Chapter 23: Mourner
- I might as well make the best of this unfortunate meeting. Damn my greed! Damn Jane and that delicious weapon she wields, that irresistible power pouring off of her so enticingly that I left my safety. It wasn't worth the taste. But Aro's nearly as appealing... I want to see what that flavor is like. I'm too insatiably curious; it'll be the death of me one of these years. The only saving grace is that they don't know exactly what I can do yet. So far as he knows, I'm another Jane, a second lash of fire to tuck into his arsenal. He doesn't know what he'll give me when I touch his hand. So I do.
He'll know what I'm about soon enough. What is he about? How can I make this work for me?
I glance at the vampire world's three kings and two queens, once Aro releases my hand. Why are there only two queens? Aro must know, and now so do I. I have a look -
-- My sister's magic is worthless. Absolutely worthless. Worse, she herself is not the stabilizing factor for Marcus that my precious Sulpicia is to me, or Athenodora to Caius. Our wives will be queens; they long for it. His wife would rather be a bit of dandelion fluff, floating about the world trailing her absurd aura of happiness after her and taking her mate along at the expense of my every ambition. Chelsea, prize though she is, essential scissor and spinner, would not long manage a large coven working blind. Weaknesses she could not see would grow on the insides of those threads she pulls. Attractions too wispy for her to catch alone would form to external, unwelcome persons. We would fall apart. That cannot happen.
Marcus is essential; Didyme threatens his role; Didyme must go.
I do love my sister. I could arrange to fix that now, but I shouldn't like Chelsea to, upon later finding a mate of her own, abscond with him in the night in fear of my doing him harm. Not that I wouldn't do him harm, if he occupied Didyme's wretched position in the same story re-enacted with my very necessary dear Chelsea. But I wouldn't like her anticipating it.
So, loving Didyme, I must nonetheless do away with her.
Poor sister. If only Marcus were willing to help Chelsea in working with you, that you could be more tightly bound to us. If only Marcus painted for you a more lovely picture of the sovereignty we will share, that you might know some fraction of our aspirations in your own heart. If only Marcus had more force of personality, that you would have been swayed by his dreams instead of he by yours.
It will be my mercy to him, that he will never learn that he could have saved you.
You are easily led away. You trust me now the way you trusted me when I judged you old enough and ready to be one of us. Then, I suppose it hurt for longer than it will today. (I will make your death instant if I can.) But you walked away from the first "death", as I meant you to do. I did want to see what ability you might turn up with. Magic may run in the blood, but capriciously, clearly - your power is only hastening your death, chasing away my apprehensions at destroying you and replacing them with indifferent euphoria.
You are easily led, and easily secluded, and easily killed.
I read your last thoughts, one more day of them to pile on since the last time I embraced you, and you do not even realize what I have done.
A coven of two is nearby. They will deny everything. Of course. That would be only natural; what else would they do? I'll take their thoughts, declare them guilty, Marcus and I will fall upon them in revenge - oh, lost sister, if it had been those who took your life I truly would kill them in revenge! - and Chelsea will do her work. Marcus will be on hand to help her.
Ah, beloved sister. We will build such a kingdom. Your sacrifice will be not in vain --
- How very, very intriguing.
Aro is looking at me with considerable interest. I produce what I hope is a beatific smile, and catch his hand again. I know, I think at him, knowing quite well that he'll listen to my new thoughts when I try to communicate like this, something that you wouldn't like me to say aloud. But there is no reason for us to be enemies. Why don't we see what we can work out that suits the both of us? I glance speculatively at Caius and his Athenodora. Then over at lonely Marcus.
Aro, to his credit, does not let the mask of cordial, fascinated pleasure leave his face, and it's customary enough for him to freeze in place like this when he's reading someone. Yes, he replies, after a moment of amusingly frenzied calculation, do let's -
"Elspeth?" said Jake, waving his hand in front of my face.
"Didyme," I said.
"What about her?" asked Maggie.
"That's what Aro didn't want Addy to tell anyone," I breathed. "How Didyme died. Aro killed her."
"He did?" asked Siobhan, sounding mildly stunned. "That's... It would certainly fracture the Volturi if they all knew. I'm not sure if it would actually destroy them for that to get out; a lot of the guard are loyal to Aro personally, aren't they?"
"Yeah," I said, "Renata included."
"And plenty have no mates to worry about. How badly does Chelsea need Marcus?" Siobhan asked. "How much can she do on her own, given the scenario where he makes a fuss, gets himself killed, and no one else wants to make a commotion about it?"
"Every time somebody's managed to leave the Volturi it's been when or just after Marcus was called away for a long time," I murmured, thinking of Eleazar's departure with Carmen and a few similar cases. "When he and Aro and Caius all go off to deal with something in the field, even if Chelsea stays home, somebody can break loose. Usually they let them - they never wanted to make it really obvious that joining them is supposed to be a one-time decision. I'm not sure how long it would take for it to fall apart more deeply than that... Give me a minute."
I closed my eyes and spun through moments Memory presented as representative: Eleazar and Carmen extending their regrets to Aro and striking off on their own; Chelsea listening to Marcus say that she could handle the villagers without him because there were no vampires in it, and eventually compromising on a bimonthly schedule; Marcus watching the coven move about the compound with brilliant trails of light connecting them in myriad colors rich with meaning, but always returning his eyes to the shredded white ribbon that should have stretched from him to Didyme.
Looking at Marcus's memories since her death was painful. He was always staring at that ribbon. Even if his eyes pointed some other direction, even if he was trying to concentrate on someone's gleaming ultraviolet enmity or dimming particolored friendship, the torn pale half of a mate bond had some corner in his vision and more than that of his attention. On the rare occasions he managed to really think about something else, it would twist as though ruffled by a breeze, and he'd be drawn right back into grief.
I looked back farther, to before he'd met her, trying to get accustomed to what his power did and figure out how heavily Chelsea depended on it. The difference was palpable. Marcus had apparently always been melancholy and a little inclined to brood, but he'd been distractable before Didyme entered and exited his life.
And the streams of light that he saw between people were excellent distractions. They were endlessly fascinating, supernally beautiful, flecked and striped and inscribed with every possible color and intensity and shape. He hadn't originally known what the features of the relationships he saw meant, and had to learn them the way he'd learned to read. But a vampire brain and lifespan (and some work with Aro, who could, given time and the chance to touch the people involved, confirm or deny Marcus's hypotheses) afforded him plenty of opportunity to figure out the code.
Marcus could see both directions of a relationship as long as one person was within sight and the other within range of the first, that range proportional to the strength of a relationship.
Mate bonds, he could see no matter how far apart the mates were.
He'd seen his and Didyme's ribbon snap and her half evaporate. He'd been staring right at it when she died. I flinched away from that memory and went earlier again.
The white ribbons that represented mate bonds were unusual in their color, but also their simplicity. Usually, mates had the ribbon and then separate, more multicolored beams to display anything else they shared on top of that. It was those intricate ones he read for anything complex...
- "Marcus! I'd like you to meet Chelsea. What a lovely coincidence that we have happened upon her hometown at the same time as she was visiting it."
"Hello." I don't need to open my eyes to look her up and down; the light is bright enough to my extra sight even through my eyelids, and the light is more important than what sort of nose she has or anything of that nature. The light... is lurching unnaturally. "Chelsea, if you don't stop that I'm going to kill you."
She jumps. "I wasn't doing anything..." It's a poor lie. But she does stop. The light stills, except for a perfectly natural shimmer of yellow in reaction to my threat.
Aro laughs at us. "Brother, I think she's worth more alive than dead. Get to know each other. I think you'll be spending a lot of time working together." I hear him walk off. The girl he's brought in stays put.
"You sculpt the light, then?" I ask.
"I suppose you probably don't see it that way. Relationships. You can affect them directly."
"Oh, the threads - yes. I can. I don't see them at all, only feel them, though." That explains the clumsiness. "Aro - Master Aro, I mean - said that you see them. More clearly than I can feel them. Am I to call you Master Marcus?"
"I don't care. And I'd have to guess that my sight's clearer than whatever it is you do, if what you tried back there was at all representative. No finesse. You're how old?"
"Not from when you were born, from when you were turned, girl."
She gulps. "Two. How did you know...?"
"And you can't affect your relationships... or not the halves of them that exist in your mind, anyway. Can you even tell they're there? Untidy, conflicted mess. And it's obvious. You couldn't have been an immortal for forty-three years and still be nursing anything like that little love-hate relationship with your... father, yes, that'll be him, I've never seen that shade of mauve anywhere else. It would have dimmed by now if you'd been among us long, or brightened if he'd turned too. But no, there it is. He was hard on you, and you resent him, but at the same time you haven't killed him yet - probably can't make up your mind - you admit he was instrumental in making you who you are and... Is he looking after your... niece? You've a dead sister who left a daughter behind?"
I open my eyes just in time to watch her jaw fall open. "How can you..."
"Plainer," I say, "than the nose on your face." I shrug. "I wouldn't have seen the bit about your family if we weren't in their town. They're close by. Hmmm... and your... is that a cousin? She just died, it's fading quickly... did you kill her?"
"Yes," she says, a defiant twist of black darkening the nascent coil of light between us.
"I don't care," I say. "Why do you think I would?" There's a lot of dark green speckled with clusters of pale pink specks there, glowing erratically - she's impressed with me. In spite of herself.
She starts to smile, just a little. "She was like me, or close to it. When Master Aro explained what he wanted of me I decided that she had to die. I don't want to outlive my value." That explains the brown patterning on their relationship. I'm starting to think it's characteristic of Aro, to back people into such corners so they need to resort to more drastic securing of their positions than they would normally bother with.
"And did she have your disagreeable habit of pulling the strings of anyone she was introduced to?" I ask.
"I don't know. You're right, I can't feel detail at all. I can't see what I'm doing, let alone what she was doing." She swallows, sways a little, and a cyan wire wraps around our shared strand of light. Supplication. She acknowledges me as an authority - albeit not as much as she does Aro - and she has some hope that I'll be a benevolent one. "Marcus..."
"What do you want?"
"I do have some sensation," she says, an unpleasant wheedling note in her voice. "Don't... don't you like me at all?"
"Is there something to like?" I'm really not sure what Aro means to do with her, although I imagine he has some design in mind; it would be rather unlike him not to.
Chelsea makes an unbecoming noise. "Master Aro warned me that you might not let me make you love me," she murmured.
Some of the thinner rays in gray and eggshell to persons I can't identify now make more sense. They look almost characteristic of what I've seen when one person tolerates the presence of a second they don't actually like for a steady source of admiration or compliments or similar. She has no fine discernment at all, but she knows what she likes, certainly. She likes... whatever it feels like to her when people are fond of her.
"As I said," I reply, "if you do that to me I'm going to kill you. Good day." I go to find Aro, meaning to ask him just what he has planned for this girl -
"Marcus is good," I summarized, pushing Jake's hand away from where it was waving in front of my face again. "He's really good, when he's on his game. Chelsea's learned in her millennia, but she still needs his help for anything that will hold up for long. I'm not sure, but I give it maybe a month or two without Marcus's help before the Volturi start fragmenting into more normal-sized covens and individuals - some of them probably fighting each other before scattering - even if none of the others were particularly upset over Didyme." I shook my head in disbelief. "I didn't realize while I was there what a big deal he is, because he didn't come to the village much. But the village is wolves and humans, not vampires - way better suited to living in big groups. Vampires don't usually hang out in bunches of more than, like, four or five at a time, if they aren't vegetarian."
Maggie whistled. "Okay, wow. So it made sense for Aro to worry that Addy would tell on him."
I nodded. "But..." I frowned. "If Marcus finds out about what Aro did, they could just keep him in pieces like they used to with the other witches, if they have Addy's help. My father's the only one they're still holding that way -"
"You seem so concerned for his welfare," said Liam dryly.
"I hate it that they ever did that to anyone, but I only know how to undo Chelsea's work in the one direction," I said stiffly. "Anyway. Now that Marcus has the memories - I think he does, anyway, he was probably close enough to get caught in the blast - he will eventually find out how Didyme died. The only reason he might not realize it immediately is that she didn't know, and if I were him I'd look at her own memories first, not at Aro or the coven he pinned her death on. That means that the Volturi are either going to fall apart - eventually - or get Addy back in the coven. Unless they find another way to replace Marcus or get a better version of Chelsea before they splinter."
"Which doesn't seem likely," said Siobhan, although she was looking at me for confirmation. I had the strange sensation that I had somehow turned into an authority figure, which made me feel a little like I was perched somewhere very high, and also liable to fall off of it at any time. I like attention. I don't have any experience with responsibility.
"...Probably not?" I said. "There was Chelsea's cousin but she died thousands of years ago. They haven't found anyone with a similar power to her or Marcus since, that they know about. And they went back to Chelsea's hometown a couple decades later and checked out the rest of her family just in case, too. Chelsea didn't like that. But they didn't find anything."
Siobhan nodded. "Okay," she said. "So the Volturi are either doomed, or they're going to get Addy back, or something very unlikely is going to happen - but even doomed they can be very destructive on the way down - and then what? They haven't been doing an admirable job lately, but they did keep our species in check for a couple millennia. The threat of them, and their actual enforcement when a problem cropped up."
"Power vacuum," murmured Maggie.
"To an outrageous degree," said Siobhan. "As the news gets out we'll have immortal children and newborn armies and daywalking and uncovered feeding. Humans have been able to kill us given sufficient dedication and numbers since they discovered fire - nowadays, I give it six months or less between our existence being public knowledge, and them developing some contraption that will let them kill us as easy as we kill them or they kill each other."
"Bright side: an incentive for somebody to invent lightsabers," said Jake. Nobody laughed; he sighed.
"This is serious," said Maggie. "There are a lot of covens who would just love to turn the first couple dozen people they see and train them up into an army and send them after their enemies. It's happened. Within my lifetime, even, though I've never seen it. I have personally seen a woman who desperately wanted an immortal child and only didn't go kidnap someone's primary schooler and turn him because she knew the Volturi would find out sooner or later and kill them both." She shuddered, probably thinking of Molly. "I myself have had to be way more restrained and cautious than I would have bothered with if there weren't consequences."
"Sure, sure, sorry," muttered Jake. He looked at Siobhan. "Given any thought to the thing where humans might not want to kill you if you didn't treat them like snacks?"
"It's crossed my mind," said Siobhan gravely, giving him a chastising look. "Do you think you could turn into an enormous fanged creature in the middle of this city and be welcomed as a harmless puppy if you took care to mention that you don't dine on humans? Do you really think that I could swear off human blood this hour and be acknowledged thereafter as a valuable member of society who they shouldn't burn to ashes?" She aimed her thumb at Ilario. "This fellow hasn't eaten anyone in his life. He's still a vampire. He'll be tarred with the same brush as any of us. Humans. Are. Stupid. They're stupid in different ways than vampires - you can't, for instance, predict what a human is going to do based on the information that he or she is married, and can't expect that all of their large-scale alliances will fall apart without magical help. But they are still stupid."
"What about Elspeth?" Jake asked, troubled.
Siobhan eyed me consideringly. "Safer than me, probably safer than you. She looks cute and harmless, doesn't turn into anything more intimidating, she's never killed anybody and she can prove it just by saying so... all things considered I think she could be okay in a world without our secrets. Anyway. It's everyone's problem if the Volturi collapse, which is now a very, very serious risk. That should help with collecting help, at least." She started pacing again, having paused in place while I wasn't paying attention. "What else?"
"I feel like I should ask," Maggie said, "Siobhan, are actually going to help us, or do you still want to stay out of it like you told Carlisle?"
"Is there," said Ilario dryly, "a coherent us?"
"I don't know," said Siobhan frankly, seeming to cover both questions with one response. "I'll admit: my priority is the status quo on this island. Ireland is mine. It's been mine for centuries. I'm not ready to give it up. I'm also not convinced that the Volturi being completely dismantled would be a good thing, although the aforementioned status quo does depend on their witch collection project being toned way down before they find out I exist - which is as inevitable as Marcus finding out who killed his wife. What do you lot want?" I blinked rapidly, reminded uncannily of my mother, though she and Siobhan looked nothing alike. "It would help if I knew where we can cooperate before trying to work out how we're going to do that."
She was looking at everybody but Liam, and none of us seemed to know who should go first. Finally Maggie said, "I want my family safe. Molly needs a stable place to grow up, and Gianna and I need a stable place to raise her. And Ilario."
Ilario looked amused by this comment, so I guessed that it might be some kind of in-joke between him and Maggie rather than real dismissal. "Similar here," he said. "Maggie, you might want to remember that the Volturi tried to have Gianna killed, back when."
"Right, I don't like them much," agreed Maggie. "But they didn't succeed. If they're some kind of necessary evil for letting us bring up Molly without incident, I'll put up with them existing."
Siobhan nodded, and looked over at Jake and me.
"I want Elspeth safe and happy," said Jake.
Siobhan waited a beat, then said, "And?"
He blinked. "Uh, I guess the Volturi are..."
"One sec," I murmured, and I turned around to put my hands back on Jake's face and repeat the deprogramming trick with all the other Volturi. After I thought I'd been as thorough with each of them as I had been with Chelsea, I dropped my arms to my sides. "Better?"
Jake made a weird nauseated face. "If you wanna call it that. Ugh. And I was only there for a little over a month... my sisters... Okay, with Elspeth safe and happy, I want those lee..." He glanced around at the vampires, all waiting for him to finish uttering the slur. "...ders of the supernatural world gone. I guess some of the guard could get moved into a new administration or something, that's a lot of maybe-potentially-good witches to toss after the bad, but it can't go on like this. I want the wolves independent of or at least equal to the vampires, not a private conscript army."
Siobhan nodded, and looked at me. "Elspeth? What do you want?"
"I don't know," I said.