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The Return: Shadow Souls (Chapter 23)

That "night" they moved in, choosing the hour while the other estates they passed were darkened and quiet. Elena, Meredith, and Bonnie each picked a room on the upper floor as a bedroom, all close together. Nearby was a luxurious bathing room, with a pale blue and white marble floor and a unique pool shaped like a giant rose, fully large enough to swim in, heated by charcoal, with a cheerful-looking servant to tend it.

Elena was delighted with what happened next. Damon bought a number of slaves quietly, in a private sale from a respectable dealer, and then promptly freed them all and offered them wages and time off. Almost all the former slaves were only too happy to agree to stay, and only a few chose to leave or ran away, mostly women in search of their families. The others would remain and become Lady Ulma's staff once Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith left after freeing Stefan.

Lady Ulma, was given a "senior" room downstairs, although Damon almost had to use brute force to install her in it. He himself chose a room that was an office by day, since he wasn't likely to spend much of the night in the house anyway.

There was a slight embarrassment over that. Most of the staff knew of the ways of vampire masters, and the young girls and women who came to sew or who lived on the estate and cooked and cleaned seemed to expect some sort of rota to be worked out, with each of them taking turns at being donors.

Damon explained this to Elena, who quashed the idea before it could be implemented. She could tell that Damon was hoping for a steady stream of girls, ranging from flowerlike to red-cheeked and buxom, who would be glad to be "tapped" like beer kegs for the pretty bangles and baubles that were traditionally given.

Elena similarly disposed of the idea of hunting for hire. Sage had mentioned that there were even rumors of a possible Outside connection: a very advanced training course for Navy SEALs.

"And they can come out the world's only vampire seals," Elena had said sardonically, in front of a group of male slaves this time. "They can go out and bite sharks. Certainly you guys can go out and hunt some humans like a pair of owls hunting mice – just don't bother to come home afterward, because the doors will be locked…permanently." She held Sage's gaze until her expression became a steely glare and he'd hastened off to do something else around the estate.

Elena didn't mind Sage's informal moving in with them. And after hearing how Sage had saved Damon from the mob that ambushed him on the way to the Meeting Place, she had determined in her own mind that if Sage ever wanted her blood, she would give it to him unhesitatingly. After a few days, when he had stayed around the house near Dr. Meggar's and then moved with them into Lady Ulma's compound, she had wondered if her diminished aura and Damon's reticence weren't depriving him of something he should know about. So she'd thrown broader and broader hints at him, until once when he had doubled over, and then, with tears of laughter (but had it only been laughter?) in his eyes, had come over to her and said that the Americans had a saying, no? You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. In his case, he said, you could lead a snarling black panther – her normal mental iconic image of Damon – to water, if you had electric cattle prods and elephant ankusha, but that afterward you'd be a fool to turn your back on it. Elena had laughed until she, too, cried, but had still pledged that if he wanted her blood, a reasonable share was his.

Now she simply felt glad to have him around. Her heart was too full already, with Stefan, Damon – and even Matt, despite his apparent desertion – for her to be in danger of falling for another vampire, no matter how terminally fit they were. She appreciated Sage as a friend and protector.

Elena was surprised at how much she came to rely on Lakshmi as each day passed. Lakshmi had begun as a sort of gopher, doing the running around that no one else wanted to, but more and more, she had become Lady Ulma's maid-in-waiting and Elena's source of information about this world. Lady Ulma was still officially bedridden, and having Lakshmi ready at any time of the day or night, to send messages, was wonderfully convenient. Too, she was someone that Elena could ask questions of that otherwise would get her eyed as if she were crazy. Did they need to buy plates or was food served on a large hunk of dried bread, which acted as a napkin for greasy fingers as well? (Plates had been recently introduced, along with forks, which were all the rage now.) How much were the men and woman of the household entitled to in wages (which had to be calculated from scratch, since no other household paid its slaves a geld, merely clothing them from a community uniform cache, and allowing them one or two "feast days" a year)? Young as she was, Lakshmi was both honest and bold and Elena was grooming her to become Lady Ulma's right hand, after Lady Ulma had become well enough to be the lady of the house.

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