Coming to himself, he abruptly released her hand and stepped back. "Well," he said roughly, though still clearly unnerved by the proximity, "I guess you aren't really serious about helping Rose."


That did it. Sexual tension notwithstanding, anger kindled up in Lissa at the comment. She balled her fist and totally caught Christian off guard when she swung out and socked him in the face. It didn't have the grace of her Reed punch, but it took Christian hard. Unfortunately, she lost her balance in the maneuver and stumbled forward into him. The two of them went down together, hitting the floor and knocking over a small table and lamp nearby. The lamp caught the table's corner and broke.

Meanwhile, Lissa had landed on Christian. His arms instinctively went out around her, and if the space between them before had been small, it was nonexistent now. They stared into each other's eyes, and Lissa's heart was pounding fiercely in her chest. That tantalizing electric feeling crackled around them again, and all the world for her seemed to focus on his lips. Both she and I wondered later if they might have kissed, but just then, Serena came bursting out of the bedroom.

She was on guardian high alert, body tense and ready to face an army of Strigoi with her stake in hand. She came screeching to a halt when she saw the scene before her: what appeared to be a romantic interlude. Admittedly, it was an odd one, what with the broken lamp and swelling red mark on Christian's face. It was pretty awkward for everyone, and Serena's attack mode faded to one of confusion.

"Oh," she said uncertainly. "Sorry."

Embarrassment flooded Lissa, as well as self-resentment at being affected so much by Christian. She was furious at him, after all. Hastily, she pulled away and sat up, and in her flustered state, she felt the need to make it clear that there was nothing romantic whatsoever going on.

"It... it's not what you think," she stuttered, looking anywhere except at Christian, who was getting to his feet and seemed just as mortified as Lissa. "We were fighting. I mean, practicing fighting. I want to learn to defend against Strigoi. And attack them. And stake them. So Christian was kind of helping me, that's all." There was something cute about her rambling, and it reminded me charmingly of Jill.

Serena visibly relaxed, and while she'd mastered that blank face all guardians excelled at, it was clear she was amused. "Well," she said, "it doesn't look like you're doing a very good job."

Christian turned indignant as he stroked his injured cheek. "Hey! We are too. I taught her this."

Serena still thought it was all funny, but a serious, considering glint was starting to form in her eyes. "That seems like it was more lucky than anything else." She hesitated, like she was on the verge of a big decision. At last she said, "Look, if you guys are serious about this, then you need to learn to do it the right way. I'll show you how."

No. Way.

I was seriously on the verge of escaping the Court and hitchhiking to Lehigh to really show them how to throw a punch--with Serena as my example--when something jolted me away from Lissa and back into my own reality. Hans.

I had a sarcastic greeting on my lips, but he didn't give me a chance. "Forget the filing and follow me. You've been summoned."

"I--what?" Highly unexpected. "Summoned where?"

His face was grim. "To see the queen."

Chapter Fourteen

THE LAST TIME TATIANA HAD wanted to yell at me, she'd simply taken me to one of her private sitting rooms. It had made for a weird atmosphere, like we were at teatime--except people didn't usually scream at other people during teatime. I had no reason to believe this would be any different... until I noticed my escort was leading me to the main business buildings of the Court, the places where all royal governing was conducted. Shit. This was more serious than I'd thought.

And indeed, when I was finally ushered into the room where Tatiana waited... well, I nearly came to a standstill and couldn't enter. Only a slight touch on my back from one of the guardians with me kept me moving forward. The place was packed.

I didn't know for sure which room I was in. The Moroi actually kept a bona fide throne room for their king or queen, but I didn't think this was it. This room was still heavily decorated, conveying an old-world royal feel, with painstakingly carved floral molding and shining gold candleholders on the walls. There were actually lit candles in them too. Their light reflected off the metallic decorations in the room. Everything glittered, and I felt like I'd stumbled into a stage production.

And really, I might as well have. Because after a moment's surveying, I realized where I was. The people in the room were split. Twelve of them sat at a long table on a dais at what was clearly meant to be the focal point of the room. Tatiana herself sat at the middle of the table, with six Moroi on one side and five Moroi on the other. The other side of the room was simply set with rows of chairs--still elaborate and padded with satin cushions--which were also filled with Moroi. The audience.

The people sitting on either side of Tatiana were the tip-off. They were older Moroi, but ones who carried a regal air. Eleven Moroi for the eleven acting royal families. Lissa was not eighteen--though she was about to be, I realized with a start--and therefore had no spot yet. Someone was sitting in for Priscilla Voda. I was looking at the Council, the princes and princesses of the Moroi world. The oldest member of each family claimed the royal title and an advisory spot beside Tatiana. Sometimes the eldest waived the spot and gave it to someone the family felt was more capable, but the selectee was almost always at least forty-five. The Council elected the Moroi king or queen, a position held until death or retirement. In rare circumstances, with enough backing from the royal families, a monarch could be forcibly removed from office.

Each prince or princess on the Council was in turn advised by a family council, and glancing back at the audience, I recognized clusters of family members sitting together: Ivashkovs, Lazars, Badicas... The very back rows appeared to be observers. Tasha and Adrian sat together, and I knew for a fact they weren't members of the Royal Council or family councils. Still, seeing them set me at ease a little.

I remained near the entrance to the room, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, wondering what was in store. I hadn't just earned public humiliation; I'd apparently earned it in front of the most important Moroi in the world. Wonderful.

A gangly Moroi with patchy white hair stepped forward, around the side of the long table, and cleared his throat. Immediately, the hum of conversation died. Silence filled the room.

"This session of the Moroi Royal Council is now in order," he declared. "Her Royal Majesty, Tatiana Marina Ivashkov, is presiding." He gave a slight bow in her direction and then discretely backed off to the side of the room, standing near some guardians who lined the walls like decorations themselves.

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