Frostbite / Chapter 13

Chapter 13


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Thirteen

PEOPLE STOOD UP AND SHOUTED, everyone wanting their opinion to be heard. As it was, most of them held the same view: Tasha was wrong. They told her she was crazy. They told her that in sending out Moroi and dhampirs to fight the Strigoi, she'd be expediting the extinction of both races. They even had the nerve to suggest that that was Tasha's plan all along- that she was somehow collaborating with the Strigoi in all of this.

Dimitri stood up, disgust all over his features as he surveyed the chaos. "You might as well leave. Nothing useful's going to happen now."

Mason and I rose, but he shook his head when I started to follow Dimitri out.

"You go on," said Mason. "I want to check something out."

I glanced at the standing, arguing people. I shrugged. "Good luck."

I couldn't believe it had only been a few days since I'd spoken to Dimitri. Stepping out into the hall with him, I felt like it'd been years. Being with Mason these last couple of days had been fantastic, but seeing Dimitri again, all of my old feelings for him came rushing back. Suddenly, Mason seemed like a child. My distress over the Tasha situation also came back, and stupid words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them.

"Shouldn't you be in there protecting Tasha?" I asked. "Before the mob gets her? She's going to get in big trouble for using magic like that."

He raised an eyebrow. "She can take care of herself."

"Yeah, yeah, because she's a badass karate magic user. I get all that. I just figured since you're going to be her guardian and all..."

"Where did you hear that?"

"I have my sources." Somehow, saying I'd heard it from my mom sounded less cool. "You've decided to, right? I mean, it sounds like a good deal, seeing as she's going to give you fringe benefits...."

He gave me a level look. "What happens between her and me is none of your business," he replied crisply.

The words between her and me stung. It sounded like he and Tasha were a done deal. And, as often happened when I was hurt, my temper and attitude took over.

"Well, I'm sure you guys'll be happy together. She's just your type, too- I know how much you like women who aren't your own age. I mean, she's what, six years older than you? Seven? And I'm seven years younger than you."

"Yes," he said after several moments of silence. "You are. And every second this conversation goes on, you only prove how young you really are."

Whoa. My jaw almost hit the floor. Not even my mother punching me had hurt as badly as that. For a heartbeat, I thought I saw regret in his eyes, like he too realized just how harsh his words had been. But the moment passed, and his expression was hard once more.

"Little dhampir," a voice suddenly said nearby.

Slowly, still stunned, I turned toward Adrian Ivashkov. He grinned at me and gave a brief nod of acknowledgment to Dimitri. I suspected my face was bright red. How much had Adrian heard?

He held up his hands in a casual gesture. "I don't want to interrupt or anything. Just wanted to talk to you when you have time."

I wanted to tell Adrian I didn't have time to play whatever game he was into now, but Dimitri's words still smarted. He was looking at Adrian now in a very disapproving way. I suspected he, like everyone else, had heard about Adrian's bad reputation. Good, I thought. I suddenly wanted him to be jealous. I wanted to hurt him as much as he'd hurt me lately.

Swallowing my pain, I unearthed my man-eating smile, one I hadn't used to full effect in sometime. I walked over to Adrian and put a hand on his arm.

"I've got time now." I gave a nod of my own to Dimitri and steered Adrian away, walking close to him. "See you later, Guardian Belikov."

Dimitri's dark eyes followed us stonily. Then I turned away and didn't look back.

"Not into older guys, huh?" asked Adrian once we were alone.

"You're imagining things," I said. "Clearly, my stunning beauty has clouded your mind."

He laughed that nice laugh of his. "That's entirely possible."

I started to step back, but he tossed an arm around me. "No, no, you wanted to play chummy with me- now you've got to see it through."

I rolled my eyes at him and let the arm stay. I could smell alcohol on him as well as the perpetual smell of cloves. I wondered if he was drunk now. I had the feeling that there was probably little difference between his attitudes drunk or sober.

"What do you want?" I asked.

He studied me for a moment. "I want you to grab Vasilisa and come with me. We're going to have some fun. You'll probably want a swimsuit too." He seemed disappointed by the admission of this. "Unless you want to go naked."

"What? A bunch of Moroi and dhampirs just got slaughtered, and you want to go swimming and 'have fun'?"

"It's not just swimming," he said patiently. "Besides, that slaughter is exactly why you should go do this."

Before I could argue that, I saw my friends round the corner: Lissa, Mason, and Christian. Eddie Castile was with the group, which shouldn't have surprised me, but Mia was as well- which certainly did surprise me. They were deep in conversation, though they all stopped talking when they saw me.

"There you are," said Lissa, a puzzled look on her face.

I remembered Adrian's arm was still around me. I stepped out of it. "Hey, guys," I said. A moment of awkwardness hung around us, and I was pretty sure I heard a low chuckle from Adrian. I beamed at him and then my friends. "Adrian invited us to go swimming."

They stared at me in surprise, and I could almost see the wheels of speculation turning in their heads. Mason's face darkened a little, but like the others, he said nothing. I stifled a groan.

Adrian took me inviting the others to his secret interlude pretty well. With his easygoing attitude, I hadn't really expected anything else. Once we had swimsuits, we followed his directions to a doorway in one of the far wings of the lodge. It held a staircase that led down- and down and down. I nearly got dizzy as we wound around and around. Electric lights hung in the walls, but as we went farther, the painted walls changed to carved stone.

When we reached our destination, we discovered Adrian had been right- it wasn't just swimming. We were in a special spa area of the resort, one used only for the most elite Moroi. In this case, it was reserved for a bunch of royals I assumed were Adrian's friends. There were about thirty others, all his age or older, who bore the marks of wealth and elitism.

The spa consisted of a series of hot mineral pools. Maybe once they'd been in a cave or something, but the lodge builders had long since gotten rid of any sort of rustic surroundings. The black stone walls and ceiling were as polished and beautiful as anything else in the resort. It was like being in a cave- a really nice, designer cave. Racks of towels lined the walls, as did tables full of exotic food. The baths matched the rest of the room's hewn-out d¨¦cor: stone-lined pools containing hot water that was heated from some underground source. Steam filled the room, and a faint, metallic smell hung in the air. Sounds of partygoers laughing and splashing echoed around us.

"Why is Mia with you?" I asked Lissa softly. We were winding our way through the room, looking for a pool that wasn't occupied.

"She was talking to Mason when we were getting ready to leave," she returned. She kept her voice just as quiet. "It seemed mean to just... I don't know ... leave her ..."

Even I agreed with that. Obvious signs of grief were written all over her face, but Mia seemed at least momentarily distracted by whatever Mason was telling her.

"I thought you didn't know Adrian," Lissa added. Disapproval hung in her voice and in the bond. We finally found a large pool, a little out of the way. A guy and a girl were on the opposite side, all over each other, but there was plenty of room for the rest of us. They were easy to ignore.

I put a foot into the water and pulled it back immediately.

"I don't," I told her. Cautiously, I inched the foot back in, slowly followed by the rest of my body. When I got to my stomach, I grimaced. I had on a maroon bikini, and the scalding water caught my stomach by surprise.

"You must know him a little. He invited you to a party."

"Yeah, but do you see him with us now?"

She followed my gaze. Adrian stood on the far side of the room with a group of girls in bikinis much smaller than mine. One was a Betsey Johnson suit I'd seen in a magazine and coveted. I sighed and looked away.

We'd all slipped into the water by then. It was so hot I felt like I was in a soup kettle. Now that Lissa seemed convinced of my innocence with Adrian, I tuned into the others' discussion.

"What are you talking about?" I interrupted. It was easier than listening and figuring it out myself.

"The meeting," said Mason excitedly. Apparently, he'd gotten over seeing me and Adrian together.

Christian had settled onto a small shelf in the pool. Lissa curled up beside him. Putting a proprietary arm around her, he tipped his back so it rested on the edge.

"Your boyfriend wants to lead an army against the Strigoi," he told me. I could tell he was saying it to provoke me.

I looked at Mason questioningly. It wasn't worth the effort to challenge the "boyfriend" comment.

"Hey, it was your aunt who suggested it," Mason reminded Christian.

"She only said we should find the Strigoi before they find us again," countered Christian. "She wasn't pushing for novices fighting. That was Monica Szelsky."

A waitress came by then with a tray of pink drinks. These were in elegant, long-stemmed crystal glasses with sugared rims. I had a strong suspicion the drinks were alcoholic, but I doubted anyone who made it into this party was going to get carded. I had no idea what they were. Most of my experiences with alcohol had involved cheap beer. I took a glass and turned back to Mason.

"You think that's a good idea?" I asked him. I sipped the drink, cautiously. As a guardian in training, I felt like I should always be on alert, but tonight I once again felt like being rebellious. The drink tasted like punch. Grapefruit juice. Something sweet, like strawberries. I was still pretty sure there was alcohol in it, but it didn't appear strong enough for me to lose sleep over.

Another waitress soon appeared with a tray of food. I eyed it and recognized almost nothing. There was something that looked vaguely like mushrooms stuffed with cheese, as well as something else that looked little round patties of meat or sausage. As a good carnivore, I reached for one, thinking it couldn't be that bad.

"It's foie gras," said Christian. There was a smile on his face I didn't like.

I eyed him warily. "What's that?"

"You don't know?" His tone was cocky, and for once in his life, he sounded like a true royal touting his elite knowledge over us underlings. He shrugged. "Take a chance. Find out."

Lissa sighed in exasperation. "It's goose liver."

I jerked my hand back. The waitress moved on, and Christian laughed. I glared at him.

Meanwhile, Mason was still hung up on my question about whether novices going to battle before graduation was a good idea.

"What else are we doing?" he asked indignantly. "What are you doing? You run laps with Belikov every morning. What's that doing for you? For the Moroi?"

What was that doing for me? Making my heart race and my mind have indecent thoughts.

"We aren't ready," I said instead.

"We've only got six more months," piped in Eddie.

Mason nodded his agreement. "Yeah. How much more can we learn?"

"Plenty," I said, thinking of how much I'd picked up from my tutoring sessions with Dimitri. I finished my drink. "Besides, where does it stop? Let's say they end school six months early, then send us off. What next? They decide to push back further and cut our senior year? Our junior year?"

He shrugged. "I'm not afraid to fight. I could have taken on Strigoi when I was a sophomore."

"Yeah," I said dryly. "Just like you did skiing on that slope."

Mason's face, already flushed from the heat, turned redder still. I immediately regretted my words, particularly when Christian started laughing.

"Never thought I'd live to see the day when I agreed with you, Rose. But sadly, I do." The cocktail waitress came by again, and both Christian and I took new drinks. "The Moroi have got to start helping us defend themselves."

"With magic?" asked Mia suddenly.

It was the first time she'd spoken since we'd got here. Silence met her. I think Mason and Eddie didn't respond because they knew nothing about fighting with magic. Lissa, Christian, and I did- and were trying very hard to act like we didn't. There was a funny sort of hope in Mia's eyes, though, and I could only imagine what she'd gone through today. She'd woken up to learn her mother was dead and then been subjected to hours and hours of political bantering and battle strategies. The fact that she was sitting here at all seeming semi-composed was a miracle. I assumed people who actually liked their mothers would barely be able to function in that situation.

When no one else looked like they were going to answer her, I finally said, "I suppose. But... I don't know much about that."

I finished the rest of my drink and averted my eyes, hoping someone else would take up the conversation. They didn't. Mia looked disappointed but said no more when Mason switched back to the Strigoi debate.

I took a third drink and sank into the water as far as I reasonably could and still hold the glass. This drink was different. It looked chocolatey and had whipped cream on top. I took a taste and definitely detected the bite of alcohol. Still, I figured the chocolate probably diluted it.

When I was ready for a fourth drink, the waitress was nowhere in sight. Mason seemed really, really cute to me all of a sudden. I would have liked a little romantic attention from him, but he was still going on about Strigoi and the logistics of leading a strike in the middle of the day. Mia and Eddie were nodding along with him eagerly, and I got the feeling that if he decided to hunt Strigoi right now, they'd follow. Christian was actually joining the talk, but it was more to play devil's advocate. Typical. He thought a sort of preemptive strike would require guardians and Moroi, much as Tasha had said. Mason, Mia, and Eddie argued that if the Moroi weren't up to it, the guardians should take matters into their own hands.

I confess, their enthusiasm was kind of contagious. I rather liked the idea of getting the drop on Strigoi. But in the Badica and Drozdov attacks, all of the guardians had been killed. Admittedly the Strigoi had organized into huge groups and had help, but all that told me was that our side needed to be extra careful.

His cuteness aside, I didn't want to listen to Mason talk about his battle skills anymore. I wanted another drink. I stood up and climbed over the edge of the pool. To my astonishment, the world started spinning. I'd had that happen before when I got out of baths or hot tubs too quickly, but when things didn't right themselves, I realized those drinks might have been stronger than I thought.

I also decided a fourth wasn't such a good idea, but I didn't want to get back in and let everyone know I was drunk. I headed off toward a side room I'd seen the waitress disappear into. I hoped maybe there was a secret stash of desserts somewhere, chocolate mousse instead of goose liver. As I walked, I paid special attention to the slippery floor, thinking that falling into one of the pools and cracking my skull would definitely cost me coolness points.

I was paying so much attention to my feet and trying not to stagger that I walked into someone. To my credit, it'd been his fault; he'd backed into me.

"Hey, watch it," I said, steadying myself.

But he wasn't paying attention to me. His eyes were on another guy, a guy with a bloody nose.

I'd walked right into the middle of a fight.

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