Chapter Thirteen

 

"THE HELL YOU CAN," I said aloud to no one.

"No, you can't," said Lissa, with an expression that matched my own incredulity. "I know you've been learning to fight with fire, but you haven't done any staking."

Christian's face was adamant. "I have--a little. And I can learn more. Mia's got some guardian friends here that have been teaching her physical combat, and I've learned some of it."

The mention of him and Mia working together didn't do much to improve Lissa's opinion. "You've barely been here a week! You make it sound like you've been training for years with some master."

"It's better than nothing," he said. "And where else are you going to learn? Rose?"

Lissa's outrage and disbelief dimmed a little. "No," she admitted. "Never. In fact, Rose would drag me away if she caught me doing it."

Damn straight I would. In fact, despite the obstacles and staff that kept blocking me, I was tempted to march over there right now.

"Then this is your chance," he said. His voice turned wry. "Look, I know things aren't... great with us, but that's irrelevant if you're going to learn this. Tell Tatiana you want to bring me to Lehigh. She won't like it, but she'll let you. I'll show you what I know in our free time. Then, when we get back, I'll take you to Mia and her friends."

Lissa frowned. "If Rose knew..."

"That's why we'll start when you're away from Court. She'll be too far away from you to do anything."

Oh, for the love of God. I would give them some lessons about fighting--starting with a punch to Christian's face.

"And when we get back?" asked Lissa. "She'll find out. It's inevitable with the bond."

He shrugged. "If she's still on landscape duty, we'll be able to get away with it. I mean, she'll know, but she won't be able to interfere. Much."

"It may not be enough," Lissa said with a sigh. "Rose was right about that--I can't expect to learn in a few weeks what it took her years to do."

Weeks? That was her timeline on this?

"You have to try," he said, almost gentle. Almost.

"Why are you so interested in this?" Lissa asked suspiciously. "Why do you care so much about bringing Dimitri back? I mean, I know you liked him, but you don't quite have the same motivation here that Rose does."

"He was a good guy," said Christian. "And if there was a way to turn him back to a dhampir? Yeah, that'd be amazing. But it's more than that... more than just him. If there was a way to save all Strigoi, that would change our world. I mean, not that setting them on fire isn't cool after they've gone on killing sprees, but if we could stop those killing sprees in the first place? That's the key to saving us. All of us."

Lissa was speechless for a moment. Christian had spoken passionately, and there was a hope radiating off of him that she just hadn't expected. It was... moving.

He took advantage of her silence. "Besides, there's no telling what you'd do without any guidance. And I'd like to reduce the odds of you getting yourself killed, because even if Rose wants to deny it, I know you're going to keep pushing this."

Lissa stayed quiet yet again, pondering the situation. I listened to her thoughts, not liking at all where they were going.

"We're leaving at six," she said at last. "Can you meet me downstairs at five thirty?" Tatiana wouldn't be thrilled when she heard about the new guest choice, but Lissa was pretty sure she could do some fast talking in the morning.

He nodded. "I'll be there."

Back in my room, I was totally aghast. Lissa was going to attempt to learn to stake a Strigoi--behind my back--and she was going to get Christian to help her. Those two had been snarling at each other since the breakup. I should have felt flattered that sneaking around me was bringing them together, but I wasn't. I was pissed off.

I considered my options. The buildings Lissa and I were staying in didn't have the kind of front-desk curfew security that our school dorms had had, but the staff here had been instructed to tip off someone in the guardians' office if I got too social. Hans had also told me to stay away from Lissa until further notice. I pondered it all for a moment, thinking it might be worth Hans dragging me from Lissa's room, and then finally thought of an alternate plan. It was late but not too late, and I left my room for the one next door to mine. Knocking on the door, I hoped my neighbor was still awake.

She was a dhampir my age, a recent graduate from a different school. I didn't own a cell phone, but I'd seen her talking on one earlier today. She answered the door a few moments later and fortunately didn't appear to have been in bed.

"Hey," she said, understandably surprised.

"Hey, can I send a text from your phone?"

I didn't want to commandeer her phone with a conversation, and besides, Lissa might just hang up on me. My neighbor shrugged, stepped into the room, and returned with the phone. I had Lissa's number memorized and sent her the following note:

I know what you're going to do, and it is a BAD idea. I'm going to kick both your asses when I find you.

I handed the phone back to its owner. "Thanks. If anyone texts back, can you let me know?"

She told me she would, but I didn't expect any return texts. I got my message another way. When I returned to the room and Lissa's mind, I got to be there when her phone chimed. Christian had left, and she read my text with a rueful smile. My answer came through the link. She knew I was watching.

Sorry, Rose. It's a risk I'll have to take. I'm doing this.

I tossed and turned that night, still angry at what Lissa and Christian were trying to do. I didn't think I'd ever fall asleep, but when Adrian came to me in a dream, it became clear that my body's exhaustion had defeated my mind's agitation.

"Las Vegas?" I asked.

Adrian's dreams always occurred in different places of his choosing. Tonight, we stood on the Strip, very near where Eddie and I had rendezvoused with Lissa and him at the MGM Grand. The bright lights and neon of the hotels and restaurants gleamed in the blackness, but the whole setting was eerily silent compared to the reality. Adrian had not brought the cars or people of the real Las Vegas here. It was like a ghost town.

He smiled, leaning against a pole covered in paper ads for concerts and escort services. "Well, we didn't really get a chance to enjoy it while we were there."

"True." I stood a few feet away, arms crossed over my chest. I had on jeans and a T-shirt, along with my nazar. Adrian had apparently decided not to dress me tonight, for which I was grateful. I could have ended up like one of those Moroi showgirls, in feathers and sequins. "I thought you were avoiding me." I still wasn't entirely sure where our relationship stood, despite his flippant attitude back at the Witching Hour.

He snorted. "It's not by my choice, little dhampir. Those guardians are doing their best to keep you in solitary. Well, kind of."

"Christian managed to sneak in and talk to me earlier," I said, hoping to avoid the issue that had to be on Adrian's mind: that I'd risked lives to save my ex-boyfriend. "He's going to try to teach Lissa to stake a Strigoi."

I waited for Adrian to join in my outrage, but he appeared as lax and sardonic as usual. "Not surprised she's gonna try. What surprises me is that he'd actually be interested in helping with some crazy theory."

"Well, it's crazy enough to appeal to him... and can apparently overpower them hating each other lately."

Adrian tilted his head, making some of the hair fall over his eyes. A building with blue neon palm trees cast an eerie glow upon his face as he gave me a knowing look. "Come on, we both know why he's doing it."

"Because he thinks his after-school group with Jill and Mia qualifies him to teach that stuff?"

"Because it gives him an excuse to be around her--without making it look like he gave in first. That way, he can still seem manly."

I shifted slightly so that the lights of a giant sign advertising slot machines didn't shine in my eyes. "That's ridiculous." Especially the part about Christian being manly.

"Guys do ridiculous things for love." Adrian reached into his pocket and held up a pack of cigarettes. "Do you know how badly I want one of these right now? Yet I suffer, Rose. All for you."

"Don't turn romantic on me," I warned, trying to hide my smile. "We don't have time for that, not when my best friend wants to go monster hunting."

"Yeah, but how is she actually going to find him? That's kind of a problem." Adrian didn't need to elaborate on the "him."

"True," I admitted.

"And she hasn't been able to charm the stake yet anyway, so until she does, all the kung-fu skills in the world won't matter."

"Guardians don't do kung-fu. And how did you know about the stake?"

"She's asked for my help a couple of times," he explained.

"Huh. I didn't know that."

"Well, you've been kind of busy. Not that you've even spared a thought for your poor pining boyfriend."

With all my chores, I hadn't spent a huge amount of time in Lissa's head--just enough to check in with her. "Hey, I would have taken you over filing any day." I'd been so afraid that Adrian would be furious with me after Vegas, yet here he was, light and playful. A little too light. I wanted him to focus on the problem at hand. "What's your take on Lissa and the charms? Is she close to doing it?"

Adrian absentmindedly played with the cigarettes, and I was tempted to tell him to go ahead and have one. This was his dream, after all. "Unclear. I haven't taken to charms the way she has. It's weird having the other elements in there... makes it hard to manipulate spirit."

"Are you helping her anyway?" I asked suspiciously.

He shook his head in amusement. "What do you think?"

I hesitated. "I... I don't know. You help her with most spirit things, but helping her with this would mean..."

"... Helping Dimitri?"

I nodded, not trusting myself to elaborate.

"No," Adrian said at last. "I'm not helping her, simply because I don't know how."

I exhaled with relief. "I really am sorry," I told him. "For everything... for lying about where I was and what I was doing. It was wrong. And I don't understand... well, I don't get why you're being so nice to me."

"Should I be mean?" He winked. "Is that the kind of thing you're into?"

"No! Of course not. But, I mean, you were so mad when you came to Vegas and found out what was going on. I just thought... I don't know. I thought you hated me."

The amusement faded from his features. He came over to me and rested his hands on my shoulders, his dark green eyes dead serious. "Rose, nothing in this world could make me hate you."

"Not even trying to bring my ex-boyfriend back from the dead?"

Adrian held onto me, and even in a dream, I could smell his skin and cologne. "Yeah, I'll be honest. If Belikov were walking around right now, alive like he used to be? There would be some problems. I don't want to think what would happen with us if... well, it's not worth wasting time on. He's not here."

"I still... I still want us to work," I said meekly. "I would still try, even if he were back. I just have a hard time letting someone I care about go."

"I know. You did what you did out of love. I can't be mad at you over that. It was stupid, but that's how love is. Do you have any idea what I'd do for you? To keep you safe?"

"Adrian..."

I couldn't meet his eyes. I suddenly felt unworthy. He was so easy to underestimate. The only thing I could do was lean my head against his chest and let him wrap his arms around me.

"I'm sorry."

"Be sorry you lied," he said, pressing a kiss to my forehead. "Don't be sorry you loved him. That's part of you, part you have to let go, yeah, but still something that's made you who you are."

Part you have to let go...

Adrian was right, and that was a damned scary thing to admit. I'd had my shot. I'd made my gamble to save Dimitri, and it had failed. Lissa wouldn't get anywhere with the stake, meaning I really did have to treat Dimitri the way everyone else did: He was dead. I had to move on.

"Damn it," I muttered.

"What?" asked Adrian.

"I hate it when you're the sane one. That's my job."

"Rose," he said, forcibly trying to keep a serious tone, "I can think of many words to describe you, sexy and hot being at the top of the list. You know what's not on the list? Sane."

I laughed. "Okay, well, then my job is to be the less crazy one."

He considered. "That I can accept."

I brought my lips up to his, and even if there were still some shaky things in our relationship, there was no uncertainty in how we kissed. Kissing in a dream felt exactly like real life. Heat blossomed between us, and I felt a thrill run through my whole body. He released my hands and wrapped his arms around my waist, bringing us closer. I realized that it was time to start believing what I kept saying. Life did go on. Dimitri might be gone, but I could have something with Adrian--at least until my job took me away. That was, of course, assuming I got one. Hell, if Hans kept me on desk duty here and Adrian continued his slothful ways, we could be together forever.

Adrian and I kissed for a long time, pressing closer and closer. At last I broke things off. If you had sex in a dream, did that mean you'd really done it? I didn't know, and I certainly wasn't going to find out. I wasn't ready for that yet.

I stepped back, and Adrian took the hint. "Find me when you get some freedom."

"Hopefully soon," I said. "The guardians can't punish me forever."

Adrian looked skeptical, but he let the dream dissolve without further comment. I returned to my own bed and my own dreams.

The only thing that stopped me from intercepting Lissa and Christian when they met up early in her lobby the next day was that Hans summoned me to work even earlier. He put me on paperwork duty--in the vaults, ironically enough--leaving me to file and stew over Lissa and Christian as I watched them through my bond. I took it as a sign of my multitasking skills that I was able to alphabetize and spy at the same time.

Yet my observations were interrupted when a voice said, "Didn't expect to find you here again."

I blinked out of Lissa's head and looked up from my paperwork. Mikhail stood before me. In light of the complications that had ensued with the Victor incident, I'd nearly forgotten Mikhail's involvement in our "escape." I set the files down and gave him a small smile.

"Yeah, weird how fate works, huh? They actually want me here now."

"Indeed. You're in a fair amount of trouble, I hear."

My smile turned into a grimace. "Tell me about it." I glanced around, even though I knew we were alone. "You didn't get in any trouble, did you?"

He shook his head. "No one knows what I did."

"Good." At least one person had escaped this debacle unscathed. My guilt couldn't have handled him getting caught too.

Mikhail knelt so that he was eye level with me, resting his arms on the table I sat at. "Were you successful? Was it worth it?"

"That's a hard question to answer."

He arched an eyebrow.

"There were some... not so successful things that happened. But we did find out what we wanted to know--or, well, we think we did."

His breath caught. "How to restore a Strigoi?"

"I think so. If our informant was telling the truth, then yeah. Except, even if he was... well, it's not that easy to do. It's nearly impossible, really."

"What is it?"

I hesitated. Mikhail had helped us, but he wasn't in my circle of confidants. Yet even now, I saw that haunted look in his eyes, the one I'd seen before. The pain of losing his beloved still tormented him. It likely always would. Would I be doing more harm than good by telling him what I'd learned? Would this fleeting hope only hurt him more?

I finally decided to tell him. Even if he told others--and I didn't think he would--most would laugh it off anyway. There would be no damage there. The real trouble would come if he told anyone about Victor and Robert--but I didn't actually have to mention their involvement to him. Unlike Christian, it had apparently not occurred to Mikhail that the prison break so big in Moroi news had been pulled off by the teens he helped smuggle out. Mikhail probably couldn't spare a thought for anything that didn't involve saving his Sonya.

"It takes a spirit user," I explained. "One with a spirit-charmed stake, and then he... or she... has to stake the Strigoi."

"Spirit..." That element was still foreign to most Moroi and dhampirs--but not to him. "Like Sonya. I know spirit's supposed to make them more alluring... but I swear, she never needed it. She was beautiful on her own." As always, Mikhail's face took on that same sad look it did whenever Ms. Karp was mentioned. I'd never really seen him truly happy since meeting him and thought he'd be pretty good-looking if he ever genuinely smiled. He suddenly seemed embarrassed at his romantic lapse and returned to business. "What spirit user could do a staking?"

"None," I said flatly. "Lissa Dragomir and Adrian Ivashkov are the only two spirit users I even know--well, aside from Avery Lazar." I was leaving Oksana and Robert out of this. "Neither of them has the skill to do it--you know that as well as I do. And Adrian has no interest in it anyway."

Mikhail was sharp, picking up on what I didn't say. "But Lissa does?"

"Yes," I admitted. "But it would take her years to learn to do it. If not longer. And she's the last of her line. She can't be risked like that."

The truth of my words hit him, and I couldn't help but share his pain and disappointment. Like me, he'd put a lot of faith into this last-ditch effort to be reunited with his lost love. I had just affirmed that it was possible... yet impossible. I think it would have been easier on both of us to learn it had all been a hoax.

He sighed and stood up. "Well... I appreciate you going after this. Sorry your punishment is for nothing."

I shrugged. "It's okay. It was worth it."

"I hope..." His face turned hesitant. "I hope it ends soon and doesn't affect anything."

"Affect what?" I asked sharply, catching the edge in his voice.

"Just... well, guardians who disobey orders sometimes face long punishments."

"Oh. This." He was referring to my constant fear of being stuck with a desk job. I tried to play flippant and not to show how much that possibility scared me. "I'm sure Hans was bluffing. I mean, would he really make me do this forever just because I ran away and--"

I stopped, my mouth hanging open when a knowing glint flashed in Mikhail's eyes. I'd heard long ago how he'd tried to track down Ms. Karp, but the logistics had never really hit me until now. No one would have condoned his search. He would have had to leave on his own, breaking protocol, and come skulking back when he finally gave up on locating her. He would have been in just as much trouble as me for going MIA.

"Is that..." I swallowed. "Is that why you... why you work down here in the vaults now?"

Mikhail didn't answer my question. Instead, he glanced down with a small smile and pointed at my stacks of paper. "F comes before L," he said before turning and leaving.

"Damn," I muttered, looking down. He was right. Apparently I couldn't alphabetize so well while watching Lissa. Still, once I was alone, that didn't stop me from tuning back into her mind. I wanted to know what she was doing... and I didn't want to think about how what I'd done would probably be considered worse than Mikhail's deeds in the eyes of the guardians. Or that a similar--or worse--punishment might be in store for me.

Lissa and Christian were at a hotel near Lehigh's campus. The middle of the vampiric day meant evening for the human university. Lissa's tour wouldn't start until their morning the next day, which meant she had to bide her time at the hotel now and try to adjust to a human schedule.

Lissa's "new" guardians, Serena and Grant, were with her, along with three extras that the queen had sent as well. Tatiana had allowed Christian to come along and hadn't been nearly as opposed as Lissa had feared--which again made me question if the queen really was as awful as I'd always believed. Priscilla Voda, a close advisor of the queen that both Lissa and I liked, was also accompanying Lissa as she looked around the school. Two of the additional guardians stayed with Priscilla; the third stayed with Christian. They ate dinner as a group and then retired to their rooms. Serena was actually staying with Lissa in hers while Grant stood guard outside the door. Watching all this triggered a pang in me. Pair guarding--it was what I'd been trained for. What I'd been expecting my whole life to do for Lissa.

Serena was a picture-perfect example of guardian aloofness, being there but not there as Lissa hung up some of her clothes. A knock at the door immediately shot Serena into action. Her stake was in hand, and she strode to the door, looking out through its peephole. I couldn't help but admire her reaction time, though part of me would never believe anyone could guard Lissa as well as I could. "Get back," Serena said to Lissa.

A moment later, the tension in Serena faded a tiny bit, and she opened the door. Grant stood there with Christian beside him.

"He's here to see you," Grant said, like it wasn't obvious.

Lissa nodded. "Um, yeah. Come on in."

Christian stepped inside when Grant backed away. Christian gave Lissa a meaningful look as he did, making a small head nod toward Serena.

"Hey, um, would you mind giving us some privacy?" As soon as the words were out of Lissa's mouth, she turned bright pink. "I mean... we just... we just need to talk about some things, that's all."

Serena kept her face almost neutral, but it was clear she thought they were going to do more than talk. Average teen dating wasn't usually hot gossip in the Moroi world, but Lissa, with her notoriety, attracted a bit more attention with her romantic affairs. Serena would have known Christian and Lissa had gone out and broken up. For all she knew, they were back together now. Lissa inviting him on this trip certainly suggested it.

Serena glanced around warily. The balance of protection and privacy was always difficult with Moroi and guardians, and hotel rooms like this made it even harder. If they were on a vampiric schedule, with everyone sleeping during daylight hours, I didn't doubt Serena would have stepped into the hall with Grant. But it was dark outside, and even a fifth-floor window could be a Strigoi liability. Serena wasn't keen on leaving her new charge alone.

Lissa's hotel suite had an expansive living room and work area, with an adjacent bedroom accessible through frosted-glass French doors. Serena nodded toward them. "How about I just go in there?" A smart idea. Provided privacy but kept her close by. Then, Serena realized the implications, and she blushed. "I mean... unless you guys want to go in there and I'll--"

"No," exclaimed Lissa, growing more and more embarrassed. "This is fine. We'll stay in here. We're just talking."

I wasn't sure whose benefit that was for, Serena's or Christian's. Serena nodded and disappeared into the bedroom with a book, which reminded me eerily of Dimitri. She shut the door. Lissa wasn't sure how well noise traveled, so she turned the TV on.

"God, that was miserable," she groaned.

Christian seemed totally at ease as he leaned against the wall. He wasn't the formal type by any means, but he'd put on dress clothes for dinner earlier and still wore them. They looked good on him, no matter how much he always complained. "Why?"

"Because she thinks we're--she thinks we're--well, you know."

"So? What's the big deal?"

Lissa rolled her eyes. "You're a guy. Of course it doesn't matter to you."

"Hey, it's not like we haven't. Besides, better for her to think that than to know the truth."

The reference to their past sex life inspired a mix of emotions--embarrassment, anger, and longing--but she refused to let that show. "Fine. Let's just get this over with. We've got a big day, and our sleep's going to be all screwy as it is. Where do we start? Do you want me to get the stake?"

"No need yet. We should just practice some basic defensive moves." He straightened up and moved toward the center of the room, dragging a table out of the way.

I swear, if not for the context, watching the two of them attempt combat training on their own would have been hilarious.

"Okay," he said. "So you already know how to punch."

"What? I do not!"

He frowned. "You knocked out Reed Lazar. Rose mentioned it, like, a hundred times. I've never heard her so proud about something."

"I punched one person once in my life," she pointed out. "And Rose was coaching me. I don't know if I could do it again."

Christian nodded, looking disappointed--not in her skills but because he had an impatient nature and wanted to jump right into the really hard-core fighting stuff. Nonetheless, he proved a surprisingly patient teacher as he went over the fine art of punching and hitting. A lot of his moves were actually things he'd picked up from me.

He'd been a decent student. Was he at guardian levels? No. Not by a long shot. And Lissa? She was smart and competent, but she wasn't wired for combat, no matter how badly she wanted to help with this. Punching Reed Lazar had been a beautiful thing, but it didn't appear to be anything that would ever become natural for her. Fortunately, Christian started with simple dodging and watching one's opponent. Lissa was just a beginner at it but showed a lot of promise. Christian seemed to chalk it up to his instructive skills, but I'd always thought spirit users had a kind of preternatural instinct about what others might do next. I doubted it would work on Strigoi, though.

After a little of that, Christian finally returned to offense, and that's when things went bad.

Lissa's gentle, healing nature didn't mesh with that, and she refused to really strike out with her full force, for fear of hurting him. When he realized what was happening, his snarky temper started to rise.

"Come on! Don't hold back."

"I'm not," she protested, delivering a punch to his chest that didn't come close to budging him.

He raked a hand irritably through his hair. "You are too! I've seen you knock on a door harder than you're hitting me."

"That's a ridiculous metaphor."

"And," he added, "you aren't aiming for my face."

"I don't want to leave a mark!"

"Well, at the rate we're going, there's no danger of that," he muttered. "Besides, you can heal it away."

I was amused at their bickering but didn't like his casual encouragement of spirit use. I still hadn't shaken my guilt over the long-term damage that the prison break could have caused.

Reaching forward, Christian grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her toward him. He balled her fingers with his other hand and then slowly demonstrated how to swing a punch upward by pulling her fist toward his face. He was more interested in showing the technique and motion, so it only brushed against him.

"See? Arc upward. Make the impact right there. Don't worry about hurting me."

"It's not that simple...."

Her protest died off, and suddenly, they both seemed to notice the situation they were in. There was barely any space between them, and his fingers were still wrapped around her wrist. They felt warm against Lissa's skin and were sending electricity through the rest of her body. The air between them seemed thick and heavy, like it might just wrap them up and pull them together. From the widening of Christian's eyes and sudden intake of breath, I was willing to bet he was having a similar reaction at being so close to her body.

Coming to himself, he abruptly released her hand and stepped back. "Well," he said roughly, though still clearly unnerved by the proximity, "I guess you aren't really serious about helping Rose."

That did it. Sexual tension notwithstanding, anger kindled up in Lissa at the comment. She balled her fist and totally caught Christian off guard when she swung out and socked him in the face. It didn't have the grace of her Reed punch, but it took Christian hard. Unfortunately, she lost her balance in the maneuver and stumbled forward into him. The two of them went down together, hitting the floor and knocking over a small table and lamp nearby. The lamp caught the table's corner and broke.

Meanwhile, Lissa had landed on Christian. His arms instinctively went out around her, and if the space between them before had been small, it was nonexistent now. They stared into each other's eyes, and Lissa's heart was pounding fiercely in her chest. That tantalizing electric feeling crackled around them again, and all the world for her seemed to focus on his lips. Both she and I wondered later if they might have kissed, but just then, Serena came bursting out of the bedroom.

She was on guardian high alert, body tense and ready to face an army of Strigoi with her stake in hand. She came screeching to a halt when she saw the scene before her: what appeared to be a romantic interlude. Admittedly, it was an odd one, what with the broken lamp and swelling red mark on Christian's face. It was pretty awkward for everyone, and Serena's attack mode faded to one of confusion.

"Oh," she said uncertainly. "Sorry."

Embarrassment flooded Lissa, as well as self-resentment at being affected so much by Christian. She was furious at him, after all. Hastily, she pulled away and sat up, and in her flustered state, she felt the need to make it clear that there was nothing romantic whatsoever going on.

"It... it's not what you think," she stuttered, looking anywhere except at Christian, who was getting to his feet and seemed just as mortified as Lissa. "We were fighting. I mean, practicing fighting. I want to learn to defend against Strigoi. And attack them. And stake them. So Christian was kind of helping me, that's all." There was something cute about her rambling, and it reminded me charmingly of Jill.

Serena visibly relaxed, and while she'd mastered that blank face all guardians excelled at, it was clear she was amused. "Well," she said, "it doesn't look like you're doing a very good job."

Christian turned indignant as he stroked his injured cheek. "Hey! We are too. I taught her this."

Serena still thought it was all funny, but a serious, considering glint was starting to form in her eyes. "That seems like it was more lucky than anything else." She hesitated, like she was on the verge of a big decision. At last she said, "Look, if you guys are serious about this, then you need to learn to do it the right way. I'll show you how."

No. Way.

I was seriously on the verge of escaping the Court and hitchhiking to Lehigh to really show them how to throw a punch--with Serena as my example--when something jolted me away from Lissa and back into my own reality. Hans.

I had a sarcastic greeting on my lips, but he didn't give me a chance. "Forget the filing and follow me. You've been summoned."

"I--what?" Highly unexpected. "Summoned where?"

His face was grim. "To see the queen."

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