Rumor spread through Stassen High on whispers and tweets. Mr. Martinez, the drama coach was spotted talking to the lead singer of Ingress—the one and only Nikolai Kirov.
Actually, Nikolai and I were only kind of seeing each other, since I was also “betrothed” to Elias Constantine, a vampire knight, but there was no explaining that to the cluster of giddy girls that swarmed around me like I was the queen of the world, and not just Anastasija Parker, the vampire princess of St. Paul.
“Come on, Ana,” pleaded my sometimes BFF, Bea, “You must know something.”
I couldn’t believe Bea was encouraging this lot to harass me. Of course, unlike me, she enjoyed being the center of attention. Normally, she and I were part of the outcast clique, and most of our interaction with this gaggle of cheerleaders and jocks involved slushies and slurs that conveyed their deep misunderstanding of the nature of real magic.
Bea and I were witches.
Well, to be precise: she was. I couldn’t cast a spell if my life depended on it, and, believe me, there were times that it very nearly had. Being half-vampire dampened my access to that particular source of power. But there were other kinds of energy I could tap. Our coven mostly tolerated me because of my abilities, but it was complicated.
Kind of like my relationship with Nik.
“He’s so cool,” one of the cheerleaders sighed. There was a wistful gleam in her eyes, the kind I’d seen in a lot of the groupies that hung around Ingress after the shows. “Are you really dating him?”
“Yeah, I mean, kind of.”
The worst part was that every time I stumbled over the exact nature of my relationship with Nikolai, I could see the hunger flare behind their gaze. Inevitably, the desire was followed by a measuring look full of jealousy and wonder at what I could possibly have that attracted a college boy in the hottest local band in the entire Twin Cities music scene.
I wondered the same thing, too.
“She is, no ‘kind of’ about it,” Bea said to the disbelieving sneers. “Nikolai is completely smitten.”
I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought I heard a bit of envy in Bea’s voice too. The bell rang, saving me from protesting that sometimes I worried that his intense interest in me might have more to do with the fact that, in his spare time, Nikolai was also a vampire hunter. Or, at least, the apprentice to the local vampire hunter, his dad—
Did I mention it was complicated?
By lunch, I told Bea I couldn’t take it anymore. Even though we didn’t have a pass, we took our sack lunches and sneaked out to eat them in her car. Bea had this giant boat of a vehicle. It had bucket seats and even smelled like your grandpa’s aftershave. Of course, she’d added the “My other car is a broomstick” bumper sticker and the dream catcher dangling from the rearview mirror.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the doors clicked shut . . . but too soon.
“Text him,” Bea poked me in the arm. I shot her a frustrated grimace and almost got out of the car, but she said, “Come on, if you have some information, the grapevine will take care of the rest.”
She had a point. If I had some crumb to toss everyone, they’d forward the news around themselves without constantly having to harass me. Bea clicked the key into lock position so we could watch the time and listen to the radio—the car was so ancient it didn’t have a way to play .mp3s. I dug through my backpack for my phone. Of course, it had to be off during school, and it took forever to power up.
“You should get a cell made this century,” Bea said with a snort.
“Hey, it was cheap, and it’s not like it’s rotary—or whatever mom says.” I twirled my fingers like she always did, “Where they had to wait for the zero. I don’t know. I never understand what she’s talking about. Okay, it doesn’t have a cord, at least.”
“Might as well, at that speed.”
When my phone finally finished turning itself on, I was surprised to see I already had a text from Nikolai.
“Hey, he wrote,” I said, showing the phone to Bea.
“Oh! Open it!”
We put our heads together to peer at the tiny screen. With a gush of anticipation, I hit accept. Seconds passed as the stupid phone deducted the minutes, and then finally the text appeared. It read: “Guess what? We R doing the music for your spring play. Try out! More 2nite.”
Bea and I looked at each other and read the note again. “I thought we were doing ‘My Fair Lady,’” I said to Bea’s equally confused face. “Do you suppose Mr. Martinez decided to do ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ again or something?”
In my freshman year, Mr. Martinez caused a big splash with the production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” He rented a couple of real helicopters which landed on the school lawn and poured out actors dressed like soldiers, which proceeded to “occupy” the school as the Romans had Judea. It was the kind of production that got everybody—from the cheerleaders to the dirtbags—jazzed about theater. “Great Goddess, I hope not. There’s only one female role in that whole stupid musical. Let’s hope it’s ‘Hair.’”
“Maybe he’s going to do ‘Rent’?” It was a well-known fact that Mr. Martinez was fabulously gay and liked to push the envelope a little, but even so it would be a bit avant guard for him to pick any musical written after the 1970s. “Can you imagine? Like, who would even try out to be the drag queen?”
“Lane might,” Bea suggested. “He likes to be out there and doesn’t care what people think.”
I shook my head. “The parents would totally freak out if Martinez really does ‘Rent.’ Half the characters are HIV positive.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of retro when you think about it,” Bea said, pulling out a tuna sandwich from her bag. “Who worries about AIDS these days?”
“Well, they should. It’s not like they cured it,” I pointed out, digging through my own sack in search of a bag of carrots. “But the play is kind of dated, and I don’t know the music, do you?”
“Yeah, here’s what’s weird: Mr. Martinez has only been showing us every production of ‘My Fair Lady’ for a month. Why would he pull a bait-and-switch now?”
I shrugged. Bea and I had drama class together at the end of the day. Most of the theater types took drama as an elective, and well over half us were in each school production, even if it was only as stage hands. In fact, it was sort of assumed that if you wanted to be in a play, you needed to take Mr. Martinez’s course. It wasn’t a requirement, you understand, just how it worked out and Mr. Martinez made no secret of it. So he often spent class time reviewing recordings of professional versions of that season’s show. By this time last fall, I was so sick of Macbeth that I half considered being truant just so I wouldn’t have to see one more performance of it. “I kind of hope he’s decided on a rock opera of some sort,” I admitted.
Thing was, I couldn’t see myself as Eliza Doolittle, the lead in ‘My Fair Lady.’ She was supposed to start off as all rough and tumble and end up some kind of well-heeled British lady. So not me.
With my mismatched eyes and super-pale skin, I had a much easier time with roles like one of the Wyrd Sisters in Macbeth. I was awfully freaky looking to be romantic lead material. The only other speaking female role in ‘My Fair Lady’ was the nanny, who sings along with the song about dancing all night. My stick figure did not scream matronly, either. Bea’s kind of did, but I knew better than to point that out.
That was just the way it always was, wasn’t it? Bea hated her curves and dark wavy curls; I envied them. She felt the same about my ram-rod straight hair and matching twiggy non-figure.
But we didn’t talk about that. We didn’t talk about much of anything, in fact. Instead, she and I spent the rest of lunch lost in our own musings about the play, although as I ate my pastrami on rye, my mind wandered back around to Nik. Having a locally famous rock star boyfriend did strange things to my ego. At the shows when he shouted out to me or came over to talk at breaks, I felt super special. I could sense all the eyes jealously staring at me, wondering who I was to garner such attention from someone as awesome as him. Meanwhile, while he sang, I had plenty of time to check out the competition and most of the time I fell short in my own estimation. There were college age women drooling over Nik, some of them looking like rock stars themselves.
I figured it was only a matter of time before he dumped me for someone closer to his own age, someone more willing to well, you know, help him live up to that rock star reputation. Okay, just between us: we hadn’t had sex yet. I wasn’t ready. I was just sixteen, and really, we started dating only last fall, and trust me, with everything else going on while I was discovering that I was some kind of vampire princess, well, I was distracted.
Plus, there was Elias.
How do I explain him? He’s a vampire. But vampires are nothing like what you expect; they’re more like blood-drinking elves, except from hell. Literally. Only, the real hell isn’t the one in the Bible, either. It’s older and stranger, and, apparently, deeply hierarchical. Elias is a knight and acts like he’s from the Middle Ages, too, with a lot of bowing and touching romantic gestures like that. My dad’s the local vampire ruler, but Elias is the one who makes me feel like a princess.
And, thanks to this one battle between True Witches and vampires where I accidentally-on-purpose bit him, we were betrothed—which normally meant “engaged to be married” in Medieval times. I had no idea what it meant to vampires. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any rush in the vampire community to push Elias and me towards the altar. It seemed more like a peace treaty thing that involved him “courting” me a lot.
Totally off the subject, but the whole courting stuff was made of win. It involved a lot of flowers and being the center of manly attention, minus any pressure. I don’t even know if vampires have sex like we do. Well, they must sometimes, or I wouldn’t be here. But, they were kind of another species. Though I know they have all the same parts, since I’d seen Elias naked—a lot. See, vampires liked to run around in the buff. Weird. But even so, Elias never even kissed me once. Maybe that whole biting thing was their version of sex.
I’d only eaten half my sandwich when Bea pointed at the dashboard clock. “Oh noes!” she said in mock seriousness.
But we’d be tardy for real if we didn’t hustle. I jammed everything back into my bag, in the hopes that I might have time for a snack during free period. Otherwise, my stomach was going to be growling all through the rest of the day.
We got yelled at by Ms. Yang, the hall monitor, when she spotted us sliding in the side doors. But Bea was fast on her feet and came up with a convincing lie to keep her from sending us to the assistant principal’s office. Plus, as Bea talked, I felt a slight hum in the air. She’d cast a glamour spell to keep Ms. Yang off our case.
Parting ways in the hall, I headed off to history, which was on the second floor and way in the back. I thought I’d be able to make it in time, but I miscalculated, forgetting about my sudden popularity. Three cheerleaders stopped me by the water fountain. “So I heard—” one of them started with a snap of her gum.
I cut them off, “Nik told me his band is going to do the music for the school play.” They started to open their mouths to beg for more details, and I waved them off. . It wasn’t like they were going to try-out for the play, was it? Or were they? OMG. What if all the cheerleaders and jocks auditioned? No, the thought was just too horrible, so I blurted out”I’m sorry, that’s all he said. I’ve got to go.”
I scooted in the door a half a minute after last bell, which meant I missed more class time going back down to the office to get a tardy slip. As I waited with the other deadbeats for the secretary to fill out the form, I sighed. Times like this I wished I had Bea’s powers. Zap! No more tardy!
Mr. Shultz accepted my pass with a kind of suspicious grimace when I got back to class, like he thought that somehow I’d forged the note, even though he was the one who’d sent me off to fetch it.
I took my seat and tried to ignore all the irritated glances. This was Honor’s history, after all. My colleagues had no patience for anything they perceived as bad behavior. As quickly and quietly as I could, I got out my textbook and flipped to the current unit.
I stared again, as I often did, at the picture at the beginning of the chapter. It was an artist’s rendition of an auction block. I got a strange shiver down my spine.
Once upon a time, according to Elias anyway, vampires were slaves to witches. The First Witch created some kind of talisman to bind their will to hers. The power of this thing, whatever it was, kept them in thrall for millennia. And thus it was, until the vampires discovered the artifact and plotted to steal it. Then it got lost or something, I don’t know. Anyway, vampires were free now, but still kind of held a grudge about that whole stolen-from-their-homeland-and-used-as-chattel thing.
No surprise, right?
Ever since we started this section, I’d been trying to ask Elias what it was like. Every time I brought the subject up, though, he’d get all tight and quiet, and then suddenly find some excuse to be elsewhere.
My only conclusion was that it must have been awful. And yet here was Mr. Shultz trying to explain how human trafficking was profitable and made a kind of business sense back then.
“Isn’t it still profitable?” asked Lane. He was being intentionally provocative, but his point was valid. It wasn’t like slavery didn’t exist anymore. But if I knew Mr. Shultz, he’d find a way to make Lane’s outburst into homework for everyone.
“Excellent point, Mr. Davis,” Mr. Shultz said. “Perhaps we should all do a little research into current examples of human trafficking? How about a ten-page paper due Wednesday, for extra credit?”
There were a few groans, but in truth we were the students who lived for extra credit projects. Do you know how many points an “A+” in an honors class bumps up your GPA? We were all competing to be valedictorian in two years, after all. I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the specifics for the paper. It could be fascinating, I thought. It was an intense subject. I wondered how much Mr. Shultz would freak if I did mine on vampires and witches?
I shook my head. He’d probably think I was making it up and give me no credit.
After class, Lane tugged my sleeve. As Bea pointed out, Lane was the likeliest candidate for a boy who might be willing to play a drag queen. It wasn’t because he was particularly gay; he just liked to shock people. He was tall and gangly, like he hadn’t quite filled out the body he suddenly had. His just-over-his-ears sandy brown hair was stylishly bed-headed. I thought he was kind of cute, but he was a little too artsy for me. When we’d talked backstage in the past, I never understood his music references and hated every movie he claimed to admire.
“Are you really dating a rocker?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes. Apparently, not even Lane was immune to the gossip. I would be so glad when Stassen High forgot about me again and went on to the next new thing. “Yes, Mr. Davis. I am. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Ms. Parker, it seems my hopes to accompany you to the Spring Fling have been dashed. I am beside myself with grief.”
I could never tell if he was being serious or not. That was the other thing that always bugged me about Lane.
Luckily, I waited him out long enough and he started talking again before I embarrassed myself by being flattered, “Seriously,” he said. “I never figured you for a heavy metal chick. I always thought you had more class.”
Oh, nice. But at least these kind of passive-aggressive insults were standard operating procedure for Lane. I knew what to do with them. “No, not really,” I admitted with a sweet smile, as though he’d given me the biggest compliment. “Sorry to cut this scintillating conversation short, but I have study hall and, thanks to you, I need to spend my time in the media center doing research. Bye-bye!”
I waved toodle-loo to Lane’s baffled expression and headed off to the library.
On my way, my gaze was attracted to a very fine, male body bent to retrieve something from the bottom of his locker. Trim waist, broad shoulder, taut abs—in short a body to die for. As he straightened, I started to smile into . . . the ruggedly handsome face of Matthew Thompson, soccer star and homecoming king, who randomly flipped me the bird. Okay, I guessed he had just cause, since a few months ago I did lick blood off his face in gym class. That was awkward, especially since, even now, I could taste him. My stomach growled.
He seemed to hear the sound, and so I licked my lips seductively and flounced past like some kind of vamp vampire.
When he was out-of-sight, I sighed deeply.
Why were all the guys in this school such jerks?
After checking in with my homeroom teacher and showing her my Honor Society pass, I headed to the library. My plan was to find a nice quiet place in the stacks to hide away. Let’s face it, I was just not made to be a popular girl. The only time I liked being in the spotlight was on stage. There, it was scripted. Someone much wittier than I was came up with all the lines, and I knew how it was going to end before it started. In real life, you never knew what was going to happen. Real people never acted predictably.
The librarian waved at me when I came in. I saw Matthew Thompson settling in at one of the big tables with his math tutor, James, a senior and his class’s most likely valedictorian. I ignored the “come here” wave from Thompson. I mean, he did just flip me off and, anyway, I was sure he just wanted to find out about the rumors, and he had plenty of other sources—like half the cheerleading squad.
I slipped into the stacks with a sigh. Long ago, I’d discovered that way in the back, near the dusty poetry section, there was one of those old-fashioned study carrels. It had a built-in overhead lamp that no longer worked, a slot for papers, and was shaped sort of like a voting booth so that when you leaned in over your books, you had the illusion of complete privacy.
With a glance around to see if I was truly alone, I pulled out the uneaten half of my sandwich and surreptitiously tucked it into the overhead slot. I took out my cell phone and turned it on so I could watch the time. Believe me, it was easy to lose track back here.
A half hour later, I had finished up my sandwich and tomorrow’s math assignment. I was just about to tackle English reading when a tap on my shoulder made me yelp. Guiltily hiding my crumbs, I peered over my shoulder to see if it was the librarian come to chew me out.
Nope. It was a vampire.
They’re easy to identify once you know what to look for. They really do have pasty white skin, for one thing—at least if they’re white to begin with. This woman was a very pale shade of Asian, but the absolute dead giveaway, if you’ll pardon the pun, was the cat-slit eyes. Her features were enviably porcelain fine, and her black hair fell arrow-straight, almost to her knees. Though her clothes were modern, there was always something uncomfortable in the way vampires wore them that made them look out of place, otherworldly, alien.
Plus, she curtsied. Who else but a vampire would do that anymore? “A thousand pardons for disturbing you, Your Highness. My name is Khan, and I have come to request a boon.”
It must be an important favor, because normally vampires didn’t go out in the daytime. A thought occurred to me, “Did you come through the sewers or something? Is there an underground connection to the school?”
The idea both thrilled and scared me. I mean, how cool would it be to sneak into the library after hours? But then it also meant vampires had easy access at any time. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
No, I lied; it totally freaked me out.
“Yes, highness, but I don’t have long.” Khan looked over her shoulder then, like she expected someone to be chasing her. “Please, I need your blessing to pursue my dream.”
Sounded harmless enough, but I was suspicious. Most of the time when vampires approached me for courtly things, Elias or my dad was around to give advice. I mean, what did I know about vampire politics? What if this ‘dream’ of Khan’s was to assassinate my dad? It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to kill him. “What is this dream of yours?”
“To break my betrothal contract and marry the one I love,” she said, with a proud lift of her chin.
“You can do that?”
Khan smiled slightly. “Not without royal permission.”
So I didn’t have to be betrothed to Elias. This was news. No wonder she didn’t want to ask in front of him or my dad.
I considered her request, trying to decide if I was going to regret allowing it. But, try as I might, I couldn’t see any harm in letting her marry the man she wanted. “If I say ‘yes,’ this isn’t going to start a vampire civil war or anything, is it?”
Khan looked surprised by my question for a moment, but then laughed. “No, your highness, it’s not.”
“Why not ask my dad then?”
She frowned, as if not sure what to say. “I don’t wish to insult the king . . .”
“But . . . ?” I prompted. I had to admit, Khan had my full attention. Despite the fact that my dad showed up at my doorstep last fall and demanded I come with him to be the princess of the vampires, it wasn’t like we were close. In fact, when I refused to choose sides, he seemed to have lost interest in me. I didn’t get invited to court or any of the reindeer games.
Khan pursed her lips, and for a moment I thought she wouldn’t tell. Then, everything spilled out in a rush, “His royal highness is a sexist pig who hasn’t had an updated thought about women since three thousand B.C.!”
Oh. Okay. Well, that might explain why my mom, the uber-feminist Queen of Witches, didn’t last long in a relationship with him. I wanted to ask Khan to go into more detail, but my cell phone beeped, reminding me I only had a few more minutes of free period left.
“Done. Permission granted. Whatever I need to say. You have my blessing.” Besides, this was totally romantic, right? “Go be with the one you love.”
She curtsied her way out, profusely thanking me the entire way. By the time she disappeared completely into the shadows of the stacks, my cell phone beeped more anxiously a second time. Time to get to drama class!
I packed up my books feeling like I’d handled Khan pretty well, considering. I mean, it would have been nice if I’d gotten an instruction booklet to go with the whole princess gig.
On my way out, Thompson bumped into me. Like, as in, nearly tripped me, which I guess was his sort of Neanderthal way of being friendly because he smiled and said, “I’m thinking about trying out, you know, for the play.”
I didn’t mean to, but I laughed. It was just like I feared. Mr. Martinez had not only managed the miracle of making me cool for the day, but theater as well. Everyone and their dog wanted to be in the show. Even a guy like Thompson. Unbelievable.
Thompson actually looked a little hurt by my reaction, but he covered it with a cough. “Whatever. You’re one of those theater people. You got any advice?”
I looked up at his square jaw and chiseled cheekbones. He was handsome if you ignored his knuckle-dragging personality, and I could see him acting in a Renaissance Festival troupe that involved bashing people with a stick, but as suave Professor Higgins? No way.
“You do know that theater involves singing and dancing and costumes and make-up, right? I mean, the whole thing is a little bit gay for you, Thompson.”
“Maybe I’m some kind of undiscovered talent,” he said.
“Yeah, undiscovered all right.” Okay, that might have been a little mean of me, but if you knew the kind of shit I had to put up with after the whole face-licking incident, you’d be on my side. Trust me, it was nowhere near as cruel as the things Thompson and his buddies had said to me. “Look,” I continued, trying to explain as carefully as I could. “Acting looks easy, but that’s the magic of it, okay? Looking easy—when it’s not. You can’t just wake up an awesome actor one day. If I were you, I’d save myself the heartbreak and just buy your tickets for the front row instead. Trust me, there’s no way you’re going to get a speaking part.”
The thing I wasn’t going to tell Thompson was that any boy who tried out usually got into the show no matter how bad they were, because we were always hurting for male bodies on stage.
“Is that a prediction, witch?” Of course, the way he said that last word, it sounded more like the one that started with a “b.”
I flashed him my patented evil eye—which given my one blue and one brown was honestly fairly spooky. I’d creeped myself out with it in the mirror. “Count on it, asshole.”
Thompson looked ready to hurl more insults, but Bea chose that moment to slide up between us and take my arm all lady-like. “Is this brute bothering you, Ana?”
The air hummed with the electricity of a spell revving up. So I quickly said, “Nothing I can’t handle, Bea.”
“You sure I can’t zap him?” She waggled her fingers at Thompson menacingly, and he shrunk away. He’d been the victim of her “zap” before. Her spell had made him unpopular for twenty-four hours, which was tantamount to a death sentence to someone like Thompson.
“I’m sure,” I said. “Come on. I can’t be late to class again.”
As we walked through the hall, my mind kept returning to the conversation with Thompson. At Stassen, theater held a strange place in the school hierarchy. My clique was comprised of the kind of weirdoes that thought quoting Shakespeare’s dirtier bits was hilarious, true. But, thanks to stunts like the one Mr. Martinez was pulling now, where he brought the cool to drama, we weren’t always outcasts.
That was just me, and my own special brand of dorky. I was still considering this when we met up with my other sometimes-BFF, Taylor, whose real name was something much more African sounding. She was Somali and usually wore a hijab, a scarf that covered her hair and neck. Being Taylor, however, hers were incredibly sparkly and tended towards loud, outrageous patterns. Today’s was neon green with golden glitter.
“You look fabulous,” I told her.
She beamed. “And I know a secret. You’re going to die when you walk in,” she teased.
Bea shushed her.
And I thought, “Oh no, now what?”
I anticipated the excited chaos of everyone’s chatter, but not the sight of my sometimes, kind-of-boyfriend perched on the edge of Mr. Martinez’s desk. On other guys a peasant shirt with poet-sleeves looked dorky and pretentious. Maybe it was Nikolai’s half-Romany blood, but he not only pulled the fashion off—with leather pants, no less—but he bumped it up to wicked hot. Plus, he had those tumbled, let-me-just-fix-that-stray-bit-for-you locks that always threatened to fall in front of the most gorgeous, deep amber eyes any girl has had the pleasure of losing herself in.
I started to say hello, when he sauntered over and planted an amazing peck on my cheek—in front of EVERYONE.