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'Stars Above' by Marissa Meyer excerpt

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To celebrate the long-awaited publication of Winter, the fifth book in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, we have a special treat for EW readers: An exclusive excerpt from Stars Above, Meyer’s forthcoming book of stories set in the Lunar Chronicles’ world — which also happens to be the first reveal of any kind from the collection.

Stars Above was originally going to include two original stories, and four that had been published elsewhere — but Meyer went above (get it?) and beyond, writing five brand-new stories, including a prequel and epilogue to Winter.

Below, we present “The Mechanic”:

“The Mechanic”

By Marissa Meyer

From STARS ABOVE: A Lunar Chronicles Collection

The hover was waiting outside the palace’s northwest gate. Kai feigned nonchalance as he made his way through the garden’s path, Nainsi’s lightweight android body tucked under one arm and a pack with a hooded sweatshirt slung over his opposite shoulder. He didn’t hurry, but he wasn’t meandering, either. He pretended that he was unconcerned about being noticed. It wasn’t like he couldn’t be tracked. He had not one but two identity chips hidden beneath his skin, and his security team were experts at keeping tabs on him.

It wasn’t a secret that he was leaving.

But he didn’t want it to be public knowledge, either.

The day was hotter than it had been all week and the humidity made his hair cling to the back of his neck. The garden gate opened without a sound, though he could feel the security camera overhead following his movements. He ignored it and approached the hover with the same straight-spined confidence he’d learned to do every task with, no matter how trivial. He waved his ID-embedded wrist over the hover’s scanner and the door whispered open, revealing a spacious interior behind the tinted-glass windows. Hidden speakers emitted the soothing notes of a flautist. Though the air inside had been cooled to a pleasant temperature, an ice bucket in the corner was still slick with condensation. It displayed an assortment of flavored waters and cold teas.

Kai pushed Nainsi in first before settling onto one of the upholstered benches. The door shut, and he realized that, despite the tranquility of the hover’s interior, his heart had started to pound.

“Good afternoon, Crown Prince Kaito. What is your destination?” the hover asked in an artificially feminine voice.

He rubbed away a bead of sweat before it could drip down his temple. “The market at city center.”

The hover lifted off the street and glided away from the palace, taking the looping drive around the protective exterior wall before dipping down the hill toward New Beijing. Through the dark-paned glass, Kai could see his city shimmering with waves of heat, the windows and metal structures glinting beneath the afternoon sun.

He loved his city. He loved his country.

He would risk anything to protect it.

Inhaling sharply, he unclipped the portscreen from his belt and pulled up the net. The profile he’d looked up days ago greeted him on the main page.

Linh Cinder, licensed mechanic

Location: New Beijing weekly market, booth #771

480 ratings; 98.7% client approval

There was no picture of the mechanic or the shop, but Linh Cinder had a reputation of being the best mechanic in the city, and the approval rating was higher than anyone else Kai had looked up. He’d first heard of Linh Cinder from one of the royal mechanics at the palace who was charged with keeping the royal androids well maintained. When they had failed to properly diagnose Nainsi after running the basic tests, Linh Cinder’s name had come up as the best chance for fixing the android.

Of course, they had all thought Kai was crazy for being so invested in an android.

We’ll order up a new one, they said. Run it through the palace budget. Standard procedure. She’s just a tutor android, after all, programmed with a few assistant apps. Easily replaced, Your Highness. Not for you to worry about.

But they were wrong. Nainsi was not easily replaced. The information she had—or that Kai hoped she had—was not easily replaced at all.

He returned the portscreen to his belt and pulled the android toward him, peering into the sensor light that had been black for days. Once again, he sought out the minuscule power button. Once again, nothing happened.

He sighed, though he’d long given up hope that Nainsi would just wake up and spill all her secrets. Her power cell was fully charged, and according to the diagnostics tests, everything was working properly. No one could figure out what was wrong, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“We’re so close,” he whispered to himself. Leaning back against the bench, he dragged a hand through his hair. Frustration had been growing behind his rib cage for weeks now, ever since that Lunar thaumaturge, Sybil Mira, had come to visit for her “ambassadorial mission.” She was a witch. A creepy, mind-controlling witch. Just knowing that she was in the palace set Kai’s teeth on edge. It was like he could feel her eyes following him, or sense her breathing down the back of his neck, even when she wasn’t in the same room. He didn’t know if it was his own paranoia or some Lunar trick, but he did know that he couldn’t wait for her to leave him and his family and his country alone.

Then his father had become ill.

No, not ill. His father had the plague. His father was dying, and there was absolutely nothing Kai could do to stop it.

And now this. Nainsi malfunctioning right when he was sure she’d found something useful, something priceless.

Something regarding the whereabouts of Princess Selene.

He knew it was a risk. That if Sybil Mira, or any Lunar, learned that he was trying to find the lost princess, it could lead to a political catastrophe between Earth and Luna. He knew that Queen Levana wouldn’t be quick to forgive the fact that Kai was adamantly attempting to usurp her.

But it was a risk worth taking. Finding Selene and putting her back on the Lunar throne was his best chance—and possibly his only chance—of ridding himself of Queen Levana and her threats toward the Commonwealth. Threats of war. Threats of mass enslavement.

Almost worse—threats of a marriage alliance.

It could not be allowed. He had to find the true Lunar heir before it was too late.

He and Nainsi had been researching for months, and though there had been countless false claims and dead ends, lately he’d been sure they were getting somewhere. Nainsi had heard about a Lunar doctor who was suspected of having an involvement with the lost princess’s disappearance, and also a potential relationship with an Earthen woman years before.

It was a thin hope—the thinnest of hopes—but Kai’s instincts told him there was more to it. He’d ordered Nainsi to find out as much information as she could on the doctor and this Earthen woman and then, two days later—nothing.

Nainsi was dead to the world.

It was enough to make him want to put his head through the hover car’s control board.

“Approaching the city center,” lilted the robotic voice, snapping Kai from his thoughts. “Where would you like to deboard?”

He glanced out the window. The streets were cast in shadow from the high-rise buildings in every direction. Storefronts sparkled with netscreen advertisements and pristine escort-droids modeling the latest fashions and gadgets. A block away he could see the edge of the market, all tight-squeezed booths and bustling crowds.

“Here is fine,” he said, reaching into the pack and pulling out the gray hooded sweatshirt he’d smuggled from the palace—the most discreet item of clothing he owned.

The hover swooped to the edge of the street. The magnets hummed as it lowered itself to the ground. “Shall I wait here for your return?”

“Please,” he said, threading his arms through the sleeves and tugging up the zipper. “I shouldn’t be long.”

He considered giving a specific time—If I’m not back in an hour, then I’ve probably been cornered by paparazzi and screaming girls and you should send the royal security squad after me. But even thinking it made him feel melodramatic, so he just pulled the hood over his brow and stepped out of the hover, dragging Nainsi’s pear-shaped body after him.

He hadn’t gone far when his senses were assaulted by the chaos of the market. The smell of lemongrass, ginger, and sizzling meat. The sounds of laughing children and roaring shopkeepers and chiming sales announcements. The sweltering heat that, even in the shade, soaked straight through his sweatshirt and wrapped him in a suffocating cocoon. He unzipped the sweatshirt slightly as he walked, but dared not take down the hood. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to himself.

And the problem with being the crown prince was that he always drew attention.

Crown prince, and soon-to-be emperor.

No, he couldn’t think of that now. It would cripple him. The thought of losing his father, and to the same devastating plague that had taken his mother years ago. The thought of ascending to the throne. The knowledge of all the people who would be relying on him to do the right thing, to make the best decisions. It was too much. He wasn’t ready. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

He swallowed the rising bile in his throat. He had only one prerogative today: confirm that Linh Cinder was capable of fixing Nainsi.

Only once Nainsi was repaired could he proceed with his search for the princess.

He let out a slow breath, and when he inhaled again, he let the aromas of street food and incense ground him back in the market. He dared to lift his head enough to get his bearings. Though his mother had brought him to the market sometimes when he was young, it had been years since he’d been there, and it took him a moment to pick out the faded booth numbers stenciled on canopies and metal frames. He turned to the right and weaved through the crowd, past barrels of rice and tables of mangoes, handwoven rugs and bargain-price netscreens and portscreens—likely name-brand imitations.

Finally, he saw it. He knew it was the mechanic’s booth even before he checked for the stenciled number: 771. A labyrinth of storage shelves filled the space, cluttered with rusted android prongs, dented hover car panels, bins of bolts and screws, and a thousand different tools whose uses Kai couldn’t even fathom. A table sat across the booth’s entrance, draped in a grease-covered cloth and scattered with an assortment of wires and screwdrivers. A small metal foot, for an escort-droid, or maybe even a cyborg, sat amid the mess. It seemed so unexpected and random that Kai almost laughed.

His amusement was tempered by disappointment, though.

Despite the rolling door being wide-open, there was no one tending the booth.

Frowning, he dropped Nainsi onto the table with a loud thud.

He heard a gasp and another thunk, then a girl appeared from beneath the table, rubbing the top of her head. She looked up at Kai, her expression dark with annoyance.

Then she froze.

He could tell the precise moment when she recognized him.

His smile was instinctive. A little bit apology, a little bit politeness. And a little bit of charm because, of all the things he’d expected to come from his trip to the market, meeting a cute girl with messy hair and dirty work gloves had definitely not been one of them.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize anyone was back there.”

She gaped at him for another heartbeat, then two, then three, before launching herself to her feet and lowering her head in an awkward bow. “Your Highness.”

Grimacing, Kai glanced behind him at the milling crowd. No one else had recognized him yet. He hastily turned back and tilted toward the girl. “Maybe, um . . .” He drew his fingers across his lips. “. . . on the Highness stuff?”

She nodded, but there was still that baffled expression on her face, and he wasn’t entirely sure she had grasped the importance of his remaining incognito.

 “Right. Of course. How—can I—are you—” She paused, pressing her lips tight, and lowered her gaze to his chest. He could tell she was embarrassed by her own reaction, but she wasn’t blushing. At least, not yet.

“I’m looking for a Linh Cinder,” said Kai, still feeling bad for startling her. “Is he around?”

She fidgeted with the hem of her left glove. He thought she was going to take the gloves off—they must have been as hot and uncomfortable as his sweatshirt—but she didn’t. “I—I’m Linh Cinder.”

Kai’s eyebrows jumped in surprise. That couldn’t be right. Maybe he’d misheard. Maybe Linh Cinder was a family name, taken from her mechanical-minded uncle or some such.

This girl was maybe Kai’s age, but he guessed she was even younger.

He settled a hand on Nainsi’s head, shifting forward. “You’re Linh Cinder?”

“Yes, Your High—” She hesitated again, biting her lower lip to stifle the royal title. That small, embarrassed gesture was surprisingly charming.

“The mechanic?”

The girl—Cinder—nodded. “How can I help you?”

Kai stared at the top of her head.

Linh Cinder.

The renown. The reputation. The approval rating.

New Beijing’s best mechanic was . . . a teenager?

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