Shadow Kiss Chapter 11

Eleven

WE STEPPED OFF THE plane and were immediately hit with wet, blustery weather.Sleet cracked into us, far worse than the flaky white stuff falling back in Montana.We were on the East Coast now, or well, close to it.

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The queen’s court was in Pennsylvania, near the Pocono Mountains, a range I had only a vague idea about. I knew we weren’t too close to any major cities, like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, which were the only ones I knew in the state.

The runway we’d landed on was part of the Court’s property, so we were already behind wards. It was just like the Academy’s small landing strip. In fact, in many ways, the Royal Court was laid out exactly like the school. It was what they told humans the compound was, actually. The Court was a collection of buildings, beautiful and ornate, spreading across well-tended grounds adorned with trees and flowers. At least, the land would be adorned with them when spring came. Just like in Montana, the vegetation was bleak and leafless.

We were met by a group of five guardians, all dressed in black pants and matching coats, with white shirts underneath. They weren’t uniforms exactly, but custom usually dictated that for formal occasions, guardians wear some sort of nice ensemble. By comparison, in our jeans and T-shirts, our group looked like somebody’s poor relations. Yet I couldn’t help but think we’d be a lot more comfortable if it came to a fight with Strigoi.

The guardians knew Alberta and Dimitri – honestly, those two knew everybody – and after some formalities, everyone relaxed and became friendly. We were all eager to get in out of the cold, and our escorts led us toward the buildings. I knew enough about the Court to know that the largest and most elaborate of the buildings was where all official Moroi business was conducted. It resembled some sort of gothic palace on the outside, but inside, I suspected it probably looked like any set of modern government offices you’d find among humans.

We weren’t taken there, however. We were led to an adjacent building, just as exquisite on the outside, but half the size. One of the guardians explained that this was where all guests and dignitaries traveling in and out of the Court stayed. To my surprise, we each got our own room.

Eddie started to protest this, adamantly saying he needed to stay with Lissa. Dimitri smiled and told him it wasn’t necessary. In a place like this, guardians didn’t need to stay as close to their Moroi. In fact, they often separated to do their own things. The Court was as heavily warded as the Academy. And really, Moroi visitors at the Academy were rarely trailed so closely by their guardians either. It was only for the sake of the field experience that it was being done with us. Eddie agreed with some reluctance, and again, I was amazed at his dedication.

Alberta spoke briefly and then turned to the rest of us. “Decompress for a bit and be ready for dinner in four hours. Lissa, the queen wants to see you in an hour.”

A jolt of surprise ran through Lissa, and she and I exchanged brief, puzzled looks. The last time Lissa had seen the queen, Tatiana had snubbed her and embarrassed her in front of the school for having running away with me. Both of us wondered what she’d want to see Lissa about now.

“Sure,” said Lissa. “Rose and I’ll be ready.”

Alberta shook her head. “Rose isn’t going. The queen specifically asked for you alone.”

Of course she had. What interest would the queen have in Vasilisa Dragomir’s shadow? A nasty voice whispered in my head, Expendable, expendable….

The dark sentiment startled me, and I shoved it aside. I went to my room, relieved to see it had a TV. The thought of vegging for the next four hours sounded fantastic. The rest of the room was pretty fancy, very modern looking, with sleek black tables and white leather furniture. I was kind of afraid to sit on it. Ironically, despite how nice it all was, the place wasn’t as decked out as the ski resort that we’d stay in over the holidays. I guessed when you came to the Royal Court, you came for business, not a vacation.

I had just sprawled on the leather couch and turned on the TV when I felt Lissa in my mind. Come talk, she said. I sat up, surprised by the message itself and the content. Usually our bond was all about feelings and impressions. Specific requests like this were rare.

I got up and left the room, going to the one next door. Lissa opened the door.

“What, you couldn’t have come to me?” I asked.

“Sorry,” she said, looking like she genuinely meant it. It was hard to be grouchy around someone so nice. “I just didn’t have the time. I’m trying to decide what to wear.”

Her suitcase was already open on the bed, with things hung up in the closet. Unlike me, she’d come prepared for every occasion, formal and casual alike. I lay down on the couch. Hers was plush velvet, not leather.

“Wear the print blouse with the black slacks,” I told her. “Not a dress.”

“Why not a dress?”

“Because you don’t want to look like you’re groveling.”

“This is the queen, Rose. Dressing up is showing respect, not groveling.”

“If you say so.”

But Lissa wore the outfit I suggested anyway. She talked to me as she finished getting ready, and I watched with envy as she applied makeup. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed cosmetics myself. When she and I had lived with humans, I’d been pretty diligent about primping every day. Now, there never seemed to be enough time – or any reason. I was always in some kind of scuffle that made makeup pointless and ruined it anyway. The most I could do was to slather my face with moisturizer. It seemed excessive in the mornings – like I was putting on a mask – yet by the time I faced the cold weather and other harsh conditions, I was always surprised to see my skin had sucked all the moisture up.

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The smallest pang of regret shot through me that I’d rarely have any opportunities to do this for the rest of my life. Lissa would spend most of her days dressed up, out at royal functions. No one would notice me. It was weird, considering that until this last year, I’d always been the one who was always noticed.

“Why do you think she wants to see me?” Lissa asked.

“Maybe to explain why we’re here.”

“Maybe.”

Unease filled Lissa, despite her calm exterior. She still hadn’t entirely recovered from the queen’s brutal humiliation last fall. My own petty jealousy and moping suddenly seemed stupid when compared with what she had to go through. I mentally slapped myself, reminding myself that I wasn’t just her unseen guardian. I was also her best friend, and we hadn’t talked very much lately.

“You have nothing to be afraid of, Liss. You haven’t done anything wrong. And really, you’ve been doing everything right. Your grades are perfect. Your behavior’s perfect. Remember all those people you impressed on the ski trip? That bitch has nothing to get on you about.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” said Lissa automatically. She applied mascara to her eyelashes, studied them, and then added another coat.

“Just call ’em like I see ’em. If she gives you any grief, then it’s just going to be because she’s afraid of you.”

Lissa laughed. “Why would she be afraid of me?”

“Because people are drawn to you, and people like her don’t like it when others steal all the attention.” I was a bit astonished at how wise I sounded. “Plus, you’re the last Dragomir. You’re always going to be in the spotlight. Who’s she? Just another Ivashkov. There are a ton of them. Probably because all the guys are like Adrian and have all sorts of illegitimate children.”

“Adrian doesn’t have any children.”

“That we know of,” I said mysteriously.

She snickered and stepped back from the mirror, pleased with her face. “Why are you always so mean to Adrian?”

I gave her a look of mock astonishment. “You’re standing up for Adrian now? Whatever happened to you warning me to stay away from him? You practically bit my head off the first time I hung out with him – and that wasn’t even by my choice.”

She took a thin golden chain out of her suitcase and tried to fasten it around her neck. “Well, yeah … I didn’t really know him then. He’s not so bad. And it’s true I mean, he’s not a great role model or anything, but I also think some of those stories about him and other girls are exaggerated.”

“I don’t,” I said, jumping up. She still hadn’t managed to fasten the chain, so I took it and put the clasp together for her.

“Thanks,” she said, running her hands over the necklace. “I think Adrian really likes you. Like, in a wanting-to-be-serious way.”

I shook my head and stepped back. “Nope. He likes me in a wanting-to-get-the-clothes-off-the-cute-dhampir way.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“That’s because you believe the best about everyone.”

She looked skeptical as she began brushing her hair smooth over her shoulders. “I don’t know about that either. But I do think he’s not as bad as you think. I know it hasn’t been that long since Mason, but you should think about going out with someone else….”

“Wear your hair up.” I handed her a barrette from her suitcase. “Mason and I were never really going out. You know that.”

“Yeah. Well, I guess that’s more reason to start thinking about dating someone. High school’s not over yet. Seems like you should be doing something fun.”

Fun. It was ironic. Months ago, I’d argued with Dimitri about how it wasn’t fair that, as a guardian-in-training, I had to watch my reputation and not act too crazy. He’d agreed it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t do the kinds of things other girls my age could, but that that was the price I paid for my future. I’d been upset, but after Victor’s meddling, I started to see Dimitri’s point – to such an extent that he’d actually hinted I shouldn’t try to limit myself that much. Now, after Spokane, I felt like a completely different girl from the one who’d talked to Dimitri last fall about having fun. I was only a couple months from graduation. High school things…dances…boyfriends…what did they matter in the grand scheme of things? Everything at the Academy seemed so trivial – unless it was making me a better guardian.

“I don’t really think I need a boyfriend to complete my high school experience,” I told her.

“I don’t think you do either,” she agreed, tugging her ponytail straight. “But you used to flirt and go out sometimes. I feel like it’d just be nice for you to do a little of that. It’s not like you’d have to have anything serious with Adrian.”

“Well, you won’t get any arguments from him on that. I think the last thing he wants is anything serious, that’s the problem.”

“Well, according to some of the stories, he’s very serious. I heard the other day that you were engaged. Someone else said that he’d been disowned because he told his dad he’d never love anyone else.”

“Ahhhh.” There was really no other adequate response to all these silly rumors. “The creepy thing is that the same stories are all over the place at the elementary campus too.” I stared at the ceiling. “Why does this stuff keep happening to me?”

She walked over to the couch and looked down at me. “Because you’re awesome, and everyone loves you.”

“Nah. You’re the one everyone loves.”

“Well, then, I guess we’re both awesome and loveable. And one of these days” – a mischievous sparkle danced in her eyes – “we’ll find a guy you love back.”

“Don’t hold your breath. None of that matters. Not right now. You’re the one I’ve got to worry about. We’re going to graduate, and you’ll go off to college, and it’ll be great. No more rules, just us on our own.”

“It’s a little scary,” she mused. “Thinking about being on my own. But you’ll be with me. And Dimitri too.” She sighed. “I can’t imagine not having you around. I can’t even really remember when you weren’t around.”

I sat up and gave her a light punch in her arm. “Hey, be careful. You’re going to make Christian jealous. Oh crap. I suppose he’s going to be around too, huh? No matter where we end up going?”

“Probably. You, me, him, Dimitri, and any guardians Christian gets. One big happy family.”

I scoffed, but inside of me, there was a warm fuzzy feeling building. Things were crazy in our world right now, but I had all these great people in my life. As long as we were all together, everything would be okay.

She looked at the clock, and her fear returned. “I’ve gotta go. Will you … will you go with me?”

“You know I can’t.”

“I know… not in body… but like, will you do that thing? Where you’re watching in my head? It’ll make me feel like I’m not alone.”

It was the first time Lissa had ever asked me to purposely do that. Normally, she hated the thought of me seeing through her eyes. It was a sign of how nervous she really was.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s probably better than anything on TV anyway.”

I returned to my own room, taking up an identical position on the couch. Clearing my thoughts, I opened myself up to Lissa’s mind, going beyond simply knowing her feelings. It was something the shadow-kissed bond allowed me to do and was the most intense part of our connection. It wasn’t just feeling her thoughts – it was actually being inside of her, looking through her eyes and sharing her experiences. I’d learned to control it only recently. I used to slip in without wanting to, much as I sometimes couldn’t keep her feelings out. I could control my out-of-body experiences now and even summon up the phenomenon at will – just like I was about to do.

Lissa had just reached the parlor the queen was waiting in. Moroi might use terms like “royal” and even kneel sometimes, but there were no thrones or anything like that here. Tatiana sat in an ordinary armchair, dressed in a navy blue skirt and blazer, looking more like a corporate businesswoman than any sort of monarch. She wasn’t alone, either. A tall, stately Moroi whose blond hair was laced with silver sat near her. I recognized her: Priscilla Voda, the queen’s friend and adviser. We’d met her on the ski trip, and she’d been impressed with Lissa. I took her presence as a good sign. Silent guardians, dressed in black and white, stood along the wall. To my astonishment, Adrian was there too. He reclined on a small love seat, seeming completely oblivious to the fact that he was hanging out with the Moroi’s ultimate leader. The guardian with Lissa announced her.

“Princess Vasilisa Dragomir.”

Tatiana nodded in acknowledgment. “Welcome, Vasilisa. Please sit down.”

Lissa sat down near Adrian, her apprehension growing by leaps and bounds. A Moroi servant came by and offered tea or coffee, but Lissa declined. Tatiana meanwhile sipped from a teacup and scrutinized Lissa from head to toe. Priscilla Voda broke the awkward silence.

“Remember what I said about her?” Priscilla asked cheerfully. “She was very impressive at our state dinner in Idaho. Settled a huge spat over Moroi fighting with guardians. She even managed to calm Adrian’s father down.”

A frosty smile crossed Tatiana’s cold features. “That is impressive. Half the time, I still feel like Nathan is twelve years old.”

“Me too,” said Adrian, drinking from a wine glass.

Tatiana ignored him and again focused on Lissa. “Everyone seems impressed with you, really. I hear nothing but good things about you, in spite of your past transgressions … which I’m given to understand weren’t entirely without their reasons.” Lissa’s look of surprise actually made the queen laugh. There wasn’t much warmth or humor in the laugh, though. “Yes, yes … I know all about your powers, and of course I know what happened with Victor. Adrian’s been filling me in about spirit as well. It’s so strange. Tell me … can you…” She glanced to a nearby table. A flowerpot sat on it, dark green shoots sticking through the soil. It was some kind of bulb-based plant that someone was growing indoors. Like its outside counterparts, it was waiting for spring.

Lissa hesitated. Using her powers in front of others was a strange thing for her. But, Tatiana was watching expectantly. After only a few moments more, Lissa leaned over and touched the shoots. The stems shot up through the dirt, growing taller – almost a foot high. Huge pods formed along the sides as it grew, bursting open to reveal fragrant white flowers. Easter lilies. Lissa withdrew her hand.

Wonder showed on Tatiana’s face, and she muttered something in a language I didn’t understand. She hadn’t been born in the United States but had chosen to hold her Court here. She spoke with no accent, but, as they did for Dimitri, moments of surprise apparently brought out her native tongue. Within seconds, she put her stately mask back on.

“Hmm. Interesting,” she said. Talk about an understatement.

“It could be very useful,” said Priscilla. “Vasilisa and Adrian can’t be the only two out there with it. If we could find others, so much could be learned. The healing itself is a gift, let alone anything else they can conjure. Just think what we could do with it.”

Lissa turned optimistic. For a while, she’d been going out of her way to find others like her. Adrian had been the only one she’d discovered, and that had been through sheer luck. If the queen and Moroi council put their resources into it, there was no telling what they might find. Yet something about Priscilla’s words troubled Lissa.

“Begging your pardon, Princess Voda…I’m not sure we should be so eager to use my – or others’ – healing powers as much as you might want to.”

“Why not?” asked Tatiana. “From what I understand, you can heal almost anything.”

“I can…” said Lissa slowly. “And I want to. I wish I could help everybody, but I can’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll definitely help some people. But I know we’d run into other people like Victor, who want to abuse it. And after a while … I mean, how do you choose? Who gets to live? Part of life is that…well, some people have to die. My powers aren’t a prescription you can get filled as needed, and honestly, I’m afraid they would only be used for, uh, certain kinds of people. Just like the guardians are.”

A slight tension built in the room. What Lissa had insinuated was rarely ever mentioned in public.

“What are you talking about?” asked Tatiana with narrowed eyes. I could tell she already knew.

Lissa was scared to say her next words, but she did it anyway. “Everyone knows that there’s a certain, um, method to how guardians are distributed. Only the elite get them. Royals. Rich people. People in power.”

A chill fell over the room. Tatiana’s mouth settled into a straight line. She didn’t speak for several moments, and I had a feeling everyone else was holding their breath. I certainly was. “You don’t think our royals deserve special protection?” she asked finally. “You don’t think you do – the last of the Dragomirs?”

“I think keeping our leaders safe is important, yeah. But I also think we need to stop sometimes and look at what we’re doing. It could be time to reconsider the way we’ve always done things.”

Lissa sounded so wise and so self-assured. I was proud of her. Watching Priscilla Voda, I could see that she was proud too. She’d liked Lissa from the beginning. But I could also tell that Priscilla was nervous. She answered to the queen and knew that Lissa was swimming in dangerous waters.

Tatiana sipped her tea. I think it was an excuse to gather her thoughts. “I understand,” she said, “that you’re also in favor of Moroi fighting with the guardians and attacking Strigoi?”

Another dangerous topic, one Lissa pushed forward into. “I think if there are Moroi who want to, they shouldn’t be denied the chance.” Jill suddenly popped into my head.

“Moroi lives are precious,” said the queen. “They shouldn’t be risked.”

“Dhampir lives are precious too,” Lissa countered. “If they fight with Moroi, it could save everybody. And again, if Moroi are willing, why deny them? They deserve to know how to defend themselves. And people like Tasha Ozera have developed ways of fighting with magic.”

The mention of Christian’s aunt brought a frown to the queen’s face. Tasha had been attacked by Strigoi when younger and had spent the rest of her life learning to fight back. “Tasha Ozera … she’s a troublemaker. She’s starting to gather a lot of other troublemakers.”

“She’s trying to introduce new ideas.” I noticed then that Lissa wasn’t afraid any longer. She was confident in her beliefs and wanted them expressed. “Throughout history, people with new ideas – who think differently and try to change things – have always been called troublemakers. But seriously? Do you want the truth?”

A wry look crossed Tatiana’s face, almost a smile. “Always.”

“We need change. I mean, our traditions are important. We shouldn’t give up on those. But sometimes, I think we’re misguided.”

“Misguided?”

“As time’s gone on, we’ve gone along with other changes. We’ve evolved. Computers. Electricity. Technology in general. We all agree those make our lives better. Why can’t we be the same in the way we act? Why are we still clinging to the past when there are better ways to do things?”

Lissa was breathless, worked up and excited. Her cheeks felt warm, and her heart raced. All of us were watching Tatiana, searching for any clue in that stony face.

“You’re very interesting to talk to,” she finally said. She made interesting sound like a dirty word. “But I have things I must do now.” She stood up, and everyone hastily followed suit, even Adrian. “I won’t be joining you for dinner, but you and your companions will have everything you need. I’ll see you tomorrow at the trial. No matter how radical and naively idealistic your ideas are, I’m glad you’ll be there to complete his sentencing. His imprisonment, at least, is something we can all agree on.”

Tatiana swept out, two guardians immediately following. Priscilla followed too, leaving Lissa and Adrian alone.

“Well done, cousin. Aren’t many people who can throw the old lady off-balance like that.”

“She didn’t seem very off-balance.”

“Oh, she was. Believe me. Most of the people she deals with every day wouldn’t talk to her like that, let alone someone your age.” He stood up and extended a hand to Lissa. “Come on. I’ll show you around this place. Take your mind off things.”

“I’ve been here before,” she said. “When I was younger.”

“Yeah, well, the things we get to see when we’re young are different than the things we get to see when we’re older. Did you know there’s a twenty-four-hour bar in here? We’ll get you a drink.”

“I don’t want a drink.”

“You will before this trip’s over.”

I left Lissa’s head and returned to my room. The meeting with the queen was over, and Lissa didn’t need my unseen support. Besides, I really didn’t want to hang out with Adrian right now. Sitting up, I discovered I felt surprisingly alert. Being in her head had kind of been like taking a nap.

I decided to do a little exploring of my own. I’d never been to the Royal Court. It really was supposed to be like a mini-town, and I wondered what other things there were to see, aside from the bar that Adrian probably lived in while visiting.

I headed downstairs, figuring I’d have to go outside. As far as I knew, this building only held guestrooms. It was kind of like the palace’s hotel. When I got to the entryway, however, I saw Christian and Eddie standing and talking with someone I couldn’t see. Eddie, ever vigilant, saw me and grinned.

“Hey, Rose. Look who we found.”

As I approached, Christian stepped aside, revealing the mystery person. I came to a halt, and she grinned at me.

“Hi, Rose.”

A moment later, I felt a smile slowly creep over my face. “Hello, Mia.”

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