THERE'S A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN death threats and love letters--even if the person writing the death threats still claims to actually love you. Of course, considering I once tried to kill someone I loved, maybe I had no right to judge.
Today's letter had been perfectly timed, not that I should have expected any less. I'd read it four times so far, and even though I was running late, I couldn't help but read it a fifth time.
My dearest Rose,
One of the few downsides to being awakened is that we no longer require sleep; therefore we also no longer dream. It's a shame, because if I could dream, I know I'd dream about you. I'd dream about the way you smell and how your dark hair feels like silk between my fingers. I'd dream about the smoothness of your skin and the fierceness of your lips when we kiss.
Without dreams, I have to be content with my own imagination--which is almost as good. I can picture all of those things perfectly, as well as how it'll be when I take your life from this world. It's something I regret having to do, but you've made my choice inevitable. Your refusal to join me in eternal life and love leaves no other course of action, and I can't allow someone as dangerous as you to live. Besides, even if I forced your awakening, you now have so many enemies among the Strigoi that one of them would kill you. If you must die, it'll be by my hand. No one else's.
Nonetheless, I wish you well today as you take your trials--not that you need any luck. If they're actually making you take them, it's a waste of everyone's time. You're the best in that group, and by this evening you'll wear your promise mark. Of course, that means you'll be all that much more of a challenge when we meet again--which I'll definitely enjoy.
And we will be meeting again. With graduation, you'll be turned out of the Academy, and once you're outside the wards, I'll find you. There is no place in this world you can hide from me. I'm watching.
Despite his "warm wishes" I didn't really find the letter inspiring as I tossed it onto my bed and blearily left the room. I tried not to let his words get to me, though it was kind of impossible to not be creeped out by something like that. There is no place in this world you can hide from me.
I didn't doubt it. I knew Dimitri had spies. Since my former instructor-turned-lover had been turned into an evil, undead vampire, he'd also become a sort of leader among them--something I'd helped speed along when I killed off his former boss. I suspected a lot of his spies were humans, watching for me to step outside my school's borders. No Strigoi could have stayed on a twenty-four-hour stakeout. Humans could, and I'd recently learned that plenty of humans were willing to serve the Strigoi in exchange for the promise of being turned someday. Those humans considered eternal life worth corrupting their souls and killing off others to survive. Those humans made me sick.
But the humans weren't what made my steps falter as I walked through grass that had turned bright green with summer's touch. It was Dimitri. Always Dimitri. Dimitri, the man I'd loved. Dimitri, the Strigoi I wanted to save. Dimitri, the monster I'd most likely have to kill. The love we'd shared always burned within me, no matter how often I told myself to move on, no matter how much the world did think I'd moved on. He was always with me, always on my mind, always making me question myself.
"You look like you're ready to face an army."
I shifted out of my dark thoughts. I'd been so fixated on Dimitri and his letter that I'd been walking across campus, oblivious to the world, and hadn't noticed my best friend, Lissa, falling into step with me, a teasing smile on her face. Her catching me by surprise was a rarity because we shared a psychic bond, one that always kept me aware of her presence and feelings. I had to be pretty distracted to not notice her, and if ever there was a distraction, it was someone wanting to kill me.
I gave Lissa what I hoped was a convincing smile. She knew what had happened to Dimitri and how he was now waiting to kill me after I'd tried--and failed--to kill him. Nonetheless, the letters I got from him every week worried her, and she had enough to deal with in her life without my undead stalker to add to the list.
"I kind of am facing an army," I pointed out. It was early evening, but late summer still found the sun up in the Montana sky, bathing us in golden light as we walked. I loved it, but as a Moroi--a peaceful, living vampire--Lissa would eventually grow weak and uncomfortable in it.
She laughed and tossed her platinum hair over one shoulder. The sun lit up the pale color into angelic brilliance. "I suppose. I didn't think you'd really be all that worried."
I could understand her reasoning. Even Dimitri had said these would be a waste of my time. After all, I'd gone to Russia to search for him and had faced real Strigoi--killing a number of them on my own. Maybe I shouldn't have been afraid of the upcoming tests, but all the fanfare and expectation suddenly pressed in upon me. My heart rate increased. What if I couldn't do it? What if I wasn't as good as I thought I was? The guardians who would challenge me out here might not be true Strigoi, but they were skilled and had been fighting a lot longer than me. Arrogance could get me into a lot of trouble, and if I failed, I'd be doing it in front of all the people who cared about me. All the people who had such faith in me.
One other thing also concerned me.
"I'm worried about how these grades will affect my future," I said.
That was the truth. The trials were the final exam for a novice guardian like me. They ensured I could graduate from St. Vladimir's Academy and take my place with true guardians who defended Moroi from the Strigoi. The trials pretty much decided which Moroi a guardian would be assigned to.
Through our bond, I felt Lissa's compassion--and her worry. "Alberta thinks there's a good chance we can stay together--that you'll still be my guardian."
I grimaced. "I think Alberta was saying that to keep me in school." I'd dropped out to hunt Dimitri a few months ago and then returned--something that didn't look good on my academic record. There was also the small fact that the Moroi queen, Tatiana, hated me and would probably be going out of her way to influence my assignment--but that was another story. "I think Alberta knows the only way they'd let me protect you is if I was the last guardian on earth. And even then, my odds would still be pretty slim."
Ahead of us, the roar of a crowd grew loud. One of the school's many sports fields had been transformed into an arena on par with something from Roman gladiatorial days. The bleachers had been built up, expanded from simple wooden seats to luxuriously cushioned benches with awnings to shade the Moroi from the sun. Banners surrounded the field, their bright colors visible from here as they whipped in the wind. I couldn't see them yet, but I knew there would be some type of barracks built near the stadium's entrance where novices waited, nerves on edge. The field itself would have turned into an obstacle course of dangerous tests. And from the sound of those deafening cheers, plenty were already there to witness this event.
"I'm not giving up hope," Lissa said. Through the bond, I knew she meant it. It was one of the wonderful things about her--a steadfast faith and optimism that weathered the most terrible ordeals. It was a sharp contrast to my recent cynicism. "And I've got something that might help you out today."
She came to a stop and reached into her jeans pocket, producing a small silver ring scattered with tiny stones that looked like peridots. I didn't need any bond to understand what she was offering.
"Oh, Liss... I don't know. I don't want any, um, unfair advantage."
Lissa rolled her eyes. "That's not the problem, and you know it. This one's fine, I swear."
The ring she offered me was a charm, infused with the rare type of magic she wielded. All Moroi had control of one of five elements: earth, air, water, fire, or spirit. Spirit was the rarest--so rare, it had been forgotten over the centuries. Then Lissa and a few others had recently surfaced with it. Unlike the other elements, which were more physical in nature, spirit was tied into the mind and all sorts of psychic phenomena. No one fully understood it.
Making charms with spirit was something Lissa had only recently begun to experiment with--and she wasn't very good at it. Her best spirit ability was healing, so she kept trying to make healing charms. The last one had been a bracelet that singed my arm.
"This one works. Only a little, but it'll help keep the darkness away during the trial."
She spoke lightly, but we both knew the seriousness of her words. With all of spirit's gifts came a cost: a darkness that showed itself now as anger and confusion, and eventually led to insanity. Darkness that sometimes bled over into me through our bond. Lissa and I had been told that with charms and her healing, we could fight it off. That was also something we had yet to master.
I gave her a faint smile, moved by her concern, and accepted the ring. It didn't scald my hand, which I took as a promising sign. It was tiny and only fit on my pinky. I felt nothing whatsoever as it slid on. Sometimes that happened with healing charms. Or it could mean the ring was completely ineffectual. Either way, no harm done.
"Thanks," I said. I felt delight sweep through her, and we continued walking.
I held my hand out before me, admiring the way the green stones glittered. Jewelry wasn't a great idea in the kind of physical ordeals I'd be facing, but I would have gloves on to cover it.
"Hard to believe that after this, we'll be done here and out in the real world," I mused aloud, not really considering my words.
Beside me, Lissa stiffened, and I immediately regretted speaking. "Being out in the real world" meant Lissa and I were going to undertake a task she'd--unhappily--promised to help me with a couple months ago.
While in Siberia, I'd learned there might be a way to restore Dimitri back to being a dhampir like me. It was a long shot--possibly a lie--and considering the way he was fixated on killing me, I had no illusions that I would have any other choice but to kill him if it came down to him or me. But if there was a way I might save him before that happened, I had to find out.
Unfortunately, the only lead we had to making this miracle come true was through a criminal. Not just any criminal either: Victor Dashkov, a royal Moroi who had tortured Lissa and committed all sorts of other atrocities that had made our lives hell. Justice had been served, and Victor was locked away in prison, which complicated things. We'd learned that so long as he was destined for a life behind bars, he saw no reason to share what he knew about his half-brother--the only person who had once allegedly saved a Strigoi. I'd decided--possibly illogically--that Victor might give up the information if we offered him the one thing no one else could: freedom.
This idea was not foolproof, for a number of reasons. First, I didn't know if it would work.
That was kind of a big thing. Second, I had no idea how to stage a prison break, let alone where his prison even was. And finally, there was the fact that we would be releasing our mortal enemy. That was devastating enough to me, let alone Lissa. Yet as much as the idea troubled her--and believe me, it did--she'd firmly sworn she would help me. I'd offered to free her from the promise dozens of times in the last couple months, but she'd stood firm. Of course, considering we had no way to even find the prison, her promise might not matter in the end.
I tried to fill the awkward silence between us, explaining instead that I'd really meant we'd be able to celebrate her birthday in style next week. My attempts were interrupted by Stan, one of my longtime instructors. "Hathaway!" he barked, coming from the direction of the field. "Nice of you to join us. Get in there now!"
Thoughts of Victor vanished from Lissa's mind. Lissa gave me a quick hug. "Good luck," she whispered. "Not that you need it."
Stan's expression told me that this ten-second goodbye was ten seconds too long. I gave Lissa a grin by way of thanks, and then she headed off to find our friends in the stands while I scurried after Stan.
"You're lucky you aren't one of the first ones," he growled. "People were even making bets about whether you'd show."
"Really?" I asked cheerfully. "What kind of odds are there on that? Because I can still change my mind and put down my own bet. Make a little pocket money."
His narrowed eyes shot me a warning that needed no words as we entered the waiting area adjacent to the field, across from the stands. It had always amazed me in past years how much work went into these trials, and I was no less impressed now as I saw it up close. The barrack that novices waited in was constructed out of wood, complete with a roof. The structure looked as though it had been part of the stadium forever. It had been built with remarkable speed and would be taken down equally quickly once the trials were over. A doorway about three people wide gave a partial glimpse onto the field, where one of my classmates was waiting anxiously for her name to be called. All sorts of obstacles were set up there, challenges to test balance and coordination while still having to battle and elude the adult guardians who would be lurking around objects and corners. Wooden walls had been constructed on one end of the field, creating a dark and confusing maze. Nets and shaky platforms hung across other areas, designed to test just how well we could fight under difficult conditions.
A few of the other novices crowded the doorway, hoping to get an advantage by watching those who went ahead of them. Not me. I would go in there blind, content to take on whatever they threw before me. Studying the course now would simply make me overthink and panic. Calm was what I needed now.
So I leaned against one of the barrack walls and watched those around me. It appeared that I really had been the last to show up, and I wondered if people had actually lost money betting on me. Some of my classmates whispered in clusters. Some were doing stretches and warm-up exercises. Others stood with instructors who had been mentors. Those teachers spoke intently to their students, giving last-minute words of advice. I kept hearing words like focus and calm down.
Seeing the instructors made my heart clench. Not so long ago, that was how I'd pictured this day. I'd imagined Dimitri and me standing together, with him telling me to take this seriously and not to lose my cool when I was out on the field. Alberta had done a fair amount of mentoring for me since I'd returned from Russia, but as captain, she was out on the field herself now, busy with all sorts of responsibilities.
She had no time to come in here and hold my hand. Friends of mine who might have offered comfort--Eddie, Meredith, and others--were wrapped up in their own fears. I was alone.
Without her or Dimitri--or, well, anyone--I felt a surprising ache of loneliness flow through me. This wasn't right. I shouldn't have been alone. Dimitri should have been here with me. That's how it was supposed to have been. Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to pretend he was really there, only inches away as we spoke.
"Don't worry, comrade. I can do this blindfolded. Hell, maybe I actually will. Do you have anything I can use? If you're nice to me, I'll even let you tie it on." Since this fantasy would have taken place after we'd slept together, there was a strong possibility that he would have later helped me take off that blindfold--among other things.
I could perfectly picture the exasperated shake of his head that would earn me. "Rose, I swear, sometimes it feels like every day with you is my own personal trial."
But I knew he'd smile anyway, and the look of pride and encouragement he'd give me as I headed toward the field would be all I needed to get through the tests--
"Are you meditating?"
I opened my eyes, astonished at the voice. "Mom? What are you doing here?"
My mother, Janine Hathaway, stood in front of me. She was just a few inches shorter than me but had enough fight in her for someone twice my size. The dangerous look on her tanned face dared anyone to bring on a challenge. She gave me a wry smile and put one hand on her hip.
"Did you honestly think I wouldn't come to watch you?"
"I don't know," I admitted, feeling kind of guilty for doubting her. She and I hadn't had much contact over the years, and it was only recent events--most of them bad--that had begun to reestablish our connection. Most of the time, I still didn't know how to feel about her. I oscillated between a little girl's need for her absent mother and a teenager's resentment over abandonment. I also wasn't entirely sure if I'd forgiven her for the time she "accidentally" punched me in a mock fight. "I figured you'd have, you know, more important things to do."
"There's no way I could miss this." She inclined her head toward the stands, making her auburn curls sway. "Neither could your father."
I hurried toward the doorway and peered out onto the fields. My view of the stands wasn't fantastic, thanks to all the obstacles on the field, but it was good enough. There he was: Abe Mazur. He was easy to spot, with his black beard and mustache, as well as the emerald green scarf knotted over his dress shirt. I could even barely make out the glint of his gold earring. He had to be melting in this heat, but I figured it would take more than a little sweat for him to tame down his flashy fashion sense.
If my relationship with my mother was sketchy, my relationship with my father was practically nonexistent. I'd met him back in May, and even then, it wasn't until after I'd gotten back that I found out I was his daughter. All dhampirs had one Moroi parent, and he was mine. I still wasn't sure how I felt about him. Most of his background remained a mystery, but there were plenty of rumors that he was involved with illegal business. People also acted like he was the kneecap-breaking type, and though I'd seen little evidence of this, I didn't find it surprising. In Russia, they called him Zmey: the serpent.
While I stared at him in astonishment, my mom strolled over to my side. "He'll be happy you made it in time," she said. "He's running some big wager on whether you'd show. He put his money on you, if that makes you feel any better."
I groaned. "Of course. Of course he'd be the bookie behind the pool. I should have known as soon as--" My jaw dropped. "Is he talking to Adrian?"
Yup. Sitting beside Abe was Adrian Ivashkov--my more-or-less boyfriend. Adrian was a royal Moroi--and another spirit user like Lissa. He'd been crazy about me (and often just crazy) ever since we first met, but I'd had eyes only for Dimitri. After the failure in Russia, I'd returned and promised to give Adrian a shot. To my surprise, things had been... good between us. Great, even. He'd written me up a proposal of why dating him was a sound decision. It had included things like "I'll give up cigarettes unless I really, really need one" and "I'll unleash romantic surprises every week, such as: an impromptu picnic, roses, or a trip to Paris--but not actually any of those things because now they're not surprises."
Being with him wasn't like it had been with Dimitri, but then, I supposed, no two relationships could ever be exactly alike. They were different men, after all. I still woke up all the time, aching over the loss of Dimitri and our love. I tormented myself over my failure to kill him in Siberia and free him from his undead state. Still, that despair didn't mean my romantic life was over--something it had taken me a while to accept. Moving on was hard, but Adrian did make me happy. And for now, that was enough.
But that didn't necessarily mean I wanted him cozying up to my pirate mobster father either.
"He's a bad influence!" I protested.
My mother snorted. "I doubt Adrian will influence Abe that much."
"Not Adrian! Abe. Adrian's trying to be on good behavior. Abe will mess everything up." Along with smoking, Adrian had sworn he'd quit drinking and other vices in his dating proposal. I squinted at him and Abe across the crowded stands, trying to figure out what topic could be so interesting. "What are they talking about?"
"I think that's the least of your problems right now." Janine Hathaway was nothing if not practical. "Worry less about them and more about that field."
"Do you think they're talking about me?"
"Rose!" My mother gave me a light punch on the arm, and I dragged my eyes back to her. "You have to take this seriously. Keep calm, and don't get distracted."
Her words were so like what I'd imagined Dimitri saying that a small smile crept onto my face. I wasn't alone out here after all.
"What's so funny?" she asked warily.
"Nothing," I said, giving her a hug. She was stiff at first and then relaxed, actually hugging me back briefly before stepping away. "I'm glad you're here."
My mother wasn't the overly affectionate type, and I'd caught her off guard. "Well," she said, obviously flustered, "I told you I wouldn't miss this."
I glanced back at the stands. "Abe, on the other hand, I'm not so sure of."
Or... wait. An odd idea came to me. No, not so odd, actually. Shady or not, Abe had connections--ones extensive enough to slip a message to Victor Dashkov in prison. Abe had been the one to ask for info about Robert Doru, Victor's spirit-wielding brother, as a favor to me. When Victor had sent back the message saying he had no reason to help Abe with what he needed, I'd promptly written off my father's assistance and jumped to my prison-break idea. But now--
It was Alberta who called me, her voice ringing loud and clear. It was like a trumpet, a call to battle. All thoughts of Abe and Adrian--and yes, even Dimitri--vanished from my mind. I think my mother wished me good luck, but the exact wording was lost on me as I strode toward Alberta and the field. Adrenaline surged through me. All my attention was now on what lay ahead: the test that would finally make me a guardian.