Chapter Three



I was exhausted from being dragged out of bed, and even when Keith took over the wheel, I couldn't fall asleep. I had too much on my mind: Zoe, my reputation, the mission at hand.... My thoughts spun in circles. I just wanted to fix all the problems in my life. Keith's driving did nothing to make me less anxious.

I was also upset because my father hadn't let me say goodbye to my mom. He'd gone on and on about how we should just let her sleep, but I knew the truth. He was afraid that if she knew I was leaving, she'd try to stop us. She'd been furious after my last mission: I'd gone halfway around the world alone, only to be returned with no clue as to what my future held. My mom had thought the Alchemists had used me badly and had told my dad it was just as well they seemed to be done with me. I don't know if she really could've stood in the way of tonight's plans, but I didn't want to take my chances in case Zoe got sent instead of me. I certainly hadn't expected a warm and fuzzy farewell from him, but it felt strange leaving on such unsettled terms with my sister and mother.

When dawn came, briefly turning the desert landscape of Nevada into a blazing sea of red and copper, I gave up on sleep altogether and decided to just power through. I bought a twenty-four-ounce cup of coffee from a gas station and assured Keith I could drive us the rest of the way. He gladly gave up the wheel, but rather than sleep, he bought coffee as well and chatted me up for the remaining hours. He was still going strong with his new we're-friends attitude, almost making me wish for his earlier animosity. I was determined not to give him any cause to doubt me, so I worked hard to smile and nod appropriately. It was kind of hard to do while constantly gritting my teeth.

Some of the conversation wasn't so bad. I could handle business talk, and we had plenty of details to still work out. He told me all he knew about the school, and I ate up his description of my future home. Amberwood Preparatory School was apparently a prestigious place, and I idly wondered if maybe I could treat it as pretend college. By Alchemist standards, I knew all I needed for my job, but something in me always burned for more and more knowledge. I'd had to learn to content myself with my own reading and research, but still, college - or even just being around those who knew more and had something to teach me - had long been a fantasy of mine.

As a "senior," I would have off-campus privileges, and one of our first orders of business - after securing fake IDs - was to get me a car. Knowing I wouldn't be trapped at a boarding school made things a bit more bearable, even though it was obvious that half of Keith's enthusiasm for getting me my own transportation was to make sure I could shoulder any work that came along with the job.

Keith also enlightened me about something I hadn't realized - but probably should have. "You and that Jill girl are being enrolled as sisters," he said. "What?" It was a measure of my self-control that my hold on the car never wavered. Living with a vampire was one thing - but being related to one?

"Why?" I demanded.

I saw him shrug in my periphery. "Why not? It explains why you'll be around her so much - and is a good excuse for you to be roommates. Normally, the school doesn't pair students who are different ages, but... well... your 'parents' promised a hefty donation that made them change their normal policy."

I was so stunned that I didn't even have my normal gut reaction to slap him when he concluded with his self-satisfied chuckle. I'd known we'd be living together... but sisters? It was... weird. No, not just that. Outlandish.

"That's crazy," I said at last, still too shocked to come up with a more eloquent response.

"It's just on paper," he said.

True. But something about being cast as a vampire relative threw my whole order off. I prided myself on the way I'd learned to behave around vampires, but part of that came from the strict belief that I was an outsider, a business associate distinct and removed. Playacting as Jill's sister destroyed those lines. It brought about a familiarity that I wasn't sure I was ready for.

"Living with one of them shouldn't be so bad for you," Keith commented, drumming his fingers against the window in a way that put my nerves on edge. Something about the too-casual way he spoke made me think he was leading me into a trap. "You're used to it."

"Hardly," I said, choosing my words carefully. "I was with them for a week at most. And actually, most of my time was spent with dhampirs."

"Same difference," he replied dismissively. "If anything, the dhampirs are worse. They're abominations. Not human, but not full vampires. Products of unnatural unions."

I didn't respond right away and instead pretended to be deeply interested in the road ahead. What he said was true, by Alchemist teaching. I'd been raised believing that both races of vampires, Moroi and Strigoi, were dark and wrong. They needed blood to survive. What kind of person drank from another? It was disgusting, and just thinking about how I'd soon be ferrying Moroi to their feedings made me ill.

But the dhampirs... that was a trickier matter. Or at least, it was for me now. The dhampirs were half human and half vampire, created at a time when the two races had mingled freely. Over the centuries, vampires had pulled away from humans, and both of our races now agreed that those kinds of unions were taboo. The dhampir race had persisted against all odds, however, in spite of the fact that dhampirs couldn't reproduce with each other. They could with Moroi or humans, and plenty of Moroi were up to the task.

"Right?" asked Keith.

I realized he was staring at me, waiting for me to agree with him about dhampirs being abominations - or maybe he was hoping I would disagree. Regardless, I'd been quiet for too long.

"Right," I said. I mustered the standard Alchemist rhetoric. "In some ways, they're worse than the Moroi. Their race was never meant to exist."

"You scared me there for a second," Keith said. I was watching the road but had a sneaking suspicion he'd just winked at me. "I thought you were going to defend them. I should've known better than to believe the stories about you. I can totally get why you'd want to gamble at the glory - but man, that had to have been harsh, trying to work with one of them."

I couldn't explain how once you'd spent a little time with Rose Hathaway, it was easy to forget she was a dhampir. Even physically, dhampirs and humans were virtually indistinguishable. Rose was so full of life and passion that sometimes she seemed more human than I was. Rose certainly wouldn't have meekly accepted this job with a simpering, "Yes, sir." Not like me.

Rose hadn't even accepted being locked in jail, with the weight of the Moroi government against her. Abe Mazur's blackmail had been a catalyst that spurred me to help her, but I'd also never believed that Rose had committed the murder they'd accused her of. That certainty, along with our fragile friendship, had driven me to break Alchemist rules to help Rose and her dhampir boyfriend, the formidable Dimitri Belikov, elude the authorities.

Throughout it all, I'd watched Rose with a kind of wonder as she battled the world. I couldn't envy someone who wasn't human, but I could certainly envy her strength - and refusal to back down, no matter what.

But again, I could hardly tell Keith any of that. And I still didn't believe for an instant, despite his sunny act, that he was suddenly okay with me coming along.

I gave a small shrug. "I thought it was worth the risk."

"Well," he said, seeing I wasn't going to offer anything more. "The next time you decide to go rogue with vampires and dhampirs, get a little backup so you don't get in as much trouble."

I scoffed. "I have no intention of going rogue again." That, at least, was the truth.

We reached Palm Springs late in the afternoon and got to work immediately with our tasks. I was dying for sleep by that point, and even Keith - despite his talkativeness - looked a little worn around the edges. But we'd gotten the word that Jill and her entourage were arriving tomorrow, leaving very little time to put the remaining details in place.

A visit to Amberwood Prep revealed that my "family" was expanding. Apparently, the dhampir coming with Jill was enrolling as well and would be playing our brother. Keith was also going to be our brother. When I questioned that, he explained that we needed someone local to act as our legal guardian should Jill or any of us need to be pulled from school or granted some privilege. Since our fictitious parents lived out of state, getting results from him would be faster. I couldn't fault the logic, even though I found being related to him more repulsive than having dhampirs or vampires in the family. And that was saying a lot.

Later on, a driver's license from a reputable fake ID maker declared that I was now Sydney Katherine Melrose, from South Dakota. We chose South Dakota because we figured the locals didn't see too many licenses from that state and wouldn't be able to spot any flaws in it. Not that I expected there to be. The Alchemists didn't associate with people who did second-rate work. I also liked the picture of Mount Rushmore on the license. It was one of the few places in the United States that I'd never been.

The day wrapped up with what I had most been looking forward to: a trip to a car dealer. Keith and I did almost as much haggling with each other as we did with the salesman. I'd been raised to be practical and keep my emotions in check, but I loved cars. That was one of the few legacies I'd picked up from my mom. She was a mechanic, and some of my best childhood memories were of working in the garage with her.

I especially had a weakness for sports cars and vintage cars, the kinds with big engines that I knew were bad for the environment - but that I guiltily loved anyway. Those were out of the question for this job, though. Keith argued that I needed something that could hold everyone, as well as any cargo - and that wouldn't attract a lot of attention. Once more, I conceded to his reasoning like a good little Alchemist.

"But I don't see why it has to be a station wagon," I told him.

Our shopping had led us down to a new Subaru Outback that met most of his requirements. My car instincts told me the Subaru would do what I needed. It would handle well and had a decent engine, for what it was. And yet...

"I feel like a soccer mom," I said. "I'm too young for that."

"Soccer moms drive vans," Keith told me. "And there's nothing wrong with soccer."

I scowled. "Does it have to be brown, though?"

It did, unless we wanted a used one. As much as I would've liked something in blue or red, the newness took precedence. My fastidious nature didn't like the idea of driving "someone else's" car. I wanted it to be mine - shiny, new, and clean. So, we made the deal, and I, Sydney Melrose, became the proud owner of a brown station wagon. I named it Latte, hoping my love of coffee would soon transfer to the car.

Once our errands were done, Keith left me for his apartment in downtown Palm Springs. He offered to let me stay there as well, but I'd politely refused and gotten a hotel room, grateful for the Alchemists' deep pockets. Honestly, I would've paid with my own money to save me from sleeping under the same roof as Keith Darnell.

I ordered a light dinner up to my room, relishing the alone time after all those hours in the car with Keith. Then I changed into pajamas and decided to call my mom. Even though I was glad to be free of my dad's disapproval for a while, I would miss having her around.

"Those are good cars," she told me after I began the call by explaining my trip to the dealership. My mother had always been a free spirit, which was an unlikely match for someone like my dad. While he'd been teaching me chemical equations, she'd showed me how to change my own oil. Alchemists didn't have to marry other Alchemists, but I was baffled by whatever forces had drawn my parents together. Maybe my father had been less uptight when he was younger.

"I guess," I said, knowing I sounded sullen. My mother was one of the few people I could be anything less than perfect or content around. She was a big advocate of letting your feelings out. "I think I'm just annoyed that I didn't have much say in it."

"Annoyed? I'm furious that he didn't even talk to me about it," she huffed. "I can't believe he just smuggled you out like that! You're my daughter, not some commodity that he can just move around." For a moment, my mother reminded me weirdly of Rose - both possessed that unflinching tendency to say what was on their minds. That ability seemed strange and exotic to me, but sometimes - when I thought about my own carefully controlled and reserved nature - I wondered if maybe I was the weird one.

"He didn't know all the details," I said, automatically defending him. With my father's temper, if my parents were mad at each other, then life at home would be unpleasant for Zoe - not to mention my mom. Better to ensure peace. "They hadn't told him everything."

"I hate them sometimes." There was a growl in my mom's voice. "Sometimes I hate him too."

I wasn't sure what to say to that. I resented my father, sure, but he was still my father. A lot of the hard choices he made were because of the Alchemists, and I knew that no matter how stifled I felt sometimes, the Alchemists' job was important. Humans had to be protected from the existence of vampires. Knowing vampires existed would create a panic. Worse, it could drive some weak-willed humans into becoming slaves to the Strigoi in exchange for immortality and the eventual corruption of their souls. It happened more often than we liked to admit.

"It's fine, Mom," I said soothingly. "I'm fine. I'm not in trouble anymore, and I'm in the U.S. even." Actually, I wasn't sure if the "trouble" part was really true, but I thought the latter would soothe her. Stanton had told me to keep our location in Palm Springs secret, but giving up that we were domestic wouldn't hurt too much and might make my mom think I had an easier job ahead of me than I likely did. She and I talked a little bit more before hanging up, and she told me she'd heard from my sister Carly. All was well with her at college, which I was relieved to hear. I wanted desperately to find out about Zoe as well but resisted asking to talk to her. I was afraid that if she got on the phone, I'd find out she was still mad at me. Or, worse, that she wouldn't speak to me at all.

I went to bed feeling melancholy, wishing I could have poured out all my fears and insecurities to my mom. Wasn't that what normal mothers and daughters did? I knew she would've welcomed it. I was the one who had trouble letting myself go, too wrapped up in Alchemist secrets to be a normal teenager.

After a long sleep, and with the morning sunlight streaming through my window, I felt a little better. I had a job to do, and having purpose shifted me out of feeling sorry for myself. I remembered that I was doing this for Zoe, for Moroi and humans alike. It allowed me to center myself and push my insecurities aside - at least, for now.

I picked up Keith around noon and drove us outside of the city to meet Jill and the recluse Moroi who'd be helping us. Keith had a lot to say about the guy, whose name was Clarence Donahue. Clarence had lived in Palm Springs for three years, ever since the death of his niece in Los Angeles, which had apparently had quite a traumatic effect on the man. Keith had met him a couple of times on past jobs and kept making jokes about Clarence's tenuous grip on sanity.

"He's a few pints short of a blood bank, you know?" Keith said, chuckling to himself. I bet he'd been waiting days to use that line.

The jokes were in poor taste - and stupid to boot - but as we got closer and closer to Clarence's home, Keith eventually became very quiet and nervous. Something occurred to me.

"How many Moroi have you met?" I asked as we pulled off the main road and turned into a long and winding driveway. The house was straight out of a Gothic movie, boxy and made of gray bricks that were completely at odds with most of the Palm Springs architecture we'd scene. The only reminder that we were in southern California was the ubiquitous palm trees surrounding the house. It was a weird juxtaposition.

"Enough," said Keith evasively. "I can handle being around them."

The confidence in his tone sounded forced. I realized that despite his brashness about this job, his comments on the Moroi and dhampir races, and his judgment of my actions, Keith was actually very, very uncomfortable with the idea of being around non-humans. It was understandable. Most Alchemists were. A large part of our job didn't even involve interacting with the vampiric world - it was the human world that needed tending. Records had to be covered up, witnesses bribed. The majority of Alchemists had very little contact with our subjects, meaning most Alchemists' knowledge came from the stories and teachings passed down through the families. Keith had said he'd met Clarence but made no mention of spending time with other Moroi or dhampirs - certainly not a group, like we were about to face.

I was no more excited to hang around vampires than he was, but I realized it didn't scare me nearly as much as it once would have. Rose and her companions had given me a tough skin. I'd even been to the Moroi Royal Court, a place few Alchemists had ever visited. If I'd walked away from the heart of their civilization intact, I was certain I could handle whatever was inside this house. Admittedly, it would've been a little easier if Clarence's house didn't look so much like a creepy haunted manor from a horror movie.

We walked up to the door, presenting a united front in our stylish, formal Alchemist attire. Whatever his faults, Keith cleaned up well. He wore khaki pants with a white button-up shirt and navy silk tie. The shirt had short sleeves, though I doubted that was helping much in the heat. It was early September, and the temperature had been pushing ninety when I left my hotel. I was equally hot in a brown skirt, tights, and a cap-sleeved blouse scattered with tan flowers.

Belatedly, I realized we kind of matched.

Keith lifted his hand to knock at the door, but it opened before he could do anything. I flinched, a bit unnerved despite the assurances I'd just given myself.

The guy who opened the door looked just as surprised to see us. He held a cigarette pack in one hand and appeared as though he'd been heading outside to smoke. He paused and gave us a once-over.

"So. Are you guys here to convert me or sell me siding?"

The disarming comment was enough to help me shake off my anxiety. The speaker was a Moroi guy, a little older than me, with dark brown hair that had undoubtedly been painstakingly styled to look messy. Unlike Keith's ridiculously over-gelled attempts, this guy had actually done it in a way that looked good. Like all Moroi, he was pale and had a tall, lean build. Emerald green eyes studied us from a face that could have been sculpted by one of the classical artists I so admired. Shocked, I dismissed the comparison as soon as it popped into my head. This was a vampire, after all. It was ridiculous to admire him the way I would some hot human guy.

"Mr. Ivashkov," I said politely. "It's nice to see you again."

He frowned and studied me from his greater height. "I know you. How do I know you?"

"We - " I started to say "met" but realized that wasn't quite right since we hadn't been formally introduced the last time I had seen him. He'd simply been present when Stanton and I had been hauled to the Moroi Court for questioning. "We ran into each other last month. At your Court."

Recognition lit his eyes. "Right. The Alchemist." He thought for a moment and then surprised me when he pulled up my name. With everything else that had been going on when I was at the Moroi Court, I hadn't expected to make an impression. "Sydney Sage."

I nodded, trying not to look flustered at the recognition. Then I realized Keith had frozen up beside me. He'd claimed he could "handle" being around Moroi, but apparently, that meant staring gape-mouthed and not saying a word. Keeping a pleasant smile on, I said, "Keith, this is Adrian Ivashkov.

Adrian, this is my colleague, Keith Darnell."

Adrian held out his hand, but Keith didn't shake it. Whether that was because Keith was still shell-shocked or because he simply didn't want to touch a vampire, I couldn't say. Adrian didn't seem to mind. He dropped his hand and took out a lighter, stepping past us as he did. He nodded toward the doorway.

"They're waiting for you. Go on in." Adrian leaned close to Keith's ear and spoke in an ominous voice. "If. You. Dare." He poked Keith's shoulder and gave a "Muhahaha" kind of monster laugh.

Keith nearly leapt ten feet in the air. Adrian chuckled and strolled off down a garden path, lighting his cigarette as he walked. I glared after him - though it had been kind of funny - and nudged Keith toward the door. "Come on," I said. The coolness of air conditioning brushed against me.

If nothing else, Keith seemed to have come alive. "What was that about?" he demanded as we stepped into the house. "He nearly attacked me!"

I shut the door. "It was about you looking like an idiot. And he didn't do a thing to you. Could you have acted any more terrified? They know we don't like them, and you looked like you were ready to bolt."

Admittedly, I kind of liked seeing Keith caught off guard, but human solidarity left no question about which side I was on.

"I did not," argued Keith, though he was obviously embarrassed. We walked down a long hallway with dark wood floors and trim that seemed to absorb all light. "God, what is wrong with these people? Oh, I know. They aren't people."

"Hush," I said, a bit shocked at the vehemence in his voice. "They're right in there. Can't you hear them?"

Heavy French doors met us at the end of the hall. The glass was frosted and stained, obscuring what was inside, but a low murmur of voices could still be heard. I knocked on the door and waited until a voice called an entry. The anger on Keith's face vanished as the two of us exchanged brief, commiserating looks. This was it. The beginning.

We stepped through.

When I saw who was inside, I had to stop my jaw from dropping like Keith's had earlier.

For a moment, I couldn't breathe. I'd mocked Keith for being afraid around vampires and dhampirs, but now, face-to-face with a group of them, I suddenly felt trapped. The walls threatened to close in on me, and all I could think about were fangs and blood. My world reeled - and not just because of the group's size.

Abe Mazur was here.

Breathe, Sydney. Breathe, I told myself. It wasn't easy, though. Abe represented a thousand fears for me, a thousand entanglements I'd gotten myself into.

Slowly, my surroundings crystallized, and I regained control. Abe wasn't the only one here, after all, and I made myself focus on the others and ignore him.

Three other people sat in the room with him, two of whom I recognized. The unknown, an elderly Moroi with thinning hair and a big white mustache, had to be our host, Clarence.

"Sydney!" That was Jill Mastrano, her eyes lighting up with delight. I liked Jill, but I hadn't thought I'd made enough of an impression on the girl to warrant such a welcome. Jill almost looked like she would run up and hug me, and I prayed that she wouldn't. I didn't need Keith to see that. More importantly, I didn't need Keith reporting about that.

Beside Jill was a dhampir, one I knew in the same way I knew Adrian - that is, I'd seen him but had never been introduced. Eddie Castile had also been present when I was questioned at the Royal Court and, if memory served, had been in some trouble of his own. For all intents and purposes, he looked human, with an athletic body and face that had spent a lot of time in the sun. His hair was a sandy brown, and his hazel eyes regarded me and Keith in a friendly - but wary - way. That's how it was with guardians. They were always on alert, always watching for the next threat. In some ways, I found it reassuring.

My survey of the room soon returned me to Abe, who had been watching and seemed amused by my obvious avoidance of him. A sly smile spread over his features.

"Why, Miss Sage," he said slowly. "Aren't you going to say hello to me?"

P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com