Sunday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 11

A vampire novel set in the Italian Renaissance.

Dracula, the exiled prince of Wallachia, arrives in Rome pursued by rumors of his evil past. Hoping to establish a new power base among the warring city-states of Italy, Prince Dracula allies himself with the Borgia family.

In exchange for a secret marriage contract with Lucrezia Borgia, Dracula helps Cardinal Borgia become Pope Alexander VI. But when the new pope forbids the marriage of Lucrezia to the Wallachian prince, Dracula's revenge threatens the Borgia dynasty and the future of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pope's brilliant son, Cesare Borgia, enlists the aid of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli to defeat the growing forces of darkness.

The Vatican Dagger
by David Wisehart


Villa Medici, Fiesole
April 25, 1478

Jacopo Pazzi and Lorenzo de' Medici rode their horses side-by-side from Florence to Fiesole. Behind them rode the guest of honor, seventeen-year-old Cardinal Raffaele Sansoni Riario, great-nephew of the pope, on a break from his studies at the University of Pisa. He was accompanied by Archbishop Francesco Salviati and followed close by Francesco Pazzi, Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, and Count Giovanni Battista da Montesecco. The Prince of Wallachia came next, but kept to himself. He wore long sleeves, riding gloves, and a hooded cape to shield him from the bright morning sun. Further back, a pageant of scholars, artists, and musicians from Lorenzo's court entertained themselves, and irritated Jacopo, with a bawdy ruckus of traveling songs. The singers were shadowed by a contingent of Pazzi and Medici guards who eyed each other warily.

They turned from the main road onto a path leading up to Medici villa in the ancient Etruscan hill town of Fiesole. The company stretched out in single file, with the exception of Jacopo and Lorenzo, who continued to ride abreast. The Pazzi horse sauntered close to the edge of the deepening cliff, but Jacopo refused to fall in step behind the young prince, and riding ahead would betray the old man's ambitions.

Patience, thought Jacopo Pazzi. Tonight Lorenzo will dine in Hell.

The villa, a Medici lair with Medici guards, was not the ideal venue for the assassination. Too far from Florence, too far from the Pazzi strongholds, it rested high on a hill with a commanding view of the farmlands below. The approach was steep and unsheltered. Hostile forces would be vulnerable, moving at the mercy of those above. Attendance at the Villa Medici was by invitation only.

Scoring that invitation had taken a lot of work and a little genius. It was Francesco Pazzi who found the solution, discovering the seeds of victory in the ashes of defeat.

Defeat had been a frequent visitor to the Pazzi Palace in those chilly days and nights of the winter now gone. Jacopo had hoped for friendlier surroundings or neutral ground, but time and again Lorenzo refused to be lured into the conspirators' traps. Twice Lorenzo canceled business meetings with allies of the Pazzis, blaming first his schedule and then the weather. He increased his guard, limited his engagements, and even declined an invitation to celebrate Easter at the Vatican, risking further censure from His Holiness. Had the Medici brothers learned of the plot in Rome? Jacopo could not be sure. Out of an abundance of caution, or a predilection for arrogance, Lorenzo refused to take the bait.

Finally, after weeks of deliberation, Francesco Pazzi had devised a new stratagem: if Lorenzo would not go to the Church, the Church would come to him. The Medici brothers could not refuse to meet a visiting cardinal. To justify Raffaele's visit, Pope Sixtus appointed the young cardinal to be the papal legate to Perugia. From Pisa, his legation would pass through Tuscany. It was only natural, then, for the cardinal to stay as Jacopo's guest at Villa Montughi, and, in a gesture of peace, invite the Medici rivals into the Pazzi snare. Lorenzo graciously agreed to break bread with his enemies. However, his brother Giuliano did not attend the banquet, but sent a messenger, claiming a fever and begging forgiveness. Jacopo knew, and the conspirators agreed, that killing one brother alone would invite disaster, rallying the people to the Medici banner. Only the double-stroke would do.

Once again, it was Francesco Pazzi who found the solution, turning Lorenzo's own vanity against him. At Villa Montughi, Francesco praised the virtues of the Medici art collection and encouraged the young prince to boast of his treasures until Cardinal Raffaele begged to stay another week to see these wonders for himself. Lorenzo invited them all to a second banquet, hosted by the Medicis, and promised the cardinal that his brother would attend. By next week, surely, Giuliano would be well enough to join them.

Now the time had come. The Pazzis had come. Giuliano, however, was nowhere to be seen.

"He will be there," Lorenzo assured the cardinal as they climbed the hills of Fiesole.

The company was soon overtaken by a fast rider with heavy saddlebags. The horse was in lather. The rider looked weary. At first Jacopo thought it was an urgent message for Lorenzo—perhaps some warning of the impending plot—but after the rider threaded his way to the front of the procession, Lorenzo simply nodded and waved the man ahead.

"Who was that?" Jacopo asked.

Lorenzo smiled. "A surprise."

Jacopo watched the rider trot the last quarter mile and enter the gates. The Medici villa, with its stark white walls and red-tiled roofs, seemed carved from cliffs and embraced in green folds of foliate earth. Buildings rested on different levels, and the whole complex seemed to rise up like a wave of white stone.

The cardinal asked, "Why is it built like that?"

"It was originally a castle," said Lorenzo, "known as Belcanto. My uncle Giovanni bought it from the Bardis. He wanted to expand the little fortress into a vast pleasure palace with the best view in all of Italy. He did this over objections of his father, Cosimo, a banker with ducats in his dreams and soldis in his soul, who cared less about the view from the ledge than his view of the ledger. Once renovations were commenced, Giovanni found the mountain as unforgiving as his father. Neither could be bent to Giovanni's will. His architect, Michelozzo, made a virtue of necessity, and shaped the villa to the mountain."

When the procession entered the gates, they learned that Giuliano had not yet arrived. To fill the time before the banquet, Lorenzo led his guests on a brief tour of the complex, taking them down to the lower level, into the vaulted cellars, stables, and storerooms, then to the upper level, the bedrooms, drawing rooms, and libraries.

Jacopo walked beside Cardinal Raffaele, out of the library and down a long hall decorated with fine paintings. A large silver cross hung on the wall and Jacopo could not help but glance at it as he passed by, checking his own reflection in the polished metal. Others did the same. As Jacopo stepped into the next doorway, he heard a guttural cry, like the growl some fierce beast. He turned and saw Prince Dracula cover his eyes with the crook of his arm. The dark prince turned from the others, strode quickly back down the hall, and disappeared out the exit door.

Lorenzo asked Francesco Pazzi, who had been walking with the Wallachian prince, "Is everything all right?"

"Fine," said Francesco. "Vlad wasn't feeling well today. Too much sun.”

Lorenzo’s eyes narrowed with concern. “I have several excellent physicians.”

“I'm sure he'll be fine."

The company crossed back to the main building. Jacopo glanced around for the prince and saw him standing alone on the lowest level of the terraced gardens, staring at the panorama of Florence below. Francesco, too, was eyeing the prince.

"What happened?" Jacopo demanded, sotto voce.

Francesco lowered his voice as well. "I don't know," he admitted. "We were talking, something about the villagers in Wallachia. Nothing important, really. Then he looked at the silver cross and...made that noise. He's been quiet ever since."

Jacopo held his breath, checked his rage, listened to the blood pounding in his ears, then said, "Lorenzo is rattled. I need him off his guard." Maybe it was fortunate Giuliano was late. It would give Lorenzo time to calm his nerves. "Keep an eye on the prince. I don't trust him."

He went to join the others in the dining hall. Lorenzo and the cardinal were already seated at the center of the long table, eating melon slices and watching acrobats compete with jugglers for attention. Jacopo found his seat between the cardinal and archbishop. On Lorenzo's left side, Giovanni's place was empty.

Servants brought plates of steamed broccoli with a rich cream sauce. Lorenzo grabbed a small green spear from the plate, and held it up like a work of art. "The emperor's flower," he said, then dipped the broccoli in the sauce and plopped it in his mouth.

"Why do you call it that?" Raffaele asked.

Lorenzo raised a hand, begging for a moment as he savored the treat. When finished, he smiled. "A favorite of the ancient Romans—and one of the secrets of their vigor. Pliny the Elder tells us that Drusius, son of Tiberius, ate so many broccoli flowers his piss turned green."

The cardinal laughed and raised a stalk in toast. "To green piss."

"To green piss!" shouted the others, as they all dug in.

After the appetizers, Lorenzo announced, "My cooks have prepared a special treat in honor of your Eminence."

Moments later, the main course was unveiled—salted sea bass. Nice touch, thought Jacopo, grudgingly. The cardinal's fondness for seafood was well known, and he could not have expected to find such a meal in Tuscany.

Indeed, Raffaele seemed skeptical. "Sea bass? So far from the coast?"

"That was my surprise, your Excellency. Last night I sent my fastest rider to the coast. Just now, he brought back the morning's finest catch."

Jacopo recognized the assassin among the servants. His name was Angelo. He was a handsome lad with a light walk and an easy smile. Angelo had fallen for the charms of young Gabriela, a distant relation of Jacopo's, who nonetheless needed the old man's consent to marry. Jacopo promised to consider the match, if Angelo would first prove his loyalty. A bargain was struck. Publicly, the old man rejected the proposed match, which had been the subject of considerable gossip in Florence. Privately, Angelo was given opposite assurances. As rumor spread of Angelo's humiliation, the young man sought favor with the Medicis, earning a place among the kitchen staff in Fiesole. Over the past year, Angelo had proved himself useful both to the Medici chefs and the Pazzi spies. Through him, Jacopo learned the movements and habits of the rival court. Now the old man was asking a great a deal more. In return for poisoning the fish, Angelo would earn not only his Pazzi bride, but his own estate in the Tuscan hills. The young man would be instantly elevated to the life of his fondest dreams.

All it would take was Jacopo's signal, a dash of poison in the fish, and Lorenzo would be a corpse within the hour.

But where is Giuliano?

The answer came swiftly. As the main course was being laid upon the table, Lorenzo was summoned to greet a visitor at the door. He returned with bad tidings.

"My brother is still recovering from his illness. I'm afraid he cannot join us."

"But I was hoping to dine with you both," said the cardinal, revealing more disappointment than Jacopo thought wise.

"And he was hoping to see you, your Eminence. He sends his regrets and begs for your prayers."

"Your brother is always in my prayers," said Jacopo, speaking the truth.

The assassin set a plate of fish in front of Jacopo. The old man smiled politely, but he had already lost his appetite. The fish smelled of decay and tasted of defeat.

"Would you care for more salt?" Angelo asked, meaning more than he said.

"Not today," Jacopo replied.

His wounds had been salted enough.

#

Montesecco said nothing as he watched Jacopo pace back and forth in his office at the Pazzi Palace. The old man wrung his hands, glanced out the window, turned, and paced again. Francesco Pazzi, Bernardo Bandini, and Archbishop Salviati stood together by the door. The younger men all waited for the word.

"Tomorrow," said Jacopo. "It has to be tomorrow."

Montesecco didn't like the sound of that. "That won't work, my lord."

"We have no choice."

"Tomorrow is Sunday."

"Then call it a sign from God."

Salviati cleared his throat. "The Medici brothers will be in church."

"Then we kill them in the church."

"Impossible."

Bandini said, "They killed Galeazzo, didn't they?"

Montesecco understood at once. Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, had been assassinated two years ago in the church of Santo Stefano. Like Lorenzo, he was a patron of the arts, but with a special fondness for music. Composers from the farthest corners of Christendom flocked to Galeazzo's chapel. And like Lorenzo, the Duke of Milan was infamous for his cruelty. He once executed a poacher by making him swallow an entire hare, fur and all. Another man he nailed inside a coffin and buried alive. A priest who predicted Galeazzo's end did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled. Fear and awe rippled through the Milanese court. Some were disgusted, others alarmed. As grievance piled upon grievance, cruelty upon cruelty, Galeazzo's enemies grew more numerous than his composers.

Finally, a cabal formed among Milan's highest officials. Three men led the conspiracy: Carlo Visconti, Gerolamo Olgiati, and Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani. Visconti claimed the Duke had raped his sister and stolen her virginity; Olgiati, defender of Republican virtues, railed at tyranny in all its forms; Lampugnani, the cunning pragmatist, had lost most of his inheritance and much of lands to Galeazzo's imperious whims. Olgiati pointed to the death of Caesar. Lampugnani plotted the details. Visconti supplied the bravos and blades.

The fates came for Galeazzo the day after Christmas. When the Duke arrived for mass, Lampugnani knelt before him, pleading for the return of his inheritance. A gang of men gathered close, with prayers on their lips and knives in their hands. The supplicant struck first. He stabbed at the groin, then at the breast. The others descended, thirty blades in all, sunlight gleaming off crimson steel, which cut and cut and cut again. Within moments, the body was unrecognizable. The conspirators stepped back from a widening pool of blood, saw the wet, red work of their hands, then turned and fled. Bloody footprints chased them out the door.

But where the chapel held victory, the streets held only vengeance. Lampugnani tripped and fell down the steps, entangled by his own blood-stained garments, and was cut down by a vicious mob. His body was dragged through the street and hanged upside down from the window of his house. The next morning, the body was discovered headless. As a warning to others, the villain's right hand was chopped off, burned, and put on display in the public square. In the dismal days that followed, Visconti, Olgiati, and most of the other conspirators were caught, tortured, executed, and mounted on posts to rot in public.

During his confession, Olgiati had declared, "Death is bitter, but glory eternal."

Montesecco wanted no such glory. To kill for Christ was a holy cause, an act of penitence, but murder in a church could only be the Devil's work. Now Jacopo, frustrated and wild-eyed, seemed eager to ride this moment into madness.

No, thought Montesecco. I will not damn my soul to please the Pazzis.

But here was a dangerous crossroads. If he broke from the conspirators, his life was forfeit. He would be hunted down for the rest of his days. Montesecco needed tact, cunning, and diplomacy, but in those arts he had no training and little skill.

"After church," he suggested. "We can ambush them on the road to—"

"No," said Jacopo. "In the cathedral."

"My lord—"

Jacopo stopped pacing and turned to Montesecco, fixing him with an icy stare.

The soldier held his tongue.

"Then we're agreed," Jacopo concluded.

"My lord—"

"Take care, soldier."

"My lord," Montesecco insisted, "you will need troops in the street. Remember Galeazzo. Remember Lampugnani. The brave men who cut down the tyrant were savaged by the mob. The Florentine people will be shocked and confused."

"At first."

"And angry."

"Not when they hear our reasons."

"Will they listen to reason?"

"In time," said Jacopo.

"Let me buy you that time. The crowd must be controlled, rallied to your cause."

"I need you in the cathedral."

"My lord, please. I am not an assassin, but a soldier. Give me a soldier's job."

"I need a blade I can trust."

"Then trust the Prince of Wallachia," Montesecco suggested, to take the heat off himself, though trusting Dracula seemed a dubious proposition. The foreigner was a difficult man to know. His ways were strange. His hours erratic. The skin disease that made the dark prince shy of the sun would have been a weakness in any other fighter, but Montesecco sensed no weakness in that man.

"Would Dracula kill a man in a church?" Bandini asked.

"And drink his blood from the baptismal font."

Jacopo seemed to consider it, then shook his head. "This job cannot be trusted to a foreigner. It must be a Florentine blade in a Florentine hand." The old man put a hand on Montesecco's arm. "Gian Battista, you are the only man for this job."

"I will do this thing," said the soldier.

"Thank you."

"—but only with the pope's approval. I must speak with His Holiness."

"We have no time."

"And I have no pardon. Not for this."

"We must strike now," said Francesco Pazzi. "We may never get another chance. Too many people know of our plans. Too many words on the wind. Tongues are less loyal than blades. Lorenzo is already suspicious. He grows more cautious every day. More paranoid. Today is the day. The only day. It must be now, or it will be never."

"Then perhaps," said Montesecco, "it is not God's will."

Jacopo eyed the soldier closely. "Are you afraid?"

"Only for my soul."

Archbishop Salviati stepped forward. "I'll do it."

Jacopo laughed. "You?"

"Put a sword in my hand, and the Medici brothers will wash the altar with their blood."

The room grew quiet. The archbishop had just wagered his soul on the toss of the die. Montesecco calculated the odds and did not like them. Salviati had a cold vengeance on his mind and a hot temper in his heart, but he was no expert with a blade.

“If it is to be done in the church,” said Salviati, “then I am the man to do it. In the church—in my cathedral—I alone can approach Lorenzo without drawing suspicion.”

Jacopo stared at the archbishop. "You cannot do it alone," he cautioned.

"I have brothers in Christ who will join me in this holy cause. Let me find the men."

The old man nodded. "Find them fast. We strike tomorrow, at the raising of the Host."

Salviati left the room at once, followed at his heels by Francesco Pazzi.

Montesecco asked, "What would you have me do?"

"What I ask."

"You ask too much."

"And you give too little."

"I give everything to God," the soldier said, "and take my orders from the pope."

"The pope is on our side," said Jacopo.

"Yes, but are you on his?"

Jacopo stared out the window, into the darkness. "Please, Gian Battista." His voice was soft and sad. All the fire had gone out of him. He seemed no longer a lord, but a tired old man. "Will you reconsider? For me? For honor? For glory and for gold? Will you strike a blow for justice? Will you do this thing? This one thing. The only thing."

"No, my lord."

The old man turned, and Montesecco saw that there was still some fire left.

"Then get out of my sight."

PREVIOUS: Chapter 10
NEXT: Chapter 12

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