Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Indigo Spell Chapter Three

TRUE TO HIS WORD, Adrian made no other mention of the relationship – or lack thereof – between us. Every once in a while, though, I could swear I saw something in his eyes, something that brought back an echo of his proclamation about continuing to love me. Or maybe it was just his typical impertinence. A connecting flight and an hour-long car ride later, it was night by the time we finally reached the small resort town in the Pocono Mountains. Getting out of the car was a shock. December in Pennsylvania was very, very different from December in Palm Springs. Crisp, frigid air hit me, the kind that freezes your mouth and nose. A layer of fresh snow covered everything, glittering in the light of the same full moon that Ms. Terwilliger and I had worked magic by. The stars were out here in just as much force as the stark desert, though the cold air made them glitter in a sharper way. Adrian stayed in our hired car but leaned out as the driver handed me my small suitcase. â€Å"Need any help with that?† Adrian asked. His breath made a frosty cloud in the air. It was an uncharacteristic offer from him. â€Å"I'll be fine. Thanks, though. I take it you aren't staying here?† I nodded toward the bed-and-breakfast the car had stopped at. Adrian pointed down the road, toward a large, lit-up hotel perched on a hill. â€Å"Up there. That's where all the parties will be, if you're interested. They're probably just getting started.† I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold. Moroi normally ran on a nocturnal schedule, starting their days around sunset. Those living among humans – like Adrian – had to adapt to a daytime schedule. But here, in a small town that must be bursting with Moroi guests, he'd have the chance to return to what was for him a more natural schedule. â€Å"Noted,† I said. A moment of awkwardness followed, but the temperature gave me an excuse for escape. â€Å"Well. I'd better get in where it's warm. Nice, uh, traveling with you.† He smiled. â€Å"You too, Sage. See you tomorrow.† The car door closed, and I suddenly felt lonely without him. They drove off toward the towering hotel. My bed-and-breakfast seemed tiny by comparison, but it was cute and in good shape. The Alchemists had booked me here precisely because they knew the Moroi guests would have other accommodations. Well, most of them. â€Å"Are you here for the wedding, dear?† asked the innkeeper as she checked me in. â€Å"We have some other guests staying with us as well.† I nodded as I signed my credit card slip. It was no surprise that there'd be overflow to this inn, but there'd be a lot less here than the other hotel. I'd make sure to lock my door. I trusted my friends in Palm Springs, but all other Moroi and dhampirs were questionable. Towns like this, and the inns within them, always seemed intended for couples on romantic getaways. My room was no exception. It had a California-king-size bed draped in a gauzy canopy, along with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi by the fireplace. It screamed love and romance, which brought Adrian back to my mind. I ignored it all as best I could and jotted out a quick text to Donna Stanton, a higher-ranking Alchemist who oversaw my assignment in Palm Springs. Arrived in Pocono Hollow. Checked into inn. Her response came quickly: Excellent. See you tomorrow. A second text followed a moment later: Lock your door. Stanton and one other Alchemist were invited to the wedding as well. But they were already on the East Coast and could simply travel here tomorrow. I envied them. Despite my uneasiness, I slept surprisingly well and dared to emerge for breakfast in the morning. I had no need to worry about Moroi, though. I was the only person eating in the sundrenched dining room. â€Å"How strange,† remarked the innkeeper as she delivered my coffee and eggs. â€Å"I know many of the guests were out late, but I thought at least a few might be here to eat.† Then, to emphasize the oddness of it all, she added, â€Å"After all, breakfast is complimentary.† The nocturnal Moroi, who were all still in bed, emboldened me to explore the town a little that day. Even though I'd prepared with boots and a heavy coat, the weather change was still a bit shocking. Palm Springs had made me soft. I soon called it an early day and spent the rest of the afternoon reading Ms. Terwilliger's book by the fire. I flew through the first section and even went on to the advanced one she'd told me to skip. Maybe it was the fact that it was forbidden, but I couldn't stop reading. The scope of what the book described was so gripping and consuming that I nearly jumped a foot in the air when I heard a knock at the door. I froze, wondering if some confused Moroi had mistaken my room for a friend's. Or, worse, for a feeder's. My phone suddenly chimed with a text message from Stanton: We're at your door. Sure enough, when I opened it, I found Stanton standing there – with Ian Jansen, an Alchemist the same age as me. His presence was a surprise. I hadn't seen Ian since he, Stanton, and I had been detained by Moroi for questioning in the escape of a dhampir fugitive. Back then, Ian had had an unwelcome crush on me. Judging from the dopey smile on his face when he saw me, things hadn't changed. I gestured them inside, making sure to lock the door when I closed it. Like me, both Alchemists had golden lily tattoos on their left cheeks. It was the sign of our order, tattoos infused with vampire blood that gave us quick healing and were magically designed to stop us from discussing Alchemist affairs with those who didn't know about them. Stanton arched an eyebrow at the heart-shaped tub and then settled into a chair by the fire. â€Å"No trouble getting here?† Aside from traveling with a good-looking vampire who thinks he's in love with me? â€Å"None,† I replied. I regarded Ian with a frown. â€Å"I didn't expect you to be here. I mean, I'm glad you are, but after last time . . .† I paused as something hit me. I looked around. â€Å"It's all of us. All of us that were, uh, under house arrest.† Stanton nodded. â€Å"It was decided that if we're going to foster good relations between our groups, the Moroi would start by making amends to the three of us specifically.† Ian scowled and crossed his arms, leaning against a wall. He had brown eyes, with matching brown hair that he wore in a neat haircut. â€Å"I don't want any ‘amends' from those monsters after what they did to us this summer. I can't even believe we're here! This place is crawling with them. Who knows what'll happen if one of them drinks too much champagne tonight and goes looking for a snack? Here we are, fresh humans.† I wanted to tell him that was ridiculous, but by Alchemist reasoning, it was a very legitimate concern. And, reminding myself that I didn't know most of the Moroi here, I realized perhaps his fears weren't that unfounded. â€Å"I guess we'll have to stick together,† I said. That was the wrong word choice, judging from Ian's happy smile. The Alchemists rarely had social time, and this was no exception. Stanton soon got us down to business, going over our plans for the wedding and what our purpose was here. A file folder provided background on Sonya and Mikhail, as though I knew nothing about them. My mission and history with Sonya were secret from other Alchemists, so, for Ian's sake, I had to nod along with everything as if it was as new to me as it was to him. â€Å"Festivities will probably last until almost sunrise,† said Stanton, gathering up her papers once she'd finished the briefing. â€Å"Ian and I will be departing then and will drop you off at the airport on our way out. You won't have to spend another night here.† Ian's face grew darkly protective. â€Å"You shouldn't have stayed here alone last night. You should have had someone to look after you.† â€Å"I can look after myself,† I snapped, a bit more harshly than I intended. Whether I liked it or not, Ms. Terwilliger's training had empowered me – literally and figuratively. That, and recent self-defense classes had taught me how to watch out for myself and my surroundings. Maybe Ian meant well, but I didn't like the idea of him – or anyone – thinking I needed coddling. â€Å"Miss Sage is quite well as you can see,† said Stanton dryly. Ian's crush had to be obvious to her, and it was equally obvious to me she had no use for such frivolity. Her gaze drifted to the window, which was glowing orange and red with the setting sun. â€Å"Well, then. It's nearly time. Shouldn't you be getting ready?† They had arrived in their dress clothes, but I still needed to prepare. They talked together while I got ready in the bathroom, but each time I emerged – to get a hairbrush or earrings or something else – I'd see Ian watching me with that sappy look. Great. This was not what I needed. The wedding was being held in the town's claim to fame: a huge, indoor garden that defied the wintry conditions outside. Sonya was a huge lover of plants and flowers, and this was pretty much her dream location for a wedding. The glass walls that composed the building were steamed from the drastic difference between inner and outer temperatures. The three of us stepped inside, into an entry area that was used to sell tickets during the greenhouse's normal operating hours. Here, at last, we found the Moroi that had been hidden to me in daylight. There were about two dozen of them milling around in this entryway, dressed in rich clothing and eerily beautiful with their slim, pale features. Some were ushers and other attendants, helping organize the event and guide guests into the atrium farther into the building. Most Moroi were simply ordinary guests stopping to sign the guest book or chat with friends and family they hadn't seen in a long time. Around the sides, dhampirs in neat black and white suits stood sentry, watchful for any sign of danger. Their presence reminded me of a far, far greater threat than some drunken Moroi mistaking us for feeders. Holding the event at night meant exposing us to attack by Strigoi. Strigoi were a very different type of vampire – so different, in fact, that I almost felt foolish being unnerved in this group. Strigoi were undead, made immortal by killing their victims, unlike the Moroi, who simply drank enough blood from human volunteers to sustain themselves. Strigoi were vicious, fast, and strong – and only came out at night. The sunlight that Moroi found simply uncomfortable was lethal to Strigoi. Strigoi made most of their kills on unwitting humans, but Moroi and dhampirs were their preferred food. An event like this – Moroi and dhampirs crammed into a small space – was practically like offering up a Strigoi buffet. Eyeing the guardian dhampirs, however, I knew any Strigoi would have a difficult task breaking into this event. Guardians trained hard their entire lives, honing skills to fight Strigoi. Seeing as the Moroi queen was attending this event, I suspected the security I'd seen so far didn't even begin to scratch the surface. A number of those gathered here stopped talking when they saw us. Not all Moroi knew about Alchemists or how we worked with their people. So, the attendance of three non-feeder humans was a bit of an oddity. Even those who knew about Alchemists were probably surprised to see us, given the formality of our relationship. Stanton was too experienced to let her unease show, but Ian openly made the Alchemist sign against evil as Moroi and dhampir eyes studied us. I did a pretty good job of keeping my cool but wished there was at least one familiar face in this crowd. â€Å"Miss Stanton?† A round-cheeked Moroi hurried forward. â€Å"I'm Colleen, the wedding coordinator. We spoke on the phone?† She extended a hand, and even tough Stanton hesitated before shaking it. â€Å"Yes, of course,† said Stanton, voice cool and proper. â€Å"Thank you for inviting us.† She introduced Ian and me. Colleen waved us toward the atrium's entry. â€Å"Come, come. We have your seats reserved. I'll take you there myself.† She swept us past the curious onlookers. As we entered the atrium, I stopped and momentarily forgot the vampires around us. The main greenhouse was magnificent. The ceiling was high and vaulted, made of that same steamed glass. A central area had been cleared and set with seats draped in flowers, very much like what you'd see at a human wedding. A dais at the front of the seating area was covered in more flowers and was obviously where the couple would take their vows. But it was the rest of the room that took my breath away. It was like we'd stepped into some tropical jungle. Trees and other plants heavy with brightly colored flowers lined the sides, filling the humid air with a perfume that was almost dizzying. Since there was no sunlight to light up the greenhouse, torches and candles had been cleverly placed throughout the greenery, casting a mysterious – yet still romantic – light on everything. I felt as though I'd stepped into some secret Amazonian ritual space. And of course, nearly hidden among the trees and bushes, black-clad guardians paced and kept watch on everything. Colleen led us to three seats on the right side of the seating area, marked with a RESERVED sign. They were about halfway back – not as esteemed a spot as family would get, of course, but enough to show that the Moroi thought highly of us and really were trying to undo the strained relationship caused by our detainment. â€Å"Can I get you anything?† Colleen asked. I realized now her exuberant energy was partially nervousness. We made her almost – but certainly not quite – as uneasy as she and the others made us. â€Å"Anything at all?† â€Å"We're fine,† said Stanton, speaking for all of us. â€Å"Thank you.† Colleen nodded eagerly. â€Å"Well, if you need anything – no matter how small – don't hesitate to ask. Simply grab one of the ushers, and they'll find me immediately.† She stood there a moment longer, wringing her hands. â€Å"I'd best check on the others. Remember – call if you need anything.† â€Å"What I need is to get out of here,† muttered Ian once she was gone. I said nothing, not trusting any response. If I reassured him we were safe, I'd be regarded with suspicion. Yet if I acted like our lives were in danger, I'd be lying. My views were somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Someone handed me a program, and Ian leaned a bit more closely than I would've liked in order to read over my shoulder. The program detailed a list of songs and readings as well as the members of the wedding party. I could tell from Ian's face that he was expecting to see â€Å"Unholy Bloodletting† right after the Corinthians reading. His next words affirmed as much. â€Å"They do a good job making it seem so normal, huh?† he asked, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice. I was a bit surprised at how vicious his attitude was. I didn't remember him being quite this extreme last summer. â€Å"Like it's a real wedding or something.† He also wasn't regulating his volume, and I glanced around anxiously, making sure no one overheard. â€Å"So you're saying it's not a real wedding?† I whispered back. Ian shrugged but at least took the hint and lowered his voice. â€Å"With them? It doesn't matter. They don't have real families or real love. They're monsters.† It was ironic that he mentioned â€Å"real love† just then because at that moment, Adrian and his father were ushered to the opposite side of the atrium. Adrian was always a nice dresser, but I'd never seen him in anything so formal. I hated to admit it, but the look was great on him: a navy suit and vest that was nearly black paired with a pale blue shirt and blue-and-white-striped tie. It stood out from the more somber black and gray suits most men here were wearing, but not in an outlandish or tacky way. As I was studying him, Adrian glanced up and caught my eye. He smiled and gave me a small nod. I almost smiled back, but Stanton snapped me back to reality. I allowed him one last, lingering look, and then I turned away. â€Å"Mr. Jansen,† Stanton said in a stern voice. â€Å"Please keep your opinions to yourself. Regardless of their validity, we are guests here and will behave in a civilized way.† Ian nodded grudgingly, flushing slightly as he glanced in my direction – as if being so openly chastised might ruin his chances with me. He didn't have to worry, seeing as he didn't have any chance to begin with. Colleen sent an usher to check on us, and while he spoke to Stanton, Ian leaned toward me. â€Å"Am I the only one who thinks it's crazy that we're here?† He nodded toward Stanton. â€Å"She thinks this is okay but come on. They held us captive. It's unforgivable. Doesn't that make you mad?† I certainly hadn't liked it at the time, but I'd come to understand why it had happened. â€Å"I hate that they did that,† I lied, hoping it sounded convincing. â€Å"I'm angry every time I think of it.† Ian actually looked relieved enough to drop the topic. We sat in blessed silence as the atrium continued to fill up. By the time the ceremony was about ready to start, there must have been close to two hundred people in the room. I kept looking for familiar faces, but Adrian and his father were the only ones I knew. Then, at the last minute, a brightly clad figure came scurrying in. I groaned at the same time Stanton tsked with disapproval. Abe Mazur had just arrived. Whereas Adrian had made color work with formal wear in a stylish way, Abe used color to offend the sensibilities. To be fair, this was one of the more subdued ensembles I'd ever seen Abe don: a white suit with a bright, kiwi green shirt and paisley ascot. He wore his usual gold earrings, and the sheen of his black hair made me think he'd been hitting some hair oil pretty voraciously. Abe was a dubiously moral Moroi and also the father of my friend – and Adrian's former dhampir love – Rose Hathaway Abe made me nervous because I'd had some secret dealings with him in the past. He made Stanton nervous because he was a Moroi the Alchemists would never be able to control. Abe seated himself in the front row, earning a horrified look from Colleen the coordinator, who was supervising everything from the side of the room. My guess was that wasn't part of her seating chart. I heard a trumpet sound, and those sitting in the back suddenly fell to their knees. Like a wave, those seated in the rest of the rows began following suit. Stanton, Ian, and I all exchanged confused looks. Then I understood. â€Å"The queen,† I whispered. â€Å"The queen is coming.† I could see from Stanton's face that was not something she had considered. She had a split second to decide on protocol for this situation and how to maintain our â€Å"civilized† guest status. â€Å"We don't kneel,† she whispered back. â€Å"Stay where you are.† It was a valid call, seeing as we owed no fealty to the Moroi queen. Still, I felt flustered and conspicuous at being one of the only people in the room not kneeling. A moment later, a ringing voice declared, â€Å"Her Royal Majesty, Queen Vasilisa, first of her name.† Even Ian caught his breath in admiration as she entered. Vasilisa – or Lissa, as Adrian and Rose continually insisted I call her – was a picture of ethereal beauty. It was hard to believe she was the same age as me. She carried herself with a poise and regality that seemed ageless. Her tall, willowy body was graceful even among Moroi, and her platinum blond hair fell around her pale face like some otherworldly veil. Although dressed in a very modern lavender cocktail dress, she managed to wear it as though it were some grand Victorian ball gown. A black-haired guy with piercing blue eyes walked at her side. Her boyfriend, Christian Ozera, was always easy to spot, providing a dark contrast that worked perfectly with her lightness. Once the royal couple was seated in the front row – seeming very surprised to find Abe waiting for them there – the throng returned to their seats. An unseen cellist began to play, and everyone released a collective breath as we fell into the comfortable ritual of a wedding. â€Å"Amazing, isn't it?† Ian murmured in my ear. â€Å"How fragile her throne is. One slip, and they'd fall into chaos.† It was true, and it was why Jill's safety was so important. An old Moroi law said that a monarch had to possess one living family member in order to hold the throne. Jill was the only one left in Lissa's line. Those who opposed Lissa because of her age and beliefs had realized killing Jill would be easier than going after a queen. Many opposed the law and were trying to change it. In the meantime, the political fallout from Jill's assassination would be monumental. The Alchemists, whose job it was to keep the Moroi world hidden and protected , needed to prevent their society from falling into chaos. And on a slightly more personal level, I needed to prevent Jill's death because against all odds, I'd grown to care about her in the short time we'd been together. I shifted my mind from those grim thoughts and focused on the next stage of the wedding. Bridesmaids in deep green satin led the procession, and I wondered if Abe had been attempting to match them with his suit. If so, he'd failed. And there, I spotted my first friendly face, aside from Adrian. Rose Hathaway. It was no surprise she'd be a bridesmaid, seeing as she'd been responsible for the happy couple getting together. She'd inherited her father's dark hair and eyes and was the only dhampir among the bridesmaids. I didn't need to see the surprised looks of some of the guests to know that was pretty unorthodox. If Rose noticed or cared, she didn't show it. She walked proudly on, head held high and face glowing with happiness. With that humanlike dhampir appearance, she was shorter than her Moroi companions and had a more athletic build than the slender, small-chested Moroi. Rose had what was a very normal, very healthy body among humans. Yet when I compared myself to Moroi, I felt enormous. I knew it was ridiculous – especially since I wore a smaller size than Rose – but it was a hard feeling to shake. Adrian had recently had an unwelcome intervention with me, going so far as to claim I was on the verge of an eating disorder. I'd been outraged and told him to mind his own business . . . but ever since then, I'd taken a hard look at my behaviors. I now tried to eat more and had gained exactly one pound, something that had felt torturous and wrong until my friend Trey had recently commented that I was â€Å"looking pretty good these days.† It had reinforced the idea that a few more pounds wouldn't kill me and might actually be good for me. Not that I'd admit any of that to Adrian. We all stood when Sonya entered. She was glorious in ivory silk, with tiny white roses adorning her fiery hair. The queen had been magnificent, but there was a glow about Sonya that dwarfed even Lissa's beauty. Maybe it was just something inherent to brides. There was an air of love around Sonya that made her shine. I was surprised to feel a pang in my chest. Ian was probably disappointed when no bloodletting followed, but the ceremony was sweet and filled with emotion. I couldn't believe how stone-faced my Alchemist companions looked – I was on the verge of tears as the couple recited their vows. Even if Sonya and Mikhail hadn't been through hell to be together, this was the kind of ceremony that couldn't help but pull at the heartstrings. As I listened to them swear they'd love each other forever, I found my gaze drifting to Adrian. He didn't see me looking at him, but I could tell the ceremony was having the same effect on him. He was enraptured. It was a rare and sweet look for him, reminding me of the tortured artist that lived beneath the sarcasm. I liked that about Adrian – not the tortured part, but the way he could feel so deeply and then transform those emotions into art. I had feelings, just like anyone else, but that ability to express them into something creative was an area I would never, ever have expertise in. It wasn't in my nature. I sometimes gave him a hard time about his art, especially his more abstract pieces. Secretly, I regarded his skills with awe and loved the many facets of his personality. Meanwhile, I had to fight to keep my face blank, to look as though I was a normal Alchemist with no concern for unholy vampire events. Neither of my companions questioned me, so apparently I pulled it off. Maybe I had a future in poker. Sonya and Mikhail kissed, and the crowd erupted into cheers. They only got louder when he brazenly kissed her a second time – and then a third. The next stage of the festivities, the reception, was being held in the hotel where Adrian and most of the other Moroi were staying. Sonya and Mikhail left first, followed by the queen and other high-ranking royals. Stanton, Ian, and I waited patiently for our row to be dismissed so that we could line up for the limos that were ferrying guests the half mile to the hotel. It normally wouldn't have been that bad of a walk, even in heels, if not for the freezing temperature. Our turn came, and the three of us got into the back of a limo. â€Å"Now we just have to get through the reception,† said Ian as the driver shut our door. â€Å"At least we've got our own car.† Suddenly, the door opened, and Abe slid in beside me. â€Å"Room for one more?† He beamed at Stanton and me. â€Å"So nice to see you lovely ladies again. And you must be Ian. A pleasure.† Abe extended his hand. At first, it looked as though Ian wouldn't shake it, but a sharp look from Stanton dictated otherwise. Afterward, Ian kept looking at his hand as though he expected it to start smoking. The drive only took about five minutes, but I could tell from the other Alchemists' faces that it felt like five hours for them. â€Å"I think it's wonderful that you three were invited,† said Abe, perfectly at ease. â€Å"Considering how much we work together, we should have more of these pleasant interactions, don't you think? Perhaps you'll invite us to one of your weddings someday.† He winked at me. â€Å"I'm sure you have young men lining up for you.† Even Stanton couldn't keep a straight face. The look of horror in her expression said there were few things more profane than a vampire coming to a human wedding. She looked visibly relieved when we reached the hotel, but we weren't free of Abe yet. Some thoughtful person – probably Colleen – had put us at his table, probably thinking it would be nice to be seated with a Moroi we knew. Abe seemed to take great delight in the awkwardness his presence provided, but I had to admit, it was kind of refreshing to have someone who openly acknowledged the strained relations between us rather than pretending everything was okay. â€Å"There's no blood in that,† Abe told us when dinner was served. The three of us were hesitating over cutting into our chicken marsala, even me. â€Å"The only blood is in the drinks, and you have to actually ask for those at the bar. No one's going to sneak you something, and the feeders are being kept in another room.† Ian and Stanton still looked unconvinced. I decided I would be the brave one and began eating without any more hesitation. Maybe vampires were unnatural creatures, but they certainly had excellent taste in caterers. A moment later, the other Alchemists joined me, and even they had to admit the food was pretty good. When the plates were cleared, Ian bravely left for the bathroom, giving Stanton a brief opportunity to lean toward me for a hushed status report. â€Å"Everything was okay when you left?† Strained relationship or not, our mission to keep the Moroi stable hadn't changed. â€Å"Fine,† I said. â€Å"It's all quiet back there. No sign of trouble.† She didn't need to know about my own interpersonal drama. Keeping my tone casual, I asked, â€Å"Any news about the Warriors? Or Marcus Finch?† Stanton shook her head. â€Å"None. But I'll certainly let you know if we uncover anything.† I answered with a polite smile, seriously doubting her words. I hadn't always liked my Alchemist missions, but I'd spent most of my life following orders without question because I believed my superiors knew what was best and were acting for the greater good. Recent events now made me wonder about that. In thwarting some crazed vampire hunters who called themselves the Warriors of Light, Stanton had withheld information from me, citing that we were on a need-to-know basis. She had brushed it off, praising me for being a good Alchemist who understood such policy, but the incident had made me seethe with anger. I didn't want to be anyone's pawn. I could accept that fighting for a greater cause meant tough decisions, but I refused to be used or endangered because of â€Å"important† lies. I'd given my life over to the Alchemists, always believing what they did and told me was right. I'd thought I was important, that they would always look out for me. Now I didn't know. And yet . . . what could I do? I was sworn and sealed to the Alchemists. Whether I liked what they'd done to me or not, there was no way out, no way to question them. . . . At least, I'd thought that until I learned about Marcus Finch. I'd only found about him recently, after discovering he'd once crossed the Warriors of Light by helping a Moroi named Clarence. Although the Warriors usually only went after Strigoi, a rebel group had once decided to target Clarence. Marcus had stepped up and defended Clarence against the Warriors, convincing them to leave him alone. I'd almost believed Clarence was making up the story until I saw a picture of Marcus. And that was where things got really weird. Marcus seemed to have also crossed the Alchemists. In fact, Clarence and one of the Warriors had hinted that Marcus had at one time been an Alchemist – but was no longer. I hadn't believed it until I saw his picture. He didn't have a golden lily – but a large tribal-looking tattoo done in blue ink that was large enough to cover the golden one, if you were trying to hide it. Seeing that was life changing. I'd had no idea it was possible to tattoo over something so powerful. I certainly hadn't thought anyone could leave the Alchemists or that anyone would even want to, not with the way our purpose was drilled into us practically from birth. How could someone consider abandoning our missions? How could someone go rogue and just walk away from the Alchemists? What had happened that would make him want to do that? Had he had experiences similar to mine? And would they let him go? When I'd asked about him, Stanton claimed the Alchemists had no knowledge of Marcus, but I knew that was a lie. She didn't know I had his picture. His blue tattoo was big enough to cover a lily, and I'd seen metallic hints of one underneath, proving he had indeed once been one of us. And if he'd had the Alchemist mark, then they most certainly knew about him. They were covering him up, and that just intrigued me further. In fact, I was a little obsessed with him. Some instinct told me he was the key to my problems, that he could help me uncover the secrets and lies the Alchemists were telling me. Unfortunately, I had no clue how to find him. â€Å"It's important no one here knows what you're doing, so remember to be discreet,† Stanton added, like I needed to be reminded. A small crease appeared between her eyebrows. â€Å"I was particularly worried about that Ivashkov boy coming to this wedding. We can't let anyone know you two have more than a passing acquaintance. Little things like that could compromise our mission.† â€Å"Oh, no,† I said quickly. â€Å"You don't need to worry about Adrian. He understands how important our work is. He'd never do anything to compromise it.† Ian returned, and our discussion ended there. Dinner soon gave way to dancing. With the atmosphere more relaxed, a number of Moroi came over to introduce themselves to us. I felt nearly as popular as the bride and groom. Ian shook so many hands that he eventually became immune to it. And as uncomfortable as it was for my companions, I could tell this event was actually accomplishing its goal of smoothing relations between Alchemists and Moroi. Stanton and Ian were by no means ready to be best friends with any of them, but it was clear they were pleasantly surprised at how friendly and benign most of the guests seemed. â€Å"I'm glad we got this chance to be together,† Ian told me during a lull in our public relations. â€Å"It's so hard with our jobs, you know? I'm in St. Louis now, in the facility archives. Where do they have you?† Secrecy was key in Jill's protection. â€Å"I'm in the field, but I can't say where. You know how it is.† â€Å"Right, right. But you know, if you ever wanted to visit . . . I'd show you around.† His desperation was almost cute. â€Å"Like for a vacation?† â€Å"Well, yeah. Er, no.† He knew as well as I did that Alchemists didn't get vacations easily. â€Å"But, I mean, they're doing all the holiday services, you know. If you decide to come to one, well, let me know.† Alchemist priests always conducted special services around Christmas in our main facilities. Some Alchemist families made a point of going to them every year. I hadn't been to any in a while, not with the way my missions kept jumping around. â€Å"I'll keep that in mind.† There was a long pause, and his next words came haltingly. â€Å"I'd ask you to dance, you know. Except it wouldn't be right in this kind of unholy setting.† I gave him a stiff smile. â€Å"Of course. That, and we're here on business. We've got to focus on building good relationships with them.† Ian had started to respond when a familiar voice interrupted us. â€Å"Miss Sage?† We looked up and found Adrian standing above us, dashing in his shades of blue. His face was the picture of perfect politeness and restraint, meaning something disastrous was probably about to happen. â€Å"It's so nice to see you again,† he said. He spoke as though it had been a while, and I nodded in agreement. As I'd assured Stanton, Adrian knew too much familiarity between us might create a trail back to Jill. â€Å"Did I just hear you two talking about building good relationships?† I was tongue-tied, so Ian answered. â€Å"That's right. We're here to make things friendlier between our people.† His voice, however, was most decidedly unfriendly. Adrian nodded with all seriousness, like he hadn't noticed Ian's hostility. â€Å"I think it's a great idea. And I thought of something that would be an excellent gesture of our future together.† Adrian's expression was innocent, but there was a mischievous sparkle in his eye that I knew all too well. He held out his hand to me. â€Å"Would you like to dance?†

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