The Golden Lily (Bloodlines #2)

by Richelle Mead

Chapter 1

MOST PEOPLE WOULD FIND being led into an underground bunker on a stormy night scary. Not me.

Things I could explain away and define with data didn't frighten me. That was why I kept silently reciting facts to myself as I descended deeper and deeper below street level. The bunker was a relic of the Cold War, built as protection in a time when people thought nuclear missiles were around every corner. On the surface, the building claimed to house an optical supply store. That was a front. Not scary at all. And the storm? Simply a natural phenomenon of atmospheric fronts clashing. And really, if you were going to worry about getting hurt in a storm, then going underground was actually pretty smart.

So, no. This seemingly ominous journey didn't frighten me in the least. Everything was built on reasonable facts and logic. I could deal with that. It was the rest of my job I had a problem with.

And really, maybe that was why stormy underground trips didn't faze me. When you spent most of your days living among vampires and half vampires, ferrying them to get blood, and keeping their existence secret from the rest of the world... well, it kind of gave you a unique perspective on life. I'd witnessed bloody vampire battles and seen magical feats that defied every law of physics I knew. My life was a constant struggle to hold back my terror of the unexplainable and try desperately to find a way to explain it.

"Watch your step," my guide told me as we went down yet another flight of concrete stairs.

Everything I'd seen so far was concrete - the walls, floor, and ceiling. The gray, rough surface absorbed the fluorescent light that attempted to illuminate our way. It was dreary and cold, eerie in its stillness. The guide seemed to guess my thoughts. "We've made modifications and expansions since this was originally built. You'll see once we reach the main section." Sure enough. The stairs finally opened up to a corridor with several closed doors lining the sides. The decor was still concrete, but all the doors were modern, with electronic locks displaying either red or green lights. He led me to the second door on the right, one with a green light, and I found myself entering a perfectly normal lounge, like the kind of break room you'd find in any modern office. Green carpet covered the floor, like some wistful attempt at grass, and the walls were a tan that gave the illusion of warmth. A puffy couch and two chairs sat on the opposite side of the room, along with a table scattered with magazines. Best of all, the room had a counter with a sink - and a coffee maker.

"Make yourself at home," my guide told me. I was guessing he was close to my age, eighteen, but his patchy attempts at growing a beard made him seem younger. "They'll come for you shortly."

My eyes had never left the coffee maker. "Can I make some coffee?"

"Sure," he said. "Whatever you like."

He left, and I practically ran to the counter. The coffee was pre-ground and looked as though it might very well have been here since the Cold War as well. As long as it was caffeinated, I didn't care. I'd taken a red-eye flight from California, and even with part of the day to recover, I still felt sleepy and bleary-eyed. I set the coffee maker going and then paced the room. The magazines were in haphazard piles, so I straightened them into neat stacks. I couldn't stand disorder.

I sat on the couch and waited for the coffee, wondering yet again what this meeting could be about. I'd spent a good part of my afternoon here in Virginia reporting to a couple of Alchemist officials about the status of my current assignment. I was living in Palm Springs, pretending to be a senior at a private boarding school in order to keep an eye on Jill Mastrano Dragomir, a vampire princess forced into hiding. Keeping her alive meant keeping her people out of civil war - something that would definitely tip humans off to the supernatural world that lurked beneath the surface of modern life. It was a vital mission for the Alchemists, so I wasn't entirely surprised they'd want an update. What surprised me was that they couldn't have just done it over the phone. I couldn't figure out what other reason would bring me to this facility.

The coffee maker finished. I'd only set it to make three cups, which would probably be enough to get me through the evening. I'd just filled my Styrofoam cup when the door opened.

A man entered, and I nearly dropped the coffee.

"Mr. Darnell," I said, setting the pot back on the burner. My hands trembled. "It - it's nice to see you again, sir."

"You too, Sydney," he said, forcing a stiff smile. "You've certainly grown up."

"Thank you, sir," I said, unsure if that was a compliment.

Tom Darnell was my father's age and had brown hair laced with silver. There were more lines in his face since the last time I'd seen him, and his blue eyes had an uneasy look that I didn't usually associate with him. Tom Darnell was a high-ranking official among the Alchemists and had earned his position through decisive action and a fierce work ethic. He'd always seemed larger than life when I was younger, fiercely confident and aweinspiring. Now, he seemed to be afraid of me, which made no sense. Wasn't he angry? After all, I was the one responsible for his son being arrested and locked away by the Alchemists.

"I appreciate you coming all the way out here," he added, once a few moments of awkward silence had passed. "I know it's a long round-trip, especially on a weekend."

"It's no problem at all, sir," I said, hoping I sounded confident. "I'm happy to help with...

whatever you need." I still wondered what exactly that could be.

He studied me for a few seconds and gave a curt nod. "You're very dedicated," he said.

"Just like your father."

I made no response. I knew that comment had been intended as a compliment, but I didn't really take it that way.

Tom cleared his throat. "Well, then. Let's get this out of the way. I really don't want to inconvenience you any more than is necessary."

Again, I got that nervous, deferential vibe. Why would he be so conscientious of my feelings?

After what I'd done to his son, Keith, I would've expected rage or accusations. Tom opened the door for me and gestured me through.

"Can I bring my coffee, sir?"

"Of course."

He took me back into the concrete corridor, toward more of the closed doors. I clutched my coffee like a security blanket, far more frightened than I'd been when first entering this place. Tom came to a stop a few doors down, in front of one with a red light, but hesitated before opening it.

"I want you to know... that what you did was incredibly brave," he said, not meeting my eyes. "I know you and Keith were - are - friends, and it couldn't have been easy to turn him in. It shows just how committed you are to our work - something that's not always easy when personal feelings are involved."

Keith and I weren't friends now or then, but I supposed I could understand Tom's mistake.

Keith had lived with my family for a summer, and later, he and I had worked together in Palm Springs. Turning him in for his crimes hadn't been difficult for me at all. I'd actually enjoyed it.

Seeing the stricken look on Tom's face, though, I knew I couldn't say anything like that.

I swallowed. "Well. Our work is important, sir."

He gave me a sad smile. "Yes. It certainly is."

The door had a security keypad. Tom punched in a series of about ten digits, and the lock clicked in acceptance. He pushed the door open, and I followed him inside. The stark room was dimly lit and had three other people in it, so I didn't initially notice what else the room contained.

I knew immediately that the others were Alchemists. There was no other reason they'd be in this place otherwise. And, of course, they possessed the telltale signs that would have identified them to me even on a busy street. Business attire in nondescript colors. Golden lily tattoos shining on their left cheeks. It was part of the uniformity we all shared. We were a secret army, lurking in the shadows of our fellow humans.

The three of them were all holding clipboards and staring at one of the walls. That was when I noticed what this room's purpose was. A window in the wall looked through to another room, one much more brightly lit than this one.

And Keith Darnell was in that room.

He darted up to the glass separating us and began beating on it. My heart raced, and I took a few frightened steps back, certain he was coming after me. It took me a moment to realize he couldn't actually see me. I relaxed slightly. Very slightly. The window was a oneway mirror. He pressed his hands to the glass, glancing frantically back and forth at the faces he knew were there but couldn't see.

"Please, please," he cried. "Let me out. Please let me out of here." Keith looked a little scragglier than the last time I'd seen him. His hair was unkempt and appeared as though it hadn't been cut in our month apart. He wore a plain gray jumpsuit, the kind you saw on prisoners or mental patients, that reminded me of the concrete in the hall.

Most noticeable of all was the desperate, terrified look in his eyes - or rather, eye. Keith had lost one of his eyes in a vampire attack that I had secretly helped orchestrate. None of the Alchemists knew about it, just as none of them knew about how Keith had raped my older sister Carly. I doubted Tom Darnell would've praised me for my "dedication" if he'd known about my sideline revenge act. Seeing the state Keith was in now, I felt a little bad for him - and especially bad for Tom, whose face was filled with raw pain. I still didn't feel bad about what I'd done to Keith, however. Not the arrest or the eye. Put simply, Keith Darnell was a bad person.

"I'm sure you recognize Keith," said one of the Alchemists with a clipboard. Her gray hair was wound into a tight, neat bun.

"Yes, ma'am," I said.

I was saved from any other response when Keith beat at the glass with renewed fury.

"Please! I'm serious! Whatever you want. I'll do anything. I'll say anything. I'll believe anything.

Just please don't send me back there!"

Both Tom and I flinched, but the other Alchemists watched with clinical detachment and scrawled a few notes on their clipboards. The bun woman glanced back up at me as though there'd been no interruption. "Young Mr. Darnell has been spending some time in one of our Re-education Centers. An unfortunate action - but a necessary one. His trafficking in illicit goods was certainly bad, but his collaboration with vampires is unforgiveable. Although he claims to have no attachment to them... well, we really can't be certain. Even if he is telling the truth, there's also the possibility that this transgression might expand into something more - not just a collaboration with the Moroi, but also the Strigoi. Doing what we've done keeps him from that slippery slope."

"It's really for his own good," said the third clipboard-wielding Alchemist. "We're doing him a favor."

A sense of horror swept over me. The whole point of the Alchemists was to keep the existence of vampires secret from humans. We believed vampires were unnatural creatures who should have nothing to do with humans like us. What was a particular concern were the Strigoi - evil, killer vampires - who could lure humans into servitude with promises of immortality.

Even the peaceful Moroi and their half human counterparts, the dhampirs, were regarded with suspicion. We worked with those latter two groups a lot, and even though we'd been taught to regard them with disdain, it was an inevitable fact that some Alchemists not only grew close to Moroi and dhampirs... but actually started to like them.

The crazy thing was - despite his crime of selling vampire blood - Keith was one of the last people I'd think of when it came to getting too friendly with vampires. He'd made his dislike of them perfectly obvious to me a number of times. Really, if anyone deserved to be accused of attachment to vampires...

... well, it would be me.

One of the other Alchemists, a man with mirrored sunglasses hanging artfully off his collar, took up the lecture. "You, Miss Sage, have been a remarkable example of someone able to work extensively with them and keep your objectivity. Your dedication has not gone unnoticed by those above us."