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ABE HAD THE KIND OF APPEARANCE that could leave many people speechless, even if they knew nothing about him.
Oblivious to the heat outside, the Moroi man was dressed in a full suit and tie. The suit was white, at least, but it still looked like it would be warm. His shirt and tie were purple, as was the rose tucked into his pocket. Gold glittered in his ears and at his throat. He was originally from Turkey and had more color to him than most Moroi but was still paler than humans like me and Keith. Abe’s complexion actually reminded me of a tanned person who’d been sick for a while.
“Hello,” I said stiffly.
His smile split into a full grin. “So nice to see you again.”
“Always a pleasure.” My lie sounded robotic, but hopefully it was better than sounding afraid.
“No, no,” he said. “The pleasure’s all mine.”
“If you say so,” I said. This amused him further.
Keith had frozen up again, so I strode over to the old Moroi man and extended my hand so that at least one of us would look like we had manners. “Are you Mr. Donahue? I’m Sydney Sage.”
Clarence smiled and clasped my hand in his wrinkled one. I didn’t flinch, even though the urge was there. Unlike most Moroi I’d met, he didn’t conceal his fangs when he smiled, which almost made my facade crack. Another reminder that no matter how human they seemed at times, these were still vampires.
“I am so pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’ve heard wonderful things about you.”
“Oh?” I asked, arching an eyebrow and wondering who’d been talking about me.
Clarence nodded emphatically. “You are welcome in my home. It’s delightful to have so much company.”
Introductions were made for everyone else. Eddie and Jill were a little reserved, but both friendly. Keith didn’t shake any hands, but he at least stopped acting like a drooling fool. He took a chair when offered and put on an arrogant expression, which was probably supposed to look like confidence. I hoped he wouldn’t embarrass us.
“I’m sorry,” said Abe, leaning forward. His dark eyes glittered. “Did you say your name was Keith Darnell?”
“Yes,” said Keith. He studied Abe curiously, no doubt recalling the Alchemists’ conversation back in Salt Lake City. Even through the bravado Keith was attempting to put on, I could see a sliver of unease. Abe had that effect. “Why?”
“No reason,” said Abe. His eyes flicked to me and then to Keith. “It just sounds familiar, that’s all.”
“My father’s a very important man among the Alchemists,” said Keith loftily. He’d relaxed a little, probably thinking the stories about Abe were overrated. Fool. “You’ve undoubtedly heard of him.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Abe. “I’m sure that’s what it is.” He spoke so casually that no one would suspect he wasn’t telling the truth. Only I knew the real reason Abe knew who Keith was, but I certainly didn’t want that revealed. I also didn’t want Abe dropping any more hints, which I suspected he was doing just to irk me.
I tried to steer the subject away – and get some answers for myself. “I wasn’t aware you were joining us, Mr. Mazur.” The sweetness in my voice matched his.
“Please,” he said. “You know you can call me Abe. And I won’t be staying, unfortunately. I simply came along to make sure this group arrived safely – and to meet Clarence in person.”
“That’s very nice of you,” I said dryly, sincerely doubting Abe’s motives were as simple as that. If I’d learned anything, it was that things were never simple when Abe Mazur was involved. He was a puppet master of sorts. He not only wanted to observe things, he also wanted to control them.
He smiled winningly. “Well, I always aim to help others in need.”
“Yeah,” a new voice suddenly said. “That’s exactly what comes to mind when I think of you, old man.”
I hadn’t thought anyone could shock me more than Abe, but I was wrong. “Rose?” The name came out as a question from my lips, even though there could be no doubt about who this newcomer was. There was only one Rose Hathaway, after all.
“Hey, Sydney,” she said, giving me a small, crooked smile as she entered the room. Her flashing, dark eyes were friendly, but they were also assessing everything in the room, much as Eddie’s gaze was. It was a guardian thing. Rose was about my height and dressed very casually in jeans and a red tank top. But, as always, there was something exotic and dangerous about her beauty that made her stand out from everyone else. She was like a tropical flower in this dark, stuffy room. One that could kill you. I’d never seen her mother, but it was easy to tell that some of her looks came from Abe’s Turkish influence, like her long, dark brown hair. In the dim lighting, that hair looked nearly black. Her eyes rested on Keith, and she nodded politely. “Hey, other Alchemist.”
Keith stared at her wide-eyed, but whether that was a reaction to us being further outnumbered or simply a response to Rose’s extraordinary nature, I couldn’t say. “I-I’m Keith,” he stammered at last.
“Rose Hathaway,” she told him. His eyes bugged even more as he recognized the name. She strode across the room, toward Clarence, and I noted that half of her allure was simply in the way she dominated her surroundings. Her expression softened as she regarded the elderly man. “I checked the house’s perimeter like you asked. It’s about as safe as you can make it, though your back door’s lock should probably be replaced.”
“Are you sure?” asked Clarence in disbelief. “It’s brand new.”
“Maybe when this house was built,” came yet another new voice. Looking over to the doorway, I realized now that someone else had been with Rose when she arrived, but I’d been too startled by her to notice. Again, that was a Rose thing. She always drew the attention. “It’s been rusted since we moved here.”
This newcomer was a Moroi, which set me on edge again. That brought the count up to four Moroi and two dhampirs. I was trying very hard not to adopt Keith’s attitude – especially since I already knew some of the people here – but it was hard to shake that overwhelming sense of Us and Them. Moroi aged like humans, and at a guess, I thought this new guy was close to my age, maybe Keith’s at most. He had nice features, I supposed, with black curling hair and gray eyes. The smile he offered seemed sincere, though there was a slight sense of uneasiness in the way he stood. His gaze was fixed on Keith and me, intrigued, and I wondered if maybe he didn’t spend a lot of time with humans. Most Moroi didn’t, though they didn’t share the same fears about our race as we did about theirs. But then, ours didn’t use theirs as food.
“I’m Lee Donahue,” he said, extending his hand. Once again, Keith didn’t take it, but I did and introduced us.
Lee looked back and forth between me and Keith, face full of wonder. “Alchemists, right? I’ve never met one of you. The tattoos you guys have are beautiful,” he said, eyeing the gold lily on my cheek. “I’ve heard about what they can do.”
“Donahue?” asked Keith. He glanced between Lee and Clarence. “Are you related?”
Lee gave Clarence an indulgent look. “Father and son.”
Keith frowned. “But you don’t live here, do you?” I was surprised that this, of all things, would draw him out. Maybe he didn’t like the idea that his intel was faulty. He was Palm Springs’ Alchemist, after all, and he’d believed Clarence was the only Moroi in the area.
“Not regularly, no,” said Lee. “I go to college in LA, but my schedule’s just part-time this semester. So, I want to try to spend more time with Dad.” Abe glanced at Rose. “You see that?” he said. “Now that’s devotion.” She rolled her eyes at him.
Keith looked like he had more questions about this, but Clarence’s mind was still back in the conversation. “I could’ve sworn I had that lock replaced.”
“Well, I can replace it soon for you if you want,” said Lee. “Can’t be that hard.”
“I think it’s fine.” Clarence rose unsteadily to his feet. “I’m going to take a look.”
Lee hurried to his side and shot us an apologetic look. “Does it have to be right now?” When it appeared that it did, Lee said, “I’ll go with you.” I got the impression that Clarence frequently followed his whims, and Lee was used to it.
I used the Donahues’ absence to get some answers I’d been dying to know. I turned to Jill. “You didn’t have any problems getting here, did you? No more, um, incidents?”
“We ran into a couple dissidents before we left Court,” said Rose, a dangerous note in her voice. “Nothing we couldn’t handle. The rest was uneventful.” “And it’s going to stay that way,” said Eddie matter-of-factly. He crossed his arms over his chest. “At least if I have anything to do with it.”
I glanced between them, puzzled. “I was told there’d be a dhampir along… did they decide to send two?”
“Rose invited herself along,” said Abe. “Just to make sure the rest of us didn’t miss anything. Eddie’s the one who will be joining you at Amberwood.” Rose scowled. “I should be the one staying. I should be Jill’s roommate. No offense, Sydney. We need you for the paperwork, but I’m the one who’s gotta kick anyone’s ass who gives Jill trouble.”
I certainly wasn’t going to argue against that.
“No,” said Jill, with surprising intensity. She’d been quiet and hesitant the last time I’d seen her, but her eyes grew fierce at the thought of being a burden to Rose. “You need to stay with Lissa and keep her safe. I’ve got Eddie, and besides, no one even knows I’m here. Nothing else is going to happen.”
The look in Rose’s eyes said she was skeptical. I also suspected she didn’t truly believe anyone could protect either Vasilisa or Jill as well as she could. That was saying something, considering the young queen was surrounded in bodyguards. But even Rose couldn’t be everywhere at once, and she must have had to choose. Her words made me turn my attention back to Jill.
“What did happen?” I asked. “Were you hurt? We heard stories about an attack but no confirmation.”
There was a heavy pause in the room. Everyone except Keith and me seemed distinctly uncomfortable. Well, we were uncomfortable – but for other reasons.
“I’m fine,” said Jill at last, after a sharp look from Rose. “There was an attack, yeah, but none of us were hurt. I mean, not seriously. We were in the middle of a royal dinner when we were attacked by Moroi – like, Moroi assassins. They made it look like they were going for Lis – for the queen, but instead came for me.” She hesitated and dropped her eyes, letting her long, curly brown hair fall forward. “I was saved, though, and the guardians rounded them up.” There was a nervous energy to Jill that I remembered from before. It was cute and made her seem very much like the shy teenager she was.
“But we don’t think they’re all gone, which is why we have to stay away from Court,” explained Eddie. Even as he directed his words to Keith and me, he radiated a protectiveness toward Jill, daring anyone to challenge the girl he was in charge of keeping safe. “And we don’t know where the traitors in our own ranks are. So, until then, here we all are.”
“Hopefully not for long,” said Keith. I gave him a warning look, and he seemed to realize his comment could be perceived as rude. “I mean, this place can’t be all that fun for you guys, with the sun and everything.”
“It’s safe,” said Eddie. “That’s what counts.”
Clarence and Lee returned, and there was no more mention of Jill’s background or the attack. As far as father and son knew, Jill, Eddie, and Adrian had simply fallen out of favor with important royal Moroi and were in exile here. The two Moroi men didn’t know who Jill really was and believed that the Alchemists were helping her due to Abe’s influence. It was a web of lies but a necessary one. Even if Clarence was in self-imposed exile, we couldn’t risk him (or Lee now) accidentally letting outsiders know the queen’s sister was holed up here.
Eddie glanced over at the older Moroi. “You said you’ve never heard of any Strigoi being around here, right?”
Clarence’s eyes went unfocused for a moment as his thoughts turned inward. “No… but there are worse things than Strigoi…”
Lee groaned. “Dad, please. Not that.”
Rose and Eddie were on their feet in an instant, and it was a wonder they didn’t pull out weapons. “What are you talking about?” demanded Rose. “What other dangers are there?” asked Eddie, his voice like steel.
Lee was actually blushing. “Nothing… please. It’s a delusion of his, that’s all.”
‘”Delusion?’” asked Clarence, narrowing his eyes at his son. “Was your cousin’s death a delusion? Is the fact that those high-ups at Court let Tamara go unavenged a delusion?”
My mind spun back to a conversation I’d had with Keith in the car. I gave Clarence what I hoped was a reassuring look. “Tamara was your niece, right? What happened to her, sir?”
“She was killed,” he said. There was a dramatic pause. “By vampire hunters.”
“I’m sorry, by what?” I asked, certain I’d misheard.
“Vampire hunters,” repeated Clarence. Everyone in the room looked as surprised as I felt, which was a small relief. Even some of Rose and Eddie’s fierceness wavered. “Oh, you won’t find that anywhere – not even in your records. We were living in Los Angeles when they got her. I reported it to the guardians, demanded they hunt the culprits down. Do you know what they said?” He peered at each person in turn. “Do you?”
“No,” said Jill meekly. “What did they say?” Lee sighed and looked miserable.
Clarence snorted. “They said there was no such thing. That there was no evidence to support my claim. They ruled it a Strigoi killing and said there was nothing anyone could do, that I should be grateful she wasn’t turned.”
I looked at Keith, who again seemed startled by this story. He apparently didn’t know Clarence as well as he’d claimed. Keith had known the old man had a hang-up involving his niece, but not the extent of it. Keith gave me a small shrug that seemed to say, See? What did I tell you? Crazy.
“The guardians are very thorough,” said Eddie. His tone and words were both clearly chosen with care, striving not to offend. He sat back down next to Jill. “I’m sure they had their reasons.”
“Reasons?” asked Clarence. “If you consider denial and living a delusional life reasons, then I suppose so. They just don’t want to accept that vampire hunters are out there. But tell me this. If my Tamara was killed by Strigoi, why did they cut her throat? It was cut cleanly with a blade.” He made a slashing motion under his chin. Jill flinched and cowered into her chair. Rose, Eddie, and Abe also looked taken aback, which surprised me because I didn’t think anything would make that group squeamish. “Why not use fangs? Makes it easier to drink. I pointed that out to the guardians, and they said that since about half of her blood had been drunk, it was obviously a Strigoi. But I say a vampire hunter did it and made it look like they took her blood. Strigoi would have no reason to use a knife.”
Rose started to speak, paused, and then began again. “It is strange,” she said calmly. I had a feeling she’d probably been about to blurt out how ridiculous this conspiracy theory was, but had thought better of it. “But I’m sure there’s another explanation, Mr. Donahue.”
I wondered if mentioning that the Alchemists had no records of vampire hunters – not in several centuries, at least – would be helpful or not. Keith suddenly took the conversation in an unexpected direction. He met Clarence’s gaze levelly.
“It might seem strange for Strigoi, but they do all sorts of vicious things for no reason. I know from personal experience.”
My stomach sank. Oh no. All eyes turned to Keith.
“Oh?” asked Abe, smoothing his black goatee. “What happened?”
Keith pointed to his glass eye. “I was attacked by Strigoi earlier this year. They beat me up and ripped out my eye. Then they left me.”
Eddie frowned. “Without drinking or killing? That is really weird. That doesn’t sound like normal Strigoi behavior.”
“I’m not sure you can really expect Strigoi to do anything ‘normal,’” pointed out Abe. I gritted my teeth, wishing he wouldn’t engage Keith in this. Please don’t ask about the eye, I thought. Let it go. That was too much to expect, of course, because Abe’s next question was, “They only took the one eye? They didn’t try for both?”
“Excuse me.” I rose before Keith could answer. I couldn’t sit through this conversation and listen to Abe bait Keith, simply for the fun of tormenting me. I needed to escape. “I… I don’t feel well. I’m going to get some air.”
“Of course, of course,” said Clarence, looking as though he wanted to rise as well. “Should I have my housekeeper get you some water? I can ring the bell – “
“No, no,” I said, moving toward the door. “I just… I just need a minute.”
I hurried out and heard Abe saying, “Such delicate sensibilities. You’d think she wouldn’t be so squeamish, considering her profession. But you, young man, seem like you can handle talking about blood…”
Abe’s ego-stroking worked, and Keith launched into the one story I most definitely didn’t want to hear. I went back down the dark hallway and emerged outside. The fresh air was welcome, even if it was more than twenty degrees warmer than what I’d come from. I took a deep, steadying breath, forcing myself to stay calm. Everything was going to be okay. Abe would be leaving soon. Keith would return to his own apartment. I would go back to Amberwood with Jill and Eddie, who really didn’t seem like bad companions, considering who I could have ended up with.
With no real destination in mind, I decided to walk around and scope out Clarence’s home – more like an estate, really. I picked a side of the house at random and walked around, admiring the detailed sculpting of the house’s exterior. Even if it was hopelessly out of place in the southern California landscape, it was still impressive. I had always loved studying architecture – a subject my father thought was pointless – and was impressed by my surroundings. Glancing around, I noted that the grounds didn’t match the rest of what we’d driven through to get here. A lot of the land in this region had gone brown from summer and lack of rain, but Clarence had clearly spent a fortune to keep his sprawling yard lush and green. Non-native trees – beautiful and full of flowers – were artfully arranged to make walking paths and courtyards.
After several minutes of my nature stroll, I turned around and headed back toward the front of the house. I came to a stop when I heard someone. “Where are you?” a voice asked. Abe. Great. He was looking for me.
“Over here,” I just barely heard Adrian say. His voice came from the far side of the house, opposite the side I was on. I heard someone walk across the gravel driveway, the footsteps coming to a halt when they reached what I gauged to be the back door where Abe stood.
I bit my lip and stayed where I was, concealed by the house. I was almost afraid to breathe. With their hearing, Moroi could pick up the tiniest detail. “Were you ever coming back?” asked Abe, amused.
“Didn’t see the point,” was Adrian’s laconic response.
“The point is politeness. You could have made an effort to meet the Alchemists.”
“They don’t want to meet me. Especially the guy.” There was concealed laughter in Adrian’s voice. “You should have seen his face when I ran into him at the door. I wish I’d had a cape on. The girl’s at least got some nerve.”
“Nevertheless, they play a crucial role in your stay here – and Jill’s. You know how important it is that she remain safe.”
“Yeah, I get that. And I get why she’s here. What I don’t get is why I’m here.”
“Don’t you?” asked Abe. “I’d assume it’s obvious to both Jill and you. You have to stay near her.”
There was a pause. “That’s what everyone says… but I’m still not sure it’s necessary. I don’t think she needs me close by, no matter what Rose and Lissa claim.”
“You have something better to do?”
“That’s not the point.” Adrian sounded annoyed, and I was glad that I wasn’t the only one Abe had that effect on.
“That’s exactly the point,” Abe said. “You were wasting away at Court, drowning in your own self-pity – among other things. Here, you have a chance to be useful.”
“To yourself as well. This is an opportunity for you to make something of your life.”
“Except you won’t tell me what it is I’m supposed to do!” said Adrian irritably. “Aside from Jill, what is this great task you have for me?”
“Listen. Listen and watch.” I could perfectly picture Abe stroking his chin in that mastermind way of his again as he spoke. “Watch everyone – Clarence, Lee, the Alchemists, Jill and Eddie. Pay attention to every word, every detail, and report it to me later. It may all be useful.”
“I don’t know that that really clears things up.”
“You have potential, Adrian. Too much potential to waste. I’m very sorry for what happened with Rose, but you have to move on. Maybe things don’t make sense now, but they will later. Trust me.”
I almost felt bad for Adrian. Abe had once told me to trust him too, and look how things had turned out.
I waited until the two Moroi returned inside and then followed a minute later. In the living room, Keith was still wearing his cocky attitude but looked relieved to have me back. We discussed more details and worked out a schedule for feedings, one I was in charge of maintaining since I’d have to drive Jill (and Eddie, since he didn’t want to let her out of his sight) back and forth to Clarence’s.
“How are you going to get to feedings?” I asked Adrian. After hearing his conversation with Abe, I was now more curious than ever about his role here. Adrian was standing against the wall, on the opposite side of the room. His arms were crossed defensively, and there was a rigidness to his posture that conflicted with the lazy smile he wore. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though he was purposely positioning himself as far from Rose as possible. “By walking down the hall.”
Seeing my puzzled look, Clarence explained, “Adrian will be staying here with me. It will be nice to have someone else in these old walls.”
“Oh,” I said. To myself, I muttered, “How very Secret Garden.”
“Hmm?” asked Adrian, tilting his head toward me.
I flinched. Their hearing was good. “Nothing. I was just thinking of a book I read.”
“Oh,” said Adrian dismissively, glancing away. The way he said the word seemed to be a condemnation of books everywhere.
“Don’t forget me,” said Lee, grinning at his father. “I told you I’ll be around more.”
“Maybe young Adrian here will keep you out of trouble, then,” declared Clarence.
No one said anything to that, but I saw Adrian’s friends exchange a few amused glances.
Keith didn’t look nearly as freaked out as he had when we’d arrived, but there was a new air of impatience and irritability in him that I didn’t quite understand. “Well,” he said, after clearing his throat. “I need to get home and take care of some business. And since you’re my ride, Sydney…”
He left the words hanging but looked at me meaningfully. From what I’d learned, I was more convinced than ever that Palm Springs was the least active vampire area anywhere. I couldn’t honestly figure out what “business” Keith would have to take care of, but we had to leave here sooner or later. Eddie and Jill went to gather their luggage, and Rose used the opportunity to pull me aside.
“How have you been?” she asked in a low voice. Her smile was genuine. “I’ve been worried about you, ever since… well, you know. No one would tell me what happened to you.” The last time I’d seen her, I’d been held prisoner in a hotel by guardians while the Moroi tried to figure out how big my role had been in Rose’s escape.
“I was in a little trouble at first,” I said. “But it’s past.” What was a small lie between friends? Rose was so strong that I couldn’t stand the thought of looking weak in front of her. I didn’t want her to know that I still lived in fear of the Alchemists, forced to do whatever it took to get back in their good graces.
“I’m glad,” she said. “They told me originally it was your sister that was going to be here.”
Those words reminded me again how Zoe could replace me at any moment. “It was a mix-up.”
Rose nodded. “Well, I feel a little better with you here, but it’s still hard… I still feel like I should protect Jill. But I need to protect Lissa too. They think Jill’s the easier target, but they’re still going after Lissa.” The inner turmoil shone in her dark eyes, and I felt a pang of pity. This was what I’d had trouble explaining to the other Alchemists, how dhampirs and vampires could seem so human at times. “It’s been crazy, you know. Ever since Lissa took the throne? I thought I’d finally get to relax with Dimitri.” Her smile broadened. “I should’ve known nothing’s ever simple with us. We’ve spent all our time looking out for Lissa and Jill.”
“Jill will be okay. As long as the dissidents don’t know she’s here, it should all be easy. Boring, even.”
She was still smiling, but her smile had dimmed a little. “I hope so. If you only knew what had happened…” Her expression changed as some memory seized her. I started to insist she tell me what had happened, but she shifted the subject before I could. “We’re working on changing the law – the one that says Lissa needs one family member in order to stay queen. Once that’s done, both she and Jill will be out of danger. But that just means those who want to take out Jill are more insane than ever, because they know the clock’s ticking.”
“How long?” I asked. “How long will it take to change the law?”
“I don’t know. A few months, maybe? Legal stuff… well, it’s not my thing. Not the details of it, at least.” She grimaced briefly and then became battle tough again. She tossed her hair over one shoulder. “Crazy people who want to hurt my friends? That is my thing, and believe me, I know how to deal with it.”
“I remember,” I said. It was weird. I thought of Rose as one of the strongest people I knew, yet it seemed as though she needed my assurance. “Look, you go do what you do, and I’ll do what I do. I’ll make sure Jill blends in. You guys got her out without anyone knowing. She’s off the grid now.”
“I hope so,” Rose repeated, voice grim. “Because if she’s not, your little group here doesn’t stand a chance against those crazy rebels.”
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