"Hey Rose! I said goodbye to everyone else but couldn't find you," she said excitedly.
I smiled. "Well, I'm glad you caught me."
I couldn't tell her that I'd been saying goodbye too. I'd spent my last day at St. Vladimir's walking all the familiar sites, starting with the elementary campus where Lissa and I had first met in kindergarten. I'd explored the halls and corners of my dorms, walked past favorite classrooms, and even visited the chapel. I'd also passed a lot of time in areas filled with bittersweet memories, like the training areas where I'd first gotten to know Dimitri. The track where he used to make me run laps. The cabin where we'd finally given in to each other. It had been one of the most amazing nights of my life, and thinking about it always brought me both joy and pain.
Jill didn't need to be burdened with any of that, though. I turned toward her mother and started to offer my hand until I realized she couldn't shake it while maneuvering the box. "I'm Rose Hathaway. Here, let me carry that."
I took it before she could protest because I was certain she would. "Thank you," she said, pleasantly surprised. I fell in step with them as they began walking again. "I'm Emily Mastrano. Jill's told me a lot about you."
"Oh yeah?" I asked, giving Jill a teasing smile.
"Not that much. Just how I hang out with you sometimes." There was a slight warning in Jill's green eyes, and it occurred to me that Emily probably didn't know her daughter practiced forbidden forms of Strigoi-killing magic in her free time.
"We like having Jill around," I said, not blowing her cover. "And one of these days, we're going to teach her to tame that hair."
Emily laughed. "I've been trying for almost fifteen years. Good luck."
Jill's mother was stunning. The two didn't resemble each other much, at least not superficially. Emily's lustrous hair was straight and black, her eyes deep blue and long-lashed. She moved with a willowy grace, very different from Jill's always self-conscious walk. Yet, I could see the shared genes here and there, the heart-shaped faces and lip shapes. Jill was still young, and as she grew into her features, she'd likely be a heartbreaker herself someday--something she was probably oblivious to right now. Hopefully her self-confidence would grow.
"Where's home for you guys?" I asked.
"Detroit," said Jill, making a face.
"It's not that bad," laughed her mom.
"There are no mountains. Just highways."
"I'm part of a ballet company there," Emily explained. "So we stay where we can pay the bills." I think I was more surprised that people went to the ballet in Detroit than that Emily was a ballerina. It made sense, watching her, and really, with their tall and slim builds, Moroi were ideal dancers as far as humans were concerned.
"Hey, it's a big city," I told Jill. "Enjoy the excitement while you can before you come back to the boring middle of nowhere." Of course, illicit combat training and Strigoi attacks were hardly boring, but I wanted to make Jill feel better. "And it won't be that long." Moroi summer vacations were barely two months. Parents were eager to return their children to the safety of the Academy.
"I guess," said Jill, not sounding convinced. We reached their car, and I loaded the boxes into the trunk.
"I'll e-mail you when I can," I promised. "And I bet Christian will too. Maybe I can even talk Adrian into it."
Jill brightened, and I was happy to see her return to her normal overexcited self. "Really? That would be great. I want to hear everything that goes on at Court. You'll probably get to do all sorts of cool things with Lissa and Adrian, and I bet Christian will find out all sorts of things... about things."
Emily didn't seem to notice Jill's lame editing attempt and instead fixed me with a pretty smile. "Thanks for your help, Rose. It was great to meet you."
Jill had thrown herself into me with a hug. "Good luck with everything," she said. "You're so lucky--you're going to have such a great life now!"
I returned the hug, unable to explain how jealous of her I was. Her life was still safe and innocent. She might resent spending a summer in Detroit, but the stay would be brief, and soon she'd be back in the familiar and easy world of St. Vladimir's. She wouldn't be setting out into the unknown and its dangers.
It was only after she and her mother had driven off that I could bring myself to respond to her comment. "I hope so," I murmured, thinking about what was to come. "I hope so."
My classmates and select Moroi flew out early the next day, leaving the rocky mountains of Montana behind for the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. The Royal Court was a lot like I remembered, with the same imposing, ancient feel that St. Vladimir's tried to impart with its towering buildings and intricate stone architecture. But the school also seemed to want to show off a wise, studious air, whereas the Court was more ostentatious. It was like the buildings themselves tried to make sure we all knew that this was the seat of power and royalty among the Moroi. The Royal Court wanted us to be amazed and maybe a little cowed.
And even though I'd been here before, I was still impressed. The doors and windows of the tan stone buildings were embossed and framed in pristine golden decorations. They were a far cry from the brightness I'd seen in Russia, but I realized now that the Court's designers had modeled these buildings off the old European ones--the fortresses and palaces of Saint Petersburg. St. Vladimir's had benches and paths in the quads and courtyards, but the Court went a step further. Fountains and elaborate statues of past rulers adorned the lawns, exquisite marble works that had previously been hidden in snow. Now, in the full throes of summer, they were bright and on display. And everywhere, everywhere were flowers on trees, bushes, paths--it was dazzling.
It made sense that new grads would visit the guardians' central administration, but it occurred to me that there was another reason they brought new guardians here in the summer. They wanted my classmates and me to see all of this, to be overwhelmed and appreciative of the glory for which we were fighting. Looking at the faces of the new graduates, I knew the tactic was working. Most had never been here before.
Lissa and Adrian had been on my flight, and the three of us clustered together as we walked with the group. It was as warm as it had been in Montana, but the humidity here was much thicker. I was sweating after only a little light walking.
"You did bring a dress this time, right?" asked Adrian.
"Of course," I said. "They've got some fancy things they want us to go to, aside from the main reception. Although, they might give me my black-and-white for that."