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The Golden Lily Chapter 9

THOSE OF US WHO KNEW what to look for could instantly spot Moroi by their pale complexions and tall, slim builds.To most human eyes, those features stood out but weren’t a vampire tip-off.Humans just noted the features as striking and unusual, much as Lia regarded Jill as the perfect ethereal runway form.

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I didn’t want to play upon stereotypes, but after a quick assessment of Mr. Ivashkov’s Moroi-paleness, long face, dour look, and silver hair, I kind of wondered that he didn’t get mistaken for a vampire more often. No, vampire wasn’t really the correct term, I decided. More like undertaker.

“Dad,” said Adrian stiffly. “Always a pleasure.”

“For some of us.” His father studied me, and I saw his eyes fall on my cheek. He extended a hand. I took it, proud that shaking hands with Moroi was a non-event for me now. “Nathan Ivashkov.”

“Sydney Sage,” I replied. “It’s very nice to meet you, sir.”

“I met Sage while I was bumming around out here,” explained Adrian. “She was nice enough to give me a ride from ll.A. today since I don’t have a car.” Nathan looked at me in astonishment. “That’s a long drive.” Not nearly as long as the drive from Palm Springs, but we’d figured it would be safest – and more believable – to let him think Adrian was in Los Angeles.

“I don’t mind, sir,” I said. I glanced over at Adrian. “I’ll go get some work done. You want to text me when you’re ready to go?”

“Work?” he asked in disgust. “Come on, Sage. Go buy a bikini and enjoy the pool while you’re hanging around.”

Nathan looked between us incredulously. “You made her drive you out here, and now you’re just going to make her wait around for your convenience?”

“Really,” I said. “I don’t – “

“She’s an Alchemist,” continued Nathan. “Not a chauffeur. There’s a big difference.” Actually, there were days at Amberwood I doubted that. “Come, Miss Sage. If you’ve wasted your day driving my son here, the least I can do is buy you lunch.” I shot a panicked look at Adrian. It wasn’t panicked because I was afraid of being with Moroi. I’d long since gotten used to these sorts of situations. What I was unsure of was if Adrian really wanted me around for his family reunion. That hadn’t been part of the plan. Also, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to be around for said reunion either.

“Dad – ” Adrian attempted.

“I insist,” said Nathan crisply. “Pay attention and learn common courtesy.” He turned and began walking away, assuming we’d follow. We did.

“Should I find a reason to leave?” I whispered to Adrian.

“Not when he uses his ‘I insist’ voice,” came the muttered response.

For a moment, catching sight of the gorgeous terrace restaurant and its sunny ocean view, I thought I could handle the Ivashkovs. Sitting out there in that warmth and beauty would be well worth the drama. Then, Nathan walked right past the balcony doors and led us to the elevator. We followed obediently. He took us down to the hotel’s ground floor, to a pub called The Corkscrew. The place was dim and windowless, with low-hanging wood beams and black leather booths. Oak barrels lined the walls, and what light there was came filtered through red glass lamps. Aside from a lone bartender, the pub was empty, which didn’t entirely surprise me this time of day.

What did surprise me was that Nathan had taken us here instead of the ritzy outdoor restaurant.

The guy was dressed in an expensive suit that looked like it had come straight from a Manhattan boardroom. Why he’d ignore a trendy, elite restaurant for lunch and instead choose a stuffy, dark – Dark.

I nearly groaned. Of course the terrace wasn’t an option, not with Moroi. The sunny afternoon that made such enchanting conditions for me would have resulted in a pretty miserable lunch for the Ivashkovs – not that either of them looked like they planned on enjoying this one anyway.

“Mr. Ivashkov,” said the bartender. “Nice to see you back.”

“Can I get food delivered down here again?” asked Nathan.

“Of course.”

Again. This subterranean lair had probably been Nathan’s mainstay for all meals since arriving in San Diego. I allowed the terrace one last, wistful thought and then followed Nathan and Adrian inside. Nathan selected a corner table intended for eight people. Maybe he liked his space. Or maybe he liked pretending he was presiding over a corporate meeting. The bartender gave us menus and took drink orders. I got coffee. Adrian ordered a martini, earning disapproving looks from his father and me.

“It’s barely noon,” said Nathan.

“I know,” said Adrian. “I’m surprised I held out that long too.” Nathan ignored the comment and turned to me. “You’re very young. You must have just started with the Alchemists.”

“They start us all young,” I agreed. “I’ve been working on my own for a little over a year.”

“I admire that. Shows a great deal of responsibility and initiative.” He nodded thanks as the bartender set down a bottle of sparkling water. “It’s no secret how the Alchemists feel about us, but at the same time, your group does a lot of good for us. Your efficiency is particularly remarkable. Too bad my own people don’t pay more attention to that example.”

“How are things with the Moroi?” I asked. “With the queen?” Nathan almost smiled. “Are you saying you don’t know?”

I did – at least, I knew what the Alchemists knew. “It’s always different hearing an insider’s perspective, sir.”

He chuckled. It was a harsh sound, like laughing wasn’t something Nathan Ivashkov had much practice with. “The situation’s better than it was. Not great, though. That girl’s smart, I’ll give her that.” I assumed “that girl” was Vasilisa Dragomir, teenage queen of the Moroi and Rose’s best friend. “I’m sure she’d rather be passing dhampir laws and hereditary laws – but she knows those are only going to anger her opponents. So, she’s finding ways to compromise on other issues and has won a few of her enemies over to her already.” The hereditary laws. Those were of interest to me. There were twelve royal lines among the Moroi, and Vasilisa and Jill were the only two left in theirs. Current Moroi law said a monarch had to have at least one other family member, which was how Jill had become such a political game piece. Even hardcore assassins would have a difficult time taking out a wellguarded queen. Removing her half sister would provide the same results, however, and invalidate Vasilisa’s rule. That was why Jill had ended up in hiding.

Nathan’s thoughts followed the same lines. “She’s also smart to hide that bastard sister of hers.” I knew he meant “bastard” in the sense of an illegitimate child, not an insult, but I still winced. “Rumor has it your people know something about that. Don’t suppose you’d give me an insider’s perspective on it?”

I shook my head and tried to keep my tone friendly. “Sorry, sir. Insight only goes so far.” After a few moments of silence, Nathan cleared his throat. “Well, Adrian. What is it you wanted?”

Adrian took a sip of his martini. “Oh, did you just notice I was here? I thought you’d come to see Sydney.”

I sank into my chair a little. This was exactly the kind of situation I’d wanted to avoid.

“Why must every question yield some difficult answer with you?” asked Nathan wearily.

“Maybe it’s the kinds of questions you ask, Dad.”

This pub wasn’t going to be big enough to hold the rapidly increasing tension. Every instinct told me to become invisible, but I found myself speaking anyway.

“Adrian’s in college,” I said. “Taking art classes. He’s very talented.” Adrian shot me a questioning – but amused – look at that. Some of his pieces were quite good. Others –

especially when he’d been drinking – looked like he’d accidentally spilled paint on canvas.

I’d helpfully told him so on a number of occasions.

Nathan looked unimpressed. “Yes. He’s done that before. It didn’t last.”

“Different time, different place,” I said. “Things can change. People can change.”

“But often, they don’t,” declared Nathan. The bartender returned to take our lunch orders, though none of us had even looked at the menus yet. “I’ll just order for us all, shall I?” Nathan opened the menu and scanned it quickly. “Bring us a platter of the garlic butter mushrooms, the goat cheese fondue, the bacon-wrapped scallops, and the fried oyster Caesar salad.

Enough for three on the salad, obviously.”

The bartender made a couple of quick notes and was gone before I could even say a word.

“Heavy-handed much, Dad?” asked Adrian. “You didn’t even ask if we minded you ordering.” Nathan looked unconcerned. “I’ve eaten here before. I know what’s good. Trust me, you’ll like it.”

“Sage won’t eat any of that.”

This really would be easier, I decided, if they’d both just pretend I didn’t exist.

“Why ever not?” asked Nathan, looking at me curiously. “Are you allergic to seafood?”

“She only eats healthy stuff,” said Adrian. “Everything you just got is dripping in fat.”

“A little butter won’t hurt her. You’ll both see that I’m right. It’s all good. Besides,” Nathan added, pausing to sip at his water. “I did order a salad for the table. Lettuce is healthy.” I didn’t even attempt to point out that no amount of Romaine was going to make up for fried oysters or Caesar dressing. I wouldn’t have had a chance to speak up anyway because Adrian was on a roll and – I noticed with some surprise – halfway through his martini.

“You see?” he said in disgust. “That’s exactly how you operate. You assume you know best for everyone. You just go ahead and make these decisions, not bothering to consult with anyone, because you’re so certain you’re right.”

“In my vast experience,” said Nathan coldly, “I am usually right. When you too possess that kind of experience – when you can actually claim to be an authority on, well, anything –

then you can also be trusted with important decisions.”

“This is lunch,” Adrian argued back. “Not a life or death decision. All I’m saying is that you could have at least made some effort to include others. Obviously, your ‘vast experience’

doesn’t apply to normal courtesies.”

Nathan glanced over at me. “Have I been anything but courteous to you, Miss Sage?” My chair, much to my dismay, didn’t swallow me up or offer to hide me.

Adrian finished his martini in a gulp and held up the glass to catch the bartender’s eye.

“Leave her out of it,” Adrian told his father. “Don’t try to manipulate her into proving your point.”

“I hardly need to manipulate anyone into proving my point,” said Nathan. “I think it’s made.”

“Lunch will be fine,” I blurted out, fully aware that this altercation between father and son really had nothing to do with my eating habits. “I need to try more things anyway.”

“Don’t give in to him, Sydney,” warned Adrian. “That’s how he gets away with walking all over people – especially women. He’s done it to my mom for years.” The bartender silently appeared and replaced the empty martini glass with a full one.

“Please,” said Nathan, with a heavy sigh. “Let’s leave your mother out of this.”

“Should be easy enough,” said Adrian. I could see lines of tension in his face. His mother was a sensitive topic. “Seeing as you always do. I’ve been trying to get an answer out of you for weeks on how she’s doing! Hell, I’ve just been trying to figure out where she’s even at. Is that so hard for you to give up? She can’t be in maximum security. They must let her get letters.”

“It’s better that you don’t have contact with her while she’s incarcerated,” said Nathan.

Even I was amazed at how coldly he spoke about his wife.

Adrian sneered and took a sip of his new martini. “There we are again: you knowing what’s best for everyone. You know, I’d really, really like to think you’re keeping this avoidance attitude with her because it hurts too much. I know that if the woman I loved was locked away, I’d be doing everything in my power to reach her. For you? Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe the only way you can cope without her is to block her out – and by keeping me away too. I could almost understand that.”

“Adrian – ” began Nathan.

“But that’s not it, is it? You don’t want me to have contact – and you probably aren’t having contact – because you’re embarrassed.” Adrian was really getting worked up now. “You want to distance us and pretend what she did doesn’t exist. You want to pretend that she doesn’t exist. She’s ruined the family reputation.”

Nathan fixed his son with a steely look. “Considering your own reputation, I’d think you would see the wisdom in not associating with someone who has done what she’s done.”

“What, screw up?” Adrian demanded. “We all screw up. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s what she did. It was bad judgment, that’s all. You don’t cut off the people you love for mistakes like that.”

“She did it because of you,” said Nathan. His tone left no question about what he thought of that decision. “Because you couldn’t leave well enough alone with that dhampir girl. You had to flaunt your relationship with her, nearly getting yourself in as much trouble as her in your aunt’s murder. That’s why your mother did what she did – to protect you. Because of your irresponsibility, she’s in prison now. All of this is your fault.” Adrian went pale – more so than usual – and looked too shocked to even attempt any response.

He picked up his martini again, and I was almost certain I could see his hands shaking.

It was right around then that two waiters from the upstairs restaurant showed up with our food. We stared in silence as they arranged our place settings and artfully laid out the platters of food. Looking at all that food made me nauseous, and it had nothing to do with the oill or salt content.

“Mr. Ivashkov,” I began, despite every reasonable voice in my head screaming at me to shut up. “It’s unfair to blame Adrian for her choices, especially when he didn’t even realize what she was doing. I know he would do anything for her. If he’d been able to stop this – or take her place – he would have.”

“You’re sure of that, huh?” Nathan was piling his plate with food and seemed quite excited about it. Neither Adrian nor I had an appetite. “Well, Miss Sage, I’m sorry to shatter your illusions, but it seems you – like so many other young women – have been fooled by my son’s fast-talking ways. I can assure you, he has never done anything that didn’t serve his own interests first. He has no initiative, no ambition, no follow-through. From a very early age, he was constantly breaking rules, never listening to what others had to say if it didn’t suit what he wanted. I’m not really surprised his college attempts have failed – and I assure you, this one will too – because he barely made it out of high school. It wasn’t even about the drinking, the girls, and the stunts he pulled… he just didn’t care. He ignored his work. It was only through our influence and checkbook that he managed to graduate. Since then, it’s been a constant downward spiral.”

Adrian looked like he’d been slapped. I wanted to reach out and comfort him, but even I was still in shock from Nathan’s words. Adrian clearly was too. It was one thing to go on and on about how you thought your father was disappointed in you. It was an entirely different thing to hear your father explain it in excruciating detail. I knew because I had been in both situations.

“Honestly, I don’t even mind the drinking so much, so long as it knocks him out and keeps him quiet,” continued Nathan, through a mouth full of goat cheese. “You think his mother suffers now? I assure you, she’s far better off. She was up countless nights, crying over whatever trouble he’d gotten himself into. Keeping him away from her now isn’t about me or him. It’s for her. At least now, she doesn’t have to hear about his latest antics or worry about him. Ignorance is bliss. She’s in a better place not having contact with him, and I intend to keep it that way.” He offered the scallops to me, as though he hadn’t just delivered a huge chastisement without taking a breath. “You really should try this. Protein’s good for you, you know.”

I shook my head, unable to find words.

Adrian took a deep breath. “Really, Dad? I come all the way here to see you, to ask you to give me some way to contact her… and this is all I get? That she’s better off not talking to me?” Looking at him, I had a feeling he was working very hard to stay calm and reasonable.

Breaking into snarky Adrian retorts wouldn’t win him any ground, and he knew it.

Nathan looked startled. “Is that the only reason you came here?” It was clear from his tone that he thought it was a foolish reason.

Adrian bit his lip, probably again to hold back his true feelings. I was impressed at his control.

“I also thought… well, that maybe you’d want to hear how I was doing. I thought you might be glad to know I was doing something useful.” I gasped.

For a moment, his father simply stared. Then, his confusion melted into one of those awkward laughs. “Ah. You’re joking. I was puzzled for a moment.”

“I’m done with this,” said Adrian.

In a flash, he downed his martini and was out of his seat, heading toward the door. Nathan continued eating undisturbed, but I was on my feet as well. It was only when I was halfway across the pub, trying to catch up with Adrian, that Nathan bothered to say anything else.

“Miss Sage?” Every part of me wanted to run after Adrian, but I paused to glance back at his father. Nathan had taken out his wallet and was flipping through a stack of bills. “Here. Allow me to pay you for your gas and your time.”

He held the cash out, and I almost laughed. Adrian had forced himself to come here for all sorts of reasons, money being one of them. He’d never gotten a chance to ask for it, yet here his father was, offering it up. I didn’t move.

“I don’t want anything from you,” I said. “Unless it’s an apology to Adrian.” Nathan gave me another blank look. He seemed sincerely confused. “What do I have to apologize for?”

I left.

Adrian had either taken the stairs or immediately caught an elevator because there was no sign of him outside the pub. I went back up to the lobby and peered around anxiously. A bellman passed by, and I flagged him down.

“Excuse me. Where’s the nearest place you can smoke?”

He nodded back toward the front door. “Far side of the circle drive.” I thanked him and practically ran outside. Sure enough, over in the designated smoking area, Adrian was leaning against an ornate fence in the shade of an orange tree, lighting up. I hurried over to him.

“Adrian,” I exclaimed. “Are you okay?”

He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Is that really a question you want to ask, Sage?”

“He was out of line,” I said adamantly. “He had no business saying any of that about you.” Adrian inhaled on the cigarette again and then dropped it to the sidewalk. He stamped the cigarette out with the toe of his shoe. “Let’s just go back to Palm Springs.” I glanced back at the hotel. “We should get you some water or something. You took down that vodka pretty fast.”

He nearly smiled. Nearly. “Takes a lot more than that to make me sick. I won’t throw up in your car. I promise. I just don’t want to stick around and risk seeing him again.” I complied, and before long, we were back on the road again. We’d spent less time in San Diego than it had taken to drive there. Adrian stayed silent, and this time, I didn’t try to coax him out or distract him with meaningless conversation. No words of mine would help. I doubted anyone’s words would help. I didn’t blame Adrian for his mood. I’d feel the same way if my father had laid into me like that in public. Still, I wished there was something I could do to ease Adrian’s pain. Some small comfort to give him a moment of peace.

My chance came when I saw a small gas station outside of Escondido with a sign reading BEST SLUSHES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HERE AT JUMBO JIM’S! I remembered his joke about switching to a slush-based diet. I turned my car off the highway, even though I knew it was silly. What was a slush compared to the disaster we’d just left behind? Still, I had to do something – anything – to make Adrian feel better. He didn’t even seem to notice we’d stopped there until I was getting out of the car.

“What’s up?” he asked, managing to drag himself out of his dark thoughts. The look on his face tore me apart. “You’ve got half a tank.”

“Be right back,” I said.

I returned five minutes later, a cup in each hand, and managed to knock on his window.

He got out of the car, truly puzzled now. “What’s going on?”

“Slushes,” I said. “Cherry for you. You have to drink it out here, though. I’m not risking the car.”

Adrian blinked a couple of times, as though maybe I was a mirage brought on by too much sunlight. “What is this? A pity party for me? Because I’m so pathetic?”

“It’s not always about you,” I scolded. “I saw the sign and wanted a slush. Figured you’d want one too. If you don’t, I’ll throw it away and just drink mine.” I only got one step away before he stopped me and took the bright red slush. We leaned against the car together and drank without talking for a while. “Man,” he finally said, when we were about halfway through. There was a look of wonder in his eyes. “I’d forgotten how good these are. What kind did you get?”

“Blue raspberry.”

He nodded and slurped loudly on his. That dark mood still hung around him, and I knew a childhood beverage wasn’t going to undo what his father had done anytime soon. The best I could hope for was a few moments of peace for him.

We finished shortly thereafter and tossed the cups in the trash. When we got back in Latte, Adrian sighed wearily and rubbed his eyes. “God, those are awesome. I think I needed that. The vodka may have hit me harder than I thought. Glad you decided to branch out into something that isn’t coffee for a change.”

“Hey, if they’d had coffee flavor, you know I would’ve gotten it.”

“That’s disgusting,” he said. “There isn’t enough sugar in the world to make that even remotely – ” He stopped and gave me a startled look. In fact, he looked so shocked that I stopped backing up and kicked the car back into park.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The slush. That thing’s like 99 percent sugar. You just drank one, Sage.” He seemed to interpret my silence as though perhaps I hadn’t understood. “You just drank liquid sugar.”

“Maybe you drank liquid sugar,” I said. “Mine was sugar free.” I hoped I sounded convincing.

“Oh.” I couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed. “You freaked me out there for a minute.”

“You should’ve known better.”

“Yeah. I suppose so.” He fell back into his blue mood, the slushes only a temporary distraction.

“You know what the worst part of all that was?”

I knew we were back to his father, not slushes. “What?”

“You’d think it’d be that I didn’t get the money or that he just ripped my life apart or that he has no faith in me sticking to college. But that’s okay. I’m used to that from him. What really bothers me is that I really did ruin my mom’s life.”

“I can’t imagine you did,” I said, shocked at his words. “Like you pointed out, we still love people who make mistakes. I’m sure she loves you too. Anyway, that’s something you need to discuss with her – not him.”

He nodded. “The other thing that bothered me… well, he said all that in front of you.” That was a shock too. I brushed it off, feeling a little flustered that he would think so much of my opinion. Why should he care? “Don’t worry about me. I’ve been with much more abrasive people than him.”

“No, no… I mean…” Adrian looked at me and then quickly averted his eyes. “After what he said about me, I can’t stand the thought that you might think less of me.” I was so surprised that I couldn’t muster a response right away. When I did, I just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Of course I don’t.” He still wouldn’t look at me, apparently not believing my words. “Adrian.” I laid my hand over his and felt a warm spark of connection.

He jerked his head toward me in astonishment. “Nothing he said could change what I think of you. I’ve had my mind made up about you for a long time… and it’s all good.” Adrian looked away from me and down to where my hand covered his. I blushed and pulled away. “Sorry.” I’d probably freaked him out.

He glanced back up at me. “Best thing that’s happened to me all day. Let’s hit the road.” We got back on the highway, and I found myself distracted by two things. First was my hand. It still tingled and felt warm from where I’d touched his, which was kind of funny. People always thought vampires were cold, but they weren’t. Certainly not Adrian. The sensation was fading the longer I drove, but I kind of wished it’d stay.

The other thing that kept distracting me was all that sugar I’d just consumed. I kept running my tongue over my teeth. My whole mouth was coated in sickening sweetness. I wanted to brush my teeth and then drink a bottle of mouthwash. Liquid sugar. Yes, that was exactly what it had been. I hadn’t wanted to drink one, but I’d known if I’d just brought a slush for Adrian, he really would’ve read that as pity and refused. I had to act as though I’d wanted one too, with him as an afterthought. He seemed to have believed my lie about the drink’s sugar content, though a quick trip into the gas station would have quickly alerted him to the fact that Jumbo Jim’s most certainly didn’t carry sugar-free slushes. I’d asked them. They’d laughed.

Skipping lunch wasn’t going to compensate for those calories, I thought glumly. And I wasn’t going to get that sugary taste out of my mouth anytime soon. With as quickly as Adrian had sunk back into his depression, I suddenly felt stupid for even attempting this ruse. A slush couldn’t change what his father had said, and I’d be a pound up on the scale tomorrow. This probably hadn’t been worth it.

Then, I thought back to that brief moment by the car, and Adrian’s fleeting look of contentment, followed later by: God, those are awesome. I think I needed that.

A brief moment of peace in the midst of his dark despair. That was what I had wanted, and that was what I had gotten. Was it worth it? I rubbed my fingertips together, still feeling that warmth.

Yes, I decided. Yes, it was worth it.

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