"One of these days, Sydney…"

Suddenly Adrian Ivashkov was at my side, his green eyes alight with flame. "Leave her alone," he ordered my father. No one ordered my father around, let alone a vampire, but the tone in the Moroi's voice allowed for no arguments.

"I couldn't handled him," I snapped when we were alone.

Watching my father walk away, Adrian shrugged. "No matter what you say, Sage, I'm still going to want to protect you."

Ignoring the abrupt change in his features, I tried not to let my own heart show. To be a perfect little Alchemist – especially with my father around – I couldn't afford for anything to slip. In the Moroi Court, all that much more. "Why are you here?" I demanded, hiding my comfort at having him close, protecting me, with anger.

"Lissa wants to talk to you."

"Vasilisa Dragomir?" I nearly squeaked in surprise and half-terror. Vampires were growing on me, but certainly not enough for a huge residency like Court. Composing my voice, I checked, "The Queen?"

"Said it was kind of important," Adrian continued in a bored voice, although Vasilisa was a close friend, "and that if it makes you feel better, Rose will be there, too."

There was no longer pain in his tone when he mentioned Rose Hathaway. My heart skipped a beat (despite my brain's protests) as I realized it was because of me. He and I were the only two of our group in Palm Springs to come to Pennsylvania. Dimitri Belikov came with us after finishing some of his research on Strigoi restoration. And apparently my father had been placed here as well – for my convenience, I supposed: having another non-feeder human around. So like the Alchemists.

"Hey, Sydney," a dhampir, one of the royal guard in fact, greeted. "Haven't seen you in a while." She glanced at Adrian. "Or you, for that matter."

"We've been busy with" – I lowered my voice – "you know who."

Rose nodded thoughtfully. "Well, Lis is probably going to ask the same questions I am. Ready to meet my best friend?" She smiled, though her eyes darted around in the natural guardian way, searching for signs of danger.

"I'm coming, too," Adrian said without precedence. I wanted to scowl at him, disguising my smile with a glare, but I fought the urge and remained stoic. "It'll be good for me to be with Lissa again. And I'm sure Christian would love to see me."

"Christian Ozera?"

"The very same," Rose answered. I nearly shrank inside myself. "Don't worry, Sydney. He's nothing like his family is. I'm sure you'd like him."

Instinctively I reached for the gold cross I always kept around my neck – only to find it missing. Adrian smirked at me and held something out. "Looking for this, Sage?" I snatched it away.

Of course. I had given it to him the night I infiltrated the Warriors of Light; I had never gotten it back because of… certain events. I refused to think about what happened, much like I refused to think of him as anything other than a partner in keeping Jill Mastrano-Dragomir safe. She was back in Palm Springs with Eddie and Angeline, two more dhampirs, looking after her, away from Court and whoever wanted her dead. If it wasn't for Rose and his charge Christian, I was pretty sure Dimitri would have stayed there as an extra pair of eyes… and fists.

Nearly stopping in my tracks as realization dawned, my blood ran cold. One of these days, Sydney, you'll be in a Re-education Center, where you belong. And I will help you get there. Some distant part of me had always hoped my father loved me under all that Alchemist armor. Now I knew that he really did hate me. On top of that, this "test" was undoubtedly his idea. Just like it would be his idea to cart me off to Re-education.

Vasilisa was beautiful, especially for a Moroi. I could kind of see the resemblance between her and Jill, her illegitimate half-sister. At first glance, Christian looked like her opposite; while her jade irises held warmth and kindness, his light blue were definitely icy. But I knew they loved each other, and that looks did not pertain to much. After all, Rose almost always wanted to jump right in, while Dimitri was more level-headed and thoughtful – and they were nearly inseparable away from duty.

I stole a glance at my alleged brother in all this. Adrian and I were completely opposite, not only in personality and looks but also in race. I had to look away and forcefully draw my thoughts from that before I gave up something I knew I shouldn't.

"So this is the famous Sydney Sage."

Stunned, I bowed slightly out of respect to her. "I wouldn't call myself famous, Your Majesty."

"Please. Call me Lissa." She brushed away all the formality, obviously comfortable to have friends around her instead of other Court members.

"And if there's anything I hate most, it's being called 'Lord Ozera'," Christian chimed in scornfully, before I could speak. "Just call me Christian."

I nodded, only too aware of how close I was to three vampires and a dhampir. Two of them I already knew and somewhat lost fear in, yet it still felt unnatural. You would think that after a month things would be better. I was not entirely sure if Alchemist beliefs in vampires being evil monsters were right (other than Strigoi) but still grew very unsettled around them. It had gotten a lot better than before, though.

Our conversation was merely casual stuff, Lissa checking in on Jill and Eddie, Christian arguing with Adrian, Rose explaining things about the Moroi I did not understand right away. My lack of comprehension at certain topics brought Adrian a surprised joy; I shot him daggers once. Though he still smirked, that was the end of that.

Despite feeling safe around them, I had known in the back of my mind that something would go wrong. So I honestly should not have been all that surprised when I woke up in an Alchemist bunker… Or, I should say, a Re-education Center.

My nerves instantly leaped a million times higher, changing into pure, utter terror.