“An expedient excuse,” Lorenzo commented. “Can you produce evidence of this?”

“No, but I will.”

The Prince lifted his hand and all grew silent.

“Ibarra, you’ve had two years to find the traitor. You investigated everyone who knew of the weakness in our security systems and yet you were unable to discover which of them betrayed us. I have no confidence in your ability to discover the traitor now. You have failed in your duties and are lucky to be leaving the principality with your head. Get out of my sight.”

The Prince nodded at Niccolò and Aoibhe, who began escorting Ibarra to the door.

Ibarra cursed as he was led away, shouting his displeasure at the Prince and the Consilium.

When he was halfway down the aisle, he flew to the nearest wall and tore a sword from its hooks. Brandishing it with both hands, he sprinted toward the throne.

In an instant, the Prince was on his feet.

“Take one more step and it will be your last.”

Ibarra ignored the old one’s warning and ran toward him, lifting the sword.

Lorenzo retrieved a matching sword from a nearby suit of armor and tossed it toward the Prince.

He caught it and tore the robe from his shoulders, lifting the sword high just as Ibarra lashed at his head.

The clash of metal against metal echoed in the hall as the two supernatural beings did battle.

The Prince had the advantage as he stood above Ibarra on the platform. But he advanced down the stairs, striking blow after blow.

Ibarra was strong, but clearly no match for the Prince. Again and again he lunged, looking for an opening, while the Prince easily deflected every thrust.

At once Ibarra swung at the Prince’s legs and the Prince jumped, somersaulting over his back. Before Ibarra knew what was happening, the Prince slashed at his head, the sword whistling as it sliced through the air.

Ibarra’s head took flight from his shoulders and rolled across the floor. It came to rest at Aoibhe’s feet.

She sighed as she looked down into her recent lover’s eyes.

The Prince lifted his bloody sword, so that all could see it, and drove it deep into the stone at his feet.

“Let this be a sign to traitors.”

He returned to the platform and retrieved his robe, wiping his hands with it before tossing it away in contempt.

“Lorenzo, take the traitor’s head and display it on a spike next to the sword. Parade the citizens in to look at it. Maximilian, you and Pierre take the body outside the city and burn it.”

The Prince made eye contact with each of the remaining council members.

“The next one who betrays me will not receive so swift a death.”

Chapter Eighteen

Raven believed in science, the testimony of the senses, the power of human reason, and the veracity of her own perceptions. She did not believe in religion, sacred texts, the supernatural, or the afterlife.

And that was why she believed the intruder was a member of an organized crime faction and that the so-called feral was someone who was in mental distress and in need of help.

Three days after she gashed her forehead, the wound had healed, leaving only a pale, shiny scar. She was still struggling to formulate an adequate, scientific explanation for that fact, and for the piece of metal that was stuck in her bedroom wall like a dart in a dartboard.

She knew enough Newtonian physics to conclude that the intruder must have incredible strength if he could hurl the cane at so great a force it would pierce the plaster and stone. But to have the cane embedded several inches into the stone . . .

(Perhaps he took steroids.)

And what of his words to her, in Latin?

I am innocent of the blood.

She had no idea what he meant, but it certainly frightened her. As did her reaction to the gentle way he’d touched her face.

As she swung her legs over the side of her bed, she shivered, realizing she needed to develop a social life. If she was lonely enough to enjoy the touch of a stranger, then she must be in desperate need of human contact.

Yet, there was something about him. There was something sincere in his distress over her injury. If he was worried she’d be upset about what she’d seen in the piazza, so much so that he would come to see if she was all right, and if he was upset when she injured herself, surely he couldn’t be a completely coldhearted criminal.

He praised my eyes.

Raven had been paid few compliments about her physical appearance in her life. She knew she ran the risk of attaching more importance than was prudent to the one the intruder had paid her.

Thankfully, she had a date that evening.

Bruno was Lidia DiFabio’s grandson. He was about Raven’s height, with dark, wavy hair and large brown eyes. He was athletic and intelligent, and Raven had nursed a secret crush on him almost from the moment they met, which was why her sister teased her.

He visited his grandmother regularly, usually for a short breakfast before work. Until the day before, he’d always been polite but detached with Raven, despite his grandmother’s repeated matchmaking efforts.

When he saw Raven exit her apartment Thursday morning, he hadn’t recognized her. She’d introduced herself (again) and he’d stared, open-mouthed, his dark eyes raking up and down her new yellow sundress.

He’d liked what he’d seen and said so.

Moments later, she was promising to go out with him for sushi Friday night and he was kissing her cheeks, murmuring how glad he was to have finally seen her.

Raven e-mailed her sister about the surprising turn of events and had been pleased by her sister’s enthusiastic response. Of course, she didn’t tell Cara that Bruno’s change in demeanor had been precipitated by a marked change in her own physical appearance. She didn’t want to portray Bruno as shallow.

Even if he only wants to go out with me because I’m pretty now, I don’t care. I deserve a little happiness.

She placed her legs on the floor and found herself cringing. Pain shot through her right foot and up her leg.

She sat back on the bed and the pain lessened to a dull ache. She was able to move her leg, even though it felt a bit stiff. Leaning over, she started massaging the tense muscles, moving down to gently manipulate her ankle.

As she took a closer look at the exposed skin of her right leg, she noticed something.

The scar that she’d had for years, ever since the accident, had returned. Oh, it was less visible than it had been before, the mark pale and shiny. But she was pretty sure it hadn’t been visible the day before, or any day since she’d woken up Monday morning without it.

The realization made her stomach flip, especially when she compared the appearance with the scar on her forehead.

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