WE DIDN’T HAVE THE ENTIRE commons’ attention this time, thank God, but a few passing people had stopped to stare.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Doll Girl, blue eyes wide and sparkling with fury.Up close now, I was able to get a better look at her.She had the same slim build as most Moroi but not the usual height, which was partly what made her look so young.
The tiny purple dress she wore was gorgeous – reminding me that I was indeed dressed in thrift-shop wear – but closer inspection led me to think it was a designer knockoff.
I crossed my arms across my chest. “Are you lost, little girl? The elementary school’s over on west campus.”
A pink flush spread over her cheeks. “Don’t you ever touch me again. You screw with me, and I’ll screw you right back.”
Oh man, what an opening that was. Only a head shake from Lissa stopped me from unleashing any number of hilarious comebacks. Instead, I opted for simple brute force, so to speak.
“And if you mess with either of us again, I’ll break you in half. If you don’t believe me, go ask Dawn Yarrow about what I did to her arm in ninth grade. You were probably at nap time when it happened.”
The incident with Dawn hadn’t been one of my finer moments. I honestly hadn’t expected to break any bones when I shoved her into a tree. Still, the incident had given me a dangerous reputation, in addition to my smartass one. The story had gained legendary status, and I liked to imagine that it was still being told around campfires late at night. Judging from the look on this girl’s face, it was.
One of the patrolling staff members strolled by right then, casting suspicious eyes at our little meeting. Doll Girl backed off, taking Aaron’s arm. “Come on,” she said.
“Hey, Aaron,” I said cheerfully, remembering he was there. “Nice to see you again.”
He gave me a quick nod and an uneasy smile, just as the girl dragged him off. Same old Aaron. He might be nice and cute, but aggressive he was not.
I turned to Lissa. “You okay?” She nodded. “Any idea who I just threatened to beat up?”
“Not a clue.” I started to lead her toward the lunch line, but she shook her head at me. “Gotta go see the feeders.”
A funny feeling settled over me. I’d gotten so used to being her primary blood source that the thought of returning to the Moroi’s normal routine seemed strange. In fact, it almost bothered me. It shouldn’t have. Daily feedings were part of a Moroi’s life, something I hadn’t been able to offer her while living on our own. It had been an inconvenient situation, one that left me weak on feeding days and her weak on the days in between. I should have been happy she would get some normality.
I forced a smile. “Sure.”
We walked into the feeding room, which sat adjacent to the cafeteria. It was set up with small cubicles, dividing the room’s space in an effort to offer privacy. A dark-haired Moroi woman greeted us at the entrance and glanced down at her clipboard, flipping through the pages. Finding what she needed, she made a few notes and then gestured for Lissa to follow. Me she gave a puzzled look, but she didn’t stop me from entering.
She led us to one of the cubicles where a plump, middle-aged woman sat leafing through a magazine. She looked up at our approach and smiled. In her eyes, I could see the dreamy, glazed-over look most feeders had. She’d probably neared her quota for the day, judging from how high she appeared to be.
Recognizing Lissa, her smile grew. “Welcome back, Princess.”
The greeter left us, and Lissa sat down in the chair beside the woman. I sensed a feeling of discomfort in her, a little different from my own. This was weird for her too; it had been a long time. The feeder, however, had no such reservations. An eager look crossed her face – the look of a junkie about to get her next fix.
Disgust poured into me. It was an old instinct, one that had been drilled in over the years. Feeders were essential to Moroi life. They were humans who willingly volunteered to be a regular blood source, humans from the fringes of society who gave their lives over to the secret world of the Moroi. They were well cared for and given all the comforts they could need. But at the heart of it, they were drug users, addicts to Moroi saliva and the rush it offered with each bite. The Moroi – and guardians – looked down on this dependency, even though the Moroi couldn’t have survived otherwise unless they took victims by force. Hypocrisy at its finest.
The feeder tilted her head, giving Lissa full access to her neck. Her skin there was marked with scars from years of daily bites. The infrequent feedings Lissa and I had done had kept my neck clear; my bite marks never lasted more than a day or so.
Lissa leaned forward, fangs biting into the feeder’s yielding flesh. The woman closed her eyes, making a soft sound of pleasure. I swallowed, watching Lissa drink. I couldn’t see any blood, but I could imagine it. A surge of emotion grew in my chest: longing. Jealousy. I averted my eyes, staring at the floor. Mentally, I scolded myself.
What’s wrong with you? Why should you miss it? You only did it once every day. You aren’t addicted, not like this. And you don’t want to be.
But I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t help the way I felt as I recalled the bliss and rush of a vampire’s bite.
Lissa finished and we returned to the commons, moving toward the lunch line. It was short, since we only had fifteen minutes left, and I strolled up and began to load my plate with french fries and some rounded, bite-size objects that looked vaguely like chicken nuggets.
Lissa only grabbed a yogurt. Moroi needed food, as dhampirs and humans did, but rarely had an appetite after drinking blood.
“So how’d classes go?” I asked.
She shrugged. Her face was bright with color and life now. “Okay. Lots of stares. A lot of stares. Lots of questions about where we were. Whispering.”
“Same here,” I said. The attendant checked us out, and we walked toward the tables. I gave Lissa a sidelong glance. “You okay with that? They aren’t bothering you, are they?”
“No – it’s fine.” The emotions coming through the bond contradicted her words. Knowing I could feel that, she tried to change the subject by handing me her class schedule. I looked it over.
1st Period Russian 2
2nd Period American Colonial Literature
3rd Period Basics of Elemental Control
4th Period Ancient Poetry
5th Period Animal Behavior and Physiology
6th Period Advanced Calculus
7th Period Moroi Culture 4
8th Period Slavic Art
“Nerd,” I said. “If you were in Stupid Math like me, we’d have the same afternoon schedule.” I stopped walking. “Why are you in elemental basics? That’s a sophomore class.”
She eyed me. “Because seniors take specialized classes.”
We fell silent at that. All Moroi wielded elemental magic. It was one of the things that differentiated living vampires from Strigoi, the dead vampires. Moroi viewed magic as a gift. It was part of their souls and connected them to the world.
A long time ago, they had used their magic openly – averting natural disasters and helping with things like food and water production. They didn’t need to do that as much anymore, but the magic was still in their blood. It burned in them and made them want to reach out to the earth and wield their power. Academies like this existed to help Moroi control the magic and learn how to do increasingly complex things with it. Students also had to learn the rules that surrounded magic, rules that had been in place for centuries and were strictly enforced.
All Moroi had a small ability in each element. When they got to be around our age, students “specialized” when one element grew stronger than the others: earth, water, fire, or air. Not specializing was like not going through puberty.
And Lissa?well, Lissa hadn’t specialized yet.
“Is Ms. Carmack still teaching that? What she’d say?”
“She says she’s not worried. She thinks it’ll come.”
“Did you – did you tell her about – “
Lissa shook her head. “No. Of course not.”
We let the subject drop. It was one we thought about a lot but rarely spoke of.
We started moving again, scanning the tables as we decided where to sit. A few pairs of eyes looked up at us with blatant curiosity.
“Lissa!” came a nearby voice. Glancing over, we saw Natalie waving at us. Lissa and I exchanged looks. Natalie was sort of Lissa’s cousin in the way Victor was sort of her uncle, but we’d never hung out with her all that much.
Lissa shrugged and headed in that direction. “Why not?”
I followed reluctantly. Natalie was nice but also one of the most uninteresting people I knew. Most royals at the school enjoyed a kind of celebrity status, but Natalie had never fit in with that crowd. She was too plain, too uninterested in the politics of the Academy, and too clueless to really navigate them anyway.
Natalie’s friends eyed us with a quiet curiosity, but she didn’t hold back. She threw her arms around us. Like Lissa, she had jade-green eyes, but her hair was jet black, like Victor’s had been before his disease grayed it.
“You’re back! I knew you would be! Everyone said you were gone forever, but I never believed that. I knew you couldn’t stay away. Why’d you go? There are so many stories about why you left!” Lissa and I exchanged glances as Natalie prattled on. “Camille said one of you got pregnant and went off to have an abortion, but I knew that couldn’t be true. Someone else said you went off to hang out with Rose’s mom, but I figured Ms. Kirova and Daddy wouldn’t have been so upset if you’d turned up there. Did you know we might get to be roommates? I was talking to?”
On and on she chatted, flashing her fangs as she spoke. I smiled politely, letting Lissa deal with the onslaught until Natalie asked a dangerous question.
“What’d you do for blood, Lissa?”
The table regarded us questioningly. Lissa froze, but I immediately jumped in, the lie coming effortlessly to my lips.
“Oh, it’s easy. There are a lot of humans who want to do it.”
“Really?” asked one of Natalie’s friends, wide-eyed.
“Yup. You find ?®em at parties and stuff. They’re all looking for a fix from something, and they don’t really get that a vampire’s doing it: most are already so wasted they don’t remember anyway.” My already vague details dried up, so I simply shrugged in as cool and confident a way as I could manage. It wasn’t like any of them knew any better. “Like I said, it’s easy. Almost easier than with our own feeders.”
Natalie accepted this and than launched into some other topic. Lissa shot me a grateful look.
Ignoring the conversation again, I took in the old faces, trying to figure out who was hanging out with whom and how power had shifted within the school. Mason, sitting with a group of novices, caught my eye, and I smiled. Near him, a group of Moroi royals sat, laughing over something. Aaron and the blond girl sat there too.
“Hey, Natalie,” I said, turning around and cutting her off. She didn’t seem to notice or mind. “Who’s Aaron’s new girlfriend?”
“Huh? Oh. Mia Rinaldi.” Seeing my blank look, she asked, “Don’t you remember her?”
“Should I? Was she here when we left?”
“She’s always been here,” said Natalie. “She’s only a year younger than us.”
I shot a questioning look at Lissa, who only shrugged.
“Why is she so pissed off at us?” I asked. “Neither of us know her.”
“I don’t know,” answered Natalie. “Maybe she’s jealous about Aaron. She wasn’t much of anybody when you guys left. She got really popular really fast. She isn’t royal or anything, but once she started dating Aaron, she – “
“Okay, thanks,” I interrupted. “It doesn’t really – “
My eyes lifted up from Natalie’s face to Jesse Zeklos’s, just as he passed by our table. Ah, Jesse. I’d forgotten about him. I liked flirting with Mason and some of the other novices, but Jesse was in an entirely different category. You flirted with the other guys simply for the sake of flirting. You flirted with Jesse in the hopes of getting semi-naked with him. He was a royal Moroi, and he was so hot, he should have worn a warning: flammable sign. He met my eyes and grinned.
“Hey Rose, welcome back. You still breaking hearts?”
“Are you volunteering?”
His grin widened. “Let’s hang out sometime and find out. If you ever get parole.”
He kept walking, and I watched him admiringly. Natalie and her friends stared at me in awe. I might not be a god in the Dimitri sense, but with this group, Lissa and I were gods – or at least former gods – of another nature.
“Oh my gawd,” exclaimed one girl. I didn’t remember her name. “That was Jesse.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “It certainly was.”
“I wish I looked like you,” she added with a sigh.
Their eyes fell on me. Technically, I was half-Moroi, but my looks were human. I’d blended in well with humans during our time away, so much so that I’d barely thought about my appearance at all. Here, among the slim and small-chested Moroi girls, certain features – meaning my larger breasts and more defined hips – stood out. I knew I was pretty, but to Moroi boys, my body was more than just pretty: it was sexy in a risqu?¦ way. Dhampirs were an exotic conquest, a novelty all Moroi guys wanted to “try.”
It was ironic that dhampirs had such an allure here, because slender Moroi girls looked very much like the super-skinny runway models so popular in the human world. Most humans could never reach that “ideal” skinniness, just as Moroi girls could never look like me. Everyone wanted what she couldn’t have.
Lissa and I got to sit together in our shared afternoon classes but didn’t do much talking. The stares she’d mentioned certainly did follow us, but I found that the more I talked to people, the more they warmed up. Slowly, gradually, they seemed to remember who we were, and the novelty – though not the intrigue – of our crazy stunt wore off.
Or maybe I should say, they remembered who I was. Because I was the only one talking. Lissa stared straight ahead, listening but neither acknowledging nor participating in my attempts at conversation. I could feel anxiety and sadness pouring out of her.
“All right,” I told her when classes finally ended. We stood outside the school, and I was fully aware that in doing so, I was already breaking the terms of my agreement with Kirova. “We’re not staying here,” I told her, looking around the campus uneasily. “I’m going to find a way to get us out.”
“You think we could really do it a second time?” Lissa asked quietly.
“Absolutely.” I spoke with certainty, again relieved she couldn’t read my feelings. Escaping the first time had been tricky enough. Doing it again would be a real bitch, not that I couldn’t still find a way.
“You really would, wouldn’t you?” She smiled, more to herself than to me, like she’d thought of something funny. “Of course you would. It’s just, well?” She sighed. “I don’t know if we should go. Maybe – maybe we should stay.”
I blinked in astonishment. “What?” Not one of my more eloquent answers, but the best I could manage. I’d never expected this from her.
“I saw you, Rose. I saw you talking to the other novices during class, talking about practice. You miss that.”
“It’s not worth it,” I argued. “Not if?not if you?” I couldn’t finish, but she was right. She’d read me. I had missed the other novices. Even some of the Moroi. But there was more to it than just that. The weight of my inexperience, how much I’d fallen behind, had been growing all day.
“It might be better,” she countered. “I haven’t had as many?you know, things happening in a while. I haven’t felt like anyone was following or watching us.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Before we’d left the Academy, she’d always felt like someone was following her, like she was being hunted. I’d never seen evidence to support that, but I had once heard one of our teachers go on and on about the same sort of thing. Ms. Karp. She’d been a pretty Moroi, with deep auburn air and high cheekbones. And I was pretty sure she’d been crazy.
“You never know who’s watching,” she used to say, walking briskly around the classroom as she shut all the blinds. “Or who’s following you. Best to be safe. Best to always be safe.” We’d snickered amongst ourselves because that’s what students do around eccentric and paranoid teachers. The thought of Lissa acting like her bothered me.
“What’s wrong?” Lissa asked, noticing that I was lost in thought.
“Huh? Nothing. Just thinking.” I sighed, trying to balance my own wants with what was best for her. “Liss, we can stay, I guess?but there are a few conditions.”
This made her laugh. “A Rose ultimatum, huh?”
“I’m serious.” Words I didn’t say very much. “I want you to stay away from the royals. Not like Natalie or anything but you know, the others. The power players. Camille. Carly. That group.”
Her amusement turned to astonishment. “Are you serious?”
“Sure. You never liked them anyway.”
“No. Not really. I liked what they could offer. All the parties and stuff.”
“And you can go without that now?” She looked skeptical.
“Sure. We did in Portland.”
“Yeah, but that was different.” Her eyes stared off, not really focused on any one thing. “Here?here I’ve got to be a part of that. I can’t avoid it.”
“The hell you do. Natalie stays out of that stuff.”
“Natalie isn’t going to inherit her family’s title,” she retorted. “I’ve already got it. I’ve got to be involved, start making connections. Andre – “
“Liss,” I groaned. “You aren’t Andre.” I couldn’t believe she was still comparing herself to her brother.
“He was always involved in all that stuff.”
“Yeah, well,” I snapped back, “he’s dead now.”
Her face hardened. “You know, sometimes you aren’t very nice.”
“You don’t keep me around to be nice. You want nice, there are a dozen sheep in there who would rip each other’s throats to get in good with the Dragomir princess. You keep me around to tell you the truth, and here it is: Andre’s dead. You’re the heir now, and you’re going to deal with it however you can. But for now, that means staying away from the other royals. We’ll just lie low. Coast through the middle. Get involved in that stuff again, Liss, and you’ll drive yourself?”
“Crazy?” she supplied when I didn’t finish.
Now I looked away. “I didn’t mean?”
“It’s okay.” she said, after a moment. She sighed and touched my arm. “Fine. We’ll stay and we’ll keep out of all that stuff. We’ll ?®coast through the middle’ like you want. Hang out with Natalie, I guess.”
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to go to all the royal parties and wild drunken festivities like we’d done before. We’d kept out of that life for years until Lissa’s parents and brother died. Andre should have been the one to inherit her family’s title, and he’d certainly acted like it. Handsome and outgoing, he’d charmed everyone he knew and had been a leader in all the royal cliques and clubs that existed on campus. After his death, Lissa had felt it was her family duty to take his place.
I’d gotten to join that world with her. It was easy for me, because I didn’t really have to deal with the politics of it. I was a pretty dhampir, one who didn’t mind getting into trouble and pulling crazy stunts. I became a novelty; they liked having me around for the fun of it.
Lissa had to deal with other matters. The Dragomirs were one of the twelve ruling families. She’d have a very powerful place in Moroi society, and the other young royals wanted to get in good with her. Fake friends tried to schmooze her and get her to team up against other people. The royals could bribe and backstab in the same breath – and that was just with each other. To dhampirs and non-royals, they were completely unpredictable.
That cruel culture had eventually taken its toll on Lissa. She had an open, kind nature, one that I loved, and I hated to see her upset and stressed by royal games. She’d grown fragile since the accident, and all the parties in the world weren’t worth seeing her hurt.
“All right then,” I said finally. “We’ll see how this goes. If anything goes wrong – anything at all – we leave. No arguments.”
We both looked up at Dimitri’s looming form. I hoped he hadn’t heard the part about us leaving.
“You’re late for practice,” he said evenly. Seeing Lissa, he gave a polite nod. “Princess.”
As he and I walked away, I worried about Lissa and wondered if staying here was the right thing to do. I felt nothing alarming through the bond, but her emotions spiked all over the place. Confusion. Nostalgia. Fear. Anticipation. Strong and powerful, they flooded into me.
I felt the pull just before it happened. It was exactly like what had happened on the plane: her emotions grew so strong that they “sucked” me into her head before I could stop them. I could now see and feel what she did.
She walked slowly around the commons, toward the small Russian Orthodox chapel that served most of the school’s religious needs. Lissa had always attended mass regularly. Not me.
I had a standing arrangement with God: I’d agree to believe in him – barely – so long as he let me sleep in on Sundays.
But as she went inside, I could feel that she wasn’t there to pray. She had another purpose, one I didn’t know about. Glancing around, she verified that neither the priest nor any worshippers were close by. The place was empty.
Slipping through a doorway in the back of the chapel, she climbed a narrow set of creaky stairs up into the attic. Here it was dark and dusty. The only light came through a large stained-glass window that fractured the faint glow of sunrise into tiny, multicolored gems across the floor.
I hadn’t known until that moment that this room was a regular retreat for Lissa. But now I could feel it, feel her memories of how she used to escape here to be alone and to think. The anxiety in her ebbed away ever so slightly as she took in the familiar surroundings. She climbed up into the window seat and leaned her head back against its side, momentarily entranced by the silence and the light.
Moroi could stand some sunlight, unlike the Strigoi, but they had to limit their exposure. Sitting here, she could almost pretend she was in the sun, protected by the glass’s dilution of the rays.
Breathe, just breathe, she told herself. It’ll be okay. Rose will take care of everything.
She believed that passionately, like always, and relaxed further.
Then a low voice spoke from the darkness.
“You can have the Academy but not the window seat.”
She sprang up, heart pounding. I shared her anxiety, and my own pulse quickened. “Who’s there?”
A moment later, a shape rose from behind a stack of crates, just outside her field of vision. The figure stepped forward, and in the poor lighting, familiar features materialized. Messy black hair. Pale blue eyes. A perpetually sardonic smirk.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t bite. Well, at least not in the way you’re afraid of.” He chuckled at his own joke.
She didn’t find it funny. She had completely forgotten about Christian. So had I.
No matter what happened in our world, a few basic truths about vampires remained the same. Moroi were alive; Strigoi were undead. Moroi were mortal; Strigoi were immortal. Moroi were born; Strigoi were made.
And there were two ways to make a Strigoi. Strigoi could forcibly turn humans, dhampirs, or Moroi with a single bite. Moroi tempted by the promise of immortality could become Strigoi by choice if they purposely killed another person while feeding. Doing that was considered dark and twisted, the greatest of all sins, both against the Moroi way of life and nature itself. Moroi who chose this dark path lost their ability to connect with elemental magic and other powers of the world. That was why they could no longer go into the sun.
This is what had happened to Christian’s parents. They were Strigoi.