A lone figure stood high atop Brunelleschi’s dome, under the shade of the gold globe and cross. His black clothing faded into the encroaching darkness, rendering him invisible to the people below.
Not that they would have seen him.
From his vantage point, they looked like ants. And ants they were to him, an irritating, if necessary, presence in his city.
The city of Florence had been his for almost seven hundred years. When he was in residence, he spent the moments before sunset in the same place, surveying his kingdom with Lucifer-like pride. This was the work of his hands, the fruit of his labor, and he wielded his power without mercy.
His considerable strength was magnified by his intellect and his patience. Centuries had passed before his eyes, yet he remained constant. Time was a luxury he owned in abundance, and he was never hasty in his pursuit of revenge. Over a hundred years had come and gone since he’d been robbed of some of his most prized possessions. He’d waited for them to resurface and they had. On this night, he’d restored the illustrations to his personal collection, the sophisticated security of the Uffizi Gallery causing him only the most trifling of inconveniences.
So it was that he stood in triumph against the darkening sky, like a Medici prince, looking out over Florence. He smelled rain on the warm air as he contemplated the fate of those responsible for acquiring his stolen illustrations. He’d intended to kill them two years previous, but had been thwarted by a tiresome assassination attempt. The war that ensued between the underworlds of Florence and Venice had kept him occupied since then. He’d won the war, successfully annexing Venice and all its territories. And his prey had finally returned to the city. Now was the time to have his revenge.
He had time enough to plan the killings and so he stood, enjoying his success, as a warm, persistent rain began to fall. The ants below scattered, scurrying for shelter. Soon the streets emptied of human beings.
He clutched the case under his arm more closely, realizing that his illustrations were in need of a dry space. In the blink of an eye, he traveled down the red tiles to a lower half dome before leaping to the ground and sprinting across the square. Soon he was climbing to the roof of the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, an adjacent, aged building.
There was a time when he would have served the Arciconfraternita, joining in their mission of mercy, rather than treating them as a hurdle. But he hadn’t been merciful since 1274. In his new form, the concept never entered his consciousness.
Some hours later, he flew across the tiled roofs at great speed, dodging raindrops and heading toward the Ponte Vecchio. The smell of blood filled his nostrils. There was more than one vintage, but the scent that attracted his attention was young and unaccountably sweet. It resurrected in him memories forgotten, images of love and loss.
Other monsters moved in the darkness, from all parts of the city, racing toward the place where innocent blood cried out from the ground.
He changed direction and increased his speed, moving toward the Ponte Santa Trinita. His black form blurred against the night sky as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop.
As he ran, the question uppermost in his mind was: Who will reach her first?
The streets of Florence were almost deserted at one thirty in the morning.
There were a few tourists and locals, groups of young people looking for entertainment, homeless people begging, and Raven Wood, limping slowly down the uneven street that led from the Uffizi Gallery to the Ponte Santa Trinita.
Raven had been at a party with colleagues from the gallery and foolishly declined a ride home. Her friend Patrick had offered, since her Vespa was in the shop, but she knew he didn’t want to leave Gina’s flat. He’d been nursing a secret crush on Gina for months. On this evening, he seemed to have succeeded in attracting her attention.
Raven didn’t have the heart to separate the prospective lovers. While she accepted that love was not for her, she took secret delight in the love lives of others, especially her friends. So she insisted on finding her own way home. That was how she found herself walking, with the assistance of her cane, toward her small flat in Santo Spirito, which was on the other side of the river.
Little did she realize that her decision to decline a ride home would have far-reaching consequences for herself and her friends.
Her colleagues wrongly assumed her limp was something she’d been born with, and so, out of politeness, they ignored it. She was grateful for their silence, since her limp held a dark secret she was unwilling to tell.
She didn’t think of herself as handicapped. She thought of herself as mildly disabled. Her right leg was somewhat shorter than the other and her foot turned outward slightly, at an unnatural angle. She couldn’t run and she knew it was painful to watch her walking. At least she tried to make her ever-present cane attractive, decorating it with whimsical designs drawn by her own artistic hand. She laughingly called it her boyfriend and dubbed him Henry.
Some women might have been worried about walking the streets of Florence late at night, but not Raven. She rarely attracted attention, apart from the rude stares at her leg. In fact, people often ran into or brushed past her as if she were invisible, making far too much body contact.
This was likely because of her appearance. The polite would have termed her figure Rubenesque, if they could have found it under her oversized clothes. To modern eyes she was overweight, her extra pounds compounded by baggy garments and well-worn sneakers that added little to her five-foot-seven height. Her hair was dark, almost as dark as a raven’s wing, and carelessly pulled into a ponytail that swept her shoulders. In comparison to the many attractive and well-dressed women who inhabited Florence, she was considered plain.
But her eyes were beautiful, large and deep and almost an absinthe green. Alas, no one ever took the time to notice her eyes, hidden as they were behind oversized black frames. Not that Raven would have been comfortable with the attention. She wore the glasses in order to distance herself from people, switching them for reading glasses that actually aided her eyesight, when necessary.
As she approached the Ponte Santa Trinita from the Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli, she cursed the fact that she hadn’t brought an umbrella. The rain was enough to clear the streets and bridge of pedestrians, but not enough to soak her. She elected not to seek shelter and simply continued, limping as she did everything else—with dogged determination.