Chapter 48: Healer
Shortly after, my mother called me and told me to come back to the compound. I was getting tired, so I excused myself to Didyme and John and Dr. Valenti. Addy avoided touching me - probably thought she'd find lying and mindreading useful, reasonably enough - and stayed behind to wrangle the mnemically disordered and their caretakers.
I stopped in the throne room to see what was going on. All of the fragments of Volturi were gone from the floor, either turned to ash or reconstructed as participants in the new order; Alec was gone too. My mother was arguing, although not particularly heatedly, with Siobhan. Their respective mates were there, but not participating in the conversation; my father had his hand linked with my mother's but appeared distracted, and occasionally muttered something about the goings-on he was listening to.
"- acknowledge that you were indispensable," my mother said. "I acknowledge that you didn't have to let me step up, that you could have done so yourself, and that you probably still could if you decided to. And that's why I'm offering the compromise conditional on you trying one meal of animal blood. You have the blast memories; you're in a better position than I am, even, to guess that it has beneficial cognitive effects."
"To guess, sure," said Siobhan. "It's not exactly conclusive."
"It's a small sample size," allowed my mother, "but I don't think I'm asking much. One meal. Enough to turn your eyes gold. See if you think it's worth the tradeoff. If you don't, I'm prepared to consider you sufficiently self-controlled even on a human blood diet that I'll give you dispensation to get it in a less sentient package. Ransack whatever the Irish equivalent of the Red Cross is, if you decide that you'd prefer to go on living in Ireland after all regardless of where I set up. But I think it was fairly predictable that I wouldn't be allowing murder."
"And Liam?" Siobhan inquired, arching an eyebrow.
"Same deal. I remand him to your custody, so to speak," my mother said with a dry sigh. "I suppose there's no reason in principle you couldn't have different diets, but - yeah. Same deal."
"And if I don't like this deal?" Siobhan asked. She didn't sound challenging, exactly - she was just going through her options, all of them.
"Then I guess you can try to take me and my fledgling empire down, and I get to see how my new bodyguard is going to work out in practice," my mother said, staring up unblinking into Siobhan's eyes.
"Your who? You don't mean Edward, do you?" Siobhan asked.
"No. Elsie, would you come here?" my mother called over to me. "And it's not Elspeth, either, if that's what you're thinking," she added. "I know Elspeth can't take you down now that you're already blasted." I went over to the group, and my mother put her hand on my shoulder.
I noticed that Allirea was standing there.
I blinked at Allirea, who realized that I'd gone under my mother's shield. "Oh, hello," she said. "Yes, I have this job now. Don't look at me," she added, moving around to stand behind her new employer.
I boggled for a moment, then turned to Siobhan and said, "It would be a bad idea to attack her. You wouldn't win. If I tried to explain why it wouldn't make sense to you, but it's true."
Siobhan took in this information with puzzlement, but nodded, slowly. "One meal," she said, holding up her index finger.
My mother nodded and, to her credit, didn't even look especially smug as Siobhan and Liam left the room.
"Mama, how did you get her to take the job?" I asked.
"Asked nicely, and promised not to acknowledge her existence when it isn't necessary," my mother said. "There will be a gap in coverage, so to speak, when she catches up with her family. I can fill in with Renata if it seems necessary then. But she's agreed to stick around while I handle... things like that, early on. I might call on you to vouch for her existence a few more times in the coming days."
"Okay," I said, and I looked at the clean floor, free of ash-pile hints. "Who lived and who died?"
"Alec, Renata, Santiago, Dwi, Emel, Zafrina, Benjamin and Tia, and Vasanti and Mehul were all willing to take jobs in the Empire; I'll figure out exactly what they all do when I draw up an org chart. Corin's dead, Heidi's dead, Felix and the other non-witch miscellaneous guards are dead, Charles and Emere and Li-qing and Pyotr are dead, Taamusi and Valdis are dead. Abdelmajid, Hao and Kazuo, and Sukutai and Okey don't want Empire employment but convinced us they wouldn't stir up anything untoward if let to go free, so we did."
"What about the people we brought with us?" I asked.
"Wait for the org chart," my mother advised.
"Okay," I yawned. "I think I'll go to bed now."
My mother stroked my hair. "Sleep well."
I found Jake in our room, in wolf form but asleep in the living area. I went around him, tucked myself in, and nodded off.
When I woke up the next morning, Jake was awake too, and not wolf-shaped anymore. "Morning, Elsie," he said when I sat up in bed. "We've got a wolf-related verdict."
"Yeah?" I asked, hopping up and going to sit at our table. "What is it?"
"I'm going to head up the pack that works for your mom," he said. "I think you could've called that one in advance, right? Becky's going to lead the group that wants to go to La Push like she does. And Rachel and the ones who wanted to travel to random places finally backed off, and Rachel's going to stay here."
"Who's going where, among the non-alphas?" I asked.
"It's not set in stone," Jake said. "But it looks like the wolves with Quileute or Makah imprints, plus Darren since Thea came from Forks, are mostly going back to La Push, and the wolves with Italian imprints are staying here, and the ones without imprints are mostly defaulting to working for your mom unless they follow a brother or similar elsewhere - like, Paul and Harriet might stay here because Miles is staying here because of Esta."
"What about the orphan puppies?" I asked slowly.
"Well, before, they were just raised communally, because of the whole "we are all friends here" enforced vibe of togetherness," said Jake. "So it's not clear who they belong to if not all of the wolves and imprints as a group. I think some people might semi-formally adopt one or two apiece and take them along wherever. Or Rachel's pack might just raise them together, here, so they don't have to get uprooted again. Or some combination. For that matter some of the younger wolves are still really young, thirteen and fourteen and fifteen, but I guess they'll just fold into the packs and go where they want like everyone else... there was already a fair amount of mentoring going on, really."
"Where's Cody going?"
"With his brother and sister," Jake replied. "Last I heard they were leaning towards going back to La Push, but they might change their minds, I'm not sure."
"I'll probably visit Forks sooner or later," I said, leaning my chin on my wrists on the table. "To meet my grandfather."
"I remember him," remarked Jake. "He's a good guy."
"I just hope that, you know, everything that happened back then didn't wreck him," I said. "His best friends died and he thought my mom died too, and he knew Carlisle and Esme and Rosalie and Emmett were taking care of me, but then as far as he knew I disappeared and might be dead too. My grandma Renée doesn't even know I was ever born. She thinks my mom died while pregnant with me."
"Your mom was never pregnant," Jake said.
"Yeah, but she said she was, to grandma Renée, since she didn't know about vampires and stuff. When I was a newborn I got dozens of pictures taken of me every day, so they could send them to her later when they would make sense according to the timeline they gave her. I think now we're probably going to tell her everything. Probably her husband Phil, too."
"Do you have any idea where your mom is going to rule from?" he asked.
"Not sure," I said. "I don't think it'll be here, but I don't know where else it would be."
"What do you suppose the odds are on a volcano fortress?" he laughed.
"Better than you might think, with Benjamin on the team," I giggled. "I think me and you and your pack will probably live in a village-like extension of the volcano fortress or other center of the empire, though, since I'd bet anything Alice will be helping."
"Aw. The mere suburbs of the volcano fortress. Oh well." He grinned at me. "Hey, Your Imperial Highness, do you think I get a fancy title too?"
"If you want one?" I guessed. "I think those are mostly just for fun. Or at least they are now. They might accumulate some gravitas in the next fifty or a hundred years."
"Hmm," he said, thoughtfully stroking his chin. "Oh well, I'll think on that. You want breakfast?"
"Very much," I said, and we went to the comfortable, familiar, now-with-100%-less-brainwashing village cafeteria.
After breakfast, which was dinner for Jake as he'd been up all night again, I spent the morning standing near my mother as she made it clear, through my honesty voice, to various people that they really didn't want to try to attack her. Soon after, she fetched Renata and was only seen in her company for the rest of the day.
Noonish, the wolves with local imprints went out into the world to find the imprints' families. They were, by and large, still affected by Chelsea's lingering work, telling them that those families weren't interesting enough to be worth contacting, but they were able to appreciate the idea that it would be good to let their children meet their grandparents and aunts and uncles and so on.
My mother had given them all permission to tell the immediate relatives of the imprints everything. She'd given a whole general address about the subject of what she called "peeling back the Masquerade". Everybody already "informed of things" (Jake snickered almost interminably at this for some reason) could get permission to disclose said things to people they knew, and although they were still expected to be "reasonably discreet" under other circumstances, hiding from individuals was to be deemphasized in favor of hiding from mobs.
My mother planned to set up something suitably bureaucratic to turn people at a manageable rate once the knowledge was freely available ("we can't just go around turning everyone," she said, "or even everyone who asks, as appealing as that is; we'll give priority to witches, people who are imminently dying, and people with a personal "in", and relax the requirements as we develop the infrastructure to handle it"). I overheard Alice muttering to herself about how she should call Genevieve and tell her that it was safe to go home.
"We're going to tell Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Renée everything, right?" I asked my mother after her speech was over and the wolves with Italian imprints - their small puppies in tow - had departed. "At some point?"
"Yes," she said. "I want to do that in person - I think we'll accompany Becky's pack to La Push, stop by Charlie's house from there, and then fly to Jacksonville, before settling in to do our new jobs in earnest. I'd really like to turn them both, but Charlie already turned me down once... not sure about Renée. Or Phil."
"Where are we going to settle in?" I asked.
"I haven't decided yet," my mother said. "I'm considering having multiple capitals, so we can move around readily, but where exactly they should be I'm unsure."
"Can one of them be a volcano fortress?" I asked.
My mother appeared to give this idea serious consideration, then said, "No, I don't think so. A volcanic eruption is on the short list of things that can kill a vampire, so it seems like a bad idea. Someone from a volcano observatory might also notice us. As soon as keeping a supply line going is feasible, though, I'll put a capital on the moon; how's that?"
"Sounds good," I said, giggling, although I believed her to be entirely sincere.
That afternoon, Addy called in to say that the hospital had gotten ahold of all of the blast victims' families, and convinced all of them to permit the transfer to our "specialist facility".
"We don't actually have a specialist facility," I pointed out. "The patients' families might notice the next time they want to visit."
"I think we need to induct all the victims' families into the mysteries, so to speak," my mother said. "It doesn't sit right to leave them unaware of what's going on. I think we should re-paint Heidi's bus to transfer the patients in a visibly legitimate manner, and then contact the families and invite them to visiting hours or something, and explain then."
"Addy is on her way here now," my father said.
"We'll have her do the pickup," my mother replied. "Elspeth, if you'd go along, I think it would be useful to have you there."
It made me a little queasy to think of Heidi's bus, historically used to transport the Volturi's meals, carrying people ever again. But it was a perfectly good bus, and there were paint and stencils intended for the exact purpose of making it look like it belonged to various organizations to deflect suspicion. I waited in the garage with Addy, while Rosalie re-lettered the side of the vehicle. Rosalie had been parked in the garage like she was a car herself since we'd taken over, oohing and aahing over all the vehicles. There weren't that many of them, considering, but there were more than the average garage in a Cullen house contained.
When the repainting job was complete, Addy drove me to the hospital, and we collected our patients via elaborate rigmarole necessary to conceal our strength. Didyme and John were convinced to walk in under their own power.
"Are you taking me to Marcus?" Didyme asked me when Addy started up the bus again.
"...Yes, we're going to where he lives," I said. "I don't think you'll be able to see him immediately. We probably need to talk to Paola's family first."
"I will talk to them if I need to - although I will need translation, at least until I'm turned again and can easily learn the language here - but why must I wait before I can see Marcus?" she asked.
"Well, I'm not sure if you do," I said. "You'll need to talk to the Empress. She'll be the one deciding that." Didyme sighed and gazed out the window at passing buildings.
"I want a chance to take Edward's power before Marcus lays eyes on her," Addy said. "I want to watch that happen, if it happens, through his eyes. That's not something you see every day."
"I'll want a copy," I agreed.
"Sure thing. Incidentally, if your mother chooses to disclose to their relatives who's responsible for their condition, you might want to warn them that they'll only break their hands if they punch me in the face," Addy said.
"Um, right," I said. "...Did you tell Didyme and John about that?"
"No, it didn't seem prudent. Although I was sort of surprised that you didn't," Addy said.
"I didn't want them making scenes in the hospital," I said. "I guess I'll tell them when we get there if my mom doesn't say I shouldn't."
"Well," she said, pulling into the compound garage, "here we are."
We escorted the mnemic disorder patients into the first floor rooms my mother had set aside for their use (they were equipped for the humans the Volturi had occasionally employed, like Gianna). "The Empress should be here any minute," I told Didyme and then John. "We'll stick around to translate."
Sure enough, my parents were both there a couple of seconds later. By unspoken agreement, I translated for Didyme and Addy did the same for John.
"I want to see Marcus," Didyme said immediately.
"You will," my mother said. "However, there's a few things I want to cover first. One, now that I'm in charge, it is not acceptable for vampires to eat humans. I understand Addy already explained that to you."
"She said you eat animals," John said. "It sounds repulsive."
"Be that as it may," she said, "if you want to drink blood at all ever "again", you'll reconcile yourself to the situation. This is my mate. He reads minds." She pointed at my father with her thumb. "For future reference."
"I didn't know it was possible for us to live that way," marveled Didyme. She paused, and said, "I mean, you."
"It is," my mother said. "Side effects include pretty eyes and less of an impulse to murder people. Second thing. Didyme?"
"Yes?" said Didyme.
"I will also require your mindreading-verified word that you will not in any way, shape, or form encourage Marcus to try to upset the new power structure," my mother went on, "in the event that you are... sufficiently yourself to render him more functional than he presently is. Since he was one of the ruling order the last time around, I'm more than a little concerned about the possibility. He's not a threat without you. He might be with you."
Didyme blinked rapidly. "I never wanted to rule the world," she said. "I wanted to leave with Marcus..."
"Well, Marcus might require a layer of spackle before he can go out, even at night," my mother murmured, glancing at my father. He nodded once, confirming that Didyme did not appear to have any aspirations for world domination. "But, understood." I was obliged to translate this oddly due to the lack of spackle in ancient Greece, which I thought was just as well; I'd already warned Didyme about Marcus's cosmetic alterations.
"Can I see him now, please?" said Didyme.
My mother regarded her, then finally said, "Elspeth, would you go tell him to put his eyes in and come down here?"
I nodded and went looking for him. He was up in his room in one of the towers, too far away to have heard our conversation (or I would have expected him to turn up as soon as Didyme's name was uttered). "Marcus?" I said, leaning into the room; the door was open.
"Yes?" he asked, not turning around; there was no reason for him to, without his eyes located in his head.
"You should put your eyes in and come downstairs," I said. "There's something you're going to want to see."
Later, Addy showed me what she had read from Marcus:
The girl - the princess - approaches my room. She's the first person to disturb me all day. I've been left alone, and the solitude is welcome, and I don't have to stare at it. I know it's there. I know her absence. But I don't have to see it.
I see nothing.
The little princess comes in. "Marcus?" she says.
"You should put your eyes in and come downstairs," she says (damnation!). "There's something you're going to want to see."
I don't want to believe her, but she does know me, doesn't she? With everything she received by way of Addy, by way of Aro? And she sounds truthful in that way she has.
It's an old agony, anyway, and another minute or two will be little enough compared to the millennia behind me.
I fetch my eyes from the box I put them in. As soon as the box is open I can see the ribbon. The wretched, mutilated ribbon, mocking in its color that ought to belong only to whole and undamaged connections...
The one who did it is dead. I can hold my sanity if I remember that.
I believed that before, too... but I think I know better, now.
I put my eyes where they grew, and hold them there while they heal in place, and follow the little princess down the stairs. As we descend, approaching others, new relationships become visible emanating from her in bright twists of light. I read them, to take my mind off the shredded ribbon as best I can.
I can't see her connection to her mother - I can't see anything attached to her mother - but I can see benign drab disinterest from her leading to her father, and the blocky, obviously artificial, but robust red-gold paternal affection (almost their shared hair color) from him to her. Addy's work, voluntarily carried out with Chelsea's power, and perhaps it doesn't matter to anyone that it didn't grow that way. And between the princess and Addy herself, sea-green shot through with cobalt wrapped in a milky sheen: mutual acknowledgement of usefulness, they enjoy each other's company, but there's mistrust. On both sides. I might not have guessed that without looking.
My white symbol of pain flutters in an imaginary wind.
"There are humans down there," the little princess warns. "Don't... don't hurt them. Be careful." I am already aware of this new law, and more than old enough to have mastered my instincts. I don't know why she mentioned it.
And we get closer, and round the corner, and from the little princess there's an anxious, uncertain swirl of fuchsia towards -
She resembles her - but subtle differences - and human, with a heartbeat, with brown eyes, with flushed skin, but -
Disbelief melts away when the ribbon repairs itself before my eyes and wraps around her like a cloak.
It's not complete. It's not symmetrical, she doesn't have a ribbon of her own. Somehow she's human - somehow reborn - and humans don't produce those ribbons. I've seen the wrapping phenomenon before. I saw it from the new Emperor, for one - towards his mate when she was human, and hadn't begun to screen me out yet.
I've seen it in myself before, when I went to look at Aro's sister as she turned, and I waited for her to wake.
Every moment of pain, every fraction of a second that crawled by in despair as I stared at the flailing ribbon, is redeemed.
The ribbon is not complete - not yet - but it is healed.
She's smiling at me, smiling in that exact way, but as I look at her she seems uncertain - did she think I wouldn't recognize her? - what has happened?
"Didyme," I say, aloud, and she beams and steps into my arms...
After Marcus said her name aloud, Didyme abandoned the tentative, wait-and-see attitude she'd adopted and pitched forward. Marcus held her, but like she was made of tissue paper, careful not to do damage. "How?" he breathed after a silence.
I sent him a summary, not wanting to ruin the moment with further words.
Marcus and Didyme stood together, swaying faintly, and for the first time in more than two thousand years, Marcus smiled.