Chapter Twelve

 

WHICH WAS CONFIRMED WHEN WE finally stumbled back to the Royal Court.

I wasn't the only one in trouble, of course. Lissa was summoned to the queen for chastising, though I knew she'd suffer no actual punishment. Not like Eddie and me. We might be out of school, but we were technically under the jurisdiction of the official guardians now, which meant we faced as much trouble as any disobedient employee. Only Adrian escaped any consequences. He was free to do whatever he wanted.

And really, my punishment wasn't as bad as it could have been. Honestly, what did I have to lose at this point? My chances of guarding Lissa had already been sketchy, and no one had wanted me as a guardian except Tasha anyway. A crazy Vegas weekend--which was our cover story--was hardly enough to dissuade her from taking me on. It was enough, however, to make some of Eddie's prospects withdraw their requests for him to be their guardian. Enough still wanted him that he was in no danger of losing a good position, but I felt horribly guilty. He didn't breathe a word to anyone about what we'd done, but each time he looked at me, I could see the condemnation in his eyes.

And I saw a lot of him in the next couple days. It turned out guardians had a system in place to deal with those who were disobedient.

"What you did was so irresponsible that you might as well be back in school. Hell, elementary school, even."

We were in one of the offices in the guardians' headquarters, being yelled at by Hans Croft, the guy in charge of all the guardians at Court and someone who was instrumental in guardian assignments. He was a dhampir in his early fifties, with a bushy gray-and-white mustache. He was also an asshole. The scent of cigar smoke always encircled him. Eddie and I were sitting meekly before him while he paced with his hands behind his back.

"You could have gotten the last Dragomir killed--not to mention the Ivashkov boy. How do you think the queen would have reacted to the death of her great-nephew? And talk about timing! You go off party-hopping right when the guy who tried to kidnap the princess is running loose. Not that you would know that, seeing as you were probably too busy playing slot machines and using your fake IDs."

I winced at the reference to Victor, though I suppose I should have been relieved that we were above suspicion for his escape. Hans read my grimace as an admission of guilt.

"You might have graduated," he declared, "but that does not mean you are invincible."

This whole encounter reminded me of when Lissa and I had returned to St. Vladimir's, when we'd been chastised for the same thing: recklessly running off and endangering her. Only this time, there was no Dimitri to defend me. That memory made a lump form in my throat as I remembered his face, serious and gorgeous, those brown eyes intense and passionate as he spoke up for me and convinced the others of my value.

But no. No Dimitri here. It was just Eddie and me alone, facing the consequences of the real world.

"You." Hans pointed a stubby finger at Eddie. "You might be lucky enough to slide out of this without too many repercussions. Sure, you'll have a black mark on your record forever. And you've totally screwed up your chances of ever having an elite royal position with other guardians to support you. You'll get some assignment though. Working alone with some minor nobility, probably."

High-ranking royals had more than one guardian, which always made protection easier. Hans's point was that Eddie's assignment would be lowly--creating more work and danger for him. Casting him a sidelong glance, I saw that hard, determined look on his face again. It seemed to say he didn't care if he had to guard a family by himself. Or even ten families. In fact, he gave off the vibe that they could drop him alone into a nest of Strigoi and he'd take them all on.

"And you." Hans's sharp voice jerked my gaze back to him. "You will be lucky to ever have a job."

Like always, I spoke without thinking. I should have taken this silently like Eddie. "Of course I'll have one. Tasha Ozera wants me. And you're too short on guardians to keep me sitting around."

Hans's eyes gleamed with bitter amusement. "Yes, we are short on guardians, but there's all sorts of work we need done--not just personal protection. Someone has to staff our offices. Someone has to sit and guard the front gates."

I froze. A desk job. Hans was threatening me with a desk job. All of my horrible imaginings had involved me guarding some random Moroi, someone I didn't know and would possibly hate. But in any of those scenarios, I would be out in the world. I would be in motion. I would be fighting and defending.

But this? Hans was right. Guardians were needed for the Court's administrative jobs. True, they only kept a handful--we were too valuable--but someone had to do it. One of those someones being me was too awful to comprehend. Sitting around all day for hours and hours... like the guards in Tarasov. Guardian life had all sorts of unglamorous--but necessary--tasks.

It truly, truly hit me then that I was in the real world. Fear slammed into me. I'd taken on the title of guardian when I graduated, but had I really understood what it meant? Had I been playing make-believe--enjoying the perks and ignoring the consequences? I was out of school. There would be no detention for this. This was real. This was life and death.

My face must have given away my feelings. Hans gave a small, cruel smile. "That's right. We've got all sorts of ways to tame troublemakers. Lucky for you, your ultimate fate's still being decided. And in the meantime, there's a lot of work that needs to be done around here that you two are going to be helping with."

That "work" over the next few days turned out to be menial manual labor. Honestly, it wasn't too different from detention, and I was pretty sure it had just been created to give wrongdoers like us something awful to do. We worked twelve hours a day, much of it outdoors hauling rocks and dirt to build some new, pretty courtyard for a set of royal town houses. Sometimes we were put on cleaning duty, scrubbing floors. I knew they had Moroi workers for these kinds of things, and probably they were being given a vacation right now.

Still, it was better than the other work Hans would give us: sorting and filing mountains and mountains of paper. That gave me a new appreciation for information going digital... and again made me worry about the future. Over and over, I kept thinking about that initial conversation with Hans. The threat that this could be my life. That I would never be a guardian--in the true sense--to Lissa or any other Moroi. Throughout my training, we'd always had a mantra: They come first. If I had really and truly screwed up my future, I'd have a new mantra: A comes first. Then B, C, D...

Those work days kept me away from Lissa, and the front-desk staff within our respective buildings went out of their way to keep us apart too. It was frustrating. I could keep track of her through the link, but I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to talk to anyone. Adrian stayed away too and didn't bother with dreams, making me wonder how he felt. We'd never had our "talk" after Las Vegas. Eddie and I often worked side by side, but he wasn't speaking to me, which left me with hours of being trapped with my own thoughts and guilt.

And believe me, I had plenty of things to intensify my guilt. Around Court, people didn't really notice workers. So whether I was inside or outside, people were always talking like I wasn't there. The biggest topic was Victor. Dangerous Victor Dashkov on the loose. How could it have happened? Did he have powers no one knew about? People were afraid, some even convinced he'd show up at Court and try to kill everyone in their sleep. The "inside job" theory was running rampant, which continued to keep us above suspicion. Unfortunately, it meant a lot of people now worried about traitors within our midst. Who knew who might be working for Victor Dashkov? Spies and rebels could be lurking at Court, planning all sorts of atrocities. I knew all the stories were exaggerated, but it didn't matter. They all came from one kernel of truth: Victor Dashkov was walking the world a free man. And only I--and my accomplices--knew it was all because of me.

Being seen in Las Vegas had continued to provide an alibi for the prison break and had made what we'd done seem even more rash. People were aghast that we'd let the Dragomir princess run off while there was a dangerous man on the loose--the man who'd assaulted her! Thank God, everyone said, that the queen had pulled us out of there before Victor found us. The Las Vegas trip had also opened up a whole new line of speculation--one that involved me personally.

"Well, that doesn't surprise me about Vasilisa," I overheard a woman say while I was working outdoors one day. She and some friends were strolling along toward the feeders' building and didn't even see me. "She's run away before, right? Those Dragomirs can be wild ones. She'll probably go straight back to the first party she can find, once they catch Victor Dashkov."

"You're wrong," her friend said. "That's not why she went. She's actually pretty levelheaded. It's that dhampir that's always with her--the Hathaway girl. I heard she and Adrian Ivashkov went to Las Vegas to elope. The queen's people just barely got there in time to stop them. Tatiana's furious, especially since Hathaway declared nothing will keep her and Adrian apart."

Whoa. That was kind of a shock. I mean, I guessed it was better for people to think Adrian and I were running off than for them to accuse me of aiding and abetting a fugitive, but still... I was kind of amazed at how that conclusion had come about. I hoped Tatiana hadn't heard about our so-called elopement. I was pretty sure that would ruin whatever progress she and I had made.

My first real social contact came in the form of an unlikely source. I was shoveling dirt into a raised flower bed and sweating like crazy. It was nearing bedtime for Moroi, meaning the sun was out in full summer glory. We at least had a pretty site while working: the Court's giant church.

I'd spent a lot of time at the Academy's chapel but had rarely visited this church since it was set far from the main buildings of the Court. It was Russian Orthodox--the predominant Moroi religion--and reminded me a lot of some of the cathedrals I'd seen while actually in Russia, though not nearly as big. It was made of beautiful red stonework, its towers topped with green-tiled domes, which were in turn topped with golden crosses.

Two gardens marked the far boundaries of the church's extensive grounds, one of which we were working on. Near us was one of the Court's most remarkable sites: a giant statue of some ancient Moroi queen that was almost ten times my height. A matching statue of a king stood on the opposite side of the grounds. I could never remember their names but was pretty sure we'd gone over them in one of my history classes. They'd been visionaries, changing the Moroi world of their time.

A figure appeared in my periphery, and I assumed it was Hans coming to give us another awful chore. Looking up, I was astonished to see it was Christian.

"Figures," I said. "You know you'll get in trouble if someone sees you talking to me."

Christian shrugged and sat on the edge of a partially completed stone wall. "Doubt it. You're the one who'll get into trouble, and I really don't think things can get any worse for you."

"True," I grunted.

He sat there in silence for several moments, watching me shovel pile after pile of dirt. Finally, he asked, "Okay. So how and why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"You know exactly what. Your little adventure."

"We got on a plane and flew to Las Vegas. Why? Hmm. Let's think." I paused to wipe sweat off my forehead. "Because where else are we going to find pirate-themed hotels and bartenders who don't card very much?"

Christian scoffed. "Rose, don't bullshit me. You did not go to Las Vegas."

"We've got plane tickets and hotel receipts to prove it, not to mention people who saw the Dragomir princess hit it big on slot machines."

My attention was on my work, but I suspected Christian was shaking his head in exasperation. "As soon as I heard three people had broken Victor Dashkov out of prison, I knew it had to be you. Three of you gone? No question."

Not far away, I saw Eddie stiffen and glance around uneasily. I did the same. I might have been desperate for social contact, but not at the risk of dangerous parties overhearing us. Our crimes getting out would make garden labor seem like a vacation. We were alone, but I still pitched my voice low and attempted an honest face.

"I heard they were humans hired by Victor." That was yet another theory running wild, as was this one: "Actually, I think he turned Strigoi."

"Right," Christian said snidely. He knew me too well to believe me. "And I also heard one of the guardians has no memory of what made him attack his friends. He swears he was under the control of someone. Anyone who had that kind of compulsion could probably make others see humans, mimes, kangaroos...."

I refused to look at him and slammed the shovel hard into the ground. I bit my lip on any angry retort.

"She did it because she thinks Strigoi can be restored to their original form."

My head shot up, and I stared at Eddie in disbelief, astonished he'd spoken. "What are you doing?"

"Telling the truth," replied Eddie, never stopping his work. "He's our friend. You think he's going to report us?"

No, rebel Christian Ozera was not going to report us. But that didn't mean I wanted this out. It's a fact of life: The more people who know a secret, the more likely it is to leak.

Unsurprisingly, Christian's reaction was not all that different from everyone else's. "What? That's impossible. Everyone knows that."

"Not according to Victor Dashkov's brother," said Eddie.

"Will you stop it?" I exclaimed.

"You can tell him or I will."

I sighed. Christian's pale blue eyes were staring at us, wide and shocked. Like most of my friends, he rolled with crazy ideas, but this was pushing the crazy line.

"I thought Victor Dashkov was an only child," Christian said.

I shook my head. "Nope. His dad had an affair, so Victor's got an illegitimate half-brother. Robert. And he's a spirit user."

"Only you," said Christian. "Only you would find something like this."

I ignored what appeared to be a return to his normal cynicism. "Robert claims to have healed a Strigoi--killed the undead part of her and brought her back to life."

"Spirit has limits, Rose. You might have been brought back, but Strigoi are gone."

"We don't know about spirit's full range," I pointed out. "Half of it is still a mystery."

"We know about St. Vladimir. If he could restore Strigoi, don't you think a guy like him would have been doing it? I mean, if that's not miraculous, what is? Something like that would have survived in the legends," argued Christian.

"Maybe. Maybe not." I retied my ponytail, replaying our encounter with Robert in my mind for the hundredth time. "Maybe Vlad didn't know how. It's not all that easy."

"Yeah," agreed Eddie. "This is the good part."

"Hey," I shot back at him. "I know you're mad at me, but with Christian here, we really don't need anyone else making snide comments."

"I don't know," said Christian. "For something like this, you actually might need two people. Now explain how this miracle is supposedly done."

I sighed. "By adding spirit to a stake, along with the other four elements."

Spirit charms were still a new concept to Christian too. "Never thought of that. I guess spirit would shake things up... but I can't imagine you staking a Strigoi with a spirit-charmed stake would be enough to bring them back."

"Well... that's the thing. According to Robert, I can't do it. It has to be done by a spirit user."

More silence. I'd rendered Christian speechless yet again.

At last he said, "We don't know that many spirit users. Let alone any who could fight or stake a Strigoi."

"We know two spirit users." I frowned, recalling Oksana in Siberia and Avery locked away... where? A hospital? A place like Tarasov? "No, four. Five, counting Robert. But yeah, none of them can really do it."

"It doesn't matter because it can't be done," Eddie said.

"We don't know that!" The desperation in my own voice startled me. "Robert believes it. Victor even believes." I hesitated. "And Lissa does too."

"And she wants to do it," Christian said, catching on quickly. "Because she would do anything for you."

"She can't."

"Because she doesn't have the ability or because you won't let her?"

"Both," I cried. "I'm not letting her anywhere near a Strigoi. She's already..." I groaned, hating to reveal what I'd discovered in our time apart through the bond. "She got a hold of a stake and is trying to charm it. So far, she hasn't had much luck, thank God."

"If this were possible," began Christian slowly. "It could change our world. If she could learn... "

"What? No!" I'd been so eager to get Christian to believe me, and now I wished he hadn't. The one saving grace in all this was that with none of my friends thinking it was possible, none of them had given any thought to Lissa actually trying to fight a Strigoi. "Lissa's no warrior. No spirit user we know is, so unless we find one, I'd rather... " I winced. "I'd rather Dimitri died."

That finally made Eddie stop working. He threw down his shovel. "Really? I never would have guessed that." Sarcasm to rival my own.

I spun around and strode toward him, my fists clenched. "Look, I can't take this anymore! I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say. I know I screwed up. I let Dimitri get away. I let Victor get away."

"You let Victor get away?" asked Christian, startled.

I ignored him and continued shouting at Eddie. "It was a mistake. With Dimitri... it was a weak moment. I failed in my training. I know I did. We both know it. But you know I didn't intend the damage I caused. If you're really my friend, you have to know it. If I could take it back..." I swallowed, surprised to feel my eyes burning. "I would. I swear I would, Eddie."

His face was perfectly still. "I believe you. I am your friend, and I know... I know you didn't mean for things to turn out like they did."

I sagged in relief, surprised at how truly worried I'd been about losing his respect and friendship. Looking down, I was startled to see my fists balled up. I relaxed them, unable to believe I'd been that upset. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"What's all this shouting?"

We both turned and saw Hans heading toward us. And he looked pissed off. I also noticed then that Christian had practically vanished into thin air. Just as well.

"This isn't social time!" growled Hans. "You two still have another hour left today. If you're going to get distracted, then maybe you should be separated." He beckoned to Eddie. "Come on. There's some filing with your name on it."

I shot Eddie a sympathetic look as Hans led him away. Yet I was relieved it wasn't me off to do paperwork.

I continued my labors, my mind spinning with the same questions I'd had all week. I had meant what I said to Eddie. I wanted so badly for this dream of Dimitri being saved to be true. I wanted it more than anything--except Lissa risking her life. I shouldn't have hesitated. I should have just killed Dimitri. Victor wouldn't have escaped. Lissa wouldn't have given Robert's words a second thought.

Thinking of Lissa pushed me into her mind. She was in her room, doing some last-minute packing before going to bed. Tomorrow was her Lehigh visit. Unsurprisingly, my invitation to go with her had been revoked in light of recent events. Her birthday--something that had been horribly overlooked in this mess--was this weekend as well, and it didn't seem right for me to be apart from her during it. We should have been celebrating together. Her thoughts were troubled, and she was so consumed by them that a sudden knock at the door made her jump.

Wondering who could be visiting her at this hour, she opened the door and gasped to see Christian standing there. It was surreal to me too. Part of me still kept thinking we were in our school dorms, where rules--theoretically--kept guys and girls out of each other's rooms. But we were no longer there. We were technically adults now. He must have gone straight to her room after seeing me, I realized.

It was astonishing how quickly the tension ratcheted up between them. A bundle of emotions burst into Lissa's chest, the usual mix of anger, grief, and confusion.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

The same emotions were in his face. "I wanted to talk to you."

"It's late," she said stiffly. "Besides, I seem to remember you don't like talking."

"I want to talk about what happened with Victor and Robert."

That was enough to startle her out of her anger. She cast an anxious look into the hallway and then beckoned him inside. "How do you know about that?" she hissed, hastily shutting the door.

"I just saw Rose."

"How did you get to see her? I can't see her." Lissa was as frustrated as me over how our superiors had been keeping us apart.

Christian shrugged, careful to maintain a safe distance between them in the suite's small living room. Both of them had their arms crossed defensively, though I don't think they realized how they were mirroring each other. "I snuck into her prison camp. They've got her shoveling dirt for hours."

Lissa grimaced. With the way they'd kept us separated, she hadn't known much about my activities. "Poor Rose."

"She's managing. Like always." Christian's eyes turned toward the couch and her open suitcase, where a silver stake lay on top of a silk blouse. I doubted that shirt would survive the trip without a million wrinkles. "Interesting thing to bring on a college visit."

Lissa hastily shut the suitcase. "That's none of your business."

"Do you really believe it?" he asked, ignoring her comment. He took a step forward, his eagerness apparently making him forget about wanting to keep away. Even as distracted as she was by the situation, Lissa immediately became aware of their new proximity, the way he smelled, the way the light shone on his black hair.... "Do you think you could bring back a Strigoi?"

She turned her attention back to the conversation and shook her head. "I don't know. I really don't. But I feel like... I feel like I have to try. If nothing else, I want to know what spirit in a stake will do. That's harmless enough."

"Not according to Rose."

Lissa gave him a rueful smile, realized what she was doing, and promptly dropped it. "No. Rose doesn't want me going anywhere near this idea--even though she wants it to be real."

"Tell me the truth." His gaze burned to her. "Do you think you have any chance of staking a Strigoi?"

"No," she admitted. "I could barely throw a punch. But... like I said, I feel like I should try. I should try to learn. To stake one, I mean."

Christian pondered this for a few moments and then gestured toward the suitcase again. "You're going to Lehigh in the morning?"

Lissa nodded.

"And Rose got cut from the trip?"

"Of course."

"Did the queen offer to let you bring another friend?"

"She did," admitted Lissa. "In particular, she suggested Adrian. But he's sulking... and I'm not really sure if I'm in the mood for him."

Christian seemed pleased by this. "Then bring me."

My poor friends. I wasn't sure how much more shock any of them could handle today.

"Why the hell would I bring you?" she exclaimed. All her anger returned at his presumption. It was a sign of her agitation that she'd sworn.

"Because," he said, face calm, "I can teach you how to stake a Strigoi."

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