DIMITRI AND I BOTH FROZE as the shock of that name hit us.Sydney, glancing between our faces, gave us a dry smile.
“I take it you know who that is?’
“Of course,’ I exclaimed.“She was my teacher.
She went crazy and turned Strigoi.’
Sydney nodded. “I know.’
My eyes widened further. “Shes not … she’s not the one who had an affair with Lissa’s dad, is she?’ Oh dear God. That would be one of the most unexpected developments in the rollercoaster that was my life. I couldn’t even begin to process the effects of that.
“Not likely,’ she said. “The account was opened several years before she was added as the beneficiary–which was right when she turned eighteen. So, if we’re assuming the account was created around the time the baby was born, then she would have been way too young. Sonya’s probably a relative.’
My earlier astonishment was giving way to excitement, and I could see the same thing happening to Dimitri. “You must have records about her family,’ he said. “Or if not, some Moroi probably does. Who’s close to Sonya? Does she have a sister?’
Sydney shook her head. “No. That’d be an obvious choice, though. Unfortunately, she has other family–tons of it. Her parents both came from giant families, so she has lots of cousins. Even some of her aunts are the right age.’
“We can look them up, right?’ I asked. A thrill of anticipation was running through me. I honestly hadn’t expected this much information. True, it was small, but it was something. If Sonya Karp was related to Eric’s mistress, that had to be something we could track.
“There’s a lot of them.’ Sydney shrugged. “I mean, yeah, we could. It’d take a long time to find everyone’s life history, and even then–especially if this was covered up enough–we’d have a hard time finding out if any of them is the woman we’re looking for. Or even if any of them know who she is.’
Dimitri’s voice was low and thoughtful when he spoke. “One person knows who Jane Doe is.’ Sydney and I both looked at him expectantly.
“Sonya Karp,’ he replied.
I threw up my hands. “Yeah, but we can’t talk to her. She’s a lost cause. Mikhail Tanner spent over a year hunting her and couldn’t find her. If he can’t, then we’re not going to be able to.’
Dimitri turned away from me and stared out the window. His brown eyes filled with sorrow, his thoughts momentarily far away from us. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but that peaceful moment in the library–where Dimitri had smiled and shared in the daydream of an ordinary life–had vanished. And not just the moment. That Dimitri had vanished. He was back in his fierce mode, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders again. At last, he sighed and looked back at me. “That’s because Mikhail didn’t have the right connections.’
“Mikhail was her boyfriend,’ I pointed out. “He had more connections than anyone else.’
Dimitri didn’t acknowledge my comment. Instead, he grew pensive again. I could see turmoil behind his eyes, some inner war. At last, it must have been decided.
“Does your phone have reception out here?’ he asked her.
She nodded, reaching into her purse and handing him her phone. He held it a moment, looking like it caused him total agony to touch it. At last, with another sigh, he stood up and headed for the door. Sydney and I exchanged questioning looks and then both followed him. She lagged behind me, having to toss cash on the table and grab her laptop. I emerged outside just as Dimitri finished dialing a number and put the phone to his ear. Sydney joined us, and a moment later, the person on the other end of the line must have answered.
“Boris?’ asked Dimitri.
That was all I understood because the rest was a string of rapid Russian. A strange sensation spread over me as he spoke. I was confused, lost because of the language … but there was more than that. I felt chilled. My pulse raced with fear. That voice … I knew that voice. It was his voice and yet not his voice. It was the voice of my nightmares, a voice of coldness and cruelty.
Dimitri was playing Strigoi.
Well, “playing’ was really too gentle of a word. Pretending was a better way to describe it. Whatever it was, it was pretty damned convincing.
Beside me, Sydney frowned, but I didn’t think she was experiencing what I was. She had never known him as Strigoi. She didn’t have those horrible memories. His change in demeanor had to be obvious, but as I glanced at her face, I realized she was focused on following the conversation. I’d forgotten she knew Russian.
“What’s he saying?’ I whispered.
Her frowned deepened, either from the conversation or me distracting her. “He … he sounds like he’s talking to someone he hasn’t spoken to in a while. Dimitri’s accusing this person of slacking off while he’s been away.’ She fell silent, continuing her own mental translation. At one point, Dimitri’s voice rose in anger, and both Sydney and I flinched. I turned to her questioningly. “He’s mad about having his authority questioned. I can’t tell, but now … it sounds like the other person’s groveling.’ I wanted to know every word, but it had to be hard for her to translate to me and listen at the same time. Dimitri’s voice returned to normal levels–though still filled with that terrible menace–and among the flurry of words, I heard “Sonya Karp’ and “Montana.’
“He’s asking about Ms. Kar–Sonya?’ I murmured. She hadn’t been my teacher for a long time. I might as well call her Sonya now.
“Yeah,’ said Sydney, eyes still on Dimitri. “He’s asking–er, telling–this person to locate someone else and see if he can find Sonya. This person …’ She paused to listen again. “This person he’s asking about sounds like he knows a lot of people in the area she was last seen in.’
I knew “people’ in this context meant “Strigoi.’ Dimitri had risen quickly in their ranks, asserting his will and power over others.
Most Strigoi operated solo, rarely working in groups, but even the lone ones recognized threats and more dominant Strigoi. Dimitri was working his contacts, just as he’d said earlier. If any Strigoi had heard about his transformation–and believed it–they wouldn’t have been able to pass the news quickly, not with their disorganization. As it was, Dimitri was already having to play leapfrog to find sources who knew other sources who might know Sonya’s location.
Dimitri grew loud and angry again, his voice becoming–if possible–more sinister. I suddenly felt trapped, and even Sydney looked scared now. She swallowed.
“He’s telling this guy that if he doesn’t get answers by tomorrow night, Dimitri’s going to find him and rip him apart and …’ Sydney didn’t bother finishing. Her eyes were wide. “Use your imagination. It’s pretty terrible.’ I decided then that I was kind of glad I hadn’t heard all of the conversation in English.
When Dimitri finished the call and returned Sydney’s phone, that mask of malice melted from his face. Once again, he was my Dimitri, Dimitri the dhampir. Dejection and despair radiated off him, and he slumped against the cafe’s wall, staring upward into the sky. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to calm himself, seize control of the emotions that had to be warring within him. He’d just done something that might give us clues we needed … but it had been at a terrible cost to himself. My fingers twitched. I wanted to put a comforting arm around him or at least pat his shoulder so he’d know he wasn’t alone. But, I held back, suspecting he wouldn’t like it.
At last, he turned his gaze back to us. He’d regained his control–at least on the outside. “I’ve sent someone to ask about her,’ he said wearily. “It might not work out. Strigoi are hardly the type to keep a database. But they do occasionally keep an eye on one another, if only for their own self-preservation. We’ll find out soon if there are any hits.’
“I … wow. Thank you,’I said, fumbling at the words. I knew he needed no thanks, but it felt necessary to me.
He nodded. “We should get back to the Keepers … unless you think this is a safe place to stay?’
“I’d rather stay off civilized radar,’ said Sydney, moving toward the truck. “Besides, I want my car keys back.’
The ride back felt ten times longer. Dimitri’s mood filled up the whole cabin, almost suffocating us with its despair. Even Sydney could feel it. She’d let him drive again, and I couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. Would the road distract him from his Strigoi torment? Or would his agony distract him from the road and put us off in a ditch? Fortunately, we made it back safe and sound and found two of the Keepers waiting for us in the lot, a Moroi woman and a human guy who both looked fierce. I still couldn’t shake the strangeness of both races being battle-ready. I wondered if these two were a couple.
Back in the camp, we found the communal bonfire ablaze and people sitting out around it, some eating and some just socializing. I’d learned at breakfast that the fire was always there for those who wanted to bond but that plenty of families kept to their own households as well.
We went back to Raymond’s house, but only Sarah and Joshua were there. She was cleaning up dishes, and he sat restlessly in a chair. As soon as he caught sight of me at the door, he sprang up, radiant smile on high-beam again.
“Rose! You’re back. We were starting to worry … I mean, not that anything had happened to you–not with your skills–but that maybe you’d just left us.’
“Not without our car,’ said Sydney, placing the truck keys on the table. The CR-Vs were sitting there already, and relief flooded her face as she snatched them up.
Sarah offered us leftovers, which we declined, having stocked up on snack food at Rubysville’s gas station. “Well,’ she said, “if you’re not going to eat, you might as well join the others out at the fire. Jess McHale might sing tonight if they can get her to drink enough, and drunk or sober, that woman has the finest voice I’ve ever heard.’
I briefly met Dimitri and Sydney’s eyes. I admit, I was a little curious to see how this wilderness group partied it up, even though moonshine and folk songs weren’t really my first choice of entertainment. Dimitri still wore that haunted look from the phone call.
I had a suspicion he would have been content to isolate himself in our room, but when Sydney said she’d go to the fire, his response came automatically: “I’ll go too.’ I knew instantly what he was doing. His Strigoi days tormented him. Talking to Strigoi tormented him. And maybe–no, certainly–he wanted to hide away and try to block it all out, but he was Dimitri. Dimitri protected those who needed it, and even if listening to fireside songs wasn’t exactly life-threatening, it was still a semi-dangerous situation for a civilian like Sydney. He couldn’t allow that. Plus, he knew Sydney would feel safer with both of us nearby.
I started to say I’d join them, but Joshua spoke before I could. “Do you still want to see my cave? There’s a little light left outside. You’ll get a better view that way than if we have to use a torch.’
I’d forgotten about my last conversation with Joshua and started to decline his offer. But then, something flashed in Dimitri’s eyes, something disapproving. So. He didn’t want me going off with some young, good-looking guy. Was it legitimate concern about the Keepers? Was it jealousy? No, surely not the latter. We’d established–many, many times–that Dimitri wanted no romantic connection with me. He’d even stood up for Adrian earlier. Was this some kind of ex-boyfriend thing? Back in Rubysville, I’d believed Dimitri and I could be friends, but that wouldn’t happen if he thought he could control me and my love life. I’d known girls with exes like that. I wouldn’t be one. I could hang out with whomever I wanted.
“Sure,’ I said. Dimitri’s expression darkened. “I’d love to.’
Joshua and I headed off, leaving the others behind. I knew part of my decision was to prove my independence. Dimitri had said we were equals, yet he’d made an awful lot of decisions in this escape plan without me. It was nice to feel like I had the upper hand for a change, and besides, I liked Joshua and was kind of curious to learn more about how his people lived. I don’t think Sydney wanted me to leave, but Dimitri would look after her.
As Joshua and I walked, we passed plenty of Keepers out and about. Just like earlier, I received a fair amount of stares. Rather than lead us down the road to where his father lived, Joshua took me around the small mountain. It was still good-sized, but after living near the Rockies, everything in the Appalachians seemed “small’ to me. I guess I was a mountain snob.
Still, the mountain extended quite a ways, and we moved farther and farther from the Keepers’ main settlement. The forest grew thicker, the light growing scarce as the sun finally began sinking into the horizon.
“I’m kind of on the outskirts,’ Joshua said apologetically. “We keep growing and growing, and there’s not much room in the town’s center.’ I thought “town’ was an optimistic term but didn’t say so. Yeah. I was definitely a snob. “But the caves keep going, so there’s still space.’
“Are they natural?’ I asked.
“Some are. Some are abandoned mining caves.’
“It’s pretty out here,’ I said. I liked all the deciduous trees. I might be homesick for Montana, but the wide leaves here were a neat contrast to pine needles. “And hey, at least you get lots of privacy, right?’
“True.’ He smiled. “I figured you’d think it was … I don’t know. Too rustic. Or savage. You probably think we all are.’
His observation startled me. Most of the Keepers had been so fiercely defensive of their way of life that I hadn’t thought anyone would even think an outsider would question it–or that any Keeper would care if we did.
“It’s just different,’ I said diplomatically. “A lot different from what I’m used to.’ I felt a flash of homesickness for all the people and places I was now cut off from. Lissa. Adrian. Our other friends. Court. St. Vladimir’s. I shook the feeling off quickly. I had no time to mope and could at least check on Lissa later.
“I’ve been to human towns,’ continued Joshua. “And other places the Tainted live. I can see why you’d like them.’ He turned a bit sheepish. “I wouldn’t mind electricity.’
“Why don’t you guys use it?’
“We would if we could. We’re just too far out, and no one really knows we’re here anyway. The lily-people say it’s better for hiding us.’
It hadn’t occurred to me that they simply endured these conditions because they were forced to in order to conceal themselves. I wondered how many of their choices came from clinging to the so-called old ways … and how much was influenced by the Alchemists.
“Here we are,’ said Joshua, pulling me from my musings.
He gestured to a dark hole at ground level. The opening was big enough for an adult to enter.
“Nice,’ I said. I’d noticed earlier that some of the caves were set higher into the mountains and had watched their residents either climb the rock bare-handed or use homemade ladders. An easy-access doorway seemed luxurious. Joshua looked surprised at my praise. “Really?’
We’d ended up losing too much daylight. He paused to light a torch, and then I followed him inside. We had to duck a little at first, but as we went deeper into the cave, the ceiling slowly expanded and opened up into a wide, rounded space. The floor was hard-packed dirt, the stone walls rough and jagged. This was a natural cave, but I could pick out the efforts made to civilize it. The floor had been cleaned and leveled, and I saw some stones and rocks in a corner that looked like they’d been gathered up to clear space. A couple pieces of furniture had already been moved in: a narrow wooden chair and a mattress that looked like it could barely hold one person.
“You probably think it’s small,’ said Joshua.
It was true, but it was actually bigger than my dorm room at St. Vladimir’s. “Well … yeah, but I mean, how old are you?’
“Same as me,’ I said. This seemed to make him pretty happy. “Having your own, um, cave at eighteen is pretty cool.’ It would have been cooler still with electricity, Internet, and plumbing, but there was no need to bring that up.
His blue eyes practically shone. I couldn’t help but notice what a pretty contrast they made against his tanned skin. I dismissed the thought immediately. I wasn’t here for a boyfriend. But apparently, I was the only one who believed that. Joshua suddenly took a step forward.
“You can stay if you want,’ he said. “The other Tainted would never find you here. We could get married, and then when we had kids, we could build a loft like my parents’ and–‘
The word married had me moving toward the entrance as shocked and panicked as I would be by a Strigoi attack. Except, I usually had fair warning before those.
“Whoa, whoa, slow down.’ No. I hadn’t seen a proposal coming. “We just met!’
Thankfully, he didn’t come closer. “I know, but sometimes that’s how it is.’
“What, marriages between people who hardly know each other?’ I asked incredulously.
“Sure. Happens all the time. And seriously, just in this short of time, I already know I like you. You’re amazing. You’re beautiful and obviously a good fighter. And the way you carry yourself …’ He shook his head, awe on his face. “I’ve never seen anything like it.’
I wished he wasn’t so cute and nice. Having creepy guys profess their adoration was a lot easier to deal with than one you liked. I remembered Sydney saying I was a hot commodity here. Scorching was more like it, apparently.
“Joshua, I really like you, but,’ I added hastily, seeing hope fill his features, “I’m too young to get married.’
He frowned. “Didn’t you say you were eighteen?’
Okay. Age was probably not a good argument around here. I’d seen how young people had kids back in Dimitri’s home-town. In a place like this, they probably had child marriages. I tried another angle.
“I don’t even know if I want to get married.’ This didn’t faze him. He nodded in understanding. “That’s smart. We could live together first, see how we get along.’ His serious expression turned back into a smile. “But I’m pretty easygoing. I’d let you win every argument.’
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Well, then, I’m going to have to win this one and tell you I’m just not ready for … any of it. Besides, I’m already involved with someone.’
“No. Another guy. He’s back at the Tainted Court.’ I couldn’t even believe I was saying that.
Joshua frowned. “Why isn’t he here protecting you then?’
“Because … that’s not how he is. And I can take care of myself.’ I’d never liked the assumption that I needed rescuing. “And look, even if he wasn’t in the picture, I’m leaving soon anyway. It would never work out between you and me.’
“I understand.’ Joshua looked disappointed but seemed to be taking the rejection okay. “Maybe when you’ve got everything sorted out, you’ll come back.’
I started to tell him not to wait for me and that he should just marry someone else (despite how ridiculous it was at his age), but then I realized that was a pointless comment. In Joshua’s fantasies, he could probably marry someone else now and then add me on to his harem later, like Sarah and Paulette. So, I just simply said, “Maybe.’ Groping for a change in subject, I searched for anything to distract us. My eyes fell on the chair and a leafy pattern carved into it. “That’s really neat.’
“Thanks,’ he said, walking over. To my relief, he didn’t pursue the earlier topic. He ran his hand lovingly over the ornately carved wood. The design looked like braided leaves. “I did it myself.’
“Really?’ I asked in true surprise. “That … that’s amazing.’
“If you like it …’ His hand moved, and I feared there was a kiss or embrace coming. Instead, he reached into his shirt pocket and produced a finely carved wooden bracelet. It was a simple, sinuous design, the true marvel being how narrow and delicate it was to all be one piece. The wood had been polished to brilliance. “Here.’ He handed me the bracelet.
“This is for me?’ I ran my finger along the smooth edge.
“If you want it. I made it while you were out today. So you’ll remember me after you leave.’
I hesitated, wondering if accepting this would be encouraging him. No, I decided. I’d made my views on teenage marriage clear, and anyway, he looked so nervous, I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting his feelings. I slipped it onto my wrist.
“Of course I’ll remember. Thank you.’
From the happy look on his face, taking the bracelet made up for my earlier refusal. He showed me a few more details around the cave and then followed my suggestion to join the others at the fire. We could hear the music echoing through the trees long before we made it back, and while it was hardly my style, there was something warm and friendly about this community’s way of life. I’d never been to summer camp, but I imagined this was what it’d be like.
Sydney and Dimitri sat near the group’s edge. They were quiet and watchful, but everyone else sang, clapped, and talked. Again, I was stunned at how easily dhampirs, humans, and Moroi could all be involved with one another. Mixed couples were everywhere, and one–a human and Moroi–were openly making out. Every so often, when he kissed her neck, he’d also bite and take some blood. I had to glance away.
I turned back toward my friends. Sydney noticed me and looked relieved. Dimitri’s expression was unreadable. Like always, the others’ eyes followed my movement, and to my surprise, I saw open jealousy on some of the guys’ faces. I hoped they didn’t think Joshua and I had been off getting naked in the cave. That was hardly the reputation I wanted to leave behind.
“I have to talk to Sydney,’ I told him over the noise. I decided it’d be best to keep my distance before any rumors started, and truthfully, Sydney looked like she wanted me by her side. Joshua nodded, and I turned away. I’d taken two steps when a fist suddenly came right toward my face.
I’d had no defenses up and just barely had the presence of mind to turn my head and catch the blow on my cheek, rather than end up with a broken nose. After the initial surprise, all my training kicked in. I quickly sidestepped out of the line of attack and put my body into a fighter’s stance. The music and singing stopped, and I turned to face my attacker.
She stood in a way similar to my own, fists clenched and eyes completely honed in on me. “Okay,’ she said. “It’s time to find out how tough you really are.’
What it was time for was someone–say, like, a parent–to come and drag her off and punish her for punching guests. Amazingly, no one moved or tried to stop her. No–that wasn’t quite true. One person stood up. Dimitri had sprung to action the instant he saw me in danger. I expected him to come pull Angeline away, but a group of Keepers hastily moved to his side, saying something to him that I couldn’t hear. They didn’t try to physically restrain him, but whatever they said, it kept him where he stood. I would have demanded to know what they’d told him, but Angeline was coming at me again. It looked like I was on my own.
Angeline was short, even for a dhampir, but her whole body was packed with strength. She was pretty fast too, though not fast enough to get that second hit in on me. I neatly dodged it and kept my distance, not wanting to go on the offensive with this girl. She could probably do a fair amount of damage in a fight, but there was a sloppy– no, more like rough–edge to it. She was a scrapper, someone who’d done a lot of brawling but without any formal training.
“Are you insane?’ I exclaimed, moving out of the way of another assault. “Stop this. I don’t want to hurt you.’
“Sure,’ she said. “That’s what you want everyone to think, right? If you don’t actually have to fight, then they’ll all go on believing those marks are real.’
“They are real!’ The insinuation that I’d faked my tattoos sparked my temper, but I refused to get drawn into this ridiculous scuffle.
“Prove it,’ she said, coming at me again. “Prove you’re who you say you are.’
It was like a dance, keeping away from her. I could have done it all night, and a few dismayed cries from the crowd demanded we “get on with it.’
“I don’t have to prove anything,’ I told her.
“It’s a lie then.’ Her breathing was heavy now. She was working a lot harder than me. “Everything you Tainted do is a lie.’ “Not true,’ I said. Why was Dimitri letting this go on? Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of him, and so help me, he was smiling.
Meanwhile, Angeline was still continuing her tirade as she tried to hit me. “You all lie. You’re all weak. Especially your “royals.’ They’re the worst of all.’
“You don’t know them at all. You don’t know anything about them.’
She might be able to carry on a conversation, but I could see her growing increasingly frustrated. If not for the fact I was pretty sure she’d hit me in the back, I would have taken the noble approach and simply walked away. “I know enough,’ she said. “I know they’re selfish and spoiled and don’t do anything for themselves. They don’t care about anyone else. They’re all the same.’
I actually agreed with Angeline about some royals but didn’t like the generalization. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,’ I snapped. “They’re not all like that.’
“They are,’ she said, pleased to see me angry. “I wish they were all dead.’
It was hardly enough to push me into offense mode, but the comment did cloud my thoughts enough that I let her get through my guard, just a little. I never would have let that happen with a Strigoi, but I’d underestimated this wild girl. Her leg snaked out just enough to hit my knee, and it was like tossing a spark into gasoline. Everything exploded.
With that hit, I stumbled slightly, and she pushed her advantage. My battle instincts took over, and I had no choice but to strike back before she could hit me. People began cheering now that the fight was “really going.’ I was on offense, trying to subdue her, meaning the physical contact had jumped up exponentially. I was still better than her, no doubt, but in trying to get to her, I put myself in her range. She landed a few blows on me, nothing serious, before I was able to tackle her to the ground. I expected that to be the end, but she pushed back against me before I could fully restrain her. We rolled over, and she tried to take the dominant position. I couldn’t allow that and managed a punch on the side of her face that was a lot harder than the earlier one.
I thought that would be the end of the fight. My hit had knocked her off me, and I started to stand, but then that little bitch grabbed my hair and jerked me back down. I twisted out of her hold–though I’m pretty sure she took some hair away with her–and this time managed to fully pin her, throwing all my weight and strength into it as I pressed down. I knew it had to be painful but didn’t really care. She’d started it. Besides, this skirmish had gone beyond defense. Pulling someone’s hair was just playing dirty.
Angeline made a few more attempts to break away, but when it became clear she couldn’t, those around us began whistling and cheering. A few moments later, that dark and furious look vanished from Angeline’s face, replaced by resignation. I eyed her warily, not about to let down my guard.
“Fine,’ she said. “I guess it’s okay. Go ahead.’
“Huh? What’s okay?’ I demanded.
“It’s okay if you marry my brother.’