Chapter Nineteen

 

THE VANS PARKED IN A semi-remote part of Court, so seeing the area packed with eager Moroi was quite a shock to Lissa. Guardians moved through the people like ghosts, just as they had at the nomination session, keeping as much order as possible. The crowd kept getting in the way as the vans attempted to reach the garages, and faces looked in the windows, trying to get a glimpse of the royal candidates.

Lissa stared at the masses in shock, almost afraid to get out. Ariana gave her a comforting smile. "This is normal. They all want to know who made it and who didn't. They especially want to know.' She inclined her head toward the front of the van. Peering through the windshield, Lissa spied the other six candidates. Because the forest course could only accommodate so many people, the group had been split in half. The rest of the candidates would take the same test tomorrow and were no doubt curious who among their competitors had passed today.

Lissa was used to order and decorum around royals, so she was astonished to see such eagerness and frenzy among them now. And of course, the "common' Moroi who'd been arriving at Court were mixed into the crowd too. Everyone was pushing, peering over the heads of others to find out what had happened. People were shouting some of the candidates' names, and I was half-surprised they hadn't come up with songs and banners.

Lissa and her companions exited the van and were met with a wave of cheers that rippled through the crowd. It became obvious pretty quickly who had passed and who hadn't. This sent the crowd abuzz even more. Lissa stood rooted to the spot, staring around and feeling lost. It was one thing to rationally discuss the pros of her running for queen with her friends. It was an entirely different matter to suddenly be thrust into what the elections truly meant.

Her focus had been limited to a few things: my safety, finding the murderer, and surviving the tests. Now, as she took in the crowd, she realized the election was bigger than her, bigger than anything she could have imagined. For these people, it wasn't a joke. It wasn't a scam to twist the law and stall for time. Their lives were figuratively on the line. Moroi and dhampirs lived inside various countries and obeyed those laws, but they also obeyed this government, the one that operated out of the Court. It reached around the world and affected every dhampir and Moroi who chose to stay in our society. We had some voting, yes, but the king or queen shaped our futures.

The guardians in charge of the crowds finally gave the okay for family members to push through the masses and collect their nominees. Lissa had no one. Both Janine and Eddie--despite earlier claims--were occasionally given temporary tasks that prevented them from being with Lissa 24/7, and she certainly had no family to come for her. Adrift, she felt dizzy in the chaos, still stunned by her moment of clarity. Conflicting emotions warred within her. Deceiving everyone made her feel unworthy, like she should resign her candidacy right now. At the same time, she suddenly wanted to be worthy of the elections. She wanted to hold her head high and walk into the tests proudly, even if she was taking them for ulterior motives.

A strong hand at last caught hold of her arm. Christian. "Come on. Let's get out of here.' He pulled her away, shouldering through the onlookers. "Hey,' he called to a couple guardians on the crowd's periphery. "A little help here for the princess?'

It was the first time I had ever seen him act like a royal, throwing around the authority of his bloodline. To me, he was snarky, cynical Christian. In Moroi society, at eighteen, he could now technically be addressed as Lord Ozera. I'd forgotten that. The two guardians hadn't. They rushed to Lissa's side, helping Christian part the crowd. The faces around her were a blur, the noise a dull roar. Yet, every once in a while, something would come through to her. The chanting of her name. Declarations about the return of the dragon, which was the symbol of the Dragomir family. This is real, she kept thinking. This is real.

The guardians efficiently led her out of it all and back across the Court's grounds to her building. They released her once they considered her safe, and she graciously thanked them for their help. When she and Christian were in her room, she sank onto the bed, stunned.

"Oh my God,' she said. "That was insane.'

Christian smiled. "Which part? Your welcome home party? Or the test itself? You look like you just ... well, I'm not really sure what you just did.'

Lissa took a quick survey of herself. They'd given her dry towels on the ride home, but her clothing was still damp and was wrinkling as it dried. Her shoes and jeans had mud all over them, and she didn't even want to think about what her hair looked like.

"Yeah, we--'

The words stuck on her tongue--and not because she suddenly decided not to tell him.

"I can't say,' she murmured. "It really worked. The spell won't let me.'

"What spell?' he asked.

Lissa rolled up her sleeve and lifted the bandage to show him the tiny tattooed dot on her arm. "It's a compulsion spell so I won't talk about the test. Like the Alchemists have.'

"Wow,' he said, truly impressed. "I never actually thought those worked.'

"I guess so. It's really weird. I want to talk about it, but I just ... cant.'

"Its okay,' he said, brushing some of her damp hair aside. "You passed. That's what matters. Just focus on that.' "The only thing I want to focus on right now is a shower--which is kind of ironic, considering how soaked I am.' She didn't move, though, and instead stared off at the far wall.

"Hey,' said Christian gently. "What's wrong? Did the crowd scare you?'

She turned back to him. "No, that's the thing. I mean, they were intimidating, yeah. But I just realized ... I don't know. I realized I'm part of a major process, one that's gone on since--'

"The beginning of time?' teased Christian, quoting Nathan's nonsensical statement.

"Nearly,' she answered, with a small smile that soon faded. "This goes beyond tradition, Christian. The elections are a core part of our society. Ingrained. We can talk about changing age laws or fighting or whatever, but this is ancient. And far-reaching. Those people out there? They're not all Americans. They've come from other countries. I forget sometimes that even though the Court is here, it rules Moroi everywhere. What happens here affects the whole world.'

"Where are you going with this?' he asked. She was lost in her own thoughts and couldn't see Christian as objectively as I could. He knew Lissa. He understood her and loved her. The two of them had a synchronicity similar to what Dimitri and I shared. Sometimes, however, Lissa's thoughts spun in directions he couldn't guess. He'd never admit it, but I knew part of why he loved her was that--unlike me, who everyone knew was impetuous--Lissa always seemed the picture of calmness and rationality. Then, she'd do something totally unexpected. Those moments delighted him--but sometimes scared him because he never knew just how much a role spirit was playing in her actions. Now was one of those times. He knew the elections were stressing her, and like me, he knew that could bring out the worst.

"I'm going to take these tests seriously,' she said. "It's--it's shameful not to. An insult to our society. My ultimate goal is to find out who framed Rose, but in the meantime? I'm going to go through the trials like someone who intends to be queen.'

Christian hesitated before speaking, a rarity for him. "Do you want to be queen?'

That snapped Lissa from her dreamy philosophizing about tradition and honor. "No! Of course not. I'm eighteen. I can't even drink yet.'

"That's never stopped you from doing it,' he pointed out, becoming more like his usual self.

"I'm serious! I want to go to college. I want Rose back. I don't want to rule the Moroi nation.'

A sly look lit Christian's blue eyes. "You know, Aunt Tasha makes jokes about how you'd actually be a better queen than the others, except sometimes ... I don't think she's joking.'

Lissa groaned and stretched back on the bed. "I love her, but we've got to keep her in check. If anyone could actually get that law changed, it would be her and her activist friends.'

"Well, don't worry. The thing about her "activist friends' is that they have so much to protest, they don't usually get behind one thing at the same time.' Christian stretched out beside her and pulled her close. "But for what it's worth, I think you'd be a great queen too, Princess Dragomir.'

"You're going to get dirty,' she warned. "Already am. Oh, you mean from your clothes?' He wrapped his arms around her, heedless of her damp and muddy state. "I spent most of my childhood hiding in a dusty attic and own exactly one dress shirt. You really think I care about this T-shirt?'

She laughed and then kissed him, letting her mind free itself of worry for a moment and just savor the feel of his lips. Considering they were on a bed, I wondered if it was time for me to go. After several seconds, she pulled back and sighed contentedly.

"You know, sometimes I think I love you.'

"Sometimes?' he asked in mock outrage.

She ruffled his hair. "All the time. But I've got to keep you on your toes.'

"Consider me kept.'

He brought his lips toward hers again but stopped when a knock sounded at the door. Lissa pulled back from the near-kiss, but neither of them broke from the embrace.

"Don't answer,' said Christian.

Lissa frowned, peering toward the living room. She slipped out of his arms, stood up, and walked toward the door. When she was several feet from it, she nodded knowingly. "It's Adrian.'

"More reason not to answer,' said Christian.

Lissa ignored him and opened the door, and sure enough, my devil-may-care boyfriend stood there. From behind Lissa, I heard Christian say, "Worst. Timing. Ever.'

Adrian studied Lissa and then looked at Christian sprawling on the bed on the far side of the suite. "Huh,' Adrian said, letting himself in. "So that's how you're going to fix the family problem. Little Dragomirs. Good idea.'

Christian sat up and strolled toward them. "Yeah, that's exactly it. You're interrupting official Council business.'

Adrian was dressed casually for him, jeans and a black T-shirt, though he made it look like designer clothing. Actually, it probably was. God, I missed him. I missed them all.

"What's going on?' asked Lissa. While Christian seemed to consider Adrian's arrival a personal offense, Lissa knew that Adrian wouldn't be here without a good reason-- especially this early in the Moroi day. Although he had on his normal lazy smile, there was an excited and eager glitter in his aura. He had news.

"I've got him,' said Adrian. "Got him trapped.'

"Who?' asked Lissa, startled.

"That idiot Blake Lazar.'

"What do you mean trapped?' asked Christian, as perplexed as Lissa. "Did you set out a bear trap on the tennis courts or something?'

"I wish. He's over at the Burning Arrow. I just bought another round, so he should still be there if we hurry. He thinks I went out for a cigarette.'

Judging from the scent wreathing Adrian, Lissa had a feeling he actually had been out for a cigarette. And likely shared in the round. "You've been at a bar this early?'

Adrian shrugged. "It's not early for humans.'

"But you're not--'

"Come on, cousin.' Adrian's aura didn't have the muted colors of someone who was completely drunk, but yes, he'd definitely had a few drinks. "If pretty boy Ambrose was right about Aunt Tatiana, then this guy can tell us the names of other jealous women.' "Why didn't you ask him yourself?' asked Christian.

"Because me asking about my aunt's sex life would be sick and wrong,' said Adrian. "Whereas Blake will be more than happy to talk to our charming princess here.'

Lissa really wanted her bed, but finding out anything to help me sparked a new rush of energy within her. "Okay, let me at least get some different clothes and brush my hair.'

While she was changing in the bathroom, she heard Adrian say to Christian, "You know, your shirt's kind of grungy-looking. Seems like you could put in a little more effort since you're dating a princess.'

Fifteen minutes or so later, the threesome were on their way across Court to a tucked away bar inside an administrative building. I'd been there before and had originally thought it was a weird place to house a bar. But, after a recent stint of filing, I'd decided that if I were doing office work for living, I'd probably want a quick source of alcohol on hand, too.

The bar was dimly lit, both for mood and Moroi comfort. Adrian's joking aside, it really was early for Moroi, and only a couple patrons were there. Adrian made a small gesture to the bartender, which I presumed was some kind of ordering signal because the woman immediately turned and began pouring a drink.

"Hey, Ivashkov! Where'd you go?'

A voice called over to Lissa and the others, and after a few moments, she spotted a lone guy sitting at a corner table. As Adrian led them closer, Lissa saw that the guy was young--about Adrian's age, with curly black hair and brilliant teal eyes, kind of like Abe's recent tie. It was as though someone had taken the stunning color of both Adrian and Christian's eyes and mixed them together. He had a leanly muscled body--about as buff as any Moroi could manage--and, even with a boyfriend, Lissa could admire how hot he was.

"To get better-looking company,' replied Adrian, pulling out a chair.

The Moroi then noticed Adrian's companions and jumped up. He caught hold of Lissa's hand, leaned over, and kissed it. "Princess Dragomir. It's an honor to meet you at last. Seeing you from a distance was beautiful. Up close? Divine.'

"This,' said Adrian grandly, "is Blake Lazar.'

"It's nice to meet you,' she said.

Blake smiled radiantly. "May I call you Vasilisa?'

"You can call me Lissa.'

"You can also,' added Christian, "let go of her hand now.'

Blake looked over at Christian, taking a few more moments to release Lissa's hand-- seeming very proud about those extra seconds. "I've seen you too. Ozera. Crispin, right?'

"Christian,' corrected Lissa.

"Right.' Blake pulled out a chair, still playing the over-the-top gentleman. "Please. Join us.' He made no such offer to Christian, who went out of his way to sit close to Lissa. "What would you like to drink? It's on me.'

"Nothing,' said Lissa.

The bartender appeared just then, bringing Adrian's drink and another for Blake. "Never too early. Ask Ivashkov. You drink as soon as you roll out of bed, right?' "There's a bottle of scotch right on my nightstand,' said Adrian, still keeping his tone light. Lissa opened her eyes to his aura. It bore the bright gold all spirit users had, still muddled slightly from alcohol. It also had the faintest tinge of red--not true anger, but definite annoyance. Lissa recalled that neither Adrian nor Ambrose had had a good opinion of this Blake guy.

"So what brings you and Christopher here?' asked Blake. He finished a glass of something amber colored and set it down beside the new drink.

"Christian,' said Christian.

"We were talking about my aunt earlier,' said Adrian. Again, he managed to sound very conversational, but no matter how much he might want to clear my name, delving into the details of Tatiana's murder obviously bothered him.

Blake's smile diminished a little. "How depressing. For both of you.' That was directed to Adrian and Lissa. Christian might as well have not existed. "Sorry about Hathaway too,' he added to Lissa alone. "I've heard how upset you've been. Who'd have seen that coming?'

Lissa realized he was referring to how she'd been pretending to be angry and hurt by me. "Well,' she said bitterly. "I guess you just don't know people. There were a million clues beforehand. I just didn't pay attention.'

"You must be upset too,' said Christian. "We heard you and the queen were kind of close.'

Blake's grin returned. "Yeah ... we knew each other pretty well. I'm going to miss her. She might have seemed cold to some people, but believe me, she knew how to have a good time.' Blake glanced at Adrian. "You must have known that.'

"Not in the way you did.' Adrian paused to take a sip of his own drink. I think he needed it to restrain any snippy remarks, and honestly, I didn't begrudge him it. I actually admired his self-control. If I'd been in his place, I would have long since punched Blake. "Or Ambrose.'

Blake's pretty smile transformed into a full-fledged scowl. "Him? That blood whore? He didn't deserve to be in her presence. I can't even believe they let him stay at Court.'

"He actually thinks you killed the queen.' Lissa then added hastily, "Which is ridiculous when all the evidence proves Rose did it.' Those hadn't been Ambrose's exact words, but she wanted to see if she could elicit a reaction. She did.

"He thinks what?' Yes. Definitely no smile now. Without it, Blake suddenly didn't seem as good-looking as earlier. "That lying bastard! I have an alibi, and he knows it. He's just pissed off because she liked me better.'

"Then why'd she keep him around?' asked Christian, face almost angelic. "Weren't you enough?'

Blake fixed him with a glare while finishing the new drink in nearly one gulp. Almost by magic, the bartender appeared with another. Blake nodded his thanks before continuing. "Oh, I was more than enough. More than enough for a dozen women, but I didn't fool around on the side like he did.'

Adrian's expression was growing increasingly pained at each mention of Tatiana's sex life. Still, he played his role. "I suppose you're talking about Ambrose's other girl- friends? " "Yup. But "girl' is kind of extreme. They were all older, and honestly, I think they paid him. Not that your mom needed to pay anyone,' added Blake. "I mean, she's actually pretty hot. But you know, she couldn't really be with him in any real way.'

It seemed to take all of them a moment to follow what Blake was alluding to. Adrian caught on first. "What did you just say?'

"Oh.' Blake looked legitimately surprised, but it was hard to say if it was an act. "I thought you knew. Your mom and Ambrose ... well, who could blame her? With your dad? Though just between you and me, I think she could have done better.' Blake's tone implied exactly whom he thought Daniella could have done better with.

In Lissa's vision, Adrian's aura flared red. "You son of a bitch!' Adrian was not the fighting type, but there was a first time for everything--and Blake had just crossed a serious line. "My mom was not cheating on my dad. And even if she was ... she sure as hell wouldn't have to pay for it.'

Blake didn't seem fazed, but maybe things would have been different if Adrian actually had hit him. Lissa rested her hand on Adrian's arm and squeezed it gently. "Easy,' she murmured. I felt the smallest tingle of calming compulsion move from her into him. Adrian recognized it immediately and pulled his arm back, giving her a look that said he didn't appreciate her "help.'

"I thought you didn't like your dad,' said Blake, utterly clueless that his news might be upsetting. "And besides, don't get all pissy at me. I wasn't sleeping with her. I'm just telling you what I heard. Like I said, if you want to start accusing random people, go after someone like Ambrose.'

Lissa jumped in to keep Adrian from saying anything. "How many women? Do you know who else he was involved with?'

"Three others.' Blake ticked off names on his hand. "Marta Drozdov and Mirabel Conta. Wait. That's two. I was thinking with Daniella; that's three. But then, that's four with the queen. Yeah, four.'

Lissa didn't concern herself with Blake's faulty math skills, though it did support Adrian's previous "idiot' claims. Marta Drozdov was a semi-notorious royal who had taken to traveling the world in her old age. By Lissa's estimation, Marta was hardly in the U.S. most of the year, let alone Court. She didn't seem invested enough to murder Tatiana. As for Mirabel Conta ... she was notorious in a different way. She was known for sleeping with half the guys at Court, married or otherwise. Lissa didn't know her well, but Mirabel had never seemed overly interested in any one guy.

"Sleeping with other women wouldn't really give him a motive for killing the queen,' pointed out Lissa.

"No,' agreed Blake. "Like I said, it's obvious that Hathaway girl did it.' He paused. "Damned shame too. She's pretty hot. God, that body. Anyway, if Ambrose had killed her, he'd have done it because he was jealous of me, because Tatiana liked me better. Not because of all those other women he was doing.'

"Why wouldn't Ambrose just kill you?' asked Christian. "Makes more sense.'

Blake didn't have a chance to respond because Adrian was still back on the earlier topic, his eyes flashing with anger. "My mother wasn't sleeping with anybody. She doesn't even sleep with my father.' Blake continued in his oblivious way. "Hey, I saw them. They were all over each other. Did I mention how hot your--'

"Stop it,' warned Lissa. "It's not helping.'

Adrian clenched his glass. "None of this is helping!' Clearly, things weren't going the way he'd hoped when he'd first summoned Lissa and Christian from her room. "And I'm not going to sit and listen to this bullshit.' Adrian downed the drink and shot up from his chair, turning abruptly for the exit. He tossed some cash on the bar before walking out the door.

"Poor guy,' said Blake. He was back to his calm, arrogant self. "He's been through a lot between his aunt, mom, and murdering girlfriend. That's why really, at the end of the day, you just can't trust women.' He winked at Lissa. "Present company excluded, of course.'

Lissa felt as disgusted as Adrian, and a quick glance at Christian's stormy face showed he felt the same. It was time to go before someone really did punch Blake. "Well, it's been great talking to you, but we need to go.'

Blake gave her puppy-dog eyes. "But you just got here! I was hoping we could get to know each other.' It went without saying what he meant by that. "Oh. And Kreskin too.'

Christian didn't even bother with a correction this time. He simply took hold of Lissa's hand. "We have to go.'

"Yeah,' agreed Lissa.

Blake shrugged and waved for another drink. "Well, any time you want to really experience the world, come find me.'

Christian and Lissa headed for the door, with Christian muttering, "I really hope that last part was meant for you, not me.'

"That's no world I want to experience,' said Lissa with a grimace. They stepped outside, and she glanced around, in case Adrian had lingered. Nope. He was gone, and she didn't blame him. "I can see now why Ambrose and Adrian don't like him. He's such a ...'

"Asshole?' supplied Christian. They turned toward her building.

"I suppose so.'

"Enough to commit murder?'

"Honestly? No.' Lissa sighed. "I kind of agree with Ambrose ... I don't think Blake's smart enough for murder. Or that the motive's really there. I can't tell if people are lying or not from their auras, but his didn't reveal anything overly dishonest. You joked, but if anyone was going to commit a jealous murder, why wouldn't the guys want to kill each other? A lot easier.'

"They did both have easy access to Tatiana,' Christian reminded her.

"I know. But if there is love and sex involved here ... it seems like it'd be someone jealous of the queen. A woman.'

A long, meaningful pause hung between them, neither of them wanting to say what they were both likely thinking. Finally, Christian broke the silence.

"Say, like, Daniella Ivashkov?'

Lissa shook her head. "I can't believe that. She doesn't seem like the type.'

"Murderers never seem like the type. That's why they get away with it.'

"Have you been studying up on your criminology or something? " "No.' They reached her building's front door, and he opened it for Lissa. "Just laying out some facts. We know Adrian's mom never liked Tatiana for personality reasons. Now we find out that they were sharing the same guy.'

"She has an alibi,' said Lissa stonily.

"Everyone has an alibi,' he reminded her. "And as we've learned, those can be paid for. In fact, Daniella's already paid for one.'

"I still can't believe it. Not without more proof. Ambrose swore this was more political than personal.'

"Ambrose isn't off the list either.'

They came to Lissa's room. "This is harder than I thought it would be.' They went inside, and Christian wrapped his arms around her.

"I know. But we'll do it together. We'll figure it out. But ... we might want to keep some of this to ourselves. Maybe I'm overreacting here, but I think it'd be best if we don't ever, ever tell Adrian his mom has an excellent motive for having killed his aunt.'

"Oh, you think?' She rested her head against his chest and yawned.

"Naptime,' said Christian, leading her toward the bed.

"I still need a shower.'

"Sleep first. Shower later.' He pulled back the covers. "I'll sleep with you.'

"Sleep or sleep?' she asked dryly, sliding gratefully into bed.

"Real sleep. You need it.' He crawled in beside her, spooning against her and resting his face on her shoulder. "Of course, afterward, if you want to conduct any official Council business ...'

"I swear, if you say "Little Dragomirs,' you can sleep in the hall.'

I'm sure there was a patented Christian retort coming, but another knock cut him off. He looked up in exasperation. "Don't answer it. For real this time.'

But Lissa couldn't help herself. She broke from his embrace and climbed out of bed. "Its not Adrian ...'

"Then it's probably not important,' said Christian.

"We don't know that.'She got up and opened the door, revealing--my mother.

Janine Hathaway swept into the room as casually as Adrian had, her eyes sharp as she studied every detail around her for a threat. "Sorry I was away,' she told Lissa. "Eddie and I wanted to set up an alternating system, but we both got pulled for duty earlier.' She glanced over at the rumpled bed, with Christian in it, but being who she was, she came to a pragmatic conclusion, not a romantic one. "Just in time. I figured you'd want to sleep after the test. Don't worry--I'll keep watch and make sure nothing happens.'

Christian and Lissa exchanged rueful looks.

"Thanks,' said Lissa.

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