Sixteen-year-old Cinder is waiting for her android Iko to come back with a new foot for her—the metal foot that she currently has is rusted, and she’s worn it since she was 11 years old. Cinder is the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s market. As she peers out at the other booths, she spots Chang Sacha, the baker, telling her son Sunto not to play so close to Cinder’s booth because Cinder is a cyborg. Cinder continues to disconnect the wires between her mechanical foot and ankle, before cleaning her rusted socket.
The book’s opening pages establish the challenges that Cinder faces in her futuristic world. First, she experiences discrimination because she is a cyborg, as people like Chang Sacha warn their children not to play with her, likely because they believe that she’s subhuman. This passage also establishes Cinder’s tenacity: she has had the same metal foot for five years and yet has persisted despite outgrowing the foot and despite it rusting over time. The foot thus symbolizes Cinder’s ability to make the best out of her difficult circumstances and persevere in spite of them.
Just then, a young man arrives in Cinder’s booth, and the retina display in Cinder’s eye identifies him as Prince Kai, the crown prince of the Eastern Commonwealth. Cinder bows awkwardly, hiding her missing foot. Kai asks her to keep his identity quiet before asking for Linh Cinder. When Cinder says that she’s Cinder, Kai is surprised that the best mechanic in the city is a teenage girl. He asks her to fix his android Nainsi, which isn’t turning on anymore. She suggests that he get a new model, but Kai says that he can’t get rid of her because she has sentimental value. Hearing this, an orange light blinks in Cinder’s retina—indicating that Kai is lying.
Although Cinder faces discrimination as a cyborg, there are advantageous aspects of this identity as well. Fixing problems on her own body has helped her become a renowned mechanic, and the retina display in her eye also helps detect when people are lying to her. These skills become crucial for Cinder throughout the book, illustrating how the aspects of a person that make them different from others can also be what makes them special.
At that moment, Iko returns with a new steel-plated foot for Cinder, but Cinder pushes her to the back of the booth before Iko can reveal that the foot is for Cinder. Kai remarks on Iko’s bold personality, to which Cinder replies that she thinks Iko is faulty. Cinder then explains to Kai that fixing Nainsi might take a week. Kai offers to come back the following weekend to pick up the android. As he leaves, he gives her a polite bow and an easy smile before pulling his sweatshirt hood over his face.
This passage introduces the characters’ secrecy and manipulation. Both Cinder and Kai are hiding aspects of their identity: Kai is trying to protect his privacy in public (he probably doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, since he’s a prince and people are likely to recognize him). Cinder, meanwhile, is trying to hide her identity—likely because Kai wouldn’t think as highly of her if he knew that she’s a cyborg.
After Kai leaves, Iko fawns over the prince. Cinder is excited to tell her stepsister Peony about his visit, as she loves the prince. She then begins attaching her new foot—she’s thrilled that Iko found it, though she knows her stepmother Adri would kill her if she found out Cinder spent 600 univs on a foot. Suddenly, people start screaming in the street, yelling about the plague: there’s an outbreak at Chang Sacha’s booth. Cinder immediately closes the door to her booth and covers her nose and mouth with a rag. She and Iko then wait until they hear the sirens of an emergency hover take Sacha away.
Cinder’s thoughts characterize her as a kind and selfless person, as the first thing she thinks of after meeting Kai is Peony’s happiness when she tells her about him. However, not everyone shares her generosity: Adri would disapprove of Cinder buying a new foot even though she needed one, which perhaps suggests that Adri wants Cinder’s money for herself. Meanwhile, although the book doesn’t give much explanation about the plague yet, Cinder’s quick reaction to the outbreak at Chang Sacha’s booth once again characterizes her as a resourceful person.