"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 3

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

The bull, pierced by banderillas, turned and charged with fury into the crowd. People standing in the path of the bull tried to run. Others pressed in from behind, granting no escape. Dipping his horns, the bull gored a fat man and flipped him high into the air. The man landed on his back in the center of the piazza. Blood pooled around his legs. The bull cut a path through the onlookers until the blue-caped toreador leaped onto the back of the beast and thrust a toledo through its brain, dropping the bull in an instant.

Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia cheered from his office balcony above the public square. He scattered a basketful of rose petals into the wind and tossed a heavy coin purse to the victorious bullfighter.

A familiar voice called the cardinal back inside. "Your guest has arrived," said the secretary, Ludovico.

Rodrigo Borgia entered his office and closed the balcony doors behind him, damping the noise of the crowd.

"Two people were killed in the bullfight," he said. "Please see that they don't rot outside my window."

The secretary nodded and backed out of the room.

In a moment, the expected guest arrived, entering the office like the shadow of a storm cloud. He was an enormous man, a full head taller than Rodrigo Borgia, who considered himself a towering figure. The visitor's black robe contrasted with his chalky white skin. His dark eyes surveyed the room, then came to rest on Rodrigo.

Those eyes had never known fear.

Yes, thought Rodrigo. He is everything they say, and more.

"Welcome. I am Cardinal Borgia, Vice Chancellor of the Roman Church."

The man bowed and kissed Rodrigo's ring.

"Your Eminence," he said, not in Italian but in a guttural Latin. He had a thick accent, like the merchants from the East.

Rodrigo abandoned the vernacular, switching to the imperial tongue. "Would you care for a drink, my friend?"

"Are we friends?" the man asked.

"You are Vlad Dracula, I believe. The Prince of Wallachia?"

"You are well informed," said Dracula.

Rodgrigo crossed to the serving table and poured two cups of a strong Tuscan vintage. He rarely served guests from his own hand, but this was no ordinary guest. Rodrigo suspended protocol for a sense of camaraderie. He spoke as if they were old friends reunited after the wars. "I heard you were killed last year. In battle, fighting the Turks near Bucharest."

"I heard that story, too. I choose not to believe it."

The cardinal handed Dracula a cup, and lifted his own in toast. "To a long life."

Dracula finished his wine in a single quaff, then set the cup aside. "Did you call me here for a reason, Your Eminence?"

Rodrigo settled into his richly upholstered chair, leaning back with a sigh. "Are you a religious man?"

"I was born into the Orthodox, the religion of my people. But I converted to Roman Catholic years ago."

"Good. The pope will be pleased. Not that I care, mind you, but it will make things easier."

"What things?"

Rodrigo ignored the question. "I have seen you here before."

"This is my first trip to Rome."

"Are you sure?" asked Rodrigo. "I see you nearly every month. I've seen you in the marketplace, I've seen you on the street, I've seen you in this very room."

"That is not possible—"

Rodrigo raised a hand to silence him. With his other hand, he removed a silver coin from his desk and tossed it in the air.

Dracula caught the coin, glanced at it, and burst out laughing. "You speak the truth," he said, admiring the Wallachian silver. "I have traveled more than I realized."

"The likeness is striking."

"It was struck from my likeness."

"A clever fellow, too," said Rodrigo. "I should have met you years ago."

The smile melted from Dracula's face. He dropped the coin on the cardinal's desk. "Years ago I was a different man."

Dracula no longer wore the thick mustachio depicted on the coin. Rodrigo wondered if the prince had shaved it as a disguise, or to conform with Italian custom. Either way, it was not the bare lip that puzzled him most, but the niveous skin.

"You are a very pale man," he said. "Is that common in Wallachia?"

"A disease of the epidermis, which I contracted last year. Direct sunlight burns me. I won't bore you with the other symptoms, but they are not entirely pleasant."

"Is this why you fled into exile?" asked Rodrigo.

"Did I say I was in exile?"

"If you were still the Prince of Wallachia, you would not ride through Rome surrounded by Pazzis."

Dracula fixed him with a dark stare, saying nothing.

Rodrigo continued, undaunted. "The Pazzi family is weak. You could do much better."

"I am a foreigner," said Dracula, "and the Pazzis have taken me in."

"Yes, it is easy to be taken in by the Pazzis."

"I trust no one."

"Good. You will live longer that way. I am a foreigner myself." He pointed to the Spanish furnishings that decorated his office. A map of Catalonia, landscapes of Valencia and Jativa, and a large tapestry embroidered with a bull passant, the crest of the Borgias. "A Catalan among the Italians. They do not love me here. And they will not love you."

"It is better to be feared than loved."

Dracula turned to the window, looking out to the piazza where bloodstains marked the afternoon's entertainment.

Rodrigo recalled the diplomatic report from Bishop Gabriele Rangoni, received in March of last year. The report had been addressed to Pope Sixtus, but Rodrigo controlled a vast network of spies, and made it his business to monitor all messages to and from the pontiff. The letter from Bishop Rangoni, papal legate to Wallachia, had piqued Rodrigo's interest and fired his imagination. In it, the bishop described Prince Dracula's ruthless war against the Turks. "He tore the limbs off the Turkish prisoners and placed their severed parts on stakes," wrote the bishop. "He killed about 100,000 human beings by means of the stake or by other horrific tortures."

Was it any wonder that the pope now welcomed this defender of the faith?

"We hear many strange tales in Rome," said Rodrigo. "Each more outlandish than the last." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Is it true that you impaled the Turks alive?"

Dracula turned back to face the cardinal, and Rodrigo saw the sudden fierceness in his eyes. "Yes. Thousands of them. Men, women, and children. I skewered them from ass to skull and left them hanging there to die. As a warning to my enemies."

Rodrigo smiled. "Then let us be friends."

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NEXT: Chapter 4

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