36 BLOODLUST

They came with pageantry, with a kind of beauty.

They came in a rigid, formal formation. They moved together, but it was not a march; they flowed in perfect synchronicity from the trees—a dark, unbroken shape that seemed to hover a few inches above the white snow, so smooth was the advance.

The outer perimeter was gray; the color darkened with each line of bodies until the heart of the formation was deepest black. Every face was cowled, shadowed. The faint brushing sound of their feet was so regular it was like music, a complicated beat that never faltered.

At some sign I did not see—or perhaps there was no sign, only millennia of practice—the configuration folded outward. The motion was too stiff, too square to resemble the opening of a flower, though the color suggested that; it was the opening of a fan, graceful but very angular. The gray-cloaked figures spread to the flanks while the darker forms surged precisely forward in the center, each movement closely controlled.

Their progress was slow but deliberate, with no hurry, no tension, no anxiety. It was the pace of the invincible.

This was almost my old nightmare. The only thing lacking was the gloating desire I’d seen on the faces in my dream—the smiles of vindictive joy. Thus far, the Volturi were too disciplined to show any emotion at all. They also showed no surprise or dismay at the collection of vampires that waited for them here—a collection that looked suddenly disorganized and unprepared in comparison. They showed no surprise at the giant wolf that stood in our midst.

I couldn’t help counting. There were thirty-two of them. Even if you did not count the two drifting, waifish black-cloaked figures in the very back, who I took to be the wives—their protected position suggesting that they would not be involved in the attack—we were still outnumbered. There were just nineteen of us who would fight, and then seven more to watch as we were destroyed. Even counting the ten wolves, they had us.

“The redcoats are coming, the redcoats are coming,” Garrett muttered mysteriously to himself and then chuckled once. He slid one step closer to Kate.

“They did come,” Vladimir whispered to Stefan.

“The wives,” Stefan hissed back. “The entire guard. All of them together. It’s well we didn’t try Volterra.”

And then, as if their numbers were not enough, while the Volturi slowly and majestically advanced, more vampires began entering the clearing behind them.

The faces in this seemingly endless influx of vampires were the antithesis to the Volturi’s expressionless discipline—they wore a kaleidoscope of emotions. At first there was the shock and even some anxiety as they saw the unexpected force awaiting them. But that concern passed quickly; they were secure in their overwhelming numbers, secure in their position behind the unstoppable Volturi force. Their features returned to the expression they’d worn before we’d surprised them.

It was easy enough to understand their mindset—the faces were that explicit. This was an angry mob, whipped to a frenzy and slavering for justice. I did not fully realize the vampire world’s feeling toward the immortal children before I read these faces.

It was clear that this motley, disorganized horde—more than forty vampires altogether—was the Volturi’s own kind of witness. When we were dead, they would spread the word that the criminals had been eradicated, that the Volturi had acted with nothing but impartiality. Most looked like they hoped for more than just an opportunity to witness—they wanted to help tear and burn.

We didn’t have a prayer. Even if we could somehow neutralize the Volturi’s advantages, they could still bury us in bodies. Even if we killed Demetri, Jacob would not be able to outrun this.

I could feel it as the same comprehension sunk in around me. Despair weighted the air, pushing me down with more pressure than before.

One vampire in the opposing force did not seem to belong to either party; I recognized Irina as she hesitated in between the two companies, her expression unique among the others. Irina’s horrified gaze was locked on Tanya’s position in the front line. Edward snarled, a very low but fervent sound.

“Alistair was right,” he murmured to Carlisle.

I watched Carlisle glance at Edward questioningly.

“Alistair was right?” Tanya whispered.

“They—Caius and Aro—come to destroy and acquire,” Edward breathed almost silently back; only our side could hear. “They have many layers of strategy already in place. If Irina’s accusation had somehow proven to be false, they were committed to find another reason to take offense. But they can see Renesmee now, so they are perfectly sanguine about their course. We could still attempt to defend against their other contrived charges, but first they have to stop, to hear the truth about Renesmee.” Then, even lower. “Which they have no intention of doing.”

Jacob gave a strange little huff.

And then, unexpectedly, two seconds later, the procession did halt. The low music of perfectly synchronized movements turned to silence. The flawless discipline remained unbroken; the Volturi froze into absolute stillness as one. They stood about a hundred yards away from us.

Behind me, to the sides, I heard the beating of large hearts, closer than before. I risked glances to the left and the right from the corners of my eyes to see what had stopped the Volturi advance.

The wolves had joined us.

On either side of our uneven line, the wolves branched out in long, bordering arms. I only spared a fraction of a second to note that there were more than ten wolves, to recognize the wolves I knew and the ones I’d never seen before. There were sixteen of them spaced evenly around us—seventeen total, counting Jacob. It was clear from their heights and oversized paws that the newcomers all were very, very young. I supposed I should have foreseen this. With so many vampires encamped in the neighborhood, a werewolf population explosion was inevitable.

More children dying. I wondered why Sam had allowed this, and then I realized he had no other choice. If any of the wolves stood with us, the Volturi would be sure to search out the rest. They had gambled their entire species on this stand.

And we were going to lose.

Abruptly, I was furious. Beyond furious, I was murderously enraged. My hopeless despair vanished entirely. A faint reddish glow highlighted the dark figures in front of me, and all I wanted in that moment was the chance to sink my teeth into them, to rip their limbs from their bodies and pile them for burning. I was so maddened I could have danced around the pyre where they roasted alive; I would have laughed while their ashes smoldered. My lips curved back automatically, and a low, fierce snarl tore up my throat from the pit of my stomach. I realized the corners of my mouth were turned up in a smile.

Beside me, Zafrina and Senna echoed my hushed growl. Edward squeezed the hand he still held, cautioning me.

The shadowed Volturi faces were still expressionless for the most part. Only two sets of eyes betrayed any emotion at all. In the very center, touching hands, Aro and Caius had paused to evaluate, and the entire guard had paused with them, waiting for the order to kill. The two did not look at each other, but it was obvious that they were communicating. Marcus, though touching Aro’s other hand, did not seem part of the conversation. His expression was not as mindless as the guards’, but it was nearly as blank. Like the one other time I’d seen him, he appeared to be utterly bored.

The bodies of the Volturi’s witnesses leaned toward us, their eyes fixed furiously on Renesmee and me, but they stayed near the fringe of the forest, leaving a wide berth between themselves and the Volturi soldiers. Only Irina hovered close behind the Volturi, just a few paces away from the ancient females—both fair-haired with powdery skin and filmed eyes—and their two massive bodyguards.

There was a woman in one of the darker gray cloaks just behind Aro. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like she might actually be touching his back. Was this the other shield, Renata? I wondered, as Eleazar had, if she would be able to repel me .

But I would not waste my life trying to get to Caius or Aro. I had more vital targets.

I searched the line for them now and had no difficulty picking out the two petite, deep gray cloaks near the heart of the arrangement. Alec and Jane, easily the smallest members of the guard, stood just to Marcus’s side, flanked by Demetri on the other. Their lovely faces were smooth, giving nothing away; they wore the darkest cloaks beside the pure black of the ancients. The witch twins, Vladimir had called them. Their powers were the cornerstone of the Volturi offensive. The jewels in Aro’s collection.

My muscles flexed, and venom welled in my mouth.

Aro’s and Caius’s clouded red eyes flickered across our line. I read disappointment in Aro’s face as his gaze roved over our faces again and again, looking for one that was missing. Chagrin tightened his lips.

In that moment, I was nothing but grateful that Alice had run.

As the pause lengthened, I heard Edward’s breath speed.

“Edward?” Carlisle asked, low and anxious.

“They’re not sure how to proceed. They’re weighing options, choosing key targets—me, of course, you, Eleazar, Tanya. Marcus is reading the strength of our ties to each other, looking for weak points. The Romanians’ presence irritates them. They’re worried about the faces they don’t recognize—Zafrina and Senna in particular—and the wolves, naturally. They’ve never been outnumbered before. That’s what stopped them.”

“Outnumbered?” Tanya whispered incredulously.

“They don’t count their witnesses,” Edward breathed. “They are nonentities, meaningless to the guard. Aro just enjoys an audience.”

“Should I speak?” Carlisle asked.

Edward hesitated, then nodded. “This is the only chance you’ll get.”

Carlisle squared his shoulders and paced several steps ahead of our defensive line. I hated to see him alone, unprotected.

He spread his arms, holding his palms up as if in greeting. “Aro, my old friend. It’s been centuries.”

The white clearing was dead silent for a long moment. I could feel the tension rolling off Edward as he listened to Aro’s assessment of Carlisle’s words. The strain mounted as the seconds ticked by.

And then Aro stepped forward out of the center of the Volturi formation. The shield, Renata, moved with him as if the tips of her fingers were sewn to his robe. For the first time, the Volturi ranks reacted. A muttered grumble rolled through the line, eyebrows lowered into scowls, lips curled back from teeth. A few of the guard leaned forward into a crouch.

Aro held one hand up toward them. “Peace.”

He walked just a few paces more, then cocked his head to one side. His milky eyes glinted with curiosity.

“Fair words, Carlisle,” he breathed in his thin, wispy voice. “They seem out of place, considering the army you’ve assembled to kill me, and to kill my dear ones.”

Carlisle shook his head and stretched his right hand forward as if there were not still almost a hundred yards between them. “You have but to touch my hand to know that was never my intent.”

Aro’s shrewd eyes narrowed. “But how can your intent possibly matter, dear Carlisle, in the face of what you have done?” He frowned, and a shadow of sadness crossed his features—whether it was genuine or not, I could not tell.

“I have not committed the crime you are here to punish me for.”

“Then step aside and let us punish those responsible. Truly, Carlisle, nothing would please me more than to preserve your life today.”

“No one has broken the law, Aro. Let me explain.” Again, Carlisle offered his hand.

Before Aro could answer, Caius drifted swiftly forward to Aro’s side.

“So many pointless rules, so many unnecessary laws you create for yourself, Carlisle,” the white-haired ancient hissed. “How is it possible that you defend the breaking of one that truly matters?”

“The law is not broken. If you would listen—”

“We see the child, Carlisle,” Caius snarled. “Do not treat us as fools.”

“She is not an immortal. She is not a vampire. I can easily prove this with just a few moments—”

Caius cut him off. “If she is not one of the forbidden, then why have you massed a battalion to protect her?”

“Witnesses, Caius, just as you have brought.” Carlisle gestured to the angry horde at the edge of the woods; some of them growled in response. “Any one of these friends can tell you the truth about the child. Or you could just look at her, Caius. See the flush of human blood in her cheeks.”

“Artifice!” Caius snapped. “Where is the informer? Let her come forward!” He craned his neck around until he spotted Irina lingering behind the wives. “You! Come!”

Irina stared at him uncomprehendingly, her face like that of someone who has not entirely awakened from a hideous nightmare. Impatiently, Caius snapped his fingers. One of the wives’ huge bodyguards moved to Irina’s side and prodded her roughly in the back. Irina blinked twice and then walked slowly toward Caius in a daze. She stopped several yards short, her eyes still on her sisters.

Caius closed the distance between them and slapped her across the face.

It couldn’t have hurt, but there was something terribly degrading about the action. It was like watching someone kick a dog. Tanya and Kate hissed in synchronization.

Irina’s body went rigid and her eyes finally focused on Caius. He pointed one clawed finger at Renesmee, where she clung to my back, her fingers still tangled in Jacob’s fur. Caius turned entirely red in my furious view. A growl rumbled through Jacob’s chest.

“This is the child you saw?” Caius demanded. “The one that was obviously more than human?”

Irina peered at us, examining Renesmee for the first time since entering the clearing. Her head tilted to the side, confusion crossed her features.

“Well?” Caius snarled.

“I… I’m not sure,” she said, her tone perplexed.

Caius’s hand twitched as if he wanted to slap her again. “What do you mean?” he said in a steely whisper.

“She’s not the same, but I think it’s the same child. What I mean is, she’s changed. This child is bigger than the one I saw, but—”

Caius’s furious gasp crackled through his suddenly bared teeth, and Irina broke off without finishing. Aro flitted to Caius’s side and put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Be composed, brother. We have time to sort this out. No need to be hasty.”

With a sullen expression, Caius turned his back on Irina.

“Now, sweetling,” Aro said in a warm, sugary murmur. “Show me what you’re trying to say.” He held his hand out to the bewildered vampire.

Uncertainly, Irina took his hand. He held hers for only five seconds.

“You see, Caius?” he said. “It’s a simple matter to get what we need.”

Caius didn’t answer him. From the corner of his eye, Aro glanced once at his audience, his mob, and then turned back to Carlisle.

“And so we have a mystery on our hands, it seems. It would appear the child has grown. Yet Irina’s first memory was clearly that of an immortal child. Curious.”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to explain,” Carlisle said, and from the change in his voice, I could guess at his relief. This was the pause we had pinned all our nebulous hopes on.

I felt no relief. I waited, almost numb with rage, for the layers of strategy Edward had promised.

Carlisle held out his hand again.

Aro hesitated for a moment. “I would rather have the explanation from someone more central to the story, my friend. Am I wrong to assume that this breach was not of your making?”

“There was no breach.”

“Be that as it may, I will have every facet of the truth.” Aro’s feathery voice hardened. “And the best way to get that is to have the evidence directly from your talented son.” He inclined his head in Edward’s direction. “As the child clings to his newborn mate, I’m assuming Edward is involved.”

Of course he wanted Edward. Once he could see into Edward’s mind, he would know all our thoughts. Except mine.

Edward turned to quickly kiss my forehead and Renesmee’s, not meeting my eyes. Then he strode across the snowy field, clapping Carlisle on the shoulder as he passed. I heard a low whimper from behind me—Esme’s terror breaking through.

The red haze I saw around the Volturi army flamed brighter than before. I could not bear to watch Edward cross the empty white space alone—but I also could not endure to have Renesmee one step closer to our adversaries. The opposing needs tore at me; I was frozen so tightly it felt like my bones might shatter from the pressure of it.

I saw Jane smile as Edward crossed the midpoint in the distance between us, when he was closer to them than he was to us.

That smug little smile did it. My fury peaked, higher even than the raging bloodlust I’d felt the moment the wolves had committed to this doomed fight. I could taste madness on my tongue—I felt it flow through me like a tidal wave of pure power. My muscles tightened, and I acted automatically. I threw my shield with all the force in my mind, flung it across the impossible expanse of the field—ten times my best distance—like a javelin. My breath rushed out in a huff with the exertion.

The shield blew out from me in a bubble of sheer energy, a mushroom cloud of liquid steel. It pulsed like a living thing—I could feel it, from the apex to the edges.

There was no recoil to the elastic fabric now; in that instant of raw force, I saw that the backlash I’d felt before was of my own making—I had been clinging to that invisible part of me in self-defense, subconsciously unwilling to let it go. Now I set it free, and my shield exploded a good fifty yards out from me effortlessly, taking only a fraction of my concentration. I could feel it flex like just another muscle, obedient to my will. I pushed it, shaped it to a long, pointed oval. Everything underneath the flexible iron shield was suddenly a part of me—I could feel the life force of everything it covered like points of bright heat, dazzling sparks of light surrounding me. I thrust the shield forward the length of the clearing, and exhaled in relief when I felt Edward’s brilliant light within my protection. I held there, contracting this new muscle so that it closely surrounded Edward, a thin but unbreakable sheet between his body and our enemies.

Barely a second had passed. Edward was still walking to Aro. Everything had changed absolutely, but no one had noticed the explosion except for me. A startled laugh burst through my lips. I felt the others glancing at me and saw Jacob’s big black eye roll down to stare at me like I’d lost my mind.

Edward stopped a few steps away from Aro, and I realized with some chagrin that though I certainly could, I should not prevent this exchange from happening. This was the point of all our preparations: getting Aro to hear our side of the story. It was almost physically painful to do it, but reluctantly I pulled my shield back and left Edward exposed again. The laughing mood had vanished. I focused totally on Edward, ready to shield him instantly if something went wrong.

Edward’s chin came up arrogantly, and he held his hand out to Aro as if he were conferring a great honor. Aro seemed only delighted with his attitude, but his delight was not universal. Renata fluttered nervously in Aro’s shadow. Caius’s scowl was so deep it looked like his papery, translucent skin would crease permanently. Little Jane showed her teeth, and beside her Alec’s eyes narrowed in concentration. I guessed that he was ready, like me, to act at a second’s notice.

Aro closed the distance without pause—and really, what did he have to fear? The hulking shadows of the lighter gray cloaks—the brawny fighters like Felix—were but a few yards away. Jane and her burning gift could throw Edward on the ground, writhing in agony. Alec could blind and deafen him before he could take a step in Aro’s direction. No one knew that I had the power to stop them, not even Edward.

With an untroubled smile, Aro took Edward’s hand. His eyes snapped shut at once, and then his shoulders hunched under the onslaught of information.

Every secret thought, every strategy, every insight—everything Edward had heard in the minds around him during the last month—was now Aro’s. And further back—every vision of Alice’s, every quiet moment with our family, every picture in Renesmee’s head, every kiss, every touch between Edward and me… All of that was Aro’s now, too.

I hissed with frustration, and the shield roiled with my irritation, shifting its shape and contracting around our side.

“Easy, Bella,” Zafrina whispered to me.

I clenched my teeth together.

Aro continued to concentrate on Edward’s memories. Edward’s head bowed, too, the muscles in his neck locking tight as he read back again everything that Aro took from him, and Aro’s response to it all.

This two-way but unequal conversation continued long enough that even the guard grew uneasy. Low murmurs ran through the line until Caius barked a sharp order for silence. Jane was edging forward like she couldn’t help herself, and Renata’s face was rigid with distress. For a moment, I examined this powerful shield that seemed so panicky and weak; though she was useful to Aro, I could tell she was no warrior. It was not her job to fight but to protect. There was no bloodlust in her. Raw as I was, I knew that if this were between her and me, I would obliterate her.

I refocused as Aro straightened, his eyes flashing open, their expression awed and wary. He did not release Edward’s hand.

Edward’s muscles loosened ever so slightly.

“You see?” Edward asked, his velvet voice calm.

“Yes, I see, indeed,” Aro agreed, and amazingly, he sounded almost amused. “I doubt whether any two among gods or mortals have ever seen quite so clearly.”

The disciplined faces of the guard showed the same disbelief I felt.

“You have given me much to ponder, young friend,” Aro continued. “Much more than I expected.” Still he did not release Edward’s hand, and Edward’s tense stance was that of one who listens.

Edward didn’t answer.

“May I meet her?” Aro asked—almost pleaded—with sudden eager interest. “I never dreamed of the existence of such a thing in all my centuries. What an addition to our histories!”

“What is this about, Aro?” Caius snapped before Edward could answer. Just the question had me pulling Renesmee around into my arms, cradling her protectively against my chest.

“Something you’ve never dreamed of, my practical friend. Take a moment to ponder, for the justice we intended to deliver no longer applies.”

Caius hissed in surprise at his words.

“Peace, brother,” Aro cautioned soothingly.

This should have been good news—these were the words we’d been hoping for, the reprieve we’d never really thought possible. Aro had listened to the truth. Aro had admitted that the law had not been broken.

But my eyes were riveted on Edward, and I saw the muscles in his back tighten. I replayed in my head Aro’s instruction for Caius to ponder , and heard the double meaning.

“Will you introduce me to your daughter?” Aro asked Edward again.

Caius was not the only one who hissed at this new revelation.

Edward nodded reluctantly. And yet, Renesmee had won over so many others. Aro always seemed the leader of the ancients. If he were on her side, could the others act against us?

Aro still gripped Edward’s hand, and he now answered a question that the rest of us had not heard.

“I think a compromise on this one point is certainly acceptable, under the circumstance. We will meet in the middle.”

Aro released his hand. Edward turned back toward us, and Aro joined him, throwing one arm casually over Edward’s shoulder like they were the best of friends—all the while maintaining contact with Edward’s skin. They began to cross the field back to our side.

The entire guard fell into step behind them. Aro raised a hand negligently without looking at them.

“Hold, my dear ones. Truly, they mean us no harm if we are peaceable.”

The guard reacted to this more openly than before, with snarls and hisses of protest, but held their position. Renata, clinging closer to Aro than ever, whimpered in anxiety.

“Master,” she whispered.

“Don’t fret, my love,” he responded. “All is well.”

“Perhaps you should bring a few members of your guard with us,” Edward suggested. “It will make them more comfortable.”

Aro nodded as if this was a wise observation he should have thought of himself. He snapped his fingers twice. “Felix, Demetri.”

The two vampires were at his side instantaneously, looking precisely the same as the last time I’d met them. Both were tall and dark-haired, Demetri hard and lean as the blade of a sword, Felix hulking and menacing as an iron-spiked cudgel.

The five of them stopped in the middle of the snowy field.

“Bella,” Edward called. “Bring Renesmee… and a few friends.”

I took a deep breath. My body was tight with opposition. The idea of taking Renesmee into the center of the conflict… But I trusted Edward. He would know if Aro was planning any treachery at this point.

Aro had three protectors on his side of the summit, so I would bring two with me. It took me only a second to decide.

“Jacob? Emmett?” I asked quietly. Emmett, because he would be dying to go. Jacob, because he wouldn’t be able to bear being left behind.

Both nodded. Emmett grinned.

I crossed the field with them flanking me. I heard another rumble from the guard as they saw my choices—clearly, they did not trust the werewolf. Aro lifted his hand, waving away their protest again.

“Interesting company you keep,” Demetri murmured to Edward.

Edward didn’t respond, but a low growl slipped through Jacob’s teeth.

We stopped a few yards from Aro. Edward ducked under Aro’s arm and quickly joined us, taking my hand.

For a moment we faced each other in silence. Then Felix greeted me in a low aside.

“Hello again, Bella.” He grinned cockily while still tracking Jacob’s every twitch with his peripheral vision.

I smiled wryly at the mountainous vampire. “Hey, Felix.”

Felix chuckled. “You look good. Immortality suits you.”

“Thanks so much.”

“You’re welcome. It’s too bad . . .”

He let his comment trail off into silence, but I didn’t need Edward’s gift to imagine the end. It’s too bad we’re going to kill you in a sec.

“Yes, too bad, isn’t it?” I murmured.

Felix winked.

Aro paid no attention to our exchange. He leaned his head to one side, fascinated. “I hear her strange heart,” he murmured with an almost musical lilt to his words. “I smell her strange scent.” Then his hazy eyes shifted to me. “In truth, young Bella, immortality does become you most extraordinarily,” he said. “It is as if you were designed for this life.”

I nodded once in acknowledgment of his flattery.

“You liked my gift?” he asked, eyeing the pendant I wore.

“It’s beautiful, and very, very generous of you. Thank you. I probably should have sent a note.”

Aro laughed delightedly. “It’s just a little something I had lying around. I thought it might complement your new face, and so it does.”

I heard a little hiss from the center of the Volturi line. I glanced over Aro’s shoulder.

Hmm. It seemed Jane wasn’t happy about the fact that Aro had given me a present.

Aro cleared his throat to reclaim my attention. “May I greet your daughter, lovely Bella?” he asked sweetly.

This was what we’d hoped for, I reminded myself. Fighting the urge to take Renesmee and run for it, I walked two slow steps forward. My shield rippled out behind me like a cape, protecting the rest of my family while Renesmee was left exposed. It felt wrong, horrible.

Aro met us, his face beaming.

“But she’s exquisite,” he murmured. “So like you and Edward.” And then louder, “Hello, Renesmee.”

Renesmee looked at me quickly. I nodded.

“Hello, Aro,” she answered formally in her high, ringing voice.

Aro’s eyes were bemused.

“What is it?” Caius hissed from behind. He seemed infuriated by the need to ask.

“Half mortal, half immortal,” Aro announced to him and the rest of the guard without turning his enthralled gaze from Renesmee. “Conceived so, and carried by this newborn while she was still human.”

“Impossible,” Caius scoffed.

“Do you think they’ve fooled me, then, brother?” Aro’s expression was greatly amused, but Caius flinched. “Is the heartbeat you hear a trickery as well?”

Caius scowled, looking as chagrined as if Aro’s gentle questions had been blows.

“Calmly and carefully, brother,” Aro cautioned, still smiling at Renesmee. “I know well how you love your justice, but there is no justice in acting against this unique little one for her parentage. And so much to learn, so much to learn! I know you don’t have my enthusiasm for collecting histories, but be tolerant with me, brother, as I add a chapter that stuns me with its improbability. We came expecting only justice and the sadness of false friends, but look what we have gained instead! A new, bright knowledge of ourselves, our possibilities.”

He held out his hand to Renesmee in invitation. But this was not what she wanted. She leaned away from me, stretching upward, to touch her fingertips to Aro’s face.

Aro did not react with shock as almost everyone else had reacted to this performance from Renesmee; he was as used to the flow of thought and memory from other minds as Edward was.

His smile widened, and he sighed in satisfaction. “Brilliant,” he whispered.

Renesmee relaxed back into my arms, her little face very serious.

“Please?” she asked him.

His smile turned gentle. “Of course I have no desire to harm your loved ones, precious Renesmee.”

Aro’s voice was so comforting and affectionate, it took me in for a second. And then I heard Edward’s teeth grind together and, far behind us, Maggie’s outraged hiss at the lie.

“I wonder,” Aro said thoughtfully, seeming unaware of the reaction to his previous words. His eyes moved unexpectedly to Jacob, and instead of the disgust the other Volturi viewed the giant wolf with, Aro’s eyes were filled with a longing that I did not comprehend.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Edward said, the careful neutrality gone from his suddenly harsh tone.

“Just an errant thought,” Aro said, appraising Jacob openly, and then his eyes moved slowly across the two lines of werewolves behind us. Whatever Renesmee had shown him, it made the wolves suddenly interesting to him.

“They don’t belong to us, Aro. They don’t follow our commands that way. They’re here because they want to be.”

Jacob growled menacingly.

“They seem quite attached to you, though,” Aro said. “And your young mate and your… family. Loyal .” His voice caressed the word softly.

“They’re committed to protecting human life, Aro. That makes them able to coexist with us, but hardly with you. Unless you’re rethinking your lifestyle.”

Aro laughed merrily. “Just an errant thought,” he repeated. “You well know how that is. We none of us can entirely control our subconscious desires.”

Edward grimaced. “I do know how that is. And I also know the difference between that kind of thought and the kind with a purpose behind it. It could never work, Aro.”

Jacob’s vast head turned in Edward’s direction, and a faint whine slipped from between his teeth.

“He’s intrigued with the idea of… guard dogs,” Edward murmured back.

There was one second of dead silence, and then the sound of the furious snarls ripping from the entire pack filled the giant clearing.

There was a sharp bark of command—from Sam, I guessed, though I didn’t turn to look—and the complaint broke off into ominous quiet.

“I suppose that answers that question,” Aro said, laughing again. “This lot has picked its side.”

Edward hissed and leaned forward. I clutched at his arm, wondering what could be in Aro’s thoughts that would make him react so violently, while Felix and Demetri slipped into crouches in synchronization. Aro waved them off again. They all returned to their former posture, Edward included.

“So much to discuss,” Aro said, his tone suddenly that of an inundated businessman. “So much to decide. If you and your furry protector will excuse me, my dear Cullens, I must confer with my brothers.”

Contents