Dimitri didn't say anything when his turn came, but as always, his eyes spoke legions. Pride and tenderness filled his expression, and I swallowed back tears. He rested one hand gently on my cheek, nodded, and walked away.

When Stan- the instructor I'd fought with the most since my first day- hugged me and said, "Now you're one of us. I always knew you'd be one of the best," I thought I'd pass out.

And then when my mother came up to me, I couldn't help the tear that ran down my cheek. She wiped it away and then brushed her fingers against the back of my neck. "Don't ever forget," she told me.

Nobody said, "Congratulations," and I was glad. Death wasn't anything to get excited about.

When that was done, drinks and food were served. I walked to the buffet table and made a plate for myself of miniature feta quiches and a slice of mango cheesecake. I ate without really tasting the food and answered questions from others without even knowing what I said half the time. It was like I was a Rose robot, going through the motions of what was expected. On the back of my neck, my skin stung from the tattoos, and in my mind, I kept seeing Mason's blue eyes and Isaiah's red ones.

I felt guilty for not enjoying my big day more, but I was relieved when the group finally started dispersing. My mother walked up to me as others murmured their goodbyes. Aside from her words here at the ceremony, we hadn't talked much since my breakdown on the plane. I still felt a little funny about that- and a little embarrassed as well. She'd never mentioned it, but something very small had shifted in the nature of our relationship. We weren't anywhere near being friends...but we weren't exactly enemies anymore either.

"Lord Szelsky is leaving soon," she told me as we stood near the building's doorway, not far from where I'd yelled for her on that first day we'd talked. "I'll be going with him."

"I know," I said. There was no question she'd leave. That was how it was. Guardians followed Moroi. They came first.

She regarded me for a few moments, her brown eyes thoughtful. For the first time in a long time, I felt like we were actually looking eye to eye, as opposed to her looking down on me. It was about time, too, seeing as I had half a foot of height on her.

"You did well," she said at last. "Considering the circumstances."

It was only half a compliment, but I deserved no more. I understood now the mistakes and lapses of judgment that had led to the events at Isaiah's house. Some had been my fault; some hadn't. I wished I could have changed some of my actions, but I knew she was right. I'd done the best I could in the end with the mess before me.

"Killing Strigoi wasn't as glamorous as I thought it'd be," I told her.

She gave me a sad smile. "No. It never is."

I thought then about all the marks on her neck, all the kills. I shuddered.

"Oh, hey." Eager to change the subject, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little blue eye pendant she'd given me. "This thing you gave me. It's a n-nazari" I stumbled over the word. She looked surprised.

"Yes. How'd you know?"

I didn't want to explain my dreams with Adrian. "Someone told me. It's a protection thing, right?"

A pensive look crossed her face, and then she exhaled and nodded. "Yes. It comes from an old superstition in the Middle East...Some people believe that those who want to hurt you can curse you or give you 'the evil eye.' The nazar is meant to counteract the evil eye ... and just bring protection in general to those who wear it."

I ran my fingers over the piece of glass. "Middle East...so, places sort of like, um, Turkey?"

My mother's lips quirked. "Places exactly like Turkey." She hesitated. "It was ... a gift. A gift I received a long time ago ..." Her gaze turned inward, lost in memory. "I got a lot of ... attention from men when I was your age. Attention that seemed flattering at first but wasn't in the end. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes, between what's real affection and what's someone wanting to take advantage of you. But when you feel the real thing...well, you'll know."

I understood then why she was so overprotective about my reputation- she'd endangered her own when she was younger. Maybe more than that had been damaged.

I also knew why she'd given the nazar to me. My father had given it to her. I didn't think she wanted to talk anymore about it, so I didn't ask. It was enough to know that maybe, just maybe, their relationship hadn't been all about business and genes after all.

We said goodbye, and I returned to my classes. Everyone knew where I'd been that morning, and my fellow novices wanted to see my molnija marks. I didn't blame them. If our roles had been reversed, I would have been harassing me too.

"Come on, Rose," begged Shane Reyes. We were walking out of our morning practice, and he kept swatting my ponytail. I made a mental note to wear my hair down tomorrow. Several others followed us and echoed his requests.

"Yeah, come on. Let's see what you got for your swordsmanship!"

Their eyes shone with eagerness and excitement. I was a hero, their classmate who'd dispatched the leaders of the roving band of Strigoi that had so terrorized us over the holidays. But I met the eyes of someone standing at the back of the group, someone who looked neither eager nor excited. Eddie. Meeting my gaze, he gave me a small, sad smile. He understood.

"Sorry, guys," I said, turning back to the others. "They have to stay bandaged. Doctor's orders."

This was met with grumbles that soon turned into questions about how I'd actually killed the Strigoi. Decapitation was one of the hardest and rarest ways to kill a vampire; it wasn't like carrying a sword was convenient. So I did my best to tell my friends what had happened, making sure to stick to the facts and not glorify the killings.

The school day couldn't end a moment too soon, and Lissa walked with me back to my dorm. She and I hadn't had the chance to talk much since everything had gone down in Spokane. I'd undergone a lot of questioning, and then there'd been Mason's funeral. Lissa had also been caught up in her own distractions with the royals leaving campus, so she'd had no more free time than me.

Being near her made me feel better. Even though I could be in her head at any time, it just wasn't the same as actually being physically around another living person who cared about you.

When we got to the door of my room, I saw a bouquet of freesias sitting on the floor near it. Sighing, I picked up the fragrant flowers without even looking at the attached card.

"What are those?" asked Lissa while I unlocked the door.

"They're from Adrian," I told her. We walked inside, and I pointed to my desk, where a few other bouquets sat. I put the freesias down beside them. "I'll be glad when he leaves campus. I don't think I can take much more of this."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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