SYDNEY AND HER FRIENDS weren’t happy that we weren’t going to take them with us.
“I would,’ I told her, still reeling from what I’d learned from Ian.“But getting us in and out has been hard enough! If we step outside with you, we’ll all be busted.Besides, soon it won’t matter.
Once we tell everyone at Court what we know and clear my name, the guardians won’t need you anymore.’
“It’s not the guardians I’m worried about,’ she replied. She used that blase tone of hers, but I could see a glint of legitimate fear in her eyes–and I wondered who she was referring to. The Alchemists? Or someone else?
“Sydney,’ I said hesitantly, despite knowing Mikhail and I needed to get out of there. “What did Abe really do for you? There has to be more than just the transfer.’
Sydney gave me a small, sad smile. “It doesn’t matter, Rose. I’ll deal with whatever comes. Just go now, okay? Go help your friends.’
I wanted to say more … to find out more. But Mikhail’s expression told me he agreed with her, and so, with brief farewells, he and I left. When we got back to where the others were waiting in the parking lot, I saw the situation hadn’t changed much. Dimitri was pacing, no doubt restless at being out of the action. Jill still stood near Sonya, as though seeking protection from the older woman, and Adrian stayed away from all of them, barely sparing a glance when Mikhail’s car pulled up.
When we told the group what we’d learned, however, that got a reaction from Adrian.
“Impossible. I can’t believe that.’ He stamped out a cigarette. “Your Alchemist pals are wrong.’
I could hardly believe it either, yet I had no reason to think Ian would lie. And honestly, if Adrian was having a hard time with this, there was no telling what he would have thought if we’d told him who our previous suspect was. I stared off into the night, trying to come to terms with who had murdered Tatiana and framed me. It was hard even for me to believe. Betrayal was harsh.
“The motives are there …’ I said reluctantly. Once Ian had described whom he’d seen, a dozen reasons for the murder clicked into place. “And they arepolitical. Ambrose was right.’ “Ian’s ID is hard evidence,’ said Dimitri, as shocked as the rest of us. “But there are a lot of other holes, a lot of pieces that don’t fit into it.’
“Yeah.’ One in particular had been bothering me. “Like why I was set up for the fall.’
No one had an answer for that. “We need to get back to Court,’ Mikhail said at last. “Or I’m going to be missed.’
I cast Jill what I hoped was an encouraging smile. “And you’ve got to make your debut.’
“I don’t know which is crazier,’ said Adrian. “The killer’s identity or Jailbait being a Dragomir.’ His words to me were cold, but the look he gave her was gentle. Crazy as the news was, Adrian hadn’t had that hard of a time believing Jill’s parentage. He was jaded enough to believe in Eric’s infidelity, and those telltale eyes sealed the deal. I think hearing what Ian had told us was hurting Adrian more than he was letting on. Finding out the person responsible for his aunt’s murder was someone he knew had to intensify the pain. Finding out about me and Dimitri couldn’t help matters either.
Much to Mikhail’s dismay, Sonya offered to stay behind while the rest of us went to Court. We couldn’t bring both cars, and his only held five. She considered herself the least useful in this endeavor. With much hugging, kissing, and tears, she promised Mikhail they’d see each other again, once this mess was sorted out. I hoped she was right.
My charm would obscure my face enough to get me through the gate. But Jill was a trickier problem. Her kidnapping was hot Moroi news, and if she was recognized by any of the gate guardians, we would be stopped then and there. We were gambling that the guards would be too harried to notice her like they would Dimitri and me. That meant Dimitri took priority for disguising–requiring Adrian’s help. Adrian wasn’t quite as adept with illusion as Sonya was, but he understood enough of it to make Dimitri’s appearance altered to the eyes of others. It was similar to how he’d used spirit during my jail escape. The question was whether or not Adrian would actually do it for us. He hadn’t said a word to anyone about what he’d seen between me and Dimitri, but the others must have felt the sudden rise in tension.
“We have to help Lissa,’ I told him, when he didn’t respond to the request. “Time’s running out. Please. Please help us.’ I wasn’t above groveling, if that was what he needed.
Fortunately, it wasn’t. Adrian took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a brief moment. I was certain he wished he had something stronger than cigarettes. At last, he nodded. “Let’s go.’
We left Sonya with the keys to the second car, and she stood there with shining eyes, watching as we drove off. Dimitri, Mikhail, and I spent most of the journey analyzing the our data collection. The woman Ian had described couldn’t have done everything we’d been pinning on the murderer.
I was sitting in the backseat with Adrian and Jill, leaning forward and checking things off on my fingers. “Motive? Yes. Ability? Yes. Paying off Joe? Yes. Access to Tatiana’s chambers …’ I frowned, suddenly thinking of what I’d overheard while with Lissa. “Yes.’
This earned me a surprised glance from Dimitri. “Really? That was one piece I couldn’t figure out.’ “Pretty sure I know how she did it,’ I said. “But the anonymous letter to Tatiana doesn’t make sense. Not to mention obscuring Lissa’s family–or trying to kill her.’ Or trying to frame me.
“We might be dealing with more than one person,’ said Dimitri.
“Like a conspiracy?’ I asked, startled.
He shook his head. “No, I mean, someone else had a grudge against the queen. But not someone who’d go as far as to kill her. Two people, two agendas. Probably not even aware of each other. We’re mixing up the evidence.’
I fell silent, turning over his words. It made sense, and I picked up on the nuance that by someone, he meant Daniella. We’d been right about reasons she’d dislike Tatiana– the trainings, the age law not being hardcore enough, encouraging spirit … But that hadn’t been enough for murder. An angry letter, bribery for her son’s safety? Those were the kinds of actions Lady Daniella Ivashkov took. Not staking.
In the ensuing silence, I heard soft words between Jill and Adrian, who’d been having a conversation while the rest of us plotted strategy.
“What do I do?’ Jill asked him in a small voice.
His answer was swift and sure. “Act like you deserve to be there. Don’t let them intimidate you.’
“What about Lissa? What’s she going to think of me?’
Adrian hesitated only a moment. “Doesn’t matter. Just act the way I told you.’
My stomach sank, listening to him give her such earnest, kind advice. Rowdy, smug, and flippant … he was all those things. But his heart was good. The heart I’d just broken. I knew I was right about his potential. Adrian was great. He could do great things. I just hoped I hadn’t set him back. At least I hadn’t had to tell him his mother was a murderer … but still.
All of us grew quiet when we reached the gate. The line of cars was still there, and we became more and more nervous as we crept forward. A flip to Lissa’s mind told me we weren’t missing anything in the Council. The chaotic situation was pretty much the same as before, though the exasperated look on Nathan’s face made me think he’d call a close to proceedings soon and continue tomorrow. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.
The guardians recognized Mikhail, of course, and while still vigilant, their initial instincts didn’t suspect him of nefarious deeds. He vaguely said he’d been sent to pick up some people. The guardian looking in the car scanned over Dimitri, me, and– thankfully–Jill. Adrian, a well-known figure, got us added respect. After a mandatory check of the trunk, we were sent on through.
“Oh my God. It worked,’ I breathed, as Mikhail drove over to the guardians’ parking area.
“Now what?’ asked Jill.
“Now we reestablish the Dragomir line and call out a murderer,’ I said.
“Oh, is that all?’ Adrian’s sarcasm was palpable.
“You know,’ remarked Mikhail, “that the instant your illusions are dropped, you two are going to be jumped by guardians and thrown back into jail. Or worse.’
Dimitri and I exchanged looks. “We know,’ I said, trying to ignore the memories of that terrible, claustrophobic experience. “But if everything works out … we won’t have to stay there for long. They’ll use what we’ve found out and then eventually set us free.’ I sounded more optimistic than I felt.
Once parked, our party headed toward the ballroom’s building, which could have been seen miles away with all the people around it. How strange. Not long ago, I’d made this same journey, with nearly the same people, hurrying away from Court. We’d worn spirit disguises then, too, and had been seeking escape. Now we were knowingly walking into peril. I was convinced if I could make it in undetected and deliver my news, everything would work out. Sonya’s charm had worked perfectly when I saw the Alchemists. I had no reason to doubt it, but the fear still lurked in the back of my mind: what if it stopped functioning? What if the disguise failed and I was spotted before even getting into the building? Would they arrest me? Or would they simply shoot first?
The doors were barred to spectators, but guardians were allowed access, so once again Mikhail talked us in–using a sullen Adrian as the reason. The late queen’s nephew could hardly be refused, and with the chaos inside, more guardians–which Dimitri and I appeared to be–were welcome. Adrian kept an arm around Jill as they entered, and the guardians let her pass.
We slipped into the ballroom, completely unnoticed. I’d seen the arguing through Lissa’s eyes, but it was totally different in person. Louder. More grating. My friends and I exchanged looks. I’d braced myself for a big confrontation with the audience–hell, it wouldn’t be the first time–but this was a test of even my skills.
“We need someone to get the room’s attention,’ I said. “Someone not afraid to make a spectacle–I mean, besides me, of course.’
“Mikhail? Where have you been?’
We turned and saw Abe standing before us.
“Well, speak of the devil,’ I said. “Exactly what we need.’
Abe peered at me and frowned. Charms could be seen through when others knew one was being used. Charms were also less effective if others knew the wearer well. It was how Victor had recognized me in Tarasov. Sonya’s was too strong for Abe to fully break through, but he could tell something wasn’t right.
“What’s going on?’ he demanded.
“The usual, old man,’ I replied cheerily. “Danger, insane plans … you know, the stuff that runs in our family.’
He squinted his eyes again, still unable to fully see through the charm. I was probably blurry. “Rose? Is that you? Where have you been?’
“We need the room’s attention,’ I said. I wondered if this was what it felt like when parents busted their kids for breaking curfew. He looked very disapproving. “We’ve got a way to settle this whole argument.’
“Well,’ observed Adrian dryly, “we’ve at least got a way to start another one.’
“I trusted you at my hearing,’ I told Abe. “Can’t you trust me now?’
Abe’s expression turned wry. “You apparently didn’t trust me enough to stay put in West Virginia.’
“Technicalities,’ I said. “Please. We need this.’
“And we’re short on time,’ added Dimitri. Abe studied him too. “Let me guess. Belikov?’ There was uncertainty in my father’s voice–Adrian was doing a good job in keeping the illusion over Dimitri–but Abe was clever enough to deduce who would be with me.
“Dad, we have to hurry. We’ve got the killer–and we’ve got Lissa’s …’ How did I explain it? “A chance to change Lissa’s life.’
Not much startled Abe, but I think my earnest use of “Dad’ did. Scanning the room, his eyes landed on someone, and he gave a small jerk of his head. Several seconds later, my mother squeezed her way through to us. Great. He called; she came. They were awfully chummy lately. I hoped Lissa remained the only one with a surprise sibling.
“Who are these people?’ my mother asked.
“Guess,’ replied Abe flatly. “Who would be foolish enough to break into Court after escaping it?’
My mom’s eyes widened. “How–‘
“No time,’ Abe said. The sharp look he got in return said she didn’t like being interrupted. Maybe no siblings after all. “I have a feeling half the guardians in this room are going to be all over us soon. Are you ready for that?’
My poor, law-abiding mother looked pained, realizing what was being asked of her. “Yes.’
“Me too,’ added Mikhail.
Abe studied us all. “I guess there are worse odds.’
He headed up to where Nathan Ivashkov was leaning against his podium. He looked weary and defeated–and utterly at a loss on what to do with the mess before him. At our approach, the monarch candidates glanced over curiously, and I sensed a sudden jolt of surprise through the bond. Lissa could see right through the spirit charms. I felt her breath catch at the sight of us. Fear, shock, and relief played through her. And confusion, of course. She was so glad to see us that she forgot all about the elections and started to stand at our approach. I gave her a quick shake of my head, urging her to keep our cover, and after a moment’s hesitation, she sat back down. She was worried and puzzled–but trusted me.
Nathan came to life when he saw us, particularly when Abe simply shoved him out of the way and grabbed the microphone. “Hey, what are you–‘
I expected Abe to yell for everyone to shut up or something like that. Of course, Nathan had been trying that for a while with no results. So, I was quite shocked–as was everyone else–when Abe put fingers to his lips and let out the most ear-piercing whistle I had ever heard. A whistle like that through a microphone? Yeah. It hurt my ears. It had to be worse for the Moroi, and the screeching feedback in the speakers didn’t help.
The room quieted enough for him to be heard. “Now that you have the sense to keep your mouths shut,’ said Abe, “we have … some things to say.’ He was using his confident, I-control-the-world voice, but I knew he was taking a lot on faith here. “Act fast,’ he muttered, extending the microphone out to us.
I took it and cleared my throat. “We’re here to, uh, settle this debate once and for all.’ That brought grumbles, and I hurried on loudly before the room erupted again. “The laws can stay the way they are. Vasilisa Dragomir is entitled to her Council vote–and eligible to be a full candidate for the throne. There’s another member in her family. She isn’t the only Dragomir left.’
Murmurs and whispers broke out, though it was nothing like the roar earlier–most likely because the Moroi loved intrigue, and they had to know how this would play out. In my periphery, I could see guardians forming a very loose perimeter around us. Their concern was security, not scandal.
I beckoned Jill forward. For a moment, she froze; then I wondered if she recalled Adrian’s words in the car. She stepped beside me, so pale that I worried she might pass out. I almost felt like I could too. The tension and pressure were overwhelming. No. I’d come too far.
“This is Jillian Mastrano Dragomir. She’s Eric Dragomir’s illegitimate daughter–but she is his daughter and officially part of the bloodline.’ I hated usingillegitimate, but in this case, it was a necessary fact.
In the heartbeat of silence that followed, Jill hastily leaned toward me and the microphone. “I am a Dragomir,’ she said clearly, despite her trembling hands. “Our family has its quorum, and my s-sister has all her rights.’
I could see another explosion building, and Abe jumped in between Jill and me, grabbing the microphone. “For those who don’t believe this, a DNA test will clear up any doubts about her lineage.’ I had to admire Abe’s audacity. He had only learned this information sixty seconds ago and was already advocating it with certainty, as though he himself had performed the necessary tests back in his home genetics lab. More faith–and an advantage he couldn’t pass up. My old man loved secrets.
The news triggered the reaction I’d expected. Once the audience had processed the information, a flurry of shouted commentary began.
“Eric Dragomir didn’t have any other children, illegitimate or not!’
“This is a scam!’
“Show us the proof! Where are your tests?’
“Well … he was kind of a flirt …’
“He did have another daughter.’
That last one shut the crowd up, both because it was spoken with authority and because it came from Daniella Ivashkov. She had stood up, and even without a microphone, she had a voice that could carry in a room. She was also an important enough person in our society to draw attention. Many among the royals were practically conditioned to listen to her. In the now quiet room, Daniella continued speaking.
“Eric Dragomir had an illegitimate daughter, with a woman named Emily Mastrano–a dancer, if I recall correctly. He wanted it kept secret and needed certain things done– things he couldn’t do himself–to help with that. I was one of the few who helped.’ An uncharacteristically bitter smile turned up her lips. “And honestly, I wouldn’t have minded it staying secret either.’
Pieces clicked in my head. I knew now who had broken into the Alchemists’ records. And why. In the room’s silence, I didn’t need a microphone to respond either.
“Enough that you’d make certain papers disappear.’
Daniella fixed that smile on me. “Yes.’
“Because if the Dragomirs faded, spirit might too. And Adrian would be safe. Spirit was getting too much attention too fast, and you needed to get rid of any evidence about Jill to kill Vasilisa’s credibility.’ Daniella’s expression confirmed as much. I should have left it at that, but my curiosity wouldn’t allow it. “Then why admit it now?’
Daniella shrugged. “Because you’re right. One DNA test will show the truth.’ There were gasps of awe from those who took her word as gospel and wondered what this meant. Others people refused to believe and wore looks of scorn. Daniella, undoubtedly disappointed the truth had leaked, nonetheless seemed resigned and willing to accept it. But her smile soon dropped as she studied me more closely. “What I’d like to know is: who in the world are you?’
A good portion of the audience appeared to want to know this as well. I hesitated. Sonya’s charmed disguise had gotten me pretty far at this point. We had a fragile acceptance of Jill and the Dragomir line. If we let the system run its course, and if Lissa won like I now wanted–I’d have a queenly advocate to help in the case to clear me.
But staring at the crowd–full of people I’d known and respected and who had still condemned me without question–I felt anger burn within me. Spirit-induced or not, it didn’t matter. I was still outraged at how easily I’d been accused and tossed away. I didn’t want to wait for this to be settled in some quiet guardian office. I wanted to face them. I wanted them to know I was innocent–of killing the queen, at least.
And so, surpassing my own records for dangerous, reckless behavior, I ripped off Sonya’s bracelet.
“I’m Rose Hathaway.’