CONSIDERING THEIR EARLIER antagonism, I was a bit surprised to see Sonya and Robert combine their powers to create an illusion for the Dashkov brothers.It obscured their appearances, and with the addition of some fake names, the Mastrano family just assumed the guys were part of our increasingly bizarre entourage.Considering the distress and upheaval already going on in the house, a couple more people seemed the least of the Mastranos’ worries.
In playing good Moroi hosts, it wasn’t enough to just cook up dinner.
Emily also managed to get a feeder to come by–a sort of “blood delivery service.’ Normally, Moroi who lived outside sheltered areas and intermingled among humans had access to secret feeders living nearby. Usually, these feeders had a keeper of sorts, a Moroi who made money off the service. It was common for Moroi to simply show up at the home of the feeder’s “owner,’ but in this case, Emily had made arrangements for the feeder to be brought to her house.
She was doing it as a courtesy, the kind she’d do for any Moroi guests–even ones who were delivering news she’d dreaded receiving for most of her life. Little did she know just how desperately welcome blood was to the Moroi we’d brought along. I didn’t mind the brothers suffering a little weakness, but Sonya definitely needed blood if she was going to continue her recovery.
Indeed, when the feeder and her keeper showed, Sonya was the first to drink. Dimitri and I had to stay out of sight upstairs. Sonya and Robert could only manage so much spirit-illusion, and hiding Robert and Victor’s identities from the feeder’s Moroi was imperative. Obscuring both me and Dimitri would have been too much, and considering our most-wanted status, it was essential we not take any risks.
Leaving the brothers unsupervised made Dimitri and me nervous, but the two of them seemed too desperate for blood to attempt anything. Dimitri and I wanted to clean up anyways, since we hadn’t had time for showers this morning. We flipped a coin, and I got to go first. Only, when I finished and was rummaging through my clothes, I discovered I’d gone through my clean “casual wear’ supply and was down to the dress Sydney had included in the backpack. I grimaced but figured it wouldn’t hurt to put the dress on for one night. We wouldn’t be doing much more than waiting around for tomorrow’s departure, and maybe Emily would let me do laundry before we left. After decent hair styling with a blow dryer, I finally felt civilized again.
Sydney and I had been given a guestroom to share, and the brothers occupied another. Sonya was going to stay in Jill’s room, and Dimitri had been offered the couch. I didn’t doubt for a second he’d be stalking the halls as the household slept and that I’d be trading shifts with him. For now, he was still showering, and I crept out into the hall and peered down over a railing to check out the first floor. The Mastranos, Sonya, and the brothers were all gathered with the feeder and her keeper. Nothing seemed amiss. Relieved, I returned to my room and used the downtime to check on Lissa.
After the initial excitement of passing her test, I’d felt her calm down and had assumed she was getting much-needed sleep. But, no. She hadn’t gone to bed. She’d taken Eddie and Christian over to Adrian’s, and I realized she was the one who’d woken him up from the dream I’d shared with him in the car. A skimming of her recent memories gave me a replay of what had happened since the time he left me and staggered to his door.
“What’s going on?’ he asked, looking from face to face. “I was having a good dream.’
“I need you,’ said Lissa.
“I hear that from women a lot,’ said Adrian. Christian made a gagging sound, but the faintest glimmer of a smile crossed Eddie’s lips, despite his otherwise tough guardian- stance.
“I’m serious,’ she told him. “I just got a message from Ambrose. He’s got something important to tell us, and … I don’t know. I’m still not certain of his role in everything. I want another set of eyes on him. I want your opinion.’
“That,’ Adrian said, “is not something I hear a lot.’
“Just hurry up and get dressed, okay?’ ordered Christian.
Honestly, it was a wonder anyone slept anymore, considering how often we were all pulled out of sleep. Adrian nonetheless did dress quickly, and despite his flippant comments, I knew he was interested in anything related to clearing my name. What I was uncertain of was whether he’d tell anyone about the mess I’d gotten myself into, now that I’d slipped and revealed some of my true activities.
My friends hurried over to the building they’d visited before, the one where Ambrose lived and worked. The Court had woken up, and people were out and about, many undoubtedly wanting to find out about the second monarch test. In fact, a few people catching sight of Lissa called out happy greetings.
“I had another trial tonight,’ Lissa told Adrian. Someone had just congratulated her. “An unexpected one.’
Adrian hesitated, and I waited for him to say he’d already heard that from me. I also waited for him to deliver the shocking news about my current company and whereabouts. “How’d it go?’ he asked instead.
“I passed,’ she replied. “That’s all that matters.’
She couldn’t bring herself to tell him about the cheering people, those who didn’t just simply support her because of the law but because they actually believed in her. Tasha, Mia, and some surprise friends from school had been among the onlookers, grinning at her. Even Daniella, there to wait for Rufus’s turn, had grudgingly congratulated Lissa, seeming surprised Lissa had made it through. The whole experience had been surreal, and Lissa had simply wanted to get out of there.
Eddie had gotten pulled away to assist other guardians, despite his protests that he was Lissa’s escort. So, Christian and Tasha had ended up having to take Lissa home alone. Well, almost alone. A guardian named Ethan Moore joined them, the one Abe had teased Tasha about. Abe exaggerated some things, but he’d been right this time. Ethan looked as tough as any guardian, but his kickass attitude occasionally faltered whenever he looked at Tasha. He adored her. She clearly liked him too and flirted along the way–much to Christian’s discomfort. I thought it was cute. Some guys probably wouldn’t go near Tasha because of her scars. It was nice to see someone who appreciated her for her character, no matter how disgusted Christian was by the thought of anyonedating his aunt. And I actually kind of liked seeing Christian so obviously tormented. It was good for him.
Ethan and Tasha left once Lissa was securely back in her room. Within minutes, Eddie showed back up, grumbling about how they’d delayed him with some “crap task’ when they knew he had better things to do. He’d apparently made such a fuss that they’d finally released him, so he could hurry back to Lissa’s side. He made it just ten minutes before Ambrose’s note arrived, which was lucky timing. Eddie would have freaked out if he’d come to her room and found her gone. He would have thought Strigoi had kidnapped his charge in his absence.
That was the series of events leading up to what was happening now: Lissa and the three guys going off to Ambrose’s secret meeting.
“You’re early,’ he said, letting them in before Lissa could even knock a second time. They stood inside Ambrose’s own room now, not a fancy parlor for clients. It resembled a dorm room–a very nice one. Much nicer than anything I’d endured. Lissa’s attention was all on Ambrose, so she didn’t notice, out of the corner of her eye, Eddie quickly scanning the room. I was glad he was on his game and guessed he didn’t trust Ambrose–or anyone not in our immediate circle.
“What’s going on?’ asked Lissa, as soon as Ambrose shut the door. “Why the urgent visit?’
“Because I have to show you something,’ he said. On his bed was a pile of papers, and he took the top one. “Remember when I said they were locking off Tatiana’s belongings? Well now they’re inventorying and removing them.’ Adrian shifted uncomfortably–again, only something I noticed. “She had a safe where she kept important documents–secret ones, obviously. And …’
“And?’ prompted Lissa.
“And, I didn’t want anyone to find them,’ Ambrose continued. “I didn’t know what most of them were, but if she wanted them secret … I just felt they should stay that way. I knew the combination, and so … I stole them.’ Guilt shone on his face, but it wasn’t murderous guilt. It was guilt for the theft.
Lissa eyed the stack eagerly. “And?’
“None of them have anything to do with what you’re looking for … except maybe this one.’ He handed her the piece of paper. Adrian and Christian crowded around her.
I’m a bit surprised to see how these latest developments have unfolded. I thought we had an understanding that the safety of our people required more than just bringing in a younger crop of guardians. We have let too many of them go to waste, particularly the women. If you took actions to force them back–and you know what I’m talking about– the guardian ranks would swell. This current law is completely inadequate, particularly after seeing how your “training’ experiment failed.
I’m equally shocked to hear that you are considering releasing Dimitri Belikov from his guards. I don’t understand exactly what happened, but you cannot trust mere appearances. You may be unleashing a monster–or at the very least, a spy–in our midst, and he needs to be under much stricter guard than he currently is. In fact, your continued support of the study of spirit is troubling altogether and no doubt led to this unnatural situation. I believe there is a reason this element was lost to us for so long: our ancestors realized its danger and stamped it out. Avery Lazar stands as proof of that, and your prodigy, Vasilisa Dragomir, is certain to follow. In encouraging Vasilisa, you encourage the degradation of the Dragomir line, a line that should be allowed to fade into history with honor and not the disgrace of insanity. Your support of her may also put your own great-nephew at risk, something neither of us would like to see happen.
I’m sorry to burden you with so much condemnation. I hold you in the highest regard and have nothing but respect for the way you have so skillfully governed our people these long years. I’m certain you will soon come to the appropriate decisions–though I worry others may not share my confidence in you. Said people might attempt to take matters into their own hands, and I fear for what may follow.
The letter was typed, with no signature. For a moment, Lissa couldn’t process it as a whole. She was completely consumed by the part about the Dragomir line fading into disgrace. It hit too close to the vision she’d seen in the test.
It was Christian who pulled her back. “Well. It would seem Tatiana had enemies. But I guess that’s kind of obvious at this point in the game.’
“Who’s this from?’ demanded Adrian. His face was dark, furious at this thinly veiled threat to his aunt.
“I don’t know,’ said Ambrose. “This is exactly the way I found it. Maybe she didn’t even know who the sender was.’
Lissa nodded her agreement. “There’s certainly an anonymous feel to it … and yet, at the same time, I feel like it’s someone Tatiana must have known well.’
Adrian gave Ambrose a suspicious look. “How do we know you didn’t just type this yourself to throw us off?’
“Adrian,’ chastised Lissa. She didn’t say it but was hoping to urge Adrian to feel out Ambrose’s aura for anything she might not be able to detect.
“This is crazy,’ said Christian, tapping the piece of paper. “The part about rounding up dhampirs and forcing them to be guardians. What do you think that means–the “actions’ that Tatiana knows about?’
I knew because I’d been tipped off about a lot of this earlier. Compulsion, Tatiana’s note had said.
“I’m not sure,’ said Lissa. She reread the letter to herself. “What about the “experiments’ part? Do you think that’s the training sessions Grant did with Moroi?’
“That was what I thought,’ said Ambrose. “But I’m not sure.’
“Can we see the rest?’ asked Adrian, gesturing to the stack of papers. I couldn’t tell if his suspicion was legitimate distrust of Ambrose or just the result of how upset his aunt’s murder made him.
Ambrose handed over the papers, but after going through the pages, Lissa agreed: there was nothing of use in them. The documents mostly consisted of legalese and personal correspondence. It occurred to Lissa–as it had to me–that Ambrose might not be showing everything he’d found. There was no way to prove that for now. Stifling a yawn, she thanked him and left with the others.
She was hoping for sleep, but her mind couldn’t help but analyze the letter’s possibilities. If it was legitimate.
“That letter’s evidence that someone had a lot more reason to be pissed off at Tatiana than Rose did,’ observed Christian as they wound their way back upstairs toward the building’s exit. “Aunt Tasha once said that anger based on calculated reason is more dangerous than anger based on blind hate.’
“Your aunt’s a regular philosopher,’ said Adrian wearily. “But everything we’ve got is still circumstantial.’
Ambrose had let Lissa keep the letter, and she’d folded it and put it in her jeans pocket. “I’m curious what Tasha will have to say about this. And Abe too.’ She sighed. “I wish Grant was still alive. He was a good man–and might have some insight into this.’
They reached a side exit on the main floor, and Eddie pushed the door open for them. Christian glanced over at Lissa as they stepped outside. “How close were Grant and Serena–‘
Eddie moved a fraction of a second before Lissa saw the problem, but of course, Eddie would have already been watching for problems. A man–a Moroi, actually–had been waiting among trees in the courtyard that separated Ambrose’s building from the neighboring one. It wasn’t exactly a secluded spot, but it was far enough off of the main paths that it often stayed deserted.
The man moved forward and looked startled when he saw Eddie racing toward him. I was able to analyze the fight in a way Lissa couldn’t. Judging by the man’s angle and movement, he’d been heading for Lissa–with a knife in his hand. Lissa froze in fear, an expected reaction for someone not trained to react in this situation. But when Christian jerked her back, she came to life and quickly retreated with him and Adrian.
The attacker and Eddie were deadlocked for a moment, each trying to take the other down. I heard Lissa yell for help, but my attention was all on the fighters. The guy was strong for a Moroi and his maneuvers suggested he’d been trained to fight. I doubted, however, that he’d been trained since elementary school, nor did he have the muscle a dhampir did.
Sure enough, Eddie broke through and forced the guy to the ground. Eddie reached out to pin the man’s right hand and get the knife out of the equation. Moroi or not, the man was actually quite skilled with the blade, particularly when I (and probably Eddie too) noticed scarring and what looked like a bent finger on his left hand. The guy had probably gone to great extents to hone his knife-hand’s reflexes. Even restrained, he was still able to snake up with the blade, aiming unhesitatingly for Eddie’s neck. Eddie was too fast to let that happen and blocked the blow with his arm, which took the blade’s cut. Eddie’s block gave the Moroi a bit more room to move, and he bucked up, throwing Eddie off. Without missing a beat–really, this guy was impressive–the Moroi swung for Eddie again. There could be no doubt about the man’s intentions. He wasn’t holding back. He was there to kill. That blade was out for blood. Guardians knew how to subdue and take prisoners, but we’d also been trained that when things were moving too fast, when it was an us-or-them situation–well, we made sure it was them. Eddie was faster than his opponent and was being driven by instincts pounded into us for years: stop what was trying to kill you. Eddie had no gun or knife, not at Court. When the man came at him a second time, knife again pointed straight at Eddie’s neck, Eddie used the only weapon left that he could be sure would save his life.
Eddie staked the Moroi.
Dimitri had once jokingly commented that you didn’t have to be Strigoi to be hurt by a stake through your heart. And, let’s face it, a stake through the heart didn’t actually hurt. It killed. Tatiana was proof. The man’s knife actually made contact with Eddie’s neck– and then fell before piercing skin. The man’s eyes went wide in shock and pain and then saw nothing at all. He was dead. Eddie leaned back on his heels, staring at his victim with the adrenaline-charged battle lust that followed any situation. Shouting suddenly caught his attention, and he leapt to his feet, ready for the next threat.
What he found was a group of guardians, ones who had responded to Lissa’s earlier cries for help. They took one look at the scene and immediately acted on and the conclusions their training drove them to. There was a dead Moroi and someone holding a bloody weapon. The guardians went for Eddie, throwing him against the wall and prying his stake away. Lissa shouted to them that they had it all wrong, that Eddie had saved her life and–
Dimitri’s frantic voice shocked me back to the Mastrano house. I was sitting on the bed, and he knelt before me, face full of fear as he gripped my shoulders. “Rose, what’s wrong? Are you okay?’
I pushed him aside and moved toward the door. “I have to–I have to go back to Court. Now. Lissa’s in danger. She needs me.’
“Rose. Roza. Slow down.’ He’d caught hold of my arm, and there was no escaping from that grip. He turned me so I faced him. His hair was still damp from the shower, and the clean scent of soap and wet skin surrounded us. “Tell me what happened.’
I quickly repeated what I’d seen. “Someone tried to kill her, Dimitri! And I wasn’t there!’
“But Eddie was,’ said Dimitri quietly. “She’s okay. She’s alive.’ He released me, and I leaned wearily against the wall. My heart was racing, and even though my friends were safe, I couldn’t shake my panic.
“And now he’s in trouble. Those guardians were pissed–‘
“Only because they don’t know the whole story. They see a dead body and a weapon, that’s it. Once they get facts and testimonies, everything will be okay. Eddie saved a Moroi. It’s his job.’
“But he killed another Moroi to do it,’ I pointed out. “We’re not supposed to do that.’ It sounded like an obvious–and even stupid–statement, but I knew Dimitri understood what I meant. The guardians’ purpose was to protect Moroi. They come first. Killing one was unimaginable. But then, so was them trying to kill each other.
“This wasn’t a normal situation,’ Dimitri affirmed.
I tipped my head back. “I know, I know. I just can’t stand leaving her undefended. I want so badly to go back and keep her safe. Right now.’ Tomorrow seemed years away. “What if it happens again?’
“Other people are there to protect her.’ Dimitri walked over to me, and I was surprised to see a smile on his lips, in light of the grim events. “Believe me, I want to protect her too, but we’d risk our lives for nothing if we take off right now. Wait a little longer and at least risk your life for something important.’
A little of the panic faded. “And Jill is important, isn’t she?’
I straightened up. Part of my brain kept trying to calm me about Lissa’s attack while the other fully processed what we’d accomplished here. “We did it,’ I said, feeling a smile slowly spread to my own lips. “Against all reason … somehow, we found Lissa’s lost sister. Do you realize what this means? Lissa can have everything she’s entitled to now. They can’t deny her anything. Hell, she could be queen if she wanted. And Jill …’ I hesitated. “Well, she’s part of an ancient royal family. That’s got to be a good thing, right?’
“I think it depends on Jill,’ said Dimitri. “And what the after-effects of all this are.’
Guilt over potentially ruining Jill’s life returned, and I stared down at my feet. “Hey, it’s okay,’ he said, tilting my chin back up. His brown eyes were warm and affectionate. “You did the right thing. No one else would have tried something this impossible. Only Rose Hathaway. You took a gamble to find Jill. You risked your life by breaking Abe’s rules–and it paid off. It was worth it.’
“I hope Adrian thinks so,’ I mused. “He thinks me leaving our “safe house’ was the stupidest thing ever.’
Dimitri’s hand dropped. “You told him about all this?’
“Not about Jill. But I accidentally told him we weren’t in West Virginia anymore. He’s kept it secret, though,’ I added hastily. “No one else knows.’
“I can believe that,’ said Dimitri, though he’d lost some of his earlier warmth. It was such a fleeting thing. “He … he seems pretty loyal to you.’
“He is. I trust him completely.’
“And he makes you happy?’ Dimitri’s tone wasn’t harsh, but there was an intensity to it that put the exchange on par with a police interrogation.
I thought about my time with Adrian: the bantering, the parties, the games, and of course, the kissing. “Yeah. He does. I have fun with him. I mean he’s infuriating sometimes–okay, a lot of the time–but don’t be fooled by all the vices. He’s not a bad person.’
“I know he isn’t,’ said Dimitri. “He’s a good man. It’s not easy for everyone to see, but I can. He’s still getting himself together, but he’s on his way. I saw it in the escape. And after …’ The words caught on Dimitri’s tongue. “After Siberia, he was there for you? He helped you?’
I nodded, puzzled by all these questions. Turns out they were only the warm-up for the big one.
“Do you love him?’
There were only a few people in the world who could ask me such insanely personal questions without getting punched. Dimitri was one of them. With us, there were no walls, but our complicated relationship made this topic surreal. How could I describe loving someone else to a man I’d once loved? A man you still love, a voice whispered inside my head. Maybe. Probably. Again, I reminded myself that it was natural to carry lingering feelings for Dimitri. They would fade. They had to fade, just like his had. He was the past. Adrian was my future. “Yeah,’ I said, taking longer than I probably should have. “I … I do love him.’
“Good. I’m glad.’ The thing was, Dimitri’s face didn’t look all that glad as he stared blankly out the window. My confusion grew. Why was he upset? His actions and words no longer seemed to match lately.
I approached him. “What’s wrong?
“Nothing. I just want to make sure that you’re okay. That you’re happy.’ He turned back to me, putting on a forced smile. He’d spoken the truth–but not the whole truth. “Things have been changing, that’s all. It’s making me reconsider so much. Ever since Donovan … and then Sonya … it’s strange. I thought it all changed the night Lissa saved me. But it didn’t. There’s been so much more, more to the healing than I realized.’ He started to slip into pensive mode but caught himself. “Every day I figure out something new. Some new emotion I’d forgotten to feel. Some revelation I totally missed. Some beauty I didn’t see.’
“Hey, my hair in the alley does not go on that list, okay?’ I teased. “You were in shock.’
The forced smile grew natural. “No, Roza. It was beautiful. It’s beautiful now.’
“The dress is just throwing you off,’ I said, attempting a joke. In reality, I felt dizzy under his gaze.
Those dark, dark eyes looked at me–really looked at me, I think, for the first time since he’d entered the room. A mixed expression came over him that made no sense to me. I could pick out the emotions it contained but not what caused them. Awe. Wonder. Sadness. Regret.
“What?’ I asked uneasily. “Why are you looking at me like that?’
He shook his head, the smile rueful now. “Because sometimes, a person can get so caught up in the details that they miss the whole. It’s not just the dress or the hair. It’s you. You’re beautiful. So beautiful, it hurts me.’
I felt a strange fluttering sensation in my chest. Butterflies, cardiac arrest … it was hard to say what exactly. Yet, in that moment, I was no longer standing in the Mastrano guestroom. He’d said those words before, or something very close. So beautiful, it hurts me. It was back in the cabin at St. Vladimir’s, the one and only time we’d had sex. He’d looked at me in a very similar way, too, only there’d been less sadness. Nonetheless, as I heard those words again, a door I’d kept locked in my heart suddenly burst open, and with it came all the feelings and experiences and sense of oneness we’d always shared. Looking at him, just for the space of a heartbeat, I had a surreal sensation wash over me, liked I’d known him forever. Like we were bound … but not in the way Lissa and I were, by a bond forced on us.
“Hey, guys, have you–oh.’ Sydney came to a halt in the half-open doorway and promptly took two steps back. “Sorry. I–that is–‘
Dimitri and I immediately pulled back from each other. I felt warm and shaky and only then noticed how close we had been. I didn’t even remember moving, but only a breath had separated us. What had happened? It was like a trance. A dream.
I swallowed and tried to slow my pulse. “No problem. What’s going on?’
Sydney glanced between us, still looking uncomfortable. Her dating life might be non- existent, but even she knew what she’d walked in on. I was glad one of us did. “I … that is … I just wanted to come hang out. I can’t handle that going on downstairs.’ I attempted a smile, still utterly confused by my feelings. Why did Dimitri look at me like that? Why did he say that? He can’t still want me. He said he didn’t. He told me to leave him alone.
“Sure. We were just … talking,’ I said. She obviously didn’t believe me. I tried harder to convince her … and myself. “We were talking about Jill. Do you have any ideas on how to get her to Court–seeing as we’re all outlaws?’
Sydney might not be an expert in personal relationships, but puzzles were familiar territory. She relaxed, her attention focusing inward as she tried to figure our problem out.
“Well, you could always have her mother–‘
A loud crashing from downstairs abruptly cut her off. As one, Dimitri and I sprang for the door, ready to combat whatever mess Victor and Robert had caused. We both came screeching to a halt at the top of the stairs when we heard lots of shouts for everyone to get down.
“Guardians,’ Dimitri said. “There are guardians raiding the house.’