Home > Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(16)

Vittorio, The Vampire (New Tales of the Vampires #2)(16)
Author: Anne Rice

"Silence," said the guards next to me, their commands overlapping one another.

The lovely music rose higher and higher, as though the climbing soprano voices and the throbbing, winding horns would hush me now and pay tribute only to the unholy baptism.

The baptism had begun. The first victim, an ancient woman of bent and bony back, had been stripped of her poor garments and washed with handfuls of water in the fount, and now was led to the Communion Rail, oh, so frail, so unprotected by her kith and kin and her guardian angels!

Oh, and now to see the children stripped, to see their tiny little legs and buttocks bare, to see their bony shoulders, those tiny parts where it seemed the winglets of baby angels once sprouted from their backs, to see them washed and then delivered to stand trembling along the stretch of marble balustrade. It happened very fast.

"Cursed animals, for that is what you are, not airy demons, no!" I muttered, struggling in the grasp of the two loathsome minions. "Yes, cowardly minions, both of you, to be a party to this evil."

The music drowned out my prayers. "Dear God, send my angels to me," I said to my heart, my secret heart, "send my wrathful angels, send them with your fiery sword. God, this cannot be borne."

The Communion Rail now had its full complement of victims, na**d and trembling all, and blazing with carnal human color against the luminous marble and the colorless priests.

The candles flickered on the giant Lucifer, with its great webbed wings, who presided over all.

The Lord Florian now stepped down to take the first Communicant in his hands, and lowered his lips to drink.

The drums beat fierce and sweet, and the voices twined and reached to Heaven. But there was no Heaven here beneath these branching white columns, these groined arches. There was nothing but death.

All the Court had begun to make two streams along the sides of the chapel marching silently up to come behind the Communion Rail, where each might take a victim from those who stood helpless and ready, and now Lord and Lady chose which they wanted, and some shared, and one victim was passed from one to another, and so on it went, this mockery, this lurid, predatory Communion. Only Ursula did not move.

The Communicants were dying. Some were already dead. None struck the floor. Their pliant dried-up limbs were captured silently and deftly by the attendant demons, and bodies were whisked away.

More victims were still being bathed. Others were taken to the Rail. On it went.

The Lord Florian drank again and again, one child after another put before him, his slender fingers capturing the small neck and holding it as he bent his lips. I wonder what Latin words he dared to speak.

Slowly the members of the Court slipped out of the Sanctuary, moving down the side aisles again to pivot and take their old stance. They had had their fill.

All through the room the color of blood infused once pallid faces, and it seemed to my misted vision, to my head so full of the loveliness of song, that they all were human now, human for this little while.

"Yes," said Florian, his voice arching out soft and sure to my ears over the length of the nave. "Human now for this one instant, with the blood of the living, incarnated again, we are, young prince. You have understood it."

"Ah, but Lord," I said, in my exhausted whisper, "I do not forgive it."

An interval of silence fell. Then the tenors declared:

"It is time, and the midnight hour is not finished."

The sure and tight hands in which I was held focused me now to the side. I was spirited out of the choir loft and down the winding screw stairs of white marble.

As I came to myself, still supported, staring up the center aisle, I saw that only the baptistry fount remained. All victims were gone.

But a great cross had been brought into the hall. It had been positioned upside down, to one side of the altar, and forward, at the Communion Rail.

The Lord Florian held up for me to see five huge iron nails in his hand, and beckoned for me to come.

The cross was anchored into place, as though it had often been brought to this spot. It was made of rich hardwood, thick, heavy and polished smooth, though it bore the marks of other nails, and no doubt the stains of other blood.

The very bottom of it fitted right at the Railing itself against the marble banister, so that he who was to be crucified would be three feet above the floor and visible to all the worshippers.

"The worshippers, you filthy lot!" I laughed. Thank God and all his angels that the eyes of my father and mother were filled with celestial light and could see nothing of this crude degradation.

The Elder revealed to me in his outstretched hands two golden goblets.

I knew the meaning. With these, to catch my blood as it gushed from the wounds made by the nails. He bowed his head.

I was forced up the aisle. The statue of Lucifer grew immense behind the glittering pontifical figure of Florian. My feet did not touch the marble. All around me the members of the Court turned to attend my progress, but never so much that their eyes were not upon their Lord.

Before the baptismal fount my face was washed.

I tossed my head, twisting my neck, throwing the water impudently on those who tried to bathe me. The acolytes were in fear of me. They approached and reached hesitantly for my buckles.

"Strip him," said the Lord, and once again he held up the nails for me to see.

"I see well enough, my cowardly Lord," I said. "It is nothing to crucify a boy such as me. Save your soul, Lord, do that! And all your Court will wonder."

The music swelled from the loft above. The chorus came again, answering and underscoring the anthem of the tenors.

There were no words for me now; there was only candlelight and the knowledge that my clothes were about to be taken from me, and that this horror would take place, this evil inverted crucifixion, never sanctified by St. Peter himself, for the inverted cross not now to be a symbol of the Evil One.

Suddenly the trembling hands of the acolytes withdrew.

Above, the horns played their most beautiful poignant melody.

The tenors hurled out their question, in flawless voices, from the loft above:

"Can this one not be saved? Can this one not be delivered?" The chorus rose, in unison:

"Can this one not be released from the power of Satan?"

Ursula stepped forward and drew from her head the immense long red veil that hung to her feet, and threw it out so that it descended like a cloud of red around her. Beside her, an acolyte appeared with my very sword in his hand, and my daggers. Once again the tenor voices implored:

"One soul released to go forth into the world, mad, and bearing witness only to the most patient ears to the power of Satan."

The chorus sang, a riot of melody erupting from them, and it seemed a swift affirmation had overtaken their song.

"What, not to die!" I said. I strained to see the face of the Lord in whose hands all of this rested. But he was blocked from my view.

Godric the Elder had come between. Opening the gate of the marble Communion Rail with his knee, he moved down the aisle towards me. He thrust one of his golden cups to my lips.

"Drink and forget, Vittorio, else we lose her heart and her soul."

"Oh, but then you must lose it!"

"No!" she screamed. "No." Over his shoulder, I could see her snatch three of the nails from Florian's left hand and fling them out on the marble. The singing rose high and rich under the arches. I couldn't hear the nails strike the stone.

The sound of the choir was jubilant, celebratory. The mournful tones of requiem were gone.

"No, God, if you would save her soul, then take me to the cross, take me!"

But the golden cup was forced to my lips. My jaws were opened by Ursula's hand, and the liquid poured down my throat. I saw my sword lifted before my closing eyes as if it were a cross, the long hilt, the handles.

Soft mocking laughter rose and blended with the magical and indescribable beauty of the choir.

Her red veil swirled about me. I saw the red fabric rise up in front of me. I felt it come down around me like a spellbinding shower, full of her perfume, soft with her tenderness. "Ursula, come with me..." I whispered. Those were my last words.

"Cast out," cried the swelling voices above. "Cast out..." cried the huge choir, and it seemed the Court sang with the chorus, "Cast out," and my eyes closed as the red fabric covered my face, as it came down like a witch's web over my struggling fingers and sealed itself over my open mouth.

The horns blared forth the truth. "Forgiven! Cast out!" sang the voices. "Cast out to madness," whispered Godric in my ear. "To madness all of your days, and you, you might have been one of us."

"Yes, one of us," came Florian's smooth unperturbed whisper.

"Fool that you were," said Godric. "You might have been immortal."

"One of us forever, immortal, imperishable, to reign here in glory," said Florian.

"Immortality or death," said Godric, "and these were choices royal, but you shall wander witless and scorned through the world."

"Yes, witless and scorned," came a childish voice at my ear. And then another, "Witless and scorned." "Witless and scorned," said Florian.

But the choir sang on, obliterating all sting from their words, its delirious hymn growing ever more tremendous in my half-slumber.

"A fool to wander the world in contempt," said Godric.

Blinded, sealed in the softness of the veil, intoxicated by the drink, I could not answer them. I think I smiled. Their words were too senselessly mingled with the sumptuous soothing voices of the choir. And fools that they were, they had never known that what they said simply had not mattered.

"And you could have been our young prince." Was it Florian at my side? Cool, dauntless Florian. "We could have loved you as she loves you."

"A young prince," said Godric, "to rule here with us forever."

"Become the jester of alchemists and old wives," said Florian sadly, solemnly. "Yes," said a childish voice, "fool to leave us."

How wondrous were the anthems that made their words mere sweet and contrapuntal syllables.

I think I felt her kiss through the silk. I think I felt it. I think. It seemed in the tiniest of feminine whispers, she said simply, without ceremony:

"My love." It had her triumph and her farewell within it.

Down, down, down into the richest, kindest sleep that God can give, I sank. The music gave a shape to my limbs, gave air to my lungs, when all other senses had been abandoned.

Chapter Nine


IT was pouring down rain. No, the rain had stopped. They still couldn't understand me.

I was surrounded by these men. We were right near Fra Filippo's workshop. I knew this street. I'd just been here with my father a year ago.

"Speak more slowly. Corrr... blub, it doesn't make sense!"

"Look," said the other one. "We want to help you. Tell me your father's name. Speak it slowly."

They shook their heads. I thought I was making perfect sense, I could hear it, Lorenzo di Raniari, why couldn't they hear it, and I was his son, Vittorio di Raniari. But I could feel my lips, how swollen they were. I knew I was filthy from the rain.

"Look, take me to Fra Filippo's shop. I know them there," I said. My great painter, my passionate and tormented painter, his apprentices would know me. He would not, but the helpers who had seen me weep that day at his work. And then, then, these men would take me to the house of Cosimo in the Via del Largo.

"Fee, fee?" they said. They repeated my clumsy attempts at speech. I had failed again.

I started towards the workshop. I staggered and almost fell. These were honest men. I had the heavy bags over my right shoulder, and my sword was clanking against me, practically throwing me off balance. The high walls of Florence were closing in on me. I almost hit the stones. "Cosimo!" I shouted at the top of my voice.

"We can't take you to Cosimo like this! Cosimo won't see you."

"Ah, you understand; you heard me."

But the man now cocked his ear. An honest merchant, drenched to the skin in his somber green robes, and all because of me no doubt. I wouldn't come in out of the rain. No sense. They'd found me lying in the rain right in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria. "It's coming back, it's coming clear."

I saw the entrance to Fra Filippo's workshop up ahead. The shutters were being taken down. They were opening it up now that the thunderous storm had ceased, and the water was drying up on the stone streets. People were coming out. "Those men in there," I shouted. "What, what are you saying?"

Shrugs all around, but they aided me. An old man held my elbow.

"We should take him to San Marco, let the monks care for him."

"No, no, no, I need to talk to Cosimo!" I shouted. Again, they shrugged and shook their heads.

Suddenly I stopped. I rocked and steadied myself by rudely grabbing hold of the younger man's shoulder. I stared at the distant workshop.

The street was no more than an alleyway here, barely sufficient for horses to pass and for the pedestrians not to be injured, and the stone facades all but closed out the slate-gray sky above. Windows were opened, and it seemed that a woman could reach across upstairs and touch the house opposite her. But look what was there, right before the shop.

I saw them. I saw the two of them! "Look," I said again. "Do you see them?"

The men couldn't see. Lord, the two figures before the shop were bright as if illuminated from within their flushed skin and loosely girdled robes.

I held the shoulder bags over my left shoulder and put my hand on my sword. I could stand, but my eyes must have been wide as plates staring blindly at what I beheld.

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