I awoke as the flight began to descend over the Venice airport, or Venezia as the Italians call it. Only a sliver of moon showed in the black sky. I remained silent despite Wolfie’s efforts to engage me in conversation.
My mind was far too occupied with all that had happened. I felt as if my life had taken a sudden turn and now hurtled me toward a future that frightened me more than I ever wanted to admit.
I had lost Raul, my shop, our home, and the identity I had been so careful to create. How could I go back to being Claire Marie now I was exposed? Moreover, any chance of a safe haven with Vincent in Chicago had just disappeared now that Sybill’s father was looking for her. My peace of mind had gone for good.
My fears for Raul were ever present. If I started thinking about it too much, I began to panic. Who had taken him? What did they want with him? Where were they keeping him? What did they do to him? Was he even still alive? I had to believe he was.
Vincent had said Sybill’s father was a dangerous man when pressed, and certainly, if the man thought his daughter had been kidnapped, he would never rest until he found her. I hoped I had not inadvertently brought trouble to Vince’s door. He might care for me, but he would not forgive or forget any problems I caused him. Not again. I remembered enough of our past to know just what he was capable of, and sentimental notions would be tossed aside if someone crossed him, even me.
To my shame, however, my deepest concern was for Sybill, Wolfie, and myself. How could we avoid capture without knowing who to trust?
We could not fight back if we had nowhere to go. Most of all, how could I live with myself if something happened to either of them, knowing I was the one our pursuers were after? Yet my survival instinct prevented me from turning myself in. I felt self-serving and cowardly, though I could hardly help it. We would all like to believe we are noble, but at the end of the day, how many of us deserve that description?
All of these concerns had to wait until I addressed the more immediate situation at hand, however. As the plane touched down, I chewed my lip, internally praying we would find what we had come for – my progeny, lost so many years ago I had given up hope of ever reuniting with him again.
I could not anticipate what sort of reception we might find, and whether he would be able or willing to assist us I could not foresee. If this effort failed, I didn’t know where to turn next.
We taxied to a stop in front of a small hangar and a few minutes later, a customs agent came aboard. She checked our passports, stamped them, and then told us to enjoy our stay. Sybill seemed amazed at the simple process, but I explained men like Vincent could afford to avoid annoyances like long lines in airports. The flight crew helped carry our bags down the steps to the tarmac where a black limousine stood waiting. The door opened, and the driver stepped out to greet us.
As we approached, he looked down, taking our bags. He had obviously been carefully coached to avoid vampire influence. “Madam, Sir, Miss,” he said with a heavy Italian accent. “Please, you come, yes?”
“Did Mister DeLuca send you here to meet us?” Wolfie said, stepping forward and putting a hand on the man’s arm to halt him.
The man paused and nodded, and I knew if his hands were not full, he would be gesturing just as emphatically. “Signore DeLuca, yes. He send me. Come. We go now. Boat waiting. I take you, yes? Come.”
“Why do we need a boat?” Sybill said warily, still hesitating behind me.
Her question made the man glance up at her, though he quickly lowered his gaze once more as he replied, “Is Venice.” As if that explained everything. “You come. Please.”
He loaded our bags inside the trunk, then opened the back door of the car and stood waiting for us to get in. Sybill turned to me with uncertainty in her eyes. “How do we know he’s telling the truth?” she whispered.
“We don’t,” Wolfie said, leaning in close and taking my hand.
“True,” I said. “But this man is human and knows we could kill him in seconds if we thought he deceived us. Leave this to me.” I pulled my hand away from Wolfie’s, stepped forward, and looked the driver in the eyes, exerting my influence on him to get to the truth. “Have you come here in good faith? Are we safe with you?”
The man nodded slowly, eyes reflecting the scant moonlight. “Si, madame. I have tell you only truth.”
“There,” I said, releasing my gaze and smiling at Sybill. “Satisfied?”
“I suppose so,” she said with a shrug, some of the tension in her shoulders visibly easing, though I could tell she still did not entirely trust the situation. That wary nature of hers would serve her well, I knew, but though I would rather not admit it, we had no choice but to go where we were bid. The price of needing help is trust.
“You are welcome to stay here alone if you do not believe it is safe,” I said. “As for me, I would rather not be rude to the local coven.”
With that, I got into the car, not looking back to see if she followed.
Wolfie climbed in behind me, and Sybill hesitated stubbornly for a few seconds before giving in. As the door closed, I saw her begin chewing her thumbnail out of the corner of my eye. “That is a nasty habit, dear.”
She glared across at me, but stopped, and all three of us were silent as we drove away in the darkness.
We were soon brought to the harbor, just as he’d said, and transferred to a gondola, steered by a man who spoke almost no English. Wolfie tried to engage him in conversation in Italian, but the man simply told him he had been hired anonymously to take us to our destination. Wolfie gazed up at the sky. “Well, my dear, these associates of Vincent’s seem to have us well in hand.”
Though I again felt a stab of apprehension, wondering if this would turn out to be another choice I would regret, I knew any outward show of fear would undermine my authority and position. Instead, I laughed as though I had never known a day’s care in all my years. “Oh, Wolfie, how you do go on. Vincent would never do anything to hurt me. The man is devoted to me. You could see that.
He has brought us this far, has he not? If he wanted us dead, why not do it there in Chicago and be done? No, this is too much trouble if he meant us harm.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sybill said, looking down at the gondola, scowling. “That’s like an oversized canoe. I’m not getting on that thing.”
“Come, come, my dear. Where is your sense of adventure?” Wolfie said.
Sybill stared wide-eyed at the narrow boat, shaking her head insistently. “No way. That thing is a death trap.”
“Ridiculous,” I scoffed. Wolfie stepped onto the deck, then turned and held my hand as I climbed aboard the gondola after him. “Get in. You cannot stay here.”
“Where are we going?” she said, still eyeing the craft, one eyebrow raised.
Wolfie turned to the man and asked him where we were going in Italian, but the man just waved at Sybill to follow us on board, repeating, “You come. We hurry, please.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” she insisted, crossing her arms over her chest. “I want to know where we are going.”
Taking a seat, I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily. “Oh honestly, darling, just get on the boat. We do not have time for this.”
Her eyes narrowed and her expression darkened, but she did as I bid her. I knew she would dislike it, but nothing more could be said. I was going, and she could not remain behind. I knew if anything went wrong, she would never let me forget it. Silently seething, she crossed her arms over her chest, watching the man’s every move as he let loose the lines and began propelling us forward.
Wolfie settled beside me and placed his arm behind my back protectively. We gazed out over the water as the lights of the city glittered and glinted on the waves. I tried to project an aura of easy confidence, but inside, I shared Sybill’s curiosity and uncertainty about our destination.
As we were borne across the dark waters, I trained my eyes on the shoreline, and when we entered the Grande Canale, I told myself I would pay attention to the passing palazzos in case a hasty escape became necessary. However, once we entered the maze of smaller canals which fed off the main route, crumbling ancient walls crowding in on all sides and set together at jaunty and unexpected angles, I soon lost all sense of direction. We were truly at the mercy of the City of Lights and the coven who controlled it.
Our gondolier seemed to have the devil’s own sense of direction, however. He navigated narrow passageways without hesitation, and at last he pulled to the side of a set of steps carved into a bare wall. A woman wearing black leather pants and boots with a black turtleneck stepped from the darkness to greet us. Her hair had been pulled tight into a bun at the nape of her neck.
The woman gestured for us to disembark. “This way, please.”
“But our bags,” said Sybill, hesitating, her eyes full of trepidation.
“They will be seen to,” said the woman with an enigmatic smile that didn’t give any sort of comfort. “Come.”
A door at the top of the steps opened slightly, a pale light gleaming from inside giving the barest illumination to the way we were meant to go. We stepped out onto the cold stone, our feet making quiet echoes in the darkness. As we followed up the steps and found ourselves in a narrow corridor, a man passed us and went down to the gondola, presumably to gather our belongings.
By this point, Sybill started to balk. She scurried up close behind me and whispered as loud as she dared. “What’s with all the cloak and dagger? Are they taking us to a palace or a prison?”
Turning my head, but not faltering in my step, I kept my voice low as I said, “It is for our safety as much as their own. They cannot exactly bring me in through the front doors and announce my presence, now can they?”
“Right. Everyone is out to get you. How could I forget?” She fell back into sulking silence again.
Wolfie took my hand to comfort me, but his touch only heightened my sense of being trapped. Though I felt he needed reassurance, I pulled away from him and quickened my pace, forcing myself to walk, back straight and head high, as though I had all the confidence in the world and held all the cards in this game. I knew I had to avoid seeming weak or uncertain. They must see me as a queen, even if I did not feel like one. I must show a strength
I did not feel if I ever hoped to get help to accomplish my goals— finding my lost child, rescuing Raul, and defeating our enemies.
I followed the woman up a winding back stair and down a corridor, Wolfie and Sybill trailing in my wake. At last, we stopped in front of a pair of large wooden doors. The woman turned and said, “Signore Mozart, if you would kindly wait outside until you are called.” He tried to protest, but the woman simply waved her hand toward a chair on the other side of the corridor. “Please, wait here, maestro.”
Wolfie looked at me with a furrowed brow.
“Do not worry,” I said, hoping my voice sounded steady. “I will see you soon.”
He walked over and sat, fidgeting with obvious concern. I, however, gave the woman a benign smile as though I expected this. She bowed her head to me again and said, “The council will see you now. They have been waiting for your arrival.”
She reached for the handle and turned it, then pushed the door open wide. Several vampires sat at a long trestle table with one at the far end facing me. I tried not to let my reaction show on my face as I walked into the room. I recognized the handsome face of the man at the head of the table.
His striking blue eyes and shoulder length hair, paired with a grace and ease of bearing made him memorable. I also remembered how I had slighted him when our roles had been reversed. He had begged my help when I still held court in Versailles, but I had never answered any of his entreaties. Inwardly,
I hoped he would not hold a grudge after all these years, yet I felt my heart sink with despair.
Determined not to show my anxiety, however, I smiled as they all rose from their seats upon our approach.
The woman paused before the assemblage and gestured toward us sweepingly. “I brought them here directly, your excellencies.”
“Thank you, my dear. That will be all,” said the leader of the coven, and he gave her a smile before she turned and walked away. The door shut behind her with a loud sound of steel and wood. He turned to look at the group. His smile disappeared. “Please be seated.”
All of them sat. There were no chairs for us. “I trust you found your journey uneventful?” he said by way of opening conversation, settling back in his seat to look over at me with an inscrutable expression.
“Indeed, yes. I thank you.”
“I suppose you know why we are all here to greet you?” His tone light, he gazed at me impassively, one eyebrow raised.
“No, Signore Casanova, I have not the slightest idea, though I hope the motive is not for gossip mongering. I do so enjoy my privacy nowadays.”
Sybill gasped behind me, and I heard her say, “Casanova?”
He sat forward and gave a soft chuckle. “Even after all these years, my reputation precedes me, I see? Please, won’t you introduce us to your charming companion, my lady?”
My lady, not my Queen. I could not tell if he intended a slight or wanted keep my true identity secret. Were there any yet among those assembled here who did not know my name? I suddenly felt surrounded by a pit of vipers waiting to strike. I decided to use our pseudonyms for fear spies might have infiltrated the gathering.
“Evangeline Mars. My protégé.”
“Miss Mars. You are welcome here.” Yet I saw the hint of fang as he said these words, his greeting also a warning.
“Um, thank you,” she said, giving an awkward curtsey and waving to the assembly in that absurd modern way that is so distinctly American.
I wanted to roll my eyes, but instead, I gave a tight-lipped smile and looked back at Casanova steadily. He met my gaze for a few long moments, and then he gripped the arms of his chair tightly and said. “Let us get right to the crux of the matter. Vincent DeLuca has been murdered. Kindly divulge whatever you know about this matter immediately. We would like to avoid any unpleasantness.”
The shock on my face must have been answer enough.
“I take it this information is news to you, my lady?” His eyebrow raised, he kept his voice calm, but firm. “Give the lady your seat, Signore Barbaro. She seems a bit faint.”
The gentleman stood and offered me his chair. Bewildered, I sank into it heavily, fighting back tears, covering my face with my hands. Sybill moved to stand behind me, one hand on the back of my seat.
He watched me for a moment, then Casanova looked down the long table at the group and said, “Thank you, everyone. I believe that will be all for now. We will reassemble here tomorrow.”
Chairs scraped the floor as the entire coven rose and left without another word, though I saw a couple glancing back over their shoulders to stare at me before exiting the room. My hand trembled, and Sybill took the seat beside me, reaching for my arm to touch me consolingly.
“I apologize for my bluntness of manner, your majesty,” he said, his voice suddenly changed and full of concern. “You will understand, of course, my reason for caution. We had to know if you were behind his assassination.”
“Assassination?” I said, barely able to speak the word. “H-how?”
“A bomb. The entire hotel was leveled. Do you know any reason someone might have targeted him? Of course, he has enemies. If one lives long enough, one is bound to make a few. But this action went beyond what we might have expected from any of them.”
“My Vincent…gone?” I sat there stunned, my vision blurring with tears, clasping the table in both hands to keep from swaying.
“Ah. I see.” Casanova tilted his head in curiosity, eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I had not anticipated such a thing.”
Sybill shook her head, and I could feel her sadness turn to anger as she sat beside me. “He was kind to her. That’s all. He didn’t ask or expect anything in return. They weren’t a couple. He cared about her.”
“Oh my dear, you are so young,” he said with a grin. “It is refreshing to have such faith in the selflessness of others.”
“Can’t you see she’s overwhelmed?” I could hear the tension in her voice as her anger rose, and she glared back at him with defensive rage burning in her eyes. “She doesn’t know anything about what happened to him. All she knows is a good man is dead. You are mocking her pain.”
Casanova rose from his seat and crossed over to her, looking down his nose seriously. “Let no one ever say I am heartless. Though others may have treated me thus.”
I felt his words like a little stab, and all my attempted self-control slid away. Suddenly, I began to cry, covering my face in my hands. “Oh god. He is gone!”
With a sigh, he handed me a handkerchief, and I wiped my bloody tears. “There,b there, dear lady. If you knew half of what he had done in his life, you would not grieve so over his passing. Still, you are right, Miss Mars. You both need time to accept this news before our conversation can continue.”
“Conversation? Is that what you call this?” said Sybill. “Looked more like a trial to me.”
“Come, let us be friends, Miss Mars. I will take you to a place where you can rest. Tomorrow, after you have recovered, we will reconvene.”
He helped me from my seat, then led us toward a tapestry hanging on the wall in the corner. Pulling back the fabric, he revealed a door, which opened onto a hidden bedroom chamber full of antiques and draped in heavy fabrics. He led me across to the large wooden four poster bed and sat me down on the edge of it before backing away. “I am afraid the two of you will have to share for the night. I want to ensure you are kept safe during your stay with me, and I alone hold the key. The others have no knowledge of it. Please, rest. I will ensure no one disturbs your slumber.”
“Wait…” Sybill said, but before she could say any more, he walked back out the way he’d come, and I heard the lock slide in the door. We were safe, but we were also imprisoned. “What about Mozart?”
I looked up at her in desperate horror. “We are trapped.”