The Cullens’ enormous house was more crowded with guests than anyone would assume could possibly be comfortable. It only worked out because none of the visitors slept. Mealtimes were dicey, though. Our company cooperated as best they could. They gave Forks and La Push a wide berth, only hunting out of state; Edward was a gracious host, lending out his cars as needed without so much as a wince. The compromise made me very uncomfortable, though I tried to tell myself that they’d all be hunting somewhere in the world, regardless.
Jacob was even more upset. The werewolves existed to prevent the loss of human life, and here was rampant murder being condoned barely outside the packs’ borders. But under these circumstances, with Renesmee in acute danger, he kept his mouth shut and glared at the floor rather than the vampires.
I was amazed at the easy acceptance the visiting vampires had for Jacob; the problems Edward had anticipated had never materialized. Jacob seemed more or less invisible to them, not quite a person, but also not food, either. They treated him the way people who are not animal-lovers treat the pets of their friends.
Leah, Seth, Quil, and Embry were assigned to run with Sam for now, and Jacob would have happily joined them, except that he couldn’t stand to be away from Renesmee, and Renesmee was busy fascinating the strange collection of Carlisle’s friends.
We’d replayed the scene of Renesmee’s introduction to the Denali coven a half dozen times. First for Peter and Charlotte, whom Alice and Jasper had sent our way without giving them any explanation at all; like most people who knew Alice, they trusted her instructions despite the lack of information. Alice had told them nothing about which direction she and Jasper were heading. She’d made no promise to ever see them again in the future.
Neither Peter nor Charlotte had ever seen an immortal child. Though they knew the rule, their negative reaction was not as powerful as the Denali vampires’ had been at first. Curiosity had driven them to allow Renesmee’s “explanation.” And that was it. Now they were as committed to witnessing as Tanya’s family.
Carlisle had sent friends from Ireland and Egypt.
The Irish clan arrived first, and they were surprisingly easy to convince. Siobhan—a woman of immense presence whose huge body was both beautiful and mesmerizing as it moved in smooth undulations—was the leader, but she and her hard-faced mate, Liam, were long used to trusting the judgment of their newest coven member. Little Maggie, with her bouncy red curls, was not physically imposing like the other two, but she had a gift for knowing when she was being lied to, and her verdicts were never contested. Maggie declared that Edward spoke the truth, and so Siobhan and Liam accepted our story absolutely before even touching Renesmee.
Amun and the other Egyptian vampires were another story. Even after two younger members of his coven, Benjamin and Tia, had been convinced by Renesmee’s explanation, Amun refused to touch her and ordered his coven to leave. Benjamin—an oddly cheerful vampire who looked barely older than a boy and seemed both utterly confident and utterly careless at the same time—persuaded Amun to stay with a few subtle threats about disbanding their alliance. Amun stayed, but continued to refuse to touch Renesmee, and would not allow his mate, Kebi, to touch her, either. It seemed an unlikely grouping—though the Egyptians all looked so alike, with their midnight hair and olive-toned pallor, that they easily could have passed for a biological family. Amun was the senior member and the outspoken leader. Kebi never strayed farther away from Amun than his shadow, and I never heard her speak a single word. Tia, Benjamin’s mate, was a quiet woman as well, though when she did speak there was great insight and gravity to everything she said. Still, it was Benjamin whom they all seemed to revolve around, as if he had some invisible magnetism the others depended upon for their balance. I saw Eleazar staring at the boy with wide eyes and assumed Benjamin had a talent that drew the others to him.
“It’s not that,” Edward told me when we were alone that night. “His gift is so singular that Amun is terrified of losing him. Much like we had planned to keep Renesmee from Aro’s knowledge”—he sighed—“Amun has been keeping Benjamin from Aro’s attention. Amun created Benjamin, knowing he would be special.”
“What can he do?”
“Something Eleazar’s never seen before. Something I’ve never heard of. Something that even your shield would do nothing against.” He grinned his crooked smile at me. “He can actually influence the elements—earth, wind, water, and fire. True physical manipulation, no illusion of the mind. Benjamin’s still experimenting with it, and Amun tries to mold him into a weapon. But you see how independent Benjamin is. He won’t be used.”
“You like him,” I surmised from the tone of his voice.
“He has a very clear sense of right and wrong. I like his attitude.”
Amun’s attitude was something else, and he and Kebi kept to themselves, though Benjamin and Tia were well on their way to being fast friends with both the Denali and the Irish covens. We hoped that Carlisle’s return would ease the remaining tension with Amun.
Emmett and Rose sent individuals—any nomad friends of Carlisle’s that they could track down.
Garrett came first—a tall, rangy vampire with eager ruby eyes and long sandy hair he kept tied back with a leather thong—and it was apparent immediately that he was an adventurer. I imagined that we could have presented him with any challenge and he would have accepted, just to test himself. He fell in quickly with the Denali sisters, asking endless questions about their unusual lifestyle. I wondered if vegetarianism was another challenge he would try, just to see if he could do it.
Mary and Randall also came—friends already, though they did not travel together. They listened to Renesmee’s story and stayed to witness like the others. Like the Denalis, they considered what they would do if the Volturi did not pause for explanations. All three of the nomads toyed with the idea of standing with us.
Of course, Jacob got more surly with each new addition. He kept his distance when he could, and when he couldn’t he grumbled to Renesmee that someone was going to have to provide an index if anyone expected him to keep all the new bloodsuckers’ names straight.*
Carlisle and Esme returned a week after they had gone, Emmett and Rosalie just a few days later, and all of us felt better when they were home. Carlisle brought one more friend home with him, though friend might have been the wrong term. Alistair was a misanthropic English vampire who counted Carlisle as his closest acquaintance, though he could hardly stand a visit more than once a century. Alistair very much preferred to wander alone, and Carlisle had called in a lot of favors to get him here. He shunned all company, and it was clear he didn’t have any admirers in the gathered covens.
The brooding dark-haired vampire took Carlisle at his word about Renesmee’s origins, refusing, like Amun, to touch her. Edward told Carlisle, Esme, and me that Alistair was afraid to be here, but more afraid of not knowing the outcome. He was deeply suspicious of all authority, and therefore naturally suspicious of the Volturi. What was happening now seemed to confirm all his fears.
“Of course, now they’ll know I was here,” we heard him grumble to himself in the attic—his preferred spot to sulk. “No way to keep it from Aro at this point. Centuries on the run, that’s what this will mean. Everyone Carlisle’s talked to in the last decade will be on their list. I can’t believe I got myself sucked into this mess. What a fine way to treat your friends.”
But if he was right about having to run from the Volturi, at least he had more hope of doing that than the rest of us. Alistair was a tracker, though not nearly as precise and efficient as Demetri. Alistair just felt an elusive pull toward whatever he was seeking. But that pull would be enough to tell him which direction to run—the opposite direction from Demetri.
And then another pair of unexpected friends arrived—unexpected, because neither Carlisle nor Rosalie had been able to contact the Amazons.
“Carlisle,” the taller of the two very tall feline women greeted him when they arrived. Both of them seemed as if they’d been stretched—long arms and legs, long fingers, long black braids, and long faces with long noses. They wore nothing but animal skins—hide vests and tight-fitting pants that laced on the sides with leather ties. It wasn’t just their eccentric clothes that made them seem wild but everything about them, from their restless crimson eyes to their sudden, darting movements. I’d never met any vampires less civilized.
But Alice had sent them, and that was interesting news, to put it mildly. Why was Alice in South America? Just because she’d seen that no one else would be able to get in touch with the Amazons?
“Zafrina and Senna! But where’s Kachiri?” Carlisle asked. “I’ve never seen you three apart.”
“Alice told us we needed to separate,” Zafrina answered in the rough, deep voice that matched her wild appearance. “It’s uncomfortable to be away from each other, but Alice assured us that you needed us here, while she very much needed Kachiri somewhere else. That’s all she would tell us, except that there was a great hurry… ?” Zafrina’s statement trailed off into a question, and—with the tremor of nerves that never went away no matter how often I did this—I brought Renesmee out to meet them.
Despite their fierce appearance, they listened very calmly to our story, and then allowed Renesmee to prove the point. They were every bit as taken with Renesmee as any of the other vampires, but I couldn’t help worrying as I watched their swift, jerky movements so close beside her. Senna was always near Zafrina, never speaking, but it wasn’t the same as Amun and Kebi. Kebi’s manner seemed obedient; Senna and Zafrina were more like two limbs of one organism—Zafrina just happened to be the mouthpiece.
The news about Alice was oddly comforting. Clearly, she was on some obscure mission of her own as she avoided whatever Aro had planned for her.
Edward was thrilled to have the Amazons with us, because Zafrina was enormously talented; her gift could make a very dangerous offensive weapon. Not that Edward was asking for Zafrina to side with us in the battle, but if the Volturi did not pause when they saw our witnesses, perhaps they would pause for a different kind of scene.
“It’s a very straightforward illusion,” Edward explained when it turned out that I couldn’t see anything, as usual. Zafrina was intrigued and amused by my immunity—something she’d never encountered before—and she hovered restlessly while Edward described what I was missing. Edward’s eyes unfocused slightly as he continued. “She can make most people see whatever she wants them to see—see that, and nothing else. For example, right now I would appear to be alone in the middle of a rain forest. It’s so clear I might possibly believe it, except for the fact that I can still feel you in my arms.”
Zafrina’s lips twitched into her hard version of a smile. A second later, Edward’s eyes focused again, and he grinned back.
“Impressive,” he said.
Renesmee was fascinated with the conversation, and she reached out fearlessly toward Zafrina.
“Can I see?” she asked.
“What would you like to see?” Zafrina asked.
“What you showed Daddy.”
Zafrina nodded, and I watched anxiously as Renesmee’s eyes stared blankly into space. A second later, Renesmee’s dazzling smile lit up her face.
“More,” she commanded.
After that, it was hard to keep Renesmee away from Zafrina and her pretty pictures. I worried, because I was quite sure that Zafrina was able to create images that were not pretty at all. But through Renesmee’s thoughts I could see Zafrina’s visions for myself—they were as clear as any of Renesmee’s own memories, like they were real—and thus judge for myself whether they were appropriate or not.
Though I didn’t give her up easily, I had to admit it was a good thing Zafrina was keeping Renesmee entertained. I needed my hands. I had so much to learn, both physically and mentally, and the time was so short.
My first attempt at learning to fight did not go well.
Edward had me pinned in about two seconds. But instead of letting me wrestle my way free—which I absolutely could have—he’d leaped up and away from me. I knew immediately that something was wrong; he was still as stone, staring across the meadow we were practicing in.
“I’m sorry, Bella,” he said.
“No, I’m fine,” I said. “Let’s go again.”
“What do you mean, you can’t? We just started.”
He didn’t answer.
“Look, I know I’m no good at this, but I can’t get better if you don’t help me.”
He said nothing. Playfully, I sprang at him. He made no defense at all, and we both fell to the ground. He was motionless as I pressed my lips to his jugular.
“I win,” I announced.
His eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
“Edward? What’s wrong? Why won’t you teach me?”
A full minute passed before he spoke again.
“I just can’t… bear it. Emmett and Rosalie know as much as I do. Tanya and Eleazar probably know more. Ask someone else.”
“That’s not fair! You’re good at this. You helped Jasper before—you fought with him and all the others, too. Why not me? What did I do wrong?”
He sighed, exasperated. His eyes were dark, barely any gold to lighten the black.
“Looking at you that way, analyzing you as a target. Seeing all the ways I can kill you . . .” He flinched. “It just makes it too real for me. We don’t have so much time that it will really make a difference who your teacher is. Anyone can teach you the fundamentals.”
He touched my pouting lower lip and smiled. “Besides, it’s unnecessary. The Volturi will stop. They will be made to understand.”
“But if they don’t! I need to learn this.”
“Find another teacher.”
That was not our last conversation on the subject, but I never swayed him an inch from his decision.
Emmett was more than willing to help, though his teaching felt to me a lot like revenge for all the lost arm-wrestling matches. If I could still bruise, I would have been purple from head to toe. Rose, Tanya, and Eleazar all were patient and supportive. Their lessons reminded me of Jasper’s fighting instructions to the others last June, though those memories were fuzzy and indistinct. Some of the visitors found my education entertaining, and some even offered assistance. The nomad Garrett took a few turns—he was a surprisingly good teacher; he interacted so easily with others in general that I wondered how he’d never found a coven. I even fought once with Zafrina while Renesmee watched from Jacob’s arms. I learned several tricks, but I never asked for her help again. In truth, though I liked Zafrina very much and I knew she wouldn’t really hurt me, the wild woman scared me to death.
I learned many things from my teachers, but I had the sense that my knowledge was still impossibly basic. I had no idea how many seconds I would last against Alec and Jane. I only prayed that it would be long enough to help.
Every minute of the day that I wasn’t with Renesmee or learning to fight, I was in the backyard working with Kate, trying to push my internal shield outside of my own brain to protect someone else. Edward encouraged me in this training. I knew he hoped I would find a way of contributing that satisfied me while also keeping me out of the line of fire.
It was just so hard. There was nothing to get a hold of, nothing solid to work with. I had only my raging desire to be of use, to be able to keep Edward, Renesmee, and as much of my family as possible safe with me. Over and over I tried to force the nebulous shield outside of myself, with only faint, sporadic success. It felt like I was wrestling to stretch an invisible rubber band—a band that would change from concrete tangibility into insubstantial smoke at any random moment.
Only Edward was willing to be our guinea pig—to receive shock after shock from Kate while I grappled incompetently with the insides of my head. We worked for hours at a time, and I felt like I should be covered in sweat from the exertion, but of course my perfect body didn’t betray me that way. My weariness was all mental.
It killed me that it was Edward who had to suffer, my arms wrapped uselessly around him while he winced over and over from Kate’s “low” setting. I tried as hard as I could to push my shield around us both; every now and then I would get it, and then it would slip away again.
I hated this practice, and I wished that Zafrina would help instead of Kate. Then all Edward would have to do was look at Zafrina’s illusions until I could stop him from seeing them. But Kate insisted that I needed better motivation—by which she meant my hatred of watching Edward’s pain. I was beginning to doubt her assertion from the first day we’d met—that she wasn’t sadistic about the use of her gift. She seemed to be enjoying herself to me.
“Hey,” Edward said cheerfully, trying to hide any evidence of distress in his voice. Anything to keep me from fighting practice. “That one barely stung. Good job, Bella.”
I took a deep breath, trying to grasp exactly what I’d done right. I tested the elastic band, struggling to force it to remain solid as I stretched it away from me.
“Again, Kate,” I grunted through my clenched teeth.
Kate pressed her palm to Edward’s shoulder.
He sighed in relief. “Nothing that time.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t low, either.”
“Good,” I huffed.
“Get ready,” she told me, and reached out to Edward again.
This time he shuddered, and a low breath hissed between his teeth.
“Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” I chanted, biting my lip. Why couldn’t I get this right?
“You’re doing an amazing job, Bella,” Edward said, pulling me tight against him. “You’ve really only been working at this for a few days and you’re already projecting sporadically. Kate, tell her how well she’s doing.”
Kate pursed her lips. “I don’t know. She’s obviously got tremendous ability, and we’re only beginning to touch it. She can do better, I’m sure. She’s just lacking incentive.”
I stared at her in disbelief, my lips automatically curling back from my teeth. How could she think I lacked motivation with her shocking Edward right here in front of me?
I heard murmurs from the audience that had grown steadily as I practiced—only Eleazar, Carmen, and Tanya at first, but then Garrett had wandered over, then Benjamin and Tia, Siobhan and Maggie, and now even Alistair was peering down from a window on the third story. The spectators agreed with Edward; they thought I was already doing well.
“Kate…,” Edward said in a warning voice as some new course of action occurred to her, but she was already in motion. She darted along the curve of the river to where Zafrina, Senna, and Renesmee were walking slowly, Renesmee’s hand in Zafrina’s as they traded pictures back and forth. Jacob shadowed them from a few feet behind.
“Nessie,” Kate said—the newcomers had quickly picked up the irritating nickname, “would you like to come help your mother?”
“No,” I half-snarled.
Edward hugged me reassuringly. I shook him off just as Renesmee flitted across the yard to me, with Kate, Zafrina, and Senna right behind her.
“Absolutely not, Kate,” I hissed.
Renesmee reached for me, and I opened my arms automatically. She curled into me, pressing her head into the hollow beneath my shoulder.
“But Momma, I want to help,” she said in a determined voice. Her hand rested against my neck, reinforcing her desire with images of the two of us together, a team.
“No,” I said, quickly backing away. Kate had taken a deliberate step in my direction, her hand stretched toward us.
“Stay away from us, Kate,” I warned her.
“No.” She began stalking forward. She smiled like a hunter cornering her prey.
I shifted Renesmee so that she was clinging to my back, still backing away at a pace that matched Kate’s. Now my hands were free, and if Kate wanted to keep her hands attached to her wrists, she’d better keep her distance.
Kate probably didn’t understand, never having known for herself the passion of a mother for her child. She must not have realized just how far past too far she’d already gone. I was so furious that my vision took on a strange reddish tint, and my tongue tasted like burning metal. The strength I usually worked to keep restrained flowed through my muscles, and I knew I could crush her into diamond-hard rubble if she pushed me to it.
The rage brought every aspect of my being into sharper focus. I could even feel the elasticity of my shield more exactly now—feel that it was not a band so much as a layer, a thin film that covered me from head to toe. With the anger rippling through my body, I had a better sense of it, a tighter hold on it. I stretched it around myself, out from myself, swaddling Renesmee completely inside it, just in case Kate got past my guard.
Kate took another calculated step forward, and a vicious snarl ripped up my throat and through my clenched teeth.
“Be careful, Kate,” Edward cautioned.
Kate took another step, and then made a mistake even someone as inexpert as I could recognize. Just a short leap away from me, she looked away, turning her attention from me to Edward.
Renesmee was secure on my back; I coiled to spring.
“Can you hear anything from Nessie?” Kate asked him, her voice calm and easy.
Edward darted into the space between us, blocking my line to Kate.
“No, nothing at all,” he answered. “Now give Bella some space to calm down, Kate. You shouldn’t goad her like that. I know she doesn’t seem her age, but she’s only a few months old.”
“We don’t have time to do this gently, Edward. We’re going to have to push her. We only have a few weeks, and she’s got the potential to—”
“Back off for a minute, Kate.”
Kate frowned but took Edward’s warning more seriously than she’d taken mine.
Renesmee’s hand was on my neck; she was remembering Kate’s attack, showing me that no harm was meant, that Daddy was in on it.…
This did not pacify me. The spectrum of light I saw still seemed tainted with crimson. But I was in better control of myself, and I could see the wisdom of Kate’s words. The anger helped me. I would learn faster under pressure.
That didn’t mean I liked it.
“Kate,” I growled. I rested my hand on the small of Edward’s back. I could still feel my shield like a strong, flexible sheet around Renesmee and me. I pushed it farther, forcing it around Edward. There was no sign of a flaw in the stretchy fabric, no threat of a tear. I panted with the effort, and my words came out sounding breathless rather than furious. “Again,” I said to Kate. “Edward only.”
She rolled her eyes but flitted forward and pressed her palm to Edward’s shoulder.
“Nothing,” Edward said. I heard the smile in his voice.
“And now?” Kate asked.
“And now?” This time, there was the sound of strain in her voice.
“Nothing at all.”
Kate grunted and stepped away.
“Can you see this?” Zafrina asked in her deep, wild voice, staring intently at the three of us. Her English was strangely accented, her words pulling up in unexpected places.
“I don’t see anything I shouldn’t,” Edward said.
“And you, Renesmee?” Zafrina asked.
Renesmee smiled at Zafrina and shook her head.
My fury had almost entirely ebbed, and I clenched my teeth together, panting faster as I pushed out against the elastic shield; it felt like it was getting heavier the longer I held it. It pulled back, dragging inward.
“No one panic,” Zafrina warned the little group watching me. “I want to see how far she can extend.”
There was a shocked gasp from everyone there—Eleazar, Carmen, Tanya, Garrett, Benjamin, Tia, Siobhan, Maggie—everyone but Senna, who seemed prepared for whatever Zafrina was doing. The others’ eyes were blank, their expressions anxious.
“Raise your hand when you get your sight back,” Zafrina instructed. “Now, Bella. See how many you can shield.”
My breath came out in a huff. Kate was the closest person to me besides Edward and Renesmee, but even she was about ten feet away. I locked my jaw and shoved, trying to heave the resisting, resilient safeguard farther from myself. Inch by inch I drove it toward Kate, fighting the reaction that fought back with every fraction that I gained. I only watched Kate’s anxious expression while I worked, and I groaned quietly with relief when her eyes blinked and focused. She raised her hand.
“Fascinating!” Edward murmured under his breath. “It’s like one-way glass. I can read everything they’re thinking, but they can’t reach me behind it. And I can hear Renesmee, though I couldn’t when I was on the outside. I’ll bet Kate could shock me now, because she’s underneath the umbrella. I still can’t hear you… hmmm. How does that work? I wonder if . . .”
He continued to mumble to himself, but I couldn’t listen to the words. I ground my teeth together, struggling to force the shield out to Garrett, who was closest to Kate. His hand came up.
“Very good,” Zafrina complimented me. “Now—”
But she’d spoken too soon; with a sharp gasp, I felt my shield recoil like a rubber band stretched too far, snapping back into its original shape. Renesmee, experiencing for the first time the blindness Zafrina had conjured for the others, trembled against my back. Wearily, I fought back against the elastic pull, forcing the shield to include her again.
“Can I have a minute?” I panted. Since I’d become a vampire, I hadn’t felt the need to rest even once before this moment. It was unnerving to feel so drained and yet so strong at the same time.
“Of course,” Zafrina said, and the spectators relaxed as she let them see again.
“Kate,” Garrett called as the others murmured and drifted slightly away, disturbed by the moment of blindness; vampires were not used to feeling vulnerable. The tall, sandy-haired Garrett was the only non-gifted immortal who seemed drawn to my practice sessions. I wondered what the lure was for the adventurer.
“I wouldn’t, Garrett,” Edward cautioned.
Garrett continued toward Kate despite the warning, his lips pursed in speculation. “They say you can put a vampire flat on his back.”
“Yes,” she agreed. Then, with a sly smile, she wiggled her fingers playfully at him. “Curious?”
Garrett shrugged. “That’s something I’ve never seen. Seems like it might be a bit of an exaggeration. . . .”
“Maybe,” Kate said, her face suddenly serious. “Maybe it only works on the weak or the young. I’m not sure. You look strong, though. Perhaps you could withstand my gift.” She stretched her hand out to him, palm up—a clear invitation. Her lips twitched, and I was pretty sure her grave expression was an attempt to hustle him.
Garrett grinned at the challenge. Very confidently, he touched her palm with his index finger.
And then, with a loud gasp, his knees buckled and he keeled over backward. His head hit a piece of granite with a sharp cracking noise. It was shocking to watch. My instincts recoiled against seeing an immortal incapacitated that way; it was profoundly wrong.
“I told you so,” Edward muttered.
Garrett’s eyelids trembled for a few seconds, and then his eyes opened wide. He stared up at the smirking Kate, and a wondering smile lit his face.
“Wow,” he said.
“Did you enjoy that?” she asked skeptically.
“I’m not crazy,” he laughed, shaking his head as he got slowly to his knees, “but that was sure something!”
“That’s what I hear.”
Edward rolled his eyes.
And then there was a low commotion from the front yard. I heard Carlisle speaking over a babble of surprised voices.
“Did Alice send you?” he asked someone, his voice unsure, slightly upset.
Another unexpected guest?
Edward darted into the house and most of the others imitated him. I followed more slowly, Renesmee still perched on my back. I would give Carlisle a moment. Let him warm up the new guest, prepare him or her or them for the idea of what was coming.
I pulled Renesmee into my arms as I walked cautiously around the house to enter through the kitchen door, listening to what I couldn’t see.
“No one sent us,” a deep whispery voice answered Carlisle’s question. I was immediately reminded of the ancient voices of Aro and Caius, and I froze just inside the kitchen.
I knew the front room was crowded—almost everyone had gone in to see the newest visitors—but there was barely any noise. Shallow breathing, that was all.
Carlisle’s voice was wary as he responded. “Then what brings you here now?”
“Word travels,” a different voice answered, just as feathery as the first. “We heard hints that Volturi were moving against you. There were whispers that you would not stand alone. Obviously, the whispers were true. This is an impressive gathering.”
“We are not challenging the Volturi,” Carlisle answered in a strained tone. “There has been a misunderstanding, that is all. A very serious misunderstanding, to be sure, but one we’re hoping to clear up. What you see are witnesses. We just need the Volturi to listen. We didn’t—”
“We don’t care what they say you did,” the first voice interrupted. “And we don’t care if you broke the law.”
“No matter how egregiously,” the second inserted.
“We’ve been waiting a millennium and a half for the Italian scum to be challenged,” said the first. “If there is any chance they will fall, we will be here to see it.”
“Or even to help defeat them,” the second added. They spoke in a smooth tandem, their voices so similar that less sensitive ears would assume there was only one speaker. “If we think you have a chance of success.”
“Bella?” Edward called to me in a hard voice. “Bring Renesmee here, please. Maybe we should test our Romanian visitors’ claims.”
It helped to know that probably half of the vampires in the other room would come to Renesmee’s defense if these Romanians were upset by her. I didn’t like the sound of their voices, or the dark menace in their words. As I walked into the room, I could see that I was not alone in that assessment. Most of the motionless vampires glared with hostile eyes, and a few—Carmen, Tanya, Zafrina, and Senna—repositioned themselves subtly into defensive poses between the newcomers and Renesmee.
The vampires at the door were both slight and short, one dark-haired and the other with hair so ashy blond that it looked pale gray. They had the same powdery look to their skin as the Volturi, though I thought it was not so pronounced. I couldn’t be sure about that, as I had never seen the Volturi except with human eyes; I could not make a perfect comparison. Their sharp, narrow eyes were dark burgundy, with no milky film. They wore very simple black clothes that could pass as modern but hinted at older designs.
The dark one grinned when I came into view. “Well, well, Carlisle. You have been naughty, haven’t you?”
“She’s not what you think, Stefan.”
“And we don’t care either way,” the blonde responded. “As we said before.”
“Then you’re welcome to observe, Vladimir, but it is definitely not our plan to challenge the Volturi, as we said before.”
“Then we’ll just cross our fingers,” Stefan began.
“And hope we get lucky,” finished Vladimir.
In the end, we had pulled together seventeen witnesses—the Irish, Siobhan, Liam, and Maggie; the Egyptians, Amun, Kebi, Benjamin, and Tia; the Amazons, Zafrina and Senna; the Romanians, Vladimir and Stefan; and the nomads, Charlotte and Peter, Garrett, Alistair, Mary, and Randall—to supplement our family of eleven. Tanya, Kate, Eleazar, and Carmen insisted on being counted as part of our family.
Aside from the Volturi, it was probably the largest friendly gathering of mature vampires in immortal history.
We all were beginning to be a little bit hopeful. Even I couldn’t help it. Renesmee had won over so many in such a brief time. The Volturi only had to listen for just the tiniest second. . . .
The last two surviving Romanians—focused only on their bitter resentment of the ones who had overthrown their empire fifteen hundred years earlier—took everything in stride. They would not touch Renesmee, but they showed no aversion to her. They seemed mysteriously delighted by our alliance with the werewolves. They watched me practice my shield with Zafrina and Kate, watched Edward answer unspoken questions, watched Benjamin pull geysers of water from the river or sharp gusts of wind from the still air with just his mind, and their eyes glowed with their fierce hope that the Volturi had finally met their match.
We did not hope for the same things, but we all hoped.