Chapter Nineteen

 

"ARE YOU CRAZY?" I ASKED.

He gave me the same wordless look he always did when I asked that question.

I sighed and tried again. "A party? That's pushing it, even for you. People just died! Guardians. Priscilla Voda." Not to mention, people had just come back from the dead. Probably best to leave that part out. "This isn't the time to get trashed and play beer pong."

I expected Adrian to say that it was always a good time for beer pong, but he remained serious. "Actually, it's because people died that there's going to be a party. It's not a kegger type. Maybe party's not even the right word. It's a..." He frowned, grasping at words. "A special event. An elite one."

"All royal parties are elite ones," I pointed out.

"Yeah, but not every royal is invited to this. It's the... well, elite of the elite."

That really wasn't helping. "Adrian--"

"No, listen." He made that familiar gesture of his that indicated frustration, running his hand through his hair. "It's not so much a party as a ceremony. An old, old tradition from... I don't know. Romania, I think. They call it the Death Watch. But it's a way to honor the dead, a secret that's been passed on through the oldest bloodlines."

Flashbacks of a destructive secret society at St. Vladimir's came back to me. "This isn't some Mana thing, is it?"

"No, I swear. Please, Rose. I'm not all that into it either, but my mom's making me go, and I'd really like it if you were there with me."

Elite and bloodline were warning words to me. "Will there be other dhampirs there?"

"No." He then added quickly, "But I made arrangements for some people you'll approve of to be there. It'll make it better for both of us."

"Lissa?" I guessed. If ever there was an esteemed bloodline, hers was it.

"Yeah. I just ran into her at the medical center. Her reaction was about like yours."

That made me smile. It also piqued my interest. I wanted to talk to her more about what had happened during her visit to Dimitri and knew she'd been avoiding me because of it. If going to some silly royal ritual or whatever it was could get me to her, then so much the better.

"Who else?"

"People you'll like."

"Fine. Be mysterious. I'll go to your cult meeting."

That earned me a return smile. "Hardly a cult, little dhampir. It really is a way to pay last respects to the people killed in that fight." He reached out and ran a hand along my cheek. "And I'm glad... God, I'm so glad you weren't one of them. You don't know...." His voice caught, the flippant smile trembling for a moment before stabilizing again. "You don't know how worried I was. Every minute you were gone, every minute I didn't know what had happened to you... it was agony. And even after I heard you were okay, I kept asking everyone at the medical center what they knew. Had they seen you fight, did you get hurt..."

I felt a lump in my throat. I hadn't been able to see Adrian when I'd returned, but I should have sent a message, at least. I squeezed his hand and tried to make a joke of something that really wasn't funny. "What'd they say? That I was a badass?"

"Yeah, actually. They couldn't stop talking about how amazing you were in battle. Word got back to Aunt Tatiana too about what you did, and even she was impressed."

Whoa. That was a surprise. I started to ask more, but his next words brought me up short.

"I also heard you were yelling at anyone you could to find out about Belikov. And that you were beating down the guardians' doors this morning."

I looked away. "Oh. Yeah. I... Look, I'm sorry, but I had to--"

"Hey, hey." His voice was heavy and earnest. "Don't apologize. I understand."

I looked up at him. "You do?"

"Look, it's not like I didn't expect this if he came back."

I glanced back at him hesitantly, studying his serious expression. "I know. I remember what you said before...."

He nodded, then gave me another rueful smile. "Of course, I didn't actually expect any of this to work. Lissa tried to explain the magic she used... but good God. I don't think I could ever do anything like she did."

"Do you believe?" I asked. "Do you believe he's no longer Strigoi?"

"Yeah. Lissa said he's not, and I believe her. And I saw him from a distance out in the sun. But I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to try to see him."

"That's your jealousy talking." I had absolutely no right to sound accusing, considering the way my heart was all tangled up over Dimitri.

"Of course it's jealousy," said Adrian nonchalantly. "What do you expect? The former love of your life comes back--from the dead, no less. That's not something I'm really excited about. But I don't blame you for feeling confused."

"I told you before--"

"I know, I know." Adrian didn't sound particularly upset. In fact, there was a surprisingly patient tone in his voice. "I know you said him coming back wouldn't affect things between us. But saying one thing before it happens and then actually having that thing happen are two different things."

"What are you getting at?" I asked, kind of confused.

"I want you, Rose." He squeezed my hand more tightly. "I've always wanted you. I want to be with you. I'd like to be like other guys and say I want to take care of you too, but... well. When it comes down to it, you'd probably be the one taking care of me."

I laughed in spite of myself. "Some days I think you're in more danger from yourself than anyone else. You smell like cigarettes, you know."

"Hey, I have never, ever said I was perfect. And you're wrong. You're probably the most dangerous thing in my life."

"Adrian--"

"Wait." With his other hand, he pressed his fingers over my lips. "Just listen. It'd be stupid for me to think that your old boyfriend coming back isn't going to have any effect on you. So do I like you wanting to see him? No, of course not. That's instinct. But there's more, you know. I do believe that he's a dhampir again. Absolutely. But..."

"But what?" Adrian's words had me more curious than ever now.

"But just because he isn't a Strigoi doesn't mean it's entirely gone from him. Hold on." Adrian could see my mouth opening in outrage. "I'm not saying he's evil or means to be evil or anything like that. But what he went through... It's huge. Epic. We really don't know much about the changing process. What effect did that kind of life have on him? Are there violent parts of him that might suddenly lash out? That's what I'm worried about Rose. I know you. I know you aren't going to be able to help yourself. You'll have to see him and talk to him. But is it safe? That's what no one knows. We don't know anything about this. We don't know if he's dangerous."

Christian had said the same thing to Lissa. I examined Adrian intently. It sounded like a convenient excuse to keep Dimitri and me apart. Yet, I saw truth in those deep green eyes. He meant it. He was nervous about what Dimitri might do. Adrian had also been honest about being jealous, which I had to admire. He hadn't ordered me not to see Dimitri or tried to dictate my behavior. I liked that too. I extended my hand and laced my fingers with Adrian's.

"He's not dangerous. He's... sad. Sad for what he's done. The guilt's killing him."

"I can imagine. I probably wouldn't forgive myself either if I suddenly realized I'd been brutally killing people for the last four months." Adrian pulled me to him and kissed the top of my head. "And for everyone's sake--yes, even his--I really hope he is exactly the way he was. Just be careful, okay?"

"I will," I said, kissing his cheek. "Inasmuch as I ever am."

He grinned and released me. "That's the best I can hope for. For now, I've got to head back to my parents' for a little bit. I'll come back for you at four, okay?"

"Okay. Is there anything I should wear to this secret party?"

"Nice dress clothes are fine."

Something occurred to me. "If this is so elite and prestigious, how are you going to get a lowly dhampir like me in?"

"With this." Adrian reached for a bag he'd set down upon entering. He handed it to me.

Curiously, I opened the bag and gaped at what I saw. It was a mask, one that just covered the top half of the face around the eyes. It was intricately worked with gold and green leaves and bejeweled flowers.

"A mask?" I exclaimed. "We're wearing masks to this thing? What is this, Halloween?"

He winked. "See you at four."

We didn't actually put on the masks until we arrived at the Death Watch. As part of the secret nature of it all, Adrian said we didn't want to call any attention to ourselves while going to it. So we walked across the Court's grounds dressed up--I wore the same dress I'd worn to dinner at his parents'--but not getting much more notice than the two of us usually did when we were together. Besides, it was late, and a lot of the Court was getting ready for bed.

Our destination surprised me. It was one of the buildings that non-royal Court workers lived in, one that was very near Mia's. Well, I supposed the last place you'd look for a royal party would be at the home of a commoner. Except we didn't go to any of the apartments inside. Once we stepped into the building's lobby, Adrian indicated we should put our masks on. He then took me over to what appeared to be a janitor's closet.

It wasn't. Instead, the door opened to a staircase leading down into darkness. I couldn't see the bottom, which put me on high alert. I instinctively wanted to know the details of every situation I entered. Adrian seemed calm and confident as he headed down, so I took it on faith he wasn't leading me to some sacrificial altar. I hated to admit it, but curiosity over this Death Watch thing was temporarily taking my mind off Dimitri.

Adrian and I eventually reached another door, and this one had two guards. Both men were Moroi, both masked like Adrian and me. Their postures were stiff and defensive. They said nothing but simply looked at us expectantly. Adrian said a few words that sounded like Romanian, and a moment later, one of the men unlocked the door and gestured us inside.

"Secret password?" I murmured to Adrian as we swept past.

"Passwords, actually. One for you and one for me. Every guest has a unique one."

We stepped into a narrow tunnel lit only by torches embedded in the walls. Their dancing flames cast fanciful shadows as we passed by. From far ahead, the low murmur of conversation reached us. It sounded surprisingly normal, like any conversation you'd hear at a party. Based on Adrian's description, I'd half-expected to hear chanting or drums.

I shook my head. "I knew it. They keep a medieval dungeon under the Court. I'm surprised there aren't chains on the walls."

"Scared?" Adrian teased, clasping hold of my hand.

"Of this? Hardly. I mean, on the Rose Hathaway Scale of Scariness, this is barely a--"

We emerged out of the hall before I could finish. An expansive room with vaulted ceilings spread out before us, something that boggled my spatially challenged brain as I tried to recall just how far underground we'd gone. Wrought-iron chandeliers holding lit candles hung from the ceiling, casting the same ghostly light the torches had. The walls were made of stone, but it was a very artful, pretty stone: gray with reddish flecks, polished into smooth round pieces. Someone had wanted to keep the Old World dungeon feel but still have the place look stylish. It was a typical line of royal thinking.

Fifty or so people were milling around the room, some huddled in groups. Like Adrian and me, they wore formal clothing and half masks. All the masks were different. Some had a floral theme like mine, while others were decorated with animals. Some simply had swirls or geometric designs. Even though the masks only covered half the guests' faces, the sketchy lighting went a long way to obscure any other identifying features. I scrutinized them carefully, hoping I might pick out details that would give someone away.

Adrian led me out of the entryway and over toward a corner. As my view of the area expanded, I could see a large fire pit in the middle of the room, embedded in the stone floor. No fire burned in it, but everyone kept well away. For a moment, I had a disorienting flash of deja vu, thinking back to my time in Siberia. I'd been to a type of memorial ceremony there too--though hardly one with masks or passwords--and everyone had sat around a bonfire outdoors. It had been in Dimitri's honor, as all those who had loved him sat and told stories about him.

I tried to get a better look at the fire, but Adrian was intent on keeping us behind the bulk of the crowd. "Don't bring attention to yourself," he warned.

"I was just looking."

"Yeah, but anyone who looks too close is going to realize you're the shortest person here. It'd be pretty obvious you're a dhampir. This is elite old blood, remember?"

I frowned at him as much as I could through the mask. "But I thought you said you'd made arrangements for me to be here?" I groaned when he didn't answer. "Does 'making arrangements' mean just sneaking me in? If so, those guys were kind of crap security."

Adrian scoffed. "Hey, we had the right passwords. That's all it takes. I stole--er, borrowed them off my mom's list."

"Your mom's one of the people who helped organize this?"

"Yup. Her branch of the Tarus family's been deep inside this group for centuries. They apparently had a really big ceremony here after the school attack."

I turned all of this over in my mind, trying to decide how I felt. I hated when people were obsessed with status and appearances, yet it was hard to fault them wanting to honor those who had been killed--particularly when a majority of them had been dhampirs. The Strigoi attack on St. Vladimir's was a memory that would forever haunt me. Before I could ponder much further, a familiar sensation swept me.

"Lissa's here," I said, looking around. I could feel her nearby but didn't spot her immediately in the sea of masks and shadows. "There."

She stood apart from some of the others, wearing a rosehued dress and a white and gold mask with swans on it. Through our link, I felt her searching for anyone she knew. I impulsively started to go to her, but Adrian held me back, telling me to wait while he retrieved her.

"What is all this?" she asked when she reached me.

"I figured you'd know," I told her. "It's all top secret royal stuff."

"Too top secret for me," she said. "I got my invite from the queen. She told me it was part of my heritage and to keep it to myself, and then Adrian came and said I had to come for your sake."

"Tatiana invited you directly?" I exclaimed. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. Lissa would have hardly needed sneaking in like I did. I figured someone would have made sure she got an invitation, but I'd assumed it had all been Adrian's doing. I glanced around uneasily. "Is Tatiana here?"

"Likely," said Adrian, voice annoyingly casual. As usual, his aunt's presence didn't have the same impact on him that it did the rest of us. "Oh, hey. There's Christian. With the fire mask."

I didn't know how Adrian spotted Christian, aside from the not-so-subtle mask metaphor. With his height and dark hair, Christian easily blended in with the other Moroi around him and had even been chatting with a girl standing nearby, which seemed out of character. "No way did he get a legit invite," I said. If any Ozeras had been deemed special enough to come to this, Christian wouldn't have been one of them.

"He didn't," agreed Adrian, making a small gesture for Christian to join us. "I gave him one of the passwords I stole from Mom."

I gave Adrian a startled look. "How many did you steal?"

"Enough to--"

"Let us come to attention."

A man's booming voice rang out through the room, halting both Adrian's words and Christian's steps. With a grimace, Christian returned to where he'd been standing, cut off from us now on the other side of the room. It looked like I wouldn't have the chance to ask Lissa about Dimitri after all.

Without any direction, the others in the room began forming a circle around the fire pit. The room wasn't big enough for us to make a single-layered circle, so I was still able to stay behind other Moroi as I watched the spectacle. Lissa stood by me, but her attention was fixated across from us, on Christian. She was disappointed that he hadn't been able to join us.

"Tonight we come to honor the spirits of those who died fighting the great evil that has plagued us for so long." This was the same man who had called us to attention. The black mask he wore glittered with silver swirls. He wasn't anyone special that I recognized. It was probably safe to assume that he was someone from an important bloodline who happened to have a good voice for bringing people together. Adrian confirmed it.

"That's Anthony Badica. They always recruit him as an emcee."

Anthony seemed more like a religious leader than an emcee right now, but I didn't want to answer back and attract anyone's notice.

"Tonight we honor them," continued Anthony.

I flinched as almost everyone around us repeated those words. Lissa and I exchanged startled looks. Apparently, there was a script we hadn't been told about.

"Their lives were taken from us too soon," continued Anthony.

"Tonight we honor them."

Okay, this script might not be so hard to follow after all. Anthony kept talking about how terrible the tragedy was, and we repeated the same response. The whole idea of this Death Watch still weirded me out, but Lissa's sadness permeated the bond and began to affect me too. Priscilla had always been good to her--and polite to me. Grant might have only been Lissa's guardian a short time, but he had protected her and helped her. In fact, if not for Grant's work with Lissa, Dimitri might still be a Strigoi. So, slowly, the gravity of it all began to hit me, and even if I thought there were better ways to mourn, I appreciated the acknowledgment the dead were getting.

After a few more refrains, Anthony gestured someone forward. A woman in a glittering emerald mask came forward with a torch. Adrian shifted beside me. "My darling mother," he murmured.

Sure enough. Now that he'd pointed it out, I could clearly make out Daniella's features. She tossed her torch into the fire pit, and it lit up like the Fourth of July. Someone must have doused that wood with either gasoline or Russian vodka. Maybe both. No wonder the other guests had kept their distance. Daniella melted into the crowd, and another woman came forward holding a tray with golden goblets. Walking around the circle, she handed a cup to each person. When she ran out, another woman appeared with a tray.

As the goblets were distributed, Anthony explained, "Now we will toast and drink to the dead, so that their spirits will move on and find peace."

I shifted uncomfortably. People talked about restless spirits and the dead finding peace without really knowing what that meant. Being shadow-kissed came with the ability to see the restless dead, and it had taken me a long time to gain control so that I didn't see them. They were always around me; I had to work to keep them blocked out. I wondered what I'd see now if I let down my walls. Would the ghosts of those killed the night of Dimitri's attack be hovering around us?

Adrian sniffed his cup as soon as he got it and scowled. For a moment, I felt panic until I sniffed mine too. "Wine. Thank God," I whispered to him. "From your face, I thought it was blood." I recalled how much he hated blood that wasn't straight from the source.

"Nah," he murmured back. "Just a bad vintage."

When everyone had their wine, Anthony raised his cup over his head with both hands. With the fire behind him, it gave him an almost sinister, otherworldly look. "We drink to Priscilla Voda," he said.

"We drink to Priscilla Voda," everyone repeated.

He brought the goblet down and took a sip. So did everyone else--well, except for Adrian. He gulped half his down, bad vintage or not. Anthony raised his cup over his head again.

"We drink to James Wilket."

As I repeated the words, I realized James Wilket was one of Priscilla's guardians. This crazy group of royals really was showing respect to dhampirs. We went through the other guardians one by one, but I kept my sips small, wanting to keep a level head tonight. I was pretty sure that by the end of the name list, Adrian was faking his sips because he'd run out.

When Anthony finished naming all who had died, he held his cup up again and approached the blazing fire, which had begun to make the small room uncomfortably hot. The back of my dress was growing damp with sweat.

"To all those lost by the great evil, we honor your spirits and hope they will move on in peace to the next world." He then dumped the remainder of his wine into the flames.

All this talk of spirits lingering in the world certainly didn't go along with the usual Christian afterlife beliefs that dominated Moroi religion. It made me wonder just how old this ceremony really was. Once more, I had an urge to drop my barriers and see if any of this had really drawn ghosts to us, but I feared what I'd find. Besides, I promptly got distracted when everyone else in the circle began dumping their wine into the fire as well. One by one, going clockwise, each person approached. All was silent as this happened, save for the crackling in the fire pit and shifting of logs. Everyone watched respectfully.

When my turn came, I fought hard not to tremble. I hadn't forgotten that Adrian had sneaked me in here. Lowly Moroi weren't allowed, let alone dhampirs. What would they do? Declare the space violated? Mob me? Cast me into the fire?

My fears proved unfounded. No one said or did anything unusual as I poured out my wine, and a moment later, Adrian stepped forward for his turn. I melted back beside Lissa. When the entire circle had gone up, we were led into a moment of silence for the departed. Having witnessed Lissa's kidnapping and subsequent rescue, I had a lot of dead to ponder. No amount of silence would ever do them justice.

Another unspoken signal seemed to pass through the room. The circle dispersed, and the tension lifted. People again fell into small chatty groups, just like at any other party, though I did see tears on the faces of some.

"A lot of people must have liked Priscilla," I observed.

Adrian turned toward a table that had mysteriously been arranged during the ceremony. It sat against the back wall and was filled with fruit, cheese, and more wine. Naturally, he poured a glass.

"They aren't all crying for her," he said.

"I find it hard to believe they're crying for the dhampirs," I pointed out. "No one here even knew them."

"Not true," he said.

Lissa quickly caught his meaning. "Most of the people who went on the rescue would have been guardians assigned to Moroi. They couldn't all be Court guardians."

She was right, I realized. We'd had too many people with us at the warehouse. Many of these Moroi had undoubtedly lost guardians that they'd become close to. Despite the disdain I often had for these types of royals, I knew some had probably formed legitimate friendships with and attachments to their bodyguards.

"This is a lame party," a voice suddenly said. We turned and saw that Christian had finally made his way over to us. "I couldn't tell if we were supposed to be having a funeral or summoning the devil. It was kind of a half-assed attempt at both."

"Stop it," I said, surprising myself. "Those people died for you last night. Whatever this is, it's still out of respect for them."

Christian's face grew sober. "You're right."

Beside me, I'd felt Lissa light up inside when she saw him. The horrors of their ordeal had brought them closer together, and I recalled the tenderness they'd shared on the ride back. She offered him a warm look and got a tentative smile in return. Maybe some good would come of all that had happened. Maybe they'd be able to fix their problems.

Or maybe not.

Adrian broke into a grin. "Hey. Glad you could make it."

For a moment, I thought he was speaking to Christian. Then I looked and saw a girl in a peacock mask had joined us. With the mingling people and masks, I hadn't noticed that she was purposely standing near us. I peered at her, seeing only blue eyes and golden curls before I finally recognized her. Mia.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

She grinned. "Adrian got me a password."

"Adrian apparently got passwords for half the party."

He seemed very pleased with himself. "See?" he said, smiling at me. "I told you I'd make this worth your while. The whole gang's here. Nearly."

"This is one of the weirdest things I've ever seen," said Mia, glancing around. "I don't see why it has to be a secret that the people who got killed were heroes. Why can't they wait for the group funeral?"

Adrian shrugged. "I told you, this is an ancient ceremony. It's a holdover from the Old Country, and these people think it's important. From what I know, it used to be a lot more elaborate. This is the modernized version."

It occurred to me then that Lissa hadn't said a single word since we'd noticed Christian had come with Mia. I opened myself to the bond, feeling a flood of jealousy and resentment. I still maintained Mia was one of the last people Christian would be involved with. (Okay, it was hard for me to imagine him involved with anyone. His getting together with Lissa had been monumental.) Lissa couldn't see that, though. All she saw was him continually hanging out with other girls. As our conversation continued, Lissa's attitude grew frostier, and the friendly looks he'd been giving her began to fade.

"So is it true?" Mia asked, oblivious to the drama unfolding around her. "Is Dimitri really... back?"

Lissa and I exchanged glances. "Yes," I said firmly. "He's a dhampir, but no one believes it yet. Because they're idiots."

"It just happened, little dhampir." Adrian's tone was gentle, though the topic clearly made him uncomfortable too. "You can't expect everyone to get on board with it right away."

"But they are idiots," said Lissa fiercely. "Anyone who talks to him can tell he's not a Strigoi. I'm pushing for them to let him out of his cell so that people can actually see for themselves."

I wished she would push a little harder for me to get to see him, but now wasn't the time to talk about that. Eyeing the room, I wondered if some people would have trouble accepting Dimitri because of his role in the deaths of their loved ones. He hadn't been in control of himself, but that wasn't enough to bring back the dead.

Still uncomfortable around Christian, Lissa was growing restless. She also wanted to leave and check on Dimitri. "How long do we have to stay here? Is there more to--"

"Who the hell are you?"

Our little cluster turned as one and found Anthony standing by us. Considering most of us were here illicitly, he could have been speaking to anyone. But, based on where his gaze was fixed, there was no question who he meant.

He was talking to me.

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