Note: Warning: This is a LONG chapter
Royal Slopes Ski Lodge, Idaho
11 Months Ago
Tasha Age: 27
I walked back to my room from seeing Dimitri to see that Lissa and Christian were all ready at my door.
"I just finished breakfast and you all ready want me to start working with you?" I teased, "A little over-eager, huh?"
He shrugged with an easy grin. I opened the door to my suite letting them in. I followed behind them and locked the door behind me.
"What's this?" Lissa asked looking over things I had sprawled out on my table.
"Um, information I've been getting from some of my activist friends. This whole thing with the attack on the Badica family has them all a twitter and pushing to make reforms."
"Are you trying to do something to?"
"Of course. This is a perfect time to start pushing the fact that we need to start defending ourselves and stop relying so much on the Guardians."
She smiled, "I'm actually really excited to see you fight with magic. I mean I've seen Christian do it, but you must know a lot of tricks he doesn't since you've been training longer than he has."
"I guess. Are we waiting on anyone or are we good to start?"
"Can we wait for Rose? I know she'd love to see this."
"Did you invite her? I thought she was asleep when we left." Christian asked sounding perplexed.
"Rose will come looking for me as soon she gets up."
"How can you be so sure?" I asked.
"Because I know Rose." she replied amused.
And of course ten minutes later a rap at the door drew mine and Christian's attention from moving the furniture out of the way. He walked over to the door and opened it.
"Sleeping Beauty arrives. Welcome." he said letting her in.
Rose came in and looked around the room.
"Good morning." I said.
"Hey," she replied looking like she'd rather have been anywhere else at that moment than standing in my room. What was her problem?
Lissa patted a spot beside her, "You've got to see this."
"What's going on?" she asked sitting down on the bed eating what looked like a scone.
"Bad things. You'll approve." Lissa answered mischievously.
Christian walked toward me again and I focused on him just as he was focusing on me.
"So, why can't I just stick with the consuming spell?" he asked.
"Because it uses a lot of energy," I replied exasperated, "Plus, it'll most likely kill your opponent."
He scoffed in his usual way, "Why wouldn't I want to kill a Strigoi?"
"You might not always be fighting one. Or maybe you need information from them. Regardless, you should be prepared either way. A distracting spell is almost as useful."
I flicked my wrist allowing a streak of fire to snake past Christian's face. I made sure it wasn't close enough to touch and burn him, but close enough that he would feel the heat and flinch. Which of course, he did.
"Try it." I commanded using my teaching voice.
I watched Christian hesitate then he copied me. Fire streaked out and just as I suspected, it was slightly untamed and unruly. It came directly toward me and before it could touch me I used my own magic to split down the middle and go around me, deflecting it.
"Not bad- aside from the fact you would have burned my face off."
I saw something like desire cross Rose's face. Did she want me to be burned? Her eyes weren't directly on me, but more around me. What was she looking at? My hair?
I turned my attention back to Christian. We continued to practice, myself adding little tidbits and tricks so he can began fixing it. By the end of the lesson he'd improved a lot, but still had much to learn.
"Okay, that's it for today. I have to go. I have things to do." I said.
He sighed, frustrated as usual that he couldn't learn it in one lesson. Didn't he realize by this point that he wouldn't master the art in an hour?
"I still think it'd be easier to just burn them entirely," he argued.
I smiled fixing my hair, "Easier because it involves less focus. It's sloppy. Your magic'll be stronger in the long run if you can learn this. And, like I said, it has its uses."
"It could be really useful if you were fighting with a guardian. Especially if completely burning a Strigoi takes so much energy. This way, you sue just a quick burst of your strength to distract the Strigoi. And it will distract one since they hate fire so much. Then that's all the time a guardian would need to stake them. You could take down a whole bunch of Strigoi that way." Rose chimed in, making a great point.
I grinned at her, "Exactly. You and I'll have to go Strigoi hunting someday."
"I don't think so."
I looked at her in surprise. What was that about? Where had it come from? Yeah, I was just teasing, but I didn't realize she'd get so upset. What was her problem? I thought we were getting along great. Maybe I was wrong...What would Rose have against me though? I hadn't done anything to her...had I?
I smiled shaking it off, "Anyway, Christian, just keep practicing. I promise it'll get easier the more you practice."
"Yeah, but practicing is so much work!" he groaned.
I laughed, "And we get nowhere in life by not working. Collette was even saying that if we start teaching Moroi how to fight for themselves we can show Moroi how much we need to give the dhampirs more rights."
"Really? That's awesome!" Lissa chimed in.
"Yeah," I said with a smile.
"What time's dinner, Aunt Tasha?" Christian asked.
"Meet you around 3?" I said looking at him.
"Can it be more like 4:30?"
"Okay, see you later. Love you, Aunt Tasha." he said with a grin.
"Love you too, Christian. See you later."
With that they left and I headed off to send some emails.
Royal Slopes Ski Lodge, Idaho
11 Months Ago
Tasha: Age 28
I woke up to my phone blaring. Really? Someone couldn't wait until I was wide awake to call me?
"Hello?" I said groggily.
"Have you heard?"
"About the new attack?"
"New attack where?" I asked.
"Strigoi attacked a group of Drozdovs and their staff in California."
"Are you serious? Tell me all that you know?" I demanded getting out of bed and dressing.
I continued to dress as he talked my ear off.
"Okay, well that means..."
A knock on the door made me look up. I opened it and a messenger handed me a note. I opened it and read a little of it.
"And what?" Igor said.
"And Royals are going to start what they do best."
"Talk." We said in unison.
"I'll call you afterwards."
"All right. Bye, Tasha."
I hung up and hurried out of the room and took my seat in the large banquet hall. I was the only legal aged Ozera present besides Christian. I looked around at my fellow royals. We sat by family, each representing our own. Nothing we said here today would make an ounce of difference, but it would get back to Tatiana. And that could very well influence what happens in the end.
James Ivashkov was moderating the event and I smirked watching the others trail in. I watched Lissa,Christian, Rose, and Mason entered. And smiled when a few minutes later Lissa and Christian joined me sitting beside me.
"Hey, you two." I said with an easy smile.
They greeted me then we turned our attention back to the event. As soon as it started I realized what a waste of time this was. Ridiculous plan after ridiculous plan was shot out of a Royal's mouth. Every time someone opened their mouth something stupider fell out. But, two theories did seem constant.
"The answer's all around us. Here. In places like this lodge. And St. Vladimir's. We send our children to safe places, places where they have safety in numbers and can be easily guarded. And look how many of us made it here, children and adults alike. Why don't we live this way all the time?" Peter Badica said.
God, he was an idiot. Closing ourselves up like animals? Sounds more like making us easy fodder once they realize how to get through our wards. Not to mention we wouldn't be able to interact with anyone in the world.
"Plenty of us already do," Charles Conta shouted back.
Peter waved that off, "A couple of families here and there. Or a town with a large Moroi population. But, those Moroi are still decentralized. Most don't pool their resources- their guardians, their magic. If we could emulate this model," he said motioning around him, "...we'd never have to worry about Strigoi again."
There were others who spoke, but a lot of it was similar to what Peter had said. Obviously they weren't thinking this all out before it came out of their mouths.
"The problem is simply that we don't have enough guardians." Monica Szelsky said, "And so the answer is simple: Get more. The Drozdovs had five guardians, and that wasn't enough. Only six to protect over a dozen Moroi! That's unacceptable. It's no wonder these kinds of things keep happening."
"Where do you propose getting more guardians from?" Peter asked sarcastically, "They're kind of a limited resource."
She pointed over to where the novices sat and that instantly roused my anger.
"We've got plenty already. I've watched them train. They're deadly. Why are we waiting until they turn eighteen? If we accelerated the training program and focused more on combat training than bookwork, we could turn out new guardians when they're sixteen."
I looked out into the crowd and saw the mixture of anger and excitement in the dhampir faces. I couldn't believe the nerve of the my own people. They were talking about people as though they were property.
"Not only that, we have plenty of potential guardians going to waste. Where are all the dhampir women? Our faces are intertwined. The Moroi are doing their part to help the dhampirs survive. Why aren't these women doing theirs? Why aren't they here?"
I laughed then. I couldn't help it. This was all so preposterous. Every eye became focused on me.
I looked over at James, "May I?"
He nodded. Monica sat down as I stood. I strode directly up to the podium so everyone in the room could see me.
"Those women aren't here, Monica, because they're too busy raising their children- you know, the ones you want to start sending out to the fronts as soon as they can walk. ANd please don't insult us all by acting like the Moroi do a huge favor to the dhampirs by helping them reproduce. Maybe it's different in your family, but for the rest of us, sex is fun. The moroi doing it with dhampirs aren't really making that big of a sacrifice. And the reason we're waiting for these guardians to turn eighteen is so that we can allow them to enjoy some pretense of a life before forcing them to spend the rest of their days in constant danger. They need those extra years to develop mentally as well as physically. Pull them out before they're ready, treat them like they're parts on an assembly line- and you're just creating Strigoi fodder."
I heard some people gasp. Good. They needed to be shocked. They needed to hear it put that way.
"You created more fodder still if you try making the other dhampir women become guardians. You can't force them into that life if they don't want it. This entire plan of yours to get more guardians relies on throwing children and the unwilling into harm's way, just so you can- barely- stay one step ahead of the enemy. I would have said it's the stupidest plan I've ever heard, if I hadn't already had to listen to his." I said pointing to Peter.
"Enlighten us then, Natasha. Tell us what you think we should do, seeing as you have so much experience with Strigoi." He shot back angrily obviously embarrassed.
I smiled as politely as I could.
"What do I think?" I looked at everyone, "I think we should stop coming up with plans that involve us relying on someone or something to protect us. You think there are too few guardians? That's not the problem. The problem is there are too many Strigoi. And we've let them multiply and become more powerful because we do nothing about them except have stupid arguments like this. We run and hide behind the dhampirs and let the Strigoi go unchecked. It's our fault. We are the reason those Drozdovs died. You want an army?t5t Well, here we are. Dhampirs aren't the only ones who can learn to fight. The question, Monica, isn't where the dhampir women are in this fight. The question is: Where are we?"
I knew I was loud. I always got loud when I was impassioned. And that may be the reason why I did what I did next without thinking.
"Surely you aren't suggesting the Moroi fight alongside the guardians when the Strigoi come?" Monica said as though I were crazy.
I regarded her levelly, "No. I'm suggesting the Moroi and the guardians go fight the Strigoi before they come."
"Oh," Andrew Ivashkov said in a mocking voice, speaking out of turn. "So, you're going to just give us clubs and stakes and send us off to do battle?"
I shrugged, "If that's what it takes, Andrew, then there are other weapons we can learn to use, too. Ones the guardians can't."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Like this," I said grinning.
I waved my hand and his sweater burst into flames. And I laughed as he yelled in surprised and stamped out the fire with his feet. But, that...may not have been my best idea because after that all hell broke loose. I'd unleashed chaos and no one would be prepared to listen to me now.
Royal Slopes Ski Lodge, Idaho
11 Months Ago
Tasha: Age 28
I watched Rose and Dimitri from where I stood. I finally saw it. Now I knew why she was being so hostile to me lately. She was in love with Dimitri. That's a little pathetic. A young girl in love with her mentor. Poor Rose. Was she mad because Dimitri was spending so much time with me?
"Dimka," I said coming up to them. I gave him a flirty smile then turned a polite smile to Rose, "Hello, Rose."
"Hey," she replied flatly.
I placed my hand on Dimitri's forearm, obviously sending a message. I slid my fingers over the leather of his coat. I could see her glaring at my fingers. But, I ignored it and focused on Dimitri.
"You've got that look," I said pouting.
"What look?" he said playfully.
"That look that says you're going to be on duty all day."
"Really?" he said mockingly, teasing me, "I have a look like that?"
I nodded, "When does your shift technically end?"
"An hour ago," he replied sheepishly.
I groaned, "You can't keep doing this. You need a break."
"Well...if you consider that I'm always Lissa's guardian..."
"For now." I said knowingly. But, then I decided to lighten the mood, "There's a big pool tournament going on upstairs."
"I can't," he replied, "Even thought I haven't played in a long time..."
"Come on, then," I begged, "Just one round! We could take them all."
He looked at me regretfully, "I can't. Not with everything going on."
I sobered, remembering the Drozdov Massacre.
"No. I suppose not." I looked at Rose and decided to try to diffuse the tension between us, "I hope you realize what a hard-core role model you have here. He's never off duty."
"Well, for now, at least." she said obviously mocking me.
I decided to pretend like I didn't notice. And I noticed the way Dimitri's expression darkened.
"We're finished here, Rose. Remember what I said."
"Yeah," she said, turning away, "Definitely."
I turned to Dimitri.
"Have you thought about my proposition, Dimka?"
"I have. Give me until the end of break. Okay?"
I nodded, "Okay. I'll see you later? And please try not to kill yourself. Get some rest."
He smiled and nodded, "Of course."
We shared a brief kiss, but it didn't feel like the other kisses. Something felt like it was missing.
Royal Slope Ski Lodge, Idaho
11 Months Ago
Tasha: Age 28
A knock on my door interrupted my sleep. I looked around groggily as I realized it just around the time I would usually be getting up for the day. I forced myself off the bed and answered it, slightly surprised to see Dimitri there.
"Dimka? What's up?" I said wrapping my robe tighter around me as the chill from the hall hit me.
"Hello, Tasha. Can I come in for a minute? So, we can talk?"
"Of course," I replied opening my door wider, "Come in."
He walked in and sat down in one of the chairs in the room and I shut the door. I sat across from him.
"Tasha, we've been friends for a long time...right?"
He sighed, "Let me just get this out. Tasha, I can't be your Guardian or your lover."
Why had I done? Had I read his signals wrong?
"Tasha, I'm sorry. You deserve someone who's going to be there for you 100%. And the truth is, I'm not going to be 100%."
"Everything seemed fine...where is this coming from?" I was so confused.
"Tasha...in another time, I would have jumped at the chance to be with you, but...right now, in my life. I think we're better off as friends."
I nodded. What else could I do? Dimitri didn't want me. Who wanted a freak with a scar on her face anyway when they could have anyone they wanted.
"Thank you, for understand. And I am sorry."
It wasn't. But, it would be. At least I hoped. I am so pathetic.
A knock on the door dragged me away from my pity party and I got up to answer it.
"Yes?" I asked surprised to see both Janine and Guardian Petrov.
"Guardian Belikov, have you seen Rose Hathaway, Edison Castile, or Mason Ashford?" Guardian Petrov asked.
"No, what is this about?" he demanded, back into guardian mode.
"And you Lady Ozera, have you seen your nephew?"
"No, why?" I asked confused.
"We can't find them. And one of the guardians were just found out by the north gate unconscious. When he came to he said that Hathaway and Mr. Ozera had asked him to let them out of the gate. And from there he can't remember anything. We checked the entire resort and can't find them anywhere."
"And you're sure the other three are missing?" Dimitri demanded.
"Yes," Janine replied.
I looked over at Dimitri.
"Why would Christian go with Rose? Was Lissa with them?"
"No, Princess Dragomir is here." Janine replied.
"They could be in danger..." I said worriedly.
A word came to me. It was almost too quiet to hear, but I caught it. It had come from Dimitri. He'd said...his rose in Russian. I stared at him. What did he mean by his Rose?
"Rose is with them. They should be fine until we find them." he said.
That's when I saw it. I couldn't believe it. He didn't want to be with me because he was just as pitifully in love with Rose as she was with him! Fury boiled up inside me. She'd taken the one thing in the world that I wanted above all else. She'd taken the one person who made me feel beautiful away from me. How dare she!
"Even still, Belikov. We need to move fast. Mia Rinaldi was with them. That's two Moroi students. Our dhampir students can handle their own. But, they'll do anything to ensure the Moroi are kept safe. Even if it means getting themselves killed in the process."
"Where could they be?" I asked.
"Don't worry. We'll get them back safe."
The guardians left my room. My emotions spun. My nephew was missing, the man I love was in love with someone else. What was I supposed to do?
The trial had started quietly and now I stared, still in love with the man before me. There he stood in all his glory, wearing his black and white guardian uniform.
"Guardian Belikov, you and Miss Ozera are long time friends, is that correct?"
"We were. We were long time friends."
"When did you stop being friends with Miss Ozera?"
"When she shot my girlfriend."
"Guardian Hathaway, you mean?"
"How long have you been with Guardian Hathaway, Guardian Belikov?"
"Um, officially Rose and I have been together about four months. Almost five.
"The courts have on record that you and Miss Ozera had a brief liason?"
"You never were with her or interested in her?"
"I was interested in her. But, we never went further than kissing. And I told her back in December of the previous year that I did not want anything Romantic with her."
"And why did it never go further than kissing?"
"Because I was in love with someone else. And I couldn't do that. I couldn't deceive someone by making them believe I wanted to be with them when I was wishing I was with someone else."
"And that "someone else" was Guardian Hathaway. Correct?"
"Did Miss Ozera know you had a relationship with Guardian Hathaway?"
"I did not think so. But, according to people I have spoken to, she did not seem surprised when other guardians were informed of the indiscretion that had accord between Guardian Hathaway and myself."
"Who were these people?"
"Queen Vasilisa. Lord Christian Ozera. Guardian Rosemarie Hathaway who saw this through the bond Queen Vasilisa they once had. Guardian Hans Croft. And Guardian Alberta Petrov."
"Would you say, if it was up to you to make up a reason why Miss Ozera would frame Guardian Hathaway, would you say it was because of jealousy toward the relationship you and Guardian Hathway had in the past and the fact that you had defended Guardian Hathaway by guardians who were attempting to arrest her and you broke her out of jail?"
"Possibly. I truly cannot say why she did what she did. But, it could be because she was jealous of Rose and the relationship we had had in the past and continued to have now. It could very well be that she wanted Rose out of the picture to make sure that no one could interfere with her plans to be with me. But, it could also have been because Rose would have been the most likely candidate. She would have been the first person that the court would have pointed their finger at, even if they hadn't had evidence against her pining her to the murder."
"Do you hate Miss Ozera for what she did?"
"Because, it isn't my place to place blame on any person. If Rose is okay with what Tasha did then so am I."
I heard a collective breath from behind me. No one had expected that answer. But, I saw a strength and truthfulness in his eyes that mirrored the look in Rose's eyes.
"What happened in your own words the day Miss Ozera was taken into custody?"
"Guardian Hathaway and I broke into Court and hurried Princess Jillian Mastrano-Dragomir in so that Queen Vasilisa would have a quorum. Before we got here Guardian Hathaway stopped at the hotel where the guardians were keeping the alchemist. That was when she found out what happened. She reiterated to me what she found out. At least briefly. Guardian Hathaway accused Miss Ozera of killing Queen Tatiana. And that was when as you have heard, Miss Ozera attacked a handful of guardians and threatened the lives of Moroi. She shot Guardian Hathaway as we both moved to protect Queen Vasilisa."
"I tried to stop the bleeding." I saw pain flashing through his eyes, "My immediate concern was making sure Guardian Hathaway was all right. The Queen had all ready been moved and I ran Guardian Hathaway to the medical clinic."
"And how did you feel, Guardian Belikov. watching the woman you love being shot by someone you thought of as a friend?"
"Devasted." Again I heard the pain in Dimitri's voice.
God, how could I? How could I hurt the man I love so badly? How could I hurt my friend that way?