9. The Student

Volterra, Italy
Early June, 1789

A burst of high-pitched Greek erupted from across the room, followed by a rich laughter, and Aro glanced over to see Marcus smile. At his feet, Carlisle sat, a wide grin on his face—he had been the one who’d burst out chattering.

It was one of the newer developments. Carlisle had grown tired of simply reading the histories and started seeking his tutelage directly. Caius, who was eldest, had been the first one he’d approached, but the older vampire had little patience for Carlisle’s insatiable curiosity. Aro had tutored Carlisle a few times, but inevitably their conversations wound toward the younger man’s bizarre feeding choices and devolved into heated arguments.

So Carlisle had lately settled on Marcus, and this seemed to be a good fit. He sat at the other man’s feet like a true young scholar, listening carefully and peppering Marcus’s explanations with questions. How much of the account provided by Thucydides was accurate? What of Homer and his writings of Hector and Achilleus? Marcus, for his part, carefully unraveled the things that Carlisle had learned as a boy, or at least, as much of his teachings as Carlisle remembered, which was surprisingly a lot.

Alrigo snorted. He glanced in the direction of Carlisle and Marcus as well, shaking his head in annoyance as he pressed his hand to Aro’s.

At Caius’s suggestion, Alrigo had been set on detail duty with young blond. Each day he reported in the same way they all did, and Carlisle’s movements were transmitted to Aro in an instant. The Young One had spent the better part of the day in the library reading an ancient book that had been a gift to the brothers from one of their kind in the Orient. The image was now burned into Aro’s mind of the blond hair falling forward as Carlisle pored over the thick book, referring to multiple tomes and folios next to it to aid in his translation of the pictograms.

He was studying a new language again, which likely meant he would travel. It always happened that Carlisle would rummage in the Volturi library for a day or so, returning with some impossible text in a new tongue, and then proceed to bury himself in the library for weeks on end while he mastered it. Then he would make the trek on foot to wherever it was he’d just studied, where he would mingle with the locals as much as he was able to solidify his grasp on the language.

Importantly for the moment, however, these studies kept Carlisle safely inside the compound, save for his occasional runs to the market to buy and sell his herbs. Alrigo’s silent reports indicated that the intruder, whoever he might have been, had backed away. Caius, the most bellicose of them all, insisted on a headhunt when, after two weeks of careful searching, it seemed that the intruder had retreated. Aro talked him out of this, suggesting that if they destroyed the intruder, he might never get the test of loyalty he wished.

But it had been two weeks more, and there was no testing of Carlisle; at least, not beyond his knowledge of Homer.

Laughter erupted again, and Aro turned toward his brother. Marcus was explaining the origins of several of the god myths, many of which were based on human encounters with others of their kind. Humans always seemed to take beauty and strength as a sign of godliness instead of the mark of a superior predator. The legends of Ares in particular were based on an ancient Chosen One who had suffered a particularly painful transition to the new life; his desire for destruction and vengeance had been unparalleled. It was Carlisle who was laughing, his face bright as he listened to Marcus going on about some of the myth which humans were happy to believe.

“Is this wise, do you think?”

The voice tore Aro from his observation. Alrigo was staring absently at Marcus and Carlisle, who were now speaking rapidly about the appropriation of the Greek god myths by the Romans. Carlisle teased that perhaps Marcus might have been memorialized a god instead of a saint for his actions in “ridding” their city of vampires, if only the coven had settled a bit further south.

“The schooling? I see little harm in it.”

Alrigo shook his head. “Not the schooling, Master. Everything.” His gaze shifted again to the pair talking. “He spends nearly all his time with humans. And you’ve given up on changing him from his diet, it seems.”

Given up? Aro’s brow knitted as he thought back to what Alrigo had shown him, a scene which had taken place during their last group feeding. Carlisle, standing in the doorway, a look that was equal parts resolve and disgust across his face. But he’d stood there, for the better part of an hour. He’d stood there, breathing air that would have tempted any of their kind, his arms crossed defiantly over his chest.

Aro had stopped testing Carlisle. And now Carlisle was testing himself.

“I’ve given up on nothing,” he snapped.

“I didn’t mean to imply—” Alrigo stammered, but Aro held up a hand and waved him off.

“Thank you, Alrigo.”

The guard ducked his head and resumed his position beside the others. His only duty of late was to track the blond, and Carlisle seemed to be either blissfully unaware that he was being tailed or was accepting of it. Either of these suited Aro.

Perhaps Alrigo was right, however. It had been a good deal of time since Aro had last “encouraged” Carlisle, as he called it. When the young one had first arrived, the tests had been more regular—first out of conviction that Carlisle would fail, and then out of fascination that he never seemed to. They had been simple tests; a blood-spattered robe, a single injured human. He had instructed Carlisle to prove he could resist, and although the other could have run from the temptation at any time, he never had. The first time Carlisle had pulverized the chair in his chambers as he held back his desire. The entire thing had been reduced to sawdust as the human bled to its death. Later, however, he learned to immerse himself in other pursuits, and on Aro’s last attempt, over twenty years ago, he had returned to find the human lying face down in a river of cooled blood, and Carlisle sanguinely paging through a volume in Occitan.

Yet resisting a single human, especially when one was sated, was not difficult for one who was more than a few years old. Perhaps it had been the wrong task, Aro thought. It would be smarter to bring Carlisle into the midst of the feeding.

Although, it seemed he was already intent on being there, too.

Aro snapped his fingers, which caused every head in the room to swivel his way. The young vampire and his tutor cut their chatter at once, and two sets of dark eyes landed on Aro.

“Carlisle.”

“Aro?”

There came a soft hiss that was the collected intake of breath from several of the other guards. They did not dare address Aro as anything other than “Master,” nor would any of them answer him with their bottoms still firmly on the floor. Aro heard the word “impudent” muttered from somewhere near his shoulder.

Ignoring this, he tapped the arm of his chair. “Please.”

As the young one moved swiftly across the room, his hair it caught the light and shimmered in stark contrast to Carlisle’s dark gray robe. He stood before Aro, his arms open, and a gentle, inquisitive expression on his face. Around them, the other guards and Aro’s brothers came to complete stillness. Carlisle made no move to speak.

Aro cleared his throat. “Alrigo tells me that you wish to observe our feedings?”

The other man’s jaw flexed, and he looked away. “I observe them, yes. Do I wish to? That is quite a different question.”

“You are testing yourself.”

“I’m familiarizing myself.”

There were murmurs from around the room. Aro simply raised his eyebrows.

“Humans bleed,” the blond explained. When Aro did not speak in answer, he went on. “I will be a rather poor excuse for a physician if I am unable to tolerate a natural process which my patients undergo.”
For the second time in ten minutes the gasps in the room were audible. Aro lifted a hand.

“It is your intention, then, to treat humans directly?”

“That is my ultimate ambition.”

There were a few titters from around the chamber. The remainder of the guard knew at least a little of what Carlisle was up to; his constant disappearances out of the castle to the piazza market so that he could trade herbs could hardly go unnoticed, to say nothing of the stench which lingered in his chambers. But this was the first anyone beside Aro had truly heard of the young man’s true goals. And Aro had largely written them off—he saw many aspirations when he read a mind, and very few of these ever came to light. They were often far-fetched, with no plan of action to achieve them, and Aro ignored them as a matter of course.

He realized at once that when it came to Carlisle, he should have known better.

“So it is your intent to violate our laws of secrecy,” came the familiar, indignant voice. This time every pair of eyes swept to Caius, who leaned forward in his chair as though he were about to spring. The man’s upper lip twitched as he stared at the young vampire whom he’d never cared for.

“I see no reason why my practicing medicine ought to violate the laws.”

“Surely you do not expect humans to believe you are one of them,” Caius growled. “They will suspect you. We will be compromised.”

Carlisle’s smiled at Caius, the sort of smile an adult gives to a child. Aro suppressed a laugh. He was certain Caius had never been on the receiving end of such an expression, and judging from Caius’s scowl, he did not find this position pleasurable.

“Look at what already happens when I walk in the piazza,” he said, gesturing toward the windows. “Whether it is to our dismay or our advantage, I am not certain, but they do not fear us as they once did. We are neither beasts nor gods”—he nodded toward Marcus—”and they have long since decided any threat we pose is only fiction.”

Carlisle moved toward the window, where sunlight streamed down in a narrow band on the floor. Stepping into the beam, he held his arms out before him turned them, a fascinated grin spreading across his face as his skin refracted the light into vivid rainbows across the walls. “Humans believe now in only what they can prove,” he said more quietly. “The sun is the center of the heavens; all the heavenly bodies are held together by the same force that keeps our feet on the ground. We can sail around the Earth without fear because of this, and we will return to where we began because our Earth is round. Blood runs in one system, not two. And it needn’t be removed to heal anyone. We can introduce foods into the body to cure illness and relieve pain.”

Still smiling, he stepped sideways out of the sun and faced the brothers once more.

“Once, we might have been hunted because humans believed their fears. But today?” He chuckled. “If I told a human that I was a vampire, he would declare me a drunkard.”

Shrugging, Carlisle went back to Marcus, who was still rather obviously stifling a smile.

There was an utter stillness in the room. Sometimes, even the air grew stagnant in the tower, and this was one of those times. Vampires were able to hold preternaturally still. Except, that was, for Carlisle, who occasionally shifted his weight from one hip to the other as he sat on the stone floor.

He looked…human.

Aro could see several whose gazes moved uncomfortably from Carlisle to Aro and back again. They were waiting for him, he knew. Such dramatic orations did not commonly happen in this hall, at least not from anyone other than himself. He thought back to Alrigo’s comment a moment before. Was it wise, to let Carlisle continue as he did? He wasn’t beholden to them the way the guard were, yet he was not an equal to the brothers, either. At the moment, he was looking away, intent on one of the tapestries on the wall. Carlisle wasn’t defiant, Aro was certain. The Englishman did not desire power; in fact, this was probably what made him such a liability. The others came to them seeking power; to be in the guard of the Volturi was to stand next to the most powerful of their kind. It made them easy to keep near, easy to threaten—none in the guard wished to be ejected from the good graces of the three brothers, and so they would do as asked. Threatening Carlisle would not be possible. He was too assured, too steadfast in his own ways.

But then, perhaps these were the precise qualities which could be used against him.

“If you wish to practice,” Aro said thoughtfully, “then we ought to assist you.”

The blond head snapped around, and Aro found Carlisle’s eyes fixed on his own.

“Your pardon?”

“If you wish to practice, then you ought to be given the most practice we can afford,” he answered, with a wave of his hand as though this was such a natural solution, Carlisle should have figured it out himself. “You will join us for feedings from now on.”

The other’s face dropped. “I have no plans to alter—”

“I expect you to alter nothing,” Aro answered. “Nothing, my young friend. You may continue with your…diet…exactly as you please. But this way you will be able to practice your control even more, don’t you see?”

Carlisle’s jaw remained taut. “You mean this way you will be able to test me directly.”

“I mean nothing of the sort,” Aro answered. “If to be a physician will require your utmost strength and control, and I am to nurture that, then it only makes sense I provide opportunities for you to practice. In much the same way my brother helps you to practice your Greek.” He gestured toward the other vampire, whose face was now wiped of anything resembling good humor.

Carlisle’s eyes locked his own, and Aro could see from the corners of his own vision that half the room was fixed on the blond, waiting for him to make another move in defiance. But finally, his face softened a little.

“As you wish,” he answered, and then under his breath, added, “Master.”

Pulling his cloak more closely around himself, Carlisle turned his back, and moved away from the brothers. He thanked Marcus for his time, and then in a flurry of gray wool and golden hair, disappeared toward his chambers. Alrigo made a motion to follow, but Aro shook his head.

Caius gave Aro an approving look; Marcus scowled. Aro nodded to them both. It was perfectly evident that he had won this round.

The question was, at what cost?

~||x||~

The wind whipped through Carlisle’s hair as he raced into the purple dark. He preferred to hunt barefoot, and the dirt sprayed up between his toes, briefly turning his ankles black before sliding away from his impenetrable skin.

Feeding strengthened them all, and it was not uncommon for one to feel the need to run off additional energy after having had a good meal. He had not fed in over two weeks, longer than he usually allowed himself, and the surge of power was nearly overwhelming.

He swept his tongue across his lips as he ran, remembering the slick wetness of the blood which had just passed there. A mountain wolf, a hulking animal whose blood would sate him for at least a week. The animal had struggled pitifully beneath his hands as he pressed its shoulders into the earth; its legs kicking more and more jerkily as he slowly drained the life away.

Was he mistaken in thinking Aro was becoming more aggressive toward him? he wondered as he ran. Today’s interaction had been…odd, to say the least. It was rare that Aro would confront him as he had. When they spoke about Carlisle’s habits, it was usually in private.

And surely Aro had known of Carlisle’s goal? He had gone to no effort to try to hide it. Hiding things from Aro was impossible anyway. Aro would have seen him imagining sitting by a patient’s bedside, using his knowledge of the apothecary sciences and his superior senses to understand their illnesses, and at last, successfully healing them.

These had been the ends which had driven him closer and closer to the feedings; first from his own quarters, with the door closed, then with the door open, and now finally to where he could stand in the doorway to the main hall. The first time he had closed his eyes; not wishing to see the humans slaughtered, but the sounds and scents had been more than enough to leave a vivid image burned in his mind anyway. So he’d begun to stand with his eyes open.

He suspected this was what Alrigo had shown Aro. The other vampire had been following him disturbingly closely for several weeks. Stopping his pace a moment, Carlisle inhaled deeply, tasting the air. He smelled nothing. No one tailing him.

Well, that was good, at least.

He had called Aro “Master,” something he rarely did. He wasn’t stupid; he knew Aro would recognize his use of the term as effrontery. But he didn’t care. If Aro wanted Carlisle at his side while he fed, then he would make that happen. Let them all come to grips with exactly how well-controlled Carlisle was.

Aro wanted to see this all backfire. He wanted to be right.

Carlisle had no intention of allowing either.

Letting out a frustrated growl, Carlisle suddenly launched himself into the woods, barreling forward at top speed. His legs pumped beneath him, and he barely registered the foliage as it rushed past. The earth pounded itself into submission beneath his feet. Purple dusk gave way to inky night, and he pressed himself onward, until the air chilled and thinned.

It wasn’t until the terrain beneath him became rocky instead of lush and earth shifted to snow that he realized just how far from Volterra he’d run. The Alpi were two days’ long drive by ox-cart for a human, and although he had been here before looking for ingredients for his medicines, he had never managed to run this far without intending to.

Was he running away?

He had thought about it lately. He’d begun studying one of the languages of the Orient, and he was finding steadfast wisdom in the teachings of its ancient scholars. To travel there to practice it, even as a vampire, would require a lengthy journey that would take him away from Volterra for years.

Carlisle continued to run as the trees seemed to shrink into scrub-sized versions of themselves. The air grew thinner, and he knew that this was the level where humans began to find it difficult to breathe. He found it easier-the air was like a watery soup, going down quickly instead of the thickened stew of a hot Tuscan afternoon.

It was easier for him to breathe here.

Easier, precisely because he was not human.

There was a thunderous crack like the beginning of a snow slide, and Carlisle whirled. It took only an instant for him to realize that it was not a snow slide at all—his right hand was covered in bark and sticky tree sap, and some hundred yards away lay the only decently-sized tree in the vicinity, which had been nearly three times his own height when he’d uprooted it and sent it spiraling into the dense forest below. Sickened by his own lack of control, he collapsed into a sitting position so quickly that he broke the stone beneath him before letting out a pained cry that echoed off the cliffs and snow. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled in answer.

He stared into the darkness, but saw no movement. You should run, he thought at the wolf. I am a danger to you.

Scuffing his feet against the ground, Carlisle thought back to the other vampire, the one who had sent him here in the first place. Jean-Jacques was a Frenchman, almost three hundred years old. He’d come across Carlisle in the abandoned, burned-out house in Paris where Carlisle had been living, sneaking to the Collège de Sorbonne from time to time to attend courses.

It had been the first time Carlisle had encountered another besides the small coven in London; and that coven had avoided him. He now knew why-they did not wish to be destroyed should the Volturi come to them and question them about Carlisle’s existence-but at the time, it had meant that he had moved in utter solitude, and he, a mere child of twenty-three, had understood it only as rejection.

He had recognized Jean-Jacques’ scent as an absence more than a presence. Unfamiliar with the scent of another of his kind, he did not recognize it. But he knew there was another being, and that for once, his throat did not burn for it. The other vampire broke in the door, expecting to find a beast ready to fight for territory. Paris was Jean-Jacques’ hunting ground, and he was not interested in yielding it. His hands clenched into fists at his sides, and he entered snarling in French, demanding to know who Carlisle was.

Étudiant,” Carlisle cried, throwing his books down and backing against the wall, his hands upturned. “Je suis un étudiant.”

The other stared at him, puzzled, and Carlisle could see his mind working as he struggled to mesh the word “student” with the vampire who stood before him. The burned house was full of debris, but before Carlisle sat a volume of Aeschylus which he had smuggled from the library, and beside it, the papers upon which he was translating the Greek into French. When it seemed evident that the other would not harm him immediately, Carlisle had added that he did not hunt humans at all.

They had fallen into a long conversation after that. Jean-Jacques had been amazed at Carlisle’s temperance; especially that he had chosen his lifestyle as a newborn. He was even more impressed by Carlisle’s desire to use his immortal life to better himself beyond any human measure. It had been then that he had mentioned that Carlisle reminded him of the Volturi.

Carlisle hadn’t yet heard of them then. He wondered how differently his life would be if he never had? Or if perhaps he had been introduced to them the way it seemed most of his kind were: as the enforcers of the law, to be feared and revered, but generally avoided. Instead, his curiosity piqued, he had headed south.

He’d been happy at first, to discover the cultivation and sophistication of this coven. The brothers kept an expansive library, and Aro had brought scholars to Volterra from the same universities Carlisle attended. (The scholars never made it home, but Aro still prided himself on the knowledge he’d taken from their minds.) They appreciated art and funded Italy’s masters; they invested in music and listened to it regularly. The compound was full of things that sparked Carlisle’s imagination and intellect, and finally he felt he had some form of kinship. He spent years learning, observing, asking questions about the history of humans and the history of their kind, the Chosen, as Aro called them. He learned languages, mastered the pianoforte and the violin, taught himself to paint. Time and his mind were endless, and he planned to take advantage of both. Volterra had become home.

But all that was dropping away. The more Carlisle learned from the brothers, the more knew he would always be different. And that difference would leave him alone.

He lay down on his back and gazed up at the sky. Even though it was summer, the air here was chilly, and the cold cleared away the clouds that covered the sky down in Tuscany. The sky was a rich black, salted with stars. Carlisle could see them as a strange blue-white-red-purple, the way he imagined humans saw them through their telescopes. He had read Kant’s treatise not so long ago, the bit which expanded on Galileo. According to Kant, these stars were spinning, a giant whirling disc spanning a distance so far man couldn’t fathom it. The stars were uncountable, unknowable. And this planet was but a speck of dust in that larger picture.

And he was no more than a tiny bit of that.

He was just focusing in on a particularly bright star when he heard the whoosh of air that indicated a body moving somewhere behind him. At once, solid ground came beneath his feet and he stood, crouched, and ready to spring. Perhaps it was a wolf, or a mountain goat, in which case he might feed more if it attacked, or he might throw the animal on its way down the mountain.

Nostrils flaring, Carlisle sucked air into useless lungs, seeking the scent of blood. But it was not there. Instead he found the sickly sweet cloy of another of his kind. His mind flashed on Alrigo’s face, with its gaunt lines and tangled hair, and then flashed away as quickly.

This was not a scent he knew.

Straightening up, he called to the darkness. “I mean you no harm.” Remembering his encounter with Jean-Jacques, he added, “There are no humans to hunt here. I encroach not on your territory.”

The trees gave no answer, and the wind continued whipping across the face of the mountain. But then behind him, a single twig snapped.

In the moonlight, the others’ skin shone as his did, a blue-white like the Grecian statues Aro was so fond of collecting. He was the same height as Carlisle and of a similar build. Their hair differed by half a shade, although the other’s was far longer, tied between his shoulder blades with a bit of leather. For a fleeting moment, Carlisle imagined that someone else could mistake the two of them for brothers.

“I likewise mean you no harm,” the other said finally, his head cocked as he observed Carlisle. “I found your…kill.”

When Carlisle’s eyes stayed fixed on him, the man smiled and went on. “It was your kill, then. No wonder you claim not to encroach on territory. There are plenty of humans at the foot of these mountains. I conclude that the animal was slain instead of a human by your choice?”

Carlisle nodded slowly, and a smile spread across the other’s face.

“You are English?” he asked.

Carlisle nodded again. “You also?”

The other laughed, a booming sound that echoed off the cliffs. “I am no English. I was born to both my lives in the New World. A Virginian.”

“A colonist?”

The booming laugh came again. “Colonist no longer, my friend.”

Of course. Being immersed in Tuscan culture, Carlisle had barely followed the war, but he knew that the English colonies had separated some scant handful of years ago. It was little wonder this other man took this as a point of pride.

“My apologies. Of course you are an American.” He extended a hand. “My name is Carlisle.”

For a moment, the other did not move, but then he bounded forward and took the offered hand in a confident grip.

“They call me Garrett.”

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§ 5 Responses to 9. The Student"

  • Tina says:

    I love the idea of the Greek gods being rooted in the misunderstandings of humans who had encountered vampires. It fits. And Carlisle’s explanation of how the world was changing as human knowledge grew. I can see his restlessness – and Aro’s frustration with him.

    Loved the introduction to Garrett. Makes sense that Carlisle would choose to go to America, now.

    Always looking forward to more. (Looks like we both need more WC time.)

    • giselle says:

      I love getting to grapple with that kind of thing, as you know. And heavens am I looking forward to writing Garrett. Let’s hop on the WC wagon!

  • Sisterglitch says:

    “Humans always seemed to take beauty and strength as a sign of godliness instead of the mark of a superior predator.”

    Elegant. Ah, I berate you each time I re-visit this site to see if the story has updated, only to find the click of the Forward link leads only to free-fall and nothing… and then you finally post, and I berate myself for my common, ungrateful greediness as I recognize the rigorous work you’ve done to present to us these nourishing and edifying offerings — crispy and fat, delicately marinated and roasted — which seat us all at the king’s table. Bless you for the research, the careful turns of phrase, the dizzying insight into these characters we have adopted and dissected and crafted into legends replete with something like life. I craved this period of Carlisle’s history and you have gifted it to us with a rare grace.

    • giselle says:

      :blush: Thank you so much. When the review is this elegant, I start to suspect I’ve done something right somewhere.

  • soonermom says:

    Every time I read a chapter that takes place in Italy, the more intrigued I am to see how Carlisle’s time with the Volturi plays out. I’m also glad we got to see who the mystery vampire was and I’m glad that it was Garrett.

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