The main floor of the estate had the same grand feel as the upstairs hall. The entryway had a huge vaulted ceiling with an elaborate chandelier that dwarfed the little ones I'd seen. Ornate double doors faced us, set with stained-glass windows. What also faced us was another Strigoi, a man sitting in a chair and apparently on guard duty. Near him was a panel set into the wall with buttons and flashing lights. A modern security system set amongst all this old-world charm. His posture stiffened as we approached, and at first, I thought it was a natural bodyguard instinct-until I saw his face. It was the Strigoi I'd tortured that first night in Novosibirsk, the one I'd dispatched to tell Dimitri I was looking for him. His lips curled back slightly as he met my eyes.

"Rose Hathaway," said the Strigoi. "I remember your name-just like you told me."

He said no more than that, but I tightened my grip on Dimitri's hand as we passed. The Strigoi's eyes never left me until we'd stepped outside and shut the door behind us.

"He wants to kill me," I told Dimitri.

"All Strigoi want to kill you," Dimitri returned.

"He really does... I tortured him."

"I know. He's been in disgrace ever since then and lost some of his status here."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

Dimitri seemed unconcerned. "Marlen is no one you need to worry about. You fighting him only proved to Galina that you're a good addition around here. He's beneath you."

I didn't find that overly reassuring. I was making too many personal Strigoi enemies-but then, it wasn't like I could really expect to be making Strigoi friends.

It was nighttime, of course. Dimitri wouldn't have taken me out otherwise. The foyer had made me think we were at the front of the house, but the extensive gardens that spread out around us made me wonder if we were in the back now. Or maybe the entire house was wrapped in this kind of greenery. We were surrounded in a hedge maze cut with beautiful detail. Within the maze were small courtyards, decorated with fountains or statues. And everywhere were flowers and more flowers. The air was heavy with their scent, and I realized that someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble to find night-blooming ones. The only type I immediately recognized was jasmine, its long, white-flowered vines climbing up trellises and statues in the maze.

We walked in silence for a bit, and I found myself lost in the romance of it all. The whole time Dimitri and I had been together at school, I'd been consumed with the fears of how we would juggle our relationship and our duty. A moment like this, walking in a garden on a spring night lit with stars, had seemed like a fantasy too crazy to even start to consider.

Even without the difficulty of stairs, too much walking grew exhausting in my state. I came to a halt and sighed. "I'm tired," I said.

Dimitri stopped too and helped me sit down. The grass was dry and tickly against my skin. I lay back against it, and a moment later, he joined me.

I had an eerie moment of deja vu, recalling the afternoon we'd made snow angels.

"This is amazing," I said, staring up at the sky. It was clear, no clouds in sight. "What's it like for you?"


"There's enough light that I can see pretty clearly, but it's still dim compared to day. Your eyes are better than mine. What do you see?"

"For me, it's as bright as day." When I didn't respond, he added, "It could be like that for you, too."

I tried to picture that. Would the shadows seem as mysterious? Would the moon and stars shine so brightly? "I don't know. I kind of like the darkness."

"Only because you don't know any better."

I sighed. "So you keep telling me."

He turned toward me and pushed the hair away from my face. "Rose, this is driving me crazy. I'm tired of this waiting. I want us to be together.

Don't you like this? What we have? It could be even better." His words sounded romantic, but not the tone.

I did like this. I loved the haze I lived in, the haze in which all worries disappeared. I loved being close to him, loved the way he kissed me and told me he wanted me...

"Why?" I asked.

"Why what?" He sounded puzzled, something I hadn't heard yet in a Strigoi.

"Why do you want me?" I had no idea why I even asked that. He apparently didn't know either.

"Why wouldn't I want you?"

He spoke in such an obvious way, like it was the stupidest question in the world. It probably was, I realized, and yet... I'd somehow been expecting another answer.

Just then, my stomach twisted. With all the time I'd spent with Dimitri, I really had managed to push the Strigoi nausea off my radar. The presence of other Strigoi increased it, though. I'd felt it around Nathan, and I felt it now. I sat up, and Dimitri did too, almost at the same time. He'd likely been alerted by his superior hearing.

A dark shape loomed over us, blotting out the stars. It was a woman, and Dimitri shot up. I stayed where I was, on the ground.

She was strikingly beautiful, in a hard and terrible way. Her build was similar to mine, indicating she hadn't been a Moroi when turned. Isaiah, the Strigoi who'd captured me, had been very old, and power had radiated from him. This woman hadn't been around nearly so long, but I could sense that she was older than Dimitri and much stronger.

She said something in Russian to him, and her voice was as cold as her beauty. Dimitri answered back, his tone confident yet polite. I heard Nathan's name mentioned a couple of times as they spoke. Dimitri reached down and helped me up, and I felt embarrassed at how often I needed his assistance, when I used to almost be a match for him.

"Rose," he said, "this is Galina. She's the one who has been kind enough to let you stay."

Galina's face didn't look so kind. It was devoid of all emotion, and I felt like my entire soul was exposed to her. While I was uncertain of a lot of things around here, I'd picked up enough to realize that my continual residence here was a rare and fragile thing. I swallowed.

"Spasibo," I said. I didn't know how to tell her it was nice to meet her-and honestly, I wasn't sure if it was-but I figured a simple thank-you was good enough. If she'd been his former instructor and trained at a normal Academy, she probably knew English and was faking it like Yeva. I had no clue why she'd do that, but if you could snap a teen dhampir's neck, you were entitled to do whatever you wanted.

Galina's expression-or lack thereof-didn't change with my thanks, and she turned her attention back to Dimitri. They conversed over me, and Dimitri gestured to me a couple of times. I recognized the word for strong.

Finally, Galina issued something that sounded final and left us without any sort of goodbye. Neither Dimitri nor I moved until I felt the nausea dissipate.

"Come on," he said. "We should get back."

We walked back through the maze, though I had no idea how he knew where to go. It was funny. When I'd first arrived, my dream had been to get outside and escape. Now that I was here... well, it didn't seem that important. Galina's anger did.

"What did she say?" I asked.

"She doesn't like that you're still here. She wants me to awaken you or kill you."

"Oh. Um, what are you going to do?"

He stayed silent for a few seconds. "I'll wait a little longer and then... I will make the choice for you."

He didn't specify which choice he'd be making, and I almost began my earlier pleas to die before becoming Strigoi. But suddenly, instead, I said, "How long?"

"Not long, Roza. You need to choose. And make the right choice."

"Which is?"

He held up his hands. "All of this. A life together."

We'd emerged from the maze. I stared at the house-which was crazy enormous when viewed from the outside-and at the beautiful gardens around us. It was like something from a dream. Beyond that, endless countryside rolled away, eventually becoming lost in the darkness and blending into the black sky-except for one tiny part that had a soft purple glow on the horizon. I frowned, studying it, then turned my attention back to Dimitri.

"And what then? Then I work for Galina too?"

"For a while."

"How long is a while?"

We came to a stop outside the house. Dimitri looked down into my eyes, his face alight with a look that made me take a step back.

"Until we kill her, Rose. Until we kill her and take all of this for ourselves."

Chapter Twenty-One

Dimitri didn't elaborate. I was too startled by his words and the rest of the night's events to even know how to begin to address them. He took me back inside, past the Strigoi on guard duty, and upstairs to my suite. Nathan was no longer outside.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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