Chapter Thirty-three

 

CRIES AND SCREAMS FROM THE audience told me my disguise was gone.

Many eyes also went to Dimitri. Adrian had dropped that illusion too, once I'd shed mine. And, as we'd been expecting, the guardians who had been gradually taking up position around us surged forward, armed with handguns. I still thought that was cheating. Fortunately, my mother and Mikhail moved quickly into place to block our attackers and deter any gunshots.

"Don't,' I snapped at Dimitri, who I knew was probably about to join our two defenders. It was crucial he and I stay perfectly still, so we weren't taken as threats. I even went as far as to hold up my arms, and--reluctantly, I suspected--Dimitri did too. "Wait. Please listen to us first.'

The guardian circle was tight, with no gaps. I was pretty sure my mom and Mikhail were the only thing keeping them from shooting us then and there. Guardians would always avoid fighting other guardians if possible. Two blockers were easy to take down, though, and these guardians wouldn't wait forever. Jill and Abe suddenly moved forward, taking positions next to us. More shields. I saw one of the looming guardians grimace. Civilians complicated things. Adrian had not moved, but the fact that he was enclosed in the circle at all still made him an obstacle.

"Haul us off later if you want,' I said. "We won't resist. But you have to let us talk first. We know who killed the queen.' "So do we,' said one of the guardians. "Now, the rest of you ... back away before you're hurt. These are dangerous fugitives.'

"They need to talk,' said Abe. "They have evidence.'

Again, he pushed forward with his case, acting confidently about things he had no clue about. He was staking it all on me. I was starting to like him. It was kind of unfortunate that our evidence wasn't as 100 percent solid as I'd hoped, but as I'd said earlier ... technicalities.

"Let them talk.'

It was a new voice, but a voice I knew by heart. Lissa pushed her way through two of the guardians. They held their tight position, the immediate concern being that we not escape. This allowed her to slip through--but only so one could grab her arm and stop her from reaching us.

"They've come this far. They were right about ... Jill.' Boy, that was not easy for her to say with a straight face, seeing as she hadn't entirely come to terms with the issue. My imminent death was probably the only thing distracting her from the earth shattering experience of learning she had a potential sibling. She too was taking a lot on faith here, confident I was telling the truth. "You've got them. They can't go anywhere. Just let them talk. I've got evidence to support their case too.'

"I'd hold off on sharing that, Liss,' I said in a low voice. Lissa still believed Daniella was the killer and wasn't going to like hearing the truth. Lissa flashed me a confused look but didn't protest.

"Let's hear them,' said one of the guardians--and not just any: Hans. "After an escape like they pulled, I'd really like to know what brought them back.'

Hans was helping us?

"But,' he continued, "I'm sure you two will understand we'll have to restrain you before you make your great reveal.'

I looked at Dimitri who had already turned to me. We'd both known what we were getting ourselves into, and honestly, this was a better scenario than I'd envisioned.

"Okay,' said Dimitri. He glanced at our noble protectors. "It's okay. Let them get through.'

My mom and the others didn't move right away. "Do it,' I said. "Don't end up as our cellmates.'

I thought for sure those loveable fools wouldn't listen to me. But Mikhail backed off first, and then the others did too, practically in sync. In a flash, guardians seized them all, leading them away. Dimitri and I stayed put, and four guardians moved in, two for Dimitri and two for me. Adrian had retreated with the others, but Lissa still stood a few feet away from us, all her trust in me.

"Get on with it,' said Hans. He gripped my right arm tightly.

I met Lissa's eyes, hating what I had to say. But, no. She wasn't the one I was worried about hurting the most. Looking out into the audience, I found Christian, who was understandably watching this drama with avid attention. I had to turn away and stare at the crowd as a whole, refusing to see individual faces. Just a blur.

"I didn't kill Tatiana Ivashkov,' I said. Several people grumbled doubtfully. "I didn't like her. But I didn't kill her.' I glanced at Hans. "You've questioned the janitor who testified about where I was during the murder, right? And he ID'd the man who attacked Lissa as the one who paid him off to lie about where I was?' I'd learned from Mikhail that Joe had eventually admitted to taking money from the mystery Moroi, once the guardians had cornered him with the picture.

Hans frowned, hesitated, and then nodded for me to continue.

"There's no record of his existence--at least not with the guardians. But the Alchemists know who he is. They saw him at one of their facilities--acting as someone's bodyguard.' My eyes fell on Ethan Moore, who stood with the guardians near the door. "A bodyguard for someone who was let in to see Tatiana the night she died: Tasha Ozera.'

There was no need for any uproar from the audience this time because Tasha more than made up for it on her own. She'd been sitting next to Christian and sprang up from her chair.

"What on earth are you saying, Rose?' she exclaimed. "Are you out of your mind?'

When I'd stood there defiantly, ready to face the crowd and demand justice, I'd been full of triumph and power. Now ... now I was just sad as I stared at someone I'd always trusted, someone who was staring back at me with so much shock and hurt.

"I wish I was ... but it's true. We both know it is. You killed Tatiana.'

Tasha's disbelief grew, tinged now with a little anger, though she still seemed to be giving me the benefit of the doubt. "I never, never believed you killed her--and I've fought for you on that. Why are you doing this? Are you playing on the Strigoi taint in our family? I thought you were above that kind of prejudice.'

I swallowed. I'd thought getting evidence would be the hard part. It was nothing compared to revealing it. "What I'm saying has nothing to do with Strigoi. I almost wish it did. You hated Tatiana for her age law and refusal to let Moroi fight.' Another memory came to me, when Tasha had learned about the secret training sessions. Tasha had been aghast with what I now suspected might have been guilt at misjudging the queen.

The crowd was riveted and stunned, but one person came to life: an Ozera I didn't know but who apparently had family solidarity on his mind. He stood up, crossing his arms defiantly. "Half this Court hated Tatiana for that law. You among them.'

"I didn't have my bodyguard bribe a witness or attack Lis--Princess Dragomir. And don't pretend you didn't know the guy,' I warned her. "He was your bodyguard. You were seen together.' Ian's description of her when she visited St. Louis had been perfectly clear: long black hair, pale blue eyes, and scarring on one side of her face.

"Rose, I can't even believe this is happening, but if James--that was his name--did whatever you're talking about, then he acted alone. He always had radical ideas. I knew that when I hired him as outside protection, but I never thought he was capable of murder.' She glanced around, looking for someone in charge, and finally settled on the Council. "I've always believed Rose was innocent. If James is the one responsible for this, then I'm more than happy to tell you whatever I know to clear Rose's name.'

So, so easy. The mystery Moroi--James--was almost everywhere Tasha had been. He'd also been spotted in suspicious situations where she hadn't been--like Joe's bribery and Lissa's attack. I could save Tasha and just blame it all on him. He was already dead. Tasha and I could stay friends. She'd acted on principle, right? What was wrong with that? Christian stood up beside her, looking at me like I was a stranger. "Rose, how can you say any of this? You know her. You know she wouldn't do it. Stop making a scene and let us figure out how that James guy killed the queen.' So, so easy. Blame the dead man.

"James couldn't have staked Tatiana,' I said. "He had an injured hand. It takes both hands for a Moroi to stake someone. I've seen it happen twice now. And I bet if you can get a straight answer out of Ethan Moore ...' I glanced over at the guardian who had gone pale. He could probably jump into a fight and kill without hesitation. But this kind of scrutiny? And eventual interrogation by his peers? I didn't think he'd hold up. It was probably the reason Tasha had been able to manipulate him. "James wasn't there the night Tatiana died, was he? And I don't think Daniella Ivashkov was either, despite what Princess Dragomir was told earlier. But Tasha was. She was in the queen's chambers--and you didn't report it.'

Ethan looked like he wanted to bolt, but his odds of escape were about as good as mine and Dimitri's. He slowly shook his head. "Tasha wouldn't kill anyone.' Not exactly the confirmation of her location I wanted--but close. The guardians would get more out of him later.

"Rose!' Christian was pissed off now. Seeing him look at me with such outrage hurt even more than Tasha's expression. "Stop it!'

Lissa took a few hesitant steps forward. I could feel in her mind that she didn't want to believe what I was saying either ... yet she still trusted me. She thought of a controversial solution. "I know it's wrong ... but if we used compulsion on the suspects ...'

"Don't even suggest that!' exclaimed Tasha, turning her sharp eyes on Lissa. "Stay out of this. Your future's on the line here. A future that could make you great and achieve the things our people need.'

"A future you could manipulate,' I realized. "Lissa believes in a lot of the reforms you do ... and you think you could convince her of ones she doesn't. Especially if she's with your nephew. That's why you've fought so hard to change the quorum law. You wanted her to be queen.'

Christian started to step forward, but Tasha laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. It didn't stop him from speaking. "That's idiotic. If she wanted Lissa to be queen, why make that James guy attack her?'

That was a mystery for me too, one of the holes I hadn't quite figured out. But Dimitri had. Conscious of his two guards, he shifted closer to me.

"Because no one was supposed to die.' Dimitri's low, resonant voice sounded wonderful with the room's acoustics. He needed no microphone as he directed his words to Tasha. "You didn't expect a guardian to be with her.' He was right, I realized. Eddie had been drafted that night under weird circumstances and only barely made it back in time to see Ambrose with Lissa. "James was probably going to fake an attack and run ... enough to generate sympathy and more support for Vasilisa. Which it certainly did--just a little more severely.'

The outrage on Tasha's face transformed to something I couldn't entirely gauge right away. She'd seemed offended at my accusations, but from Dimitri--it was more. She looked legitimately hurt. Crushed. I knew that look. I'd seen it on Adrian's face a couple hours ago.

"Dimka, not you too,' she said.

Through Lissa's eyes, I watched the colors of Tasha's aura shift, burn a little brighter as she gazed at Dimitri. I could see exactly what Sonya had explained to me, how the aura showed affection.

"And that's why I took the fall,' I murmured softly. No one but Dimitri and our guardians heard me.

"Hmm?' Dimitri asked.

I just shook my head. All this time, Tasha had still loved Dimitri. I knew she had last year, when she'd made him an offer to hook up and have kids--not something a lot of dhampir men had the chance to get. He'd refused, and I thought she had accepted simply being friends with him. She hadn't. She'd still loved him. When Lissa had revealed my relationship with Dimitri to Hans, Tasha had already known. But for how long? I wasn't sure. She'd obviously known about the relationship before killing Tatiana, and putting the murder on me left Tasha free and clear and opened back up her chances with Dimitri.

There was no point in bringing up her personal motives for blaming me. Tatiana's murder was the real issue at stake. I just looked at Hans. "You can take me into custody, I meant it. But don't you think you've got enough to take her--and Ethan--in too?'

Hans's face was unreadable. His feelings toward me had always gone back and forth, since the day we met. Sometimes I was a troublemaker without a future. Other times I had the potential to be a leader. He'd believed I was a murderer, yet he'd still allowed me to address the crowd. He didn't really like my friends either. What would he do now?

He lifted his eyes from my face and looked to where several guardians were stationed in the audience, ready for any action. He gave a curt nod. "Take Lady Ozera. And Moore. We'll question them.'

Seeing as Tasha was seated amidst other people, there was a bit of fear and panic when four guardians moved toward her. They avoided injuring other audience members as much as possible, but there was still plenty of pushing and shoving. What came as a total surprise was how fiercely Tasha fought back. She was trained, I remembered. Not in the same way guardians were, but enough to make it hard to get a hold of her. She could kick and punch--and stake queens--and even managed to knock one guardian down.

She might actually try to fight her way out of here, I realized--though I didn't believe for an instant she could. It was too crowded and chaotic. Guardians were heading toward the fray. Terrified Moroi were trying to get away from the fight. Everybody seemed to be getting in everyone else's way. Suddenly, a loudcrack echoed through the room. A gunshot. Most of the Moroi dropped to the floor, though guardians kept coming. Holding a handgun she must have seized from the guardian she'd knocked over, Tasha grabbed the first Moroi she could with her free hand. So help me, it was Mia Rinaldi. She'd been sitting near Christian. I didn't think Tasha even noticed her hostage choice. "Don't move!' Tasha yelled at the encroaching guardians. The gun was at Mia's head, and I felt my heart stop. How had things escalated to this point? I'd never foreseen this. My task was supposed to be neat and tidy. Reveal Tasha. Put her away. Done.

The guardians froze, less because of her command and more because they were sizing up how to deal with the total threat. Meanwhile, Tasha began to slowly--very slowly--make her way toward the exit, dragging Mia along. Her progress was slow and unwieldy, thanks to all the chairs and people in the way. The delay gave the guardians time to solve this ugly dilemma. They come first. Mia's life--a Moroi life--was on the line. The guardians didn't want Mia killed, but a gun-toting warrior Moroi also couldn't be allowed to go free.

The thing was, Tasha wasn't the only warrior Moroi in the room. She had probably picked the worst hostage possible, and I could tell by the glint in Mia's eyes that she was not going to go quietly. Lissa realized this too. One or both of them were going to get killed, and Lissa couldn't let that happen. If she could get Tasha to look at her, she could compel her into submission.

No, no, no, I thought. I didn't need another friend involved.

Both Lissa and I saw Mia tensing to break her way out of Tasha's hold. Lissa realized she had to act now. I could feel it through the bond. I could feel her thoughts, the decision, even the way her body's muscles and nerves moved forward to get Tasha's attention. I felt it all so clearly, as if we shared the same body. I knew where Lissa would move before she even did.

"Tasha, please don't--'

Lissa sprang forward, her plaintive cry interrupted as Mia kicked back at Tasha and broke away, slipping down out of the gun's reach. Tasha, startled on two fronts, still had her gun pointed out. With Mia out of her grasp and everything happening so fast, Tasha frantically fired off a couple shots at the first threat moving toward her--which wasn't the rapidly approaching guardians. It was a slim figure in white who had shouted at Tasha.

Or, well, it would have been. Like I said, I'd known exactly where Lissa would step and what she would do. And in those precious seconds before she acted, I broke out of my captors' hold and threw myself before Lissa. Someone leapt after me, but they were too late. That was when Tasha's gun had gone off. I felt a biting and burning in my chest, and then there was nothing but pain--a pain so complete and so intense it was almost beyond comprehension.

I felt myself falling, felt Lissa catching me and yelling something--maybe to me, maybe to someone else. There was so much commotion in the room that I didn't know what had happened with Tasha. There was just me and the pain that my mind was trying to block out. The world seemed to grow quieter and quieter. I saw Lissa looking down on me, shouting something I couldn't hear. She was beautiful. Brilliant. Crowned in light ... but there was darkness closing in around her. And in that darkness, I saw the faces ... the ghosts and spirits that always followed me. Thicker they grew, closing in. Beckoning.

A gun. I had been brought down by a gun. It was practically comical. Cheaters, I thought. I'd spent my life focusing on hand-to-hand combat, learning to dodge fangs and powerful hands that could snap my neck. A gun? It was so ... well, easy. Should I be insulted? I didn't know. Did it matter? I didn't know that either. All I knew in that moment was that I was going to die, regardless.

My vision was growing dimmer, the blackness and ghosts closing in, and I swore, it was like I could hear Robert whispering in my ear: The world of the dead won't give you up a second time.

Just before the light completely vanished, I saw Dimitri's face join Lissa's. I wanted to smile. I decided then that if the two people I loved most were safe, I could leave this world. The dead could finally have me. And I'd fulfilled my purpose, right? To protect? I'd done it. I'd saved Lissa, just like I'd sworn I'd always do. I was dying in battle. No appointment books for me.

Lissa's face shone with tears, and I hoped that mine conveyed how much I loved her. With the last spark of life I had left, I tried to speak, tried to let Dimitri know I loved him too and that he had to protect her now. I don't think he understood, but the words of the guardian mantra were my last conscious thought.

They come first.

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