THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN death threats and love letters—even if the person writing the death threats still claims to actually love you. Of course, considering I once tried to kill someone I loved, maybe I had no right to judge.
Today’s letter had been perfectly timed, not that I should have expected any less. I’d read it four times so far, and even though I was running late, I couldn’t help but read it a fifth time.
My dearest Rose,
One of the few downsides to being awakened is that we no longer require sleep; therefore we also no longer dream. It’s a shame, because if I could dream, I know I’d dream about you. I’d dream about the way you smell and how your dark hair feels like silk between my fingers. I’d dream about the smoothness of your skin and the fierceness of your lips when we kiss.
Without dreams, I have to be content with my own imagination—which is almost as good. I can picture all of those things perfectly, as well as how it’ll be when I take your life from this world. It’s something I regret having to do, but you’ve made my choice inevitable. Your refusal to join me in eternal life and love leaves no other course of action, and I can’t allow someone as dangerous as you to live. Besides, even if I forced your awakening, you now have so many enemies among the Strigoi that one of them would kill you. If you must die, it’ll be by my hand. No one else’s.
Nonetheless, I wish you well today as you take your trials—not that you need any luck. If they’re actually making you take them, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. You’re the best in that group, and by this evening you’ll wear your promise mark. Of course, that means you’ll be all that much more of a challenge when we meet again—which I’ll definitely enjoy.
And we will be meeting again. With graduation, you’ll be turned out of the Academy, and once you’re outside the wards, I’ll find you. There is no place in this world you can hide from me. I’m watching.
Despite his “warm wishes” I didn’t really find the letter inspiring as I tossed it onto my bed and blearily left the room. I tried not to let his words get to me, though it was kind of impossible to not be creeped out by something like that. There is no place in this world you can hide from me.
I didn’t doubt it. I knew Dimitri had spies. Since my former instructor-turned-lover had been turned into an evil, undead vampire, he’d also become a sort of leader among them—something I’d helped speed along when I killed off his former boss. I suspected a lot of his spies were humans, watching for me to step outside my school’s borders. No Strigoi could have stayed on a twenty-four-hour stakeout. Humans could, and I’d recently learned that plenty of humans were willing to serve the Strigoi in exchange for the promise of being turned someday. Those humans considered eternal life worth corrupting their souls and killing off others to survive. Those humans made me sick.
But the humans weren’t what made my steps falter as I walked through grass that had turned bright green with summer’s touch. It was Dimitri. Always Dimitri. Dimitri, the man I’d loved. Dimitri, the Strigoi I wanted to save. Dimitri, the monster I’d most likely have to kill. The love we’d shared always burned within me, no matter how often I told myself to move on, no matter how much the world did think I’d moved on. He was always with me, always on my mind, always making me question myself.
“You look like you’re ready to face an army.”
I shifted out of my dark thoughts. I’d been so fixated on Dimitri and his letter that I’d been walking across campus, oblivious to the world, and hadn’t noticed my best friend, Lissa, falling into step with me, a teasing smile on her face. Her catching me by surprise was a rarity because we shared a psychic bond, one that always kept me aware of her presence and feelings. I had to be pretty distracted to not notice her, and if ever there was a distraction, it was someone wanting to kill me.
I gave Lissa what I hoped was a convincing smile. She knew what had happened to Dimitri and how he was now waiting to kill me after I’d tried—and failed—to kill him. Nonetheless, the letters I got from him every week worried her, and she had enough to deal with in her life without my undead stalker to add to the list.
“I kind of am facing an army,” I pointed out. It was early evening, but late summer still found the sun up in the Montana sky, bathing us in golden light as we walked. I loved it, but as a Moroi—a peaceful, living vampire—Lissa would eventually grow weak and uncomfortable in it.
She laughed and tossed her platinum hair over one shoulder. The sun lit up the pale color into angelic brilliance. “I suppose. I didn’t think you’d really be all that worried.”
I could understand her reasoning. Even Dimitri had said these would be a waste of my time. After all, I’d gone to Russia to search for him and had faced real Strigoi—killing a number of them on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t have been afraid of the upcoming tests, but all the fanfare and expectation suddenly pressed in upon me. My heart rate increased. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I wasn’t as good as I thought I was? The guardians who would challenge me out here might not be true Strigoi, but they were skilled and had been fighting a lot longer than me. Arrogance could get me into a lot of trouble, and if I failed, I’d be doing it in front of all the people who cared about me. All the people who had such faith in me.
One other thing also concerned me.
“I’m worried about how these grades will affect my future,” I said. That was the truth. The trials were the final exam for a novice guardian like me. They ensured I could graduate from St. Vladimir’s Academy and take my place with true guardians who defended Moroi from the Strigoi. The trials pretty much decided which Moroi a guardian would be assigned to.
Through our bond, I felt Lissa’s compassion—and her worry. “Alberta thinks there’s a good chance we can stay together—that you’ll still be my guardian.”
I grimaced. “I think Alberta was saying that to keep me in school.” I’d dropped out to hunt Dimitri a few months ago and then returned—something that didn’t look good on my academic record. There was also the small fact that the Moroi queen, Tatiana, hated me and would probably be going out of her way to influence my assignment—but that was another story. “I think Alberta knows the only way they’d let me protect you is if I was the last guardian on earth. And even then, my odds would still be pretty slim.”
Ahead of us, the roar of a crowd grew loud. One of the school’s many sports fields had been transformed into an arena on par with something from Roman gladiatorial days. The bleachers had been built up, expanded from simple wooden seats to luxuriously cushioned benches with awnings to shade the Moroi from the sun. Banners surrounded the field, their bright colors visible from here as they whipped in the wind. I couldn’t see them yet, but I knew there would be some type of barracks built near the stadium’s entrance where novices waited, nerves on edge. The field itself would have turned into an obstacle course of dangerous tests. And from the sound of those deafening cheers, plenty were already there to witness this event.
“I’m not giving up hope,” Lissa said. Through the bond, I knew she meant it. It was one of the wonderful things about her—a steadfast faith and optimism that weathered the most terrible ordeals. It was a sharp contrast to my recent cynicism. “And I’ve got something that might help you out today.”
She came to a stop and reached into her jeans pocket, producing a small silver ring scattered with tiny stones that looked like peridots. I didn’t need any bond to understand what she was offering.
“Oh, Liss . . . I don’t know. I don’t want any, um, unfair advantage.”
Lissa rolled her eyes. “That’s not the problem, and you know it. This one’s fine, I swear.”
The ring she offered me was a charm, infused with the rare type of magic she wielded. All Moroi had control of one of five elements: earth, air, water, fire, or spirit. Spirit was the rarest—so rare, it had been forgotten over the centuries. Then Lissa and a few others had recently surfaced with it. Unlike the other elements, which were more physical in nature, spirit was tied into the mind and all sorts of psychic phenomena. No one fully understood it.
Making charms with spirit was something Lissa had only recently begun to experiment with—and she wasn’t very good at it. Her best spirit ability was healing, so she kept trying to make healing charms. The last one had been a bracelet that singed my arm.
“This one works. Only a little, but it’ll help keep the darkness away during the trial.”
She spoke lightly, but we both knew the seriousness of her words. With all of spirit’s gifts came a cost: a darkness that showed itself now as anger and confusion, and eventually led to insanity. Darkness that sometimes bled over into me through our bond. Lissa and I had been told that with charms and her healing, we could fight it off. That was also something we had yet to master.
I gave her a faint smile, moved by her concern, and accepted the ring. It didn’t scald my hand, which I took as a promising sign. It was tiny and only fit on my pinky. I felt nothing whatsoever as it slid on. Sometimes that happened with healing charms. Or it could mean the ring was completely ineffectual. Either way, no harm done.
“Thanks,” I said. I felt delight sweep through her, and we continued walking.
I held my hand out before me, admiring the way the green stones glittered. Jewelry wasn’t a great idea in the kind of physical ordeals I’d be facing, but I would have gloves on to cover it.
“Hard to believe that after this, we’ll be done here and out in the real world,” I mused aloud, not really considering my words.
Beside me, Lissa stiffened, and I immediately regretted speaking. “Being out in the real world” meant Lissa and I were going to undertake a task she’d—unhappily—promised to help me with a couple months ago.
While in Siberia, I’d learned there might be a way to restore Dimitri back to being a dhampir like me. It was a long shot—possibly a lie—and considering the way he was fixated on killing me, I had no illusions that I would have any other choice but to kill him if it came down to him or me. But if there was a way I might save him before that happened, I had to find out.
Unfortunately, the only lead we had to making this miracle come true was through a criminal. Not just any criminal either: Victor Dashkov, a royal Moroi who had tortured Lissa and committed all sorts of other atrocities that had made our lives hell. Justice had been served, and Victor was locked away in prison, which complicated things. We’d learned that so long as he was destined for a life behind bars, he saw no reason to share what he knew about his half-brother—the only person who had once allegedly saved a Strigoi. I’d decided—possibly illogically—that Victor might give up the information if we offered him the one thing no one else could: freedom.
This idea was not foolproof, for a number of reasons. First, I didn’t know if it would work. That was kind of a big thing. Second, I had no idea how to stage a prison break, let alone where his prison even was. And finally, there was the fact that we would be releasing our mortal enemy. That was devastating enough to me, let alone Lissa. Yet as much as the idea troubled her—and believe me, it did—she’d firmly sworn she would help me. I’d offered to free her from the promise dozens of times in the last couple months, but she’d stood firm. Of course, considering we had no way to even find the prison, her promise might not matter in the end.
I tried to fill the awkward silence between us, explaining instead that I’d really meant we’d be able to celebrate her birthday in style next week. My attempts were interrupted by Stan, one of my longtime instructors. “Hathaway!” he barked, coming from the direction of the field. “Nice of you to join us. Get in there now!”
Thoughts of Victor vanished from Lissa’s mind. Lissa gave me a quick hug. “Good luck,” she whispered. “Not that you need it.”
Stan’s expression told me that this ten-second goodbye was ten seconds too long. I gave Lissa a grin by way of thanks, and then she headed off to find our friends in the stands while I scurried after Stan.
“You’re lucky you aren’t one of the first ones,” he growled. “People were even making bets about whether you’d show.”
“Really?” I asked cheerfully. “What kind of odds are there on that? Because I can still change my mind and put down my own bet. Make a little pocket money.”
His narrowed eyes shot me a warning that needed no words as we entered the waiting area adjacent to the field, across from the stands. It had always amazed me in past years how much work went into these trials, and I was no less impressed now as I saw it up close. The barrack that novices waited in was constructed out of wood, complete with a roof. The structure looked as though it had been part of the stadium forever. It had been built with remarkable speed and would be taken down equally quickly once the trials were over. A doorway about three people wide gave a partial glimpse onto the field, where one of my classmates was waiting anxiously for her name to be called. All sorts of obstacles were set up there, challenges to test balance and coordination while still having to battle and elude the adult guardians who would be lurking around objects and corners. Wooden walls had been constructed on one end of the field, creating a dark and confusing maze. Nets and shaky platforms hung across other areas, designed to test just how well we could fight under difficult conditions.
A few of the other novices crowded the doorway, hoping to get an advantage by watching those who went ahead of them. Not me. I would go in there blind, content to take on whatever they threw before me. Studying the course now would simply make me overthink and panic. Calm was what I needed now.
So I leaned against one of the barrack walls and watched those around me. It appeared that I really had been the last to show up, and I wondered if people had actually lost money betting on me. Some of my classmates whispered in clusters. Some were doing stretches and warm-up exercises. Others stood with instructors who had been mentors. Those teachers spoke intently to their students, giving last-minute words of advice. I kept hearing words like focus and calm down.
Seeing the instructors made my heart clench. Not so long ago, that was how I’d pictured this day. I’d imagined Dimitri and me standing together, with him telling me to take this seriously and not to lose my cool when I was out on the field. Alberta had done a fair amount of mentoring for me since I’d returned from Russia, but as captain, she was out on the field herself now, busy with all sorts of responsibilities. She had no time to come in here and hold my hand. Friends of mine who might have offered comfort—Eddie, Meredith, and others—were wrapped up in their own fears. I was alone.
Without her or Dimitri—or, well, anyone—I felt a surprising ache of loneliness flow through me. This wasn’t right. I shouldn’t have been alone. Dimitri should have been here with me. That’s how it was supposed to have been. Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to pretend he was really there, only inches away as we spoke.
“Don’t worry, comrade. I can do this blindfolded. Hell, maybe I actually will. Do you have anything I can use? If you’re nice to me, I’ll even let you tie it on.” Since this fantasy would have taken place after we’d slept together, there was a strong possibility that he would have later helped me take off that blindfold—among other things.
I could perfectly picture the exasperated shake of his head that would earn me. “Rose, I swear, sometimes it feels like every day with you is my own personal trial.”
But I knew he’d smile anyway, and the look of pride and encouragement he’d give me as I headed toward the field would be all I needed to get through the tests—
“Are you meditating?”
I opened my eyes, astonished at the voice. “Mom? What are you doing here?”
My mother, Janine Hathaway, stood in front of me. She was just a few inches shorter than me but had enough fight in her for someone twice my size. The dangerous look on her tanned face dared anyone to bring on a challenge. She gave me a wry smile and put one hand on her hip.
“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t come to watch you?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, feeling kind of guilty for doubting her. She and I hadn’t had much contact over the years, and it was only recent events—most of them bad—that had begun to reestablish our connection. Most of the time, I still didn’t know how to feel about her. I oscillated between a little girl’s need for her absent mother and a teenager’s resentment over abandonment. I also wasn’t entirely sure if I’d forgiven her for the time she “accidentally” punched me in a mock fight. “I figured you’d have, you know, more important things to do.”
“There’s no way I could miss this.” She inclined her head toward the stands, making her auburn curls sway. “Neither could your father.”
I hurried toward the doorway and peered out onto the fields. My view of the stands wasn’t fantastic, thanks to all the obstacles on the field, but it was good enough. There he was: Abe Mazur. He was easy to spot, with his black beard and mustache, as well as the emerald green scarf knotted over his dress shirt. I could even barely make out the glint of his gold earring. He had to be melting in this heat, but I figured it would take more than a little sweat for him to tame down his flashy fashion sense.
If my relationship with my mother was sketchy, my relationship with my father was practically nonexistent. I’d met him back in May, and even then, it wasn’t until after I’d gotten back that I found out I was his daughter. All dhampirs had one Moroi parent, and he was mine. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about him. Most of his background remained a mystery, but there were plenty of rumors that he was involved with illegal business. People also acted like he was the kneecap-breaking type, and though I’d seen little evidence of this, I didn’t find it surprising. In Russia, they called him Zmey: the serpent.
While I stared at him in astonishment, my mom strolled over to my side. “He’ll be happy you made it in time,” she said. “He’s running some big wager on whether you’d show. He put his money on you, if that makes you feel any better.”
I groaned. “Of course. Of course he’d be the bookie behind the pool. I should have known as soon as—” My jaw dropped. “Is he talking to Adrian?”
Yup. Sitting beside Abe was Adrian Ivashkov—my more-or-less boyfriend. Adrian was a royal Moroi—and another spirit user like Lissa. He’d been crazy about me (and often just crazy) ever since we first met, but I’d had eyes only for Dimitri. After the failure in Russia, I’d returned and promised to give Adrian a shot. To my surprise, things had been . . . good between us. Great, even. He’d written me up a proposal of why dating him was a sound decision. It had included things like “I’ll give up cigarettes unless I really, really need one” and “I’ll unleash romantic surprises every week, such as: an impromptu picnic, roses, or a trip to Paris—but not actually any of those things because now they’re not surprises.”
Being with him wasn’t like it had been with Dimitri, but then, I supposed, no two relationships could ever be exactly alike. They were different men, after all. I still woke up all the time, aching over the loss of Dimitri and our love. I tormented myself over my failure to kill him in Siberia and free him from his undead state. Still, that despair didn’t mean my romantic life was over—something it had taken me a while to accept. Moving on was hard, but Adrian did make me happy. And for now, that was enough.
But that didn’t necessarily mean I wanted him cozying up to my pirate mobster father either.
“He’s a bad influence!” I protested.
My mother snorted. “I doubt Adrian will influence Abe that much.”
“Not Adrian! Abe. Adrian’s trying to be on good behavior. Abe will mess everything up.” Along with smoking, Adrian had sworn he’d quit drinking and other vices in his dating proposal. I squinted at him and Abe across the crowded stands, trying to figure out what topic could be so interesting. “What are they talking about?”
“I think that’s the least of your problems right now.” Janine Hathaway was nothing if not practical. “Worry less about them and more about that field.”
“Do you think they’re talking about me?”
“Rose!” My mother gave me a light punch on the arm, and I dragged my eyes back to her. “You have to take this seriously. Keep calm, and don’t get distracted.”
Her words were so like what I’d imagined Dimitri saying that a small smile crept onto my face. I wasn’t alone out here after all.
“What’s so funny?” she asked warily.
“Nothing,” I said, giving her a hug. She was stiff at first and then relaxed, actually hugging me back briefly before stepping away. “I’m glad you’re here.”
My mother wasn’t the overly affectionate type, and I’d caught her off guard. “Well,” she said, obviously flustered, “I told you I wouldn’t miss this.”
I glanced back at the stands. “Abe, on the other hand, I’m not so sure of.”
Or . . . wait. An odd idea came to me. No, not so odd, actually. Shady or not, Abe had connections—ones extensive enough to slip a message to Victor Dashkov in prison. Abe had been the one to ask for info about Robert Doru, Victor’s spirit-wielding brother, as a favor to me. When Victor had sent back the message saying he had no reason to help Abe with what he needed, I’d promptly written off my father’s assistance and jumped to my prison-break idea. But now—
It was Alberta who called me, her voice ringing loud and clear. It was like a trumpet, a call to battle. All thoughts of Abe and Adrian—and yes, even Dimitri—vanished from my mind. I think my mother wished me good luck, but the exact wording was lost on me as I strode toward Alberta and the field. Adrenaline surged through me. All my attention was now on what lay ahead: the test that would finally make me a guardian.
MY TRIALS WERE A BLUR.
You’d think, seeing as they were the most important part of my education at St. Vladimir’s, that I’d remember everything in perfect, crystalline detail. Yet my earlier thoughts were kind of realized. How could these measure up to what I’d already faced? How could these mock fights compare to a mob of Strigoi descending on our school? I’d had to stand against overwhelming odds, not knowing if those I loved were alive or dead. And how could I fear a so-called battle with one of the school’s instructors after having fought Dimitri? He’d been lethal as a dhampir and worse as a Strigoi.
Not that I meant to make light of the trials. They were serious. Novices failed them all the time, and I refused to be one of them. I was attacked on all sides, by guardians who’d been fighting and defending Moroi since before I was born. The arena wasn’t flat, which complicated everything. They’d filled it with contraptions and obstacles, beams and steps that tested my balance—including a bridge that painfully reminded me of that last night I’d seen Dimitri. I’d pushed him after plunging a silver stake into his heart—a stake that had fallen out during his plummet to the river below.
The arena’s bridge was a bit different from the solid wooden one upon which Dimitri and I had fought in Siberia. This one was rickety, a badly constructed path of wooden planks with only rope rails for support. Every step made the entire bridge swing and shake, and holes in the boards showed me where former classmates had (unfortunately for them) discovered weak spots. The test they assigned me on the bridge was probably the worst of all. My goal was to get a “Moroi” away from a group of “Strigoi” that were in pursuit. My Moroi was being played by Daniel, a new guardian who had come with others to the school to replace those killed in the attack. I didn’t know him very well, but for this exercise, he was playing completely docile and helpless—even a little afraid, just as any Moroi I was guarding might have been.
He gave me a little resistance about stepping onto the bridge, and I used my calmest, most coaxing voice to finally get him to walk out ahead of me. Apparently they were testing people skills as well as combat skills. Not far behind us on the course, I knew the guardians acting as Strigoi were approaching.
Daniel stepped out, and I shadowed him, still giving him reassurances while all my senses stayed on alert. The bridge swung wildly, telling me with a jolt that our pursuers had joined us. I glanced back and saw three “Strigoi” coming after us. The guardians playing them were doing a remarkable job—moving with as much dexterity and speed as true Strigoi would. They were going to overtake us if we didn’t get a move on.
“You’re doing great,” I told Daniel. It was hard to keep the right tone in my voice. Screaming at Moroi might put them into shock. Too much gentleness would make them think it wasn’t serious. “And I know you can move faster. We need to keep ahead of them—they’re getting closer. I know you can do this. Come on.”
I must have passed that persuasive part of the test because he did indeed pick up his speed—not quite enough to match that of our pursuers, but it was a start. The bridge shifted crazily again. Daniel yelped convincingly and froze, gripping the rope sides tightly. Ahead of him, I saw another guardian-as-Strigoi waiting on the opposite side of the bridge. I believed his name was Randall, another new instructor. I was sandwiched between him and the group at my back. But Randall stayed still, waiting on the first plank of the bridge so that he could shake it and make it harder for us.
“Keep going,” I urged, my mind spinning. “You can do it.”
“But there’s a Strigoi there! We’re trapped,” Daniel exclaimed.
“Don’t worry. I’ll deal with him. Just move.”
My voice was fierce this time, and Daniel crept forward, pushed on by my command. The next few moments required perfect timing on my part. I had to watch the “Strigoi” on both sides of us and keep Daniel in motion, all the while monitoring where we were on the bridge. When we were almost three quarters of the way across, I hissed, “Drop down on all fours right now! Hurry!”
He obeyed, coming to a halt. I immediately knelt, still speaking in an undertone: “I’m about to shout at you. Ignore it.” In a louder voice, for the benefit of those coming after us, I exclaimed, “What are you doing? We can’t stop!”
Daniel didn’t budge, and I again spoke softly. “Good. See where the ropes connect the base to the rails? Grab them. Grab them as tightly as you can, and do not let go, no matter what happens. Wrap them around your hands if you have to. Do it now!”
He obeyed. The clock was ticking, and I didn’t waste another moment. In one motion, while still crouched, I turned around and hacked at the ropes with a knife I’d been given along with my stake. The blade was sharp, thank God. The guardians running the trial weren’t messing around. It didn’t instantly slice the ropes, but I cut through them so quickly that the “Strigoi” on either side of us didn’t have time to react.
The ropes snapped just as I again reminded Daniel to hold on. The two halves of the bridge swung toward the sides of wooden scaffolding, carried by the weight of the people on them. Well, ours did at least. Daniel and I had been prepared. The three pursuers behind us hadn’t been. Two fell. One just barely managed to catch hold of a plank, slipping a bit before securing his grip. The actual drop was six feet, but I’d been told to regard it as fifty—a distance that would kill me and Daniel if we fell.
Against all odds, he was still clutching the rope. I was hanging on as well, and once the rope and wood were lying flat against the scaffolding’s sides, I began scrambling up it like a ladder. It wasn’t easy climbing over Daniel, but I did it, giving me one more chance to tell him to hang on. Randall, who’d been waiting ahead of us, hadn’t fallen off. He’d had his feet on the bridge when I cut it, though, and had been surprised enough to lose his balance. Quick to recover, he was now shimmying up the ropes, trying to climb up to the solid surface above. He was much closer to it than me, but I just managed to grab his leg and stop him. I jerked him toward me. He maintained his grip on the bridge, and we struggled. I knew I probably couldn’t pull him off, but I was able to keep getting closer. At last, I let go of the knife I’d been holding and managed to get the stake from my belt—something that tested my balance. Randall’s ungainly position gave me a shot at his heart, and I took it.
For the trials, we had blunt-ended stakes, ones that wouldn’t pierce skin but which could be used with enough force to convince our opponents that we knew what we were doing. My alignment was perfect, and Randall, conceding it would have been a killing blow, relinquished his hold and dropped off the bridge.
That left me the painful task of coaxing Daniel to climb up. It took a long time, but again, his behavior wasn’t out of character with how a scared Moroi might behave. I was just grateful he hadn’t decided a real Moroi would have lost his grip and fallen.
After that challenge came many more, but I fought on, never slowing down or letting exhaustion affect me. I slipped into battle mode, my senses focused on basic instincts: fight, dodge, kill.
And while staying tuned to those, I still had to be innovative and not fall into a lull. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to react to a surprise like the bridge. I managed it all, battling on with no other thoughts beyond accomplishing the tasks before me. I tried not to think of my instructors as people I knew. I treated them like Strigoi. I pulled no punches.
When it finally ended, I almost didn’t realize it. I was simply standing there in the middle of the field with no more attackers coming at me. I was alone. Slowly, I became more aware of the world’s details. Crowds in the stands cheering. A few instructors nodding to each other as they joined in. The pounding of my own heart.
It wasn’t until a grinning Alberta tugged at my arm that I realized it was over. The test I’d waited for my entire life, finished in what felt like a blink of an eye.
“Come on,” she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulder and guiding me toward the exit. “You need to get some water and sit down.”
Dazed, I let her lead me off the field, around which people were still cheering and crying my name. Behind us, I heard some people saying they had to take a break and fix the bridge. She led me back to the waiting area and gently pushed me onto a bench. Someone else sat beside me and handed me a bottle of water. I looked over and saw my mother. She had an expression on her face that I had never seen before: pure, radiant pride.
“That was it?” I asked at last.
She surprised me again with genuinely amused laughter. “That was it?” she repeated. “Rose, you were out there for almost an hour. You blew through that test with flying colors—probably one of the best trials this school’s ever seen.”
“Really? It just seemed . . .” Easy wasn’t quite the right word. “It was a haze, that’s all.”
My mom squeezed my hand. “You were amazing. I’m so, so proud of you.”
The realization of it all truly, truly hit me then, and I felt a smile of my own spreading over my lips. “Now what happens?” I asked.
“Now you become a guardian.”
I’d been tattooed many times, but none of those events came close to the ceremony and fanfare that occurred while getting my promise mark. Before, I’d received molnija marks for kills I’d made in unexpected, tragic circumstances: fighting Strigoi in Spokane, the school attack and rescue—events that were cause for mourning, not celebration. After all those kills, we’d kind of lost count, and while guardian tattoo artists still tried to log every individual kill, they’d finally given me a star-shaped mark that was a fancy way of saying we’d lost count.
Tattooing isn’t a fast process, even if you’re getting a small one, and my entire graduating class had to get them. The ceremony took place in what was usually the Academy’s dining room, a room they were able to remarkably transform into something as grand and elaborate as we’d find at the Royal Court. Spectators—friends, family, guardians—packed the room as Alberta called our names one at a time and read our scores as we approached the tattoo artist. The scores were important. They would be made public and, along with our overall school grades, influence our assignments. Moroi could request certain grads for their guardians. Lissa had requested me, of course, but even the best scores in the world might not compensate for all the black behavioral marks on my record.
There were no Moroi at this ceremony, though, aside from the handful who had been invited as guests by the new graduates. Everyone else gathered was a dhampir: either one of the established guardians or about-to-become-guardians like me. The guests sat in the back, and the senior guardians sat near the front. My classmates and I stood the whole time, maybe as some sort of last test of endurance.
I didn’t mind. I’d changed out of my torn and dirty clothes into simple slacks and a sweater, an outfit that seemed dressy while still retaining a solemn feel. It was a good call because the air in the room was thick with tension, all faces a mix of joy at our success but also anxiety about our new and deadly role in the world. I watched with shining eyes as my friends were called up, surprised and impressed at many of the scores.
Eddie Castile, a close friend, got a particularly high score in one-on-one Moroi protection. I couldn’t help a smile as I watched the tattooist give Eddie his mark. “I wonder how he got his Moroi over the bridge,” I murmured in an undertone. Eddie was pretty resourceful.
Beside me, another friend of mine, Meredith, gave me a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?” Her voice was equally soft.
“When we were chased onto the bridge with a Moroi. Mine was Daniel.” She still looked confused, and I elaborated. “And they put Strigoi on each side?”
“I crossed the bridge,” she whispered, “but it was just me being chased. I took my Moroi through a maze.”
A glare from a nearby classmate shut us up, and I hid my frown. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who’d gone through the trial in a daze. Meredith had her facts screwed up.
When my name was called, I heard a few gasps as Alberta read my scores. I had the highest in the class by far. I was kind of glad she didn’t read my academic grades. They would have totally taken away some of the glory of the rest of my performance. I’d always done well in my combat classes, but math and history . . . well, those were a bit lacking, particularly since I always seemed to be dropping in and out of school.
My hair was pulled tightly into a bun, with every stray wisp held with hairpins so that the artist would have nothing to interfere with his work. I leaned forward to give him a good view and heard him grunt in surprise. With the back of my neck covered in marks, he’d have to be tricky. Usually a new guardian provided a blank canvas. This guy was good, though, and managed to delicately place the promise mark in the center of the nape of my neck after all. The promise mark looked like a long, stretched-out S, with curly ends. He fit it in between the molnija marks, letting it wrap around them like an embrace. The process hurt, but I kept my face blank, refusing to flinch. I was shown the final results in a mirror before he covered it up with a bandage so it would heal cleanly.
After that, I rejoined my classmates and watched as the rest of them received their tattoos. It meant standing for another two hours, but I didn’t mind. My brain was still reeling with everything that had happened today. I was a guardian. A real, honest-to-goodness guardian. And with that thought came questions. What would happen now? Would my scores be good enough to erase my record of bad behavior? Would I be Lissa’s guardian? And what about Victor? What about Dimitri?
I shifted uneasily as the full impact of the guardian ceremony hit me. This wasn’t just about Dimitri and Victor. This was about me—about the rest of my life. School was over. I would no longer have teachers tracking my every move or correcting me when I made mistakes. All decisions would be on me when I was out protecting someone. Moroi and younger dhampirs would look to me as the authority. And I would no longer have the luxury of practicing combat one minute and lounging in my room the next. There were no clear-cut classes anymore. I would be on duty all the time. The thought was daunting, the pressure almost too great. I’d always equated graduation with freedom. Now I wasn’t so sure. What new shape was my life going to take? Who would decide? And how could I reach Victor if I was assigned to guard anyone besides Lissa?
Across the room, I met Lissa’s eyes among the audience. They burned with a pride that matched my mother’s, and she grinned when our gazes met.
Get that look off your face, she chastised through the bond. You shouldn’t look that anxious, not today. You need to celebrate.
I knew she was right. I could handle what was to come. My worries, which were many, could wait one more day—particularly since the exuberant mood of my friends and family ensured that I would celebrate. Abe, with that influence he always seemed to wield, had secured a small banquet room and thrown a party for me that seemed more suited to a royal debutante, not some lowly, reckless dhampir.
Before the event, I changed yet again. Prettier party clothes now seemed more appropriate than the formal molnija ceremony outfit. I put on a short-sleeved, emerald green wrap dress and hung my nazar around my neck, even though it didn’t match. The nazar was a small pendant that looked like an eye, with different shades of blue circling it. In Turkey, where Abe came from, it was believed to offer protection. He’d given it to my mother years ago, and she’d in turn given it to me.
By the time I’d put on makeup and brushed out my tangled hair into long, dark waves (because my tattoo bandages didn’t go with the dress at all), I hardly looked like someone capable of fighting monsters or even throwing a punch. No—that wasn’t quite true, I realized a moment later. Staring into the mirror, I was surprised to see a haunted look in my brown eyes. There was pain there, pain and loss that even the nicest dress and makeup couldn’t hide.
I ignored it and set off for the party, promptly running into Adrian as soon as I stepped outside my dorm. Without a word, he swept me into his arms and smothered me with a kiss. I was totally caught off guard. It figured. Undead creatures didn’t surprise me, but one flippant royal Moroi could.
And it was quite the kiss, one that I almost felt guilty about sinking into. I’d had concerns when first dating Adrian, but many of them had disappeared over time. After watching him flirt shamelessly and take nothing seriously for so long, I’d never expected to see such devotion from him in our relationship. I also hadn’t expected to find my feelings for him growing—which seemed so contradictory considering I still loved Dimitri and was concocting impossible ways to save him.
I laughed when Adrian set me down. Nearby, a few younger Moroi had stopped to watch us. Moroi dating dhampirs wasn’t super uncommon at our age, but a notorious dhampir dating the Moroi queen’s great-nephew? That was kind of out there—especially since it was widely known how much Queen Tatiana hated me. There had been few witnesses to my last meeting with her, when she’d screamed at me to stay away from Adrian, but word of that kind of thing always gets around.
“Like the show?” I asked our voyeurs. Realizing they’d been busted, the Moroi kids hastily continued on their way. I turned back to Adrian and smiled. “What was that? It was kind of a big kiss to throw on me in public.”
“That,” he said grandly, “was your reward for kicking so much ass in those trials.” He paused. “It was also because you look totally hot in that dress.”
I gave him a wry look. “Reward, huh? Meredith’s boyfriend got her diamond earrings.”
He caught hold of my hand and gave an unconcerned shrug as we began to walk to the party. “You want diamonds? I’ll give you diamonds. I’ll shower you in them. Hell, I’ll get you a gown made out of them. But it’s going to be skimpy.”
“I think I’ll settle for the kiss after all,” I said, imagining Adrian dressing me like a swimsuit model. Or a pole dancer. The jewelry reference also suddenly brought on an unwanted memory. When Dimitri had held me captive in Siberia, lulling me into blissful complacency with his bites, he’d showered me with jewelry too.
“I knew you were a badass,” continued Adrian. A warm summer breeze ruffled the brown hair he so painstakingly styled each day, and with his free hand, he absentmindedly tried to arrange it back into place. “But I didn’t realize just how much until I saw you dropping guardians out there.”
“Does that mean you’re going to be nicer to me?” I teased.
“I’m already nice to you,” he said loftily. “Do you know how badly I want a cigarette right now? But no. I manfully suffer through nicotine withdrawal—all for you. But I think seeing you out there will make me a little more careful around you. That crazy dad of yours is kind of gonna make me cautious too.”
I groaned, recalling how Adrian and Abe had been sitting together. “God. Did you really have to hang out with him?”
“Hey, he’s awesome. A little unstable, but awesome. We got along great.” Adrian opened the door to the building we were seeking. “And he’s a badass in his way too. I mean, any other guy who wore scarves like that? He’d be laughed out of this school. Not Abe. He’d beat someone almost as badly as you would. In fact . . .” Adrian’s voice turned nervous. I gave him a surprised look.
“In fact what?”
“Well . . . Abe said he liked me. But he also made it clear what he’d do to me if I ever hurt you or did anything bad.” Adrian grimaced. “In fact, he described what he’d do in very graphic detail. Then, just like that, he switched to some random, happy topic. I like the guy, but he’s scary.”
“He’s out of line!” I came to a halt outside the party’s room. Through the door, I heard the buzz of conversation. We were apparently among the last to arrive. I guessed that meant I’d be making a grand entrance fitting for the guest of honor. “He has no right to threaten my boyfriends. I’m eighteen. An adult. I don’t need his help. I can threaten my boyfriends myself.”
My indignation amused Adrian, and he gave me a lazy smile. “I agree with you. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to take his ‘advice’ seriously. My face is too pretty to risk.”
His face was pretty, but that didn’t stop me from shaking my head in exasperation. I reached for the door’s handle, but Adrian pulled me back.
“Wait,” he said.
He drew me into his arms again, our lips meeting in another hot kiss. My body pressed to his, and I found myself confused by my own feelings and the realization that I was reaching a point where I might want more than just kissing.
“Okay,” said Adrian when we’d finally broken away. “Now we can go in.”
He had that same light tone to his voice, but in his dark green eyes, I saw the kindling of passion. I wasn’t the only one considering more than just kissing. So far, we’d avoided discussing sex, and he’d actually been very good about not pressuring me. I think he knew I just wasn’t ready after Dimitri, but in moments like these, I could see just how difficult it was for Adrian to hold back.
It softened something inside of me, and standing on my tiptoes, I gave him another kiss. “What was that?” he asked a few moments later.
I grinned. “Your reward.”
When we finally made it into the party, everyone in the room greeted me with cheers and proud smiles. A long time ago, I’d thrived on being the center of attention. That desire had faded a little, but now, I put on a confident face and accepted my loved ones’ praise with swagger and happiness. I held up my hands triumphantly, earning more clapping and approval.
My party was almost as much of a blur as my trials. You never really realize how many people care about you until they all turn out to support you. It made me feel humble and almost a little teary. I kept that to myself, though. I could hardly start crying at my own victory party.
Everyone wanted to talk to me, and I was surprised and delighted each time some new person approached me. It wasn’t often that I had all the people I loved best in one place, and, uneasily I realized this opportunity might never come again.
“Well, you’ve finally got a license to kill. It’s about time.”
I turned and met the amused eyes of Christian Ozera, a onetime annoyance who’d become a good friend. So good, in fact, that in my joyous zeal, I reached out and hugged him—something he clearly didn’t expect. I was surprising everyone today.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said backing up, flushing. “It figures. You’re the only girl who’d get all emotional about the thought of killing. I don’t even want to think about what goes on when you and Ivashkov are alone.”
“Hey, look who’s talking. You’re itching to get out there yourself.”
Christian shrugged by way of agreement. It was a standard rule in our world: Guardians protected Moroi. Moroi didn’t get involved in battles. Yet after recent Strigoi attacks, a lot of Moroi—though hardly a majority—had begun to argue that it was time for Moroi to step up and start helping the guardians. Fire users like Christian were particularly valuable since burning was one of the best ways to kill a Strigoi (along with staking and decapitation). The movement to teach Moroi to fight was currently—and purposely—stalled in the Moroi government, but that hadn’t stopped some Moroi from practicing in secret. Christian was one of them. Glancing beside him, I blinked in astonishment. There was someone with him, someone I’d hardly noticed.
Jill Mastrano hovered near him like a shadow. A Moroi freshman—well, soon to be a sophomore—Jill had come forward as someone who also wanted to fight. She had sort of become Christian’s student.
“Hey Jill,” I said, giving her a warm smile. “Thanks for coming.”
Jill flushed. She was determined to learn to defend herself, but she grew flustered among others—particularly around “celebrities” like me. Rambling was her nervous reaction. “I had to,” she said, brushing her long, light brown hair out of her face. Like always, it was a tangle of curls. “I mean, it’s so cool what you did. At the trials. Everyone was amazed. I heard one of the guardians saying that they’d never seen anything like you, so when Christian asked if I wanted to come, of course I had to. Oh!” Her light green eyes went wide. “I didn’t even tell you congratulations. Sorry. Congratulations.”
Beside her, Christian struggled to keep a straight face. I made no such attempts and laughingly gave her a hug too. I was in serious danger of turning warm and fuzzy. I’d probably get my tough guardian status revoked if I kept this up. “Thanks. Are you two ready to take on a Strigoi army yet?”
“Soon,” said Christian. “But we might need your backup.” He knew as well as I did that Strigoi were way out of their league. His fire magic had helped me a lot, but on his own? That’d be a different story. He and Jill were teaching themselves to use magic offensively, and when I’d had time between classes, I’d taught them a few combat moves.
Jill’s face fell a little. “It’s going to stop once Christian’s gone.”
I turned to him. It was no surprise he’d be leaving. We’d all be leaving. “What are you going to do with yourself?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Go to Court with the rest of you. Aunt Tasha says we’re going to have a ‘talk’ about my future.” He grimaced. Whatever his plans were, it looked like they weren’t the same as Tasha’s. Most royal Moroi would head off to elite colleges. I wasn’t sure what Christian had in mind.
It was standard practice after graduation for new guardians to go to the Moroi Royal Court for orientation and to get their assignments. We were all due to leave in a couple of days. Following Christian’s gaze, I saw his aunt across the room, and so help me, she was talking to Abe.
Tasha Ozera was in her late twenties, with the same glossy black hair and ice blue eyes that Christian had. Her beautiful face was marred, however, by some terrible scarring on one side—the result of injuries inflicted by Christian’s own parents. Dimitri had been turned into a Strigoi against his will, but the Ozeras had purposely chosen to turn for the sake of immortality. It had ironically cost them their lives when the guardians hunted them down. Tasha had raised Christian (when he wasn’t at school) and was one of the main leaders in the movement supporting those Moroi who wanted to fight Strigoi.
Scar or not, I admired her and still thought she was beautiful. From my wayward father’s attitude, it was clear he did too. He poured her a glass of champagne and said something that made her laugh. She leaned forward, like she was telling him a secret, and he laughed in return. My jaw dropped. Even from this far away, it was obvious they were flirting.
“Dear God,” I said with a shudder, hastily turning back to Christian and Jill.
Christian seemed torn between smugness at my discomfort and his own unease at watching a woman he regarded as a mother get hit upon by a pirate mobster guy. A moment later, Christian’s expression softened as he turned back to Jill and continued our conversation.
“Hey, you don’t need me,” he said. “You’ll find others around here. You’ll have your own superhero club before you know it.”
I found myself smiling again, but my kindly feelings were suddenly shattered by a jolt of jealousy. It wasn’t my own, though. It was Lissa’s, coming through the bond. Startled, I glanced around and spotted her across the room, giving Christian the look of death as he spoke to Jill.
It’s worth mentioning that Christian and Lissa used to date. More than date. They’d been deeply in love, and honestly, they kind of still were. Unfortunately, recent events had badly strained their relationship, and Christian had broken up with her. He’d loved her but had lost his trust in her. Lissa had spun out of control when another spirit user named Avery Lazar had sought to control her. We’d eventually stopped Avery, and she was currently locked away in a mental institution, last I’d heard. Christian now knew the reasons for Lissa’s horrible behavior, but the damage was done. Lissa had initially been depressed, but her sorrow had now turned to anger.
She claimed she wanted nothing to do with him anymore, but the bond gave her away. She was always jealous of any girl he talked to—particularly Jill, whom he’d been spending a lot of time with lately. I knew for a fact there was nothing romantic going on there. Jill idolized him as some wise teacher, nothing more. If she had a crush on anyone, it was Adrian, who always treated her like a kid sister. We all kind of did, really.
Christian followed my gaze, and his expression hardened. Realizing she had his attention, Lissa immediately turned away and began talking to the first guy she found, a good-looking dhampir from my class. She turned on the flirtatious charm that came so easily to spirit users, and soon, both of them were laughing and chatting in a way similar to Abe and Tasha. My party had turned into a round of speed dating.
Christian turned back to me. “Well, looks like she’s got plenty to keep her busy.”
I rolled my eyes. Lissa wasn’t the only one who was jealous. Just as she grew angry whenever he hung out with other girls, Christian became prickly when she spoke to other guys. It was infuriating. Rather than admit they still had feelings and just needed to patch things up, those two idiots just kept displaying more and more hostility toward each other.
“Will you stop already and actually try to talk to her like a rational person someday?” I groaned.
“Sure,” he said bitterly. “The day she starts acting like a rational person.”
“Oh my God. You guys are going to make me rip my hair out.”
“It’d be a waste of nice hair,” said Christian. “Besides, she’s made her attitude perfectly clear.”
I started to protest and tell him how stupid he was, but he had no intention of sticking around to hear a lecture I’d already given a dozen times.
“Come on, Jill,” he said. “Rose needs to mingle more.”
He quickly stepped away, and I had half a mind to go beat some sense into him when a new voice spoke.
“When are you going to fix that?” Tasha was standing next to me, shaking her head at Christian’s retreat. “Those two need to be back together.”
“I know that. You know that. But they can’t seem to get it through their heads.”
“Well, you’d better get on it,” she said. “If Christian goes to college across the country, it’ll be too late.” There was a dry—and exasperated—note in her voice when she mentioned Christian going to college.
Lissa was going to Lehigh, a university near the Court, per an arrangement with Tatiana. Lissa would get to attend a bigger university than Moroi usually went to, in exchange for spending time at the Court and learning the royal trade.
“I know,” I said in exasperation. “But why am I the one who has to fix it?”
Tasha grinned. “Because you’re the only one forceful enough to make them see reason.”
I decided to let Tasha’s insolence go, mostly because her talking to me meant that she wasn’t talking to Abe. Glancing across the room, I suddenly stiffened. He was now talking to my mother. Snatches of their conversation came to me through the noise.
“Janine,” he said winningly, “you haven’t aged a day. You could be Rose’s sister. Do you remember that night in Cappadocia?”
My mother actually giggled. I had never heard her do that before. I decided I never wanted to again. “Of course. And I remember how eager you were to help me when my dress strap broke.”
“Dear God,” I said. “He’s unstoppable.”
Tasha looked puzzled until she saw what I was talking about. “Abe? He’s actually pretty charming.”
I groaned. “Excuse me.”
I headed toward my parents. I accepted that they’d once had a romance—one that led to my conception—but that didn’t mean I wanted to watch them relive it. They were recounting some walk on the beach when I reached them. I promptly tugged Abe’s arm away. He was standing way too close to her.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” I asked.
He looked surprised but shrugged. “Certainly.” He gave my mother a knowing smile. “We’ll talk more later.”
“Is no woman safe around here?” I demanded as I led him away.
“What are you talking about?”
We came to a stop by the punch bowl. “You’re flirting with every woman in this room!”
My chastising didn’t faze him. “Well, there are so many lovely women here. . . . Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“No! I wanted to talk to you about threatening my boyfriend. You had no right to do that.”
His dark eyebrows shot up. “What, that? That was nothing. Just a father looking out for his daughter.”
“Most fathers don’t threaten to disembowel their daughters’ boyfriends.”
“That’s not true. And anyway, that’s not what I actually said. It was much worse.”
I sighed. He seemed to delight in my exasperation.
“Think of it as a graduation gift. I’m proud of you. Everyone knew you’d be good, but no one knew you’d be that good.” He winked. “They certainly didn’t expect you to destroy their property.”
I frowned. “I had to. It was the most efficient way. God, that was a bitch of a challenge. What’d the other grads do? They didn’t actually fight in the middle of that thing, did they?”
Abe shook his head, loving every minute of his superior knowledge. “No one else was put in that situation.”
“Of course they were. We all face the same tests.”
“Not you. While planning the trials, the guardians decided you needed something . . . extra. Something special. After all, you’d been out fighting in the real world.”
“What?” The volume of my voice caught the attention of a few others. I lowered it, and Meredith’s earlier words came back to me. “That’s not fair!”
He didn’t seem concerned. “You’re superior to the others. Making you do easy things wouldn’t have been fair.”
I’d faced a lot of ridiculous things in my life, but this was pretty out there. “So they had me do that crazy bridge stunt instead? And if they were surprised I cut it, then what the hell else did they expect me to do? How else was I supposed to survive that?”
“Hmm.” He stroked his chin absentmindedly. “I honestly don’t think they knew.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. This is unbelievable.”
“Why are you so mad? You passed.”
“Because they put me in a situation they didn’t even know how to get out of.” I gave him a suspicious look. “And how do you even know about this? This is all guardian business.”
An expression I didn’t like at all came over his face. “Ah, well, I was with your mother last night and—”
“Whoa, okay. Just stop,” I interrupted. “I do not want to hear what you and my mother were doing last night. I think that’d be worse than the bridge.”
He grinned. “Both are in the past, so no need to worry now. Enjoy your success.”
“I’ll try. Just don’t do me any more favors with Adrian, okay? I mean, I’m glad you came to support me, but that’s more than enough.”
Abe gave me a canny look, reminding me that underneath that swagger he was indeed a shrewd and dangerous man. “You were more than happy to have me do you a favor after your return from Russia.”
I grimaced. He had a point, seeing as he had managed to get a message into a high-security prison. Even if it hadn’t led to anything, he still got points.
“Okay,” I admitted. “That was pretty amazing. And I’m grateful. I still don’t know how you pulled that off.” Suddenly, like a dream you recall a day later, I remembered the thought I’d had just before my trials. I lowered my voice. “You didn’t actually go there, did you?”
He snorted. “Of course not. I wouldn’t set foot in that place. I simply worked my network.”
“Where is that place?” I asked, hoping I sounded bland.
He wasn’t fooled. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because I’m curious! Convicted criminals always disappear without a trace. I’m a guardian now, and I don’t even know anything about our own prison system. Is there just one prison? Are there lots?”
Abe didn’t answer right away. He was studying me carefully. In his business, he suspected everyone of ulterior motives. As his daughter, I was probably doubly suspect. It was in the genes.
He must have underestimated my potential for insanity because he said at last, “There’s more than one. Victor’s in one of the worst. It’s called Tarasov.”
“Where is it?”
“Right now?” He considered. “In Alaska, I think.”
“What do you mean, ‘right now’?”
“It moves throughout the year. Right now it’s in Alaska. Later, it’ll be in Argentina.” He gave me a sly smile, apparently wondering how astute I was. “Can you guess why?”
“No, I—wait. Sunlight.” It made perfect sense. “Alaska’s got almost nonstop daylight this time of year—but nonstop night in the winter.”
I think he was prouder of my realization than of my trials. “Any prisoners trying to escape would have a hard time.” In full sun, no Moroi fugitive would get very far. “Not that anyone can escape through that level of security anyway.” I tried to ignore how foreboding that sounded.
“Seems like they’d put it pretty far north in Alaska then,” I said, hoping to worm out the actual location indirectly. “You get more light that way.”
He chuckled. “Even I can’t tell you that. That’s information the guardians keep close, buried in their headquarters.”
I froze. Headquarters . . .
Abe, despite being usually observant, didn’t notice my reaction. His eyes were watching something across the room. “Is that Renee Szelsky? My, my . . . she’s grown lovely over the years.”
I grudgingly waved him away, largely because I wanted to chase this new plan in my mind—and because Renee wasn’t anyone I knew very well, which made him hitting on her less appalling. “Well, don’t let me stop you. Go lure more women into your web.”
Abe didn’t need much prodding. Alone, I let my brain spin, wondering if my developing scheme had any chance of success. His words had sparked a new plan in my mind. It wasn’t much crazier than most of my others. Across the room, I met Lissa’s jade eyes again. With Christian out of sight, her mood had improved. She was enjoying herself and was excited about the adventures ahead of us, now that we were free and out in the world. My mind flashed back to the anxieties I’d felt earlier in the day. We might be free now, but reality would catch up with us soon. The clock was ticking. Dimitri was waiting, watching. I wondered briefly if I’d still get his weekly letters, now that I’d be leaving the school.
I smiled at her, feeling kind of bad that I’d be ruining her mood when I told her we might now have a very real chance of busting out Victor Dashkov.
THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS were strange. The other novices and I might have had the flashiest graduation, but we weren’t the only ones finishing our education at St. Vladimir’s. The Moroi had their own commencement ceremony, and campus grew packed with visitors. Then, almost as quickly as they came, parents disappeared—taking their sons and daughters with them. Royal Moroi left to spend their summers with their parents at luxury estates—many in the Southern Hemisphere, where the days were shorter this time of year. “Ordinary” Moroi left with their parents too, off to more modest homes, possibly getting summer jobs before college.
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And of course, with school wrapping up for the summer, all the other students left too. Some with no family to go home to, usually dhampirs, stayed year-round, taking special electives, but they were the minority. Campus grew emptier each day as my classmates and I waited for the day when we’d be taken to the Royal Court. We made our farewells to others, Moroi moving on or younger dhampirs who’d soon be following in our footsteps.
One person I was sad to part with was Jill. I happened to catch her as I was walking toward Lissa’s dorm the day before my Court trip. There was a woman with Jill, presumably her mother, and both were carrying boxes. Jill’s face lit up when she saw me.
“Hey Rose! I said goodbye to everyone else but couldn’t find you,” she said excitedly.
I smiled. “Well, I’m glad you caught me.”
I couldn’t tell her that I’d been saying goodbye too. I’d spent my last day at St. Vladimir’s walking all the familiar sites, starting with the elementary campus where Lissa and I had first met in kindergarten. I’d explored the halls and corners of my dorms, walked past favorite classrooms, and even visited the chapel. I’d also passed a lot of time in areas filled with bittersweet memories, like the training areas where I’d first gotten to know Dimitri. The track where he used to make me run laps. The cabin where we’d finally given in to each other. It had been one of the most amazing nights of my life, and thinking about it always brought me both joy and pain.
Jill didn’t need to be burdened with any of that, though. I turned toward her mother and started to offer my hand until I realized she couldn’t shake it while maneuvering the box. “I’m Rose Hathaway. Here, let me carry that.”
I took it before she could protest because I was certain she would. “Thank you,” she said, pleasantly surprised. I fell in step with them as they began walking again. “I’m Emily Mastrano. Jill’s told me a lot about you.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, giving Jill a teasing smile.
“Not that much. Just how I hang out with you sometimes.” There was a slight warning in Jill’s green eyes, and it occurred to me that Emily probably didn’t know her daughter practiced forbidden forms of Strigoi-killing magic in her free time.
“We like having Jill around,” I said, not blowing her cover. “And one of these days, we’re going to teach her to tame that hair.”
Emily laughed. “I’ve been trying for almost fifteen years. Good luck.”
Jill’s mother was stunning. The two didn’t resemble each other much, at least not superficially. Emily’s lustrous hair was straight and black, her eyes deep blue and long-lashed. She moved with a willowy grace, very different from Jill’s always self-conscious walk. Yet, I could see the shared genes here and there, the heart-shaped faces and lip shapes. Jill was still young, and as she grew into her features, she’d likely be a heartbreaker herself someday—something she was probably oblivious to right now. Hopefully her self-confidence would grow.
“Where’s home for you guys?” I asked.
“Detroit,” said Jill, making a face.
“It’s not that bad,” laughed her mom.
“There are no mountains. Just highways.”
“I’m part of a ballet company there,” Emily explained. “So we stay where we can pay the bills.” I think I was more surprised that people went to the ballet in Detroit than that Emily was a ballerina. It made sense, watching her, and really, with their tall and slim builds, Moroi were ideal dancers as far as humans were concerned.
“Hey, it’s a big city,” I told Jill. “Enjoy the excitement while you can before you come back to the boring middle of nowhere.” Of course, illicit combat training and Strigoi attacks were hardly boring, but I wanted to make Jill feel better. “And it won’t be that long.” Moroi summer vacations were barely two months. Parents were eager to return their children to the safety of the Academy.
“I guess,” said Jill, not sounding convinced. We reached their car, and I loaded the boxes into the trunk.
“I’ll e-mail you when I can,” I promised. “And I bet Christian will too. Maybe I can even talk Adrian into it.”
Jill brightened, and I was happy to see her return to her normal overexcited self. “Really? That would be great. I want to hear everything that goes on at Court. You’ll probably get to do all sorts of cool things with Lissa and Adrian, and I bet Christian will find out all sorts of things . . . about things.”
Emily didn’t seem to notice Jill’s lame editing attempt and instead fixed me with a pretty smile. “Thanks for your help, Rose. It was great to meet you.”
Jill had thrown herself into me with a hug. “Good luck with everything,” she said. “You’re so lucky—you’re going to have such a great life now!”
I returned the hug, unable to explain how jealous of her I was. Her life was still safe and innocent. She might resent spending a summer in Detroit, but the stay would be brief, and soon she’d be back in the familiar and easy world of St. Vladimir’s. She wouldn’t be setting out into the unknown and its dangers.
It was only after she and her mother had driven off that I could bring myself to respond to her comment. “I hope so,” I murmured, thinking about what was to come. “I hope so.”
My classmates and select Moroi flew out early the next day, leaving the rocky mountains of Montana behind for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. The Royal Court was a lot like I remembered, with the same imposing, ancient feel that St. Vladimir’s tried to impart with its towering buildings and intricate stone architecture. But the school also seemed to want to show off a wise, studious air, whereas the Court was more ostentatious. It was like the buildings themselves tried to make sure we all knew that this was the seat of power and royalty among the Moroi. The Royal Court wanted us to be amazed and maybe a little cowed.
And even though I’d been here before, I was still impressed. The doors and windows of the tan stone buildings were embossed and framed in pristine golden decorations. They were a far cry from the brightness I’d seen in Russia, but I realized now that the Court’s designers had modeled these buildings off the old European ones—the fortresses and palaces of Saint Petersburg. St. Vladimir’s had benches and paths in the quads and courtyards, but the Court went a step further. Fountains and elaborate statues of past rulers adorned the lawns, exquisite marble works that had previously been hidden in snow. Now, in the full throes of summer, they were bright and on display. And everywhere, everywhere were flowers on trees, bushes, paths—it was dazzling.
It made sense that new grads would visit the guardians’ central administration, but it occurred to me that there was another reason they brought new guardians here in the summer. They wanted my classmates and me to see all of this, to be overwhelmed and appreciative of the glory for which we were fighting. Looking at the faces of the new graduates, I knew the tactic was working. Most had never been here before.
Lissa and Adrian had been on my flight, and the three of us clustered together as we walked with the group. It was as warm as it had been in Montana, but the humidity here was much thicker. I was sweating after only a little light walking.
“You did bring a dress this time, right?” asked Adrian.
“Of course,” I said. “They’ve got some fancy things they want us to go to, aside from the main reception. Although, they might give me my black-and-white for that.”
He shook his head, and I noticed his hand start to move toward his pocket before hesitating and pulling back. He might have been making progress in quitting smoking, but I was pretty sure the subconscious urge to automatically reach for a pack when outdoors was hard to get rid of so quickly.
“I mean for tonight. For dinner.”
I glanced questioningly at Lissa. Her schedule at Court always had assorted functions thrown into it that “average people” didn’t attend. With my new and uncertain status, I wasn’t sure if I’d be going with her. I sensed her puzzlement through the bond and could tell that she didn’t have a clue about any special dinner plans.
“What dinner?” I asked.
“The one I set up with my family.”
“The one you—” I came to an abrupt halt and stared wide-eyed, not liking the smirk on his face one bit. “Adrian!” A few of the new grads gave me curious looks and continued walking around us.