Chapter Thirty

 

I DIDN'T RUN INTO HIS arms like I usually did. How could I? After what I'd done? No. I couldn't playact anymore. I still wasn't entirely sure what the future held for Dimitri and me, not until he answered my ultimatum. I did, however, know I had to cut Adrian loose. My feelings for him were still strong, and I wondered if it was even remotely possible for us to be friends. Regardless, I couldn't lead him on after sleeping with Dimitri. It hadn't been murder, no, but it had certainly been dishonorable.

Yet ... I couldn't say any of that to Adrian now, I realized. I couldn't break up with him in a dream. That was almost as bad as a text breakup. Besides, I had a feeling that ... well, I'd probably need his help. So much for honor. Soon, I swore. Soon I'll tell him.

He didn't seem to notice my lack of embrace. But he did notice something else.

"Wow.'

We stood in St. Vladimir's library of all places, and I gave him a puzzled look across the study tables stretching before us. "Wow what?' "Your ... your aura. It's ... amazing. It's shining. I mean, it always shines, but today ... well, I've never seen anything like it. I didn't expect that after everything that happened.'

I shifted uncomfortably. If I lit up around Dimitri normally, what on earth happened to my aura post-sex? "After what happened?' I asked, deflecting the comment.

He chuckled and approached me. His hand reached unconsciously for his cigarettes, paused, and then dropped to his side. "Oh, come on. Everyone's talking about it. How you and Belikov kidnapped Jailbait--what's up with that anyway?--and coerced that Alchemist. It's the hottest news around here. Well, aside from the elections. The last test is coming up.'

"That's right ...' I murmured. It had almost been twenty-four hours since Lissa had received the riddle. There was only a little time left, and last I knew, she had no answer.

"Why are you sleeping in the middle of the day anyway?' he asked. "I didn't really expect to catch you. Figured you'd be on a human schedule.'

"It ... it was kind of a rough night, what with escaping a legion of guardians and all.'

Adrian caught hold of my hand, frowning slightly when I didn't squeeze his in return. The frown lightened quickly into his easy smile. "Well, I'd worry more about your old man than them. He is pissed that you didn't stay put. And that he can't get in to see the Alchemists. Believe me, he's been trying.'

That almost made me laugh, except it wasn't the outcome I'd wanted either. "So he's not all-powerful after all.' I sighed. "That's what we need. Sydney. Or, well, that guy who's with her. The one who allegedly knows something.' I flashed back, again seeing the recognition on Ian's face. He knows the man who attacked Lissa and bribed Joe. "We need him.'

"From what I picked up,' said Adrian, "the guardians are just kind of lingering around the hotel, mostly concerned with the Alchemists leaving. But they're controlling who's getting in. They won't let any of us--or other Alchemists--get through. There are lots of other human guests, and I guess Abe tried to disguise himself--and failed.'

Poor Zmey. "He should have had more faith in the guardians. They aren't going to let anyone but themselves get in and out.' My own words brought me to a halt. "That's it ...'

Adrian eyed me suspiciously. "Oh no. I know that look. Something crazy is about to happen.'

I caught hold of his hand, now out of excitement, rather than love. "Get to Mikhail. Have him meet us ...' I blanked. I'd seen the town the Alchemists were staying in. As the closest to Court, we often drove through it. I racked my brain, trying to think of some detail. "At that restaurant with the red sign. It's on the far side. Always advertising buffets.'

"Easier said than done, little dhampir. They're using every guardian at Court to keep the elections under control. If Lissa hadn't been attacked, they wouldn't let your mom stay with her. I don't think Mikhail can get out.'

"He'll find a way,' I said confidently. "Tell him this is it--it's the key to the murder. The answer. He's resourceful.'

Adrian looked skeptical, but it was hard for him to refuse me anything. "When?' When indeed? It was almost noon, and I hadn't paid much attention to where we'd stopped. How long would it take us to reach Court? From what I knew about the elections, those who passed this last test would give speeches when the Moroi day started. In theory, they'd then go straight to voting--except, if our plan worked, Lissa's involvement would slow that down for days. Provided she passed.

"Midnight,' I said. If I was guessing correctly, the Court would be completely wrapped up in the election drama, making it easier for Mikhail to get out. I hoped. "Will you tell him?'

"Anything for you.' Adrian swept me a gallant bow. "Although, I still think it's dangerous for you to be involved directly with this.'

"I have to do this myself,' I said. "I can't hide.'

He nodded, as though he understood. I wasn't sure he did.

"Thank you,' I told him. "Thank you so much for everything. Now go.'

Adrian gave me a crooked grin. "Boy, you don't waste any time kicking a guy out of bed, huh?'

I flinched, the joke hitting a little too close to home. "I want Mikhail to be prepared. And I also need to watch Lissa's last test.'

This sobered Adrian. "Does she have a chance? Will she pass?'

"I don't know,' I admitted. "This is a tough one.'

"Okay. We'll see what we can do.' He gave me a small kiss. My lips responded automatically, but my heart wasn't into it. "And Rose? I mean it. Be careful. You're going to be awfully close to Court. Not to mention a bunch of guardians who have you on their most wanted list and will probably try to kill you.'

"I know,' I said, choosing not to mention that there was no "probably' about it.

With that, he vanished, and I woke. Strangely, what I found in my own world seemed almost more dreamlike than what I'd experienced with Adrian. Dimitri and I were still in bed, snuggled under the covers, our bodies and limbs still wrapped around each other. He slept with that rare peaceful look of his and almostseemed to smile. For half a second, I considered waking him and telling him we had to hit the road. A look at the clock happily squashed that thought. We still had time, plus it was getting close to the test. I had to go to Lissa and trusted Sonya would come by if we overslept.

Sure enough, I'd gauged the testing correctly. Lissa was cutting across the Court's lawns, marching like someone going to a funeral. The sun, flowers, and birds were lost on her. Even her company did little to cheer her up: Christian, my mom, and Tasha.

"I can't do this,' she said, staring ahead at the building that held her fate. "I can't do this test.' The tattoo kept her from giving out any more information.

"You're smart. Brilliant.' Christian's arm was around her waist, and in that moment, I loved him for his confidence in her. "You can do it.'

"You don't understand,' she said, with a sigh. She'd come up with no answers to the riddle, meaning the plan was at stake--and her desire to prove herself.

"For once he does,' said Tasha, a slight teasing tone in her voice. "You can do it. You have to do it. We have so much riding on it.'

Her confidence didn't make Lissa feel better. If anything, it added to the pressure. She would fail, just like in the Council dream the chalice had shown her. She'd had no answer there either. "Lissa!'

A voice brought them to a halt, and Lissa turned to see Serena running toward them, her long athletic legs quickly covering the distance between them. "Hi Serena,' said Lissa. "We can't stop. The test--'

"I know, I know.' Serena was flushed, not with exertion, but with anxiety. She proffered a piece of paper. "I made your list. As many as I could remember.'

"What list?' asked Tasha.

"Moroi that the queen was having trained, to see how well they could learn fighting.'

Tasha's eyebrows rose in surprise. She hadn't been around when they'd discussed it last time. "Tatiana was training fighters? I never heard about anything like that.' I had a feeling she would have liked to be one of the ones helping with instruction.

"Most didn't,' agreed Lissa, straightening the piece of paper. "It was a big secret.'

The group crowded around to read the names, listed in Serena's neat handwriting. Christian let out a low whistle. "Tatiana might have been open to the idea of defense but only for certain people.'

"Yes,' agreed Tasha. "This is definitely an A-list.'

All the names were royal. Tatiana hadn't brought in "commoners' for her experiment. This was the elite of the elite, though as Ambrose had noted, Tatiana had gone out of her way to get a variety of ages and genders.

"Camille Conta?' asked Lissa in surprise. "Never saw that coming. She was always really bad in P.E.'

"And there's another of our cousins,' added Christian, pointing to Lia Ozera. He glanced at Tasha, who was still in disbelief. "Did you know that?'

"No. I wouldn't have guessed her either.'

"Half the nominees too,' mused Lissa. Rufus Tarus, Ava Drozdov, and Ellis Badica. "Too bad they--oh my God. Adrian's mother?' Sure enough: Daniella Ivashkov.

"Whoa,' said Christian. That summed up my reaction too. "Pretty sure Adrian didn't know about that.'

"Does she support Moroi fighting?' asked my mom, surprised as well.

Lissa shook her head. "No. From what I know about her, she is definitely in favor of leaving defense to dhampirs.' Neither of us could imagine beautiful and proper Daniella Ivashkov in a fight.

"She already hated Tatiana,' noted Tasha. "I'm sure this did lovely things for their relationship. Those two bickered all the time behind closed doors.'

An uncomfortable silence fell.

Lissa looked at Serena. "Did these people see the queen a lot? Would they have had access to her?'

"Yes,' said Serena uneasily. "According to Grant, Tatiana watched every training sessions. After he died ... she started debriefing with the students individually, to see how well they'd learned.' She paused. "I think ... I think she might have met with some the night she died.'

"Had they progressed enough to learn to use a stake?' asked Lissa.

Serena grimaced. "Yes. Some better than others.'

Lissa looked back at the list, feeling ill. So much opportunity. So much motivation. Was the answer here on this piece of paper? Was the murderer right before her? Serena had said earlier that Tatiana had purposely picked people resistant to training, probably to see if the obstinate could still learn. Had she gone too far with someone? One name in particular kept scrolling across Lissa's mind.

"I hate to interrupt,' said my mother. Her tone and stance indicated sleuth time was over; it was back to business. "We've got to move, or you'll be late.'

Lissa realized my mom was right and shoved the piece of paper in her pocket. Being late to the test meant failure. Lissa thanked Serena, reassuring her that this had been the right thing to do. Then, my friends moved away quickly, feeling the press of time as they hurried toward the testing building.

"Damn,' muttered Lissa, in a rare show of swearing. "I don't think that old lady'll tolerate any lateness.'

"Old lady?' My mother laughed, surprising us all. She could move faster than everyone and was obviously restraining her pace for them. "The one running most of the tests? You don't know who she is?'

"How would I?' asked Lissa. "I figured she was just someone they recruited.'

"Not just someone. That's Ekaterina Zeklos.'

"What?' Lissa nearly stopped but still had their time crunch in mind. "She was ... she was the queen before Tatiana, right?'

"I thought she retired to some island,' said Christian, just as surprised.

"Not sure if it was an island,' said Tasha, "but she did step down when she thought she was too old and went off to live in luxury--and away from politics--once Tatiana was on the throne.'

Too old? That had been twenty years ago. No wonder she seemed ancient. "If she was happy to get out of politics, then why is she back?' asked Lissa.

My mother opened the door for all of them when they reached the building, after first peering inside for any threats. It was so instinctual for her that she continued the conversation without missing a beat. "Because it's custom for the last monarch to test the new one--if possible. In this case, it obviously wasn't, so Ekaterina came out of retirement to do her duty.'

Lissa could barely believe that she'd been chatting casually with the Moroi's last queen, a very powerful and beloved queen. As soon as her group entered the hallway, Lissa was escorted by guardians and hurried toward the testing room. Their faces showed they hadn't thought she'd make it. Several spectators, also apparently worried, cheered at her appearance giving the usual shouts about Alexandra and the dragons. Lissa had no chance to respond or even say goodbye to her friends before she was practically pushed into the room. The guardians looked relieved.

The door shut, and Lissa found herself staring once more at Ekaterina Zeklos. Seeing the old woman had been intimidating before, but now ... Lissa's anxiety doubled. Ekaterina gave her a crooked smile.

"I was afraid you wouldn't make it,' she said. "Should have known better. You aren't the type to back down.'

Lissa was still starstruck and almost felt the need to ramble out an excuse, explaining about Serena's list. But, no. Ekaterina didn't care about that right now, and one didn't make excuses to someone like her anyway, Lissa decided. If you screwed up, you apologized. "I'm sorry,' said Lissa.

"No need to be,' said Ekaterina. "You made it. Do you know the answer? What must a queen possess in order to truly rule her people?'

Lissa's tongue felt thick in her mouth. She didn't know the answer. It really was just like the Council dream. Investigating Tatiana's murder had taken so much time. For a strange moment, Lissa's heart burned with sympathy for that prickly queen. She'd done what she thought best for the Moroi and had died for it. Lissa even felt bad now, staring at Ekaterina. This former queen had probably never expected to be taken away from her--island?--retirement and forced back into Court life. Yet, she had come when needed.

And just like that, Lissa suddenly knew the answer.

"Nothing,' she said softly. "A queen must possess nothing to rule because she has to give everything she has to her people. Even her life.'

The widening of Ekaterina's gap-toothed grin told Lissa she'd answered correctly. "Congratulations, my dear. You've made it through to tomorrow's vote. I hope you've got a speech ready to win over the Council. You'll have to give it in the morning.'

Lissa swayed slightly, not sure what to say now, let alone in a formal speech. Ekaterina seemed to sense how in shock Lissa was, and the smile that always seemed so mischievous turned gentle.

"You'll be fine. You made it this far. The speech is the easy part. Your father would be proud. All the Dragomirs before you would be.'

That nearly brought tears to Lissa's eyes, and she shook her head. "I don't know about that. We all know I'm not a real candidate. This was just ... well, kind of an act.' Somehow, she didn't feel bad admitting that in front of Ekaterina. "Ariana's the one who deserves the crown.'

Ekaterina's ancient eyes bored into Lissa, and that smiled faded. "You haven't heard then. No, of course you wouldn't have with how quickly this is all happening.'

"Heard what?'

Sympathy washed over Ekaterina's face, and later, I'd wonder if that compassion was because of the message she delivered or because of Lissa's reaction.

"Ariana Szelsky didn't pass this test ... she couldn't solve the riddle ...'

"Rose, Rose.'

Dimitri was shaking me, and it took several seconds for me to shift from being a shocked Lissa to a startled Rose.

"We have to--' he began.

"Oh my God,' I interrupted. "You will not believe what I just saw.'

He went rigid. "Is Lissa okay?'

"Yeah, fine, but--'

"Then we'll worry about that later. Right now, we have to leave.'

I noticed then that he was fully dressed while I was still naked. "What's going on?'

"Sonya came by--don't worry.' The shock that my face must have shown made him smile. "I got dressed and didn't let her come in. But she said the front desk called. They're starting to realize we had an unusual check-in. We need to get out of here.'

Midnight. We had to meet Mikhail at midnight and get the last piece of the mystery that consumed us. "No problem,' I said, tossing the covers off me. As I did, I saw Dimitri's eyes on me, and I was kind of surprised at the admiration and hunger I saw there. Somehow, even after sex, I'd kind of expected him to be detached and wear his guardian face--particularly considering our sudden urgency to leave.

"You see something you like?' I asked, echoing something I'd said to him long ago, when he'd caught me in a compromising position at school.

"Lots,' he said.

The emotion burning in those eyes was too much for me. I looked away, my heart pounding in my chest as I pulled my clothes on. "Don't forget,' I said softly. "Don't forget ...' I couldn't finish, but there was no need.

"I know, Roza. I haven't forgotten.'

I slipped on my shoes, wishing I was weaker and would let my ultimatum slide. I couldn't, though. No matter what had passed between us verbally and physically, no matter how close we were to our fairy-tale ending ... there was no future until he could forgive himself.

Sonya and Jill were ready and waiting when we emerged from our room, and something told me Sonya knew what had happened between Dimitri and me. Damned auras. Or maybe you didn't need magical powers to see that kind of thing. Maybe the afterglow just naturally showed on someone's face.

"I need you to make a charm,' I told Sonya, once we were on the road. "And we have to stop in Greenston.'

"Greenston?' asked Dimitri. "What for?'

"It's where the Alchemists are being held.' I had already started slinging the pieces together. Who hated Tatiana--both because of her personality and for having Ambrose? Who resented her wanting Moroi to fight Strigoi? Who feared her endorsing spirit and its dangerous effects on people, say, like Adrian? Who wanted to see a different family on the throne to support new beliefs? And who would be happy to have me locked away and out of the picture? I took a deep breath, scarcely believing what I was about to say.

"And it's where we're going to find proof that Daniella Ivashkov murdered Tatiana.'

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