Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

WALKING INTO THE COURTROOM was one of the most surreal experiences of my life--and not just because I was the one being accused here. It just kept reminding me of Victor's trial, and the idea that I was now in his place was almost too weird to comprehend.

Entering a room with a troop of guardians makes people stare--and believe me, there were a lot of people packed in there--so naturally, I didn't skulk or look ashamed. I walked with confidence, my head held high. Again, I had that eerie flashback to Victor. He too had walked in defiantly, and I'd been appalled that someone who had committed his crimes could behave that way. Were these people thinking the same thing about me?

On the dais at the front of the room sat a woman I didn't recognize. Among the Moroi, a judge was usually a lawyer who had been appointed to the position for the purposes of the hearing or whatever. The trial itself--at least a big one like Victor's--had been presided over by the queen. She had been the one to ultimately decide the final verdict. Here, the Council members would be the ones to decide if I even reached that stage. The trial makes it official. That's where they pass the verdict and dole out the punishment.

My escort took me to the front seating of the room, past the bar that separated the key players from the audience, and motioned me toward a spot next to a middle-aged Moroi in a very formal and very designer black suit. The suit screamed, I'm sorry the queen is dead, and I'm going to look fashionable while showing my grief. His hair was a pale blond, lightly laced with the first signs of silver. Somehow, he made it look good. I presumed this was Damon Tarus, my lawyer, but he didn't say a word to me.

Mikhail sat beside me as well, and I was glad they'd chosen him to be the one who literally didn't leave my side. Glancing back, I saw Daniella and Nathan Ivashkov sitting with other high-ranking royals and their families. Adrian had chosen not to join them. He sat farther back, with Lissa, Christian, and Eddie. All of their faces were filled with worry.

The judge--an elderly, gray-haired Moroi who looked like she could still kick ass--called the room to attention, and I twisted around to face forward again. The Council was entering, and she announced them one by one. Two sets of benches had been arranged for them, two rows of six with a thirteenth in back raised. Of course, only eleven of the spots were filled, and I tried not to scowl. Lissa should have been sitting there.

When the Council was settled, the judge turned to face the rest of us and spoke in a voice that rang through the room. "This hearing is now in order, in which we will determine whether there is enough evidence to--"

A commotion at the door cut her off, and the audience craned their necks to see what was going on.

"What's this disturbance about?" the judge demanded.

One of the guardians had the door partially open and was leaning out, apparently speaking to whoever was in the hall. He ducked back into the room. "The accused's lawyer is here, Your Honor."

The judge glanced at Damon and me and then delivered a frown to the guardian. "She already has a lawyer."

The guardian shrugged and appeared comically helpless. If there had been a Strigoi out there, he would have known what to do. This bizarre interruption of protocol was beyond his skill set. The judge sighed.

"Fine. Send whoever it is up here and let's get this settled."

Abe walked in.

"Oh dear lord," I said out loud.

I didn't have to scold myself for speaking out of turn because a hum of conversation immediately filled the room. My guess was that half were in awe because they knew Abe and his reputation. The other half were probably just stunned by his appearance.

He wore a gray cashmere suit, considerably lighter than Damon's grim black. Underneath it was a dress shirt that was so bright a white, it seemed to glow--particularly next to the brilliant crimson silk tie he wore. Other spots of red were scattered about his outfit--a handkerchief in the pocket, ruby cuff links. Naturally, it was all as perfectly tailored and expensive as Damon's outfit. But Abe didn't look like he was in mourning. He didn't even look like he was coming to a trial. It was more like he'd been interrupted on his way to a party. And of course, he sported his usual gold hoop earrings and trimmed black beard.

The judge silenced the room with a hand motion as he strutted up to her.

"Ibrahim Mazur," she said, with a shake of her head. There were equal parts amazement and disapproval in her voice. "This is... unexpected."

Abe swept her a gallant bow. "It's lovely to see you again, Paula. You haven't aged a day."

"We aren't at a country club, Mr. Mazur," she informed him. "And while here, you will address me by my proper title."

"Ah. Right." He winked. "My apologies, Your Honor." Turning, he glanced around until his eyes rested on me. "There she is. Sorry to have delayed this. Let's get started."

Damon stood up. "What is this? Who are you? I'm her lawyer."

Abe shook his head. "There must have been some mistake. It took me a while to get a flight here, so I can see why you would have appointed a community lawyer to fill in."

"Community lawyer!" Damon's face grew red with indignation. "I'm one of the most renowned lawyers among American Moroi."

"Renowned, community." Abe shrugged and leaned back on his heals. "I don't judge. No pun intended."

"Mr. Mazur," interrupted the judge, "are you a lawyer?"

"I'm a lot of things, Paula--Your Honor. Besides, does it matter? She only needs someone to speak for her."

"And she has someone," exclaimed Damon. "Me."

"Not anymore," said Abe, his demeanor still very pleasant. He had never stopped smiling, but I thought I saw that dangerous glint in his eyes that frightened so many of his enemies. He was the picture of calm, while Damon looked like he was ready to have a seizure.

"Your Honor--"

"Enough!" she said in that resounding voice of hers. "Let the girl choose." She fixed her brown eyes on me. "Who do you want to speak for you?"

"I..." My mouth dropped open at how abruptly the attention shifted to me. I'd been watching the drama between the two men like a tennis match, and now the ball had hit me in the head.

"Rose."

Startled, I turned slightly. Daniella Ivashkov had crept over in the row behind me. "Rose," she whispered again, "you have no idea who that Mazur man is." Oh, didn't I? "You want nothing to do with him. Damon's the best. He's not easy to get."

She moved back to her seat, and I looked between my two potential lawyers' faces. I understood Daniella's meaning. Adrian had talked her into getting Damon for me, and then she had talked Damon into actually doing it. Rejecting him would be an insult to her, and considering she was one of the few royal Moroi who'd been nice to me about Adrian, I certainly didn't want to earn her dislike. Besides, if this was some setup by royals, having one of them on my side was probably my best chance at getting off.

And yet... there was Abe, looking at me with that clever smile of his. He was certainly very good at getting his way, but a lot of that was by force of his presence and reputation. If there really was some absurd evidence against me, Abe's attitude wouldn't be enough to make it go away. Of course, he was sly, too. The serpent. He could make the impossible happen; he'd certainly pulled a lot of strings for me.

That did not, however, change the fact that he wasn't a lawyer.

On the other hand, he was my father.

He was my father, and although we still barely knew each other, he'd gone to great lengths to get here and saunter in with his gray suit to defend me. Was it fatherly love gone bad? Was he really all that good a lawyer? And at the end of the day, was it true that blood ran thicker than water? I didn't know. I actually didn't like that saying. Maybe it worked for humans, but it made no sense with vampires.

Anyway, Abe was staring at me intently with dark brown eyes nearly identical to mine. Trust me, he seemed to say. But could I? Could I trust my family? I would have trusted my mother if she were here--and I knew she trusted Abe.

I sighed and gestured toward him. "I'll take him." In an undertone, I added, "Don't let me down, Zmey."

Abe's smile grew broader as shocked exclamations filled the audience, and Damon protested in outrage. Daniella might have had to persuade him to take me on in the beginning, but now this case had become a matter of pride for him. His reputation had just been sullied by me passing him up.

But I'd made my choice, and the exasperated judge would hear no more arguments about it. She shooed Damon away, and Abe slid into his seat. The judge began with the standard opening speech, explaining why we were here, etc., etc. As she spoke, I leaned toward Abe.

"What have you gotten me into?" I hissed to him.

"Me? What have you gotten yourself into? Couldn't I have just picked you up at the police station for underage drinking, like most fathers?"

I was beginning to understand why people got irritated when I made jokes in dangerous situations.

"My fucking future's on the line! They're going to send me to trial and convict me!"

Every trace of humor or cheer vanished from his face. His expression grew hard, deadly serious. A chill ran down my spine.

"That," he said in a low, flat voice, "is something I swear to you is never, ever going to happen."

The judge turned her attention back to us and the prosecuting lawyer, a woman called Iris Kane. Not a royal name, but she still looked pretty hard-core. Maybe that was just a lawyer thing.

Before the evidence against me was laid out, the queen's murder was also described in all its grisly detail. How'd she'd been found this morning in bed, a silver stake through her heart and a profound look of horror and shock on her face. Blood had been everywhere: on her nightgown, the sheets, her skin... The pictures were shown to everyone in the room, triggering a variety of reactions. Gasps of surprise. More fear and panic. And some... some people wept. Some of those tears were undoubtedly because of the whole terrible situation, but I think many cried because they'd loved or liked Tatiana. She'd been cold and stiff at times, but for the most part, her reign had been a peaceful and just one.

After the pictures, they called me up. The hearing didn't run the way a normal trial did. There was no formal switching back of lawyers as they questioned witnesses. They each just sort of stood there and took turns asking questions while the judge kept order.

"Miss Hathaway," began Iris, dropping my title. "What time did you return to your room last night?"

"I don't know the exact time...." I focused on her and Abe, not the sea of faces out there. "Somewhere around 5 a.m., I think. Maybe 6."

"Was anyone with you?"

"No, well--yes. Later." Oh, God. Here it comes. "Um, Adrian Ivashkov visited me."

"What time did he arrive?" asked Abe.

"I'm not sure of that either. A few hours after I got back, I guess."

Abe turned his charming smile on Iris, who was rustling through some papers. "The queen's murder has been pretty accurately narrowed down to between seven and eight. Rose wasn't alone--of course, we would need Mr. Ivashkov to testify to that effect."

My eyes flicked briefly to the audience. Daniella looked pale. This was her nightmare: Adrian getting involved. Glancing farther over, I saw that Adrian himself seemed eerily calm. I really hoped he wasn't drunk.

Iris held up a sheet of paper triumphantly. "We have a signed statement from a janitor who says Mr. Ivashkov arrived at the defendant's building at approximately nine twenty."

"That's pretty specific," said Abe. He sounded amused, like she'd said something cute. "Do you have any desk staff to confirm that?"

"No," Iris said icily. "But this is enough. The janitor remembers because he was about to take his break. Miss Hathaway was alone when the murder took place. She has no alibi."

"Well," said Abe, "at least according to some questionable 'facts.'"

But no more was said about the time. The evidence was admitted into the official records, and I took a deep breath. I hadn't liked that line of questioning, but it had been expected, based on the earlier conversations I'd heard via Lissa. The no-alibi thing wasn't good, but I kind of shared Abe's vibe. What they had so far still didn't seem strong enough to send me to trial. Plus, they hadn't asked anything else about Adrian, which left him out of this.

"Next exhibit," said Iris. There was smug triumph all over her face. She knew the time thing was sketchy, but whatever was coming up, she thought it was gold.

But actually, it was silver. A silver stake.

So help me, she had a silver stake in a clear plastic container. It gleamed in the incandescent lighting--except for its tip. That was dark. With blood.

"This is the stake used to kill the queen," declared Iris. "Miss Hathaway's stake."

Abe actually laughed. "Oh, come on. Guardians are issued stakes all the time. They have an enormous, identical supply."

Iris ignored him and looked at me. "Where is your stake right now?"

I frowned. "In my room."

She turned and glanced out over the crowd. "Guardian Stone?"

A tall dhampir with a bushy black mustache rose from the crowd. "Yes?"

"You conducted the search of Miss Hathaway's room and belongings, correct?"

I gaped in outrage. "You searched my--"

A sharp look from Abe silenced me.

"Correct," said the guardian.

"And did you find any silver stakes?" asked Iris.

"No."

She turned back to us, still smug, but Abe seemed to find this new information even more ridiculous than the last batch. "That proves nothing. She could have lost the stake without realizing it."

"Lost it in the queen's heart?"

"Miss Kane," warned the judge.

"My apologies, Your Honor," said Iris smoothly. She turned to me. "Miss Hathaway, is there anything special about your stake? Anything that would distinguish it from others?"

"Y-yes."

"Can you describe that?"

I swallowed. I had a bad feeling about this. "It has a pattern etched near the top. A kind of geometric design." Guardians had engraving done sometimes. I'd found this stake in Siberia and kept it. Well, actually, Dimitri had sent it to me after it had come loose from his chest.

Iris walked over to the Council and held out the container so that each of them could examine it. Returning to me, she gave me my turn. "Is this your pattern? Your stake?"

I stared. It was indeed. My mouth opened, ready to say yes, but then I caught Abe's eye. Clearly, he couldn't talk directly to me, but he sent a lot of messages in that gaze. The biggest one was to be careful, be sly. What would a slippery person like Abe do?

"It... it looks similar to the design on mine," I said at last. "But I can't say for sure if it's the exact same one." Abe's smile told me I'd answered correctly.

"Of course you can't," Iris said, as though she'd expected no better. She handed off the container to one of the court clerks. "But now that the Council has seen that the design matches her description and is almost like her stake, I would like to point out that testing has revealed"--she held up more papers, victory all over her face--"that her fingerprints are on it."

There, it was. The big score. The "hard evidence."

"Any other fingerprints?" asked the judge.

"No, Your Honor. Just hers."

"That means nothing," said Abe with a shrug. I had a feeling that if I stood and suddenly confessed to the murder, he would still claim it was dubious evidence. "Someone steals her stake and wears gloves. Her fingerprints would be on it because it's hers."

"That's getting kind of convoluted, don't you think?" asked Iris.

"The evidence is still full of holes," he protested. "That's what's convoluted. How could she have gotten into the queen's bedroom? How could she have gotten through the guards?"

"Well," mused Iris, "those would be questions best explored in trial, but considering Miss Hathaway's extensive record of breaking into and out of places, as well as the countless other disciplinary marks she has, I don't doubt she could have found any number of ways to get inside."

"You have no proof," said Abe. "No theory."

"We don't need it," said Iris. "Not at this point. We have more than enough to go to trial, don't we? I mean, we haven't even gotten to the part where countless witnesses heard Miss Hathaway tell the queen she'd regret establishing the recent guardian law. I can find the transcript if you like--not to mention reports of other 'expressive' commentary Miss Hathaway made in public."

A memory came back to me, of standing outside with Daniella while I ranted--with others watching--about how the queen couldn't buy me off with an assignment. Not a good decision on my part. Neither was busting in on the Death Watch or complaining about the queen being worth protecting when Lissa had been captured. I'd given Iris a lot of material.

"Oh yes," Iris continued. "We also have accounts of the queen declaring her extreme disapproval of Miss Hathaway's involvement with Adrian Ivashkov, particularly when the two ran off to elope." I opened my mouth at that, but Abe silenced me. "There are countless other records of Her Majesty and Miss Hathaway sparring in public. Would you like me to find those papers too, or are we able to vote on a trial now?"

This was directed at the judge. I had no legal background, but the evidence was pretty damning. I would have said that there was definitely reason to consider me a murder suspect, except...

"Your Honor?" I asked. I think she'd been about to give her declaration. "Can I say something?"

The judge thought about it, then shrugged. "I see no reason not to. We're collecting all the evidence there is."

Oh, me freelancing was not in Abe's plan at all. He strode to the stand, hoping to stop me with his wise counsel, but he wasn't fast enough.

"Okay," I said, hoping I sounded reasonable and wasn't going to lose my temper. "You've put up a lot of suspicious stuff here. I can see that." Abe looked pained. It was not an expression I'd seen on him before. He didn't lose control of situations very often. "But that's the thing. It's too suspicious. If I were going to murder someone, I wouldn't be that stupid. Do you think I'd leave my stake stuck in her chest? Do you think I wouldn't wear gloves? Come on. That's insulting. If I'm as crafty as you claim my record says I am, then why would I do it this way? I mean, seriously? If I did it, it'd be a lot better. You'd never even peg me as a suspect. This is all really kind of an insult to my intelligence."

"Rose--" began Abe, a dangerous note in his tone. I kept going.

"All this evidence you've got is so painfully obvious. Hell, whoever set this up might as well have painted an arrow straight to me--and someone did set me up, but you guys are too stupid to even consider that." The volume of my voice was rising, and I consciously brought it back to normal levels. "You want an easy answer. A quick answer. And you especially want someone with no connections, no powerful family to protect them..." I hesitated there, unsure how to classify Abe. "Because that's how it always is. That's how it was with that age law. No one was able to stand up for the dhampirs either because this goddamned system won't allow it."

It occurred to me then that I had strayed pretty far off the subject--and was making myself look more guilty by slamming the age law. I reined myself back in.

"Um, anyway, Your Honor... what I'm trying to say is that this evidence shouldn't be enough to accuse me or send me to trial. I wouldn't plan a murder this badly."

"Thank you, Miss Hathaway," said the judge. "That was very... informative. You may take your seat now while the Council votes."

Abe and I returned to our bench. "What in the world were you thinking?" he whispered.

"I was telling it like it is. I was defending myself."

"I wouldn't go that far. You're no lawyer."

I gave him a sidelong look. "Neither are you, old man."

The judge asked the Council to vote on whether they believed there was enough evidence to make me a viable suspect and send me to trial. They did. Eleven hands went up. Just like that, it was over.

Through the bond, I felt Lissa's alarm. As Abe and I rose to leave, I looked out in the audience, which was starting to disband and buzzing with talk over what would happen now. Her light green eyes were wide, her face unusually pale. Beside her, Adrian too looked distressed, but as he stared at me, I could see love and determination radiating. And in the back, behind both of them...

Dimitri.

I hadn't even known he was here. His eyes were on me too, dark and endless. Only I couldn't read what he was feeling. His face betrayed nothing, but there was something in his eyes... something intense and intimidating. The image of him ready to take down that group of guardians flashed through my mind, and something told me that if I asked, he would do it again. He would fight his way to me through this courtroom and do everything in his power to rescue me from it.

A brushing of my hand distracted me from him. Abe and I had started to exit, but the aisle ahead of us was packed with people, bringing us to a halt. The touch against my hand was a small piece of paper shoved between my fingers. Glancing over, I saw Ambrose was sitting near the aisle, staring straight ahead. I wanted to ask what was going on, but some instinct kept me silent. Seeing as the line still wasn't moving, I hastily opened the paper, keeping it out of Abe's sight.

The paper was tiny, its elegant cursive almost impossible to read.

Rose,

If you're reading this, then something terrible has happened. You probably hate me, and I don't blame you. I can only ask that you trust that what I did with the age decree was better for your people than what others had planned. There are some Moroi who want to force all dhampirs into service, whether they want it or not, by using compulsion. The age decree has slowed that faction down.

However, I write to you with a secret you must put right, and it is a secret you must share with as few as possible. Vasilisa needs her spot on the Council, and it can be done. She is not the last Dragomir. Another lives, the illegitimate child of Eric Dragomir. I know nothing else, but if you can find this son or daughter, you will give Vasilisa the power she deserves. No matter your faults and dangerous temperament, you are the only one I feel can take on this task. Waste no time in fulfilling it.

--Tatiana Ivashkov

I stared at the piece of paper, its writing swirling before me, but its message burning into my mind. She is not the last Dragomir. Another lives.

If that was true, if Lissa had a half-brother or half-sister... it would change everything. She would get a vote on the Council. She would no longer be alone. If it was true. If this was from Tatiana. Anyone could sign her name to a piece of paper. It didn't make it real. Still, I shivered, troubled at the thought of getting a letter from a dead woman. If I allowed myself to see the ghosts around us, would Tatiana be there, restless and vengeful? I couldn't bring myself to let down my walls and look. Not yet. There had to be other answers. Ambrose had given me the note. I needed to ask him... except we were moving down the aisle again. A guardian nudged me along.

"What's that?" asked Abe, always alert and suspicious.

I hastily folded the note back up. "Nothing."

The look he gave me told me he didn't believe that at all. I wondered if I should tell him. It is a secret you must share with as few as possible. If he was one of the few, this wasn't the place. I tried to distract him from it and shake the dumbstruck look that must have been on my face. This note was a big problem--but not quite as big as the one immediately facing me.

"You told me I wouldn't go to trial," I said to Abe. My earlier annoyance returned. "I took a big chance with you!"

"It wasn't a big chance. Tarus couldn't have got you out of this either."

Abe's easy attitude about all this infuriated me further. "Are you saying you knew this hearing was a lost cause from the beginning?" It was what Mikhail had said too. How nice to have such faith from everyone.

"This hearing wasn't important," Abe said evasively. "What happens next is."

"And what is that exactly?"

He gave me that dark, sly gaze again. "Nothing you need to worry about yet."

One of the guardians put his hand on my arm, telling me I needed to move. I resisted his pull and leaned toward Abe.

"The hell I don't! This is my life we're talking about," I exclaimed. I knew what would come next. Imprisonment until the trial. And then more imprisonment if I was convicted. "This is serious! I don't want to go to trial! I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a place like Tarasov."

The guard tugged harder, pushing us forward, and Abe fixed me with a piercing gaze that made my blood run cold.

"You will not go to trial. You will not go to prison," he hissed, out of the guards' hearing. "I won't allow it. Do you understand?"

I shook my head, confused over so much and not knowing what to do about any of it. "Even you have your limits, old man."

His smile returned. "You'd be surprised. Besides, they don't even send royal traitors to prison, Rose. Everyone knows that."

I scoffed. "Are you insane? Of course they do. What else do you think they do with traitors? Set them free and tell them not to do it again?"

"No," said Abe, just before he turned away. "They execute traitors."

Many thanks to all the friends and family who have lent their considerable support to me as I worked on this, especially my amazing and patient husband. I know I couldn't get through this without you! Special thanks also to my pal Jen Ligot and her eagle eyes.

On the publishing side, I'm always grateful for the hard work of my agent Jim McCarthy, as well as everyone else at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management--including Lauren Abramo, who helps spread Vampire Academy around the world. Thank you also to the gang at Penguin Books--Jessica Rothenberg, Ben Schrank, Casey McIntyre, and so many others--who work a lot of magic for this series. My publishers outside the U.S. are also doing wonderful things for getting the word out about Rose, and I'm constantly amazed to see the growing international response. Thank you so much for all you do.

A last shout-out to my readers, whose continued enthusiasm still overwhelms me. Thank you for reading and loving these characters as much as I do.

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***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

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