"I'm so tired of this,' Lissa told Christian, back in her room. She'd sought escape there and was lying on her bed in his arms. My mom was there, on guard. "This queen thing was a horrible idea.'
Christian stroked her hair. "It's not. Abe said the election will be delayed because of the uproar. And no matter how much you complain, I know you're proud you made it this far.'
It was true. The chalice test had cut the nominees in half. Only five remained. Ariana Szelsky was one of them, as was Daniella's cousin, Rufus Tarus. Lissa was the third, with Marcus Lazar and Marie Conta rounding out the group. Ronald Ozera hadn't made it through.
My mother spoke up. "I've never seen anything like this--it's incredible how much support you're getting. The Council and other royals are under no obligations to change the law. But the mob's loud ... and gaining the love of "commoners' could benefit certain royals. Standing by your claim to run would certainly reflect well on a couple families that are out of favor. What's holding them back is the thought that you might actually win. So they'll just keep arguing and arguing.'
Lissa stiffened. "Winning ... that's not really possible, is it? Ariana's got it sealed ... right?' Winning had never been a part of this crazy plan, and now, with so few candidates, the pressure was even greater to get Ariana on the throne. As far as Lissa was concerned, the other candidates showed no promise of improving Moroi life. Ariana had to win.
"I'd say so,' said Janine. There was pride in her voice, seeing how close she was to the Szelsky family. "Ariana's brilliant and competent, and most people know it. She'd treat dhampirs fairly--more so than some of the other candidates. She's already spoken about reversing the age law.'
The thought of worse laws oppressing the dhampirs made Lissa's stomach sink. "God, I hope she wins. We can't have anything else go wrong.'
A knock at the door snapped my mom into full guardian mode until Lissa said, "It's Adrian.'
"Well,' muttered Christian, "at least his timing's better than usual.'
Sure enough, my boyfriend entered, wreathed in his now usual scent of smoke and liquor. True, his vices were the least of my concerns, but it kept bugging me that he needed me to be there in person to enforce his good behavior. It reminded me of when he said I was his strength.
"Get up, guys,' he said. He looked very pleased with himself. "We've got a visit to pay.' Lissa sat up, puzzled. "What are you talking about?'
"I am not hanging out with Blake Lazar again,' warned Christian.
"You and me both,' said Adrian. "I've got someone better. And more attractive. Remember how you were wondering how close Serena was to Grant? Well, looks like you can ask her yourself. I found her. And yes, you're welcome.'
A frown crossed my mother's face. "Last I heard, Serena had been sent away to teach at a school. One on the east coast, I think.' After the Strigoi attack that had killed Grant and several others, the guardians had decided to pull Serena from active bodyguard duty for a while. She'd been the only guardian to survive.
"She is, but since it's summer, they brought her back to help with election crowd control. She's working the front gates.'
Lissa and Christian exchanged looks. "We have to talk to her,' said Lissa excitedly. "She might have known who Grant was secretly teaching.'
"That doesn't mean one of them killed Tatiana,' warned my mother.
Lissa nodded. "No, but there's a connection, if Ambrose's letter is right. She's there now? At the gates?'
"Yup,' said Adrian. "And we probably don't even need to buy her a drink.'
"Then let's go.' Lissa stood and reached for her shoes.
"Are you sure?' asked Christian. "You know what's waiting out there.'
Lissa hesitated. It was late at "night' for Moroi, but that didn't mean everyone was in bed--especially at the gates, which was always jam-packed with people lately. Clearing my name was too important, Lissa decided. "Yeah. Let's do it.'
With my mother leading the way, my friends made their way to the Court's entrance. (The "door' that Abe had made had been patched up.) The Court was surrounded in high, multicolored stone walls that helped further the human image that this was actually an elite school. Wrought iron gates at the entrance stood open, but a group of guardians blocked the road leading into Court grounds. Normally, only two guardians would have manned the booth at the gate. The extra numbers were both for greater interrogation of cars and for crowd control. Spectators lined the road's sides, watching the arriving cars as though they were at a red carpet premiere. Janine knew a roundabout way that avoided some people--but not all.
"Don't cringe,' Christian told Lissa as they passed a particularly vocal group, which had noticed her. "You're a queenly nominee. Act like it. You deserve this. You're the last Dragomir. A daughter of royalty.'
Lissa gave him a brief, astonished look, surprised to hear the fierceness in his voice-- and that he clearly believed his words. Straightening up, she turned toward her fans, smiling and waving back, which excited them that much more. Take this seriously, she reminded herself. Don't disgrace our history.
In the end, getting through the crowd to the gate proved easier than getting time alone with Serena. The guardians were swamped and insisted on keeping Serena for screening, but my mom had a quick conversation with the guardian in charge. She reminded him of Lissa's importance and offered to stand in for Serena for a few minutes. Serena had long since healed from the Strigoi attack. She was my age, blond-haired and pretty. She was clearly surprised to see her former charge. "Princess,' she said, maintaining formalities. "How can I help you?'
Lissa pulled Serena away from the cluster of guardians speaking to the Moroi drivers lined up at the gate. "You can call me Lissa. You know that. You taught me to stab pillows, after all.'
Serena gave her a small smile. "Things have changed. You might be our next queen.'
Lissa grimaced. "Unlikely.' Especially since I have no clue how to solve that riddle, she thought. "But I do need your help. You and Grant spent a lot of time together ... did he ever mention training Moroi for Tatiana? Like, secret combat sessions?'
Serena's face gave the answer away, and she averted her eyes. "I'm not supposed to talk about that. He wasn't even supposed to tell me.'
Lissa gripped the young guardian's arm in excitement, making Serena flinch. "You have to tell me what you know. Anything. Who he was training ... how they felt about it ... who was successful. Anything.'
Serena paled. "I can't,' she whispered. "It was done in secret. On the queen's orders.'