In that instant the Prince was reminded of someone else—a woman who had looked at him with the sweet blush of youth and a heart filled with longing.
The old memory twisted inside him, like a snake.
“My challenge to you this evening is to enjoy the beauty of the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and then to find it in your hearts to celebrate beauty, charity, and compassion in the city Dante loved, Firenze. Thank you.” The professor bowed as he concluded his remarks. He walked over to his wife and embraced her, to the sound of loud applause.
The Prince didn’t applaud. In fact, he scowled, muttering a curse about Dante.
He appeared alone in his contempt, the only member of the crowd of Florentine elite who did not clap. Certainly, he was the only one in the room who’d actually engaged Dante in direct conversation and informed the Poet he was an ass.
The Prince took no pleasure in the recollection. He disliked Dante then and now, and he hated the world Dante constructed in his magnum opus.
(The Prince did not consider the incompatibility between his love for Botticelli’s illustrations and his hatred for the text they figured.)
He adjusted the cuff links of his black dress shirt, which featured the symbol of Florence. He would follow the Emersons, and when they were out of sight of witnesses, he’d attack. He simply needed to be patient.
Patience was a virtue he possessed in abundance.
As the guests mingled and refreshments were served, the Prince kept to himself, eschewing conversation and refusing the food and drink on offer.
Human beings usually had one of two reactions to him. They either sensed he was dangerous and gave him a wide berth, or they stared, sometimes approaching him even before they realized they were moving in his direction.
He was handsome. One might even say he was beautiful, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a youthful appearance. His body, although less than six feet tall, was lean and muscular beneath his black suit. Given the power he wielded, his posture and movements were strong and purposeful.
He was the predator, not the prey, and so he had little to fear. In this room, for example, he had nothing to fear except exposure.
He nodded briefly at Dottor Vitali, the director of the Gallery, but avoided speaking with him. Indeed, the Prince’s anger also extended to the director, for he, too, had trafficked in stolen goods.
The Prince of Florence hadn’t maintained his rule of the city by practicing mercy. In his principality, justice was served swiftly, encompassing any and all wrongdoers. When it was Dottor Vitali’s turn, he would be punished.
The Prince approached the doors of the exhibition hall, noting that its interior walls had been painted a bright blue, all the better to display the pen-and-ink illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was relieved to discover his precious artwork had been mounted in glass cases, which would protect them.
He surveyed the room from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, taking note of any and all security measures. Executing the Emersons was only part of his plan. He’d have to retrieve his illustrations, as well.
He watched as the professor and his wife stood in front of one of the finer examples of Botticelli’s work, an image of Dante and Beatrice in the sphere of Mercury. Beatrice wore flowing robes and pointed upward, while Dante followed her gesture with his eyes.
With purposeful steps, the Prince approached.
Mrs. Emerson’s eyes flickered to his and for a moment, the Prince toyed with the idea of exerting mind control over her.
When he was within touching distance of the glass case, the Emersons shuffled to the side, giving way to him.
Inexplicably, the professor placed his wife behind him, blocking her from the Prince’s view.
The two males locked eyes.
The Prince had to restrain himself from smiling. The professor had no idea of the extent of his adversary’s power. Or his rage.
“Good evening.” The Prince addressed them in English, bowing formally.
“Evening,” Gabriel clipped, his palm sliding down his wife’s wrist in order to grasp her hand.
The Prince watched the path of Gabriel’s hand and indulged himself in a small smile.
“A remarkable evening.” He gestured magnanimously to the room.
“Quite,” said Gabriel, gripping Julia’s hand a little too tightly.
“It’s generous of you to share your illustrations.” The Prince spoke ironically. “How fortunate for you that you acquired them in secret and not on the open market.”
He waited for the professor’s reaction, inhaling surreptitiously for the purpose of analyzing the Emersons’ scents.
The professor’s scent was unremarkable. From it, the Prince divined that the man was healthy and more than a little arrogant, the virtues in his life not yet fully formed.
It was clear he had a protective streak. Both the sharpness of his blood and his body language indicated that he would give his life for the young woman standing behind him.
The mere idea was provocative.
Having read the professor’s character through the aromas of his body and blood, the Prince turned his attention to the charitable Mrs. Emerson.
Initially, she smelled of virtue—of compassion and generosity. The Prince found the perfume of her goodness surprising and most pleasing. As if it were a reflex, his eyes moved to the drawing of Beatrice displayed nearby.
“Yes, I count myself lucky. Enjoy your evening.” With a stiff nod, Gabriel moved away, still gripping his wife’s hand.
The Prince remained where he was and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply once again. As Mrs. Emerson moved away, something unpleasant and downright wretched teased his nostrils.
The Prince opened his eyes at the stark realization that Mrs. Emerson was ill.
Her kindness and charity almost masked the unpleasant undertone to her scent, but there it was, lurking in the background like a serpent.
The Prince and his kind were adept at detecting various defects and diseases in human beings. Perhaps it was innate or a product of adaptation. But whatever the reason, the ability enabled his species to choose between desirable and distasteful food sources.
Through his skill, he could determine that Mrs. Emerson’s blood lacked iron. That much was certain. But there was something seriously wrong with her; something he’d not scented before, which made her repugnant to him.
However, her virtues were real enough. He was surprised to discover she was not the pampered society wife he’d thought she was.