TWO GUYS I’D NEVER MET before were squaring off against each other.They looked to be in their twenties, and neither noticed me.The one who’d bumped into me shoved the other one hard, forcing him to stagger back considerably.
“You’re afraid!” yelled the guy by me.
He had on green swimming trunks, and his black hair was slicked back with water. “You’re all afraid. You just want to hole up in your mansions and let the guardians do your dirty work. What are you going to do when they’re all dead? Who’ll protect you then?”
The other guy wiped the blood off his face with the back of his hand. I suddenly recognized him- thanks to his blond highlights. He was the royal who’d yelled at Tasha about wanting to lead Moroi to battle. She’d called him Andrew. He tried to land a hit and failed; his technique was all wrong. “This is the safest way. Listen to that Strigoi-lover, and we’ll all be dead. She’s trying to kill our whole race off!”
“She’s trying to save us!”
“She’s trying to get us to use black magic!”
The “Strigoi-lover” had to be Tasha. The non-royal guy was the first person outside of my little circle whom I’d ever heard speak in her favor. I wondered how many others out there shared his view. He punched Andrew again, and my base instincts- or maybe the punch- made me leap into action.
I sprang forward and wedged myself between them. I was still dizzy and a bit unsteady. If they hadn’t been standing so close, I probably would have fallen over. They both hesitated, clearly caught off guard.
“Get out of here,” snapped Andrew.
Being male and Moroi, they had greater height and weight than I, but I was probably stronger than either one alone. Hoping I could make the most of that, I grabbed each of them by the arm, pulled them toward me, and then shoved them away as hard as I could. They staggered, not having expected my strength. I staggered a little too.
The non-royal glared and took a step toward me. I was counting on the fact that he’d be old-fashioned and not hit a girl. “What are you doing?” he exclaimed. Several people had gathered and were watching excitedly.
I returned his glare. “I’m trying to stop you guys from being any more idiotic than you already are! You want to help? Stop fighting each other! Ripping each other’s heads off isn’t going to save the Moroi unless you’re trying to thin stupidity out of the gene pool.” I pointed at Andrew. “Tasha Ozera is not trying to kill everyone off. She’s trying to get you to stop being a victim.” I turned to the other guy. “And as for you, you’ve got a long ways to go if you think this is the way to get your point across. Magic- especially offensive magic- takes a lot of self-control, and so far, you aren’t impressing me with yours. I have more than you do, and if you knew me at all, you’d know how crazy that is.”
The two guys stared at me, stunned. I was apparently more effective than a taser. Well, at least for several seconds I was. Because once the shock of my words wore off, they went at each other again. I got caught in the crossfire and shoved away, nearly falling in the process. Suddenly, from behind me, Mason came to my defense. He punched the first guy he could- the non-royal.
The guy flew backward, falling into one of the pools with a splash. I yelped, remembering my earlier fear about skull-cracking, but a moment later, he found his feet and rubbed water out of his eyes.
I grabbed Mason’s arm, trying to hold him back, but he shrugged me off and went after Andrew. He shoved Andrew hard, pushing him into several Moroi- andrew’s friends, I suspected- who seemed to be trying to break up the fight. The guy in the pool climbed out, fury written all over his face, and made moves toward Andrew. This time, both Mason and I blocked his way. He glared at all of us.
“Don’t,” I warned him.
The guy clenched his fists and looked as though he might try to take us on. But we were intimidating, and he didn’t appear to have an entourage of friends here like Andrew- who was shouting obscenities and being led away- did. With a few muttered threats, the non-royal backed off.
As soon as he was gone, I turned on Mason. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Huh?” he asked.
“Jumping into the middle of that!”
“You jumped in too,” he said.
I started to argue, then realized he was right. “It’s different,” I grumbled.
He leaned forward. “Are you drunk?”
“No. Of course not. I’m just trying to keep you from doing something stupid. Just because you have delusions of being able to kill a Strigoi doesn’t mean you have to take it out on everyone else.”
“Delusions?” he asked stiffly.
I started to feel kind of nauseous just then. My head spinning, I continued toward the side room, hoping I didn’t stumble.
But when I reached it, I saw that it wasn’t some kind of dessert or drink room after all. Well, at least not in the way I’d been thinking. It was a feeder room. Several humans reclined on satin-covered chaise lounges with Moroi by their sides. Jasmine incense burned in the air. Stunned, I watched with an eerie fascination as a blond Moroi guy leaned forward and bit into the neck of a very pretty redhead. All of these feeders were exceptionally good-looking, I realized just then. Like actresses or models. Only the best for royalty.
The guy drank long and deep, and the girl closed her eyes and parted her lips, an expression of pure bliss on her face as Moroi endorphins flooded into her bloodstream. I shivered, taken back to when I too had experienced that same kind of euphoria. In my alcohol-hazed mind, the whole thing suddenly seemed startlingly erotic.
In fact, I almost felt intrusive- like I was watching people have sex. When the Moroi finished and licked the last of the blood away, he brushed his lips against her cheek in a soft kiss.
“Want to volunteer?”
Light fingertips brushed my neck, and I jumped. I turned around and saw Adrian’s green eyes and knowing smirk.
“Don’t do that,” I told him, knocking his hand away.
“Then what are you doing in here?” he asked.
I gestured around me. “I’m lost.”
He peered at me. “Are you drunk?”
“No. Of course not…but …” The nausea had settled a little, but I still didn’t feel right. “I think I should sit down.”
He took my arm. “Well, don’t do it in here. Someone might get the wrong idea. Let’s go somewhere quiet.”
He steered me off into a different room, and I looked around with interest. It was a massage area. Several Moroi lay back on tables and were getting back and foot massages from hotel staff. The oil they used smelled like rosemary and lavender. Under any other circumstances, a massage would have sounded great, but lying on my stomach seemed like the worst idea just now.
I sat down on the carpeted floor, leaning back against the wall. Adrian walked away and returned with a glass of water. Sitting down as well, he handed it to me.
“Drink this. It’ll help.”
“I told you, I’m not drunk,” I mumbled. But I downed the water anyway.
“Uh-huh.” He smiled at me. “You did nice work with that fight. Who was the other guy that helped you?”
“My boyfriend,” I said. “Sort of.”
“Mia was right. You do have a lot of guys in your life.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Okay.” He was still smiling. “Where’s Vasilisa? I figured she’d be attached to you.”
“She’s with her boyfriend.” I studied him.
“What’s with the tone? Jealous? You want him for yourself?”
“God, no. I just don’t like him.”
“Does he treat her badly?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted. “He adores her. He’s just kind of a jerk.”
Adrian was clearly enjoying this. “Ah, you are jealous. Does she spend more time with him than you?”
I ignored that. “Why do you keep asking about her? Are you interested in her?”
He laughed. “Rest easy, I’m not interested in her in the same way I am you.”
“But you are interested.”
“I just want to talk to her.”
He left to fetch me more water. “Feeling better?” he asked, handing the glass to me. It was crystal and intricately carved. It seemed too fancy for plain water.
“Yeah … I didn’t think those drinks were that strong.”
“That’s the beauty of them,” he chuckled. “And speaking of beauty … that’s a great color on you.”
I shifted. I might not have been showing as much skin as those other girls, but I was showing more than I really wanted to with Adrian. Or was I? There was something weird about him. His arrogant manner annoyed me…but I still liked being around him. Maybe the smartass in me recognized a kindred spirit.
Somewhere in the back of my drunken mind, a light clicked on. But I couldn’t quite get to it. I drank more water.
“You haven’t had a cigarette in, like, ten minutes,” I pointed out, wanting to change the subject.
He made a face. “No smoking in here.”
“I’m sure you’ve made up for it in punch.”
His smile returned. “Well, some of us can hold our liquor. You aren’t going to be sick, are you?”
I still felt tipsy but no longer nauseous. “No.”
I thought back to when I’d dreamed about him. It had been just a dream, but it had stuck with me, particularly the talk about me being surrounded in darkness. I wanted to ask him about it… even though I knew it was stupid. It had been my dream, not his.
He turned his green eyes on me. “Yes, darling?”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask. “Never mind.”
He started to retort, then tilted his head toward the door. “Ah, here she comes.”
Lissa stepped into the room, eyes scanning around. When she spotted us, I saw relief break over her. I couldn’t feel it, though. Intoxicants like alcohol numbed the bond. It was another reason I shouldn’t have taken such a stupid chance tonight.
“There you are,” she said, kneeling beside me. Glancing at Adrian, she gave him a nod. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself, cousin,” he returned, using the family terms royals sometimes used around each other.
“You okay?” Lissa asked me. “When I saw how drunk you were, I thought you might have fallen in somewhere and drowned.”
“I’m not- ” I gave up trying to deny it. “I’m fine.”
Adrian’s usual expression had turned serious as he studied Lissa. It again reminded me of the dream. “How’d you find her?”
Lissa gave him a puzzled look. “I, um, checked all the rooms.”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed. “I thought you might have used your bond.”
Both she and I stared.
“How do you know about that?” I demanded. Only a few people at school knew about it. Adrian had spoken about it as casually as he might have my hair color.
“Hey, I can’t reveal all my secrets, can I?” he asked mysteriously. “And besides, there’s a certain way you two act around each other … it’s hard to explain. It’s pretty cool… all the old myths are true.”
Lissa regarded him warily. “The bond only works one way. Rose can sense what I’m feeling and thinking, but I can’t do it back to her.”
“Ah.” We sat in silence a few moments, and I drank more water. Adrian spoke again. “What’d you specialize in anyway, cousin?”
She looked embarrassed. We both knew it was important to keep her spirit powers secret from others who might abuse her healing, but her cover story of not having specialized always bothered her.
“I haven’t,” she said.
“Do they think you’re going to? Late bloomer?”
“You’re probably higher in the other elements, though, right? Just not strong enough to really master any?” He reached out to pat her shoulder in an exaggerated show of comfort.
“Yeah, how’d you- “
The instant his fingers touched her, she gasped. It was as though a bolt of lightning had struck her. The strangest look crossed her face. Even drunk, I felt the flood of joy that came pouring through the bond. She stared at Adrian in wonder. His eyes were locked onto hers too. I didn’t understand why they were looking at each other like that, but it bothered me.
“Hey,” I said. “Stop that. I told you, she has a boyfriend.”
“I know,” he said, still watching her. A small smile turned his lips. “We need to have a chat someday, cousin.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Hey.” I was more confused than ever. “You have a boyfriend. And there he is.”
She blinked back to reality. All three of us turned toward the doorway. Christian and the others stood there. I suddenly had a flashback to when they’d found me with Adrian’s arm around me. This wasn’t much better. Lissa and I were sitting on either side of him, very close.
She sprang up, looking mildly guilty. Christian was regarding her curiously.
“We’re getting ready to leave,” he said.
“Okay,” she told him. She looked down at me. “Ready?”
I nodded and started to clamber to my feet. Adrian caught my arm as I did and helped me up. He smiled at Lissa. “Nice talking to you.” To me, he murmured very quietly, “Don’t worry. I told you, I’m not interested in her in that way. She doesn’t look as good in a bathing suit. Probably not as good out of one either.”
I pulled my arm away. “Well, you’ll never find out.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I have a good imagination.”
I joined the others, and we headed back toward the main part of the lodge. Mason gave me as strange a look as Christian had given Lissa and stayed away from me, walking toward the front with Eddie. To my surprise and discomfort, I found myself walking beside Mia. She looked miserable.
“I… I’m really sorry about what happened,” I said finally.
“You don’t have to act like you care, Rose.”
“No, no. I mean it. It’s horrible…I’m so sorry.” She wouldn’t look at me. “Is…that is, are you going to see your dad soon?”
“Whenever they have the memorial,” she said stiffly.
I didn’t know what else to say and gave up, instead turning my attention to the stairs as we climbed back up to the lodge’s main level. Unexpectedly, Mia was the one who continued the conversation.
“I watched you break up that fight …” she said slowly. “You mentioned offensive magic. Like you knew about it.”
Oh. Great. She was going to make a play at blackmail…or was she? At the moment, she seemed almost civil.
“I was just guessing,” I said. No way was I going to bust Tasha and Christian. “I don’t really know that much. Just stories I’ve heard.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “What kind of stories?”
“Um, well…”I tried to think of something neither too vague nor too specific. “Like I told those guys…the concentration thing is big. Because if you’re in a battle with Strigoi, all sorts of things can distract you. So you’ve got to keep control.”
That was actually a basic guardian rule, but it must have been new to Mia. Her eyes widened with eagerness. “What else? What kind of spells do people use?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know how spells work, and like I said, these are just…stories I’ve heard. My guess is you just find ways to use your element as a weapon. Like … fire users really have an advantage because fire’ll kill Strigoi, so it’s easy for them. And air users can suffocate people.” I’d actually experienced that last one vicariously through Lissa. It had been horrible.
Mia’s eyes grew wider still. “What about a water user?” she asked. “How could water hurt a Strigoi?”
I paused. “I, uh, never heard any stories about water users. Sorry.”
“Do you have any ideas, though? Ways that, like, someone like me could learn to fight?”
Ah. So that’s what this was about. It actually wasn’t all that crazy. I remembered how excited she’d looked at the meeting when Tasha had talked about attacking Strigoi. Mia wanted to take revenge on the Strigoi for her mother’s death. No wonder she and Mason had been getting along so well.
“Mia,” I said gently, catching hold of the door to let her pass. We were almost at the lobby now. “I know how you must want to … do something. But I think you’re better off just sort of letting yourself, um, grieve.”
She reddened, and suddenly, I was seeing the normal and angry Mia. “Don’t talk down to me,” she said.
“Hey, I’m not. I’m serious. I’m just saying you shouldn’t do anything rash while you’re still upset. Besides …” I bit off my words.
She narrowed her eyes. “What?”
Screw it. She needed to know. “Well, I don’t really know what good a water user would be against a Strigoi. It’s probably the least useful element to use on one of them.”
Outrage filled her features. “You’re a real bitch, you know that?”
“I’m just telling you the truth.”
“Well, let me tell you the truth. You’re a total idiot when it comes to guys.”
I thought about Dimitri. She wasn’t entirely off base.
“Mason’s great,” she continued. “One of the nicest guys I know- and you don’t even notice! He’d do anything for you, and you were off throwing yourself at Adrian Ivashkov.”
Her words surprised me. Could Mia have a crush on Mason? And while I certainly hadn’t been throwing myself at Adrian, I could see how it might have looked that way. And even if it weren’t true, that wouldn’t have stopped Mason from feeling hurt and betrayed.
“You’re right,” I said.
Mia stared at me, so astonished I’d agreed with her that she didn’t say anything else for the rest of the walk.
We reached the part of the lodge that split off into different wings for guys and girls. I grabbed a hold of Mason’s arm as the others walked off.
“Hang on,” I told him. I badly needed to reassure him about Adrian, but a tiny part of me wondered if I was doing it because I actually wanted Mason or because I just liked the idea of him wanting me and selfishly didn’t want to lose that. He stopped and looked at me. His face was wary. “I wanted to tell you I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you after the fight- I know you were just trying to help. And with Adrian…nothing happened. I mean it.”
“It didn’t look that way,” Mason said. But the anger on his face had faded.
“I know, but believe me, it’s all him. He’s got some kind of stupid crush on me.”
My tone must have been convincing because Mason smiled. “Well. Hard not to.”
“I’m not interested in him,” I continued. “Or anyone else.” It was a small lie, but I didn’t think it mattered just then. I was going to be over Dimitri soon, and Mia had been right about Mason. He was wonderful and sweet and cute. I would be an idiot not to pursue this … right?
My hand was still on his arm, and I pulled him toward me. He didn’t need much more of a signal. He leaned down and kissed me, and in the process, I found myself pressed up against the wall- very much like with Dimitri in the practice room. Of course, it felt nothing like how it had with Dimitri, but it was still nice in its way. I put my arms around Mason and started to pull him closer.
“We could go … somewhere,” I said.
He pushed back and laughed. “Not when you’re drunk.”
“I’m not… that… drunk anymore,” I said, trying to pull him back.
Giving me a small kiss on the lips, he stepped back. “Drunk enough. Look, this isn’t easy, believe me. But if you still want me tomorrow- when you’re sober- then we’ll talk.”
He leaned down and kissed me again. I tried to wrap my arms around him, but he broke away once more.
“Easy there, girl,” he teased, backing toward his hallway.
I glared at him, but he only laughed and turned around. As he walked away, my glare faded, and I headed back to my room with a smile on my face.