Saturday

"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 5

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

Touring the stables, Montesecco revised his estimate of Lorenzo's guard. In addition to the draft animals, he counted eleven palfrys, mostly Spanish jennets from Andalusia, and twenty-three chargers, war horses strong enough to carry a fully-armored knight into battle. Two empty stalls showed signs of recent use. If the absent horses were chargers as well, that would bring the count to a full squadron of twenty-five lances. Each lance consisted of a man-at-arms plus four or five squires. This represented a field strength of one hundred men or more, who were probably housed nearby. It was a formidable guard for a country villa.

"This is the horse I raced in the Palio," said Lorenzo, stroking the neck of a Barbary stallion. "A barb from the Moors. It took three years of negotiation and the price of a small kingdom, but he was worth it. We beat Gonzaga by a nose."

He kissed his champion, then led Montesecco back outside. Taking the measure of the sky, Lorenzo said, "I thought we might go hunting with the raptor."

"The raptor?"

"Falconry. Have you been?"

"Never."

"In that case, I can promise you an adventure you will not soon forget."

"I do know something of falconets," said Montesecco, referring to the light cannons used to harrow fortresses.

Lorenzo laughed as if he'd never heard that joke before. He then gave instructions to the stablemaster to ready the horses, and walked Montesecco to the aviary.

"When I was a boy," said Lorenzo, "maybe six or seven, I discovered a book in my grandfather's library called De arte venandi cum avibus, 'On the Art of Falconry.' It was written by Frederick the Second, the Holy Roman Emperor. My Latin was not so good in those days, but the manuscript was illuminated. I marveled at the scenes of the hunt, the beauty of those birds. I remember spending hours and hours puzzling over that book, trying to decipher the words beside those pictures. If not for that manual, I might have given up on Latin."

"Frederick was an enemy of the Church," said Montesecco.

"The royal opposition. But someone needs to keep the papacy honest." Lorenzo unhatched the aviary door. "Frederick was also a philospher and a poet. Did you know that the very first sonnet was written in his court?"

"Even the Devil can write a sonnet."

The aviary was a wooden shed about twenty feet long, ten feet wide, and tall enough for Montesecco to stand upright without scraping his head against the roof netting. The raptor's mew stank of wet straw and birdshit. Fresh mutes and castings covered the ground. A wary falcon perched on a tree branch mounted to a wall. The shaded ledge and the aviary bath were unoccupied. Lorenzo took a falconer's glove and whistle down from a peg, pulled the glove over his left hand, hung the whistle around his neck, and chirped it to call the falcon to his fist. The bird jumped the short span and clutched the leather glove, gripping the fourchette in his talons. He studied Montesecco with big black eyes. Montesecco stared him down. The bird blinked first, and looked away.

The raptor was one and a half feet long with a black malar stripe below the eyes. The crown, back, and wings were slate blue, darker at the wingtips. The throat and breast were snowy white, flecked with grey. The legs were fitted with jesses and tiny bells. "A beautiful animal," said Montesecco.

"Falco peregrinus, a favorite of the Caesars. You will not find a better hunter in all of God's creation. This one is a tiercel, a male peregrine. I named him Daedalus."

"Is there an Icarus?"

Lorenzo smiled. "We shall find him in the hunt."

They rode together out from the gate on a pair of Spanish jennets, loping beyond the enceinte and into the countryside, the hunting dog running behind them, followed by three Medici soldiers who rode far enough back to allow for private conversation. They rode past field hands harvesting the orchards and vineyards, past the buzzing of the apiary and the purling of the shallow streams where the air was redolent of lavender and lime. They rode from horse trails to deer trails to fields untouched by heel and hoof. Lorenzo held the raptor with his gloved left hand. The falcon, hooded and leashed at the jesses, endured the ride without bating or complaint. To pass the time, Lorenzo told the story of how he captured the peregrine. Montesecco listened politely, eating fresh chestnuts and studying the lay of the land.

Lorenzo had first spotted the falcon flying above the March of Ancona, due east of Tuscany, while on a business trip to meet with a branch manager of the Medici bank. The bird was a haggard, adult and untamed. Lorenzo watched it fly for half an hour, enraptured by the falcon's supernal grace, and fell in love. In Ancona he bought three live pigeons along with a falconer's glove, hood, leash, lure, creance, and casting net. He was determined not to return to Florence until the falcon was his. After a week camping on the March with five of his men, he spotted the bird again at the dark edge of dusk. He released a tethered pigeon, but the falcon flew off without taking the bait. Lorenzo sent four of his men home, remaining with one companion in the country. Two days later, he and his guard ran out of food and ate two of the pigeons, saving the last for a lure. That night he dreamed the falcon was circling him, protecting him. He awoke at dawn to the screech of the raptor high above. Half dreaming, he let go the last pigeon, but the leash slipped from his hand. The bait flew free. The falcon stooped down and caught the quarry in flight, binding to the prey. He snapped the pigeon's neck in mid-air, then landed not far from the camp. Lorenzo crept up on him with the net and a game bag as the falcon worried the kill with his beak. From six feet away, Lorenzo threw the net, entangling the tiercel, who sprained a wing attempting to escape. Lorenzo seized one talon in his unprotected hand, removed the net, and cloaked the bird inside the bag.

"I still have scars on my hand from where Daedalus drew blood."

Lorenzo and Montesecco halted at the top of a rise with a good view of the open field around them. The dog rested on his haunches, panting a steady rhythm. The guards stayed back and whispered among themselves. Lorenzo inspected the panorama.

"There's pheasant in the field. One nide, at least."

"Where?" asked Montesecco.

"There, in the tall grass. Maybe two hundred yards."

"I don't see them."

"You will."

Lorenzo whispered to his falcon, stroking the feathers, then gripped the leather braces and removed the hood. The bird roused in anticipation. Lorenzo unhooked the tether and cast off the raptor into the wild. Daedalus climbed fast with short, powerful strokes. He ringed higher and higher until Montesecco could hardly see him against the brightness of the sky.

"He's at the pitch," said Lorenzo.

"Can he see the pheasant from that high up?"

"He has excellent eyesight."

The falcon wheeled against a wisp of cloud, riding the anabatic thermals of a mild libeccio. Montesecco tried not to blink for fear of losing him in the vault.

"He's waiting on," said Lorenzo. "Now we flush the game. He'll strike at the slowest one, the last one out. Watch." He turned to the cane corso, snapped his fingers, and pointed to the tall grass. "Go, boy!"

The dog leaped into the ley, bounding and barking and raising a ruckus. Butterflies and dragonflies skittered from his path. The nide flashed out from the grass, a dozen pheasant panicking into flight.

It happened fast. Montesecco nearly missed it. Deadalus stooped in a vertical dive, falling like a meteor, like a shaft from Apollo's bow, faster than anything the soldier had ever seen. Montesecco felt his pulse quicken. He saw the laggard in the flock, the pheasant too young or too weak to keep up. The plummeting bird of prey closed on the target. In the instant before impact, the quarry sensed its peril and turned in the air, desperate to escape. Too late. The falcon made a quick adjustment, matching the maneuver with no loss of speed, and brought his talons to the fore. The two birds, predator and prey, collided. Montesecco's heart skipped a beat. The quarry fell from the sky, tumbling in the air, end over end, and landed with a thump on the grassy field.

"Icarus," said Lorenzo.

Daedalus, immune to the impact, described a downward spiral as Lorenzo spurred his horse to the game. Montesecco followed. By the time the soldier reached the scene, Lorenzo was off his mount, petting and praising the cane corso, who barked with excitement but held back from the kill.

"Good boy, good boy." He rubbed the dog's ears.

Daedalus lighted on the ground and covered the ravin with outstretched wings, mantling his prize. Lorenzo let the raptor have a taste before he retrieved the pheasant with his gloved hand. He dropped it into the game bag strung from his saddle, then mounted the jennet and chirped his whistle. Daedalus answered the call, returning to the falconer's fist. Lorenzo stroked the raptor.

"It's a good day. We don't always catch one. Not in this light. The hunting is better at dawn or dusk."

"I've never seen anything like it," said Montesecco, his heart still thrilling in his chest.

"One more?"

"Absolutely."

They rode downcountry a mile or more, to an intermontane heath abundant with broom and heather. Clouds gathered and loured, casting shadows as Daedalus waited on, impatient for another strike. The dog tried to flush quarry from a copse of young beech trees, but found nothing there. Lorenzo directed him back across the field. The heath would not give up its secrets. An umbra of death seemed to hang in the air, warning other birds away. The dog exhausted himself chasing phantoms.

Lorenzo was about the call off the falcon when Daedalus dove, closing on a swift. The quarry jinked to the left, darting from the downward path. Daedalus mistimed the adjustment and delivered a glancing blow. Not enough for a kill. The swift spun from the impact, dazed, then recovered his wings and flew away.

On the ride back to Cafaggiolo, Lorenzo said, "I could use more men like you, Gian Battista."

"Thank you for the compliment."

"I meant it as a job offer."

Montesecco hesitated. What is he up to?

"I serve the Supreme Pontiff," he answered.

"Your military record is excellent. Your men follow you with confidence. Your enemies avoid you with trepidation. One thing puzzles me, though. You remain loyal to the pope in defiance of better offers."

"Better offers?"

"Montefeltro and Gonzaga."

"I'm impressed," said Montesecco. "Your spies have served you well."

"Because I pay them well. A true mercenary would play the open market. You have not. Is it loyalty or something else?"

"I have my reasons."

"I'm prepared to top all other offers."

Montesecco shook his head.

"There is one more thing," said Lorenzo, "which you must keep in confidence." He glanced back at the trailing guards, and lowered his voice. "I'm displeased with some of my Tuscan lords. I plan to make changes, move some men out and others in. This is a delicate matter. I need men of talent and ambition. I believe you are such a man. Am I wrong?"

They rode together in silence. Lorenzo let the question hang between them. Montesecco did not rush to answer. The dog ranged ahead, seeking adventure.

"It has always been my dream," said Montesecco, "to fight for God in foreign lands."

"The crusades are over."

"The pope is raising money for a new army, to vanquish the Turk and recover Constantinople."

"Ah, yes. That again. Popes are always raising money and promising crusades. But when the crusades do not materialize, where does the money go? To the papal nephews. Or is it the bastard sons? One can never be sure."

"I was born to be a soldier," said Montesecco.

The peregrine bated in Lorenzo's hand, flapping his wings in an attempt to fly. Lorenzo calmed the bird, then said to Montesecco, "It's getting dark. You must be hungry."

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4
NEXT: Chapter 6

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