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Frostbite Chapter 4

FOUR

I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT.JANINE Hathaway.My mother.

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My insanely famous and stunningly absent mother. She was no Arthur Schoenberg, but she did have a pretty stellar reputation in the guardian world. I hadn’t seen her in years because she was always off on some insane mission. And yet…here she was at the Academy right now??right in front of me??and she hadn’t even bothered to let me know she was coming. So much for motherly love.

What the hell was she doing here anyway? The answer came quickly. All the Moroi who came to campus would have their guardians in tow. My mother protected a noble from the Szelsky clan, and several members of that family had shown up for the holidays. Of course she’d be here with him.

I slid into my chair and felt something inside of me shrivel up. I knew she had to have seen me come in, but her attention was focused elsewhere. She had on jeans and a beige T-shirt, covered with what had to be the most boring denim jacket I’d ever seen. At only five feet tall, she was dwarfed by the other guardians, but she had a presence and way of standing that made her seem taller.

Our instructor, Stan, introduced the guests and explained that they were going to share real-life experiences with us.

He paced the front of the room, bushy eyebrows knitting together as he spoke. “I know this is unusual,” he explained. “Visiting guardians usually don’t have time to stop by our classes. Our three guests, however, have made time to come talk to you today in light of what’s happened recently…” He paused a moment, and no one needed to tell us what he was referring to. The Badica attack. He cleared his throat and tried again. “In light of what’s happened, we thought it might better prepare you to learn from those currently working in the field.”

The class tensed with excitement. Hearing stories??particularly ones with a lot of blood and action??was a hell of a lot more interesting than analyzing theory from a textbook. Apparently some of the other campus guardians thought so too. They often stopped by our classes, but they were present today in a larger-than-usual number. Dimitri stood among them in the back.

The old guy went first. He launched into his story, and I found myself getting hooked in. It described a time when the youngest son of the family he guarded had wandered off in a public place that Strigoi were lurking in.

“The sun was about to set,” he told us in a gravelly voice. He swept his hands in a downward motion, apparently to demonstrate how a sunset worked. “There were only two of us, and we had to make a snap decision on how to proceed.”

I leaned forward, elbows propped up on my desk. Guardians often worked in pairs. One??the near guard??usually stayed close to those being guarded while the other??the far guard??scouted the area. The far guard still usually stayed within eye contact, so I recognized the dilemma here. Thinking about it, I decided that if I were in that situation, I’d have the near guardian take the rest of the family to a secure location while the other guardian searched for the boy.

“We had the family stay inside a restaurant with my partner while I swept the rest of the area,” continued the old guardian. He spread his hands out in a sweeping motion, and I felt smug over having made the correct call. The story ended happily, with a found boy and no Strigoi encounters.

The second guy’s anecdote talked about how he’d gotten the drop on a Strigoi stalking some Moroi.

“I wasn’t even technically on duty,” he said. He was the really cute one, and a girl sitting near me stared at him with wide, adoring eyes. “I was visiting a friend and the family he guarded. As I was leaving their apartment, I saw a Strigoi lurking in the shadows. He never expected a guardian to be out there. I circled the block, came up behind him, and …” The man made a staking motion, far more dramatic than the old guy’s hand gestures had been. The storyteller even went so far as to mimic twisting the stake into the Strigoi’s heart.

And then it was my mother’s turn. A scowl spread over my face before she even said a word, a scowl that grew worse once she actually launched into the story. I swear, if I didn’t believe her incapable of having the imagination for it??and her bland clothing choices proved she really didn’t have an imagination??I would have thought she was lying. It was more than a story. It was an epic tale, the kind of thing that gets made into movies and wins Oscars.

She talked about how her charge, Lord Szelsky, and his wife had attended a ball put on by another prominent royal family. Several Strigoi had been lying in wait. My mother discovered one, promptly staked it, and then alerted the other guardians present. With their help, she hunted down the other Strigoi lurking around and performed most of the kills herself.

“It wasn’t easy,” she explained. From anyone else that statement would have sounded like bragging. Not her. There was a briskness to the way she spoke, an efficient way of stating facts that left no room for flourishes. She’d been raised in Glasgow and some of her words still had a Scottish lilt. “There were three others on the premises. At the time, that was considered an unusually large number to be working together. That’s not necessarily true now, considering the Badica massacre.” A few people flinched at the casual way she spoke about the attack. Once again, I could see the bodies. “We had to dispatch the remaining Strigoi as quickly and quietly as possible, so as not to alert the others. Now, if you have the element of surprise, the best way to take Strigoi is to come around from behind, break their necks, and then stake them.

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Breaking their necks won’t kill them, of course, but it stuns them and allows you to do the staking before they can make any noise. The most difficult part is actually sneaking up on them, because their hearing is so acute. Since I’m smaller and lighter than most guardians, I can move fairly quietly. So I ended up performing two of the three kills myself.”

Again, she used that matter-of-fact tone as she described her own stealthy skills. It was annoying, more so than if she’d been openly haughty about how awesome she was. My classmates’ faces shone with wonder; they were clearly more interested in the idea of breaking a Strigoi’s neck than analyzing my mother’s narrative skills.

She continued with the story. When she and the other guardians had killed the remaining Strigoi, they’d discovered two Moroi had been taken from the party. Such an act wasn’t uncommon for Strigoi. Sometimes they wanted to save Moroi for a later “snack”; sometimes lower-ranking Strigoi were dispatched by more powerful ones to bring back prey. Regardless, two Moroi were gone from the ball, and their guardian had been injured.

“Naturally, we couldn’t leave those Moroi in Strigoi clutches,” she said. “We tracked the Strigoi to their hideout and found several of them living together. I’m sure you can recognize how rare that is.”

It was. The evil and selfish nature of Strigoi made them turn on each other as easily as they did their victims. Organizing for attacks??when they had an immediate and bloody goal in mind??was the best they could do. But living together? No. It was almost impossible to imagine.

“We managed to free the two captive Moroi, only to discover that others were being held prisoner,” my mother said. “We couldn’t send the ones we’d rescued back by themselves, though, so the guardians who were with me escorted them out and left it to me to get the others.”

Yes, of course, I thought. My mother bravely went in alone. Along the way, she got captured but managed to escape and rescue the prisoners. In doing so, she performed what had to be the hat trick of the century, killing Strigoi in all three ways: staking, decapitation, and setting them on fire.

“I had just staked a Strigoi when two more attacked,” she explained. “I didn’t have time to pull the stake out when the others jumped me. Fortunately, there was an open fireplace nearby, and I pushed one of the Strigoi into it. The last one chased me outside, into an old shed. There was an axe inside and I used that to cut off her head. I then took a can of gasoline and returned to the house. The one I’d thrown into the fireplace hadn’t completely burned, but once I doused him in gasoline, he went up pretty quickly.”

The classroom was in awe as she spoke. Mouths dropped. Eyes bugged. Not a sound could be heard. Glancing around, I felt like time had frozen for everyone??except me. I appeared to be the only one unimpressed by her harrowing tale, and seeing the awe on everyone’s faces enraged me. When she finished, a dozen hands shot up as the class peppered her with questions about her techniques, whether she was scared, etc.

After about the tenth question, I couldn’t take it anymore. I raised my hand. It took her a while to notice and call on me. She seemed mildly astonished to find me in class. I considered myself lucky that she even recognized me.

“So, Guardian Hathaway,” I began. “Why didn’t you guys just secure the place?”

She frowned. I think she’d gone on her guard the moment she called on me. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged and slouched back in my desk, attempting a casual and conversational air. “I don’t know. It seems to me like you guys messed up. Why didn’t you scope out the place and make sure it was clear of Strigoi in the first place? Seems like you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble.”

All eyes in the room turned toward me. My mother was momentarily at a loss for words. “If we hadn’t gone through all that ‘trouble,’ there’d be seven more Strigoi walking the world, and those other captured Moroi would be dead or turned by now.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get how you guys saved the day and all that, but I’m going back to the principles here. I mean, this is a theory class, right?” I glanced over at Stan who was regarding me with a very stormy look. He and I had a long and unpleasant history of classroom conflicts, and I suspected we were on the verge of another. “So I just want to figure out what went wrong in the beginning.”

I’ll say this for her??my mother had a hell of a lot more self-control than I did. Had our roles been reversed, I would have walked over and smacked me by now. Her face stayed perfectly calm, however, and a small tightness in the set of her lips was the only sign that I was pissing her off.

“It’s not that simple,” she replied. “The venue had an extremely complex layout. We went through it initially and found nothing. It’s believed the Strigoi came in after the festivities had started??or that there might have been passages and hidden rooms we hadn’t been aware of.”

The class ooh’ed and ahh’ed over the idea of hidden passages, but I wasn’t impressed.

“So what you’re saying is that you guys either failed to detect them during your first sweep, or they broke through the ‘security’ you set up during the party. Seems like someone messed up either way.”

The tightness in her lips increased, and her voice grew frosty. “We did the best we could with an unusual situation. I can see how someone at your level might not be able to grasp the intricacies of what I’m describing, but once you’ve actually learned enough to go beyond theory, you’ll see how different it is when you’re actually out there and lives are in your hands.”

“No doubt,” I agreed. “Who am I to question your methods? I mean, whatever gets you the molnija marks, right?”

“Miss Hathaway.” Stan’s deep voice rumbled through the room. “Please take your things and go wait outside for the remainder of class.”

I stared at him in bewilderment. “Are you serious? Since when is there anything wrong with asking questions?”

“Your attitude is what’s wrong.” He pointed at the door. “Go.”

A silence heavier and deeper than when my mother had told her story descended over everyone. I did my best not to cower under the stares of guardians and novices alike. This wasn’t the first time I’d been kicked out of Stan’s class. It wasn’t even the first time I’d been kicked out of Stan’s class while Dimitri was watching. Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I crossed the short distance to the door??a distance that felt like miles??and refused to make eye contact with my mother as I passed.

About five minutes before the class let out, she slipped out of the room and walked over to where I sat in the hallway. Looking down on me, she put her hands on her hips in that annoying way that made her seem taller than she was. It wasn’t fair that someone over half a foot shorter than me could make me feel so small.

“Well. I see your manners haven’t improved over the years.”

I stood up and felt a glare snap into place. “Nice to see you too. I’m surprised you even recognized me. In fact, I didn’t even think you remembered me, seeing as how you never bothered to let me know you were on campus.”

She shifted her hands from her hips and crossed her arms across her chest, becoming??if possible??even more impassive. “I couldn’t neglect my duty to come coddle you.”

“Coddle?” I asked. This woman had never coddled me in her life. I couldn’t believe she even knew the word.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand. From what I hear, you don’t really know what ‘duty’ is.”

“I know exactly what it is,” I retorted. My voice was intentionally haughty. “Better than most people.”

Her eyes widened in a sort of mock surprise. I used that sarcastic look on a lot of people and didn’t appreciate having it directed toward me. “Oh really? Where were you for the last two years?”

“Where were you for the last five?” I demanded. “Would you have known I was gone if someone hadn’t told you?”

“Don’t turn this back on me. I was away because I had to be. You were away so you could go shopping and stay up late.”

My hurt and embarrassment morphed into pure fury. Apparently, I was never going to live down the consequences of running away with Lissa.

“You have no idea why I left,” I said, my voice’s volume rising. “And you have no right to make assumptions about my life when you don’t know anything about it.”

“I’ve read reports about what happened. You had reason for concern, but you acted incorrectly.” Her words were formal and crisp. She could have been teaching one of my classes. “You should have gone to others for help.”

“There was no one I could go to??not when I didn’t have hard proof. Besides, we’ve been learning that we’re supposed to think independently.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Emphasis on learning. Something you missed out on for two years. You’re hardly in a position to lecture me about guardian protocol.”

I wound up in arguments all the time; something in my nature made that inevitable. So I was used to defending myself and having insults slammed at me. I had a tough skin. But somehow, around her??in the brief times I had been around her??I always felt like I was three years old. Her attitude humiliated me, and touching on my missed training?? already a prickly subject??only made me feel worse. I crossed my arms in a fair imitation of her own stance and managed a smug look.

“Yeah? Well, that’s not what my teachers think. Even after missing all that time, I’ve still caught up with everyone else in my class.”

She didn’t answer right away. Finally, in a flat voice, she said, “If you hadn’t left, you would have surpassed them.”

Turning military-style, she walked off down the hall. A minute later, the bell rang, and the rest of Stan’s class spilled into the hall.

Even Mason couldn’t cheer me up after that. I spent the rest of the day angry and annoyed, sure that everyone was whispering about my mother and me. I skipped lunch and went to the library to read a book about physiology and anatomy.

When it was time for my after-school training with Dimitri, I practically ran up to the practice dummy. With a curled fist, I slapped its chest, very slightly to the left but mostly in the center.

“There,” I told him. “The heart is there, and the sternum and ribs are in the way. Can I have the stake now?”

Crossing my arms, I glanced up at him triumphantly, waiting for him to shower me with praise for my new cunning. Instead, he simply nodded in acknowledgment, like I should already have known that. And yeah, I should have.

“And how do you get through the sternum and the ribs?” he asked.

I sighed. I’d figured out the answer to one question, only to be given another. Typical.

We spent a large part of the practice going over that, and he demonstrated several techniques that would yield the quickest kill. Every movement he made was both graceful and deadly. He made it look effortless, but I knew better.

When he suddenly extended his hand and offered the stake to me, I didn’t understand at first. “You’re giving it to me?”

His eyes sparkled. “I can’t believe you’re holding back. I figured you’d have taken it and run by now.”

“Aren’t you always teaching me to hold back?” I asked.

“Not on everything.”

“But on some things.”

I heard the double meaning in my voice and wondered where it had come from. I’d accepted a while ago that there were too many reasons for me to even think about him romantically anymore. Every once in a while, I slipped a little and kind of wished he would too. It’d have been nice to know that he still wanted me, that I still drove him crazy. Studying him now, I realized he might not ever slip because I didn’t drive him crazy anymore. It was a depressing thought.

“Of course,” he said, showing no indication we’d discussed anything other than class matters. “It’s like everything else. Balance. Know which things to run forward with??and know which to leave alone.” He placed a heavy emphasis on that last statement.

Our eyes met briefly, and I felt electricity race through me. He did know what I was talking about. And like always, he was ignoring it and being my teacher??which is exactly what he should have been doing. With a sigh, I pushed my feelings for him out of my head and tried to remember that I was about to touch the weapon I’d been longing for since childhood. The memory of the Badica house came back to me yet again. The Strigoi were out there. I needed to focus.

Hesitantly, almost reverentially, I reached out and curled my fingers around the hilt. The metal was cool and tingled against my skin. It was etched along the hilt for better grip, but in trailing my fingers over the rest of it, I found the surface to be as smooth as glass. I lifted it from his hand and brought it to me, taking a long time to study it and get used to its weight. An anxious part of me wanted to turn around and impale all of the dummies, but instead I looked up at Dimitri and asked, “What should I do first?”

In his typical way, he covered basics first, honing the way I held and moved with the stake. Later on, he finally let me attack one of the dummies, at which point I did indeed discover it was not effortless. Evolution had done a smart thing in protecting the heart with the sternum and ribs. Yet through it all, Dimitri never faltered in diligence and patience, guiding me through every step and correcting the finest details.

“Slide up through the ribs,” he explained, watching me try to fit the stake’s point through a gap in the bones. “It’ll be easier since you’re shorter than most of your attackers. Plus, you can slide along the lower rib’s edge.”

When practice ended, he took the stake back and nodded his approval.

“Good. Very good.”

I glanced at him in surprise. He didn’t usually hand out a lot of praise.

“Really?”

“You do it like you’ve been doing it for years.”

I felt a delighted grin creep over my face as we started leaving the practice room. When we neared the door, I noticed a dummy with curly red hair. Suddenly, all the events from Stan’s class came tumbling back into my head. I scowled.

“Can I stake that one next time?”

He picked up his coat and put it on. It was long and brown, made of distressed leather. It looked very much like a cowboy duster, though he’d never admit to it. He had a secret fascination with the Old West. I didn’t really understand it, but then, I didn’t get his weird musical preferences either.

“I don’t think that’d be healthy,” he said.

“It’d be better than me actually doing it to her,” I grumbled, slinging my backpack over one shoulder. We headed out to the gym.

“Violence isn’t the answer to your problems,” he said sagely.

“She’s the one with the problem. And I thought the whole point of my education was that violence is the answer.”

“Only to those who bring it to you first. Your mother isn’t assaulting you. You two are just too much alike, that’s all.”

I stopped walking. “I’m not anything like her! I mean…we kind of have the same eyes. But I’m a lot taller. And my hair’s completely different.” I pointed to my pony tail, just in case he wasn’t aware that my thick brown-black hair didn’t look like my mother’s auburn curls.

He still had kind of an amused expression, but there was something hard in his eyes too. “I’m not talking about your appearances, and you know it.”

I looked away from that knowing gaze. My attraction to Dimitri had started almost as soon as we’d met??and it wasn’t just because he was so hot, either. I felt like he understood part of me that I didn’t understand myself, and sometimes I was pretty sure I understood parts of him that he didn’t understand either.

The only problem was that he had the annoying tendency to point out things about myself I didn’t want to understand.

“You think I’m jealous?”

“Are you?” he asked. I hated it when he answered my questions with questions. “If so, what are you jealous of exactly?”

I glanced back at Dimitri. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m jealous of her reputation. Maybe I’m jealous because she’s put more time into her reputation than into me. I don’t know.”

“You don’t think what she did was great?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know. It just sounded like such a … I don’t know…like she was bragging. Like she did it for the glory.” I grimaced. “For the marks.” Molnija marks were tattoos awarded to guardians when they killed Strigoi. Each one looked like a tiny x made of lightning bolts. They went on the backs of our necks and showed how experienced a guardian was.

“You think facing down Strigoi is worth a few marks? I thought you’d learned something from the Badica house.”

I felt stupid. “That’s not what I??”

“Come on.”

I stopped walking. “What?”

We’d been heading toward my dorm, but now he nodded his head toward the opposite side of campus. “I want to show you something.”

“What is it?”

“That not all marks are badges of honor.”

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