Chapter Twenty

 

"YOU'RE NOT MOROI!" HE CONTINUED. He wasn't shouting, but we'd definitely gotten the attention of the people standing near us. "You're Rose Hathaway, aren't you? How dare you and your impure blood invade the sanctity of our--"

"That's enough," a lofty voice suddenly said. "I'll take it from here."

Even with her face covered, there was no mistaking that voice. Tatiana swept in beside the guy, wearing a silver flowered mask and a long-sleeved gray dress. I'd probably seen her earlier in the crowd and not even realized it. Until she spoke, she blended in with everyone else.

The whole room was quiet now. Daniella Ivashkov scurried up behind Tatiana, her eyes widening behind her mask when she recognized me. "Adrian--" she began.

But Tatiana was seizing the situation. "Come with me."

There was no question that the order was for me or that I would obey. She turned and walked swiftly toward the room's entrance. I hurried behind her, as did Adrian and Daniella.

As soon as we were out in the torch-lit hall, Daniella turned on Adrian. "What were you thinking? You know I don't mind you bringing Rose to certain events, but this was--"

"Inappropriate," said Tatiana crisply. "Although, perhaps it is fitting that a dhampir see how much the sacrifices of her people are respected."

That shocked us all into a moment of silence. Daniella recovered herself first. "Yes, but tradition states that--"

Tatiana interrupted her again. "I'm well aware of the tradition. It's a bad breach of etiquette, but Rosemarie being here certainly doesn't ruin our intentions. Losing Priscilla..." Tatiana didn't choke up, exactly, but she lost some of her normal composure. I didn't think of someone like her as having a best friend, but Priscilla pretty much had been. How would I act if I'd lost Lissa? Not nearly so controlled.

"Losing Priscilla is something I'll feel for a very, very long time," Tatiana managed at last. Her sharp eyes were on me. "And I hope you really do understand how much we need and value you and all the other guardians. I know sometimes your race feels underappreciated. You aren't. Those who died have left a gaping hole in our ranks, one that leaves us even more undefended, as I'm sure you must know."

I nodded, still surprised Tatiana wasn't shrieking for me to get out. "It's a big loss," I said. "And it makes the situation worse because numbers are what harm us half the time--especially when the Strigoi form large groups. We can't always match that."

Tatiana nodded, seeming pleasantly surprised we'd agreed on something. That made two of us. "I knew you'd understand. Nonetheless..." She turned toward Adrian. "You shouldn't have done this. Some lines of propriety need to be maintained."

Adrian was surprisingly meek. "Sorry, Aunt Tatiana. I just thought it was something Rose should see."

"You'll keep this to yourself, won't you?" asked Daniella, turning back to me. "A lot of the guests are very, very conservative. They wouldn't want this getting out."

That they met by firelight and played dress-up? Yeah, I could see them wanting that kept a secret.

"I won't tell anyone," I assured them.

"Good," said Tatiana. "Now, you should still probably leave before--is that Christian Ozera?" Her eyes had drifted back toward the crowded room.

"Yes," both Adrian and I said.

"He didn't get an invitation," exclaimed Daniella. "Is that your fault too?"

"It's not my fault so much as my genius," said Adrian.

"I doubt anyone will know, so long as he behaves himself," said Tatiana with a sigh. "And I'm sure he'd take any opportunity he can to talk to Vasilisa."

"Oh," I said, without thinking. "That's not Lissa." Lissa had actually turned her back toward Christian and was speaking to someone else while casting anxious looks out the door at me.

"Who is it?" asked Tatiana.

Crap. "That's, um, Mia Rinaldi. She's a friend of ours from St. Vladimir's." I'd almost considered lying and giving her a royal name. Some families were so big that it was impossible to keep track of everyone.

"Rinaldi." Tatiana frowned. "I think I know a servant with that name." I was actually pretty impressed that she knew the people who worked for her. Yet again, my opinion of her shifted.

"A servant?" asked Daniella, giving her son a warning look. "Is there anyone else I should know about?"

"No. If I'd had more time, I probably could have got Eddie here. Hell, maybe even Jailbait."

Daniella looked scandalized. "Did you just say Jailbait?"

"It's just a joke," I said hastily, not wanting to make this situation worse. I was afraid of how Adrian might answer. "It's what we sometimes call our friend Jill Mastrano."

Neither Tatiana nor Daniella seemed to think that was a joke at all.

"Well, no one seems to realize they don't belong," said Daniella, nodding toward Christian and Mia. "Though the gossips here will no doubt be running wild with how Rose interrupted this event."

"Sorry," I said, feeling bad that I might have gotten her in trouble.

"Nothing to be done for it now," said Tatiana wearily. "You should leave now so that everyone thinks you were severely chastised. Adrian, you come back with us and make sure your other 'guests' don't raise any attention. And do not do something like this again."

"I won't," he said, almost convincingly.

The three began to turn away, leaving me to skulk off, but Tatiana paused and glanced back. "Wrong or not, don't forget what you saw here. We really do need guardians."

I nodded, a flush of pride running through me at her acknowledgment. Then she and the others returned to the room. I watched them wistfully, hating that everyone in there thought I'd been kicked out in disgrace. Considering it could have gone a lot worse for me, I decided to count my blessings. I removed the mask, having nothing more to hide, and made the trek back upstairs and outdoors.

I hadn't gotten very far when someone stepped out in front of me. It was a sign of my preoccupation that I nearly leapt ten feet in the air.

"Mikhail," I exclaimed. "You scared me half to death. What are you doing out here?"

"Actually, I've been looking for you." There was an anxious, nervous look about him. "I went by your building earlier, but you weren't around."

"Yeah, I was at the Masquerade of the Damned."

He stared at me blankly.

"Never mind. What's up?"

"I think we might have a chance."

"Chance for what?"

"I heard you tried to see Dimitri today."

Ah, yes. The topic I definitely wanted to think more about. "Yeah. 'Try' is pretty optimistic. He doesn't want to see me, never mind the army of guardians blocking me out."

Mikhail shifted uncomfortably, peering around like a frightened animal. "That's why I came to find you."

"Okay, I'm really not following any of this." I was also starting to get a headache from the wine.

Mikhail took a deep breath and exhaled. "I think I can sneak you in to see him."

I waited for a moment, wondering if there was a punch line coming or if maybe this was all some delusion born out of my wound-up emotions. Nope. Mikhail's face was deadly serious, and while I still didn't know him that well, I'd picked up enough to realize he didn't really joke around.

"How?" I asked. "I tried and--"

Mikhail beckoned for me to follow. "Come on, and I'll explain. We don't have much time."

I wasn't about to waste this chance and hurried after him. "Has something happened?" I asked, once I'd caught up to his longer stride. "Did... did he ask for me?" It was more than I dared to hope for. Mikhail's use of the word sneak didn't really support that idea anyway.

"They've lightened his guard," Mikhail explained.

"Really? How many?" There had been about a dozen down there when Lissa visited, including her escort. If they'd come to their senses and realized they only needed a guy or two on Dimitri, then that boded well for everyone accepting that he was no longer Strigoi.

"He's down to about five."

"Oh." Not great. Not horrible. "But I guess even that means they're a little closer to believing he's safe now?"

Mikhail shrugged, keeping his eyes on the path ahead of us. It had rained during the Death Watch, and the air, while still humid, had cooled a little. "Some of the guardians do. But it'll take a royal decree from the Council to officially declare what he is."

I almost came to a halt. "Declare what he is?" I exclaimed. "He's not a what! He's a person. A dhampir like us."

"I know, but it's out of our hands."

"You're right. Sorry," I grumbled. No point in shooting the messenger. "Well, I hope they get off their asses and come to a decision soon."

The silence that followed spoke legions. I gave Mikhail a sharp glare.

"What? What aren't you telling me?" I demanded.

He shrugged. "The rumor is that there's some other big thing being debated in the Council right now, something that takes priority."

That enraged me too. What in the world could take priority over Dimitri? Calm, Rose. Stay calm. Focus. Don't let the darkness make this worse. I always fought to keep it buried, but it often exploded in times of stress. And this? Yeah, this was a pretty stressful time. I shifted back to the original topic.

We reached the holding building, and I took the steps up two at a time. "Even if they've lightened the guardians on Dimitri, they still won't let me in. The ones that are there would know I was ordered to keep away."

"A friend of mine's covering the front shift right now. We won't have long, but he'll tell the guardians in the holding area that you were authorized to come down."

Mikhail was about to open the door, and I stopped him, putting my hand on his arm. "Why are you doing this for me? The Moroi Council might not think Dimitri's a big deal, but the guardians do. You could get in big trouble."

He looked down at me, again with that small, bitter smile. "Do you have to ask?"

I thought about it. "No," I said softly.

"When I lost Sonya..." Mikhail closed his eyes for a heartbeat, and when he opened them, they seemed to be staring off into the past. "When I lost her, I didn't want to go on living. She was a good person--really. She turned Strigoi out of desperation. She saw no other way to save herself from spirit. I would give anything--anything--for a chance to help her, to fix things between us. I don't know if that'll ever be possible for us, but it is possible for you right now. I can't let you lose this."

With that, he let us in, and sure enough, there was a different guardian on duty. Just as Mikhail had said, the guy called down to tell the jail guardians Dimitri had a visitor. Mikhail's friend seemed incredibly nervous about it all, which was understandable. Still, he was willing to help. It was amazing, I thought, what friends would do for each other. These last couple of weeks were undeniable proof of that.

Just like at Lissa's visit, two guardians showed up to escort me downstairs. I recognized them from when I'd been in her head, and they seemed surprised to see me. If they'd overheard Dimitri adamantly saying he didn't want me to visit, then my presence would indeed be shocking. But as far as they knew, someone in power had condoned me being here, so they asked no questions.

Mikhail trailed us as we wound our way down, and I felt my heartbeat and breathing grow rapid. Dimitri. I was about to see Dimitri. What would I say? What would I do? It was almost too much to comprehend. I had to keep mentally slapping myself to focus, or else I was going to slide into dumbstruck shock.

When we reached the hallway that held the cells, I saw two guardians standing in front of Dimitri's cell, one at the far end, and two others by the entrance we'd come through. I stopped, uneasy about the thought of others overhearing me talk to Dimitri. I didn't want an audience like Lissa had had, but with the emphasis on security here, I might not have a choice.

"Can I get a little privacy?" I asked.

One of my escorts shook his head. "Official orders. Two guardians have to be posted at the cell at all times."

"She's a guardian," pointed out Mikhail mildly. "So am I. Let us go. The rest can wait by the door."

I flashed Mikhail a grateful look. I could handle having him nearby. The others, deciding we would be safe enough, moved discreetly to the ends of the hall. It wasn't total and complete privacy, but they wouldn't hear everything.

My heart felt ready to burst from my chest as Mikhail and I walked over to Dimitri's cell and faced it. He was seated almost as he had been when Lissa arrived: on the bed, curled up into himself, back facing us.

Words stuck in my throat. Coherent thought fled from my mind. It was like I'd totally forgotten the reason I'd come here.

"Dimitri," I said. At least, that's what I tried to say. I choked up a little, so the sounds that came out of my mouth were garbled. It was apparently enough, though, because Dimitri's back suddenly went rigid. He didn't turn around.

"Dimitri," I repeated, more clearly this time. "It's... me."

There was no need for me to say any more. He'd known from that first attempt at his name who I was. I had a feeling he would have known my voice in any situation. He probably knew the sound of my heartbeat and breathing. As it was, I think I stopped breathing while I waited for his response. When it came, it was a little disappointing.

"No."

"No what?" I asked. "As in, no, it's not me?"

He exhaled in frustration, a sound almost--but not quite--like the one he used to make when I did something particularly ridiculous in our trainings. "No, as in I don't want to see you." His voice was thick with emotion. "They weren't supposed to let you in."

"Yeah. Well, I kind of found a work-around."

"Of course you did."

He still wouldn't face me, which was agonizing. I glanced over at Mikhail, who gave me a nod of encouragement. I guessed I should be glad that Dimitri was talking to me at all.

"I had to see you. I had to know if you were okay."

"I'm sure Lissa's already updated you."

"I had to see for myself."

"Well, now you see."

"All I see is your back."

It was maddening, yet every word I got out of him was a gift. It felt like a thousand years since I'd heard his voice. Like before, I wondered how I could have ever confused the Dimitri in Siberia with this one. His voice had been identical in both places, the same pitch and accent, yet as a Strigoi, his words had always left a chill in the air. This was warm. Honey and velvet and all sorts of wonderful things wrapping around me, no matter the terrible things he was saying.

"I don't want you here," said Dimitri flatly. "I don't want to see you."

I took a moment to assess strategy. Dimitri still had that depressed, hopeless feel around him. Lissa had approached it with kindness and compassion. She'd gotten through his defenses, though a lot of that was because he regarded her as his savior. I could try a similar tactic. I could be gentle and supportive and full of love--all of which were true. I loved him. I wanted to help him so badly. Yet I wasn't sure that particular method would work for me. Rose Hathaway was not always known for the soft approach. I did, however, play on his sense of obligation.

"You can't ignore me," I said, trying to keep my volume out of range of the other guardians. "You owe me. I saved you."

A few moments of silence passed. "Lissa saved me," he said carefully.

Anger burned within my chest, just it had when I'd watched Lissa visit him. How could he hold her in such high regard but not me?

"How do you think she got to that point?" I demanded. "How do you think she learned how to save you? Do you have any idea what we--what I--had to go through to get that information? You think me going to Siberia was crazy? Believe me, you haven't even come close to seeing crazy. You know me. You know what I'm capable of. And I broke my own records this time. You. Owe. Me."

It was harsh, but I needed a reaction from him. Some kind of emotion. And I got it. He jerked around, eyes glinting and power crackling through his body. As always, his movements were both fierce and graceful. Likewise, his voice was a mix of emotions: anger, frustration, and concern.

"Then the best thing I can do is--"

He froze. The brown eyes that had been narrowed with aggravation suddenly went wide with... what? Amazement? Awe? Or perhaps that stunned feeling I kept having when I saw him?

Because suddenly, I was pretty sure he was experiencing the same thing I had earlier. He'd seen me plenty of times in Siberia. He'd seen me just the other night at the warehouse. But now... now he was truly viewing me with his own eyes. Now that he was no longer Strigoi, his whole world was different. His outlook and feelings were different. Even his soul was different.

It was like one of those moments when people talked about their lives flashing before their eyes. Because as we stared at one another, every part of our relationship replayed in my mind's eye. I remembered how strong and invincible he'd been when we first met, when he'd come to bring Lissa and me back to the folds of Moroi society. I remembered the gentleness of his touch when he'd bandaged my bloodied and battered hands. I remembered him carrying me in his arms after Victor's daughter Natalie had attacked me. Most of all, I remembered the night we'd been together in the cabin, just before the Strigoi had taken him. A year. We'd known each other only a year, but we'd lived a lifetime in it.

And he was realizing that too, I knew, as he studied me. His gaze was all-powerful, taking in every single one of my features and filing them away. Dimly, I tried to recall what I looked like today. I still wore the dress from the secret meeting and knew it looked good on me. My eyes were probably bloodshot from crying earlier, and I'd only had time for a quick brushing of my hair before heading off with Adrian.

Somehow, I doubted any of it mattered. The way Dimitri was looking at me... it confirmed everything I'd suspected. The feelings he'd had for me before he'd been turned--the feelings that had become twisted while a Strigoi--were all still there. They had to be. Maybe Lissa was his savior. Maybe the rest of the Court thought she was a goddess. I knew, right then, that no matter how bedraggled I looked or how blank he tried to keep his face, I was a goddess to him.

He swallowed and forcibly gained control of himself, just like he always had. Some things never changed. "Then the best thing I can do," he continued calmly, "is to stay away from you. That's the best way to repay the debt."

It was hard for me to keep control and maintain some sort of logical conversation. I was as awestruck as he was. I was also outraged. "You offered to repay Lissa by staying by her side forever!"

"I didn't do the things..." He averted his eyes for a moment, again struggling for control, and then met mine once more. "I didn't do the things to her that I did to you."

"You weren't you! I don't care." My temper was starting to burn again

"How many?" he exclaimed. "How many guardians died last night because of what I did?"

"I... I think six or seven." Harsh losses. I felt a small pang in my chest, recalling the names read off in that basement room.

"Six or seven," Dimitri repeated flatly, anguish in his voice. "Dead in one night. Because of me."

"You didn't act alone! And I told you, you weren't you. You couldn't control yourself. It doesn't matter to me--"

"It matters to me!" he shouted, his voice ringing through the hallway. The guardians at each end shifted but didn't approach. When Dimitri spoke again, he kept his voice lower, but it was still trembling with wild emotions. "It matters to me. That's what you don't get. You can't understand. You can't understand what it's like knowing what I did. That whole time being Strigoi... it's like a dream now, but it's one I remember clearly. There can be no forgiveness for me. And what happened with you? I remember that most of all. Everything I did. Everything I wanted to do."

"You're not going to do it now," I pleaded. "So let it go. Before--before everything happened, you said we could be together. That we'd get assignments near each other and--"

"Roza," he interrupted, the nickname piercing my heart. I think he'd slipped up, not truly meaning to call me that. There was a twisted smile on his lips, one without humor. "Do you really think they're going to ever let me be a guardian again? It'll be a miracle if they let me live!"

"That's not true. Once they realize you've changed and that you're really your old self... everything'll go back to how it was."

He shook his head sadly. "Your optimism... your belief that you can make anything happen. Oh, Rose. It's one of the amazing things about you. It's also one of the most infuriating things about you."

"I believed that you could come back from being a Strigoi," I pointed out. "Maybe my belief in the impossible isn't so crazy after all."

This conversation was so grave, so heartbreaking, yet it still kept reminding me of some of our old practice sessions. He'd try to convince me of some serious point, and I'd counter it with Rose-logic. It would usually earn me a mix of amusement and exasperation. I had the feeling that were the situation just a little different, he'd have that same attitude now. But this was not a practice session. He wouldn't smile and roll his eyes. This was serious. This was life and death.

"I'm grateful for what you did," he said formally, still struggling to master his feelings. It was another trait we shared, both of us always working to stay in control. He'd always been better at it than me. "I do owe you. And it's a debt I can't pay. Like I said, the best thing I can do is stay out of your life."

"If you're part of Lissa's, then you can't avoid me."

"People can exist around each other without... without there being any more than that," he said firmly. It was such a Dimitri thing to say. Logic fighting emotion.

And that's when I lost it. Like I said, he was always better at keeping control. Me? Not so much.

I threw myself against the bars, so rapidly that even Mikhail flinched. "But I love you!" I hissed. "And I know you love me too. Do you really think you can spend the rest of your life ignoring that when you're around me?"

The troubling part was that for a very long time at the Academy, Dimitri had been convinced he could do exactly that. And he had been prepared to spend his life not acting on his feelings for me.

"You love me," I repeated. "I know you do." I stretched my arm through the bars. It was a long way from touching him, but my fingers reached out desperately, as though they might suddenly grow and be able to make contact. That was all I needed. One touch from him to know he still cared, one touch to feel the warmth of his skin and--

"Isn't it true," said Dimitri quietly, "that you're involved with Adrian Ivashkov?"

My arm dropped.

"Wh--where did you hear that?"

"Things get around," he said, echoing Mikhail.

"They certainly do," I muttered.

"So are you?" he asked more adamantly.

I hesitated before answering. If I told him the truth, he'd have more ground to make his point about us keeping apart. It was impossible for me to lie to him, though.

"Yes, but--"

"Good." I'm not sure how I expected him to react. Jealousy? Shock? Instead, as he leaned back against the wall, he looked... relieved. "Adrian's a better person than he gets credit for. He'll be good to you."

"But--"

"That's where your future is, Rose." A bit of that hopeless, world-weary attitude was returning. "You don't understand what it's like coming through what I did--coming back from being a Strigoi. It's changed everything. It's not just that what I did to you is unforgiveable. All my feelings... my emotions for you... they changed. I don't feel the way I used to. I might be a dhampir again, but after what I went through... well, it's scarred me. It altered my soul. I can't love anyone now. I can't--I don't--love you. There's nothing more between you and me."

My blood turned cold. I refused to believe his words, not after the way he'd looked at me earlier. "No! That's not true! I love you and you--"

"Guards!" Dimitri shouted, his voice so loud that it was a wonder the whole building didn't shake. "Get her out of here. Get her out of here!"

With amazing guardian reflexes, the guards were down at the cell in a flash. As a prisoner, Dimitri wasn't in a position to make requests, but the authorities here certainly weren't going to encourage a situation that would create a commotion. They began herding Mikhail and me out, but I resisted.

"No, wait--"

"Don't fight it," murmured Mikhail in my ear. "Our time's running out, and you couldn't have accomplished anything else today anyway."

I wanted to protest, but the words stuck on my lips. I let the guardians direct me out, but not before I gave Dimitri one last, lingering look. He had a perfect, guardian-blank look on his face, but the piercing way he stared at me made me certain there was a lot going on within him.

Mikhail's friend was still on duty upstairs, which let us slip out without getting in--much--more trouble. As soon as we were outdoors, I came to a halt and kicked one of the steps angrily.

"Damn it!" I yelled. A couple of Moroi across the courtyard--probably coming home from some late party--gave me startled looks.

"Calm down," said Mikhail. "This was the first time you've seen him since the change. There are only so many miracles you can expect right away. He'll come around."

"I'm not so sure," I grumbled. Sighing, I looked up at the sky. Little wispy clouds moved lazily about, but I barely saw them. "You don't know him like I do."

Because while part of me thought that a lot of what Dimitri had said was indeed a reaction to the shock of returning to himself, there was another part of me that wondered. I knew Dimitri. I knew his sense of honor, his adamant beliefs about what was right and wrong. He stood by those beliefs. He lived his life by them. If he truly, truly believed that the right thing to do was to avoid me and let any relationship between us fade, well... there was a good chance he might very well act on that idea, no matter the love between us. As I'd recalled earlier, he'd certainly shown a lot of resistance back at St. Vladimir's.

As for the rest... the part about him no longer loving me or being able to love anyone... well, that would be a different problem all together if it were true. Both Christian and Adrian had worried there would be some piece of Strigoi left in him, but their fears had been about violence and bloodshed. No one would have guessed this: that living as a Strigoi had hardened his heart, killing any chance of him loving anyone.

Killing any chance of him loving me.

And I was pretty sure that if that was the case, then part of me would die too.

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