WHEN YOUR BOYFRIEND IS A dream-walker, you pick up a few lessons. One of the most important is that doing physical things in dreams feels exactly like doing them in the real world. Say, like kissing someone. Adrian and I had shared a number of dream- kisses intense enough to spark my body wanting to try a whole lot more. Although I'd never actually attacked someone in a dream, I was willing to bet a punch here would feel just as painful as a real one.
Without hesitation, I lunged toward Victor, uncertain as to whether I should sock him or choke him. Both seemed like good ideas. Turned out, I did neither. Before I could reach him, I slammed into an invisible wall--hard. It both blocked me from him and bounced me back at the impact. I stumbled, tried to regain my footing, but instead landed painfully on the ground. Yup--dreams felt just like real life.
I glared at Robert, feeling a mix of both anger and uneasiness. I tried to hide that last emotion. "You're a spirit user with telekinesis?'
We'd known that was possible, but it was a skill neither Lissa nor Adrian had mastered yet. I really didn't like the idea that Robert might have the power to throw objects around and create invisible barriers. It was a disadvantage we didn't need. Robert remained enigmatic. "I control the dream.'
Victor was looking down at me with that smug, calculating expression he excelled at. Realizing what an undignified position I was in, I leapt to my feet. I kept a hard stance, my body tense and ready as I wondered if Robert would keep the wall up continuously.
"Are you done with your tantrum?' asked Victor. "Behaving like a civilized person will make our talk so much more pleasant.'
"I have no interest in talking to you,' I snapped. "The only thing I'm going to do is hunt you down in the real world and drag you back to the authorities.'
"Charming,' said Victor. "We can share a cell.'
"Yes,' he continued. "I know all about what happened. Poor Tatiana. Such a tragedy. Such a loss.'
His mocking, melodramatic tone sparked an alarming idea. "You ... you didn't have anything to do with it, did you?' Victor's escape from prison had triggered a lot of fear and paranoia amongst the Moroi. They'd been convinced he was coming for them all. Knowing the truth about the escape, I'd dismissed such talk and figured he'd simply lie low. Now, remembering how he'd once wanted to start a revolution among the Moroi, I wondered if the queen's murderer actually was the most evil villain we knew.
Victor snorted. "Hardly.' He put his hands behind his back as he paced the room and pretended to study the art. I again wondered how far Robert's shield extended. "I have much more sophisticated methods to accomplish my goals. I wouldn't stoop to something like that--and neither would you.'
I was about to point out that messing with Lissa's mind was hardly sophisticated, but his last words caught my attention. "You don't think I did it?'
He glanced back from where he'd been studying a man with a top hat and cane. "Of course not. You'd never do anything that required that much foresight. And, if what I've heard about the crime scene is true, you'd never leave that much evidence behind.'
There was both an insult and a compliment there. "Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. I've been worrying about what you'd think.' This earned me a smile, and I crossed my arms over my chest. "How do you guys even know what's happening at Court? Do you have spies?'
"This sort of thing spreads throughout the Moroi world quickly,' said Victor. "I'm not that out of touch. I knew about her murder almost as soon as it happened. And about your most impressive escape.'
My attention mostly stayed on Victor, but I did cast a quick glance at Robert. He remained silent, and from the blank, distracted look in his eyes, I wondered if he was even aware of what was being said around him. Seeing him always sent a chill down my spine. He was a prominent example of spirit at its worst.
"Why do you care?' I demanded. "And why the hell are you bothering me in my dreams?'
Victor continued his pacing, pausing to run his fingertips along the harp's smooth, wooden surface. "Because I have a great interest in Moroi politics. And I'd like to know who's responsible for the murder and what their game is.'
I smirked. "Sounds like you're just jealous someone else is pulling the strings besides you for a change. No pun intended.'
His hand dropped from the harp, back to his side, and he fixed his sharp eyes on me, eyes the same pale green as Lissa's. "Your witty commentary isn't going to get you anywhere. You can either let us help you or not.'
"You are the last person I want help from. I don't need it.'
"Yes. Things seem to be going quite well for you, now that you're a hunted fugitive and on the run with a man that many still believe is Strigoi.' Victor gave a calculated pause. "Of course, I'm sure you don't mind that last part so much. You know, if I found you two, I could probably shoot you and be welcomed back as a hero.'
"Don't bet on it.' Rage burned through me, both at his insinuation and because he'd caused so much trouble for Dimitri and me in the past. With great force of will, I replied in a low, deadly voice: "I am going to find you. And you probably won't live to see the authorities.'
"We already established murder isn't in your skill set.' Victor sat down in one of the cushioned chairs, making himself comfortable. Robert continued standing, that out-of-it expression still on his face. "Now, the first thing we need to do is determine why someone would want to kill our late queen. Her abrasive personality is hardly motivation, though I'm sure it didn't hurt. People do things like this for power and advantage, to push their agendas through. From what I hear, Tatiana's most controversial action recently was that age law--yes, that's the one. The one making you scowl at me like that. It stands to reason that her murderer opposed that.'
I didn't want to comply with Victor at all. I didn't want a reasonable discussion with him. What I wanted was some indication of where he was in real life, and then, I wanted to take a chance on slamming into that invisible wall again. It'd be worth the risk if I could do some damage. So, I was a bit surprised when I found myself saying, "Or, whoever did it wanted to push something worse through--something harsher on dhampirs. They thought her decree was too soft.'
I admit, catching Victor Dashkov off guard was one of the greatest joys of my life. I had that satisfaction now, seeing his eyebrows rise in astonishment. It wasn't easy proposing something a master schemer like him hadn't already considered. "Interesting,' he said at last. "I may have underestimated you, Rose. That's a brilliant deduction on your part.'
"Well, um ... it wasn't exactly my deduction.'
Victor waited expectantly. Even Robert snapped out of his daze and focused on me. It was creepy.
"It was Tatiana's. I mean, not her deduction. She said it directly--well, that is, the note she left for me did.' Why was I rambling in front of these guys? At least I surprised Victor again.
"Tatiana Ivashkov left you a note with clandestine information? Whatever for?'
I bit my lip and turned my attention over to one of the paintings. It showed an elegant Moroi woman with those same jade green eyes most Dashkovs and Dragomirs shared. I suddenly wondered if perhaps Robert had formed this dream in some Dashkov mansion from their childhood. Movement in my periphery made me instantly turn back to the brothers.
Victor rose and took a few steps toward me, curiosity and cunning all over him. "There's more. What else did she tell you? She knew she was in danger. She knew this law was part of it ... but it wasn't the only thing, was it?'
I remained silent, but a crazy idea began forming in my mind. I was actually considering seeing if Victor could help me. Of course, in retrospect, that wasn't such a crazy notion, considering I'd already busted him out of prison to get his help.
"Tatiana said ...' Should I say it? Should I give up the secret even Lissa didn't know? If Victor knew there was another Dragomir, he might use that knowledge for one of his schemes. How? I wasn't sure but had long learned to expect the unexpected from him. Yet ... Victor knew a lot of Moroi secrets. I would have enjoyed watching him and Abe match wits. And I didn't doubt that a lot of Victor's inside knowledge involved the Dragomirs and Dashkovs. I swallowed. "Tatiana said that there was another Dragomir. That Lissa's dad had an affair and that if I could find whoever this is, it'll give Lissa her power back on the Council.'
When Victor and Robert exchanged shocked looks, I knew my plan had backfired. Victor wasn't going to give me insight. Instead, I'd been the one to just yield valuable information. Damn, damn, damn. He turned his attention back to me, his expression speculative. "So. Eric Dragomir wasn't the saint he so often played.'
I balled my fists. "Don't slam her dad.'
"Wouldn't dream of it. I liked Eric immensely. But yes ... if this is true, then Tatiana is right. Vasilisa technically has family backing, and her liberal views would certainly cause friction on a Council that never seems to change their ways.' He chuckled. "Yes, I can definitely see that upsetting many people--including a murderer who wants to oppress dhampirs. I imagine he or she wouldn't want this knowledge to get out.'
"Someone already tried to get rid of records linking Lissa's dad to a mistress.' I again spoke without thinking and hated myself for it. I didn't want to give the brothers any more info. I didn't want to play like we were all working together here.
"And let me guess,' said Victor. "That's what you're trying to do, isn't it? Find this Dragomir bastard.'
"It's just an expression,' he interrupted. "If I know you two--and I feel confident I do-- Vasilisa is desperately trying to clear your name back at Court while you and Belikov are off on a sexually charged adventure to find her brother or sister.'
"You don't know anything about us,' I growled. Sexually charged indeed.
He shrugged. "Your face says it all. And really, it's not a bad idea. Not a great one either, but not bad. Give the Dragomir family a quorum, and you'll have a voice speaking on your behalf on the Council. I don't suppose you have any leads?'
"We're working on it,' I replied evasively.
Victor looked at Robert. I knew the two didn't have any psychic communication, but as they exchanged glances, I had a feeling they were both thinking the same thing and confirming with each other. At last, Victor nodded and turned back to me.
"Very well then. We'll help you.' He made it sound like he was reluctantly agreeing to do me a big favor.
"We don't need your help!'
"Of course you do. You're out of your league, Rose. You're wandering into a nest of ugly, complex politics--something you have no experience with. There's no shame in acknowledging that, just as I'm not ashamed to admit that in an irrational, ill-planned fist fight, you would certainly prove superior.'
Another backhanded compliment. "We're doing just fine. We have an Alchemist helping us.' There. That would show him who was out of whose league. And, to my credit, he did look slightly impressed. Slightly.
"Better than I expected. Has your Alchemist come up with a location or any lead yet?'
"She's working on it,' I repeated.
He sighed in frustration. "We're going to need time then, aren't we? Both for Vasilisa to investigate Court and you to start tracking this child.'
"You're the one who acts like you know everything,' I pointed out. "I figured you'd know something about this.'
"To my chagrin, no.' Victor didn't really sound all that put out. "But as soon as we get a thread, I assure you, I'll be essential in unraveling it.' He walked over to his brother and patted Robert's arm comfortingly. Robert stared back adoringly. "We'll visit you again. Let us know when you have something useful, and then we'll meet up with you.' My eyes widened. "You'll do no such--' I hesitated. I'd let Victor escape in Las Vegas. Now he was offering to come to me. Maybe I could repair that mistake and make good on my earlier threat to him. Quickly, I tried to cover my lapse of speech. "How do I know I can trust you?'
"You can't,' he said bluntly. "You've got to take it on faith that the enemy of your enemy is your friend.'
"I've always hated that saying. You'll always be my enemy.'
I was a bit surprised when Robert suddenly came to life. He glared and stepped forward. "My brother is a good man, shadow-girl! If you hurt him ... if you hurt him, you'll pay. And next time you won't come back. The world of the dead won't give you up a second time.'
I knew better than to take the threats of a crazy man seriously, but his last words sent a chill through me. "Your brother is a psycho--'
"Enough, enough.' Victor again gave Robert a reassuring pat on the arm. Still scowling at me, the younger Dashkov brother backed off, but I was willing to bet that invisible wall was back in place. "This does us no good. We're wasting time--which is something we don't have enough of. We need more. The monarch elections will start any day now, and Tatiana's murderer could have a hand in those if there really was some agenda going on. We need to slow down the elections--not just to thwart the assassin, but also to give all of us time to accomplish our tasks.'
I was getting tired of all this. "Yeah? And how do you propose we do that?'
Victor smiled. "By running Vasilisa as a candidate for queen.'
Seeing as this was Victor Dashkov we were dealing with, I really shouldn't have been surprised by anything he said. It was a testament to his level of craziness that he continually caught me unprepared.
"That,' I declared, "is impossible.'
"Not really,' he replied.
I threw my hands up in exasperation. "Haven't you been paying attention to what we've been talking about? The whole point is to get Lissa full family rights with the Moroi. She can't even vote! How could she run for queen?'
"Actually, the law says she can. According to the way the nomination policy is written, one person from each royal line may run for the monarch position. That's all it says. One person from each line may run. There is no mention of how many people need to be in her family, as there is for her to vote on the Council. She simply needs three nominations--and the law doesn't specify which family they come from.'
Victor spoke in such a precise, crisp way that he might as well have been reciting from a legal book. I wondered if he had all the laws memorized. I supposed if you were going to make a career of breaking laws, you might as well know them.
"Whoever wrote that law probably assumed the candidates would have family members. They just didn't bother spelling it out. That's what people will say if Lissa runs. They'll fight it.'
"They can fight it all they want. Those who are denying her a Council spot base it on one line in the law books that mentions another family member. If that's their argument, that every detail must count, then they'll have to do the same for the election laws-- which, as I have said, do not mention family backing. That's the beauty of this loophole. Her opponents can't have it both ways.' A smile twisted at Victor's lips, supremely confident. "I assure you, there is absolutely nothing in the wording that prevents her from doing this.'
"How about her age?' I pointed out. "The princes and princesses who run are always old.' The title of prince or princess went to a family's oldest member, and traditionally, that was the person who ran for king or queen. The family could decide to nominate someone else more fitting, but even then--to my knowledge--it was always someone older and experienced.
"The only age restriction is full adulthood,' said Victor. "She's eighteen. She qualifies. The other families have much larger pools to draw from, so naturally, they'd select someone who seemed more experienced. In the Dragomir case? Well, that's not an option, now is it? Besides, young monarchs aren't without precedence. There was a very famous queen--Alexandra--who wasn't much older than Vasilisa. Very well loved, very extraordinary. Her statue is by the Court's church.'
I shifted uncomfortably. "Actually ... it's, um, not there anymore. It kind of blew up.'
Victor just stared. He'd apparently heard about my escape but not all of the details.
"It's not important,' I said hastily, feeling guilty that I'd been indirectly responsible for blowing up a renowned queen. "This whole idea about using Lissa is ridiculous.'
"You won't be the only one who thinks so,' Victor said. "They'll argue. They'll fight. In the end, the law will prevail. They'll have to let her run. She'll go through the tests and probably pass. Then, when voting comes, the laws that govern those procedures reference a family member assisting with the vote.'
My head was spinning by now. I felt mentally exhausted listening to all these legal loopholes and technicalities.
"Just come right out and put it in simple language,' I ordered.
"When voting comes, she won't be eligible. She has no family to fulfill the role required at the actual election. In other words, the law says she can run and take the tests. Yet, people can't actually vote for her because she has no family.'
"That's ... idiotic.'
"Agreed.' He paused. I don't think either of us ever expected to concur on something.
"Lissa would hate this. She would never, ever want to be queen.'
"Are you not following this?' exclaimed Victor. "She won't be queen. She can't. It's a badly written law for a situation no one foresaw. It's a mess. And it will bog down the elections so badly that we'll have extra time to find Vasilisa's sibling and find out who really killed Tatiana.'
"Hey! I told you: There's no "we' here. I'm not going to--'
Victor and Robert exchanged looks.
"Get Vasilisa nominated,' said Victor abruptly. "We'll be in touch soon on where to meet you for the Dragomir search.' IT
I woke up.
My immediate reaction was to swear, but then, remembering where I was, I kept my expletives inside my own head. I could make out Dimitri's silhouette in the corner, alert and watchful, and didn't want him to know I was awake. Closing my eyes, I shifted into a more comfortable position, hoping for true sleep that would block out the Dashkov brothers and their ridiculous schemes. Lissa running for queen? It was crazy. And yet ... it really wasn't much crazier than most of the things I did.
Putting that aside, I let my body relax and felt the tug of true sleep start to take me down. Emphasis on start. Because suddenly, I felt another spirit dream materializing around me.
Apparently, this was going to be a busy night.
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