OR RATHER, THEY HAD BEEN Strigoi.A regiment of guardians had hunted them down and killed them.If rumors were true, Christian had witnessed it all when he was very young.
And although he wasn’t Strigoi himself, some people thought he wasn’t far off, with the way he always wore black and kept to himself.
Strigoi or not, I didn’t trust him. He was a jerk, and I silently screamed at Lissa to get out of there – not that my screaming did much good. Stupid one-way bond.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Taking in the sights, of course. That chair with the tarp on it is particularly lovely this time of year. Over there, we have an old box full of the writings of the blessed and crazy St. Vladimir. And let’s not forget that beautiful table with no legs in the corner.”
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes and moved toward the door, wanting to leave, but he blocked her way.
“Well, what about you?” he taunted. “Why are you up here? Don’t you have parties to go to or lives to destroy?”
Some of Lissa’s old spark returned. “Wow, that’s hilarious. Am I like a rite of passage now? Go and see if you can piss off Lissa to prove how cool you are? Some girl I don’t even know yelled at me today, and now I’ve got to deal with you? What does it take to be left alone?”
“Oh. So that’s why you’re up here. For a pity party.”
“This isn’t a joke. I’m serious.” I could tell Lissa was getting angry. It was trumping her earlier distress.
He shrugged and leaned casually against the sloping wall. “So am I. I love pity parties. I wish I’d brought the hats. What do you want to mope about first? How it’s going to take you a whole day to be popular and loved again? How you’ll have to wait a couple weeks before Hollister can ship out some new clothes? If you spring for rush shipping, it might not be so long.”
“Let me leave,” she said angrily, this time pushing him aside.
“Wait,” he said, as she reached the door. The sarcasm disappeared from his voice. “What?um, what was it like?”
“What was what like?” she snapped.
“Being out there. Away from the Academy.”
She hesitated for a moment before answering, caught off guard by what seemed like a genuine attempt at conversation. “It was great. No one knew who I was. I was just another face. Not Moroi. Not royal. Not anything.” She looked down at the floor. “Everyone here thinks they know who I am.”
“Yeah. It’s kind of hard to outlive your past,” he said bitterly.
It occurred to Lissa at that moment – and me to by default – just how hard it might be to be Christian. Most of the time, people treated him like he didn’t exist. Like he was a ghost. They didn’t talk to or about him. They just didn’t notice him. The stigma of his parents’ crime was too strong, casting its shadow onto the entire Ozera family.
Still, he’d pissed her off, and she wasn’t about to feel sorry for him.
“Wait – is this your pity party now?”
He laughed, almost approvingly. “This room has been my pity party for a year now.”
“Sorry,” said Lissa snarkily. “I was coming here before I left. I’ve got a longer claim.”
“Squatters’ rights. Besides, I have to make sure I stay near the chapel as much as possible so people know I haven’t gone Strigoi?yet.” Again, the bitter tone rang out.
“I used to always see you at mass. Is that the only reason you go? To look good?” Strigoi couldn’t enter holy ground. More of that sinning-against-the-world thing.
“Sure,” he said. “Why else go? For the good of your soul?”
“Whatever,” said Lissa, who clearly had a different opinion. “I’ll leave you alone then.”
“Wait,” he said again. He didn’t seem to want her to go. “I’ll make you a deal. You can hang out here too if you tell me one thing.”
“What?” She glanced back at him.
He leaned forward. “Of all the rumors I heard about you today – and believe me, I heard plenty, even if no one actually told them to me – there was one that didn’t come up very much. They dissected everything else: why you left, what you did out there, why you came back, the specialization, what Rose said to Mia, blah, blah, blah. And in all of that, no one, no one ever questioned that stupid story that Rose told about there being all sorts of fringe humans who let you take blood.”
She looked away, and I could feel her cheeks starting to burn. “It’s not stupid. Or a story.”
He laughed softly. “I’ve lived with humans. My aunt and I stayed away after my parents?died. It’s not that easy to find blood.” When she didn’t answer, he laughed again. “It was Rose, wasn’t it? She fed you.”
A renewed fear shot through both her and me. No one at school could know about that. Kirova and the guardians on the scene knew, but they’d kept that knowledge to themselves.
“Well. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what it is,” he said.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she blurted out.
This was all we needed. As I’d just been reminded, feeders were vampire-bite addicts. We accepted that as part of life but still looked down on them for it. For anyone else – especially a dhampir – letting a Moroi take blood from you was almost, well, dirty. In fact, one of the kinkiest, practically pornographic things a dhampir could do was let a Moroi drink blood during sex.
Lissa and I hadn’t had sex, of course, but we’d both known what others would think of me feeding her.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Lissa repeated.
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets and sat down on one of the crates. “Who am I going to tell? Look, go grab the window seat. You can have it today and hang out for a while. If you’re not still afraid of me.”
She hesitated, studying him. He looked dark and surly, lips curled in a sort of I’m-such-a-rebel smirk.
But he didn’t look too dangerous. He didn’t look Strigoi. Gingerly, she sat back down in the window seat, unconsciously rubbing her arms against the cold.
Christian watched her, and a moment later, the air warmed up considerably.
Lissa met Christian’s eyes and smiled, surprised she’d never noticed how icy blue they were before. “You specialized in fire?”
He nodded and pulled up a broken chair. “Now we have luxury accommodations.”
I snapped out of the vision.
Blinking, I focused on Dimitri’s face. He was leaning toward me, his hands gripping my shoulders. I’d stopped walking; we stood in the middle of the quad separating the upper school buildings.
“Are you all right?”
“I?yeah. I was?I was with Lissa?” I put a hand to my forehead. I’d never had such a long or clear experience like that. “I was in her head.”
“Yeah. It’s part of the bond.” I didn’t really feel like elaborating.
“Is she all right?”
“Yeah, she’s?” I hesitated. Was she all right? Christian Ozera had just invited her to hang out with him. Not good. There was “coasting through the middle,” and then there was turning to the dark side. But the feelings humming through our bond were no longer scared or upset. She was almost content, though still a little nervous. “She’s not in danger,” I finally said. I hoped.
“Can you keep going?”
The hard, stoic warrior I’d met earlier was gone – just for a moment – and he actually looked concerned. Truly concerned. Feeling his eyes on me like that made something flutter inside of me – which was stupid, of course. I had no reason to get all goofy, just because the man was too good-looking for his own good. After all, he was an antisocial god, according to Mason. One who was supposedly going to leave me in all sorts of pain.
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
I went into the gym’s dressing room and changed into the workout clothes someone had finally thought to give me after a day of practicing in jeans and a T-shirt. Gross. Lissa hanging out with Christian troubled me, but I shoved that thought away for later as my muscles informed me they did not want to go through any more exercise today.
So I suggested to Dimitri that maybe he should let me off this time.
He laughed, and I was pretty sure it was at me and not with me.
“Why is that funny?”
“Oh,” he said, his smile dropping. “You were serious.”
“Of course I was! Look, I’ve technically been awake for two days. Why do we have to start this training now? Let me go to bed,” I whined. “It’s just one hour.”
He crossed his arms and looked down at me. His earlier concern was gone. He was all business now. Tough love. “How do you feel right now? After the training you’ve done so far?”
“I hurt like hell.”
“You’ll feel worse tomorrow.”
“So, better to jump in now while you still feel?not as bad.”
“What kind of logic is that?” I retorted.
But I didn’t argue anymore as he led me into the weight room. He showed me the weights and reps he wanted me to do, then sprawled in a corner with a battered Western novel. Some god.
When I finished, he stood beside me and demonstrated a few cool-down stretches.
“How’d you end up as Lissa’s guardian?” I asked. “You weren’t here a few years ago. Were you even trained at this school?”
He didn’t answer right away. I got the feeling he didn’t talk about himself very often. “No. I attended the one in Siberia.”
“Whoa. That’s got to be the only place worse than Montana.”
A glint of something – maybe amusement – sparked in his eyes, but he didn’t acknowledge the joke. “After I graduated, I was a guardian for a Zeklos lord. He was killed recently.” His smile dropped, his face grew dark. “They sent me here because they needed extras on campus. When the princess turned up, they assigned me to her, since I’d already be around. Not that it matters until she leaves campus.”
I thought about what he’d said before. Some Strigoi killed the guy he was supposed to have been guarding? “Did this lord die on your watch?”
“No. He was with his other guardian. I was away.”
He fell silent, his mind obviously somewhere else. The Moroi expected a lot from us, but they did recognize that the guardians were – more or less – only human. So, guardians got pay and time off like you’d get in any other job. Some hard-core guardians – like my mom – refused vacations, vowing never to leave their Moroi’s sides. Looking at Dimitri now, I had a feeling he might very well turn into one of those. If he’d been away on legitimate leave, he could hardly blame himself for what happened to that guy. Still, he probably did anyway. I’d blame myself too if something happened to Lissa.
“Hey,” I said, suddenly wanting to cheer him up, “did you help come up with the plan to get us back? Because it was pretty good. Brute force and all that.”
He arched an eyebrow curiously. Cool. I’d always wished I could do that. “You’re complimenting me on that?”
“Well, it was a hell of a lot better than the last one they tried.”
“Yeah. In Chicago. With the pack of psi-hounds.”
“This was the first time we found you. In Portland.”
I sat up from my stretches and crossed my legs. “Um, I don’t think I imagined psi-hounds. Who else could have sent them? They only answer to Moroi. Maybe no one told you about it.”
“Maybe,” he said dismissively. I could tell by his face he didn’t believe that.
I returned to the novices’ dorm after that. The Moroi students lived on the other side of the quad, closer to the commons. The living arrangements were partly based on convenience. Being here kept us novices closer to the gym and training grounds. But we also lived separately to accommodate the differences in Moroi and dhampir lifestyles. Their dorm had almost no windows, aside from tinted ones that dimmed sunlight. They also had a special section where feeders always stayed on hand. The novices’ dorm was built in a more open way, allowing for more light.
I had my own room because there were so few novices, let alone girls. The room they’d given me was small and plain, with a twin bed and a desk with a computer. My few belongings had been spirited out of Portland and now sat in boxes around the room. I rummaged through them, pulling out a T-shirt to sleep in. I found a couple of pictures as I did, one of Lissa and me at a football game in Portland and another taken when I’d gone on vacation with her family, a year before the accident.
I set them on my desk and booted up the computer. Someone from tech support had helpfully given me a sheet with instructions for renewing my e-mail account and setting up a password. I did both, happy to discover no one had realized that this would serve as a way for me to communicate with Lissa. Too tired to write to her now, I was about to turn everything off when I noticed I already had a message. From Janine Hathaway. It was short:
I’m glad you’re back. What you did was inexcusable.
“Love you too, Mom,” I muttered, shutting it all down.
When I went to bed afterward, I passed out before even hitting the pillow, and just as Dimitri had predicted, I felt ten times worse when I woke up the next morning. Lying there in bed, I reconsidered the perks of running away. Then I remembered getting my ass kicked and figured the only way to prevent that from happening again was to go endure some more of it this morning.
My soreness made it all that much worse, but I survived the before-school practice with Dimitri and my subsequent classes without passing out or fainting.
At lunch, I dragged Lissa away from Natalie’s table early and gave her a Kirova-worthy lecture about Christian – particularly chastising her for letting him know about our blood arrangement. If that got out, it’d kill both of us socially and I didn’t trust him not to tell.
Lissa had other concerns.
“You were in my head again?” she exclaimed. “For that long?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I argued. “It just happened. And that’s not the point. How long did you hang out with him afterward?”
“Not that long. It was kind of?fun.”
“Well, you can’t do it again. If people find out you’re hanging out with him, they’ll crucify you.” I eyed her warily. “You aren’t, like, into him, are you?”
She scoffed. “No. Of course not.
“Good. Because if you’re going to go after a guy, steal Aaron back.” He was boring, yes, but safe. Just like Natalie. How come all the harmless people were so lame? Maybe that was the definition of safe.
She laughed. “Mia would claw my eyes out.”
“We can take her. Besides, he deserves someone who doesn’t shop at Gap Kids.”
“Rose, you’ve got to stop saying things like that.”
“I’m just saying what you won’t.”
“She’s only a year younger,” said Lissa. She laughed. “I can’t believe you think I’m the one who’s going to get us in trouble.”
Smiling as we strolled toward class, I gave her a sidelong glance. “Aaron does look pretty good though, huh?”
She smiled back and avoided my eyes. “Yeah. Pretty good.”
“Ooh. You see? You should go after him.”
“Whatever. I’m fine being friends now.”
“Friends who used to stick their tongues down each other’s throats.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Fine.” I let my teasing go. “Let Aaron stay in the nursery school. Just so long as you stay away from Christian. He’s dangerous.”
“You’re overreacting. He’s not going Strigoi.”
“He’s a bad influence.”
She laughed. “You think I’m in danger of going Strigoi?”
She didn’t wait for my answer, instead pushing ahead to open the door to our science class. Standing there, I uneasily replayed her words and then followed a moment later. When I did, I got to see royal power in action. A few guys – with giggling, watching girls – were messing with a gangly-looking Moroi. I didn’t know him very well, but I knew he was poor and certainly not royal. A couple of his tormentors were air-magic users, and they’d blown the papers off his desk and were pushing them around the room on currents of air while the guy tried to catch them.
My instincts urged me to do something, maybe go smack one of the air users. But I couldn’t pick a fight with everyone who annoyed me, and certainly not a group of royals – especially when Lissa needed to stay off their radar. So I could only give them a look of disgust as I walked to my desk. As I did, a hand caught my arm. Jesse.
“Hey,” I said jokingly. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to be participating in the torture session. “Hands off the merchandise.”
He flashed me a smile but kept his hand on me. “Rose, tell Paul about the time you started the fight in Ms. Karp’s class.”
I cocked my head toward him, giving him a playful smile. “I started a lot of fights in her class.”
“The one with the hermit crab. And the gerbil.”
I laughed, recalling it. “Oh yeah. It was a hamster, I think. I just dropped it into the crab’s tank, and they were both worked up from being so close to me, so they went at it.”
Paul, a guy sitting nearby whom I didn’t really know, chuckled too. He’d transferred last year, apparently, and hadn’t heard of this. “Who won?”
I looked at Jesse quizzically. “I don’t remember. Do you?”
“No. I just remember Karp freaking out.” He turned toward Paul. “Man, you should have seen this messed-up teacher we used to have. Used to think people were after her and would go off on stuff that didn’t make any sense. She was nuts. Used to wander campus while everyone was asleep.”
I smiled tightly, like I thought it was funny. Instead, I thought back to Ms. Karp again, surprised to be thinking about her for the second time in two days. Jesse was right – she had wandered campus a lot when she still worked here. It was pretty creepy. I’d run into her once – unexpectedly.
I’d been climbing out of my dorm window to go hang out with some people. It was after hours, and we were all supposed to be in our rooms, fast asleep. Such escape tactics were a regular practice for me. I was good at them.
But I fell that time. I had a second-floor room, and I lost my grip about halfway down. Sensing the ground rush up toward me, I tried desperately to grab hold of something and slow my fall. The building’s rough stone tore into my skin, causing cuts I was too preoccupied to feel. I slammed into the grassy earth, back first, getting the wind knocked out of me.
“Bad form, Rosemarie. You should be more careful. Your instructors would be disappointed.”
Peering through the tangle of my hair, I saw Ms. Karp looking down at me, a bemused look on her face. Pain, in the meantime, shot through every part of my body.
Ignoring it as best I could, I clambered to my feet. Being in class with Crazy Karp while surrounded by other students was one thing. Standing outside alone with her was an entirely different matter. She always had an eerie, distracted gleam in her eye that made my skin break out in goose bumps.
There was also now a high likelihood she’d drag me off to Kirova for a detention. Scarier still.
Instead, she just smiled and reached for my hands. I flinched but let her take them. She tsked when she saw the scrapes. Tightening her grip on them, she frowned slightly. A tingle burned my skin, laced with a sort of pleasant buzz, and then the wounds closed up. I had a brief sense of dizziness. My temperature spiked. The blood disappeared, as did the pain in my hip and leg.
Gasping, I jerked my hands away. I’d seen a lot of Moroi magic, but never anything like that.
“What?what did you do?”
She gave me that weird smile again. “Go back to your dorm, Rose. There are bad things out here. You never know what’s following you.”
I was still staring at my hands. “But?”
I looked back up at her and for the first time noticed scars on the sides of her forehead. Like nails had dug into them. She winked. “I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell on me.”
I jumped back to the present, unsettled by the memory of that bizarre night. Jesse, in the meantime, was telling me about a party.
“You’ve got to slip your leash tonight. We’re going up to that spot in the woods around eight thirty. Mark got some weed.”
I sighed wistfully, regret replacing the chill I’d felt over the memory of Ms. Karp. “Can’t slip that leash. I’m with my Russian jailer.”
He let go of my arm, looking disappointed, and ran a hand through his bronze-colored hair. Yeah. Not being able to hang out with him was a damned shame. I really would have to fix that someday. “Can’t you ever get off for good behavior?” he joked.
I gave him what I hoped was a seductive smile as I found my seat. “Sure,” I called over my shoulder. “If I was ever good.”