Chapter 50: Ruler

When I woke up, the Greenes next door were quiet, although I didn't know if they'd resolved their disagreement or just given up and gone to sleep.

I had known - I had known and simply not thought twice about it - that the imprints who'd lived in the village all along were not staying with their wolves out of unadulterated affection. Amanda had been a Canadian tourist, basically kidnapped off the street when Albert gaped at her. She'd been brain-scrambled so she'd stay with him regardless of whatever else she'd had in mind for her life, so he'd remain a functional member of the Volturi guard dogs. And then I'd run around heedlessly through the village deprogramming everybody in an indiscriminate wave.

I knew Amanda wouldn't miss her relatives and friends - I couldn't do anything about that half of Chelsea's work - but she might miss Canada, or... what had she been doing with herself, before, anyway? Aro had never read Amanda. She might have been in college or had a career or, for all I knew, another family of her own, another child or three back home, another husband. She didn't talk about where she'd come from beyond "Canada"; I didn't even know what province. She'd handled dropping out of her old life on her own once she was warped into wanting to, well enough that no one had made trouble looking for her.

Unless she was from Vancouver, Amanda was going to be the only imprint who wasn't at least somewhat close to home when the packs went their separate ways, too.

I sat in bed and put my chin on my knees. I wondered what would happen if she wanted to leave. Would she want to take the baby? Her daughter was a puppy, not a normal human child. Eve wouldn't start demonstrating any unusual properties until she was twelve or thirteen at least, and might or might not activate even then - I didn't know if vampire presences early in her life would cause automatic floofing later if she didn't meet any more vampires growing up. But it might take longer than that for it to be considered acceptable for wolves to live wherever they wanted. And even if Amanda felt nothing real for Albert anymore, at least some of her affection for their daughter had to be real... probably...

I left my bedroom and found Embry and Gwyn, still up as my night shift guards, sitting in the suite's front room hushedly playing cards. I'd just about forgotten they were there.

"Morning," whispered Gwyn when she saw I was up. "Want to play?"

If I wanted to go anywhere out of the suite, they'd have to put their game down in the middle (I wondered if my mom had this sort of conundrum with Renata? Probably not; Renata never did anything interesting) so I sat with them and took some cards from the deck and lost to Embry at Go Fish, then went with them to the cafeteria so they could have dinner and I could have breakfast.

"I heard Albert and Amanda fighting last night," I blurted, between finishing my bacon and starting my eggs. The cafeteria was temporarily open all day and night, as people were keeping irregular hours and attempting to preemptively change time zones for the upcoming move to La Push.

"Fighting?" said Gwyn and Embry in unison. They'd both been in Rachel's pack, with Albert, and would know him pretty well, and Amanda through him.

"Well, as much as an imprint can fight with her wolf," I allowed. "I didn't catch the words. I - I think it's my fault because I deprogrammed Amanda with everybody else -"

"Oh, Elspeth, sweetie," said Gwyn, patting my hand. "No, you did a good thing."

"If I'd gone slower, I could have been more careful and only undone the stuff tying you guys to the Volturi," I said.

"You didn't take away anything that was really there," said Gwyn. "Like, I'm still glad Santiago gave us dance lessons, aren't you?"

"Yes, but... But I took away what Amanda and Albert had," I said. "And even if it wasn't real, it can hurt them for it to be gone." I suspected Albert was in worse straits, since any discomfort in Amanda would upset him too and he'd also have to deal with the situation itself, but Amanda was probably none too thrilled either.

Gwyn and Embry fell sympathetically silent. I finished my food, and Embry yawned. "About time for the shift change," he said. "Jake and... not Grace again, who was it..."

"Laurel," supplied Gwyn. "I'm not sure if we're supposed to go get her ourselves or what."

"We can go wait for Jake to wake up," I said, and we returned to the suite and the deck of cards and Gwyn demonstrated to us both that War had a non-trivial skill element until my wolf finally padded out of his bedroom.

"Morning, Elsie," Jake said. "Gwyn, you're relieved; go wake up Laurel if she's not already up and tell her I said to come here and relieve Embry."

"You got it," said Gwyn, hopping to her feet and dashing off to do what she was told. When Gwyn ran it was one of the few times she looked remotely thirteen years old - she pulled off the older look that came with wolf activation in stillness or when she moved slowly or danced, but she ran like a kid.

It weirded me out, just a little, to watch my Jake giving orders. I'd seen him do it a few times, but he'd done most of his interacting with the pack in wolf form where the details were opaque to me and it might as well have been anyone else in charge. And a good chunk of the time we'd spent together hadn't involved any other wolves at all.

Jake plunked down into the chair Gwyn had been using. "What's on the agenda for the day?" he asked me.

"Uh, another blast victim's family is coming in to hear what happened to their relative, so I'm going to that," I said. "That's at three this afternoon. I don't have anything else planned. I guess we could hang out here, or wander around the compound looting, or whatever."

"You didn't seem interested in looting," Jake said.

"I'm not," I said. "I'm not accustomed to having lots of possessions. I spent most of my life constantly running around North America with what my mom could carry in a backpack... she can carry a lot, but was limited by the volume of the backpack... and I don't really feel like loading up on stuff just because there's stuff lying around. If I want some object later I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get it, you know?"

"And behold, consumerism lies gurgling in a ditch somewhere," said Embry, gesturing like he was making a toast.

I shrugged. It wasn't a statement about my values, just about my inclinations. "I don't mind if other people want stuff."

Laurel knocked perfunctorily and let herself into the suite, waving Embry out, and Embry gave Jake a half-serious salute and left to go to bed. Laurel saluted too, more seriously, and sat with us. Her posture was ridiculously good. It made me feel like I was scrunched up in a little ball.

There was a silence, and I said, "We could go see what my mom is doing. She might be drawing up a vampire org chart."

"Will there be vampire cubicles and vampire stock options too?" asked Jake, chuckling.

"Vampire palaces and vampire cornering-the-stock-market-through-leverage-and-psychic-powers, I think is more the idea," I said, getting up. "There's looting and then there's suddenly seizing all the finances of an absurdly rich reigning oligarchy. I think my mom skipped the first thing in favor of the second. So probably not too many vampire cubicles."

"I think I'll angle for a vampire corner office," said Jake. "I'll get my name on a little copper insert on the door in a vampire font and delegate paperwork to my vampire secretary." I giggled, and Jake said, "Hey, this means that conspiracy theorists who think the world is secretly controlled by vampires are right, or will be once your mom lays down some more infrastructure, anyway."

"I think those conspiracy theories are mostly about lizard people," I said.

"Oh, I guess you're right." He paused. "Do lizard people exist?"

"Not as far as I know."

We walked to the compound, and found my mom in the throne room talking to Siobhan, whose eyes were a striking rose-gold. I wasn't sure when she'd last eaten a human, but it was apparently recent enough that the one animal meal she'd agreed to eat hadn't displaced her eye color completely.

" Ireland?" my mom was saying.

"No, I suppose we don't have to live there full time, as long as it's up to me who does. Maggie and Gianna are fine. Molly will probably be fine, when she's old enough to turn. I think Cath and Ilario are planning to live in England but I don't mind if they visit my island. Everyone else who can bite through a phone book who wants to set foot on that island, I want them to have to clear it with me."

"I think the governments of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom might have something to say about your territoriality when we let on that we exist," my mom said dryly.

"I'm not trying to regulate human immigration," said Siobhan sourly. "I don't care where humans go. Especially now that I'm not even going to eat them." She shook her head, a disgusted look on her face. "You gambled smart, but it's a very narrow win in favor of animal blood, Bella. It is rank."

My mom smiled thinly at that. "It's your choice..."

"Yes, I know, I'm just griping to gripe," sighed Siobhan. "Have you considered that, in addition to having several capitals, you could have several arms of your organization in different places? You could put a base in Ireland somewhere and I could work out of there regardless of where and whether you move. I don't need to be physically present to make plans for people."

"I suppose," my mom mused. "I wanted to get Stefan and Vladimir to handle the physical combat training anyway."

Siobhan nodded. "They're better choices."

"I'm still calling you General, though," my mom said.

"Ugh. Put it on official documents if you must. Don't call me that." Siobhan looked up at me and Jake and Laurel. "Call him that."

"Jacob comes with a title - "Alpha" - and we can just put an "Imperial" before it to distinguish him from his sisters," said my mom. "But fine, I'll call you Siobhan in casual conversation and reserve "General" for other situations. Elspeth, sweetie, what's up?"

"Just wanted to see what was going on," I said. "Do you have an org chart?"

"About half of one, and not written down," she said. "How do you feel about going into the PRPR department? You don't have to - you're five, and also a princess, and do not have to work if you don't want to - but it's open to you."

"What does PRPR stand for?" I asked.

"Stands for Public Relations, and "Public Relations"," she said, making air quotes around the second instance of the phrase, "where Public Relations means more or less what you've been doing already in helping with the blast victims - telling people who need explanations what's what, answering questions, generally interacting with humans for whatever purposes come up. We'll have pamphlets eventually, no doubt, but I imagine having someone to talk to would help. And "Public Relations" means turning folks into vampires, but that's only part of the same department because the one will funnel into the other."

"That sounds fine to me," I said.

"Does she get an extra title?" Jake asked. "Beyond princess, I mean?"

"Imperial Soothsayer?" my mom suggested. "I suppose it's historically been used to refer to fortune-telling, which is more Alice's job, but it breaks down into "truth teller", so it seems appropriate for you anyway." Jake snickered and patted me on the head.

"I'm glad you're having fun, Bella, but you could be a little more restrained about the titles," Siobhan said.

"I already said I wouldn't address you as yours when it's not called for," my mother said, smiling, "so you needn't worry. They're just for fun, and to give us an edge in commanding respect for something other than being able to dismember humans when we need to deal with them."

"You think calling Elspeth the Imperial Soothsayer will do that?" Siobhan asked.

"I think it may if we all pretend to take each other very seriously while we call her that," my mom replied. "If we allow ourselves to act like vampires instead of passing for human, in front of humans, we're going to come across as quite strange. We move differently, talk differently, look different, think differently, live differently. We may as well come across as strange and grand instead of strange and frightening or strange and inconsequential. If I find that, in practice, calling ourselves Imperial Whatevers backfires, I will tone it down." She gestured at my dad as she said that, indicating that she did have a very good way to determine if the nomenclature was meeting with a suitable reaction.

"Fair enough," said Siobhan. "Are you going to build a base in Ireland?"

"Perhaps. Or you could just get a house with Liam - or go on being vagrants, I suppose, if you prefer that even now that you've moved to vegetarianism - and telecommute all the time. I was thinking one capital in Europe, maybe two since it's so densely populated, and I'm tempted to put one in Norway for personal reasons, and the possible second in Greece for geographical coverage."

"Where else are you going to put capitals?" I asked.

"Well, I considered putting one in China, but it turns out that there are surprisingly few vampires in China," my mom said. "There are some, but it's just not an area that will need that much management. So I think I'll put one in India somewhere, one in Russia, one in Australia, two in Africa above and below the equator exact countries to be determined, one in Brazil, one in Qu├ębec, one in Florida, and one in Washington State, although I may adjust those last two if my parents don't have a long-term interest in living where they currently do. I figure that installs me at least vaguely near most of the vampire populations of the world as they currently stand."

"Are you going to staff all these places full time?" Siobhan asked.

"No," my mom said. "I'm going to put "Closed" signs on the ones that I'm not using, with phone numbers to get in touch with various useful people. Razi's on the payroll. He can pop over and deal with emergencies that the sort of staffperson who'd be stationed in such a place would be able to handle anyway. Maybe eventually I'll accumulate more employees and want to treat these places like embassies instead of rotating capitals, but for the time being they will mostly stand empty at any given time."

"Is Esme helping design them?" I asked.

"As we speak," my mom said. "I think she's tickled that I named her Imperial Architect. She can't get too detailed with the plans before we have sites picked out. We don't even know if we'll want anything put aboveground. But she's figuring out what sorts of campuses and layouts will work for our needs without looking too much like... this." She waved a hand at the throne room, at the stony opulence. "Benjamin and Emel together can get a building or set of them this size up, plumbed, and wired for electricity in a day, less if Addy helps them. Villages of a size suited to hold Jacob's pack with room for growth if we get recruits from the next generation will take another day apiece. Benjamin and Emel don't do carpet and things like that, but Esme wants to do all those little touches herself. Her specialty isn't building from scratch anyway."

"What's Carlisle doing?" I asked, sure that where Esme went, her husband was sure to follow.

"Imperial Ethicist for Research and Development," my mom said. "On a consulting basis. He'll probably be against various things I'm in favor of, but I'm pretty sure he won't greenlight anything I'd refuse, so as long as we have a sensible appeals system set up he's perfect for the job. He may also go on practicing medicine in the civilization near the capital-of-the-year, but I'm hoping to coax him into full-time R&D work."

"What kind of R&D?" I asked.

"For instance," my mom said, "how nifty would it be if we didn't have to drive the world's megafauna extinct in our attempt to save human lives? I'm going to get Vasanti setting up something more sustainable than hunting near the relevant locations - pig farms, probably - but in the long run, given that I want to turn as many people as want to be turned and hope to make minimal use of the screening mechanism? I want synthetic blood. If we can figure out how to make it taste like human blood while retaining the non-crazymaking properties of animal blood, that would be marvelous, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it also be nice if it could really make the thirst go away instead of temporarily dying down a bit?"

"That would be nice," I agreed.

"I'd actually like to gradually supplant the world population with various fractional vampires," said my mom.

"What?" I said.

"Like you," she said, smiling. "There are tradeoffs, of course - but not-entirely-vampires can eat plants, reproduce unaided, and are still immortal and have arbitrary amounts of mental storage space. The only reason I'm hoping to turn more people into vampires at all is that as far as we know, one has to be born a hybrid, so this plan won't save any humans who are already alive today. Although that'll be something to set the R&D department on."

"Does this turn into an imperial mandate that I reproduce?" I asked uncomfortably.

"No. In fact, consider it an imperial mandate that you not make me a grandmother before I'm... oh... forty-five. But it means that one of the fast tracks to getting turned, for people who want it, will be volunteering to carry a half-vampire baby for someone who wants one, and that it will be customary to strongly encourage female turning applicants to make use of an egg bank. We'll probably need to set up one of our own, of those." She paused. "I bet Rosalie would do that. She's qualified and has the... however masochistic... interest."

"Egg banks aren't very portable," I observed.

"So we build one everywhere we set up, design them not to need much maintenance when not in active use, and tell Razi to pop in and fix any problems that crop up as informed by our automatic alarm system," my mother said, shrugging. "The things one can do with a clever combination of magic and technology are really awesome."

"Are you going to do anything about Joham?" I asked.

My mom chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "Well," she said, "he really needs to stop impregnating people to death, because that is horrifying and wrong, but if he just wants more kids, and he's willing to do it by finding informed volunteers and getting them appropriate care while they're pregnant, that has no obvious problems. I'm not thrilled about some of his philosophical viewpoints, but I don't think he's an actual threat and don't plan to forbid him to reproduce outright."

Siobhan asked, "How are you planning to locate him? Alice won't be able to see through Iseul and Noemi and he doesn't have a stable territory, or any incentive to tell you where he is or stay put if you have Dwi call him. I suppose Nathan might have a shot in hell, but..."

"That's taken care of," my mom said, smiling enigmatically. "Joham will be located and informed of the situation in short order, along with the other members of his family."

"...How?" Siobhan said.

"Don't worry about it," my mom said cheerfully.

Siobhan raised an eyebrow, looking skeptically at the smirking Empress, but said, "All right then."

We chatted about who was going to work where, batted sites and names for our capitals back and forth, invented titles to bestow on people with various levels of levity. Addy was in R&D, obviously, developing witch powers that came under imperial purview - with Carlisle's ethical supervision - but in her Factotum capacity, she would be dispatched elsewhere when called for, borrowing anyone's powers when they had excess workload. Esme brought in her preliminary drafts for various possible buildings and we oohed and aahed, claimed rooms, suggested decorative curlicues. Nathan popped into the room, announced that he wanted to be the Imperial Minister of Temporal Affairs, and left, whistling, when my mom said that was fine with her.

At three, my father murmured that Addy had met the next blast victim's family at the office building entrance to the compound and was escorting them in.

I got up and went, wolves trailing behind me, to be ready to meet them when they got to the end of the corridor. I had a job.

The second family was easier to deal with than the first. The pair of brothers they were there to see had something much more easily recognizable as a disorder. They weren't walking, talking copies of strangers. I also did not disclose, this time, who was responsible for the disorder in question.

The pair's mother mumbled vaguely about taking them home, after she was able to get over her shock at the whole witches and werewolves and vamps, oh my surprise and focus on her sons. The men were physically well, and could occasionally respond to their environments - they would sleep in beds, could sluggishly figure out plumbing anew each time they were presented with it, ate food that was put in front of them. Those reflex behaviors had been memorized by a sufficient fraction of the shattered intrusions in their minds that they could be resurrected. So home care wasn't a completely untenable prospect for an untrained caretaker.

One of them was married. His wife did not strike me as being particularly sad to have, effectively, lost her husband. She made the appropriate statements of dismay, but all of her questions were about money. I refrained from commenting on the compassion of this focus, and just named the substantial figure Addy whispered to me at high pitch for what we could offer in reparations. The wife was thereafter non-participatory and distracted; I was silently glad that they didn't have any children.

Their older sister asked me, in a thin, plaintive voice, if there was any hope of treatment.

"Not the way you're hoping," I said. "There are two possible routes to improving their condition, but neither will bring back your brothers the way they were and neither is certain."

"Please tell us what they are anyway," the sister said.

"One," I said, "is that we could use memories taken from all of you, and attempt to use them to remind your brothers who they're supposed to be. This won't bring back their own perspectives on any memories you have of them, and it won't recover any information that was private to them, but if it worked they'd know who you were again, and might fall into roles similar to the ones they used to occupy. The reason it might not work is that you're all humans, and human memories don't stick as strongly or vividly. They both contain some vampire memories that might be impossible to move out of the way like that."

"And the other possibility?" the sister asked tentatively.

"More likely to work," I said, "but you wouldn't like the results as much. Two of the other people who this happened to looked in mirrors and recognized themselves as being similar-looking vampires. That let them fixate on those vampires' memories and get the extra information out of the way. Effectively, they now are those people, in different bodies. Your brothers didn't do that naturally, but it's possible that by making them look physically different with makeup and dye and such, or by re-blasting a smaller period of a specific vampire's lifetime, we could get them to "wake up" - as someone else."

The mother spoke up. "This happened to two people?"

"Can we meet them?" the sister asked.

"Neither of them speak Italian, but sure, I can translate," I said. "Addy, would you get Didyme, please?"

Addy whooshed away in an unnecessary show of speed, and returned with Didyme; I heard Marcus settling into the next room over as before to avoid letting his mate out of his earshot. Didyme politely introduced herself to the family, described how pleased she was to be alive "again" and how she hoped her new biological family would eventually become comfortable enough to give her the "parents she missed and brothers she wished she'd had". The poignancy of the "brothers" part was lost on her audience, whom she did not elect to tell in detail about her murder, but Didyme's charming personality was clearly having its effect on everyone in the family, even the wife. (I uncharitably envisioned the wife asking if she could see a menu of possible people her husband could be turned into. Then I uncharitably imagined that he had been, in some way, a less than model spouse and she was justified in her distance. Then I decided to stop guessing.)

John, when it was his turn, made less of a stunning impression, although he didn't do anything particularly inappropriate. "They were chosen randomly, right?" the wife asked, when he'd gone.

"Not randomly, but according to who they looked like and the length of the stored memory," I said. "But if you mean, did a person decide to turn them into those people, no."

"I want you to try the first option," said the mother, tremulously. "I want my boys back."

"I want the second thing for -" the wife began, but the sister interrupted her, and soon all three women were bickering and shouting.

I watched them natter at each other until it was clear that the argument wouldn't simmer down on its own, then raised my voice and said, "Perhaps you could discuss this issue at your leisure and let us know when you've reached a decision. We'll be happy to look after them both for as long as you need." Santiago - having been dropped into the PRPR Department mostly because my mother had found her presence soothingly professional back in the day and there was nowhere else the dancer was obviously needed - was looking after all of the patients, and didn't seem to mind the job.

The three got up, although they didn't stop arguing, and let me show them out via the office building.

I sighed when they left, and went back to the compound, and went to the village to see if Amanda was home.

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