The Return: Midnight (Chapter 11)

When M. le Princess Jessalyn D'Aubigne had drunk her fil of Damon's blood – and she was thirsty for such a fragile thing – it was Damon's turn. He forced himself to remain patient when Jessalyn flinched and frowned at the sight of his ironwood knife. But Damon teased her and joked with her and played chasing games up and down the enormous bed, and when he final y caught her, she scarcely felt the knife's sting at her throat.

Damon, though, had his mouth on the dark red blood that wel ed out immediately. Everything he'd done, from pouring Black Magic for Bonnie to pouring out the star bal 's liquid at the four corners of the Gate to making his way through the defenses of this tiny gem of a castle had been for this. For this moment, when his human palate could savor the nectar that was vampire blood.

And it was…heavenly!

This was only the second time in his life that he'd tasted it as a human. Katerina – Katherine, as he thought of her in English – had been the first, of course. And how she could have crept off after that and gone, wearing just her short muslin shift, to the wide-eyed, inexperienced little boy who was his brother, he would never understand.

His disquiet was spreading to Jessalyn. That mustn't happen. She had to stay calm and tranquil as he took as much as he could of her blood. It wouldn't hurt her at al , and it meant al the difference to him.

Forcing his consciousness away from the sheer elemental pleasure of what he was doing, he began, very careful y, very delicately, to infiltrate her mind.

It wasn't difficult to get to the nub of it. Whoever had wrenched this delicate, fragile-boned girl from the human world and had endowed her with a vampire's nature hadn't done her any favors. It wasn't that she had any moral objections to vampirism. She'd taken to the life easily, enjoying it. She would have made a good huntress in the wild. But in this castle? With these servants? It was like having a hundred snooty waiters and two hundred condescending sommeliers staring her down as soon as she opened her mouth to give an order.

This room, for instance. She had wanted some color in it – just a splash of violet here, a little mauve there – natural y, she realized, a vampire princess's bedchamber had to be mostly black. But when she'd timidly mentioned the subject of colors to one of the parlor maids, the girl had sniffed and looked down her nostrils at Jessalyn as if she'd asked for an elephant to be instal ed just beside her bed. The princess had not had the courage to bring up the matter with the housekeeper, but within a week three baskets ful of black-and-off-black throw pil ows had arrived. There was her "color."And in the future would her highness be so good as to consult her housekeeper before querying the staff as to her household whims?

She actually said that about my "whims," Jessalyn thought as she arched her neck back and ran sharp fingernails through Damon's thick soft hair. And – oh, it's no good. I'm no good. I'm a vampire princess, and I can look the part, but I can't play it.

You're every bit a princess, your highness, Damon soothed.

You just need someone to enforce your orders. Someone who has no doubts about your superiority. Are your servants slaves?

No, they're all free.

Well, that makes it a little trickier, but you can always yell louder at them. Damon felt swol en with vampire blood. Two more days of this and he would be, if not his old self, then at least almost his old self: a ful vampire, free to walk about the city as he liked. And with the Power and status of a vampire prince. It was almost enough to balance out the horrors he'd gone through in the last couple of days. At least, he could tel himself that and try to believe it.

"Listen,"he said abruptly, letting go of Jessalyn's slight body, the better to look her in the eye. "Your glorious highness, let me do one favor for you before I die of love or you have me kil ed for impudence. Let me bring you 'color' – and then let me stand beside you if any of your menials grumble about it."

Jessalyn wasn't used to this kind of sudden decision, but couldn't help but be carried along with Damon's fiery excitement. She arched her head back again.

When he final y left the bijoux palace, Damon went out the front door. He had with him a little of the money left over from pawning the gems, but this was more than enough for the purpose he had in mind. He was quite certain that the next time he went out, it would be from the flying portico.

He stopped at a dozen shops and spent until his last coin was gone. He'd meant to sneak in a visit to Bonnie as wel while doing his errands, but the market was in the opposite direction from the inn where he'd left her, and in the end there just wasn't time.

He didn't worry much as he walked back to the bijoux castle.

Bonnie, soft and fragile as she seemed, had a wiry core that he was sure would keep her inside the room for three days.

She could take it. Damon knew she could.

He banged on the little castle's gate until a surly guard opened it.

"What do you want?"the guard spat.

Bonnie was bored out of her mind. It had only been a day since Damon had left her – a day she could only count by the number of meals brought to her, since the enormous red sun stood forever on the horizon and the blood-red light never varied unless it was raining.

Bonnie wished it was raining. She wished it was snowing, or that there would be a fire or a hurricane or a smal tsunami.

She had given one of the star bal s a try, and found it a ridiculous soap opera that she couldn't understand in the least.

She wished, now, that she had never tried to stop Damon from coming here. She wished that he had pried her off before they had both fal en into the hole. She wished that she had grabbed Meredith's hand and just let go of Damon.

And this was only the first day.

Damon smiled at the surly guard. "What do I want? Only what I already have. An open gate."He didn't go inside, however.

He asked what M. le Princess was doing and heard that she was at a luncheon. On a donor.

Perfect. Soon there came a deferential knock at the gate, which Damon demanded be opened wider. The guards clearly didn't like him; they had properly put together the disappearance of what turned out to be their captain of guard and the intrusion of this strange human. But there was something menacing about him even in this menacing world.

They obeyed him.

Soon after that there came another quiet knock and then another, and another and so on until twelve men and women with arms ful of damp and fragrant brown paper had quietly fol owed Damon up the stairs and into M. le Princess's black bedchamber.

Jessalyn, meanwhile, had had a long and stuffy post-luncheon meeting, entertaining some of her financial advisors, who both seemed very old to her, although they had been changed in their twenties. Their muscles were soft with lack of use, she found herself thinking. And, natural y, they were dressed in ful -sleeved, wide-legged black except for a fril at their throats, white inside by gaslight, scarlet outside by the eternal blood-red sun.

The princess had just seen them bow out of her presence when she inquired, rather irritably, where the human Damon was. Several servants with malice behind their smiles explained that he had gone with a dozen…humans…up to her bedchamber.

Jessalyn almost flew to the stairs and climbed very quickly with the gliding motion that she knew was expected of proper female vampires. She reached the Gothic doors, and heard the hushed sounds of indignant spite as her ladies-in-waiting al whispered together. But before the princess could even ask what was going on, she was engulfed in a great warm wave of scent. Not the luscious and life-sustaining scent of blood, but something lighter, sweeter, and at the moment, while her bloodlust was sated, even headier and more dizzying. She pushed open the double doors. She took a step into her bedchamber and then stopped in astonishment.

The cathedral-like black room was ful of flowers. There were banks of lilies, vases ful of roses, tulips in every color and shade, and riots of daffodils and narcissus, while fragrant honeysuckle and freesia lay in bowers.

The flower peddlers had converted the gloomy, conventional black room into this fanciful extravaganza. The wiser and more farsighted of M. le Princess's retainers were actively helping them by bringing in large, ornate urns.

Damon, upon seeing Jessalyn enter the room, immediately went to kneel at her feet.

"You were gone when I woke!"the princess said crossly, and Damon smiled, very faintly.

"Forgive me, your highness. But since I am dying anyway, I thought that I should be up and securing these flowers for you. Are the colors and scents satisfactory?"

"The scents?"Jessalyn's whole body seemed to melt. "It's…

like…an orchestra for my nose! And the colors are like nothing I've ever seen!"She burst into laughter, her green eyes lightening, her straight red hair a waterfal around her shoulders. Then she began to stalk Damon back into the gloom in one corner. Damon had to control himself or he would have laughed; it was so much like a kitten stalking an autumn leaf.

But once they got into the corner, tangled in the black hangings and nowhere near a window, Jessalyn assumed a deadly serious expression.

"I'm going to have a dress made, just the color of those deep, dark purple carnations,"she whispered. "Not black."

"Your highness wil look wonderful in it,"Damon whispered in her ear. "So striking, so daring – "

"I may even wear my corsets on the inside of my dress."She looked up at him through heavy lashes. "Or – would that be too much?"

"Nothing is too much for you, my princess,"Damon whispered back. He stopped a moment to think seriously. "The corsets – would they match the dress or be black?"

Jessalyn considered. "Same color?"she ventured.

Damon nodded, pleased. He himself wouldn't be caught dead in any color other than black, but he was wil ing to put up with – even encourage – Jessalyn's oddities. They might get him made a vampire faster.

"I want your blood,"the princess whispered, as if to prove him right.

"Here? Now?"Damon whispered back. "In front of al your servants?"

Jessalyn surprised him then. She, who had been so timid before, stepped out of the curtains and clapped her hands for silence. It fel immediately.

"Everyone out!"she said peremptorily. "You have made me a beautiful garden in my room, and I am grateful. The steward" – she nodded toward a young man who was dressed in black, but who had wisely placed a dark red rose in his buttonhole – "wil see to it that you're al given food – and drink – before you go!"At this there was a murmur of praise that made the princess blush.

"I'l ring the bel pul when I need you" – to the steward.

In fact, it wasn't until two days later that she reached up and, a little reluctantly, rang the bel pul . And that was merely to give the order that a uniform be made for Damon as quickly as possible. The uniform of captain of her guard.

By the second day, Bonnie had to turn to the star bal s as her only source of entertainment. After going through her twenty-eight orbs she found that twenty-five of them were soap operas from beginning to end, and two were ful of experiences so frightening and hideous that she labeled them in her own mind as Never Ever. The last one was cal ed Five Hundred Stories for Young Ones, and Bonnie quickly found that these immersion stories could be useful, for they specified the names of things a person would find around the house and the city. The sphere's connecting thread was a series about a family of werewolves named the D��z-Aht-Bhi'iens. Bonnie promptly christened them the Dustbins. The series consisted of episodes showing how the family lived each day: how they bought a new slave at the market to replace one who had died, and where they went to hunt human prey, and how Mers Dustbin played in an important bashik tournament at school.

Today the last story was almost providential. It showed little Marit Dustbin walking to a Sweetmeat Shop and getting a sugarplum. The candy cost exactly five soli. Bonnie got to experience eating part of it with Marit, and it was good.

After reading the story, Bonnie very careful y peeked through the edge of the window blind and saw a sign on a shop below that she'd often watched. Then she held the star bal to her temple.

Yes! Exactly the same kind of sign. And she knew not only what she wanted, but how much it should cost.

She was dying to get out of her tiny room and try what she had just learned. But before her eyes, the lights in the sweetshop went dark. It must be closing time.

Bonnie threw the star bal across the room. She turned the gas lamp down to just the faintest glow, and then flung herself on her rush-fil ed bed, pul ed the covers up…and discovered that she couldn't sleep. Groping in ruby twilight, she found the star bal with her fingers and put it to her temple again.

Interspersed with clusters of stories about the Dustbin family's daily adventures were fairy tales. Most of them were so gruesome that Bonnie couldn't experience them al the way through, and when it was time to sleep, she lay shivering on her pal et. But this time the story seemed different. After the title, The Gatehouse of the Seven Kitsune Treasures, she heard a little rhyme:

Amid a plain of snow and ice

There lies kitsune paradise.

And close beside, forbidden pleasure: Six gates more of kitsune treasure.

The very word kitsune was frightening. But, Bonnie thought, the story might prove relevant somehow.

I can do this, she thought and put the star bal to her temple.

The story didn't start with anything gruesome. It was about a young girl and boy kitsune who went on a quest to find the most sacred and secret of the "seven kitsune treasures,"the kitsune paradise. A treasure, Bonnie learned, could be something as smal as a single gem or as large as an entire world. This one, going by the story, was in the middle range, because a "paradise"was a kind of garden, with exotic flowers blooming everywhere, and little streams bubbling down smal waterfal s into clear, deep pools.

It was al wonderful, Bonnie thought, experiencing the story as if she were watching a movie al around her, but a movie that included the sensations of touch, taste, and smel . The paradise was a bit like Warm Springs, where they sometimes had picnics back at home.

In the story, the boy and girl kitsune had to go to "the top of the world"where there was some kind of fracture in the crust of the highest Dark Dimension – the one Bonnie was in right now. They managed somehow to travel down, and even farther down, and passed through various tests of courage and wit before they got into the next lowest dimension, the Nether World.

The Nether World was completely different from the Dark Dimension. It was a world of ice and slippery snow, of glaciers and rifts, al bathed in a blue twilight from three moons that shone from above.

The kitsune children almost starved in the Nether World because there was so little for a fox to hunt. They made do with the tiny animals of the cold: mice and smal white voles, and the occasional insect (Oh, yuck, Bonnie thought). They survived until, through the fog and mist, they saw a towering black wal . They fol owed the wal until final y they came to a Gatehouse with tal spires hidden in the clouds. Written above the door in an old language they could hardly read were the words: The Seven Gates.

They entered a room in which there were eight doorways or exits. One was the door through which they had just entered.

And as they watched, each door brightened so they could see that the other seven doors led to seven different worlds, one of which was the kitsune paradise. Yet another gate led to a field of magical flowers, and another showed butterflies flittering around a splashing fountain. Another dropped to a dark cavern fil ed with bottles of the mystical wine Clarion Loess Black Magic. One gate led to a deep mine, with jewels the size of a fist. And then there was a gate which showed the prize of al flowers: the Royal Radhika. It changed its shape from moment to moment, from a rose to a cluster of carnations to an orchid.

Through the last door they could see only a gigantic tree, but the final treasure was rumored to be an immense star bal .

Now the boy and girl forgot al about the kitsune paradise.

Each of them wanted something from another of the gates, but they couldn't agree on what. The rule was that any party or group who reached the gates could enter one and then return. But while the girl wanted a sprig of the Royal Radhika, to show that they'd completed their quest, the boy wanted some Black Magic wine, to sustain them on the way back.

No matter how they argued they couldn't reach an agreement. So final y they decided to cheat. They would simultaneously open a door and jump through, snatch what they wanted, and then jump back out and be out of the Gatehouse before they could be caught.

Just as they were about to do so, a voice warned them against it, saying, "One gate alone may you twain enter, and then return from whence you came."

But the boy and the girl chose to ignore the voice.

Immediately, the boy entered the door that led to the bottles of Black Magic wine and at the same instant the girl stepped into the Royal Radhika door. But when each turned around there was no longer any sign of a door or gate behind them.

The boy had plenty to drink but he was left forever in the dark and cold and his tears froze upon his cheeks. The girl had the beautiful flower to look at but nothing to eat or drink and so under the glowing yel ow sun she wasted away.

Bonnie shivered, the delicious shiver of a reader who had gotten what she expected. The fairy tale, with its moral of

"don't be greedy"was like the stories she'd heard from the Red and the Blue Fairy Books when she was a child sitting on her grandmother's lap.

She missed Elena and Meredith, badly. She had a story to tel , but no one to tel it to.