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"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 2

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]

Chapter 2

Rome
September 1477

"You wish to kill the Medici brothers?" asked the pope.

Girolamo Riaro hesitated. Is he angry? Have I said too much? He knelt before the holy throne in the Chamber of the Papagallo, the papal audience-chamber, addressing his secret father, Pope Sixtus IV. Girolamo knew he was the pope's bastard, but lived his life as a papal nephew, in deference to his father's position as Vicar of Christ. The pope had always supported his "nephews," elevating two of them to the cardinalate and making Girolamo the Count of Imola. But will he help me take revenge on the Medici brothers?

He lowered his gaze and said to his father, "You have come to the heart of it."

Pope Sixtus did not seem pleased. "If it is murder we are talking about, then you should have said so. My time is important to me, as you can imagine."

The pontiff was preoccupied, Girolamo knew, with the construction of the Sistine Chapel, the expansion of the Vatican Library, and the beautification of Rome. The city had fallen into disrepair since the days of the great emperors, a thousand years before. The aqueducts were desiccated. The Colosseum was a broken shell. Sheep and cattle grazed in the Forum. The stoney annals of antiquity were crumbled, scattered, buried by the hands of time and neglect. Rome had become a reliquary for lost dreams, a haunted city of ivy-strangled ruins, where gypsies slept in imperial gardens and thieves took refuge in the catacombs. But day by day, edict by edict, Pope Sixtus was building a glorious future from the skeletons of the past. Water had begun to flow again through sections of the Roman aqueduct. Streets were widened and vagrants cast out. The Colosseum was now a quarry where marble was harvested and burned for lime, to build new houses along the Via Papalis. At last, the Eternal City was rising from the grave.

In times of change, thought Girolamo, anything is possible.

Even justice.

He glanced at his two companions who knelt beside him in the Vatican chamber. Francesco Salviati, the Archbishop of Pisa, betrayed no emotions. Salviati was a cautious man with a cold heart. He would not speak his mind unless it was to his advantage, and it was to his advantage to say nothing now.

The second man was Count Giovanni Battista da Montesecco, condottiere of the papal guard and a skilled butcher of men. It was said that those who met Montesecco in the night met God in the morning. Though dangerous in the streets, he was ill-suited to the wars of intrigue waged within the Vatican walls. His tongue was not as clever as his sword. He kept it sheathed.

"Most Holy Father," said Girolamo, "we cannot leave Florence to the Medici. They defy us at every turn."

"Us?" asked the pope. "Or you?"

Girolamo smiled over clenched teeth. It was clear that Sixtus, against all reason, still felt some fondness for Lorenzo de' Medici. True, Lorenzo had helped to finance the pope's election, and was a staunch supporter of the pontiff in the early years. But the alliance had faltered over Lorenzo's criminal mismanagement of the alum mines at Tolfa. Wool workers needed alum for dyeing, to fix their colors into cloth. The mines should have been a cornucopia of papal revenue. Lorenzo, however, was less inclined to business than embezzlement.

Hoping for a higher return, Sixtus had transferred the alum monopoly to the Pazzi family last year, and Lorenzo was now taking his revenge against the pope in a series of betrayals. The worst of these was his refusal to loan Sixtus the 40,000 ducats needed to buy the town of Imola from the Duke of Milan, and his subsequent attempts to secure Imola for himself as a gateway to the Adriatic.

Imola was the linchpin of Girolamo's destiny, securing his title and his marriage. Lorenzo's snub was a direct attack on Girolamo's honor and the honor of the Church.

There could be only one response.

Vendetta.

The Medici offenses were too numerous to name, so Girolamo answered simply, "Lorenzo refuses to let our dear friend Salviati occupy the archdiocese of Pisa, and he denied you the loan for Imola."

Sixtus waved that aside with a withered hand. "The Medici can keep their money. We have the Pazzi bank now. You have Imola, and you have your wife. You should be happy, Girolamo."

But he was not happy. If anything, his marriage was driving him deeper into misery. His wife Caterina Sforza was in many ways a child. She was scarcely fifteen years old—eighteen years his junior—and difficult to please. If not for her, Girolamo might be content to live out his days as the Count of Imola. But Imola was a small provincial town. Caterina's family ruled Milan, and she had eyes for bigger things.

I will give her Florence, he thought.

The Medici family had ruled Florence for decades, but times were changing. The old patriarchs lay rotting in their graves. And Caterina's father—a powerful Medici ally—had been stabbed to death last Christmas in the church of Saint Stephen. The young Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano were now vulnerable. With a single bold stroke, Girolamo could destroy the Medici family forever.

"Lorenzo supports our enemies and attacks our friends," said Girolamo, his voice rising in frustration. "He sacks Volterra, killing priests and raping nuns. He helps Vitelli take Castello. He helps Fortebraccio take Perugia. One by one, the Papal States are stolen out from under you, and Lorenzo is behind it all, laughing in his cups. He mocks at God when he should be crawling to Canossa. Can you not see that he is at war with the Church?"

Sixtus made a steeple of his hands and tapped his fingers against his lips. "I see that his ambitions conflict with yours."

"And there is this," said Girolamo, withdrawing a letter from his doublet. "A dispatch from Lorenzo to Baccio Ugolini."

"Stolen?"

"Intercepted."

"Read it to me," said the pope.

Girolamo's secretary had broken the secret code and rendered the words back into Italian. Girolamo read from the fair copy, skimming over the trivial matters and pausing with emphasis to read Lorenzo's damning confession: "'I think the power should be divided. If it could be done without scandal, I would prefer three or four popes to one pope.'"

He glanced up, and saw the pontiff scowling.

Lorenzo's sentiments were heretical in the extreme. The Great Schism—with multiple popes fighting for supremacy in Rome, Avignon, and Pisa—had festered like a battle wound in the body of the Church. Even now, six decades after the reunification of the papacy, the scar was tender to the touch. The pope could not afford to ignore signs of further infection.

"He is a schismatic, Your Holiness," said Salviati, playing it safe by stating the obvious.

Sixtus nodded. "If the letter is genuine."

"It is," said Girolamo. "I assure you."

"The crimes of Lorenzo de' Medici are well known," said the pope, shifting in his chair. "But it would be contrary to our holy office to condone the killing of anyone."

Girolamo made a fist behind his back. "We cannot let Lorenzo run wild through the Romagna like a wolf in the stable."

"Yes, yes. He is a wicked soul. A heathenish villain. But I have no desire for his death. Only the death of his government."

There it is, thought Girolamo. He is giving me an opening.

"Then you agree with our cause, Holy Father?" asked Salviati.

The pope glared at the archbishop. "I agree with what I have said."

Girolamo spoke up. "Of course, we will do everything possible to avoid bloodshed. But if, by some chance, someone should die, would Your Holiness pardon the offender?"

"You are an idiot, Girolamo. I said I did not want anyone to die, only the government to change." Sixtus turned to the condottiere. "And I tell you, Gian Battista, that the people of Florence must be liberated from that scoundrel. I will furnish you with whatever troops you require. Do you understand?"

Montesecco nodded.

"Then tell me again what I have said."

"You will place your armies under my command," said Montesecco.

"Yes."

"To overthrow the Republic of Florence."

"Yes."

"Without bloodshed."

Pope Sixtus put his right hand on Montesecco's head. "You understand me perfectly."

#

When Girolamo Riario returned to the Vatican office of Francesco Pazzi, he found the banker working alone in his ledger, scratching his quill across the rough pages. Behind Francesco hung a portrait of his uncle, Jacopo Pazzi, the richest man in Florence. The office was filled with notebooks and the scent of money. Sunlight fell from a high window, reflecting off a stack of gold florins on the desk. Gold light speckled the walls as if God were multiplying the coins and casting them in all directions.

Francesco, too, was a great multiplier of coins. Since his appointment as the banker to the pope, he had risen in wealth and political influence. But the more money Francesco made, the more he seemed to worry. He was a nervous little man who feared for his soul, and with good reason: usury was a mortal sin. Dante had consigned bankers to the seventh circle of Hell, along with blasphemers and sodomites. Francesco Pazzi needed absolution for the sins of his profession, and he was desperate to remain in the pope's good graces.

This made him a willing pawn in Girolamo's game.

Girolamo stepped inside the room and rapped his knuckles on the desktop to get the banker's attention. "Where is Vlad?"

Francesco glanced up from his ledger. "He received a summons."

"From who?"

"Cardinal Borgia."

"Borgia! That Catalan bastard? And you let him go?"

Francesco shrugged. "Vlad goes his own way. I could not stop him if I wanted to."

Girolamo settled into the guest chair. "This could be bad for us, Francesco."

"Relax. Borgia is no friend of the Medici."

"Borgia is a friend to snakes and rats."

Francesco closed the ledger. "What happened in your meeting? The pope, did he agree with our plans?"

Girolamo laced his fingers behind his head and kicked his feet up on Francesco's desk. The desktop shuddered, toppling the stack of gold coins. "The Medici brothers have an appointment with God."

PREVIOUS: Chapter 1
NEXT: Chapter 3

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