Naturally, we didn't tell the Keepers our exact plans, but we did mention we'd likely be encountering Strigoi--which caused quite a reaction. Most of that reaction was excitement and awe, which continued to boost our reputations as fierce warriors. Angeline's response, however, was totally unexpected.

"Take me with you,' she said, grabbing a hold of my arm, just as I started down the forest path toward the car.

"Sorry,' I said, still a little weirded out after her earlier hostility. "We have to do this alone.'

"I can help! You beat me ... but you saw what I can do. I'm good. I could take a Strigoi.'

For all her fierceness, I knew Angeline didn't have a clue about what she'd be facing if she ever met an actual Strigoi. The few Keepers who bore molnijamarks spoke little about the encounters, faces grave. They understood. Angeline didn't. She also didn't realize that any novice at St. Vladimir's in the secondary school could probably take her out. She had raw potential, true, but it needed a lot of work.

"You might be able to,' I said, not wanting to hurt her feelings. "But it's just not possible for you to come with us.' I would have lied and given her a vague "Maybe sometime,' but since that had led Joshua to thinking we were semi-engaged, I decided I'd better not.

I expected more boasts about her battle prowess. We'd learned she was regarded as one of the best young fighters in the compound, and with her pretty looks, she had plenty of admirers too. A lot of it had gone to her head, and she liked to talk about how she could beat anyone or anything up. Again, I was reminded of Jill. Jill also had a lot to learn about the true meaning of battle but was still eager to jump in. She was quieter and more cautious than Angeline, though, so Angeline's next direction caught me off guard.

"Please. It's not just the Strigoi! I want to see the world. I need to see something else outside of this place!' Her voice was pitched low, out of the range of the others. "I've only been to Rubysville twice, and they say that's nothing compared to other cities.'

"It's not,' I agreed. I didn't even consider it a city. "Please,' she begged again, this time her voice trembling. "Take me with you.'

Suddenly, I felt sad for her. Her brother had also shown a little longing for the outside world, but nothing like this. He'd joked that electricity would be nice, but I knew he was happy enough without the perks of the modern world. But for Angeline, the situation was much more desperate. I too knew what it was like to feel trapped in one's life and was legitimately sorry for what I had to say.

"I can't, Angeline. We have to go on our own. I'm sorry. I really am.'

Her blue eyes shimmered, and she raced off into the woods before I could see her cry. I felt horrible after that and couldn't stop thinking about her as we made our farewells. I was so distracted, I even let Joshua hug me goodbye.

Getting back on the road was a relief. I was glad to be away from the Keepers and was ready to spring into action and start helping Lissa. Lexington was our first step. We had a six-hour drive ahead of us, and Sydney, per usual, seemed adamant that no one else was going to drive her car. Dimitri and I made futile protests, finally giving up when we realized that if we were going to be facing Strigoi soon, it was probably best we rest and conserve our strength. The address for Donovan--the Strigoi who allegedly knew Sonya--was only where he could be found at night. That meant we had to make it to Lexington before sunrise, so we wouldn't lose him when he went to his daytime lair. It also meant we'd be meeting Strigoi in the dark. Certain that little would happen on the drive--especially once we were out of West Virginia--Dimitri and I agreed we could doze a little, seeing as neither of us had had a full night's sleep.

Even though the lulling of the car was soothing, I drifted in and out of restless sleep. After a few hours of this, I simply settled into the trancelike state that brought me to Lissa. It was a good thing too: I'd stumbled into one of the biggest events facing the Moroi. The nomination process to elect the new king or queen was about to begin. It was the first of many steps, and everyone was excited, given how rare monarch elections truly were. This was an event none of my friends had expected to see anytime soon in our lives, and considering recent events ... well, we all had especial interest. The future of the Moroi was at stake here.

Lissa was sitting on the edge of a chair in one of the royal ballrooms, a huge sweeping space with vaulted ceilings and gold detailing everywhere. I'd been in this dazzling room before, with its murals and elaborate molding. Chandeliers glittered above. It had held the graduate luncheon, where newly made guardians put on their best faces and hoped to attract a good assignment. Now, the room was arranged like the Council chamber, with a long table on one side of the room that was set with twelve chairs. Opposite that table were rows and rows of other chairs--where the audience sat when the Council was in session. Except, now there were about four times as many chairs as usual, which probably explained the need for this room. Every single chair was filled. In fact, people were even standing, crowding in as best they could. Agitated- looking guardians moved among the herd, keeping them out of doorways and making sure the bystanders were arranged in a way that allowed for optimal security.

Christian sat on one side of Lissa, and Adrian sat beside Christian. To my pleasant surprise, Eddie and Mia sat nearby too. Mia was a Moroi friend of ours who had gone to St. Vladimir's and was nearly as hardcore as Tasha about Moroi needing to defend themselves. My beloved father was nowhere in sight. None of them spoke. Conversation would have been difficult among the buzzing and humming of so many people, and besides, my friends were too awestruck by what was about to happen. There was so much to see and experience, and none of them had realized just how big the crowd would be. Abe had said things would move fast once Tatiana was buried, and they certainly had.

"Do you know who I am?'

A loud voice caught Lissa's attention, just barely carrying above the din. Lissa glanced down the row, a few seats away from Adrian. Two Moroi, a man and a woman, sat side by side and were looking up at a very angry woman. Her hands were on her hips, and the pink velvet dress she wore seemed outlandish next to the couple's jeans and T-shirts. It also wasn't going to hold up so well once she stepped outside of air conditioning.

A glare twisted her face. "I am Marcella Badica.' When that didn't get a reaction from the couple, she added, "Prince Badica is my brother, and our late queen was my third cousin twice removed. There are no seats left, and someone like me cannot stand against the wall with the rest of that mob.'

The couple exchanged glances. "I guess you should have gotten here earlier, Lady Badica,' said the man.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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