The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 6

Seth met Edward's stunned stare with the same innocent curiosity with which he'd asked his question. Edward stuttered out a bland response while his mind reeled. The kid chatted on for a few minutes, but Edward could hear his thoughts drifting and growing slower as he got sleepier.

Finally he yawned and slid down onto the thick mattress, pulling his blanket over him, and looked up. "You won't go away, will you?"

"No, I'll watch over you." Edward promised, and Seth nodded and lowered his head back down. Within seconds he was asleep.

His dreams were few and deep, and he barely moved. If he lived long enough, maybe on other nights his thoughts would be full of red eyes, mocking laughter, anger, and brutality. For now, he was oblivious to the enormity of his situation. Edward stood motionless as the night slowly drew on, listening, always listening, trying to pick up on any stray thoughts that might help him understand his situation.

He was glad he didn't need to breathe unless he was speaking. Although he liked Seth, the scent of hound grew stronger as time passed, and it was getting harder to ignore. He didn't mind it as much as he used to, but some of his instincts still urged him to destroy the source of the stench, while another part of him felt homesick. This scent had been steeped into much of the countryside to the west of Forks when the Cullens had lived in Hoquiam, and again this past summer after Sam phased. No matter how long he existed, or wherever he lived, Forks would always be his home. Where his heart lay.

Until September, he'd looked forward to Christmas more than ever before. The Cullens had always made it special, combining their favorite traditions from their former human lives.

It wasn't often a Cullen was absent for Christmas but his family would still go through their rituals. Carlisle always said, "We're still a family, whether we're together or not. When we undertake our festivities, it is on behalf of us all."

Edward had once hoped that this Christmas would be the first of many in which he and Bella could wholeheartedly join their celebrations. He wanted to shower her with lavish gifts, make her dreams come true, and spend every instant of the precious day with her. He'd already started laying groundwork for buying her a car, casually introducing the subject with Charlie when Bella wasn't around.

He'd also bought old copies of her favorite classics, learned the craft of making tooled-leather bindings, and had been restoring the set. On the front of each book he’d embossed her name in flowing script, and then illuminated it with gold leaf. He'd used more gold in the middle of the back cover, where he put a logo of a swan.

Even with vampire dexterity the work was time-consuming, but he'd poured his heart into every minute of it. He’d imagined her tracing her name on the soft leather, and the pleasure she’d get from reading them, knowing that it wasn’t a gift that screamed “money” but whispered “love.”

There would be no whispers of love now - he'd made sure of that; or, at least none that she’d hear.

As they had when he'd crouched in the tree in Boston, his thoughts continued their merry-go-round of jealous and fearful logic. Would Newton be kissing her under the mistletoe this Christmas? Would she now prefer the warmth and softness of human lips instead of his cold stone ones? Or, as he recalled Seth's statement, was his desertion still causing her enough pain that she couldn't get on with her life? Neither scenario was tolerable to him. If he couldn't bear the thought that she was giving her smiles and love to someone else, it was torture to believe he was responsible for causing her unhappiness.

Above and around him, Volterran activity continued with a minimal acknowledgement of the late hour. Too much noise from the castle would be noticed by the humans, so quieter activities took over at night and external lights were extinguished.

Similar to the Cullens, many vampires studied at night. One group was practicing Swedish with a visitor; in another room, a small orchestra rehearsed a Gershwin medley. To his befuddlement, one group was even performing Tai Chi.

From time to time he heard his own name, or saw his image in the minds of other vampires. Each time, he focused hard on the transmitting mind, but gleaned nothing useful. Most of them were admiring his talents from when he was in the marble chamber, or reflecting in amusement over his choice of a pet for a mate. He listened to a conversation between Portia and Demetri, in which she asked about Edward, but received only guarded answers.

Time and again his thoughts returned to Seth, and how to get him home. Jasper would be working on a strategy, but he wasn't sure how long they'd have. Jane's comment to Demetri that Aro wanted him strong was proof they had plans in place, and Edward knew from Carlisle that once a decision was made, the Volturi didn't delay.

Silently, he mouthed for Alice, We have to get Seth out of here. Tell me what I need to do.

The kid drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and the night wore on.

0o0o0o0o0o0

Seth grew nearly two inches taller during the night, and awoke ravenous again. Another human assistant brought him a large breakfast, which, despite his fears, he ate to the last crumb. The human spoke only to inform Edward that Aro intended to visit later that morning.

After breakfast, Seth was given access to a bathroom and shower, and spent an hour or so sitting cross-legged on his mattress, picking at a stray thread while Edward told him about the Volturi.

"Because Aro's gift works by touch, he'll want to take your hand." Edward told him.

"Will it hurt?" Seth asked, alarmed.

Edward grimaced. "No, but it's not pleasant," he admitted. "You watch as Aro observes every minute of your life, good or bad; everything you're ashamed of."

Seth frowned as he thought this over, and then he flushed red and recoiled. "So - that time I saw Leah's boobs through the window?" He sounded appalled.

Dear Lord, Edwardthought, suppressing simultaneous impulses to smile or break something, how to protect such an innocent? Aloud, he said reassuringly, "He's seen far worse, he's -"

"But he'll find out about my family!" Seth interrupted, his voice shrill. "And the tribe, won't he? Won't he!" Then he scrambled half to his feet asimages of his family and friends flashed through his mind. He pictured black-cloaked vampires surrounding the Council offices in La Push and at his home, his mom thrown to the floor, her throat bloody as his father tried to reach her; Leah flattened against the wall, screaming.

Edward swallowed a rush of venom as the image of blood triggered his instincts. He closed his eyes for a second, taking a slow breath, before he could reply. "It won't matter." He fought to speak in soothing tones. "He knows pretty much everything anyway, from reading my memories. I'm so sorry, Seth. If I could have stopped him, I would have."

Seth sank back, trembling. "I know," he mumbled as his thoughts whirled, faster and faster. Another vampire … the world's most powerful vampire ... he'll see everything ... another vampire ...I don’t want to see Arrow. I don't want him to come here, I don't want to take his hand...I want my mom ... please God, let me go home, I'll be so good, I’ll do all my chores...

Edward crouched down and put his arms round the kid's shoulders, "Shhhh." He tried to soothe him, but it was too late, Seth's wolf-instincts were kicking into high gear. His muscles bunched and the shaking grew worse as his teeth chattering uncontrollably. "Seth listen!" Edward said loudly to get his attention. "You're going to phase. D'you understand me?"

Seth nodded jerkily.

"I'll go into the corridor. If you want to remove the ov..." It was too late. Edward rode the shockwave in his dive out the door as the universe shifted. In place of human-Seth, an enormous sandy wolf sat awkwardly on the mattress, shaking his head, his oversized paws already slipping on the smooth metal floor.

Edward looked hesitantly round the doorway, listening carefully to the tenor of Seth's thoughts. If his wolfy instincts overcame him, this time there were no bars to protect Edward from those teeth, and he didn't want to have to defend himself. The two guards down the corridor were in defensive crouches, wondering what was going on. Seth growled a low rumble, smelling them, but his thoughts were already more calm. It's okay, Edward, I know it's you. Relieved, Edward walked slowly over to him. Seth wrinkled his snout, revealing long teeth. You smell way worse. It's itching my nose. He turned away and sneezed loudly. The two guards rushed to the doorway, ready to attack. Seth crouched down, set to spring, his growl rising to a roar.

"Go!" Edward ordered them. "He won't attack if you keep your distance."

As they backed off, Edward heard footsteps and someone singing quietly but cheerily, "Quantum ille canis est in fenestra." This was accompanied by a familiar but unwelcome mental voice. "Still associating with animals, I see. You are just like - what was his name? Dr Doolittle." Edward ignored Demetri, focusing instead on the rest of the approaching party.

"Aro's coming to see you."

Seth backed up to the far wall as the vampires filed in the door. All three Volturi were present.

Fear and murderous rage warred in Seth's thoughts, reflected in his alternate growls and whines, and his fur stood on end as he pressed himself into the wall. Edward stood next to him, one hand at his shoulder, trying to show him some comfort, some - humanity - he thought, aware of the irony.

Waving Renata away, Aro drifted toward them, not taking his eyes off Seth. Caius's scrutiny was equally intense. Even Marcus showed interest. Edward could hear him weighing up the growing acceptance between them. Friends, was his assessment.

Aro studied Seth, slowly taking in his size, muscular frame, and teeth. "The mutant is an impressive specimen," he said to Edward, without taking his eyes off the wolf. "Have you informed it of my intent?'

Mutant? Does he mean me? Seth's fear temporarily gave way to indignation and he raised one side of his muzzle in a sneer, showing his long canines.

"Yes, Aro," Edward said, slowly combing his fingers through Seth’s fur, hoping he'd stay still. "He understands what you're going to do."

This time Aro spoke directly to Seth, indicating Renata. "She is my bodyguard and any attempt to attack will result in your immediate destruction. Nod if you understand."

Although he glared, Seth nodded. Jane and Alec stepped forward to be at Aro's side, with Felix and Santiago close behind.

Move away, Edward.

At Aro's silent order, Edward looked up into Seth's brown-gold eyes, gave one last pat, and said, "I have to go over there. Please stay calm." Seth whimpered as shudders ran the length of his body, fighting his impulse to rend and flee.

Santiago and Felix put their hands out, ready to immobilize Seth should it be needed. As Santiago touched Seth’s fur, he cried, pulling his hand back as though burned. Instantly, Aro leaped back as Renata, Jane and Alec positioned themselves in front of him. There was a cacophony of snarls, and Edward lurched forward. All the polished mental shields were down as he heard their hatred, distain, disgust, and intent to slaughter. Then came the agony; mounting, sickening agony. He reeled from the deluge, hearing Demetri's intention to seize his arms, and twisted sideways, trying to get to Jane. Her delighted smile needed no explanation.

Edward stumbled, flinching, his mind blasted by reflected pain. This gave Demetri the split-second he needed to grab his arms, wrenching them backwards. He struggled against Demetri's grip in an effort to get to Seth before they tortured him, crying out as his sockets dislocated under the pressure, just as his head was swamped with a maelstrom of sound and images.

Through Marcus's eyes the grim dungeon seemed almost bright, decorated with flowing, colorful ribbons, with links showing who was allied with whom. He wasn't currently interested in the wolf, but focused again on Edward. "I could never have left my Didyme, my beauty. She and I would still be happily together if the Romanians..." Then there was Aro, dressed in a toga and sandals, grief on his face. "My dear brother, if I could only have reached her a few minutes earlier. I tried so hard to save her, but found only her ashes blowing in the wind..."

Caius stood apart, intrigued, surveying the whole scene. He concluded that Aro had been right to obtain the specimen, not that he would outwardly acknowledge it. Chelsea must bind the creature to them; such a tool must have its uses. Then he saw his own struggles against Demetri, his teeth bared as his shoulders were drawn back.

Felix was alarmed by Santiago's reaction, trying to understand what had happened. Clearly the mutant held a weapon of some kind and Felix's fighting instincts were hastily analyzing what he'd seen. There were flickers of bloodstained sand, screams of the crowds, and a succession of doomed animals: panthers, panting and snarling as he gutted them; enraged bears clawing at his shield as his mace fell on their heads; bulls careering around the arena; whole packs of real wolves, far smaller than Seth, released at once, their pups collared and staked at one side, men armed only with small daggers at the other. None of his fights had been with anything as grand as Seth.

Demetri's view was blocked by the back of Edward's head and he was focused on keeping his grip on his arms. He was at once repulsed and amused by Edward's reaction to the examination of the mutant, and was reveling in the knowledge that he was hurting his shoulders. Perhaps Aro would allow him to pull them completely out of their sockets and make this fool - this arrogant fool who thought he had value - to understand who was really in power. Telepaths always had such over-inflated opinions of themselves.

Seth held Renata's attention. She concentrated, making him ignore her and Aro, but he stared straight back. Confusion whirled in her mind as she stared into his brown-gold eyes.

Aro was recalling conversations with a succession of men in togas, buildings in various states of construction in the background. Rome had been a playground for vampires in those days. After Didyme’s death, the wives were kept “safe,” and after he’d told Marcus she’d died at the hand of the Romanians, Marcus was only too happy to help defeat them. They couldn’t be allowed to take over. Building up a power base in the provinces of Tuscany and Lazio was essential if the Volturi were to dominate the world.

Aro remembered the planning, the architectural drawings, maps, and campaign meetings he attended with Caius. They planned and oversaw battles and the rounding up of barbarians as slaves. They had all they needed: a plentiful food supply and finally the entertainment they loved best.

The newly-built Amphiteatrum Flavium thrilled the Volturi. There were quiet, private chambers underground where they brought the wounded, or merely unlucky for slaughter, and where the succession of puppet Emperors were invited to hold their own feasts.

Like children copying their elders, they ate food stained with beetles’ blood and drank red wine straight from the skins, scornful of the frantic pleas and struggles of the prisoners and slaves brought for the true rulers of the empire. Aro loved the violent orgies and how they grew more bloody and depraved as the years passed.

Slaves had their throats slashed so that the vampires could feed, even as their human masters raped them and bathed in their blood, cheered on by the other revelers. No act was too extreme for these feasts.

Aro seemed to miss those days, and Edward was shocked. Carlisle had no idea any of this had taken place. Had they changed their habits by the time he’d joined them? And Marcus…

Finally Aro sighed and raised his hand. "Silence!" he commanded. The guards were stopped instantly, and their thoughts faded as they made the adjustments to block Edward out. He was still twisting in Demetri's grip, trying to bring his head around far enough to use his teeth.

"Let him go." Aro spoke without force, but Demetri treated it as an order and let him go. Edward slowly straightened, regaining his balance and rubbing his shoulders, sorely tempted to swing around and make a Demetri-shaped dent in the metal wall. Promising himself that the time would come, he forced his eyes away from Demetri’s self-satisfied smirk to the more important matter of what Jane had done to Seth.

Jane and Alec both looked annoyed, and Renata had simply relaxed into watchfulness. Santiago was hissing through his teeth, tentatively flexing his fingers. Edward stared at Seth, who had pressed himself as far against the wall as he could. The wolf didn’t seem to be injured and, to Edward's surprise, was still on his feet, despite Jane's glare.

E- Edward? What's going on? I did what they said, but...

Aro, realizing Seth was unhurt, said in a cheery tone to Santiago, "Describe what happened."

Santiago seemed confused. He looked up from his hand to Aro, to Seth, and then down to his hand again. "It was like electricity." His voice and thoughts both sounded offended. "My hand has pins and needles, and my fingers are not working properly."

Aro's smile widened. "Try again."

Santiago shot him an anxious glance and his voice was an octave higher as he responded, "Yes, Master." He stepped forward again, slowly raising his hand. Seth tried to move back away from him, his eyes shifting from Santiago's hand to Edward, who gave him a slight nod. Santiago's hand shook as his fingers came into contact with the wolf's fur. Santiago again jerked his hand away with a cry and his knees buckled as he lurched backward, reflexively hugging his arm. Seth stared at him as Aro turned to Jane.

"Now, Jane," he said kindly, "see whether you can do better this time."

The little blonde vampire looked up at him, happily. "Thank you, Master." She narrowed her eyes as she stared across at Seth. Apart from wrinkling his muzzle, the wolf didn't move. She's looking at me very strangely. What's she doing? Edward managed a small smile, relieved for the moment, but underneath more afraid than ever.

"It seems your gift has failed us. Pat the dog, my dear."

Jane looked round hurriedly, her former brightness replaced with a frown. "Master? Y-yes, Master." Slowly, hesitantly, she stepped forward and reached out her hand, but had the same reaction as Santiago.

"Edward." Aro didn't need to elaborate. He shouldered past Demetri and without hesitation walked across to the wolf. "You okay?" he asked, scratching Seth's ear.

Aro's laugh was gleeful. "This is wonderful!" he enthused. "He has no effect on you. I wonder why this should be."

Seth looked at him curiously.

"It hurts the others to touch you," Edward explained, "but not me. We don't know why."

From the doorway, Caius said, "Chelsea - bind him."

For the second time in a minute, Seth was under the intense gaze of a female vampire. Chelsea held her arms in front of her, fingers splayed, slowly turning her hands in twisting motions as she kneaded the air and narrowed her eyes. Then she dropped her arms. "It has no effect. I cannot bind him to you."

"He's no use as a guard dog, then," Caius said dryly, then turned to Edward. "You have a pact with the mutants."

"The Quileute people," Edward agreed. "Carlisle negotiated it when we first met them, about eighty years ago."

"He had no authority to make any deal with creatures that kill our kind."

"They are honorable. They've posed no danger to us, or to any of our kind."

"They have never killed any of our race?"

Edward hesitated. The Quileutes had killed vampires. Although it was hundreds of years ago, it was not long ago by Volterran standards.

"Edward?" Caius's voice grew colder.

"It was many years ago - they were attacked -"

"And on the plane coming here, this mutant was docile with you?"

Edward was desperate. It was clear where this was going, but he couldn't see how to stop it. "He was changing for the first time; he couldn't control it! Carlisle wouldn't—"

"You are allied with them? They willingly interact with you?"

Edward admitted, reluctantly, "They hate us."

I don't, Seth thought as he bumped his muzzle against Edward's shoulder. What are they trying to do, Edward?

"The Cullen coven is disloyal to our rule and our kind."

Edward turned to Aro who smiled at him, reassuringly. "Prove your loyalty, my young friend. Kill the mutant."

"No."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

June - six months later

La Push

Six weeks ago his daughter had been taken, the culprit vanishing without a trace, and in the past six months, Seth had also been kidnapped, and his good friend Harry had suffered a heart attack. Charlie had thought he’d reached his limit. He was wrong.

His shakes were starting to subside, but his face was still pale and clammy. Billy put the cup of sweetened tea back on the side table and pulled the blanket around his friend's shoulders. Charlie clutched at it with a shaky hand as he unconsciously rocked himself.

"B-be careful wh-what you wish for," he stuttered through chattering teeth, then gave an hysterical hiccupping giggle that triggered a fresh flood of sobs.

Earlier, Billy had tried to comfort him, but the chief wouldn’t have any of it. The only thing he’d allow was Billy’s hand on his arm, and he’d flinch whenever he would lay eyes on Sam and Carlisle as they watched anxiously from the kitchen doorway, which was as close as he’d tolerate them to be.

"A-and I was th-threatening to arrest you if-f you did-didn't tell me what was h-appening." The chief managed to force the words out through his gasping, self-mocking laughs "Veget-tarian vampires and w-w-werewolv-ves. In Forks. For Chrissake, you c-couldn't write this st-stuff..."

He’d arrived in his cruiser a few seconds after Carlisle, and strode across to where Billy and Sam were waiting at Carlisle’s rental car, his moustache bristling. It was awkward at first, and they tried to persuade Charlie to leave so they could discuss the situation, but he wouldn’t budge, and Billy couldn’t blame him.

Then there was a momentary gleam of sunshine across Carlisle's face and a burst of rainbows. Charlie's jaw dropped.

0o0o0o0

Two hours later, he sat in an exhausted stupor, eating soup, still huddled in his blanket and wiping the odd residual tear away with the back of his hand. Billy, Sam, and Carlisle sat in silence, allowing him the time he needed, watching sadly as he occasionally shook his head in response to some new thought.

"I always knew there was something, you know?" he mumbled, "Couldn't put my finger on it, but it was there." He closed his eyes tightly, and then opened them. "And you, Carlisle," he gave the briefest glance upward, shuddered, and looked down again. "Your fam... you were clearly different. I thought it was some rare medical condition," he said as his voice wavered.

Billy gave him a wry smile and patted his arm again.

Charlie carried on, as though he had to get his thoughts out now that he'd started. "And your boy. I've spent so long being angry with him for what I thought he did to her." He barked a laugh. "In some ways I don't know which is worse - what I thought, or what really happened."

"You don't have to do this." Carlisle said. "You couldn't know."

For the first time, he looked directly at Carlisle. "I hated him! I thought he just waited till her eighteenth birthday to - you know - persuade her to - to - and then dumped her." He drew in another shuddering breath. "I have eyes. I saw that something had changed the day after her birthday. He was so distant and she looked worried."

"Charlie, don't do this to yourself," said Billy.

"All that time, she knew about you and couldn't - she had to bear it alone. When she was still - still - upset a few weeks later I even asked her whether she thought she was pregnant." Charlie's voice increased in pitch. "She stared at me, and then started laughing and wouldn't stop. She had her arms wrapped round her, the way she always did then, and screamed and laughed. I nearly called for Gerandy." Absently, he wiped fresh tears away. "And your, your – Edward. Was he really just - your boy ...?" he trailed off.

"Yes," said Carlisle, "he was just a boy. Seventeen forever."

0o0o0o0


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