I opened the box and stared inside. I saw a string of maroon-colored beads, and the scent of roses floated out.
"What the ..."
I lifted the beads out, and a heavy gold crucifix swung from the end of them. She'd given me a chotki. It was similar to a rosary, only smaller. Bracelet-size.
"Are you trying to convert me?" I asked wryly. Lissa wasn't a religious nut or anything, but she believed in God and attended church regularly. Like many Moroi families who'd come from Russia and Eastern Europe, she was an Orthodox Christian.
Me? I was pretty much an Orthodox Agnostic. I figured God probably existed, but I didn't have the time or energy to investigate. Lissa respected that and never tried to push her faith on me, which made the gift that much weirder.
"Flip it over," she said, clearly amused at my shock.
I did. On the back of the cross, a dragon wreathed in flowers had been carved into the gold. The Dragomir crest. I looked up at her, puzzled.
"It's a family heirloom," she said. "One of my dad's good friends has been saving boxes of his stuff. This was in it. It belonged to my great-grandmother's guardian."
"Liss ..." I said. The chotki took on a whole new meaning. "I can't... you can't give me something like this."
"Well, I certainly can't keep it. It's meant for a guardian. My guardian."
I wound the beads around one wrist. The cross felt cool against my skin.
"You know," I teased, "there's a good possibility I'll get kicked out of school before I can become your guardian."
She grinned. "Well, then you can give it back."
Everyone laughed. Tasha started to say something, then stopped when she looked up at the door.
My mother stood there, looking as stiff and impassive as ever.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "I had business to take care of."
Business. As always. Even on Christmas.
I felt my stomach turn and heat rise to my cheeks as the details of our fight came rushing back to my mind. She'd never sent one word of communication since it had happened two days ago, not even when I was in the infirmary. No apologies. Nothing. I gritted my teeth.
She sat down with us and soon joined in the conversation. I'd long since discovered she could really only talk about one subject: guardian business. I wondered if she had any hobbies. The Badica attack was on everyone's mind, and this drove her into a conversation about some similar fight she'd been in. To my horror, Mason was riveted by her every word.
"Well, decapitations aren't as easy as they seem," she said in her matter-of-fact way. I'd never thought they were easy at all, but her tone suggested that she believed everyone thought they were cake. "You've got to get through the spinal cord and tendons."
Through the bond, I felt Lissa grow queasy. She wasn't one for gruesome talk.
Mason's eyes lit up. "What's the best weapon to do it with?"
My mother considered. "An axe. You can get more weight behind it." She made a swinging motion by way of illustration.
"Cool," he said. "Man, I hope they let me carry an axe." It was a comical and ludicrous idea, since axes were hardly convenient weapons to carry around. For half a second, the thought of Mason walking down the street with an axe over his shoulder lightened my mood a little. The moment quickly passed.
I honestly couldn't believe we were having this conversation on Christmas. Her presence had soured everything. Fortunately, the gathering eventually dispersed. Christian and Lissa went off to do their own thing, and Dimitri and Tasha apparently had more catching up to do. Mason and I were well on our way to the dhampir dorm when my mother joined us.
None of us said anything. Stars cluttered the black sky, sharp and bright, their glitter matched in the ice and snow around us. I wore my ivory parka with fake fur trimming. It did a good job keeping my body warm, even though it did nothing against the chilly gusts that seared my face. The whole time we walked, I kept expecting my mother to turn off toward the other guardian areas, but she came right inside the dorm with us.
"I've been wanting to talk to you," she finally said. My alarms clicked on. What had I done now?
That was all she said, but Mason picked up on the hint immediately. He was neither stupid nor oblivious to social cues, though at that moment, I kind of wished he was. I also found it ironic that he wanted to fight every Strigoi in the world but was afraid of my mother.
He glanced at me apologetically, shrugged, and said, "Hey, I've got to get, um, somewhere. I'll see you later."
I watched with regret as he left, wishing I could run after him. Probably my mom would only tackle me and punch my other eye if I tried to escape. Better to do things her way and get this over with. Shifting uncomfortably, I looked everywhere but at her and waited for her to speak. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a few people glancing over at us. Recalling how everyone in the world seemed to know about her giving me the black eye, I suddenly decided I didn't want witnesses around for whatever lecture she was about to unleash on me.
"You want to, um, go to my room?" I asked.
She looked surprised, almost uncertain. "Sure."
I led her upstairs, keeping a safe distance away as we walked. Awkward tension built between us. She didn't say anything when we reached my room, but I saw her examine every detail carefully, as though a Strigoi might be lurking in there. I sat on the bed and waited while she paced, unsure what I should do. She ran her fingers over a stack of books on animal behavior and evolution.
"Are these for a report?" she asked.
"No. I'm just interested in it, that's all."
Her eyebrows rose. She hadn't known that. But how would she? She didn't know anything about me. She continued her appraisal, stopping to study little things that apparently surprised her about me. A picture of Lissa and me dressed up like fairies for Halloween. A bag of SweeTarts. It was as though my mother were meeting me for the first time.
Abruptly, she turned and extended her hand toward me. "Here."
Startled, I leaned forward and held my palm out underneath hers. Something small and cool dropped into my hand. It was a round pendant, a small one- not much bigger than a dime in diameter. A base of silver held a flat disc of colored glass circles. Frowning, I ran my thumb over its surface. It was strange, but the circles almost made it look like an eye. The inner one was small, just like a pupil. It was so dark blue that it looked black. Surrounding it was a larger circle of pale blue, which was in turn surrounded by a circle of white. A very, very thin ring of that dark blue color circled the outside.