Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(3)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(3)
Author: L.J. Smith

Cora’s face fell. “I’m sorry,” she said, sitting up and pulling her knees to her chest. She smoothed the fabric of her skirts down over her legs. “I got frightened.” Her red hair was matted on one side of her head, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her skin was sallow, and her lips were cracked. It was odd to see her so vulnerable, after she’d been so strong the previous night. It was evident that she needed a friend. And truthfully, so did I.

“It’s all right,” I said, softening my voice. “Sometimes I just don’t trust myself.”

“Well, if you can’t trust yourself, then who could trust you?” Cora asked, her piercing gaze boring into me. “Besides, I don’t think I’ll ever be safe,” she said ruefully.

An uncomfortable silence fell between us. Beyond the sounds of dripping water and scrambling rodents, I could hear a symphony of human sounds from far off in the tunnel: coughing, limbs creaking, a steady thrum of hearts pumping blood through bodies. Our immediate vicinity was deserted, and I knew Cora couldn’t hear our neighbors like I could. But we weren’t the only inhabitants of the Underground. I wondered if that was why Damon had been in such a hurry to leave us.

“He’s feeding, isn’t he?” Cora asked, reading my mind.

“Most likely,” I said. I sat back on the ground, the dust settling around me. In the darkness of the tunnel, it was impossible to tell whether it was night or day. Not like it mattered much. Without a plan, we were in limbo.

“You saw me feed last night.” It was not a question.

Cora nodded. “I heard the snap of bones breaking, so I looked over. It wasn’t terrible. Not so different than watching some of the men at the Tavern slurp soup. You don’t frighten me, Stefan,” she said, as though it were a challenge.

“Does Damon?”

Cora shook her head, a faraway expression in her eyes. “No. Maybe he should. But he doesn’t. If anything, Damon … what’s the opposite of fright?” Cora asked, biting her lip.

“I suppose the opposite would be comfort,” I said, mystified as to how we’d gotten into this thread of conversation.

“Comfort … no, not that,” Cora mused. A small smile appeared on her pale face. “I think you’re more comforting, even if you are very destructive to rodents. Damon keeps me … sharp. He makes me think. I feel like there’s an edge to him, and you always have to be at the top of your game. I never would have thought of him stealing the conductor’s clothes on my own. It only came to me when I was watching him.”

“It was a good idea,” I said, thinking it was she, not Damon, who was sharp. She’d known about this tunnel, after all.

“Well, thank you. I only hope I keep coming up with them,” Cora said, smiling slightly. Then she turned away. “Do you think Violet is drinking human blood?”

“Yes.” There was no reason to sugarcoat the subject. If Violet was with Samuel, she most certainly was drinking human blood. The only uncertainty was who her food supply would be—a compelled blood-slave or some poor soul soon to be considered another one of Jack the Ripper’s bloody conquests.

“What’s it like?” she asked, whispering even though no one else could hear us.

“It’s… “I paused. What was feeding like? I’d spent decades trying to forget. But as soon as she asked, I remembered the warm, rich taste of human blood. Of course, I wanted to say that it was terrible, that Violet wasn’t enjoying it, and that she’d stop as soon as we were able to find her and pull her out of Samuel’s clutches. But that wouldn’t be true.

“It’s like nothing anyone could imagine unless they’ve tried it. I suppose it’s like coming into a firelit room after spending a night sleeping in the rain.” I had no idea where the comparison came from, but it was remarkably apt. Human blood made me feel whole, warm, alive in a way that animal blood didn’t.

“So … why would anyone stop?” Cora asked.

I shrugged. “A lot don’t. But there are benefits to abstaining from human blood. I can still feel things, feel emotions like I could when I was human. The need for blood, the thirst, can become so overpowering that you have to shut them off when you’re feeding so you don’t think of the consequences. But without it, I don’t have to feel like a monster, or get lost in the darkness. When I see Violet, I’ll explain it to her. But for now, take comfort in the fact that she’s nourished, and she’s not in pain.”

Cora shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t imagine her ever hurting a living thing,” she said quietly. “There was once a field mouse that had gotten into the house, and my mum was all set to kill it. Violet was about eight at the time, and she cried and cried until my mum set it loose. Vi even used to put out food for it, just in case it came back and was hungry.” Cora’s voice broke and she covered her face with her hands. “I just want to find her!” she yelled, the sound muffled by her fingers.

“She’s not here, that’s for certain.” Damon strode out of the darkness, wiping his mouth. He was still wearing his blood-spattered clothes from the night before, but there were no longer dark circles under his eyes. Under the circumstances, he looked incredibly handsome. Cora dropped her hands to her lap and stared at him.

“Did you find your breakfast?” Cora asked tersely, her hand unconsciously brushing against her neck. An image flashed in my mind: Samuel, hunched down, fangs bared over Cora’s smooth skin. I wondered how often he had fed on her. And it might have been my imagination, but I thought I saw two tiny scars, small and round as pinheads and waxy pink in color, midway between her shoulder and her ear. I shuddered.

An inscrutable expression crossed Damon’s face. “Yes, I did,” he said simply. “At first, I was simply making sure the tunnel was safe. And it is safe for us. There are a few souls down here, although none that will bother us. Everyone here is pretty bad off. It was rather easy to feed.”

“So that’s what you did all night? And here I thought you might be coming up with a grand plan. Meanwhile, you were gorging yourself,” Cora said sternly. “I hope you catch a disease from one of these tunnel dwellers. It would serve you right.”

“I won’t, Miss Cora,” Damon said, shifting from one foot to the other. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if Stefan here made himself sick. I’m sure he’s told you all about subsisting on bunnies from the forest, but look where he landed: the same place as me, stuck underground, the target of a vampire who needs to be cut down to size. There are ways to feed on humans and still care about them,” Damon said pointedly.

I clenched my jaw and locked eyes with Cora. I wanted her to stand up for my beliefs and choices. I wanted her to remind Damon that not long ago, she’d been the one providing a blood supply to vampires. But instead, she merely looked disappointed.

I paced away from Damon, knowing the worst thing I could do was jump into a fight. The peace we’d brokered after he’d saved my life yesterday was fragile at best, and I knew from experience how one simple word said in anger could turn us back into enemies. And we already had one enemy to contend with.

I massaged my temples. The fetid, cloying dampness of the tunnel felt far too much like being entombed. “I think I need some fresh air. Cora?” I asked, offering my arm, knowing full well Damon couldn’t come with us when his face was in every major London newspaper.

“Enjoy yourselves. I think I’ll just continue to drink in the life down here,” Damon said, flashing me a crooked smile. He knew I was excluding him.

Cora glanced between us before moving to join me. Once we reached the ladder, I steadied her foot on my palm to boost her up. I followed behind, politely averting my eyes to avoid looking up her skirts. In the daylight, the ladder was much less intimidating than it had seemed the night before.

We emerged into the still-deserted construction site. I pulled my pocket watch from my trousers. A dent near the crown flashed me back to the moment when Samuel had shoved me against the wall of my cottage. Still, the watch ticked steadily. Unlike its original owner, Mr. Sutherland, it seemed to be indestructible.

Half past nine. Around us, the city was noisy and bustling. As we walked up the winding steps from the embankment, I noticed men in waistcoats hurrying in and out of the formidable stone buildings rising up on either side of us. The cobblestone streets were clogged with pedestrian traffic, and a man carrying a newspaper bumped into my shoulder but continued to walk without turning. No one paid any attention to Cora and me, and I was glad of that.

My shoulders sagged, and I realized the enormity of my relief. It was as if the tunnel had exacerbated all my nightmares and made me assume destruction was imminent. Yes, my brother and I were in grave danger, but London was the same as I remembered. Carriages rattled over cobblestone streets, peddlers were hawking flowers or nuts or newspapers, and men offered their arms to ladies. Nothing was different and yet…

“Read all about the latest murder!”

I whirled around. On the corner, a skinny boy was crowing the day’s shocking headlines, convincing the passersby of their need for a newspaper. His voice cracked with excitement every time he yelled the word murder.

My stomach tightened. Cora and I glanced at each other. “I should buy one,” I said, rummaging through my threadbare pocket for change. Finally, I found two pennies caught in folds of the fabric. I hadn’t thought of money as we were fleeing. Now, it was just another advantage Samuel had over us. He had access to riches that allowed him to effortlessly grease the wheels of the machines that ran London. Meanwhile, we would have to lie, compel, or sneak our way around the city.

I paid the newsboy and shoved the folded paper under my arm. I didn’t want to read it yet. I wanted to get away from the crowds, away from the tunnel.

Together, Cora and I drifted to the shady side of the street.

“Do you have a destination in mind?” Cora asked, pulling me out of my thoughts.

“I thought we’d go to the park. It’s a good place to … talk,” I said, my eyes darting suspiciously from left to right as if to see if anyone was following. No one seemed to be watching us.

“Good idea,” Cora said. “But first, I need breakfast. Shall we try that place?” She gestured toward a red awning of a bakery at the end of the block.

“Of course,” I said, shielding my eyes against the sun. We’d reached a calmer, more residential area of London. Townhouses lined the winding streets, and elm trees shaded the cobblestones. Far off in the distance, I could make out one of the lush green hills of Regent’s Park.

I opened the door of the bakery and was immediately overwhelmed by the yeasty smell of baking bread. My stomach turned. When I was hungry for blood, the scent of human food always made me feel slightly queasy.

“What can I do for you, dears?” A short, squat woman leaned over the counter and smiled welcomingly at us. Her arms were as large as Christmas hams, and for one second I imagined her warm, sweet blood on my tongue. My stomach growled as I locked eyes with her, concentrating on her dark pupils.

“We’d like you to give us a bag of buns. And a loaf of bread. Actually, two loaves,” I said. The less compelling I had to do, the better. If she could provide enough food to last Cora a few days, that would be ideal.

The woman nodded slightly as I felt my request seep into her mind, felt her will begin to bend to my suggestions.

“And a strawberry tart,” Cora piped up.

I repeated Cora’s request to the baker. She bustled around behind the counter, finally handing me a large paper sack, steam still rising from the loaf on top.

“Thank you,” I said, and we left the bakery before she could second-guess the strange transaction she’d just made.

The closer we got to the park, the more the scene reminded me of the Impressionist paintings that were so popular in Paris. From a distance, the trees looked lush and green, but up close I saw orange and brown leaves about to fall to the ground and muddy patches of heavily trodden grass.

“Would you like a roll or your strawberry tart for breakfast?” I asked.

“I’ll have a roll. The tart’s for later,” Cora said as we walked through two imposing marble pillars marking the entrance to the park.

“Here,” I said, placing one of the still-warm rolls in Cora’s outstretched hand. “I apologize for the lack of jam.”

“I don’t mind,” she said easily, picking apart her roll. A tiny shower of crumbs fell to the ground. Instantly, five sparrows converged on the spot, pecking furiously.

As we moved deeper into the park, there were fewer pedestrians and nannies out with their charges than there had been at the entrance. Sun dappled the white gravel path beneath our feet, and every few steps an errant leaf from the oak trees above us wafted to the ground. I wasn’t sure what had brought me here. This was the last place Violet would be; she couldn’t be outside in the daylight, not without a lapis lazuli ring like the ones Damon and I had. I wished that, somehow, I could just know where Violet was, the same way I used to be able to sense where Damon was on the Veritas estate where we’d grown up. But Damon was of my blood, a bond I would never have with anyone else in my eternal life. It was the same type of bond that kept Cora in the company of vampires, a desperate attempt to get her sister back in any way possible.

Suddenly, Cora perked up and whirled around. “Look!” she called, pointing past me.

I squared my shoulders and followed her gaze, ready to see a police officer here to take us away, or worse, Samuel. But what Cora had seen, just a few yards away behind a metal fence, was a giraffe gracefully stalking around a pen.

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