A connecting flight and an hour-long car ride later, it was night by the time we finally reached the small resort town in the Pocono Mountains. Getting out of the car was a shock. December in Pennsylvania was very, very different from December in Palm Springs. Crisp, frigid air hit me, the kind that freezes your mouth and nose. A layer of fresh snow covered everything, glittering in the light of the same full moon that Ms. Terwilliger and I had worked magic by. The stars were out here in just as much force as the stark desert, though the cold air made them glitter in a sharper way.
Adrian stayed in our hired car but leaned out as the driver handed me my small suitcase. "Need any help with that?" Adrian asked. His breath made a frosty cloud in the air.
It was an uncharacteristic offer from him. "I'll be fine. Thanks, though. I take it you aren't staying here?" I nodded toward the bed-and-breakfast the car had stopped at.
Adrian pointed down the road, toward a large, lit-up hotel perched on a hill. "Up there. That's where all the parties will be, if you're interested. They're probably just getting started."
I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold. Moroi normally ran on a nocturnal schedule, starting their days around sunset. Those living among humans - like Adrian - had to adapt to a daytime schedule. But here, in a small town that must be bursting with Moroi guests, he'd have the chance to return to what was for him a more natural schedule.
"Noted," I said. A moment of awkwardness followed, but the temperature gave me an excuse for escape. "Well. I'd better get in where it's warm. Nice, uh, traveling with you."
He smiled. "You too, Sage. See you tomorrow."
The car door closed, and I suddenly felt lonely without him. They drove off toward the towering hotel. My bed-and-breakfast seemed tiny by comparison, but it was cute and in good shape. The Alchemists had booked me here precisely because they knew the Moroi guests would have other accommodations. Well, most of them.
"Are you here for the wedding, dear?" asked the innkeeper as she checked me in. "We have some other guests staying with us as well."
I nodded as I signed my credit card slip. It was no surprise that there'd be overflow to this inn, but there'd be a lot less here than the other hotel. I'd make sure to lock my door. I trusted my friends in Palm Springs, but all other Moroi and dhampirs were questionable.
Towns like this, and the inns within them, always seemed intended for couples on romantic getaways. My room was no exception. It had a California-king-size bed draped in a gauzy canopy, along with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi by the fireplace. It screamed love and romance, which brought Adrian back to my mind. I ignored it all as best I could and jotted out a quick text to Donna Stanton, a higher-ranking Alchemist who oversaw my assignment in Palm Springs.
Arrived in Pocono Hollow. Checked into inn.
Her response came quickly: Excellent. See you tomorrow. A second text followed a moment later: Lock your door.
Stanton and one other Alchemist were invited to the wedding as well. But they were already on the East Coast and could simply travel here tomorrow. I envied them.
Despite my uneasiness, I slept surprisingly well and dared to emerge for breakfast in the morning. I had no need to worry about Moroi, though. I was the only person eating in the sundrenched dining room.
"How strange," remarked the innkeeper as she delivered my coffee and eggs. "I know many of the guests were out late, but I thought at least a few might be here to eat." Then, to emphasize the oddness of it all, she added, "After all, breakfast is complimentary."
The nocturnal Moroi, who were all still in bed, emboldened me to explore the town a little that day. Even though I'd prepared with boots and a heavy coat, the weather change was still a bit shocking. Palm Springs had made me soft. I soon called it an early day and spent the rest of the afternoon reading Ms. Terwilliger's book by the fire. I flew through the first section and even went on to the advanced one she'd told me to skip. Maybe it was the fact that it was forbidden, but I couldn't stop reading. The scope of what the book described was so gripping and consuming that I nearly jumped a foot in the air when I heard a knock at the door. I froze, wondering if some confused Moroi had mistaken my room for a friend's. Or, worse, for a feeder's.
My phone suddenly chimed with a text message from Stanton: We're at your door.
Sure enough, when I opened it, I found Stanton standing there - with Ian Jansen, an Alchemist the same age as me. His presence was a surprise. I hadn't seen Ian since he, Stanton, and I had been detained by Moroi for questioning in the escape of a dhampir fugitive. Back then, Ian had had an unwelcome crush on me. Judging from the dopey smile on his face when he saw me, things hadn't changed. I gestured them inside, making sure to lock the door when I closed it. Like me, both Alchemists had golden lily tattoos on their left cheeks. It was the sign of our order, tattoos infused with vampire blood that gave us quick healing and were magically designed to stop us from discussing Alchemist affairs with those who didn't know about them.
Stanton arched an eyebrow at the heart-shaped tub and then settled into a chair by the fire. "No trouble getting here?"
Aside from traveling with a good-looking vampire who thinks he's in love with me?
"None," I replied. I regarded Ian with a frown. "I didn't expect you to be here. I mean, I'm glad you are, but after last time . . ." I paused as something hit me. I looked around. "It's all of us. All of us that were, uh, under house arrest."
Stanton nodded. "It was decided that if we're going to foster good relations between our groups, the Moroi would start by making amends to the three of us specifically."
Ian scowled and crossed his arms, leaning against a wall. He had brown eyes, with matching brown hair that he wore in a neat haircut. "I don't want any 'amends' from those monsters after what they did to us this summer. I can't even believe we're here! This place is crawling with them. Who knows what'll happen if one of them drinks too much champagne tonight and goes looking for a snack? Here we are, fresh humans."
I wanted to tell him that was ridiculous, but by Alchemist reasoning, it was a very legitimate concern. And, reminding myself that I didn't know most of the Moroi here, I realized perhaps his fears weren't that unfounded.
"I guess we'll have to stick together," I said. That was the wrong word choice, judging from Ian's happy smile.
The Alchemists rarely had social time, and this was no exception. Stanton soon got us down to business, going over our plans for the wedding and what our purpose was here. A file folder provided background on Sonya and Mikhail, as though I knew nothing about them. My mission and history with Sonya were secret from other Alchemists, so, for Ian's sake, I had to nod along with everything as if it was as new to me as it was to him.