"Those women aren't here, Monica, because they're too busy raising their children- you know, the ones you want to start sending out to the fronts as soon as they can walk. And please don't insult us all by acting like the Moroi do a huge favor to the dhampirs by helping them reproduce. Maybe it's different in your family, but for the rest of us, sex is fun. The Moroi doing it with dhampirs aren't really making that big of a sacrifice."
Dimitri had straightened up now, his expression no longer angry. Probably he was excited that his new girlfriend had mentioned sex. Irritation shot through me, and I hoped that if I had a homicidal look on my face, people would assume it was for Strigoi and not the woman currently addressing us.
Beyond Dimitri, I suddenly noticed Mia sitting by herself, farther down the row. I hadn't realized she was here. She was slumped in her seat. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face paler than usual. A funny ache burned in my chest, one I'd never expected her to bring about.
"And the reason we're waiting for these guardians to turn eighteen is so that we can allow them to enjoy some pretense of a life before forcing them to spend the rest of their days in constant danger. They need those extra years to develop mentally as well as physically. Pull them out before they're ready, treat them like they're parts on an assembly line- and you're just creating Strigoi fodder."
A few people gasped at Tasha's callous choice of words, but she succeeded in getting everyone's attention.
"You create more fodder still if you try making the other dhampir women become guardians. You can't force them into that life if they don't want it. This entire plan of yours to get more guardians relies on throwing children and the unwilling into harm's way, just so you can- barely- stay one step ahead of the enemy. I would have said it's the stupidest plan I've ever heard, if I hadn't already had to listen to his."
She pointed at the first speaker, the one who had wanted Moroi compounds. Embarrassment clouded his features.
"Enlighten us then, Natasha," he said. "Tell us what you think we should do, seeing as you have so much experience with Strigoi."
A thin smile played on Tasha's lips, but she didn't rise to the insult. "What do I think?" She strode closer to the stage's front, gazing at us as she answered his question. "I think we should stop coming up with plans that involve us relying on someone or something to protect us. You think there are too few guardians? That's not the problem. The problem is there are too many Strigoi. And we've let them multiply and become more powerful because we do nothing about them except have stupid arguments like this. We run and hide behind the dhampirs and let the Strigoi go unchecked. It's our fault. We are the reason those Drozdovs died. You want an army? Well, here we are. Dhampirs aren't the only ones who can learn to fight. The question, Monica, isn't where the dhampir women are in this fight. The question is: Where are we?"
Tasha was shouting by now, and the exertion turned her cheeks pink. Her eyes shone with her impassioned feelings, and when combined with the rest of her pretty features- and even with the scar- she made a striking figure. Most people couldn't take their eyes off her. Lissa watched Tasha with wonder, inspired by her words. Mason looked hypnotized. Dimitri looked impressed. And farther past him ...
Farther past him was Mia. Mia no longer hunched in her chair. She was sitting up straight, straight as a stick, her eyes as wide as they could go. She stared at Tasha as though she alone held all the answers to life.
Monica Szelsky looked less awed, and she fixed her gaze on Tasha. "Surely you aren't suggesting the Moroi fight alongside the guardians when the Strigoi come?"
Tasha regarded her levelly. "No. I'm suggesting the Moroi and the guardians go fight the Strigoi before they come."
A guy in his twenties who looked like a Ralph Lauren spokesmodel shot up. I would have wagered money he was royal. No one else could have afforded blond highlights that perfect. He untied an expensive sweater from around his waist and draped it over the back of his chair. "Oh," he said in a mocking voice, speaking out of turn. "So, you're going to just give us clubs and stakes and send us off to do battle?"
Tasha shrugged. "If that's what it takes, Andrew, then sure." A sly smile crossed her pretty lips. "But there are other weapons we can learn to use, too. Ones the guardians can't."
The look on his face showed how insane he thought that idea was. He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
Her smile turned into a full-fledged grin. "Like this."
She waved her hand, and the sweater he'd placed on the back of his chair burst into flames.
He yelped in surprise and knocked it to the floor, stamping it out with his feet.
There was a brief, collective intake of breath throughout the room. And then ... chaos broke out.
PEOPLE STOOD UP AND SHOUTED, everyone wanting their opinion to be heard. As it was, most of them held the same view: Tasha was wrong. They told her she was crazy. They told her that in sending out Moroi and dhampirs to fight the Strigoi, she'd be expediting the extinction of both races. They even had the nerve to suggest that that was Tasha's plan all along- that she was somehow collaborating with the Strigoi in all of this.
Dimitri stood up, disgust all over his features as he surveyed the chaos. "You might as well leave. Nothing useful's going to happen now."
Mason and I rose, but he shook his head when I started to follow Dimitri out.
"You go on," said Mason. "I want to check something out."
I glanced at the standing, arguing people. I shrugged. "Good luck."
I couldn't believe it had only been a few days since I'd spoken to Dimitri. Stepping out into the hall with him, I felt like it'd been years. Being with Mason these last couple of days had been fantastic, but seeing Dimitri again, all of my old feelings for him came rushing back. Suddenly, Mason seemed like a child. My distress over the Tasha situation also came back, and stupid words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them.
"Shouldn't you be in there protecting Tasha?" I asked. "Before the mob gets her? She's going to get in big trouble for using magic like that."
He raised an eyebrow. "She can take care of herself."
"Yeah, yeah, because she's a badass karate magic user. I get all that. I just figured since you're going to be her guardian and all..."
"Where did you hear that?"
"I have my sources." Somehow, saying I'd heard it from my mom sounded less cool. "You've decided to, right? I mean, it sounds like a good deal, seeing as she's going to give you fringe benefits...."