“I thought you were a dream,” I said.
They all remained standing, the dhampirs fanning out around the Moroi in a sort of protective formation.Abe’s was the strange face I’d seen while I’d been going in and out of consciousness after the fight by the barn.He was older than me, close to Olena’s age.
He had black hair and a goatee, and about as tan a complexion as Moroi ever had. If you’ve ever seen tan or dark-skinned people who are sick and grow pale, it’s a lot like that.
There was some pigment in his skin, but it was underscored by an intense pallor. Most astonishing of all was his clothing. He wore a long dark coat that screamed money, paired with a cashmere crimson scarf. Below it, I could see a bit of gold, a chain to match the gold hoop earring he wore in one of his ears. My initial impression of that flamboyance would have been pirate or pimp. A moment later, I changed my mind. Something about him said he was the kind of guy who broke kneecaps to get his way.
“Dream, eh? That,” the Moroi said, with the very slightest hint of a smile, “is not something I hear very often. Well, no.” He reconsidered. “I do occasionally show up in people’s nightmares.” He was neither American nor Russian; I couldn’t identify the accent.
Was he trying to impress me or intimidate me with his big, bad reputation? Sydney hadn’t been afraid of him, exactly, but she’d certainly possessed a healthy amount of wariness.
“Well, I assume you already know who I am,” I said. “So, the question now is, what are you doing here?”
“No,” he said, the smile turning harder. “The question is, what are you doing here?”
I gestured back to the house, trying to play it cool. “I’m going to a funeral.”
“That’s not why you came to Russia.”
“I came to Russia to tell the Belikovs that Dimitri was dead, seeing as no one else bothered to.” That was turning into a handy explanation for me being here, but as Abe studied me, a chill ran down my spine, kind of like when Yeva looked at me. Like that crazy old woman, he didn’t believe me, and again I felt the dangerous edge to his otherwise jovial personality.
Abe shook his head, and now the smile was gone altogether. “That’s not the reason either. Don’t lie to me, little girl.”
I felt my hackles going up. “And don’t interrogate me, old man. Not unless you’re ready to tell me why you and your sidekicks risked driving that road to pick up Sydney and me.” Abe’s dhampirs stiffened at the words old man, but to my surprise, he actually smiled again-though the smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Maybe I was just helping out.”
“Not from what I hear. You’re the one who had the Alchemists send Sydney with me here.”
“Oh?” He arched an eyebrow. “Did she tell you that? Mmm… that was bad behavior on her part. Her superiors aren’t going to like that. Not at all.”
Oh, damn. I’d spoken without thinking. I didn’t want Sydney to get in trouble. If Abe really was some kind of Moroi Godfather type-what had she called him? Zmey? The snake?-I didn’t doubt he could talk to other Alchemists to make her life even more miserable.
“I forced it out of her,” I lied. “I… I threatened her on the train. It wasn’t hard. She’s already scared to death of me.”
“I don’t doubt she is. They’re all scared of us, bound by centuries of tradition and hiding behind their crosses to protect them-despite the gifts they get from their tattoos. In a lot of ways, they get the same traits as you dhampirs-just no reproductive issues.” He gazed up at the stars as he spoke, like some sort of philosopher musing on the mysteries of the universe. Somehow, that made me angrier. He was treating this like a joke, when clearly he had some agenda regarding me. I didn’t like being part of anyone’s plans-particularly when I didn’t know what those plans were.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure we could talk about the Alchemists and how you control them all night,” I snapped. “But I still want to know what you want with me.”
“Nothing,” he said simply.
“Nothing? You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to set me up with Sydney and follow me here for nothing.”
He looked back down from the sky, and there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. “You’re of no interest to me. I have my own business to run. I come on behalf of others who are interested in you.”
I stiffened, and at last, true fear ran through me. Shit. There was a manhunt out for me. But who? Lissa? Adrian? Tatiana? Again, that last one made me nervous. The others would seek me out because they cared. But Tatiana… Tatiana feared I’d run off with Adrian. Once more I thought that if she wanted me found, it might be because she wanted to ensure I didn’t come back. Abe struck me as the kind of person who could make people disappear.
“And what do the others want? Do they want me home?” I asked, trying to appear unafraid. “Did you think you could just come here and drag me back to the U.S.?”
That secretive smile of Abe’s returned. “Do you think I could just drag you back?”
“Well,” I scoffed, again without thinking, “you couldn’t. Your guys here could. Well, maybe. I might be able to take them.”
Abe laughed out loud for the first time, a rich, deep sound filled with sincere amusement. “You live up to your brash reputation. Delightful.” Great.
Abe probably had a whole file on me somewhere. He probably knew what I liked for breakfast. “I’ll make a trade with you. Tell me why you’re here, and I’ll tell you why I’m here.”
“I already told you.”
In a flash, the laughter was gone. He took a step closer to where I sat, and I saw his guardians tense. “And I told you not to lie to me. You’ve got a reason for being here. I need to know what it is.”
“Rose? Can you come in here?”
Back toward the Belikov house, Viktoria’s clear voice rang out in the night. Glancing behind me, I saw her standing in the doorway. Suddenly, I wanted to get away from Abe. There was something lethal underneath that gaudy, jovial facade, and I didn’t want to spend another minute with him. Leaping up, I began backing toward the house, half-expecting his guardians to come kidnap me, despite his words. The two guys stayed where they were, but their eyes watched me carefully. Abe’s quirky smile returned to his face.
“Sorry I can’t stay and chat,” I said.
“That’s all right,” he said grandly. “We’ll find time later.”
“Not likely,” I said. He laughed, and I hastily followed Viktoria into the house, not feeling safe until I shut the door. “I do not like that guy.”
“Abe?” she asked. “I thought he was your friend.”
“Hardly. He’s some kind of mobster, right?”
“I suppose,” she said, like it was no big deal. “But he’s the reason you’re here.”
“Yeah, I know about him coming to get us.”
Viktoria shook her head. “No, I mean here. I guess while you were in the car, you kept saying, ?®Belikov, Belikov.’ Abe figured you knew us. That’s why he took you to our house.”
That was startling. I’d been dreaming of Dimitri, so of course I would have said his last name. But I’d had no idea that was how I’d ended up here.
I’d figured it was because Olena had medical training.
Then Viktoria added the most astonishing thing of all. “When he realized we didn’t know you, he was going to take you somewhere else-but grandmother said we had to keep you. I guess she’d had some dream that you’d come to us.”
“What?” Crazy, creepy Yeva who hated me? “Yeva dreamed about me?”
Viktoria nodded. “It’s this gift she has. Are you sure you don’t know Abe? He’s too big-time to be here without a reason.”
Olena hurried over to us before I could respond. She caught hold of my arm. “We’ve been looking for you. What took so long?” This question was directed to Viktoria.
Olena shook her head. “Never mind. Come on. Everyone’s waiting.”
“For what?” I asked, letting her drag me through the house to the backyard.
“I was supposed to tell you,” explained Viktoria, scurrying along. “This is the part where everyone sits and remembers Dimitri by telling stories.”
“Nobody’s seen him in so long; we don’t know what’s happened to him recently,” said Olena. “We need you to tell us.”
I flinched. Me? I balked at that, particularly when we emerged outside and I saw all those faces around the campfire. I didn’t know any of them.
How could I talk about Dimitri? How could I reveal what was closest to my heart? Everyone seemed to blur together, and I thought I might faint.
For the moment, none of them noticed me. Karolina was speaking, her baby in her arms. Every so often she’d pause, and the others would laugh.
Viktoria sat down on a blanket-covered spot on the ground and pulled me down beside her. Sydney joined us a little while later.
“What’s she saying?” I whispered.
Viktoria listened to her sister for a few moments and then leaned closer to me. “She’s talking about when Dimitri was very young, how he used to always beg her and her friends to let him play with them. He was about six and they were eight and didn’t want him around.” Viktoria paused again to take in the next part of the story. “Finally, Karolina told him he could if he agreed to be married off to their dolls. So Karolina and her friends dressed him and the dolls up over and over and kept having weddings. Dimitri was married at least ten times.”
I couldn’t help but laugh as I tried to picture tough, sexy Dimitri letting his big sister dress him up. He probably would have treated his wedding ceremony with a doll as seriously and stoically as he did his guardian duties.
Other people spoke, and I tried to keep up with the translations. All the stories were about Dimitri’s kindness and strength of character. Even when not out battling the undead, Dimitri had always been there to help those who needed it. Almost everyone could recall sometime that Dimitri had stepped up to help others, going out of his way to do what was right, even in situations that could put him at risk. That was no surprise to me.
Dimitri always did the right thing.
And it was that attitude that had made me love him so much. I had a similar nature. I too rushed in when others needed me, sometimes when I shouldn’t have. Others called me crazy for it, but Dimitri had understood. He’d always understood me, and part of what we’d worked on was how to temper that impulsive need to run into danger with reason and calculation. I had a feeling no one else in this world would ever understand me like he did.
I didn’t notice how strongly the tears were running down my cheeks until I saw everyone looking at me. At first, I thought they considered me crazy for crying, but then I realized someone had asked me a question.
“They want you to talk about Dimitri’s last days,” Viktoria said. “Tell us something. What he did. What he was like.”
I used my sleeve to clean my face and looked away, focusing on the bonfire. I’d spoken in front of others before without hesitation, but this was different. “I… I can’t,” I told Viktoria, my voice strained and soft. “I can’t talk about him.”
She squeezed my hand. “Please. They need to hear about him. They need to know. Just tell us anything. What was he like?”
“He… he was your brother. You know.”
“Yes,” she said gently. “But we want to know what you think he was like.”
My eyes were still on the fire, watching the way the flames danced and shifted from orange to blue. “He… he was the best man I’ve ever met.” I stopped to gather myself, and Viktoria used the opportunity to translate my words into Russian. “And he was one of the best guardians. I mean, he was young compared to a lot of them, but everyone knew who he was. They all knew his reputation, and lots of people relied on him for advice.
They called him a god. And whenever there was a fight… or danger… he was always the first one to put himself out there. He never flinched.
And a couple months ago, when our school was attacked…”
I choked up here a bit. The Belikovs had said they knew of the attack-that everyone knew about it-and from the faces here, it was true. I didn’t need to elaborate on that night, on the horrors I’d seen.
“That night,” I continued, “Dimitri rushed out to face the Strigoi. He and I were together when we realized they were attacking. I wanted to stay and help him, but he wouldn’t let me. He just told me to go, to run off and alert others. And he stayed behind-not knowing how many Strigoi he’d have to take on while I went for help. I still don’t know how many he fought-but there were a bunch. And he took them all down alone.”
I dared to look up at the faces around me. Everyone was so quiet and still that I wondered if they were breathing. “It was so hard,” I told them.
Without realizing it, my voice had dropped to a whisper. I had to repeat myself more loudly. “It was so hard. I didn’t want to leave him, but I knew I had to. He taught me so much, but one of the biggest things was that we have to protect others. It was my duty to warn everyone else, even though I just wanted to stay with him. The whole time, my heart kept saying, ?®Turn around, turn around. Go to him!’ But I knew what I had to do and I also knew part of him was trying to keep me safe. And if the roles had been reversed… well, I would have made him run too.”
I sighed, surprised I’d revealed so much of my heart. I switched back to business. “Even when the other guardians joined him, Dimitri never backed down. He took down more Strigoi than almost anyone.” Christian and I had actually killed the most. “He… he was amazing.”
I told them the rest of the story that I’d told the Belikovs. Only I actually forced a little detail this time, telling them vividly just how brave and fierce he had been. The words hurt me as I spoke, and yet… it was almost a relief to get them out. I’d kept the memories of that night too close to me.
But eventually, I had to tell them about the cave. And that… that was the worst.
“We’d trapped the escaping Strigoi in a cave. It had two entrances, and we came at them from both sides. Some of our people got trapped, though, and there were more Strigoi than we’d expected. We lost people… but we would have lost a lot more if Dimitri hadn’t been there. He wouldn’t leave until everyone was out. He didn’t care about the risk to himself. He only knew he had to save others…”
I’d seen it in his eyes, that determination. Our plan had finally been to retreat as soon as we were all out, but I’d had the feeling he would have stayed and killed every Strigoi he could find. But he’d followed orders too, finally beginning his retreat when the others were safe. And in those last moments, just before the Strigoi had bitten him, Dimitri had met my eyes with a look so full of love that it was like that whole cave filled with light.
His expression had said what we’d talked about earlier: We can be together, Rose. Soon. We’re almost there. And nothing will ever keep us apart again…
I didn’t mention that part, though. When I finished the rest of the tale, the faces of those gathered were grim but filled with awe and respect. Near the back of the crowd, I noticed Abe and his guardians listening as well. His expression was unreadable. Hard, but not angry or scary. Small cups began circulating through the group, and someone handed me one. A dhampir I didn’t know, one of the few men present, stood up and raised his cup in the air. He spoke loudly and reverently, and I heard Dimitri’s name mentioned several times. When he finished, he drank from the cup.
Everyone else did too, so I followed suit.
And nearly choked to death.
It was like fire in liquid form. It took every ounce of strength I had to swallow it and not spray it on those around me. “Wh… what is this?” I asked, coughing.
Viktoria grinned. “Vodka.”
I peered at the glass. “No, it isn’t. I’ve had vodka before.”
“Not Russian vodka.”
Apparently not. I forced the rest of the cup down out of respect to Dimitri, even though I had a feeling that if he were here, he’d be shaking his head at me. I thought I was done being in the spotlight after my story, but apparently not. Everyone kept asking me questions. They wanted to know more about Dimitri, more about what his life had been like recently. They also wanted to know about me and Dimitri as a couple. They all seemed to have figured out that Dimitri and I had been in love-and they were okay with it. I was asked about how we’d met, how long we’d been together…
And the whole time, people kept refilling my cup. Determined not to look like an idiot again, I kept drinking until I could finally take the vodka down without coughing or spitting. The more I drank, the louder and more animated my stories became. My limbs started to tingle, and part of me knew this was all probably a bad idea. Okay, all of me knew it.
Finally, people began to clear out. I had no idea what time it was, but I think it was the middle of the night. Maybe later. I stood as well, finding it much harder to do than I’d expected. The world wobbled, and my stomach wasn’t very happy with me. Someone caught a hold of my arm and steadied me.
“Easy,” said Sydney. “Don’t push it.” Slowly, carefully, she led me toward the house.
“God,” I moaned. “Do they use that stuff as rocket fuel?”
“No one made you keep drinking it.”
“Hey, don’t get preachy. Besides, I had to be polite.”
“Sure,” she said.
We made it inside and then had the impossible task of getting up the stairs to the room Olena had given me. Each step was agony.
“They all knew about me and Dimitri,” I said, wondering if I’d be saying any of this sober. “But I never told them we were together.”
“You didn’t have to. It’s written all over your face.”
“They acted like I was his widow or something.”
“You might as well be.” We reached my room, and she helped me sit down on the bed. “Not a lot of people get married around here. If you’re with someone long enough, they figure it’s almost the same.”
I sighed and stared off without any particular focus. “I miss him so much.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Will it ever get better?”
The question seemed to catch her by surprise. “I… I don’t know.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
She shook her head. “No.”
I wasn’t sure if that made her lucky or not. I wasn’t sure if all the bright days I’d had with Dimitri were worth the hurt I felt now. A moment later, I knew the truth. “Of course they were.”
“Huh?” asked Sydney.
I realized I’d spoken my thoughts out loud. “Nothing. Just talking to myself. I should get some sleep.”
“Do you need anything else? Are you going to be sick?”
I assessed my queasy stomach. “No, but thanks.”
“Okay.” And in her typically brusque way, she left, turning off the lights and shutting the door.
I would have thought I’d pass out right away. Honestly, I wanted to. My heart had been opened up to too much of Dimitri tonight, and I wanted that pain to go away. I wanted blackness and oblivion. Instead, maybe because I was a glutton for punishment, my heart decided to finish the job and rip itself completely open.
I went to visit Lissa.