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“All clear. Doing the final perimeter check.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and gave the room a once over. It was small and had no windows; five guardians still crouched protectively in front of the closed door.
The Strigoi hit hard and fast; the ward was brought down, and they attacked the secure hotel. It was a suicide mission for them; they had to know that, but it was to prove a point—they were determined to stop us.
Court had traitors that kept Strigoi informed, and they knew this was a push for building our defences. A mutual meeting ground for dhampir and Moroi to discuss better ways to work together. Lissa was spearheading it all, pushing for Moroi to be trained in combat and improving the livelihood of dhampirs to raise the numbers.
The plan had backing, even a majority Council vote. And that was why they had to attack.
It was a fear tactic.
“It’s over?” Lissa asked hesitantly. She was behind us, far against the wall with Christian standing protectively in front of her. Two other Royal Guard stood beside me, forming a protective circle around the two of them. “We have to find Rose!” Lissa cried and made the panic in my heart twist like a knife.
I was Christian’s main guardian; I had to be with him all the time, while Lissa had many. When Strigoi attacked and got too close, Rose and another guardian stayed behind to hold them off. They gave us time to get the Queen and the Prince Consort to safety.
It killed me to leave her behind in all the chaos, but that was part of the job.
I cleared my throat, forcing the emotions from my voice, “It’s over. We need to confirm it’s clear before you can leave.” I needed to stay focused. After I knew it was safe for my charge, then I could look for Rose.
“Dimitri, just go look for her. I don’t need you here,” Christian declared, tone impassive, but I knew he was worried.
I shook my head, “It’s protocol for me to stay with you.” The words were like acid; I hated saying them. I hated that I put my job above Rose, but we both did. We always had. It was how we worked—the morals we shared and believed in.
I had to believe that Rose could take care of herself.
The head of Lissa’s Royal Guard detail eyed me; the concerns of her eyes pinched. Not only were there multiple guardians and Moroi past those doors that might be injured or worse, but two of her team were also out there.
Chelsey pulled out her radio, “Are there eyes on Hathaway and Chase?”
We stood in silence and waited for a reply; the radio buzzed with white noise before the response came through. “One Royal Guard confirmed dead, another injured.”
All of the air left my body, and dread spread through my veins like ice. I felt numb.
It’s not Rose. It couldn’t be Roza.
I had to stand still and keep my head high as it felt like I was dying inside. It wasn’t confirmed who had died, there was every chance that Rose was only injured, but there was just as much of a chance that I was about to see her lifeless body.
I trained Rose. She was a brilliant guardian, a long list of kills under her belt. No one could hold a candle to her skills and ability to survive incredible odds.
Chelsey met my eyes and jutted her chin to the door, “Go.”
Unlike before, I didn’t hesitate on the notion of protocol; with a nod at Chelsey and Christian, I slipped past the guardians and the doors and out into the carnage of the hotel. We had planned for a possible attack. The building was filled with guardians, and we even brought all of the Moroi who knew how to use their magic defensively.
We had to meet in a neutral area, Court gave too many royals a sense of privilege, and it made unpromised dhampir uneasy, so we chose the hotel. Rose and I were part of the team that planned the escape route; she had chosen the way to take Lissa if there were any issues—a secure room with an underground tunnel that was only accessible from the inside.
She was leading the way there when we were surprised by a group of Strigoi and fought them off while ordering us to keep going.
The hallway walls were covered in scorch marks and blood; bodies laid out on the carpet. This wasn’t just a small attack—it was more like a war. I had fought at the beginning; we had to to get out of the conference room. They attacked towards the end of the meeting, just hours before the sun would rise.
The fight was over within an hour, and now I was wandering through what was left of the battleground.
I peered at each body I passed, glanced long enough to determine if it was Rose and then moved on to the next. The only uplifting thought I had was that most of the casualties were Strigoi.
Voices further down the hall caught my attention, and I quickened my pace. Once out of the hall, I entered the main lobby of the hotel; I found myself in guardian central.
Moroi and unpromised dhampir were grouped to the side, and medical attention provided to those that needed it. Guardians crowded around a map laid out on a table, giving orders through the radio at points around the ward. Until they were reinforced, we were open to another attack; though with the number of Strigoi that burst through the windows, I doubted there would be another wave.
I spotted Guardian Andrews and bee-lined to him; he was the one that sent through the information to Chelsey. “Sage!” I called over the noise in the room; he spun, unsurprised to see me.
“I got the information from Guardian Miles. He’s in the conference room. I don’t know which is…” he trailed off with a grim expression. He didn’t know which one was dead.
I was to remain in a limbo of sorts, balancing the edge of if I would be overcome with relief or grief. Andrews turned back to the map; I would offer my help, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything until I knew Roza was okay, and he knew it.
The conference room looked worse than I’d expected. Smashed glass littered the floor, the tables overturned and thrown around. The worst part was the amount of death, there was the stench of it in the room. Most of the bodies were covered, draped with tablecloths or curtains, people beside them sobbing.
My breath caught. A lump formed in my throat, and my hands shook.
My feet were like lead with each step I took into the room. I spotted a group of guardians on the opposite side of the room; they stood around someone on the floor.
“Shit. That’s a lot of blood,” I heard Miles say; he was fussing over the person in front of him, his shoulders blocking their face. The person mumbled in response, but I couldn’t hear it well enough to recognise the voice.
I was a few feet away when I heard the sweetest sound—Roza’s voice. “Miles, I’m fine. Go help the others.” She was exhausted, words slurred, but she sounded strong. Most importantly, she was alive.
I rushed to them, releasing a shaky breath as I was hit by relief, the weight of the unknown falling away. Roza was alive.
Her eyes instantly found mine when I reached her side, dropping to my knees. She was surprised to see me, but I didn’t wonder why as I took in her injuries. Her face was bruised, her hairline and cheek covered in blood that was seeping from a deep cut to her temple; it dripped down her face and neck, staining her white shirt.
My hands hovered above her, wanting to pull her into my arms, but also unsure if I could without agitating her injuries.
“Comrade?” Her hand caught mine, fingers intertwining. I noticed her knuckles were bruised and bloodied. “What are you doing here? Is Lissa okay?”
I focused on her face again, noting the hazed look in her eyes. “She’s fine. Where else are you hurt?” What I could see already made me panic, but there were injuries I wouldn’t be able to see until she removed her suit.
Rose shrugged, attempting nonchalant, but winced in pain, “Nothing bad. It’s all superficial. We need to lock down the perimeter and–”
“Andrews is already doing that. Everything is under control,” I explained, taking away any excuses she could use to distract me from her. “You need to be looked at before you do anything.” I was firm, slipping back into a professional role. If there were another attack, Rose would be useless with her injuries.
She pulled a face. “Fine, I’ll get looked at. But you should stay with Lissa and Christian.”
“They have enough guards. I’m helping you.” I didn’t care what others said; I needed to be sure Rose was okay before I could focus on anything else. I didn’t wait for another argument, easing an arm around her back and lifting hers around my neck. Rose hissed in pain, and I could feel the slide of blood on her wrist.
I whispered apologies as I manoeuvred her to her feet; Miles helped her up and then moved on to help others. With slow steps, we made our way back to the lobby. It was calmer, with less yelling of orders from guardians, and those that couldn’t fight were being sent out and to their rooms.
We didn’t make it far before I noticed Chelsey; her eyes lit up when they saw Rose. She rushed over, “Thank god. The Queen will be happy to hear you’re okay.”
Rose shifted awkwardly, a look of pain crossing her face, “I couldn’t check in; I lost my piece. How is everyone?”
Chelsey’s expression dropped for a moment because she reinforced her mask. “Other than Chase, our team is fine. Once the perimeter was secured, the Queen refused to stay still. She’s helping with the wounded.”
I searched the room, locating Lissa with a guardian, her hands on his face, and Christian hovered behind her. He would be concerned about how much darkness this would give her, as would Rose.
When I looked down at her, I noticed that she had paled. “Did you want to ask Lissa?” I asked, wondering if she was hurt badly enough to need Lissa’s powers, and hoped Rose would tell me the truth.
It took a moment for her to respond, blinking as if to clear her vision. “No. No, I don’t want to… others are worse.”
“The sun is rising, and the wards are being placed now. Go to your room and rest,” Chelsey ordered gently. She was eyeing the blood running down Rose’s face warily.
“There’s not enough guardians—”
She cut off Rose’s argument. “Reinforcements have arrived. Those that are injured and unable to fight are being sent to their rooms until we can arrange transport back to Court. Go.”
I knew Rose wanted to argue more, so I carefully shifted towards the elevator, “Let’s go, Roza.”
Rose scowled but relented, her exhaustion showing more in her expression. “Okay. Just tell Lissa I’m okay, please,” she directed at Chelsey.
The walk was slow, taking more of her weight as we went. We were only on the second floor and wouldn’t usually take the elevator, but I strongly doubt Rose had the energy for the stairs. Luckily, it wasn’t full, and I guided Rose out and down the hall.
I retrieved our key from my back pocket, shuffled us through the door and kicked it closed behind us. After the conference, Rose and I would have finished our shifts, and with the expectation of remaining at the hotel for another day, we had plans for our time off together. I had plans to bring Rose back to our room, but it wasn’t meant to be like this.
I passed the bed and went straight to the bathroom. The bright light made her appear paler and the blood more apparent. I started to remove her coat, hating each time she winced. I shrugged out of my coat and pushed up the sleeves of my shirt.
“There were more than I thought there were,” she broke the silence, drawing my eyes from her bloodied arm that was now uncovered. I took her wrist, carefully rolling the sleeve up to see the cut better. “Chase and I managed to hold them back, and some others helped. A Moroi started throwing fireballs—Christian would have been proud.”
Rose shifted back against the bathroom counter and heaved herself up; I caught her hips and helped. I tilted her head; I needed to take care of that cut first.
With one of the hand towels, I wet it with warm water and then pressed it to her forehead. Rose whined, flinching away. “Sorry,” I apologised. My hand cupped the other side of her face, trying to comfort her as I worked.
“I would have come joined you guys, but I got thrown through the fucking window of the conference room,” Rose groaned.
That would explain all the cuts.
“I managed to take down another two or three after that,” she continued, “I don’t really remember.”
I frowned, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help.” We both understood that I was to stay with Christian, and I knew Rose preferred me close to Lissa if she were in danger. None of that changed the fact that I wished I had her back.
She gave me a smirk, though it morphed into a grimace. “You missed one hell of a fight.”
I continued to clean her up the best I could, grabbing the first aid kit I always packed. Thankfully, the cut on her temple wasn’t as bad as I had thought; with some gauze and tape, I bandaged it and moved on to her arm.
“I lost track of Chase,” Rose admitted in a small voice. “When I got thrown—he was in the hall fighting two of them, and then… I don’t know.”
“They didn’t say who was alive when they–” I paused, a lump in my throat again. I hated that the feeling I had almost lost Roza was so familiar to me. Even when I had her back and knew she would be okay, it would remain in the back of my mind for days after.
“So that’s why you looked at me like I was the second coming?” A grin pulled at the corners of her mouth. “Ow!”
I stilled. I was examining the cut on her arm, cleaning the blood. I peer closer, titling it under the light, “I think there’s glass in it.”
Rose frowned, looking at the cut as I found some tweezers. “I hate this. New rule, no conference rooms with glass walls.”
A smile appeared on my face, “Of course, Roza.”
The glass was difficult to get, and Rose complained the whole time. At least I knew it wasn’t causing her too much pain; it was when she was quiet that made me concerned. Once her arm was cleaned and wrapped, and the cuts on the knuckles taken care of, I pressed my palms to the counter on either side of her.
“Where else are you hurt?” I held her eyes, letting her know I wanted the truth. There was no need for her to act tough around me.
She rolled her eyes; they were more focused now. “I think there were a couple of good hits to my ribs, but nothing broken,” she promised. Her hand reached out, fingertips brushing my shirt, “Sorry, I ruined your shirt.”
My eyes dropped down, spying the patches of blood on my shirt. I shrugged, fingers undoing the buttons. If they needed me downstairs, they would call, but it was unlikely. We had a few hours before there would be any transport for us back to Court, so there was time to rest.
Rose shot me a sly smile, “I like where this is going.”
“We are sleeping. You need it.” I gave her a pointed look. I stripped her shirt, checking over her skin as I went. There were a few dark bruises, but none that were alarming. With another clean towel, I washed the rest of the blood until her skin was clean enough.
“I need a shower,” she mumbled, eyes half closed.
Slipping my hands under her thighs, I lifted her off the counter and carried her to the bed. “Later. We can shower together.”
Rose hummed against my neck, “That’s a great idea. Scrub my back, and I’ll scrub yours.”
With her laid out on the bed, I removed the rest of her clothes and then mine, pulling the sheet up to cover us. Rose curled up against me, using my arm as a pillow; I pulled her in tightly, holding her close. “Just try to sleep, Roza.”