Chapter Thirty-one

 

I WASN'T THE ONLY ONE who had come to that startling conclusion. When the Moroi Court woke up several hours into our road trip, Lissa was also putting all the pieces together in her room as she prepared herself to give her pre-election speech. She'd thought of all the arguments I had, plus a few more--like how frantic Daniella had been that Adrian might be implicated with me, which would undoubtedly unravel a carefully laid out plan. There was also Daniella's offer of having her lawyer cousin, Damon Tarus, defend me. Would that have actually helped? Or would Damon have subtly worked to weaken my defense? Abe's uncouth involvement might have been a blessing.

Lissa's heart pounded rapidly as she twisted her hair into a chignon. She preferred it down but thought for the coming event, she should put on a more dignified look. Her dress was matte ivory silk, long-sleeved and ruched, about knee length. Some might have thought wearing that color would make her look bridal, but when I saw her in the mirror, I knew no one would make that mistake. She looked luminous. Radiant. Queenly.

"It can't be true,' she said, completing the look with pearl earrings that had belonged to her mother. She had shared her theory with Christian and Janine, who were with her now, and had half hoped they'd tell her she was crazy. They hadn't.

"It makes sense,' said Christian, with none of his usual snark.

"There's just no proof quite yet,' my mother said, ever practical. "Lots of circumstantial stuff.'

"Aunt Tasha's checking with Ethan to see if Daniella was there the night of the murder,' said Christian. He made a slight face, still not happy about his aunt having a boyfriend. "Daniella wasn't on the official lists, but Aunt Tasha's worried some things might have been altered.'

"That wouldn't surprise me. Even so, putting Daniella there at the right time builds the case but still isn't hard proof.' My mother should have been an attorney. She and Abe could have opened a law firm together.

"It's as much proof as they've got for Rose!' exclaimed Lissa.

"Aside from the stake,' Janine reminded her. "And people are more willing to believe sketchy evidence about Rose than Lady Daniella Ivashkov.'

Lissa sighed, knowing it was all true. "If only Abe could talk to the Alchemists. We need what they know.'

"He'll do it,' said my mother confidently. "It'll just take time.'

"We don't have time!' The dramatic turn of events was giving spirit a nice chance to raise its ugly head, and like always, I tried to pull the darkness from Lissa. You'd think I would have learned my lesson after Victor, but well ... old habits died hard. They come first. 'Marie Conta and Rufus Tarus are the only candidates left! If he wins, Daniella's going to have a lot of influence. We'll never prove Rose is innocent then.'

Ariana failing the last test had come as a huge blow to everyone, smashing a future Lissa had thought was set in stone. Without Ariana, the outcome didn't look good. Marie Conta wasn't Lissa's favorite person, but Lissa felt she'd make a much better ruler than Rufus. Unfortunately, the Conta family had been quiet in politics in recent years, giving them fewer allies and friends. The numbers were leaning dangerously toward Rufus. It was frustrating. If we could get Jill there, Lissa could vote, and on a Council of twelve, even one vote would be powerful.

"We have time,' my mom said calmly. "There'll be no vote today, not with the controversy you'll cause. And for every day the election is delayed, we have another chance to build our case. We're close. We can do it.'

"We can't tell Adrian about this,' warned Lissa, moving toward the door. It was time to go.

Christian's trademark smirk returned. "That,' he said, "is something we can all agree on.'

The elaborate ballroom--yet again made a Council room for size reasons--looked like a rock concert. People were fighting for spots inside. Some, realizing that was futile, had camped outside the building, picnic style. Someone had thankfully had the brilliant idea to hook up a sound system with outdoor speakers so that those who didn't make it in could still hear the proceedings. Guardians moved through the crowds, trying to contain the chaos--particularly as the candidates arrived.

Marie Conta had shown up just before Lissa, and even if she was the least-likely candidate, there were still roars and surges of excitement in the crowd. Guardians hastily--and roughly, if necessary--held the mob back so she could pass. That attention had to be scary, but Marie didn't show it. She walked proudly, smiling at supporters and non-supporters alike. Both Lissa and I recalled Christian's words: You're a queenly nominee. Act like it. You deserve this. You're the last Dragomir. A daughter of royalty.

And that was exactly how she behaved. It was more than Christian's urging, too. Now that she'd passed all three tests, the gravity of the ancient procedure she was entering continued to grow. Lissa walked in, her head held high. I couldn't see her whole body, but I recognized the feel of her walk: graceful, stately. The crowd loved it, and it occurred to me that this group was particularly vocal because most weren't royal. Those gathered outside were ordinary Moroi, the ones who had come to truly love her. "Alexandra's heir!' "Bring back the dragon!' For some, it was simply enough to shout her name, adding on the titles of an old Russian folktale heroine who shared the same name: "Vasilisa the brave! Vasilisa the beautiful!'

I knew no one would guess the fear she felt inside. She was that good. Christian and my mother, who had initially flanked her, fell back as one, letting Lissa walk a couple steps ahead. There was no question of Lissa's position and authority. She took each step with confidence, remembering that her grandfather had also walked this path. She tried to give the crowd a smile that was both dignified but genuine. It must have worked because they went even wilder. And when she paused to comment on a dragon banner a man had painted in support, the artist nearly passed out that someone like her would notice and compliment him.

"This is unprecedented,' remarked my mom, once they'd safely made it inside. "There's never been this sort of turnout. There certainly wasn't during the last election.'

"Why so great this time?' asked Lissa, who was trying to get her breathing under control.

"Because there's so much sensation, between the murder and you muddling the law. That and ... well, the way you're winning the hearts of every non-royal out there. The dhampirs too. There's a dragon sign in one of our coffee rooms, you know. I even think some of the royals love you, though maybe it's just to spite whatever family they're feuding with. But seriously? If this were up to all of the people and not just the Council-- and well, if it was a vote you were eligible for--I think you'd win.'

Lissa grimaced but then reluctantly added, "Honestly? I think we should have popular votes for our leaders. Every Moroi should cast a vote, not just a handful of elite families.'

"Careful there, princess,' teased Christian, putting his arm through hers. "That's the kind of talk that'll start another revolution. One at a time, okay?'

The ballroom's crowd wasn't as crazy as the outside one had been--but was pretty close. The guardians were ready for the numbers this time and had made sure to keep strict control from the very beginning. They kept a tight count of how many were allowed in the room and stopped royal and non-royal squabbles. It was still intimidating, and Lissa reminded herself over and over that playing this role was helping me. For me, she would endure anything, even the fanfare. This time, fortunately, Lissa was swept up pretty quickly to the room's front, to where three chairs facing the crowd had been set up for the candidates. Rufus and Marie were already seated, speaking in low voices to a few select family members. Guardians stood around them. Lissa sat alone, of course, but nodded to nearby guards when Tasha approached.

Tasha crouched beside Lissa, speaking low and keeping a wary eye on Rufus as he talked to someone. "Bad news. Well, depending on how you look at it. Ethan says Daniella was there that night. She and Tatiana met alone. He didn't realize it hadn't been put on the records. Someone else wrote those up on behalf of all the guards on duty, but he swears he saw Daniella himself.'

Lissa winced. Secretly, she'd been hoping--praying, even--that she'd made a mistake, that surely Adrian's mother couldn't have done this. She gave a swift nod to show she understood.

"I'm sorry,' said Tasha. "I know you liked her.'

"I think I'm more worried about Adrian. I don't know how he'll take it.'

"Hard,' said Tasha bluntly. After what she'd faced with Christian's parents, she knew better than anyone else what it was like to have family betray you. "But he'll make it through. And as soon as we can put all this evidence forward, we'll have Dimitri and Rose back.'

Those words filled Lissa with hope, strengthening her. "I miss her so much,' she said. "I wish she was here already.'

Tasha gave her a sympathetic smile and patted her shoulder. "Soon. They'll be back soon. Just get through this for now. You can do this. You can change everything.'

Lissa wasn't so sure about that, but Tasha hurried off to join her "activist friends' and was replaced by--Daniella.

She'd come to talk to Rufus, offering support and family love. Lissa couldn't bear to look at the older woman and felt even worse when Daniella spoke to her.

"I'm not sure how you got involved with this, dear, but good luck.' Daniella's smile seemed sincere, but there was no question which candidate she supported. Her kindly expression turned to concern. "Have you seen Adrian? I thought for sure he'd be here. I know the guardians would let him in.'

Excellent question. Lissa hadn't seen him in the last day or so. "I haven't. Maybe he's just running late. Doing his hair or something.' Hopefully not passed out somewhere.

Daniella sighed. "I hope so.'

She left, taking a seat in the audience. Once again, Adrian's father was running the session, and after several false starts, the room quieted.

"In the last week,' Nathan began, speaking into a microphone, "many worthy candidates have taken the tests required to rule our people. Before us sit the final three: Rufus Tarus, Marie Conta, and Vasilisa Dragomir.' Nathan's tone sounded displeased over that last one, but thus far, the law would let her give her speech. After that, the law's inconsistency kicked in, and all hell would break loose.

"These three have shown they have the ability to rule, and as their last act, before we vote, each will speak about their plans for our people.' Rufus was up first, delivering exactly the kind of speech I'd expected. He played on Moroi fears, promising extreme forms of protection--most of which involved dhampirs but didn't get into much detail.

"Our safety must be our top priority,' he proclaimed. "At all costs. Will it be difficult? Yes. Will there be sacrifices? Yes. But aren't our children worth it? Don't we care about them?' Bringing children into it was just low, I decided. At least he'd left puppies out.

He also used dirty politician tricks, slandering his rivals. Marie was mostly slammed for her family's lack of activity. Lissa, however, was a great target. He pushed her age, the danger of spirit, and the fact that her being there in the first place was a violation of the law.

Marie's speech was much more thoughtful and detailed. She laid out very explicit plans on all sorts of issues, most of which were reasonable. I didn't agree with all she said, but she was clearly competent and didn't lower herself to mocking her competition. Unfortunately, she wasn't nearly as charismatic as Rufus, and it was a sad truth that that could make a big difference. Her monotone closing summed up not only her speech but also her personality.

"Those are the reasons why I should be queen. I hope you enjoyed this talk and will vote for me when the time comes. Thank you.' She abruptly sat down.

Lissa's turn came at last. Standing before her microphone, she suddenly saw the chalice's dream, where she'd faltered in front of the Council. But no, this was reality. She wouldn't fail. She would go forward.

"We're a people at war,' she began, voice loud and clear. "We're constantly attacked--but not just by Strigoi. By one another. We're divided. We fight with one another. Family against family. Royal against non-royal. Moroi against dhampir. Of course the Strigoi are picking us off. They're at least united behind a goal: killing.'

If I had been sitting there in that audience, I would have been leaning forward, mouth open. As it was, there were plenty of people there to do it for me. Her words were volatile. Shocking. And utterly captivating.

"We are one people,' she continued. "Moroi and dhampir alike.' Yeah, that got some gasps too. "And while it's impossible for every single person to get their way, no one will get anything done if we don't come together and find ways to meet in the middle--even if it means making hard choices.'

Then, extraordinarily, she explained how it could be done. True, she didn't have the time to give fine details on every single issue in our world, but she hit a lot of the big ones. And she managed to do it in a way that didn't offend anyone too badly. After all, she was right in saying not everyone could get their way. Still, she spoke about how the dhampirs were our best warriors--and would be better with a stronger voice. She spoke about how non-royals needed a greater voice too--but not at the cost of losing the exalted royal lines that defined our people. Finally, in addressing the issue of training Moroi to defend themselves, she did emphasize its importance--but not as something mandatory and not as the only method needing to be explored.

Yes, she gave something to everyone and did it beautifully and charismatically. It was the kind of speech that could make people follow her anywhere. She concluded with, "We have always mixed the old with the new. We've kept magic alongside technology. We conduct these sessions with scrolls and--with these.' She smiled and tapped her microphone. "That's how we have survived. We hold onto our pasts and embrace our present. We take the best of it all and grow stronger. That's how we have survived. That's how we will survive.'

Silence met her conclusion--and then the cheers began. I actually heard the roar from outside on the lawn before it started within. People I would have sworn supported others were practically in tears, and I hadn't forgotten that most of the people I had visuals on in this room were royal. Lissa herself wanted to burst into tears but instead took her due bravely. When she finely sat down, and the crowd quieted, Nathan resumed his role. "Well,' he said. "That was a very pretty speech, one we all enjoyed. But now, the time has come for the Council to vote on our next leader, and--by law--only two candidates stand ready for that position: Rufus Tarus and Marie Conta.' Two Moroi, one each from the Tarus and Conta families, came forward to join their respective candidates. Nathan's gaze fell on Lissa who had risen like the others but stood alone. "According to the election laws--laws set down since the beginning of time--each candidate must approach the Council, escorted by someone of their bloodline in order to show family strength and unity. Do you have any such person?'

Lissa met his eyes unflinchingly. "No, Lord Ivashkov.'

"Then I'm afraid your part in this game is over, Princess Dragomir.' He smiled. "You may sit down now.'

Yup. That's when all hell broke loose.

I'd always heard the expression, "And the crowd goes wild!' Now, I saw it in the flesh. Half the time, I couldn't even keep track of who was shouting or supporting what. People argued in clusters and one-on-one. A couple of Moroi in jeans challenged every well-dressed person they could find, operating under the irrational assumptions that anyone in nice clothes must be royal and that all royals hated Lissa. Their devotion to her was admirable. Creepy, but admirable. One group from the Tarus family stood face to face with a Conta group, looking prepared for either a gang fight or a dance-off. That was one of the most bizarre pairings of all since those two families were the only ones who should be in complete agreement on anything.

On and on it went. People fought about whether Lissa should be eligible for the vote. They fought about having a session to change the law books right at that moment. Some fought over things I'd never even heard of before. A rush of guardians to the door made me think the outside crowd was trying to break in. My mother was among that defense, and I knew she'd been right: there'd be no vote today, not with this anarchy. They'd have to close the session and try again tomorrow.

Lissa stared at the crowd, feeling numb and unable to keep up with all the activity. Her stomach twisted as something dawned on her. All this time, she'd sworn that she'd respect the dignity of the election tradition. Yet, it was because of her that things were now anything but dignified. It was all her fault. Then, her eyes fell on someone sitting in a back corner, far from the pandemonium. Ekaterina Zeklos. The old former queen caught Lissa's eye--and winked.

I faded out of that room, not needing to see any more of the arguing. I returned to the car ride, a new thought in my head. Lissa's words burned in my soul. They had stirred my heart. And even if she'd given her speech as a decoy, there had been passion in them--ardent belief. If she had been eligible to be queen, she would have stood behind those words.

And that's when I knew. She would be queen.

I decided then and there that I would make it happen. We wouldn't bring Jill simply to give Lissa her Council vote. Jill would give Lissa the status that would allow Moroi to vote for her. And Lissa would win.

Naturally, I kept these thoughts to myself.

"That's a dangerous look,' said Dimitri, giving me a brief glance before returning his eyes to the road.

"What look?' I asked innocently.

"The one that says you just got some idea.'

"I didn't just get an idea. I got a great idea.'

Jokes like that used to make Jill laugh, but turning to look at her in the backseat showed me she didn't find much funny at all.

"Hey, you okay?' I asked.

Those jade eyes focused on me. "I'm not sure. A lot's kind of happened. And I don't really get what's going to happen next. I feel like ... like some kind of object that's going to be used in someone's master plan. Like a pawn.'

A bit of guilt tugged at me. Victor had always used people as part of a game. Was I any different? No. I cared about Jill. "You're not an object or a pawn,' I told her. "But you're very, very important, and because of you, a lot of good things are going to happen.'

"It won't be that simple though, will it?' She sounded wise beyond her years. "Things are going to get worse before they get better, aren't they?'

I couldn't lie to her. "Yeah. But then you'll get to contact your mom ... and well, like I said, good things will happen. Guardians always say "They come first' when we're talking about Moroi. It's not exactly the same for you, but in doing this ... well ...'

She gave me a smile that didn't seem very happy. "Yeah, I get it. It's for the greater good, right?'

Sonya had spent a lot of the ride working on a charm for me, using a silver bracelet we'd bought at a roadside gift shop. It was tacky-looking but made of real silver, which was what counted. When we were about a half hour from Greenston, she deemed it finished and handed it over. I slipped it on and looked at the others.

"Well?'

"I don't see anything,' said Sonya, "but then, I wouldn't.'

Jill squinted. "You seem a little blurry ... like I just need to blink a few times.'

"Same here,' said Dimitri.

Sonya was pleased. "That's how it should look to people who know she's got a charm on. Hopefully, to the other guardians, she'll be wearing a different face.' It was a variation of what Lissa had made when we'd busted Victor out of prison. Only, this required less magic because Sonya only had to slightly alter my features and didn't need to obscure my race. She was also more practiced than Lissa.

The restaurant I'd chosen in Greenston had long since closed when we rolled in at eleven thirty. The parking lot was nearly black, but I could make out a car in the back corner. Hopefully, it was Mikhail having gotten there early--and not a guardian hit squad.

But when we parked nearby, I saw that it was indeed Mikhail who got out of the car-- along with Adrian.

He grinned when he saw me, pleased at the surprise. Really, I should have seen this coming when I'd told him to pass the message on to Mikhail. Adrian would have found a way to come along. My stomach rolled. No, no. Not this. I had no time to deal with my love life. Not now. I didn't even know what to say to Adrian. Fortunately, I wasn't given the chance to speak.

Mikhail had come striding toward us with guardian efficiency, ready to find out what task I had in mind. He came to a screeching halt when he saw Sonya get out of our car. So did she. They both stood frozen, eyes wider than seemed physically possible. I knew then that the rest of us had ceased to exist, as had all our intrigue, missions, and ... well, the world. In that moment, only the two of them existed.

Sonya gave a strangled cry and then ran forward. This jolted him awake, in time to wrap her in his arms as she threw herself against him. She started crying, and I could see tears on his face too. He brushed her hair back and cupped her cheeks, staring down at her and repeating over and over, "It's you ... it's you ... it's you ...'

Sonya tried to wipe her eyes, but it didn't do much good. "Mikhail--I'm sorry--I'm so sorry--'

"It doesn't matter.' He kissed her and pulled back only enough to look into her eyes. "It doesn't matter. Nothing matters except that we're together again.'

This made her cry harder. She buried her face against his chest, and his arms tightened more fiercely around her. The rest of us stood as frozen as the lovers had been earlier. It felt wrong witnessing this. It was too private; we shouldn't have been there. Yet ... at the same time, I just kept thinking that this was how I'd imagined my reunion with Dimitri would be when Lissa had restored him. Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

Dimitri and I briefly locked eyes, and an uncanny sense told me he was recalling my words: You have to forgive yourself. If you can't, then you can't go on either. We can't. I glanced away from him, looking back at the happy couple so that he wouldn't see me tear up. God, I wanted what Mikhail and Sonya had. A happy ending. Forgiveness of the past. A bright future ahead.

Jill sniffled beside me, and I put an arm around her. That small sound seemed to draw Mikhail back to our world. Still holding Sonya, he looked over at me.

"Thank you. Thank you for this. Anything you need. Anything at all--'

"Stop, stop,' I said, afraid I might choke up. I'd only just managed to blink away traitorous tears. "I'm glad ... glad to have done it, and well ... it wasn't really me at all.'

"Still ...' Mikhail looked down at Sonya who was smiling at him through her tears. "You've given me my world back.'

"I'm so happy for you ... and I want you to have this, to just enjoy this right now. But I have a favor. One more favor.'

Sonya and Mikhail exchanged glances in a knowing way. You never would have guessed they'd been apart for three years. She nodded, and he returned his gaze to me. "I figured that's why he brought me here.' He inclined his head toward Adrian. "I need you to get me into the hotel where the Alchemists are staying.'

The small smile on Mikhail's face dropped. "Rose ... I can't get you into any place. You being this close to Court is dangerous enough.'

I pulled the bracelet from my pocket. "I'll have a disguise. They won't know it's me. Is there a reason you'd have to see the Alchemists?'

Sonya stayed in his arms, but his eyes were dark with thought. "They'll have guardians near their rooms. We could probably pass ourselves off as relief.'

Dimitri nodded in agreement. "If it's too different from their scheduled shift change, it'll raise eyebrows ... but hopefully you'll have long enough to get in and find out what you need. The guardians are probably more worried about the Alchemists getting out than other guardians getting in.'

"Absolutely,' said Mikhail. "So it's you and me, Rose?'

"Yup,' I said. "The fewer, the better. Just enough to question Sydney and Ian. I guess everyone else waits here.'

Sonya kissed his cheek. "I'm not going anywhere.'

Adrian had strolled over by now and given Jill a light, brotherly punch in the arm. "And I'm going to stay and hear how on earth you got involved with this, Jailbait.'

Jill mustered a smile for him. She had a pretty hardcore crush on him, and it was a sign of her stress that she didn't blush and go all weak-kneed. They started a conversation, and Dimitri gestured for me to follow him around the car, out of sight.

"This is dangerous,' he said quietly. "If that charm fails, you probably aren't going to get out of that hotel.' There was an unspoken alive at the end of his words.

"It won't fail. Sonya's good. Besides, if we're caught, maybe they'll bring me back to Court instead of killing me. Imagine how much that will slow the elections.'

"Rose, I'm serious.'

I caught hold of his hand. "I know, I know. This'll be easy. We should be in and out in under an hour, but if we aren't ...' Man, I hated grim contingencies. "If we aren't, then send Adrian to Court with Jill, and you and Sonya hide out somewhere until ... I don't know.'

"Don't worry about us,' he said. "You just be careful.' He leaned down and pressed a kiss to my forehead.

"Little dhampir, are you--'

Adrian came strolling around the car, just in time to see that small kiss. I dropped my hand from Dimitri's. None of us said anything, but in that moment, Adrian's eyes ... well, I saw his whole world come crashing apart. I felt sicker than if a fleet of Strigoi were around. I felt worse than a Strigoi. Honor, I thought. For real: the guardians should have taught it. Because I hadn't learned it.

"Let's hurry,' said Mikhail, walking over, oblivious to the drama that had just exploded beside him. "Sonya says you guys have a ticking clock at Court too.'

I swallowed, dragging my eyes from Adrian. My heart twisted within my chest. "Yeah ...'

"Go,' said Dimitri.

"Remember,' I murmured to him. "Talking to him is my responsibility. Not yours.' I followed Mikhail to his car, slipping on the charmed bracelet. Before getting inside, I cast a quick glance back. Jill and Sonya were speaking together, Dimitri stood alone, and Adrian was taking out a cigarette, his back to them all.

"I suck,' I said dismally, as Mikhail started the car. It was ineloquent but pretty much summed up my feelings.

He didn't respond, probably because it wasn't relevant to our task. Either that, or he was still too wrapped up in the renewal of his own love life. Lucky bastard.

It didn't take long to reach the hotel. There were guardians around, covertly placed so as not to draw human attention. None of them stopped us as we walked inside. One even gave Mikhail a nod of recognition. They all looked at me like ... well, like they didn't recognize me. Which was good. With so many guardians helping at Court, new faces were to be expected, and mine didn't look like Rose Hathaway's. No one was concerned.

"Which rooms are they in?' Mikhail asked a guardian who was standing in the lobby. "We're supposed to relieve that shift.' Mikhail's manner was perfectly self-assured, enough that the guardian--while a little surprised--seemed to think this must be okay.

"Only two of you? There are four up there.'

I saved us on that one. "They want more back at Court. Things are getting out of hand, so just two are being assigned here now.'

"Probably all we need up there,' agreed the guardian. "Third floor.'

"Quick thinking,' Mikhail told me in the elevator.

"That was nothing. I've talked myself out of much worse.'

The rooms were easy to spot because a guardian stood outside them. The rest are inside, I realized, wondering if that would be a problem. But, with that same authoritative attitude, Mikhail told the guy that he and the others had been recalled to Court. The guardian summoned his colleagues--one from each Alchemist's rooms, though we couldn't tell whose was whose--and they gave us a brief status report before leaving, including who was in which room.

When they were gone, Mikhail looked to me. "Sydney,' I said.

We'd been given key cards and walked right into Sydney's room. She sat cross- legged on her bed, reading a book and looking miserable. She sighed when she saw us.

"Well, what is it now?'

I took off the bracelet, letting my illusion vanish.

There was no jaw dropping or raised eyebrows from Sydney. Just a knowing look. "I should have guessed. Are you here to free me?' There was a hopeful note in her voice.

"Um, not exactly.' I hated that Sydney was going to get punished, but smuggling her out wasn't part of the plan now. "We need to talk to Ian, and it's probably best if you're there. He knows something important. Something we need.'

That got the raised eyebrow. She pointed at the door. "They won't let us talk to each other.'

"They aren't out there,' I said smugly.

Sydney shook her head ruefully. "Rose, you really do scare me sometimes. Just not for the reasons I originally thought you would. Come on. He's next door, but you'll have a hard time getting him to talk.' "That's where you'll help,' I said, as we walked into the hall. I slipped the bracelet back on. "He's totally into you. He'll help if you ask.'

As I'd guessed, Sydney was completely oblivious to Ian's crush. "What! He does not-- '

She shut her mouth as we entered Ian's room. He was watching TV but jumped up when he saw us. "Sydney! Are you okay?'

I shot her a meaningful look.

She gave me a pained one in return and then turned her attention back to Ian. "They need your help with something. Some information.'

He turned his gaze on us, and it immediately went colder. "We answered your questions a hundred times.'

"Not all of them,' I said. "When you were at Court, you saw a picture on the table. Of a dead man. Who was it?'

Ian's lips went into a straight line. "I don't know.'

"I saw--er, that is, we know you recognized him,' I argued. "You reacted.'

"I actually saw that too,' admitted Sydney.

His tone turned pleading. "Come on, we don't need to help them anymore. This whole hotel-prison thing is bad enough. I'm sick of their games.'

I didn't blame him, really, but we needed him too much. I glanced at Sydney beseechingly, telling her that only she could get us through this.

She turned back to Ian. "What's the deal with the guy in the picture? Is it ... is it really horrible? Something secret?'

He shrugged. "No. I just don't want to help them anymore. It's irrelevant.'

"Will you do it for me?' she asked sweetly. "Please? It might help me get out of trouble.' Sydney was no master of flirting, but I think just the fact she came close to it astonished him. He hesitated for several moments, glanced at us and then back to her. She smiled at him.

Ian caved. "I meant what I said. I don't know who he is. He was with a Moroi woman over in the St. Louis facility one day.'

"Wait,' I said, derailed. "Moroi come to your places?'

"Sometimes,' said Sydney. "Just like we came to yours. Some meetings happen in person. We don't usually hold your people prisoner, though.'

"I think this guy was like her bodyguard or something,' Ian said. "She was the one there on business. He just followed and stayed quiet.'

"A Moroi bodyguard?'

"Not uncommon for those that can't get guardians,' said Mikhail. "Abe Mazur is proof of that. He's got his own army.'

"I think of them more as a mafia.' My joke aside, I was getting confused. Despite the widespread disdain about learning to fight, sometimes Moroi did have to hire Moroi security because they just couldn't obtain a guardian. Someone like Daniella Ivashkov wouldn't have that problem. In fact, I was pretty sure she'd be entitled to two guardians if she stepped outside protective borders--and she'd made it clear she didn't think Moroi should fight. Why would she travel with Moroi protection when she could have better trained guardians? It made no sense. Still ... if you'd killed a queen, you probably did all sorts of unorthodox things. They didn't have to make sense. "Who was she?' I asked. "The woman?'

"I didn't know her either,' said Ian. "I just passed them while they were on their way to something. A meeting, maybe.'

"Do you remember what she looked like?' Something. We needed something. This was on the verge of falling apart, but if Ian could identify Daniella, we might just be set.

"Sure,' he said. "She's easy to remember.'

The ensuing silence irritated me. "So?' I asked. "What did she look like?'

He told me.

The description was not what I had expected.

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