I was incredibly relieved when Neferet said there was no reason for me to stay in the reception hall. After the scene with my family I felt like everyone was staring at me. I was, after all, the girl with the freaky Marks and the nightmare family. I took the shortest way out of the reception hall—the sidewalk that led outside through the pretty little courtyard that the windows of the dining hall looked out onto.
It was a little after midnight, which was—yes—a totally weird time for a parent open house, but the school begins classes at 8:00 P.M., and finishes up at 3:00 A.M. On the surface it seemed to make more sense to have parent visitation begin at 8:00, or maybe even an hour or so before school started, but Neferet had explained to me that the point was that parents accept their child's Change, and understand that days and nights would forever be different for them. On my own I decided that another plus of making the time inconvenient is that it gave a lot of parents the excuse they needed not to come, without outright telling their kid, Hey—I don 't want anything to do with you now that you're turning into a bloodsucking monster.
Too bad my parents hadn't taken that out.
I sighed and slowed down, taking my time following one of the winding paths through the courtyard. It was a cool, clear November night. The moon was almost full, and its bright silver light was a pretty contrast to the antique gaslights that illuminated the courtyard with their soft yellow glows. I could hear the fountain that sat in the middle of the garden, and I automatically changed direction so that I was heading toward it. Maybe the soothing tinkle of the water would help my stress level ... and help me forget.
When I rounded the curve that led to the fountain I was walking slowly, and daydreaming a little about my new almost-boyfriend, the totally delicious Erik. He was away from the school for the yearly Shakespeare monologue competition. Naturally, he'd finished first at our school, and had advanced easily to the Houses of Night international competition. It was Thursday, and he'd only been gone since Monday, but I missed him like crazy and couldn't wait till Sunday when he was supposed to get back. Erik was the hottest guy at our school. Hell, Erik Night might be the hottest guy at any school. He was tall, dark, and handsome—like an old-time movie star (without the latent homosexual tendencies). He was also incredibly talented. Someday soon he was going to join the rank of other vamp movie stars like Matthew McConaughey, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hugh Jackman (who is totally gorgeous for an old guy). Plus, Erik was truly a nice guy—which only added to his hotness.
So I will admit to being preoccupied with visions of Erik as Tristan and me as Isolde (only our passionate love story would have a happy ending), and didn't notice that there were other people in the courtyard until a raised male voice shocked me with how mean and disgusted it sounded.
"You are one disappointment after another, Aphrodite!" I froze. Aphrodite?
"It was bad enough that your getting Marked meant that you couldn't go to Chatham Hall, especially after everything I did to be sure you were accepted," said a woman in a brittle, cold voice.
"Mother, I know. I said I was sorry."
Okay, I should leave. I should turn around and walk quickly and quietly out of the courtyard. Aphrodite was probably my least favorite person at school. Actually, Aphrodite was probably my least favorite person anywhere, but purposefully listening in on what was clearly an ugly scene with her parents was just wrong wrong wrong.
So I tiptoed a few feet off the path where I could hide more easily behind a big ornamental bush and have a decent view of what was going on. Aphrodite was sitting on the stone bench closest to the fountain. Her parents were standing in front of her. Well, her mom was standing. Her dad was pacing.
Man, her parents were really pretty people. Her dad was tall and handsome. The kind of guy who kept in shape, kept all of his hair, and had really good teeth. He was dressed in a dark suit that looked like it cost a zillion dollars. He also looked weirdly familiar, and I was sure I'd seen him on TV or something. Her mom was totally gorgeous. I mean, Aphrodite was blond and perfect-looking, and her mom was an older, richly dressed, well-groomed version of her. Her sweater was obviously cashmere, and her pearls were long and real. Every time she gestured with her hands the gihugic pear-shaped diamond on her ring finger flashed a light as cold and beautiful as her voice.
"Have you forgotten that your father is the mayor of Tulsa?" Aphrodite's mom snapped viciously.
"No, no, of course not, Mother."
Her mom didn't seem to hear her. "Spinning a decent slant on the fact that you're here instead of on the East Coast preparing for Harvard was difficult enough, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that vampyres can attain money and power and success, and we expected you to excel in this"—she paused and grimaced distastefully—"rather unusual venue. And now we hear that you're no longer leader of the Dark Daughters and have been ejected from High Priestess training, which makes you no different than any of the other riffraff at this wretched school." Aphrodite's mother hesitated, as if she needed to calm herself before continuing. When she spoke again I had to strain to hear her hissing whisper. "Your behavior is unacceptable."
"As usual, you disappoint us," her father repeated.
"You already said that, Dad," Aphrodite said, sounding like her usual smart-ass self.
Like a striking snake, her mom slapped Aphrodite across her face, so hard that the crack of skin against skin made me jump and wince. I expected Aphrodite to leap off the bench and go after her mom's throat (please—we don't call her a hag from hell for nothing), but she didn't. She just pressed her own palm against her cheek and bowed her head.
"Do not cry. I've told you before, tears mean weakness. At least do this one thing right and don't cry," her mom snapped.
Slowly Aphrodite raised her head and took her hand from her cheek. "I didn't mean to disappoint you, Mother. I'm really sorry."
"Saying you're sorry doesn't fix anything," her mom said. "What we want to know is what you're going to do about getting your position back."
In the shadows I held my breath.
"I—I can't do anything about it," Aphrodite said, sounding hopeless and suddenly very young. "I messed up. Neferet caught me. She took the Dark Daughters away from me and gave them to someone else. I think she's even considering transferring me to a different House of Night completely."
"We already know that!" Her mom raised her voice, clipping her words so that they seemed to be made of ice. "We talked with Neferet before we saw you. She was going to transfer you to another school, but we interceded. You will remain at this school. We also tried to reason with her about giving you your position back after perhaps some period of restriction or detention."
"Oh, Mother, you didn't?"
Aphrodite sounded horrified, and I couldn't blame her. I could only imagine the impression these cold, pretending-to-be-perfect parents made on our High Priestess. If Aphrodite had ever had even the slightest chance of getting back in Neferet's favor, her creepy parents had probably ruined it for
"Of course we did! Did you expect us to just sit by while you destroyed your future by becoming a vampyre nobody at some nondescript foreign House of Night?" her mom said.
"More than you already have," her dad added.
"But it's not about me being on some kind of high school restriction," Aphrodite said, obviously trying to control her frustration and reason with them. "I messed up. Big time. That's bad enough, but there's a girl here whose powers are stronger than mine. Even if Neferet gets over being mad at me, she's not going to give me back the Dark Daughters." Then Aphrodite said something that totally shocked me. "The other girl is a better leader than I am. I realized that on Samhain. She deserves to be head of the Dark Daughters. I don't."
Ohmygod. Did hell just freeze over?
Aphrodite's mom took a step closer to her and I flinched with her, sure she was going to get smacked again. But her mother didn't hit her. She bent so that her beautiful face was staring right into her daughter's. From where I was standing they looked so similar that it was scary.
"Don't you ever say someone deserves something more than you. You're my daughter, and you will always deserve the best." Then she straightened again and ran her hand through her perfect hair, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn't dare get messed up. "We couldn't convince Neferet to give you back your position, so you're going to have to convince her."
"But, Mother, I already told you—" she started, but her dad cut her off.
"Get the new girl out of the way, and Neferet will be more likely to give you back your position."
Ah, crap. "The new girl" was me.
"Discredit her. Cause her to make mistakes, and then be sure it's someone else who tells Neferet about them and not you. It'll look better that way." Her mom spoke matter-of-factly, like she was talking about which outfit Aphrodite should wear tomorrow instead of plotting against me. Jeesh, talk about a hag from hell!
"And watch yourself. Your behavior has to be beyond reproach. Maybe you should be more forthcoming about your visions, at least for a while," her father said.
"But you've told me for years to try to keep the visions to myself, that they are the source of my power."
I could hardly believe what I was hearing! A month ago Damien had told me that several of the kids thought that Aphrodite was trying to hide some of her visions from Neferet, but they thought it was because she hated humans— and Aphrodite's visions were always about a future tragedy where humans died. When she shared her visions with Neferet, the High Priestess was almost always able to stop the tragedy from happening and save lives. So Aphrodite purposefully keeping her visions to herself was one of the things that made me decide that I had to take her position as leader of the Dark Daughters. I'm not power hungry. I didn't really want the position. Hell, I still wasn't sure what to do with it. I'd just known that Aphrodite was bad news, and that I had to do something to stop her. Now I was hearing that some of the crap she'd been doing was because she let her hateful parents boss her around! Her mom and dad actually thought it was okay to keep quiet about information that could save lives. And her father was the mayor of Tulsa! (No wonder he looked familiar.) It was so bizarre it was making my head hurt.
"The visions aren't your source of power!" her dad was saying. "Do you never listen? I said that your visions could be used to gain power for you because information is always power. The source of your visions is the Change that's taking place inside your body. It's genetics, that's all."
"It's supposed to be a gift from the Goddess," Aphrodite said softly.
Her mother's laugh was cold. "Don't be stupid. If there was such thing as a goddess, why would she grant you powers? You're just a ridiculous child, and one who is prone to making mistakes, as this last little escapade of yours has once again proven. So be smart for a change, Aphrodite. Use your visions to gain favor back, but act humble about it. You have to make Neferet believe that you're sorry."
I almost didn't hear Aphrodite's whispered, "I am sorry ..."
"We'll expect much better news next month."
"Good, now walk us back to the reception hall so that we can mingle with the others."
"Can I please stay here for a little while? I'm really not feeling very well."
"Absolutely not. What would people say?" her mother said. "Pull yourself together. You'll escort us back to the hall and you'll be gracious about it. Now."
Aphrodite was slowly standing up from the bench, and heart beating so hard I was afraid it would give me away, I hurried back down the path till I came to the fork that would take me out of the courtyard. Then I practically ran from the garden.
I thought about what I'd overheard all the way back to the dorm. I believed that I had nightmare parents, but they were like The Brady Bunch mom and dad (hello—I watch Nickelodeon reruns like everyone else) compared to Aphrodite's hateful, power-freak parents. Much as I hated to admit it, what I saw tonight made me understand why Aphrodite acted like she did. I mean, what would I be like if I hadn't had Grandma Redbird to love me and support me and help me grow a backbone these past three years? And that was something else, too. My mom had been normal. Sure, she'd been stressed out and overworked, but she'd been normal for the first thirteen of my almost seventeen years of life. It was only after she married John that she changed. So I'd had a good mom and a fantastic grandma. What if I hadn't? What if all I'd ever known was how it had been for the past three years—me being an unwanted outsider in my own family?
I might have turned out like Aphrodite, and I might still be letting my parents control me because I was hoping desperately that I would be good enough, make them proud enough, so that someday they would really love me.
It made me see Aphrodite with totally new eyes, which I wasn't particularly thrilled about.
I kind of pity Aphrodite....
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