Chapter 20 VOLTERRA
WE BEGAN THE STEEP CLIMB, AND THE ROAD GREW CONGESTED. As we wound higher, the cars became too close together for Alice to weave insanely between them anymore. We slowed to a crawl behind a little tan Peugeot.
"Alice," I moaned. The clock on the dash seemed to be speeding up.
"It's the only way in," she tried soothe me. But her voice was too strained to comfort.
The cars continued to edge forward, one car length at a time. The sun beamed down brilliantly, seeming already overhead.
The cars crept one by one toward the city. As we got closer, I could see cars parked by the side of the road with people getting out to walk the test of the way. At first I thought it was just impatience��something I could easily understand. But then we came around a switchback, and I could
see the filled parking lot outside the city wall, the crowds of people walking through the gates. No one was being allowed to drive through.
"Alice," I whispered urgently.
"I know," she said. Her face was chiseled from ice.
Now that I was looking, and we were crawling slowly enough to see, I could tell that it was very windy. The people crowding toward the gate gripped their hats and tugged their hair out of their faces. Their clothes billowed around them. I also noticed that the color red was everywhere. Red shirts, red hats, red flags dripping like long ribbons beside the gate, whipping in the wind��as I watched, the brilliant crimson scarf one woman had tied around her hair was caught in a sudden gust. It twisted up into the air above her, writhing like it was alive. She reached for it, jumping in the air, but it continued to flutter higher, a patch of bloody color against the dull, ancient walls.
"Bella." Alice spoke quickly in a fierce, low voice. "I can't see what the guard here will decide now��if this doesn't work, you're going to have to go in alone. You're going to have to run. Just keep asking for the Palazzo dei Priori, and running in the direction they tell you. Don't get lost."
"Palazzo dei Priori, Palazzo dei Priori," I repeated the name over and over again, trying to get it down.
"Or 'the clock tower,' if they speak English. I'll go around and try to find a secluded spot somewhere behind the city where I can go over the wall."
I nodded. "Palazzo dei Priori."
"Edward will be under the clock tower, to the north of the square. There's a narrow alleyway on the right, and he'll be in the shadow there. You have to get his attention before he can move into the sun."
I nodded furiously.
Alice was near the front of the line. A man in a navy blue uniform was directing the flow of traffic, turning the cars away from the full lot. They U-turned and headed back to find a place beside the road. Then it was Alice's turn.
The uniformed man motioned lazily, not paying attention. Alice accelerated, edging around him and heading for the gate. He shouted something at us, but held his ground, waving frantically to keep the next car from following our bad example.
The man at the gate wore a matching uniform. As we approached him, the throngs of tourists passed, crowding the sidewalks, staring curiously at the pushy, flashy Porsche.
The guard stepped into the middle of the street. Alice angled the car carefully before she came to a full stop. The sun beat against my window, and she was in shadow. She swiftly reached behind the seat and grabbed something from her bag.
The guard came around the car with an irritated expression, and tapped on her window angrily.
She rolled the window down halfway, and I watched him do a double take when he saw the face behind the dark glass.
"I'm sorry, only tour buses allowed in the city today, miss," he said in English, with a heavy accent. He was apologetic, now, as if he wished he had better news for the strikingly beautiful woman.
"It's a private tour," Alice said, flashing an alluring smile. She reached her hand out cf the window, into the sunlight. I froze, until I realized she was wearing an elbow-length, tan glove. She took his hand, still raised from tapping her window, and pulled it into the car. She put something into his palm, and folded his fingers around it.
His face was dazed as he retrieved his hand and stared at the thick roll of money he now held. The outside bill was a thousand dollar bill.
"Is this a joke?" he mumbled.
Alice's smile was blinding. "Only if you think it's funny."
He looked at her, his eyes staring wide. I glanced nervously at the clock on the dash. If Edward stuck to his plan, we had only five minutes left.
"I'm in a wee bit of a hurry," she hinted, still smiling.
The guard blinked twice, and then shoved the money inside his vest. He took a step away from the window and waved us on. None of the passing people seemed to notice the quiet exchange. Alice drove into the city, and we both sighed in relief.
The street was very narrow, cobbled with the same color stones as the faded cinnamon brown buildings that darkened the street with their shade. It had the feel of an alleyway. Red flags decorated the walls, spaced only a few yards apart, flapping in the wind that whistled through the narrow lane.
It was crowded, and the foot traffic slowed our progress.
"Just a little farther," Alice encouraged me; I was gripping the door handle, ready to throw myself into the street as soon as she spoke the word.
She drove in quick spurts and sudden stops, and the people in the crowd shook their fists at us and said angry words that I was glad I couldn't understand. She turned onto a little path that couldn't have been meant for cars; shocked people had to squeeze into doorways as we scraped by. We found another street at the end. The buildings were taller here; they leaned together overhead so that no sunlight touched the pavement��the thrashing red flags on either side nearly met. The crowd was thicker here than anywhere else. Alice stopped the car. I had the door open before we were at a standstill.
She pointed to where the street widened into a patch of bright openness. "There��we're at the southern end of the square. Run straight across, to the right of the clock tower. I'll find a way around��"
Her breath caught suddenly, and when she spoke again, her voice was a hiss. "They're everywhere?"
I froze in place, but she pushed me out of the car. "Forget about them. You have two minutes. Go, Bella, go!" she shouted, climbing out of the car as she spoke.
I didn't pause to watch Alice melt into the shadows. I didn't stop to close my door behind me. I shoved a heavy woman out of my way and ran flat out, head down, paying little attention to anything but the uneven stones beneath my feet.
Coming out of the dark lane, I was blinded by the brilliant sunlight beating down into the principal plaza. The wind whooshed into me, flinging my hair into my eyes and blinding me further. It was no wonder that I didn't see the wall of flesh until I'd smacked into it.
There was no pathway, no crevice between the close pressed bodies. I pushed against them furiously,
fighting the hands that shoved back. I heard exclamations of irritation and even pain as I battled my way through, but none were in a language I understood. The faces were a blur of anger and surprise, surrounded by the ever-present red. A blond woman scowled at me, and the red scarf coiled around her neck looked like a gruesome wound. A child, lifted on a man's shoulders to see over the crowd, grinned down at me, his lips distended over a set of plastic vampire fangs.
The throng jostled around me, spinning me the wrong direction. I was glad the clock was so visible, or I'd never keep my course straight. But both hands on the clock pointed up toward the pitiless sun, and, though I shoved viciously against the crowd, I knew I was too late. I wasn't halfway across. I wasn't going to make it. I was stupid and slow and human, and we were all going to die because of it.
I hoped Alice would get out. I hoped that she would see me from some dark shadow and know that I had failed, so she could go home to Jasper.
I listened, above the angry exclamations, trying to hear the sound of discovery: the gasp, maybe the scream, as Edward came into someone's view.
But there was a break in the crowd��I could see a bubble of space ahead. I pushed urgently toward it, not realizing till I bruised my shins against the bricks that there was a wide, square fountain set into the center of the plaza.
I was nearly crying with relief as I flung my leg over the edge and ran through the knee-deep water. It sprayed all around me as I thrashed my way across the pool. Even in the sun, the wind was glacial, and the wet made the cold actually painful. But the fountain was very wide; it let me cross the center of the square and then some in mere seconds. I didn't pause when I hit the far edge��I used the low wall as a springboard, throwing myself into the crowd.
They moved more readily for me now, avoiding the icy water that splattered from my dripping clothes as I ran. I glanced up at the clock again.
A deep, booming chime echoed through the square. It throbbed in the stones under my feet. Children cried, covering their ears. And I started screaming as I ran.
"Edward!" I screamed, knowing it was useless. The crowd was too loud, and my voice was breathless with exertion. But I couldn't stop screaming.
The clock tolled again. I ran past a child in his mother's arms��his hair was almost white in the dazzling sunlight. A circle of tall men, all wearing red blazers, called out warnings as I barreled through them. The clock tolled again.
On the other side of the men in blazers, there was a break in the throng, space between the sightseers who milled aimlessly around me. My eyes searched the dark narrow passage to the right of the wide square edifice under the tower. I couldn't see the street level��there were still too many people in the way. The clock tolled again.
It was hard to see now. Without the crowd to break the wind, it whipped at my face and burned my eyes. I couldn't be sure if that was the reason behind my tears, or if I was crying in defeat as the clock tolled again.
A little family of four stood nearest to the alley's mouth. The two girls wore crimson dresses, with matching ribbons tying their dark hair back. The father wasn't tall. It seemed like I could see something bright in the shadows, just over his shoulder. I hurtled toward them, trying to see past the stinging tears. The clock tolled, and the littlest girl clamped her hands over her ears.
The older girl, just waist high on her mother, hugged her mother's leg and stared into the shadows behind them. As I watched, she tugged on her mother's elbow and pointed toward the darkness. The clock tolled, and I was so close now.
I was close enough to hear her high-pitched voice. Her father stared at me in surprise as I bore down on them, rasping out Edward's name over and over again.
The older girl giggled and said something to her mother, gesturing toward the shadows again impatiently.
I swerved around the father��he clutched the baby out of my way��and sprinted for the gloomy breach behind them as the clock tolled over my head.
"Edward, no!" I screamed, but my voice was lost in the roar of the chime.
I could see him now. And I could see that he could not see me.
It was really him, no hallucination this time. And I realized that my delusions were more flawed than I'd realized; they'd never done him justice.
Edward stood, motionless as a statue, just a few feet from the mouth of the alley. His eyes were closed, the rings underneath them deep purple, his arms relaxed at his sides, his palms turned forward. His expression was very peaceful, like he was dreaming pleasant things. The marble skin of his chest was bare��there was a small pile of white fabric at his feet. The light reflecting from the pavement of the square gleamed dimly from his skin.
I'd never seen anything more beautiful��even as I ran, gasping and screaming, I could appreciate that. And the last seven months meant nothing. And his words in the forest meant nothing. And it did not matter if he did not want me. I would never want anything but him, no matter how long I lived.
The clock tolled, and he took a large stride toward the light.
"No!" I screamed. "Edward, look at me!"
He wasn't listening. He smiled very slightly. He raised his foot to take the step that would put him directly in the path of the sun.
I slammed into him so hard that the force would have hurled me to the ground if his arms hadn't caught me and held me up. It knocked my breath out of me and snapped my head back.
His dark eyes opened slowly as the clock tolled again.
He looked down at me with quiet surprise.
"Amazing," he said, his exquisite voice full of wonder, slightly amused. "Carlisle was right."
"Edward," I tried to gasp, but my voice had no sound. "You've got to get back into the shadows. You have to move!"
He seemed bemused. His hand brushed softly against my cheek. He didn't appear to notice that I was trying to force him back. I could have been pushing against the alley walls for all the progress I was making. The clock tolled, but he didn't react.
It was very strange, for I knew we were both in mortal danger. Still, in that instant, I felt well. Whole. I could feel my heart racing in my chest, the blood pulsing hot and fast through my veins again. My lungs filled deep with the sweet scent that came off his skin. It was like there had never been any hole in my
chest. I was perfect��not healed, but as if there had been no wound in the first place.
"I can't believe how quick it was. I didn't feel a thing��they're very good," he mused, closing his eyes again and pressing his lips against my hair. His voice was like honey and velvet. "Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty," he murmured, and I recognized the line spoken by Romeo in the tomb. The clock boomed out its final chime "You smell just exactly the same as always," he went on. "So maybe this is hell. I don't care. I'll take it."
"I'm not dead," I interrupted. "And neither are you! Please Edward, we have to move. They can't be far away!"
I struggled in his arms, and his brow furrowed in confusion.
"What was that?" he asked politely.
"We're not dead, not yet! But we have to get out of here before the Volturi��"
Comprehension flickered on his face as I spoke. Before I could finish, he suddenly yanked me away from the edge of the shadows, spinning me effortlessly so that my back was tight against the brick wall, and his back was to me as he faced away into the alley. His arms spread wide, protectively, in front of me.
I peeked under his arm to see two dark shapes detach themselves from the gloom.
"Greetings, gentlemen," Edward's voice was calm and pleasant, on the surface. "I don't think I'll be requiring your services today. I would appreciate it very much, however, if you would send my thanks to your masters."
"Shall we take this conversation to a more appropriate venue?" a smooth voice whispered menacingly.
"I don't believe that will be necessary." Edward's voice was harder now. "I know your instructions, Felix. I haven't broken any rules."
"Felix merely meant to point out the proximity of the sun," the other shadow said in a soothing tone. They were both concealed within smoky gray cloaks that reached to the ground and undulated in the wind. "Let us seek better cover."
"I'll be right behind you," Edward said dryly. "Bella, why don't you go back to the square and enjoy the festival?"
"No, bring the girl," the first shadow said, somehow injecting a leer into his whisper.
"I don't think so." The pretense of civility disappeared. Edward's voice was flat and icy. His weight shifted infinitesimally, and I could see that he was preparing to fight.
"No." I mouthed the word.
"Shh," he murmured, only for me.
"Felix," the second, more reasonable shadow cautioned. "Not here." He turned to Edward. "Aro would simply like to speak with you again, if you have decided not to force our hand after all."
"Certainly," Edward agreed. '"But the girl goes free."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," the polite shadow said regretfully. "We do have rules to obey."
"Then I'm afraid that I'll be unable to accept Aro's invitation, Demetri."
"That's just fine," Felix purred. My eyes were adjusting to the deep shade, and I could see that Felix was very big, tall and thick through the shoulders. His size reminded me of Emmett.
"Aro will be disappointed," Demetri sighed.
"I'm sure he'll survive the letdown," Edward replied.
Felix and Demetri stole closer toward the mouth of the alley, spreading out slightly so they could come at Edward from two sides. They meant to force him deeper into the alley, to avoid a scene. No reflected light found access to their skin; they were safe inside their cloaks.
Edward didn't move an inch. He was dooming himself by protecting me.
Abruptly, Edward's head whipped around, toward the darkness of the winding alley, and Demetri and Felix did the same, in response to some sound or movement too subtle for my senses.
"Let's behave ourselves, shall we?" a lilting voice suggested. "There are ladies present."
Alice tripped lightly to Edward's side, her stance casual. There was no hint of any underlying tension. She looked so tiny, so fragile. Her little arms swung like a child's.
Yet Demetri and Felix both straightened up, their cloaks swirling slightly as a gust of wind funneled through the alley. Felix's face soured. Apparently, they didn't like even numbers.
"We're not alone," she reminded them.
Demetri glanced over his shoulder. A few yards into the square, the little family, with the girls in their red dresses, was watching us. The mother was speaking urgently to her husband, her eyes on the five of us. She looked away when Demetri met her gaze. The man walked a few steps farther into the plaza, and tapped one of the red-blazered men on the shoulder.
Demetri shook his head. "Please, Edward, let's be reasonable," he said.
"Let's," Edward agreed. "And we'll leave quietly now, with no one the wiser."
Demetri sighed in frustration. "At least let us discuss this more privately."
Six men in red now joined the family as they watched us with anxious expressions. I was very conscious of Edward's protective stance in front of me��sure that this was what caused their alarm. I wanted to scream to them to run.
Edward's teeth came together audibly. "No."
The voice was high, reedy, and n came from behind us.
I peeked under Edward's other arm to see a small, dark shape coming toward us. By the way the edges billowed, I knew it would be another one of them. Who else?
At first I thought it was a young boy. The newcomer was as tiny as Alice, with lank, pale brown hair
trimmed short. The body under the cloak��which was darker, almost black��was slim and androgynous. But the face was too pretty for a boy. The wide-eyed, full-lipped face would make a Botticelli angel look like a gargoyle. Even allowing for the dull crimson irises.
Her size was so insignificant that the reaction to her appearance confused me. Felix and Demetri relaxed immediately, stepping back from their offensive positions to blend again with the shadows of the overhanging walls.
Edward dropped his arms and relaxed his position as well��but in defeat.
"Jane," he sighed in recognition and resignation.
Alice folded her arms across her chest, her expression impassive.
"Follow me," Jane spoke again, her childish voice a monotone. She turned her back on us and drifted silently into the dark.
Felix gestured for us to go first, smirking.
Alice walked after the little Jane at once. Edward wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me along beside her. The alley angled slightly downward as it narrowed. I looked up at him with frantic questions in my eyes, but he just shook his head. Though I couldn't hear the others behind us, I was sure they were there.
"Well, Alice," Edward said conversationally as we walked. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see you here."
"It was my mistake," Alice answered in the same tone. "It was my job to set it right."
"What happened?" His voice was polite, as if he were barely interested. I imagined this was due to the listening ears behind us.
"It's a long story." Alice's eyes flickered toward me and away. "In summary, she did jump off a cliff, but she wasn't trying to kill herself. Bella's all about the extreme sports these days."
I flushed and turned my eyes straight ahead, looking after the dark shadow that I could no longer see. I could imagine what he was hearing in Alice's thoughts now. Near-drownings, stalking vampires, werewolf friends��
"Hm," Edward said curtly, and the casual tone of his voice was gone.
There was a loose curve to the alley, still slanting downward, so I didn't see the squared-off dead end coming until we reached the flat, windowless, brick face. The little one called Jane was nowhere to be seen.
Alice didn't hesitate, didn't break pace as she strode toward the wall. Then, with easy grace, she slid down an open hole in the street.
It looked like a drain, sunk into the lowest point of the paving. I hadn't noticed it until Alice disappeared, but the grate was halfway pushed aside. The hole was small, and black.
"It's all right, Bella," Edward said in a low voice. "Alice will catch you."
I eyed the hole doubtfully. I imagine he would have gone first, if Demetri and Felix hadn't been waiting, smug and silent, behind us.
I crouched down, swinging my legs into the narrow gap.
"Alice?" I whispered, voice trembling.
"I'm right here, Bella," she reassured me. Her voice came from too far below to make me feel better.
Edward took my wrists��his hands felt like stones in winter��and lowered me into the blackness.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Drop her," Alice called.
I closed my eyes so I couldn't see the darkness, scrunching them together in terror, clamping my mouth shut so I wouldn't scream. Edward let me fall.
It was silent and short. The air whipped past me for just half a second, and then, with a huff as I exhaled, Alice's waiting arms caught me.
I was going to have bruises; her arms were very hard. She stood me upright.
It was dim, but not black at the bottom. The light from the hole above provided a faint glow, reflecting wetly from the stones under my feet. The light vanished for a second, and then Edward was a faint, white radiance beside me. He put his arm around me, holding me close to his side, and began to tow me swiftly forward. I wrapped both arms around his cold waist, and tripped and stumbled my way across the uneven stone surface. The sound of the heavy grate sliding over the drain hole behind us rang with metallicfinality.
The dim light from the street was quickly lost in the gloom. The sound of my staggering footsteps echoed through the black space; it sounded very wide, but I couldn't be sure. There were no sounds other than my frantic heartbeat and my feet on the wet stones��except for once, when an impatient sigh whispered from behind me.
Edward held me tightly. He reached his free hand across his body to hold my face, too, his smooth thumb tracing across my lips. Now and then, I felt his face press into my hair. I realized that this was the only reunion we would get, and I clutched myself closer to him.
For now, it felt like he wanted me, and that was enough to offset the horror of the subterranean tunnel and the prowling vampires behind us. It was probably no more than guilt��the same guilt that compelled him to come here to die when he'd believed that it was his fault that I'd killed myself. But I felt his lips press silently against my forehead, and I didn't care what the motivation was. At least I could be with him again before I died. That was better than a long life.
I wished I could ask him exactly what was going to happen now. I wanted desperately to know how we were going to die��as if that would somehow make it better, knowing in advance. But I couldn't speak, even in a whisper, surrounded as we were. The others could hear everything��my every breath, my every heartbeat.
The path beneath our feet continued to slant downward, taking us deeper into the ground, and it made me claustrophobic. Only Edward's hand, soothing against my face, kept me from screaming out loud.
I couldn't tell where the light was coming from, but it slowly turned dark gray instead of black. We were
in a low, arched tunnel. Long trails of ebony moisture seeped down the gray stones, like they were bleeding ink.
I was shaking, and I thought it was from fear. It wasn't until my teeth started to chatter together that I realized I was cold. My clothes were still wet, and the temperature underneath the city was wintry. As was Edward's skin.
He realized this at the same time I did, and let go of me, keeping only my hand.
"N-n-no," I chattered, throwing my arms around him. I didn't care if I froze. Who knew how long we had left?
His cold hand chafed against my arm, trying to warm me with the friction.
We hurried through the tunnel, or it felt like hurrying to me. My slow progress irritated someone��I guessed Felix��and I heard him heave a sigh now and then.
At the end of the tunnel was a grate��the iron bars were rusting, but thick as my arm. A small door made of thinner, interlaced bars was standing open. Edward ducked through and hurried on to a larger, brighter stone room. The grille slammed shut with a clang, followed by the snap of a lock. I was too afraid to look behind me.
On the other side of the long room was a low, heavy wooden door. It was very thick��as I could tell because it, too, stood open.
We stepped through the door, and I glanced around me in surprise, relaxing automatically. Beside me, Edward tensed, his jaw clenched tight.