Chapter Twenty-Four

 

THE MAN GRINNED. "YOU MAKE that sound like a bad thing."

I made a face and looked back into the techno-bag with new appreciation. "What's going on?"

"I'm the messenger. I just run errands for Mr. Mazur."

"Is that a nice way of saying you spy for him? Find out everyone's dirty secrets so that he can use them against people and keep playing his games?" Abe seemed to know everything about everyone--especially royal politics. How else could he manage it without having eyes and ears everywhere? Say, at Court? For all I knew, he had my room wired with microphones.

"Spying's a harsh word." I notice the guy didn't deny it. "Besides, he pays well. And he's a good boss." He turned from me, job done, but gave one last warning. "Like I said--it's time sensitive. Read the note as soon as you can."

I had half a mind to throw it at the guy. I was getting used to the idea of being Abe's daughter, but that didn't mean I wanted to get tied up in some wacky scheme of his. A bag of hardware seemed foreboding.

Nonetheless, I hauled it back to my suite and emptied the contents onto my bed. There were a few sheets of paper, the top one being a typed cover letter.

Rose,

I hope Tad was able to get this to you in a timely manner. And I hope you weren't too mean to him. I'm doing this on behalf of someone who wants to speak to you about an urgent matter. However, it's a conversation that no one else must hear. The laptop and satellite modem in this bag will allow you to have a private discussion, so long as you're in a private location. I've included step-by-step instructions on how to configure it. Your meeting will take place at 7 a.m.

There was no name at the bottom, but I didn't need one. I set the letter down and stared at the jumble of cords. Seven was less than an hour away.

"Oh, come on, old man," I exclaimed.

To Abe's credit, the accompanying papers did have very basic directions that didn't require a computer engineer's insight. The only problem was, there were a lot of them, detailing where each cord went, what password to log in with, how to configure the modem, and so on. For a moment I considered ignoring it all. Yet when someone like Abe used the word urgent, it made me think maybe I shouldn't be so hasty in my dismissal.

So, bracing myself for some technical acrobatics, I set to following his instructions. It took almost the entire time I had, but I managed to hook up the modem and camera and access the secure program that would allow me to video-conference with Abe's mysterious contact. I finished with a few minutes to spare and waited the time out by staring at a black window in the middle of the screen, wondering what I'd gotten myself into.

At exactly seven, the window came to life, and a familiar--but unexpected--face appeared.

"Sydney?" I asked in surprise.

The video had that same, slightly jerky feel most Internet feeds had, but nonetheless, the face of my (kind of) friend Sydney Sage smiled back at me. Hers was a dry-humored smile, but that was typical of her.

"Good morning," she said, stifling a yawn. From the state of her chin-length blond hair, it was likely she'd just gotten out of bed. Even in the poor resolution, the golden lily tattoo on her cheek gleamed. All Alchemists had that same tattoo. It consisted of ink and Moroi blood, imparting Moroi good health and longevity to the wearer. It also had a bit of compulsion mixed in to keep the Alchemists' secret society from revealing anything they shouldn't about vampires.

"Evening," I said. "Not morning."

"We can argue your messed-up unholy schedule some other time," she said. "That's not what I'm here for."

"What are you here for?" I asked, still astonished to see her. The Alchemists did their jobs almost reluctantly, and while Sydney liked me better than most Moroi or dhampirs, she wasn't the type to make friendly phone (or video) calls. "Wait... you can't be in Russia. Not if it's morning..." I tried to remember the time change. Yes, for humans over there, the sun would be down or about to be right now.

"I'm back in my native country," she said with mock grandeur. "Got a new post in New Orleans."

"Whoa, nice." Sydney had hated being assigned to Russia, but my impression had been she was stuck there until finishing her Alchemist internship. "How'd you manage that?"

Her small smile turned to an expression of discomfort. "Oh, well. Abe, um, kind of did me a favor. He made it happen."

"You made a deal with him?" Sydney must have really hated Russia. And Abe's influence must have really been deep if he could affect a human organization. "What did you give him in return? Your soul?" Making a joke like that to someone as religious as her wasn't very appropriate. Of course, I think she thought Moroi and dhampirs ate souls, so maybe my comment wasn't too out there.

"That's the thing," she said. "It was kind of an 'I'll let you know when I need a favor in the future' arrangement."

"Sucker," I said.

"Hey," she snapped. "I don't have to be doing this. I'm actually doing you a favor by talking to you."

"Why are you talking to me exactly?" I wanted to question her more about her open-ended deal with the devil but figured that would get me disconnected.

She sighed and brushed some hair out of her face. "I need to ask you something. And I swear I won't tell on you... I just need to know the truth so that we don't waste our time on something."

"Okay..." Please don't ask me about Victor, I prayed.

"Have you broken into any place lately?"

Damn. I kept my face perfectly neutral. "What do you mean?"

"The Alchemists had some records stolen recently," she explained. She was all business-serious now. "And everyone's going crazy trying to figure out who did it--and why."

Mentally, I breathed a sigh of relief. Okay. It wasn't about Tarasov. Thank God there was one crime I wasn't guilty of. Then the full meaning of her words hit me. I glared.

"Wait. You guys get robbed, and I'm the one you suspect? I thought I was off your list of evil creatures?"

"No dhampir is off my list of evil creatures," she said. That half smile of hers had returned, but I couldn't tell if she was joking or not. It faded quickly, showing what a big deal this was for her. "And believe me, if anyone could break into our records, you could. It's not easy. Practically impossible."

"Um, thank you?" I wasn't sure if I should feel flattered or not.

"Of course," she continued scornfully, "they only stole paper records, which was stupid. Everything's backed up digitally nowadays, so I'm not sure why they'd go digging through dinosaur filing cabinets."

I could give her a lot of reasons why someone would do that, but finding out why I was her number-one suspect was more important. "That is stupid. So why do you think I'd do it?"

"Because of what was stolen. It was information about a Moroi named Eric Dragomir."

"I--what?"

"That's your friend, right? His daughter, I mean."

"Yeah..." I was almost speechless. Almost. "You have files on Moroi?"

"We have files on everything," she said proudly. "But when I tried to think who could commit a crime like this and would be interested in a Dragomir... well, your name popped into my head."

"I didn't do it. I do a lot of things, but not that. I didn't even know you had those kinds of records."

Sydney regarded me suspiciously.

"It's the truth!"

"Like I said before," she told me, "I won't turn you in. Seriously. I just want to know so that I can get people to stop wasting time on certain leads." Her smugness sobered. "And, well, if you did do it... I need to keep the attention off you. I promised Abe."

"Whatever it takes for you to believe me, I didn't do it! But now I want to know who did. What did they steal? Everything on him?"

She bit her lip. Owing Abe a favor might mean she'd go behind her own people's backs, but she apparently had limits on how much she'd betray.

"Come on! If you've got digital backup, you have to know what was taken. This is Lissa we're talking about." An idea came to me. "Could you send me copies?"

"No," she said swiftly. "Absolutely not."

"Then please... just a hint of what they were about! Lissa's my best friend. I can't let anything happen to her."

I fully braced myself for rejection. Sydney didn't seem very personable. Did she have friends? Could she understand what I felt?

"Mostly bio stuff," she said at last. "Some of his history and observations we'd made."

"Observ--" I let it go, deciding I really didn't want to know more than I had to about Alchemists spying on us. "Anything else?"

"Financial records." She frowned. "Particularly about some large deposits he made to a bank account in Las Vegas. Deposits he went out of his way to cover up."

"Las Vegas? I was just there...." Not that it was relevant.

"I know," she said. "I saw some Witching Hour security tapes of your adventure. The fact that you'd run off like that is part of why I suspected you. It seemed in character." She hesitated. "The guy with you... the tall Moroi with dark hair... is that your boyfriend?"

"Er, yeah."

It took a long time and great effort for her to concede the next statement. "He's cute."

"For an evil creature of the night?"

"Of course." She hesitated again. "Is it true you guys went there to elope?"

"What? No! These stories get to you guys too?" I shook my head, almost laughing at how ridiculous this all was, but knowing I needed to get back to the facts. "So, Eric had an account in Vegas he was moving money into?"

"It wasn't his. It was some woman's."

"What woman?"

"No one--well, no one we can track. She was just down as 'Jane Doe.'"

"Original," I muttered. "Why would he be doing that?"

"That we don't know. Or really care about. We just want to know who broke in and stole our stuff."

"The only thing I know about that is that it wasn't me." Seeing her scrutinizing look, I threw up my hands. "Come on! If I wanted to know about him, I'd just ask Lissa. Or steal our own records."

Several moments of silence passed.

"Okay. I believe you," she said.

"Really?"

"Do you want me to not believe you?"

"No, it was just easier than I thought convincing you."

She sighed.

"I want to know more about these records," I said fiercely. "I want to know who Jane Doe is. If you could get me other files--"

Sydney shook her head. "Nope. This is where I cut you off. You know too much already. Abe wanted me to keep you out of trouble, and I've done that. I've done my part."

"I don't think Abe's going to let you go so easily. Not if you made an open-ended deal."

She didn't acknowledge that, but the look in her brown eyes made me think she agreed. "Good night, Rose. Morning. Whatever."

"Wait, I--"

The screen went black.

"Damn," I growled, shutting the laptop more forcefully than I should have.

Every part of that conversation had been a shock, starting with Sydney and ending with someone stealing Alchemist records about Lissa's father. Why would anyone care about a dead man? And why steal the records at all? To learn something? Or to try to hide information? If that last one was true, then Sydney was right that it had been a failed effort.

I replayed it all in my head as I got ready for bed, staring at my reflection while brushing my teeth. Why, why, why? Why do it? And who? I needed no more intrigue in my life, but anything involving Lissa had to be treated seriously. Unfortunately, it soon became clear I wouldn't figure out anything tonight, and I fell asleep with all those questions spinning around in my head.

I woke up the next morning feeling a little less overwhelmed--but still short on answers. I debated whether or not to tell Lissa about what I'd learned and finally decided I should. If someone was gathering information on her father, she had a right to know, and besides, this was hardly the same as rumors about his--

A thought startled me in the middle of scrubbing shampoo into my hair. I'd been too tired and surprised to string together the pieces last night. That guy at the Witching Hour had said Lissa's dad was there a lot. Now Sydney's records reported that he'd made large deposits into an account in Las Vegas. Coincidence? Maybe. But as time went on, I was starting not to believe in coincidences anymore.

Once presentable, I set out toward Lissa's side of Court--but didn't get very far. Adrian was waiting for me down in my building's foyer, slumped back into an armchair.

"It's early for you, isn't it?" I teased, coming to a stop in front of him.

I expected a smile in return, but Adrian didn't look particularly cheerful this morning. In fact, he appeared kind of bedraggled. His hair lacked its usual styling care, and his clothing--unusually dressy for this time of day--was wrinkled. The scent of clove cigarettes hung around him.

"Easy to be early when you don't get much sleep," he responded. "I was up a lot of the night waiting for someone."

"Waiting for--oh. God." The party. I'd totally forgotten the party his mother had invited me to. Abe and Sydney had distracted me. "Adrian, I'm so sorry."

He shrugged and didn't touch me when I sat down on the arm of his chair. "Whatever. I probably shouldn't be surprised anymore. I'm starting to realize I've been deluding myself."

"No, no. I was going to go, but then you won't believe what--"

"Save it. Please." His voice was weary, his eyes bloodshot. "It's not necessary. My mom told me she saw you over at Dimitri's questioning."

I frowned. "But that's not why I missed the party. There was this guy--"

"That's not the point, Rose. The point is that you managed to make time for that--and a visit to his cell, if what I heard is true. Yet, you couldn't bother showing up at something you said you'd do with me--or even send a message. That was all you had to do: say you couldn't go. I waited over an hour for you at my parents' house before giving up."

I started to say he could have tried to contact me, but honestly, why should he have? It wasn't his responsibility. I was the one who'd told Daniella I'd meet him there. It was my fault for not showing up.

"Adrian, I'm sorry." I clasped his hand, but he didn't squeeze back. "Really, I meant to, but--"

"No," he interrupted again. "Ever since Dimitri came back... no, scratch that. Ever since you became obsessed with changing him, you've been torn over me. No matter what's happened between us, you've never really given yourself over to our relationship. I wanted to believe what you told me. I thought you were ready... but you weren't."

Protests rose to my lips, but once more, I stopped them. He was right. I'd said I'd give dating him a fair shot. I'd even sunk into the comfortable role of his girlfriend, yet the whole time... the whole time, part of me had been consumed with Dimitri. I'd known it too but had kept living split lives. A weird flashback to my time with Mason popped into my head. I'd led the same double life with him, and he'd died for it. I was a mess. I didn't know my own heart.

"I'm sorry," I said again. "I really do want us to have something...." Even to me, the words sounded so lame. Adrian gave me a knowing smile.

"I don't believe that. Neither do you." He stood up and ran his hand over his hair, not that it did any good. "If you really want to be with me, then you've got to mean it this time."

I hated seeing him so grim. I especially hated being the reason. I followed him to the door. "Adrian, wait. Let's talk more."

"Not now, little dhampir. I need some sleep. I just can't handle playing this game right now."

I could have gone after him. I could have tackled him to the ground. But it wouldn't have been worth it... because I had no answers to give him. He'd been right about everything, and until I could make up my own confused mind, I had no right to force a talk. Besides, considering the state he was in, I doubted any further conversation would have been productive.

Yet as he started to step outside, I couldn't help my next words. "Before you go--and I understand why you have to--there's something I've got to ask you. Something that's not about us. It affects--it affects Lissa."

This slowly brought him to a halt. "Always a favor." With a world-weary sigh, he glanced at me over his shoulder. "Make it fast."

"Someone broke into the Alchemists' records and stole information about Lissa's dad. Some of it was ordinary life history stuff, but there were some documents about him making secret deposits into a bank account in Las Vegas. Some woman's bank account."

Adrian waited a few moments. "And?"

"And I'm trying to figure out why someone would do that. I don't want anyone snooping around her family. Do you have any idea what her dad would have been doing?"

"You heard the guy at the casino. Her dad was there a lot. Maybe he had gambling debts and was paying off a loan shark."

"Lissa's family's always had money," I pointed out. "He couldn't have gotten into that much debt. And why would anyone care enough to steal that info?"

Adrian threw up his hands. "I don't know. That's all I've got, at least this early in the morning. I don't have the brain power for intrigue. I can't really picture any of that being a threat to Lissa, though."

I nodded, disappointed. "Okay. Thanks."

He continued on his way, and I watched him go. Lissa lived near him, but I didn't want him to think I was following him. When he'd put enough distance between us, I stepped outdoors as well and started to head in the same direction. The faint sound of bells brought me to a halt. I hesitated, suddenly unsure where to go.

I wanted to talk to Lissa and tell her what Sydney had told me. Lissa was alone for a change; this was the perfect opportunity. And yet... the bells. It was Sunday morning. Mass was about to start at the Court's church. I had a hunch about something, and in spite of everything that had happened--including with Adrian--I had to see if I was right.

So I sprinted off toward the church, going in the opposite direction of Lissa's building. The doors were shut when I reached my destination, but a few other latecomers were trying to quietly slip in. I entered with them, pausing to get my bearings. Clouds of incense hung in the air, and my eyes took a moment to adjust from sunlight to candlelight. Since this church dwarfed St. Vladimir's chapel, it was packed with a lot more people than I was used to seeing at mass. Most of the seats were full.

But not all of them.

My hunch had been right. Dimitri sat in one of the back pews. A few guardians sat near him, of course, but that was it. Even in a crowded church, no one else had joined him on the bench. Reece had asked Dimitri if he'd step inside the church yesterday, and Dimitri had gone one step further, saying he'd even go to Sunday services.

The priest had already begun to speak, so I moved down Dimitri's pew as quietly as I could. Silence didn't matter, though, because I still attracted a fair amount of attention from nearby people who were astonished to see me sitting next to the Strigoi-turned-dhampir. Eyes stared and several hushed conversations broke out.

The guardians had left some space near Dimitri, and when I sat beside him, the look on his face showed he was both surprised and not surprised by this.

"Don't," he said in a hushed voice. "Don't start--not in here."

"Wouldn't dream of it, comrade," I murmured back. "Just came for the good of my soul, that's all."

He didn't need to say a word to convey to me that he doubted I was here for any holy reasons. I stayed quiet throughout the service, though. Even I respected some boundaries. After several minutes, the tension in Dimitri's body eased a little. He'd grown wary when I joined him but must have eventually decided I'd be on good behavior. His attention shifted off of me and focused on the singing and the praying, and I did my best to watch him without being obvious.

Dimitri used to go to the school's chapel because it brought him peace. He had always said that even though the killing he did destroyed evil in the world, he still felt the need to come think about his life and seek forgiveness for his sins. Seeing him now, I realized that was truer than ever.

His expression was exquisite. I was so used to seeing him hide emotions that it was a bit startling for him to suddenly have a host of them on his face. He was absorbed in the priest's words, his gorgeous face completely focused. And I realized he was taking everything the priest was saying about sin personally. Dimitri was replaying all the awful things he'd done as a Strigoi. From the despair on his face, you'd think that Dimitri himself was responsible for all the sins of the world the priest spoke of.

For a moment, I thought I saw hope on Dimitri's face too, just a spark of it mixed in with his guilt and sorrow. No, I realized. Not hope. Hope implies that you think you have a chance at something. What I saw in Dimitri was longing. Wistfulness. Dimitri wished that by being here in this holy place and listening to the messages conveyed, he might find redemption for what he had done. Yet... at the same time, it was clear he didn't believe that was possible. He wanted it but could never have it as far as he was concerned.

Seeing that in him hurt me. I didn't know how to react to that kind of bleak attitude. He thought there was no hope for him. Me? I couldn't imagine a world without hope.

I also never would have imagined I'd quote back a church lesson, but when the rest of the crowd stood up to take communion, I found myself saying to Dimitri: "Don't you think that if God can supposedly forgive you, it's kind of egotistical for you not to forgive yourself?"

"How long have you been waiting to use that line on me?" he asked.

"Actually, it just came to me. Pretty good, huh? I bet you thought I wasn't paying attention."

"You weren't. You never do. You were watching me."

Interesting. To know that I was watching him, would Dimitri have had to have watched me watching him? It boggled the mind. "You didn't answer my question."

He kept his eyes on the communion line while composing his answer. "It's irrelevant. I don't have to forgive myself even if God does. And I'm not sure He would."

"That priest just said God would. He said God forgives everything. Are you calling the priest a liar? That's pretty sacrilegious."

Dimitri groaned. I never thought I'd take joy in tormenting him, but the frustrated look on his face wasn't because of his personal grief. It was because of me being impertinent. I'd seen this expression a hundred times on him, and the familiarity of it warmed me, as crazy as that sounds.

"Rose, you're the one being sacrilegious. You're twisting these people's faith for your own purposes. You've never believed in any of this. You still don't."

"I believe that the dead can come back to life," I said seriously. "The proof is sitting right next to me. If that's true, then I think you forgiving yourself isn't that much more of a leap."

His gaze hardened, and if he was praying for anything right then, it was that the communion process would speed up so that he could get out of here and away from me. We both knew he had to wait this church service out. If he ran out, it would make him look Strigoi.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he said.

"Don't I?" I hissed, leaning closer. I did it to drive home my point, but all it did (for me, at least) was give me a better view of the way the candlelight shone on his hair and how long and lean his body was. Someone had apparently decided he could be trusted to shave, and his face was smooth, showing its wonderful, perfect lines.

"I know exactly what I'm talking about," I continued, trying to ignore how his presence affected me. "I know that you've been through a lot. I know that you did terrible things--I saw them. But it's in the past. It was beyond your control. It's not like you're going to do it again."

A strange, haunted look crossed his face. "How do you know? Maybe the monster didn't leave. Maybe there's still something Strigoi lurking in me."

"Then you need to defeat it by moving on with your life! And not just through your chivalrous pledge to protect Lissa. You need to live again. You need to open yourself up to people who love you. No Strigoi would do that. That's how you'll save yourself."

"I can't have people loving me," he growled. "I'm incapable of loving anyone in return."

"Maybe you should try instead of just feeling sorry for yourself!"

"It's not that easy."

"Da--" I just barely stopped myself from swearing in a church. "Nothing we've ever done has been easy! Our life before--before the attack wasn't easy, and we made it through that! We can make it through this too. We can make it through anything together. It doesn't matter if you put your faith in this place. I don't care. What matters is that you put your faith in us."

"There is no us. I've already told you that."

"And you know I'm not a very good listener."

We were keeping our voices low, but I think our body language clearly indicated an argument. The other churchgoers were too distracted to notice, but Dimitri's guardians were regarding us carefully. Again, I reminded myself about what Lissa and Mikhail had both said. Getting Dimitri angry in public was not going to do him any favors. The problem was, I had yet to say anything that didn't make him angry.

"I wish you hadn't come here," he said at last. "It's really better for us to stay apart."

"That's funny because I could have sworn you once said we were meant to be together."

"I want you to stay away from me," he said, ignoring my comment. "I don't want you to keep trying to bring back feelings that are gone. That's the past. None of that's going to happen again. Not ever. It's better for us if we act like strangers. It's better for you."

The loving, compassionate feelings he had stirred within me heated up--to fury. "If you're going to tell me what I can or can't do," I growled in as low a tone as I could manage, "then at least have the courage to say it to my face!"

He spun around so quickly that he might have indeed still been Strigoi. His face was filled with... what? Not that earlier depression. Not rage either, though there was a bit of anger. There was more, though... a mingling of desperation, frustration, and maybe even fear. Underscoring all of it was pain, like he suffered from terrible, exquisite agony.

"I don't want you here," he said, eyes blazing. The words hurt, but something about it all thrilled me, just as his earlier agitation at my flippant comments had. This wasn't the cold and calculating Strigoi. This wasn't the defeated man in the cell. This was my old instructor, my lover, who attacked everything in life with intensity and passion. "How many times do I have to tell you that? You need to stay away from me."

"But you aren't going to hurt me. I know that."

"I've already hurt you. Why can't you understand that? How many times do I have to say it?"

"You told me... you told me before you left that you loved me." My voice trembled. "How can you let that go?"

"Because it's too late! And it's easier than being reminded of what I did to you!" His control snapped, his voice echoing through the back of the church. The priest and those still taking communion didn't notice, but we'd definitely gotten the attention of those in the back half of the church. A few of the guardians stiffened, and again, I had to repeat the warning to myself. No matter how furious I was at Dimitri, no matter how betrayed I felt that he'd turned away from me... I could not risk others thinking he was dangerous. Dimitri hardly looked like he was going to snap someone's neck, but he was clearly upset, and one might confuse his frustration and pain for something more sinister.

I turned from him, trying to calm my churning emotions. When I looked back, our eyes locked, power and electricity burning between us. Dimitri could ignore it all he wanted, but that connection--that deep calling of our souls--was still in there. I wanted to touch him, not just with this brushing of my leg but with everything. I wanted to wrap him in my arms and hold him against me, reassuring him that we could do anything together. Without even realizing it, I reached toward him, needing that touch. He sprang up like I was a snake, and all of his guardians shot forward, braced for what he might do.

But he did nothing. Nothing except stare at me with a look that made my blood run cold. Like I was something strange and bad. "Rose. Please stop. Please stay away." He was working hard to stay calm.

I shot up, now as angry and frustrated as him. I had a feeling if I stayed, we'd both snap. In an undertone, I murmured, "This isn't over. I won't give up on you."

"I've given up on you," he said back, voice also soft. "Love fades. Mine has."

I stared at him in disbelief. All this time, he'd never phrased it like that. His protests had always been about some greater good, about the remorse he felt over being a monster or how it had scarred him from love. I've given up on you. Love fades. Mine has.

I backed up, the sting of those words hitting me as hard as if he'd slapped me. Something shifted in his features, like maybe he knew how much he'd hurt me. I didn't stick around to see. Instead, I pushed my way out of the aisle and ran out the doors in the back, afraid that if I stayed any longer, everyone in the church would see me cry.
 

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