IT TURNED OUT I WAS wrong about the local police department comprising of one guy and a dog.When Dimitri and I walked back to the motel, we saw flashing red and blue lights in the parking lot and a few bystanders trying to see what was happening.
“The whole town turned out,’ I said.
Dimitri sighed.“You just had to say something to the desk clerk, didn’t you?’
We’d stopped some distance away, hidden in the shadow of a run-down building.
“I thought it would slow you down.’
“It’s going to slow us down now.’ His eyes did a sweep of the scene, taking in all the details in the flickering light. “Sydney’s car is gone. That’s something, at least.’
My earlier cockiness faded. “Is it? We just lost our ride!’
“She wouldn’t leave us, but she was smart enough to get out before the police came knocking on her door.’ He turned and surveyed the town’s one main road. “Come on. She has to be close, and there’s a good chance the police might actually start searching around if they thought some defenseless girl was being chased down.’ The tone he used for “defenseless’ spoke legions.
Dimitri made an executive decision to walk back toward the road that had led us into town, assuming Sydney would want to get out of there now that I’d blown our cover. Getting the police involved had created complications, but I felt little regret over what I’d done. I was excited about the plan that had occurred to me in the woods and wanted, as usual, to get moving on it right away. If I’d helped get us out of this hole of a town, so much the better.
Dimitri’s instincts about Sydney were right. About a half-mile outside of town, we spotted a CR-V pulled off on the road’s shoulder. The engine was off, the lights dark, but I could see well enough to identify the Louisiana plates. I walked over to the driver side window and knocked on the glass. Inside, Sydney flinched. She rolled down the window, face incredulous.
“What did you do? Never mind. Don’t bother. Just get in.’
Dimitri and I complied. I felt like a naughty child under her disapproving glare. She started the car without a word and began driving in the direction we’d originally come from, eventually merging with the small state highway that led back to the interstate. That was promising. Only, once we’d driven a few miles, she pulled off again, this time at a dark exit that didn’t seem to have anything at it.
She turned off the car and turned to peer at me in the backseat. “You ran, didn’t you?’
“Yeah, but I got this–‘
Sydney held up a hand to silence me. “No, don’t. Not yet. I wish you could have pulled off your daring escape without attracting the authorities.’
“Me too,’ said Dimitri.
I scowled at them both. “Hey, I came back, didn’t I?’ Dimitri arched an eyebrow at that, apparently questioning just how voluntary that had been. “And now I know what we have to do to help Lissa.’
“What we have to do,’ said Sydney, “is find a safe place to stay.’ “Just go back to civilization and pick a hotel. One with room service. We can make that our base of operation while we work on the next plan.’
“We researched that town specifically!’ she said. “We can’t go to some random place–at least not nearby. I doubt they took down my plates, but they could put out a call to look for this kind of car. If they’ve got that and our descriptions, and it gets to the state police, it’ll get to the Alchemists and then it’ll–‘
“Calm down,’ said Dimitri, touching her arm. There was nothing intimate about that, but I still felt a spark of envy, particularly after the tough love I’d just had being nearly dragged through the woods. “We don’t know that any of that’s going to happen. Why don’t you just call Abe?’
“Yeah,’ she said glumly. “That’s exactly what I want. To tell him I messed up the plan in less than twenty-four hours.’
“Well,’ I said, “if it makes you feel better, the plan’s about to change anyway–‘
“Be quiet,’ she snapped. “Both of you. I need to think.’
Dimitri and I exchanged glances, but stayed silent. When I’d told him I knew a way to seriously help Lissa, he’d been intrigued. I knew he wanted details now, but we both had to wait for Sydney.
She flipped on the dome light and produced a paper map of the state. After studying it for a minute, she folded it back up and simply stared ahead. I couldn’t see her face but suspected she was frowning. Finally, she sighed in that woeful way of hers, turned off the light, and started the car. I watched as she punched in Altswood, West Virginia into her GPS.
“What’s in Altswood?’ I asked, disappointed she hadn’t entered something like Atlantic City.
“Nothing,’ she said, pulling back onto the road. “But it’s the closest place to where we’re going that the GPS can find.’
A passing car’s headlights briefly illuminated Dimitri’s profile, and I saw curiosity on his face too. So. I wasn’t the only one out of the loop anymore. The GPS read almost an hour and a half to our destination. He didn’t question her choice, though, and turned back to me.
“So what’s going on with Lissa? What’s this great plan of yours?’ He glanced at Sydney. “Rose says there’s something important we have to do.’
“So I gathered,’ said Sydney dryly. Dimitri looked back at me expectantly.
I took a deep breath. It was time to reveal the secret I’d been holding since my hearing. “So, it, um, turns out Lissa has a brother or sister. And I think we should find them.’
I managed to sound cool and casual as I spoke. Inside me, my heart lurched. Even though I’d had plenty of time to process Tatiana’s note, saying the words out loud made them real in a way they hadn’t been before. It shocked me, hitting me with the full impact of what this information truly meant and how it changed everything we’d all come to believe.
Of course, my shock was nothing compared to the others’. Score one for Rose and the element of surprise. Sydney made no attempt to hide her astonishment and gasped. Even Dimitri seemed a little taken aback. Once they recovered, I could see them preparing their protests. They would either demand evidence or simply dismiss the idea as ridiculous. I immediately jumped into action before the arguments could start. I produced Tatiana’s note, reading it aloud and then letting Dimitri look at it. I told them about my ghostly encounter, where the queen’s troubled spirit made me believe there was truth to this. Nonetheless, my companions were skeptical.
“You have no proof Tatiana wrote the note,’ said Dimitri.
“The Alchemists have no records of another Dragomir,’ said Sydney.
They each said exactly what I thought they would. Dimitri was the kind of guy always ready for a trick or trap. He suspected anything without hard proof. Sydney lived in a world of facts and data and had total faith in the Alchemists and their information. If the Alchemists didn’t believe it, neither did she. Ghostly evidence didn’t convince either of them.
“I don’t really see why Tatiana’s spirit would want to deceive me,’ I argued. “And the Alchemists aren’t all-knowing. The note says this is a pretty heavily guarded secret from Moroi–it makes sense it would be secret from the Alchemists too.’
Sydney scoffed, not liking my “all-knowing’ comment, but otherwise remained silent. It was Dimitri who pushed forward, refusing to take anything on faith without more evidence.
“You’ve said before that it’s not always clear what the ghosts are trying to say,’ he pointed out. “Maybe you misread her.’
“I don’t know …’ I thought again about her solemn, translucent face. “I think she did write this note. My gut says she did.’ I narrowed my eyes. “You know it’s been right before. Can you trust me on this?’
He stared at me for several moments, and I held that gaze steadily. In that uncanny way of ours, I could guess what was going on. The whole situation was far-fetched, but he knew I was right about my instincts. They’d proven true in the past. No matter what he’d been through, no matter the current antagonism between us, he still knew me enough to trust in this.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, he nodded. “But if we decided to search for this alleged sibling, we’d be going against Lissa’s instructions to stay put.’
“You believe that note?’ exclaimed Sydney. “You’re considering listening to it?’
A flash of anger lit up within me, one I worked to hide. Of course. Of course this would be the next obstacle: Dimitri’s inability to disobey Lissa. Sydney feared Abe, which I could kind of understand, but Dimitri’s concern was still the lofty vow of chivalry he’d made to Lissa. I took a deep breath. Telling him how ridiculous I thought he was behaving wouldn’t accomplish what I needed.
“Technically, yes. But if we could actually prove she wasn’t the last in her family, it would help her a lot. We can’t ignore the chance, and if you manage to keep me out of trouble while we do it’–I tried not to grimace at that–‘then there shouldn’t be a problem.’
Dimitri considered this. He knew me. He also knew I would use roundabout logic if need be to get my way. “Okay,’ he said at last. I saw the shift in his features. The decision was made, and he’d stick to it now. “But where do we start? You have no other clues, aside from a mysterious note.’
It was deja vu and reminded me of Lissa and Christian’s earlier conversation with Abe when they were figuring out where to start their investigation. She and I lived parallel lives, it seemed, both pursuing an impossible puzzle with a sketchy trail. As I replayed their discussion, I attempted the same reasoning Abe had used: without clues, start working through obvious conclusions.
“Obviously, this is a secret,’ I said. “A big one. One people have apparently wanted to cover up–enough that they’d try to steal records about it and keep the Dragomirs out of power.’ Someone had broken into an Alchemist building and taken papers indicating Eric Dragomir had indeed been funding a mystery woman. I pointed out to my companions that it seemed very likely to me this woman was the mother of his love child. “You could look into that case some more.’ Those last words were spoken toward Sydney. Maybe she didn’t care about another Dragomir, but the Alchemists still wanted to know who had stolen from them.
“Whoa, hey. How was I not even part of this decision process? ” She still hadn’t recovered from our conversation suddenly running away without her. After the way our night had gone so far, she didn’t look too pleased about being sucked into another of my rogue schemes. “Maybe breaking Lissa’s orders is no big deal for you two, but I’d be going against Abe. He might not be so lenient.’
It was a fair point. “I’ll pull in a daughterly favor,’ I assured her. “Besides, the old man loves secrets. He’d be into this, believe me. And you’ve already found the biggest clue of all. I mean, if Eric was giving money to some anonymous woman, then why wouldn’t it be for his secret mistress and child?’
“Anonymous is the key word,’ Sydney said, still clearly skeptical of Zmey’s “leniency.’ “If your theory’s right–and it’s kind of a leap–we still have no idea who this mistress is. The stolen documents didn’t say.’
“Are there other records that tie into the stolen ones? Or could you investigate the bank he was sending money to?’ The Alchemists’ initial concern had simply been that someone had stolen hard copies of their records. Her colleagues had discovered which items were taken but hadn’t given much thought to the content. I was willing to bet they hadn’t searched for any other documents related to the same topic. She affirmed as much.
“You really have no idea how “researching records’ works, do you? It’s not that easy,’ she said. “It could take a while.’
“Well … I guess that’s why it’s good we’re going somewhere, um, secure, right?’ I asked. Struck with the realization that we might need time to put our next step together, I could kind of see the disadvantage of having lost our out-of-the-way hideout.
“Secure …’ She shook her head. “Well, we’ll see. I hope I’m not doing something stupid.’
With those ominous words, silence fell. I wanted to know more about where we were going but felt I shouldn’t push the small victory I’d made. The victory I thought I’d made, at least. I wasn’t entirely sure Sydney was 100 percent on board but felt certain Dimitri had been convinced. Best not to agitate her right now. I looked at the GPS. Almost an hour. Enough time to check back on Lissa.
It took me a minute to recognize where Lissa was, probably because I’d been expecting her to return to her room. But no, she was in a location I’d only been once: Adrian’s parents’ home. Surprising. In a few moments, though, I read the reasoning from her mind. Her current suite was in guest housing, and in the ensuing panic over my escape, her building was swarming with visitors now trying to leave. The Ivashkov townhouse, situated in a permanent residential area, was a bit quieter–not that there weren’t a few fleeing neighbors there too.
Adrian sat back in an armchair, feet carelessly resting on an expensive coffee table that some interior designer had probably helped his mother choose. Lissa and Christian had just arrived, and she caught a whiff of smoke in the air that made her think Adrian had been sneaking in some bad behavior beforehand.
“If we’re lucky,’ he was telling Lissa and Christian, “the parental units will be tied up for a while and give us some peace and quiet. How rough was your questioning?’
Lissa and Christian sat on a couch that was prettier than it was comfortable. She leaned into him and sighed. “Not so bad. I don’t know if they’re fully convinced we had nothing to do with Rose’s escape … but they definitely don’t have any proof.’
“I think we got in more trouble with Aunt Tasha,’ said Christian. “She was kind of pissed off that we didn’t tell her what was going on. I think she probably wanted to blow up the statues herself.’IT
“I think she’s more upset that we got Dimitri involved’ pointed out Lissa. “She thinks we screwed up his chances of ever being accepted again.’
“Shes right,’ said Adrian. He picked up a remote control and turned on a large, plasma screen TV. He muted the sound and flipped randomly through channels. “But no one forced him.’
Lissa nodded but secretly wondered if she had forced Dimitri inadvertently. His dedicated vow to protect her was no secret. Christian seemed to pick up on her worry.
“Hey, for all we know, he never would have–‘
A knock interrupted him.
“Damn,’ said Adrian, standing up. “So much for peace and quiet.’
“Your parents wouldn’t knock,’ said Christian.
“True, but it’s probably one of their friends wanting to sip port and gossip about the terrible state of today’s murderous youth,’ Adrian called back.
Lissa heard the door open and a muffled conversation. A few moments later, Adrian returned with a young Moroi guy that Lissa didn’t recognize.
“Look,’ the guy was saying, glancing around uneasily, “I can come back.’ He caught sight of Lissa and Christian and froze.
“No, no,’ said Adrian. His transformation from grumpy to cordial had happened as quickly as a light switch being flipped. “I’m sure she’ll be back any minute. Do you guys all know each other?’
The guy nodded, eyes darting from face to face. “Of course.’
Lissa frowned. “I don’t know you.’
The smile never left Adrian’s face, but Lissa picked up quickly that something important was going on. “This is Joe. Joe’s the janitor who helped me out by testifying that I wasn’t with Rose when Aunt Tatiana was murdered. The one who was working in Rose’s building.’
Both Lissa and Christian straightened up. “It was a lucky thing you turned up before the hearing,’ said Christian carefully. For a while, there’d been panic that Adrian might be implicated with me, but Joe had come forward just in time to testify about when he’d seen both me and Adrian in my building.
Joe took a few steps back toward the foyer. “I really should go. Just tell Lady Ivashkov that I came by–and that I’m leaving Court. But that everything’s set.’
“What’s set?’ asked Lissa, slowly standing up.
“She–she’ll know.’ Lissa, I knew, didn’t look intimidating. She was cute and slim and pretty, but from the fear on Joe’s face–well. She must have been giving him a scary look. It reminded me of the earlier encounter with Abe. “Really,’ he added. “I need to go.’
He started to move again, but suddenly, I felt a surge of spirit burn through Lissa. Joe came to a halt, and she strode toward him.
“What did you need to talk to Lady Ivashkov about?’ demanded Lissa.
“Easy, cousin,’ murmured Adrian. “You don’t need that much spirit to get answers.’
Lissa was using compulsion on Joe, so much that he might as well have been a puppet on strings.
“The money,’ Joe gasped, eyes wide. “The money’s set.’
“What money?’ she asked.
Joe hesitated, as though he might resist, but soon gave in. He couldn’t fight that much compulsion, not from a spirit user. “The money … the money to testify … about where he was.’ Joe jerked his head toward Adrian.
Adrian’s cool expression faltered a little. “What do you mean where I was? The night my aunt died? Are you saying …’
Christian picked up where Adrian couldn’t. “Is Lady Ivashkov paying you off to say you saw Adrian?’
“I did see him,’ cried Joe. He was visibly sweating. Adrian had been right: Lissa was using too much spirit. It was physically hurting Joe. “I just … I just … I don’t remember the time … I don’t remember any of the times. That’s what I told the other guy, too. She paid me to put a time on when you were there.’
Adrian didn’t like that, not at all. To his credit, he remained calm. “What do you mean you told “the other guy’?’
“Who else?’ repeated Lissa. “Who else was with her?’
“No one! Lady Ivashkov just wanted to make sure her son was clear. I fudged the details for her. It was the guy … the other guy who came later … who wanted to know when Hathaway was around.’
There was a click from the foyer, the sound of the front door opening. Lissa leaned forward, cranking up the compulsion. “Who? Who was he? What did he want?’
Joe looked like he was in serious pain now. He swallowed. “I don’t know who he was! No one I’d seen. Some Moroi. Just wanted me to testify about when I’d seen Hathaway. Paid me more than Lady Ivashkov. No harm …’ He looked at Lissa desperately. “No harm in helping them both … especially since Hathaway did it …’
“Adrian?’ Daniella’s voice rang down the hall. “Are you here?’
“Back off,’ Adrian warned Lissa in a low voice. There was no joking in it. Her voice was just as soft, her attention still on Joe. “What did he look like? The Moroi? Describe him.’
The sound of high heels clicked on the hall’s wooden floor.
“Like no one!’ said Joe. “I swear! Plain. Ordinary. Except the hand … please let me go …’
Adrian shoved Lissa aside, breaking the contact between her and Joe. Joe nearly sagged to the ground and then went rigid as he locked gazes with Adrian. More compulsion–but much less than Lissa had used.
“Forget this,’ hissed Adrian. “We never had this conversation.’
“Adrian, what are you–‘
Daniella stopped in the living room’s doorway, taking in the strange sights. Christian was still on the couch, but Adrian and Lissa were inches from Joe, whose shirt was soaked with sweat.
“What’s going on?’ Daniella exclaimed.
Adrian stepped back and gave his mother one of those charming smiles that captivated so many women. “This guy came by to see you, Mom. We told him we’d wait until you got back. We’re going to head out now.’
Daniella glanced between her son and Joe. She was clearly uneasy about the scenario and also confused. Lissa was surprised at the “heading out’ comment but followed Adrian’s lead. Christian did too.
“It was nice seeing you,’ said Lissa, attempting a smile to match Adrian’s. Joe looked totally dazed. After Adrian’s last command, the poor janitor had also probably forgotten how he’d ended up at the Ivashkov home.
Lissa and Christian hastily followed Adrian out before Daniella could say much more. “What the hell was that?’ asked Christian, once they were outside. I wasn’t sure if he meant Lissa’s scary compulsion or what Joe had revealed.
“Not sure,’ said Adrian, expression dark. No more cheery smile. “But we should talk to Mikhail.’
Dimitri’s voice was gentle, bringing me back to him, Sydney, and the car. He’d undoubtedly recognized the expression on my face and knew where I’d been.
“Everything okay back there?’ he asked.
I knew “back there’ meant Court and not the backseat. I nodded, though “okay’ wasn’t quite the right word for what I’d just witnessed. What had I just witnessed? An admission of false testimony. An admission that contradicted some of the evidence against me. I didn’t care so much that Joe had lied to keep Adrian safe. Adrian hadn’t been involved with Tatiana’s murder. I wanted him free and clear. But what about the other part? Some “ordinary’ Moroi who’d paid Joe to lie about when I’d been around, leaving me without an alibi during the murder window?
Before I could fully process the implications, I noticed the car had stopped. Forcing the Joe-info to the back of my mind, I tried to take stock of our new situation. Sydney’s laptop glowed in the front seat as she scrolled through something.
“Where are we?’ I peered out the window. In the headlights, I saw a sad, closed gas station.
“Altswood,’ said Dimitri. By my estimation, there was nothing else but the gas station. “Makes our last town look like New York.’
Sydney shut her laptop. She handed it back, and I set it on the seat beside me, near the backpacks she’d miraculously grabbed when leaving the motel. She shifted the car into drive and pulled out of the parking lot. Not too far away, I could see the highway and expected her to turn toward it. Instead, she drove past the gas station, deeper into darkness. Like the last place, we were surrounded by mountains and forests. We crept along at a snail’s pace until Sydney spotted a tiny gravel road disappearing into the woods. It was only big enough for one car to go down, but somehow, I didn’t expect we’d run into much traffic out here. A similar road took us in deeper and deeper, and although I couldn’t see her face, Sydney’s anxiety was palpable in the car.
Minutes felt like hours until our narrow path opened up into a large, dirt-packed clearing. Other vehicles–pretty oldlooking–were parked there. It was a strange place for a parking lot, considering all I could see around us was dark forest. Sydney shut off the car.
“Are we at a campground?’ I asked.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she looked at Dimitri. “Are you as good as they say you are?’
“What?’ he asked, startled.
“Fighting. Everyone keeps talking about how dangerous you are. Is it true? Are you that good?’
Dimitri considered. “Pretty good.’
I scoffed. “Very good.’
“I hope it’s enough,’ said Sydney, reaching for the door’s handle.
I opened my door as well. “Aren’t you going to ask about me?’
“I already know you’re dangerous,’ she said. “I’ve seen it.’
Her compliment offered little comfort as we walked out across the rural parking lot. “Why’d we stop?’
“Because we have to go on foot now.’ She turned on a flashlight and shone it along the lot’s perimeter. At last, it flickered across a footpath snaking through the trees. The path was small and easy to miss because weeds and other plants were encroaching on it. “There.’ She began to move toward it.
“Wait,’ said Dimitri. He moved in front of her, leading the way, and I immediately took up the back position in our group. It was a standard guardian formation. We were flanking her the way we would a Moroi. All earlier thoughts of Lissa flitted from my mind. My attention was totally on the situation at hand, all my senses alert to the potential danger. I could see Dimitri was in the same mode, both of us holding our stakes.
“Where are we going?’ I asked as we carefully avoided roots and holes along the path. Branches scraped along my arms.
“To people I guarantee won’t turn you in,’ she said, voice grim.
More questions were on my lips when brilliant light suddenly blinded me. My eyes had grown attuned to the darkness, and the unexpected brightness was too abrupt a change. There was a rustling in the trees, a sense of many bodies around us, and as my vision returned, I saw vampire faces everywhere.