"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 - and 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 - smell, sight, and hearing - and 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."