A FEW DAYS LATER, LISSA found me outside the commons and delivered the most astonishing news.
“Uncle Victor’s getting Natalie off campus this weekend to go shopping in Missoula.For the dance.They said I could come along.”
I didn’t say anything.
She looked surprised at my silence.
“Isn’t that cool?”
“For you, I guess. No malls or dances in my future.”
She smiled excitedly. “He told Natalie she could bring two other people besides me. I convinced her to bring you and Camille.”
I threw up my hands. “Well, thanks, but I’m not even supposed to go to the library after school. No one’s going to let me go to Missoula.”
“Uncle Victor thinks he can get Headmistress Kirova to let you go. Dimitri’s trying too.”
“Yeah. He has to go with me if I leave campus.” She grinned, taking my interest in Dimitri as interest in the mall. “They figured out my account finally – I got my allowance back. So we can buy other stuff along with dresses. And you know if they let you go to the mall, they’ll have to let you go to the dance.”
“Do we go to dances now?” I said. We never had before. School-sponsored social events? No way.
“Of course not. But you know there’ll be all kinds of secret parties. We’ll start at the dance and sneak off.” She sighed happily. “Mia’s so jealous she can barely stand it.”
She went on about all the stores we’d go to, all the things we’d buy. I admit, I was kind of excited at the thought of getting some new clothes, but I doubted I’d actually get this mythical release.
“Oh hey,” she said excitedly. “You should see these shoes Camille let me borrow. I never knew we wore the same size. Hang on.” She opened her backpack and began rifling through it.
Suddenly, she screamed and threw it down. Books and shoes spilled out. So did a dead dove.
It was one of the pale brown mourning doves that sat on wires along the freeway and under trees on campus. It had so much blood on it that I couldn’t figure out where the wound was. Who knew something so small even had that much blood? Regardless, the bird was definitely dead.
Covering her mouth, Lissa stared wordlessly, eyes wide.
“Son of a bitch,” I swore. Without hesitating, I grabbed a stick and pushed the little feathered body aside. When it was out of the way, I started shoving her stuff back into the backpack, trying not to think about dead-bird germs. “Why the hell does this keep – Liss!”
I leapt over and grabbed her, pulling her away. She had been kneeling on the ground, with her hand outstretched to the dove. I don’t think she’d even realized what she was about to do. The instinct in her was so strong, it acted on its own.
“Lissa,” I said, tightening my hand around hers. She was still leaning toward the bird. “Don’t. Don’t do it.”
“I can save it.”
“No, you can’t. You promised, remember? Some things have to stay dead. Let this one go.” Still feeling her tension, I pleaded. “Please, Liss. You promised. No more healings. You said you wouldn’t. You promised me.”
After a few more moments, I felt her hand relax and her body slump against mine. “I hate this, Rose. I hate all of this.”
Natalie walked outside then, oblivious to the gruesome sight awaiting her.
“Hey, do you guys – oh my God!” she squealed, seeing the dove. “What is that?”
I helped Lissa as we rose to our feet. “Another, um, prank.”
“Is it…dead?” She scrunched up her face in disgust.
“Yes,” I said firmly.
Natalie, picking up on our tension, looked between the two of us. “What else is wrong?”
“Nothing.” I handed Lissa her backpack. “This is just someone’s stupid, sick joke, and I’m going to tell Kirova so they can clean this up.”
Natalie turned away, looking a little green. “Why do people keep doing this to you? It’s horrible.”
Lissa and I exchanged looks.
“I have no idea,” I said. Yet as I walked to Kirova’s office, I started to wonder.
When we’d found the fox, Lissa had hinted that someone must know about the raven. I hadn’t believed that. We’d been alone in the woods that night, and Ms. Karp wouldn’t have told anyone. But what if someone actually had seen? What if someone kept doing this not to scare her, but to see if she’d heal again? What had the rabbit note said? I know what you are.
I didn’t mention any of this to Lissa; I figured there were only so many of my conspiracy theories she could handle. Besides, when I saw her the next day, she’d practically forgotten the dove in light of other news: Kirova had given me permission to go on the trip that weekend. The prospect of shopping can brighten a lot of dark situations – even animal murder – and I put my own worries on hold.
Only, when the time came, I discovered my release came with strings attached.
“Headmistress Kirova thinks you’ve done well since coming back,” Dimitri told me.
“Aside from starting a fight in Mr. Nagy’s class?”
“She doesn’t blame you for that. Not entirely. I convinced her you needed a break…and that you could use this as a training exercise.”
He gave me a brief explanation as we walked out to meet the others going with us. Victor Dashkov, as sickly as ever, was there with his guardians, and Natalie practically barreled into him. He smiled and gave her a careful hug, one that ended when a coughing fit took over. Natalie’s eyes went wide with concern as she waited for it to pass.
He claimed he was fine to accompany us, and while I admired his resolve, I thought he’d be putting himself through a lot just to shop with a bunch of teenage girls.
We rode out the two-hour trip to Missoula in a large school van, leaving just after sunrise. Many Moroi lived separately from humans, but many also lived among them, and when shopping at their malls, you had to go during their hours.
The back windows of the van had tinted glass to filter the light and keep the worst of it away from the vampires.
We had nine people in our group: Lissa, Victor, Natalie, Camille, Dimitri, me, and three other guardians. Two of the guardians, Ben and Spiridon, always traveled with Victor. The third was one of the school’s guardians: Stan, the jerk who’d humiliated me on my first day back.
“Camille and Natalie don’t have personal guardians yet,” Dimitri explained to me. “They’re both under the protection of their families’ guardians. Since they are Academy students leaving campus, a school guardian accompanies them – Stan. I go because I’m Lissa’s assigned guardian. Most girls her age wouldn’t have a personal guardian yet, but circumstances make her unusual.”
I sat in the back of the van with him and Spiridon, so they could dispense guardian wisdom to me as part of the “training exercise.” Ben and Stan sat up front, while the others sat in the middle. Lissa and Victor talked to each other a lot, catching up on news. Camille, raised to be polite among older royals, smiled and nodded along. Natalie, on the other hand, looked left out and kept trying to shift her father’s attention from Lissa. It didn’t work. He’d apparently learned to tune out her chatter.
I turned back to Dimitri. “She’s supposed to have two guardians. Princes and princesses always do.”
Spiridon was Dimitri’s age, with spiky blond hair and a more casual attitude. Despite his Greek name, he had a Southern drawl. “Don’t worry, she’ll have plenty when the time comes. Dimitri’s already one of them. Odds are you’ll be one too. And that’s why you’re here today.”
“The training part,” I guessed.
“Yup. You’re going to be Dimitri’s partner.”
A moment of funny silence fell, probably not noticeable to anyone except Dimitri and me. Our eyes met.
“Guarding partner,” Dimitri clarified unnecessarily, like maybe he too had been thinking of other kinds of partners.
“Yup,” agreed Spiridon.
Oblivious to the tension around him, he went on to explain how guardian pairs worked. It was standard stuff, straight from my textbooks, but it meant more now that I’d be doing it in the real world. Guardians were assigned to Moroi based on importance. Two was a common grouping, one I’d probably work in a lot with Lissa. One guardian stayed close to the target; the other stood back and kept an eye on the surroundings.
Boringly, those holding these positions were called near and far guards.
“You’ll probably always be near guard,” Dimitri told me. “You’re female and the same age as the princess. You can stay close to her without attracting any attention.”
“And I can’t ever take my eyes off her,” I noted. “Or you.”
Spiridon laughed again and elbowed Dimitri. “You’ve got a star student there. Did you give her a stake?”
“No. She’s not ready.”
“I would be if someone would show me how to use one,” I argued. I knew every guardian in the van had a stake and a gun concealed on him.
“More to it than just using the stake,” said Dimitri in his old-and-wise way. “You’ve still got to subdue them. And you’ve got to bring yourself to kill them.”
“Why wouldn’t I kill them?”
“Most Strigoi used to be Moroi who purposely turned. Sometimes they’re Moroi or dhampirs turned by force. It doesn’t matter. There’s a strong chance you might know one of them. Could you kill someone you used to know?”
This trip was getting less fun by the minute.
“I guess so. I’d have to, right? If it’s them or Lissa…”
“You might still hesitate,” said Dimitri. “And that hesitation could kill you. And her.”
“Then how do you make sure you don’t hesitate?”
“You have to keep telling yourself that they aren’t the same people you knew. They’ve become something dark and twisted. Something unnatural. You have to let go of attachments and do what’s right. If they have any grain of their former selves left, they’ll probably be grateful.”
“Grateful for me killing them?”
“If someone turned you into a Strigoi, what would you want?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to answer that, so I said nothing. Never taking his eyes off me, he kept pushing.
“What would you want if you knew you were going to be converted into a Strigoi against your will? If you knew you would lose all sense of your old morals and understanding of what’s right and wrong? If you knew you’d live the rest of your life – your immortal life – killing innocent people? What would you want?”
The van had grown uncomfortably silent. Staring at Dimitri, burdened by all those questions, I suddenly understood why he and I had this weird attraction, good looks aside.
I’d never met anyone else who took being a guardian so seriously, who understand all the life-and-death consequences. Certainly no one my age did yet; Mason hadn’t been able to understand why I couldn’t relax and drink at the party. Dimitri had said I grasped my duty better than many older guardians, and I didn’t get why – especially when they would have seen so much more death and danger. But I knew in that moment that he was right, that I had some weird sense of how life and death and good and evil worked with each other.
So did he. We might get lonely sometimes. We might have to put our “fun” on hold. We might not be able to live the lives we wanted for ourselves. But that was the way it had to be. We understood each other, understood that we had others to protect. Our lives would never be easy.
And making decisions like this one was part of that.
“If I became Strigoi…I’d want someone to kill me.”
“So would I,” he said quietly. I could tell that he’d had the same flash of realization I’d just had, that same sense of connection between us.
“It reminds me of Mikhail hunting Sonya,” murmured Victor thoughtfully.
“Who are Mikhail and Sonya?” asked Lissa.
Victor looked surprised. “Why, I thought you knew. Sonya Karp.”
“Sonya Kar…you mean, Ms. Karp? What about her?” She looked back and forth between me and her uncle.
“She…became Strigoi,” I said, not meeting Lissa’s eyes. “By choice.”
I’d known Lissa would find out some day. It was the final piece of Ms. Karp’s saga, a secret I’d kept to myself. A secret that worried me constantly. Lissa’s face and bond registered complete and utter shock, growing in intensity when she realized I’d known and never told.
“But I don’t know who Mikhail is,” I added.
“Mikhail Tanner,” said Spiridon.
“Oh. Guardian Tanner. He was here before we left.” I frowned. “Why is he chasing Ms. Karp?”
“To kill her,” said Dimitri flatly. “They were lovers.”
The entire Strigoi thing shifted into new focus for me. Running into a Strigoi I knew during the heat of battle was one thing. Purposely hunting down someone…someone I’d loved. Well, I didn’t know if I could do that, even if it was technically the right thing.
“Perhaps it is time to talk about something else,” said Victor gently. “Today isn’t a day to dwell on depressing topics.”
I think all of us felt relieved to get to the mall. Shifting into my bodyguard role, I stuck by Lissa’s side as we wandered from store to store, looking at all the new styles that were out there. It was nice to be in public again and to do something with her that was just fun and didn’t involve any of the dark, twisted politics of the Academy. It was almost like old times. I’d missed just hanging out. I’d missed my best friend.
Although it was only just past mid-November, the mall already had glittering holiday decorations up. I decided I had the best job ever. Admittedly, I did feel a little put out when I realized the older guardians got to stay in contact through cool little communication devices. When I protested my lack of one, Dimitri told me I’d learn better without one. If I could handle protecting Lissa the old-fashioned way, I could handle anything.
Victor and Spiridon stayed with us while Dimitri and Ben fanned out, somehow managing not to look like creepy stalker guys watching teenage girls.
“This is so you,” said Lissa in Macy’s, handing me a low-cut tank top embellished with lace. “I’ll buy it for you.”
I regarded it longingly, already picturing myself in it. Then, making my regular eye contact with Dimitri, I shook my head and handed it back. “Winter’s coming. I’d get cold.”
“Never stopped you before.”
Shrugging, she hung it back up. She and Camille tried on a nonstop string of clothes, their massive allowances ensuring that price posed no problem. Lissa offered to buy me anything I wanted. We’d been generous with each other our whole lives, and I didn’t hesitate to take her up on it. My choices surprised her.
“You’ve got three thermal shirts and a hoodie,” she informed me, flipping through a stack of BCBG jeans. “You’ve gone all boring on me.”
“Hey, I don’t see you buying slutty tops.”
“I’m not the one who wears them.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“You know what I mean. You’re even wearing your hair up.”
It was true. I’d taken Dimitri’s advice and wrapped my hair up in a high bun, earning a smile when he’d seen me. If I’d had molnija marks, they would have shown.
Glancing around, she made sure none of the others could hear us. The feelings in the bond shifted to something more troubled.
“You knew about Ms. Karp.”
“Yeah. I heard about it a month or so after she left.”
Lissa tossed a pair of embroidered jeans over her arm, not looking at me. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t need to know.”
“You didn’t think I could handle it?”
I kept my face perfectly blank. As I stared at her, my mind was back in time, back to two years ago. I’d been on day two of my suspension for allegedly destroying Wade’s room when a royal party visited the school. I’d been allowed to attend that reception too but had been under heavy guard to make sure I didn’t “try anything.”
Two guardians escorted me to the commons and talked quietly with each other along the way.
“She killed the doctor attending her and nearly took out half the patients and nurses on her way out.”
“Do they have any idea where she went?”
“No, they’re tracking her…but, well, you know how it is.”
“I never expected her to do this. She never seemed like the type.”
“Yeah, well, Sonya was crazy. Did you see how violent she was getting near the end? She was capable of anything.”
I’d been trudging along miserably and jerked my head up.
“Sonya? You mean Ms. Karp?” I asked. “She killed somebody?”
The two guardians exchanged looks. Finally, one said gravely, “She became a Strigoi, Rose.”
I stopped walking and stared. “Ms. Karp? No…she wouldn’t have…”
“I’m afraid so,” the other one replied. “But…you should keep that to yourself. It’s a tragedy. Don’t make it school gossip.”
I went through the rest of the night in a daze. Ms. Karp. Crazy Karp. She’d killed someone to become Strigoi. I couldn’t believe it.
When the reception ended, I’d managed to sneak off from my guardians and steal a few precious moments with Lissa. The bond had grown strong by now, and I hadn’t needed to see her face to know how miserable she was.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her. We were in a corner of the hallway, just outside the commons.
Her eyes were blank. I could feel how she had a headache; its pain transferred to me. “I…I don’t know. I just feel weird. I feel like I’m being followed, like I have to be careful, you know?”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think she was being followed, but Ms. Karp used to say the same thing. Always paranoid. “It’s probably nothing,” I said lightly.
“Probably,” she agreed. Her eyes suddenly narrowed. “But Wade isn’t. He won’t shut up about what happened. You can’t believe the things he’s saying about you.”
I could, actually but I didn’t care. “Forget about him. He’s nothing.”
“I hate him,” she said. Her voice was uncharacteristically sharp. “I’m on the committee with him for that fund-raiser, and I hate hearing him run his fat mouth every day and seeing him flirt with anything female that walks by. You shouldn’t be punished for what he did. He needs to pay.”
My mouth went dry. “It’s okay…I don’t care. Calm down, Liss.”
“I care,” she snapped, turning her anger on me. “I wish there was a way I could get back at him. Some way to hurt him like he hurt you.” She put her hands behind her back and paced back and forth furiously, her steps hard and purposeful.
The hatred and anger boiled within her. I could feel it in the bond. It felt like a storm, and it scared the hell out of me. Wrapped around it all was an uncertainty, an instability that said Lissa didn’t know what to do but that she wanted desperately to do something. Anything. My mind flashed to the night with the baseball bat. And then I thought about Ms. Karp. She became a Strigoi, Rose.
It was the scariest moment of my life. Scarier than seeing her in Wade’s room. Scarier than seeing her heal that raven. Scarier than my capture by the guardians would be. Because just then, I didn’t know my best friend. I didn’t know what she was capable of. A year earlier, I would have laughed at anyone who said she’d want to go Strigoi. But a year earlier, I also would have laughed at anyone who said she’d want to cut her wrists or make someone “pay.”
In that moment, I suddenly believed she might do the impossible. And I had to make sure she didn’t. Save her. Save her from herself.
“We’re leaving,” I said, taking her arm and steering her down the hall. “Right now.”
Confusion momentarily replaced her anger. “What do you mean? You want to go to the woods or something?”
I didn’t answer. Something in my attitude or words must have startled her, because she didn’t question me as I led us out of the commons, cutting across campus toward the parking lot where visitors came. It was filled with cars belonging to tonight’s guests. One of them was a large Lincoln Town Car, and I watched as its chauffeur started it up.
“Someone’s leaving early,” I said, peering at him from around a cluster of bushes. I glanced behind us and saw nothing. “They’ll probably be here any minute.”
Lissa caught on. “When you said, ?®We’re leaving,’ you meant…no. Rose, we can’t leave the Academy. We’d never get through the wards and checkpoints.”
“We don’t have to,” I said firmly. “He does.”
“But how does that help us?”
I took a deep breath, regretting what I had to say but seeing it as the lesser of evils. “You know how you made Wade do those things?”
She flinched but nodded.
“I need you to do the same thing. Go up to that guy and tell him to hide us in his trunk.”
Shock and fear poured out of her. She didn’t understand, and she was scared. Extremely scared. She’d been scared for weeks now, ever since the healing and the moods and Wade. She was fragile and on the edge of something neither of us understood. But through all of that, she trusted me. She believed I would keep her safe.
“Okay,” she said. She took a few steps toward him, then looked back at me. “Why? Why are we doing this?”
I thought about Lissa’s anger, her desire to do anything to get back at Wade. And I thought about Ms. Karp – pretty, unstable Ms. Karp – going Strigoi. “I’m taking care of you,” I said. “You don’t need to know anything else.”
At the mall in Missoula, standing between racks of designer clothes, Lissa asked again, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t need to know,” I repeated.
She headed toward the dressing room, still whispering with me. “You’re worried I’m going to lose it. Are you worried I’ll go Strigoi too?”
“No. No way. That was all her. You’d never do that.”
“Even if I was crazy?”
“No,” I said, trying to make a joke. “You’d just shave your head and live with thirty cats.”
Lissa’s feelings grew darker, but she didn’t say anything else. Stopping just outside the dressing room, she pulled a black dress off the rack. She brightened a little.
“This is the dress you were born for. I don’t care how practical you are now.”
Made of silky black material, the dress was strapless and sleek, falling about to the knees. Although it had a slight flair at the hemline, the rest looked like it would definitely manage some serious clinging action. Super sexy. Maybe even challenge-the-school-dress-code sexy.
“That is my dress,” I admitted. I kept staring at it, wanting it so badly that it ached in my chest. This was the kind of dress that changed the world. The kind of dress that started religions.
Lissa pulled out my size. “Try it on.”
I shook my head and started to put it back. “I can’t. It would compromise you. One dress isn’t worth your grisly death.”
“Then we’ll just get it without you trying it on.” She bought the dress.
The afternoon continued, and I found myself growing tired. Always watching and being on guard suddenly became a lot less fun. When we hit our last stop, a jewelry store, I felt kind of glad.
“Here you go,” said Lissa, pointing at one of the cases. “The necklace made to go with your dress.”
I looked. A thin gold chain with a gold-and-diamond rose pendant. Emphasis on the diamond part.
“I hate rose stuff.”
Lissa had always loved getting me rose things – just to see my reaction, I think. When she saw the necklace’s price, her smile fell away.
“Oh, look at that. Even you have limits,” I teased. “Your crazy spending is stopped at last.”
We waited for Victor and Natalie to finish up. He was apparently buying her something, and she looked like she might grow wings and fly away with happiness. I was glad. She’d been dying for his attention. Hopefully he was buying her something extra-expensive to make up for it.
We rode home in tired silence, our sleep schedules all messed up by the daylight trip. Sitting next to Dimitri, I leaned back against the seat and yawned, very aware that our arms were touching. That feeling of closeness and connection burned between us.
“So, I can’t ever try on clothes again?” I asked quietly not wanting to wake up the others. Victor and the guardians were awake, but the girls had fallen asleep.
“When you aren’t on duty, you can. You can do it during your time off.”
“I don’t ever want time off. I want to always take care of Lissa.” I yawned again. “Did you see that dress?”
“I saw the dress.”
“Did you like it?”
He didn’t answer. I took that as a yes.
“Am I going to endanger my reputation if I wear it to the dance?”
When he spoke, I could barely hear him. “You’ll endanger the school.”
I smiled and fell asleep.
When I woke up, my head rested against his shoulder. That long coat of his-the duster-covered me like a blanket. The van had stopped; we were back at school. I pulled the duster off and climbed out after him, suddenly feeling wide awake and happy. Too bad my freedom was about to end.
“Back to prison,” I sighed, walking beside Lissa toward the commons. “Maybe if you fake a heart attack, I can make a break for it.”
“Without your clothes?” She handed me a bag, and I swung it around happily. “I can’t wait to see the dress.”
“Me either. If they let me go. Kirova’s still deciding if I’ve been good enough.”
“Show her those boring shirts you bought. She’ll go into a coma. I’m about ready to.”
I laughed and hopped up onto one of the wooden benches, pacing her as I walked along it. I jumped back down when I reached the end. “They aren’t that boring.”
“I don’t know what to think of this new, responsible Rose.”
I hopped up onto another bench. “I’m not that responsible.”
“Hey,” called Spiridon. He and the rest of the group trailed behind us. “You’re still on duty. No fun allowed up there.”
“No fun here,” I called back, hearing the laughter in his voice. “I swear – shit.”
I was up on a third bench, near the end of it. My muscles tensed, ready to jump back down. Only when I tried to, my foot didn’t go with me. The wood, at one moment seemingly hard and solid, gave way beneath me, almost as though made of paper. It disintegrated. My foot went through, my ankle getting caught in the hole while the rest of my body tried to go in another direction. The bench held me, swinging my body to the ground while still seizing my foot. My ankle bent in an unnatural direction. I crashed down. I heard a cracking sound that wasn’t the wood. The worst pain of my life shot through my body.
And then I blacked out.