I WAS FEELING PRETTY GOOD about life when I headed to my before-school practice the next day.The secret gathering last night had been super fun, and I felt proudly responsible for fighting the system and encouraging Dimitri to go with Tasha.Better still, I’d gotten my first crack at a silver stake yesterday and had proven I could handle one.
High on myself, I couldn’t wait to practice even more.
Once I was dressed in my usual workout attire, I practically skipped down to the gym. But when I stuck my head inside the practice room from the day before, I found it dark and quiet. Flipping on the light, I peered around just in case Dimitri was conducting some kind of weird, covert training exercise. Nope. Empty. No staking today.
“Shit,” I muttered.
“He’s not here.”
I yelped and nearly jumped ten feet in the air. Turning around, I looked straight into my mother’s narrowed brown eyes.
“What are you doing here?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, her appearance registered with me. A stretchy spandex shirt with short sleeves. Loose, drawstring workout pants similar to the ones I wore. “Shit,” I said again.
“Watch your mouth,” she snapped. “You might behave like you have no manners, but at least try not to sound that way.”
“Guardian Belikov is in bed. He just got back a couple of hours ago and needed to sleep.”
Another expletive was on my lips, and I bit it back. Of course Dimitri was asleep. He’d had to drive with Tasha to Missoula during daylight in order to be there during human shopping hours. He’d technically been up all of the Academy’s night and had probably only just gotten back. Ugh. I wouldn’t have been so quick to encourage him to help her if I’d known it’d result in this.
“Well,” I said hastily. “I guess that means practice is canceled??”
“Be quiet and put these on.” She handed me some training mitts. They were similar to boxing gloves but not as thick and bulky. They shared the same purpose, however: to protect your hands and keep you from gouging your opponent with your nails.
“We’ve been working on silver stakes,” I said sulkily shoving my hands into the mitts.
“Well, today we’re doing this. Come on.”
Wishing I’d been hit by a bus on my walk from the dorm today, I followed her out toward the center of the gym. Her curly hair was pinned up to stay out of the way, revealing the back of her neck. The skin there was covered in tattoos. The top one was a serpentine line: the promise mark, given when guardians graduated from academies like St. Vladimir’s and agreed to serve. Below that were the molnija marks awarded each time a guardian killed a Strigoi. They were shaped like the lightning bolts they took their name from. I couldn’t gauge exact numbers, but let’s just say it was a wonder my mom had any neck left to tattoo. She’d wielded a lot of death in her time.
When she reached the spot she wanted, she turned toward me and adopted an attack stance. Half expecting her to jump me then and there, I quickly mirrored it.
“What are we doing?” I asked.
“Basic offensive and defensive parrying. Use the red lines.”
“That’s all?” I asked.
She leapt toward me. I dodged??just barely??and tripped over my own feet in the process. Hastily, I righted myself.
“Well,” she said in a voice that almost sounded sarcastic. “As you seem so keen on reminding me, I haven’t seen you in five years. I have no idea what you can do.”
She moved on me again, and again I just barely kept within the lines in escaping her. That quickly became the pattern. She never really gave me the chance to go on the offensive. Or maybe I just didn’t have the skills to take the offensive. I spent all my time defending myself??physically, at least. Grudgingly, I had to acknowledge to myself that she was good. Really good. But I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that.
“So, what?” I asked. “This is your way of making up for maternal negligence?”
“This is my way of making you get rid of that chip on your shoulder. You’ve had nothing but attitude for me since I arrived. You want to fight?” Her fist shot out and connected with my arm. “Then we’ll fight. Point.”
“Point,” I conceded, backing up to my side. “I don’t want to fight. I’ve just been trying to talk to you.”
“Mouthing off to me in class isn’t what I’d really call talking. Point.”
I grunted from the hit. When I’d first begun training with Dimitri, I’d complained that it wasn’t fair for me to fight someone a foot taller than me. He’d pointed out that I’d fight plenty of Strigoi taller than me and that the old adage was true: size doesn’t matter. Sometimes I thought he was giving me false hope, but judging from my mom’s performance here, I was starting to believe him.
I’d never actually fought anyone smaller than me. As one of the few girls in the novice classes, I accepted that I was almost always going to be shorter and slimmer than my opponents. But my mother was smaller still and clearly had nothing but muscle packed into her petite body.
“I have a unique style of communication, that’s all,” I said.
“You have a petty teenage delusion that you’ve somehow been wronged for the last seventeen years.” Her foot hit my thigh. “Point. When in reality, you’ve been treated no differently than any other dhampir. Better, actually. I could have sent you off to live with my cousins. You want to be a blood whore? Is that what you wanted?”
The term “blood whore” always made me flinch. It was a term often applied to the single dhampir mothers who decided to raise their children instead of becoming guardians. These women often had short-term affairs with Moroi men and were looked down on for it??even though there wasn’t really anything else they could have done, since Moroi men usually ended up marrying Moroi women.
The “blood whore” term came from the fact that some dhampir women let men drink blood from them during sex. In our world, only humans gave blood. A dhampir doing it was dirty and kinky??especially during sex. I suspected only a few dhampir women actually did this, but unfairly, the term tended to get applied to all of them. I had given blood to Lissa when we had run away, and although it had been a necessary act, the stigma still stayed with me.
“No. Of course I don’t want to be a blood whore.” My breathing was becoming heavy. “And they’re not all like that. There’re only a few that actually are.”
“They bring that reputation on themselves,” she growled. I dodged her strike. “They should be doing their duty as guardians, not continuing to fool around and have flings with Moroi.”
“They’re raising their children,” I grunted. I wanted to yell but couldn’t waste the oxygen. “Something you’d know nothing about. Besides, aren’t you the same as they are? I don’t see a ring on your finger. Wasn’t my dad just a fling for you?”
Her face turned hard, which is saying something when you’re already beating up your daughter. “That,” she said tightly, “is something you know nothing about. Point.”
I winced at the blow but was happy to see I’d struck a nerve. I had no clue who my dad was. The only bit of information I had was that he was Turkish. I might have my mom’s curvy figure and pretty face??though I could smugly say mine was much prettier than hers nowadays??but the rest of my coloring was from him. Lightly tanned skin with dark hair and eyes.
“How’d it happen?” I asked. “Were you on some assignment in Turkey? Meet him at a local bazaar? Or was it even cheaper than that? Did you go all Darwin and select the guy most likely to pass on warrior genes to your offspring? I mean, I know you only had me because it was your duty, so I suppose you had to make sure you could give the guardians the best specimen you could.”
“Rosemarie,” she warned through gritted teeth, “for once in your life, shut up.”
“Why? Am I tarnishing your precious reputation? It’s just like you told me: you aren’t any different from any other dhampir either. You just screwed him and??”
There’s a reason they say, “Pride goeth before a fall.” I was so caught up in my own cocky triumph that I stopped paying attention to my feet. I was too close to the red line. Going outside of it was another point for her, so I scrambled to stay within and dodge her at the same time. Unfortunately, only one of those could work. Her fist came flying at me, fast and hard??and, perhaps most importantly, a bit higher than the permissable according to rules of this kind of exercise. It smacked me in the face with the power of a small truck, and I flew backward, hitting the hard gym floor back-first and head-second. And I was out of the lines. Damn it.
Pain cracked through the back of my head, and my vision went blurry and sparkly. Within seconds, my mother was leaning over me.
“Rose? Rose? Are you okay?” Her voice sounded hoarse and frantic. The world swam.
At some point after that, other people came, and I somehow wound up in the Academy’s med clinic. There, someone shone a light in my eyes and started asking me incredibly idiotic questions.
“What’s your name?”
“What?” I asked, squinting at the light.
“Your name.” I recognized Dr. Olendzki peering over me.
“You know my name.”
“I want you to tell me.”
“Rose. Rose Hathaway.”
“Do you know your birthday?”
“Of course I do. Why are you asking me such stupid things? Did you lose my records?”
Dr. Olendzki gave an exasperated sigh and walked off, taking the annoying light with her. “I think she’s fine,” I heard her tell someone. “I want to keep her here for the school day, just to make sure she doesn’t have a concussion. I certainly don’t want her anywhere near her guardian classes.”
I spent the day moving in and out of sleep because Dr. Olendzki kept waking me up to do her tests. She also gave me an ice pack and told me to keep it close to my face. When the Academy’s classes let out, she deemed me well enough to leave.
“I swear, Rose, I think you should have a frequent patient’s card.” There was a small smile on her face. “Short of those with chronic problems like allergies and asthma, I don’t think there’s any other student I’ve seen here so often in such a short period of time.”
“Thanks,” I said, not really sure I wanted the honor. “So, no concussion?”
She shook her head. “No. You’re going to have some pain, though. I’ll give you something for that before you go.” Her smile faded, and suddenly she looked nervous. “To be honest, Rose, I think most of the damage happened to, well, your face.”
I shot up from the bed. “What do you mean ‘most of the damage happened to my face’?”
She gestured to the mirror above the sink on the far side of the room. I ran over to it and looked at my reflection.
“Son of a bitch!”
Purplish red splotches covered the upper portion of the left side of my face, particularly near the eye. Desperately, I turned around to face her.
“This is going to go away soon, right? If I keep the ice on it?”
She shook her head again. “The ice can help…but I’m afraid you’re going to have a wicked black eye. It’ll probably be at its worst tomorrow but should clear up in a week or so. You’ll be back to normal before long.”
I left the clinic in a daze that had nothing to do with my head injury. Clear up in a week or so? How could Dr. Olendzki speak so lightly about this? Didn’t she realize what was happening? I was going to look like a mutant for Christmas and most of the ski trip. I had a black eye. A freaking black eye.
And my mother had given it to me.