A lone figure lurked in the shadows outside the Prince’s villa, which overlooked the city of Florence. From the villa’s windows, one could enjoy an incredible view of the skyline—even at night.
Not that the figure was able to enjoy that prospect.
The Prince used strange magic to repel others of his kind, or so the figure averred. Half a block from the villa, which was more like a fortress, he felt nauseated and uneasy, his muscles twitching. No wonder the Prince had ruled the city for so long. No one was able to set foot inside his gates, let alone challenge him physically.
Tonight, however, the Prince would be challenged. And some of his most precious possessions would be taken.
In the distance, a key scraped in a lock and a heavy iron gate swung open. The figure’s spine straightened, his senses alert.
A middle-aged man clutching a leather bag began walking toward him.
The figure left the sanctuary of the shadows and crossed to meet him, moving swiftly and silently.
“Gianni?” he called to the man.
Gianni increased his pace.
“Master,” he murmured in Italian. He bowed deferentially.
The Master took the bag and opened it. His pale hands eagerly shuffled through the stack of priceless illustrations, counting them under his breath.
His gaze lifted to peer over at Gianni. “Is this all of them?”
“Yes, Master. One hundred in total.” Gianni’s eyes were wide, unblinking, as if he were in a trance.
(And so he was.)
“Did anyone see you?”
“No, Master. The servants are asleep and the Prince is not at home.”
“Excellent.” He grasped Gianni by the shoulder, forcing him to make eye contact. “You will return to the villa and retire to your room. In one hour you will awake and remember nothing that has passed between us.”
“Go. Be sure no one sees you.”
With another bow, Gianni returned to the fortress.
The Master watched as he closed and locked the gate, before entering the impressive building through one of the side doors.
The Master muttered a Renaissance curse, spitting on the ground. The principality of Florence should be his. For years he’d stood aside, watching, waiting for the day when he could seize control of the city.
On this evening, it seemed his patience had been rewarded. He’d undermined the Prince’s confidence in the security of his fortress and stolen his most precious possession. Surely he could wait a little longer to uncover the Prince’s secrets so he could destroy him.
His eyes alighted on one of the illustrations—a pen and ink drawing of Dante and Beatrice—before closing the bag and breaking into a run. In an instant, he leapt from the Piazzale to the road below and disappeared into the night.
The Prince of Florence stood on the first floor of the Uffizi Gallery, contemplating murder.
A crowd of the city’s human elite swirled around him—men in tuxedos, women in floor-length gowns—as the arrogant, insufferable Professor Gabriel Emerson filled the Renaissance structure with his insipidity.
The Prince had killed before. He was discriminate in his choice of victims and only on rare occasions did he take pleasure in it. This was going to be one of those occasions.
He was fleet of foot and cunning in the extreme, his supernatural strength compounded by his intelligence. No doubt he could reach the American professor and break his neck before anyone noticed something amiss.
The Prince fantasized about sprinting across the floor, executing the professor, and fleeing through a window before any of the one hundred guests paused in sipping their sparkling wine.
Human beings were easily deluded. Probably they would credit the professor’s death to a sudden, spontaneous stroke, having no idea what stood in their midst.
The Prince’s body tensed at the tantalizing thought, the muscles in his forearms contracting beneath the sleeves of his expensive black suit.
A swift death was not in keeping with the magnitude of the professor’s crime, which included considerable insult in addition to personal injury. The Prince prided himself in his commitment to justice (as he defined it), so he discarded the possibility of a quick execution.
The professor must be made to suffer and that meant his beautiful wife must suffer, also.
She was standing near her husband and wearing a red dress, the color of the garment acting like a flag before a bull. Certainly, she’d captured his attention.
He stared intensely, taking in every aspect of her figure.
As if she felt his eyes, her gaze moved to his.
She looked away quickly.
Mrs. Julianne Emerson was younger than her husband, petite, and in the Prince’s view, much too thin. Her eyes, which by all accounts were very pretty, were large and dark. Her face put him in mind of Renaissance paintings—elegant of neck and cheek.
The Prince indulged himself in admiring the professor’s wife as the fool droned on and on in Italian about how she’d persuaded him to share his copies of the original Botticelli illustrations. His ignorant remarks only fanned the flames of the Prince’s anger.
They were his illustrations, not the professor’s, and they were original, completed by Sandro Botticelli himself.
Clearly, the professor, in addition to being a thief, was a Philistine who couldn’t tell the difference between an original and a copy.
The Prince began constructing new and elaborate methods of torture, combined with a primer in art history, while ignoring the professor’s wordy praise for his wife’s philanthropic work with orphans and the homeless. Too many human beings hoped their deeds would cover their sins and save them.
The Prince knew too well the futility of good works.
The Emersons trafficked in stolen property. They had acquired artwork the Prince had tried to recover for over a century. In addition, they had the temerity to march into the Prince’s city, offer his illustrations to the Uffizi, (while claiming them to be copies), and make a spectacle of themselves. It was as if they had constructed the most detailed and elaborate way of inciting his ire.
Now their lives were forfeit.
The Prince continued to stare in the direction of Mrs. Emerson, his gray eyes unseeing.
Then, something caught his attention. For no apparent reason, the young woman blushed, gazing with longing and love at her husband.