X.


Bella had never before acknowledged that the chambers of Volterra carried characters as distinct as those of their occupants. It took only a nudge from her newly-honed senses, precise as a scalpel's silver slide, to reveal the history of the place where she had been led. This room of steel and slate, she was certain, belonged to Caius, for it carried the scent of horror and flame with nothing of whimsy to lend it light.

The three ancients, in robes barren as a winter night, watched her from their shadowy archipelago of chairs. Perhaps this was a test of patience, for she had been given no orders and Jane stood beside her, equally unmoving.

As always, Aro shattered the gloom with beautiful laughter.

"Come, dear Jane, you must not look so sullen. The resemblance between Caius and yourself is growing uncanny, little one," he remarked. "Bella's resilience to your talent is now a cause for celebration, not envy."

Jane turned to flame where she stood, and the newborn immortal in a blood-bathed, cobweb-dress understood that the dainty, dour girl had been inflicting fruitless torture upon her for minutes.

"We must, of course, see how you fare against the other guards, my lovely Isabella," Aro crooned, beginning the parade of thwarted talent.

[-]

Time seemed weightless, with no thrum of heartbeats to measure it, but Bella could only think that she had been tossed upon stone for far too long. When the shield threaded through her mind had repelled the talents of the guards with varying success, the ancients began to call forth their ungifted followers, creatures of oak and strength whose grasp she could not hope to evade.

When Felix, the last of her challengers, had left the torchlit chamber, brushing unscarred knuckles upon his cloak in a mockingly human gesture, the brothers looped their hands together, sharing papery secrets. Bella could only stand there, holding herself still as a doll while her fate was negotiated in silence.

"Bella, Bella, Bella, what am I to do with you?" Aro fussed with knotted fingers as his companions melted into shadows, grief and wrath beckoning them away. "Caius claims that your talent is only useful in opposing us. Once more, he has called for your death, and I am fearful that Marcus will soon be swayed by that reasoning."

The ploy's direction was visible, an easy attempt to force her hand, a revelation of her gift's facets.

"You can't guess what I can do," Bella said, something purring and uncurling in her tone. "I mean, I can't either, but it's still a puzzle, isn't it?"

"An appeal to curiosity," Aro mused. "Remarkably clever, little one."

"You're wrong," the gliding, seductive creature wearing her skin said, bold as the blood painting her front. "I'm appealing to your desire, not your intellect. Tell me, Aro, have you ever exhausted so much effort on anyone else?"

She was close to him now, the silence between them stretched with candlelight and the memory of butterfly-wing caresses. Somewhere deep within, the logical wheels and watchsprings of her mind told her that newly clear sight should find this man-shaped monster hideous, a creature of decaying grandeur and ugly ambitions, but the copper of disgust did not taint her tongue.

"Do not overestimate yourself, my lovely Isabella," Aro laughed. "A handful of kisses and a month of boredom were the price of your allegiance. I cannot think of anyone, guard or ancient, who joined our ranks so readily. It does not suit your deliciously honest nature to cast me as the villain in this little passion play of ours."

There were cadences in his voice that struck her as utterly unfamiliar, rimed with supremacy and the lingering lace of time. There was now no necessity to masquerade as the earnest lover, the ruthless ruler brought low by a fawn-eyed girl; only a grinning god remained, craftily careless.

There was little Bella could say, though she faltered for words to mask the sting of insignificance.

"What am I to do now?" she asked. "Are there duties I must perform or—"

"I have no knowledge of how the guards spend their days, and you, my dear, are among their ranks for the time being. You will go to Heidi, and she will direct you," he crooned. "And I think you have earned your cloak."

With a cool smile, Aro bent and kissed her cheek. "I am certain that you will grow to cherish this life, Bella mia," he said, and she was ashamed at the flare of phantom warmth beneath shale skin.

"So, this is it, then?" she demanded with a sudden uprising of temper.

"Is there anything more to be said?" the ancient wondered. "Ah—yes, there is. My title is 'master' now—the privilege of the praenomen is extended only to those I value as dear. Your history books may have mentioned it."

The arrogance of him, the blistered, bloody contempt, was unbearable and Bella lunged. It could have been rage that curled her muscles, tensed her tendons and stolen her mind, but as the fractions of seconds slowed to honey, she knew that vengeance was thwarted passion's pale twin.

She was in his arms then, pressed far too close against heavy wool, his mouth wrenched down to her level. This kiss was desperate, shards of glass beneath her tongue, unlike anything she had shared with any lover, human or immortal. As the inferno within her ribs threatened to turn her lungs into torn tissue, something shifted in her mind for a minute, the silent arch and release of a bow, but she did not consider it, already lost.

"What did you do?" Aro demanded, his composure showing fissures for the first time as he flinched away.

"I—I don't know, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—" she stammered, appalled at the polarity of her conduct, the leaps between meekness and searing heat.

"Not the kiss, my dear—that was not difficult to anticipate. Your shield... it wavered for a moment, and I saw your mind. It was brief, but I admit myself compelled." He stepped away, withdrawing into the shadows of his own plot and plans, before his attention returned to the wavering, dark-haired girl before him.

"That gift of yours has flexibility," he laughed, utterly delighted by his new plaything. "Now, there is a mystery for us to unwind. If your mind can be uncovered, then you are a supremely ordinary creature. A disappointment, of course, but what can be done?"

Bella's spine tightened, a violin string tuned to an unreachable note as she discerned the threat behind the mask. Aro's attentions secured his goodwill, and a transient gift would grant her neither.

"Of course, that elasticity could perhaps extend beyond yourself—ah, my Bella, you are full of such charming surprises today," Aro cooed. "I feel obligated to forgive you the shameless breach of protocol."

Once more, Bella heard the soothing, wine-rich notes enter his tone, tempting as ancient power. Painfully and vividly, she knew that the master of deception was toying with her, plucking the strings of her heart like a puppeteer...

...it did not matter. Her gift, unwanted and misunderstood though it was, had granted her another chance to impress, and she did not consider wasting it. Whatever request Aro posed, whatever demands he made, she would acquiesce because she was beautiful now, faceted and tiptoeing upon the charred brink of power and passions bleaker than any she could have conjured in her mind—

"Bella mia, I ask you to be in my study tomorrow night. Your sudden turn towards the anomalous interests me enough to spur inquiry. You know where the room is, I believe?" Aro's grin was candle flame, as her mind produced unwanted, red-swollen memories of bare skin against a desk and exquisite, delirious heat.

"Of course," she murmured, not adding the title of master to the phrase's end. Her magnificent companion did not seem to mind the irreverence.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: Once more, I apologize for the terribly delayed update.

If it's any consolation, I've mostly planned the rest of the story- it shouldn't have much more than five chapters after this one. Hopefully the speed of my writing increases from its current pathetic tempo of one chapter written every three months.