"We haven't met Athenodora yet, Caius," Aro said conversationally.
Across the council table from him, I looked up from the reports I was reading. Talking to my brother would be a relief compared to deciphering Felix's handwriting but this particular topic did not appeal to me.
"I thought you would be overwhelming. She does not need more motivation to hate us." I couldn't imagine Aro interacting with any human using care or caution.
"Oh I do not intend to overwhelm her. Just the usual procedure," he said.
"How am I going to tell her that you want to read her every thought?" I countered. We were all accustomed to giving Aro our hands. At least he didn't linger, never bothering to examine each memory one by one. He took what he needed and left the rest of our minds alone. In the case of the human girl though, he would be interested enough to look at everything. I knew that would disturb her even before I had mentioned it to her.
"You know it is necessary dear brother," he said.
"Very well." I couldn't find a logical reason to disagree with him and I wasn't about to make an argument based upon a human girl's hurt feelings.
"If you explain the reasons behind it, I'm certain that she will not mind so much," Marcus suggested.
"And perhaps we will find that she's gifted," Aro added, grinning like he always did when he considered adding someone to our coven.
I felt a stab of something protective and unexpected in between my ribs. I did not care if Athenodora had a gift and dragging her into our ambitions and games seemed cruel all of a sudden. She was not asking to join us, after all. This defensiveness made no sense however, so I stayed silent.
Two weeks in Volterra had lulled me into a kind of calm. Somewhere along the line, my brain decided that it had a choice between being terrified during every waking moment or simply waiting for something to happen. It had gone with the second option.
I mostly spent my time exploring the library. Occasionally I could feel someone watching me, but when I looked over my shoulder, whipping my head around so fast that my hair flew everywhere, they were already gone. Caius was more direct. If he wanted to observe me, he just sat in front of me, a pale, beautiful statue, and stared while I read. He was so good at staying motionless and silent that I stopped minding
Maybe he was only curious about me, nothing more. At least that's what I hoped for. I didn't really like to think about the fact that I'd adjusted so quickly to spending time with a vampire who wanted something from me. Most of all, I ignored the thirst in his eyes. Its intensity repelled and attracted me at the same time. The opposing feelings were too strange to reconcile.
Today, though, something was different. Caius walked into the room I was beginning to call mine without knocking. Instead of the usual suits that apparently passed for casual clothes among immortals, he was wearing the long dark robes I had only seen once before. Everything about him- the set of his shoulders, the slash of his scowl- seemed both angry and hesitant. I had never seen him express those emotions towards me before, although he was famous for them.
"Come with me," he said. It was an order, and I was immediately afraid.
"My brothers would like to meet you," he told me. That was the polite way of putting it, I decided.
"I was scared for a moment there," I admitted. "You look… worried." And if you're worried, I'm dead, my thoughts added quickly.
"Aro reads minds. He is interested in yours." Caius did not meet my eyes.
"What?" I said.
He'd assume that I was reacting to the idea of having my thoughts invaded. That was partially true. The other half of my confused response stemmed from his obvious dread of telling me this. As if he was somewhat interested in my opinion on the matter.
"When he touches you, he will see all of your thoughts. I'm sure you can imagine why this is necessary," he said, proving my theory. Aro's gift shocked me with its power, but I had begun to understand that all of the Volturi were exceptional. I wanted to ask Caius whether he had an ability too, but thought better of it at the last minute. "
"No." My refusal wouldn't change anything; I already knew that. Simply saying it made me feel a little better, though.
"You do not have a choice." There was nothing authoritarian in his tone now. Mostly, he just sounded unhappy.
"How can you live with that?" I wondered. It seemed like an enormous violation of privacy and a reminder that nobody could be trusted completely. After three thousand years of having my thoughts casually watched, as he did, I'd have gone mad.
"I do not have much to hide," Caius said bluntly, before taking my arm and leading me out the door.
His fingers rested cool and light on my skin. The sensation wasn't entirely unpleasant. Somehow, I had come to associate it with protection, which just proved that my brain was malfunctioning.
The room I found myself in was much smaller than the chamber with the thrones and the grate in the floor. It seemed more casual too, like a boardroom or an office. Two dark haired men already sat in chairs alongside a mahogany table. Both of them had the delicate skin and burgundy eyes that I had begun to associate with Caius and Didyme. The youngest of the pair looked on the verge of a welcoming smile, and I jumped to the conclusion that this was Didyme's mate. They seemed to suit each other.
The other immortal intimidated me and I couldn't decide why. He was thin and tall, but nothing about his face was menacing. Maybe there was something subtle in his movements or expressions, an indicator of the power he held. This had to be Aro. Caius took his seat on this man's left, and I watched them exchange a few words, too soft for me to hear. Then, the dark-haired vampire stood up.
"Miss Athenodora," he said. "Caius tells me that you are a clever girl. You can therefore guess how terribly strange your position is here." His voice sounded feathery and sinister at the same time.
I nodded mutely.
"While I trust my brother's judgment, I am most curious to know more about you. I hope you can understand that."
It was hard to keep track of what Aro was saying. He was lying, that much was obvious. Still, I didn't know enough about this strange, smiling vampire to guess what he actually wanted.
Suddenly, he was standing in front of me, hand extended. There was nothing else to do but place my fingers on his palm and wait. I expected to feel something while he read my mind, a headache maybe or the sensation of memories flashing before me, but nothing like that came. Instead, I just watched while Aro's eyes closed and his mouth turned upwards into a grin.
"Very interesting," he said lightly. His fingers crooked into a 'come here' gesture, and he said something softly. It sounded like 'Jane'. A little girl glided to his side, a beautiful child with round, red eyes. I wondered how old she was, and how long she had served Aro. There was something terribly practised to her arrival. She smiled when she looked at me and there was no kindness there.
In an instant, everything burned, as if fire had been poured into my veins. Every twitch of muscle made the pain intensify, and I couldn't open my mouth to scream. Even counting the seconds in my head didn't work; I couldn't focus long enough for that. The agony was unimaginable and all-encompassing.
And then it stopped. I couldn't feel anything at all, my vision and sense of balance completely cut off. I couldn't even hear my breathing and heartbeat. The small corner of my brain that remained rational whispered that this was probably my nervous system responding to the shock of the burning. That didn't help at all, and I found myself blindly panicking. Being dead was better than this. Being buried alive too.
Suddenly, everything was normal again. My senses returned immediately, and I found myself standing shakily in the same spot where I had been before, facing the same little girl and a dark-haired boy at her side. It was Caius who had spoken.
"She clearly does not have a shield," he said to Aro, who nodded peacefully in response.
Their conversation, calm and unworried, reminded me just how powerless I was in this situation. If they didn't mind torturing me, they certainly would not care about killing me. I expected that kind of callousness from Aro and Marcus because they had no reason to act differently. I couldn't believe I had been stupid enough to expect mercy from Caius.
I could feel myself wobbling on the spot. The aftershocks from pain and paralysis were making me dizzy and I hated myself for being so pathetically weak. I couldn't endure anything here without fainting or falling or stumbling. Being mortal seemed like an impossible liability. For one stupid moment, I considered agreeing to immortality just so I could stand a chance against these creatures.
In the space of a blink, Caius appeared at my side. "I will bring her here again if you need her," he told his brothers while wrapping a steadying arm around my waist.
"Come, Athenodora," he said. "You need to rest."
He was terrible at caring. Every movement of his was uncertain and hesitant, as though he'd never done this before, or forgotten how to. I'd received less awkward reassurance from total strangers. Nonetheless, I realized that although Caius was undoubtedly a monster, he was also trying to be on my side.
Once again, I settled Athenodora on the couch in my chambers. She looked white as marble, her skin sharply contrasting with the deep, rich colours. In this light, the shadows under her eyes were prominent, and she looked so delicate that I could break her with a touch.
"Why…?" her voice shivered before she could finish the question, but I could guess what she wanted to know.
I hated the Cullen boy and his pet even more. Aro had never tried the twins' gifts on our various mortal visitors before, but the Swan girl's aberrant brain resulted in my little human being tortured.
"Jane and Alec's gifts affect everyone in the way you experienced. Having them on our side secures our rule. Aro is eager to determine whether someone can resist their powers before making that person immortal," I said.
"Are you hurt?" I asked when she didn't reply. I desperately wanted to touch her. My feral side demanded that I comfort her and reassure myself that she was all right immediately. Settling for the absolute minimum, I curled my fingers around her hand and stroked the smooth skin of her wrist.
"I'm fine now," she said quietly. "But that was awful." There was a tremor in her voice that I had not heard before and she didn't raise her eyes from her knees.
"It will not happen again," I said, so vehemently that it was almost a growl. "I did not know Aro would do that. I should have predicted it, and I apologize." For me, this was practically babbling but I meant every word of it. If my brother tried something like that again, I could not say what I would do to his witch children.
"I'm so tired," she said, her shoulders sagging. "Whether you want to kill me or transform me or whatever…please, just do it and get it over with."
Her broken expression was unbearable and for an instant I thought that I would say and do anything to make her smile again.
"What can I give you?" I said, thinking of everything the Volturi could buy or steal or make. "What would make you happy?"
"I don't know anymore," she admitted. The fabric of her skirt was creased where her fingers had crumpled it again and again.
Because I did not know what else to do, I wrapped my arms around her. The embrace came easily, almost without thinking. As soon as I touched her, I felt content. The reaction was instantaneous and undeniable, unlike anything I had experienced before.
Human, I reminded myself. She was human and imperfect and pitiful. Her heartbeat, fast and shallow, was a constant reminder of that as was the delicious promise of her blood. Despite that, she was so soft and fragile in my arms. The novelty of warmth surrounding me made me forget everything else. I could only focus on the smell of raspberries that clung to her skin and the silky scrape of her hair under my hands. And most of all, I could not ignore the feeling of rightness. Every cell in my body screamed that Athenodora belonged here, so close to me that I could feel her breathing.
She did not pull away from me. Instead she shifted closer while the pressure of her hands on my shoulders increased a little. I refused to pretend that she wanted anything to do with me because I was not in the habit of lying to myself. Fear and loneliness probably drove her to this more than anything else.
When she eventually let go, I nearly hissed in displeasure. Her eyes were a little brighter and some of the terror was gone.
"I still don't trust you," she told me warily.
Nobody had dared to say that to my face in a few centuries. Instead of being angry, I found myself trying not to grin.
AN: Sorry for the late update. All of my awesome readers get a big thank you for their favs and reviews. Your comments mean a lot to me and I really do consider your suggestions in my writing. As usual, please let me know what you think about this chapter.