Last Sacrifice Chapter Fourteen

THE KEEPERS HAD MIXED REACTIONS to us leaving.They were usually glad to see outsiders go, especially since we had Sydney with us.But after the fight, they held me up as some kind of superhero and were enchanted by the idea of me marrying into their “family.’ Seeing me in action meant some of the women were beginning to eye Dimitri now too.

I wasn’t in the mood to watch them flirt with him–especially since, according to their courtship rules, I would apparently have to be the one to battle it out with any prospective fiancee.

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Naturally, we didn’t tell the Keepers our exact plans, but we did mention we’d likely be encountering Strigoi–which caused quite a reaction. Most of that reaction was excitement and awe, which continued to boost our reputations as fierce warriors. Angeline’s response, however, was totally unexpected.

“Take me with you,’ she said, grabbing a hold of my arm, just as I started down the forest path toward the car.

“Sorry,’ I said, still a little weirded out after her earlier hostility. “We have to do this alone.’

“I can help! You beat me … but you saw what I can do. I’m good. I could take a Strigoi.’

For all her fierceness, I knew Angeline didn’t have a clue about what she’d be facing if she ever met an actual Strigoi. The few Keepers who bore molnijamarks spoke little about the encounters, faces grave. They understood. Angeline didn’t. She also didn’t realize that any novice at St. Vladimir’s in the secondary school could probably take her out. She had raw potential, true, but it needed a lot of work.

“You might be able to,’ I said, not wanting to hurt her feelings. “But it’s just not possible for you to come with us.’ I would have lied and given her a vague “Maybe sometime,’ but since that had led Joshua to thinking we were semi-engaged, I decided I’d better not.

I expected more boasts about her battle prowess. We’d learned she was regarded as one of the best young fighters in the compound, and with her pretty looks, she had plenty of admirers too. A lot of it had gone to her head, and she liked to talk about how she could beat anyone or anything up. Again, I was reminded of Jill. Jill also had a lot to learn about the true meaning of battle but was still eager to jump in. She was quieter and more cautious than Angeline, though, so Angeline’s next direction caught me off guard.

“Please. It’s not just the Strigoi! I want to see the world. I need to see something else outside of this place!’ Her voice was pitched low, out of the range of the others. “I’ve only been to Rubysville twice, and they say that’s nothing compared to other cities.’

“It’s not,’ I agreed. I didn’t even consider it a city. “Please,’ she begged again, this time her voice trembling. “Take me with you.’

Suddenly, I felt sad for her. Her brother had also shown a little longing for the outside world, but nothing like this. He’d joked that electricity would be nice, but I knew he was happy enough without the perks of the modern world. But for Angeline, the situation was much more desperate. I too knew what it was like to feel trapped in one’s life and was legitimately sorry for what I had to say.

“I can’t, Angeline. We have to go on our own. I’m sorry. I really am.’

Her blue eyes shimmered, and she raced off into the woods before I could see her cry. I felt horrible after that and couldn’t stop thinking about her as we made our farewells. I was so distracted, I even let Joshua hug me goodbye.

Getting back on the road was a relief. I was glad to be away from the Keepers and was ready to spring into action and start helping Lissa. Lexington was our first step. We had a six-hour drive ahead of us, and Sydney, per usual, seemed adamant that no one else was going to drive her car. Dimitri and I made futile protests, finally giving up when we realized that if we were going to be facing Strigoi soon, it was probably best we rest and conserve our strength. The address for Donovan–the Strigoi who allegedly knew Sonya–was only where he could be found at night. That meant we had to make it to Lexington before sunrise, so we wouldn’t lose him when he went to his daytime lair. It also meant we’d be meeting Strigoi in the dark. Certain that little would happen on the drive–especially once we were out of West Virginia–Dimitri and I agreed we could doze a little, seeing as neither of us had had a full night’s sleep.

Even though the lulling of the car was soothing, I drifted in and out of restless sleep. After a few hours of this, I simply settled into the trancelike state that brought me to Lissa. It was a good thing too: I’d stumbled into one of the biggest events facing the Moroi. The nomination process to elect the new king or queen was about to begin. It was the first of many steps, and everyone was excited, given how rare monarch elections truly were. This was an event none of my friends had expected to see anytime soon in our lives, and considering recent events … well, we all had especial interest. The future of the Moroi was at stake here.

Lissa was sitting on the edge of a chair in one of the royal ballrooms, a huge sweeping space with vaulted ceilings and gold detailing everywhere. I’d been in this dazzling room before, with its murals and elaborate molding. Chandeliers glittered above. It had held the graduate luncheon, where newly made guardians put on their best faces and hoped to attract a good assignment. Now, the room was arranged like the Council chamber, with a long table on one side of the room that was set with twelve chairs.

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Opposite that table were rows and rows of other chairs–where the audience sat when the Council was in session. Except, now there were about four times as many chairs as usual, which probably explained the need for this room. Every single chair was filled. In fact, people were even standing, crowding in as best they could. Agitated- looking guardians moved among the herd, keeping them out of doorways and making sure the bystanders were arranged in a way that allowed for optimal security.

Christian sat on one side of Lissa, and Adrian sat beside Christian. To my pleasant surprise, Eddie and Mia sat nearby too. Mia was a Moroi friend of ours who had gone to St. Vladimir’s and was nearly as hardcore as Tasha about Moroi needing to defend themselves. My beloved father was nowhere in sight. None of them spoke. Conversation would have been difficult among the buzzing and humming of so many people, and besides, my friends were too awestruck by what was about to happen. There was so much to see and experience, and none of them had realized just how big the crowd would be. Abe had said things would move fast once Tatiana was buried, and they certainly had.

“Do you know who I am?’

A loud voice caught Lissa’s attention, just barely carrying above the din. Lissa glanced down the row, a few seats away from Adrian. Two Moroi, a man and a woman, sat side by side and were looking up at a very angry woman. Her hands were on her hips, and the pink velvet dress she wore seemed outlandish next to the couple’s jeans and T-shirts. It also wasn’t going to hold up so well once she stepped outside of air conditioning.

A glare twisted her face. “I am Marcella Badica.’ When that didn’t get a reaction from the couple, she added, “Prince Badica is my brother, and our late queen was my third cousin twice removed. There are no seats left, and someone like me cannot stand against the wall with the rest of that mob.’

The couple exchanged glances. “I guess you should have gotten here earlier, Lady Badica,’ said the man.

Marcella gaped in outrage. “Didn’t you just hear who I am? Don’t you know who your betters are? I insist you give up your seats.’

The couple still seemed unfazed. “This session is open to everyone, and there weren’t assigned seats, last time I checked,’ said the woman. “We’re entitled to ours as much as you are.’

Marcella turned to the guardian beside her in outrage. He shrugged. His job was to protect her from threats. He wasn’t going to oust others from their chairs, particularly when they weren’t breaking any rules. Marcella gave a haughty “humph!’ before turning sharply and stalking away, no doubt to harass some other poor soul.

“This,’ said Adrian, “is going to be delightful.’

Lissa smiled and turned back to studying the rest of the room. As she did, I became aware of something startling. I couldn’t tell exactly who was who, but the crowd wasn’t composed entirely of royals–as most Council sessions were. There were tons of “commoners,’ just like the couple sitting near my friends. Most Moroi didn’t bother with Court. They were out in the world, living their lives and trying to survive while the royals pranced around at Court and made laws. But not today. A new leader was going to be chosen, and that was of interest to all Moroi.

The milling and chaos continued for a while until one of the guardians finally declared the room to be at capacity. Those outside were outraged, but their cries were quickly silenced when the guardians closed the doors, sealing off the ballroom. Shortly thereafter, the eleven Council members took their seats, and–to my shock–Adrian’s father, Nathan Ivashkov, took the twelfth chair. The Court’s herald yelled and called everyone to attention. He was someone who’d been chosen because of his remarkable voice, though I always wondered why they didn’t just use a microphone in these situations. More old-world traditions, I supposed. That, and excellent acoustics.

Nathan spoke once the room settled down. “In the absence of our beloved queen …’ He paused looking down mournfully to offer a moment of respect before continuing. In anyone else, I might have suspected his feelings were faked, particularly after seeing him grovel so much in front of Tatiana. But, no. Nathan had loved his prickly aunt as much as Adrian had.

“And in the wake of this terrible tragedy, I will be moderating the upcoming trials and elections.’

“What’d I tell you?’ muttered Adrian. He had no fuzzy affection for his father. “De- lightful.’

Nathan droned on a bit about the importance of what was to come and some other points about Moroi tradition. It was obvious, though, that like me, everyone in the room really wanted to get down to the main event: the nominations. He seemed to realize that too and sped up the formalities. Finally, he got to the good stuff.

“Each family, if they choose, may have one nominee for the crown who will take the tests all monarchs have endured since the beginning of time.’ I thought that “beginning of time’ part was a bold and probably unverified exaggeration, but whatever. “The only exclusion is the Ivashkovs, since back-to-back monarchs from the same family aren’t allowed. For candidacy, three nominations are required from Moroi of royal blood and proper age.’ He then added some stuff about what happened in the event more than one person was nominated from the same family, but even I knew the chances of that happening were non-existent. Each royal house wanted to get the best advantage here, and that would involve a unified standing behind one candidate.

Satisfied everyone understood, Nathan nodded and gestured grandly to the audience. “Let the nominations begin.’

For a moment, nothing happened. It kind of reminded me of when I’d been back in school, when a teacher would say something like, “Who’d like to present their paper first?’ Everyone kind of waited for someone else to get things going, and at last, it happened.

A man I didn’t recognize stood up. “I nominate Princess Ariana Szelsky.’

Ariana, as princess, sat on the Council and was an expected choice. She gave a gracious nod to the man. A second man, presumably from their family, also stood and gave the second nomination. The third and final nomination came from another Szelsky–a very unexpected one. He was Ariana’s brother, a world traveler who was almost never at Court, and also the man my mother guarded. Janine Hathaway was most likely in this room, I realized. I wished Lissa would look around and find her, but Lissa was too focused on the proceedings. After everything I’d been through, I suddenly had a desperate longing to see my mother.

With three nominations, Nathan declared, “Princess Ariana Szelsky is entered as a candidate.’ He scrawled something on a piece of paper in front of him, his motions full of flourish. “Continue.’

After that, the nominations came in rapid succession. Many were princes and princesses, but others were respected–and still high-ranking–members of the families. The Ozera candidate, Ronald, was not the family’s Council member, nor was he anyone I knew. “He’s not one of Aunt Tasha’s “ideal’ candidates,’ Christian murmured to Lissa. “But she admits he’s not a moron.’

I didn’t know much about most of the other candidates either. A couple, like Ariana Szelsky, I had a good impression of. There were also a couple I’d always found appalling. The tenth candidate was Rufus Tarus, Daniella’s cousin. She’d married into the Ivashkovs from the Tarus family and seemed delighted to see her cousin declared a nominee.

“I don’t like him,’ said Adrian, making a face. “He’s always telling me to do something useful with my life.’

Nathan wrote down Rufus’s name and then rolled up the paper like a scroll. Despite the appearance of antique customs, I suspected a secretary in the audience was typing up everything being said here on a laptop.

“Well,’ declared Nathan, “that concludes–‘

“I nominate Princess Vasilisa Dragomir.’

Lissa’s head jerked to the left, and through her eyes, I recognized a familiar figure. Tasha Ozera. She’d stood and spoken the words loudly and confidently, glancing around with those ice-blue eyes as if daring anyone to disagree.

The room froze. No whispers, no shifting in chairs. Just utter and complete silence. Judging from the faces, the Ozera family’s nominee was the second-most astonished person in the room to hear Tasha speak. The first, of course, was Lissa herself.

It took a moment for Nathan to get his mouth working. “That’s not–‘

Beside Lissa, Christian suddenly stood up. “I second the nomination.’

And before Christian had even sat down, Adrian was on his feet. “I confirm the nomination.’

All eyes in the room were on Lissa and her friends, and then, as one, the crowd turned toward Nathan Ivashkov. Again, he seemed to have trouble finding his voice.

“That,’ he managed at last, “is not a legal nomination. Due to its current Council standing, the Dragomir line is regrettably not eligible to present a candidate.’

Tasha, never afraid of talking in a crowd or taking on impossible odds, leapt back up. I could tell she was eager to. She was good at making speeches and challenging the system. “Monarch nominees don’t need a Council position or quorum to run for the throne.’

“That makes no sense,’ said Nathan. There were mutters of agreement.

“Check the law books, Nate–I mean, Lord Ivashkov.’

Yes, there he was at last. My tactful father had joined the conversation. Abe had been leaning against a wall near the doorway, dressed splendidly in a black suit with a shirt and tie that were exactly the same shade of emerald green. My mother stood beside him, the slightest hint of a smile on her face. For a moment, I was captivated as I studied them side by side. My mother: the perfect picture of guardian excellence and decorum. My father: always capable of achieving his goals, no matter how twisted the means. Uneasily, I began to understand how I’d inherited my bizarre personality.

“Nominees have no requirements concerning how many people are in their family,’ continued Abe jovially. “They only need three royal nominations to be confirmed.’

Nathan gestured angrily toward where his own wayward son and Christian sat. “They aren’t from her family!’

“They don’t need to be,’ countered Abe. “They just need to be from a royal family. They are. Her candidacy is within the law–so long as the princess accepts.’

All heads swiveled toward Lissa now, as though they were suddenly just noticing her. Lissa hadn’t twitched since the startling events began. She was in too much shock. Her thoughts seemed to move both fast and slow. Part of her couldn’t even start to process what was happening around her. The rest of her mind was spinning with questions.

What was going on? Was this a joke? Or maybe a spirit-induced hallucination? Had she finally gone crazy? Was she dreaming? Was it a trick? If so, why would her own friends have been the ones to do it? Why would they do this to her? And for the love of God, would everyone stop staring at her?

She could handle attention. She’d been born and raised for it, and like Tasha, Lissa could address a crowd and make bold statements–when she supported them and was prepared. Neither of those things applied to this situation. This was pretty much the last thing in the world she had expected or wanted. And so, she couldn’t bring herself to react or even consider a response. She stayed where she was, silent and shell- shocked.

Then, something snapped her from her trance. Christian’s hand. He’d taken Lissa’s, wrapping his fingers with hers. He gave her a gentle squeeze, and the warmth and energy he sent brought her back to life. Slowly, she looked around the room, meeting the eyes of those all watching her. She saw Tasha’s determined gaze, my father’s cunning look, and even my mother’s expectation. That last one proved most startling of all. How could Janine Hathaway–who always did what was right and could barely crack a joke–be going along with this? How could any of Lissa’s friends be going along with this? Didn’t they love and care about her?

Rose, she thought. I wish you were here to tell me what to do.

Me too. Damned one-way bond.

She trusted me more than anyone else in the world, but she realized then that she trusted all of these friends too–well, except maybe Abe, but that was understandable. And if they were doing this, then surely–surely–there was a reason, right?


It made no sense to her, yet Lissa felt her legs move as she rose to her feet. And despite the fear and confusion still running through her, she found her voice inexplicably clear and confident as it rang out through the room.

“I accept the nomination.’

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