My stomach hurt all through the rest of Spanish class, so much so that I even figured out how to ask Proffe Garmy, "puedo it al bano, " and spent so much time in the bathroom that Stevie Rae followed me in there asking what was wrong.
I know I was worrying the hell out of her—I mean, if a fledgling starts looking sick, that tends to mean that she's dying. And I'm positive I looked awful. I told Stevie Rae that I was getting my period and the cramps were killing me—although not literally. She didn't seem convinced.
I was incredibly glad to get to my last class of the week, Equestrian Studies. Not only did I love the class, but it always calmed me. This week I'd graduated to actually cantering Persephone, the horse that Lenobia (no prof title for her, she said the name of the ancient vampyre queen was title enough) had assigned to me the first week of class, and practiced changing leads. I worked with the beautiful mare until both of us were sweating and my stomach felt a little better, then I took my time cooling her off and grooming her, not caring that the bell had signaled the end of the school day a good half an hour before I emerged from her stall. I went to the immaculately kept tack room to put away the curry combs, and was surprised to see Lenobia sitting on a chair outside the door. She was rubbing saddle soap into what looked like an already spotlessly clean English saddle.
Lenobia was striking-looking, even for a vampyre. She had amazing hair that reached her waist and was so blond it was almost white. Her eyes were a weird color of gray, like a stormy sky. She was tiny, and carried herself like a prima ballerina. Her tattoo was an intricate series of knots entwining around her face—within the sapphire design horses plunged and reared.
"Horses can help us work through our problems," she said without looking up from the saddle.
I wasn't sure what to say. I liked Lenobia. Okay, when I started her class she had scared me; she was tough and sarcastic, but after I got to know her (and proved I understood horses were not just big dogs), I'd come to appreciate her wit and her no-nonsense attitude. Actually, next to Neferet, she was my favorite teacher, but she and I hadn't ever talked about anything except horses. So, hesitantly, I finally said, "Persephone makes me feel calm, even when I don't feel calm. Does that make any sense?"
She looked up at me then, her gray eyes shadowed with concern. "It makes perfect sense." She paused, and then added, "You've been given many responsibilities in a very short amount of time, Zoey."
"I don't really mind," I assured her. "I mean, being leader of the Dark Daughters is an honor."
"Often things that bring us the most honor can also bring us the most problems." She paused again and maybe I was imagining it, but she seemed to be trying to decide whether to say more or not. Then she drew her already straight spine up even straighter and continued. "Neferet is your mentor, and it is only right that you go to her with your confidences, but sometimes High Priestesses can be difficult to talk with. I want you to know that you can come to me—about anything."
I blinked in surprise. "Thank you, Lenobia."
"I'll put these up for you. Run along. I'm sure your friends are wondering what has happened to you." She smiled and reached out to take the curry combs from me. "And feel free to come by the barn to visit Persephone anytime. I have often found that grooming a horse can somehow make the world seem less complex."
"Thank you," I said again.
As I left the barn I could swear that I heard her call softly after me something that sounded a lot like May Nyx bless and watch over you. But that was just too weird. Of course, it was also too weird that she had said I could talk to her. Fledglings formed special bonds with their mentors—and I had an extra-special mentor in the High Priestess of the school. Sure, we liked the other vamps, but if a kid had a problem she couldn't solve on her own, the kid took that problem to his or her mentor. Always.
The walk from the stables to the dorm wasn't a long one, but I took my time, trying to stretch out the sense of peace working with Persephone had given me. I meandered off the sidewalk a little, heading toward the old trees that lined the eastern side of the thick wall surrounding the school grounds. It was almost four o'clock (A.M., of course), and the deepness of the night was beautiful lit by the fat setting moon.
I'd forgotten how much I loved walking out here by the school wall. Actually, I'd avoided coming out here for the past month. Ever since I'd seen —or thought I'd seen—the two ghosts.
"Crap, Nala! Don't scare me like that." My heart was beating like crazy as I lifted my cat into my arms and petted her while she complained at me. "Hello —you could have been a ghost." Nala peered at me and then sneezed right in my face, which I took as her comment on the possibility of her being a ghost.
Okay, the first "sighting" might have been a ghost. I'd been out here the day after Elizabeth had died last month. She'd been the first of two fledgling deaths to shake the school. Well, more accurately, to shake me. As fledglings who could—any of us—drop dead at any time during the four years it took the physiological Change from human to vampyre to happen within our bodies, the school expected us to deal with death as just another fact of fledgling life. Say a prayer or two for the dead kid. Light a candle. Whatever. Just get over it and go on with your business.
It still seemed wrong to me, but maybe that was because I was only a month into the Change and still more used to being human than vamp, or even fledgling.
I sighed and scratched Nala's ears. Anyway, the night after Elizabeth's death I'd caught a glimpse of something that I thought was Elizabeth. Or her ghost, 'cause she was definitely dead. So it was no more than a glimpse, and Stevie Rae and I had discussed it without really deciding what was up with it. The truth was that we knew all too well that ghosts existed—the ones Aphrodite had conjured a month ago had almost killed my human ex-boyfriend. So I might very well have seen Elizabeth's newly freed spirit. Of course I might also have caught a glimpse of a fledgling and, because it had been night and I'd only been here for a few days and had, in those few days, gone through all sorts of unbelievable crap, I might have imagined the whole thing.
I came to the wall and turned to my right, meandering along it in the direction that would eventually lead me near the rec hall, and then, in turn, the girls' dorm.
"But the second sighting definitely wasn't my imagination. Right, Nala?" The cat's answer was to burrow her face into the corner of my neck and purr like a lawn mower. I snuggled her, glad she'd followed me. Just thinking about the second ghost still freaked me out. Like now, Nala had been with me. (The similarity made me glance nervously around and step up my meandering.)
It had not been long after the second kid had drowned in his own lung tissue and bled out right in front of my Lit class. I shuddered, remembering how awful it had been—especially because of my gross attraction to his blood. Anyway, I'd watched Elliott die. Then later that day Nala and I had run into him (almost literally) not far from where we were right now. I'd thought he was another ghost. At first. Then he'd tried to attack me, and Nala (precious kitten) had launched herself at him, which had made him leap over the twenty-foot wall and disappear into the night, leaving Nala and me totally freaked out. Especially after I noticed that my cat had blood all over her paws. The ghost's blood. Which made no damn sense.
But I hadn't mentioned this second sighting to anyone. Not my best friend and roommate Stevie Rae, not my mentor and High Priestess Neferet, not my totally delicious new boyfriend, Erik. No one. I'd meant to. But then all the stuff had happened with Aphrodite ... I'd taken over the Dark Daughters ... started dating Erik ... been extremely busy with school ... blah, blah, one thing led to another and here I was a month later and I hadn't said anything to anyone. Just thinking about telling someone now sounded lame in my own mind. Hey, Stevie Rae/Neferet/Damien/Twins/ Erik, I saw the specter of Elliott last month after he'd died and he'd been really scary and when he tried to attack me Nala made him bleed. Oh, and his blood smelled all wrong. Believe me. I'm way into good-smelling blood (just another freakish thing about me, most fledglings have no bloodlust). Just thought I'd mention it.
Yeah, right. They'd probably want to send me to the vamp equivalent of a shrink, and oh, boy, wouldn't that help me to instill confidence in the masses as the new leader of the Dark Daughters? Not hardly.
Plus, the more time passed, the easier it was for me to convince myself that maybe I'd imagined some of the Elliott encounter.
Maybe it hadn't been Elliott (or his ghost or whatever). I didn't know every single one of the fledglings here. There could be another kid here who had ugly, bushy red hair and pudgy, too white skin. Sure, I hadn't seen that kid again, but still. And about the weird-smelling blood. Well, maybe some fledglings had weird-smelling blood. Like I could possibly be an expert in one month? Also both "ghosts" had glowing red eyes. What had that been about?
The whole thing was giving me a headache.
Ignoring the jumpy, spooky feeling this entire chain of thought was causing, I started to turn resolutely from the wall (and from the subject of ghosts and such) when a movement caught at the corner of my eye. I froze. It was a shape. A body. It was somebody. The person was standing under the enormous old oak I'd found Nala in last month. His or her back was to me, and he or she was leaning against the tree, head bowed.
Good. It hasn't seen me. I didn't want to know who or what it was. The truth was that I already had enough stress in my life. I didn't need the addition of ghosts of any type. (And, I promised myself, this time I was going to tell Neferet about the weirdly bleeding ghosts that hung out by the school's wall.
She was older. She could deal with the stress.) Heart pounding so loud that I swear the sound of it was drowning out Nala's purr, I slowly and quietly started backing away, telling myself firmly that I was never going to walk out here in the middle of the night alone again. Ever. What was I, mentally impaired? Why couldn't I learn the first, or even the second time?
Then my foot came down squarely in the middle of a dry branch. Crack! I gasped. Nala grumbled a very loud complaint (I was inadvertently squashing her to my bosom). The head of the figure under the tree snapped up and it turned around. I tensed to get ready to either scream and run from a red-eyed malevolent ghost, or to scream and fight a red-eyed malevolent ghost. Either way a scream would definitely be involved, so I sucked in air and"Zoey? Is that you?"
The voice was deep, sexy, and already familiar. "Loren?"
"What are you doing out here?"
He made no move to come closer to me, so out of pure awkward fidgeting I grinned as if I hadn't been scared poo-less just seconds ago, shrugged nonchalantly, and joined him under the tree. "Hi," I said, trying to sound grown. Then I remembered that he'd asked me a question and I was glad that it was dark enough that my blush wasn't totally obvious. "Oh, I was walking back from the stables and Nala and I decided to take a long-cut." A long-cut? Had I really said that?
I thought he'd looked tense when I'd walked up to him, but this made him laugh and his completely gorgeous face relaxed. "A long-cut, huh? Hello again, Nala." He scratched the top of her head and she rudely, but typically, grumbled at him and then leaped neatly from my arms to the ground, shook herself, and still grumbling, padded delicately away.
"Sorry. She's not very sociable."
He smiled. "Don't worry about it. My cat, Wolverine, reminds me of a grumpy old man."
"Wolverine?" I raised my eyebrows.
His gorgeous smile went all crooked and boylike and, unbelievably, it made him even more handsome. "Yeah, Wolverine. He chose me as his when I was a third former. That was the year I was completely into the X-Men. "
"That name could account for why he's so grumpy."
"Well, it could have been worse. The year before I couldn't stop watching Spider-Man. He came within an inch of being Spidey or Peter Parker."
"Clearly, you're a great burden for your cat to bear."
"Wolverine would most definitely agree with you!" He laughed again and I tried hard not to let his overwhelming hotness make me giggle hysterically like a pre-teen at a boy band concert. I was, for the moment, actually flirting with him! Remain calm. Don't say or do anything idiotic.
"So, what are you doing way out here?" I asked, ignoring my mind babble.
"Writing haiku." He lifted his hand and I noticed for the first time that he was holding one of those cool, ultra-expensive leather-bound writer's journals. "I find inspiration being out here, alone, in the hours before dawn."
"Oh, gosh! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you. I'll just say bye and leave you alone." I waved (like a dork) and started to turn away, but he caught my wrist with his free hand.
"You don't have to go. I find inspiration in more things than being out here alone."
His hand was warm against my wrist and I wondered if he could feel my pulse jump.
"Well, I don't want to bother you."
"Don't worry about that. You're not bothering me." He squeezed my wrist before (sadly) letting it go.
"Okay, so. Haiku." His touch had left me ridiculously flustered and I tried to regain my facade of good sense. "That's Asian poetry with a set meter count, right?"
His smile made me ever so glad I'd actually paid attention in Mrs. Wienecke's English class last year during the poetry unit.
"That's right. I prefer the five-seven-five format." He paused and his smile changed. Something about it made my stomach do a little fluttery thing, and his dark, beautiful eyes locked on mine. "Speaking of inspiration—you could help me out."
"Sure, I'd be happy to," I said, glad I didn't sound as breathless as I felt.
Still looking into my eyes, he lifted his hand so that it brushed my shoulder. "Nyx has Marked you there."
It didn't sound like a question, but I nodded. "Yes."
"I would like to see it. If it wouldn't make you too uncomfortable."
His voice shivered through me. Logic was telling me that he was only asking to see my tattoos because of how freakishly different they are, and that he was in no way coming on to me. To him I must seem nothing more than a child—a kid—a fledgling with weird Marks and unusual powers. That's what logic was telling me. But his eyes, his voice, the way his hand was still caressing my shoulder—those things were telling me something completely different.
"I'll show it to you."
I was wearing my favorite jacket—black suede and cut to fit me perfectly. Under it I had on a deep purple tank. (Yes, it's the end of November, but I don't feel the cold like I did before I was Marked. None of us do.) I started to shrug out of the jacket.
"Here, let me help you."
He was standing very close to me, in front and to the side. He reached up with his right hand, caught the collar of my jacket with his fingers, and slid it over and down my shoulder so that it pooled around my elbows.
Loren should be looking at my partially bare shoulder, gawking at the tattoos there that not one other fledgling or vampyre that I knew of had ever had. But he wasn't. He was still staring into my eyes. And suddenly something happened within me. I stopped feeling like a goofy, jittery, dorky teenage girl. The look in his eyes touched the woman inside me, awakening her, and as this new me stirred I found a calm confidence in myself that I had rarely known before. Slowly, I reached up and pushed the small strap of my ribbed cotton tank over my shoulder so that it joined my half-discarded jacket. Then, still meeting his eyes, I swept my long hair out of the way, lifted my chin, and turned my body slightly, giving him a clear view of the back of my shoulder, which was now completely bare except for the slim line of my black bra.
He continued to meet my gaze for several more seconds, and I could feel the cool breath of the night air and the caress of the nearly full moon on the exposed skin of my breast and shoulder and back. Very deliberately, Loren moved even closer to me, holding my upper arm while he looked at the back of my shoulder.
"It's incredible." His voice was so low it was almost a whisper. I felt his fingertip lightly trace the labyrinth-like spiral pattern that was, except for the exotic-looking runes interspersed around the spirals, much like my facial Mark. "I've never seen anything like this. It's as if you're an ancient priestess who has materialized in our time. How blessed we are to have you, Zoey Redbird."
He said my name like a prayer. His voice mixed with his touch made me shiver as goose bumps lifted on my skin.
"I'm sorry. You must be cold." Gently, but quickly, Loren pulled up my tank strap and my jacket.
"I wasn't shivering because I was cold." I heard myself say the words, and couldn't decide if I should be proud of myself or shocked at my boldness.
"Cream and silk as one
How I long to taste and touch
The moon watches us. "
His eyes never left mine as he recited the poem. His voice, which was usually so practiced, so perfect, had gone all deep and rough, like he was having a hard time speaking. As if his voice had the ability to heat me, I was so flushed that I could feel my blood pounding fiery rivers through my body. My thighs tingled and it was hard to catch my breath. If he kisses me I might explode. The thought shocked me into speaking. "Did you write that just now?" This time my voice sounded as breathless as I felt.
He shook his head slightly, a smile barely touching his lips. "No. It was written centuries ago by an ancient Japanese poet about how his lover looked naked under the full moon."
"It's beautiful," I said.
"You're beautiful," he said, and cupped my cheek in his hand. "And tonight you have been my inspiration. Thank you."
I could feel myself leaning into him, and I swear his body responded. I may not be highly experienced. And, hell yes, I'm still a virgin. But I'm not an utter moron (most of the time). I know when a guy is into me. And this guy— for that moment—was definitely into me. I covered his hand with my own, and forgetting about everything, including Erik and the fact that Loren was an adult vamp and I was a fledgling, I willed him to kiss me, willed him to touch me more. We stared at each other. We were both breathing hard. Then, within the space of an instant, his eyes flickered and changed from dark and intimate to dark and distant. He dropped his hand from my face and moved a step back. I felt his withdrawal like an icy wind.
"It was nice to see you, Zoey. And thanks again for allowing me to look at your Mark." His smile was polite and proper. He gave me a little nod that was almost a formal bow, and then he walked away.
I didn't know whether I should scream in frustration, cry in embarrassment, or growl and be pissed. Frowning and muttering to myself, I ignored the fact that my hands were shaking and marched back to the dorm. This was definitely an I-need-my-best-friend emergency.
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