AND WHEN I SAY THEY blew up, I mean they blew up.
Flames and smoke unfurled like petals from a newly opened flower as those poor monarchs exploded into pieces of rock. For a moment, I was stunned. It was like watching an action movie, the explosion cracking the air and shaking the ground. Then, guardian training kicked in. Critical observation and calculation took over. I immediately noticed that the bulk of the statue's material blew toward the outer sides of the garden. Small stone pieces and dust rained down on the funeral procession, but no large chunks of rock hit Lissa or anyone standing nearby. Assuming the statues had not spontaneously combusted, whoever had blown them up had done so in a precise way. The logistics aside, huge billowing pillars of flame are still pretty scary. Chaos broke loose as everyone tried to get away. Only, they all took different routes, so collisions and entanglements occurred. Even the pallbearers set down their precious burden and took off. Ambrose was the last to do so, his mouth agape and eyes wide as he stared at Tatiana, but another look at the statues sent him off into the mob. A few guardians tried to keep order, herding people back down the funeral path, but it didn't do a lot of good. Everyone was out for themselves, too terrified and panicked to think reasonably.
Well, everyone except for Lissa.
To my surprise, she wasn't surprised.
She had been expecting the explosion.
She didn't run right away, despite people pushing past and shoving her aside. She stood rooted where she'd been when the statues blew up, studying them and the wreckage they'd caused. In particular, she seemed concerned about anyone in the crowd who might have been hurt by the blasts. But, no. As I'd already observed, there seemed to be no injuries. And if there were, it was going to be because of the stampede.
Satisfied, Lissa turned and began walking away with the others. (Well, she was walking; they were running). She'd only gone a little distance when she saw a huge group of guardians hurrying toward the church, faces grim. Some of them stopped to aid those escaping the destruction, but most of the guardians were on their way to the blast site to see what had happened.
Lissa paused again, causing the guy behind her to slam into her back, but she barely felt the impact. She intently watched the guardians, taking note of how many there were, and then moved on once more. Her hidden thoughts were starting to unravel. Finally, I began to see pieces of the plan she'd kept hidden from me. She was pleased. Nervous, too. But overall, she felt--
A commotion back at the jail snapped me into my own mind. The usual quiet of the holding area had shattered and was now filled with grunts and exclamations. I leapt up from where I'd been sitting and pressed against the bars, straining to see what was happening. Was this building about to explode too? My cell only faced a wall in the hallway, with no view of the rest of the corridor or its entrance. I did, however, see the guardians who usually stood at the hall's far end come tearing past me, toward whatever altercation was occurring.
I didn't know what this meant for me and braced for anything, friend or foe. For all I knew, there could be some political fringe group launching attacks on the Court to make a statement against the Moroi government. Peering around the cell, I swore silently, wishing I had anything to defend myself. The closest I had was Abe's book, which was no good at all. If he was the badass he pretended to be, he really would have slipped a file into it. Or gotten me something bigger, like War and Peace.
The scuffling died down and footsteps thundered toward me. Clenching my fists, I took a few steps back, ready to defend myself against anyone.
"Anyone' turned out to be Eddie Castile. And Mikhail Tanner.
Friendly faces were not what I had expected. Eddie was a longtime friend from St. Vladimir's, another new guardian like me and someone who'd stuck by me through a lot of misadventures, including the Victor Dashkov prison break. Mikhail was older than us, mid-twenties, and had helped us restore Dimitri in the hopes that Sonya Karp--a woman Mikhail had loved who had turned Strigoi--might be saved as well. I glanced back and forth between the two guys' faces.
"What's going on?' I demanded.
"Nice to see you too,' said Eddie. He was sweating and keyed up with battle fervor, a few purple marks on his face showing he'd met someone's fist tonight. In his hand was a weapon I'd seen in the guardians' arsenal: a baton-type thing used to incapacitate people without killing them. But Mikhail held something much more valuable: the keycard and mechanical key to open my cell.
My friends were staging a prison break. Unbelievable. Crazy was usually my specialty.
"Did you guys ...' I frowned. The thought of escape filled me with joy, but the logistics were sobering. Clearly, they'd been responsible for the fight with my guards that I'd just heard. Getting down here in the first place wasn't that easy either. "Did you two just take on every guardian in this building?'
Mikhail finished unlocking the door, and I didn't waste any time in hurrying out. After feeling so oppressed and smothered for days, it was like stepping onto a mountain ledge, wind and space all around me.
"Rose, there are no guardians in this building. Well, maybe one. And these guys.' Eddie gestured in the direction of the earlier fight, where I assumed my guards lay unconscious. Surely my friends hadn't killed anyone.
"The rest of the guardians are all checking out the explosion,' I realized. Pieces began coming together--including Lissa's lack of surprise over the commotion. "Oh no. You had Christian blow up ancient Moroi artifacts.'
"Of course not,' said Eddie. He seemed shocked that I would have suggested such an atrocity. "Other fire users would be able to tell if he did.'
"Well, that's something,' I said. I should have had more faith in their sanity.
Or maybe not.
"We used C4,' explained Mikhail.
"Where on earth did you--'
My tongue locked up when I saw who was standing at the end of the hallway. Dimitri.
Not knowing how he was during my imprisonment had been frustrating. Christian and Tasha's report had been only a tease. Well, here was the answer. Dimitri stood near the hall's entrance in all his six-foot-seven glory, as imperious and intimidating as any god. His sharp brown eyes assessed everything in an instant, and his strong, lean body was tensed and ready for any threat. The look on his face was so focused, so filled with passion, that I couldn't believe anyone ever could have thought he was a Strigoi. Dimitri burned with life and energy. In fact, looking at him now, I was again reminded of how he'd stood up for me at my arrest. He wore that same expression. Really, it was the same one I'd seen countless times. It was the one people feared and admired. It was the one I had loved.
"You're here too?' I tried reminding myself that my muddled romantic history wasn't the most important thing in the world for a change. "Aren't you under house arrest?' "He escaped,' said Eddie slyly. I caught the real meaning: he and Mikhail had helped Dimitri escape. "It's what people would expect some violent probably-still-a- Strigoi guy to do, right?'
"You'd also expect him to come bust you out,' added Mikhail, playing along with the game. "Especially considering how he fought for you last week. Really, everyone is going to think he busted you out alone. Not with us.'
Dimitri said nothing. His eyes, while still carefully watching our surroundings, were also assessing me. He was making sure I was okay and uninjured. He looked relieved that I was.
"Come on,' Dimitri finally said. "We don't have much time.' That was an understatement, but there was one thing bugging me about my friends' "brilliant' plan.
"There's no way they'll think he did it alone!' I exclaimed, realizing what Mikhail was getting at. They were setting Dimitri up as the culprit in this escape. I gestured to the unconscious guardians at our feet. "They saw your faces.'
"Not really,' a new voice said. "Not after a little spirit-induced amnesia. By the time they wake up, the only person they'll remember seeing will be that unstable Russian guy. No offense.'
"None taken,' said Dimitri, as Adrian stepped through the doorway.
I stared, trying not to gape. There they were together, the two men in my life. Adrian hardly looked like he could jump into a fistfight, but he was as alert and serious as the other fighters here. His lovely eyes were clear and full of the cunning I knew they could possess when he really tried. That's when it hit me: he showed no sign of intoxication whatsoever. Had what I'd seen the other day been a ruse? Or had he forced himself to take control? Either way, I felt a slow grin creeping over my face.
"Lissa lied to your mom earlier,' I said. "You're supposed to be passed out drunk somewhere.'
He rewarded me with one of his cynical smiles. "Well, yes, that would probably be the smarter--and more enjoyable--thing to be doing right now. And hopefully, that's what everyone thinks I'm doing.'
"We need to go,' said Dimitri, growing agitated.
We turned toward him. Our jokes vanished. That attitude I'd noticed about Dimitri, the one that said he could do anything and would always lead you to victory, made people want to follow him unconditionally. The expressions on Mikhail and Eddie's faces--as they grew serious--showed that was exactly how they felt. It seemed natural to me too. Even Adrian looked like he believed in Dimitri, and in that moment, I admired Adrian for putting aside any jealousy--and also for risking himself like this. Especially since Adrian had made it clear on more than one occasion he didn't want to be involved with any dangerous adventures or use his spirit in a covert way. In Las Vegas, for example, he'd simply accompanied us in an observer's role. Of course, he'd also been drunk most of the time, but that probably made no difference.
I took a few steps forward, but Adrian suddenly held out a hand to stop me. "Wait-- before you go with us, you need to know something.' Dimitri started to protest, eyes glinting with impatience. "She does,' argued Adrian, meeting Dimitri's gaze squarely. "Rose, if you escape ... you're more or less confirming your guilt. You'll be a fugitive. If the guardians find you, they aren't going to need a trial or sentence to kill you on sight.' Four sets of eyes rested on me as the full meaning sank in. If I ran now and was caught, I was dead for sure. If I stayed, I had the slim chance that in my short time before trial, we might find evidence to save me. It wasn't impossible. But if nothing turned up, I was also most certainly dead. Either option was a gamble. Either one had the strong possibility of me not surviving.
Adrian looked as conflicted as I felt. We both knew I didn't have any good choices. He was simply worried and wanted me to know what I was risking. Dimitri, however ... for him, there was no debate. I could see it all over his face. He was an advocate of rules and doing the proper thing. But in this case? With such bad odds? It was better to risk living as a fugitive, and if death came, better to face it fighting.
My death will not be penciled in on someone's calendar.
"Let's go,' I said.
We hurried out of the building, anxious to get moving with the plan. I couldn't help but comment to Adrian, "You've got to be using a lot of spirit to pull off all those illusions on the guards.'
"I am,' he agreed. "And I don't really have the power to do it for very long. Lissa could probably make a dozen guardians think they'd seen ghosts. Me? I can barely make a few forget Eddie and Mikhail. That's why there had to be someone they remembered to attract the attention, and Dimitri's the ideal scapegoat.'
"Well, thank you.' I gave his hand a gentle squeeze. As warmth flowed between us, I didn't bother telling him I was a long way from being free yet. It would diminish his heroics. We had a lot of obstacles ahead, but I still appreciated him stepping up like this and respecting my decision to go along with the escape plan.
Adrian shot me a sidelong glance. "Yeah, well, I'm supposed to be crazy, right?' A flash of affection shone in his eyes. "And there isn't much I wouldn't do for you. The stupider, the better.'
We emerged to the main floor, and I saw that Eddie had been right about guardian security. The halls and rooms were virtually deserted. Without a second glance, we hurried outdoors, and the fresh air seemed to renew my energy.
"Now what?' I asked my rescuers.
"Now we take you to the getaway car,' said Eddie.
The garages weren't far, but they weren't close either. "That's a lot of open ground to cover,' I said. I didn't bring up the obvious problem: me being killed if spotted.
"I'm using spirit to keep us all vague and nondescript,' said Adrian. More testing of his magic. He couldn't handle much more. "People won't recognize us unless they stop and stare directly at us.'
"Which they probably won't,' said Mikhail. "If anyone even notices us at all. Everyone's too worried about themselves to pay much attention to others in all this chaos.'
Looking around outside, I could see he was right. The jail building was far from the church, but by now, people who'd been near the blast had made their way to this part of Court. Some were running into their residences. Some were seeking guardians, hoping for protection. And some ... some were going the same direction we were, toward the garages.
"People are freaked out enough to actually try to leave Court,' I realized. Our group was moving as fast as we could with Adrian, who wasn't in the shame shape as dhampirs. "The garages will be crowded.' Both official Court vehicles and visiting guests parked in the same area.
"That could help us,' said Mikhail. "More chaos.'
With so many distractions in my own reality, I couldn't plunge completely into Lissa's. A light brush of the bond found her safe, over in the palace.
"What's Lissa doing during all of this?' I asked.
Believe me, I was glad she wasn't involved with this busting-me-out-of-jail madness. But, as Adrian had noted, her ability with spirit could have gone much farther than his here. And now, looking back on it all, it was obvious she had known about this plan. That had been her secret.
"Lissa needs to stay innocent. She can't be linked to any part of the escape or explosion,' replied Dimitri, eyes fixed ahead on his goal. His tone was firm. He still regarded her as his savior. "She has to keep herself visible with the other royals. So does Christian.' He almost smiled. Almost. "Those two would certainly be my first suspects if something exploded.'
"But the guardians won't suspect them once they realize the blast wasn't caused by magic,' I mused. Mikhail's earlier words returned to me. "And hey, where did you guys get a hold of C4? Military grade explosives are kind of extreme, even for you.'
No one answered me because three guardians suddenly leapt out into our path. Apparently, they weren't all out at the church. Dimitri and I surged ahead of our group, moving as one, just as we always had in battle together. Adrian had said the illusion he'd stretched over our group wouldn't hold if anyone was facing us directly. I wanted to make sure Dimitri and I were the first line of contact with these guardians, in the hopes they wouldn't recognize the others behind us. I threw myself into the fight without hesitation, defensive instincts kicking in. But in those milliseconds, the reality of what I was doing truly sank in.
I'd fought guardians before and always felt guilty about it. I'd taken on the ones at Tarasov Prison, as well as the queen's guard during my arrest. I hadn't really known any of them, though. Just realizing they were my colleagues had been bad enough ... but now? Now I was facing one of the most difficult challenges in my life, as small as it seemed. After all, three guardians were an easy match for me and Dimitri. The problem was--I knew these guardians. Two of them I'd run into quite a bit after graduation. They worked at Court and had always been kind to me.
The third guardian wasn't just someone I knew--she was a friend. Meredith, one of the few girls in my class at St. Vladimir's. I saw the flash of uneasiness in her eyes, a sentiment mirroring my own. This felt wrong to her too. But, she was a guardian now, and like me, she had had duty drilled into her throughout her life. She believed I was a criminal. She could see I was free and in attack mode. Procedure dictated she take me down, and honestly, I wouldn't have expected anything less. It's what I would have done had our roles been reversed. This was life and death.
Dimitri was on the other two guys, as fast and badass as ever. Meredith and I went for each other. At first, she tried to knock me down by virtue of her weight, probably in the hopes of pinning me down until backup could help grab me. Only, I was stronger. She should have known that. How many times had we sparred in the school's gym? I'd almost always won. And this was no game, no practice drill. I pushed back at her attack, punching her on the side of her jaw and desperately praying I didn't break anything. She kept moving through the pain, but--again--I was superior. I caught a hold of her shoulders and threw her down. Her head hit hard, but she remained conscious. I didn't know whether to be grateful or not. Maintaining my grip, I put her in a chokehold, waiting until her eyes closed. I released as soon as I was sure she was out, my heart twisting in my chest.
Glancing over, I saw Dimitri had also taken down his opponents. Our group kept moving as though nothing had happened, but I glanced at Eddie, knowing there was grief on my face. He looked pained too but sought to reassure me as we hurried along.
"You did what you had to,' he said. "She'll be okay. Banged up, but okay.'
"I hit her hard.'
"The medics can deal with concussions. Hell, how many did we get in practice?'
I hoped he was right. The lines between right and wrong were getting confusing. The one good thing, I supposed, was that Meredith had been so occupied by the sight of me that she probably hadn't noticed Eddie and the others. They'd held back from the fight, hopefully keeping on Adrian's veil of spirit while Dimitri and I took the attention.
We finally reached the garages, which were indeed more crowded than usual. Some Moroi had already driven off. One royal was hysterical because her driver had her car's keys, and she didn't know where he was. She was shouting to passers-by to see if anyone could hotwire the car for her.
Dimitri led us purposefully forward, never wavering. He knew exactly where we were going. There had been a lot of planning, I realized. Most of which had probably happened yesterday. Why had Lissa obscured it from me? Wouldn't it have been better for me to have a heads-up on the plan?
We scurried through the people, heading toward the garage on the very farthest side. There, sitting just outside of it and seemingly ready to go, was a drab gray Honda Civic. A man stood near it, arms crossed as he examined the windshield. Hearing our approach, he turned around.
"Abe!' I exclaimed.
My illustrious father turned and gave me one of those charming smiles that could lure the unwary to their doom.
"What are you doing here?' demanded Dimitri. "You'll be on the list of suspects too! You were supposed to stay back with the others.'
Abe shrugged. He looked remarkably unconcerned at Dimitri's angry expression. I wouldn't have wanted that fury directed at me. "Vasilisa will make sure a few people at the palace swear they saw me there during suspicious times.' He turned his dark eyes toward me. "Besides, I couldn't leave without telling you goodbye, could I?'
I shook my head in exasperation. "Was this all part of your plan as my lawyer? I don't recall explosive escapes being part of legal training.'
"Well, I'm sure it wasn't part of Damon Tarus's legal training.' Abe's smile never wavered. "I told you, Rose. You will never face execution--or even a trial, if I can help it.' He paused. "Which, of course, I can.'
I hesitated, glancing toward the car. Dimitri stood by it with a set of keys, looking impatient. Adrian's words echoed in my memory.
"If I run, it's just going to make me seem that much more guilty.' "They already think you're guilty,' said Abe. "You wasting away in that cell won't change that. This just ensures we now have more time to do what we need to without your execution looming over us.'
"And what are you going to do exactly?'
"Prove you're innocent,' said Adrian. "Or, well, that you didn't kill my aunt. I've known for a while you aren't all that innocent.'
"What, are you guys going to destroy the evidence?' I asked, ignoring the dig.
"No,' said Eddie. "We have to find who really did kill her.'
"You guys shouldn't be involved with that, now that I'm free. It's my problem. Isn't that why you got me out?'
"It's a problem you can't solve while you're at Court,' said Abe. "We need you gone and safe.'
"Yeah, but I--'
"We're wasting time arguing,' said Dimitri. His gaze fell on the other garages. The crowds were still chaotic, too busy with their own fears to notice us yet. That didn't affect Dimitri's concern. He handed me a silver stake, and I didn't question the reasons. It was a weapon, something I couldn't turn down. "I know everything looks disorganized, but you'll be amazed at how quickly the guardians will restore order. And when they do, they're going to lock this place down.'
"They don't need to,' I said slowly, my mind spinning. "We're already going to have trouble going out of Court. We'll be stopped--if we can even get to the gate. There are going to be cars lined up for miles!'
"Ah, well,' said Abe, idly studying his fingertips. "I have it on good authority there's going to be a new "gate' opening up soon over on the south side of the wall.'
The truth dawned on me. "Oh lord. You're the one who's been doling out C4.'
"You make it sound so easy,' he said with a frown. "That stuff's hard to get a hold of.'
Dimitri's patience was at an end. "All of you: Rose needs to leave now. She's in danger. I'll drag her out if I have to.'
"You don't have to go with me,' I shot back, kind of offended at the presumption. Memories of our recent arguments emerged, of Dimitri saying he couldn't love me and didn't even want to be friends. "I'll take care of myself. No one else needs to get in trouble. Give me the keys.'
Instead, Dimitri gave me one of those rueful looks that said he thought I was being utterly ridiculous. We could have been back in class at St. Vladimir's Academy.
"Rose, I can't really get in any more trouble. Someone has to be responsible for helping you, and I'm the best choice.' I wasn't so sure of that. If Tatiana really had made progress in convincing people Dimitri wasn't a threat, this escapade would ruin it all.
"Go,' said Eddie, surprising me with a quick hug. "We'll be in touch through Lissa.' I realized then that I was fighting a losing battle with this group. It really was time to leave.
I hugged Mikhail too, murmuring in his ear, "Thank you. Thank you so much for your help. I swear, we'll find her. We'll find Sonya.' He gave me that sad smile of his and didn't reply.
Adrian was the hardest to leave behind. I could tell it was difficult for him too, no matter how relaxed his grin seemed. He couldn't be happy about me going off with Dimitri. Our hug lasted a little bit longer than the others, and he gave me a soft, brief kiss on the lips. I almost felt like crying after how brave he'd been tonight. I wished he could go with me but knew he'd be safer here.
"Adrian, thank you for--'
He held up his hand. "It's not goodbye, little dhampir. I'll see you in your dreams.'
"If you stay sober enough.'
He winked. "For you I just might.'
A loud booming noise interrupted us, and we saw a flash of light off to my right. People near the other garages screamed.
"There, you see?' asked Abe, quite pleased with himself. "A new gate. Perfect timing.'
I gave him a reluctant hug too and was surprised when he didn't pull back right away. He smiled at me ... fondly. "Ah, my daughter,' he said. "Eighteen, and already you've been accused of murder, aided felons, and acquired a death count higher than most guardians will ever see.' He paused. "I couldn't be prouder.'
I rolled my eyes. "Goodbye, old man. And thanks.' I didn't bother asking him about the "felons' part. Abe wasn't stupid. After I'd asked him about a prison that had later been breeched, he'd probably figured out who was behind Victor Dashkov's escape.
And like that, Dimitri and I were in the car, speeding off toward Abe's "new gate.' I regretted not being able to say goodbye to Lissa. We were never truly apart with the bond, but it couldn't take the place of face-to-face communication. Still, it was worth it to know she would be safe and free of any connection to my escape. I hoped.
Like always, Dimitri drove, which I still thought was totally unfair. It had been one thing when I was his student, but now? Wouldn't he ever give up that wheel? This didn't seem like the time to discuss it, though--particularly since I didn't plan on us staying together much longer.
A few people had come out to see where the wall had blown up, but no one official had surfaced yet. Dimitri raced through the gap as impressively as Eddie had when he'd driven through Tarasov Prison's gate, only the Civic didn't handle the bumpy, grassy terrain as well as the SUV in Alaska. The problem with making your own exit was that it didn't come with an actual road. Even that was beyond Abe.
"Why is our getaway car a Civic?' I asked. "It's not really great for off-roading.'
Dimitri didn't look at me but continued navigating over the rough ground toward a more drivable area. "Because Civics are one of the most common cars out there and don't attract attention. And this should be the only off-roading we do. Once we hit a freeway, we're putting as much distance between us and Court as we can--before abandoning the car, of course.'
"Abandon--' I shook my head, letting it go. We reached a dirt road that felt like the smoothest surface on earth after that jolting start. "Look, now that we're out of there, I want you to know that I mean it: you don't have to come with me. I appreciate your help in the escape. Really. But hanging out with me won't do you any favors. They'll be hunting for me more than you. If you take off, you can live somewhere around humans and not be treated like a lab animal. You might even be able to slink back to Court. Tasha would put up a fight for you.'
Dimitri didn't answer for a long time. It drove me crazy. I wasn't the kind of person who handled silence well. It made me want to chatter and fill the void. Plus, the longer I sat there, the more it hit me that I was alone with Dimitri. Like, really and truly alone for the first time since he'd become a dhampir. I felt like a fool, but in spite of the dangers we still risked ... well, I was still overwhelmed by him. There was something so powerful about his presence. Even when he made me angry, I still found him attractive. Maybe the adrenaline pounding through me was addling my brain.
Whatever it was, I was consumed by more than just his physical aspects--though they were certainly distracting. The hair, the face, his closeness to me, his scent ... I felt it all, and it made my blood burn. But the inner Dimitri--the Dimitri who'd just led a small army through a prison break--captivated me just as much. It took me a moment to realize why this was so powerful: I was seeing the old Dimitri again, the one I'd worried was gone forever. He wasn't. He was back.
At long last, Dimitri replied, "I'm not leaving you. None of your Rose-logic arguments are going to work. And if you try to get away from me, I'll just find you.'
I didn't doubt he could, which just made the situation more confusing. "But why? I don't want you with me.' I still felt a lingering attraction for him, yes, but that didn't change the fact that he had hurt me in breaking things off between us. He had rejected me, and I needed to harden my heart, particularly if I wanted to move on with Adrian. Clearing my name and leading a normal life seemed far away right now, but if it happened, I wanted to be able to return to Adrian with open arms.
"It doesn't matter what you want,' he said. "Or what I want.' Ouch. "Lissa asked me to protect you.'
"Hey, I don't need anyone to--'
"And,' he continued, "I meant what I said to her. I swore I'd serve her and help her for the rest of my life, anything she asks. If she wants me to be your bodyguard, then that's what I'll be.' He gave me a dangerous look. "There's no way you're getting rid of me anytime soon.'
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