The years pass and life in Court is good. With Lissa as queen, there is an unprecedented time of peace among the Moroi.
But when an unexpected threat dares to destroy it tall, Rose is going to have to do her best to protect the Dragomir heir.
The night that hell broke loose looked like any other night. If anything, it was more boring than usual.
I got up, got ready for work, presented myself to Lissa. She barely had time to breathe that day - there was some Very Important Dinner happening - and as always, she preferred to make sure everything was ready herself instead of delegating anything. Perfectionism was a trait of hers that was only getting worse with age.
“You’re good to watch Ali tonight, right?” She had asked when we stopped at her quarters for lunch.
“For the last time, Liss” I said with a calm smile. “I’m always good to watch Ali.”
“He’s been so clingy lately… I wish I could just take him with me at all times.”
While servants put food on the table and I checked around, Lissa went to the nursery and came back carrying the young man in question. Alistair Dragomir Ozera was eight months old, owner of a very steady neck and the world’s most worried dad.
“That’s why I’m here.” Said Christian, the dad in question, following her out of the nursery. “I get to take him with me all I want.”
“No need to gloat.” Lissa showed him her tongue, but smiled. Alistair tried to grab her tongue, but failed when she pulled it in again. “Did you and daddy have fun this morning while mommy slaved away in tedious party planning?”
“Fun is an understatement.” Dimitri whispered, stopping next to me against the wall. I felt a smile spread on my face, but didn’t move, eyes still following everyone who was serving lunch. “I still haven’t met a man so in love with being a parent as Christian.”
“Gender stereotypes who?” I replied, to which he chuckled. “I’m getting baby duty tonight. You’ll be at the party, right?”
“Sure will. It will be nice to switch for a change. I’m starting to smell like baby powder.”
“I don’t really mind, honestly.” I finally spared him a look. He looked as dazzling as he had looked on our wedding day, even if there were clear signs of baby spit in his uniform. He would always send small hints that he might want one someday. “I prefer this to the cologne of those lords any day of the week. Prince Badica really needs to get it together.”
He smiled and his eyes were drawn to the family sitting down for lunch. It wasn’t that weird anymore, to watch while my friends had lunch, but it had taken a while for Lissa and I to get used to this arrangement after eating together our whole lives. As time passed, however, things tended to fall into place. I would eat later, during my break in which someone would cover for me.
Lissa and Christian sat each on one side of Alistair in his high chair. Lissa might be the monarch to all of the Moroi, but in this house, it was Alistair who was the boss. A wave of his bun-like hand was a command. A single grunt would make his parents bend over backwards to make him smile again. A child so loved had never lived before. I was glad to see my friends so happy.
For a night that began so well… It was surprising how terrible it ended.
“You’re going to be late…”
I said, looking out the window, seeing all of the well dressed royals on the way to the party parlor, floors beneath us.
Lissa was bent over Alistair’s cradle, humming softly while she caressed his smooth dark hair. He’d been asleep for a while, but as usual, she had a hard time letting him go. She was already in her dress and make up, her crown glinting under the nightlight.
“Ah.” She raised her eyes for the window and bit her lip. I didn’t need any bond to tell me what she was thinking.
“He’ll be fine. He’s been sleeping the whole night for a while now.” Christian wouldn’t stop talking about it for a week once it happened the first time. Dimitri and I joked about it for about the same time. “He probably won’t even know you’re gone.”
“I know.” She said weakly, her eyes never leaving her son. “But I’ll know.”
I walked up to her and touched her shoulder.
“What are you thinking about?”
This is a question I’d never thought I’d have to ask, but that I’d been asking a lot the past few years. It was our way of holding on to our past, to what brought us here. It was more than a question, it was a promise. That even if our bond was gone, we would still be connected. We still cared.
“It will be their death anniversary soon.” I didn’t have to ask who. Her parents. Andre. It was always like this this time of year. Some things never changed. Not only the good things.
“I know.” I said, carefully.
She shook her head and took a deep breath.
“I know this is the safest place in the world for him, but… I worry so much.” Lissa’s green eyes carried ghosts when she looked at her child again. This sent a chill down my spine. I knew the spirit’s influence when I saw it and I didn’t like it one bit. “There are so many who would hurt him just to get to me… Makes me wish I could just… Leave with him and never look back…”
“I know. I know. The time.” She stood up, but this was not what I was going to say. She finally looked at me and did her best to smile. Out of nowhere, she pulled me into a rare hug. I couldn’t help but smile and hug her back.
“Nothing is going to happen to him. I won’t let it. I promise.”
“I know.” She said, nodding. “Thank you.”
Then, she looked one last time at her son and left.
Alistair Dragomir could have any nanny in the Moroi world, but his mother felt safer if it was someone she trusted. So it wasn’t unusual for me to find myself in his nursery chair in my free time, playing with his toys or flipping through his books. There were other guardians on duty, and I could focus solely on the heir.
Some days, Dimitri would come too and we would teach the kid important things, like burping and somersaulting. Ali mostly laughed and pointed. Sometimes, other people would come too. Mia. Jill. Sonya. Alistair was very young for the amount of people that loved him. He didn’t even know how lucky he was.
Tonight, however, he was sleeping like an angel, and for that I was thankful. Life in the Court was easy, but stressful. No one wants to be the one who allowed the unexpected to happen. We were always on edge, even if this was, as Lissa put it, the safest place in the world for us. I was exhausted, so I was glad to just play on my phone as Alistair snorred ever so slightly.
I heard the guardians moving in the other room, though. I checked my watch - it wasn’t time for another round. As I was standing up to get to the door, one of them opened it first.
“What’s going on?”
“We got word to take the little one to a safer location.”
“Safer?” I eyed the black-out curtains. Daylight spread under it. It couldn’t be Strigoi. “Is something going on?”
Guardian Hazel waved the walkie-talkie he had in hand.
“Someone found a breach on the walls. We don’t know where it came from. The party is secure, but we would feel better if the baby was somewhere less… Obvious.”
I nodded, praying that it was something within our power to fix soon. I got Alistair’s bag and put it across my shoulders. I went to the crib and grabbed the little man, holding him close against my chest. He barely moved. Him nuzzling the fabric of my shirt was the only indication he knew he was somewhere different.
“Emergency shelter?” I asked, trying to calm my pounding heart. Guardian Hazel was watching the window, pulling the blackout curtain just a little bit to the side. He nodded.
“Yes. Guardian McHale will lead the way.” He pointed back to the main part of the apartment.
I left the room and McHale waved. I followed after her, looking around the apartment. If only I knew it’d be a while until I saw it again…
McHale, another guardian and I walked out of the general halls and into the servants maintenance ones. I knew all of this by heart - the service elevators, the small stairs, the secret doors. Only building staff knew about it. It was the safest route to the emergency shelters.
We couldn’t hear anything that was happening outside and the tension of the silence was killing me. How serious was this breach? Could Strigoi be involved? At one point, I thought I felt a rumble at some point. At first, I thought it was just my anxiety playing jokes on me. But then, it started to get warm.
“I really don’t want to be the one to make a joke right now.” I whispered as we were climbing down a set of stairs. “But is it me or is it hot in here?”
Of course, everyone was too worked up to reply. But the answer presented itself to us once we reached the pair of double doors that led to the emergency shelters. I think I knew then. I knew that something terrible was happening.
It was filling the top of the hallway, dark and putrid. I covered Alistair’s face with his blanket and started running. The guardians were right behind me.
“The nearest outside exit! Where is it?!” I asked McHale, trying to remember it myself.
“We just passed it.” She said, pointing to the smoke filled door, but waved us on. “But if we continue in this direction, we can get to the old stables. The garages are close to there. If we can get there, we can get Alistair out.”
I nodded, slowly remembering the geography of the place and understanding the plan. Finally feeling the sudden moves, Alistair started fussing, and I tried my best to sound soft as I shushed him. There was still not much noise around us, but I was sure this was about to change. He calmed down for the time being and I silently thanked him for that.
Even if the tunnels were long and spacious, they were filling with smoke quickly. We could see it gather in a cloud above us. None of us needed to be reminded of safety measures, and we continued running keeping our heads as low as we could. That didn’t stop us from coughing.
Finally, we reached the door to the old stables that had been turned into a cute souvenir shop. When we opened the door to the storage room, that’s when he first heard it. The screams. My hands turned to ice and I grabbed firmer onto Alistair. Lissa, was my first thought. Dimitri, was second. But I had to trust that one would take care of one another. My duty was crying in my arms.
We crossed the shop, and McHale kicked the locked door to open it. As we stepped outside, even all of our training and experience couldn’t stop us from gagging in despair.
The Royal Court was burning.
Like a birthday candle. Like a fireplace. Like a forest fire. Fire was consuming everything: the buildings, the trees, the people. Screams called out for help, for their loved ones. I was sure it had to be broad daylight, but the smoke made everything dark. The flames were the brightest thing around. I was so shocked I could hardly hear Alistair screaming until his little hand hit my face.
I shook my head, grounding myself into the present. I located the garages and started running that way. McHale followed me. I don’t know what happened to the other guardian that was with us.
Surprisingly, we found the garages intact, if not a little emptier than normal. People must’ve run as soon as they saw how big the fire was. If it was to ask for help or to protect themselves, it was hard to know. It was hard to believe something like this could be controlled. I was going for one of the royal cars when McHale pulled me down behind a car. Alistair was no longer crying, because deep coughs were shaking him. I didn’t know what was more urgent.
“What?” I whispered. McHale looked across the hood of the car and took out her stake.
“Someone’s in here.”
I grabbed my own stake from where I normally hid it under my pant leg. Dimitri always said to always be ready. No one is going to wait until you’re in duty to cause trouble. Oh, what wouldn’t I give to hear some of that zen philosophy right now?
McHale made a gesture and we started moving towards the royal cars. Two people blocked our way. Humans, it seemed. McHale went forward, her movements too quick for our attackers. I pulled back to try and go around the fight towards our goal.
Another human blocked me. He seemed about to attack with - was that a baseball bat? - but he seemed to be thrown off his rhythm when he saw that I had a baby in my arms. I should take the kid out fighting more often, I thought, as I used the man’s distraction to shoot a kick to his side and then to his chest. When he fell, I grabbed his bat and ran for the car. McHale was already there, picking up the keys from where we normally left them, over the left back tire.
“Get in!” She didn’t even have to tell me twice.
Our car raced through the burning Court. It was like a scene from a terrible movie. It had a sickening feeling of reality that somehow made it look more surreal. This was my home. This was the place I had been living for the past six years. This was where I saw my teenage friends blossom into adulthood. Where we celebrated Lissa’s graduation, where we celebrated Christian’s fighting Moroi squad initiative when it got approved, where we changed our world a little bit every day. This was where I got married. This was the place I found love and happiness as easy as breathing.
And now it was turning to ashes.
“Where are we going?”
I asked McHale.
“Anywhere that’s not on fire. And we pick it up from there. What do you think?”
“Fine by me.”
Through clouds of smoke I see them: humans. Chasing after us with weapons that varied greatly. I saw rifles and whips. I saw bats covered in nails and flamethrowers - undoubtedly the cause of all of this fire. Looked like a replay of when we rescued Jill. These were no Strigoi. It was those crazy ex-alchemists. Called themselves Light Warriors. They’d been so quiet all these years, we didn’t think they’d be such a threat. At least not now. How could they have done this without us noticing?
“Fucking bastards…” I grumble and Alistair agrees with me, crying again, pulling my clothes in search of something I couldn’t give him. “Sorry, baby. We just have to get out of here, okay? Then, I’ll give you whatever you want.”
Ali, too young to speak any English, paid me no mind and continued to search for his mother’s breasts in another woman.
“Shit!” McHale stopped the car and the tires burnt out. There were guards at the gates. “What should we do?”
“What the fuck do you mean?” I look at the four men with guns. “Run them over! And fast!”
McHale looks from me to the men, seeming to think I was crazy. Then she looked back, and saw more men approaching. She knew as well as me that we could never make it to the other gates - and they’d probably be surrounded too.
“He comes first.” I said, waving my head towards Alistair.
McHale sighed, her golden short hair glinting under all of the flames around us. She nodded, looking directly forward. The men lifted their weapons, finally noticing us. They’d never get a chance to shoot.
“He comes first.” McHale stepped on the gas and we dashed towards - and over - the human guards.