GETTING AWAY FROM DIMITRI WASN’T just about our rocky romantic past.I’d meant it when I said I didn’t want him getting in trouble because of me.If the guardians found me, my fate wouldn’t be that much different from what I’d already been facing.
But Dimitri? He’d been making baby steps toward acceptance. Sure, that was pretty much destroyed now, but his chance for a life wasn’t over. If he didn’t want to live at Court or with humans, he could go back to Siberia and return to his family. Out there in the middle of nowhere, he’d be hard to find. And with how close that community was, they’d go to a lot of trouble to hide him if someone ever did try to hunt him down. Staying with me was definitely the wrong option. I just needed to convince him.
“I know what you’re thinking,’ Dimitri said, after we’d been on the road for about an hour.
We hadn’t spoken much, both of us lost in our own thoughts. After a few more country roads, we’d finally made it to an interstate and were making good time toward … well, I had no idea. I’d been staring out the window, pondering all the disasters around me and how I alone could fix them. “Huh?’ I glanced over at him.
I thought there might be the smallest hint of a smile on his lips, which seemed absurd considering this was probably the worst situation he’d been in since being restored from his Strigoi state.
“And it won’t work,’ he added. “You’re planning how to get away from me, probably when we eventually stop for gas. You’re thinking maybe you’ll have a chance to run off then.’
The crazy thing was, I had been thinking very much along those lines. The old Dimitri was a good partner on the road, but I wasn’t so sure I liked having his old ability to guess my thoughts back as well.
“This is a waste of time,’ I said, gesturing around the car.
“Oh? You have better things to do than flee the people who want to lock you up and execute you? Please don’t tell me again that this is too dangerous for me.’
I glared. “It’s about more than just you. Running away shouldn’t be my only concern. I should be helping clear my name, not hiding in whatever remote place you’re undoubtedly taking me to. The answers are at Court.’
“And you have lots of friends at Court who will be working on that. It’ll be easier on them if they know you’re safe.’
“What I want to know is why no one told me about this–or, I mean, why Lissa didn’t. Why’d she hide it? Don’t you think I’d have been more helpful if I’d been ready?’
“We did the fighting, not you,’ Dimitri said. “We were afraid if you knew, you might give away that something was up.’
“I would have never told!’
“Not intentionally, no. But if you were tense or anxious … well, your guards can pick up on those kinds of things.’
“Well, now that we’re out, can you tell me where we’re going? Was I right? Is it some crazy, remote place?’
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I hate not being in the loop.’
That tiny smile on his lips grew a little bigger. “Well, I have my own personal theory that the more you don’t know, the more your curiosity is likely to make sure you stick around with me.’
“That’s ridiculous,’ I replied, though really, it wasn’t all that unreasonable of a theory. I sighed. “When the hell did things get so out of control? When did you guys start being the masterminds? I’m the one who comes up with the wacky, impossible plans. I’m supposed to be the general here. Now I’m barely a lieutenant.’
He started to say something else but then froze for a few seconds, his face instantly taking on that wary, lethal guardian look. He swore in Russian.
“What’s wrong?’ I asked. His attitude was contagious, and I immediately forgot all thoughts of crazy plans.
In the erratic flash of headlights from oncoming traffic, I could see his eyes dart up to the rearview mirror. “We have a tail. I didn’t think it would happen this soon.’
“Are you sure?’ It had grown dark, and the number of cars on the highway had increased. I didn’t know how anyone could spot one suspicious car among that many, but well … he was Dimitri. He swore again and suddenly, in a maneuver that made me grab the dashboard, he cut sharply across two lanes, barely missing a minivan that expressed its annoyance with a lot of honking. There was an exit right there, and he just barely made it without clipping the exit ramp’s rail. I heard more honking, and when I looked back, I saw the headlights of a car that had made just as crazy a move to follow us onto the exit.
“The Court must have gotten the word out pretty fast,’ he said. “They had someone watching the interstates.’
“Maybe we should have taken back roads.’
He shook his head. “Too slow. None of it would have been an issue once we switched cars, but they found us too soon. We’ll have to get a new one here. This is the biggest city we’ll hit before the Maryland border.’
A sign said we were in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and as Dimitri skillfully drove us down a busy, commerce-filled road, I could see the tail mirroring everything we did. “What exactly is your plan to get a new car?’ I asked warily.
“Listen carefully,’ he said, ignoring my question. “It is very, very important that you do exactly as I say. No improvising. No arguing. There are guardians in that car, and by now, they’ve alerted every other guardian around here–possibly even the human police.’
“Wouldn’t the police catching us create a few problems?’
“The Alchemists would sort it out and make sure we ended up back with the Moroi.’
The Alchemists. I should have known they’d get involved. They were a secret society of humans who helped protect Moroi and dhampir interests, keeping us out of the mainstream human public. Of course, the Alchemists didn’t do it out of kindness. They thought we were evil and unnatural and mostly wanted to make sure we stayed on the fringes of their society. An escaped “criminal’ like me would certainly be a problem they would want to help the Moroi with.
Dimitri’s voice was hard and commanding when he spoke again, though his eyes weren’t on me. They were busy scanning the sides of the road. “No matter what you think of the choices everyone’s been making for you, no matter how unhappy you are with this situation, you know–I know you do–that I’ve never failed you when our lives were at stake. You trusted me in the past. Trust me now.’
I wanted to tell him that what he said wasn’t entirely true. He had failed me. When he’d been taken down by Strigoi, when he’d shown that he wasn’t perfect, he had failed me by shattering the impossible, godly image I had of him. But my life? No, he had always kept mine safe. Even as a Strigoi, I’d never entirely been convinced he could kill me. The night the Academy had been attacked, when he’d been turned, he’d told me to obey him without question too. It had meant leaving him to fight Strigoi, but I’d done it.
“Okay,’ I said quietly. “I’ll do whatever you say. Just remember not to talk down to me. I’m not your student anymore. I’m your equal now.’
He glanced away from the side of the road just long enough to give me a surprised look. “You’ve always been my equal, Roza.’
The use of the affectionate Russian nickname made me too stupid to respond, but it didn’t matter. Moments later, he was all business again. “There. Do you see that movie theater sign?’ I gazed down the road. There were so many restaurants and stores that their signs made a glittering haze in the night. At last, I saw what he meant. WESTLAND CINEMA.
“That’s where we’re going to meet.’
We were splitting up? I’d wanted to part ways but not like this. In the face of danger, separating suddenly seemed like an awful idea. I’d promised not to argue, though, and kept listening.
“If I’m not there in a half hour, you call this number and go without me.’ Dimitri handed me a small piece of paper from his duster pocket. It had a phone number scrawled on it, not one I recognized.
If I’m not there in a half hour. The words were so shocking that I couldn’t help my protest this time. “What do you mean if you’re not–ah!’
Dimitri made another abrupt turn, one that caused him to run a red light and only narrowly miss a number of cars. More honking ensued, but the move had been too sudden for our tail to keep up. I saw our pursuers whiz past on the main road, brake lights flashing as they searched for a place to turn around.
Dimitri had taken us into a mall parking lot. It was packed with cars, and I glanced at the clock to get a grasp for human time. Almost eight o’clock at night. Early in the Moroi day, prime entertainment time for humans. He drove past a few entrances to the mall and finally selected one, pulling into a handicap spot. He was out of the car in one fluid motion, with me following just as quickly.
“Here’s where we split up,’ he said jogging toward a set of doors. “Move fast, but don’t run when we’re inside. Don’t attract attention. Blend in. Wind through it for a little bit; then get out through any exit but this one. Walk out near a group of humans and then head for the theater.’ We stepped into the mall. “Go!’
As though afraid I might not move, he gave me a small push toward an escalator while he took off on the main floor. There was a part of me that wanted to just freeze and stand there, that felt dumbfounded by the sudden onslaught of people, light, and activity. I soon pushed that startled part aside and began heading up the escalator. Fast reflexes and instinctual reactions were part of my training. I’d honed them in school, in my travels, and with him.
Everything I’d been taught about eluding someone came rushing back to my head. What I wanted to do more than anything was look around and see if I had a follower, but that would have definitely attracted attention. I had to imagine that, at most, we had a couple minutes’ lead on our pursuers. They would have had to turn around to get back to the mall and then circle to spot our car, presuming they figured out we’d gone into the mall. I didn’t think Harrisburg had enough of a Moroi presence to summon very many guardians on short notice. The ones they had would likely split up, some searching the mall and some guarding the entrances. This place had too many doors for the guardians to watch them all; my escape choice would be pure luck.
I walked as fast as I reasonably could, weaving through couples, families with strollers, and giggling teens. I envied that last group. Their lives seemed so easy compared to mine. I also passed the usual mall stores, their names registering but not much more: Ann Taylor, Abercrombie, Forever 21 … Ahead of me, I could see the center of the mall where several corridors branched out. I’d have a choice to make soon.
Passing an accessories store, I ducked inside and pretended to look at headbands. As I did, I covertly glanced back out to the mall’s main section. I saw nothing obvious. No one had stopped; no one had followed me into the store. Beside the headbands section was a clearance bin filled with items that obviously deserved to be on clearance. One item was a “girly’ baseball cap, hot pink with a star done in rainbow rhinestones on the front. It was god-awful.
I bought it, grateful the guardians hadn’t taken away the meager cash I’d had on me when arrested. They probably figured it wasn’t enough to bribe anyone. I also bought a ponytail holder, all the while still keeping an eye on the store’s doorway. Before leaving, I bound my hair up as much as I could with the holder and then put on the hat. There was something silly about being reduced to disguises, but my hair was an easy way to ID me. It was a deep, almost-black brown, and my lack of any recent haircut had it hanging to my mid-back. In fact, between that and Dimitri’s height, we would have made a very conspicuous pair walking through here.
I merged back into the shoppers and soon reached the mall’s center. Not wanting to show any hesitation, I took a left toward Macy’s. As I walked, I felt slightly embarrassed at the hat and wished I’d at least had time to find a more stylish one. Minutes later, when I spotted a guardian, I was glad I’d made such a quick fashion choice.
He was near one of those carts you always see in the center of malls, pretending to be interested in cell phone covers. I recognized him first because of his stance and the way he was managing to act interested in a zebra print phone cover while simultaneously searching around him. Plus, dhampirs could always distinguish each other from humans with close enough examination. For the most part, our two races appeared pretty identical, but I could spot one of my own.
I made sure not to look right at him and felt his eyes pass over me. I didn’t know him, which meant he probably didn’t know me either. He was likely going off a photo he’d seen once and expected my hair to be a big giveaway. Keeping as casual an air as I could, I moved past him at a leisurely pace, glancing in windows that kept my back to him but sent no obvious messages that I was on the run. All the while, my heart pounded in my chest. Guardians could kill me on sight. Did that apply to the middle of a mall? I didn’t want to find out.
When I was clear of the cart, I picked up my pace a little. Macy’s would have its own outside door, and now it was just a gamble to see whether or not I’d made a good call coming in this direction. I entered the store, went down its escalator, and headed toward the main floor exit–passing a very nice selection of cute berets and fedoras. I paused near them, not because I planned on upgrading my hat, but because it allowed me to fall in step just behind a group of girls who were also exiting.
We left the store together, and my eyes quickly adjusted to the change in light. There were lots of people around, but I again saw nothing threatening. My girls stopped to chat, giving me an opportunity to get my bearings without appearing totally lost. To my right, I spotted the busy road Dimitri and I had come in on, and from there, I knew how to get to the movie theater. I exhaled in relief and cut across the parking lot, still watching my surroundings. The farther I walked from the mall, the less crowded the parking lot became. Lampposts kept it from being totally dark, but there was still an eerie feel as things grew quieter and quieter. My initial impulse was to head right for the road and take the sidewalk directly to the theater. It was well lit and had people. But a moment later, I decided it was too conspicuous. I was pretty sure I could cut across parking lots much more quickly to get to the theater.
It proved true–kind of. I had the theater in sight when I realized I had been followed after all. Not far ahead of me, the shadow of a parking lamp’s post didn’t cast correctly. The shadow was too broad. Someone was behind the pole. I doubted a guardian had coincidentally picked this spot in the hopes Dimitri or I would come by. Most likely it was a scout who’d seen me and circled ahead for an ambush.
I kept walking, trying not to obviously slow down, though every muscle in my body was tensing for attack. I had to be the one who attacked first. I had to be in control.
My moment came, seconds before I suspected my ambusher would have made his move. I leapt out, throwing him–it turned out to be a dhampir I didn’t recognize– against a nearby car. Yup. I’d surprised him. Of course, the surprise was mutual when the car’s alarm went off, blaring into the night. I winced, trying to ignore the shrieking as I punched my captive on the left side of his jaw. I had to make the most of having him pinned.
The force of my fist knocked his head against the car, but he took it admirably, promptly pushing back in an effort to free himself. He was stronger, and I did stumble a little, but not enough to lose my balance. What I lacked in strength, I made up for in speed. I dodged each attempt at me, but it brought me little satisfaction. That stupid car alarm was still going strong, and it was eventually going to attract the attention of other guardians or human authorities.
I dashed around the side of the car, and he gave chase, stopping when we were on opposite sides. It was like two kids playing keep-away. We mirrored each other as he tried to anticipate which direction I’d go. In the dim lighting, I saw something surprising tucked into his belt: a gun. My blood ran cold. Guardians were trained to use guns but rarely carried them. Stakes were our weapon of choice. We were in the business of killing Strigoi, after all, and guns were ineffective. But against me? Yeah. A gun simplified his job, but I had a feeling he’d hesitate to use it. A car alarm could be blamed on someone accidentally getting too close, but a gunshot? That would elicit a call to the police. This guy wouldn’t fire if he could help it–but he would if he ran out of options. This needed to end soon.
At last I made a move toward the front of the car. He tried to intercept me, but then I surprised him by springing onto the car’s hood (because honestly, at this point, it wasn’t like the alarm could get any louder). In my split second of advantage, I threw myself off the car and onto him, knocking him flat to the ground. I landed on top of his stomach and held him down with all my weight while my hands went around his neck. He struggled, trying to throw me off, and nearly succeeded. At last, the lack of air won out. He stopped moving and fell into unconsciousness. I let go.
For a brief moment, I had a flashback to our escape from Court, when I’d used the same technique on Meredith. I saw her lying on the ground all over again and felt that same pang of guilt. Then, I shook it off. Meredith was okay. Meredith wasn’t even here. None of that mattered. All that mattered was that this guy was out of commission, and I had to get out of here. Now.
Without looking to see if others were coming, I tore off across the parking lot toward the theater. I stopped once I had some distance between me and the wailing car, using another car as cover. I saw no one near the guy yet, but over by the parking lot’s front, close to the mall, there seemed to be some activity. I didn’t stick around to get a closer look. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good for me.
I reached the theater a couple minutes later, breathless more from fear than exhaustion. Running endurance was something I had built up a lot of, thanks to Dimitri. But where was Dimitri? Theatergoers mingled around, some giving my disheveled state an odd look, as they either waited for tickets or discussed what movie they’d just seen. I saw no sign of Dimitri anywhere.
I had no watch. How long had passed since we’d parted? Surely not a half hour. I walked around the theater, staying obscured in the crowd, searching for any indication of Dimitri or more pursuers. Nothing. Minutes ticked by. Uneasily, I reached into my pocket and touched the piece of paper with the phone number. Leave, he’d told me. Leave and call the number. Of course, I had no cell phone, but that was the least of my problems right now–
A car pulled up at the curb where others were dropping people off. Dimitri was leaning out the driver’s side window, and I nearly fell over in relief. Well, okay, not nearly. In reality, I didn’t waste a moment in hurrying over to him and hopping into the passenger seat. Without a word, he hit the gas and got us away from the theater and back to the main road.
We said nothing at first. He was so wound up and on edge, it seemed the slightest provocation would make him snap in half. He drove as fast as he could without attracting police attention, all the while glancing into the rearview mirror.
“Is there anyone behind us?’ I asked at last, as he drove back onto the highway.
“It doesn’t look like it. It’ll take them a while to figure out what car we’re in.’
I hadn’t paid much attention when I’d entered, but we were in a Honda Accord– another ordinary-looking car. I also noticed that there was no key in the ignition.
“Did you hotwire this car?’ I then rephrased my question. “Did you steal this car?’
“You have an interesting set of morals,’ he observed. “Breaking out of jail is okay. But steal a car, and you sound totally outraged.’
“Im just more surprised than outraged,’ I said, leaning back against the seat. I sighed. “I was afraid … well, for a moment there, I was afraid you weren’t coming. That they’d caught you or something.’
“No. Most of my time was spent sneaking out and finding a suitable car.’
A few minutes of silence fell. “You didn’t ask what happened to me,’ I pointed out, a little miffed.
“Don’t need to. You’re here. That’s what counts.’
“I got in a fight.’
“I can tell. Your sleeve is ripped.’
I glanced down. Yup, ripped. I’d also lost the hat in my mad dash. No big loss. “Don’t you want to know anything about the fight?’ His eyes stayed on the road ahead of us. “I already know. You took down your enemy. You did it fast, and you did it well. Because you’re just that good.’
I pondered his words for a moment. They were matter-of-fact, all business … and yet, his statement brought a tiny smile to my lips. “Okay. So what now, General? Don’t you think they’ll scan reports of stolen cars and get our license plate number?’
“Likely. But by then, we’ll have a new car–one they won’t have any clue about.’
I frowned. “How are you pulling that off?’
“We’re meeting someone in a few hours.’
“Damn it. I really hate being the last one to know about everything.’
“A few hours’ put us in Roanoke, Virginia. Most of our drive had passed uneventfully up until that point. But as the city came into view, I noticed Dimitri watching the exit signs until he found the one he wanted. Turning off the interstate, he continued checking for a tail and found none. We reached another commerce-filled road, and he drove to a McDonald’s that stood out clearly from the rest of the businesses.
“I don’t suppose,’ I said, “that this is a food break?’
“This,’ he responded, “is where we catch our next ride.’
He drove around the restaurant’s parking lot, his eyes scanning for something, though I didn’t initially know what. I spotted it a fraction of a second before he did. In the far corner of the lot, I saw a woman leaning against a tan SUV, her back to us. I couldn’t see much of her except that she wore a dark shirt and had tousled blond hair that almost touched her shoulders.
Dimitri pulled into the spot next to her vehicle, and I was out of ours the second he hit the brake. I recognized her before she even turned around.
“Sydney?’ The name came out as a question, though I knew for sure it was her.
Her head turned, and I saw a familiar face–a human face–with brown eyes that could turn amber in the sun and a faint gold tattoo on her cheek.
“Hey, Rose,’ she said, a rueful smile playing on her lips. She held up a McDonald’s bag. “Figured you’d be hungry.’