For the trials, we had blunt-ended stakes, ones that wouldn't pierce skin but which could be used with enough force to convince our opponents that we knew what we were doing. My alignment was perfect, and Randall, conceding it would have been a killing blow, relinquished his hold and dropped off the bridge.


That left me the painful task of coaxing Daniel to climb up. It took a long time, but again, his behavior wasn't out of character with how a scared Moroi might behave. I was just grateful he hadn't decided a real Moroi would have lost his grip and fallen.

After that challenge came many more, but I fought on, never slowing down or letting exhaustion affect me. I slipped into battle mode, my senses focused on basic instincts: fight, dodge, kill.

And while staying tuned to those, I still had to be innovative and not fall into a lull. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to react to a surprise like the bridge. I managed it all, battling on with no other thoughts beyond accomplishing the tasks before me. I tried not to think of my instructors as people I knew. I treated them like Strigoi. I pulled no punches.

When it finally ended, I almost didn't realize it. I was simply standing there in the middle of the field with no more attackers coming at me. I was alone. Slowly, I became more aware of the world's details. Crowds in the stands cheering. A few instructors nodding to each other as they joined in. The pounding of my own heart.

It wasn't until a grinning Alberta tugged at my arm that I realized it was over. The test I'd waited for my entire life, finished in what felt like a blink of an eye.

"Come on," she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulder and guiding me toward the exit. "You need to get some water and sit down."

Dazed, I let her lead me off the field, around which people were still cheering and crying my name. Behind us, I heard some people saying they had to take a break and fix the bridge. She led me back to the waiting area and gently pushed me onto a bench. Someone else sat beside me and handed me a bottle of water. I looked over and saw my mother. She had an expression on her face that I had never seen before: pure, radiant pride.

"That was it?" I asked at last.

She surprised me again with genuinely amused laughter. "That was it?" she repeated. "Rose, you were out there for almost an hour. You blew through that test with flying colors--probably one of the best trials this school's ever seen."

"Really? It just seemed..." Easy wasn't quite the right word. "It was a haze, that's all."

My mom squeezed my hand. "You were amazing. I'm so, so proud of you."

The realization of it all truly, truly hit me then, and I felt a smile of my own spreading over my lips. "Now what happens?" I asked.

"Now you become a guardian."

I'd been tattooed many times, but none of those events came close to the ceremony and fanfare that occurred while getting my promise mark. Before, I'd received molnija marks for kills I'd made in unexpected, tragic circumstances: fighting Strigoi in Spokane, the school attack and rescue--events that were cause for mourning, not celebration. After all those kills, we'd kind of lost count, and while guardian tattoo artists still tried to log every individual kill, they'd finally given me a star-shaped mark that was a fancy way of saying we'd lost count.

Tattooing isn't a fast process, even if you're getting a small one, and my entire graduating class had to get them. The ceremony took place in what was usually the Academy's dining room, a room they were able to remarkably transform into something as grand and elaborate as we'd find at the Royal Court. Spectators--friends, family, guardians--packed the room as Alberta called our names one at a time and read our scores as we approached the tattoo artist. The scores were important. They would be made public and, along with our overall school grades, influence our assignments. Moroi could request certain grads for their guardians. Lissa had requested me, of course, but even the best scores in the world might not compensate for all the black behavioral marks on my record.

There were no Moroi at this ceremony, though, aside from the handful who had been invited as guests by the new graduates. Everyone else gathered was a dhampir: either one of the established guardians or about-to-become-guardians like me. The guests sat in the back, and the senior guardians sat near the front. My classmates and I stood the whole time, maybe as some sort of last test of endurance.

I didn't mind. I'd changed out of my torn and dirty clothes into simple slacks and a sweater, an outfit that seemed dressy while still retaining a solemn feel. It was a good call because the air in the room was thick with tension, all faces a mix of joy at our success but also anxiety about our new and deadly role in the world. I watched with shining eyes as my friends were called up, surprised and impressed at many of the scores.

Eddie Castile, a close friend, got a particularly high score in one-on-one Moroi protection. I couldn't help a smile as I watched the tattooist give Eddie his mark. "I wonder how he got his Moroi over the bridge," I murmured in an undertone. Eddie was pretty resourceful.

Beside me, another friend of mine, Meredith, gave me a puzzled look. "What are you talking about?" Her voice was equally soft.

"When we were chased onto the bridge with a Moroi. Mine was Daniel." She still looked confused, and I elaborated. "And they put Strigoi on each side?"

"I crossed the bridge," she whispered, "but it was just me being chased. I took my Moroi through a maze."

A glare from a nearby classmate shut us up, and I hid my frown. Maybe I wasn't the only one who'd gone through the trial in a daze. Meredith had her facts screwed up.

When my name was called, I heard a few gasps as Alberta read my scores. I had the highest in the class by far. I was kind of glad she didn't read my academic grades. They would have totally taken away some of the glory of the rest of my performance. I'd always done well in my combat classes, but math and history... well, those were a bit lacking, particularly since I always seemed to be dropping in and out of school.

My hair was pulled tightly into a bun, with every stray wisp held with hairpins so that the artist would have nothing to interfere with his work. I leaned forward to give him a good view and heard him grunt in surprise. With the back of my neck covered in marks, he'd have to be tricky. Usually a new guardian provided a blank canvas. This guy was good, though, and managed to delicately place the promise mark in the center of the nape of my neck after all. The promise mark looked like a long, stretched-out S, with curly ends. He fit it in between the molnija marks, letting it wrap around them like an embrace. The process hurt, but I kept my face blank, refusing to flinch. I was shown the final results in a mirror before he covered it up with a bandage so it would heal cleanly.

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