Chapter 38: Plotter

Siobhan called my mother on the phone to ask about Charlie, Renée, and Phil, and as I'd predicted, the answer was no - in my mother's opinion they were all safer where they were. From there, it turned into a more general conference call on strategy.

"I don't want to launch an offensive until Jake is better," I said. "It's only another three days and he should be on his feet. Can we wait that long?"

"It might take that long just to decide what to do," Siobhan said, "depending. Volterra is a very well-defended target. I suspect the best way to go in will be through the village. They communicate with the compound, but not in real time. If Alice takes attendance of the guard, we can pick a time when the village is full of nothing but wolves who won't attack Elspeth and harmless imprints and puppies. We can't be sure all the wolves will be home - especially if Addy has one with her - but if everybody who'd normally serve as a handler is within Alice's sight in the compound, then we can be sure that there's not a large field team absent. Then Elspeth can deprogram everybody there, ideally discreetly enough that no one gets in touch with the vampires. From that point on, though, it's far less obvious."

"What's stopping Jane and Alec from taking down all the wolves as easily as they did in La Push?" asked my mother. There was a beat, and she said, "Me?"

"Ideally, but you're still not reliable enough that I'd like the plan to hinge on it," Siobhan said. "If you could guarantee a continuous shield over anyone, then there would be absolutely nothing stopping you and Allirea from walking in the front door and assassinating everybody you didn't like and stopping to paint each other's fingernails halfway through. But if you go in and you slip, Marcus's vision - now inconveniently attached to Aro - will notice Allirea's relationships. Brightly colored shiny arrows pointing right at someone we would really like to leave alive."

I blinked, confused, and looked over at my mother, who frowned to herself. "I'm practicing," she announced, as I recalled Allirea's existence and retroactively parsed what Siobhan had said, "but I still feel like I could lose it at any time. The only risk of detection for Allirea in there is Marcus's sight, though, now that Demetri is gone - if she could stay on the other side of Aro...?"

"He could turn around suddenly for an unrelated reason, and she's not fast enough to get out of the way," Siobhan said. "We'll go with something like that if we have to, but we're not under enough time pressure at the moment to call for abandoning attempts to find a better choice. The Volturi don't have Alice or Demetri. Our generous hosts have been e-mailing them innocuous status reports consistent with everything being quiet and not worth swift action over here. And Aro has just instituted a fairly massive alteration in the power structure - or the ostensible power structure - which will take everybody a little while to get used to, where by "get used to" I mean "be repeatedly nudged into accepting by Chelsea, who herself will have to become accustomed to using Aro's help instead of Marcus's". I don't expect anything to fall on us over here, or in Britain, in the next few days."

"Unless Addy does something else," Alice put in, dialing in to the conversation. "What is she after? If she was hoping to intercept me and Jasper in Biloxi she was mysteriously late to the gathering..."

"I don't think she's directly opposing the Volturi, or she'd have stuck by us in Ireland even after discovering that I am apparently a yummy magical treat," said Siobhan dryly. "But what she did with you two isn't the work of someone trying to get back into their good graces, either."

- I'm indispensible. I made sure of that - Chelsea's thoughts, not Addy's, but still...

"She doesn't have to make them like her," I said abruptly. "She just has to make it impossible for them to function without her. Caius only moved to attack her when the witch dungeon was almost empty. Before that she was too valuable. If she can peel off more of their witches, then they'll have to make a deal with her if they want to go on like they have. She wasn't really thrilled about working for them to start out, but it's better than letting them kill her."

"Fits," mused Siobhan. "So we should expect her to be trying to peel off more witches from the guard so they can be re-imprisoned for her to copy after she renews her affiliation, but Alice's inability to remember her past made her an unusually easy target..."

"Chelsea wasn't blasted, but she could confirm the story about Didyme by asking Afton," I said. "And she would have been easier to get ahold of than Marcus. Addy could have just called her. Why wouldn't she?"

Siobhan thought. "Chelsea might well panic to start with," she said finally, "but she could potentially be reasoned with. She has gone to some trouble to make sure the Volturi need her - and unlike Marcus, they can't keep Chelsea around by having Chelsea bind her nice and snug to everybody else in the coven, so threatening Afton really would be the opposite of productive. Unless they replaced her with Addy, who they couldn't really expect to hold onto either at this point."

"Who else might the guard lose?" my mother asked.

"Anybody from the dungeon is probably vulnerable to poaching. The original guard is more solid - more time for Chelsea to do her work, and they volunteered to begin with," Siobhan said. "I can think of an avenue to get Hao and his mate out... possibly Vasanti and hers..."

"Pyotr's probably chafing about staying in one place for so long by now," I put in.

"Pera might have usable cognitive dissonance," Siobhan added. "Actually, if we can possibly get Pera on our side, or at least off theirs, before anything comes to blows, that would be very, very good. We have no defense against her, not even Bella, and her power has become even harder to deal with than before since she turned."

I hadn't looked at that yet, but of course it was the sort of thing Addy had kept track of -

- "Welcome to the world of the immortals," I say cheerfully, after Pera's up and about and has been determined mateless and has been fed for the first time. A snip from Chelsea and a swat from Afton later, and the potentially annoying wolf is a thing of the past. I'm pleased on Pera's behalf that the imprint didn't yield a vampire bond in the opposite direction; I can't imagine trying to kiss anything that smelled like that, mate or no. Repulsive. "Have you noticed anything interesting about your power yet?"

"I haven't tried it yet," she says listlessly, looking at her hand. The mood could be a problem; I'll borrow Jasper's power and try to work on that. I got along well enough without the empathic ability before, but I keep thinking of reasons to use it now that it's so convenient.

There's a fleck of blood on Pera's knuckle; that's probably what she's looking at. She'll learn to eat neatly in time. It occurred to Heidi to ask if Pera wanted normal fare or if - due to her unusual origins - she might prefer to hunt for animals on her own, but the smell of Heidi's dazed followers was enough to let Pera forget about any old misgivings regarding vampire diet. She didn't even ask Heidi for one of the mesmerized prey animals following her about the compound - she just seized the nearest and pulled the both of them into the hiding place to eat undisturbed, and then another and another disappeared for similar treatment. She was calm after the third, and reappeared, and brought the remains back outside to be disposed of. This I heard of from Heidi, not from Pera herself. From Pera, I want to know about her power.

"May I?" I extend my hand, and she looks at it, and at me, and finally blinks once and lets our fingers brush just enough to make the transfer.

The taste is familiar, tart and coppery, but it's definitely stronger - and it was strong before. There's an edge of sugar in there now, like molasses... mmm. There's no visible difference from how her power made the world look when she was human - just the sort-of-visible sepia subtly decorating everything. "There's something new there," I coax. She used to enjoy playing with her ability. "What do you think it might be?"

"I don't know. I can already hide anything I want," she says, looking out the window.

"Anything you touch," I remind her. "Maybe you have range now? Try hiding me without touching me again...?"

She turns her face towards me, eerily bright eyes staring, but nothing happens; my hands don't go whiter than they already are. "That's not it," she says, shrugging.

I have more ideas - mostly recycled from back when I first met her, when she was nineteen and excited about meeting someone else who could do magic like her. Things she hadn't been able to learn to do then. Can she hide pockets of air? Can she find another level of color under the white or over the brown, farther outside or more deeply hidden? Can she hide a wall - something she couldn't previously manage, probably because she thinks of walls as parts of buildings...?

And she tries what I recommend, and tries hiding a wall, and voila - the beige gives way to the pale hidden cast. Unhidden, we could walk through it now. "Huh," she murmurs. "Parts of things."

"That's marvelous," I tell her encouragingly. "Think of how useful that will be. Can you do it to a person?"

"Only one way to find out," she said, and I laugh and tell her she'll owe me twenty euros if I can't reattach my pinky for some reason, but I let her hide it.

It turns white, and, cleanly severed from the rest of my hand, falls twitching to the floor.

"Barely even hurt," I mutter, hiding myself and picking up the finger. "Too quick and nonviolent to be very uncomfortable..." I lick it, attach it, and am somewhat relieved when it knits normally. "But potentially very useful to us."

"Yes," she agrees. "Potentially -"

"I'd really rather not die by having my head hidden while the rest of me stays put, out of all possible ways I could die," I said.

"It probably would be less painful than some of its competitors, and you wouldn't see it coming," Siobhan said reasonably, as my mother said, "What?"

"I know, but just the image of it is really unappealing," I said. "Oh, Mama, Pera's learned to hide parts of stuff or people instead of entire stuff exclusively, that's what we're talking about."

My mother looked nauseated, but shook it off and said, "So can we "poach" her, then? Has she got a niece in Mexico we could fetch?"

"She's got family, and if there were any new additions - including nieces - born in the last five or six years that she didn't realize existed, there would be potential to find a Genevieve-equivalent," Siobhan said, "but the Volturi weren't unaware of where she used to live as was the case with Alice; we're not going to find anyone they missed. I'm not sure why - Addy never figured out the reason and everything else we have on her is out of date - but Pera's not happy in the compound in spite of everything Chelsea did. Not being sure why is a major impediment to poaching her."

"They did kill Brady," I said.

"She doesn't care," Siobhan pointed out. "They snipped her first."

"I know, but they didn't replace him with anybody, so there's still a gap where he was. She's got friends - I mean, as far as Chelsea can make people be friends with each other, which admittedly is pretty far - in the compound, but maybe she liked having a boyfriend, or having someone be very devoted to her, or something."

"Maybe," said Siobhan. "Doesn't leave a poaching avenue open, though. We can't exactly invite her to a speed dating event and fill it up with single rebel vampire males, thereby guaranteeing that her and her new hubby will be eternally loyal to the cause." She sighed, and said, "Okay, let's think about Pera in the background and work on other problems at hand. Elspeth, the obvious failure mode of dropping you into the wolf village to deprogram the Volturi's guard dogs is that while they won't hurt you, they don't have similar qualms about holding you down, which they can do. That would free up their fellow wolves to sound the alarm, which would be bad. That means you shouldn't go alone - your only effective self-defense against a number of wolves trying to restrain you is blasting them, which robs us of the chance to have them on our side. That's forty-five fighters, not counting Jacob, that I'm not willing to write off, especially given the chance that Bella will be able to protect them from Jane and Alec for a useful amount of time. So, you need to go in with help."

"But any help I go in with, the wolves can attack," I said. "Wouldn't that just turn it into a fight, which could get loud enough that someone would call in the Volturi?"

"That's why you go in with Allirea and one other person, who Allirea can fade," said Siobhan. "The wolves won't attack them, and they can run interference to prevent alarm-sounding and haul wolves off of you. You should also start with imprints where possible, since they'll be able to influence their respective wolves. Do you need to touch people to deprogram them?"

"I haven't tried it without," I said. "How could I tell without someone else to try ranged deprogramming on?"

"Eleazar," proposed Siobhan.

"Beg pardon?" said Eleazar's voice, faintly through Siobhan's phone rather than one of his own. "I don't think I have the precision that would be necessary to learn whether Elspeth can -"

"You're probably still carrying around some of what Chelsea did to you from when you belonged to the guard," Siobhan said. "Elspeth, care to come pay us a visit at the houses? This is a bit much range to deal with for a test."

"I can do that," I said. "One sec. Let me wake up Jake real quick, so he knows I'm back in Denali." Siobhan made an assenting noise, and I nudged Jake gently in the arm. He'd rolled onto his back since first landing in place, and the gash in his neck looked better, although still too new and red. "Jake," I murmured.

His eyes flew open when I addressed him, and they locked onto my face automatically, although he still looked faint and unfocused. "Elspeth," he rasped.

"I just wanted to let you know I'm back from Biloxi, all in one piece," I said, picking up his nearest hand to clasp it. His fingers closed gently - or maybe just weakly - around mine. "I'm going to go up to the houses now, but I'll be back soon."

He blinked one long, slow blink, and I said, "You can sleep," and his eyes closed and stayed that way. I extracted my hand, smoothed his hair back off his forehead, and then looked at my mother. "Which way is it?"

"Straight that way," she said, pointing, "call someone if you get lost."

I nodded, touched Jake's cheek for a moment of sent nothingness, and then took off down the mountain and around its neighbor. I wasn't as quick or nimble as a full vampire, but I got around easily enough and didn't have to take many detours from the straight path.

I arrived at the houses without having to call anyone, and repressed a shiver when I saw the place where I'd interfered with wolves until Santiago broke my legs. Siobhan and Eleazar were both standing outside, waiting for me - I heard a hubbub of voices from inside each of the three houses, including what sounded like some potentially violent fights.

At my visible consternation, Eleazar said, "Non-vegetarians without the benefit of Chelsea's coordination aren't accustomed to sharing such a small space. We're doing our best to keep it under control." Three mansions didn't seem all that small to me, but there were enough non-vegetarians that at least some of them would need to share a house.

"The benefit of Chelsea's coordination, hm?" said Siobhan.

"Well, she does allow an otherwise impossible coven size," Eleazar said. "I always appreciated, as a member of the guard, that we didn't spend any of our time bickering for dominance or plotting against one another." He sighed, eyes rolling skyward. "Life has become very complicated recently. I suppose given the nature of the matter, more input from Chelsea would not necessarily be an improvement here."

"Speaking of input," I muttered, "I'm sort of curious about whose idea it was to tip off the Volturi in the first place, when you heard we were coming," I said, trying to keep the rancor out of my voice.

"Does it matter?" he asked. "We're all terribly sorry, Elspeth - your family has already received apologies, except for your father, but if you'd like one for yourself from each of us, we -"

"Not especially," I said, "I just want to know."

Eleazar shook his head slightly. "This isn't what you're here for, is it?"

"Carmen," I guessed.

"Kate. Can we proceed with what we're here for?" he asked, frowning.

"Go ahead and rattle off your opinions of all the other Volturi," prompted Siobhan.

Eleazar did. He sounded sort of like Carlisle in his willingness to see good in all of the people he discussed, although there was less of an idealistic tint to his excuses for the rulers and the guard. Carlisle would have described everything in terms of the possibility of improvement and redemption, acknowledging the assorted crimes of the Volturi while insisting on their ultimate potential to become better people. Eleazar spoke more of practical necessity, how it would only make sense to expect so-and-so to do such-and-such - what else should a newly turned Jane have done, besides go with the man who had in point of fact just saved her life? what else should Heidi do with her power, given that the Volturi weren't going to stop eating humans and needed to stay discreet about doing so? what else should Afton have done, when turned, than join his mate's coven and participate in her dream...?

By the time he was finished similarly explaining the ill behavior and expressing his lingering fond personal feelings for everyone who'd been in the guard at the time he left, I was wondering if this was the kind of thing deprogramming would work on at all. It didn't become less predictable and expected for a fourteen-year-old girl who'd just been rescued from certain death by a man kinder to her than practically anyone else she'd ever met, to start working for said man. If that was truly the basis of Eleazar's sympathies...

"Go ahead," Siobhan prompted me, when Eleazar wrapped up his defense. He closed his eyes.

I cast about for a mantra like the one I'd thought to myself when trying this for the first time with Jake, or later with Alice and Jasper, and came up blank at first. I wasn't sure if I really needed one, though, and shouldn't expect to have time to think up a unique entreaty for every wolf I unbrainwashed when the time came. So I simply thought of what Chelsea did and how much it was at odds with truth, and pushed, the way I had when Addy had pushed me to develop range with the most basic of my powers.

Eleazar made a startled face, like his train of thought had been derailed, and his mouth opened slightly without making a sound. I left off the pushing, and leaned back on my heels, while Siobhan peered at him. "Hm?" she inquired.

"Being fourteen with a troubled past isn't... actually an excuse for cold-blooded torture," he murmured, looking away.

"Cold-blooded?" I said.

"It's metaphorical cold, it can also be metaphorical blood," Eleazar said distractedly. "Siobhan, if you're satisfied with the results of the experiment, I would like to be with Carmen now."

"Go ahead," said Siobhan. Eleazar turned and went into the gray house to find his wife, probably to discuss the shift in worldview with a more sympathetic audience.

"Alice and Jasper didn't react that strongly," I said.

"Did you do anything different?" asked Siobhan.

"Yes," I said, and I described the pushing used to gain range and the mantra-like thoughts I'd had running through my head previously, "but I don't see why that would make such a marked difference."

Siobhan tilted her head. "Eleazar has other connections in the world," she observed after a short silence. "A close coven and - historically, if not so much currently - close cousins. But Alice and Jasper had only each other, and Alice had just found Genevieve. I wouldn't have been able to predict in advance which way that would affect the results if you'd asked me ahead of time, but it doesn't seem unlikely that the relationships your deprogramming doesn't affect would have an impact on how violently the deprogrammed ones would disconnect. There are other factors, too - Eleazar's had those affections implanted in his mind for a long time. They could have ossified or something like that, and snapped with more force when taken away. I don't pretend to know. You'll probably get yet another type of reaction from the village wolves. But at least you don't have to touch them to get it."

I sent Memory on an errand through what I had from Chelsea, checking for any tweaks she'd made to the other Denalis. "Chelsea snipped Carmen away from her old coven," I reported. "I don't know how to undo anything in that direction... and it wouldn't help, anyway, they're dead now."

"If you think of a way to rebuild what Chelsea destroys, that would be useful, but I think we can manage without it," Siobhan said. "Unless you had something in mind to do here, or need to pick something up, you can go back to your wolf now."

I bobbed my head and turned to go back the way I'd come, up into the mountains and back where my mother waited near my wolf. As I approached, my mother must have shielded me, because I noticed Allirea.

"Still practicing?" I asked.

"Not that it does any good to shield Allirea at the moment, and I daren't cover Jacob while one of the Volturi might notice his packmate's sudden immunity," sighed my mother, "but yes, I'm trying to get the hang of keeping the shield up. It would make everything a lot easier." She glanced at her fingers. "I mean, when will I find the opportunity to paint my nails if not in the middle of a well-shielded coup in the Volturi compound?"

I laughed tiredly; a look at the sky indicated that it was about my bedtime. I yawned, and told my mother goodnight, and then tucked one of my hands into Jake's and lay down. "If you want to try the other thing," I offered in a mumble, flopping my opposite arm out in my mother's direction. Cold fingers pressed into my palm as I fell asleep.