Dimitri was the last of the guardians to go. On the surface, his testimony wasn't much different than theirs. They'd all been part of the rescue squad, but his part in the story had begun a little earlier.
"I was with my student, Rose Hathaway," he said. "She shares a bond with the princess and was the first to sense what had happened."
Victor's lawyer - I couldn't even imagine how they'd gotten anyone to represent him - glanced at some papers and then looked back up at Dimitri. "Based on the events, it sounds like there was a delay between when she discovered that and when you alerted the others."
Dimitri nodded, his mask of composure never slipping. "She couldn't act on it because Mr. Dashkov had inflicted a charm on her, one that caused her to attack me." He spoke the words so levelly, it amazed me. Not even the lawyer seemed to notice anything. Only I could see - or maybe it was just because I knew him - how much it hurt for Dimitri to lie. Oh, he wanted to protect us - wanted to protect me in particular - which was why he was doing this. But it killed a piece of him to stand up there, under oath, and lie. Dimitri was not perfect, no matter how much I thought he was some days, but he always tried to be truthful. Today he couldn't be.
"Mr. Dashkov works with earth magic, and some who use that power and are strong in compulsion can influence our base instincts," continued Dimitri. "In this case, he affected her anger and violence through an object."
Off to my left, I heard a sound - like someone choking on their own laughter. The judge, an elderly but fierce Moroi woman, glared.
"Mr. Dashkov, please respect the decorum of this courtroom."
Victor, still smiling, waved his hands in apology. "I'm terribly sorry, Your Honor and Your Majesty. Something in Guardian Belikov's testimony just tickled my fancy, that's all. It won't happen again."
I held my breath, waiting for the blow to fall. It didn't. Dimitri finished his statement, and then Christian was called up. His part was short. He'd been with Lissa when she'd been taken and had been knocked out. His contribution was being able to ID some of Victor's guardians as the kidnappers. Once Christian sat down, it was my turn.
I walked up, hoping I looked calm in front of all those eyes - and in front of Victor. In fact, I went out of my way to not look at him at all. As I said my name and gave my oath to tell the truth, I suddenly felt the full force of what Dimitri must have experienced. I was standing before all these people, swearing I'd be honest, but I would lie in an instant if the lust charm came up.
My version was pretty straightforward. I had details to offer from before the night of the kidnapping, like about when Victor had laid his sick traps to test Lissa's power. Otherwise, my story lined up with Dimitri's and the other guardians'.
I'd said before that I could lie well, and I brushed over the "attack" charm part with such ease that no one paid any attention. Except Victor. Despite my refusal to look at him, I inadvertently glanced in his direction when I mentioned the charm. His eyes bored into me, and a small smirk sat on his lips. His smugness, I realized, was more than just because he knew I was lying. It was also because he actually knew the precise truth - and the look he gave me told me that he had that power over me and Dimitri, the power to ruin everything for us in front of all these people - no matter what Dimitri had threatened. All the while, I kept my face calm enough to make Dimitri proud, but inside my chest, my heart thudded loudly.
It seemed to last forever, but I knew I was only on the stand for a few minutes. I finished, sagging with relief that Victor hadn't called me out, and then it was Lissa's turn. As the victim, she offered the first new perspective thus far, and everyone there grew caught up in her story. It was compelling; no one had ever heard anything like it. I also realized that, without even trying, Lissa was using her spirit-induced charisma. I think it came from the same place compulsion did. People were enraptured and sympathetic. When Lissa described the torture Victor had put her through to force her to heal him, I saw faces go pale with shock. Even Tatiana's stern mask faltered a little, though whether she felt pity or just simple surprise, I couldn't say.
The most amazing thing, though, was how calmly Lissa managed to deliver the story. On the outside, she was steady and beautiful. But as she spoke the words, describing exactly how Victor's henchman had tortured her, she relived the pain and terror of that night. The guy had been an air user, and he'd toyed with that element, sometimes taking it away so she couldn't breathe and at other times smothering her with it. It had been horrible, and I'd experienced it right along with her. In fact, I experienced it with her again now as she spoke about the events on the stand. Each painful detail was still etched in her mind, the pain echoing back to both of us. We were both relieved when her testimony finished.
Finally, it was Victor's turn. From the look on his face, you never would have guessed he was on trial. He wasn't angry or outraged. He wasn't contrite. He didn't plead. He looked like we were all hanging out somewhere, like he had nothing in the world to worry about. Somehow, that made me that much angrier.
Even when answering, he spoke as though he made perfect sense. When the prosecuting lawyer asked why he'd done what he had, he looked at her as though she were crazy.
"Why, I had no choice," he said pleasantly. "I was dying. No one was going to condone me openly experimenting with the princess's powers. What would you have done in my place?"
The lawyer ignored that. She was having a hard time keeping the disgust off of her face. "And you found coaxing your own daughter into turning Strigoi also necessary?"
Everyone in the courtroom shifted uncomfortably. One of the most awful things about Strigoi was that they were made, not born. A Strigoi could force a human, a dhampir, or a Moroi into becoming Strigoi if the Strigoi drank the victim's blood and then fed Strigoi blood back to the victim. It didn't matter if the victim wanted it or not, and once she became Strigoi, she lost all sense of her old, moral self. She embraced becoming a monster and killing others to survive. Strigoi converted others if they found someone they thought would strengthen their ranks. Sometimes they did it just out of cruelty.
The other way a Strigoi could be made was if a Moroi willingly chose to kill another person during feeding, destroying all the magic and life within themselves. Christian's parents had done that because they'd wanted to be immortal, no matter the cost. Victor's daughter Natalie had done it because he had talked her into it. The extra strength and speed she'd gotten from being a Strigoi had helped her free him, and he'd felt his goals were worth the sacrifice.