“Biddle is a problem for all of us, vampyres and students alike, especially since the misguided humans of St. Louis made him their sheriff,” Pandeia said. Then her gaze narrowed as she studied Anastasia. “Has he been harassing our fledglings?”
“No, not that I know of.” Anastasia paused, and swallowed past the dryness in her throat, trying to order her thoughts so that her High Priestess would find value in her words. “The fledglings do not like Sherriff Biddle, but he is not the focus of their conversations. Someone else is, and in my opinion, he is creating quite a problem within the House of Night itself.”
“Who has you so worried?”
“The fledgling they call Dragon Lankford,” Anastasia said.
Both vampyres were silent for too many beats of Anastasia’s heart. Then it appeared as if Diana tried to conceal a smile by taking a long drink of her wine while Pandeia cocked an eyebrow at Anastasia and said, “Dragon Lankford? But he has been away from Tower Grove competing in the Vampyre Games for the past two weeks. You and he have not even met, yet you say he is somehow creating a problem for you?”
“No, not for me. Well, yes, I suppose the problem does have to do with me, though it isn’t technically mine.” Anastasia rubbed her forehead. “Wait, I’ll start again. You asked if there was a problem among the students I know of because I am close enough in age to the fledglings that they feel comfortable talking with me. My answer is yes, I do know of a problem, and it has been created by what I can only call an obsession with this fifth former the students call Dragon.”
Diana didn’t try to hide her smile any longer. “He is dynamic, and very popular, especially with the female fledglings.”
Pandeia nodded in agreement. “Case in point—he just bested all of his opponents, fledgling and vampyre alike, to win the coveted title of Sword Master at the Vampyre Games. It is almost unheard of in our history for a fledgling to have won such a title.”
“Yes, I know of his victory. It is all the girls could talk of today,” Anastasia said wryly.
“And you see this as a problem? Dragon’s swordsmanship is impressive already, and he has yet to have completed the Change,” Diana said.
“Though it would not surprise me to see his adult tattoos appear very soon,” Pandeia added. “I agree with Diana—there is nothing unusual about the girls being distracted by Dragon.” The High Priestess smiled. “When you meet him you, too, may understand their distraction.”
“It is not simple distraction that concerns me,” Anastasia explained quickly. “It is the fact that as of close of school this night a total of fifteen fledglings, thirteen girls and two boys, have come to me, one at a time, begging me for love spells with which to ensnare Dragon Lankford.”
Anastasia was relieved that this time the silence of the two women was filled with expressions of shock and surprise instead of amusement.
Finally Pandeia spoke. “This news is disappointing, but not tragically so. The fledglings are aware of my policy on love spells—they are foolish and can be dangerous. Love cannot be bespelled or coerced.” The High Priestess shook her head, obviously annoyed at the fledglings. “Diana, I would like you to teach a lesson in the coming week on what happens when obsession is mistaken for love.”
Diana nodded. “Perhaps I should begin with the story of Hercules and his obsession with the vampyre High Priestess Hippolyte, and the tragic end that brought about for both of them. It’s a cautionary tale they should all know, but have obviously forgotten.”
“An excellent idea.” Pandeia turned her wide brown eyes on Anastasia. “I am assuming your response to these inappropriate requests has been to remind those mistaken fledglings that under no circumstances will you perform any type of love spell for them.”
Anastasia drew a deep breath. “No, Priestess. That was not my response.”
“Not your response! Why would you–,” Diana began, but her mate’s raised hand cut her off.
“Explain,” was all the High Priestess said.
Anastasia met the vampyre’s gaze unwaveringly. “I, too, have no use for love spells. Even when I was first Marked and began to show talent in spellwork my instinct told me love spells were dishonest. I am inexperienced but not naïve. I know love cannot exist with dishonesty.”
“Insightful yet not an explanation,” Pandeia said.
The young professor straightened her spine and shifted her gaze to Diana. “You called Lankford ‘dynamic’ and ‘popular.’ Did you not?”
“Would you also say he is arrogant?”
Diana lifted one shoulder. “I suppose I would. But that is not unusual. Many of our most talented Warriors have a sense of arrogance about them.”
“A sense of arrogance, yes. But is it not tempered with the experience and control of an adult vampyre?” Anastasia asked.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed.
Anastasia nodded and then her gaze went back to her High Priestess. “There has been much talk of this Dragon. I have listened carefully. You are right when you say I do not know him, but what I have heard of him is that Dragon Lankford is a fledgling who relies on his sword and smile rather than his wisdom and wits. My instincts tell me that if my infatuated students saw this fledgling for who he really is, they would soon lose interest.”
“What exactly did you tell the fledglings?” Pandeia asked.
“I told them I could not possibly break the rules of this House of Night and cast a love spell, but what I could do is create a drawing spell for each of them.”
“There is a fine line between a drawing spell and a love spell,” Diana said.
“Yes, and that line is created by clarity, honesty, and truth,” Anastasia retorted.
“But I have a feeling each student who came to you was being clear and honest and truthful about wanting Dragon Lankford’s love,” Pandeia said, looking disappointed in her young professor. “Therefore, casting a drawing spell on Dragon would work as a love spell. Semantics is the only thing that differs between the two.”
“That would be true if a spell was cast on Dragon. My drawing spell will be cast on each of the students who came to me instead.”
Pandeia’s disappointment changed to a satisfied smile. “You intend the spell to make the fledglings see Dragon with more clarity.”
“It will draw for each of them a vision of fledgling Lankford that is honest and truthful, and not tainted by childish infatuation with an inflated ego and a handsome smile.”
“It could work,” Diana said. “But the spell will take finesse and skill.”
“My instinct tells me our young professor has both aplenty,” Pandeia said.
“Gratitude for your confidence in me, Priestess!” Anastasia almost shouted in relief. Then she stood. “With your permission, I would like to cast the spell tonight, during the full moon.”
Pandeia nodded in agreement. “It is the perfect time for endings. You have my permission, Daughter.”
“It is my intent to end any unhealthy infatuations tonight,” Anastasia said, fisting her hand over her heart and bowing to her High Priestess and her mate.
“You might not end all of the infatuations with Dragon tonight. Someone may still be drawn to all that arrogance and smiling, egotistical charm,” Diana called after her.
“Then that person deserves exactly what she gets,” Anastasia muttered.
The spell began utterly, completely right. Later, Anastasia could only shake her head and wonder how anything that started so well could have ended so disastrously.
Perhaps it happened because she’d taken the time to change from the dreadfully confining clothes she’d mistakenly begun wearing since becoming a professor. After all, had she not been at that particular part in the spell, at that exact moment in that specific place—had one of those elements shifted just a heartbeat—everything would have changed.
Well, everything did change, just not as she’d intended.
The moonlight had felt so good, so right on her bare arms. That was one of the reasons she’d gone farther afield and closer to the mighty Mississippi River than she’d intended. The moon had seemed to be calling her forward, freeing her from the silly, self-imposed restraints she’d been placing on herself, in what was in retrospect a ridiculous attempt to be someone she was not.
Anastasia now wore the article of clothing she loved most: her favorite long, soft skirt the color of blue topaz. Just a month before being called to this new, wonderful House of Night, Anastasia had been inspired by a Leni-Lenape Indian maiden’s dress. She’d sewn glass beads and shells and white leather fringe all around the skirt’s hem and the low, rounded neckline of the sleeveless, butter-soft tunic top. Anastasia did a little twirling dance step, setting the shells and fringe in motion. I will never wear those horrible, constricting clothes again. When I was a human that was all I was allowed to wear. I won’t make that mistake again, she told herself sternly, and then she flung back her head and spoke to the moon that hung heavy in the inky sky, “This is who I am! I am a vampyre professor, an expert in spells and rituals. And I am young and free!”
She was going to take her High Priestess’s advice. Anastasia was going to be earthsome. She was going to find strength in her youth. “I am also going to dress as I wish, and not as if I’m an ancient schoolmarm.” Or a Pennsylvania Quaker like the human family I left behind six years ago when I was Marked, she added silently. She would remember to keep the peaceful, loving part of her past without its confines and restraints. “I am earthsome!” she said joyfully, practically dancing though the calf-high grass that covered much of the prairie surrounding Tower Grove House of Night.
It wasn’t just the physical freedom a change of clothes allowed Anastasia—it was the sense of freedom Pandeia’s confidence in her had provided that made all the difference. Add to that the fact that the night was warm and clear, and Anastasia was going to do something that brought her almost unspeakable joy: she was going to cast a spell that would actually benefit a House of Night—her House of Night.
But stopping in the field dotted with wild sunflowers had been a careless mistake. She knew sunflowers attracted love and lust, but Anastasia hadn’t been thinking about love—she’d been thinking about the beauty of the night and the allure of the meadow. And the truth was she’d always loved sunflowers!
The meadow was breathtakingly lush. It was close enough to the Mississippi that Anastasia could see the willows and rowans that lined the high, bluff-like western bank. She couldn’t actually see the river because of the trees and the bluff, but she could smell it—that rich scent that whispered of the earth’s fertility and power and promise.
In the center of the meadow, perfectly situated to catch all of the silver light of the full moon, was a huge, flat sandstone boulder, just right for the altar she would need for her drawing spell.
Anastasia put her spellwork basket on the ground beside the large rock, and began setting out the ingredients for the ritual. First, she brought out the silver chalice her mentor had given her as a going-away present. It was simple but beautiful, adorned only with the etched outline of Nyx, arms raised cupping the crescent moon above her. Then Anastasia unwound the green, shimmery altar cloth from around the little corked jug filled with blood-spiked wine and flicked it open, letting it settle naturally across the top of the rock. She placed the chalice in the center of the rock, and then freed the big hunk of waxed paper from the basket, opening it to expose the loaf of fresh bread, the wedge of cheese, and the thick slices of fragrant, cooked bacon within. Smiling, she placed the paper and the food beside the chalice, which she took a moment to fill.
Satisfied with the scents and sights of the feast, which represented the bounty of the Goddess, she then withdrew five pillar candles from the basket. Anastasia found north easily by turning upriver, and it was at the northernmost part of the rock that she placed the green pillar, representing the element she felt closest to, earth. While she placed the rest of the candles in their corresponding directions: yellow for air in the east, red for fire in the south, blue for water in the west, and the purple spirit candle in the center, Anastasia controlled her breathing. She drew deep breaths, imagining pulling air infused with earth power up through the ground and into her body. She thought about her students and how very much she wanted the best for them, and how the best meant that they should see each other clearly and move forward in their paths with truth and honesty.
When the candles were set, Anastasia brought out the rest of the contents of the spellwork basket: a long braided length of sweetgrass, a tin that held wooden matches and a lighting strip, and three small velvet bags—one held dried bay leaves, another the spiky needles of a cedar tree, and the third was heavy with sea salt.
Anastasia closed her eyes and sent the same silent, heartfelt prayer to her Goddess that she did before every spell or ritual she’d ever attempted. Nyx, you have my oath that I intend only good in the spell I work tonight.
Anastasia opened her eyes and turned first to the east, lighting the yellow candle for air and calling the element to her circle in a clear voice, using simple words: “Air, please join my circle and strengthen my spell.” Moving clockwise she lit all five candles, calling each element in turn, completing the spellwork circle by lighting the purple spirit candle in the center of the altar.
Then she faced north, drew another deep breath, and began to speak from her heart and soul.
“I begin with sweetgrass to cleanse this space.” She paused to hold the end of the braid over the flame from the green earth candle. As it lit, she wafted it gracefully around her in a lazy loop, filling the air above the altar rock with thick smoke that rolled in waves. “Any negative energy must leave without a trace.” She set aside the still-smoking braid and held her left hand out, palm cupped. Then she reached into the first of the velvet bags. While she crumbled the dried leaves into her palm she continued the spell. “Awareness and clarity come with these leaves of bay. Through earth I call their power today.” The cedar needles came next. Anastasia breathed in their fragrant scent as she mixed them with the crushed leaves in her palm, saying, “Cedar, from you it is courage, protection, and self-control I seek. Lend me your strength so that my spell shall not be weak.”
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