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 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 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.
She heard the clomping of the guards' boots as they approached the body. The corpse being slid toward the ledge. The shove and the distant splash below.
The court applauded with quiet politeness.
Winter heard her toes snap off. One. By. One.
"Very good," said Queen Levana. "Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is carried out."
The ice was in her throat now, climbing up her jaw. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.
She raised her head as a servant began washing the blood from the tiles. Aimery, rubbing his knife with a cloth, met Winter's gaze. 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.
The queen turned, 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 focus on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.
"Oh, no, she isn't quite as useless as that," Aimery said. 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 happy bride someday, I should think."
"The prettiest girl, Aimery?" Levana's light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.
Aimery 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 still felt 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 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."
The doors to the throne room opened, and there he was, trapped between two guards, his wrists corded behind his back. His blond hair was clumped and matted, strands of it clinging to his jaw. It appeared to have been a fair while since he'd last showered, but Winter could detect no obvious signs of abuse.
Her stomach flipped. All the warmth the ice had sucked out of her came rushing back to the surface of her skin.
Stay with me, Princess. Listen to my voice, Princess.
He was led to the center of the room, devoid of expression. Winter jabbed her fingernails into her palms.
Jacin didn't look at her. Not once.
"Jacin Clay," said Aimery, "you have been charged with betraying the crown by failing to protect Thaumaturge Mira and by failing to apprehend a known Lunar fugitive despite nearly two weeks spent in said fugitive's company. You are a traitor to Luna and to our queen. These crimes are punishable by death. What have you to say in your defense?"
Winter's heart thundered like a drum against her ribs. She turned pleading eyes up to her stepmother, but Levana was not paying her any attention.
"I plead guilty to all stated crimes," said Jacin, drawing Winter's attention back, "except for the accusation that I am a traitor."
Levana's fingernails fluttered against the arm of her throne. "Explain."
Jacin stood as tall and stalwart as if he were in uniform, as if he were on duty, not on trial. "As I've said before, I did not apprehend the fugitive while in her company because I was attempting to convince her I could be trusted, in order to gather information for my queen."
"Ah, yes, you were spying on her and her companions," said Levana. "I do recall that excuse from when you were captured. I also recall that you had no pertinent information to give me, only lies."
"Not lies, My Queen, though I will admit I underestimated the cyborg and her abilities. She was disguising them from me."
"So much for earning her trust." There was mocking in the queen's tone.
"Knowledge of the cyborg's skills was not the only information I sought, My Queen."
"I suggest you stop playing with words. My patience with you is already thin."
Winter's heart shriveled. Not Jacin. She could not sit here and watch them kill Jacin.
She would bargain for him, she decided, though the plan came with a flaw. What did she have to bargain with? Nothing but her own life, and Levana would not accept that.
She could throw a fit. Go into hysterics. It would hardly be a stretch from the truth at this point, and it might distract them for a time, but it would only delay the inevitable.
She had felt helpless many times in her life, but never like this.
Only one thing to be done, then. She would throw her own body in front of the blade.
Oh, Jacin would hate that.
Ignorant of Winter's newest resolve, Jacin respectfully inclined his head. "During my time with Linh Cinder, I uncovered information about a device that can nullify the effects of the Lunar gift when connected to a person's nervous system."
This caused a curious squirm through the crowd. A stiffening of spines, a tilting forward of shoulders.
"Impossible," said Levana.
"Linh Cinder had evidence of its potential. As it was described to me, on an Earthen, the device will keep their bioelectricity from being tampered with. But on a Lunar, it will prevent them from using their gift at all. Linh Cinder herself had the device installed when she arrived at the Commonwealth ball. Only when it was destroyed was she able to use her gift — as was evidenced with your own eyes, My Queen."
His words carried an air of impertinence. Levana's knuckles turned white.
"How many of these hypothetical devices exist?"
"To my knowledge, only the broken device installed in the cyborg herself. But I suspect there still exist patents or blueprints. The inventor was Linh Cinder's adoptive father."
The queen's grip began to relax. "This is intriguing information, Sir Clay. But it speaks more of a desperate attempt to save yourself than true innocence."