Chapter Twenty-Five

 

I DIDN'T WANT TO SEE anyone after that. I trekked back to my room as quickly as I could, hardly noticing the obstacles and people in my path. Over and over, Dimitri's words played in my head: Love fades. Mine has. Somehow, that was the worst thing he could have said. Don't get me wrong: The rest wasn't easy either. Having him tell me he was going to avoid me and ignore our past relationship made me feel awful too. Yet, within that, no matter how much it hurt, was the tiny hope that there was still some spark of love between us. That he still loved me.

But... love fades.

That was something else altogether. It meant that what we had would die, going pale until it crumbled and drifted away like dried up leaves in the wind. The thought of it caused a pain in my chest and stomach, and I curled up on my bed, wrapping my arms around myself as though that might lessen the hurt. I couldn't accept what he had said. I couldn't accept that somehow, after his ordeal, his love for me had gone away.

I wanted to stay in my room for the rest of the day, curled up in the darkness of my covers. I forgot about Sydney's conversation and my earlier concerns about Lissa's dad. I even let go of Lissa herself. She had a few errands today, but every so often, a message would flit to me through the bond: Come join me?

When I didn't contact her, she began to grow worried. I was suddenly afraid that she--or someone else--might come seeking me in my room. So I decided to leave. I had no real destination; I just had to keep moving. I walked around the Court, scouting places I'd never seen before. It was filled with more statues and fountains than I'd realized. Their beauty was lost on me, though, and when I returned to my room hours later, I was exhausted from all the walking. Oh well. At least I'd dodged having to talk to anyone.

Or had I? It was late, past my usual bedtime, when a knock came at my door. I was hesitant to answer. Who would be coming by so late? Did I want the distraction or did I want to keep my solitude? I had no idea who it could be, save that it wasn't Lissa. God. For all I knew, it was Hans, demanding to know why I hadn't been showing up for my work detail. After much thinking (and more persistent knocking), I decided to open it.

It was Adrian.

"Little dhampir," he said with a small, weary smile. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Not a ghost, exactly. Believe me, I knew ghosts when I saw them. "I just... I just didn't really expect to see you after this morning...."

He entered and sat down on my bed, and I was glad to see he'd cleaned up since our earlier talk. He wore fresh clothes, and his hair was back to its normal perfection. I still caught the lingering scent of cloves, but after what I'd put him through, he was entitled to his vices.

"Yeah, well, I didn't expect to come by either," he admitted. "But you... well... you got me thinking about something."

I sat down beside him, keeping a healthy distance. "Us?"

"No. Lissa."

"Oh." I'd accused Dimitri of being egotistic, but here I was, naturally assuming love for me was all that could have driven Adrian over.

His green eyes turned speculative. "I kept thinking about what you'd said, about her dad. And you were right--right about the gambling thing. He'd have the money to pay off any debt. He wouldn't have had to keep it a secret. So I went and asked my mom."

"What?" I exclaimed. "No one's supposed to know that--"

"Yeah, yeah, I figured your information had been top secret. Don't worry. I told her that when we were in Vegas, we heard some people talking about it--about Lissa's dad making secret deposits."

"What'd she say?"

"The same thing I did. Well, actually, she snapped at me first. She said Eric Dragomir was a good man and that I shouldn't spread rumors about the dead. She suggested that maybe he had a gambling problem, but if so, people shouldn't focus on that, when he did so many great things. After the Death Watch, I think she's afraid of me causing more public scenes."

"She's right. About Eric," I said. Maybe someone had stolen those records as some part of a slander campaign. Admittedly, spreading rumors about the dead was pointless, but maybe someone wanted to blacken the Dragomir reputation and get rid of any chance of the voting law being changed for Lissa? I was about to say as much to Adrian when he interrupted with something even more shocking.

"And then my dad overheard us, and he was like, 'He was probably funding some mistress. You're right--he was a nice guy. But he liked to flirt. And he liked the ladies.'" Adrian rolled his eyes. "That's a direct quote: 'He liked the ladies.' My dad is such an ass. He sounds twice his age."

I gripped Adrian's arm without realizing it. "What did he say after that?"

Adrian shrugged but left my hand where it was. "Nothing. My mom got mad and said the same thing to him that she said to me, that it was cruel to spread stories no one could prove."

"Do you think it's true? Do you think Lissa's dad had a mistress? Was that what he was paying out for?"

"Don't know, little dhampir. Honestly? My dad's the type who would jump on any rumor he could. Or make one up. I mean, we know Lissa's dad liked to party. It's easy to jump to conclusions from there. Probably he had some dirty secret. Hell, we all do. Maybe whoever stole those files just wanted to exploit that."

I told him my theory about it being used against Lissa. "Or," I said, reconsidering, "maybe someone who supports her took it. So that it wouldn't get out."

Adrian nodded. "Either way, I don't think Lissa's in mortal danger."

He started to rise, and I pulled him back. "Adrian, wait... I..." I swallowed. "I wanted to apologize. The way I've been treating you, what I've been doing... it wasn't fair to you. I'm sorry."

He looked away from me, eyes focused on the ground. "You can't help the way you feel."

"The thing is... I don't know how I feel. And that sounds stupid, but it's the truth. I care about Dimitri. I was stupid to think I'd be unaffected by him being back. But I realize now..." Love fades. Mine has. "I realize now that it's over with him. I'm not saying that's easy to get past. It'll take a while, and I'd be lying to both of us if I said it wouldn't."

"That makes sense," Adrian said.

"It does?"

He glanced at me, a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "Yes, little dhampir. Sometimes you make sense. Go on."

"I... well, like I said... I've got to heal from him. But I do care about you.... I think I even love you a little." That got a small smile. "I want to try again. I really do. I like having you in my life, but I may have jumped into things too soon before. You don't have any reason to want me after the way I've dragged you around, but if you want to get together again, then I want to."

He studied me for a long time, and my breath caught. I'd meant what I said: He had every right to end things with us... and yet, the thought that he might terrified me.

At last, he pulled me against him and lay back against the bed. "Rose, I have all sorts of reasons to want you. I haven't been able to stay away from you since I saw you at the ski lodge."

I shifted closer to Adrian on the bed and pressed my head against his chest. "We can make this work. I know we can. If I screw up again, you can leave."

"If only it were that easy," he laughed. "You forget: I have an addictive personality. I'm addicted to you. Somehow I think you could do all sorts of bad things to me, and I'd still come back to you. Just keep things honest, okay? Tell me what you're feeling. If you're feeling something for Dimitri that's confusing you, tell me. We'll work it out."

I wanted to tell him that--regardless of my feelings--he had nothing to worry about with Dimitri because Dimitri had rejected me a number of times now. I could chase after Dimitri all I wanted, and it wouldn't do any good. Love fades. Those words still stung, and I couldn't bear to give voice to that pain. But as Adrian held me and I thought about how understanding he was about all of this, some wounded part of me acknowledged that the opposite was true as well: Love grows. I would try with him. I really would.

I sighed. "You're not supposed to be this wise. You're supposed to be shallow and unreasonable and... and..."

He pressed a kiss to my forehead. "And?"

"Mmm... ridiculous."

"Ridiculous I can manage. And the others... but only on special occasions."

We were wrapped close together now, and I tilted my head to study him, the high cheekbones and artfully messy hair that made him so gorgeous. I remembered his mother's words, that regardless of what we wanted, he and I would eventually have to part ways. Maybe this was how my life was going to be. I'd always lose the men I loved.

I pulled him hard against me, kissing his mouth with a force that caught even him by surprise. If I had learned anything about life and love, it was that they were tenuous things that could end at any moment. Caution was essential--but not at the cost of wasting your life. I decided I wasn't going to waste it now.

My hands were already tugging at Adrian's shirt before that thought was fully formed. He didn't question it or hesitate in taking my clothes off in return. He might have moments of profoundness and understanding, but he was still... well, Adrian. Adrian lived his life in the now, doing the things he wanted without much second-guessing. And he had wanted me for a very long time.

He was also very good at this sort of thing, which was why my clothes came off faster than his. His lips were hot and eager against my throat, but he was careful to never once let his fangs brush my skin. I was a little less gentle, surprising myself when I dug my nails into the bare skin of his back. His lips moved lower, tracing the line of my collarbone while he deftly took off my bra one-handed.

I was a little astonished at my body's reaction as we both fought to get the other's jeans off first. I'd convinced myself that I'd never want sex again after Dimitri, but right now? Oh, I wanted it. Maybe it was some psychological reaction to Dimitri's rejection. Maybe it was an impulse to live for the moment. Maybe it was love for Adrian. Or maybe it was just lust.

Whatever it was, it made me powerless beneath his hands and mouth, which seemed intent on exploring every part of me. The only time he paused was when all my clothes were finally off and I lay there naked with him. He was almost naked too, but I hadn't quite gotten to his boxers yet. (They were silk because, honestly, what else would Adrian wear?). He cupped my face in his hands, his eyes filled with intensity and desire--and a bit of wonder.

"What are you, Rose Hathaway? Are you real? You're a dream within a dream. I'm afraid touching you will make me wake up. You'll disappear." I recognized a little of the poetic trance he sometimes fell into, the spells that made me wonder if he was catching a little of the spirit-induced madness.

"Touch me and find out," I said, drawing him to me.

He didn't hesitate again. The last of his clothes came off, and my whole body heated at the feel of his skin and the way his hands slid over me. My physical needs were rapidly trampling over any logic and reason. There was no thought, just us, and the fierce urgency bringing us together. I was all burning need and desire and sensation and--

"Oh, shit."

It came out as kind of a mumble since we'd been kissing, our lips eagerly seeking out the other's. With guardian reflexes, I barely managed to shift away, just as our hips started to come together. Losing the feel of him was shocking to me, more so for him. He was stunned, simply staring in astonishment as I wriggled further from him and finally managed a sitting position on the bed.

"What... what's wrong? Did you change your mind?"

"We need protection first," I said. "Do you have any condoms?"

He processed this for a few seconds and then sighed. "Rose, only you would pick this instant to remember that."

That was a fair point. My timing kind of sucked. Still, it was better than remembering it afterward. In spite of my body's rampant desire--and it was still there, believe me--I suddenly had a startling, vivid image of Dimitri's sister Karolina. I'd met her in Siberia, and she'd had a baby that was about six months old. The baby was adorable, as babies often are, but by God, she had been so much work. Karolina had a waitressing job, and as soon as she was home from that, her attention went to the baby. When she was at work, Dimitri's mother took care of the baby. And the baby always needed something: food, changing, rescue from choking on a small object. His sister Sonya had been on the verge of having a baby too, and with the way I'd left things with his youngest sister, Viktoria, I wouldn't be surprised to find she was pregnant before long. Huge life changes made from small, careless actions.

So I was pretty confident I didn't want a baby in my life right now, not this young. With Dimitri, it hadn't been a concern, thanks to dhampir infertility. With Adrian? It was an issue, as was the fact that while disease was rare among both our races, I wasn't the first girl Adrian had been with. Or the second. Or the third...

"So do you have any?" I asked impatiently. Just because I was in responsible mode, it didn't mean I wanted sex any less.

"Yes," said Adrian, sitting up as well. "Back in my bedroom."

We stared at each other. His bedroom was far away, over in the Moroi section of Court.

He slid nearer, putting his arm around me and nibbling my earlobe. "The odds of anything bad happening are pretty low."

I closed my eyes and tipped my head back against him. He wrapped his hands around my hips and stroked my skin. "What are you, a doctor?" I asked.

He laughed softly, his mouth kissing the spot just behind my ear. "No. I'm just someone willing to take a risk. You can't tell me you don't want this."

I opened my eyes and pulled away so that I could look at him directly. He was right. I did want this. Very, very badly. And the part of me--which was pretty much all of me--that burned with lust was attempting to win me over. The odds probably were low, right? Weren't there people who tried forever to get pregnant and couldn't? My desire had an okay argument, so it was kind of a surprise when my logic won.

"I can't take the risk," I said.

Now Adrian studied me, and at last, he nodded. "Okay. Another time then. Tonight we'll be... responsible."

"That's all you're going to say?"

He frowned. "What else would I say? You said no."

"But you... you could have compelled me."

Now he was really astonished. "Do you want me to compel you?"

"No. Of course not. It just occurred to me that... well, that you could have."

Adrian cupped my face in his hands. "Rose, I cheat at cards and buy liquor for minors. But I would never, ever force you into something you don't want. Certainly not this--"

His words were cut off because I'd pressed myself against him and started kissing him again. Surprise must have kept him from doing anything right away, but soon, he pushed me away with what seemed like great reluctance.

"Little dhampir," he said dryly, "if you want to be responsible, this is not a good way to do it."

"We don't have to let this go. And we can be responsible."

"All of those stories are--"

He came screeching to a halt when I tossed my hair out of the way and offered my neck to him. I managed to turn slightly so that I could meet his eyes, but I said nothing. I didn't have to. The invitation was obvious.

"Rose..." he said uncertainly--though I could see the longing spring up in his face.

Drinking blood wasn't the same as sex, but it was a yearning all vampires had, and doing it while aroused--so I'd heard--was a mind-blowing experience. It was also taboo and hardly ever done, so people claimed. It was where the definition of blood whore had originated: dhampirs who gave their blood during sex. The idea of dhampirs yielding blood at all was considered disgraceful, but I'd done it before: with Lissa when she needed food and with Dimitri when he'd been Strigoi. And it had been glorious.

He tried again, his voice steadier this time. "Rose, do you know what you're asking?"

"Yes," I said firmly. I gently ran a finger along his lips and then slipped in to touch his fangs. I threw his own words back at him. "You can't tell me you don't want this."

He did want it. In a heartbeat, his mouth was at my neck and his fangs were piercing my skin. I cried out at the sudden pain, a sound that softened to a moan as the endorphins that came with every vampire bite flooded into me. An exquisite bliss consumed me. He pulled me hard against him as he drank, almost onto his lap, pressing my back against his chest. I was distantly aware of his hands all over me again, of his lips upon my throat. Mostly, all I knew was that I was drowning in pure, ecstatic sweetness. The perfect high.

When he pulled away, it was like losing part of myself. Like being incomplete. Confused, needing him back, I reached for him. He gently pushed my hand away, smiling as he licked his lips.

"Careful, little dhampir. I went longer than I should have. You could probably grow wings and fly off right now."

It actually didn't sound like a bad idea. In a few more moments, though, the intense, crazy part of the high faded, and I settled back to myself. I still felt wonderful and dizzy; the endorphins had fed my body's desire. My reasoning slowly came back to me, allowing (kind of) coherent thought to penetrate that happy haze. When Adrian was convinced I was sober enough, he relaxed and lay down on the bed. I joined him a moment later, curling up against his side. He seemed as content as I was.

"That," he mused, "was the best not-sex ever."

My only response was a sleepy smile. It was late, and the more I crashed down from the endorphin rush, the drowsier I felt. Some tiny part of me said that even though I'd wanted this and cared about Adrian, the whole act had been wrong. I hadn't done it for the right reasons, instead letting myself get carried away by my own grief and confusion.

The rest of me decided that wasn't true, and the nagging voice soon faded into exhaustion. I fell asleep against Adrian, getting the best night of sleep I'd had in a long time.

I wasn't entirely surprised that I was able to get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and even blow-dry my hair without Adrian waking up. My friends and I had spent many a morning trying to drag him out of bed in the past. Hungover or sober, he was a heavy sleeper.

I spent more time on my hair than I had in a while. The telltale mark of a vampire bite was fresh on my neck. So I wore my hair down, careful to style it with a part so that the long waves hung heavy on the bite side. Satisfied the bruise would stay camouflaged, I pondered what to do next. In an hour or so, the Council was going to listen to arguments from factions with varying ideas on the new age decree, Moroi fighting, and the Dragomir vote. Provided they let me in the hall, I had no intention of missing the debates on the hottest issues in our world right now.

I didn't want to wake up Adrian, though. He was tangled up in my sheets and slept peacefully. If I woke him up, I'd feel obligated to stick around while he got ready. Through the bond, I felt Lissa sitting alone at a cafe table. I wanted to see her and have breakfast, so I decided Adrian could fend for himself. I left him a note about where I was, told him the door would lock on his way out, and drew lots of x's and o's.

When I was halfway to the cafe, though, I sensed something that ruined my breakfast plan. Christian had sat down with Lissa.

"Well, well," I muttered. With everything else going on, I hadn't paid much attention to Lissa's personal life. After what had happened at the warehouse, I wasn't entirely surprised to see them together, though her feelings told me there had been no romantic reconciliation... yet. This was an uneasy attempt at friendship, a chance to get over their constant jealousy and distrust.

Far be it from me to intrude on love at work. I knew another place near the guardians' buildings that also had coffee and doughnuts. It would do, provided no one there remembered that I was technically still on probation and had made a scene in a royal hall.

The odds on that probably weren't good.

Still, I decided to give it a try and headed over, eyeing the overcast sky uneasily. Rain wouldn't help my mood any. When I got to the cafe, I discovered I didn't have to worry about anyone paying attention to me. There was a bigger draw: Dimitri.

He was out with his personal guard, and even though I was glad he had some freedom, the attitude that he needed close watching still angered me. At least there was no giant crowd today. People who came in for breakfast couldn't help but stare, but few lingered. He had five guardians with him this time, which was a significant reduction. That was a good sign. He sat alone at a table, coffee and a half-eaten glazed doughnut in front of him. He was reading a paperback novel that I would have bet my life was a Western.

No one sat with him. His escort simply maintained a ring of protection, a couple near the walls, one at the entrance, and two at nearby tables. The security seemed pointless. Dimitri was completely engrossed in his book, oblivious to the guards and occasional spectators--or he was simply making a good show of not caring. He seemed very harmless, but Adrian's words came back to me. Was there any Strigoi left in him? Some dark part? Dimitri himself claimed he still carried the piece that prevented him from ever truly loving anyone.

He and I had always had this uncanny awareness of each other. In a crowded room, I could always find him. And in spite of his preoccupation with the book, he looked up when I walked toward the cafe's counter. Our eyes met for a millisecond. There was no expression on his face... and yet, I had the feeling he was waiting for something.

Me, I realized with a start. Despite everything, despite our fight in the church... he still thought I would pursue and make some pledge of my love. Why? Did he just expect me to be that unreasonable? Or was it possible... was it possible he wanted me to approach him?

Well, whatever the reason, I decided I wouldn't give it to him. He'd hurt me too many times already. He'd told me to stay away, and if that was all part of some elaborate game to toy with my feelings, I wasn't going to play. I gave him a haughty look and turned away sharply as I walked up to the counter. I ordered chai and a chocolate eclair. After a moment's consideration, I ordered a second eclair. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those days.

My plan had been to eat outside, but as I glanced toward the tinted windows, I could just barely make out the pattern of raindrops hitting the panes. Damn. I briefly considered fighting the weather and going somewhere else with my food, but I decided I wasn't going to let Dimitri scare me off. Spying a table far from him, I headed toward it, going out of my way not to look at or acknowledge him.

"Hey Rose. Are you going to the Council today?"

I came to a halt. One of Dimitri's guardians had spoken, giving me a friendly smile as he did. I couldn't recall the guy's name, but he'd seemed nice whenever we passed each other. I didn't want to be rude, and so, reluctantly, I answered back--even though it meant staying near Dimitri.

"Yup," I said, making sure my attention was only on the guardian. "Just grabbing a bite before I do."

"Are they going to let you in?" asked another of the guardians. He too was smiling. For a moment, I thought they were mocking my last outburst. But no... that wasn't it. Their faces showed approval.

"That's an excellent question," I admitted. I took a bite of my eclair. "But I figure I should give it a try. I'll also try to be on good behavior."

The first guardian chuckled. "I certainly hope not. That group deserves all the grief you can give them over that stupid age law." The other guardians nodded.

"What age law?" asked Dimitri.

Reluctantly, I looked over at him. As always, he swept my breath away. Stop it, Rose, I scolded myself. You're mad at him, remember? And now you've chosen Adrian.

"The decree where royals think sending sixteen-year-old dhampirs out to fight Strigoi is the same as sending eighteen-year-olds," I said. I took another bite.

Dimitri's head shot up so quickly, I nearly choked on my food. "Which sixteen-year-olds are fighting Strigoi?" His guardians tensed but did nothing else.

It took me a moment to get the bite of eclair down. When I could finally speak, I was almost afraid to. "That's the decree. Dhampirs graduate when they're sixteen now."

"When did this happen?" he demanded.

"Just the other day. No one told you?" I glanced over at the other guardians. One of them shrugged. I had the impression that they might believe Dimitri was truly a dhampir but that they weren't ready to get chatty with him. His only other social contact would have been Lissa and his interrogators.

"No." Dimitri's brow furrowed as he pondered the news.

I ate my eclair in silence, hoping it would push him to talk more. It did.

"That's insane," he said. "Morality aside, they aren't ready that young. It's suicide."

"I know. Tasha gave a really good argument against it. I did too."

Dimitri gave me a suspicious look at that last part, particularly when a couple of his guardians smiled.

"Was it a close vote?" he asked. He spoke to me interrogation style, in the serious and focused way that had so defined him as a guardian. It was a lot better than depression, I decided. It was also better than him telling me to go away.

"Very close. If Lissa could have voted, it wouldn't have passed."

"Ah," he said, playing with the edges of his coffee cup. "The quorum."

"You know about that?" I asked in surprise.

"It's an old Moroi law."

"So I hear."

"What's the opposition trying to do? Sway the Council back or get Lissa the Dragomir vote?"

"Both. And other things."

He shook his head, tucking some hair behind his ear. "They can't do that. They need to pick one cause and throw their weight behind it. Lissa's the smartest choice. The Council needs the Dragomirs back, and I've seen the way people look at her when they put me on display." Only the slightest edge of bitterness laced his words, indicating how he felt about that. Then it was back to business. "It wouldn't be hard to get support for that--if they don't divide their efforts."

I started in on my second eclair, forgetting about my earlier resolution to ignore him. I didn't want to distract him from the topic. It was the first thing that had brought the old fire back to his eyes, the only thing he seemed truly interested in--well, aside from pledging lifelong devotion to Lissa and telling me to stay out of his life. I liked this Dimitri.

It was the same Dimitri from long ago, the fierce one who was willing to risk his life for what was right. I almost wished he'd go back to being annoying, distant Dimitri, the one who told me to stay away. Seeing him now brought back too many memories--not to mention the attraction I thought I'd smashed. Now, with that passion all over him, he seemed sexier than ever. He'd worn that same intensity when we'd fought together. Even when we'd had sex. This was the way Dimitri was supposed to be: powerful and in charge. I was glad and yet... seeing him the way I loved only made my heart feel that much worse. He was lost to me.

If Dimitri guessed my feelings, he didn't show it. He looked squarely at me, and, like always, the power of that gaze wrapped around me. "The next time you see Tasha, will you send her to me? We need to talk about this."

"So, Tasha can be your friend, but not me?" The sharp words were out before I could stop them. I flushed, embarrassed that I'd lapsed in front of the other guardians. Dimitri apparently didn't want an audience either. He looked up at the one who had initially addressed me.

"Is there any way we could have some privacy?"

His escort exchanged looks, and then, almost as one being, they stepped back. It wasn't a considerable distance, and they still maintained a ring around Dimitri. Nonetheless, it was enough that all of our conversation wouldn't be overheard. Dimitri turned back to me. I sat down.

"You and Tasha have completely different situations. She can safely be in my life. You can't."

"And yet," I said with an angry toss of my hair, "it's apparently okay for me to be in your life when it's convenient--say, like, running errands or passing messages."

"It doesn't really seem like you need me in your life," he noted dryly, inclining his head slightly toward my right shoulder.

It took me a moment to grasp what had happened. In tossing my hair, I'd exposed my neck--and the bite. I tried not to blush again, knowing I had nothing to feel embarrassed about. I pushed the hair back.

"That's none of your business," I hissed, hoping the other guardians hadn't seen.

"Exactly." He sounded triumphant. "Because you need to live your own life, far away from me."

"Oh, for God's sake," I exclaimed. "Will you stop with the--"

My eyes lifted from his face because an army suddenly descended upon us.

Okay, it wasn't exactly an army, but it might as well have been. One minute it was just Dimitri, me, and his security, and then suddenly--the room was swarming with guardians. And not just any guardians. They wore the black-and-white outfits guardians often did for formal occasions, but a small red button on their collars marked them as guardians specifically attached to the queen's guard. There had to be at least twenty of them.

They were lethal and deadly, the best of the best. Throughout history, assassins who had attacked monarchs had found themselves quickly taken down by the royal guard. They were walking death--and they were all gathering around us. Dimitri and I both shot up, unsure what was happening but certain the threat here was directed at us. His table and its chairs were between us, but we still immediately fell into the standard fighting stance when surrounded by enemies: Go back-to-back.

Dimitri's security wore ordinary clothing and seemed a bit astonished to see their brethren, but with guardian efficiency, the escort promptly joined the advancing queen's guard. There were no more smiles or jokes. I wanted to throw myself in front of Dimitri, but in this situation, it was kind of difficult.

"You need to come with us right now," one of the queen's guards said. "If you resist, we'll take you by force."

"Leave him alone!" I yelled, looking from face to face. That angry darkness exploded within me. How could they still not believe? Why were they still coming after him? "He hasn't done anything! Why can't you guys accept that he's really a dhampir now?"

The man who'd spoken arched an eyebrow. "I wasn't talking to him."

"You're... you're here for me?" I asked. I tried to think of any new spectacles I might have caused recently. I considered the crazy idea that the queen had found out I'd spent the night with Adrian and was pissed off about it. That was hardly enough to send the palace guard for me, though... or was it? Had I really gone too far with my antics?

"What for?" demanded Dimitri. That tall, wonderful body of his--the one that could be so sensual sometimes--was filled with tension and menace now.

The man kept his gaze on me, ignoring Dimitri. "Don't make me repeat myself: Come with us quietly, or we will make you." The glimmer of handcuffs showed in his hands.

My eyes went wide. "That's crazy! I'm not going anywhere until you tell me how the hell this--"

That was the point at which they apparently decided I wasn't coming quietly. Two of the royal guardians lunged for me, and even though we technically worked for the same side, my instincts kicked in. I didn't understand anything here except that I would not be dragged away like some kind of master criminal. I shoved the chair I'd been sitting in earlier at one of the guardians and aimed a punch at the other. It was a sloppy throw, made worse because he was taller than me. That height difference allowed me to dodge his next grab, and when I kicked hard at his legs, a small grunt told me I'd hit home.

I heard a few scattered screams. The people working at the cafe ducked behind their counter like they expected automatic weapons to come out. The other patrons who'd been eating breakfast hurriedly sprang from their tables, heedlessly knocking over food and dishes. They ran for the exits--exits that were blocked by still more guardians. This brought more screams, even though the exits were being cut off because of me.

Meanwhile, other guardians were joining the fray. Although I got a couple of good punches in, I knew the numbers were too overwhelming. One guardian caught hold of my arm and began trying to put the cuffs on me. He stopped when another set of hands grabbed me from the other side and jerked me away.

Dimitri.

"Don't touch her," he growled.

There was a note in his voice that would have scared me if it had been directed toward me. He shoved me behind him, putting his body protectively in front of mine with my back to the table. Guardians came at us from all directions, and Dimitri began dispatching them with the same deadly grace that had once made people call him a god. He didn't kill any of the ones he fought, but he made sure they were out of action. If anyone thought his ordeals as a Strigoi or being locked up had diminished his fighting ability, they were terribly mistaken. Dimitri was a force of nature, managing to take on both impossible odds and stop me each time I tried to join the fight. The queen's guards might have been the best of the best, but Dimitri... well, my former lover and instructor was in a category all his own. His fighting skills were beyond anyone else's, and he was using them all in defense of me.

"Stay back," he ordered me. "They aren't laying a hand on you."

At first, I was overwhelmed by his protectiveness--even though I hated not being part of a fight. Watching him fight again was also entrancing. He made it look beautiful and lethal at the same time. He was a one-man army, the kind of warrior that protected his loved ones and brought terror to his enemies--

And that's when a horrible revelation hit me.

"Stop!" I suddenly yelled. "I'll come! I'll come with you!"

No one heard me at first. They were too involved with the fight. Guardians kept trying to sneak behind Dimitri, but he seemed to sense them and would shove chairs or anything else he could get a hold of at them--while still managing to kick and punch those coming at us head-on. Who knew? Maybe he really could have taken on an army by himself.

But I couldn't let him.

I shook Dimitri's arm. "Stop," I repeated. "Don't fight anymore."

"Rose--"

"Stop!"

I was pretty sure I'd never screamed any word so loudly in my life. It rang through the room. For all I knew, it rang through the entire Court.

It didn't exactly make everyone come to a halt, but many of the guardians slowed down. A few of the cowering cafe workers peered over the counter at us. Dimitri was still in motion, still ready to take everyone on, and I had to practically throw myself at him to get him to notice me.

"Stop." This time, my voice was a whisper. An uneasy silence had fallen over everyone. "Don't fight them anymore. I'm going to go with them."

"No. I won't let them take you."

"You have to," I begged.

He was breathing hard, every part of him braced and ready to attack. We locked gazes, and a thousand messages seemed to flow between us as the old electricity crackled in the air. I just hoped he got the right message.

One of the guardians tentatively stepped forward--having to go around the unconscious body of his colleague--and Dimitri's tension snapped. He started to block the guardian and defend me again, but I instead put myself between them, clasping Dimitri's hand and still looking into his eyes. His skin was warm and felt so, so right touching mine.

"Please. No more."

I saw then that he finally understood what I was trying to say. People were still afraid of him. No one knew what he was. Lissa had said him behaving calmly and normally would soothe fears. But this? Him taking on an army of guardians? That was not going to get him points for good behavior. For all I knew, it was already too late after this, but I had to attempt damage control. I couldn't let them lock him up again--not because of me.

As he looked at me, he seemed to send a message of his own: that he would still fight for me, that he would fight until he collapsed to keep them from taking me.

I shook my head and gave his hand a parting squeeze. His fingers were exactly as I remembered, long and graceful, with calluses built up from years of training. I let go and turned to face the guy who had originally spoken. I assumed he was some sort of leader.

I held out my hands and slowly stepped forward. "I'll go quietly. But, please... don't lock him back up. He just thought... he just thought I was in trouble."

The thing was, as the handcuffs were clamped onto my wrists, I was starting to think I was in trouble too. As the guardians helped each other up, their leader took a deep breath and made the proclamation he'd been trying to make since entering. I swallowed, waiting to hear Victor's name.

"Rose Hathaway, you are under arrest for high treason."

Not quite what I'd expected. Hoping my submission had earned me points, I asked, "What kind of high treason?"

"The murder of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Tatiana."

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