Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Golden Lily Chapter 23

IT TOOK SONYA a few days to recover, thus delaying her return to Pennsylvania. When she was ready to go to the airport, I offered to drive her. The rental car had been found, but Dimitri was using it to clean up after the mission. Within twenty-four hours, the Warriors had vacated their compound, which had turned out to be a rental facility generally used for retreats. They'd left almost no trace of their presence behind, but that hadn't stopped the guardians from scouring every inch of the abandoned compound. â€Å"Thanks again,† Sonya told me. â€Å"I know how busy you must be.† â€Å"It's no problem. It's the weekend, and anyway this is what I'm here for – to help you guys.† She laughed softly to herself. Her recovery in the last couple of days had been remarkable, and she now looked as pretty and bright as usual. She wore her auburn hair down today, letting it fall in fiery waves around the delicate lines of her face. â€Å"True, but it seems like you keep having to go above and beyond your job description.† â€Å"I'm just glad you're okay,† I said earnestly. I'd grown close to Sonya and was sad to see her go. â€Å"Back in that arena†¦ well, it was kind of terrifying.† Some of her amusement faded. â€Å"It was. I was out of it most of the time and not really able to process what was going on around me. But I do remember your words. You were pretty amazing, not to mention brave, to face down that crowd and defend me. I know how hard it must have been to be in opposition with your own kind.† â€Å"Those people are not my kind,† I said adamantly. Some part of me wondered exactly who my kind were. â€Å"What's going to happen to your research now?† â€Å"Oh, it'll continue back East. Dimitri will be returning soon too, and there are other researchers who can help us at Court. Having an objective spirit user like Adrian was extremely useful, and we've got plenty of data to keep us busy now, thanks to the blood samples and aura observations. We'll let Adrian continue with his art and get in touch later if we need him again.† I still couldn't shake the guilt over how my refusal to give more blood had indirectly resulted in Sonya's kidnapping. â€Å"Sonya, about my blood – â€Å" â€Å"Don't worry about it,† she interrupted. â€Å"You were right about me being pushy and also that we need to focus on Dimitri first. Besides, we might be making some headway with getting Alchemist help.† â€Å"Really?† Stanton had seemed pretty against it when we spoke. â€Å"They said yes?† â€Å"No, but they said they'd get back to us.† I laughed. â€Å"With them, that's a pretty positive answer.† I fell silent for a moment, wondering if this meant everyone would forget about my blood. Between the Warriors and the potential of Alchemist aid, surely my blood was no longer important. After all, initial study had found nothing special. No one had any reason to worry about my blood anymore. Except, the thing was†¦ I was kind of worried. Because no matter how much I dreaded being experimented on, that nagging question wouldn't leave me alone: Why hadn't the Strigoi been able to drink my blood? Sonya's earlier mention of auras reminded me of another burning question. â€Å"Sonya, what does purple mean in someone's aura? Adrian says he saw it in mine but won't tell me what it is.† â€Å"Typical,† she said with a chuckle. â€Å"Purple†¦ well, let's see. From what I've observed, it's a complex color. It's a spiritual but passionate color, tied to those who love deeply and also seek a higher calling. It's interesting in that it has such depth. White and true gold tend to be the colors associated with higher powers and metaphysics, just as red and orange are linked to love and baser instincts. Purple kind of has the best of all of those. I wish I could explain it more clearly.† â€Å"No, that makes sense,† I said, pulling into the airport's circle driveway. â€Å"Kind of. It doesn't exactly sound like me, though.† â€Å"Well, it's hardly an exact science. And he's right – it's there in you. The thing is†¦Ã¢â‚¬  We'd stopped at the curb, and I saw her studying me carefully. â€Å"I've never noticed it before. I mean, I'm sure it's always been there, but whenever I looked at you, I just saw the yellow of most intellects. Adrian isn't as adept at reading auras as I am, so I'm surprised he noticed what I missed.† She wasn't the only one. Spiritual, passionate†¦ was I really those things? Did Adrian believe I was those things? The thought made me feel warm all over. Elated†¦ and confused. Sonya seemed like she was about to say more on the matter and then changed her mind. She cleared her throat. â€Å"Well, then. Here we are. Thank you again for the ride.† â€Å"No problem,† I said, my mind still swimming with visions of purple. â€Å"Have a safe trip.† She opened the car door and then paused. â€Å"Oh, I have something for you. Clarence asked me to give it to you.† â€Å"Clarence?† Sonya rustled through her purse and found an envelope. â€Å"Here you are. He was pretty adamant you get it – you know how he is when he gets worked up about something.† â€Å"I do. Thanks.† Sonya left with her luggage, and curiosity made me open the envelope before I drove away. Inside was a photograph, showing Clarence and a young guy, close to my age, who looked human. The two of them had their arms around each other and were smiling at the camera. The unknown guy had straight blond hair that just barely brushed his chin and stunning blue eyes that stood out against suntanned features. He was extremely handsome, and although his eyes mirrored his smile, I thought there was a little sadness too. I was so caught up in his good looks that I didn't notice his tattoo right away. It was on his left cheek, an abstract design made of clustered crescents of various sizes and orientations, lying together so that they almost looked like a vine. It was exotic and beautiful; the rich indigo ink a near match for his eyes. Studying the design more closely, I noticed something familiar about its shape and swore I could see a faint glimmer of gold edging the blue lines. I nearly dropped the picture in shock. The crescents had been tattooed over an Alchemist lily. I flipped the picture over. One word was scrawled on it: Marcus. Marcus Finch, whom the Warriors had claimed was an ex-Alchemist. Marcus Finch, whom the Alchemists had claimed didn't exist. The crazy thing was, unless someone locked away like Keith counted, there were no â€Å"ex-Alchemists.† You were in it for life. You couldn't walk away. Yet, that obscured lily spoke for itself. Unless Marcus had had a name change that somehow eluded the Alchemists, Stanton and the others were lying to me about knowing who he was. But why? Had there been some rift? A week ago, I would have said it was impossible that Stanton wouldn't tell me the truth about him, but now, knowing how carefully information was parceled out – or not – I had to wonder. I stared at the picture a few more moments, caught up in those haunting blue eyes. Then, I tucked it away and returned to Amberwood, resolved to keep the photograph a secret. If the Alchemists wanted to deny Marcus Finch's existence to me, I would let them continue until I figured out why. That meant my only lead was Clarence and the absent Warriors. Still, it was a start. Somehow, sometime, I was going to find Marcus Finch and get my answers. I was surprised to see Jill sitting outside our dorm when I walked in. She was in the shade, of course, still able to enjoy the nice weather without the sun's full force. We'd finally moved into a sort of autumn around here, not that eighty was what I usually associated with brisk fall weather. Jill's face was pensive, but she brightened a little when she saw me. â€Å"Hey, Sydney. I was hoping to catch you. Can't find you anymore without your phone.† I made a face. â€Å"Yeah, I need to replace that. It's been a huge pain.† She nodded in commiseration. â€Å"Did you drop Sonya off?† â€Å"She's on her way back to Court and Mikhail – and hopefully a much more peaceful life.† â€Å"That's good,† said Jill. She glanced away and bit her lower lip. I knew her well enough by now to recognize the signs of when she was bracing to tell me something. I also knew better than to push the matter, so I waited patiently. â€Å"I did it,† she said at last. â€Å"I told Micah it's over†¦ really over.† Relief flooded me. One less thing to worry about. â€Å"I'm sorry,† I said. â€Å"I know that must have been hard.† She brushed curly hair away from her face as she considered. â€Å"Yes. And no. I like him. And I'd like to keep hanging out with him – as friends – if he wants to. I don't know, though. He took it kind of hard†¦ and our mutual friends? Well†¦ they're not very happy with me right now.† I tried not to groan. Jill had made such headway with her status here, and now it could be shattered. â€Å"But it's for the best. Micah and I live in different worlds, and there'd be no real future with a human anyway. Besides, I've been thinking a lot about love†¦ like, epic love†¦Ã¢â‚¬  She looked up at me for a moment, her gaze softening. â€Å"And that wasn't what we had. Seems like if I'm with someone, that's what I should feel.† I thought epic love was kind of a stretch for someone her age but didn't say so. â€Å"Are you going to be okay?† She snapped back to reality. â€Å"Yeah, I think so.† A small smile played over her lips. â€Å"And once this has passed, maybe Eddie will want to go out sometime – away from campus, of course. Seeing as we're ‘related.'† Her words were almost a repeat of what I'd heard the other night at Clarence's, and I stared in surprise as realization dawned on me. â€Å"You don't know†¦ I thought you would since Angeline's your roommate†¦Ã¢â‚¬  Jill frowned. â€Å"What are you talking about? What don't I know?† Oh God. Why, oh why, did I have to be the one to deliver this news? Why couldn't I be locked away in my room or the library doing something enjoyable, like homework? â€Å"Eddie's, um, asked Angeline out. I don't know when it's going to happen, but he decided to give her a chance.† He hadn't borrowed my car, so presumably there'd been no date yet. Jill looked stricken. â€Å"W-what? Eddie and Angeline? But†¦ he can't stand her†¦Ã¢â‚¬  â€Å"Something changed,† I said lamely. â€Å"I'm not sure what. It's not like, er, epic love, but they've gotten closer these last few weeks. I'm sorry.† Jill seemed more devastated by this than breaking up with Micah. She looked away and blinked back tears. â€Å"It's okay. I mean, I never encouraged him. He probably still thinks I'm dating Micah. Why should he have waited around? He should have someone.† â€Å"Jill – â€Å" â€Å"It's okay. I'll be okay.† She looked so sad and then, amazingly, her face grew even darker. â€Å"Oh, Sydney. You're going to be so mad at me.† I was still thinking of Micah and felt totally confused at the topic change. â€Å"Why?† She reached into her backpack and pulled out a glossy magazine. It was some kind of southern California tourism one, with articles and ads highlighting the area. One of the pages was marked, and I turned to it. It was a full-page advertisement for Lia DiStefano, a collage of pictures of her various designs. And one of the photos was of Jill. It took me a moment to catch it. The picture was a profile shot, with Jill in sunglasses and a fedora – as well as that peacock-colored scarf Lia had given her. Jill's curly hair streamed out behind her, and the angles of her face looked beautiful. If I hadn't known Jill so well, I would never have identified her as this chic model – though it would certainly be obvious that she was a Moroi to anyone who knew what to look for. â€Å"How?† I demanded. â€Å"How did this happen?† Jill took a deep breath, ready to accept her blame. â€Å"When she dropped off the costumes and gave me the scarf, she asked if I'd let her take a picture to see how the colors photographed. She had some of the other accessories in the car, and I put those on too. She wanted to prove to me that with the right coverage, she could hide my identity. But I never thought†¦ I mean, she didn't say she'd use it. God, I feel so stupid.† Maybe not stupid, but certainly naive. I nearly crumpled up the magazine. I was furious at Lia. Part of me wanted to sue for using a picture of a minor without permission, but we had much bigger problems. How wide was this magazine's circulation? If Lia had only put Jill's photo on display in California, maybe no one would recognize her. Still, a Moroi model could raise eyebrows. Who knows what kind of trouble this was going to cause for us now? â€Å"Sydney, I'm sorry,† said Jill. â€Å"What can I do to fix this?† â€Å"Nothing,† I said. â€Å"Except to stay away from Lia.† I felt ill. â€Å"I'll take care of this.† I really didn't know how, though. I could only pray no one noticed the picture. â€Å"I'll do whatever you need if you think of something. I – oh.† Her eyes lifted to something behind me. â€Å"Maybe we should talk later.† I glanced back. Trey was walking toward us. Another problem to deal with. â€Å"Probably a good idea,† I said. Jill's heartache and publicity would have to go on the back burner. She left as Trey came to stand beside me. â€Å"Melbourne,† he said, attempting one of his old smiles. It faltered a little. â€Å"I didn't know you were still around,† I said. â€Å"I thought you'd left with the others.† The Warriors had scattered to the wind. Trey had said before that they traveled for their â€Å"hunts,† and Master Angeletti had also mentioned gathering from various places of the country. Presumably, they had all returned to where they'd come from. I'd thought Trey would simply disappear as well. â€Å"Nope,† he said. â€Å"This is where I go to school, where my dad wants me to stay. Besides, the other Warriors never had a permanent base here in Palm Springs. They'll move on to wherever†¦Ã¢â‚¬  He couldn't finish, so I did. â€Å"Wherever you get a tip-off about monsters you can brutally execute?† â€Å"It wasn't like that,† he said. â€Å"We thought she was one of the Strigoi. We still do.† I scrutinized his face, this guy I'd thought was my friend. I was pretty sure he still was. â€Å"Not you. That's why you threw the fight.† â€Å"I didn't,† he protested. â€Å"You did. I saw you hesitate when you could have taken out Chris. You didn't want to win. You didn't want to kill Sonya because you weren't sure she really was Strigoi.† He didn't deny it. â€Å"I still think they should all be destroyed.† â€Å"So do I.† I reconsidered. â€Å"Well, unless there's a way to save them all, but that's unclear.† Despite how much I'd said while advocating for Sonya, I wasn't quite comfortable letting him on the secrets and experiments. â€Å"If the Warriors travel around, what'll happen the next time they're in this area? Or even ll.A.? Will you join them again? Will you travel to the next hunt?† â€Å"No.† The answer was hard. Blunt, even. Hope surged in me. â€Å"You've decided to split off from them?† The emotions on Trey's face were hard to read, but they didn't look like happy ones. â€Å"No. They decided to cut us off – me and my dad. We've been outcast.† I stared for a few moments, at a loss for words. I didn't like the Warriors or Trey's involvement, but this wasn't quite what I'd been trying to achieve. â€Å"Because of me?† â€Å"No. Yes. I don't know.† He shrugged. â€Å"Indirectly, I guess. They don't blame you personally or even the Alchemists. Hell, they still want to team up with the Alchemists. They figure you just behaved in your typically misguided way. But me? I'm the one who pushed to let you in, who swore everything would be fine. So, they blame me for the lapse of judgment and fallout that came from it. Others are taking the blame too – the council for agreeing, security for not stopping the raid – but that doesn't make me feel better. Dad and I were the only ones exiled.† â€Å"I†¦ I'm sorry. I never thought anything like that would happen.† â€Å"Wasn't your place to,† he said pragmatically, though his tone was still miserable. â€Å"To a certain extent, they're right. I was the one that got you in. It is my fault, and they're punishing my dad for what I did. That's the worst part of all.† Trey was trying to play it cool, but I could see the truth. He'd worked so hard to impress his father and ended up causing the ultimate humiliation. Trey's next words confirmed as much. â€Å"The Warriors have been my dad's whole life. To be kicked out like that†¦ well, he's taking it pretty badly. I have to find a way to get back in – for him. I don't suppose you know where any easy-to-kill Strigoi are, do you?† â€Å"No,† I said. â€Å"Especially since none of them are easy kills.† I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. â€Å"Trey, what's this mean for us? I understand if we can't be friends anymore†¦ seeing as how I, uh, ruined your life's work.† A hint of his old smile returned. â€Å"Nothing's ruined for good. I told you, I'll get back in. And if it's not by killing Strigoi, who knows? Maybe if I learn more about you guys, I can bridge the gap between our groups and get us to all work together. That would score me some points.† â€Å"You're welcome to try,† I said diplomatically. I really didn't think that would happen, and he could tell. â€Å"Well, I'll figure something out then, some big move to get the Warriors' attention and get my dad and me back in with them. I have to.† His face started to fall again, but then there was a brief return of the phantom smile – though it was tinged with sadness. â€Å"You know what else sucks? Now I can't ask Angeline out. Hanging out with you is one thing, but even if I'm an outcast, I can't risk being friendly with Moroi or dhampirs. I especially can't date one. I mean, I'd figured she was one a while ago, but I could have played dumb. That attack in the arena kind of killed any chance of that. The Warriors really don't like them either, you know. Dhampirs or Moroi. They'd love to see them brought down too – they just think it's too hard and less of a priority right now.† Something about those words made me shiver, particularly since I recalled the offhand Warrior comment about eventually taking out Moroi. The Alchemists certainly had no love for dhampirs and Moroi, but that was a far cry from wanting to bring them down. â€Å"I gotta get going.† Trey reached into his pocket and handed over something that I was grateful to see. My phone. â€Å"Figured you were missing this.† â€Å"Yes!† I took it eagerly and turned it on. I hadn't known if I'd get it back and had been on the verge of buying a new one. This one was three months old and practically out-of-date anyway. â€Å"Thanks for saving it. Oh. Wow.† I read the display. â€Å"There are like a million messages from Brayden.† We hadn't spoken since the night of Sonya's disappearance. The mischievous look I liked so well on Trey returned. â€Å"Better get on that then. True love waits for no one.† â€Å"True love, huh?† I shook my head in exasperation. â€Å"So nice to have you back.† That earned me an outright grin. â€Å"See you around.† As soon as I was alone, I texted Brayden: Sorry for the radio silence. Lost my phone for three days. His response was almost immediate: I'm at work, due for a break soon. Come by? I thought about it. Seeing as I had no life-saving tasks right now, this was as good a time as any. I texted back that I'd leave Amberwood right away. Brayden had my favorite latte ready for me when I got to Spencer's. â€Å"Based on when you were leaving, I calculated when I would need to make it in order for it to be hot when you arrived.† â€Å"Thanks,† I said, taking it. I felt a little guilt that I had a greater emotional reaction to seeing the coffee than him. He told the other barista he was going on break and then led me over to a remote table. â€Å"This won't take long,† Brayden said. â€Å"I know you probably have a lot of things to do this weekend.† â€Å"Things are actually starting to lighten up,† I said. He took a deep breath, showing that same resolve and anxiety he'd had when asking me for future dates. â€Å"Sydney,† he said, voice formal, â€Å"I don't think we should see each other anymore.† I stopped mid-sip. â€Å"Wait†¦ what?† â€Å"I know how devastating this probably is for you,† he added. â€Å"And I admit, it's hard for me too. But in light of recent events, it's become clear you just aren't ready for a relationship yet.† â€Å"Recent events?† He nodded solemnly. â€Å"Your family. You've broken off a number of our social engagements to be with them. While that kind of familial devotion is admirable, I just can't be in that kind of volatile relationship.† â€Å"Volatile?† I just kept repeating his key words and finally forced myself to get a grip. â€Å"So†¦ let me get this straight. You're breaking up with me.† He thought about it. â€Å"Yes. Yes, I am.† I waited for some internal reaction. An outpouring of grief. The sense of my heart breaking. Any emotion, really. But mostly, all I felt was kind of a puzzled surprise. â€Å"Huh,† I said. That was apparently enough of a distraught reaction for Brayden. â€Å"Please don't make this harder than it is. I admire you a lot. You're absolutely the smartest girl I've ever met. But I just can't be involved with someone as irresponsible as you.† I stared. â€Å"Irresponsible.† Brayden nodded again. â€Å"Yes.† I'm not sure where it started, somewhere in my stomach or chest, maybe. But all of a sudden, I was consumed by uncontrollable laughter. I couldn't stop. I had to set down my coffee, lest I spill it. Even then, I had to bury my face in my hands to wipe away tears. â€Å"Sydney?† asked Brayden cautiously. â€Å"Is this some kind of hysterical-grief reaction?† It took me almost another minute to calm myself enough to answer him. â€Å"Oh, Brayden. You've made my day. You've given me something I never thought I'd get. Thank you.† I reached for the coffee and stood up. He looked completely lost. â€Å"Um, you're welcome?† I left the coffee shop, still laughing like a fool. For the last month or so, everyone in my life had gone on and on about how responsible I was, how diligent, how exemplary. I'd been called a lot of things. But never, ever, had I been called irresponsible. And I kind of liked it.

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