WHEN WE GOT BACK to our rooms, I made up an excuse to Lissa about how I needed to go take care of some guardian stuff.She was eager to patch up the earlier conflict with Christian – probably in the form of clothing removal – and didn’t ask any questions.There was a phone in my room, and after calling an operator, I was able to find out which room was Dimitri’s.
He was surprised to see me at his door – and a little wary.
The last time this had happened, I’d been under the influence of Victor’s lust charm and had behaved … aggressively.
“I have to talk to you,” I said.
He let me come in, and I immediately handed over the note.
“V. D – “
“Yeah, I know,” said Dimitri. He handed the note back. “Victor Dashkov.”
“What are we going to do? I mean, we talked about this, but now he really is saying he’s going to sell us out.”
Dimitri didn’t answer, and I could tell he was assessing every angle of this, just like he would a fight. Finally, he pulled out his cell phone, which was a lot cooler than having to rely on the room’s phone. “Give me a moment.”
I started to sit on his bed, decided that was dangerous, and instead sat on the couch. I didn’t know who he was calling, but the conversation took place in Russian.
“What’s going on?” I asked when he finished.
“I’ll let you know soon. For now, we have to wait.”
“Great. My favorite thing to do.”
He dragged an armchair up and sat opposite me. It seemed too small for someone as tall as him, but, as always, he managed to make it work and appear graceful in the process.
Beside me was one of the Western novels he always carried around. I picked it up, again thinking about how alone he was. Even now, at the Court, he’d chosen to stay in his room. “Why do you read these?”
“Some people read books for fun,” he observed.
“Hey, watch the dig. And I do read books. I read them to solve mysteries that threaten my best friend’s life and sanity. I don’t think reading this cowboy stuff is really saving the world like I do.”
He took it from me and flipped it over, face thoughtful and not as intense as usual. “Like any book, it’s an escape. And there’s something … mmm. I don’t know. Something appealing about the Old West. No rules. Everyone just lives by their own code. You don’t have to be tied down by others’ ideas of right and wrong in order to bring justice.”
“Wait,” I laughed. “I thought I was the one who wanted to break rules.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to. Just that I can see the appeal.”
“You can’t fool me, comrade. You want to put on a cowboy hat and keep lawless bank robbers in line.”
“No time. I have enough trouble keeping you in line.”
I grinned, and suddenly, it was a lot like when we cleaned the church – before the fight, at least. Easy. Comfortable. In fact, it was a lot like the old days when we’d first begun training together, way back before everything had gotten so complicated. Well, okay…things had always been complicated, but for a while, they’d been less complicated. It made me sad. I wished we could relive those early days. There’d been no Victor Dashkov, no blood on my hands.
“I’m sorry,” Dimitri said all of a sudden.
“For what? Reading cheesy novels?”
“For not being able to get you here. I feel like I let you down.” I glimpsed a shadow of worry on his face, like he was concerned he might have caused some irreparable damage.
The apology totally caught me off guard. For a moment, I wondered if he was jealous of Adrian’s influence in the same way Christian had been. Then I realized it was completely different. I’d been giving Dimitri a hard time because I’d been convinced he could do anything. Somewhere – deep inside – he felt the same, at least where I was concerned. He didn’t want to deny me anything. My earlier bad mood had long since vanished, and I suddenly just felt drained. And stupid.
“You didn’t,” I told him. “I acted like a total brat. You’ve never let me down before. You didn’t let me down with this.”
The grateful look he gave me made me feel as if I had wings. If another moment had passed, I suspected he would have said something so sweet that I would have flown away. Instead, his phone rang.
Another conversation in Russian took place, and then he stood up. “All right, let’s go.”
“To see Victor Dashkov.”
It turned out that Dimitri had a friend who had a friend, and somehow, despite the best security in the Moroi world, we managed to get into the Court’s prison facilities.
“Why are we doing this?” I whispered as we walked down the hall toward Victor’s cell. I’d really, really hoped for stone walls and torches, but the place looked very modern and efficient, with marble floors and stark white walls. At least there were no windows. “You think we can talk him out of it?”
Dimitri shook his head. “If Victor wanted to take revenge on us, he’d just do it without any warning. He doesn’t do things without a reason. The fact that he told you first means he wants something, and now we’re going to find out what it is.”
We reached Victor’s cell. He was the only prisoner currently being held. Like the rest of the facility, his room reminded me of something you’d find at a hospital. Everything was clean, bright, and sterile – and very bare. It was a place without any sort of stimulus or distraction whatsoever, which would have driven me crazy in one hour. The cell had silvery bars that looked very hard to break, which was the most important part.
Victor sat in a chair, idly examining his nails. It had been three months since our last meeting, and seeing him again made my skin crawl.
Feelings I hadn’t known were buried in me suddenly burst to the surface.
One of the hardest things of all was seeing him look so healthy and young. He’d bought that health by torturing Lissa, and I hated him for it. If his disease had run its normal course, he might be dead by now.
He had receding black hair, with only the slightest touch of silver. He was in his forties and had a regal, almost handsome cut to his face. He glanced up at our approach. Eyes the same pale jade as Lissa’s met mine. The Dragomir and Dashkov families had a lot of intertwined history, and it was creepy seeing that eye color in someone else. A smile lit his face.
“Oh my. This is a treat. Lovely Rosemarie, practically an adult now.” His eyes flicked toward Dimitri. “Of course, some have been treating you that way for quite a while.”
I pressed my face to the bars. “Stop screwing with us, you son of a bitch. What do you want?”
Dimitri put a gentle hand on my shoulder and pulled me back. “Easy, Rose.”
I took a deep breath and then slowly stepped backward. Victor straightened up in his chair and laughed.
“After all this time, your cub still hasn’t learned any control. But then, maybe you never really wanted her to.”
“We aren’t here to banter,” said Dimitri calmly. “You wanted to lure Rose over, and now we need to know why.”
“Does there have to be some sinister reason? I just wanted to know how she was doing, and something tells me we aren’t going to have a chance for any friendly chats tomorrow.” That annoying smirk stayed on his face, and I decided then that he was lucky to be behind bars and out of my reach.
“We’re not going to have a friendly chat now,” I growled.
“You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I really do want to know how you’re doing. You’ve always been a fascinating subject to me, Rosemarie. The only shadow-kissed person we know of. I told you before, that isn’t the kind of thing you walk away from unscathed. There’s no way you can quietly sink into the regimented routine of academic life. People like you aren’t meant to blend in.”
“I’m not some kind of science experiment.”
He acted like I hadn’t said anything. “What’s it been like? What have you noticed?”
“There’s no time for this. If you don’t get to the point,” warned Dimitri, “we’re going to leave.”
I didn’t understand how Dimitri could sound so calm. I leaned forward and gave Victor my coldest smile. “There’s no way they’ll let you off tomorrow. I hope you enjoy prison. I bet it’ll be great once you get sick again – and you will, you know.”
Victor regarded me levelly, still with that amused look that made me want to choke him. “All things die, Rose. Well, except for you, I suppose. Or maybe you are dead. I don’t know. Those who visit the world of the dead can probably never fully shake their connection to it.”
There was a snarky retort on my lips, but something held me back. Those who visit the world of the dead. What if my Mason sightings weren’t because I was crazy or because he was seeking revenge? What if there was something about me – something that had happened when I’d died and come back – that was now connecting me to Mason? It was Victor who had first explained what it meant to be shadow-kissed. I wondered now if he had any of the answers I’d been looking for.
My face must have given away something, because Victor gave me a speculative look. “Yes? There’s something you’d like to say?”
I hated to ask him for anything. It made my stomach turn. Swallowing my pride, I asked, “What is the world of the dead? Is it heaven or hell?”
“Neither,” he said.
“What lives there?” I exclaimed. “Ghosts? Will I go back? Do things come out of it?”
Victor was taking great pleasure in me having to come to him for information, just as I’d feared he would. I saw that smirk intensify.
“Well, clearly some things come out of it, because here you stand before us.”
“He’s baiting you,” said Dimitri. “Let it go.”
Victor gave Dimitri a brief glare. “I’m helping her.” He turned back to me. “Honestly? I don’t know that much about it. You’re the one who has been there, Rose. Not me. Not yet. Someday, you’ll probably be the one educating me. I’m sure the more you deal death out, the closer you’ll become to it.”
“Enough,” said Dimitri, voice harsh. “We’re going.”
“Wait, wait,” said Victor, voice congenial. “You haven’t told me about Vasilisa yet.”
I moved forward again. “Stay away from her. She doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
Victor gave me a dry look. “Seeing as I’m locked away here, I have no choice but to stay away from her, my dear. And you’re wrong – Vasilisa has everything to do with everything.”
“That’s it,” I said, suddenly getting it. “That’s why you sent the note. You wanted me here because you wanted to know about her, and you knew there was no way she’d come talk to you herself. You had nothing to blackmail her with.”
“Blackmail’s an ugly word.”
“There’s no way you’re going to see her – at least outside of the courtroom. She’s never going to heal you. I told you: You’re going to get sick again, and you’re going to die. You’re going to be the one sending me postcards from the other side.”
“You think that’s what this is about? You think my needs are that petty?” The mockery was gone, replaced by a feverish and almost fanatical look in his green eyes. The tight set of his mouth stretched the skin of his face a little, and I noticed he’d lost weight since our last encounter. Maybe prison had been harder on him than I’d thought. “You’ve forgotten everything, why I did what I did. You’ve been so caught up in your own shortsightedness that you missed the big picture I was looking at.”
I racked my brain, thinking back to that time last fall. He was right. My focus had been on the wrongs he’d committed against Lissa and me personally. I’d forgotten other conversations, his insane explanations of his grand scheme.
“You wanted to stage a revolution – still want to. That’s crazy. It’s not going to happen,” I said.
“It’s already happening. Do you think I don’t know what’s going on out in the world? I still have contacts. People can be bought off – how do you think I was able to send you that message? I know about the unrest – I know about Natasha Ozera’s movement to get Moroi to fight with guardians. You stand by her and vilify me, Rosemarie, but I pushed for the very same thing last fall. Yet, somehow, you don’t seem to regard her in the same way.”
“Tasha Ozera is working on her cause a bit differently than you did,” noted Dimitri.
“And that’s why she’s getting nowhere,” Victor retorted. “Tatiana and her council are being held back by centuries of archaic traditions. So long as that sort of power rules us, nothing will change. We will never learn to fight. Non-royal Moroi will never have a voice. Dhampirs like you will continually be sent out to battle.”
“It’s what we dedicate our lives to,” said Dimitri. I could sense the tension building in him. He might show better self-control than me, but I knew he was getting just as frustrated here.
“And it’s what you lose your lives for. You’re all but enslaved and don’t even realize it. And for what? Why do you protect us?”
“Because … we need you,” I faltered. “For our race to survive.”
“You don’t need to throw yourselves into battle for that. Making children isn’t really that difficult.”
I ignored his quip. “And because the Moroi… the Moroi and their magic are important. They can do amazing things.”
Victor threw his hands up in exasperation. “We used to do amazing things. Humans used to revere us as gods, but over time, we grew lazy. The advent of technology made our magic more and more obsolete. Now, all we do is parlor tricks.”
“If you have so many ideas,” said Dimitri, with a dangerous glint in his dark eyes, “then do something useful in prison and write a manifesto.”
“And what’s this have to do with Lissa anyway?” I asked.
“Because Vasilisa is a vehicle for change.”
I stared incredulously. “You think she’s going to lead your revolution?”
“Well, I’d prefer that I lead it – someday. But, regardless, I think that she’s going to be part of it. I’ve heard about her too. She’s a rising star – still young, certainly, but people are taking notice. All royals aren’t created equal, you know. The Dragomir symbol is a dragon, the king of the beasts. Likewise, the Dragomir blood has always been powerful – that’s why the Strigoi have targeted them so consistently. A Dragomir returning to power is no small thing – particularly one such as her. My impression from the reports is that she must have mastered her magic. If that’s so – with her gifts – there’s no telling what she could do. People are drawn to her with almost no effort on her part. And when she actually tries to influence them…well, they’ll do anything she wants.” His eyes were wide as he spoke, wonder and happiness on his face as he imagined Lissa living out his dreams.
“Unbelievable,” I said. “First you wanted to hide her away to keep you alive. Now you actually want her out in the world to use her compulsion for your own psycho plans.”
“I told you, she’s a force for change. And like you being shadow-kissed, she’s the only one of her kind that we know about. That makes her dangerous – and very valuable.”
Well, that was something. Victor wasn’t all-knowing after all. He didn’t know about Adrian’s spirit use.
“Lissa will never do it,” I said. “She’s not going to abuse her powers.”
“And Victor’s not going to say anything about us,” said Dimitri, tugging my arm. “He’s achieved his goal. He brought you here because he wanted to know about Lissa.”
“He didn’t find out much,” I said.
“You’d be surprised,” said Victor. He grinned at Dimitri. “And what makes you so certain I won’t enlighten the world about your romantic indiscretions?”
“Because it won’t save you from prison. And if you ruin Rose, you’ll destroy whatever weak chance you had of Lissa helping you with your warped fantasy.” Victor flinched just a little; Dimitri was right. Dimitri stepped forward, pressing close to the bars as I had earlier. I’d thought I had a scary voice, but when he spoke his next words, I realized I wasn’t even close. “And it’ll all be pointless anyway, because you won’t stay alive long enough in prison to stage your grand plans. You aren’t the only one with connections.”
My breath caught a little. Dimitri brought so many things to my life: love, comfort, and instruction. I got so used to him sometimes that I forgot just how dangerous he could be. As he stood there, tall and threatening while he glared down at Victor, I felt a chill run down my spine. I remembered how when I had first come to the Academy, people had said Dimitri was a god. In this moment, he looked it.
If Victor was frightened by Dimitri’s threat, he didn’t show it. His jade green eyes glanced between the two of us. “You two are a match made in heaven. Or somewhere.”
“See you in court,” I said.
Dimitri and I left. On our way out, he said a few words in Russian to the guardian on duty. From their manners, my guess was Dimitri was offering thanks.
We ventured outdoors, walking across a wide, beautiful parklike space to get back to our rooms. The sleet had stopped, and it had left everything – buildings and trees alike – coated in ice. It was like the world was made of glass. Glancing at Dimitri, I saw him staring straight ahead. It was hard to tell while walking, but I could have sworn he was shaking.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“As okay as I can be.”
“Do you think he’ll tell everyone about us?”
We walked in silence for a bit. I finally asked the question I’d been dying to know.
“Did you mean it… that if Victor did tell…that you’d…” I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words have him killed.
“I don’t have much influence in the upper levels of Moroi royalty, but I have plenty among the guardians who handle the dirty work in our world.”
“You didn’t answer the question. If you’d really do it.”
“I’d do a lot of things to protect you, Roza.”
My heart pounded. He only used “Roza” when he was feeling particularly affectionate toward me.
“It wouldn’t exactly be protecting me. It’d be after the fact – cold-blooded. You don’t do that kind of thing,” I told him. “Revenge is more my thing. I’ll have to kill him.”
I meant it as a joke, but he didn’t think it was funny. “Don’t talk like that. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. Victor’s not going to say anything.”
He left me to go to his own room when we got inside. As I was opening the door to mine, Lissa rounded the hall corner.
“There you are. What happened? You missed dinner.”
I’d completely forgotten. “Sorry … got carried away with some guardian stuff. It’s a long story.”
She’d changed for dinner. Her hair was still pulled up, and she now wore a form-fitting dress made out of silver raw silk. She looked beautiful. She looked royal. I thought about Victor’s words and wondered if she really could be the power for change he swore she was. Looking like she did now, so glamorous and self-composed, I could imagine people following her anywhere. I certainly would, but then, I was biased.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked with a small smile.
I couldn’t tell her that I’d just seen the man who frightened her the most. I couldn’t tell her that while she’d been out living it up, I’d been off watching her back in the shadows, like I would always do.
Instead, I returned her smile. “I like the dress.”