THE AFTERMATH OF JESSE AND Ralf’s lies was about as horrible as I’d expected.The only way I survived was by putting blinders on, by ignoring everyone and everything.It kept me sane – barely – but I hated it.
I felt like crying all the time. I lost my appetite and didn’t sleep well.
Yet, no matter how bad it got for me, I didn’t worry about myself as much as I did Lissa. She stood by her promise to change things. It was slow at first, but gradually, I would see a royal or two come up to her at lunch or in class and say hello. She’d turn on a brilliant smile, laughing and talking to them like they were all best friends.
At first, I didn’t understand how she was pulling it off. She’d told me she would use compulsion to win the other royals over and turn them against Mia. But I didn’t see it happening. It was possible, of course, that she was winning people over without compulsion. After all, she was funny, smart, and nice. Anyone would like her. Something told me she wasn’t winning friends the old-fashioned way, and I finally figured it out.
She was using compulsion when I wasn’t around. I only saw her for a small part of the day, and since she knew I didn’t approve, she only worked her power when I was away.
After a few days of this secret compulsion, I knew what I needed to do: I had to get back in her head again. By choice. I’d done it before; I could do it again.
At least, that’s what I told myself, sitting and spacing out in Stan’s class one day. But it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be, partly because I felt too keyed up to relax and open myself to her thoughts. I also had trouble because I picked a time when she felt relatively calm. She came through the “loudest” when her emotions were running strong.
Still, I tried to do what I’d done before, back when I’d spied on her and Christian. The meditation thing. Slow breathing. Eyes closed. Mental focus like that still wasn’t easy for me, but at long last I managed the transition, slipping into her head and experiencing the world as hers. She stood in her American lit class, during project-work time, but, like most of the students, she wasn’t working. She and Camille Conta leaned against a wall on the far side of the room, talking in hushed voices.
“It’s gross,” said Camille firmly, a frown crossing her pretty face. She had on a blue skirt made of velvet-like fabric, short enough to show off her long legs and possibly raise eyes about the dress code. “If you guys were doing it, I’m not surprised she got addicted and did it with Jesse.”
“She didn’t do it with Jesse,” insisted Lissa. “And it’s not like we had sex. We just didn’t have any feeders, that’s all.” Lissa focused her full attention on Camille and smiled. “It’s no big deal. Everyone’s overreacting.”
Camille looked like she seriously doubted this, and then, the more she stared at Lissa, the more unfocused her eyes became. A blank look fell over her.
“Right?” asked Lissa, voice like silk. “It’s not a big deal.”
The frown returned. Camille tried to shake the compulsion. That fact that it’d even gotten this far was incredible. As Christian had observed, using it on Moroi was unheard of.
Camille, although strong-willed, lost the battle. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “It’s really not that big a deal.”
“And Jesse’s lying.”
She nodded. “Definitely lying.”
A mental strain burned inside of Lissa as she held onto the compulsion. It took a lot of effort, and she wasn’t finished.
“What are you guys doing tonight?”
“Carly and I are going to study for Mattheson’s test in her room.”
Camille thought about it. “Hey, you want to study with us?”
“Sure,” said Lissa, smiling at her. Camille smiled back.
Lissa dropped the compulsion, and a wave of dizziness swept over her. She felt weak. Camille glanced around, momentarily surprised, then shook off the weirdness. “See you after dinner then.”
“See you,” murmured Lissa, watching her walk away. When Camille was gone, Lissa reached up to tie her hair up in a ponytail. Her fingers couldn’t quite get all the hair through, and suddenly, another pair of hands caught hold and helped her. She spun around and found herself staring into Christian’s ice-blue eyes. She jerked away from him.
“Don’t do that!” she exclaimed, shivering at the realization that it had been his fingers touching her.
He gave her his lazy, slightly twisted smile and brushed a few pieces of unruly black hair out of his face. “Are you asking me or ordering me?”
“Shut up.” She glanced around, both to avoid his eyes and make sure no one saw them together.
“What’s the matter? Worried about what your slaves’ll think if they see you talking to me?”
“They’re my friends,” she retorted.
“Oh. Right. Of course they are. I mean, from what I saw, Camille would probably do anything for you, right? Friends till the end.” He crossed his arms over his chest, and in spite of her anger, she couldn’t help but notice how the silvery gray of his shirt set off his black hair and blue eyes.
“At least she isn’t like you. She doesn’t pretend to be my friend one day and then ignore me for no reason.”
An uncertain look flickered across his features. Tension and anger had built up between them in the last week, ever since I’d yelled at Christian after the royal reception. Believing what I’d told him, Christian had stopped talking to her and had treated her rudely every time she’d tried to start a conversation. Now, hurt and confused, she’d given up attempts at being nice. The situation just kept getting worse and worse.
Looking out through Lissa’s eyes, I could see that he still cared about her and still wanted her. His pride had been hurt, however, and he wasn’t about to show weakness.
“Yeah?” he said in a low, cruel voice. “I thought that was the way all royals were supposed to act. You certainly seem to be doing a good job with it. Or maybe you’re just using compulsion on me to make me think you’re a two-faced bitch. Maybe you really aren’t. But I doubt it.”
Lissa flushed at the word compulsion – and cast another worried look around – but decided not to give him the satisfaction of arguing anymore. She simply gave him one last glare before storming off to join a group of royals huddled over an assignment Returning to myself, I stared blankly around the classroom, processing what I’d seen. Some tiny, tiny part of me was starting to feel sorry for Christian. It was only a tiny part, though, and very easy to ignore.
At the beginning of the next day, I headed out to meet Dimitri. These practices were my favorite part of the day now, partly because of my stupid crush on him and partly because I didn’t have to be around the others.
He and I started with running as usual, and he ran with me, quiet and almost gentle in his instructions, probably worried about causing some sort of breakdown. He knew about the rumors somehow, but he never mentioned them.
When we finished, he led me through an offensive exercise where I could use any makeshift weapons I could find to attack him. To my surprise, I managed to land a few blows on him, although they seemed to do me more damage than him. The impacts always made me stagger back, but he never budged. It still didn’t stop me from attacking and attacking, fighting with an almost blind rage. I didn’t know who I really fought in those moments: Mia or Jesse or Ralf. Maybe all of them.
Dimitri finally called a break. We carried the equipment we’d used on the field and returned everything to the supply room. While putting it away, he glanced at me and did a double take.
“Your hands.” He swore in Russian. I could recognize it by now, but he refused to teach me what any of it meant. “Where are your gloves?”
I looked down at my hands. They’d suffered for weeks, and today had only made them worse. The cold had turned the skin raw and chapped, and some parts were actually bleeding a little. My blisters swelled. “Don’t have any. Never needed them in Portland.”
He swore again and beckoned me to a chair while he retrieved a first-aid kit. Wiping away the blood with a wet cloth, he told me gruffly, “We’ll get you some.”
I looked down at my destroyed hands as he worked. “This is only the start, isn’t it?”
“Me. Turning into Alberta. Her…and all the other female guardians. They’re all leathery and stuff. Fighting and training and always being outdoors – they aren’t pretty anymore.” I paused. “This…this life. It destroys them. Their looks, I mean.”
He hesitated for a moment and looked up from my hands. Those warm brown eyes surveyed me, and something tightened in my chest. Damn it. I had to stop feeling this way around him. “It won’t happen to you. You’re too…” He groped for the right word, and I mentally substituted all sorts of possibilities. Goddess-like. Scorchingly sexy. Giving up, he simply said, “It won’t happen to you.”
He turned his attention back to my hands. Did he…did he think I was pretty? I never doubted the reaction I caused among guys my own age, but with him, I didn’t know. The tightening in my chest increased.
“It happened to my mom. She used to be beautiful. I guess she still is, sort of. But not the way she used to be.” Bitterly, I added, “Haven’t seen her in a while. She could look completely different for all I know.”
“You don’t like your mother,” he observed.
“You noticed that, huh?”
“You barely know her.”
“That’s the point. She abandoned me. She left me to be raised by the Academy.”
When he finished cleaning my open wounds, he found a jar of salve and began rubbing it into the rough parts of my skin. I sort of got lost in the feel of his hands massaging mine.
“You say that…but what else should she have done? I know you want to be a guardian. I know how much it means to you. Do you think she feels any differently? Do you think she should have quit to raise you when you’d spend most of your life here anyway?”
I didn’t like having reasonable arguments thrown at me. “Are you saying I’m a hypocrite?”
“I’m just saying maybe you shouldn’t be so hard on her. She’s a very respected dhampir woman. She’s set you on the path to be the same.”
“It wouldn’t kill her to visit more,” I muttered. “But I guess you’re right. A little. It could have been worse, I suppose. I could have been raised with blood whores.”
Dimitri looked up. “I was raised in a dhampir commune. They aren’t as bad as you think.”
“Oh.” I suddenly felt stupid. “I didn’t mean – “
“It’s all right.” He focused his attention back on my hands.
“So, did you, like, have family there? Grow up with them?”
He nodded. “My mother and two sisters. I didn’t see them much after I went to school, but we still keep in touch. Mostly, the communities are about family. There’s a lot of love there, no matter what stories you’ve heard.”
My bitterness returned, and I glanced down to hide my glare. Dimitri had had a happier family life with his disgraced mother and relatives than I’d had with my “respected” guardian mother. He most certainly knew his mother better than I knew mine.
“Yeah, but…isn’t it weird? Aren’t there a lot of Moroi men visiting to, you know?…”
His hands rubbed circles into mine. “Sometimes.”
There was something dangerous in his tone, something that told me this was an unwelcome topic. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up something bad…”
“Actually…you probably wouldn’t think it’s bad,” he said after almost a minute had passed. A tight smile formed on his lips. “You don’t know your father, do you?”
I shook my head. “No. All I know is he must have had wicked cool hair.”
Dimitri glanced up, and his eyes swept me. “Yes. He must have.” Returning to my hands, he said carefully, “I knew mine.”
I froze. “Really? Most Moroi guys don’t stay – I mean, some do, but you know, usually they just – “
“Well, he liked my mother.” He didn’t say “liked” in a nice way. “And he visited her a lot. He’s my sisters’ father too. But when he came…well, he didn’t treat my mother very well. He did some horrible things.”
“Like…” I hesitated. This was Dimitri’s mother we were talking about. I didn’t know how far I could go. “Blood-whore things?”
“Like beating-her-up kinds of things,” he replied flatly.
He’d finished the bandages but was still holding my hands. I don’t even know if he noticed. I certainly did. His were warm and large, with long and graceful fingers. Fingers that might have played the piano in another life.
“Oh God,” I said. How horrible. I tightened my hands in his. He squeezed back. “That’s horrible. And she…she just let it happen?”
“She did.” The corner of his mouth turned up into a sly, sad smile. “But I didn’t.”
Excitement surged through me. “Tell me, tell me you beat the crap out of him.”
His smile grew. “I did.”
“Wow.” I hadn’t thought Dimitri could be any cooler, but I was wrong. “You beat up your dad. I mean, that’s really horrible…what happened. But, wow. You really are a god.”
He blinked. “What?”
“Uh, nothing.” Hastily, I tried to change the subject. “How old were you?”
He still seemed to be puzzling out the god comment. “Thirteen.”
Whoa. Definitely a god. “You beat up your dad when you were thirteen?”
“It wasn’t that hard. I was stronger than he was, almost as tall. I couldn’t let him keep doing that. He had to learn that being royal and Moroi doesn’t mean you can do anything you want to other people – even blood whores.”
I stared. I couldn’t believe he’d just said that about his mother. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
Pieces clicked into place for me. “That’s why you got so upset about Jesse, isn’t it? He was another royal, trying to take advantage of a dhampir girl.”
Dimitri averted his eyes. “I got upset over that for a lot of reasons. After all, you were breaking the rules, and…”
He didn’t finish, but he looked back into my eyes in a way that made warmth build between us.
Thinking about Jesse soon darkened my mood, unfortunately. I looked down. “I know you heard what people are saying, that I – “
“I know it’s not true,” he interrupted.
His immediate, certain answer surprised me, and I stupidly found myself questioning it. “Yeah, but how do you – “
“Because I know you,” he replied firmly. “I know your character. I know you’re going to be a great guardian.”
His confidence made that warm feeling return. “I’m glad someone does. Everyone else thinks I’m totally irresponsible.”
“With the way you worry more about Lissa than yourself…” He shook his head. “No. You understand your responsibilities better than guardians twice your age. You’ll do what you have to do to succeed.”
I thought about that. “I don’t know if I can do everything I have to do.”
He did that cool one-eyebrow thing.
“I don’t want to cut my hair,” I explained.
He looked puzzled. “You don’t have to cut your hair. It’s not required.”
“All the other guardian women do. They show off their tattoos.”
Unexpectedly, he released my hands and leaned forward. Slowly, he reached out and held a lock of my hair, twisting it around one finger thoughtfully. I froze, and for a moment, there was nothing going on in the world except him touching my hair. He let my hair go, looking a little surprised – and embarrassed – at what he’d done.
“Don’t cut it,” he said gruffly.
Somehow, I remembered how to talk again. “But no one’ll see my tattoos if I don’t.”
He moved toward the doorway, a small smile playing over his lips. “Wear it up.”