Chapter Two

 

MY TRIALS WERE A BLUR.

You'd think, seeing as they were the most important part of my education at St. Vladimir's, that I'd remember everything in perfect, crystalline detail. Yet my earlier thoughts were kind of realized. How could these measure up to what I'd already faced? How could these mock fights compare to a mob of Strigoi descending on our school? I'd had to stand against overwhelming odds, not knowing if those I loved were alive or dead. And how could I fear a so-called battle with one of the school's instructors after having fought Dimitri? He'd been lethal as a dhampir and worse as a Strigoi.

Not that I meant to make light of the trials. They were serious. Novices failed them all the time, and I refused to be one of them. I was attacked on all sides, by guardians who'd been fighting and defending Moroi since before I was born. The arena wasn't flat, which complicated everything. They'd filled it with contraptions and obstacles, beams and steps that tested my balance--including a bridge that painfully reminded me of that last night I'd seen Dimitri. I'd pushed him after plunging a silver stake into his heart--a stake that had fallen out during his plummet to the river below.

The arena's bridge was a bit different from the solid wooden one upon which Dimitri and I had fought in Siberia. This one was rickety, a badly constructed path of wooden planks with only rope rails for support. Every step made the entire bridge swing and shake, and holes in the boards showed me where former classmates had (unfortunately for them) discovered weak spots. The test they assigned me on the bridge was probably the worst of all. My goal was to get a "Moroi" away from a group of "Strigoi" that were in pursuit. My Moroi was being played by Daniel, a new guardian who had come with others to the school to replace those killed in the attack. I didn't know him very well, but for this exercise, he was playing completely docile and helpless--even a little afraid, just as any Moroi I was guarding might have been.

He gave me a little resistance about stepping onto the bridge, and I used my calmest, most coaxing voice to finally get him to walk out ahead of me. Apparently they were testing people skills as well as combat skills. Not far behind us on the course, I knew the guardians acting as Strigoi were approaching.

Daniel stepped out, and I shadowed him, still giving him reassurances while all my senses stayed on alert. The bridge swung wildly, telling me with a jolt that our pursuers had joined us. I glanced back and saw three "Strigoi" coming after us. The guardians playing them were doing a remarkable job--moving with as much dexterity and speed as true Strigoi would. They were going to overtake us if we didn't get a move on.

"You're doing great," I told Daniel. It was hard to keep the right tone in my voice. Screaming at Moroi might put them into shock. Too much gentleness would make them think it wasn't serious. "And I know you can move faster. We need to keep ahead of them--they're getting closer. I know you can do this. Come on."

I must have passed that persuasive part of the test because he did indeed pick up his speed--not quite enough to match that of our pursuers, but it was a start. The bridge shifted crazily again. Daniel yelped convincingly and froze, gripping the rope sides tightly. Ahead of him, I saw another guardian-as-Strigoi waiting on the opposite side of the bridge. I believed his name was Randall, another new instructor. I was sandwiched between him and the group at my back. But Randall stayed still, waiting on the first plank of the bridge so that he could shake it and make it harder for us.

"Keep going," I urged, my mind spinning. "You can do it."

"But there's a Strigoi there! We're trapped," Daniel exclaimed.

"Don't worry. I'll deal with him. Just move."

My voice was fierce this time, and Daniel crept forward, pushed on by my command. The next few moments required perfect timing on my part. I had to watch the "Strigoi" on both sides of us and keep Daniel in motion, all the while monitoring where we were on the bridge. When we were almost three quarters of the way across, I hissed, "Drop down on all fours right now! Hurry!"

He obeyed, coming to a halt. I immediately knelt, still speaking in an undertone: "I'm about to shout at you. Ignore it." In a louder voice, for the benefit of those coming after us, I exclaimed, "What are you doing? We can't stop!"

Daniel didn't budge, and I again spoke softly. "Good. See where the ropes connect the base to the rails? Grab them. Grab them as tightly as you can, and do not let go, no matter what happens. Wrap them around your hands if you have to. Do it now!"

He obeyed. The clock was ticking, and I didn't waste another moment. In one motion, while still crouched, I turned around and hacked at the ropes with a knife I'd been given along with my stake. The blade was sharp, thank God. The guardians running the trial weren't messing around. It didn't instantly slice the ropes, but I cut through them so quickly that the "Strigoi" on either side of us didn't have time to react.

The ropes snapped just as I again reminded Daniel to hold on. The two halves of the bridge swung toward the sides of wooden scaffolding, carried by the weight of the people on them. Well, ours did at least. Daniel and I had been prepared. The three pursuers behind us hadn't been. Two fell. One just barely managed to catch hold of a plank, slipping a bit before securing his grip. The actual drop was six feet, but I'd been told to regard it as fifty--a distance that would kill me and Daniel if we fell.

Against all odds, he was still clutching the rope. I was hanging on as well, and once the rope and wood were lying flat against the scaffolding's sides, I began scrambling up it like a ladder. It wasn't easy climbing over Daniel, but I did it, giving me one more chance to tell him to hang on. Randall, who'd been waiting ahead of us, hadn't fallen off. He'd had his feet on the bridge when I cut it, though, and had been surprised enough to lose his balance. Quick to recover, he was now shimmying up the ropes, trying to climb up to the solid surface above. He was much closer to it than me, but I just managed to grab his leg and stop him. I jerked him toward me. He maintained his grip on the bridge, and we struggled. I knew I probably couldn't pull him off, but I was able to keep getting closer. At last, I let go of the knife I'd been holding and managed to get the stake from my belt--something that tested my balance. Randall's ungainly position gave me a shot at his heart, and I took it.

For the trials, we had blunt-ended stakes, ones that wouldn't pierce skin but which could be used with enough force to convince our opponents that we knew what we were doing. My alignment was perfect, and Randall, conceding it would have been a killing blow, relinquished his hold and dropped off the bridge.

That left me the painful task of coaxing Daniel to climb up. It took a long time, but again, his behavior wasn't out of character with how a scared Moroi might behave. I was just grateful he hadn't decided a real Moroi would have lost his grip and fallen.

After that challenge came many more, but I fought on, never slowing down or letting exhaustion affect me. I slipped into battle mode, my senses focused on basic instincts: fight, dodge, kill.

And while staying tuned to those, I still had to be innovative and not fall into a lull. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to react to a surprise like the bridge. I managed it all, battling on with no other thoughts beyond accomplishing the tasks before me. I tried not to think of my instructors as people I knew. I treated them like Strigoi. I pulled no punches.

When it finally ended, I almost didn't realize it. I was simply standing there in the middle of the field with no more attackers coming at me. I was alone. Slowly, I became more aware of the world's details. Crowds in the stands cheering. A few instructors nodding to each other as they joined in. The pounding of my own heart.

It wasn't until a grinning Alberta tugged at my arm that I realized it was over. The test I'd waited for my entire life, finished in what felt like a blink of an eye.

"Come on," she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulder and guiding me toward the exit. "You need to get some water and sit down."

Dazed, I let her lead me off the field, around which people were still cheering and crying my name. Behind us, I heard some people saying they had to take a break and fix the bridge. She led me back to the waiting area and gently pushed me onto a bench. Someone else sat beside me and handed me a bottle of water. I looked over and saw my mother. She had an expression on her face that I had never seen before: pure, radiant pride.

"That was it?" I asked at last.

She surprised me again with genuinely amused laughter. "That was it?" she repeated. "Rose, you were out there for almost an hour. You blew through that test with flying colors--probably one of the best trials this school's ever seen."

"Really? It just seemed..." Easy wasn't quite the right word. "It was a haze, that's all."

My mom squeezed my hand. "You were amazing. I'm so, so proud of you."

The realization of it all truly, truly hit me then, and I felt a smile of my own spreading over my lips. "Now what happens?" I asked.

"Now you become a guardian."

I'd been tattooed many times, but none of those events came close to the ceremony and fanfare that occurred while getting my promise mark. Before, I'd received molnija marks for kills I'd made in unexpected, tragic circumstances: fighting Strigoi in Spokane, the school attack and rescue--events that were cause for mourning, not celebration. After all those kills, we'd kind of lost count, and while guardian tattoo artists still tried to log every individual kill, they'd finally given me a star-shaped mark that was a fancy way of saying we'd lost count.

Tattooing isn't a fast process, even if you're getting a small one, and my entire graduating class had to get them. The ceremony took place in what was usually the Academy's dining room, a room they were able to remarkably transform into something as grand and elaborate as we'd find at the Royal Court. Spectators--friends, family, guardians--packed the room as Alberta called our names one at a time and read our scores as we approached the tattoo artist. The scores were important. They would be made public and, along with our overall school grades, influence our assignments. Moroi could request certain grads for their guardians. Lissa had requested me, of course, but even the best scores in the world might not compensate for all the black behavioral marks on my record.

There were no Moroi at this ceremony, though, aside from the handful who had been invited as guests by the new graduates. Everyone else gathered was a dhampir: either one of the established guardians or about-to-become-guardians like me. The guests sat in the back, and the senior guardians sat near the front. My classmates and I stood the whole time, maybe as some sort of last test of endurance.

I didn't mind. I'd changed out of my torn and dirty clothes into simple slacks and a sweater, an outfit that seemed dressy while still retaining a solemn feel. It was a good call because the air in the room was thick with tension, all faces a mix of joy at our success but also anxiety about our new and deadly role in the world. I watched with shining eyes as my friends were called up, surprised and impressed at many of the scores.

Eddie Castile, a close friend, got a particularly high score in one-on-one Moroi protection. I couldn't help a smile as I watched the tattooist give Eddie his mark. "I wonder how he got his Moroi over the bridge," I murmured in an undertone. Eddie was pretty resourceful.

Beside me, another friend of mine, Meredith, gave me a puzzled look. "What are you talking about?" Her voice was equally soft.

"When we were chased onto the bridge with a Moroi. Mine was Daniel." She still looked confused, and I elaborated. "And they put Strigoi on each side?"

"I crossed the bridge," she whispered, "but it was just me being chased. I took my Moroi through a maze."

A glare from a nearby classmate shut us up, and I hid my frown. Maybe I wasn't the only one who'd gone through the trial in a daze. Meredith had her facts screwed up.

When my name was called, I heard a few gasps as Alberta read my scores. I had the highest in the class by far. I was kind of glad she didn't read my academic grades. They would have totally taken away some of the glory of the rest of my performance. I'd always done well in my combat classes, but math and history... well, those were a bit lacking, particularly since I always seemed to be dropping in and out of school.

My hair was pulled tightly into a bun, with every stray wisp held with hairpins so that the artist would have nothing to interfere with his work. I leaned forward to give him a good view and heard him grunt in surprise. With the back of my neck covered in marks, he'd have to be tricky. Usually a new guardian provided a blank canvas. This guy was good, though, and managed to delicately place the promise mark in the center of the nape of my neck after all. The promise mark looked like a long, stretched-out S, with curly ends. He fit it in between the molnija marks, letting it wrap around them like an embrace. The process hurt, but I kept my face blank, refusing to flinch. I was shown the final results in a mirror before he covered it up with a bandage so it would heal cleanly.

After that, I rejoined my classmates and watched as the rest of them received their tattoos. It meant standing for another two hours, but I didn't mind. My brain was still reeling with everything that had happened today. I was a guardian. A real, honest-to-goodness guardian. And with that thought came questions. What would happen now? Would my scores be good enough to erase my record of bad behavior? Would I be Lissa's guardian? And what about Victor? What about Dimitri?

I shifted uneasily as the full impact of the guardian ceremony hit me. This wasn't just about Dimitri and Victor. This was about me--about the rest of my life. School was over. I would no longer have teachers tracking my every move or correcting me when I made mistakes. All decisions would be on me when I was out protecting someone. Moroi and younger dhampirs would look to me as the authority. And I would no longer have the luxury of practicing combat one minute and lounging in my room the next. There were no clear-cut classes anymore. I would be on duty all the time. The thought was daunting, the pressure almost too great. I'd always equated graduation with freedom. Now I wasn't so sure. What new shape was my life going to take? Who would decide? And how could I reach Victor if I was assigned to guard anyone besides Lissa?

Across the room, I met Lissa's eyes among the audience. They burned with a pride that matched my mother's, and she grinned when our gazes met.

Get that look off your face, she chastised through the bond. You shouldn't look that anxious, not today. You need to celebrate.

I knew she was right. I could handle what was to come. My worries, which were many, could wait one more day--particularly since the exuberant mood of my friends and family ensured that I would celebrate. Abe, with that influence he always seemed to wield, had secured a small banquet room and thrown a party for me that seemed more suited to a royal debutante, not some lowly, reckless dhampir.

Before the event, I changed yet again. Prettier party clothes now seemed more appropriate than the formal molnija ceremony outfit. I put on a short-sleeved, emerald green wrap dress and hung my nazar around my neck, even though it didn't match. The nazar was a small pendant that looked like an eye, with different shades of blue circling it. In Turkey, where Abe came from, it was believed to offer protection. He'd given it to my mother years ago, and she'd in turn given it to me.

By the time I'd put on makeup and brushed out my tangled hair into long, dark waves (because my tattoo bandages didn't go with the dress at all), I hardly looked like someone capable of fighting monsters or even throwing a punch. No--that wasn't quite true, I realized a moment later. Staring into the mirror, I was surprised to see a haunted look in my brown eyes. There was pain there, pain and loss that even the nicest dress and makeup couldn't hide.

I ignored it and set off for the party, promptly running into Adrian as soon as I stepped outside my dorm. Without a word, he swept me into his arms and smothered me with a kiss. I was totally caught off guard. It figured. Undead creatures didn't surprise me, but one flippant royal Moroi could.

And it was quite the kiss, one that I almost felt guilty about sinking into. I'd had concerns when first dating Adrian, but many of them had disappeared over time. After watching him flirt shamelessly and take nothing seriously for so long, I'd never expected to see such devotion from him in our relationship. I also hadn't expected to find my feelings for him growing--which seemed so contradictory considering I still loved Dimitri and was concocting impossible ways to save him.

I laughed when Adrian set me down. Nearby, a few younger Moroi had stopped to watch us. Moroi dating dhampirs wasn't super uncommon at our age, but a notorious dhampir dating the Moroi queen's great-nephew? That was kind of out there--especially since it was widely known how much Queen Tatiana hated me. There had been few witnesses to my last meeting with her, when she'd screamed at me to stay away from Adrian, but word of that kind of thing always gets around.

"Like the show?" I asked our voyeurs. Realizing they'd been busted, the Moroi kids hastily continued on their way. I turned back to Adrian and smiled. "What was that? It was kind of a big kiss to throw on me in public."

"That," he said grandly, "was your reward for kicking so much ass in those trials." He paused. "It was also because you look totally hot in that dress."

I gave him a wry look. "Reward, huh? Meredith's boyfriend got her diamond earrings."

He caught hold of my hand and gave an unconcerned shrug as we began to walk to the party. "You want diamonds? I'll give you diamonds. I'll shower you in them. Hell, I'll get you a gown made out of them. But it's going to be skimpy."

"I think I'll settle for the kiss after all," I said, imagining Adrian dressing me like a swimsuit model. Or a pole dancer. The jewelry reference also suddenly brought on an unwanted memory. When Dimitri had held me captive in Siberia, lulling me into blissful complacency with his bites, he'd showered me with jewelry too.

"I knew you were a badass," continued Adrian. A warm summer breeze ruffled the brown hair he so painstakingly styled each day, and with his free hand, he absentmindedly tried to arrange it back into place. "But I didn't realize just how much until I saw you dropping guardians out there."

"Does that mean you're going to be nicer to me?" I teased.

"I'm already nice to you," he said loftily. "Do you know how badly I want a cigarette right now? But no. I manfully suffer through nicotine withdrawal--all for you. But I think seeing you out there will make me a little more careful around you. That crazy dad of yours is kind of gonna make me cautious too."

I groaned, recalling how Adrian and Abe had been sitting together. "God. Did you really have to hang out with him?"

"Hey, he's awesome. A little unstable, but awesome. We got along great." Adrian opened the door to the building we were seeking. "And he's a badass in his way too. I mean, any other guy who wore scarves like that? He'd be laughed out of this school. Not Abe. He'd beat someone almost as badly as you would. In fact..." Adrian's voice turned nervous. I gave him a surprised look.

"In fact what?"

"Well... Abe said he liked me. But he also made it clear what he'd do to me if I ever hurt you or did anything bad." Adrian grimaced. "In fact, he described what he'd do in very graphic detail. Then, just like that, he switched to some random, happy topic. I like the guy, but he's scary."

"He's out of line!" I came to a halt outside the party's room. Through the door, I heard the buzz of conversation. We were apparently among the last to arrive. I guessed that meant I'd be making a grand entrance fitting for the guest of honor. "He has no right to threaten my boyfriends. I'm eighteen. An adult. I don't need his help. I can threaten my boyfriends myself."

My indignation amused Adrian, and he gave me a lazy smile. "I agree with you. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to take his 'advice' seriously. My face is too pretty to risk."

His face was pretty, but that didn't stop me from shaking my head in exasperation. I reached for the door's handle, but Adrian pulled me back.

"Wait," he said.

He drew me into his arms again, our lips meeting in another hot kiss. My body pressed to his, and I found myself confused by my own feelings and the realization that I was reaching a point where I might want more than just kissing.

"Okay," said Adrian when we'd finally broken away. "Now we can go in."

He had that same light tone to his voice, but in his dark green eyes, I saw the kindling of passion. I wasn't the only one considering more than just kissing. So far, we'd avoided discussing sex, and he'd actually been very good about not pressuring me. I think he knew I just wasn't ready after Dimitri, but in moments like these, I could see just how difficult it was for Adrian to hold back.

It softened something inside of me, and standing on my tiptoes, I gave him another kiss. "What was that?" he asked a few moments later.

I grinned. "Your reward."

When we finally made it into the party, everyone in the room greeted me with cheers and proud smiles. A long time ago, I'd thrived on being the center of attention. That desire had faded a little, but now, I put on a confident face and accepted my loved ones' praise with swagger and happiness. I held up my hands triumphantly, earning more clapping and approval.

My party was almost as much of a blur as my trials. You never really realize how many people care about you until they all turn out to support you. It made me feel humble and almost a little teary. I kept that to myself, though. I could hardly start crying at my own victory party.

Everyone wanted to talk to me, and I was surprised and delighted each time some new person approached me. It wasn't often that I had all the people I loved best in one place, and, uneasily I realized this opportunity might never come again.

"Well, you've finally got a license to kill. It's about time."

I turned and met the amused eyes of Christian Ozera, a onetime annoyance who'd become a good friend. So good, in fact, that in my joyous zeal, I reached out and hugged him--something he clearly didn't expect. I was surprising everyone today.

"Whoa, whoa," he said backing up, flushing. "It figures. You're the only girl who'd get all emotional about the thought of killing. I don't even want to think about what goes on when you and Ivashkov are alone."

"Hey, look who's talking. You're itching to get out there yourself."

Christian shrugged by way of agreement. It was a standard rule in our world: Guardians protected Moroi. Moroi didn't get involved in battles. Yet after recent Strigoi attacks, a lot of Moroi--though hardly a majority--had begun to argue that it was time for Moroi to step up and start helping the guardians. Fire users like Christian were particularly valuable since burning was one of the best ways to kill a Strigoi (along with staking and decapitation). The movement to teach Moroi to fight was currently--and purposely--stalled in the Moroi government, but that hadn't stopped some Moroi from practicing in secret. Christian was one of them. Glancing beside him, I blinked in astonishment. There was someone with him, someone I'd hardly noticed.

Jill Mastrano hovered near him like a shadow. A Moroi freshman--well, soon to be a sophomore--Jill had come forward as someone who also wanted to fight. She had sort of become Christian's student.

"Hey Jill," I said, giving her a warm smile. "Thanks for coming."

Jill flushed. She was determined to learn to defend herself, but she grew flustered among others--particularly around "celebrities" like me. Rambling was her nervous reaction. "I had to," she said, brushing her long, light brown hair out of her face. Like always, it was a tangle of curls. "I mean, it's so cool what you did. At the trials. Everyone was amazed. I heard one of the guardians saying that they'd never seen anything like you, so when Christian asked if I wanted to come, of course I had to. Oh!" Her light green eyes went wide. "I didn't even tell you congratulations. Sorry. Congratulations."

Beside her, Christian struggled to keep a straight face. I made no such attempts and laughingly gave her a hug too. I was in serious danger of turning warm and fuzzy. I'd probably get my tough guardian status revoked if I kept this up. "Thanks. Are you two ready to take on a Strigoi army yet?"

"Soon," said Christian. "But we might need your backup." He knew as well as I did that Strigoi were way out of their league. His fire magic had helped me a lot, but on his own? That'd be a different story. He and Jill were teaching themselves to use magic offensively, and when I'd had time between classes, I'd taught them a few combat moves.

Jill's face fell a little. "It's going to stop once Christian's gone."

I turned to him. It was no surprise he'd be leaving. We'd all be leaving. "What are you going to do with yourself?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Go to Court with the rest of you. Aunt Tasha says we're going to have a 'talk' about my future." He grimaced. Whatever his plans were, it looked like they weren't the same as Tasha's. Most royal Moroi would head off to elite colleges. I wasn't sure what Christian had in mind.

It was standard practice after graduation for new guardians to go to the Moroi Royal Court for orientation and to get their assignments. We were all due to leave in a couple of days. Following Christian's gaze, I saw his aunt across the room, and so help me, she was talking to Abe.

Tasha Ozera was in her late twenties, with the same glossy black hair and ice blue eyes that Christian had. Her beautiful face was marred, however, by some terrible scarring on one side--the result of injuries inflicted by Christian's own parents. Dimitri had been turned into a Strigoi against his will, but the Ozeras had purposely chosen to turn for the sake of immortality. It had ironically cost them their lives when the guardians hunted them down. Tasha had raised Christian (when he wasn't at school) and was one of the main leaders in the movement supporting those Moroi who wanted to fight Strigoi.

Scar or not, I admired her and still thought she was beautiful. From my wayward father's attitude, it was clear he did too. He poured her a glass of champagne and said something that made her laugh. She leaned forward, like she was telling him a secret, and he laughed in return. My jaw dropped. Even from this far away, it was obvious they were flirting.

"Dear God," I said with a shudder, hastily turning back to Christian and Jill.

Christian seemed torn between smugness at my discomfort and his own unease at watching a woman he regarded as a mother get hit upon by a pirate mobster guy. A moment later, Christian's expression softened as he turned back to Jill and continued our conversation.

"Hey, you don't need me," he said. "You'll find others around here. You'll have your own superhero club before you know it."

I found myself smiling again, but my kindly feelings were suddenly shattered by a jolt of jealousy. It wasn't my own, though. It was Lissa's, coming through the bond. Startled, I glanced around and spotted her across the room, giving Christian the look of death as he spoke to Jill.

It's worth mentioning that Christian and Lissa used to date. More than date. They'd been deeply in love, and honestly, they kind of still were. Unfortunately, recent events had badly strained their relationship, and Christian had broken up with her. He'd loved her but had lost his trust in her. Lissa had spun out of control when another spirit user named Avery Lazar had sought to control her. We'd eventually stopped Avery, and she was currently locked away in a mental institution, last I'd heard. Christian now knew the reasons for Lissa's horrible behavior, but the damage was done. Lissa had initially been depressed, but her sorrow had now turned to anger.

She claimed she wanted nothing to do with him anymore, but the bond gave her away. She was always jealous of any girl he talked to--particularly Jill, whom he'd been spending a lot of time with lately. I knew for a fact there was nothing romantic going on there. Jill idolized him as some wise teacher, nothing more. If she had a crush on anyone, it was Adrian, who always treated her like a kid sister. We all kind of did, really.

Christian followed my gaze, and his expression hardened. Realizing she had his attention, Lissa immediately turned away and began talking to the first guy she found, a good-looking dhampir from my class. She turned on the flirtatious charm that came so easily to spirit users, and soon, both of them were laughing and chatting in a way similar to Abe and Tasha. My party had turned into a round of speed dating.

Christian turned back to me. "Well, looks like she's got plenty to keep her busy."

I rolled my eyes. Lissa wasn't the only one who was jealous. Just as she grew angry whenever he hung out with other girls, Christian became prickly when she spoke to other guys. It was infuriating. Rather than admit they still had feelings and just needed to patch things up, those two idiots just kept displaying more and more hostility toward each other.

"Will you stop already and actually try to talk to her like a rational person someday?" I groaned.

"Sure," he said bitterly. "The day she starts acting like a rational person."

"Oh my God. You guys are going to make me rip my hair out."

"It'd be a waste of nice hair," said Christian. "Besides, she's made her attitude perfectly clear."

I started to protest and tell him how stupid he was, but he had no intention of sticking around to hear a lecture I'd already given a dozen times.

"Come on, Jill," he said. "Rose needs to mingle more."

He quickly stepped away, and I had half a mind to go beat some sense into him when a new voice spoke.

"When are you going to fix that?" Tasha was standing next to me, shaking her head at Christian's retreat. "Those two need to be back together."

"I know that. You know that. But they can't seem to get it through their heads."

"Well, you'd better get on it," she said. "If Christian goes to college across the country, it'll be too late." There was a dry--and exasperated--note in her voice when she mentioned Christian going to college.

Lissa was going to Lehigh, a university near the Court, per an arrangement with Tatiana. Lissa would get to attend a bigger university than Moroi usually went to, in exchange for spending time at the Court and learning the royal trade.

"I know," I said in exasperation. "But why am I the one who has to fix it?"

Tasha grinned. "Because you're the only one forceful enough to make them see reason."

I decided to let Tasha's insolence go, mostly because her talking to me meant that she wasn't talking to Abe. Glancing across the room, I suddenly stiffened. He was now talking to my mother. Snatches of their conversation came to me through the noise.

"Janine," he said winningly, "you haven't aged a day. You could be Rose's sister. Do you remember that night in Cappadocia?"

My mother actually giggled. I had never heard her do that before. I decided I never wanted to again. "Of course. And I remember how eager you were to help me when my dress strap broke."

"Dear God," I said. "He's unstoppable."

Tasha looked puzzled until she saw what I was talking about. "Abe? He's actually pretty charming."

I groaned. "Excuse me."

I headed toward my parents. I accepted that they'd once had a romance--one that led to my conception--but that didn't mean I wanted to watch them relive it. They were recounting some walk on the beach when I reached them. I promptly tugged Abe's arm away. He was standing way too close to her.

"Hey, can I talk to you?" I asked.

He looked surprised but shrugged. "Certainly." He gave my mother a knowing smile. "We'll talk more later."

"Is no woman safe around here?" I demanded as I led him away.

"What are you talking about?"

We came to a stop by the punch bowl. "You're flirting with every woman in this room!"

My chastising didn't faze him. "Well, there are so many lovely women here.... Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"

"No! I wanted to talk to you about threatening my boyfriend. You had no right to do that."

His dark eyebrows shot up. "What, that? That was nothing. Just a father looking out for his daughter."

"Most fathers don't threaten to disembowel their daughters' boyfriends."

"That's not true. And anyway, that's not what I actually said. It was much worse."

I sighed. He seemed to delight in my exasperation.

"Think of it as a graduation gift. I'm proud of you. Everyone knew you'd be good, but no one knew you'd be that good." He winked. "They certainly didn't expect you to destroy their property."

"What property?"

"The bridge."

I frowned. "I had to. It was the most efficient way. God, that was a bitch of a challenge. What'd the other grads do? They didn't actually fight in the middle of that thing, did they?"

Abe shook his head, loving every minute of his superior knowledge. "No one else was put in that situation."

"Of course they were. We all face the same tests."

"Not you. While planning the trials, the guardians decided you needed something... extra. Something special. After all, you'd been out fighting in the real world."

"What?" The volume of my voice caught the attention of a few others. I lowered it, and Meredith's earlier words came back to me. "That's not fair!"

He didn't seem concerned. "You're superior to the others. Making you do easy things wouldn't have been fair."

I'd faced a lot of ridiculous things in my life, but this was pretty out there. "So they had me do that crazy bridge stunt instead? And if they were surprised I cut it, then what the hell else did they expect me to do? How else was I supposed to survive that?"

"Hmm." He stroked his chin absentmindedly. "I honestly don't think they knew."

"Oh, for God's sake. This is unbelievable."

"Why are you so mad? You passed."

"Because they put me in a situation they didn't even know how to get out of." I gave him a suspicious look. "And how do you even know about this? This is all guardian business."

An expression I didn't like at all came over his face. "Ah, well, I was with your mother last night and--"

"Whoa, okay. Just stop," I interrupted. "I do not want to hear what you and my mother were doing last night. I think that'd be worse than the bridge."

He grinned. "Both are in the past, so no need to worry now. Enjoy your success."

"I'll try. Just don't do me any more favors with Adrian, okay? I mean, I'm glad you came to support me, but that's more than enough."

Abe gave me a canny look, reminding me that underneath that swagger he was indeed a shrewd and dangerous man. "You were more than happy to have me do you a favor after your return from Russia."

I grimaced. He had a point, seeing as he had managed to get a message into a high-security prison. Even if it hadn't led to anything, he still got points.

"Okay," I admitted. "That was pretty amazing. And I'm grateful. I still don't know how you pulled that off." Suddenly, like a dream you recall a day later, I remembered the thought I'd had just before my trials. I lowered my voice. "You didn't actually go there, did you?"

He snorted. "Of course not. I wouldn't set foot in that place. I simply worked my network."

"Where is that place?" I asked, hoping I sounded bland.

He wasn't fooled. "Why do you want to know?"

"Because I'm curious! Convicted criminals always disappear without a trace. I'm a guardian now, and I don't even know anything about our own prison system. Is there just one prison? Are there lots?"

Abe didn't answer right away. He was studying me carefully. In his business, he suspected everyone of ulterior motives. As his daughter, I was probably doubly suspect. It was in the genes.

He must have underestimated my potential for insanity because he said at last, "There's more than one. Victor's in one of the worst. It's called Tarasov."

"Where is it?"

"Right now?" He considered. "In Alaska, I think."

"What do you mean, 'right now'?"

"It moves throughout the year. Right now it's in Alaska. Later, it'll be in Argentina." He gave me a sly smile, apparently wondering how astute I was. "Can you guess why?"

"No, I--wait. Sunlight." It made perfect sense. "Alaska's got almost nonstop daylight this time of year--but nonstop night in the winter."

I think he was prouder of my realization than of my trials. "Any prisoners trying to escape would have a hard time." In full sun, no Moroi fugitive would get very far. "Not that anyone can escape through that level of security anyway." I tried to ignore how foreboding that sounded.

"Seems like they'd put it pretty far north in Alaska then," I said, hoping to worm out the actual location indirectly. "You get more light that way."

He chuckled. "Even I can't tell you that. That's information the guardians keep close, buried in their headquarters."

I froze. Headquarters...

Abe, despite being usually observant, didn't notice my reaction. His eyes were watching something across the room. "Is that Renee Szelsky? My, my... she's grown lovely over the years."

I grudgingly waved him away, largely because I wanted to chase this new plan in my mind--and because Renee wasn't anyone I knew very well, which made him hitting on her less appalling. "Well, don't let me stop you. Go lure more women into your web."

Abe didn't need much prodding. Alone, I let my brain spin, wondering if my developing scheme had any chance of success. His words had sparked a new plan in my mind. It wasn't much crazier than most of my others. Across the room, I met Lissa's jade eyes again. With Christian out of sight, her mood had improved. She was enjoying herself and was excited about the adventures ahead of us, now that we were free and out in the world. My mind flashed back to the anxieties I'd felt earlier in the day. We might be free now, but reality would catch up with us soon. The clock was ticking. Dimitri was waiting, watching. I wondered briefly if I'd still get his weekly letters, now that I'd be leaving the school.

I smiled at her, feeling kind of bad that I'd be ruining her mood when I told her we might now have a very real chance of busting out Victor Dashkov.

***

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

***