Monday, January 13, 2020

Last Sacrifice Chapter Two

AS ALWAYS, IT WAS DISORIENTING. Faces and skulls, translucent and luminescent, all hovered around me. They were drawn to me, swarming in a cloud as though they all desperately needed to say something. And really, they probably did. The ghosts that lingered in this world were restless, souls who had reasons that kept them from moving on. When Lissa had brought me back from the dead, I'd kept a connection to their world. It had taken a lot of work and self-control to learn to block out the phantoms that followed me. The magical wards that protected the Moroi Court actually kept most ghosts away from me, but this time, I wanted them here. Giving them that access, drawing them in †¦ well, it was a dangerous thing. Something told me that if ever there was a restless spirit, it would be a queen who had been murdered in her own bed. I saw no familiar faces among this group but didn't give up hope. â€Å"Tatiana,' I murmured, focusing my thoughts on the dead queen's face. â€Å"Tatiana, come to me.' I had once been able to summon one ghost easily: my friend Mason, who'd been killed by Strigoi. While Tatiana and I weren't as close as Mason and I had been, we certainly had a connection. For a while, nothing happened. The same blur of faces swirled before me in the cell, and I began to despair. Then, all of a sudden, she was there. She stood in the clothes she'd been murdered in, a long nightgown and robe covered in blood. Her colors were muted, flickering like a malfunctioning TV screen. Nonetheless, the crown on her head and regal stance gave her the same queenly air I remembered. Once she materialized, she said and did nothing. She simply stared at me, her dark gaze practically piercing my soul. A tangle of emotions tightened in my chest. That gut reaction I always got around Tatiana–anger and resentment–flared up. Then, it was muddled by a surprising wave of sympathy. No one's life should end the way hers had. I hesitated, afraid the guards would hear me. Somehow, I had a feeling the volume of my voice didn't matter, and none of them could see what I saw. I held up the note. â€Å"Did you write this?' I breathed. â€Å"Is it true?' She continued to stare. Mason's ghost had behaved similarly. Summoning the dead was one thing; communicating with them was a whole other matter. â€Å"I have to know. If there is another Dragomir, I'll find them.' No point in drawing attention to the fact that I was in no position to find anything or anyone. â€Å"But you have to tell me. Did you write this letter? Is it true?' Only that maddening gaze answered me. My frustration grew, and the pressure of all those spirits began to give me a headache. Apparently, Tatiana was as annoying in death as she had been in life. I was about to bring my walls back and push the ghosts away when Tatiana made the smallest of movements. It was a tiny nod, barely noticeable. Her hard eyes then shifted down to the note in my hand, and just like that–she was gone. I slammed my barriers back up, using all my will to close myself off from the dead. The headache didn't disappear, but those faces did. I sank back on the bed and stared at the note without seeing it. There was my answer. The note was real. Tatiana had written it. Somehow, I doubted her ghost had any reason to lie. Stretching out, I rested my head on the pillow and waited for that terrible throbbing to go away. I closed my eyes and used the spirit bond to return and see what Lissa had been doing. Since my arrest, she'd been busy pleading and arguing on my behalf, so I expected to find more of the same. Instead she was †¦ dress shopping. I was almost offended at my best friend's frivolity until I realized she was looking for a funeral dress. She was in one of the Court's tucked away stores, one that catered to royal families. To my surprise, Adrian was with her. Seeing his familiar, handsome face eased some of the fear in me. A quick probe of her mind told me why he was here: she'd talked him into coming because she didn't want him left alone. I could understand why. He was completely drunk. It was a wonder he could stand, and in fact, I strongly suspected the wall he leaned against was all that held him up. His brown hair was a mess–and not in the purposeful way he usually styled it. His deep green eyes were bloodshot. Like Lissa, Adrian was a spirit user. He had an ability she didn't yet: he could visit people's dreams. I'd expected him to come to me since my imprisonment, and now it made sense why he hadn't. Alcohol stunted spirit. In some ways, that was a good thing. Excessive spirit created a darkness that drove its users insane. But spending life perpetually drunk wasn't all that healthy either. Seeing him through Lissa's eyes triggered emotional confusion nearly as intense as what I'd experienced with Tatiana. I felt bad for him. He was obviously worried and upset about me, and the startling events this last week had blindsided him as much as the rest of us. He'd also lost his aunt whom, despite her brusque attitude, he'd cared for. Yet, in spite of all this, I felt †¦ scorn. That was unfair, perhaps, but I couldn't help it. I cared about him so much and understood him being upset, but there were better ways of dealing with his loss. His behavior was almost cowardly. He was hiding from his problems in a bottle, something that went against every piece of my nature. Me? I couldn't let my problems win without a fight. â€Å"Velvet,' the shopkeeper told Lissa with certainty. The wizened Moroi woman held up a voluminous, long-sleeved gown. â€Å"Velvet is traditional in the royal escort.' Along with the rest of the fanfare, Tatiana's funeral would have a ceremonial escort walking alongside the coffin, with a representative from each family there. Apparently, no one minded that Lissa fill that role for her family. But voting? That was another matter. Lissa eyed the dress. It looked more like a Halloween costume than a funeral gown. â€Å"It's ninety degrees out,' said Lissa. â€Å"And humid.' â€Å"Tradition demands sacrifice,' the woman said melodramatically. â€Å"As does tragedy.' Adrian opened his mouth, undoubtedly ready with some inappropriate and mocking comment. Lissa gave him a sharp headshake that kept him quiet. â€Å"Aren't there any, I don't know, sleeveless options?' The saleswoman's eyes widened. â€Å"No one has ever worn straps to a royal funeral. It wouldn't be right.' â€Å"What about shorts?' asked Adrian. â€Å"Are they okay if they're with a tie? Because that's what I was gonna go with.' The woman looked horrified. Lissa shot Adrian a look of disdain, not so much because of the remark–which she found mildly amusing–but because she too was disgusted by his constant state of intoxication. â€Å"Well, no one treats me like a full-fledged royal,' said Lissa, turning back to the dresses. â€Å"No reason to act like one now. Show me your straps and short-sleeves.' The saleswoman grimaced but complied. She had no problem advising royals on fashion but wouldn't dare order them to do or wear anything. It was part of the class stratification of our world. The woman walked across the store to find the requested dresses, just as Lissa's boyfriend and his aunt entered the shop. Christian Ozera, I thought, was who Adrian should have been acting like. The fact that I could even think like that was startling. Times had certainly changed from when I held Christian up as a role model. But it was true. I'd watched him with Lissa this last week, and Christian had been determined and steadfast, doing whatever he could to help her in the wake of Tatiana's death and my arrest. From the look on his face now, it was obvious he had something important to relay. His outspoken aunt, Tasha Ozera, was another study in strength and grace under pressure. She'd raised him after his parents had turned Strigoi–and had attacked her, leaving Tasha with scarring on one side of her face. Moroi had always relied on guardians for defense, but after that attack, Tasha had decided to take matters into her own hands. She'd learned to fight, training with all sorts of hand-to-hand methods and weapons. She was really quite a badass and constantly pushed for other Moroi to learn combat too. Lissa let go of a dress she'd been examining and turned to Christian eagerly. After me, there was no one else she trusted more in the world. He'd been her rock throughout all of this. He looked around the store, not appearing overly thrilled to be surrounded by dresses. â€Å"You guys are shopping?' he asked, glancing from Lissa to Adrian. â€Å"Getting in a little girl time?' â€Å"Hey, you'd benefit from a wardrobe change,' said Adrian. â€Å"Besides, I bet you'd look great in a halter top.' Lissa ignored the guys' banter and focused on the Ozeras. â€Å"What did you find out?' â€Å"They've decided not to take action,' said Christian. His lips curled in disdain. â€Å"Well, not any punishment kind of action.' Tasha nodded. â€Å"We're trying to push the idea that he just thought Rose was in danger and jumped in before he realized what was actually happening.' My heart stopped. Dimitri. They were talking about Dimitri. For a moment, I was no longer with Lissa. I was no longer in my cell. Instead, I was back to the day of my arrest. I'd been arguing with Dimitri in a cafe, scolding him for his continued refusal to talk to me, let alone continue our former relationship. I'd decided then that I was done with him, that things were truly over and that I wouldn't let him keep tearing my heart apart. That was when the guardians had come for me, and no matter what Dimitri claimed about his Strigoi-time making him unable to love, he had reacted with lightning speed in my defense. We'd been hopelessly outnumbered, but he hadn't cared. The look on his face–and my own uncanny understanding of him–had told me all I needed to know. I was facing a threat. He had to defend me. And defend me he had. He'd fought like the god he'd been back at St. Vladimir's Academy, when he'd taught me how to battle Strigoi. He incapacitated more guardians in that cafe than one man should have been able to. The only thing that had ended it– and I truly believe he would have fought until his last breath–had been my intervention. I hadn't known at the time what was going on or why a legion of guardians would want to arrest me. But I had realized that Dimitri was in serious danger of harming his already fragile status around Court. A Strigoi being restored was unheard of, and many still didn't trust him. I'd begged Dimitri to stop, more afraid of what would happen to him than me. Little had I known what was in store for me. He'd come to my hearing–under guard–but neither Lissa nor I had seen him since. Lissa had been working hard to clear him of any wrongdoing, fearing they'd lock him up again. And me? I'd been trying to tell myself not to over-think what he had done. My arrest and potential execution took precedence. Yet †¦ I still wondered. Why had he done it? Why had he risked his life for mine? Was it an instinctive reaction to a threat? Had he done it as a favor to Lissa, whom he'd sworn to help in return for freeing him? Or had he truly done it because he still had feelings for me? I still didn't know the answer, but seeing him like that, like the fierce Dimitri from my past, had stirred up the feelings I was so desperately trying to get over. I kept trying to assure myself that recovering from a relationship took time. Lingering feelings were natural. Unfortunately, it took longer to get over a guy when he threw himself into danger for you. Regardless, Christian and Tasha's words gave me hope about Dimitri's fate. After all, I wasn't the only one walking a tenuous line between life and death. Those convinced Dimitri was still Strigoi wanted to see a stake through his heart. â€Å"They're keeping him confined again,' said Christian. â€Å"But not in a cell. Just in his room, with a couple of guards. They don't want him out around Court until things settle down.' â€Å"That's better than jail,' admitted Lissa. â€Å"It's still absurd,' snapped Tasha, more to herself than the others. She and Dimitri had been close over the years, and she'd once wanted to take that relationship to another level. She'd settled for friendship, and her outrage over the injustice done to him was as strong as ours. â€Å"They should have let him go as soon as he became a dhampir again. Once the elections are settled, I'm going to make sure he's free.' â€Å"And that's what's weird †¦' Christian's pale blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. â€Å"We heard that Tatiana had told others before she–before she–‘ Christian hesitated and glanced uneasily at Adrian. The pause was uncharacteristic for Christian, who usually spoke his mind abruptly. â€Å"Before she was murdered,' said Adrian flatly, not looking at any of them. â€Å"Go on.' Christian swallowed. â€Å"Um, yeah. I guess–not in public–she'd announced that she believed Dimitri really was a dhampir again. Her plan was to help him get more acceptance once the other stuff settled down.' The â€Å"other stuff' was the age law mentioned in Tatiana's note, the one saying dhampirs turning sixteen would be forced to graduate and start defending Moroi. It had infuriated me, but like so many other things now †¦ well, it was kind of on hold. Adrian made a strange sound, like he was clearing his throat. â€Å"She did not.' Christian shrugged. â€Å"Lots of her advisors said she did. That's the rumor.' â€Å"I have a hard time believing it too,' Tasha told Adrian. She'd never approved of Tatiana's policies and had vehemently spoken out against them on more than one occasion. Adrian's disbelief wasn't political, though. His was simply coming from ideas he'd always had about his aunt. She'd never given any indication that she wanted to help Dimitri regain his old status. Adrian made no further comment, but I knew this topic was kindling sparks of jealousy within him. I'd told him Dimitri was in the past and that I was ready to move on, but Adrian–like me–must have undoubtedly wondered about the motivations behind Dimitri's gallant defense. Lissa began to speculate on how they might get Dimitri out of house arrest when the saleswoman returned with an armful of dresses she clearly disapproved of. Biting her lip, Lissa fell silent. She filed away Dimitri's situation as something to deal with later. Instead, she wearily prepared to try on clothes and play the part of a good little royal girl. Adrian perked up at the sight of the dresses. â€Å"Any halters in there?' I returned to my cell, mulling over the problems that just seemed to keep piling up. I was worried about both Adrian and Dimitri. I was worried about myself. I was also worried about this so-called lost Dragomir. I was starting to believe the story could be real, but there was nothing I could do about it, which frustrated me. I needed to take action when it came to helping Lissa. Tatiana had told me in her letter to be careful whom I spoke to about the matter. Should I pass this mission on to someone else? I wanted to take charge of it, but the bars and suffocating walls around me said I might not be able to take charge of anything for a while, not even my own life. Two weeks. Needing further distraction, I gave in and began reading Abe's book, which was exactly the tale of wrongful imprisonment I'd expected it to be. It was pretty good and taught me that faking my own death apparently wouldn't work as an escape method. The book unexpectedly stirred up old memories. A chill went down my spine as I recalled a Tarot reading that a Moroi named Rhonda had given to me. She was Ambrose's aunt, and one of the cards she'd drawn for me had shown a woman tied to swords. Wrongful imprisonment. Accusations. Slander. Damn. I was really starting to hate those cards. I always insisted they were a scam, yet they had an annoying tendency to come true. The end of her reading had shown a journey, but to where? A real prison? My execution? Questions with no answers. Welcome to my world. Out of options for now, I figured I might as well try to get some rest. Stretching out on the pallet, I tried to push away those constant worries. Not easy. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw a judge banging a gavel, condemning me to death. I saw my name in the history books, not as a hero, but as a traitor. Lying there, choking on my own fear, I thought of Dimitri. I pictured his steady gaze and could practically hear him lecturing me. Don't worry now about what you can't change. Rest when you can so you'll be ready for tomorrow's battles. The imaginary advice calmed me. Sleep came at last, heavy and deep. I'd tossed and turned a lot this week, so true rest was welcome. Then–I woke up. I sat upright in bed, my heart pounding. Peering around, I looked for danger–any threat that might have startled me out of that sleep. There was nothing. Darkness. Silence. The faint squeak of a chair down the hall told me my guards were still around. The bond, I realized. The bond had woken me up. I'd felt a sharp, intense flare of †¦ what? Intensity. Anxiety. A rush of adrenaline. Panic raced through me, and I dove deeper into Lissa, trying to find what had caused that surge of emotion from her. What I found was †¦ nothing. The bond was gone.

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