The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 22)
She never talked about sad things now. She told them so many stories about her childhood estate that they felt they could walk around it and recognize every room, vast though it was.
"I suppose it's home to rats and mice now," she said wistfully at the conclusion of one story. "And spiders and moths."
"But why?" Bonnie said, failing to see the signals that both Meredith and Elena were giving her not to ask.
Lady Ulma tipped her head back to look at the ceiling. "Because…of General Verantz. The middle-aged demon who saw me when I was only fourteen. When he had the army attack my home, they slaughtered every living thing they found inside – except me and my canary. My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles…my younger brothers and sisters. Even my cat sleeping on the window seat. General Verantz had me brought in front of him, just as I was, in my nightgown and bare feet, with my hair unbrushed and coming out of its braid, and beside him was my canary with the nighttime cloth off its cage. It was still alive and hopping about as cheerful as ever. And that made everything else that happened seem worse somehow – and yet more like a dream, too. It's difficult to explain.
"Two of the general's men were holding me when they brought me before him. They were really propping me up more than keeping me from running, though. I was so young, you see, and everything kept fading in and out. But I remember exactly what the general said to me. He said, 'I told this bird to sing and it sang. I told your parents I wanted to give you the honor of being my wife and they refused. Now look over there. Will you be like the canary or your parents, I wonder?' And he pointed to a dim corner of the room – of course it was all torchlight then, and the torches had been put out for the night. But there was enough light for me to see that there was a heap of round objects, with thatch or grass at one side of them. At least that is what I first thought – truly. I was that innocent, and I believe shock had done something to my mind."
"Please," Elena said, stroking Lady Ulma's hand gently. "You don't have to keep on with this. We understand – "
But Lady Ulma didn't seem to hear the words. She said, "And then one of the general's men held up a sort of coconut with very long thatch at the top, braided. He swung it casually – and all of a sudden I saw it for what it really was. It was my mother's head."
Elena choked involuntarily. Lady Ulma looked around at the three girls with steady, dry eyes. "I suppose you think me very callous for being able to talk about such things without breaking down."
"No, no – " Elena began hastily. She herself was shaking, even after tuning down her psychic senses to their least extent. She hoped Bonnie wouldn't faint.
Lady Ulma was speaking again. "War, casual violence, and tyranny are all I have known since my childhood innocence was crushed in that moment. It is kindness now that astounds me, that makes my eyes sting with tears."
"Oh, don't cry," begged Bonnie, throwing her arms around the woman impulsively. "Please don't. We're here for you."
Meanwhile Elena and Meredith were regarding each other with knitted eyebrows and quick shrugs.
"Yes, please don't cry," Elena put in, feeling faintly guilty, but determined to try Plan A. "But tell us, why did your family estate end up in such bad condition?"
"It was the fault of the general. He was sent to faraway lands to fight foolish, meaningless wars. When he left he would take most of his retinue with him – including slaves who were in favor at the moment. When he left once, three years after he had attacked our home, I was not in favor, and I was not chosen to be with him. I was lucky. His entire battalion was wiped out; the household members who went with him were taken captive or slaughtered. He had no heir and his property here reverted to the Crown, which had no use for it. It has lain unoccupied for all these many years – looted many times, no doubt, but with its true secret, the secret of the jewels, undiscovered…as far as I know."
"The Secret of the Jewels," Bonnie whispered, clearly putting it all in capital letters, as if it were a mystery novel. She still had an arm around Lady Ulma.
"What secret of the jewels?" Meredith said more calmly. Elena couldn't speak for the delicious shivers that were running through her. This was like being part of some magical play.
"In my parents' day, it was common to hide your wealth somewhere on your estate – and to keep the knowledge of its hiding place strictly to the owners. Of course, my father, as a designer and trader in jewels, had more to hide than most people knew of. He had a wonderful room that seemed to me something like Aladdin's cave. It was his workshop, where he kept his raw gems as well as finished pieces that had been commissioned or that he designed for my mother or out of his imagination."
"And no one ever found that?" Meredith said. There was just the slightest tinge of skepticism in her voice.
"If anyone did, I never heard about it. Of course, they could have gotten the knowledge out of my father or mother, in time – but the general was not a meticulous and patient vampire or kitsune, but a rough and impatient demon. He killed my parents as he stormed through the house. It never occurred to him that I, a child of fourteen, might share the knowledge."
"But you did…" Bonnie whispered, fascinated, taking the story where it had to go.
"But I did. And I do now."
Elena gulped. She was still trying to stay calm, to be more like Meredith, to maintain a cool head. But just as she opened her mouth to be coolheaded, Meredith said, "What are we waiting for?" and jumped to her feet.
Lady Ulma seemed to be the most tranquil person there. She also seemed slightly bewildered and almost timid. "You mean that we should ask our master for an audience?"
"I mean that we should go out there and get those jewels!" Elena exclaimed. "Although, yes, Damon would be a big asset if there's anything that takes strength to lift. Sage, too." She couldn't understand why Lady Ulma wasn't more excited.
"Don't you see?" Elena said, her mind racing. "You can have your household back again! We can do our best to fix it up the way it was when you were a child. I mean, if that's what you want to do with the money. But I'd love, at least, to see the Aladdin's cave!"
"But – well," Lady Ulma seemed suddenly distressed. "I had meant to ask Master Damon for another favor – although the money from the jewels might help with that."
"What is it that you want?" Elena said as gently as she could. "And you don't need to call him Master Damon. He freed you days ago, remember?"
"But surely that was just a – a celebration of the moment?" Lady Ulma still looked puzzled. "He didn't make it official at the Servile Offices or anything, did he?"
"If he didn't it's because he didn't know!" Bonnie cried out at the same time as Meredith said, "We don't really understand the protocol. Is that what you need to do?"
Lady Ulma seemed able only to nod her head. Elena felt humble. She guessed that this woman, a slave for more than twenty-two years, must find true freedom difficult to believe in.
"Damon meant it when he said we were all free," she said, kneeling by Lady Ulma's chair. "He just didn't know all the things he had to do. If you tell us, we can tell him, and then we can all go to your old estate."
She was about to get up again, when Bonnie said, "Something's wrong. She isn't as happy as she was before. We have to find out what it is."
By opening her psychic perceptions a bit, Elena could tell that Bonnie was right. She stayed where she was, kneeling by Lady Ulma's chair.
"What is it?" she said, because the woman seemed to bare her soul most when she, Elena, asked the questions.
"I had hoped," Lady Ulma said slowly, "that Master Damon might buy…" She flushed, but struggled on. "Might find it in his heart to buy one more slave. The…the father of my child."
There was a moment of perfect silence, and then all three girls were talking, all three, Elena guessed, trying frantically to do what she herself was working at, which was not mentioning that she had assumed Old Drohzne was the father.
But of course he couldn't be, Elena scolded herself. She's happy about this pregnancy – and who could be happy to have a child by a disgusting monster like Old Drohzne? Besides, he didn't have a clue that she might be pregnant – and didn't care.
"It might be easier said than done," Lady Ulma said, when the babble of reassurances and questions had died down a little. "Lucen is a jeweler, a renowned man who creates pieces that…that remind me of my father's. He will be expensive."
"But we've got Aladdin's cave to explore!" Bonnie said gleefully. "I mean, you'll have enough if you sell off the jewelry, right? Or do you need more?"
"But that is Master Damon's jewelry," Lady Ulma said, seeming horrified. "Even if he did not realize it when he inherited all of Old Drohzne's property, he became my owner, and the owner of all my property…."
"Let's go get you freed and then we'll take things one step at a time," Meredith said in her firmest and most rational voice.
Well, I am writing to you still as a slave. Today we freed Lady Ulma, but decided that Meredith and Bonnie and I should remain "personal assistants." This is because Lady Ulma said Damon would seem odd and unfashionable if he didn't have several beautiful girls as courtesans.
There is actually an upside to this, which is that as courtesans we need to have beautiful clothes and jewelry all the time. Since I've been wearing the same pair of jeans ever since that b*st*rd Old Drohzne sliced up the pair I wore into this place, you can imagine that I'm excited. But, truly, it's not just because of pretty clothes I'm excited. Everything that happened since we freed Lady Ulma and then went to her old estate has been a wonderful dream. The house was run down, and obviously the home of wild animals who used it as a lavatory as well as a bedroom. We even found the tracks of wolves and other animals upstairs, which led to the question of whether werewolves live in this world. Apparently they do, and some in very high positions under various feudal lords. Maybe Caroline would like to try a vacation here to learn about the real werewolves though – they're said to hate humans so much that they won't even have human or vampire (once human) slaves.
But back to Lady Ulma's house. Its foundation is of stone and it's paneled inside with hardwood, so the basic structure is fine. The curtains and tapestries are all hanging in shreds, of course, so it's sort of spooky to go inside with torches and see them dangling above and around you. Not to mention the giant spiderwebs. I hate spiders more than anything.
But we went inside, with our torches seeming like smaller versions of that giant crimson sun that always sits on the horizon, staining everything outside the color of blood, and we shut the doors and lit a fire in a giant fireplace in what Lady Ulma calls the Great Hall. (I think it's where you eat or have parties – it has an enormous table on a dais at one side, and a room for minstrels above what must be the dance floor. Lady Ulma said that this is where the servants all sleep at night, too (the Great Hall, not the minstrel gallery).
Then we went upstairs, where we saw – I swear – several dozen bedrooms with very large four-poster beds that are going to need new mattresses and sheets and coverlets and hangings, but we didn't stay to look around. There were bats hanging from the ceiling.
We headed for Lady Ulma's mother's workroom. It was a very large room where at least forty people could sit and sew the clothes that Lady Ulma's mother designed. But here's the exciting part!
Lady Ulma went to one of the wardrobes in the room and moved away all the tattered, moth-eaten clothes that were in it. And she pressed some different places at the back of the cupboard and the whole back of the cupboard slid out! Inside it was a very narrow stairway going straight down!
I kept thinking about Honoria Fell's crypt and wondering if some homeless vampire might have taken up residence in the room downstairs, but I knew that was silly because there were spiderwebs just inside the door. Damon still insisted that he go down first because he has the best eyesight in the dark, but I think the truth is that he was just curious to see what was down there.
We each followed him one at a time, trying to be careful with the torches, and…well, I can't find the right words for what we discovered. For just a few minutes I was disappointed because everything on the big table down there was dusty rather than sparkly, but then Lady Ulma began to gently brush jewels off with a special cloth and Bonnie found sacks and packages and she poured them out – and it was like pouring out a rainbow! Damon found a cabinet where there were drawers and drawers of necklaces, bracelets, rings, armlets, anklets, earrings, nose rings, and hairpins and ornaments, too!
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I poured out a pouch and found that I had a huge handful of glorious white diamonds dripping through my fingers, some of them as big as my thumbnail. I saw white pearls and black pearls, both smaller and perfectly matched, and huge and in marvelous shapes: almost as big as apricots with pink or golden or gray sheens to them. I saw sapphires the size of quarters, with stars you could see almost from across the room. I held handfuls of emeralds and peridots and opals and rubies and tourmalines and amethysts – and a lot of lapis lazuli, for the discriminating vampire, of course.
And the jewelry that was already made up was so beautiful it made my throat ache. I know Lady Ulma had a quiet little cry, but I think it was partly from happiness as we all kept complimenting her on her jewels. In days she has gone from being a slave who owned nothing to an incredibly rich woman who owns a house and all the means she would ever need to keep it up in style. We decided that even though she is going to marry her lover, it was best at first for Damon to buy him quietly and free him quietly, but to play "Head of the Household" for as long as we are here. During that time we will treat Lady Ulma as family, and will put the jeweler Lucen back to work until we leave, when he and Lady Ulma can quietly take Damon's place. The feudal lords around here are not demons anymore, but vampires, and they have less objection to humans owning property.
Have I told you about Lucen? He's a wonderful artist with jewels! He has a burning need to create – in his early days as a slave he would create with mud and weeds, imagining that he was making jewelry. Then he got lucky and was apprenticed to a jeweler. He's felt sorry for Lady Ulma for so long, and loved her for so long, that it's like a little miracle that they are truly able to get together – and most importantly, as free citizens.
We were afraid that Lucen might not like the idea of us buying him as a slave and not freeing him until we leave, but he never thought he'd be free – because of his talent. He's a slow, gentle, kind man, with a neat little beard and gray eyes that remind me of Meredith's. And he's so amazed at being treated decently and not worked around the clock that he would have accepted anything, just to be allowed to be near Lady Ulma. I guess he was an apprentice when her father was a jeweler, and he fell in love with her all those years ago, but he thought he would never, never ever be able to be with her, because she was a young lady of quality and he was a slave. They're so happy together!
Every day Lady Ulma looks more beautiful, and younger. She asked permission from Damon to dye her hair all black, and he told her she could dye it pink if she liked, and now she just looks incredibly beautiful. I can't believe I ever thought of her as an old hag, but that's what agony and fear and hopelessness do to you. Every one of those gray hairs was from being a slave, with no property, no say in her future, no safety, no ability even to keep her children, if she had them.
I forgot to tell you the other upside of Meredith, Bonnie, and I being "personal assistants" for a while. It's that we can employ a lot of poor women who make their living by sewing, and Lady Ulma actually wants to design and show them how to make our finest clothes. We told her that she could just relax, but she says all her life she's fantasized about being a designer like her mother and now she's dying to do it – with three completely different types of girl to dress. I'm dying to see what she'll come up with: she's already started sketching and tomorrow the man who sells fabric will come and she'll pick the materials.
Meanwhile Damon has hired about two hundred people (really!) to clean out Lady Ulma's estate, put up new wall hangings and curtains, refurbish the plumbing system, polish up the furniture that has kept nicely, and to get new furniture where things have fallen apart. Oh, and to plant ready-grown flowers and trees in the gardens and put in fountains and all kinds of stuff. With that many people working, we ought to be able to move in in just a matter of days.
All this has just one purpose, aside from making Lady Ulma happy. It's so that Damon and his "personal assistants" will be accepted by high society as the season of parties begins this year. Because I've kept the best for last. Both Lady Ulma and Sage could immediately identify the people in the riddles that Misao gave to us!
It just goes to prove what I thought before, that Misao never imagined that we'd actually make it here, or that we could get entrance to the places where they've hidden the two halves of the fox key.
But there's a very easy way to get invited into the houses we need to get into. If we're the newest, splashiest nouveau riche (sp?) around, and if we circulate the story that Lady Ulma has been restored to her rightful place, and if everyone wants to know about her – we'll get invited to parties! And that's how we get into the two estates we need to visit to look for the halves of the key that we need to free Stefan! And we're incredibly lucky, because this is the time of year when everyone begins to give parties, and both households we want to visit are having early celebrations: one is a gala, and one is a spring soiree to celebrate the first flowers.
I know my writing is shaky now. I'm shaky myself at the thought that we are actually going to look for the two halves of the fox key that will let us break Stefan out of his prison.
Oh, diary, it's late – and I can't – I can't write about Stefan. To be here in the same city with him, to know the direction to his prison…and yet to not be able to get to see him. My eyes are so blurred I can't see what I'm writing. I wanted to get some sleep to be ready for another day of running around, supervising, and watching Lady Ulma's estate blossom like a rose – but now I'm afraid I'll just have nightmares about Stefan's hand slowly slipping out of mine.