Dinner guest? Gluttons. Where ever did they put it all?
I had to take this thing lightly. There was no way I'd survive it otherwise. Vampire xanax or voodoo magic couldn't even begin to calm me down at this point. Whatever these weirdos had in mind, it wasn't gonna be great for Edward and me.
"Of course, Master Aro," Jane replied with a saccharine smile. She rushed off to do his bidding, but before she even left the room, Edward stepped forward, glaring at Aro.
"You can't do that," he grated, and I could see real fear in his eyes.
Aro snapped his gaze to Edward. "I can do whatever I like. And I'm afraid I must insist that you don't ruin the surprise I have for our little Bella." Voice hard and eyes even harder, he flicked a hand in our direction. "Alec, Felix…"
Another vampire materialized out of the crowd; cold, black eyes locked on Edward, who froze under the weight of that glacial stare. Felix grabbed Edward around the neck and roughly pushed him to his knees. Marble tiles cracked beneath the impact, the sharp sound echoing throughout the room.
"Stop it!" I screamed, clawing at Felix's meaty forearms, trying to pry him away from my mate, but even my fading newborn strength was no match for the guard's brutish power.
"What would you do to make him stop, little one?" Aro questioned, appearing by my side. "Would it be so bad, staying here with us? Even if this one refuses to join us, you and your talents are always welcome here."
I couldn't help the gasp that tightened my chest. A life without Edward stretched out before me, barren and empty, forever left alone with my only memories of him.
No — I'd do anything to make sure he was safe. I'd just opened my mouth to reply when there was a soft, yet commanding voice off to the side.
"Aro." It was Marcus. In a voice that sounded rough with disuse, he continued, "You know this will not work. Separate, they'll be no more useful than a wet match."
Aro sighed. "Marcus, we've discussed this already. The decision is made."
"That was before," he intoned, his mouth compressing into a thin line. "Now that I've seen them…it will not work."
Shooting the other vampire a look of sheer disdain, Aro challenged, "I don't see why we can't go ahead with our original plan."
"Their bond," Marcus answered, his eyes dark with pain and secrets so dark they'd never be brought to light. "I've never seen anything like it. They would never be as loyal to you as they are to each other."
I knew Marcus's talent allowed him to see the connections between vampires. He could literally see where one's loyalties belonged.
Aro chuffed, a sound of almost petulant displeasure. "Something must be done, or others will think nothing of challenging those rules we hold sacred. It's been a while since we made an example of someone. Perhaps we all need a reminder that the rules must be followed. Are we to send him on his way with but a slap on the wrist?"
Marcus frowned disapprovingly at Aro. "You'll be sentencing her as well. Are we so inflexible that we'll punish an innocent, talented young vampire by destroying her mate? His infraction has been contained, and you know it."
Aro was silent for long moments, lips puckering like he'd sampled something sour. "Very well." He looked toward the open doors, where Jane waited, holding a leather leash that disappeared into the darkness behind her. "But the loose end must be severed here. Bring him forward, Jane."
Happily, she gave a little tug on the cord and a body flew into the room, landing at her feet. A pained groan slipped from the heap on the floor, bringing an evil smile to her smug little face.
"Now, now," she cooed, leaning down to place a hand on the man's head. He jerked away from her touch, his entire body trembling. "Is that any way to thank me for getting you out of that nasty, dark cell?"
She received no response, but I wasn't sure she was really looking for one. It was a taunt, plain and simple. With a jolt, I realized that the cowering form was Tyler, tethered with a choke chain and leather leash. He raised his head and scanned the room, his eyes landing on me and locking there.
"Bella? You're alive?"
Despite the way we'd ended things, I'd never felt as sorry for another person as I did in that moment. There was nothing to be done for Tyler. Though he wasn't my favorite person, especially after the trouble he'd caused, I'd never wish something like this for him.
"It's me," I answered, not really sure if he was looking for an answer. If there was ever a time to ask rhetorical questions, it was when you were trapped in a room full of bloodsucking undead, right?
"You look… different."
I didn't know what to say, so I just shrugged. There wasn't any rational explanation that would make him feel better.
Tyler caught sight of Edward and scowled. "I just fucking knew there was something off about that freak," he spat, staring daggers at us.
"I'm not sure now's the time to be running your mouth, Tyler." I crossed my arms over my chest and stared him down.
Caius chose that moment to chime in. "Yes, human. Now would not be the time to 'run your mouth.'" An evil, brittle smile curved his lips. "Unless it's to scream," he added with a wicked chuckle worthy of a gothic movie.
Skin blanching pale, Tyler started toward me, stopping only when he reached the end of the leash around his neck. "What is this? What's happening here? What's going on, Bella?" He was babbling.
"Yes, young Bella, why don't you tell him what is going on here?" Aro's smile grew more sickly by the second.
I closed my eyes, trying to block out the reality of what had to happen. "You really don't want to know, Tyler."
"Why should she tell you, when she can show you?" A dry cackle followed Aro's taunt, and it was then I knew — it would be my job to take care of the problem. Turning his cold, speculating gaze toward me, he asked, "You wish to make amends for your mate's mistake, Bella?"
I could only nod woodenly, knowing what came next.
"Bella, please… don't do it." Edward's voice was pleading, desperate.
I could only look at him for a moment, but the sorrow in his eyes was too much.
Aro ignored Edward, his blood-red eyes glinting with satisfaction. "Then we must take care of the loose end," he commanded, voice ringing with finality. "No human can know our secret and remain alive." A wide grin spread across his papery lips.
He thought I couldn't do it. Hell, I wasn't sure I could do it. But I'd damn well try.
Controlling myself during the massacre earlier should have been impossible. I was nearly drained after the massive effort it had taken; there was no way I'd be able to stop if I tasted even one drop of Tyler's blood. He was doomed no matter what I chose to do.
"Secret? I don't know any secret!" Tyler stuttered, straining against his leather bindings. Jane grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, forcing him to his knees. Wisely, he shut up.
"But I'm afraid you do… and there's only one way to ensure your silence," Aro intoned, the finality of his words ringing in my ears. Turning to Edward and me, he continued, "It is the only way. Our secret must be kept. Edward already failed once to guard that secret, even if it was to save his mate.
"Noble as they are, his actions cannot go unpunished. But for talent such as yours, Bella, we shall offer a compromise: join us, and we'll take care of the problem for you. All will be forgotten." He had on his best benevolent master face. But to me, he just looked like a bad wax sculpture of himself.
I had to fight not to shiver at the sheer avarice in his tone. Aro wanted one thing, and I'd practically handed it to him on a silver platter. By tipping my hand earlier, I might have condemned Edward and me both.
"Bella has done nothing wrong, Aro," Marcus warned. "You may invite her to stay, but you have no grounds to force her. Edward, however, is a different story. Even then, once the loose end is snipped, your hold on him is moot. Our secret is safe."
Aro ground his teeth. "And you are not willing to join us, dear Bella?"
Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I answered, "I'm sorry, Aro… but no. I want nothing to do with these power plays. I've been lucky enough to find my forever…" glancing at Edward, I smiled gently. "And that's all I need. I won't join your guard, but I also won't stand against you."
"There's a heavy price to pay for your little happily ever after," Aro said. "Is it too high? What would you do for eternity with your mate?"
"Anything." I didn't fight and claw my way to happiness in this life just to toss it all away. "My place is with Edward."
"Of course, Edward is welcome as well. We could make much use of both your talents."
This is what he wanted all along. Both of us, doing his bidding like good little puppets.
"And if I take care of it myself?" I challenged. "Will you let us go?"
"Bella, no!" Edward growled, but I shook my head.
Back off, I warned him, letting him in so he could hear. His eyes searched mine, dark and pained. He didn't want this for me. Let me do this.
I'd do it for him. Anything for him.
Edward's shoulders slumped a little, his eyes dimming with a resigned cast.
Taking a deep, centering breath, I turned back to Aro and steeled myself. "I'll do it." Tyler's death was inevitable — and I could at least make it quick. Who knew what the others would do?
Aro raised an inky black brow, making himself look even more like a cartoon villain. "You would do it?"
"Yes." I hoped he didn't notice the way my voice trembled a little.
"What is everyone talking about?" Tyler wailed, his question cut off on a little moan as Jane hit him with a little dose of her pain laser.
"Silence, human," she said sweetly, grinning down at him with a menacing glare. This chick was just like the Bride of Chucky — with sharp teeth instead of shiny silver knives.
"You, a righteous Cullen, would kill a human?" The laugh that followed floated in a high-pitched lilt worthy of the queen bee of drag queens. Disbelief rife in Aro's voice, he asked, "Are you even allowed to do such a thing?"
Hell, I didn't even know, but it was only once. To protect the way we wanted to live.
"Yes," I whispered, knowing Aro could hear me while Tyler could not. I could make it quick… right?
"Bella, please, don't," Edward asked, one last time. "I'll do it."
I knew I could never let him take that responsibility. He'd told me how hard it had been when he'd stopped drinking humans… what if it pushed him over the edge?
Meeting Edward's eyes, I lifted the shield once again. Let me do this for you. For us. Please. His lids dipped closed in resignation, and I prayed he'd be able to forgive me for what I was about to do. I could do it, just this once.
For my family.
"Let Edward go," I said, glaring at Felix.
With a sadistic grin, he tightened his grip on Edward's neck, drawing a pained groan that I felt deep in my gut.
Anger speared through me like a white-hot sword, making me clench my teeth. "Let him go."
Aro smiled, his body language giving the appearance of boredom, while his eyes glinted with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. "Felix will release him when the deed is done."
I fixed him with a stony glare. "I have your word?"
Aro shrugged. "Why would I lie?"
"Good question," I growled.
Edward struggled again in Felix's grasp, but when a fine web of cracks began to spread up from his neck, he stilled, eyes fixed on mine.
Marcus stepped in again. "You have our word."
My eyes darted back and forth between the brothers. I had no choice but to accept their word as truth. I knew what I had to do. Avoiding Edward's pleading gaze, I took a deep breath and shut my eyes. I would do this, but I would do it with mercy.
In one blink to the next, I was directly in front of Tyler. With a sneer, Jane released him, stepping back behind Aro. Weak and sweating, Tyler looked up at me like I was his personal savior. Knowing that he thought I was there to rescue him caused a physical pain — one that was almost more powerful than the scorching waves of heat that wouldn't leave my throat. I could smell the blood on him from various scrapes, almost taste it gathering beneath his many bruises. Anticipation made me sick with guilt, but I was so hungry. I hadn't been this close to a human since my near miss in the jungle. And it was so much worse than I imagined.
I didn't want to be a monster, but that only made it worse. I had a conscience. Someone would die at my hand — or rather, teeth — tonight.
"It will be better this way, Tyler," I whispered, but I wasn't sure if it was to reassure him or myself. I had no way to know if it would or not. Barely a fledgling, I couldn't be sure I'd be more merciful than one of the others — not because I wanted to play with my food, but because I didn't know if I could control my urges once I tasted human blood.
"Bella, please…" Edward's voice was filled with pain, like he could feel the raging forest fire that sizzled in my throat. "Let me take care of it."
Our gazes locked, and I swore I could feel his touch from across the room. I shook my head.
I knew he'd do anything for me, but it was my turn to prove I'd do anything for him. Everything else faded away — Jane's expression of devilish glee, Marcus's apathetic stare, even Aro's avaricious glare.
Tyler flinched beneath my grasp, eyes darting around the room. "What's going on? Please?"
I could hear the trembling in his voice, feel it beneath my fingertips. "I'm so sorry. It's better this way," I repeated, swallowing back the venom that threatened to spill out of my mouth like so much drool.
My lips tingled with it.
"What do you mean?" he asked, panicking. His heart beat even faster and his breathing sped up even more, the sounds of both echoing in my ears.
The scent of him sang in my nose like the sweetest perfume.
The wet thump of his pulse thrummed through my veins like it was my own. And soon it would be — forever absorbed into my icy, undead flesh.
I had no choice. Save Edward, or save Tyler.
It wasn't a choice at all. Tyler didn't have a chance.
He never saw me coming.
The moment my teeth breached his skin, I was gone.
There was no more Bella, no more Edward, no more anything — aside from the taste of pure euphoria that bathed my tongue. I drank and drank, endless moments stretching out, piling one atop the other until I was almost drowning in a river of delicious, red elixir.
A strange chorus built into what could only be the soundtrack to a horror movie as the prey fought against my iron grip, screaming in pain and terror, howling the cries of someone who knew he was about to die.
"Snap his neck, Bella!" Edward's voice was so far away… why was he here?
The human struggled beneath my grasp, bones breaking beneath the force of my grip. He wasn't Tyler anymore, wasn't a person — just food. He ceased to be human, and I lost whatever part of me used to be one.
Power bubbled through my veins, blood burning with an effervescence that had me soaring higher than a satellite. I drew and drew on the bite, greedily sucking down every drop it had to offer. When the wound began to clot, I bit again, moaning at the taste of fresh, hot blood pumping into my mouth once again.
Useless fingers clawed at any part of me they could reach, glancing off of my diamond-hard skin like feathers. Weakening legs kicked at my shins, grappled for purchase on the cold, slick floor. None of it mattered.
All the while, the sound of a dying heart beat faster, harder, driving that sweet, precious fluid right down my waiting throat.
It was everything I'd ever wanted and more. Like I'd been starving until this very moment. Nothing would ever suffice now that I'd tasted it. How could I go back?
I ignored the voice calling my name in favor of the feast in front of me. The symphony of power and flavor that washed over me with every swallow, timed in perfect rhythm with that racing heart.
All too soon, the beat of that wondrous heart slowed, the prey in my arms stopped moving, and finally… there was one last thud…
And the fountain ran dry.
A rage enveloped me, coating my vision with black. I threw the body across the room, not even cringing when I heard the sickening crack of bones as it hit the wall.
I just wanted more.
"You can have it, Young Bella," Aro whispered, coming up behind me. "Join us."
I whirled, wrapping my fingers around his neck. "Give it to me!" I snarled, squeezing hard enough to see his eyes bulge out. "NOW!"
Large, inescapable fingers curled around my neck, and I found myself caught in an impenetrable grip. "Let. Him. Go."
"Let him go, Bella!"
Everything snapped back to reality, and Edward was standing beside me as Felix held me still, having abandoned Edward to rescue Aro. He was ready to rip my head off should I move a muscle, ready to tear my head from my shoulders faster than I could blink. Lungs caving in on a powerful sob, I let my hand fall from Aro's neck and slumped against Felix's hold. He threw me to the ground and I skittered across the room like a pebble over a glassy lake. I didn't even try to protect myself. Marble chipped and flaked beneath my skin.
What have I done?
My eyes zeroed in on Tyler's crumpled body, lying broken and mangled, inches from my face. "Oh, God… Oh, Godohgodohgod!"
Suddenly I was in Edward's arms, cradled against his familiar body. I fought against his embrace, because not even the overwhelming, relieved feeling of being in his arms could cancel out the guilt, the weight of what I'd done.
But even so I knew deep down I'd do the same thing over and over again. And again, if Edward needed me to.
At the same time, I wondered if I could never go back.
Could I go back to drinking animals? To such a poor substitute for the ecstasy I'd found in those fleeting moments with my true prey?
My eyes snapped to Edward's, which were nearly black with pain, anger and anxiousness.
"You've got to, Bella," he whispered. "I can't do it alone."
Even though I was virtually pulsing with power, I'd been completely open to him, shield down and thoughts plain. I couldn't keep anything from him… couldn't live without him… ever. Edward was my mate, my forever. My home was where he was.
And that was worth more than drinking a thousand — no, a million — humans.
I took a deep, calming breath, reining in the energy that pulsed from every pore. I had done this to save my mate. Not because I wanted it. I'd never wanted to be a monster — but I would become one for Edward.
"It's over," I whispered shakily, leaning into his embrace. "I'm okay."
He simply held me tight, body rocking mine slightly, head buried in my neck. I mirrored his position and we took comfort in each other… until Aro's oily voice intruded.
"Your transgressions have been forgotten, young Edward, but not quite forgiven. Your mate might have dispensed with the… problem, but I'm afraid I cannot let you leave without a price." He turned his blood-stained, cold eyes toward me.
Anger churned in my gut. Drawing myself out of Edward's arms, I faced Aro. "I did what you asked," I said through clenched teeth, "Now it's time for you to return the favor."
"As I said, there is a price." He spoke over me as if he hadn't heard my protest. "That price is a century in the guard."
"No!" I burst out, stalking forward, "You can't do that! You promised!"
"Bella!" Edward hissed, grabbing my elbow. "Stop."
Aro smiled. "I only promised I wouldn't kill him, my dear." Eyes going cold, he scanned me from head to toe. "Consider yourself lucky after that display of yours. Perhaps you'd do well to experience the discipline of a century in the guard along with your mate."
It took all I had to keep my mouth shut. I let Edward drag me back against his body, drawing on his strength to calm myself down.
Satisfied, Aro turned his attention back on Edward and continued, "You must remain here in the city, preferably here in the castle, for the next one hundred years. When I have need of your particular talents, I expect you to be available to me." He clasped his hands together in front of his chest and sighed happily. "Of course, you're welcome to stay here with him, Bella. And I do hope you might change your mind about joining us. After all, what's a mere century when one is immortal?" Chuckling, he added, "What is it the humans say? 'If you can't beat them, join them?'"
I'd had enough. What more would I have to do to convince these crazies that I wasn't a threat? I'd already killed a human for them, compromised one of my most sacred promises to myself. Why should I sit back while these people — whom I didn't even know — decided my fate?
I didn't need protection. There was a good chance I was still the strongest vampire here. And with the effects of all that human blood coursing through my system, I would be even more powerful.
I gripped Edward by the wrists, rendering us invisible.
"Don't, Bella!" Edward shouted, but it wasn't just his voice that stopped me.
"Wait!" Another voice called out from behind the shadows of the great doors. Alice stood in the doorway, Jasper a step behind her.
Forgetting the shield, I sucked in a shocked breath. "How did you know?" I whispered. I'd never been so glad to see Alice. Who'd have thought?
With a brittle smile, she tapped her temple.
Turning to Edward, she said, "This is my reparation, Edward. I can only hope it's enough." She walked right up to Aro, hand extended. "Alice Cullen. Clairvoyant extraordinaire."
With an expression that bordered on rapture, Aro took her fingers in his, bowing his head. His lids lowered, eyes flickering back and forth beneath them, like he was dreaming. When he finished, he dropped her hand and swayed, bliss smoothing the papery lines of his face.
"Amazing," he breathed, glancing between Alice and Edward. "But why should I give them up, when I could have all three of you — a mind reader, a seer, and a shield?"
"Look again, Aro," Alice instructed, voice hard. "Do you see?"
Aro's eyes glowed like red-hot coals in his ash-pale face. "You lie," he hissed. Alice tried to pull her hand from his, but he held on so tight I heard a few creaks.
"Do you think I could fool you? Why would I even try?" she asked, playing on his arrogance. "I'm only trying to help you — with a century of Jasper and I by your side, you'll amass riches and power like you've never imagined. Are you willing to risk all that for a simple shield and her mind reading mate?"
They stood there, locked in silence, Aro's creepy eyes darting back and forth as he processed the information. Edward gasped, stricken. He edged closer to me, as if seeking comfort. Whatever he saw, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know.
"There is such a thing as too much power, Aro," Alice whispered. "Would you risk it, knowing what could happen? I am willing. Edward and Bella are not."
Aro's bleeding red eyes widened, first in what looked like joy, and then in what was definitely horror.
Edward jerked me behind his body as he cried out, "No!" He and Jasper formed a wall in front of me, sparking a rush of anger that burned through my chest, a wave of fury that even Jasper's calming influence couldn't contain.
I pushed my way between them, only to give in when Edward urged me back, panic blazing in his eyes. "What's going on?"
No one said anything for a long moment that stretched out impossibly, and then…
"She'll be the death of us all!" Aro hissed, fixing me with a glare full of hatred.
Murmurs of fear and disbelief rippled throughout the chamber, piercing the heavy silence like diamond-hard blades.
"The end will be the same no matter what you choose, Aro," Alice told him calmly, then shrugged. "Unless you make the right choice. Accept my bargain, and let Edward and Bella go."
"Think about it, Aro. Your avarice will destroy everything you've built here," Jasper said quietly, his deep voice startling me. It was the first thing he'd said here, though he'd been helping in his own, silent way, by projecting a calming influence to the rest of the room.
Stiffly, Aro released Alice's hand, allowing her to step back and join us.
Aro cleared his throat and swallowed, the nervous gesture oddly human. "It seems we are done here," he murmured. "Marcus?" he questioned, without looking in the other vampire's direction.
Marcus simply nodded, acknowledging the strength of Alice and Jasper's loyalty.
"I shall expect you in my office tomorrow evening," Aro said stiffly. Alice and Jasper nodded. Turning to address Edward and me, he added, "There are stipulations."
A long glance passed between them, and then Edward nodded.
"Yes, Aro." Edward said nothing else, just took my hand, and I knew he'd explain everything to me later.
"You may go." Aro waved his hand, and we were dismissed.
I couldn't get out of there fast enough, but as soon as we started toward the doors, he called, "And Edward? No more mistakes."
Edward looked back and nodded solemnly. "No more mistakes."