"But was easily replaceable," a new voice said. Christian had joined us. Lissa took a few steps away from him, still annoyed about Mia. "And actually, it's the perfect time. The people who wanted this had to jump at their chance. Every time there's a big Strigoi fight, everyone panics. Fear'll make a lot of people get on board with this. And if any Council members were undecided before this, that battle probably pushed them over."


That was pretty wise reasoning for Christian, and Lissa was impressed, despite her troubled feelings for him right now. The Council's herald finally managed to make his voice heard over the shouts of the audience. I wondered if the group would have quieted down if Tatiana herself had started yelling at them to shut up. But no. That was probably beneath her dignity. She was still sitting there calmly, like nothing unusual was going on.

Nonetheless, it took several moments for everyone to settle down and take their seats. My friends and I hurriedly grabbed the first ones we could find. With peace and quiet achieved at last, the weary-looking herald yielded the floor to the queen.

Smiling grandly at the assembly, she addressed them in her most imperious voice. "We'd like to thank everyone for coming today and expressing your... opinions. I know some are still unsure about this decision, but Moroi law has been followed here--laws that have been in place for centuries. We will have another session soon to listen to what you have to say in an orderly fashion." Something told me that was an empty gesture. People could talk all they wanted; she wouldn't listen. "This decision--this verdict--will benefit the Moroi. Our guardians are already so excellent." She gave a condescending nod toward the ceremonial guardians standing along the room's walls. They wore typically neutral faces, but I was guessing that, like me, they probably wanted to punch half the Council. "They are so excellent, in fact, that they train their students to be ready to defend us at an early age. We will all be safer from tragedies like that which recently occurred."

She lowered her head a moment in what must have been a show of grieving. I recalled last night when she'd choked up over Priscilla. Had that been an act? Was her best friend's death a convenient way for Tatiana to push forward with her own agenda. Surely... surely, she wasn't that cold.

The queen lifted her head and continued. "And again, we're happy to listen to you register your opinions, although by our own laws, this matter is settled. Further sessions will have to wait until an adequate period of mourning has passed for the unfortunate departed."

Her tone and body language implied that this was indeed the end of the discussion. Then, an impertinent voice suddenly broke the room's silence.

My voice.

"Well, I'd kind of like to register my opinion now."

Inside my head, Lissa was shouting: Sit down, sit down! But I was already on my feet, moving toward the Council's table. I stopped at a respectful distance, one that would let them notice me but not get me tackled by guardians. And oh, they noticed me. The herald flushed bright red at my rule breaking.

"You are out of line and in violation of all Council protocol! Sit down right now before you are removed." He glanced over at the guardians, like he expected them to come charging forward right then. None of them moved. Either they didn't perceive me as a threat, or they were wondering what I was going to do. I was also wondering this.

With a small, delicate hand gesture, Tatiana waved the herald back. "I daresay there's been so much breach of protocol today that one more incident won't make a difference." She fixed me with a kind smile, one that was apparently intended to make us look like friends. "Besides, Guardian Hathaway is one of our most valuable assets. I'm always interested in what she has to say."

Was she really? Time to find out. I addressed my words to the Council.

"This thing you've just passed is utterly and totally insane." I considered it a great feat on my part that I didn't use any swear words there because I had some adjectives in mind that were much more fitting. Who said I didn't understand Council etiquette? "How can any of you sit there and think it's okay to send sixteen-year-olds out to risk their lives?"

"It's only two years' difference," said the Tarus prince. "It's not like we're sending ten-year-olds."

"Two years is a lot." I thought for a moment about when I'd been sixteen. What had happened in those two years? I'd run off with Lissa, watched friends die, traveled around the world, fallen in love.... "You can live a lifetime in two years. And if you want us to keep being on the front lines--which most of us willingly do when we graduate--then you owe us those two years."

This time, I glanced back at the audience. The reactions were mixed. Some clearly agreed with me, nodding along. Some looked as though nothing in the world would change their minds about the decree being just. Others wouldn't meet my eyes.... Had I swayed them? Were they undecided? Embarrassed at their own selfishness? They might be the keys.

"Believe me, I would love to see your people enjoy their youth." This was Nathan Ivashkov speaking. "But right now, that's not an option we have. The Strigoi are closing in. We're losing more Moroi and guardians every day. Getting more fighters out there will stop this, and really, we're just letting those dhampirs' skills go to waste by waiting a couple years. This plan will protect both our races."

"It'll kill mine off faster!" I said. Realizing I might start shouting if I lost control, I took a deep breath before going on. "They won't be ready. They won't have all the training they need."

And that was where Tatiana herself made her master play. "Yet, by your own admission, you were certainly prepared at a young age. You killed more Strigoi before you were eighteen than some guardians kill their entire lives."

I fixed her with a narrow-eyed look. "I," I said coldly, "had an excellent instructor. One that you currently have locked up. If you want to talk about skills going to waste, then go look in your own jail."

There was a slight stirring in the audience, and Tatiana's we're pals face grew a little cold. "That is not an issue we are addressing today. Increasing our protection is. I believe you have even commented in the past that the guardian ranks are lacking in numbers." My own words, thrown back at me from last night. "They need to be filled. You--and many of your companions--have proven you're able to defend us."

"We were exceptions!" It was egotistical, but it was the truth. "Not all novices have reached that level."

A dangerous glint appeared in her eye, and her voice grew silky smooth again. "Well, then, perhaps we need more excellent training. Perhaps we should send you to St. Vladimir's or some other academy so that you can improve your young colleagues' education. My understanding is that your upcoming assignment will be a permanent administrative one here at Court. If you wanted to help make this new decree successful, we could change that assignment and make you an instructor instead. It might speed up your return to a bodyguard assignment."

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