Chapter Twenty-seven

 

I WOULD HAVE GAPED IF I were there, both from the shock of seeing Sydney and at the sight of a human on Court grounds. Humans, actually, because there were two others with her, a man and a woman. The man was young, only a little older than Sydney, with deep brown hair and eyes. The woman was older and wore the tough, seasoned look I associated with Alberta. This woman was dark-skinned, but I could still see the golden tattoo she and the other humans had. All Alchemists.

And it was obvious these Alchemists were not happy. That older woman was putting on a good show, but her darting eyes made it clear she wanted to be somewhere-- anywhere--else. Sydney and the guy didn't hide their fear at all. Sydney might have gotten used to me and Dimitri, but she and her associates had just walked into a den of evil, as far as they were probably concerned.

The Alchemists weren't alone in their discomfort. As soon as they'd entered, the guardians no longer regarded Eddie as the room's threat. Their eyes were all on the humans, scrutinizing them as though they were Strigoi. My friends seemed more curious than afraid. Lissa and I had lived among humans, but Christian and Adrian had had very little exposure, other than feeders. Seeing the Alchemists on "our turf' added an extra element of intrigue.

I was certainly astonished to see Sydney there so quickly. Or was it quickly? Hours had passed since we'd escaped Jill's house. Not enough time to drive to Court but certainly enough to fly. Sydney hadn't changed clothes since I'd last seen her, and there were shadows under her eyes. I had a feeling she'd been grilled to no end since her capture. The mystery was, why bring the Alchemists here to the meeting about Eddie killing the unknown Moroi? There were two completely different issues at stake.

Lissa was thinking the same thing. "Who are these guys?' she asked, although she had a pretty good idea who Sydney was. She'd heard enough description from me. Sydney gave Lissa a once-over, and I suspected she had guessed Lissa's identity as well.

"Alchemists,' said Hans gruffly. "You know what that means?'

Lissa and my friends nodded. "What do they have to do with Eddie and that guy who attacked me?' she asked.

"Maybe something. Maybe nothing.' Hans shrugged. "But I know there's something strange going on, something you're all involved in, and I need to figure out what. She'-- Hans pointed at Sydney--'was with Hathaway in Detroit, and I still have trouble believing none of you know anything about it.'

Adrian crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, the perfect picture of indifference. "Keep believing that, but I don't know any of these people. Don't Alchemists hate us? Why are they here?' Adrian, ironically, was the only one of my friends who knew I hadn't been in West Virginia, but you'd never tell from his demeanor.

"Because we have an escaped murderess to deal with and needed to question her accomplice in person,' was Hans's crisp response.

A denial of my guilt was on Lissa's lips, but the older Alchemist jumped in first. "You have no proof that Miss Sage was an "accomplice' to your criminal. And I still think it's ridiculous that you wouldn't let us do our own questioning and leave it at that.' "In any other situation, we would, Miss Stanton,' replied Hans. Ice was forming between the two of them. "But this one, as you can imagine, is a bit more serious than most. Our queen was murdered.'

Tension ramped up even more between the guardians and the Alchemists. Their working relationship was not a happy one, I realized. It also occurred to me that even if Sydney's superiors thought she'd committed some crime, they would never admit as much to my people--which meant Hans's paranoia wasn't entirely unfounded. When none of the Alchemists responded, Hans seemed to read this as approval to begin interrogating Sydney.

"Do you know these three?' He gestured to my friends, and Sydney shook her head. "Ever communicated with them?'

"No.'

He paused, as though hoping she'd change her answer. She didn't. "Then how did you get involved with Hathaway?'

She studied him intently, fear in her brown eyes. I wasn't sure if it was because of him exactly. Really, she had a lot of things to be nervous about right now, like being here at all and the eventual punishment the Alchemists would dole out. Then, of course, there was Abe. Technically, he was the reason she had gotten ensnared in this mess. All she had to do was tell on him, say he'd blackmailed her. It'd get her off the hook--but incur his wrath. Sydney swallowed and forced a defiant look.

"I met Rose in Siberia.'

"Yes, yes,' said Hans. "But how did you end up helping her escape here?'

"I had nothing to do with her escaping this place!' said Sydney. It was a half-truth, I supposed. "She contacted me a few days ago and asked for help to get to a house near Detroit. She claimed she was innocent and that this would help prove it.'

"The Alchemists knew by then she was a fugitive,' pointed out Hans. "Everyone had orders to look out for her. You could have turned her in.'

"When I first met Rose, she didn't seem like the murdering type--I mean, aside from killing Strigoi. Which isn't murder at all, really.' Sydney threw in a little Alchemist disdain. It was a nice touch. "So, when she said she was innocent and could prove it, I decided to help her. I gave her a ride.'

"We already asked her about this,' Stanton said irritably. "And we already told you that we did. What she did was foolish--a naive lapse in judgment. It's something for us to deal with, not you. You worry about your murdering fiend.' Her words were light, like they were going to take Sydney home and chastise a naughty child. I doubted it would be that simple.

"Who were the people with her?' asked Hans, ignoring Stanton.

Sydney's contempt grew. "One was that guy ... Dimitri Belikov. The one you think was "cured.' I don't know who the others were. Two guys and a woman. They never introduced us.' It was a well-done lie, her faked disgust about Dimitri masking her knowledge of the rest of our associates.

Lissa leaned forward eagerly, speaking just before Hans could. "What was in Detroit? How was Rose going to clear herself? Especially with Jill?' Hans didn't look happy about the interruption, but I knew he had to be curious about Jill and Detroit as well. He said nothing, perhaps hoping someone might slip and reveal a key piece of knowledge. Sydney, however, continued playing distant and cold.

"I have no idea. That Jill girl didn't seem to know either. Rose just said we had to get to her, so I helped her.'

"Blindly?' asked Hans. "You really expect me to believe that you just trusted her like that?'

"She's my--' Sydney bit her lip on what I suspected was "friend.' She turned her professional mode back on. "There was something believable about her, and I figured it'd be a waste of resources if the Alchemists had been helping you hunt the wrong murderer. If I decided she was guilty, I could always turn her in. And I thought ... I thought if I was the one who solved this, I'd get the credit and a promotion.' That was a good, good lie. An ambitious girl trying to improve her career on the sly? Very good. Well, not to everyone.

Hans shook his head. "I don't believe any of you.'

The guy Alchemist took a step forward that made every guardian tense to jump him. "If she says that's the way it happened, then that's the way it happened.' He had the same fierceness and mistrust that Stanton had, but there seemed to be more. A sort of protectiveness toward Sydney that was as personal as professional. Lissa picked up on it too.

"Easy, Ian,' said Stanton, still keeping her eyes on Hans. Her composure reminded me more and more of Alberta. She couldn't be at ease with a roomful of guardians but wasn't showing it. "It doesn't matter if you believe her or not. The point remains: Miss Sage answered your questions. We're finished.'

"Do Jill's parents know anything?' asked Lissa. She was still in shock at all of these developments--not to mention worried about me being out of my safe mountain town-- but this mysterious shot at clearing my name was powerful. She couldn't let it go.

Sydney turned to Lissa, and I could practically read the Alchemist's thoughts. She knew how close Lissa and I were and would have liked to give Lissa some sort of comfort. There was no way, though, that Sydney could do that with these people in the room. She also had to be aware of the fact that I myself hadn't told Lissa anything about Jill.

"No,' said Sydney. "We just went there, and Rose said Jill had to come with her. The Mastranos don't know why. And then--and then Rose did take her. Or Jill went with her. I'm not sure what happened. It all turned to chaos.'

Neither the Alchemists nor guardians disputed me taking Jill, which made me think it was a story they'd gotten--and accepted--from both Jill's parents and Sydney. It had just enough truth to be plausible--and explain Jill's disappearance. It didn't mention the Dragomir secret, however, which Emily was probably more than happy to keep quiet for now.

"There,' said Stanton. "This is exactly what we told you before. We need to leave now.' She turned toward the door, but guardians blocked the way.

"Impossible,' said Hans. "This is a serious matter, and Miss Sage is the only link we have to a murder--a royal murder. And a kidnapping.' Stanton scoffed, and I remembered Sydney once saying the Alchemists thought the Moroi royalty system was silly. "She doesn't seem to be of much more use to you. But don't worry--we'll be holding her. Contact us if you have more questions.'

"Unacceptable,' said Hans. "She stays here.'

Ian, the other Alchemist, joined the argument, moving protectively in front of Sydney. "We're not leaving one of our own here!' Again, I had that funny feeling about him. A crush, that was it. He had a crush on her and was treating this as more than just business. Stanton gave him a look that said she would handle this matter. He fell silent.

"You can all stay here, then,' said Hans. "Makes no difference to me. We'll get you rooms.'

"That is unacceptable.' From there, she and Hans got into a raging argument. I didn't think it would come to blows, but the other guardians had closed in slightly as a precaution.

Ian's eyes darted between Stanton and Sydney, but he didn't get into the fray. Once, his gaze passed over the table Hans leaned against, and Ian suddenly did a double take at the photograph. It was only a brief pause, a slight widening of the eyes ... but Lissa caught it.

She took a step toward Ian and Sydney. One of the guardians glanced at the movement, deemed Lissa safe, and returned to watching Stanton. "You know him,' Lissa murmured, keeping her voice below the shouts. In fact, it was a little too low because she got blank looks from Sydney and Ian. Their ears couldn't hear what a Moroi or dhampir could have.

Lissa glanced uneasily around, not wanting to attract attention. She raised her volume slightly. "You know him. The guy in the picture.'

Ian stared at Lissa, a bit of wonder and wariness on his face. He undoubtedly bore that same standoffish attitude toward vampires, but her words had caught him off guard. And, even if she was an evil creature of the night, she was a very pretty one.

"Ian,' said Sydney softly. "What is it?' There was a note of urging in her voice, one that inadvertently played upon his crush, I think. He opened his mouth to speak, but then, the "conversation' among the others wrapped up. Sydney again became the center of attention, and Ian turned away from Lissa.

The compromise Stanton and Hans had reached was exactly that--a compromise. Neither was happy with it. There was a small town less than forty-five minutes away from Court, and the Alchemists would stay there--with several guardians on hand. It sounded like a house arrest to me, and Stanton's expression seemed to agree. I think she only consented because it was a human town. Before he'd let everyone go, Hans questioned my friends a final time, his eyes studying every face carefully.

"And none of you--none of you--know this Alchemist girl or have been in contact with her? Or know about her involvement with Hathaway?'

Again, Lissa and the others denied it, and again, Hans had no choice but to grudgingly accept the responses. Everyone moved toward the door, but Hans wouldn't let Eddie leave. "Not you, Castile. You're staying here until other matters are settled.'

Lissa gasped. "What? But he--'

"Don't worry about it,' said Eddie with a small smile. "Everything'll be okay. Just look after yourself.' Lissa hesitated, despite Christian tugging her arm to go. Although all accounts said Eddie had defended Lissa's life, he'd still killed a Moroi. That wouldn't be taken lightly. The guardians had to be 100 percent convinced he'd had no other choice before they'd release him. Seeing the strong, calm look on his face, Lissa knew he was prepared to handle whatever came.

"Thank you,' she said, walking past him. "Thank you for saving me.'

His answer was a slight nod, and Lissa stepped into the hallway--to find herself in more chaos.

"Where are they? I insist on--ah.'

My friends and the Alchemists had been heading toward the exit while a group of guardians escorted them. Meanwhile, someone had entered the hall and was now being stopped and challenged by the guardians. It was Abe.

He took in every piece of the bizarre scenario in less than a heartbeat, his eyes passing over Sydney and the Alchemists as though he'd never seen them before. Through Lissa's eyes, I saw Sydney blanch, but nobody else noticed. Abe smiled at Lissa and sidled up to walk out with her.

"There you are. They want you for the last monarch test.'

"And they sent you?' asked Christian skeptically.

"Well, I volunteered,' replied Abe. "I'd heard there was some, er, excitement. Murder, fanatical religious humans, interrogations. All things I'm interested in, you know.'

Lissa rolled her eyes but said nothing until the whole group emerged from the building. The Alchemists and their unwelcome escort went one way while Lissa and our friends went the other. Lissa longed to glance at Sydney and Ian--I did too--but knew it was best to keep moving forward and follow Abe's lead, particularly since some of those guardians were watching more than just the Alchemists.

As soon as Lissa's group was far enough away from the authorities, Abe's amiable smile vanished, and he turned on my friends. "What the hell happened? I've heard all sorts of crazy stories. Someone said you were dead.'

"Nearly,' said Lissa. She told him about the attack, expressing her fear over Eddie.

"He'll be fine,' said Abe dismissively. "They have nothing to hold him on. The worst he'll get is a mark on his record.'

Lissa was relieved by Abe's easy assurance, but I still felt guilty. Thanks to me, Eddie's record was already marred. His sterling reputation was declining on a daily basis.

"That was Sydney Sage,' said Lissa. "I thought they were all in West Virginia. Why isn't she with Rose?'

"That,' said Abe darkly, "is an excellent question.'

"Because they were apparently kidnapping Jill Mastrano in Detroit,' said Christian. "Which is weird. But not the craziest thing I can think of Rose doing.' I appreciated the support.

Abe got a recap of this new development too, at least as much as my friends knew of it--which was only a fraction of the whole story. Abe picked up immediately that he'd been played, and it was obvious from his angry expression that he didn't like being kept in the dark. Welcome to the club, old man, I thought with small satisfaction. I hadn't forgotten how no one had filled me in on the escape plan. My smugness was short-lived because I was worried about what would happen to Sydney, now that Abe was on to her.

"That girl was lying to me,' he growled. "Every day, all these reports about how quiet and boring it was in West Virginia. I wonder if they even made it to that town. I have to go talk to her.'

"Good luck,' said Adrian, pulling a cigarette out and lighting it. Apparently, in my absence, the dating contract he'd jokingly made up that said he would "cut back' on his vices didn't apply. "I don't think her cronies or the guardians are going to let you near her.'

"Oh, I'll get to her,' said Abe. "She's got a lot of answers. If she hid them from those other idiots, then good for her. But she's going to tell me.'

A sudden thought sparked into Lissa's mind. "You have to talk to Ian. That guy with the Alchemists. He knows the man in the picture--er, I mean, the guy Eddie killed.'

"You're certain?' asked Abe.

"Yes,' said Adrian, surprising them all. "Ian definitely had a reaction. He's also got a crush on that Sydney girl.'

"I saw that too,' said Lissa.

"She seems kind of uptight.' Adrian frowned. "But maybe their kind go for that.'

"That crush might actually be useful,' mused Abe. "You women don't know the power you wield. Have you seen that guardian your aunt's dating? Ethan Moore?'

"Yes,' groaned Christian. "Don't remind me.'

"Tasha is pretty hot, though,' noted Adrian.

"That is not cool,' said Christian.

"Don't get so huffy,' said Abe. "Ethan's a palace guard. He was there the night of the murder--which could be very useful to us if she can keep him interested.'

Christian shook his head. "Those guards already testified. It won't matter. Ethan's told what he knows.'

"I'm not so sure,' said Abe. "There are always things that occur off the official record, and I'm positive the guards were all debriefed with strict orders on what to reveal and not to reveal. Your aunt might be charming enough to find out something for us.' Abe sighed, still looking very unhappy at the sudden upsetting of his orderly plans. "If only Sydney had been charming enough to talk her way out of that interrogation so that I could go interrogate her. Now I've got to break through those Alchemists and the guardians to get to her and figure out where Rose is. Oh, and you do actually have to go to your test, princess.'

"I thought that was just a line you used to find me,' Lissa said.

"No, they want you.' He gave her directions to the test. It was in the building she'd had the second test in. "All of you go together and then get a guardian to walk you back. Don't leave your room until Janine or Tad come by.' Tad was one of Abe's henchmen. "No more surprise attacks.'

Lissa wanted to argue that she most certainly wasn't going to put herself under house arrest but decided it was best to just let Abe go for now. He hurried off, still radiating agitation, and she and the guys turned toward the testing site.

"Boy, is he pissed,' said Adrian. "Do you blame him?' asked Christian. "He just lost membership in the evil mastermind club. His brilliant plan fell apart, and now his daughter's missing when he thought she was somewhere safe.'

Adrian stayed pointedly silent.

"I hope she's okay,' sighed Lissa, a knot forming in her stomach. "And what in the world does Jill have to do with any of this?'

Nobody had an answer for that one. When they reached the testing site, Lissa found a situation almost identical to before. Lots of spectators lining the hall. Guardians blocking the door. More people than ever were cheering her name as she approached, some who were "common' Moroi and others who were royals whose candidates were out of the running. A number of nominees hadn't passed the fear test, so those families had switched their loyalties.

Again, Lissa was ushered into the room alone. Her heart began to pound when she saw the same old woman. Were more terrible images to come? Lissa couldn't see the chalice, but that was no guarantee of safety. There was no extra chair, so Lissa simply stood in front of the old woman.

"Hello,' Lissa said respectfully. "It's nice to see you again.'

The woman grinned, showing those missing teeth. "I doubt that, but you say it very convincingly. You have politics in your blood.'

"Thank ... you ...' said Lissa, unsure if she'd been complimented or not. "What would you like me to do for this test?'

"Just listen. That's all. It's an easy one.'

A twinkle in the woman's eye made Lissa think this would not be easy.

"All you have to do is answer a question for me. Answer correctly, and you're through to the vote. And won't that be entertaining.' The old woman seemed to say those last words more to herself than Lissa.

"Okay,' said Lissa uneasily. "I'm ready.'

The woman sized Lissa up and seemed to like what she saw. "Here it is then: What must a queen possess in order to truly rule her people?'

Lissa's mind went blank for a moment, and then a jumble of words popped into her head. Integrity? Wisdom? Sanity?

"No, no, don't answer,' said the old woman, watching Lissa carefully. "Not yet. You have until tomorrow, at this same time, to think about it. Come back with the right answer, and you'll have passed the trials. And ...' She winked. "It goes without saying you won't talk to anyone about this.'

Lissa nodded, rubbing the small tattooed spot on her arm. She'd get no help with the answer from anyone else. Lissa left the room, turning the question over and over in her mind. There were too many answers to a question like that, she thought. Any of them could--

Movement in my reality instantly snapped me out of her head. I half expected Sonya to come bursting into our tent, but no, that wasn't what had caught my attention. It was a much smaller motion ... and something infinitely more powerful.

Dimitri was in my arms.

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