LISSA WAS UP AND GONE before I even stirred the next morning, which meant I had the bathroom to myself while I got ready for the day. I loved that bathroom. It was enormous. My king-size bed would have fit comfortably inside it. A scalding shower with three different nozzles woke me up, though my muscles ached from yesterday. As I stood in front of the full-length mirror and combed my hair, I saw with some disappointment that the bruise was still there. It was significantly lighter, however, and had turned yellowish. Some concealer and powder almost entirely covered it up.
I headed downstairs in search of food. The dining room was just shutting down breakfast, but one of the waitresses gave me a couple of peach marzipan scones to go. Munching on one as I walked, I expanded my senses to get a feel for where Lissa was. After a couple of moments, I sensed her on the other side of the lodge, away from the student rooms. I followed the trail until I arrived at a room on the third floor. I knocked.
Christian opened the door. "Sleeping Beauty arrives. Welcome."
He ushered me inside. Lissa sat cross-legged on the room's bed and smiled when she saw me. The room was as sumptuous as mine, but most of the furniture had been shoved aside to make space, and in that open area, Tasha stood.
"Good morning," she said.
"Hey," I said. So much for avoiding her.
Lissa patted a spot beside her. "You've got to see this."
"What's going on?" I sat down on the bed and finished the last of the scone.
"Bad things," she said mischievously. "You'll approve."
Christian walked over to the empty space and faced Tasha. They regarded each other, forgetting about Lissa and me. I'd apparently interrupted something.
"So why can't I just stick with the consuming spell?" asked Christian.
"Because it uses a lot of energy," she told him. Even with jeans and a ponytail- and the scar- she managed to look ridiculously cute. "Plus, it'll most likely kill your opponent."
He scoffed. "Why wouldn't I want to kill a Strigoi?"
"You might not always be fighting one. Or maybe you need information from them. Regardless, you should be prepared either way."
They were practicing offensive magic, I realized. Excitement and interest replaced the sullenness I'd acquired upon seeing Tasha. Lissa hadn't been kidding about them doing "bad things." I'd always suspected they were practicing offensive magic, but... wow. Thinking about it and actually seeing it were two very different things. Using magic as a weapon was forbidden. A punishable offense. A student experimenting with it might be forgiven and simply disciplined, but for an adult to actively be teaching a minor...yeah. That could get Tasha in major trouble. For half a second, I toyed with the idea of turning her in. Immediately, I dismissed the notion. I might hate her for making moves on Dimitri, but part of me sort of believed in what she and Christian were doing. Plus, it was just cool.
"A distracting spell is almost as useful," she continued.
Her blue eyes took on the intense focus I often saw Moroi get while using magic. Her wrist flicked forward, and a streak of fire snaked past Christian's face. It didn't touch him, but from the way he flinched, I suspected it had been close enough for him to feel the heat.
"Try it," she told him.
Christian hesitated for only a moment and then made the same hand motion she had. Fire streaked out, but it had none of the finely tuned control hers had had. He also didn't have her aim. It went straight for her face, but before it could touch her, it parted and split around her, almost like it had hit an invisible shield. She'd deflected it with her own magic.
"Not bad- aside from the fact you would have burned my face off."
Even I wouldn't want her face burned off. But her hair...ah, yes. We'd see how pretty she was without that raven-black mane.
She and Christian practiced a while longer. He improved as time went by, though he clearly had a ways to go before he had Tasha's skill. My interest grew and grew as they went on, and I found myself pondering all the possibilities this kind of magic could offer.
They wrapped up their lesson when Tasha said she had to go. Christian sighed, clearly frustrated that he hadn't been able to master the spell in an hour. His competitive nature was almost as strong as mine.
"I still think it'd be easier to just burn them entirely," he argued.
Tasha smiled as she brushed her hair into a tighter ponytail. Yeah. She could definitely do without that hair, particularly since I knew how much Dimitri liked long hair.
"Easier because it involves less focus. It's sloppy. Your magic'll be stronger in the long run if you can learn this. And, like I said, it has its uses."
I didn't want to agree with her, but I couldn't help it.
"It could be really useful if you were fighting with a guardian," I said excitedly. "Especially if completely burning a Strigoi takes so much energy. This way, you use just a quick burst of your strength to distract the Strigoi. And it will distract one since they hate fire so much. Then that's all the time a guardian would need to stake them. You could take down a whole bunch of Strigoi that way."
Tasha grinned at me. Some Moroi- like Lissa and Adrian- smiled without showing their teeth. Tasha always showed hers, including the fangs.
"Exactly. You and I'll have to go Strigoi hunting someday," she teased.
"I don't think so," I replied.
The words in and of themselves weren't that bad, but the tone I used to deliver them certainly was. Cold. Unfriendly. Tasha looked momentarily surprised at my abrupt change in attitude but shrugged it off. Shock from Lissa traveled to me through the bond.
Tasha didn't seem bothered, however. She chatted with us a bit longer and made plans to see Christian for dinner. Lissa gave me a sharp look as she, Christian, and I walked down the elaborate spiral staircase leading back down to the lobby.
"What was that about?" she asked.
"What was what about?" I asked innocently.
"Rose," she said meaningfully. It was hard to play dumb when your friend knew you could read her mind. I knew exactly what she was talking about. "You being a bitch to Tasha."
"I wasn't that much of a bitch."
"You were rude," she exclaimed, stepping out of the way of a bunch of Moroi children who came tearing through the lobby. They were bundled up in parkas, and a weary-looking Moroi ski instructor followed them.
I put my hands on my hips. "Look, I'm just grumpy, okay? Didn't get much sleep. Besides, I'm not like you. I don't have to be polite all the time."
As happened so often lately, I couldn't believe what I'd just said. Lissa stared at me, more astonished than hurt. Christian glowered, on the verge of snapping back at me, when Mason mercifully approached us. He hadn't needed a cast or anything, but he had a slight limp to his walk.
"Hey there, Hop-Along," I said, sliding my hand into his.
Christian put his anger for me on hold and turned to Mason. "Is it true your suicidal moves finally caught up with you?"
Mason's eyes were on me. "Is it true you were hanging out with Adrian Ivashkov?"
"I heard you guys got drunk last night."
"You did?" asked Lissa, startled.
I looked between both their faces. "No, of course not! I barely know him."
"But you do know him," pushed Mason.
"He's got a bad reputation," warned Lissa.
"Yeah," said Christian. "He goes through a lot of girls."
I couldn't believe this. "Will you guys lay off? I talked to him for, like, five minutes! And that's only because he was blocking my way inside. Where are you getting all this?" Immediately, I answered my own question. "Mia."
Mason nodded and had the grace to look embarrassed.
"Since when do you talk to her?" I asked.
"I just ran into her, that's all," he told me.
"And you believed her? You know she lies half the time."
"Yeah, but there's usually some truth in the lies. And you did talk to him."
"Yes. Talk. That's it."
I really had been trying to give some serious thought about dating Mason, so I didn't appreciate him not believing me. He had actually helped me unravel Mia's lies earlier in the school year, so I was surprised he'd be so paranoid about them now. Maybe if his feelings really had grown for me, he was more susceptible to jealousy.
Surprisingly, it was Christian who came to the rescue and changed the subject. "I suppose there's no skiing today, huh?" He pointed to Mason's ankle, immediately triggering an indignant response.
"What, you think this is going to slow me down?" asked Mason.
His anger diminished, replaced by that burning need to prove himself- the need he and I both shared. Lissa and Christian looked at him like he was crazy, but I knew nothing we said would stop him.
"You guys want to come with us?" I asked Lissa and Christian.
Lissa shook her head. "We can't. We have to go to this luncheon being hosted by the Contas."
Christian groaned. "Well, you have to go."
She elbowed him. "So do you. The invitation said I get to bring a guest. Besides, this is just a warm-up for the big one."
"Which one is that?" asked Mason.
"Priscilla Voda's huge dinner," sighed Christian. Seeing him look so pained made me smile. "The queen's best friend. All the snobbiest royals will be there, and I'll have to wear a suit."
Mason flashed me a grin. His earlier antagonism was gone. "Skiing's sounding better and better, huh? Less of a dress code."
We left the Moroi behind and went outside. Mason couldn't compete with me in the same way he had yesterday; his movements were slow and awkward. Still, he did remarkably well when one considered everything. The injury wasn't as bad as we'd feared, but he had the prudence to stick to extremely easy runs.
The full moon hung in the blankness, a glowing sphere of silvery white. The electric lights overpowered most of its illumination on the ground, but here and there, in the shadows, the moon just barely managed to cast its glow. I wished it were bright enough to reveal the surrounding mountain range, but those peaks stayed shrouded in darkness. I'd forgotten to look at them when it was light out earlier.
The runs were super simple for me, but I stayed with Mason and only occasionally teased him about how his remedial skiing was putting me to sleep. Boring runs or no, it was just nice to be outside with my friends, and the activity stirred my blood enough to warm me against the chill air. The light posts lit up the snow, turning it into a vast sea of white, the flakes' crystals sparkling faintly. And if I managed to turn away and block the lights from my field of vision, I could look up and see the stars spilling over the sky. They stood out stark and crystalline in the clear, freezing air. We stayed out for most of the day again, but this time, I called it quits early, pretending to be tired so Mason could get a break. He might manage easy skiing with his tender ankle, but I could tell it was starting to hurt him.
Mason and I headed back toward the lodge walking very close to each other, laughing about something we'd seen earlier. Suddenly, I saw a streak of white in my peripheral vision, and a snowball smashed into Mason's face. I immediately went on the defensive, jerking backward and peering around. Whoops and cries sounded from an area of the resort grounds that held storage sheds and was interspersed with looming pines.
"Too slow, Ashford," someone called. "Doesn't pay to be in love."
More laughs. Mason's best friend, Eddie Castile, and a few other novices from school materialized from behind a cluster of trees. Beyond them, I heard more shouts.
"We'll still take you in, though, if you want to be on our team," said Eddie. "Even if you do dodge like a girl."
"Team?" I asked excitedly.
Back at the Academy, throwing snowballs was strictly prohibited. School officials were inexplicably afraid that we'd throw snowballs packed with glass shards or razor blades, though I had no clue how they thought we'd get a hold of that kind of stuff in the first place.
Not that a snowball fight was that rebellious, but after all the stress I'd been through recently, throwing objects at other people suddenly sounded like the best idea I'd heard in a while. Mason and I dashed off with the others, the prospect of forbidden fighting giving him new energy and causing him to forget the pain in his ankle. We set to the fight with a die-hard zeal.
The fight soon became a matter of nailing as many people as possible while dodging attacks from others. I was exceptional at both and furthered the immaturity by catcalling and shouting silly insults at my victims.
By the time someone noticed what we were doing and yelled at us, we were all laughing and covered with snow. Mason and I once again started back for the lodge, and our mood was so high, I knew the Adrian thing was long forgotten.
Indeed, Mason looked at me just before we went inside. "Sorry I, uh, jumped all over you about Adrian earlier."
I squeezed his hand. "It's okay. I know Mia can tell some pretty convincing stories."
"Yeah...but even if you were with him...it's not like I have any right..."
I stared at him, surprised to see his usual brash countenance turn shy. "Don't you?" I asked.
A smile turned up his lips. "Do I?"
Smiling back, I stepped forward and kissed him. His lips felt amazingly warm in the freezing air. It wasn't like the earth-shattering kiss I'd had with Dimitri before the trip, but it was sweet and nice- a friendly sort of kiss that maybe could turn into more. At least, that was how I saw it. From the look on Mason's face, it appeared his whole world had been rocked.
"Wow," he said, eyes wide. The moonlight made his eyes look silvery blue.
"You see?" I said. "Nothing to worry about. Not Adrian, not anybody."
We kissed again- a bit longer this time- before finally dragging ourselves apart. Mason was clearly in a better mood, as well as he should have been, and I dropped into bed with a smile on my face. I wasn't technically sure if Mason and I were a couple now, but we were very close to it.
But when I slept, I dreamed about Adrian Ivashkov.
I stood with him on the porch again, only it was summer. The air was balmy and warm, and the sun hung bright in the sky, coating everything in golden light. I hadn't been in this much sun since living among humans. All around, the mountains and valleys were green and alive. Birds sang everywhere.
Adrian leaned against the porch's railing, glanced over, and did a double-take when he saw me. "Oh. Didn't expect to see you here." He smiled. "I was right. You are devastating when you're cleaned up."
Instinctively, I touched the skin around my eye.
"It's gone," he said.
Even without being able to see it, I somehow knew he was right. "You aren't smoking."
"Bad habit," he said. He nodded toward me. "You scared? You're wearing a lot of protection."
I frowned, then looked down. I hadn't noticed my clothing. I wore a pair of embroidered jeans I'd seen once but had been unable to afford. My T-shirt was cropped, showing off my stomach, and I wore a belly-button ring. I'd always wanted to get my belly button pierced but had never been able to afford it. The charm I now wore here was a little silver dangly one, and hanging at the end of it was that weird blue eye pendant my mom had given me. Lissa's chotki was wound around my wrist.
I looked back up at Adrian, studying the way the sun shone off his brown hair. Here, in full daylight, I could see that his eyes were indeed green- a deep emerald as opposed to Lissa's pale jade. Something startling suddenly occurred to me.
"Doesn't all this sun bother you?"
He gave a lazy shrug. "Nah. It's my dream."
"No, it's my dream."
"Are you sure?" His smile returned.
I felt confused. "I... I don't know."
He chuckled, but a moment later, the laugher faded. For the first time since I'd met him, he looked serious. "Why do you have so much darkness around you?"
I frowned. "What?"
"You're surrounded in blackness." His eyes studied me shrewdly, but not in a checking-me-out sort of way. "I've never seen anyone like you. Shadows everywhere. I never would have guessed it. Even while you're standing here, the shadows keep growing."
I looked down at my hands but saw nothing out of the ordinary. I glanced back up. "I'm shadow-kissed...."
"What's that mean?"
"I died once." I'd never talked to anyone other than Lissa and Victor Dashkov about that, but this was a dream. It didn't matter. "And I came back."
Wonder lit his face. "Ah, interesting..."
I woke up.
Someone was shaking me. It was Lissa. Her feelings hit me so hard through the bond that I briefly snapped into her mind and found myself looking at me. "Weird" didn't begin to cover it. I pulled back into myself, trying to sift through the terror and alarm coming from her.
"There's been another Strigoi attack."
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