Chapter Twenty-Two

 

I DIDN'T TAKE THE GUY'S advice and tear off out of there, though I didn't exactly sit on the front step either. I lingered nearby in a cluster of cherry trees, figuring it would only be a matter of time before the assembly ended and people spilled out the doors. After several minutes passed and nothing happened, I flipped into Lissa's mind and discovered things were still in full force. Despite Tatiana declaring twice now that the session was over, people were still standing around and arguing in groups.

Tasha was standing in one such group with Lissa and Adrian, making one of the impassioned speeches she was so good at. Tasha might not be as coldly calculating as Tatiana was when it came to political moves, but Tasha did have a keen sense of ripples in the system and recognized opportunities when they came. She was against the age-lowering decree. She was for teaching Moroi to fight. Neither of those was getting her very far, so she jumped on the next best thing: Lissa.

"Why are we arguing among ourselves about how best to kill Strigoi when we can save them?" Tasha put one arm around Lissa and one around Adrian, drawing them both forward. Lissa still wore her serenely confident look, but Adrian looked ready to bolt if given half a chance. "Vasilisa--who, by the way, is indeed being denied her fair voice here, thanks to an archaic law--has shown that Strigoi can be brought back."

"That hasn't been proven," exclaimed one man in the crowd.

"Are you kidding?" asked a woman beside him. "My sister was with the group that brought him back. She says he's definitely a dhampir. He was even out in the sun!"

Tasha nodded in approval at the woman. "I was there as well. And now we have two spirit users capable of doing this for other Strigoi."

As much as I respected Tasha, I wasn't entirely with her on this. The amount of power--not to mention effort involved in the staking--that Lissa had required with Dimitri had been staggering. It had even temporarily hurt the bond. That didn't mean she couldn't do it again. Nor did it mean she wouldn't want to again. She was just naively compassionate enough to throw herself into the line of fire to help others. But I knew the more power a spirit user wielded, the quicker they'd travel down the road to insanity.

And Adrian... well, he was almost a nonissue here. Even if he wanted to go staking Strigoi, he didn't have the kind of healing power it would take to restore one--at least not now. It's wasn't uncommon for Moroi to use their elements in different ways. Some fire users, like Christian, had skilled control of flame itself. Others could only use their magic to, say, warm the air in a room. Likewise, Lissa and Adrian had their strengths with spirit. His greatest healing triumph was mending a fracture, and she still couldn't walk dreams, no matter how much she practiced.

So, really, Tasha had one spirit user capable of saving Strigoi, and that one could hardly transform legions of those monsters. Tasha did seem to recognize this a little.

"The Council shouldn't be wasting time with age laws," she continued. "We need to sink our resources into finding more spirit users and recruiting them to help save Strigoi." She fixed her gaze on someone in the crowd. "Martin, didn't your brother get turned against his will? With enough work, we could bring him back to you. Alive. Just like you knew him. Otherwise, he's just going to get staked when guardians find him--and of course he'll be slaughtering innocents along the way."

Yeah, Tasha was good. She could paint a good image and nearly brought that Martin guy to tears. She didn't really mention people who'd turned Strigoi willingly. Lissa, still standing with her, wasn't sure how she felt about the idea of a Strigoi-saving spirit army, but she did recognize how this was all part of several other plans Tasha had--including one to get Lissa voting rights.

Tasha played up Lissa's abilities and character, scoffing at what was clearly an outdated law from an era that never could have foreseen this situation. Tasha further pointed out that a full Council of twelve families would send a message to Strigoi everywhere about Moroi unity.

I didn't want to hear any more. I'd let Tasha wield her political magic and talk more to Lissa later. I was still so agitated about what had happened when I'd yelled at the Council that I couldn't stand to see that room anymore. I left her mind and returned to my own, yelping when I saw a face right in front of mine.

"Ambrose!"

One of the best-looking dhampirs on the planet--after Dimitri, of course--flashed me a gleaming, movie-star smile. "You were so still, I thought maybe you were trying to be a dryad."

I blinked. "A what?"

He gestured to the cherry trees. "Nature spirits. Beautiful women who become one with trees."

"I'm not sure if that was a compliment or not," I said. "But it's good to see you again."

Ambrose was a true oddity in our culture: a male dhampir who had neither taken guardian vows nor run off to hide among humans. Female dhampirs often chose not to join the guardians in order to focus on raising families. That's why we were so rare. But men? They had no excuse, as far as most people were concerned. Rather than skulk off in disgrace, however, Ambrose had chosen to stay and simply work for the Moroi another way. He was essentially a servant--a high-class one who served drinks at elite parties and gave massages to royal women. He also, if rumors were true, served Tatiana in physical ways. That was so creepy, though, I promptly put it out of my mind.

"You too," he told me. "But if you aren't communing with nature, what are you doing?"

"It's a long story. I kind of got thrown out of a Council meeting."

He looked impressed. "Literally thrown out?"

"Dragged, I guess. I'm surprised I haven't seen you around," I mused. "Of course, I've kind of been, um, distracted this last week."

"So I've heard," he said, giving me a sympathetic look. "Although, I actually have been away. Just got back last night."

"Just in time for the fun," I muttered.

The guileless look on his face told me hadn't heard about the decree yet. "What are you doing now?" he asked. "This doesn't look like punishment. Did you finish your sentence?"

"Something like that. I'm kind of waiting for someone now. Was just going to hang out in my room."

"Well, if you're killing time, why don't you come see Aunt Rhonda?"

"Rhonda?" I scowled. "No offense, but your aunt didn't really impress me with her abilities last time."

"None taken," he said cheerfully. "But she's been wondering about you. And Vasilisa. So, if you're just hanging around..."

I hesitated. He was right that I had nothing better to do right now. I was stuck on options with both Dimitri and the Council's idiotic resolutions. Yet Rhonda--his fortune-telling Moroi aunt--wasn't someone I really wanted to see again. Despite my glib words, the truth was that in retrospect, some of Rhonda's predictions had come true. I just didn't like what they'd been.

"Fine," I said, trying to look bored. "Make it fast."

He smiled again, like he could see through my ruse, and led me off to a building I'd been to once before. It housed a luxurious salon and spa frequented by royal Moroi. Lissa and I had had our nails done there, and as Ambrose and I wound our way through it to Rhonda's lair, I felt a strange pang within me. Manicures and pedicures... they seemed like the most trivial things in the world. But on that day, they'd been wonderful. Lissa and I had laughed and grown closer... just before the school was attacked and everything fell apart....

Rhonda told fortunes in a back room that was far from the busy spa. Despite the seedy feel of it, she did a pretty brisk business and even had her own receptionist. Or, well, she used to. This time, the desk was empty, and Ambrose led me straight through to Rhonda's room. It looked exactly the same as before, like being inside a heart. Everything was red: the wallpaper, the decorations, and the cushions covering the floor.

Rhonda herself sat on the floor, eating a cup of yogurt, which seemed terribly ordinary for someone who allegedly wielded mystical powers. Curly black hair cascaded around her shoulders, making the large gold hoops in her ears gleam.

"Rose Hathaway," she said happily, setting the yogurt aside. "What a nice surprise."

"Shouldn't you have seen me coming?" I asked dryly.

Her lips twitched with amusement. "That's not my power."

"Sorry to interrupt your dinner," Ambrose said, gracefully folding his muscled body as he sat down. "But Rose isn't easy to catch hold of."

"I imagine not," she said. "I'm impressed you got her to come at all. What can I do for you today, Rose?"

I shrugged and sank down beside Ambrose. "I don't know. I'm only here because Ambrose talked me into it."

"She didn't think your last reading was very good," he said.

"Hey!" I shot him a chastising look. "That's not exactly what I said."

Last time, Lissa and Dimitri had been with me. Rhonda's tarot cards had shown Lissa crowned with power and light--no surprise. Rhonda had said Dimitri would lose what he valued most, and he had: his soul. And me? Rhonda had bluntly told me that I'd kill the undead. I'd scoffed at that, knowing I had a lifetime of Strigoi-killing ahead of me. Now I wondered if "undead" meant the Strigoi part of Dimitri. Even if I hadn't driven the stake, I'd certainly played a major role.

"Maybe another reading would help the other one make more sense?" she offered.

My mind was putting together another fraud psychic joke, which was why it was so astonishing when my mouth said, "That's the problem. The other one did make sense. I'm afraid... I'm afraid of what else the cards will show."

"The cards don't make the future," she said gently. "If something's meant to be, it'll be, regardless of whether you see it here. And even then... well, the future is always changing. If we had no choices, there'd be no point in living."

"See now," I said flippantly, "that's the kind of vague gypsy response I was hoping for."

"Roma," she corrected. "Not gypsy." Despite my snark, she still seemed to be in a good mood. Easygoing attitudes must have run in their family. "Do you want the cards or not?"

Did I? She was right about one thing--the future would unfold with or without me seeing it in the cards. And even if the cards showed it, I probably wouldn't understand it until afterward.

"Okay," I said. "Just for fun. I mean, last time was probably a lucky guess."

Rhonda rolled her eyes but said nothing as she began shuffling her tarot deck. She did it with such precision that the cards seemed to move themselves. When she finally stopped, she handed the deck to me to cut. I did, and she put it back together.

"We did three cards before," she said. "We've got time to do more if you'd like. Five, perhaps?"

"The more there are, the more likely it is that anything can get explained."

"If you don't believe in them, then it shouldn't be an issue."

"Okay, then. Five."

She grew serious as she flipped out the cards, her eyes carefully studying them. Two of the cards had come out upside down. I didn't take that as a good sign. Last time, I'd learned that it made seemingly happy cards... well, not so happy.

The first one was one the Two of Cups, showing a man and a woman together in a grassy, flower-filled field while the sun shone above them. Naturally, it was upside down.

"Cups are tied to emotions," Rhonda explained. "The Two of Cups shows a union, a perfect love and blossoming of joyous emotions. But since it's inverted--"

"You know what?" I interrupted. "I think I'm getting the hang of this. You can skip that one. I have a good idea what it means." It might as well have been Dimitri and me on that card, the cup empty and full of heartache.... I really didn't want to hear Rhonda analyze what was already tearing my heart up.

So she went on to the next one: the Queen of Swords, also upside down.

"Cards like this refer to specific people," Rhonda told me. The Queen of Swords looked very imperious, with auburn hair and silver robes. "The Queen of Swords is clever. She thrives on knowledge, can outwit her enemies, and is ambitious."

I sighed. "But upside down..."

"Upside down," said Rhonda, "all of those traits get twisted. She's still smart, still trying to get her way... but she's doing it through insincere ways. There's a lot of hostility and deception here. I'd say you have an enemy."

"Yeah," I said, eyeing the crown. "I think I can guess who. I just called her a sanctimonious bitch."

Rhonda didn't comment and moved on to the next one. It was facing the right way, but I kind of wished it wasn't. It had a whole bunch of swords stuck in the ground and a woman tied and blindfolded to one. Eight of Swords.

"Oh, come on," I exclaimed. "What is it with me and swords? You gave me one this depressing last time." It had shown a woman weeping in front of a wall of swords.

"That was the Nine of Swords," she agreed. "It could always be worse."

"I have a hard time believing that."

She picked up the rest of the deck and scanned through it, finally pulling out one card. The Ten of Swords. "You could have drawn this." It showed a dead guy lying on the ground with a bunch of swords driven through him.

"Point taken," I said. Ambrose chuckled beside me. "What's the nine mean?"

"The nine is being trapped. Unable to get out of a situation. It can also mean slander or accusation. Summoning courage to escape something." I glanced back at the queen, thinking of the things I'd said in the Council room. Those would definitely count as accusations. And being trapped? Well, there was always the possibility of a lifetime of paperwork...

I sighed. "Okay, what's the next one?" It was the best-looking one in the bunch, the Six of Swords. It had a bunch of people in a boat, rowing off over moonlit water.

"A journey," she said.

"I was just on a journey. A few of them." I eyed her suspiciously. "Man, this isn't, like, some kind of a spiritual journey is it?"

Ambrose laughed again. "Rose, I wish you'd get tarot readings every day."

Rhonda ignored him. "If it were in cups, maybe. But swords are tangible. Action. A true, out-and-about journey."

Where on earth would I go? Did it mean I was traveling to the Academy like Tatiana had suggested? Or was it possible that, in spite of all my rule breaking and calling her royal highness names, I might actually get an assignment after all? One away from Court?

"You could be looking for something. It may be a physical journey combined with a spiritual journey," she said, which sounded like a total way to cover her ass. "This last one..." Her eyebrows knitted into a frown at the fifth card. "This is hidden from me."

I peered at it. "The Page of Cups. Seems pretty obvious. It's a page with, um, cups."

"Usually I have a clear vision.... The cards speak to me in how they connect. This one's not clear."

"The only thing that's not clear is whether it's a girl or a boy." The person on the card looked young but had hair and an androgynous face that made the gender impossible to determine. The blue tights and tunic didn't help, though the sunny field in the background seemed promising.

"It can be either," Rhonda said. "It's the lowest in rank of the cards that represent people in each suit: King, Queen, Knight, and then Page. Whoever the page is, it's someone trustworthy and creative. Optimistic. It could mean someone who goes on the journey with you--or maybe the reason for your journey."

Whatever optimism or truth I'd had in the cards pretty much disappeared with that. Given that she'd just said about a hundred things it could be, I didn't really consider it authoritative. Usually, she noticed my skepticism, but her attention was still on the card as she frowned.

"But I just can't tell.... There's a cloud around it. Why? It doesn't make sense."

Something about her confusion sent a chill down my spine. I always told myself this was fake, but if she'd been making it all up... well, wouldn't she have made something up about the Page of Cups? She wasn't putting on a very convincing act if this last card was making her question herself. The thought that maybe there was some mystical force out there blocking her sobered up my cynical attitude.

With a sigh, she looked up at last. "Sorry that's all I can tell you. Did the rest help?"

I scanned the cards. Heartache. An enemy. Accusations. Entrapment. Travel. "Some of it tells me things I already know. The rest leaves me with more questions."

She smiled knowingly. "That's how it usually is."

I thanked her for the reading, secretly glad I didn't have to pay for it. Ambrose walked me out, and I tried to shake off the mood Rhonda's fortune had left me in. I had enough problems in my life without letting a bunch of stupid cards bother me.

"You going to be okay?" he asked when we finally emerged. The sun was climbing higher. The Royal Court would be going to bed soon, ending what had been a turbulent day. "I... I wouldn't have brought you if I'd known how much it would upset you."

"No, no," I said. "It's not the cards. Not exactly. There's a bunch of other things going on... one you should probably know about."

I hadn't wanted to bring up the decree when we'd first run into each other, but as a dhampir, he had a right to hear about what had happened. His face was perfectly still as I spoke, save for his dark brown eyes, which grew wider while the story progressed.

"There's some mistake," he said at last. "They wouldn't do that. They wouldn't do that to sixteen-year-olds."

"Yeah, well, I didn't think so either, but they were apparently serious enough about it to throw me out when I, um, questioned it."

"I can just imagine your 'questioning.' All this'll do is make more dhampirs drop out of the guardians... unless, of course, being that young makes them more open for brainwashing."

"Kind of a sensitive area for you, huh?" I asked. After all, he too was a guardian drop-out.

He shook his head. "Staying in this society was nearly impossible for me. If any of those kids do decide to drop out, they won't have the powerful friends I did. They'll be outcasts. That's all this'll do. Either kill off teens or cut them off from their own people."

I wondered what powerful friends he'd had, but this was hardly the time to learn his life history. "Well, that royal bitch doesn't seem to care."

The thoughtful, distracted look in his eyes suddenly sharpened. "Don't call her that," he warned with a glare. "This isn't her fault."

Whoa. Cue surprise. I'd almost never seen sexy, charismatic Ambrose be anything but friendly. "Of course it's her fault! She's the supreme ruler of the Moroi, remember?"

His scowl deepened. "The Council voted too. Not her alone."

"Yeah, but she voted in support of this decree. She swayed the vote."

"There must have been a reason. You don't know her like I do. She wouldn't want this kind of thing."

I started to ask if he was out of his mind but paused when I remembered his relationship with the queen. Those romantic rumors made me queasy, but if they were true, I supposed he might have legitimate concern for her. I also decided it was probably best that I didn't know her the way he did. The bite marks on his neck certainly indicated some sort of intimate activity.

"Whatever's going on between you is your business," I told him calmly, "but she's used it to trick you into thinking she's someone she isn't. She did it to me too, and I fell for it. It's all a scam."

"I don't believe it," he said, still stone-faced. "As queen, she's put into all sorts of tough situations. There must be more to it--she'll change the decree, I'm certain of it."

"As queen," I said, imitating his tone, "she should have the ability to--"

My words fell off as a voice spoke in my head. Lissa's.

Rose, you're going to want to see this. But you have to promise not to cause any trouble. Lissa flashed a location to me, along with a sense of urgency.

Ambrose's hard look shifted to one of concern. "Are you okay?"

"I--yeah. Lissa needs me." I sighed. "Look, I don't want us to fight, okay? Obviously we've each got different views of the situation... but I think we both agree on the same key point."

"That kids shouldn't be sent off to die? Yeah, we can agree on that." We smiled tentatively at each other, and the anger between us diffused. "I'll talk to her, Rose. I'll find out the real story and let you know, okay?"

"Okay." I had a hard time believing anyone could really have a heart-to-heart with Tatiana, but again, there might be more to their relationship than I realized. "Thanks. It was good seeing you."

"You too. Now go--go to Lissa."

I needed no further urging. Along with the sense of urgency, Lissa had passed one other message through the bond that sent my feet flying: It's about Dimitri.

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