Wednesday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 9

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
November 1, 1477

Twilight danced across the surface of the Arno River. The water shimmered like a thousand silvery fish. Niccolò loved twilight. It was the end of the known world, the beginning of things unseen.

"It's getting dark," said Biagio, sounding nervous.

Niccolò ignored the remark. He searched for a smooth stone on the riverbank near the Ponte Vecchio. His friend Biagio Buonaccorsi was only five years old, a novice at skipping stones. Niccolò Machiavelli, already eight and a half, was a master of the art.

"Hold it like this," said Niccolò, demonstrating his secret technique. "Watch me again."

He cocked his arm back and released the stone with speed and accuracy. It sliced the river four, five, six times before plunging beneath the surface.

Niccolò frowned. "We need better rocks. Look over there."

"I'm going home."

"Okay, bye."

Biagio, losing the bluster from his bluff, did not go home, but said with a wimper, "You'll get in trouble."

"One more, and then we'll go."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Niccolò searched for the perfect stone beneath a darkling sky. Time escaped him. His father expected him home before nightfall, and not without cause. The Florentine night teemed with witches and devils. Lemures rose from their graves with dying of the lamps, to torment the timid and make the wind moan. Lamias lurked in every shadow, eager to suck the blood of sleeping babies. Danger fed on darkness.

He heard the peals of a dozen church bells marking the first hour of the day, which began shortly after sunset. It was time for the evening prayer, the Ave Maria. This was also the curfew warning, when the city gates were locked for the night and the streets abandoned for fear of arrest. If Niccolò were caught by the watchmen after dark, his father would pay a hefty fine and dun the debt from Niccolò's backside.

The wind shifted. Niccolò caught a familiar stench from the Ponte Vecchio, the heady aroma of butchershop offal mixed with the rank miasma of the tannery. Atop the bridge, ramshackle workshops stood in silence. The butchers, tanners, and blacksmiths had closed their shops in preparation for the Mass, Saint John's procession, and the feast to follow.

The bells faded into silence.

It was now All Saints Day.

Niccolò looked forward to the morning procession, his favorite part of the holiday, when an offering of candles was given to Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, whose divine intercession had saved the city from the conspiracy of 1340. In the morning the streets would fill with Florentines and pilgrims, fifty thousand Christians on their way to the cathedral. But tonight the streets were quiet.

Niccolò picked up a small flat rock, testing its weight.

Last throw, he thought. Make it count.

His record was eighteen skips. He muttered a quick prayer, kissed his rock for luck, and skipped it across the water. It hit the surface with authority and drew a dotted line on the wet canvas of the river, beneath the central arch of the Ponte Vecchio. Eight, nine, ten, eleven. Niccolò thought it might keep going forever.

He was still watching his rock skitter into the darkness when someone threw the dead man from the bridge.

Niccolò glimpsed a scarlet gash on the throat of the naked corpse as it pitched and tumbled. The river stretched like fabric beneath the fat man's weight, then broke, swallowing him whole. A splash of water plumed high into the air.

A pulse of energy surged through Niccolò, a fire in his veins. He was instantly aware of everything around him. His eyes pierced the vigilant darkness. His ears were keen to every sound. He dared not breathe. Glancing up at the bridge, he searched for movement in the shadows. Had the killer fled the bridge? Or was he hiding there now, waiting for them to cross?

Biagio cowered behind Niccolò.

Niccolò pressed a finger to his own lips, demanding silence.

The Ponte Vecchio stood between Niccolò and his home. Both he and Biagio lived across the river in the Oltrarno district. If they took the bridge now, they might reach Niccolò's house before his father had finished his Ave. The best alternative, the bridge at Santa Trinita, was four blocks downstream. Upstream, further away, stood the bridge at Rubaconte—a waste of time, guaranteed to incur the wrath of his father.

But what choice was there?

If this were the summer drought, they might wade across the river, but now the water was too deep, the current too swift. Neither of the boys could swim.

Niccolò looked to Heaven, but found no comfort there. The stars sought refuge behind the clouds. Even the moon would not brave the sky tonight. It would only get darker.

He studied the bridge. In the shadows of the Ponte Vecchio, at the spot from which the dead man dropped, twilight flickered in a pair of human eyes, then died, like moonlight in a well. Someone was watching him.

A killer on the bridge.

Niccolò fought panic. He had to do something. Biagio was counting on him for protection, to get them both home alive.

Think, Niccolò, think. He could run for help, tell someone about the dead man in the water, about the killer on the bridge, but Niccolò did not have any real friends on this side of the Arno. Here, Florence was crowded with nobles and parvenus, the Medici, Pazzi, and Strozzi families. The Machiavellis were not in that class. Not even close. The rich could hire soldiers for protection, bravos for revenge, but the poor had to rely on their own devices.

There was one person who might help him—Master Matteo della Rocca, Niccolò's first Latin teacher, the old man who taught him to read the Donatello. Master Matteo lived at the foot of the Santa Trinita bridge on the money side of the river. Niccolò had not seen him in months. Back in March, Niccolò's father had transferred the boy to another school. Surely Master Matteo would still remember him, and help him if he could. After all, Niccolò had been his best student, if not the teacher's pet.

Yes, thought Niccolò. He will help us.

The riverbank was below street level. Niccolò could climb the steep embankment without much trouble, but Biagio would never make it. Could Niccolò climb up with Biagio on his back? Not likely. They would have to take the ramp. This meant crossing under the Ponte Vecchio, then running past the foot of the bridge, where the killer might be waiting even now.

A terrible plan, he thought, but could see no other. They would have to risk it.

He heard footsteps on the bridge.

Heavy footsteps.

Coming closer.

Niccolò grabbed Biagio's hand. They ran under the bridge, as fast and quiet as they could. Biagio kicked up rocks as he ran, knocking one into the water with a thunderous splash.

Footsteps quickened on the bridge.

The two boys scurried up the ramp to the Lungarno, hand in sweaty hand, Niccolò in the lead, Biagio a step behind. They crested the street. Niccolò turned left, toward the foot of the bridge, yanking the younger boy's hand. Biagio turned right, running from the bridge. Their hands slipped free. The boys fell in opposite directions, smacking the stone pavement.

Biagio started to bawl. Niccolò bounded to his feet and dragged his friend back up.

"This way. Hurry."

Niccolò glanced to his left, eyeing the bridge as he passed it, and saw the tall, black-robed killer walking straight for him, like a devil out of Hell.

Don't look back.

The two boys ran together on the Lungarno, four soft shoes pelting the pavement stones. They ran downstream toward the Santa Trinita bridge as fast as feet could fly, pumping legs and sucking wind. The younger boy cried aloud, bellowing his fear. If the watchmen heard, surely they would come. Surely they would help a child in terror. Or would they? Night watchmen patroled the walls looking out, not in. Anyone locked inside the city gates could be dealt with in the morning. Would they concern themselves with a screaming child? Not likely. In their eyes, two dead boys only made the city safer.

Don't look back.

Niccolò and Biagio fled past Santi Apostoli, the church of the Holy Apostles, past the cemetery for unbaptized children. Neat rows of little crosses haunted Niccolò's every step.

Don't look back.

Up ahead, he could see his old school building, a cramped three-level stonework wedged between shops on either side. Master Matteo taught grammar students on the lowest floor and lived in the rooms above. A first-floor window showed candlelight within.

Thank God.

He reached the door with his heart knocking at his ribs. Biagio no longer cried, but gasped for breath. Niccolò stood on his toes to grab the heavy brass ring. He banged it as hard as he could. A cavernous echo shook the old house.

"Master Matteo! Master Matteo!"

Biagio pounded on the door with the flats of his hands. "Help," he said, "help," with little wind to his words.

"Master Matteo!" Niccolò glanced behind him, but the street looked vacant. A sense of danger pricked the nape of his neck. The killer was out there. Somewhere. Watching. "Master Matteo!"

The door opened. Niccolò fell forward in a spill of candlelight, knocking into a pair of knees.

A man scooped him up. He was a silhouette, but Niccolò knew the outline of his former schoolmaster. "What's this?"

"It's me, Niccolò!"

"Niccolò? What Niccolò?" said Master Matteo, in the same gruff voice that once gave life to Latin.

"Machiavelli!"

"Machiavelli, is it? My young master of mischief." He pushed Niccolò back outside. "Anguis in herba. What prank is this?"

"Can we come in? Please?" Niccolò tried to step into the doorway, but the schoolmaster held him at arms length.

Biagio resumed his bawling.

"It's past curfew," said the schoolmaster.

"You have to help us!"

"Go home. Both of you. Festina lente."

"But there's a killer in the street!"

"Then I suggest you get home before he does us all a favor."

"He threw a body in the river," said Niccolò. "A dead man. Horribile dictu. Fat and ugly and horrible—"

"De mortuis nil nisi bonum."

"His throat was cut—"

"Fronti nulla fides."

"I saw it! I swear!"

"Suggestio falsi. Get along now."

"Please," said Niccolò. "You can't leave us out here, contra mundum."

"Per angusta ad augusta."

"He'll kill us both!"

"Solvitur ambulando."

The schoolmaster started to shut the door. Niccolò stuck his leg inside. The door closed hard against his thigh, pinning flesh to the jamb. Niccolò pushed the door with both hands and wedged his shoulder into the gap.

"Please, Master Matteo. My friend, Biagio, he's only five. A good boy. Better than me. Look, he's scared. He saw it, too. Please. If not for me, for him. Dum vivimus vivamus."

"Audentes fortuna juvat," said the schoolmaster. He kicked Niccolò in the shin, knocking the boy back, and slammed the door in his face.

Niccolò fought tears. He spit on the schoolmaster's door. Saliva dripped from the brass ring.

He took Biagio by the hand. "Come with me."

Clouds parted. The street was lit once more by the moon's albedo. Niccolò and his friend slunk through the shadows, edging the street, watching for movement along the Lungarno. They made it to bridge at Santa Trinita without incident, then raced across the span. Halfway to the other side, Biagio screamed and stopped. Niccolò saw the danger.

Two bravos stood at the far end of the bridge, daggers in hand, waiting for the young arrivals.

Niccolò stopped and looked back the way he came. The killer, a shadowy giant, walked behind them on the bridge, closing the distance with determined strides. His hands were empty, but such a man would not need a weapon to kill children.

The boys were trapped on the bridge. Nowhere to go but down, and neither one could swim. Niccolò stood frozen. Biagio clinged to him. There was nothing to do but pray. Watching the killer approach, Niccolò muttered the evening prayer beneath his breath. "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen."

"Amen," said Biagio, panting with fear. It was the only part of the prayer he knew.

Niccolò was glad his friend did not understand those last words, in hora mortis nostrae.

But God spoke Latin. Saint Mary, Mother of God, must have heard the prayer. She would intercede on their behalf. Surely God would save them both.

Niccolò heard a voice inside his head:

Jump.

Was it God or the Devil?

Jump.

The third time, he recognized the voice as his own:

"Jump!"

He pushed Biagio over the parapet. The small boy pitched and tumbled and plunged into the Arno.

Niccolò gripped the low stone wall, swung his left leg over, and kicked off with his right foot. His body cleared the parapet. He released is grip, expecting to fall.

Instead, the black-clad assassin caught Niccolò by the wrist. The killer lifted him up into the air with one strong arm and held him there, studying the boy as if inspecting a dead rabbit at the butchershop.

Niccolò could not see the man's face beneath the hood. But if the man had a face, it should be right above his shoulders. Niccolò lifted his right foot and kicked hard at the hood, where the face should be. He felt the man's nose break beneath the heel of his shoe, and heard a crunch as the head snapped back.

The killer released his grip.

Niccolò fell.

The river hit him with a bitter shock. Niccolò held his breath going under. He felt the press of cold water all around him trying to crush the air from his aching lungs. He kicked for the surface, desperate for one more breath. One more breath before the river sucked him down. One more breath before the Stygian vise squeezed the soul from his body. One more breath before Hades claimed another prize.

One more breath.

His head broke the surface of the water. He gasped and gulped air, fighting the current, but the river did not yield.

The Arno dunked him again.

And again.

Nine, ten, eleven times before Niccolò learned to work his body in the water, kicking his legs and paddling with cupped hands. Exhausting work, but it kept his head bobbing on the surface.

Niccolò tried to get his bearings, twisting and turning in the icy water as he struggled to stay afloat. He saw the Santa Trinita bridge receding. He saw the riverbank move past him. He was moving with the water, like jetsam, floating in the rush.

He could not see his little friend.

"Biagio!" White clouds escaped his lips and vanished. "Biagio!"

Another bridge approached. The bridge at Alla Carraia. Something floated in the water, between him and the bridge. It looked like a white log, but did not move with the river. Niccolò swam for it as best he could, ducking his head and kicking. When he surfaced again, he was nearly there.

As he was about to float past the white log, he reached out for it, but his fingers only scraped the soft surface. At the touch, something in him shuddered. He reached out once again, his last chance, and grabbed a piece of it. The white log pulled free from whatever it was caught on. Niccolò pulled the object closer and saw it clear for the first time.

A corpse.

A dead man, naked, face-down in the water.

Niccolò let go of the man's arm, and nearly retched. The dead body floated free, matching Niccolò's pace as they both crossed under the bridge.

"Biagio!"

He heard nothing in reply.

Niccolò's arms and legs were tired, too weak now to swim to shore. In another moment he would drown.

The fat corpse still floated on the surface.

Strange, thought Niccolò. He did not understand how a dead person could float, while a live one had to paddle. The man was heavier than Niccolò. Enormous, in fact. The corpse wore no clothes. The killers must have stripped their victim. There was no fabric to drag the body down. Perhaps air was still trapped inside the dead man's lungs. Whatever the reason, the body was buoyant.

A miracle.

Niccolò reached for it again, grabbed hold of a leg, and pulled it to him. He climbed on top of the dead man's back. The corpse sank beneath him. Bubbles rose from the head, air escaping from the mouth or the nostrils. Niccolò rolled off. The body surfaced again, but floated lower in the water than it had before.

"Niccolò!"

The voice was faint, but the message clear.

His friend was alive.

"Biagio!"

Niccolò heard his name called out again, warbled on the water. He kicked in the direction of the voice, pushing the dead man ahead of him. A moment later, he could see his little friend struggling in the water, weak but alive.

"Help," said Biagio.

"Climb on here," said Niccolò.

"What is it?"

"No. Wait."

Niccolò had an idea. He had often made balloons of pig bladders. Balloons, he knew, could float on water. If he could do the same thing now...

He grabbed one of the dead man's arms, then swam under the corpse, pulling the arm after him. The dead man rolled onto his back. Niccolò surfaced on the other side. He saw the panic in Biagio's face, and looked back at the corpse. The dead man's neck had been torn open, as if by a pack of rabid dogs.

"It's okay," said Niccolò. "He floats."

With one hand, he squeezed the dead man's nose, closing the nostrils. With the other hand, he grabbed the jaw, opening the mouth a little wider. He took a big gulp of air into his own lungs, pressed his lips to the dead man's lips, and blew.

Niccolò sunk into the water. The dead chest rose to the surface. Like a balloon. Niccolò closed the mouth with his hand, and raised his own head above the surface to catch his breath again. He checked the body. It was more buoyant than before. If he could keep the air passages closed, the corpse might support the weight of his friend.

"Climb onto his chest."

Biagio did not argue. He pulled himself onto the floater, straddling the chest. The body sank under the boy's weight, then stabilized. Biagio's head remained above the surface. Niccolò gripped the dead face, now underwater, keeping the air sealed inside the corpse. He kicked with his legs, trying to push the three of them to the riverbank on the Oltrarno side, kicking towards home.

"Hands, Biagio! Paddle with your hands!"

They worked together with feeble strength, with Niccolò's legs and Biagio's hands. It was hard work, but the riverbank grew closer. We're going to make it, thought Niccolò.

The dead man had saved their lives.

PREVIOUS: Chapter 8
NEXT: Chapter 10

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