The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 25)

"Oh, I just want to take a little peek," Bonnie moaned, looking at the forbidden sketchbook, the one in which Lady Ulma had drawn their high couture outfits for the first party, the one that would be held tonight. Beside it, just within reach, were some sample squares from bolts of fabric in shimmering satin, rippling silk, transparent muslin, and soft, rich velvet.

"You'll get to try it on for the last fitting in an hour – this time with your eyes open!" Elena laughed. "But we can't forget that tonight isn't playtime. We'll have to dance some dances, of course – "

"Of course!" Bonnie repeated ecstatically.

"But our purpose there is to find the key. The first half of the double fox key. I just wish there was a star ball that showed the inside of tonight's house."

"Well, we all know pretty much about it; we can talk about it and try to imagine it," Meredith said.

Elena, who had been fiddling with the star ball from the other house, now put the slightly cloudy orb down and said, "All right. Let's brainstorm."

"May I storm, too?" a low, modulated voice asked from the doorway. The girls all turned, rising at the same time to greet a smiling Lady Ulma.

Before taking a chair, she gave Elena a particularly heartfelt hug and kiss on the cheek and Elena couldn't help herself from comparing the woman as they had seen her at Dr. Meggar's to the elegant lady she was now. Then, she had been hardly more than skin over bones, with the eyes of a timid wild creature under great strain, wearing a common housecoat, with men's bedroom slippers. Now, she reminded Elena of a Roman matron, with her face tranquil and beginning to fill out under a crown of glossy dark braids held back by jeweled combs. Her body was filling out, too, especially her belly, although she retained her natural grace as she took a seat on a velvet couch. She was wearing a saffron-colored gown of raw silk, with an underskirt of fringed and shimmering apricot.

"We're so excited about the fitting tonight," Elena said, with a nod toward the sketchbook.

"I am as excited as a child, myself," Lady Ulma admitted. "I only wish I could do for you a tenth of what you have done for me."

"You have already," Elena said. "And if we can find the fox keys – it will only be because you helped us so much. And that – I can't tell you how much that means to me," she finished almost in a whisper.

"But you never thought I could help you when you defied the law for a ravaged slave. You simply wanted to save me – and you have suffered much for it," Ulma responded quietly.

Elena shifted uncomfortably. The cut running down her face had left only a thin white scar along the cheekbone. Once – when she had first returned to Earth from the afterlife – she would have been able to wave the scar away with a simple wash of Power. But now, although she could channel her Power through her body, and use it to enhance her senses, she couldn't make it obey her will in any other way.

And once, she thought, imagining the Elena who had stood in Robert E. Lee High School's parking lot and drooled over a Porsche, she would have considered the marring of her face the greatest calamity of her life. But with all the accolades she had received, with Damon calling it her "white wound of honor," and her certainty that it would mean as little to Stefan as a scar on his cheekbone would mean to her, she had found she just couldn't take it very seriously.

I am not the same person I once was, she thought. And I'm glad.

"Never mind," she said, ignoring the pain down her leg that still throbbed at times. "Let's talk about the Silver Nightingale and her gala."

"Right," Meredith said. "What do we know about her? How did the clue go again, Elena?"

"Misao said, 'If I said that one of the halves was inside the silver nightingale's instrument, would that even give you an idea?' – or something like that," Elena repeated obediently. They all knew the words by heart but it was part of the ritual, every time they discussed it.

"And the 'Silver Nightingale' is the nickname for Lady Fazina Darley and everyone in the Dark Dimension knows it!" cried Bonnie, clapping her small hands in sheer delight.

"Indeed, that has long been her sobriquet, given to her when she first came here and began to sing and play on her harps strung with silver," Lady Ulma put in gravely.

"And harp strings need to be tuned, and they're tuned with keys," Bonnie continued excitedly.

"Yes." Meredith, in contrast, spoke slowly and thoughtfully. "But it's not a harp-tuning key we're looking for. They look like this." She put down on a table beside her an object made of smooth pale maple that looked like a very short T or, if held on its side, like a gracefully waving tree with one short horizontal branch. "I got that from one of the minstrels Damon hired."

Bonnie eyed the tuning key loftily. "It might be a harp-tuning key we're looking for," she insisted. "It might be used for both things, somehow."

"I don't see how," Meredith said doggedly. "Unless somehow they change shape when the two halves come together."

"Oh, my, yes," Lady Ulma said, as if Meredith had just made an obvious proposition. "If they are magical halves of a single key they will almost certainly change when the two halves come together."

"You see?" Bonnie said.

"But if they can be any sort of shape, then how the hell will we even know when we've found them?" Elena asked impatiently. All she cared about was finding what it took to save Stefan.

Lady Ulma fell silent, and Elena felt badly. She hated to use harsh language or even appear distressed in front of the woman who had lived a life of such subjection and horror since her early teens. Elena wanted Lady Ulma to feel safe, to be happy.

"Anyway," she said quickly, "we know one thing. It's in the Silver Nightingale's instrument. So whatever is inside Lady Fazina's harp, that has to be it."

"Oh, but – " Lady Ulma began, and then she stopped herself almost before the words were out.

"What is it?" Elena asked gently.

"Oh, nothing at all," Lady Ulma said hastily. "I mean, would you like to see your dresses now? This last fitting is really just to make sure every stitch is perfect."

"Oh, we'd love to!" Bonnie cried, at the same time making a dive for the sketchbook, while Meredith rung a bell pull that brought a servant hurrying in and hurrying away again to the sewing room.

"I only wish Master Damon and Lord Sage had agreed to let me create something for them to wear," Lady Ulma said mournfully to Elena.

"Oh, Sage is not going. And I'm sure Damon wouldn't have minded – as long as you designed him a black leather jacket, a black shirt, black jeans, and black boots all exactly like the ones he wears every day. He'd have been happy to wear it then."

Lady Ulma laughed. "I see. Well, there will be enough fantastical styles worn tonight that he may change his mind for the future. Now let's draw the curtains on the windows all around. This gala is to be indoors, with gaslight only, so colors will show true."

"I wondered why it said 'indoors' on the invitations," Bonnie said. "I thought maybe it was because of rain."

"It's because of the sun," Lady Ulma said soberly. "That hateful crimson light, changing every blue to purple, every yellow to brown. You see, no one would wear aqua or green to an outdoor soiree – no, not even you, with that strawberry hair that cries out for it."

"I get it. I can see how having that sun hanging there every day would really get you down after a while."

"I wonder if you can," murmured Lady Ulma, and then she added hastily, "While we wait shall I show you what I have created for your tall friend who doubts me?"

"Oh, please, yes!" Bonnie held out the sketchbook.

Lady Ulma thumbed through it until she came to a page that seemed to please her. She took up pens and coloring pencils like a child eager to play with beloved toys again. "Here it is," she said, using the colored pencils to add a line here and a curve there, but holding the book so that the three girls could see the design.

"Oh, my God!" cried Bonnie in genuine astonishment, and even Elena felt her eyes widening.

The girl in the sketch was definitely Meredith, with her hair half up and half down, but wearing a dress – such a dress! Black as ebony, strapless, it clung to the long slim figure perfectly sketched in the picture, emphasizing the curves, enhancing them on top by what Elena learned was called a "sweetheart" neckline: one that made Meredith's front look like a Valentine's Day heart. It kept close to the body all the way to the knees where it suddenly flared out again, dramatically wide. "A 'mermaid' dress," Lady Ulma explained, satisfied with her sketch at last. "And here it is," she added as several sewing women entered, reverently holding the miraculous gown between them. Now the girls could see that the material was of plush black velvet dotted with tiny rectangular metallic golden flecks. It looked like midnight back home, Elena thought, with a thousand falling stars in the sky.

"And with it, you will wear these very large black onyx and gold earrings, these black onyx and gold combs to hold your hair up, and some lovely matching bracelets and rings Lucen has made just for this outfit," Lady Ulma continued. Elena realized that sometime in the last minutes Lucen must have entered the room. She smiled at him, and then her eyes dropped to the three-tiered tray he held. On the top tray, against an ivory background, were two black onyx and diamond bracelets, as well as a ring with a diamond in it that almost made her swoon.

Meredith was looking around the room as if she had stumbled into a private discussion and didn't know how to get out. Then she looked from the dress to the jewels to Lady Ulma again. Meredith was not one to lose her composure easily. But after a moment she simply went to Lady Ulma and hugged her fiercely, then went to Lucen and very gently put her hand on his forearm. It was clear that she couldn't speak.

Bonnie was studying the sketch with the eyes of a connoisseur now. "Those matching bracelets were made just for this dress, weren't they?" she said with a conspiratorial air.

To Elena's surprise Lady Ulma seemed uncomfortable. Then she spoke slowly. "The truth is…well, that Miss Meredith is…a slave. All slaves are required to wear some sort of symbolic bracelets when they travel outside their households." She turned her eyes down to the polished wooden floorboards. Her cheeks were flushed.

"Lady Ulma – oh, please, you can't think it matters to us?"

Lady Ulma's eyes flashed as she looked up. "Not matter?"

"Well," Elena said hautily, "it doesn't really matter…er, yet, because there's nothing to do about it, not now." Of course, the servants weren't in on the secrets of the Damon-Elena-Meredith-Bonnie relationship. Even Lady Ulma didn't see why Damon didn't free the three girls just in case "something should happen, may the Celestial Guardians forbid it." But the girls had formed a solid phalanx against it; it would be like jinxing their whole enterprise.

"Well, anyway," Bonnie was blathering, "I think the bracelets are beautiful. I mean she could hardly find anything more perfect for the dress, could she?" – striking at the professional sensibilities of the designer.

Lucen smiled modestly and Lady Ulma gave him a loving glance.

Meredith's face was still glowing. "Lady Ulma, I don't know how to thank you. I will wear this gown – and for tonight I will be someone I have never been before. Of course, you've drawn my hair up, or partly up. I don't usually wear it that way," Meredith finished weakly.

"You will tonight – up and high over that lovely wide brow of yours. This dress is to show off the charming curves of your bare shoulders and arms. It's a crime to cover them, day or night. And the hairstyle is to lay bare your exotic face instead of hiding it!" Lady Ulma said firmly.

Good, Elena thought. They've gotten her off the subject of symbolic slavery.

"You'll wear a touch of makeup as well – pale gold on your lids, and kohl to enhance and lengthen your lashes. A touch of golden lipstick, but no rouge; I don't believe in that for young girls. Your olive skin will complete the picture of a sultry maiden perfectly."

Meredith looked helplessly at Elena. "I don't usually wear makeup either," she said, but they both knew that she was beaten. Lady Ulma's vision would come to life.

"Don't call it a mermaid dress; she'll be a siren," Bonnie said enthusiastically. "But we'd better put a spell on it to keep all the vampire sailors away."

To Elena's surprise, Lady Ulma nodded solemnly. "My seamstress friend has sent a priestess today to bless all the garments and to keep you from being victimized by vampires, of course. If that meets with your approval?" She looked at Elena, who nodded.

"As long as they don't keep Damon out of the way," she added jokingly, and felt time freeze as Meredith and Bonnie immediately turned their eyes on her, hoping to catch something in Elena's expression that would give her away.

But Elena kept her expression neutral, as Lady Ulma continued, "Naturally, the restrictions would not apply to your – to Master Damon."

"Naturally," Elena said soberly.

"And now for the smallest beauty to go to the gala," Lady Ulma was saying to Bonnie, who bit her lip, blushing. "I have something very special for you. I don't know how long I've been yearning to work with this material. I've trudged by it in a shop window year after year, just aching to buy it and create with it. You see?" And the next set of sewing women came forward, holding a smaller, lighter frock between them, while Lady Ulma held up a sketch. Elena was already staring in amazement. The material was glorious – incredible – but especially clever was how it had been put together. The fabric was vivid peacock green-blue, with the most amazing hand stitching to represent a pattern of peacock eyes flaring up from the waist.

Bonnie's brown eyes had widened again. "This is for me?" she breathed, almost afraid to touch the material.

"Yes, and we're going to slick that hair of yours back until you look as sophisticated as your friend. Go ahead and try it on. I think you'll like the way this dress has come out." Lucen had retired and Meredith was already being carefully encased in the mermaid dress.

Bonnie happily began to strip.

Lady Ulma turned out to have been right. Bonnie loved the way she looked that evening. Right now she was being given the finishing touches, such as a delicate spray of citrus and rosewater; a fragrance made just for her. She stood before a giant silvered-glass mirror, just minutes before they were due to start off for the gala given by Fazina, the Silver Nightingale herself.

Bonnie turned a little, looking at the strapless, full-skirted dress in awe. Its bodice was made – or seemed to be made – entirely of the eyes of peacock feathers, arranged in a spray that was gathered together at her waist, showing off how tiny it was. There was another spray of larger feathers that pointed downward from the waist, front and back. The back actually had a small train of peacock feathers against emerald silk. In front, below the larger, downward pointing spray, a design worked in silver and gold, of stylized undulating plumes, all upside down, made its way to the bottom of the gown, which was edged with thin gold brocade.

As if this were not enough, Lady Ulma had had a fan made with real peacock eyes set in an emerald jade handle, with a tassel of softly clinking jade, citrine, and emerald charms at the bottom.

Around Bonnie's throat was a matching necklace of jade, inlaid with emerald, sapphire, and lapis lazuli. And around each of her wrists were several emerald jade bracelets that clicked together whenever she moved, the symbol of her slavery.

But Bonnie's eyes could hardly linger on them, and she couldn't summon up a proper hatred of the bracelets. She was thinking of how a special hairdresser had come to "slick back" Bonnie's strawberry-colored curls until, darkened into true red, they were plastered flat against her skull and held in place with jade and emerald clips. Her heart-shaped face had never looked so mature, so sophisticated. To emerald eyelids and kohl-darkened eyes, Lady Ulma had added a vivid red lipstick and had for once broken her rule and cleverly, wielding the brush herself, had added touches here and there of blusher so that Bonnie's translucent skin looked as if she were constantly coloring at some compliment. Delicately carved jade earrings with golden bells inside completed the ensemble, and Bonnie felt as if she were some Princess of the Ancient Orient.

"It's really some kind of miracle. Usually, I look like a pixie trying to dress up as a cheerleader or a flower girl," she confided, kissing Lady Ulma again and again, delighted to find that the lipstick stayed on her lips instead of transferring to her benefactress's cheeks. "But tonight I look like a young woman."

She would have kept on babbling, helpless to stop herself even though Lady Ulma already was trying to discreetly dab tears away from her eyes, except that at that moment Elena came in and she gasped.

Elena's dress had already been finished by the afternoon and so all Bonnie had seen of it was the sketch. But somehow that had failed to convey just what this dress would do for Elena.

Bonnie had secretly wondered if Lady Ulma were leaving too much to Elena's own natural beauty, and was hoping that Elena would be as excited about her own dress as everyone seemed to be about Bonnie's and Meredith's.

Now Bonnie understood.

"It is a called a goddess dress," Lady Ulma explained to the stunned silence in the room, as Elena walked in, and Bonnie dizzily thought that if goddesses had ever lived up on Mount Olympus, they would certainly have wanted to dress this way.

The trick of the dress lay in its very simplicity. It was made of milk-white silk, with a delicately pleated waist (Lady Ulma called the irregular tight pleating "ruching") which held two simple bodice panels that formed a V-neckline, showing off Elena's peach-blossom skin between them and behind them. These panels in turn were held at the shoulders by two carved clasps – gold inlaid with mother-of-pearl and diamonds. From the waist, the skirt fell straight in graceful, silken folds all the way to Elena's delicate sandals – again designed in gold, mother-of-pearl and diamonds. In the back, the two panels that clasped at the shoulder became straps and crossed over to once again meet at the pleated waist.

Such a simple dress, but so magnificent on the right girl.

At Elena's throat, an exquisitely designed golden and mother-of-pearl necklace in the stylized shape of a butterfly was inset with so many diamonds that it seemed to blaze with multicolored fire each time she moved and they caught the light. She wore this over the lapis and diamond pendant Stefan had given her, since she had flatly refused to take the pendant off. It didn't matter. The butterfly covered the pendant completely.

On each wrist Elena wore a wide bracelet of gold and mother-of-pearl inset with diamonds, creations that they had found in the secret jewel room, obviously made to go with the necklace.

And that was all. Elena's hair had been brushed and brushed and brushed until it formed a silky golden tumble of waves that hung below her shoulders in back, and she was wearing a touch of rose-colored lipstick. But her face, with its thick black eyelashes and lighter arched brows – and just now its look of excitement that parted her rose-colored lips and brought brilliant color to her cheeks – had been left entirely alone. Earrings that were just cascades of diamonds peeped through her gold tresses.

She's going to drive them crazy tonight, Bonnie thought, eyeing the daring dress with envy, but not with jealousy, instead rather reveling in the thought of the sensation Elena would make. She's wearing the simplest gown of any of us, but she still completely puts Meredith and me in the shade.

Yet Bonnie had never seen Meredith look better – or more exotic. She'd also never known what a stunning figure Meredith had, despite her friend's wide assortment of designer clothes.

Meredith shrugged when Bonnie told her this. She had a fan, too, black lacquer, that folded. Now she opened it and folded it shut again, tapping her chin thoughtfully.

"We're in the hands of a genius," she said simply. "But we can't forget what we're really here for."