At any other time in my life, I would have loved exploring Moscow.Sydney had planned our trip so that when our train arrived there, we’d have a few hours before we had to board the next one to Siberia.This gave us some time to wander around and grab dinner, though she wanted to make sure we were safely inside the station before it grew too dark out.
Despite my badass claims or my molnija marks, she didn’t want to take any chances.
It made no difference to me how we spent our downtime. So long as I was getting closer to Dimitri, that was all that mattered. So Sydney and I walked aimlessly, taking in the sights and saying very little. I had never been to Moscow. It was a beautiful city, thriving and full of people and commerce. I could have spent days there just shopping and trying out the restaurants. Places I’d heard about all my life-the Kremlin, Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre-were all at my fingertips. Despite how cool it all was, I actually tried to tune out the city’s sights and sounds after a while because it reminded me of… well, Dimitri.
He used to talk to me about Russia all the time and had sworn up and down that I’d love it here.
“To you, it’d be like a fairy tale,” he’d told me once. It was during a before-school practice late last autumn, just before the first snowfall. The air had been misty, and dew coated everything.
“Sorry, comrade,” I’d replied, reaching back to tie my hair into a ponytail. Dimitri had always loved my hair down, but in combat practice? Long hair was a total liability. “Borg and out-of-date music aren’t part of any happy ending I’ve ever imagined.”
He’d given me one of his rare, easy grins then, the kind that just slightly crinkled up the corners of his eyes. “Borscht, not borg. And I’ve seen your appetite. If you were hungry enough, you’d eat it.”
“So starvation’s necessary for this fairy tale to work out?” There was nothing I loved more than teasing Dimitri. Well, aside from maybe kissing him.
“I’m talking about the land. The buildings. Go to one of the big cities-it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Everyone in the U.S. tends to build the same-always in big, chunky blocks. They do what’s fast and easy. But in Russia, there are buildings that are like pieces of art. They are art-even a lot of the ordinary, everyday buildings. And places like the WinterPalace and TroitskyChurch in Saint Petersburg? Those will take your breath away.”
His face had been aglow with the memory of sites he’d seen, that joy making his already handsome features divine. I think he could have named landmarks all day. My heart had burned within me, just from watching him. And then, just like I always did when I worried I might turn sappy or sentimental, I’d made a joke to shift the attention away and hide my emotions. It had switched him back into business mode, and we’d gotten to work.
Now, walking the city streets with Sydney, I wished I could take back that joke and listen to Dimitri talk more about his homeland. I would have given anything to have Dimitri with me here, the way he used to be. He’d been right about the buildings. Sure, most were blocky copies of anything you’d find in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, but some were exquisite-painted with bright colors, adorned with their strange yet beautiful onion-shaped domes. At times, it really did seem like something from another world. And all the while, I kept thinking that it should have been Dimitri here by my side, pointing things out and explaining them to me. We should have been having a romantic getaway. Dimitri and I could have eaten at exotic restaurants and then gone dancing at night. I could have worn one of the designer dresses I’d had to leave behind in the Saint Petersburg hotel. That’s how it was supposed to be. It wasn’t supposed to be me with a glowering human.
“Unreal, huh? Like something from a story.”
Sydney’s voice startled me, and I realized we’d come to a stop in front of our train station. There were a number of them in Moscow. Her echoing of my conversation with Dimitri sent chills down my spine-largely because she was right. The station didn’t have the onion domes but still looked like something straight out of a storybook, like a cross between Cinderella’s castle and a gingerbread house. It had a big arched roof and towers on either end. Its white walls were interspersed with patches of brown brick and green mosaic, almost making it look striped. In the U.S., some might have called it gaudy. To me, it was beautiful.
I felt tears start to spring to my eyes as I wondered what Dimitri would have said about this building. He probably would have loved it just as he loved everything else here. Realizing that Sydney was waiting for a response, I swallowed back my grief and played flippant teenager. “Maybe something from a story about a train station.”
She arched an eyebrow, surprised at my indifference, but she didn’t question it. Who could say? Maybe if I kept up the sarcasm, she’d eventually get annoyed and ditch me. Somehow, I doubted I’d be that lucky. I was pretty sure her fear of her superiors trumped any other feelings she might have in regard to me.
We had first-class train accommodations, which turned out to be a lot smaller than I expected. There was a combination bed/sitting bench on each side, a window, and a TV high on the wall. I supposed that would help pass the time, but I often had trouble following Russian television-not just because of the language but also because some of the shows were downright bizarre. Still, Sydney and I would each have our own space, even if the room was cozier than we would have liked.
The colors reminded me a lot of the same fanciful patterns I’d seen throughout the cities. Even the hall outside our cabin was brightly colored, with plush carpet in red and yellow designs and a teal and yellow runner going down the middle. Inside our room, the benches were covered in cushions with rich orange velvet, and the curtains matched in shades of gold and peach, made of thick heavy fabric embossed with a silky pattern. Between all that and the ornate table in the middle of the cabin, it was almost like traveling in a mini-palace.
It was dark out by the time the train left the station. For whatever reason, the Trans-Siberian always left Moscow at night. It wasn’t that late yet, but Sydney said she wanted to sleep, and I didn’t want to make her more irate than she already was. So we turned off all the lights, save for a tiny reading lamp by my bed. I’d bought a magazine at the train station, and even if I couldn’t understand the language, the pictures of makeup and clothes transcended all cultural barriers. I flipped through the pages as quietly as I could, admiring summer tops and dresses and wondering when -if ever-I’d be able to start worrying about that kind of thing again.
I wasn’t tired when I lay down, but sleep took me nonetheless. I was dreaming about water-skiing when suddenly, the waves and sun around me dissolved into a room lined with shelves and shelves of books. Tables with state-of-the-art computers lined the rooms, and there was a calmness that permeated the place. I was in the library at St. Vladimir’s Academy.
I groaned. “Oh, come on. Not today.”
“Why not today? Why not every day?”
I turned and found myself looking into the handsome face of Adrian Ivashkov. Adrian was a Moroi, the queen’s great-nephew, and someone I’d left behind in my old life when I took off on this suicide mission. He had beautiful emerald-green eyes that made most girls swoon, particularly since they were paired with stylishly messy brown hair. He was also kind of in love with me and the reason I had so much money on this trip. I’d sweet talked him out of it.
“True,” I admitted. “I suppose I should be grateful you only show up about once a week.”
He grinned and sat down backward in one of the slatted wooden chairs. He was tall, like most Moroi, with a leanly muscled build. Moroi guys never got too bulky. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Rose. Don’t want you to take me for granted.”
“We’re in no danger of that; don’t worry.”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where you are?”
Aside from Lissa, Adrian was the only other known living spirit user, and among his talents was the ability to show up in my dreams-often uninvited-and talk to me. I took it as a blessing that his powers never actually let him know where I was.
“You kill me, Rose,” he said melodramatically. “Every day is agony without you. Empty. Alone. I pine for you, wondering if you’re even still alive.”
He spoke in an exaggerated, silly sort of way that was characteristic of him. Adrian rarely took things seriously and always had a flippant edge.
Spirit also had a tendency to make people unstable, and while he fought it, he wasn’t unaffected. Underneath that melodrama, though, I sensed a kernel of truth. No matter how shallow an appearance he gave off, he really did care about me.
I crossed my arms. “Well, I’m still alive, clearly. So I guess you can let me go back to sleep.”
“How many times have I told you? You are asleep.”
“And yet I inexplicably feel exhausted talking to you.”
This made him laugh. “Oh, I do so miss you.” That smile faded. “She misses you too.”
I stiffened. She. He didn’t even need to say her name. There was no question as to whom he was talking about.
Even saying her name in my mind caused me pain, particularly after seeing her last night. Choosing between Lissa and Dimitri had been the hardest decision of my life, and time passing hadn’t made it any easier. I might have chosen him, but being away from her was like having an arm cut off, particularly because the bond ensured we were never truly apart.
Adrian gave me a canny look, like he could guess my thoughts. “Do you go see her?”
“No,” I said, refusing to acknowledge that I’d just seen her last night. Let him think I was truly free of all that. “That’s not my life anymore.”
“Right. Your life is all about dangerous vigilante missions.”
“You wouldn’t understand anything that isn’t drinking, smoking, or womanizing.”
He shook his head. “You’re the only one I want, Rose.”
Unfortunately, I believed him. It would have been easier for both of us if he could find someone else. “Well, you can keep feeling that way, but you’re going to have to keep waiting.”
He asked me this all the time, and every time, I emphasized how long it would be and how he was wasting his time. Thinking of Sydney’s possible lead, I hesitated tonight. “I don’t know.”
Hope blossomed on Adrian’s face. “That’s the most optimistic thing you’ve told me so far.”
“Don’t read too much into it. ?®I don’t know’ could be one day or one year. Or never.”
His mischievous grin returned, and even I had to admit it was cute. “I’m going to hope it’s one day.”
Thinking of Sydney brought a question to my mind. “Hey, have you ever heard of the Alchemists?”
“Sure,” he said.
Typical. “Of course you have.”
“Why? Did you run into them?”
“What’d you do?”
“Why do you think I did anything?”
He laughed. “Alchemists only show up when trouble happens, and you bring trouble wherever you go. Be careful, though. They’re religious nuts.”
“That’s kind of extreme,” I said. Sydney’s faith didn’t seem to be anything bad.
“Just don’t let them convert you.” He winked. “I like you being the sinner you are.”
I started to tell him that Sydney probably thought I was beyond all salvation, but he ended the dream, sending me back to sleep.
Except, instead of returning to my own dreams, I woke up. Around me, the train hummed comfortingly as we sped through the Russian countryside. My reading lamp was still on, its light too bright for my sleepy eyes. I reached over to turn it off and noticed then that Sydney’s bed was empty. Probably in the bathroom, I thought. Yet, I felt uneasy. She and her group of Alchemists were still mysteries, and I suddenly worried that she might have some sinister plan going on. Was she off meeting with some covert operative? I decided to find her.
Admittedly, I had no idea where she could be on a train of this size, but logic had never really deterred me before. No reason they should now.
Thankfully, after slipping on my shoes and stepping out in the hall adjacent to our cabin, I discovered I didn’t have to look very far.
The corridor was lined with windows, all draped in those rich curtains, and Sydney stood with her back to me, gazing outside, a blanket wrapped around her. Her hair was messy from sleep and looked less gold in the poor lighting.
“Hey…” I began hesitantly. “Are you okay?”
She turned slightly toward me. One hand held the blanket; the other played with the cross around her neck. I remembered Adrian’s comments about religion.
“I can’t sleep,” she said bluntly.
“Is it… is it because of me?”
Her only answer was to turn back to the window.
“Look,” I said, feeling helpless. “If there’s anything I can do… I mean, aside from going back and canceling this trip…”
“I’ll handle it,” she said. “This is just, well, it’s really strange for me. I deal with you guys all the time, but I don’t actually deal with you, you know?”
“We could probably get you a room of your own, if that would help. We can find an attendant, and I’ve got the money.”
She shook her head. “It’s just a couple of days, if that.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Having Sydney along was inconvenient in the grand scheme of my plans, but I didn’t want her to suffer. Watching her play with the cross, I tried to think of something comforting to tell her. Bonding over our views of God might have been a way to get closer, but somehow, I didn’t think telling her how I had daily battles with God and doubted His existence lately would really help me out with the whole evil creature-of-the-night reputation.
“Okay,” I said at last. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
I returned to my bed and fell asleep surprisingly fast, despite worrying that Sydney would be standing in the hall all night. Yet, when I woke in the morning, she was curled up on her bed, fast asleep. Apparently, her exhaustion had been so strong that even fear of me had driven her to rest. I got up quietly and changed out of the T-shirt and sweatpants I’d gone to bed in. I was hungry for breakfast and figured Sydney might sleep longer if I wasn’t around.
The restaurant was in the next car over and looked like something out of an old movie. Elegant burgundy linens draped the tables, and brass and dark wood, along with bits of bright-colored stained glass art, gave the whole place an antique feel. It looked more like a restaurant I’d find on the streets of Saint Petersburg than a train dining car. I ordered something that reminded me vaguely of french toast, except that it had cheese on it. It came with sausage, which thus far seemed to be the same everywhere I went.
I was just about finished when Sydney wandered in. When I’d met her that first night, I’d assumed her dress pants and blouse had been for the sake of the Nightingale. I was discovering, however, that that was her normal style. She struck me as one of those people who didn’t own jeans or T-shirts. She’d been mussed while standing in the hall last night, but now she was in neat black slacks and a dark green sweater. I was in jeans and a long-sleeved gray thermal shirt and felt kind of sloppy beside her. Her hair was brushed and styled but had a slightly messy look that I suspected never went away, no matter how hard she tried. At least I had my sleek ponytail going for me today.
She slid across from me and ordered an omelet when the server came by, again speaking in Russian.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“What, Russian?” She shrugged. “I had to learn it growing up. And a few other languages.”
“Wow.” I had taken intros to a couple of languages too and performed miserably in all of them. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but now, because of this trip and because of Dimitri, I really wished I’d learned Russian. I supposed it wasn’t too late, and I had picked up a few phrases in my time here, but still… it was a daunting task.
“You must have to learn a lot of stuff for this job,” I mused, pondering what it must mean to be part of a secret group that crossed international lines and interacted with all sorts of governments. Something else crossed my mind. “And what about that stuff you used on the Strigoi? That disintegrated the body?”
She smiled. Almost. “Well, I told you the Alchemists started off as a group of people trying to make potions, right? That’s a chemical we developed to get rid of Strigoi bodies fast.”
“Could you use it to actually kill one?” I asked. Dousing a Strigoi in some dissolving liquid would be a lot easier than the usual ways: decapitation, staking, or burning.
“Afraid not. Only works on corpses.”
“Bummer,” I said. I wondered if she had other potions up her sleeve but figured I should ration my amount of Sydney questions for the day. “What are we going to do when we get to Omsh?”
“Omsk,” she corrected. “We’ll get a car and drive the rest of the way.”
“Have you been there? To this village?”
She nodded. “Once.”
“What’s it like?” I asked, surprised to hear a wistful note in my own voice. Aside from my quest to find Dimitri, there was a piece of me that just wanted to cling to everything I could of him. I wanted to know everything about him that I hadn’t known before. If the school had given me his possessions, I would have slept with them each night. His room had been cleared out pretty quickly, though. Now I could only gather what pieces of him I could, as though hoarding these bits of information would keep him with me somehow.
“It’s like any other dhampir town, I guess.”
“I’ve never been to one.”
The server set Sydney’s omelet down, and she paused with her fork in the air. “Really? I thought all of you… well, I don’t know.”
I shook my head. “I’ve been at the Academy my whole life. More or less.” My two-year stint among humans wasn’t really relevant.
Sydney chewed thoughtfully. I was willing to wager she wouldn’t finish the omelet. From what I’d seen that first night and while waiting for trains yesterday, she hardly seemed to eat anything. It was like she subsisted on air alone. Maybe it was another Alchemist thing. Most likely it was just a Sydney thing.
“The town is half-human and half-dhampir, but the dhampirs blend in. They have a whole underground society that the humans are completely oblivious to.”
I’d always figured there was a whole subculture going on, but I’d had no idea how it would fit into the rest of the town. “And?” I asked. “What’s that subculture like?”
She set her fork down. “Let’s just say you’d better brace yourself.”