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“Or I may choose to come with you?” Bryan asked.

“Yes, but before you make your choice I believe there is something you should see.” Shaw turned to face the ship, which was visible to Bryan only as a huge, dark shadow resting ominously on the water, tethered by impossibly thick ropes. As if he had no trouble at all seeing through the thick blanket of the night, Shaw took two steps closer to the edge of the pier, and then he did something that utterly mystified Bryan. He turned so that he was facing south, raised his hands, and spoke four words softly: “Come to me, fire.”

Instantly Bryan heard a crackling sound, and felt a surge of warmth in the air around him. Then he gasped as a ball of flickering fire swirled between Shaw’s outstretched palms. The vampyre flung the fire, as if tossing a ball, at what Bryan could now see was a large standing torch, the oil-soaked top of which instantly took flame.

“Bloody hell!” Bryan couldn’t contain his shock. “How did you do that?”

Shaw smiled. “Our Goddess has gifted me with more than the abilities of a Warrior, but that is not what I wanted you to see.” Shaw lifted the torch and held it before them so that the proud prow of the huge ship, made of wood so dark Bryan thought it looked like it has been fashioned from night itself, was suddenly made visible. And then the boy blinked in surprise, as he realized exactly what he was seeing.

“It is a dragon,” he said, staring at the carving of the masthead. It was truly spectacular—a black dragon, claws outstretched, teeth bared, ferociously ready to take on the world.

“It seemed to me, after the events of the night, to be a good omen,” Shaw said.

Bryan stared at the dragon and was filled with the most intense flood of feelings he had ever experienced. It took him a moment to realize what they were, and then he knew: excitement and anticipation and longing all joined within him to create a single sense of purpose. He met the vampyre’s gaze. “I choose to enter the dragon.”

CHAPTER THREE

Tower Grove House of Night

St. Louis, 1833

“Merry meet, Anastasia! Please, do come in. It is a fortuitous coincidence that you are here. Diana and I were just discussing how happy we are to have such a young priestess of spells and rituals join the school as full professor, and I was going to call for you to tell you how pleased I am by how well you are fitting in here at Tower Grove.”

“Merry meet, Pandeia, Diana,” Anastasia said, fisting her right hand over her heart and bowing her head respectfully first to her High Priestess, Pandeia, and then to Diana, before she entered the large, beautifully appointed room.

“Oh, come now, you needn’t be so formal with us when we are not in the company of fledglings,” Diana, professor of vampyre sociology and the High Priestess’s mate, spoke warmly to Anastasia as she stroked a very fat calico cat that spilled across her lap, purring loudly.

“Thank you,” Anastasia said in a quiet voice that sounded older than her twenty-two years.

Diana smiled. “So, tell us, though you’ve only been here for a fortnight, are you becoming settled? Does it seem like home for you yet?”

Home, Anastasia thought automatically, had never been filled with such beauty and such freedom. She quickly shook the thoughts away and said politely and honestly, “It is not quite home yet, but I can feel that it will be. I do love the prairie and the lush gardens.” Her gaze went to the fat calico and then to the gray tiger-striped male that had begun to wind around the High Priestess’s legs. Then she blinked in surprise as she saw that both of the cats had six toes on each front paw. “Six toes? I’ve never seen such a thing.”

Diana tugged at the calico’s paw playfully. “Some say polydoctlys are aberrations of nature. I say they’re just more advanced than ‘normal’ cats. A little like vampyres are more advanced than ‘normal’ humans.”

“Oh, my! They look like mittens! I’m so hoping now that I’ve found my House of Night, a cat will choose me, too. It would be so wonderful if she had six toes!” Then Anastasia realized she was speaking her silly thoughts aloud and added hastily, “And, of course, I’m enjoying my students and my new classroom very much.”

“It makes me happy to hear you say so,” Pandeia said, laughing softly. “And there is nothing wrong with wishing for a cat, six-toed or otherwise. Young Anastasia, Diana and I were about to take our iced wine on the balcony. Please join us.”

“I am grateful for your invitation,” Anastasia said humbly, and reminding herself not to say anything silly, she followed the women and their cats as they opened the French doors and stepped out onto a lovely moonlight-bathed balcony on which sat white wicker chairs and a matching table that was laden with a crystal vase etched with a perfect crescent moon and filled with fragrant red roses, alongside a silver bucket brimming with ice and a carafe of wine the color of ripe cherries. Stemware etched with crescent moons that matched the gorgeous vase glistened in the silver light of the full moon.

Roses, ice, wine, and crystal. I’m accustomed to simplicity and rules, though both had been tempered with love. Will I ever get used to such luxuries? Anastasia pondered, feeling utterly uncomfortable as she sat in one of the chairs and tried not to smooth back her long blond hair or obsessively straighten her dress. And then she shot to her feet. “I–I should pour for you, Priestess,” she said, smiling nervously up at the tall, statuesque, mature High Priestess.

Pandeia laughed and gently swatted her hand away from the carafe. “Anastasia, Daughter, please sit and compose yourself. I am a High Priestess, which means I am more than capable of pouring wine for myself and my guests.”

Diana kissed her mate softly on the cheek before she took her own seat. “You, my darling, are more than capable of many, many things.”

Anastasia saw the color in Pandeia’s cheeks heighten ever so slightly as the couple shared an intimate look. Anastasia’s own cheeks warmed as she witnessed the exchange, and she looked quickly away. Though she’d spent the past six years immersed in House of Night society, first as a fledgling, then as a priestess in training, and now as a professor, she still sometimes found their open sexuality surprising. She’d often wondered what her mother would think of this female-empowered society. Would she accept it in the quiet, private way she had her daughter’s Mark and Change? Or would it be too much for her—too shocking—and would she condemn it as the rest of their community would?

“Are we embarrassing you?” Diana asked, a smile in her voice.

Anastasia shifted her gaze quickly back to her High Priestess and her mate. “Oh, land sakes alive, no!” she blurted, and then felt her face flush fully hot, and knew it must be flaming red. She’d sounded just like her mother—and knowing that made her want to crawl under the table and disappear.

You are no longer a shy Quaker girl, Anastasia reminded herself firmly. You are fully Changed vampyre, professor, and priestess. She lifted her chin and attempted to look confident and mature.

Pandeia smiled kindly at her and raised one of the three crystal goblets she’d just filled. “I would like to propose a toast. To your success, Anastasia, and the completion of your first fortnight of teaching as our professor of spells and rituals. May you come to love Tower Grove House of Night as much as we love it.” The High Priestess lifted her hand that wasn’t holding the goblet of wine. She closed her eyes and Anastasia saw her lips moving silently, and then she made a scooping motion over the bouquet of roses, as if she was collecting their scent, before flicking her fingers at each of the three goblets. Anastasia watched in wonder as the wine in her glass swirled and then, just for an instant, within the swirling liquid there appeared the shape of a perfect rose blossom.

“Oh, goddess! The rose spirit—you made it appear in our wine,” Anastasia blurted.

“Pandeia did not make the rose spirit appear. Spirit is her affinity. Our High Priestess made a loving request in celebration of you, young Anastasia, and the rose happily complied,” Diana explained.

Anastasia exhaled a long breath. “All of this.” She paused and her gaze took in the table, the two vampyres, their contented cats, and the exquisite estate that surrounded them. “It fills me with such feeling that it is as if my heart seems ready to burst from my chest!” Then she cringed in embarrassment. “Forgive me. I sound like a child. I just mean that I am grateful to be here—grateful that you chose me to join this House of Night as your professor.”

“I shall share a secret with you, Anastasia. Pandeia’s spirit affinity has made many vampyres who are much older and more experienced than you feel as if their hearts might burst,” Diana said. “Only they were too jaded to admit it. I like your honesty. Don’t lose it as you age.”

“I will try not to,” Anastasia said, and took a quick gulp of her wine as she tried to order her thoughts—to decide exactly how she would reveal to Pandeia and Diana the true reason she had come to them this night. Then she was sorry she’d gulped the wine. It was, of course, laced with blood, and the power of it sizzled throughout her body, heightening her nerves along with the rest of her senses.

“I, too, like your honesty,” the High Priestess said to Anastasia between sips of her own wine, which seemed not to affect her at all. “It was one of the reasons we chose you to fill our professorial vacancy, even though you have only had two years of formal training in spells and rituals. You should know that you came very highly recommended from the Pennsylvania House of Night.”

“My mentor was kind, Priestess,” Anastasia said, setting her goblet back on the table.

“I also recall she said you are closely allied with the element earth,” Pandeia said. “Which is another reason I felt you would be a good fit at our House of Night. This really is the gateway to the west. Here the mystery and majesty of the wonderful, untamed earth spreads in eager invitation before us—something I thought you would appreciate and find compelling.”

“I do, but I do not claim to have an actual earth affinity,” Anastasia explained. “I allow that I feel a strong connection to the land and, sometimes, when I am especially fortunate, the earth lends me some of her power.”

Pandeia nodded and continued to sip her wine. “You do know that many priestesses do not discover they have a true affinity for one of the elements until they have served the Goddess for many decades. You may yet find that the earth has, indeed, been gifted to you with a full-fledged affinity; you are still very young, Anastasia.”

“Please do not take offense at my question, but exactly what is your true age? You look barely old enough to have been Marked, let alone to have gone through the Change,” Diana said, tempering her rather harsh question with a smile.

“Diana!” Pandeia’s voice was gentle, but her look was tinged with disapproval as she frowned at her strikingly beautiful mate. “I did not invite Anastasia here to interrogate her.”

“No, I do not mind the question, Priestess. Actually, I am becoming used to it,” she said to Pandeia. Then she turned her gaze to Diana. Anastasia lifted her chin just a little. “I am twenty-two years old. My mentor priestess in Pennsylvania told me she believed me to be the youngest vampyre in America to be made a full professor. It is an honor I will try to live up to by being diligent and serious about my classroom and my students.”

“Daughter, I have no doubt you are diligent and serious, but what I would like you to be is earthsome as well,” Pandeia said.

“Earthsome? Forgive me, Priestess, I do not know that word.”

“To be earthsome is to take on the characteristics of the earth. Be vibrant like a cluster of wildflowers, fertile like a field of wheat, sensual as an orchard of ripe peaches. Do not simply feel connected to the land; let it infuse you with its wonders.”

“And remember that you are a vampyre priestess and professor. There is no need for you to dress like an oppressed human schoolmarm,” Diana added.

“I—I do not want to appear frivolous,” Anastasia admitted hesitantly, glancing down at the high-necked, unadorned bodice and straight, long skirt she’d worn—and loathed—since she’d joined the Tower Grove House of Night and begun teaching two weeks ago. “I am so close in age to my students that it is sometimes difficult for them to remember I am a professor.”

Pandeia nodded in understanding. “But the simple truth is that you are close to the age of many of our fledglings. My advice is to make that a strength rather than something against which you battle.”

“I agree,” Diana said. “Use your youth as an asset instead of trying to hide it behind clothes any of your elders who have decent taste would never think of wearing–” She paused and gestured first at the flowing Grecian-styled gown she wore, and then at the high-waisted Spanish-style gauchos and the plunging neckline of the white lace blouse her mate wore.

“Anastasia, what Diana is trying to convey to you is that there is nothing wrong with being young,” Pandeia picked up the thread of the conversation. “I am quite sure the female fledglings feel comfortable coming to you with concerns they would not have the courage to mention to any of the rest of us.”

Anastasia sighed in relief, having been given the perfect opportunity to speak of what was foremost on her mind. “Yes, that has already proven true. It is, actually, why I sought you out this night.”

Pandeia frowned. “Is there is a problem among the students I should be made aware of?”

“You mean one other than Jesse Biddle?” Diana said the name as if just speaking it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

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