamed up a hundred times. What had she said in all those dreams? How had she acted? Who had that person been?
All she could think of was the burning mortification of the country- western dancer (now face your partner and do- si- do!) and her magpie- nest hair, her sweating palms and her deafening pulse.
She squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus, to think.
She was not a silly little girl hiding beneath her desk. She was— she was—
A gorgeous, poised, talented actress. And she was wearing a sequined dress that sparkled like stars, one that would mesmerize anyone who saw her. She was not one to question her own power to charm those around her, any more than a thaumaturge would question her ability to manipulate a crowd. She was breathtaking. She was—
Still hiding under the desk.
"Are you there?"
A snort. "Yeah, this is going really well." Carswell Thorne.
Cress flinched, but her breaths were becoming less sporadic as she cocooned herself in the fantasy. "This is a drama set," she whispered, quiet enough that they couldn't hear her. She forced it into her imagination. This was not her bedroom, her sanctuary, her prison. This was a drama set, with cameras and lights and dozens of directors and producers and android- assistants milling about.
And she was an actress.
"Little Cress, pause fitness programming."
The screens halted, the room going silent, and Cress crawled out from beneath the desk.
Cinder was sitting before the screen now, with Carswell Thorne hovering over her shoulder. Cress glanced at him long enough to catch a smile that was perhaps meant to be apologetic, but only served to make her heart skitter.
"Hi," said Linh Cinder. "Sorry to surprise you like that. Do you remember me? We spoke a couple weeks ago, on the day of the coronation and—"
"Y-yes, of course," she stammered. Her knees started to shake as she surreptitiously dragged her chair back toward her and sat down. "I'm glad you're all right." She forced herself to focus on Linh Cinder. Not on Carswell Thorne. If she only refrained from meeting his gaze again, she would manage. She would not fall apart.
And yet the temptation to fi x her eyes on him was still there, tugging at her.
"Oh, thanks," said Cinder. "I wasn't sure . . . I mean, do you follow Earthen news? Do you know what's been happening since—"
"I know everything."
Cress realized her words had come out all mushed together, and she reminded herself to enunciate when she was playing such a sophisticated role. She forced herself to sit up a bit straighter.
"I follow all the newsfeeds," she clarified. "I knew you were spotted in France, and I've been tracking your ship, so I knew it hadn't been destroyed, but I still didn't know whether you'd been injured, or what had happened, and I've been trying to establish the D-COMM link but you never responded." She deflated a little, her fingers tying knots into her hair. "But I am glad to see that you're all right."
"Yes, yes, she's fi ne, we're fi ne, everybody's fi ne," said Thorne, perching an elbow on Cinder's shoulder and leaning toward the screen with furrowed brows. Meeting his eyes was unavoidable, and an involuntary squeak slipped past her lips— a sound she'd never heard herself make before. "Did you just say you've been tracking our ship?"
She opened her mouth, but shut it a moment later when no sound followed. Finally, she managed a brittle nod.
Thorne squinted at her as if trying to figure out if she were lying. Or merely an idiot.
She longed to crawl back beneath the desk.
"Really," he drawled. "And who do you work for again?"
You are an actress. An actress!
"Mistress," she said, forcing the word. "Mistress Sybil. She ordered me to find you, but I haven't told her anything— and I won't, you don't have to worry about that. I— I've been jamming the radar signals, making sure surveillance satellites are faced the other way when you pass, that sort of thing. So no one else could find you." She hesitated, realizing that four faces were gaping at her as if all her hair had just fallen out. "You must have noticed that you haven't been caught yet?"
Lifting an eyebrow, Cinder slid her gaze over to Thorne, who let out a sudden laugh.
"All this time we thought Cinder was casting some witchy spell on the other ships and it's been you?"
Cinder frowned, but Cress couldn't tell who her annoyance was directed at. "I guess we owe you a huge thanks."
Cress's shoulders jerked into an uncomfortable shrug. "It wasn't that difficult. Finding you was the hardest part, but anyone could have figured it out. And sneaking ships around the galaxy is something Lunars have been doing for years."
"I have a price on my head large enough to buy the Province of Japan," said Cinder. "If anyone could have figured it out, they would have by now. So, really, thank you."
A blush crept down her neck.
Thorne jabbed Cinder in the arm. "Soften her up with flattery. Good strategy."
Cinder rolled her eyes. "Look. The reason we're contacting you is because we need your help. Evidently more than I realized."
"Yes," Cress said emphatically, unwrapping the hair from her wrists. "Yes. Whatever you need."
Thorne beamed. "See? Why can't you all be this agreeable?"
The second girl smacked him on the shoulder. "She doesn't even know what we want her to do yet." Cress really looked at her for the first time. She had curly red hair, a collection of freckles over her nose, and curves that were unfairly exaggerated next to Cinder, who was all angles in comparison. The man beside her dwarfed them both and had brown hair that stuck up in every direction, faded scars that hinted at more than his share of scuffles, and a recent bruise on his jaw.
Cress tried her best to look confident. "What do you need help with?"
"When I talked to you before, on the day of the ball, you told me that you've been spying on Earth's leaders and reporting back to Queen Levana. And you also knew that once Levana became empress, she planned on having Kai assassinated so she could have total control of the Commonwealth and use that power to launch a full- scale attack on the other Earthen countries."
Cress nodded, perhaps too vigorously.
"Well, we need the people of Earth to know what lengths she's willing to go to in order to stake claim to Earth, not just the Commonwealth. If the other leaders knew that she's been spying on them all this time, and that she has every intention of invading their countries the first chance she gets, there's no way they would condone this wedding. They wouldn't accept her as a world leader, the wedding would be canceled, and . . . with any luck, that'll give us a chance to . . . er. Well, the ultimate goal is to dethrone her entirely."
Cress licked her lips. "So . . . what do you want me to do?"
"Evidence. I need evidence of what Levana's planning, of what's she's been doing."
Pondering, Cress sank back in her chair. "I have copies of all the video surveillance from over the years. It would be easy to pull up some of the most incriminating vids and send them to you over this link."
"It's circumstantial, though. It would only prove that Levana is interested in what the other leaders are doing, not necessarily that she plans on invading them, and I don't think I have any documentation about her wanting to murder His Majesty, either. It's largely my own suspicions, and speculation on the things my mistress has said."
"That's fine, we'll take whatever you have. Levana already attacked us once. I don't think Earthens will take much convincing that she would do it again."
Cress nodded, but her enthusiasm had waned. She cleared her throat. "My mistress will recognize the footage. She'll know it was me who gave it to you."
Cinder's smile began to fade, and Cress knew she didn't need to clarify her point. She would be killed for her betrayal.
Excerpt from Cress (Book 3 in The Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer. Copyright 2014 by Marissa Meyer. Reprinted with permission from Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group