Last sacrifice, p.36
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       Last Sacrifice, p.36

         Part #6 of Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead
Chapter Thirty-six


  I'D OFTEN DREAMED ABOUT waking up with Dimitri, waking up in a way that was . . . ordinary. Sweet. Not because we were hastily trying to catch sleep before fighting our next foe. Not because we were recovering from sex we had to hide, sex laden with baggage and myriad complications. I just wanted to wake up together, in his arms, and have it be a good morning.

  Today was that day.

  "How long have you been awake?' I asked drowsily. My head was on his chest, and I was wrapped against him as best as I could manage. My wounds were healing rapidly but still had to be babied. We'd found a few creative workarounds last night. Sunlight now spilled in through the windows, filling my bedroom with gold.

  He was watching me in that quiet, solemn way of his, with those dark eyes that were so easy to get lost in. "A little while,' he admitted, lifting his gaze to the sunlight-filled window. "I think I'm still on a human schedule. Either that, or my body just wants to be up when the sun is. Seeing it is still amazing to me. '

  I stifled a yawn. "You should have gotten up. '

  "I didn't want to disturb you. '

  I ran my fingers over his chest, sighing in contentment. "This is perfection,' I said. "Is every day going to be like this?'

  Dimitri rested his hand on my cheek and then moved down, tipping my chin up. "Not every day but most days. '

  Our lips met, and the warmth and light in the room paled compared to what burned inside me. "I was wrong,' I murmured when we finally broke the long, languid kiss. "This is perfection. '

  He smiled, something he was doing an awful lot of lately. I loved it. Things would probably change once we were back out in the world. Even if we were together now, Dimitri's guardian side would always be there, ready and watchful. But not right now. Not in this moment.

  "What's the matter?' he asked me. With a start, I realized I'd begun to frown. I tried to relax my face. Unbidden, Adrian's words had come back to me, that the next time I was in bed with Dimitri, I should think about others who weren't so lucky.

  "Do you think I ruin lives?' I asked.

  "What? Of course not. ' The smile changed to shock. "Where would you get that idea?'

  I shrugged. "There are just a lot of people whose lives are still kind of a mess. My friends, I mean. '

  "True,' he said. "And let me guess. You want to fix everyone's problems. '

  I didn't answer.

  Dimitri kissed me again. "Roza,' he said, "it's normal to want to help the people you love. But you can't fix everything. '

  "It's what I do,' I countered, feeling a little petulant. "I protect people. '

  "I know, and that's one of the reasons I love you. But for now, you only have to worry about protecting one person: Lissa. '

  I stretched out against him, noticing my injuries really were constantly improving. My body would be able to do all sorts of things soon. "I suppose that means we can't stay in bed all day?' I asked hopefully.

  "Afraid not,' he said, lightly running his fingertips along the curve of my hip. He never seemed to get tired of studying my body. "They come first. '

  I brought my mouth back toward his. "But not for a little while. '

  "No,' he agreed. His hand slid up to the back of my neck, tangling in my hair as he drew me closer. "Not for a little while. '

  I had never attended a royal coronation before, and honestly, I hoped I never would again. I only wanted there to be this one queen ruling in my lifetime.

  Eerily, the coronation was kind of a reverse of Tatiana's funeral. What was the old saying? The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

  Custom dictated the monarch-to-be spend the first part of the coronation day at the church, presumably to pray for guidance, strength, and all that spiritual stuff. I wasn't sure what custom did in the case of atheist monarchs. Probably they faked it. With Lissa, who was fairly devout, I knew that wasn't a problem and that she was probably legitimately praying she'd do a good job as queen.

  After the vigil, Lissa and a huge procession walked back across Court to the palace building, where the crowning took place. Representatives from all the royal families joined her, along with musicians who were playing much more cheerful tunes than they had for Tatiana's procession. Lissa's guardians--she had a fleet now--walked with her. I was among them, wearing my finest black and white, including the red collar marking me as a royal guardian. Here, at least, was a notable difference from the funeral. Tatiana had been dead; her guardians were for show. Lissa was very much alive, and even if she'd won the Council's vote, she still had enemies. My colleagues and I were on high alert.

  Not that you'd think we needed to be, not with the way the onlookers cheered. All those who had camped out during the trials and election had stayed for this fanfare, and more had shown up still. I wasn't sure when there'd ever been this many Moroi in one place.

  After the long and winding walk, Lissa made it to the palace building and then waited in a small antechamber adjacent to what served as the Moroi throne room. The throne room was almost never used for modern business, but every once in a while--like a new queen being sworn in--the Moroi liked to pull out ancient traditions. The room was small and couldn't hold all the witnesses from outside. It couldn't even hold the entire procession. But, the Council and highest-ranking royal members were there, along with some select invitees of Lissa's.

  I stood off to the side, watching the glamour unfold. Lissa hadn't made her grand entrance yet, so there was a low hum of conversation. The room was all green and gold, having been given a thorough and fast remodel in the last few days, since custom dictated the ruling family's colors dominate the throne room. The throne itself sat high against the far wall, accessible by steps. Carved of wood I could no longer identify, I knew the throne had been carried around the world by Moroi monarchs for centuries. People were lining up in carefully assigned positions, preparing for when Lissa would enter last. I was studying one of the new chandeliers, admiring how realistic the "candles' in it looked. I knew they were electric, but the craftsmen had done amazing work. Technology masked in old-world glory, just as the Moroi liked. A small nudge drew my attention away.

  "Well, well, well,' I said. "If it isn't the people responsible for unleashing Rose Hathaway on the world. You've got a lot to answer for. '

  My parents stood before me in their typical and wildly contrasting clothing. My mom wore the same guardian outfit I did, a white shirt with black slacks and jacket. Abe was . . . well, Abe. He had on a black pinstripe suite, with a black dress shirt underneath. Splashed against the darkness was a bright, lemon-yellow paisley tie. A matching handkerchief peeped out one of the jacket's pockets. Along with his gold earrings and chains, he also wore a black fedora, which was a new addition to his outlandish wardrobe. I guess he wanted to go all out for an event like this, and at least it wasn't a pirate hat.

  "Don't blame us,' said my mother. "We didn't blow up half of Court, steal a dozen cars, call out a murderer in the middle of a crowd, or get our teenage friend crowned queen. '

  "Actually,' said Abe, "I did blow up half of Court. '

  My mom ignored him, her expression softening as she studied me with her guardian eyes. "Seriously . . . how are you feeling?' I'd seen them only briefly in the days since waking up, just enough for us all to check in on each other. "You're doing an awful lot of standing today. And I've already told Hans not to put you on active duty for a while. '

  It was one of the most motherly things I'd ever heard her say. "I . . . I'm fine. A lot better. I could go on active duty right now. '

  "You will do no such thing,' she said, in exactly the tone she'd use giving orders to a troop of guardians.

  "Stop coddling her, Janine. '

  "I'm not coddling her! I'm looking out for her. You're spoiling her. ' I looked back and forth at them in amazement. I didn't know if I was witnessing a fight or foreplay. I wasn't thrilled about either option. "Okay, okay, just back off you guys. I sur
vived, right? That's what counts. '

  "It is,' said Abe. He suddenly seemed very fatherly, which weirded me out even more than my mom's behavior. "And despite the property damage and string of broken laws left in your wake, I'm proud of you. ' I suspected that secretly, he was proud of me because of those things. My cynical interior commentary was brought to a halt when my mom concurred.

  "I'm proud too. Your methods were . . . not ideal, but you did a great thing. Great things, really. Finding both the murderer and Jill. ' I noticed her careful wording of "the murderer. ' I think it was still hard for all of us to accept the truth about Tasha. "A lot will change because of Jill. '

  All of us looked over at the foot of the throne. Ekaterina stood on one side, ready with the book of royal vows. The other side was where members of the monarch's family stood--but only one lone person was there. Jill. Someone had done a great job of cleaning her up. Her curly hair had been elaborately styled and pinned, and she wore a knee-length sheath dress with a wide portrait style collar, just barely showing off her shoulders. The dress's cut made the most of her lanky figure, and the dark green satin looked great with her features. She was standing straight, chin high, but there was anxiety all over her, made more obvious by her being so conspicuously alone.

  I glanced back at Abe, who met my eyes expectantly. I had a lot of questions for him, and he was one of the few who might tell me the truth. The decision was: which question to ask? It was like having a genie. I'd only get so many wishes.

  "What will happen to Jill?' I asked at last. "Will she just go back to school? Are they going to train her to be a princess?' Lissa couldn't be both princess and queen, so her old title went to the next-oldest member of her family.

  Abe didn't answer for several moments. "Until Lissa can get the law changed--and hopefully, she will--Jill is all that allows her to keep her throne. If something happens to Jill, Lissa will no longer be queen. So. What would you do?'

  "I'd keep her safe. '

  "Then you have your answer. '

  "It's kind of a broad one,' I said. ""Safe' means a lot of things. '

  "Ibrahim,' warned my mother. "Enough. This isn't the time or place. '

  Abe held my gaze a bit longer and then broke into an easy smile. "Of course, of course. This is a family gathering. A celebration. And look: here's our newest member. '

  Dimitri had joined us and wore black and white like my mother and me. He stood beside me, conspicuously not touching. "Mr. Mazur,' he said formally, nodding a greeting to both of them. "Guardian Hathaway. ' Dimitri was seven years older than me, but right then, facing my parents, he looked like he was sixteen and about to pick me up for a date.

  "Ah, Belikov,' said Abe, shaking Dimitri's hand. "I'd been hoping we'd run into each other. I'd really like to get to know you better. Maybe we can set aside some time to talk, learn more about life, love, et cetera. Do you like to hunt? You seem like a hunting man. That's what we should do sometime. I know a great spot in the woods. Far, far away. We could make a day of it. I've certainly got a lot of questions I'd like to ask you. A lot of things I'd like to tell you too. '

  I shot a panicked look at my mother, silently begging her to stop this. Abe had spent a good deal of time talking to Adrian when we dated, explaining in vivid and gruesome detail exactly how Abe expected his daughter to be treated. I did not want Abe taking Dimitri off alone into the wilderness, especially if firearms were involved.

  "Actually,' said my mom casually. "I'd like to come along. I also have a number of questions--especially about when you two were back at St. Vladimir's. '

  "Don't you guys have somewhere to be?' I asked hastily. "We're about to start. '

  That, at least, was true. Nearly everyone was in formation, and the crowd was quieting. "Of course,' said Abe. To my astonishment, he brushed a kiss over my forehead before stepping away. "I'm glad you're back. ' Then, with a wink, he said to Dimitri: "Looking forward to our chat. '

  "Run,' I said when they were gone. "If you slip out now, maybe they won't notice. Go back to Siberia. '

  "Actually,' said Dimitri, "I'm pretty sure Abe would notice. Don't worry, Roza. I'm not afraid. I'll take whatever heat they give me over being with you. It's worth it. '

  "You really are the bravest man I know,' I told him.

  He smiled, his eyes falling on a small commotion at the room's entrance. "Looks like she's ready,' he murmured.

  "I hope I am,' I whispered back.

  In true grandiose fashion, a herald brought the room to attention. Perfect silence fell. You couldn't even hear breathing.

  The herald stepped back from the door. "Princess Vasilisa Sabina Rhea Dragomir. '

  Lissa entered, and even though I'd seen her less than half an hour ago, I still caught my breath. She was wearing a formal gown but had once again dodged sleeves. No doubt the dress-maker had had a fit. The dress was floor-length, with a skirt of silk and chiffon layers that moved and fluttered around Lissa as she strode forward. The fabric was the same jade as her eyes, as was the dress's top, with a halter collar covered in emeralds that gave the illusion of a necklace. Matching emeralds covered the dress's belt, and bracelets completed the display. Her hair was worn long, brushed out to gleaming, platinum perfection, an aura unto itself.

  Christian walked beside her, a sharp contrast with his black hair and dark suit. Customs were being modified significantly today since a family member normally would have escorted Lissa, but . . . well, she was kind of running out. Even I had to admit he looked amazing, and his pride and love for her shone on his face--no matter what troubled feelings stirred within him over Tasha. Lord Ozera, I remembered. I had a feeling that title would become more and more important now. He led Lissa to the base of the throne and then joined the Ozera delegation in the crowd.

  Ekaterina made a small gesture to a large satin pillow on the floor in front of the steps. "Kneel. '

  There was the briefest hesitation on Lissa's part, one I think only I noticed. Even without the bond, I was so attuned to her mood and tiniest actions that I could pick up on these things. Her eyes had gone to Jill. Lissa's expression didn't change, and it was so strange not to know her feelings. I could make some educated guesses. Uncertainty. Confusion.

  Again--the pause was only a moment long. Lissa knelt, artfully spreading her skirts around her as she did. Ekaterina had always seemed so frail and wizened in that testing room, but as she stood there with the ancient Moroi coronation book, I could sense a power still within the former queen.

  The book was in Romanian, but Ekaterina translated it effortlessly as she read aloud, beginning with a speech about what was expected of a monarch and then going to the vows Lissa had to swear to.

  "Will you serve?'

  "Will you protect your people?'

  "Will you be just?'

  There were twelve in all, and Lissa had to answer "I will' three times to each one: in English, in Russian, and in Romanian. Not having the bond to confirm her feelings was still so strange, but I could see on her face that she meant every word she said. When that part finished, Ekaterina cued Jill forward. Since I'd last noticed the girl, someone had given her the crown to hold. It had been custom-made for Lissa, a masterpiece of white and yellow gold intertwined with emeralds and diamonds. It complemented her outfit beautifully, and, I noticed with a start, Jill did too.

  Another tradition was that the monarch was crowned by a family member, and this was what Jill had been saved for. I could see her hands tremble as she laid the bejeweled wonder on her sister's head, and their gazes met briefly. A flash of troubled emotions swirled in Lissa's eyes once more, gone quickly as Jill stepped back and the weight of the ceremony took precedence.

  Ekaterina held out her hand to Lissa. "Rise,' she said. "You will never kneel to anyone again. ' Holding Lissa's hand, Ekaterina turned so that they both faced the rest of us in the room. With a voice startling for her small body, Ekaterina declared, "Queen Vasilisa Sabina Rhea Dr
agomir, first of her name. '

  Everyone in the room--except Ekaterina--dropped to their knees, heads bowed. Only a few seconds passed before Lissa said, "Rise. ' I'd been told this was at the monarch's discretion. Some new kings and queens enjoyed making others kneel for a long time.

  Paperwork followed, which we all watched dutifully as well. Basically, it was Lissa signing to say she'd been made queen while Ekaterina and a couple witnesses signed that they'd seen Lissa made queen. Three copies were on the ornate paper Moroi royalty so loved. One was plain white letterhead, which would go to the Alchemists.

  When the signing was done, Lissa took her place on the throne, and seeing her ascend those stairs was breathtaking, an image that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The room broke out into cheers and clapping as she settled into the ornate chair. Even the guardians, who normally stayed so deadly serious, joined in the applause and celebration. Lissa smiled at everyone, hiding whatever anxiety she felt.

  She scanned the room, and her grin broadened when she saw Christian. She then sought me out. Her smile for him had been affectionate; mine was a bit humorous. I smiled back, wondering what she would say to me if she could.

  "What's so funny?' asked Dimitri, looking down at me with amusement.

  "I'm just thinking about what Lissa would say if we still had the bond. ' In a very bad breach of guardian protocol, he caught a hold of my hand and pulled me toward him. "And?' he asked, wrapping me in an embrace.

  "I think she'd ask, "What have we gotten ourselves into?''

  "What's the answer?' His warmth was all around me, as was his love, and again, I felt that completeness. I had that missing piece of my world back. The soul that complemented mine. My match. My equal. Not only that, I had my life back-- my own life. I would protect Lissa, I would serve, but I was finally my own person.

  "I don't know,' I said, leaning against his chest. "But I think it's going to be good. ' First and foremost, thank you to all of the loyal and enthusiastic readers around the world who have accompanied Rose and me throughout the series. I couldn't have made this journey without you and hope you'll continue to enjoy the many Moroi and dhampir adventures to come.

  Thank you also to all of the friends and family who have supported me--especially my husband, who continually amazes me with his patience, love, and ability to live with the ups and downs of a "creative type. ' A special shout-out also goes to Jesse McGatha for creating the forest riddle, something I could never have come up with, let alone solve.

  And as always, I'm grateful to the publishing folks who work behind the scenes to make these books happen: Jim McCarthy--my agent, occasional therapist, and non- stop advocate; Lauren Abramo, who keeps finding more countries I've never heard of to send Rose to; Jessica Rothenberg and Ben Schrank, editors extraordinaire whom I'm pretty sure forego food and sleep to perfect these books; and publicist Casey McIntyre, who organizes my tours and interviews, with great care to arrange them around my hair appointments.

  A final thanks to all the others who work on this series at Penguin Books, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, and my international publishers. There are far too many of you to list, but all of you are essential in telling Rose's story. Thank you.



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