Marcella gaped in outrage. "Didn't you just hear who I am? Don't you know who your betters are? I insist you give up your seats.'

The couple still seemed unfazed. "This session is open to everyone, and there weren't assigned seats, last time I checked,' said the woman. "We're entitled to ours as much as you are.'

Marcella turned to the guardian beside her in outrage. He shrugged. His job was to protect her from threats. He wasn't going to oust others from their chairs, particularly when they weren't breaking any rules. Marcella gave a haughty "humph!' before turning sharply and stalking away, no doubt to harass some other poor soul.

"This,' said Adrian, "is going to be delightful.'

Lissa smiled and turned back to studying the rest of the room. As she did, I became aware of something startling. I couldn't tell exactly who was who, but the crowd wasn't composed entirely of royals--as most Council sessions were. There were tons of "commoners,' just like the couple sitting near my friends. Most Moroi didn't bother with Court. They were out in the world, living their lives and trying to survive while the royals pranced around at Court and made laws. But not today. A new leader was going to be chosen, and that was of interest to all Moroi.

The milling and chaos continued for a while until one of the guardians finally declared the room to be at capacity. Those outside were outraged, but their cries were quickly silenced when the guardians closed the doors, sealing off the ballroom. Shortly thereafter, the eleven Council members took their seats, and--to my shock--Adrian's father, Nathan Ivashkov, took the twelfth chair. The Court's herald yelled and called everyone to attention. He was someone who'd been chosen because of his remarkable voice, though I always wondered why they didn't just use a microphone in these situations. More old-world traditions, I supposed. That, and excellent acoustics.

Nathan spoke once the room settled down. "In the absence of our beloved queen ...' He paused looking down mournfully to offer a moment of respect before continuing. In anyone else, I might have suspected his feelings were faked, particularly after seeing him grovel so much in front of Tatiana. But, no. Nathan had loved his prickly aunt as much as Adrian had.

"And in the wake of this terrible tragedy, I will be moderating the upcoming trials and elections.'

"What'd I tell you?' muttered Adrian. He had no fuzzy affection for his father. "De- lightful.'

Nathan droned on a bit about the importance of what was to come and some other points about Moroi tradition. It was obvious, though, that like me, everyone in the room really wanted to get down to the main event: the nominations. He seemed to realize that too and sped up the formalities. Finally, he got to the good stuff.

"Each family, if they choose, may have one nominee for the crown who will take the tests all monarchs have endured since the beginning of time.' I thought that "beginning of time' part was a bold and probably unverified exaggeration, but whatever. "The only exclusion is the Ivashkovs, since back-to-back monarchs from the same family aren't allowed. For candidacy, three nominations are required from Moroi of royal blood and proper age.' He then added some stuff about what happened in the event more than one person was nominated from the same family, but even I knew the chances of that happening were non-existent. Each royal house wanted to get the best advantage here, and that would involve a unified standing behind one candidate.

Satisfied everyone understood, Nathan nodded and gestured grandly to the audience. "Let the nominations begin.'

For a moment, nothing happened. It kind of reminded me of when I'd been back in school, when a teacher would say something like, "Who'd like to present their paper first?' Everyone kind of waited for someone else to get things going, and at last, it happened.

A man I didn't recognize stood up. "I nominate Princess Ariana Szelsky.'

Ariana, as princess, sat on the Council and was an expected choice. She gave a gracious nod to the man. A second man, presumably from their family, also stood and gave the second nomination. The third and final nomination came from another Szelsky--a very unexpected one. He was Ariana's brother, a world traveler who was almost never at Court, and also the man my mother guarded. Janine Hathaway was most likely in this room, I realized. I wished Lissa would look around and find her, but Lissa was too focused on the proceedings. After everything I'd been through, I suddenly had a desperate longing to see my mother.

With three nominations, Nathan declared, "Princess Ariana Szelsky is entered as a candidate.' He scrawled something on a piece of paper in front of him, his motions full of flourish. "Continue.'

After that, the nominations came in rapid succession. Many were princes and princesses, but others were respected--and still high-ranking--members of the families. The Ozera candidate, Ronald, was not the family's Council member, nor was he anyone I knew. "He's not one of Aunt Tasha's "ideal' candidates,' Christian murmured to Lissa. "But she admits he's not a moron.'

I didn't know much about most of the other candidates either. A couple, like Ariana Szelsky, I had a good impression of. There were also a couple I'd always found appalling. The tenth candidate was Rufus Tarus, Daniella's cousin. She'd married into the Ivashkovs from the Tarus family and seemed delighted to see her cousin declared a nominee.

"I don't like him,' said Adrian, making a face. "He's always telling me to do something useful with my life.'

Nathan wrote down Rufus's name and then rolled up the paper like a scroll. Despite the appearance of antique customs, I suspected a secretary in the audience was typing up everything being said here on a laptop.

"Well,' declared Nathan, "that concludes--'

"I nominate Princess Vasilisa Dragomir.'

Lissa's head jerked to the left, and through her eyes, I recognized a familiar figure. Tasha Ozera. She'd stood and spoken the words loudly and confidently, glancing around with those ice-blue eyes as if daring anyone to disagree.

The room froze. No whispers, no shifting in chairs. Just utter and complete silence. Judging from the faces, the Ozera family's nominee was the second-most astonished person in the room to hear Tasha speak. The first, of course, was Lissa herself.

It took a moment for Nathan to get his mouth working. "That's not--'

Beside Lissa, Christian suddenly stood up. "I second the nomination.'

And before Christian had even sat down, Adrian was on his feet. "I confirm the nomination.'

All eyes in the room were on Lissa and her friends, and then, as one, the crowd turned toward Nathan Ivashkov. Again, he seemed to have trouble finding his voice.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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