"Of course they were. We all face the same tests."
"Not you. While planning the trials, the guardians decided you needed something... extra. Something special. After all, you'd been out fighting in the real world."
"What?" The volume of my voice caught the attention of a few others. I lowered it, and Meredith's earlier words came back to me. "That's not fair!"
He didn't seem concerned. "You're superior to the others. Making you do easy things wouldn't have been fair."
I'd faced a lot of ridiculous things in my life, but this was pretty out there. "So they had me do that crazy bridge stunt instead? And if they were surprised I cut it, then what the hell else did they expect me to do? How else was I supposed to survive that?"
"Hmm." He stroked his chin absentmindedly. "I honestly don't think they knew."
"Oh, for God's sake. This is unbelievable."
"Why are you so mad? You passed."
"Because they put me in a situation they didn't even know how to get out of." I gave him a suspicious look. "And how do you even know about this? This is all guardian business."
An expression I didn't like at all came over his face. "Ah, well, I was with your mother last night and--"
"Whoa, okay. Just stop," I interrupted. "I do not want to hear what you and my mother were doing last night. I think that'd be worse than the bridge."
He grinned. "Both are in the past, so no need to worry now. Enjoy your success."
"I'll try. Just don't do me any more favors with Adrian, okay? I mean, I'm glad you came to support me, but that's more than enough."
Abe gave me a canny look, reminding me that underneath that swagger he was indeed a shrewd and dangerous man. "You were more than happy to have me do you a favor after your return from Russia."
I grimaced. He had a point, seeing as he had managed to get a message into a high-security prison. Even if it hadn't led to anything, he still got points.
"Okay," I admitted. "That was pretty amazing. And I'm grateful. I still don't know how you pulled that off." Suddenly, like a dream you recall a day later, I remembered the thought I'd had just before my trials. I lowered my voice. "You didn't actually go there, did you?"
He snorted. "Of course not. I wouldn't set foot in that place. I simply worked my network."
"Where is that place?" I asked, hoping I sounded bland.
He wasn't fooled. "Why do you want to know?"
"Because I'm curious! Convicted criminals always disappear without a trace. I'm a guardian now, and I don't even know anything about our own prison system. Is there just one prison? Are there lots?"
Abe didn't answer right away. He was studying me carefully. In his business, he suspected everyone of ulterior motives. As his daughter, I was probably doubly suspect. It was in the genes.
He must have underestimated my potential for insanity because he said at last, "There's more than one. Victor's in one of the worst. It's called Tarasov."
"Where is it?"
"Right now?" He considered. "In Alaska, I think."
"What do you mean, 'right now'?"
"It moves throughout the year. Right now it's in Alaska. Later, it'll be in Argentina." He gave me a sly smile, apparently wondering how astute I was. "Can you guess why?"
"No, I--wait. Sunlight." It made perfect sense. "Alaska's got almost nonstop daylight this time of year--but nonstop night in the winter."
I think he was prouder of my realization than of my trials. "Any prisoners trying to escape would have a hard time." In full sun, no Moroi fugitive would get very far. "Not that anyone can escape through that level of security anyway." I tried to ignore how foreboding that sounded.
"Seems like they'd put it pretty far north in Alaska then," I said, hoping to worm out the actual location indirectly. "You get more light that way."
He chuckled. "Even I can't tell you that. That's information the guardians keep close, buried in their headquarters."
I froze. Headquarters...
Abe, despite being usually observant, didn't notice my reaction. His eyes were watching something across the room. "Is that Renee Szelsky? My, my... she's grown lovely over the years."
I grudgingly waved him away, largely because I wanted to chase this new plan in my mind--and because Renee wasn't anyone I knew very well, which made him hitting on her less appalling. "Well, don't let me stop you. Go lure more women into your web."
Abe didn't need much prodding. Alone, I let my brain spin, wondering if my developing scheme had any chance of success. His words had sparked a new plan in my mind. It wasn't much crazier than most of my others. Across the room, I met Lissa's jade eyes again. With Christian out of sight, her mood had improved. She was enjoying herself and was excited about the adventures ahead of us, now that we were free and out in the world. My mind flashed back to the anxieties I'd felt earlier in the day. We might be free now, but reality would catch up with us soon. The clock was ticking. Dimitri was waiting, watching. I wondered briefly if I'd still get his weekly letters, now that I'd be leaving the school.
I smiled at her, feeling kind of bad that I'd be ruining her mood when I told her we might now have a very real chance of busting out Victor Dashkov.
THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS were strange. The other novices and I might have had the flashiest graduation, but we weren't the only ones finishing our education at St. Vladimir's. The Moroi had their own commencement ceremony, and campus grew packed with visitors. Then, almost as quickly as they came, parents disappeared--taking their sons and daughters with them. Royal Moroi left to spend their summers with their parents at luxury estates--many in the Southern Hemisphere, where the days were shorter this time of year. "Ordinary" Moroi left with their parents too, off to more modest homes, possibly getting summer jobs before college.
And of course, with school wrapping up for the summer, all the other students left too. Some with no family to go home to, usually dhampirs, stayed year-round, taking special electives, but they were the minority. Campus grew emptier each day as my classmates and I waited for the day when we'd be taken to the Royal Court. We made our farewells to others, Moroi moving on or younger dhampirs who'd soon be following in our footsteps.
One person I was sad to part with was Jill. I happened to catch her as I was walking toward Lissa's dorm the day before my Court trip. There was a woman with Jill, presumably her mother, and both were carrying boxes. Jill's face lit up when she saw me.