I DECIDED IT'D BE BEST if Lissa and I stayed up late when we returned to her room, poring over the documents. She was a jumble of feelings when I told her about my encounter with Mikhail--which I hadn't mentioned to Mia. Lissa's initial reaction was surprise, but there were other things too. Fear over the trouble I could have gotten into. A bit of warm romanticism over what both Mikhail and I were willing to do for those we loved. Wonder if she would do the same if Christian were in that situation. She decided instantly that she would; her love for him was still that strong. Then she told herself that she actually didn't care about him anymore, which I would have found annoying if I wasn't so distracted.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
I'd sighed aloud in dismay without realizing it while I read her thoughts. Not wanting her to know I'd been perusing her mind, I pointed at the papers spread out on her bed. "Just trying to make sense of this." Not entirely that far off from the truth.
The prison's layout was complex. The cells occupied two floors and were tiny--only one prisoner per cell. The papers didn't explain why, but the reason was obvious. It went along with what Abe had said about keeping criminals from turning Strigoi. If I'd been locked away in prison for years, I could understand the temptation of cracking and killing my roommate to become Strigoi and escape. The cells were also kept housed in the very center of the building, surrounded by guards, offices, "exercise rooms," a kitchen, and a feeders' room. The documents explained guard rotations, as well as prisoner feeding schedules. They were apparently escorted to the feeders one at a time, heavily guarded, and only allowed very short spurts of blood. Again, everything kept the prisoners weak and prevented them from turning Strigoi.
It was all good information, but I had no reason to believe any of it was up-to-date, since the file was five years old. It was also likely the prison had all sorts of new surveillance equipment in place. Probably the only things we could count on being the same were the prison's location and the building's layout.
"How good are you feeling about your charm-making skills?" I asked Lissa.
Although she hadn't been able to put as much spirit healing into my ring as a woman I knew named Oksana could, I had noticed my darkness-induced temper soothed a little. Lissa'd made a ring for Adrian too, though I couldn't say for sure if it was what was helping him control his vices lately--vices he usually indulged in to control spirit.
She shrugged and rolled over onto her back. Exhaustion filled her, but she was trying to stay awake for my sake. "Getting better. Wish I could meet Oksana."
"Maybe someday," I said vaguely. I didn't think Oksana would ever leave Siberia. She'd run off with her guardian and wanted to keep a low profile. Besides, I didn't want Lissa over there anytime soon after my ordeals. "Have you been able to put in anything besides healing?" A moment later, I answered my own question. "Oh, right. The spoon."
Lissa grimaced, but it turned into a yawn. "I don't think it worked so well."
I glanced back at the blueprints. "I'm thinking if you could make a few more compulsion charms, it would go a long way to help with this. We need to make people see what we want them to see." Surely if Victor--whose powers of compulsion were nowhere near hers--had managed a lust charm, she could do what I needed. She just needed more practice. She understood the basic principles but had trouble making her desired effects last. The only problem was that in asking her to do this, I was making her use more spirit. Even if the side effects didn't show up right away, they would likely come back to haunt her in the future.
She glanced at me curiously, but when I saw her yawn again, I told her not to worry about it. I'd explain tomorrow. She offered no argument, and after a quick hug, we each retired to our own beds. We weren't going to get much sleep, but we had to get what we could. Tomorrow was a big day.
I'd worn a variation of the guardians' formal black-and-white outfit when I went to Victor's trial. In normal bodyguard situations, we wore ordinary clothes. But for fancy events, they wanted us looking crisp and professional. The morning after our daring break-in, I got my first true taste of guardian fashion.
I'd worn hand-me-down clothes at Victor's trial but now had an official guardian outfit, tailored exactly to my measurements: straight-legged black slacks, a white button-up blouse, and a black dress jacket that fit me perfectly. It certainly wasn't meant to be sexy, but the way it hugged my stomach and hips did good things for my body. I felt satisfied with my reflection in the mirror, and after several minutes of thought, I pulled my hair into a neatly braided bun that showed off my molnija marks. The skin was still irritated, but at least the bandage was gone. I looked very... professional. I was actually kind of reminded of Sydney. She was an Alchemist--a human who worked with Moroi and dhampirs to hide the existence of vampires from the world. With her proper sense of fashion, she always looked ready for a business meeting. I kept wanting to send her a briefcase for Christmas.
If ever there was a time for me to show off, today was the day. After the trials and graduation, this was the next biggest step in becoming a guardian. It was a luncheon that all new grads attended. Moroi eligible for new guardians would also attend, hoping to scope out the candidates. Our scores from school and the trials would have been made public knowledge by now, and this was a chance for Moroi to meet us and put in bids for who they wanted to guard them. Naturally, most guests would be royal, but a few other important Moroi would also qualify.
I really had no interest in showing off and hooking a posh family. Lissa was the only one I wanted to guard. Still, I had to make a good impression. I needed to make it clear that I was the one who should be with her.
She and I walked over to the royal ballroom together. It was the only place large enough to hold us all, since more than just St. Vladimir's grads were in attendance. All the American schools had sent their new recruits, and for a moment, I found the sea of black and white dizzying. Bits of color--royals dressed up in their finest clothing--livened the palette up a little. Around us, soft watercolor murals made the walls seem to glow. Lissa hadn't worn a ball gown or anything, but she looked very elegant in a formfitting teal dress made of raw silk.
The royals mingled with the social ease they'd been raised with, but my classmates moved about uneasily. No one seemed to mind. It wasn't our job to seek out others; we would be approached. The grads all wore name tags--engraved metal ones. There were no HELLO, MY NAME IS... stickers here. The tags made us identifiable so that the royals could come and do their interrogations.
I didn't expect anyone except my friends to talk to me, so Lissa and I headed straight for the buffet and then occupied a quiet corner to munch on our canapes and caviar. Well, Lissa ate caviar. It reminded me too much of Russia.
Adrian, of course, sought us out first. I gave him a crooked grin. "What are you doing here? I know you aren't eligible for a guardian."
With no concrete plans for his future, it was assumed Adrian would simply live at Court. As such, he'd need no outside protection--though he'd certainly qualify if he chose to strike out into the world.
"True, but I could hardly miss a party," he said. He held a glass of champagne in his hand, and I wondered if the effects of the ring Lissa had given him were wearing off. Of course, the occasional drink really wasn't the end of the world, and the dating proposal's language had been loose in that area. It was mostly the smoking I wanted him to stay away from. "Have you been approached by a dozen hopeful people?"
I shook my head. "Who wants reckless Rose Hathaway? The one who drops out without warning to do her own thing?"
"Plenty," he said. "I sure do. You kicked ass in the battle, and remember--everyone thinks you went off on some Strigoi-killing spree. Some might think it's worth your crazy personality."
"He's right," a voice suddenly said. I looked up and saw Tasha Ozera standing near us, a small smile on her scarred face. In spite of the disfigurement, I thought she looked beautiful today--more royal than I'd ever seen her. Her long black hair gleamed, and she wore a navy skirt and lacy tank top. She even had on high heels and jewelry--something I was certain I'd never seen her wearing.
I was happy to see her; I hadn't known she'd come to Court. An odd thought occurred to me. "Have they finally let you have a guardian?" The royals had a lot of quiet, polite ways of shunning those who were in disgrace. In the Ozeras' case, their guardian allotment had been cut in half as kind of a punishment for what Christian's parents had done. It was totally unfair. The Ozeras deserved the same rights as any other royal family.
She nodded. "I think they're hoping it'll shut me up about Moroi fighting with dhampirs. Kind of a bribe."
"One you won't fall for, I'm sure."
"Nope. If anything, it'll just give me someone to practice with." Her smile faded, and she cast uncertain looks among us. "I hope you won't be offended... but I put in a request for you, Rose."
Lissa and I exchanged startled glances. "Oh." I didn't know what else to say.
"I hope they'll give you to Lissa," Tasha added hastily, clearly uncomfortable. "But the queen seems pretty dead-set on her own choices. If that's the case..."
"It's okay," I said. "If I can't be with Lissa, then I really would rather be with you." It was the truth. I wanted Lissa more than anyone else in the world, but if they kept us apart, then I'd absolutely prefer Tasha to some snobby royal. Of course, I was pretty sure my odds of getting assigned to her were as bad as those of getting assigned to Lissa. Those who were angry at me for running off would go out of their way to put me in the most unpleasant situation possible. And even if she was being granted a guardian, I had a feeling Tasha's preferences wouldn't be high priority either. My future was still a big question mark.
"Hey," exclaimed Adrian, offended that I hadn't named him as my second choice.
I shook my head at him. "You know they'd assign me to a woman anyway. Besides, you've got to do something with your life to earn a guardian."
I meant it jokingly, but a small frown made me think I might have actually hurt his feelings. Tasha, meanwhile, looked relieved. "I'm glad you don't mind. In the meantime, I'll do what I can to help you two." She rolled her eyes. "Not that my opinion counts for much."
Sharing my misgivings about getting assigned to Tasha seemed pointless. Instead, I started to thank her for the offer, but we were then joined by yet another visitor: Daniella Ivashkov. "Adrian," she chastised gently, a small smile on her face, "you can't keep Rose and Vasilisa all to yourself." She turned to Lissa and me. "The queen would like to see you both."
Lovely. We both stood up, but Adrian remained sitting, having no desire to visit his aunt. Tasha apparently didn't either. Seeing her, Daniella gave a curt, polite nod. "Lady Ozera." She then walked away, assuming we'd follow. I found it ironic that Daniella seemed willing to accept me but still held that typical aloof Ozera-prejudice. I guess her niceness only went so far.
Tasha, however, had long since grown immune to that sort of treatment. "Have fun," she said. She looked over at Adrian. "More champagne?"
"Lady Ozera," he said grandly, "you and I are two minds with a single thought."
I hesitated before following Lissa to Tatiana. I'd taken in Tasha's grand appearance but only now really paid attention to something. "Is all your jewelry silver?" I asked.
She absentmindedly touched the opal necklace around her neck. Her fingers were adorned with three rings. "Yes," she said, confused. "Why?"
"This is going to sound really weird... well, maybe not compared to my normal weirdness. But could we, um, borrow all of those?"
Lissa shot me a look and immediately guessed my motives. We needed more charms and were short on silver. Tasha arched an eyebrow, but like so many of my friends, she had a remarkable ability to roll with weird ideas.
"Sure," she said. "But can I give them to you later? I don't really want to strip my jewelry in the middle of this party."
"I'll have them sent to your room."
With that settled, Lissa and I walked over to where Tatiana was surrounded by admirers and those wanting to suck up. Daniella had to be mistaken in saying Tatiana wanted to see both of us. The memory of her yelling at me over Adrian still burned in my head, and dinner at the Ivashkovs' hadn't fooled me into thinking the queen and I were suddenly best friends.
Yet, astonishingly, when she caught sight of Lissa and me, she was all smiles. "Vasilisa. And Rosemarie." She beckoned us closer, and the group parted. I approached with Lissa, my steps tentative. Was I going to get yelled at in front of all these people?
Apparently not. There were always new royals to meet, and Tatiana first introduced Lissa to all of them. Everyone was curious about the Dragomir princess. I was introduced as well, though the queen didn't go out of her way to sing my praises as she did Lissa's. Still, being acknowledged at all was incredible.
"Vasilisa," said Tatiana, once the formalities were finished, "I was thinking you should visit Lehigh soon. Arrangements are being made for you to go in, oh, maybe a week and a half. We thought it would be a nice treat for your birthday. Serena and Grant will accompany you, naturally, and I'll send a few others." Serena and Grant were the guardians who had replaced Dimitri and me as Lissa's future protection. Of course they'd be going with her. Then, Tatiana said the most startling thing of all. "And you can go too, if you'd like, Rose. Vasilisa could hardly celebrate without you."
Lissa lit up. Lehigh University. The lure that had made her accept a life at Court. Lissa yearned for as much knowledge as she could get, and the queen had given her a chance at it. The prospect of a visit totally filled her with eagerness and excitement--especially if she could celebrate her eighteenth birthday there with me. It was enough to distract her from Victor and Christian, which was saying something.
"Thank you, Your Majesty. That'd be great."
There was a strong possibility, I knew, that we might not be around for this scheduled visit--not if my plan for Victor worked. But I didn't want to ruin Lissa's happiness--and I could hardly mention it in this royal crowd. I was also kind of stunned that I'd been invited at all. After issuing the invite, the queen said nothing else to me and continued speaking with the others around her. Yet, she'd been pleasant--for her, at least--while addressing me, just as she had at the Ivashkov home. Not best-friend nice but certainly not raving-bitch insane, either. Maybe Daniella had been right.
More pleasantries followed as everyone chatted and tried to impress the queen, and it soon became clear that I was no longer needed. Glancing around the room, I found someone I needed to talk to and meekly separated myself from the group, knowing Lissa could fend for herself.
"Eddie," I called, reaching the other side of the ballroom. "Alone at last."
Eddie Castile, a longtime friend of mine, grinned when he saw me. He too was a dhampir, tall with a long, narrow face that still had a cute, boyish look to it. He had tamed his dark, sandy-blond hair for a change. Lissa had once hoped Eddie and I would date, but he and I were strictly just friends. His best friend had been Mason, a sweet guy who'd been crazy about me and who had been murdered by Strigoi. After his death, Eddie and I had adopted protective attitudes toward each other. He'd later been kidnapped during the attack at St. Vladimir's, and his experiences had made him a serious and determined guardian--sometimes a little too serious. I wanted him to have more fun and was delighted to see the happy glint in his hazel eyes now.
"I think every royal in the room's been trying to bribe you," I teased. It wasn't entirely a joke. I'd been keeping an eye on him throughout the party, and there'd always been someone with him. His record was stellar. Surviving the awful events in his life might have scarred him, but they reflected well on his skills. He had great grades and ratings from the trial. Most importantly, he didn't have my reckless reputation. He was a good catch.
"Kind of seems that way." He laughed. "I didn't really expect it."
"You're so modest. You're the hottest thing in this room."
"Not compared to you."
"Yeah. As shown by the people lining up to talk to me. Tasha Ozera's the only one who wants me as far as I know. And Lissa, of course."
Lines of thought creased Eddie's face. "Could be worse."
"It will be worse. No way will I get either of them."
We fell silent, and a sudden anxiety filled me. I'd come to ask a favor of Eddie, and it no longer seemed like a good idea. Eddie was on the verge of a shining career. He was a loyal friend, and I'd been certain he'd help with what I needed... but I suddenly didn't think I could ask. Like Mia, however, Eddie was observant.
"What's wrong, Rose?" His voice was concerned--that protective nature kicking in.
I shook my head. I couldn't do it. "Nothing."
"Rose," he said warningly.
I looked away, unable to meet his eyes. "It's not important. Really." I'd find another way, someone else.
To my surprise, he reached out to touch my chin and tip my head back up. His gaze caught mine, allowing no escape. "What do you need?"
I stared at him for a long time. I was so selfish, risking the lives and reputations of friends I cared about. If Christian and Lissa weren't on the outs, I'd be asking him, too. But Eddie was all that was left to me.
"I need something... something that's pretty extreme."
His face was still serious, but his lips tugged into a wry smile. "Everything you do is extreme, Rose."
"Not like this. This is... well, it's something that could ruin everything for you. Get you in big trouble. I can't do that to you."
That half smile vanished. "It doesn't matter," he said fiercely. "If you need me, I'll do it. No matter what it is."
"You don't know what it is."
"I trust you."
"It's kind of illegal. Treasonous, even."
That took him aback for a moment, but he stayed resolute. "Whatever you need. I don't care. I've got your back." I'd saved Eddie's life twice, and I knew he meant what he said. He felt indebted to me. He would go wherever I asked, not out of romantic love, but out of friendship and loyalty.
"It's illegal," I repeated. "You'd have to sneak out of Court... tonight. And I don't know when we'd be back." It was entirely possible that we wouldn't come back. If we had a run-in with prison guards... well, they might take lethal measures to do their duty. It was what all of us had trained for. But I couldn't pull this breakout off with Lissa's compulsion alone. I needed another fighter at my back.
"Just tell me when."
And that was all there was to it. I didn't tell him the full extent of our plan, but I gave him that night's rendezvous location and told him what he would need to bring. He never questioned me. He said he'd be there. New royals came to talk to him just then, and I left him, knowing he'd show up later. It was hard, but I pushed aside my guilt over possibly endangering his future.
Eddie arrived, just as he'd promised, when my plan unfolded later that night. Lissa did too. Again, night meant "broad daylight." I felt that same anxiety I did when we'd sneaked around with Mia. Light exposed everything, but then, most people were asleep. Lissa, Eddie, and I still moved through the Court's grounds as covertly as we could, meeting Mikhail in a section of the compound that held all sorts of garaged vehicles. The garages were big metal, industrial-looking buildings set on the fringes of Court, and no one else was out.
We slipped into the garage he'd indicated last night, and I was relieved to find no one else there. He surveyed the three of us, looking surprised at my "strike team," but he offered no questions and made no further attempts to join us. More guilt surged up within me. Here was someone else who was risking his future for me.
"Gonna be a tight fit," he mused.
I forced a smile. "We're all friends here."
Mikhail didn't laugh at my joke but instead popped the trunk of a black Dodge Charger. He wasn't kidding about the tight fit. It was a newer one, which was kind of a shame. An older model would have been bigger, but guardians only kept top-of-the-line stuff around.
"Once we're far enough away, I'll pull over and let you out," he said.
"We'll be fine," I assured him. "Let's do this."
Lissa, Eddie, and I crawled into the trunk. "Oh God," muttered Lissa. "I hope no one's claustrophobic."
It was like a bad game of Twister. The trunk was large enough for some luggage but not intended for three people. We were squeezed together, and personal space was nonexistent. We were all up close and personal. Satisfied we were all snug, Mikhail closed the trunk and darkness engulfed us. The engine started a minute later, and I felt the car move.
"How long until you think we stop?" asked Lissa. "Or die from carbon monoxide poisoning?"
"We haven't even left the Court yet," I noted. She sighed.
The car drove off, and not too long afterward, we came to a stop. Mikhail must have reached the gates and been chatting with the guards. He'd told me earlier that he'd come up with some excuse or other to run an errand, and we had no reason to believe the guards would question him or search the car. The Court wasn't worried about people sneaking out, like our school had been. The biggest concern here was people getting inside.
A minute passed, and I uneasily wondered if there was a problem. Then the car moved again, and all three of us exhaled in relief. We picked up speed, and after what I suspected was a mile or so, the car veered sideways and came to a stop. The trunk popped open, and we spilled out of it. I'd never been so grateful for fresh air. I got in the passenger seat beside Mikhail, and Lissa and Eddie took the back. Once we were settled, Mikhail continued driving without another word.
I allowed myself a few more moments of guilt over the people I'd involved but then let it go. It was too late to worry now. I also let go of my guilt about Adrian. He would have been a good ally, but I could hardly ask for his help in this.
And with that, I settled back and turned my thoughts to the job before us. It would take us about an hour to get to the airport, and from there, the three of us were off to Alaska.
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