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The Golden Lily Chapter 3

EVEN THOUGH EDDIE had told me not to worry about Angeline, the curious part of me couldn’t help but prod him about it on the drive over to Adrian’s apartment.“How are you going to handle it?” I asked.“Have a heart-to-heart?”

He shook his head.

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“Mostly I was going to simply avoid her unless absolutely necessary.

Hopefully she’ll lose interest.”

“Well. I guess that’s one method. But, I mean, you’re a pretty direct person.” If faced with a roomful of Strigoi, he would’ve walked in without hesitation. “Maybe you should try that kind of approach instead. Just confront her and tell her honestly that you’re not interested.”

“That’s easy in theory,” he said. “Not so much in person.”

“Seems easy to me.”

Eddie was skeptical. “That’s because you’ve never had to do it.” Going to Adrian’s was a lot easier than it once had been for me. His apartment used to belong to Keith and was also the site where a Moroi named Lee and two Strigoi had died. Those were hard memories to shake. The Alchemists had offered the apartment to me, since I’d also taken on full responsibility for Palm Springs, but I’d yielded it to Adrian. I hadn’t been sure I wanted to live there, and he’d been pretty desperate for his own place. When I’d seen how happy the apartment made him, I knew I’d made the right choice.

Adrian opened the door before we’d barely had a chance to knock. “The cavalry! Thank God.”

I hid a smile as Eddie and I stepped inside. The first thing that always hit me about this place was the sunny yellow paint Adrian had put up on the walls. He was convinced it helped the mood and had warned us not to question his “artistic sensibilities.” The fact that the yellow clashed pretty terribly with his secondhand plaid furniture was apparently irrelevant. Or maybe I just wasn’t “artistic” enough to appreciate it. Nonetheless, I actually found the erratic style comforting. It bore little resemblance to Keith’s decorating, making it a little easier to blot out the events of that awful night. Sometimes, when I looked around the living room, my breath would catch as visions of the vicious Strigoi attack and Lee’s death haunted me. Adrian’s stamp on the apartment was like light chasing away the gruesome shadows of the past.

Sometimes when I was down, Adrian’s personality had a similar effect.

“Nice blouse, Sage,” he told me, deadpan. “It really brings out the khaki in your pants.” His sarcasm aside, he looked supremely delighted to see us. He had the tall, lean build that most Moroi guys did, along with their typically pale (though not Strigoi-pale) skin. I hated to admit it, but he was more good-looking than he had any right to be. He wore his dark brown hair stylishly messy and had eyes that sometimes seemed too green to be real. Adrian had on one of those button-up printed shirts that were trendy with guys lately, with a blue pattern on it I liked. He smelled like he’d been smoking recently, which I didn’t like.

Dimitri and Sonya were sitting at the kitchen table going over a bunch of papers with hand-written notes on them. The papers were kind of haphazardly scattered around, which made me wonder how much work they could really be accomplishing. I would have had those pages neatly stacked and organized by topic.

“Glad you’re back, Sydney,” said Sonya. “I’ve needed a little female support here.” The prettiness of her red hair and high cheek bones was tainted by the fact that she showed her fangs when she smiled. Most Moroi were taught early to avoid that, to prevent detection from humans. Sonya had no qualms about doing it in private. It still bugged me.

Dimitri smiled at me. It made his already handsome face even more so, and I knew that

“Zen master wisdom” wasn’t the reason Rose had fallen for him. “I’m guessing you didn’t take a nap.”

“Too much to do,” I said.

Sonya gave Eddie a curious look. “We’ve been wondering where you were.”

“Busy at Amberwood,” said Eddie vaguely. He’d mentioned in the car that it might be best if Angeline’s indiscretion and his forced shopping weren’t mentioned. “You know, keeping an eye on Jill and Angeline. Besides, I was waiting until Sydney came back since she wanted to see what we were doing.” I let the white lie slide.

“How is Angeline?” asked Dimitri. “Is she improving?”

Eddie and I exchanged glances. So much for avoiding her indiscretions. “Improving how exactly?” I asked. “In combat, in following the dress code, or in keeping her hands to herself?”

“Or in turning off caps-lock?” added Eddie.

“You noticed that too?” I asked.

“Hard not to,” he said.

Dimitri looked surprised, which was not a common thing. He wasn’t caught off guard very often, but then, no one could really prepare for what Angeline might do.

“I didn’t realize I needed to be more specific,” said Dimitri after a pause. “I meant combat.” Eddie shrugged. “There’s a little improvement, but it’s hard to get through to her. I mean, she’s absolutely dead set on protecting Jill, but she’s also convinced she already knows how.

She’s got years of that sloppy training drilled into her. It’s hard to break that. Plus, she’s…

easily distracted.”

I had to swallow a laugh.

Dimitri still looked troubled. “She has no time for distraction. Maybe I should talk to her.”

“No,” said Eddie firmly, in a rare show of contradicting Dimitri. “You’ve got plenty to do here. She’s my responsibility to train. Don’t worry.”

Adrian pulled up a chair, turning it backwards so he could rest his chin on its back. “What about you, Sage? I know we don’t have to worry about you violating the dress code. Did you have fun at your Alchemist spa this weekend?”

I set down my bag and walked over to the refrigerator. “If by spa, you mean underground bunker. And it was just business.” I made a face as I looked inside. “You promised to get me diet pop.”

“I did promise that,” said Adrian, no remorse whatsoever. “But then I read some article that said those artificial sweeteners aren’t good for you.

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So, I figured I’d watch out for your health.” He paused. “You’re welcome.”

Dimitri said what we were all thinking. “If you want to start tackling healthy habits, I could suggest a few.”

If Eddie or I had said that, it would have rolled right off Adrian – particularly since it was completely valid. But coming from Dimitri? That was different. There was a huge amount of tension between the two men, tension that had been building for a long time. Dimitri’s girlfriend, a notorious dhampir named Rose Hathaway, had briefly dated Adrian. She hadn’t meant to hurt him, but she’d been in love with Dimitri the whole time. So, there was no way that situation could have ended well. Adrian still carried a lot of scars from that and was particularly bitter toward Dimitri.

“Wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” said Adrian, a bit too coolly. “Besides, when not hard at work with this research, I’m actually conducting a side experiment on how cigarettes and gin increase charisma. As you might guess, the results are looking very promising.” Dimitri arched an eyebrow. “Wait, go back. Did you say hard at work?” Dimitri’s tone was light and playful, and again, I was struck by the double standard here. If I’d made that comment, Adrian’s response would’ve been something like, “Absolutely, Sage.

I’ll probably win the Nobel Prize for this.” But for Adrian, Dimitri’s words were a call to battle. I saw a glint of something hard in Adrian’s eyes, a stirring of some old pain, and it bothered me.

That wasn’t his way. He always had a smile and a quip, even if they were often irreverent or inappropriate. I’d gotten used to that. I kind of liked it.

I glanced at Adrian with a smile that I hoped looked genuine, rather than a desperate attempt to provide distraction. “Research, huh? I thought you were a gambling man.” It took Adrian a few moments to drag his gaze from Dimitri and fix it on me. “I’ve been known to roll the dice now and then,” he said warily. “Why?” I shrugged. “No reason. Just wondering if you’d put your charisma research on hold and step up for a challenge. If you went twenty-four hours without cigarettes, I’d drink a can of pop. Regular pop. The whole can.”

I saw the glimmer of Adrian’s earlier smile returning. “You would not.”

“I totally would.”

“Half a can would put you into a coma.”

Sonya frowned. “Are you diabetic?” she asked me.

“No,” said Adrian, “but Sage is convinced one extraneous calorie will make her go from super skinny to just regular skinny. Tragedy.”

“Hey,” I said. “You think it’d be a tragedy to go an hour without a cigarette.”

“Don’t question my steel resolve, Sage. I went without one for two hours today.”

“Show me twenty-four, and then I’ll be impressed.”

He gave me a look of mock surprise. “You mean you aren’t already? And here I thought you were dazzled from the moment you met me.”

Sonya shook her head indulgently at the two of us, like we were adorable children. “You’re missing out, Sydney,” she remarked, tapping the open pop in front of her. “I need about three of these a day to keep me focused on all this work. No detrimental effects so far.” No detrimental effects so far? Of course not. Moroi never had any. Sonya, Jill… they could all eat whatever they wanted and still keep those amazing bodies. Meanwhile, I labored over every calorie and still couldn’t reach that level of perfection. Fitting into these size four khakis had been a triumph this morning. Now, looking at Sonya’s slender build, I felt enormous by comparison. I suddenly regretted my comment about drinking a can of pop, even if it had succeeded in distracting Adrian. I supposed I could rest easy knowing that him skipping cigarettes for a day was impossible. I’d never be called to pay up on my sugary wager.

“We should probably get to work. We’re losing time.” That was Dimitri, getting us back on track.

“Right,” said Adrian. “This is five minutes of valuable research wasted. Up for more fun, Castile? I know how much you love sitting around.” Because they were trying to find something special about Dimitri, Sonya and Adrian would often sit the two dhampirs side by side and study their auras in fine detail. Their hope was that Dimitri’s Strigoi conversion had left some sign that would help explain the immunity to being turned again. It was a valid idea, though not something that someone as active as Eddie enjoyed.

He didn’t complain, of course. Eddie wore a look as tough and determined as Dimitri. “Tell me what you need.”

“We want to do another aura study,” said Sonya. Looked like poor Eddie would be doing some more sitting around. “Last time we focused on any sign of spirit. This time, we want to show both of you some pictures and see if they trigger any color changes in your auras.” I nodded in approval. A lot of psychological experiments attempted similar techniques, though they usually monitored physiological responses instead of mystical auras.

“I still say it’s a waste,” said Adrian. “They’re both dhampirs, but that doesn’t mean we can assume any different reactions they have are because Belikov was a Strigoi. Everyone’s unique. Everyone’s going to respond differently to pictures of kittens or spiders. My old man?

He hates kittens.”

“Who could hate kittens?” asked Eddie.

Adrian made a face. “He’s allergic.”

“Adrian,” said Sonya. “We’ve already been over this. I respect your opinion but still think we can learn a lot.” I was actually impressed that Adrian had an opinion. So far, I’d kind of felt like he was just going along with everything Sonya and Dimitri told him to do and that he didn’t give these experiments much thought. And, although I wasn’t familiar with the auras that surrounded all living creatures, I could understand his point that individual differences would throw off their research.

“All data is useful in this case,” said Dimitri. “Especially since we haven’t found anything so far. We know there’s something different about former Strigoi. We can’t rule out any chance to observe it.”

Adrian’s lips tightened, and he made no further protest. Maybe it was because he felt overruled, but I had a feeling it was because he just didn’t want to engage with Dimitri.

With the attention off me, I settled into the living room with a book and tried to stay awake.

They didn’t need me. I’d simply come to keep Eddie company. Occasionally, I’d check the others’ progress. Dimitri and Eddie watched as Sonya flipped through different images on her laptop. In turn, Adrian and Sonya watched the dhampirs closely and made notes on paper. I almost wished I could see the bands of color and light and wondered if there really were any noticeable differences. Studying Eddie and Dimitri, I sometimes would notice a change in facial expression when particularly cute or horrific images showed up on the screen, but for the most part their work remained a mystery to me.

Curious, I walked over to Sonya when they were about halfway through. “What do you see?” I asked in a low voice.

“Colors,” she said. “Shining around all living things. Eddie and Dimitri have different colors, but they have the same reactions.” She changed the picture on the screen to one of a factory spilling black smoke into an otherwise clear sky. “Neither of them like this. Their auras dim and turn troubled.” She flipped to the next image, a smile on her lips. Three kittens appeared on the screen. “And now they warm up. Affection is very easy to spot in an aura. So far, they react in normal ways. There’s no sign in Dimitri’s aura that he’s different from Eddie.” I returned to the couch.

After a couple of hours, Sonya called a halt. “I think we’ve seen what we needed to. Thank you, Eddie.”

“Happy to help,” he said, rising from his chair and stretching. He seemed relieved both that it was over and that it had involved something slightly more interesting than staring off into space. He was active and energetic, and didn’t like captivity.

“Although… we’ve got a few other ideas,” she added. “Do you think you guys can power through a little longer?” Naturally, she asked just as I was yawning.

Eddie regarded me with sympathy. “I’ll stay, but you don’t have to. Go sleep. I’ll get a ride home.”

“No, no,” I said, stifling a second yawn. “I don’t mind. What are your other ideas?”

“I was hoping to do something similar with Eddie and Dimitri,” she explained. “Except this time, we’d use sounds instead of images. Then I’d like to see how they respond to direct contact with spirit.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” I said, not really sure what that last one would entail. “Go for it.

I’ll wait.”

Sonya glanced around and seemed to notice I wasn’t the only one who looked tired.

“Maybe we should get some food first.” Eddie brightened up at that.

“I’ll go,” I offered. It was a sign of my progress that vampires talking about “food” no longer made me hyperventilate. I knew she didn’t mean blood, not if the dhampirs and I were being involved. Besides, there was no feeder around. Feeders were humans who willingly gave blood to Moroi for the high it produced. Everyone here knew better than to even joke about that around me. “There’s a good Thai carryout place a few blocks away.”

“I’ll help,” said Adrian eagerly.

“I’ll help,” said Sonya. “The last time you ran an errand, you were gone two hours.” Adrian scowled but didn’t deny the charge. “Our aura observations have been identical anyway. You can get them started on the sounds without me.”

Sonya and I took everyone’s orders and set out. I didn’t really feel like I needed help, but I supposed carrying food for five people – even for a few blocks – could get unwieldy. I soon learned she had other motives for coming along, though.

“It feels good to get outside and stretch my legs,” she said. It was early evening, with significantly less sun and heat – a condition the Moroi loved. We walked along a side street leading toward downtown, lined with cute apartments and small businesses. All around us, huge palm trees loomed, providing an interesting contrast to the eclectic urban setting. “I’ve been cooped up there all day.”

I smiled at her. “And here I thought Adrian was the only one who got cabin fever from the work you guys do.”

“He just complains the most,” she explained. “Which is kind of funny since he also probably gets out the most, between his classes and his cigarette breaks.” I’d nearly forgotten about the two art classes Adrian was taking at a local college. He usually kept his latest projects on display, but there’d been none in the living room lately. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I missed them. I might give him a hard time, but sometimes those artistic glimpses into the way he thought were fascinating.

Sonya gave me a brief recap of her wedding plans as we walked the short distance to the Thai restaurant. Her relationship with dhampir Mikhail Tanner was kind of epic on a lot of levels, I supposed. First, dhampirs and Moroi didn’t generally get involved in serious relationships.

Usually, they were just casual affairs that resulted in the reproduction of more dhampirs.

In addition to the scandal of even being involved, Mikhail had actually wanted to hunt down Sonya when she was a Strigoi to free her from that twisted state. Rose had attempted the same with Dimitri, believing death was better than being a Strigoi. Mikhail had failed, but their love had remained steadfast enough through the ordeal that when she’d defied the odds and been restored, they’d immediately gotten back together. I couldn’t even begin to imagine love like that.

“We’re still deciding on flowers,” she continued. “Hydrangeas or lilies. I’m guessing I know what your vote is for.”

“Actually, I’d say hydrangeas. I’m around too many lilies already.” She laughed at that and suddenly knelt near a flower bed filled with gladiolas. “More than you know. There are lilies sleeping in this bed.”

“They’re out of season,” I pointed out.

“Nothing’s ever out of season.” Sonya glanced around covertly and then rested her fingers on the earth. Moments later, dark green shoots appeared, growing taller and taller until a red trumpet lily opened up on top. “Ah. Red. Alchemists ones are white – oh, are you okay?” I had backed up so far on the sidewalk that I’d nearly walked into the street. “You… you shouldn’t do that. Someone might see.”

“No one saw,” she said, getting to her feet. Her face softened. “I’m so sorry. I forget sometimes how you feel about this. It was wrong of me.”

“It’s okay,” I said, not sure that it was. Vampire magic always made my skin crawl. Vampires, creatures who needed blood, were bad enough. But being able to manipulate the world with magic? Even worse. That lily, although beautiful, took on a sinister edge now. It shouldn’t have existed this time of the year.

No more was said about magic, and we soon reached the main strip downtown, where the Thai restaurant was. We placed a giant carryout order and were told it would take about fifteen minutes. Sonya and I lingered outside, admiring downtown Palm Springs in twilight. Lastminute shoppers were out before the boutiques closed, and all the restaurants were hopping with those coming and going. Many of them had outdoor tables on the sidewalk, and friendly conversation buzzed around us. A large fountain, tiled in bright colors, fascinated children and inspired tourists to stop for photo ops. Sonya was easily distracted by the various plants and trees that the city used to beautify the streets. Even without spirit’s ability to affect living things, she was still quite the gardener.

“Hey you! Elder Melrose!”

I turned and winced when I saw Lia DiStefano striding toward me. Lia was a fashion designer with a shop here in downtown Palm Springs. I hadn’t realized we were standing directly across from her store. If I had, I would’ve waited inside the restaurant. Lia was short but had an overwhelming presence, enhanced by the flamboyant gypsy style she often chose for her personal attire.

“I’ve been calling you for weeks,” she said, once she reached our side of the street. “Why don’t you answer?”

“I’ve been really busy,” I said straight-faced.

“Uh-huh.” Lia put her hands on her hips and tried to stare me down, which was kind of amazing since I was taller. “When are you going to let your sister model for me again?”

“Miss DiStefano,” I said patiently, “I’ve told you before. She can’t do it anymore. Our parents don’t like it. Our religion doesn’t allow faces to be photographed.” Last month, Jill’s runway-perfect build and gorgeous, ethereal features had attracted Lia’s attention. Seeing as having your picture taken en masse was kind of a bad way to stay in hiding, we’d only agreed to let Jill walk in Lia’s fashion show because all the models wore Venetian masks. Lia had been on me ever since to let Jill model again. It was hard because I knew Jill wanted to, but she understood as well as I did that her safety came first. Claiming we were part of some obscure religion had often explained away our weird behaviors to others, so I’d figured it would get Lia off my back. It hadn’t.

“I never hear from these parents of yours,” Lia said. “I’ve watched your family. I see how it is. You’re the authority. You’re the one I have to go through. I have the chance to do a major magazine spread for my scarves and hats, and Jill was born to do it. What’s it going to take to get her? You want a cut of the pay?”

I sighed. “It’s not about the money. We can’t show her face. If you want to put her in a Venetian mask again, then be my guest.”

Lia scowled. “I can’t do that.”

“Then we’re at an impasse.”

“There must be something. Everyone has a price.”

“Sorry.” There was no price in the world she could offer to get me to shirk my duty to Jill and the Alchemists.

A restaurant clerk stuck his head outside and called that our order was ready, mercifully freeing us from Lia. Sonya chuckled as we loaded up on our bags and headed back down the street to make the walk to Adrian’s. The sky was still purple with the last of the day’s light, and street lamps made whimsical patterns on the sidewalk as they cast their light through the leaves of palm trees.

“Did you ever imagine your job here would involve dodging aggressive fashion designers?” Sonya asked.

“No,” I admitted. “Honestly, I never foresaw half the stuff this job has – “

“Sonya?”

A young man appeared seemingly out of nowhere, blocking our path. He was no one I knew and looked to be a little older than me. He wore his black hair in a buzz cut and was staring curiously at Sonya.

She came to a halt and frowned. “Do I know you?”

He brightened. “Sure. Jeff Eubanks. Remember?”

“No,” she said politely, after a few moments of study. “You must have me mistaken for someone else. I’m sorry.”

“No, no,” he said. “I know it’s you. Sonya Karp, right? We met in Kentucky last year.” Sonya stiffened. She’d made Kentucky her home while she was a Strigoi. I knew those couldn’t be pleasant memories.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, voice strained. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The guy was undaunted, still smiling as though they were best friends. “You’ve come a long ways from Kentucky. What brings you out here? I just transferred for work.”

“There’s some mistake,” I told him sternly, nudging Sonya forward. I didn’t know what that mistake could be exactly, but Sonya’s attitude was all I needed. “We have to go.” The guy didn’t follow us, but Sonya remained silent for most of the walk home.

“Must be hard,” I said, feeling like I should say something. “Meeting people from your past.”

She shook her head. “He’s not. I’m certain of it. I’ve never met him.” I’d figured she just wanted to avoid all associations with being a Strigoi. “You’re sure? He wasn’t just some casual acquaintance?”

She shot me a wry look. “Strigoi don’t have casual acquaintances with humans. They have them for dinner. That guy shouldn’t have known who I was.”

“He was human? Not dhampir?” I couldn’t tell the difference, but Moroi could.

“Definitely.”

Sonya had stopped again and was glancing back at the guy’s retreating figure. I followed her gaze. “There must be some reason he recognized you. He seems pretty harmless.” That got me another smile. “Come now, Sydney. I figured you’d been around us long enough to know.”

“Know what?”

“Nothing’s ever as harmless as it seems.”

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