"That,' said Alberta, speaking up at last, "is true.'

Hans didn't contradict her but still wasn't buying my friends' innocence. "You realize, if you're caught concealing information--or aiding her--you'll face consequences almost as serious as hers. All of you. Royalty doesn't exempt you from treason.'

Lissa lowered her gaze, as though his threat had frightened her. "I just can't believe ... I just can't believe she'd do this. She was my friend. I thought I knew her. I didn't think she could do any of these things ... I never thought she'd murder anyone.' If not for the feelings in the bond, I might have taken offense. I knew the truth, though. She was acting, trying to distance herself from me. It was smart.

"Really? Because not long ago, you were swearing up and down that she was innocent,' pointed out Hans.

Lissa looked back up and widened her eyes. "I thought she was! But then ... then I heard about what she did to those guardians in the escape ...' Her distress wasn't entirely faked this time. She still needed to act like she thought I was guilty, but the news of Meredith's condition had reached her--which truly had shocked her. That made two of us, but at least I now knew Meredith was okay. Hans still looked skeptical at Lissa's change of heart but let it go. "What about Belikov? You swore he wasn't a Strigoi anymore, but obviously something went wrong there as well.'

Christian stirred beside Lissa. As an advocate for Dimitri, Christian grew as irritated as us at the suspicions and accusations. Lissa spoke before Christian could say anything.

"He's not Strigoi!' Lissa's remorse over me vanished, her old, fierce defense of Dimitri kicking in. She hadn't expected this line of questioning about him. She'd been preparing herself to defend me and her alibi. Hans seemed pleased at the reaction and watched her closely.

"Then how do you explain his involvement?'

"It wasn't because he was Strigoi,' said Lissa, forcing her control back. Her heart was pounding rapidly. "He changed back. There's no Strigoi left.'

"But he attacked a number of guardians--on more than one occasion.'

It looked like Tasha wanted to interrupt now and defend Dimitri as well, but she visibly bit her lip. It was remarkable. The Ozeras liked to speak their minds, not always tactfully.

"It wasn't because he was Strigoi,' Lissa repeated. "And he didn't kill any of those guardians. Not one. Rose did what she did ... well, I don't know why. She hated Tatiana, I guess. Everyone knew that. But Dimitri ... I'm telling you, being Strigoi had nothing to do with this. He helped her because he used to be her teacher. He thought she was in trouble.'

"That was pretty extreme for a teacher, particularly one who--before turning Strigoi-- was known for being level-headed and rational.'

"Yeah, but he wasn't thinking rationally because--'

Lissa cut herself off, suddenly caught in a bad situation. Hans seemed to have realized quickly in this conversation that if Lissa was involved with recent events--and I don't think he was certain yet--she would have an airtight alibi. Talking to her, however, had given him the chance to pursue another puzzle in my escape: Dimitri's involvement. Dimitri had sacrificed himself to take the fall, even if it meant others not trusting him again. Lissa thought she'd made people think his actions were a former teacher's protective instinct, but apparently, not everyone was buying that.

"He wasn't thinking rationally because?' prompted Hans, eyes sharp. Before the murder, Hans had believed Dimitri truly had become a dhampir again. Something told me he still believed that but sensed there was something big dangling before him.

Lissa stayed silent. She didn't want people thinking Dimitri was Strigoi. She wanted people to believe in her powers to restore the undead. But if Dimitri helping a student didn't seem convincing enough to others, all that mistrust might surface again.

Glancing at her interrogators, Lissa suddenly met Alberta's eyes. The older guardian said nothing. She wore that neutral, scrutinizing expression that guardians excelled at. She also had an air of wisdom about her, and Lissa briefly allowed spirit to show her Alberta's aura. It had good, steady colors and energy, and in Alberta's eyes, Lissa swore she could see a message, a knowing glint.

Tell them, the message seemed to say. It'll create problems--but they won't be as bad as your current ones. Lissa held that gaze, wondering if she was just projecting her own thoughts onto Alberta. It didn't matter who'd come up with the idea. Lissa knew it was right.

"Dimitri helped Rose because ... because they were involved.'

As I'd guessed, Alberta wasn't surprised, and she seemed relieved to have the truth out there. Hans and Steele, however, were very surprised. I had only seen Hans shocked a few times.

"When you say "involved,' do you mean ...' He paused to structure his words. "Do you mean romantically involved?'

Lissa nodded, feeling horrible. She'd revealed a big secret here, one she'd sworn she'd keep for me, but I didn't blame her. Not in this situation. Love--I hoped--would defend Dimitri's actions.

"He loved her,' said Lissa. "She loved him. If he helped her escape--'

"He did help her escape,' interrupted Hans. "He attacked guardians and blew up priceless, centuries-old statues brought over from Europe!'

Lissa shrugged. "Well, like I said. He wasn't acting rationally. He wanted to help her and probably thought she was innocent. He would have done anything for her--and it had nothing to do with Strigoi.'

"Love only justifies so much.' Hans clearly wasn't a romantic.

"Shes underage!' exclaimed Steele. That part hadn't escaped him.

"She's eighteen,' corrected Lissa.

Hans cut her a look. "I can do the math, princess. Unless they managed some beautiful, touching romance in the last few weeks--while he was mostly in isolation-- then there were things going on at your school that someone should have reported.'

Lissa said nothing, but from the corner of her eye, she could see Tasha and Christian. They were trying to keep their expressions neutral, but it was obvious this news wasn't a surprise to them, no doubt confirming Hans's suspicions that illicit things had been going on. I actually hadn't realized Tasha knew about Dimitri and me and felt a little bad. Had she known that part of his rejection of her had been because of me? And if she knew, how many others did? Christian had probably tipped her off, but something told me more people were probably starting to find out as well. After the school's attack, my reaction had likely been a big clue about my feelings for Dimitri. Maybe telling Hans now wasn't so big a deal after all. The secret wouldn't be a secret much longer.

Alberta cleared her throat, speaking up at last. "I think we have more important things to worry about right now than some romance that may or may not have happened.'

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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