Thursday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 4

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 Cafaggiolo
October 1477

Lorenzo de' Medici was not a handsome man. His face on a peasant would have been hideous. On the master of Florence it was merely disarming, a reminder that Lorenzo was not a prince but a citizen. He had a thick lantern jaw. His right eye seemed larger than his left. His nose was fat, crooked, off-plumb. It made inferior men feel equal in his presence. Lorenzo wielded the power of a king behind the mask of a fool.

I could kill him now and be done with it, thought Montesecco.

The papal condottiere had surrendered his long sword and his cinquedea at the gate, but kept a stiletto in his boot. If necessary, he could dispatch Lorenzo with his bare hands. Lorenzo was an athlete, strong and dexterous at twenty-eight, but Montesecco had killed better men.

Getting out alive would be another matter. Two guards stood near the door. Before entering the cenacle, Montesecco had counted seventeen soldiers patrolling the Villa Cafaggiolo, a country estate six leagues northeast of Florence. The fortress was battlemented and encircled by a gated enceinte. Two towers surveyed the surround. Montesecco was a stranger to this province, the Mugello. He did not know the lay of Tuscany as well as Lorenzo's men. It would be difficult to evade capture without a reliable plan of escape.

He did not yet have a plan.

Lorenzo and Giuliano would have to be killed together. That much was clear. If one of the brothers survived, Florence might rally to the Medici and resist the revolution. However, Lorenzo and Giuliano rarely appeared together in public. It was a problem Montesecco had not yet solved.

But he did not come here to finish the hunt. He came to set the quarry's mind at ease.

Lorenzo sat behind an oak dining table. He was dressed in rich finery—a farsetto dyed in alessandrino blue, with pearl buttons up the front, covered by a minivered black cioppa of silk brocade. The left shoulder displayed a fermaglia with the Medici crest. Lorenzo appeared to be unarmed except for a paring knife and a blue ceramic plate. A large hunting dog, a black cane corso, rested on the floor at his master's feet. Montesecco stood opposite Lorenzo. Bowls of fruit decorated the space between. A book lay on the table. It was leather-bound, closed with a clasp, and much too thin to be a Bible.

"I bring greetings from the Holy Father," said Montesecco.

Lorenzo smiled. "He is dear to me, as always."

"And you to him."

"I pray daily for his health."

"Your prayers have been answered. I do not know a healthier soul."

"God is just."

Montesecco had little patience for the soft language of diplomacy, but he endured it for the sake of reconnaissance.

Lorenzo selected a plump fig from one of the serving bowls, sniffed it, and rolled the fruit between his fingers. "What news from Rome?" he asked, then popped the fig into his mouth.

"His Holiness the pope sends his love and desires your love in return," Montesecco began. "He wishes you to reconcile yourself with his nephew, Count Girolamo. This business over Imola has distressed the pontiff greatly, and he desires nothing more than to see the old alliance between Rome and Florence restored. He is confident that you will see the mutual benefits of such an alliance, and that together you and he may continue to strengthen the ties of mutual affection. To that end, he invites you to attend the Easter festival in Rome, where the Holy Father will honor you with all the respect and love due to such a noble lord and cherished friend."

Lorenzo washed down the fig with a sip of wine. "Well said, Gian Battista. You do honor to your post. But if you came here to reconcile me with Count Girolamo, I fear your mission is in vain. There is nothing to reconcile. I love the Count as I love my brother."

"He will be glad to hear it. There have been many ill rumors out of Florence."

"Slander is a plague of the tongue," said Lorenzo. "The Venetians are stirring mischief again. The doge loves a good scandal. When he cannot find one, he fashions one out of whole cloth to amuse his court."

"The court of Imola was not amused."

Lorenzo nodded. "I understand. It is true I once had my own plans for Imola. When I heard the Duke of Milan was thinking of selling the town to raise funds, I worried it might fall into the hands of an enemy and block my trade routes to the Adriatic. Now that Imola is in the capable hands of Count Girolamo, I could not be happier. My own hands are kept busy enough with the management of Florence and the provinces, not to mention the family business. One more town would be nothing but a burden. I have no imperial ambitions. Quite the contrary. I seek only trading partners and friendly neighbors. Therefore, as you can see, Girolamo's gain is mine as well."

"I will be sure to tell him so," said Montesecco.

"I would tell him myself if he were here."

"He could not join us, but I bring a message from him."

"And what does my dear friend say?" asked Lorenzo, inspecting the fruit bowls with renewed interest.

"He wishes to inform you that the lord of Faenza has taken ill."

Lorenzo stabbed an apple with the paring knife and raised the red temptation to his lips. He bit into the juicy white flesh with a loud crunch. The dog perked his head up from the floor and wagged his tail.

Montesecco continued. "If Carlo Manfredi dies, it may cause trouble for Count Girolamo."

Lorenzo leaned forward with his elbows on the table. "Girolamo wants to know if he can rely on Florence as a friend in times of trouble."

"Yes."

"Stability in Imola is in my own best interest." Lorenzo leaned back again, gesturing with the skewered apple. "You may tell Girolamo that I pray for his success and will support him where I can. But this is something he and I should discuss in person. I will draft a letter for you to take back to the Count, inviting him and his lovely young wife to dine with me here at his earliest convenience."

"Very good."

Lorenzo removed the apple from the knife, took another bite, and fed the remainder to the dog. "And what are your plans tonight?"

"Riding back to Florence. I've taken a room at the Inn of the Bell."

"Please, stay here as my guest. I'm hosting a dinner tonight for my academy friends. A conversazione. You should join us. I have the best chef in Italy."

"A bold claim."

"Put it to the test. I'll be heading back to Florence in the morning. We can ride together."

"How can I refuse?"

"You can't." Lorenzo stood up from the table. "May I give you a tour of the villa?"

"Please."

#

Montesecco followed Lorenzo and his hunting dog through the Medici castle. The condottiere noted each doorway, window, and staircase while his host narrated the display of artwork his family had collected or commissioned.

"Are you a connoisseur yourself?" asked Lorenzo.

"Not on a soldier's pay."

"Montefeltro was a soldier. He became a prince, almost a king. Visconti, Sforza, Malatesta—examples are legion. All men should rise above their station. You will not be a soldier forever, my friend. You have already become a diplomat. It would be wise to acquire at least a passing knowledge of art and antiquities, to impress the lords and pursue the ladies."

"I bow at the feet of the master."

Lorenzo paused in the hallway. "These two paintings here, which do you think is better?"

Montesecco studied the panels on the wall. One was a portrait of two young boys, probably Lorenzo and Giuliano, on horseback. The other was a mythical depiction of nine women bathing in a stream.

"They are both excellent," said Montesecco.

"Which do you think is worth more?"

"I couldn't say."

"Look at the colors." Lorenzo pointed to the mythical scene, indicating a robe which fell around the ankles of a goddess. "What color is this?"

"Blue."

"Ultramarine. Very expensive. The pigment is made from a powdered gem, lapis lazuli, a precious stone imported from the Levant in times of peace and pirated in times of war. The gem is crushed into a powder and washed with lye to draw out the color. The first washing produces ultramarine. Second and third give duller and cheaper blues, like this one over here."

He pointed to a boy's ciopetta in the other picture.

"This vermilion," said Lorenzo, indicating a bright red flower in the mythical scene, "is made from quicksilver and sulpher. Again, at great cost." He turned to the duller reds in the other picture. "These ochers and umbers, on the other hand, are from Tuscan earths. Cheap and plentiful."

"So the mythical painting is worth more than the picture of the boys," said Montesecco.

"Actually, no. This is a portrait of me and my brother. I would not part with it for the world."

"A trick question."

Lorenzo smiled. "One cannot value sentiment with the unaided eye. The thing to remember is that only brilliant painters get to work with brilliant colors. This picture of the Muses cost me a small fortune. The pigment cost more than the painter. I commissioned it from the greatest painter in Florence, which is to say, in all the world. Sandro Botticelli. If you're lucky, you may meet him tonight at dinner."

"Will your brother be at dinner tonight?"

"Not tonight."

Montesecco sensed that he had said too much. He returned the conversation to its former theme. "So the mythical painting has the higher market value?"

"Unless I'm buying." Lorenzo stared at Montesecco a moment, as if to resolve a question of his own. "History can also play a role in valuations. This portrait would be priceless if people knew the story behind it. And if the artist were known."

"You sat for the picture. You must know who painted it."

"Yes. And so does my brother, though he was three years old at the time and may not remember the name. We both swore never to speak that name again, and we have not discussed it since. It is a name I will take to my grave."

"Why is that?"

"That, of course, is the story behind the painting. Which I will tell you now, though I have told few people and may never tell it again."

"Why tell me?"

"Because I value your friendship, Gian Battista. The story is this. When I was seven years old, and my brother three, my father commissioned a portrait from the most famous artist of the day. There was not a painter in Italy who could match his work. He was, I believe, the highest-paid artist the world had ever known. Demonically prolific, but he gambled and drank and whored like a soldier. As a result, he was forever in debt and in search of new commissions."

"Like this one here."

Lorenzo nodded. "Contracts for commissions are like wedding contracts. Extremely detailed. The contract for this portrait specified the subject, the pose, the background, the deadline, the pay schedule, and most importantly the colors. Ultramarine and vermilion."

"But these colors don't comply," Montesecco observed.

"And therein hangs the tale. When my father saw the finished portrait, he was ecstatic. He paid the painter more than the contract price, as a bonus for brilliance. Of course, when my father saw the painting, he saw only his children. He loved his children, and therefore loved the painting.

"When my grandfather saw the portrait, he was furious. Cosimo de' Medici, pater patriae, father of our country and master of Florence, loved his grandchildren dearly, but he loved nothing more than business. He would brook no slight to the family's honor. As you will have guessed by now, the painter substituted cheap colors for those agreed upon, and pocketed the difference to pay his debts."

"He stole from the Medici."

"A fatal mistake."

"What happened to him?"

"He was arrested in a bordello, coitus interruptus, and tortured in the Medici palace. He confessed before the inquisitor arrived, but was tortured nonetheless. They burned the soles of his feet until fat dripped into the fire. He was then made to walk on coarse salt until he passed out. These and other tortures continued for many days. Finally, his heart surrendered and the Devil took him home. They butchered his body and fed it to the dogs.

"The scourge of justice did not stop there. The father of the artist was already dead from drink, but the mother lived in Florence, supported in high style by her loving son. She was quietly killed by agents of the Medici and buried in unhallowed ground. It was later discovered that the painter had several bastards. These were slaughtered, along with the whores who suckled them.

"That was not the end of it. My grandfather was a connoisseur of art, the greatest collector in all of Europe. The Medici bank has branches in Rome, Venice, Milan, Pisa, Genoa, Naples, Gaeta, Ancona, Lyon, Avignon, Bruges, and London. We have agents and spies throughout the Western world. My grandfather used these agents to find and acquire—to buy if possible, to steal if necessary—every picture that had ever issued from the hand of this villain who betrayed our family. One by one, these paintings were destroyed. Records were erased from every catalog and ledger. It took many years before the mission was accomplished.

"You are now standing before the painter's last remaining piece. It is one of a kind. For me, a memento mori. He was a great artist, but a greater fool. At his height, he was the most famous painter in Florence, perhaps in all the world. If I told you his name now, you would not recognize it."

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3
NEXT: Chapter 5

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