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“You made some girl’s night,” I told her, stifling a yawn. “And I’ll get you peonies on every anniversary, for the rest of our lives.”

The next thing I knew, one of the uncomfortable guardians was waking us up, and the jet was on the ground. Peering out the window, I saw that we’d actually landed at Court, a privilege only given to a few. Most visitors landed at a nearby regional airport or rented a car at some major airport, like Philadelphia. It paid to be about the queen’s business, I supposed. I noted also that it looked to be about noon outside, which was a time most Moroi on vampiric schedules were fast asleep. I hoped it meant we really would get shoved to some room for a while until everyone was up and about.

No such luck.

We were immediately escorted straight from the plane to the palace, where we were told Lissa “and others” wanted to speak to us immediately. We didn’t even get a chance to change, and though I would never get tired of Sydney in that gorgeous dress, I knew both of us were at a point where jeans and a T-shirt would’ve been welcome. If that wasn’t going to be an option, though, I decided to play up what I had. I retied my bow tie and put the tuxedo jacket back on.

“Let’s do this,” I said to the waiting guardians.

We were taken to a room of the palace I didn’t get to very often, since most of my meetings with Lissa—and, in the past, my aunt—had been of a casual nature. The room we went to now was used for much more formal occasions, when Lissa actually had to have state meetings and conduct royal business. There was even a throne for her to sit on—albeit a modest and tasteful oak one without any extra embellishment. Her clothes were nice but nothing fancy, and her only nod to her title was a tiny tiara sitting atop her unbound hair. Silent guardians ringed the room’s walls, but I paid no more attention to them than I did furniture. I was much more interested in those Lissa was speaking with: a motley assortment of people who both sat and stood, all seeming edgy, as though they were waiting for something. Us, I realized.

Rose, Dimitri, and Christian were there, which came as no surprise. Lissa wouldn’t be without her confidantes, especially when it came to me. Marie Conta, an older Moroi who was an advisor of a more official nature, also hovered nearby. She’d stood by Lissa and helped her through her controversial rule, so it made sense Marie would come for something like this. It wasn’t even that unexpected to see my parents on hand.

What did take me aback—and Sydney too, judging by the stiffening of her hand in mine—was that there were Alchemists here already. Not only that, they were very notable Alchemists: Sydney’s father, her sister Zoe, and a guy it took me a moment to place. Ian, that was it. A guy who’d once had a pretty hardcore crush on Sydney.

This was the mess we strolled into, all dolled up in our wedding finery.

I’d been responsible for a lot of shenanigans in my life, but this was the first time I’d ever actually rendered an entire room speechless. Eyes widened. Jaws dropped. Even a few of the stone-faced guardians standing along the walls looked astonished.

“Don’t all speak at once,” I said.

Sydney’s father got to his feet, face flushed with anger. “What in the world is this abomination?”

Lissa, only slightly more tactful, asked, “Adrian, is this some kind of joke?”

“What’s a joke is waking everyone up for this,” I said glibly. “I mean, I know you’re all excited to see us, but there was no need to—”

“I demand you turn her over to our custody immediately,” exclaimed Sydney’s father. “So that we can stop this farce before it goes any farther. We’ll take it from here.”

“Mr. Sage says Sydney’s committed terrible crimes among the Alchemists,” said Lissa. “They claim you did too, Adrian, but they’re willing to overlook yours if we give her to them, since you’re one of my subjects.”

I stood my ground. “The only crime we committed was getting her and a bunch of other poor wretches out of that freak show of a rehabilitation center—one they were going to abandon her to burn in. And you know what crimes she and the other prisoners committed? Treating dhampirs and Moroi like real people. Imagine that.”

“According to them,” said Lissa calmly, “Sydney tried to burn some of their people last night.”

“It was a bluff,” I stated. “They’re still alive, aren’t they?”

“This is irrelevant,” snapped Ian. He stayed sitting, and judging from his proximity to Zoe, it looked like he’d shifted his affections from one Sage sister to another. “It’s not for you to judge our people. We’ll handle this.”

This was it, the moment I dropped the real blow on them. “Well, that’s the thing, your majesty. Sydney is one of your subjects, now that she’s my wife. You said you wouldn’t give me to them because I’m under your protection, right? Are you saying you’d abandon my wife to any less?”

That drew the room to silence again until Lissa found her voice. “Adrian . . . is that was this is about?” She gestured to Sydney and me in our formal wear when she said this but couldn’t articulate anything more precise. “Why you did, um, this? You think it gets her Moroi citizenship or something? That’s not how it works. Not at all. I know you care about her—”

“Care about her?” I exclaimed. I realized then that none of them really and truly got it. All the times I’d harassed Lissa to help Sydney over these last few months, Lissa had assumed it was out of my feelings of friendship for Sydney. And now, she and the others from Court thought that this was just some crazy stunt I’d pulled off to get my way. Only the Alchemists had an inkling of the sincerity of my feelings, but those feelings were twisted and wrong in their eyes. “Lissa, I love her. I didn’t marry her as some sort of joke! I married her because I love her and want to spend the rest of my life with her. And I’d hoped, as my sovereign, you’d stand by me to protect me and my loved ones—especially since I’m guessing this lot has no hard proof of the crimes we’re being accused of. You told me last month that you couldn’t take risks for anyone but your subjects. Well, I know she’s not technically your subject or Moroi, but I am, and if the promises you’ve made to me, as one of your people, truly mean anything, they will extend to her. We’re married. She’s my family now. We’re bound together for the rest of our lives, and if you’re going to let them haul her off, you might as well cast me out now too.”

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