The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 7

December - six months earlier

Volterra

"Kill the mutant"

"No." Edward's tone was flat as he looked levelly at Aro, feeling unexpectedly calm. More than ever before, he felt that he understood Carlisle. Being around the Volturi he could see for himself the barrenness of their lives; no true companionship or love, just corruption from boredom and almost limitless power. The idea of encouraging friendship with an enemy was alien to them and even with all eternity at their disposal, they'd never think to try. He'd upheld the treaty, even if no one ever knew.

Behind him, Seth's thoughts were growing panicky as he began to whine. He was watching Edward closely, looking for any sign that he would carry out the order, and wondering what to do if he did.

Caius hissed, but Aro returned Edward's gaze. Then his face lit up and he laughed delightedly, clapping his hands together. "Ha ha!" he crowed. "Isn't this wonderful, Caius? Our young friend is so like dear Carlisle, it quite takes me back to those years he spent with us." He beamed at Edward. "It was such a novelty for us, the monastic lifestyle we led during that time, but it seemed to please him."

Internally, Edward shuddered. Monastic didn't describe the memories that saddened Carlisle the most.

"You take after him so closely," Aro continued. "I do wish you could join us." He patted Edward's hand where it rested on Seth's shoulder, their eyes meeting again long enough for Aro to give one slow blink, and then he swept out of the cell, followed by the rest.

Edward frowned after them, once again disconcerted by the abrupt change of tack. Aro had gambled with Seth's life just to test Edward's reaction? Given their bloodlust, surely they wouldn’t have intervened. Or, what if Seth had panicked and attacked, would they have stopped him? Probably, but only when they were sure he would lose, since they would take great pleasure in watching Edward kill him. Either way, it would have been the end of Seth.

Have they finished with us? Seth asked, tentatively.

"I think so." Edward turned to him. "For the moment at least."

Seth stayed still for long minutes, his thoughts a chaotic whirl of confusion and fears. Did you know they'd just laugh if you said no? Edward shook his head. Why did you do it?

"I told you, I won't hurt you."

Thank you. Seth's mental voice was shy. He stayed by the wall for a few more minutes before moving slowly away, looking around the cell for the first time in his current form. He sniffed around the walls and corners before looking back across at Edward. There are some smells that seem old. They've been here a long time, haven't they?

"They've lived in Volterra close on three thousand years," Edward said, watching him circle the cell for a third time.

Seth huffed and sat down. I'll need some more clothes. Edward smiled, amused by his simple practicality. And I'm getting hungry again. He settled down on his mattress. You don't know what's really going on, do you? Edward shook his head. This isn't easy for you, is it, not knowing everything?

"No, until now Bella was the only person who made me work to understand her." Edward ran his hand through his hair.

You do that a lot, you know that?

"And you ask a lot of questions, kid." Nevertheless, Edward put his hand down. "I don't understand why Carlisle hasn't come. He wouldn't allow this." He paused. "Alice must have seen some way out of this that doesn't involve him, and I just haven't figured it out yet."

Another thought came to him: What did Caius mean about the Cullens being disloyal? Where was Carlisle? The Volturi knew more about his family's activities than he'd realized, and clearly knew enough about the Quileutes to set up Seth's abduction and keep Edward off-balance. He couldn't figure how they knew so much. There had never been any sign of visitors or spies. Did they use one of the other telepaths? Why hadn't he heard them? Perhaps they had a wider range and were able to stay far enough away so he couldn’t get a signal? Had the Volturi done something to his family while he travelled here? But all the guards were here, so whom would they send?

But you're safe, aren't you? Seth asked. They want you.

"I think so," Edward said, "but Carlisle will be furious that you're being threatened."

Though he put up a good front, he was worried. What if Carlisle couldn't help? Edward glanced across at Seth, who wrinkled his brow questioningly. Would Sam assume the Cullens were involved in Seth's abduction? Although Edward's trail to Denali was some months old, could Sam follow it? Was there now open conflict between them? And was he the reason for that conflict?

Apparently he also asked himself a lot of questions.

Aware that Seth was watching, he willed himself to relax, recalling Carlisle in his study on one of the many occasions when Edward had gone to ask him for his help. He half-smiled when he thought about his life seventy years ago, when he’d been trying to adapt to the vegetarian lifestyle for the second time. Rain had pattered down the window and the trees from the neaby forest roared in the blustery wind. Carlisle had been perched on the corner of his desk, amber eyes sympathetic, his voice soft and encouraging. "Infinite patience is instantly rewarded, Edward," he'd said. "It is an odd universal paradox, but you will find it to be true. And as you become patient, your control will grow. Self-control does not bind us, it frees us. Unlike these humans, whose short lives you are driven to end, we have all the time we need to strive for perfection." He'd paused to give Edward his kind, unassuming smile. "Just don't make the mistake of assuming you'll ever achieve it."

Carlisle had also reminded him of this after Bella's birthday, when he'd first demanded they leave Forks. "You are too anxious for a quick solution. Your haste will not help you."

Bitter with the anticipation of loss, Edward had shouted back, "Your so-called patience - do nothing - let it all work out – plan nearly killed her tonight! She's not an experiment in getting my Zen on!" he'd railed at Carlisle, made angrier by receiving love and understanding in return. All he could feel was self-disgust due to his craving to feast on the blood that had poured from her arm. When Jasper had tried to attack her, yes, Edward had been defending his mate, but a part of him - a very powerful part - had also been guarding his prey.

She was better off without him.

He looked across at Seth. The kid was calm now, wanting to change back and hoping for clothes.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

They were sent for the following afternoon. All three Volturi were present when Edward, closely shadowed by Seth, entered the room. This wasn't the one he'd seen earlier. Like the marble chamber, it was circular with high windows, but the walls were the honey-colored sandstone from which the castle was constructed. It glowed warmly whenever the afternoon sun shone through. In the center of the floor was a round, cast-iron manhole cover. Edward recognized this room; the Volturi fondly referred to it as their “dining room. “ Edward had seen it in Carlisle’s vivid memories many times, although since Carlisle had never participated in the activities usually performed here, he was grateful not to have seen any of it. He hoped that wouldn’t change.

Marcus, as before, gazed out at the sky, almost completely uninterested in everyone else in the room. Caius sat on his own throne, glowering down at Edward and Seth. Aro stood between them, hands clasped in front of him. The Volturi and their guard were all in their dark cloaks. Close to his side Seth shivered in his hoodie, even though he was running a high temperature. Jane kept casting him glances, Edward noticed, but they weren’t malevolent; more as though she was weighing up something she'd never seen before.

Aro went to the front of the dais. "Ah, Edward," he said in a rueful tone, "your coven is such a source of problems for us. The issue with the girl..."

Edward began to speak, but Aro stopped him with a wave of his hand.

"Do not worry, my friend, we are not so foolish as to think we are at risk of exposure from a teenage girl; she would be considered delusional. Although she is culpable, as are you, I have already given my word that we shall not harm her, so her fate rests entirely in your hands."

What does that mean? he wondered, but he wasn't given time to think it over.

"Much worse is that your coven associated with dangerous mutants. Instead of destroying them, or informing us their existence, you concealed them, allowing their kind to continue to breed and be a source of peril," he said sadly, looking down at Edward. "We are fond of Carlisle; he means well but truly, Edward, what kind of example would it set if we allowed his coven to commit such transgressions? Others would challenge our authority and before we knew it, our society and culture would be in disarray."

"You're all aware of Carlisle's philosophy," Edward said, trying to speak confidently and in a way Aro would understand and relate to. "Had we brought you in to annihilate the tribe, questions would have been asked throughout the human nation. It would have left the possibiliy that the genetic quirk would resurface elsewhere in the world, with those affected eager for revenge. Keeping the main body of the mutants," here, he heard an indignant mental exclamation from Seth, "in one place is the best way to secure intelligence on their development."

"It was not Carlisle's role to make such a decision," Caius said. "He should have reported a find of this magnitude. Without our informant, the situation may have continued for many more centuries."

"Indeed." Aro's voice was little more than a thoughtful murmur. "Can you imagine the damage it would have caused had the Romanians heard of these mutants before we did?"

Damage to whom? Edward thought. He couldn't imagine the Quileutes would care which faction of vampires came along to wipe them out.

"And if all that was not enough, our informant has a third complaint." Caius looked toward the door.

Edward could hear a vampire approaching the chamber. The mind was oblique and evasive, hard to pinpoint, but the elusive thoughts felt gleeful, almost purring in their smug self-satisfaction. As the doors swung open and the vampire's scent reached Edward, his muscles tensed instinctively into a hunting stance. He'd thirsted to have this scent filling his airways. But under one, and only one, particular circumstance. And this wasn't it.

"Hello, Edward," the high, child-like voice said. "How wonderful to see you here."

"Ah, my darling Victoria." Aro said to her lovingly, as if to a child, and she simpered back. "We've been waiting for you."

Unlike the last time Edward had seen her, in hiking gear and barefoot with leaves and twigs in her hair, she was now as sleek as Alice or Rosalie at their best. Her hair was clean, waving down her back; her emerald dress was tight-fitting and short, her long legs enhanced by high stilettos. She was stunning, and Edward loathed the very sight of her. He almost shook with the effort of not flinging himself across the chamber to bury his teeth into her neck.

She joined Aro on the dais, clearly delighted with herself. From her memories, Edward picked up flashes of places he knew all-to-well: Forks High School, and in particular, the secretary's office; La Push, where she’d followed an unusual scent which led to Sam and a long chase away from the area; traveling north to meet Laurent; sitting in a tree while he recounted what the Denali sisters had told him of Alice's gift, Edward's gift, and the legends of the wolves.

She turned to look directly at Edward, showing him how she'd knelt by James's ashes, running her fingers through them as she wailed in her grief, swearing revenge on the Cullens.

She let him see her journey to Italy, gloating over the information Laurent had shared, and how she’d stood before Aro, pleading that he grant her justice, telling him the Cullens had provoked her mate, taunting him with a sweet-smelling human, and then murdering him for it.

She claimed Edward had told them the human was his mate, but he’d a lied; she’d merely been a toy, a momentary distraction. Laurent had told her how he'd tired of his pet after a few months and moved on. The murder of James was for nothing! As a final flourish, Victoria told him she’d returned to Forks just a few weeks ago to find a mutant fiend, a hellhound on the outskirts of the town, making it too dangerous to remain there; she'd barely escaped with her limbs.

Edward closed his eyes. Of course. It was obvious. Once Victoria found out about the Cullens and the Quileutes, what could be neater? Run to Volterra, tell all of it to Aro, and the Volturi would wipe out the Cullens and the wolves. Victoria could watch from the sidelines without risking a scratch. And if Bella survived, she was there for the taking. No need for any risks or elaborate schemes; just let the Volturi do what they did best.

He should have gone after her, and would have let Emmett take her down in Forks if he’d known. He could have hunted her after leaving Bella, not spent weeks moping and drifting.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, Edward.

At his side, Seth stirred. What's happening? Who is she? Is she a friend?

Edward gave a hard laugh. "No. Far from it. She's out to kill us all."

Victoria's gloating grew stronger as she heard what he said, recalling how she’d begged Aro to help her, and his interest when she’d told him of Edward's gift and how he'd used it to trap James. "A telepath?" he'd asked, surprised. "Carlisle has a telepath in his coven?" He'd paused, before smiling sympathetically. "My poor dear; I feel for your grief. He shall be summoned, to account for his actions."

Something was missing, Edward realized. Aro hadn't taken her hand. Why was that?

"So you see, Edward, you have given us much to consider," Aro said. Then he brightened. "But first, dinner and entertainment, I think."

"Heidi approaches," Marcus whispered to him.

Edward's attention shifted to the passageway outside, and his heart sank. "Seth," he said urgently, "over to the wall. Now!" Gently he pushed the kid to the side of the chamber, away from the door, listening as hard as he could and trying to quell his feeling of rising panic.

"What's happ—" Seth began, but Edward shushed him hurriedly, turning back to Aro. There wasn't time for dignity now; there was barely time to get out of the room before Heidi arrived with her catch. "Please let us out of here," he begged. "We don't want any part of this."

"Of course you may go, Edward," Aro said in a kind voice, and as Edward ushered Seth toward the door, he added, "But not the mutant. He stays."

Edward stopped, as a pulse of hatred shot through him. So this was the reason for the charade in the cell the previous day. Test their growing friendship, and then break it. Seth realized it at the same time.

Yes, my friend, Aro’s thoughts projected at him, this is the start of your punishment. A little reminder of who holds the power here.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0


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