Frostbite / Chapter 5

Chapter 5


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Five

I HAD NO IDEA WHAT Dimitri was talking about, but I followed along obediently.

To my surprise, he led me out of the boundaries of the campus and into the surrounding woods. The Academy owned a lot of land, not all of which was actively used for educational purposes. We were in a remote part of Montana, and at times, it seemed as though the school was just barely holding back the wilderness.

We walked quietly for a while, our feet crunching through thick, unbroken snow. A few birds flitted by, singing their greetings to the rising sun, but mostly all I saw were scraggly, snow-heavy evergreen trees. I had to work to keep up with Dimitri's longer stride, particularly since the snow slowed me down a little. Soon, I discerned a large, dark shape ahead. Some kind of building.

"What is that?" I asked. Before he could answer, I realized it was a small cabin, made out of logs and everything. Closer examination showed that the logs looked worn and rotten in some places. The roof sagged a little.

"Old watch-post," he said. "Guardians used to live on the edge of campus and keep watch for Strigoi."

"Why don't they anymore?"

"We don't have enough guardians to staff it. Besides, Moroi have warded campus with enough protective magic that most don't think it's necessary to have actual people on guard." Provided no humans staked the wards, I thought.

For a few brief moments, I entertained the hope that Dimitri was leading me off to some romantic getaway. Then I heard voices on the opposite side of the building. A familiar hum of feeling coursed into my mind. Lissa was there.

Dimitri and I rounded the corner of the building, coming up on a surprising scene. A small frozen pond lay there, and Christian and Lissa were ice skating on it. A woman I didn't know was with them, but her back was to me. All I could see was a wave of jet-black hair that arced around her when she skated to a graceful stop.

Lissa grinned when she saw me. "Rose!" Christian glanced over at me as she spoke, and I got the distinct impression he felt I was intruding on their romantic moment.

Lissa moved in awkward strides to the pond's edge. She wasn't so adept at skating.

I could only stare in bewilderment¡ªand jealousy. "Thanks for inviting me to the party."

"I figured you were busy," she said. "And this is secret anyway. We aren't supposed to be here." I could have told them that.

Christian skated up beside her, and the strange woman soon followed. "You bringing party crashers, Dimka?" she asked.

I wondered who she was talking to, until I heard Dimitri laugh. He didn't do it that often, and my surprise increased. "It's impossible to keep Rose away from places she shouldn't be. She always finds them eventually."

The woman grinned and turned around, flipping her long hair over one shoulder, so that I suddenly saw her face full-on. It took every ounce of my already dubiously held self-control not to react. Her heart-shaped face had large eyes exactly the same shade as Christian's, a pale wintry blue. The lips that smiled at me were delicate and lovely, glossed in a shade of pink that set off the rest of her features.

But across her left cheek, marring what would have otherwise been smooth, white skin were raised, purplish scars. Their shape and formation looked very much like someone had bitten into and torn out part of her cheek. Which, I realized, was exactly what had happened.

I swallowed. I suddenly knew who this was. It was Christian's aunt. When his parents had turned Strigoi, they'd come back for him, hoping to hide him away and turn him Strigoi when he was older. I didn't know all the details, but I knew his aunt had fended them off. As I'd observed before, though, Strigoi were deadly. She'd provided enough of a distraction until the guardians showed up, but she hadn't walked away without damage.

She extended her gloved hand to me. "Tasha Ozera," she said. "I've heard a lot about you, Rose."

I gave Christian a dangerous look, and Tasha laughed.

"Don't worry," she said. "It was all good."

"No, it wasn't," he countered.

She shook her head in exasperation. "Honestly, I don't know where he got such horrible social skills. He didn't learn them from me." That was obvious, I thought.

"What are you guys doing out here?" I asked.

"I wanted to spend some time with these two." A small frown wrinkled her forehead. "But I don't really like hanging around the school itself. They aren't always hospitable...."

I didn't get that at first. School officials usually fell all over themselves when royals came to visit. Then I figured it out.

"Because ... because of what happened ..."

Considering the way everyone treated Christian because of his parents, I shouldn't have been surprised to find his aunt facing the same discrimination.

Tasha shrugged. "That's the way it is." She rubbed her hands together and exhaled, her breath making a frosty cloud in the air. "But let's not stand out here, not when we can build a fire inside."

I gave a last, wistful glance at the frozen pond and then followed the others inside. The cabin was pretty bare, covered in layers of dust and dirt. It consisted of only one room. There was a narrow bed with no covers in the corner and a few shelves where food had probably once been stored. There was a fireplace, however, and we soon had a blaze going that warmed the small area. The five of us sat down, huddling around its heat, and Tasha produced a bag of marshmallows that we cooked over the flames.

As we feasted on that gooey goodness, Lissa and Christian talked to each other in that easy, comfortable way they always had. To my surprise, Tasha and Dimitri also talked in a familiar and light way. They obviously knew each other from way back when. I'd actually never seen him so animated before. Even when affectionate with me, there'd always been a serious air about him. With Tasha, he bantered and laughed.

The more I listened to her, the more I liked her. Finally, unable to stay out of the conversation, I asked, "So are you coming on the ski trip?"

She nodded. Stifling a yawn, she stretched herself out like a cat. "I haven't been skiing in ages. No time. Been saving all my vacation for this."

"Vacation?" I gave her a curious look. "Do you have...a job?"

"Sadly, yes," Tasha said, though she didn't actually sound very sad about it. "I teach martial arts classes."

I stared in astonishment. I couldn't have been more surprised if she'd said she was an astronaut or a telephone psychic.

A lot of royals just didn't work at all, and if they did, it was usually in some sort of investment or other moneymaking business that furthered their family fortunes. And those who did work certainly didn't do a lot of martial arts or physically demanding jobs. Moroi had a lot of great attributes: exceptional senses¡ªsmell, sight, and hearing¡ªand the power to work magic. But physically, they were tall and slender, often small-boned. They also got weak from being in sunlight. Now, those things weren't enough to prevent someone from becoming a fighter, but they did make it more challenging. An idea had built up among the Moroi over time that their best offense was a good defense, and most shied away from the thought of physical conflict. They hid in well-protected places like the Academy, always relying on stronger, hardier dhampirs to guard them.

"What do you think, Rose?" Christian seemed highly amused by my surprise. "Think you could take her?"

"Hard to say," I said.

Tasha crooked me a grin. "You're being modest. I've seen what you guys can do. This is just a hobby I picked up."

Dimitri chuckled. "Now you're being modest. You could teach half the classes around here."

"Not likely," she said. "It'd be pretty embarrassing to be beaten up by a bunch of teenagers."

"I don't think that'd happen," he said. "I seem to remember you doing some damage to Neil Szelsky."

Tasha rolled her eyes. "Throwing my drink in his face wasn't actually damage¡ªunless you consider the damage it did to his suit. And we all know how he is about his clothes."

They both laughed at some private joke the rest of us weren't in on, but I was only half-listening. I was still intrigued about her role with the Strigoi.

The self-control I'd tried to maintain finally slipped. "Did you start learning to fight before or after that happened to your face?"

"Rose!" hissed Lissa.

But Tasha didn't seem upset. Neither did Christian, and he usually grew uncomfortable when the attack with his parents was brought up. She regarded me with a level, thoughtful look. It reminded me of the one I sometimes got from Dimitri if I did something surprising that he approved of.

"After," she said. She didn't lower her gaze or look embarrassed, though I sensed sadness in her. "How much do you know?"

I glanced at Christian. "The basics."

She nodded. "I knew ... I knew what Lucas and Moira had become, but that still didn't prepare me. Mentally, physically, or emotionally. I think if I had to live through it again, I still wouldn't be ready. But after that night, I looked at myself¡ª figuratively¡ªand realized how defenseless I was. I'd spent my whole life expecting guardians to protect me and take care of me.

"And that's not to say the guardians aren't capable. Like I said, you could probably take me in a fight. But they¡ªLucas and Moira¡ªcut down our two guardians before we realized what had happened. I stalled them from taking Christian¡ª but just barely. If the others hadn't shown up, I'd be dead, and he'd¡ª" She stopped, frowned, and kept going. "I decided that I didn't want to die that way, not without putting up a real fight and doing everything I could to protect myself and those I love. So I learned all sorts of self-defense. And after a while, I didn't really, uh, fit in so well with high society around here. So I moved to Minneapolis and made a living from teaching others."

I didn't doubt there were other Moroi living in Minneapolis¡ªthough God only knew why¡ªbut I could read between the lines. She'd moved there and integrated herself with humans, keeping away from other vampires like Lissa and I had for two years. I started to wonder also if there might have been something else there between the lines. She'd said she'd learned "all sorts of self-defense"¡ªapparently, more than just martial arts. Going along with their offense-defense beliefs, the Moroi didn't think magic should be used as a weapon. Long ago, it had been used that way, and some Moroi still secretly did today. Christian, I knew, was one of them. I suddenly had a good idea of where he might have picked up that kind of thing.

Silence fell. It was hard to follow up a sad story like that. But Tasha, I realized, was one of those people who could always lighten a mood. It made me like her even more, and she spent the rest of the time telling us funny stories. She didn't put on airs like a lot of royals did, so she had lots of dirt on everyone. Dimitri knew a lot of the people she spoke of¡ª honestly, how did someone so antisocial seem to know everyone in Moroi and guardian society?¡ªand would occasionally add some small detail. They had us in hysterics until Tasha finally looked at her watch.

"Where's the best place a girl can go shopping around here?" she asked.

Lissa and I exchanged looks. "Missoula," we said in unison.

Tasha sighed. "That's a couple hours away, but if I leave soon, I can probably still get in some time before the stores close. I'm hopelessly behind in Christmas shopping."

I groaned. "I'd kill to go shopping."

"Me too," said Lissa.

"Maybe we could sneak along...." I gave Dimitri a hopeful look.

"No," he said immediately. I gave a sigh of my own.

Tasha yawned again. "I'll have to grab some coffee, so I don't sleep on the drive in."

"Can't one of your guardians drive for you?"

She shook her head. "I don't have any."

"Don't have any ..." I frowned, parsing her words. "You don't have any guardians?"

"Nope."

I shot up. "But that's not possible! You're royal. You should have at least one. Two, really."

Guardians were distributed among Moroi in a cryptic, micromanaged way by the Guardian Council. It was kind of an unfair system, considering the ratio of guardians to Moroi. Non-royals tended to get them by a lottery system. Royals always got them. High-ranking royals often got more than one, but even the lowest-ranking member of royalty wouldn't have been without one.

"The Ozeras aren't exactly first in line when guardians get assigned," said Christian bitterly. "Ever since...my parents died...there's kind of been a shortage."

My anger flared up. "But that's not fair. They can't punish you for what your parents did."

"It's not punishment, Rose." Tasha didn't seem nearly as enraged as she should have been, in my opinion. "It's just...a rearranging of priorities."

"They're leaving you defenseless. You can't go out there by yourself!"

"I'm not defenseless, Rose. I've told you that. And if I really wanted a guardian, I could make a nuisance of myself, but it's a lot of hassle. I'm fine for now."

Dimitri glanced over at her. "You want me to go with you?"

"And keep you up all night?" Tasha shook her head. "I wouldn't do that to you, Dimka."

"He doesn't mind," I said quickly, excited about this solution.

Dimitri seemed amused by me speaking for him, but he didn't contradict me. "I really don't."

She hesitated. "All right. But we should probably go soon."

Our illicit party dispersed. The Moroi went one direction; Dimitri and I went another. He and Tasha made plans to meet up in a half hour.

"So what do you think of her?" he asked when we were alone.

"I like her. She's cool." I thought about her for a moment. "And I get what you mean about the marks."

"Oh?"

I nodded, watching my footing as we walked along the paths. Even when salted and shoveled, they could still collect hidden patches of ice.

"She didn't do what she did for glory. She did it because she had to. Just like...just like my mom did." I hated to admit it, but it was true. Janine Hathaway might be the worst mother ever, but she was a great guardian. "The marks don't matter. Molnijas or scars."

"You're a fast learner," he said with approval.

I swelled under his praise. "Why does she call you Dimka?"

He laughed softly. I'd heard a lot of his laughter tonight and decided I'd like to hear more of it.

"It's a nickname for Dimitri."

"That doesn't make any sense. It doesn't sound anything like Dimitri. You should be called, I don't know, Dimi or something."

"That's not how it works in Russian," he said.

"Russian's weird," In Russian, the nickname for Vasilisa was Vasya, which made no sense to me.

"So is English."

I gave him a sly look. "If you'd teach me to swear in Russian, I might have a new appreciation for it."

"You swear too much already."

"I just want to express myself."

"Oh, Roza..." He sighed, and I felt a thrill tickle me. "Roza" was my name in Russian. He rarely used it. "You express yourself more than anyone else I know."

I smiled and walked on a bit without saying anything else. My heart skipped a beat, I was so happy to be around him. There was something warm and right about us being together.

Even as I floated along, my mind churned over something else that I'd been thinking about. "You know, there's something funny about Tasha's scars."

"What's that?" he asked.

"The scars...they mess up her face," I began slowly. I was having trouble putting my thoughts into words. "I mean, it's obvious she used to be really pretty. But even with the scars now ... I don't know. She's pretty in a different way. It's like...like they're part of her. They complete her." It sounded silly, but it was true.

Dimitri didn't say anything, but he gave me a sidelong glance. I returned it, and as our eyes met, I saw the briefest glimpse of the old attraction. It was fleeting and gone too soon, but I'd seen it. Pride and approval replaced it, and they were almost as good.

When he spoke, it was to echo his earlier thoughts. "You're a fast learner, Roza."


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