My hatred notwithstanding, I had to admit Dimitri Beli-whatever was pretty smart. After they'd carted us off to the airport to and onto the Academy's private jet, he'd taken one look at the two of us whispering and ordered us separated.
"Don't let them talk to each other," he warned the guardian who escorted me to the back of the plane. "Five minutes together, and they'll come up with an escape plan."
I shot him a haughty look and stormed off down the aisle. Never mind the fact we had been planning an escape.
As it was, things didn't look good for our heroes - or heroines, rather. Once we were in the air, our odds of escape dropped further. Even supposing a miracle occurred and I did manage to take out all ten guardians, we'd sort of have a problem in getting off the plane. I figured they might have parachutes aboard somewhere, but in the unlikely event I'd be able to operate one, there was still that little issue of survival, seeing as we'd probably land somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
No, we weren't getting off this plane until it landed in backwoods Montana. I'd have to think of something then, something that involved getting past the Academy's magical wards and ten times as many guardians. Yeah. No problem.
Although Lissa sat at the front with the Russian guy, her fear sang back to me, pounding inside my head like a hammer. My concern for her cut into my fury. They couldn't take her back there, not to that place. I wondered if Dimitri might have hesitated if he could feel what I did and if he knew what I knew. Probably not. He didn't care.
As it was, her emotions grew so strong that for a moment, I had the disorienting sensation of sitting in her seat - in her skin even. It happened sometimes, and without much warning, she'd pull me right into her head. Dimitri's tall frame sat beside me, and my hand - her hand - gripped a bottle of water. He leaned forward to pick up something, revealing six tiny symbols tattooed on the back of his neck: molnija marks. They looked like two streaks of jagged lightning crossing in an X symbol. One for each Strigoi he'd killed. Above them was a twisting line, sort of like a snake, that marked him as a guardian. The promise mark.
Blinking, I fought against her and shifted back into my own head with a grimace. I hated when that happened. Feeling Lissa's emotions was one thing, but slipping into her was something we both despised. She saw it as an invasion of privacy, so I usually didn't tell her when it happened. Neither of us could control it. It was another effect of the bond, a bond neither of us fully understood. Legends existed about psychic links between guardians and their Moroi, but the stories had never mentioned anything like this. We fumbled through it as best we could.
Near the end of the flight, Dimitri walked back to where I sat and traded places with the guardian beside me. I pointedly turned away, staring out the window absentmindedly Several moments of silence passed. Finally, he said, "Were you really going to attack all of us?"
I didn't answer.
"Doing that; protecting her like that - it was very brave." He paused. "Stupid, but still brave. Why did you even try it?"
I glanced over at him, brushing my hair out of my face so I could look him levelly in the eye. "Because I'm her guardian." I turned back toward the window.
After another quiet moment, he stood up and returned to the front of the jet.
When we landed, Lissa and I had no choice but to let the commandos drive us out to the Academy. Our car stopped at the gate, and our driver spoke with guards who verified we weren't Strigoi about to go off on a killing spree. After a minute, they let us pass on through the wards and up to the Academy itself. It was around sunset - the start of the vampiric day - and the campus lay wrapped in shadows.
It probably looked the same, sprawling and gothic. The Moroi were big on tradition; nothing ever changed with them. This school wasn't as old as the ones back in Europe, but it had been built in the same style. The buildings boasted elaborate, almost churchlike architecture, with high peaks and stone carvings. Wrought iron gates enclosed small gardens and doorways here and there. After living on a college campus, I had a new appreciation for just how much this place resembled a university more than a typical high school.
We were on the secondary campus, which was divided into lower and upper schools. Each was built around a large open quadrangle decorated with stone paths and enormous, century-old trees. We were going toward the upper school's quad, which had academic buildings on one side, while dhampir dormitories and the gym sat opposite. Moroi dorms sat on one of the other ends, and opposite them were the administrative buildings that also served the lower school. Younger students lived on the primary campus, farther to the west.
Around all the campuses were space, space, and more space. We were in Montana, after all, miles away from any real city. The air felt cool in my lungs and smelled of pine and wet, decaying leaves. Overgrown forests ringed the perimeters of the Academy, and during the day, you could see mountains rising up in the distance.
As we walked into the main part of the upper school, I broke from my guardian and ran up to Dimitri.
He kept walking and wouldn't look at me. "You want to talk now?
"Are you taking us to Kirova?"
"Headmistress Kirova," he corrected. On the other side of him, Lissa shot me a look that said, Don't start something.
"Headmistress. Whatever. She's still a self-righteous old bit - "
My words faded as the guardians led us through a set of doors straight into the commons. I sighed. Were these people really so cruel? There had to be at least a dozen ways to get to Kirova's office, and they were taking us right through the center of the commons.
And it was breakfast time.
Novice guardians - dhampirs like me - and Moroi sat together, eating and socializing, faces alight with whatever current gossip held the Academy's attention. When we entered, the loud buzz of conversation stopped instantly, like someone had flipped a switch. Hundreds of sets of eyes swiveled toward us.
I returned the stares of my former classmates with a lazy grin, trying to get a sense as to whether things had changed. Nope. Didn't seem like it. Camille Conta still looked like the prim, perfectly groomed bitch I remembered, still the self-appointed leader of the Academy's royal Moroi cliques. Off to the side, Lissa's gawky near-cousin Natalie watched with wide eyes, as innocent and naïve as before.
And on the other side of the room¡well, that was interesting. Aaron. Poor, poor Aaron, who'd no doubt had his heartbroken when Lissa left. He still looked as cute as ever - maybe more so now - with those same golden looks that complemented hers so well. His eyes followed her every move. Yes. Definitely not over her. It was sad, really, because Lissa had never really been all that into him. I think she'd gone out with him simply because it seemed like the expected thing to do.
But what I found most interesting was that Aaron had apparently found a way to pass the time without her. Beside him, holding his hand, was a Moroi girl who looked about eleven but had to be older, unless he'd become a pedophile during our absence. With plump little cheeks and blond ringlets, she looked like a porcelain doll. A very pissed-off and evil porcelain doll. She gripped his hand tightly and shot Lissa a look of such burning hatred that it stunned me. What the hell was that all about? She was no one I knew. Just a jealous girlfriend, I guessed. I'd be pissed too if my guy was watching someone else like that.
Our walk of shame mercifully ended, though our new setting - Headmistress Kirova's office - didn't really improve things. The old hag looked exactly like I remembered, sharp-nosed and gray-haired. She was tall and slim, like most Moroi, and had always reminded me of a vulture. I knew her well because I'd spent a lot of time in her office.
Most of our escorts left us once Lissa and I were seated, and I felt a little less like a prisoner. Only Alberta, the captain of the school's guardians, and Dimitri stayed. They took up positions along the wall, looking stoic and terrifying, just as their job description required.
Kirova fixed her angry eyes on us and opened her mouth to begin what would no doubt be a major bitch session. A deep, gentle voice stopped her.
Startled, I realized there was someone else in the room. I hadn't noticed. Careless for a guardian, even a novice one.
With a great deal of effort, Victor Dashkov rose from a corner chair. Prince Victor Dashkov. Lissa sprang up and ran to him, throwing her arms around his frail body.
"Uncle," she whispered. She sounded on the verge of tears as she tightened her grip.
With a small smile, he gently patted her back. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you safe, Vasilisa." He looked toward me. "And you too, Rose."
I nodded back, trying to hide how shocked I was. He'd been sick when we left, but this - this was horrible. He was Natalie's father, only about forty or so, but he looked twice that age. Pale. Withered. Hands shaking. My heart broke watching him. With all the horrible people in the world, it didn't seem fair that this guy should get a disease that was going to kill him young and ultimately keep him from becoming king.
Although not technically her uncle - the Moroi used family terms very loosely, especially the royals - Victor was a close friend of Lissa's family and had gone out of his way to help her after her parents had died. I liked him; he was the first person I was happy to see here.
Kirova let them have a few more moments and then stiffly drew Lissa back to her seat.
Time for the lecture.
It was a good one - one of Kirova's best, which was saying something. She was a master at them. I swear that was the only reason she'd gone into school administration because I had yet to see any evidence of her actually liking kids. The rant covered the usual topics: responsibility reckless behavior, self-centeredness. Bleh. I immediately found myself spacing out, alternatively pondering the logistics of escaping through the window in her office.
But when the tirade shifted to me - well, that was when I tuned back in.
"You, Miss Hathaway, broke the most sacred promise among our kind: the promise of a guardian to protect a Moroi. It is a great trust. A trust that you violated by selfishly taking the princess away from here. The Strigoi would love to finish off the Dragomirs; you nearly enabled them to do it."
"Rose didn't kidnap me," Lissa spoke before I could, her voice and face calm, despite her uneasy feelings. "I wanted to go. Don't blame her."
Ms. Kirova tsked at us both and paced the office, hands folded behind her narrow back.
"Miss Dragomir, you could have been the one who orchestrated the entire plan for all I know, but it was still her responsibility to make sure you didn't carry it out. If she'd done her duty, she would have notified someone. If she'd done her duty, she would have kept you safe."
"I did do my duty!" I shouted, jumping up from my chair. Dimitri and Alberta both flinched but left me alone since I wasn't trying to hit anyone. Yet. "I did keep her safe! I kept her safe when none of you" - I made a sweeping gesture around the room - "could do it. I took her away to protect her. I did what I had to do. You certainly weren't going to."
Through the bond, I felt Lissa trying to send me calming messages, again urging me not to let anger get the best of me. Too late.
Kirova stared at me, her face blank. "Miss Hathaway, forgive me if I fail to see the logic of how taking her out of a heavily guarded, magically secured environment is protecting her. Unless there's something you aren't telling us?"
I bit my lip.
"I see. Well, then. By my estimation, the only reason you left - aside from the novelty of it, no doubt - was to avoid the consequences of that horrible, destructive stunt you pulled just before your disappearance."
"No, that's not - "
"And that only makes my decision that much easier. As a Moroi, the princess must continue on here at the Academy for her own safety, but we have no such obligations to you. You will be sent away as soon as possible."
My cockiness dried up. "I- what?"
Lissa stood up beside me. "You can't do that! She's my guardian."
"She is no such thing, particularly since she isn't even a guardian at all. She's still a novice."
"But my parents - "
"I know what your parents wanted, God rest their souls, but things have changed. Miss Hathaway is expendable. She doesn't deserve to be a guardian, and she will leave."
I stared at Kirova, unable to believe what I was hearing. "Where are you going to send me? To my mom in Nepal? Did she even know I was gone? Or maybe you'll send me off to my father?"
Her eyes narrowed at the bite in that last word. When I spoke again, my voice was so cold, I barely recognized it.
"Or maybe you're going to try to send me off to be a blood whore. Try that, and we'll be gone by the end of the day."
"Miss Hathaway," she hissed, "you are out of line."
"They have a bond." Dimitri's low, an accented voice broke the heavy tension, and we all turned toward him. I think Kirova had forgotten he was there, but I hadn't. His presence was way too powerful to ignore. He still stood against the wall, looking like some sort of cowboy sentry in that ridiculous long coat of his. He looked at me, not Lissa, his dark eyes staring straight through me. "Rose knows what Vasilisa is feeling. Don't you?"
I at least had the satisfaction of seeing Kirova caught off guard as she glanced between us and Dimitri. "No, that's impossible. That hasn't happened in centuries."
"It's obvious," he said. "I suspected as soon as I started watching them."
Neither Lissa nor I responded, and I averted my eyes from his.
"That is a gift," murmured Victor from his corner. "A rare and wonderful thing."
"The best guardians always had that bond," added Dimitri. "In the stories."
Kirova's outrage returned. "Stories that are centuries old," she exclaimed. "Surely you aren't suggesting we let her stay at the Academy after everything she's done?"
He shrugged. "She might be wild and disrespectful, but if she has potential - "
"Wild and disrespectful?" I interrupted. "Who the hell are you anyway? Outsourced help?"
"Guardian Belikov is the princess's guardian now," said Kirova. "Her sanctioned guardian."
"You got cheap foreign labor to protect Lissa?"
That was pretty mean of me to say - particularly since most Moroi and their guardians were of Russian or Romanian descent - but the comment seemed cleverer at the time than it really was. And it wasn't like I was one to talk. I might have been raised in the U.S., but my parents were foreign-born. My dhampir mother was Scottish - red-haired, with a ridiculous accent - and I'd been told my Moroi dad was Turkish. That genetic combination had given me skin the same color as the inside of an almond, along with what I liked to think were semi-exotic desert-princess features: big dark eyes and hair so deep brown that it usually looked black. I wouldn't have minded inheriting the red hair, but we take what we get.
Kirova threw her hands up in exasperation and turned to him. "You see? Completely undisciplined! All the psychic bonds and very raw potential in the world can't make up for that. A guardian without discipline is worse than no guardian."
"So teach her discipline. Classes just started. Put her back in and get her training again."
"Impossible. She'll still be hopelessly behind her peers."
"No, I won't," I argued. No one listened to me.
"Then give her extra training sessions," he said.
They continued on while the rest of us watched the exchange like it was a Ping-Pong game. My pride was still hurt over the ease with which Dimitri had tricked us, but it occurred to me that he might very well keep me here with Lissa. Better to stay at this hellhole than be without her. Through our bond, I could feel her trickle of hope.
"Who's going to put in the extra time?" demanded Kirova. "You?"
Dimitri's argument came to an abrupt stop. "Well, that's not what I - "
Kirova crossed her arms with satisfaction. "Yes. That's what I thought."
Clearly, at a loss, he frowned. His eyes flicked toward Lissa and me, and I wondered what he saw. Two pathetic girls, looking at him with big, pleading eyes? Or two runaways who'd broken out of a high-security school and swiped half of Lissa's inheritance?
"Yes," he said finally. "I can mentor Rose. I'll give her extra sessions along with her normal ones."
"And then what?" retorted Kirova angrily. "She goes unpunished?"
"Find some other way to punish her," answered Dimitri. "Guardian numbers have gone down too much to risk losing another. A girl, in particular."
His unspoken words made me shudder, reminding me of my earlier statement about "blood whores." Few dhampir girls became guardians anymore.
Victor suddenly spoke up from his corner. "I'm inclined to agree with Guardian Belikov. Sending Rose away would be a shame, a waste of talent."
Ms. Kirova stared out her window. It was completely black outside. With the Academy's nocturnal schedule, morning and afternoon were relative terms. That, and they kept the windows tinted to block out excess light.
When she turned back around, Lissa met her eyes. "Please, Ms. Kirova. Let Rose stay."
Oh, Lissa, I thought. Be careful. Using compulsion on another Moroi was dangerous - particularly in front of witnesses. But Lissa was only using a tiny bit, and we needed all the help we could get. Fortunately, no one seemed to realize what was happening.
I don't even know if the compulsion made a difference, but finally, Kirova sighed.
"If Miss Hathaway stays, here's how it will be." She turned to me. "Your continued enrollment at St. Vladimir's is strictly probationary. Step out of line once, and you're gone. You will attend all classes and required training for novices your age. You will also train with Guardian Belikov in every spare moment you have - before and after classes. Other than that, you are banned from all social activities, except meals, and will stay in your dorm. Fail to comply with any of this, and you will be sent away."
I gave a harsh laugh. "Banned from all social activities? Are you trying to keep us apart?" I nodded toward Lissa. "Afraid we'll run away again?"
"I'm taking precautions. As I'm sure you recall, you were never properly punished for destroying school property. You have a lot to make up for." Her thin lips tightened into a straight line. "You are being offered a very generous deal. I suggest you don't let your attitude endanger it."
I started to say it wasn't generous at all, but then I caught Dimitri's gaze. It was hard to read. He might have been telling me he believed in me. He might have been telling me I was an idiot to keep fighting with Kirova. I didn't know.
Looking away from him for the second time during the meeting, I stared at the floor, conscious of Lissa beside me and her own encouragement burning in our bond. At long last, I exhaled and glanced back up at the headmistress.
"Fine. I accept."