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cover her belly. That meant she was pregnant, and far along enough to

be sure about it, too.”

Dr. Meggar’s eyebrows drew down and together—and then he

looked up at Elena as if peering over glasses. Then he nodded slowly.

“You take some bandages and stop your own bleeding,” he said—to

Elena, not to Damon. Apparently, slave or not, she had won some kind

of respect from him.

On the other hand, Elena seemed to have lost stature with

Damon—or at least, he’d cut his mind off from hers quite deliberately,

leaving her with a blank wall to stare at. In the doctor’s waiting room, he

waved an imperious hand at Bonnie and Meredith.

“Wait here in this room,” he said—no, he ordered. “Don’t leave it

until the doctor comes out. Don’t let anyone in the front door—lock it

now, and keep it locked. Good. Elena is coming with me into the

kitchen—that’s the back door. I do not want to be disturbed by anyone

unless an angry mob is threatening the house with arson, do you

understand? Both of you?”

Elena could see Bonnie about to blurt out, “But Elena’s still

bleeding!” and Meredith was with her eyes and brows calling council on

whether or not they needed to hold an immediate velociraptor sisterhood

rebellion. They all knew Plan A for this: Bonnie would throw herself

into Damon’s arms, passionately weeping or passionately kissing him,

whichever best fit the situation, while Elena and Meredith came at him

from the sides and did—well, whatever had to be done.

Elena, with one flash of her own eyes, had categorically nixed this.

Damon was angry, yes, but she could sense that it was more with

Drohzne than with her. The blood had agitated him, yes, but he was used

to controlling himself in bloody situations. And she needed help with her

wounds, which had begun to hurt seriously, ever since she’d heard that

the woman she had rescued would live, and might even have her baby.

But if Damon had something on his mind, she wanted to know what it

was—now.

With one last comforting glance at Bonnie, Elena followed Damon

through the kitchen door. It had a lock on it. Damon looked at it and

opened his mouth; Elena locked it. Then she looked up at her “master.”

He was standing by the kitchen sink, methodically pumping water,

with one hand clenched against his forehead. His hair hung over his

eyes, getting splashed, getting wet. He didn’t seem to care.

“Damon?” Elena said uncertainly. “Are you…all right?”

He didn’t answer.

Damon? she tried telepathically.

I let you get hurt. I’m fast enough. I could have killed that bastard

Drohzne with one blast of Power. But I never imagined you’d get hurt.

His telepathic voice was at once filled with the darkest kind of menace

imaginable and a strange, almost gentle, calm. As if he were trying to

keep all the ferocity and anger locked away from her.

I couldn’t even tell him—I couldn’t even send words to him to tell

him what he was. I couldn’t think. He was a telepath; he would have

heard me. But I didn’t have any words. I could only scream—in my

mind.

Elena felt a bit light-headed—a little more light-headed than she’d

already been feeling. Damon was feeling this anguish—for her? He

wasn’t angry about her flagrantly breaking rules in front of crowds,

maybe breaking their cover? He didn’t mind looking bedraggled?

“Damon,” she said. He’d surprised her into speaking out loud.

“It—it—doesn’t matter. It’s not your fault. You would never even have

let me do it—”

But I should have known you wouldn’t ask! I thought you were

going to attack him, to jump on his shoulders and throttle him, and I was

ready to help you do that, to take him down like two wolves taking down

a big buck. But you’re not a sword, Elena. Whatever you think, you’re a

shield. I should have known that you would take the next blow yourself.

And because of me, you got—” His eye drifted to her cheekbone and he

winced.

Then he seemed to get a grip on himself. “The water is cold, but

it’s pure. We need to clean those slashes and stop that bleeding now.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any Black Magic around,” Elena said, half

jokingly. This was going to hurt.

Damon, however, immediately began opening cupboards. “Here,”

he said after checking only three, triumphantly coming up with a

half-full bottle of Black Magic. “Lots of doctors keep this as a medicine

and anesthetic. Don’t worry; I’ll pay him well.”

“Then I think you should have some, too,” Elena said boldly.

“Come on, it’ll do us both good. And it won’t be the first time.”

She knew that the last sentence would clinch it with Damon. It

would be a way of getting back something that Shinichi had taken from

him.

I’ll get the whole of his memories back from Shinichi somehow,

Elena decided, doing her best to screen her thoughts from Damon with

white noise. I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t know when I’ll get



the chance, but I swear I will. I swear.

Damon had filled two goblets with the rich, heady-smelling wine

and was handing one to Elena. “Just sip at first,” he said, helpless but to

fall into the role of instructor. “This is a good year.”

Elena sipped, then simply gulped. She was thirsty and Clarion

Loess Black Magic wine didn’t have any alcohol—as such—in it. It

certainly didn’t taste like regular wine. It tasted like remarkably

refreshing effervescent spring water that was flavored with sweet, deep,

velvety grapes.

Damon, she noticed, had forgotten to sip as well, and when he

offered her a second glass to match his, she accepted willingly.

His aura sure had calmed down a lot, she thought, as he picked up

a wet cloth and began, gently, to clean the cut that almost exactly

followed the line of her cheekbone. It had been the one to stop bleeding

first, but now he needed to get the blood flowing again, to cleanse it.

With two glasses of Black Magic on top of no food since breakfast,

Elena found herself relaxing against the back of the chair, letting her

head drop back a little, and shutting her eyes. She lost track of time, as

he stroked the cut smoothly. And she lost strict control of her aura.

When she opened her eyes it was in response to no sound, no

visual stimulus. It was a blaze in Damon’s aura, one of sudden

determination.

“Damon?”

He was standing over her. His darkness had flared out behind him

like a shadow, tall and wide and almost mesmerizing. Definitely almost

frightening.

“Damon?” she said again, uncertainly.

“We’re not doing this right,” he said, and her thoughts flashed at

once to her disobedience as a slave, and Bonnie and Meredith’s less

serious infractions. But his voice was like dark velvet, and her body

responded to it more accurately than her mind. It shivered.

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“How…do we do it right?” she asked, and then she made the

mistake of opening her eyes. She found that he was stooping over her as

she sat on the chair, stroking—no, just touching—her hair so softly that

she hadn’t even felt it.

“Vampires know how to take care of wounds,” he said confidently,

and his great eyes that seemed to hold their own universe of stars caught

and held her. “We can clean them. We can start them bleeding again—or

stop them.”

I’ve felt like this before, Elena thought. He’s talked to me like this

before, too, even if he doesn’t remember. And I—I was too frightened.

But that was before…

Before the motel. The night when he’d told her to run, and she

hadn’t. The night that Shinichi had taken, just as he’d taken the first time

they’d shared Black Magic together.

“Show me,” whispered Elena. And she knew that something else in

her mind was whispering too, whispering different words. Words that

she would never have said if she had for a moment thought of herself as

a slave. Whispering, I’m yours…

That was when she felt his mouth lightly brush her mouth.

And then she just thought, Oh! and Oh, Damon…until he moved to

gently touch her cheek with his silky soft tongue, manipulating

chemicals first to make cleansing blood flow, and finally when the

impurities had all been so softly swept away, to stop the blood and to

heal the wound. She could feel his Power now, the dark Power that he

had used in a thousand fights, to inflict hundreds of mortal wounds,

being held tightly in check to concentrate on this simple, homely task, to

heal the mark of a whiplash on a girl’s cheek. Elena thought it was like

being stroked with the petals of that Black Magic rose, its cool smooth

petals gently sweeping away the pain, until she shivered in delight.

And then it stopped. Elena knew that she’d once again had too

much wine. But this time she didn’t feel sick. The deceptively light

drink had gone to her head, making her tipsy. Everything had taken on

an unreal, dreamlike quality.

“It will finish healing well now,” Damon said, again touching her

hair so softly that she could barely feel it. But this time she did feel it,

because she sent out fingers of Power to meet the sensation and enjoy

every moment of it. And once again he kissed her—so lightly—his lips

barely brushing hers. When her head fell back, though, he didn’t follow,

even when, disappointed, she tried to put pressure on the back of his

neck. He simply waited until Elena thought things out…slowly.

We shouldn’t be kissing. Meredith and Bonnie are right next door.

How do I get myself in situations like this? But Damon isn’t even trying

to kiss…and we’re supposed to be—oh!

Her other wounds.

They really hurt now. What cruel person had thought up a whip

like that, Elena thought, with a razor-thin lash that cut so deeply it didn’t

even hurt at first—or not that much…but got worse and worse over

time? And kept bleeding…we’re supposed to be stopping the bleeding

until the doctor can see me….

But her next wound, the one that burned like fire now, was

diagonally across her collarbone. And the third was near her knee….

Damon started to get up, to get another cloth from the sink and

cleanse the cut with water.

Elena held him back. “No.”

“No? Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“All I want to do is cleanse it….”

“I know.” She did know. His mind was open to hers, all its

turbulent power running clear and tranquilly. She didn’t know why it

had opened to her like this, but it had.

“But let me advise you, don’t go donating your blood to some

dying vampire; don’t let anyone sample it. It’s worse than Black

Magic—”

“Worse?” She knew he was complimenting her, but she didn’t

understand.

“The more you drink, the more you want to drink,” Damon

answered, and for a moment Elena saw the turbulence she had caused in

those calm waters. “And the more you drink, the more Power you can

absorb,” he added seriously. Elena realized that she had never even

thought of this as a problem, but it was. She remembered the agony it

had been to try to absorb her own aura before she had learned how to

keep it moving with her bloodstream.

“Don’t worry,” he added, still serious. “I know who you’re

thinking about.” He made a move again to get a cloth. But without

knowing it, he had said too much, presumed too far.

You know who I’m thinking about?” Elena said softly, and she

was surprised at how dangerous her own voice could sound, like the soft

padding of heavy tigress feet. “Without asking me?”

Damon tried to finesse his way out. “Well, I assumed….”

No one knows what I’m thinking about,” Elena said. “Until I tell

them.” She moved and made him kneel to look at her, questioningly.

Hungrily.

Then, just as it was she who had made him kneel, it was she who

drew him to her wound.

Elena came back to the real world slowly, fighting it all the way. She

sank her nails into the leather of Damon’s jacket, found herself

wondering briefly if removing it would help, and then her mood was

shattered again by that sound—a sharp, imperative knock.

Damon raised his head and snarled.

We are a pair of wolves, aren’t we? Elena thought. Fighting nail

and tooth.

But, another part of her mind supplied, that isn’t stopping the

knocking. He warned those girls….

Those girls! Bonnie and Meredith! And he’d said not to interrupt

unless the house was on fire!

But, the doctor—oh, God, something’s happened to that poor,

wretched woman! She’s dying!

Damon was still snarling, a trace of blood on his lips. It was only a

trace, because her second wound had really been healed just as

thoroughly as the first, the one across her cheekbone. Elena had no idea

how long it had been since she had pulled Damon to her to kiss this cut.

But now, with her blood in his veins and his pleasure interrupted, he was

like an untamed black panther in her arms.

She didn’t know whether she could stop him or even slow him

down without using raw Power on him.

“Damon!” she said aloud. “Out there—those are our friends.

Remember? Bonnie and Meredith and the healer.”

“Meredith,” Damon said, and again his lips peeled back, exposing

terrifyingly long canines. He still wasn’t in reality. If he saw Meredith

now, he wouldn’t be frightened, Elena thought—and, oh yes, she knew

how her logical, thoughtful friend made Damon uneasy. They saw the

world through such different eyes. She irked him like a pebble in his

shoe. But right now he might deal with that unease in a way that would

leave Meredith a savaged corpse.

“Let me go see,” she said, as the knock came again—couldn’t they

stop that? Didn’t she have enough to deal with?

Damon’s arms merely tightened around her. She felt a flash of

heat, because she knew that, even as he restrained her, he was holding

back so much of his strength. He didn’t want to crush her, as he could if

he used a tenth of the power in his hard muscles alone.

The wave of feeling that washed over her made her shut her eyes

briefly, helplessly, but she knew she had to be the voice of sanity here.

“Damon! They could be warning us—or Ulma may have died.”

Death got through to him. His eyes were slits, the bloodred light

from the kitchen shutters throwing bars of scarlet and black across his

face, making him look more handsome—and more demonic—than ever.

“You’ll stay here.” Damon said it flatly, with no idea of being a

“master” or a “gentleman.” He was a wild beast protecting his mate, the

only creature in the world that wasn’t competition or food.

There was no arguing with him, not in this state. Elena would stay

here. Damon would go to do whatever needed to be done. And Elena

would stay for as long as he thought necessary.

Elena truly didn’t know whose thoughts these last were. She and

Damon were still trying to untangle their emotions. She decided to

watch him and only if he really got out of control…

You don’t want to see me out of control.

Feeling him snap from raw animal instinct to icy, perfect mental

dominance was even scarier than the animal alone. She didn’t know

whether Damon was the sanest person she had ever met or just the one

best able to cover up his wildness. She held her torn blouse together and

watched as he moved with effortless grace to the door and then,

suddenly, violently, wrenched it almost off its hinges.

No one fell; no one had been listening in on their private

conversation. But Meredith stood, restraining Bonnie with one hand, and

with the other hand raised, ready to knock again.

“Yes?” Damon said in glacial tones. “I thought I told you—”

“You did, and there is,” Meredith said, interrupting this Damon in

an unusual attempt to commit suicide.

“There is what?” Damon snarled.

“There’s a mob outside threatening to burn the whole building

down. I don’t know if they’re upset about Drohzne, or about us taking

Ulma, but they’re enraged about something, and they’ve got torches. I

didn’t want to interrupt Elena’s—treatment—but Dr. Meggar says they

won’t listen to him. He’s a human.”

“He used to be a slave,” Bonnie added, wresting free of the

chokehold that Meredith had on her. She looked up at Damon with

streaming brown eyes, hands outstretched. “Only you can save us,” she

said, translating the message of her gaze aloud—which meant that things

were really serious.

“All right, all right. I’ll go take care of them. You take care of

Elena.”

“Of course, but—”

“No.” Damon had either gone reckless with the blood—and the

memories that were still keeping Elena from forming a coherent

sentence—or he had somehow overcome all his fear of Meredith. He put

a hand on each of her shoulders. He was only one and a half or two

inches taller than she was, so he had no trouble holding her eyes. “You,

personally, take care of Elena. Tragedies happen here every minute of

the day: unforeseeable, horrible, deadly tragedies. I do not want one

happening to Elena.”

Meredith looked at him for a long moment, and for once didn’t

consult Elena with her eyes before answering a question involving her.

She simply said, “I’ll protect her,” in a low voice that nevertheless

carried. From her stance, from her tone, one could almost hear the

unspoken addition, “with my life”—and it didn’t even seem

melodramatic.

Damon let go of her, strode out the door, and without a backward

glance disappeared from Elena’s sight. But his mental voice was

crystalline in her mind: You’ll be safe if there is any way to save you. I

swear it.

If there was any way to save her. Wonderful. Elena tried to

kickstart her brain.

Meredith and Bonnie were both staring at her. Elena took a deep

breath, automatically sucked for a moment back into the old days, when

a girl fresh from a hot date could expect a long and serious debriefing.

But all Bonnie said was, “Your face—it looks much better now!”

“Yes,” Elena said, using the two ends of her blouse to tie a

makeshift top around her. “My leg’s the problem. We didn’t—didn’t

finish it yet.”

Bonnie opened her mouth, but closed it determinedly, which from

Bonnie was a display of heroics similar to Meredith’s promise to

Damon. When she opened it again it was to say, “Take my scarf and tie

it around your leg. We can fold it sideways and then tie a bow over the

side that got hurt. That’ll keep pressure on it.”

Meredith said, “I think Dr. Meggar has finished with Ulma. Maybe

he can see you.”

In the other room, the doctor was once again washing his hands,

using a large pump to get more water into the basin. There were deeply

red-stained cloths in a pile and a smell that Elena was grateful the doctor

had camouflaged with herbs. Also in a large, comfortable-looking chair

there sat a woman whom Elena did not recognize.

Suffering and terror could change a person, Elena knew, but she

could never have realized how much—nor how much relief and freedom

from pain could change a face. She had brought with her a woman who

huddled until she was almost child-size in Elena’s mind, and whose thin,

ravaged face, twisted with agony and unrelenting dread, had seemed

almost a sort of abstract drawing of a goblin hag. Her skin had been

sickly gray in color, her thin hair had scarcely seemed enough to cover

her head, and yet it had hung down in strands like seaweed. Everything

about her screamed out that she was a slave, from the iron bands around

her wrists, to her nakedness and scarred, bloody body, to her bare and

rusty feet. Elena could not even have told you the color of the woman’s

eyes, for they had seemed as gray as the rest of her.

Now Elena was confronted by a woman who was perhaps in her

early-to mid-thirties. She had a lean, attractive, somehow aristocratic

face, with a strong, patrician nose, dark, keen-looking eyes, and

beautiful eyebrows like the wings of a flying bird. She was relaxing in

the armchair, with her feet up on an ottoman, slowly brushing her hair,

which was dark with occasional streaks of gray that lent an air of dignity

to the simple deep blue housecoat she was wearing. Her face had

wrinkles that lent it character, but overall one sensed a sort of yearning

tenderness about her, perhaps because of the slight bulge in her

abdomen, which she now gently laid a hand on. When she did this her

face bloomed with color and her whole aspect glowed.

For an instant Elena thought this must be the doctor’s wife or

housekeeper and she had a temptation to ask whether Ulma, the poor

wreck of a slave, had died.

Then she saw what one cuff of the deep blue housecoat could not

quite conceal: a glimpse of an iron bracelet.

This lean dark aristocratic woman was Ulma. The doctor had

worked a miracle.

A healer, he had called himself. It was obvious that, like Damon,

he could heal wounds. No one who had been whipped as Ulma had

could have come round to this state without some powerful magic.

Trying to simply stitch up the bloody mess that Elena had brought in had

obviously been impossible, and so Dr. Meggar had healed her.

Elena had never experienced a situation like this, so she fell back

upon the good manners that had been bred into her as a Virginian.

“It’s nice to meet you, ma’am. I’m Elena,” she said, and held out

her hand.

The brush fell onto the chair. The woman reached out with both

hands to take Elena’s into hers. Those keen dark eyes seemed to devour

Elena’s face.

“You’re the one,” she said, and then, swinging her slippered feet

off the ottoman, she went down on her knees.

“Oh, no, ma’am! Please! I’m sure the doctor told you to rest. It’s

best to sit quietly now.”

“But you are the one.” For some reason, the woman seemed to

need confirmation. And Elena was willing to do anything to pacify her.

“I’m the one,” Elena said. “And now I think you should sit down

again.”

Obedience was immediate, and yet there was a sort of joyful light

about everything Ulma did. Elena understood it after only a few hours of

slavery. Obeying when one had a choice was entirely different from

obeying because disobedience could mean death.

But even as Ulma sat, she held out her arms. “Look at me! Dear

seraph, goddess, Guardian—whatever you are: look at me! After three

years of living as a beast I have become human again—because of you!

You came like an angel of lightning and stood between me and the

lash.” Ulma began to weep, but they seemed to be tears of joy. Her eyes

searched Elena’s face, lingering on the scarred cheekbone. “But you’re

no Guardian; they have magicks that protect them and they never

interfere. For three years, they never interfered. I saw all my friends, my

fellow slaves, fall to his whip and his rage.” She shook her head, as if

physically unable to say Drohzne’s name.

“I’m so sorry—so sorry….” Elena was fumbling. She glanced back

and saw that Bonnie and Meredith were similarly stricken.

“It doesn’t matter. I heard your mate killed him on the street.”

“I told her that,” Lakshmi said proudly. She had entered the room

without anyone noticing her.

“My mate?” Elena faltered. “Well, he’s not my—I mean, he and

I—we—”

“He’s our master,” Meredith said bluntly, from behind Elena.

Ulma was still looking at Elena with her heart in her eyes. “Every

day, I will pray for your soul to ascend from here.”

Elena was startled. “Souls can ascend from here?”

“Of course. Repentance and good deeds may accomplish it, and the

prayers of others are always taken into consideration, I think.”

You sure don’t talk like a slave, Elena mused. She tried to think of

a way to put it delicately, but she was confused and her leg hurt and her

emotions were in turmoil. “You don’t sound like—well, like what I’d

expect from a slave,” she said. “Or am I just being an idiot?”

She could see the tears form in Ulma’s eyes.

“Oh, God! Please, forget I asked. Please—”

“No! There is no one I would rather tell. If you wish to hear how I

came to this degraded state.” Ulma waited, watching Elena—it was clear

that Elena’s least wish was to Ulma, a command.

Elena looked at Meredith and Bonnie. She couldn’t hear any more

noises of yelling outside on the street and the building certainly didn’t

seem to be on fire.

Fortunately, at that moment, Dr. Meggar wandered in again.

“Everybody getting acquainted?” he asked, his eyebrows working in

opposition now; one up, one down. He had the remnants of a bottle of

Black Magic in his hand.

“Yes,” Elena said, “but I was just wondering if we should be trying

to evacuate or anything. Apparently there was a mob—”

“Elena’s mate is going to give them something to think about,”

Lakshmi said with relish. “They’ve all gone to the Meeting Place to

resolve the stuff about Drohzne’s property. I bet he’ll bash a few heads

in and be back in no time,” she added cheerfully, leaving no doubt as to

he was. “Wish I was a boy so I could see it.”

“You were braver than the boys; you were the one who led us

here,” Elena told her. Then she consulted Meredith and Bonnie with her

eyes. It sounded as if the commotion had moved on elsewhere, and

Damon was a master at getting himself out of commotions. He might

also…need to fight, to rid himself of excess energy from Elena’s blood.

A commotion might actually be good for him, Elena thought.

She looked at Dr. Meggar. “Will my—will our master be all right,

do you think?”

Dr. Meggar’s eyebrows went up and down. “He’ll probably have

to pay Old Drohzne’s relatives a blood price, but it shouldn’t be too

high. Then he can do what he likes with the old bastard’s property,” he

said. “I’d say the safest place for you right now is here, away from the

Meeting Place.” He went on to enforce that opinion by pouring them all

glasses—liqueur glasses, Elena noted—of Black Magic wine. “Good for

the nerves,” he said and took a sip.

Ulma smiled her beautiful, heartwarming smile at him, as he took

the tray around. “Thank you—and thank you—and thank you,” she said.

“I won’t bore you with my story—”

“No, tell us; tell us, please!” Now that there was no immediate

danger to her friends or to Damon, Elena was eager to hear the tale.

Everyone else was nodding.

Ulma flushed a little, but began sedately, “I was born in the reign

of Kelemen II,” she said. “I’m sure that means nothing to our visitors but

much to those who knew him and his—indulgences. I studied under my

mother, who became a very popular designer of fashions in fabrics. My

father was a designer of jewelry almost as famous as she was. They had

an estate on the outskirts of the city and could afford a house as fine as

many of their wealthiest customers—though they were careful not to

show the true extent of their wealth. I was the young Lady Ulma then,

not Ulma the hag. My parents did their best to keep me out of sight, for

my own safety. But…”

Ulma—Lady Ulma, Elena thought, stopped and took a deep sip of

her wine. Her eyes had changed; she was seeing the past, and trying not


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