I here had only been three other witnesses to what had happened out on the quad. Yet, unsurprisingly, everyone seemed to know about it when I returned to the commons later on. Classes were done, but plenty of students moved about in the corridors, off to study or retake tests or whatever. They tried to hide their glances and whispers, but they didn't do a very good job. Those who made eye contact with me either gave me tight-lipped smiles or immediately looked away. Wonderful.
With no psychic link to Christian, I had no clue where to find him. I could sense that Lissa was in the library and figured that would be a good place to start looking. On my way there, I heard a guy's voice call out behind me.
"Took things a bit far, didn't you?"
I turned around and saw Ryan and Camille walking several steps back. If I'd been a guy, the appropriate response would have been, "You mean with your mom?" Because I was not a guy, though, and because I had manners, I just said, "Don't know what you're talking about."
Ryan hurried to catch up with me. "You know exactly what I mean. With Christian. I heard that when Stan attacked, you were just like, 'Here, take him, and walked away."
"Oh good God," I groaned. It was bad enough when everyone was talking about you, but why did the stories always end up changing? "That is not what happened."
"Oh yeah?" he asked. "Then why did you get called in to see Alberta?"
"Look," I said, not feeling so well mannered anymore, "I just messed up the attack…you know, kind of like you did earlier when you weren't paying attention in the hall?"
"Hey," he said, flushing slightly. "I ended up getting in on that—I did my part."
"Is that what they're calling getting killed nowadays?"
"At least I wasn't a whiny bitch who refused to fight."
I had just about calmed down after speaking with Dimitri, but now my temper was rising already. It was like a thermometer ready to burst. "You know, maybe instead of criticizing others, you should pay more attention to your own guardian duties." I nodded toward Camille. She had thus far been quiet, but her face showed me she was eating all of this up.
Ryan shrugged. "I can do both. Shane's farther behind us, and the area ahead is clear. No doors. Easy." He patted Camille's shoulder. "She's safe."
"It's an easy place to secure. You wouldn't do so well in the real world with real Strigoi."
His smile faded. Anger glinted in his eyes. "Right. The way I hear it, you didn't do such a great job out there either, at least not as far as Mason was concerned."
Taunting over what had happened with Stan and Christian was one thing. But implying that I was at fault for Mason's death? Unacceptable. I was the one who'd kept Lissa safe for two years in the human world. I was the one who had killed two Strigoi in Spokane. I was the only novice at this school with molnija marks, the little tattoos given to guardians to mark Strigoi kills. I'd known there had been some whispers about what had happened to Mason, but no one had ever actually said anything to me. The thought of Ryan or anyone else thinking I was to blame for Mason dying was too much. I blamed myself plenty enough already without their help.
The thermometer broke.
In one smooth motion, I reached past him, grabbed Camille, and swung her up against the wall. I hadn't thrown her hard enough to hurt her, but she was clearly startled. Her eyes widened in shock, and I used my forearm to pin her, pressing it against her throat.
"What are you doing?" exclaimed Ryan, peering back and forth between our faces. I shifted my stance slightly, still keeping the pressure on Camille.
"Furthering your education," I said pleasantly. "Sometimes places aren't as easy to secure as you think."
"You're crazy! You can't hurt a Moroi. If the guardians find out—"
"I'm not," I argued. I glanced toward her. "Am I hurting you? Are you in extreme pain?"
There was a hesitation; then she gave as much of a shake of her head as she could manage.
"Are you uncomfortable?"
A small nod.
"See?" I told Ryan. "Discomfort isn't the same thing as pain."
"You're insane. Let her go."
"I'm not done, Ry. Pay attention because here's the point: Danger can come from anywhere. Not just Strigoi—or guardians dressed up like Strigoi. Keep acting like an arrogant asshole who thinks he knows everything" — I pressed my arm in a little harder, still not enough to affect her breathing or cause real pain—"and you miss things. And those things can kill your Moroi."
"Okay, okay. Whatever. Please, stop it," he said. His voice wavered. There was no more attitude. "You're scaring her."
"I'd be scared too, if my life was in your hands."
The scent of cloves alerted me to Adrian's presence. I also knew that Shane and a few others had come to watch. The other novices looked uncertain, like they wanted to pry me off but were afraid of getting Camille hurt. I knew I should let her go, but Ryan had just made me so angry. I needed to prove a point to him. I needed to get him back. And really, I didn't even feel sorry for Camille either since I was sure she'd done her fair share of gossiping about me too.
"This is fascinating," said Adrian, his voice as lazy as usual. "But I think you've made your point."
"I don't know," I said. The tone of my voice managed to be both sweet and menacing at the same time. "I still don't think Ryan gets it."
"For God's sake, Rose! I get it," cried Ryan. "Just let her go."
Adrian moved around me, going over to stand beside Camille. She and I were pressed close together, but he managed to squeeze in so that his face was in my line of sight, almost beside hers. He wore that goofy smirk he normally had, but there was something serious in his dark green eyes.
"Yes, little dhampir. Let her go. You're done here."
I wanted to tell Adrian to get away from me, that I would be the one to say when this was finished. Somehow, I couldn't get the words out. A part of me was enraged at his interference. The other part of me thought he sounded…reasonable.
"Let her go," he repeated.
My eyes were all over Adrian now, not Camille. Suddenly, all of me decided he sounded reasonable. Completely reasonable. I needed to let her go. I moved my arm and stepped away. With a gulp, Camille darted behind Ryan, using him like a shield. I saw now that she was on the verge of tears. Ryan simply looked stunned.
Adrian straightened up and made a dismissive gesture toward Ryan. "I'd get out of here—before you really annoy Rose."
Ryan, Camille, and the others slowly backed off from us. Adrian put his arm around me and hurried me away toward the library. I felt weird, kind of like I was waking up, but then, with each step, things grew clearer and clearer. I pushed his arm off me and jerked away.
"You just used compulsion on me!" I exclaimed. "You made me let her go."
"Someone needed to. You looked like you were seconds away from strangling her."
"I wasn't. And I wouldn't have." I pushed open the library door. "You had no right to do that to me. No right at all." Compulsion—making people do what you wanted—was a skill all vampires had to a very small degree. Using it was considered immoral, and most couldn't control it well enough to do any real damage. Spirit strengthened the ability, however, making both Adrian and Lissa very dangerous.
"And you had no right to tackle some poor girl in the hall just to soothe your own hurt pride."
"Ryan had no right to say those things."
"I don't even know what 'those things' are, but unless I've misjudged your age, you're too old to be throwing a tantrum over idle gossip."
My words fell short as we reached Lissa working at a table. Her face and feelings told me trouble was coming. Eddie stood a couple feet away from her, leaning against a wall and watching the room. His eyes widened when he saw me, but he didn't say anything at my approach.
I slid into the chair opposite Lissa.
She looked up and sighed, then returned her attention to the textbook open in front of her. "I wondered when you'd turn up," she said. "Did you get suspended?"
Her words were calm and polite, but I could read her underlying feelings. Annoyed. Even a little angry.
"Not this time," I said. "Just got stuck with community service."
She said nothing, but the irate mood I sensed through the bond remained unchanged.
Now I sighed. "Okay, talk to me, Liss. I know you're mad."
Adrian looked at me, then her, and then me again. "I feel like I'm missing something here."
"Oh, great," I said. "You went and busted up my fight and didn't even know what it was about."
"Fight?" asked Lissa, confusion joining her anger.
"What happened?" repeated Adrian.
I nodded to Lissa. "Go ahead, tell him."
"Rose got tested earlier and refused to protect Christian." She shook her head, exasperated, and fixed me with an accusatory glare. "I can't believe you're seriously still mad enough to do something like that to him. It's childish."
Lissa had jumped to the same conclusions as the guardians. I sighed. "I didn't do it on purpose! I just sat through a whole hearing on this crap and told them the same thing."
"Then what happened?" she demanded. "Why did you do it?"
I hesitated, unsure what to say. My reluctance to talk didn't even have anything to do with Adrian and Eddie overhearing—though I certainly didn't want them to. The problem was more complex.
Dimitri had been right—there were people I could trust, and two of them I trusted unconditionally: him and Lissa. I'd already held back from telling him the truth. Would I—could I—do the same with her? Although she was mad, I knew without a doubt that Lissa would always support me and be there for me. But just like with Dimitri, I balked at the idea of telling my ghost story. Also just like with Dimitri, it left me in the same bind: crazy or incompetent?
Through our bond, I felt her mind, pure and clear. There was no taint, no darkness, or sign of madness—and yet, something tingled in the background. A slight stirring. Antidepressants took awhile to fully get into and out of one's system, but her magic was already waking up after one day. I thought back to my ghostly encounters, dredging up the memory of that sad, translucent Mason. How could I even begin to explain that to her? How could I bring up something as weird and fantastic as that when she'd been trying so hard to get a little normality in her life and now faced the challenge of getting her magic under control?
No, I realized. I couldn't tell her. Not yet—especially when it suddenly occurred to me that there was still something else big I needed to let her know about.
"I froze," I said finally. "It's stupid. I'd been so cocky about being able to take out anyone, and then Stan …" I shrugged. "I don't know. I just couldn't react. It… it's really embarrassing. And him of all people."
Lissa studied me intently, looking for any sign of dishonesty. It hurt to think that she'd mistrust me, except…well, I was actually lying. As I'd told Dimitri, though, I could be a good liar when I wanted to be. Lissa couldn't tell.
"I wish I could read your mind," she mused.
"Come on," I said. "You know me. Do you really think I'd do this? Abandon Christian and make myself look stupid on purpose just to get back at my teachers?"
"No," she said finally. "You'd probably do it in a way where you wouldn't get caught."
"Dimitri said the same thing," I grumbled. "I'm glad everyone has so much faith in me."
"We do," she countered. "That's why all of this is so weird."
"Even I make mistakes." I put on my brash, overconfident face. "I know it's hard to believe—kind of surprises me myself—but I guess it has to happen. It's probably some kind of karmic way to balance out the universe. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair to have one person so full of awesomeness."
Adrian, blessedly silent for a change, was watching the two of us talk, much as one would look back and forth at a tennis match. His eyes were narrowed slightly, and I suspected he was studying our auras.
Lissa rolled her eyes, but fortunately, the anger I'd felt ear-Her lightened. She believed me. Her gaze then lifted from my face to someone beyond me. I felt the happy, golden emotions that signaled Christian's presence.
"My loyal bodyguard returns," he declared, pulling up a chair. He glanced at Lissa. "Are you done yet?"
"Done with what?" she asked.
He inclined his head toward me. "Giving her a hard time about how she threw me into the deadly clutches of Alto."
Lissa blushed. She was already feeling a little bad about jumping on me, now that I'd defended myself sufficiently. Christian's flippant, knowing observation just made her feel more foolish.
"We were just talking about it, that's all."
Adrian yawned and slouched back in his chair. "Actually, I think I've figured it all out. This was a scam, wasn't it? A scam to scare me off since I'm always talking about you being my guardian. You thought if you pretended to be a bad guardian, I wouldn't want you. Well, it's not going to work, so there's no point in risking anyone else's life."
I was grateful he didn't mention the incident in the hall. Ryan had absolutely been out of line, but as more time passed, it became harder and harder for me to believe I'd snapped like that. It was like something that had happened to someone else, something that I'd simply been watching. Of course, I seemed to be snapping over everything lately. I'd been mad about getting Christian, mad about the guardians' accusation, mad about—
Oh, right. It was probably time for me to drop the bomb.
"So, um … there's something you guys should know."
Four sets of eyes—even Eddie's—turned to me.
"What's wrong?" asked Lissa.
There was really no easy way to tell them, so I just pushed forward. "Well, it turns out that Victor Dashkov was never found guilty of what he did to us. He's just been locked up. But they're finally going to have an official trial—in another week or so."
Lissa's reaction to hearing his name was similar to mine. Shock shot through the bond, followed immediately by fear. A slide show of images flashed through her mind. The way Victor's sick game had made her question her sanity. The torture his henchman had subjected her to. The bloody state she'd found Christian in after he'd been attacked by Victor's hounds. She clenched her fists on the table, knuckles going white. Christian couldn't sense her reaction the way I could, but he didn't need to. He moved his hand over hers. She barely noticed.
"But… but…" She took a deep, steadying breath, fighting to stay calm. "How could he not be guilty already? Everyone knows…. They all saw…."
"It's the law. They supposedly have to give him a fighting chance."
There was confusion all over her, and slowly, she came to the same realization that I had last night with Dimitri. "So…wait… are you saying there's a chance they might not find him guilty?"
I looked into her wide, frightened eyes and couldn't bring myself to tell her. Apparently, my face said it all.
Christian slammed his fist against the table. "This is bullshit." Several people at other tables glanced over at his outburst.
"This is politics," said Adrian. "People in power never have to play by the same rules."
"But he nearly killed Rose and Christian!" cried Lissa. "And he kidnapped me! How can there be any question?"
Lissa's emotions were all over the place. Fear. Sorrow. Anger. Outrage. Confusion. Helplessness. I didn't want her delving into those dark feelings and hoped desperately that she'd grow calm again. Slowly, steadily, she did—but then I started getting angry again. It was like Ryan all over.
"It's a formality, I'm sure," said Adrian. "When all the evidence is in, there probably isn't going to be much of a debate."
"That's the thing," I said bitterly. "They're not going to have all the evidence. We aren't allowed to go."
"What?" exclaimed Christian. "Then who's testifying?"
"The other guardians who were there. We apparently can't be trusted to keep the whole thing quiet. The queen doesn't want the world to know that one of her precious royals might have done something wrong."
Lissa didn't seem to take offense at me trashing royals. "But we're the reason he's on trial."
Christian stood up, glancing around as though Victor might be in the library. "I'm going to go take care of this right now."
"Sure," said Adrian. "I bet going in there and kicking down the door will change their minds. Take Rose with you, and you guys'll make a really good impression."
"Yeah?" asked Christian, clenching the back of his chair and fixing Adrian with a stormy glare. "You have a better idea?"
Lissa's calmness began to waver again. "If Victor was free, would he come after us again?"
"If he gets loose again, he won't stay that way for long," I said. "I'll make sure of it."
"Careful there," said Adrian. He seemed to find all of this funny. "Even you couldn't get away with a royal assassination."
I started to tell him that I'd practice on him first, but then Eddie's sharp voice interrupted my thoughts.
Instinct born from years of training instantly kicked into place. I looked up and immediately saw what he'd noticed. Emil had just entered the library and was scanning for novices, taking notes. I shot up out of my chair, taking a position not far from Eddie that gave me a view of Christian and most of the library. Damn it. I had to get a grip, or I'd end up proving Ryan right. Between my brawl in the hall and now this Victor thing, I was completely neglecting my guardian duties. I might not even need Mason to fail this.
Emil hadn't seen me sitting and socializing. He strolled by, glanced at us, and made a few notes before heading off to scout the rest of the library. Relieved at escaping my close call, I tried to gain control of myself. It was hard. That black mood had seized me again, and listening to Lissa and Christian rage over Victor's trial wasn't really helping me relax. I wanted to go over there and weigh in. I wanted to yell and rant and share my own frustration. But that wasn't a luxury I had as a guardian. My first duty was to protect Moroi and not give into my own impulses. Over and over, I repeated the guardian mantra: They come first.
Those words were really starting to annoy me.