2.1 | Diary of a Dead Man

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For help with terms and pronunciations, see the chapter titled "Reader Guide."

Nika Dimitrovich stared at the headmaster, gradually processing his words.

We don't have any new students.

"But..."

As she struggled to create a viable sentence, Kovachev intently studied her, probably deciding whether or not this was an act. Nika couldn't have been more confused. He hadn't yet explained the school's lockdown, or what rule she'd broken and how it connected to the security measure. And now this—a revelation that the new boy she'd met was, in fact, not a new student at all.

"Tell me exactly what happened with Dante Azzara," Kovachev said. "From beginning to end."

Despite wanting to throw her fist on the headmaster's desk and demand to know what crime she'd supposedly committed, Nika leashed her outrage. Inhaling a long breath, she remembered...

Lounging in a bean bag chair inside one of Konstantin Academy's abandoned dormitories, Nika watched a moth flutter around a light bulb in the ceiling. She envied moths. They didn't have to worry about boys. Especially one named Miles Crane, whose heart was too big and whose lips were too loose.

She ran his words over and over in her mind: I love you, Nika.

It was an effort not to cringe.

In retrospect, she knew she'd been a fool to think their no-strings arrangement would work. Every semester, Miles seemed to fall for a different girl. Sooner or later, he was liable to turn those feelings toward Nika.

Unreciprocated feelings, of course. Miles had been one of her first friends at Konstantin. She'd never denied her physical attraction to him, but that was as far as it'd ever gone. Because Miles, despite his ridiculous comedic skills and endearing loyalty, would never be right for her. Not unless he abandoned the fanatic political opinions that had become an intrinsic part of who he was.

"Hello?" said an unfamiliar voice, yanking her out the daze.

Nika stiffened and surveyed the cabin interior—dark wooden walls covered with tribal paintings and animal skulls, the Aztec rug beneath her feet, the rickety ping pong table at the far end of the room.

But no signs of people. Was she hearing things?

A knock on the door. "Out here."

Nika squinted at the windows, but thanks to the pitch-black night beyond, she only saw her reflection. She approached the door and opened it.

On the lightless porch stood a boy, probably around Nika's age, with a bronze face and eyes like liquid cinnamon. He struck a sideways smile, and Nika's heart fluttered. Whoever he was, he wasn't a difficult specimen to observe.

His expression bloomed into awed delight. "Are you..." A deep breath. "You're Nika Dimitrovich."

Just like that, her admiration dissipated. She scarcely met a new person without remembering herself as a halfblood born out of wedlock to a leader of the Daemonstri government. No one ever saw her simply as Nika—girl, novice, normal.

"The one and only," she said with forced politeness. "And you?"

"Dante." He extended a hand, and Nika shook it. "Dante Azzara."

Azzara—she'd never heard of that family before. It must not have been a prominent one.

While Dante continued staring with that look of stupid awe, Nika stepped out of the cabin and shut the door behind her. Then she crossed her arms and shrugged, feeling his attention like an itch she couldn't relieve.

"Are you a new student?" she asked.

"Yeah. I just started classes today."

Nika casually scanned his figure. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, both speckled with holes and frayed edges.

Strange. Most Nefili students—herself included—opted for athletic wear because of their highly physical class schedule. From the time they could walk, novices were constantly preparing for a career of villain-fighting in the Vigil.

And Dante was clearly a Nefili. Despite his attractiveness, his appearance was too dull for a Serafi. Had he belonged to the angelic witch race, he would have emitted a halo—a faint inner glow of the skin.

"Are you lost?" Nika said, gesturing to their surroundings.

The abandoned dorms had gone unused for decades. Located on the edge of the forest, it was separated from the main campus by a grove of assorted trees. All that connected the two areas was a dirt path. Around cabins that sagged in disrepair, weeds and shrubs littered the uneven glade. Yet it was still a peaceful place, especially in the mornings, and Nika loved the remoteness.

Dante scratched behind his ear. "This school is such a maze. Can you tell me how to find the library?"

Nika gave him the directions, and they began to part ways until Dante stopped short and said, "Can I ask why you're out here?"

"I like getting away every once in a while."

He lingered near the porch steps, those red-brown eyes swimming with something she couldn't identify.

"Stop staring." The words were out before she'd even thought of them.

Dante looked down. "Sorry, you just..."

"I just what?"

Again, he flashed that crooked grin and dragged his eyes up her body. "You're prettier in person."

Nika's face heated, and she turned toward the forest, scoffing.

"You can't take compliments, can you?"

"Not exactly used to them."

In fact, it was the opposite of what she was used to—insults, ridicule, condemnation. The Halfblood Bastard was the shame of Daemonstri society, the daughter of a revered Minister and an unknown Nefili woman.

Voices hissed inside Nika's head: Tainted blood. A blight to our kind. How dare she call herself a Dimitrovich!

"It's criminal," Dante said, his tone harsh, "how people treat you."

Nika couldn't bring herself to look at him. These were radical ideas he'd just offered to the discussion table.

"It's certainly not fair," she said, "but what can I do about it?"

"More than you realize." He descended the stairs, then slowly backed away from her. "I hope to see you again, halfblood."

She flinched at the name, but when that smile crept onto his face again, she knew he was teasing. Or perhaps, she thought as he vanished into the trees, it was a compliment. She supposed she'd never know for certain.

Nika relayed the encounter from beginning to end, just as Kovachev had instructed. For several moments, the headmaster scrutinized her, his dubious expression never failing.

Then he finally said, "Early this morning—during the time when you skipped class—the library was burglarized."

Nika's mouth went dry.

This school is such a maze. Can you tell me where the library is?

"What was stolen?" she asked.

Kovachev leaned back in his swiveling office chair. "I thought you would already know that."

Nika laughed mockingly. "You think I did it. Come on, breaking into libraries isn't exactly my signature offense."

Kovachev scowled. Apparently, he could have gone without the reminder of Nika's previous infractions, most of which involved humiliating staff members or damaging school property. She'd never stolen anything, though. It was a school; there wasn't much worth stealing. At least, not to Nika.

"Well? What was stolen?"

With a sigh, Kovachev said, "The journal of Konstantin the Keeper."

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