"As Queen of the Moroi world, I don't answer to you," Lissa said pointedly, subjecting Guardian Hans Croft to her most imperious glare. "I need to attend a meeting outside Court. Being daylight, Guardian Hathaway will be sufficient security."

"With all due respect, your Majesty, I need to ensure your protection. I must insist on at least another three guardians to accompany you as well as a detailed travel plan of where you will be going. If your Majesty could delay for a day, two at most, I can put into place the necessary precautions to ensure your wellbeing."

"That won't be required, Guardian Croft. Guardian Hathaway and I are leaving in five minutes, and we'll be leaving alone. I expressly forbid anyone to follow or track us, and if I discover this has occurred, the consequences will be severe."

Guardian Croft was furious at Lissa's orders, but as the reigning monarch, her word was literally law. Turning his exasperated eyes to Rose, Croft gave her a look that plainly said 'talk some sense into her.'

Rose regarded Lissa, trying to get a read on her best friend, employer, and monarch; yet again cursing the lack of the bond they'd once shared. While she could no longer dip into Lissa's mind, the experience of years suggested her best friend, her sister in many ways, was extremely agitated. It took a lot to make Lissa forget her good manners, or to pull rank, especially to someone charged with her safety. The fact she had spoke volumes about her state of mind.

Turning back to Hans, Rose subtly shrugged. Lissa was determined to have her way, that much was clear, so Rose gave him a reassuring look, trying to express without words that she knew Lissa's request was unorthodox at best, downright dangerous at worst, but that as her subjects they were at the mercy of her whims. No matter how capricious.

"Will we be away from Court long, your Majesty?" Rose queried, using the formal honorific to clue Lissa in that this was a request meant to appease Hans, at least a little, and not a general inquiry.

"We will return to Court by midday at the latest" Lissa succinctly replied.

It was currently 8 am. Four hours was a long time outside of wards.

"Your Majesty," Croft implored, "I really must counsel against this!"

"Your objections are noted," Lissa replied coolly. "Queen's Guardian Hathaway will keep you appraised of our movements. You are forbidden from mentioning this to anyone unless we fail to appear at Court by midday without explanation."

Before Croft had a chance to object further, Lissa swept from the room, Rose dutifully following, but not before giving Hans a 'what can you do' grimace. Lissa might be above Hans' wrath, but it was a different story for Rose. She didn't want to antagonize him unnecessarily.

"What was that about?" Rose demanded once she and Lissa were walking alone to the motor pool.

"I don't want to talk about it," Lissa snapped, ignoring Rose the rest of the way before climbing into the passenger seat of the vehicle Rose was about to sign out for the trip. "Just get the car."

Rose regarded Lissa with surprise. Lissa was occasionally snippy with others, but rarely with her. Again she cursed the demise of their bond. Once upon a time, she would have been able to reach in and immediately discover what was troubling Lissa. Sure, it was invasive, but it was effective – especially in circumstances like these.

"Has this been cleared with Guardian Croft?" Rose's former classmate Guardian Blake Aylett checked as Rose was signing the vehicle out. He was looking uneasily at where their twenty-four-year-old monarch sat waiting for Rose in one of Court's ubiquitous black SUVs.

"It doesn't need to be. As Head of the Queen's Guard, I answer directly to her Majesty," Rose replied in her most officious voice. Lissa wasn't the only one who could throw her weight or title around when required. "However, Guardian Croft is aware of our departure," Rose added, not wanting to be a complete asshole. Even if Aylett deserved it.

Settling in behind the wheel, and doing the necessary safety checks, Rose was soon guiding the car out of the garages toward Court's main exit.

"Where are we headed?" Rose asked Lissa, who was staring out the heavily tinted window.

"Head south," Lissa replied, her voice shaking just a little. "I'll direct you once we've cleared Court."

Rose's teeth lightly bit her lower lip, a mannerism she unconsciously employed when she was conflicted. This wasn't Lissa – usually, they'd be talking a mile a minute when they were alone, especially outside of Court – but something was worrying her best friend, and Rose wasn't sure how to address it.

"Drive to Greensborough," Lissa ordered a little later, breaking the silence. "The hospital."

Rose entered the details into the sat nav. system.

"The hospital? Are you ok, Liss?"

Their eyes locked; jade green meeting deep brown. Rose searched Lissa's eyes carefully, trying to get a read on what was going on.

"I'm fine. I just miss Christian," Lissa sighed, her eyes sliding evasively away from Rose's. Rose hmmped in agreement. She missed Dimitri, too.

When Rose had been formally appointed primary Guardian to her Majesty Queen Vasilisa Dragomir, Dimitri had been allocated to Lord Christian Ozera - the Queen's boyfriend. Officially the Queen's consort since Christian's marriage to Lissa fifteen months ago, for the last five months, Christian, and therefore Dimitri, had been stationed at St. Basil's in Russia kick-starting another branch of the offensive magic program.

Christian's pet project, the offensive magic program for Moroi had been introduced at St. Vladimir's, St. Michael's, and was now being brought in at St. Basil's. Initially a voluntary opt-in program, Lissa's influence had seen it become a mandated part of the elemental training all Moroi undertook once they specialized.

While ostensibly about self-defense, the program had started a quiet discussion amongst Moroi, particularly the younger generation, about the role Moroi had to play in their own protection. While Moroi were not standing beside their guardians in combat, yet, the idea was not as preposterous as it was once considered. A more covert benefit of the program was the identification of more Spirit wielders. Christian and Dimitri's time at St. Vladimir's had revealed two undeclared Moroi juniors who were later discovered to have specialized in Spirit. It was a similar story at St. Michael's. While still easily the rarest of the elements, Lissa, Adrian, and Sonya were delighted to determine they weren't quite as unusual as they'd once believed.

In fact, the discovery of more Spirit users had caused the second schism in their social group. Already suffering from the departure of Dimitri and Christian, Lissa had ordered the Spirit wielding students from St. Michael's to be brought to St. Vladimir's where Adrian and Sonya Karp were charged with their guidance and tutelage. Sonya, and her now husband Mikhail, had been delighted to return to the place where they'd once been so happy. Adrian was less enamored by the remote Montana campus, but somehow Lissa had convinced him his expertise was necessary there. Feeling he needed a Guardian, Lissa had Eddie Castile allocated to the Moroi bachelor, and the four had headed off six weeks ago for an indefinite stay at their former school.

Rose understood Lissa missing Christian. Rose missed Dimitri desperately, too. The first month after he and Christian left, Rose had been almost unbearable to be around, earning numerous complaints from fellow guardians. She'd been so lonely returning to the unit she and Dimitri had shared in Guardian accommodations, Lissa had arranged for a two-bedroom unit in the Palace for Rose to occupy while her boyfriend was away. She and Lissa shared many lonely hours watching chick-flicks and bitching about the Royal Council while missing their partners. In many ways, they'd grown closer than ever – which is what made Lissa's behavior today all the more surprising.

"If there's something you need to talk about, I'm all ears, Liss. Not as your guardian – as your best friend."

"There is, and I will," Lissa whispered. "Soon. Just give me a bit longer. Please."

The pleading in Lissa's voice was plain to hear. So Rose left it, instead letting her mind wander to her phone call with Dimitri the night before last. Initially, Dimitri had proven resistant to the idea of phone sex, but months apart had eroded his resolve, and the last couple of times they'd spoken had ended up hot. But it was a poor substitute for the real thing, and Rose had no idea how she was going to endure another seven months without her man.

And if Rose felt that way about her boyfriend, it was no surprise Lissa felt the same way about her husband. Rose considered, once again, begging for Lissa to order the duo back home for a week or two, or to head over herself for a visit – but Lissa had been strangely resistant to the idea, and Rose realized now was not the time. But that didn't mean she couldn't fantasize about seeing Dimitri again - so she spent the hour doing just that as she drove Lissa to the Greensborough hospital.

"We're nearly there, Liss. Which part?"

"The consulting suites. I have an appointment with a Gynecologist."

Rose breathed out a sigh of relief. Lissa should have just said she was leaving Court for her women's health check. Rose could completely get that as monarch, Lissa might not want to have such an intimate examination with one of the Moroi doctors at Court. Yet while Rose relaxed a little with Lissa's announcement, her best friend seemed, if anything, more stressed.

"Don't worry about it, Liss. You just put your legs in the stirrups, they use those metal tong things, and it's over in a couple of minutes. Not fun, but it doesn't hurt. Well other than your dignity!"

Rose kept up the chatter as she skirted the hospital, following the signs around to the back where the consulting suites were located. Finding a spot right near the front door, Lissa waited for Rose to carefully check the area before they both exited the vehicle. They walked in together, Lissa approaching the long cherry-wood front desk.

"Rose Hathaway to see Dr. Schwartz," Lissa said without breaking a sweat.

Rose started. She had no idea why Lissa had booked the appointment under her name instead of her own.

"Come through Rose. Your friend can wait out here," the attractive blonde receptionist in her late forties suggested cordially, standing to show Lissa through to the doctor's suite.

"Thank you, but I'd rather she come in with me."

The blonde's features barely shifted, but her friendly demeanor became a little more forced. Rose suppressed a leer as she realized the receptionist had made an assumption about the nature of their friendship.

"Come on Liss," Rose said, slipping her arm around her best friend's waist and smirking at the discomfited receptionist. "I'll be with you the whole time!"

"Dr. Schwartz will be with you both in a moment," the receptionist said, showing them into an expensively appointed office.

"Why did you use my name?" Rose asked. "For the appointment?"

"I didn't want anyone to know I've been here. No one will care if you came to see a doctor," Lissa reasoned, yet Rose still sensed she wasn't getting the full truth.

"Liss? What's going on?" Rose demanded.

Lissa couldn't raise her eyes.

"I need your help, Rose…"

Lissa was about to say more when a short man in his fifties entered the office via a second door opposite the one through which they'd entered.

"Ahh Rose? Sorry to keep you waiting." He was looking between the two young women, trying to work out which was his patient. Lissa stood, shaking his hand.

"Thank you for fitting me in, Dr. Schwartz. Can I introduce my best friend, Mia Rinaldi? My husband is presently overseas, and I wanted some moral support for my visit."

"Completely understandable!" the doctor said with a kind grin. "Lots of women find the first appointment a little nerve-wracking. If you just slip behind the curtain, take off your skirt and panties, lie on the examination table and put your legs in the stirrups. I have the medical history and notes you sent across earlier."

Rose averted her eyes as Lissa moved across to the table and did as she was bid. The doctor moved across to the side of the room where Lissa was lying, opening a couple of drawers and bringing across some equipment.

"This might be a little cold and uncomfortable," he advised a warm tone in his voice.

A couple of moments later, and a strange whoosh whoosh sound filled the room. Rose heard Lissa gasp, and it was then she identified the sound. She turned to see Lissa looking at a monitor, the unmistakable image of a baby on it.

"Well, Rose – you're right! You are pregnant! Looking at this little one's measurements, I'd say you're somewhere between eleven and twelve weeks along!"