Abe glanced over at one of his guardians and gave a swift nod.The man instantly walked away.“It’s done,” Abe said.
“Just like that?” I asked in disbelief.
His lips quirked into a smile.
“Rolan knows who I am. He knows who works for me. Once Pavel makes my… ah, wishes known, that will be the end of it.”
I shivered, knowing Abe spoke the truth. Considering what a smartass I’d been to Abe this whole time, it really was a wonder I hadn’t had my feet set in cement and been tossed into the ocean. “So why aren’t you forcefully dragging me out of here?”
“I never like to make anyone do anything they don’t want to. Even Rolan. It’s much easier if people simply see reason and do what I ask them to, without the use of force.”
“And by ?®see reason,’ you mean, ?®blackmail,’” I said, thinking of what I’d just agreed to.
“We made a trade,” he said. “That’s all. Don’t forget your end of the bargain. You promised to leave here, and you don’t seem like the type to go back on your word.”
Viktoria suddenly appeared at the door. Wow, that was fast. Pavel was calmly dragging her by her arm. Her hair was mussed, and a dress strap was slipping from her shoulder. Her face was a mixture of incredulity and anger. “What did you do? That guy came and told Rolan to get out of here and never see me again! And then… Rolan agreed. He just left.”
I found it slightly funny that Viktoria immediately blamed me for this. True, I was responsible, but Abe was standing right there. It wasn’t a secret who his employees were. Nonetheless, I defended my actions.
“He was using you,” I said.
There were tears in Viktoria’s brown eyes. “He loves me.”
“If he loves you, then why did he hit on me as soon as your back was turned?”
“He did not!”
“He’s the one who got Sonya pregnant.”
Even in the alley’s dim lighting, I saw her face pale. “That’s a lie.”
I threw up my hands. “Why would I make that up? He wanted to make plans with me as soon as you were out of town!”
“If he did,” she said, voice shaking, “it was because you led him on.”
I gaped. Beside me, Abe listened quietly, a smug look on his face. He was so self-satisfied and probably thought he was being proven right. I wanted to punch him, but Viktoria was my concern.
“How can you think that? I’m your friend!” I told her.
“If you were my friend, you wouldn’t be acting like this. You wouldn’t try to stand in my way. You act like you loved my brother, but there’s no way you could have-no way you really understand love!”
Didn’t understand love? Was she crazy? If she only knew what I’d sacrificed for Dimitri, what I’d done to be where I was now… all for love. She was the one who couldn’t understand. Love wasn’t a fling in a back room at a party. It was something you lived and died for. My emotions surged, that darkness welling up within me that made me want to lash out in return for her horrible accusation. It was only through the strongest of efforts that I remembered she was already hurting, that she only said the things she did because she was confused and upset.
“Viktoria, I do understand, and I’m sorry. I’m only doing this because you’re my friend. I care about you.”
“You aren’t my friend,” she hissed. “You aren’t part of this family. You don’t understand anything about us or how we live! I wish you’d never come here.” She turned and stormed away, pushing back inside through the long line of partygoers. My heart ached as I watched her.
I turned to Abe. “She’s going to go try to find him.”
He still wore that damnably knowing expression. “It won’t matter. He’ll have nothing to do with her anymore. Not if he values that pretty face of his.” I was worried for Viktoria but kind of had a feeling Abe was right about Rolan. Rolan would no longer be an issue. As for Viktoria’s next guy… well, that was a worry for another day.
“Fine. Then we’re done here. Do not follow me anymore,” I growled.
“Keep your promise to leave Baia, and I won’t have to.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I told you: I always keep my promises.”
And as I hurried back to the Belikov house, I suddenly wondered if that was true. The blowout with Abe and Viktoria was like cold water on my face. What was I doing here? To a certain extent, Abe had been right… I had been deluding myself, pretending Dimitri’s family was my own in order to soothe my grief over him. But they weren’t. This wasn’t home. The Academy wasn’t my home either, not anymore. The only thing I had left was my promise-my promise to Dimitri. The promise I’d somehow lost sight of since coming here.
Some of the Belikov family was in bed when I got home, but others were still in the living room. I slipped upstairs to my room, waiting anxiously for Viktoria to get home. A half hour later, I heard footsteps on the stairs and the sound of her door closing. I knocked gently on it.
“Viktoria,” I said in a loud whisper. “It’s me. Please talk to me.”
“No!” came the response. “I don’t ever want to talk to you again.”
“I’m just worried about you.”
“You aren’t my brother! You aren’t even my sister. You have no place here!”
Ouch. Her voice was muffled by the door, but I didn’t want to risk a fight in the hall and let the others hear. Going to my room, my heart breaking, I stopped and stood in front of the mirror. It was then that I knew she was right. Even Abe was right. Baia wasn’t my place.
In a flash, my meager belongings were packed, but I hesitated before going downstairs. Viktoria’s closed door stared at me, and I had to fight the urge to knock again. If I did, it would only trigger another fight. Or, maybe even worse, she would forgive me-and then I would want to stay forever, lost in the comfort of Dimitri’s family and their simple life.
Taking a deep breath, I headed downstairs and walked out the front door. I wanted to tell the others goodbye but worried the same thing would happen, that I’d look at their faces and change my mind. I needed to go, I realized. I was angry at both Viktoria and Abe. Their words had hurt me, but there’d been truth in them. This wasn’t my world. I had other things to do with my life. And I had a lot of promises to keep.
When I was about eight blocks away, I slowed down, not because I was tired but because I wasn’t sure where I was going. Leaving that house had been the biggest step. I sank down on the curb in front of a neighbor’s silent, dark yard. I wanted to cry without knowing why. I wanted my old life back. I wanted Dimitri and Lissa. Oh, God, I wanted them.
But Dimitri was gone, and the only way I’d see him was if I truly set out to kill him. And as for Lissa… she was more or less gone to me too. Even if I survived this, I didn’t think she could forgive me. Sitting there, feeling lost and alone, I tried reaching out to her one more time. I knew it was foolish, considering what I’d seen before, but I had to try one more time. I had to know if I really could have my old place back there. I slipped inside her mind instantly, my runaway emotions making the transition easy. She was on a private jet.
If Jill had been stunned by meeting St. Vladimir’s A-list students, going on a trip with them made her downright comatose. She stared at everything wide-eyed and barely said a word during the whole flight to the
. When Avery offered her a glass of champagne, Jill could barely stammer out, “N-no thanks.” After that, the others seemed to forget about her and got carried away by their own conversation. Lissa noticed Jill’s uneasiness but didn’t do much to remedy it. That was a shock. The Lissa I had known would have gone out of her way to make Jill comfortable and be included. Fortunately, the younger girl seemed perfectly entertained by watching the others’ antics.
I also took comfort in knowing Jill would be okay once she met up with Mia. Lissa had sent word ahead to Mia to come pick up Jill when they landed, seeing as Lissa and the others had to attend to one of Tatiana’s functions right away. Mia had said she’d take Jill under her wing for the weekend and show her some of the innovative things she’d learned to do with her water magic. Lissa was glad for this, happy she wouldn’t be babysitting a freshman all weekend.
Even if Jill was totally off of Lissa’s radar, one person wasn’t: Avery’s brother Reed. Their father had decided it would be a good idea for Reed to go with them, and seeing as Mr.-excuse me-Headmaster Lazar had played a key role in working with Tatiana to arrange this trip, there was little argument. Avery had rolled her eyes and spoken to Lissa about it covertly, just before boarding.
“We’re all riding your reputation,” Avery said. “Part of the reason Dad let me come was because you’re in good with the queen, and he wants it to rub off on me. He’s then hoping I’ll get in good with her, and then that’ll rub off on Reed-and the rest of the family.”
Lissa tried not to over think the logic too much. Mostly, she was bothered because Reed Lazar was still as unpleasant as he’d been the first day they met. He wasn’t really mean or anything; it just made her uncomfortable being around him. Really, he was the polar opposite of Avery. Whereas she was animated and could always strike up conversation, he stayed tight-lipped and spoke only when spoken to. Lissa couldn’t really tell if it was shyness or disdain.
When Lissa had tried asking him if he was excited to go to Court, Reed had simply shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t care.” His tone had been almost hostile, like he resented her for asking, so she’d given up all other attempts at conversation. The only person, other than his sister, that Lissa saw Reed ever speak to was Avery’s guardian Simon. He had also come along.
When the flight landed, Mia was as good as her word. She waved enthusiastically when Lissa stepped off the plane, her blond curls whipping around in the wind. Lissa grinned back, and they gave each other quick half-hugs, something that never failed to amuse me given their former enemy status.
Lissa made introductions for those who needed them as an escort of guardians led them away from the landing strip and toward the inner portion of Court. Mia welcomed Jill so warmly that the younger girl’s uneasiness faded, and excitement glowed in her green eyes. Smiling fondly, Mia glanced away from Jill and over to Lissa.
Silence fell, followed by uncomfortable glances.
“What?” demanded Mia. “What did I say?”
“Rose is gone,” said Lissa. “Sorry… I thought you knew. She dropped out and left after the attack because there were some things… some personal things… she needed to take care of.”
Lissa feared Mia would ask about the personal things. Only a few people knew about my search for Dimitri, and Lissa wanted to keep it that way.
Most thought I’d just disappeared from post-battle trauma. Mia’s next question completely shocked Lissa.
“Why didn’t you go with her?”
“What?” Lissa stammered. “Why would I do that? Rose dropped out. No way am I going to.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Mia turned speculative. “You guys are just so close-even without the bond. I assumed you’d follow each other to the ends of the earth and figure out the details later.” Mia’s own life had gone through so much upheaval that she took that kind of thing in stride.
That weird, fluctuating anger I’d been feeling pop up in Lissa every so often suddenly reared its head and turned on Mia. “Yeah, well, if we were so close, then it seems like she wouldn’t have left in the first place. She’s the selfish one, not me.”
The words stung me and clearly shocked Mia. Mia had a temper of her own, but she sat on it and simply held up her hands in an apologetic way.
She really had changed. “Sorry. Wasn’t trying to accuse you of anything.”
Lissa said nothing else. Since my departure, she’d beat herself up about a lot of things. She’d gone over and over things she could have done for me before or after the attack, things that might have made me stay. But it had never occurred to her to go with me, and the revelation hit her like a smack to the face. Mia’s words made her feel guilty and angry all at the same time-and she wasn’t sure who she was the maddest at: me or herself.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Adrian a few minutes later, once Mia had led Jill away and promised to meet up later.
“What, you read minds now?” asked Lissa.
“Don’t have to. It’s written all over your face. And Rose never would have let you go with her, so stop agonizing over it.”
They entered the royal guest housing, which was just as lush and opulent as it had been when I’d stayed there. “You don’t know that. I could have talked her into it.”
“No,” said Adrian sharply. “You couldn’t have. I’m serious-don’t give yourself one more thing to be depressed about.”
“Hey, who said I’m depressed? Like I said, she abandoned me.”
Adrian was surprised. Since my departure, Lissa had been more sad than anything. She’d occasionally been angry at my decision, but neither Adrian nor I had seen such vehemence from her. Dark feelings boiled within her heart.
“I thought you understood,” said Adrian, with a small, puzzled frown. “I thought you said you’d-“
Avery suddenly interrupted, giving Adrian a sharp look. “Hey, hey. Leave her alone, okay? We’ll see you at the reception.”
They were at a point where the groups had to split, girls going to one part of the lodging and guys to the other. Adrian looked like he wanted to say more, but instead he nodded and headed off with Reed and a couple of guardians. Avery put a gentle arm around Lissa as she glared at Adrian’s retreating figure.
“You okay?” Avery’s normally laughing face was filled with concern. It startled Lissa in the same way Adrian’s moments of seriousness always startled me.
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over what you could have or should have done. The past is gone. Move on to the future.”
Lissa’s heart was still heavy, her mood blacker than it had been in quite a while. She managed a tight smile. “I think that’s the wisest thing you’ve ever said.”
“I know! Can you believe it? Do you think it’ll impress Adrian?”
They dissolved into laughter, yet despite her cheery exterior, Lissa was still struck by Mia’s offhand comments. They plagued Lissa in a way she hadn’t thought possible. What really bothered her the most wasn’t the thought that if she’d come with me, she could have kept me out of trouble.
No. Her biggest issue was that she hadn’t thought of coming with me in the first place. I was her best friend. As far as she was concerned, that should have been her immediate reaction to my departure. It hadn’t been, and now Lissa was racked with even more guilt than usual. The guilt was all-consuming, and she would occasionally transform it to anger to ease the pain. It didn’t help much.
Her mood didn’t improve as the evening progressed, either. Not long after the group’s arrival, the queen hosted a small reception for the most elite of all visitors who had come to the Court. Lissa was quickly discovering that the queen always seemed to be hosting some party or another. At one point in her life, Lissa would have considered that fun. She no longer did, at least not when it came to these kinds of parties.
But keeping her dark feelings locked up, Lissa stayed good at playing the role of nice royal girl. The queen seemed happy that Lissa had a “suitable” royal friend and was equally pleased when Lissa impressed other royals and dignitaries she was introduced to. At one point, though, Lissa’s resolve nearly faltered.
“Before you leave,” said Tatiana, “we should see about your guardians.”
She and Lissa stood together with a group of admirers and hangers-on who were keeping respectful distances. Lissa had been staring vacantly at the bubbles in her untouched champagne and looked up with a start.
“Guardians, your majesty?”
“Well, there’s no delicate way to put this, but now, for better or for worse, you’re without any protection.” The queen paused respectfully. “Belikov was a good man.”
My name naturally didn’t come to her lips. I might as well have never existed. She’d never liked me, particularly since she thought I was going to run off with Adrian. As it was, Lissa had noticed Tatiana watching with some consideration while Avery and Adrian flirted. It was hard to say if the queen disapproved. Her partying aside, Avery seemed a model girl-save that Tatiana had wanted Lissa and Adrian to eventually get together.
“I don’t need any protection right now,” said Lissa politely, her heart clenching.
“No, but you’ll be out of school soon enough. We think we’ve found some excellent candidates for you. One of them’s a woman-a lucky find.”
“Janine Hathaway offered to be my guardian,” said Lissa suddenly. I hadn’t known that, but as she spoke, I read the story in her mind. My mom had approached her not long after I left. I was a little shocked. My mom was very loyal to her current assignment. This would have been a big move for her.
“Janine Hathaway?” Tatiana’s eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. “I’m sure she has other commitments. No, we’ve got much better choices. This young lady’s only a few years older than you.”
A better choice than Janine Hathaway? Not likely. Before Dimitri, my mother had been the gold standard by which I measured all badassedness.
Tatiana’s “young lady” was undoubtedly someone under the queen’s control-and more importantly, not a Hathaway. The queen didn’t like my mom any more than she liked me. Once, when Tatiana had been bitching me out for something, she’d made a reference to a man my mother had been involved with-someone whom I suspected might be my father, a guy named Ibrahim. The funny thing was, the queen had almost sounded like she had once had an interest in the guy too, and I had to wonder if that was part of her dislike for my family.
Lissa put on a tight, polite smile for the queen and thanked her for the consideration. Lissa and I both understood what was going on. This was Tatiana’s game. Everyone was part of her plan, and there was no way to go against her. For a brief moment, Lissa had that strange thought again, of something Victor Dashkov had once said to her. Aside from his crazy killing and kidnapping schemes, Victor had also wanted to start a revolution among the Moroi. He thought the power distribution was off-something Lissa occasionally believed too-and that it was wielded unfairly by those with too much control. The moment was gone almost as soon as it came. Victor Dashkov was a crazy villain whose ideas deserved no acknowledgment.
Then, as soon as courtesy allowed, Lissa excused herself from the queen and headed across the room, feeling like she was going to explode with grief and anger. She nearly ran into Avery as she did.
“God,” said Avery. “Do you think Reed could embarrass me any more? Two people have tried to make conversation with him, and he keeps scaring them off. He actually just told Robin Badica to shut up. I mean, yeah, she was going on and on, but still. That is not cool.” Avery’s dramatic look of exasperation faded as she took in Lissa’s face. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Lissa glanced at Tatiana and then turned back to Avery, taking comfort in her friend’s blue-gray eyes. “I need to get out of here.” Lissa took a deep, calming breath. “Remember all that good stuff you said you knew about? When is that going to happen?”
Avery smiled. “As soon as you want.”
I returned to myself, sitting there on the curb. My emotions were still going crazy, and my eyes were fighting off tears. My earlier doubts were confirmed: Lissa didn’t need me anymore… and yet, I still had that feeling that there was something odd going on that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. I supposed her guilt over Mia’s comment or spirit side effects could be affecting her, but still… she wasn’t the same Lissa.
Footsteps on the pavement made me look up. Of all the people who might have found me, I would have expected Abe or maybe Viktoria. But it wasn’t.
It was Yeva.
The old woman stood there, a shawl draped over her narrow shoulders, and her sharp, cunning eyes looking down at me disapprovingly. I sighed.
“What happened? Did a house fall on your sister?” I asked. Maybe there was a benefit to our language barrier. She pursed her lips.
“You can’t stay here any longer,” she said.
My mouth dropped open.
“You… you speak English?”
She snorted. “Of course.”
I shot up. “All this time you’ve been pretending not to? You’ve been making Paul play translator?”
“It’s easier,” she said simply. “You avoid a lot of annoying conversation when you don’t speak the language. And I’ve found that Americans make the most annoying conversation of all.”
I was still aghast. “You don’t even know me! But from the first day, you’ve been giving me hell. Why? Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you. But I am disappointed.”
“I dreamed you would come.”
“I heard that. You dream a lot?”
“Sometimes,” she said. The moonlight glinted in her eyes, enhancing her otherworldly appearance. A chill ran down my spine. “Sometimes my dreams are true. Sometimes not. I dreamed Dimka was dead, but I didn’t want to believe it, not until I had proof. You were my proof.”
“And that’s why you were disappointed?”
Yeva drew the shawl more tightly around her. “No. In my dreams, you shone. You burned like a star, and I saw you as a warrior, someone who could do great deeds. Instead? You’ve sat around and moped. You’ve done nothing. You haven’t done what you came to do.”
I studied her, wondering if she really knew what she was talking about. “And what is that exactly?”
“You know what it is. I dreamed that, too.”
I waited for more. When it didn’t come, I laughed. “Nice vague answer. You’re as bad as any scam fortune-teller.”
Even in the darkness, I could see the anger kindle in her eyes. “You’ve come to search for Dimka. To try to kill him. You must find him.”
“What do you mean ?®try’?” I didn’t want to believe her, didn’t want to believe she might actually know my future. Nonetheless, I found myself getting hooked in. “Have you seen what happens? Do I kill him?”
“I can’t see everything.”
“I only saw that you must find him.”
“But that’s all you’ve got? I already knew that!”
“It’s what I saw.”
I groaned. “Damn it, I don’t have time for these cryptic clues. If you can’t help me, then don’t say anything.”
She stayed quiet.
I slung my bag over my shoulder. “Fine. I’m leaving then.” And like that, I knew where I would go. “Tell the others… well, tell them thank you for everything. And that I’m sorry.”
“You’re doing the right thing,” she said. “This isn’t where you should be.”
“So I’ve heard,” I muttered, walking away.
I wondered if she’d say anything else: chastise me, curse me, give me more mysterious words of “wisdom.” But she stayed silent, and I didn’t look back.
I had no home, not here and not in America. The only thing left for me was to do what I’d come to do. I had told Abe I kept my promises. I would.
I’d leave Baia like I told him. And I’d kill Dimitri, as I’d promised myself I would.
I knew where to go now. The address had never left my mind: 83 Kasakova. I didn’t know where it was, but once I reached the town’s center, I found a guy walking down the street who gave me directions. The address was close by, only about a mile, and I headed out at a brisk pace.
When I reached the house, I was glad to see that the lights were still on. Even as pissed off and raging as I was, I didn’t want to wake anyone up.
I also didn’t want to speak to Nikolai and was relieved when Denis opened the door.
His expression was all astonishment when he saw me. Despite his bold words back at the church earlier, I don’t think he’d really believed I’d join him and the other unpromised ones. He was speechless, so I did the talking.
“I changed my mind. I’m coming with you.” I took a deep breath, bracing myself for what came next. I’d promised Abe I’d leave Baia-but I hadn’t promised to return to the U.S. “Take me to Novosibirsk.”