Hope blossomed on Adrian's face. "That's the most optimistic thing you've told me so far."
"Don't read too much into it. 'I don't know' could be one day or one year. Or never."
His mischievous grin returned, and even I had to admit it was cute. "I'm going to hope it's one day."
Thinking of Sydney brought a question to my mind. "Hey, have you ever heard of the Alchemists?"
"Sure," he said.
Typical. "Of course you have."
"Why? Did you run into them?"
"What'd you do?"
"Why do you think I did anything?"
He laughed. "Alchemists only show up when trouble happens, and you bring trouble wherever you go. Be careful, though. They're religious nuts."
"That's kind of extreme," I said. Sydney's faith didn't seem to be anything bad.
"Just don't let them convert you." He winked. "I like you being the sinner you are."
I started to tell him that Sydney probably thought I was beyond all salvation, but he ended the dream, sending me back to sleep.
Except, instead of returning to my own dreams, I woke up. Around me, the train hummed comfortingly as we sped through the Russian countryside. My reading lamp was still on, its light too bright for my sleepy eyes. I reached over to turn it off and noticed then that Sydney's bed was empty. Probably in the bathroom, I thought. Yet, I felt uneasy. She and her group of Alchemists were still mysteries, and I suddenly worried that she might have some sinister plan going on. Was she off meeting with some covert operative? I decided to find her.
Admittedly, I had no idea where she could be on a train of this size, but logic had never really deterred me before. No reason they should now.
Thankfully, after slipping on my shoes and stepping out in the hall adjacent to our cabin, I discovered I didn't have to look very far.
The corridor was lined with windows, all draped in those rich curtains, and Sydney stood with her back to me, gazing outside, a blanket wrapped around her. Her hair was messy from sleep and looked less gold in the poor lighting.
"Hey..." I began hesitantly. "Are you okay?"
She turned slightly toward me. One hand held the blanket; the other played with the cross around her neck. I remembered Adrian's comments about religion.
"I can't sleep," she said bluntly.
"Is it... is it because of me?"
Her only answer was to turn back to the window.
"Look," I said, feeling helpless. "If there's anything I can do... I mean, aside from going back and canceling this trip..."
"I'll handle it," she said. "This is just, well, it's really strange for me. I deal with you guys all the time, but I don't actually deal with you, you know?"
"We could probably get you a room of your own, if that would help. We can find an attendant, and I've got the money."
She shook her head. "It's just a couple of days, if that."
I didn't know what else to say. Having Sydney along was inconvenient in the grand scheme of my plans, but I didn't want her to suffer. Watching her play with the cross, I tried to think of something comforting to tell her. Bonding over our views of God might have been a way to get closer, but somehow, I didn't think telling her how I had daily battles with God and doubted His existence lately would really help me out with the whole evil creature-of-the-night reputation.
"Okay," I said at last. "Let me know if you change your mind."
I returned to my bed and fell asleep surprisingly fast, despite worrying that Sydney would be standing in the hall all night. Yet, when I woke in the morning, she was curled up on her bed, fast asleep. Apparently, her exhaustion had been so strong that even fear of me had driven her to rest. I got up quietly and changed out of the T-shirt and sweatpants I'd gone to bed in. I was hungry for breakfast and figured Sydney might sleep longer if I wasn't around.
The restaurant was in the next car over and looked like something out of an old movie. Elegant burgundy linens draped the tables, and brass and dark wood, along with bits of bright-colored stained glass art, gave the whole place an antique feel. It looked more like a restaurant I'd find on the streets of Saint Petersburg than a train dining car. I ordered something that reminded me vaguely of french toast, except that it had cheese on it. It came with sausage, which thus far seemed to be the same everywhere I went.
I was just about finished when Sydney wandered in. When I'd met her that first night, I'd assumed her dress pants and blouse had been for the sake of the Nightingale. I was discovering, however, that that was her normal style. She struck me as one of those people who didn't own jeans or T-shirts. She'd been mussed while standing in the hall last night, but now she was in neat black slacks and a dark green sweater. I was in jeans and a long-sleeved gray thermal shirt and felt kind of sloppy beside her. Her hair was brushed and styled but had a slightly messy look that I suspected never went away, no matter how hard she tried. At least I had my sleek ponytail going for me today.
She slid across from me and ordered an omelet when the server came by, again speaking in Russian.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"What, Russian?" She shrugged. "I had to learn it growing up. And a few other languages."
"Wow." I had taken intros to a couple of languages too and performed miserably in all of them. I hadn't thought much of it at the time, but now, because of this trip and because of Dimitri, I really wished I'd learned Russian. I supposed it wasn't too late, and I had picked up a few phrases in my time here, but still... it was a daunting task.
"You must have to learn a lot of stuff for this job," I mused, pondering what it must mean to be part of a secret group that crossed international lines and interacted with all sorts of governments. Something else crossed my mind. "And what about that stuff you used on the Strigoi? That disintegrated the body?"
She smiled. Almost. "Well, I told you the Alchemists started off as a group of people trying to make potions, right? That's a chemical we developed to get rid of Strigoi bodies fast."
"Could you use it to actually kill one?" I asked. Dousing a Strigoi in some dissolving liquid would be a lot easier than the usual ways: decapitation, staking, or burning.
"Afraid not. Only works on corpses."
"Bummer," I said. I wondered if she had other potions up her sleeve but figured I should ration my amount of Sydney questions for the day. "What are we going to do when we get to Omsh?"
"Omsk," she corrected. "We'll get a car and drive the rest of the way."
"Have you been there? To this village?"
She nodded. "Once."
"What's it like?" I asked, surprised to hear a wistful note in my own voice. Aside from my quest to find Dimitri, there was a piece of me that just wanted to cling to everything I could of him. I wanted to know everything about him that I hadn't known before. If the school had given me his possessions, I would have slept with them each night. His room had been cleared out pretty quickly, though. Now I could only gather what pieces of him I could, as though hoarding these bits of information would keep him with me somehow.
"It's like any other dhampir town, I guess."
"I've never been to one."
The server set Sydney's omelet down, and she paused with her fork in the air. "Really? I thought all of you... well, I don't know."
I shook my head. "I've been at the Academy my whole life. More or less." My two-year stint among humans wasn't really relevant.
Sydney chewed thoughtfully. I was willing to wager she wouldn't finish the omelet. From what I'd seen that first night and while waiting for trains yesterday, she hardly seemed to eat anything. It was like she subsisted on air alone. Maybe it was another Alchemist thing. Most likely it was just a Sydney thing.
"The town is half-human and half-dhampir, but the dhampirs blend in. They have a whole underground society that the humans are completely oblivious to."
I'd always figured there was a whole subculture going on, but I'd had no idea how it would fit into the rest of the town. "And?" I asked. "What's that subculture like?"
She set her fork down. "Let's just say you'd better brace yourself."
The rest of the trip passed uneventfully. Sydney never entirely lost that discomfort she seemed to have around me, but sometimes, while I was trying to figure out Russian television, she'd take the time to explain what was going on. There were some cultural differences between these shows and the ones we'd both grown up with, so we had that in common. Every once in a while, she'd crack a smile over something we both found funny, and I'd sense there was someone in there I could possibly be friends with. I knew there was no way I'd ever find a replacement for Lissa, but I think some part of me still longed to fill the void of friendship that had been opened up when I left her behind.