FORTUNATELY, THEY WERE MOROI FACES.
That didn’t stop me from raising my stake and moving closer to Sydney.No one was attacking us, so I held my position–not that it probably mattered.As I took in more and more of the setting, I saw that we were completely surrounded by about ten people.
We’d told Sydney we were good, and it was true: Dimitri and I could probably take out a group like this, though the poor fighting quarters would make it difficult. I also realized the group wasn’t entirely Moroi. The ones closest to us were, but around them were dhampirs. And the light I’d thought had come from torches or flashlights was actually coming from a ball of flame held in one of the Moroi’s hands.
One Moroi man stepped forward, about Abe’s age, with a bushy brown beard and a silver stake in his hand. Some part of me noted the stake was crudely made compared to mine, but the point held the same threat. The man’s gaze passed over me and Dimitri, and the stake lowered. Sydney became the object of the guy’s scrutiny, and he suddenly reached out for her. Dimitri and I moved to stop him, but other hands reached out to stop us. I could have fought them but froze when Sydney let out a strangled, “Wait.’
The bearded Moroi gripped her chin and turned her head so that the light fell on her cheek, lighting up the golden tattoo. He released his hold and stepped back.
“Lily-girl,’ he grunted.
The others relaxed very slightly, though they kept their stakes poised and still looked ready to attack if provoked. The Moroi leader turned his attention from Sydney to Dimitri and me.
“You’re here to join us?’ he asked warily.
“We need shelter,’ said Sydney, lightly touching her throat. “They’re being chased by–by the Tainted.’
The woman holding the flame looked skeptical. “More like spies for the Tainted.’
“The Tainted Queen is dead,’ said Sydney. She nodded toward me. “They think she did it.’
The inquisitive part of me started to speak but promptly shut up, wise enough to know this bizarre turn of events was best left in Sydney’s hands. I didn’t understand what she was saying. When she’d said Tainted were pursuing us, I thought she was trying to make this group think we had Strigoi after us. Now, after she’d mentioned the queen, I wasn’t so sure. I also wasn’t so sure identifying me as a potential murderer was that smart. For all I knew, Brown Beard would turn me in and try to score a reward. From the looks of his clothes, he could have used one.
To my surprise, this brought a smile to his face. “And so, another usurper passes on. Is there a new one yet?’
“No,’ said Sydney. “They’ll have elections soon and choose.’
The group’s smiles were replaced by looks of disdain and disapproving mutters about elections. I couldn’t help myself. “How else would they choose a new king or queen?’
“In the true way,’ said a nearby dhampir. “The way it used to be, long ago. In a battle to the death.’ I waited for the punch line, but the guy was clearly serious. I wanted to ask Sydney what she’d gotten us into, but by this point, we’d apparently passed inspection. Their leader turned and began walking down the path. The group followed, moving us along as they did. Listening to their conversation, I couldn’t help a small frown–and not just because our lives might be on the line. I was intrigued by their accents. The motel’s desk clerk had had a thick southern accent, exactly like you’d expect in this part of the country. These guys, while sounding similar, had a few other pronunciations mixed in. It almost reminded me a little of Dimitri’s accent.
I was so tense and anxious that I could hardly focus on how long we walked. Eventually, the path led us to what seemed like a well-hidden campground. A huge bonfire blazed in a clearing with people sitting around. Yet, there were structures scattered off to one side, stretching into the woods along the now widened path. It wasn’t quite a road yet, but it gave the illusion of a town, or at least a village. The buildings were small and shabby but appeared permanent. On the other side of the fire, the land rose sharply into the Appalachians, blocking out the stars. In the flickering light, I could see a mountain’s face that was textured with rough stone and scattered trees, dotted here and there with dark holes.
My attention moved back to the living. The crowd gathered around the fire–a couple dozen or so–fell silent as our escort led us in. At first, all I saw were numbers. That was the warrior in me, counting opponents and planning for attack. Then, just like I had earlier, I truly took in the faces. More Moroi mixed with dhampirs. And–I was shocked to discover–humans.
These weren’t feeders either. Well, not in the sense that I knew feeders. Even in the dark, I could see glimpses of bite marks along some of the humans’ necks, but judging by their curious expressions, I could tell these people didn’t give blood regularly. They weren’t high. They were mixed in among the Moroi and dhampirs, sitting, standing, talking, engaging–the whole group clearly unified in some kind of community. I wondered if these humans were like the Alchemists. Maybe they had some sort of a business relationship with my kind.
The tight formation around us began to spread out, and I moved closer to Sydney. “What in God’s name is all this?’
“The Keepers,’ she said in a low voice.
“Keepers? What does that mean?’
“It means,’ said the bearded Moroi, “that unlike your people, we still keep the old ways, the way we truly should.’
I eyed these “Keepers’ in their worn clothes and the dirty, barefoot children. Reflecting upon how far we were from civilization–and based on how dark it was away from the fire–I was willing to bet they didn’t have electricity. I was on the verge of saying that I didn’t think this was how anyone should truly be living. Then, remembering the casual way these people had spoken about fights to the death, I decided to keep my views to myself.
“Why are they here, Raymond?’ asked a woman sitting by the fire. She was human but spoke to the bearded Moroi in a perfectly ordinary and familiar way. It wasn’t the dreamy manner a feeder usually used with a Moroi. It wasn’t even like the stilted conversations my kind had with the Alchemists. “Are they joining us?’ Raymond shook his head. “No. The Tainted are after them for killing their queen.’
Sydney elbowed me before I could deny the claim. I clenched my teeth, waiting to be mobbed. Instead, I was surprised to find the crowd looking at me with a mix of awe and admiration, just as our welcoming party had.
“We’re giving them refuge,’ explained Raymond. He beamed at us, though I didn’t know if his approval came from us being murderers or if he simply liked the attention he was getting. “Although, you are welcome to join us and live here. We have room in the caves.’
Caves? I jerked my head toward the cliffs beyond the fire, realizing now what those black holes were. Even as I watched, a few people retiring for the night crawled off and disappeared into the dark depths of the mountain.
Sydney answered while I worked to keep a look of horror off my face. “We only need to stay here …’ She faltered, not surprising considering how sketchy our plans had become. “A couple days, probably.’
“You can stay with my family,’ said Raymond. “Even you.’ That was directed toward Sydney, and he made it sound like quite the favor.
“Thank you,’ she said. “We’d be grateful to spend the night at your house.’ The emphasis on the last word was for me, I realized. The wooden structures along the dusty path didn’t look luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d take one over a cave any day.
The village or commune or whatever was getting increasingly excited as our novelty sank in. They bombarded us with a flurry of questions, starting with ordinary things like our names but moving quickly on to specific details about how exactly I’d killed Tatiana.
I was saved from having to answer when the human woman who had spoken to Raymond earlier jumped up and steered my threesome away. “Enough,’ she said, chastising the others. “It’s getting late, and I’m sure our guests are hungry.’
I was starving, actually, but didn’t know if I was in dire enough straits to eat opossum stew or whatever passed as food around here. The woman’s proclamation was met with some disappointment, but she assured the others they could talk to us tomorrow. Glancing around, I saw a faint purpling of what must have been the eastern sky. Sunrise. A group of Moroi clinging to “traditional’ ways would most certainly run on a nocturnal schedule, meaning these people probably only had a few more hours before bedtime.
The woman said her name was Sarah and led us down the dusty path. Raymond called that he’d see us soon. As we walked, we saw other people wandering near scattered, ramshackle homes, on their way to bed or possibly woken up with all the commotion. Sarah glanced over at Sydney.
“Did you bring us anything?’
“No,’ said Sydney. “I’m just here to escort them.’
Sarah looked disappointed but nodded. “An important task.’
Sydney frowned and appeared even more uneasy. “How long has it been since my people brought you anything?’
“A few months,’ said Sarah after a moment’s thought.
Sydney’s expression darkened at this, but she said no more. Sarah finally took us inside one of the larger and nicer looking of the houses, though it was still plain and made of unpainted wooden boards. The inside was pitch black, and we waited as Sarah lit old-fashioned lanterns. I’d been right. No electricity. This suddenly made me wonder about plumbing.
The floors were hardwood like the walls and covered in large, brightly patterned rugs. We appeared to be in some hybrid kitchen-living-dining room. There was a large fireplace in the center, a wooden table and chairs on one side, and large cushions on the other that I presumed served as sofas. Racks of drying herbs hung near the fireplace, filling the room with a spicy scent that mingled with the smell of burnt wood. There were three doors in the back wall, and Sarah nodded to one.
“You can sleep in the girls’ room,’ she said.
“Thanks,’ I said, not sure I really wanted to see what our guest accommodations were like. I was already missing the MOTEL. I studied Sarah curiously. She looked to be about Raymond’s age and wore a plain, knee-length blue dress. Her blond hair was pulled back and tied at her neck, and she seemed short to me the way all humans did. “Are you Raymond’s housekeeper?’ It was the only role I could deduce for her. She had a few bite marks but obviously wasn’t a feeder. At least not a full-time one. Maybe around here, feeders doubled as household help.
She smiled. “I’m his wife.’
It was a mark of my self-control that I managed any sort of response. “Oh.’
Sydney’s sharp eyes fell on me, a warning in them: Let it go. I again clenched my jaw shut and gave her a brief nod to let her know I understood.
Except, I didn’t understand. Dhampirs and Moroi hooked up all the time. Dhampirs had to. More permanent liaisons were scandalous–but not completely out of the realm of possibility.
But Moroi and humans? That was beyond comprehension. Those races hadn’t gotten together in centuries. They’d produced dhampirs long ago, but as the modern world progressed, Moroi had completely withdrawn from intermingling (in an intimate way) with humans. We lived among them, sure. Moroi and dhampirs worked alongside humans out in the world, bought houses in their neighborhoods, and apparently had bizarre arrangements with secret societies like the Alchemists. And, of course, Moroi fed from humans–and that was the thing. If you kept a human close to you, it was because they were a feeder. That was your level of intimacy. Feeders were food, pure and simple. Well-treated food, yes, but not food you became friends with. A Moroi having sex with a dhampir? Racy. A Moroi having sex with a dhampir and drinking blood? Dirty and humiliating. A Moroi having sex with a human–with or without blood drinking? Incomprehensible.
There were few things that shocked me or gave me offense. I was pretty liberal in my views when it came to romance, but the idea of human and Moroi marriage blew me away. It didn’t matter if the human was a type of feeder–as Sarah appeared to be–or someone “above’ that like Sydney. Humans and Moroi didn’t get together. It was primitive and wrong, which was why it was no longer done. Well, at least not where I came from.
Unlike your people, we still follow the old ways. The funny thing was that no matter how wrong I thought all this was, Sydney had to feel even more strongly about it with her vampire hang-ups. I supposed she’d been prepared, however, which is why she could manage that cool expression of hers. She hadn’t been blindsided like Dimitri and me, because I felt with some certainty that he shared my feelings. He was just better at hiding surprise.
A commotion at the door startled me out of my shock. Raymond had arrived and wasn’t alone. A dhampir boy of about eight or so sat on his shoulders, and a Moroi girl about the same age scurried alongside them. A pretty Moroi woman who looked to be in her twenties followed, and behind her was a cute dhampir guy who couldn’t have been more than a couple years older than me, if not exactly my age.
Introductions followed. The children were Phil and Molly, and the Moroi woman was named Paulette. They all appeared to live there, but I couldn’t exactly figure out the relationships, except for the guy my age. He was Raymond and Sarah’s son, Joshua. He had a ready smile for all of us–especially me and Sydney–and eyes that reminded me of the piercing, crystalline blue of the Ozeras. Only, whereas Christian’s family tended to have dark hair, Joshua’s was a sandy blond with lighter gold highlights. I had to admit, it was an attractive combination, but that stunned part of my brain reminded me again that he’d been born from a human-Moroi hookup, not a dhampir and Moroi like me. The end product was the same, but the means were bizarre.
“I’m putting them in your room,’ Sarah told Paulette. “The rest of you can share the loft.’
It took me a moment to realize “the rest of you’ meant Paulette, Joshua, Molly, and Phil. Glancing up, I saw there was indeed what looked like a loft space covering half the house’s width. It didn’t look big enough for four people.
“We don’t want to inconvenience you,’ said Dimitri, sharing my thoughts. He’d been silent for almost all of this wood-land adventure, saving his energy for actions, not words. “We’ll be fine out here.’
“Don’t worry about it,’ said Joshua, again giving me that pretty smile. “We don’t mind. Angeline won’t either.’
“Who?’ I asked.
I repressed a grimace. Five of them crammed up there so that we could have a room. “Thank you,’ said Sydney. “We appreciate it. And we really won’t be staying long.’ Their dislike of the vampire world aside, Alchemists could be polite and charming when they chose.
“Too bad,’ said Joshua.
“Stop flirting, Josh,’ said Sarah. “Do you three want something to eat before bed? I could warm up some stew. We had it earlier with some of Paulette’s bread.’
At the word stew, all my opossum fears came racing back. “No need,’ I said hastily. “I’d just be fine with bread.’
“Me too,’ said Dimitri. I wondered if he was trying to reduce their work or if he shared my food fears. Probably not the latter. Dimitri seemed like the kind of guy you could throw into the wilderness and he would survive off anything.
Paulette had apparently baked a lot of bread, and they let us have a picnic in our small little room with a full loaf and a bowl of butter that Sarah had probably churned herself. The room was about the size of my dorm room at St. Vladimir’s, with two down stuffed mattresses on the floor. Quilts neatly covered them, quilts that probably hadn’t been used in months with these temperatures. Munching on a piece of bread that was surprisingly good, I ran my hand over one of the quilts.
“It reminds me of some of the designs I saw in Russia,’ I said.
Dimitri studied the pattern too. “Similar. But not quite the same.’
“It’s the evolution of the culture,’ said Sydney. She was tired but not enough to abandon textbook mode. “Traditional Russian patterns brought over and eventually fused with a typical Americana patchwork quilt form.’
Whoa. “Um, good to know.’ The family had left us alone while they got ready for bed, and I eyed our cracked door warily. With the noise and activity out there, it seemed unlikely we’d be overheard, but I lowered my voice anyway. “Are you ready to explain who the hell these people are?’
She shrugged. “The Keepers.’
“Yeah, I got that. And we’re the Tainted. Sounds like a better name for Strigoi.’
“No.’ Sydney leaned back against the wooden wall. “Strigoi are the Lost. You’re Tainted because you joined the modern world and left behind their backward ways for your own messed up customs.’
“Hey,’ I retorted. “We’re not the ones with overalls and banjos.’
“Rose,’ chastised Dimitri, with a pointed look at the door. “Be careful. And besides, we only saw one person in overalls.’
“If it makes you feel better,’ said Sydney, “I think your ways are better. Seeing humans mixing with all this …’ The pleasant and professional face she had shown to the Keepers was gone. Her blunt nature was back. “It’s disgusting. No offense.’
“None taken,’ I said with a shiver. “Trust me, I feel the same way. I can’t believe … I can’t believe they live like that.’
She nodded, seeming grateful I shared her view. “I like you guys sticking with your own kind better. Except …’
“Except what?’ I prodded.
She looked sheepish. “Even if the people you come from don’t marry humans, you do still interact with them and live in their cities. These guys don’t.’
“Which Alchemists prefer,’ guessed Dimitri. “You don’t approve of this group’s customs, but you do like having them conveniently stashed out of mainstream society.’
Sydney nodded. “The more vampires who stay off on their own in the woods, the better–even if their lifestyle is crazy. These guys keep to themselves–and keep others out.’
“Through hostile means?’ I asked. We’d been met by a war party, and she’d expected it. All of them had been ready to fight: Moroi, dhampir, and human.
“Hopefully not too hostile,’ she said evasively.
“They let you through,’ said Dimitri. “They know the Alchemists. Why did Sarah ask about you bringing them things?’
“Because that’s what we do,’ she said. “Every so often for groups like these, we drop off supplies–food for everyone, medicine for the humans.’ Again, I heard that derision in her voice, but then she turned uneasy. “The thing is, if Sarah’s right, they could be due for an Alchemist visit. That would just be our luck to be here when that happens.’ I was going to reassure her that we only needed to lie low a couple days when an earlier phrase tugged at me. “Wait. You said “groups like these.’ How many of these commune things are out there?’ I turned to Dimitri. “This isn’t like the Alchemists, is it? Something only some of you know about that you’re keeping from the rest of us?’
He shook his head. “I’m as astonished by all of this as you are.’
“Some of your leaders probably know about the Keepers in a vague way,’ said Sydney. “But no details. No locations. These guys hide themselves pretty well and can move on a moment’s notice. They stay away from your people. They don’t like your people.’
I sighed. “Which is why they won’t turn us in. And why they’re so excited I might have killed Tatiana. Thanks for that, by the way.’
Sydney wasn’t apologetic in the least. “It gets us protection. Such as it is.’ She stifled a yawn. “But for now? I’m exhausted. I’m not going to be able to follow anyone’s crazy plans–yours or Abe’s–if I don’t get some sleep.’
I’d known she was tired, but only now did the extent of it hit me. Sydney wasn’t like us. We needed sleep but had the endurance to put it off if needed. She’d been up all night and forced into some situations that were definitely outside of her comfort zone. She looked like she could fall asleep against the wall then and there. I turned to Dimitri. He was already looking at me.
“Shifts?’ I asked. I knew neither one of us would allow our group to stay unguarded in this place, even if we were allegedly queen-killing heroes.
He nodded. “You go first, and I’ll–‘
The door was flung open, and both Dimitri and I nearly leapt up to attack. A dhampir girl stood there, glaring at all of us. She was a couple years younger than me, about the age of my friend Jill Mastrano, a student back at St. Vladimir’s who wanted to be a Moroi fighter. This girl looked like she did too, just by her stance alone. She possessed the strong, lean build most dhampirs had, her whole body braced like it might tackle any one of us. Her hair was stick-straight to her waist, a dark auburn that had picked up gold and copper highlights from the sun. She had the same blue eyes as Joshua.
“So,’ she said. “You’re the big heroes taking my room.’
“Angeline?’ I guessed, remembering Joshua mentioning his sister.
She narrowed her eyes, not liking that I knew who she was. “Yes.’ She studied me unflinchingly and didn’t seem to approve of what she found. That sharp gaze flicked to Dimitri next. I expected a softening, expected her to fall prey to his good looks the way most women did. But, no. He received suspicion as well. Her attention turned back to me.
“I don’t believe it,’ she declared. “You’re too soft. Too prim.’
Prim? Really? I didn’t feel that way, not in my battle-scarred jeans and T-shirt. Looking at her attire, I could maybe understand the attitude, though. Her clothes were clean, but her jeans had been around a while, both knees worn to threads. The shirt was a plain, off-white tank top that had a homemade feel. I didn’t know if it had originally been white. Maybe I was prim by comparison. Of course, if anyone deserved the title of prim, it would be Sydney. Her clothes would’ve passed at a business meeting, and she hadn’t been in any fights or jail-breaks recently. Angeline hadn’t even given her a second glance, though. I was getting the feeling Alchemists were in a strange category around here, a different type of human from the ones who intermarried with the Keepers. Alchemists brought supplies and left. They were almost a type of feeder to these people, really, which boggled the mind. The Keepers had more respect for the types of humans my culture looked down on.
Regardless, I didn’t know what to say to Angeline. I didn’t like being called soft or having my battle prowess called into question. A spark of my temper flared, but I refused to cause trouble by getting in a fight with our host’s daughter, nor was I going to start making up details about Tatiana’s murder. I simply shrugged.
“Looks are deceiving,’ I said.
“Yes,’ Angeline said coolly. “They are.’
She stalked over to a small chest in the corner and pulled out what looked like a nightgown. “You better not mess up my bed,’ she warned me. She glanced over at Sydney, sitting on the other mattress. “I don’t care what you do to Paulette’s.’
“Is Paulette your sister?’ I asked, still trying to put this family together.
There didn’t seem to be anything I could say that wouldn’t offend this girl. “Of course not,’ Angeline snapped, slamming the door as she left. I stared at it in astonishment.
Sydney yawned and stretched out on her bed. “Paulette is probably Raymond’s … eh, I don’t know. Mistress. Concubine.’
“What?’ I exclaimed. A Moroi married to a human and having an affair with a Moroi. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. “Living with his family?’
“Don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t want to know any more about your twisted ways than I have to.’
“It’s not my way,’ I retorted.
Sarah came shortly thereafter to apologize for Angeline and see if we needed anything else. We assured her we were fine and thanked her profusely for her hospitality. Once she was gone, Dimitri and I set up sleeping shifts. I would have rather we both stayed on alert, particularly since I felt pretty sure Angeline would slit someone’s throat in their sleep. But, we needed rest and knew we’d both react promptly if anyone came busting down our door.
So, I let Dimitri take the first watch while I snuggled into Angeline’s bed and tried not to “mess it up.’ It was surprisingly comfortable. Or, maybe I was just that tired. I was able to let go of my worries about execution, lost siblings, and vampire hillbillies. Deep sleep wrapped around me, and I began to dream … but not just any dream. It was a shifting of my inner world, the sense of being both in and out of reality. I was being pulled into a spirit-induced dream.
The thought excited me. I’d missed him and was eager to talk to someone directly after all that had happened at Court. There hadn’t been much time to talk during my escape, and after this bizarre backwoods world I’d stumbled into, I really needed some piece of normality and civilization around me.
The dream’s world began to form around me, growing clearer and clearer. It was a location I’d never seen, a formal parlor with chairs and couches covered in lavender paisley cushions. Oil paintings lined the walls, and there was a large harp in the corner. I’d learned long ago that there was no predicting where Adrian would send me–or what he’d make me wear. Fortunately, I was in jeans and a T-shirt, my blue nazar hanging around my neck.
I turned around anxiously, looking for him so that I could give him a giant hug. Yet, as my eyes searched the room, it wasn’t Adrian’s face I suddenly found myself looking into.
It was Robert Doru’s.
And Victor Dashkov was with him.