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"The Vatican Dagger" (The Alchemy of Blood, Book 1) by David Wisehart — Chapter 6

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 majordomo showed Montesecco to the guest room, which sported a testered bed, a hot bath, and an open window to the north, from which a cool breeze infiltrated the chamber. Montesecco dismissed the man with a word of thanks, closed the door, and shuttered the window. Laundered clothes lay on the bed: a silk camicia, red farsetto, black sleeveless giornea, and matching hose. Taut fabric covered the alder bathtub. Montesecco had not bathed in almost a week. He shucked his clothes, placing his boots in the hallway, and uncovered the tub. Steam rose in billowing vortices. The water, not long from the fire, smelled faintly of lemon or citronella. He stepped in, scrubbed with olive oil soap, and lingered in the calidarium. By the time he stepped out, his boots were cleaned and waiting by the door. He dried himself, dressed in the clothes provided, and entered the hallway, where the majordomo stood ready.

"The master is running late," said the majordomo. "He will join you when he can."

Montesecco followed him to the cenacle. Five men sat on one side of a long table, their backs to the wall. Servants worked the other side, pouring drinks and placing delicacies, fruit and cheese and collops of meat.

When Lorenzo had first mentioned his academy friends, Montesecco imagined a group of university students, but these men seemed quite a bit older. They talked in a rowdy, boisterous Latin. Montesecco's own Latin could not parse the exchange, though he recognized some of the words from the liturgy. The men seemed to be in the middle of a theological debate.

The majordomo announced the new arrival. "Count Giovanni Battista da Montesecco, Captain of the papal army, special envoy from His Holiness the pope."

This caused something of a stir.

One of the older gentlemen, seated in the middle, rose to his feet. His face was ruddy. His golden curls betrayed his years with a touch of silver. He was in his mid-forties, stood five feet short, but made up with enthusiam what he lacked in elevation. "Yes, yes! The nuncio-at-arms! Gian Battista! Welcome, welcome. Come, please, join our holy disorder. My name is Marsilio Ficino, physician and philosopher. I'm the headmaster, footnoter, and midwife of the Plato Academy. I'm also a priest, but don't hold that against me. Here, let me introduce you to my co-conspirators."

Ficino turned to the man on his far right. "That fellow over there is Luigi Pulci, the finest vernacular poet in Italy, with the possible exception of our belated host. Gigi is writing an epic on the legends of Charlemagne."

"It's a work in progress," said Pulci.

Ficino pointed to the next man on his right, seated beside him. "This is Angelo Poliziano, tutor to Lorenzo's children. Also a poet of repute. Especially in Latin."

"I don't speak Latin," said Montesecco.

"That's okay," said Pulci. "His poems are best appreciated when least understood."

"Good to meet you," said Poliziano.

Ficino turned to his left, looking past Lorenzo's empty chair, and introduced the eldest gentleman at the table. "This fine man to my sinister side is Cristoforo Landino—"

"Hello," said Landino.

"—scholar, translator, poet."

"You can't piss around here without drowning a poet," said Pulci.

Ficino pointed to the last man at table. "And that is Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. The artist."

"You may call me Botticelli." The painter, a tawny-headed man in his mid-thirties, begrudged a smile. "I'm just here for the wine and the women."

"I don't see any women," said Montesecco.

"I was misinformed."

The majordomo ushered Montesecco to his seat at the end, next to Botticelli. A servant filled the soldier's cup with chianti. Montesecco tore a chunk of bread from the nearest loaf and dipped it in the olive paste.

Ficino waited for the soldier to finish his first bite before interrupting. "I imagine, Gian Battista, you must speak quite often with the Holy Father."

"When in Rome," said Montesecco.

"What's he like?" asked Landino.

"Busy. Smart. Quick to anger when the Devil tries his patience, but he wears the tiara with honor."

Ficino leaned over the table to secure Montesecco's attention. "I've been writing a letter to the pope. If I knew you were coming tonight, I would have brought it with me. When are you leaving for Rome?"

"I'm returning to Florence in the morning. Back to Rome the day after that."

"Where are you staying in town?"

"The Inn of the Bell."

"Ah. Very good. If I sent the letter there tomorrow, could you take it to His Holiness?"

"I don't see why not."

Pulci grinned, and spoke into his cup. "What is it now, Marsilio? Shall we canonize Plato?"

"Wasn't he a pagan?" asked Montesecco.

Ficino said, "Gigi is having a little joke at my expense."

Montesecco noticed that Ficino and Pulci refused to look at each other, as if skirting a quarrel.

Ficino continued, "The letter isn't about Plato. Not exactly. I've written an argument for the immortality of the soul."

Montesecco tensed. "If this is some sort of heresy—"

"It's not heretical," said Ficino.

"Not yet," said Pulci.

Landino asked the soldier, "Don't you believe in the immortality of the soul?"

Montesecco quoted the Apostles' Creed. "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord—"

"—conceived, born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, descended, rose, ascended, seated at the right hand of Himself, to judge the living and the dead," said Pulci. "The pope must be proud."

Poliziano wiped his mouth with a napkin. "I can assure you, Gian Battista, that Marsilio is no heretic. He is a priest cut from the finest cloth, the heir to Augustine and Aquinas."

Ficino said, "I'm trying to unite Plato's philosphy with Christian theology."

"Why?" asked Montesecco.

"To bring atheists back to God, agnostics back to the Church, and reconcile our Jewish friends to the true Messiah."

Uncomfortable, Montesecco changed the subject. "Too bad Giuliano couldn't be here."

"You just missed him," said Botticelli.

"When did he leave?"

"This morning. Shortly before you arrived."

"Bad timing," said Landino.

Good timing for Giuliano.

Botticelli frowned. "I was counting on him to stay the afternoon. He's been modeling for me."

"A portrait?" asked Montesecco.

The painter shook his head. "Part of a larger picture. Venus and Mercury. An allegory of spring."

"Ah, yes," said Ficino. "The one we discussed."

"I haven't started work on the Graces yet, but Mercury and Venus are nearly done."

Montesecco had never met Giuliano. He'd seen the portrait in the hallway, which showed the boy at three years old. What did the man look like now? I must see this new painting.

"Venus and the Graces," he said. "Sounds interesting."

"A soldier and a connoisseur?" asked Botticelli.

"Lorenzo showed me his collection this afternoon. I greatly admired your painting of the Muses. Brilliant use of color—ultramarine, vermilion. A glorious piece. I would love to see what you're working on now."

"When it's finished," said Botticelli.

Lorenzo laughed as he strode into the dining room wearing a black berretto, a doublet of silk brocade, and crimson hose dyed with kermes and stitched with gold. "Sandro, don't be so coy. You could use a friend in the Vatican. Gian Battista has the ear of the pope."

"And his mother's eyes," said Pulci.

Lorenzo clapped a hand on Botticelli's shoulder. "You should think less like artist and more like a merchant."

"The pope has commissioned dozens of artists," said Montesecco. "The new chapel is nearly complete. He will need the best painter in Italy to adorn its walls."

"The panel's not ready to show," Botticelli protested.

Lorenzo sat down. "I cannot support you forever. If you don't find another patron soon, you'll turn me into a pauper."

Montesecco added, "His Holiness is sparing no expense to beautify Rome."

"Excellent." Lorenzo beamed at Botticelli. "You will show the painting after dinner, Gian Battista will sing your praises on Vatican Hill, and you may finally get a chance to earn back your tithings."

"And if the Vatican coffers run dry," said Montesecco, with a glance to Lorenzo, "the pope can always pay you out of his fund for the crusade."

Lorenzo laughed. "Now where is that pheasant we bagged this afternoon?"

#

The academy surfeited on meat and wine, philosophy and laughter. Ficino, a vegetarian on the advice of Pythagoras, ate only the fruit salad, rejecting the fresh bread and vegetable soup because they were cooked. Lorenzo ate sparingly, and with a fork. Montesecco had seen such cutlery in Rome, while dining with the Venetian ambassador. Still, he preferred to use the forks given to him by God. Armed with two knives and ten digits, the soldier attacked his steak with bloodthirsty abandon but could not defeat the endless reinforcements. He sued for peace and withdrew from the field.

After supper, they ambled to a guest room which Botticelli had commandeered for a studio. It was a corner room with windows to coax the light and clear the air—a pungent melange of tempera and oil paint, vinegar and varnish. Botticelli lit candles and directed the spectators to an open area by the windows. Candlelight bloomed across the walls, lustering the atelier. Montesecco studied his surroundings. Drawings of human faces, female lineaments in charcoal on paper, were pasted to the walls. A workbench displayed bottles and brushes. A row of vases held flowers in various states of decay.

Facing the window and propped up against two crates, the massive wood panel was mostly bare, covered with pale, unpainted gesso. Two human figures stood apart: a young man on the left and a woman in the center. The upper edge was bordered with unfinished fauna, treetops without trunks, as if floating in air. Golden apples hung from the branches. The lower right corner was patched with flowers. The young man in the picture, Guiliano de' Medici, looked up to the top left corner, one arm akimbo, the other raised, pointing skyward with some kind of wand. He wore an odd helmet, winged shoes, and a sword at his side. A red toga half-covered his nakedness. His hair was curly and dark. Of modest stature, he appeared strong, though not overly so. His face was tender, delicate, handsome. If this portrait mirrored nature, Giuliano got the looks in the family. No doubt this made him softer than his ugly brother, less troubled, less wary of the world. An easy man to kill.

"Is this the Garden of Eden?" asked Montesecco, pointing to the apple trees.

"The Garden of the Hesperides," said Botticelli. "These are the golden apples."

Ficino said, "Those who eat the apples become immortal."

"And this is Giuliano?"

"Yes," said Botticelli. "As Mercury, the messenger God. See here? Caduceus, petasos, talaria." He indicated the wand, hat, and shoes.

In the center of the panel stood an ethereal beauty, Venus, lovely as the Virgin, alluring as a princess. Montesecco could not look away. "Who is your model for the goddess?"

"Simonetta Cattaneo," said the painter.

"Simonetta." He liked the taste of it on his tongue. "She is the most beautiful woman in the world."

"She died last year," said Lorenzo.

Botticelli sighed. "I painted her from memory."

"The immortality of the soul," whispered Ficino.

"Simonetta was my brother's beloved," Lorenzo said, "but he could never have her. She was already married. Theirs was a higher love. A Platonic love. She was his Beatrice, his Laura, his Fiammetta. She was everything to him, and now she's gone."

He will join her soon enough.

PREVIOUS: Chapter 5
NEXT: Chapter 7

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