THE INTERROGATION DIDN’T go so well.
Oh, sure, we made plenty of threats and used the stakes as torture devices, but not much came of it.Dimitri was still scary when dealing with Sonya, but after his breakdown with Donovan, he was careful not to fall into that berserk rage again.This was healthier for him in the long run but not so good for scaring up answers out of Sonya.
It didn’t help matters that we didn’t exactly have a concrete question to ask her. We mostly had a series to throw at her. Did she know about another Dragomir? Was she related to the mother? Where were the mother and child? Things also went bad when Sonya realized we needed her too much to kill her, no matter how much silver stake torture we did.
We’d been at it for over an hour and were getting exhausted. At least, I was. I leaned against a wall near Sonya, and though I had my stake out and ready, I was relying on the wall a bit more than I liked to admit to keep me upright. None of us had spoken in a while. Even Sonya had given up on her snarling threats. She simply waited and stayed watchful, undoubtedly planning for escape, probably figuring we’d tire before she did. That silence was scarier than all the threats in the world. I was used to Strigoi using words to intimidate me. I’d never expected the power simply being quiet and staring menacingly could have.
“What happened to your head, Rose?’ asked Dimitri, suddenly catching a glimpse of it.
I’d been tuning out a little and realized he was talking to me. “Huh?’ I brushed aside hair that had been obscuring part of my forehead. My fingers came away sticky with blood, triggering vague memories of crashing into the table. I shrugged, ignoring the dizziness I’d been feeling. “I’m fine.’
Dimitri gave Sydney the quickest of glances. “Go lay her down and clean it up. Don’t let her sleep until we can figure out if it’s a concussion.’
“No, I can’t,’ I argued. “I can’t leave you alone with her …’
“I’m fine,’ he said. “Rest up so that you can help me later. You’re no good to me if you’re just going to fall over.’
I still protested, but when Sydney gently took my arm, my stumbling gave me away. She led me to the house’s one bedroom, much to my dismay. There was something creepy about knowing I was in a Strigoi’s bed–even if it was covered with a blue-and- white floral quilt.
“Man,’ I said, lying back against the pillow once Sydney had cleaned my forehead. Despite my earlier denial, it felt great to rest. “I can’t get used to the weirdness of a Strigoi living in a place so … normal. How are you holding up?’
“Better than you guys,’ said Sydney. She wrapped her arms around herself and eyed the room uncomfortably. “Being around Strigoi is starting to make you guys seem not so bad.’
“Well, at least some good’s come out of this,’ I remarked. Despite her joke, I knew she had to be terrified. I started to close my eyes and was jolted awake when Sydney poked my arm.
“No sleep,’ she chastised. “Stay up and talk to me.’
“It’s not a concussion,’ I muttered. “But I suppose we can go over plans to get Sonya to talk.’
Sydney sat at the foot of the bed and grimaced. “No offense? But I don’t think she’s going to crack.’
“She will once she’s gone a few days without blood.’
Sydney blanched. “A few days?’
“Well, whatever it takes to–‘ A spike of emotion flitted through the bond, and I froze. Sydney jumped up, her eyes darting around as though a group of Strigoi might have burst into the room.
“What’s wrong?’ she exclaimed. “I have to go to Lissa.’
“You’re not supposed to sleep–‘
“It’s not sleeping,’ I said bluntly. And with that, I jumped away from Sonya’s bedroom and into Lissa’s perspective.
She was riding in a van with five other people whom I immediately recognized as other royal nominees. It was an eight-person van and also included a guardian driver with another in the passenger seat who was looking back at Lissa and her companions.
“Each of you will be dropped off in a separate location on the outskirts of a forest and given a map and compass. The ultimate goal is for you to reach the destination on the map and wait out the daylight until we come for you.’
Lissa and the other nominees exchanged glances and then, almost as one, peered out the van’s windows. It was almost noon, and the sunlight was pouring down. “Waiting out the daylight’ was not going to be pleasant but didn’t sound impossible. Idly, she scratched at a small bandage on her arm and quickly stopped herself. I read from her thoughts what it was: a tiny, barely noticeable dot tattooed into her skin. It was actually similar to Sydney’s: blood and earth, mixed with compulsion. Compulsion might be taboo among Moroi, but this was a special situation. The spell in the tattoo prevented the candidates from revealing the monarch tests to others not involved with the process. This was the first test.
“What kind of terrain are you sending us to?’ demanded Marcus Lazar. “We’re not all in the same physical shape. It’s not fair when some of us have an advantage.’ His eyes were on Lissa as he spoke.
“There is a lot of walking,’ said the guardian, face serious. “But it’s nothing that any candidate–of any age–shouldn’t be able to handle. And, to be honest, part of the requirements for a king or queen is a certain amount of stamina. Age brings wisdom, but a monarch needs to be healthy. Not an athlete by any means,’ added the guardian quickly, seeing Marcus start to open his mouth. “But it’s no good for the Moroi to have a sickly monarch elected who dies within a year. Harsh, but true. And you also need to be able to endure uncomfortable situations.
If you can’t handle a day in the sun, you can’t handle a Council meeting.’ I think he intended that as a joke, but it was hard to tell since he didn’t smile. “It’s not a race, though. Take your time getting to the end if you need it. Marked along the map are spots where certain items are hidden–items that’ll make this more bearable, if you can decipher the clues.’
“Can we use our magic?’ asked Ariana Szelsky. She wasn’t young either, but she looked tough and ready to accept a challenge of endurance.
“Yes, you can,’ said the guardian solemnly.
“Are we in danger out there?’ asked another candidate, Ronald Ozera. “Aside from the sun?’
“That,’ said the guardian mysteriously, “is something you’ll need to learn for yourselves. But, if at any time you want out …’ He produced a bag of cell phones and distributed them. Maps and compasses followed. “Call the programmed number, and we’ll come for you.’
Nobody had to ask about the hidden message behind that. Calling the number would get you out of the long day of endurance. It would also mean you’d failed the test and were out of the running for the throne. Lissa glanced at her phone, half-surprised there was even a signal. They’d left Court about an hour ago and were well into the countryside. A line of trees made Lissa think they were nearing their destination.
So. A test of physical endurance. It wasn’t quite what she’d expected. The trials a monarch went through had long been shrouded in mystery, gaining an almost mystical reputation. This one was pretty practical, and Lissa could understand the reasoning, even if Marcus didn’t. It truly wasn’t an athletic competition, and the guardian had a point in saying that the future monarch should possess a certain level of fitness. Glancing at the back of her map, which listed the clues, Lissa realized this would also test their reasoning skills. All very basic stuff–but essential to ruling a nation.
The van dropped them off one by one at different starting points. With each departing candidate, Lissa’s anxiety grew. There’s nothing to worry about, she thought. I’ve just got to sit through a sunny day. She was the next to last person dropped off, with only Ariana remaining behind. Ariana patted Lissa’s arm as the van door opened.
“Good luck, dear.’
Lissa gave her a quick smile. These tests might all be a ruse on Lissa’s part, but Ariana was the real deal, and Lissa prayed the older woman could get through this successfully.
Left alone as the van drove away, unease spread through Lissa. The simple endurance test suddenly seemed much more daunting and difficult. She was on her own, something that didn’t happen very often. I’d been there for most of her life, and even when I’d left, she’d had friends around her. But now? It was just her, the map, and the cell phone. And the cell phone was her enemy.
She walked to the edge of the forest and studied her map. A drawing of a large oak tree marked the beginning, with directions to go northwest. Scanning the trees, Lissa saw three maples, a fir, and–an oak. Heading toward it, she couldn’t help a smile. If anyone else had botanical landmarks and didn’t know their plants and trees, they could lose candidacy right there.
The compass was a classic one. No digital GPS convenience here. Lissa had never used a compass like this, and the protective part of me wished I could jump in and help. I should have known better, though. Lissa was smart and easily figured it out. Heading northwest, she stepped into the woods. While there was no clear path, the forest’s floor wasn’t too covered with overgrowth or obstacles.
The nice part about being in the forest was that the trees blocked out some of the sun. It still wasn’t an ideal Moroi condition, but it beat being dropped in a desert. Birds sang, and the scenery was lush and green. Keeping an eye out for the next landmark, Lissa tried to relax and pretend she was simply on a pleasant hike.
Yet … it was difficult to do that with so much on her mind. Abe and our other friends were now in charge of working and asking questions about the murder. All of them were asleep right now–it was the middle of the Moroi night–but Lissa didn’t know when she’d return and couldn’t help resenting this test for taking up her time. No, wasting her time. She’d finally accepted the logic behind her friends’ nomination–but she still didn’t like it. She wanted to actively help them.
Her churning thoughts almost led her right past her next landmark: a tree that had fallen ages ago. Moss covered it, and much of the wood was rotten. A star on the map marked it as a place with a clue. She flipped over the map and read: I grow and I shrink. I run and I crawl. Follow my voice, though I have none at all. I never do leave here, but I travel around– I float through the sky and I creep through the ground. I keep my cache in a vault although I have no wealth, Seek out my decay to safeguard your health.
My mind went blank right about then, but Lissa’s spun. She read it over and over again, examining the individual words and how each line played off the other. I never do leave here. That was the starting point, she decided. Something permanent. She looked around, considered the trees, then dismissed them. They could always be cut and removed. Careful not to stray too far from the fallen tree, she circled the area searching for more. Everything was theoretically transient. What stayed?
Follow my voice. She came to a halt and closed her eyes, absorbing the sounds around her. Mostly birds. The occasional rustle of leaves. And–
She opened her eyes and walked briskly to her right. The sound she’d heard grew louder, bubbling and trickling. There. A small creek ran through the woods, hardly noticeable. Indeed, it seemed too tiny for the streambed carved out around it.
“But I bet you grow when it rains,’ she murmured, uncaring that she was speaking to a stream. She looked back down at the clue, and I felt her clever mind rapidly piece it all together. The stream was permanent–but traveled. It changed size. It had a voice. It ran in deep parts, crawled when there were obstacles. And when it evaporated, it floated in the air. She frowned, still puzzling the riddle aloud. “But you don’t decay.’
Lissa studied the area once more, uneasily thinking decay could apply to any plant life. Her gaze moved past a large maple tree and then jerked back. At its base grew a clump of brown and white mushrooms, several wilting and turning black. She hurried over and knelt down, and that was when she saw it: a small hole dug into the earth nearby. Leaning closer, she saw a flash of color: a purple drawstring bag.
Triumphantly, Lissa pulled it out and stood up. The bag was made of canvas and had long strings that would allow it to hang over her shoulder as she walked. She opened the bag and peered inside. There, tucked inside the fluffy and fuzzy lining, was the best thing of all: a bottle of water. Until now, Lissa hadn’t realized how hot and dehydrated she’d grown–or how wearying the sun was. The candidates had been told to wear sturdy shoes and practical clothing but hadn’t been allowed any other supplies. Finding this bottle was priceless.
Sitting on the log, she took a break, careful to conserve her water. While the map indicated a few more clues and “rewards,’ she knew she couldn’t necessarily count on any more helpful bags. So, after several minutes’ rest, she put away the water and slung the little tote over her shoulder. The map directed her due west, so that was the way she went.
The heat beat on her as she continued her walk, forcing her to take a few more (conservative) water breaks. She kept reminding herself it wasn’t a race and that she should take it easy. After a few more clues, she discovered the map wasn’t quite to scale, so it wasn’t always obvious how long each leg of the hike was. Nonetheless, she was delighted to successfully solve each clue, though the rewards became more and more baffling.
One of them was a bunch of sticks sitting on a rock, something she would have sworn was a mistake, but someone civilized had clearly tied the bundle together. She added that into her bag, along with a neatly folded green plastic tarp. By now, sweat was pouring off her, and rolling up the sleeves of her button-down cotton shirt did little to help. She took more frequent breaks. Sunburn became a serious concern, so it was a huge relief when her next clue led to a bottle of sunscreen.
After a couple hours of battling the intense summer heat, Lissa became so hot and tired that she no longer had the mental energy to be annoyed about missing out on whatever was happening at Court. All that mattered was getting to the end of this test. The map showed two more clues, which she took as a promising sign. She would reach the end soon and then could simply wait for someone to get her. A flash of realization hit her. The tarp. The tarp was a sun block, she decided. She could use it at the end.
This cheered her up, as did the next prize: more water and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat that helped keep the sunlight from her face. Unfortunately, after that, what appeared to be a short leg of the trip turned out to be twice as long as she expected. By the time she finally reached the next clue, she was more interested in taking a water break than digging out whatever else the guardians had left her.
My heart went out to her. I wished so, so badly that I could help. That was my job, to protect her. She shouldn’t be alone. Or should she? Was that also part of the test? In a world where royals were almost always surrounded by guardians, this solitude had to be a total shock. Moroi were hardy and had excellent senses, but they weren’t built for extreme heat and challenging terrain. I could have probably jogged the course easily. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I would have had Lissa’s deductive skills in figuring out the clues.
Lissa’s last reward was flint and steel, not that she had any idea what they were. I recognized them instantly as the tools of a fire-making kit but couldn’t for the world figure out why she’d need to build a fire on a day like this. With a shrug, she added the items to her bag and kept going.
And that’s when things started to get cold. Really cold.
She didn’t entirely process it at first, mainly because the sun was still shining so brilliantly. Her brain said what she felt was impossible, but her goose bumps and chattering teeth said otherwise. She rolled her sleeves back down and quickened her pace, wishing that the sudden cold had at least come with cloud cover. Walking faster and exerting herself more helped heat her body.
Until it began to rain.
It started off as a mist, then changed to drizzle, and finally turned into a steady curtain of water. Her hair and clothing became soaked, making the cold temperature that much worse. Yet … the sun still shone, its light an annoyance to her sensitive skin but offering no warmth in compensation.
Magic, she realized. This weather is magical. It was part of the test. Somehow, Moroi air and water magic users had united to defy the hot, sunny weather. That was why she had a tarp–to block the sun and the rain. She considered getting it out now and wearing it like a cloak but quickly decided to wait until she reached the endpoint. She had no idea how far away that really was, though. Twenty feet? Twenty miles? The chill of the rain crept over her, seeping under her skin. It was miserable.
The cell phone in the bag was her ticket out. It was barely late afternoon. She had a long time to wait before this test ended. All she had to do was make one call … one call, and she’d be out of this mess and back to working on what she should be at Court. No. A kernel of determination flared up within her. This challenge was no longer about the Moroi throne or Tatiana’s murder. It was a test she would take on for herself. She’d led a soft and sheltered life, letting others protect her. She would endure this on her own–and she would pass.
This determination took her to the map’s end, a clearing ringed in trees. Two of the trees were small and close enough together that Lissa thought she might be able to drape the tarp into some sort of reasonable shelter. With cold, fumbling fingers, she managed to get it out of the bag and unfold it to its full size–which was fortunately much larger than she’d suspected. Her mood began to lift as she worked with the tarp and figured out how to create a small canopy. She crawled inside once it was complete, glad to be out of the falling rain.
But that didn’t change the fact that she was wet. Or that the ground was also wet– and muddy. The tarp also didn’t protect her against the cold. She felt a flash of bitterness, recalling the guardians saying magic was allowed in this test. She hadn’t thought magic would be useful at the time, but now, she could certainly see the perks of being a water user to control the rain and keep it off her. Or, better yet: being a fire user. She wished Christian was with her. She would have welcomed the warmth of both his magic and his embrace. For this kind of situation, spirit seriously sucked–unless, perhaps, she got hypothermia and needed to try to heal herself (which never worked as well as it did on other people). No, she decided. There could be no question: water and fire users had the advantage in this test.
That’s when it hit her.
Lissa straightened up from where she’d been huddled. She hadn’t recognized the iron and flint for what they were, but now, vague recollections of fire-making were coming back to her. She’d never been taught those skills directly but was pretty sure striking the stones together would make a spark–if she only had dry wood. Everything out there was soaked… .
Except for the bundle of sticks in her bag. Laughing out loud, she untied the sticks and set them in a place shielded from the rain. After arranging them in what seemed like a campfire-friendly pattern, she tried to figure out what to do with the steel and flint. In movies, she thought she’d seen people just hit them to make sparks fly. So, that’s what she did.
She tried three more times, and her earlier excitement gave way to spirit-darkened frustration. I pulled some of that from her, needing her to stay focused. On the fourth try, a spark flew off and faded away–but it was what she needed to understand the principle. Before long she could easily make sparks, but they did nothing when they landed on the wood. Up and down: her mood was a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. Don’t give up, I wanted to say as I drew off more negativity. Don’t give up. I also wanted to give her a lesson on kindling, but that was pushing my limits.
Watching her, I was beginning to realize how much I underestimated Lissa’s intelligence. I knew she was brilliant, but I always imagined her being helpless in these situations. She wasn’t. She could reason things out. That tiny spark couldn’t penetrate the wood of the sticks. She needed a bigger flame. She needed something the sparks could ignite. But what? Surely nothing in this waterlogged forest.
Her eyes fell on the map poking out of her bag. She hesitated only a moment before ripping and shredding the paper into a pile on top of the twigs. Supposedly, she’d reached the end of the hike and didn’t need the map. Supposedly. But it was too late now, and Lissa pushed forward with her plan. First, she pulled out some of the bag’s fluffy lining, adding the bits of fuzz to the paper. Then she took up the flint and steel again.
A spark jumped out and immediately caught a piece of the paper. It flared orange before fading out, leaving a wisp of smoke. She tried again, leaning forward to gently blow on the paper when the spark landed. A tiny flame appeared, caught a neighboring shred, and then faded. Steeling herself up, Lissa tried a final time.
“Come on, come on,’ she muttered, as though she might compel a fire into existence.
This time, the spark caught and held, turning into a small flame, then a larger flame that soon consumed her kindling. I prayed it would take to the wood, or else she was out of luck. Brighter and larger the flame grew, eating the last of the paper and fuzz … and then spreading along the sticks. Lissa blew softly to keep it going, and before long, the campfire was in full blaze.
The fire couldn’t change the piercing cold, but as far as she was concerned, she had the warmth of the entire sun in her hands. She smiled, and a sense of pride that she hadn’t felt in a while spread within her. Finally able to relax, she glanced out at the rainy forest and caught the faintest flashes of color in the distance. Channeling spirit, she used her magic to intensify her ability to see auras. Sure enough–hidden far, far out among the trees, she could see two auras filled with strong, steady colors. Their owners stood still, staying quiet and covered. Lissa’s smile grew. Guardians. Or maybe the air and water users controlling the weather. None of the candidates were alone out here. Ronald Ozera had had no need to worry–but then, he wouldn’t know that. Only she did. Maybe spirit wasn’t so useless out here after all.
The rain began to lighten, and the fire’s warmth continued to soothe her. She couldn’t read the time from the sky, but somehow, she knew she would have no problem waiting out the day and–
“Rose?’ A voice summoned me out of Lissa’s wilderness survival. “Rose, wake up or … whatever.’
I blinked, focusing on Sydney’s face, which was a few inches from mine. “What?’ I demanded. “Why are you bothering me?’
She flinched and jerked away, momentarily speechless. Pulling away Lissa’s darkness while joined with her hadn’t affected me at the time, but now, conscious in my own body, I felt anger and irritation flood me. It’s not you, it’s not Sydney, I told myself. It’s spirit. Calm down. I took a deep breath, refusing to let spirit master me. I was stronger than it was. I hoped. As I fought to push those feelings down, I looked around and remembered I was in Sonya Karp’s bedroom. All my problems came rushing back. There was a bound Strigoi in the other room, one we were barely keeping constrained and who didn’t seem like she would give us answers anytime soon.
I looked back at Sydney, who still seemed afraid of me. “I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to snap at you. I was just startled.’ She hesitated a few moments and then nodded, accepting my apology. As the fear faded from her face, I could see that something else was bothering her. “What’s wrong?’ I asked. As long as we were alive and Sonya was still trapped, things couldn’t be that bad, right?
Sydney stepped back and crossed her arms. “Victor Dashkov and his brother are here.’