- Richelle Mead
Married life wasn't what i'd expected.
Don't get me wrong: I had no regrets about the woman I'd married. In fact, I loved her more than I'd ever imagined it was possible to love a person. The reality we lived in, though? Well, let's just say I'd never really imagined anything like that either. In all our previous fantasies, we'd dreamed of exotic locations and, most importantly, freedom. Being cooped up in a small suite of rooms had never been part of any escape plan, let alone a romantic getaway.
But I was never one to back down from a challenge.
'What's this?' asked Sydney, startled.
'Happy anniversary,' I said.
She'd just finished getting showered and dressed and now stood in the bathroom's doorway, staring around at the transformation I'd wrought in our living room. It hadn't been easy doing so much in so little time. Sydney was an efficient person, and that extended to showers as well. Me? You could have conducted full demolition and remodeling in the time it took me to shower. With Sydney, there'd been barely enough time to decorate the place in candles and flowers. But I'd managed.
A smile crept over her face. 'It's only been one month.'
'Hey, don't say 'only,' ' I warned. 'It's still monumental. And I'll have you know that I plan on celebrating every month for the rest of our lives.'
Her smile turned into a full-on grin as she ran her fingers over the petals of a vase full of flowers. It made my heart ache. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen such a genuine smile on her. 'You even got peonies,' she said. 'How'd you manage that?'
'Hey, I have my ways,' I stated loftily.
Though it's probably better she doesn't know what those ways are, a voice in my head warned.
Sydney strolled around and assessed the rest of my handiwork, which included a bottle of red wine and a box of chocolate truffles artfully set out on the kitchen table. 'Isn't it a little early in the day?' she teased.
'Depends on whom you're asking,' I said, nodding toward the dark window. 'For you, it's technically evening.'
Her smile dimmed a little. 'Honestly, I hardly ever know what time it is anymore.'
This lifestyle is taking its toll on her, my inner voice warned. Just look at her.
Even in the flickering light of the candles, I could see signs of the stress Sydney was feeling. Dark shadows under her eyes. A perpetually weary look—born more of despair than fatigue. She was the only human at the royal Moroi Court who wasn't here specifically to feed us vampires. She was also the only human in any civilized Moroi place to have married one of us. Doing so had meant incurring the wrath of her own people and cutting herself off from friends and family (the ones who were still speaking to her, at least) in the outside world. And thanks to the scorn and prying looks she received around Court, Sydney had pretty much cut herself off from people here as well, narrowing her whole world down to our suite of rooms.
'Wait, there's more,' I said quickly, hoping to distract her. With a button push, classical music began playing through the living room's sound system. I extended my hand to her. 'Since we didn't get to dance at our wedding.'
That brought the smile back. She took my hand and let me draw her close. I twirled her around the room, careful not to bump any of the candles, and she regarded me with amusement. 'What are you doing? It's a waltz. It has three beats. Can't you hear it? One-two-three, one-two-three.'
'Really? That's what a waltz is? Huh. I just picked something that sounded fancy. Since we don't really have a song or anything.' I pondered that for a second. 'I guess we've failed as a couple in that regard.'
She scoffed. 'If that's our biggest failing, then I think we're doing okay.'
Long moments passed as I danced her around the room, then I suddenly said, ' ' She Blinded Me With Science.' '
'What?' Sydney asked.
'That could be our song.'
She laughed outright, and I realized I hadn't heard that sound in a very long time. It somehow managed to make my heart both ache and leap. 'Well,' she said. 'I guess that's better than 'Tainted Love.' '
We both laughed then, and she rested her cheek against my chest. I kissed the top of her golden head, taking in the mingled scents of her soap and skin. 'It feels wrong,' she said quietly. 'To be happy, I mean. When Jill's out there . . .'
At that name, my heart sank, and a heavy darkness threatened to descend on me and shatter this small moment of joy I'd created. I had to forcibly push away the darkness, making myself step back from a dangerous precipice I knew all too well these days. 'We'll find her,' I whispered, tightening my hold on Sydney. 'Wherever she is, we'll find her.'
If she's still alive, that inner voice said nastily.
It's probably worth pointing out that the voice that kept speaking in my head wasn't part of some mental exercise. It was actually a very distinct voice, belonging to my dead aunt Tatiana, former queen of the Moroi. She wasn't with me in any ghostly form, though. Her voice was a delusion, born out of the increasing grip insanity was taking on me, thanks to the rare type of magic I used. A quick prescription would have shut her up, but it also would've cut me off from my magic, and our world was too unpredictable right now for me to do that. And so this phantom Aunt Tatiana and I had become roommates in my mind. Sometimes that delusional presence terrified me, making me wonder how long it would be until I completely lost it. At other times, I found myself taking her in stride—and that scared me even more, that I was coming to regard her as normal.
For now, I managed to ignore Aunt Tatiana as I kissed Sydney again. 'We'll find Jill,' I said more firmly. 'And in the meantime, we have to keep living our lives.'
'I suppose so,' said Sydney with a sigh. I could tell she was trying to summon back that earlier cheer. 'If this is supposed to make up for our lack of a wedding dance, I feel kind of underdressed. Maybe I should go dig out that gown.'
'No way,' I said. 'Not that that dress wasn't great. But I kind of like you underdressed. In fact, I wouldn't mind if you were a lot more underdressed . . .'
I stopped waltzing (or whatever dance move it was I'd been attempting to do) and brought my mouth down to hers in a very different sort of kiss than the one I'd just given her. Heat filled me as I felt the softness of her lips, and I was surprised to sense an answering passion in her. In light of our recent circumstances, Sydney hadn't been feeling particularly physical, and honestly, I couldn't blame her. I'd respected her wishes and kept my distance . . . not realizing how much I'd missed that fire in her until now.
We found ourselves sinking down onto the couch, arms wrapped tightly around each other, still kissing passionately. I paused to study her, admiring the way the candlelight shone on her blond hair and brown eyes. I could've drowned in that beauty, that and the love I could feel radiating off of her. It was a perfect, much-needed romantic moment . . . at least, it was until the door opened.
'Mom?' I exclaimed, leaping off Sydney like I was a high school kid and not a married man of twenty-two.
'Oh, hello, dear,' my mother said, strolling into the living room. 'Why are all the lights off? It looks like a mausoleum in here. Was the power out?' She flipped on a light switch, making both Sydney and me wince. 'It's back now. But you really shouldn't have lit so many candles. It's dangerous.' She helpfully blew a cluster out.
'Thanks,' said Sydney flatly. 'It's nice to know you're taking safety seriously.' Her expression reminded me of the time my mother had 'helpfully' pulled out a bunch of sticky notes that were 'cluttering up' a book Sydney had spent hours painstakingly notating.
'Mom, I thought you were going to be gone a couple of hours,' I said pointedly.
'I was, but it was just getting too awkward over at the feeders' salon. You'd think everyone would be busy at the council meeting, but no. So many stares. I couldn't relax. So they just let me bring one with me.' She glanced around. 'Where'd he go? Ah, there.' She stepped back out into the hallway and steered in a dazed-looking human who was a little older than me. 'Sit over there on that chair, and I'll be right with you.'
I leapt to my feet. 'You brought a feeder here? Mom, you know how Sydney feels about that.'
Sydney made no comment but blanched at the sight of the feeder sitting across the room. His eyes—dazed and happy from the endorphins he received from letting vampires feed off of him—stared around blankly.
My mother sighed in exasperation. 'What do you expect me to do, darling? There was absolutely no way I could feed with Maureen Tarus and Gladys Dashkov sitting there and gossiping right beside me.'
'I expect you to have a little consideration for my wife!' I exclaimed. Since Sydney and I had gotten married and sought refuge at Court, most people—including my own father— had turned their backs on us. My mom had stood by us, even going so far as to live with us—which wasn't without its complications.
'I'm sure she can just wait in your bedroom,' my mother said, leaning over to blow out more candles. Spotting the truffles on the table, she paused to pop one in her mouth.
'Sydney doesn't have to go hide away in her own home,' I argued.
'Well,' said my mother, 'neither do I. It's my home too.'
'I don't mind,' said Sydney, getting to her feet. 'I'll wait.'
I was so frustrated, I wanted to rip my hair out. Passion was no longer the issue. All traces of that earlier happiness I'd seen in Sydney were gone. She was retreating back into herself, back to that hopeless feeling of being a human stuck in a world of vampires. And then, impossibly, things got worse. My mother had noticed one of the peony vases.
'These are beautiful,' she said. 'Melinda must have been so grateful for that healing.'
Sydney froze mid-step. 'What healing?'
'It's not important,' I said hastily, hoping my mother would get the hint. At other times, Daniella Ivashkov was a remarkably astute woman. Today, however, she seemed to be in fully oblivious mode.
'Melinda Rowe, the Court florist,' my mother explained. 'Adrian and I ran into her the last time we were out at a feeding. She was having a terrible acne flare-up, and Adrian was nice enough to speed along its healing. She promised to help get some peonies in stock in return.'
Sydney turned on me, speechless in her fury. Needing to calm this situation immediately, I grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her into our bedroom. 'Make it fast,' I called to my mom, just before I shut the door.
Sydney lashed out immediately. 'Adrian, how could you? You promised! You promised no more spirit, unless it was to help find Jill!'
'It was nothing,' I insisted. 'It hardly took any power at all.'
'It adds up!' Sydney cried. 'You know it does. Every little bit. You can't waste it on stuff like this . . . on someone's acne!'
Although I understood why she was upset, I couldn't help but feel a bit hurt. 'I did it for us. For our anniversary. I thought you'd like it.'
'What I'd like is for my husband to stay sane,' she snapped back.
'Well, we're long past that,' I said.
She doesn't know the half of it, remarked Aunt Tatiana.
Sydney crossed her arms and sat on the bed. 'See? There you go. Making a joke of everything. This is serious, Adrian.'
'And I'm being serious. I know what I can handle.'
She met my gaze levelly. 'Do you? I still think you'd be better off stopping spirit altogether. Go back on your pills. It's safest.'
'What about finding Jill?' I reminded her. 'What if we need my spirit magic for that?'
Sydney looked away. 'Well, it hasn't been of much use so far. No one's magic has.'
That last remark was a condemnation of herself as much as of me. Our friend Jill Mastrano Dragomir had been kidnapped a month ago, and so far, our efforts to find her had been for nothing. I hadn't been able to reach Jill in spirit dreams, nor had Sydney—an adept student of human witchcraft—been able to locate her using the spells at her disposal. The best Sydney's magic had been able to tell us was that Jill was still alive, but that was it. The general belief was that wherever she was, Jill was being drugged—which could effectively hide someone from both human and Moroi magic. It didn't stop us from both feeling useless, though. We both cared about Jill immensely— and my relationship with her was particularly intense since I'd once used spirit magic to bring her back from the brink of death. Not knowing what had happened to her now had cast a shadow over Sydney and me—and any attempts at happiness we'd mustered while under this self-imposed house arrest.
'It doesn't matter,' I said. 'When we do find her, I need my magic. There's no telling what I'll need to do.'
'Like fix her acne?' asked Sydney.
I flinched. 'I told you, it was nothing! Let me worry about me and how much spirit I can use. It's not your job.'
She turned incredulous. 'Of course it is! I'm your wife, Adrian. If I'm not going to worry about you, who will? You need to keep spirit in check.'
'I can handle it,' I said through gritted teeth.
'Is your aunt still talking to you?' she demanded.
I looked away, refusing to meet her eye. In my head, Aunt Tatiana sighed. You never should have told her about me.
At my silence, Sydney said, 'She is, isn't she? Adrian, that's not healthy! You have to know that!'
I spun around in anger. 'I can handle it. Okay? I can handle it, and I can handle her!' I shouted. 'So stop telling me what to do! You don't know everything—no matter how much you want everyone to think you do!'
Stricken, Sydney took a step back. The pain in her eyes hurt me a lot more than her earlier words had. I felt terrible. How had this day gone so wrong? It was supposed to have been perfect. Suddenly, I needed to get out. I couldn't stand these four walls anymore. I couldn't stand my mother's control. I couldn't stand feeling like I was always disappointing Sydney—and Jill. Sydney and I had come to Court to seek protection from our enemies, hiding here so we could be together. Lately, it seemed like this arrangement was in danger of tearing us apart.
'I have to get out,' I said.
Sydney's eyes widened. 'To where?'
I raked a hand through my hair. 'Anywhere. Anywhere to get some air. Anywhere but here.'
I turned before she could say anything and stormed out through the living room, past where my mom was drinking from the feeder. She gave me a quizzical look, but I ignored it and kept on going until I was out our door and through the lobby of the guest-housing building. It wasn't until I emerged outside, until the balmy summer air hit my skin, that I paused to evaluate my actions—and pop a piece of gum, which was my current way to avoid smoking when stressed. I stared back up at the building, feeling guilty and cowardly for running out on our fight.
Don't feel bad, Aunt Tatiana said. Marriage is hard. That's why I never did it.
It is hard, I agreed. But that's not an excuse to run away. I need to go back. I need to apologize. I need to work things out.
You're never going to work things out as long as you're locked up here and Jill's still missing, warned Aunt Tatiana.
Two guardians walked past me just then, and I caught a piece of their conversation, mentioning extra patrols for the council meeting going on. I remembered my mom's earlier comment about that meeting, and inspiration suddenly hit. Turning away from the building, I began hurrying toward what served as the royal palace here at Court, hoping I could get to the meeting in time.
I know what to do, I told Aunt Tatiana. I know how to get us out of here and fix things with Sydney and me. We need a purpose, a goal. And I'm going to get us one. I need to talk to Lissa. If I can make her understand, I can fix everything.
That phantom made no response as I walked. Around me, midnight had clothed the world in darkness—bedtime for humans, prime time for those of us on a vampiric schedule. The Moroi Court was set up like a university: forty or so venerable brick buildings arranged around beautifully landscaped quads and courtyards. It was high summer, warm and humid, and there were a fair number of people out and about. Most were too consumed with their own affairs to notice me or realize who I was. Those who did shot me those same curious looks.
They're just jealous, Aunt Tatiana declared.
I don't think that's what it is, I told her. Even knowing she was a delusion, it was hard not to respond sometimes.
Of course it is. The Ivashkov name has always inspired awe and envy. They're all underlings, and they know it. In my day, this never would've been tolerated. It's that child queen of yours letting things run amok.
Even with the intrusive looks, I found I enjoyed my walk. It really wasn't healthy being shut indoors so much—something I never thought I'd admit. Despite the thickness of the humid air, it felt light and refreshing to me, and I found myself wishing Sydney could be out here too. A moment later, I decided that wasn't right. She needed to be outside later, when the sun was up. That was the time for humans. Being on our schedule was probably just as hard on her as the isolation. I made a mental note to suggest a walk with her later on. Sun didn't kill us like it did Strigoi—evil, undead vampires—but it wasn't always the day, and Sydney would be less likely to run into anyone if we timed our outing correctly.
The thought cheered me as I popped in another piece of gum and reached the royal palace. Outside, it looked like all the other buildings, but inside, it was decorated with all the grandeur and opulence you'd expect from the royalty of an ancient civilization. The Moroi elected their monarchs from among twelve royal families, and massive portraits of those illustrious figures lined the corridors, illuminated by the light of glittering chandeliers. Crowds of people walked the halls, and when I reached the council's chamber, I saw that I'd arrived at the end of the meeting. People were leaving as I entered, and many of them, too, stopped to stare at me. I heard whispers of 'abomination' and 'human wife.'
I ignored them and kept my focus on my real goal, up near the front of the room. There, near the council's platform, stood Vasilisa Dragomir—the 'child queen' Aunt Tatiana had referred to. Lissa, as I called her, stood ringed by dark-suited dhampir guardians: half-human, half-Moroi warriors whose race had originated from a time long ago, when Moroi and humans had intermarried without scandal. Dhampirs couldn't have children with each other, but through a genetic quirk, their race continued by reproducing with Moroi.
Standing just beyond Lissa's bodyguards, Moroi press shouted questions at her that she answered in that same calm way of hers. I summoned a bit of spirit magic in order to view her aura, and she lit up in my vision. She shone with gold, indicating she was a spirit user like me, but her other colors had she was uneasy. I released the magic as I hurried up to the crowd and waved my hand in her direction, shouting to be heard among the noise. 'Your majesty! Your majesty!'
Somehow, she heard my voice through the others and beckoned me forward once she finished answering someone else's questions. Her guardians parted to let me get close. That triggered everyone's interest—especially when the onlookers saw whom she'd allowed into her personal space. I could see they were dying to know what we were discussing, but the guardians kept them back, and there was too much noise in the room anyway.
'Well, this is an unexpected surprise. You couldn't have scheduled an appointment?' she asked me in a low voice, still keeping that public smile on her face. 'It would've attracted a lot less attention.'
I shrugged. 'Everything I do attracts attention these days. I've stopped noticing.'
A spark of legitimate amusement flashed in her eyes, so I felt good for at least bringing that about. 'What can I do for you, Adrian?'
'It's what I can do for you,' I said, still fired up by the idea that had hit me earlier. 'You need to let Sydney and me go look for Jill.'
Her eyes widened, and the smile slipped. 'Let you go? You begged me to let you stay here a month ago!'
'I know, I know. And I'm grateful. But your people haven't found Jill yet. You need to call in some special help with special abilities.'
'If I recall,' she said, 'you and Sydney have already tried those special abilities—and failed.'
'Which is why you need to let us get out there!' I exclaimed. 'Go back to Palm Springs and—'
'Adrian,' Lissa interrupted. 'Do you hear yourself? You came here because the Alchemists were trying to hunt you two down. And now you want to walk right back out there into their clutches?'
'Well, not when you put it that way. I figured we'd sneak out when they didn't know and—'
'No,' she interrupted again. 'Absolutely not. I have enough to worry about without you two getting caught by the Alchemists. You wanted me to protect you, and that's what I'm going to do. So don't get any ideas about sneaking out—I'm having the gates watched. You're both staying here, where you're safe.'
Safe and starting to lose it, I thought, recalling the bleak look in Sydney's eyes.
Darling, Aunt Tatiana whispered to me, you were starting to lose it long before this.
'I have good people looking for Jill,' Lissa continued when I didn't answer her. 'Rose and Dimitri are out there.'
'Why haven't they found her? And if someone wanted to remove you, why haven't they—'
I couldn't finish, but the sadness in Lissa's jade-green eyes told me she knew. Thanks to a law she was trying to change, Lissa's throne required her to have one living relative. Anyone wanting to remove Lissa would have simply had to kill Jill and show proof. The fact that it hadn't happened yet was a blessing but also deepened the mystery around this. Why else would someone have taken Jill?
'Go home, Adrian,' said Lissa gently. 'We'll talk more 15 later—in private—if you want. Maybe we'll come up with some other options.'
'Maybe,' I agreed. But I didn't really believe it.
I left Lissa to her admirers and slipped back out through the gawking crowd, as a dark and all-too-familiar mood began to settle on me. Going to Lissa had been an impulse, one that had given me momentary hope. When Sydney and I had sought sanctuary, we'd had no idea what was about to happen to Jill. It was true that Lissa had good people looking for Jill—and even the reluctant help of Sydney's old organization, the Alchemists. Still, I couldn't shake the guilt-ridden feeling that if Sydney and I were out there, instead of hiding away, we'd find Jill. There was something going on that we didn't understand yet. Otherwise, Jill's abductors would have—
'Well, well, well. Look who decided to show his cowardly face.'
I came to a halt and blinked, barely aware of where I was. My thoughts had been churning so furiously that I'd made it halfway home and now stood on a stone path that cut between two buildings—a quiet, out-of-the-way path that was perfect for an ambush. Wesley Drozdov, a royal Moroi who'd become a nemesis of mine recently, stood blocking my way, with several cronies around him.
'That's more than you usually travel with, Wes,' I said mildly. 'Dig up a few more, and maybe you'll finally have a fair fight to—'
A fist struck me from behind, in my lower back, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to stumble forward. Wesley surged toward me and caught me with a right hook before I could respond. I realized dimly, through my pain, that the comment I'd been about to make to him was actually spot-on: Wesley was traveling with a group because it was the only way he could combat my spirit magic. As someone's foot struck my knee, forcing me to the ground, I realized I had, in fact, been an idiot to reveal myself so publicly. Wesley had been waiting for a chance to get back at me for past grievances, and now he had it.
'What's the matter?' Wesley asked, kicking me hard in the stomach as I lay on the ground, struggling to get up. 'Your feeder wife not here to save you?'
'Yeah,' someone else chided. 'Where's your human whore?'
I couldn't respond through the pain. More kicks followed, from more people than I could keep track of. Their faces swam above me, and I was shocked to recognize a number of them. They weren't all Wesley's usual tagalongs. Some of them were people I knew, had partied with in the past . . . people I might have once counted as friends.
A blow to my head caused stars to dance before my eyes, momentarily blurring their faces in my vision. Their taunts blended into an unintelligible cacophony as hit followed upon hit. I curled up in agony, struggling to breathe. Suddenly, through the din, a clear voice demanded, 'What the hell is going on?'
Blinking, trying to bring the world back into focus, I just barely saw strong hands rip Wesley away and hurl him against the side of a nearby building. It took a second and then a third of his toadies following suit before they realized something had gone wrong. They backed away like the scared sheep they were, and a familiar face suddenly appeared as Eddie Castile stood over me.
'Anyone else feel like sticking around?' I croaked. 'You still outnumber us.'
Their numbers were nothing compared to one Eddie, and they knew it. I couldn't see them all run off, but I imagined it, and it was glorious. Silence fell, and a moment later, someone else was helping me stand. I glanced back and saw another familiar face, Neil Raymond, slipping his arm through mine.
'Can you walk?' asked Neil, his voice lightly touched by a British accent.
I winced as I put weight on my foot but nodded. 'Yeah. Let's just get home now and see if anything's broken later. Thanks, by the way,' I added, as Eddie supported my other side and we began to walk. 'Nice to know this Moroi-in-distress can count on such gallant knights to follow me around.'
Eddie shook his head. 'Total coincidence, actually. We just happened to be on our way to your place with some news.'
A chill ran through me, and I stopped my halting steps. 'What news?' I demanded.
A smile crossed Eddie's features. 'Relax—it's good news. I think. Just unexpected. You and Sydney have a visitor at the front gate. A human visitor.'
If I hadn't been in so much pain, my jaw would've dropped. That was unexpected news. In marrying me and seeking sanctuary among the Moroi, Sydney had cut herself off from most of her human contacts. One of them showing up here was weird, and it couldn't be an Alchemist. An Alchemist would've been turned away.
'Who is it?' I asked.
Eddie's smile turned into an outright grin. 'Jackie Terwilliger.'