Chapter Ten


MY PHONE RANG JUST THEN, saving me from the awkwardness of figuring out what to do about Jill. I answered without bothering to check the caller ID. "Miss Melbourne? Your services are needed immediately."

"Ma'am?" I asked in surprise. Ms. Terwilliger's frantic voice was not what I'd been expecting. "What's wrong?"

"I need you to get me a caramel sauce cappuccino from Spencer's. There is absolutely no way I can finish translating this document if you don't." There were a million responses I could make to that, none of which were very polite, so I went with the obvious point of logic.

"I don't think I can," I said.

"You have off-campus privileges, don't you?"

"Well, yes, ma'am, but it's almost campus curfew. I don't know where Spencer's is, but I don't think I can make it back in time."

"Nonsense. Who's running your dorm? That Weathers woman? I'll call down and get you an exception. I'm working in one of the library offices. Meet me there."

Despite my personal devotion to coffee, getting an "exception" to the school's curfew seemed kind of excessive for an errand like this. I didn't like to bend the rules. On the other hand, I was Ms. Terwilliger's assistant. Wasn't this part of my job description? All the old Alchemist instincts to follow orders kicked in.

"Well, yes, ma'am, I suppose I - "

She disconnected, and I stared at the phone in astonishment. "I have to go," I told Jill. "Hopefully I'll be back soon. Maybe very soon since I'll be surprised if she remembers to call Mrs. Weathers." She didn't look up. With a shrug, I packed my laptop and some homework, just in case Ms. Terwilliger thought of something else for me to do.

With coffee on the line, my teacher's memory was good, and I found I did indeed have clearance to leave when I went downstairs. Mrs. Weathers even gave me directions to Spencer's, a coffee shop that was a few miles away. I got the cappuccino, wondering if I'd be reimbursed, and picked up something for myself as well. The library staff at Amberwood gave me a hard time about carrying in beverages when I returned, but when I explained my errand, they waved me on through to the back offices. Apparently, Ms. Terwilliger's addiction was well known.

The library was surprisingly busy, and I quickly deduced why. After a certain point each night, guys and girls were banned from each other's dorms. The library was open later, so this was the place to go to hang out with the opposite sex. Lots of people were just there to study too, including Julia and Kristin. "Sydney! Over here!" called Kristin in a stage whisper.

"Break free of Terwilliger," added Julia. "You can do it."

I held up the coffee as I passed them. "Are you kidding? If she doesn't get her caffeine soon, there'll be no escaping her. I'll come back if I can." As I continued walking through, I saw a small cluster of students gathered around someone - and heard a familiar and annoying voice. Greg Slade's. Curious in spite of myself, I walked over to the edge of the crowd. Slade was showing off something on his upper arm: a tattoo.

The design itself was nothing special. It was an eagle in flight, the kind of generic art all tattoo shops had in stock and copied en masse. What caught my attention was the color. It was all done in a rich, metallic silver. Metallics like that weren't easy to pull off, not with that sheen and intensity. I knew the chemicals that went into my own gold tattoo, and the formula was complex and composed of several rare ingredients.

Slade made a halfhearted effort to keep his voice low - tattoos were forbidden around here, after all - but it was clear he was enjoying the attention. I observed quietly, glad others were asking some of my questions for me. Of course, those questions only left me with more questions.

"That's brighter than the ones they used to do," one of his friends noted.

Slade tilted his arm so the light caught it. "Something new. They say these are better than the ones from last year. Not sure if that's true, but it wasn't cheap, I can tell you that."

The friend who'd spoken grinned. "You'll find out at tryouts."

Laurel - the red-haired girl who'd been interested in Micah - stretched out her leg beside Slade, revealing a slim ankle adorned with a faded butterfly tattoo. No metallics there. "I might get mine touched up, maybe for homecoming if I can get the money from my parents. Do you know if the celestial ones are better this year too?" She tossed back her hair as she spoke. From what I'd observed in my brief time at Amberwood, Laurel was very vain about her hair and made sure to throw it around at least every ten minutes.

Slade shrugged. "Didn't ask."

Laurel noticed me watching. "Oh, hey. Aren't you vampire girl's sister?"

My heart stopped. "Vampire?"

"Vampire?" echoed Slade.

How did she find out? What am I going to do? I had just begun making a list of the Alchemists I had to call when one of Laurel's friends snickered. Laurel looked at them and laughed haughtily, then turned back to me. "That's what we've decided to call her. No one human could possibly have skin that pale."

I nearly sagged in relief. It was a joke - one that hit painfully close to the truth, but a joke nonetheless. Still, Laurel didn't seem like someone to cross, and it'd be better for all of us if it was a joke soon forgotten. I admittedly blurted out the first distracting comment that came to mind. "Hey, stranger things have happened. When I first saw you, I didn't think anyone could have hair that long or that red. But you don't hear me talking about extensions or dye." Slade nearly doubled over with laugher. "I knew it! I knew it was fake!"

Laurel flushed nearly as red as her hair. "It is not! It's real!"

"Miss Melbourne?"

I jumped at the voice behind me and found Ms. Terwilliger there, watching me with bemusement. "You aren't getting credit for chatting, especially when my coffee's on the line. Come on."

I skulked away, though hardly anyone noticed. Laurel's friends were having too much fun teasing her. I hoped I had diffused the vampire jokes.

Meanwhile, I couldn't get the image of Greg's tattoo out of my mind. I let my thoughts wander to the mystery of what components would be needed for that silver color. I almost had it figured out - at least, I had one possibility figured out - and wished I had access to Alchemist ingredients to do some experiments. Ms. Terwilliger took the coffee gratefully when we reached a small workroom.

"Thank God," she said, after taking a long sip. She nodded at mine. "Is that a backup one? Excellent thinking."

"No, ma'am," I said. "It's mine. Do you want me to start in on those?" A familiar stack of books sat on the table, ones I'd seen in her classroom. They were core parts of her research, and she'd told me I'd eventually need to outline and document them for her. I reached for the top one, but she stopped me.

"No," she said, moving toward a large briefcase. She rifled through papers and assorted office supplies, finally digging out an old leather book. "Do this one instead."

I took the book. "Can I work out there?" I was hoping if I went back to the main study area, I could talk to Kristin and Julia.

Ms. Terwilliger considered. "The library won't let you have the coffee. You should probably leave it in here."

I waffled, debating whether my desire to talk to Kristin and Julia outweighed the likelihood that Ms. Terwilliger would drink my coffee before I got back. I decided to take the risk and bid my coffee a painful farewell as I hauled my books and gear back out to the library.

Julia eyed Ms. Terwilliger's beat-up book with disdain. "Isn't that just on the internet somewhere?"

"Probably not. I'm guessing no one's even looked at this since before the internet was invented." I opened the cover. Dust fluttered out. "Way before." Kristin had math homework open in front of her but didn't look particularly interested in it. She tapped a pen absentmindedly against the textbook's cover. "So you saw Slade's tattoo?"

"Hard not to," I said, getting out my laptop. I glanced across the screen. "He's still showing it off."

"He's wanted one for a while but never had the money," explained Julia. "Last year, all the big athletes had them. Well, except for Trey Juarez."

"Trey almost doesn't need one," pointed out Kristin. "He's that good."

"He will now - if he wants to keep up with Slade," said Julia.

Kristin shook her head. "He still won't do it. He's against them. He tried reporting them to Mr. Green last year, but no one believed him."

I looked back and forth between them, more lost than ever. "Are we still talking about tattoos? About Trey 'needing' one or not?"

"You really haven't found out yet?" asked Julia.

"It's my second day," I pointed out with frustration. Remembering I was in a library, I spoke more softly. "The only people who have really talked about them are Trey and you guys - and you haven't said much of anything."

They had the grace to look embarrassed by that, at least. Kristin opened her mouth, paused, and then seemed to change what she was going to say. "You're sure yours doesn't do anything?"

"Positive," I lied. "How is that even possible?"

Julia cast a glance around the library and twisted in her chair. She rolled her shirt up a little, exposing her lower back - and a faded tattoo of a swallow in flight. Satisfied that I'd seen it, she turned back around. "I got this last spring break - and it was the best spring break ever."

"Because of the tattoo?" I asked skeptically.

"When I got it, it didn't look like this. It was metallic... not like yours. Or Slade's. More like..."

"Copper," provided Kristin.

Julia thought about it and nodded. "Yeah, like reddish-goldish. The color only lasted a week, and while it did, it was amazing. Like, I have never felt that good. It was inhumanly good. The best high ever."

"I swear, there's some kind of drug in those celestials," said Kristin. She was trying to sound disapproving, but I thought I detected a note of envy. "If you had one, you'd understand," Julia told her.

"Celestials... I heard that girl over there talk about them," I said.

"Laurel?" asked Julia. "Yeah, that's what they call the copper ones. Because they make you feel out of this world." She looked almost embarrassed about her enthusiasm. "Stupid name, huh?"

"Is that what Slade's does?" I asked, stunned at what was unfolding before me.

"No, he's got a steel one," said Kristin. "Those give you a big athletic boost. Like, you're stronger, faster. Stuff like that. They last longer than the celestials - more like two weeks. Sometimes three, but the effect fades. They call them steel because they're tough, I guess. And maybe because there's steel in them."

Not steel, I thought. A silver compound. The art of using metal to bind certain properties in skin was one the Alchemists had perfected a long time ago. Gold was the absolute best, which was why we used it. Other metals - when formulated in the proper ways - achieved similar effects, but neither silver nor copper would bind the way gold could. The copper tattoo was easy to understand. Any number of feel-good substances or drugs could be combined with that for a short-term effect. The silver one was more difficult for me to understand - or rather, the effects of the silver one. What they were describing sounded like some kind of athletic steroid. Would silver hold that? I'd have to check.

"How many people have these?" I asked them, awestruck. I couldn't believe that such complicated tattoos were so popular here. It was also beginning to sink in just how wealthy the student body here really was. The materials alone would cost a fortune, let alone any of the alleged side effects.

"Everyone," said Julia.

Kristin scowled. "Not everyone. I've almost got enough saved up, though."

"I'd say half the school's at least tried a celestial," said Julia, flashing her friend a comforting look. "You can get them touched up again later - but it still costs money."

"Half the school?" I repeated incredulously. I looked around, wondering how many shirts and pants concealed tattoos. "This is crazy. I can't believe a tattoo can do any of that." I hoped I was doing an okay job of hiding how much I really knew.

"Get a celestial," said Julia with a grin. "Then you'll believe."

"Where do you get them?"

"It's a place called Nevermore," said Kristin. "They're selective, though, and don't give them out easily." Not that selective, I thought, if half the school had them. "They got a lot more cautious after Trey tried to turn them in." There was Trey's name again. It now made sense that he'd been so disdainful of my tattoo when we met. But I wondered why he cared so much - enough to try to get them shut down. That wasn't just a casual disagreement.

"I guess he thinks it's unfair?" I offered diplomatically.

"I think he's just jealous that he can't afford one," said Julia. "He's got a tattoo, you know. It's a sun on his back. But it's just a regular black one - not gold like yours. I've never seen anything like yours."

"So that's why you thought mine made me smart," I said.

"That could've been really useful during finals," said Julia wistfully. "You're sure that's not why you know so much?"

I smiled, despite how appalled I was by what I'd just learned. "I wish. It might make getting through this book easier. Which," I added, glancing at the clock. "I should get to." It was on Greco-Roman priests and magicians, a kind of grimoire detailing the kinds of spells and rituals they'd worked with. It wasn't terrible reading material, but it was long. I'd thought Ms. Terwilliger's research was more focused on mainstream religions in that era, so the book seemed like a weird choice. Maybe she was hoping to include a section on alternative magical practices. Regardless, who was I to question? If she asked, I'd do it.

I outlasted both Kristin and Julia in the library, since I had to stay as long as Ms. Terwilliger stayed, which was until the library closed. She seemed pleased that I'd gotten so far with the notes and told me she'd like the whole book completed in three days.

"Yes, ma'am," I said automatically, as if I didn't have any other classes at this school. Why did I always agree without thinking?

I returned to East Campus, bleary-eyed from all the work I'd done and exhausted over the thought of the homework remaining. Jill was fast asleep, which I took as a small blessing. I wouldn't have to face her accusing stare or figure out how to handle the awkward silence. I got ready for bed quickly and quietly and fell asleep almost as soon as I hit the pillow.

I woke at around three to the sound of crying. Shaking off my sleepy haze, I was able to make out Jill sitting up in her bed, her face buried in her hands. Great, shaking sobs racked her body.

"Jill?" I asked uncertainly. "What's wrong?"

In the faint light coming in from outside, I saw Jill raise her head and look at me. Unable to answer, she shook her head and began crying once more, this time more loudly. I got up and came to sit on the edge of her bed. I couldn't quite bring myself to hug or touch her for comfort. Nonetheless, I felt terrible. I knew this had to be my fault.

"Jill, I'm so sorry. I never should have gone to see Adrian. When Lee mentioned you, I should've just stopped it there and told him to talk to you if he was interested. I should've just talked to you in the first place..." The words came out in a jumble. When I looked at her, all I could think of was Zoe and her horrible accusations on the night I'd left.

Somehow, my help always backfired.

Jill sniffled and managed to get out a few words before breaking down again. "It's not... it's not that..."

I stared helplessly at her tears, frustrated at myself. Kristin and Julia thought I was superhumanly smart. Yet I guaranteed one of them would've been able to comfort Jill a hundred times better than I could. I reached out my hand and nearly patted her arm - but pulled back at the last moment. No, I couldn't do that. That Alchemist voice in me, the voice that always warned me to keep my distance from vampires, wouldn't let me touch one in a way that was so personal.

"Then what is it?" I asked at last.

She shook her head. "It's not... I can't tell... you wouldn't understand."

With Jill, I thought, any number of things could be wrong. The uncertainty of her royal status. The threats against her. Being sent away from all her family and friends, trapped among humans in the perpetual sun. I really didn't know where to start. Last night, there had been a chilling, desperate terror in her eyes when she woke up. But this was different. This was sorrow. This was from the heart.

"What can I do to help?" I asked at last.

It took her a few moments to pull herself together. "You're already doing plenty," she managed. "We all appreciate it - really. Especially after what Keith said to you." Was there nothing Adrian hadn't told her? "And I'm sorry - I'm sorry I was so bitchy to you earlier. You didn't deserve that. You were just trying to help."

"No... don't apologize. I messed up."

"You don't have to worry, you know," she added. "About Micah. I understand. I only want to be his friend."

I was pretty sure that I still wasn't doing a great job at making her feel better. But I had to admit, apologizing to me at least seemed to be distracting her from whatever had woken her to so much pain.

"I know," I said. "I should never have worried about you."

She assured me again that she was fine, with no more explanation about why she'd woken up crying. I felt like I should have done more to help, but instead, I made my way back to my own bed. I didn't hear any more sobs for the rest of the night, but once, when I woke up a couple hours later, I stole a glance at her. Her features were just barely discernible in the early light. She lay there, eyes wide open and staring off into nothingness, a haunted look on her face.

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