"Aro does not often personally attend a punishing expedition," Edward said. "But in the past, when Aro wanted something in particular, it was never long before evidence turned up proving that this coven or that coven had committed some unpardonable crime. The ancients would decide to go along to watch the guard administer justice. And then, once the coven was all but destroyed, Aro would grant a pardon to one member whose thoughts, he would claim, were particularly repentant. Always, it would turn out that this vampire had the gift Aro had admired. Always, this person was given a place with the guard. The gifted vampire was won over quickly, always so grateful for the honor. There were no exceptions."

"It must be a heady thing to be chosen," Kate suggested.

"Ha!" Eleazar snarled, still in motion.

"There is one among the guard," Edward said, explaining Eleazar's angry reaction. "Her name is Chelsea. She has influence over the emotional ties between people. She can both loosen and secure these ties. She could make someone feel bonded to the Volturi, to want to belong, to want to please them___"

Eleazar came to an abrupt halt. "We all understood why Chelsea was important. In a fight, if we could separate allegiances between allied covens, we could defeat them that much more easily. If we could distance the innocent members of a coven emotionally from the guilty, justice could be done without unnecessary brutality - the guilty could be punished without interference, and the innocent could be spared. Otherwise, it was impossible to keep the coven from fighting as a whole. So Chelsea would break the ties that bound them together. It seemed a great kindness to me, evidence of Aro's mercy. I did suspect that Chelsea kept our own band more tightly knit, but that, too, was a good thing. It made us more effective. It helped us coexist more easily."

This clarified old memories for me. It had not made sense to me before how the guard obeyed their masters so gladly, with almost lover-like devotion.

"How strong is her gift?" Tanya asked with an edge to her voice. Her gaze quickly touched on each member of her family.

Eleazar shrugged. "I was able to leave with Carmen." And then he shook his head. "But anything weaker than the bond between partners is in danger. In a normal coven, at least. Those are weaker bonds than those in our family, though. Abstaining from human blood makes us more civilized - lets us form true bonds of love. I doubt she could turn our allegiances, Tanya."

Tanya nodded, seeming reassured, while Eleazar continued with his analysis.

"I could only think that the reason Aro had decided to come himself, to bring so many with him, is because his goal is not punishment but acquisition," Eleazar said. "He needs to be there to control the situation. But he needs the entire guard for protection from such a large, gifted coven. On the other hand, that leaves the other ancients unprotected in Volterra. Too risky - someone might try to take advantage. So they all come together. How else could he be sure to preserve the gifts that he wants? He must want them very badly," Eleazar mused.

Edward's voice was low as a breath. "From what I saw of his thoughts last spring, Aro's never wanted anything more than he wants Alice."

I felt my mouth fall open, remembering the nightmarish pictures I had imagined long ago: Edward and Alice in black cloaks with bloodred eyes, their faces cold and remote as they stood close as shadows, Aro's hands on theirs.... Had Alice seen this more recently? Had she seen Chelsea trying to strip away her love for us, to bind her to Aro and Caius and Marcus?

"Is that why Alice left?" I asked, my voice breaking on her name.

Edward put his hand against my cheek. "I think it must be. To keep Aro from gaining the thing he wants most of all. To keep her power out of his hands."

I heard Tanya and Kate murmuring in disturbed voices and remembered that they hadn't known about Alice.

"He wants you, too," I whispered.

Edward shrugged, his face suddenly a little too composed. "Not nearly as much. I can't really give him anything more than he already has. And of course that's dependent on his finding a way to force me to do his will. He knows me, and he knows how unlikely that is." He raised one eyebrow sardonically.

Eleazar frowned at Edward's nonchalance. "He also knows your weaknesses," Eleazar pointed out, and then he looked at me.

"It's nothing we need to discuss now," Edward said quickly.

Eleazar ignored the hint and continued. "He probably wants your mate, too, regardless. He must have been intrigued by a talent that could defy him in its human incarnation."

Edward was uncomfortable with this topic. I didn't like it, either. If Aro wanted me to do something  - anything - all he had to do was threaten Edward and I would comply. And vice versa.

Was death the lesser concern? Was it really capture we should fear?

Edward changed the subject. "I think the Volturi were waiting for this - for some pretext. They couldn't know what form their excuse would come in, but the plan was already in place for when it did come. That's why Alice saw their decision before Irina triggered it. The decision was already made, just waiting for the pretense of a justification."

"If the Volturi are abusing the trust all immortals have placed in them...," Carmen murmured.

"Does it matter?" Eleazar asked. "Who would believe it? And even if others could be convinced that the Volturi are exploiting their power, how would it make any difference? No one can stand against them."

"Though some of us are apparently insane enough to try," Kate muttered.

Edward shook his head. "You're only here to witness, Kate. Whatever Aro's goal, I don't think he's ready to tarnish the Volturi's reputation for it. If we can take away his argument against us, he'll be forced to leave us in peace."