ROBERT DORU WAS EASY TO SPOT.
It wasn’t because he looked like Victor.It wasn’t even because of any dramatic running-toward-each-other reunion type thing between him and his brother.Rather, it was Lissa’s mind that tipped me off.
I saw Robert through her eyes, the golden aura of a spirit user lighting up his corner of the restaurant like a star. It caught her by surprise, and she stumbled briefly. Spirit users were too rare a sight for her to be fully used to them. Seeing auras was something she could tune in or out, and just before “turning his off,” she noted that even though his had the brilliant gold she saw in Adrian, there was also a feel of instability to it. Sparks of other colors flashed there too, but they trembled and flickered. She wondered if it was a mark of spirit’s insanity setting in.
His eyes lit up as Victor approached the table, but the two didn’t hug or touch. Victor simply sat down beside his brother. The rest of us stood there awkwardly for a moment. The whole situation was too weird. But it was the reason we’d come, and after several more seconds, my friends and I joined the brothers at the table.
“Victor…” breathed Robert, eyes wide. Robert might have had some of the Dashkov facial features, but his eyes were brown, not green. His hands toyed with a napkin. “I can’t believe it…. I’ve wanted to see you for so long….”
Victor’s voice was gentle, as it had been on the phone, as if he were talking to a child. “I know, Robert. I missed you too.”
“Are you staying? Can you come back and stay with me?” Part of me wanted to snap that that was a ridiculous idea, but the desperation in Robert’s voice sparked a tiny bit of pity in me. I remained silent, simply watching the drama before me unfold. “I’d hide you. It’d be great. Just the two of us.”
Victor hesitated. He wasn’t stupid. Despite my vague claims on the plane, he knew the odds of me letting him go were nonexistent. “I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I don’t know.”
The waiter’s arrival jolted us out of our haze, and we all ordered drinks. Adrian ordered a gin and tonic and wasn’t even carded. I wasn’t sure if it was because he looked twenty-one or was convincing enough with spirit. Regardless, I wasn’t thrilled about it. Alcohol muted spirit. We were in a precarious situation, and I would have liked him at full strength. Of course, considering he’d been drinking earlier, it probably didn’t matter now.
After the waiter left, Robert seemed to notice the rest of us. His eyes passed over Eddie quickly, sharpened at Lissa and Adrian, and lingered on me for a long time. I stiffened, not liking the scrutiny. He finally turned back to his brother.
“Who have you brought, Victor?” Robert still had that oblivious, scattered air to him but it was lit with suspicion now. Fear and paranoia. “Who are these children? Two spirit users and…” His gaze fell on me again. He was reading my aura. “One of the shadow-kissed?”
For a moment, I was astonished at his use of the term. Then I remembered what Mark, Oksana’s husband, had told me. Robert had once been bonded to a dhampir–and that dhampir had died, drastically speeding up the deterioration of Robert’s mind.
“They’re friends,” said Victor smoothly. “Friends who’d like to talk to you and ask you some questions.”
Robert frowned. “You’re lying. I can tell. And they don’t consider you a friend. They’re tense. They keep their distance from you.”
Victor didn’t deny the friend claim. “Nonetheless, they need your help, and I promised it to them. It was the price for me being allowed to visit you.”
“You shouldn’t have made promises for me.” Robert’s napkin was now in shreds. I kind of wanted to give him mine.
“But didn’t you want to see me?” asked Victor winningly. His tone was warm, his smile almost genuine.
Robert looked troubled. Confused. I was again reminded of a child and was starting to have my doubts that this guy had ever transformed a Strigoi.
He was spared an answer yet again when our drinks arrived. None of us had even picked up our menus, much to the waiter’s obvious annoyance. He left, and I opened mine without really seeing it.
Victor then introduced us to Robert, as formally as he might at any diplomatic function. Prison hadn’t dulled his sense of royal etiquette. Victor gave first names only. Robert turned back to me, that frown still on his face, and glanced between Lissa and me. Adrian had said that whenever we were together, our auras showed that we were linked.
“A bond… I’ve almost forgotten what it was like… but Alden. I’ve never forgotten Alden…” His eyes grew dreamy and almost vacant. He was reliving a memory.
“I’m sorry,” I said, surprised to hear the sympathy in my words. This was hardly the harsh interrogation I’d envisioned. “I can only imagine what it must have been like… losing him….”
The dreamy eyes grew sharp and hard. “No. You cannot. It’s like nothing you can imagine. Nothing. Right now… right now… you have the world. A universe of senses beyond those of others, an understanding of another person that no one can have. To lose that… to have that ripped away… it would make you wish for death.”
Wow. Robert was pretty good at killing conversation, and we all kind of sat there hoping the waiter would return this time. When he did, we all made halfhearted attempts at ordering food–except Robert–most of us deciding on the spot. The restaurant served Asian cuisine, and I ordered the first thing I saw on the menu: an egg roll sampler.
With food ordered, Victor continued taking the firm hand with Robert that I seemed incapable of managing.
“Will you help them? Will you answer their questions?”
I had a feeling that Victor was pushing Robert on this not so much as a way to pay back us rescuing him, but rather because Victor’s scheming nature was dying to know everyone’s secrets and motivations.
Robert sighed. Whenever he looked at Victor, there was such a strong expression of devotion and even idol worship. Robert probably couldn’t refuse his brother anything. He was the perfect type to play into Victor’s plans, and I realized I should possibly be grateful that Robert had grown unstable. If he’d been in full control of his powers, Victor would never have bothered with Lissa last time. He would have already had his own private spirit wielder to use however he wanted.
“What do you want to know?” asked Robert blearily. He addressed me, apparently recognizing my leadership.
I glanced at my friends for moral support and received none. Neither Lissa nor Adrian approved of this mission in the first place, and Eddie still didn’t know its purpose. I swallowed, steeling myself, and directed my full attention to Robert.
“We heard you freed a Strigoi once. That you were able to convert him–or her–back to their original state.”
Surprise flashed on Victor’s usually composed face. He certainly hadn’t expected this.
“Where did you hear this?” demanded Robert.
“From a couple I met in Russia. Their names are Mark and Oksana.”
“Mark and Oksana…” Again, Robert’s gaze slipped away for a moment. I had a feeling this happened a lot, that he didn’t spend much time in reality. “I didn’t know they were still together.”
“They are. They’re doing really great.” I needed him back in the present. “Is it true? Did you do what they said? Is it possible?”
Robert’s responses were always preceded by a pause. “Her.”
“It was a woman. I freed her.”
I gasped in spite of myself, hardly daring to process his words.
“You’re lying.” It was Adrian who spoke, his tone harsh.
Robert glanced at him with an expression amused and scornful. “And who are you to say that? How can you tell? You’ve bruised and abused your powers so much, it’s a wonder you can even touch the magic anymore. And all these things you do to yourself… it doesn’t truly help, does it? Spirit’s punishment still affects you… soon you won’t be able to tell reality from dream….”
The words stunned Adrian for a moment, but he kept going. “I don’t need any physical signs to see that you’re lying. I know you are because what you’re describing is impossible. There’s no way to save a Strigoi. When they’re gone, they’re gone. They’re dead. Undead. Forever .”
“That which is dead doesn’t always stay dead….” Robert’s words weren’t directed at Adrian. They were spoken to me. I shivered.
“How? How did you do it?”
“With a stake. She was killed with a stake, and in doing so, was brought back to life.”
“Okay,” I said. “That is a lie. I’ve killed plenty of Strigoi with stakes, and believe me, they stay dead.”
“Not just any stake.” Robert’s fingers danced along the edge of his glass. “A special stake.”
“A stake charmed with spirit,” said Lissa suddenly.
He lifted his eyes to her and smiled. It was a creepy smile. “Yes. You are a clever, clever girl. A clever, gentle girl. Gentle and kind. I can see it in your aura.”
I stared off at the table, my mind in overdrive. A stake charmed with spirit. Silver stakes were charmed with the four main Moroi elements: earth, air, water, and fire. It was that infusion of life that destroyed the undead force within a Strigoi. With our recent discovery of how to charm objects with spirit, infusing a stake had never even occurred to us. Spirit healed. Spirit had brought me back from the dead. In joining with the other elements within a stake, was it truly possible that the twisted darkness that gripped Strigoi could be obliterated, thus restoring that person to their rightful state?
I was grateful for the food’s arrival because my brain was still moving sluggishly. The egg rolls provided a welcome opportunity to think.
“Is it really that easy?” I asked at last.
Robert scoffed. “It’s not easy at all.”
“But you just said… you just said we need a spirit-charmed stake. And then I kill a Strigoi with it.” Or well, not kill. The technicalities were irrelevant.
His smile returned. “Not you. You can’t do it.”
“Then who…” I stopped, the rest of my words dying on my lips. “No. No.”
“The shadow-kissed don’t have the gift of life. Only the spirit-blessed,” he explained. “The question is: Who’s capable of doing it? Gentle Girl or Drunken Sod?” His eyes flicked between Lissa and Adrian. “My wager would be on Gentle Girl.”
Those words were what snapped me out of my stunned state. In fact, they were what shattered this whole thing, this far-fetched dream of saving Dimitri.
“No,” I repeated. “Even if it was possible–and I’m not sure if I believe you–she can’t do it. I won’t let her.”
And in a turn of events almost as astonishing as Robert’s revelation, Lissa spun toward me, anger flooding our bond. “And since when can you tell me what I can or can’t do?”
“Since I don’t recall you ever taking guardian training and learning to stake a Strigoi,” I returned evenly, trying to keep my voice calm. “You only punched Reed, and that was hard enough.” When Avery Lazar had tried to take over Lissa’s mind, she’d sent her shadow-kissed brother to do some dirty work. With my help, Lissa had punched him and kept him away. It had been beautifully executed, but she’d hated it.
“I did it, didn’t I?” she exclaimed.
“Liss, throwing a punch is nothing like staking a Strigoi. And that’s not even counting the fact that you have to get near one in the first place. You think you could get in range before one bit you or snapped your neck? No.”
“I’ll learn.” The determination in her voice and mind was admirable, but it took guardians decades to learn what we did–and plenty still got killed.
Adrian and Eddie looked uncomfortable in the midst of our bickering, but Victor and Robert seemed both intrigued and amused. I didn’t like that. We weren’t here for their entertainment.
I tried to deflect the dangerous topic by turning back to Robert. “If a spirit user brought back a Strigoi, then that person would become shadow-kissed.” I didn’t point out the obvious conclusion to Lissa. Part of what had driven Avery crazy (aside from normal spirit usage) had been bonding with more than one person. Doing so created a very unstable situation that rapidly led all people involved into darkness and insanity.
Robert’s eyes grew dreamy as he stared beyond me. “Bonds form when someone dies–when their soul has actually left and moved onto the world of the dead. Bringing it back is what makes them shadow-kissed. Death’s mark is upon them.” His gaze suddenly snapped onto me. “Just as it is on you.”
I refused to avoid his eyes, despite the chill his words sent through me. “Strigoi are dead. Saving one would mean its soul was brought back from the world of the dead too.”
“No,” he argued. “Their souls do not move on. Their souls linger… neither in this world nor the next. It’s wrong and unnatural. It’s what makes them what they are. Killing or saving a Strigoi sends the soul back to a normal state. There is no bond.”
“Then there’s no danger,” Lissa said to me.
“Aside from a Strigoi killing you,” I pointed out.
“We’ll finish this conversation later.” I gave her a hard look. We held each other’s gazes a moment, and then she turned to Robert. There was still an obstinacy in the bond I didn’t like.
“How do you charm the stake?” she asked him. “I’m still learning.”
I again started to chastise her and then thought better of it. Maybe Robert was wrong. Maybe all it actually took to convert a Strigoi was a spirit-infused stake. He only thought a spirit user had to do it because he had done it. Allegedly. Besides, I’d much rather Lissa preoccupy herself with charming than fighting. If the charm part sounded too hard, she might have to give up altogether.
Robert glanced at me and then Eddie. “One of you must have a stake on you. I’ll show you.”
“You can’t take a stake out in public,” exclaimed Adrian, in what was a remarkably wise observation. “It might be weird for humans, but it’s still obvious that it’s a weapon.”
“He’s right,” Eddie said.
“We could go back to the room after dinner,” said Victor.
He had that perfectly pleasant and bland look on his face. I studied him, hoping my expression showed my distrust. Even with her zeal, I could sense the hesitation in Lissa too. She wasn’t keen on following any suggestion of Victor’s. We’d seen in the past how desperately far Victor would go in attempting to fulfill his plans. He’d convinced his own daughter to turn Strigoi and help him escape jail. For all we knew, he was planning the same for–
“That’s it,” I gasped, feeling my eyes go wide as I stared at him.
“That’s what?” Victor asked.
“That’s why you had Natalie turn. You thought… you knew about this. What Robert had done. You were going to use her Strigoi strength and then have him turn her back.”
Victor’s already pale face went paler, and he seemed to age before our eyes. His smug look disappeared, and he looked away. “Natalie is dead and long gone,” he said stiffly. “There’s no point in discussing her.”
Some of us made an attempt to eat after that, but my egg roll seemed tasteless now. Lissa and I were thinking the same thing. Among all of Victor’s sins, I’d always considered him convincing his own daughter to turn Strigoi to be the most awful. It was what had really sealed the deal for me about him being a monster. Suddenly, I was forced to reevaluate things–forced to reevaluate him. If he’d known he could bring her back, it made what he had done terrible–but not as terrible. He was still evil in my mind, no question. But if he had believed he could bring Natalie back, then that meant he believed in Robert’s power. There was still no way I was letting Lissa near a Strigoi, but this incredible tale had become slightly more credible. I couldn’t let it go without further investigation.
“We can go up to the room after this,” I said at last. “But not for long.” My words were to Victor and Robert. Robert seemed to have faded into his own world again, but Victor nodded.
I gave Eddie a quick glance and got a curt nod of a different sort from him. He understood the risk in taking the brothers to a private place. Eddie was telling me he would be extravigilant–not that he wasn’t already.
By the time we finished dinner, Eddie and I were both rigid and tense. He walked near Robert, and I stayed by Victor. We kept Lissa and Adrian between the brothers. Yet, even keeping close, it was hard as we cut through the crowded casino. People stopped in our path, walked around us, through us… it was chaos. Twice, our group got split by oblivious tourists. We weren’t too far from the elevators, but I was getting uneasy about the possibility of Victor or Robert running off through the mob of people
“We need to get out of this crowd,” I shouted over to Eddie.
He gave me another of his quick nods and took an abrupt left that caught me by surprise. I steered Victor in that same direction, and Lissa and Adrian sidestepped to keep up with us. I was puzzled until I saw that we were approaching a hall with an EMERGENCY EXIT sign on it. Away from the busy casino, the noise level dimmed.
“Figure there are probably stairs here,” Eddie explained.
“Crafty guardian.” I flashed him a smile.
Another turn showed us a janitorial closet on our right and ahead of us: a door with a symbol for stairs. The door appeared to lead both outside and to upper floors.
“Brilliant,” I said.
“You’re, like, on the tenth floor,” pointed out Adrian. It was the first time he’d spoken in a while.
“Nothing like a little exercise to–damn.” I came to an abrupt halt in front of the door. It had a small warning sign saying that an alarm would go off if the door was opened. “Figures.”
“Sorry,” said Eddie, like he was personally responsible.
“Not your fault,” I said, turning. “Back we go.” We’d have to take our chances in the crowd. Maybe the roundabout detour had tired Victor and Robert out enough to make escape unappealing. Neither of them was that young anymore, and Victor was still in bad shape.
Lissa was too tense to think much about being led around, but Adrian gave me a look that clearly said he thought this traipsing was a waste of his time. Of course, he thought this whole Robert thing was a waste of time. I was honestly surprised he was coming with us at all back to the room. I would have expected him to stay in the casino with his cigarettes and another drink.
Eddie, leading our group, took a few steps back toward the casino down the hallway. And then it hit me.
“Stop!” I screamed.
He responded instantly, coming to a halt in the narrow space. A bit of confusion followed. Victor stumbled into Eddie in surprise, and then Lissa stumbled into Victor. Instinct made Eddie reach for his stake, but mine was already out. I’d grabbed it as soon as the nausea had swept me.
There were Strigoi between us and the casino.