Fencing was totally cool, which was a surprise. Class was held in a huge room off the gym that looked like a dance studio, complete with a floor-to-ceiling wall of mirrors. Hanging from the ceiling along one side were weird life-sized manikins that reminded me of three-dimensional shooting targets. Everyone called Professor Lankford Dragon Lankford, or just Dragon. It didn't take me long to figure out why. His tattoo represented two dragons whose bodies, serpent-like, wrapped down over his jaw line. Their heads were over his brows and their mouths were open, breathing fire at the crescent moon. It was amazing and hard not to stare at. Plus, Dragon was the first male adult vampyre I'd seen up close. At first he confused me. I guess if you'd asked me what I expected from a male vampyre I would have said his opposite. Honestly, I had the movie-star vampyre stereotype in mind-- tall, dangerous, handsome. You know, like Vin Diesel. Anyway, Dragon is short, has long blondish hair that he pulls back in a low ponytail, and (except for the fierce looking dragon tattoo) has a cute face with a warm smile It was only when he began leading the class through its warm- up exercises that I began to realize his power. From the instant he held the sword (which I later found out was called an epee) in the traditional salute he seemed to become someone else--someone who moved with unbelievable quickness and grace. He feinted and lunged and effortlessly made the rest of the class--even the kids who were pretty good, like Damien--look like awkward puppets. When he finished leading the warm-ups, the Dragon paired everyone off and had them work on what he called "the standards." I was relieved when he motioned for Damien to be my partner.

"Zoey, it's good to have you join the House of Night," Dragon said, shaking my hand in the traditional Amazon vampyre greeting. "Damien can explain the different parts of the fencing uniform to you, and I'll get you a handout to study over the next few days. I am assuming you've had no previous instruction in the sport?"

"No, I haven't," I said, and then added nervously, "but I'd like to learn. I mean, the whole idea of using a sword is just cool."

Dragon smiled. "Foil," he corrected, "you'll be learning how to use a foil. It's the lightest weight of the three types of weapons we have here, and an excellent choice for women. Did you know that fencing is one of the very few sports where women and men can compete on entirely equal terms?"

"No," I said, instantly intrigued. How cool would it be to kick a guy's butt at a sport?!

"This is because the intelligent and focused fencer can successfully compensate for any perceived deficiencies he or she may have, and may even be able to turn those deficiencies--such as strength or reach--into assets. In other words, you may not be as strong or as fast as your opponent, but you could be smarter or able to remain focused better, which will tip the scales in your favor. Right, Damien?"

Damien grinned. "Right."

"Damien is one of the most focused fencers I've had the privilege to coach in decades, which makes him a dangerous opponent."

I snuck a sideways glance at Damien, who flushed with pride and pleasure.

"For the next week or so I'll have Damien drill you in the opening maneuvers. Always remember, fencing requires a mastery of skills that are sequential and hierarchical in nature. If one of the skills is not acquired, subsequent skills will be very difficult to master and the fencer will be at a permanent and serious disadvantage."

"Okay, I'll remember," I said. Dragon smiled warmly again before he moved off to work his way among each practicing pair.

"What he means is don't get discouraged or bored if I make you do the same exercise over and over."

"So what you're really saying is that you're going to be annoying, but there's a purpose behind it?"

"Yep. And part of that purpose will help lift that cute little butt of yours," he said sassily, tapping me with the side of his foil.

I slapped at him and rolled my eyes, but after twenty minutes of lunging and settling back into the beginning stance and lunging-- over and over again--I knew he was right. My butt would be killing me tomorrow.

We took quick showers after class (thankfully, there were separate curtain- draped stalls for each of us in the girls' locker room and we didn't have to barbarically and tragically shower in a huge open area like we were prison inmates or whatever) and then I hurried with the rest of the crowd to the lunch room--better known as the dining hall. And I do mean hurry. I was starving.

Lunch was a huge build-your-own salad buffet, which included everything from tuna salad (eesh) to those weird mini-corns that are so confusing, and don't even taste like corn. (What exactly are they? Baby corn? Midget corn? Mutant corn?) I piled my plate high and got a big hunk of what looked and smelled like freshly baked bread, and slid into the booth beside Stevie Rae, with Damien following close behind me. Erin and Shaunee were already arguing over something to do with whose essay for their Lit class was better, even though they'd both gotten 96 on their papers. "So, Zoey, give. What about Erik Night?" Stevie Rae asked the instant I'd forked a big bite of salad into my mouth. Stevie Rae's words immediately shut up the Twins and focused the entire table's attention on me.

I'd thought about what I was going to say about Erik, and decided that I wasn't ready to tell anyone about the unfortunate blow-job scene. So I just said, "He kept looking at me." When they frowned at me I realized that through my salad mouth what I'd really said was "He keffft looookn at mmm." I swallowed and tried again. "He kept looking at me. In Drama class. It was just, I dunno, confusing."

"Define 'looking at me'," Damien said.

"Well, it happened the second he came into class, but it was especially noticeable when he was giving us an example of a monologue. He did this thing from Othello, and when he said the line about love and such, he stared straight at me. I would have thought it was just an accident or something, but he looked at me before he started the monologue, and then again as he was leaving the room." I sighed and squirmed a little, uncomfortable with their way too piercing looks. "Never mind. It was probably just part of his act."

"Erik Night is the hottest damn thing at this entire school," Shaunee said.

"Forget that--he's the hottest damn thing on this planet," Erin said.

"He's not hotter than Kenny Chesney," Stevie Rae said quickly.

"Okay, just please with your country obsession!" Shaunee frowned at Stevie Rae before turning her attention back to me. "Do not let this opportunity pass you by."

"Yeah," Erin echoed. "Do not."

"Pass me by? What am I supposed to do? He didn't even say anything to me."

"Uh, Zoey honey, did you smile back at the boy?" Damien asked.

I blinked. Had I smiled back at him? Ah, crap. I bet I hadn't. I bet I just sat there and stared like a moron and maybe even drooled. Okay, well, I might not have drooled, but still. "I dunno," I said instead of the sad truth, which didn't fool Damien at all.

He snorted. "Next time smile at him."

"And maybe say hi," Stevie Rae said.

"I thought Erik was a just pretty face," Shaunee said. "And body," Erin added.

"Until he dumped Aphrodite," Shaunee continued. "When he did that I realized the boy might have something going on upstairs."

"We can already tell he has it going on downstairs!" Erin said, waggling her eyebrows.

"Uh-huh!" Shaunee said, licking her lips like she was contemplating eating a big piece of chocolate.

"You two are gross," Damien said.

"We only meant that he has the cutest butt in town, Miss Priss," Shaunee said.

"As if you haven't noticed," Erin said.

"If you started talking to Erik it would really piss off Aphrodite." Stevie Rae said.

Everyone turned and stared at Stevie Rae as if she'd just parted the Red Sea or something.

"It's true," Damien said.

"Very true," Shaunee said while Erin nodded.

"So the rumor is he used to go out with Aphrodite," I said.

"Yep," Erin said.

"The rumor is grotesque but true," Shaunee said. "Which makes it even better that now he likes you!"

"Guys, he was probably just staring at my weird Mark," I blurted. "Maybe not. You're really cute, Zoey," Stevie Rae said with a sweet smile.

"Or maybe your Mark made him look, and then he thought you were cute so he kept looking," Damien said.

"Either way, his looking will definitely piss Aphrodite off," Shaunee said.

"Which is a good thing," Erin said.

Stevie Rae waved away their comments. "Just forget about Aphrodite and your Mark and all that other stuff. Next time he smiles at you, say hi. That's all."

"Easy," Shaunee said.

"Peasy," Erin said.

"Okay," I mumbled and went back to my salad, wishing desperately that the whole Erik Night issue was as easy-peasy as they thought it was.

One thing about lunch at the House of Night was the same as lunch at SIHS or any other school I'd ever eaten at--it was over too soon. And then Spanish class was a blur. Profesora Garmy was like a little Hispanic whirlwind. I liked her right away (her tattoos looked oddly like feathers, so she reminded me of a little Spanish bird), but she ran the class speaking entirely in Spanish. Entirely. I should probably mention here that I haven't had Spanish since eighth grade, and I freely admit to not paying much attention to it then. So I was pretty lost, but I wrote down the homework and promised myself that I'd study the vocab words. I hate being lost.

Intro to Equestrian Studies was held in the Field House. It was a long, low brick building over by the south wall, attached to a huge indoor riding arena. The whole place had that sawdusty, horsey smell that mixed with leather to form something that was pleasant, even though you know that part of the "pleasant" scent was poopie--horse poopie.

I stood nervously with a small group of kids just inside the corral where a tall, stern-faced upperclassman had directed us to wait. There were only about ten of us, and we were all third formers. Oh, (great) that annoying redheaded Elliott kid was slouching against the wall kicking at the sawdust floor. He raised enough dust to make the girl standing closest to him sneeze. She threw him a dirty look and moved a few steps away. God, did he irritate everyone? And why couldn't he use some product (or perhaps a comb) on that nappy hair?

The sound of hooves drew my attention from Elliott and I looked up in time to see a magnificent black mare pounding into the corral at full gallop. She slid to a stop a couple feet in front of us. While we all gawked like fools, the mare's rider dismounted gracefully. She had thick hair that reached to her waist and was so blond it was almost white, and eyes that were a weird shade of slate gray. Her body was tiny, and the way she stood reminded me of those girls who obsessively take dance classes so that even when they're not in ballet they stand like they have something stuck way up their butts. Her tattoo was an intricate series of knots entwined around her face-- within the sapphire design I was sure I could see plunging horses.

"Good evening. I am Lenobia, and this," she pointed at the mare and gave our group a contemptuous look before finishing the sentence, "is a horse." Her voice rang against the walls. The black mare blew through her nose as if to punctuate her words. "And you are my new group of third formers. Each of you has been chosen for my class because we believe you might possibly have an aptitude for riding. The truth is that less than half of you will last the semester, and less than half of those who last will actually develop into decent equestrians. Are there any questions?" She didn't pause long enough for anyone to ask anything. "Good. Then follow me and you shall begin." She turned and marched back into the stable. We followed.

I wanted to ask who the "we" were who thought I might have an aptitude for riding, but I was scared to say anything and just scrambled after her like everyone else. She came to a halt in front of a row of empty stalls Outside of them were pitchforks and wheelbarrows. Lenobia turned to face us.

"Horses are not big dogs. Nor are they a little girl's romanticized dream image of a perfect best friend who will always understand you."

Two girls standing beside me fidgeted guiltily and Lenobia skewered them with her gray eyes.

"Horses are work. Horses take dedication, intelligence, and time. We'll begin with the work part. In the tack room down this hall you'll find mucking boots. Choose a pair quickly, while we all get gloves. Then each of you take your own stall and get busy."

"Professor Lenobia?" said a chubby girl with a cute face, who raised her hand nervously.

"Lenobia will do. The name I chose in honor of the ancient vampyre queen needs no other title."

I didn't have a clue who Lenobia was, and made a mental note to look it up.

"Go on. You have a question, Amanda?"

"Yeah, uh, yes."

Lenobia raised one brow at the girl.

Amanda swallowed noisily. "Get busy doing what, Profes--, I mean, Lenobia, ma'am?"

"Cleaning out stalls, of course. The manure goes in the wheelbarrows. When your barrow is full you can dump it in the compost area on the wall side of the stables. There is fresh sawdust in the storage room beside the tack room. You have fifty minutes. I'll be back in forty-five to inspect your stalls!'

We all blinked at her.

"You may commence. Now."

We commenced.

Okay. Really. I know it's going to sound weird, but I didn't mind cleaning out my stall. I mean, horse poopie just isn't that gross. Especially because it was obvious that these stalls were cleaned out like every other instant of the day. I grabbed the mucking boots (which were big rubber galoshes--totally ugly, but they did cover my jeans all the way up to my knees) and a pair of gloves and got to work. There was music playing through excellent loudspeakers-- something that I was pretty sure was Enya's latest CD (my mom used to listen to Enya before she married John, but then he decided that it might be witch music so she quit, which is why I'll always like Enya). So I listened to the haunting Gaelic lyrics and pitch- forked up poopie. It didn't seem that hardly any time had passed when I was dumping the wheelbarrow and then filling it with clean sawdust. I was just smoothing it around the stall when I got that prickly feeling that someone was watching me.

"Good job, Zoey."

I jumped and whirled around to see Lenobia standing just outside my stall. In one hand she was holding a big, soft curry brush. In the other she was holding the lead rope of a doe-eyed roan mare.

"You've done this before," Lenobia said.

"My grandma used to have a really sweet gray gelding I named Bunny," I said before I realized how stupid I sounded. Cheeks hot, I hurried on, "Well, I was ten, and his color reminded me of Bugs Bunny, so I started calling him that and it stuck."

Lenobia's lips tilted up in the barest hint of a smile. "It was Bunny's stall you cleaned?"

"Yeah. I liked to ride him, and Grandma said that no one should ride a horse unless they clean up after one." I shrugged. "So I cleaned up after him." "Your grandmother is a wise woman."

I nodded.

"And did you mind cleaning up after Bunny?"

"No, not really."

"Good. Meet Persephone," Lenobia nodded her head at the mare beside her. "You've just cleaned her stall."

The mare came into the stall and walked straight up to me, sticking her muzzle in my face and blowing gently, which tickled and made me giggle. I rubbed her nose and automatically kissed the warm velvet of her muzzle.

"Hi there, Persephone, you pretty girl."

Lenobia nodded in approval as the mare and I got to know each other.

"There are only about five minutes left before the bell rings for school to end, so it is not necessary that you stay as part of today's class, but if you'd like, I believe you have earned the privilege of brushing Persephone."

Surprised, I looked up from patting the horse's neck. "No problem, I'll stay," I heard myself saying.

"Excellent. You can return the brush to the tack room when you've finished. I'll see you tomorrow, Zoey." Lenobia handed me the brush, patted the mare, and left us alone in the stall.

Persephone stuck her head in the metal rack that held fresh hay, and got to work chewing, while I got to work brushing. I'd forgotten how relaxing it was to groom a horse. Bunny had died of a sudden and very scary heart attack two years ago, and Grandma had been too upset to get another horse. She'd said that "the rabbit" (which is what she used to call him) couldn't be replaced. So it had been two years since I'd been around a horse, but it came back to me instantly--all of it. The smells, the warm, soothing sound of a horse eating, and the gentle shoosh the curry brush made as it slid over the mare's slick coat.

At the edge of my attention I vaguely heard Lenobia's voice, sharp and angry, as she totally chewed out a student I guessed was the annoying redheaded kid. I peeked over Persephone's shoulder and took a quick look down the stall line. Sure enough, the redheaded kid was slouched in front of his stall. Lenobia stood beside him, hands on her hips. Even from the side view I could see she was mad as hell. Was it that kid's mission to piss off every teacher here? And his mentor was Dragon? Okay, the guy looked nice, until he picked up a sword--uh, I mean foil--then he shifted from nice guy to deadly-dangerous-vampyre-warrior-guy.

"That redheaded slug kid must have a death wish," I told Persephone as I returned to her grooming. The mare twitched an ear back at me and blew through her nose. "Yep, I knew you'd agree. Wanta hear my theory about how my generation could single-handedly wipe out slugs and loser kids from America?" She seemed receptive, so I launched into my Don't Procreate with Losers speech....

"Zoey! There you are!"

"Ohmygod! Stevie Rae! You scared the poo out of me!" I patted and reassured Persephone, who had shied when I'd squealed. "What in the world are ya doin'?"

I waggled the curry brush in her direction. "What does it look like I'm doing, Stevie Rae, getting a pedicure?"

"Stop messing around. The Full Moon Ritual is gonna start in like two minutes?"

"Ah, hell!" I gave Persephone one more pat and hurried out of the stall to the tack room.

"You forgot all about it, didn't you?" Stevie Rae said, holding my hand to help me balance while I kicked my feet out of the rubber boots and put my cute little ballet slippers back on.

"No," I lied.

Then I realized that I'd also forgotten all about the Dark Daughters' ritual afterward.

"Ah, hell!"



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