This story is set in Venice. However, after much research and poking various pieces about fashion and the history… yeah, consider this an AU Venice that has magic. I kept whatever I could, but I really didn't want to turn this into a long history lesson. There are still a few things that I think will need to be explained outside the context of the chapters (definitions maybe) and I will put those at the bottom of the chapters as needed. As most of this is from Kaoru's perspective, we will understand only as much as she does or what is explained to her.
Let's hope I don't confuse the hell out of everyone.
The charm was cold between her slowly warming fingers. The fire was starting to do its work and she had finally stopped trembling. But neither the warmth of the fire nor the vague sort of commotion echoing down the hall managed to ease the knot of nerves and anger lodged in her chest. Curling her fingers a little tighter around the fat, hard plates woven into the pendant that she normally wore around her neck, Kaoru tried not to appear anxious. The longer she sat there, waiting for her chance to speak to the Conte…
She needed to breathe.
She was safe for the moment. The hospitality at the manor was as good as its reputation. Her brother was alive, she would know otherwise. If she wanted to pull this off she was going to need her composure, especially after the difficulties of the last two weeks. Her brother's disappearance, the threats from the Visconte of Aversa and the Barone of Frignano… and now she was sitting in the hall of a complete stranger who owed her family nothing more than a favor. A favor she could neither verify nor learn the extent of. She was risking too much being here but she had simply run out of choices. With her father two years in the grave, she had no one else she could possibly turn to for help. It had already taken too long to arrange this excursion. She knew that the Barone was hunting her but she hoped it was beyond his imagination that she would run here.
The trip to Venice had been exhausting and very wet. The closer to the shoreline, the less predictable the weather patterns became. Even her beast had been unable to help her.
She was far enough into the countryside that she had never encountered the flood waters or thick fog of Venice and it had left her half-frozen and confused. Finding the Palazzo Malipiero without falling into the slowly rising Canal had exhausted what little resources she had left.
And she couldn't, she didn't dare let loose of her control. Even now, exhausted to the bone, she could feel the slow stirring of her other nature inside her. Her fingers curled together tightly in her lap. No, this was the only way. She would beg if she had to. Would have to beg. If rumors were right – did she wish for them to be right or wrong? – the Conte was old enough and dominant enough to be dangerous. The only protection she had she wore around her neck… the symbol of an old bargain between her father and the Conte that had occurred before she had been born.
And without knowing what favor her father had given him, she had to be prepared to give her own. Biting the inside of her cheek hard enough to bleed, she forced herself to concentrate, to push down the sharp awareness that made the air too thick and her eyes too bright. No matter how uncomfortable it was to give herself into the keeping of one of her kind – a male – Yahiko was what was important. There was little chance she could find and free him on her own. She had already tried.
She would do this. If she could avoid revealing her true nature, of giving him that one truth… she would. But she risked much either way. Her human reputation was going to be severely damaged if word ever came out that she was here and alone at night; she needed that reputation to sustain their carefully built life. But if he discovered her dragon and demanded a bargain…
Her hands clenched at the sound of the door opening behind her. Turning, she found herself meeting the gaze of the maid who had been kind enough to build the fire when she had refused the bath and a change of clothes. She didn't dare offer this Conte another weapon against her. The girl beckoned with one hand and Kaoru rose to follow.
The front foyer was impressive when you were shivering, half-frozen and frightened. Mostly dry and a little warmer, it was even more so; the marble staircase that lifted to the second level of the palazzo almost intimidating now. She looked up, letting her eyes glance around the floor. There was a flicker of gold and red near the stairwell, but she couldn't see deep enough into the shadows to make out the figure. Not if she wished to maintain her disguise.
There was always the small chance that she could manage this without demanding the favor. Squaring her shoulders, she moved up the stairs. Her boots were still a little damp, but the thick rugs on the stairs kept her from slipping. At the top, she was met by a butler, whose expression was somehow blank and disapproving at the same time.
"The Conte will see you now."
Somehow managing to stuff her impatience and terror down in her chest, she bobbed a fast curtsy to show her agreement before he turned away and led her down the hall. It was surprisingly well lit and she suspected not all the candles or torches were being burnt with human fire. She didn't dare look too closely at the illusions, not until she had a chance to speak to him.
The butler opened the doors, calmly announcing her presence.
"Daughter of Signore Belvidere."
Kaoru stepped into the room before sliding into her best curtsy, not daring yet to look up. Her toes and limbs had warmed enough that it wasn't as awkward as it could have been. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she lifted her eyes to see exactly what – and who – she would be dealing with.
He was standing with his back to her, warming his hands by another fire. The Butler slid in behind her, shutting the door. She was forced to move several steps forward so as not to lose what was left of her hem and she bit her lip in a quick, nervous gesture. His hold on his human illusion was either thin from irritation at her blatant breach of human protocol with her demands to see him or because he wished to intimidate her. Or both.
If she had been human, all she would have felt was the intensity of his presence. Instead, her eyes caught the way his bright hair seemed to burn and the way his posture spoke of his dominant position. The rumors had not said he was a fire breather. She lowered her lashes to hide most of her gaze when he finally turned, stormy violet eyes washed with dragon gold raking across her form. She trembled with the control it took to keep from letting her own shields drop – to challenge the expression she saw in his eyes.
"Lady, how may I be of service?"
She was grateful that her fingers were still buried in her skirts, hiding the way her hands clenched at the faintly mocking tone of his voice. She knew the point he was driving home. No lady of proper human breeding would willingly come alone to a bachelor's home and he was reminding her that now she – and her reputation – was at his mercy.
The challenge was blatant and she struggled silently with her own need to dominate. Instead, she forced her hands to remain steady and away from the charm tucked under her bodice. Not yet.
"I have come to beg of your assistance."
She lowered her eyes completely to hide her growing frustration, biting down hard on the inside of her cheek. Her eyes would give her away if she was not careful. She could feel the way the servant watched from behind her, both men clearly unimpressed with her request. Taking another slow, deep breath she tried again.
"My brother is being held prisoner."
"You wish me to retrieve him?"
She swallowed and glanced up. "Yes."
His posture had changed. It was not broadcasting irritation but boredom and exasperation with her request. It was clear that he didn't care about the fate of what he thought was a single human boy, even if his sister was willing to risk disgracing herself and her reputation to protect him. She could feel the rejection of her request building on his tongue and she flinched.
"I cannot help you."
The 'I do not know you or your family' hung between them.
Right. She shut her eyes tightly before mentally diving into her pool of magic, letting the strength and temper of her beast wash over her. Lifting her chin, she met his eyes and let her shields fall, her magic clashing against his.
"I am not asking."
The violet bled from his eyes, leaving only the burnished gold, pupils narrowing into slits of shock as he too dropped the shields that hid them from human sight. She held her ground, her chin elevated as the room fairly vibrated with the magic coming off them both. She did not dare back down now; it would give him the edge on their match for control. Reaching up with one hand, she pulled the chain up and over her head, letting the scales dangle in the firelight.
"I'm calling in my father's favor, Kenshin Himura."
Her heart hammered in her chest as she watched the man stare at her, his expression wiped clean of all emotion. By using both his personal and surname she claimed a certain amount of knowledge of him and she wasn't sure how he would react. She could guess at some of the thoughts racing through his mind.
Males and females avoided interaction except for certain points of the year. To do so now was a strong sign of how desperate she was. As she watched, his face realigned itself and his focus narrowed to her. His magic brushed against her skin like rough, hot scales and her magic tightened around her. She was exhausted from her flight to Venice through the storm, but she would protect herself. The edge of his mouth kicked slightly to the side and then he bowed, bright hair falling over one shoulder.
"Well played, my lady." His voice had changed, deepening in register. Her spine straightened in surprise at the honest respect she could hear. When he lifted his eyes, they were a dark bronze.
"I don't consider my brother's life a game." It was difficult to keep her voice smooth; she could feel it try to crack in her throat from strain.
"No," he said softly. "No, that is not a game."
She watched him warily.
"I will be happy to speak with you about your brother, Lady Kamiya." He continued. She repressed her instincts natural reaction to hearing her surname from his lips. So… he knew who she was.
"However, I must insist that you change out of your wet clothes first."
She clenched her jaw. "I would prefer to discuss it now."
The edges of his mouth deepened. She narrowed her eyes, daring it to be a smile. Her agitation only increased as he lowered his eyes down her body, slowly taking in her damp dress and ripped hem. That intensity was back in his face, as if he was reassessing whatever he had thought about the strange human and putting that information into categories that fit with their other nature.
"I can appreciate your need to discuss things immediately, my lady. However, neither of us will be able to do much tonight. This close to the water, storms can be very dangerous even for our other forms."
She bit her tongue to keep from growling that she would search, that she had to search and swallowed her frustrations instead.
"Allow my staff to make you comfortable and then we will stay up until the dawn hours if that is what you wish."
Something about his eyes and posture told her she wouldn't win this battle and the chill from the storm was still eating away at her bones. Clenching her teeth, she finally nodded. Fresh clothing did sound nice. And she needed a moment to herself.
"Thank you." She said finally.
To her surprise, he bowed again. "It is my honor."
She felt his eyes on her back as she was led out of the room.
The piping hot bath some wonderful maid had drawn for her had helped with the exhaustion. Now she just felt weary. But clean. And after two weeks of running, clean was a luxury. Rubbing a hand over her eyes, she took the time to study the room now that she wasn't being ushered into the bathroom and peeled out of her wet gown.
The room itself was a bit extravagant for her taste. Rich upholstery, fine wall hangings that depicted suitably appropriate pictures and thick, brightly colored rugs were sprawled across the floor to protect bare feet from the chill of the marble. She felt out of place and uncomfortable in such obvious displays of wealth; even the bathroom had been richly decorated.
The large, floor length mirror next to the closet gave her a good view of how tired she looked. Sighing, she brushed her finger down the skirt of the dress that had been provided for her. Her other gown had disappeared. The dark blue color did go well with her eyes but the amount of lace and carefully worked gold thread was a bit… extravagant. She wished she knew if the dress had been the maid's idea or Himura's request… and what his intentions were for it. She didn't think this was part of protocol… so it had to be more of his choice. Frowning a little, she studied herself. If he thought by putting her in a pretty gown and giving her a room obviously kept for important guests was going to put her at ease…
Well, he would just have to learn otherwise. Satisfied that she looked presentable, she set about braiding her hair away from her face. There was no point in trying to force her long hair into something more elaborate after he had seen her rain soaked and mud splattered. Later, she'd worry about appearing more formal – right then, she was tired.
And she needed to know if he would help with Yahiko. If he could help with Yahiko. If he could… that meant she was going to have to share more about her family than she was comfortable with, but it had to be done. What she was worried about most was that he could still refuse her the help she needed. She was still unaware of the depth of the favor he owed her father. His expression had given her no clue, nothing to grasp onto in hope as she recovered from the storm.
This was still an uncomfortable gamble.
"Lady Kamiya?" The soft voice of the maid she had dismissed after buttoning her into the gown broke her out of her thoughts. The girl smelled and felt completely human but there had been a familiar awareness in her eyes when she had been introduced. The girl knew what Kaoru was and how dangerous she could be if she was pushed and was taking great efforts to make sure she was comfortable and felt safe.
Kaoru didn't blame her, really. If she wasn't so exhausted physically her temper would have been leaking everywhere.
"If it pleases you, Lady, the Conte has requested that you join him for a late meal."
She took a moment to make sure her expression remained acceptably polite and finally nodded. "Please tell the Conte that I would be honored."
The maid curtsied and disappeared back out the door. A moment later there was a knock and the familiar voice of the butler caught her attention.
"My Lady, if you will follow me?"
His voice was the same but his expression was softer at the edges. The walk down the hall felt different than previously. With her magic clinging tightly to her skin, she looked around the palazzo. He had to be using his magic to keep the place warm and lit. The storm beat against the glass windows, but she couldn't feel a draft. The humans and servants of such a large home should have been feeling the cold but the air was cozy.
His control over his fire was frightening.
She was lead to a small dining room, off the second floor instead of the larger, main dining room on the first floor. She swallowed at the human and dragon implications that came from taking her to the private dining room and shoved them down. He was just being polite.
The Conte was waiting for her. He had changed out of his silly court-formal jacket and was wearing a simple shirt and breeches that clung to the lines of his body. He hadn't bothered to pull his human illusion close again and when he turned her breath caught at the sharp lines of his face. Her stomach trembled and she lifted her chin. He was just another dragon. She knew how to handle a dragon.
"Thank you for joining me."
"Thank you for the invitation." She ignored the curl of his mouth and stubbornly kept his gaze with her own. She was not going to be the first one to break protocol and even if he did she was determined to keep it between them. Protocol was safe and she felt anything but and that made her dangerous.
He moved around her, pulling out a chair so she could sit. She avoided letting even the hem of her skirt brush his pants as she sat, studying the lines of the table instead of the way he moved.
"Would you like to discuss your situation now or after we have eaten?" He questioned as the butler poured them both a glass of wine.
"Now," she tried to keep her voice from being clipped, but it was a strain. "Please."
She clenched her hands together in her lap, knuckles turning white. That was her cue.
"Two years ago my father died to unknown circumstances," she didn't want to go into detail and his expression didn't suggest that he wanted those details. "Unfortunately, it accelerated by brother's natural instincts. A friend of the family offered to take him under his wing until things settled back into their natural pattern."
"A reasonable proposition."
Kaoru gave him a vexed look. He responded by picking up glass and taking a sip, eyes never leaving her face. Her nails bit into her skin. She couldn't lose her temper.
"Two weeks ago I received a missive from a Barone neither I nor my family is acquainted with. He claimed to have my brother and was demanding that I turn over my father's hoard to him in exchange for his life."
She lowered her eyes to stare at his forearm. The muscles there had bunched with tension. Twisting her fingers together, she continued.
"Giving the fief I was watching for Yahiko to the governing of an elderly family friend, I did some investigating." Her lips pressed together tightly until she got her breathing under control. "Yahiko had been given to the Barone to repay a dragon favor. I couldn't find any rumor of where he had been taken and I received a message from Gensai saying someone had broken into the manor. So I came here."
She could feel the way his eyes were moving over her face. "Was that all?"
She hesitated before continuing. She didn't have to like sharing weaknesses with him but if this would help…
"I believe I was followed to Venice."
"Ah." His tone was soft.
She tilted her chin. "They did not manage to follow me through the storm."
He tilted his head, expression silently encouraging her to continue and she felt the urge to bury her fork in his eye. Restraint was making her head hurt.
"I am not certain how they knew to follow me." She pressed her lips together for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "Father was very careful to keep my identity hidden and all of his acquaintances believed me to be an adopted human daughter."
"Ah," he murmured. "I had wondered."
Wondered what? Why he hadn't known of her existence? Why she had come to him in the middle of this storm? It shouldn't have mattered. She was not interested in mating with anyone until her brother was old enough to stand on his own. No male would allow another male, even a young one, not connected by blood into his territory.
"The letter I received was addressed to my human alias but it was spelled for a dragon."
His eyes narrowed with interest then and he tapped his finger on the table, mulling it over in his mind. "Your human alias?"
She frowned at him. "Chiara Belvidere."
"Surely people realized your father had left more than one dragon in his will." Himura said finally, something satisfied in his tone. "They surely would have suspected you."
"My draconic name is not particularly feminine and is usually mistaken as a male." She shrugged slightly. "But boy or girl, I am old enough to have fledged and left the nest. There is no reason they should have thought anything other than I had left my father to raise his second hatchling in peace. They should not have known I was a female."
"Perhaps they didn't." He said crisply.
She was starting to dislike this man. Before she could find a way to put that thought into words that weren't a flat insult, the doors open and the scent of spiced meat caught her attention. A plate filled with thinly sliced beef and colorful greens was sat in front of her. Biting the side of her tongue to hold herself in check, she just realized how hungry she was, she made a point to thank the server and wait until a small plate of warm bread was placed to her left. Picking up her fork, she carefully took a bite of the hot meat and chewed slowly. Her dragon stirred at the taste of the seared meat and she soothed it down as she swallowed. For all that she played the part of human most of her life; her father had drilled draconic manners into both her and Yahiko. Custom required that the lady broke bread first and decided if the meal was worth eating.
"It's very good, thank you."
Kenshin nodded before digging into his own meal. Kaoru hoped her internal struggle wasn't obvious as she chewed each bite carefully. It had been a few days she allowed herself the luxury of eating red meat and her dragon was reminding her that it didn't like such lapses when she was expending such large amounts of energy for flight.
"Did the Barone who has your brother leave a name?"
Kaoru nodded, swallowing carefully. "I brought the letter. I was unable to locate the territory which he claimed to control."
"I will be happy to look it over tonight."
He nodded. "I have seen your father's hoard."
She froze, fork poised above her plate.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It was some years ago, when he was still in Ireland. I required the use of his library." He paused to spear a slice of meat. "Unfortunately, the information I needed was not in any of his public tomes, so he allowed me access to his hoard."
His eyes lowered to the chain circling her neck. "That is the favor that I owed him."
She tightened her grip on her fork to hide the way her fingers trembled. For him to have seen her father's hoard… he would have no choice but to locate Yahiko. Relief made her dizzy and she set her utensil down. She did not have to worry about accidentally offending him with her temper or mannerisms. It would not matter.
Yellow eyes gleamed at her, as if he knew what she was thinking.
"Once we finish here, if you agree, I will spend the night researching what I can about this Barone and where he might have taken your brother. You are welcome to help, but perhaps you would prefer to rest? I will be quite pleased to inform you of all my findings over the morning meal."
She looked away from him and back to her plate, thinking his offer over. He didn't seem to mind, giving her time to think by directing his attention to his meal. She did the same, making short work of the thick pile of meat she had been provided, mulling over her options. Fifteen minutes ago she would have demanded the right to search his library or sources with him, but she was tired. The frantic pace of the past two weeks was catching up with her. By telling her exactly how deep his dragon-debt ran, he had given her the information she needed to trust him to find her brother. She no longer had to worry that he would attempt to take advantage of the situation and force her into her own personal bargain. Not that she trusted him with anything else. There was a quiet watchfulness about him that bothered her.
Still, resting would give her a chance to recover from the past two weeks and to start the hunt anew. Give her the strength to fortify her defenses. If her father trusted him enough to let him into his hoard, then she could take him up on his hospitality – for now. Relieved that she had a plan, she finished off her meal and set her fork down. He lifted her gaze her to hers in a silent question.
"I believe I will take you up on the offer of a place to rest."
The edges of his eyes deepened again in what might have been a smile. "Would you care for dessert or would you prefer to retire now?"
She considered his words and shook her head. "Thank you, but no dessert."
She was too tired for her usual sweet tooth to complain. For a moment, something moved behind his eyes and she was startled to feel her instincts shift warily. Carefully, so not to catch Himura's attention she studied her beast. There weren't any obvious signs of interest. She was dragged from her internal searching as he stood and pulled back her chair.
"Then I will have a maid escort you to your room."
Before he had finished speaking, the same girl who had helped her dress appeared, dropping into a quick curtsy. Kaoru nodded her thanks and watched slightly bemused as Himura gave another of those low, curious bows.
"Happy hunting," she returned before she slipped out of the room to find her rest.
[End Chapter One]
Authors Note: So this would be the story that I have been dropping hints about for some time now. I think it's taken me close to four years to finish it, if not longer. In fact, the first part of this story was written in the summer between my Junior and Senior of college… if you can imagine how long ago that was. But it's finally finished, so updates will be regular until its completely posted. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I have, and don't find it nearly as frustrating!
Conte – The word traces its origin from the Latin comes, for military companion. Counts and their consorts are most formally addressed verbally by title and surname.
Visconte – Originally vice comes, for the attendant of a count, this is the rarest of the modern Italian nobiliary titles, almost unknown in some regions.
Signore – Originally a feudal lord, the title was introduced into Italy by the Franks and Normans. Formerly a minor title, the title is rarely used today because most signori bear greater titles by which they are commonly known, and because, in common parlance, signore has come to mean "Mister."
Barone– Ages baronis was a title of nobility or, more often, a nobiliary rank employed in reference to holders of feudal property.
Aversa – Aversa is a town and comune in the Campania region of southern Italy, about 15 kilometres (9 mi) north of Naples. It is the centre of an agricultural district, the agro aversano, producing wine and cheese (famous for the typical buffalo mozzarella). Aversa is also the main seat of the faculties of Architecture and Engineering of the Seconda università degli studi di Napoli (Second University of Naples).
Frignano – Frignano borders the following municipalities: Aversa, Casaluce, San Marcellino, San Tammaro, Villa di Briano.
Venice – is a city in northern Italy, the capital of the region Veneto, with a population of 271,367 (census estimate 1 January 2004). Together with Padua, the city is included in the Padua-Venice Metropolitan Area (population 1,600,000). The city historically was the capital of an independent nation. Venice has been known as the "La Dominante", "Serenissima", "Queen of the Adriatic", "City of Water", "City of Masks", "City of Bridges" and "City of Canals". Luigi Barzini, writing in The New York Times, described it as "undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man". Venice has also been described by the Times Online as being one of Europe's most romantic cities.
Palazzo Malipiero – is a palace in Venice, Italy. It is located on the Grand Canal in the central San Samuele square. It stands just across from Palazzo Grassi Exhibition Center. It is situated at the crossroads of the city's cultural and artistic areas. The splendid Italian-style garden with a view on the Grand Canal makes it even more distinctive. Originally built in Byzantine times, the nine centuries' architectural history of the palace can be retraced in its complex structure: each generation of owners left its stamp of caring and fervor for the arts. For some years as from 1740 Giacomo Casanova lived in Palazzo Malipiero. In spite of his young age (he was just 15 years old), he began his successful social life in these very rooms. Here he gave a broad demonstration of his innate gift for the art of love.
Authors Note: The Author was too lazy to create her own palace. So while the facts that Giacomo Casanova lived there is fun, historical facts – this is an AU and I am stealing it for my evil, evil purposes! =)