Last Sacrifice (Vampire Academy #6)(3) by Richelle Mead

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. "They're keeping him confined again,' said Christian. "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.'

"That's better than jail,' admitted Lissa.

"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. "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.'

"And that's what's weird ...' Christian's pale blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "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.

"Before she was murdered,' said Adrian flatly, not looking at any of them. "Go on.'

Christian swallowed. "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 "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. "She did not.'

Christian shrugged. "Lots of her advisors said she did. That's the rumor.'

"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. "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.

Chapter Three

WELL, NOT GONE EXACTLY.

Muted. Kind of like how it had felt immediately after she'd restored Dimitri back to a dhampir. The magic had been so strong then that it had "burned out' our link. There was no blast of magic now. It was almost as though the blankness was intentional on her part. Like always, I still had a sense of Lissa: she was alive; she was well. So what was keeping me from feeling more of her? She wasn't asleep, because I could feel a sense of alert consciousness on the other side of this wall. Spirit was there, hiding her from me ... and she was making it happen.

What the hell? It was an accepted fact that our bond worked only one way. I could sense her; she couldn't sense me. Likewise, I could control when I went into her mind. Often, I tried to keep myself out (jail captivity time excluded), in an attempt to protect her privacy. Lissa had no such control, and her vulnerability infuriated her sometimes. Every once in a while, she could use her power to shield herself from me, but it was rare, difficult, and required considerable effort on her part. Today, she was pulling it off, and as the condition persisted, I could feel her strain. Keeping me out wasn't easy, but she was managing it. Of course, I didn't care about the how of it. I wanted to know the why.

It was probably my worst day of imprisonment. Fear for myself was one thing. But for her? That was agonizing. If it was my life or hers, I would have walked into execution without hesitation. I had to know what was going on. Had she learned something? Had the Council decided to skip right over a trial and execute me? Was Lissa trying to protect me from that news? The more spirit she wielded, the more she endangered her life. This mental wall required a lot of magic. But why? Why was she taking this risk?

It was astonishing in that moment to realize just how much I relied on the bond to keep track of her. True: I didn't always welcome someone else's thoughts in my head. Despite the control I'd learned, her mind still sometimes poured into mine in moments I'd rather not experience. None of that was a concern now--only her safety was. Being blocked off was like having a limb removed.

All day I tried to get inside her head. Every time, I was kept out. It was maddening. No visitors came to me either, and the book and magazines had long since lost their appeal. The caged animal feeling was getting to me again, and I spent a fair amount of time yelling at my guards--with no results. Tatiana's funeral was tomorrow, and the clock to my trial was ticking loudly.

Bedtime came, and the wall in the bond dropped at last--because Lissa went to sleep. The link between us was firm, but her mind was closed off in unconsciousness. I'd find no answers there. Left with nothing else, I went to bed as well, wondering if I'd be cut off again in the morning.

I wasn't. She and I were linked again, and I was able to see the world through her eyes once more. Lissa was up and around early, preparing for the funeral. I neither saw nor felt any sign of why I'd been blocked the day before. She was letting me back into her mind, just like normal. I almost wondered if I'd imagined being cut off from her.

No ... there it was. Barely. Within her mind, I sensed thoughts she was still hiding from me. They were slippery. Each time I tried to grasp them, they fell out of my hands. I was amazed she could still use enough magic to pull it off, and it was also a clear indication that she'd blocked me out intentionally yesterday. What was going on? Why on earth would she need to hide something from me? What could I do about anything, locked in this hellhole? Again, my unease grew. What awful thing didn't I know about?

I watched Lissa get ready, seeing no ostensible sign of anything unusual. The dress she'd ended up selecting had cap sleeves and went to the knee. Black, of course. It was hardly a clubbing dress, but she knew it would raise some eyebrows. Under different circumstances, this would have delighted me. She chose to wear her hair down and unbound, its pale blond color showing brightly against the dress's black when she surveyed herself in a mirror. Christian met Lissa outside. He cleaned up well, I had to admit, uncharacteristically wearing a dress shirt and tie. He'd drawn the line at a jacket, and his expression was an odd mix of nervousness, secrecy, and typical snark. When he saw Lissa, though, his face momentarily transformed, turning radiant and awestruck as he gazed at her. He gave her a small smile and took her into his arms for a brief embrace. His touch brought her contentment and comfort, easing her anxiety. They'd gotten back together recently after a breakup, and that time apart had been agonizing for both of them.

"It's going to be okay,' he murmured, his look of worry returning. "This'll work. We can do this.'

She said nothing but tightened her hold on him before stepping back. Neither of them spoke as they walked to the beginning of the funeral procession. I decided this was suspicious. She caught hold of his hand and felt strengthened by it.

The funeral procedures for Moroi monarchs had been the same for centuries, no matter if the Court was in Romania or its new home in Pennsylvania. That was the Moroi way. They mixed the traditional with the modern, magic with technology.

The queen's coffin would be carried by pallbearers out of the palace and taken with great ceremony all through the Court's grounds, until it reached the Court's imposing cathedral. There, a select group would enter for mass. After the service, Tatiana would be buried in the church's graveyard, taking her place beside other monarchs and important royals.

The coffin's route was easy to spot. Poles strung with red and black silk banners marked each side. Rose petals had been strewn on the ground the coffin would pass over. Along the sides, people crammed together, hoping to catch a glimpse of their former queen. Many Moroi had come from far off places, some to see the funeral and some to see the monarch elections that would soon follow over the next couple of weeks.

The royal family escort--most of whom wore saleswoman-approved black velvet-- were already heading into the palace building. Lissa stopped outside to part ways with Christian since he certainly had never been in the running to represent his family for such an honored event. She gave him another fierce hug and a light kiss. As they stepped away, there was a knowing glint in his blue eyes--that secret that was hidden from me.

Lissa pushed through the gathering crowds, trying to get to the entrance and find the procession's starting point. The building didn't look like the palaces or castles of ancient Europe. Its grand stone farade and tall windows matched the Court's other structures, but a few features--its height, wide marble steps--subtly distinguished it from other buildings. A tug at Lissa's arm stopped her progress, nearly causing her to run into an ancient Moroi man.

"Vasilisa?' It was Daniella Ivashkov, Adrian's mother. Daniella wasn't so bad as royals went, and she was actually okay with Adrian and me dating--or at least, she had been before I became an accused murderer. Most of Daniella's acceptance had come from the fact that she believed Adrian and I would split up anyways once I received my guardian assignment. Daniella had also convinced one of her cousins, Damon Tarus, to be my lawyer--an offer I'd rejected when I chose Abe to represent me instead. I still wasn't entirely sure if I'd made the best decision there, but it probably tarnished Daniella's view of me, which I regretted.

Lissa offered up a nervous smile. She was anxious to join the procession and get all of this over with. "Hi,' she said.

Daniella was dressed in full black velvet and even had small diamond barrettes shining in her dark hair. Worry and agitation lined her pretty face. "Have you seen Adrian? I haven't been able to find him anywhere. We checked his room.'

"Oh.' Lissa averted her eyes.