I could hardly wait for my day to end. I'd promised Lissa I'd hang out with her and the others after school. It should have been fun, but the minutes dragged by. I was too restless. When curfew came around, I split off from them ran back to my dorm. I asked the woman at the front desk if she could call up to Dimitri's room—off-limits to students—because I had an «urgent» question for him. She had just picked up the phone when Celeste walked past.
"He's not there," she told me. She had a large bruise on the side of her face. Some novice had gotten the better of her— some novice who wasn't me. "I think he was going to the chapel. You'll have to see him tomorrow—you can't be there and back before curfew comes."
I nodded meekly and acted like I was heading for the student wing. Instead, as soon as she was out of sight, I headed back outside again and ran to the chapel. She was right. I wasn't going to make curfew, but hopefully Dimitri could make sure I got back without getting in trouble.
The chapel's doors were unlocked when I reached them. I walked in and saw all the candles lit, making all the gold ornaments in the room sparkle. The priest must still be working. But, when I stepped inside the sanctuary, he wasn't there. Dimitri was, however.
He sat in the last pew. He wasn't praying or kneeling or anything. He just sat there, looking quite relaxed. Although he wasn't a practicing member of the church, he'd told me he often found peace there. It gave him a chance to think about his life and the deeds he'd done.
I always thought he looked good, but just then, something about him nearly made me come to a standstill. Maybe it was because of the background, all the polished wood and colorful icons of saints. Maybe it was just the way the candlelight shone on his dark hair. Maybe it was just because he looked unguarded, almost vulnerable. He was normally so wound up, so on edge … but even he needed the occasional moment of rest. He seemed to glow in my eyes, kind of in the way Lissa always did. His normal tension returned when he heard me come in.
"Rose, is everything okay?" He started to stand, and I motioned him down as I slid into the spot beside him. The faint smell of incense lingered in the air.
"Yeah … well, kind of. No breakdowns, if that's what you're worried about. I just had a question. Or, well, a theory."
I explained the conversation with Alice and what I'd deduced from it. He listened patiently, expression thoughtful.
"I know Alice. I'm not sure she's credible," he said when I finished. It was similar to what he'd said about Victor.
"I know. I thought the same thing. But a lot of it makes sense."
"Not quite. As you pointed out, why are your visions so irregular here? That doesn't go along with the ward theory. You should feel like you did on the plane."
"What if the wards are just weak?" I asked.
He shook his head. "That's impossible. Wards take months to wear down. New ones are put in place here every two weeks."
"That often?" I asked, unable to hide my disappointment. I'd known maintenance was frequent but not that frequent. Alice's theory had almost provided a sound explanation, one that didn't involve me being insane.
"Maybe they're getting staked," I suggested. "By humans or something—like we saw before."
"Guardians walk the grounds a few times a day. If there was a stake in the borders of campus, we'd notice."
Dimitri moved his hand over mine, and I flinched. He didn't remove it, though, and as he did so frequently, guessed my thoughts. "You thought if she was right, it would explain everything."
I nodded. "I don't want to be crazy."
"You aren't crazy."
"But you don't believe I'm really seeing ghosts."
He glanced away, his eyes staring at the flickering of candles on the altar. "I don't know. I'm still trying to keep an open mind. And being stressed isn't the same as being crazy."
"I know," I admitted, still very conscious of how warm his hand was. I shouldn't have been thinking about things like that in a church. "But… well… there's something else…."
I told him then about Anna possibly «catching» Vladimir's insanity. I also explained Adrian's aura observations. He turned his gaze back on me, expression speculative.
"Have you told anyone else about this? Lissa? Your counselor?"
"No," I said in a small voice, unable to meet his eyes. "I was afraid of what they'd think."
He squeezed my hand. "You have to stop this. You aren't afraid of throwing yourself in the path of danger, but you're terrified of letting anyone in."
"I… I don't know," I said, looking up at him. "I guess."
"Then why'd you tell me?"
I smiled. "Because you told me I should trust people. I trust you."
"You don't trust Lissa?"
My smile faltered. "I trust her, absolutely. But I don't want to tell her things that'll make her worry. I guess it's a way of protecting her, just like keeping Strigoi away."
"She's stronger than you think," he said. "And she would go out of her way to help you."
"So what? You want me to confide in her and not you?"
"No, I want you to confide in both of us. I think it'd be good for you. Does what happened to Anna bother you?"
"No." I looked away again. "It scares me."
I think the admission stunned both of us. I certainly hadn't expected to say it. We both froze for a moment, and then Dimitri wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to his chest. A sob built up in me as I rested my cheek against the leather of his coat and heard the steady beating of his heart.
"I don't want to be like that," I told him. "I want to be like everyone else. I want my mind to be … normal. Normal by Rose standards, I mean. I don't want to lose control. I don't want to be like Anna and kill myself. I love being alive. I'd die to save my friends, but I hope it doesn't happen. I hope we all live long, happy lives. Like Lissa said—one big happy family. There's so much I want to do, but I'm so scared … scared that I'll be like her…. I'm afraid I won't be able to stop it_»
He held me tighter. "It's not going to happen," he murmured. "You're wild and impulsive, but at the end of the day, you're one of the strongest people I know. Even if you are the same as Anna—and I don't think you are—you two won't share the same fate."
It was funny. I'd often told Lissa the same thing about her and Vladimir. She'd always had a hard time believing it, and now I understood. Giving advice was a lot harder than following it.
"You're also missing something," he continued, running a hand over my hair. "If you are in danger from Lissa's magic, then at least you understand why. She can stop using her magic, and that'll be the end of it."
I pulled away slightly so I could look at him. Hastily, I ran my hand over my eyes in case any tears had escaped.
"But can I ask her to do that?" I said. "I've felt how it makes her feel. I don't know if I can take that away from her."
He regarded me with surprise. "Even at the cost of your own life?"
"Vladimir did great things—so could she. Besides, they come first, right?"
I stared. I'd had they come first drilled into me since I was a child. It was what all guardians believed. Only the dhampirs who'd run away from their duty didn't subscribe to that. What he said was almost like treason.
"Sometimes, Rose, you have to know when to put yourself first."
I shook my head. "Not with Lissa." I might as well have been with Deirdre or Ambrose again. Why was everyone suddenly challenging something that I'd held as absolute truth my entire life?
"She's your friend. She'll understand." To make his point, he reached forward and tugged at the chotki peeking out underneath my sleeve, his fingertips brushing my wrist.
"It's more than that," I said. I pointed to the cross. "If anything, this proves it. I'm bound to her, to protect the Dragomirs, at all costs."
"I know, but …" He didn't finish, and honestly, what could he have said? This was becoming an old argument, one without a solution.
"I need to get back," I said abruptly. "It's past curfew."
A wry smile crossed Dimitri's face. "And you need me to get you back or you'll get in trouble."
"Well, yeah, I was kind of hoping…."
We heard some rustling near the door of the sanctuary, and Father Andrew walked in, which definitely ended our session. He was getting ready to shut down the chapel. Dimitri thanked him, and then the two of us headed back to the dhampir dorm. Neither of us spoke along the way, but it was a comfortable silence. It was weird, but since his outburst outside the med clinic, I felt like something had intensified between us, as impossible as that seemed.
Dimitri got me past the woman at the front desk, and just as I was about to head off for my wing, a guardian named Yuri walked by. Dimitri called to him.
"You've been working with security, haven't you? When was the last time they laid new wards?"
Yuri considered. "A couple days ago. Why?"
Dimitri gave me a meaningful look. "Just curious."
I nodded to Dimitri to show that I understood his point, and then I went off to bed.
After that, the next week or so played out in a repetitive pattern. I followed Christian for three days a week, had my counseling sessions, and trained with Dimitri. During those times, I could see the concern on Dimitri's face. He always asked how I was but didn't push me to talk about anything I didn't want to. Mostly, it was all physical training, which I liked since it didn't require too much ruminating.
Best of all, I didn't see Mason during this time.
I also didn't witness any attacks—of either the M^ana type or the guardian type.
We were in full throes of the field experience, and every other novice in my class was having regular fights. The tests grew intricate and more difficult, and everyone had to stay on their toes. Eddie seemed to have to defend Lissa every other day from some guardian playing Strigoi—but it never happened when I was around. In fact, no attacks at all happened to anyone when I was around. After a while, I began to get the idea. They were going soft on me. They were worried I couldn't handle it.
"They might as well have cut me from the field experience after all," I grumbled to Christian one evening. "I'm not doing anything."
"Yeah, but if you still pass, why worry about it? I mean, do you actually want to get in a fight every day?" He then rolled his eyes. "Never mind. Of course you do."
"You don't understand," I told him. "This job isn't about taking the easy way out. I want to prove what I can do—to them and to myself. You can never get enough practice. I mean, Lissa's life is at stake." And also possibly my future with her. I'd worried before that they might decide to replace me—and that was before they thought I was nuts.
It was nearly curfew time, and I was dropping him off for the night. He shook his head. "Rose, I don't know if you're crazy or not, but I'm actually starting to think you might be the best guardian—or soon-to-be guardian—out there."
"Did you just give me a serious compliment?" I asked.
He turned his back on me and headed inside his dorm. "Good night."
My life was still in chaos, but I couldn't help a small grin as I headed back toward my dorm. The walk always made me nervous since I now lived in perpetual fear of seeing Mason. There were other people scurrying back before curfew too, though, and he mostly tended to show up when I was alone, either because he preferred the privacy or because he really was a figment of my imagination.
Talking about Lissa reminded me that I'd hardly seen her today. Comfortable and content, I let my mind slip into hers while my body continued its walk.
She was in the library, hurriedly trying to finish up some notes. Eddie stood near her, glancing around. "Better hurry up," he said teasingly. "She's making another round."
"Almost done," Lissa said, scrawling a few more words.
She shut the textbook just as the librarian came by and told them they had to leave now. With a sigh of relief, Lissa stuffed her papers into her bag and followed Eddie out. He picked it up and carried it over his shoulder as they went.
"You don't have to do that," she said. "You aren't my valet."
"You can have it back as soon as you fix that." He gestured to where she was tangled up in her coat. She'd shoved it on while trying to get out of the library on time. She laughed at her own disorderliness and adjusted the inside-out sleeve.
"Thanks," she said when he handed it back.
Lissa liked Eddie—though not in a romantic kind of way. She just thought he was nice. He did things like that all the time, helping her out while still doing an excellent job in his duties. His motives weren't romantic, either. He was just one of those rare guys who could be both a gentleman and a badass. She had plans for him.
"Have you ever thought about asking Rose out?"
"What?" he asked.
What? I thought.
"You guys just have so much in common," she said, trying to sound casual. Inside, she was excited. She thought this was the best idea in the world. For me, it was one of those moments where being in her mind was being too close to her. I would rather have been standing beside her so I could shake some sense into her.
"She's just my friend," he laughed, his face taking on kind of a cute shyness. "And I don't think we'd actually be that compatible. Besides …" His expression fell. "I could never go out with Mason's girlfriend."
Lissa started to say what I always told her, that I hadn't actually been Mason's girlfriend. Wisely, she instead chose to let Eddie keep believing the best. "Everyone has to move on sometime."
"It hasn't been that long, not really. Just over a month. And it's not really something you get over quickly." His eyes had a sad, faraway look that hurt both Lissa and me.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to make it sound like something small. What you saw—I know it was horrible."
"You know what's weird? I actually don't remember much of it. And that's what's horrible. I was so drugged out that I had no idea what was going on. I hate that—you have no idea. Being helpless like that… it's the worst thing in the world."
I felt the same way. I think it was a guardian thing. Eddie and I had never talked about it, though. We'd never even talked about Spokane much.
"It wasn't your fault," Lissa told him. "Strigoi endorphins are strong. You couldn't have fought against them."
"I should have tried harder," he countered, holding the door to her dorm open. "If I'd been even a little more conscious … I don't know. Mason might still be alive."
Eddie and I, I realized, should both have been in therapy as soon as we got back from winter break. I finally understood why everyone said blaming myself for Mason's death was irrational. Eddie and I were both holding ourselves responsible for things that had been beyond our control. We were torturing ourselves with guilt we didn't deserve.
"Hey, Lissa. Come here."
The serious subject was put on hold as Jesse and Ralf waved at her from across the dorm's lobby. My defenses immediately went up. So did hers. She didn't like them any better than I did.
"What's this about?" asked Eddie warily.
"I don't know," she muttered, walking over. "I hope it's fast."
Jesse gave her a dazzling smile, one that I had once found really hot. Now I saw it for the fake piece of crap it was. "How's it going?" he asked.
"It's going tired," she replied. "I need to get to bed. What's up?"
Jesse looked over at Eddie. "Would you give us a little privacy?" Eddie looked at Lissa. She nodded, and Eddie backed up enough to be out of earshot but still watch her. When he was gone, Jesse said, "We have an invitation for you."
"To what, a party?"
"Kind of. It's a group …" Ralf wasn't so good with words, and Jesse took over again.
"More than a group. It's only for elite people." He gestured around. "You and me and Ralf… we're not like a lot of other Moroi. We're not even like a lot of other royals. We have concerns and issues that we need to take care of." I thought it was funny that he'd include Ralf. Ralf's royalty came from his mother, a Voda, so he didn't even carry one of the royal names, even if he technically had the blood.
"It sounds kind of … snobby," she said. "No offense. Thanks for the offer, though." That was Lissa. Always polite, even to creeps like these.
"You don't understand. We aren't just sitting around. We're working to get things done. We're—" he hesitated and then spoke more softly, " — working on ways to get our voices out there, to make people see our way no matter what."
Lissa gave an uncomfortable laugh. "Sounds like compulsion."
I couldn't see her face, but I could feel her working hard to keep it as straight as possible. "Are you out of your mind? Compulsion's forbidden. It's wrong."
"Only to some people. And apparently not you since you're pretty good at it."
She stiffened. "Why would you think that?"
"Because someone—a couple people, actually—hinted at it." People? I tried to remember what Christian and I had said in the feeder room. We'd never mentioned her by name, though both of us had bragged about having seen someone use compulsion. And apparently, Jesse had noticed other things about her. "Besides, it's actually kind of obvious. People love you. You've gotten out of so much trouble, and I finally figured out why. You've been working people over this whole time. I was watching you in class the other day when you convinced Mr. Hill to let Christian work with you on that project. He never would have let anyone else do that."
I'd been with them in class that day. Lissa actually had used compulsion on her teacher to get help for Christian. She'd been so caught up in her pleas that she'd compelled Mr. Hill without even realizing it. Compared to other things I'd seen her do, it had actually been a pretty weak show of compulsion. No one had noticed. Well, almost no one.
"Look," Lissa said uneasily, "I seriously have no idea what you're talking about. I need to go to bed."
Jesse's face grew excited. "No, it's okay. We think it's cool. We want to help you—or actually, we want you to help us. I can't believe I never noticed it before. You're really good at it, and we need you to show us. Plus, none of the other M^ana chapters has a Dragomir. We'd be the first to have every royal family represented."
She sighed. "If I could use compulsion, I'd make you guys go away. I told you, I'm not interested."
"But we need you!" exclaimed Ralf. Jesse shot him a sharp look and then turned his smile back on Lissa. I had this weird feeling he might actually be trying to compel her, but it had absolutely no effect on her—or me, since I was watching through her eyes.
"It's not just about you helping us. There are groups of M^ana at every school," said Jesse. He was leaning close, and suddenly, he didn't look very friendly anymore. "Its members are all over the world. Be a part of it, and you'll have the connections to do whatever you want with your life. And if we can all learn to work compulsion, we can stop the Moroi government from doing stupid things—we can make sure the queen and everyone else make the right decision. Everything about this is good for you!"
"I'm doing fine on my own, thanks," she said, stepping back. "And I'm not really sure you know what's best for the Moroi."
"Fine? With your Strigoi boyfriend and slutty wannabe guardian?" exclaimed Ralf. He spoke loudly enough to get Eddie's attention, and Eddie did not look happy.
"Be quiet," Jesse told him angrily. He turned to Lissa. "He shouldn't have said that…but he's kind of right. Your family's reputation is all on you, and the way you're going, no one's taking you seriously. The queen's already trying to keep you in line and get you away from Ozera. You're going to crash and burn."
Lissa was growing angrier and angrier. "You have no idea what you're talking about. And—" She frowned. "What do you mean she's trying to get me away from Christian?"
"She wants to marr—" Ralf started to speak, but Jesse immediately cut him off.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about," said Jesse. "We know all sorts of things that could affect you and help you— you and Christian."
I had a feeling that Ralf had been about to mention the queen's plans to marry Lissa off to Adrian. I was puzzling out how he would know about that until I recalled again that Ralf was related to the Vodas. Priscilla Voda was the queen's adviser and best friend. She knew all of the queen's plans and had probably told Ralf. His relationship to her must have been closer than I'd realized.
"Tell me," Lissa demanded. The thought of using compulsion on him actually crossed her mind, but she dismissed it. She wouldn't lower herself to that. "What do you know about Christian?"
"No free information," said Jesse. "Come to a meeting and we'll tell you everything."
"Whatever. I'm not interested in your elitist connections, and I don't know anything about compulsion." Despite her words, she was insanely curious about what he knew.
She started to turn away, but Jesse grabbed her arm. "Damn it! You have to—"
"Lissa's going to bed now," said Eddie. He'd shot over as soon as Jesse touched her. "Remove your hand, or I'll do it for you."
Jesse glared at Eddie. Like most Moroi-dhampir matchups, Jesse had height, and Eddie had muscle. Of course, Jesse had Ralf's bulk too, but it wouldn't matter. Everyone there knew who would win if Eddie went up against them. The beauty of it was that Eddie probably wouldn't even get in trouble if he claimed he'd done it to save Lissa from harassment.
Jesse and Ralf slowly backed off. "We need you," said Jesse. "You're the only one. Think about it."
When they were gone, Eddie asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah…thanks. God, that was so weird." They moved toward the stairs.
"What was it about?"
"They're obsessed with this royal society or something and want me to join so they can have every royal family in it. They were kind of fanatic about it." Eddie knew about spirit, but she wasn't comfortable reminding him what a badass she was with compulsion.
He opened the door for her. "Well, they can annoy you all they want, but they can't make you join something you don't want to."
"Yeah, I suppose." Part of her still wondered what they knew about Christian or if it had been a bluff. "I just hope they don't get too annoying."
"Don't worry," he told her, his voice hard. "I'll make sure they don't."
I slipped back to my body and opened the door to my own dorm. Halfway up the stairs, I discovered I was smiling. I certainly didn't want Jesse and Ralf bothering Lissa, but if it came down to Eddie having to rough them up? Yeah. I wouldn't mind seeing them get a little payback for what they'd done to others.