Chapter 11: Volterra

I wondered, as I started to see signs for the airport out the window, how vampires got through airport security. It seemed unlikely that security scanning machines and the like would react normally to them.

By the time I was on the jet that James picked out, I still didn't know how the Cullens would manage, but James did it by sneaking us into the baggage compartment. He killed a man to do it. He didn't eat him. I wasn't sure if he was full, or thought it would be too obvious, or didn't want to drop into hunting mode and accidentally turn me into dessert; but he just clobbered the guy over the head with a suitcase and then arranged the scenario to make it look like the corpse had accidentally dropped the luggage onto his own head. No blood.

I spent the duration of the murder crouching inside the luggage cart that James's victim had been driving. I knew James would at least hurt me, and likely kill me, if I tried to escape - and besides, the only people who I'd find useful rescuers wouldn't be confused by my hiding place. They'd be able to smell or hear me anyway.

Traveling in the baggage compartment of an airplane was not fun. I complained softly of hunger and thirst, and James was able to find a packed lunch and water bottle with his superior sense of smell. From the look of the bag he retrieved it from, it had been intended as a carry-on and just barely exceeded the size limit. He didn't look thrilled about having to feed me, but didn't complain about it either.

I ate it, and it tided me over until the plane arrived in New York, where we had to change flights. James didn't kill anyone this time. He stole a long hooded coat from someone's garment bag to hide under (dawn was underway on the east coast) and loosened the latches on the door to the belly of the airplane; when we were a hundred feet off the ground, he kicked the door open casually, seized me, and fell gracefully to the ground in a hail of instrument cases and upholstered sacks and cardboard boxes.

James did not run with concern for my comfort. My ears were ringing with wind. I knew vampires could move outrageously fast, and supposed that the ground crew might be distracted by the luggage rain, but it still seemed an awful risk. Maybe he was betting on the fictional Volturi reward being retroactive. He leapt into the baggage hold of the next plane. I couldn't see anything - he moved too fast - but he didn't seem to have attracted the attention of anyone who wanted to investigate the rapid dark shape hurling itself into the airplane.

This airplane had a caged dog traveling in it. It hated James and yowled at him constantly. It seemed to irritate him, so he opened its cage, strangled it, and then stuffed a luggage strap down its throat in case anyone should happen to wonder at its death.

I wondered when I would start going into shock. Probably soon. I really ought to be in shock. Perhaps I was, and hadn't noticed. I didn't know what shock was like.

"Where are we going?" I dared ask, hours into the second leg of the trip, after he'd found me another snack and an entire case of fancy bottled water somebody was bothering to import.

"Italy," he said shortly.

The plane landed. Not one to repeat himself in making an exit, James hid the pair of us in a corner. When the baggage handlers noticed the dead dog, and started yelling at each other about it in rapid Italian, he walked right out behind them, me in tow.

He broke into and hotwired the first fast-looking car he found in the airport's parking lot.

And then we drove.

"How did you get through them to me?" I asked timidly, sitting next to the vampire in the driver's seat.

"Well, it helped that I know the little one's secret," he said, as though letting me in on a joke. The little one - Alice? I'd suspected...

"Her... secret?" Still playing dumb. Until he got me to the Volturi he could decide to kill me at any time.

"Yes. She has visions, you see, of the future. A long time ago this would have gotten her burnt at the stake... in the nineteen-twenties it was an asylum, shock treatments, that sort of thing. She was the only one who ever got away from me. She had a protector, just one, but he made her safe, not like yours. I was surprised to see her with that lot, though. Anyway, she can be fooled. They're only visions, not knowledge. Did you know there are a lot of interesting sets to visit in Hollywood?" He grinned to himself. "Indecision throws her off. I told my Vicky all about it, that I'd tell her when to jump in, that she should just wait. I only made up my mind to do things I wanted her to see - everything else I dithered about even while I was doing it."

I nodded slowly. If I lived through this, I wanted to be able to tell Alice where she'd come from.

But he was done talking about Alice. "That, and Sunday night, I nibbled on some of your neighbors a bit. Hope you weren't attached to them. I tied them up and gagged them so they wouldn't attract any attention with their screaming, but I don't imagine that held them for long once they woke up and noticed how very, very thirsty they were..."

He looked so smug. So that was how he'd distracted my three watchers. He'd turned a confused bunch of newborns loose in the neighborhood, a time-release threat, and they would have made themselves an obvious, immediate danger to me and Charlie and everyone else in Forks. He would have known when to expect them to finish turning.

It might have been sheer luck that Edward had needed to hunt on the same night. James hadn't given any indication that he also knew Edward's power - but he was clearly an old, experienced vampire, and might have bet on being able to take on one or two defenders in a fair fight, with a flailing newborn coven and a false lead to Florida distracting the rest. Sheer luck, that he'd found me entirely alone - but skill, that it had even been possible.

Did he actually believe my nonsense about the Volturi, or was he pretending in order to lull me into a false sense of security?

I didn't poke at it. If I acted like he might not believe me, it would only bring to mind the possibility that I was not to be believed.

"Wow," I said instead. "You're really good at this. If they'd made me like them, you wouldn't have wanted me anymore? Like that little one?"

Idiot! I screamed at myself, silently in my head. Idiot! Idiot! You did not really prioritize! You would not have been significantly less useful at self-defense if you were in the middle of turning and then James wouldn't have wanted you and it would be over already. You'd be a vampire by now, you'd be the other one that got away, you knew that every other detail but your own survival was of secondary importance. But you didn't get them to inject you with immortality juice because it wasn't a guarantee and you thought you had your bases covered even though you knew you were dealing with something deadly and powerful that wanted you ended about which you had limited information...

"Right," he said, unaware of my internal self-castigation. "Well, the Volturi will still want you that way, but originally I only thought you'd be an interesting meal. I'd have been very irritated with them for taking away my fun, of course." But then all his targets would have been fighters in their own right, with a chance, not dividing their attention and flying all over creation trying to protect three separate squishy humans... "I killed the one who changed your little friend." But the Cullens mostly come in pairs, and if I were a vampire by now then all of them would...

It would not make sense for someone as uninformed as I pretended not to ask... "You said my neighbors were screaming?"

"Oh," James chuckled. "Yes. It's an intriguing process. You're sure the one with the reddish hair's not a bit too fond of you? I could send him a tape of that after the Volturi get it started."

I shivered. "I don't think he likes me at all. None of them do. They were going to sell me to the Volturi, just like you. They'll be mad at you about stealing their reward, I guess, if that's what you want?"

"Makes things interesting that way," he said, still smirking.

Idiot! I wailed in the unbroken privacy of my own mind.

Volterra was beautiful, in the way that any city occupied by vampire royalty that might be either death or salvation would be beautiful.

James started muttering to himself about how, exactly, to track down the Volturi, once we were in the city. He abandoned the car and followed the heavily shadowed alleys between the tallest buildings, sniffing the air. Eventually he caught some promising odor and led me - assuming that I'd follow, desparing of escape - down a sloped tunnel-like alley which ended in a brick wall. There was an open grate in the pavement - it looked like a sewer drain.

"Down there," said James. "Jump."

"I'll break a leg and then you'll have to carry me. I might actually die from a fall," I said, "if it's deep enough and I land wrong - and I'll probably land wrong."

James groaned, picked me up, and hopped down into the hole without arguing further. "I hope you're worth all of this," he mumbled to me, setting me on my feet. He inhaled deeply. "You've got quite a flavor, you know. Better be worth not getting a taste..." He stalked off into the darkness. I followed him by sound, tripping frequently; he eventually got annoyed and lifted me again. I didn't protest. I didn't want to crack my head open under a city in Italy, not when I was this close to heroically bluffing my way out of certain death.

We came to a large grate with thick, rusting bars of iron. Part of it had been cut away and replaced with a thinner grille, which hung on hinges and looked like a door of sorts.

James pushed this little door open with his foot. It opened into a large, stone room, the far side of which was dominated by a heavy wooden door. James had to put me down to pull it open; it was immensely thick.

Past this door was a fluorescently lit, unremarkable hallway. Pale walls and gray carpet. Since I'd be able to navigate that, James put me down, and I stepped forward out of sheer curiosity without even looking to see if he wanted to go with more caution.

It really was just a hallway. But there were vampires in it.

There were two of them, tall but otherwise indistinct under black shrouds, at the far end of the hall in front of what appeared to be an elevator. I wasn't actually sure that they were vampires until one of them spoke. The words were, naturally enough, in Italian. But his musical, perfectly precise voice definitely belonged to a vampire.

James replied in the same language, gesturing at me with one thumb. I caught his own name, but no other words stood out to me. The conversation continued, becoming faster and more heated, until finally the shrouded vampire who hadn't spoken cut in with an English sentence, directed at me: "Are you a witch?"

I shook off the sensation that I was Dorothy Gale of Kansas, and gulped, and said, "Yes."

"And your power?" inquired the vampire, from beneath her hood.

"I don't have a n-name for it," I said, stuttering slightly. I could not blow this or I was certain I'd be killed. "Um... m-mental privacy, I guess. It's sort of a... meta-power."

"That is testable," she announced. "You will come with me. Both of you." She moved her head slightly, making it clear despite the hood that she was talking to James as well. "Stay here," she told her counterpart. He nodded.

I followed the female vampire into the elevator, as did James. She touched one of the buttons, and it began to convey us upward. I felt the urge to ask her name, but this was not quite the social situation that it would have been with only humans involved. She shrugged the hood of her shroud off; she was as ice-skinned as any vampire, with the same burgundy eyes James had, and long black hair.

The elevator opened into a cozy, sophisticated, windowless reception area. The walls were decorated with bright landscapes, and deep green carpet covered the floor. Behind the mahogany counter in the room's center sat a woman - a human woman, with green eyes and too much vibrance to her tea-colored complexion to be a vampire. She was in her early twenties and pretty, but not eternally so. That was not in line with what I'd been told of the Volturi's approach to secrecy. At all.

"Buon giorno, Santiago!" the receptionist said brightly to the vampire woman. That was a phrase I could at least guess at. Just a greeting. If it specified time of day, I didn't know - I had no sense of time left after the trip, not having had a chance to look at a clock. It was probably Thursday, or early Friday, I thought. At least in Pacific time. I didn't know Italy's time zone.

"Buon giorno, Gianna," replied the vampire - Santiago. Her tone was neutral. James seemed as confused as I was by the presence of a human, but didn't comment. I followed Santiago and James as they went around Gianna's desk and through a pair of wooden doors.

We went through a perfectly ridiculous maze of halls upon doors upon antechambers upon stairs, and finally, what I thought was two floors above ground level, we reached what appeared to be our final destination. It was an immense, round room. There were no artificial lights, just slits of windows letting sunshine in, and the only articles of furniture were a number of massive wooden chairs, placed at irregular intervals near the walls. There was a drain in the middle of the room. This did not make a lot of sense on a second story as an entrance or exit, like the one in the alley apparently was, but I didn't get the opportunity to speculate.

There were a small handful of vampires in the room. Most of them wore ordinary-looking street clothes, but the man who took notice of our presence wore a cloak like Santiago's. The hood was down, and I noticed as soon as I looked at him that he was not typical of the vampires I had met. His skin was the customary white, but translucent, like onion or frosted glass - not like the marble of any given Cullen or Santiago or James. His eyes were red, but with a milky cast over them, as though he had cataracts. He didn't seem to have impaired eyesight, but I supposed he could have had considerably inferior visual acuity compared to other vampires without looking myopic to me. He wore his black hair long, and it blended into his shroud.

"Santiago, you've brought us visitors," he said, sounding for all the world like Santiago's dotty uncle who was only too pleased to have strangers to welcome. He spoke in a soft, airy voice, just enough for me to hear, and floated forth in a cloudlike drift. Where Alice moved like a ballerina, this vampire moved like a soap bubble. The other vampires in the room drifted to cluster near him. Some stood ahead of him. They left his view clear, but were prepared to get in the way if James (or, I supposed, I) should decide to attack. The rest coalesced behind him, peering over each other's shoulders.

Santiago bowed deeply to him. When she straightened up, she moved forward with one white hand extended. He placed his palm over her knuckles and closed his eyes. A moment later, they broke the contact and Santiago backed away. "Interesting," murmured the onion-skinned vampire.

That one would be Aro, then.

I glanced at James. He looked like every passing second made him feel more strongly that this had been a bad idea. But he didn't speak up as Aro regarded him - and, intermittently, me - with a look of calm thoughtfulness on his face.

"I'm afraid," said Aro beatifically, "that you have been misinformed, James."

"Misinformed about...?" James asked, clearly wrong-footed by Aro's statement.

"This child," Aro said with a wave in my direction, "may well be a witch. That remains to be discerned. But we have not spoken of her with the coven you mentioned to Santiago. Nor have we made a practice of offering permission to violate rules in exchange for the capture of even so lovely a jewel."

James was starting to flick his eyes between all the vampires in the room, of whom there were really quite a few.

"You have been lied to," Aro said, with a sorrowful look on his face that had to be faked. "Rather cleverly, it would seem. My dear," he said, turning to me and tilting his head inquisitively, "was that story your invention?"

I nodded, not trusting my voice in that moment.

"Before we decide how to proceed, I should like to investigate your witchcraft," said Aro, holding forth a pale hand.

I took six careful steps forward, resisting the temptation to look back at James, and placed my fingers against Aro's. His skin felt nearly normal for a vampire's, in spite of its unusual appearance - hard, but more brittle in texture, and colder than most.

He closed his eyes.

And then he opened them again.

"Fascinating," he breathed. "And one more test... Jane, dear one?"

He was addressing a physically young vampire, the shockingly beautiful planes of her ivory face all the more startling given that she looked perhaps fourteen. "Yes, Master," she cooed. Jane looked at me and smiled like a little angel. Nothing happened. I blinked at her, nonplussed - I didn't know what she was meant to have done - and her face twisted into an awful mask of hate. She made a sound like an angered snake.

"Santiago, my pet, won't you fetch my brothers for me?" Aro said, ignoring Jane's livid expression and soft hiss. "I believe they will be intrigued to learn of our new guest."

Santiago bowed again, and then she turned about with a swish of her cloak to retrieve - presumably - Marcus and Caius, who I surmised were not present in the room already. James let out a small snarl, which startled me enough that I whipped my head around to look at him like a scared rabbit.

"James, my friend," said Aro soothingly. "It won't do for you to hold a grudge against our charming little witch. She was clearly acting in self-defense, as any reasonable person would. I should not like to have to decide a fight between the two of you. I'm sure you realize that while she would lose on her own merits, there is one thing you were not lied to about." Aro stretched his paper skin into a broad smile; it did not tear with strain. "We are very pleased with the acquisition of witches. Perhaps you have a talent of your own, that let you capture this charming young lady away from her guardians?" he guessed. "Will you show me?" And he held out his hand again. I shuffled away, wanting it to be possible for some Volturi guard member to intervene if James lunged for my throat.

James approached Aro unwillingly, obviously conscious of all the eyes on him. The Volturi were accustomed to being obeyed. They reacted to disobedience with violence. James did not have time for inventive stunts with newborns here: if he fought, he would lose.

The vampires' hands touched. Aro hummed to himself in thought while he absorbed James's memories.

"You took a very serious risk with those new children you made," tutted Aro when they'd dropped their hands.

James shifted edgily. He looked like he wanted to drop into a combative crouch and kept thinking better of it a fraction of the way through. "I knew the coven would control them," he muttered. "If they hadn't been there at the right time, I'd have killed the newborns while they were incapacitated with the change before taking the girl. They wouldn't have exposed us."

"Mm," sighed Aro, tipping his head back to scrutinize the ceiling and clasping his hands behind his back. "I suppose that in such a small town it may have seemed a reasonable risk to take." James nodded dumbly.

I had turned to face the door whence I'd come, and so I saw the entrance of two vampires who had to be Caius and Marcus, flanked by Santiago. James turned to see who'd arrived. The two new arrivals had Aro's same papery, fragile-looking skin and the same cataracts over their red eyes. One had similar long, black hair; this one had a bored, detatched expression. The second had hair as white as his face, and looked annoyed by everything his eyes landed on.

"Marcus, Caius," Aro exclaimed in a jovial tone that didn't respond to the others' visible emotions at all. "We have received such a lovely surprise."

Aro summarized for his "brothers" the events from James's perspective in his lilting, fanciful sighs. He skipped over trivialities like the deaths of the baggage handler and the dog; apparently James had covered those up to his satisfaction. Caius spoke little - brief clarifying questions - and Marcus not at all, although at one time he got up from the thronelike chair he'd gone to sit in to brush his hand against Aro's and communicate wordlessly. Soon the explanation was complete.

"And, dear child," Aro said to me, turning his gaze in my direction with a soft smile, "perhaps you could tell us the actual sequence of events leading up to your coming to visit us?"

I inhaled deeply. If I were very, very lucky, Alice would have seen where I was and the Cullens would already be on their way to retrieve me. The only way to have our stories straight was if I told the truth - only the truth, not necessarily all of it, although major omissions of facts that could be obtained other ways wouldn't be wise. And of course the Volturi were probably not accustomed to having to learn things by being told of them out loud, so I had to expect they'd check up on me out of caution.

I stumbled through a synopsis, stuttering at every third word. Partway through, my vision swam and the vampire woman standing behind me had to catch me to prevent my collapse - the stress, inadequate food, and insufficient sleep were catching up with me. I managed to retake my feet and continue the story.

I had met the Cullen coven in Forks when I moved there. I'd gotten suspicious of them, although I hastened to add that most people wouldn't have my resources in connecting the dots and no one else suspected a thing. They'd sort of adopted me into their family. There were plans in the works to turn me at the beginning of the summer, where I could be zipped away from home without arousing suspicion. Which, I mentioned again, the Cullens were very careful about. James's coven had run across us while we were out as a group. He, with his habit of hunting interesting and well-protected targets, had fixated on me, which the Cullens' talents had detected. I explained the plan of action, how they had set it into motion, and the point of failure. I mentioned that my father was a cop, and had the resources to make a fairly extensive and inconvenient network of people curious if anything happened to me that I wasn't around to explain. But I was clear that I definitely wanted to become a vampire as soon as I could do it without arousing curiosity. (It would have been smart if I'd gotten started turning on Sunday night when that could have saved me from James; now that I was under the Volturi's power, it would be no additional help. They could destroy vampires without much expenditure of effort, and it was entirely up to them whether I or James lived.)

I scrupulously avoided bringing up Victoria.

"Thank you, dear," said Aro, having listened with calm attention to my entire haphazardly arranged narration. "We will now discuss our decision," he announced, seeming to direct his voice particularly towards a small vampire who couldn't have been more than fourteen when he was turned. In fact, he looked like Jane's twin - only slightly darker blonde hair and thinner lips differentiated their faces, although the boy's range of expressions seemed to be more neutral. He neither beamed nor scowled.

The Volturi remained silent for a few moments, and I wondered if I was just unable to hear their voices as they reverted to their inaccessible pitches and speeds, but then I realized what they were waiting for. James's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell like a ragdoll to the floor. The fourteen-year-old immortal boy was gazing at the tracker with a cold steadiness that unnerved me.

Then the child's red eyes slid up to look at me. I stood trembling, but didn't experience whatever was causing James to lie limply on the stones. If the boy was exercising his power against me, I was immune to that one, too.

"Hmmm," Aro murmured. "It would seem that we cannot maintain our privacy in the typical manner. But, my lovely, you seem to be in some distress anyway. Perhaps you would prefer not to witness this when you could be sleeping."

Sleep. Sleep sounded good. I was still in my pajamas, an old t-shirt and soft flannel pants, from when James had taken me from my bed. Did vampires have beds? Maybe that receptionist, Gianna, lived in their compound and I could borrow hers... I nodded, wobbling again.

Aro inclined his head. "Oh," he said. "One question. What is it that happened to James's mate, Victoria?"

"Dead," I whispered. James was still on the floor, unresponsive, and didn't hear or couldn't react.

"Mm," sighed Aro. "Santiago, dear one, won't you see to our guest's needs?" He waved at me dismissively.

I started to fall again, but Santiago whooshed across the room to break my fall, and then I passed out entirely.

I woke up under a fluffy duvet, snuggled in a bed more comfortable than my own. The room had a small window at the very top of the wall, which let in enough light to tell me that it was daytime - although I didn't know what day, at this point - and show me the contents of the room. Apart from the bed, there was a spindly wooden chair, which held a change of clothes. Under the chair was a basket with a lid. There were two doors into the room: one was closed, and one was open enough to reveal the little bathroom.

On top of the outfit was a handwritten note. Please help yourself to anything you need from the bathroom, and these clothes, and the food under the chair. When you're ready, Santiago is waiting outside for you. There is no danger and no hurry. The note was signed "Gianna" - apparently she knew English. It was the most welcome piece of paper I'd ever seen in my life.

I took a long, hot shower. I brushed my teeth. I blew my hair dry. The shampoo and other items were all labeled in Italian, but I guessed by packaging and the odd linguistic cognate which things were what, and got gloriously, spectacularly clean. I felt more alive and lucid than I had in days.

Gianna had left me a blue t-shirt and a gray, swishy skirt. I was normally a pants sort of person, but Gianna was taller than me, and if these were her clothes, it made sense: the skirt would be more likely to fit than a pair of jeans. I put them on and checked myself out in the bathroom mirror. I looked basically normal. I could have been getting ready to go to school. School couldn't have seemed farther away.

I opened the basket under the chair. Little cellophane bags of snackfood, an apple, a dinner roll, a candy bar - easy, quick food that would have been fine at room temperature while I slept. I ate all of it, even the oversalted chips, and then put the apple core and other debris in the chip bag and discarded it in the bathroom's wastebasket.

I approached the other, closed door. Gianna had written that there was no danger. I didn't know for sure if that was true - but I'd been left to sleep, safely, given the chance to clean up and have breakfast. That didn't seem like the sort of treatment that would precede an execution without notice. I was, it seemed, actually witchy enough to hang onto my life. And related to an annoying enough profession to keep my heartbeat until a time of my choosing.

I pushed open the door. Santiago, in her cowl, was indeed waiting outside the door. "Hello, Bella," she said. She was the first person to use my name since I'd arrived. I supposed Aro might have told her; he could have gotten it from James, who had heard me introduced. Still, it was a little surprising.

"Hello, Santiago," I said. "Uh... thank you for your help." Her eyes were still burgundy, although they deepened to black around the pupil - I was talking to a thirsty vampire murderess and I still felt stupidly, profoundly grateful for her presence. Aro was vaguely creepy; but Santiago had a professional demeanor that made her feel predictable and safe. I was not designated food, and therefore she would not eat me.

The Volturi were killers - but they were lawful killers. They could be bargained with, reasoned with. I'd made a good call in luring James to them.

"I'm to conduct you to the hall," Santiago told me.

"Okay," I said, and she turned without further explanation and led me through the maze that was the Volturi compound. Eventually, once I was starting to wonder if I didn't need to go back and sleep for a couple more hours after all, we reached the same round room full of vampires I'd been to before. "La tua cantante!" one of them was exclaiming as I entered - it sounded like Aro.

There were different vampires in the hall this time.

By the time I registered that I ought to look twice at the faces off to the left, I was already swept up in Edward's intense embrace. "Bella," he whispered in my ear, holding me to him so tightly I was challenged to draw breath. "Bella, Bella, my Bella, you're alive..."

"Did they tell you I wasn't?" I asked, winding my arms around him and leaning my head on his shoulder. "I'm fine. I had a bad day, or two, but I'm fine. How long have you been here?"

"Hours!" he growled. "They wouldn't let us see you..."

"I was sleeping. I really needed it. They could have let you in to check on me, though," I frowned.

"Ah, but Bella, my dear," said Aro. He was sitting on one of the chamber's thrones, hands folded, expression benign. "They might have disturbed your rest. And, of course, we had much to discuss. It has been too long since we have had a visit from our old friend Carlisle and his coven."

I looked over at the other Cullens who had arrived: Carlisle and Esme were there, but not the remaining four. "I'm sorry I kept you waiting," I told Edward, looking up at him. "I didn't see any way to get in touch with you that wouldn't have been too dangerous until I finally got here, and then I basically told my story and passed out."

"Don't be sorry," he said, squeezing me tighter. "I am so glad you're safe. I can't believe I was so irresponsible -"

"Hey," I said. "It was my suggestion that you hunt, and if you hadn't, you might have died trying to fight James off. Nobody we like is dead. That is a good thing." I glanced at Aro. "Uh... What happened to James?"

Aro tilted his head. "You needn't worry about him anymore, dear Bella," he said smoothly.

"They didn't like his stunt with the newborns," Edward muttered in my ear. "And didn't think they could control him as a member of the guard - and they already have a better tracker."

I nodded faintly and leaned against Edward for comfort. There had been more deaths than I liked, even if I had no reason to care for James or his mate and hadn't known the baggage handler. Or the dog. "What happened to the newborns?" I asked in a soft voice.

Edward twined his fingers in my hair. "Two are dead," he said, voice full of regret. "The third was sufficiently under control that we're trying to bring him into the family, but it's going to be hard for him. He didn't have the warning you do. The others are at home now, supervising him. I don't think you knew any of them." He listed some names, none familiar - the one who was still breathing was named David. "They weren't able to kill anyone else," Edward assured me before I asked, "before my family got to them."

"Is it safe for me to be around David?" I asked. "If it's not..."

Edward winced. "I thought of that. We aren't sure what to do."

"Maybe you'd better turn me early," I sighed. "We'll think of some story..."

"On top of the story we're already trying to cook up to explain your disappearance?" Edward asked. "And the disappearances of the three legally dead? That's a lot of stories, Bella."

I frowned. "Right. It will smooth over better if I'm there in obvious good health, fit to be seen in public. Uh..." I wracked my brain. "Do the Denalis live in a more remote location? Would they take him?"

"It's a good idea, Bella," Edward soothed, cool fingers resting on the back of my neck. "We'll ask them. But I think it's time we got you home now."

"Okay." I relaxed into his embrace. I was tired of holding myself up. "Oh. There's one thing I'd like to do first - if it's okay." I glanced over at the Volturi, who had witnessed our entire conversation with expressions ranging from mild curiosity to bemusement to morbid fascination. (I became more convinced that most vampires did not first meet their mates as humans. I wouldn't have been such an interesting sight otherwise.) "I want to talk to Gianna, and thank her." And figure out what in the hell she's doing here, I didn't add.

"Of course. Santiago," said Aro with a small, flicking gesture. Santiago bowed again, turned, and led me, Edward, Carlisle, and Esme into the maze.

"Did you meet Gianna?" I asked Edward in a low voice. To let me walk, he'd released me from his hug, but we were holding hands.

"I noticed her. We weren't formally introduced," he murmured. "What are you thanking her for?"

"She left me these clothes, and some food, and I think I was sleeping in her bed - I don't know why else there would be a bed in here, unless there are other humans involved."

"Just her," he said.

Santiago showed us to the room I'd slept in. Gianna was inside, changing the sheets. I motioned for Edward and his parents to hang back while I went in; Santiago swooshed away up the hall without prompting, apparently expecting us to be able to find our own way out when we were done.

"Gianna?" I said. I wasn't sure if her spoken English was as good as her writing.

"Hello, Bella," she said, turning a pleasant smile on me. "I've put your clothes in the wash, but they aren't done yet. Do you want me to send them to you in America?" She had an accent, but it was faint and pleasant, and didn't make her hard to understand at all. She chose words quickly and confidently, so I assumed she'd been working with English for some time, even if it wasn't her native language.

"No, thank you," I said. "Uh, do you want me to send you these?" I tugged at the skirt, which swished around my ankles.

"They're yours," she said, patting my arm. "I hope I found you enough food. I usually eat out, and only had a few snacks around."

"It was perfect, I came to thank you," I said. "Thank you, for the food, and the note, and the clothes, and the bed - it was just what I needed to wake up to after the trip I had."

"It was no trouble at all," she assured me.

"Is this - uh, looking after human visitors - what you mostly do here?" I asked. It felt like an intrusive question, only a hair more polite than "What the hell are the Volturi doing breaking their own laws by having you around?"

"No, guests like you are very rare," she said, not looking offended at all. "I'm the human representative when the Volturi need to send someone into a context where one of their guard would be too noticeable - anything outdoors in the daylight, where they can't go cloaked. I handle the laundry. When I'm not doing that, I sit at the reception desk - you saw - but there aren't many receptionist tasks to do. It's light work." She tossed her hair with a cheerful smile.

"How do you even get a job like this?" I asked. "They can't advertise in the classifieds, Wanted: Representative/Laundress/Secretary for Vampire Ruling Coven, and get serious answers..."

"They don't," she laughed. "I believed all the legends, when I was a little girl. They tell a lot of vampire stories in this town. I never quite stopped thinking they were true. And one day I decided to go searching for them. I found what I was looking for." Her smile was genuine, but closed, somehow. She didn't want me to ask too many questions about that. She didn't want to tell me what would make her go on a vampire hunt. She didn't want to share the story of how she'd convinced them to hire her and not kill her.

I nodded slowly. "I need to go home," I said, "my father's probably absolutely frantic - but I just wanted to thank you. Um, if you have an e-mail address or a phone number... We're probably the only two humans in the world who hang out with vampires all the time," I offered, as a rather pathetic excuse to keep in touch with her. I was mostly curious - and a little afraid for her life. She hadn't been eaten so far; she certainly might be later, if the Volturi tired of her. "We should talk more."

Gianna had a tiny notebook in the pocket of her leaf-patterned skirt. Clearly, a woman after my own heart. She wrote down an e-mail address on it, and a phone number complete with country code, then handed me the detached page. "I can't always answer the phone," she said. "I keep irregular hours and I sometimes have business unexpectedly. I get to a computer every three or four days. But I'd like to hear from you, Bella."

I smiled at her. "Well, thanks again. Um, bye." And then I turned to go back to Edward.

"Bye, Bella," called Gianna.

Edward put his arm around my shoulders after I'd pocketed Gianna's contact information, and the two of us, followed by Carlisle and Esme, made our way out of the compound.

Once we were out of doors, and in the car the Cullens had rented to get around Volterra (with a sufficiency of window tint to let them be unobtrusive), Edward handed me a phone. "Come up with a better story if you've got one, but here's our idea," he said. "The illness you were faking sometimes causes sleepwalking and erratic circadian rhythms. You wandered onto the bed of someone's pickup truck, curled up there, and were driven all the way to California without waking up or being noticed, since you pulled a tarp over yourself to keep warm. When you woke up in a parking lot all alone, you found a gas station, borrowed quarters, and called me right away because you were embarrassed at the prospect of asking Charlie for taxi money. Carlisle was in town for a medical conference and I told you so, and sent him to pick you up. You just met up with him and you'll be home in twelve hours. You are also over your disease now."

It was a convoluted, ridiculous story, but I didn't have any other way to explain why I'd disappeared from my bed, been gone for two days without contacting my parents, and was about to return safe and sound. I dutifully took the phone, dialed home, and recited the lies to Charlie. He seemed incredulous, but I put Carlisle on the phone, who confirmed it all (including the humbug about sleepwalking) with such a serious and honest tone that I was half-inclined to believe him myself. I took the phone back and told Charlie that, no, I didn't have the license number of the pickup truck. He uttered a few fussing, fretting sentences, but wasn't in a position to actually do anything. Finally, he let me off the phone with a gruff, "I love you, Bells."

"I love you, too, Dad," I told the phone. "I'll see you soon." And then I flipped it closed. "I wish I could tell him everything," I sighed, putting my head on Edward's lap. The no-seatbelts precaution made it a lot easier to move around freely in the car.

Edward stroked my hair and said nothing.

The way Cullens got onto airplanes was this: accepting pat-downs after they made the scanning machines go absolutely haywire, complaining vaguely of having "weird bioelectricity". When that didn't quite work, outright bribery in large denominations. And, apparently, flirting with the security officers. Esme made awfully compelling doe-eyes at one portly fellow, accompanied by a flutter of Italian. He stammered at her a little and waved her through, then looked hurt when she joined an indulgent Carlisle and kissed him.

I was much easier to get through security: Edward had found my passport in my room before leaving for Italy and the security equipment didn't so much as blink a light at my passage. And the plane rides, spent in first class and in Edward's arms, were much more pleasant than my other recent experiences with aircraft. Particularly since I was welcome to any food I wanted from what the Cullens received, and therefore had not one, but four miniature cheesecakes. There was, however, a tense moment when I described for him the tests Aro had undertaken of my witchcraft.

"He told Jane to try -" sputtered Edward, looking angrier than I'd ever seen him except when he'd been roaring at James.

"It didn't work," I hurried to say. "Nothing happened. She looked really upset about it. Why, what does she do?"

Edward's teeth were clenched so tightly I thought he might split a molar. Carlisle explained for him. "Jane's talent is a sadistic one," he said in a soft voice that carried to my seat and no farther. "She can cause pain. A purely mental pain, but a disabling one. She is limited to one subject at a time, and is restricted to victims in her line of sight, but she's feared nonetheless. You are very lucky to have proven immune."

"Oh," I breathed. Lucky indeed. I loved my witchy talent very much. "Uh, and the boy who looks like her - I didn't get his name? He doesn't work on me either," I said.

"Alec," said Edward, finally relaxing his jaw enough to talk. "He is Jane's biological twin. And his power is the opposite of hers in many ways. He's anaesthetic where she is torture - he turns off all senses, even proprioception. He can affect several at a time and doesn't need to look at all of his targets, but his power moves slowly."

That was consistent with what I'd seen. "James fell over when Alec looked at him," I remembered. "I guess it's hard to stand up if you can't feel where your legs are." Edward nodded with a sort of grim satisfaction.

"What does "la tua cantante" mean?" I asked him, changing the subject from what grotesque powers I was protected from.

"It means "your singer"," Edward said. "That's what the Volturi call someone who smells the way you do to me - they think of it as your blood singing for me."

"That's kind of gross," I remarked.

"A little," laughed Edward. "They think it's a waste that I haven't eaten you. They consider singers the ultimate delicacy. And Aro said he'd never have believed there was a singer so powerful if he hadn't smelled you in my memories."

"He read you." My stomach turned a little. I didn't like the idea of Aro spying on Edward... or me, through Edward's eyes. I'd been careful not to drop hints of my plans for world domination, but I wasn't too pleased with the notion that Aro now had a full complement of memories of Edward kissing me, Edward leaving me gifts, Edward carrying me through the woods, Edward guarding me for days at a stretch. I hadn't liked Aro before; now I liked him less.

Edward nodded, looking somber but not nauseated. "It's his standard means of communication for anything complicated. Marcus rarely speaks at all, preferring to simply transmit to Aro and let him do the talking."

"I'm glad my mind is safe," I murmured. "I wish yours were."

Edward kissed the crown of my head. "I'll admit it chafes at me a bit that I can't read you," he said. "But I'm glad you prefer it that way, since it doesn't seem there's any way around it."

"It's good there's no way around it," I said. "If there were, then Aro could decide to coerce me into dropping the shield. Since I can't drop the shield, he knows there's no point in threatening me or anything - it won't do any good. It's to my advantage not to be able to turn it off. Even if I wanted to let you in, just having that ability would be bad."

Edward looked thoughtful. The conversation lulled, and then turned to other subjects: the Denali coven and speculations about how they would get on with David; whether Laurent was still with them and how, if at all, the news of his coven-mates' destruction could be broken; James's knowledge of Alice's origins, and the development of a plan to send her to the region where she'd woken, to search for herself in asylum records. (I didn't like to think of Alice locked up in a psychiatric hospital, especially not in the early nineteen hundreds. She was so bubbly, and seemed to take so much joy in things, that it seemed unreasonably cruel. And, on top of that, her visions were true - or, at least, were in her vampire life. I supposed they could have been hallucinatory when she was human.)