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 hopeson.

I feltno 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?"

"Therewas 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.