I didn't need to be told twice. Lunging forward, I tried to land a blow and was promptly blocked and knocked down onto the mat. Pain surged through my body, but I refused to give in to it. I jumped up again, hoping to catch him off guard. I didn't.
After several more failed attempts, I stood up and held out my hands in a gesture of truce. "Okay, what am I doing wrong?"
I wasn't as convinced. "If I wasn't doing anything wrong, I'd have rendered you unconscious by now."
"Unlikely. Your moves are all correct, but this is the first time you've really tried. I've done it for years."
I shook my head and rolled my eyes at his older-and-wiser manner. He'd once told me he was twenty-four. "Whatever you say, Grandpa. Can we try it again?"
"We're out of time. Don't you want to get ready?"
I looked at the dusty clock on the wall and perked up. Almost time for the banquet. The thought made me giddy I felt like Cinderella, but without the clothes.
"Hell, yeah, I do."
He walked off ahead of me. Studying him carefully, I realized I couldn't let the opportunity go by. I leapt at his back, positioning myself exactly the way he'd taught me. I had the element of surprise. Everything was perfect, and he wouldn't even see me coming.
Before I could make contact, he spun around at a ridiculously high speed. In one deft motion, he grabbed me like I weighed nothing and threw me to the ground, pinning me there.
I groaned. "I didn't do anything wrong!"
His eyes looked levelly into mine as he held my wrists, but he didn't look as serious as he had during the lesson. He seemed to find this funny. "The battle cry sort of gave you away. Try not to yell next time."
"Would it have really made a difference if I'd been quiet?"
He thought about it. "No. Probably not."
I sighed loudly, still in too much of a good mood to really let this disappointment get me down. There were some advantages to having such a kick-ass mentor - one who also happened to have a foot of height on me and outweighed me considerably. And that wasn't even considering his strength. He wasn't bulky but his body had a lot of hard, lean muscle. If I could ever beat him, I could beat anyone.
All of a sudden, it occurred to me that he was still holding me down. The skin on his fingers was warm as he clutched my wrists. His face hovered inches from my own, and his legs and torso were actually pressing against mine. Some of his long brown hair hung around his face, and he appeared to be noticing me too, almost like he had that night in the lounge. And oh God, did he smell good. Breathing became difficult for me, and it had nothing to do with the workout or my lungs being crushed.
I would have given anything to be able to read his mind right then. Ever since that night in the lounge, I'd noticed him watching me with this same, studious expression. He never actually did it during the trainings themselves - those were business. But before and after, he would sometimes lighten up just a little, and I'd see him look at me in a way that was almost admiring. And sometimes, if I was really, really lucky, he'd smile at me. A real smile, too - not the dry one that accompanied the sarcasm we tossed around so often. I didn't want to admit it to anyone - not to Lissa, not even to myself - but some days, I lived for those smiles. They lit up his face. "Gorgeous" no longer adequately described him.
Hoping to appear calm, I tried to think of something professional and guardian-related to say. Instead, I said, "So um...you got any other moves to show me?"
His lips twitched, and for a moment, I thought I was going to get one of those smiles. My heart leapt. Then, with visible effort, he pushed the smile back and once more became my tough-love mentor. He shifted off me, leaned back on his heels, and rose. "Come on. We should go."
I scrambled to my own feet and followed him out of the gym. He didn't look back as he walked, and I mentally kicked myself on the way back to my room.
I was crushing on my mentor. Crushing on my older mentor. I had to be out of my mind. He was seven years older than me. Old enough to be my...well, okay, nothing. But still older than me. Seven years was a lot. He'd been learning to write when I was born. When I'd been learning to write and throw books at my teachers, he'd probably been kissing girls. Probably lots of girls, considering how he looked.
I so did not need this complication in my life right now.
I found a passable sweater back in my room and after a quick shower, I headed off across campus to the reception.
Despite the looming stone walls, fancy statues, and turrets on the outsides of the buildings, the Academy's insides were quite modern. We had Wi-Fi, fluorescent lights, and just about anything else technological you could imagine. The commons in particular looked pretty much like the cafeterias I'd eaten in while in Portland and Chicago, with simple rectangular tables, soothing taupe walls, and a little room off to the side where our dubiously prepared meals were served. Someone had at least hung framed black-and-white photos along the walls in an effort to decorate it, but I didn't really consider pictures of vases and leafless trees "art."
Tonight, however, someone had managed to transform the normally boring commons into a bona fide dining room. Vases spilling over with crimson roses and delicate white lilies. Glowing candles. Tablecloths made of - wait for it - bloodred linen. The effect was gorgeous. It was hard to believe this was the same place I usually ate chicken patty sandwiches in. It looked fit for, well, a queen.
The tables had been arranged in straight lines, creating an aisle down the middle of the room. We had assigned seating, and naturally, I couldn't sit anywhere near Lissa. She sat in the front with the other Moroi; I was in the back with the novices. But she did catch my eye when I entered and flashed me a smile. She'd borrowed a dress from Natalie - blue, silky, and strapless - that looked amazing with her pale features. Who'd known Natalie owned anything so good? It made my sweater lose a few cool points.
They always conducted these formal banquets in the same way. A head table sat on a dais at the front of the room, where we could all ooh and ahh and watch Queen Tatiana and other royals eat dinner. Guardians lined the walls, as stiff and formal as statues. Dimitri stood among them, and a weird feeling twisted my stomach as I recalled what had happened in the gym. His eyes stared straight ahead, as if focusing on nothing and everything in the room at once.
When the time came for the royals' entrance, we all stood up respectfully and watched as they walked down the aisle. I recognized a few, mostly those who had children attending the Academy. Victor Dashkov was among them, walking slowly and with a cane. While I was happy to see him, I cringed to watch each agonizing step he took toward the front of the room.