THE NEXT DAY, MY guardian duties with Christian resumed.Once again, I found my own life put on hold for someone else’s.
“How was your penance?” he asked as we walked across campus from his dorm.
I stifled a yawn.I hadn’t been able to sleep well last night, both because of my feelings for Dimitri and because of what Father Andrew had told me.
Nonetheless, I kept a sharp eye out. This was the location where Stan had attacked us twice before, and besides, the guardians were sick and twisted enough to come after me on a day when I was so exhausted.
“It was okay. The priest let us go early.”
“Dimitri came and helped me. I think he felt bad about me being stuck with that work.”
“Either that or he has nothing else to do now that he’s not doing your extra sessions.”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. All in all, I guess it wasn’t that bad a day.” Unless you considered learning about spiteful ghosts bad.
“I had a great day,” said Christian, the smallest amount of smugness in his voice.
I repressed the urge to roll my eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
He and Lissa had taken advantage of their guardianless day to take advantage of each other. I supposed I should be glad they’d held off until Eddie and I weren’t around, but in a lot of ways, it didn’t matter. True, when I was awake, I could block out all of the details, but I still knew what was going on. A bit of the jealousy and anger I’d felt from the last time they’d been together returned. It was the same problem all over again: Lissa doing all the things I couldn’t do.
I was dying to go eat breakfast. I could smell French toast and hot maple syrup. Carbs wrapped in more carbs. Yum. But Christian wanted blood before we ate solid food, and his needs trumped mine. They come first. He’d apparently skipped his daily blood dose yesterday – probably to maximize his romantic time.
The feeder room wasn’t crowded, but we still had to wait.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you know Brett Ozera? You’re related, right?” After my encounter with Jill, I’d finally put some pieces together. Brett Ozera and Dane Zeklos had reminded me of how Brandon had looked the day of Stan’s first attack. The disaster of that attack had made me completely forget about Brandon, but the coincidences here suddenly stirred my curiosity. All three had been beaten up. All three had been in denial.
Christian nodded. “Yeah, in the way we’re all kind of related. I don’t know him that well – he’s like a third or fourth cousin or something. His branch of the family hasn’t had much to do with mine since … well, you know.”
“I heard something weird about him.” I then related what Jill had told me about Dane and Brett.
“That’s weird,” agreed Christian. “But people get in fights.”
“Yeah, but there are some weird connections here. And royals aren’t usually on the losing ends of fights – all three of these guys were.”
“Well, maybe that’s it. You know how it’s been. A lot of royals are getting pissed off that non-royals want to change how guardians are assigned and learn to start fighting. That’s the whole point of Jesse and Ralf’s stupid little club. They want to make sure royals stay on top. Non-royals are probably getting just as pissed off and fighting back.”
“So, what, some kind of vigilante is out making royals pay?”
“Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that’s happened around here,” he pointed out.
“That’s for damn sure,” I muttered.
Christian’s name was called, and he peered ahead. “Look at that,” he said happily. “Alice again.”
“I don’t get your fascination with her,” I observed as we approached the old feeder. “Lissa’s always kind of excited to see her too. But Alice is nuts.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s what’s so great.”
Alice greeted us as Christian sat down beside her. I leaned against the wall, arms crossed over my chest. Feeling uppity, I said, “Alice, the scenery hasn’t changed. It’s exactly the same as last time.”
She turned her dazed eyes on me. “Patience, Rose. You must be patient. And prepared. Are you prepared?”
The switch in subject threw me a little. It was like talking to Jill, except less sane. “Um, prepared how? For the scenery?”
In what had to be a prime moment of irony, she looked at me as though I were the one who was crazy. “Armed. Are you armed? You’re going to protect us, aren’t you?”
I reached inside my coat and pulled out the practice stake I’d been given for the field experience. “Got you covered,” I said.
She looked immensely relieved and apparently couldn’t tell the difference between a real stake and a fake one. “Good,” she said. “Now we’ll be safe.”
“That’s right,” said Christian. “With Rose armed, we have nothing to worry about. The Moroi world can rest easy.”
Alice was oblivious to his sarcasm. “Yes. Well, nowhere is ever safe.”
I concealed the stake again. “We’re safe. We’ve got the best guardians in the world protecting us, not to mention the wards. Strigoi aren’t getting in here.”
I didn’t add what I’d recently learned: that Strigoi could get humans to break the wards. Wards were invisible lines of power that were composed of all four elements. They were created when four Moroi, each one strong in a different element, walked around an area and laid the magic in a circle upon the ground, creating a protective border. Moroi magic was imbued with life, and a strong field of it kept out Strigoi, since they were devoid of life. So wards were frequently laid around Moroi dwellings. Tons of them were laid around this school. Since stakes were also imbued with all four elements, driving a stake through a ward line in the ground pierced the ward and canceled out the protective effect. This had never been much of a concern because Strigoi couldn’t touch stakes. However, in some recent attacks, humans – who could touch stakes – had served Strigoi and broken some wards.
We believed the Strigoi I’d killed had been the ringleaders in that group, but we still didn’t know for sure.
Alice studied me closely with her cloudy eyes, almost as though she knew what I was thinking. “Nowhere is safe. Wards fade. Guardians die.”
I glanced over at Christian, who shrugged in a sort of what did you expect from her? kind of way.
“If you guys are done with your girl talk, can I eat now?” he asked.
Alice was more than happy to comply; he was her first hit of the day. She soon forgot about wards or anything else and simply lost herself to the ecstasy of his bite. I forgot about wards too. I had a one-track mind, really: I still wanted to know if Mason had been real or not. The priest’s frightening explanation aside, I had to admit Mason’s visits hadn’t been threatening, just scary. If he was out to get me, he was kind of doing a half-assed job of it. Once again, I started putting more stock in the stress-and-fatigue theory.
“Now it’s time for me to eat,” I said when Christian finished. I was pretty sure I could smell bacon now. That’d probably make Christian happy. He could wrap it around his French toast.
We’d barely stepped out of the room when Lissa came running up to us, Eddie trailing behind. Excitement lit her face, though the feelings in the bond weren’t exactly happy.
“Did you hear?” she asked, a little breathless.
“Hear what?” I asked.
“You have to hurry – go pack your things. We’re going to Victor’s trial. Right now.”
There’d been no warning at all about when Victor’s trial would even occur, let alone that someone had apparently decided we could go. Christian and I exchanged brief, startled looks and then hurried off to his room to gather our things.
Packing was a breeze. My bag was ready to go already, and Christian only took a minute to throw his together. In less than a half hour, we were out on the Academy’s landing strip. Two private jets sat in attendance, one of which was fired up and waiting to go. A couple of Moroi hurried about, doing last-minute things with the plane and the runway.
No one seemed to know what was going on. Lissa had simply been told that she, Christian, and I were going to testify and that Eddie could come along to continue his field experience. There’d been no explanation as to why things had changed, and a weird mix of eagerness and apprehension crackled around us. We all wanted to see Victor locked away for good, but now that we were actually faced with the reality of the trial and of seeing him – well, it was kind of scary.
A few guardians lingered near the steps going up to the plane. I recognized them as the ones who had helped capture Victor. They were probably going to do double duty and serve as witnesses and as our protection. Dimitri hovered near the outskirts, and I hurried over to him.
“I’m sorry,” I gulped out. “I’m so sorry.”
He turned toward me, his face schooled to that perfect picture of neutrality that he was so good at. “Sorry for what?”
“For all the horrible things I said yesterday. You did it – you really did it. You got them to let us go.”
Despite my nervousness about seeing Victor, I was filled with elation. Dimitri had come through. I’d known all along that he really cared about me – this just proved it. If there hadn’t been so many people around, I would have hugged him.
Dimitri’s face didn’t change. “It wasn’t me, Rose. I had nothing to do with it.”
Alberta signaled that we could board, and he turned away to join the others. I stood frozen for a moment, watching him and trying to figure out what had happened. If he hadn’t intervened, then why were we going? Lissa’s diplomatic efforts had been shot down a while ago. Why the change of heart?
My friends were already on board, so I hurried to catch up. As soon as I stepped into the cabin, a voice called to me. “Little dhampir! About time you got here.”
I looked and saw Adrian waving, a drink in his hand. Great. We’d had to beg and plead to go along, yet Adrian had somehow just glided on in. Lissa and Christian were sitting together, so I joined Eddie in the hopes of staying away from Adrian. Eddie gave me the window seat. Adrian moved to the seat in front of us, though, and might as well have been sitting in our row, as often as he turned around to talk to me. His chatter and outrageous flirting indicated he’d been sipping cocktails long before the rest of us had come aboard. I kind of wished I’d had a few myself once we were airborne. A wicked headache set in almost immediately after liftoff, and I entertained a fantasy of vodka numbing the pain.
“We’re going to Court,” Adrian said. “Aren’t you excited about it?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. “About which one? The royal one or the legal one?”
“The royal one. Did you bring a dress?”
“Nobody told me to.”
“So … that’s a ‘no.’”
“Yes? I thought you meant no.”
I opened one eye and glared. “I did mean no, and you know it. No, I did not bring a dress.”
“We’ll get you one,” he said loftily.
“You’re going to take me shopping? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess they won’t consider you a reliable chaperone.”
“Shopping? As if. There are tailors that live there. We’ll get you something custom-made.”
“We’re not staying that long. And do I really need a dress for what we’re doing there?”
“No, I’d just kind of like to see you in one.”
I sighed and leaned my head against the window. The pain in my skull was still throbbing. It was like the air was pressing in on me. Something flashed in my peripheral vision, and I turned in surprise, but there was nothing but stars outside the window.
“Something black,” he continued. “Satin, I think… maybe with lace trim. Do you like lace? Some women think it itches.”
“Adrian.” It was like a hammer, a hammer inside and outside my head.
“You could get a nice velvet trim too, though. That wouldn’t itch.”
“Adrian.” Even my eye sockets seemed to hurt.
“And then a slit up the side to show off what great legs you have. It could go nearly to the hip and have this cute little bow – “
“Adrian!” Something inside of me burst. “Will you shut the hell up for five seconds?” I yelled so loud that the pilot had probably heard me. Adrian had that rare look of astonishment on his face.
Alberta, sitting across the aisle from Adrian, shot up in her seat. “Rose,” she exclaimed. “What’s going on?”
I gritted my teeth and rubbed my forehead. “I have the worst fucking headache in the world, and he won’t shut up.” I didn’t even realize I’d sworn in front of an instructor until several seconds later. From the other side of my field of vision, I thought I saw something else – another shadow darting through the plane, reminding me of black wings. Like a bat or a raven. I covered my eyes. There was nothing flying through the plane. “God, why won’t it go away?”
I expected Alberta to chastise me for the outburst, but instead, Christian spoke: “She hasn’t eaten today. She was really hungry earlier.”
I uncovered my eyes. Alberta’s face was filled with concern, and Dimitri now hovered behind her. More shadowy shapes flitted across my vision. Most were indistinct, but I could have sworn I saw something that looked like a skull mixed in with the darkness. I blinked rapidly, and it all disappeared. Alberta turned to one of the flight attendants. “Can you get her something to eat? And find a painkiller?”
“Where’s it at?” Dimitri asked me. “The pain?”
With all of this attention, my explosion suddenly seemed excessive. “It’s a headache…I’m sure it’ll go away…” Seeing his stern look, I pointed to the center of my forehead. “It’s like something pushing on my skull. And there’s pain kind of behind my eyes. I keep feeling like…well, it’s like I’ve got something in my eye. I think I’m seeing a shadow or something. Then I blink and it’s gone.”
“Ah,” said Alberta. “That’s a migraine symptom – having vision problems. It’s called an aura. People sometimes get it before the headache sets in.”
“An aura?” I asked, startled. I glanced up at Adrian. He was looking at me over the top of his seat, his long arms hanging over the back of it.
“Not that kind,” he said, a small smile turning up his lips. “Same name. Like Court and court. Migraine auras are images and light you see when a migraine’s coming on. They have nothing to do with the auras around people I see. But I tell you … the aura I can see … the one around you … wow.”
“And then some. It’s obvious even after all the drinks I’ve had. Never seen anything like it.”
I didn’t exactly know what to make of that, but then the flight attendant returned with a banana, a granola bar, and some ibuprofen. It was a far cry from French toast, but it sounded good on my empty stomach. I consumed it all and then propped a pillow up against the window. Closing my eyes, I rested my head and hoped I could sleep the headache off before we landed. Mercifully, everyone else stayed quiet.
I had drifted off a little when I felt a slight touch on my arm. “Rose?”
Opening my eyes, I peered at Lissa as she sat in Eddie’s seat. Those bat-winged shapes flitted behind her, and my head still hurt. In those swirling shadows, I again saw what looked like a face, this time with a wide gaping mouth and eyes like fire. I flinched.
“You’re still in pain?” Lissa asked, peering at me. I blinked, and the face was gone.
“Yeah, I – oh no.” I realized what she was going to do. “Don’t do it. Don’t waste it on me.”
“It’s easy,” she said. “It hardly fazes me.”
“Yeah, but the more you use it… the more it hurts you in the long run. Even if it’s easy now.”
“I’ll worry about that later. Here.”
She clasped my hand between hers and closed her eyes. Through our bond, I felt the magic welling up in her as she drew upon spirit’s healing power. To her, magic felt warm and golden. I’d been healed before, and it always came through to me as varying temperatures: hot, then cold, then hot, etc. But this time, when she released the magic and sent it into me, I didn’t feel anything except a very faint tingle. Her eyelids fluttered open.
“Wh – what happened?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “The headache’s still going strong.”
“But I…” The confusion and shock on her face mirrored what I sensed in her. “I had it. I felt the magic. It worked.”
“I don’t know, Liss. It’s okay, really. You haven’t been off the meds that long, you know.”
“Yeah, but I healed Eddie the other day without any problems. And Adrian,” she added dryly. He was hanging over the seat again, watching us intently.
“Those were scrapes,” I said. “This is a five-alarm migraine we’re talking about. Maybe you’ve got to build back up.”
Lissa bit her lower lip. “You don’t think the pills permanently hurt my magic, do you?”
“Nah,” said Adrian, head tilted to the side. “You lit up like a supernova when you were summoning it. You had magic. I just don’t think it had any effect on her.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Maybe she’s got something you can’t heal.”
“A headache?” I asked in disbelief.
He shrugged. “What do I look like, a doctor? I don’t know. Just telling you what I saw.”
I sighed and placed a hand on my forehead. “Well, I appreciate the help, Liss, and I appreciate your annoying commentary, Adrian. But I think sleep might be the best thing for now. Maybe it’s stress or something.” Sure, why not? Stress was the answer to everything lately. Ghosts. Incurable headaches. Weird faces floating in the air. “Probably can’t heal that.”
“Maybe,” she said, sounding as though she took personal offense at me having something she couldn’t fix. Inside her mind, though, her accusations were turned toward herself, not me. She worried she wasn’t good enough.
“It’s okay,” I said soothingly. “You’re just getting your stride back. Once you’re up to full power, I’ll go crack a rib or something so we can test it.”
She groaned. “The horrible part is that I don’t think you’re joking.” After a quick squeeze of my hand, she stood up. “Sleep well.”
She left, and I soon realized Eddie wasn’t coming back. He’d taken a new seat so that I’d have more room. Appreciative, I fluffed and repositioned the pillow while stretching my legs out as best I could across the seats. A few more phantom clouds danced across my vision, and then I closed my eyes to sleep.
I woke up later when the plane touched down, the sounds of its engines kicking into reverse startling me out of a deep sleep. To my relief, the headache was gone. So were the weird shapes floating around me.
“Better?” Lissa asked when I stood up and yawned.
I nodded. “Much. Better still if I can get some real food.”
“Well,” she laughed, “somehow I doubt there’s any shortage of food around here.”
She was right. Glancing out the windows, I tried to get my first look at our surroundings. We’d made it. We were at the Moroi Royal Court.