Chapter 46: Negotiator
"So do I call you "Princess Elspeth" now?" Jake asked, elbowing me in the ribs as we went down the stairs towards the tunnel to the village.
"I'm not sure," I said. "My mother might not wind up calling herself "queen". And there are fiddly technical details about who's a princess and who isn't, in various systems of nobility, so I might not count even if she does."
"She rules the world now," Jake said. "She can declare you a princess if she wants. And invent her own monarchy to technically make you one if she has to."
"Well, we beat the Volturi," I said slowly, "but it remains to be seen if she can hold on to the power... especially since she's not likely to be popular with vampires who want to go on eating people, and won't have access to Chelsea's power forever. Maybe even some of the people who helped us in the rebellion wouldn't like the idea of her being queen when they think about it."
Jake dropped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me a little closer. We reached the mouth of the tunnel and started along it. "That might put you in danger, if people are trying to get at her..."
"That's probably one of the billion things she's trying to figure out now," I said.
"I'm not sure if I dare go to sleep," he said, only half-joking.
"Tonight will probably be safe," I opined. "We'll be in the village overnight and someone would notice and make a fuss if a random vampire tried to come in, and word won't have gotten out everywhere for a while. Tomorrow my mother will probably have an idea about how to deal with the problem. And we're not going to be out of my father's range."
We got to the border of the village. Leah and Collin were both standing watch, in wolf form - representatives of Rachel's pack and Becky's respectively, to propagate information instantly through the population if something happened. They didn't growl at us, but they didn't stand aside, either.
"Hi, Leah, Collin, and whoever else is listening," I said, vaguely sheepish. "Um, we won. Can we come in so I can tell everybody about it?"
Rachel, in uniform, appeared between the two wolves a moment later; Becky turned up shortly after her sister. "Can you," Rachel asked, raising an eyebrow, "elaborate at all?"
"Sure, um," and I hit both alpha women with a quickly improvised summary, on the theory that they were both adults and, outside of wolf form, wouldn't telepathically leak anything to the younger wolves. Leah and Collin made mildly puzzled faces, presumably about being left out, but didn't otherwise react.
"Your room is still open," said Rachel after a couple of minutes. "You're going to be out for the day soon, aren't you? You can crash there."
"Thank you," I said.
"We need to decide what to do next," Becky murmured.
Rachel nodded, once, and gave Jake an appraising look. "We all do."
Jake tucked me into my old bed. "Won't be able to catch a front row seat to Elspeth's Brain Theater tonight," he sighed, "have to go wolf to telepathically confer with the extended relations about everything, but I can stay here by you in case something does happen. I'll be up all night anyway, most likely."
"Okay," I yawned, and I relaxed, burrowing into my pillow.
The next morning, Jake was still sitting by my bed, still awake (if slightly droopy) and still wolf-shaped. He was making faces, insofar as he was able, reacting to the conversation.
"Can I get caught up?" I asked. Jake nodded, but instead of shifting to explain what was going on to me, he got to his feet and led me through the village to the assembly room. Many of the wolves were there, although some of the younger ones and all of the imprinted men were absent. Also in attendance were both of my parents. My father appeared to be feeding my mother a rapid-fire summary of everything the wolves thought so she could follow what was going on, in place of a cumbersome mechanism where the wolves phased and unphased to think together and communicate.
"So what'd I miss?" I asked, going up to my mother and father.
"Almost nothing," my mother said, manifestly frustrated. "We've got more factions here than we have feasible packs, and one thing they can mostly agree on is that packs should stick together... so the opportunity to split up is limited. At about two a.m. we narrowed it down to four different things people wanted to do, and Leah had the reasonably clever idea of trying to turn Embry into a fourth pack leader since one of the three likely candidates for his unidentified father was Billy Black, which would presumably mean he could be an alpha like Rachel, Becky, and Jacob, but it didn't work."
"What are the four groups?" I asked.
"A bunch of them want to stay here, minus the military operations," she said, ticking off a finger. "I'd be willing to maintain their budget as reparations, and I don't have anything else in mind for the village structure, so that would be fine with me. A bunch of them want to go to La Push and rebuild the old Quileute town. Potential legal awkwardness, but also fine; we can co-opt the contacts the Volturi had to make things go smoothly with human authorities, and I intend to start peeling back the masquerade in general. A few of them have a taste for beating up "bad vampires" and want to be a branch of my military, wherever I wind up installing myself. I'm not going to complain about that. And a few of them want to travel the world, sort of like Jacob's pack was doing before, which is... problematic, without Pera accompanying them, without routine larceny, and considering how much I expect to rely on Alice."
"Well, you're queen of the world; can't you just say that the first three things are fine and one alpha can take a pack to do each of them and ban the last one?" I said.
"Actually, I decided to call myself Empress Regnant, in a fit of self-indulgence," my mother said. "And I'm contemplating a gold-based theme for the rest of the necessary terminology - you know, because of the eyes. Golden Coven, Gold Empire, etcetera. Anyway. I don't want to push the wolves around like that until I'm confident we can't find a consensus of some kind."
"What are the alphas thinking?" I asked.
"Becky thinks I should rule out of Volterra, so a single pack can cover the ones who want to work for me and the ones who just want to live here," she said, "and thinks that this single pack should be Jake's, so she and anyone else who wants to join her can go to La Push. The trouble with that is that I'm not enthusiastic about ruling from Volterra, although I'll cave on that if I need to. Rachel's personally inclined towards wandering the earth but is willing to head a pack anywhere necessary if we can just work out what they're all supposed to do. Jake wants to stick with you, and I'd like to keep you close by us unless you have some overwhelming objection."
"I don't, I guess," I said, putting a hand on Jake's shoulder. My hand sank into rusty brown fur halfway up my forearm. "It's probably safer. Who besides Rachel wants to wander the earth?" My father listed a handful of wolves, all unimprinted. "What exactly do they want to do while wandering the earth?"
"I have the same question," my mother muttered. "I'm not interested in funding something that inconvenient. They have no plans for supporting themselves if they want anything they can't hunt for, let alone plans for remaining inconspicuous in accordance with a gradual, non-panic-inducing demystification of the supernatural to the general population."
"Is Pera going to help you?" I asked, an idea forming.
"Jasper calmed her down enough to let her consider the idea," my mother said, "after Addy... helped... him and Alice and your daddy with Chelsea's power. She'll work for me, but she doesn't want to interact with me directly any more than she has to."
"Addy copied Chelsea's power? Does that mean she was done with Alec's?" I asked.
"It means that we've got Alec working for us, although Addy did need to snip him away from Jane, and now he's anesthetizing the remaining bits and pieces while I'm here so Addy's freed up to do other things," my mother said, not making eye contact. "Anyway, yes, Pera's helping, is willing to at least attempt vegetarianism, and can be deployed but is not to be invited over for the Christmas party. What's your idea?"
"Well," I said, "you're going to need to start enforcing the vegetarianism thing. You can get the news out by just having Dwi, or Addy borrowing his power, tell everyone we're collectively aware of that there's a new regime in town, and wait for it to spread by word of mouth. But that doesn't handle enforcement. Pera could hide the wolves and travel with them, and they could back her up and scout and stuff looking for anybody breaking the rules while they run around, but they wouldn't have to actually be military-ish because Pera can take apart anybody she wants all by herself. You could pay them to do that, and Pera wouldn't have to be around you and they'd get to travel inconspicuously and with economic support."
My mother tilted her head thoughtfully. "It's an option. The problem is that I was hoping to keep Pera local to wherever we wind up so she can hide people I need to sentence to prolonged imprisonment but don't want to kill. Or my justice department sentences to prolonged imprisonment. I haven't decided yet how I'm going to organize internal affairs."
"The cohort that wants to travel isn't particularly interested in doing enforcement even on that level, anyway," my father said.
My mother chewed on her lip a little, then shook her head. "This hasn't gone anywhere significant in the last several hours, I imagine the wolves are all very tired from their all-nighter, and I've got more Volturi to sort through and an administration to organize. Let's pick up here in, say, ten hours after you guys are all caught up on sleep?" She gestured expansively at the groggy wolves. Rachel and Becky both nodded, and the packs dispersed. Jake nudged me affectionately in the back with his forehead, then trotted off himself.
"Want to come witness the historical moment?" my mother asked me, and I shrugged and followed her and my father out of the village.
Alec was in the throne room, sitting on the chair that used to belong to Caius. Every now and then he turned his gaze from his still-dismantled former covenmates to the throne, as though to confirm that he was really sitting in Caius's chair, but he always returned his attention to maintaining the knockout aura over the prisoners a moment later. His eyes had gone gold - Addy must have made another trip in to bring animals overnight - but otherwise he looked like I remembered, albeit having sustained some hair damage. Deceptively youthful, a distant and neutral expression on his face, very like a calmer and thinner-lipped Jane. I skirted the cluster of pieces to avoid falling in myself.
"Hi," I said to Alec, helping myself to Athenodora's chair. "...How are you doing?"
"I guess I'm okay," he said in a low voice.
"Really?" My mother walked into the middle of his affected area, unhindered, and picked up a piece of someone, which she brought over to Addy and poked her with before tossing it back where it had come from. I thought it was probably Dwi, whose power would let Addy carry on bidirectionally telepathic conversations with the remnants of the Volturi to determine who could and could not be salvaged.
"I guess," he repeated.
"How did my mother convince you to work for her?" I asked.
"What else would I do?" Alec said.
"What do you mean? Whatever else, as long as it didn't involve killing people," I said.
"If I said no when she asked me to work for her," Alec said, "maybe she'd let me go - maybe, if I convinced her and her mate I would eat animals and not make trouble - but someone else would recognize me eventually and want to hurt me. I was almost as feared as Jane."
"You could protect yourself, though..."
He shook his head, keeping his eyes fixed on his old covenmates. "Jane was fast with her power. I'm not fast. A coven coming from several directions could get me if I were on my own. Or one person who was quick enough or good enough at hiding or had a power that could get around or through mine." He glanced my way. "And I don't think your mom - I mean, um, Her Imperial Majesty? I'm not sure what I'm supposed to call her... I don't think she'd want to send me out to go off independently with covenmates who could keep me safe. I'd be a threat that way. She might look the other way if those Romanians wanted me dead, or something. If I work for her she'll keep me safe."
"Oh," I murmured.
"And even if nobody would want to hurt me," he said, "I don't have any practice being on my own. I never have been."
"Jane," I said.
"Her," he agreed, "but not just her, after we turned. The whole coven."
"Some of them will probably help us, like you," I said. "And you can make new friends too."
"Probably," he said. He sighed. "I let Addy make me not miss Jane. I got the option. It was... easier, I guess, and missing her wouldn't bring her back, and if I want Her Imperial Majesty to trust me it was probably the safe bet... But I miss missing her."
"I'm not sure I understand," I said. I could think of possibly-similar cases to compare against, but it would be faster to let him explain.
"I'm not sure I do either." He pursed his lips, then said, "I don't think I know how not to be a twin. A non-dominant twin. I don't know what to do with myself if not follow Jane around and help her and make her happy."
I had the oddest temptation to ruffle his hair - he still had most of it, and there was plenty to ruffle - but I refrained; I knew he didn't like people other than Jane to touch him. (I wondered how long that would last without Jane around.) "Maybe you'll find a mate soon, or something," I suggested.
"I don't think so," he said, lacing his fingers together and leaning his elbows on his knees. "I think we're - I think I was turned too young. It's been a long time."
"Stefan and Vladimir are both way older than you and were turned as adults and they've never found mates," I pointed out.
He shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. I'm not going to count on it, though. I've met lots of people." Then he looked at me again and tilted his head. "Am I supposed to call you Your Imperial Highness, or something?"
"I'm not sure if I'm even technically a princess," I began.
"You can be a princess, Elspeth," my mother said, interrupting her exchange with Addy to call across the room to me. "Imperial Highness would be the style, but you don't have to go by it if you don't want to. And Alec, outside of formal contexts to be specified in the future, you can call me Bella."
"Call me Elspeth," I told Alec.
"Okay," he said, nodding once. He turned back to his work.
I got up and walked over to where my parents were standing with Addy. "Were any other titles picked out?" I asked.
"Addy has invented for herself the title "Imperial Factotum", and your daddy is an Emperor Consort," my mother said. "That's all, at least so far."
"Where's everybody else?" I asked.
"Scattered throughout the compound," my mother replied. "A few of them went out and about overnight but they're all back now. The ones who haven't eaten their first animals yet are still not pleased about the close quarters. Alistair will probably return home soon to get away from all the people, and I expect to shed most of the other Brits that way too - they're not as close to the core group. I'm not yet sure who all will stick around as part of the new administration beyond that."
I nodded, and then I had an idea. "Mama, I want to go visit the blast victims and see if I can help them somehow."
"Are they likely to let you into the hospital?" she asked. "Also, I'm not sure if you should go wandering around Volterra by yourself. If Jacob weren't asleep I'd send him with you, but he and all the wolves are in bed, and it's broad daylight..."
"I could bring Cody," I suggested. "He'd be awake, and he isn't sparkly."
"The point isn't company, it's safety, and Cody's less useful in a fight than you are... That said, everyone who might attack you while we've got everything buttoned up here hasn't been blasted yet, since the former Volturi aren't going anywhere and I'm keeping an eye on Addy. And if we do lose control of things here somehow it would be better for you to be out of harm's way anyway." She bit her lip and looked at me, scrutinizing. "Take your phone, check in every half an hour or so," she said, "but go ahead. If they don't let you in, come back and we'll try something more elaborate after sundown."
"Thanks," I said, and went to find the hospital.
Addy hadn't told me exactly where the blast victims were, but there was only one plausible facility within my father's range even if I assumed all the thoughts in question counted as familiar voices. I walked there, pushed open the front door, and waited in line for the receptionist. When I got up to her desk, I said, "Excuse me, I heard that there were six psychiatric patients with unusual symptoms here. I'd like to -"
"I'm sorry, miss, but we've had an awful lot of gawkers here trying to see them, and unless you're related to one of them, I can't let you in to visit," she said.
"My interest is... professional," I said, choosing my words carefully. "I'm not a relative, but I'm not some random person off the street who wants to stare, either. I've seen symptoms like theirs before, although not so prolonged."
She raised an eyebrow at me. "You look seventeen."
"You're more than a decade off," I told her.
"Oh, my. Um. I'm sorry. You're a psychiatrist?" she asked.
"I remember med school like it was yesterday." Magic twinged, but didn't outright itch; this was back in the familiar territory of out-of-context, misleading truth, and she was a little cooperative there, if not completely so.
The receptionist blinked at me, and said, "Let me call down Dr. Valenti."
I talked my way past Dr. Valenti, too, who let me into the room where they were keeping the six blast victims during the day and stood in the doorway to supervise.
They were four men and two women, and while they all seemed physically fine, no two of them were speaking the same language, and most of them didn't seem aware of their surroundings, instead slouching in their respective chairs and reciting the inner monologues of vampires (only vampires, no humans - I wondered why) read long ago. The two who were awake enough to notice my entrance were one of the men - who started shouting angrily in Old English, using mannerisms that I identified as belonging to a long-dead vampire named John killed six years after his creation for turning an immortal child. They even looked alike. Also apparently lucid was one of the women, who didn't speak at all, but looked at me with troubled, dark eyes. She looked familiar too, but then, nearly everyone did, with all the different faces I remembered to compare to. Since she wasn't talking, I turned to the other "awake" patient.
"Hello," I said, switching to Old English to address the man, and conveniently avoid Dr. Valenti being able to effectively eavesdrop. "Do you know where you are?"
"Finally! No one here will speak a sane language!" he exclaimed. "And there are arcane devices everywhere! I have tried to learn what they are saying, but I cannot hold the memories properly! And besides that, I am weak and slow and have been eating food! Some witch has done something to turn me into a human! I demand that this be fixed immediately!" Dr. Valenti made an intrigued sound and stared, but didn't interrupt.
I blinked. "Who are you?" I asked the blast victim slowly, almost asking who he thought he was but deciding that was unnecessary and rude.
"My name is John," he said. "Who are you? You don't look like a vampire with those brown eyes, but not quite human either..."
"My name is Elspeth. Do you remember anything unusual happening, about two weeks ago?" I said.
"I was telling that bastard Aro to stay the hell away from Anne," he said, referring to the immortal child the vampire he thought he was had been executed for turning - his actual daughter, who'd been dying of the flu at age nine when he bit her. "Then I was in some kind of delirious stupor for - I don't know how long; I can't count time normally anymore - but some kind of stupor, several days at least, but then I looked in a mirror here and remembered who I was and noticed I'd been turned human!"
"So you were confused about who you were until you looked in a mirror?" I asked slowly.
"Yes, I was. As though I could have been any of a thousand people, but had to check. But it was obvious once I saw."
I looked at him. He didn't look exactly like John, even exactly like John had been as a human. His hair was different - John had worn it long - and he had better teeth (although not as good as a vampire's teeth), and his skin was a shade darker. But the facial features were close enough that I could imagine that a mind with no idea who it was would latch onto the identity.
But I could think of half a dozen other people Aro had read who looked at least as much like the man in front of me as John had. Five humans, and one vampire who'd been read at the age of a hundred and was - as far as I knew - still alive. I wasn't sure what would make John's memories be the ones to stick, while the human memories and the other vampire's didn't. "Do you remember anything else?" I asked. "Besides being - yourself?"
He - I decided to call him "John" in my head for lack of a better idea; he certainly wouldn't answer to whatever name his body had come with - shook his head. "Nothing else. Even my own memories won't stick properly. I know I used to have a perfect memory - but I'm forgetting things -"
"Things from when you were a vampire?" I asked.
He nodded, a concerned frown twisting his face. "Some of them. Not important things, not like Anne or my own name - they keep calling me "Benito" for some reason here, if I'm following what they say well enough to figure that out - but some things. Do you know someone who can turn me back?" he asked. "Or where Anne is? Is Anne okay?"
"...Maybe we can get you turned, um, back. I'll need to talk to, um, the Empress Regnant." Anne had died in 1754, one of the immortal children Aro had kept around in the hopes that they could be controlled, but had been disposed of with the rest when he gave up on the project. Magic itched at me, but I didn't want to tell him before he understood what had happened to him, and I wasn't sure what that was myself.
"The Volturi were overthrown, um... yesterday," I said, finding it remarkably awkward to talk about such momentous events on such a short time scale. It was so much easier to talk about revolutions that happened centuries past. "Now there's an Empress instead. I'll talk to her about you."
"They're gone?" he asked, blinking. "All of them?"
"Aro and Caius and their wives are," I said. "Marcus is still alive -"
I felt a hand on my arm, and turned to see the quiet female patient, who'd gotten up and crossed the room to approach me. Her eyes were wide, and there was a trace of a smile on her face, in contrast to the lost, watchful look she'd worn earlier.
I realized who she most closely resembled. Who she would have thought she was, if she looked in a mirror.
Speaking Hellenistic Ancient Greek, Didyme asked, "Did you say Marcus?"