Stargazer Page 4

“I guess your lungs can take it.” We grinned at each other, unable to complete the joke while the human students milled around nearby. “Do you need help getting your paper together?”

“Already done and on Mrs. Bethany’s desk.” All the vampires had to spend the summer months “engaged in the modern world,” as the assignment stated, and were required to submit reports on their experiences at the top of every school year. It was sort of the “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay from hell. Balthazar glanced around. “Is Patrice here?”

“She’s spending some time in Scandinavia instead.” I’d received a postcard of the fjords a month before. “Says she’ll finish up in a year or two. I think she met a guy.”

“Too bad,” Balthazar said. “I was looking forward to seeing a few more familiar faces. Besides the one approaching fast from four o’clock, I mean.”

“What do you mean?” I tried to figure out where four o’clock was, but then her voice cut through the murmuring like fingernails on a chalkboard.

“Balthazar.” Courtney held out a hand to him, as though she expected him to kiss it. He shook it once, then let it drop. Her lipstick-bright smile never wavered. “Did you have a wonderful summer? I was in Miami, hitting the club scene. Totally awesome. You should check it out with somebody who knows the hot places to go.”

“I’m surprised to see you here,” I said. Surprised seemed like a nicer way of putting it than disappointed. “You didn’t seem to enjoy it much last year.”

She shrugged. “I thought about ditching, but the first night I was out in Miami, I realized I was wearing last season’s dress. And my shoes were, like, three years old. Major faux pas! Obviously I needed a little more catching up, so I figured I could deal with a few more months at Evernight.” Already her gaze was focused on Balthazar again. “Besides, I always enjoy spending more time with old friends.”

I said, “If I wanted to learn about fashion, I wouldn’t go someplace where everybody wears uniforms.”

Balthazar’s mouth twitched. Courtney narrowed her eyes, but her smile only grew wider as she glanced at my boxy, untailored sweater and plaid skirt. “And you’ve never had any interest in learning about fashion. Clearly.” She patted Balthazar on the shoulder. “We’ll catch up later.” Courtney sauntered off, long blond ponytail swinging from side to side as she went.

“I meant to try to get along with her better this year,” I muttered. “I guess I haven’t changed as much as I thought I had.”

“Don’t try to change. You’re wonderful the way you are.”

I glanced away shyly. Part of me thought, Oh, no, now I have to let Balthazar down again. The other part couldn’t help liking that he’d said that to me. I’d been so lonely all summer—without Lucas, without anybody—and knowing that somebody right here cared about me was like being given a warm blanket after months of cold.

Before I could think of the best way to respond, a hush fell over the crowd. We all turned instinctively to the podium at the far end of the great hall. Mrs. Bethany was about to speak.

She had on a slim gray suit, more like twenty-first-century clothes than she normally wore, but it suited her severe beauty. Mrs. Bethany’s dark hair was swept up into an elegant twist, and black pearls shone in her ears. Instead of looking at the students, her dark eyes looked slightly above us, as though we were hardly visible to her.

“Welcome to Evernight.” Her voice rang throughout the great hall. Everyone stood up straighter. “Some of you have been with us before. Others will have heard about Evernight Academy for years, perhaps from your families, and wondered if you would ever join our school.”

This was the same speech she had given the year before, but I heard it differently this time. I heard the lies inside every careful phrase, the way she was speaking to the vampires in the room who had been here twenty years ago or two hundred.

As if she’d read my thoughts, she glanced at me, her hawk-like gaze piercing through the crowd. I tensed, half expecting her to accuse me of breaking into her home while she’d been gone.

But she did something even more surprising. She abandoned her script.

“Evernight Academy means something different for every person who comes here,” Mrs. Bethany began. “It is a place of learning, a place of tradition, and for some a place of sanctuary.”

Only if you’re a bloodsucking creature of the night, I thought. Otherwise? Not so much with the sanctuary.

With one hand she gestured toward some of the new students, her long fingernails glinting red in the light that flowed through the stained-glass windows. To my astonishment, she was pointing out the human students—though of course they couldn’t have understood why. “In order to get the most from your time at Evernight, you need to learn what this school means to your classmates. That’s why I urge those of you with more experience to reach out to the new students among us. Take them under your wings. Find out about their lives, their interests, and their pasts. Only in this way can Evernight Academy accomplish its true goals.”

A few people clapped uncertainly—humans who didn’t know any better. “Okay, that was odd,” Balthazar muttered beneath the slight applause. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I’d heard Mrs. Bethany ask everyone to be friendly.”

I nodded. My mind was racing. Why did Mrs. Bethany want the vampires to get closer to the human students? If she didn’t want any humans hurt—and I still thought she didn’t—then what was she really after?

“Classes begin tomorrow.” The familiar, superior smile had returned to Mrs. Bethany’s face. “Take this day to get to know your fellow students, particularly those who are new here. We are glad to have you—all of you—and we hope that you will make the most of your time at Evernight.”

“Do you think she’s gone soft on us?” Balthazar turned to me as people began to mingle again.

“Mrs. Bethany? Hardly.” For a moment I considered asking Balthazar what he thought about the whole “admissions policy” mystery. He was smart, and even though he respected Mrs. Bethany, he didn’t take her word as gospel. Besides, he’d been around for more than three centuries; he’d probably have enough perspective to see my question in a different light and perhaps come up with a fresh answer. But Balthazar might also have the perspective to understand that I was asking because of my relationship with Lucas—something he wouldn’t like to be reminded of.

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