Chapter 25: Collaborator

Liam obeyed his mate silently, leaving the hotel by the window.

Siobhan started pacing again as soon as his footsteps could no longer be heard. "Elspeth, I want you to poke around in your memories and see what, if anything, could be a deciding factor in turning the Denalis away from the Volturi. Ilario, get your sister on the phone and keep her posted. Maggie, get ahold of Cath, and ask her and any vampires she trusts to meet us tomorrow night in... let's make it near Belfast, in that one park, but tell her to have everyone to come well-fed, please, I don't want them hunting in my territory. Jacob, you and Elspeth need to sleep tonight, I presume. You could look around in the hotel and see if any rooms are still adequate for the purpose; I wouldn't know, not having slept in several centuries. I don't know how much or how often you like to eat, but I expect you could get Maggie to spot you some money for food, if you want to pop out for a bite."

"You don't carry money?"

"Not usually," Siobhan said.

Maggie dug around in her pockets and found a green bill, which she handed over to Jake. "That," she said, "is a loan, not a present."

"All of my money is in a drawer in our suite in the wolf village in Volterra," said Jake. "I really don't know when I'm going to be able to get it."

"No big hurry, I'm not gonna break your kneecaps if you don't have it back with interest by Tuesday, but it's still not a present," Maggie said. "I've got a kid to look after. She goes through shoes like nobody's business; I'd think she was putting them through the woodchipper if I didn't know better."

"I think my grandparents will probably cover it later if everybody lives through this and it's a problem,"I said, "don't worry." Jake nodded, squeezed my shoulder with one hand, and went off to see if there were any acceptable accomodations in the building. Maggie and Ilario got out their phones and called Cath and Gianna, respectively, but they kept their voices down and I was able to tune them out to think.

I closed my eyes, and wondered what could affect the Denalis' loyalties. I had memories from Eleazar and Carmen, but they weren't recent - Aro had last read them shortly before Eleazar left the Volturi to follow his mate. I had Irina's, too, and those were much more up-to-date - they went up until just a couple of days before she died. (I knew the circumstances of her death from other perspectives. She'd turned the wolves in to the Volturi on the expectation that they'd wipe them out, and when she went to La Push and found that things had gone differently, she'd launched what amounted to a kamikaze attack and been summarily executed.) Kate and Tanya had last been read when their mother Sasha was killed, to prove their innocence of Sasha's crime of creating an immortal child Vasilii...

And Sasha had been read, too...

- "I don't believe this. Corin finally agrees to sign on with you, and so you've become his personal army? He can't kill me himself even with his ludicrous invisible shield blocking a few of my slower shots, so he finds a bigger attack dog to finish his vendetta with me? Doesn't he realize that I could have involved my daughters at any time since I turned them, and he'd have been finished? His entire coven put together couldn't stand up to my little Katie!"

Aro, smiling for some reason, lets me rant; his bodyguard, at his shoulder, gives no impression of being interested in the proceedings at all, but her power is watchful enough; I can't just wrench the man's head off his shoulders. "Yes, your little Katie..."

"Don't tell me Corin's joining the guard is contingent on killing my daughters, too," I said. I'm trying to snap at him, trying to hang onto some pride, but I can't keep all the horror out of my voice. My girls, my Katrina and Irina and Tanya. "Has he ever even met them? I've kept them away from the territory border."

"He hasn't," said Aro. "Which presents me with a... conundrum. Particularly given Katrina's gift. It's not quite of Jane's caliber, but still..."

"You can't have her," I spit.

"Dear lady, I doubt this is the right time for you to be making pronouncements like that," says Aro. "If I wanted Katrina very badly I would have her already. No, as I said, she's not of Jane's caliber; I don't need any of your children, even the one with the lightning touch. And in fact Corin did not request their deaths, only yours. The conundrum is that I wouldn't like to lose the chance to ever welcome Katie into my coven, should I need her later. And this means you cannot disappear without explanation, and I cannot announce precisely why I'm having you killed. If I did either of those things, your daughters might... complain... and that would be the end of them, I fear."

My daughters and I together could have destroyed Corin and his coven - or former coven, now - but the three of them against the Volturi - I shudder to think. And they would try. I have such loyal children, but - "The last news I received said you still had Chelsea."

"Well, yes, she could solve the immediate problem of allowing your talented Katrina to outlive you by more than a few days," says Aro. "But under the circumstances we are now discussing, my darling Chelsea would have a challenge on her hands to create the inroads necessary to leave open the option of adding Kate to the family later. I don't have any other reason to leave them alive, you understand, beyond that hope. I have some interest in leaving intact your witch daughter's impression of the Volturi as dispensers of justice."

"And God forbid Chelsea should be challenged," I snarl. "It would be so inconvenient. Perhaps you should give up the entire project as a fool's errand."

"My dear," says Aro, "it is already quite decided that you are going to die. The only question is whether you will do so in a way that necessitates also killing your children or not. Specifically, you could die mysteriously and hope that they are poor detectives... you could die openly for the reasons I have described to you, and hope that they are not as vengeful as you think they are... or..."

"Or what?" I hiss.

"Or some pretext could be devised, to explain your demise to your daughters without leaving them any grounds to object." He smiles at me and I wonder if I could get through his bodyguard's power by launching myself at him from sufficiently far away... no, probably not. If nothing else, she could knock me out of the way before I reached him.

"Such as?" I ask warily.

"I'm sure you're aware of the practice of creating immortal children, which we're in the process of stamping out..." -

"I thought of something," I murmured, and Siobhan's gaze sharpened with interest. "Oh boy, did I ever think of something. One minute..."

- The child really is cunning. I really might have created one for myself, if I'd known how precious and lovely a human toddler could become when turned; I've heard of immortal children before but never seen one with my own eyes. He has dimples when he smiles at me.

"Here you are," says Aro, picking up the boy with desultory briskness and pushing him into my arms. I'm not sure if I could stop myself from cradling the child if I had some reason to shove him away. Some instinct is demanding my affection, like the motherhood I thought I'd found with my girls. This little creature is distilled innocence, exudes an undeniable need for protection; in a moment he's more a child to me than my daughters. I can't look away from his round eyes, almost glowing, like rubies. No wonder entire covens would die to protect their angels, if they're all like this... "I've kept a few, for research purposes, in the hopes that we can learn a way to make them safe; my coven has enough numbers to control a small number of the immortal children. We can spare one to act as a prop for your funeral."

"You're going to kill him," I said flatly. The little one puts his arms around my neck and mumbles nonsense words against my shoulder, untroubled; I smooth his hair. "This baby, you're -"

"I see you find him captivating," says Aro. "That should help you play your part convincingly. Yes, of course we're going to kill him. I would offer to let you trade him back in exchange for one of the others I've kept on hand, but I think you'd find they have the same effect. I will not ask you to choose between them."

I hold the boy tighter. "What is his name? What language does he speak?"

"Latin will do, if you want to talk to him," Aro says. "He's picked up some of it since we brought him here, although not beyond a two-year-old's command of the language, of course. He answers to Vasilii. I'm not sure if that was his original name or if his creator assigned it."

"Vasilii," I repeat.

Vasilii leans back to look at my face and puts his hand over my eye, then touches my hair, then giggles. "I would suggest," Aro says, "that you convince him to call you "Mommy" or something similar before your daughters arrive to watch the trial. For the sake of appearances, you see."

"Yes," I murmur -

"The sisters' mother, Sasha, was framed," I said. "I don't know how much that will bother Eleazar and Carmen - it'll at least throw Eleazar for a loop, though, he didn't know, he joined the Volturi later and never got filled in - but it will definitely get Tanya and Kate's attention."

"Get their attention, or actually turn them around?" asked Siobhan, gazing at me intently.

"I don't know."

"You probably know all of these people better than anyone on the planet except Aro, Adelaide, and possibly the people in question themselves," Siobhan objected.

"I have memories, but I'm not a precog like Alice, I can just guess from patterns of behavior I remember," I said. "And there hasn't been anything like this that happened to them before, at least not that Aro read before late May. If you want my guess, they might be willing to stand against the Volturi if we tell them - er, maybe if I tell them - that Sasha was framed, but I'm not sure. I wouldn't bet my life on it unless all the other bets on offer were worse."

"Of course you pick the best bet you can get, that's so obvious as to be not worth stating," said Siobhan. "But you don't get to refuse to bet. That's just letting other people, who might or might not like you, pick the game on your behalf. The question is: How good is this chance? Would you rather bet your life on your ability to convince the Denalis that the Volturi are bad news, or... say, a coin flip?"

I blinked. "Why would I ever bet my life on a coin flip?"

Siobhan sighed heavily. "If the next best alternative was betting it on a lottery ticket. Let's try this another way. Kiddo, if you were airdropped in Denali and got out the words "Aro framed Sasha" before anybody had the chance to wrap you up, apply postage, and ship you back to Volterra... and for some reason, one or more of the Denalis didn't promptly say to themselves "oh, we don't like the Volturi anymore, let's come clean about our subterfuge to our cousins and friends and collaborate on a plan to deal with the cataract-eyed emperors in Italy"... who would be the one or more still on the Volturi's side? Why would they be the holdouts? What more would it take to convince them?"

This sounded familiar somehow. After a moment, I matched it up to what I'd been doing while under Alec's sensory deprivation. With no way to tell whether anything I was trying to get help had worked or not, I'd started assuming everything I did had failed and moved on to another plan. "Is this anything like that?" I asked, pushing to Siobhan a summary of the concept.

She considered. "A little," she said finally. "Except in this case, you're not going to try just waltzing into Denali to make your announcement before you figure out how it's likely to go wrong. You're going to figure out how it's likely to go wrong, we'll patch that problem, and then we start over again."

"And we do this how many times?" I asked.

"Until the only problems we find have patches worse than the holes themselves," said Siobhan. "However, I can't be sure how much of my ability to make this work is due to... magic, which I apparently have... so take my strategies with a grain of salt. They work for me, but I don't know what to expect if you go off and try to plan things yourself."

Maggie flipped her phone closed and plucked Ilario's out of his hand so she could talk to Gianna. Ilario said, "Speaking of how you apparently have magic, Siobhan - what about Addy?"

Siobhan started ticking off fingers. "Could be going nearly anywhere, her motives aren't directly opposed to ours, and while she could be a combat threat if she joins up with the Volturi again, they're already so overwhelming in magical force that we should really, really avoid confronting them in direct combat terms anyway. Overall, I don't think she's the best place to focus our energies right now, at least not when we could all waste a couple of weeks just locating her."

"Addy has e-mail and I know the address," I piped up, not wanting to be scolded later for not mentioning this.

"And if she wanted us to know where she was going," Siobhan said, "she probably wouldn't have run away laughing her head off and jumped off the quay. She has the address of the house in Wexford; Maggie, if she looks, can she get your landline's number with that?" Maggie, still mid-conversation with Gianna, nodded. "If she wants to be in contact with us she can be," Siobhan said. "Forcing it would be, maybe not a waste of time, but at least something to put off until we've exhausted other productive things to do."

"More to the point," said Ilario, "she has the address of the house in Wexford, which means that if she wants, she can physically turn up at the house in Wexford. Gianna's completely dismal in a fight - is Molly in any - any danger?"

He, Maggie, and Siobhan all looked at me. I pursed my lips and thought. "I don't think so," I said carefully, tempted to claim not to know but suspecting Siobhan would scold me if I did. "She was telling the truth about not preferring to go after guarded prey... she doesn't eat kids normally, most vampires don't... I think she's probably going to avoid touching anyone she's not absolutely sure isn't a witch until she's done with your power, Siobhan, which could take a while, and she's not a hundred percent accurate trying to tell that sort of thing at range, so she might not want to risk it with Molly... and if she took her hostage that would only get her three really reluctant allies, she can probably get more help and more enthusiastic help somewhere else... so I don't think she'll want to hurt Molly."

"Maybe I should go home, just to be safe..." murmured Maggie, still holding Ilario's phone; Gianna had gone to attend to some need of Molly's. "Me and Gianna could hold off -"

"I don't think even you and Gianna and Ilario could beat Addy in a fight, Maggie," I said. "Especially if she went in with a power that's helpful at all - even though it'd only last until Maggie managed to touch her. It's not that she's interested in it particularly, but she's copied witches with fighting powers and wanted to try them out, and she's almost a thousand years old. Siobhan could probably beat her one on one, but..."

"Do you not think me and Gianna and Ilario could beat up Siobhan if we ganged up?" asked Maggie, sounding surprised.

I blinked. "Um, I remember Siobhan actually fighting all-out, and I'm not even slightly tempted to say anything besides hell no, not even without Liam helping, not even if Siobhan started out missing an arm."

"You have memories of that?" Siobhan asked.

I nodded. "The guy you let get away from Liam's old coven got in trouble later and Aro read him. He thought you had to be some kind of witch for sure - I guess he was right, but I wonder if your power applies in a fight?"

"I really wouldn't know," Siobhan said dryly. "I'm also older than Maggie and Gianna and Ilario put together a few times over, and probably a fair percentage of their combined weight to boot, and Maggie has noted that she's weaker since switching to an animal diet."

"The point is you are really really scary when you want somebody to die," I said, "doesn't matter why that is." Siobhan shrugged, conceding the point. "Um, Denali... if I just went in and announced it... I think... Kate would be the most likely to hold out."

"Kate, really?" asked Ilario, as Maggie's attention returned to her phone call with her mate. They were getting worse and worse at holding off on the mush.

I nodded. "Eleazar knows firsthand what my power does; he'd be even less able to doubt something true I said than anybody else. And as far as I can remember he's attached to thinking of the Volturi as good guys. That's got to be already wearing thin. If it went away completely and he couldn't believe it anymore, he'd be against them really solidly. Carmen only ever passively influences him, she doesn't try to argue with him if he's made up his mind about something - and she doesn't like the Volturi all that much in the first place. She'd be tempted to keep cooperating with them for David's sake but she'd obey Eleazar if he disagreed... and Eleazar's a nice person, but he was a Volturi for a long time, and he's... used to making sacrifices, even though he hates it. I think he might give up David if he were convinced the Volturi are bad and that there was no way to save him. Tanya was closest to Sasha and is closest to Carlisle now - I think she'd be especially angry about the frame job and especially willing to throw herself on her cousins' mercy for the betrayal."

"But Kate," said Siobhan.

"But Kate... would hate the idea that Sasha was manipulated like that for her sake. Kate likes being a witch. She likes being powerful. She throws it around sometimes, she can be smug. I think she would really, really hate it if she found out that her being a witch had hurt someone she loved. Even if her witchcraft isn't the reason Sasha died, it's why she was backed into the corner instead of just being killed on the spot when Aro caught up with her, and Sasha was really proud. If Kate weren't a witch then Aro wouldn't have bothered to make a deal."

"So she wouldn't be happy about it," said Maggie, "but according to you neither would Eleazar, right? What's the difference?"

"Kate is better at ignoring stuff she doesn't like," I said. "...I'm basing this all on a read on Kate that's almost a thousand years old, and what Irina saw, and the way these people acted around me when I was a baby. They could have changed -"

"Not much," said Siobhan. "These are vampires we're talking about. We can learn things, we can adapt to technology and changing borders and alliances, we can find mates... but the kinds of things you're talking about rarely change, once we turn. The basic personalities are stable. If Kate was the sort of person who was good at ignoring stuff she didn't like a thousand years ago, I'll bet you any sum you care to name that she still is."

"You don't carry money," I said, confused.

"Well, obviously, in the staggeringly unlikely event that I lost this bet which you'd be an idiot to take, I'd need to take the wallets off my next several meals," said Siobhan. "Anyway, go on."

I said, "I think Kate would figure I was telling the truth as I saw it. I don't think she's so good at ignoring things that she could outright ignore or disbelieve me if I was trying to convince her of something I know with this much certainty. But she could find some way to spin it so it had nothing to do with her, and I don't know how she'd do that, but it could wind up with her still on the Volturi's side. I could talk until I was hoarse about every perspective I have of the whole fiasco, tell her what Aro was thinking and Renata and Caius and anybody else who was involved, show her Vasilii's memories of meeting Sasha for the first time... and then she might have no choice but to come around... but she wouldn't let me go on that long."

"Blast her," said Maggie shortly, having bidden Gianna a reluctant goodbye so that their daughter could have her mamma's undivided attention during the bedtime routine. "That's fast, isn't it?"

"It's fast because there's no picking and choosing about what to send," I said. "And giving Kate too much could be as bad as giving her too little since she could distract herself with stuff that was easier to deal with."

Siobhan nodded, looking mildly approving - I decided this was probably about my usefulness rather than Kate's habits. "Okay. So Kate's a problem. How do we patch the problem that is Kate?"

I felt the temptation to pace, to imitate Siobhan. I kept still and closed my eyes again instead. "I could... just blast her, I guess. That'd at least put her in a position where she couldn't tip off the Volturi for a while, and then she'd be the lone holdout against everyone else in the house. She'd hate being the reason her family got into trouble, too, and might go along with it just so she wouldn't have to tell on them. She..." I yawned hugely.

"How much does being tired affect your thinking, Elspeth?" asked Siobhan, glancing at the dimness outside.

"Some," I said. "I don't know. How do you tell?"

"By testing it in less weighty circumstances than these," Siobhan said. "Jacob, are you back yet?" she called loudly.

"Don't have to yell," I heard his distant voice grumble. "On my way, just these stairs -"

"If you can't jump it, the banister will hold your weight," Siobhan said, a bit more quietly, "and you can climb up the destroyed part that way. Or you could go around and come in the same way we did the first time."

"I've got it, I've got it..." A moment later Jake was back with us, carrying a bag of what was probably food. "Hey, Elsie. Tired?" I yawned again, and he picked me up in his free arm and carried me away. "I found a couple rooms that didn't have anything more obviously awful in them than dust. Had to force the doors, but that should be okay. Just us and the friendly vampire mascots of the emerald isle in this building. And vengeful squatter ghosts, but I'll keep 'em off you, okay?"

"I don't think you'll let vengeful squatter ghosts get me," I agreed. Jake climbed another flight of stairs with me in tow, put me on a bed, and tucked me in. It took almost no time for me to fall asleep.