Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Indigo Spell Chapter Nineteen

SOMEHOW, I STILL LOST. If Adrian were capable of on-the-fly calculations, I'd swear he was using his powers to affect the way the dice rolled. Most likely, he either had some innate and inexplicable Monopoly skills I just couldn't understand – or he was very, very lucky. But through it all, I had fun, and losing to him was a lot better than having Veronica haunt me in my sleep. He continued the dream visits for the next few days, and although I never felt completely safe from her, I at least didn't have her occupying the forefront of my mind at all times. That honor was saved for my weekend trip to St. Louis, which came around more quickly than I expected. Once I was on the plane, the reality of what I was about to attempt hit me. This was it, the point of no return. In the safety of Palm Springs, I'd been able to maintain a somewhat cool and collected attitude. St. Louis had seemed far away back then. Now the tasks ahead of me seemed daunting and kind of crazy. And dangerous. There was no part of this that wouldn't get me into serious trouble. Lying to Stanton. Breaking into top secret servers. Even charming information out of Ian could have repercussions. And really who was I to think I would have any ability to lure secrets from him? I wasn't like Rose or Julia. They had men fawning all over them. But me? I was socially awkward and pretty inept when it came to romance. Maybe Ian liked me, but that didn't mean I'd have some magical power over him. Of course, if that part of the plan with him failed, then I'd be free of my other tasks. Every single part of this was overwhelming, and as I stared out the plane's window, watching St. Louis grow closer and closer, my feelings of dread grew. My palms were too sweaty to hold a book, and when I refused food, it was because of the queasiness in my stomach, not some obsession with calories. I'd gone back and forth on whether to get a hotel room or stay at the facility itself, which provided guest housing for visiting Alchemists like me. In the end, I opted for the former. The less time I spent under the watchful eyes of my masters, the better. It also meant I didn't have to worry about my outfit attracting attention. I hadn't exactly followed all of Adrian's suggestions, but the dress I'd purchased for this trip was a bit racier than my normal business casual wardrobe. Okay, a lot racier. It would have been completely out of place among the modest and neutral-colored attire Alchemists usually wore. But when Ian met me in the hotel's lobby for dinner, I knew I'd made the right choice. â€Å"Wow,† he said, eyes widening. â€Å"You look amazing.† Apparently, his Alchemists sensibilities weren't offended by my outfit. It was a form-fitting minidress that went about to my mid-thigh, with an open back and a disconcertingly low V-neck that gave me cleavage I hadn't even known was possible. Any demureness the dress's long sleeves might have offered was undone by the fabric combination: a beige underdress covered in black and maroon lace. It gave the illusion that I was wearing lace with nothing underneath. The saleswoman had assured me that every part of the dress was supposed to fit that snugly (for once in my life, I'd actually suggested a larger size) and that I needed at least four-inch black heels to make it all work. With the help of a lot of hairpins, I'd even managed to pull my hair up into a bun, which wasn't easy with my layered haircut. I felt conspicuous walking through the lobby, but no one gave me any shocked looks. The few I did get were admiring ones. The hotel was pretty posh, and I was just one of a number of women dressed in holiday cocktail dresses. Nothing scandalous or out of the ordinary. You can do this, Sydney. And wearing a revealing dress wasn't nearly as difficult as breaking into a server, right? Right? I smiled as I approached Ian and gave him a quick hug, which was weird both because it was with Ian and because I felt naked in the dress. This femme fatale thing was harder than I'd thought it'd be. â€Å"I'm glad I got to see you again,† I said. â€Å"I know what an inconvenience this must be, with no notice.† Ian shook his head so adamantly that I almost expected to hear rattling. â€Å"N-no. No trouble at all.† Satisfied he'd gotten a look, I slipped on my coat, a mid-length black trench, and gestured toward the exit. â€Å"Time to brave the elements?† He hurried ahead of me to open the door. A scattering of snowflakes drifted down, resting on my coat and hair. My breath made a frosty cloud in the air, and I had a momentary flashback to traipsing across that field with Adrian. Little had I known that search for Marcus would lead to me running errands for him in a tight dress. Ian had parked in the hotel's front circle drive. He drove a Toyota Corolla, which was made even more boring by the fact that he'd chosen it in white. A little air freshener shaped like a tree hung from the rearview mirror, but rather than the usual pine scent, a small label declared it to be â€Å"New Car Scent.† Mostly it smelled like plastic. I put on a brave face. Marcus really owed me one. â€Å"I made us a reservation at this really great seafood place,† he told me. â€Å"It's close to the facility, so we can head on over to the service right away.† â€Å"Sounds great,† I said. I never ate seafood in any landlocked state. The restaurant was called Fresh Cache, which didn't improve my opinion of it. Still, I had to give it credit for attempts at a romantic atmosphere. Most of the lighting came from candles, and a pianist in the corner played covers of easy-listening songs. More well-dressed people filled the tables, laughing and chatting over wine and shrimp cocktails. The host showed us to a corner table, covered with burgundy linen and decorated with a scattering of green orchids. I'd never seen any up close and was actually quite taken with how exotic and sensual they were. If only I was here with anyone but Ian. I was hesitant to take my coat off. It made me feel exposed, and I had to remind myself of the consequences of Alchemists and Warriors working together. As soon as the dress was unleashed again, I had the satisfaction of seeing Ian melt once more. I remembered Adrian's advice about confidence and put on a smug smile, hoping I gave the impression that I was doing Ian a great favor by allowing him to be in my presence. And, to my complete and utter amazement, it seemed to work. I even allowed myself to indulge in a dangerous thought: maybe it wasn't the dress wielding such power here. Maybe it was me. Opening the menu, I began skimming for a beef or poultry option. â€Å"What do you recommend?† â€Å"The mahi mahi is great here,† he said. â€Å"So is the swordfish.† The waiter stopped by, and I ordered a chicken Caesar salad. I figured they couldn't really mess up the anchovies in the dressing. We were left alone to wait, with nothing to do now but move on to small talk. Ian picked up the ball. â€Å"I suppose you still can't tell me much about where you're at, huh?† â€Å"Afraid not. You know how it is.† I buttered a sourdough roll with what I was pretty sure was exactly half a tablespoon. I didn't want to go too crazy, but I could allow myself a little indulgence since I ordered a salad. â€Å"I can tell you I'm in the field. I just can't say much else.† Ian's attention shifted off my neckline as he stared into the candle's flame. â€Å"I miss that, you know. Being in the field.† â€Å"You used to be, right? What happened?† I hadn't thought much about it lately, but when Ian had accompanied Stanton and me to the Moroi court, he had been pulled from his post to make the trip. He'd been assigned somewhere in the south, Florida or Georgia, I thought. â€Å"Those Moroi holding us prisoner is what happened.† He shifted his gaze back to me, and I was startled at the fierceness I saw. â€Å"I didn't handle it very well.† â€Å"Well, none of us did.† He shook his head. â€Å"No, no. I really didn't handle it well. I kind of freaked out. They sent me to anger management training afterward.† I nearly dropped the roll. I had in no way expected that. If someone had asked me to name the top ten people who needed anger management, Ian wouldn't have even made the bottom of the list. My father, however, would have been near the top. â€Å"How – how long were you there?† I stammered. â€Å"Two weeks, and then I was good to go.† Admittedly, I didn't know the extent of the rage that had landed him in anger management, but I found it interesting that two weeks was good enough to deem him ready to work again. Meanwhile, Keith's scheme to use Moroi to make money had earned him at least two months in re-education – maybe more, since I hadn't heard any updates in a while. â€Å"But they wouldn't let me work in the field,† Ian added. â€Å"Figure I shouldn't be around Moroi for a while. So that's why I'm stuck here.† â€Å"In the archives.† â€Å"Yes.† â€Å"Doesn't sound so bad,† I told him. I wasn't entirely lying. â€Å"Lots of books.† â€Å"Don't fool yourself, Sydney.† He began tearing a pumpernickel roll into pieces. â€Å"I'm a glorified librarian.† Maybe so, but that wasn't my concern. What was my concern was Wade telling me that the archives were on a secure level, one floor up from the surveillance room that held security footage. He'd drawn me a map of each floor, making sure I memorized the layout and the best ways to get in and out. â€Å"I'd still love to see them,† I said. â€Å"I mean, the history they contain is amazing.† Again, not entirely a lie. I leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes drop to my plunging neckline again. This wasn't that difficult! Really, I didn't know why I hadn't been using my â€Å"womanly charms† a long time ago. Actually, I never really knew I had any, until now. â€Å"Could you get me in for a tour? Of the archives specifically. You seem like the kind of guy who could get access to . . . a lot of places.† Ian choked on his roll. After a bout of coughing, he glanced up at my face, then my cleavage (again), and then back to my face. â€Å"I'd, um, love to, but it's not really open to the public – I mean, even the Alchemist public. Only those with special scholar access are allowed in. We could look at the general access parts of the building, though.† â€Å"Oh. I see.† I looked down at my plate, pouting slightly, but didn't say anything else. As the waiter arrived with our food, I hoped my silence was making him reconsider what he could be missing out on. Eventually, Ian couldn't take it anymore. He cleared his throat, maybe because there was still bread stuck in it. â€Å"Well, I might be able to . . . you see, the problem is just getting you down to the secure levels. Once you're through that checkpoint, it's not hard to get you into the archives – especially if I'm working.† â€Å"But you can't do anything about the main checkpoint?† I coaxed, as if all real men should be able to do that. â€Å"No, I mean . . . maybe. I've got a friend who works there. I don't know if he's got a shift tomorrow, but he still might be able to help. He owes me some money, so I can use this as a trade. I hope.† â€Å"Oh, Ian.† I flashed him a smile that I hoped rivaled one of Marcus's. â€Å"That's amazing.† I remembered what Adrian had said. â€Å"I'd be so, so grateful if you could pull it off.† My reaction clearly delighted Ian, and I wondered if Adrian had been right about how â€Å"so, so grateful† was translated. â€Å"I'll call him tonight after the service,† Ian said. He looked determined now. â€Å"Hopefully we can make it happen before your flight tomorrow.† I rewarded him by hanging on his every word for the rest of dinner, as though I'd never heard anything quite so fascinating. All the while, my heart raced with the knowledge that I was now one step closer to fulfilling Marcus's task, one step closer to potentially proving a connection to a bunch of gun-toting zealots and the organization I'd served my whole life. The salad was tiny, so I agreed to see the dessert menu after dinner. Ian suggested we share, but that was a little too intimate for me, not to mention unhygienic. So, I ate an entire lemon tart by myself, confident in the knowledge that I was still a long ways from the five-pound mark. When Adrian had told me I'd look healthier if I gained a little weight, he'd added that it would improve my bra size. I couldn't even imagine what that would do for this dress. The Alchemist center in St. Louis was contained inside a giant, industrial building that went undercover as a manufacturing plant. Moroi facilities – the court and their schools – usually posed as universities. How ironic that â€Å"creatures of the night† would live among beautifully landscaped gardens while â€Å"servants of the light† like us skulked in ugly buildings with no windows. Inside, however, everything was pristine, bright, and well-organized. A receptionist checked us in when we arrived at the main desk and buzzed us through, along with many others who arrived for the service. There were golden lilies everywhere. For many, this was a fun-filled family event, and lots of children trailed their Alchemist parents. It made me feel strange as I watched them, these kids who had been born into our profession. I wondered how they'd feel ten years from now. Would they be excited to step up to the plate? Or would they start questioning? The center had three floors aboveground and five underneath. People off the street could hardly just come wandering in, but we still took precautions by keeping the more benign offices on the main floor. As we all walked down the corridor to the auditorium, we passed Payroll, Travel, and Maintenance. All the offices had clear windows looking into them from the hall, maintaining the Alchemist ideal that we had nothing to hide. The secure offices belowground weren't quite so open, however. I'd been in this facility once before for a training seminar, and it had actually taken place in the auditorium we entered for the service. Despite the spiritual theme of tonight's event, the room bore little resemblance to a church. Someone had gone to the effort of decorating the walls with red-bowed evergreen garlands and setting pots of poinsettias on the stage. The room had a state-of-the-art audio-visual system, including a giant screen that gave a larger-than-life look at whatever was happening onstage. The auditorium's seating was so efficient that even those in the farthest corners had a pretty clear view, so I think the screen was just for emphasis. Ian and I found two seats near the middle of the auditorium. â€Å"Aren't you going to take off your coat?† he asked hopefully. No way was I going to unleash the dress in this den of taupe and high collars. Besides, if I kept the coat on, it would just give him something to keep looking forward to. Adrian would be proud of my ability to manipulate the opposite sex . . . and I couldn't help but wonder just how well Adrian would be able to stand up to this dress. Clearly, I was getting overly confident with this new power. â€Å"I'm cold,† I said, pulling the coat tighter. It was kind of ridiculous since the lights from the stage and high number of bodies had already made the room stifling, but I figured since it was so cold outside, I could get away with it. For someone who always seems to be so cold, you sure can warm up pretty fast. â€Å"Sydney? Is that you?† I froze, not from the shock of hearing my name, but from the voice that had said it. I'd know that voice anywhere. Slowly, I turned away from Ian and looked up into my father's face. He was standing in the aisle, wearing a heavy wool suit, with melted snowflakes in his graying dark blond hair. â€Å"Hi, Dad,† I said. Then I saw who was standing beside him. â€Å"Zoe?† It was all I could do not to jump up and hug her. I hadn't seen or spoken to my younger sister since that night I'd been pulled out of bed and sent on my Palm Springs mission. That was the mission she believed I'd stolen from her, no matter my protests. It was the mission that had driven her away from me. I eyed her now, trying to assess where we stood. She didn't wear the blatant hatred she had at our last meeting, which was a good sign. Unfortunately, she didn't look all that warm and friendly either. She was cautious, studying me carefully – almost warily. She did not, I noticed, have a golden lily on her cheek yet. â€Å"I'm surprised to see you here,† said my father. His parting words to me had been â€Å"Don't embarrass me,† so I wasn't really astonished by his low expectations. â€Å"It's the holidays,† I said. Forcing a smile now was far more difficult than it had been with Ian. â€Å"It's important to be here with the group. Do you know Ian Jansen?† Ian, wide-eyed, jumped up and shook my father's hand. Clearly, he hadn't expected a parental meeting so soon. â€Å"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir.† My father nodded gravely and looked back and forth between the two of us. Whatever surprise he'd had at seeing me here had just been trumped by me being here with a date. Glancing at Ian, I tried to guess how he'd appear to someone like my dad. Clean cut, respectful, an Alchemist. The fact that Ian tended to bore me was irrelevant. I doubted my father had ever thought much about me dating, but if so, he probably hadn't thought I'd get a catch like this. â€Å"Would you like to join us, sir?† asked Ian. I had to give him credit; he'd overcome his initial shock and was now in proper suitor mode. â€Å"It would be an honor.† At first, I thought Ian was just laying it on thick. Then I realized meeting my father might actually very well be an honor. Jared Sage wasn't a rock star, but he did have a reputation among the Alchemists that, by their standards, was outstanding. My father seemed to like the flattery and agreed. He took a seat beside Ian. â€Å"Sit by your sister,† he told Zoe, nodding in my direction. Zoe obeyed and stared straight ahead. She was nervous too, I realized. Looking her over, I felt an ache from how much I'd missed her. We'd inherited the same brown eyes from our father, but she'd gotten Mom's brown hair, which made me a little jealous. Zoe also looked a lot more put together than the last time I'd seen her. She wore a pretty dark brown cashmere dress and didn't have a single hair out of place. Something about her appearance bothered me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first. It soon hit me. She looked older. She looked like a young lady, like my peer. I supposed it was silly of me to feel sad, since she was fifteen, but I kind of wished she could stay a little kid forever. â€Å"Zoe.† I kept my voice low, not that I needed to worry about the men overhearing. My dad was interrogating Ian. â€Å"I've been wanting to talk to you for so long.† She nodded. â€Å"I know. Mom tells me each time you call.† But there was no apology for dodging my calls. â€Å"I'm sorry about the way we left things. I never meant to hurt you or one-up you. I thought I was doing you a favor, saving you from getting involved.† Her mouth tightened, and something hard flashed in her eyes. â€Å"I don't mind being involved. I want to be involved, you know. And it would've been great! Being in the field at fifteen. I could have a stellar career. Dad would be so proud.† I chose my next words very carefully so that she wouldn't take offense. â€Å"Yeah, but another year with Dad will really be, um, stellar. He's got so much experience – and you want to get as much as you can, believe me. Even if you have to wait for an assignment at sixteen, you'll still be ahead of the rest of us.† Each word out of my mouth made me feel sick, but Zoe seemed to buy it. I wasn't bothered by her wanting to be part of the cause – but it killed me that she was clearly doing it to impress our dad. â€Å"I suppose. And I am learning a lot. I wish I could at least get some field experience – even if it's not my own post. It's all theory with Dad. I've never even seen a Moroi.† â€Å"I'm sure he'll fix that.† I didn't like encouraging this, but at least she was speaking to me. The lights dimmed, ending our conversation. Organ music filled the room, and the scent of frankincense drifted around us. Incense and resin were common components in magic, and my mind was instantly starting to make associations from the spell books I'd painstakingly copied. Frankincense is used to heal burns. It can also be used when casting divining or purifying spells – I immediately stopped that train of thought. Even if I was keeping it to myself, thinking about magic in the middle of an Alchemist church service was pretty sacrilegious. I shifted uncomfortably, wondering what all these people would think if they knew the truth about me: that I practiced magic and had kissed a vampire. . . . Alchemist priests were called hierophants. They performed blessings and offered moral advice, when needed. In day-to-day affairs, they wore suits, but for this occasion, the lead hierophant wore robes that reminded me uncomfortably of the robes some of the Warriors had donned. It was yet another reminder of our shared history – and maybe our shared future. Marcus had been right. This was a mystery I had to solve, regardless of where I stood on breaking the tattoo. I'd attended services like this off and on throughout my life and knew the Latin prayers by heart. I chanted along with the rest of the congregation and listened avidly as the hierophant reaffirmed our goals, his voice echoing through the sound system. Even though the Alchemists' religion had loose connections to Christianity there was very little mention of God or Jesus or even Christmas. Most of his sermon was about how we had to help protect humanity from the temptation of following Strigoi who offered unholy immortality. That warning, at least, wasn't exaggerated. I'd heard stories and even seen for myself what happened when humans decided to serve Strigoi. Those Strigoi promised to turn their servants as a reward. Those humans helped Strigoi spread their evil and became monsters themselves, no turning needed. Keeping those dark vampires hidden was for the good of weak humans who couldn't protect themselves. I paid especially close attention when the hierophant mentioned the Moroi offhandedly in his sermon, as a means to an end in defeating the Strigoi. He didn't exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings about them, but at least he wasn't calling for Moroi and dhampir destruction either. I agreed with a good part of the message, but it no longer filled me with the fire it once had. And when the hierophant started droning on and on about duty, obedience, and what was â€Å"natural,† I really began feeling disconnected. I almost wished there was more talk of the divine, like you'd find at a normal church service. With everything going on in my life, I wouldn't have minded a connection to a higher power. Sometimes, when I listened to the hierophant, I wondered if everything he was saying had just been made up by a bunch of people sitting around in the Middle Ages. No holy mandate required. I felt like a traitor when the service ended. Maybe Adrian's joke had been right: I didn't even need Marcus to break my tattoo and connection to the group. Glancing at my companions – and even the other Alchemists in the room – it was clear I was alone. All of them looked captivated by the sermon, devoted to the cause. I was again eerily reminded of the Warriors and their fanatical devotion. No, no, whatever else the Alchemists are guilty of, we have nothing to do with that kind of unhinged behavior. And yet . . . it was more complicated than that, I realized. The Alchemists didn't shoot first and ask questions later or make our members battle each other. We were civilized and logical, but we did have a tendency to just do what we were told. That was the similarity, one that could be dangerous. Zoe and my father walked out with Ian and me. â€Å"Isn't it amazing?† she asked. â€Å"Hearing that . . . well, it just makes me so glad Dad decided to raise another Alchemist in the family. It's good to boost our numbers.† Had that truly been his motivation? Or was it because he didn't trust me after I'd helped Rose? It was infuriating that the only conversation I could have with Zoe centered around Alchemist rhetoric, but I'd take it over the silence of the last few months. In my heart, I longed to talk the way we used to. I wanted it back. Even though she'd warmed up a little, that old familiarity that had once existed between us was gone. â€Å"I wish we had more time,† I told her once our groups were ready to part in the parking lot. â€Å"There's so much I want to talk to you about.† She smiled, and there was a genuineness in it that warmed me. Maybe the distance between us wasn't irreparable. â€Å"Me too. I'm sorry about . . . well, the way things were. I hope we get some time together soon. I . . . I've missed you.† That nearly broke me down, as did her hug. â€Å"We'll be together soon, I promise.† Ian – whom my father now seemed to regard as a future son-in-law – drove me back to my hotel and couldn't stop gushing about how awesome it had been to meet Jared Sage. As for me, I could still feel where Zoe had hugged me. Ian promised he'd get in touch with me in the morning about a tour of the archives. Then, weirdly, he closed his eyes and leaned forward. It took me a moment to realize that he expected a good-night kiss. Seriously? That was how he went about it? Had he ever even kissed anyone before? Even Brayden had displayed a little more passion. And, of course, neither guy measured up to Adrian. When I did nothing, Ian finally opened his eyes. I gave him another hug – with the coat on – and told him how happy I was that he'd met my dad. That seemed to satisfy him. Adrian made his nightly check-in with me once I was asleep later on. Naturally, he wanted to know about my dress. He also kept trying to find out how exactly I'd won Ian over and seemed amused at the few details I decided to give him. But mostly I couldn't stop talking about Zoe. Adrian soon gave up on the other topics and simply listened to me gush. â€Å"She spoke to me, Adrian!† I paced around the reception hall, clasping my hands in excitement. â€Å"And she wasn't mad. By the end, she was happy to see me. Do you know what that's like? I mean, I know you don't have any brothers or sisters, but to have someone you haven't seen in a while welcome you back?† â€Å"I don't know what it's like,† he said quietly. â€Å"But I can imagine.† I was too caught up in my own joy at the time, but later, I wondered if he was talking about his incarcerated mother. â€Å"It's nice to see you so happy,† he added. â€Å"Not that you've been miserable lately, but you've had a lot to worry about.† I couldn't help but laugh at that and came to a halt. â€Å"Are you saying evil witches and espionage are stressful?† â€Å"Nah.† He walked over to me. â€Å"All in a day's work for us. But I'm going to make my way to bed now. You seem like you can get by without me tonight.† He'd visited me every night since Veronica's dream. Most of the trips were short now, but I still knew it was a lot of effort and spirit for him. â€Å"Thank you. I feel like I can't say that to you enough.† â€Å"You don't have to say it at all, Sage. Good luck tomorrow.† Right. Stealing top secret info from a highly secure facility. â€Å"Thanks,† I said again. A little of my mood dimmed, but not all of it. â€Å"No matter what happens, though, patching things up with Zoe makes me feel like this mission is already a success.† â€Å"That's because you haven't been caught.† He cupped my face in his hands and leaned close. â€Å"See that you aren't. I don't want to have to dream visit you in prison . . . or wherever it is bad Alchemists go.† â€Å"Hey, at least I'd have you for company, right?† He gave me a rueful headshake, and the dream vanished around me.

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