Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(12)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(12)
Author: L.J. Smith

“Or anyone who pays,” James said, looking me up and down until his eyes finally settled on my lapis lazuli ring. He grinned wryly. “So what can I do for you boys? We have rhinoceros blood. It’s a treat for the discerning palate. And can I get you two a cup of goat’s blood tea?” he asked, hustling us inside the tiny, cluttered front room.

I startled when I heard mention of goat’s blood tea. Most vampires didn’t drink anything but human blood, and I’d thought goat’s blood was a delicacy only Lexi enjoyed. I wondered who James’s other customers were.

The thought drifted away as I stepped farther inside. I blinked in amazement at our surroundings. I’d thought I’d seen it all, or at least heard about things from Lexi. But now I realized there was so much I still had to learn. Frogs packed in jars were lined up against one wall. On another, purplish-red hearts pulsed, suspended in a filmy substance. And an entire shelf was crammed with bowls full of gemstones. Was this where Katherine had gotten the rings?

“You know, Damon, the offer still stands. I’ll be willing to put up a very pretty penny for that ring. I’ve had several inquiries. I know only the owner can benefit from its properties, but several of my kind would like to study it,” James said greedily.

“No, this has a certain … sentimental value attached to it.” Damon shook his head and pulled his arm inside his cloak. “And tea won’t be necessary for me. I’m still enjoying human blood. What I’m here for is vervain—a lot of it.”

“Vervain.” James smiled as he climbed on a stepstool and pulled down a few jars of the lilaclike flowers. “I don’t often get vampires looking for vervain. Witches, yes. But vampires tend to avoid the substances that harm them.”

Damon smiled tightly as James arranged the jars on the counter. I winced just looking at it.

“So, this will be … twenty pounds,” James said, pulling a number from thin air.

I pulled off my cuff links in frustration, hoping he would accept them in lieu of twenty pounds in hard cash. I doubted it. Twenty pounds was an astronomical sum. And it wasn’t as if we could compel James; running this shop, he’d obviously taken great lengths to protect himself. I could sense an impervious air around him.

“Sure,” Damon said smoothly, pulling a fistful of coins from deep within his pockets.

I blinked in amazement. In the flickering candlelight, the golds and silvers blurred together. The coins were round, square, and octagonal, and looked like they came from all over the globe. Where had he amassed such a fortune? And why hadn’t he offered it up before now, forcing me to rely on compulsion to get us everything from clothing to cakes?

James’s eyes glinted greedily. “Why, thank you, Damon. Of course, we welcome various currencies, but if you’re going to be paying in anything that’s not sterling, there is a … processing fee.”

“Take it,” Damon said cavalierly, pushing the mountain of coins across the dirty counter.

James took a heavy-looking square coin and squinted at it, causing more liquid to ooze from his eye. “Africa, eh? You don’t see many from there. How was it?”

“Hot,” Damon said shortly, obviously not interested in having a conversation.

Africa? I blinked at my brother. He was definitely unpredictable.

“Well, here’s enough vervain to take down an army of vampires. Although don’t outright kill ’em—it’d be bad for business!” James said, laughing and pounding the counter at the hilarity of his joke.

“Thank you,” Damon said, watching impassively as James put the jars of vervain into a large burlap sack.

“Now, can I help you with anything else? I have the blood of a Bengal tiger. It’s supposed to help with strength and temperament!” James said hopefully, his gaze flicking between me and Damon.

My stomach grumbled. I needed to find a pigeon or a squirrel before my hunger got any worse. Or, I could take the drink James was offering. “All right,” I said. Let Damon pay for it. He could certainly afford it.

“Two glasses?” James asked, glancing at Damon.

“No. Tiger blood isn’t in my diet,” Damon said disdain fully as James passed me a tin cup filled with a liquid as black as coffee. I took a small sip. The blood was rich and buttery tasting. After two decades of drinking watery blood from rabbits, this was heaven. I drained the glass, enjoying the warmth of the meal coursing through my veins.

James smiled. “Glad you enjoyed that. And there’s more where that came from.”

“Here you go,” Damon said, flipping a hexagonal coin onto the counter as payment for my drink.

We bid James good-bye and walked out of the store. I blinked at the sunlight, wondering whether there were more stores like that, hidden all around the world. My mind drifted back to Mystic Falls. A mother-daughter vampire pair had run the apothecary in town, but no one had known they were vampires at the time, and they’d only sold cures for human ailments: herbs for headaches, poultices for wounds. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine them having jars of live hearts pumping in their back rooms. But maybe they did.

“It’s always good to have friends of various talents, don’t you agree, brother? Although I could have bought an elephant for that amount of money. I was tempted to, once, back in India. But then what would I have done with it?” Damon asked, as we walked through the deserted streets. Damon led us in the direction of St. James Park. We walked in silence. I was enjoying the sunshine, while Damon still had to remain cloaked. To outsiders, we were just two men, perhaps playing hooky from work. And for once, I desperately wanted to believe the ruse. Sadly, that would never be the case.

11

The next morning, I hurried across town to Whitechapel, eager to deliver the vervain to Cora. Damon and I had spent the night pressing the flowers into liquid, braving the angry red rashes it left all over our hands and arms. Even now, safely packed in glass vials, the scent made my skin tingle and my eyes burn. Our interactions had been similarly prickly. I’d avoided any mention of Katherine, but Damon had seemed on edge and tried to disguise it by discussing his many conquests. After a while, I’d stopped listening. The story was always the same: beautiful woman, delicious blood, being invited to the finest parties in the area before getting bored and moving on. He didn’t yearn for a home the way I did. And more and more, I wondered whether that was a blessing.

I made a hasty stop at the bakery, then hurried to the alley where we’d met before. Cora was already there, hugging her knees to her chest.

“Cora!” I called to her. Her face broke into a forced smile.

“Stefan! I’m glad you’re here. Do you have the vervain?” Cora asked.

I held up the vials in response.

“Good,” she said, relieved. “They came again last night. This time they took Cathy and Elizabeth. They’re my friends, and…” She shook her head. “We have to stop them.” Cora’s lower lip trembled. It was the first time I’d seen her acting anything other than strong, and it caught me off guard.

“Don’t worry. Damon and I came up with a plan.” I handed her the vials. The glass glinted in the sunlight. “I need you to put some in every girl’s drink before the benefit tonight. It only needs to be a drop. Can you do that?”

Cora nodded solemnly.

“It will be fine,” I assured her, standing up and planting a kiss on the top of her head as I put the bag of treats next to her. “I’ll see you tonight. This will all be over soon,” I promised.

“I hope so,” Cora said.

“It will be,” I repeated. “You just have to believe it will.”

Cora gave me a soft smile in return, but I could tell her mind was spinning in her own, private way.

“I should get going,” I said, standing up and leaving her to her thoughts. Before I continued down the alley, I gave her shoulder a light squeeze. Somehow, I would make sure she was okay.

That night, a brilliant golden-orange sunset lit up the September sky, usually so thick with clouds. It was a beautiful evening, and along the Thames artists were sketching, lovers were walking hand in hand, and buskers were playing instruments and prodding visitors to give them money.

Damon and I blended into the crowd. We were dressed in black, monk robes that I’d procured from a local church. I hadn’t even bothered to compel—instead, I’d stolen them outright. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t as if I was in God’s good graces in the first place.

The Magdalene Asylum benefit was being held in the Lanesborough Hotel, opposite Hyde Park. Damon assured me he’d been to dozens of balls there. I couldn’t understand why he’d bother. Didn’t he tire of them? I’d only been to a few, but had found them all to be the same: too much champagne, too much perfume, too much dancing, and too much talking, none of it about anything of consequence. Of course, my solitary walks and endless thinking weren’t much better.

“The monk’s attire suits you. It’s too bad you are a creature of the night, or you might have had quite a career as a man of the cloth,” Damon said, taking in my dark robes.

“I already have a guilty conscience. I doubt I could listen to other people’s sins,” I said, swatting at his arm. But the move was more of a brotherly punch than the start of one of our former brutal fights.

“No drinking, no swearing, no overindulging, no killing … face it, you already live a monk’s life, brother. Aren’t you glad I saved you from the boredom?”

“No,” I shook my head. “Aren’t you glad I came to shake some sense into you?”

Damon paused, as if pretending to think it over. “No,” he said finally. “Sense and I don’t mix. You know that.”

“What do you think you’ll do after this?” I asked, as we turned onto the winding gravel path into the park.

“I don’t know,” Damon said, a faraway look in his eyes. “What do you do when you’ve been everywhere? You have to keep things exciting. Maybe someday they’ll invent a machine to bring me to another planet.”

“I’m serious,” I said. “Do you think you could create a life here?” I wanted something substantial, something that would allow me to know my brother as more than the monster he’d become in my mind.

“I don’t think I need to create my life. I live my life. That’s what you need to do, brother,” Damon said. I shrugged off his minimalist philosophy—it was devoid of moral structure, but I didn’t have time to argue it.

The entrance was lit up by large torches. Well-dressed servants lined the path, and coaches streamed down the cobblestone streets. The Magdalene Asylum seemed to be the most popular cause to support in London these days, and if we hadn’t been disguised as monks, our invitations would have been scrutinized closely. As it were, we were ushered through the large glass doors and into a vast ballroom without a backward glance. No one wanted to offend the Church, and everyone assumed we were simply there to offer support and prayers to the Asylum girls the benefit was allegedly honoring.

The walls and roof were all glass and reflected the whirling dancers already on the ballroom floor. Garlands of flowers wrapped around the columns dotting the perimeter of the room, and servers were circulating among the guests, their arms laden with platters of food. Scattered throughout the party in their familiar-looking gray smocks were the girls of the Magdalene Asylum. They were obviously there to remind patrons where all their money was going, but people were gawking at them as though they were performers at a circus. Most, however, were huddled in corners in groups, fearfully looking at the attendees as though they might bite. Which they might.

I squinted, trying to pick Cora out of the crowd. Finally, I saw her. She was engaged in a low, whispered conversation with a slight girl whose dark hair hung in two plaits down her back.

“There she is.” I elbowed Damon, and together, we made our way over to her, passing directly in the path of Sister Benedict’s hawklike stare. She waved us on without glancing at our faces.

“Cora!” I whispered. Cora glanced over, her expression instantly changing from confusion to recognition. She picked her way through the girls, who all began whispering among each other, wondering why she was the one chosen to have an audience with two monks.

“Why, hello, Brother. Don’t worry, I said my prayers yesterday,” she said, winking.

I smiled as I leaned in toward her, so my mouth was only inches from her ear. “You gave some to every girl?” I asked.

Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I whirled around and found myself eye to eye with Sister Benedict.

“Hello, Brother,” Sister Benedict said, her voice dripping with piety. “How are you finding the evening?”

“Bless you, Sister.” I bowed deeply, not giving her a chance to notice I shared a remarkable resemblance to one of the generous de Croix brothers. “The evening is a joy. I’d love to pay my respects to the organizer of tonight’s event. When will he be arriving?” I asked, hoping my anticipation wasn’t too evident in my question.

Sister Benedict’s face broke into a crooked smile. “When you ask, God provides. Look!” She gestured toward a balcony that overlooked the ballroom floor, lit by a bright gas lamp. A man I didn’t recognize stepped toward the balcony’s railing and looked down. The band stopped playing, and the man spread his arms wide as if in greeting.

“Welcome, friends, to the Magdalene Asylum Benefit Ball!” he said to a roar of applause and a few whistles. “And now for your host, Samuel Mortimer!”

I looked up along with the rest of the crowd as Samuel burst through the doors and onto the balcony to the roar of applause. His blond hair was slicked back behind his ears and curled right above his collar, making him look more lionlike than ever. And on his arm, with her face pale and her long hair piled on top of her head, was Violet. If possible, her eyes looked larger, and her mouth more red, although from this distance it was impossible to tell if it was makeup, a trick of the light, or a smudge of blood from her last feeding. Samuel stood close to her, but it didn’t look like she was being held against her will. If anything, whenever Samuel shifted away from her, she would pull him back, as if she had to have Samuel beside her at all times.

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