Bloodlines (Bloodlines #1)


by Richelle Mead

Chapter One

I couldn't breathe.

There was a hand covering my mouth and another shaking my shoulder, startling me out of a heavy sleep. A thousand frantic thoughts dashed through my mind in the space of a single heartbeat. It was happening. My worst nightmare was coming true.

They're here! They've come for me!

My eyes blinked, staring wildly around the dark room until my father's face came into focus. I stilled my thrashing, thoroughly confused. He let go and stepped back to regard me coldly. I sat up in the bed, my heart still pounding.

'Dad?'

'Sydney. You wouldn't wake up.'

Naturally, that was his only apology for scaring me to death.

'You need to get dressed and make yourself presentable,' he continued. 'Quickly and quietly. Meet me downstairs in the study.'

I felt my eyes widen but didn't hesitate with a response. There was only one acceptable answer. 'Yes, sir. Of course.'

'I'll go wake your sister.' He turned for the door, and I leapt out of bed.

'Zoe?' I exclaimed. 'What do you need her for?'

'Shh,' he chastised. 'Hurry up and get ready. And remember - be quiet. Don't wake your mother.'

He shut the door without another word, leaving me staring. The panic that had only just subsided began to surge within me again. What did he need Zoe for? A late-night wake-up meant Alchemist business, and she had nothing to do with that. Technically, neither did I anymore, not since I'd been put on indefinite suspension for bad behavior this summer. What if that's what this was about? What if I was finally being taken to a re-education center and Zoe was replacing me?

For a moment, the world swam around me, and I caught hold of my bed to steady myself. Re-education centers. They were the stuff of nightmares for young Alchemists like me, mysterious places where those who grew too close to vampires were dragged off to learn the errors of their ways. What exactly went on there was a secret, one I never wanted to find out. I was pretty sure 're-education' was a nice way of saying 'brainwashing.' I'd only ever seen one person who had come back, and honestly, he'd seemed like half a person after that. There'd been an almost zombielike quality to him, and I didn't even want to think about what they might have done to make him that way.

My father's urging to hurry up echoed back through my mind, and I tried to shake off my fears. Remembering his other warning, I also made sure I moved silently. My mother was a light sleeper. Normally, it wouldn't matter if she caught us going off on Alchemist errands, but lately, she hadn't been feeling so kindly toward her husband's (and daughter's) employers. Ever since angry Alchemists had deposited me on my parents' doorstep last month, this household had held all the warmth of a prison camp. Terrible arguments had gone down between my parents, and my sister Zoe and I often found ourselves tiptoeing around.

Zoe.

Why does he need Zoe?

The question burned through me as I scurried to get ready. I knew what 'presentable' meant. Throwing on jeans and a T-shirt was out of the question. Instead, I tugged on gray slacks and a crisp, white button-down shirt. A darker, charcoal gray cardigan went over it, which I cinched neatly at my waist with a black belt. A small gold cross - the one I always wore around my neck - was the only ornamentation I ever bothered with.

My hair was a slightly bigger problem. Even after only two hours of sleep, it was already going in every direction. I smoothed it down as best I could and then coated it with a thick layer of hair spray in the hopes that it would get me through whatever was to come. A light dusting of powder was the only makeup I put on. I had no time for anything more.

The entire process took me all of six minutes, which might have been a new record for me. I sprinted down the stairs in perfect silence, careful, again, to avoid waking my mother. The living room was dark, but light spilled out past the not-quite-shut door of my father's study. Taking that as an invitation, I pushed the door open and slipped inside. A hushed conversation stopped at my entrance. My father eyed me from head to toe and showed his approval at my appearance in the way he knew best: by simply withholding criticism.

'Sydney,' he said brusquely. 'I believe you know Donna Stanton.'

The formidable Alchemist stood near the window, arms crossed, looking as tough and lean as I remembered. I'd spent a lot of time with Stanton recently, though I would hardly say we were friends - especially since certain actions of mine had ended up putting the two of us under a sort of 'vampire house arrest.' If she harbored any resentment toward me, she didn't show it, though. She nodded to me in polite greeting, her face all business.

Three other Alchemists were there as well, all men. They were introduced to me as Barnes, Michaelson, and Horowitz. Barnes and Michaelson were my father and Stanton's age. Horowitz was younger, mid-twenties, and was setting up a tattooist's tools. All of them were dressed like me, wearing business casual clothing in nondescript colors. Our goal was always to look nice but not attract notice. The Alchemists had been playing Men in Black for centuries, long before humans dreamed of life on other worlds. When the light hit their faces the right way, each Alchemist displayed a lily tattoo identical to mine.

Again, my unease grew. Was this some kind of interrogation? An assessment to see if my decision to help a renegade half-vampire girl meant my loyalties had changed? I crossed my arms over my chest and schooled my face to neutrality, hoping I looked cool and confident. If I still had a chance to plead my case, I intended to present a solid one.

Before anyone could utter another word, Zoe entered. She shut the door behind her and peered around in terror, her eyes wide. Our father's study was huge - he'd built an addition on to our house for it - and it easily held all the occupants. But as I watched my sister take in the scene, I knew she felt stifled and trapped. I met her eyes and tried to send a silent message of sympathy. It must have worked because she scurried to my side, looking only fractionally less afraid.

'Zoe,' said my father. He let her name hang in the air in this way he had, making it clear to both of us that he was disappointed. I could immediately guess why. She wore jeans and an old sweatshirt and had her brown hair in two cute but sloppy braids. By any other person's standards, she would have been 'presentable' - but not by his. I felt her cower against me, and I tried to make myself taller and more protective. After making sure his condemnation was felt, our father introduced Zoe to the others. Stanton gave her the same polite nod she'd given me and then turned toward my father.

'I don't understand, Jared,' said Stanton. 'Which one of them are you going to use?'

'Well, that's the problem,' my father said. 'Zoe was requested . . . but I'm not sure she's ready. In fact, I know she isn't. She's only had the most basic of training. But in light of Sydney's recent . . . experiences . . .'

My mind immediately began to pull the pieces together. First, and most importantly, it seemed I wasn't going to be sent to a re-education center. Not yet, at least. This was about something else. My earlier suspicion was correct. There was some mission or task afoot, and someone wanted to sub in Zoe because she, unlike certain other members of her family, had no history of betraying the Alchemists. My father was right that she'd only received basic instruction. Our jobs were hereditary, and I had been chosen years ago as the next Alchemist in the Sage family. My older sister, Carly, had been passed over and was now away at college and too old. He'd taught Zoe as backup instead, in the event something happened to me, like a car accident or vampire mauling.

I stepped forward, not knowing what I was going to say until I spoke. The only thing I knew for sure was that I could not let Zoe get sucked into the Alchemists' schemes. I feared for her safety more than I did going to a re-education center - and I was pretty afraid of that. 'I spoke to a committee about my actions after they happened,' I said. 'I was under the impression that they understood why I did the things I did. I'm fully qualified to serve in whatever way you need - much more so than my sister. I have real-world experience. I know this job inside and out.'

'A little too much real-world experience, if memory serves,' said Stanton dryly.

'I for one would like to hear these 'reasons' again,' said Barnes, using his fingers to make air quotes. 'I'm not thrilled about tossing a half-trained girl out there, but I also find it hard to believe someone who aided a vampire criminal is 'fully qualified to serve.'' More pretentious air quotes.

I smiled back pleasantly, masking my anger. If I showed my true emotions, it wouldn't help my case. 'I understand, sir. But Rose Hathaway was eventually proven innocent of the crime she'd been accused of. So, I wasn't technically aiding a criminal. My actions eventually helped find the real murderer.'

'Be that as it may, we - and you - didn't know she was 'innocent' at the time,' he said.

'I know,' I said. 'But I believed she was.'

Barnes snorted. 'And there's the problem. You should've believed what the Alchemists told you, not run off with your own far-fetched theories. At the very least, you should've taken what evidence you'd gathered to your superiors.'

Evidence? How could I explain that it wasn't evidence that had driven me to help Rose so much as a feeling in my gut that she was telling the truth? But that was something I knew they'd never understand. All of us were trained to believe the worst of her kind. Telling them that I had seen truth and honesty in her wouldn't help my cause here. Telling them that I'd been blackmailed into helping her by another vampire was an even worse explanation. There was only one argument that the Alchemists might possibly be able to comprehend.

'I . . . I didn't tell anyone because I wanted to get all the credit for it. I was hoping that if I uncovered it, I could get a promotion and a better assignment.'

It took every ounce of self-control I had to say that lie straight-faced. I felt humiliated at making such an admission. As though ambition would really drive me to such extreme behaviors! It made me feel slimy and shallow. But, as I'd suspected, this was something the other Alchemists could understand.

Michaelson snorted. 'Misguided, but not entirely unexpected for her age.'

The other men shared equally condescending looks, even my father. Only Stanton looked doubtful, but then, she'd witnessed more of the fiasco than they had.

My father glanced among the others, waiting for further comment. When none came, he shrugged. 'If no one has any objections, then, I'd rather we use Sydney. Not that I even entirely understand what you need her for.' There was a slightly accusing tone in his voice over not having been filled in yet. Jared Sage didn't like to be left out of the loop.

'I have no problem with using the older girl,' said Barnes. 'But keep the younger one around until the others get here, in case they have any objections.' I wondered how many 'others' would be joining us. My father's study was no stadium. Also, the more people who came, the more important this case probably was. My skin grew cold as I wondered what the assignment could possibly be. I'd seen the Alchemists cover up major disasters with only one or two people. How colossal would something have to be to require this much help?

Horowitz spoke up for the first time. 'What do you want me to do?'

'Re-ink Sydney,' said Stanton decisively. 'Even if she doesn't go, it won't hurt to have the spells reinforced. No point in inking Zoe until we know what we're doing with her.'

My eyes flicked to my sister's noticeably bare - and pale -  cheeks. Yes. As long as there was no lily there, she was free. Once the tattoo was emblazoned on your skin, there was no going back. You belonged to the Alchemists.

The reality of that had only hit me in the last year or so. I'd certainly never realized it while growing up. My father had dazzled me from a very young age about the rightness of our duty. I still believed in that rightness but wished he'd also mentioned just how much of my life it would consume.