I DECIDED IT'D BE BEST not to mention my conversation with Adrian's mother to him. I didn't need psychic powers to sense his mixed mood as we walked back to guest housing. His father had annoyed him, but his mother's seeming acceptance had cheered him up. I didn't want to damage that by letting Adrian know she was only okay with our dating because she figured it was a temporary, fun thing.
"So you're going off with Lissa?" he asked when we reached my room.
"Yup, sorry. You know--girl stuff." And by girl stuff, I meant breaking and entering.
Adrian seemed a little disappointed, but I knew he didn't begrudge our friendship. He gave me a small smile and wrapped his arms around my waist, leaning down to kiss me. Our lips met, and that warmth that always surprised me spread through me. After a few sweet moments, we broke apart, but the look in his eyes said it wasn't easy for him.
"See you later," I said. He gave me one more quick kiss and then headed off to his own room.
I immediately sought out Lissa, who was hanging out in her own room. She was staring intently at a silver spoon, and through our bond, I could sense her intent. She was attempting to infuse it with spirit's compulsion, so that whoever held it would cheer up. I wondered if she intended it for herself or was just randomly experimenting. I didn't probe her mind to find out.
"A spoon?" I asked with amusement.
She shrugged and set it down. "Hey, it's not easy to keep getting a hold of silver. I have to take what I can get."
"Well, it'd make for happy dinner parties."
She smiled and put her feet upon the ebony coffee table that sat in the middle of her little suite's living room. Each time I saw it, I couldn't help but be reminded of the glossy black furniture that had been in my own prison suite back in Russia. I had fought Dimitri with a stake made from a chair's leg of similar style.
"Speaking of which... how was your dinner party?"
"Not as bad as I thought," I admitted. "I never realized what an asshole Adrian's dad was, though. His mom was actually pretty cool. She didn't have a problem with us dating."
"Yeah, I've met her. She is nice... though I never thought she was nice enough to be okay with scandalous dating. I don't suppose Her Royal Majesty showed up?" Lissa was joking, so my response floored her.
"She did, and... it wasn't awful."
"What? Did you say 'wasn't'?"
"I know, I know. It was so crazy. It was this really quick visit to see Adrian, and she acted like me being there was no big deal." I didn't bother delving into the politics of Tatiana's views on Moroi training for battle. "Of course, who knows what would have happened if she stayed? Maybe she would have turned into her old self. I would have needed a whole set of magic silverware then--to stop me from pulling a knife on her."
Lissa groaned. "Rose, you cannot make those kinds of jokes."
I grinned. "I say the things you're too afraid to."
This made her smile in return. "It's been a long time since I've heard that," she said softly. My trip to Russia had fractured our friendship--which had ended up showing me just how much it really meant to me.
We spent the rest of the time hanging out, talking about Adrian and other gossip. I was relieved to see she'd gotten over her earlier mood about Christian, but as the day progressed, her anxiety grew about our pending mission with Mia.
"It's going to be okay," I told her when the time came. We were heading back across the Court grounds, dressed in comfortable jeans and T-shirts. It was nice to be free of school curfew, but again, being out in the bright sunlight didn't make me feel very covert. "This'll be easy."
Lissa cut me a look but said nothing. The guardians were the security force in our world, and this was their headquarters. Breaking in was going to be anything but easy.
Mia looked determined when we reached her, though, and I felt encouraged by her attitude--and that she was wearing all black. True, it wouldn't do much in sunlight, but it made this all feel more legitimate. I was dying to know what had happened with Christian, and Lissa was too. Again, it was one of those topics best left unexplained.
Mia did, however, explain her plan to us, and I honestly felt it had about a 65 percent chance of working. Lissa was uneasy about her role since it involved compulsion, but she was a trooper and agreed to do it. We went over everything in detail a few more times and then set out to the building that housed guardian operations. I'd been there once before, when Dimitri had taken me to see Victor in the holding cells adjacent to the guardians' HQ. I'd never spent much time in the main offices before, and as Mia had predicted, they were lightly staffed this time of the day.
When we walked in, we were immediately met by a reception area like you'd find in any other administrative office. A stern guardian sat at a desk with a computer, filing cabinets and tables all around him. He probably didn't have much to do at this time of night, but he was still clearly on high alert. Beyond him was a door, and it held my attention. Mia had explained that it was a gateway to all the guardian secrets, to their records and main offices--and surveillance areas that monitored high-risk regions of the Court.
Stern or not, the guy had a small smile for Mia. "Isn't it a little late for you? You aren't here for lessons, are you?"
She grinned back. He must have been one of the guardians she'd grown friendly with during her time at Court. "Nah, just up with some friends and wanted to show them around."
He arched an eyebrow as he took in me and Lissa. He gave a slight nod of acknowledgment. "Princess Dragomir. Guardian Hathaway." Apparently our reputations preceded us. It was the first time I'd been addressed by my new title. It startled me--and made me feel slightly guilty about betraying the group I'd just become a member of.
"This is Don," explained Mia. "Don, the princess has a favor to ask." She looked meaningfully at Lissa.
Lissa took a deep breath, and I felt the burnings of compulsion magic through our bond as she focused her gaze upon him. "Don," she said firmly, "give us the keys and codes to the records archives downstairs. And then make sure the cameras in those areas are turned off."
He frowned. "Why would I--" But as her eyes continued to hold his, I could see the compulsion seize him. The lines on his face smoothed into compliance, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Plenty of people were strong enough to resist compulsion--particularly that of ordinary Moroi. Lissa's was much stronger because of spirit, though you never knew if someone might break through.
"Of course," he said, standing up. He opened a desk drawer and handed Mia a set of keys that she promptly gave to me. "The code is 4312578."
I committed it to memory, and he beckoned us through the all-powerful door. Beyond it, corridors spread in all directions. He pointed to one on our right. "Down there. Take a left at the end, go downstairs two flights, and it's the door on the right."
Mia glanced at me to make sure I understood. I nodded, and she turned back to him. "Now make sure the surveillance is off."
"Take us there," said Lissa firmly.
Don couldn't resist her command, and she and Mia followed him, leaving me on my own. This part of the plan was all on me, and I hurried down the hall. The facility might be lightly staffed, but I could still run into someone--and would have no compulsion to help me talk my way out of trouble.
Don's directions were spot-on, but I still wasn't prepared when I punched in the code and entered the vault. Rows and rows of filing cabinets stretched down a huge hall. I couldn't see the end of it. Drawers were stacked five high, and the faint fluorescent lighting and eerie silence gave it all a spooky, almost haunted feel. All the guardians' information from before the digital age. God only knew how far back these records went. To medieval days in Europe? I suddenly felt daunted and wondered if I could pull this off.
I walked to the first cabinet on my left, relieved to see it was labeled. AA1 it read. Below it was AA2 and so forth. Oh dear. It was going to take me several cabinets to even get out of the As. I was grateful the organization was as simple as alphabetical order, but I now understood why these cabinets went on forever. I had to go back more than three quarters of the way down the room to get to the Ts. And it wasn't until I got to the TA27 drawer that I found the file for Tarasov Prison.
I gasped. The file was thick, filled with all sorts of documents. There were pages on the prison's history and its migration patterns, as well as floor plans for each of its locations. I could hardly believe it. So much information... but what did I need? What would be useful? The answer came quickly: all of it. I shut the drawer and tucked the folder under my arm. Okay. Time to get out of here.
I turned around and began heading for the exit at a light jog. Now that I had what I needed, the urgency of escape was pressing on me. I was almost there when I heard a soft click, and the door opened. I froze as a dhampir I didn't recognize stepped through. He froze as well, clearly astonished, and I took it as a small blessing that he didn't immediately pin me against the wall and start interrogating me.
"You're Rose Hathaway," he said. Good lord. Was there anyone who didn't know who I was?
I tensed, unsure what to expect now, but spoke as though us meeting here made perfect sense. "So it would seem. Who are you?"
"Mikhail Tanner," he said, still puzzled. "What are you doing here?"
"Running an errand," I said breezily. I indicated the file. "The guardian on duty down here needed something."
"You're lying," he said. "I'm the guardian on archive duty. If someone needed something, they would have sent me."
Oh, shit. Talk about best-laid plans failing. Yet as I stood there, a strange thought came to me. His appearance wasn't familiar at all: curly brown hair, average height, late twenties. Pretty good-looking, really. But his name... something about his name...
"Ms. Karp," I gasped. "You're the one... you were involved with Ms. Karp."
He stiffened, blue eyes narrowing warily. "What do you know about that?"
I swallowed. What I'd done--or tried to do for Dimitri--wasn't without precedent. "You loved her. You went out to kill her after she... after she turned."
Ms. Karp had been a teacher of ours a few years ago. She'd been a spirit user, and as the effects of it began to drive her insane, she'd done the only thing she could to save her mind: become a Strigoi. Mikhail, her lover, had done the only thing he'd known to end that evil state: search for and kill her. It occurred to me that I was standing face-to-face with the hero of a love story nearly as dramatic as my own.
"But you never found her," I said softly. "Did you?"
He took a long time in answering, his eyes weighing me heavily. I wondered what he was thinking about. Her? His own pain? Or was he analyzing me?
"No," he said finally. "I had to stop. The guardians needed me more."
He spoke in that calm, controlled way that guardians excelled at, but in his eyes, I saw grief--a grief I more than understood. I hesitated before taking a shot at the only chance I had to not get busted and end up in a jail cell.
"I know... I know you have every reason to drag me out of here and turn me in. You should. It's what you're supposed to do--what I'd do too. But the thing is, this..." I again nodded at the folder. "Well, I'm kind of trying to do what you did. I'm trying to save someone."
He remained quiet. He could probably guess who I meant and assumed "save" meant "kill." If he knew who I was, he'd know who my mentor had been. Few knew about my romantic relationship with Dimitri, but me caring about him would have been a foregone conclusion.
"It's futile, you know," Mikhail said at last. This time, his voice cracked a little. "I tried... I tried so hard to find her. But when they disappear... when they don't want to be found..." He shook his head. "There's nothing we can do. I understand why you want to do it. Believe me, I do. But it's impossible. You'll never find him if he doesn't want you to."
I wondered how much I could tell Mikhail--how much I should. It occurred to me then that if there was anyone else in this world who understood what I was going through, it would be this man. Besides, I didn't have a lot of options here.
"The thing is, I think I can find him," I said slowly. "He's looking for me."
"What?" Mikhail's eyebrows rose. "How do you know?"
"Because he, um, sends me letters about it."
That fierce warrior look immediately returned. "If you know this, if you can find him... you should get backup to kill him."
I flinched at those last words and again feared what I had to say next. "Would you believe me if I said there was a way to save him?"
"You mean by destroying him."
I shook my head. "No... I mean really save. A way to restore him to his original state."
"No," Mikhail said swiftly. "That's impossible."
"It might not be. I know someone who did it--who turned a Strigoi back." Okay, that was a small lie. I didn't actually know the person, but I wasn't going to get into the string of knowing-someone-who-knew-someone...
"That's impossible," Mikhail repeated. "Strigoi are dead. Undead. Same difference."
"What if there was a chance?" I said. "What if it could be done? What if Ms. Karp--if Sonya--could become Moroi again? What if you could be together again?" It'd also mean she'd be crazy again, but that was a technicality for later.
It felt like an eternity before he answered, and my anxiety grew. Lissa couldn't compel forever, and I'd told Mia I would be fast. This plan would fall apart if I didn't get out soon. Yet, watching him deliberate, I could see his mask falter. After all this time, he still loved his Sonya.
"If what you're saying is true--and I don't believe it--then I'm coming with you."
Whoa, no. Not in the plan. "You can't," I said swiftly. "I've already got people in place." Another small lie. "Adding more might ruin things. I'm not doing it alone," I said, cutting off what I figured would be his next argument. "If you really want to help me--really want to take a chance on bringing her back--you need to let me go."
"There's no way it can be true," he repeated. But there was doubt in his voice, and I played on it.
"Can you take that chance?"
More silence. I was starting to sweat now. Mikhail closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then he stepped aside and gestured to the door. "Go."
I nearly sagged in relief and immediately grabbed the door handle. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
"I could get in a lot of trouble for this," he said wearily. "And I still don't believe it's possible."
"But you hope it is." I didn't need a response from him to know I was right. I opened the door, but before going through, I paused and glanced at him. This time, he no longer hid the grief and pain in his face. "If you mean it... if you want to help... there might be a way you can."
Another piece of the puzzle had unraveled itself for me, another way we might pull this off. I explained what I needed from him and was surprised at how quickly he agreed. He really was like me, I realized. We both knew the idea of bringing back Strigoi was impossible... and yet we so, so wanted to believe it could be done
I slipped back upstairs alone after that. Don wasn't at his desk, and I wondered what Mia had done with him. I didn't wait to find out and instead headed outside, off to a small courtyard that we'd established as our rendezvous point. Mia and Lissa were both waiting there, pacing. No longer distracted with anxiety, I opened myself to the bond and felt Lissa's agitation.
"Thank God," she said when she saw me. "We thought you'd been caught."
"Well... it's a long story." One I didn't bother with. "I got what I needed. And... I actually got a whole lot more. I think we can do this."
Mia gave me a look that was both wry and wistful. "I sure do wish I knew what you guys were doing."
I shook my head as the three of us walked away. "No," I replied. "I'm not sure that you do."
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