"Where's Robert?' asked Sonya.

Dimitri glanced down at Victor and then promptly looked away. "Unconscious, hidden in some bushes around the corner.' "Charming,' said Sonya. "Do you think that's smart? Leaving him?'

He shrugged. "I figured I shouldn't be seen carrying an unconscious guy in my arms. In fact ... yes, I think we should just leave him there. He'll wake up. He's not a fugitive. And without Victor, he's ... well, not harmless. But less harmful. We can't keep dragging him with us anyway.'

I laughed again, that laugh that seemed unhinged and hysterical even to me. "He's unconscious. Of course. Of course. You can do that. You can do the right thing. Not me.' I looked down at Victor. ""An animal,' he said. He was right. No higher reasoning ...' I wrapped my arms around myself, my fingernails digging into my skin so hard they drew blood. Physical pain to make the mental pain go away. Wasn't that what Lissa had always said?

Dimitri stared at me and then turned to Sonya. "What's wrong?' he demanded. I'd seen him risk his life over and over, but never, until now, had he truly looked afraid. "Spirit,' said Sonya. "She's pulled and pulled for so long ... and managed to hold it back. It's been waiting, though. Always waiting ...' She frowned slightly, maybe realizing she was starting to sound like me. She turned to Jill. "Is that silver?'

Jill looked down at the heart-shaped locket around her neck. "I think so.'

"Can I have it?'

Jill undid the clasp and passed it over. Sonya held it between her palms and closed her eyes a moment, pursing her lips. A few seconds later, her eyes opened, and she handed me the locket. "Put it on.'

Just touching it gave me a strange tingling in my skin. "The heart ...' I looked at Dimitri as I fastened the clasp. "Do you remember that? "Where's the heart?' you asked. And here it is. Here it ...'

I stopped. The world suddenly became crisper. My jumbled thoughts slowly began to move back together, forming some semblance of rationality. I stared at my companions--the living ones--truly seeing them now. I touched the locket.

"This is a healing charm.'

Sonya nodded. "I didn't know if it'd work on the mind. I don't think it's a permanent fix ... but between it and your own will, you'll be okay for a while.'

I tried not to focus on those last words. For a while. Instead, I tried to make sense of the world around me. Of the body in front of me.

"What have I done?' I whispered.

Jill put her arm around me, but it was Dimitri who spoke.

"What you had to.'

Chapter Twenty-nine

THE EVENTS THAT FOLLOWED were a blur. Sonya might have kept spirit's touch at bay, but it didn't matter. I was still in shock, still unable to think. They put me in the front seat, as far from Victor as possible. Dimitri drove us somewhere--I didn't pay much attention--where he and Sonya disposed of the body. They didn't say what they did, only that it was "taken care of.' I didn't ask for details. After that, we were back and headed toward Court. Sonya and Dimitri tossed around options on what to do when we got there. Seeing as no one had yet cleared my name, the current plan was that Sonya would have to escort Jill into Court. Jill asked if she could call her parents to let them know she was okay, but Dimitri felt that was a security risk. Sonya said she'd try to reach Emily in a dream, which made Jill feel a little better.

I coped during the drive by checking in on Lissa. Focusing on her took me away from the horrible guilt and emptiness I felt, the horror at what I'd done to Victor. When I was with Lissa, I wasn't me, and just then, that was my greatest desire. I didn't want to be me.

But things weren't perfect for her either. Like always, a number of issues were weighing her down. She felt close--so, so close--to unraveling who had killed Tatiana. The answer seemed within her grasp, if only she could reach just a little farther. The guardians had dragged Joe the janitor in, and after a fair amount of coercion--they had methods that didn't require magical compulsion--he'd admitted to having seen the twisted-handed Moroi in my building on the night of the murder. No amount of pushing would get Joe to admit he had been paid off--by either the man or Daniella. The most he'd admit was that he might have been "a little off' in his times that night. It was by no means hard evidence to save me.

Lissa had Ambrose's letter too, which had subtly threatened Tatiana. The writer had opposed the age law for being soft, disapproved of Tatiana's endorsement of spirit, and resented the secret training sessions. The letter might have been perfectly polite, but whoever penned it had had a serious grudge against the queen. That supported the political motive theories.

Of course, there were still lots of personal motives for the murder too. The sordid mess with Ambrose, Blake, and the women involved pegged any of them as the murderer. Daniella Ivashkov being on that list was a constant point of stress for Lissa, and she dared not breathe a word to Adrian. The saving grace there was that Daniella's bribery had been to get Adrian out of trouble--not solidify my guilt. The unknown Moroi had funded that bribe. Surely, if she had killed Tatiana, Daniella would have paid for both of Joe's lies.

And of course, there was the last test pressing against Lissa's mind. The riddle. The riddle that seemed to have so many answers--and yet, none at all.What must a queen possess in order to truly rule her people? In some ways, it was more difficult than the other tests. Those had had a hands-on component, so to speak. This? This was her own intellect. No fire to build. No fear to look in the eye.

She hated that she took the riddle so seriously too. She didn't need its stress, not with everything else going on. Life would have been simpler if she'd kept treating the trials simply as a scam to buy us time. The Court was continually swelling with those who had come to see the election, and more and more of them--much to her disbelief--were throwing their support behind her. She could hardly walk anywhere without people calling out about "the Dragon' or "Alexandra reborn.' Word of her attack had gotten out too, which seemed to have fueled her supporters even more.

But, of course, Lissa still had plenty of opposition. The biggest case against her was the same old legal one: that she wouldn't be eligible for votes when the time came. Another mark against her was her age. She was too young, her opponents said. Who would want a child on the throne? But Lissa's admirers wouldn't hear any of it. They kept citing young Alexandra's rule and the miracles Lissa had wrought with her healing. Age was irrelevant. The Moroi needed young blood, they cried. They also demanded the voting laws be changed.

Unsurprisingly, her opponents also kept bringing up the fact that she was tied to a queen-killing murderer. I'd have thought that would have been the biggest issue in her candidacy, but she'd been so convincing about how I'd shocked and betrayed her that many felt her being queen would actually right the wrong I'd committed. She'd used bits of compulsion whenever the topic came up, which also went a long way in making others think she was now completely dissociated from me.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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