"This is for me?' I ran my finger along the smooth edge.
"If you want it. I made it while you were out today. So you'll remember me after you leave.'
I hesitated, wondering if accepting this would be encouraging him. No, I decided. I'd made my views on teenage marriage clear, and anyway, he looked so nervous, I couldn't stand the thought of hurting his feelings. I slipped it onto my wrist.
"Of course I'll remember. Thank you.'
From the happy look on his face, taking the bracelet made up for my earlier refusal. He showed me a few more details around the cave and then followed my suggestion to join the others at the fire. We could hear the music echoing through the trees long before we made it back, and while it was hardly my style, there was something warm and friendly about this community's way of life. I'd never been to summer camp, but I imagined this was what it'd be like.
Sydney and Dimitri sat near the group's edge. They were quiet and watchful, but everyone else sang, clapped, and talked. Again, I was stunned at how easily dhampirs, humans, and Moroi could all be involved with one another. Mixed couples were everywhere, and one--a human and Moroi--were openly making out. Every so often, when he kissed her neck, he'd also bite and take some blood. I had to glance away.
I turned back toward my friends. Sydney noticed me and looked relieved. Dimitri's expression was unreadable. Like always, the others' eyes followed my movement, and to my surprise, I saw open jealousy on some of the guys' faces. I hoped they didn't think Joshua and I had been off getting na**d in the cave. That was hardly the reputation I wanted to leave behind.
"I have to talk to Sydney,' I told him over the noise. I decided it'd be best to keep my distance before any rumors started, and truthfully, Sydney looked like she wanted me by her side. Joshua nodded, and I turned away. I'd taken two steps when a fist suddenly came right toward my face.
I'd had no defenses up and just barely had the presence of mind to turn my head and catch the blow on my cheek, rather than end up with a broken nose. After the initial surprise, all my training kicked in. I quickly sidestepped out of the line of attack and put my body into a fighter's stance. The music and singing stopped, and I turned to face my attacker.
She stood in a way similar to my own, fists clenched and eyes completely honed in on me. "Okay,' she said. "It's time to find out how tough you really are.'
What it was time for was someone--say, like, a parent--to come and drag her off and punish her for punching guests. Amazingly, no one moved or tried to stop her. No--that wasn't quite true. One person stood up. Dimitri had sprung to action the instant he saw me in danger. I expected him to come pull Angeline away, but a group of Keepers hastily moved to his side, saying something to him that I couldn't hear. They didn't try to physically restrain him, but whatever they said, it kept him where he stood. I would have demanded to know what they'd told him, but Angeline was coming at me again. It looked like I was on my own.
Angeline was short, even for a dhampir, but her whole body was packed with strength. She was pretty fast too, though not fast enough to get that second hit in on me. I neatly dodged it and kept my distance, not wanting to go on the offensive with this girl. She could probably do a fair amount of damage in a fight, but there was a sloppy-- no, more like rough--edge to it. She was a scrapper, someone who'd done a lot of brawling but without any formal training.
"Are you insane?' I exclaimed, moving out of the way of another assault. "Stop this. I don't want to hurt you.'
"Sure,' she said. "That's what you want everyone to think, right? If you don't actually have to fight, then they'll all go on believing those marks are real.'
"They are real!' The insinuation that I'd faked my tattoos sparked my temper, but I refused to get drawn into this ridiculous scuffle.
"Prove it,' she said, coming at me again. "Prove you're who you say you are.'
It was like a dance, keeping away from her. I could have done it all night, and a few dismayed cries from the crowd demanded we "get on with it.'
"I don't have to prove anything,' I told her.
"It's a lie then.' Her breathing was heavy now. She was working a lot harder than me. "Everything you Tainted do is a lie.' "Not true,' I said. Why was Dimitri letting this go on? Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of him, and so help me, he was smiling.
Meanwhile, Angeline was still continuing her tirade as she tried to hit me. "You all lie. You're all weak. Especially your "royals.' They're the worst of all.'
"You don't know them at all. You don't know anything about them.'
She might be able to carry on a conversation, but I could see her growing increasingly frustrated. If not for the fact I was pretty sure she'd hit me in the back, I would have taken the noble approach and simply walked away. "I know enough,' she said. "I know they're selfish and spoiled and don't do anything for themselves. They don't care about anyone else. They're all the same.'
I actually agreed with Angeline about some royals but didn't like the generalization. "Don't talk about things you don't understand,' I snapped. "They're not all like that.'
"They are,' she said, pleased to see me angry. "I wish they were all dead.'
It was hardly enough to push me into offense mode, but the comment did cloud my thoughts enough that I let her get through my guard, just a little. I never would have let that happen with a Strigoi, but I'd underestimated this wild girl. Her leg snaked out just enough to hit my knee, and it was like tossing a spark into gasoline. Everything exploded.
With that hit, I stumbled slightly, and she pushed her advantage. My battle instincts took over, and I had no choice but to strike back before she could hit me. People began cheering now that the fight was "really going.' I was on offense, trying to subdue her, meaning the physical contact had jumped up exponentially. I was still better than her, no doubt, but in trying to get to her, I put myself in her range. She landed a few blows on me, nothing serious, before I was able to tackle her to the ground. I expected that to be the end, but she pushed back against me before I could fully restrain her. We rolled over, and she tried to take the dominant position. I couldn't allow that and managed a punch on the side of her face that was a lot harder than the earlier one.
I thought that would be the end of the fight. My hit had knocked her off me, and I started to stand, but then that little bitch grabbed my hair and jerked me back down. I twisted out of her hold--though I'm pretty sure she took some hair away with her--and this time managed to fully pin her, throwing all my weight and strength into it as I pressed down. I knew it had to be painful but didn't really care. She'd started it. Besides, this skirmish had gone beyond defense. Pulling someone's hair was just playing dirty.