“Aro.” Caius spoke quietly to the forlorn king who had not moved from his seat beside the window in two weeks. Caius slowly approached him. “From the information you gave me, and the intelligence I have received from the field, we are prepared to seek justice, and—”
“Justice, Caius? What justice could rectify the snuffing out of the brilliance that Carlisle brought to this dark world?” Aro asked listlessly, dropping his head into his hand. “Have you discovered who has done this? Who … who has taken he and his family even beyond our immortal reach?”
“Yes. Felix and Demetri have brought back one of those who shares in the guilt.” Caius raised his golden head. “I have interrogated him, of course, and learned much. He still lives.” Lowering his voice, Caius said, “I feel your expertise is required so that we might add to our knowledge.” Caius extended his arm in invitation.
Aro lifted his head and turned from the window. Though he faced his brother, there was no recognition in his eyes.
Intently watching for any change, Caius continued guardedly. “I hesitate to mention it, but I know of your abiding concern for our vampire brethren. With each passing day, they grow more distressed—”
Aro rose stiffly and his fingertips settled lightly on the sleeve of Caius’ coat. “Yes, Caius.” At last, Aro’s vacant eyes focused on the blond. “We … we must think of our subjects.”
“Yes, we must. Thank you, my brother.” A barely perceptible smile lifted the corners of Caius’ mouth. “They have depended upon our constant and unwavering leadership for centuries. They await their king—as does our prisoner.” Bowing regally to the silently watchful Sulpicia, who stood not far from her husband, Caius then gestured toward the door.
At Aro’s hesitant nod, Caius led him from the room.
“What of this man that has been brought to us, Caius?” Aro asked his voice hardly more than a whisper. “Who is he? What can he offer us?”
A contemptuous smile spread over Caius’ lips. “I think you might find him to be most extraordinary. I learned much and have, accordingly, made minor adjustments to my plans, but only you can plumb the depths of his young mind. I knew, with your great thirst for knowledge, you would not want to miss this opportunity. ”
Nearing the rear entrance to the throne room, Caius paused, placing his hand over Aro’s. “Aro, this will be difficult for you. Do you think—?”
Aro’s eyes closed and he lowered his head as fragmented pictures and scenes flooded his mind. After a moment, his head jerked upward and his eyes flew open. “It was the—?”
“Yes. My suspicions were confirmed. At this time, it is but a small infestation. We shall eliminate it.”
Full of incredulity, Aro gasped. “They are nothing more than … children—mere pups.” His stunned gaze met Caius’.
After a moment, a spark of determination not seen in a very long time flared in his eyes. Aro’s spine straightened, and he squared his shoulders. “We must learn all that we can.” Aro’s chin rose as he faced the door. “We must do everything in our power to ensure the safety of our race and rectify the atrocity.”
“I am in full agreement with you, brother.” Caius easily tugged the ancient wooden door open. “Our people have need of your wisdom and guidance. Your presence will bring them solace.”
Spotting their entrance, Marcus rose from his throne and bowed deeply in greeting. “Aro. Caius.”
“Marcus.” Aro replied, his attention on the bloodied, limp figure being supported in the center of the grand room by Demetri and Felix.
“This … this child is one of those responsible for—?”
“Yes.” Caius answered, taking his place in front of his throne. His lips curled in a sneer. “Allow me to present to you Seth Clearwater.”
Aro’s eyebrows arched in surprise as he digested Caius’ words and reexamined the many memories he had gleaned from Edward and Alice Cullen. He had allowed their condescending thoughts of the shapeshifters to cloud his judgement and overrule even his own wary instincts. That infinitely regrettable mistake had cost him dearly, but it would not be repeated. He glanced at the guards stationed around the perimeter of the room and then glided sedately toward the bruised and bleeding boy.
A low fire began to dance in his eyes, but his voice was barely a wisp of air. “Felix, Demetri, you cannot comprehend how appreciative I am that you have brought us this … gift.”
The two reverently inclined their heads in acknowledgement.
Felix seized the tangled, blood-matted hair at the back of the youth’s head and yanked him up to face the king.
“Master, our venom is nearly as debilitating to these creatures as it is to the Children of the Moon.”
“I see he isn’t long for this world. He’s barely conscious.” The very corners of Aro’s mouth lifted, and he reached one finger toward the shallowly panting boy’s forehead.
After only a moment, Aro snatched his hand away and his eyes flicked up to his guards. “You have done well. I commend you. Take him. Be sure to reiterate the gravity of his crime. Alec’s power will not be needed. Allow this Seth Clearwater to experience the full agony of his death and dispose of his body in the incinerator.”
Only after the prisoner had been dragged from the room, painting a trail of scarlet along the floor, did Aro turn to address his brothers. “Caius, Marcus, I have not been myself these past days and have shirked my duty. Caius, you extracted much from our young captive. I am astonished he was able to bear your questioning for so long. I have learned that even with their enhanced strength and speed, it took five of them in their animal form to bring down one vampire. Later, they required extensive training in order to meet the threat of a newborn army.”
Aro paused and a grimace of pain flashed across his face. He took in a slow breath. “The … the beasts have a type of hive mind they share with one another. The memories of them all …” His breath caught as flashing, disjointed scenes of the Cullens’ massacre swarmed through his mind. He swallowed thickly to regain his composure. “Even with that advantage, they are ruled by their baser instincts. There is one I must read before he pays for his crime—the alpha of the pack. Please, let us confer.”
Hand raised, Marcus was the first to approach with a glimmer of some strange light in his shadowed eyes.
Aro caught his hand and then reached toward Caius. “You’ll be joining us, Marcus?”
Caius grinned darkly at Marcus as he clasped the offered hands. “Marcus has displayed an enthusiasm I’ve not seen for centuries.” He caught Aro’s eye. “The planes have been made ready and are on standby.”