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
Jacopo Pazzi limped into the Inn of the Bell dressed in filthy sackcloth, his feet unshod, bound with bloody rags, his face shrouded by a weathered hood. His tatterdemalion garments stank of piss and vomit and years without lye. The old man kept his head bowed, eyes down. His cane tapped a faltering rhythm on the floorboards as he hobbled inside, letting the door swing shut behind him. A kennel of bravos dismissed the codger at a glance and returned to their drinks.
So far, so good, thought Jacopo.
Messer Jacopo Pazzi—the retired Gonfalonier of Justice, knighted by René of Anjou and by the Lord Priors of Florence—was the richest man in the city. He would soon be its undisputed ruler, but these Florentine louts did not even recognize him. Anonymity gave him a secret thrill. This, too, was a kind of power.
The innkeeper wiped a spill from an empty table at the back. Jacopo shambled over to him and cleared his throat with a hacking cough. The innkeeper did not look up.
"I'll be right with you."
"I'm looking for a soldier," said Jacopo.
The innkeeper assessed his new patron. "They're expensive."
"He's an old friend. His name is Gian Battista, Count of Montesecco. I'm told he took a room upstairs."
"Maybe so," said the innkeeper.
"Show me to him."
"He's not here."
"Can you check his room?"
"He hasn't been here all day."
"He's expecting me."
The innkeeper snapped his rag against the wall, killing a fly. Jacopo caught the stench from the man's sweaty armpits.
"Wait here." The innkeeper went upstairs.
Jacopo sat down at the table, on a hard wooden bench. At his home in the Pazzi Palace he had dozens of chairs, upholstered in soft velvet, but he could expect no such luxury among the plebes.
The innkeeper returned with bad news. "No one one slept in the bed last night. Your friend must have left early."
"I'll wait for him here."
"Very well," said Jacopo. "Lacryma christi, please."
"This is Florence."
"Chianti, then. Straight, no water."
Jacopo slipped a hand inside his tatters and fished a silver lire from his codpiece. He slapped the coin on the table with a defiance that nearly betrayed him.
The innkeeper picked up the coin. "You want your change now?"
At twelve denari to the soldo, twenty soldi to the lire, Jacopo had grossly overpaid.
"Start a tab. I may be here awhile."
Jacopo Pazzi sat in the shadowy back, sipping weak wine and debating his options when Montesecco entered the tavern. Though Jacopo had never met the papal condottiere, he identified the man by the glint of Roman armor beneath his giornea, by the silver cross dangling from a necklace, and by the battle scar coursing down his left cheek. He was tall and imposing, a mountain in military dress. Here at last was the captain sent by the Holy Father to rid Florence of her vermin.
The soldier was not alone. Three men followed him in: Lorenzo de' Medici and two Medici bravos.
Dear God, thought Jacopo. What now?
Lorenzo was a miscreant. A thief, a liar, and a braying ass. Tyrant of the treasury. Betrayer of the trust. He used the Monte, the Florentine public debt, as a tool for his own policies. Like all wealthy citizens, Jacopo had purchased his compulsory shares. He considered it his patriotic duty to invest in the nominal republic. In the days of Cosimo, he had earned a steady income from the interest. Now the old shares were devalued, the interest rates reduced. Payments were delayed or only payed in part. Special shares, at a much higher rate, were offered only to friends of the Medici. Lorenzo was a master at finagling the fisc.
Even worse, he had the Signoria in his greasy pockets. Lorenzo controlled who was eligible for public office by selecting the selectors, fixing the purses, ensuring that his enemies were never listed on the billets from which names were drawn by lot. His hand-picked Lord Priors, vanguards of venality, then sabotaged the secret ballots by exposing their beans—black for yes, white for no. The Signoria always knew the Medici vote and would either fall in line or face reprisals. If you wanted lower tax levies, if you wanted your sons and daughters to marry well, if you wanted the courts to find in your favor, you must first be a friend of the Medici. By influence and affluence, Lorenzo made a jest of justice.
The latest outrage was still fresh in Jacopo's mind. With great difficulty and greater diplomacy, Jacopo had arranged the marriage of one of his nephews, Giovanni Pazzi, to Beatrice Borromei, the daughter of a very rich man who had no sons. When the rich man died, the inheritance should have passed to Beatrice and, by marriage, to her Pazzi husband. But the dead man's nephew, Carlo, seized his uncle's wealth against all rules of propriety and law. Jacopo brought this case before the court, which agreed that the existing law favored the Pazzi family. The Signoria then passed a new law giving the wealth to Carlo instead.
This was the work of the Medici.
Lorenzo was still piqued at the loss of the Vatican account. That was understandable. But his petulant malice could not remain unchecked. At every opportunity, Lorenzo conspired to turn the love of the people, and the law of the land, against the Pazzi. He would soon regret his malevolence. Lorenzo would learn, to his great misfortune, that Jacopo Pazzi was an adversary who could not be crossed without consequences, a powerful man with powerful friends—Pope Sixtus in Rome, King Ferrante in Naples, and Count Girolamo in Imola.
Even now, the wheels were in motion.
The new arrivals at the Inn of the Bell claimed benches near the door. Montesecco laughed with Lorenzo over some private joke. Lorenzo beckoned the innkeeper and whispered in the man's ear. The innkeeper gave a conspiratorial nod, then disappeared into the cellar.
With a flourish, Lorenzo turned to the tavern inebriates. "Friends! Beloved Florentines! I have a very special treat for you all. My alchemists have labored many long nights distilling wisdom into wineglasses, evoking spirits from the Empyrean, ambrosia from alembics. I give you the nectar of the gods, ichor incarnate. A gift of the Medici!"
Drunkards sent up a cheer and banged their cups on the tabletops. The innkeeper returned with a carafe of ardent spirits. He doused the room one patron at a time, liquoring the dregs of Florence. Replenishing Jacopo's cup, he said, "From Lorenzo."
Jacopo sniffed the alcohol and recognized it at once.
Lorenzo is a fool, he thought, throwing riches at the rabble.
When the innkeeper turned away, Jacopo spit into the cup, muttered a curse, and poured the libation on the floor.
Jacopo watched Lorenzo and Montesecco trade ribaldries for an hour before he could watch no longer. The hard bench and rough sackcloth were beginning to chafe. He called the innkeeper to his table and pointed to the condottiere. "That's the man I'm waiting for."
"Should I tell him you're here?"
"Which room is his?"
"Ask him yourself."
Jacopo retreived another coin from his codpiece and pressed the florin into the innkeeper's palm.
The innkeeper bit the gold coin. "Upstairs to the left, third door down."
"Send him to his room. Tell him he has a visitor. Tell him to come alone."
The innkeeper tucked away the coin and delivered the message to Montesecco. The soldier nodded to the innkeeper and excused himself from the group. Lorenzo stood and bade his farewells. It was late, well past curfew, time for them to go. Montesecco walked the miscreant to the door. They embraced like confreres before Lorenzo departed with his bravos. The soldier walked past Jacopo on his way to the stairs, but gave no notice of the figure in the shadows.
Jacopo listened to the heavy footsteps rising in the stairwell. He waited for the report of creaking floorboards on the next level up, then followed as quietly as he could. He paused near the top of the steps, listened to the sound of a bedroom door opening and closing, and climbed into the hallway.
To his right, at the far end of the hall, an oil lamp flickered. To his left, a second lamp guttered and perished, obscuring the doors in that direction.
Jacopo waited for his eyes to adjust. The darkness smelled of wet wood. He heard no sounds except for his own heartbeat and the muffled merriment below. No light spilled from beneath the doors. Montesecco had not lit a candle in his room. Perhaps he had simply passed out on the bed.
Third door down, he reminded himself as he crept through the occulted passage, feeling his way from the first door to the second. When he reached the third, he pressed his ear to it, straining to hear some movement inside, but heard nothing.
A hand clamped over Jacopo's mouth and jerked his head back. A second hand pressed a cold stiletto to his neck. Jacopo fell back against the chest of a much larger man.
"Who are you?" Deep, commanding—the voice of a soldier. Montesecco had not left the hall. The sound of the door had been a ruse.
Jacopo mumbled into the hand.
The soldier parted his fingers to let the man speak.
"Take a look," said Jacopo.
Montesecco kicked open the door and dragged Jacopo into the bedroom. They came to a stop under a small window. Moonlight filtered through two panes of oiled paper. With the tip of the stiletto, Montesecco pulled back Jacopo's hood. It took a moment for the soldier to fathom the face.
"Messer Pazzi," he said, astonished, and released his prisoner at once.
Jacopo sat down on the bed and wiped the spittle from his lips. "Idiot."
Montesecco dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "I did not know it was you."
"Let's hope Lorenzo is half the fool you are."
"He did not seem a fool to me," said Montesecco.
No comfort there. Jacopo checked his neck for signs of blood. He was not wounded. How had Montesecco recognized his face? The two men had never met before. This gave him a moment's pause, but then he recalled the portrait his nephew Francesco kept in the Vatican office. Montesecco must have studied it closely before leaving Rome. Considering the edge on his blade, that portrait was one of my better investments.
"Stand up," he said. "Tell me what you learned."
Montesecco recounted his reconnaissance, giving an estimate of Lorenzo's guard and a measure of the man himself. He told of the tour, the hunt, the dinner, and the return ride to Florence. Jacopo listened with mounting apprehension. Lorenzo had played the soldier like a fife. If this is the pope's best man, we're all in trouble. Jacopo rubbed his eyelids. "Did the Holy Father authorize you to move against Lorenzo?"
"He told you this himself?"
"Yes." Montesecco reached into his doublet and drew out two letters of credence, one from Count Girolamo and the other from Archbishop Salviati. Jacopo read the letters by moonlight. They were vaguely worded commendations, forceful but not incriminating.
"Did Lorenzo see these letters?"
"Of course not."
"You changed clothes at the villa."
"The papers were in my posession at all times." An edge of doubt tainted his voice.
Jacopo returned the missives. "Lorenzo and Giuliano will have to be killed together."
"How do you plan to work this miracle?"
"I have two captains who are prepared to lend their services."
"Giovan Francesco da Tolentino and Lorenzo Giustini da Castello."
Jacopo nodded. He knew these men by reputation. Tolentino was Count Girolamo's top captain, a seasoned veteran of field and foe. The other man, Captain Giustini, was a sworn enemy of Lorenzo. He had not forgiven the oligarch for backing Niccolò Vitelli's rebels in the bloody seige of Città di Castello.
"How much do these captains know?" asked Jacopo.
"Not much. There is not yet much to tell."
"Tell them nothing. Have them stand ready, but give them their orders at the last possible moment."
"A wise precaution."
"Who will deliver the coups de grâce?"
"Myself and the Prince of Wallachia."
Interesting choice. Jacopo had not met Prince Dracula. Francesco Pazzi, Jacopo's nephew, spoke highly of the outlander, but Francesco was far too credulous.
"Why involve the prince?" asked Jacopo.
"His prowess is legendary."
"Legends are unreliable."
"I vied with the man myself, with blunted swords. I would not be alive today if the swords were keen."
"I do not doubt his prowess, but his allegiance. He's not an Italian, let alone a Florentine."
"I'm not a Florentine."
"This must be a Florentine rebellion, a popular uprising against Lorenzo's vile corruption. The people hate Lorenzo, as I hate the man myself, but they will not rally around a pair of foreigners—a Wallachian prince and a count from Montesecco."
"Lorenzo seems quite popular."
"Do not be fooled by that stunt downstairs. I know these people better than you do. These are my people. Lorenzo may give them bread and circuses, but what they crave is liberty."
"Most men would sell their souls for a flask of aqua vitae." Montesecco chuckled, then caught Jacopo's glare and suppressed his mirth. "I'm a soldier, not a politician."
"I am both. You would do well to heed my advice." Jacopo paced the small room. "This is how it will go. We will find some pretext to bring the Medici brothers together—"
"The pope has invited Lorenzo to Rome for Easter. If we could get Giuliano to attend as well—"
"Unlikely. I cannot see them walking arm-in-arm into the maw of the beast. Can you?"
Jacopo shrugged. "But it's a worth a try. Invite them both. If we can kill the brothers outside of Florence, all the better. In any case, we must find a suitable location, set the trap, and kill the tyrants in tandem."
"Who gets the dagger?"
"I can arrange that," said Jacopo.
"Let Salviati find the men."
Jacopo pondered the idea. It had merit. If the archbishop hired the assassins, the Holy Father would be inextricably bound to the fate of the revolution. It would cement forever the Pazzi alliance with the papacy.
He nodded. "Good. Yes. Now you're thinking. But killing a man is easy. All it takes is a sharp blade and some iron balls. Winning the people requires cunning. Your captains will have their troops waiting outside the city. I will have my partisans inside the gates. When the deed is done, I will ride through Florence, sound the tocsin, and herald the glorious news, drawing the people to the Pazzi banner—"
"Some will fight for Lorenzo."
"For a dead man? Perhaps. But they will be disorganized, confused, caught off-guard. First, we seize the Palazzo della Signoria, then call an emergency vote of the Lord Priors. In the tumult, with my men guarding the Signoria from the mob, I can bend the election to our cause. With the council behind us, pacifying the street will be the work of an afternoon."
"What about the Prince of Wallachia?"
"What about him?"
"He wanted the honor of killing Lorenzo himself."
"Dracula has been a good friend to the Pazzi. You do not want him for an enemy."
Jacopo considered this at length before responding. "He is little known in Tuscany, which could be to our advantage."
"His Italian is poor."
"Security, then. We may need to eliminated some liabilities before we settle our accounts."
"Yes," said Montesecco. "It may come to that."
"We must keep rumors from touching the wrong ears. We must be swift, brutal, merciless."
"That sounds very much like Dracula."
"Would he accept the job?"
"He might enjoy it."
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NEXT: Chapter 8