Chapter Fourteen

 

THE LAST TIME TATIANA HAD wanted to yell at me, she'd simply taken me to one of her private sitting rooms. It had made for a weird atmosphere, like we were at teatime--except people didn't usually scream at other people during teatime. I had no reason to believe this would be any different... until I noticed my escort was leading me to the main business buildings of the Court, the places where all royal governing was conducted. Shit. This was more serious than I'd thought.

And indeed, when I was finally ushered into the room where Tatiana waited... well, I nearly came to a standstill and couldn't enter. Only a slight touch on my back from one of the guardians with me kept me moving forward. The place was packed.

I didn't know for sure which room I was in. The Moroi actually kept a bona fide throne room for their king or queen, but I didn't think this was it. This room was still heavily decorated, conveying an old-world royal feel, with painstakingly carved floral molding and shining gold candleholders on the walls. There were actually lit candles in them too. Their light reflected off the metallic decorations in the room. Everything glittered, and I felt like I'd stumbled into a stage production.

And really, I might as well have. Because after a moment's surveying, I realized where I was. The people in the room were split. Twelve of them sat at a long table on a dais at what was clearly meant to be the focal point of the room. Tatiana herself sat at the middle of the table, with six Moroi on one side and five Moroi on the other. The other side of the room was simply set with rows of chairs--still elaborate and padded with satin cushions--which were also filled with Moroi. The audience.

The people sitting on either side of Tatiana were the tip-off. They were older Moroi, but ones who carried a regal air. Eleven Moroi for the eleven acting royal families. Lissa was not eighteen--though she was about to be, I realized with a start--and therefore had no spot yet. Someone was sitting in for Priscilla Voda. I was looking at the Council, the princes and princesses of the Moroi world. The oldest member of each family claimed the royal title and an advisory spot beside Tatiana. Sometimes the eldest waived the spot and gave it to someone the family felt was more capable, but the selectee was almost always at least forty-five. The Council elected the Moroi king or queen, a position held until death or retirement. In rare circumstances, with enough backing from the royal families, a monarch could be forcibly removed from office.

Each prince or princess on the Council was in turn advised by a family council, and glancing back at the audience, I recognized clusters of family members sitting together: Ivashkovs, Lazars, Badicas... The very back rows appeared to be observers. Tasha and Adrian sat together, and I knew for a fact they weren't members of the Royal Council or family councils. Still, seeing them set me at ease a little.

I remained near the entrance to the room, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, wondering what was in store. I hadn't just earned public humiliation; I'd apparently earned it in front of the most important Moroi in the world. Wonderful.

A gangly Moroi with patchy white hair stepped forward, around the side of the long table, and cleared his throat. Immediately, the hum of conversation died. Silence filled the room.

"This session of the Moroi Royal Council is now in order," he declared. "Her Royal Majesty, Tatiana Marina Ivashkov, is presiding." He gave a slight bow in her direction and then discretely backed off to the side of the room, standing near some guardians who lined the walls like decorations themselves.

Tatiana always dressed up at the parties I saw her at, but for a formal event like this, she was really channeling the queen look. Her dress was long-sleeved navy silk, and a glittering crown of blue and white stones sat atop her elaborately braided hair. In a beauty pageant, I would have written such gems off as rhinestones. On her, I didn't question for a moment that they were real sapphires and diamonds.

"Thank you," she said. She was also using her royal voice, resonant and impressive, filling the room. "We will be continuing our conversation from yesterday."

Wait... what? They'd been discussing me yesterday too? I noticed then that I'd wrapped my arms around myself in a sort of protective stance and immediately dropped them. I didn't want to look weak, no matter what they had in store for me.

"Today we will be hearing testimony from a newly made guardian." Tatiana's sharp gaze fell on me. The whole room's did. "Rosemarie Hathaway, will you please come forward?"

I did, keeping my head high and posture confident. I didn't exactly know where to stand, so I picked the middle of the room, directly facing Tatiana. If I was going to be paraded in public, I wished someone would have tipped me off to wear guardian black and white. Whatever. I'd show no fear, even in jeans and a T-shirt. I gave a small, proper bow and then met her eyes directly, bracing for what was to come.

"Will you please state your name?" she asked.

She'd already done it for me, but I still said, "Rosemarie Hathaway."

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen?"

"And how long have you been eighteen?"

"A few months."

She waited a couple moments to let it sink in, as though this were important information. "Miss Hathaway, we understand that around that time, you withdrew from St. Vladimir's Academy. Is this correct?"

That's what this was about? Not the Vegas trip with Lissa?

"Yes." I offered no more info. Oh God. I hoped she didn't get into Dimitri. She shouldn't have known about my relationship with him, but there was no telling what information could spread around here.

"You went to Russia to hunt Strigoi."

"Yes."

"As a type of personal revenge following the attack at St. Vladimir 's?"

"Er... yes."

No one said anything, but my response definitely caused a stir in the room. People shifted uneasily and glanced at their neighbors. Strigoi always inspired fear, and someone actively seeking them out was still an unusual concept among us. Oddly, Tatiana seemed very pleased by this confirmation. Was it going to be used as more ammunition against me?

"We would assume then," she continued, "that you are one of those who believe in direct strikes against the Strigoi?"

"Yes."

"Many had different reactions to the terrible attack at St. Vladimir's," she said. "You aren't the only dhampir who wanted to strike back against the Strigoi--though you were certainly the youngest."

I hadn't known about others going on vigilante sprees--well, aside from some reckless dhampirs in Russia. If that was the story about my trip she was willing to believe, that was fine with me.

"We have reports from both guardians and Alchemists in Russia that you were successful." This was the first time I'd heard the Alchemists mentioned in public, but of course they'd be a common topic among the Council. "Can you tell me how many you killed?"

"I..." I stared in surprise. "I'm not sure, Your Majesty. At least..." I racked my brain. "Seven." It might have been more. She thought so too.

"That might be a modest estimate compared to what our sources say," she noted grandly. "Nonetheless, still an impressive number. Did you perform the kills by yourself?"

"Sometimes I did. Sometimes I had help. There were... some other dhampirs I worked with once in a while." Technically, I'd had Strigoi help as well, but I wasn't going to mention that.

"They were close to your age?"

"Yes."

Tatiana said no more, and as though receiving a cue, a woman beside her spoke up. I believed she was the Conta princess.

"When did you kill your first Strigoi?"

I frowned. "Last December."

"And you were seventeen?"

"Yes."

"Did you perform that kill yourself?"

"Well... mostly. A couple friends helped with distraction." I hoped they weren't going to push for more details. My first kill had occurred when Mason had died, and aside from the events surrounding Dimitri, that memory tormented me the most.

But Princess Conta didn't want too many other details. She and the others--who soon joined in the questioning--mostly wanted to know about my kills. They were slightly interested in knowing when other dhampirs had helped me--but didn't want to go into when I'd had Moroi help. They also glossed over my disciplinary record, which I found baffling. The rest of my academic details were mentioned--my exceptional combat grades, how I'd been one of the best when Lissa and I had run away our sophomore year and how quickly I'd made up for lost time to become top in my class again (at least as far as fighting went). They talked also about how I'd protected Lissa whenever we were out in the world alone and finally concluded with my exceptional trial scores.

"Thank you, Guardian Hathaway. You may leave."

Tatiana's dismissive voice left no room for doubt. She wanted me out of there. I was only too eager to comply, giving another bow, and then scurrying out. I cast a quick glance at Tasha and Adrian as I did, and the queen's voice rang out as I cleared the door, "That concludes our session today. We will convene again tomorrow."

I wasn't surprised when Adrian caught up with me a few minutes later. Hans hadn't ordered me to come back and work after the session, so I had decided to read that as freedom.

"Okay," I said, slipping my hand into Adrian's. "Enlighten me with your royal political wisdom. What was that all about?"

"No clue. I'm the last person to ask about political stuff," he said. "I don't even go to those things, but Tasha found me at the last minute and said to come with her. I guess she got a tip-off you'd be there--but she was just as confused."

Neither of us had said anything, but I realized I was leading him toward one of the buildings that housed commerce--restaurants, shops, etc. I was starving all of a sudden.

"I got the impression this was part of something they'd already been talking about--she mentioned their last session."

"It was closed. Like tomorrow's. No one knows what they're discussing."

"Then why make this one public?" It didn't seem fair that the queen and Council could pick and choose what they shared with others. Everything should have been public.

He frowned. "Probably because they're going to hold a vote soon, and that'll be public. If your testimony plays some role, then the Council may want to make sure other Moroi witnessed it--so that everyone understands the decision when it comes." He paused. "But what do I know? I'm no politician."

"Makes it sound like it's already decided," I grumbled. "Why have a vote at all? And why would I have anything to do with government?"

He opened the door to a small cafe that sold light lunch food--burgers and sandwiches. Adrian had been raised with fancy restaurants and gourmet food. I think he preferred that, but he also knew I didn't like always being on display or being reminded that I was with a royal from an elite family. I appreciated that he'd known I'd just want something ordinary today.

Nonetheless, our being together earned us a few curious glances and whispers from the diner's patrons. At the school, we'd been a source of speculation, but here at Court? We were a main-stage attraction. Images were important at Court, and most dhampir-Moroi relationships were carried out in secret. Us being so open--especially considering Adrian's connections--was scandalous and shocking, and people weren't always discreet with their reactions. I'd heard all sorts of things since returning to Court. One woman had called me shameless. Another had speculated aloud why Tatiana hadn't simply "dealt with me."

Fortunately, most of our audience was content to stare today, making them easy to ignore. There was a small line of thought on Adrian's forehead as we sat down at a table. "Maybe they're voting to make you Lissa's guardian after all."

I was so astonished that I couldn't say anything for several seconds when the waitress suddenly appeared. I finally stammered out my order and then stared at Adrian with wide eyes.

"Seriously?" The session had been an examination of my skills, after all. It made sense. Except... "No. The Council wouldn't go to the trouble of holding sessions for one guardian assignment." My hopes fell.

Adrian gave a shrug of acknowledgment. "True. But this isn't an ordinary guardian assignment. Lissa's the last of her line. Everyone--including my aunt--has a special interest in her. Giving her someone like you who's..." I gave him a dangerous look as he grasped for a word. "... Controversial could upset some people."

"And that's why they actually wanted me there to describe what I've done. To convince people in person that I'm competent." Even as I spoke the words, I still didn't dare believe them. It was too good to be true. "I just can't imagine it, seeing as I seem to be in so much trouble with the guardians."

"I don't know," he said. "It's just a guess. Who knows? Maybe they do think the Las Vegas thing was just a harmless prank." There was a bitter tone in his voice over that. "And I told you that Aunt Tatiana was coming around to you. Maybe she wants you as Lissa's guardian now but needs to make a public display to justify it."

That was a startling thought. "But if I do get to come with Lissa, what are you going to do? Get respectable and come to college too?"

"I don't know," he said, green eyes thoughtful as he sipped his drink. "Maybe I will."

That was also unexpected, and my conversation with his mother returned to my mind. What if I was Lissa's guardian in college and he was with us for the next four years? I was fairly certain Daniella had thought we'd be splitting up this summer. I'd thought so too... and was surprised to feel how relieved I was that I might get to stay with him. Dimitri always left my heart full of pain and longing, but I still wanted Adrian in my life.

I grinned at him and rested my hand on his. "I'm not sure what I'd do with you if you were respectable."

He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it. "I've got some suggestions," he told me. I didn't know if it was his words or the feel of his mouth on my skin that sent shivers through me. I was about to ask what those suggestions were when our interlude was interrupted... by Hans.

"Hathaway," he said, one eyebrow arched as he stood over us. "You and I have some very different ideas about the definition of 'punishment.'"

He had a point. In my mind, punishment involved easy things like lashings and starvation. Not filing.

Instead, I replied, "You didn't tell me to come back after I saw the queen."

He gave me an exasperated look. "I also didn't tell you to go off on a playdate. Come on. Back to the vaults."

"But I have a BLT coming!"

"You'll get your lunch break in another couple hours like the rest of us."

I tried to repress my outrage. They hadn't been feeding me bread crusts and water during my work detail, but the food hadn't tasted much better. Just then, the waitress returned with our food. I grabbed the sandwich before she even set the plates down and wrapped it in a napkin. "Can I take it to go?"

"If you can eat it before we get back." His voice was skeptical, seeing as the vault was pretty close. Clearly, he was underestimating my ability to consume food.

In spite of Hans's disapproving expression, I gave Adrian a kiss goodbye and a look that told him maybe we'd continue our conversation. He gave me a happy, knowing smile that I only saw for a second before Hans ordered me away. True to my expectations, I managed to get the sandwich down before we arrived back at the guardians' building, though I did feel a little nauseous for the next half hour or so.

My lunchtime was almost dinnertime for Lissa, out in the human world. Returning to my miserable punishment, I cheered up a little at the joy running through her via our bond. She'd spent the whole day on her campus tour of Lehigh, and it was everything she'd hoped it could be. She loved it all. She loved the beautiful buildings, the grounds, the dorms... and especially the classes. A glimpse at the course catalog opened up a world of subjects that even St. Vladimir's superior education hadn't offered us. She wanted to see and do everything that the school had to offer.

And even though she wished I was there, she was still excited about the fact that it was her birthday. Priscilla had given her some elaborate jewelry and had promised a fancy dinner that night. It wasn't exactly the type of celebration Lissa had hoped for, but the thrill of her eighteenth birthday was still intoxicating--particularly as she looked around at the dream school she'd be attending soon.

I confess, I felt a pang of jealousy. Despite Adrian's theory about why the queen had called me in today, I knew--as did Lissa--that the odds of me going to college with her were still probably nonexistent. Some petty part of me couldn't understand how Lissa could therefore be excited about it if I wasn't going to be along. Childish of me, I know.

I didn't have long to sulk, though, because once all the touring was done, Lissa's entourage returned to the hotel. Priscilla told them they could clean up for an hour or so before heading to dinner. For Lissa, this meant more fighting-practice time. My brooding mood immediately turned irate.

Things got worse when I realized that earlier in the day, Serena had told Grant about Lissa and Christian's desire to defend themselves. He apparently thought that it was a good idea too. It would figure. Lissa had two progressive guardians. Why couldn't she have gotten some stodgy, old-school person who would be horrified at the thought of a Moroi even thinking about fighting off a Strigoi?

So, while I sat helpless and unable to smack sense into any of them, Lissa and Christian now had two instructors. Not only did this mean more learning opportunities, it also meant Serena had a competent partner to demonstrate certain moves with. She and Grant sparred, explaining maneuvers while Lissa and Christian watched wide-eyed.

Fortunately (well, not for Lissa), she and I soon noticed something. The guardians didn't know the true reason Lissa was interested in fighting. They had no idea--how could they have?--that she wanted to go hunt and stake a Strigoi in the feeble hope of bringing him back to life. They thought she just wanted to learn basic defense, something that seemed very sensible to them. So that was what they taught.

Grant and Serena also made Lissa and Christian practice on each other. I suspected there were a couple reasons for this. One was that Lissa and Christian didn't have the skill to do much damage to each other. The second reason was that it amused the guardians.

It did not amuse Lissa and Christian. There was still so much tension between them, both sexual and angry, that they resented being in such close contact. Grant and Serena stopped the two Moroi from doing any more face punching, but simple dodges often meant brushing against each other, fingers sliding against skin in the heat of the action. Every once in a while, the guardians would have someone play Strigoi--putting Lissa or Christian on the offensive. The two Moroi welcomed this to a certain extent; after all, direct attacks were what they wanted to learn.

But, when Christian (playing Strigoi) lunged at Lissa and pushed her into a wall, learning offense suddenly didn't seem like such a good idea to her. The maneuver pressed them right up to each other, his arms holding hers. She could smell him and feel him and was overwhelmed by the fantasy of him just holding her there and kissing her.

"I think you two should go back to basic defense," said Grant, interrupting her traitorous feelings. He sounded like he was more worried about them hurting each other than the possibility that they might start making out.

It took Lissa and Christian a moment to even register his words, let alone part from each other. When they did, both avoided eye contact and returned to the couch. The guardians launched into more examples of how to avoid an attacker. Lissa and Christian had seen this so many times that they knew the lesson by heart, and their earlier attraction gave way to frustration.

Lissa was too polite to say anything, but after fifteen minutes of Serena and Grant showing how to block with your arms and dodge someone reaching for you, Christian finally spoke. "How do you stake a Strigoi?"

Serena froze at Christian's words. "Did you say stake?"

Rather than being shocked, Grant chuckled. "I don't think that's anything you need to worry about. You want to focus on getting away from a Strigoi, not getting closer."

Lissa and Christian exchanged an uneasy look.

"I helped kill Strigoi before," Christian pointed out. "I used fire at the school's attack. Are you saying that's not okay? That I shouldn't have done it?"

Now Serena and Grant traded glances. Ha, I thought. Those two weren't as progressive as I thought. They were coming from a defense point of view, not offense.

"Of course you should have," said Grant at last. "What you did was amazing. And in a similar situation? Sure. You wouldn't want to be helpless. But that's the point--you have your fire. If it came down to you fighting a Strigoi, your magic's going to be the way to go. You already know how to use it--and it'll keep you safely out of their range."

"What about me?" asked Lissa. "I don't have any kind of magic like that."

"You'll never get close enough to a Strigoi for it to be a problem," said Serena fiercely. "We won't let you."

"Besides," added Grant with amusement, "it's not like we just go around handing out stakes." I would have given anything for them to go take a look in her suitcase right then.

Lissa bit her lip and refused to make eye contact with Christian again, for fear of giving away their intentions. This was not going according to their crazy plan. Christian again took the lead.

"Can you at least demo it?" he asked, trying--and succeeding--to look like someone just seeking the sensational and exciting. "Is it hard to do? It seems like all you have to do is aim and hit."

Grant snorted. "Hardly. There's a bit more to it than that."

Lissa leaned forward, clasping her hands together as she followed Christian's lead. "Well, then don't worry about teaching us. Just show us."

"Yeah. Let's see." Christian shifted restlessly beside her. As he did, their arms brushed, and instantly they moved apart.

"It's not a game," Grant said. Nonetheless, he walked over to his coat and produced his stake. Serena stared incredulously.

"What are you going to do?" she asked. "Stake me?"

He gave that small chuckle of his and searched the room with his sharp eyes. "Of course not. Ah. There we are." He walked over to a small armchair that had a decorative pillow. He lifted it up and tested its width. It was fat and thickly filled with some sort of dense stuffing. He returned to Lissa and gestured for her to stand. To everyone's astonishment, he handed her his stake.

Locking his body into a rigid position, he gripped the pillow hard between his hands and extended it out a couple feet in front of him. "Go ahead," he said. "Aim and hit it."

"Are you crazy?" asked Serena.

"Don't worry," he said. "Princess Voda can afford the incidentals. I'm proving a point. Strike the pillow."

Lissa hesitated only a few more moments. An excitement that seemed unusually intense filled her. I knew she'd been anxious to learn this, but her desire for it seemed higher than before. Gritting her teeth, she stepped forward and awkwardly tried to impale the pillow with her stake. She was cautious--fearing she'd hurt Grant--but there was no need for her to worry. She didn't even budge him, and all she managed with the stake was a slight snagging of the fabric on the surface. She tried a few more times but achieved little more.

Christian, being who he was, said, "That's all you can do?"

Glaring, she handed him the stake. "You do better."

Christian stood, snarky smile disappearing as he studied the pillow critically and sized up his blow. As he did, Lissa glanced around and saw the humor in the guardians' eyes. Even Serena had relaxed. They were making their point, proving staking wasn't an easy thing to learn. I was glad, and my opinion of them rose.

Christian finally made his move. He did actually pierce the fabric, but the pillow and its stuffing proved too much to break through. And again, Grant wasn't shaken at all. After more failed attempts, Christian sat down again and handed the stake back. It was kind of fun to see Christian's cocky attitude shot down a little. Even Lissa enjoyed it, despite her own frustration over how difficult this was becoming.

"The stuffing's got too much resistance," Christian complained.

Grant handed his stake to Serena. "What, and you think a Strigoi's body is going to be easier to get through? With muscles and ribs in the way?"

Grant got back into his position, and without hesitation, Serena struck with the stake. Its point burst through the other side of the pillow, coming to a halt just in front of Grant's chest as tiny fluffy pieces of stuffing drifted to the ground. She jerked it out and handed it to him like it had been the simplest thing in the world.

Both Christian and Lissa stared in amazement. "Let me try again," he said.

By the time Priscilla called them to dinner, there wasn't a pillow in that hotel room left untouched. Boy, she was going to be surprised when she got the bill. Lissa and Christian hacked away with the stake while the guardians looked on with a superior air, confident their message was being delivered. Staking Strigoi was not easy.

Lissa was finally getting it. She realized that in some ways, piercing a pillow--or a Strigoi--wasn't even about understanding the principle. Sure, she'd heard me talk about lining your shot up to get to the heart and miss the ribs, but this was more than knowledge. A lot of it was strength--strength she physically didn't have yet. Serena, though seemingly petite, had spent years building up her muscle and could get that stake through practically anything. One hour-long lesson wouldn't give Lissa that kind of strength, and she whispered as much to Christian when the group went out to dinner.

"You're quitting already?" he asked, voice equally low as they rode in the backseat of an SUV. Grant, Serena, and a third guardian were there too, but they were deep in discussion.

"No!" Lissa hissed back. "But I've got to, like, train before I can do it."

"Like lift weights?"

"I... I don't know." The others were still talking to each other, but Lissa's topic was too dangerous for her to risk them hearing. She leaned close to Christian, unnerved yet again at how his closeness and familiarity affected her. Swallowing, she tried to keep her face impassive and stick to the topic. "But I'm just not strong enough. It's physically impossible."

"Sounds like you're giving up."

"Hey! You didn't make it through any of the pillows either."

He flushed slightly. "I almost got through that green one."

"There was hardly anything in it!"

"I just need more practice."

"You don't need to do anything," she shot back, fighting to keep her voice quiet through her anger. "This isn't your fight. It's mine."

"Hey," he snapped, eyes glittering like pale blue diamonds, "you're crazy if you think I'm going to just let you go and risk--"

He cut himself off and actually bit his lip, as though will alone wasn't enough to stop him from talking. Lissa stared at him, and both of us began wondering how he would have finished. What wouldn't he risk? Her putting herself in danger? That was my guess.

Even without talk, he spoke volumes with his expression. Through Lissa's eyes, I saw him drinking in her features and trying to hide his emotions. At last, he jerked away and broke that intimate space between them, getting as far from her as he could.

"Fine. Do whatever you want. I don't care."

Neither of them spoke after that, and since it was lunchtime for me, I returned to my own reality and welcomed a filing break--only to be informed by Hans that I had to keep working.

"Come on! Isn't it lunchtime? You have to feed me," I exclaimed. "That's just beyond cruel. At least throw me some crumbs."

"I did feed you. Or, well, you fed yourself when you inhaled that sandwich. You wanted your lunch break then. You got it. Now you keep working."

I slammed my fists against the endless piles of paper before me. "Can't I at least do something else? Paint buildings? Haul rocks?"

"I'm afraid not." A smile twisted the corners of his lips. "There's a lot of filing we need done."

"How long? How long are you going to punish me?"

Hans shrugged. "Until someone tells me to stop."

He left me alone again, and I leaned back in my chair, forcibly trying not to flip the table in front of me over. I thought it would make me feel momentarily better, but it also meant I'd have to redo the work I'd done. With a sigh, I returned to my task.

Lissa was at dinner when I tuned back into her later. It might have technically been in honor of her birthday, but really, it was all royal conversation with Priscilla. That was no way to spend a birthday, I decided. I'd have to make this up to her whenever I earned freedom. We'd have a real party, and I'd be able to give her my birthday present: gorgeous leather boots that Adrian had helped me acquire back at school.

Being in Christian's head might have been more interesting, but since that wasn't an option, I returned to my own and mulled over my earlier talk with Adrian. Was this punishment finally going to end? Was an official royal decree going to put me and Lissa together at last, despite the guardians' normal policy?

Trying to figure it out was like being on a hamster wheel. A lot of work. No progress. But it got me through the dinner conversation, and before I knew it, Lissa's group was getting up and heading for the restaurant's door. It was dark out now, and Lissa couldn't help but feel the weirdness of being on a human schedule. Back at school or the Court, this would be the middle of the day. Instead, they were now heading back to their hotel and would be going to bed. Well, probably not right away. I had no doubt that if Lissa and Christian could get over their current huff, they'd be back to stabbing more pillows. As much as I wanted those two dating again, I couldn't help but think they were a lot safer apart.

Or maybe not.

The group had hung out at the restaurant far past the normal dinner hour, so the lot was mostly empty as they walked across it. The guardians hadn't exactly parked in the back, but they weren't near the main entrance either. They had, however, made a point of parking next to one of the street lamps illuminating the lot.

Except it wasn't lit now. The light had been broken.

Grant and Priscilla's guardian noticed it right away. It was the kind of little detail we were trained to notice: anything unusual, anything that might have changed. In a flash, the two of them had stakes out and were flanking the Moroi. It only took seconds for Serena and the guardian assigned to Christian to follow suit. That was something else we were trained to do. Be on guard. React. Follow your colleagues.

They were fast. All of them were fast. But it didn't matter.

Because suddenly, there were Strigoi everywhere.

I'm not entirely sure where they came from. Maybe they'd been behind the cars or on the parking lot's edges. If I'd had a bird-eye's view of the situation or been there myself with my "nausea alarm," I might have had a better sense of it all. But I was watching the scene through Lissa's eyes, and the guardians were going out of their way to block her from the Strigoi who seemed to have appeared out of thin air as far as she was concerned. Most of the actions were a blur to her. Her bodyguards were shoving her around, trying to keep her safe as white, red-eyed faces popped up everywhere. She saw it all through a fear-filled haze.

But before long, both of us could see people dying. Serena, just as fast and strong as she'd been in the hotel room, staked a male Strigoi cleanly through the heart. Then, in return, a female Strigoi leapt at Priscilla's guardian and broke his neck. Lissa was distantly aware of Christian's arm around her, pressing her against the SUV and shielding her with his own body. The remaining guardians were also still forming a protective ring as best they could, but they were distracted. Their circle was faltering--and they were dropping.

One by one, the Strigoi killed the guardians. It wasn't for lack of skill on the guardians' part. They were simply outnumbered. One Strigoi tore out Grant's throat with her teeth. Serena was backhanded hard against the asphalt, landing facedown and not moving. And, horror of horrors, the Strigoi didn't seem to be sparing Moroi either. Lissa--pushing so hard against the SUV that it seemed as though she might become one with it--stared wide-eyed as one Strigoi swiftly and efficiently ripped into Priscilla's neck, pausing to drink her blood. The Moroi woman didn't even have time to register surprise, but at least there had been no real suffering. The endorphins dimmed the pain as the blood and life were drained from her body.

Lissa's emotions shifted into something beyond fear, something that hardly felt like anything at all. She was in shock. Numbed. And with a cold, hard certainty, she knew that her death was coming and accepted it. Her hand found Christian's, squeezing it tightly, and turning toward him, she took small comfort in knowing the last sight she would see in life was the beautiful, crystalline blue of his eyes. From the look on his face, his thoughts were along similar themes. There was warmth in his eyes, warmth and love and--

Total and complete astonishment.

His eyes widened, focusing on something just behind Lissa. At that same moment, a hand grabbed Lissa's shoulder and whipped her around. This is it, a small voice inside her whispered. This is where I die.

Then, she understood Christian's astonishment.

She was facing Dimitri.

Like me, she had that surreal sense of it being Dimitri yet not being Dimitri. So many of his features were the same... and yet so many were different. She tried to say something, anything, but while the words formed on her lips, she just couldn't manage to get them out.

Intense heat suddenly flared behind her, and a brilliant light lit Dimitri's pale features. Neither Lissa nor I needed to see Christian to know he had produced a ball of fire with his magic. Either the shock of seeing Dimitri or fear for Lissa had spurred Christian into action. Dimitri squinted slightly at the light, but then a cruel smile twisted his lips, and the hand resting on her shoulder slid up to her neck.

"Put it out," said Dimitri. "Put it out or she dies."

Lissa finally found her voice, even with her air cut off. "Don't listen to him," she gasped out. "He's going to kill us anyway."

But behind her, the heat died. Shadows fell across Dimitri's face once again. Christian wouldn't risk her, even though she was right. It hardly seemed to matter.

"Actually," said Dimitri, voice pleasant amid the grim scene, "I'd rather you two stay alive. At least for a little while longer."

I felt Lissa's face move to a frown. I wouldn't have been surprised if Christian's did too, judging from the confusion in his voice. He couldn't even manage a snarky comment. He could only ask the obvious: "Why?"

Dimitri's eyes gleamed. "Because I need you to be bait for Rose."

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