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 "creatures of the night" would live among beautifully landscaped gardens while "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. "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.

"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.

"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.

"Hi, Dad," I said. Then I saw who was standing beside him. "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.

"I'm surprised to see you here," said my father.

His parting words to me had been "Don't embarrass me," so I wasn't really astonished by his low expectations. "It's the holidays," I said. Forcing a smile now was far more difficult than it had been with Ian. "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. "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.

"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. "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.

"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.

Tags: Richelle Mead Bloodlines Fantasy
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