I was being followed.
It was kind of ironic, considering the way I’d been following others for the last few weeks. At least it wasn’t a Strigoi. I would have already known. A recent effect of being shadow-kissed was the ability to sense the undead—through bouts of nausea, unfortunately. Still, I appreciated my body’s early warning system and was relieved my stalker tonight wasn’t an insanely fast, insanely vicious vampire. I’d fought enough of those recently and kind of wanted a night off.
I had to guess my follower was a dhampir like me, probably one from the club. Admittedly, this person was moving a little less stealthily than I would have expected of a dhampir. Their footsteps were clearly audible against the pavement of the dark side streets I was traveling on, and once, I’d caught a brief glimpse of a shadowy figure. Still, considering my rash actions tonight, a dhampir was the most likely culprit.
It had all started earlier at the Nightingale. That wasn’t the club’s true name, only a translation. Its real name was something Russian that was beyond my ability to pronounce. Back in the U.S., the Nightingale was well known among rich Moroi who traveled abroad, and now I could understand why. No matter what time of the day it was, people at the Nightingale dressed like they were at an imperial ball. And, well, the whole place actually kind of looked like something from the old, royal days of Russia, with ivory walls covered in gold scrollwork and molding. It reminded me a lot of the Winter Palace, , a royal residence left over from when Russia had still been ruled by czars. I’d toured it upon first arriving in Saint Petersburg.
At the Nightingale, elaborate chandeliers filled with real candles glittered in the air, lighting up the gold décor so that even in dim lighting, the whole establishment sparkled. There was a larger dining room filled with velvet-draped tables and booths, as well as a lounge and bar area where people could mingle. Late in the evening, a band would set up in there, and couples would hit the dance floor.
I hadn’t bothered with the Nightingale when I arrived in the city a couple weeks ago. I’d been arrogant enough to think I could find Moroi right away who could direct me to Dimitri’s hometown in Siberia. With no other clues about where Dimitri had gone in Siberia, the town he’d grown up in had been my best chance of getting closer to him. Only, I didn’t know where it was, which was why I was trying to find Moroi to help me. There were a number of dhampir towns and communes in Russia but hardly any in Siberia, which made me believe most local Moroi would be familiar with his birthplace. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Moroi who lived in human cities were very good at keeping themselves hidden. I checked what I thought were likely Moroi hangouts, only to come up empty. And without those Moroi, I had no answers.
So, I’d begun staking out the Nightingale, which wasn’t easy. It was hard for an eighteen-year-old girl to blend into one of the city’s most elite clubs. I’d soon found that expensive clothes and large enough tips went a long way toward helping me get by. The wait staff had come to know me, and if they thought my presence was strange, they didn’t say so and were happy to give me the corner table I always asked for. I think they thought I was the daughter of some tycoon or politician. Whatever my background, I had the money to be there, which was all they cared about.
Even so, my first few nights there had been discouraging. The Nightingale might have been an elite hangout for Moroi, but it was also frequented by humans. And at first, it had seemed those were the club’s only patrons. Crowds grew larger as the night progressed, and in peering through the packed tables and people lingering at the bar, I’d seen no Moroi. The most notable thing I’d seen was a woman with long, platinum blond hair walking into the lounge with a group of friends. For a moment, my heart had stopped. The woman had her back to me, but she had looked so much like Lissa that I’d felt certain I’d been tracked down. The weird thing was, I didn’t know whether to feel excited or horrified. I missed Lissa so, so much—yet at the same time, I didn’t want her involved in this dangerous trip of mine. Then the woman had turned around. It wasn’t Lissa. She wasn’t even a Moroi, just a human. Slowly, my breathing returned to normal.
Finally, a week or so ago, I’d had my first sighting. A group of Moroi women had come in for a late lunch, accompanied by two guardians, one male and one female, who sat dutifully and quietly at the table as their charges gossiped and laughed over afternoon champagne. Dodging those guardians had been the trickiest part. For those who knew what to look for, Moroi were easy to spot: taller than most humans, pale, and über-slim. They also had a certain funny way of smiling and holding their lips in order to hide their fangs. Dhampirs, with our human blood, appeared . . . well, human.
That was certainly how I looked to the untrained human eye. I was about five foot seven, and whereas Moroi tended to have unreal, runway-model bodies, mine was athletically built and curvy in the chest. Genetics from my unknown Turkish father and too much time in the sun had given me a light tan that paired well with long, nearly black hair and equally dark eyes. But those who had been raised in the Moroi world could spot me as a dhampir through close examination. I’m not sure what it was—maybe some instinct that drew us to our own kind and recognized the mix of Moroi blood.
Regardless, it was imperative that I appear human to those guardians, so I didn’t raise their alarms. I sat across the room in my corner, picking over caviar and pretending to read my book. For the record, I thought caviar was disgusting, but it seemed to be everywhere in Russia, particularly in the nice places. That and borscht—a kind of beet soup. I almost never finished my food at the Nightingale and would ravenously hit McDonald’s afterward, even though the Russian McDonald’s restaurants were a bit different than what I’d grown up with in the U.S. Still, a girl had to eat.
So it became a test of my skill, studying the Moroi when their guardians weren’t watching. Admittedly, the guardians had little to fear during the day, since there would be no Strigoi out in the sun. But it was in guardian nature to watch everything, and their eyes continually swept the room. I’d had the same training and knew their tricks, so I managed to spy without detection.
The women came back a lot, usually late in the afternoon. St. Vladimir’s ran on a nocturnal schedule, but Moroi and dhampirs living out among humans either ran on daylight schedule or something in between. For a while, I’d considered approaching them—or even their guardians. Something held me back. If anyone would know where a town of dhampirs lived, it would be male Moroi. Many of them visited dhampir towns in hopes of scoring easy dhampir girls. So I promised myself I’d wait another week to see if any guys came by. If not, I would see what kind of information the women could give me.
At last, a couple days ago, two Moroi guys had started showing up. They tended to come later in the evening, when the real partiers arrived. The men were about ten years older than me and strikingly handsome, wearing designer suits and silk ties. They carried themselves like powerful, important people, and I would have bet good money that they were royal—particularly since each one came with a guardian. The guardians were always the same; young men who wore suits to blend in but still carefully watched the room with that clever guardian nature.
And there were women—always women. The two Moroi were terrible flirts, continually scoping out and hitting on every woman in sight even humans. But they never went home with any humans. That was a taboo still firmly ingrained in our world. Moroi had kept themselves separate from humans for centuries, fearing detection from a race that had grown so plentiful and powerful.
Still, that didn’t mean the men went home alone. At some point in the evening, dhampir women usually showed up—different ones every night. They’d come in wearing low-cut dresses and lots of makeup, drinking heavily and laughing at everything the guys said—which probably wasn’t even that funny. The women always wore their hair down, but every once in a while, they’d shift their heads in a way that showed their necks, which were heavily bruised. They were blood whores, dhampirs who let Moroi drink blood during sex. That was also a taboo—though it still happened in secret.
I kept wanting to get one of the Moroi men alone, away from the watchful eyes of their guardians so that I could question them. But it was impossible. The guardians never left their Moroi unattended. I even attempted to follow them, but each time the group left the club, they’d almost immediately hop into a limousine—making it impossible for me to track them on foot. It was frustrating.
I finally decided tonight that I’d have to approach the whole group and risk detection by the dhampirs. I didn’t know if anyone from back home was actually looking for me, or if the group would even care who I was. Maybe I just had too high an opinion of myself. It was definitely possible that no one was actually concerned about a runaway dropout. But if anyone was looking for me, my description had undoubtedly been circulated amongst guardians worldwide. Even though I was now eighteen, I wouldn’t have put it past some of the people I knew to haul me back to the U.S, and there was no way I could return until I’d found Dimitri.
Then, just as I was considering my move on the group of Moroi, one of the dhampir women left the table to walk up to the bar. The guardians watched her, of course, but seemed confident about her safety and were more fixated on the Moroi. All this time I’d been thinking Moroi men would be the best way to go to get information about a village of dhampirs and blood whores—but what better way to locate this place than by asking an actual blood whore?
I strolled casually from my table and approached the bar, like I too was going to get a drink. I stood by as the woman waited for the bartender and studied her in my periphery. She was blond and wore a long dress covered in silver sequins. I couldn’t decide if it made my black satin sheath dress appear tasteful or boring. All of her movements—even the way she stood—were graceful, like a dancer’s. The bartender was helping others, and I knew it was now or never. I leaned toward her.
“Do you speak English?”
She jumped in surprise and looked over at me. She was older than I’d expected, her age cleverly concealed by makeup. Her blue eyes assessed me quickly, recognizing me as a dhampir. “Yes,” she said warily. Even the one word carried a thick accent.
“I’m looking for a town . . . a town where lots of dhampirs live, out in Siberia. Do you know what I’m talking about? I need to find it.”
Again she studied me, and I couldn’t read her expression. She might as well have been a guardian for all that her face revealed. Maybe she’d trained at one time in her life.
“Don’t,” she said bluntly. “Let it go.” She turned away, her gaze back on the bartender as he made someone a blue cocktail adorned with cherries.
I touched her arm. “I have to find it. There’s a man . . .” I choked on the word. So much for my cool interrogation. Just thinking about Dimitri made my heart stick in my throat. How could I even explain it to this woman? That I was following a long-shot clue, seeking out the man I loved most in the world—a man who had been turned into a Strigoi and who I now needed to kill? Even now, I could perfectly picture the warmth of his brown eyes and the way his hands used to touch me. How could I do what I had crossed an ocean to do?
Focus, Rose. Focus.
The dhampir woman looked back at me. “He’s not worth it,” she said, mistaking my meaning. No doubt she thought I was a lovesick girl, chasing some boyfriend—which, I supposed, I kind of was. “You’re too young . . . it’s not too late for you to avoid all that.” Her face might have been impassive, but there was sadness in her voice. “Go do something else with your life. Stay away from that place.”
“You know where it is!” I exclaimed, too worked up to explain that I wasn’t going there to be a blood whore. “Please—you have to tell me. I have to get there!”
“Is there a problem?”
Both she and I turned and looked into the fierce face of one of the guardians. Damn. The dhampir woman might not be their top priority, but they would have noticed someone harassing her. The guardian was only a little older than me, and I gave him a sweet smile. I might not be spilling out of my dress like this other woman, but I knew my short skirt did great things for my legs. Surely even a guardian wasn’t immune to that? Well, apparently he was. His hard expression showed that my charms weren’t working. Still, I figured I might as well try my luck with him on getting intel.
“I’m trying to find a town in Siberia, a town where dhampirs live. Do you know it?”
He didn’t blink. “No.”
Wonderful. Both were playing difficult. “Yeah, well, maybe your boss does?” I asked demurely, hoping I sounded like an aspiring blood whore. If the dhampirs wouldn’t talk, maybe one of the Moroi would. “Maybe he wants some company and would talk to me.”
“He already has company,” the guardian replied evenly. “He doesn’t need any more.”
I kept the smile on. “Are you sure?” I purred. “Maybe we should ask him.”
“No,” replied the guardian. In that one word, I heard the challenge and the command. Back off. He wouldn’t hesitate to take on anyone he thought was a threat to his master—even a lowly dhampir girl. I considered pushing my case further but quickly decided to follow the warning and indeed back off.
I gave an unconcerned shrug. “His loss.”
And with no other words, I walked casually back to my table, like the rejection was no big deal. All the while I held my breath, half-expecting the guardian to drag me out of the club by my hair. It didn’t happen. Yet as I gathered my coat and set some cash on the table, I saw him watching me, eyes wary and calculating.
I left the Nightingale with that same nonchalant air, heading out toward the busy street. It was a Saturday night, and there were lots of other clubs and restaurants nearby. Partygoers filled the streets, some dressed as richly as the Nightingale’s patrons; others were my age and dressed in casual wear. Lines spilled out of the clubs, dance music loud and heavy with bass. Glass-fronted restaurants showed elegant diners and richly set tables. As I walked through the crowds, surrounded by Russian conversation, I resisted the urge to look behind me. I didn’t want to raise any further suspicion if that dhampir was watching.
Yet when I turned down a quiet street that was a shortcut back to my hotel, I could hear the soft sounds of footsteps. I apparently had raised enough alarm that the guardian had decided to follow me. Well, there was no way I was going to let him get the drop on me. I might have been smaller than him—and wearing a dress and heels—but I had fought plenty of men, including Strigoi. I could handle this guy, especially if I used the element of surprise. After watching this neighborhood for so long, I knew it and its twists and turns well. I picked up my pace and darted around a few corners, one of which led me into a dark, deserted alley. Scary, yeah, but it made for a good ambush spot when I ducked into a doorway. I quietly stepped out of my high-heeled shoes. They were black with pretty leather straps but not ideal in a fight, unless I planned on gouging someone in the eye with a heel. Actually, not a bad idea. But I wasn’t quite that desperate. Without them, the pavement was cold beneath my bare feet. It had rained earlier in the day.
I didn’t have to wait long. A few moments later, I heard the footsteps and saw my pursuer’s long shadow appear on the ground, cast in the flickering light of a street lamp on the adjacent road. My stalker came to a stop, no doubt searching for me. Really, I thought, this guy was careless. No guardian in pursuit would have been so obvious. He should have moved with more stealth and not revealed himself so easily. Maybe the guardian training here in Russia wasn’t as good as what I’d grown up with. No, that couldn’t be true. Not with the way Dimitri had dispatched his enemies. They’d called him a god at the Academy.
My pursuer took a few more steps, and that’s when I made my move. I leapt out, fists ready. “Okay,” I exclaimed. “I only wanted to ask a few questions, so just back off or else—”
I froze. The guardian from the club wasn’t standing there.
A human was.
A girl, no older than me. She was about my height, with cropped dark blond hair and a navy blue trench coat that looked expensive. Underneath it, I could see nice dress pants and leather boots that looked as pricey as the coat. More startling still was that I recognized her. I’d seen her twice at the Nightingale, talking to the Moroi men. I’d assumed she was just another of the women they liked to flirt with and had promptly dismissed her. After all, what use was a human to me?
Her face was partly covered in shadow, but even in poor lighting, I could make out her annoyed expression. That wasn’t quite what I’d expected. “It’s you, isn’t it?” she asked. Cue more shock. Her English was as American as my own. “You’re the one who’s been leaving the string of Strigoi bodies around the city. I saw you back in the club tonight and knew it had to be you.”
“I . . .” No other words formed on my lips. I had no idea how to respond. A human talking casually about Strigoi? It was unheard of. This was almost more astonishing than actually running into a Strigoi out here. I’d never experienced anything like this in my life. She didn’t seem to care about my stupefied state.
“Look, you can’t just do that, okay? Do you know what a pain in the ass it is for me to deal with? This internship is bad enough without you making a mess of it. The police found the body you left in the park, you know. You cannot even imagine how many strings I had to pull to cover that up.”
“Who . . . who are you?” I asked at last. It was true. I had left a body in the park, but seriously, what was I supposed to do? Drag him back to my hotel and tell the bellhop my friend had too much to drink?
“Sydney,” the girl said wearily. “My name’s Sydney. I’m the Alchemist assigned here.”
She sighed loudly, and I was pretty sure she rolled her eyes. “Of course. That explains everything.”
“No, not really,” I said, finally regaining my composure. “In fact, I think you’re the one who has a lot of explaining to do.”
“And attitude too. Are you some kind of test they sent here for me? Oh, man. That’s it.”
I was getting angry now. I didn’t like being chastised. I certainly didn’t like being chastised by a human who made it sound like me killing Strigoi was a bad thing.
“Look, I don’t know who you are or how you know about any of this, but I’m not going to stand here and—”
Nausea rolled over me and I tensed, my hand immediately going for the silver stake I kept in my coat pocket. Sydney still wore that annoyed expression, but it was mingled with confusion now at the abrupt change in my posture. She was observant, I’d give her that.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“You’re going to have another body to deal with,” I said, just as the Strigoi attacked her.
(),.,() vamppire!!!!~~~ ^,.,^