Chapter Twenty-Three

 

I DIDN'T NEED THE BOND to find Lissa. The crowd tipped me off to where she--and Dimitri--were.

My first thought was that some kind of stoning or medieval mobbing was going on. Then I realized that the people standing around were simply watching something. I pushed through them, heedless of the dirty looks I got, until I stood in the front row of the onlookers. What I found brought me to a halt.

Lissa and Dimitri sat side by side on a bench while three Moroi and--yikes--Hans sat opposite them. Guardians stood scattered around them, tense and ready to jump in if things went bad, apparently. Before I even heard a word, I knew exactly what was going on. This was an interrogation, an investigation to determine what Dimitri was exactly.

Under most circumstances, this would be a weird place for a formal investigation. It was, ironically, one of the courtyards Eddie and I had worked on, the one that stood in the shadow of the statue of the young queen. The Court's church stood nearby. This grassy area wasn't exactly holy ground, but it was close enough to the church that people could run to it in an emergency. Crucifixes didn't hurt Strigoi, but they couldn't cross over into a church, mosque, or any other sacred place. Between that and the morning sun, this was probably as safe a location and time as officials could muster up to question Dimitri.

I recognized one of the Moroi questioners, Reece Tarus. He was related to Adrian on his mom's side but had also spoken in favor of the age decree. So I took an instant dislike to him, particularly considering the haughty tone he used toward Dimitri.

"Do you find the sun blinding?" asked Reece. He had a clipboard in front of him and appeared to be going down a checklist.

"No," said Dimitri, voice smooth and controlled. His attention was totally on his questioners. He had no clue I was there, and I kind of liked it that way. I wanted to just gaze at him for a moment and admire his features.

"What if you stare into the sun?"

Dimitri hesitated, and I'm not sure anyone but me caught the sudden glint in his eyes--or knew what it meant. The question was stupid, and I think Dimitri--maybe, just maybe--wanted to laugh. With his normal skill, he maintained his composure.

"Anyone would go blind staring into the sun long enough," he replied. "I'd go through what anyone else here would."

Reece didn't seem to like the answer, but there was no fault in the logic. He pursed his lips together and moved on to the next question. "Does it scald your skin?"

"Not at the moment."

Lissa glanced over at the crowd and noticed me. She couldn't feel me the way I could through our bond, but sometimes it seemed she had an uncanny sense of when I was around. I think she sensed my aura if I was close enough, since all spirit users claimed the field of light around shadow-kissed people was very distinct. She gave me a small smile before turning back to the questioning.

Dimitri, ever vigilant, noticed her tiny movement. He looked over to see what had distracted her, caught sight of me, and faltered a little on Reece's next question, which was, "Have you noticed whether your eyes occasionally turn red?"

"I..." Dimitri stared at me for several moments and then jerked his head back toward Reece. "I haven't been around many mirrors. But I think my guards would have noticed, and none of them have said anything."

Nearby, one of the guardians made a small noise. He barely managed to keep a straight face, but I think he too had wanted to snicker at the ridiculous line of questioning. I couldn't recall his name, but when I'd been at Court long ago, he and Dimitri had chatted and laughed quite a bit when together. If an old friend was starting to believe Dimitri was a dhampir again, then that had to be a good sign.

The Moroi next to Reece glared around, trying to figure out where the noise had come from, but discovered nothing. The questioning continued, this time having to do with whether Dimitri would step into the church if they asked him to.

"I can go right now," he told them. "I'll go to services tomorrow if you want." Reece made another note, no doubt wondering if he could get the priest to douse Dimitri in holy water.

"This is all a distraction," a familiar voice said in my ear. "Smoke and mirrors. That's what Aunt Tasha says." Christian now stood beside me.

"It needs to be done," I murmured back. "They have to see that he isn't Strigoi anymore."

"Yeah, but they've barely signed the age law. The queen gave the go-ahead for this as soon as the Council's session let out because it's sensational and will make people pay attention to something new. It was how they finally got the hall cleared. 'Hey, go look at the sideshow!'"

I could almost hear Tasha saying that word for word. Regardless, there was truth to it. I felt conflicted. I wanted Dimitri to be free. I wanted him to be the way he used to be. Yet I didn't appreciate Tatiana doing this for her own political gain and not because she actually cared about what was right. This was possibly the most monumental thing to happen in our history. It needed to be treated as such. Dimitri's fate shouldn't be a convenient "sideshow" to distract everyone from an unfair law.

Reece was now asking both Lissa and Dimitri to describe exactly what they'd experienced the night of the raid. I had a feeling this was something they'd recounted quite a bit. Although Dimitri had been the picture of nonthreatening composure so far, I still sensed that gray feel to him, the guilt and torment he felt over what he had done as a Strigoi. Yet, when he turned to listen to Lissa tell her version of the story, his face lit up with wonder. Awe. Worship.

Jealousy flashed through me. His feelings weren't romantic, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that he had rejected me but regarded her as the greatest thing in the world. He'd told me never to talk to him again and sworn he'd do anything for her. Again I felt that petulant sense of being wronged. I refused to believe that he couldn't love me anymore. It wasn't possible, not after all he and I had been through together. Not after everything we'd felt for each other.

"They sure seem close," Christian noted, a suspicious note in his voice. I had no time to tell him his worries were unfounded because I wanted to hear what Dimitri had to say.

The story of his change was hard for others to follow, largely because spirit was still so misunderstood. Reece got as much out of it as he could and then turned the questioning over to Hans. Hans, ever practical, had no need for extensive interrogation. He was a man of action, not words. Gripping a stake in his hand, he asked Dimitri to touch it. The standing guardians tensed, probably in case Dimitri tried to grab the stake and go on a rampage.

Instead, Dimitri calmly reached out and held the top of the stake for a few moments. There was a collective intake of breath as everyone waited for him to scream in pain since Strigoi couldn't touch charmed silver. Instead, Dimitri looked bored.

Then he astonished them all. Drawing his hand back, he held out the bottom of his muscled forearm toward Hans. With the sunny weather, Dimitri was wearing a T-shirt, leaving the skin there bare.

"Cut me with it," he told Hans.

Hans arched an eyebrow. "Cutting you with this will hurt no matter what you are."

"It would be unbearable if I were a Strigoi," Dimitri pointed out. His face was hard and determined. He was the Dimitri I'd seen in battle, the Dimitri who never backed down. "Do it. Don't go easy on me."

Hans didn't react at first. Clearly, this was an unexpected course of action. Decision finally flashed across his features, and he struck out, swiping the stake's point against Dimitri's skin. As Dimitri had requested, Hans didn't hold back. The point dug deep, and blood welled up. Several Moroi, not used to seeing blood (unless they were drinking it), gasped at the violence. As one, we all leaned forward.

Dimitri's face showed he definitely felt pain, but charmed silver on a Strigoi wouldn't just hurt--it would burn. I'd cut a lot of Strigoi with stakes and heard them scream in agony. Dimitri grimaced and bit his lip as the blood flowed over his arm. I swear, there was pride in his eyes at his ability to stay strong through that.

When it became obvious he wouldn't start flailing, Lissa reached toward him. I sensed her intentions; she wanted to heal him.

"Wait," said Hans. "A Strigoi would heal from this in minutes."

I had to give Hans credit. He'd worked two tests into one. Dimitri shot him a grateful look, and Hans gave a small nod of acknowledgment. Hans believed, I realized. Whatever his faults, Hans truly thought Dimitri was a dhampir again. I would love him forever for that, no matter how much filing he made me do.

So, we all stood there watching poor Dimitri bleed. It was kind of sick, really, but the test worked. It was obvious to everyone that the cut wasn't going anywhere. Lissa was finally given leave to heal it, and that caused a bigger reaction among the crowd. Murmurs of wonder surrounded me, and those enraptured goddess-worshipping looks showed on people's faces.

Reece glanced at the crowd. "Does anyone have any questions to add to ours?"

No one spoke. They were all dumbfounded by the sights before them.

Well, someone had to step forward. Literally.

"I do," I said, striding toward them.

No, Rose, begged Lissa.

Dimitri wore an equally displeased look. Actually, so did almost everyone sitting near him. When Reece's gaze fell on me, I had a feeling he was seeing me in the Council room all over again, calling Tatiana a sanctimonious bitch. I put my hands on my hips, not caring what they thought. This was my chance to force Dimitri to acknowledge me.

"When you used to be Strigoi," I began, making it clear that I believed that was in the past, "you were very well connected. You knew about the whereabouts of lots of Strigoi in Russia and the U.S., right?"

Dimitri eyed me carefully, trying to figure out where I was going. "Yes."

"Do you still know them?"

Lissa frowned. She thought I was going to inadvertently implicate Dimitri as still being in contact with other Strigoi.

"Yes," he said. "So long as none of them have moved." The answer came more swiftly this time. I wasn't sure if he'd guessed my tactic or if he just trusted that my Rose-logic would go somewhere useful.

"Would you share that information with the guardians?" I asked. "Would you tell us all the Strigoi hideouts so that we could strike out against them?"

That got a reaction. Proactively seeking Strigoi was as hotly debated as the other issues going around right now, with strong opinions on all sides. I heard those opinions reiterated behind me in the crowd, some people saying I was suggesting suicide while others acknowledged we had a valuable tool.

Dimitri's eyes lit up. It wasn't the adoring look he often gave Lissa, but I didn't care. It was similar to the ones we used to share, in those moments where we understood each other so perfectly, we didn't even need to vocalize what we were thinking. That connection flashed between us, as did his approval--and gratitude.

"Yes," he replied, voice strong and loud. "I can tell you everything I know about Strigoi plans and locations. I'd face them with you or stay behind--whichever you wanted."

Hans leaned forward in his chair, expression eager. "That could be invaluable." More points for Hans. He was on the side of hitting out at Strigoi before they came to us.

Reece flushed--or maybe he was just feeling the sun. In their efforts to see if Dimitri would burn up in the light, the Moroi were exposing themselves to discomfort. "Now hold on," Reece exclaimed over the increasing noise. "That has never been a tactic we endorse. Besides, he could always lie--"

His protests were cut off by a feminine scream. A small Moroi boy, no more than six, had suddenly broken from the crowd and run toward us. It was his mother who had screamed. I moved in to stop him, grabbing his arm. I wasn't afraid that Dimitri would hurt him, only that the boy's mother would have a heart attack. She came forward, face grateful.

"I have questions," the boy, obviously trying to be brave, said in a small voice.

His mother reached for him, but I held up my hand. "Hang on a sec." I smiled down at him. "What do you want to ask? Go ahead." Behind him, fear flashed over his mother's face, and she cast an anxious look at Dimitri. "I won't let anything happen to him," I whispered, though she had no way of knowing I could back that up. Nonetheless, she stayed where she was.

Reece rolled his eyes. "This is ridic--"

"If you're Strigoi," the boy interrupted loudly, "then why don't you have horns? My friend Jeffrey said Strigoi have horns."

Dimitri's eyes fell not on the boy but on me for a moment. Again, that spark of knowing shot between us. Then, face smooth and serious, Dimitri turned to the boy and answered, "Strigoi don't have horns. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter because I'm not Strigoi."

"Strigoi have red eyes," I explained. "Do his eyes look red?"

The boy leaned forward. "No. They're brown."

"What else do you know about Strigoi?" I asked.

"They have fangs like us," the boy replied.

"Do you have fangs?" I asked Dimitri in a singsong voice. I had a feeling this was already-covered territory, but it took on a new feel when asked from a child's perspective.

Dimitri smiled--a full, wonderful smile that caught me off guard. Those kinds of smiles were so rare from him. Even when happy or amused, he usually only gave half smiles. This was genuine, showing all his teeth, which were as flat as those of any human or dhampir. No fangs.

The boy looked impressed. "Okay, Jonathan," said his mother anxiously. "You asked. Let's go now."

"Strigoi are super strong," continued Jonathan, who possibly aspired to be a future lawyer. "Nothing can hurt them." I didn't bother correcting him, for fear he'd want to see a stake shoved through Dimitri's heart. In fact, it was kind of amazing that Reece hadn't already requested that. Jonathan fixed Dimitri with a piercing gaze. "Are you super strong? Can you be hurt?"

"Of course I can," replied Dimitri. "I'm strong, but all sorts of things can still hurt me."

And then, being Rose Hathaway, I said something I really shouldn't have to the boy. "You should go punch him and find out."

Jonathan's mother screamed again, but he was a fast little bastard, eluding her grasp. He ran up to Dimitri before anyone could stop him--well, I could have--and pounded his tiny fist against Dimitri's knee.

Then, with the same reflexes that allowed him to dodge enemy attacks, Dimitri immediately feinted falling backward, as though Jonathan had knocked him over. Clutching his knee, Dimitri groaned as though he were in terrible pain.

Several people laughed, and by then, one of the other guardians had caught hold of Jonathan and returned him to his near-hysterical mother. As he was being dragged away, Jonathan glanced over his shoulder at Dimitri. "He doesn't seem very strong to me. I don't think he's a Strigoi."

This caused more laughter, and the third Moroi interrogator, who'd been quiet, snorted and rose from his seat. "I've seen all I need to. I don't think he should walk around unguarded, but he's no Strigoi. Give him a real place to stay and just keep guards on him until further decisions are made."

Reece shot up. "But--"

The other man waved him off. "Don't waste any more time. It's hot, and I want to go to bed. I'm not saying I understand what happened, but this is the least of our problems right now, not with half the Council wanting to rip the other half's heads off over the age decree. If anything, what we've seen today is a good thing--miraculous, even. It could alter the way we've lived. I'll report back to Her Majesty."

And like that, the group began dispersing, but there was wonder on some of their faces. They too were beginning to realize that if what had happened to Dimitri was real, then everything we'd ever known about Strigoi was about to change. The guardians stayed with Dimitri, of course, as he and Lissa rose. I immediately moved toward them, eager to bask in our victory. When he'd been "knocked over" by Jonathan's tiny punch, Dimitri had given me a small smile, and my heart had leapt. I'd known then that I'd been right. He did still have feelings for me. But now, in the blink of an eye, that rapport was gone. Seeing me walk toward them, Dimitri's face grew cold and guarded again.

Rose, said Lissa through the bond. Go away now. Leave him alone.

"The hell I will," I said, both answering her aloud and addressing him. "I just furthered your case."

"We were doing fine without you," said Dimitri stiffly.

"Oh yeah?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You seemed pretty grateful a couple minutes ago when I thought up the idea of you helping us against Strigoi."

Dimitri turned to Lissa. His voice was low, but it carried to me. "I don't want to see her."

"You have to!" I exclaimed. A few of the departing people paused to see what the racket was about. "You can't ignore me."

"Make her go away," Dimitri growled.

"I'm not--"

ROSE!

Lissa shouted in my head, shutting me up. Those piercing jade eyes stared me down. Do you want to help him or not? Standing here and yelling at him is going to make him even more upset! Is that what you want? Do you want people to see that? See him get mad and yell back at you just so you don't feel invisible? They need to see him calm. They need to see him... normal. It's true--you did just help. But if you don't walk away right now, you could ruin everything.

I stared at them both aghast, my heart pounding. Her words had all been in my mind, but Lissa might as well have strode up to me and chewed me out aloud. My temper shot up even more. I wanted to go rant at both of them, but the truth of her words penetrated through my anger. Starting a scene would not help Dimitri. Was it fair that they were sending me away? Was it fair that the two of them were teaming up and ignoring what I'd just done? No. But I wasn't going to let my hurt pride screw up what I'd just achieved. People had to accept Dimitri.

I shot them both looks that made my feelings clear and then stormed away. Lissa's feelings immediately changed to sympathy through the bond, but I blocked them out. I didn't want to hear it.

I'd barely cleared the church's grounds when I ran into Daniella Ivashkov. Sweat was starting to smudge her beautifully applied makeup, making me think she'd been out here for a while watching the Dimitri-spectacle too. She appeared to have a couple friends with her, but they kept their distance and chatted amongst themselves when she stopped in front of me. Swallowing my anger, I reminded myself she'd done nothing to piss me off. I forced a smile.

"Hi, Lady Ivashkov."

"Daniella," she said kindly. "No titles."

"Sorry. It's still a weird thing."

She nodded toward where Dimitri and Lissa were departing with his guards. "I saw you there, just now. You helped his case, I think. Poor Reece was pretty flustered."

I recalled that Reece was related to her. "Oh... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"Don't apologize. Reece is my uncle, but in this case, I believe in what Vasilisa and Mr. Belikov are saying."

Despite how angry Dimitri had just made me, my gut instinct resented the dropping of his "guardian" title. Yet I could forgive her, considering her attitude.

"You... you believe Lissa healed him? That Strigoi can be restored?" I was realizing there were lots of people who believed. The crowd had just demonstrated as much, and Lissa was still building her following of devotees. Somehow, my line of thinking always tended to assume all royals were against me. Daniella's smile turned wry.

"My own son is a spirit user. Since accepting that, I've had to accept a lot of other things I didn't believe were possible."

"I suppose you would," I admitted. Beyond her, I noticed a Moroi man standing near some trees. His eyes occasionally fell on us, and I could have sworn I'd seen him before. Daniella's next words turned my attention back to her.

"Speaking of Adrian... he was looking for you earlier. It's short notice now, but some of Nathan's relatives are having a late cocktail party in about an hour, and Adrian wanted you to go." Another party. Was that all anyone ever did here at Court? Massacres, miracles... it didn't matter. Everything was cause for a party, I thought bitterly.

I'd probably been with Ambrose and Rhonda when Adrian went searching. It was interesting. In passing on the invitation, Daniella was also saying that she wanted me to go. Unfortunately, I had a hard time being as open to it. Nathan's family meant the Ivashkovs, and they wouldn't be so friendly.

"Will the queen be there?" I asked suspiciously.

"No, she has other engagements."

"Are you sure? No unexpected visits?"

She laughed. "No, I'm certain of it. Rumor has it that you two being in the same room together... isn't such a good idea."

I could only imagine the stories going around about my Council performance, particularly since Adrian's father had been there to witness it.

"No, not after that ruling. What she did..." The anger I'd felt earlier began to blaze again. "It was unforgivable." That weird guy by the tree was still waiting around. Why?

Daniella didn't confirm or deny my statement, and I wondered where she stood on the issue. "She's still quite fond of you."

I scoffed. "I have a hard time believing that." Usually, people who yelled at you in public weren't too "fond" of you, and even Tatiana's cool composure had cracked near the end of our spat.

"It's true. This will blow over, and there might even be a chance for you to be assigned to Vasilisa."

"You can't be serious," I exclaimed. I should have known better. Daniella Ivashkov didn't really seem like the joking type, but I really did believe I'd crossed the line with Tatiana.

"After everything that's happened, they don't want to waste good guardians. Besides, she doesn't want there to be animosity between you."

"Yeah? Well, I don't want her bribery! If she thinks putting Dimitri out there and dangling a royal job is going to change my mind, she's wrong. She's a lying, scheming--"

I stopped abruptly. My voice had gone loud enough that Daniella's nearby friends were now staring. And I really didn't want to say the names I thought Tatiana deserved in front of Daniella.

"Sorry," I said. I attempted civility. "Tell Adrian I'll come to the party... but do you really want me to go? After I crashed the ceremony the other night? And after, um, other things I've done?"

She shook her head. "What happened at the ceremony is as much Adrian's fault as it is yours. It's done, and Tatiana let it go. This party's a much more lighthearted event, and if he wants you there, then I want him to be happy."

"I'll go shower and change now and meet him at your place in an hour."

She was tactful enough to ignore my earlier outburst. "Wonderful. I know he'll be happy to hear that."

I declined to tell her that I was actually happy about the thought of flaunting myself in front of some Ivashkovs in the hopes that it would get back to Tatiana. I no longer believed for an instant that she accepted what was going on with Adrian and me or that she would let my outburst blow over. And truthfully, I did want to see him. We hadn't had much time to talk recently.

After Daniella and her friends left, I figured it was time to get to the bottom of things. I headed straight over to the Moroi who'd been lurking around, hands on my hips.

"Okay," I demanded. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

He was only a few years older than me and didn't seem at all fazed by my tough-girl attitude. He crooked me a smile, and I again pondered where I'd seen him.

"I've got a message for you," he said. "And some gifts."

He handed over a tote bag. I looked inside and found a laptop, some cords, and several pieces of paper. I stared up at him in disbelief.

"What's this?"

"Something you need to get a move on--and not let anyone else know about. The note will explain everything."

"Don't play spy movie with me! I'm not doing anything until you--" His face clicked. I'd seen him back at St. Vladimir's, around the time of my graduation--always hovering in the background. I groaned, suddenly understanding the secretive nature--and cocky attitude. "You work for Abe."
    
 

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