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ADRIAN’S CAR DROVE LIKE A DREAM.
When I got behind the wheel, I nearly forgot to check for any pursuit. In fact, I nearly forgot that I was supposed to be taking us to Wolfe’s and showing Adrian how to use a stick shift. Instead, I was caught up in the way the engine hummed around us and in the scent of the leather.
Leaving his neighborhood, I had to restrain myself from flooring it in the crowded streets of downtown Palm Springs. This was a car screaming to be let loose on the open road. I had admired Brayden’s Mustang, but I worshipped this one.
“I feel like I’ve just crashed someone’s date,” Adrian remarked, once we were getting on the highway. No one had tailed us out of downtown, making me feel much safer. “Like I’m intruding on you two. If you want to drop me off somewhere, I’ll understand.”
I’d been paying careful attention to the way the car built up to higher speeds, both through sound and feel. The Mustang was in stunning shape. People often have the idea that classic cars are expensive. They are – if they’re in good condition. Most aren’t. When something’s sat around for years without care, it inevitably falls apart, which is why so many older cars are fixer-uppers. Not Adrian’s. This had been maintained and restored throughout the years and had probably never left the state of California – meaning it hadn’t faced harsh winters. That all added up to a high price tag, making it that much more ludicrous that Adrian had bought something he couldn’t drive.
I groaned. “I’m sorry… I don’t know what I was thinking.” Well, I kind of knew. I’d been wondering what my odds of a ticket would be if I broke the speed limit to see how fast we could go. “I should’ve been walking you through this as soon as I started the car. I promise I will when we leave Wolfe’s, all the steps. For now, I guess we can recap the basics. This is the clutch…”
Adrian didn’t seem annoyed by my neglect. If anything, he looked amused and simply listened to my explanations with a small, quiet smile on his face.
Wolfe looked just as disreputable as he had last time, complete with the eye patch and what I suspected were the same Bermuda shorts as before. I hoped he’d done laundry since then. Despite his appearance, he was ready to go when our class assembled and seemed competent in his subject matter. Although he reminded us again about the importance of avoiding conflicts and being aware of one’s surroundings, he quickly moved past those points and focused on actually practicing more physical ways of protecting oneself.
Considering how much Adrian had complained last time about the “boring” safety talk, I figured he’d be excited that we were pretty much jumping right into some action. Instead, that amused look from the car vanished, and he grew increasingly tense as Wolfe explained what he wanted us to do in our partnered practice sessions.
When the time actually came to practice, Adrian looked blatantly unhappy.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. I suddenly remembered last time, when Adrian had freaked out over my “attack.” Maybe he hadn’t really expected he’d have to work here. “Come on, these are simple. You won’t get dirty.”
Even when teaching more combative actions, Wolfe was still an advocate of keeping things fast and simple. We weren’t trying to learn to beat someone up. These maneuvers were effective means of distracting an assailant so that we could escape. Most were done with the dummies, since we could hardly try to stick fingers in each other’s eyes. Adrian went through those motions diligently, if silently. It was working directly with me that he seemed to have a problem with.
Wolfe noticed it too as he made his rounds. “Come on, boy! She can’t try to escape if you don’t try to hold her. She’s not going to hurt you, and you won’t hurt her.” The maneuver in question was actually one that would’ve been helpful the night I’d been grabbed in the alley. So, I was eager to practice it and frustrated that Adrian kept only halfheartedly helping. He was supposed to put an arm around my torso and attempt to cover my mouth. Unfortunately, his efforts were so weak and his hold so loose that I didn’t need any special techniques to escape. I could have simply walked right out of his arms.
With Wolfe there, Adrian made a slightly better showing as an assailant but immediately resorted to his former ways once we were alone. “Let’s switch,” I said at last, nearly wanting to pull my hair out. “You try to escape me. Make up for last time.” I couldn’t believe that Adrian’s sluggish attitude had turned out to be the problem here. I’d expected the hang-up would be me not wanting to touch a vampire, but it didn’t bother me at all. I wasn’t thinking of him as a vampire. He was Adrian, and my partner in this class. I needed him to learn the move. It was all very pragmatic. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say that Adrian was afraid to touch me, which made no sense. Moroi didn’t have those hang-ups.
Was something wrong with me? Why wouldn’t Adrian touch me?
“What’s going on?” I demanded, once we were in the car and headed back to the city. “I get that you’re not an athlete, but what happened in there?” Adrian refused to meet my eyes and instead stared pointedly out the window. “I don’t think this is really my thing. I was all about playing action hero before, but now… I don’t know. This is a bad idea. It’s more work than I thought.” There was a flippant, dismissive tone in his voice that I hadn’t heard in a while.
“What happened to you finishing things you started?” I asked. “You told me you had changed.”
“That was for art,” said Adrian quickly. “I’m still in those classes, aren’t I? I didn’t jump ship on those. I just don’t want to do this one anymore. Don’t worry. Now that I’ve got more money, I’ll pay you back the class fee. You won’t be out anything.”
“That doesn’t matter,” I argued. “It’s still a waste! Especially since what Wolfe’s showing us isn’t really that difficult. We’re not ripping ourselves apart like Eddie and Angeline would.
Why is this so hard for you to stick with and learn?” My earlier self-doubt returned. “Do you just not want to work with me? Is there… is there something wrong with me?”
“No! Of course not. Absolutely not,” said Adrian. In my periphery, I saw him finally look at me. “Maybe there are only so many things I can learn at once. I mean, I’m supposed to also be learning to drive a stick shift. Not that I see that happening.” I wanted to slap myself on the forehead. In my frustration over class, I’d completely forgotten again about showing Adrian how to drive. I felt like an idiot, even though I was still mad at him for giving up on Wolfe. I checked the time. I had things to do tonight at Amberwood but felt obligated to make up for my shoddy teaching.
“We’ll practice once we’re back in your neighborhood,” I promised. “We’ll start slow, and I’ll show you everything you need to do. I might even let you try driving around the block tonight if you seem like you’re paying attention to the lesson.” The transformation in Adrian was remarkable. He went from sullen and uncomfortable to cheerful and energetic. I couldn’t figure it out. Sure, I found cars and driving fascinating, but technically speaking, there was a lot more detail to learn about manual transmission than there was in Wolfe’s evasive techniques. Why were those difficult for him, but the clutch was easy?
I stuck around for about an hour when we got back. To his credit, Adrian paid attention to every word I said, although his results were inconsistent whenever I quizzed him or actually let him try something. Sometimes he’d respond like a pro. Other times, he’d seem totally lost on things I could have sworn he’d picked up. By the end of the hour, I felt safe enough with him driving the car at low speeds on empty streets. He was a long way from the highway or stop-and-go traffic of a busy city.
“Looks like we’ve got more lessons in our future,” I told him when we finished. I’d parked the car behind his building, and we were walking back toward the main entrance and Latte.
“Do not take that car beyond a half-mile radius. I checked the odometer. I’ll know.”
“Noted,” he said, still wearing that smirky smile. “When’s the next lesson? You want to come back tomorrow night?”
“Can’t,” I said. “I’m going out with Brayden.” I was surprised at how much I was looking forward to it. Not only did I want to make things up to him after the dance, but I also just wanted a dose of normality – well, at least the kind of normality Brayden and I had together.
Plus, things with Adrian were feeling really weird…
“Oh.” Adrian’s smile fell. “Well. I understand. I mean, love and romance and all that.”
“We’re going to the textile museum,” I said. “It’s cool, though I’m not sure how much love and romance there’ll really be there.”
Adrian nearly came to a halt. “There’s a textile museum here? What do people do there?”
“Well, they look at… um, textiles. There’s actually a great exhibit on – ” I stopped as we reached the front of the building. There, behind Latte, was a familiar car, the rental that Sonya and Dimitri were using. I looked questioningly at Adrian.
“Were you expecting them tonight?”
“No,” he said, resuming his walk to the door. “They’ve got a key, though, so I suppose they can make themselves at home anytime. They do it a lot, actually. He eats my food, and she uses my hair stuff.”
I followed him. “Hopefully it’s just Dimitri.”
After our recent revelations about the hunters, Sonya was pretty much under house arrest.
Or so I thought. When we walked into the apartment, she was sitting on the couch. No Dimitri in sight. She glanced up at us from her laptop.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” she said, directing her words to me. “Jill said you two were out and I was hoping to catch you.”
Something told me no good would come out of her wanting to “catch” me, but I had greater concerns. “What are you doing here?” I asked, half-expecting hunters to come through the door. “You’re supposed to be at Clarence’s until you leave town.”
“Day after tomorrow,” she confirmed. She stood; eyes alight with whatever had driven her here. “But I needed to talk to you now – face-to-face.”
“I would’ve come to you,” I protested. “It’s not safe for you to be out.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I made sure I wasn’t followed. This was too important.” She was breathless and excited.
More important than being caught by wannabe vampire hunters? Debatable.
Adrian crossed his arms and looked surprisingly disapproving. “Well, it’s too late now.
What’s going on?”
“We got the results back from Sydney’s blood,” explained Sonya.
My heart stopped. No, I thought. No, no, no.
“Just like with Dimitri’s blood, nothing physiological showed up,” she said. “Nothing unusual with proteins, antibodies, or anything like that.”
Relief poured through me. I’d been right. Nothing special about me, no inexplicable properties.
And yet… at the same time, I felt a tiny pang of regret. I wasn’t the one who would fix everything.
“We sent it to a Moroi lab this time, not an Alchemist one,” Sonya continued. “One of the researchers – an earth user – felt a hum of earth magic. Just like how Adrian and I felt spirit in Dimitri’s blood. The technician had other types of magic users examine your sample, and all four basic elements were detected.”
That panic returned. She had me on an emotional roller coaster, one that left me nauseous.
“Magic… in my blood?” A moment later, I understood. “Of course there is,” I said slowly.
I touched my cheek. “The tattoo has vampire blood and magic in it. That’s what it is. There are different degrees of charms in it from different users. That would show up in my blood.” I shivered. Even with a logical explanation, it was a scary thing accepting that there was magic in my blood. Ms. Terwilliger’s spells were still anathema to me, but at least there was some comfort in knowing they drew magic from outside of me. But knowing I had something internal? That was terrifying. And yet, I couldn’t be surprised at this finding, not with the tattoo.
Sonya nodded along. “Yes, of course. But there must be something about that combination that’s repulsive to Strigoi. It may be the key to all of our work!” To my surprise, Adrian took a few steps toward me, and there was a tension in his stance that was fiercely protective.
“So you know Alchemist blood has magic in it,” he said. “That’s no surprise. Case closed.
What do you want from her now?”
“Another sample to start,” said Sonya eagerly. “There’s none left in the original vial I took, once all the testing was done. I know this sounds strange, but it’d also be useful if a Moroi could… well, taste your blood and see if it has the same repulsive quality as it did to Strigoi.
Fresh blood would be ideal, but even I’m not deluded enough to ask you to submit to a feeding.
We should simply be able to use your sample and – “
“No,” I said. I stumbled backward, horrified. “Absolutely not. Whether it’s from a neck or a vial, there’s no way I’m giving my blood for anyone to taste. Do you know how wrong that is? I know you do it all the time with feeders, but I’m not one of them. I should never have given you the first sample. You don’t need me for any of this. Spirit’s the key. Lee’s proof that former Strigoi are the ones you need to examine.”
Sonya wasn’t cowed by my outburst. She pushed forward, though her tone was gentler. “I understand your fear, but think of the applications! If something in your blood makes you resistant to Strigoi, then you could save countless lives.”
“Alchemists aren’t resistant,” I said. “That tattoo isn’t protecting us, if that’s what you’re getting at. Do you think that in all our history, there haven’t been Alchemists who were turned Strigoi?”
“Well, of course,” she said. Her words were hesitant, encouraging me.
“So, the magic you sensed in me is irrelevant. It’s just the tattoo. All Alchemists have it.
Maybe ours tastes bad, but Alchemist blood has nothing to do with Strigoi turning. It still happens to us.” I was rambling but didn’t care.
Sonya grew perplexed, her mind running through the implications of this news. “But do all Alchemists have bad-tasting blood? If so, how would a Strigoi be able to drain them?”
“Maybe it varies by person,” I said. “Or maybe some Strigoi are tougher than others. I don’t know. Regardless, we aren’t the ones to focus on.”
“Unless there’s just something special about you,” mused Sonya.
No. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be scrutinized, locked behind glass like Keith. I couldn’t be. I prayed she wouldn’t see how scared I was.
“There’s plenty that’s special about her,” said Adrian dryly. “But her blood’s not up for dispute.
Why are you pushing this again after last time?”
Sonya glared at Adrian. “I’m not doing this for selfish reasons, you know that! I want to save our people. I want to save all our people. I don’t want to see any new Strigoi added to the world. No one should live like that.” A haunted look shone in her eyes, as a memory seized her. “That kind of bloodlust and complete lack of empathy for any other living creature… no one can imagine what it’s like. You’re hollow. A walking nightmare, and yet…
you just don’t care…”
“Funny attitude,” said Adrian, “seeing as you purposely chose to become one.” Sonya paled, and I felt torn. I appreciated Adrian’s defense but also pitied Sonya. She’d explained to me in the past about how spirit’s instability – the same instability Adrian feared – had driven her to turning Strigoi. Looking back at her decision, she regretted it more than anything else in her life. She would’ve submitted herself for punishment, but no court knew how to handle her situation.
“Doing that was a mistake,” she said coldly. “One I’ve learned from – which is why I’m so anxious to save others from that fate.”
“Well, then find a way to do it without dragging Sydney into it! You know how she feels about us…” Adrian faltered as he glanced at me, and I was surprised to almost detect bitterness in his voice. “You know how the Alchemists feel. Keep involving her, and you’ll get her in trouble with them. And if you’re so convinced they’ve got the answers, ask them for volunteers and do experiments that way.”
“I’d help with that,” I offered. “Getting authorized subjects for you. I’d talk to my superiors.
They’d like to see an end to Strigoi as much as you.”
When Sonya didn’t answer right away, Adrian guessed why. “She knows they’d say no, Sage. That’s why she’s appealing to you directly and why they didn’t send your blood to an Alchemist lab.”
“Why can’t you both see how important this is?” asked Sonya, a desperate longing to do good in her eyes. It made me feel guilty and conflicted.
“I do,” said Adrian. “You think I don’t want to see every single one of those bastard Strigoi wiped from the face of the earth? I do! But not at the cost of forcing people to do things they don’t want to.”
Sonya gave him a long, level look. “I think you’re letting your personal feelings interfere with this. Your emotions are going to ruin our research.” He smiled. “Well, then. Be glad you’ll be free of me in two days.” Sonya glanced between the two of us, looked like she was about to protest, and then thought better of it. Without another word she left, her face defeated. Again, I felt torn. In theory, I knew she was right… but my gut just couldn’t agree.
“I didn’t mean to upset her,” I said at last.
Adrian’s face showed no sympathy. “She shouldn’t have upset you. She knows how you feel.”
I still felt a little bad, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I gave this, I’d be asked to give more and more. I recalled the day Eddie and Dimitri had been coated in spirit magic. No way could I risk getting involved to that level. I was already pushing my limits too far. “I know… but it’s hard,” I said. “I like Sonya. I gave her the first vial, so I can see why she thought the second would be easy.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “No is no.”
“I really will mention it to the Alchemists,” I said. “Maybe they’ll want to help.” I didn’t think I’d get in too much trouble for the first vial. The Alchemists endorsed the initial experiments after all, and I’d probably get points for standing up to vampire peer pressure for the other sample.
He shrugged. “If they do, great. If not, it’s not your responsibility.”
“Well, thanks for gallantly coming to my defense again,” I teased. “Maybe you’d be more into Wolfe’s training if you got to protect someone else instead of yourself?” The earlier smile returned. “I just don’t like seeing people bullied, that’s all.”
“But you should come back to Wolfe with me,” I urged. “You need a chance to try to get at me.”
Like that, he was serious again. He looked away. “I don’t know, Sage. We’ll see. For now, we’ll just focus on the driving – when you can get away from your boyfriend, of course.” I left shortly after that, still confused about his weird behavior. Was that some of spirit’s crazy effects on the mind? One minute, he was brave and defensive. The next, he was down and obstinate. Maybe there was a pattern or some type of reasoning behind it all, but it was beyond my analytical abilities.
Back at Amberwood, I immediately headed for the library to get a book for my English class. Ms. Terwilliger had lightened up on my usual work so that I could “devote more time” to crafting her spells. Since her independent study – which was supposed to be my easy elective –
took up more time than my other classes, it was refreshing to focus on something else for a change. As I was leaving the British Lit section, I caught sight of Jill and Eddie studying together at a table. That wasn’t weird, exactly. What was weird was that Micah wasn’t with them.
“Hey, guys,” I said, slipping into a seat. “Hard at work?”
“Do you know how weird it is to be repeating my senior year?” asked Eddie. “I can’t even blow it off either. I have to get decent grades to stay here.” I grinned. “Hey, all knowledge is worth having.”
He tapped the papers in front of him. “Yeah? You got any knowledge on the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction?”
“Edith Wharton,” I said automatically. He scrawled something onto his paper, and I turned to Jill. “How are things with you? Where’s Micah?”
Jill had her chin propped in her hand and was gazing at me with the weirdest look. It was almost… dreamy. It took her a few moments to snap out of her daze and respond. The dreamy look became embarrassed and then dismayed. She glanced down at her book.
“Sorry. I was just thinking how good you look in taupe. What did you ask?”
“Micah?” I prompted.
“Oh. Right. He’s got… stuff to do.”
I was pretty sure that was the shortest explanation she’d ever given me. I tried to remember what I’d last heard on their status. “You guys patched things up, right?”
“Yeah. I guess. He understood about Thanksgiving.” She brightened. “Hey, Eddie and I were talking about that. Do you think we could all have a big family-style Thanksgiving at Clarence’s? Do you think he’d mind? We could all help, and it’d be lots of fun. I mean, aside from the cover, we really are like a family. Eddie says he can make the turkey.”
“I think Clarence would love that,” I said, happy to see her cheery again. Then, I replayed her words. I turned to Eddie incredulously. “You know how to make a turkey? How would you have learned that?” From what I knew, most dhampirs stayed nearly year-round at their schools from an early age. Not a lot of culinary time.
“Hey,” he said, straight-faced. “All knowledge is worth having.” Jill laughed. “He wouldn’t tell me either.”
“You know, Angeline claims she can cook,” said Eddie. “We were talking about it at breakfast.
She says she knows about cooking turkey too, so if we tag-team, we can pull it off. Of course, she’ll probably want to hunt and kill her own.”
“Probably,” I said. It was amazing that he was talking about working with her on anything.
It was even amazing that he could speak about her fondly, without a grimace. I was beginning to think more and more that her display at the assembly had been a good thing. We didn’t need animosity in this group. “Well, I got what I came for, so I’m heading back. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“See you,” said Eddie.
Jill said nothing, and when I glanced over, I saw that she was watching me again with that weird, enraptured look. She sighed happily. “Adrian had a great time with you at your class tonight, you know.”
I nearly rolled my eyes. “The bond leaves no secrets. He didn’t always seem to be having a good time.”
“No, he really did,” she assured me. A dopey smile crossed her features. “He loves that you love the car more than he does and thinks it’s awesome you’re getting so good in your defense class. Not that that’s a surprise. You’re always so good at everything, and you don’t even realize it. You don’t even realize half the things you do – like how you watch out for others and never even think about yourself.”
Even Eddie looked a little astonished by that. He and I exchanged puzzled looks. “Well,” I said awkwardly, really unsure how to handle this Sydney lovefest. I decided escape was my best option. “Thanks. I’ll see you later and – hey. Where’d you get that?”
“Huh?” she asked, blinking out of her enraptured haze.
Jill was wearing a silk scarf painted in rich jewel tones, almost reminding me of a peacock’s tail. It also reminded me of something else, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. “The scarf. I’ve seen it before.”
“Oh.” She ran her fingers over the smooth material. “Lia gave it to me.”
“What? When did you see her?”
“She stopped by the dorm yesterday to give the dresses back again. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d want to return them.”
“I do,” I said adamantly.
Jill sighed. “Come on, let’s just keep them. They’re so pretty. And you know she’ll just bring them back anyway.”
“We’ll deal with that later. Tell me about the scarf.”
“It’s no big deal. She was trying to pitch me on this scarf collection – “
“Yeah, yeah, she told me too. How she could make it so no one recognized you.” I shook my head, feeling a surprising amount of anger. Was nothing under my control anymore? “I can’t believe she went behind my back! Please tell me you didn’t sneak off with her to do a photo shoot.”
“No, no,” said Jill quickly. “Of course not. But you don’t think… I mean, you don’t think there’s any way she could pull it off? Hide me?”
I tried to keep my tone gentle. After all, I was mad at Lia, not Jill. “Maybe. Maybe not. You know we can’t take the chance.”
Jill nodded, face sad. “Yeah.”
I left feeling annoyed and was so distracted that I nearly ran into Trey. When he didn’t respond to my greeting, I realized he was even more distracted than I was. There was a haunted look in his eyes, and he seemed exhausted.
“You okay?” I asked.
He managed a weak smile. “Yeah, yeah. Just feeling the pressure of everything. Nothing I can’t handle. What about you? Don’t they usually have to throw you out of this place? Or did you finally get tired of being here for eight hours?”
“I just needed one book,” I said. “And I was actually only here ten minutes. I was out most of the night.”
The smile fell, replaced by a frown. “Out with Brayden?”
“That’s tomorrow. I had, um, family stuff tonight.”
The frown deepened. “You go out a lot, Melbourne. You have a lot of friends outside school.”
“Not that many,” I said. “I’m not living a party lifestyle, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Yeah, well. Be careful. I’ve heard about some scary stuff going on out there.” I remembered him being concerned for Jill too. I usually kept up on all the local news and had heard nothing alarming recently. “What, is there a crime ring in Palm Springs I should know about?”
“Just be careful,” he said.
We started to part ways, and then I called to him, “Trey? I know it’s your own business, but whatever’s going on… if you want to talk, I’m here.” It was a huge concession for me, seeing as I wasn’t always the most socially adept person.
Trey gave me a wistful smile. “Noted.”
I was kind of reeling as I went back to my dorm. Adrian, Jill, Trey. I suppose if you counted Eddie and Angeline getting along, everyone in my life was behaving weirdly. All part of the job, I thought.
As soon as I was back in my room, I called Donna Stanton with the Alchemists. I never could be sure what time zone she was in, so I wasn’t too concerned about the late hour. She answered right away and didn’t sound tired, which I took as a good sign. She hadn’t responded to my e-mail about the Warriors, and I was anxious for news. They posed too big a threat to us to be ignored.
“Miss Sage,” she said. “I was planning on calling you soon. I trust everything’s okay with the Dragomir girl?”
“Jill? Yeah, she’s fine. I wanted to check in on some other things. You got the info I sent you about the Warriors of Light?”
Stanton sighed. “That’s what I was going to call you about. Have you had any more runins?”
“No. And they don’t seem to have been following us anymore either. Maybe they gave up.”
“Unlikely.” Her next words took a long time to get out. “Not from what we’ve observed in the past.”
I froze, momentarily speechless. “In the past? Do you mean… you’ve run into them before?
I was hoping they were just some… I don’t know. A crazy, localized group.”
“Unfortunately, no. We’ve encountered them before. Sporadically, mind you. But they pop up everywhere.”
I was still in disbelief. “But I was always taught that any hunters had disappeared centuries ago. Why has no one ever talked about this?”
“Honestly?” asked Stanton. “Most Alchemists don’t know. We want to run an efficient organization, one that deals with the vampire problem in an organized, peaceful way. There are some people in our group who might want to take more extreme action. It’s best then if the existence of our radical offshoot is kept secret. I wouldn’t have even told you, but with all the contact you’re having, you need to be prepared.”
“Offshoot… then they are related to Alchemists!” I was sickened.
“Not for a very long time.” She sounded equally disgusted. “There’s almost no resemblance anymore. They’re reckless and savage. The only reason we let them be is because they usually just go after Strigoi. This situation with Sonya Karp is more difficult. She hasn’t had any more threats?”
“No. I just saw her tonight… which brings up the other reason I called…” I gave Stanton a rundown of the various blood experiments, including my own donation. I painted it in very scientific terms, how it had seemed useful as extra data. I then made sure to sound properly appalled by the second request – which wasn’t that difficult.
“Absolutely not,” said Stanton. No hesitation. Often, Alchemist decisions went through chains of command, even with someone as high up as her. It was a sign of how much this went against Alchemist beliefs that she didn’t even have to consult anyone. “Human control-blood is one thing. The rest she’s suggesting is out of the question. I will not allow humans to be used in these experiments, especially when the evidence clearly shows the former Strigoi need to be the focus – not us. Besides, for all we know, this is some ploy on the Moroi part to get more of our blood for personal reasons.” I didn’t believe that last part at all and tried to find a tactful way of saying so. “Sonya seems to sincerely believe this would help protect against Strigoi. She just doesn’t seem to grasp how we feel about it.”
“Of course she wouldn’t,” said Stanton dismissively. “None of them do.” She and I returned our focus to the vampire hunters. The Alchemists were doing some investigating on any sightings in the area. She didn’t want me to do any active investigation myself, but I was to report in immediately if any other information came my way. She was assuming the Warriors of Light were operating nearby, and once she found out where, the Alchemists would “deal with them.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but her tone made me shiver. As she’d pointed out earlier, we weren’t a particularly aggressive group… though we were excellent at getting rid of problems.
“Oh,” I said, just as we were wrapping up. “Did you ever find out anything about Marcus Finch?” I’d tried locating Clarence’s mysterious human, who’d helped against the hunters, but had found nothing. I’d hoped Stanton might have more connections.
“No. But we’ll keep looking.” A slight pause. “Miss Sage… I can’t emphasize enough how pleased we are with the work you’re doing. You’ve run into a few more complications than any of us expected, yet you handle them all efficiently and properly. Even your conduct with the Moroi is outstanding. A weaker person might have yielded to Karp’s request. You refused and contacted me. I’m so proud I took the chance on you.”
I felt a tightening in my chest. So proud. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had said they were proud of me. Well, my mother did a lot, but no one tied to my work among the Alchemists did. For most of my life, I’d hoped my father would say he was proud. I’d finally given up on expecting that. Stanton was hardly a parental figure, but her words triggered happiness in me I hadn’t known was waiting to come out.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, when I could finally speak.
“Keep it up,” she said. “When I can, I’ll get you out of that place and into a position that doesn’t involve so much contact with them.”
And like that, my world came crashing down. I suddenly felt guilty. She really had given me a chance, and now I was deceiving her. I was hardly like Liam, ready to sell my soul to the Strigoi, but I also wasn’t staying objective with my charges. Driving lessons. Thanksgiving.
What would Stanton say if she knew about that? I was a sham, reaping glory I didn’t deserve.
If I was truly a dedicated Alchemist, I’d change my life here. I’d stop all extraneous activities with Jill and the others. I wouldn’t even attend Amberwood – I’d accept the offer of outside accommodations.
I’d only come here and see the gang when I absolutely was required to.
If I could do those things, then I’d truly be a good Alchemist.
And, I realized, I’d also be terribly, awfully lonely.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said.
It was the only response I could give.
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