The Prince growled. “You have your answer, Aoibhe.”
“Ah, but circumstances have changed. We both know there are those who are trying to overthrow you.”
“Who are they?” He crowded her.
Fear streaked across her face and she stepped back.
“I would tell you if I knew. I swear it. I think you know I have a fondness for you, my lord. I owe you my life. I pay my debts, which means I’m your ally, at least until I’ve repaid you in kind.”
“I am grateful for your allegiance.” He nodded stiffly.
“I suspect the traitors live among us, that they are intelligent and crafty but not necessarily powerful. They’ve been manipulating others into doing what they could not do—colluding with Venice to have you assassinated, using the ferals to breach the borders. You executed Ibarra, which was probably part of their plan.”
“Are you so sure Ibarra wasn’t a traitor? He’d never failed his tasks before.”
“Precisely. I took Ibarra to bed and questioned him in an intimate moment. He was loyal.”
“Then why didn’t you oppose his execution?”
“I’m fond of my head, my prince. I’d like to keep it.”
William’s body relaxed slightly. “I welcome whatever information you have to offer, Aoibhe, now and in future.”
“I will make enquiries, discreetly, and report my findings to you. I think it’s clear someone has been whispering to the hunters.”
“See that you don’t take anyone else into your confidence. We don’t know how many of them there are.”
“Of course. I suspect Max but he isn’t intelligent enough to mastermind a plot. It’s possible the Venetians approached him, but I doubt it.” Aoibhe placed her hand on the Prince’s sleeve. “Whatever vulnerabilities you have, they are small in number. I saw you fight the hunters. Their weapons had no effect on you.”
He gave her a half smile. “I believe your perceptions at the time were somewhat altered.”
“I was immobilized, not unconscious.” She stared at him for a moment, challenging him with her eyes. “I pride myself in never underestimating others. I’ve known you a very long time and even I underestimated you.”
His smile bloomed disarmingly. “I am an old one, Aoibhe. You know this.”
She shook her head. “I’ve known old ones. I was the lover of one in Paris before I came here. He could not do what you do. No one can. Why would a vampyre with so much power content himself with the city of Florence when he could rule Europe, or the Americas, instead?”
He freed his arm from her grasp.
“Perhaps because I’m not as powerful as you think.”
Aoibhe gazed on him with admiration. “An old Medicean trick—appear humble before the people, so as not to arouse their anger or jealousy.”
He dismissed her remark with a wave of his hand. “Evil has its own logic.”
“I’ve yet to meet an evildoer who’s as concerned as you are with protecting the innocent.”
“Pure pragmatism. We learned our lesson during the Black Death. If we feed on children, we’ll destroy our food supply.”
“Evil doesn’t care about such things and we both know it.” She shivered, glancing over her shoulder. “Besides, that wasn’t the innocence I was referring to. Since you are without your pet for the evening, why don’t you join me at my residence? You look weary and in need of diversion.”
“I won’t return to your bed,” he rumbled.
“As you wish.” She tossed her hair. “I’m sure you’ll find me when you get lonely enough. While you’re brooding, you should reflect on the story of Faustus, the Prince of Sardinia. He elevated his pet to consort and the principality rose up against him and destroyed her. They delivered him to the Curia.”
“I have no intention of taking a consort, Aoibhe. You’d do well to recognize that.”
“I’m not likely to forget it.”
She bowed very low and leapt from the top of the building to the street behind the palazzo before disappearing into the shadows.
The Prince clenched and unclenched his fists before letting out a frustrated cry toward the heavens.
Days turned into weeks, and soon it was July and Gina was making plans to throw a birthday party in Raven’s honor.
“Who shall we invite?” Gina sat with Raven on the loggia near the Uffizi after work one evening. Her pen was poised above a pad of paper, waiting.
“You and Patrick, of course.”
“What about friends from the restoration lab?”
Raven smiled. “Not Professor Urbano; I don’t think he’d join us. But everyone else, I suppose.”
Raven sighed. “It wasn’t her fault I was gone for a week and she was chosen to replace me. Sure, invite her.”
“Anyone else? How about Bruno?”
“We aren’t really friends. His grandmother said he’s dating someone now.”
Gina squeezed her arm sympathetically. “Is there no one else? No one special?”
Raven ignored the implication and put William out of her mind.
“My sister and her boyfriend were supposed to be coming for a visit but they’ve postponed it. I’d invite my neighbor, Bruno’s grandmother, but she’s getting chemotherapy and wouldn’t feel up to it.”
“I’d like to invite my cousin Roberto.” Gina’s tone was hesitant.
“That’s cool.” Raven glanced down at the guest list. It was very short.
“I think you and he would get along well. He’s studying literature at the university. He’s very handsome.” Gina paused. “And he’s blind.”
Raven shifted her feet on the stone step, feeling very uncomfortable.
“Would it be all right if I introduced you to him?” Gina watched Raven’s reaction.
She shrugged. “Sure. I don’t want to be set up with anyone right now. But I’d like to meet him.”
“I know he’d be happy to meet you.” Gina changed the subject, asking Raven about the menu.
She gave polite but distant answers, her mind distracted by the subtext of Gina’s suggestion about her cousin.
Later, when Raven’s lunch break was over and she was walking the corridors of the Uffizi, she had time to reflect on Gina’s remark.
It was, perhaps, ungenerous to assume that Gina was trying to match her up with her cousin simply because he was blind and Raven walked with a cane.