I DIDN'T GET TO DRIVE.
"General' Sydney didn't either, much to her outrage, though Dimitri did some fast- talking to explain why.
It all started when Victor discovered his car was having "engine trouble.' He wasn't very happy about that. He made no accusations, but I think everyone there--even Sonya and Robert--could guess the malfunction wasn't coincidental. This meant we all had to pile in the CR-V, which hadn't been designed to seat so many people--which was why Dimitri had come up with a creative seating plan. Of course, one of those "seats' turned out to be the cargo space in the back. It was good-sized, but when Sydney learned it was her seat, she accused Dimitri of adding insult to the injury of taking her keys.
I wouldn't tell her so, but putting her back there was a sound choice. Dimitri's seating chart was configured to minimize threats inside the car. Dimitri drove, with Robert going shotgun, and me between Victor and Sonya in the backseat. This put a guardian in each row, separated the brothers, and kept the spirit users apart too. When I argued that he and I could switch spots and still maintain the same security, Dimitri pointed out that having me at the wheel wouldn't be safe if I had to suddenly flip to Lissa's mind. It was a fair point. As for Sydney ... well, she was neither a threat nor a fighting force, so she got offloaded to the back. And speaking of dead weight ...
"We have got to get rid of Victor and Robert now,' I murmured to Dimitri, as we loaded the CR-V with groceries and our meager luggage (further reducing Sydney's space, much to her outrage). "They've done what we needed. Keeping them is dangerous. It's time to turn them over to the guardians.' The brothers wanted to continue on with us in order to find Lissa's sibling. We were letting them--but not out of generosity. We simply couldn't let them out of our sights yet.
"Agreed,' Dimitri said, frowning slightly. "But there's no good way to do it. Not yet. We can't leave them tied up beside the road; I wouldn't put it past them to escape and hitchhike. We also can't turn them in ourselves, for obvious reasons.'
I set a bag inside the car and leaned against the bumper. "Sydney could turn them in.'
Dimitri nodded. "That's probably our best bet--but I don't want to part with her until we get to ... well, wherever we're going. We might need her help.'
I sighed. "And so, we drag them along.' "Afraid so,' he said. He gave me wary look. "You know, when they are in custody, there's a very good chance they'll have quite a story to tell the authorities about us.'
"Yeah.' I'd been thinking about that too. "I guess that's a problem for later. Gotta deal with the immediate problems first.'
To my surprise, Dimitri smiled at me. I would have expected some prudent, wise remark. "Well, that's always been our strategy, hasn't it?' he asked.
I smiled in return, but it was short-lived, once we hit the road. Mercifully, Victor wasn't his usual annoying chatty self--which I suspected was because he was growing weak from lack of blood. Sonya and Robert had to be feeling the same way. This was going to be a problem if we didn't get a feeder soon, but I didn't know how we were going to pull that off. I had the impression Sydney hadn't realized any of this yet, which was just as well. Being a human among a group of hungry vampires would certainly make me nervous. She was actually probably safer sequestered in the back from everyone else.
Sonya's directions were vague and very need-to-know. She only gave us short-term information and often wouldn't warn about a turn until we were right on top of it. We had no idea where we were going or how long it would take. She scanned a map and then told Dimitri to go north on I-75. When we asked how long our trip would take, her response was: "Not long. A few hours. Maybe more.'
And with that mysterious explanation, she settled back in her seat and said no more. There was a haunted, pensive expression on her face, and I tried to imagine how she felt. Only a day ago she'd been Strigoi. Was she still processing what had happened? Was she seeing the faces of her victims as Dimitri had? Was she tormenting herself with guilt? Did she want to become Strigoi again?
I left her alone. Now wasn't the time for therapy. I settled back, preparing myself to be patient. A tingle of consciousness suddenly sparked in the bond, shifting my attention inward. Lissa was awake. I blinked and looked at the dashboard clock. Afternoon for humans. The Moroi at Court should have been long asleep by now. But no, something had awakened her.
Two guardians stood at her door, faces impassive. "You have to come with us,' one of them said. "It's time for the next test.'
Astonishment filled Lissa. She'd known the next test was "coming soon' but hadn't heard any further details since returning from the endurance test. That trip had taken place during the Moroi night too, but she'd at least had fair warning. Eddie stood nearby in her room, having replaced my mother as Lissa's protection a few hours ago. Christian sat up in Lissa's bed, yawning. They hadn't gotten hot and heavy, but Lissa liked having him around. Snuggling with her boyfriend while Eddie was in the room didn't seem as weird to her as it did when my mom was there. I didn't blame her.
"Can I change?' Lissa asked.
"Be quick,' said the guardian.
She grabbed the first outfit she could and hurried to the bathroom, feeling confused and nervous. When she came out, Christian had pulled on his jeans already and was reaching for his T-shirt. Eddie meanwhile was sizing up the guardians, and I could guess his thoughts because I would have shared the same ones. This wakeup call seemed official, but he didn't know these guardians and didn't totally trust them.
"Can I escort her?' he asked. "Only as far as the testing area,' said the second guardian.
"What about me?' asked Christian.
"Only as far as the testing area.'
The guardians' answers surprised me, but then, I realized it was probably common for monarch candidates to go to their tests with entourages--even unexpected tests in the middle of the night. Or maybe not so unexpected. The Court's grounds were virtually deserted, but when her group reached their destination--a small, out of the way section of an old brick building--she had to pass several groups of Moroi lining the halls. Apparently, word had gotten out.
Those gathered stepped aside respectfully. Some--probably advocates of other families--gave her scowls. But lots of other people smiled at her and called out about "the dragon's return.' A few even brushed their hands against her arms, as though taking luck or power from her. The crowd was much smaller than the one who'd greeted her after the first test. This eased her anxiety but didn't shake her earlier resolve to take the tests seriously. The faces of the onlookers shone with awe and curiosity, wondering if she might be the next to rule them.
A doorway at the end of the hall marked the conclusion of her journey. Neither Christian nor Eddie needed to be told that this was as far as they could go. Lissa glanced at the two of them over her shoulder before following one of the guardians inside, taking comfort from her loved ones' supportive faces.
After the epic adventure of the first test, Lissa expected something equally intimidating. What she found instead was an old Moroi woman sitting comfortably in a chair in a mostly empty room. Her hands were folded in her lap, holding something wrapped in cloth. The woman hummed, seeming very content. And when I say old, I mean she was old. Moroi could live until their early 100s, and this woman had clearly crossed that mark. Her pale skin was a maze of wrinkles, and her gray hair was wispy and thin. She smiled when she saw Lissa and nodded toward an empty chair. A small table sat beside it with a glass pitcher of water. The guardians left the women alone.
Lissa glanced around her surroundings. There were no other furnishings, though there was a plain door opposite the one she had come through. She sat down and then turned toward the old woman. "Hello,' said Lissa, trying to keep her voice strong. "I'm Vasilisa Dragomir.'
The woman's small smile grew, showing her yellowed teeth. One of her fangs was missing. "Always such manners in your family,' she croaked. "Most people come in here and demand we get down to business. But I remember your grandfather. He was polite during his test as well.'
"You knew my grandfather?' exclaimed Lissa. He had died when she was very, very young. Then, she picked up another meaning in the woman's words. "He ran for king?'
The woman nodded. "Passed all his tests. I think he would have won the election, if he hadn't withdrawn at the last moment. After that, it was a coin's toss between Tatiana Ivashkov and Jacob Tarus. Very close, that one. The Taruses still hold a grudge.'
Lissa had never heard any of this. "Why'd my grandfather withdraw?'
"Because your brother had just been born. Frederick decided he needed to devote his energy to his fledgling family, instead of a nation.' Lissa could understand this. How many Dragomirs were there back then? Her grandfather, her father, and Andre--and her mother, but only by marriage. Eric Dragomir hadn't had any brothers or sisters. Lissa knew little about her grandfather, but in his place, she decided that she too would have rather spent time with her son and grandson, instead of listening to the endless speeches Tatiana had had to deal with.
Lissa's mind had wandered, and the old woman was watching her carefully. "Is ... this the test?' asked Lissa, once the silence had gone on too long. "Is it, like, an interview?'
The old woman shook her head. "No. It's this.' She unwrapped the object in her lap. It was a cup--a chalice or a goblet. I'm not sure which. But it was beautiful, made of silver that seemed to glow with its own light. Blood-red rubies were scattered along the sides, glittering with each turn of the cup. The woman regarded it fondly.
"Over a thousand years old, and it still gleams.' She took the pitcher and filled the chalice with water while Lissa and I processed the words. A thousand years? I was no metal expert, but even I knew silver should have tarnished in that time. The woman held out the cup to Lissa. "Drink from it. And when you want to stop, say'stop.''
Lissa reached for the cup, more confused than ever by the odd instructions. What was she supposed to stop? Drinking? As soon as her fingers touched the metal, she understood. Well, kind of. A tingle ran through her, one she knew well.
"This is charmed,' she said.
The old woman nodded. "Infused with all four elements and a spell long since forgotten.'
Charmed with spirit too, thought Lissa. That too must have been forgotten, and it put her on edge. Elemental charms had different effects. Earth charms--like the tattoo she'd been given--were often tied with minor compulsion spells. The combination of all four in a stake or ward provided a unified blast of life that blocked the undead. But spirit ... well, she was quickly learning that spirit charms covered a wide range of unpredictable effects. The water no doubt activated the spell, but Lissa had a feeling that spirit was going to be the key player. Even though it was the power that burned in her blood, it still scared her. The spell woven into this cup was complex, far beyond her skills, and she feared what it would do. The old woman stared unblinkingly.
Lissa hesitated only a moment more. She drank.
The world faded away, then rematerialized into something completely different. She and I both recognized what this was: a spirit dream.
She no longer stood in the plain room. She was outdoors, wind whipping her long hair in front of her face. She brushed it aside as best she could. Other people stood around her, all of them in black, and she soon recognized the Court's church and graveyard. Lissa herself wore black, along with a long wool coat to protect against the chill. They were gathered around a grave, and a priest stood near it, his robes of office offering the only color on that gray day.
Lissa took a few steps over, trying to see whose name was on the tombstone. What she discovered shocked me more than her: ROSEMARIE HATHAWAY.
My name was carved into the granite in regal, elaborate font. Below my name was the star of battle, signifying that I'd killed more Strigoi than could be counted. Go me. Beneath that were three lines of text in Russian, Romanian, and English. I didn't need the English translation to know what each line said because it was standard for a guardian's grave: "Eternal Service.'
The priest spoke customary funeral words, giving me the blessings of a religion I wasn't sure I believed in. That was the least weird thing here, however, seeing as I was watching my own funeral. When he finished, Alberta took his place. Lauding the deceased's achievements was also normal at a guardian's funeral--and Alberta had plenty to say about mine. Had I been there, I would have been moved to tears. She concluded by describing my last battle, how I'd died defending Lissa.
That actually didn't weird me out so much. I mean, don't get me wrong. Everything going on here was completely insane. But, reasonably speaking, if I was actually watching my own funeral, it made sense that I would have died protecting her.
Lissa didn't share my feelings. The news was a slap in the face to her. She suddenly became aware of a horrible empty feeling in her chest, like part of her was gone. The bond only worked one way, yet Robert had sworn losing his bondmate had left him in agony. Lissa understood it now, that terrible, lonely ache. She was missing something she'd never even known she'd had. Tears brimmed in her eyes.
This is a dream, she told herself. That's all. But she'd never had a spirit dream like this. Her experiences had always been with Adrian, and the dreams had felt like telephone calls.
When the mourners dispersed from the graveyard, Lissa felt a hand touch her shoulder. Christian. She threw herself gratefully into his arms, trying hard to hold back sobs. He felt real and solid. Safe. "How did this happen?' she asked. "How could it have happened?'
Christian released her, his crystal-blue eyes more serious and sorrowful than I'd ever seen. "You know how. Those Strigoi were trying to kill you. She sacrificed herself to save you.'
Lissa had no memory of this, but it didn't matter. "I can't ... I can't believe this is happening.' That agonizing emptiness grew within her.
"I have more bad news,' said Christian.
She stared in astonishment. "How could this get any worse?'
"Leaving ... what? Court?'
"Yes. Leaving everything.' The sadness on his face grew. "Leaving you.'
Her jaw nearly dropped. "What ... what's wrong? What did I do?'
"Nothing.' He squeezed her hand and let it go. "I love you. I'll always love you. But you are who you are. You're the last Dragomir. There'll always be something taking you away ... I'd just get in your way. You need to rebuild your family. I'm not the one you need.'
"Of course you are! You are the only one! The only one I want to build my future with.'
"You say that now, but just wait. There are better choices. You heard Adrian's joke. "Little Dragomirs'? When you're ready for kids in a few years, you're going to need a bunch. The Dragomirs need to be solid again. And me? I'm not responsible enough to handle that.'
"You'd be a great father,' she argued. "Yeah,' he scoffed, "and I'd be a big asset to you too--the princess married to the guy from the Strigoi family.'
"I don't care about any of that, and you know it!' She clutched at his shirt, forcing him to look at her. "I love you. I want you to be part of my life. None of this makes sense. Are you scared? Is that it? Are you scared of the weight of my family name?'
He averted his eyes. "Let's just say it's not an easy name to carry.'
She shook him. "I don't believe you! You're not afraid of anything! You never back down.'
"I'm backing down now.' He gently removed himself from her. "I really do love you. That's why I'm doing this. It's for the best.'
"But you can't ...' Lissa gestured toward my grave, but he was already walking away. "You can't! She's gone. If you're gone too, there'll be no one ...'
But Christian was gone, disappearing into fog that hadn't been there minutes ago. Lissa was left with only my tombstone for company. And for the first time in her life, she was really and truly alone. She had felt alone when her family died, but I'd been her anchor, always at her back, protecting her. When Christian had come along, he too had kept the loneliness away, filling her heart with love.
But now ... now we were both gone. Her family was gone. That hole inside threatened to consume her, and it was more than just the loss of the bond. Being alone is a terrible, terrible thing. There's no one to run to, no one to confide in, no one who cares what happens to you. She'd been alone in the woods, but that was nothing like this. Nothing like it at all.
Staring around, she wished she could go sink into my grave and end her torment. No ... wait. She really could end it. Say 'stop,' the old woman had said. That was all it took to stop this pain. This was a spirit dream, right? True, it was more realistic and all- consuming than any she'd ever faced, but in the end, all dreamers woke up. One word, and this would become a fading nightmare.
Staring around at the empty Court, she almost said the word. But ... did she want to end things? She'd vowed to fight through these trials. Would she give up over a dream? A dream about being alone? It seemed like such a minor thing, but that cold truth hit her again: I've never been alone. She didn't know if she could carry on by herself, but then, she realized that if this wasn't a dream--and dear God, did it feel real--there was no magic "stop' in real life. If she couldn't deal with loneliness in a dream, she never would be able to while waking. And as much as it scared her, she decided she would not back down from this. Something urged her toward the fog, and she walked toward it--alone.
The fog should have led her into the church's garden. Instead, the world rematerialized and she found herself in a Council session. It was an open one, with a Moroi audience watching. Unlike usual, Lissa didn't sit with the audience. She was at the Council's table, with its thirteen chairs. She sat in the Dragomir seat. The middle chair, the monarch's chair, was occupied by Ariana Szelsky. Definitely a dream, some wry part of her thought. She had a Council spot and Ariana was queen. Too good to be true.
Like always, the Council was in a heated debate, and the topic was familiar: the age decree. Some Council members argued that it was immoral. Others argued that the Strigoi threat was too great. Desperate times called for desperate actions, those people said.
Ariana peered down the table at Lissa. "What does the Dragomir family think?' Ariana was neither as kind as she'd been in the van nor as hostile as Tatiana had been. Ariana was neutral, a queen running a Council and gathering the information she needed. Every set of eyes in the room turned toward Lissa.
For some reason, every coherent idea had fled out of her head. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. What did she think? What was her opinion of the age decree? She desperately tried to dredge up an answer.
"I ... I think it's bad.'
Lee Szelsky, who must have taken the family spot when Ariana became queen, snorted in disgust. "Can you elaborate, princess?'
Lissa swallowed. "Lowering the guardian age isn't the way to protect us. We need ... we need to learn to protect ourselves too.'
Her words were met with more contempt and shock. "And pray tell,' said Howard Zeklos, "how do you plan to do that? What's your proposal? Mandatory training for all ages? Start a program in the schools?'
Again Lissa groped for words. What was the plan? She and Tasha had discussed it lots of times, strategizing this very issue of how to implement training. Tasha had practically pounded those details into her head in the hopes Lissa could make her voice heard. Here she was now, representing her family on the Council, with the chance to change things and improve Moroi life. All she had to do was explain herself. So many were counting on her, so many waiting to hear the words she felt so passionately about. But what were they? Why couldn't Lissa remember? She must have taken too long to answer because Howard threw his hands up in disgust.
"I knew it. We were idiots to let a little girl on this Council. She has nothing useful to offer. The Dragomirs are gone. They've died with her, and we need to accept that.'
They've died with her. The pressure of being the last of her line had weighed on Lissa since the moment a doctor had told her that her parents and brother had died. The last of a line that had empowered the Moroi and produced some of the greatest kings and queens. She'd vowed to herself over and over that she wouldn't disappoint that lineage, that she would see her family's pride restored. And now it was all falling apart.
Even Ariana, whom Lissa had considered a supporter, looked disappointed. The audience began to jeer, echoing the call of removing this tongue-tied child from the Council. They yelled for her to leave. Then, worse still: "The dragon is dead! The dragon is dead!'
Lissa almost tried again to make her speech, but then something made her look behind her. There, the twelve family seals hung on the wall. A man had appeared out of nowhere and was taking down the Dragomir's crest, with its dragon and Romanian inscription. Lissa's heart sank as the shouts in the room became louder and her humiliation grew. She rose, wanting to run out of there and hide from the disgrace. Instead, her feet took her to the wall with its seals. With more strength than she thought herself capable of possessing, she jerked the dragon seal away from the man. "No!' she yelled. She turned her gaze to the audience and held up the seal, challenging any of them to come take it from her or deny her her rightful place on the Council. "This. Is. Mine. Do you hear me? This is mine!'
She would never know if they heard because they disappeared, just like the graveyard. Silence fell. She now sat in one of the medical examining rooms back at St. Vladimir's. The familiar details were oddly comforting: the sink with its orange hand soap, the neatly labeled cupboards and drawers, and even the informative health posters on the walls. STUDENTS: PRACTICE SAFE SEX!
Equally welcome was the school's resident physician: Dr. Olendzki. The doctor wasn't alone. Standing around Lissa--who sat on top of an examination bed--were a therapist named Deirdre and ... me. Seeing myself there was pretty wacky, but after the funeral, I was just starting to roll with all of this.
A surprising mix of feelings raced through Lissa, feelings out of her control. Happiness to see us. Despair at life. Confusion. Suspicion. She couldn't seem to get a hold of one emotion or thought. It was a very different feeling from the Council, when she just hadn't been able to explain herself. Her mind had been orderly--she'd just lost track of her point. Here, there was nothing to keep track of. She was a mental mess.
"Do you understand?' asked Dr. Olendzki. Lissa suspected the doctor had already asked this question. "It's beyond what we can control. Medication no longer works.'
"Believe me, we don't want you hurting yourself. But now that others are at risk ... well, you understand why we have to take action.' This was Deirdre. I'd always thought of her as smug, particularly since her therapeutic method involved answering questions with questions. There was no sly humor now. Deirdre was deadly earnest.
None of their words made sense to Lissa, but the hurting yourself part triggered something in her. She looked down at her arms. They were bare ... and marred with cuts. The cuts she used to make when the pressure of spirit grew too great. They'd been her only outlet, a horrible type of release. Studying them now, Lissa saw the cuts were bigger and deeper than before. The kinds of cuts that danced with suicide. She looked back up.
"Who ... who did I hurt?'
"You don't remember?' asked Dr. Olendzki.
Lissa shook her head, looking desperately from face to face, seeking answers. Her gaze fell on me, and my face was as dark and somber as Deirdre's. "It's okay, Liss,' I said. "It's all going to be okay.'
I wasn't surprised at that. Naturally, it was what I would say. I would always reassure Lissa. I would always take care of her.
"It's not important,' said Deirdre, voice soft and soothing. "What's important is no one else ever gets hurt. You don't want to hurt anyone, do you?'
Of course Lissa didn't, but her troubled mind shifted elsewhere. "Don't talk to me like a child!' The loudness of her voice filled the room.
"I didn't mean to,' said Deirdre, the paragon of patience. "We just want to help you. We want you to be safe.'
Paranoia rose to the forefront of Lissa's emotions. Nowhere was safe. She was certain about that ... but nothing else. Except maybe something about a dream. A dream, a dream ... "They'll be able to take care of you in Tarasov,' explained Dr. Olendzki. "They'll make sure you're comfortable.'
"Tarasov?' Lissa and I spoke in unison. This other Rose clenched her fists and glared. Again, a typical reaction for me.
"She is not going to that place,' growled Rose.
"Do you think we want to do this?' asked Deirdre. It was the first time I'd really seen her cool facade crumble. "We don't. But the spirit ... what it's doing ... we have no choice ...'
Images of our trip to Tarasov flashed through Lissa's mind. The cold, cold corridors. The moans. The tiny cells. She remembered seeing the psychiatric ward, the section other spirit users were locked up in. Locked up indefinitely.
"No!' she cried, jumping up from the table. "Don't send me to Tarasov!' She looked around for escape. The women stood between her and the door. Lissa couldn't run. What magic could she use? Surely there was something. Her mind touched spirit, as she rifled for a spell.
Other-Rose grabbed a hold of her hand, likely because she'd felt the stirrings of spirit and wanted to stop Lissa. "There's another way,' my alter ego told Deirdre and Dr. Olendzki. "I can pull it from her. I can pull it all from her, like Anna did for St. Vladimir. I can take away the darkness and instability. Lissa will be sane again.'
Everyone stared at me. Well, the other me.
"But then it'll be in you, right?' asked Dr. Olendzki. "It won't disappear.'
"I don't care,' I told them stubbornly. "I'll go to Tarasov. Don't send her. I can do it as long as she needs me to.'
Lissa watched me, scarcely believing what she heard. Her chaotic thoughts turned joyous. Yes! Escape. She wouldn't go crazy. She wouldn't go to Tarasov. Then, somewhere in the jumble of her memories ...
"Anna committed suicide,' murmured Lissa. Her grasp on reality was still tenuous, but that sobering thought was enough to momentarily calm her racing mind. "She went crazy from helping St. Vladimir.'
My other self refused to look at Lissa. "It's just a story. I'll take the darkness. Send me.'
Lissa didn't know what to do or think. She didn't want to go to Tarasov. That prison gave her nightmares. And here I was, offering her escape, offering to save her like I always did. Lissa wanted that. She wanted to be saved. She didn't want to go insane like all the other spirit users. If she accepted my offer, she would be free.
Yet ... on the edge or not, she cared about me too much. I had made too many sacrifices for her. How could she let me do this? What kind of friend would she be, to condemn me to that life? Tarasov scared Lissa. A life in a cage scared Lissa. But me facing that scared her even more.
There was no good outcome here. She wished it would all just go away. Maybe if she just closed her eyes ... wait. She remembered again. The dream. She was in a spirit dream. All she had to do was wake up.
It was easier this time. Saying that word was the simple way out, the perfect solution. No Tarasov for either of us, right? Then, she felt a lightening of the pressure on her mind, a stilling of those chaotic feelings. Her eyes widened as she realized I had already started pulling away the darkness. 'Stop' was forgotten.
"No!' Spirit burned through her, and she threw up a wall in the bond, blocking me from her.
"What are you doing?' my other self asked.
"Saving you,' said Lissa. "Saving myself.' She turned to Dr. Olendzki and Deirdre. "I understand what you have to do. It's okay. Take me to Tarasov. Take me where I won't hurt anyone else.' Tarasov. A place where real nightmares walked the halls. She braced herself as the office faded away, ready for the next part of the dream: a cold stone cell, with chains on the walls and people wailing down the halls....
But when the world put itself back together, there was no Tarasov. There was an empty room with an old woman and a silver chalice. Lissa looked around. Her heart was racing, and her sense of time was off. The things she'd seen had lasted an eternity. Yet, simultaneously, it felt like only a couple seconds had passed since she and the old woman had conversed.
"What ... what was that?' asked Lissa. Her mouth was dry, and the water sounded good now ... but the chalice was empty.
"Your fear,' said the old woman, eyes twinkling. "All your fears, laid out neatly in a row.'
Lissa placed the chalice on the table with shaking hands. "It was awful. It was spirit, but it ... it wasn't anything I've seen before. It invaded my mind, rifling through it. It was so real. There were times I believed it was real.'
"But you didn't stop it.'
Lissa frowned, thinking of how close she had come. "No.'
The old woman smiled and said nothing.
"Am I ... am I done?' asked Lissa, confused. "Can I go?'
The old woman nodded. Lissa stood and glanced between the two doors, the one she'd entered through and the plain one in the back. Still in shock, Lissa automatically turned toward the door she'd come through. She didn't really want to see those people lined up in the hall again but swore she'd put on a good princess face. Besides, there'd only been a fraction here compared to the group who'd greeted her after the last test. Her steps were halted when the old woman spoke again and pointed toward the back of the room.
"No. That's for those who fail. You go out this door.'
Lissa turned and approached the plain door. It looked like it led outdoors, which was probably just as well. Peace and quiet. She felt like she should say something to her companion but didn't know what. So, she simply turned the knob and stepped outside ...
Into a crowd cheering for the dragon.
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