Carter and Taylor gingerly stepped out of the sleek black car that Max had parked in the courtyard. The Royal Court towered over them in all its grandeur, just as Carter remembered it.
"Welcome home," Taylor said, holding Carter's hand tightly. "Don't forget, there's a process," she muttered, eyeing Max and Crash as they tightened their weapon belts.
"I remember," she smiled to her sister. "It wasn't that long ago that I was your Guardian… oh no, wait, I still am."
Taylor elbowed her playfully in the ribs.
"Front or back?" Max asked Crash, who raised his eyebrows mischievously. "Stupid question." Max added, as he automatically positioned himself in front of Carter and Taylor.
"Don't check out my ass," Taylor said to Crash, with a joking smile.
"But you can check out mine if you like," Carter turned and winked at him. Crash stifled a giggle.
"Carter!" Taylor exclaimed.
"What? He can if he wants."
Max began walking quickly towards the heavy doors of the Royal Court, Taylor and Carter following him, with Crash behind them in tow.
"I'm pretty sure no one is going to attack us between here and the front door." Carter rolled her eyes.
"One must always protect a Princess, especially if there are two."
"Yeah, yeah," Carter muttered under her breath as they stepped inside.
Queen Elizabeth and King David Dragomir were waiting on their arrival. Taylor skipped forward in front of Max and embraced her parents tightly. Carter, Max and Crash stood in a line and bowed together.
"Oh please!" Elizabeth cried towards Max, hugging him tightly. "You're practically family." Then she turned to Carter. "And you are family."
"Yeah, I guess so." Carter hugged her Mom, pressing her face into her shoulder. She had been more comfortable as a Guardian, hiding behind formalities and status. David kissed her forehead and then extended his arm to Crash.
"It's a pleasure to meet you. How may we address you?" David asked, which Carter thought was incredibly backward.
"I like to go by Crash."
"Crash?" Elizabeth smiled. "It's unique."
"It's a nickname from childhood. I was quite clumsy until I started training to be a Guardian."
"How come we haven't seen you before?" asked David.
"I've been in service the past year, undercover," said Crash. "There was a small tribe of Strigoi a few miles South of here."
"And you were responsible for their dispersion?"
"One of many, your Majesty."
"Call me Elizabeth, please."
Crash bowed. "As you wish."
"Well, your efforts have made such an influence on our campaign. We're going to be reviewing the war effort in the next few days. I'm sure your work has made a considerable difference to our numbers."
"I hope so… Elizabeth," Crash stumbled.
"Please, join us in the drawing room. We have much to discuss."
Elizabeth and David led them swiftly through to a side room, warmed with drapes that proudly displayed the Dragomir coat of arms. The fireplace was ablaze, crackling softly in the background. Max and Crash closed the doors behind the family, and then stood proudly in front of it.
"You need not guard us here," David said, gesturing for them to sit down. "We are safe."
Both Max and Crash bowed, out of habit, and sat on the sofa next to Carter and Taylor. Elizabeth and David stood in front of them, their backs being warmed by the fire.
"We must talk further in depth about our efforts against the Strigoi," Elizabeth began. "But more importantly we must talk about Lori – your captor."
Carter nodded solemnly.
"We understand it must be very difficult for you to get to grips with, Carter," David said. "But she is a threat not only to you but to us as well."
"We discussed bringing you here to the Royal Court, to keep you under constant protection."
"But I want to stay at the Academy!" Carter cried.
Elizabeth held up a hand to stop her. "This is why we thought it best that you do return to the Academy after our meeting today."
"Lori will be expecting us to bring you here, and we must keep up appearances, that her taking you captive has not impacted the strength of the Court."
"Of course," Taylor agreed.
"But we must ask one thing of you, Carter." David narrowed his eyes. "We understand and respect that you wish to keep your status as Guardian. But no matter your blood status, Lori will look to try and manipulate you again, and we must keep you safe at all costs."
"Okay," Carter breathed. "What would you like me to do?"
"It's not what you can do," said Elizabeth. "But what Crash can do."
Everyone looked to Crash, whose eyes widened. "Me?" He asked, pointing to himself.
"Crash, we would like to assign you to Carter as her Guardian."
"But I am a Guardian!" exclaimed Carter.
"It's just extra precaution," David interjected.
"Crash will accompany you to your classes and back to your dormitories, just as you would do for Taylor." Elizabeth explained.
"We just see it as a case of strength in numbers."
Elizabeth continued. "You, Crash, Max and Taylor, will remain together for the rest of the school year. The Academy has agreed to move you all into a larger room with two bedrooms, as this is a special circumstance."
"They are just as eager to protect you both as we are."
"We appreciate your cooperation in this matter," Elizabeth said finally.
Carter mulled it over in her brain. It was sweet, of course, that her birth parents wanted to protect her and Taylor from another Strigoi attack, and she wanted nothing more than Taylor to be protected. But the more she allowed everyone to treat her like the Royalty that she truly was, the more it meant accepting a side of herself that she wasn't ready to.
But keeping Taylor safe at all costs was all that she knew, and mattered more to her than her own selfish dramas.
"Fine," Carter agreed.
"Thank you, Carter," David smiled.
The big doors to the Royal Court closed behind them. Taylor walked with Max, arm in arm, all formalities forgotten. Crash lagged behind Carter, still wanting to keep them intact.
"Come here," Carter whispered to Crash, linking her arm through his. "I need to talk to you."
"About what?" Crash asked, awkwardly shuffling next to Carter.
"You've been undercover with the Strigoi for a year, right?"
"So you know where Lori is hiding out?"
"Sort of," Crash said carefully. "I know where she could be."
"I need you to be a double agent for me."
Crash stopped dead in his tracks. "I'm sorry, what now?"
"If we find out where Lori is hiding, we can bring her to justice at the Court and then I can go back to being a Guardian, and Taylor will be out of trouble."
"It's not as easy as that, Carter," Crash cried, eyeing Max and Taylor as they climbed back into the car. "Just because Lori is a threat, it doesn't mean she is the only threat."
"No, but if Lori is tried and convicted then many of the Strigoi, especially her followers, will loose confidence, the Court would look stronger than ever and we may gain the upper hand."
"Listen, ever since I can remember we have lived in fear of the Strigoi, now we have an advantage to bring them down for good. I know Lori's weakness, her weakness is me, and if we monopolise on that we could have the whole of her tribe in the palm of our hands."
"Has this got anything to do with you refusing give up your Guardianship?" Crash raised an eyebrow.
"What?" Carter stammered. "No. Absolutely not."
Max honked the horn. "Are you guys coming?" He called.
"One second!" Carter called. "Crash, please?!"
"Fine," Crash agreed, after a second. "But once I know her whereabouts you're on your own."
"Absolutely!" Carter grinned wildly, as they walked back to the car.