Victor's voice was gentle, as it had been on the phone, as if he were talking to a child. "I know, Robert. I missed you too."

"Are you staying? Can you come back and stay with me?" Part of me wanted to snap that that was a ridiculous idea, but the desperation in Robert's voice sparked a tiny bit of pity in me. I remained silent, simply watching the drama before me unfold. "I'd hide you. It'd be great. Just the two of us."

Victor hesitated. He wasn't stupid. Despite my vague claims on the plane, he knew the odds of me letting him go were nonexistent. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I don't know."

The waiter's arrival jolted us out of our haze, and we all ordered drinks. Adrian ordered a gin and tonic and wasn't even carded. I wasn't sure if it was because he looked twenty-one or was convincing enough with spirit. Regardless, I wasn't thrilled about it. Alcohol muted spirit. We were in a precarious situation, and I would have liked him at full strength. Of course, considering he'd been drinking earlier, it probably didn't matter now.

After the waiter left, Robert seemed to notice the rest of us. His eyes passed over Eddie quickly, sharpened at Lissa and Adrian, and lingered on me for a long time. I stiffened, not liking the scrutiny. He finally turned back to his brother.

"Who have you brought, Victor?" Robert still had that oblivious, scattered air to him but it was lit with suspicion now. Fear and paranoia. "Who are these children? Two spirit users and..." His gaze fell on me again. He was reading my aura. "One of the shadow-kissed?"

For a moment, I was astonished at his use of the term. Then I remembered what Mark, Oksana's husband, had told me. Robert had once been bonded to a dhampir--and that dhampir had died, drastically speeding up the deterioration of Robert's mind.

"They're friends," said Victor smoothly. "Friends who'd like to talk to you and ask you some questions."

Robert frowned. "You're lying. I can tell. And they don't consider you a friend. They're tense. They keep their distance from you."

Victor didn't deny the friend claim. "Nonetheless, they need your help, and I promised it to them. It was the price for me being allowed to visit you."

"You shouldn't have made promises for me." Robert's napkin was now in shreds. I kind of wanted to give him mine.

"But didn't you want to see me?" asked Victor winningly. His tone was warm, his smile almost genuine.

Robert looked troubled. Confused. I was again reminded of a child and was starting to have my doubts that this guy had ever transformed a Strigoi.

He was spared an answer yet again when our drinks arrived. None of us had even picked up our menus, much to the waiter's obvious annoyance. He left, and I opened mine without really seeing it.

Victor then introduced us to Robert, as formally as he might at any diplomatic function. Prison hadn't dulled his sense of royal etiquette. Victor gave first names only. Robert turned back to me, that frown still on his face, and glanced between Lissa and me. Adrian had said that whenever we were together, our auras showed that we were linked.

"A bond... I've almost forgotten what it was like... but Alden. I've never forgotten Alden..." His eyes grew dreamy and almost vacant. He was reliving a memory.

"I'm sorry," I said, surprised to hear the sympathy in my words. This was hardly the harsh interrogation I'd envisioned. "I can only imagine what it must have been like... losing him...."

The dreamy eyes grew sharp and hard. "No. You cannot. It's like nothing you can imagine. Nothing. Right now... right now... you have the world. A universe of senses beyond those of others, an understanding of another person that no one can have. To lose that... to have that ripped away... it would make you wish for death."

Wow. Robert was pretty good at killing conversation, and we all kind of sat there hoping the waiter would return this time. When he did, we all made halfhearted attempts at ordering food--except Robert--most of us deciding on the spot. The restaurant served Asian cuisine, and I ordered the first thing I saw on the menu: an egg roll sampler.

With food ordered, Victor continued taking the firm hand with Robert that I seemed incapable of managing.

"Will you help them? Will you answer their questions?"

I had a feeling that Victor was pushing Robert on this not so much as a way to pay back us rescuing him, but rather because Victor's scheming nature was dying to know everyone's secrets and motivations.

Robert sighed. Whenever he looked at Victor, there was such a strong expression of devotion and even idol worship. Robert probably couldn't refuse his brother anything. He was the perfect type to play into Victor's plans, and I realized I should possibly be grateful that Robert had grown unstable. If he'd been in full control of his powers, Victor would never have bothered with Lissa last time. He would have already had his own private spirit wielder to use however he wanted.

"What do you want to know?" asked Robert blearily. He addressed me, apparently recognizing my leadership.

I glanced at my friends for moral support and received none. Neither Lissa nor Adrian approved of this mission in the first place, and Eddie still didn't know its purpose. I swallowed, steeling myself, and directed my full attention to Robert.

"We heard you freed a Strigoi once. That you were able to convert him--or her--back to their original state."

Surprise flashed on Victor's usually composed face. He certainly hadn't expected this.

"Where did you hear this?" demanded Robert.

"From a couple I met in Russia. Their names are Mark and Oksana."

"Mark and Oksana..." Again, Robert's gaze slipped away for a moment. I had a feeling this happened a lot, that he didn't spend much time in reality. "I didn't know they were still together."

"They are. They're doing really great." I needed him back in the present. "Is it true? Did you do what they said? Is it possible?"

Robert's responses were always preceded by a pause. "Her."


"It was a woman. I freed her."

I gasped in spite of myself, hardly daring to process his words.

"You're lying." It was Adrian who spoke, his tone harsh.

Robert glanced at him with an expression amused and scornful. "And who are you to say that? How can you tell? You've bruised and abused your powers so much, it's a wonder you can even touch the magic anymore. And all these things you do to yourself... it doesn't truly help, does it? Spirit's punishment still affects you... soon you won't be able to tell reality from dream...."

The words stunned Adrian for a moment, but he kept going. "I don't need any physical signs to see that you're lying. I know you are because what you're describing is impossible. There's no way to save a Strigoi. When they're gone, they're gone. They're dead. Undead. Forever ."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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