Chapter Thirty-five


I WISHED LISSA HAD "needed' me to go take out an army of Strigoi. I would have felt more comfortable with that than what she needed to do now: meet with Jill to discuss the coronation. Lissa wanted me there for support, as a kind of go-between. I wasn't able to walk that well yet, so we waited another day. Lissa seemed glad for the delay.

Jill was waiting for us in a small room I'd never expected to see again: the parlor where Tatiana had berated me for moving in on Adrian. It had been a pretty bizarre experience at the time, seeing as Adrian and I hadn't actually been involved back then. Now, after everything that had occurred between him and me, it just felt ... strange. Confusing. I still didn't know what had happened to him since Tasha's arrest. Walking in there, I also felt terribly ... alone. No, not alone. Uninformed. Vulnerable. Jill sat in a chair, her hands folded in her lap. She stared straight ahead with an unreadable face. Beside me, Lissa's own features were equally blank. She felt ... well, that was the thing. I didn't know. I didn't know. I mean, I could tell she was uncomfortable, but there were no thoughts in my head to tip me off. I had no specifics. Again, I reminded myself that the rest of the world worked like this. You functioned alone. You did your best to manage strange situations without the magical insight of another person. I'd never realized how much I'd taken the thoughts of even just one other person for granted.

The one thing I felt sure of was that both Lissa and Jill were freaked out by each other--but not by me. That was why I was here.

"Hey, Jill,' I said, smiling. "How are you?'

She snapped out of whatever thoughts had been occupying her and jumped up from the chair. I thought that was strange, but then it made sense. Lissa. You rose when a queen entered the room.

"It's okay,' said Lissa, stumbling over her words a little. "Sit.' She took a seat opposite Jill. It was the biggest chair in the room--the one Tatiana had always sat in.

Jill hesitated a moment, then shifted her gaze back to me. I must have provided some encouragement because she returned to her chair. I sat in one beside Lissa, wincing as a small pain tightened in my chest. Worry for me momentarily distracted Jill from Lissa.

"How are you feeling? Are you okay? Should you even be out of bed?' The cute, rambling nature. I was glad to see it again.

"Fine,' I lied. "Good as new.'

"I was worried. When I saw what happened ... I mean, there was so much blood and so much craziness and no one knew if you'd pull through ...' Jill frowned. "I don't know. It was all so scary. I'm so glad you're okay.'

I kept smiling, hoping to reassure her. Silence fell then. The room grew tense. In political situations, Lissa was the expert, always able to smooth everything over with the right words. I was the one who spoke up in uncomfortable scenarios, saying the things that shocked others. The things no one wanted to hear. This situation seemed like one that required her diplomacy, but I knew it was on me to take charge.

"Jill,' I said, "we wanted to know if you'd be willing to, well, take part in the coronation ceremony.'

Jill's eyes flicked briefly to Lissa--still stone-faced--and then back to me. "What does "take part' mean, exactly? What would I have to do?'

"Nothing hard,' I assured her. "It's just some formalities that are usually done by family members. Ceremonial stuff. Like you did with the vote.' I hadn't witnessed that, but Jill had apparently only had to stand by Lissa's side to show family strength. Such a small thing for a law to hinge on. "Mostly, it's about being on display and putting on a good face.'

"Well,' mused Jill, "I've been doing that for most of this week.'

"I've been doing it for most of my life,' said Lissa.

Jill looked startled. Again, I felt at a loss without the bond. Lissa's tone hadn't made her meaning clear. Was it a challenge to Jill--that the girl hadn't faced nearly what Lissa had? Or was it supposed to be sympathy for Jill's lack of experience? "You'll ... you'll get used to it,' I said. "Over time.'

Jill shook her head, a small and bitter smile on her face. "I don't know about that.'

I didn't either. I wasn't sure how one handled the kind of situation she'd been dropped into. My mind rapidly ran through a list of more meaningless, kind things I could say, but Lissa finally took over. "I know how weird this is,' she said. She determinedly met Jill's green eyes--the only feature the sisters shared, I decided. Jill had the makings of a future Emily. Lissa carried a mix of her parents' traits. "This is weird for me too. I don't know what to do.'

"What do you want?' asked Jill quietly.

I heard the real question. Jill wanted to know if Lissa wanted her. Lissa had been devastated by the death of her brother ... but a surprise illegitimate sibling was no substitute for Andre. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in either girl's place. I tried and failed.

"I don't know,' admitted Lissa. "I don't know what I want.'

Jill nodded, dropping her gaze, but not before I caught sight of the emotion playing across her face. Disappointment--yet, Lissa's answer hadn't entirely been unexpected.

Jill asked the next best thing. "Do you want ... do you want me to be in the ceremonies?'

The question hung in the air. It was a good one. It was the reason we'd come here, but did Lissa actually want this? Studying her, I still wasn't sure. I didn't know if she was just following protocol, trying to get Jill to play a role expected among royalty. In this case, there was no law that said Jill had to do anything. She simply had to exist.

"Yes,' said Lissa at last. I heard the truth in her words, and something inside of me lightened. Lissa didn't just want Jill for the sake of image. A part of Lissa wanted Jill in her life--but managing that would be difficult. Still, it was a start, and Jill seemed to recognize that.

"Okay,' she said. "Just tell me what I need to do.' It occurred to me that Jill's youth and nervousness were deceptive. There were sparks of bravery and boldness within her, sparks that I felt certain would grow. She really was a Dragomir.

Lissa looked relieved, but I think it was because she'd made a tiny step of progress with her sister. It had nothing to do with the coronation. "Someone else will explain it all. I'm not really sure what you do, to be honest. But Rose is right. It won't be hard.'

Jill simply nodded.

"Thank you,' said Lissa. She stood up, and both Jill and I rose with her. "I ... I really appreciate it.'

That awkwardness returned as the three of us stood there. It would have been a good moment for the sisters to hug, but even though both seemed pleased at their progress, neither was ready for that. When Lissa looked at Jill, she still saw her father with another woman. When Jill looked at Lissa, she saw her life completely turned upside down--a life once shy and private now out there for the world to gawk at. I couldn't change her fate, but hugging I could do. Heedless of my stitches, I put my arms around the young girl.

"Thanks,' I said, echoing Lissa. "This'll all be okay. You'll see.'

Jill nodded yet again, and with no more to discuss, Lissa and I moved toward the door. Jill's voice brought us to a halt. "Hey ... what happens after the coronation? To me? To us?'

I glanced at Lissa. Another good question. Lissa turned toward Jill but still wasn't making direct eye contact. "We'll ... we'll get to know each other. Things'll get better.'

The smile that appeared on Jill's face was genuine--small, but genuine. "Okay,' she said. There was hope in that smile too. Hope and relief. "I'd like that.'

As for me, I had to hide a frown. I apparently could function without the bond because I could tell, with absolute confidence, that Lissa wasn't exactly giving the whole truth. What wasn't she telling Jill? Lissa did want things to be better, I was certain, even if she wasn't sure how. But there was something ... something small that Lissa wasn't revealing to either of us, something that made me think Lissa didn't actually believe things would improve.

Out of nowhere, a strange echo from Victor Dashkov rang through my mind about Jill. If she has any sense, Vasilisa will send her away.

I didn't know why I remembered that, but it sent a chill through me. The sisters were both mustering smiles, and I hastily did as well, not wanting either to know my concerns. Lissa and I left after that, heading back toward my room. My little outing had been more tiring than I expected, and as much as I hated to admit it, I couldn't wait to lie down again.

When we reached my room, I still hadn't decided if I should ask Lissa about Jill or wait to get Dimitri's opinion. The decision was taken from me when we found an unexpected visitor waiting: Adrian.

He sat on my bed, head tipped back as though he was completely consumed by studying the ceiling. I knew better. He'd known the instant we approached--or at least when Lissa approached.

We stopped in the doorway, and he finally turned toward us. He looked like he hadn't slept in a while. Dark shadows hung under his eyes, and his cute face was hardened with lines of fatigue. Whether it was mental or physical fatigue, I couldn't say. Nonetheless, his lazy smile was the same as ever.

"Your majesty,' he said grandly.

"Stop,' scoffed Lissa. "You should know better.'

"I've never known better,' he countered. "You should know that.'

I saw Lissa start to smile; then she glanced at me and grew serious, realizing this was hardly let's-have-fun-with-Adrian time.

"Well,' she said uneasily, not looking very queenly at all. "I've got some things to do.' She was going to bolt, I realized. I'd gone with her for her family chat, but she was going to abandon me now. Just as well, though. This conversation with Adrian had been inevitable, and I'd brought it on myself. I had to finish this on my own, just as I'd told Dimitri.

"I'm sure you do,' I said. Her face turned hesitant, as though she was suddenly reconsidering. She felt guilty. She was worried about me and wanted to stand by me. I lightly touched her arm. "It's okay, Liss. I'll be okay. Go.'

She squeezed my hand in return, her eyes wishing me good luck. She told Adrian goodbye and left, closing the door behind her.

It was just him and me now. He stayed on my bed, watching me carefully. He still wore the smile he'd given Lissa, like this was no big deal. I knew otherwise and made no attempts to hide my feelings. Standing still made me tired, so I sat down in a nearby chair, nervously wondering what to say.

"Adrian--'

"Let's start with this, little dhampir,' he said cordially. "Was it going on before you left Court?'

It took me a moment to follow that abrupt Adrian conversation format. He was asking if Dimitri and I had gotten back together before my arrest. I shook my head slowly.

"No. I was with you. Just you.' True, I'd been a mess of emotions, but my intentions had been firm.

"Well. That's something,' he said. Some of his pleasantness was starting to slip. I smelled it then, ever so faintly: alcohol and smoke. "Better some rekindling of sparks in the heat of battle or quest or whatever than you cheating right in front of me.'

I shook my head more urgently now. "No, I swear. I didn't--nothing happened then ... not until--' I hesitated on how to phrase my next words.

"Later?' he guessed. "Which makes it okay?

"No! Of course not. I ...'

Damn it. I'd screwed up. Just because I hadn't cheated on Adrian at Court didn't mean that I hadn't cheated on him later. You could phrase it however you wanted, but let's face it: sleeping with another guy in a hotel room was pretty much cheating if you had a boyfriend. It didn't matter if that guy was the love of your life or not.

"I'm sorry,' I said. It was the simplest and most appropriate thing I could say. "I'm sorry. What I did was wrong. I didn't mean for it to happen. I thought ... I really thought he and I were done. I was with you. I wanted to be with you. And then, I realized that--'

"No, no--stop.' Adrian held up a hand, his voice tight now as his cool facade continued to crumble. "I really do not want to hear about the great revelation you had about how you guys were always meant to be together or whatever it was.'

I stayed silent because, well, that kind of had been my revelation.

Adrian ran a hand through his hair. "Really, it's my fault. It was there. A hundred times there. How often did I see it? I knew. It kept happening. Over and over, you'd say you were through with him ... and over and over, I'd believe it ... no matter what my eyes showed me. No matter what my heart told me. My. Fault.'

It was that slightly unhinged rambling--not that nervous kind of Jill's, but the unstable kind that worried me about how close he was getting to the edge of insanity. An edge I might very well be pushing him toward. I wanted to go over to him but had the sense to stay seated.

"Adrian, I--'

"I loved you!' he yelled. He jumped up out of his chair so quickly I never saw it coming. "I loved you, and you destroyed me. You took my heart and ripped it up. You might as well have staked me!' The change in his features also caught me by surprise. His voice filled the room. So much grief, so much anger. So unlike the usual Adrian. He strode toward me, hand clasped over his chest. "I. Loved. You. And you used me the whole time.' "No, no. It's not true.' I wasn't afraid of Adrian, but in the face of that emotion, I found myself cringing. "I wasn't using you. I loved you. I still do, but--'

He looked disgusted. "Rose, come on.'

"I mean it! I do love you.' Now I stood up, pain or no, trying to look him in the eye. "I always will, but we're not ... I don't think we work as a couple.'

"That's a bullshit breakup line, and you know it.'

He was kind of right, but I thought back to moments with Dimitri ... how well we worked in sync, how he always seemed to get exactly what I felt. I meant what I'd said: I did love Adrian. He was wonderful, in spite of all his flaws. Because, really, who didn't have flaws? He and I had fun together. There was affection, but we weren't matched in the way Dimitri and I were.

"I'm not ... I'm not the one for you,' I said weakly.

"Because you're with another guy?'

"No, Adrian. Because ... I don't. I don't know. I don't ...' I was fumbling, badly. I didn't know how to explain what I felt, how you could care about someone and love hanging out with them--but still not work as a couple. "I don't balance you like you need.'

"What the hell does that mean?' he exclaimed.

My heart ached for him, and I was so sorry for what I'd done ... but this was the truth of it all. "The fact that you have to ask says it all. When you find that person ... you'll know.' I didn't add that with his history, he'd probably have a number of false starts before finding that person. "And I know this sounds like another bullshit breakup line, but I really would like to be your friend.'

He stared at me for several heavy seconds and then laughed--though there wasn't much humor in it. "You know what's great? You're serious. Look at your face.' He gestured, as though I actually could examine myself. "You really think it's that easy, that I can sit here and watch your happy ending. That I can watch you getting everything you want as you lead your charmed life.'

"Charmed!' The guilt and sympathy warring within me got a little kick of anger. "Hardly. Do you know what I've gone through in the last year?' I'd watched Mason die, fought in the St. Vladimir's attack, been captured by Strigoi in Russia, and then lived on the run as a wanted murderess. That didn't sound charmed at all.

"And yet, here you are, triumphant after it all. You survived death and freed yourself from the bond. Lissa's queen. You got the guy and your happily ever after.'

I turned my back to him and stalked away. "Adrian, what do you want me to say? I can apologize forever, but there's nothing else I can do here. I never wanted to hurt you; I can't say that enough. But the rest? Do you really expect me to be sad about everything else having worked out? Should I wish I was still I was accused of murder?'

"No,' he said. "I don't want you to suffer. Much. But the next time you're in bed with Belikov, stop a moment and remember that not everyone made out as well as you did.'

I turned back to face him. "Adrian, I never--'

"Not just me, little dhampir,' he added quietly. "There's been a lot of collateral damage along the way while you battled against the world. I was a victim, obviously. But what about Jill? What happens to her now that you've abandoned her to the royal wolves? And Eddie? Have you thought about him? And where's your Alchemist?' Every word he slung at me was an arrow, piercing my heart more than the bullets had. The fact that he'd referred to Jill by her name instead of "Jailbait' carried an extra hurt. I was already toting plenty of guilt about her, but the others ... well, they were a mystery. I'd heard rumors about Eddie but hadn't seen him since my return. He was clear of James's death, but killing a Moroi--when others still thought he might have been brought in alive--carried a heavy stigma. Eddie's previous insubordination-- thanks to me--also damned him, even if it had all been for "the greater good.' As queen, Lissa could only do so much. The guardians served the Moroi, but it was customary for the Moroi to step back and let the guardians manage their own people. Eddie wasn't being dismissed or imprisoned ... but what assignment would they give him? Hard to say.

Sydney ... she was an even greater mystery. Where's your Alchemist? The goings- on of that group were beyond me, beyond my world. I remembered her face that last time I'd seen her, back in the hotel--strong but sad. I knew she and the other Alchemists had been released since then, but her expression had said she wasn't out of trouble yet.

And Victor Dashkov? Where did he fit in? I wasn't sure. Evil or not, he was still someone who'd suffered as a result of my actions, and the events surrounding his death would stay with me forever.

Collateral damage. I'd brought down a lot of people with me, intentionally or no. But, as Adrian's words continued sinking into me, one of them suddenly gave me pause.

"Victim,' I said slowly. "That's the difference between you and me.'

"Huh?' He'd been watching me closely while I'd considered the fates of my friends and was caught off guard now. "What are you talking about?'

"You said you were a victim. That's why ... that's why ultimately, you and I aren't matched for each other. In spite of everything that's happened, I've never thought of myself that way. Being a victim means you're powerless. That you won't take action. Always ... always I've done something to fight for myself ... for others. No matter what.'

I'd never seen such outrage on Adrian's face. "That's what you think of me? That I'm lazy? Powerless?'

Not exactly. But I had a feeling that after this conversation, he would run off to the comfort of his cigarettes and alcohol and maybe whatever female company he could find.

"No,' I said. "I think you're amazing. I think you're strong. But I don't think you've realized it--or learned how to use any of that.' And, I wanted to add, I wasn't the person who could inspire that in him.

"This,' he said, moving toward the door, "was the last thing I expected. You destroy my life and then feed me inspirational philosophy.'

I felt horrible, and it was one of those moments where I wished my mouth wouldn't just blurt out the first thing on my mind. I'd learned a lot of control--but not quite enough.

"I'm just telling you the truth. You're better than this ... better than whatever it is you're going to do now.' Adrian rested his hand on the doorknob and gave me a rueful look. "Rose, I'm an addict with no work ethic who's likely going to go insane. I'm not like you. I'm not a superhero.'

"Not yet,' I said.

He scoffed, shook his head, and opened the door. Just before leaving, he gave me one more backward glance. "The contract's null and void, by the way.'

I felt like I'd been slapped in the face. And in one of those rare moments, Rose Hathaway was rendered speechless. I had no witty quips, no elaborate explanations, and no profound insight.

Adrian left, and I wondered if I'd ever see him again.
 

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