Keith also enlightened me about something I hadn't realized - but probably should have. "You and that Jill girl are being enrolled as sisters," he said. "What?" It was a measure of my self-control that my hold on the car never wavered. Living with a vampire was one thing - but being related to one?
"Why?" I demanded.
I saw him shrug in my periphery. "Why not? It explains why you'll be around her so much - and is a good excuse for you to be roommates. Normally, the school doesn't pair students who are different ages, but... well... your 'parents' promised a hefty donation that made them change their normal policy."
I was so stunned that I didn't even have my normal gut reaction to slap him when he concluded with his self-satisfied chuckle. I'd known we'd be living together... but sisters? It was... weird. No, not just that. Outlandish.
"That's crazy," I said at last, still too shocked to come up with a more eloquent response.
"It's just on paper," he said.
True. But something about being cast as a vampire relative threw my whole order off. I prided myself on the way I'd learned to behave around vampires, but part of that came from the strict belief that I was an outsider, a business associate distinct and removed. Playacting as Jill's sister destroyed those lines. It brought about a familiarity that I wasn't sure I was ready for.
"Living with one of them shouldn't be so bad for you," Keith commented, drumming his fingers against the window in a way that put my nerves on edge. Something about the too-casual way he spoke made me think he was leading me into a trap. "You're used to it."
"Hardly," I said, choosing my words carefully. "I was with them for a week at most. And actually, most of my time was spent with dhampirs."
"Same difference," he replied dismissively. "If anything, the dhampirs are worse. They're abominations. Not human, but not full vampires. Products of unnatural unions."
I didn't respond right away and instead pretended to be deeply interested in the road ahead. What he said was true, by Alchemist teaching. I'd been raised believing that both races of vampires, Moroi and Strigoi, were dark and wrong. They needed blood to survive. What kind of person drank from another? It was disgusting, and just thinking about how I'd soon be ferrying Moroi to their feedings made me ill.
But the dhampirs... that was a trickier matter. Or at least, it was for me now. The dhampirs were half human and half vampire, created at a time when the two races had mingled freely. Over the centuries, vampires had pulled away from humans, and both of our races now agreed that those kinds of unions were taboo. The dhampir race had persisted against all odds, however, in spite of the fact that dhampirs couldn't reproduce with each other. They could with Moroi or humans, and plenty of Moroi were up to the task.
"Right?" asked Keith.
I realized he was staring at me, waiting for me to agree with him about dhampirs being abominations - or maybe he was hoping I would disagree. Regardless, I'd been quiet for too long.
"Right," I said. I mustered the standard Alchemist rhetoric. "In some ways, they're worse than the Moroi. Their race was never meant to exist."
"You scared me there for a second," Keith said. I was watching the road but had a sneaking suspicion he'd just winked at me. "I thought you were going to defend them. I should've known better than to believe the stories about you. I can totally get why you'd want to gamble at the glory - but man, that had to have been harsh, trying to work with one of them."
I couldn't explain how once you'd spent a little time with Rose Hathaway, it was easy to forget she was a dhampir. Even physically, dhampirs and humans were virtually indistinguishable. Rose was so full of life and passion that sometimes she seemed more human than I was. Rose certainly wouldn't have meekly accepted this job with a simpering, "Yes, sir." Not like me.
Rose hadn't even accepted being locked in jail, with the weight of the Moroi government against her. Abe Mazur's blackmail had been a catalyst that spurred me to help her, but I'd also never believed that Rose had committed the murder they'd accused her of. That certainty, along with our fragile friendship, had driven me to break Alchemist rules to help Rose and her dhampir boyfriend, the formidable Dimitri Belikov, elude the authorities.
Throughout it all, I'd watched Rose with a kind of wonder as she battled the world. I couldn't envy someone who wasn't human, but I could certainly envy her strength - and refusal to back down, no matter what.
But again, I could hardly tell Keith any of that. And I still didn't believe for an instant, despite his sunny act, that he was suddenly okay with me coming along.
I gave a small shrug. "I thought it was worth the risk."
"Well," he said, seeing I wasn't going to offer anything more. "The next time you decide to go rogue with vampires and dhampirs, get a little backup so you don't get in as much trouble."
I scoffed. "I have no intention of going rogue again." That, at least, was the truth.
We reached Palm Springs late in the afternoon and got to work immediately with our tasks. I was dying for sleep by that point, and even Keith - despite his talkativeness - looked a little worn around the edges. But we'd gotten the word that Jill and her entourage were arriving tomorrow, leaving very little time to put the remaining details in place.
A visit to Amberwood Prep revealed that my "family" was expanding. Apparently, the dhampir coming with Jill was enrolling as well and would be playing our brother. Keith was also going to be our brother. When I questioned that, he explained that we needed someone local to act as our legal guardian should Jill or any of us need to be pulled from school or granted some privilege. Since our fictitious parents lived out of state, getting results from him would be faster. I couldn't fault the logic, even though I found being related to him more repulsive than having dhampirs or vampires in the family. And that was saying a lot.
Later on, a driver's license from a reputable fake ID maker declared that I was now Sydney Katherine Melrose, from South Dakota. We chose South Dakota because we figured the locals didn't see too many licenses from that state and wouldn't be able to spot any flaws in it. Not that I expected there to be. The Alchemists didn't associate with people who did second-rate work. I also liked the picture of Mount Rushmore on the license. It was one of the few places in the United States that I'd never been.
The day wrapped up with what I had most been looking forward to: a trip to a car dealer. Keith and I did almost as much haggling with each other as we did with the salesman. I'd been raised to be practical and keep my emotions in check, but I loved cars. That was one of the few legacies I'd picked up from my mom. She was a mechanic, and some of my best childhood memories were of working in the garage with her.