“You’re late, Miss Reilly. Your appointment was twenty minutes ago!” Captain George spurts.
“Yes, Captain,” I mutter as I sit in the salon chair.
“I expect more punctuality from you, Miss Reilly,” she says, shooting me a reproachful look.
“Yes, ma’am. I just don’t see why this farce is so necessary,” I complain as the hairdresser leans my head back into the sink.
“It’s our job to establish working relationships between our two… organizations, and this charity ball also strengthens our commitment to the local community. All senior classmen are expected to participate; you particularly, as the Headmaster’s daughter. Besides, it’s just one night; you’ll survive and, heaven forbid, maybe even have a little fun.” With that she steps away to check on the other girls.
“So you go to the academy?” The tall thin woman scrubbing my hair clean asks.
“Yep.” It seems like a pointless question. Every girl in this backwoods salon goes to Newbury Military Academy. It is probably their busiest day in the last ten years. I’ve never been to a salon before, but I guess this one was all right. It has stations for hair, makeup, nails and a modern-looking receptionist desk; you might think we are somewhere civilized instead of rural Washington.
“I’m awfully jealous of you girls, getting to dress up in those pretty white ball gowns.” She has a wistful tone to her voice that makes me think she’s been fantasizing about this for a long time.
“Believe me, you have nothing to be jealous of,” I assure her.
“I take it you’re not one for dresses, Miss…” she trails off and looks expectantly at me.
“Elizabeth… Liz, actually, and no. Dresses really aren’t my thing.” I lift my foot to show off my favorite boots; a pair of combat boots that my father bought me earlier this year when I left for Acolyte training.
The woman’s laugh is a nasal cackle that makes me wince. “Well, I’m sure you’ll clean up just as pretty as the rest,” she says, putting my hair in a towel to dry and directing me over to her station.
“I figured you’d ditched us, Liz,” comments Moira, one of the girls in my class. She and I are a part of the Hunter “students” sent to Newbury. The other half of the student body are pure blood vampires.
My adopted father, John Winston, and his friends convinced the Council to enter a truce with our mortal enemies. As part of this truce one hundred “young” of each side have been sent to a remote location to show our two people can co-exist under the new rules of this treaty. At Newbury we all know it is some kind of weird hostage exchange in disguise.
“Not for lack of trying,” I tell her with a smirk. The idea of this entire event appalls me. As a way to improve our cover story of reopening an old military academy and our first mandatory social event between the two species, the school is hosting a charity “debutante ball” where the girls are dressed up and paraded around like breeding stock for auction. We are forced to spend two hours every day since “school” started rehearsing dances and practicing the proper curtsy. I would rather put a fork in my eye, and everyone knows it.
While I sit here all traces of who I am are erased and redrawn. Any slight blemish or freckle is covered in layers of creams and make-up. Ridiculous-looking eyelash extensions are attached to the lids of my brown eyes. My long brown hair is curled and pinned elaborately on top of my head and adorned with small crystals and pearls. Well at least it looks like a nice nest, I think as the final touch of hairspray envelops me.
A back room of the salon is made into a small changing room for us. While I’m waiting for my turn, I find out it is usually reserved for the torturous ritual of ripping hair off your body with molten wax. “Yikes! Why would you ever do that?!” I ask loudly to the two Hunter Acolyte girls behind me.
They laugh and one of them, I think her name is Laurel, says, “It takes longer for the hair to grow back, and it’s not as thick when it does.” As if that explanation justifies the horrific experience. Before I can find out what other terrible things “normal” girls do to their bodies Captain George calls me into the room. She and our event coordinator, the pretentious Ms. Mercer, help me change out of my jeans, flannel shirt and boots and then crush me into a corset, because evidently breathing is unattractive. Next they strap me into the eighty pound cupcake-style ball gown weighed down by layer upon layer of white tulle and crinoline for the skirt, and a white strapless satin bodice beaded with crystals and pearls to make an intricate swirl pattern.
The practical white ballet flats I had purchased for the event were not appropriate according to our illustrious Ms. Mercer, who had to approve everything. One day during practice, she instead provided me with a pair of three inch pinchy-toed white heels. Since my escort is tall she insisted I needed extra height. Before I could tell her what she could do with that extra height, Captain George promptly thanked her on my behalf and shoved me away.
Having never worn anything more than one inch pumps, I nearly broke an ankle in the absurd contraptions. I’m used to blisters from marching around in boots for hours during Hunter training, but these torture devices gave me blisters in areas I didn’t know could blister. And now, even after a week of daily practice, I still feel wobbly in them.
The only jewelry I wear are a pair of small diamond studded earrings that I’m told were my mother’s and a matching teardrop pendant my father gave me when I turned sixteen. To top it all off, full-length white satin gloves are required to be worn at all times but dinner. I have never felt so confined in my life. Between the dress and the sickening smell of hair products and nail polish, there was more than the corset affecting my breathing.
Once the stylists determine I am as good as I am going to get, they corral the twenty of us into the school SUVs. Only six of the senior girls are Hunter Acolytes and we all head to the same car. No one wants to ride with the vamps. I opt for the front seat for some solitude; the chittering of the girls behind me becoming white noise as we start towards the highway. I don’t understand the girl talk that comes easily to them and, to be honest, it bores me. I stare out the window at the trees lining both sides of the winding, two-lane highway. Newbury is about forty minutes from the small town of the same name in northern Washington state. I grew up in Illinois, and it’s beautiful up here in comparison.
I lost myself in thoughts of home before the truce when we came to the school’s massive gate. A guard in the small shack at the front waves to the driver as the parade of school vehicles pass through. From the gate, it’s still a slow drive up the twisting, paved road through the ten square miles of forest. The campus is large with a multi-story academic building, library, two dormitories, gymnasium and auditorium. The ball is being held in the auditorium at the north end of the campus. All of us are dropped off at the back entrance of the building. Ms. Mercer takes a quick headcount before ushering us into the green room from where we will make our grand entrance into the judgement chamber.
Newbury was a prestigious military academy up until it was closed down in the seventies. When looking for a good cover story and location for this diplomatic experiment, my father thought the old school would be a great starting point. The buildings were in good shape, and with the help of a lot of vampire money and Hunter manpower, it was up to modern standards in no time. The town was more than happy to invite the children of wealthy families to the area; as I’m sure the economic boost was greatly appreciated. What they hadn’t expected was that we would be bringing in all our own staff, even janitorial duties, in order to keep our secrets safe from the townsfolk.
We find our escorts waiting for us in the green room. They were assigned to us by the coordinator and my father. The only good thing so far about being the Headmaster’s daughter is that he paired me with Adrian, my best friend. Some of the Acolytes sent here by the Council are too old for high school, but those of us who can pass as younger were sent, as if to repeat our academic education. Let’s face it, we’re a stronger Hunter presence than actual teenagers. Adrian is twenty-two, a year older than me, but he has boyish enough looks that he can pass for seventeen. He’s tall, about six foot two with dark hair and bright green eyes. He looks thin for his height, but all muscle. Our years of training to be Hunters force us to be in peak condition. A lot of people underestimate him, and he has learned to use that fact to his advantage.
When I find Adrian I can see from his expression he feels as tortured by this entire experience as I do. “Hey,” I say. He turns and it takes him a moment to recognize me in the clown make-up.
“You look nice,” he replies in his quiet voice. Adrian is one of those guys of few words. He is somewhat shy and prefers to speak with actions. His seemingly aloof attitude and good looks make him quite the target for the female student body, but he mostly finds them annoying. He, more than the rest of us, hates this assignment.
“Ugh. I abhor this thing. We should be allowed to wear dress uniforms,” I grumble.
“Don’t you have pull with the guy in charge of this thing?” Adrian asks in a sarcastic tone.
“You don’t think I tried that? Ever since he brought us all here I’ve been trying to make him see reason. It’s bad enough living in the same space as them!” I pick a small piece of fuzz from my skirt.
“You two still arguing I see,” Adrian is used to my father and I seeing things differently.
“Look, I support his ideals and vision, but this school is just an exercise in futility,” I scowl at my dress then change the subject quickly. “Well, aren’t you dapper?” bumping his arm with my shoulder.
“Shut up!” he snaps, while grabbing my hand and slipping a beautiful corsage of deep red roses on my gloved wrist.
“What the… what’s this?” I stare at the flowers.
“A corsage. I’m told it’s a tradition for these sorts of things.” He shifts his weight from foot to foot.
I giggle at his awkwardness. “That’s for prom, Adrian. This is a little different, but thank you. It’s beautiful.”
Adrian gives me a small nod in response. He looks uncomfortable, maybe even blushes a bit. Adrian is easy to embarrass. I smirk and give him a friendly nudge with my elbow. He smiles and finally relaxes.
Neither Adrian nor I have ever attended a normal school. Most Hunter children are homeschooled in groups within the Hunter community. At twelve we begin physical training and at sixteen are given the choice to become Acolytes or take on some non-combat position within the organization. Once an Acolyte, your entire education revolves around skills required to hunt and not much else. Having to look like a real student at a real school when you’ve never attended one is harder than we all thought.
I hear the coordinator call us to attention to take our places as the crowd claps politely when my father starts to give his opening speech. I adjust the corsage on my wrist and fit the gloves to my fingers again.
“Nervous?” Adrian asks as he put his own gloves on.
“No! Irritated is more accurate,” I proclaim, scratching under the edge of my gloves.
“You’re fidgeting. You never fidget,” Adrian states matter of factly.
“It’s this dress. It’s… tight,” I say lamely.
“I think it suits you,” Adrian says straight-faced.
“Are you kidding me?! It’s so completely ridiculous!” I pick up the skirt a couple of inches and drop it, to show the full weight of my complaint. Then I see the slightest hint of a smile on his face.
“You are such a troll!” I glare and he lets out a small snicker.
The doors open and the first couple start their way out. As each enters, my father announces the young woman’s name and her escort. Each couple walks into the center of the room, then the escort takes the girl’s hand as she makes a full curtsy; kneeling to the floor with one knee. Adrian and I are near the back since we are presented in alphabetical order by the girl’s last name.
The auditorium has been transformed into a grand ballroom for the occasion. The stage is elegantly decorated with twinkling lighted trees, and my father stands at a podium in a classic tuxedo. The center of the room is cleared and brightly lit as a dance floor, and blue colored lights of the Newbury crest spinning around on the floor. The rest of the room is dim with large round tables arranged around the dance floor. In the center of each table are tall cylindrical glass vases filled with water and deep blue roses. Lights shine through the bottom to illuminate them. There’s a light smell of food in the air from the trays I notice being passed around by other students acting as wait staff; it makes my stomach rumble.
When Adrian and I walk out, I feel my stomach drop and my hands immediately begin to sweat. Time stands still and I can’t remember what I’m doing here and why all these faces are looking at me. I feel Adrian squeeze my hand tightly and I’m quickly brought back from my stupor. I kneel, bowing my head to the audience, then slowly rise. Everyone claps and we take our places along the side of the room with the other couples.
“Irritated, huh?” Adrian suggests.
“Escorts are silent partners,” I quip.
To Be Continued…