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Last Sacrifice Chapter Eleven

I BRACED MYSELF, EXPECTING TO see the Dashkov brothers appear again with some last minute “advice.’ Instead I saw–

“Adrian!’

I ran across the garden I’d appeared in and threw my arms around him.He hugged me back just as tightly and lifted me off the ground.

“Little dhampir,’ he said, once he put me down again.His arms stayed around my waist.

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“I’ve missed you.’

“I’ve missed you too.’ And I meant it. The last couple days and their bizarre events had completely unhinged my life, and being with him–even in a dream–was comforting. I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him, enjoying a small moment of warmth and peace as our lips met.

“Are you okay?’ he asked when I broke away. “No one’ll tell me much about you. Your old man says you’re safe and that the Alchemist would let him know if anything went wrong.’

I didn’t bother telling Adrian that that probably wasn’t true, seeing as Abe didn’t know we’d gone freelancing with some backwoods vampires.

“I’m fine,’ I assured Adrian. “Mostly bored. We’re holed up in this dive of a town. I don’t think anyone will come looking for us. I don’t think they’d want to.’

A look of relief spread over his handsome face, and it occurred to me just how worried he was. “I’m glad. Rose, you can’t imagine what it’s like. They aren’t just questioning people who might have been involved. The guardians are making all sorts of plans to hunt you down. There’s all this talk about “deadly force.”

“Well, they won’t find me. I’m somewhere pretty remote.’ Very remote.

“I wish I could have gone with you.’

He still looked concerned, and I pressed a finger to his lips. “No. Don’t say that. You’re better off where you are–and better not to be associated with me any more than you already are. Have you been questioned?’

“Yeah, they didn’t get anything useful out of me. Too tight an alibi. They brought me in when I went to find Mikhail because we talked to–‘

“I know. Joe.’

Adrian’s surprise was brief. “Little dhampir, you’ve been spying.’

“It’s hard not to.’ “You know, as much as I like the idea of having someone always know when you’re in trouble, I’m still kind of glad I don’t have anyone bound to me. Not sure I’d want them looking in my head.’

“I don’t think anyone would want to look in your head either. One person living Adrian Ivashkov’s life is hard enough.’ Amusement flickered in his eyes, but it faded when I switched back to business. “Anyway, yeah. I overheard Lissa’s … um, interrogation of Joe. That’s serious stuff. What did Mikhail say? If Joe lied, that clears half the evidence against me.’ It also theoretically killed Adrian’s alibi.

“Well, not quite half. It would have been better if Joe said you were in your room during the murder instead of admitting he’s a flake who doesn’t remember anything. It also would have been better if he hadn’t said all this under Lissa’s compulsion. Mikhail can’t report that.’

I sighed. Hanging out with spirit users, I’d started to take compulsion for granted. It was easy to forget that among Moroi, it was taboo, the kind of thing you’d get in serious trouble for. In fact, Lissa wouldn’t just get in trouble for illicitly using it. She could also be accused of simply making Joe say whatever she wanted. Anything he said in my favor would be suspect. No one would believe it.

“Also,’ added Adrian, looking dismayed, “if what Joe said gets out, the world would learn about my mother’s misguided acts of love.’

“Im sorry,’ I said, putting my arms around him. He complained about his parents all the time but really did care about his mother. Finding out about her bribery had to be tough for him, and I knew Tatiana’s death still pained him. It seemed I was around a lot of men in anguish lately. “Although, I really am glad she cleared you of any connection.’

“It was stupid of her. If anyone finds out, she’ll be in serious trouble.’

“What’s Mikhail’s advice then?’

“He’s going to find Joe and question him privately. Go from there. For now, there’s not much more we can do with the info. It’s useful for us … but not for the legal system.’

“Yeah,’ I said, trying not to feel disheartened. “I guess it’s better than nothing.’

Adrian nodded and then brushed away his dark mood in that easy way of his. Still keeping his arms around me, he pulled back slightly, smiling as he looked down at me. “Nice dress, by the way.’

The topic change caught me by surprise, though I should have been used to it with him by now. Following his gaze, I noticed I was wearing an old dress of mine, the sexy black dress I’d had on when Victor had unleashed a lust charm on Dimitri and me. Since Adrian hadn’t dressed me for the dream, my subconscious had dictated my appearance. I was kind of astonished it had chosen this.

“Oh …’ I suddenly felt embarrassed but didn’t know why. “My own clothes are kind of beat up. I guess I wanted something to counteract that.’

“Well, it looks good on you.’ Adrian’s fingers slid along the strap. “Really good.’

Even in a dream, the touch of his finger made my skin tingle. “Watch it, Ivashkov. We’ve got no time for this.’

“We’re asleep. What else are we going to do?’

My protests were muffled in a kiss. I sank into it. One of his hands slid down the side of my thigh, near the dress’s edge, and it took a lot of mental energy to convince myself that him pulling the dress up was probably not going to clear my name. I reluctantly moved back.

“We’re going to figure out who killed Tatiana,’ I said, trying to catch my breath.

“There’s no “we,” he said, echoing the line I’d just used on Victor. “There’s me. And Lissa. And Christian. And the rest of our misfit friends.’ He stroked my hair and then drew me close again, brushing a kiss against my cheek.

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“Don’t worry, little dhampir. You take care of yourself. Just stay where you are.’

“I can’t,’ I said. “Don’t you get it? I can’t just do nothing.’ The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. It was one thing to protest my inactivity with Dimitri, but with Adrian, I needed to make him and everyone else at Court think I was doing the “right thing.’

“You have to. We’ll take care of you.’ He didn’t get it, I realized. He didn’t understand how badly I needed to do something to help. To his credit, his intentions were good. He thought taking care of me was a big deal. He wanted to keep me safe. But he didn’t truly get how agonizing inaction was for me. “We’ll find this person and stop them from doing whatever it is … they want to do. It might take a long time, but we’ll fix it.’

“Time …’ I murmured against his chest, letting the argument go. I’d get nowhere convincing him I needed to help my friends, and anyway, I had my own quest now. So much to do, so little time. I stared off into the landscape he’d created. I’d noticed trees and flowers earlier but only now realized we were in the Church’s courtyard–the way it had been before Abe’s assault. The statue of Queen Alexandra stood intact, her long hair and kind eyes immortalized in stone. The murder investigation really was in my friends’ hands for now, but Adrian had been right: it might take a while. I sighed. “Time. We need more time.’

Adrian pulled away slightly. “Hmm? What’d you say?’

I stared up at him, biting my lower lip as a million thoughts spun through my mind. I looked again at Alexandra and made my decision, wondering if I was about to set new records in foolishness. I turned back to Adrian and squeezed his hand.

“I said we need more time. And I know how we can get it … but … well, there’s something you have to do for me. And you, uh, probably shouldn’t mention it to Lissa yet …’

I had just enough time to deliver my instructions to Adrian–who was as shocked as I’d expected–before Dimitri woke me up for my shift. We switched off with little conversation. He had his usual tough face on, but I could see the lines of fatigue etched upon his features. I didn’t want to bother him–yet–with my Victor and Robert encounter. Not to mention what I’d just told Adrian to do. There’d be plenty of time for a recap later. Dimitri fell asleep in that easy way of his, and Sydney never stirred the entire time. I envied her for a full night’s sleep but couldn’t help a smile as the room grew lighter and lighter. She’d been inadvertently put on a vampire schedule after our all-night adventures.

Of course, Lissa was on the same schedule, which meant I couldn’t visit her during my watch. Just as well. I needed to keep an eye on this creepy collective we’d stumbled into. These Keepers might not want to turn us in, but that didn’t make them harmless either. I also hadn’t forgotten Sydney’s fears about surprise Alchemist visits. When late afternoon came for the rest of the world, I heard stirring inside the house. I gently touched Dimitri’s shoulder, and he jerked awake instantly.

“Easy,’ I said, unable to hide a smile. “Just a wakeup call. Sounds like our redneck friends are getting up.’

This time, our voices woke Sydney. She rolled over toward us, her eyes squinting at the light coming through the badly screened window. “What time is it?’ she asked, stretching her limbs.

“Not sure.’ I had no watch. “Probably past midday. Three? Four?’

She sat up almost as quickly as Dimitri had. “In the afternoon? ” The sunlight gave her the answer. “Damn you guys and your unholy schedule.’

“Did you just say “damn’? Isn’t that against Alchemist rules?’ I teased.

“Sometimes it’s necessary.’ She rubbed her eyes and glanced toward the door. The faint noises I’d heard in the rest of the house were louder now, audible even to her ears. “I guess we need a plan.’

“We have one,’ I said. “Find Lissa’s sibling.’

“I never entirely agreed to that,’ she reminded me. “And you guys keep thinking I can just magically type away like some movie hacker to find all your answers.’

“Well, at least it’s a place to–‘ A thought occurred to me, one that could seriously mess things up. “Crap. Your laptop won’t even work out here.’

“It’s got a satellite modem, but it’s the battery we have to worry about.’ Sydney sighed and stood up, smoothing her rumpled clothes with dismay. “I need a coffee shop or something.’

“I think I saw one in a cave down the road,’ I said.

That almost got a smile from her. “There’s got to be some town close by where I could use my laptop.’

“But it’s probably not a good idea to take the car out anywhere in this state,’ said Dimitri. “Just in case someone at the motel got your license plate number.’

“I know,’ she said grimly. “I was thinking about that too.’

Our brilliant scheming was interrupted by a knock at the door. Without waiting for an answer, Sarah stuck her head inside and smiled. “Oh, good. You’re all awake. We’re getting breakfast ready if you want to join us.’

Through the doorway, scents of what seemed like a normal breakfast drifted in: bacon, eggs … The bread had gotten me through the night, but I was ready for real food and willing to roll the dice on whatever Raymond’s family had to offer.

In the house’s main section, we found a flurry of domestic activity. Raymond appeared to be cooking something over the fireplace while Paulette set the long table. It already had a platter of perfectly ordinary scrambled eggs and more slices of yesterday’s bread. Raymond rose from the fireplace, holding a large metal sheet covered in crisp bacon. A smile split his bearded face when he spotted us. The more of these Keepers I saw, the more I kept noticing something. They made no attempts to hide their fangs. From childhood, my Moroi were taught to smile and speak in a way that minimized fang exposure, in case they were out in human cities. There was nothing like that here.

“Good morning,’ said Raymond, carefully pushing the bacon onto another platter on the table. “I hope you’re all hungry.’ “Do you think that’s, like, real bacon?’ I whispered to Sydney and Dimitri. “And not like squirrel or something?’

“Looks real to me,’ said Dimitri.

“I’d say so too,’ said Sydney. “Though, I guarantee it’s from their own pigs and not a grocery store.’

Dimitri laughed at whatever expression crossed my face. “I always love seeing what worries you. Strigoi? No. Questionable food? Yes.’

“What about Strigoi?’

Joshua and Angeline entered the house. He had a bowl of blackberries, and she was pushing the little kids along. From their squirming and dirty faces, they clearly wanted to go back outside. It was Angeline who had asked the question.

Dimitri covered for my squeamishness. “Just talking about some of Rose’s Strigoi kills.’

Joshua came to a standstill and stared at me, those pretty blue eyes wide with amazement. “You’ve killed the Lost? Er–Strigoi?’ I admired his attempt to use “our’ term. “How many?’

I shrugged. “I don’t really know anymore.’

“Don’t you use the marks?’ Raymond scolded. “I didn’t think the Tainted had abandoned those.’

“The marks–oh. Yeah. Our tattoos? We do.’ I turned around and lifted up my hair. I heard a scuffling of feet and then felt a finger touching my skin. I flinched and whipped back around, just in time to see Joshua lowering his hand sheepishly.

“Sorry,’ he said. “I’ve just never seen some of these. Only the molnija marks. That’s how we count our Strigoi kills. You’ve got … a lot.’

“The S-shaped mark is unique to them,’ said Raymond disapprovingly. That look was quickly replaced by admiration. “The other’s the zvezda.’

This earned gasps from Joshua and Angeline and a “What?’ from me.

“The battle mark,’ said Dimitri. “Not many people call it zvezda anymore. It means “star.”

“Huh. Makes sense,’ I said. The tattoo was, in fact, kind of shaped like a star and was given when someone had fought in a big enough battle to lose count of Strigoi kills. After all, there were only so many molnija marks you could cram on your neck.

Joshua smiled at me in a way that made my stomach flutter just a little. Maybe he was part of a pseudo-Amish cult, but that didn’t change the fact that he was still good- looking. “Now I understand how you could have killed the Tainted queen.’

“It’s probably fake,’ said Angeline.

I’d been about to protest the queen-killing part, but her comment derailed me. “It is not! I earned it when Strigoi attacked our school. And then there were plenty more I took down after that.’

“The mark can’t be that uncommon,’ said Dimitri. “Your people must have big Strigoi fights every once in a while.’

“Not really,’ said Joshua, his eyes still on me. “Most of us have never fought or even seen the Lost. They don’t really bother us.’

That was surprising. If ever there was a Strigoi target, a group of Moroi, dhampirs, and humans out in the middle of nowhere would be it. “Why not?’ I asked. Raymond winked at me. “Because we fight back.’

I pondered his enigmatic statement as the family sat down to eat. Again, I thought about the entire community’s willingness to fight when we’d first arrived. Was it really enough to scare off Strigoi? Not much scared them, but maybe certain things were too much of an inconvenience to deal with. I wondered what Dimitri’s opinion would be on that. His own family had come from a community that separated itself somewhat from mainstream Moroi life, but it was nothing like this.

All of this spun in my mind while we ate and talked. The Keepers still had a lot more questions about us and Tatiana. The only one not participating was Angeline. She ate as little as Sydney and kept watching me with a scowl.

“We need some supplies,’ said Sydney abruptly, interrupting me in the middle of a gruesome story. I didn’t mind, but the others looked disappointed. “Where’s the nearest town that would have a coffee shop … or any restaurant?’

“Well,’ said Paulette. “Rubysville is a little over an hour north. But we have plenty of food here for you.’

“Its not about food,’ I said quickly. “Yours has been great.’ I glanced at Sydney. “An hour’s not so bad, right?’

She nodded and then glanced hesitantly at Raymond. “Is there any way … is there any way we could borrow a car? Ill …’ The next words clearly caused her pain. “I’ll leave the keys to mine until we get back.’

He arched an eyebrow. “You’ve got a nice car.’

Sydney shrugged. “The less we drive it around here, the better.’

He told us we could take his truck and that he “probably’ wouldn’t even need to use the CR-V. Sydney gave him a tight smile of thanks, but I knew images of vampires joyriding in her car were dancing through her head.

We set out soon after that, wanting to be back before the sun went down. People were out and about in the commune, doing chores or whatever else it was they did with their lives. A group of children sat around a dhampir reading a book to them, making me wonder what sort of education process they had here.

All of the Keepers stopped whatever they were doing as we passed, giving us either curious looks or outright smiles. I smiled back occasionally but mostly kept my eyes ahead. Joshua was escorting us back to the “parking lot’ and managed to walk beside me when we reached the narrow path.

“I hope you won’t be gone long,’ he said. “I’d wanted us to talk more.’

“Sure,’ I said. “That’d be fun.’

He brightened and chivalrously pushed aside a low-hanging branch. “Maybe I can show you my cave.’

“Your–wait. What? Don’t you live with your dad?’

“For now. But I’m getting my own place.’ There was pride in his voice. “It’s not as big as his, of course, but it’s a good start. It’s almost cleaned out.’

“That’s really, um, great. Definitely show me when we’re back.’ The words came easily to my lips, but my mind was pondering the fact that Raymond’s house was apparently “big.’

Joshua parted ways from us when we reached Raymond’s truck, a big red pickup with a seat that could just barely hold the three of us. Considering the Keepers didn’t leave the woods much, the truck seemed like it had seen a lot of miles. Or maybe just a lot of years of disuse.

“You shouldn’t lead him on like that,’ Dimitri said, when we’d been on the road for about ten minutes. Surprisingly, Sydney had let him drive. I guessed she figured a manly truck deserved a manly driver.

Now that we were moving, my mind had focused back on the task at hand: finding the other Dragomir. “Huh?’

“Joshua. You were flirting with him.’

“I was not! We were just talking.’

“Aren’t you with Adrian?’

“Yes!’ I exclaimed, glaring at Dimitri. His eyes were fixed on the road. “And that’s why I wasn’t flirting. How can you read so much into that? Joshua doesn’t even like me that way.’

“Actually,’ said Sydney, sitting between us, “he does.’

I turned my incredulity on her. “How do you know? Did he pass you a note in class or something?’

She rolled her eyes. “No. But you and Dimitri are like gods back at camp.’

“We’re outsiders,’ I reminded her. “Tainted.’

“No. You’re renegade Strigoi – and queen-killers. It might have all been southern charm and hospitality back there, but those people can be savage. They put a big premium on being able to beat people up. And, considering how scruffy most of them are, you guys are … well … let’s just say you two are the hottest things to walk through there in a while.’

“You’re not hot?’ I asked.

“It’s irrelevant,’ she said, flustered by the comment. “Alchemists aren’t even on their radar. We don’t fight. They think we’re weak.’

I thought back to the enraptured faces and had to admit that a lot of the people there did have a weathered, worn-out look. Almost. “Raymond’s family was pretty good- looking,’ I pointed out. I heard a grunt from Dimitri who no doubt read this as evidence of me flirting with Joshua.

“Yeah,’ she said. “Because they’re probably the most important family in town. They eat better, probably don’t have to work in the sun as much. That kind of stuff makes a difference.’

There was no more talk of flirting as we continued the drive. We made good time to Rubysville, which looked eerily similar to the first town we’d stayed in. When we stopped at what appeared to be the Rubysville’s only gas station, Sydney ran inside to ask a few questions. She came back, reporting that there was indeed a cafe of sorts where she could plug in her laptop and try to look up what we needed.

She ordered coffee, and we sat there with her, too full from breakfast to order anything substantial. After a couple dirty looks from a waitress who seemed to regard us as loiterers, Dimitri and I decided to take a walk around town. Sydney looked almost as pleased as the waitress about this. I don’t think she liked having us hover around.

I’d given Sydney a hard time about West Virginia, but I had to admit the scenery was beautiful. Soaring trees, full of summer leaves, surrounded the town like an embrace. Beyond them, mountains loomed, very different from the ones I’d grown up with near St. Vladimir’s. These were rolling and green, covered in more trees. Most of the mountains surrounding St. Vladimir’s had been stony and jagged, often with snowy peaks. A strange sense of nostalgia came over me, thinking back to Montana. There was a good possibility I’d never see it again. If I spent the rest of my life on the run, St. Vladimir’s was the last place I could go. If I was caught, well … then I’d definitely never get to see Montana again.

“Or any place,’I murmured, speaking out loud before I could catch myself.

“Hmm?’ asked Dimitri.

“I was just thinking about if the guardians find us. I never realized how much there was I wanted to do and see. Suddenly, that’s all at stake, you know?’ We moved off to the side of the road as an orange pickup came driving by. Children out of school for the summer screeched and laughed in the back of it. “Okay, suppose my name isn’t cleared and we never find the real murderer. What’s the next-best-case scenario? Me: always running, always hiding. That’ll be my life. For all I know, I will have to go live with the Keepers.’

“I don’t think it’ll come to that,’ said Dimitri. “Abe and Sydney would help you find some place safe.’

“Is there a safe place? For real? Adrian said the guardians are increasing their efforts to find us. They’ve got the Alchemists and probably human authorities looking for us too. No matter where we go, we’ll run the risk of being spotted. Then we’ll have to move on. It’ll be like that forever.’

“You’ll be alive,’ he pointed out. “That’s what matters. Enjoy what you have, every little detail of wherever you are. Don’t focus on where you aren’t.’

“Yeah,’ I admitted, trying to follow his advice. The sky seemed a little bluer, the birds a little louder. “I suppose I shouldn’t whine over the dream places I won’t get to see. I should be grateful I get to see anything at all. And that I’m not living in a cave.’

He glanced over at me and smiled, something unreadable in his eyes. “Where do you want to go?’

“What, right now?’ I glanced around, sizing up our options. There was a bait and tackle store, a drugstore, and an ice cream parlor. I had a feeling that last one would be a necessary trip before leaving town.

“No, in the world.’

I eyed him warily. “Sydney’s going to be pissed if we take off for Istanbul or something.’

This got me full-fledged laughter. “Not what I had in mind. Come on.’

I followed him toward what looked like the bait and tackle store and then noticed a small building tucked behind it. Naturally, his sharp eyes had seen what I missed– probably because I’d been fixated on the ice cream. RUBYSVILLE PUBLIC LIBRARY.

“Whoa, hey,’ I said. “One of the few perks of graduating was avoiding places like this.’

“Its probably air conditioned,’ he pointed out.

I looked down at my sweat-soaked tank top and noticed a faint pink tinge to my skin. With my tanned complexion, I rarely burned, but this was some serious sun–even so late in the day. “Lead on,’ I told him.

The library was mercifully cool, though even smaller than the one at St. Vladimir’s. With some uncanny sense (or maybe just a knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System), Dimitri led us over to the travel section–which consisted of about ten books, three of which were about West Virginia. He frowned.

“Not quite what I expected.’ He scanned the shelf twice and then pulled out a large, bright-colored one entitled 100 Best Places to Visit in the World.

We sat down cross-legged on the floor, and he handed me the book. “No way, comrade,’ I said. “I know books are a journey of the imagination, but I don’t think I’m up for that today.’

“Just take it,’ he said. “Close your eyes, and flip randomly to a page.’

It seemed silly, considering everything else going on in our life, but his face said he was serious. Indulging him, I closed my eyes and selected a page in the middle. I opened to it.

“Mitchell, South Dakota?’ I exclaimed. Remembering I was in a library, I lowered my voice. “Out of all the places in the world, that makes the top hundred?’

He was smiling again, and I’d forgotten how much I’d missed that. “Read it.’

“”Located ninety minutes outside of Sioux Falls, Mitchell is home to the Corn Palace.” I looked up at him in disbelief. “Corn Palace?’

He scooted over next to me, leaning close to look at the pictures. “I figured it’d be made of corn husks,’ he noted. The pictures actually showed what looked like a Middle Eastern–or even Russian–style building, with turrets and onion domes.

“Me too.’ Reluctantly, I added, “I’d visit it. I bet they have great T-shirts.’

“And,’ he said, a sly look in his eyes, “I bet no guardians would look for us there.’

I made no attempts to conceal my laughter, imagining us living as fugitives in the Corn Palace for the rest of our lives. My amusement brought us a scolding from a librarian, and we quieted as Dimitri took his turn. Sao Paolo, Brazil. Then my turn: Honolulu, Hawaii. Back and forth we passed the book, and before long, we were both lying on the floor, side by side, sharing mixed reactions as we continued our “global tour of the imagination.’ Our arms and legs just barely touched.

If anyone had told me forty-eight hours ago that I’d be lying in a library with Dimitri, reading a travel book, I would have said they were crazy. Almost as crazy was the realization that I was doing something perfectly ordinary and casual with him. Since the moment we’d met, our lives had been about secrecy and danger. And really, those were still the dominant themes in our lives. But in those quiet couple of hours, time seemed to stand still. We were at peace. We were friends.

“Florence, Italy,’ I read. Pictures of elaborate churches and galleries filled the page. “Sydney wants to go there. She wanted to study there, actually. If Abe could have managed that, I think she would have served him for life.’

“She’s still pretty obedient,’ Dimitri remarked. “I don’t know her well, but I’m pretty sure Abe’s got something on her.’

“He got her out of Russia, back to the U.S.’

He shook his head. “It’s got to be more than that. Alchemists are loyal to their order. They don’t like us. She hides it–they’re trained to–but every minute with the Keepers is agony. For her to help us and betray her superiors, she owes him for some serious reason.’ We both paused a moment, wondering what mysterious arrangement my father had with her. “Its irrelevant, though. She’s helping us, which is what matters … and we should probably get back to her.’ I knew he was right but hated to go. I wanted to stay here, in this illusion of tranquility and safety, letting myself believe I might really make it to the Parthenon or even the Corn Palace someday. I handed the book back to him. “One more.’

He picked his random page and opened the book. His smile fell. “Saint Petersburg.’

A weird mix of feelings entangled themselves in my chest. Nostalgia–because the city was beautiful. Sorrow–because my visit had been tainted by the awful task I’d gone there to do.

Dimitri stared at the page for a long time, wistfulness on his face. It occurred to me then that, despite his earlier pep talk, he had to be experiencing what I did for Montana: our old, favorite places were lost to us now.

I nudged him gently. “Hey, enjoy where you’re at, remember? Not where you can’t go.’

He reluctantly shut the book and dragged his eyes away from it. “How’d you get so wise?’ he teased.

“I had a good teacher.’ We smiled at each other. Something occurred to me. All this time, I’d figured he’d helped break me out because of Lissa’s orders. Maybe there was more to it. “Is that why you escaped with me?’ I asked. “To see what parts of the world you could?’

His surprise was brief. “You don’t need me to be wise, Rose. You’re doing fine on your own. Yes, that was part of it. Maybe I would have been welcomed back eventually, but there was the risk I wouldn’t. After … after being Strigoi …’ He stumbled over the words a little. “I gained a new appreciation for life. It took a while. I’m still not there. We’re talking about focusing on the present, not the future–but it’s my past that haunts me. Faces. Nightmares. But the farther I get from that world of death, the more I want to embrace life. The smell of these books and the perfume you wear. The way the light bends through that window. Even the taste of breakfast with the Keepers.’

“You’re a poet now.’

“No, just starting to realize the truth. I respect the law and the way our society runs, but there was no way I could risk losing life in some cell after only just finding it again. I wanted to run too. That’s why I helped you. That and–‘

“What?’ I studied him, desperately wishing he wasn’t so good at keeping emotions off his face. I knew him well; I understood him. But he could still hide things from me.

He sat up, not meeting my eyes. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go back to Sydney and see if she found out anything … although, as much as I hate to say it, I think it’s unlikely.’

“I know.’ I stood with him, still wondering what else he would have said. “She probably gave up and started playing Minesweeper.’

We headed back toward the cafe, stopping briefly for ice cream. Eating it while we walked proved quite the challenge. The sun was nearing the horizon, painting everything orange and red, but the heat lingered. Enjoy it, Rose, I told myself. The colors. The taste of chocolate. Of course, I’d always loved chocolate. My life didn’t need to be on the line for me to enjoy dessert.

We reached the cafe and found Sydney bent over her laptop, with a barely eaten Danish and what was probably her fourth cup of coffee. We slid into seats beside her.

“Hows it–hey! You are playing Minesweeper!’ I tried to peer closer at her screen, but she turned it from me. “You’re supposed to be finding a connection to Eric’s mistress.’

“I already did,’ she said simply. Dimitri and I exchanged astonished looks.

“But I don’t know how useful it’ll be.’

“Anything’ll be useful,’ I proclaimed. “What did you find?’

“After trying to track down all those bank records and transactions–and let me tell you, that is not fun at all–I finally found a small piece of info. The bank account we have now is a newer one. It was moved from another bank about five years ago. The old account was still a Jane Doe, but it did have a next-of-kin reference in the event something happened to the account holder.’

I could hardly breathe. Financial transactions were lost on me, but we were about to get something solid. “A real name?’

Sydney nodded. “Sonya Karp.’

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