The look he gave me showed he was not happy about me providing knowledge he already had. Reaching out, he gripped my hair and jerked my head painfully back. Wearing my hair down maybe hadn't been so useful after all. "Where is she going? She won't stay there forever. Is she going to college? The

Royal Court

? They must have made plans for her."

"I don't know what they are. I've been away for a while."

"I don't believe you," he snarled. "She's too valuable. Her future would have been planned out a while ago."

"If it is, no one's shared it with me. I left too soon."

I shrugged by way of answer. Rage filled his eyes, and I swear, they grew redder.

"You're bonded! You know. Tell me now, and I'll kill you quickly. If you don't, I'll awaken you to get the information, and then I'll kill you. I'll light you up like a bonfire."

"You... you'd kill me once I was one of you?" Foolish question. Strigoi felt no loyalty to each other.

"Yes. It'll destroy him, and once Galina sees how unhinged he is, I will return to my original place by her side-especially after I stamp out the Dragomir line."

"The hell you will."

He smiled and touched my face, running his fingers along my neck and the bruises all over it. "Oh, I will. It really will make things easier if you just tell me now. You'll die in ecstasy rather than being burned alive. We'll both enjoy it." He wrapped his hand delicately around my throat. "You're definitely a problem, but you are beautiful-especially your throat. I can see why he wants you..."

Warring emotions played within me. Logically, I knew this was Nathan-Nathan, whom I hated for having turned Dimitri in the first place. Yet my body's need for Strigoi endorphins was raising its head too, and it barely mattered that it was Nathan. What mattered was that his teeth were only a breath away from my neck, promising that sweet, sweet delirium.

And while one hand held my throat, the other ran down my waist, down to the curve of my hip. There had been a sultry edge to Nathan's voice, like he wanted to do more than just bite me. And after so many sexually charged encounters with Dimitri-encounters that never resulted in anything-my body almost didn't care who touched it. I could close my eyes, and it wouldn't matter whose teeth bit into me or whose hands peeled off my clothes. Only the next fix would matter. I could close my eyes and pretend it was Dimitri, lost in it all as Nathan's lips brushed my skin...

Except, as some small reasonable part of me recalled, Nathan didn't just want sex and blood. He eventually wanted to kill me.

Which was kind of ironic. I'd been dead set-no pun intended-on killing myself when I got here, lest I become a Strigoi. Nathan was offering me that now. Even if he turned me first, he planned on killing me immediately afterward. Either way, I wouldn't have to spend eternity as a Strigoi. I should have welcomed this.

But just then, as my body's addiction screamed for his bite and that bliss, I realized something with startling clarity: I didn't want to die. Maybe it was because I'd gone almost a day without a bite, but something small and rebellious woke up in me. I would not let him do this to me. I would not let him go after Dimitri. And I sure as hell wasn't going to let him hunt down Lissa.

Pushing through that endorphin cloud that still hung around me, I summoned up as much willpower as I could. I dug deep, remembering my years of training and all the lessons Dimitri had given me. It was hard to access those memories, and I only touched a few. Still, enough came to spur me to action. I lunged forward and punched Nathan.

And accomplished nothing.

He didn't budge. Hell, I don't even know if he felt it. The surprise on his face promptly turned to mirth, and he laughed in that horrible way Strigoi did-cruelly and without any real joy. Then, with the greatest of ease, he slapped me and knocked me across the room. Dimitri had done nearly the same thing when I'd arrived and attacked him. Only I hadn't flown quite as far or had so miniscule an effect on him.

I slammed into the back of the couch, and good God, did it hurt. A wave of dizziness washed over me, and I realized the idiocy of fighting someone vastly stronger than me when I'd been losing blood all week. I managed to straighten up and desperately sought my next course of action. Nathan, for his part, seemed in no hurry to respond to my attack. In fact, he was still laughing.

Glancing around, I latched onto a truly pitiful course of action. Inna stood near me. Moving with a speed that was painfully slow-but better than I expected myself to manage-I reached for her and wrapped my arm around her neck. She yelped in surprise, and I jerked her harder against me.

"Get out of here," I said to Nathan. "Get out of here, or I'll kill her."

He stopped laughing, stared at me for a moment, and then laughed even harder. "Are you serious? Do you honestly think I couldn't stop you if I wanted? And do you honestly think I care? Go ahead. Kill her. There are dozens more just like her."

Yeah, that really shouldn't have been a surprise either, but even I was a bit taken aback by how easily he could throw away a faithful servant's life.

Okay. Time to go to Plan B. Or maybe it was Plan J? Frankly, I was losing track, and none of them were very good anyway "Ow!"

Inna suddenly elbowed me in the stomach. I released her in my surprise. She spun around with a strangled scream and socked me in the face. The blow wasn't as hard as Nathan's had been, but it still knocked me over. I tried to catch a hold of something-anything-as I fell but failed. I hit the floor, my back slamming against the door. I expected her to come right back at me, but instead, she darted across the room and-God help us all threw herself into a defensive posture in front of Nathan.

Before I could fully process the weirdness of her trying to protect someone who was willing to let her die, the door suddenly opened. "Ow!" I said again, as it hit me and pushed me aside.

Dimitri swiftly entered. He looked from face to face, and I had no doubt mine showed signs of both Nathan's and Inna's attacks. Dimitri's fists clenched, and he turned toward Nathan. It reminded me of their scuffle in the hallway, all rage and malice and bloodlust. I cringed, bracing myself for another horrible confrontation.

"Don't," warned Nathan, face smug. "You know what Galina said. Touch me and you're out of here."

Dimitri strode across the room and came to stand in front of Nathan, knocking Inna aside like a rag doll. "It'll be worth facing her wrath, particularly when I tell her you attacked first. Rose certainly bears the marks of it."

"You wouldn't." He pointed at Inna, who was sitting dazed on the floor from where Dimitri had knocked her over. Despite my own injuries, I began crawling over to her. I had to know if she was all right. "She'll tell the truth."

Now Dimitri looked smug. "You really think Galina will believe a human? No. When I tell her how you attacked me and Rose out of jealousy, she'll let me off. The fact that you'll be so easily defeated will be proof of your weakness. I'll slice your head off and get Rose's stake from the vault. With your last breath, you can watch her drive it through your heart."

Holy crap. That was a little worse than Nathan threatening to burn me-wait.

My stake?

Nathan's face still bore haughty arrogance-at least to me. But I think Dimitri must have seen something that satisfied him, something that made him think he'd gotten the upper hand. He visibly relaxed, his smirk growing larger. "Twice," Dimitri said softly. "Twice I've let you go. Next time... next time, you're gone."

I reached Inna and gently held out my hand. "Are you okay?" I murmured.

With a look of hate, she recoiled and scooted away. Nathan's eyes fell on me, and he began backing toward the door.

"No," he said. "Twice I've let her live. Next time she's gone. I'm the one in control here, not you."

Nathan opened the door and Inna stood up, stumbling after him. I stared, mouth agape at the events that had just taken place. I didn't know which of them I found more disturbing. Looking up at Dimitri, I grappled with what to ask him first. What were we going to do? Why had Inna defended Nathan? Why had Dimitri let him go? None of those defiant questions came to my lips, though.

Instead, I burst into tears.

Chapter Twenty-Two

I didn't cry very often. And I hated it when I did. The last time I'd done it around Dimitri, his arms had immediately encircled me. This time, all I got was a look of coldness and anger.

"This is your fault!" he yelled, fists clenched.

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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