"It would probably be easy for you," said my father grudgingly. "Your education was superior to anything they can offer." Nice backhanded compliment, Dad.

I was afraid to show how uneasy this deal was making me. My resolve to look out for Zoe and myself hadn't changed, but the complications just kept growing. Repeat high school. Live with a vampire. Keep her in witness protection. And even though I'd talked up how comfortable I was around vampires, the thought of sharing a room with one - even a seemingly benign one like Jill - was unnerving. Another woe occurred to me.

"Would you be an undercover student too?" I asked Keith. The idea of lending him class notes made me nauseous again.

"Of course not," he said, sounding insulted. "I'm too old. I'll be the Local Area Mission Liaison." I was willing to bet he'd just made that title up on the spot. "My job is to help coordinate the assignment and report back to our superiors. And I'm not going to do it if she's the one there." He looked from face to face as he spoke that last line, but there was no question who she was. Me.

"Then don't," said Stanton bluntly. "Sydney is going. That's my decision, and I'll argue it to any higher authority you want to take it to. If you are so against her placement, Mr. Darnell, I will personally see that you are transferred out of Palm Springs and don't have to deal with her at all."

All eyes swiveled to Keith, and he hesitated. She'd caught him in a trap, I realized. I had to imagine that with its climate, Palm Springs didn't see a lot of vampire action. Keith's job there was probably pretty easy, whereas when I'd worked in St. Petersburg, I'd been constantly having to do damage control.

That place was a vampire haven, as were some of the other places in Europe and Asia my father had taken me to visit. Don't even get me started about Prague. If Keith were transferred, he took the risk of not only getting a bigger workload but also of being in a much worse location. Because although Palm Springs wasn't desirable for vampires, it sounded kind of awesome for humans.

Keith's face confirmed as much. He didn't want to leave Palm Springs. "What if she goes there, and I have reason to suspect her of treason again?"

"Then report her," said Horowitz, shifting restlessly. He obviously wasn't impressed with Keith. "The same as you would anyone."

"I can increase some of Zoe's training in the meantime," said my father, almost as an apology to Keith. It was clear whose side my father was on. It wasn't mine. It wasn't even Zoe's, really. "Then, if you find fault with Sydney, we can replace her."

I bristled at the thought of Keith being the one to decide if I had faults, but that didn't bother me nearly as much as the thought of Zoe still being tied to this. If my father was keeping her on standby, then she wasn't out of danger yet. The Alchemists could still have their hooks in her - as could Keith. I vowed then that no matter what it took, even if I had to handfeed him grapes, I would make sure Keith had no reason to doubt my loyalties.

"Fine," he said, the word seeming to cause him a lot of pain. "Sydney can go... for now. But I'll be watching you." He fixed his gaze on me. "And I'm not going to cover for you. You'll be responsible for keeping that vampire girl in line and getting her to her feedings."

"Feedings?" I asked blankly. Of course. Jill would need blood. For a moment, all my confidence wavered. It was easy to talk about hanging out with vampires when none were around. Easier still when you didn't think about what it was that made vampires who they were. Blood. That terrible, unnatural need that fueled their existence. An awful thought sprang into my mind, vanishing as quickly as it came. Am I supposed to give her my blood? No. That was ridiculous. That was a line the Alchemists would never cross. Swallowing, I tried to conceal my brief moment of panic. "How do you plan on feeding her?"

Stanton nodded to Keith. "Would you explain?" I think she was giving him a chance to feel important, as a way of making up for his earlier defeat. He ran with it.

"There's only one Moroi we know of living in Palm Springs," said Keith. As he spoke, I noticed that his tousled blond hair was practically coated in gel. It gave his hair a slimy shine that I didn't think was attractive in the least. Also, I didn't trust any guy who used more styling products than I did. "And if you ask me, he's crazy. But he's harmless crazy - inasmuch as any of them are harmless. He's this old recluse who lives outside the city. He's got this hang-up about the Moroi government and doesn't associate with any of them, so he isn't going to tell anyone you guys are there. Most importantly, he's got a feeder he's willing to share."

I frowned. "Do we really want Jill hanging out with some anti-government Moroi? The whole purpose is to keep them stable. If we introduce her to some rebel, how do we know he won't try to use her?"

"That's an excellent point," said Michaelson, seeming surprised to admit as much.

I hadn't meant to undermine Keith. My mind had just jumped ahead in this way it had, spotting a potential problem and pointing it out. From the look he gave me, though, it was like I was purposely trying to discredit his statement and make him look bad.

"We won't tell him who she is, obviously," he said, a glint of anger in his good eye. "That would be stupid. And he's not part of any faction. He's not part of anything. He's convinced the Moroi and their guardians let him down, so he wants nothing to do with any of them. I've passed a story to him about how Jill's family has the same antisocial feelings, so he's sympathetic."

"You're right to be wary, Sydney," said Stanton. There was a look of approval in her eyes, like she was pleased at having defended me. That approval meant a lot to me, considering how fierce she often seemed. "We can't assume anything about any of them. Although we also checked out this Moroi with Abe Mazur, who concurs he's harmless enough."

"Abe Mazur?" scoffed Michaelson. He scratched at his graying beard. "Yes. I'm sure he'd be an expert on who's harmless or not."

My heart lurched at the name, but I tried not to show it. Do not react, do not react, I ordered my face. After a deep breath, I asked very, very carefully, "Is Abe Mazur the Moroi who's going with Jill? I've met him before... but I thought you said it was an Ivashkov who was going." If Abe Mazur was in residence in Palm Springs, that would alter things significantly.

Michaelson scoffed. "No, we'd never send you off with Abe Mazur. He's simply been helping with the organization of this plan."

"What's so bad about Abe Mazur?" asked Keith. "I don't know who he is."

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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