We left the Witching Hour in the morning. None of us were happy about losing Victor or the attack, but the casino had soothed us all a little--at least until we got to the airport. At the casino, we'd been flooded with Moroi news, insulated from the human world. But while waiting for our plane, we couldn't help but watch the TVs that seemed to be everywhere.

The headline story that night was all about a mass killing over at the Luxor, one that had left no clues for the police. Most of the casino guards involved had died from broken necks, and no other bodies were found. My guess was that Dimitri had tossed his cronies outside, where the sun would turn them to ash. Meanwhile, Dimitri himself had slipped away, leaving no other witnesses behind. Even the cameras had recorded nothing, which didn't surprise me. If I could disable surveillance at a prison, Dimitri could certainly manage it at a human hotel.

Whatever mood-improvement we'd achieved instantly disappeared, and we didn't talk much. I stayed out of Lissa's mind because I didn't need her depressed feelings amplifying my own.

We'd arranged a direct flight to Philadelphia and would then catch a commuter flight back to the airport near Court. What we'd face once there... well, that was probably the least of our concerns.

I wasn't worried about Strigoi boarding our plane in the daytime, and without any prisoners to watch, I allowed myself to fall into much-needed sleep. I couldn't remember the last time I'd gotten any on this trip. I slept heavily, but my dreams were haunted by the fact that I'd let one of the Moroi's most dangerous criminals escape and allowed a Strigoi to walk free and gotten a bunch of humans killed. I held none of my friends responsible. This disaster was all on me.

Chapter Twelve

WHICH WAS CONFIRMED WHEN WE finally stumbled back to the Royal Court.

I wasn't the only one in trouble, of course. Lissa was summoned to the queen for chastising, though I knew she'd suffer no actual punishment. Not like Eddie and me. We might be out of school, but we were technically under the jurisdiction of the official guardians now, which meant we faced as much trouble as any disobedient employee. Only Adrian escaped any consequences. He was free to do whatever he wanted.

And really, my punishment wasn't as bad as it could have been. Honestly, what did I have to lose at this point? My chances of guarding Lissa had already been sketchy, and no one had wanted me as a guardian except Tasha anyway. A crazy Vegas weekend--which was our cover story--was hardly enough to dissuade her from taking me on. It was enough, however, to make some of Eddie's prospects withdraw their requests for him to be their guardian. Enough still wanted him that he was in no danger of losing a good position, but I felt horribly guilty. He didn't breathe a word to anyone about what we'd done, but each time he looked at me, I could see the condemnation in his eyes.

And I saw a lot of him in the next couple days. It turned out guardians had a system in place to deal with those who were disobedient.

"What you did was so irresponsible that you might as well be back in school. Hell, elementary school, even."

We were in one of the offices in the guardians' headquarters, being yelled at by Hans Croft, the guy in charge of all the guardians at Court and someone who was instrumental in guardian assignments. He was a dhampir in his early fifties, with a bushy gray-and-white mustache. He was also an ass**le. The scent of cigar smoke always encircled him. Eddie and I were sitting meekly before him while he paced with his hands behind his back.

"You could have gotten the last Dragomir killed--not to mention the Ivashkov boy. How do you think the queen would have reacted to the death of her great-nephew? And talk about timing! You go off party-hopping right when the guy who tried to kidnap the princess is running loose. Not that you would know that, seeing as you were probably too busy playing slot machines and using your fake IDs."

I winced at the reference to Victor, though I suppose I should have been relieved that we were above suspicion for his escape. Hans read my grimace as an admission of guilt.

"You might have graduated," he declared, "but that does not mean you are invincible."

This whole encounter reminded me of when Lissa and I had returned to St. Vladimir's, when we'd been chastised for the same thing: recklessly running off and endangering her. Only this time, there was no Dimitri to defend me. That memory made a lump form in my throat as I remembered his face, serious and gorgeous, those brown eyes intense and passionate as he spoke up for me and convinced the others of my value.

But no. No Dimitri here. It was just Eddie and me alone, facing the consequences of the real world.

"You." Hans pointed a stubby finger at Eddie. "You might be lucky enough to slide out of this without too many repercussions. Sure, you'll have a black mark on your record forever. And you've totally screwed up your chances of ever having an elite royal position with other guardians to support you. You'll get some assignment though. Working alone with some minor nobility, probably."

High-ranking royals had more than one guardian, which always made protection easier. Hans's point was that Eddie's assignment would be lowly--creating more work and danger for him. Casting him a sidelong glance, I saw that hard, determined look on his face again. It seemed to say he didn't care if he had to guard a family by himself. Or even ten families. In fact, he gave off the vibe that they could drop him alone into a nest of Strigoi and he'd take them all on.

"And you." Hans's sharp voice jerked my gaze back to him. "You will be lucky to ever have a job."

Like always, I spoke without thinking. I should have taken this silently like Eddie. "Of course I'll have one. Tasha Ozera wants me. And you're too short on guardians to keep me sitting around."

Hans's eyes gleamed with bitter amusement. "Yes, we are short on guardians, but there's all sorts of work we need done--not just personal protection. Someone has to staff our offices. Someone has to sit and guard the front gates."

I froze. A desk job. Hans was threatening me with a desk job. All of my horrible imaginings had involved me guarding some random Moroi, someone I didn't know and would possibly hate. But in any of those scenarios, I would be out in the world. I would be in motion. I would be fighting and defending.

But this? Hans was right. Guardians were needed for the Court's administrative jobs. True, they only kept a handful--we were too valuable--but someone had to do it. One of those someones being me was too awful to comprehend. Sitting around all day for hours and hours... like the guards in Tarasov. Guardian life had all sorts of unglamorous--but necessary--tasks.

It truly, truly hit me then that I was in the real world. Fear slammed into me. I'd taken on the title of guardian when I graduated, but had I really understood what it meant? Had I been playing make-believe--enjoying the perks and ignoring the consequences? I was out of school. There would be no detention for this. This was real. This was life and death.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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