The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 3

December, six months earlier.

London

Alice looked up from her unpacking. “Edward’s getting on the plane now. Nice suit, though I would have preferred the black shoes.” Carlisle smiled at her, shaking his head.

Jasper was kneeling on the window seat, peering down at the still-busy traffic along Piccadilly, even though it was nearly midnight. “The theaters have gotten out. How about a stroll across to Covent Garden?”

As Carlisle put on his coat, he noticed Alice standing stock-still, her head on one side as she frowned, eyes far away.

“It’s Edward,” she said, confused. “The vision is fuzzy. He’s fading.”

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Edward darted across the turnpike, and then slowed to a walk as he neared his rendezvous point with the Volterran guard by the United Airlines hangar at Boston Logan. Close to the corner of the airfield, he heard a single, clear thought above the hubbub of the surrounding minds. “Edward Cullen?”

A man stepped out from the shadows, looking straight toward him. Edward gave a slight nod, which the man returned. “Demetri,” he added, “on behalf of Master Aro.”

Edward knew Demetri from Carlisle's memories. He was unswervingly loyal to Aro and had been with him for close on two thousand years. He was also probably the best tracker in the world. It made sense for him to be sent for Edward so that he could memorize the mental pattern that allowed him to track so effectively.

Demetri's brief thoughts were heavily-accented, which Edward had expected. As he saw the tracker make the mental connections that would enable him to pursue Edward worldwide should the need arise, he found that his mind was unusually smooth. Although he caught an undercurrent of humor, other thoughts were not completely clear. They were indistinct, foggy, as though they were objects in a river covered by thick ice. He slowed his pace, focusing warily on the man before him. He thought he could see the beginnings of a smile before a vivid memory was projected toward him.

In a circular hall of marble stood a lean, dark-haired vampire, with the ruby eyes of a human-feeder and the whitest skin Edward had ever seen. He was speaking earnestly, his hands clasped before him.

“Demetri, I am entrusting this to you. Edward Cullen will be an honored guest in our Court, and if we can persuade him to join us, his talents will be invaluable. His heritage is impeccable as Carlisle is his sire and though our connections have waned in recent centuries, we greatly desire to strengthen them once again.”

An hour later Edward stood at the back of the cockpit with his hands in his pockets, feigning nonchalance as he watched the pilot bring the lumbering cargo plane up to speed. He’d often won the customary fight to pilot the Cullen aircraft, but had never flown in a cargo plane. He watched closely, familiarizing himself with the controls as they performed pre-flight checks.

He would much rather be heading for Europe on board the family jet with Carlisle, than here with two Volterran vampires. No doubt Alice would stand before Jasper, hand on his chest, gazing up at him with that look on her face. He’d visibly melt and she’d skip triumphantly to the pilot seat.

Alice, he thought, if I could be with you now, even I’d let you drive.

He felt off balance by his inability to easily access the vampires’ thoughts. This was not like the mental silence he’d experienced with Bella, nor the distraction techniques his family used when they wanted some privacy. He couldn’t better his analogy of the frozen river. Half-formed images occasionally came into view, their substance unclear and colorless. There were occasional echoes of words, mostly in Latin or Italian but again, not enough to make any kind of sense. He ran his hand through his hair, wondering over and over whether he should have expected this. His own family had developed their own blocking systems within a very few years. Wasn’t it reasonable to expect that Aro, with three millennia behind him, and well aware of Edward’s gift, would take precautions when welcoming an outsider?

Despite the assurances in Aro’s letter, Alice’s foresight about the welcome he should expect in Volterra, and the images he gleaned from the minds of the two vampires in front of him, he still felt uneasy. Carlisle had always been aware of how much pressure Aro would place on those he wished to recruit. Edward didn’t want to become the Volturi’s latest acquisition, but at the same time, to have a task, a purpose, would surely provide at least some relief from his barren existence.

One advantage of traveling in a cargo plane was the low level of human scent saturating the fittings. Clearly, there had been humans here recently; one such scent was particularly strong, but … off, abnormal. Edward frowned.

“Is there a human on board?” he asked, hoping his assumption was wrong. Although he wasn’t thirsty, he didn’t want to witness an in-flight meal.

Demetri gave a shark’s grin over his shoulder, “A little toy that Master Aro asked us to pick up along the way.” He turned back to his instruments.

As they lifted off the runway and Boston’s lights fell away, Edward felt the remaining shards of his heart crumble. For the first time since he’d met her, he would no longer be on the same continent as Bella, every second leaving her farther behind. This small extra separation hurt far more than he’d expected. He closed his eyes, following Carlisle’s habit of taking a slow, deep breath. Hearing it above the drone of the jets, Demetri turned to him. “You’re not afraid of flying, are you?”

Edward shook his head and looked down at his feet. The future was an endless vacuum stretching in front of him, day after hopeless day. He fought the urge to tear a hole in the fuselage, dive into the sea, and head back home, to Bella.

He was introduced to the pilot, whose name was Felix. For the next few minutes he exchanged occasional comments with the airport controllers. Then he leveled out their ascent, switched on the automatic pilot, and leaned back in his chair. While Demetri was stocky, Felix was huge, built with the same linebacker physique as Emmett. As a human, he must have been considered a giant.

Carlisle had told Edward about Felix's history as one of the premier gladiators of Augustus’ early reign, winning in the Colosseum three consecutive years. He was one of a select few whom Aro invited to be turned, and now the only one left. Over the years, Aro had dispatched those who displeased him.

Demetri swiveled his chair round to face Edward. “We hear from Master Aro that Carlisle has a large coven now.” Felix turned to look at him.

“Yes,” Edward told him, “there are seven in our family,”

“Seven?” Demetri sounded impressed, but amused. “And you live off of,” he laughed, “animal blood?” At Edward’s nod, his eyebrows raised. “Carlisle persuaded all of you?”

“Yes,” Edward said again, unwilling to be the subject of Demetri’s sarcasm, but the vampire was not about to let it go. Gaps seemed to have opened in the smooth surface of his mind, revealing questions about the Cullens’ lifestyle that Demetri repeated aloud.

“When was the last time you drank a human?”

“Seventy years ago,” Edward said, before realizing his mistake. His chest constricted with the memory of the ballet studio, Bella lying helpless and screaming in his arms, and the heaven that was the taste of her blood. He swallowed, and then curled his fists as Demetri's smug thought reached him.

You don’t look like it suits you, but you’ll see sense when you’re one of us.

Edward shuddered.

As the plane droned on, he felt every mile that took him away from Bella. He struggled to fight through the waves of loss that threatened to drown him, and forced his attention on his companions. Demetri stretched out his legs, picking up a book. Felix watched a movie. Despite his own increasing misery, Edward felt a twist of amusement to see “White Christmas” on the screen and hear Felix quietly singing along.

Both vampires now shared the unusual gloss over their minds. Edward listened as closely as he could to their thoughts, but mostly he heard comments about what was on the screen. For a short while, Felix’s mind was not that of a vampire, but simply a man watching a movie.

Edward grew lost in his own fantasies; how this coming Christmas could have been, should have been, were he still human. How it could be, if he returned. If she took him back. Wistful plans of Christmas markets, midwinter fairs, and ornately-wrapped gifts on Christmas morning unfolded before him. Bella in warm coats, thick scarves, and fur-lined boots, walking in the snow; Bella sipping mulled wine at the fair; both of them skating on a frozen lake, together in the moonlight. He smiled, wryly acknowledging to himself the potential disaster of trying that particular activity.

Without warning, his mind was deluged in images of red. He gasped as hot, sweet, thick liquid memories beat at him, and he crouched instinctively, venom ducts pumping fluid into his mouth, ready for his victim. The memories swirled away, leaving him tense and snarling down at Demetri who’d leapt from his chair to stand before him. As the images retreated, Edward gradually relaxed, gasping as the venom burned his throat. He found himself staring at Felix.

Through the rivers of blood, he’d seen a beautiful flaxen-haired young woman with flowers in her hair, laughing a welcome, her arms outstretched. Two curly-haired children in white woolen tunics skipped toward him, calling out in high-pitched, excited voices. Then screams, as teeth penetrated their soft, buttery flesh - and the blood, the blood, the blood: the sweet, exquisite blood in his throat. Beyond them stood Aro, clapping his hands and smiling, looking positively gleeful. “My dear Felix, did I not promise that you would take care of your family?”

Edward stammered, “Aro fed you your own family?” He was appalled as Felix shrugged.

“They were an inferior species.”

Edward heard Felix's pride in his gladiatorial career. Aro had been a familiar figure at the Games, held in awe by even the most important of the Roman senate. Those who participated in the Games soon learned that when he attended, there were no reprieves, no appeals to the crowd for mercy for honorable combatants. He wanted to see blood and officials scrambled to ensure his wishes were followed. To Felix, being chosen by Aro was the ultimate reward for his years in the arena.

Then he fell silent, vocally and mentally, and turned back to his movie.

Edward tried to work out what the precedent of Felix’s history boded for him. His initial unease had increased tenfold with the possibility that Aro would twist his assurances to his own ends. What those ends were, Edward didn’t want to consider. Surely Alice would have known if Aro had intended to deceive him?

As if to himself, Edward murmured, “I hope you’re getting all this.”

The human in the cargo bay, Aro’s “toy,” began to stir as the drugs began to wear off. Edward heard mental mumblings about the cold and aches and shivers, but these were drowsy and almost incoherent at first. He listened sadly, pitying anyone taken to be the plaything of Volterra. What crime had this man – or woman - committed to come to their attention? He wished aloud that Demetri would administer more drugs so that he would not have to hear the prisoner’s thoughts.

Demetri laughed, “No, we want him fully awake when he meets Aro.”

A man, then. Edward felt a small shred of relief.

The mind grew less groggy, and Edward began to feel its tone.

To his perception, minds often had colors that reflected their underlying personalities. Some were dull, greyed by routine, boredom or sadness; others were flame-bright with joy and passion, or blue, which denoted cool calculation.

This mind washed over him like the world's first sunrise. If he would have combed the Earth for the scent of Bella's blood, then he could bask for a century in this molten gold light; it could soothe away all sadness, all fears, all grief. It was kind, cheerful … and very young.

Edward recoiled in horror. This was a child: thirteen, fourteen perhaps? Surely no more. Aro’s toy. A child. Aro’s toy. Oh God.

He stood abruptly. “This is just a kid. You can’t…” he got no further.

Demetri bared his teeth and Felix rumbled a low snarl, “You are the aberration here, Cullen. Do not try our patience by questioning our Master’s orders.”

Edward ran his hand through his hair. His mind was racing, but he could not see a way to help the child behind him. Again, he recalled that Alice was keeping a constant watch on him, and felt a small measure of reassurance from that. Perhaps Carlisle would know what to do. He spun round. “I’m going to see whether he’s all right. He’s cold and feeling ill.”

Demetri wrinkled his nose, “If you can stand to be near him. He’s beginning to stink like a dog.”

Edward froze. Images of meetings, recollections of scents old and new, and a cautious treaty from decades ago tumbled through his mind. “Where did you collect him?” he asked, hoping that somehow he was wrong, yet knowing the answer before it even began to form in Demetri's mind.

“A dismal fleapit of a town called Forks.”

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