Dimitri gave Sydney the quickest of glances. "Go lay her down and clean it up. Don't let her sleep until we can figure out if it's a concussion.'
"No, I can't,' I argued. "I can't leave you alone with her ...'
"I'm fine,' he said. "Rest up so that you can help me later. You're no good to me if you're just going to fall over.'
I still protested, but when Sydney gently took my arm, my stumbling gave me away. She led me to the house's one bedroom, much to my dismay. There was something creepy about knowing I was in a Strigoi's bed--even if it was covered with a blue-and- white floral quilt.
"Man,' I said, lying back against the pillow once Sydney had cleaned my forehead. Despite my earlier denial, it felt great to rest. "I can't get used to the weirdness of a Strigoi living in a place so ... normal. How are you holding up?'
"Better than you guys,' said Sydney. She wrapped her arms around herself and eyed the room uncomfortably. "Being around Strigoi is starting to make you guys seem not so bad.'
"Well, at least some good's come out of this,' I remarked. Despite her joke, I knew she had to be terrified. I started to close my eyes and was jolted awake when Sydney poked my arm.
"No sleep,' she chastised. "Stay up and talk to me.'
"It's not a concussion,' I muttered. "But I suppose we can go over plans to get Sonya to talk.'
Sydney sat at the foot of the bed and grimaced. "No offense? But I don't think she's going to crack.'
"She will once she's gone a few days without blood.'
Sydney blanched. "A few days?'
"Well, whatever it takes to--' A spike of emotion flitted through the bond, and I froze. Sydney jumped up, her eyes darting around as though a group of Strigoi might have burst into the room.
"What's wrong?' she exclaimed. "I have to go to Lissa.'
"You're not supposed to sleep--'
"It's not sleeping,' I said bluntly. And with that, I jumped away from Sonya's bedroom and into Lissa's perspective.
She was riding in a van with five other people whom I immediately recognized as other royal nominees. It was an eight-person van and also included a guardian driver with another in the passenger seat who was looking back at Lissa and her companions.
"Each of you will be dropped off in a separate location on the outskirts of a forest and given a map and compass. The ultimate goal is for you to reach the destination on the map and wait out the daylight until we come for you.'
Lissa and the other nominees exchanged glances and then, almost as one, peered out the van's windows. It was almost noon, and the sunlight was pouring down. "Waiting out the daylight' was not going to be pleasant but didn't sound impossible. Idly, she scratched at a small bandage on her arm and quickly stopped herself. I read from her thoughts what it was: a tiny, barely noticeable dot tattooed into her skin. It was actually similar to Sydney's: blood and earth, mixed with compulsion. Compulsion might be taboo among Moroi, but this was a special situation. The spell in the tattoo prevented the candidates from revealing the monarch tests to others not involved with the process. This was the first test.
"What kind of terrain are you sending us to?' demanded Marcus Lazar. "We're not all in the same physical shape. It's not fair when some of us have an advantage.' His eyes were on Lissa as he spoke.
"There is a lot of walking,' said the guardian, face serious. "But it's nothing that any candidate--of any age--shouldn't be able to handle. And, to be honest, part of the requirements for a king or queen is a certain amount of stamina. Age brings wisdom, but a monarch needs to be healthy. Not an athlete by any means,' added the guardian quickly, seeing Marcus start to open his mouth. "But it's no good for the Moroi to have a sickly monarch elected who dies within a year. Harsh, but true. And you also need to be able to endure uncomfortable situations. If you can't handle a day in the sun, you can't handle a Council meeting.' I think he intended that as a joke, but it was hard to tell since he didn't smile. "It's not a race, though. Take your time getting to the end if you need it. Marked along the map are spots where certain items are hidden--items that'll make this more bearable, if you can decipher the clues.'
"Can we use our magic?' asked Ariana Szelsky. She wasn't young either, but she looked tough and ready to accept a challenge of endurance.
"Yes, you can,' said the guardian solemnly.
"Are we in danger out there?' asked another candidate, Ronald Ozera. "Aside from the sun?'
"That,' said the guardian mysteriously, "is something you'll need to learn for yourselves. But, if at any time you want out ...' He produced a bag of cell phones and distributed them. Maps and compasses followed. "Call the programmed number, and we'll come for you.'
Nobody had to ask about the hidden message behind that. Calling the number would get you out of the long day of endurance. It would also mean you'd failed the test and were out of the running for the throne. Lissa glanced at her phone, half-surprised there was even a signal. They'd left Court about an hour ago and were well into the countryside. A line of trees made Lissa think they were nearing their destination.
So. A test of physical endurance. It wasn't quite what she'd expected. The trials a monarch went through had long been shrouded in mystery, gaining an almost mystical reputation. This one was pretty practical, and Lissa could understand the reasoning, even if Marcus didn't. It truly wasn't an athletic competition, and the guardian had a point in saying that the future monarch should possess a certain level of fitness. Glancing at the back of her map, which listed the clues, Lissa realized this would also test their reasoning skills. All very basic stuff--but essential to ruling a nation.
The van dropped them off one by one at different starting points. With each departing candidate, Lissa's anxiety grew. There's nothing to worry about, she thought. I've just got to sit through a sunny day. She was the next to last person dropped off, with only Ariana remaining behind. Ariana patted Lissa's arm as the van door opened.
"Good luck, dear.'
Lissa gave her a quick smile. These tests might all be a ruse on Lissa's part, but Ariana was the real deal, and Lissa prayed the older woman could get through this successfully.
Left alone as the van drove away, unease spread through Lissa. The simple endurance test suddenly seemed much more daunting and difficult. She was on her own, something that didn't happen very often. I'd been there for most of her life, and even when I'd left, she'd had friends around her. But now? It was just her, the map, and the cell phone. And the cell phone was her enemy.
She walked to the edge of the forest and studied her map. A drawing of a large oak tree marked the beginning, with directions to go northwest. Scanning the trees, Lissa saw three maples, a fir, and--an oak. Heading toward it, she couldn't help a smile. If anyone else had botanical landmarks and didn't know their plants and trees, they could lose candidacy right there.