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

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

Chapter 1

May 23, 1498

Everyone came to see the burning of the heretics.

Niccolò Machiavelli stood on the tower of the Palazzo della Signoria, looking down from the battlement to study the crowd below. Travelers debouched from taverns. Residents flocked to the streets. Spectators gathered on rooftops, in open windows, any place with a view to the public square. Many had slept overnight in the piazza, awaiting the execution of Brother Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar and fanatical preacher who denounced the pope as a devil. It was rumored that the pope himself had ordered the preacher to be killed.

The executioner prepared the stage for the auto-da-fé, the act of faith in which the heretics would burn. The scaffold stood in the center of the piazza. It was a circular platform with a raised walkway extending back to the palace steps. A heap of wood and kindling, old brooms and broken tables, waited for a spark beneath a stake that rose thirty feet into the air. A short crossbeam was nailed to the top of the stake, with three nooses dangling from the gibbet. The executioner poured gunpowder over the pyre, then tossed the empty firkin onto the heap. He climbed the ladder, tugged the ropes to test the knots, and returned to his ceremonial position on the stage.

People jostled and jeered. Soldiers held back the mob. A fight erupted near the statue of the lion, but was quickly resolved by a bravo's dagger. The killer lifted the fresh corpse of a young ruffian into the air and passed the body back over the crowd. A multitude of outstretched arms conveyed the dead man back and back and back, until he disappeared behind the Loggia della Signoria.

Taking advantage of the diversion, a small boy broke through the sentry line and climbed onto the scaffold, laughing and waving to the crowd before he was dragged away.

We could use more rope, thought Niccolò.

He saw a dozen armored guards standing in formation near the steps of the palace. Their helms were spiked with wooden horns jutting up from sparrow-beaked armets. The Devil's Mask. A poor choice of armor for killing a prophet of God, he thought.

Niccolò had witnessed more than a hundred executions in the last twenty years, but this one was different. He himself had played a role in condemning Savonarola. The preacher had blocked Niccolò's election to the Second Chancery of Florence, and Niccolò was not a man to forget his enemies.

"He incites the people against the Supreme Pontiff," Niccolò had written to the Vatican,"and says of the pope what could only be said of the wickedest person imaginable."

Quill and ink were weapons in the hands of Niccolò Machiavelli. Today would be a testament to the power of his words.

The officials emerged from the palace. The bailiff led the convicted friars—Savonarola, Silvestro, and Domenico—out onto the platform. Their hands were tied behind their backs. Silvestro and Domenico flinched from the sun, but Savonarola stood proud, calm, at peace with his fate.

The spectators hushed, listening for his words, but the prophet waited in silence for the first tribunal.

The degradation ceremony began. The bailiff dressed the prisoners in their clerical vestments and brought them before Bishop Paganotti, who had once been Savonarola's student in the convent of San Marco. The bishop mumbled the appropriate prayers as he stripped the prisoners of their vestments, piece by piece, until they stood barefoot in their woolen underclothes.

"I separate you from the Church Militant and Triumphant," said the bishop.

Savonarola corrected him: "From the Church Militant, yes. But not from the Church Triumphant. That power lies with God."

Bishop Romolino conducted the second tribunal. He represented Alexander VI, the Borgia pope who had placed Florence under an interdict for the sins of Savonarola. The interdict denied Florence the sacraments of baptism, marriage, communion, and the rites of Christian burial. To save themselves from eternal damnation, the people were prepared to sacrifice their leader.

The friars knelt before the Vatican emissary. Romolino waited for silence, aware of the gravity of his charge, and pronounced the prisoners heretics and schismatics.

The third and last tribunal was presided over by Florentine officials, the Council of Eight. As secular authorities, it was their responsibility to administer earthly justice to the enemies of the Church.

Piero Parenti read the verdict. "You have been found guilty of abominable crimes against the citizens of Florence. You have fostered civil strife, defied the orders of the Supreme Pontiff, and imperiled the very souls of our people. You are therefore condemned to hang by your necks and burn until your souls have departed from your bodies."

Silvestro was the first to die. He walked to the scaffold accompanied by two brothers of mercy in black robes and hoods. They were members of the Misericordia, a comforter and a confessor. The comforter held an image of the risen Christ for Silvestro to gaze upon, to calm his heart as he approached the ladder. The confessor listened for penitent words that did not come. The hangman led Silvestro up to the top of the gibbet and placed a noose around the friar's neck, together with an iron chain to support the body after the rope burned away.

The condemned man cried out, "In manus tuas Domine commendo spiritum meum."

The hangman pushed him off the ladder. Cheers erupted from the crowd as Silvestro swung back and forth. A few people covered their faces, weeping into their hands. Despite the din, Niccolò thought he heard the dying man sputter, "Iesu! Iesu! Iesu!" And then Silvestro spoke no more.

Domenico was next. He sang Te Deum as he climbed the ladder, but was unable to finish the hymn before the rope robbed him of his words.

Savonarola came last.

"Save yourself!" shouted the crowd. "Show us a miracle!"

The heretic had often preached that God helped the poor, the weak, the true believers. But Niccolò had seen no evidence of this. If history had taught him anything, it was that God helps those who win. Savonarola had lost. He was a man of faith in a faithless world. And for this he would burn.

When Savonarola reached the top of the ladder, he looked out over the assembly, the multitude of Florence, as if he were about to give a benediction. But then he froze, staring with wide eyes at the roof of the Loggia della Signoria.

"Look!" shouted Savonarola, in a voice that rang with prophecy. "The Devil is among you."

Niccolò looked over to the loggia, across the crowded southwest corner of the square. Standing on the roof, surrounded by citizens, was a tall man in a black robe. A black hood, like the cowl of a monk, concealed his face in shadow. The people standing near the man shied away, crossing themselves in fear, forming a circle of empty space around the dark figure.

Savonarola's disciples pointed up to the loggia rooftop, shouting, "The Devil! The Devil! The Devil is among us!"

The man in the black robe did not move or speak. He showed no concern. He was a pillar of darkness beneath the sun.

Finally, the hangman lost his patience. He slipped the noose around Savonarola's neck and kicked him from the ladder.

The crowd turned back to their dying prophet, remembering why they came, and shouted, "Burn him! Burn him!"

The hangman climbed down the ladder and cast a flickering torch onto the pyre, which burst into flame with a bellowing roar that stoked the cheers of the crowd. People tossed cards, dice, and cosmetics into the blaze, mimicking Savonarola's bonfires of the vanities.

Fire consumed the corpses. Bare feet blistered and cracked. Clothes ignited. Eyes melted. Flesh bubbled, boiled, and sloughed away, flensed by the flames. Smoke rose from the bodies in three twirling spires, filling the air with nidor, the scent of cooked meat.

A band of young boys, some as young as five and six, approached the scaffold with bags of throwing stones. The soldiers stepped back to give them room. Niccolò recognized the boys, dressed in short white robes, as Savonarola's righteous army of children. Gone were the olive branches and little red crosses they had once paraded through the city on festival days. These juvenile brigands had terrorized Florence in the name of morality—plundering homes to confiscate vanities and rending fancy dresses from women in the streets. Now the children turned against their master. With tears on their cheeks and vengeance in their eyes, they threw stones at the trinity of corpses, pulping flesh and breaking bones. One by one, arms and legs dropped into the flames until only the heads and torsos remained hanging.

Niccolò saw a charred piece of flesh, a hand or a foot, tumble off the platform and onto the ground. He wasn't the only one who noticed. A dog broke free of the crowd, ran through the line of soldiers, and seized the meat in his jaws. Guards chased the dog, but the mongrel thief escaped into the palace, followed by cursing men in clanking armor.

And with that, the show was over. Long shadows stretched across the piazza, urging people back to their homes. A few mercenaries stayed behind to guard the scaffold, preventing Savonarola's disciples from stealing the bones for relics.

Niccolò watched until the crowds were gone. As he turned to leave, he saw a lone figure on the roof of the loggia: the man Savonarola had called the Devil. The man stood like a statue draped in shadowcloth, staring at Niccolò across the empty square, and for a moment Niccolò doubted it was a living person. But then the wind caught the hood, sweeping it back to reveal the man's face. Long dark hair. Gaunt cheeks. His skin was pale, bloodless, white as milk.

Frozen on the tower, Niccolò felt a surge of fear.

He had seen that face before.

Twenty years ago.

He had been a young boy then, eight years old and innocent of the world. It was a day Niccolò had tried to forget. A day Florence would always remember. A day burned into history by the Pazzi family, a stranger from the East, and a murder in the cathedral.

Sunday, April 26, 1478.

The day Niccolò Machiavelli lost his faith in God.

NEXT: Chapter 2

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