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“But—that poor man was selling a day of his life. A wonderful

day! I should think he would want to keep it.”

“You saw him.”

“Yes.” Once again Elena saw the louse-ridden, haggard,

gray-faced old man. She felt something like ice down her spine at the

thought that he had once been the laughing, joyous, young John that she

had experienced. “Oh, how sad,” she said, and she wasn’t talking about

memory.

But, for once, Damon hadn’t followed her thoughts. “Yes,” he

said. “There are a lot of the poor and the old here. They worked

themselves free of slavery, or had a generous owner die…and then this

is where they end up.”

“But the star balls? Are they just made for poor people? The rich

ones can just travel to Earth and see a real summer day for themselves,

right?”Damon laughed without much humor. “Oh, no, they can’t. Most of

them are bound here.”

He said bound oddly. Elena ventured, “Too busy to go on

vacation?”

“Too busy, too powerful to get through the wards protecting Earth

from them, too worried about what their enemies will do while they’re

gone, too physically decrepit, too notorious, too dead.”

“Dead?” The horror of the tunnel and the corpse-smelling fog

seemed ready to envelope Elena.

Damon flashed one of his evil smiles. “Forgot that your boyfriend

is de mortius? Not to mention your honorable master? Most people,

when they die, go to another level than this—much higher or much

lower. This is the place for the bad ones, but it’s the upper level. Farther

down—well, nobody wants to go there.”

“Like Hell?” Elena breathed. “We’re in Hell?”

“More like Limbo, at least where we are. Then there’s the Other

Side.” He nodded toward the horizon where the lowering sun still sat.

“The other city, which may have been where you went on your

‘vacation’ to the afterlife. Here they just call it ‘The Other Side.’ But I

can tell you two rumors I heard from my informants. There, they call it

the Celestial Court. And there, the sky is crystal blue and the sun is

always rising.”

“The Celestial Court…” Elena forgot that she was speaking aloud.

She knew instinctively that it was the

queens-and-knights-and-sorceresses kind of court, not a court of law. It

would be like Camelot. Just saying the words brought up an aching

nostalgia, and—not memories, but the tip-of-the-tongue feeling that

memories were locked right behind a door. It was a door, however, that

was securely locked, and all Elena could see through the keyhole were

ranks of more women like the Guardians, tall, golden-haired, and

blue-eyed, and one—child-sized among the grown women—who

glanced up, and, piercingly, from a long way off, met Elena’s gaze

directly.

The litter was moving out of the bazaar into more slums, which

Elena took in with darting quick glances on either side of her, hiding in

her veil. They seemed like any earthly slums, barrios, or favella—only

worse. Children, their hair turned red by the sun, crowded around

Elena’s litter, their hands held out in a gesture with universal meaning.

Elena felt a tearing at her insides that she had nothing of real value

to give them. She wanted to build houses here, make sure these children

had food and clean water, and education, and a future to look forward to.

Since she had no idea how to give them any of these things, she watched

them dash off with treasures such as her Juicy Fruit gum, her comb, her

minibrush, her lip gloss, her water bottle, and her earrings.

Damon shook his head, but didn’t stop her until she began

fumbling with a lapis and diamond pendant Stefan had given her. She

was crying as she tried to disengage the clasp when suddenly the last bit

of the rope around her wrist came up short.

“No more,” Damon said. “You don’t understand anything. We

haven’t even entered the city proper yet. Why don’t you have a look at

the architecture instead of worrying about useless brats who’re likely to

die anyway?”

“That’s cold,” Elena said, but she couldn’t think of any way to

make him understand, and she was too angry with him to try.

Still, she stopped fumbling with the chain and looked beyond the

slums as Damon had suggested. There she could see a breathtaking

skyline, with buildings that seemed meant to last for eternity, made of

stones that looked the way the Egyptian pyramids and Mayan ziggurats

must have looked when they were new. Everything, though, was colored

red and black by a sun now concealed by sullen crimson cloudbanks.

That huge red sun—it gave the air a different look for different moods.

At times it seemed almost romantic, glinting on a large river Elena and

Damon passed, picking out a thousand tiny wavelets in the slow-moving

water. At other times, it simply seemed alien and ominous, showing

clearly on the horizon like a monstrous omen, tingeing the buildings, no

matter how magnificent, the color of blood. When they turned away



from it, as the litter bearers moved down into the city where the huge

buildings were, Elena could see their own long and menacing black

shadow thrown ahead of them.

“Well? What do you think?” Damon seemed to be trying to placate

her.

“I still think it looks like Hell,” Elena said slowly. “I’d hate to live

here.”

“Ah, but whoever said that we should live here, my Princess of

Darkness? We’ll go back home, where the night is velvet black and the

moon shines down, making everything silver.” Slowly, Damon traced

one finger from her hand, up her arm to her shoulder. It sent an inner

shiver through her.

She tried holding the veil up as a barrier against him, but it was too

transparent. He still flashed that brilliant smile at her, dazzling through

the diamond-dotted white—well, shell pink, of course, because of the

light—that was on her side of the veil.

“Does this place have a moon?” she asked, trying to distract him.

She was afraid—afraid of him—afraid of herself.

“Oh, yes: three or four of them, I think. But they’re very small and

of course the sun never goes down, so you can’t see them as well.

Not…romantic.” He smiled at her, again, slowly this time, and Elena

looked away.

And in looking, she saw something in front of her that captured her

entire attention. In a side street a cart had overturned, spilling large rolls

made out of fur and leather. There was a thin, hungry-looking old

woman attached to the cart like a beast, who was lying on the ground,

and a tall angry man standing over her, raining down blows with a whip

on her unprotected body.

The woman’s face was turned toward Elena. It was contorted in a

grimace of anguish, as she tried ineffectually to roll into a ball, her hands

over her stomach. She was naked from the waist up, but as the whip

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lashed into her flesh, her body from throat to waist was being covered by

a coating of blood.

Elena felt herself swelling with Wing Powers, but somehow none

would come. She willed with all her circulating life-force for

something—anything—to break free from her shoulders, but it was no

good. Maybe it had something to do with wearing the remains of slave

bracelets. Maybe it was Damon, beside her, telling her in a forceful

voice not to get involved.

To Elena, his words were no more than punctuation to the

heartbeat pounding in her ears. She jerked the rope sharply out of his

hands, and then scrambled out of the litter. In six or seven leaps she was

beside the man with the whip.

He was a vampire, his fangs elongated at the sight of the blood

before him, but never stopping his frenzied lashing. He was too strong

for Elena to handle, but…

With one more step Elena was straddling the woman, both her

arms flung out in the universal gesture of protection and defiance. Rope

dangled from one wrist.

The slave owner was not impressed. He was already launching the

next whiplash, and it struck Elena across the cheek and simultaneously

opened a great gap in her thin summer top, slicing through her camisole

and scoring the flesh underneath. As she gasped, the tail of the whip cut

through her jeans as if denim were butter.

Tears formed involuntarily in Elena’s eyes, but she ignored them.

She had managed not to make a sound other than that initial gasp. And

she still stood exactly where she had first landed in protection. Elena

could feel the wind whip at her tattered blouse, while her untouched veil

waved behind her, as if to protect the poor slave who had collapsed

against the ruined cart.

Elena was still desperately trying to bring out any kind of Wings.

She wanted to fight with real weapons, and she had them, but she

couldn’t force them to save either her or the poor slave behind her. Even

without them Elena knew one thing. That bastard in front of her wasn’t

going to touch his slave again, not unless he cut Elena into pieces first.

Someone stopped to stare, and someone else came out of a shop,

running. When the children who’d been trailing her litter surrounded

her, wailing, a crowd of sorts gathered.

Apparently it was one thing to see a merchant beating his worn-out

drab—the people around here must have seen that almost daily. But to

see this beautiful new girl having her clothes slashed away, this girl with

hair like golden silk under a veil of gold and white, and eyes that

perhaps reminded some of them of a barely remembered blue sky—that

was quite another thing. Moreover, the new girl was obviously a fresh

barbarian slave who had clearly humiliated her master by tearing the

lead ropes from his hands and was standing now with her sanctity veil

made into a mockery.

Terrific street theater.

And even given all of that, the slave owner was preparing for

another stroke, raising his arm high and preparing to put his back into it.

A few people in the crowd gasped; others were muttering indignantly.

Elena’s new sense of hearing, turned up high, could catch their

whispering. A girl like this wasn’t meant for the slums at all; she must

have been destined for the heart of the city. Her aura alone was enough

to show that. In fact, with that golden hair and those vivid blue eyes, she

might even be a Guardian from the Other Side. Who knew—?

The lash that was raised never descended. Before it could, there

was a flash of black lightning—pure Power—that sent half the crowd

scattering. A vampire, young in appearance and dressed in the clothing

of the upper world, Earth, had made his way to stand between the golden

girl and the slave owner—or rather to loom over the now cringing slave

owner. The few in the crowd not stirred by the girl immediately felt their

hearts pulse at the sight of him. He was the girl’s owner, surely, and now

he would see to the situation.

At that instant, Bonnie and Meredith arrived on the scene. They

were reclining on their litter, decorously draped in their veils, Meredith

in starry midnight blue and Bonnie in soft pale green. They could have

been an illustration for The Arabian Nights.

But the moment they saw Damon and Elena, they most

indecorously jumped off the litter. By now the crowd was so thick that

working their way to the front required using elbows and knees, but in

only seconds they were at Elena’s side, hands defiantly unbound or

trailing rope that hung defiantly free, veils floating in the wind.

When they did arrive beside Elena, Meredith gasped. Bonnie’s

eyes opened wide and stayed that way. Elena understood what they were

seeing. Blood was flowing freely from the cut across her cheekbone and

her blouse kept opening in the wind to reveal her torn and bloody

camisole. One leg of her jeans was rapidly turning red.

But, drawn up into the protection of her shadow, was a far more

pitiful figure. And as Meredith raised Elena’s diaphanous veil to help

keep her blouse closed and once more enshroud her in decency, the

woman herself raised her head, to look at the three girls with the eyes of

a dumb and hunted animal.

Behind them, Damon said softly, “I shall quite enjoy this,” as he

lifted the heavy man into the air with one hand and then struck his throat

like a cobra. There was a hideous scream, which went on and on.

No one tried to interfere, and no one tried to cheer the slave owner

on to make a fight.

Elena, scanning the faces of the crowd, realized why. She and her

friends had become used to Damon—or as used as you could become to

his half-tamed air of ferocity. But these people were getting their first

look at the young man dressed all in black, of medium height and slim

build, who made up for his lack of bulging muscle with a supple and

deadly grace. This was enhanced by the gift of somehow dominating all

the space around him, so that he effortlessly became the focal point of

any picture—the way a black panther might become the focal point if it

were walking lazily down a crowded city street.

Even here, where menace and an aspect of outright evil were

commonplace, this young man exuded a quality of danger that made

people want to stay out of his line of sight, much less his way.

Meanwhile Elena and both Meredith and Bonnie were looking

around for some sort of medical assistance, or even for something clean

that would staunch wounds. After about a minute, they realized that it

wasn’t just going to appear, so Elena appealed to the crowd.

“Does anyone know a doctor? A healer?” she shouted. The

audience merely watched her. They seemed loath to get involved with a

girl who had obviously defied the black-clad demon now wringing the

slave owner’s neck.

“So you all think it’s just fine,” Elena shouted, hearing the loss of

control, the disgust and fury in her own voice, “for a bastard like that to

be whipping a starving pregnant woman?”

There were a few downcast eyes, a few scattered replies on the

theme of “He was her master, wasn’t he?” But one youngish man who

had been leaning against a stopped wagon, straightened up. “Pregnant?”

he repeated. “She doesn’t look pregnant!”

“She is!”

“Well,” the young man said slowly, “if that’s true, he’s only

harming his own merchandise.” He glanced nervously over to where

Damon was now standing above the deceased slave owner, whose face

was cast into a ghastly death grimace of agony.

This still left Elena with no help for a woman she was afraid was

about to die. “Doesn’t anyone know where I can find a doctor?” There

were now mutterings in various tones from the crowd members.

“We might get further on if we could offer them some money,”

Meredith was saying. Elena immediately reached for her pendant, but

Meredith was quicker, unfastening a fancy amethyst necklace from

around her neck and holding it up. “This goes to whoever shows us a

good doctor first.”

There was a pause while everyone seemed to be assessing the

reward and the risk. “Don’t you have any star balls?” a wheezing voice

asked, but a high, light voice cried, “That’s good enough for me!”

A child—yes, a genuine street urchin—darted to the front of the

crowd, grabbed Elena’s hand and pointed, saying, “Dr. Meggar, right up

the street. It’s only a couple of blocks; we can walk it.”

The child was wrapped in a tattered old dress, but that might only

be to keep warm, because he or she was also wearing a pair of trousers.

Elena couldn’t even figure out whether it was a boy or a girl until the

child gave her an unexpectedly sweet smile and whispered, “I’m

Lakshmi.”

“I’m Elena,” Elena said.

“Better hurry, Elena,” Lakshmi said. “Guardians will get here

soon.”

Meredith and Bonnie had gotten the dazed slave woman to her

feet, but she seemed to be in too much pain to understand if they meant

to help her or kill her.

Elena remembered how the woman had huddled in the shadow of

Elena’s own body. She put a hand on the woman’s bloody arm and said

quietly, “You’re safe now. You’re going to be fine. That

man—your…your master—is dead and I promise that nobody will hurt

you again. I swear it.”

The woman stared at her in disbelief, as if what Elena was saying

was impossible. As if living without being beaten constantly—even with

all the blood Elena could see old scars, some of them like cords, on the

woman’s skin—was something too far from reality to imagine.

“I swear it,” Elena said again, not smiling, but grimly. She

understood that this was a burden she was taking on for life.

It’s all right, she thought, and realized that for some time now she

had been sending her thoughts to Damon. I know what I’m doing. I’m

ready to be responsible for this.

Are you sure? Damon’s voice came to her, as uncertain as she’d

ever heard him. Because I’m sure as hell not going to take care of some

old hag when you get tired of her. I’m not even sure I’m ready to deal

with whatever it’s going to cost me for killing that bastard with the whip.

Elena turned to look at him. He was serious. Well, then why did

you kill him? she challenged.

Are you joking? Damon gave her a shock with the vehemence and

venom of his thought. He hurt you. I should have killed him more slowly,

he added, ignoring one of the litter bearers who was kneeling beside

him, undoubtedly asking what to do next. Damon’s eyes, however, were

on Elena’s face, on the blood still flowing from her cut. Il figlio de

cafone, Damon thought, his lips drawing back from his teeth as he

looked down on the corpse, so that even the litter bearer scurried away

on hands and knees.

“Damon, don’t let him leave! Bring them all over here right

now—” Elena began, and then, as there was a sort of universal gasp

around her, she continued nonverbally, Don’t let the litter bearers leave.

We need a litter to carry this poor woman to the doctor. And why is

everyone staring at me?

Because you’re a slave, and you’ve just done things no slave

should do and now you’re giving me, your master, orders. Damon’s

telepathic voice was grim.

It’s not an order. It’s a—look, any gentleman would help a lady in

distress, right? Well, there are four of us over here and one is more

distressed than you want to look at. No, three are. I think I’m going to

need some stitches, and Bonnie is about to collapse. Elena was striking

methodically at weak points, and knew that Damon knew she was doing

it. But he ordered one of the sets of litter bearers to come and pick up the

slave woman and the other to take his girls.

Elena stuck with the woman and ended up in a litter with the

curtains all closed around it. The smell of blood was a copper taste in her

mouth, making her want to cry. Even she didn’t want to look closely at

the slave woman’s injuries, but blood was running onto the litter. She

found herself taking off her blouse and camisole and putting back only

the blouse so that she could use the camisole to hold to a great diagonal

slash across the woman’s chest. Every time the woman raised dark

brown, frightened eyes to her, Elena tried to smile at her encouragingly.

They were down deep somewhere in the trenches of communication,

where a look and a touch meant more than words.

Don’t die, Elena was thinking. Don’t die, just as you have

something to live for. Live for your freedom, and for your baby.

And maybe some of what she was thinking got through to the

woman, because she relaxed against the litter cushions, holding on to

Elena’s hand.

“Her name’s Ulma,” a voice said, and Elena looked down to find

Lakshmi holding back the curtains of the litter with a hand over her

head. “Everybody knows Old Drohzne and his slaves. He beats ’em until

they pass out and then expects ’em to pick up his rickshaw and go on

carrying a load. He kills five or six a year.”

“He didn’t kill this one,” Elena murmured. “He got what he

deserved.” She squeezed Ulma’s hand.

She was vastly relieved when the litter stopped and Damon himself

appeared, just as she was about to start bargaining with one of the litter

bearers to carry Ulma in their arms to the doctor. Without regard for his

clothing, Damon still somehow managed to convey disinterest even as

he picked up the woman—Ulma—and nodded to Elena to follow him.

Lakshmi skipped around him and took the lead into an intricately

patterned stone courtyard and then down a crooked hallway with some

solid, respectable-looking doors. Finally, she knocked on one and a

wizened man with a huge head and the faintest remnant of a wispy beard

opened the door cautiously.

“I don’t keep any ketterris here! No hexen, no zemeral! And I

don’t do love spells!” Then, peering short-sightedly, he seemed to focus

on the little group.

“Lakshmi?” he said.

“We’ve brought a woman who needs help,” Elena said shortly.

“She’s pregnant, too. You’re a doctor, aren’t you? A healer?”

“A healer of some limited ability. Come in, come in.”

The doctor was hurrying into a back room. They all followed him,

Damon still carrying Ulma. Once she arrived, Elena saw that the healer

was in the corner of what looked like a crowded wizard’s sanctuary,

with quite a bit of voodoo and witch doctor thrown in.

Elena, Meredith, and Bonnie glanced at one another nervously, but

then Elena heard water splashing and realized that the doctor was in the

corner because there was a basin of water there, and the healer was

washing his hands thoroughly, rolling his sleeves up to his elbows and

making a lot of frothy bubbles. He might call himself a “healer,” yet he

did understand basic hygiene, she thought.

Damon had put Ulma onto what looked like a clean white-sheeted

examining table. The doctor nodded to him. Then, tch-tching, he pulled

out a tray of instruments and set Lakshmi about fetching cloths to clean

the cuts and staunch the profuse bleeding. He also opened various

drawers to pull out strong-smelling bags and stood on a ladder to pull

down clumps of herbs that were strung from the ceiling. Finally he

opened a small box and took a pinch of snuff, himself.

“Please hurry,” Elena said. “She’s lost a lot of blood.”

“And you’ve lost not a little,” the man said. “My name is Kephar

Meggar—and this would be Master Drohzne’s slave, yes?” He peered at

them, looking somehow as if he were wearing glasses, which he wasn’t.

“And you would be slaves, too?” He stared at the single rope Elena was

still wearing, and then at Bonnie and Meredith, each wearing the same.

“Yes, but—” Elena stopped. Some infiltrator she was. She’d very

nearly said “But not really; it’s just to satisfy convention. She settled for

saying, “But our master is very different from hers.” They were very

different, she thought. Damon didn’t have a broken neck, for one thing.

And for another, no matter how vicious and deadly he might be, he

would never strike a woman, much less do something like this to one.

He seemed to have some kind of internal block against it—except when

he was possessed by Shinichi, and couldn’t control his own muscles.

“And yet Drohzne allowed you to bring this woman to a healer?”

The little man looked doubtful.

“No, he wouldn’t have let us, I’m sure,” Elena said flatly. “But

please—she’s bleeding and she’s going to have a baby….”

Dr. Meggar’s eyebrows went up and down. But without asking

anyone to leave while he treated her, he pulled out an old-fashioned

stethoscope and listened carefully to Ulma’s heart and lungs. He smelled

her breath, and then gently palpated her abdomen below Elena’s bloody

camisole, all with a professional air, before tipping to her lips a brown

bottle, from which she drank a few sips, then sank back, her eyes

fluttering closed.

“Now,” the little man said, “she’s resting comfortably. She’ll need

quite a bit of stitching of course, and you could use a few stitches

yourself, but that’s as your master says, I suppose.” Dr. Meggar said the

word master with a definite implication of dislike. “But I can almost

promise you that she won’t die. About her babe I don’t know. It may

come out marked as a result of this business—striped birthmarks,

perhaps—or it may be perfectly all right. But with food and rest”—Dr.

Meggar’s eyebrows went up and down again, as if the doctor would

have liked to say this to Master Drohzne’s face—“she should recover.”

“Take care of Elena first, then,” Damon said.

“No, no!” Elena said, pushing the doctor away. He seemed like a

nice man, but obviously around here, masters were masters—and

Damon was more masterful and intimidating than most.

But not, at this moment, to Elena. She didn’t care about herself

right now. She’d made a promise—the doctor’s words meant that she

might be able to keep it. That was what she cared about.

Up and down, up and down. Dr. Meggar’s eyebrows looked like

two caterpillars on one elastic string. One lagged a little behind the

other. Clearly, the behavior he was seeing was abnormal, even liable to

be punished by serious means. But Elena only noticed him peripherally,

the way she was noticing Damon.

“Help her,” she said vehemently—and watched the doctor’s

eyebrows shoot up as if they were aimed for the ceiling.

She’d let her aura escape. Not completely, thank God, but a blast

had definitely discharged, like a flash of sheet lightning in the room.

And the doctor, who wasn’t a vampire, but just an ordinary citizen,

had noticed it. Lakshmi had noticed it; even Ulma stirred on the

examining table uneasily.

I’m going to have to be a whole lot more careful, Elena thought.

She cast a quick look at Damon, who was about to explode,

himself—she could tell. Too many emotions, too much blood in the

room, and the adrenaline of killing still pulsing in his bloodstream.

How did she know all that?

Because Damon wasn’t perfectly in control, either, she realized.

She was sensing things directly from his mind. Best to get him out of

here quickly. “We’ll wait outside,” she said, catching his arm, to Dr.

Meggar’s obvious shock. Slaves, even beautiful ones, didn’t act that

way.

“Go and wait in the courtyard then,” the doctor said, carefully

controlling his face and speaking to the air in between Damon and

Elena. “Lakshmi, give them some bandages so they can staunch the

young girl’s bleeding. Then come back; you can help me.”

“Just one question,” he added as Elena and the others were walking

out of the room. “How did you know that this woman is pregnant? What

sort of spell can tell you that?”

“No spell,” Elena said simply. “Any woman watching her should

have known.” She saw Bonnie flash her an injured look, but Meredith

remained inscrutable.

“That horrible slaver—Drogsie—or whatever—was whipping her

from the front,” Elena said. “And look at those gashes.” She winced,

looking over two stripes that crossed Ulma’s sternum. “In that case, any

woman would be trying to protect her breasts, but this one was trying to


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