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Copyright © Tina Folsom
Venice, Italy – early 1800s
Raphael di Santori never thought he’d lose his life by drowning. A stake through the heart, maybe, or burnt to ash by the sun—but never drowning. Not that it wasn’t something many vampires feared: their cells, after all, were so dense and solid that their bodies were much heavier than water and therefore sank instantly.
That was exactly what had happened to him. One minute he’d been wandering along the canal. Now he was enfolded in its icy-cold depths. He could paddle and splash all he wanted, but his weight pulled him under the water without regard for his efforts. All his strength worked against him.
There was nothing to hold onto. The canal was lined with Venetian homes without ledges or docks, without the entry doors on the water level—mainly used for deliveries—that were customary at the larger merchants’ homes. The homes that bordered this narrow, insignificant, yet deep canal in the labyrinth of Venice didn’t have this luxury. Their inhabitants entered from the streets above, streets he’d walked earlier.
The noise of the carnival’s revelers drifted to him, deadened by the water in his ears. Even if he screamed, they wouldn’t hear him. They were too drunk to take any notice. It was one of the reasons he’d been prowling the streets despite the large number of people out. In a drunken crowd, there were more than a few morsels that would turn into prey, more than a few juicy necks he could feast on without being discovered.
All year he’d been careful, never feeding when the streets were busy, always making sure his victims wouldn’t remember what had happened. Only during carnival, when masks were the ultimate accessory to any garment, did he gorge himself on the plentiful buffet of humans.
Had he been careless this time? Had somebody seen him? Why else had he felt a hand on his back, pushing him into the canal? Merely an accident by a drunken passerby or a deliberate act by someone who knew what he was? Had the Guardians of the Holy Waters finally caught up with him?
The Guardians—he and his brethren feared them. Nobody knew how the secret society of merchants and nobles had come into existence. However, for the last one hundred years of his life, he’d seen more and more of his fellow vampires fall prey to them. Many of his friends had vanished one night, never to be heard of again. They’d either died at the end of a stake through their hearts or drowned just as he was about to.
Had the hand that he’d briefly felt on his back belonged to one of the elusive Guardians? Elusive, because despite all investigations he and his kind had engaged in, all they’d ever been able to discover was their symbol: a cross intersected by three waves. His brethren had only ever captured one member of the Holy Waters, but he hadn’t disclosed much more than their name and the symbol, which he wore on a black onyx ring, before he’d escaped them by killing himself and taken his secrets to the grave.
Were the Guardians behind his ordeal? Had one of them pushed him, knowing he’d drown? And what did it matter now? In a few minutes, he would be dead, his immortal life over. He would rot on the bottom of the canal, his body never rising to the surface, even as it decomposed, the denseness of his cells and bones making sure nothing of his being would ever come to light.
Raphael reflected on his long life, a life longer than any human could have wished for. He was leaving his brother Dante behind. But there was no woman who loved him or would cry a tear for him. His life was empty. With a last breath, he gave up his struggle and allowed the water to take him.
~ ~ ~
Isabella Tenderini heard the sloshing of water in the otherwise quiet canal and asked her trusted gondolier to go faster. The Canale Grande was busy due to the festivities surrounding the carnival, and she’d instructed Adolfo to take her home via the quiet backwaters.
“Yes, Signora,” he now answered and propelled the gondola forward effortlessly.
Her eyes peered into the darkness, the occasional light from the houses lining the canal throwing eerie shadows along the narrow passage. “Do you see anything?”
“There seems to be a disturbance in the water, just ahead of us,” Adolfo answered.
“Quickly, pull alongside.” Her heart beat faster at the thoughts that entered her mind. “Tell me what you see.”
“Somebody appears to be in the water, Signora.”
The tight fist of fear gripped her, and before she knew it, she divested herself of the cloak that kept the chill of the night air from her body and dropped it onto the seat next to her. “A child?”
“No, larger. A man.”
A sense of déjà vu struck her, her heart reminding her of her own loss. Without hesitation, she undid the laces of her bodice, then felt Adolfo’s hand on her shoulder.
“No, Signora, he’ll be too heavy for you. You can’t rescue a man. A child, yes, but not a grown man.”
Isabella turned to him. She wouldn’t be deterred by his concern. He had to understand that she had to do this so no other woman would feel the pain she had to endure. So no other woman would become a widow as she had. “I can’t let anybody drown, you know that.”
He nodded and, acknowledging his sad expression. But he wouldn’t stop her. Her own husband, a wealthy merchant, had drowned in one of these canals less than a year ago. The money he’d left her did nothing to appease her loneliness.
As she stripped off her richly embroidered gown and dropped the petticoats to the bottom of the gondola, the cold February air blew through her chemise. But all she could think of was the man whose hands were the only things now visible above the water as if he was trying to hold onto some invisible rope. If she could save him, maybe she would finally be at peace and accept what had happened. Accept Giovanni’s death.
“Hold on,” Isabella begged, “just hold on a few more seconds.” She prayed she wouldn’t be too late.
“I will help you,” Adolfo’s voice came from behind.
She shook her head. Just because she needed to do this foolish thing didn’t mean she would endanger her loyal servant. “No. You’re not a strong enough swimmer.”
As he pulled the boat alongside the drowning man, Adolfo released his oar and stepped behind her. A moment later, she felt his hands on her.
“What?” Was he trying to stop her after all?
“A rope. I’ll tie it around you.”
He expertly tied a rope around her waist while she scanned the dark waters for the man. His hands were gone. He’d slipped under the water. Only ripples remained on the surface. “Hurry.”
Without a glance back, she jumped into the canal, feet first. The icy cold water hit her like a slap in the face. She held her breath and let herself be pulled into the depths of the canal’s murky waters. She felt the pull on the rope and knew Adolfo would make sure she was safe.
Isabella didn’t open her eyes—there was no use. All it would do was hurt her, but she wouldn’t see anything. It was too dark. Even by daylight, there was little chance that her eyes would be of any assistance in her search for the drowning man.
She kicked her legs and reached her hands out, feeling for resistance. Nothing. Frantically she dove deeper, turned to her left, then her right, stretching her arms out further. Finally, her fingers encountered some material. She grasped for it, her hand latching onto a piece of fabric, a coattail or a sleeve. The soaked woolen cloth was heavy. She pulled on it, and to her relief, the weight behind it confirmed that she had found him.
The pressure in her lungs built. She fought against her body’s instinct to come up for air, knowing if she dropped her hold on him and gave into her own need for air, he would be lost.
Isabella slipped one hand under the man’s armpit. He was heavy despite the buoyancy of the water—heavier than she had expected. Gathering her remaining strength, she signaled Adolfo with a pull on the rope. She had just enough time to hook her second arm under the drowning victim’s and kick her legs before she felt herself being pulled upwards. The man in her arms was big. His massive body pressed against her, her arms barely reaching around his chest.
The moment she breached the surface, she sucked in a much-needed breath of air, filling her lungs. The cold stung her chest, but she ignored it, just the way she ignored the dead weight of the man she was holding in her arms. Was he still alive?
“You were down for so long,” she heard Adolfo proclaim, his voice more tense than usual.
“He’s so heavy,” Isabella pressed out and tried to paddle toward the boat. But all she could do was hold onto the man and let Adolfo do the hard work. She figured Adolfo deserved a few extra Lira as a bonus after this ordeal.
As her gondolier pulled on the rope, she felt the stranger slip from her grip. Without thinking, she spread her legs and wrapped them around his hips to hold him in a vice grip. It wasn’t ladylike, nor was it anywhere near appropriate, but the man was unconscious and certainly wouldn’t remember what she’d done.
When she heard voices drift to her from further down the canal, she prayed help was coming. Adolfo wouldn’t be strong enough to pull both her and the man into the gondola. For once, her prayers were heard.
Her limbs were frozen when she finally landed in the gondola, helped by a couple of friendly delivery men who dragged the half-dead stranger into the boat right behind her.
Adolfo instantly covered her with her cloak, but she knew she wasn’t the only one who needed warmth. Isabella scrambled closer to the man she’d just saved and wrapped the cloak around them both, holding him tightly to her soaked body to preserve any heat that was left.
She felt shivers go through his body and could only echo them. He was alive.