Chapter Twenty-Six

 

MAYBE IT WAS SOMEONE'S SICK sense of humor, but I ended up in Dimitri's now-vacated cell.

I had come quietly after that guardian laid the charges before me. In fact, I'd become comatose because too much of what he'd said was impossible to process. I couldn't even really get to the part about me. I couldn't feel outrage or indignation over the accusation because I was still stuck on the part about Tatiana being dead.

Not just dead. Murdered.

Murdered?

How had that happened? How had that happened around here? This Court was one of the most secure places in the world, and Tatiana in particular was always guarded--by the same group that had descended on Dimitri and me so quickly. Unless she'd left Court--and I was pretty sure she hadn't--no Strigoi could have killed her. With the constant threats we faced, murder among dhampirs and Moroi was almost unheard of. Sure, it happened. It was inevitable in any society, but with the way ours was hunted, we rarely had time to turn on each other (shouting in Council meetings aside). That was part of why Victor had been so condemned. His crimes were about as bad as things got.

Until now.

Once I got past the impossible idea of Tatiana being dead, I was able to ask the real question: Why me? Why were they accusing me? I was no lawyer, but I was pretty sure calling someone a sanctimonious bitch was not hard evidence in a trial.

I tried getting more details from the guards outside my cell, but they remained hard-faced and silent. After making my voice hoarse from shouting, I slumped onto the bed and went to Lissa's mind, where I was certain I'd get more information.

Lissa was frantic, trying to get answers from anyone she could. Christian was still with her, and they stood inside the foyer of one of the administrative buildings, which was filled with a flurry of activity. Dhampirs and Moroi alike ran everywhere, some frightened of this new government instability and others hoping to take advantage of it. Lissa and Christian stood in the midst of it all, like leaves swept along in a storm's fury.

While Lissa was now technically an adult, she had still always been under the wing of some older person at Court--usually Priscilla Voda, and occasionally even Tatiana. Neither of them was available now, for obvious reasons. While many royals respected her, Lissa had no real source to turn to.

Seeing her agitation, Christian clasped her hand. "Aunt Tasha will know what's going on," he said. "She'll turn up sooner or later. You know she won't let anything happen to Rose."

Lissa knew there was a bit of uncertainty in that statement but didn't mention it. Tasha might not want anything to happen to me, but she certainly wasn't all-powerful.

"Lissa!"

Adrian's voice caused both Lissa and Christian to turn around. Adrian had just entered, along with his mother. Adrian looked as though he had literally gone straight from my bedroom to here. He wore yesterday's clothes, slightly rumpled, and his hair was styled with none of his usual care. By comparison, Daniella looked polished and put together, the perfect picture of a businesswoman who hadn't lost her femininity.

At last! Here were people who might have answers. Lissa rushed over to them gratefully.

"Thank God," Lissa said. "No one will tell us what's happened... except that the queen is dead and Rose is locked up." Lissa looked up at Daniella's face pleadingly. "Tell me there's been some kind of mistake."

Daniella patted Lissa's shoulder and gave as comforting a look as she could manage, given the circumstances. "I'm afraid not. Tatiana was killed last night, and Rose is their main suspect."

"But she would never have done that!" exclaimed Lissa.

Christian joined her in righteous fury. "Her yelling at the Council that day isn't enough to convict her for murder." Ah, Christian and I had the same line of reasoning. It was almost scary. "Neither is crashing the Death Watch."

"You're right. It's not enough," agreed Daniella. "But it doesn't make her look good either. And apparently, they have other evidence they say proves her guilt."

"What kind of evidence?" Lissa demanded.

Daniella turned apologetic. "I don't know. That's still part of the investigation. They'll have a hearing to present the evidence and question her whereabouts, possible motives... that kind of thing." She glanced around at the people rushing by. "If they even get that far. This kind of thing... it hasn't happened in ages. The Council gains absolute control until a new monarch is elected, but there's still going to be chaos. People are afraid. I won't be surprised if the Court goes under martial law."

Christian turned to Lissa, hope on his face. "Did you see Rose last night? Was she with you?"

Lissa frowned. "No. I think she was in her room. The last time I saw her was the day before yesterday."

Daniella didn't look happy about that. "That's not going to help. If she was alone, then she has no alibi."

"She wasn't alone."

Three sets of eyes turned in Adrian's direction. It was the first time he'd spoken since first calling to Lissa. Lissa hadn't focused on him too much yet, meaning I hadn't either. She'd only observed his superficial appearance when he arrived, but now she could see the little details. Worry and distress had left their marks, making him look older than he was. When she tuned in to his aura, she saw the usual gold of a spirit user, but it and its other colors were muddied and tinged with darkness. There was a flickering there too, a warning of spirit's instability taking hold. This had all come about too quickly for him to react, but I suspected he'd hit the cigarettes and liquor as soon as he had a free moment. It was how Adrian coped with this sort of thing.

"What are you saying?" Daniella asked sharply.

Adrian shrugged. "She wasn't alone. I was with her all night."

Lissa and Christian did a good job of maintaining neutral expressions, but Daniella's face registered the shock that any parent would have upon hearing about her child's sex life. Adrian noticed her reaction as well.

"Save it," he warned. "Your morals, your opinions... none of it matters right now." He gestured toward a group of panicked people running by, screaming about how Victor Dashkov must have surely come to Court to kill them all. Adrian shook his head and turned back to his mother. "I was with Rose. That proves she didn't do it. We'll deal with your motherly disapproval about my love life later."

"That's not what worries me! If they do have hard evidence and you get mixed up in this, you could be under suspicion too." The composure Daniella had entered with was beginning to crack.

"She was my aunt," cried Adrian incredulously. "Why on earth would Rose and I kill her?"

"Because she disapproved of you dating. And because Rose was upset over the age ruling." This came from Christian. Lissa glared, but he merely shrugged. "What? I'm just stating the obvious. Someone else would if I didn't. And we all heard the stories--people have been making up things that are extreme even for Rose." A strong comment indeed.

"When?" asked Daniella, clutching Adrian's sleeve. "When were you with Rose? When did you get there?"

"I don't know. I don't remember," he said.

She tightened her grip. "Adrian! Take this seriously. This is going to make a huge difference on how things proceed. If you got there before Tatiana was killed, then you won't be tied to it. If you were with Rose afterward--"

"Then she has an alibi," he interrupted. "And there's no problem."

"I hope that's true," murmured Daniella. Her eyes didn't seem focused on my friends anymore. The wheels in her head were spinning, her thoughts jumping ahead as she tried to think how best to protect her son. I had been an unfortunate case for her. He was, understandably, a red-alert emergency for her. "We're still going to have to get you a lawyer. I'll talk to Damon. I have to find him before the hearing tonight. And Rufus will have to know about this too. Damn." Adrian arched an eyebrow at that. I had the impression Lady Ivashkov didn't swear very often. "We have to find out what time you were there."

Adrian still wore his distress around him like a cloak and looked as though he might fall over if he didn't get nicotine or alcohol soon. I hated to see him like that, particularly over me. There was strength within him, no question, but his nature--and the sketchy effects of spirit--made coping with this hard. Yet, through his agitation, he managed to pull up a memory to help his frantic mother.

"There was someone in the building lobby when I came in... a janitor or something, I think. No one at the front desk, though." Most buildings usually kept a staff member around for emergencies or concierge services.

Daniella's face lit up. "That's it. That's what we'll need. Damon will find out the time you were there so that we can get you free and clear of this."

"And so he can defend me if things turn bad?"

"Of course," she answered swiftly.

"What about Rose?"

"What about her?"

Adrian still looked ready to fall apart, but there was seriousness and focus in his green eyes. "If you find out Aunt Tatiana was killed before I was there, and Rose is thrown to the wolves alone, will Damon be her lawyer?"

His mother faltered. "Oh, well, darling... Damon doesn't really do that sort of thing...."

"He will if you ask him to," said Adrian sternly.

"Adrian," she said wearily, "you don't know what you're talking about. They say the evidence against her is bad. If our family's shown supporting--"

"It's not like we're supporting murder! You met Rose. You liked her. Can you look me in the eye and say it's okay for her to go in with whatever half-assed defense they dredge up for her? Can you?"

Daniella blanched, and I swear, she actually cringed away. I don't think she was used to such fierce resoluteness from her devil-may-care son. And though his words were perfectly sane, there was kind of a crazy desperation in his voice and attitude that was a little scary. Whether that was caused by spirit or just his own emotion, I couldn't say.

"I... I'll speak to Damon," Daniella said at last. She'd had to swallow a few times before actually getting the words out.

Adrian let out a deep breath and some of that fury went with it. "Thank you."

She scurried away, melting into the crowd and leaving Adrian alone with Christian and Lissa. The two of them looked only a little less stunned than Daniella had.

"Damon Tarus?" Lissa guessed. Adrian nodded.

"Who's that?" asked Christian.

"My mom's cousin," said Adrian. "The family lawyer. A real shark. Kind of sleazy too, but he can pretty much get anyone out of anything."

"That's something, I suppose," mused Christian. "But is he good enough to fight this so-called hard evidence?"

"I don't know. I really don't know." Adrian absentmindedly reached for his pocket, the usual cigarette spot, but he had none today. He sighed. "I don't know what their evidence is or how Aunt Tatiana even died. All I heard was that they found her dead this morning."

Lissa and Christian exchanged grimaces. Christian shrugged, and Lissa turned back to Adrian, taking on the role of messenger.

"A stake," said Lissa. "They found her in bed with a silver stake through her heart."

Adrian said nothing, and his expression didn't really change. It occurred to Lissa that in all this talk about innocence, evidence, and lawyers, everyone had kind of overlooked the fact that Tatiana had been Adrian's great-aunt. He hadn't approved of some of her decisions and had made plenty of jokes about her behind her back. But she was still his family, someone he'd known his entire life. He had to be feeling the pain of her death on top of everything else. Even I felt a little conflicted. I hated her for what she'd done to me, but I'd never wanted her dead. And I couldn't help but remember that she'd occasionally spoken to me like I was a real person. Maybe it had been faked, but I was pretty sure she'd been sincere the night she'd stopped by the Ivashkovs'. She'd been weary and thoughtful, mostly just concerned about bringing peace to her people.

Lissa watched Adrian go, sympathy and sorrow flooding through her. Christian gently tapped her arm. "Come on," he said. "We've found out what we needed to know. We're just in the way here."

Feeling helpless, Lissa let him lead her outside, dodging more panicked crowds. The orange of a low sun gave every leaf and tree a golden, warm feel. There had been a lot of people out when we returned from the warehouse with Dimitri, but it was nothing compared to this. People were buzzing with fear, hurrying to pass the news. Some were already in mourning, clad in black, with tears on their faces. I wondered how much of that was real. Even in the midst of tragedy and crime, royals would be scrambling for power.

And each time she heard my name, Lissa would grow more and more angry. It was the bad anger too, the kind that felt like black smoke in our bond and often made her lash out. It was spirit's curse.

"I can't believe this!" she exclaimed to Christian. I noticed, even if she didn't, that he was hurriedly taking her somewhere where there weren't people. "How could anyone think that about Rose? It's a set up. It has to be."

"I know, I know," he said. He knew spirit's danger signs too and was trying to calm her down. They'd reached a small, grassy area in the shade of a large hazelnut tree and settled onto the ground. "We know she didn't do it. That's all there is to it. We'll prove it. She can't be punished for something she didn't do."

"You don't know this group," grumbled Lissa. "If someone's out to get her, they can make all sorts of things possible." With only the faintest awareness, I drew a little of that darkness from her into me, trying to calm her down. Unfortunately, it just made me angrier.

Christian laughed. "You forget. I grew up around this group. I went to school with this group's kids. I know them--but we're not panicking until we know more, okay?"

Lissa exhaled, feeling much better. I was going to take too much darkness if I wasn't careful. She gave Christian a small, tentative smile.

"I don't remember you being this reasonable before."

"It's because everyone has different definitions of 'reasonable. ' Mine's just misunderstood, that's all." His voice was lofty.

"I think you must be misunderstood a lot," she laughed.

His eyes held hers, and the smile on his face transformed into something warmer and softer. "Well, I hope this isn't misunderstood. Otherwise, I might get punched."

Leaning over, he brought his lips to hers. Lissa responded with no hesitation or thought whatsoever, losing herself in the sweetness of the kiss. Unfortunately, I was swept along with it. When they pulled away, Lissa felt her heart rate increase and her cheeks flush.

"What exactly was that the definition of?" she asked, reliving how his mouth had felt.

"It means 'I'm sorry,'" he said.

She looked away and nervously plucked at some of the grass. Finally, with a sigh, she looked back up. "Christian... was there ever... was there ever anything between you and Jill? Or Mia?"

He stared in surprise. "What? How could you think that?"

"You spent so much time with them."

"There is only one person I have ever wanted," he said. The steadiness of his gaze, of those crystal blue eyes, left no question as to who that person was. "No one else has ever come close. In spite of everything, even with Avery--"

"Christian, I'm so sorry for that--"

"You don't have to--"

"I do--"

"Damn it," he said. "Will you let me finish a sent--"

"No," Lissa interrupted. And she leaned over and kissed him, a hard and powerful kiss that burned through her body, one that told her there was no one else in the world for her either.

Well. Apparently Tasha had been right: I was the only one who could bring them back together. I just somehow hadn't expected my arrest to play a role.

I pulled away from her head to give them some privacy and save myself from watching them make out. I didn't begrudge them their moment. There was nothing either could do for me right now, and they deserved their reunion. Their only course of action was to wait for more information, and really, their method of passing time was a lot healthier than whatever Adrian was probably doing.

I lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. There was nothing but plain metal and neutral colors around me. It drove me crazy. I had nothing to watch, nothing to read. I felt like an animal trapped in a cage. The room seemed to grow smaller and smaller. All I could do was replay what I'd learned via Lissa, analyzing every word of what had been said. I had questions about everything, of course, but the one thing that stuck with me was Daniella mentioning a hearing. I needed to know more about that.

I got my answer--hours later.

I'd fallen into sort of a numb haze by then and almost didn't recognize Mikhail standing in front of my cell door. I leapt from my bed to the bars and saw that he was unlocking the door. Hope surged through me.

"What's going on?" I asked. "Are they letting me go?"

"I'm afraid not," he said. His point was proven when, after opening the door, he promptly put my hands in cuffs. I didn't fight it. "I'm here to take you to your hearing."

Stepping into the hall, I saw other guardians gathered. My own security detail. A mirror of Dimitri's. Lovely. Mikhail and I walked together, and mercifully, he spoke along the way instead of maintaining that awful silence that seemed to be common treatment for prisoners.

"What's the hearing exactly? A trial?"

"No, no. Too soon for a trial. A hearing decides whether you're going to trial."

"That sounds kind of like a waste of time," I pointed out. We emerged from the guardians' building, and that fresh, damp air was the sweetest thing I'd ever tasted.

"It's a bigger waste of time if you go to a full-fledged trial, and they realize there was no case to stand on. At the hearing, they'll lay out all the evidence they have, and a judge--or, well, someone acting as a judge--will decide if you should have a trial. The trial makes it official. That's where they pass the verdict and dole out the punishment."

"Why'd they take so long for the hearing? Why'd they make me wait in that cell all day?"

He laughed, but not because he thought it was funny. "This is fast, Rose. Very fast. It can take days or weeks to get a hearing, and if you do go to trial, you'll stay locked up until then."

I swallowed. "Will they move fast on that too?"

"I don't know. No monarch's been murdered in almost a hundred years. People are running wild, and the Council wants to establish order. They're already making huge plans for the queen's funeral--a giant spectacle that'll distract everyone. Your hearing is also an attempt to establish order."

"What? How?"

"The sooner they convict the murderer, the safer everyone will feel. They think this case against you is so solid, they want to rush it through. They want you to be guilty. They want to bury her knowing her killer is moving toward justice, so that everyone can sleep easy when the new king or queen is elected."

"But I didn't--" I let my denial go. There was no point.

Ahead of us, the building that housed the courtroom loomed. It had seemed forbidding the first time I'd been here for Victor's trial, but that had been owing to fear of the memories he sparked in me. Now... now it was my own future on the line. And apparently not just my own future--the Moroi world was watching and waiting, hoping I was a villain who could be safely put away forever. Swallowing, I gave Mikhail a nervous look.

"Do you think... do you think they'll send me to trial?"

He didn't answer. One of the guards held the door open for us.

"Mikhail?" I urged. "Will they really put me on trial for murder?"

"Yes," he said sympathetically. "I'm pretty sure they will."

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