The snow was almost silver under the moonlight, throwing even the tiniest twigs and branches into sharp relief. Carine recognized the other woman’s silhouette instantly.
“I was sure you’d left.”
Aro shrugged fluidly. “Most of the guard has. I wished to speak with you privately.”
Carine could have turned around and left. She doubted Aro would have followed her, if she was going to kill her she wouldn’t have sent away her guard. Aro had a flair for the dramatic, but she wasn’t an idiot. Her family was back at the house, waiting to continue the celebration, and they’d be missing her. She stayed where she was. “All right. What is it you want to talk about, Aro?”
Aro pushed back her hood and looked up at the dark sky silently for a long moment. She was drawing out the tension, waiting for Carine to break the silence first. Carine knew this trick, and she wasn’t going to fall for it again. She wasn’t.
“Aro, Earnest is expecting me back at the house.”
Aro chuckled, turning theatrically on one heel. “Ah, Earnest. Tell me, how is the trophy husband? Still ‘remodeling’ historical buildings?”
“Are you serious?”
“No. I have no interest in him.”
“Of course you don’t. You can’t comprehend what a loving relationship would look like.” Carine was startled by her words. She was usually good at avoiding negative feelings, but Aro had a knack for bringing the worst out of her, which was the only explanation for what she said next. “And I do love him. Far more than I ever loved you.”
She studied Aro’s face, looking for a reaction, but the woman’s grin didn’t falter. “My dear Carine, do you really believe that’s what I’m here for?”
“You wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise.” She remembered Aro leaning over her shoulder to point at a passage from Machiavelli, back in the Volturi library. Back when she was an Italian “patroness of the arts,” and they attended galleries and the opera side by side, her hand in the crook of Aro's arm. “I’ve never known you to say something you haven’t considered a thousand times over.”
Aro’s red eyes narrowed slightly. “True. But your chosen arm candy isn’t my concern here.”
“And yet here you are.”
“Carine, hard as it may be for you to believe, I am here to congratulate you.”
The back of Carine’s neck tingled. The house, she’d left the house completely unguarded. She was turning when Aro raised a white hand lazily. “Dearest, if I wanted to kill your little coven I would have done it already. Calm yourself.”
Anger uncoiled in Carine’s stomach like a viper and she hated the feeling. “Stop playing games, Aro.”
Aro was suddenly inches away from her. Carine didn’t move back, unwilling to cede ground to the other woman in even this small way.
“You want me to be forward with you? Very well. Carine, I have hoped for centuries to see you embrace your potential. To be what you needed to be to survive in this world. And today, darling, you finally did it.”
Carine sighed. So they were back on this. “Aro, I don’t know how many times I can tell you that I’m not like you before you believe it.”
“Carine, you are exactly like me.” Aro tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, her icy fingers brushing her jawline. Carine tilted her head away, remembering the other woman’s ability to read her thoughts. “The only difference is that you’re unwilling to admit it.”
“No.” She wouldn’t have this fight with Aro again. “No humans died by my hand today. I formed no army. Everything I did, I did to protect my family, not out of a selfish desire for power.” Aro laughed again, and if Carine was angry before she was furious now. She moved forward, backing the Volturi leader towards the cliff’s edge, the snow crunching underfoot. “You lost, Aro! You lost, and you’re here to try to convince me that somehow you got exactly what you wanted but that’s a lie and you know it. My coven and our witnesses showed everyone today how corrupt and ineffective your government is and they saw, they really saw for the first time. We did it without any death or violence or intimidation, just with words. And word will spread. You’re finished, and you know it. The vampire world won’t be cowed by you anymore.”
Aro looked decidedly unimpressed. “All right. The vampire world won’t be cowed by the Volturi anymore. Then what?”
“Free to do what, exactly, Carine?”
“I’m thinking I’ll take Earnest to Paris for a while.” Carine allowed herself to smile, indulging in the fantasy. “Enjoy the French countryside. He’s never been.”
Aro ignored the obvious bait. “That’s what you’ll be doing. What does a free vampire world look like?”
“Your allies, Carine. What do you think they’re going to do as soon as I’m gone? Do you think they’ll go to Paris and look at the flowers?” Carine hadn’t thought of the Romanians since they had left--they were unpleasant and she tried to avoid thinking of unpleasant things. But now, looking at Aro’s flawless face, she couldn’t push them out of her mind anymore.
“They came to me, Aro.”
“And you simply let them into your home. Clothed them. Lent them your cars.” Aro wasn’t smiling anymore and Carine took a step backward before she realized what she was doing.
“You were threatening my family. I did what needed to be done.”
Aro shook her head. She was like a coiled spring, and Carine could sense the tension, the fury simmering beneath the cheerful surface. “You willingly allied yourself with two of my greatest enemies, two of humanity’s greatest enemies, and you did this before even thinking of contacting us and simply explaining the situation.”
“Oh, don’t make yourself out to be the victim. You wanted my children. You still do. Edward saw it in your mind.”
“And yet I allowed them to leave Volterra unharmed and held off on sending Chelsea with Jane to fetch them last spring. Edward is a smart boy, but he sees very little of my mind. Carine, you know I do not hesitate if I wish to add a power to my collection. If I really needed your children, they would be mine already. Caius and Didyme recommended that I take them when your son staged his little performance in Volterra, arguing it would be the most prudent course of action, but I sent them back to you.”
Carine remembered the boat deck tipping as she traveled to America all those years ago, how she had felt like an insignificant speck in the unending grey.
“And you repaid me by giving those monsters a clear path back to power. I told you how they ruled.” Anger was clear on Aro’s face now. “Honestly, Carine, I’m impressed. The ‘vampire with a conscience’ turns out to be just as destructive as the rest of us. And you didn’t even have to kill to do it.”
Carine snarled, lunging at Aro before she could stop herself, her vampire instincts firmly in control now. Aro easily dodged her attack, slamming her into one of the massive trees. It shuddered and creaked as snow showered down around them. Carine clawed at her face but Aro easily caught her wrist with one hand, pulling it away before she could do any damage, and so she spat at the other woman instead, her fangs bared. Aro shook her head. “You still don’t understand.”
“I’m not like you. I’ll never be like you. I haven’t killed, I taught my family not to kill, there’s no blood on my hands!”
Aro threw her head back and laughed, and this time there was more than a touch of mania to it. “Oh good gracious, you really believe that! After all this time, after all you’ve done, you really still believe that!” She shook her head, disgust warring with amusement. “Carine, you really are a piece of work.”
Carine twisted her wrist free, grabbing Aro’s neck. Aro stumbled backward and she seized on the opportunity, sweeping out her leg to knock her into the snow. Her vision had gone red around the edges and she could picture herself pulling Aro close to her, sinking her teeth into the other woman’s ivory throat, the shriek of metal ringing through the night, destroying her--
Aro had her ankle in one hand, jerking her off balance. She fell to her knees and Aro rolled, dragging her down and pinning her arms. Her blood-red eyes glinted in the moonlight.
“You’re not going to be able to beat me one-on-one, darling.”
“Go to hell, Aro.”
Aro smiled again. “We’re in it, Carine.” Carine struggled, but the other woman was stronger, fueled by human blood and centuries of battle. Her grip held. “The Romanians will be back soon. So will the Egyptians. The next time we meet will be on opposite sides of the battlefield, and this time there will be a fight.” She raised an eyebrow, sensing Carine’s thoughts. “Why don’t I kill you now? Regardless of what you might think, I’m not eager for battle, my dear Carine. And besides...” She leaned down, her dark hair brushing Carine’s cheek. “It’s been a while since I’ve had such a fascinating opponent.”
Carine felt her grip loosen and she pulled her arms free. She knew she could make it to the trees, but she hadn’t been this close to Aro since her disastrous stay in Volterra ages ago, and she still smelled the same way--like old books and red wine--and before she knew what she was doing she had seized the other woman’s face in her hands and crushed their mouths together. Aro made a muffled noise of surprise, or maybe amusement, and then kissed her back, reaching down to pull her bun out of its clasp and rake her nails through her hair, unclasping her cloak with her other hand. She ripped Carine’s tasteful peach blouse open, and Carine snarled at her, returning the favor with Aro’s tight black suit jacket.
It’s not gentle. There was no need for the veneer of civility or elegance, they knew each other too well for that. Aro intertwined her fingers with Carine’s as they fell towards the climax, and Carine squeezed tightly, hissing Aro’s name through her fangs.
Carine rose to leave immediately afterward, primly dusting the snow off her beige pencil skirt and slipping her conservative pumps back on. “I’m sure I’ll see you again soon, Aro.”
Aro smirked. “I look forward to it.”