Tuesday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 8

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


Florence
October 31, 1477

Sebastiano hurried through the Old Market, threading the crowd that milled among the vendors. The crowd was thin, but Sebastiano was not. "Exuse me, sorry." His belly bumped a little girl to the ground. He did not stop to help her up. There was no time. "Sorry, excuse me." He circumvented the butcher's pavilion, weaving between fruit sellers, vintners, ironmongers, and chandlers all cadging their wares before the close of day. The sun was low and getting lower. Sebastiano did not want to be caught in the streets after dark. He did not want to be caught at all.

I must tell Lorenzo. Lorenzo is in danger.

He glanced over his shoulder, but did not see anyone chasing him. Breaking from the crowd, he fled the emporium and ran north on Via Calimala, past Donatello's statue, past the wool guild headquarters and the retail clothing shops. He outpaced a slow-gaited horse and two donkeys laden with uncarded cloth. Sebastiano had once played runner in the game of calcio. He had even scored a goal in the piazza of Santa Croce, in front of a thousand cheering Florentines on Saint John's Day. That was fourteen years ago, but in his mind he carried the ball now. Running, running. Sebastiano could feel the old strength in his legs, the power in his lungs.

It did not last. His legs weakened. His lungs rebelled. He slackened to a walk as he approached the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The horse passed him at the intersection. The donkeys passed him in the piazza. Sebastiano slowed to a limacine crawl, but forced his legs to keep moving, keep moving north, lugging his corpulence up the Via Largo.

It wasn't far now. A few more steps to the Medici Palace. A few more steps and it would all be over.

Lorenzo is in danger.

Sebastiano worked for the Pazzi Bank, but spied for the Medicis. He had once been a loyal accountant, he had once been an honest man, but raising five fat children taught him the value of a florin. He could not support his family on what he gleaned from the Pazzi payroll. Two years ago, a Medici agent approached Sebastiano with a proposal: fifty large florins for a copy of a contract. Not the original, just a copy. What could be easier? And fifty florins—that was more than he earned in a year. The next morning, he copied the contract in a rapid hand. He passed it to the Medici agent, who tipped him an extra florin for being prompt. More copies followed, sometimes two or three a month. It became his second job, his secret passion. He was not a thief. He merely sold information. He was not an embezzler, but a merchant of the mind.

Until today.

Today everything changed.

For weeks he had noticed a strange pattern in the Pazzi books, payments to condottieri for unnamed services, emergency transfers to and from the Vatican branch office, currency exchanges inconsistent with the cambist, odd discrepencies and marginal errors that should never have been approved. A secret account had been opened for the Prince of Wallachia—a shadowy figure who showed no respect for regular banking hours. Most alarming of all were the extravagant loans to Girolamo Riario, Count of Imola. The pope's nephew was an uxorious fool who spent lavishly on his young wife and treated the bank as his private coffer. These transactions were authorized without question by Francesco Pazzi in Rome. It didn't make sense. Francesco had always been a cagey businessman who thought only of profits, but these recent appropriations, if left unchecked, could threaten the solvency of the entire bank. Did Francesco understand what was being done in his name?

Francesco had arrived in Florence last night. Sebastiano intended to broach his concerns in person. This afternoon he had gone unannounced to Francesco's office in the Pazzi Palace. The office door was closed. Sebastiano heard voices inside, so he waited in the hall. The voices grew louder. Two men were arguing—Francesco and Jacopo.

Hearing the words "Lorenzo" and "Giuliano," the accountant listened closer. He did not hear much, but what he heard sent him running:

"...Rome..."

"...Easter..."

"...kill them both..."

They're going to kill the Medici brothers.

Suddenly it all made sense: payments to soldiers, to Count Girolamo, to the shadowy prince. It was a plot, a coup, a conspiracy to wipe out the enemies of the Pazzi Bank. No, Francesco was not incompetent. He authorized those payments for a reason. A very important reason. He was still the cagey businessman, looking after his profits, investing in the future.

If Lorenzo died, Sebastiano had no future. Not only would he lose his clandestine income, but if the Pazzis got hold of the Medici ledgers, the secret books, Sebastiano was a dead man. His only hope lay with the Medici.

I must tell Lorenzo.

Now, after running to the edge of his endurance, to the limits of his lungs, he was almost there. He could see the Medici Palace up ahead, beyond the intersection, across the street. Two men stood guard at the main door, watching the pedestrians. Sebastiano wanted to call out to the Medici guards, to cry for help, alert the palace, unburden his mind, but he could not. He had the will, but not the wind.

A few more steps. That was all. A few more steps. He crossed the street in agony, dragging his feet like kedges underwater.

Almost there.

Each footfall sent a shock along his spine.

Almost there.

Two horses cantered into his path.

Almost there.

The horses stopped.

Sebastiano nearly collided with one of them. He stammered a curse and tried to circle around. The horses stepped back, preventing his passage. Sebastiano glanced up at the riders. Two young bravos smiled down at him. Their black giorneas were blazoned with dolphins, the crest of the Pazzi.

One of the men said, "Sebastiano, my friend."

The accountant did not recognize either of them.

The second stranger said, "Your employer needs you."

"The day is done," Sebastiano answered, wheezing.

"Jacopo Pazzi wishes to settle an account."

"But I'm already finished."

"Not quite," said the first man, dismounting. He wore a cinquedea, sheathed in silver, and a buckler on his belt.

Sebastiano felt a shiver of fear, a warning in his spine.

They know.

"Come," said the second man. "We're here to escort you."

The other man smiled. "The streets aren't safe for a man in your position."

The soldier on foot handed his reigns to the other rider and locked elbows with Sebastiano, as if they were close comrades, old drinking buddies, but the grip of his arm betrayed his mistrust. They walked together in the gloaming, back down the Via Larga toward the Old Market, three men and two horses, the former more quiet than the latter. When they reached the Piazza San Giovanni, they turned right.

"In here," said the first man.

They were heading for the Baptistry, which stood across from the cathedral.

"He's waiting inside," said the second man.

Inside the Baptistry?

The pedestrian soldier opened the north doors and shoved the accountant into the shadows. Sebastiano stumbled, falling on his hands and knees. The floor was cold, hard, and unforgiving. He heard the doors slam shut behind him. The chamber was untouched by candlelight. Dusk teased him from high windows, abandoning him to blackness.

"Hello?"

No reply but the echo.

Sabastiano rose to his feet. He felt for the wall. He jammed his fingers against cold stone, shook away the pain, and moved slowly to the left, where the doors should be.

"Hello?"

He found the north doors, but could not open them. They were locked or barred from the outside. Sebastiano refused to panic. The Baptistry had three sets of doors. He continued moving to the right, feeling his way along the curved wall as his footsteps echoed all around him.

He stopped.

The footsteps continued to echo.

Another man's footsteps.

Sebastiano turned to face the darkness.

"Who's there?"

He held his breath.

Another man's breathing filled the void.

"Who are you? What do you want?"

A deep voice answered, "I bring a message from Jacapo Pazzi."

Sebastiano knew that voice, that accent. A shadow from the East. The Prince of Wallachia.

"What message?"

A cold hand clenched Sebastiano's throat, pinning him back against the wall with inhuman strength. A hot wind roared in his right ear:

"Requiescat in pace."

And then beast was at his throat, rending flesh with savage teeth. Blood splattered against Sebastiano's cheek and soaked his tunic. His body convulsed with pain. He punched and kicked and screamed. The assailant, more animal than man, sank his teeth once more into the bloody gash in Sebastiano's throat, not eating but drinking, sucking blood from open flesh. Sebastiano screamed and screamed, until the hand at his throat crushed his larynx and snapped his neck.

Screams echoed in the Baptistry, a choir of devils commending him to Hell.

PREVIOUS: Chapter 7
NEXT: Chapter 9

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