I&A: Prologue

ImitationBenjamin Vecchio sat in the library of his home in Pasadena studying for his art history final. To say the class was an easy A would be a gross understatement, but the habits instilled by his scholar of an uncle wouldn’t allow him to rest for the night until he’d at least looked over his notes.

A small air vampire floated into the room and over the library table, blocking his notebook. She settled on his textbook and waited silently for Ben to acknowledge her.

He glanced up at Tenzin a second before he shook his head. “Nope.”

She said nothing, watching Ben with the storm-grey eyes that always seemed just a little out of place. Her features were unquestionably born on the steppes of Central Asia. Her full lips remained closed over the lethal, claw-like fangs in her mouth. And her expression? It revealed nothing.

“Whatever it is,” he continued, “the answer is no. I can’t spar tonight. I have a final tomorrow. And I don’t have time to get online and research an obscure manuscript in Sanskrit or whatever it is you want. I need to sleep tonight.”

The air vampire continued to watch him silently. Ben continued to ignore her. Ignoring Tenzin when she wanted something from him was a talent he’d honed for years.

She had a face that could have been fifteen or thirty, depending on her expression. She’d let her hair grow out to below her shoulders the past few years, so she looked younger than Ben now. If you didn’t know who or what she was, she could pass herself off as an innocent schoolgirl.

Well, until she smiled and you saw the fangs.

She used her looks to her advantage, but no matter what expression Tenzin wore, Ben saw the millennia when he looked into her eyes.

She ignored his indifference and leaned over his notes. “Why are you studying this? You knew about Neoclassicism before I knew you.”

Modern universities were inexplicable to Tenzin. “I need the credits if I’m going to graduate next winter. I only have one more semester, and I’ve ignored most of my lower-level requirements.”

“Because they are stupid.”

“Art history is not stupid.”

She flicked the edge of his notebook. “Taking a class where you probably know more than the instructor is stupid.”

“Well, they wouldn’t let me take the upper level class.”

“Why not?”

“Because I hadn’t taken the lower level… Listen—” He sat back in his chair. “—do you have a purpose here? What do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter.” She shrugged. “You’ve already said no.”

“Tenzin—”

“Why are you taking art history?” She stretched out on the table, lazing like a cat. “What does art history have to do with political science?”

“Nothing. It’s just part of my—will you get off that?” He pulled his textbook from under her hair. “I need to study—”

She laughed. “No, you don’t! You’ve known art since you were old enough to steal it. Do you want some food? I feel like cooking. What do you want? I’ll cook food and you can eat it.”

“What do you want, Tenzin?”

She rolled over and propped her chin on her hands; her eyes laughed at him. “You already said no.”

“Just tell me.”

She kicked her legs. “I want to go to Italy this summer.”

His eye twitched and he looked back to his book. “No.”

“You go to Italy all the time.”

“I learned my lesson last summer, Tiny.”

“We’re not going to China. I want to go to Italy. It’s practically a second home to you. You have a house in Rome.”

Gio has a house in Rome. If you want to borrow it, ask him.”

“You speak Italian like a native. You have friends there. You could visit Fabia.”

“Fabia has a boyfriend lately.”

“So?”

“Just… no.”

She didn’t move from her position stretched on the table. Not even when he picked up his notes and stood them up, blocking her face.

“What if—”

“No!” He slammed his notebook down. “No. No. No. I’m not getting involved in one of your schemes. I’m not stealing anything. I’m not pretending to be your butler again—”

“I only told one person that, and I think Jonathan knew it was a joke.”

“I do not want to lie to dangerous people. I don’t want to run for my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to get beat up or threatened or—”

“Fine!” She scowled and lay on her back, huffing at the ceiling. “You are so conventional now. What happened to you? You used to be fun.”

“I grew up, Tenzin. And I realized that I can’t live in my aunt and uncle’s house forever. I’m twenty-two. I’m going to have to get a job one of these days. And a house. And pay bills.” Ben grimaced. “I’m going to have to figure out something useful to do with my life, and I have no idea what the hell that means for someone like me.”

He slammed his notes back on the table and tried to concentrate, all the while feeling her eyes on him like a brand. After a few minutes, she crawled across the table and leaned down to his ear.

Tenzin whispered, “Medieval gold coins from Sicily.”

He groaned and let his head fall back. “I hate you a little right now.”

~

Giovanni was in the den, curled up with a book, Beatrice laying across his legs while she watched a movie.

He stopped in the door and watched them.

It was a hell of a lot to aspire to. Some days, his heart ached watching them. As much as they loved him—and he knew his aunt and uncle loved him a lot—the love they had for each was so tangible it almost hurt. He couldn’t imagine having love like that. If he ever did, he’d grab onto it with everything he had.

Ben would never forget the months they spent in Rome when he was sixteen. When Giovanni had been taken, leaving Beatrice alone. It was the first time he ever remembered feeling stronger than his aunt.

Gio looked up with a smile. “Hello.”

“Hey.”

Beatrice stretched her legs and kicked a pillow off the end of the couch. “What are you doing tonight? Come sit with us.”

Ben walked over and sat down. “I was just studying. Two more finals before summer break.”

Beatrice smiled. “I’m so proud of you. Have I told you that lately? We’re both so proud of you. I can’t believe you’ve almost earned your degree.”

He glanced at both their loving smiles before he turned away in embarrassment.

“Thanks.”

Beatrice was thirty-eight now, but looked barely older than Ben.

It was odd to realize that in a few years, he would be the one who looked older than his aunt. Their relationship was already changing, becoming more friendly than parental. Just another reminder that time was passing.

Too fast, a childish voice whispered inside. Too fast!

“What do you think you want to do this summer?” Gio asked. “You should do something fun. Beatrice and I are stuck here, working on that cursed library theft.” He added a string of Latin curses that had Beatrice smoothing her thumb over his lips.

“Shhhh,” she said. “You’ll shock the boy.”

“I don’t think that’s possible anymore,” Gio said.

Ben had forgotten all about the library heist when he was thinking about how to sneak off to Italy without his uncle becoming suspicious.

It had been a massive scandal in the rare book world, and had become the bane of his uncle’s existence, since much of the “uncatalogued special collections” that had been stolen from the Girolamini Library in Naples wasn’t actually part of the library, but was instead the private collections of numerous Italian immortals. Some of the vampires had stored their private miscellany in the library since the sixteenth century and did not take kindly to humans stealing and selling their treasured manuscripts or personal papers.

Giovanni and Beatrice had been hired by multiple clients to track down particularly elusive items that had made their way onto the black market. Along with their resident librarians in Perugia, Zeno and Serafina, the Naples library heist had been keeping them busy on and off for almost two years.

Ben cleared his throat. “It’s funny you mentioned Naples. I was actually thinking of going to Italy for part of my break.”

Beatrice frowned. “In the summer? But it’s so hot! You sure you don’t want to go down to Chile?”

“I haven’t seen my friends in Rome since Christmas. And Fabi’s seeing a guy she wanted me to meet. So—”

“The house in Rome is yours anytime you want,” Gio said. “You know that. In fact…” He frowned. “If you don’t mind doing some work while you’re there, I think Zeno will be in Rome the middle of June working at the Vatican Library. I might have you take some notes to him.”

“And that journal we tracked down in New York last month,” Beatrice said. “Ben can take that to Zeno, too. Collect on that commission.”

“Good idea, Tesoro,” he murmured, brushing her dark hair from her cheek. “Ben, let me know if you want to borrow the plane. But right now—”

“Got it.” He stood when he saw Beatrice turning to her mate. “I know when I’m not wanted.”

“Close the door on the way out.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Ben saw Giovanni had already pulled Beatrice to straddle him. He tried not to laugh.

Like rabbits, the two of them.

“Ben—” Gio pulled his lips from his mate’s and cleared his throat. “I’ll let Emil know you’ll be in Rome this summer. You know the game. Just make sure you stay out of Naples.”

Ben’s Tenzin-radar went off.

Naples. Southern Italy. Sicily. Very southern Italy…

Medieval Sicilian coins, huh?

“What’s up with Naples?” Ben asked, trying to sound casual. “Problems with the VIC?”

“The ‘vampire-in-charge’ as you say, is named Alfonso. He’s Spanish. Or Hungarian. I’m not sure. And he’s…” Gio frowned.

“He’s nuts,” Beatrice threw out. “Completely bonkers. And mean. He hates Emil.”

“Ah.” Ben nodded. “Big Livia supporter?”

Beatrice said, “No, he hated Livia, too.”

Giovanni was watching his mate with the focused stare that told Ben he’d forgotten anyone but Beatrice was in the room. It was the vampire hunting stare, and Ben knew if he didn’t get out of the den quickly, he was going to see way more of his aunt and uncle than he wanted.

“Just…” Beatrice held Giovanni back. “Stay out of Naples. It’s not a good idea right now. The rest of the country? No problem.”

“Avoid Naples.” He gave them a thumbs up they probably didn’t see. “Got it. Later. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Except, you know, the biting stuff I don’t want to know about.”

“Goodnight, Benjamin.”

He shut the double doors behind him and leaned back, letting out a long breath before he walked to his bedroom. “How much you want to bet…?”

~

The next night, he was working with Tenzin at her warehouse in East Pasadena. She’d converted most of the space to a training area, complete with one full wall of weapons. The only personal space was a loft in the rafters with no ground access.

Because the only person allowed up there could fly.

The windows were blacked out, which made life easier when you didn’t sleep. At all. Ben didn’t know how she stayed sane. Then again, the state of Tenzin’s sanity was never a settled subject.

“Look at that.” She leaned over his shoulder and reached her finger toward the computer screen, which began to flicker before he slapped her hand away.

“Don’t touch.”

They were watching a video about Kalaripayattu, an obscure Indian martial art, that someone had posted on YouTube. Tenzin adored YouTube.

“But look at those forms,” she said. “So much similarity to modern yoga. But more…”

“Martial.”

“Yes, exactly. If you could isolate pressure points…” She started muttering in her own language, which no one but Tenzin and her sire spoke anymore, though Ben thought he was starting to pick up some words. Gio theorized it was a proto-Mongolian language of some kind, but Ben only spoke Mandarin. He hadn’t delved into Central or Northern Asian languages yet.

“If you watch…” She frowned. “The balance. That is key. This is very good. We’ll incorporate some of the balance exercises for you, since you are top-heavy now.”

“It’s called muscular, and it’s a product of testosterone. I refuse to apologize for that.”

“Look.” She slapped his arm. “The short stick fighting. We can incorporate some of those techniques, too.”

“Are you saying I have a short stick?”

She frowned, still staring at the computer screen. “What are you talking about?”

Ben tried to stifle the smile. She could be so adorably clueless for a woman with thousands of years behind her. “Nothing. Ignore me.”

“Oh!” She laughed. “Was that a sexual joke? That was funny. But your stick is not short, Benjamin.” She patted his arm. “You have nothing to be worried about.”

“Thanks. That’s… comforting.” He cleared his throat. “So, I told Gio I was heading to Italy for the summer. He said the house in Rome is mine as long as I help Zeno out with some stuff at the Vatican while I’m there.”

“That’s good.” She cocked her head, her eyes still stuck on the video playing. “Can you skip ahead to the dagger fighting?”

“Yeah.” He found the section that was her favorite. “So, Tiny, when you said that we’d be looking for Sicilian coins, did you mean we’ll be going to Sicily?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, leaning closer to the screen. “We’re going to Naples. That’s where the gold is. Or where it was.”

“Of course it is.”

“Is Naples going to be a problem?”

“With you, Tenzin?” Ben leaned back and crossed his arms. “There’s really no way of knowing.”

~

Copyright 2015, Elizabeth Hunter

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