Fleeting sunshine rayed through the high windows of the circular marble chamber, bringing a pearl-white glow to the far wall, before another scudding cloud obscured the light. Three golden thrones stood on a raised dais.
Felix and Demetri bowed before their Volturi masters, affirming their loyalty.
Edward stood behind them, listening with his entire mind, the Volterran court gathered around him. Some of the vampires closest to the thrones blocked their thoughts in similar ways as Felix and Demetri. Edward recognized Jane and her brother Alex from Carlisle's memories, as well as Renata, Chelsea, and Afton.
All courts have their share of guests, visitors, and hangers-on currying for favor. In the domain of the three most powerful creatures on the planet, fear and ambition flavored the air in almost equal measures.
From the mutterings and enquiring thoughts further back, it seemed Edward was an interesting object to the assembly. A few of the vampires studying him were aware of his origins and knew Carlisle, so they understood the reason for his amber eyes.
To others, he was a unique sight. To all, he was an oddity. Despite this, several of the unpaired females were appraising him, admiring the set of his shoulders, his lean height, and his flawless face. Although he was used to hearing such thoughts from humans, he hadn’t faced any similar vampire scrutiny since first meeting Tanya, and their quickly-growing interest made him disconcerted. The murmuring grew louder as word spread that this was the vampire with a human pet he considered his mate.
Oh, Bella, I miss you.
Amusement tinged many thoughts; many of the males felt distaste, but most of the females were more imaginative and curious. One in particular was planning to approach him later, delighted by the sight of him, and wondering how his restraint with the human translated into technique. He shifted his stance uncomfortably as imaginings flittered through her mind and she wondered when to approach him. Felix's earlier comment, "You are the aberration here, Cullen" came back to him as he saw himself through the eyes of his audience; his head was down, shoulders stooping in embarrassment, his hands curled into fists ready to be pushed deep into his pockets. He made a conscious effort to straighten and focus on the leaders of his kind.
Aro was in the center of the dais, his posture regal as he gave satisfied smiles to his two kneeling guards. Marcus, to the left, ignored everyone around him as he gazed up toward the windows. Unlike others in the chamber, he wasn't using any kind of mental filter; no restriction on his thoughts.
His mind was simply a fog; a swirling, grey, aching boredom through which intermittent stray notions drifted, only to fade back into the nothingness from which they arose. Edward wondered if this is what he’d become when Bella passed on. For much of the last few weeks every movement, thought, and word had been an effort and left him with a weariness he'd never before experienced. The thought of endless centuries of this void weighed like lead in his brain.
As though Marcus could hear Edward's thoughts, the apathy lifted. An image of a laughing, dark-haired vampire danced before Edward's eyes. "My Didyme, my happiness. I would have stayed at her side forever, but she was taken from me." Though Marcus didn't move, Edward could hear the words directed at him. "You left your beloved. You are a fool and undeserving of the gift you were given." He couldn't have agreed more.
With sadness and some anxiety, he realized that because Carlisle had been such a relatively young vampire at the time, and because he wished to see the good in everyone, he’d failed to fully comprehend the power of these minds. They'd been honed over their millennia of rule to diamond-hard assurance and omniscience. There was nothing under the sun that they hadn't seen; no behavior by vampire or human so benevolent or so debauched, that they had not witnessed it, no action to which they couldn't ascribe the motive.
Caius's mind resembled a crystal lattice, all angles and planes of logic and strategy. By contrast, Aro was a cold fire, intuitive but too unpredictable to maintain consistent authority. Before coming to Volterra, Edward had wondered why the Volturi didn’t simply consist of Aro; his gift surely gave him an insurmountable advantage. But now he saw that Aro needed Caius, and couldn't have ruled for long without him. They had a competitive and uneasy partnership founded on a healthy mutual distrust.
Standing before them, he noticed their differences were even more apparent. Caius's gaze was analytical, weighing up whether Edward's connection with Carlisle was worth the trouble of allowing him to survive the day. Aro radiated a welcome. He seemed joyful to finally meet the son of his old friend. Although there was still much under the surface that Edward couldn't hear, he felt reassured for the first time since leaving Boston.
He wasn't so confident, though, that Aro's pleasure would extend to Seth. He could hear the boy, somewhere far below, ravenously hungry and weeping, physically and emotionally exhausted. Although Edward would have denied that such a thing was possible twenty-four hours earlier, he had very warm feelings toward the wolf, and was touched by his easy acceptance. When he'd voiced his lack of hatred of Edward, his mind had been completely clear of any kind of prejudice. This remarkable openness endeared him to Edward, and as a result he felt even guiltier about the kid's situation.
Aro rose to his feet, extending his hand toward Edward. "Come, my young friend," he said in a kindly tone. "Fascinating accounts have reached our ears about your adventures during the past months. Please allow me to fully make your acquaintance and gain an understanding."
Edward and his family had known this act was inevitable once he received his summons to Volterra. To deliver his whole life's experience to Aro in a silent inquest felt like a capital punishment. All that Edward knew would be laid bare: Bella’s smiles that were just for him, her preferences, how her scent changed with her moods, the words she whispered in her sleep, every kiss and caress ... and the taste of her blood.
Aro would steal from him every fear, hope, and moment of torment or bliss, and they would no longer be his alone. No doubt Rosalie would consider it justice for the decades of having her failings constantly open to Edward's unwilling scrutiny, but he did try to block it out as much as he could and give them their privacy. Aro wasn't limited to present thoughts and wouldn't fail to examine every last one.
He extended his right hand, reluctant to end his last few seconds of individuality. When Aro clasped his fingers, Edward staggered. The chamber around him dissolved away as his memories flowed, slowly and with hardly visible movement at first, and then gradually increasing to a torrent.
He'd always assumed the filter would start with his earliest years and progress in a linear fashion until they reached the present, but this wasn't the case. The draining of his life bore more resemblance to water swirling down a plughole; a vortex of imagery and sound, effect preceding cause, yesterday's events followed by those from a century past. He couldn't fathom how Aro would make any sense of it.
Every memory of Bella felt like a lightning bolt through his head, and there seemed to be more memories of her than almost anything else. The decades he'd spent in education of various kinds: high school, college, med school; these were fragmented and uniform, as though he'd passed the time in a trance, impervious to events around him. Even his early years with Carlisle and Esme, and his later rebellious wanderings, held a sepia dullness that threw his months with Bella into Technicolor relief. Every anguished moment tore at him. He tried to pull away, but Aro's will pinned him in place while he mentally drank Edward's life.
Aro delighted in every kiss and caress; he lingered over James's pursuit of Bella and the showdown in the ballet studio, and saturated himself in every opium drop of her blood: its taste, thick sweetness, and overpowering scent. Both their venom ducts responded to the memories.
Finally he reached the most painful of all: Bella in the forest, her tears, to vampire eyes, like two rainbow tracks down her cheeks. She stood before him again, just as she had that day, looking directly into his eyes as her hope faded. He'd forced himself not to reach out, not to wipe away her tears, not to pull her to him and swear never to leave her. In his head he'd given one unending scream, and it had seemed impossible she couldn't hear it.
Aro lingered over these last moments before dropping his hand and breaking the connection. No longer frozen in the memory stream, Edward fell to his knees. His head felt bruised, as though his brain had survived a beating, and the barrage of emotions reduced his breath to sobs. Over and over he heard Aro analyzing and reveling in the best, and most painful, moments of his life.
Then he placed his hand above Edward's head, as though in a benediction. Edward looked up into eyes of liquid ruby. "So this is how it is," Aro said. "She is more than your Singer; she is your Siren. Beware that you are not lured to the rocks like your predecessors of old." He glanced at Marcus and a momentary image passed through his mind. Edward recognized the woman. It was the one Marcus had called “Didyme,” but this time she was screaming as flames enveloped her. Edward flinched from the image and barely had time to recover before Aro looked back at him, his thoughts again on the sweetness of Bella's blood as he unconsciously licked his lips and Edward caught an envious "... if she were mine ..."
Aro looked across to Caius as he was addressing the Court. "The accounts we hear are correct. Young Edward has indeed fallen in love with his Singer. He has had prolonged contact with her and has even tasted her blood, yet still she lives. His restraint is remarkable." There was a murmur among the audience. Aro continued. "He has still broken our primary law; the human knows of his nature, and much about our culture. These are matters not to be treated lightly, and we must carefully deliberate, given the mitigating circumstances." He looked down again at Edward, who still knelt before the dais. "There is a chamber in the north tower which you may use for the duration of your stay. Demetrios will guide you." Then he turned away. Clearly dismissed, Edward stood and turned to Demetri, who jerked his head toward a door at the back of the chamber.
As they left, Aro hummed Bella's lullaby. Edward spun round to see the flash of Aro's eyes across the chamber. A wave of fear surged through him. "Yes, young Edward," he heard, "I know you now." It was followed by a mental chuckle as he again turned away.
In the hallway, Demetri looked at him sideways. "Aro seemed impressed," he said, serious for once. "That doesn't happen very often." Demetri's expression was thoughtful for a moment, and then the familiar malicious smile spread across his face as he met Edward's widening eyes. "Aro hates being impressed; it feeds his insecurities and makes him jealous." His grin widened. "I wonder how he'll punish you for it."
Another chill ran through Edward. He had no idea whether Demetri was simply playing with him. Lacking his normal ability to understand all that was going on around him, he was thrown off-balance. Since meeting the Volterran vampires in Boston, he'd lurched from one fear to another: first for Bella, then his family, and now Seth and the tribe at La Push. He wasn't worried for himself. Life without Bella was painful and intolerable, and ending it wouldn't be a welcome relief, but Aro could hurt him through so many other people.
They reached the room allocated to him, and it took Edward only a few seconds to familiarize himself with it. It was a small apartment decorated in bright and sunny colors, so that it looked spring-like even in December, and had all the creature-comforts a human would need: a fully-working kitchen, a bathroom, and a bed. Demetri responded to his questioning look with a simple, "Sometimes we have human guests." He was more interested in the reaction of the other vampires in the marble chamber. "Did you see Portia downstairs?" he asked. "I think she has her eye on you."
"No," Edward mumbled, not wanting to pursue this.
"I can introduce you, if you like. She is…" he paused, "quite delectable," he said, allowing various images from his own liaisons to filter through.
"No!" Edward repeated, more strongly, and Demetri shrugged and left.
There was no phone, and Demetri had taken Edward's cell in Boston. He frowned, but consoled himself that it didn't really matter. No doubt Carlisle would already know everything Edward would say anyhow. He wondered whether Carlisle would find an excuse to visit, but hoped he wouldn't be in too much of a hurry. Edward was by no means convinced that all would be well. If his visit turned sour, he didn't want any other members of his family involved.
There was a balcony outside the French doors. From it, he could see down into the courtyard or across the roofs to the city and the hills beyond. He gazed across terra cotta tiles to fields and vineyards, bare greens and browns under the watery winter sunshine. He could hear the rumbling of traffic and voices of workers and tourists as they strolled, oblivious, outside the castle.
Below him, the courtyard was an expanse of ocher stone. Here and there olive and citrus trees provided shade around a central fountain with intricately-carved stone benches beneath them. Surrounded by the castle walls and towers, this peaceful spot was sheltered from the breezes.
A couple of dozen cats roamed freely around this oasis, totally at ease. In the manner of felines everywhere, they found the sunniest spots, irrespective of the proximity of the vampires enjoying the garden. Edward didn't see any of them rub against anyone's legs, as they would to humans, but he saw a cat permit its head to be scratched and another slept on one of the stone benches beside two chatting vampires.
This tranquil scene was marred by only one thing: At the far corner, it seemed the Volturi had an issue with the foundations of the castle. A Bobcat stood idle beside an excavation at least a dozen feet deep, its sides shored up by thick planks. This place was full of oddities. At home, Esme would have organized the Cullens so that all jobs were completed without a break.
The Cullens; his family. Their faces were before him now.
I want to go home.
He wanted Esme to hug him, Alice to order him around, Emmett and Jasper to tease him, Rosalie to be exasperated with him, and Carlisle to reassure him that everything was all right.
More than any of these, he wanted Bella. Just to see her smile, perhaps to watch her while she slept, or simply sit with his arms around her. For him, to do these everyday actions, free from fear, would be more than he'd ever dreamed. But for the moment he was here, and he had to let it all play out, and deal with his new responsibility - Seth.
To that end, he went to leave the castle to look for food. The castle walls were high and he could stay in the shadows while he visited a pizzeria.
Crossing to the outer Bailey, past the rows of parked, mirror-windowed cars, he saw Jane standing before the gateway, tiny in her black cloak. There was no intonation in her voice as she said, "You may not leave the castle."
Edward stared down at her. "Why?"
"Master Aro's orders," she said in the same flat tone.
"But I -"
"Orders!" As Jane turned to walk away, Edward reached for her on instinct. She spun around, her scarlet eyes glaring in fury.
Instantly, every nerve cell in his body flamed in screaming agony, and he experienced a pain worse than his change into a vampire. His vision exploded in red and black fireworks as he tumbled to the floor. He was distantly aware of pistol-shot sounds of joints cracking as his body convulsed. Then there was nothing but the burning. He was oblivious to his own gasps, his jaw clenched shut as he rolled and twisted under Jane's continuing stare. As she released him, he felt like he would burn forever.
For an instant after Jane withdrew, the lack of agony was like a muffled silence, but then the pain from his contortions struck him again, and he took stock of the damage. His spine had borne the brunt of his ordeal. The vertebrae at his waist had shattered like glass daggers in his stony flesh. As he tentatively straightened, bracing and willing himself to just do it and get it over with, he felt his body quickly begin to repair. He shook his head, groggy, but also with anger and disbelief shooting through him. He'd simply been trying to gain her attention to explain about Seth. As he lifted his head to look at the vile creature, his whole body protested the movement.
"Jane!" His voice sounded hoarse and his tone more angry than he'd expected. Lifting his eyes, he saw her still standing before him where she'd clearly been enjoying the sight of his agony.
"You do not touch me," she hissed, eyes flashing again. "No-one touches me!" Her thoughts swirled around him. There were flames and a jeering mob clad in homespun medieval garb, yelling obscenities. He relived her panic as she and her twin, Alec, were half-carried to stakes and tightly bound with rough rope, both of them struggling desperately as the brushwood surrounding them was lit.
The images dulled his anger. "I - I'm sorry," he stammered, "I merely wanted to explain." He shook his head to clear it. "Seth, the kid, he's hungry. I was going to get some food for him."
Jane stared back as though he spoke insanities, "For what reason?"
Edward repeated, woodenly, "He's hungry. He needs human food."
For a heartbeat longer, Jane returned his gaze, and then she nodded. "I'll see to it. You may not leave the castle."
Edward sat on the path watching her retreating figure, before he tentatively stood and stretched. Cramps shot through many of his muscles, particularly those in his lower back.
He walked slowly back through the inner wall and into the courtyard where he found an empty bench near the fountain. While sitting and watching the dancing water, he took stock of his situation. Why hadn't Alice seen any of this? Why didn't Carlisle come to put this situation right? Edward couldn't imagine any circumstance in which Carlisle would tolerate the abduction of one of the children from La Push, even though technically it didn't breach the treaty. In Edward's view, if the Cullens didn't do all they could to get Seth home, the tribe would view the treaty as blown apart, and he couldn't blame them. In their place he'd feel the same way.
One of the cats jumped up onto the bench next to him. He gazed down at it, amazed, thinking about the cat that had run from him the rainy night Carlisle had told him he needed to come to Volterra. This was the closest he'd been to a non-prey animal for many years.
The cat calmly returned his look before settling down, tucking its front feet under its body. Slowly, Edward held out his hand. The cat sniffed casually at his fingers before it squinted and put its head to one side, an invitation to scratch behind its ears. Carefully, gingerly, he did. He felt a thrill of pleasure being so close to a living creature, despite everything that was going on. The cat was warm, its fur soft and silky under his fingers. Fascinated, he watched his fingers scratching gently behind its ears, and it purred as it moved its head from side to side.
Around him was the hum and hubbub of minds, the usual background noise that almost continually accompanied his life. The tone was different here, though. Around humans he would hear a range of thoughts, from happy to furious, to despairing. Here there was callousness, desire for blood, and distain for all creatures that lived. From Marcus he caught an occasional mournful pang of loss, from Chelsea he heard, "ties are too strong," before the rest of the thought muffled and was lost.
"I don't care what they say," Edward thought. "I can't stay here. If Aro offers me a place, there's no way I'm going to accept."
Thinking back over Carlisle's memories of the Court in the early eighteenth century, he could see the similarities. Little seemed to have changed, and he found it difficult to understand how Carlisle could have tolerated the place for years. In the past he'd encountered vampires who’d acted with casual brutality, and had heard all Carlisle's thoughts about the Volturi and their habits, but the reality felt far more callous.
He wanted no part of it. If he had to stay, subject to the thoughts of these monsters, it was unthinkable. He'd known that his family was different from others, but now he felt as though he belonged to a different species. Yes, he knew only too well the desire to feed on humans and the overwhelming bloodlust that raged within, but none of his family, not even Jasper in his early days with Maria, ever had this degree of heartless disregard for their human prey. The Volturi were like giants treading on ants and reveling in their strength.
Perhaps it was living in the outside world that gave the Cullens behavioral expectations that clashed with the lifestyle of these vampires.
Why had Carlisle's memories of this place not seemed so bad? Was it that life in the seventeenth century was so much more brutal than in the twenty-first? How could Carlisle have stood this place for so long?
"You're dangerous," she'd said, "but not bad. No, I don't believe that you're bad." He felt a pulse of hope that maybe he was more - human - than the vampires around him. Maybe he wasn't the monster he'd believed, and he'd needed to come here to see it. The Cullens kept well away from their kind most of the time. "Oh, Bella," his sigh was soundless, "if only..."
But Bella was far away, and he felt responsible for Seth. He wasn’t sure whether his reaction to the kid was an over-the-top response to being accepted by another human, or to the warm gold of his mind, but Edward wanted to protect him and get him safely home. The only problem was that couldn't see how he could do this. Maybe he could at least keep the kid company, and see whether Jane had meant it when she said she'd get him food.
As he was about to make his way there, he heard a wail of anguish and disgust. Although he hadn’t visited the labyrinth of caves and cells under the castle, by following the mix of weeping and mocking laughter he found Seth within a few seconds. He didn't need to ask; the open gloating of Demetri's mind and the aroma rising from the plateful of raw, dripping, human flesh said it all.
Demetri turned as Edward halted in the cell doorway. "Ah, Edward," he said airily, licking a smear of blood from his thumb. "Rump steak? Sorry, we've had no deliveries today; we're having to make do with leftovers."
Edward knew this little display was intended to mock him just as much as Seth. For an instant he considered throwing the plate and its gruesome contents up the passageway, but the part of his mind not consumed with rage reminded him that this would make matters worse, having the scent all over the walls, and turning rancid as it dried.
Instead, he picked up the platter, replacing its silver lid, and depositing it outside the cell. Demetri said, "What's the matter? You—" Edward spun as he straightened, reaching out to seize Demetri's neck and fling him, twisting, up the corridor. He crashed into the far wall, bringing down a tumble of large stones beside a heavy oak door. "... asked for human food," Demetri continued uninterrupted. He sat amongst the stones with his usual grin still across his face, making a play of dusting off his jacket. "Please show some respect to the clothes; this is Armani."
Felix and Jane stepped into the passageway, wondering what had caused the noise. Seeing Edward standing protectively across the doorway, and smelling the raw flesh, Jane smiled. "Tsk, tsk," she said. "You’re such a tease, Demetrios. You know Master wants him strong."
From his seat in the rubble, Demetri replied innocently, "But Jane, dear, I thought wolves needed protein. But, of course, he’s a dog and this is cat food." He stood, picking up the plate, and allowing Edward to know before he left that one of the human receptionists had been sent out for pizza and fries.
Jane turned to Edward. "Control yourself," she said.
As she and Felix departed again, Edward turned to where Seth lay, keening, in the corner. This cell had metal walls, dull and scratched with age. In the scratches and joints in the corners were flakes and remains of organic matter - skin and blood, Edward surmised.
Ordinary stone dungeon walls would be sufficient to imprison humans. He assumed this cell was normally used for prisoners who were significantly stronger, though why the Volturi would need to imprison other vampires he didn't want to know, especially if it was for a long enough time that they needed to feed.
He knelt down beside Seth. The kid was in a huddle, swamped by the baggy denim overalls Edward had found on the plane. He didn't seem to be aware of anything but his own misery. His mind was a whirl of terror, grief, hunger, and thirst. Time and again, Edward saw images of Sue Clearwater as Seth longed to be safely back with her.
Tentatively, Edward touched his shoulder. Seth started with a yell, scuttling backwards away from him, but stopped when he realized who it was.
"E- Edward?" he asked, and then flung himself across the cell, wrapping his arms around Edward's waist, and hiding his head as he sobbed. For a couple of seconds Edward was taken aback by the action, and simply stood, arms open, as he looked down at the top of Seth’s head. No one outside his family, other than Bella, had ever sought comfort from him in this way.
Then, chiding himself for his lack of empathy, Edward sat beside the wall, and hugged him, giving what reassurance he could. They sat this way until Edward heard someone approach. To his relief, the thoughts weren't Demetri's; they were those of a human female, but any hope he might have had for sympathy and help for Seth, were short-lived. She was thinking about the interruption to her work and the uneven footing of her high heels on the worn, stone steps. With a silent glare, she handed Edward a large paper bag before stalking back out of the cell.
Once Seth calmed enough to eat, he very quickly downed everything, finishing off with a huge bottle of water, then sighed and leaned back, propped up against Edward's side. They sat for a long time while Seth's thoughts slowed. Edward assumed the heavy meal was making him drowsy, but just as he expected Seth to fall asleep, he heard him thinking about the differences between the Cullens and what he'd seen of the Volterran vampires.
"Why are your kind and my tribe enemies?"
Edward was puzzled. "Seth - we're vampires, and you’re werewolves. We’re natural enemies. We can’t even stand the smell of each other.'
Seth looked up. "Do I smell bad to you?"
Edward gave a brief chuckle. "Yes, you do. You smell like wet dog."
"Oh!" Seth sounded surprised. "Well, you smell like the stuff my mom uses to clean the bathroom." They both grinned. "Do you smell this bad to regular humans?"
"Ah, no," Edward said awkwardly. "We smell very good to them. It's a lure."
Seth breathed in deep. "But you're not like the vampires here, are you." It wasn't a question. "Thank you, Edward."
"I haven't done anything."
"You have. Whatever happens, thank you for being my friend." Edward momentarily tightened his hug in response. He could hear that Seth meant what he said, and while he knew he deserved no such praise, he didn't want to argue.
"Are you the only telepath?"
"Carlisle thinks so; he's never heard of another." Edward spoke quietly, but it didn't really matter whether anyone heard. After all, Aro knew everything about him now.
Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed talking to Seth - or rather, he reminded himself - under any circumstances in which he’d stomach talking to a wolf. He told him about his family, how they all met, and their various talents. He managed to make Seth laugh a little, with tales of how his family tried to keep secrets from him, and their various attempts to find ways to block their thoughts. "Christmases were always tough. I had to pretend I was surprised with what they gave me. After a few years Alice and Jasper joined us and she found ways to stop me."
"How does she do that?"
"All kinds of ways - translating literature from one language to another is her favorite. She generally picks books she knows I won't like. One summer she read a whole series of trashy romance novels just to torment me."
He also went into detail about Aro's gift. "This is why Carlisle thinks Aro wants me to join his guard. I'd be able to hear the mind of every visitor and relay anything of import to Aro without him having to touch each of them. This would make me very valuable. Nobody would be able to hide anything from him."
"S-So you can hear everyone's thoughts?" Seth stammered. "Do you know what they're going to - going to - do with me?"
"No. They have a very effective way of blocking my thoughts; they're pretty much only letting through what they want me to hear."
They fell silent again as Seth thought over this new information.
"Edward, there's something I don't get."
"Hmm? What's that?"
"If you're the first-ever telepath," Seth spoke slowly, thoughtfully, "how did they know how to block you?"
Edward stared at Seth, speechless, as a domino effect of consequences tumbled through his mind.
They did know exactly how to block him. They had to have practiced.
He wasn't the first telepath.
He wasn't unique.
How many had there been?
Where were they now?
What had Aro done to them?
They'd been playing him from the start.