AN: Well, I am pretty much inexcusable. I completed my last term of school at the end of July (so, no more posting delays for that!), but then lost 2 months of my life to some truly heinous morning sickness. I will always work on this story; I'm not stopping until it's finished, no matter what. However, I am also writing my thesis, so updates might continue to be sporadic. Thank you all for sticking with me.
A quick refresher: Alice has arrived in Volterra and joined the guard, realizing that Aro had her in a checkmate. Nessie is not entirely pleased to see her.
The changes in protocol were immediate. Alice was given pride of place even over Renata, and stood a hair closer to Aro in the throne room. Nessie, on the other hand, had been banished to her bedroom and the outskirts of the palace complex as soon as Aro realized the degree to which she interfered with Alice's gift. If Nessie simply walked into the throne room, Aro's immediate future would disappear from Alice's sight—an inconvenience he was not willing to suffer.
For the same reason, he gave an official order that Nessie was not to be used on any missions whatsoever unless her particular abilities were required. He wanted full visibility into the outcome of every operation his guard conducted, without her scrambling the signal. This was a relief, after Bulgaria, but it made her wonder. She knew that her half-human state made her less than useful, knew that she had never been anything more than a bit of a pet to Aro, a piece of bait for bigger prey. Now that the bigger prey was caught, she couldn't be anything more than a nuisance to him. He possessed the jewel in the Cullen crown, the one he had truly wanted all this time. What use could Nessie possibly be to him anymore? And what would he do with her?
These thoughts made her edgy, and even though very little in her daily routine had changed, she was lonelier than she'd been before. She and Alice were never allowed to meet—after that first night, they subsisted mainly on significant glances and hands pressed in hallways on the odd occasions that they passed each other for a moment. Knowing that Alice was so close and still entirely out of her grasp made every solitary moment grate like sand under her eyelid.
Alice. Nessie couldn't bear to think of what Alice's absence was doing to their family, especially to Jasper. It had always seemed to Nessie like the two of them were fused together more fiercely than any other mated pair she'd known, and she couldn't even imagine what violence had been done to both of them in parting. Alice could say whatever she liked—Nessie knew it was her fault. She was just the excuse for all of this, yes, but without her existence there would have been no excuse. It was that simple. Everything she'd ever tried to do for her family had exploded in her face. Every step she took was the wrong one. Always would be.
The days twisted and blended one into another, growing grayer and more uniform with each passing week. Ze came to visit her once, to show her the cartographer's library she'd never found. "It's your sort of thing, I think," he said.
The room was paneled in wood all the way to the ceiling, full of shelves of atlases and old maps under glass cases. Huge maps the size of murals were framed on every wall, intricate in details of sea monsters and rugged terrain.
"Why is this even here?" Nessie asked, running her fingers down the spine of a gold-embossed atlas of East Asia.
"From what I understand, it's an abandoned passion of Aro's," said Ze. "He went through a period several hundred years ago when he was very interested in cartography and all of the new territory being discovered. He lost interest in it many years back, but the library is still here. Seldom used, I believe."
"Yes, I see that," said Nessie. Even though the room was spotless, like all the rest of the complex, it had a slightly danker air, like the door wasn't opened too often.
"You can come in here whenever you like; I doubt anyone will bother you."
She would have loved to sit with her mother in this room. Bella was the only person in the family who shared Nessie's fascination with the rest of the world, because she was the only other person in the family who hadn't seen it. They used to spin the globe in Carlisle's study and make vows that they would visit whatever spot their fingers landed on when they closed their eyes. It was usually somewhere in the middle of the ocean, but every once in a while they would get lucky and strike land.
She wandered over to one of the newer maps that had probably been added long after Aro had given up this pursuit, by Gianna, maybe. Nessie could tell it was very recent because it showed Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. She looked for the only one of those countries she'd ever visited, Bulgaria, and swallowed a sudden burst of anger. She knew she had promised herself not to kill, but somehow it seemed almost like an obligation to take seven or eight lives if it would save fifty. And she had no doubt that it would have.
Her eyes passed north from Bulgaria to Romania where the Volturi didn't go, out of a desire to keep the peace…
Ze's voice broke in on her musing. "I have some duties to attend to that will prohibit me from being in your general troublesome vicinity for the next several days, so I'll say goodbye."
"Will you come find me when whatever oh-so-important thing you're doing is finished?"
"Of course," he said. "It might be a while before I'm back, though. This is a large, sensitive operation. Felix, Chelsea, and the twins are coming with me."
New talent, Nessie realized. She shook her head and sighed, but he was already gone.
Later that afternoon Nessie was lying on her usual cushions in the main library when there was a knock on the door.
Nessie looked up from her book to see a pair of patent leather Mary Jane shoes. She lifted her head slightly higher and saw Jane smiling at her.
"I've been asked to deliver you some news, as having you present in the throne room is inconvenient."
Nessie sat up.
"You're to be sent out on assignment tomorrow, back to where you were before. It seems Aro thinks your personal connection to our business there and your powers of persuasion might help us convince our friends to increase their shipments."
"Increase their shipments?"
"Aro wants me to get them to send more guns?"
Jane's teeth glistened in the light from the window. "Yes."
Nessie returned her eyes to her book and turned a page.
"Oh, and one more detail," said Jane. "This time, you'll be going alone."
"Your usual companions are… needed elsewhere."
"How will I get there?"
"A car, I'd imagine."
"I... I don't have a driver's license."
Jane laughed. "Oh, yes you do. Gianna has it already. Or are you afraid of something else? Did you never learn to drive?"
"I know how to drive! I just...haven't much before..." She really didn't want to be having this conversation with Jane.
"Well you'd better get it right, then. Or you might do serious damage to your weak, precious flesh. Report to Gianna tomorrow morning for your documents."
Sleep didn't come that night. Nessie tried every position she could think of, but nothing helped. There would be no shutting her brain off this time.
At least she finally had her answer. Aro wanted her dead.
His every action and decision held worlds of strategic calculation. Her first mission had been well-planned for his purposes, and this one was no different. She knew she'd been wrong last time to ascribe him the motives of a simple sadist—wanting to torture her just to show her he could. He enjoyed that part, sure, but he'd sent her off because he wanted Alice to have a chance to see his plans, fall into his trap.
This time, he wanted to tie off loose ends. She'd almost committed a capital offense at her last meeting with the Bulgarians. If she caved and killed them on her second round, he could simply execute her when she returned. Felix and Chelsea wouldn't be there to stop her, if she lost control. If she didn't, well, he'd probably find some other reason and kill her in a day or two. She was a liability at this point. It was only a matter of time.
She found that the thought of dying didn't bother her at all. Heaven knew she'd wished for it more than once over the course of the past year. She could almost see it—all this horrible, endless future of misery just washed away, off her shoulders. What more could she ask, at this point in her life?
What bothered her was dying here, at the hands of the Volturi. After what they'd done to Fatima and Abdul, it seemed almost an insult to their memories to let the Volturi kill her, too. She'd made a sort of unconscious vow to her dead friends that she would never let the Volturi win, whatever that ended up meaning. She growled and threw her pillow to the floor, letting her head hit the bare mattress.
Her numbed, smothered sense of justice sprang to life like a banked fire. Could she really let them kill her? Could she really die like this, on Aro's terms? After everything he'd done, all the misery and destruction and death his guard had dealt out over the whole earth, with their dubious ideas about secrecy…
Tomorrow. She would think about this tomorrow. She absolutely had to sleep. She picked up her pillow again and rolled onto her stomach, and after a while she began to drift into half-sleep, not sure if she was dreaming about ancient maps or just thinking about them, with monsters in the oceans and lines drawn across Romania…
She sat up with a start and slammed her palms to the mattress, fully awake.
Gold incisor, in the gloom of a St. Denis warehouse.
If you suck me dry and leave me somewhere...
Felix, sitting casually across a table from the man in the sunglasses.
Who was responsible?
One of our kind.
They broke the law. Their one law, for which they punished everyone else. They broke it all the time. It had never seemed extraordinary, because she had always expected their hypocrisy.
She raised a hand to her face, realizing for the first time that maybe her gift could indeed give her power that meant something.
She had proof. She could show it to anyone.
The Romanians wanted to take down the Volturi more than just about anyone else. If anyone could make use of her information someday, it would be them.
And Alice couldn't see her do it. Aro wouldn't know until she came back.
Now that… that was an all right way to die.
The next day, Nessie discovered a strange phenomenon—when you're on a suicide mission, you can still be incredibly picky about how exactly you end your life. She did not want to die, for instance, in a head-on collision with this truck full of chickens, but it was looking like a possibility. She white-knuckled the steering wheel and jerked hard to the right, hopefully not hard enough to go off the side of the mountain. The truck skittered past, horn blazing, and she righted the Mercedes and took a deep, shuddering breath. She hated driving.
At home, various members of her family had contributed to teaching her to drive, so she'd gotten a pretty thorough education. She'd just never done it alone or on roads with more than one or two other cars. It was technically illegal and they'd have had no good explanations if she'd gotten pulled over or crashed somewhere.
Plus, one of her grandfathers was a cop.
She glanced down at the map she'd spread over the passenger seat. It was time to pull over and figure out where she was going from Slovenia. She couldn't afford to get lost. As soon as the road shoulder fanned out to a decent size again she pulled over. Small snowflakes began to collect around the edges of the windshield, blurring the mountain landscape outside.
She'd gotten out of bed at five that morning and gone to find Gianna, knowing that every moment she spent in the palace complex was a moment when Aro could, unlikely as it was, ask for her hand and read her every thought. She found Gianna standing behind her desk with a gigantic mug of coffee in her manicured hands, looking annoyed and sleep-deprived. Gianna handed Nessie a French passport and driver's license that named her Inesse Volture, a credit card, a cell phone, a debrief sheet with psychological profiles for each of her contacts, and a map of her route into Bulgaria.
"Ah…" said Nessie.
Gianna pursed her lips and tapped a finger against her mug.
"Thanks for this. I just, you know, my driving experience is kind of limited, and since I'm travelling alone I thought maybe it would be good to have something a little more comprehensive, like a road atlas or something?"
Gianna rolled her eyes and bent to open a drawer. She dropped a thick, folded map onto the counter and Nessie opened it just enough to see that it contained Romania. She muttered another thank you and swept the whole pile of stuff off the counter. When Gianna turned to look at something else, Nessie let the cell phone hit the carpet gently. She didn't want them tracking her; she'd seen movies where that happened. If they found the phone after she left, they could chalk it up to half-human incompetence.
Hours and hours later and her palms were still sweating. The Mercedes had GPS, but just like the cell phone, she was afraid to use it. All she had was this map and one very, very convenient memory. It would have to be enough to get her there.
She never thought she would be grateful for all of the detailed stories Vladimir and Stefan had told her about their disturbing lives in Romania. Bella had done her best, in the weeks when all the vampire visitors were staying at their house in Washington, to keep Nessie away from the creepy older men, but Nessie had a curious streak, especially when it came to things her mother didn't want her to know.
One of the things they had told her was where they lived.
"Oh, it is glorious, child," said Stefan. "You should see it one day. High, high in the Carpathian Mountains, at the very heart of our native land would we come to be worshipped. Much has changed in the days since we were at the apex of our power, but our home has not changed at all. It has retained every ounce of our majesty."
"Yes, yes," said Vladimir. "In those wonderful days vampires made pilgrimages to us; the way to our thrones in the sky from the barbarian lands of Europe was known and recited by heart, by all those who knew it would enlighten them to find us."
"Now," said Stefan sadly, "The way has not changed, but no one comes anymore. But then, no one comes to pay tribute to those upstart pretenders in Italy, either! Perhaps the world has lost its sense of deference as the years have gone by, and 'Take the E574 to Câmpulung and then climb Moldoveanu' just doesn't inspire the sort of feeling that stirs the heart of a pilgrim."
It didn't tell her much, but Câmpulung was indeed marked on her map. She still had to cross Croatia and Serbia, and she was running on a sleepless night. She pulled back onto the road, found a Europop station on the radio, and turned the volume all the way up. She only popped the clutch once more before crossing the border.
As she wound through Croatia she urged the Mercedes faster and faster. She had no idea how much time she had, or how the blank spots in Alice's vision really worked. Would all the consequences of Nessie's actions be hidden, or could something pop up that would alert Aro to the fact that Nessie had gone rogue? She didn't care if he found out; she just wanted to make sure she'd have time to pass on her information before Aro could stop her.
She stopped for gas in a small town in Serbia where no one seemed to possess the ability to smile, and made it across the Romanian border as the sun was going down. Her eyes felt gritty and her arms heavy, but she had plenty of adrenaline and Europop on her side, so she didn't stop. The E574 wasn't in terribly good repair, but she managed not to slow down too much. Signs for Câmpulung began to loom up in the darkness, and a few moments later she pulled off down a side street in the middle of the silent town.
She needed to find a place to sleep. She needed to find someone who spoke French or English or German or Italian, or heck, Mandarin or Arabic would work too, but that probably wasn't likely to help her out much. She didn't speak...Romanian, or whatever it was they spoke here.
She drove through the sleeping streets at about 20 miles per hour, looking for an inn or motel or something. She stopped at the one place that had its lights on—a gas station. She parked and walked in, the door tinkling as she pulled it open. There was a man at the counter in a thick black coat and a pair of fingerless gloves, fiddling with an old tire. The place was lit by one naked bulb, and it wasn't heated. Nessie was already shivering.
She cleared her throat and he creaked into a standing position, blinking at her. She pointed at her car, sitting by the gas pump. He came out from behind his counter and she followed him out into the biting wind.
While he was filling her tank, she cleared her throat again, tilted her head, and placed her hands underneath her right cheek. He nodded and started talking in a language she didn't know. He waved his hand in the general direction of up-the-street, and then held up three fingers.
She handed him the wad of Romanian Leu she'd changed at the border. That morning she'd pulled a bunch of Euros from an ATM in Italy with the credit card Gianna gave her, knowing she couldn't charge anything on it in Romania. The man peeled off two bills and handed back the rest, and she got back in the car and moved three buildings up, to a little concrete house with yellow window curtains. There weren't any lights on. She pulled around the back and knocked timidly on the kitchen door. There was a grumble and a crash from upstairs, and then heavy footsteps tramping down to the door, which opened with a creaking protest.
A tiny, stoop-backed woman in a faded pink dressing gown stood before her with hair falling out of her gray bun. Nessie held up her money and did the sleeping pantomime again. The woman squinted at her bills and gestured for her to come in. The kitchen was small and grimy, dirty dishes stacked on the white linoleum counter. Nessie followed as the woman led her up a set of stairs, turning on lights as she went. She stopped at a door next to the landing, handed Nessie a key off a ring from the front pocket of her robe, and shuffled away. Nessie stood there for a moment, looking at the key, and then fit it into the lock and turned the handle.
There was a twin bed in the corner, with a flannel blanket stretched across it. A pedestal sink stood on the opposite end. The walls were a lighter shade of yellow than the curtains. She tugged off her pants and her shirt and barely managed to pull the blanket to her chin before she fell asleep.
Thank you for reading. I've just returned from India, so I should have consistent enough internet access to answer reviews again.