I SNAPPED INTO HER MIND, once again seeing and directly experiencing what went on around her.
She was sneaking into the chapel’s attic again, confirming my worst fears.Like last time, she met no resistance.Good God, I thought, could that priest be any worse about securing his own chapel?
Sunrise lit up the stained-glass window, and Christian’s silhouette was framed against it: he was sitting in the window seat.
“You’re late,” he told her.
“Been waiting a while.”
Lissa pulled up one of the rickety chairs, brushing dust off it. “I figured you’d be tied up with Headmistress Kirova.”
He shook his head. “Not much to it. They suspended me for a week, that’s all. Not like it’s hard to sneak out.” He waved his hands around. “As you can see.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t get more time.”
A patch of sunlight lit up his crystal-blue eyes. “Disappointed?”
She looked shocked. “You set someone on fire!”
“No, I didn’t. Did you see any burns on him?”
“He was covered in flames.”
“I had them under control. I kept them off of him.”
She sighed. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Straightening out of his lounging position, he sat up and leaned toward her. “I did it for you.”
“You attacked someone for me?”
“Sure. He was giving you and Rose a hard time. She was doing an okay job against him, I guess, but I figured she could use the backup. Besides, this’ll shut anyone else up about the whole fox thing, too.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she repeated, looking away. She didn’t know how to feel about this “generosity.” “And don’t act like it was all for me. You liked doing it. Part of you wanted to – just because.”
Christian’s smug expression dropped, replaced by one of uncharacteristic surprise. Lissa might not be psychic, but she had a startling ability to read people.
Seeing him off guard, she continued. “Attacking someone else with magic is forbidden – and that’s exactly why you wanted to do it. You got a thrill out of it.”
“Those rules are stupid. If we used magic as a weapon instead of just for warm and fuzzy shit, Strigoi wouldn’t keep killing so many of us.”
“It’s wrong,” she said firmly. “Magic is a gift. It’s peaceful.”
“Only because they say it is. You’re repeating the party line we’ve been fed our whole lives.” He stood up and paced the small space of the attic. “It wasn’t always that way, you know. We used to fight, right along with the guardians – centuries ago. Then people started getting scared and stopped. Figured it was safer to just hide. They forgot the attack spells.”
“Then how did you know that one?”
He crooked her a smile. “Not everyone forgot.”
“Like your family? Like your parents?”
The smile disappeared. “You don’t know anything about my parents.”
His face darkened, his eyes grew hard. To most people, he might have appeared scary and intimidating, but as Lissa studied and admired his features, he suddenly seemed very, very vulnerable.
“You’re right,” she admitted softly, after a moment. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”
For the second time in this meeting, Christian looked astonished. Probably no one apologized to him that often. Hell, no one even talked to him that often. Certainly no one ever listened. Like usual, he quickly turned into his cocky self.
“Forget it.” Abruptly, he stopped pacing and knelt in front of her so they could look each other in the eye. Feeling him so close made her hold her breath. A dangerous smile curled his lips. “And really, I don’t get why you of all people should act so outraged that I used ?®forbidden’ magic.”
“Me ?®of all people’? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You can play all innocent if you want – and you do a pretty good job – but I know the truth.”
“What truth is that?” She couldn’t hide her uneasiness from me or Christian.
He leaned even closer. “That you use compulsion. All the time.”
“No, I don’t,” she said immediately.
“Of course you do. I’ve been lying awake at night, trying to figure out how in the world you two were able to rent out a place and go to high school without anyone ever wanting to meet your parents. Then I figured it out. You had to be using compulsion. That’s probably how you broke out of here in the first place.”
“I see. You just figured it out. Without any proof.”
“I’ve got all the proof I need, just from watching you.”
“You’ve been watching me – spying on me – to prove I’m using compulsion?”
He shrugged. “No. Actually, I’ve been watching you just because I like it. The compulsion thing was a bonus. I saw you use it the other day to get an extension on that math assignment. And you used it on Ms. Carmack when she wanted to make you go through more testing.”
“So you assume it’s compulsion? Maybe I’m just really good at convincing people.” There was a defiant note in her voice: understandable, considering her fear and anger. Only she delivered it with a toss of her hair which – if I didn’t know any better – might have been considered flirtatious. And I did know better?right? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure.
He went on, but something in his eyes told me he’d noticed the hair, that he always noticed everything about her. “People get these goofy looks on their faces when you talk to them. And not just any people – you’re able to do it to Moroi. Probably dhampirs, too. Now that’s crazy. I didn’t even know that was possible. You’re some kind of superstar. Some kind of evil, compulsion-abusing superstar.” It was an accusation, but his tone and presence radiated the same flirtatiousness she had.
Lissa didn’t know what to say. He was right. Everything he’d said was right. Her compulsion was what had allowed us to dodge authority and get along in the world without adult help. It was what had allowed us to convince the bank to let her tap into her inheritance.
And it was considered every bit as wrong as using magic as a weapon. Why not? It was a weapon. A powerful one, one that could be abused very easily. Moroi children had it drilled into them from an early age that compulsion was very, very wrong. No one was taught to use it, though every Moroi technically had the ability. Lissa had just sort of stumbled into it – deeply – and, as Christian had pointed out, she could wield it over Moroi, as well as humans and dhampirs.
“What are you going to do then?” she asked. “You going to turn me in?”
He shook his head and smiled. “No. I think it’s hot.”
She stared, eyes widening and heart racing. Something about the shape of his lips intrigued her. “Rose thinks you’re dangerous,” she blurted out nervously. “She thinks you might have killed the fox.”
I didn’t know how I felt about being dragged into this bizarre conversation. Some people were scared of me. Maybe he was too.
Judging from the amusement in his voice when he spoke, it appeared he wasn’t. “People think I’m unstable, but I tell you, Rose is ten times worse. Of course, that makes it harder for people to fuck with you, so I’m all for it.” Leaning back on his heels, he finally broke the intimate space between them. “And I sure as hell didn’t do that. Find out who did, though?and what I did to Ralf won’t seem like anything.”
His gallant offer of creepy vengeance didn’t exactly reassure Lissa?but it did thrill her a little. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. And I still don’t know who did it.”
He leaned back toward her and caught her wrists in his hands. He started to say something, then stopped and looked down in surprise, running his thumbs over faint, barely there scars. Looking back up at her, he had a strange – for him – kindness in his face.
“You might not know who did it. But you know something. Something you aren’t talking about.”
She stared at him, a swirl of emotions playing in her chest. “You can’t know all my secrets,” she murmured.
He glanced back down at her wrists and then released them, that dry smile of his back on his face. “No. I guess not.”
A feeling of peace settled over her, a feeling I thought only I could bring. Returning to my own head and my room, I sat on the floor staring at my math book. Then, for reasons I didn’t really get, I slammed it shut and threw it against the wall.
I spent the rest of the night brooding until the time I was supposed to meet Jesse came around. Slipping downstairs, I went into the kitchen – a place I could visit so long as I kept things brief – and caught his eye when I cut through the main visiting area.
Moving past him, I paused and whispered, “There’s a lounge on the fourth floor that nobody uses. Take the stairs on the other side of the bathrooms and meet me there in five minutes. The lock on the door is broken.”
He complied to the second, and we found the lounge dark, dusty, and deserted. The drop in guardian numbers over the years meant a lot of the dorm stayed empty, a sad sign for Moroi society but terribly convenient right now.
He sat down on the couch, and I lay back on it, putting my feet in his lap. I was still annoyed after Lissa and Christian’s bizarre attic romance and wanted nothing more than to forget about it for a while.
“You really here to study, or was it just an excuse?” I asked.
“No. It was real. Had to do an assignment with Meredith.” The tone in his voice indicated he wasn’t happy about that.
“Oooh,” I teased. “Is working with a dhampir beneath your royal blood? Should I be offended?”
He smiled, showing a mouth full of perfect white teeth and fangs. “You’re a lot hotter than she is.”
“Glad I make the cut.” There was a sort of a heat in his eyes that was turning me on, as was his hand sliding up my leg. But I needed to do something first. It was time for some vengeance. “Mia must too, since you guys let her hang out with you. She’s not royal.”
His finger playfully poked me in the calf. “She’s with Aaron. And I’ve got lots of friends who aren’t royal. And friends who are dhamps. I’m not a total asshole.”
“Yeah, but did you know her parents are practically custodians for the Drozdovs?”
The hand on my leg stopped. I’d exaggerated, but he was a sucker for gossip – and he was notorious for spreading it.
“Yeah. Scrubbing floors and stuff like that.”
I could see the wheels turning in his dark blue eyes and had to hide a smile. The seed was planted.
Sitting up, I moved closer to him and draped a leg over his lap. I wrapped my arms around him, and without further delay, thoughts of Mia disappeared as his testosterone kicked in. He kissed me eagerly – sloppily, even – pushing me against the back of the couch, and I relaxed into what had to be the first enjoyable physical activity I’d had in weeks.
We kissed like that for a long time, and I didn’t stop him when he pulled off my shirt.
“I’m not having sex,” I warned between kisses. I had no intention of losing my virginity on a couch in a lounge.
He paused, thinking about this, and finally decided not to push it. “Okay.”
But he pushed me onto the couch, lying over me, still kissing with that same fierceness. His lips traveled down to my neck, and when the sharp points of his fangs brushed against my skin, I couldn’t help an excited gasp.
He raised himself up, looking into my face with open surprise. For a moment, I could barely breathe, recalling that rush of pleasure that a vampire bite could fill me with, wondering what it’d be like to feel that while making out. Then the old taboos kicked in. Even if we didn’t have sex, giving blood while we did this was still wrong, still dirty.
“Don’t,” I warned.
“You want to.” His voice held excited wonder. “I can tell.”
“No, I don’t.”
His eyes lit up. “You do. How – hey, have you done it before?”
“No,” I scoffed. “Of course not.”
Those gorgeous blue eyes watched me, and I could see the wheels spinning behind them. Jesse might flirt a lot and have a big mouth, but he wasn’t stupid.
“You act like you have. You got excited when I was by your neck.”
“You’re a good kisser,” I countered, though it wasn’t entirely true. He drooled a little more than I would have preferred. “Don’t you think everyone would know if I was giving blood?”
The realization seized him. “Unless you weren’t doing it before you left. You did it while you were gone, didn’t you? You fed Lissa.”
“Of course not,” I repeated.
But he was on to something, and he knew it. “It was the only way. You didn’t have feeders. Oh, man.”
“She found some,” I lied. It was the same line we’d fed Natalie, the one she’d spread around and that no one – except Christian – had ever questioned. “Plenty of humans are into it.”
“Sure,” he said with a smile. He leaned his mouth back to my neck.
“I’m not a blood whore,” I snapped, pulling away from him.
“But you want to. You like it. All you dhamp girls do.” His teeth were on my skin again. Sharp. Wonderful.
I had a feeling hostility would only make things worse, so I defused the situation with teasing. “Stop it,” I said gently, running a fingertip over his lips. “I told you, I’m not like that. But if you want something to do with your mouth, I can give you some ideas.”
That peaked his interest. “Yeah? Like wha – ?”
And that was when the door opened.
We sprang apart. I was ready to handle a fellow student or even possibly the matron. What I was not ready for was Dimitri.
He burst in the door like he’d expected to find us, and in that horrible moment, with him raging like a storm, I knew why Mason had called him a god. In the blink of an eye, he crossed the room and jerked Jesse up by his shirt, nearly holding the Moroi off the ground.
“What’s your name?” barked Dimitri.
“J-Jesse, sir. Jesse Zeklos, sir.”
“Mr. Zeklos, do you have permission to be in this part of the dorm?”
“Do you know the rules about male and female interactions around here?”
“Then I suggest you get out of here as fast as you can before I turn you over to someone who will punish you accordingly. If I ever see you like this again” – Dimitri pointed to where I cowered, half-dressed, on the couch – “I will be the one to punish you. And it will hurt. A lot. Do you understand?”
Jesse swallowed, eyes wide. None of the bravado he usually showed was there. I guess there was “usually” and then there was being held in the grip of a really ripped, really tall, and really pissed-off Russian guy “Yes, sir!”
“Then go.” Dimitri released him, and, if possible, Jesse got out of there faster than Dimitri had burst in. My mentor then turned to me, a dangerous glint in his eyes. He didn’t say anything, but the angry, disapproving message came through loud and clear.
And then it shifted.
It was almost like he’d been taken by surprise, like he’d never noticed me before. Had it been any other guy, I would have said he was checking me out. As it was, he was definitely studying me. Studying my face, my body. And I suddenly realized I was only in jeans and a bra – a black bra at that. I knew perfectly well that there weren’t a lot of girls at this school who looked as good in a bra as I did. Even a guy like Dimitri, one who seemed so focused on duty and training and all of that, had to appreciate that.
And, finally, I noticed that a hot flush was spreading over me, and that the look in his eyes was doing more to me than Jesse’s kisses had. Dimitri was quiet and distant sometimes, but he also had a dedication and an intensity that I’d never seen in any other person. I wondered how that kind of power and strength translated into?well, sex. I wondered what it’d be like for him to touch me and – shit!
What was I thinking? Was I out of my mind? Embarrassed, I covered my feelings with attitude.
“You see something you like?” I asked.
The set of his mouth hardened, and whatever he’d just felt was gone. That fierceness sobered me up and made me forget about my own troubling reaction. I immediately pulled my shirt back on, uneasy at seeing his badass side.
“How’d you find me? You following me to make sure I don’t run away?”
“Be quiet,” he snapped, leaning down so that we were at eye level. “A janitor saw you and reported it. Do you have any idea how stupid this was?”
“I know, I know, the whole probation thing, right?”
“Not just that. I’m talking about the stupidity of getting in that kind of situation in the first place.”
“I get in that kind of situation all the time, Comrade. It’s not a big deal.” Anger replaced my fear. I didn’t like being treated like a child.
“Stop calling me that. You don’t know even know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure I do. I had to do a report on Russia and the R.S.S.R. last year.”
“U.S.S.R. And it is a big deal for a Moroi to be with a dhampir girl. They like to brag.”
“So?” he looked disgusted. “So don’t you have any respect? Think about Lissa. You make yourself look cheap. You live up to what a lot of people already think about dhampir girls, and it reflects back on her. And me.”
“Oh, I see. Is that what this is about? Am I hurting your big, bad male pride? Are you afraid I’ll ruin your reputation?”
“My reputation is already made, Rose. I set my standards and lived up to them long ago. What you do with yours remains to be seen.” His voice hardened again. “Now get back to your room – if you can manage it without throwing yourself at someone else.”
“Is that your subtle way of calling me a slut?”
“I hear the stories you guys tell. I’ve heard stories about you.”
Ouch. I wanted to yell back that it was none of his business what I did with my body, but something about the anger and disappointment on his face made me falter. I didn’t know what it was. “Disappointing” someone like Kirova was a non-event, but Dimitri??I remembered how proud I’d felt when he praised me the last few times in our practices. Seeing that disappear from him?well, it suddenly made me feel as cheap as he’d implied I was.
Something broke inside of me. Blinking back tears, I said, “Why is it wrong to?I don’t know, have fun? I’m seventeen, you know. I should be able to enjoy it.”
“You’re seventeen, and in less than a year, someone’s life and death will be in your hands.” His voice still sounded firm, but there was a gentleness there too. “If you were human or Moroi, you could have fun. You could do things other girls could.”
“But you’re saying I can’t.”
He glanced away, and his dark eyes went unfocused. He was thinking about something far away from here. “When I was seventeen, I met Ivan Zeklos. We weren’t like you and Lissa, but we became friends, and he requested me as his guardian when I graduated. I was the top student in my school. I paid attention to everything in my classes, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. That’s how it is in this life. One slip, one distraction?” He sighed. “And it’s too late.”
A lump formed in my throat as I thought about one slip or one distraction costing Lissa her life.
“Jesse’s a Zeklos,” I said, suddenly realizing Dimitri had just thrown around a relative of his former friend and charge.
“Does it bother you? Does he remind you of Ivan?”
“It doesn’t matter how I feel. It doesn’t matter how any of us feel.”
“But it does bother you.” It suddenly became very obvious to me. I could read his pain, though he clearly worked hard to hide it. “You hurt. Every day. Don’t you? You miss him.”
Dimitri looked surprised, like he didn’t want me to know that, like I’d uncovered some secret part of him. I’d been thinking he was some aloof, antisocial tough guy, but maybe he kept himself apart from other people so he wouldn’t get hurt if he lost them. Ivan’s death had clearly left a permanent mark.
I wondered if Dimitri was lonely.
The surprised look vanished, and his standard serious one returned. “It doesn’t matter how I feel. They come first. Protecting them.”
I thought about Lissa again. “Yeah. They do.”
A long silence fell before he spoke again.
“You told me you want to fight, to really fight. Is that still true?”
“Rose?I can teach you, but I have to believe you’re dedicated. Really dedicated. I can’t have you distracted by things like this.” He gestured around the lounge. “Can I trust you?”
Again, I felt like crying under that gaze, under the seriousness of what he asked. I didn’t get how he could have such a powerful effect on me. I’d never cared so much about what one person thought. “Yes. I promise.”
“All right. I’ll teach you, but I need you strong. I know you hate the running, but it really is necessary. You have no idea what Strigoi are like. The school tries to prepare you, but until you’ve seen how strong they are and how fast?well, you can’t even imagine. So I can’t stop the running and the conditioning. If you want to learn more about fighting, we need to add more trainings. It’ll take up more of your time. You won’t have much left for your homework or anything else. You’ll be tired. A lot.”
I thought about it, about him, and about Lissa. “It doesn’t matter. If you tell me to do it, I’ll do it.”
He studied me hard, like he was still trying to decide if he could believe me. Finally satisfied, he gave me a sharp nod. “We’ll start tomorrow.”