Untamed hon-4, Page 2P. C. Cast
To the uninformed, I'm sure Aphrodite looked like her usual haughty self. But I could see how nervous and tense she actually was. Hell, I understood exactly how she felt—I'd just walked through the gauntlet myself. Actually, I was currently stuck in the middle of it along with her.
"I thought she'd become human again," Damien said under his breath to all of us. "But her Mark's back."
"Nyx's ways are mysterious," I said, trying to sound wise and High Priestess in Training–ish.
"I'm thinking Nyx's ways are another M-word, Twin," Erin said. "Can you guess it?"
"Majorly messed up?" Shaunee said.
"Exactly," Erin said.
"That's three words," Damien said.
"Oh, don't be such a schoolteacher," Shaunee told him. "Plus, the point is Aphrodite is a hag, and we were kinda hoping Nyx dumped her when that Mark of hers disappeared."
"More than kinda hoping, Twin," Erin said.
Everyone stared at Aphrodite. I tried to force salad down my throat. See, here's the deal: Aphrodite used to be the most popular, powerful, bitchy fledgling at the House of Night. Since she'd crossed the High Priestess, Neferet, and been totally ostracized, she had been reduced to simply the most bitchy fledgling at the House of Night.
Of course, weirdly (and typically enough for me), she and I had kinda, sorta, accidentally become friends—or at the very least, allies. Not that we wanted the masses to know that. Nevertheless, I'd been worried about her when she disappeared, even though Stevie Rae had chased after her. I mean, I hadn't heard from either of them in two days.
Naturally, my other friends—namely Damien, Jack, and the Twins—hated her guts. So to say that they were shocked and not very pleased when Aphrodite walked directly to our booth and sat down beside me was an understatement almost as big as that knight in the Indiana Jones movie saying "He chose poorly" when the bad guy picked the wrong goblet to drink out of and his body disintegrated.
"Staring isn't polite, even when it's at someone as stunningly beautiful as moi," Aphrodite said before taking a bite of her salad.
"What in the hell are you doing, Aphrodite?" Erin asked.
Aphrodite swallowed and then blinked with fake innocence at Erin. "Eating, moron," she said sweetly.
"This is a no-ho zone," Shaunee said, finally recovering her ability to speak.
"Yeah, it's posted back here," Erin said, pointing at a pretend sign on the back of their bench.
"I hate to repeat a sentiment I've said before, but in this case I'll make an exception. So I again say: Die Dorkamese Twins."
"That's it," Erin said, barely able to keep her voice down. "Twin and I are gonna smack that damn Mark right off your face."
"Yeah, maybe it'll stay off this time," Shaunee said.
"Stop it," I said. When the Twins turned slant-eyed looks of pissed-off-ness on me, I felt my stomach clench. Did they really hate me as much as they looked like they did? It made my heart hurt to think about it, but I lifted my chin and stared right back at them. If I completed the Change to vampyre, I would someday be their High Priestess, and that meant they had damn well better listen to me. "We've already been through this. Aphrodite is part of the Dark Daughters now. She's also part of our circle, being as she has an affinity for the element earth." I hesitated, wondering if she still had that affinity, or had she lost it when she'd gone from fledgling to human and then, apparently, back to fledgling again, but that was just too confusing, so I hurried on. "You guys know you agreed to accept her in each position, without name-calling and hateful remarks."
The Twins didn't say anything, but Damien's voice, sounding uncharacteristically flat and emotionless, came from the other side of me. "We agreed to that, but we didn't agree to be friends with her."
"I didn't say I wanted to be your friend," Aphrodite said.
"Ditto, bitch!" the Twins said together.
"Whatever," Aphrodite said, moving like she was going to pick up her tray and leave.
I'd opened my mouth to tell Aphrodite to sit down and the Twins to shut up when a bizarre noise echoed down the hall and through the open doors to the cafeteria.
"What the—?" I began, but didn't get the whole question out before at least a dozen cats streaked into the cafeteria, hissing and spitting like crazy.
Okay, at the House of Night, cats are everywhere. Literally. They follow us around, sleep with, and in my cat Nala's case, often complain at, the fledgling of their choice. In Vamp Soc class, one of the first cool things we learned was that cats had long been familiars of vampyres. This meant that we were all majorly used to having cats everywhere. But I had never seen them act so absolutely insane.
The Twin's huge gray tomcat, Beelzebub, jumped right up between them. He was puffed up to twice his already ginormously large size, and he stared back through the open door to the dining hall with amber eyes slit in anger.
"Beelzebub, baby, what's wrong?" Erin tried to soothe him.
Nala leaped up on my lap. She put her little white-tipped paws on my shoulder and gave a scary, psycho-cat growl as she, too, stared at the door and the chaotic noise still coming from the hall.
"Hey," Jack said. "I know what that sound is."
And it hit me at the same time. "It's a dog barking," I said.
Then something that resembled a large yellow bear more closely than a dog burst into the cafeteria. The bear-dog was followed by a kid who was being followed by several uncharacteristically frazzled-looking professors, including our fencing master, Dragon Lankford, our equestrian instructor, Lenobia, as well as several of the Sons of Erebus Warriors.
"Got ya!" the kid yelled once he caught up with the dog and came to a skidding halt not far from us while he swooped down, snagged the barking beast's collar (which I noted was pink leather with silver metallic spikes all around it), and neatly clipped a leash to it. The instant his leash was reattached, the bear stopped barking, plopped its round butt down on the floor, and stared, panting, up at the kid. "Yeah, great. Now you want to act right," I heard him mutter to the obviously grinning canine.
Even though the barking had stopped, the cats in the cafeteria had definitely not stopped freaking. There was so much hissing around us, it sounded like air escaping from a punctured inner tube.
"You see, James, this was what I was trying to explain to you earlier," Dragon Lankford said as he stared, frowning, down at the dog. "The animal just won't work at this House of Night."
"It's Stark, not James," the kid said. "And like I was trying to explain to you earlier—the dog has to stay with me. It's just the way it is. If you want me—you get her, too."
I decided that the new dog kid had an unusual way about him. It wasn't like he was being openly rude or disrespectful to Dragon, but he also wasn't speaking to him with the respect, and sometimes outright fear, with which the vast majority of newly Marked fledglings spoke to vampyres. I checked out the front of his vintage Pink Floyd T-shirt. No class insignia there, so I didn't have a clue what year he was and how long he'd been Marked.
"Stark," Lenobia was saying, obviously trying to reason with the kid, "it's just not possible to integrate a dog into this campus. You can see how much he's upsetting the cats."
"They'll get used to him. They did at the Chicago House of Night. She's usually pretty good about not chasing them around, but that gray cat really did ask for it with that whole hissing and scratching thing."
"Uh-oh," Damien whispered.
I didn't need to look—I could sense the Twins puffing up like blowfish.
"My goodness, what is all this noise about?" Neferet swept into the room, looking beautiful and powerful and completely in control.
I watched the new kid's eyes widen as he took in her gorgeousness. It was soooo annoying that everybody automatically fell stupid at their first glimpse of our High Priestess and my nemesis, Neferet.
"Neferet, I apologize for the disruption." Dragon placed his fist over his heart and bowed respectfully to his High Priestess. "This is my new fledgling. He
arrived only moments ago."
"That explains how the fledgling got here. It does not explain how that got here." Neferet pointed at the panting dog.
"She's with me," the kid said. When Neferet turned her moss-colored eyes on him, he mimicked Dragon's salute and bow. When he straightened, I was utterly shocked to see him give Neferet a lopsided grin that looked more than a little cocky. "She's my version of a cat."
"Really?" Neferet lifted one slim auburn brow. "Yet she looks oddly like a bear."
Ha! So it wasn't just me being overly descriptive.
"Well, Priestess, she's a Lab, but you're not the first person who's said she looks bearlike. Her paws are definitely big enough to be a bear's. Check it out." Disbelieving, I watched as the kid completely turned his back on Neferet and told the dog, "Gimme five, Duch." The dog obediently lifted a decidedly massive paw and slapped Stark's hand with it. "Good girl!" he said, ruffling her floppy ears.
Okay, I had to admit it. It was a cute trick.
He returned his attention to Neferet. "But dog or bear, she and I have been together since I was Marked four years ago, so that makes her cat enough for me."
"A Labrador retriever?" Neferet made a show of walking around the dog and studying her. "She's awfully large."
"Well, yeah, Duch has always been a big girl, Priestess."
"Duch? That's her name?"
The kid nodded and grinned, and even though he was a sixth-former, I was again surprised at how easily he spoke to an adult vamp, especially one who was a powerful High Priestess. "It's short for Duchess."
Neferet looked from the dog to the kid, and her eyes narrowed. "What is your name, child?"
"Stark," he said.
I wondered if anyone else saw her jaw clench.
"James Stark?" Neferet said.
"A few months ago I dropped my first name. It's just Stark," he said.
She ignored him and turned to Dragon. "He's the transfer we've been expecting from the Chicago House of Night?"
"Yes, Priestess," Dragon said.
When Neferet looked back at Stark, I saw her lips tilt up in a calculating smile. "I've heard quite a bit about you, Stark. You and I shall have to have a long talk very soon." Still studying the fledgling, Neferet spoke to Dragon. "Be sure that Stark has twenty-four-hour access to any and all archery equipment he might like to use."
I saw Stark's body do a little jerk. Obviously Neferet saw it, too, because her smile widened and she said, "Of course, news of your talent preceded you here, Stark. You mustn't get out of practice just because you've changed schools."
For the first time, Stark looked uneasy. Actually, he looked more than uneasy. At the mention of archery, Stark's expression had transformed from cute and a little sarcastic to cold and almost mean.
"I told them when they transferred me, I'd stopped competing." Stark's voice was flat, and his words barely carried the short distance to our table. "Changing schools won't change that."
"Competing? You mean that banal archery competition between the different Houses of Night?" Neferet's laughter made my skin crawl. "It matters little to me if you compete or not. Remember, I am Nyx's mouthpiece here, and I say what is important is that you don't waste your Goddess-given talent. You never know when Nyx might call on you—and it won't be for some silly contest."
My stomach flipped over. I knew Neferet was talking about her war against the humans. But Stark, being completely clueless, just looked relieved at not having to compete again, and his expression shifted back to nonchalance tinged with cockiness.
"No problem. I don't mind practicing, Priestess," he said.
"Neferet, what is it you wish us to do about the, uh, dog?" Dragon said.
Neferet paused for just a moment; then she crouched gracefully down in front of the yellow Lab. The dog's big ears pricked forward. She stuck her wet nose up, sniffing with obvious curiosity at Neferet's offered hand. Across the booth from me, Beelzebub hissed menacingly. Nala growled low in her throat. Neferet's eyes lifted and met mine.
I tried to keep my face expressionless, but I don't know how well I succeeded. I hadn't seen Neferet since two days ago when she'd followed me out of the auditorium after she'd announced the human–vampyre war she wanted to start in retribution for Loren's murder. Naturally, we'd had words. She'd been Loren's lover. So had I, but that had been inconsequential. Loren hadn't loved me. Neferet had set up the whole thing between Loren and me, and she knew I knew she had. She also knew I knew Nyx didn't approve of the things she'd been doing.
Basically, she'd seriously hurt my heart, and I hated Neferet almost as much as I feared her. I hoped none of those things showed on my face as our High Priestess strolled over to our table. With a slight hand gesture, she had Stark and his leashed dog following along behind her. The Twins' cat gave one more long hiss before streaking off. I frantically petted Nala, hoping she wouldn't totally lose her mind as the dog got closer. Neferet stopped when she reached our table. Her eyes skipped quickly from me to Aphrodite before they came to rest on Damien.
"I'm glad you're here, Damien. I'd like you to show Stark his room, and help him find his way around campus."
"I'd be happy to, Neferet," Damien said quickly, looking all sparkly-eyed when Neferet beamed her one-hundred-watt thank-you smile at him.
"Dragon will help you with the details," she said. Then her green eyes moved to me. I braced myself. "And Zoey, this is Stark. Stark, this is Zoey Redbird, the leader of our Dark Daughters."
He and I nodded at each other.
"Zoey, as you are our High Priestess in Training, I'll leave the issue of Stark's dog with you. I trust that one of the many abilities Nyx has gifted you with will help you acclimate Duchess into our school." Her cold eyes never left mine. They told a different story than her syrupy-sweet voice. They said, Remember that I'm in charge here and you're just a child.
I purposefully broke eye contact with her and gave Stark a tight smile. "I'd be happy to help your dog fit in."
"Excellent," Neferet cooed. "Oh, and Zoey, Damien, Shaunee, and Erin." She smiled at my friends, and my friends grinned like utter fools right back at her. She completely ignored Aphrodite and Jack. "I've called a special Council Meeting for tonight at ten thirty." She glanced at her diamond-studded platinum watch. "It's almost ten o'clock right now, so you need to finish up eating because I expect you Prefects to be there, too."
"We will!" They trilled like ridiculous baby birds.
"Oh, Neferet, that reminds me," I said, raising my voice so that it carried across the room. "Aphrodite will be joining us. Since she's been gifted by Nyx with an earth affinity, we all agree that she should be on the Prefect Council, too." I held my breath, hoping that my friends would go along with this.
Thankfully, except for Nala's low growl at Duchess, no one said anything.
"How could Aphrodite be a Prefect? She is no longer a member of the Dark Daughters." Neferet's voice had gone cold.
I radiated innocence. "Did I forget to tell you? I'm so sorry, Neferet! It must have been because of all the horrible things that have happened recently. Aphrodite has rejoined the Dark Daughters. She swore to me, and to Nyx, to uphold our new code of conduct, and I allowed her back in. I mean, I thought that's what you'd want—to have her come back to our Goddess."
"That's right." Aphrodite sounded uncharacteristically subdued. "I've agreed to the new rules. I want to make up for my past mistakes."
I knew it would make Neferet look mean and spiteful if she publicly rejected Aphrodite after she'd made it obvious that she wanted to change. And Neferet was all about appearances.
The High Priestess smiled at the room in general, not looking at Aphrodite or me. "How very generous of our Zoey to accept Aphrodite back into the bosom of the Dark Daughters, especially as she'll be held responsible for Aphrodite's conduct. But then our Zoey seems to be comfortable with a great deal of responsibility." She did look at me then, and the hatred in her gaze made my breath catch in my throat. "Do be careful tha
t you don't strangle under so much self-inflicted pressure, Zoey dear." Then, as if she'd thrown a switch, her face was filled with sweetness and light again, and she beamed at the new kid. "Welcome to the House of Night, Stark."
"Well, uh, are you hungry?" I asked Stark after Neferet and the rest of the vamps had glided out of the cafeteria.
"Yeah, I guess," he said.
"If you hurry, you can eat with us, and then Damien can show you to your room before we have to go to the Council Meeting," I said.
"I think your dog is pretty," Jack said, leaning around Damien to get a better look at Duchess. "I mean, she's big, but she's still pretty. She won't bite, will she?"
"Not if you don't bite her first," Stark said.
"Oh, eew," Jack said. "I'd get dog hair in my mouth and that'd be nasty."
"Stark, this is Jack. He's Damien's boyfriend." I decided to get the introductions and the possible Oh, no! He's a fag! issues out of the way.
"Hi," Jack said with a really sweet smile.
"Yeah, hi," Stark said. It wasn't a hugely warm hi, but he didn't seem to be giving off any homophobe vibes.
"And this is Erin and Shaunee." I pointed to each of them in turn. "They also answer to Twin, which will make sense once you've known them for about two-point-five minutes."
"Hey, there," Shaunee said, giving him a very obvious look.
"Ditto," Erin said, giving him an identical look.
"This is Aphrodite," I said.
His slightly sarcastic smile was back. "So you're the Goddess of Love. I've heard a lot about you."
Aphrodite was looking at Stark with a weird intensity that didn't seem particularly flirtatious, but when he spoke to her, she automatically executed a truly spectacular hair flip and said, "Hi. I like it when I'm recognized."
His smile widened and got even more sarcastic as he gave a little laugh. "It'd be hard not to recognize you—the name's pretty obvious."
I watched as Aphrodite's intense look instantly dissipated and was replaced by her much more familiar public expression of snobby disdain, but before she could verbally begin to slice up the new kid, Damien spoke. "Stark, I'll show you where the trays and stuff are." He stood up and then stopped in front of Duchess, looking more than a little confused.