THE FEW SECONDS OF SILENCE that followed seemed to stretch out to eternity.Everyone was confused, each for totally different reasons.Jill’s initial surprise had been laced with excitement, but as she stared around from face to face, her smile faded and faded until she looked as bewildered as the rest of us.
“What’s going on?’ asked a new voice.
Moments later, Emily Mastrano appeared beside her daughter. Emily glanced at me and Sydney with curiosity and then gasped when she saw the third member of our group. “Sonya!’ Emily jerked Jill back, her face filled with panic. Emily wasn’t guardian-fast, but I admired her responsiveness.
“Emily … ?’ Sonya’s voice was very small, on the verge of cracking. “It … it’s me … really me …’
Emily tried to tug the man inside as well but stopped when she got a good look at Sonya. Like anyone else, Emily had to acknowledge the obvious. Sonya had no Strigoi features. Plus, she was out in broad daylight. Emily faltered and opened her mouth to speak, but her lips couldn’t quite manage it. She finally turned to me.
“Rose … what’s going on?’
I was surprised that she would regard me as an authority, both because we’d only met once and because I honestly wasn’t sure what was going on either. It took me a few attempts to find my voice. “I think … I think we should come inside …’
Emily’s gaze fell back on Sonya. Jill tried to push forward to see what all the drama was about, but Emily continued blocking the door, still not totally convinced it was safe. I couldn’t blame her. At last, she gave a slow nod and stepped away to give us access.
Sydney’s eyes flicked toward the car, where Victor, Robert, and Dimitri were waiting. “What about them?’ she asked me.
I hesitated. I wanted Dimitri to be with me to drop the bombshell, but Emily might only be able to handle one thing at a time here. Moroi didn’t have to run in royal circles to know who Victor Dashkov was or what he looked like. Our trip to Las Vegas had been proof of that. I shook my head at Sydney. “They can wait.’
We settled into the family’s living room and learned the guy who’d answered the door was Emily’s husband, John Mastrano. Emily went through the motions of offering us beverages, like this was a perfectly ordinary visit, but the look on her face confirmed she was still in shock. She handed us glasses of water like a robot, her face so pale she might have been Strigoi.
John rested his hand on Emily’s once she sat down. He kept giving us wary looks, but for her, he was all affection and concern. “What’s going on?’ Emily’s eyes were still dazed. “I … don’t know. My cousin is here … but I don’t understand how …’ She looked back and forth at me, Sydney, and Sonya. “How is this possible?’ Her voice shook.
“It was Lissa, wasn’t it?’ exclaimed Jill, who undoubtedly knew this relative’s sordid history. She was understandably shocked–and a little nervous–but excitement was beginning to stir. “I heard what happened with Dimitri. It’s true, isn’t it? Lissa can heal Strigoi. She saved him. She saved …’ Jill turned toward Sonya, enthusiasm wavering a little. I wondered what kind of stories she’d heard about Sonya. “She saved you.’
“Lissa didn’t do it,’ I said. “Another, uh, spirit user did.’
Jill’s face lit up. “Adrian?’ I’d forgotten about her crush on him.
“No … someone else. It’s not important,’ I added hastily. “Sonya’s … well, she’s Moroi again. Confused, though. Not quite herself.’
Sonya had been drinking in the sight of her cousin but now turned to me with a wry, knowing smile. “I can speak for myself, Rose.’
“Sorry,’ I said.
Emily turned to Sydney and frowned. They’d been introduced, but no more. “Why are you here?’ Emily didn’t have to say what she really meant. She wanted to know why a human was here. “Are you a feeder?’
“No!’ exclaimed Sydney, jumping up from her spot beside me on the loveseat. I had never seen her filled with such outrage and disgust. “Say that again, and I’ll walk right out of here! I’m an Alchemist.’
She was met with blank stares, and I pulled Sydney back down. “Easy, girl. I don’t think they don’t know what Alchemists are.’ Secretly, I was glad. When I’d first discovered the Alchemists, I’d felt like I was the last person in the world to find out. It was nice to know others were out of the loop too. Keeping things simple for now, I explained to Emily, “Sydney’s been helping us.’
Tears brimmed in Emily’s blue eyes as she turned back to her cousin. Emily Mastrano was one of the most stunning women I’d ever met. Even tears were beautiful on her. “It’s really you, isn’t it? They brought you back to me. Oh God.’ Emily rose and walked over to hold her cousin in a deep embrace. “I’ve missed you so much. I can’t believe this.’
I almost felt like crying, too, but sternly reminded myself that we had come with a mission. I knew how startling this all was. We had just turned the Mastrano family’s world upside down … and I was about to complicate things even more. I hated to do it. I wished they could have the time they needed to adjust, to celebrate the miracle of having Sonya back. But the clock at Court–and on my life–was ticking.
“We brought her …’ I said at last. “But there’s another reason we’re here.’
I don’t know what tone my voice conveyed, but Emily stiffened and stepped back from Sonya, sitting down beside her husband. Somehow, in that moment, I think she knew why we were here. I could see in her eyes that she was afraid–as if she’d been dreading this type of visit for years, as if she’d imagined it a hundred times.
I pushed forward. “We know … we know about Eric Dragomir.’
“No,’ said Emily, her voice an odd mixture of harshness and desperateness. Her obstinate manner was remarkably similar to Sonya’s initial refusal to aid us. “No. We are not doing this.’ The instant I’d seen Jill, the instant I’d recognized those eyes, I’d known we had the right place. Emily’s words–more importantly, her lack of a denial–confirmed it.
“We have to,’ I said. “This is serious.’
Emily turned to Sonya. “You promised! You promised you wouldn’t tell!’
“I didn’t,’ said Sonya, but her face wore its earlier doubt.
“She didn’t,’ I said firmly, hoping to reassure them both. “It’s hard to explain … but she kept her promise.’
“No,’ repeated Emily. “This isn’t happening. We cannot talk about this.’
“What … what’s going on?’ demanded John. Anger kindled in his eyes. He didn’t like seeing strangers upset his wife.
I directed my words to Emily. “We have to talk about this. Please. We need your help. We need her help.’ I gestured to Jill.
“What do you mean?’ asked Jill. That earlier eager spark was gone, cooled by her mother’s reaction.
“It’s about your–‘ I came to a stop. I’d rushed into this, ready to find Lissa’s sibling– her sister, we now knew–with little thought of the implications. I should have known this would be a secret from everyone–including the child in question. I hadn’t considered what a shock this would be to her. And this wasn’t just some random stranger. This was Jill. Jill. My friend. The girl who was like a little sister to all of us, the one we looked out for. What was I about to do to her? Looking at John, I realized things were worse still. Did Jill think he was her father? This family was about to be shaken to its core– and I was responsible.
“Don’t!’ cried Emily, jumping up again. “Get out! All of you! I don’t want you here!’
“Mrs. Mastrano …’ I began. “You can’t pretend this isn’t real. You have to face it.’
“No!’ she pointed to the door. “Get out! Get out, or I’ll … I’ll call the police! Or the guardians! You …’ Realization flashed over her now that the initial shock of seeing Sonya had faded. Victor wasn’t the only criminal Moroi would be on guard for. “You’re a fugitive! A murderer!’
“She is not!’ said Jill, leaning forward. “I told you, Mom. I told you before it was a mistake–‘
“Get out,’ repeated Emily.
“Sending us away won’t change the truth,’ I said, forcing myself to stay calm.
“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?’ John’s face was flushed red, angry and defensive. “If I don’t have an answer within thirty seconds, I’m calling the guardians and the police.’
I looked over at Jill and couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how to say what I needed to, at least not tactfully. Sydney, however, didn’t have that problem.
“He’s not your father,’ she said bluntly, pointing at John.
There was a slight pause in the room. Jill almost looked disappointed, like she’d hoped for more exciting news.
“I know that. He’s my stepdad. Or, well, my dad as far as I’m concerned.’
Emily sank back on the couch, burying her face in her hands. She seemed to be crying, but I was pretty sure she could jump up at any moment and call the authorities. We had to get through this fast, no matter how painful. “Right. He’s not your biological father,’ I said, looking steadily at Jill. The eyes. How had I never noticed the eyes? ‘Eric Dragomir is.’
Emily made a low keening sound. “No,’ she begged. “Please don’t do this.’
John’s anger morphed back to the confusion that seemed to be so in fashion in this room. “What?’
“That … no.’ Jill slowly shook her head. “That’s impossible. My father was just … just some guy who ran out on us.’
In some ways, that wasn’t far from the truth, I supposed. “It was Eric Dragomir,’ I said. “You’re part of their family. Lissa’s sister. You’re …’ I startled myself, realizing I had to look at Jill in a whole new way. “You’re royalty.’
Jill was always full of energy and optimism, operating in the world with a naive hope and charm. But now her face was grim and sober, making her look older than her fifteen years. “No. This is a joke. My dad was a lowlife. I’m not … no. Rose, stop.’
“Emily.’ I flinched at the sound of Sonya’s voice, surprised to hear her speak. I was more surprised at her expression. Authoritative. Serious. Determined. Sonya was younger than Emily by–what? Ten years, if I had to guess. But Sonya had fixed her cousin with a stare that made Emily look like a naughty child. “Emily, it’s time to give this up. You have to tell her. For God’s sake, you have to tell John. You can’t keep this buried anymore.’
Emily looked up and met Sonya’s eyes. “I can’t tell. You know what will happen … I can’t do that to her.’
“None of us know what will happen,’ said Sonya. “But things will get worse if you don’t take control now.’
After a long moment, Emily finally looked away, staring at the floor. The sad, sad look on her face broke my heart. And not just mine.
“Mom?’ asked Jill, voice trembling. “What’s happening? This is all a big mix-up, right?’
Emily sighed and looked up at her daughter. “No. You are Eric Dragomir’s daughter. Rose is right.’ John made a small, strangled sound but didn’t interrupt his wife. She squeezed his hand again. “What I told you both over the years … it was true. Mostly. We did just have a brief … relationship. Not a cheap one, exactly. But brief.’ She paused and glanced over at John this time, her expression softening. “I told you …’
He nodded. “And I told you the past didn’t matter to me. Never affected how I felt about you, about Jill. But I never imagined …’
“Me neither,’ she agreed. “I didn’t even know who he was when we first met. It was back when I lived in Las Vegas and had my first job, dancing in a show at the Witching Hour.’
I felt my eyes go wide. No one seemed to notice. The Witching Hour. My friends and I had been to that casino while hunting for Robert, and a man there had made a joke about Lissa’s father being interested in showgirls. I knew Emily worked in a Detroit ballet company now; it was why they lived in Michigan. Never would I have guessed that she’d started as a feather-and-sequin-clad dancer in a Las Vegas show. But why not? She would have had to start somewhere, and her tall, graceful frame would lend itself well to any type of dancing.
“He was so sweet … and so sad,’ Emily continued. “His father had just died, and he’d come to sort of drown his sorrows. I understood how a death would devastate him, but now … well, I really understand. It was another loss to his family. The numbers were dropping.’ She frowned thoughtfully and then shrugged. “He was a good man, and I think he truly loved his wife. But he was in a dark, low place. I don’t think he was using me. He cared about me, though I doubt what happened between us would have in other circumstances. Anyway, I was fine with the way things ended and was content to move on with my life … until Jill came along. I contacted Eric because I thought he should know–though I made it clear I didn’t expect anything from him. And at that point, knowing who he was, I didn’t want anything. If I’d let him, I think he would have acknowledged you, had a role in your life.’ Emily’s eyes were on Jill now. “But I’ve seen what that world is like. Court life is politics and lies and backstabbing. In the end, the only thing I’d accept from him was money. I still didn’t want that. I didn’t want to feel like I was blackmailing him–but I did want to make sure your future was secure.’
I spoke without thinking. “You don’t really live like you’re using that money.’ I regretted the words as soon as they were out. Their home was perfectly nice, hardly the depths of poverty. But it also didn’t match the funds I’d seen moved around in those bank accounts.
“I’m not,’ said Emily. “It’s on hand for emergencies, of course, but mostly I set it all aside for Jill, for her future. To do whatever she wants.’
“What do you mean?’ asked Jill, aghast. “What kind of money are you talking about?’
“You’re an heiress,’ I said. “And royalty.’
“I’m not any of those things,’ she said. She was frantic now, looking around at all of us. She reminded me of a deer, ready to bolt. “There’s a mistake. You’ve all made some mistake.’
Emily stood up and walked over to Jill’s chair, kneeling on the floor before it. Emily clasped her daughter’s hand. “It is all true. And I’m sorry you have to find out like this. But it doesn’t change anything. Our lives aren’t going to change. We’ll go on just like we have before.’
A range of emotions raced over Jill’s features–especially fear and confusion–but she leaned down and buried her face against her mother’s shoulder in acceptance. “Okay.’
It was a touching moment, and again, I almost felt like crying. I’d had my own share of family drama and parental issues. Like before, I wanted the Mastranos to have this moment–but they couldn’t.
“You can’t,’ I told them. “You can’t go on like before. Jill … Jill has to go to Court.’
Emily jerked away from Jill and stared at me. Only a second ago, Emily had been full of grief and distress. Now, I saw intense anger and ferocity. Her blue eyes were stormy, fixing me with a sharp glare. “No. She is not going there. She is never going there.’
Jill had already visited Court before, but both Emily and I knew that I wasn’t referring to some casual sightseeing trip. Jill had to go with her true identity. Well– maybe true wasn’t the right word. Illicit royalty wasn’t part of her nature, at least not yet. She was who she’d always been, but her name had changed. That change had to be acknowledged, and the Moroi Court would be shaken.
“She has to,’ I urged. “The Court’s getting corrupted, and the Dragomir family has to play its part to help fix things. Lissa has no power alone, not without a family quorum. All the other royals … they’re trampling her. They’re going to push laws that won’t help any of us.’
Emily still knelt by the chair, as though shielding Jill from my words. “And that’s exactly why Jill can’t go. It’s why I wouldn’t let Eric acknowledge her. I don’t want Jill involved. That place is poison. Tatiana’s murder is proof.’ Emily paused and gave me a sharp look, reminding me that I was the chief suspect. Apparently we weren’t past that yet. “All those royals … they’re vicious. I don’t want Jill turning into one of them. I won’t let her turn into one of them.’
“Not all royals are like that,’ I argued. “Lissa’s not. She’s trying to change the system.’
Emily gave me a bitter smile. “And how do you think the others feel about her reform? I’m sure there are royals who are happy to see her silenced–royals who wouldn’t like to see her family reemerge. I told you: Eric was a good man. Sometimes I don’t think it’s a coincidence their family has died out.’
I gaped. “That’s ridiculous.’ But I suddenly wasn’t so sure.
“Is it?’ Emily’s eyes were on me, as though guessing my doubts. “What do you think they’d do if another Dragomir came forward? The people who oppose Vasilisa? What do you think they’d do if only one person stood between them and her family’s power?’
Her implications were shocking … yet, I knew they weren’t impossible. Glancing over at Jill, I felt an empty, sinking feeling in my stomach. What would I be subjecting her to? Sweet, innocent Jill. Jill wanted adventure out of life and could still barely talk to guys without blushing. Her desire to learn to fight was half-youthful impulse and half-instinct to defend her people. Stepping into the royal world could technically help her people too–though not in a way she’d ever expected. And it would mean getting involved with the dark and sinister nature that sometimes filled the Court.
Emily seemed to read my silence as agreement. A mix of triumph and relief crossed her face, all of which vanished when Jill suddenly spoke up.
“I’ll do it.’
We all turned to stare. Thus far, I’d been regarding her with pity, thinking of her as a victim. Now, I was startled at how brave and resolved she looked. Her expression was still underscored with a little fear and shock, but there was a steel in her I’d never seen before.
“What?’ exclaimed Emily.
“I’ll do it,’ said Jill, voice steadier. “I’ll help Lissa and … and the Dragomirs. I’ll go with Rose back to Court.’
I decided mentioning the myriad difficulties of me getting anywhere near Court wasn’t important just then. Honestly, I had reached a point where I was playing all of this by ear, though it was a relief to see Emily’s fury shifted away from me.
“You will not! I’m not letting you near there.’
“You can’t make this choice for me!’ cried Jill. “I’m not a child.’
“And you’re certainly not an adult,’ retorted Emily.
The two began arguing back and forth, and soon John jumped in to support his wife. In the midst of the family bickering, Sydney leaned toward me and murmured, “I bet you never thought the hardest part of finding your “savior’ would be getting her mom to let her stay out past curfew.’ The unfortunate part about her joke was that it was kind of true. We needed Jill, and I certainly hadn’t envisioned this complication. What if Emily refused? Clearly, keeping Jill’s heritage a secret was something she’d been pretty adamant about for a while– say, like, fifteen years. I had a feeling Jill wouldn’t be beyond running away to Court if it came down to that. And I wouldn’t be beyond helping her.
Once more, Sonya jumped into the conversation unexpectedly. “Emily, didn’t you hear me? This is all going to happen eventually, with or without your consent. If you don’t let Jill go now, she’ll go next week. Or next year. Or in five years. The point is, it will happen.’
Emily sank back against the chair, face crumpling. “No. I don’t want this.’
Sonya’s pretty face turned bitter. “Life, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to care what we want. Act now while you can actually stop it from being a disaster.’
“Please, Mom,’ begged Jill. Her jade Dragomir eyes regarded Emily with affection. I knew Jill might indeed disobey and run off–but she didn’t want to, not if she didn’t have to.
Emily stared into the distance, long-lashed eyes vacant and defeated. And although she was standing in the way of my plans, I knew she did it out of legitimate love and concern–traits that had probably drawn Eric to her.
“Okay,’ said Emily at last. She sighed. “Jill can go–but I’m going too. You aren’t facing that place without me.’
“Or me,’ said John. He still seemed bewildered but was determined to support his wife and stepdaughter. Jill regarded them both with gratitude, reminding me again that I’d just turned a functional family dysfunctional. Emily and John coming with us hadn’t been part of my plans, but I couldn’t blame them and didn’t see what harm they’d cause. We’d need Emily anyway to tell everyone about Eric.
“Thank you,’ I said. “Thank you so much.’
John eyed me. “We still haven’t dealt with the fact that there’s a fugitive in our home.’
“Rose didn’t do it!’ That fierceness was still in Jill. “It was a setup.’
“It was.’ I hesitated to speak my next words. “Probably by the people opposing Lissa.’
Emily paled, but I felt the need for honesty, even if it reaffirmed her fears. She took a steadying breath. “I believe you. Believe that you didn’t do it. I don’t know why … but I do.’ She almost smiled. “No, I do know why. It’s because of what I said before, about those vipers at Court. They’re the ones who do this kind of thing. Not you.’
“Are you sure?’ asked John uneasily. “This mess with Jill is bad enough without us housing a criminal.’
“I’m certain,’ said Emily. “Sonya and Jill trust Rose, and so I do. You’re all welcome to stay here tonight since we can hardly head out to Court right now.’
I opened my mouth to say we most certainly could leave right now, but Sydney elbowed me sharply. “Thank you, Mrs. Mastrano,’ she said, summoning up that Alchemist diplomacy. “That would be great.’
I repressed a scowl. Time was still pressing on me, but I knew the Mastranos were entitled to make some preparations. It was probably better to travel in the daytime too. A rough check of my mental map made me think we could do the whole drive back to Court in one day. I nodded in agreement with Sydney, resigning myself to a sleepover at the Mastrano house. “Thanks. We appreciate it.’ Suddenly, something occurred to me, summoning back John’s words. This mess with Jill is bad enough without us housing a criminal. I gave Emily as convincing and reassuring a smile as I could muster. “We, um, also have some friends with us waiting out in the car …’