Chapter Twenty-one

 

THERE WAS LITTLE MORE MIKHAIL and I could say to each other after that. I didn't want him to get in trouble for what he'd done, and I let him lead us out of the guardians' building in silence. As we emerged outside, I could see the sky purpling in the east. The sun was nearly up, signaling the middle of our night. Briefly flipping into Lissa's mind, I read that the Death Watch had finally ended, and she was on her way back to her room--worried about me and still annoyed that Christian had shown up with Mia.

I followed Lissa's example, wondering if sleep might ease the agony that Dimitri had left in my heart. Probably not. Still, I thanked Mikhail for his help and the risk he'd taken. He merely nodded, like there was nothing to thank him for. It was exactly what he would have wanted me to do for him if our roles had been reversed and Ms. Karp had been the one behind bars.

I feel into a heavy sleep back in my bed, but my dreams were troubled. Over and over, I kept hearing Dimitri tell me he couldn't love me anymore. It beat into me over and over, smashing my heart into little pieces. At one point, it became more than a dreamlike beating. I heard real beating. Someone was pounding on my door, and slowly, I dragged myself out of my awful dreams.

Bleary-eyed, I went to the door and found Adrian. The scene was almost a mirror of last night when he'd come to invite me to the Death Watch. Only this time, his face was much grimmer. For a second, I thought he'd heard about my visit to Dimitri. Or that maybe he'd gotten in a lot more trouble than we'd realized for sneaking half of his friends into a secret funeral.

"Adrian... this is early for you...." I glanced over at a clock, discovering that I'd actually slept in pretty late.

"Not early at all," he confirmed, face still serious. "Lots of stuff going on. I had to come tell you the news before you heard it somewhere else."

"What news?"

"The Council's verdict. They finally passed that big resolution they've been debating. The one you came in for."

"Wait. They're done?" I recalled what Mikhail had said, that a mystery issue had been keeping the Council busy. If it was finished, then they could move on to something else--say, like, officially declaring Dimitri a dhampir again. "That's great news." And if this really was tied into when Tatiana had had me come describe my skills... well, was there really a chance I might be named Lissa's guardian? Could the queen have really come through? She'd seemed friendly enough last night.

Adrian regarded me with something I'd never seen from him: pity. "You have no idea, do you?"

"No idea about what?"

"Rose..." He gently rested a hand on my shoulder. "The Council just passed a decree lowering the guardian age to sixteen. Dhampirs'll graduate when they're sophomores and then go out for assignments."

"What?" Surely I'd misheard.

"You know how panicked they've been about protection and not having enough guardians, right?" He sighed. "This was their solution to increasing your numbers."

"But they're too young!" I cried. "How can anyone think sixteen-year-olds are ready to go out and fight?"

"Well," said Adrian, "because you testified that they were."

My mouth dropped, everything freezing around me. You testified that they were... No. It couldn't be possible.

Adrian gently nudged my arm, trying to shake me out of my stupor. "Come on, they're still wrapping up. They made the announcement in an open session, and some people are... a little upset."

"Yeah, I'll say." He didn't need to tell me twice. I immediately started to follow, then realized I was in my pajamas. I quickly changed and brushed my hair, still scarcely able to believe what he'd just said. My preparation only took five minutes, and then we were out the door. Adrian wasn't overly athletic, but he kept a pretty good pace as we headed toward the Council's hall.

"How did this happen?" I asked. "You don't really mean that... that what I said played a role?" I'd meant my words to be a demand, but they came out with more of a pleading note.

He lit a cigarette without breaking stride, and I didn't bother chastising him for it. "It's apparently been a hot topic for a while. It was a pretty close vote. The people pushing for it knew they'd need to show a lot of evidence to win. You were their grand prize: a teen dhampir slaying Strigoi left and right, long before graduation."

"Not that long," I muttered, my fury kindling. Sixteen? Were they serious? It was ludicrous. The fact that I had been unknowingly used to support this decree made me sick to my stomach. I'd been a fool, thinking they'd all ignored my rule breaking and had simply paraded me in to praise me. They'd used me. Tatiana had used me.

When we reached it, the Council hall was in as much chaos as Adrian had implied. True, I hadn't spent a lot of time in these kinds of meetings, but I was pretty sure that people standing up in clusters and yelling at each other wasn't normal. The Council's herald probably didn't usually scream himself hoarse trying to bring order to the crowd either.

The only spot of calm was Tatiana herself, sitting patiently in her seat at the center of the table, just as Council etiquette dictated. She looked very pleased with herself. The rest of her colleagues had lost all sense of propriety and were on their feet like the audience, arguing amongst themselves or anyone else ready to pick a fight. I stared in amazement, unsure what to do in all this disorder.

"Who voted for what?" I asked.

Adrian studied the Council members and ticked them off on his fingers. "Szelsky, Ozera, Badica, Dashkov, Conta, and Drozdov. They were against it."

"Ozera?" I asked in surprise. I didn't know the Ozera princess--Evette--very well, but she'd always seemed pretty stiff and unpleasant. I had new respect for her now.

Adrian nodded over to where Tasha was furiously addressing a large group of people, eyes flashing and arms waving wildly. "Evette was persuaded by some of her family members."

That made me smile too, but only for a moment. It was good that Tasha and Christian were being acknowledged amongst their clan again, but the rest of our problem was still alive and kicking. I could deduce the rest of the names.

"So... Prince Ivashkov voted for it," I said. Adrian shrugged by way of apology for his family. "Lazar, Zeklos, Tarus, and Voda." That the Voda family would vote for extra protection wasn't entirely a surprise, considering the recent slaughter of one of their members. Priscilla wasn't even in her grave yet, and the new Voda prince, Alexander, seemed clearly unsure what to do with his sudden promotion.

I gave Adrian a sharp look. "That's only five to six. Oh." Realization dawned. "Shit. Royal tiebreaker."

The Moroi voting system had been set up with twelve members, one for each family, and then whoever the reigning king or queen was. True, it often meant one group got two votes, since the monarch rarely voted against his or her own family. It had been known to happen. Regardless, the system should have had thirteen votes, preventing ties. Except... a recent problem had developed. There were no Dragomirs on the Council anymore, meaning ties could occur. In that rare event, Moroi law dictated that the monarch's vote carried extra weight. I'd heard that had always been controversial, and yet at the same time, there wasn't much to be done for it. Ties in the Council would mean nothing ever got settled, and since monarchs were elected, many took it on faith that they would act in the best interests of the Moroi.

"Tatiana's was the sixth," I said. "And hers swayed it." Glancing around, I saw a bit of anger on the faces of those from the families who had voted against the decree. Apparently, not everyone believed Tatiana had acted in the best interest of the Moroi.

Lissa's presence sang to me through the bond, so her arrival a few moments later was no surprise. News had spread fast, though she didn't yet know the fine details. Adrian and I waved her over. She was as dumbfounded as we were.

"How could they do that?" she asked.

"Because they're too afraid that someone might make them learn to defend themselves. Tasha's group was getting too loud."

Lissa shook her head. "No, not just that. I mean, why were they even in session? We should be in mourning after what happened the other day--publicly. The whole Court, not just some secret part of it. One of the Council members even died! Couldn't they wait for the funeral?" In her mind's eye, I could see the images from that grisly night, where Priscilla had died right before Lissa's eyes.

"But was easily replaceable," a new voice said. Christian had joined us. Lissa took a few steps away from him, still annoyed about Mia. "And actually, it's the perfect time. The people who wanted this had to jump at their chance. Every time there's a big Strigoi fight, everyone panics. Fear'll make a lot of people get on board with this. And if any Council members were undecided before this, that battle probably pushed them over."

That was pretty wise reasoning for Christian, and Lissa was impressed, despite her troubled feelings for him right now. The Council's herald finally managed to make his voice heard over the shouts of the audience. I wondered if the group would have quieted down if Tatiana herself had started yelling at them to shut up. But no. That was probably beneath her dignity. She was still sitting there calmly, like nothing unusual was going on.

Nonetheless, it took several moments for everyone to settle down and take their seats. My friends and I hurriedly grabbed the first ones we could find. With peace and quiet achieved at last, the weary-looking herald yielded the floor to the queen.

Smiling grandly at the assembly, she addressed them in her most imperious voice. "We'd like to thank everyone for coming today and expressing your... opinions. I know some are still unsure about this decision, but Moroi law has been followed here--laws that have been in place for centuries. We will have another session soon to listen to what you have to say in an orderly fashion." Something told me that was an empty gesture. People could talk all they wanted; she wouldn't listen. "This decision--this verdict--will benefit the Moroi. Our guardians are already so excellent." She gave a condescending nod toward the ceremonial guardians standing along the room's walls. They wore typically neutral faces, but I was guessing that, like me, they probably wanted to punch half the Council. "They are so excellent, in fact, that they train their students to be ready to defend us at an early age. We will all be safer from tragedies like that which recently occurred."

She lowered her head a moment in what must have been a show of grieving. I recalled last night when she'd choked up over Priscilla. Had that been an act? Was her best friend's death a convenient way for Tatiana to push forward with her own agenda. Surely... surely, she wasn't that cold.

The queen lifted her head and continued. "And again, we're happy to listen to you register your opinions, although by our own laws, this matter is settled. Further sessions will have to wait until an adequate period of mourning has passed for the unfortunate departed."

Her tone and body language implied that this was indeed the end of the discussion. Then, an impertinent voice suddenly broke the room's silence.

My voice.

"Well, I'd kind of like to register my opinion now."

Inside my head, Lissa was shouting: Sit down, sit down! But I was already on my feet, moving toward the Council's table. I stopped at a respectful distance, one that would let them notice me but not get me tackled by guardians. And oh, they noticed me. The herald flushed bright red at my rule breaking.

"You are out of line and in violation of all Council protocol! Sit down right now before you are removed." He glanced over at the guardians, like he expected them to come charging forward right then. None of them moved. Either they didn't perceive me as a threat, or they were wondering what I was going to do. I was also wondering this.

With a small, delicate hand gesture, Tatiana waved the herald back. "I daresay there's been so much breach of protocol today that one more incident won't make a difference." She fixed me with a kind smile, one that was apparently intended to make us look like friends. "Besides, Guardian Hathaway is one of our most valuable assets. I'm always interested in what she has to say."

Was she really? Time to find out. I addressed my words to the Council.

"This thing you've just passed is utterly and totally insane." I considered it a great feat on my part that I didn't use any swear words there because I had some adjectives in mind that were much more fitting. Who said I didn't understand Council etiquette? "How can any of you sit there and think it's okay to send sixteen-year-olds out to risk their lives?"

"It's only two years' difference," said the Tarus prince. "It's not like we're sending ten-year-olds."

"Two years is a lot." I thought for a moment about when I'd been sixteen. What had happened in those two years? I'd run off with Lissa, watched friends die, traveled around the world, fallen in love.... "You can live a lifetime in two years. And if you want us to keep being on the front lines--which most of us willingly do when we graduate--then you owe us those two years."

This time, I glanced back at the audience. The reactions were mixed. Some clearly agreed with me, nodding along. Some looked as though nothing in the world would change their minds about the decree being just. Others wouldn't meet my eyes.... Had I swayed them? Were they undecided? Embarrassed at their own selfishness? They might be the keys.

"Believe me, I would love to see your people enjoy their youth." This was Nathan Ivashkov speaking. "But right now, that's not an option we have. The Strigoi are closing in. We're losing more Moroi and guardians every day. Getting more fighters out there will stop this, and really, we're just letting those dhampirs' skills go to waste by waiting a couple years. This plan will protect both our races."

"It'll kill mine off faster!" I said. Realizing I might start shouting if I lost control, I took a deep breath before going on. "They won't be ready. They won't have all the training they need."

And that was where Tatiana herself made her master play. "Yet, by your own admission, you were certainly prepared at a young age. You killed more Strigoi before you were eighteen than some guardians kill their entire lives."

I fixed her with a narrow-eyed look. "I," I said coldly, "had an excellent instructor. One that you currently have locked up. If you want to talk about skills going to waste, then go look in your own jail."

There was a slight stirring in the audience, and Tatiana's we're pals face grew a little cold. "That is not an issue we are addressing today. Increasing our protection is. I believe you have even commented in the past that the guardian ranks are lacking in numbers." My own words, thrown back at me from last night. "They need to be filled. You--and many of your companions--have proven you're able to defend us."

"We were exceptions!" It was egotistical, but it was the truth. "Not all novices have reached that level."

A dangerous glint appeared in her eye, and her voice grew silky smooth again. "Well, then, perhaps we need more excellent training. Perhaps we should send you to St. Vladimir's or some other academy so that you can improve your young colleagues' education. My understanding is that your upcoming assignment will be a permanent administrative one here at Court. If you wanted to help make this new decree successful, we could change that assignment and make you an instructor instead. It might speed up your return to a bodyguard assignment."

I gave her a dangerous smile of my own. "Do not," I warned, "try to threaten, bribe, or blackmail me. Ever. You won't like the consequences."

That might have been going too far. People in the audience exchanged startled looks. Some of their expressions were disgusted, as though they could expect nothing better of me. I recognized a few of those Moroi. They were ones I'd overheard talking about my relationship with Adrian and how the queen hated it. I also suspected a number of royals from last night's ceremony were here too. They'd seen Tatiana lead me out and no doubt thought my outburst and disrespect today were a type of revenge.

The Moroi weren't the only ones who reacted. Regardless of whether they shared my opinions, a few guardians stepped forward. I made sure to stay exactly where I was, and that, along with Tatiana's lack of fear, kept them in place.

"We're getting weary of this conversation," Tatiana said, switching to the royal we. "You can speak more--and do so in the proper manner--when we have our next meeting and open the floor to comments. For now, whether you like it or not, this resolution has been passed. It's law."

She's letting you off! Lissa's voice was back in my head. Back away from this before you do something that'll get you in real trouble. Argue later.

It was ironic because I'd been on the verge of exploding and letting my full rage out. Lissa's words stopped me--but not because of their content. It was Lissa herself. When Adrian and I had discussed the results earlier, I'd noted one piece of faulty logic.

"It wasn't a fair vote," I declared. "It wasn't legal."

"Are you a lawyer now, Miss Hathaway?" The queen was amused, and her dropping of my guardian title now was a blatant lack of respect. "If you're referring to the monarch's vote carrying more weight than others on the Council, then we can assure you that that has been Moroi law for centuries in such situations." She glanced at her fellow Council members, none of whom raised a protest. Even those who'd voted against her couldn't find fault with her point.

"Yeah, but the entire Council didn't vote," I said. "You've had an empty spot in the Council for the last few years--but not anymore." I turned and pointed at where my friends were sitting. "Vasilisa Dragomir is eighteen now and can fill her family's spot." In all of this chaos, her birthday had been overlooked, even by me.

The eyes in the room turned on Lissa--something she did not like. However, Lissa was used to being in the public eye. She knew what was expected of a royal, how to look and carry herself. So, rather than cringing, she sat up straight and stared ahead with a cool, regal look that said she could walk up to that table right now and demand her birthright. Whether it was that magnificent attitude alone or maybe a little spirit charisma, she was almost impossible to look away from. Her beauty had its usual luminous quality, and around the room, a lot of the faces held the same awe for her that I'd observed around Court. Dimitri's transformation was still an enigma, but those who believed in it were indeed regarding her as some kind of saint. She was becoming larger than life in so many people's eyes, both with her family name and mysterious powers--and now the alleged ability to restore Strigoi.

Smug, I looked back at Tatiana. "Isn't eighteen the legal voting age?" Checkmate, bitch.

"Yes," she said cheerfully. "If the Dragomirs had a quorum."

I wouldn't say my stunning victory exactly shattered at that point, but it certainly lost a little of its luster. "A what?"

"A quorum. By law, for a Moroi family to have a Council vote, they must have a family. She does not. She's the only one."

I stared in disbelief. "What, you're saying she needs to go have a kid to get a vote?"

Tatiana grimaced. "Not now, of course. Someday, I'm sure. For a family to have a vote, they must have at least two members, one of whom must be over eighteen. It's Moroi law--again, a law that's been in the books for centuries."

A few people were exchanging confused and surprised looks. This was clearly not a law many were familiar with. Of course, this situation--a royal line reduced to one person--wasn't one that had occurred in recent history, if it had ever occurred at all.

"It's true," said Ariana Szelsky reluctantly. "I've read it."

Okay, that was when my stunning victory shattered. The Szelsky family was one I trusted, and Ariana was the older sister of the guy my mom protected. Ariana was a pretty bookish kind of person, and seeing as she'd voted against the guardian age change, it seemed unlikely she'd offer this piece of evidence if it weren't true.

With no more ammunition, I resorted to old standbys.

"That," I told Tatiana, "is the most fucked-up law I have ever heard."

That did it. The audience broke into shocked chatter, and Tatiana gave up on whatever pretense of friendliness she'd been clinging to. She beat the herald to any orders he might have given.

"Remove her!" shouted Tatiana. Even with the rapidly growing noise, her voice rang clearly through the room. "We will not tolerate this sort of vulgar behavior!"

I had guardians on me in a flash. Honestly, with how often I'd been dragged away from places lately, there was almost something comfortably familiar about it. I didn't fight the guardians as they led me to the door, but I also didn't let them take me without a few parting words.

"You could change the quorum law if you wanted, you sanctimonious bitch!" I yelled back. "You're twisting the law because you're selfish and afraid! You're making the worst mistake of your life. You'll regret it! Wait and see--you'll wish you'd never done it!"

I don't know if anyone heard my tirade because by then, the hall was back to the chaos it had been in when I entered. The guardians--three of them--didn't let go of me until we were outside. Once they released me, we all stood around awkwardly for a moment.

"What now?" I asked. I tried to keep the anger out of my voice. I was still furious and worked up, but it wasn't these guys' fault. "Are you going to lock me up?" Seeing as it would bring me back to Dimitri, it would almost be a reward.

"They only said to remove you," one of the guardians pointed out. "No one said what to do with you after that."

Another guardian, old and grizzled but still fierce looking, gave me a wry look. "I'd take off while you can, before they really have a chance to punish you."

"Not that they won't find you if they really want to," added the first guardian.

With that, the three of them headed back inside, leaving me confused and upset. My body was still revved for a fight, and I was filled with the frustration I always experienced whenever I was faced with a situation I felt powerless in. All that yelling for nothing. I'd accomplished nothing.

"Rose?"

I shifted from my churning emotions and looked up at the building. The older guardian hadn't gone inside and still stood in the doorway. His face was stoic, but I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye. "For what it's worth," he told me, "I thought you were fantastic in there."

I didn't feel much like smiling, but my lips betrayed me. "Thanks," I said.

Well, maybe I'd accomplished one thing.

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