"Yeah, Zoey, I understand what you're sayin' and all, but hello! Part of what you overheard was that Aphrodite is gonna try to set you up so that she can get you kicked out of the Dark Daughter leadership, so don't go feeling too darn sorry for her," Stevie Rae said.
"I know—I know. I'm not getting all warm and fuzzy about her. I'm just saying that after overhearing her with her psycho parents I understand why she is like she is."
We were walking to first hour. Well, actually, Stevie Rae and I were practically running to first hour. As usual, we were almost late. I knew I shouldn't have had that second bowl of Count Chocula.
Stevie Rae rolled her eyes. "And you say I'm too nice."
"I'm not being nice. I'm being understanding. But understanding doesn't change the fact that Aphrodite acts like a hag bitch from hell."
Stevie Rae made a snorting noise and shook her head, causing her blond curls to bounce like she was a little girl. Her short cut was odd at the House of Night where everyone, even most of the guys, had ridiculously long, thick hair. Okay, my hair has always been long, but still—it was really weird when I first got here and was bombarded with hair hair hair. Now it made perfect sense.
Part of the physical Change that happens as we become vampyres is that our hair and nails grow abnormally fast. After a little practice, you can tell what year a fledgling is without checking the crest on her jacket. Vampyres looked different than humans (not bad different—just different), so it's only logical that as a fledgling passes through more and more of the Change her body looks different, too.
"Zoey, you're so not paying attention."
"I said, don't let your guard down about Aphrodite. Yes, she has nightmare parents. Yes, they're controlling and manipulating her. Whatever. She's still hateful and mean and vindictive. Watch out for her."
"Hey, don't worry. I will."
"Okay, good. I'll see you third hour."
"See ya," I called to her back. Jeesh, she was such a worrier.
I hurried into class and had just taken my seat in the desk next to Damien, who raised an eyebrow at me and said, "Another two-bowl morning?" when the bell rang and Neferet swept into the room.
Okay, I know it's bordering on weird (or maybe queer is the better word choice) to continually notice how gorgeous a woman is when you're a woman, too, but Neferet is so damn beautiful that it's like she has the ability to focus all the light in the room on herself. She was wearing a simple black dress and totally to die for black boots. She had on her silver Goddess path earrings and, as always, the silver embroidered Goddess rested over her heart. She didn't exactly look like the Goddess Nyx—who I swear I'd seen in a vision the day I was Marked—but she had the Goddess's aura of strength and confidence. I'll just admit it. I wanted to be her.
Today was unusual. Instead of lecturing for most of the hour (and, no, amazingly enough Neferet was never a boring lecturer) she gave us an essay assignment on the Gorgon, who we had been studying all week. We learned that actually she had not been a monster who turned men to stone with a glance. She had been a famous vampyre High Priestess whose Goddess-given gift was an affinity, or a special connection, for the earth, which is probably where the "turn to stone" myth came from. I'm pretty sure if a vamp High Priestess got pissed enough and had a magical connection with the earth (stones do come from the earth), she could easily zap someone into granite. So today's assignment was to write an essay on human myth and symbolism, and the meaning behind the fictionalization of the Gorgon's story.
But I was too restless to write. Plus, I had all weekend to finish the essay. I was way more worried about the Dark Daughters. The full moon was Sunday. I would be expected to lead the ritual for the Dark Daughters. I realized everyone was also expecting me to make an announcement about changes I planned to make. Uh, I needed to have a clue about those changes. Surprisingly, I did have an idea, but it definitely needed help.
I ignored Damien's curious look as I quickly gathered up my notebook and went up to Neferet's desk.
"Problem, Zoey?" she asked.
"No. Uh, yes. Well, actually, if you would let me go to the media center for the rest of the hour, my problem would probably go away." I realized I was nervous. I'd only been at the House of Night for a month, and I still wasn't sure about the protocol for being excused from class. I mean, there were only two kids in the entire month who'd gotten sick. And they'd died. Both of them. Their bodies had rejected the Change, one had happened right in front of me during Lit class. It had been totally gross. But other than the occasional dying kid students rarely missed class. Neferet was watching me, and I remembered that she was an intuitive and she could probably sense the ridiculous babble going on in my head. I sighed. "It's Dark Daughters stuff. I want to come up with some new leadership ideas."
She looked pleased. "Anything I can help you with?"
"Probably, but I need to do some research and get my ideas straight first."
"Very well, come to me when you're ready. And feel free to spend as much time in the media center as you need," Neferet said.
I hesitated. "Do I need a pass?"
She smiled. "I am your mentor and I have given you permission, what more could you need?"
"Thanks," I said, and hurried out of the classroom feeling stupid. I would be so glad when I'd been at the school long enough to know all the little inside rules. And, anyway, I don't know what I'd been so worried about. The halls were deserted. Unlike my old high school (South Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma—which is a totally boring suburb of Tulsa) there were no Napoleon Complex, overly tanned vice principals with nothing better to do than to prowl the halls harassing kids. I slowed down and told myself to relax—jeesh, I'd been stressed out lately.
The library was in the front center area of the school in a cool multilevel room that had been built to mimic the turret of a castle, which fit in well with the theme of the rest of the school. The whole thing looked like something out of the past. That was probably one of the reasons it had attracted the attention of the vamps five years ago. Then it had been a stuck-up rich kids' prep school, but it had originally been built as a monastery for the Saint Augustine People of Faith monks. I remember that when I asked how the prep school had been talked into selling to the vamps Neferet had told me that they'd made them a deal they couldn't refuse. The memory of the dangerous tone her voice had taken still made my skin crawl.
I jumped and almost peed on myself. "Nala! You scared the crap outta me!"
Unconcerned, my cat launched herself into my arms, and I had to juggle notebook, purse, and small (but chubby) orange cat. All the while Nala complained at me in her grumpy old lady cat voice. She adored me, and she'd definitely chosen me as her own, but that didn't mean that she was always pleasant. I shifted her, and pushed open the door to the media center.
Oh—what Neferet had told my stupid step-loser John had been the truth. Cats do roam free all over the school. They often followed "their" kid to class. Nala, in particular, liked to find me several times a day. She'd insist I scratch her head, complain a little at me, and then take off and go do whatever cats did with their free time. (Plot world domination?)
"Do you need help with her?" the media specialist asked. I had only met her briefly during my orientation week, but I remembered her name was Sappho. (Uh, she wasn't the real Sappho—that vampyre poet had died like a thousand years ago—right now we were studying her work in Lit class.)
"No, Sappho, but thank you. Nala doesn't really like anyone except me."
Sappho, a tiny dark-haired vamp whose tattoos were elaborate symbols Damien had told me were Greek alphabet glyphs, smiled fondly at Nala. "Cats are such wonderfully interesting creatures, don't you think?"
I moved Nala to my other shoulder and she grumbled in my ear. "They're definitely not dogs," I said.
"Thank the Goddess for that!"
"Do you mind if I use one of the computers?" The media center was lined with row after row of books—thousands of them—but it also had a very cool, up-to-date computer lab.
"Of course, make yourself at home and feel free to call on me if you can't find what you need."
I picked a computer that sat on a nice big desk and clicked into the Internet. This was something else that was way different than my old school. Here there were no passwords and no Internet filtering program that restricted sites. Here students were expected to show some sense and act right—and if they didn't it's not like the vamps, who were almost impossible to lie to, wouldn't find out. Just thinking about trying to lie to Neferet made my stomach hurt.
Focus and stop messing around. This is important.
Okay, so an idea had been milling around in my head. It was time to see if there was anything to it. I pulled up Google and typed in "private preparatory schools." Zillions came up. I started narrowing. I wanted exclusive and upper class (none of those stupid "alternative academies" that were really just holding pens for future criminals—ugh). I also wanted old schools, ones that had been around for generations. I was looking for something that had passed the test of time.
I easily found Chatham Hall, which was the school Aphrodite's parents had thrown in her face. It was an exclusive East Coast prep school and, man, did it look stuck-up. I clicked out. Any place Aphrodite's freak parents approved of would not be something I wanted to use as a role model. I kept searching .. . Exeter ... Andover ... Taft ... Miss Porter's (really—hee hee—that's the school's name) ... Kent .. .
"Kent. I've heard that name before," I told Nala, who had curled up on top of the desk so that she could watch me sleepily. I clicked into it. "It's in Connecticut—that's why it's familiar. This is where Shaunee had been going when she was Marked." I browsed through the site, curious to see where Shaunee had spent the first part of her freshman (or third former) year. It was a pretty school—there was no denying that. Stuck-up, sure, but there was something about it that seemed more welcoming than the other prep schools. Maybe it was just because I knew Shaunee. I kept going through the site— and suddenly sat up straighter. "This is it," I muttered to myself. "This is the kind of stuff I need."
I pulled out my pen and notebook paper and got busy taking notes. Lots of notes.
If Nala hadn't hissed a warning, I would have jumped out of my skin when a deep voice spoke behind me.
"You look completely engrossed in that."
I glanced over my shoulder—and froze. Ohmygod.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. It was just so unusual to see a student writing feverishly in longhand, rather than pecking away at the computer keys, that I thought you might be writing poetry. You see, I prefer to write poetry longhand. The computer is just too impersonal."
Stop being such a moron! Speak to him! My mind screamed at me. "I—uh —I'm not writing poetry." God, that was brilliant.
"Oh, well. Doesn't hurt to check. Nice talking with you."
He smiled and started to turn away and my mouth finally managed to work a little more correctly. "Uh, I think computers are impersonal, too. I've never really written poetry, but when I write something that's important to me I like to do it like this." Totally dork-like, I held up my pen.
"Well, maybe you should try writing poetry. Sounds like you might have the soul of a poet." He held out his hand. "Usually about this time of day I come by and give Sappho a break. I'm not a full-time professor because I'm only here for one school year. I just teach two classes, so I have extra time. I'm Loren Blake, Vampyre Poet Laureate."
I grasped his forearm in the traditional vampyre greeting, trying not to think about how warm his arm was, how strong he felt, and how alone we were in the empty media center.
"I know," I said. Then I wanted to slit my throat. What an idiotic thing to say! "What I mean is I know who you are. You're the first male Poet Laureate they've named in two hundred years." I realized I was still grasping his arm and let go of him. "I'm Zoey Redbird."
His smile made my heart flop around inside my chest. "I know who you are, too." His gorgeous eyes, so dark they looked black and bottomless, sparkled mischievously. "You're the first fledgling to have a colored-in, expanded Mark, as well as the only vamp, fledgling or adult, to have an affinity for all five of the elements. It's nice to finally meet you face-to-face. Neferet's told me a lot about you."
"She has?" I was mortified that my voice squeaked.
"Of course she has. She's incredibly proud of you." He nodded at the empty seat beside me. "I don't want to interrupt your work, but do you mind if I sit with you a little while?"
"Yeah, sure. I need a break. I think my butt's asleep." Oh, God, just kill me now.
He laughed. "Well then, would you like to stand while I sit?"
"No, I'll—uh—just shift my weight." And then I'll hurl myself out the window.
"So, if it's not too personal, may I ask what you're working so diligently on?"
Okay, I needed to think and talk. Be normal. Forget that he was easily the most heart-stoppingly beautiful man I'd ever been near in my entire life. He's a professor at the school. Just another teacher. That's all. Yeah, right. Just another teacher who looked like every woman's dream of The Perfect Man. And I did mean Man. Erik was hot and handsome and very cool. Loren Blake was a whole other universe. A totally off-limits, impossibly sexy universe I was not allowed access to. As if he saw me as anything but a kid anyway. Please. I'm sixteen. Okay, almost seventeen, but still. He's probably at least twenty-one or something. He was just being nice. More than likely he wanted a closer look at my freaky Marks. He could be collecting research for a highly embarrassing poem about the-
"Zoey? If you don't want to tell me what you're working on, that's fine. I really didn't mean to bother you."
"No! It's okay." I drew a deep breath and got myself together. "Sorry— guess I was still thinking about my research," I lied, hoping that he was a young enough vamp that he didn't have the incredible lie detector powers the older profs had. I blundered quickly on. "I want to change the Dark Daughters. I think it needs a foundation—some clear rules and guidelines. Not just to join, but once you're in there should be standards. You shouldn't be given a free pass to be as big a jerk as you want to be, and still get the privilege of being a Dark Daughter or Son." I paused and I could feel my face getting hot and red. What the hell was I babbling on about? I must sound like the school idiot.
But instead of laughing at me or, worse, saying something patronizing and taking off, he seemed to be considering what I said. "So what have you come up with?" he asked.
"Well, I like the way this private school called Kent runs their student leadership group. Look—" I clicked on the right link and read from the text. "The Senior Council and Prefect System is an integral part of life at Kent. These students are chosen as leaders who vow to be role models and to manage all aspects of student life at Kent." I used my pen to point at the computer screen. "See, there are several different Prefects, and they are elected to each yearly Council by votes of the students and the faculty, but the final choice is made by the Headmaster—which would be Neferet—and the Senior Prefect."
"Which would be you," he said.
I could feel my face getting hot. Again. "Yeah. It also says every May new Council members are 'Tapped' as possible appointees for the next school year, and there's a big service held to celebrate." I smiled, and said, more to myself than him, "Sounds like a new ritual Nyx would approve of." As I said the words I felt the rightness of them deep within me.
"I like it," Loren said. "I think it's a great idea."
"Really? You're not just saying that?"
"There's something about me that you should know. I don't lie."
I stared into his eyes. They seemed bottomless. He was sitting so close to me that I could feel the heat from his body, which made me suppress a shiver from a sudden rush of forbidden desire. "Well, thanks then," I said softly. Feeling suddenly bold, I continued. "I want the Dark Daughters to stand for more than just a social group. I want them to set examples—do the right things. So I thought that each of us would have to swear to uphold five ideals representing the five elements."
His brows went up. "What did you have in mind?"
"The Dark Daughters and Sons should swear to be authentic for air, faithful for fire, wise for water, empathetic for earth, and sincere for spirit." I finished without looking at my notes. I already knew the five ideals by heart. So I watched his eyes instead. He didn't say anything for a moment. Then, slowly, he reached out and traced one finger over the fluid line of my tattoo. I wanted to tremble under his touch, but I couldn't move.
"Beautiful and intelligent and innocent," he whispered. Then his incredible voice recited, "The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express. "
"So sorry to interrupt, but I really do need to check out the next three books in this series for Professor Anastasia."
Aphrodite's voice broke the spell between Loren and me, as well as almost giving me a heart attack. Actually, Loren looked as shaken as I felt. He dropped his hand from my face and walked quickly to the checkout counter. I sat where I was like I'd grown to my chair, trying to look oh-so-busy scribbling more notes (which were actually, well, scribble). I heard Sappho come back in and take over checking out Aphrodite's books from Loren. I could hear him leaving, and almost as if I couldn't help it, I turned and looked at him. He was walking out the door and not paying the least bit of attention to me.
But Aphrodite was staring straight at me with a wicked smile curving her perfect lips.
Another ML? or not? Hmm...
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