He studied me for several long seconds. He could have lied. He could have given the easy answer by saying he'd intended to push both of us out of the way--if that was even possible, which I didn't recall. But Dimitri didn't lie. "I don't know, Roza. I don't know.'
I sighed. "This isn't going to be easy.'
"It never is,' he said, pulling me into his arms. I leaned against his chest and closed my eyes. No, it wouldn't be easy, but it would be worth it. As long as we were together, it would be worth it.
We sat like that for a long time, until a discrete knock at the half-open door broke us apart. Lissa stood in the doorway.
"Sorry,' she said, her face shining with joy when she saw me. "Should have put a sock on the door. Didn't realize things were getting hot and heavy.'
"No avoiding it,' I said lightly, clasping Dimitri's hand. "Things are always hot with him around.'
Dimitri looked scandalized. He'd never held back when we were in bed together, but his private nature wouldn't let him even hint about such matters to others. It was mean, but I laughed and kissed his cheek.
"Oh, this is going to be fun,' I said. "Now that everything's out in the open.'
"Yeah,' he said. "I got a pretty "fun' look from your father the other day.' He gave Lissa a quick, knowing glance and then stood up. Leaning down, he kissed the top of my head. "I should go and let you two talk.'
"Will you be back?' I asked as he moved to the door.
He paused and smiled at me, and those dark eyes answered my questions and so much more. "Of course.'
Lissa took his spot, sitting on the bed's edge. She hugged me gingerly, no doubt worried about my injuries. She then scolded me for sitting up, but I didn't care. Happiness surged through me. I was so glad she was okay, so relieved, and--
And I had no idea how she felt.
The bond was gone. And not like during the jail escape, when she'd put the wall up. There was simply nothing there between us. I was with myself, completely and utterly alone, just as I had been years ago. My eyes widened, and she laughed.
"I wondered when you'd notice,' she said.
"How ... how is this possible?' I was frozen and numb. The bond. The bond was gone. I felt like my arm had been amputated. "And how do you know?' She frowned. "Part of it's instinct ... but Adrian saw it. That our auras aren't connected anymore.'
"But how? How could that happen?' I sounded crazy and desperate. The bond couldn't be gone. It couldn't.
"I'm not entirely sure,' she admitted, her frown deepening. "I talked about it a lot with Sonya and, uh, Adrian. We think when I brought you back the first time, it was spirit alone that held you back from the land of the dead and that kept you tied to me. This time ... you nearly died again. Or maybe you did for a moment. Only, you and your body fought your way back. It was you who got out, with no help from spirit. And once that happened ...' She shrugged. "Like I said, we're only guessing. But Sonya thinks once your own strength broke you away, you didn't need any help being pulled back from death. You did it on your own. And when you freed yourself of spirit, you freed yourself from me. You didn't need a bond to keep you with the living.'
It was crazy. Impossible. "But if ... if you're saying I escaped the land of the dead, I'm not, like, immortal or anything, am I?'
Lissa laughed again. "No, we're certain of that. Sonya explained it, saying anything alive can die, and as long as you've got an aura, you're alive. Strigoi are immortal but not alive, so they don't have auras and--'
The world spun. "I'll take your word for it. I think maybe I do need to lie down.'
"That's probably a good idea.'
I gently eased myself onto my back. Desperately needing distraction from what I'd just learned--because it was still too surreal, still impossible to process--I eyed my surroundings. The lush room was bigger than I'd previously realized. It kept going and going, branching into other rooms. It was a suite. Maybe an apartment. I could just make out a living room with leather furniture and a flat screen TV. "Where are we are?'
"In palace housing,' she replied.
"Palace housing? How'd we end up here?'
"How do you think?' she asked dryly.
"I ...' I couldn't work my mouth for a moment. I needed no bond to realize what had happened. Another impossibility had occurred while I'd been out of it. "Crap. They had the election, didn't they? They elected you queen, once Jill was there to stand in for your family.'
She shook her head and almost laughed. "My reaction was a little stronger than "crap,' Rose. Do you have any idea what you've done?'
She looked anxious, stressed, and totally overwhelmed. I wanted to be serious and comforting for her sake ... but I could feel a goofy grin spreading over my face. She groaned.
"Liss, you were meant for this! You're better than any of the other candidates.'
"Rose!' she cried. "Running for queen was supposed to be a diversion. I'm only eighteen.'
"So was Alexandra.'
Lissa shook her head in exasperation. "I'm so sick of hearing about her! She lived centuries ago, you know. I think people died when they were thirty back then. So she was practically middle-aged.' I caught hold of her hand. "You're going to be great. It doesn't matter how old you are. And it's not like you have to call meetings and analyze law books all on your own, you know. I mean, I'm sure not going to do any of that, but there are other smart people. Ariana Szelsky didn't make the last test, but you know she'll help if you ask her to. She's still on the Council, and there are others you can rely on. We just have to find them. I believe in you.'
Lissa sighed and looked down, her hair hanging forward in a curtain. "I know. And part of me is excited, like this will restore my family's honor. I think that's what's saved me from a total breakdown. I didn't want to be queen, but if I have to ... then I'm going to do it right. I feel like ... like I have the world at my fingertips, like I can do so much good. But I'm so afraid of messing up too.' She looked up sharply. "And I'm not giving up on the rest of my life either. I guess I'm going to be the first queen in college.'
"Cool,' I said. "You can IM with the Council from campus. Maybe you can command people to do your homework.'
She apparently didn't think the joke was as funny as I did. "Going back to my family. Rose ... how long did you know about Jill?'
Damn. I'd known this part of the conversation would eventually be coming. I averted my eyes. "Not really that long. We didn't want to stress you until we knew it was real,' I added hastily.
"I can't believe ...' She shook her head. "I just can't believe it.'