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That evening was special, the first formal meal they were to have at home in the mansion, and the first that Elena was allowed to attend. Elena and the two other girls were delighted to find that miracles had been wrought again by the seamstresses. When they descended to the dining room Meredith was wearing a leopard print evening dress with side cutouts that made her look as dangerous as a predator, and yet so sexy that if they’d had werewolf guests she might have gotten eaten, Damon joked. Elena was in a royal blue halter dress that matched her eyes and billowed down to her pearly sandals from an empire waistline that was trimmed with tiny multicolored freshwater pearls. She still wore Stefan’s pendant although Damon had said that in the privacy of their own home, he’d prefer the girls not wear token collars.
Bonnie was the one truly dressed up: she was wearing a soft blue gown with a satin bodice decorated all over with pale blue beading, and a full skirt overlaid with layer after layer of tulle draping. With sapphires at her ears and arms and fingers, she looked ready to dance at any moment.
The entered the dining room to find that Damon was reclining at the head of the table and Lady Ulma at its foot. The table was a singularly organically shaped structure designed to accommodate all the couches and still leave nooks for the servers, carvers, the salt cellar mistress (a position of obvious prestige), the spice lads, food tasters, and all the other servants who seemed to be necessary to the functioning of a special “family dinner.” Bonnie, though separated from Damon by several undulations of the table, seemed to be occupying the spot of first, or favorite, concubine. Sage amused them by explaining to Elena, that although her back was entirely healed and her leg concealed, she should not have been at the table at all, owing to the cut on her cheek. In a traditional household, it would rendered her as spoilt, probably for life— but Damon had said a few grim words to the household staff and she was seated near Lady Ulma, at the foot, and—to her own secret amusement—being served last.
Since Damon had made it a point beyond argument, no vampires were employed in the household except one or two of Lady Ulma’s old family retainers, who, fortunately, did not wait at table.
The first dishes were a clear venison soup with tiny slivers of pancake in it that Elena found delicious, and a thick soup tasting of almonds and honey that under normal circumstances would have served any of the girls as a meal in itself. But after this there were a bewildering variety of savories, from which Elena picked only a few shrimp served with a sharp vinegar, glad to find something she recognized. After that there was a pause, and then, with actual trumpeters sounding a fanfare from the steps above the dining hall, proud servants, holding the silver platters high over their heads, carried in a whole roast peacock, served with its head and tail, and half a dozen other large platters containing whole roast or boiled animals, all too often identifiable. Damon, of course, waved each dish past with a word or two about the presentation, all the while sipping Black Magic Wine from a healthy-sized gem-encrusted gold goblet. Elena could see nothing except the peacock in her minds’ eye and was frantically ticking off things to talk about to Lady Ulma or whoever instructed the chefs, when the horror started.
She might have missed the beginning if there had not been another pause—though, thankfully, no fanfare this time—and the very silence acted as a vacuum to draw all eyes to the covered silver platter being held at the top of the stairs, as a carver pushed a little carving table before Bonnie. The carver, a plump, pleasant, smiling man, was clearly according Bonnie (as favorite courtesan) the honor of the first and most tender choice of roast. He picked up a long thin knife and lovingly stropped it against another before, he nodded with a flourish to the servant still holding high the platter, which was about the size to fit a whole chicken.
There was some question, afterward, about her Power. Lady Ulma would always claim that Elena was already rising as the carver began to uncover the dish. Elena had some vague memory of needing to do something that was not at all clear in her mind—but it was certain that by the time of the cover-lifting she had a clear view over the sauce lad’s shoulder. After that, however, she was simply swept along with the series of events.
The carver had not finished lifting the cover when she saw it. A delicate wisp of a golden curl. Nothing that she had ever seen inside a covered dish and nothing that belonged there. In the silence, as steam began to plume out around the sides of the dish beside Bonnie, Elena heard her own voice raised high, perfectly clear in the expectant silence of the room.
“Keep that dish covered!”
The very violence of her outburst succeeded in making the carver pause. Even if this concubine was at this moment at the bottom of the pack, you could never tell what might happen tomorrow. Masters were notoriously fickle, and a lovely girl like this one might well end up a favorite again.
The shrillness of Elena’s voice did something else, though. It caused Bonnie to see through the plume of smoke what looked like a little golden curl. Meredith was already on her feet, alerted by Elena’s frantic outburst and the size of the covered dish. Now her dusky skin turned gray and Elena knew she’d gotten it.
Bonnie’s shoulders went down and on a whole number of levels Elena was glad: Bonnie was going to faint without a word, and she would be followed by Elena and finally Meredith, all the Lord Vampire’s courtesans, one, two, three. That meant, primarily, that Elena could give in to the sucking black vortex at her feet, that kept hearing Dr. Meggar’s voice saying, “Red meat! Red meat!” It also meant that she didn’t have to dwell on the particularly large roast that was the base of the throne, as it were, for the peacock. It had a frighteningly familiar silhouette with small arms and legs doubled up and held by white frills and blue ribbon.
Bonnie’s fainting would also mean that Elena didn’t have to deal— right now—with a great sheaf of memories that were popping up like magicians’ cards out of a pack, and primarily that she didn’t have to wonder in how many ways she could have prevented this greatest of tragedies, or how to re-evaluate her view of everyone in the household that she had come to know, including Lady Ulma.
And then Elena heard the first shriek splinter the expectant silence and she saw that Bonnie was not going to faint; that in fact Bonnie had thrown her head back for a whole series of glass-shattering shrieks, and Elena knew somewhere in the dizzying cotton-wool that was filling her head that if Bonnie did not faint then neither could she. There was something that had to be done before she could simply fall over. And somehow, although her lips were numb and her eyes were blind with tears that seemed to have permanently frozen over them, obscuring her vision, she was shuffling forward. No, she was shouldering forward, shoving her way past all manner of servants who had a right to be there and even more that did not, but who were so thrown off by this extraordinary turn of events that they didn’t know where their places were.
And now Bonnie’s hands were beating at the horror in front of her and, in slow motion, the cover was coming off, only, thankfully, to be clamped back on by the carver, who then fell to his knees, wailing and begging for his life. Honey and vinegar filled Elena’s mouth and she had no memory of how she emptied it before she heard her own shrieks also filling the room, and Meredith’s alto screams seeming to echo back at her.
Unfortunately, this seemed to make it even harder to get to Bonnie, as the servants around Elena wanted her to drink water, wanted her to sit down, wanted her to do anything but scream bloody murder until she could force Bonnie to stop screaming bloody murder.
And then she saw something which caused everything in the room, momentarily, to go black-and-white and soundless, like a very old photo imprinting its image on her eyes. Lady Ulma was trying to rise from her couch, but was frozen midway in doing it, with one hand over her curving abdomen and the other clenched into a fist at her temple.
Poison? We’ve all gone mad, all the women, at least—is it possible that we’ve been—
As Elena stared, forgetting to scream in the new horror before her eyes, the fuzziness that had clouded them just a minute ago disappeared. And she saw, with the utmost clarity, a long spasm of contraction that rippled across the pregnant woman’s stomach and held her frozen again as sweat appeared in great droplets at her temples. She was trying to wipe the sweat away, but the hand that swiped at her forehead was trembling with weakness.
She’s going into premature labor.
It didn’t matter why. Some guiding voice told Elena this as one part of her mind began to wonder, helplessly, if perhaps Lady Ulma was as horrified at the thought of eating a sweet toddler, or if Lady Ulma was worried that after this they wouldn’t help her to keep her family home, or if, as seemed most likely, Lady Ulma simply had been scared out of her wits by this dinner guest turned into a shrieking madwoman and the shock had been too much for a pregnancy that had already been through so many horrors. All the questions disappeared in a puff of smoke as Elena realized that a tragedy was about to be doubled right here in this room, if someone couldn’t get the hellish noise and the hysteria to stop.
But, to her immense frustration, she still wasn’t able to get to Bonnie. Not even charging with her shoulder, first waving, and then flinging attendants away from her. Neither, in a room where the noise level had now reached a peak, was she able to attract anyone sensible’s attention to ask them to bring Dr. Meggar. Everyone was reacting to her as if she were a thrashing, screaming maniac—like Bonnie . . .
“Damon!” Scrambling up onto her couch, ignoring the renewed shrieks of fear and well-meant advice around her, she looked for the only person that she could think of that might have kept his head. To her relief, an instant later, Meredith popped up from across the table, barely visible behind the peacock.
“Damon!” With Meredith’s voice added to hers she could hear herself calling through the din. And what’s more, from her new vantage point she could see Damon. He was standing right in front of Bonnie, ignoring Bonnie’s flailing hands smeared with God-knew-what. But he wasn’t doing anything.
We made him promise, Elena remembered. No mind control. No Influence to force us to do anything we really didn’t want to.
He gave his word, Elena thought. And somehow she knew that, once pledged, Damon would not, could not, simply break his word. If he hadn’t done it in five hundred years, she reasoned, he wasn’t going to break it now over a screaming teenager.
Elena and Meredith exchanged another helpless look. Then Elena took a quick look back at Bonnie. Someone had already tried the water- in-the-face trick. Bonnie’s normally fluffy strawberry hair was flat and wet. And she was still screaming—like Fazina herself, generating a truly remarkable amount of noise for one so tiny in stature. Damon had her by the shoulders and was shaking her, but far too gently to get anywhere with her. Elena would bet that to Bonnie he was just another blob in a sea of blobs, and that neither comfort nor enlightenment had emerged from the blobby ocean.
And the two of them couldn’t get out of the room. That was bad. Damon and Bonnie were both trapped by a solid phalanx of servants, couches, and the three other diners—not to mention the table—between them and the two exits from the room. Lady Ulma was nearest the exits, but she was lying on a high-backed couch that kept the crowd of onlookers who were now thronging in the doorway from seeing her plight as Elena had.
Elena and Meredith were reaching a decision by a consensus of velociraptor sisterhood. It was not one that had ever been reached before, but the situation was desperate. Elena held up a hand flat in the air with the thumb pointing toward her and all the fingers together as if to slice something with it, then brought her other hand sharply toward it in a gesture as if clapping her palm with her fingers, once. Across the table, Meredith was doing the same thing, but Elena noticed that Meredith’s smack was a good deal more vigorous.
After one more instant, while Elena hung in limbo, frozen by what she had to do, she turned back toward Damon, seeing Meredith turn with her. They both called again, Elena putting all her Power behind her voice to try to cut through the noise.
Damon heard. He had been fully occupied with Bonnie, but now he looked up to see the two other girls standing on their couches, both shouting at him.
Even the telepathic channel was over-crowded; Elena knew her voice was only getting through faintly.
She and Meredith, hands held high, made the slapping gesture again. This time Elena increased the power of her swinging hand to match Meredith’s.
Damon stared at them, back and forth as Elena nodded both vigorously and impatiently. She could barely hear her own telepathic voice as she jabbed a finger toward Lady Ulma’s couch. Make it stop! Get the doctor. Lady Ulma’s going into labor! DO IT NOW!
Whether he picked all that up she didn’t know, but he got the basic message. There was a little clear space around Bonnie, where broken dishes and goblets and the ruins of many platters of food lay on the floor. Bonnie was still beating with her hands at invisible enemies and somehow keeping up the ear-splitting noise that rose above all the rest.
Damon took a step into the area. He swung the flat of his hand, stopping it just at the last second before it could impact Bonnie’s face.
Bonnie, eyes shut, took absolutely no notice.
Damon tried again, raising his hand, swinging, only stop dead exactly at the moment when his fingers touched Bonnie’s cheek.
Elena lost her cool.
“LADY ULMA’S BABY IS GOING TO DIE BECAUSE OF YOU!” she screamed, at the same time sending the words with all the Power she could summon. “THIS HAS TO STOP! SHE’S GOING TO MISCARRY AND IT WILL BE ALL YOUR FAULT BECAUSE YOU COULDN’T STOP IT—”
And then Damon stopped it.
Damon kissed Bonnie.
Elena, from her perch, could see it all. She saw how Damon, who was not so very tall himself, had to bend down to her, and how, ignoring her tear-smeared face, he kissed her just as she was opening her mouth for a fresh scream. Elena could see Bonnie’s eyes open and widen and then blink as if she were coming out of some fugue state. Then she slowly shut her eyes as she cooperated with the kiss—and then she went limp. Her hands, which had been raised in defensive claws, relaxed and went around Damon’s neck and then slowly, she brought them down to her sides. She swayed.
Silence spread out from them like ripples in a pool.
Meredith and Elena looked at each other, each slightly ashamed. There, they had been advocating violence toward a sister, and had entirely missed Damon’s better solution. And Elena told herself that it was not in the least because she was jealous of Bonnie—after all, Meredith hadn’t thought of it either, and Meredith didn’t want Damon to kiss her.
And since when do I want Damon to kiss me? Elena asked herself, feeling something now like fear.
The silence acted as if a tonic had spread like ripples across the entire room. The servants, who had been bellowing or screeching at each other to shut up, shut up. The carver and his assistants, who had been kneeling, wailing, and begging for their miserable lives, shut up. The majordomo, who had been one of the loudest, bawling his orders at servant after servant, took a gulp of wine and said no more.
In the silence, Elena’s words rang out clearly. “Lady Ulma’s in labor! You and you and you carry her couch upstairs, and—where’s Lakshmi?—there you are! Run, run, get a litter and bring Dr. Meggar back on it immediately.”
For just an instant everyone hesitated. This was a slave, the same one who had gotten herself ten stripes for overreaching herself before, and besides in the aftermath of the hysteria, there was a sort of spell of inaction that kept everyone silent and frozen in place.
Damon broke it. “She speaks for me in every word,” he said, lifting his head at last from Bonnie’s, which for some reason, made Elena feel more relaxed. “Lakshmi! Take this”—he expertly flipped the girl a coin purse—“for the litter. Do whatever you have to do, but get him.” Damon was not shouting by any means, but speaking in a way that penetrated every crevice in the room and the hallway. Forcefully, that was it. He was speaking so forcefully that servants began talking again, looking for a way to clean up the mess, the majordomo once again began to give his orders in his stentorian voice, and the carver, prostrate in a mess that Elena couldn’t look at without wanting to be sick, began again wailing that he had simply followed his orders and he had nothing to do with the choice of cuisine.
But Elena’s words, with Damon’s backing, were already being obeyed. The couch was floating away on the backs of hardy young men and women, whom Elena had picked because they were all of one height, and Lakshmi was already out of the room at a dead run.
This time when Elena elbowed her way through the servants that still separated her from Bonnie, she was able to reach her. To her relief, she saw Meredith coming from the other direction.
“Oh God,” Bonnie was saying, her clear brown eyes fixing on Elena. “I can’t believe—it wasn’t real, was it? It was some sort of—joke, or—they set us up, right? Because it’s the first formal dinner. They—” Just then Meredith arrived, said nothing at all, and took Bonnie into her arms. Elena, who had been trying to lead Bonnie out of this place of terrible shrapnel, gave in, and wound her arms around both of them.
They finally had to walk that way, crabwise, out of the dining room and upstairs.