Chapter Three

 

THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS were strange. The other novices and I might have had the flashiest graduation, but we weren't the only ones finishing our education at St. Vladimir's. The Moroi had their own commencement ceremony, and campus grew packed with visitors. Then, almost as quickly as they came, parents disappeared--taking their sons and daughters with them. Royal Moroi left to spend their summers with their parents at luxury estates--many in the Southern Hemisphere, where the days were shorter this time of year. "Ordinary" Moroi left with their parents too, off to more modest homes, possibly getting summer jobs before college.

And of course, with school wrapping up for the summer, all the other students left too. Some with no family to go home to, usually dhampirs, stayed year-round, taking special electives, but they were the minority. Campus grew emptier each day as my classmates and I waited for the day when we'd be taken to the Royal Court. We made our farewells to others, Moroi moving on or younger dhampirs who'd soon be following in our footsteps.

One person I was sad to part with was Jill. I happened to catch her as I was walking toward Lissa's dorm the day before my Court trip. There was a woman with Jill, presumably her mother, and both were carrying boxes. Jill's face lit up when she saw me.

"Hey Rose! I said goodbye to everyone else but couldn't find you," she said excitedly.

I smiled. "Well, I'm glad you caught me."

I couldn't tell her that I'd been saying goodbye too. I'd spent my last day at St. Vladimir's walking all the familiar sites, starting with the elementary campus where Lissa and I had first met in kindergarten. I'd explored the halls and corners of my dorms, walked past favorite classrooms, and even visited the chapel. I'd also passed a lot of time in areas filled with bittersweet memories, like the training areas where I'd first gotten to know Dimitri. The track where he used to make me run laps. The cabin where we'd finally given in to each other. It had been one of the most amazing nights of my life, and thinking about it always brought me both joy and pain.

Jill didn't need to be burdened with any of that, though. I turned toward her mother and started to offer my hand until I realized she couldn't shake it while maneuvering the box. "I'm Rose Hathaway. Here, let me carry that."

I took it before she could protest because I was certain she would. "Thank you," she said, pleasantly surprised. I fell in step with them as they began walking again. "I'm Emily Mastrano. Jill's told me a lot about you."

"Oh yeah?" I asked, giving Jill a teasing smile.

"Not that much. Just how I hang out with you sometimes." There was a slight warning in Jill's green eyes, and it occurred to me that Emily probably didn't know her daughter practiced forbidden forms of Strigoi-killing magic in her free time.

"We like having Jill around," I said, not blowing her cover. "And one of these days, we're going to teach her to tame that hair."

Emily laughed. "I've been trying for almost fifteen years. Good luck."

Jill's mother was stunning. The two didn't resemble each other much, at least not superficially. Emily's lustrous hair was straight and black, her eyes deep blue and long-lashed. She moved with a willowy grace, very different from Jill's always self-conscious walk. Yet, I could see the shared genes here and there, the heart-shaped faces and lip shapes. Jill was still young, and as she grew into her features, she'd likely be a heartbreaker herself someday--something she was probably oblivious to right now. Hopefully her self-confidence would grow.

"Where's home for you guys?" I asked.

"Detroit," said Jill, making a face.

"It's not that bad," laughed her mom.

"There are no mountains. Just highways."

"I'm part of a ballet company there," Emily explained. "So we stay where we can pay the bills." I think I was more surprised that people went to the ballet in Detroit than that Emily was a ballerina. It made sense, watching her, and really, with their tall and slim builds, Moroi were ideal dancers as far as humans were concerned.

"Hey, it's a big city," I told Jill. "Enjoy the excitement while you can before you come back to the boring middle of nowhere." Of course, illicit combat training and Strigoi attacks were hardly boring, but I wanted to make Jill feel better. "And it won't be that long." Moroi summer vacations were barely two months. Parents were eager to return their children to the safety of the Academy.

"I guess," said Jill, not sounding convinced. We reached their car, and I loaded the boxes into the trunk.

"I'll e-mail you when I can," I promised. "And I bet Christian will too. Maybe I can even talk Adrian into it."

Jill brightened, and I was happy to see her return to her normal overexcited self. "Really? That would be great. I want to hear everything that goes on at Court. You'll probably get to do all sorts of cool things with Lissa and Adrian, and I bet Christian will find out all sorts of things... about things."

Emily didn't seem to notice Jill's lame editing attempt and instead fixed me with a pretty smile. "Thanks for your help, Rose. It was great to meet you."

"You too--umph!"

Jill had thrown herself into me with a hug. "Good luck with everything," she said. "You're so lucky--you're going to have such a great life now!"

I returned the hug, unable to explain how jealous of her I was. Her life was still safe and innocent. She might resent spending a summer in Detroit, but the stay would be brief, and soon she'd be back in the familiar and easy world of St. Vladimir's. She wouldn't be setting out into the unknown and its dangers.

It was only after she and her mother had driven off that I could bring myself to respond to her comment. "I hope so," I murmured, thinking about what was to come. "I hope so."

My classmates and select Moroi flew out early the next day, leaving the rocky mountains of Montana behind for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. The Royal Court was a lot like I remembered, with the same imposing, ancient feel that St. Vladimir's tried to impart with its towering buildings and intricate stone architecture. But the school also seemed to want to show off a wise, studious air, whereas the Court was more ostentatious. It was like the buildings themselves tried to make sure we all knew that this was the seat of power and royalty among the Moroi. The Royal Court wanted us to be amazed and maybe a little cowed.

And even though I'd been here before, I was still impressed. The doors and windows of the tan stone buildings were embossed and framed in pristine golden decorations. They were a far cry from the brightness I'd seen in Russia, but I realized now that the Court's designers had modeled these buildings off the old European ones--the fortresses and palaces of Saint Petersburg. St. Vladimir's had benches and paths in the quads and courtyards, but the Court went a step further. Fountains and elaborate statues of past rulers adorned the lawns, exquisite marble works that had previously been hidden in snow. Now, in the full throes of summer, they were bright and on display. And everywhere, everywhere were flowers on trees, bushes, paths--it was dazzling.

It made sense that new grads would visit the guardians' central administration, but it occurred to me that there was another reason they brought new guardians here in the summer. They wanted my classmates and me to see all of this, to be overwhelmed and appreciative of the glory for which we were fighting. Looking at the faces of the new graduates, I knew the tactic was working. Most had never been here before.

Lissa and Adrian had been on my flight, and the three of us clustered together as we walked with the group. It was as warm as it had been in Montana, but the humidity here was much thicker. I was sweating after only a little light walking.

"You did bring a dress this time, right?" asked Adrian.

"Of course," I said. "They've got some fancy things they want us to go to, aside from the main reception. Although, they might give me my black-and-white for that."

He shook his head, and I noticed his hand start to move toward his pocket before hesitating and pulling back. He might have been making progress in quitting smoking, but I was pretty sure the subconscious urge to automatically reach for a pack when outdoors was hard to get rid of so quickly.

"I mean for tonight. For dinner."

I glanced questioningly at Lissa. Her schedule at Court always had assorted functions thrown into it that "average people" didn't attend. With my new and uncertain status, I wasn't sure if I'd be going with her. I sensed her puzzlement through the bond and could tell that she didn't have a clue about any special dinner plans.

"What dinner?" I asked.

"The one I set up with my family."

"The one you--" I came to an abrupt halt and stared wide-eyed, not liking the smirk on his face one bit. "Adrian!" A few of the new grads gave me curious looks and continued walking around us.

"Come on, we've been going out a couple months. Meeting parents is part of the dating ritual. I've met your mom. I even met your scary-ass dad. Now it's your turn. I guarantee none of my family's gonna make the kind of suggestions your dad did."

I'd actually kind of met Adrian's dad before. Or, well, I'd seen him at a party. I doubted he had any idea who I was--my crazy reputation aside. I knew almost nothing about Adrian's mother. He actually spoke very little about his family members--well, most of them.

"Just your parents?" I asked warily. "Any other family I should know about?"

"Well..." Adrian's hand twitched again. I think this time he wanted a cigarette as some sort of protection from the warning note in my voice. Lissa, I observed, seemed highly amused by all of this. "My favorite great-aunt might stop by."

"Tatiana?" I exclaimed. For the hundredth time, I wondered how I had lucked out with a guy related to the leader of the entire Moroi world. "She hates me! You know what happened the last time we talked." Her Royal Majesty had laid into me, yelling about how I was too trashy to hook up with her nephew and how she had great "plans" for him and Lissa.

"I think she's come around."

"Oh, come on."

"No, really." He almost looked like he was telling the truth. "I talked to my mom the other day, and... I don't know. Aunt Tatiana doesn't seem to hate you as much."

I frowned, and the three of us began to walk again. "Maybe she admires your recent vigilante work," mused Lissa.

"Maybe," I said. But I didn't really believe it. If anything, me going rogue should have made me more despicable in the queen's eyes.

I felt kind of betrayed that Adrian had sprung this dinner on me, but there was nothing to be done about it now. The only bright side was that I had the impression he was teasing me about his aunt stopping by. I told him I'd go, and my decision put him in a good enough mood that he didn't ask too many questions when Lissa and I said we were going to do "our own thing" that afternoon. My classmates were all getting a tour of the Court and its grounds as part of their indoctrination, but I'd seen it all before and was able to wiggle out of it. Lissa and I dropped our belongings off in our rooms and then set out to the far side of the Court, where the not-so-royal people lived.

"Are you going to tell me yet what this other part of your plan is?" asked Lissa.

Ever since Abe had explained about Victor's prison, I'd been making another mental list of the problems we'd have breaking into it. Mainly, there were two, which was one less than I'd initially had since talking to Abe. Not that things were really much easier. First, we had no clue where in Alaska this place was. Second, we didn't know what the prison's defenses and layout were like. We had no idea what we had to bust through.

Yet, something told me all of these answers could be found in one source, which meant I really only had one immediate problem: how to reach that source. Fortunately, I knew someone who might be able to help get us there.

"We're going to see Mia," I told her.

Mia Rinaldi was a former Moroi classmate of ours--a former enemy, actually. She was also the poster child for total personality makeovers. She'd gone from a scheming bitch who was willing to crush--and sleep with--anyone in her quest for popularity to a down-to-earth, confident girl eager to learn to defend herself and others from Strigoi. She lived here at Court with her father.

"You think Mia knows how to break into a prison?"

"Mia's good, but I don't think she's that good. She can probably help us get intel, though."

Lissa groaned. "I can't believe you just used the word intel. This really is turning into a spy movie." She spoke flippantly, but I could feel the worry within her. The light tone was masking her fear, the unease she still felt about freeing Victor, despite her promise to me.

Those non-royals who worked and did ordinary things at Court lived in apartments far from the queen's quarters and receiving hall. I'd gotten Mia's address in advance, and we set out across the perfectly manicured grounds, grumbling to each other along the way about the hot day. We found her at home, casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a Popsicle in her hand. Her eyes widened when she saw us outside her door.

"Well, I'll be damned," she said.

I laughed. It was the kind of response I'd give. "Nice to see you too. Can we come in?"

"Of course." She stepped aside. "You want a Popsicle?"

Did I ever. I took a grape one and sat with her and Lissa in the small living room. The place was a far cry from the opulence of royal guest housing, but it was cozy and clean and undoubtedly well loved by Mia and her father.

"I knew the grads were coming," Mia said, brushing blond curls out of her face. "But I wasn't sure if you were with them or not. Did you even graduate?"

"I did," I said. "Got the promise mark and everything." I lifted my hair so she could see the bandage.

"I'm surprised they let you back in after you took off on your killing spree. Or did you get extra credit for that?"

Apparently, Mia had heard the same tall tale about my adventures that everyone else had. That was fine with me. I didn't want to talk about the truth. I didn't want to talk about Dimitri.

"Do you think anyone could stop Rose from doing what she wants?" asked Lissa with a smile. She was trying to keep us from getting into too much detail about my past whereabouts, for which I was grateful.

Mia laughed and crunched on a big chunk of lime ice. It was a wonder she didn't get brain freeze. "True." Her smile faded as she swallowed the bite. Her blue eyes, always shrewd, studied me in silence for a few moments. "And Rose wants something now."

"Hey, we're just happy to see you," I said.

"I believe you. But I also believe you've got an ulterior motive."

Lissa's smile grew. She was amused by me being caught in my spy game. "What makes you say that? Can you read Rose that well or do you just always assume she's got an ulterior motive?"

Now Mia smiled again. "Both." She scooted forward on the couch, fixing me with a serious look. When had she grown so perceptive? "Okay. No point in wasting time. What do you need my help with?"

I sighed, busted. "I need to get inside the guardians' main security office."

Beside me, Lissa made a sort of strangled noise. I felt kind of bad for her. While she could conceal her thoughts from me on occasion, there wasn't much she did or said that came as a true surprise. Me? I continually blindsided her. She had no clue what was coming half the time, but honestly, if we were planning on springing a renowned criminal out of prison, then breaking into a security office shouldn't have been that big of a shock.

"Wow," said Mia. "You don't waste time with the little stuff." Her grin twitched a bit. "Of course, you wouldn't come to me with little stuff. You could do that yourself."

"Can you get me--us--in there?" I asked. "You're friendly with some of the guardians here... and your dad has access to a lot of places...." I didn't know Mr. Rinaldi's exact job, but I thought it was maintenance-related.

"What are you looking for?" she asked. She held up a hand when I opened my mouth to protest. "No, no. I don't need details. Just a general idea so I can figure this out. I know you're not going there just to tour the place."

"I need some records," I explained.

Her eyebrows rose. "Personnel? Trying to get yourself a job?"

"I--no." Huh. That wasn't a bad idea, considering my precarious position with being assigned to Lissa. But no. One issue at a time. "I need some records about outside security at other places--schools, royal homes, prisons." I tried to keep my expression casual as I mentioned that last one. Mia was on board with some crazy things, but even she had her limits. "I figured they must keep that stuff there?"

"They do," she said. "But most of it's electronic. And no offense, but that might even be beyond your abilities. Even if we could get to one of their computers, everything's password protected. And if they walk away, they lock the computers. I'm guessing you haven't become a hacker since the last time I saw you."

No, certainly not. And unlike the heroes of those spy movies Lissa teased me about, I had no tech-savvy friends who could even come close to breaking that kind of encryption and security. Damn. I stared glumly at my feet, wondering if I had any chance at all of getting more information out of Abe.

"But," said Mia, "if the information you need isn't too current, they might still have paper copies."

I jerked my head up. "Where?"

"They've got mass storage rooms, tucked away in one of the basements. Files and files. Still under lock and key--but probably easier to get to than fighting the computers. Again, depends on what you need. How old it is."

Abe had given me the impression that Tarasov Prison had been around for a while. Surely there was a record of it in these archives. I didn't doubt the guardians had gone digital a while ago, which meant we might not find up-to-the-minute details on the place's security, but I'd settle for a blueprint.

"It might be what we need. Can you get us in?"

Mia was quiet for several seconds, and I could see her mind whirring. "Possibly." She glanced at Lissa. "Can you still compel people into being your slaves?"

Lissa grimaced. "I don't like to think of it like that, but yeah, I can." It was another of spirit's perks.

Mia considered a few moments more and then gave a quick nod. "Okay. Come back around two, and we'll see what we can do."

Two in the afternoon for the rest of the world meant the middle of the night for Moroi, who ran on a nocturnal schedule. Being out in broad daylight didn't feel particularly sneaky, but I had to figure Mia's planning here was based on the fact that there would also be fewer people around that time of day.

I was trying to decide if we should socialize more or head out when a knock interrupted my thoughts. Mia flinched and suddenly looked uncomfortable. She rose to get the door, and a familiar voice drifted down the hall toward us.

"Sorry I'm early, but I--"

Christian stepped into the living room. He abruptly shut up when he saw Lissa and me. Everyone seemed frozen, so it looked like it was up to me to pretend like this wasn't a horribly awkward situation.

"Hey, Christian," I said cheerfully. "How's it going?"

His eyes were on Lissa, and it took him a moment to drag them to me. "Fine." He glanced at Mia. "I can come back.... "

Lissa hastily stood up. "No," she said, voice cool and princesslike. "Rose and I have to go anyway."

"Yeah," I agreed, following her lead. "We have... stuff... to do. And we don't want to interrupt your..." Hell, I had no idea what they were going to do. Wasn't sure I wanted to.

Mia had found her voice. "Christian wanted to see some of the moves I've been practicing with the campus guardians."

"Cool." I kept the smile on my face as Lissa and I moved toward the door. She stepped as far around Christian as she could. "Jill will be jealous."

And not just Jill. After another round of goodbyes, Lissa and I left and set back off across the grounds. I could feel the anger and jealousy radiating through her bond.

"It's only their fight club, Liss," I said, having no need for her side of the conversation. "Nothing's going on. They're going to talk punches and kicking and other boring stuff." Well, actually that stuff was pretty sweet, but I wasn't about to glorify Christian and Mia hanging out.

"Maybe now nothing's going on," she growled, staring stonily ahead. "But who knows what could happen? They spend time together, practice some physical moves, one thing leads to another--"

"That's ridiculous," I said. "That kind of stuff isn't romantic at all." Another lie, seeing as that was exactly how my relationship with Dimitri had begun. Again, best not to mention that. "Besides, Christian can't be involved with every girl he hangs out with. Mia, Jill--no offense, but he's not really that much of a ladies' man."

"He's really good-looking," she argued, those dark feelings still seething within her.

"Yeah," I conceded, keeping my eyes carefully on the pathway. "But it takes more than that. And besides, I thought you didn't care what he did."

"I don't," she agreed, not even convincing herself, let alone me. "Not at all."

My attempts to distract her proved pretty useless for the rest of the day. Tasha's words came back to me: Why haven't you fixed this? Because Lissa and Christian were being too damned unreasonable, both caught up in their own pissed-off feelings--which were kind of pissing me off in return. Christian would have been pretty helpful in my illicit escapades, but I had to keep my distance for Lissa's sake.

I finally left her to her bad mood when dinner came around. Compared to her romantic situation, my relationship with a semi-spoiled royal playboy from a disapproving family seemed downright optimistic. What a sad and scary world this was becoming. I assured Lissa I'd head straight back after dinner and that we'd go see Mia together. The mention of Mia didn't make Lissa happy, but the thought of a potential break-in did distract her momentarily from Christian.

The dress I had for dinner was maroon, made of light, gauzy material that was great for summer weather. The neckline was decent, and little cap sleeves gave it a classy edge. With my hair in a low ponytail that did a decent job of hiding the healing tattoo, I almost looked like a respectable girlfriend--which only went to show how deceptive appearances were, seeing as I was part of a crazy scheme to bring my last boyfriend back from the dead.

Adrian surveyed me from head to toe when I arrived at his parents' town house. They kept a permanent residence here at the Court. The small smile on his face told me he liked what he saw.

"You approve?" I asked, spinning around.

He slipped an arm around my waist. "Unfortunately, yes. I was hoping you'd show up in something a lot sluttier. Something that would scandalize my parents."

"Sometimes it's like you don't even care about me as a person," I observed as we walked inside. "It's like you're just using me for shock value."

"It's both, little dhampir. I care about you, and I'm using you for shock value."

I hid a smile as the Ivashkovs' housekeeper led us toward the dining room. The Court actually had restaurants and cafes tucked away within its buildings, but royals like Adrian's parents would consider it classier to have a fancy dinner in their home. Me, I would have preferred being out in public. More escape options.

"You must be Rose."

My assessment of the exits was interrupted when a very tall, very elegant Moroi woman came into the room. She wore a long, dark green satin dress that immediately made me feel out of place and that perfectly matched the color of her--and Adrian's--eyes. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun, and she smiled down at me with genuine warmth as she took my hand.

"I'm Daniella Ivashkov," she said. "It's very nice to meet you at last."

Was it really? My hand automatically shook hers in return. "Nice to meet you too, Lady Ivashkov."

"Call me Daniella, please." She turned to Adrian and tsked as she straightened the collar of his button-up shirt. "Honestly, darling," she said. "Do you even look in a mirror before you walk out the door? Your hair's a mess."

He dodged her as she reached toward his head. "Are you kidding? I spent hours in front of the mirror to make it look this way."

She gave a tormented sigh. "Some days I can't decide if I'm lucky or not to have no other children." Behind her, quiet servants were setting food out on the table. Steam rose up from the platters, and my stomach rumbled. I hoped no one else heard. Daniella glanced off down the hall beyond her. "Nathan, will you hurry up? The food's getting cold."

A few moments later, heavy footsteps sounded on the ornate wood floor, and Nathan Ivashkov swept into the room. Like his wife, he was dressed formally, the blue satin of his tie gleaming next to the starkness of his heavy black suit coat. I was glad they had air-conditioning in here, or he'd have been melting in that heavy fabric. The feature on him that stood out the most was what I remembered from before: a distinctly silver head of hair and mustache. I wondered if Adrian's hair would look like that when he was older. Nah, I'd never find out. Adrian would probably dye his hair at the first sign of gray--or silver.

Adrian's father might be exactly as I remembered, but it was clear he had no clue who I was. In fact, he seemed genuinely startled to see me.

"This is Adrian's, ah, friend, Rose Hathaway," said Daniella gently. "You remember--he said he'd bring her tonight."

"It's nice to meet you, Lord Ivashkov."

Unlike his wife, he didn't offer to put us on a first-name basis, which relieved me a little. The Strigoi who had forcefully turned Dimitri had been named Nathan too, and it wasn't a name I wanted to speak aloud. Adrian's father looked me over, but it wasn't with the appreciation Adrian had shown earlier. It was more like I was an oddity. "Oh. The dhampir girl."

He wasn't rude exactly, just disinterested. I mean, it wasn't like he called me a blood whore or anything. We all sat down to eat, and although Adrian kept his typical devil-may-care smile on his face, I again got the vibe that he really, really wanted a cigarette. Probably hard liquor, too. Being around his parents was not something he enjoyed. When one of the servants poured us all wine, Adrian looked immensely relieved and didn't hold back. I shot him a cautioning look that he ignored.

Nathan managed to rapidly devour his balsamic-glazed pork medallions while still looking elegant and proper. "So," he said, attention focused on Adrian, "now that Vasilisa's graduated, what are you going to do with yourself? You aren't going to keep slumming with high school students, are you? There's no point in you being there anymore."

"I don't know," said Adrian lazily. He shook his head, further tousling his carefully mussed hair. "I kind of like hanging out with them. They think I'm funnier than I really am."

"Unsurprising," his father replied. "You aren't funny at all. It's time you do something productive. If you aren't going to go back to college, you should at least start sitting in on some of the family business meetings. Tatiana spoils you, but you could learn a lot from Rufus."

I knew enough about royal politics to recognize the name. The oldest member of each family was usually its "prince" or "princess" and held a Royal Council position--and was eligible to become king or queen. When Tatiana had taken the crown, Rufus had become prince of the Ivashkov family since he was the next oldest.

"True," said Adrian deadpan. He wasn't eating so much as pushing his food around. "I'd really like to know how he keeps his two mistresses a secret from his wife."

"Adrian!" snapped Daniella, a flush spilling over her pale cheeks. "Don't say things like that at our dinner table--and certainly not in front of a guest."

Nathan seemed to notice me again and gave a dismissive shrug. "She doesn't matter." I bit my lip on that, repressing the urge to see if I could throw my china plate Frisbee style and hit him in the head. I decided against it. Not only would it ruin dinner, but the plate probably wouldn't get the lift I needed. Nathan turned his scowl back to Adrian. "But you do. I'm not going to have you sitting around doing nothing--and using our money to fund it."

Something told me I should stay out of this, but I couldn't stand to see Adrian dressed down by his annoying father. Adrian did sit around and waste money, but Nathan didn't have the right to make fun of him for it. I mean, sure, I did all the time. But that was different.

"Maybe you could go to Lehigh with Lissa," I offered. "Keep studying spirit with her and then... do whatever else you were doing the last time you were in college...."

"Drinking and skipping classes," said Nathan.

"Art," said Daniella. "Adrian took art classes."

"Really?" I asked, turning to him in surprise. Somehow, I could imagine him as an artistic type. It fit his erratic personality. "Then this would be perfect. You could pick it up again."

He shrugged and finished his second glass of wine. "I don't know. This college would probably have the same problem the last one did."

I frowned. "What's that?"

"Homework."

"Adrian," growled his father.

"It's okay," said Adrian breezily. He rested his arm casually on the table. "I don't really need a job or extra money. After Rose and I get married, the kids and I'll just live off of her guardian paycheck."

We all froze, even me. I knew perfectly well that he was joking. I mean, even if he harbored fantasies of marriage and kids (and I was pretty sure he didn't), the meager salary a guardian made would never be enough to keep him in the luxurious life he required.

Adrian's father, however, clearly did not think he was joking. Daniella seemed undecided. Me, I was just uncomfortable. It was a very, very bad topic to bring up at a dinner like this, and I couldn't believe Adrian had gone there. I didn't even think the wine was to blame. Adrian just liked tormenting his father that much.

The awful silence grew thicker and thicker. My gut instinct to fill conversation voids was raging, but something told me to stay quiet. The tension increased. When the doorbell rang, all four of us nearly jumped out of our chairs.

The housekeeper, Torrie, scurried off to answer it, and I breathed a mental sigh of relief. An unexpected visitor would help ease the tension.

Or maybe not.

Torrie cleared her throat when she returned, clearly flustered as she looked from Daniella to Nathan. "Her Royal Majesty Queen Tatiana is here."

No. Way.

All three Ivashkovs stood up abruptly, and a half second later, I joined them. I hadn't believed Adrian earlier when he said Tatiana might come. From his face, he seemed pretty surprised now too. But sure enough, there she was. She swept into the room, elegant in what must have been business casual for her: tailored black slacks and jacket with a red silk and lace blouse underneath. Little jeweled barrettes gleamed in her dark hair, and those imperious eyes peered down at us all as we offered hasty bows. Even her own family followed formalities.

"Aunt Tatiana," said Nathan, forcing what looked like a smile onto his face. I don't think he did it very often. "Won't you join us for dinner?"

She waved a hand dismissively. "No, no. I can't stay. I'm on my way to meet with Priscilla but thought I'd stop by when I heard Adrian had returned." Her gaze fell on him. "I can't believe you've been here all day and didn't come visit." Her voice was cool, but I swear there was an amused twinkle in her eyes. It was scary. She wasn't someone I thought of as warm and fuzzy. The whole experience of seeing her outside of one of her ceremonial rooms was totally unreal.

Adrian grinned at her. He was clearly the most comfortable person in the room right now. For reasons I never understood, Tatiana loved and spoiled Adrian. That wasn't to say that she didn't love her other family members; it was just clear that he was her favorite. It had always surprised me, considering what a scoundrel he was sometimes.

"Aw, I figured you had more important things to do than see me," he told her. "Besides, I quit smoking, so now we won't be able to go sneak cigarettes out behind the throne room together."

"Adrian!" chastised Nathan, turning bright red. It occurred to me then that I could have based a drinking game around how many times he exclaimed his son's name disapprovingly. "Auntie, I'm sor--"

Tatiana held up a hand again. "Oh, be silent, Nathan. No one wants to hear it." I almost choked. Being in the same room with the queen was horrid, but it was almost worth it to see her verbally bitch-slap Lord Ivashkov. She turned back to Adrian, face thawing. "You've finally quit? It's about time. I suppose this is your doing?"

It took me a moment to realize she was speaking to me. Until that point, I'd kind of hoped she might not have even noticed me. It seemed the only explanation for her not screaming at them to remove the rebellious little blood whore. It was shocking. Her voice wasn't accusatory, either. It was... impressed.

"W-well, it wasn't me, Your Majesty," I said. My meekness was a far cry from my behavior at our last meeting. "Adrian was the one who had the, uh, determination to do it."

So help me, Tatiana chuckled. "Very diplomatic. They should assign you to a politician."

Nathan didn't like the attention on me. I wasn't sure I did either, semi-pleasant or not. "Are you and Priscilla doing business tonight? Or just having a friendly dinner?"

Tatiana dragged her gaze from me. "Both. There's been some inter-family squabbling going on. Not publicly, but it's getting out. People are making noise about security. Some are ready to start training up right now. Others are wondering if guardians can go without sleep." She rolled her eyes. "And those are the tamest of the suggestions."

No question about it. This visit had gotten a lot more interesting.

"I hope you're going to shut those would-be militants up," growled Nathan. "Us fighting alongside guardians is absurd."

"What's absurd," said Tatiana, "is having strife among the royal classes. That's what I want to 'shut up.'" Her tone grew lofty, very queenlike. "We're the leaders among the Moroi. We have to set an example. We need to be unified to survive."

I studied her curiously. What did that mean? She hadn't agreed or disagreed with Nathan's stance on Moroi fighting. She'd only mentioned establishing peace among her people. But how? Was her method to encourage the new motion or squash it? Security was a huge concern for everyone after the attack, and it fell on her to figure it out.

"Sounds pretty hard to me," said Adrian, playing oblivious to the seriousness of the matter. "If you still want a cigarette afterward, I'll make an exception."

"I'll settle for you coming to make a proper visit tomorrow," she said dryly. "Leave the cigarettes at home." She glanced at his empty wineglass. "And other things." A flash of steely resolve crossed her gaze, and even though it melted as quickly as it had come, I felt almost relieved. There was the icy Tatiana I knew.

He saluted. "Noted."

Tatiana gave the rest of us brief glances. "Have a good evening," was her only farewell. We bowed again, and then she headed back toward the front door. As she did, I heard scuffling and murmured voices. She'd been traveling with a retinue, I realized, and had left them all in the foyer while she came to say hello to Adrian.

Dinner was quiet after that. Tatiana's visit had kind of left us all astonished. At least it meant I didn't have to hear Adrian and his father bicker anymore. Daniella mostly maintained what little conversation there was, attempting to inquire about my interests, and I realized she hadn't said a word during Tatiana's brief visit. Daniella had married into the Ivashkovs, and I wondered if she found the queen intimidating.

When the time came for us to leave, Daniella was all smiles while Nathan retired to his study.

"You need to come by more often," she told Adrian, smoothing his hair in spite of his protests. "And you're welcome anytime, Rose."

"Thank you," I said, dumbfounded. I kept studying her face to see if she was lying, but I didn't think she was. It made no sense. Moroi didn't approve of long-term relationships with dhampirs. Royal Moroi especially didn't. And royal Moroi related to the queen especially didn't, at least if past experience was any indication.

Adrian sighed. "Maybe if he's not around. Oh, damn. That reminds me. I left my coat here last time--I wanted to get out too fast."

"You've got, like, fifty coats," I remarked.

"Ask Torrie," said Daniella. "She'll know where it is."

Adrian went off to find the housekeeper, leaving me with his mother. I should have made polite, inconsequential small talk, but my curiosity was getting the better of me.

"Dinner was really great," I told her honestly. "And I hope you won't take this the wrong way... but I mean... well, you seem okay with Adrian and me dating."

She nodded serenely. "I am."

"And..." Well, it had to be said. "Tat--Queen Tatiana kind of seemed okay with it too."

"She is."

I made sure my jaw didn't drop to the floor. "But... I mean, the last time I talked to her, she was really mad. She kept telling me over and over how she'd never allow us to be together in the future or get married or anything like that." I cringed, recalling Adrian's joke. "I figured you'd feel the same. Lord Ivashkov does. You can't really want your son to be with a dhampir forever."

Daniella's smile was kind but wry. "Do you plan on being with him forever? Do you plan on marrying him and settling down?"

The question totally caught me off guard. "I... no... I mean, no offense to Adrian. I just never--"

"Planned on settling down at all?" She nodded wisely. "That's what I thought. Believe me, I know Adrian wasn't serious earlier. Everyone's jumping to conclusions that haven't even happened. I've heard of you, Rose--everyone has. And I admire you. And based on what I've learned, I'm guessing you aren't the type who would quit being a guardian to be a housewife."

"You're right," I admitted.

"Then I don't see the problem. You're both young. You're entitled to have fun and do what you want now, but I--you and I--know that even if you see Adrian off and on for the rest of your life, you aren't going to get married or settle down. And it has nothing to do with what Nathan or anyone says. It's the way of the world. It's the kind of person you are. I can see it in your eyes. Tatiana's realized it too, and that's why she eased up. You need to be out there fighting, and that's what you'll do. At least if you truly intend to be a guardian."

"I do." I was staring at her in wonder. Her attitude was amazing. She was the first royal I'd met who hadn't immediately freaked out and gone crazy over the idea of a Moroi and dhampir match. If other people shared her view, it would make a lot of others' lives easier. And she was right. It didn't matter what Nathan thought. It wouldn't have even mattered if Dimitri had been around. The bottom line was that Adrian and I wouldn't be together for the rest of our lives because I'd always be on guardian duty, not lounging around like he did. Realizing that freed things up... yet it made me a little sad too.

Behind her, I could see Adrian approaching down the hall. Daniella leaned forward, pitching her voice low for me. There was a wistful note to her words when she spoke, the tone of a concerned mother. "But Rose? While I'm fine with you two dating and being happy, please try not to break his heart too much when the time comes."

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