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I couldn’t breathe.
There was a hand covering my mouth and another shaking my shoulder, startling me out of a heavy sleep. A thousand frantic thoughts dashed through my mind in the space of a single heartbeat. It was happening. My worst nightmare was coming true.
They’re here! They’ve come for me!
My eyes blinked, staring wildly around the dark room until my father’s face came into focus. I stilled my thrashing, thoroughly confused. He let go and stepped back to regard me coldly. I sat up in the bed, my heart still pounding.
‘Sydney. You wouldn’t wake up.’
Naturally, that was his only apology for scaring me to death.
‘You need to get dressed and make yourself presentable,’ he continued. ‘Quickly and quietly. Meet me downstairs in the study.’
I felt my eyes widen but didn’t hesitate with a response. There was only one acceptable answer. ‘Yes, sir. Of course.’
‘I’ll go wake your sister.’ He turned for the door, and I leapt out of bed.
‘Zoe?’ I exclaimed. ‘What do you need her for?’
‘Shh,’ he chastised. ‘Hurry up and get ready. And remember – be quiet. Don’t wake your mother.’
He shut the door without another word, leaving me staring. The panic that had only just subsided began to surge within me again. What did he need Zoe for? A late-night wake-up meant Alchemist business, and she had nothing to do with that. Technically, neither did I anymore, not since I’d been put on indefinite suspension for bad behavior this summer. What if that’s what this was about? What if I was finally being taken to a re-education center and Zoe was replacing me?
For a moment, the world swam around me, and I caught hold of my bed to steady myself. Re-education centers. They were the stuff of nightmares for young Alchemists like me, mysterious places where those who grew too close to vampires were dragged off to learn the errors of their ways. What exactly went on there was a secret, one I never wanted to find out. I was pretty sure ‘re-education’ was a nice way of saying ‘brainwashing.’ I’d only ever seen one person who had come back, and honestly, he’d seemed like half a person after that. There’d been an almost zombielike quality to him, and I didn’t even want to think about what they might have done to make him that way.
My father’s urging to hurry up echoed back through my mind, and I tried to shake off my fears. Remembering his other warning, I also made sure I moved silently. My mother was a light sleeper. Normally, it wouldn’t matter if she caught us going off on Alchemist errands, but lately, she hadn’t been feeling so kindly toward her husband’s (and daughter’s) employers. Ever since angry Alchemists had deposited me on my parents’ doorstep last month, this household had held all the warmth of a prison camp. Terrible arguments had gone down between my parents, and my sister Zoe and I often found ourselves tiptoeing around.
Why does he need Zoe?
The question burned through me as I scurried to get ready. I knew what ‘presentable’ meant. Throwing on jeans and a T-shirt was out of the question. Instead, I tugged on gray slacks and a crisp, white button-down shirt. A darker, charcoal gray cardigan went over it, which I cinched neatly at my waist with a black belt. A small gold cross – the one I always wore around my neck – was the only ornamentation I ever bothered with.
My hair was a slightly bigger problem. Even after only two hours of sleep, it was already going in every direction. I smoothed it down as best I could and then coated it with a thick layer of hair spray in the hopes that it would get me through whatever was to come. A light dusting of powder was the only makeup I put on. I had no time for anything more.
The entire process took me all of six minutes, which might have been a new record for me. I sprinted down the stairs in perfect silence, careful, again, to avoid waking my mother. The living room was dark, but light spilled out past the not-quite-shut door of my father’s study. Taking that as an invitation, I pushed the door open and slipped inside. A hushed conversation stopped at my entrance. My father eyed me from head to toe and showed his approval at my appearance in the way he knew best: by simply withholding criticism.
‘Sydney,’ he said brusquely. ‘I believe you know Donna Stanton.’
The formidable Alchemist stood near the window, arms crossed, looking as tough and lean as I remembered. I’d spent a lot of time with Stanton recently, though I would hardly say we were friends – especially since certain actions of mine had ended up putting the two of us under a sort of ‘vampire house arrest.’ If she harbored any resentment toward me, she didn’t show it, though. She nodded to me in polite greeting, her face all business.
Three other Alchemists were there as well, all men. They were introduced to me as Barnes, Michaelson, and Horowitz. Barnes and Michaelson were my father and Stanton’s age. Horowitz was younger, mid-twenties, and was setting up a tattooist’s tools. All of them were dressed like me, wearing business casual clothing in nondescript colors. Our goal was always to look nice but not attract notice. The Alchemists had been playing Men in Black for centuries, long before humans dreamed of life on other worlds. When the light hit their faces the right way, each Alchemist displayed a lily tattoo identical to mine.
Again, my unease grew. Was this some kind of interrogation? An assessment to see if my decision to help a renegade half-vampire girl meant my loyalties had changed? I crossed my arms over my chest and schooled my face to neutrality, hoping I looked cool and confident. If I still had a chance to plead my case, I intended to present a solid one.
Before anyone could utter another word, Zoe entered. She shut the door behind her and peered around in terror, her eyes wide. Our father’s study was huge – he’d built an addition on to our house for it – and it easily held all the occupants. But as I watched my sister take in the scene, I knew she felt stifled and trapped. I met her eyes and tried to send a silent message of sympathy. It must have worked because she scurried to my side, looking only fractionally less afraid.
‘Zoe,’ said my father. He let her name hang in the air in this way he had, making it clear to both of us that he was disappointed. I could immediately guess why. She wore jeans and an old sweatshirt and had her brown hair in two cute but sloppy braids. By any other person’s standards, she would have been ‘presentable’ – but not by his. I felt her cower against me, and I tried to make myself taller and more protective. After making sure his condemnation was felt, our father introduced Zoe to the others. Stanton gave her the same polite nod she’d given me and then turned toward my father.
‘I don’t understand, Jared,’ said Stanton. ‘Which one of them are you going to use?’
‘Well, that’s the problem,’ my father said. ‘Zoe was requested . . . but I’m not sure she’s ready. In fact, I know she isn’t. She’s only had the most basic of training. But in light of Sydney’s recent . . . experiences . . .’
My mind immediately began to pull the pieces together. First, and most importantly, it seemed I wasn’t going to be sent to a re-education center. Not yet, at least. This was about something else. My earlier suspicion was correct. There was some mission or task afoot, and someone wanted to sub in Zoe because she, unlike certain other members of her family, had no history of betraying the Alchemists. My father was right that she’d only received basic instruction. Our jobs were hereditary, and I had been chosen years ago as the next Alchemist in the Sage family. My older sister, Carly, had been passed over and was now away at college and too old. He’d taught Zoe as backup instead, in the event something happened to me, like a car accident or vampire mauling.
I stepped forward, not knowing what I was going to say until I spoke. The only thing I knew for sure was that I could not let Zoe get sucked into the Alchemists’ schemes. I feared for her safety more than I did going to a re-education center – and I was pretty afraid of that. ‘I spoke to a committee about my actions after they happened,’ I said. ‘I was under the impression that they understood why I did the things I did. I’m fully qualified to serve in whatever way you need – much more so than my sister. I have real-world experience. I know this job inside and out.’
‘A little too much real-world experience, if memory serves,’ said Stanton dryly.
‘I for one would like to hear these ‘reasons’ again,’ said Barnes, using his fingers to make air quotes. ‘I’m not thrilled about tossing a half-trained girl out there, but I also find it hard to believe someone who aided a vampire criminal is ‘fully qualified to serve.” More pretentious air quotes.
I smiled back pleasantly, masking my anger. If I showed my true emotions, it wouldn’t help my case. ‘I understand, sir. But Rose Hathaway was eventually proven innocent of the crime she’d been accused of. So, I wasn’t technically aiding a criminal. My actions eventually helped find the real murderer.’
‘Be that as it may, we – and you – didn’t know she was ‘innocent’ at the time,’ he said.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But I believed she was.’
Barnes snorted. ‘And there’s the problem. You should’ve believed what the Alchemists told you, not run off with your own far-fetched theories. At the very least, you should’ve taken what evidence you’d gathered to your superiors.’
Evidence? How could I explain that it wasn’t evidence that had driven me to help Rose so much as a feeling in my gut that she was telling the truth? But that was something I knew they’d never understand. All of us were trained to believe the worst of her kind. Telling them that I had seen truth and honesty in her wouldn’t help my cause here. Telling them that I’d been blackmailed into helping her by another vampire was an even worse explanation. There was only one argument that the Alchemists might possibly be able to comprehend.
‘I . . . I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted to get all the credit for it. I was hoping that if I uncovered it, I could get a promotion and a better assignment.’
It took every ounce of self-control I had to say that lie straight-faced. I felt humiliated at making such an admission. As though ambition would really drive me to such extreme behaviors! It made me feel slimy and shallow. But, as I’d suspected, this was something the other Alchemists could understand.
Michaelson snorted. ‘Misguided, but not entirely unexpected for her age.’
The other men shared equally condescending looks, even my father. Only Stanton looked doubtful, but then, she’d witnessed more of the fiasco than they had.
My father glanced among the others, waiting for further comment. When none came, he shrugged. ‘If no one has any objections, then, I’d rather we use Sydney. Not that I even entirely understand what you need her for.’ There was a slightly accusing tone in his voice over not having been filled in yet. Jared Sage didn’t like to be left out of the loop.
‘I have no problem with using the older girl,’ said Barnes. ‘But keep the younger one around until the others get here, in case they have any objections.’ I wondered how many ‘others’ would be joining us. My father’s study was no stadium. Also, the more people who came, the more important this case probably was. My skin grew cold as I wondered what the assignment could possibly be. I’d seen the Alchemists cover up major disasters with only one or two people. How colossal would something have to be to require this much help?
Horowitz spoke up for the first time. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Re-ink Sydney,’ said Stanton decisively. ‘Even if she doesn’t go, it won’t hurt to have the spells reinforced. No point in inking Zoe until we know what we’re doing with her.’
My eyes flicked to my sister’s noticeably bare – and pale – cheeks. Yes. As long as there was no lily there, she was free. Once the tattoo was emblazoned on your skin, there was no going back. You belonged to the Alchemists.
The reality of that had only hit me in the last year or so. I’d certainly never realized it while growing up. My father had dazzled me from a very young age about the rightness of our duty. I still believed in that rightness but wished he’d also mentioned just how much of my life it would consume.
Horowitz had set up a folding table on the far side of my father’s study. He patted it and gave me a friendly smile.
‘Step right up,’ he told me. ‘Get your ticket.’
Barnes shot him a disapproving look. ‘Please. You could show a little respect for this ritual, David.’
Horowitz merely shrugged. He helped me lie down, and though I was too afraid of the others to openly smile back, I hoped my gratitude showed in my eyes. Another smile from him told me he understood. Turning my head, I watched as Barnes reverently set a black briefcase on a side table. The other Alchemists gathered around and clasped their hands together in front of them. He must be the hierophant, I realized. Most of what the Alchemists did was rooted in science, but a few tasks required divine assistance. After all, our core mission to protect humanity was rooted in the belief that vampires were unnatural and went against God’s plan. That’s why hierophants – our priests – worked side by side with our scientists.
‘Oh Lord,’ he intoned, closing his eyes. ‘Bless these elixirs. Remove the taint of the evil they carry so that their life-giving power shines through purely to us, your servants.’
He opened the briefcase and removed four small vials, each filled with dark red liquid. Labels that I couldn’t read marked each one. With a steady hand and practiced eye, Barnes poured precise amounts from each vial into a larger bottle. When he’d used all four, he produced a tiny packet of powder that he emptied into the rest of the mix. I felt a tingle in the air, and the bottle’s contents turned to gold. He handed the bottle to Horowitz, who stood ready with a needle. Everyone relaxed, the ceremonial part complete.
I obediently turned away, exposing my cheek. A moment later, Horowitz’s shadow fell over me. ‘This will sting a little, but nothing like when you originally got it. It’s just a touch-up,’ he explained kindly.
‘I know,’ I said. I’d been re-inked before. ‘Thanks.’
The needle pricked my skin, and I tried not to wince. It did sting, but like he’d said, Horowitz wasn’t creating a new tattoo. He was simply injecting small amounts of the ink into my existing tattoo, recharging its power. I took this as a good sign. Zoe might not be out of danger yet, but surely they wouldn’t go to the trouble of re-inking me if they were just going to send me to a re-education center.
‘Can you brief us on what’s happening while we’re waiting?’ asked my father. ‘All I was told was that you needed a teen girl.’ The way he said ‘teen girl’ made it sound like a disposable role. I fought back a wave of anger at my father. That’s all we were to him.
‘We have a situation,’ I heard Stanton say. Finally, I’d get some answers. ‘With the Moroi.’
I breathed a small sigh of relief. Better them than the Strigoi. Any ‘situation’ the Alchemists faced always involved one of the vampire races, and I’d take the living, non-killing ones any day. They almost seemed human at times (though I’d never tell anyone here that) and lived and died like we did. Strigoi, however, were twisted freaks of nature. They were undead, murderous vampires created either when a Strigoi forcibly made a victim drink its blood or when a Moroi purposely took the life of another through blood drinking. A situation with the Strigoi usually ended with someone dead.
All sorts of possible scenarios played through my mind as I considered what issue had prompted action from the Alchemists tonight: a human who had noticed someone with fangs, a feeder who had escaped and gone public, a Moroi treated by human doctors. . . . Those were the kinds of problems we Alchemists faced the most, ones I had been trained to handle and cover up with ease. Why they would need ‘a teenage girl’ for any of those, however, was a mystery.
‘You know that they elected their girl queen last month,’ said Barnes. I could practically see him rolling his eyes.
Everyone in the room murmured affirmatively. Of course they knew about that. The Alchemists paid careful attention to the political goings-on of the Moroi. Knowing what vampires were doing was crucial to keeping them secret from the rest of humanity – and keeping the rest of humanity safe from them. That was our purpose, to protect our brethren. Know thy enemy was taken very seriously with us. The girl the Moroi had elected queen, Vasilisa Dragomir, was eighteen, just like me.
‘Don’t tense,’ said Horowitz gently.
I hadn’t realized I had been. I tried to relax, but thinking of Vasilisa Dragomir made me think of Rose Hathaway. Uneasily, I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to assume I was out of trouble here. Mercifully, Barnes simply kept going with the story, not mentioning my indirect connection to the girl queen and her associates.
‘Well, as shocking as that is to us, it’s been just as shocking to some of their own people. There’s been a lot of protests and dissidence. No one’s tried to attack the Dragomir girl, but that’s probably because she’s so well guarded. Her enemies, it seems, have therefore found a work-around: her sister.’
‘Jill,’ I said, speaking before I could stop myself. Horowitz tsked me for moving, and I immediately regretted drawing attention to myself and my knowledge of the Moroi. Nevertheless, an image of Jillian Mastrano flashed into my mind, tall and annoyingly slim like all Moroi, with big, pale green eyes that always seemed nervous. And she had good reason to be. At fifteen, Jill had discovered she was Vasilisa’s illegitimate sister, making her the only other member of their royal family’s line. She too was tied to the mess I’d gotten myself into this summer.
‘You know their laws,’ continued Stanton, after a moment of awkward silence. Her tone conveyed what we all thought of Moroi laws. An elected monarch? It made no sense, but what else could one expect from unnatural beings like vampires? ‘And Vasilisa must have one family member in order to hold her throne. Therefore, her enemies have decided if they can’t directly remove her, they’ll remove her family.’
A chill ran down my spine at the unspoken meaning, and I again commented without thinking. ‘Did something happen to Jill?’ This time, I’d at least chosen a moment when Horowitz was refilling his needle, so there was no danger of messing up the tattoo.
I bit my lip to prevent myself from saying anything else, imagining the chastisement in my father’s eyes. Showing concern for a Moroi was the last thing I wanted to do, considering my uncertain status. I didn’t have any strong attachment to Jill, but the thought of someone trying to kill a fifteen-year-old girl – the same age as Zoe – was appalling, no matter what race she belonged to.
‘That’s what’s unclear,’ Stanton mused. ‘She was attacked, we know that much, but we can’t tell if she received any real injury. Regardless, she’s fine now, but the attempt happened at their own Court, indicating they have traitors at high levels.’
Barnes snorted in disgust. ‘What can you expect? How their ridiculous race has managed to survive as long as they have without turning on each other is beyond me.’
There were mutters of agreement.
‘Ridiculous or not, though, we cannot have them in civil war,’ said Stanton. ‘Some Moroi have acted out in protest, enough that they’ve caught the attention of human media. We can’t allow that. We need their government stable, and that means ensuring this girl’s safety. Maybe they can’t trust themselves, but they can trust us.’
There was no use in my pointing out that the Moroi didn’t really trust the Alchemists. But, since we had no interest in killing off the Moroi monarch or her family, I supposed that made us more trustworthy than some.
‘We need to make the girl disappear,’ said Michaelson. ‘At least until the Moroi can undo the law that makes Vasilisa’s throne so precarious. Hiding Mastrano with her own people isn’t safe at the moment, so we need to conceal her among humans.’ Disdain dripped from his words. ‘But it’s imperative she also remains concealed from humans. Our race cannot know theirs exists.’
‘After consultation with the guardians, we’ve chosen a location we all believe will be safe for her – both from Moroi and Strigoi,’ said Stanton. ‘However, to make sure she – and those with her – remain undetected, we’re going to need Alchemists on hand, dedicated solely to her needs in case any complications come up.’
My father scoffed. ‘That’s a waste of our resources. Not to mention unbearable for whoever has to stay with her.’
I had a bad feeling about what was coming.
‘This is where Sydney comes in,’ said Stanton. ‘We’d like her to be one of the Alchemists that accompanies Jillian into hiding.’
‘What?’ exclaimed my father. ‘You can’t be serious.’
‘Why not?’ Stanton’s tone was calm and level. ‘They’re close in age, so being together won’t raise suspicion. And Sydney already knows the girl. Surely spending time with her won’t be as ‘unbearable’ as it might be for other Alchemists.’
The subtext was loud and clear. I wasn’t free of my past, not yet. Horowitz paused and lifted the needle, allowing me the chance to speak. My mind raced. Some response was expected. I didn’t want to sound too upset by the plan. I needed to restore my good name among the Alchemists and show my willingness to follow orders. That being said, I also didn’t want to sound as though I were too comfortable with vampires or their half-human counterparts, the dhampirs.
‘Spending time with any of them is never fun,’ I said carefully, keeping my voice cool and haughty. ‘Doesn’t matter how much you do it. But I’ll do whatever’s necessary to keep us – and everyone else – safe.’ I didn’t need to explain that ‘everyone’ meant humans.
‘There, you see, Jared?’ Barnes sounded pleased with the answer. ‘The girl knows her duty. We’ve made a number of arrangements already that should make things run smoothly, and we certainly wouldn’t send her there alone – especially since the Moroi girl won’t be alone either.’
‘What do you mean?’ My father still didn’t sound happy about any of this, and I wondered what was upsetting him the most. Did he truly think I might be in danger? Or was he simply worried that spending more time with the Moroi would turn my loyalties even more? ‘How many of them are coming?’
‘They’re sending a dhampir,’ said Michaelson. ‘One of their guardians, which I really don’t have a problem with. The location we’ve chosen should be Strigoi free, but if it’s not, better they fight those monsters than us.’ The guardians were specially trained dhampirs who served as bodyguards.
‘There you are,’ Horowitz told me, stepping back. ‘You can sit up.’
I obeyed and resisted the urge to touch my cheek. The only thing I felt from his work was the needle’s sting, but I knew powerful magic was working its way through me, magic that would give me a superhuman immune system and prevent me from speaking about vampire affairs to ordinary humans. I tried not to think about the other part, about where that magic came from. The tattoos were a necessary evil.
The others were still standing, not paying attention to me – well, except for Zoe. She still looked confused and afraid and kept glancing anxiously my way.
‘There also may be another Moroi coming along,’ continued Stanton. ‘Honestly, I’m not sure why, but they were very insistent he be with Mastrano. We told them the fewer of them we had to hide, the better, but . . . well, they seemed to think it was necessary and said they’d make arrangements for him there. I think he’s some Ivashkov. Irrelevant.’
‘Where is there?’ asked my father. ‘Where do you want to send her?’
Excellent question. I’d been wondering the same thing. My first full-time job with the Alchemists had sent me halfway around the world, to Russia. If the Alchemists were intent on hiding Jill, there was no telling what remote location they’d send her to. For a moment, I dared to hope we might end up in my dream city: Rome. Legendary works of art and Italian food seemed like a good way to offset paperwork and vampires.
‘Palm Springs,’ said Barnes.
‘Palm Springs?’ I echoed. That was not what I’d been expecting. When I thought of Palm Springs, I thought of movie stars and golf courses. Not exactly a Roman holiday, but not the Arctic either.
A small, wry smile tugged at Stanton’s lips. ‘It’s in the desert and receives a lot of sunlight. Completely undesirable for Strigoi.’
‘Wouldn’t it be undesirable for Moroi too?’ I asked, thinking ahead. Moroi didn’t incinerate in the sun like Strigoi, but excessive exposure to it still made Moroi weak and sick.
‘Well, yes,’ admitted Stanton. ‘But a little discomfort is worth the safety it provides. So long as the Moroi spend most of their time inside, it won’t be a problem. Plus, it’ll discourage other Moroi from coming and – ‘
The sound of a car door opening and slamming outside the window caught everyone’s attention. ‘Ah,’ said Michaelson. ‘There are the others. I’ll let them in.’
He slipped out of the study and presumably headed toward the front door to admit whoever had arrived. Moments later, I heard a new voice speaking as Michaelson returned to us.
‘Well, Dad couldn’t make it, so he just sent me,’ the new voice was saying.
The study door opened, and my heart stopped.
No, I thought. Anyone but him.
‘Jared,’ said the newcomer, catching sight of my father. ‘Great to see you again.’
My father, who had barely spared me a glance all night, actually smiled. ‘Keith! I’d been wondering how you’ve been.’
The two of them shook hands, and a wave of disgust rolled through me.
‘This is Keith Darnell,’ said Michaelson, introducing him to the others.
‘Tom Darnell’s son?’ asked Barnes, impressed. Tom Darnell was a legendary leader among the Alchemists.
‘The same,’ said Keith cheerfully. He was about five years older than me, with blond hair a shade lighter than mine. I knew a lot of girls thought he was attractive. Me? I found him vile. He was pretty much the last person I’d expected to see here.
‘And I believe you know the Sage sisters,’ added Michaelson.
Keith turned his blue eyes first to Zoe, eyes that were just fractionally different from each other in color. One eye, made of glass, stared blankly ahead and didn’t move at all. The other one winked at her as his grin widened.
He can still wink, I thought furiously. That annoying, stupid, condescending wink! But then, why wouldn’t he? We’d all heard about the accident he’d had this year, an accident that had cost him an eye. He’d still survived with one good one, but somehow, in my mind, I’d thought the loss of an eye would stop that infuriating winking.
‘Little Zoe! Look at you, all grown up,’ he said fondly. I’m not a violent person, not by any means, but I suddenly wanted to hit him for looking at my sister that way.
She managed a smile for him, clearly relieved to see a familiar face here. When Keith turned toward me, however, all that charm and friendliness vanished. The feeling was mutual.
The burning, black hatred building up inside of me was so overwhelming that it took me a moment to formulate any sort of response. ‘Hello, Keith,’ I said stiffly.
Keith didn’t even attempt to match my forced civility. He immediately turned toward the senior Alchemists. ‘What is she doing here?’
‘We know you requested Zoe,’ said Stanton levelly, ‘but after consideration, we decided it would be best if Sydney fulfill this role. Her experience dwarfs any concerns about her past actions.’
‘No,’ said Keith swiftly, turning that steely blue gaze back on me. ‘There is no way she can come, no way I’m trusting some twisted vamp lover to screw this up for all of us. We’re taking her sister.’
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