Being with Lissa left me with more questions than answers, and so without a course of action, I simply continued to stay with the Belikovs for the next few days.I fell into their normal routine, again surprised by how easy it was.I tried hard to make myself useful, doing any chores they’d let me do and even going so far as watching the baby (something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, seeing as guardian training hadn’t left much time for after school jobs like babysitting).
Yeva eyed me the whole time, never saying anything but always looking like she disapproved. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to go or if that was simply the way she always looked. The others, however, didn’t question me at all. They were delighted to have me around and made it obvious in every action. Viktoria was especially happy.
“I wish you could come back to school with us,” Viktoria said wistfully one evening. She and I had been spending a lot of time together.
“When do you go back?”
“Monday, right after Easter.”
I felt a little sadness stir in me. Whether I was still here or not, I would miss her. “Oh, man. I didn’t realize it was so soon.”
A small silence fell between us; then she gave me a sidelong look. “Have you thought… well, have you maybe thought about coming back to St. Basil’s with us?”
I stared. “St. Basil’s? Your school is named after a saint too?” Not all of them were. Adrian had attended an East Coast school called Alder.
“Ours is a human saint,” she said with a grin. “You could enroll there. You could finish your last year-I’m sure they’d take you.”
Of all the crazy options I’d considered on this trip-and believe me, I’d considered a lot of crazy things-that was one that had never crossed my mind. I’d written school off. I was pretty sure there was nothing else I could learn-well, after meeting Sydney and Mark, it had become obvious there were still a few more things. Considering what I wanted to do with my life, however, I didn’t think another semester of math and science would do much for me. And as far as guardian training went, mostly all I had left to do w s prepare for the end-of-year trials. I somehow doubted those tests and challenges would even come remotely close to what I’d experienced with Strigoi already.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much done with school. Besides, it’d all be in Russian.”
“They’d translate for you.” A mischievous grin lit her face. “Besides, kicking and punching transcend language.” Her smile faded to a more thoughtful expression. “But seriously. If you aren’t going to finish school, and you aren’t going to be a guardian… well, why don’t you stay here? I mean, just in Baia. You could live with us.”
“I’m not going to be a blood whore,” I said immediately.
An odd look crossed her face. “That’s not what I meant.”
“I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry.” I felt bad about the comment. While I kept hearing rumors about blood whores in town, I’d only seen one or two, and certainly the Belikov women weren’t among them. Sonya’s pregnancy was something of a mystery, but working in a drugstore didn’t seem that sordid. I’d learned a little bit more about Karolina’s situation. The father of her children was a Moroi she apparently had a genuine connection with. She hadn’t cheapened herself to be with him, and he hadn’t used her. After the baby was born, the two of them had decided to part ways, but it had been friendly. Karolina was now apparently dating a guardian who visited whenever he had leave.
The few blood whores I had seen around town very much fit my stereotype. Their clothing and makeup screamed easy sex. The bruises on their necks clearly showed that they had no problem with letting their partners drink blood during sex, which was pretty much the sleaziest thing a dhampir could do. Only humans gave blood to Moroi. My race didn’t. To allow it-particularly during sexual activities-well, like I said, it was sleazy.
The dirtiest of the dirty.
“Mother would love it if you stayed. You could get a job too. Just be part of our family.”
“I can’t take Dimitri’s place, Viktoria,” I said softly.
She reached out and gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. “I know. No one expects you to. We like you for you, Rose. You being here just feels right-there’s a reason Dimka chose to be with you. You fit in here.”
I tried to imagine the life she described. It sounded… easy. Comfortable. No worries. Just living with a loving family, laughing and hanging out together each night. I could go about my own life, not having to trail someone else all day. I would have sisters. There’d be no fighting-unless it was to defend. I could give up this plan to kill Dimitri-which I knew would kill me too, either physically or spiritually. I could choose the rational path, let him go and accept him as dead. And, yet… if I did that, why not just go back to Montana? Back to Lissa and the Academy? “I don’t know,” I told Viktoria at last. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
It was just after dinner, and she glanced hesitantly at the clock. “I don’t want to leave you since we don’t have much time together, but… I was supposed to meet someone soon…”
“Nikolai?” I teased.
She shook her head, and I tried to hide my disappointment. I’d seen him a few times, and he’d grown more and more likeable. It was too bad Viktoria couldn’t kindle any feelings for him. Now, though, I wondered if there might be something holding her back-or rather, someone.
“Oh, spill,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
She kept her face blank in a fair imitation of Dimitri’s. “A friend,” she said evasively. But I thought I saw a smile in her eyes.
“Someone at school?”
“No.” She sighed. “And that’s the problem. I’m going to miss him so much.”
My smile faded. “I can imagine.”
“Oh.” She looked embarrassed. “That’s stupid of me. My problems… well, they’re nothing compared to yours. I mean, I may not see him for a while… but I will see him. But Dimitri’s gone. You won’t see him ever again.”
Well, that might not be entirely true. I didn’t tell her that, though. Instead, I just said, “Yeah.”
To my surprise, she gave me a hug. “I know what love’s like. To lose that… I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. All I can tell you is that we’re here for you. All of us, okay? You can’t replace Dimitri, but you do feel like a sister.”
Her calling me a sister both stunned and warmed me at the same time. She had to go get ready for her date after that. She hurriedly changed clothes and put on makeup-definitely more than a friend, I decided-and headed out the door. I was kind of glad because I didn’t want her to see the tears that her words had brought to my eyes. I’d spent my life as an only child. Lissa had been the closest I had to a sister. I’d always thought of Lissa as one; one I’d now lost. To hear Viktoria call me a sister now… well, it stirred something in me. Something that told me I really did have friends and wasn’t alone.
I headed down to the kitchen after that, and Olena soon joined me. I was rummaging for food.
“Was that Viktoria I heard leave?” she asked.
“Yeah, she went off to see a friend.” To my credit, I kept my expression neutral. No way would I sell Viktoria out.
Olena sighed. “I’d wanted her to run an errand for me in town.”
“I’ll do it,” I said eagerly. “After I grab something to eat.”
She gave me a kind smile and patted my cheek. “You have a good heart, Rose. I can see why Dimka loved you.”
It was so amazing, I thought, how accepted my relationship with Dimitri was around here. No one brought up age or teacher-student relationships.
As I’d told Sydney, it was like I was his widow or something, and Viktoria’s words about me staying replayed in my head. The way Olena looked at me made me feel like I really was her daughter, and once more, I experienced those traitorous feelings about my own mom. She probably would have scoffed at me and Dimitri. She would have called it inappropriate and said I was too young. Or would she have? Maybe I was being too harsh.
Seeing me in front of the open cupboard, Olena shook her head reproachfully. “But you need to eat first.”
“Just a snack,” I assured her. “Don’t go to any trouble.”
She ended up slicing me off big pieces of black bread she’d baked earlier that day and put out a tub of butter because she knew I loved to slather up my slices. Karolina had teased me that Americans might be shocked to know what was in this bread, so I never asked any questions. It was somehow sweet and tangy at the same time, and I loved it.
Olena sat down across from me and watched me eat. “This was his favorite when he was little.”
She nodded. “Whenever he was on break from school, the first thing he’d do is ask for that bread. I practically had to make him his own loaf each time with the way he ate. The girls never ate that much.”
“Guys always seem to eat more.” Admittedly, I could keep up with most of them. “And he’s bigger and taller than most.”
“True,” she mused. “But I eventually reached a point where I made him start making it himself. I told him if he was going to eat all my food, he’d best know how much work went into it.”
I laughed. “I can’t imagine Dimitri baking bread.”
And yet, as soon as the words came out, I reconsidered. My immediate associations with Dimitri were always intense and fierce; it was his sexy, battle-god persona that came to mind. Yet, it had been Dimitri’s gentleness and thoughtfulness mixed with that deadliness that made him so wonderful. The same hands that wielded stakes with such precision would carefully brush the hair out of my face. The eyes that could astutely spot any danger in the area would regard me wonderingly and worshipfully, like I was the most beautiful and amazing woman in the world.
I sighed, consumed by that bittersweet ache in my chest that had become so familiar now. What a stupid thing, getting worked up over a loaf of bread of all things. But that was how it was. I got emotional whenever I thought about Dimitri.
Olena’s eyes were on me, sweet and compassionate. “I know,” she said, guessing my thoughts. “I know exactly how you feel.”
“Does it get easier?” I asked.
Unlike Sydney, Olena had an answer. “Yes. But you’ll never be the same.”
I didn’t know whether to take comfort from those words or not. After I finished eating, she gave me a brief grocery list, and I set off toward downtown, happy to be outside and moving. Inactivity didn’t suit me.
While in the grocery store, I was surprised to run into Mark. I’d gotten the impression he and Oksana didn’t come to town that often. I wouldn’t have put it past them to grow their own food and live off the land. He gave me a warm smile. “I wondered if you were still around.”
“Yeah.” I held up my basket. “Just doing some shopping for Olena.”
“I’m glad you’re still here,” he said. “You seem more… at peace.”
“Your ring is helping, I think. At least with the peace. It hasn’t done much as far as any decision making goes.”
He frowned, shifting the milk he held in one arm to the other. “What decisions?”
“What to do now. Where to go.”
“Why not stay here?”
It was eerie, so similar to the conversation I’d had with Viktoria. And my response was equally similar. “I don’t know what I’d do if I stayed here.”
“Get a job. Live with the Belikovs. They love you, you know. You fit right in with their family.”
That warm, loved feeling came back, and I again tried to imagine myself just settling down with them, working in a store like this or waiting tables.
“I don’t know,” I said. I was a broken record. “I just don’t know if that’s right for me.”
“Better than the alternative,” he warned. “Better than running off with no real purpose, throwing yourself in the face of danger. That’s no choice at all.”
And yet, it was the reason I’d come to Siberia in the first place. My inner voice scolded me. Dimitri, Rose. Have you forgotten Dimitri? Have you forgotten how you came here to free him, like he would have wanted? Or was that really what he would have wanted? Maybe he would have wanted me to stay safe. I just didn’t know, and with no more help from Mason, my choices were even more muddled. Thinking of Mason suddenly reminded me of something I’d totally forgotten.
“When we talked before… well, we talked about what Lissa and Oksana could do. But what about you?”
Mark narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Have you ever… have you ever run into, um, ghosts?”
Several moments passed, and then he exhaled. “I’d hoped that wouldn’t happen to you.”
It astonished me then how much relief I felt to know I wasn’t alone in my ghostly experiences. Even though I now understood that having died and been to the world of the dead made me a target for spirits, it was still one of the freakiest things about being shadow-kissed.
“Did it happen without you wanting it?” I asked.
“At first. Then I learned to control it.”
“Me too.” I suddenly recalled the barn. “Actually, that’s not entirely true.”
Lowering my voice further, I hastily recapped what had happened on my trip here with Sydney. I’d never spoken of it to anyone.
“You must never, ever do that again,” he said sternly.
“But I didn’t mean to! It just happened.”
“You panicked. You needed help, and some part of you called out to the spirits around you. Don’t do it. It’s not right, and it’s easy to lose control.”
“I don’t even know how I did it.”
“Like I said, lapse of control. Don’t ever let your panic get the best of you.”
An older woman passed us, a scarf over her head and a basket of vegetables in her arms. I waited until she was gone before asking Mark, “Why did they fight for me?”
“Because the dead hate Strigoi. The Strigoi are unnatural, neither living nor dead-just existing in some state in between. Just as we sense that evil, so do the ghosts.”
“Seems like they could be a good weapon.”
That face, normally easy and open, frowned. “It’s dangerous. People like you and me already walk the edge of darkness and insanity. Openly calling upon the dead only brings us closer to falling over that edge and losing our minds.” He glanced at his watch and sighed. “Look, I have to go, but I’m serious, Rose. Stay here. Stay out of trouble. Fight Strigoi if they come to you, but don’t go seeking them blindly. And definitely leave the ghosts alone.”
It was a lot of advice to get in a grocery store, a lot of advice I wasn’t sure I could follow. But I thanked him and sent my regards to Oksana before paying and leaving as well. I was heading back toward Olena’s neighborhood when I rounded a corner and nearly walked right into Abe.
He was dressed in his usual flashy way, wearing that expensive coat and a yellow-gold scarf that matched the gold in his jewelry. His guardians hovered nearby, and he leaned casually against a building’s brick wall.
“So this is why you came to Russia. To go to the market like some peasant.”
“No,” I said. “Of course not.”
“Just sightseeing then?”
“No. I’m just being helpful. Stop trying to get information out of me. You’re not as smart as you think you are.”
“That’s not true,” he said.
“Look, I told you already. I came here to tell the Belikovs the news. So go back and tell whoever you’re working for that that’s that.”
“And I told you before not to lie to me,” he said. Again, I saw that odd mix of danger and humor. “You have no idea how patient I’ve been with you.
From anyone else, I would have gotten the information I needed that first night.”
“Lucky me,” I snapped back. “What now? Are you going to take me down an alley and beat me up until I tell you why I’m here? I’m losing interest in this whole scary-mob-boss routine, you know.”
“And I’m losing patience with you,” he said. There went the humor, and as he stood over me, I couldn’t help but uneasily note that he was better built than most Moroi. A lot of Moroi avoided fights, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if Abe had roughed up as many people as his bodyguards had. “And honestly? I don’t care why you’re here anymore. You just need to leave. Now.”
“Don’t threaten me, old man. I’ll leave whenever the hell I want.” It was funny, I’d just sworn to Mark that I didn’t know if I could stay in Baia, but when pressured by Abe, I just wanted to dig my feet in. “I don’t know what you’re trying to keep me from, but I’m not scared of you.” That also wasn’t entirely true.
“You should be,” he returned pleasantly. “I can be a very good friend or a very bad enemy. I can make it worth your while if you leave. We can strike a bargain.”
There was an almost excited gleam in his eyes as he spoke. I recalled Sydney describing him manipulating others, and I got the feeling this was what he lived for-negotiating, striking trades to get what he wanted.
“No,” I said. “I’ll leave when I’m ready. And there’s nothing you or whoever you’re working for can do about it.”
Hoping I appeared bold, I turned around. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder, jerking me back, nearly causing me to lose the groceries. I started to lunge forward in attack mode, but his guardians were right there in a flash. I knew I wouldn’t get far.
“Your time is up here,” hissed Abe. “In Baia. In Russia. Go back to the U.S. I’ll give you what you need-money, first-class tickets, whatever.”
I stepped out of his reach, backing carefully away. “I don’t need your help or your money-God only knows where it comes from.” A group of people turned the corner across the street, laughing and talking, and I stepped back further, certain Abe wouldn’t start a scene with witnesses present. It made me feel braver, which was probably stupid on my part. “And I already told you: I’ll go back whenever the hell I want.”
Abe’s eyes lifted to the other pedestrians, and he too retreated back with his guardians. That chilling smile was on his face. “And I told you. I can be a very good friend or a very bad enemy. Get out of Baia before you find out which.”
He turned around and left, much to my relief. I didn’t want him to see just how much fear his words had left on my face.
I went to bed early that night, suddenly feeling antisocial. I lay there for a while, flipping through another magazine I couldn’t read, and amazingly found myself growing more and more tired. I think the encounters with Mark and Abe had exhausted me. Mark’s words about staying had hit too close to home after my earlier conversation with Viktoria. Abe’s thinly veiled threats had raised all my defenses, putting me on guard against whoever was working with him to make me leave Russia. At what point, I wondered, would he truly lose patience and stop trying to bargain?
I drifted off to sleep and the familiar sense of an Adrian-dream settled around me. It had been a long time since this had happened, and I’d actually thought he’d listened to me when I’d told him to stay away before. Of course, I always told him that. This had been the longest time span to go by without a visit, and as much as I hated to admit it, I’d kind of missed him.
The setting he’d chosen this time was a piece of the Academy’s property, a woodsy area near a pond. Everything was green and in bloom, and sunlight shone down on us. I suspected Adrian’s creation didn’t match what Montana’s weather was really like right now, but then, he was in control. He could do whatever he wanted.
“Little dhampir,” he said, smiling. “Long time no see.”
“I thought you were done with me,” I said, sitting down on a large, smooth rock.
“Never done with you,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and strolling over to me. “Although… to tell the truth, I did intend to stay away this time. But, well, I had to make sure you were still alive.”
“Alive and well.”
He smiled down at me. The sun glinted off his brown hair, giving it golden-chestnut highlights. “Good. You seem very well, actually. Your aura’s better than I’ve ever seen it.” His eyes drifted from my face down to where my hands lay in my lap. Frowning, he knelt down and picked up my right hand. “What’s this?”
Oksana’s ring was on it. Despite the ring’s lack of ornamentation, the metal gleamed brightly in the light. The dreams were so strange. Even though Adrian and I weren’t together, exactly, the ring had followed me in and kept its power enough that he could sense it.
“A charm. It’s infused with spirit.”
Like me, this was apparently something he’d never considered. His expression grew eager. “And it heals, right? It’s what’s keeping some of the darkness from your aura.”
“Some,” I said, uneasy about his fixation on it. I took it off and slipped it into my pocket. “It’s temporary. I met another spirit user-and a shadowkissed dhampir.”
More surprise registered on his face. “What? Where?”
I bit my lip and shook my head.
“Damn it, Rose! This is big. You know how Lissa and I have been looking for other spirit users. Tell me where they are.”
“No. Maybe later. I don’t want you guys coming after me.” For all I knew, they were already after me, using Abe as their agent.
His green eyes flashed angrily. “Look, pretend for a moment the world doesn’t revolve around you, okay? This is about Lissa and me, about understanding this crazy magic inside of us. If you’ve got people who can help us, we need to know.”
“Maybe later,” I repeated stonily. “I’m moving on soon-then I’ll tell you.”
“Why are you always so difficult?”
“Because you like me that way.”
“At the moment? Not so much.”
It was the kind of joking comment Adrian usually made, but just then, something about it bothered me. For some reason, I got the tiniest, tiniest feeling that I suddenly wasn’t as endearing to him as usual.
“Just try being patient,” I told him. “I’m sure you guys have other stuff to work on. And Lissa seems pretty busy with Avery.” The words slipped out before I could help it, and some of the bitterness and envy I’d felt watching them the other night laced my tone.
Adrian raised an eyebrow. “Ladies and gentlemen, she admits it. You have been spying on Lissa-I knew it.”
I looked away. “I just like to know she’s alive too.” As if I could go anywhere in the world and not know that.
“She is. Alive and well, like you. Er… mostly well.” Adrian frowned. “Sometimes I get this strange vibe off of her. She doesn’t seem quite right or her aura will flicker a little. Never lasts long, but I still worry.” Something in Adrian’s voice softened. “Avery worries about her too, so Lissa’s in good hands. Avery’s pretty amazing.”
I gave him a scathing look. “Amazing? Do you like her or something?” I hadn’t forgotten Avery’s comment about leaving the door unlocked for him.
“Of course I like her. She’s a great person.”
“No, I mean like. Not like.”
“Oh, I see,” he said, rolling his eyes. “We’re dealing with elementary school definitions of ?®like.’”
“You’re not answering the question.”
“Well, like I said, she’s a great person. Smart. Outgoing. Beautiful.”
Something in the way he said “beautiful” bugged me. I averted my eyes again, playing with the blue nazar around my neck as I tried to parse my feelings. Adrian figured things out first.
“Are you jealous, little dhampir?”
I looked back up at him. “No. If I was going to be jealous over you, I would have gone crazy a long time ago, considering all the girls you mess around with.”
“Avery’s not the kind of girl you mess around with.”
Again, I heard that affection in his voice, that dreaminess. It shouldn’t have bothered me. I should have been glad he was interested in another girl. After all, I’d been trying to convince him to leave me alone for a very long time. Part of the conditions of him giving me money for this trip had involved me promising to give him a fair shot at dating when-and if-I returned to Montana. If he got together with Avery, it would be one less thing for me to worry about.
And honestly, if it had been any other girl except Avery, I probably wouldn’t have minded. But somehow, the idea of her enchanting him was just too much. Wasn’t it bad enough that I was losing Lissa to her? How was it possible that one girl could so easily take my place? She’d stolen my best friend, and now the guy who’d sworn up and down that I was the one he wanted was seriously considering replacing me.
You’re being a hypocrite, a stern voice inside of me said. Why should you feel so wronged about someone else coming into their lives? You abandoned them. Lissa and Adrian both. They have every right to move on.
I stood up angrily. “Look, I’m done talking to you tonight. Will you let me out of this dream? I’m not telling you where I am. And I’m not interested in hearing about how wonderful Avery is and how much better than me she is.”
“Avery would never act like a little brat,” he said. “She wouldn’t get so offended that someone actually cares enough to check on her. She wouldn’t deny me the chance to learn more about my magic because she was paranoid someone would ruin her crazy attempt to get over her boyfriend’s death.”
“Don’t talk to me about being a brat,” I shot back. “You’re as selfish and self-centered as usual. It’s always about you-even this dream is. You hold me against my will, whether I want it or not, because it amuses you.”
“Fine,” he said, voice cold. “I’ll end this. And I’ll end everything between us. I won’t be coming back.”
“Good. I hope you mean it this time.”
His green eyes were the last thing I saw before I woke up in my own bed.
I sat up, gasping. My heart felt like it was breaking, and I almost thought I might cry. Adrian was right-I had been a brat. I’d lashed out at him when it wasn’t really deserved. And yet… I hadn’t been able to help it. I missed Lissa. I even kind of missed Adrian. And now someone else was taking my place, someone who wouldn’t just walk away like I had.
I won’t be coming back.
And for the first time ever, I had a feeling he really wouldn’t be.