“You heard me.I don’t know how far things have gone, and honestly, I really don’t want to know the details.That’s not the point.
The point is that it’s going to go no farther.”
The queen was looking down on me, hands on her hips, clearly waiting for me to swear I’d do whatever she wanted. Except I kind of couldn’t. I glanced around the room, certain this was some sort of joke. I looked to the two guardians across the room, half-hoping they’d explain what was going on, but they were doing that seeing-without-actually-seeing thing. No eye contact. I turned back to the queen.
“Um, Your Majesty … there’s been some kind of mistake. There’s nothing going on between Adrian and me.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” she asked.
Wow. That was an opening.
“No, Your Majesty.”
“Well, that’s a start. There’s no point in lying to me. People have seen you together, here and back at your school. I saw you myself in the courtroom.” Damn it. Why had Adrian chosen that moment to be chivalrous and sneak another hug? “I’ve heard all the illicit details about what’s going on, and it is going to stop right here, right now. Adrian Ivashkov is not going to run off with some cheap dhampir girl, so you might as well rid yourself of that delusion right now.”
“I never thought he was going to – seeing as how we’re not involved,” I said. “I mean, we’re friends, that’s all. He likes me. He’s a flirt. And if you want to talk illicit stuff, then…yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s got a list of illicit things he’d like to do with me. Lots of illicit things. But we’re not doing them. Your Majesty.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like an idiot. From the look on her face, however, it didn’t seem like things could really get any worse for me.
“I know about you,” she said. “All anyone talks about are your recent awards and accolades, but I haven’t forgotten that it was you who took Vasilisa away. I also know about the trouble you used to get into – I know about the drinking, about the men. If it was up to me, I’d pack you up and send you off to some blood whore commune. You’d probably fit in well.”
Drinking and men? She made me sound like an alcoholic prostitute when, honestly, I’d probably drunk no more than other teenagers at high school parties. Telling her this seemed useless, though. Pointing out that I was still a virgin probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference either.
“But,” she continued, “your recent… achievements make sending you away impossible. Everyone believes you have some glorious future ahead of you. Maybe you do. Regardless, if I can’t stop you from being a guardian, I can affect whose guardian you are.”
I stiffened. “What are you saying? Are you threatening me?” I spoke the words tentatively, not as a challenge. She couldn’t be serious. Taking me away from Lissa during the field experience was one thing, but we were talking about an entirely different matter now.
“I’m just saying I have a great interest in Vasilisa’s future, that’s all. And if I have to protect her from corrupting influences, I will. We can find her another guardian. We can find you another Moroi.”
“You can’t do that!” I exclaimed. I could tell by the look on her face that she was happy to finally get a real reaction out of me. I was both angry and afraid, and I fought hard against my normal explosive instincts. Diplomacy and honesty were what I needed now. “I’m not doing anything with Adrian. Really. You can’t punish me for something I’m not doing.” I quickly remembered to add: “Your Majesty.”
“I don’t want to punish you at all, Rose. I just want to make sure we understand each other. Moroi men don’t marry dhampir girls. They play with them. Every girl thinks it’s going to be different with her – even your mother did with Ibrahim, but she was wrong too.”
“With who?” I asked, the name hitting me like a slap in the face. Ibrahim? I’d never even heard of that name, let alone someone called that. I wanted to ask who he was and what his connection to my mother was, but Tatiana just kept talking.
“They’re always wrong. And you can try your hardest to change that, but it’s a waste of time.” She shook her head, like she felt sorry for these dhampir girls, but her smug air contradicted any true sympathy. “You can use your pretty face and easy body as much as you want, but in the end, you’re the one who’ll get used. He may say he loves you now, but in the end, he’ll get tired of you. Save yourself the grief. I’m doing you a favor.”
“But he isn’t saying he loves – ” There was no point. The ironic thing here was that I was fairly certain Adrian did just want to use me for sex. I didn’t have any delusions about that. But seeing as I wasn’t actually sleeping with him, there was no problem – except, well, that Tatiana seemed to see of all this as a problem. I sighed, suspecting no argument was going to make her believe that I wasn’t interested in Adrian. “Look, if you’re so certain we can’t have a future together, then why are you telling me this? According to you, he’s going to throw me away anyway. Your Majesty.”
She hesitated for just a second, and I nearly laughed. Despite her trash-talking about me, my mom, and other dhampirs, some part of her really was worried that I might indeed be charming and pretty enough to seduce Adrian into a disgraceful marriage. She quickly hid her uncertainty.
“I like to take care of things before they become messy, that’s all. Besides, it’s going to make things easier for him and Vasilisa if they aren’t dragging around baggage from you.”
Whoa, whoa. My moment of brief satisfaction shattered – into confusion. I was as lost now as I’d been when she first started accusing me of being involved with Adrian.
“Him and… Vasilisa? Lissa? What are you talking about?” I forgot the Your Majesty, but I don’t think she cared at this point.
“The two of them are an excellent match,” she said, sounding like she was about ready to purchase some artwork. “Despite your bad influence, Vasilisa’s grown into a very promising young woman. She has a very serious, very dedicated nature that will cure some of his recklessness. And being together would allow them to continue examining their…unusual magical situation.”
Five minutes ago, me marrying Adrian had been the craziest thing I’d ever heard. It had just been trumped, however, by the thought of Lissa marrying Adrian.
“Lissa and Adrian. Together. You can’t be serious. Your Majesty.”
“If they’re both here together, I think they’ll come around to it. They already have a certain charisma around each other. Plus, both of Adrian’s grandmothers came from branches of the Dragomir family. He has more than enough blood to help her carry on the Dragomir line.”
“So does Christian Ozera.” In one of their more disgustingly cute moments, Lissa and Christian had looked up his family tree to see if he had enough Dragomir genes to be able to pass on the name. When they found out he did, they’d then starting naming their future children. It had been horrible. I’d left after Lissa told me they’d name their third daughter after me.
“Christian Ozera?” That condescending smile of hers tightened. “There is no way Vasilisa Dragomir is going to marry him.”
“Well, yeah. Not anytime soon. I mean, they’re going to go to college and – “
“Not now, not ever,” interrupted Tatiana. “The Dragomirs are an ancient and exalted line of royalty. Their last descendent is not going to attach herself to someone like him.”
“He’s royal,” I said in a low voice that was on the verge of becoming my scary voice. For whatever reason, her insulting Christian made me angrier than her insulting me. “The Ozera line is every bit as important as the Dragomirs and Ivashkovs. He’s royal, just like Lissa, like Adrian, and like you.”
She snorted. “He is not like us. Yes, the Ozeras are one of the royal houses, and yes, he has several respectable distant cousins. But we aren’t talking about them. We’re talking about the son of someone who purposely became a Strigoi. Do you know how many times that’s happened in my lifetime? Nine. Nine in fifty years. And his parents were two of them.”
“Yes – his parents,” I said. “Not him.”
“It doesn’t matter. The Dragomir princess cannot associate with someone like him. That position is simply too prestigious.”
“But your nephew is the perfect choice,” I said bitterly. “Your Majesty.”
“If you’re such a smart girl, then you tell me – back at St. Vladimir’s, how are they treated? How do your classmates view Christian? How do they view Christian and Vasilisa together?” Her eyes gleamed knowingly.
“Fine,” I said. “They have lots of friends.”
“And Christian is fully accepted?”
Immediately, I thought of Jesse and Ralf grilling me about Christian. And yes, there were plenty of people who still avoided Christian like he was already Strigoi. It was why he’d had no partner in culinary science. I tried to hide my thoughts, but my hesitation had given me away.
“You see?” she exclaimed. “And that’s just a microcosm of society. Imagine it on a bigger scale. Imagine how it’ll be when she’s active in the government and trying to get others to support her. He’ll be a liability. She’ll make enemies just because of him. Do you really want that to happen to her?”
It was exactly what Christian had feared, and I denied it now as much as I had to him. “It won’t happen. You’re wrong.”
“And you’re very young, Miss Hathaway. You’re also delaying your flight.” She moved toward the door. The guardians across the room were by her side in the blink of an eye. “I have nothing more to say and hope this will be the last time we ever have a discussion like this.”
Or any discussion, I thought.
She left, and as soon as etiquette said I could go, I sprinted off to catch my plane. My head reeled as I went. How insane was that lady? Not only was she convinced that I was on the verge of eloping with Adrian, she also believed that she could work some kind of arranged marriage with him and Lissa. It was almost impossible to figure out which part of that conversation had been the most ridiculous.
I could hardly wait to tell the others what had happened and have a good laugh over it. But, as I returned to my room to get my bag, I reconsidered. There was already so much gossip about me and Adrian going around; I didn’t think I should be fueling the fire. I also didn’t think Christian should hear about this. He was already insecure about his position with Lissa. How would he feel if he found out the queen was already making plans to get rid of him?
So I decided to sit on the information for a while, which was hard because Lissa was practically waiting outside my door when I got back.
“Hey,” I said. “I thought you’d be on the plane?”
“Nope. They delayed it by a few hours.”
“Oh.” Going home suddenly sounded like the best idea ever.
“What’d the queen want?” asked Lissa.
“To congratulate me,” I said glibly. “Over my Strigoi kills. I didn’t expect that from her – it was kind of weird.”
“Not that weird,” she said. “What you did was amazing. I’m sure she just wanted to recognize you for what you did.”
“Yeah, I guess. So what’s going on? What are we going to do with the extra time?” There was excitement in both her eyes and her feelings, and I welcomed a change in subject.
“Well… I was thinking. Since we’re at the Royal Court… don’t you want to check it out? There’s gotta be more to it than a bar and a coffee shop. Seems like we should know this stuff if we’re going to be living here. Besides, we’ve got a lot to celebrate.”
The full force of our situation hit me. I’d been so distracted by Victor that I hadn’t even really let things sink in: We were at the Royal Court, the center of Moroi leadership. It was nearly as big as the Academy, and there had to be more to it than the all-business side we’d seen so far. Plus, she was right. We had a lot to be happy about. Victor had been put away. She’d gotten a sweet college deal. Only my alleged affair with Adrian had been a downside, but I was willing to put that aside as Lissa’s contagious excitement seized me.
“Where’s Christian?” I asked.
“Doing his own thing,” she said. “You think we need him along?”
“Well, he usually is along lately.”
“Yeah,” she admitted, “but I’d kind of like just us to hang out.” I sensed the thoughts behind her decision. Our brief conversation just before she’d gone to see the queen had made her nostalgic for the old days, back when it had just been the two of us on our own.
“No complaints here,” I said. “How much can we cover in three hours?”
A mischievous grin lit her face. “The essentials.” I could tell she had something special in mind, but she was trying to keep it in hidden. She couldn’t block me out of the bond, but she had learned that if she didn’t think too hard about certain things, then I wouldn’t pick up on them easily. She liked being able to think that she could surprise me sometimes. Trying to hide big issues or problems from me never worked, though.
We set back out into the cold weather, with Lissa leading the way. She steered us away from the administrative buildings, off toward some others set at the farther end of the Court’s grounds.
“The queen lives in that first building,” Lissa explained. “It’s not exactly a palace but the closest we have. Back when the Court was in Europe, Moroi royalty used to live in castles.”
I made a face. “You make that sound like a good thing.”
“Stone walls? Turrets? Even you have to admit that sounds pretty neat.”
“Yeah, but I bet they had crap Internet access.”
Lissa shook her head at me, smiling, and didn’t dignify my comment with a response. We passed some other buildings that had the same ornate stonework as the others but were tall and built in a style that reminded me of apartments. She confirmed as much.
“Those are town houses, where people who live here year-round stay.”
I eyed them, wondering what they were like on the inside, and a happy thought came to me. “You think that’s where we’ll live?”
The thought caught her off guard, but she soon grew just as excited as me. She, too, liked the idea of us having our own place, free to decorate it and come and go as we wanted. I rather liked the idea of Dimitri living with us too, but here at Court, he wouldn’t be with her 24/7. For that matter, I actually wouldn’t need to be with her 24/7 either. Would they let me live with her? Or would this be another chance to show I wasn’t needed?
“I hope so,” she said, oblivious to my worries. “Top floor with a view.”
I mustered another smile. “And a pool.”
“How can you think about a pool in this weather?”
“Hey, if we’re fantasizing here, we might as well go the whole way. I bet Tatiana’s got one. I bet she wears a bikini and has hot guys rubbing her down with suntan lotion.”
I expected another eye roll, but Lissa just grinned as she led me into a building that was near the town houses. “Funny you mention that.”
“What?” I exclaimed. She was about ready to burst with her secret. I was this close to pulling it out of her mind. I would have, too, if I hadn’t been so stunned by our surroundings. It was sensory overload: delicate music, fountains, plants, people in white robes, everything gleaming and silver…
It was a spa, a full-fledged luxury spa hidden away in an old stone building here at Court. Who would have guessed? A long granite receptionist’s desk guarded the entrance, so we only had a partial view, but what I could see was pretty sweet. Women sat along a wall getting pedicures and manicures. Moroi men and women were getting haircuts and color. What looked like a maze of halls could just be seen in the back of the salon, with a directory of arrows pointing to other sections: massage, sauna, facials, etc.
Lissa grinned at me. “What do you think?”
“I think Adrian was right about the Court having all sorts of secrets.” I gave a mock sigh. “And I hate having to admit that he’s right.”
“You’ve been so down about the field experience and…other stuff.” She didn’t have to mention Mason’s death and the Strigoi fight. I read it from her mind. “I figured you could use a treat. I checked their openings here while you were with the queen, and they were able to squeeze us in.”
Lissa walked up to the receptionist and told her who we were. The woman immediately recognized our names but seemed surprised to be letting a dhampir in. I didn’t care, though. I was too bedazzled by the sights and sounds around me. Compared to the harsh, practical lifestyle I usually led, this sort of luxury almost defied belief.
After checking in, Lissa turned to me, face eager and radiant. “I got us set up to get massages with these – “
“Nails,” I interrupted.
“I want my nails done. Can I get a manicure?”
It was the most exotic, completely useless thing I could imagine. Well, it wasn’t useless for ordinary women. But for me? With the way I used my hands and subjected them to blisters, bruises, dirt, and wind? Yes. Useless. I hadn’t painted my nails in ages. There was no reason. Half the nail polish would probably chip off after one practice session. A novice like me couldn’t afford that kind of luxury. And that was why I so, so desperately wanted one. Seeing Lissa wear makeup had awakened that longing in me for some beautification of my own. I accepted that it could never be a regular part of my life, but if I was in a place like this today, then by God, I wanted my nails done.
Lissa faltered a little. She’d apparently had big plans for this massage thing. But, she had a hard time refusing me and spoke to the receptionist again. It sounded like the receptionist had to do a bit of juggling with her schedule, but she said she could make it work.
“Of course, Princess.” She smiled happily, entranced by Lissa’s natural charisma. Half the time, Lissa didn’t even need spirit to get people to help her.
“I don’t want to be an inconvenience,” Lissa said.
“No, no. Definitely not!”
We soon found ourselves sitting at adjacent tables while Moroi women soaked our hands in hot water and started scrubbing them with weird combinations of sugar and seaweed.
“Why the manicure?” Lissa wanted to know. I explained my reasoning to her, about how I hardly had time for makeup anymore and how the abuse my hands went through made any sort of pampering impractical. Her face turned thoughtful. “I never thought about that before. I just figured you weren’t into it lately. Or, well, that you didn’t need it. Not with your looks.”
“Whatever,” I said. “You’re the one guys worship.”
“Because of my name. You’re the one that guys – like a certain one we know – actually want for other reasons.”
Gee, I wondered who she could be referring to. “Yeah, but those other reasons aren’t very noble.”
She shrugged. “The point’s the same. You don’t need makeup for them to drool all over you.”
Then I felt the weirdest thing through the bond. I saw myself through her eyes. It was like looking in a mirror, except she only had a profile view of me. But when she looked at me, she really did think I was beautiful. With my tan and dark brown hair, I seemed exotic to her. She felt pale and washed out compared to me, skinny next to my curves. It was surreal, considering how often I felt scruffy next to her luminous beauty. Her envy wasn’t malicious; that wasn’t in her nature. It was more wistful, an admiration of a look she could never have.
I wanted to reassure her but had a feeling she didn’t want me knowing about her insecurities. Besides, my thoughts were interrupted when the woman doing my nails asked what color I wanted. I picked a color that looked like gold glitter. Gaudy, perhaps, but I actually thought it looked kind of cool, and it wasn’t like it was going to last long anyway. Lissa picked pale pink, a color as refined and elegant as she was. Hers got painted a lot faster than mine, though, because my manicurist had to spend so long softening my hands and filing the nails. Lissa finished long before I did.
When we both had glamorous hands, we proudly held them up side by side. “You look gorgeous, darling,” she declared, affecting a sophisticated air.
Laughing, we went off to the massage area. Lissa had originally scheduled us for extensive massages, but the manicure had cut into a chunk of that time. So we modified the full-body massage into a foot massage, which was just as well since we couldn’t have put on robes or any other changes of clothes with our nails still wet. All we had to do was remove our shoes and roll up our pants. I sat down in a chair while my feet soaked in warm, bubbling water. Someone put something into the tub that smelled like violets, but I didn’t pay much attention. I was too entranced by my hands. They were perfect. The manicurist had buffed and hydrated them to silky softness, and my nails had been transformed into gleaming gold ovals.
“Rose,” I heard Lissa say.
“Hmm?” The lady had also put a clear coat of nail polish over the gold. I wondered if that would give the nails a longer lease on life.
Sensing that Lissa wanted my undivided attention, I finally looked up from my awesome hands. She was grinning from ear to ear. I could feel that excited news burning in her again, the secret she’d had while we’d been walking over here.
“What’s up?” I asked.
She nodded downward. “Rose, this is Ambrose.”
I glanced absentmindedly toward the masseuse at my feet. “Hey, Ambrose, how’s it – ” I cut myself off before the words holy crap or whoa left my lips.
The guy massaging my feet couldn’t have been much older than me. He had curly black hair and muscles everywhere. I knew this for a fact because he was shirtless and offered us both a good view of his sculpted pecs and biceps. His deep golden skin was a color achievable only by excessive time in the sun, indicating he was human. The bite marks on his neck confirmed it. A pretty boy feeder. Very pretty.
His attractiveness was almost unreal, though. Dimitri was gorgeous, but he had little flaws that made him that much more gorgeous. Ambrose was too perfect, like a piece of art. I didn’t want to throw myself into his arms or anything, but he was certainly nice to look at.
Lissa, still worried about my love life, had apparently thought this was exactly what I needed. Her masseuse was female.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Rose,” said Ambrose. He had a musical voice.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” I said, suddenly self-conscious as he lifted my feet out of the water and toweled them off. I was especially self-conscious of the appearance of my feet. They weren’t gross or anything, since they weren’t usually exposed to the elements like my hands. I just kind of wished they’d been polished up too if this male model was going to handle them so much.
Lissa, astute enough to sense me being flustered, could barely stop from laughing. I heard her thoughts in my head: Cute, huh? I cut her a look, refusing to voice my thoughts out loud. He’s Tatiana’s personal masseuse. That practically makes you royalty. I sighed loudly to let her know she wasn’t as funny as she thought she was. And when I say personal, I mean personal.
I jerked in surprise, accidentally kicking one of my feet out. Ambrose’s deft hands caught it before I hit him in his pretty face, thankfully. I might not have been able to communicate telepathically but I was pretty sure there could be no question to Lissa that the look on my face said, You can’t be serious because if you are, you’re in big trouble.
Her grin widened. I thought you’d like that. Pampered by the queen’s secret lover.
Pampered wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind. Looking at Ambrose’s young, beautiful features, I just couldn’t picture him getting it on with that old hag. Of course, that denial might have just been my brain’s way of refusing to acknowledge that someone who had touched her was now touching me. Ew.
Ambrose’s hands were checking out my calves along with my feet, and he struck up a conversation about what elegant legs I had. His dazzling white smile never left his face, but most of my answers were curt. I still couldn’t get over the thought of him and Tatiana together.
Silently, Lissa groaned. He’s flirting with you, Rose! she thought to me. What are you doing? You can do better than that. I went to all this trouble to get you the hottest guy here, and this is what I get!
This one-sided-conversation thing was becoming a pain in the ass. I wanted to tell her that I’d never asked for her to rent out this guy for me. In fact, I suddenly had images of the queen calling me in for another meeting to yell at me for having a nonexistent affair with Ambrose too. Wouldn’t that be perfect?
Ambrose continued smiling as he rubbed the soles of one foot with his thumbs. It hurt – but in a good way. I hadn’t realized how sore that spot was. “They go to such trouble to make sure you wear the right black and white clothes, but no one ever thinks about your feet,” he mused. “How are you supposed to stand around all day and still manage roundhouse kicks and cat stances in bad shoes?”
I was about to tell them that he really didn’t need to keep worrying about my feet, but something odd suddenly struck me. “Roundhouse kicks” and “cat stances” weren’t top-secret guardian terms. Anyone could Google “martial arts” and find out about those kinds of things. Still, it wasn’t the kind of topic I’d expect a Moroi to casually throw around, let alone a feeder. I studied Ambrose closer, noting the way his dark eyes so carefully darted around and observed everything. I recalled his fast reflexes in stopping my kick.
I felt my jaw start to drop, and I shut it before I looked like an idiot.
“You’re a dhampir,” I breathed.