Aro had killed his wife with astounding precision, which helped create the illusion that Sulpicia's body was just a headless mannequin. But Demetri, Santiago, and Felix were there, with the bigger men shifting Sulpicia up and away onto a stretcher. They looked every bit as traumatised as Beth felt.
Demetri was the first to notice them; he barred Anna's way, hiding Aro from view. "You are forbidden to enter my Master's chambers!"
Beth laughed faintly. "I don't see a sign on the door."
Demetri glared at her, just as Anna brushed past. "No!" He grabbed Anna's arm. "You will go no further. Leave, before I have to force you."
"I wouldn't," Beth muttered. Ding, dong! The witch is dead! She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her hysterical laugh at bay.
"No, Demetri," Aro said, suddenly. "Let Anna approach."
Demetri twitched. "Master?"
"Let her approach." Aro's tone of voice left no room for argument.
"Do not fear, Demetri," Anna murmured as he stepped aside. "I promise you no harm will come to your Master." It sounded more like a threat.
Aro sat, relaxed and regal, on the edge of a four-poster bed; he didn't look like a man who had just murdered his wife. "You may leave now." Aro craned his neck to look at Beth with concern. "And, Demetri, please escort Elizabeth outside. She looks in need of some fresh air."
"I don't," Beth mumbled, though her eyes dared Demetri to try anything.
Demetri sighed in exasperation. "I do not wish to have to clean up after you again, little one."
Anna closed her eyes in despair. Beth hissed. "Call me 'little' again, and I'll puke on your suit." Her eyes flashed to Anna. "Will you be alright?"
"Alright, then. Come on, bloodhound…"
Demetri exhaled as he followed Beth, with one final nod to his Master. He did not look at Anna, who was gripped by a sudden fear. Did he believe Anna had been plotting to overthrow their queen, all this time? What, then?
Anna pushed the door shut. Caius and Athenodora had mercifully fallen silent. Aro surveyed her carefully, and when she swallowed, something in Anna's throat clicked.
She spoke first. "Explain yourself."
Aro blinked. "To what are you referring to, Anna?"
"Do not play the innocent!" Anna almost stamped her foot. "You have murdered your wife!"
Aro folded his hands contemplatively. "For the good of the coven," he said as he rose from the bed.
Something hard and heavy plummeted in Anna's heart. She sighed shakily. "After all this time, you only want my gifts."
Aro's face fell, and in one startling movement, he took her in his arms. "That is not true. Have you forgotten what we shared tonight?"
Feeling tiny and weak, Anna twisted out of his grasp. "Of course, not."
"Anna," Aro said hoarsely. "If I had let her live, Sulpicia would have destroyed you. Your gifts will only protect you from so much!"
Anna nodded sadly. "Because she loved you."
Aro shook his head. "We loved each other, once, many years ago. Sulpicia relied on me for protection and…status. There were no other options."
"There are always other options, Aro!" Exasperated, Anna scrunched a hand in her hair. Antoine and Sabine had met the same fate; Aro had been so intent on ridding the world of powerful little Freya, he had been blinded from the whole picture, losing Antoine as a result of it.
But Beth and I found the truth. I made Aro see it.
The realisation must have shown on Anna's face because Aro smiled. "You understand now." His eyes shone hopefully. "You would make a wonderful Queen if you wish it."
Anna swallowed. "You mean, I have a choice? This is…I'm sorry, Aro. I do not think I am ready yet."
Aro groaned, with frustration, or desire, Anna didn't know. "I disagree!"
Why didn't he understand? Anna touched his cheek. "Aro, I cannot abandon my sister. Beth has always been there for me; I must be there for her before I decide to be your Queen. It will not be easy for her to see me go."
Aro spluttered, "Anna – are you trying to kill me?"
"Your family is going to learn of their Lady's death, and they will mourn her, even if you will not," Anna said tremblingly. "I cannot be here when that happens. It will be inappropriate."
She expected Aro to protest – but he gently brushed the stray curl off her forehead. "This is your final decision then?" he said sadly.
Anna nodded. "It is."
He caught her by surprise by almost lifting her off her feet, moulding his body into hers. Anna gasped. Oh, she wanted this, no matter how conflicted it made her feel. It was a kiss unlike any she had experienced, charged with passion and pain as Aro moaned against her mouth.
When they finally pulled apart, Aro pressed their foreheads together. "We cannot stay apart for long," he whispered. "Remember that. We shall both suffer for it."
Anna swallowed. "But that is why I must go." Aro opened his mouth to retort, but she stopped him with soft fingers on his lips. "This has happened so fast, Aro. I need time to think before I take my place by your side."
Aro's eyes widened. "Is that a promise?"
Anna answered with another tender kiss. "I will return to you soon. Then you can make me your Queen."
"I shall wait for you," he breathed. "For as long as it takes."
There was no goodbye, because it wasn't goodbye, not entirely. Anna's promise would be enough, for now. She turned to leave, but Aro drew her in again, clinging to her as he sighed with longing.
To be continued...