The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 27)

Elena felt confident and just a little light-headed as they set out for the Silver Nightingale's gala. However, when the four of them arrived on litters – Damon with Elena, Meredith with Bonnie (Lady Ulma being forbidden by her doctor to go to any festivities while she was pregnant) – at the Honorable Lady Fazina's palatial home, she was struck with something like terror.

The house was truly a palace, in the best of story-telling tradition, she thought. Minarets and towers soared above them, probably painted in blue and lavish gilt, but turned lavender by the sunlight, and looking almost lighter than air. To complement the sunlight, torches had been lit on either side of the path of the litters up the hill and some chemical had been added – or some magic used – to make their lights shine in varying colors so that they changed from golden, to red, to purple, to blue, to green, to silver, and these colors shone true. They took Elena's breath away, as the only things that were not tinged with red in the whole world that she could see. Damon had brought a bottle of Black Magic with him and was almost too high-spirited – no pun intended, Elena thought.

As their litter stopped at the top of the hill, Damon and Elena were helped out and down a hallway that cut out much of the sunlight. Above them hung delicate, lighted paper lanterns – some larger than the litter they'd been in a moment ago – brightly lighted and fancifully shaped which gave a festive, playful air to a palace otherwise so magnificent that it was a little intimidating.

They passed by lighted fountains, some of which had surprises – like the line of magical frogs that constantly leaped from lily pad to lily pad: plop, plop, plop, like the sound of rain on a rooftop, or a huge gilded serpent that coiled among trees and over the heads of visitors, winding from there to the ground and then back up to the trees again.

Then again, it was the ground that would turn transparent with all manner of magical schools of fish, sharks, eels, and dolphins cavorting, while in the dim blue depths far below loomed the figure of a gigantic whale. Elena and Bonnie hurried quickly over this portion of the path.

It was clear that the owner of this estate could afford any kind of extravaganza her heart desired, and that above all things what she enjoyed the chiefest was music, for in each area, splendidly – sometimes bizarrely – dressed orchestra were playing, or there might be only one famous soloist, singing from a high gilded cage perhaps twenty-five feet above the ground.

Music…music and lights everywhere…

Elena herself, although thrilled by the sights, sounds, and glorious scents coming from huge banks of flowers as well as from the guests, both male and female, felt a slight fear like a small rock in her stomach. She had thought her dress and diamonds so elaborate when she had left Lady Ulma's estate. But now that she was here at Lady Fazina's…well, there were too many rooms, too many people, as fancifully and finely clad as herself and her sister "personal assistants." She was afraid that – well, that that woman over there, dripping jewels from her delicate three-tier diamond and emerald tiara to her delicate diamond-circled toes, made her own unadorned hair look dowdy or laughable, at such a grand affair.

Do you know how old she is? Elena almost jumped to hear Damon's voice in her head.

Who? Elena replied, trying at least to keep her envy – her worry – out of her telepathic voice. And am I projecting that loudly? she added in alarm.

Not all that loudly, but it never hurts to tune it down. And you know perfectly well "who": that giraffe you were eyeing, Damon replied. For your information, she's about two hundred years older than I am, and she's trying to look around thirty, which is ten years younger than when she became a vampire.

Elena blinked. What are you trying to say?

Send some Power to your ears, Damon suggested. And stop worrying!

Elena obediently increased slightly the Power to what she still thought of as her burst ear nodes, and conversations suddenly became audible all around her.

…oh, the goddess in white. She's just a child, but what a figure…

…yes, the one with the golden hair. Magnificent, isn't she?…Oh, by Hades, look at that girl……Did you see the prince and princess over there? I wonder if they'd swap…or – or – do a quartet, dear?

This was more like what Elena was used to hearing at parties. It gave her more confidence. It also, as she allowed her eyes to sweep more boldly across the opulently costumed crowed, caused her to feel a sudden surge of love and respect for Lady Ulma, who had designed and overseen the construction of three glorious dresses in only a week.

She's a genius, Elena informed Damon solemnly, knowing that through their mindlink he would see who she meant. Look, Meredith already has a crowd around her. And…and…

And she's not acting much like Meredith at all, Damon finished, sounding slightly uneasy.

Meredith didn't seem uneasy in the least. She had her face turned deliberately to show off a classical profile to her admirers, but it wasn't the profile of level-headed, serene Meredith Sulez at all. It was a sultry, exotic girl, who looked as if she might very well be able to sing the Habanera from Carmen. She had her fan open and was gracefully, languorously fanning herself. The soft but warm indoor lighting made her bare shoulders and arms gleam like pearl above the black velvet dress, which seemed even more mysterious and striking than it had back at home. In fact, it seemed to have stricken one devotee to the heart already; he was kneeling before her with a red rose in his hand, so hastily picked from one of the arrangements that a thorn had pricked him and blood welled from his thumb. Meredith didn't seem to have noticed. Both Elena and Damon felt for the young man, who was blond and extremely handsome. Elena felt sorry…and Damon felt hungry.

She certainly seems to have come out of her shell, ventured Damon.

Oh, Meredith doesn't ever really come out, Elena replied. It's all playacting. But tonight I think it's the dresses that are doing it. Meredith is dressed like a siren, and so she's acting all sultry. Bonnie's dressed like a peacock and…look.

She nodded down the long hallway that led to a huge room in front of them. Bonnie, dressed in what looked like real peacock feathers, had a crowd of her own followers – and that was just what they were doing: following. Bonnie's every movement was light and birdlike and her jade bracelets clinked together on her small rounded arms, her earrings chimed with each toss of her head, and her feet seemed to twinkle in golden sandals in front of her peacock train.

"You know, it's strange," Elena murmured, as they reached the large room and at last sound was muted so she could hear Damon's physical voice. "I didn't realize it, but Lady Ulma designed our dresses at different levels of the animal world."

"Hm?" Damon was looking at her throat again. But fortunately at that moment a handsome man dressed in formal Earth clothes – tuxedo, cummerbund, and so on – came by with Black Magic in large silver goblets. Damon drained his in one gulp and took another from the gracefully bowing waiter. Then he and Elena took seats – on the outside of the back row, even if this was a rudeness to their hostess. They needed to be free to maneuver.

"Well, Meredith is a mermaid, which is the highest order, and she's acting like a siren. Bonnie is a bird, so that's the next highest order, and she is acting like a bird: watching all the boys display themselves while she keeps laughing. And I'm a butterfly – so I suppose I'll be a social butterfly tonight. With you beside me, I hope."

"How…cute," Damon said heavily. "But what exactly makes you think you're supposed to be a butterfly?"

"Well, the designs, silly," Elena said, and she lifted her mother-of-pearl and gold and diamond fan and gave him a tiny butterfly rap on the forehead with it. Then she opened it to show him a masterly sketch of the same design as her necklace on its front, decorated with tiny dots of diamond, gold, and mother-of-pearl where they would not be harmed by the folds.

"You see? A butterfly," she said, not displeased with the image.

Damon traced the outline with one long, tapering finger that reminded her so much of Stefan's that it hurt her throat, and stopped at six stylized lines above the head. "Since when do butterflies have hair?"

His finger moved to two horizontal lines between the wings. "Or arms?"

"Those are legs," Elena told him, amused. "What kind of thing with arms and legs and a head has six hairs and wings?"

"A tipsy vampire," suggested a voice above them and Elena looked up, surprised to see Sage. "May I sit with you?" he asked. "I couldn't manage a shirt, but my fairy godmother did conjure up a vest."

Elena, laughing, scooted over a seat so that he could take the aisle seat by Damon. He was much cleaner than when she had last seen him working around the house, although his hair was still in long wild unruly curls. She noted however, that his fairy godmother had scented him with cedar and sandalwood, and provided him with Dolce & Gabbana jeans and vest. He looked…magnifique. There was no sign of his animals.

"I thought you weren't coming," Elena said to him.

"You can say that? Garbed as you are in celestial white and gold? You mentioned the gala; I took your wish as a command."

Elena giggled. Of course, everyone was treating her differently tonight. It was the dress. Sage, murmuring something about his latent heterosexuality, swore that the image on her necklace and fan was a phoenix. The very polite demon on her right, who had deep mauve skin and small, curling white horns, deferentially submitted that it looked to him like the goddess Ishtar, who had apparently sent him to the Dark Dimension a few millennia ago for tempting people to sloth. Elena made a mental note to ask Meredith whether this meant tempting them to eat sloths, which she knew were some kind of wild animal that didn't move around much, or something else.

Then Elena thought that Lady Ulma had called the dress a "goddess dress," hadn't she? It was certainly a dress you could only wear if your body was very young and very close to perfection, because there was no way to fit corsetry into it or even to drape it to minimize an unflattering feature. The only things under the dress were Elena's own firm young physique and a pair of scant, soft flesh-colored lace underwear. Oh, and a spray of jasmine perfume.

So it's a goddess I feel like, she thought, thanking the demon (who stood and bowed). People were taking their seats for the Silver Nightingale's first performance. Elena had to admit to a longing to see Lady Fazina, and besides, it was too early to try for a restroom trip – Elena had already noticed that guards were posted at all the doors.

There were two harps on a dais in the middle of a great circle of chairs. And then suddenly everyone was on their feet and clapping, and Elena would have seen nothing, if the Lady Fazina had not chosen to walk down the same aisle Elena and Damon had taken. As it was, she paused right beside Sage to acknowledge the roar of acclamation, and Elena had a perfect view of her.

She was a lovely young woman, who to Elena's surprise looked hardly older than twenty, and was nearly as small as Bonnie. This diminutive creature obviously took her sobriquet very seriously: she was dressed entirely in a gown of silver mesh. Her hair was metallic silver, too, swept high in front and very short in back. Her train was barely attached to her, by two simple clasps at the shoulders. It floated horizontally behind her, constantly in motion, more like a moonbeam or a cloud than like real material until she got to the central dais and ascended it, then walked once around the tall uncovered harp, at which point the suspended part of the cape fell softly and gracefully to the floor in a semicircle around her.

And then came the magic of the Silver Nightingale's voice. She began by playing the tall harp, which seemed even taller in comparison to her small body. She could make the harp sing under her fingers, coax it to cry like the wind or make music that seemed to descend from heaven in glissandos. Elena wept throughout her first song, even though it was sung in some foreign language. It was so piercingly sweet that it reminded Elena of Stefan, of the times they had been together, communicating by only the softest words and touches…

But Lady Fazina's most impressive instrument was her voice. Her tiny body could generate an extraordinary volume when she wanted it to. And as she sang one poignant, minor-tuned song after another, Elena could feel her skin break out into gooseflesh, and a trembling in her legs. She felt that at any moment she might fall to her knees as the melodies filled her heart.

When someone touched her from behind, Elena started violently, brought back too quickly from the fantasy world the music had woven around her. But it was only Meredith, who despite her own love for music had a very practical suggestion for their group.

"I was going to say, why not start now, while everyone else is listening?" she whispered. "Even the guards are out of it. We agreed on two by two, yes?"

Elena nodded. "We're just having a look around the house. We may even find something while everyone is still here, listening, for nearly another hour. Sage, maybe you could sort of liaise between the two groups, telepathically."

"It would be my privilege, Madame."

The five of them set out into the Silver Nightingale's mansion.