It was like Christmas morning.
I wasn’t usually big on God or fate, but now I was seriously reconsidering.After I’d passed out, Sydney had apparently made some frantic calls, and someone she knew in Baia had driven to us-risking the darkness-to rescue us and take us back where I could be treated.That was no doubt why I’d had vague sensations of being in a car during my delirium; it hadn’t all been part of the dream.
And then, somehow, out of all the dhampirs in Baia, I had been taken to Dimitri’s mother.
That was enough to make me seriously consider that there might truly be forces greater than me at work in the universe. No one told me exactly how it happened, but I soon learned Olena Belikova had a reputation among her peers for healing-and not even any sort of magical healing. She’d had medical training and was the person other dhampirs-and even some Moroi-went to in this region when they wanted to avoid human attention. Still. The coincidence was eerie, and I couldn’t help but think there was something going on that I didn’t understand.
For now, I didn’t worry too much about the hows and whys of my current situation. I was too busy staring wide-eyed at my surroundings and its inhabitants. Olena didn’t live alone. All of Dimitri’s sisters-three of them-lived in the house too, along with their kids. The family resemblance was startling. None of them looked exactly like Dimitri, but in every face, I could see him. The eyes. The smile. Even the sense of humor. Seeing them fed the Dimitri withdrawal I’d had since he’d disappeared-and made it worse at the same time. Whenever I looked at any of them out of my peripheral vision, I’d think I was seeing Dimitri. It was like a house of mirrors, with distorted reflections of him everywhere.
Even the house gave me a thrill. There were no obvious signs that Dimitri had ever lived there, but I kept thinking, this is where he grew up. He walked these floors, touched these walls… As I walked from room to room, I’d touch the walls too, trying to draw his energy from them. I’d envision him lounging on the couch, home on break from school. I wondered if he’d slid down the banisters when he was little. The images were so real that I had to keep reminding myself that he hadn’t been here in ages.
“You’ve made an amazing recovery,” Olena noted the next morning after I’d been brought to her. She watched with approval as I inhaled a plate of blini. They were ultra-thin pancakes stacked and layered with butter and jam. My body always required a lot of food to keep its strength up, and I figured as long as I wasn’t chewing with my mouth open or anything, I had no reason to feel bad about eating so much. “I thought you were dead when Abe and Sydney brought you in.”
“Who?” I asked between bites of food.
Sydney sat at the table with the rest of the family, hardly touching her food as usual. She seemed clearly uneasy at being in a dhampir household, but when I’d first come downstairs this morning, I’d definitely seen some relief in her eyes.
“Abe Mazur,” said Sydney. Unless I was mistaken, some of the other people at the table exchanged knowing glances. “He’s a Moroi. I… I didn’t know how badly you were injured last night, so I called him. He drove down with his guardians. He was the one who brought you here.”
Guardians. Plural. “Is he royal?” Mazur wasn’t a royal name, but that wasn’t always a sure sign of someone’s lineage. And while I was beginning to trust Sydney’s social networking and connections to powerful people, I couldn’t imagine why a royal would go out of his way for me. Maybe he owed the Alchemists a favor.
“No,” she said bluntly. I frowned. A non-royal Moroi with more than one guardian? Very odd. It was clear she wasn’t going to say anything else on the matter-at least not for now.
I swallowed another mouthful of blini and turned my attention back to Olena. “Thanks for taking me in.”
Dimitri’s older sister, Karolina, sat at the table too, along with her baby girl and son Paul. Paul was about ten and seemed fascinated by me.
Dimitri’s teenage sister, Viktoria, was also there. She appeared to be a little younger than me. The third Belikov sister was named Sonya and had left for work before I woke up. I’d have to wait to meet her.
“Did you really kill two Strigoi all by yourself?” Paul asked me.
“Paul,” chastised Karolina. “That’s not a nice question to ask.”
“But it’s an exciting one,” said Viktoria with a grin. Her brown hair was streaked with gold, but her dark eyes sparkled so much like Dimitri’s when he was excited that it tugged at my heart. Again, I had that taunting sensation of Dimitri being here but not here.
“She did,” said Sydney. “I saw the bodies. Like always.”
She wore that comically tormented expression of hers, and I laughed. “At least I left them where you could find them this time.” My humor suddenly dimmed. “Did anyone… any other humans notice or hear?”
“I got rid of the bodies before anyone saw,” she said. “If people heard anything… Well, backwoods places like that are always filled with superstitions and ghost stories. They don’t have factual evidence of vampires, per se, but there’s always sort of this belief that the supernatural and dangerous are out there. Little do they know.”
She said “ghost stories” without any change of expression. I wondered if she’d seen any of the spirits last night but finally decided she probably hadn’t. She’d come outside near the tail end of the fight, and if past evidence was any indication, nobody else could see the spirits I saw-except Strigoi, as it turned out.
“You must have had some good training then,” said Karolina, shifting so the baby leaned against her shoulder. “You look like you should still be in school.”
“Just got out,” I said, earning another scrutinizing look from Sydney.
“You’re American,” said Olena matter-of-factly. “What in the world could bring you out here?”
“I… I’m looking for someone,” I said after a few moments’ hesitation.
I was afraid they were going to press for details or that she too would have blood whore suspicions, but just then, the kitchen door opened and Dimitri’s grandmother, Yeva, walked in. She had poked her head in earlier and scared the hell out of me. Dimitri had told me that she was a witch of sorts, and I could believe it. She looked like she was a gazillion years old and was so thin, it was a wonder the wind didn’t blow her away. She barely stood five feet tall, and her hair covered her head in patchy gray wisps. But it was her eyes that truly frightened me. The rest of her might be frail, but those dark eyes were sharp and alert and seemed to bore into my soul. Even without Dimitri’s explanation, I would have taken her for a witch. She was also the only one in the household who didn’t speak English.
She sat down at one of the empty chairs, and Olena hastily jumped up to get some more blini. Yeva muttered something in Russian that made the others look uncomfortable. Sydney’s lips twitched into a small smile. Yeva’s eyes were on me as she spoke, and I glanced around for translation.
“What?” I asked.
“Grandmother says you’re not telling us the whole truth about why you’re here. She says the longer you delay, the worse it will be,” Viktoria explained. She then gave Sydney an apologetic look. “And she wants to know when the Alchemist is leaving.”
“As soon as possible,” said Sydney dryly.
“Well, why I’m here… it’s kind of a long story.” Could I be any vaguer?
Yeva said something else, and Olena retorted with what sounded like a chastisement. To me, she spoke gently: “Ignore her, Rose. She’s in one of her moods. Why you’re here is your own business-although I’m sure Abe would like to talk to you at some point.” She frowned slightly, and I was reminded of the earlier looks at the table. “You should make sure you thank him. He seemed very concerned about you.”
“I’d kind of like to see him too,” I mumbled, still curious about this well-protected, non-royal Moroi who had given me a ride and seemed to make everyone uneasy. Eager to avoid more talk of why I was here, I hastily changed the subject. “I’d also love to look around Baia. I’ve never been in a place like this before-where so many dhampirs live, I mean.”
Viktoria brightened. “I can definitely give you a tour-if you’re sure you’re feeling okay. Or if you don’t have to leave right away.”
She believed I was passing through, which was just as well. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore, now that it seemed likely Dimitri wasn’t in the area. I glanced at Sydney questioningly.
She shrugged. “Do whatever you want. I’m not going anywhere.” I found that a little disconcerting too. She’d brought me here as her superiors had told her to do-but now what? Well, that was a concern for later.
As soon as I finished my food, Viktoria practically dragged me out the door, as if I was the most exciting thing that had happened around here in a while. Yeva hadn’t taken her eyes off me for the rest of the meal, and even though she’d never said anything else, her suspicious look clearly told me she didn’t believe a word I’d said. I invited Sydney along on the outing, but she declined, choosing instead to lock herself away in a bedroom to read about Greek temples or make world-controlling phone calls or do whatever it was she did.
Viktoria said downtown wasn’t far from where they lived and was easy to walk to. The day was clear and cool, with enough sun to make being outside pretty pleasant.
“We don’t get a lot of visitors,” she explained. “Except for Moroi men, but most don’t stay long.”
She added no more, but I wondered about her implications. Were these Moroi men off to find some action with dhampir women? I’d grown up thinking of these women, dhampirs who chose not to become guardians, as disgraceful and dirty. The ones in the Nightingale had certainly met the blood whore stereotype, but Dimitri had assured me that not all dhampir women were like that. After meeting the Belikovs, I believed him.
As we approached the center of town, I soon discovered another myth shattered. People always talked about blood whores living in camps or communes, but that wasn’t the case here. Baia wasn’t huge, not like Saint Petersburg or even Omsk, but it was a real town with a large human population. Hardly a rural camp or farm settlement. The whole setting was astonishingly normal, and when we reached downtown, lined with small shops and restaurants, it too seemed like any other place in the world people might live. Modern and ordinary, just with a slight village feel.
“Where are all the dhampirs?” I wondered aloud. Sydney had said there was a secret dhampir subculture, but I saw no signs of it.
Viktoria smiled. “Oh, they’re here. We have a lot of businesses and other places that humans don’t know about.” While I could understand dhampirs going unnoticed in big cities, it seemed remarkable to pull that off here. “And lots of us just live and work with humans.” She nodded over toward what looked like a drugstore. “That’s where Sonya works now.”
“Now that she’s pregnant.” Viktoria rolled her eyes. “I’d take you to meet her, but she’s grumpy all the time lately. I hope the baby’s early.”
She left it at that, and I again wondered about the dynamics of dhampirs and Moroi here. We didn’t mention it again, and our conversation stayed light and even teasing. Viktoria was easy to like, and in only an hour, we’d clicked as though we’d known each other forever. Maybe my connection to Dimitri bound me to his family, too.
My thoughts were cut off when someone called Viktoria’s name. We turned to see a very cute dhampir guy crossing the street. He had bronze hair and dark eyes, his age falling somewhere between mine and Viktoria’s.
He said something chatty and conversational to her. She grinned at him and then gestured to me, giving my introduction in Russian. “This is Nikolai,” she told me in English.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, also switching languages. He gave me a quick assessment in the way guys often do, but when he turned back to Viktoria, it was clear who the object of his affections was. “You should bring Rose to Marina’s party. It’s Sunday night.” He hesitated, turning a bit shy. “You’re going, aren’t you?”
Viktoria turned thoughtful, and I realized she was completely oblivious to his crush. “I’ll be there, but…” She turned to me. “Will you still be around?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I’ll go if I’m still here. What kind of party is it?”
“Marina’s a friend from school,” explained Viktoria. “We’re just going to get together and celebrate before we go back.”
“To school?” I asked stupidly. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that the dhampirs out here would be in school.
“We’re on break right now,” said Nikolai. “For Easter.”
“Oh.” It was late April, but I had no clue what day Easter fell on this year. I’d lost track of the days. It hadn’t happened yet, so their school must have their break the week before Easter. St. Vladimir’s took its vacation afterward. “Where is your school?”
“It’s about three hours away. Even more remote than here.” Viktoria made a face.
“Baia’s not so bad,” teased Nikolai.
“Easy for you to say. You’ll eventually leave and go see new and exciting places.”
“Can’t you?” I asked her.
She frowned, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well, I could… but that’s not how we do it here-at least not in my family. Grandmother has some… strong opinions about men and women. Nikolai will be a guardian, but I’ll stay here with my family.”
Nikolai suddenly gave me a new appraisal. “Are you a guardian?”
“Ah, well.” Now I was the uncomfortable one.
Viktoria spoke before I could come up with anything to say. “She killed two Strigoi outside of town. By herself.”
He looked impressed. “You are a guardian.”
“Well, no… I’ve killed before, but I’m not actually sworn.” Turning around, I lifted up my hair to show them my neck. In addition to all my regular molnija marks, I also had the little star-shaped tattoo that meant I’d been in a battle. They both gasped, and Nikolai said something in Russian. I let my hair drop and looked back. “What?”
“You’re…” Viktoria bit her lip, eyes contemplative as she groped for what she wanted to say. “Unpromised? I don’t know the English word.”
“Unpromised?” I said. “I guess… but technically, aren’t all the women here?”
“Even if we aren’t guardians, we still get marks showing we completed our training. No promise mark, though. For you to have killed so many Strigoi and have no loyalties to a school or the guardians…” Viktoria shrugged. “We call it being unpromised-it’s a strange thing.”
“It’s strange where I come from too,” I admitted. Unheard of, really. So much so, that we didn’t have a term for it. It just wasn’t done.
“I should let you two go,” said Nikolai, his lovesick eyes back on Viktoria. “But I’ll see you at Marina’s for sure? Maybe sooner?”
“Yes,” she agreed. They said their farewells in Russian, and then he loped off across the street with the kind of easy, athletic grace guardians often acquired with training. It reminded me a bit of Dimitri’s.
“I must have scared him off,” I said.
“No, he thinks you’re exciting.”
“Not as exciting as he thinks you are.”
Her eyebrows rose. “What?”
“He likes you… I mean, really likes. Can’t you tell?”
“Oh. We’re just friends.”
I could tell from her attitude that she meant it. She was completely indifferent to him, which was too bad. He was cute and nice. Letting poor Nikolai go, I brought up the guardians again. I was intrigued by the different attitudes around here. “You said you can’t… but do you want to be a guardian?”
She hesitated. “I’ve never really considered it. I get all the same training at school, and I like being able to defend myself. But I’d rather use it in defense of my family than Moroi. I guess it sounds…” She paused again to think of the right word. “… Sexist? But, the men become guardians, and women stay at home. Only my brother left.”
I nearly tripped. “Your brother?” I asked, keeping my voice as steady as possible.
“Dimitri,” she said. “He’s older than me and has been a guardian for a while. He’s over in the United States, actually. We haven’t seen him in a long time.”
I felt horrible and guilty. Guilty because I was keeping the truth from Viktoria and the others. Horrible because apparently no one from back home had bothered to pass the news on to his family yet. Smiling at her own memories, she didn’t notice my change in mood.
“Paul actually looks exactly like he did at that age. I should show you pictures of him-and some recent ones, too. Dimitri’s pretty cute. For my brother, I mean.”
I was sure seeing pictures of Dimitri as a little boy would rip my heart out. As it was, the more Viktoria began to talk about him, the sicker I felt.
She had no clue about what had happened, and even though it had been a couple of years since she’d seen him, it was clear she and the rest of the family loved him like crazy. Not that that should be a surprise. (And really, who couldn’t love Dimitri?) Being around them just one morning had shown me how close they all were. I knew from Dimitri’s stories that he was crazy about all of them, too.
“Rose? Are you okay?” Viktoria was peering at me with concern, probably because I hadn’t said anything in the last ten minutes.
We had circled around and were almost back at her house. Looking at her, at her open, friendly face and eyes that were so much like Dimitri’s, I realized I had another task ahead of me before I could go after Dimitri, wherever he was. I swallowed.
“I… yeah. I think… I think I need to sit down with you and the rest of your family.”
“Okay,” she said, the worry still in her voice.
Inside the house, Olena was bustling around the kitchen with Karolina. I thought they were making plans for tonight’s dinner, which was startling considering we’d just finished a huge breakfast. I could definitely get used to the way they ate around here. In the living room, Paul was building an elaborate racetrack out of Legos. Yeva sat in a rocking chair and appeared to be the world’s most stereotypical grandmother as she knit a pair of socks. Except most grandmothers didn’t look like they could incinerate you with a single glance.
Olena was talking to Karolina in Russian but switched to English when she saw me. “You two are back earlier than I expected.”
“We saw the town,” said Viktoria. “And… Rose wanted to talk to you. To all of us.”
Olena gave me a look as puzzled and concerned as Viktoria’s. “What’s going on?”
The weight of all those Belikov eyes on me made my heart start thumping in my chest. How was I going to do this? How could I explain something I hadn’t spoken about in weeks? I couldn’t stand to put them-or myself-through it. When Yeva scuttled in, it made things that much worse.
Maybe she’d had some mystical sense that something big was about to go down.
“We should sit,” I said.
Paul stayed in the living room, for which I was grateful. I was pretty sure I couldn’t handle saying what I had to with a little kid-one who looked like Dimitri, apparently-watching me.
“Rose, what’s wrong?” asked Olena. She looked so sweet and, well… motherly, that I nearly cried. Whenever I’d been angry with my own mother for not being around or doing a good job, I’d always compared her to some idealized image of a mom-a mom who seemed a lot like Dimitri’s, I realized. Dimitri’s sisters looked equally worried, like I was someone they’d known forever. That acceptance and concern made my eyes burn even more, seeing as they’d just met me this morning. Yeva wore a very strange expression, however-almost like she’d been expecting something like this all along.
“Well… the thing is, the reason I came here, to Baia, was to find you guys.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I’d come to search for Dimitri. I’d never thought much about finding his family, but now, I realized that it was a good thing I had.
“You see, Viktoria was talking about Dimitri earlier.” Olena’s face brightened when I said her son’s name. “And… I knew-er, know him. He used to be a guardian at my school. My teacher, actually.”
Karolina and Viktoria lit up as well. “How is he?” asked Karolina. “It’s been ages since we’ve seen him. Do you know when he’s going to visit?”
I couldn’t even think about answering her question, so I pushed forward with my story before I lost my courage in front of all those loving faces. As the words came out of my mouth, it was almost like someone else was saying them and I was simply watching from a distance. “A month ago… our school was attacked by Strigoi. A really bad attack… a huge group of Strigoi. We lost a lot of people-Moroi and dhampirs, both.”
Olena exclaimed in Russia. Viktoria leaned toward me. “St. Vladimir’s?”
I halted in my story, surprised. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Everyone’s heard of it,” said Karolina. “We all know what happened. That was your school? You were there that night?”
“No wonder you have so many molnija marks,” breathed Viktoria in wonder.
“And that’s where Dimitri’s at now?” asked Olena. “We lost track of his latest assignment.”
“Um, yeah…” My tongue felt thick in my throat. I couldn’t breathe. “I was at the school the night of the attack,” I reaffirmed. “And so was Dimitri.
He was one of the leaders in the battle… and the way he fought… he was… he was so brave… and…”
My words were breaking up, but by this point, the others were catching on. Olena gasped and again murmured in Russian. I picked out the word for “God.” Karolina sat frozen, but Viktoria leaned toward me. Those eyes that were so like her brother’s stared at me intently, as intently as he would if pushing me to tell the truth, no matter how awful.
“What happened?” she demanded. “What happened to Dimitri?”
I looked away from their faces, my eyes drifting to the living room. On the far wall, I caught sight of a bookcase filled with old, leather-covered books. They had gold-embossed lettering on the spines. It was totally random, but I suddenly remembered Dimitri mentioning those. They were these old adventure novels my mother collected, he’d told me once. The covers were so beautiful, and I loved them. If I was careful, she’d let me read them sometimes. The thought of a young Dimitri sitting in front of that bookcase, carefully turning the pages-and oh, he would have been careful-almost made me lose it. Had that been where he’d developed his love of western novels?
I was losing it. I was getting distracted. I wasn’t going to be able to tell them the truth. My emotions were growing too powerful, my memories flooding me as I fought to think about something-anything-that didn’t involve that horrible battle.
Then I glanced at Yeva again, and something about her eerie, knowing expression inexplicably spurred me on. I had to do this. I turned back to the others. “He fought really bravely in the battle, and afterward, he helped lead a rescue mission to save some people that the Strigoi had captured.
He was really amazing there, too, only… he…”
I stopped again and realized tears were running down my cheeks. In my mind, I was replaying that awful scene in the cave, with Dimitri so close to freedom and taken by a Strigoi at the last minute. Shaking that thought away, I took another deep breath. I had to finish this. I owed it to his family.
There was no gentle way to say it. “One of the Strigoi there… well, he overpowered Dimitri.”
Karolina buried her face in her mother’s shoulder, and Olena made no effort to hide her own tears. Viktoria wasn’t crying, but her face had gone perfectly still. She was working hard to keep her emotions in check, just as Dimitri would have. She searched my face, needing to know for sure.
“Dimitri is dead,” she said.
It was a statement, not a question, but she was looking to me for confirmation. I wondered if I’d given away something, some hint that there was still more to the story. Or maybe she just needed the certainty of those words. And for a moment, I considered telling them that Dimitri was dead.
It was what the Academy would tell them, what the guardians would tell them. It would be easier on them… but somehow, I couldn’t stand to lie to them-even if it was a comforting lie. Dimitri would have wanted the whole truth, and his family would too.
“No,” I said, and for a heartbeat, hope sprang up in everyone’s faces-at least until I spoke again. “Dimitri’s a Strigoi.”