“IT’S NOT FUNNY!’
“Youre right,’ agreed Sydney.“It’s not funny.It’s hilarious.’
We were back at Raymond’s house, in the privacy of our room.
It had taken forever for us to get away from the fireside festivities, particularly after learning a terrible fact about a Keeper custom. Well, I thought it was terrible, at least. It turned out that if someone wanted to marry someone else around here, the prospective bride and groom each had to battle it out with the other’s nearest relative of the same sex. Angeline had spotted Joshua’s interest from the moment I’d arrived, and when she’d seen the bracelet, she’d assumed some sort of arrangement had been made. It therefore fell on her, as his sister, to make sure I was worthy. She still didn’t like or entirely trust me, but proving myself a capable fighter had shot me up in her esteem, allowing her to consent to our “engagement.’ It had then taken a lot of fast-talking to convince everyone– including Joshua–that there was no engagement. Had there been, I’d learned, Dimitri would have had to stand in as my “relative’ and fight Joshua.
“Stop that,’ I chastised. Dimitri leaned against one of the room’s walls, arms crossed, watching as I rubbed where Angeline had hit my cheekbone. It was hardly the worst injury I’d ever had, but I’d definitely have a bruise tomorrow. There was a small smile on his face.
“I told you not to encourage him,’ came Dimitri’s calm response.
“Whatever. You didn’t see this coming. You just didn’t want me to–‘ I bit off my words. I wouldn’t say what was on my mind: that Dimitri was jealous. Or possessive. Or whatever. I just knew he’d been irritated to see me friendly with Joshua … and very amused at my outrage over Angeline’s attack. I abruptly turned to Sydney, who was just as entertained as Dimitri. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d never seen her smile so much. “Did you know about this custom?’
“No,’ she admitted, “but I’m not surprised. I told you they’re savage. A lot of ordinary problems are settled by fights like that.’
“It’s stupid,’ I said, not caring that I was whining. I touched the top of my head, wishing I had a mirror to see if Angeline had taken a noticeable chunk of hair. “Although … she wasn’t bad. Unpolished, but not bad. Are they all that tough? The humans and Moroi too?’
“That’s my understanding.’
I pondered that. I was annoyed and embarrassed by what had happened, but I had to admit the Keepers were suddenly way more interesting. How ironic that such a backward group had the insight to teach everyone to fight, no matter their race. Meanwhile, my own “enlightened’ culture still refused to teach defense.
“And that’s why Strigoi don’t bother them,’ I murmured, recalling breakfast. I didn’t even realize what I’d said until Dimitri’s smile dropped. He glanced toward the window, face grim.
“I should check in with Boris again and see what he’s found.’ He turned back toward Sydney. “It won’t take long. We don’t all need to go. Should I just take your car since I only have to go a little ways?’
She shrugged and reached for her keys. We’d learned earlier that Sydney’s phone could pick up a signal about ten minutes from the village. He was right. There really was no reason for us all to go for a quick phone call. After my fight, Sydney and I were reasonably safe. No one would mess with me now. Still … I didn’t like the thought of Dimitri reliving his Strigoi days alone.
“You should still go,’ I told her, thinking fast. “I need to check in on Lissa.’ Not entirely a lie. What my friends had heard from Joe was still weighing on me. “I can usually still keep track of what’s going on around me at the same time, but it might be better if you’re away–especially in case Alchemists do show up.’
My logic was faulty, though her colleagues were still a concern. “I doubt they’d come while it’s dark,’ she said, “but I don’t really want to hang out if you’re just going to stare into space.’ She didn’t admit it, and I didn’t need to say anything, but I suspected she didn’t want someone else driving her car anyway.
Dimitri thought her coming was unnecessary and said as much, but apparently, he didn’t feel like he could boss her around as much as me. So, they both set out, leaving me alone in the room. I watched them wistfully. Despite how annoying his earlier mockery had been, I was worried about him. I’d seen the effect of the last call and wished I could be there now to comfort him. I had a feeling he wouldn’t have allowed that, so I accepted Sydney’s accompaniment as a small victory.
With them gone, I decided I really would check in with Lissa. I’d said it more as an excuse, but truthfully, it beat the alternative–going back out and socializing. I didn’t want any more people congratulating me, and apparently, Joshua had read my “maybe’ and acceptance of the bracelet as a real commitment. I still thought he was devastatingly cute but couldn’t handle seeing his adoration.
Sitting cross-legged on Angeline’s bed, I opened myself to the bond and what Lissa was experiencing. She was walking through the halls of a building I didn’t recognize at first. A moment later, I got my bearings. It was a building at Court that housed a large spa and salon–as well as the hideout of Rhonda the gypsy. It seemed weird that Lissa would be going to get her fortune told, but once I got a glimpse of her companions, I knew she was up to something else.
The usual suspects were with her: Adrian and Christian. My heart leapt at seeing Adrian again–especially after the Joshua Incident. My last spirit dream had been too brief.
Christian was holding Lissa’s hand as they walked, his grip warm and reassuring. He looked confident and determined–though with that typically snarky half-smile of his.
Lissa was the one who felt nervous and was clearly bracing herself for something. I could feel her dreading her next task, even though she believed it was necessary.
“Is this it?’ she asked, coming to a halt in front of a door.
“I think so,’ said Christian. “That receptionist said it was the red one.’
Lissa hesitated only a moment and then knocked. Nothing. Either the room was empty or she was being ignored. She held up her hand again, and the door opened. Ambrose stood there, stunning as always, even in jeans and a casual blue T-shirt. The clothing hugged his body in a way that showed off every muscle. He could have walked straight off the cover of GQ.
“Hey,’ he said, clearly surprised.
“Hey,’ said Lissa back. “We were wondering if we could talk to you?’
Ambrose ever so slightly inclined his head toward the room. “I’m kind of busy right now.’ Beyond him, Lissa could see a massage table with a Moroi woman lying face down. The lower half of her body had a towel over it, but her back was bare, shining in the dim lighting with oil. Scented candles burned in the room, and a calming kind of New Age music played softly.
“Wow,’ said Adrian. “You don’t waste any time, do you? She’s only been in her grave a few hours, and you’ve already got someone new.’ Tatiana had finally been laid to rest earlier in the day, just before sunset. The burial had had much less fanfare than the original attempt.
Ambrose gave Adrian a sharp look. “She’s my client. It’s my job. You forget that some of us have to work for a living.’
“Please?’ asked Lissa, hastily stepping in front of Adrian. “It won’t take long.’
Ambrose looked my friends over a moment and then sighed. He glanced behind him. “Lorraine? I have to step outside. I’ll be right back, okay?’
“Okay,’ called the woman. She shifted, facing him. She was older than I’d expected, mid-forties or so. I guess if you were paying for a massage, there was no reason not to have a masseuse half your age. “Hurry back.’
He gave her a dazzling smile as he shut the door, a smile that dropped once he was alone with my friends. “Okay, what’s going on? I don’t like the looks on your faces.’
Ambrose might have radically deviated from a dhampir man’s normal life, but he’d had the same training as any guardian. He was observant. He was always on the lookout for potential threats.
“We, uh, wanted to talk to you about …’ Lissa hesitated. Talking about investigations and interrogations was one thing. Carrying them out was another. “About Tatiana’s murder.’
Ambrose’s eyebrows rose. “Ah. I see. Not sure what there is to say, except that I don’t think Rose did it. I don’t think you believe that either, despite what’s going around. Everyone’s talking about how shocked and upset you are. You’re getting a lot of sympathy over having been tricked by such a dangerous and sinister “friend.”
Lissa felt her cheeks flush. By publicly condemning me and renouncing our friendship, Lissa was keeping herself out of trouble. It had been Abe and Tasha’s advice, and Lissa knew it was sound. Yet, even though it was an act, she still felt guilty. Christian stepped to her defense.
“Back off. That’s not what this is about.’
“What is it about then?’ asked Ambrose.
Lissa jumped in, worried Christian and Adrian might upset Ambrose and make it difficult to get answers. “Abe Mazur told us that in the courtroom, you said or, uh, did something to Rose.’
Ambrose looked shocked, and I had to give him points for being convincing. “Did something? What does that mean? Does Mazur think I, like, hit on her in front of all those people?’
“I don’t know,’ admitted Lissa. “He just saw something, that’s all.’
“I wished her good luck,’ said Ambrose, still looking offended. “Is that okay?’
“Yeah, yeah.’ Lissa had made a point to talk to Ambrose before Abe could, fearing Abe’s methods would involve threats and a lot of physical force. Now, she was wondering if she was doing so great a job. “Look, we’re just trying to find out who really killed the queen. You were close to her. If there’s anything–anything–at all you’ve got that can help us, we’d appreciate it. We need it.’
Ambrose glanced curiously between them. Then, he suddenly understood. “You think I did it! That’s what this is about.’ None of them said anything. “I can’t believe this! I already got this from the guardians … but from you? I thought you knew me better.’
“We don’t know you at all,’ said Adrian flatly. “All we know is you had lots of access to my aunt.’ He pointed at the door. “And obviously, it didn’t take you long to move on.’
“Did you miss the part where I said that’s my job? I’m giving her a massage, that’s it. Not everything is sordid and dirty.’ Ambrose shook his head in frustration and ran a hand through his brown hair. “My relationship with Tatiana wasn’t dirty either. I cared about her. I would never do anything to hurt her.’
“Don’t statistics say most murders happen between close people?’ asked Christian.
Lissa glared at him and Adrian. “Stop it. Both of you.’ She looked back at Ambrose. “No one’s accusing you of anything. But you were around her a lot. And Rose told me you were upset about the age law.’
“When I first heard about it, yeah,’ Ambrose said. “And even then, I told Rose there was some mistake–that there must be something we didn’t know. Tatiana would have never put those dhampirs in danger without a good reason.’
“Like making herself look good in front of all those terrified royals?’ asked Christian.
“Watch it,’ warned Adrian. Lissa couldn’t decide which was more annoying: her two guys teaming up to spar against Ambrose or them throwing barbs at each other.
“No!’ Ambrose’s voice rang throughout the narrow hall. “She didn’t want to do that. But if she didn’t, worse things were going to happen. There are people who wanted–still want–to round up all the dhampirs who don’t fight and force them into it. Tatiana passed the age law as a way to stall that.’
Silence fell. I’d already learned this from Tatiana’s note, but it was shocking news to my friends. Ambrose kept going, seeing he was gaining ground.
“She was actually open to lots of other options. She wanted to explore spirit. She approved of Moroi learning to fight.’
That got a reaction from Adrian. He still wore that sardonic expression, but I could also see faint lines of pain and sorrow on his face. The burial earlier must have been hard on him, and hearing others reveal information you hadn’t known about a loved one had to hurt.
“Well, I obviously wasn’t sleeping with her like you were,’ said Adrian, “but I knew her pretty well, too. She never said a word about anything like that.’
“Not publicly,’ agreed Ambrose. “Not even privately. Only a few people knew. She was having a small group of Moroi trained in secret–men and women, different ages. She wanted to see how well Moroi could learn. If it was possible for them to defend themselves. But she knew people’d be upset about it, so she made the group and their trainer keep quiet.’
Adrian gave no response to this, and I could see his thoughts had turned inward. Ambrose’s revelation wasn’t bad news, exactly, but Adrian was still hurt at the thought that his aunt had kept so much from him. Lissa, meanwhile, was eating the news up, seizing and analyzing every piece of info.
“Who were they? The Moroi being trained?’ “I don’t know,’ said Ambrose. “Tatiana was quiet about it. I never found out their names, just their instructor.’
“Who was … ?’ prompted Christian.
Christian and Lissa exchanged startled looks. “My Grant?’ she asked. “The one Tatiana assigned to me?’
Ambrose nodded. “That’s why she gave him to you. She trusted him.’
Lissa said nothing, but I heard her thoughts loud and clear. She’d been pleased and surprised when Grant and Serena–the guardians who had replaced Dimitri and me– had offered to teach Lissa and Christian basic defense moves. Lissa had thought she’d simply stumbled onto a progressive-thinking guardian, not realizing she had one of the pioneers in teaching combat to Moroi.
Some piece of this was important, she and I were both certain, though neither of us could make the connection. Lissa puzzled it over, not protesting when Adrian and Christian threw in some questions of their own. Ambrose was still clearly offended by the inquisition, but he answered everything with forced patience. He had alibis, and his affection and regard for Tatiana never wavered. Lissa believed him, though Christian and Adrian still seemed skeptical.
“Everyone’s been all over me about her death,’ said Ambrose, “but nobody questioned Blake very long.’
“Blake?’ asked Lissa.
“Blake Lazar. Someone else she was …’
“Involved with?’ suggested Christian, rolling his eyes.
“Him?’ exclaimed Adrian in disgust. “No way. She wouldn’t stoop that low.’
Lissa racked her brain through the Lazar family but couldn’t peg the name. There were just too many of them. “Who is he?’
“An idiot,’ said Adrian. “Makes me look like an upstanding member of society.’
That actually brought a smile to Ambrose’s face. “I agree. But he’s a pretty idiot, and Tatiana liked that.’ I heard affection in his voice as he spoke her name.
“She was sleeping with him too?’ Lissa asked. Adrian winced at the mention of his great-aunt’s sex life, but a whole new world of possibilities had opened up. More lovers meant more suspects. “How did you feel about that?’
Ambrose’s amusement faded. He gave her a sharp look. “Not jealous enough to kill her, if that’s what you’re getting at. We had an understanding. She and I were close– yes, “involved’–but we both saw other people too.’
“Wait,’ said Christian. I had the feeling he was really enjoying this now. Tatiana’s murder was no joke, but a soap opera was definitely unfolding before them. “You were sleeping with other people too? This is getting hard to follow.’
Not for Lissa. In fact, it was becoming clearer and clearer that Tatiana’s murder could have been a crime of passion, rather than anything political. Like Abe had said, someone with access to her bedroom was a likely suspect. And some woman jealous over sharing a lover with Tatiana? That was perhaps the most convincing motive thus far–if only we knew the women.
“Who?’ Lissa asked. “Who else were you seeing?’ “No one who’d kill her,’ said Ambrose sternly. “I’m not giving you names. I’m entitled to some privacy–so are they.’
“Not if one of them was jealous and killed my aunt,’ growled Adrian. Joshua had looked down on Adrian for not “protecting’ me, but in that moment, defending his aunt’s honor, he looked as fierce as any guardian or Keeper warrior. It was kind of sexy.
“None of them killed her, I’m certain,’ said Ambrose. “And as much as I despise him, I don’t think Blake did either. He’s not smart enough to pull it off and frame Rose.’ Ambrose gestured to the door. His teeth were clenched, and lines of frustration marred his handsome face. “Look, I don’t know what else I can say to convince you. I need to get back in there. I’m sorry if I seem difficult, but this has been kind of hard on me, okay? Believe me, I’d love it if you could find out who did that to her.’ Pain flashed through his eyes. He swallowed and looked down for a moment, as though he didn’t want them to know just how much he’d cared about Tatiana. When he looked up again, his expression was fierce and determined again. “I want you to and will help if I can. But I’m telling you, look for someone with political motives. Not romantic ones.’
Lissa still had a million more questions. Ambrose might be convinced the murder was free of jealousy and sex, but she wasn’t. She would have really liked the names of his other women but didn’t want to push too hard. For a moment, she considered compelling him as she had Joe. But no. She wouldn’t cross that line again, especially with someone she considered a friend. At least not yet. “Okay,’ she said reluctantly. “Thank you. Thank you for helping us.’
Ambrose seemed surprised at her politeness, and his face softened. “I’ll see if I can dig up anything to help you. They’re keeping her rooms and possessions locked down, but I might still be able to get in there. I’ll let you know.’
Lissa smiled, genuinely grateful. “Thank you. That’d be great.’
A touch on my arm brought me back to the drab little room in West Virginia. Sydney and Dimitri were looking down at me. “Rose?’ asked Dimitri. I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time he’d tried to get my attention.
“Hey,’ I said. I blinked a couple of times, settling myself back into this reality. “You’re back. You called the Strigoi?’
He didn’t visibly react to the word, but I knew he hated hearing it. “Yes. I got a hold of Boris’s contact.’
Sydney wrapped her arms around herself. “Crazy conversation. Some of it was in English. It was even scarier than before.’
I shivered involuntarily, glad that I’d missed it. “But did you find out anything?’
“Boris gave me the name of a Strigoi who knows Sonya and probably knows where she is,’ Dimitri said. “It’s actually someone I’ve met. But phone calls only go so far with Strigoi. There’s no way to contact him–except to go in person. Boris only had his address.’
“Where is it?’ I asked.
“Oh for God’s sake,’ I moaned. “Why not the Bahamas? Or the Corn Palace?’
Dimitri tried to hide a smile. It might have been at my expense, but if I’d lightened his mood, I was grateful. “If we leave right now, we can reach him before morning.’
I glanced around. “Tough choice. Leave all this for electricity and plumbing?’ Now Sydney grinned. “And no more marriage proposals.’
“And we’ll probably have to fight Strigoi,’ added Dimitri.
I jumped to my feet. “How soon can we go?’