Chapter 23

 

Twenty-three

THE WEATHER WARMED UP ON the day of my molnija ceremony. In fact, it was so warm that a lot of the snow on campus began melting, running down the sides of the Academy's stone buildings in slim, silvery streams. Winter was far from being over, so I knew everything would just freeze up again in a few days. For now, though, it felt as though the entire world was weeping.

I had walked away from the Spokane incident with minor bruises and cuts. The burns from the melting flex-cuffs were the worst of my injuries. But I was still having a hard time dealing with the death I'd caused and the death I'd seen. I'd wanted little more than to go curl up in a ball somewhere and not talk to anyone, except maybe Lissa. But on my fourth day back at the Academy, my mother had found me and told me it was time to receive my marks.

It had taken me several moments to grasp what she was talking about. Then it occurred to me that in decapitating two Strigoi, I'd earned two molnija tattoos. My first ones. The realization had stunned me. All my life, in considering my future career as a guardian, I'd looked forward to the marks. I'd seen them as badges of honor. But now? Mainly they were going to be reminders of something I wanted to forget.

The ceremony took place in the guardians' building, in a large room they used for meetings and banquets. It was nothing at all like the great dining room at the resort. It was efficient and practical, like the guardians were. The carpet was a bluish gray shade, low and tightly woven. The bare white walls held framed black-and-white photos of St. Vladimir's through the years. There were no other decorations or fanfare, yet the solemnity and power of the moment were palpable. All the guardians on campus- but no novices- attended. They milled around in the building's main meeting room, hanging out in clusters but not talking. When the ceremony started, they fell into orderly ranks without being told and watched me.

I sat on a stool in the corner of the room, leaning forward with my hair hanging over the front of my face. Behind me, a guardian named Lionel held a tattooist's needle to the back of my neck. I'd known him the whole time I'd been at the Academy, but I'd never realized he was trained to draw molnija marks.

Before he started, he had a murmured conversation with my mother and Alberta.

"She won't have a promise mark," he said. "She hasn't graduated."

"It happens," said Alberta. "She made the kills. Do the molnijas, and she'll get the promise mark later."

Considering the pain I regularly put myself through, I didn't expect the tattoos to hurt as much as they did. But I bit my lip and stayed silent as Lionel made the marks. The process seemed to go on forever. When he finished, he produced a couple of mirrors, and with some maneuvering, I was able to see the back of my neck. Two tiny black marks sat there, side by side, against my reddened and sensitive skin. Molnija meant "lightning" in Russian, and that's what the jagged shape was meant to symbolize. Two marks. One for Isaiah, one for Elena.

Once I'd seen them, he bandaged them up and gave me some instructions about caring for them while they healed. Most of it I missed, but I figured I could ask again later. I was still kind of shocked by it all.

After that, all the gathered guardians came up to me one by one. They each gave me some sort of sign of affection- a hug, a kiss on the cheek- and kind words.

"Welcome to the ranks," said Alberta, her weathered face gentle as she pulled me into a tight embrace.

Dimitri didn't say anything when his turn came, but as always, his eyes spoke legions. Pride and tenderness filled his expression, and I swallowed back tears. He rested one hand gently on my cheek, nodded, and walked away.

When Stan- the instructor I'd fought with the most since my first day- hugged me and said, "Now you're one of us. I always knew you'd be one of the best," I thought I'd pass out.

And then when my mother came up to me, I couldn't help the tear that ran down my cheek. She wiped it away and then brushed her fingers against the back of my neck. "Don't ever forget," she told me.

Nobody said, "Congratulations," and I was glad. Death wasn't anything to get excited about.

When that was done, drinks and food were served. I walked to the buffet table and made a plate for myself of miniature feta quiches and a slice of mango cheesecake. I ate without really tasting the food and answered questions from others without even knowing what I said half the time. It was like I was a Rose robot, going through the motions of what was expected. On the back of my neck, my skin stung from the tattoos, and in my mind, I kept seeing Mason's blue eyes and Isaiah's red ones.

I felt guilty for not enjoying my big day more, but I was relieved when the group finally started dispersing. My mother walked up to me as others murmured their goodbyes. Aside from her words here at the ceremony, we hadn't talked much since my breakdown on the plane. I still felt a little funny about that- and a little embarrassed as well. She'd never mentioned it, but something very small had shifted in the nature of our relationship. We weren't anywhere near being friends...but we weren't exactly enemies anymore either.

"Lord Szelsky is leaving soon," she told me as we stood near the building's doorway, not far from where I'd yelled for her on that first day we'd talked. "I'll be going with him."

"I know," I said. There was no question she'd leave. That was how it was. Guardians followed Moroi. They came first.

She regarded me for a few moments, her brown eyes thoughtful. For the first time in a long time, I felt like we were actually looking eye to eye, as opposed to her looking down on me. It was about time, too, seeing as I had half a foot of height on her.

"You did well," she said at last. "Considering the circumstances."

It was only half a compliment, but I deserved no more. I understood now the mistakes and lapses of judgment that had led to the events at Isaiah's house. Some had been my fault; some hadn't. I wished I could have changed some of my actions, but I knew she was right. I'd done the best I could in the end with the mess before me.

"Killing Strigoi wasn't as glamorous as I thought it'd be," I told her.

She gave me a sad smile. "No. It never is."

I thought then about all the marks on her neck, all the kills. I shuddered.

"Oh, hey." Eager to change the subject, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little blue eye pendant she'd given me. "This thing you gave me. It's a n-nazari" I stumbled over the word. She looked surprised.

"Yes. How'd you know?"

I didn't want to explain my dreams with Adrian. "Someone told me. It's a protection thing, right?"

A pensive look crossed her face, and then she exhaled and nodded. "Yes. It comes from an old superstition in the Middle East...Some people believe that those who want to hurt you can curse you or give you 'the evil eye.' The nazar is meant to counteract the evil eye ... and just bring protection in general to those who wear it."

I ran my fingers over the piece of glass. "Middle East...so, places sort of like, um, Turkey?"

My mother's lips quirked. "Places exactly like Turkey." She hesitated. "It was ... a gift. A gift I received a long time ago ..." Her gaze turned inward, lost in memory. "I got a lot of ... attention from men when I was your age. Attention that seemed flattering at first but wasn't in the end. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes, between what's real affection and what's someone wanting to take advantage of you. But when you feel the real thing...well, you'll know."

I understood then why she was so overprotective about my reputation- she'd endangered her own when she was younger. Maybe more than that had been damaged.

I also knew why she'd given the nazar to me. My father had given it to her. I didn't think she wanted to talk anymore about it, so I didn't ask. It was enough to know that maybe, just maybe, their relationship hadn't been all about business and genes after all.

We said goodbye, and I returned to my classes. Everyone knew where I'd been that morning, and my fellow novices wanted to see my molnija marks. I didn't blame them. If our roles had been reversed, I would have been harassing me too.

"Come on, Rose," begged Shane Reyes. We were walking out of our morning practice, and he kept swatting my ponytail. I made a mental note to wear my hair down tomorrow. Several others followed us and echoed his requests.

"Yeah, come on. Let's see what you got for your swordsmanship!"

Their eyes shone with eagerness and excitement. I was a hero, their classmate who'd dispatched the leaders of the roving band of Strigoi that had so terrorized us over the holidays. But I met the eyes of someone standing at the back of the group, someone who looked neither eager nor excited. Eddie. Meeting my gaze, he gave me a small, sad smile. He understood.

"Sorry, guys," I said, turning back to the others. "They have to stay bandaged. Doctor's orders."

This was met with grumbles that soon turned into questions about how I'd actually killed the Strigoi. Decapitation was one of the hardest and rarest ways to kill a vampire; it wasn't like carrying a sword was convenient. So I did my best to tell my friends what had happened, making sure to stick to the facts and not glorify the killings.

The school day couldn't end a moment too soon, and Lissa walked with me back to my dorm. She and I hadn't had the chance to talk much since everything had gone down in Spokane. I'd undergone a lot of questioning, and then there'd been Mason's funeral. Lissa had also been caught up in her own distractions with the royals leaving campus, so she'd had no more free time than me.

Being near her made me feel better. Even though I could be in her head at any time, it just wasn't the same as actually being physically around another living person who cared about you.

When we got to the door of my room, I saw a bouquet of freesias sitting on the floor near it. Sighing, I picked up the fragrant flowers without even looking at the attached card.

"What are those?" asked Lissa while I unlocked the door.

"They're from Adrian," I told her. We walked inside, and I pointed to my desk, where a few other bouquets sat. I put the freesias down beside them. "I'll be glad when he leaves campus. I don't think I can take much more of this."

She turned to me in surprise. "Oh. Um, you don't know."

I got that warning twinge through the bond that told me I wouldn't like what was about to come.

"Know what?"

"Uh, he isn't leaving. He's going to stay here for a while."

"He has to leave," I argued. To my knowledge, the only reason he'd come back at all was because of Mason's funeral, and I still wasn't sure why he'd done that, since he barely knew Mason. Maybe Adrian had just done it for show. Or maybe to keep stalking Lissa and me. "He's in college. Or maybe reform school. I don't know, but he does something."

"He's taking the semester off."

I stared.

Smiling at my shock, she nodded. "He's going to stay and work with me... and Ms. Carmack. All this time, he never even knew what spirit was. He just knew he hadn't specialized but that he had these weird abilities. He just kept them to himself, except for when he occasionally found another spirit user. But they didn't know any more than he did."

"I should have figured it out sooner," I mused. "There was something about being around him. ... I always wanted to talk to him, you know? He just has this ... charisma. Like you do. I guess it's all tied into spirit and compulsion or whatever. It makes me like him ... even though I don't like him."

"Don't you?" she teased.

"No," I replied adamantly. "And I don't like that dream thing, either."

Her jade eyes went wide with wonder. "That is cool," she said. "You've always been able to tell what's going on with me, but I've never been able to communicate with you the other way. I'm glad you guys got away when you did...but I wish I could have figured out the dream thing and helped find you."

"Not me," I said. "I'm glad Adrian didn't get you to go off your meds."

I hadn't found that out until a few days after being in Spokane. Lissa had apparently rejected Adrian's initial suggestion that stopping the pills would let her learn more about spirit. She had admitted to me later, however, that if Christian and I had stayed missing much longer, she might have cracked.

"How are you feeling lately?" I asked, recalling her concerns about the medication. "You still feel like the pills aren't working?"

"Mmm...well, it's hard to explain. I still feel closer to the magic, like maybe they aren't blocking me so much anymore. But I'm not feeling any of the other mental side effects...not upset or anything."

"Wow, that's great."

A beautiful smile lit her face. "I know. It makes me think there might be hope for me to learn to work the magic after all someday."

Seeing her so happy made me smile back. I hadn't liked seeing those dark feelings starting to return and was glad they'd vanished. I didn't understand the how or the why, but as long as she felt okay-

Everyone has light around them, except for you. You have shadows. You take them from Lissa.

Adrian's words slammed into my mind. Uneasily, I thought about my behavior these last couple of weeks. Some of the angry outbursts. My rebelliousness- unusual even for me. My own black coil of emotion, stirring in my chest...

No, I decided. There were no similarities. Lissa's dark feelings were magic-based. Mine were stress-based. Besides, I felt fine right now.

Seeing her watching me, I tried to remember where we'd left off in the conversation. "Maybe you'll eventually find a way to make it work. I mean, if Adrian could find a way to use spirit and doesn't need meds ..."

She suddenly laughed. "You don't know, do you?"

"What?"

"That Adrian does medicate himself."

"He does? But he said- " I groaned. "Of course he does. The cigarettes. The drinking. God only knows what else."

She nodded. "Yup. He's almost always got something in his system."

"But probably not at night...which is why he can poke his head into my dreams."

"Man, I wish I could do that," she sighed.

"Maybe you'll learn someday. Just don't become an alcoholic in the process."

"I won't," she assured me. "But I will learn. None of the other spirit users could do it, Rose- well, aside from St. Vladimir. I'll learn like he did. I'm going to learn to use it- and I won't let it hurt me."

I smiled and touched her hand. I had absolute faith in her. "I know."

We talked for most of the evening. When the time came for my usual practice with Dimitri, I parted ways with her. As I walked away, I pondered something that had been bothering me. Although the attacking groups of Strigoi had had many more members, the guardians felt confident Isaiah had been their leader. That didn't mean there wouldn't be other threats in the future, but they felt it'd be a while before his followers regrouped.

But I couldn't help thinking about the list I'd seen in the tunnel in Spokane, the one that had listed royal families by size. And Isaiah had mentioned the Dragomirs by name. He knew they were almost gone, and he'd sounded keen on being the one to finish them. Sure, he was dead now...but were there other Strigoi out there with the same idea?

I shook my head. I couldn't worry about that. Not today. I still needed to recover from everything else. Soon, though. Soon I'd have to deal with this.

I didn't even know if our practice was still on but went to the locker room anyway. After changing into practice clothes, I headed down into the gym and found Dimitri in a supply room, reading one of the Western novels he loved. He looked up at my entrance. I'd seen little of him in these last few days and had figured he was busy with Tasha.

"I thought you might come by," he said, putting a bookmark between the pages.

"It's time for practice."

He shook his head. "No. No practice today. You still need to recover."

"I've got a clean bill of health. I'm good to go." I pushed as much patented Rose Hathaway bravado into my words as I could.

Dimitri wasn't falling for any of it. He gestured to the chair beside him. "Sit down, Rose."

I hesitated only a moment before complying. He moved his own chair close to mine so that we sat directly across from each other. My heart fluttered as I looked into those gorgeous dark eyes.

"No one gets over their first kill...kills...easily. Even with Strigoi...well, it's still technically taking a life. That's hard to come to terms with. And after everything else you went through ..." He sighed, then reached out and caught my hand in his. His fingers were exactly like I remembered, long and powerful, calloused with years of training. "When I saw your face...when we found you in that house...you can't imagine how I felt."

I swallowed. "How ... how did you feel?"

"Devastated ... grief-stricken. You were alive, but the way you looked ... I didn't think you'd ever recover. And it tore me apart to think of that happening to you so young." He squeezed my hand. "You will recover- I know that now, and I'm glad. But you aren't there. Not yet. Losing someone you care about is never easy."

My eyes dropped from his and studied the floor. "It's my fault," I said in a small voice.

"Hmm?"

"Mason. Getting killed."

I didn't have to see Dimitri's face to know compassion was filling it. "Oh, Roza. No. You made some bad decisions...you should have told others when you knew he was gone...but you can't blame yourself. You didn't kill him."

Tears brimmed in my eyes as I looked back up. "I might as well have. The whole reason he went there- it was my fault. We had a fight...and I told him about the Spokane thing, even though you asked me not to...."

One tear leaked out of the corner of my eye. Really, I needed to learn to stop that. Just as my mother had, Dimitri delicately wiped the tear off my cheek.

"You can't blame yourself for that," he told me. "You can regret your decisions and wish you'd done things differently, but in the end, Mason made his decisions too. That was what he chose to do. It was his decision in the end, no matter your original role." When Mason had come back for me, I realized, he'd let his feelings for me get in the way. It was what Dimitri had always feared, that if he and I had any sort of relationship, it would put us- and any Moroi we protected- in danger.

"I just wish I'd been able to ... I don't know, do anything..."

Swallowing back further tears, I pulled my hands from Dimitri's and stood up before I could say something stupid.

"I should go," I said thickly. "Let me know when you want to start practice again. And thanks for ... talking."

I started to turn; then I heard him say abruptly, "No."

I glanced back. "What?"

He held my gaze, and something warm and wonderful and powerful shot between us.

"No," he repeated. "I told her no. Tasha."

"I ..." I shut my mouth before my jaw hit the floor. "But...why? That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You could have had a baby. And she ... she was, you know, into you...."

The ghost of a smile flickered on his face. "Yes, she was. Is. And that's why I had to say no. I couldn't return that...couldn't give her what she wanted. Not when..." He took a few steps toward me. "Not when my heart is somewhere else."

I almost started crying again. "But you seemed so into her. And you kept going on about how young I acted."

"You act young," he said, "because you are young. But you know things, Roza. Things people older than you don't even know. That day ..." I knew instantly which day he referred to. The one up against the wall. "You were right, about how I fight to stay in control. No one else has ever figured that out-  and it scared me. You scare me."

"Why? Don't you want anyone to know?"

He shrugged. "Whether they know that fact or not doesn't matter. What matters is that someone- that you- know me that well. When a person can see into your soul, it's hard. It forces you to be open. Vulnerable. It's much easier being with someone who's just more of a casual friend."

"Like Tasha."

"Tasha Ozera is an amazing woman. She's beautiful and she's brave. But she doesn't- "

"She doesn't get you," I finished.

He nodded. "I knew that. But I still wanted the relationship. I knew it would be easy and that she could take me away from you. I thought she could make me forget you."

I'd thought the same thing about Mason. "But she couldn't."

"Yes. And, so ... that's a problem."

"Because it's wrong for us to be together."

"Yes."

"Because of the age difference."

"Yes."

"But more importantly because we're going to be Lissa's guardians and need to focus on her- not each other."

"Yes."

I thought about this for a moment and then looked straight into his eyes. "Well," I said at last, "the way I see it, we aren't Lissa's guardians yet."

I steeled myself for the next response. I knew it was going to be one of the Zen life lessons. Something about inner strength and perseverance, about how the choices we made today were templates for the future or some other nonsense.

Instead he kissed me.

Time stopped as he reached out and cupped my face between his hands. He brought his mouth down and brushed it against my lips. It was barely a kiss at first but soon increased, becoming heady and deep. When he finally pulled away, it was to kiss my forehead. He left his lips there for several seconds as his arms held me close.

I wished the kiss could have gone on forever. Breaking the embrace, he ran a few fingers through my hair and down my cheek. He stepped back toward the door.

"I'll see you later, Roza."

"At our next practice?" I asked. "We are starting those up again, right? I mean, you still have things to teach me."

Standing in the doorway, he looked over at me and smiled. "Yes. Lots of things."

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***