On this page will be a compilation of the short stories and anthologies written by Richelle Mead herself.
Richelle Mead has written several short stories about the Vampire Academy world.
Each of the short stories has a number and that tells it where it falls in the timeline. Some books happened before the first book so they're labeled 0.?, The Meeting is labeled 1.1 so it's at the beginning of the first book. It's just Dimitri's point of view where the book is Rose's point of view. Homecoming is 6.5 because it's set right after the 6th book.
Sunshine, VA 0.01, is a short story where Eric Dragomir meets his future wife, Rhea Daniels. It is in Kisses From Hell, a novella that has several short stories.
In the 10th Anniversary Edition of Vampire Academy Richelle Mead wrote 4 new short stories, released November 2016.
The Turn and The Flame, VA 0.3. This 54 page short story is about Tasha Ozera and what happened the day Christian's parents turned.
From The Journal of Vasilisa Dragomir, VA 0.8. Ever wonder how Rose and Lissa lived while they were out living with humans? This 31 page story takes place from the time Lissa realized that Rose was in her mind to when they settled into life in Portland around Christmas, Dimitri found them right after school started the next fall. How did they survive? This tells all about it.
The Meeting, VA 1.1. We've heard the story from Rose's point of view but this 6 page short story is what Dimitri sees and does when he finds the girls up to the point he introduces himself. It's included after these comments.
Hello, My Name Is Rose Hathaway, VA 1.5. This 53 page short story takes place not too long after the dance where Lissa is kidnapped and tortured by Victor. It is funny and typical Rose Hathaway getting herself into trouble. This story alone is worth buying the whole 10th Anniversary Edition Vampire Academy Book.
From the Foretold novella, Homecoming, VA 6.5, shared below, is when Rose and Dimitri go to his homeland to let his family know he is alive. Shared below after the comments.
Bloodlines short story, Adrian's lost chapter. It's Bloodlines 0.05. It is 5 chapters long and it helped me connect the ending of Vampire Academy to the Bloodlines spinoff series. Link is shared below to read it online free. It wasn't published so it's only found a few places.
Here's how the stories line up so far.
Eric Dragomir meets Rhea Daniels. Sunshine
Tasha Ozera fights off Christian's parents and saves his life. The Turn and The Flame
From the Journal of Vasilisa Dragomir, Rose and Lissa run away from the Academy and live among humans until Dimitri finds them.
The Meeting, Dimitri's point of view.
Hello, My Name Is Rose Hathaway, carnival not too long after Victor kidnapped Lissa. Before Frostbite starts.
The last short story I have found as of October 2017 is Adrian's Lost Chapter. It is a bridge between Last Sacrifice and the first Bloodlines novel. I believe the dinner he is going to is the one where Jill was attacked and killed. He used Spirit and brought her back and she is now linked, shadow kissed, with Adrian.
A scene from the first book of the Vampire Academy series, as told from Dimitri's point of view.
|“||She reminded me of a cornered wildcat, sleek and beautiful—but fully capable of clawing your face out if provoked||”|
I turned instantly at the sound of my name, shooting a glare at the guardian approaching in the darkness. What was he thinking? Everyone out here tonight knew how essential secrecy was. It didn’t matter that he was young and simply excited about his first big mission. We had no room for errors, not when this was the only break we’d had in over a year. Realizing his mistake, he grew apologetic, though not nearly enough.
"Sorry." He dropped his voice to a stage whisper and tapped his ear. "Headset’s not working. We checked the house, and they’re already gone. They must have had warning, maybe a perimeter of spies on the streets." As his excitement returned, the young guardian—Laurence—began speaking rapidly. "I was thinking about it. They probably have a whole network of people working with them! It makes sense, right? How else have they managed to stay ahead of us for so long? There’s no telling how deep this conspiracy goes! We might be facing an army tonight!"
I said nothing and showed nothing as I mulled over his words. It was something of a mystery how a couple of teenage girls had managed to escape detection for two years, especially when one of them was a privileged Moroi princess and the other a delinquent dhampir with a disciplinary file so long that it broke school records. When I’d joined the teaching staff of St. Vladimir’s last year and learned of the princess’s case, I’d honestly been surprised the girls hadn’t slipped up sooner. Being in league with others might explain how they’d remained hidden …and yet, in all our data gathering, we’d never once had even the slightest hint that they had one accomplice, let alone "a whole network" or "army."
My silence made Laurence nervous, and he no longer smiled. "It’s irrelevant now," I told him. "And there’s no point jumping to conclusions when—"
"Dimitri?" A female voice crackled in my earpiece. "We’ve got visuals on them. They’re approaching the intersection of Brown and Boudreaux, from the north."
Without another word to Laurence, I turned and headed toward the streets indicated. I heard him running after me, but his stride was shorter, and he couldn’t quite keep up. I tried to force calm as my heart rate increased, but it was difficult. This was it. This was it. We might finally have her: Vasilisa Dragomir, the missing princess, last of her line. Although I knew all guardian work was honourable—including the instruction of future guardians—part of me had longed for something more at St. Vladimir’s. When I’d learned about the Dragomir princess and how she’d escaped the school, I’d made finding her a personal project, pushing leads that others had said were hopeless.
Me? I didn’t believe in hopeless.
I slowed my pace as the intersection neared, allowing Laurence to catch up. A quick scan revealed the dark shapes of other guardians lurking in shadows and behind objects. This was the spot they’d chosen for the interception. Quickly, I stepped off the road and hid in the cover of a tree, urging Laurence to do the same with a jerk of my head. We didn’t have to wait long. As I peered around the tree’s edge, I saw two female figures approaching, one practically dragging the other along. At first, I assumed it must be the stronger dhampir helping the princess, but as they grew closer, their heights and builds revealed that it was exactly the opposite.
I had no time to ponder this oddity. When they were about six feet from me, I quickly stepped out from the tree and blocked their path. They came to a halt, and whatever weaknesses the dhampir girl had now vanished. She grabbed the princess roughly by the arm and jerked her back, so that the dhampir’s own body served as a shield keeping me away. Around us, other guardians fanned out, taking defensive positions but not advancing without my command. The dhampir girl’s dark eyes made note of them, but she kept her attention focused squarely on me.
I didn’t entirely know what to expect from her, maybe that she’d try to run away or beg for her freedom. Instead, she shifted into an even more defensive position in front of the princess and spoke in a voice that was barely more than a growl: "Leave her alone. Don’t touch her."
The girl was hopelessly outmatched yet still defiant, as though I were the one at a disadvantage. In moments like these, I was glad my old instructors in Russia had grilled me into concealing my feelings— because I was surprised. Very surprised. And as I took this dhampir girl in, I suddenly understood with perfect clarity how they’d eluded us for so long. A network of accomplices? An army? Laurence was a fool. The princess didn’t need a network or army, not when she had this protector.
There was a passion and intensity that radiated off of her, almost like a palpable thing. Tension filled every part of her body as she regarded me, daring me to make a move. She possessed a fierceness I hadn’t expected—that no one had expected, I realized, most likely because they couldn’t see past that delinquent record of hers. But there was a look in her eyes now that said this was no joke, that she would die a thousand times over before she let anyone harm the princess at her back. She reminded me of a cornered wildcat, sleek and beautiful—but fully capable of clawing your face out if provoked.
And yes, even in the poor lighting, I could see that she was beautiful—in a deadly way—and that struck me too. Her pictures hadn’t done her justice. Long, dark hair framed a face filled with the sort of hard-edged beauty a man might easily dash his heart against. Her eyes, though filled with hatred for me, still managed to be alluring—which only added to her danger. She might be unarmed, but Rose Hathaway was in possession of many weapons.
I didn’t want to fight her and held out my hands in a placating gesture as I took a step forward. "I’m not going to—"
I saw it coming and wasn’t surprised by the action itself so much as that she’d even try it with the odds stacked against her. Should I have been surprised? Probably not. As I’d observed, it was clear that Rose was willing to do anything and fight anyone to protect her friend. I admired that—I admired that a lot—but it didn’t stop me from striking out to block her. The princess was still my goal tonight. And although Rose might have passion and defiance, her attack was clumsy and easy to deflect. She’d been gone too long from formal training. She recovered badly and started to fall, and I remembered how she’d stumbled earlier. Out of instinct, I reached out and caught her before she could hit the ground, keeping her steady on her feet. That long, marvellous hair fell away from her face, revealing two bloody marks on the side of her neck. Another surprise—but it explained her fatigue and pale complexion. Apparently her devotion to the princess went beyond just defence. Noticing my scrutiny, Rose knocked some of her tangled hair forward to cover her neck.
Despite the hopelessness of her situation, I could see her lithe body preparing for another attack. I tensed in response, even though I didn’t want this brave, beautiful, and wild girl to be my enemy. I wanted her as…what? I wasn’t sure. Something more than an outmatched scuffle on a Portland street. There was too much potential here. This girl could be unstoppable if her talents were properly cultivated. I wanted to help her.
But I would fight her if I had to.
Suddenly, Princess Vasilisa caught hold of her friend’s hand. "Rose. Don’t."
For a moment, nothing happened, and we all stood frozen. Then, slowly, the tension and hostility eased out of Rose’s body. Well, not all of the hostility. There was still a dangerous glint in her eyes that kept me on guard. The rest of her body language said that although she hadn’t exactly admitted defeat, she had conceded to a truce—so long as I gave her no cause for alarm.
I didn’t plan to. I also don’t plan on ever underestimating you again, wild girl, I thought, momentarily locking eyes with her. And I’ll make sure no one else ever underestimates you either.
Satisfied that she was pacified—at least momentarily—I dragged my eyes from her dark gaze and focused on the princess. After all, runaway or not, Vasilisa Dragomir was the last of a royal line, and certain protocols had to be followed. I bowed before her.
"My name is Dimitri Belikov. I’ve come to take you back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, Princess."
source: Richelle Mead's site
"Sunshine" is a short story set in the Vampire Academy world and tells how Lissa's parents met and fell in love.
RICHELLE MEAD Edit
Emma wasn’t Eric Dragomir’s first girlfriend. Nor was she likely to be his last.
Of course, the latter statement was assuming Eric’s father didn’t interfere. As far as old Frederick Dragomir was concerned, Eric and Emma should have already been married. It was a wonder, Eric thought bitterly, that his father hadn’t simply planned on having the wedding the same day they graduated high school.
“What’s the problem? How many more girls are you going to go through?” Frederick had demanded the last time father and son had visited. “She’s from a good family. Pretty. Smart. Nice enough. What more do you want? I know you think you’re too young, but time’s running out! There’s hardly any of us left.”
Standing now on a Chilean beach that felt light-years away from Montana, watching the stars flicker against a deep purple sky, Eric wondered if that was what had driven his parents to get married. Fear that their kind was dwindling away. He’d never thought much about their relationship while he was growing up. They were just his parents. They existed. They would always be together. They would always be around. He’d taken that for granted, never pondering the more intimate feelings within their marriage. He realized, now that his mother was gone, that he hadn’t even really taken the time to get to know them as people. It was too late for her, and lately, with all the marriage pressure, Eric really wasn’t all that excited to learn much more about his father.
Emma appeared suddenly, like an apparition, linking her arm with his. “Aren’t you glad the sun went down? That light was literally killing me.”
Eric didn’t bother to correct her misuse of “literally”—or to tell her that he didn’t mind the sun, even though too much exposure irritated their kind. In fact, he always kind of regretted that they—as living vampires—couldn’t handle much of the light. He sometimes entertained fantasies of lying by a pool, wrapped in the sun’s golden embrace.
Instead he smiled down at Emma, taking in her long-lashed deep blue eyes and elaborately braided dark brown hair. The eyes and hair contrasted sharply with that pale, porcelain skin all Moroi had. Combined with her heart-shaped face and high cheekbones, Emma Drozdov made lots of guys stop and stare—Eric included.
You were wrong again, Dad, Eric thought. She isn’t pretty. She’s stunning.
Maybe settling down with Emma wouldn’t be such a bad thing. They always had a good time together, and his father had been right about her being nice and smart. She’d also demonstrated—on more than one occasion—her willingness and creativity when it came to certain physical acts. Life with her would never be boring, and Eric suspected she was as eager as his father for an engagement ring.
“Hey,” she said with a nudge. “What’s up? Why are you all serious?” He groped for an answer that wouldn’t betray how moody he was—or how he kept going back and forth on their relationship. What else had his father said last time? You can’t wait forever. What if something happens to you? What’ll become of us then?
“Just pissed off at how long the boat’s taking,” Eric said at last, silencing his father’s nagging voice. “We were supposed to get out of here before sunset.”
“I know,” she said, her gaze scanning the area. Around them stood the other members of their graduating class—well, the elite members of their class. They were milling and chatting, waiting eagerly to board the yacht that would ferry them to what was supposedly the party of the year. “And now they’re taking forever.”
“The crew has to load supplies,” Eric pointed out. The boat had been tied up against a dock for a while as food and luggage were loaded. Weary-looking feeders—humans who willingly gave blood to Moroi vampires—were now being marched up the dock and onto the boat. Really, simply using the yacht for transport seemed like a waste. It was newly built and, according to rumor, filled with all sorts of luxury accommodations. Even in the fading light, the boat gleamed a brilliant white. Some might consider it small for a yacht, but it could have easily housed his class for a weeklong party.
“Still, we should have left an hour ago.” Emma’s eyes fell on Jared Zeklos—a royal whose father was behind the weekend-long celebration. She smirked, fangs just barely showing against her glossy red lips. “Jared acted so full of himself when this party was announced. Now people are going to turn on him.”
It was true. That was the nature of the circle they existed in. Eric almost felt sorry for the guy, who was clearly uncomfortable as the annoyed gazes of his classmates ran over him. “Well, I’m sure it’s not his—”
A scream cut the hum of chatter and laughter. Eric jerked toward the sound, instinctively pulling Emma against him. The beach and dock were in a fairly deserted area—as so many Moroi territories were—accessible only by a narrow dirt road cutting through a jungle that had hardly been touched by human or vampire hands.
And there, just near the tree line, Eric saw a face straight from his nightmares. A person—no, creature—was lunging toward a red-haired girl. The creature’s face was pale, but not in the manner of the Moroi. It had a sickly, chalky pallor. Eric could scarcely believe it, but he knew: It was one of the Strigoi, undead vampires who killed those they took blood from. They didn’t live and breed the way Moroi did. They were unnatural creatures who transformed from the living into a twisted, undead state. Sometimes, a Moroi could do this by choice if they drank all the blood of a victim. Other times, Strigoi were made forcefully when a Strigoi bit a victim and then fed Strigoi blood back. Really, the means of creation didn’t matter. Strigoi were lethal, with no sense of their previous lives. The paleness of the Strigoi’s face was that of death and decay, and Eric knew that up close, the Strigoi’s pupils would be ringed in red.
Snarling, the Strigoi aimed its fangs at the girl’s neck, and he was moving with a speed that didn’t seem physically possible. Eric had been taught about Strigoi his entire life, but nothing could have prepared him for the real thing. Emma apparently wasn’t prepared either, judging from the way she was clinging to him and digging her fingers into his arms. More screaming filled the air, and Eric caught sight of yet another Strigoi leaping out of the shadows and moving to the new Moroi graduates. Panic surged through the group, followed by the inevitable chaos that came whenever people were trapped and terrified. Trampling seemed inevitable.
Then, almost as quickly as the Strigoi had burst out, new figures suddenly emerged from the crowd. Their clothing was similar to that of Eric’s classmates, but there was no confusing them with the Moroi. They were dhampirs—guardians, to be specific—the half-human, half-vampire warriors who guarded Moroi. Shorter and more muscular than the living vampires they protected, the guardians had trained and honed their reflexes to as close to the Strigoi as possible. There were almost a dozen guardians on the beach and just two Strigoi. The guardians wasted no time in taking advantage of their numbers.
The scene lasted only a few moments, and yet Eric felt like he was watching it in slow motion. The guardians—who had been dispersed among the waiting group—split their forces and went after each Strigoi. The one attacking the red-haired girl was ripped away from her and staked before he could do any damage. The other Strigoi never even got a chance to go for a victim before he was taken down.
It took a few minutes for the crowd to settle down and see that the danger was gone. A great cheer went up when they realized what had happened, and suddenly it was as though the whole thing had been a nonevent. A few of the guardians dragged away the bodies of the staked Strigoi to be burned while the rest began shouting that the Moroi needed to be loaded onto the boat now. Herded along, Eric walked in a daze toward the dock, still trying to process what had happened.
Despite the cheers, a number of his classmates wore expressions mirroring how he felt. These were Moroi who had either run into Strigoi before or at least respected the risks. The rest of the group, having spent a good of part of their lives in the safety of their well-guarded school, had never seen a Strigoi. Sure, they’d been raised with all the stories, but the quick dispatch of these Strigoi had unfortunately diminished some people’s fears. It was a naive and dangerous mistake.
“Did you see that?” exclaimed Emma. Despite her initial terror, she, too, seemed to be joining those letting down their guard. “Those Strigoi were there, and then bam! The guardians just took them out! What were they thinking? The Strigoi, I mean. They were totally outnumbered.”
Eric didn’t point out the obvious to her. Strigoi didn’t care about those kinds of odds—mostly because half the time, the odds didn’t matter. It had taken only two Strigoi to slaughter his mother and the group she’d been with, which had included six guardians. In a lot of situations, six would have been more than enough guardians. For her, it hadn’t been, and Eric was a bit surprised that Emma was so caught up in the sensational nature of the moment that she’d forgotten about his family history.
Since his mother’s death, he had seen the Strigoi all the time in his nightmares, nightmares that no one ever seemed to want to hear about. That the creatures in his nightmares had not matched his recent reality didn’t seem to make a difference. For a moment, he could hardly walk, so consumed was he by the memory of that horrible, snarling face. Was that what it had been like for his mother? Had she been attacked as suddenly and brutally? No warning…just fangs ripping out her neck…. His classmate had been pulled away just before those lethal teeth could make contact. His mother hadn’t been so lucky.
“Everyone’s talking to Ashley,” grumbled Emma, nodding toward where several people were gathered around the almost-victim as they boarded the boat. “I want to know what it was like.”
Awful, thought Eric. Terrifying. Yet Ashley seemed to be thriving on the attention. And the rest of their classmates were wound up and excited—as though the Strigoi attack had been staged as pre-entertainment for their party. He stared around dumbfounded. How could none of them take this seriously? The Strigoi had been picking off Moroi for centuries. How could no one remember his mother’s death—which had only been six months ago? How could Emma not remember that? She wasn’t a cruel person, but he was a bit appalled at how oblivious she was to his feelings after the “excitement.”
Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. His own father didn’t appear to remember the past half the time. Everyone seemed to think Eric should be done mourning and ready to move on. That was certainly what his father thought. Eric sometimes wondered if his father’s fixation with Eric getting married young had taken the place of true mourning. Frederick Dragomir was obsessed with saving his royal bloodline, which was now down to only two people, father and son.
Emma grinned up at Eric, the half-moon’s light making her eyes shine. They suddenly seemed a little less beautiful to him than they had before. “Wasn’t that crazy?” she asked. “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
Rhea Daniels didn’t like boats. She’d always wondered if it had something to do with being a fire wielder. All Moroi used magic tied to one of the four elements—earth, air, water, or fire. Those who used water always seemed to love swimming and being in boats. Not Rhea. The rocking back and forth—even on a large boat like this—made her nauseous, and she had a recurrent fear of falling over the side and sinking into a cold, dark grave.
That didn’t stop her from standing near the edge tonight, far from the laughter of the others who were still going on about the attack on the beach. She didn’t mind the isolation; she didn’t know most of them anyway. Besides, the yacht’s outer sides received the most wind, and that cooling air made her feel a little less sick. Nonetheless, she still gripped the railing with a tightness that made her fingers cramp. Grimacing, she glanced ahead at their destination. Like all vampires, she had excellent night vision and could discern the island’s dark shape against the star-clustered sky. They weren’t moving nearly fast enough toward it, as far as she was concerned.
“Don’t your hands hurt?”
The voice startled her. Moroi had good hearing, too, but the newcomer had caught her off guard. Glancing over, she saw a guy watching her curiously as he shoved his hands into khaki pants. The wind was making a mess of his pale blond hair, but he didn’t seem to notice. That hair color was fascinating. Her own was a light shade of gold, but his was a platinum that would probably look white in the right lighting. There was also a regal air to him, like someone who’d been born and bred to power and prestige, but that description applied to most everyone on this trip.
“No,” she lied. Silence fell. Rhea hated silence. She always felt the need to make conversation and struggled now to think of what to say next. “Why are you over here?” The words came out harsh, and she winced. He gave her a small smile. He had nice lips, she decided. “Do you want me to leave? Is this your private part of the ship?”
“No, no, of course not.” She hoped he couldn’t see her blush in the dark. “I just thought…I mean, I’m just surprised you aren’t with everyone else.”
She thought he might make some teasing remark, but then, to her surprise, the smile vanished. He averted his eyes and stared out to sea. She studied his clothes as he did. He wasn’t in a tux or anything, but the slacks and sweater screamed wealth and status. She felt self-conscious in her jeans. His next words brought her back from her fashion analysis.
“I guess I’m just tired of hearing the Strigoi stories,” he said at last, voice stiff. “Like how it was some kind of awesome sideshow.”
“Ah.” She glanced back to where that girl—Ashley?—was recounting her tale for the hundredth time. Rhea kept hearing snatches of it, and the story seemed to grow more elaborate with each telling. In this version, the Strigoi had actually thrown her to the ground, and all the guardians had been needed to rescue her. Rhea returned her attention to her odd companion. “Yeah…I don’t really find that interesting—at least not the way they do.”
“You don’t?” He turned back to her, eyes widening as though it was the strangest thing in the world that someone wouldn’t think a Strigoi attack was cool. She saw then that his eyes were jade-colored, as fascinating to her as his hair. That shade of green was beautiful and rare, only showing up in a few of the royal families. The Dashkovs were one, but she couldn’t recall the others.
“Of course not,” she scoffed, hoping her scrutiny of him hadn’t been too obvious. “They wouldn’t be so excited if someone had actually been hurt. I mean, God, don’t they remember that attack earlier this year in San Jose? When all those people died?”
The guy’s posture went rigid, his eyes still wide, and she suddenly regretted her words. Had he known one of the victims? She felt stupid and awkward, silently berating herself for not thinking before she spoke.
“I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have—”
“You remember that?” he asked, his voice as puzzled as before.
“Yes…how couldn’t I? I mean…well, I didn’t know anyone personally, but all those people…most were Lazars, but there was that Szelsky lord…and Prince Dragomir’s wife. What was her name?”
“Alma,” he said softly, still regarding her wonderingly.
Rhea hesitated, not sure how much she should say about it. She was certain now that he’d known someone. “Well, it was horrible. Beyond horrible. I can’t even imagine how their families must feel….”
“It was six months ago,” he said abruptly.
Rhea frowned, trying to figure out the meaning in that statement. He wasn’t brushing it off or implying that six months was a long time—which, in her opinion, it wasn’t. He spoke as though he was testing her, which didn’t make much sense. “I don’t think six months is a long enough time to get over losing someone you love,” she said at last. “I know I couldn’t. Did—did you know anyone there?”
He opened his mouth to say something, but a sudden wave jolted the boat. It lurched slightly, causing a few eager squeals from the crowd beyond them. Rhea gasped and squeezed the rail harder—which she honestly hadn’t thought was even possible—and lost her footing a little. Her companion caught hold of her, helping her stay steady as the boat righted itself and regained its smooth sailing.
Deep breaths, deep breaths, she told herself. Wasn’t that what people did to calm themselves? Heavy breathing didn’t seem to be a problem for her. She was on the verge of hyperventilating, and her heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest.
“Easy,” he said, voice low and soothing. “You’re okay. It was just a bad wave.”
Rhea couldn’t answer. Her body remained taut and locked, unable to move or react in her terror.
“Hey,” he tried again. “Everything’s fine. Look—we’re almost there, see?”
With much effort, Rhea turned to where he nodded. Sure enough, the island was much closer. A cluster of lights marked the dock, and figures along the shore seemed ready to guide them in.
Exhaling, she relaxed her grip—a tiny bit—and shifted her body. He still held on to her, apparently unsure if she really was okay.
“Thank you,” she managed at last. “I’m…I’m fine now.”
He waited a few more moments and then finally released her. As he lifted his hand from where it had been pressed against one of hers, he seemed surprised to notice the ring she wore. Its large marquise-cut diamond glittered like a star on her finger. He stared at it in shock as though she was wearing a cobra wrapped around her hand.
“Are you…are you engaged?”
“To Stephen Badica.”
The tone of his voice—his complete sense of disbelief—suddenly triggered a fierce spark of anger in her. Of course he was surprised. Why wouldn’t he be? Everyone else was. They all wondered how it was possible that Rhea Daniels—who was only half-royal—could have caught the interest of someone who came from such a prestigious branch of his line. Her parents’ marriage had been a big enough scandal. Everyone had thought her mother married beneath her, and Rhea knew the sting of that was what had caused her mother to encourage this engagement to Stephen.
Still, Rhea hated the insinuations. She’d heard the whispers; she knew people who wondered if maybe her parents had cut some kind of deal with Stephen’s parents, some bribe. Others said that Stephen was interested because she was easy—and that the engagement wouldn’t last once he tired of her. She knew they seemed like a weird match. Rhea was quiet—more of an observer of the world. Stephen was outgoing and boisterous, always at the center of the world—so much so that he was off now with the others, reliving the earlier excitement.
Rhea stepped back from the blond guy. “Yes,” she said crisply. “Seriously. He’s great. He invited me along.” She was one of the few people here who hadn’t attended St. Vladimir’s Academy.
“Yeah…” This guy didn’t sound entirely sure. Mostly, he still seemed baffled. “I just…I just can’t see you guys together.”
Of course not. He was obviously someone very elite. Even among royalty, there were those who were better than others. It was honestly a wonder he was even talking to her.
“Don’t you worry…don’t you worry you’re too young?” Again, he carried that wondering tone, further incensing her.
“When you’ve found someone good, you don’t need to jump from person to person.”
He flinched and seemed to fumble for a response, making her wonder if she’d hit a sensitive area. He was saved when a pretty brown-haired girl called to him to come join them. She addressed him as Eric.
“You’d better go,” said Rhea. “It was nice talking to you.”
He started to turn and then hesitated once more. “What’s your name?”
“Rhea…” He said the name as though he was analyzing each syllable. “I’m Eric.”
“Yeah, I heard.” She stared back over the boat’s edge, signaling that she was done talking to him. She had the impression he might say something more, but after several heavy seconds, she could just make out the sound of him walking away as the waves crashed alongside the boat.
E veryone was ready to party as soon as they stepped off the dock. Despite the black sky, it was midday for the Moroi—a bit early for revelry, but no one seemed to care. And after everyone caught their first glimpse of the Zeklos beach house, it was easy to forgive Jared for the late start. Even Eric was in awe, and he’d been surrounded by luxury his entire life. The giant estate sprawled on a small bluff, the entire building covered in windows that promised a spectacular view from almost anywhere inside. Exotic trees partially covered the property, making it difficult for passing boats to discern many details. Moroi interacted with humans all the time but still sought out privacy when possible. Far beyond the house, on the other side of the island, were some rocky cliffs.
The guardians made everyone stay on the yacht while a safety sweep of the island was performed. Most of Eric’s classmates grumbled about this, Emma included. No one seemed to think Strigoi could have infiltrated the island, but Eric knew it was just as easy for Strigoi to get in a boat as anyone else. Jared’s father had his own guardians on the grounds, but that didn’t mean Strigoi couldn’t have slipped in on a previous night.
Eric was still a little disgusted at everyone’s flippant attitude about the Strigoi, but other thoughts pushed the disapproval to the back of his mind. Like Rhea Daniels.
Why had she gotten so mad at him? He’d replayed their conversation over and over, trying to figure out what he might have said. The only thing he could guess was that she’d taken some offense over his surprise about her being with Stephen. Maybe she’d thought Eric was insulting Stephen. That hadn’t been Eric’s intent—though he still believed the two were an unlikely couple. Stephen was always loud, always drawing attention to himself and making people laugh. Maybe opposites really did attract, but Eric thought it was telling that he’d never heard of Stephen having a fiancée until now. Of course, since they’d all just graduated, the engagement could have been a recent event.
In fact, thinking back to their wait on the beach, Eric recalled seeing Stephen telling jokes and entertaining the others. Rhea hadn’t been nearby. Or had she been? Maybe Eric had just overlooked her—not that that seemed possible. How could anyone overlook her? Even now, faced with the tantalizing prospect of parties to come, Eric found his mind consumed with his memories of her. The soft, golden blond hair that seemed so much more alive than his own, almost like the forbidden sunshine he so longed for. The faint scattering of freckles across her pale skin—a rarity among the Moroi. And the eyes…her eyes were a rich hazel, flecked with green and gold. There had been something infinitely wise and kind in those eyes, particularly when she’d spoken about the massacre. She hadn’t known anyone in it, but it had still pained her.
“Finally,” said Emma. The guardians were ushering the Moroi onto the dock and up into the island. “I can’t wait to see what kind of rooms we have. Miranda was here once and said they’re huge.”
They were indeed, but Eric didn’t spend much time in his. Moroi servants—nonroyals, of course—carried in the guests’ baggage and made sure everyone knew where their room assignments were. Enormous it might be, but the house couldn’t provide thirty bedrooms, so some people had to share. Eric was one of the lucky ones who had his own, which didn’t surprise him. With his father’s status and power, most royals wanted to get in good with him. Jared’s family would be no exception.
After that brief stop, everyone spilled out toward the back of the house, where the Zeklos servants had been hard at work. In a secluded, tiled area bordered by sheltering trees, tall torches were staked into the ground, lighting up the darkness with eerie, flickering light. The scents of roasting meat and other delicacies filled the air, and in the center of it all was a man-made lagoon, its water a deep, crystalline blue that was lit from within by cleverly embedded lights. The entire pool glowed like something otherworldly.
Jared’s father, a thin man with slanting black eyebrows and a waxed mustache, gave a brief speech congratulating them on their graduation from high school and wishing them luck on whatever roads they chose to follow. When he finished, the festivities kicked in immediately. Music blared from unseen speakers, and all thoughts of future responsibility and important plans were quickly forgotten.
Eric threw himself into the drinking and dancing, suddenly wanting nothing more than to forget everything for a while. He didn’t want to think about his mother or that awful, nightmarish face down on the beach. He didn’t want to think about the legacy left to him, of being the heir to a dying royal line. He didn’t want to think about his father’s plans for him. And above all, Eric most certainly didn’t want to think about the solemn girl he’d met on the boat. Sometimes he found parties like this trite, but other times…well, in the hardest moments of his life, crazy revelry was a welcome escape.
“This is the most fun you’ve been in a while,” exclaimed Emma, shouting to be heard over the music.
Eric grinned and pulled her close to him with one arm as they danced. His other hand was precariously holding a drink—and not doing a very good job of it. Considering it was his third, it probably didn’t matter if he lost some.
“You don’t think I’m usually fun?” he teased.
Emma shook her head. “No…you’ve just been so serious lately. Like you’re nervous about…I don’t know. Nervous about the future.” She knocked back some of her own drink and frowned prettily. “Are you?”
It was a surprisingly pensive moment for her, and Eric wasn’t sure how to respond. Emma was usually all about living in the now, about seeking as much fun and excitement as she could—without thinking of the consequences. It was one of the things he liked best about her when his own worries plagued him. “I don’t know,” he admitted, deciding he needed to finish his own drink if this conversation was going to continue. Both the music and topic made it difficult to continue. “There’s just so much pressure…so many decisions that could affect the rest of my life.”
Emma stood up on her tiptoes and gave him a quick kiss. “Just because you have to make a decision doesn’t mean it’s going to have bad consequences. And some of us don’t mind standing with you through it all.”
Through his haze of vodka martinis, he heard a subtle hint about their engagement in her statement. Eric decided then that he wished they hadn’t strayed onto this topic. He was going to suggest another drink, but a distraction of a different kind popped up.
“And now,” a voice declared, managing to carry over the heavy bass of the music, “I will attempt a feat never, ever before attempted by anyone in history. Not ever.”
Eric and Emma turned, finding Stephen Badica standing on a chair by the edge of the pool. Everyone in his vicinity stopped what they were doing to watch. Even without his theatrics, Stephen often drew eyes. He had a build that was a bit brawnier than the typically slim Moroi figure, giving him a look he joked was “rugged and manly.” He didn’t have pretty-boy features, but the strong lines of his chiseled face met with the approval of most girls—especially since he always seemed to be smiling.
Stephen held up a shot glass. “I’m going to jump into the pool and finish this shot before I hit the water.”
This was met with cheers and whistles, as well as the cries of a few naysayers protesting that he’d be spilling whiskey in the water. Stephen held up his free hand as though calling for silence—impossible in this situation—and then leaped off the chair. It all happened fast, but Eric was pretty sure he saw Stephen actually down the shot before hitting the water—in his clothes—cannonball-style. Water exploded everywhere, and there were a few squeals of surprise as several people got soaked. Emma was among them, her slinky red dress catching a particularly large wave.
More cheers erupted from the spectators, and Stephen emerged from the pool holding up his hands in victory. After a few whoops of joy, he then challenged others to do it. Naturally, there were several volunteers.
Watching Stephen, Eric realized he wasn’t going to be able to push aside all his cares tonight. There was a part of him that kept secretly hoping he’d see sunny blond hair in the crowd. Turning to Emma, who was futilely trying to wring water out of her skirt, he asked, “Hey, do you know anything about Stephen being engaged?”
“Huh?” Emma’s eyes were still on her skirt. “Oh, yeah. To some girl from…I don’t remember. Some other school. She’s here somewhere—she’s got blond hair. Kind of quiet. Why?”
Eric shrugged. “I just heard about it earlier and was surprised that Stephen was engaged. I never thought he was the settling down type.”
Emma gave up on her dress and looked back up. “More like he doesn’t seem the type to settle down with her.”
“What? Why? What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s only half-royal.” Emma couldn’t keep the scorn out of her voice. “Her mom’s an Ozera, I think, but her dad’s a nobody.”
“That’s kind of harsh.”
“Hey, I’ve got nothing against her. And she’s done pretty good to snag Stephen. Nice work there. That’s definitely going to bring her up in the world.” Emma tugged at Eric’s shirt, Stephen and Rhea already forgotten. “Come on. My dress is ruined.”
“Huh? What are you—”
Maybe it was the abrupt change in topic—or just too much to drink—but Eric wasn’t able to stop Emma when she jerked him toward the pool. They landed ungracefully, sending more water up over the edge and onto the patterned tile. Other people had already followed Stephen’s example, and Eric thought it a miracle he hadn’t landed on anyone already in the pool. “Ugh,” he said, looking down at his waterlogged clothes. Emma laughed in triumph and threw her arms around him.
“Gotcha,” she said.
He started to complain but soon discovered it was hard to with Emma pressed up against him. Uncaring of the others around, she kissed him, and Eric found the feel of her body, with its tightly clinging dress, was better than alcohol for forgetting his worries. He jerked her closer, running his hand over her hip.
“You want to call it an early night?” she asked huskily, breaking the kiss at last.
Eric hesitated, thinking that might be a very good idea. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught the longed-for glimpse of shining gold hair. Rhea Daniels was here after all. She slipped inside the house’s elaborate glass doors, but not before her eyes flicked over to him. On her face, he saw…what? Disapproval? Scorn? He wasn’t sure, but suddenly, inexplicably, he knew he had to talk to her.
Reluctantly pulling away from Emma, he got his first good look at just how much her wet dress revealed. “I want to stay,” he said, forcing what he hoped was a reckless smile. “But not in these clothes.”
She tried to draw him back. “Want me to help take them off?”
“Later,” he said, kissing her forehead. He began climbing out of the pool. “I’m going to change. Be right back.”
Emma pouted, but as he’d suspected, she felt no need to put on dry clothes, despite the chill in the air. She didn’t mind showing off her body to others and would no doubt tolerate the cold in exchange for attention. “Fine, but don’t take long.” He helped her out. “I’m getting another drink.”
Once she was on her way to the bar, Eric hurried inside the house, hoping he could find Rhea in its labyrinthine setup. Others wandered through, either chatting or seeking privacy, but there was no sign of Rhea. He passed the kitchen, filled with bustling staff who were still working hard to keep up with the demand for appetizers and liquor. Frustrated, he pulled someone aside and asked if she’d seen anyone matching Rhea’s description. “Sure,” said the serving girl. “She went toward the feeders.”
Eric offered his thanks and ran toward the wing of the house she directed him to. Visiting feeders at a party like this was strange. Sometimes feeders were actually kept in the middle of a party, but with the estate’s setup, getting blood meant leaving the festivities. Most people—including Eric—had fed beforehand.
Moving quickly, he reached the entrance to the feeders’ room just as Rhea was about to go inside. Hearing his footfall, she paused in the doorway. Those golden-green eyes widened in surprise. She’d changed out of her earlier jeans into a clingy green cashmere dress that seemed both demure and sexy to him. Seeing her in full light now, he was astonished at just how beautiful she was. And that hair, oh that hair.
He came to a halt, suddenly realizing he had no clue what it was he wanted to say.
“W hat are you doing here?” he asked after an uneasy silence.
Rhea stared. That Eric guy was the last person she’d expected to see down in the feeders’ area, especially considering he’d just been making out with the brunette in the pool minutes before. It was only the totally stupid nature of his question that allowed her to quickly gather herself. Rhea put one hand on her hip.
“What do you think?” she responded.
“Er, yeah…I mean, I know why you’re here, but…” He was clearly struggling to save himself here, and she wondered how much he’d had to drink. “But I mean, it just seems kind of weird at a party.”
“I can’t have blood before I get on a boat. Otherwise I get sick.” She reconsidered. “Sicker.”
“Oh. Yeah. That makes sense.”
Another awkward pause hung between them. Finally Rhea turned toward the room. “Now that the interrogation’s over, can I go eat?”
“Sure…sure. Do you mind if I…if I hang out with you?”
Rhea couldn’t keep the surprise off her face as she tried to figure out why he would want to stay with her. Earlier on the boat, he’d obviously looked down on her the same way everyone else did for her flawed pedigree. Why show interest now? Not wanting to seem like she cared too much one way or another, she simply entered the room and called back, “Sure.”
There was a Moroi attendant on duty who seemed as surprised as Eric that she was there. The guy marked her off on the list that tracked how often Moroi fed and looked astonished when she asked how he was doing tonight. Rhea had a feeling that most of the royals around here tended to treat the servants like furniture.
“Can I have Dennis?” she asked. “Is he awake?”
The attendant was much more cheerful, now that she’d behaved civilly. “Yup. He’s the last one on the right.”
Rhea smiled and thanked him before walking down the rows of cubicles that sequestered the feeders. At a busier feeding time, all the spaces would have been full, but with the party going on, only a few of the cubicles were occupied. Some of the humans read while waiting for Moroi to come by; others simply stared off into space, blissfully gone on the high of a vampire bite. It was the rush all these humans lived for. They’d been taken from the fringes of human society, outcasts and homeless who were more than happy to give their blood in exchange for the ecstasy it brought. The Moroi also took care of them, giving the humans plenty of food and comfortable accommodations.
“Who’s Dennis?” asked Eric, walking beside Rhea. He smelled like chlorine and was dripping puddles with each step. Nonetheless, she still found him oddly attractive, which frustrated her.
“He’s a feeder who came from my school,” she explained. She couldn’t help a small smile when she thought of Dennis. “He’s sweet. He always asks for me to come back to him.”
The look Eric gave her told her that he thought it was all ridiculous. Her smile vanished, and she quickened her pace to Dennis’s cubicle. Dennis was one of the humans simply content to stare off and do nothing until his next fix. But as soon as he saw her, he straightened to attention, nearly leaping out of his chair.
“Rhea!” he exclaimed. “I thought you’d forgotten me. It’s been so long.”
Rhea sat down in the chair beside him. She felt the smile creeping back to her lips. He was only a little older than her, but there was something cute and childlike about him. She always wanted to pat his messy brown hair back into place.
“It hasn’t been that long,” she said. “It’s only been a day.”
Dennis frowned, apparently trying to decide if that was true or not. It was easy for feeders to lose track of time. His eyes lifted to where Eric leaned against the cubicle’s entrance. Dennis’s enraptured look changed to a frown. “Who’s that?” Dennis asked suspiciously.
“That’s Eric,” she said soothingly. “He’s…my friend.” Was he? She wasn’t sure, but it was best not to agitate Dennis.
“I don’t like him,” Dennis declared. “He has weird eyes.”
“I like his eyes,” Rhea said, still trying to be gentle. “They’re neat.”
Dennis turned back to her, and seeing her face, his expression softened. He sighed happily. “I like your eyes. They’re beautiful. Like you.”
She shook her head ruefully. She was used to his dreamy behavior, but Eric seemed offended by it. Like so many, he regarded feeders as objects. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
Dennis eagerly tilted his neck, giving her full access. The skin there might have been smooth once, but now it was covered with the faint bruises of constant biting. Still, Rhea had no trouble sinking her fangs into his flesh and drinking the warm, sweet blood that was as essential to her survival as the solid food she ate. Dennis managed a small, happy sigh, and both of them shared a minute or so of total joy.
When she finished and pulled away, Dennis turned to her with bright, ecstatic eyes. “You don’t have to stop,” he said. “You can take more.”
He always made that offer, but Moroi were trained from an early age about the strict limits to how much they could take. It was what allowed these humans to survive the constant feedings. Plus, limitations steered Moroi away from that ultimate sin: Becoming a Strigoi by drinking all of a person’s blood.
Rhea wiped her mouth and rose. Dennis started to stand as well and then sank back down, addled by the dizziness that usually followed a feeding. “Will you come back?” he pleaded. “Soon?”
“I’ll be back as soon as I always am,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
Dennis looked unhappy about this, like usual, but reluctantly nodded in acceptance as she left. Eric followed in her wake, thoughtful and quiet, but suddenly burst out at her the second they stepped back into the hall.
“Are you crazy?” he asked. Startled, she stopped so quickly that he bumped into her. They both froze at that contact, and then he hastily stepped back.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
Eric pointed at the door. “That. That guy’s out of his mind.”
“He’s a feeder,” she replied. “They’re all kind of that way.”
“No. He’s different. He’s obsessed with you.”
“He just knows me, that’s all. I told you—he’s from my school. I’ve been talking to him and feeding from him for the last couple of years.”
“That’s the problem.”
Eric shook his head. “No. Talking to him. You should just get your blood and go.”
Rhea couldn’t believe she’d almost been reconsidering her first impression of Eric. “Oh, of course. Feeders aren’t people to you, right? Not worthy of your notice unless they’re part of your royal world?” “No! I just think you’re encouraging him to…I don’t know. The way he looked at you. He doesn’t seem…safe.”
“He’s fine,” she argued. “He’s a feeder. He’s not going anywhere.”
“I still don’t think it’s a good idea,” Eric grumbled.
“Yeah? Well, I don’t think you have any right to tell me what to do!” she exclaimed, trying to keep her voice down. “You don’t even know me. And you made your feelings about me clear earlier.”
A sudden panicked look crossed his face. A moment later, he smoothed his features back to pseudocalmness. “What are you talking about?”
“Back on the yacht. It’s obvious you don’t think I have any right being with Stephen since my bloodline’s not as pure.”
“I—what?” Eric looked truly startled. “No! No, that’s not it at all. I didn’t even know about that when we met.”
“Sure,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Then why were you so surprised about our engagement?”
“Because…I mean, because you’re so different. You saw him out there in thepool. You just don’t seem like that type.”
“What type? The fun type? Are you saying I’m boring?”
“No!” Eric wore the desperate look of someone trying to dig himself out of a hole, only to see the sides cave in. “You’re so quiet and…serious. He’s not.”
“He has his moments. And I was out having fun too, you know. I had a drink. I danced.” Her words came out in more of a defensive tone than she intended, probably because Stephen was also always telling her she didn’t live it up enough. She really had been out there in the thick of the party, trying to share in his wild side just as he sometimes attempted her more decorous behavior. Stephen certainly excelled at making a spectacle of himself, but he did have a quieter side. “Just because I didn’t make an idiot of myself doesn’t mean I’m some kind of recluse.”
“That’s not what I—damn it!” Eric took a step toward her, frustration all over him. He raked a hand through his platinum hair. “This wasn’t how I wanted this to be at all.”
Her fury dimmed for a moment, turning to confusion. “What was it you wanted?”
“I—nothing, nothing. Forget it. Just be careful with Dennis. Go use a different feeder next time.”
“Thanks for the advice I didn’t ask for.”
He sighed and seemed to be working hard to control his temper. “I’m just looking out for you, that’s all.”
His eyes suddenly lifted to something beyond her. Turning around, Rhea saw the brown-haired girl he’d been with earlier standing farther down the hall, watching them. Like Eric, she was dripping water everywhere. Her expression was hard to identify exactly, but Rhea felt pretty confident it wasn’t happy.
“Hi, Emma,” he said, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but in that hall right now.
“Hey,” Emma replied stiffly. “I tried to find you, and someone said they saw you down here. Weren’t you going to change clothes?” “Yeah…I just ran into Rhea, and we started talking about Stephen’s amazing dive.”
Rhea arched an eyebrow and toyed with the idea of contradicting him. But the more she studied Emma, the more Rhea could now see that the other girl’s expression was obvious jealousy. It was nothing Rhea wanted to get involved in, so she allowed him his lie.
Eric put on a big smile, catching Rhea by surprise. In their brief acquaintance, his few smiles had always been small or melancholy. But this…this smile went a long way to win Emma over, and even Rhea felt her breath catch a little.
“See you around,” he told Rhea breezily. He walked past her and put an arm around Emma, leaning his face close to hers. “Now that you’re here, maybe you can help me change after all.”
Rhea repressed a grimace, but his remark erased the last signs of jealousy on Emma’s face. She cuddled up against Eric and made some vague good-bye to Rhea. Rhea watched the two of them stroll off, whispering and laughing, and was surprised to feel a pang of sadness inside her chest.
Immediately she shook it off and decided she’d just go to bed. Why should she care what this Eric guy said or did? She’d barely exchanged a dozen words with him. Resolved, she started to head upstairs toward her room. A moment later, she reconsidered and decided to tell Stephen good night.
Unsurprisingly, he was still outside, in the center of the party. He was soaked to the bone, and she wondered how many times he’d been in the lagoon. Vampires liked Chile in the winter because of the shorter sunlight, but the night was growing increasingly chilly. Liquor could only warm you up so much. Stephen didn’t seem to notice the temperature and was telling some story about the time he and some friends had broken into their math teacher’s office. The story involved vodka and ferrets.
Rhea smiled in spite of herself and waved at him as she emerged from the house. Catching sight of her, he gave her a big grin and put his story on hold. “Hey, babe,” he said, coming over to her. He reached out for a dripping hug.
She laughed. “No way.”
He gave her an exaggerated sad face and then settled for a brief kiss on her lips, making sure to lean in far enough so she wouldn’t get wet.
“Acceptable?” he asked triumphantly.
“Very. I just wanted you to know I’m heading to bed.”
This time, his sad expression was real. “But we’re going to set some shots on fire. You could help.”
“That’s not quite the use of my magic I had in mind. At least being so soaked, you probably don’t have to worry about catching on fire yourself.”
“That’s true,” he agreed, apparently thinking of it for the first time. His face softened slightly. “We’ll talk tomorrow?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Eric might think Stephen was just some loud, in-your-face guy, but Rhea had learned long ago that her fiancé possessed a fair amount of vulnerability that few ever saw. As far as she could tell, she was the only one he ever showed that side to. He seemed to take comfort from her, like he needed to express his softer side in order to balance that other rowdy part of him. They’d grown up around each other, almost like siblings, and the engagement had seemed perfectly natural. They were both used to having the other around.
He squeezed her hand—his was wet, naturally—and then gave her another quick kiss before returning to his audience.
E mma was easy enough to soothe once Eric brought her back to his bedroom. She seemed much more interested in helping take his clothes off than discussing what had happened with Rhea, particularly since neither of them ended up putting on dry clothes or returning to the party.
Alcohol eventually made Emma fall into a heavy sleep, but as he lay in bed with her in his arms, he discovered he wasn’t as lucky. The sounds of the party outside wound down. It was getting pretty late for the Moroi and he knew the dark-tinted windows would eventually be lightening, sending most of his friends to bed. He stared at the ceiling, growing more and more sober, thinking about Rhea Daniels.
And really, it made no sense. Aside from those first few moments when they met, the two of them had yet to have a friendly conversation. Everything he said seemed to make her mad, and he couldn’t figure out why. He knew he shouldn’t worry about it. Who cared if she was touchy about everything? If she wanted to keep picking a fight, that was her problem. He’d have nothing to do with her.
And yet…no matter how often he told himself that, he still couldn’t shake the image of her radiant hair or wise eyes. Who needed the sun if you were around her? In those first moments on the boat, when she’d truly seemed to get how he felt about his mother, he’d had a brief flash of someone really and sincerely understanding him. No, more than that. Someone who actually cared. Although her attentions hadn’t been directed at him, he’d sensed that same characteristic in her when she’d spoken to the feeding room attendant and even that crazy Dennis guy. Rhea paid attention to people, to individuals.
He finally fell asleep, only to wake to a pounding headache. Emma, as always, displayed no symptoms of a hangover. She gave him a long, lingering kiss and tugged back on her still damp dress, promising to meet up with him in an hour to get blood before the next set of activities. They didn’t know exactly what was going on, but Jared had promised something entertaining.
When Eric joined Emma, she had changed and was as fresh and beautiful as ever, with no sign of her earlier disarrayed state. Eric had discovered his own shower had erased most of his headache, and linking hands with her, he allowed himself to relax and make an effort to enjoy the day.
The feeding area was much busier in the vampiric morning, since that was a preferred time to take blood. Eric and Emma stood in line, chatting with friends who looked like they’d done a bit too much partying. Someone came by with a stash of doughnuts pilfered from the breakfast buffet and passed the pastries out to the waiting group as appetizers to the blood.
When they reached the front of the line, Eric saw that a different attendant was on duty today. She marked their names on her list and waited for the next opening. When it came, she turned to Emma and said, “Go ahead, down to Dennis on the right.”
Eric caught Emma’s arm as she took a step forward. “Don’t.” He turned to the attendant. “We’ll wait for the next one. Let someone else in line go.”
The attendant started to protest—probably not liking someone dictating her job—but after a moment, she just shrugged and waved in the next person. Emma gave Eric a puzzled look, but another feeder became available before she could question him.
When they finished, she immediately jumped on the topic while walking back to the main part of the house. “What was that about? The feeder thing? Why did you stop me?”
“Because that one’s crazy,” Eric replied.
“They’re feeders,” Emma said. “They’re all crazy.”
“Not like him. He was the one Rhea went to last night, and I would not want to be under the same roof as him if I were her. He was nuts. Total stalker obsessive type.” Emma pondered this and then shook her head. “Yeah, well, it’s not like feeders are out socializing with us. She probably doesn’t have to worry.” There was a carefully calculated pause. “I’m kind of surprised you’re so worried about her.”
Eric recognized that tone and realized he’d stumbled into dangerous territory. “Not that worried. I hardly know her—but after talking to that guy last night, I would have warned anyone away from him.”
“You were asking a lot of questions about her yesterday.” Emma still apparently wasn’t convinced of his lack of interest. He sighed, realizing he’d put Rhea on Emma’s radar.
“All I asked was about Stephen being engaged. Come on, Em. Don’t dig up something that doesn’t even exist.”
“Okay.” She grinned and squeezed his hand, and he hoped the matter had truly been dropped. “Let’s see what Jared has planned.”
What Jared had planned was a scavenger hunt. Once the guests (those who had been able to get out of bed) were gathered outside, their host explained the rules. Everyone would be divided into teams of two and be randomly given a clue. That clue would lead to another clue and so on until one of the teams found the ultimate treasure and won the game’s prize: getting to stay in the beach house’s master suite, complete with a Jacuzzi and balcony.
Emma gripped Eric so tightly that her nails dug into his skin, kind of reminding him of last night in bed. “We are sowinning that,” she hissed. “I just hope they don’t send us all over into crazy places. Did you see those cliffs on the other side of the island? Molly claims Jared goes rock climbing all the time. No way am I doing that.”
“And to make it more challenging,” Jared announced, “we’re going to randomly assign teams. Each person on the winning team gets one night in the suite.”
This was met with a mix of cheers and groans. Emma was one of the groaners until Jared drew her name along with a friend of hers named Fiona. Emma lit up and kissed Eric on the cheek. “Okay. We’ve got this. You and me are gonna be in that Jacuzzi tonight.” She scurried off to join Fiona.
Jared continued pulling out names from his hat, finally reaching, “Eric Dragomir.”
In spite of his best efforts to ignore it, Eric couldn’t help but notice the excited whispering among some of the gathered girls. They knew he and Emma weren’t engaged yet, so some still considered him open game. Even a few guys looked interested in being paired with Eric, in the hopes of currying favor with his family.
Jared read the next name. “Rhea Daniels.”
He’d spotted Rhea as soon as he’d come outside earlier. She was standing with Stephen on the far side of the lagoon, seeming to be in a good mood. She and her fiancé had been having some kind of serious talk—not like a depressing talk, but just something warm and ordinary. Stephen had done most of the talking, his pleasant face earnest and thoughtful while she simply listened. The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, and its rays made her hair shine like gold fire. Eric couldn’t look away from it and jealously wondered what they’d had to talk about.
Now, hearing her name, Rhea became puzzled and scanned the crowd. Stephen nudged her and pointed over at Eric. Her gaze fell on him, and her eyes widened in shock. For a moment, he was confused. If she was going to be shocked, it should have been when she heard their names called—not when she saw him. Then he understood. Rhea really didn’t know who he was. He’d suspected it that night on the yacht but had thought that surely she’d have learned since then. Apparently not.
Stephen grinned and motioned for her to go over to Eric. Biting her lip, she reluctantly walked over, looking as though each step was agony. Glancing back to where Emma stood by Fiona, Eric thought his girlfriend looked as though each of Rhea’s steps was agony for her, too.
Eric and Rhea said nothing to each other as more names were read off. They didn’t even speak when they were given their clue. As the rest of the group eagerly dispersed, Eric looked down at their slip of paper.
Find me where the palm trees bend
By the water that never ends.
He stared at it blankly, having no idea what it meant. Rhea sighed and took the clue from him.
“It’s a fountain,” she said. “I saw it last night. There’s a little path that goes out past the courtyard.”
She marched away from him, and he hurried to keep up. Wordlessly she led him to the fountain. Delicate and made of marble, it was crowned with swans that poured water from their mouths. Eric couldn’t decide if it was tacky or elegant. He and Rhea studied it for a while, trying to figure out what the next step was. Eric was the one who spotted it. A small piece of smooth, flat wood was embedded into a tiny gap in the sculpture. Words were engraved upon it.
Music, music everywhere
With sweeping sights that make you stare.
“The conservatory,” said Rhea promptly. “It’s on the upper floor.”
Again, she took off, with Eric quickening his pace to stay with her. “Have you been here before? How do you know where everything is?”
“I went exploring last night,” she explained tersely. It was clear she wasn’t in the mood for conversation. At least not with him.
Sure enough, they reached the conservatory, which was filled with windows showing breathtaking views of the ocean. Another team was just leaving, uncertain if they’d read the clue correctly. Everyone’s starting clue had sent them to a random place, and the goal was to eventually put them all together. The conservatory’s clue was hidden on the piano. Like before, Rhea interpreted it and started to leave, but Eric grabbed her arm.
“Wait, I need to talk to you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Talk about what?”
He sighed. “Look, I just want to know why you’re so mad at me today. What did I do this time? I already told you I wasn’t making fun of you and Stephen last night.”
Rhea studied him for several seconds, and he wondered if she’d just turn around and leave. Instead she answered his question with a question. “Why didn’t you tell me you were a Dragomir?”
He hadn’t expected that. “It…didn’t seem important. And I thought you probably knew.”
“Right. Because how could there be anyone in the world who doesn’t know who you are?” she asked sarcastically.
“I’m serious! And I…well, I kind of liked you not knowing. You talked to me like a real person…even if it was to yell at me most of the time.”
“I didn’t yell,” she countered. “And somehow, I don’t believe you just wanted to talk to me. I’ve heard about you. You go through lots of girls. You probably thought I’d be an easy one, desperate to hook up with as much royalty as I can.”
Eric gaped, wondering just what kind of reputation he had. It was true that he’d had a lot of girlfriends. But he’d never used them. He’d genuinely liked each of them, and he had intended to take his dad’s advice and get serious, but then…well, Eric just always lost interest.
“That’s not true at all! I like being with you because you’re easy to talk to.”
Rhea scoffed. “I thought you just said I yelled at you all the time.”
“Well, that’s not what I—I mean, that is, I like that you pay attention.”
“Pay attention?” she asked warily.
“You notice things. You notice people—and you get people. You’re the only one who thought about the massacre six months ago, you know. That’s where my mother died.”
She blanched, and all that annoyance and anger vanished. “Oh God, I’m sorry—”
He held up a hand. “I know you are. That’s the thing. I’ve never met anyone who thinks about those things. You think about the servants. About that crazy feeder. I mean, don’t get me wrong—a lot of these people are really nice. But there’s something real about you. Something different. And that’s why you’re with Stephen, isn’t it? I watched you guys earlier. You notice parts of him that no one else does, and he needs that. No one else cares about him that way.” Eric paused, bracing himself for the next part. “But here’s the thing, does anyone care about you? Who worries about you or asks how you feel?”
Rhea averted her eyes, which he thought was a damn shame. He could easily lose himself in them. “Plenty of people do,” she said evasively. But he knew even she didn’t believe that. She was quiet and went unnoticed, giving her energy to others and no doubt letting her parents urge her into a marriage that would save her from the disgrace they’d faced. Stephen, silly as he might seem, did care about her. That much was obvious. He was dependent on her to listen to what he was afraid to tell others. Eric doubted Stephen returned the favor.
“Not enough people do,” Eric replied. “Somehow I just…know. I can see it all over you. You don’t let people worry about you enough.” And then, doing what was probably one of the stupidest things ever, he pulled her to him and kissed her. He fully expected her to jerk away or maybe even punch or kick him. Instead she pressed closer, kissing him with an intensity that surpassed his own. He was the one who broke the kiss, suddenly conscious of their situation.
“Oh God,” she breathed, face full of confusion. “I shouldn’t have—I don’t—”
“We should talk more,” he said, wanting badly to kiss her again. What was happening to him? How had this situation spun out of control so quickly with someone he barely knew? “But not here. People will be coming through. Will you meet me later? Say at…eleven? Back by the fountain? The game’ll be over.”
“I don’t know….” But he could see in her eyes that she would.
“Eleven,” he repeated.
At last, she nodded. Ecstatic, he kissed her one more time, wanting to leave on a high note. As he did, he heard a familiar voice call, “Hey, it’s over here!” He hastily pulled away, but it was too late. Emma stood in the doorway. A few moments later, a breathless Fiona joined her. Emma, Eric, and Rhea stood frozen and stunned. Fiona, who had missed the incident, looked confused.
Then, without a word, Emma turned and ran off. Eric’s heart sank, and he remained motionless. It was Rhea—still always compassionate about others—who spurred him to action. She nudged him. “Go talk to her. She needs you. Forget the game.”
He hesitated, not wanting to leave Rhea, but he knew she was right. Eric wasn’t sure what was going on, what he felt for Rhea, but he owed Emma an explanation.
He hurried out of the room, past a still confused Fiona, just barely hearing her say to Rhea, “So, wait. Are we partners now?”
Emma had been fast. She was nowhere in sight, so he went to the most logical place he could think of: her room. He stood outside knocking for five minutes, but no answer came. She could have been ignoring him or simply hiding somewhere else.
Dejected, he returned to his room, unwilling to face anyone else. He spent the rest of the day lying on his bed, counting the minutes until eleven. Over and over, he thought about Emma and Rhea, coming to a final conclusion. He liked Emma a lot—but he didn’t love her. He didn’t love Rhea, either—but there was something about her that made him want to get to know her better, some electricity he felt in her presence. He couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she wasn’t just another girl on his list.
Around ten, he made another attempt to find Emma—and failed. The game had long since ended, and everyone was too excited about it and that night’s party to pay much attention to him. So he headed to the fountain to wait for Rhea, hoping to figure out at least one part of this mess. At eleven exactly, he sat on the ground next to the swans and waited.
And waited. And waited.
Almost an hour went by with no sign of her. Sad realization hit him. She’d changed her mind. Really, he should have expected it. She was engaged to someone else, and Eric was an idiot to interfere with that. Dejected and embarrassed, he finally returned to the house, where he found Stephen sitting by the pool and drinking with friends from their school.
Eric—figuring Rhea had told her fiancé all about being assaulted in the conservatory—expected Stephen to attack him. Instead the other guy offered a friendly smile. “You want to join us, Dragomir?”
Eric swallowed and shook his head. Rhea had apparently kept earlier events secret. “Nah, got stuff to do. Um, hey, have you seen Rhea? I just wanted to congratulate her on us failing miserably.”
Stephen laughed. “Doesn’t surprise me. But no, not sure where she went.”
It didn’t surprise him? Rhea was so smart. She could have won that game, and Stephen had no clue. Eric kept his thoughts to himself and went inside, asking around to find out where Rhea’s room was. Someone gave him the location, and bracing himself for more rejection, he knocked on the door. The doorknob turned—but it wasn’t Rhea.
It was her roommate, who said she hadn’t seen Rhea since breakfast. An uneasy feeling bubbled up in Eric, though he didn’t know why. Emma had disappeared too, but he wasn’t worried about her. No doubt she was sequestered with friends. But Rhea? What about her?
He spent the rest of the night anxiously trying to get information about either girl and failing. The partying started up again, and he finally caught a glimpse of Emma in the crowd. She made eye contact and then pointedly ignored him. He let her be, glad he’d found one of them and that his instincts had been right. She was okay. Mad, but okay. Hating to bug Stephen again, Eric still forced himself to casually inquire about Rhea once more, saying he’d never caught up with her.
“She’s around,” Stephen replied easily. “Sometimes she just likes to be by herself. She’ll turn up.”
Eric wasn’t so sure. His sense of worry was growing, and he wished he could convince Stephen to share in it. Eric finally decided he’d try Rhea’s room one more time—but never got there. He was stopped when two guardians came charging out of the house.
“What’s wrong?” he asked them. Panic flooded him. “It’s not—it’s not Strigoi…?” Eric couldn’t face that again.
“Hardly,” said one of the guys, sighing. He looked fierce like all guardians—but also annoyed. “We’ve got a runaway feeder. He can’t get off the island, but with the way they are, he’ll probably fall off a cliff and drown. Mr. Zeklos would never let us hear the end of it.”
They pushed past Eric, leaving him wide eyed. Suddenly he knew where Rhea was.
R hea wasn’t sure how it had happened—probably because she’d been unconscious for most of it.
One minute she’d been leaving the feeding room, about to head down the hall and meet Eric at the fountain, even though she figured it would turn out to be the most idiotic thing she’d ever done. He probably wouldn’t even show. The next minute she’d heard a commotion from inside the feeding room and a strangled cry of surprise. Then Dennis had burst out of the room, wild eyed, and everything had gone black.
She’d woken up—with a headache—inside what appeared to be a cave. It was rocky and cramped, the uncomfortable ground only adding to her discomfort. At first, she could hardly make out anything, and then an opening in the stony walls became clearer. She could see the twinkling of stars—and a dark shape blocking some of them out.
“Dennis?” she asked tentatively.
The feeder turned around, a grin lighting his face at seeing her awake.
“Rhea! I’m glad you’re up. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but we had to get you out, and I was afraid someone would hear you. Are you okay?” He reached for her, and she took a hasty step back.
“Fine…fine…” She tried to stay calm and not betray the racing of her heart. “What’s going on? Why are we here?”
“I’ve freed us,” he said. “It was so easy. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. They were all so busy.”
Rhea tried to get a glimpse of what was outside the cave. More ocean and trees—but a different view than that of the Zeklos beach house. Recalling the cliffs on the other side of the island, she had a good idea of where they were.
“Dennis,” she said gently, using the soothing tone she always did with him, “we need to go back. People will be worried.”
He shook his head anxiously. “No, no. They’re oppressing us. Keeping us apart. Now we can be free. We’ll stay here for a while and then find a boat. We’ll run off together. Just you and me.”
Rhea’s gut response was: You’re joking. But the crazed look in his eyes told her he was dead serious.
“We can’t. We can’t live here. We can’t live back on the mainland.”
“I’ll take care of us,” he said. “It’ll be easy. That’s what the pretty brown-haired girl said.”
“The pretty—never mind. Look, it won’t work. We have to go back. Please.”
Dennis was undaunted. “You can feed off me as much as you want. You don’t have to worry about getting enough blood.”
“That’s…that’s not the problem,” she said.
“What is?” His enraptured tone suddenly took a dark turn. The abrupt change in his facial expression made her cringe. “Don’t you want to be with me? Don’t you like me?”
“Er, of course.” Rhea was desperately assessing her options. Part of her wondered if she could just charge past him. Judging by how the entire entrance was filled with sky, she had the uneasy feeling they were dangerously close to a cliff’s edge. “But I liked things the way they were. I…I thought you were happy.” Maybe playing his game would get her out of this.
“We were being denied what we truly wanted. What we needed.” He moved closer, and this time, she couldn’t dodge. There simply wasn’t enough room. “They only let you feed once a day.”
“That’s all I need.” Her back hit the jagged wall. “It’s fine.”
“No. I know you want more. I want more. I want it now.” He pushed his body against hers, wrapping his hands around her waist. She struggled against him, hating the way she touched him, but he was stronger. “Do it. Do it now. Drink.”
He exposed his neck, and she just barely managed to shake her head. “No…”
“Do it!” he cried, his voice blasting her ears. His hands gripped her tighter, painfully so. “Drink!”
Terrified, Rhea consented, biting into his neck almost before she realized what she was doing. The blood tasted as sweet as ever, but she took no joy from it, not even when his hold on her loosened a little. Frantically, she wondered what she could do. What if she drank more than usual? What if she drank enough to incapacitate him? He might pass out. And yet…all the taboos and warnings came to her about feeding too much. She might accidentally kill him, turning herself into a Strigoi.
He took the choice from her. With astonishing self-control, he broke away, his face radiant. “That was…amazing…,” he breathed. He looked completely ecstatic—and dangerous. “See? I can give you everything you need. I’ll take care of you, and—ah!”
Something hit him in the back. Or, rather, someone. Eric Dragomir had crept into the cave, moving so quietly that neither Rhea nor Dennis had noticed. Glaring furiously, Dennis turned around and lashed out at Eric, slamming the Moroi into the wall. Rhea screamed. She would have expected Dennis to be mellow from the bite, but if anything he seemed supercharged, invincible in his high.
Miraculously, Eric remained standing. He charged Dennis again, and the two became locked in a fierce hold that neither seemed to gain ground on. Each struggled to shove away the other or at least get a punch in. Every so often Eric would manage to push Dennis back, and then Dennis would push Eric forward. The problem was, Eric’s back was at the cave opening. If he was pushed too far, he’d stumble onto the cliff’s edge that Rhea suspected was right outside.
With as little exercise as they got, feeders didn’t have much muscle. Nonetheless, that lack didn’t seem to hinder Dennis, and he began to slowly press Eric toward the opening, one step at a time. Eric sweated, his teeth clenched as he tried to fight back. Neither were trained like guardians, and there was something very brutal and primitive about the fight.
At last Dennis managed to get Eric to the cave’s entrance, and that was when Rhea knew she had to act. She just didn’t know what to do. If she tried to hit Dennis, Eric might get pushed farther out. Still, there seemed to be no other options, and it would be better if she took action sooner rather than later.
Running forward, she kicked Dennis in the leg, hoping to knock him off balance. She did, but not enough to make him fall. He shouldered her away but lost a few steps to Eric. If she could keep distracting Dennis, Eric might be able to make progress again. Only, everything she tried seemed useless. She didn’t have the strength to really land any punches. She didn’t really even know how to punch. Eric began moving closer to the edge once more.
Then she caught sight of a rock sitting in the corner, a little smaller than a bowling ball. Hoping she could knock Dennis out the way he’d done it to her, she hefted the stone up, struggling with its weight. She and Dennis were similar in height, and gathering all her strength, she swung out with the rock and smashed it against his head. He didn’t collapse like she’d hoped, but he did completely let go of Eric and stagger forward, disoriented. In fact, Dennis was so addled and badly coordinated that he kept stumbling farther and farther forward—toward the cliff’s edge.
Rhea screamed again. “Stop him!”
Eric reached for the man who had just been trying to kill him, face frantic. Dennis, realizing what was happening, reached out to try and grip Eric’s hands, but he’d lost his footing. The cliff’s edge began crumbling, bits of rock and dirt pouring over the edge. Dennis screamed, trying desperately to hold on to solid ground—but failing. He couldn’t reach Eric or secure footing. Realizing he might go over if he stayed at the edge, Eric thrust himself back to the cave, taking Rhea inside with him, away from the danger. Dennis disappeared over the edge, still screaming—and then a few seconds later, there was silence.
Rhea buried her head against Eric’s chest, surprised to find herself sobbing. “Hey, it’s okay,” he said, stroking her hair. “You’re safe. You’re okay.”
It was eerily reminiscent of the night they’d met on the boat, when he’d comforted her there, too. Unbidden, she remembered his question from the conservatory, asking who was ever there to comfort her.
Lifting her head up, she saw that Eric’s face was stricken. He was as shaken as she was but putting on a good show for her. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I am now that you’re safe,” he said, though there was a haunted look in his pale green eyes, one Rhea suspected she shared. Rhea had never seen anyone die before. Dennis had terrified her. She’d wanted desperately to escape…but she hadn’t wanted his death. Surely no one deserved to die like that. Swallowing, she focused on Eric again.
“How—what are you doing here?” she stuttered out.
“When I couldn’t find you…I just kept asking and looking. No one knew anything. No one thought anything was wrong.” The bitterness in his voice rang out. “Then the guardians said Dennis escaped, and I…I just knew. I knew he had you. The guardians were still sweeping the house and not finding anything, and I remembered Jared talking about how he went rock climbing here. I took a chance.”
Distantly, Rhea recalled Dennis saying a “pretty brown-haired girl” had encouraged him to run off with Rhea. Rhea had a good idea who that girl was but decided not to bring it up just yet.
“Why didn’t the guardians come here?” she asked instead.
“They didn’t believe me. They thought he was too drugged to be dangerous. They figured he was just hiding somewhere on the grounds. Plus Stephen said you take walks by yourself all the time, so no one thought you and Dennis were connected.”
Eric was still running his fingers through her hair, and it felt like the most perfect thing in the world. “You should have tried harder to convince them. You shouldn’t have come alone,” she argued. “With your family…if anything had happened to you…there’d be no more Dragomirs….”
He still seemed shaken by what had happened but mustered a small smile. “It was worth the risk. I was too afraid there’d be no more Rhea.”
She stared up at him, hardly daring to believe anyone would do that much for her. A strange, wondrous feeling rose in her chest, and this time, she was the one who kissed him. It seemed so strange to be kissing in a place where death had just occurred before their eyes, and yet…it also seemed right. They were alive. The kiss was alive.
She wanted to keep kissing him forever and had a feeling he would have been happy to do the same. There were too many things to worry about, though. Horrible things. They had to get back and report what had happened. They had to…
“Emma and Stephen,” she murmured when she and Eric pulled apart. “What will we do?”
“We’ll talk to them,” said Eric. He hesitated. “If you…I mean, if you want to…”
She studied him, reminding herself that she barely knew him. What did she want? She and Stephen had been friends for a long time—almost like brother and sister. He loved her…but she wasn’t in love with him. Until now, she’d thought it didn’t matter, so long as she cared about him. Now she realized it did matter. Love had to be more than liking the other person. She didn’t want to break his heart…but she also didn’t want to regret taking this chance to be with someone who actually seemed to want to be with her and not just what she could do for him. Eric had been right about her always looking out for others. Now, for once, she would do what she wanted.
“We’ll talk to them,” she repeated.
He linked his hands in hers and led her out of the cave, steering her clear of the cliff’s edge. She had a feeling it was less about safety and more about making sure she didn’t catch a glimpse of Dennis’s body. The way back down to the house actually had a well-worn trail, explaining why both Eric and Dennis had managed to reach this height.
Halfway down, Eric stopped and stared at her, an awestruck look in his eyes. “What is it?” she asked.
“Your hair. Even in moonlight…it looks like sunshine. I’d never have to go outside again if I was with you.”
She tugged him forward. “I think you hit your head in your heroic struggles.”
“You were the heroic one,” Eric said, stepping around a rock bend. “Reminds me of the stories from Russia my grandmother used to tell me. You know any of them? Vasilisa the Brave?”
“Nope. My family’s from Romania. Never heard of any Vasilisa.” Looking up, Rhea stared up at the sky thoughtfully. “But I kind of like that name.”
"Homecoming" takes places after Last Sacrifice and tells the story of Rose and Dimitri as they travel back to Russia to visit his family--and encounter some unexpected obstacles while they're there.
I hadn't expected to be back in Russia so soon. I certainly didn't want to be.
It wasn't that I had anything against the place. It was a nice enough country, with rainbow-colored architecture and vodka that could double as rocket fuel. I was fine with those things. My problem was that the last time I'd been here, I'd nearly gotten killed (on multiple occasions) and had ended up being drugged and kidnapped by vampires. That's enough to turn you off to any place.
And yet, as my plane began circling for its landing in Moscow, I knew coming back here was definitely the right thing to do.
"Do you see that, Rose?" Dimitri tapped the window's glass, and although I couldn't see his face, the note of wonder in his voice told me plenty. "St. Basil's."
I leaned over him, just barely catching a glimpse of the famous multicoloured cathedral that looked more like something you'd find in Candy Land, not the Kremlin. To me, it was another tourist attraction, but to him, I knew it meant so much more. This was his homecoming, the return to a land he had believed he'd never see again in the sun, let alone through the eyes of the living. That building, the cities here ... they weren't just pretty postcard shots for him. They represented more than that. They represented his second chance at life.
Smiling, I settled back in my seat. I had the middle one, but there was no way it could be more uncomfortable than his. Putting a six-foot-seven-inch man by the window in coach was just cruel. He hadn't complained this entire time, though. He never did.
"Too bad we won't have time to hang out here," I said. Moscow was just a layover for us. "We'll have to save all our sightseeing for Siberia. You know, tundra. Polar bears."
Dimitri turned from the window, and I expected to be chastised for furthering stereotypes. Instead, I could tell from his expression that he hadn't heard anything after "Siberia." Morning light illuminated the sculpted features of his face and shone off his sleek brown hair. None of it could compare to the radiance within him.
"It's been so long since I've seen Baia," he murmured, his dark eyes filled with memories. "So long since I've seen them. Do you think ..." He glanced at me, betraying the first glimpse of nervousness I'd observed since beginning this trip. "Do you think they'll be glad to see me?"
I squeezed his hand and felt a small pang in my chest. It was so unusual to see Dimitri uncertain about anything. I could count on my hand the number of times I'd ever witnessed him truly vulnerable. From the moment we'd met, he'd always stood out as one of the most decisive, confident people I'd known. He was always in motion, never afraid to take on any threat, even if it meant risking his own life. Even now, if some bloodthirsty monster sprang out of the cockpit, Dimitri would calmly jump up and battle it while armed only with the safety card in his seat pocket. Impossible, dire fights were of no concern to him. But seeing his family after he'd spent time as an evil, undead vampire? Yeah, that scared him.
"Of course they'll be glad," I assured him, marvelling at the change in our relationship. I'd started off as his student, in need of his reassurance. I'd graduated to become his lover and equal. "They know we're coming. Hell, you should've seen the party they threw when they thought you were dead, comrade. Imagine what they'll do when they find out you're actually alive."
He gave me one of those small, rare smiles of his, the kind that made me feel warm all over. "Let's hope so," he said, turning to gaze back out the window. "Let's hope so."
The only sights we saw in Moscow were inside its airport while we waited to catch our next flight. That one took us to Omsk, a middle-sized city in Siberia. From there, we rented a car and made the rest of our journey on land-no planes went where we were going. It was a beautiful drive, the land full of life and greenery that proved all my tundra jokes wrong. Dimitri's mood fluctuated between nostalgia and anxiety as we travelled, and I found myself restless to reach our destination. The sooner we got there, the sooner he'd see he had nothing to worry about.
Baia was a little less than a day's drive from Omsk and looked pretty much the same as it had on my last visit. It was out of the way enough that people rarely stumbled across it by accident. If you found yourself in Baia, there was a reason. And more often than not, that reason had to do with the large number of dhampirs living there. Like Dimitri and me, these dhampirs were half-human, half-vampire. Unlike Dimitri and me, most of these dhampirs had chosen to live apart from the Moroi-living, magic-wielding vampires-and instead mingled with human society. Dimitri and I were both guardians, pledged to guard the Moroi from Strigoi: the evil, undead vampires who killed to sustain their immortal existence.
Days were longer during this part of summer, and darkness had only just begun to fall when we reached Dimitri's family's house. Strigoi rarely ventured into Baia itself, but they liked to stalk the roads leading into town. The fleeting rays of sunlight ensured our safety and gave Dimitri a good view of the house. Even once he'd turned off the car, he sat for a long time, gazing out at the old, two-story structure. Red and gold light bathed it, giving it the appearance of something otherworldly. I leaned over and kissed his cheek.
"Showtime, comrade. They're waiting for you."
He sat for a few moments in silence, then gave a resolute nod and put on the kind of expression I'd seen him wear into battle. We left the car and had barely made it halfway through the yard when the front door burst open. Bright light spilled into the dusky shadows, and a young female silhouette appeared.
If a Strigoi had sprung out and attacked, Dimitri would have had to respond instantly. But seeing his youngest sister stunned his lightning-fast reflexes, and he could only stand there as Viktoria flung her arms around him and began uttering a torrent of Russian words too fast for me to follow.
It took Dimitri a few more shocked moments to come to life, but then he returned her fierce embrace, answering her back in Russian. I stood there awkwardly until Viktoria noticed me. With a cry of joy, she hurried over and gave me a hug as tight as the one she'd bestowed upon her brother. I admit, I was almost as shocked as him. When we'd last parted, Viktoria and I hadn't been on good terms. I'd made it clear I didn't approve of her relationship with a certain Moroi guy. She'd made it equally clear she didn't appreciate my input. It seemed now that was all forgotten, and although I couldn't translate the words she spoke, I got the impression she was thanking me for restoring Dimitri to her.
Viktoria's exuberant arrival was followed by the rest of the Belikov family. Dimitri's other two sisters, Karolina and Sonya, joined Viktoria in embracing both him and me. Their mother was right behind them. Russian flew fast and furious. Normally, a haphazard doorstep reunion like this would've made me roll my eyes, but I found myself tearing up instead. Dimitri had been through too much. We'd all been through too much, and honestly, I don't think any of us had ever expected to be sharing this moment.
At last, Dimitri's mother, Olena, recovered herself and laughed while wiping tears from her eyes. "Come in, come in," she said, remembering that I didn't know much Russian. "Let's sit down and talk."
Through more tears and laughter, we made our way into the house and cozy living room. It too was the same as my last visit, surrounded in warm wood panelling and shelves of leather-bound books with Cyrillic titles. There, we found more of the family. Karolina's son, Paul, regarded his uncle with fascination. Paul had barely known Dimitri before he struck out into the world, and most of what the boy knew came from fantastic-sounding stories. Sitting on a blanket nearby was Paul's baby sister, and another, much tinier baby lay sleeping in a bassinet. Sonya's baby, I realized. She'd been pregnant when I'd visited earlier that summer.
I was used to always being near Dimitri's side, but this was a moment when I knew I had to yield him. He sat on the sofa, and Karolina and Sonya immediately flanked him, wearing expressions that said they were afraid to let him out of their sight. Viktoria, irked at having lost a prime seat, settled down on the floor and leaned her head against his knee. She was seventeen, only a year younger than me, but as she gazed up at him adoringly, she looked much younger. All of the siblings had brown hair and eyes, making a pretty portrait as they sat together.
Olena scurried about, certain we must be famished, and finally settled down when we assured her we were fine. She sat in a chair opposite Dimitri, her hands clasped in her lap as she leaned forward eagerly.
"This is a miracle," she said in accented English. "I didn't believe it. When I received the message, I thought it was a mistake. Or a lie." She sighed happily. "But here you are. Alive. The same."
"The same," Dimitri confirmed.
"Was the first story ..." Karolina paused, a small frown crossing her pretty features as she carefully chose her words. "Was the first story a mistake, then? You weren't truly ... truly a Strigoi?"
The word hung in the air for a moment, casting a chill over the warm summer evening. For the space of a heartbeat, I couldn't breathe. I was suddenly far away from here, trapped in a different house with a very different Dimitri. He'd been one of the undead, with chalk-white skin and red-ringed pupils. His strength and speed had far surpassed what he had now, and he'd used those skills to hunt for victims and drink their blood. He'd been terrifying-and had nearly killed me.
A few seconds later, I began to breathe again. That Dimitri was gone. This one-warm, loving, and alive-was here now. Yet, before he answered, Dimitri's dark eyes met mine, and I knew he was thinking of the same things I was. That past was a horrible, difficult thing to shake.
"No," he said. "I was Strigoi. I was one of them. I did ... terrible things." The words were mild, but the tone of his voice spoke legions. The radiant faces of his family turned sober. "I was lost. Beyond hope. Except ... Rose believed in me. Rose never gave up."
"As I predicted."
A new voice rang through the living room, and we all looked up at the woman who had suddenly appeared in the doorway. She was considerably shorter than me but carried the kind of personality that could fill up a room. She was Yeva, Dimitri's grandmother. Small and frail with wispy white hair, she was believed by many around here to be a kind of wise woman or witch. A different word usually came to my mind when I thought of Yeva, though it did sound a lot like "witch."
"You did not," I said, unable to stop myself. "All you did was tell me to get out of here so that I could 'do something else.' "
"Exactly," she said, a smug smile on her wrinkled face. "You needed to go restore my Dimka." She made her way across the living room, but Dimitri met her in the middle. He carefully wrapped her in his arms and murmured what I think was Russian for "grandmother." The insane difference in their heights made it kind of a comical scene.
"But you never said that's what I was going to do," I argued, once she was seated in a rocking chair. I knew I should just drop this subject, but something about Yeva always rubbed me the wrong away. "You can't take credit for that."
"I knew," she said adamantly. Her dark eyes seemed to bore right through me.
"Then why didn't you tell me that's what I had to do?" I demanded.
Yeva considered her answer for a moment. "Too easy. You needed to work for it."
I felt my jaw start to drop. Across the room, Dimitri caught my eye. Don't do it, Rose, his look seemed to say. Let it go. There was a glint of amusement on his face, as well as something that reminded me of our old teacher-student days. He knew me too well. He knew if given half a chance, I would totally battle this out with his ancient grandmother. Likely I would lose. With a quick nod, I clamped my mouth shut. Okay, witch, I thought. You win this one. Yeva shot me a gap-toothed grin.
"But how did it happen?" asked Sonya, tactfully shifting us into less dangerous waters. "The change back to a dhampir, I mean."
Dimitri and I glanced at each other again, but his earlier mirth was gone. "Spirit," he said quietly. This caused a quick intake of breath from his sisters. The Moroi wielded elemental magic, but most of them used only the four physical elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Recently, however, a very rare element had been discovered: spirit. It was tied to psychic abilities and healing and was still something many Moroi and dhampirs had a hard time accepting.
"My friend Lissa used spirit while, um, stabbing him with a silver stake," I explained. While I would gladly go through it all again to save Dimitri, the image of him being staked through the heart was still a little troubling for me. Up until the last moment, none of us had really known if it would just kill him or not.
Paul's eyes widened. "Lissa? Do you mean Queen Vasilisa?"
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Her." It was still hard sometimes to remember that my best friend since kindergarten was now queen of the entire Moroi world. Thinking of her now caused a slight knot in my stomach. Her election to the throne a couple weeks ago had been controversial in the eyes of many. Some of her enemies weren't above violence, and leaving her for a week to come here had made me extremely nervous. It was only the guarantee that she'd be surrounded by guardians-along with the need for Dimitri's family to see he was no longer one of the undead-that had made me consent to this trip.
The Belikovs and I stayed up late, answering their many questions. Even before he'd been forcibly turned into a Strigoi, Dimitri had been away from home for a while. He kept trying to find out what his family had been up to these last few years, but they brushed him off. They didn't consider their own experiences important. He was their miracle. And they couldn't get enough of him.
I knew the feeling.
When Paul and his sister were both fast asleep on the floor, we finally realized it was time for the rest of us to go to bed too. Tomorrow was a big day. I'd teased Dimitri that his family would have to outdo the memorial party they'd thrown him before, and it turned out I was right.
"Everyone wants to see you," Olena explained as she showed us to our bedroom. I knew "everyone" meant Baia's dhampir community. "As incredible as it is for us, it's even more unbelievable for them. So ... we just told them to stop by tomorrow. All of them."
I cast a glance at Dimitri, curious as to how he'd respond. He wasn't the type who really revelled in being the centre of attention-I could only guess how he felt when it involved the most terrible, traumatizing events of his life. For a second, his face wore that calm, emotionless look he excelled at. Then it relaxed into a smile.
"Of course," he told his mother. "I look forward to it."
Olena returned his smile with a relieved one and then bid us good night. Once she was gone, Dimitri sat down on the edge of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees. He set his head in his hands and muttered something in Russian. I didn't know exactly what he said, but I was guessing it was along the lines of "What have I gotten myself into?"
I walked over to him and sat on his lap, wrapping my arms around his neck so that I could face him. "Why so blue, comrade?"
"You know why," he said, playing with a lock of my hair. "I'm going to have to keep talking about ... that time."
Sympathy burned in me. I knew he felt guilty for what he'd done as a Strigoi and had only recently accepted that it wasn't his fault. He'd been turned against his will by another Strigoi and hadn't been fully in control of himself. Still, it was a hard thing to come to terms with.
"It's true," I said. "But they're only going to talk about that in order to find out the rest of the story. No one's going to focus on what you did as Strigoi. They're going to want to know about how you came back. The miracle. I saw these people earlier this year. They mourned you as dead. Now they're going to want to celebrate you being alive. That's what the focus will be." I brushed my lips against his. "That's certainly my favorited part of the story."
He pulled me closer. "My favorited part was when you slapped some sense into me and got me to stop feeling sorry for myself."
"Slapped? That's not exactly how I remember it." To be fair, Dimitri and I had hit and kicked each other plenty of times in the past. It was inevitable with the kind of strict training regimen guardians had. But getting him to overcome his Strigoi days ... well, that had required less in the way of hitting and more of me trying not to be too argumentative while he healed on his own. And yeah, there'd also been one incident involving a hotel room and clothing removal, but I don't really think it had been all that essential in the healing process.
Still, when Dimitri fell backward and took me down on the bed with him, I had a feeling it was that particular memory that was fresh in his mind too. "Maybe you just need to help remind me," he said diplomatically.
" 'Remind,' huh?" Wrapped in his arms, I cast an anxious glance at the door. "I feel bad enough having our own room in your mom's house! It's like we're getting away with something."
He cupped my face between his hands. "They're very open-minded," he said. "Besides, after everything we've been through? I think we might as well be married, as far as most of them are concerned."
"I got that impression too," I admitted. When I'd been here for his memorial service, a lot of the other dhampirs had practically treated me like his widow. Dhampir relationships didn't stand much on ceremony.
"Not a bad idea," he teased.
I tried to elbow him, which was kind of difficult, considering how entwined we were. "Nope. Don't go there, comrade." I loved Dimitri more than anything, but despite his occasional suggestions, I'd made it clear I had no intention of getting married until there was a "2" at the beginning of my age. He was seven years older than me, so marriage was more of a reasonable idea for him. For me, even though there was no one else I wanted, eighteen was too young to be a wife just yet.
"You say that now," he said, trying to keep from laughing, "but one of these days you'll crack."
"No way," I said. His fingertips traced patterns against my neck, filling my skin with heat. "You've given some pretty convincing arguments, but you're still a long way from winning me over."
"I haven't even really tried," he said, in a rare moment of arrogance. "When I want to, I can be very persuasive."
"Yeah? Prove it."
His lips moved toward mine. "I was hoping you'd say that."
The guests began arriving early. Of course, the Belikov women had been up and awake even earlier-far earlier than Dimitri and me, who were still coping with the time change. The kitchen was a flurry of activity, filling the house with all sorts of mouth-watering scents. Admittedly, Russian food wasn't my favorited cuisine, but there were a few dishes-especially ones Olena made-that I'd grown attached to. She and her daughters baked and cooked enormous quantities of everything, which seemed excessive since almost every person who stopped by also brought a dish to share. The experience was a mirror of Dimitri's memorial service, save that the mood was understandably more upbeat.
At first, there was a little awkwardness on everyone's part. Despite his resolve to focus on the positive, Dimitri still had a little trouble getting over the fact that his Strigoi time was the central focus. Some of the guests were equally nervous, as though maybe the rest of us had made a terrible mistake and he really was still a bloodthirsty undead creature. Of course, you only had to spend about five minutes with him to know that wasn't true, and soon the tension melted away. Dimitri knew almost everyone from his childhood and grew more and more delighted to see familiar faces. They in turn were more than happy to rejoice in his being saved.
I watched a lot of this from the sidelines. I'd met many of the visitors before, and while several greeted me, it was clear Dimitri took centre stage. Most of the conversation was in Russian too, but it was enough for me to simply watch his face. Once he settled into being among his old friends and family, a quiet joy spread over him. The tension that always seemed to crackle through his body eased a little, and my heart melted to see him at such a moment.
I'd been watching with amusement while some children interrogated him very seriously. Turning at the sound of my name, I was surprised to find two familiar and welcome faces.
"Mark, Oksana!" I exclaimed, embracing the couple. "I didn't know you'd be here."
"How could we not?" asked Oksana. She was Moroi, nearly thirty years older than me but still very beautiful. She was also one of the few spirit users I knew about. Beside her, her husband Mark smiled down at me. He was a dhampir, which made their relationship scandalous and was why they tended to keep to themselves. Oksana had used her spirit powers to bring Mark back after he was killed in a fight, a feat of healing that rivalled Dimitri's return from the Strigoi. It was called being shadow-kissed.
"We wanted to see you again," Mark told me. He inclined his head toward Dimitri. "And of course, we wanted to see the miracle for ourselves."
"You did it," said Oksana, her gentle face filled with wonder. "You saved him after all."
"And not how I originally intended either," I remarked. When I'd last come to Russia, my goal had been to hunt and kill Dimitri, in order to save his soul from that dark state. I hadn't known then that there was an alternative.
Oksana was understandably curious about the role of spirit in Dimitri's salvation, and I gave her as much information as I was able to. Time flew by. The day gave way to early evening, and people began breaking out the lethal vodka that had been my downfall last time. Mark and Oksana were teasing me about giving it another try, when a new voice suddenly got my attention. The voice's owner wasn't speaking to me, but I was immediately able to pick him out over the hum of the now-crowded house-because he was speaking English.
"Olena? Olena? Where are you? We need to talk about the Blood King."
Following the voice, I soon spotted a guy about five years older than me trying to squeeze his way through the crowd to where Olena stood near her son. Most paid little attention to him, but a few paused and regarded him with a surprise that I shared. He was human-the only human here, from what I could tell. Humans and dhampirs looked virtually indistinguishable from each other, but it was an ability of my race to be able to tell each other apart.
"Olena." Breathless, the human guy reached Olena and gave me my first clear view of him. He had neatly trimmed black hair and wore a very prim grey suit that somehow enhanced his gangly build. When he turned his head a certain way, the light caught one of his cheeks, revealing a golden lily tattoo. And that's what explained his presence. He was an Alchemist.
Olena had been chatting with a neighbour woman and finally turned when the Alchemist said her name three more times. Dimitri's mother remained smiling and pleasant, but I caught the faintest glimpse of exasperation in her eyes.
"Henry," she said. "How nice to see you again."
He adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. "We need to talk about the Blood King." The more he spoke, the more I could pick out a faint accent. He was British, not American like me.
"This is hardly the time," said Olena. She gestured to Dimitri, who was gazing at Henry with intense scrutiny. "My son is visiting. He hasn't been here in years."
Henry gave Dimitri a polite but curt nod of greeting and then turned back to Olena. "It's never the time. The longer we put this off, the more people are going to be hurt. Another human was killed last night, you know."
This brought silence to several people standing nearby. It also brought me striding over to stand beside Dimitri and Olena. "Who was killed?" I demanded. "And who's doing the killing?"
Henry gave me a once-over. It wasn't like a checking-to-see-if-I-was-hot once-over, though. It was more like he was trying to decide if I was worth responding to. Apparently not. His attention went back to Olena.
"You have to do something," he said.
Olena threw up her hands. "Why do you think I can do it?"
"Because you're ... well, you're kind of what passes for a leader around here. Who else is going to organize dhampirs to take care of this menace?"
"I don't lead anyone," said Olena, shaking her head. "And the people here ... they certainly can't be ordered into battle on a moment's notice."
"But they know how to fight," countered Henry. "You're all trained, even if you didn't become guardians."
"We're trained to defend," she corrected him. "Certainly everyone here would turn out if Strigoi invaded our town. We don't go out seeking trouble, though. Well, except for the Unmarked. But they're all away right now. Once they return in the autumn, I'm sure they'll happily do this for you."
Henry sighed in frustration. "We can't wait until autumn! Humans are dying now."
"Humans who are too stupid to stay out of trouble," said a grizzled dhampir woman.
"This so-called Blood King is just an ordinary Strigoi," added another man who'd been listening. "Nothing special. Humans need to simply stay away, and he'll leave."
I didn't exactly know what was happening here, but pieces were coming together. Alchemists were among the few humans who knew about the existence of vampires and dhampirs. Although we often lived and interacted with humans, my kind generally did an excellent job of hiding our true natures. Alchemists believed all vampires and dhampirs were dark and unnatural and that humanity was better off without contact. Likewise, the Alchemists feared that if our existence was public knowledge, certain weak-willed humans would jump at the chance to become immortal Strigoi and corrupt their souls. As a result, Alchemists helped us stay hidden and also assisted in covering up Strigoi kills and other ugly business those monsters caused. At the end of the day, though, Alchemists made it clear they were helping humans first and us second. So, if there was something out there threatening his kind, it was no wonder Henry was so worked up.
"Start from the beginning," said Dimitri, stepping forward. He'd listened patiently so far, but even he had limits when someone was trying to order his mother around. "Someone explain who this Blood King is and why he's killing humans."
Henry gave Dimitri an assessment similar to the one he'd given me. Only, Dimitri apparently passed. "The Blood King is a Strigoi who lives northwest of here. There are some foothills with several caves and twisting paths, and he's taken up residence in there. We don't know exactly which cave, but evidence suggests he's very old and very powerful."
"And so ... he's what, preying on human hikers that happen to wander nearby?" I asked.
Henry seemed surprised that I'd spoken, but at least answered this time. "No wandering involved. They seek him out. All the people in these villages are superstitious and deluded. They've built up this legendary reputation for him-gave him that Blood King name. They don't fully understand what he is, of course. Anyway, all he has to do is wait around, because every so often, someone gets it into his head that he's going to be the one to defeat the Blood King. They rush headlong into those mountain paths-and never come back."
"Stupid," said the woman who'd spoken earlier. I was inclined to agree.
"You have to do something," repeated Henry. This time, he was looking at everyone as he spoke, desperate for help wherever he could get it. "My people can't kill this Strigoi. You need to. I've talked to guardians in the larger cities, but they won't leave their Moroi. That means it's up to you locals."
"Maybe word will eventually get around and humans will stay away," said Olena reasonably.
"We keep hoping that'll happen, but it doesn't," said Henry. Something in the way he spoke made me think he'd explained this many times. If he didn't have such an arrogant demeanour, I'd almost feel sorry for him. "And before anyone suggests it: no, I don't think any human's going to get lucky and kill the Blood King either."
"Of course not."
The room had pretty much gone silent by this point, but Yeva's entrance ensured it stayed that way. How did she always make it seem like she'd appeared out of thin air? She came forward, using a gnarled cane that I suspected she kept on hand just to poke people with. She focused on Henry but seemed pleased to have gotten everyone else's attention.
"Only someone who has walked the road of death can kill the Blood King." She paused dramatically. "I have foreseen it."
From the awed expressions this elicited, it was obvious that no one else was going to question her. As usual, it was up to me. "Oh for God's sake," I said. "That could mean a hundred different things."
Henry was frowning. "I'd have to agree. Walking the road of death could be anything ... someone who has nearly died, someone who has killed, any warrior or fighter who's-"
"Dimka," said Viktoria. I hadn't even noticed her standing near us. A few people had been in front of her but now moved aside as she spoke. "Grandmother means Dimka. He's walked the road of death and returned."
Murmurs filled the room as all eyes shifted to Dimitri. Many were nodding at Viktoria's declaration. I heard one man say, "Dimitri's the one. He's destined to kill the Blood King." I was pretty sure it was the same guy who'd earlier scoffed and said the Blood King wasn't anything special. Others were in agreement. "Yeva Belikova has declared it to be so," someone else said. "She's never wrong."
"That's not what she said at all!" I cried.
"I'll do it," said Dimitri resolutely. "I'll put an end to this Strigoi."
Cheers broke out, so no one heard me say, "But you don't have to! She never said you did."
Correction-one person heard me. Dimitri. "Roza," he said, his voice carrying through the growing noise. It was only one word, but as often happened, he managed to convey a thousand messages in it, most of which could be summed up as "We'll talk later."
"I'd like to come with you," said Mark. He straightened up to his full height. "If you'll have me." Despite his greying hair, Mark was still lean and muscled, with a look about him that said he was more than capable of kicking Strigoi ass.
"Of course. I'd be honoured," said Dimitri gravely. "But that's it." This last part was added because suddenly half the room wanted to go with him. They'd rolled their eyes at Henry's initial request, but with Dimitri on board now, this had just hit heroic odyssey status.
"What about me?" I asked dryly.
A smile twitched at Dimitri's lips. "I figured that was a given."
I wasn't able to speak privately with him until much later. After all, people were still celebrating his return to the living, and now there was this quest to cheer on. The only one more impatient than me, I think, was Henry. He was pleased to have finally gotten help, but it was clear he wanted to start going over logistics and plans with Dimitri right now. That obviously wasn't going to happen, and at last, Henry left and said he'd be back tomorrow.
It was nearly the middle of the night when the remaining guests departed and Dimitri and I returned to our room. I was exhausted but still had enough energy left to chastise him.
"You know Yeva didn't specifically say you had to be the one to kill this Blood King guy," I said, crossing my arms to look imposing. "Viktoria-and everyone else-jumped to that conclusion."
"I know," said Dimitri, stifling a yawn. "But someone has to kill him. Even if these humans are bringing it on themselves, the threat needs to be removed. My mother's right that dhampirs around here are mostly focused on defence. You and I are the only ones who've gone through an entire guardian's training. And Mark."
I nodded slowly. "That's why you said he could come. I figured it was just because he was the first to ask and not one of those other wannabes trying to get in on your awesomeness."
Dimitri smiled and sat down on the bed. "These people can fight. They'd fight to the death if their homes were attacked. But to go into battle? Mark's the only one of them I'd take. And he's still no match for you."
"Well," I said, coming to sit beside him. "That's the smartest thing I've heard all night." Another realization hit me. "Mark can sense Strigoi too." It was a side effect of being brought back from the dead. "Huh. I guess this might be crazy enough to work."
Dimitri kissed the top of my head. "Admit it. You don't mind going after this Strigoi. It's the right thing to do. Even if they're walking into it, innocents are still dying because of him."
"Yeah, yeah, it's the right thing. I would've volunteered myself eventually." I sighed. "I just hate giving Yeva one more reason to think she controls the fate of the universe."
He chuckled. "If you plan on being a part of this family, then you'd better get used to it."
Dimitri and I had no hangover effects to deal with, fortunately, but neither of us was too thrilled when Henry showed up at the crack of dawn so that we could "get down to business." Like the other Alchemists I'd met, Henry wasn't the type to get his hands dirty. He had no intention of going with us to take on this Blood King. Also like other Alchemists, Henry was swimming in paperwork and plans.
He brought us tons of maps and diagrams of the cavernous area the Blood King inhabited, as well as every report the Alchemists had about sightings and attacks. Alchemists loved reports. Olena made us all some extremely strong coffee that tasted only slightly less toxic than the regional vodka, but the coffee's caffeine buzz went a long way to help us wake up and strategize.
"It's not that big a region," remarked Henry, tapping one of the maps. "I don't understand why no one can ever find him in daylight. This area's small enough that someone could search out every single cave within a day. Yet, they all still end up trapped there at night and get killed."
My mind spun back to another set of caves, halfway around the world. "The caves are connected," I said slowly, tracing the dots that one map used to mark the entrances. "You can search all day and never find him because he moves around underground."
"Brilliant, Roza," murmured Dimitri in approval.
Henry looked startled. "How do you know?"
I shrugged. "It's the only thing that makes sense." I flipped through the pieces of paper. "Do you have an underground map? Did anyone ever do a ... I don't know ... a geological survey or something?" It seemed like every other representation of the area was there: satellite images, topographical drawings, analyses of the minerals ... everything but a glimpse of what was happening below the surface. Henry confirmed as much.
"No," he admitted sheepishly. "I don't have anything like that." Then, as though to save face for Alchemists and their usually meticulous style, he added, "Probably because no one ever actually made one. If it existed, we'd have it."
"That's going to be a disadvantage," I mused.
"Not so much," said Dimitri, finishing off the last of his coffee. "I have an idea. I don't think we need to go underground at all. Especially with Mark."
I met his eyes and felt a jolt of electricity jump between us. Part of what drew us together was a mutual love of excitement and danger. It wasn't that we sought it out, exactly, but when there was a need to respond, we were both always ready to take on whatever was necessary. I felt that spark kindling between us now as this task loomed closer, and suddenly had a good idea of what his plan was.
"Bold move, comrade," I teased.
"Not by your standards," he returned.
Henry glanced back and forth between us, totally lost. "What are you two talking about?"
Dimitri and I just grinned.
Of course, there weren't many smiles when we set out before dawn the next day. Dimitri's family displayed a conflicting mix of confidence and nervousness. Ostensibly, Yeva's proclamation that Dimitri would triumph guaranteed victory. Yet neither his sisters nor his mother were totally carefree about sending him off to face an old and powerful Strigoi with a long history of kills. The women showered him with hugs and well wishes, and all the while, Yeva looked on in her smug, knowing manner.
Mark was with us, looking tough and battle ready. Henry had said the Baia dhampirs were "local" to the Blood King, but that was kind of a relative term, as the caverns were still about a six-hour drive away. We were simply the closest, since the caves lay in a remote area with little surrounding civilization. In fact, part of the drive's length was a result of the roads in that region being so poorly maintained.
We reached the caverns around midday, which was all according to plan. It was a desolate place and really only a small blip as far as elevation went, hardly able to compete with much grander ranges like the Ural Mountains far to the east. Still, it was higher and steeper than most of the surrounding lowlands, with rock-faced cliffsides that were going to require some sure footing. None of the caves were visible from where we parked the car, but a small, worn footpath meandered off between some of the cliffs. From what we'd seen of Henry's map, this led into the heart of the complex.
"Nothing like a little rock climbing," I said cheerfully, hoisting my backpack over my shoulder. "This could almost be a vacation, if not for the, you know, potentially dying part."
Mark held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he regarded Dimitri and me. "Something tells me you're the kind of people whose vacations always end up that way."
"True," said Dimitri, heading out toward the path. "Besides, we're safe today. We have my grandmother's guarantee, remember?"
I rolled my eyes at the teasing in his voice. Dimitri might love and revere Yeva, but I knew he wouldn't count on any vague prophecy to get this task done. His faith was in the silver stake he carried at his belt.
The path started out easy but soon became a challenge as the elevation rose and more obstacles appeared in our way. We had to climb around boulders and manage some tricky parts where the path all but disappeared, forcing us to cling to the rocky sides. When we reached what was apparently the center of the complex, I was surprised to see how level it was. Cliff faces rose up all around us, like we were in some kind of fortress, but this area provided a small measure of tranquillity. I wasn't tired-dhampirs are hardy, after all-but was glad we had reached our destination.
And that was where ... we stopped.
We settled down on the ground, sorting out the contents of our backpacks, and proceeded to pretty much lounge around for the rest of the day. Despite the wind blowing up here, the temperature was still summer-warm, and this would've almost made a perfect picnic scene. True, the weathered rock and scattered vegetation were hardly idyllic, but we spread out a blanket and ate a lunch consisting of Olena's fabulous cooking. When we were finished, I lay down next to Dimitri while Mark began whittling a piece of wood.
We kept up a steady stream of small talk. This was all part of the plan too. After Henry had said adventuring humans had gone hunting and been killed, we'd realized that was the downfall: going off and getting trapped inside caves that this Blood King guy obviously knew better than us. We weren't going to do it. We would stay out in the open, making no effort to hide our presence. While Strigoi loved human blood, they loved Moroi and dhampir blood even more. There was no way this Strigoi would be able to ignore us hanging out on his turf. If the violation didn't draw him out, the lure of our blood would. He'd eventually come after us when darkness fell, and we'd fight him on our terms.
"Mark, you and Oksana should come to the U.S.," I said. "Lissa would love to meet you and talk spirit. Lots of people would."
Mark didn't look up from his carving. "That's the problem," he said good-naturedly. "We're worried too many people would, now that everyone's interested in spirit. We don't want to become science experiments."
"Lissa wouldn't let that happen," I said adamantly. "And think of all the amazing things we might learn. Spirit seems to be able to do something new every day." Before I even knew it, my hand found Dimitri's. In saving him, spirit had already done the greatest thing it ever could in my eyes.
"We'll see," said Mark. "Oksana likes her privacy, but I know she's curious about-"
Dimitri shot up from his lounging position, instantly rigid and focused in that way he had. Mark had fallen silent as soon as Dimitri twitched, and now I sat up too. My hand went to my stake, and I saw the guys' hands do the same. Even as I did, the logical part of me knew there was no need-not when we were out in broad daylight. Whatever had spooked Dimitri wasn't Strigoi, but the instinct was hard to shake. His gaze fell on a large pile of rocks and boulders sitting near a cliff face. Wordlessly, he pointed to it and then tapped his ear. Mark and I nodded in understanding.
Glancing down at one of Henry's maps that we'd left open, I immediately spotted the rock formation Dimitri had indicated. It was large and sprawling, with what looked like a small gap between it and the cliff. If there was something lurking and spying on us, it would be possible to sneak behind the formation and catch the spy unawares. I tapped my chest and pointed to the formation on the map. Dimitri shook his head and tapped his chest instead. I glared and started to protest, but then he gestured between Mark and me. In that uncanny way we had of thinking alike sometimes, I immediately knew what Dimitri was saying. Mark and I had been talking when Dimitri had heard whatever startled him. We needed to continue that in order to keep the cover and surprise this potential threat. Reluctantly, I nodded defeat to Dimitri.
He crept away, silent as a cat, and I turned to Mark and tried to remember what we'd been talking about. The U.S.-I'd been trying to convince him he should visit for some reason. Talk. I needed to talk and create a distraction. So I frantically blurted the first thing that came to mind.
"So, yeah, Mark ... if you, um, come visit ... we can go out to eat and you can try some American food. No more cabbage." I gave an uneasy laugh and tried not to stare at Dimitri as he disappeared around a rocky corner. "We could, you know, go out for hot dogs. Don't worry-they're not actually dogs. It's just a name. They're these meat things that you put on buns-that's a kind of bread-and then you top them with other things and-"
"I know what a hot dog is," interrupted Mark. His tone was light for the sake of our observer, but his stake had replaced the whittling knife.
"You do?" I asked, legitimately surprised. "How?"
"We're not that remote. We have TV and movies. Besides, I've left Siberia, you know. I've been to the U.S."
"Really?" I hadn't known that. I knew very little about his history, really. "Did you try a hot dog?"
"No," he said. His eyes were on the spot where Dimitri had vanished, but they briefly flicked to me. "I was offered one ... but it didn't look that appetizing."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Blasphemy. They're delicious."
"Aren't they compressed animal parts?" he pushed.
"Well, yeah ... I think so. But so is sausage."
Mark shook his head. "I don't know. Something's just not right about a hot dog."
"Not right? I think you mean so right. They're like the-"
My righteous indignation was interrupted by a yelp, reminding me that there'd been another purpose here besides my defence of one of the greatest foods in the universe. Mark and I moved as one, both sprinting over to the rock pile and source of the noise. There, we found Dimitri pinning down a wriggling guy in a leather jacket and worn blue jeans. I couldn't tell much else about him because Dimitri had the guy's faced pressed into the dirt. Seeing us, Dimitri eased his hold so that the guy could look up. When he did, I saw that he was my age-and human.
He glanced between me and Mark-or, more accurately, he glanced between the silver stakes we both held. Gray-blue eyes went wide, and the captive began babbling in Russian. Mark frowned and asked a question, but didn't lower his stake. The human answered, sounding near-panicked. Dimitri scoffed and released his grip altogether. The human scrambled away, only to trip and land hard on his butt. Mark made some comment in Russian, which Dimitri responded to with a laugh.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" I demanded. "In English?"
To my surprise, it wasn't either of my colleagues that answered. "You ... you're American!" exclaimed the boy, regarding me wonderingly. He spoke with a heavy accent. "I knew the Blood King's reputation had spread, but I didn't know it had gone that far! "
"Well, it hasn't. Not exactly," I said. I noticed then that both Dimitri and Mark had put their stakes away. "I just happened to be in the neighbourhood."
"I told you," said Dimitri, speaking to the human. "This is no place for you. Leave now."
The boy shook his head, making his unruly blond hair seem that much messier. "No! We can work together. We're all here for the same reason. We're here to kill the Blood King."
I met Dimitri's eyes questioningly but received no help. "What's your name?" I asked.
"Ivan. Ivan Grigorovitch."
"Well, Ivan, I'm Rose, and while we appreciate the offer of help, we've got this under control. There's no need for you to stick around."
Ivan looked sceptical. "You didn't look like you had it under control. You looked like you were having a picnic."
I repressed a grimace. "We were, uh, just getting ready to go into action."
He brightened. "Then I'm in time."
Mark sighed, clearly out of patience with this. "Boy, this isn't a game. Do you have anything like this?" He pulled out his silver stake again, making sure the point caught the light. Ivan gaped. "I didn't think so. Let me guess. You have a wooden stake, right?"
Ivan flushed. "Well, yes, but I'm very good at-"
"Very good at getting yourself killed," declared Mark. "You don't have the skills or weapons for this."
"Teach me," Ivan said eagerly. "I told you, I'm willing to help! It's what I've dreamed of-being a famous vampire hunter! "
"This isn't a field trip," said Dimitri. Like Mark, he no longer found Ivan so comical. "If you don't leave this area now, we'll carry you out ourselves."
Ivan jumped to his feet. "I can go ... I can go ... but are you sure you don't want my help? I know all there is to know about vampires. Nobody in my village has read as much as I have-"
"Go," said Mark and Dimitri in unison.
Ivan went. The three of us watched as he hurried down the path, toward where it had to make its way through rocky obstacles in order to get back out to the main road.
"Idiot," muttered Mark. He put the stake away again and trudged back over to where we'd been sitting before. After a few moments, Dimitri and I followed.
"I feel kind of bad for him," I remarked. "He seemed so ... I don't know, enthusiastic. But I also start to get why Henry was freaking out so much. If all the other human 'vampire experts' that come here are like him, I can see why they're getting killed off."
"Exactly," said Dimitri. His gaze was on Ivan's retreating figure, almost impossible to see now as he walked around a stony outcropping. "Hopefully he'll go back to his village and make up some fantastic story about how he killed the Blood King himself."
"True," I said. "The fact that we'll have done it will just back him up when people come here and see no more vampire."
Still, as I settled back down in our makeshift camp, I couldn't forget the zealous look in Ivan's eyes as he'd talked about killing the Blood King. How many others had come in with that same naive attitude? It was disheartening. I'd grown up with the idea that fighting Strigoi was a duty and a responsibility. It wasn't something you treated as a game.
Mark and I eventually picked up our hot dog debate, much to Dimitri's amusement. Dimitri tended to agree with Mark, which I found shocking. I could only blame the cuisine they'd been raised with for such misguided views. Despite the easy nature of the conversation, though, I could feel the tension building within all of us as the sun began moving down toward the horizon. The silver stakes had returned, and even before darkness fell, our eyes were constantly scanning our surroundings. Shadows darkened the stone walls around us, turning them into something mysterious and ominous.
We'd brought along a couple of electric lanterns and turned them on once it grew too dark to see comfortably. As dhampirs, we didn't need as much light as humans, but we needed some. The lanterns cast just enough to help our eyes without blinding us to our periphery, like a campfire would have. Soon, the skies were completely dark, and we knew we'd entered the time when Strigoi could walk freely. None of us doubted he'd come for us. The question was whether he would wait and try to wear us down or strike suddenly. As more time passed, it appeared as though it would be the former.
"Do you sense anything?" I whispered to Mark. Those who were shadow-kissed felt nauseous when Strigoi were close.
"Not yet," he murmured back.
"We should've brought marshmallows," I joked. "Of course, then we'd have to build a fire for sure-"
An ear-splitting scream ripped through the night.
I jumped to my feet, wincing. The problem with superior hearing is that loud noises are really loud. My companions were up too, stakes ready. Mark frowned.
"Some Strigoi trick?"
"No," I said, moving toward where the scream had originated. "That was Ivan."
Mark swore in Russian, something I'd gotten used to from Dimitri. "He never left," said Mark.
Dimitri grabbed my arm to slow me down. "Rose, he's in one of the caves."
"I know," I said. I'd already figured that out and turned to face Dimitri. "But what choice do we have? We can't leave him in there."
"This is exactly what we wanted to avoid," said Dimitri grimly.
"And likely a trap set by the Blood King," added Mark, just as another scream sounded. "He wants us but is too smart to come out and get us."
I grimaced, knowing Mark was right. "But that also means he's probably not going to kill Ivan right away. He's just going to mess with him to lure us in. There's a chance we can save Ivan." I threw my hands up when nobody responded. "Come on! Can you really leave that inept kid in there to die?"
No, of course they couldn't. Dimitri sighed. "This is where we could've used a map of the caves. Better to set up an ambush."
"No such luxury, comrade," I said, walking toward the cave again. "We've got to go in the front door. At least Mark can give us warning."
A debate then broke out between the three of us over who would lead and who would go last to carry a lantern. Dimitri and Mark came up with lame arguments about why they should go ahead of me. Mark's was that, as the oldest, his life was more expendable, which was ridiculous. Dimitri's reasoning was that he was safe, thanks to Yeva's prophecy. That was even more ridiculous, and I knew he was only saying so to protect me. Yet in the end, I was overruled and ended up behind them.
Darkness far deeper than the night engulfed us as we stepped inside. The lantern helped a little but only illuminated a short distance in front of us as we walked further and further into the unknown. None of us spoke, but I had a feeling we were all thinking the same thing. The screams had stopped. It could mean Ivan was dead. It almost certainly meant the Blood King wanted to lead us as far into the caves as possible.
Trouble came when we reached a fork in the tunnel. It not only meant we had to choose a path; it also meant the Blood King had the potential to double back on us. "Which way?" murmured Dimitri.
I glanced between the two options. One was narrower, but that meant nothing. Lines of thought filled Mark's face, and then he indicated the larger tunnel. "There. It's faint, but I can feel him there."
The three of us hurried forward, and the tunnel soon grew wider and wider, finally opening into a large "room" with three other tunnels feeding into it. Before any of us had a chance to question where to go next, something heavy slammed into me and knocked me to the ground. The lantern flew from my grasp and miraculously rolled away, unbroken.
Instinct made me follow suit. I had no clue where my attacker was, but I rolled away as soon as I hit the cave's floor. It was a good decision, because half a second later, I got my first glimpse of the Blood King. The stories were true. He was old. Admittedly, Strigoi didn't age once they turned, and at a glance, this guy had the appearance of someone in his mid-forties. Like all Strigoi, he had ghastly white skin and the look of death about him. If the light had been a little better, I knew I'd see red in his eyes too. His long mustache and shoulder-length hair were black with grey streaks, looking like something you'd see from the imperial days of Russia. But it was more than the antiquated haircut that marked his age. There was something about a Strigoi you could feel, an ancient evilness that went straight to the bone. Also, as age increased, so did their speed and strength.
And man, this guy was fast. He'd lunged at the place I'd fallen, striking out with more than enough force to break my neck. Seeing he'd missed me, he didn't waste a moment in coming after me in my new spot, and I hurried to get away. I was fast, but not as fast as him, and he caught hold of my sleeve. Before he could pull me to him, Dimitri and Mark were on his back, forcing the Blood King to release me. My companions were good-among the best-but it took every ounce of their skill to keep pace with him. He dodged every swipe of their stakes with the effortless ease of a dancer.
I sprang to my feet, ready to join in and assist, when I heard a moan coming from one of the tunnels. Ivan. I wanted to join the fray, but Dimitri and Mark had just parried some of the Blood King's attacks, forcing the whole group to move to the far side and put my friends between me and the Strigoi. With no obvious opening for me, I made the decision to rescue the innocent and trust Dimitri's and Mark's skills. Yet, as I moved toward the branching tunnel, I cast an uneasy glance back at Dimitri. Again, I was reminded of that time long ago, in other tunnels. It was there that Dimitri had been bitten and forcibly turned into a Strigoi. Panic seized me, along with an intense, irrational need to go throw myself in front of Dimitri.
No, I told myself. Dimitri and Mark can handle this. There's two of them and only one Strigoi. It's not like it was last time. Another moan from Ivan spurred me to action. For all I knew, he could be bleeding to death somewhere. The sooner I got to him and helped, the more likely he'd survive. Going after him meant abandoning the lantern, since Dimitri and Mark needed it more than me. Besides, this tunnel was narrow enough that I could reach out and touch both sides with my hands, giving me some measure of guidance as I entered the darkness.
"Ivan?" I called, half afraid I'd trip over him.
"Here," came an answering voice. It was astonishingly close, and I slowed my pace, reaching out in front of me in the hopes I'd feel him. Moments later, I touched hair and a forehead. I stopped and knelt.
"Ivan, are you okay? Can you stand?" I asked.
"I ... I think so ..."
I hoped so. Unable to see him, I had no idea if his blood was gushing out right in front of me. I found his hand and helped him up. He leaned heavily against me but seemed to have control of his legs, which I took as a good sign. Slowly, we made our way back toward the fight, our manoeuvres awkward in the tight tunnel. When we emerged into the light, I was dismayed to see the Blood King still alive.
"Rest here," I told Ivan, moving him toward a wall. He wasn't in as critical a condition as I'd feared. He looked as though the Blood King had-literally-thrown him around a few times, but none of the cuts and bruises looked dire. I expected him to sit so that I could lend my strength to the fight, but instead, Ivan's eyes went wide as he took in the battle. With an energy I hadn't believed possible, he sprang forward with his ridiculous wooden stake and aimed it for the Blood King's back.
"No!" I yelled, hurrying after him.
His stake didn't pierce flesh, of course. It didn't even hurt the Blood King. What it did do, however, was cause the Strigoi to pause for a split second and swat away Ivan. He flew across the cave, landing hard against a wall. In the space of that heartbeat, Dimitri and Mark acted with flawless, wordless efficiency. Dimitri's foot snaked out and knocked the Blood King's legs from under him. Mark surged forward, plunging his stake into the ancient Strigoi's heart. The Blood King froze, and we all held a collective breath as a look of total shock crossed his features. Then death seized him, and his body slumped forward.
I exhaled in relief and immediately looked at Dimitri first, needing to make sure he was okay. But of course he was. He was my badass battle god. It'd take more than some super tough Strigoi-even one with a dramatic name-to take him down. Mark seemed equally fine. Across the cave, Ivan looked stunned but otherwise uninjured. He was watching us with wonder, and his eyes lit up when he met my gaze. He held his wooden stake in the air in kind of a mock salute and grinned.
"You're welcome," he said.
It turned out part of the reason Ivan hadn't left when we told him-aside from his idiotic sense of heroism-was that he had no means to leave. Some friends from his village had dropped him off, with the intent of coming back in two days to see if he was dead or alive. We could hardly leave him there in such a beaten-up state, so we made the two-hour drive to take him home. The entire time, Ivan kept going on and on about how he'd saved Dimitri and Mark in the nick of time and how they would've met certain death if not for him.
Pointing out that it was only sheer luck that he hadn't gotten them killed seemed useless at this point. We let him talk and were all relieved when we reached his village, a place that made Baia look like New York City.
"Sometimes I hear reports of other vampires," he told us as he got out of the car. "If you want to team up again, I'll let you come along with me next time too."
"Noted," I said.
The only person more infuriating than Ivan was Yeva. After five minutes with her, I was suddenly wishing I was back in the car with him.
"So," she said, sitting in her rocking chair in the Belikov house like it was a throne. "It seems I was right."
I collapsed onto the couch beside Dimitri, bone weary and wishing I could sleep for about twelve hours. Mark had already gone home to Oksana. Still, I had enough spunk in me to argue back.
"No, actually," I retorted, trying to keep a smug smile off my face, "you said Dimitri would kill the Blood King. He didn't. Mark did."
"I said one who had walked the road of death would succeed," she said. "Mark has faced death and survived."
I opened my mouth to deny it, but she had a point. "Okay. But when Viktoria said Dimitri would do it, you didn't deny it."
"I didn't confirm it either."
I groaned. "This is ridiculous! That 'prediction' meant nothing! Hell, it could've applied to Ivan, since he nearly died because of the Blood King."
"My prophecies see many things," responded Yeva-which was really no response at all. "My next one is particularly interesting."
"Uh-huh," I said. "Let me guess. 'A journey.' That could mean me and Dimitri going home. Or Olena going to the grocery store."
"Actually," said Yeva, "I see a wedding in the future."
Viktoria had been listening to the exchange with amusement and clapped her hands together. "Oh! Rose and Dimka!" Her sisters nodded excitedly.
I stared incredulously. "How can you even say that? That can mean anything too! Someone in town is probably getting married right now. Or maybe it'll be Karolina-didn't you say you're getting serious with your boyfriend? If it is me and Dimitri, it'll be years from now-which, of course, you'll claim you foresaw since it was 'the future.' "
No one was listening to me anymore, though. The Belikov women were already chattering excitedly about plans, speculating if the wedding would be here or in the U.S. and how nice it would be to see Dimitri "finally settle down."
I groaned again and leaned against him. "Unbelievable."
Dimitri smiled and put his arm around me. "Don't you believe in fate, Roza?"
"Sure," I said. "Just not in your grandmother's crazy vague predictions."
"Doesn't sound that crazy to me," he teased.
"You're as crazy as her."
He kissed the top of my head. "I had a feeling you'd say that."
Adrian's lost chapter, link