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we get dark, only to shine

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Lucrezia twirled, laughing as her skirts unfurled around her, a blur of pink and white. She could hear the rustle of the silk, feel her hair swinging out, caught by the breeze. Only a rush of light-headedness stilled her.

“What do you think, brother?” Lucrezia demanded, turning to sit by the fountain. She staggered, a little, dizziness making her graceless as little else did. Elsewhere she might have feared some damage to her dress, but Cesare caught her around the waist, as she had known he would. She smiled up at him, feeling very bright and beautiful. “Well?”

“I think you nearly tipped yourself into the water,” he said, guiding her to the stone rim of the fountain.

Lucrezia pointed imperiously at the place beside her. When Cesare sat down, his red robes settling around him, she tilted her head up to the sun.

“Tell me!”

“What shall I tell you, my love? That your hair is tangled, or that you have a lost a pearl, or—”

Lucrezia wrinkled her nose at him. He laughed, then relented, as he always did.

“You look very, very pretty. If Giovanni Sforza is not pleased, he must be a fool indeed.”

She could see his good humour dimming as he spoke of her betrothed, mouth twisting to the side. But he had never wished her to marry, and she had an idea that he was unhappy over some particular of the betrothal. Her husband, perhaps. Still, the affection in his eyes did not fade with his smile.

“But what of my dress?”

Cesare caught a corner of her skirt between his thumb and forefinger, then let it drop, uncreased. “It is lovely, sis.”

She reached out to grasp his hand between both of hers, pressing the long curl of his fingers between her own small ones.

“What is it?” he said.

She glanced down, from his eyes to his mouth, frowning in concern, and back again.

“You will think me ridiculous,” she said.

“Never.”

“I—I am a little afraid.”

“That is not unusual at all,” he said, frown shifting to a sympathetic smile. “You are to leave Rome, to join your life to a stranger, to be mistress of an unfamiliar household—”

“You are not helping.”

Despite themselves, they both laughed.

“Well,” he said, “it is perfectly natural to be afraid—that is all.”

Lucrezia turned that over in her mind. She had worried over those things, but she would not call it fear, exactly. “It is common, you mean. But I am a Borgia. I should not be afraid of anything.”

“Nonsense,” said Cesare. “I fear dozens of things, myself.”

“You?” 

“And so does the Holy Father,” he added. He squeezed her fingers. “Why should we not? Della Rovere spreads his plots through all Italy, perhaps beyond. Our father’s papacy hangs by a thread. You are to leave our protection, and I fear most of all for your happiness. I shall not be able to ensure it from so far, no matter how kind your husband.” His lips pressed together. “You must promise to write to me, sis, if there is anything you require, anything I can do. And if he is not kind—”

I shall cut his heart out with a dinner knife, he’d assured her before, long frame bending over her, the curve of his mouth making it a jest, and yet not. Lucrezia had felt less of comfort than delight, his blood-red robes draped over her, her heart pounding and eyes drifting to the mouth that had formed the words, as if they still rested there. She almost kissed him, the affectionate sister’s kiss she had hundreds of times pressed to his cheek or lips; and yet she did not. Something stifled the impulse, even with warmth prickling over her skin and her blood running quick in her veins, made her instead fling her arms about his neck, pressing her face into his shoulder.

Now she interrupted him. “There is something I would ask, brother.”

“Ask and it is yours,” he said. She was staring at their joined hands, not his face, but she could hear the sudden smile in his voice. “Within reason.”

“I may not know very much about marriage, but I know a wife should please her husband.” Lucrezia bit her lip and looked up at him. If he had smiled before, he did not now; a familiar unhappy expression had settled over his face. “And I know that, for my dear father’s sake, it is of the utmost importance that I please mine.”

“Lucrezia, the Sforza arms are already promised to us,” said Cesare. “It does not depend on your husband’s—pleasure.” His mouth twisted at the word. 

“But promises may be broken. Is that not so?” She lifted one of her hands to touch his cheek, anxiety and affection alike thrumming a steady beat under her ribs. “Do not bother trying to deceive me. You cannot hide things from me, brother.” Lucrezia gave an unsteady laugh. “I see them in your eyes. We both know it will be better for his Holiness, for our family, if I…if my husband…”

“Then speak to our mother,” he said at last. Something, perhaps distaste, tugged at his mouth. “Or Giulia Farnese.”

Lucrezia, briefly distracted, tipped her head to the side. “You do not like Giulia?” The idea had never crossed her mind.

“I neither like nor dislike her,” said Cesare. “I am, however, fond of our mother.”

“As am I! But I cannot ask her how to kiss a man!”

They stared at each other. Cesare, seeming only then to recall that his hand still lay in her lap, drew it quickly back.

“And why should you? You have kissed men hundreds of times—even thousands.”

Lucrezia’s mouth dropped open. “I have done nothing of the kind!”

“Father, Juan, me.” He paused. “Prince Djem, perhaps.”

“I never kissed him,” she said, and felt rather than heard his sigh. “And for the rest, that is not the same at all!”

“Exactly,” said Cesare. He tapped her nose. “You cannot learn how to kiss a husband from your brother, my love—your brother who will never be any woman’s husband, no less.”

“Well, I don’t see why not. It is not as if you are celibate.”

He made a strangled sound. Lucrezia grinned, smug, as a flush crept up his cheeks.

“You know what men and women do together,” she persisted. “You know what pleases a man, what—”

His finger pressed against her mouth.

“There lies your first mistake. I know what pleases me. Men do not share all our tastes. I could not guess—do not wish to guess—what pleases our brother, or my manservant, or Giovanni Sforza.”

“I suppose,” said Lucrezia, not entirely convinced. “Juan does prefer dark ladies, and I know you do not particularly. Perhaps—”she brightened—“Lord Sforza will be like you.”

“This is not a conversation a man wishes to have with his sister,” Cesare said, grimacing.

She dimpled. “But I thought all men were different.”

“Not that different!”

She could see him realize his mistake almost as soon as the words left his mouth. Before he could correct it, she said blithely,

“Then you can teach me.”

He released a breath. “I cannot believe I am even considering this.”

Lucrezia’s smile turned triumphant.

“Is there no one else?” he demanded.

She tilted her head inquisitively. “Is there a man you would rather instructed me?” Then she laughed. “Really, is there another man you would permit to touch me? To even remain alone with me? Juan? Should I ask him instead?”

“No!” Cesare scrambled to his feet, skirts billowing out. He glanced around the courtyard, as if Juan—or worse—might emerge at any moment. With a tug of her hand, he pulled her into their mother’s villa: dragged her, Lucrezia might have said, had she not followed so readily that it was more like walking hand-in-hand. They clattered around into his bedchamber.

She perched on the edge of his bed and watched, intrigued, as Cesare latched the doors and closed the window. He was really being very dramatic about all this.

“Well,” she said, “tell me what to do.”

He settled beside her, finally meeting her eyes. “You know how to give a chaste kiss.”

Lucrezia nodded, then smiled and quickly touched her mouth to his, as she had so many times before.

“That is not how I shall kiss my husband.”

“You may, sometimes,” he said. “That kiss speaks of affection. It is for company, and when there is no chance of anything else.”

“And when there is?”

She saw the shudder in his throat as he swallowed. He tilted his head down, towards hers, until their foreheads leaned together and she could feel his nose to the side of hers, his breath on her mouth. That was not new, either, but nevertheless something in her belly fluttered. Lucrezia smiled uncertainly.

“Close your eyes, my love,” he whispered, words but an inch from her.

She obeyed, though she couldn’t help saying, “But I want to—”

Cesare’s lips pressed against hers, lingering a moment, shifting to kiss her again from a different angle, his mouth brushing over hers between kisses. The fluttering deepened to a heavy shiver, radiating out, up her spine until she was warm and shaking. Like a fever, she thought dimly, except fevers were wretched and this, this was wonderful. Even the skin of her neck prickled pleasantly, though he did not move the hand that rested there. Out of nowhere, she wished he would, slide his hand down her throat or neck—and she wanted to do something with her hands.

He broke away. Lucrezia did not feel any cooler, but her eyes opened in protest. Cesare, she saw, was flushed too, his eyes very bright.

“What does that one speak of?” She sounded at once breathless and strangely loud.

“Promise,” he said, and nudged her nose. “But you must do your part.”

“Oh! I forgot!” She glanced down at his mouth and then back up. “But where do I put my hands?”

“Anywhere you like,” said Cesare. He added, “On my shoulders or behind my neck, generally.”

Lucrezia gave a solemn nod and set her hands on his shoulder. She dutifully closed her eyes; when he kissed her again, she kissed back, feeling his lips give way—just a little—under the pressure. Excitement burned through her veins once more. She tried to mimic the slow press of his lips, her fingers digging into his shoulders. Her heart was pounding. Then his thumb ran down her throat, almost to her collarbone, and Lucrezia gasped against his mouth.

Should she be …? The thought dissolved with a slide of his thumb against the hollow of her neck. Her mind was empty of anything but his name echoing around and around, Cesare, Cesare, Cesare. And more. She shifted her hands to his face, then locked them behind his neck, holding him as near to her as she could; his leg already pressed against hers. It wasn’t good enough. She wanted—she wanted—

He stopped again. No, Lucrezia thought dimly, not even bothering to open her eyes; she pressed lingering kisses all along his mouth. In reward, she felt his arms around her waist, hands at her back, holding her close: familiar and new both. But he seemed to be trying to say something. Lucrezia didn’t want to talk. She caught his bottom lip between hers.

Before she could even decide what to do with it, she was tipping backwards onto the bed, Cesare sprawling over her, pressing quick, open-mouthed kisses into her parted mouth. One moment she felt the glide of his tongue over her lip, the next his teeth biting down, and she could only kiss him back, his hair caught in her right hand. She felt the line of his leg trapped between hers, though between her skirts and his she could do little but stir restlessly. Yet the propped-up weight of his body was more familiar than the robes under her fingers. It shouldn’t have felt like all the other times, the two of them lying together in the courtyard, the gardens, laughing together on this very bed—but it did. It felt exactly like that.

Cesare lifted his mouth, but only to press the same kisses down her throat. Dazed, Lucrezia could only wish there was some way of wrapping herself around him, of—of anything. When his teeth nipped at the skin where her neck met her shoulder, she nearly sobbed. 

“Cesare,” she whispered instead.

He instantly froze, then buried his face in her neck. Lucrezia, thoughts a little more coherent, realized that his breath was panting against her throat, his shoulders shaking. She opened her eyes. 

“Cesare?” Her voice sounded hoarse. She cleared her throat and he lifted his head, staring at her as if he could not quite believe his eyes.

“Forgive me,” he mumbled.

Lucrezia frowned. “For what? I thought that lesson went very well.”

Her brother shifted off her, lying on his back. It was only then that she realized his cross had been digging uncomfortably into her torso.

“Ah,” he said. “Well, yes.”

Lucrezia turned her head to the side, her hair loose around her brushing her cheek. Cesare looked almost bewildered.

“Did our father kiss our mother thus? And Giulia Farnese, now?”

The solemn set of his mouth turned, quick and easy, to a laughing smile. He tapped her nose.

“I think you know perfectly well how our father kisses women,” he said, with a meaningful glance at the window.

“I do not spy on Papa,” she said, repulsed, and Cesare laughed aloud.

“You reserve that honour for me?”

“Yes,” said Lucrezia, snuggling comfortably against him. She pushed the cross aside.

Cesare drew a deep breath.

“Will my husband kiss me thus, brother?”

“Perhaps,” he said. His expression went grave again. “Perhaps not. He may not be very interested in—niceties. He is a Sforza, after all, and he does not love you as I do.”

“That may be for the best,” said Lucrezia, “for I shall never love him as I do you.”

Cesare just sighed and stroked her hair.

“You will come and visit me? We are not to be separated forever?”

He hesitated.

Lucrezia felt panic welling in her chest. She pushed herself away, lifting horrified eyes to his. “Cesare?”

Cesare bit his lip. Then with a reckless look, he said, “Of course I shall.”

Chapter Text

Giovanni Sforza neither liked nor disliked his wife. Borgia though she was, Lucrezia had turned out to be nothing more than a child—simpering, frivolous, often petulant, but neither depraved, as he had feared, nor ill-tempered, as he had expected. She looked pretty and did not much trouble him; that was good enough.

He did dislike her brothers, but the elder less than the rest of the Borgias. If he had to tolerate one of them under his roof, he supposed he would rather the cardinal than the swaggering lout playing at soldier, or the degenerate Pope, or one of the mistresses.

"Cardinal Borgia," Sforza said, scowling at the stones of his courtyard. "My wife did not warn me of your arrival. If I had known—"

Borgia swung off his horse. “The impulse of the moment,” he said carelessly. “I do not mean to greatly inconvenience you.”

It took Sforza a moment to unclench his teeth, while Borgia’s manservant--presumably his manservant; he looked like something dragged from the bottom of the Tiber--dismounted as well.

"I was travelling nearby, and thought to pay Lucrezia a visit," Borgia went on. "I shan’t impose on you long."

"You will find the table sparse."

Borgia shrugged. “I am here to see my sister, not the contents of your pantry. Where is she?”

“I have greater concerns,” said Sforza, “than how or where my wife fritters away her time. No doubt the servants would know.” He gestured at the castle.

Borgia’s jaw twitched.

“Micheletto,” he said.

The manservant gave a jerky bow. “I will inquire, your Eminence.” He disappeared into the stables, leading their horses.

“I hope your marriage has proved satisfactory,” Borgia said, with a thin smile. “Brother.”

“Quite,” said Sforza.

“My sister has not been overwhelmed by her new duties? She is very young.”

Borgia himself could not be more than twenty, if that. Sforza considered him through narrowed eyes. A boy, this upstart cardinal, a yapping pup. But, regrettably, Alexander’s son; he could be expected to carry tales to the Pope. Lucrezia knew better than to talk, but Sforza had not expected any of her vile tribe to land on his doorstep.

“A little, perhaps,” he replied, unbending slightly. “As you say, she is very young.”

“Perhaps I may be of service to her. But--ah, forgive me! I am taking time from your … greater concerns.” Borgia gestured at the dogs crouched around Sforza’s feet, his smile unwavering. “With your leave, my lord, I must find what has become of my manservant.”

Sforza forced himself to nod. “Your sister,” he said, “will see to your comfort.”

“I do not doubt it.”

Borgia bowed, the movement graceful, correct, and somehow just short of outright mockery, then turned on his heel and strode towards the main entrance. His retreating back was covered not in red satin, but green silks and black leather; he did not even have a tonsure. A churchman in name only. Sforza glowered after him.

This could risk everything.

*****

“The contessa is talking to the head cook in the kitchens,” Micheletto reported. He cleared his throat. “I took the liberty, your Eminence, of telling a maid to send for her.”

Cesare just nodded, glancing around the great hall. The rough grey stone of the walls was, if anything, uglier than the castle’s exterior, unrelieved by any ornamentation. His eyes went to the solid, serviceable doors, to the heavy staircase, to the oppressive lowness of the ceiling. What a place for Lucrezia! She should sit enthroned in splendour: brilliant colours, sunshine on marble, wide airy rooms beneath arches and painted ceilings. If the Pope insisted upon selling her to one of these Italian lordlings--since he insisted upon it--he should at least have chosen one who could maintain her in proper style.

Cesare breathed in deeply, air clear and warm in his chest. Even within these bleak walls, he felt more vital by the second, alight with anticipation and something like happiness. Not quite. If she were unhappy, he would feel her misery as his own. But she was here, his sister, walking under the same roof, skirts sweeping the same floors. Unhappy or not, he would soon be at her side, where he belonged, not longing for her with every breath.

One of the doors creaked open. He turned on his heel, seeing only a maid. 

“Donata, my lord said nothing of this. I do not think--”

The voice was his sister’s, unmistakably, the timbre as familiar as the brisk tone was not. His blood thrummed.

“Lucrezia,” Cesare called out, unable to help himself.

He heard a gasp--the light thump of footsteps--saw her climb to the doorway, in her woman’s gown and woman’s hairnet still exactly Lucrezia. She stared at him, eyes wide and stunned. Then a smile curved her mouth, lit up her eyes, and with a strangled sound, she picked up her skirts and darted forward.

Cesare braced himself just in time; Lucrezia unhesitatingly flung herself at him, rocking him back a step. He closed his arms about her, swinging her around, her body warm under his hands, their laughter echoing in his ears.

“Cesare!”

“Lucrezia, Lucrezia--”

Cesare set Lucrezia down, but could not quite bring himself to release his grip on her. For her part, she kept her arms locked behind his neck, smiling a little tremulously up at him.

“Cesare--I had no idea--you sent not a word--”

“I wanted to surprise you, sis,” he said, leaning his head against her pale gold hair.

“You have certainly done that! I thought you in Florence,” said Lucrezia. She drew an uneven breath. “I am so, so happy you are here, brother.”

Cesare had never doubted her affection for him, nor had cause to do so. They never met each other without pleasure, whatever the circumstances--yet his trickle of unease grew.

Micheletto cleared his throat, and they parted. Lucrezia discreetly wiped her eyes.

“Donata, tell Francesca to prepare rooms for my brother and his manservant, and tell Cook that we shall be three at dinner.”

“Yes, madam,” said the maid. She cast an uncertain glance at Cesare. “And--my lord duke?”

It took him a moment to realize that she had supposed he must be Duke of Gandia. Juan! He didn’t know whether to be gratified or insulted. Lucrezia just laughed.

“My brother Cesare, Cardinal of Valencia,” she said, her proud smile taking away most of the sting. “He is a prince of the Church, no mere lord. Make sure the staff remembers it.”

“Yes, my lady.” The maid curtseyed to Cesare. “Your Eminence.”

She hurried away, and Lucrezia swept him off to a slightly less miserable room, hung with tapestries and two paintings he recognized from her chambers in their mother’s villa. Her step was heavier than he remembered, reminding him more of himself than the Lucrezia who seemed to walk on air; when they sat near a window, sunlight bright and unforgiving on her face, he thought she looked tired, almost brittle, her round cheeks already thinner. Cesare took her hand, turning the loose rings under his thumb.

“And how does marriage suit you, sister?”

“Oh, well enough,” said Lucrezia. She switched to Valencian. “You must tell me all the news. Papa writes very often, but you know how he is! He can take up three pages saying nothing at all. Does he think matters of state are beyond my ken even now?”

“I fear he considers many of them beyond mine,” Cesare said. “He likes his secrets, and he has reasons to be careful just now. Your husband, it is said, has a taste for intrigue.”

He watched her closely, but she only raised her brows.

“Does he? I would not have thought it,” she said.

“Then what are his pleasures?”

“Hunting,” said Lucrezia. Her lips thinned. “The marital bed.”

Cesare felt bile rise in his throat. He had preferred to avoid all thought of her unworthy husband touching her, hated the sight of her hand in Sforza’s at the wedding, much less the idea of him in her bed. He turned his head away, fingers tightening on hers, breath trembling in his chest.

“I dislike him already,” he muttered.

When he turned back, Lucrezia was smiling faintly. “I do not think he reads my letters. I hardly see him, except…who told you that he dabbles in intrigue?”

“The Vice-Chancellor mentioned it to Father.”

“Ah.” She lifted her chin. “Well, Cardinal Sforza is his cousin. No doubt he knows him better than I do. Perhaps he finds some time for it between riding his horses and attending to his dogs. But why did Papa send you to Florence? I cannot think you went to listen to that friar’s sermons!”

Cesare was not fooled, but he answered readily enough. “Savonarola? I did hear him speak while I was there.”

“What is he like?”

“I can scarcely describe him,” said Cesare. “He screams and rages and all but froths at the mouth denouncing everything from the city of Rome to the Medici bank to silk, art, books. He would burn Florence to the ground, if he could.”

She shivered. “What a terrible man he must be.”

“A sort of lunatic, I think,” he said. “I even heard that you and I, with the Holy Father, have the honour of particularly affronting him--enough to be mentioned by name, at any rate.”

“You and I! What have we done?”

“Our mother bore us and our father acknowledged us,” said Cesare, shrugging. “He considers my elevation to the cardinalate an offense before God. Well, I could have told him that myself--”

“Cesare!”

“--but apparently your hair offends him nearly as much.”

Lucrezia’s hand went to her pearl-studded net. “My … hair? Has he seen it?”

“Ah, that’s reason talking, sis. No, but he had rumour of the amount of time you spend dressing it, and that was sufficient to condemn you to the fires of hell--or so Signor Machiavelli, the Florentine ambassador, told me.”

She giggled. “Oh, I see. And that was your true mission, was it not? Meeting with the ambassador?”

“You are too clever for your own good,” he said, tapping her nose.

“Not clever enough, I fear. But why did you meet with Signor Machiavelli, Cesare? Need we fear Florence now?”

“Fear? No,” he said. “Cardinal della Rovere recently paid a visit to Piero de Medici, and we suspected--”

“Intrigue?” said Lucrezia, eyes brightening.

“Exactly.” Cesare studied her face, then tipped her chin up to meet her eyes directly. “And now you must tell me of your marriage.”

She opened her mouth.

“The truth this time, Lucrezia.”

He could see the bob in her throat as she swallowed. “What makes you say that?”

“You are unhappy.” Cesare touched her cheek. “I can see it in your eyes, your face, your … you are not what you were. You walk as if the cares of the world go with you. Did you think you could hide it from me? That I would not notice?”

Lucrezia’s smile warmed, though for a long moment, she said nothing. Then:

“I did not think you would come.” Her eyes briefly flicked up to his, then down again. “Well, I did not dare hope so. And I thought you must have known what it would be. You told me that everything would be different, and Lord Sforza might not care for me.”

Cesare had felt horror before, but nothing like this. He could only stare, wide-eyed. “What?”

“You do not even remember.” She gave a shaky laugh. “I was nervous about the wedding, and you said that was natural, and I--”

“I remember,” said Cesare. He had certainly tried to forget the entire incident, to blot his sister’s lips and his sister’s body from his memory. She was a child, or had been--a girl of barely fourteen--his sister! It was his place to protect her, hold her, perhaps, but nothing more; and if he thought of her constantly, suffered through every moment of separation, it had never been like that. Yet it had been so easy, as easy as chasing her in their mother’s villa, whispering explanations at their father’s coronation, tugging her hair as a boy, as all the pieces of their lives together.

Cesare had many preoccupations. He did manage to keep it out of his immediate thoughts, most of the time. But there was no forgetting. He looked at his sister, flushed, looked away.

“I did not mean that you were doomed to misery, my love,” he said, “only that some things might prove challenging, and you need not blame yourself for being afraid of them.” And he had known the yet-unseen Sforza would not love her as he did--but that meant nothing. Nobody could love her as he did. He turned back to her. “Has he misused you? I need details!”

Lucrezia shook her head. “I--it is … hard, that’s all. Everything here is so dull, and there is no company, no colour, nothing. I have missed you, missed everyone, even Juan. I miss Rome.” She blinked rapidly. “I do not wish to think about it any more than I must. I would keep my spirits up while you are here, and enjoy your company as long as I have it.”

“Then we shall not speak of him any more,” he said, then added, “and now that I am here, I can judge your situation for myself, anyway.”

“So you intend to stay a good while?”

He had, in fact, only intended to delay his return to the Vatican by two or three days. His note of explanation to his father had promised as much. Upon what support could the Pope depend, with him gone? The rest of the College? He might as well lay a nest of vipers in the chair of St Peter. Juan? Ha!

Cesare looked at his sister’s hopeful face. “I have no intentions,” he said, and nudged her shoulder. “I did not think that far ahead! But I may, perhaps. You can throw me off the battlements if my company grows too tiresome.”

The stiff line of her shoulders relaxed, and she grinned, familiar bright happiness falling over her face. In that moment, she was once more the Lucrezia he knew.

“I will keep it in mind,” she said. Then, with a sigh--more relieved, he thought, than exhausted--she leaned her head against his shoulder. “But I never tire of you.”

Chapter Text

Cesare had not forgotten.

Well, Lucrezia reasoned with herself, why would he? He never forgot anything he said to her, anything in which they both took part, except for matters of supreme insignificance. Those last days before her marriage had been many things, but not insignificant. Of course he remembered.

Lucrezia lifted her hand to her mouth, fingers trembling against her lips. Yes, yes, of course, but already the memory had grown worn and threadbare in her own mind. She clung to it too tightly, filled her thoughts with it too often, as she lay sore and shivering in her bed. What other comfort did she have? And weeping angered Lord Sforza, so she had to soothe herself, somehow.

Lucrezia would imagine herself in Rome, the sun warm on her skin, bright on her loose maiden’s hair. She would walk through the streets on one of her brothers’ arms, Cesare’s robes warding off harm as readily as Juan’s sword, murmurs of Lady Lucrezia and your Excellency or my lord emerging out of the familiar hubbub.

She would peek through Cesare’s window, determined to capture all the fragments of his life, whether he was poring over dull dusty books or lying with girls. She didn’t try to conceal herself--why? Lucrezia wanted him to know she was there. She shrieked with laughter when he chased her around the courtyard, his long legs easily catching up and pinning her to the grass, his face tilted over hers, noses nudging like they were still children.

Sometimes, she saw her father crowned once more. She whispered questions into Cesare’s ear, again heard the hint of impatience in his voice drowned in affection. She felt the comforting wall of Borgias behind them, Mother and Juan and Jofrè and all the cousins.

But those were like old paintings, faded and cracked. They could not contend with the unforgiving reality of her life in Pesaro, her aching body and Sforza’s hard hands. Only one memory shone bright: Cesare in his cardinal’s red, mouth slanting carefully over hers, then not careful at all. That was better. She would close her eyes, filling her mind with remembrance, until she could almost feel it all again. The thick softness of his blankets beneath her when she fell back. The weight of his body, a weight of familiarity and pleasure, no burden at all. 

The touch of his lips, his hands--she no longer felt certain what had really happened, what she might have conjured up through the long nights. She’d returned to it over and over, a hundred times, hundreds, retraced the images in her imagination until they, too, dimmed. Had he really promised he would come? Yes. Yes, but their father might not permit it. Had he touched her breast? No. One hand had lingered at her back, the other stroked her neck.

Lucrezia shivered. Even those touches held a strange sort of innocence, now. So, so many times she had found her eyes dropping to his mouth as their heads tipped together, found herself wondering--what if I kissed him now? Why should I not? So many times she had felt a heady rush of warmth when he touched her chin or waist, when they lay side-by-side, walked hand-in-hand. She even felt it, now and then, when they did not touch at all, but he hovered beside her, or smiled across a room, so much handsomer than the old fusty cardinals, or she sat in a window watching him practice swordsmanship with his man. Once he had seen her there and bowed to her as if she were a princess. It was all one and the same, Cesare sprawling over her to laugh at her, Cesare sprawling over her to kiss her. Nothing like Sforza’s touch, harsh and sordid and cold. As pure and all-consuming as the love of God. Yes.

Perhaps she loved him too much, as her mother said. You are destined for marriage, Vanozza reminded her, and before long, you shall go to be a great lady in another city. Cesare is for the Church, for Rome. If you would not break your heart, my daughter, you must fill it with other things, other loves. But how could she think of that with Cesare murmuring sis and my love and you will always have me? With even the barest touch of his hand filling her with light?

Even now, she did not regret it, any of it. She understood better why he had gasped against her, whispered forgive me and ended the lesson there. But she did not care. Sforza forced her nightly, and he never asked forgiveness for anything.

Lucrezia glanced over at the place beside her, where her brother sat not ten minutes ago. Always fastidious, he had left to change out of his riding clothes. Yet he was here. Not a cherished memory slipping out of her grasp, not even affectionate letters, vostre germà qui com a si mateix us estima scrawled out in his own hand, but Cesare himself, Cesare’s hands swinging her into the air. Cesare tilting her face to the light. Did you think I would not notice?

She drew a deep breath, ragged enough to cut. She could tell him. He hurts me. He takes me like a brute animal, until I wish I could die, and beats me harder if I weep. Cesare would kill him. That image was sharp and vibrant: Lord Sforza’s body broken and bloodied, at the base of the stairs, in the courtyard, in his bed, staining the blankets, never to touch her again.

Lucrezia shut her eyes, letting the impossible picture soothe her, steady her nerves. Then she walked over to the window, looking down on the captains training their men below. If Cesare murdered Lord Sforza--challenged him to a duel, even--those men would never march with the Papal armies. Their father needed this alliance, needed her husband. And so Cesare must not know. He must believe only that she found Pesaro disagreeable, her husband irksome.

Yet he read her as easily as she did him. He might see the truth in her face. But would he risk their father, their family, on a guess alone? Perhaps he would hear more. Hear her, even. Cesare often kept strange hours. 

She would face that difficulty, Lucrezia decided, when it arose.

The door opened with the groaning creak that accompanied virtually everything in the castle. She whirled around--but it was only Cesare, in another set of black leathers. She laughed.

“Do you even have your robes in your luggage?”

“Oh, somewhere,” he said, striding over to stand beside her. “Would you rather I wore them?”

“Not exactly,” said Lucrezia. She flicked her fingers at the laces on his doublet and tilted her head back to smile at him. “My husband, I fear, does not have a high regard for our family. It might be … prudent, to remind him of exactly what you are.”

Cesare’s mouth twisted. “A cardinal?”

“A prince,” she said. She took his arm. “And now, il principe, you shall see my new home. Look!” Lucrezia pointed out the window. “Those are the soldiers that shall secure our father’s papacy.”

He gazed down at them, expressionless.

“May it be so. We have paid a great enough price for them.” He glanced back at her, good humour returning to his face. “A comforting view, sis! What other delights has Pesaro to offer?”

Lucrezia tugged him down the hall.

“Well, I hear the hunting is very good. If my husband has left, he will be gone for hours.”

“What a pity,” he said cheerfully. Despite herself, Lucrezia giggled.

“Oh, a very great pity.” She tightened her grip on his arm. She liked the sensation of it, the glossy leather under her fingertips, the brush of his elbow against her side.

In the horror of those first days, Lucrezia had feared that bile would rise in her at any man’s touch, even the familiar comfort of her father’s, her brothers’. If she ever met Cesare again, would she flinch from him? But thank God, no. She had flown into his arms when she saw him, enjoyed his hands at her waist, lifting her high enough to embrace. Now she walked beside him, relishing the pleasing warmth of his skin even through layers of clothes. She wished he would kiss her as he had in his chamber, forget himself again. Lucrezia knew he would not--but still, craving hummed under her skin.

“And this,” she said, “is the dining hall.”

*****

They walked around Pesaro for hours, talking idly, until Lucrezia grew tired and retired to her tiny court. She half-expected Cesare to go amuse himself elsewhere--which was to say, examine the soldiery more closely or find a willing lady or write letters of Church business--but he seemed determined to remain with her. At any rate, he lounged by her side, listening to the musicians with a rare look of contentment. Lucrezia, though she had no great opinion of Pesaro’s harpists, felt almost happy, herself.

Inevitably, of course, her husband returned, but the hunt had gone well. He greeted them civilly enough, and she did not feel quite the same sickening dread with her brother at her side, tall and fierce, their father’s shadow lying over him. And much to her relief, Cesare betrayed none of his dislike and talked all through dinner.

“Lord Sforza, it seems you underestimated your own hospitality,” he said, mouth curving. A false smile, of course, but Sforza would have seen no others from him. Cesare had certainly had no true smiles for her wedding. “The table is a credit to you. I am tempted to steal away your head cook!”

“Thank you,” Sforza said, not quite as stiffly as usual. “You, ah, must feel at liberty to avail yourself of his skills while you remain here.”

“You really must,” added Lucrezia. “You look thin. Have you grown again? You are going to tower over poor Juan.”

Cesare laughed. “I can’t help it, sis.”

“And how long?” said Sforza.

Brother and sister turned to stare at him, equally puzzled.

“I beg your pardon?” Cesare said.

Sforza forced a smile. “His Holiness must expect you back in Rome soon … Cardinal. How long do you mean to favour us with your company?”

“I have not decided. As I told you before, I came to see my sister on a whim,” said Cesare. “No more than a few weeks. I shan’t eat you out of your fortune, my lord.”

Sforza grunted. “And what do you intend to do with your time? Do you care for hunting?”

“Not particularly,” said Cesare. “Lucrezia and I can amuse each other, as we have always done.”

“Do you still play alquerque?” Lucrezia asked, nerves turning her voice shrill.

Cesare glanced up at her, brows drawing together. “I have not given it up in the weeks since you left, no. But I am too busy--and I have no worthy rivals now that you are gone.”

She did not dare smirk before her husband, but it was true. “Lord Sforza has a beautiful board,” she said instead.

“A Moorish game by way of Spain? You are more cosmopolitan than I knew, my lord. You must forgive me for underestimating you!”

“My mother’s board,” muttered Sforza.

“Your mother was our countrywoman? How remarkable.”

Sforza looked horrified. “Certainly not! She had a cousin--a very distant cousin--who married a nobleman of Castile. That lady sent it to her as a gift.”

“Ah,” said Cesare. “This piece of home is pure coincidence, then.”

“Hardly home, brother,” said Lucrezia.

“I grant you that.”

Sforza’s small eyes narrowed even smaller. “Oh? My heirs will have no Catalan blood, after all? Has all of Italy been mistaken on that point?” He gave a short laugh.

Neither foolish nor rash enough to challenge him, Lucrezia just dropped her eyes to her hands, anxiety stabbing at her. There were no victories for her in Pesaro, only debts to accumulate, and pay for later.

“I must beg your forgiveness again,” said Cesare, tight-lipped smile unwavering, “but Catalan blood is not generally found in Castile. And I confess, I have no great opinion of the ability of all Italy to judge the internal affairs of either Spain or my family.” He nodded his head at Lucrezia, who knew she must be white with fear. “My sister, Lord Sforza, is a daughter of Rome. Roman-born, Roman-bred, Roman to her fingertips. Is it not so, Lucretia?

Her husband looked mollified. Lucrezia, breathing again, smiled and nodded. “Oh, yes. Now if the game were carved out of a chunk of the Colosseum…”

Cesare laughed.

“And you are likewise a son of Rome, Cardinal Borgia?” said Sforza.

“I was not born there, no,” Cesare said evenly. “It is my home, and I am cardinal in my birthplace: Valencia. Caesar and Valentino both!” He chuckled again. “But we have neither of us set foot in Castile.”

“Still,” said Lucrezia, thinking this had gone on quite long enough, “you must promise, Cesare, to play with me.” She gave him a long-suffering look. “Castile or no Castile.”

“My dear sister, I did not ride all the way from Florence to play a round of alquerque with you.” Cesare set his knife down, lips parting over a flash of teeth. “You must promise me twenty.”

*****

Cesare insisted on seeing the board as soon as they finished dinner. Then he insisted on playing a round then and there. Upon losing the match, he laughed and declared that he must regain his honour.

Twenty proved to be an understatement. Cesare was not unsubtle enough to lose every match, or all that many of them, even once Lord Sforza wandered off to admire a new set of antlers. But at midnight, he was still losing badly, and still refusing to give up. He seemed scarcely to notice her husband’s return.

Sforza fixed his eyes on Lucrezia.

“The hour grows late. I shall retire now,” he announced.

She froze.

“Then goodnight to you, Lord Sforza,” said Cesare, aggressively pleasant. He set the pieces out again. “I pray for your peaceful rest.”

Lucrezia’s own smile was tremulous. “As do I, my lord.”

“My wife--”

“--is good enough to humour her brother’s pride,” Cesare said. “The Holy Father will be pleased, sister, to hear such a favourable report of you, and your happiness here in Pesaro.”

A giggle bubbled up in Lucrezia’s throat. With the ease of practice, she kept it stifled there, and her expression blankly good-humoured.

Sforza stalked out. Lucrezia had always thought of relief as a paltry thing, too small and petty an emotion for any great heights or depths, but she felt heady with it when the door closed behind him.

“Thirty-seven to eighteen, brother!” she cried.

Cesare blinked at her, looking as innocent as she had once been. “Oh? Fortuna must have abandoned me tonight.”

“There is no luck in alquerque,” she said with a toss of her head, and moved her piece. “Only skill.”

He didn’t reply. Lucrezia glanced up. In Sforza’s presence, Cesare held himself upright and wary, as if he might be attacked at any moment--or, perhaps, as if he might himself attack; now, he slouched forward, elbow propped on the edge of the table and chin on his hand. His brittle smile had faded, mouth solemn and eyes soft as he studied her.

Lucrezia coloured. It was already strange, to see someone regarding her with affection.

“My skill must have abandoned me, then,” Cesare said, and proceeded to win four of the next six matches. She wrinkled her nose at him.

“It’s too late now. You cannot catch up with me.”

Cesare straightened. “Is that a challenge?”

They continued to play, Lucrezia laughing at her brother’s sudden ruthless tactics as much as his habit of naming the tokens.

“That is hardly fair,” she complained, and snatched up one of pieces. “There! I have taken Rome. What will you do now, Cardinal Valentino?”

“I have no need of Rome,” Cesare said loftily. “Ha, now I have Florence and Pisa and Perugia. Tuscany is mine!”

“Well, I have Milan and Venice still. And I shall take Naples from you, see if I don’t.” She moved a piece, which Cesare promptly seized.

“I see it.”

“I hate you,” Lucrezia grumbled. Cesare only laughed, and after a moment she couldn’t help but join him, giggling into her hand. “Very well. I will have--what was this one?”

“Pesaro,” he said.

She sobered, raising the black token to eye-level, turning it over in her fingers. “Pesaro. Yes, I have that, for all the good it will do me.” Lucrezia lifted her gaze to his and let out a sigh. “My husband will be in a wretched mood. He looked as if he would like to kill you, tonight.”

Cesare shrugged. “He is welcome to try.”

“Cesare.”

“I know my way around a sword, sis.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?” she said, exasperated, and blew out a puff of air. “I have seen you fight hundreds of times. I do not fear for you. Of course you would win!”

A smile, a real one, twitched at his mouth. “Ah, yes. You like to watch.”

She flushed.

“But you are thinking of matters of state, are you not? This alliance you have made?”

Lucrezia nodded, reaching across the table to grasp his hand. “This alliance our father has made. It makes little difference whether he dies honourably on your sword, or Micheletto throws him out the window, or he chokes on a fishbone at dinner. Without him, the Sforza cannot be trusted. You know that.”

“They cannot be trusted with him,” said Cesare. He squeezed her fingers. “Yes, I know. I only wish you need not.”

“But I do!”

He inclined his head.

“Even in Rome, you could not have kept me ignorant forever.”

Cesare looked at her thoughtfully. “I do not believe you have ever been ignorant, my love. A child, perhaps, but never an unobservant one.”

“Well, I am no longer a child,” she said.

“I would gladly kill him for that!” Rage flashed over her brother’s face. Then he smiled. “But I shall stay my hand, for the good of the family, and because you ask it. Do not fear. I can disarm a man without killing him. And I do not mean to make myself disagreeable to him.”

Nor did I, thought Lucrezia. We are Borgias. That is enough.

“Thank you,” she said, and releasing his hand, tossed the Pesaro token into her small pile. “Very well. What havoc shall you wreak on my poor armies now?”

Cesare captured three pieces in a row. Lucrezia surveyed her remaining tokens, trying not to yawn, when the door opened, and her maid slipped inside.

“What is it, Francesca?”

Francesca glanced uncertainly at Cesare. He paid no attention, instead counting up the pile of black tokens in front of him with unclerical glee.

“I was wondering, my lady, if you wished me to draw your bath tonight.”

“Oh! I quite forgot--”

“Is the Lord Sforza asleep?” said Cesare, still counting.

Francesca looked at him with considerably greater respect. “Not yet, your Eminence.”

“I will bathe in the morning,” Lucrezia said, suppressing a shiver. Then she lifted her eyes to Cesare’s, no longer fixed on the game but on her, full of the same determination with which he had promised, you have my word, you shall see Mother on your wedding-day. Warmth crept over her. Suppressing another yawn, she lifted her chin. “Another round, brother?”

“I am afraid I must insist.”

Francesca withdrew, and Lucrezia took a deep, happy breath. “Thank you.”

“This trick will not work for long,” he said, handing her tokens to her. White, this time.

Blinking sleepily, she laid them out. “At least I have one night’s respite. I can be grateful for that.”

Cesare said nothing.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia fell asleep a few hours before sunrise, her head dropping into her arms as it had the night of her wedding. Cesare only shook his head, neatly laying out the tokens. He was tired himself, between the hour and the hasty ride from Florence, and he had never known her to stay awake so late. But as she had told him--she was no longer a child.

Cesare’s fingers tightened around the token in his hand, nails digging into the wood. Irrationally, he hoped it marred the thing forever. He would have liked to fling it into the fire. Fling it all, hear the table crashing, rip Sforza’s ridiculous trophies off the walls, the hides and fur from the floor and furniture, set the whole thing alight.

My heirs will have no Catalan blood, then?

Carefully, Cesare set the piece down. His hand was trembling towards his dagger--not that it made any difference, now. The man was a pig, but a sleeping pig. All the easier, of course, except for the alliance, for his promise to Lucrezia. Did she care about that man?

He glanced over at his sister. Her breathing had deepened, the hairnet fallen askew. Cesare smiled to himself, despite everything. She was a prim creature in some odd ways, her gowns always immaculate, every strand of hair neatly tucked away, or plaited, or held under a cap. She must be asleep.

No, he did not think she cared for Giovanni Sforza, a boor who insulted her blood, her family, to her face. She cared for their father, for the alliance she had made, the reason for this miserable marriage of hers. She cared a good deal more than Cesare did, but even he knew he could not walk upstairs and cut Sforza’s throat. They needed the Sforza, needed this Sforza. The knowledge sat bitter on his tongue. Cesare could do nothing for his sister, offer her no consolation but a respite from her husband’s attentions.

Plainly disagreeable attentions, he thought. Well, Sforza need not have feared. He would sire no Catalan heirs while Cesare remained at Pesaro, nor Valencian either.

And afterwards?

Cesare pushed the thought out of his mind and stood, placing the last of the pieces. For a moment he just gazed down at Lucrezia, absurdly reluctant to wake her. Then he tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear and touched her shoulder.

“Lucrezia.” He jostled her shoulder again, feeling as if he’d done something unconscionable when she jerked upright, eyes flying wide-open, darting around before meeting his own, her shoulder flinching away from his hand. “Lucrezia!”

Her wild stare cooled, unfocused, narrow shoulders sloping down again. She smiled, sleepy.

“Cesare.”

He lifted her into his arms, relieved when she unhesitatingly slipped her own about his neck, as she always did after a nightmare. Lucrezia laid her head against his shoulder, yawning into his neck.

“Go back to sleep, sis,” he said, even as he carried her out into the hall. She just mumbled something, her grip loosening.

Cesare paused, mentally retracing his steps about the place, Lucrezia’s limp body awkward in his arms but no great burden. He shifted her a little and continued on his way until he reached her room. The maidservant who had sought Lucrezia out before, apparently no more inclined to sleep than Cesare himself, hovered outside the door; relief spread over her face when she caught sight of him.

“Does your master yet sleep?” he asked, pitching his voice low.

“Yes, your Eminence.” She moved to open the door.

“Is he within?”

She shook her head. “No, sir. He retired to his own rooms tonight.”

Thank God, though God had precious little to do with it. Cesare carried his sister into her room, trailed by the faithful maid, who drew the coverlet back. Disentangling Lucrezia’s arms, he laid her out on her bed, then pulled the blankets up, tucking them around her. She only murmured a little to herself as Cesare stepped away and the maid--Francesca?--unpinned the hairnet. After a few moments, she fell back into a deep, peaceful sleep.

Francesca fussed over Lucrezia’s hair while he stood silently by, watching it spill over her white pillow. His pulse quickened in his throat, yet it was nothing he had not seen before, when he read to her until she fell asleep, talked to her as she sulked in her room, sat at her bedside wiping cloths over her feverish head. And he’d touched her hair times beyond counting: Mama, why is baby’s hair white? he whispered, patting the silvery-pale tufts, and when he was older he chased her around the archepiscopal palace or the villa, tugging at her plaits, and when he was older still he laughed into her face and twirled her hair around his finger, or pushed it aside to look at her properly.

That was the only reason, surely--never mind the glide of her skin under his fingers, the brush of her hair, gossamer-soft in his hands. Well, why should he mind it? The Pope stroked her hair, Vanozza patted her cheek, Juan pulled her braids as a boy and proudly grasped her arm now, Jofrè clung to her hands. They all delighted in her, cherished her. Not as he did, perhaps, nobody as he did, but still: a difference in degree, not kind.

Cesare’s gaze lingered on a long curl, falling sunny-gold over the skin of her collarbone. He could remember how … no. If he could not forget, neither should he remember; he had torments enough without seeking them out.

Ursula, he thought dimly. She had not passed his mind since he left Rome. Without her face immediately before him, he could recall only her elegant figure, her rich gold hair caught in its net--

Cesare took a harsh breath.

“Retired to his own rooms tonight?” he repeated to Francesca, who was now pulling the blankets over Lucrezia’s toes. “It is unusual?”

She glanced over her shoulder, eyes both anxious and approving, then quickly returned to her task. “Yes, your Eminence. The lord Sforza prefers to sleep in my lady’s bed.”

The maid looked young, little older than he was himself, but something about the pass of her hand over the blankets reminded him of Vanozza. Only a servant-girl doing her duty--perhaps.

“And how often does he sleep alone?”

Francesca returned to the head of the bed, carefully unhooking Lucrezia’s necklace. In a flat tone, she said, “Never, sir.”

Cesare had no need to count down the days since his sister’s wedding, but he did it anyway, then counted again. His gut twisted in revulsion. He had thought the man likely unskilled, certainly unpleasant, but hardly vigorous. Hardly--

At least I have one night’s respite.

He walked out and leaned against the wall. It was cold and rough against his head and back, but the discomfort felt strangely remote, like reading a third-hand account of a long ago war. The thumping of his own heart, the hissing of his breath between his teeth seemed just as distant, someone else entirely, nothing real but for his racing thoughts and a strong desire to vomit. Cesare pressed his fist against his mouth, then went looking for Micheletto. He was, of course, awake.

“What do you have for me?”

“Lord Sforza is hated by nearly all,” said Micheletto. “His servants high and low, the citizenry of Pesaro, the peasants, the musicians, everyone but the huntsman.”

“And my sister?”

Micheletto stared over the ramparts. “Few have any opinion of her. Those who do, believe that she hates him, as well.”

So Sforza had made himself the object of universal loathing in his own lands. Cesare tucked the knowledge away. It seemed unlikely to solve his most pressing problems, but might very well be of some use in the future. Meanwhile, his other thoughts seemed to hurtle drunkenly around. He was too tired to think properly.

“Is he fond of wine?” Cesare said suddenly.

“Not particularly,” said Micheletto. “He drinks with dinner, but his tastes are severe. If you wish me to season it, I--”

“No,” said Cesare. “That will not be necessary. What is necessary is that my sister gets sufficient rest. She has been sleeping poorly; I do not wish her husband to awaken her. If it seems at all probable, inform me at once. I want no bloodshed, no scandal.”

“Yes, your Eminence.”

Cesare gave him a quick look. “Is that a note of disapproval I hear, Micheletto?”

“No. But most men pay little heed to the wishes of their wives in these matters, or their wives’ brothers.”

“Most men,” said Cesare, “are not married to Lucrezia Borgia. See that nothing disturbs her peace, and obey her commands as you would mine, do you understand?”

Micheletto ignored his hastily-concealed yawn.

“I do, your Eminence.”

*****

Lucrezia woke as she always did now, curled on the far side of her bed. This morning, however, she felt no crushing sense of dread, nor the exhaustion that came from a few hours of restless, anxious sleep. Her thoughts were clear, her room quiet but for the crackle of the fire and Francesca’s soft footsteps.

Yawning contentedly, Lucrezia turned over and sprawled out over her bed, relishing the cool touch of the blankets against her skin. But when she asked Francesca for the time and heard that it was past noon, she bolted upright.

“What did you say?” She looked down at her arms; she was still wearing last night’s gown. Why had Francesca not … but no, it was not her doing, was it? Lucrezia remembered something. She and Cesare had played alquerque into the night, until--after her husband retired. She could not remember stopping. But she had a vague recollection of dropping her head on Cesare’s shoulder, feet dangling in the air. He must have carried her away when she drifted off, as he had done on her wedding-night, and so many times before.

See, Mama, I’m strong enough to pick her up, I can carry her--

Lucrezia laughed under her breath, then shook the faded memory away. They’d won her night of freedom, but today there would be a reckoning for it. It was worth it, she decided.

“Where is the lord Sforza, Francesca?”

“He left early to go hunting, my lady.”

She tried to snuff a flicker of hope. “And my brother?”

“Cardinal Borgia accompanied him. He was very eager to go, I heard--that’s why they left so early.”

Lucrezia smiled at nothing in particular. “Oh?”

“Is the cardinal a keen hunter, my lady?”

“No,” she said. A laugh threatened to burst out of her throat--not a small chuckle, not one of her giggles, a real, deep laugh. She felt her smile widening. It must look silly, but she didn’t care. “Cesare likes a challenge. He used to fight bulls.”

Francesca’s composure faltered. “Bulls!”

“He learned from the men of my father’s household,” said Lucrezia, leaning comfortably back against her pillows. In that moment, she felt almost at home. “We’re Spanish, you know. He told me that after that, there wasn’t much sport in killing deer. It bores him out of his mind.”

Lucrezia gazed at the fire. She had never quite recognized her family’s devotion for what it was, she thought, the ready affection traded from one to another, complicated as it was by her father’s position and the clashes of personality and will. She scarcely ever quarrelled with anyone, she loved and was loved without qualification. Yet in the weeks since her marriage, a suspicion had crept upon her that nobody would ever love her again, that she would be shut up here, joyless and spiritless, forever--even, now and then, that there must be something peculiarly unlovable about her. Now she remembered those days soaked in adoration, felt it touching her once more, easy and natural.

“Then something must have changed his mind, my lady,” said Francesca.

Lucrezia beamed. “I suppose it must.”

And so she spent the day in something like solitude, quiet and untroubled. She read one of the books her father had sent with her, a dull one with pages of helpful aphorisms, missing Rome wistfully rather than painfully. Her brother she would rather have had nearby, but she could not regret the peace he had afforded her, even if now and then it seemed like he had never been there at all. She might have truly thought him gone again, if not for the occasional glimpse of his manservant going about his--or Cesare’s--business.

She half-dreaded their return, half-anticipated it, bracing herself through the expected hour. When she did finally did hear her brother’s laughter, though, her mood could not help but brighten.

“A good clean kill,” Sforza was saying, in a voice of grudging approval.

As Lucrezia entered the hall, Cesare clapped her husband on the shoulder. “I am delighted to meet your--exacting!--standards, my lord. Then I have won our wager?” He caught sight of Lucrezia, the pleasure in his face turning warmer and brighter, real. “Ah! Forgive me, sister, I didn’t see you there.” Cesare bowed low; Sforza just nodded.

“My lady,” he said coldly.

“Lucrezia,” said Cesare, striding over to kiss her cheek, “I fear I shall steal your husband from you again, after dinner. Lord Sforza has promised to open his best cask of wine.” He glanced over his shoulder. “You are truly an extraordinary host, my lord. I shall be sure to inform my father of it.”

“A bargain is a bargain,” muttered Sforza.

Lucrezia opened her mouth, then shut it again. “I must endure my loss, then,” she said finally, unsure of what scheme her brother might be concocting now.

She got a clearer idea when he dragged her husband off after dinner and emerged, alone, several hours later. Lucrezia, halfheartedly reading Blanquerna, sprang up in relief when Cesare alone knocked on her door, then felt a burst of panic.

“Where is Lord Sforza?”

“Still in the land of the living,” said Cesare dryly, “though no doubt he will wish he were not, come morning.”

Hope beat a quick rhythm in her chest. “Drink does not generally improve his mood. When he comes upstairs--”

“When his servants carry him upstairs, you mean.” Something about his face reminded her of Juan, less in the always-similar features than his expression, fixed in lines of lazy amusement. It didn’t shift in the slightest; nor did he move from where he stood leaning against the door.

“Carry him … how much did he drink?”

“He has not the Roman palate, sis,” Cesare said, voice still drawling.

Lucrezia narrowed her eyes at him. “And how much did you?” He didn’t seem drunken, exactly. In fact, now that she studied him, she thought he looked tired. A little tipsy, perhaps--but mostly just exhausted. Cesare? who fought bulls and went for days without rest when necessary? “How much did you sleep?

“Sleep?” he said, as if he had never before heard the word.

“Last night,” said Lucrezia. “We played into the early hours of the morning, did we not? I can’t quite remember.”

Cesare grinned. “You collapsed on the field of battle. I, nobly, carried you upstairs so that you might recuperate, when I might have been licking my wounds instead.”

“You haven’t slept at all, have you?”

He just shook his head.

“And in Florence?” She knew how he got on Church business, nervous and restless.

Cesare squinted, oddly boyish. “Two nights?”

Not so odd, she thought. He was only a few years older than Lucrezia herself, and she’d been a child two months ago. She remembered him as a boy, really a boy, and wondered what had crushed his innocence. A woman? Or simply the grinding weight of the Church? 

With a sigh, she said, “Go to bed, Cesare.”

He blew her a kiss and strolled off, laughing. Lucrezia just shook her head. And for a second night, she slept peacefully.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia woke early the next morning. Uncertain when her husband would wake and what his mood would be when he did, she dressed quietly and hurried downstairs, where a manservant informed her that both Lord Sforza and Cardinal Borgia still slept. She sent for a heavy cloak and walked outside, shivering in the early mountain air.

Her husband’s servants glanced at her disinterestedly as she strode through the courtyard. She didn’t see any of them follow her when she headed into the gardens, yet she would have sworn that someone had accompanied her. Lucrezia glanced about, puzzled and a little alarmed, then jumped as a haggard, red-haired man turned around the corner in front of her.

“Oh! You surprised me,” she said breathlessly. “You are Micheletto, are you not? My brother’s man?”

He bowed. “I am, my lady.”

Lucrezia did not believe that any servant of Cesare’s would dare harm her. She immediately relaxed, smiling. “I beg your pardon--am I in your way? Or did Cesare send you to watch over me?”

“He did not send me, but his Eminence is not convinced of your safety,” said Micheletto. “I took it upon myself to guard you here.”

Lucrezia looked around uneasily. She could see nothing remotely threatening, though she heard the distant shouts of Lord Sforza’s men. But if Cesare thought so, who knew? She certainly was not safe from Lord Sforza himself.

“Well, thank you,” she said. “You may as well accompany me, then. Come--or do you obey only Cesare’s commands?”

“I am sworn to obey you as I would his Eminence,” he said.

Lucrezia lifted an eyebrow. “Well, then, there’s no need for you to skulk in the bushes. Walk with me,” she ordered, moving forward on the path, and heard him fall into step behind her. “Tell me about yourself, Micheletto.”

“My lady?”

She gestured for him to move forward, near enough for her to look at his face without craning her neck. “If you are to be my guardian angel, I would know more about you.”

He seemed more stolid than ever. “Hardly that, my lady.”

“I heard that you are an assassin. You kill people for my brother?” It was strange to think that she walked next to a murderer. Really, though, if her Roman maids’ gossip were true, she had walked next to any number of them. And while there seemed to be a difference between killing people and having them killed, she wasn’t exactly sure where it resided. Was Cesare a murderer, too?

Micheletto walked in silence for a moment. He didn’t hold himself the way Cesare did, upright and high-strung, like a cat ready to pounce; instead he strolled easily beside her. She would have thought him entirely without cares if she hadn’t known who he was.

“I am whatever Cardinal Borgia needs me to be,” he said. “And I do whatever is needed.”

Lucrezia swallowed. “Was it needed for you to kill Djem?”

“No,” said Micheletto, briefly glancing at her. His eyes were a brighter, colder blue than her own, calm and steady. “The cardinal did not wish him ill.”

“Nor did any others?” she pressed. The memory had begun to fade, with so much else to occupy her. Now it came rushing back.

“That I cannot say. I do not answer to others,” he said.

Perhaps it really had been a fever. “Well,” said Lucrezia, forcing herself to brighten, “how long have you served Cesare? Oh, wait, I know that! It was the night of Cardinal Orsini’s feast, wasn’t it?”

He nodded. Cardinal Orsini died that night, she thought. He had tried to murder her father, the Pope of Rome, and instead found the poison in his own cup, pouring down his own throat. That much she knew from her mother and the servants. Jofrè’s monkey had died, too; she remembered Cesare apologizing to him the next day, saying but he died valiantly, little brother; he saved our father!

What an eventful evening she had missed.

“Less than a year, then,” she said, wondering what Cesare could have possibly done to earn such a man’s loyalty, in such a brief time. “Well, you must have done something before that.”

“Many things,” said Micheletto.

Lucrezia decided she didn’t want to know the details. “Here in Italy? Or are you Spanish, like us?”

“No, my lady. I was born in Forlì.”

“And I was born in Rome,” she said merrily. “Oh, but Forlì—I know of that! My husband's cousin is contessa in Forlì. There are Sforza there, too.”

“There are Sforza everywhere,” he said.

Lucrezia laughed out loud. “Indeed! The duke in Milan and my lord here and Lady Caterina in Forlì … and Cardinal Sforza, of course, with my father. Do you know the Vice-Chancellor?”

Micheletto gave her another one of his considering glances. “I am your brother’s servant, my lady. I do not speak to the other cardinals.” He paused. “Usually.”

“Well,” said Lucrezia, “I didn’t ask if he knew you. I would wager that you know most people better than they know you.” She paused to flick her fingers at a tiny leaf, watching it flutter to the ground. “Even people who are not lords and princes.”

Micheletto said nothing, which she took as yes. Lucrezia’s mind, darting from thought to thought, avoiding the troubles she had left in the castle, returned to his home. “Do you have family there? In Forlì?”

“My mother,” he said slowly.

“Do you visit her?” Lucrezia remembered--tried to remember--her mother’s hands pressing hers, the night of the wedding. She recalled that it had happened, but couldn’t quite feel it. If she were a man, she would ride to Rome to see her, as often as she could. At least Vanozza was not alone in her villa as Lucrezia had been in this castle. She had Jofrè with her; Juan visited her now and then, she wrote, and Cesare came almost daily and often asked her advice.

Perhaps Lucrezia would conceive soon, and then she would have someone of her own. She placed a hand over her stomach, imagining it, but felt only a sharp misery settling there. She did not want a Sforza child, his child. She wanted her family.

“Sometimes I see her,” Micheletto said, sounding faintly bemused, “when I am in Forlì.”

Lucrezia favoured him with one of her brightest smiles. “Not as often as she would wish?”

“That would be impossible, my lady.”

She laughed. “I hope my brother pays you enough to support her.” Lucrezia thought it over. “If half the things I have heard are true, he should pay you a good deal more than that.”

Micheletto actually smiled--or, at least, the muscles around his mouth twitched a little. “His Eminence is extremely generous.”

Lucrezia was not surprised. Cesare had showered her with gifts for as long as she could remember, and Vanozza and Jofrè scarcely less; she knew the servants liked him better than Juan. He would not stint with a man as loyal and useful as Micheletto.

She handed her cloak to him and they walked on. For over an hour, Lucrezia wandered about the grounds, sometimes extracting what she could from the taciturn Micheletto, sometimes silent, unable to keep her thoughts from wandering back to the castle. Micheletto was not scintillating company, but not disagreeable either, and something about him soothed her. He did not strike an imposing figure, but she had an idea that she would find no protector more formidable or more trustworthy. If he had not scruples he had loyalty, loyalty to her family. Well, to Cesare, but that was safer still.

At the edge of the forest, she reluctantly turned to go back, and tripped over a stone. Micheletto’s hand flew out, grasping her shoulder. His grip dug into her bruises.

Lucrezia gasped in pain. Without thinking, she jerked back, Micheletto’s fingers still attached to her sleeve. It pulled aside.

He immediately released her, but it was too late. He stared at the bruises, blank face turning somehow blanker.

Absurdly embarrassed, Lucrezia tugged her sleeve back up.

“Your brother will kill him for this,” Micheletto said quietly.

“No!” He had not even touched the purpling skin, but she felt as if he’d knocked the air out of her. Lucrezia turned away, trying to catch her breath. Panic was beating a staccato rhythm against her ribs. “We need my husband alive! Cesare cannot--he must not--”

“Lady Lucrezia--”

She whirled back, hands clenching her skirts. “You cannot tell him!”

“He would kill me for that,” said Micheletto.

Lucrezia forced herself to think past her thudding heart, the horrified dismay rising in bumps along her arms. She needed her wits now, the wit Giulia had praised so long ago. She needed to think.

“I mean, I must tell him myself,” she said quickly, words almost tripping over each other. “I would not have him hear it from you first. I have only been thinking of the right way to tell him, to preserve the alliance with the Sforza. I--oh, never mind that! I forbid you to speak of this to anyone!”

Micheletto’s eyebrows rose.

“Cesare told you to obey me,” she added, hating the note of desperation in her voice.

“He did not intend betrayal,” he said baldly, “and he will not forgive it.”

“Betrayal? How is it betrayal to leave me to confide my own affairs in my own brother as I will? I am sure he would rather hear it from my lips than yours!” Lucrezia took a deep breath. “And he will. I shall tell him within … within three days, I swear it. Speak to him then, if you insist.” She laid a hand on his arm, eyes wide and pathetic. “Surely it is no betrayal to afford an unhappy lady that much.”

He gazed at her, utterly unreadable. Then he said, “Three days?”

Lucrezia nodded.

“You tell him, then. But it will not matter.”

The painful constriction about her chest dissolved.

“You are a good friend to us, Micheletto,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

*****

Cesare awoke in an excellent mood. His head was clearer than it had been in days, exhaustion no longer gnawed at him, and he thought he might enjoy memories of a drunken Sforza for the rest of his life. And Lucrezia seemed less miserable by the hour.

He stretched, mind already at work. All the solutions he had yet contrived were only temporary measures--very temporary. But a better one would come to him soon. He was convinced of it.

Cesare considered and rejected his robes; it was bad enough to hear your Eminence this and Cardinal that everywhere he went. Dressed in his comfortable leathers, he hurried downstairs to find his sister sitting in a pool of sunlight with her hair spilling over her shoulders. She wore the colour he had discarded, infinitely more natural on her--she could have posed for a saint again, one fiercer than Saint Catherine of Siena.

“Ave Lucretia,” he said.

She lifted up her eyes, thoughtful expression turning delighted, then exasperated.

“It’s too early for blasphemy, Cesare,” she said, but accepted his chaste kiss on her cheek with a smile.

“I hope you slept well?”

“Like a baby,” said Lucrezia. She smoothed her red skirts. “And you, brother? You have no headache, perhaps?”

“Not at all,” he said cheerfully, and sat beside her. “Speaking of headaches, has your husband bestirred himself yet?”

She folded her hands, looking pensive again. “Oh, yes. He rode out early, while I was strolling about the gardens. I saw him leave as we returned--he seemed in a great hurry.”

“Then I cannot accompany him today,” said Cesare. “What a disappointment.”

Lucrezia pinched him, grinning. It spoiled the aura of sanctity about her, but he didn’t care. He would rather see her laughing than holy. Cesare elbowed her back, happier in this hellish place than amidst all the glories of the Vatican.

They were Borgia, he thought. They would find a way.

After breakfast, she led him down to the stables, more to pass the time than out of any particular interest on the part of either. A groom in a ragged shirt perched in a straw-filled loft inside, cleaning a harness. Like most of Sforza’s servants, he looked miserable and hungry.

The groom scrambled down the ladder as soon as they entered. Lucrezia tilted her head to the side, looking thoughtfully at him.

“Lord Sforza is still at the hunt?” said Cesare.

He nodded. “Would your Eminence and my lady have me saddle up horses so they can ride out after him?”

“There is nothing we would like less,” Lucrezia said tartly, gaze still fixed on the servant. Cesare, torn between amused tolerance and distaste, contented himself with remarking on a handsome horse in a nearby stall. He and Lucrezia walked over to pat its nose.

“This is Diablo, your Eminence,” said the groom.

The horse nuzzled Lucrezia’s hand. Cesare gave it a doubtful look.

“He seems hardly diabolical.”

“He was the devil for speed until he tumbled on a break and shattered his hoof.”

“And now?” said Lucrezia.

“His fire is gone entirely. He will end up pulling hay.”

Cesare winced. “A sorry end for such a fine creature.”

“There are worse fates,” said Lucrezia. She pointed at the Arab mare opposite. “And who is this one?”

“Fatima. One could not have them in the same stable when he was in his prime. But after his break … ”

Cesare’s and Lucrezia’s hands stilled. They stared at one another over Diablo’s head.

And there it was.

“He was chastened?” Lucrezia said, eyes still fixed on his.

The groom shuffled behind them. “He is like a mare himself now, my lady.”

Cesare collected himself to ask a few more questions, walking around the stables with Lucrezia flushed and hopeful beside him, anticipation boiling in his gut. Once they left and passed out of earshot, she clasped his arm.

“Do you think …?”

“His saddle could be adjusted,” said Cesare. It was not a permanent solution, of course, but it would do well enough, for now.

“He would fall. He would break,” Lucrezia said, eyes shining. “He would return home, tamed.”

Cesare nodded.

She bit her lip. “Might he die?”

“I have seen him ride,” Cesare said. “He is too good a horseman to die from a fall.”

Her mouth curled up once more, baring her teeth: not quite her old carefree grin, but the next thing to it.

“Micheletto will manage it,” said Cesare. He smiled into her eyes and leaned down to bump her nose, his forehead tilting against hers. But Lucrezia dropped her eyes to his lips, breath quick on his face, and he--wanted. Her fingers dug into his arm, her skin was soft and cool against his, her mouth scarcely an inch away. It would be nothing to kiss her, as he had so many times before.

One time before.

Cesare almost felt her mouth again. My sister, he thought dimly, but she was staring right at him without a trace of horror or even alarm, nothing but a strange half-starved look. She made no sound, but her lips moved. Cesare.

He couldn’t breathe. His mind chanted prayers, desperate appeals to God, the Virgin, anyone who might hear.

Ave, Ave. Ave Lucretia.

Something clattered in the stables. He jerked away, unable to miss the disappointment in her eyes.

Hoarsely, Cesare said, “He shall be broken, sis.”

With a mischievous look, she stood on tiptoe and nudged his nose. “So he shall.”

*****

That night, Giovanni Sforza climbed the stairs in a state of some doubt. Lucrezia had been in good spirits all evening, which he could not but regard as suspicious, and Borgia had done nothing to deny him his rights, which could only be more so. But no new trick hindered his path to his wife’s bedchambers.

When he opened the door, however, he found the room empty but for a maid.

“Where is she?” he demanded.

The maid mumbled something he didn’t bother trying to catch. Sforza turned on his heel and stamped out. No dowry could compensate for this humiliation. He should--

From down the hall, he heard a distant giggle and a man’s laugh. Sforza, eyes narrowing, made his way towards the sound. Mocking him, no doubt, or exchanging filthy Borgia secrets--but Borgia’s door was flung wide open, all but inviting him to see.

Sforza paused in the doorway. His wife and her brother sat on his bed in their shifts, babbling in their corrupted dialect. Borgia’s back was to him; Lucrezia simply did not notice his presence.

Our mother,” she said.

They lifted their hands and began to clap one another’s, like children. While Sforza mentally downgraded the boy cardinal’s age from twenty to perhaps eighteen, Lucrezia said in sing-song voice:

“I took a bow and aimed it low--”

Borgia joined in. “And caught you on the chin, chin, chin.”

They laughed.

“Our mother said: now go to bed, I’ll have to lock you in, in, in …”

Sforza’s skin crawled. He turned and walked away.

Chapter Text

“What is your name, boy?”

The groom only started a little, probably too used to this place for much surprise. He peered over the edge of his loft, scrambling down as soon as he caught sight of Micheletto.

“Paolo,” he said. “And you’re Micheletto, aren’t you? Cardinal Valentino’s man?”

“I serve Cesare Borgia,” said Micheletto. He had sworn himself to an archbishop, now served a cardinal, and would perform his master’s will still when Valentino set aside his robes, as Micheletto knew he would. His loyalties lay with the man, not his ever-changing rank.

Paolo rubbed his eyes. “Does his Eminence want his horse saddled?”

“No.” Micheletto’s face rarely betrayed him, but he stayed in the shadowed rear of the stables regardless, ignoring the curious whinny of a nearby mare. “Tell me of your master, boy.”

“My lord Sforza?” Paolo squinted in his direction. “I--I don’t understand.”

“He is not well-loved, I hear.”

“I … couldn’t say, sir, I…”

Micheletto had already seen distaste settle on the boy’s face, quickly banished by fear. He folded his arms.

“The maids dislike him, the manservants, his own man, his steward. I know that much. And I know he displeases my master.”

Paolo frowned, to all appearances puzzled. “The cardinal? But why?”

“His Eminence is fond of his sister.” It was a strange thing, in truth. Micheletto had chosen to devote himself to Valentino, a churchman little older than this boy, because he saw a fearless, pitiless greatness in him. But from that first evening, he had seen also the bright streak of devotion running through his character: devotion to the Pope, to the aging courtesan that was his mother, to the Lady Lucrezia above all. In another man there would have been no peculiarity in it--even weak, characterless men often cared for their own kin--but Valentino did nothing without consuming purpose. The first times that Micheletto had seen him prostrate himself at his father’s feet, embrace his mother, greet his sister with boyish delight, he had seemed another man entirely.

Micheletto had yet to decide if it were frailty or strength. But for good or ill, that was Valentino: an ambitious and ruthless priest who hated his robes, plotted against his enemies, eagerly studied everything Micheletto could teach him, and risked it all for one fourteen-year-old girl.

“His sister? The contessa? Why would that make the cardinal dislike Lord Sforza?” Paolo’s brow furrowed even more. Micheletto felt a moment’s doubt about the approach he had chosen, if the boy were truly this dim. But then his dark eyes widened. “My lord mistreats her?”

Micheletto inclined his head.

“But … but … it is a crime!” Paolo burst out, flushed and breathless. “Against her beauty, against … she is the Pope’s daughter!”

The cardinal had suggested that this particular groom might prove sympathetic. It seemed, Micheletto thought, that he had underestimated the matter.

“Hardly a crime,” he said, “though my master shares your feelings.”

Paolo’s fingers clutched and unclutched his shirt, more threadbare than anything Micheletto had ever worn. It seemed Sforza added miserliness to his many fine qualities. Micheletto remembered Lady Lucrezia anxiously asking after his pay--a strange concern for a lady, he had thought, but now that, too, was clear.

“How does the Pope stand it?”

“He does not know,” said Micheletto. “That will change soon enough. But until then …” He shrugged.

“The cardinal can do nothing?”

Micheletto rather thought Valentino would cut Sforza’s throat if he came near Lady Lucrezia’s bed again.

“A man’s wife is his wife,” he said.

Paolo glanced over his shoulder at a docile gelding. “That was my lord’s worst-tempered stallion,” he said, pointing. “He was gentled after a fall broke his leg. Maybe … if my lord took a fall, he would be gentled too.”

Micheletto stepped out of the shadows. There was little time left, and he had his master’s money in his pocket for a bribe. But his instincts told him that might ruin everything. He had not lived this long without trusting them.

“Maybe so,” he said, waiting.

“I … I could adjust his saddle,” said Paolo, gulping. “He would not know until he fell. And--even if he is not gentled, he would be weak for at least a month. Maybe more.”

“You would have the cardinal’s gratitude,” Micheletto said. “And his sister’s. But you had better do it now, before Lord Sforza readies for the hunt.”

Paolo’s mouth spread into a wide grin. “Yes, sir!”

*****

Lucrezia passed another day in something like happiness. She was almost growing accustomed to it: no heavy step to dread, no harsh voice or contemptuous glance, no grip bruising her skin. Though her brother stayed at her side, he only touched her lightly, hand just resting against her arm or waist--looked at her with an affectionate gaze--spoke in low, softened tones. There could be no comparison; in fact, she had half a mind to tell Cesare that she was not made of glass.

Instead she let herself be soothed by his solicitude and the comfortable peace. They talked quietly of the poetry she was reading, a letter that arrived from their mother, the state of the papacy, Juan’s latest indiscretions--of everything but the plot already in motion. It is done, Cesare had whispered when he kissed her cheek that morning, but neither dared say more.

Lucrezia had thought she would be anxious over it. What if Sforza noticed the saddle--what if he realized who must be responsible--what if he died--what, even, if all went well, what would happen then--but instead, she regarded all possibilities with serene indifference. She felt considerably more interest in gazing at her brother when she thought he did not look her way, seizing his hand when he did, reassuring herself that he remained at her side, that she had not been abandoned to this fate. She was not alone, not unloved; they were Cesare-and-Lucrezia still, as always before.

Early that evening, as Francesca combed out her hair for the night, a man’s steps passed her door. Lucrezia had heard no sign of Lord Sforza’s return, and it was far too early in any case, but both of them froze. Then, however, they heard a polite knock at the door; neither could quite restrain sighs of relief.

“Is that my brother?” Lucrezia called out.

“Yes.”

She sank back against her chair, smiling. Francesca began to plait her hair.

“My brother who loves me?”

“The same,” he said, voice muffled through the door.

“Come in, then.”

Cesare opened the door. After one glance at Lucrezia, wearing nothing but a robe, and Francesca behind her, his eyes widened and he looked away.

“Forgive me--I did not realize--”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lucrezia, as Francesca tied the end of her braid. “Sit down, unless you just came to stand there and be embarrassed. Did you want something?”

“I was wondering if I might borrow your copy of Blanquerna,” he said. “You brought it with you, did you not?”

Lucrezia blinked. “You want to read it?”

“No, I was thinking of pressing flowers between the pages,” he said, shutting the door behind him. “Of course I want to read it.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “What for?”

Cesare’s gaze flickered to Francesca and back again. “I am afraid your new home does not suit me, sister. I find it difficult to sleep.”

Lucrezia laughed out loud. “I see.” She dismissed Francesca, who hurried away, and strode over to pull out the book. Now she felt every flutter of her robe against her skin, the outer brocade rough where it brushed under her fingertips. She paused, considering.

“Do you have it?” he said, almost sharply. He was hiding something.

She thought of challenging him on it, discovering what possible scheme could involve something so dull and proper. Yet it had been such a nice day. Lucrezia whirled around and walked up to him, handing the book over.

“Yes,” she said, smiling, “but I confess, I do not sleep very well either. You must aid us both!”

She crawled onto her bed, sitting up and pulling her robe modestly around her legs. Cesare just stared at her, Blanquerna in hand and face utterly bewildered.

Lucrezia patted the spot beside her. “Come here, brother. Read to me. I would rest before …”

“Very well,” he said, little less puzzled. He sprawled out horizontally on the enormous bed as he often did at home, head against her knees and legs folded over the edge.

“Oh, does your head hurt? You look as if it does,” said Lucrezia sympathetically. She stroked his forehead, Cesare’s frown smoothing out under her fingers.

“I must write to the Holy Father,” he said, rapidly turning the pages, “and explain my absence from the Vatican.”

“Did he not know that you were to visit me?”

Cesare twisted around to smile at her. “No. I was to travel to Florence and back. Only the impulse of the moment--and my promise to you--brought me here.” He shifted back with a sigh.

“Once my husband is … once he returns,” said Lucrezia, “you could go back to Rome, and Father would not be so angry with you.”

Dread tightened in her at the thought. Without the nightly horror of Sforza’s attentions, she could endure this place alone. Besides, she had known Cesare must travel home sooner or later. He was a cardinal of the Church, the only one their father could truly trust. His place was at the Pope’s right hand. But he lay at peace under her hand, and said,

“I could. I do not think I will.” Then he laughed. “You shall not be rid of me that easily, sis. Ah, here we are. This should do it.”

Lucrezia breathed again. “Llibre d’amic e amat? You might as well skip the prologue.”

“Naturally.” He coughed, and in his most clerical tones, said, “Comencen les metàfores morals.

She giggled.

“Hush. Demanà l’amic a son amat en ell nulla cosa romasa a amar …

Whatever his real purpose, they lay there contentedly for nearly an hour, Lucrezia leaning against her pillows, running her fingers through her brother’s dark hair and listening to his voice. All the while, they waited for the news that must come soon, the excitement she had missed earlier tapping along her bones now. Even so, her limbs grew slack, her hand stilling in Cesare’s hair and her eyes closing as he read, more and more slowly.

“--l’amic a son amat s’acostava pus fortment amor lo turmentava,” he was saying in his sleepy drawl, when they heard footsteps pounding through the hall. They both stiffened, suddenly alert.

Lucrezia touched his shoulder. “Keep reading,” she whispered.

“Where was I? Something, something, torment … ah, cor més d’amor sentia. E cor més de plaers sentia--

The door slammed open.

“An accident, my lady,” Francesca announced, features unperturbed. “The lord Sforza.”

Cesare and Lucrezia looked at her a moment, then sat up, rubbing their faces.

“You must go to your husband, sister,” said Cesare, as he rose to his feet, snapping the book closed. “I hope it is not too serious an injury.”

“Of course,” Lucrezia said. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “And he may have need of spiritual comfort.”

Cesare, his back to the maid, grinned. “I am sure he will.”

He hurried away, Blanquerna under his arm, while Lucrezia followed Francesca downstairs. She heard Sforza’s snarling voice before she saw him, half-lying on a table.

“Leave me alone!”

“It is a break, my lord, but you will survive it,” an unfamiliar man said. Someone must have sent for a doctor already. Lucrezia took a deep breath, smoothing out her face. “Water, please. A muslin cloth and a splint, a piece of wood between his teeth.”

She ran into the room, crying out, “My husband!”

The doctor looked harried and nervous as he attended on Sforza. “Forgive me, my lord. You will feel some pain.”

Lucrezia, Francesca trailing after her, rushed over to Sforza’s side, doing her best to appear both supportive and distraught. Sforza’s face was twisted in pain, and she felt a burst of delight, tamped under skin and muscle. “Be brave, my husband.”

The door swung open again; they all glanced up. Cesare stood framed in the doorway, robed in his cleric’s black, hands clasped.

“My God,” he said, staring at Sforza with a very good approximation of horror. Only Lucrezia could recognize the amusement crinkling around his eyes. Hurrying to stand by them, he said, “I will pray for you, brother.”

“On the count of three,” said the doctor.

“One,” said Lucrezia. “Two. Three!”

With a crack, the doctor set the leg. Sforza screamed.

Behind him, Lucrezia, Cesare, and Francesca grinned at each other, unable to repress their glee. Then Cesare stepped forward and crossed himself, the image of piety.

Domine, exaudi orationem meam ...

Chapter Text

Once again, Cesare did not sleep.

He no longer concerned himself with Sforza, of course. He would be an invalid for weeks, and incapable of much else for week more. The servants … if he did not altogether trust Italian servants, as a rule, he did not particularly distrust these, with their many and varied reasons for loathing Sforza. Micheletto kept watch on Lucrezia’s room, and Cesare had a knife under his pillow. He was tired earlier, too--he hadn’t been altogether dishonest about Blanquerna. Lull could put anyone to sleep.

Even someone with Lucrezia’s thighs under his shoulders, her hands softly touching him. A chill shuddered down Cesare’s spine, a strange, twisting mix of excitement and revulsion. He’d nearly kissed her the other day, too, not at all as a brother should. Half the time his sister’s company brought only something as near to perfect happiness as he ever felt; but the other half, he felt like some starved, half-tamed beast, impossible thoughts running wild through his brain. Last night had been more of the latter, longing for her and unable to forget what she was to him: his sister, his little sister, Lucrezia.

Lying on Lucrezia’s bed, her fingers running through his hair, he could do nothing but read aloud to her, trying to think of anything but her gaze lingering on his mouth, his name on her lips, the chilling dread that filled him whenever he thought he might corrupt her. He’d been a good brother to her, always; he must remain one, however much … he pushed the thought away. He kept reading aloud, aphorism after aphorism, for once ready to fill his mind with God, hoping the contemplations of divine love might distract him from this other.

Naturally, he had no such luck, with a mystic two hundred years dead. Estaven les cogitacions de l'amic enfre oblidança de sos turments e enfre membrança de sos plaers--ha!

Nevertheless, he’d grown tired the longer he read, eyelids heavy as he reached the two hundredth meditation (Digues, foll: has enveja?). But when the maid rushed in, that all faded away; Cesare, hurrying to his room to snatch up his clerical robes, felt as alert as if he’d just woken from a full night’s sleep. His mood was positively light by the time he and Lucrezia watched Sforza suffer through the setting of his leg; he just managed to still the laughter trembling in his throat and pray over his wayward brother-in-law, relishing his pained glower.

It had been--funny, acting as if he were a man of God in truth. There was an odd sort of power in it that he had never considered before, the sure knowledge that nobody would dare lay hands on a cardinal or seriously oppose him. He remembered Lucrezia announcing that he was no duke, but a prince of the Church: nothing to a prince of state, nothing, certainly not worth the shackles that came with it, but a certain something in its own right. He could almost understand the pride in her face, her voice. My brother, the Cardinal of Valencia.

At any rate, these miserable skirts were not entirely without advantage. Cesare, still sitting in his robes, thoughtfully rubbed the black cloth between his fingers. He and Lucrezia would have free reign of this place, with Sforza confined to a sickroom and half-insensible; someone, after all, must take command of Pesaro during Sforza’s indisposition, and who more suitable than the contessa and her brother the cardinal?

That, he could tell his father. He’d spent the better part of two days racking his mind for a suitable excuse for his delay. The fact that his sister had a disagreeable husband who constantly imposed himself on her could not begin to suffice--not for the Pope. He loved them, at the very least loved Juan and Lucrezia, but that love did not weigh in his decisions. He had sold her innocence to Giovanni Sforza, forbidden their mother from the wedding, and railed at Cesare for hours when he brought her anyway, as if he ought to have discarded Vanozza when Rodrigo did. His mother!--No, the Pope would not accept Cesare’s real reasons. But an accident that placed authority directly in Borgia hands, that would do very well. It was not as if there’d been any matters of particular urgency awaiting him in Rome.

It was nevertheless nearly dawn by the time he finished the letter. It must be perfect, faintly apologetic but unconcerned, a little pleased at the good news; and, of course, there was the still more tedious process of ciphering the whole thing by way of Blanquerna. That task done, he might have slept, but the nervous anticipation of the day before had not yet left him. Cesare finally left to prowl about the castle, where he soon encountered Micheletto.

“Lady Lucrezia sleeps peacefully, your Eminence.”

Cesare nodded, and would have passed on, if not for a flicker of--something--across his servant’s face, just visible in the unsteady light of his own candle.

“What is it?” he snapped out.

“Lord Sforza’s accident,” said Micheletto.

“Has been accomplished,” Cesare said, uneasiness settling in his gut. “I am glad to see you succeed at something again. And now it is all over and done with.”

“Not all,” said Micheletto, stepping back into the deeper shadows, far enough that he seemed insubstantial, a voice alone.

Cesare scowled. “What do you mean?”

“It should be a fine day,” Micheletto said. Was he discussing the weather? Cesare could not quite believe his own ears. “Lady Lucrezia might like to take a long ride. Away from the castle.”

Ah.

“We can take the groom,” said Cesare, “but--”

“I have business with him,” said Micheletto, voice flat, then added, “Forgive me, your family’s business. I believe it would be best if you and Lady Lucrezia went alone.”

“And to what surprise will we return?” Cesare paused. “You know that I dislike surprises, Micheletto.”

“There will be none. This is a … trivial matter. You needn’t concern yourself with it, your Eminence.”

“Do I wish to concern myself with it?” Cesare studied the most human-shaped of the shadows.

“I think not,” said Micheletto. “You are an able horseman. No doubt you can manage the contessa’s horse if she has any trouble.”

Cesare took a deep breath. He rarely inquired too deeply into Micheletto’s doings, caring only whether he succeeded or failed. He did not trouble himself over the details; and, though hardly faint of heart, he suspected he would rather not know those details most of the time.

“No doubt,” he said.

Putting the matter out of his mind, he returned to his chambers and waited for dawn, then dressed and sent Blanquerna back to Lucrezia’s room. She herself was already downstairs, attending on her husband. Cesare’s mouth curled; some part of him, though, could not help feeling amused at the prospect of Sforza entirely dependent on Lucrezia’s tender mercies. Lucrezia, he suspected, might very well be enjoying herself.

When he hurried down, however, he saw her leave the sickroom with a bright, brittle smile that dissolved into annoyance as soon as he caught sight of him. Cesare lifted his brows, then decided to take it as as abandonment of her guard rather than any anger at him; neither had easy tempers, but they rarely quarrelled.

“What is it, sis?”

Lucrezia blew out a quick, short sigh, a loose tendril of hair floating up before settling back against her face. Cesare drew closer and tucked it into her net.

“Has he--”

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “My husband thanked me for my kindness.”

“Sforza?”

Her mouth twitched back into a smile, a real one. “Yes! You could hardly be more surprised than I was.” Taking his arm, she led him away, towards the dining hall. “It seems he did not expect me to … concern myself with his health, silly man.”

“He does not understand us very well, sister,” said Cesare.

Lucrezia bit down on her lip. “Indeed not. He was so overcome that he forgave me my blood.” She lifted her eyes to his, bright and cold. “Our blood.”

“Did he?” Cesare could have almost prayed for an end to the alliance, almost wished for betrayal. Anything that would allow him to answer these insults as they deserved. He could feel his teeth grinding together, Lucrezia’s fingernails digging into his arm. “How generous of him.”

“He was in a generous mood,” said Lucrezia, seating herself at one end of the table. “Oh, and he graciously offered me the use of his horse.”

“I am surprised he did not think your blood would taint it,” Cesare said. “Turn it into an Andalusian, perhaps.”

She laughed. 

The doors opened; the servants filed in with food. Even as matters stood, they both knew better than to talk carelessly around them. Lucrezia cleared her throat.

“I should like to have an Andalusian, I think.”

“Then you shall,” Cesare said. He had said the same thing before--many, many times before--ever since she was a very small girl. From the moment she was born, he had doted on her, and from the moment she first babbled mine! he had insisted that she should have anything she desired. She couldn’t have been much more than a year old, Cesare himself barely five, and he’d quarrelled with Juan for not giving up his toys when Lucrezia wanted them. More clearly, he remembered Lucrezia a few years older, running into his room while he tried to study, cheeks tear-stained over some trifle on which she’d set her heart. He almost always stopped what he was doing to calm her down and see that she received whatever she wanted: ribbons, dolls, gowns, eventually jewels, and yes, once, a pony.

You indulge her too much, Vanozza would say as Lucrezia curled up against his side, clutching her newest ribbon or doll or necklace. But he only half heard her, with Lucrezia’s face shining and Rodrigo bestowing one of his rare looks of approval. Rare for Cesare, anyway. Even Vanozza would give his hair an affectionate stroke or kiss his head within moments of scolding him for spoiling his sister. With Lucrezia chattering look, Cesare! Isn’t it beautiful? and his parents smiling down at him like benevolent gods, what did he care if Lucrezia grew used to indulgence? She was a Borgia. Why should she expect anything less?

As she always had, Lucrezia beamed, the last traces of chilly anger fading away. “Your horse is Andalusian, is it not?”

“Yes.” Cesare chewed, then said, “Why don’t you ride him out today?”

“Your horse?” Lucrezia stared at him. “And what will you be doing?”

“Riding with you,” said Cesare. “I shall take your husband’s stallion. You can show me the woods about Pesaro.”

She smiled again. “It does look like a nice day.”

After they finished breakfast, Lucrezia left to change into a more comfortable dress for riding, while Cesare ordered the horses prepared and told the groom he would not be accompanying them. He jerked around when when Lucrezia came hurrying out in a brown coat and jaunty hat, her step lighter and face brighter than he had seen since her marriage. He smiled, and smiled all the more when the groom helped her onto Bucephalus and she seemed to scarcely notice his existence, glancing back over her shoulder at Cesare.

“This was a lovely idea,” she remarked. With one hand on her hat, she tilted her head as she used to do, up to the warm sunlight. “What made you think of it?”

“Micheletto, if you can believe it.”

Lucrezia stiffened. “Your manservant?”

“The very same.” She’d turned forward and Cesare could no longer see her face, but there was no mistaking the set of her shoulders and her seat on the horse. Bucephalus, as good-natured as any beast on four legs, shifted uneasily. Cesare’s eyes narrowed. “What is it? Has he--”

“Oh, no!” she said, turning to smile at him. “I cannot imagine a more faithful friend. It is only my own foolishness. I made him a wager and I fear I may lose it. It was nothing of significance, but you know how I dislike losing.”

“You made...Micheletto…?”

Lucrezia, either not hearing or ignoring him, dug her heels into Bucephalus’ sides. Cesare could only gallop after her. When he caught up and they slowed to a walk, Lucrezia instantly started talking about a clearing she wanted to show him. Cesare frowned at her, but decided to let it pass for now.

Lucrezia herself had no such compunctions. “Now you must explain yourself, brother.”

“I?” He was still trying to imagine how Micheletto and Lucrezia had even managed to hold a conversation long enough to bet on anything.

Blanquerna. You cannot think I really believed that you wanted it to help you sleep. Besides, I heard that you did not sleep at all.”

“Are you spying on me, sis?” Cesare peered into the forest ahead; he’d expected something drearier, heavier, but in fact it seemed to be pretty and sprawling. As they rode into the forest, the sun shone warmly down on them with just a tint of green. He could easily maneuver the horses if he needed to.

“Worrying,” said Lucrezia. Before he could protest, she added, “And you need not change the subject.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said unconvincingly.

“Cesare.” Lucrezia turned her head to glare at him, but her very evident happiness made it scarcely more credible than his denial. “You know you cannot lie to me. You just wanted the Llibre d’amic e amat, didn’t you?”

“I may have,” he said, and at another impatient look, gave in. “We use it as a cipher for family business--our father and I. I told you I had a letter to write to him.”

She smiled. “So you did.”

They rode on, sometimes making idle conversation, sometimes contentedly silent. If last night had been torment, today was pleasure, a pure, easy enjoyment of one another’s company, the horses, the Arcadian scenery all around them. Lucrezia, after pausing a moment to regain her bearings, led him to a still more idyllic spot, a small shining pond in a peaceful glade, where trees grew more thickly and the sunshine took on a deeper shade of green.

“I’m tired. We can rest here,” Lucrezia announced.

She did not look remotely sleepy, nor drained from the exercise either--rather the reverse. Cesare, however, felt a distant, encroaching exhaustion. He doubted Lucrezia could see it, but gladly took advantage of the excuse, tying up the horses, dropping his cloak on the ground for Lucrezia, and settling beside her.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. The wave of her hand encompassed the entirety of the glade.

Cesare glanced around, then down into the smooth waters of the pool. “Yes,” he said.

He saw satisfaction in the curve of her mouth, the sly sideways flicker of her eyes. Not a breath of wind disturbed the perfection of the paired images, the water so clear and bright that he could see, as if in a mirror, every shade of their clothes, the sky above, the gold of her hair and the shadowed pallor of his own unsmiling face. Neither spoke, content to gaze into the waters for a minute. Cesare, in fact, was so tired that he felt as if he could remain there indefinitely, until his body wasted away.

“Like Narcissus,” murmured Lucrezia.

Cesare started. “How did you …”

“I have read my romances, brother.”

“Hardly a romance, dear sis,” he said. “It is rather horrible if you think about it.”

“A tragic romance is still a romance.” Lucrezia’s expression turned solemn as she stared at their mirrored faces. “I almost wish we could sit here forever. Everything is so lovely, and nobody can see or judge … and there we are, Cesare and Lucrezia together.”

“So we are.” Cesare smiled, his mirrored expression lightening. “And which of us is Narcissus?”

Lucrezia’s eyes shifted from his face, to hers, then back again. “I don’t know.” Mischief tugged at her eyes and mouth. “We are both very beautiful, after all!”

Despite himself, Cesare burst out laughing.

“Neither, I think. I am too dark,” he said. “And for all your pretty words, my love, you are far too sensible to wither before a figure that cannot be heard or felt or touched.”

“Oh, but it can. Do not move!” said Lucrezia. Cesare, puzzled, held himself still, only to see Lucrezia lean down to touch her lips against his reflected mouth. His breath caught in his throat, sharp and sudden.

“Lucrezia--”

“I always imagined Narcissus as dark,” she said.

He just shook his head. In the pool, the ripples from her kiss stilled; he could see the blood risen in his cheeks, as if he were a raw boy and she had not kissed him a thousand times and more. Then, inevitably, his gaze drifted to Lucrezia’s face, like a painting in the water. But her own eyes glanced to the side, fixed not on her reflection but his. They were neither of them looking at themselves, not Narcissus at all.

Perhaps.

*****

Cesare eventually stretched out on Lucrezia’s coat, discarded when the bright heat of the day made her uncomfortable. They talked now and then, the conversation slow and soothing until he failed to answer an idle question. Lucrezia twisted around and saw that he’d fallen asleep, head cushioned on the heavy fur collar of her coat. She smiled down at him, reaching her hand out, then drawing it back. Cesare slept lightly; often the smallest touch would wake him, and he must be tired, after another sleepless night.

Lucrezia sighed. She would have to tell him when he awoke. Micheletto, she suspected, had suggested this ride away from the castle for that very purpose--and if not, she owed him thanks for it nevertheless. Here, at least, Cesare could not immediately murder her husband. She could talk to him. But she knew not what to say. How could she soften such a thing?

It was so stupid, really, treating the Pope’s daughter as he had. Sforza, not Cesare, had risked the alliance on a grudge. At least Cesare had a reason. Lucrezia tried to imagine what she would do if she discovered that some terribly important ally had beaten Cesare and threatened worse. Tell Micheletto, probably. That would put an end to it: but of course, there could not be an end while Cardinal della Rovere threatened their father’s papacy.

Nobody was watching, so Lucrezia drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs, like she had as a child. She rested her cheek on her knees, eyes squeezed shut. She didn’t want to cry. She kept remembering what Giulia had said about her wits--she had them, she did, but what good could they do her here? No matter how prettily she put it, as soon as Cesare understood, he would be set on vengeance. Any brother would, even one less devoted than Cesare. Jofrè would probably cheer him on. Juan would have strung Sforza up already. And of course, Cesare was Cesare.

A small, weak part of her wished she could just let him do it. Sforza had dared raise his hand against a Borgia. Should he not die for it? He was just as cruel and unjust to others. Lucrezia remembered Francesca, that first night--

He may deserve death, she reminded herself, but we need him.

Lucrezia lifted her head, gazing at her sleeping brother. She could almost have laughed. Juan slept sprawled out, often smelling of wine and worse, but Cesare lay curled up like Jofrè, one hand under his cheek, long legs bent as if trying to take up as little space as possible. With his hair scattered around his head and face at peace, lashes dark against his cheeks, he looked like an angel off a fresco. And here she was trying to keep him from murder. Or at least killing. A challenge would not be murder, if he remembered to issue one, but a dead Sforza was a dead Sforza, regardless.

Lucrezia sat by him for over an hour, turning the quandary over and over in her mind, one moment wishing Cesare the mild and pragmatic sort of man one’s cardinal brother should be, the next looking down and loving him so much that her heart broke, a little. She knew she would change nothing, even if she had the power. She did not want him a shade different than he was. She wanted--she wanted--

Lucrezia’s breath gasped out, the sound harsh, loud in the peace of the glade. She brought one clenched hand to her mouth, stifling herself.

She knew what she wanted. And she knew what she must do.

A light rustled through the trees, stirring Lucrezia’s hair. Cesare shifted and mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath; her stomach clenched, but he did not wake.

Perhaps their mother was right, and she loved him too much. Too much, at any rate, to spare that kind of love for anyone else. Sforza was a monster, but if he had not been, she still would not have loved him. She wondered if Cesare loved her as much; did he care more for that lady in Rome, the one he had met at her wedding? Or even for the rest of their family? Not Juan, obviously, but Mother and Father and Jofrè?

Yet he was here. He stayed. He stayed and attached himself to her side, affection in every word and gesture, exhausting himself twice. He had sent off a letter to their father only this morning, informing the Pope of his continued residence in Pesaro; he stayed even with Sforza lying injured in his bed, at the mercy of the women he had beaten. Lucrezia thought of how, sometimes, he looked at her and touched her as if she were something sacred--of how, at other times, she caught glimmers at the edges of his contented devotion, something more like desperation, almost despair.

Yes, he loved her just as she did him, above all others. They had spent their hearts on each other, all they had to give, with only scraps left for anyone else. She knew it was like that for him, too, knew what he wanted. She’d seen it, her own longing reflected in his face.

Lucrezia shifted around, just a little closer to his sleeping body, her legs bent to the side. She could stare at him forever, like Narcissus. But that was not what she truly wanted to do. And it was not what she needed to do. She released another breath, a softer one, then reached out and brushed his shoulder.

“Cesare,” she whispered.

He must have been truly exhausted; he neither woke, nor responded in any way. Lucrezia reached out with shaking hands and pulled at the lacing on his doublet. She could not resist the impulse to tug a little at his shirt, stroking her thumb down the smooth skin at his collarbone, softer than his face. Cesare shifted at that. Lucrezia, shivering with both anticipation and anxiety, leaned down over him and kissed him, lingering over his mouth until she felt him move awake. His lips pressed back against hers: the kiss of promise, Lucrezia thought dizzily. His hand crept up to her face, stroking over her cheeks, loose tendrils of hair curling around his fingers. Her memories had not deceived her. She felt as if light danced under her skin, for one perfect moment.

Then he jerked back and upright, his eyes flying open. “Lucrezia!”

“Yes?” She rocked back, leaning on the heels of her hand.

“What are you doing?

She tilted her head to the side. “Have you forgotten? You said you had not.”

Cesare looked down at himself, eyes widening still further. “I …”

“I couldn’t,” said Lucrezia. “I think about it constantly. I have--I have been so unhappy, Cesare. You cannot know what it has been like. Nobody can. I could hardly remember feeling anything else, but I would think of you … remember your kisses, the touch of your hand. It was my only consolation.”

He shut his eyes, then opened them again, surprise, guilt, gratification, and anger all passing over his face in quick succession.

“I did not forget,” he said, a note in his voice that she almost never heard from him, “but I should have. I have tried.--I have failed.”

Well, Lucrezia thought, at least he no longer looked like a maiden whose modesty had just been outraged.

“I have not tried at all,” she said. “Why should I? I had no other comfort.”

“I am your brother, Lucrezia,” said Cesare, more weakly, though shame still lay heavy on the words. He straightened, not bothering to lace up his doublet, but leaning his arm on one knee. His face was very pale and his eyes very dark, scarlet rising along his cheekbones. “There is a word for this. I would not have anyone say it of you.”

“A word for what?” she demanded. “For loving me more than the baronessa Ursula, or some other woman you only half-know? Or do you not love me?”

He looked more horrified than before. “No! Lucrezia--”

“Do you love me or not?” Lucrezia’s hands lay in fists in her lap.

Cesare lifted his eyes to her.

“I love you,” he said. “You know that.”

“Yes, I do know!” Lucrezia searched his gaze. The hints in the sideways glances, the lingering touches and broken-off stares, they were all stark in his face. No hiding or pretending any more. “I am the only person in the world you love without qualification or resentment or confusion, aren’t I?”

“Yes.” His mouth pulled into a faint smile. “Well. Some confusion.”

“And yet you pull away from me. You have spent our lives pulling away from me, because--what? There is a word? You will not even say it. Why should we care if people who hate us, hate our blood and our language and our father, use one more insult? For heavens’ sake, Cesare, you yourself told me that this friar in Florence preaches against my hair. Would you have me cut it off to appease him?”

“God, no.” Cesare looked as scandalized as if she had suggested cutting off a finger. He reached for her hand, running his thumb along her wristbone. Lucrezia, suppressing a shiver, could not help feeling that this did not quite strengthen his position. “Lucrezia. You are so young.”

“Says the doddering old man of eighteen,” she retorted. “I was old enough to be married.”

He ignored that. “You are my sister, blood of my blood, soul of my soul. Do you understand?” He sighed and looked away, her hand still caught in his. His teeth bit down on his lip. “You are the light of my life, sis. You are the only light in my life. I will not sacrifice that for a moment’s pleasure.”

“And what of my pleasure?” Lucrezia jerked her fingers away and yanked her sleeve down, just off her shoulder. Defiant, she tilted her chin up. “Is this the only touch I am to have?”

Cesare was gazing at her bruised shoulder in undisguised horror. His mouth opened, but he said nothing, just reached a hand towards it, just above the worst bruise. Then he flinched and pulled it back, rage unmistakable in the line of his jaw and brow. His teeth clenched.

“I will kill him. I swear to you, Lucrezia, I shall carve his heart out of his body,” he said, “and give it to you on a platter!”

Lucrezia put a hand over his chest.

“I don’t want his heart,” she said. “I want yours.”

He stared at her, eyes wide and black and shining. She could hear his quick breaths, feel the beat of his pulse beneath his thin white shirt. When she moved closer to him, he stayed frozen in place, but did not move away either. Lucrezia reached out, touched his chin with her thumb as she had so often done, then his lip. She felt his breath shudder against her fingertips.

“It can be a secret,” whispered Lucrezia.

His eyes closed. She rose up to kiss him, feeling rather shy; she half-expected him to flinch back again, or push her away. But at the tentative brush of her mouth, he kissed her back, careful, slow, his heart racing underneath her hand. One of his hands slid past her waist, the other up her neck, into her hair. Lucrezia, pressing kisses against his mouth, shivered in his arms.

I love you, I love you, I love you.

Cesare’s lips parted beneath hers.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia, Lucrezia.

Cesare just managed to hold himself still, legs at awkward angles, while Lucrezia braced herself against him, one hand on his shoulder and the other grasping his shirt. He adjusted his grip on the small of her back, feeling her sway under his fingers. It was uncomfortable and it was impossible to care.

I should not--

The thought dissolved at a clutch of Lucrezia’s fingers, nails digging into his shoulder. Yet their mouths hardly touched, hovering a hair apart, brushing together, parting again, the kiss as much in their mingled breath as the graze of their lips.

Cesare pulled away, opening his eyes. Lucrezia’s face was still tilted up, lips parted, eyelids lifting heavily. She looked as if she had just found more pleasure than most did in the beds of their lovers. Her lips curved, slow and contented.

In that moment, Cesare would have laid more hearts than Giovanni Sforza’s at her feet, had she wanted. Entire cities. Empires. Anything, anything at all, as long as it kept her smiling.

But there was nothing new about that. He smiled back.

“I should not be here, my love,” he said.

Lucrezia looked even happier. “No. You should be in Rome.”

Helpless, he drew her close, pressing their foreheads together, hand still curled about her neck. “Shall you send me away? Back to the Vatican?”

“No,” whispered Lucrezia. She raised her eyes. “Are we falling, Cesare?”

Into sin? Love? Was there any difference?

“I don’t know,” he said, scarcely hearing his own words. He leaned down to kiss her properly, slanting his open mouth against her upper lip. Lucrezia, with a small humming noise, pressed herself closer. Her arms slid about his neck. She was kneeling between his legs, her hands in his hair again, and when she caught his lip between hers, his mind fell into a white-hot blank. Cesare couldn’t think. He could scarcely breathe. He licked into her mouth, fingers tightening in her hair at the scrape of her teeth.

“God,” he whispered, despite himself. “My God, sis.”

Dimly, it occurred to him that he should not say … should not … something. But Lucrezia pressed kisses over his face and then there was nothing but her.

“Cesare.” Lucrezia ran her fingers over his hair, his cheekbones, too frantic for him to catch her mouth. He kissed her where he could and stroked her neck down to the collar, her skin soft and hot under his own shaking fingers. “Cesare. Cesare.

Her body was pliant in his arms and her mouth urgent and still he craved more. He felt fever-mad with it, with her. His skin must be as warm as hers, Lucrezia burning him up, both of them burning each other up. She could take him. Right here, right now. Nobody would know. Sforza--

Sforza. Cesare’s hands, already at the laces to her gown, stilled.

“Lucrezia,” he managed to say, voice low and hoarse, scarcely audible even to his own ears. He cleared his throat. “Lucrezia!”

“Brother,” she murmured.

Cesare winced. Then she rocked back on her heels to gaze at him, her lips red and swollen, a deep flush high on her cheeks and a few locks of white-gold hair falling over her face. He not only forgot to be embarrassed, he might have forgotten his own name if it were not also hers.

“I …” His mind cooled enough to grasp that she’d been kneeling the whole time. “You …”

“Hm?”

He gathered a few shreds of reason. “Sit down.”

Lucrezia pouted and shifted around to sit without moving much backwards, her folded legs now pressed directly against his calf. Cesare shut his eyes, trying to think of anything else.

Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera--

“Why, Cesare,” said Lucrezia sweetly, “you don’t look comfortable.”

He flicked her cheek, then pulled both his hands away from her and clasped them together. “You are a fiend, my love,” he said.

She grinned.

“But we must speak.” He sobered, laced fingers clenching. “About your husband.”

Lucrezia frowned. Dropping her eyes, she reached a hand up to his collarbone and toyed with the loosened laces of his shirt. “Must we? You cannot kill him, you know.”

“Oh?” Cesare glanced at her shoulder, covered by its sleeve again. It didn’t matter. He would never forget. “I would gladly cut his throat, if it were not too easy a death.”

“No,” she said. “We need the Sforza arms, Cesare. You understand that as well as I do.”

“I don’t care. He defiled your innocence, your happiness. I shall see that he pays for it.”

“Perhaps,” said Lucrezia, “but not yet.”

“You sound like our father.”

“And you sound like Mother,” she retorted.

“Mother? What has she to do with any of this?”

Lucrezia stared at him. “Have you forgotten already? It was our mother who gave Cardinal della Rovere cause to depose Papa!”

“You mean it was our Holy Father who gave him cause,” said Cesare. “Unless I have grossly misunderstood the situation, it was not Mother who committed public lechery with Giulia Farnese!”

They both glowered at the ground. But a moment later they lifted their eyes, sheepish, and laughed.

“Can you imagine it?” she said.

He shuddered. “I am trying not to. Mother would die first.”

“Well, perhaps if Papa--”

“Lucrezia, no.” Cesare gave her the sternest look he could manage, in the circumstances. “As far as Mother is concerned, this conversation never happened.”

Lucrezia giggled. “But really, Cesare, you must see that marching into the Vatican and storming at him in public created a great many difficulties.”

“What I see is that this affair, in itself, made a great many difficulties, of which that was but one,” said Cesare. He was conscious, in some remote corner of his mind, that a man sprawled out in a forest glade with his sister sitting between his legs probably had little room to judge, but he persevered. “He took a new mistress at the worst possible moment. That was his doing.”

“How can we blame him?” said Lucrezia. She laid her hand against his face, rubbing her thumb over his cheekbone, gazing at him with her impossible mix of steady, companionable affection and rapture. Cesare turned his face into her hand, repressing temptation to do anything but kiss her palm. She shivered nonetheless, withdrawing her hand to her lap.

Her voice thick, she added, “We cannot help where we love. You and I should understand that better than anyone.”

“He could help where he--” Cesare bit off the end of the sentence. Leaning back on the heels of his hands, he said, “We understand the need to maintain your reputation. We understand staying out of the sight of prying eyes. We understand restraining ourselves for months. The Pope has not shown half the restraint and discretion we have. Do you see? Even if he does love Lady Giulia, he did not have to claim her as his mistress the moment the whim took him. He did not have to flaunt her all over Rome. If you had not told Mother, she would have heard of it from someone else, and probably someone less careful than you were.”

She caught her lip between her teeth, worrying it. Through sheer force of will, he kept his eyes on hers except for one brief downward glance, fingers digging into the grass.

Lucrezia, being Lucrezia, only smiled. “Well, yes. I understand why she was so angry. And you must not think I don’t admire Mother! I can only pray to someday have her beauty and wit and grace.”

Cesare opened his mouth.

“But what she did made everything worse. It was not wise. And that would be nothing to killing my husband! The Pope--”

“Damn the Pope, Lucrezia--”

“No! Listen to me!” Lucrezia grabbed his shoulder again, flushed and almost angry, her jaw set. “You wanted details, Cesare. Very well. You shall have them.”

His throat went dry.

“My wedding night was consummated in the harshest possible manner. Lord Sforza marched into my chambers, scolded me about my family, then ripped my nightdress off and threw me on the bed. You cannot imagine how confused and frightened I was. I … I tried to push him away, to catch my breath, and he grabbed me and held me down and--” Her face crumpled, hand clapping over her mouth, eyes squeezing shut. Tears still streaked down her cheeks, her entire body shaking.

“Lucrezia.” His instinct was to reach out to comfort her, as he always had, but he hardly dared touch her. When she bent her head towards his shoulder, however, he could not help but tug her the rest of his way, curling his arms around her. Lucrezia pressed her face against his shirt; he could feel every tremble of her body, every ragged exhalation, every spasm in her grasping fingers.

Cesare stroked her back, inwardly furious that he could not do more, that he had not done more. He should have done something to prevent this. He was her older brother, her oldest brother. He should have protected her. He should have spoken more forcefully to the Pope, and if that made no difference … he might at least have persuaded him to choose someone else. A Neopolitan, perhaps, or some Medici or Orsini. Rage and failure burned in him, coiled about his chest until he could hardly breathe. And Lucrezia, for fourteen years so bright and sunny that she seemed to walk on air--Lucrezia cried into his shoulder.

He had never imagined that her wedding night had been pleasurable, never supposed that it would be, truly, but he had not--Cesare took a deep breath, pressing his lips against her hair. He murmured something, endearments, he scarcely knew. Sis, sis, my love, Lucrezia--

Her hands tightened, then smoothed out the wrinkles her fists had left in his shirt, as if he cared. She drew back far enough to lift her eyes to his. “Every night, Cesare. It was always the same, except after that, he slapped me if I wept. He beat me if I made him cross about anything, the whole day. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I had done! And I never knew what might enrage him. It could be anything.” She scrubbed at her face. “Or nothing. There was one day when I never even saw him, and that night he took me like a dog against the headboard. I didn’t think anything could be worse than the thrusting, but my head kept hitting the board and I--I think I fainted.”

“No, my love,” he said, voice so raw that he would not have known it for his own. “He beat you into oblivion. There … is a difference.”

I will gut him for it. Bile was sharp and acrid on Cesare’s tongue. Sforza might have killed her, delicate as she was. And he hadn’t been there.

“Yes, I suppose,” said Lucrezia. “Well, he did not beat me constantly. But he always thrusted.” She shuddered. “Do you think I never thought of killing him myself? Or sending for you? Writing to Papa? Sweet Virgin, sometimes I almost wished to die, myself. But I kept my silence for the Sforza arms, for our family. And you would throw that away in a moment's temper? No! I will not have endured it for nothing, Cesare!”

He hesitated, and Lucrezia’s expression softened, the flash of anger fading as it always did--though she looked no less resolute. She reached for his wrist, her fingers too small to even encircle it.

“I do not ask for you to … to exert yourself in friendship,” she said, almost tripping over the words. “Only to stay your hand until this matter of Cardinal della Rovere blows over.”

He lifted a brow. “Blows over?”

“Resolves itself,” she amended. “In some way or another.”

Cesare drummed his fingers against his knee. He would have Sforza’s blood sooner or later: of that there could be no doubt. Had Lucrezia wished it, he would do it now and damn the consequences. But now, at least, he thought through the consequences. The Sforza would undoubtedly join della Rovere’s cause, the Riarii with them. Others might flock to such a banner; by and large these great Italian families hated each other more than they hated Spaniards--thankfully--but his dubious honours already offended them. A Valencian bastard in the College of Cardinals! The looks on their faces had been his only consolation. If he murdered a Sforza in his bed… Even if the Pope were not deposed, he would never forgive him.

Cesare would risk it, for Lucrezia. But if she did not wish it--not yet--well, it was true that Sforza’s death would render her suffering meaningless. He bit his lip and glanced up. Lucrezia was gazing at him with a peculiar nervous intensity, not at all like her.

“I cannot answer for what I will do if I am left alone with him,” he finally said.

Lucrezia smiled, anxiety dissolving on a sigh.

“And I shall not bear another insult to either of us. I shall not leave you here. If he makes any trouble over it--”

“Thank you,” she said, and kissed him lightly. It could almost have been a sister’s kiss, even the stroke of her fingers over his face nothing out of the ordinary for them. But they had never been ordinary, and Lucrezia hovered a breath away, searching his face for something, so close that he could feel the warmth of her blushing face. His heart was pounding all over again--over a trifling kiss; God only knew how he looked right now. By her expression, however, whatever she found pleased her.

Unable to resist the satisfaction in her face, he leaned down to kiss her neck, smiling at her small, stifled moan. He only just remembered that he should not mark her, that it was one thing to take their delight in each other’s touch a few steps further, another to expose her to vile gossip. Cesare lingered a moment, feeling more than hearing the thrum in her throat, unsure if he was unwilling or simply unable to tear himself away.

It was a dangerous game they played.

Forgive me, he thought, but lifted his head to see his sister languid, dreamy-eyed, happy: justification enough. The words died on his lips.

He cleared his throat. “We … we should return to the castle, sis.”

Lucrezia looked disappointed, but agreed readily enough, then smiled to herself and began lacing his doublet up. She bent her head as she worked, brow knit in concentration, Cesare holding the sides in place and looking down at the smooth slope of her neck. With a fortitude that surprised even him, he did not touch it, but only tucked the strands of hair he had loosened back into her net, reciting church law in his head.

Hardly speaking, they shook out their cloaks, fastened them, and untied the horses. Lucrezia did not wish to ride, so they led them away on foot; she slipped her hand into his with her old confiding look. Cesare smiled and tightened his hand around hers.

He glanced over his shoulder as they left. The glade still gleamed in the afternoon sunlight, the trees wafting gently in the breeze, the pond glass-smooth and untroubled. They might never have been there. Yet he could almost imagine that shadows of themselves remained by the water, ghosts of their lives until today, gazing eternally at their faded reflections.

Nonsense. Nothing had changed. Cesare’s attention returned to Lucrezia, eyes firmly fixed ahead.

“I do not see any reason for you to spend much time around him,” said Lucrezia.

It took him a moment to remember what they had been talking about. Ah yes, Sforza--and the necessity, however regrettable, of his continued existence.

“Especially,” she added, “if you truly do mean to buy an Andalusian for me.”

Cesare shook his head, bemused. He had not thought his mind that clouded. “What? That is, yes, of course, but--”

“No doubt it will be a great deal of trouble.”

He shrugged. “That is no matter.”

“Well, I should not like you to go to so much effort and expense for nothing. They are fine horses, are they not?”

“Very fine.” 

“Yet I am not a great horsewoman,” said Lucrezia thoughtfully. “I should strive to become worthy of such a gift, I think. I must practice my horsemanship--and you must help me! We shall go out riding every day, and leave Lord Sforza to recover in peace and quiet.”

He looked at her, catching her laughing sideways glance.

A dangerous game, indeed.

“Of course, sis,” said Cesare.

Chapter Text

There could be no almost to Lucrezia’s happiness now. She walked hand-in-hand with her brother, stealing glances at his handsome face, remembering that same hand in her hair, at her throat. Would he kiss her again? Would he--

She blushed and looked away, fingers tightening on his hand. Lucrezia could feel the sunshine beating down on them, warm on her hair like a halo; she felt gilded by it, gleaming and beautiful. For the first time since her wedding night, she thought she would like to dance again. She could wear one of her old pretty gowns, white or pink or blue, unwind her hair to her waist--Cesare had always loved her hair--and let it swing with her. They could glide through the steps together, again, hands brushing, sprezzatura in every step. Nobody else had ever been able to match her.

Certainly not Sforza. The thought almost lowered her mood, but she reminded herself that he would not touch her, could not touch her; she and Cesare had seen to that. And yet he would live, and the alliance upon which all depended would live with him. There was nothing left to trouble her, to shadow the perfection of her happiness.

Cesare smiled at her, talking about finding her horse in Mantua when this was all over, though he did not wish to support that fool Gonzaga’s pretensions. Perhaps he could write to their cousin Joan and--

Lucrezia couldn’t help laughing, so easily and effortlessly that they might have been chasing each other in Valencia or Rome again. “Joan? I cannot remember the last time I saw him. Where is he now?”

“He lives in the archbishop’s palace.”

“Your palace,” said Lucrezia.

Cesare blinked, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “I suppose so. He does the work of archbishop; I hardly begrudge him the rewards.”

“Well, it’s a comfort to know that it is there,” she said, “if worst does come to worse.”

He gave her a sharp look. “If our father is deposed?”

“I’ve heard the stories, Cesare--about what happened to the Valencians and Catalans in Rome when our uncle died. And Pope Calixtus was …”

“Not Pope Alexander,” said Cesare dryly.

“Yes.” Lucrezia hesitated. “We have no real friends here, do we? We don’t even have allies beyond the Sforza. Everything depends on Papa. If anything happens, perhaps--perhaps it would be better to go home.”

“We could run away to Valencia,” he murmured, eyes distant, almost wistful. Then they sharpened. “If Father is deposed, you mean. But it is not your home, Lucrezia. You don't even remember it.”

“Not exactly,” said Lucrezia, “but the villa isn’t very Italian, is it? Mother always said she was trying to create a piece of Spain--and Father said that it made him feel like he was home again. And people talk about our apartments in the Vatican, too.”

Cesare laughed. “I grant you that.”

She could only recall seeing the city proper in a small painting that their father had brought with him, Gandia and Xàtiva in sketches; her picture of her homeland came more from Rodrigo’s descriptions and Cesare’s and Juan’s memories. Still, the idea tugged at her in a strange way. She turned it over in her mind, considering.

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” she said. “I am sure the palace is very comfortable, and …” Lucrezia lowered her eyes, frowning a little. “Well, nobody would sneer about our language or our blood or call us marranos, would they? It is one thing to be Valencian in Rome, another in Valencia, in the archiepiscopal palace. Wouldn’t you rather live comfortably in your palace than come to some horrible end here?”

“I would rather anything than obscurity,” he said. “You know that.”

“Anything?” She clutched his hand so tightly that his ring bit into her hand.

“Anything,” said Cesare firmly, “as long as you … ” He looked down at her, gaze both intense and affectionate, not seeming to realize that he’d fallen silent and stopped walking. Lucrezia couldn’t take her eyes from his face; before she could ask him what he meant, he abruptly kissed her. She couldn’t help a muffled noise of surprise, which she regretted as soon as she made it; this was no quick graze of lips, but turned to a deep kiss, his mouth hard and open and hungry on hers. But he didn’t seem to have heard, anyway, and Lucrezia, hot and dazed, eagerly returned the kiss. His breath was quick, harsh, as if he’d been fighting bulls again and not strolling through a forest, his fingers tight on her wrist; he kissed her like a man starved until he jerked away.

“Forgive me,” he mumbled.

She stood still, struggling to regain her senses. “For what? I love you.” And though she could not bring herself to say so, she liked it when he forgot himself, loved the way he kissed her then, with no thought of the restraint and discretion he’d talked about before, no thought of anything but love and desire for her.

She loved it all the more now, when he’d all but said that he would put her before ambition and glory. Even their father had not. But she still remembered her mother saying, Your brother and I tried to talk to him… Relief leapt high in her throat. Cesare wasn't like the Pope. He loved her more than anything.

“I should not …”

Lucrezia cast him a sideways glance and returned to her previous line of thought. “You hold the palace in your own right, don’t you? As archbishop? It wouldn’t be like the Vatican. Nobody would tell us--tell you where to go and what to do, not in your own palace. And you are cardinal, too. Nobody could command you.”

“You almost make me wish for the downfall of our house,” said Cesare. A jest, of course; he did not mean it, he could not possibly mean it, and in no part of her mind did she believe him. Yet there was something solemn in his laughing eyes, the curl of his mouth, running beneath the light tone. He stroked her wrist. “Shall we be Cèsar and Lucrècia again, dear sis?”

Lucrezia’s skin tingled. “I pray not. It is only a … possibility.” Then she giggled. “You need not spoil our cousin’s comfort just yet! Poor Joan. He administers Valencia for you, doesn’t he?”

“Yes. The palace is his by right if not name.”

“I am sure he has quite enough concerns without attending to my whims.”

Cesare shrugged. “Even a dutiful archbishop hardly suffers through a life of constant labour. No doubt most of his time is devoted to books and letters. He can spare a few hours’ study to return a small part of the favours he has received from us. Knowing our cousin, he’ll find it an amusing diversion, anyway.”

“Write to him, then,” she said happily. The conversation should, perhaps, have dampened her spirits, but it did not. Not long ago he had shielded her from such things, insisted that the scraps she’d managed to dredge up were too much for her to know; but now he told her what he really thought and felt, talked to her of matters of state, listened to her. Lucrezia was still smiling when they reached Pesaro.

They found the stables empty of all but the horses. Rather perplexed, both glanced around for the groom--Paolo, she remembered, that young handsome boy--but he seemed to have abandoned his post. It was Micheletto who answered their calls, strolling around the corner to take their horses.

“Where has that wretched boy gone?” Cesare demanded.

“I cannot say, your Eminence,” said Micheletto, glancing at Lucrezia. “Two letters arrived for you, however, and another for Lady Lucrezia.”

“Letters? From whom?” she said.

“I do not know. I cannot read, my lady,” said Micheletto. He started leading the horses to the stables and Cesare turned away.

“I--I want to see Fatima,” Lucrezia blurted out. “You read the letters, Cesare--mine as well, please?”

Cesare lifted his brows but only said, “Of course. I will see you when you return.”

For a moment, she just watched him stride towards the castle, cloak fluttering. Then she hurried after Micheletto. He seemed to have no difficulty with the horses; perhaps he had once been a groom himself, at some point in his his undoubtedly varied career. Lucrezia left him to it, patting Fatima’s lowered head and whispering to her while Micheletto worked. It was only when she heard the last gate close that she said,

“He knows.”

Micheletto’s quiet steps behind her stopped for a moment. Then he walked over to stand near Fatima’s stall, leaning on the nearest gate. “You have told Cardinal Borgia about your husband?”

Lucrezia glanced up at him and nodded. His face was impassive, but she felt a burst of pride. “Yes. He promised me he would not kill him.”

“Oh?” Micheletto murmured.

I convinced my brother,” she said, lifting her chin.

“I see.”

Abruptly conscious that she was explaining herself--well, boasting--to a man she scarcely knew, a servant, at that, she jerked back around. Fatima snuffled hopefully at her hand.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything,” Lucrezia murmured to the mare, stroking her soft nose. But she couldn’t help herself. “Cesare listens to me, you know. Nobody would think it, but he does. Even when we were children, he did, though four years is so much more at that age.”

He was silent for a moment, perhaps as bemused by the sudden confidence as Lucrezia was herself. But someone ought to know what she had accomplished, what … she couldn’t afford to tell anyone else, could she? She didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t completely loyal to Cesare, except perhaps Francesca. And some instinct told her that if she started confiding in Francesca about Cesare, she might say far more than she should. It has to be a secret.

“What is your age, Lady Lucrezia?”

“I shall be fifteen in April.” Fatima’s whiskers tickled her hands. She giggled. “And Cesare will turn nineteen just afterwards. We are four years apart, but only two days.”

With a final, affectionate scratch, she turned to go. But after only a few steps, she paused and glanced over her shoulder.

“Micheletto?”

His eyes flicked up from the hay-strewn ground. “My lady?”

“Thank you.” Lucrezia clasped her hands together. “Whatever my brother told you, I know that you serve him and not me. You need not have … everything is so much simpler now, and you have been of great service to both of us. I will not forget.”

Micheletto studied her, inscrutable as always. Then he bowed. “Lady Lucrezia.”

She smiled and left.

~~~

That night, Cesare pored over his letters again. Both came from Rome: one from his father, a response to Cesare’s initial announcement that he was delaying a few days in Pesaro, and irritable but no worse, the other a dull but encouraging note from Giovanni de’ Medici.

Giovanni, one of the unworthy sons of Lorenzo il Magnifico, had attended the University of Pisa with Cesare before becoming a cardinal himself. Neither then nor in the Vatican had they been friends--Giovanni, neither bookish, shrewd, nor athletic, possessed few qualities beyond his father’s name to recommend him, and Cesare never forgot the insults he had received from Giovanni’s snivelling little entourage. Still, Giovanni himself had never offended him, nor had Cesare been foolish enough to express his opinions of the younger Medicis in public; the two of them remained on civil terms, as always. And Giovanni’s note was amicable enough. Anxiously amicable, in fact. His brother Piero’s doing? Machiavelli must have told him …

Cesare tossed the note aside with a groan. He felt too sluggish for Florentine intrigues, just now, particularly as communicated by a tool as vapid and supremely uninteresting as Giovanni de’ Medici. He stared down at his father’s letter.

Since your haste, without any reference to us, has no doubt already brought you to Pesaro, we wish only that you commend us to our beloved daughter in Christ, and respond to this message in your own hand, with better information as to her health and happiness than she has seen fit to provide…

He re-read the sentence four times before understanding it; he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus his attention or his eyes on the paper. He must be too sleepy for Roman intrigues as well--but tired though he felt, he knew it was not that. Cesare closed his eyes, breath hissing out between his teeth.

Ever since their return to Pesaro--and the return of his sanity, with it--he’d tried to fill his mind with other things. Anything other than Lucrezia’s hair and mouth and hands, Lucrezia kissing him awake, Lucrezia kneeling between his legs, Lucrezia’s gasps and sighs, her shining happiness. Well, he’d given her what she wanted; perhaps she even needed it, after Sforza’s nightly brutality. In any case, that must be an end to it; that was an end to it.

She was his sister. More than that, he knew, with the utmost certainty, that he loved her as his sister, because she was his sister, blood of his blood and companion of his childhood. Of course she was delightful regardless--any man who suggested otherwise could say it to Micheletto’s knife. He would have liked her in any circumstances. But as it was, they loved and understood each other with the instinct born of affinity, easily, comfortably, a tie running deep under the skin. He loved her as he loved himself, and more: his natural counterpart, and yet everything he was not. He did not wish to give that up, exchange it for some sordid affair.

Yet he only wanted her the more for it. Ursula was nothing; or rather, she was Lucrezia, as near as he could get. Well, for once he’d found a sin that horrified him, even as temptation ate at his resolve. He’d rarely seen her so happy; and after these days of trying to raise her spirits … would it be worse than selling her off to a brute, as their father had done? Poisoning a guest, as Juan had done? The deaths for which he, personally, was responsible? He had yet to kill anyone by his own hand, but it was only a matter of time, and--

No. This must be enough. He must, he must learn to keep some distance, where before there had never been any distance at all, no boundaries and few secrets. Yet he could not ruin her peace either, injure her further than she had already been injured. It would be a dubious prospect in the best circumstances, and nobody with a functioning intellect could regard these as that--cut off from the world in this miserable castle, her husband shut up and only alive on the strength of his usefulness to their family, Cesare exhausted half the time and always a little out of his mind around her, over her. He had been so his entire life, even as a child, even when he would never have dreamed of--this. He’d longed for her at Pisa, a boy of sixteen desperately missing a sister four years his junior, with all the preoccupations and distractions of his life at the university. He’d written as often as he could spare the time, sometimes several times a week, and received a constant flood of letters in return.

He still remembered the day of their reunion, when he returned to Rome. He’d swung Vanozza up in his arms, his mother’s rare laughter ringing out, then glanced up to see Lucrezia standing in the doorway, pale and wide-eyed in her long skirts and jeweled cap, but his sister all the same. Lucrezia my love, he’d said, happier still, and with a shriek she flung herself at him. Soon she babbled at him as she had always done, Cesare attending more closely to her chatter than half the lectures at Pisa. He’d noticed her eager adoration, of course, but that was nothing he had not seen before, nothing he had not felt before. He was simply relieved to find it unchanged, Lucrezia the same beloved sister he had left behind two years earlier. At least, he had thought so.

The thought crossed his mind that he, himself, had no idea how long it was after that that she started watching him with other women. He’d seen nothing odd in it; Lucrezia always burrowed herself into every part of his life. She would follow him into consistory, if she could. But when he thought of any other man’s sister doing the same, Lucrezia herself spying on anyone else--Juan? God forbid!--it was strange. Very strange.

They lived by their own laws, he and Lucrezia. But even they could not throw everything aside.

Could they?

Impatient with his own vacillating mind, he rose to his feet with a yawn, folding his letters and stuffing them into a book. He had even more to preoccupy him tonight than the night before, but he should be tired enough to sleep--he hoped so, anyway. Cesare unfastened his belt, then tossed his doublet aside. He’d just pulled his shirt over his head when he heard, unmistakably, footsteps from behind the curtain on the other side of the room. Cesare spun around, hand reaching out for the knife on his discarded belt.

Lucrezia stepped around the curtain, and he froze. She wore nothing but a night-rail and robe, hair spilling loose about her shoulders and over her breasts, mouth curling into a smile. It was not an expression he often saw directed at him--few of his lovers had been interested in him for his looks--but there was no misinterpreting the open, artless appreciation in her face.

Cesare’s throat went dry. “Lucrezia.”

She walked towards him, then paused at the edge of his bed, leaning against one of the posts. She folded her arms. “How many times did you read Papa’s letter?”

“I …” Cesare, torn between reaching for her and backing away, could not move. Yet had he not seen her like this countless times before? Not three nights ago, they’d sat laughing and talking together on this very bed, she stripped down to her rail, he to his shirtsleeves. There was no reason that the mere sight of her should reduce him to transfixed shock.

But she had never come to his chambers and looked at him like this. Anticipation and anxiety beat a quick pulse at his throat.

“How long have you … what have you … have you been watching this whole time?”

Her smile widened. “That’s nothing new, is it?”

Cesare, gathering his wits, gave her a long-suffering look. “No. But, Lucrezia--” He glanced down at himself, his shirt still bunched in his hands. For an instant, he seriously considered putting it back on, before dismissing the idea as ridiculous.

Holding it in front of him like a shield was, perhaps, also ridiculous. He hesitated, then dropped it on the table beside him. He couldn’t remember what he had been going to say.

“I thought you might sit there reading all night,” she said, a distinct note of petulance in her voice, even as she closed the distance between them.

“Hardly all night,” murmured Cesare. “I was too tired to--”

Lucrezia laid her hand against his chest. She only just touched him, but he felt as if she’d knocked the air right out of his body.

“You don’t look like him,” she said thoughtfully. Cesare scarcely heard her, trying to catch his breath, to think of some way to extricate himself, to remember all the reasons that he should not … she could not … 

“I should hope not,” he managed.

“He was broad and hairy. I don’t like that.” Her eyes lifted, curious and a bit sly. She trailed one of her hands higher up his chest, fingernails lightly grazing his skin. It occurred to him that he could simply step away; but he did not.

He seized her hand in his, holding it in place. His voice was hoarse when he said, “This game is … unwise, sis.”

She met his eyes squarely, twisting her hand around to tangle her fingers in his. “What game?”

Cesare kissed her: a light warning, but at the touch of her mouth his restraint snapped. He yanked her body to his, one hand around her neck, fingers of the other buried in her hair, anchoring her there, his kisses rougher than he had ever meant to be with her. Lucrezia, far from outraged, pushed herself up against him, lips parting and nails biting into his bare shoulders. When he lifted his head for breath, she caught his face between her hands and pulled him back down.

“No, I want--”

At last. Perhaps he breathed it aloud; he neither knew nor cared. He pressed his mouth along her throat, hands sliding down her back, impatient at the thin layers of robe and nightdress. She was chanting, almost sobbing, his name, less pliant than demanding, sounding as if he were inside her already. Cesare, Cesare, yes, Cesare--

His hands lowered to the sash at her waist, fumbling with even the loose knot until Lucrezia’s fingers brushed over his to untie it herself. Cesare pushed the sides of her robe away and reached for her, stroking over her flesh with nothing but the thin veil of her rail. Lucrezia shivered.

“Wait.”

His heart nearly stopped, but he obeyed. For one harrowing moment she pulled away: but it was only to discard her robe, never taking her eyes off him, lips red and smiling. In another instant, she had crawled back into his arms, shuddering under his touch once more, so close that he could feel every slope and curve of her body. Her hands stroked restlessly over his chest and shoulders, breath panting out against his skin as he lifted his hands to her breasts. He actually groaned when she leaned forward to kiss his collarbone; he pulled her head up to kiss her. He’d just leaned in, however, when a sudden loud banging sound jerked them apart.

Cesare and Lucrezia stared at each other, mouths swollen and eyes dark.

“What in--”

“Just a door,” he said.

“Oh.” She turned back, unconcerned, but reality had already splashed over him.

“Lucrezia. We cannot.”

His sister looked at him, startled then hurt. In that moment, he felt himself the worst villain in Italy.

“I don’t understand.”

There were reasons--he knew there were reasons--he had thought through all of them not fifteen minutes ago. But with Lucrezia before him, shoulder still bruised and eyes wounded, his qualms fled. He couldn’t even remember them. Nothing mattered more than her happiness; nothing carried too high a price. It was as he’d always said. Lucrezia must have whatever Lucrezia wanted.

And she wanted him.

Cesare said thickly, “Not here. Not now. The servants.”

Her face cleared, contented once more. “Oh! I didn’t think of that,” Lucrezia said with a sheepish look. She cast a lingering glance at the bed. “Perhaps if we--”

He almost considered it. But the memory of Lucrezia crying his name at … nothing, really, the merest touch, remained fresh in his mind. Cesare swallowed and prudently stepped away.

“Ah, no. There is still the keyhole.”

Lucrezia heaved a loud sigh, frustration writ all over her face. “Why must you be so sensible?”

“It is my cross to bear,” said Cesare, making her laugh. He knelt to pick up her robe. Despite his best intentions, he paused and gazed up at her, heart pounding. He disliked kneeling on general principle; it grated to humble himself before anyone, even the Pope of Rome. But not Lucrezia.

Impulsively, he kissed her hand.

“I will make you a queen, sis.”

“I love you, too,” said Lucrezia, touching the side of his face. Then, expression brightening with mischief, she ran her forefinger over his mouth.

Cesare bit down without even thinking. She gasped.

“Cesare.”

Reluctantly, he rose and handed her robe to her. He didn’t even trust himself to help place it around her shoulders. Lucrezia just laughed and shrugged it on, then gave him a soft kiss, hands against his chest. She sauntered towards the door.

Cesare took a deep, unsteady breath.

In the doorway, Lucrezia paused. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled slowly, looking at him from under her eyelashes.

“Sleep well, brother.”

Chapter Text

Lucrezia had not imagined that there would be any great difficulty in keeping her husband and brother apart. Lord Sforza was confined to his sickroom, preferred to forget the existence of her entire family, and Cesare certainly would not seek him out. Yet the very next morning, as she oversaw the replacement of the bandages, Lord Sforza said,

“Where is your brother?”

“Hm?” Lucrezia scarcely heard him, preoccupied with the possibilities of today and memories of yesterday: Cesare’s fingers and mouth at her throat, his skin under her hands, his face and hair, his touch skimming over her, his feverish kisses, the almost innocent kiss on her hand. It shouldn’t have even been comparable to the any of the others, but her mind kept returning to it, her proud brother on his knees, face tipped up to her, like their father before the Madonna.

He’d only been picking up her robe, of course. Cesare disliked humbling himself, even to their father, even to God, but there had been something in his face, his voice. I will make you a queen.

She wondered if he would ever kneel to her again.

“Your brother,” Sforza repeated, sounding irritated. “Is he still availing himself of my table?”

“Cesare? Oh, yes, he is here,” Lucrezia said breathlessly. Remembering to whom she spoke, she summoned her composure. “He would not leave me at such a difficult time. He is busy with Church matters just now, I think. He had a letter from the Cardinal of Santa Maria alla Navicella yesterday.”

Sforza grunted. “The Medici boy?”

“Yes, Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici.”

He shifted about, blankets tangling in his legs. Lucrezia, aided by two servants, helped him move to a less awkward position, though of course--she repressed a smile--nothing could be comfortable.

“Finally old enough to go about Church business, is he?”

“Cardinal Medici? I hardly know,” said Lucrezia, trying to look meek and vapid. She plumped his pillow. “He must be older than I am. Let me see, he studied canon law in Pisa with my brother, who earned his degree two and a half years ago. Cesare was made archbishop a few months afterwards, but Cardinal Medici had already been raised to the cardinalate … was it five years ago? Oh dear, I have no head for numbers, but I think you must be right. He would have been much too young to sit in consistory, not like Cesare. But now he should be old enough to serve our Holy Mother, too.” She beamed.

“Hmph.” Sforza resettled himself again, groaning. “I am surprised your brother does more than enjoy his revenues. Even you must know that he has no calling for the Church.”

Lucrezia’s sweet smile did not waver, even as her resentment chilled further. “His spirits might have been better suited to a different situation, perhaps, but we know our duty, to the Holy Father and to God. Cesare knows it most of all, and he does nothing by halves. His service is … extremely diligent.”

His service to the Pope, at any rate. Their father could not ask for a more dutiful son--or daughter. But he would always indulge Juan’s whims and insolence, while Cesare and Lucrezia bowed to his will.

Not today.

“Oh?” said Sforza. “Well, then, I would speak to him. You--” he pointed at a maid-- “bring the cardinal to me.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The maid had hurried away before Lucrezia managed to recover herself. She stammered out, “You … you wish to speak to a priest? Surely Father Francesco--”

“He is ill. And Dominican,” Sforza said. “I don’t trust them.”

And you trust a Borgia? She didn’t dare say it. Even now, she could not afford to antagonize him, nor to reveal her sudden panic. Lucrezia turned swiftly away. “I see.”

“It seems that your brother has managed the affairs of Pesaro better than I expected. Perhaps I may have misjudged his capabilities, as well as your temper.” Sforza paused. “He has a proper understanding of theology, you said?”

“Yes, I--I heard that his knowledge stunned the professors and the disputants at his laureate, and that was years ago.” She took a deep breath, forcing herself to something like serenity. “I am only … surprised, that you would wish to discuss these matters with him, from your bed.”

“I am no lawyer or theologian,” said Sforza. “I wish to confess.”

Lucrezia’s eyes widened. “You wish to confess!” she repeated, feeling as slow-witted as he believed her. “To Cesare?”

“If he is a true priest, as you say, he will do as well as anyone. What is the point of having a cardinal for a brother-in-law, if not forgiveness of my sins? If Borgia means to stay under my roof and eat my food and enjoy my stables, the least he can do is hear confession instead of making us send for a mere friar.”

Even the three servants, hovering not far from Lucrezia, looked startled. They must not know, she reminded herself. Nobody must know.

“Yes, of course.” She racked her brains for anything else to say, anything that might dissuade her husband from this terrible, terrible idea, but after the last few days, it seemed that she had burned through all her ingenuity. Her mind presented nothing but a horrified blank, and a few minutes later, Donata led Cesare into the sickroom.

Lucrezia caught her breath, only a little in dread at the approaching disaster. By chance or calculation, Cesare had dressed properly for the occasion, his red robes sweeping behind him and cross gleaming over his heart. He looked tall and splendid and fierce, she thought, like an angel of vengeance. Pinturicchio should paint him as Saint Michael.

“Cesare,” she said, fingers twisting together despite her best efforts. She gave him a pleading look.

“It took you long enough,” muttered Sforza.

Cesare’s eyes grew more unfriendly, if that were possible. “Your … summons came at an inopportune moment, my lord.” His glance flicked to Lucrezia, turning meaningful. “Sister.”

He lifted his hands as he spoke, then dropped them, as if she could divine some secret in them in one moment, from across the room. Yet she had seen nothing but his bare palms. Was he thinking of last night? or something else? For that instant, his expression had seemed almost reassuring, or at least intending to be so. Possibilities flashed through her mind, each more unlikely than the last. There had been nothing to see, no gloves, nothing but his ring--oh, of course! Nothing to see, nothing at all: his hands were not just bare, but empty. He could be hiding weapons somewhere, of course, but he must mean that he wasn’t. He could not kill him right now.

Lucrezia almost collapsed with relief. Instead she smiled, her husband right there, and said, “Good morning. I hope you slept well?”

“I did, in fact.” He walked over to kiss her cheek, hand at her back. “Your concern for my well-being warms my heart.”

“Your sister is surprisingly devoted in these matters, Cardinal,” said Sforza.

Cesare and Lucrezia turned to look at him, shoulder to shoulder, steely-eyed. She could feel his hand tighten into a fist behind her.

“A surprise to you, perhaps,” said Cesare.

“As I said.” Sforza squinted up at him. “She tells me that you are a priest in something more than name.”

Cesare’s glance flicked to Lucrezia, and then away, jaw clenched beneath his short beard. She had the distinct impression that, Papacy or no Papacy, had she not been there he would have already tried to strangle Sforza with his rosary. As it was, he lifted a brow, scorn in every line of his face, fist unclenching just enough for his fingers to press warmly against the small of her back. Lucrezia, still rigid with anxiety, relaxed into his hand.

“I told my lord that you are a dutiful son of the Church,” she said.

“Ah,” said Cesare. Through her gown, she felt his hand splay out, less a caress than reassurance, solidarity.I am here. I am with you, at your side.

If she asked, he would free her of Giovanni Sforza forever. She wondered, dizzily, if he would order any death, were she to wish it. Not their mother or father, Jofrè, Juan or their cousins--probably--but anyone else? She could say kill him and that person would die, no matter who he was; or, as now, do not kill him, and he would live. All in a rush, she felt impossibly powerful. Juan had his sword and their father his crown, but Lucrezia, a small pretty treasure regretfully sold off, held life and death in her hand, like a prophet. She should not have been Saint Catherine but Miriam or Deborah. Or Clotho.

Sforza was saying something. Lucrezia forced herself to attend to him.

“--chapel. You shall hear my confession.”

“I shall?” Cesare said. He had gazed at snakes with less contempt; thankfully, Sforza seemed too distracted to notice.

“You are …” Sforza tried to sit upright, breath hissing between his teeth. Lucrezia gestured for one of waiting servants to help him, this time. “You are a priest, are you not?”

Cesare paused. Then another thought seemed to occur to him; a thin smile touched his mouth, eyes cold and bright. “I am, of course. Very well. You all must leave us.”

“Go,” Sforza snapped at the servants. Lucrezia stared at her brother.

“I am afraid that means you, as well, dear sis,” he said, leading her to the door. The servants already gone and his larger frame and shapeless robes obscuring her from Sforza’s sight, he whispered, “Do not worry.”

Lucrezia looked at him doubtfully, but there was no duplicity in his face. If anything, he seemed maliciously amused, as if they were children again, playing pranks on the Italian boys. She nodded and left, closing the door behind her. She held it a little ajar, however, until she heard Cesare icily say,

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

Lucrezia walked down the hall, no particular aim in mind. She should find something to occupy herself, divert her thoughts from anything but what might be passing in her husband’s sickroom. Cesare had no weapons, she reminded herself, and he had all but promised that she had no reason to fear what he might do. Yet it was only yesterday that he said he could not answer for himself in this very circumstance. How could she not worry? Lucrezia ran a nervous finger over her lips--softer, she thought absently, than Cesare’s had been last night, but not by much.

She halted, remembering. She’d meant to taunt him, really, remind him that nothing stopped him but his own prudence and discretion. Well, she must have succeeded, after a fashion; she could almost feel it again, the sharp pressure of his teeth biting down even as he knelt, the shock of it and then warmth flashing over her. It sprang from the impulse of the moment, clearly, and yet--well, she’d never seen him do that before, not like that. Today, would he … would they …? Surely?

Lucrezia forced her thoughts back to the concerns of the moment, but already she felt less troubled. If Cesare could retain his senses last night, he could refrain from murdering her husband mid-confession. She whirled around, heading back the way she had come, and for a full ten minutes, paced back and forth, thoughts flitting from the scene within, to the kisses of yesterday and last night, and back again. No sound came from the sickroom, which she found comforting at first, but more alarming as time passed. Finally, she glanced around, making sure there were no servants to see, then pressed her ear against the door.

“--may be forgiven, but to harm a woman or a child is a grave sin,” Cesare was saying. Lucrezia released the breath she’d been holding, exhaling in a quick puff. “Our Saviour, himself, declared that it would be better to be drowned than to commit such an act. Your absolution will require severe penance.”

She’d never heard him sound quite so clerical, his tone solemn enough to pass for pious. Lucrezia jerked away, smiling. Of course. When did Cesare waste an opportunity?

Two or three minutes later, she listened again, catching a supremely unconvincing ego te absolvo. Lucrezia knocked at the door, then opened it.

Cesare hurriedly said, “--in remissionem peccatorum, augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae.” Taking a breath, he rose to his feet. “Ah, there you are, Lucrezia. We had just finished.”

Approaching them, Lucrezia glanced between her husband and brother, curious. The latter looked as she expected--face blank, body stiff. Sforza, however, seemed at once sulky and incredulous, face pale.

Cesare, hands clasped, smiled down on him. “I hope your soul is lightened, brother.”

“And I,” Lucrezia added. “Is there anything that can be done for your comfort? Do you wish for food? Another blanket?”

“Nothing,” Sforza grated out. “Go.”

“Then we will bid you good day,” said Lucrezia. Steeling herself, she managed to bend down and kiss his forehead, then took Cesare’s arm and ambled out of the room. She would have rather run. As soon as the door closed, she scrubbed at her mouth.

“He was sweating,” she said, appalled, and Cesare gave her a quick kiss. It might only have been a brother’s, but she laughed, disgust turning to delight. “What about the servants, now?”

She could almost see the strain slipping off his shoulders. He grinned. “Do you see any? But come, let us break our fast. I am starved.”

“Are you?” said Lucrezia, unable to resist. She smiled up into his eyes.

Cesare elbowed her. “Hush. You are a menace, sis.” They walked down the hall, arm-in-arm, skirts swishing together. “Speaking of which, should I pretend that you did not listen at the door?”

“I certainly did not,” she said. She wrinkled her nose. “Well, not much. I did not hear what penance you set.”

He leaned down to her ear, the brush of his lips and whisper of his breath almost like another kiss. “Flagellation.”

Lucrezia shivered, then stared up at him, poised between shock and laughter. “What? Surely not until he recovers?”

A manservant rounded the corner; Cesare waited for him to pass, then said, “I suggested as soon as possible. The wrath of God does not wait on our convenience, after all.”

Lucrezia giggled despite herself, clapping a hand over her mouth. “I thought you must have something like that in mind,” she admitted. “I am only surprised that he did not realize it.”

“He is not overburdened with sagacity.”

Servants bustled around as they approached the dining hall, putting confidences at an end; to Lucrezia’s satisfaction, however, nearly all looked less cowed than usual. She said carefully, “Your state does not seem such a burden to you today. Have you reconciled yourself to it?”

His sigh was answer enough. “Every state has its advantages, my love. It occurred to me, not long ago, that if I must be what I am, I might as well reap the benefits of it.”

Lucrezia twisted one of her rings, a Sforza emerald. “I understand.”

They ate in quiet contentment, talking here and there, mostly confining themselves to smiles and long glances over the table. Cesare seemed alternately uncertain and his usual self, gazing at her with all the adoration he had never offered to God. She should worry about that, but she could fear nothing under the blaze of his worship. She felt almost a saint in truth.

Lucrezia knew what people would say. She knew their word for this—this shining thing, between her and her brother. She didn't care. If any of them had loved as she loved Cesare, with nothing held back, without shadows or edges, they would understand.

After breakfast, he dropped a hand on her shoulder, her unbruised one. “I must finish some letters, my love—Church matters,” he said, fingers curling a bit when she smiled up at him and clasped the hand. “I will return in an hour or so.”

“How tedious,” said Lucrezia cheerfully. “Very well—and we shall ride out again when you finish.”

Cesare was swathed in crimson to the neck, and she still saw him swallow in his throat. He just bent down to drop a kiss on her head, fingers light and burning on her netted hair, then strode off with his robes billowing around him. He hated them, of course, but there was something unmistakably impressive about the figure he struck in his regalia. Lucrezia drew an unsteady breath.

She was tired of waiting, of his muttering about reputation and servants. But in her gut, anxiety drummed almost as quick and heavy a beat as anticipation. She wanted his touch, wanted him, and yet she remembered her wedding night and almost every night since, Sforza's bruising grip, the painful, heedless thrusts of his body.

Not Cesare. Never Cesare.

His women always looked as if they were enjoying themselves, anyway. And Giulia had told her—she knew it wasn't supposed to be like that, even before Francesca told her so. It would be different with Cesare.

He would never hurt me. If she knew nothing else, she knew that. And he already wavered—at a word, she might never know him this way. Lucrezia's jaw firmed. No. Even if there was pain, she would willingly endure it to have his kisses, his hands on her, to satisfy that desperate longing for him, for his body and his love without any boundaries set between them. She'd felt that for years. And no woman would have a greater claim on him than Lucrezia.

Not that any did, really. But there were Roman courtesans who knew something of him that Lucrezia did not, and it was intolerable. She wanted everything. And she knew he wanted her, even if she hadn't always understood it, if he hadn't. They'd sprawled together, gazed at one another with hunger behind every stare, every touch, and thought nothing of it. But she'd felt him watching her, seen him wrench himself away from her only to draw near again, looking as enraptured as she felt, as happy. She did that to him.

Lucrezia smiled, nerves receding to a fluttering in her belly, and ran upstairs to change. In her room, she tortured poor Francesca over her hair and scarlet riding gown, determined to look as beautiful as she possibly could. By the time she flew back down again, Cesare had finished the last of his letters. Lucrezia met him on the stair and dragged him out to the courtyard, ignoring his complaints about his robes with serene hypocrisy.

“Oh, nonsense. You look very well,” said Lucrezia, smoothing the satin over his shoulders. Then she laughed and turned towards the groom--an unfamiliar one, not the boy she had seen before. “Doesn't his Eminence look magnificent?”

The groom blinked and mumbled something affirmative. Cesare shook his head, both appalled and pleased, then robes notwithstanding, managed to mount his horse with a semblance of grace. They rode off together, Lucrezia chattering about another pretty spot she wanted him to see—as much for her own sake as that of the groom just within earshot.

As their horses took them further away from the castle, however, she could almost imagine they were riding away forever, escaping this dreadful place—escaping everything, perhaps. Contentment crept over her once more. Pesaro, whatever its other deficiencies, had very fine woods, quiet except for the rustling of the sun-dappled leaves. Lucrezia found herself lowering her voice, then falling silent altogether. It might have been Arcadia, on a beautiful day like this.

“Oh, there it is!” she said eventually, pulling her horse to a halt. “We can walk the rest of the way.”

Cesare, abstracted by some private thought of his own, had ridden a little ahead. He turned around and dismounted, then helped her off her horse. His fingers dug a little into her waist, firm rather than painful, swinging her off as if she weighed no more than she had as a child. He held her in the air for a moment, grinning up at her while her feet dangled. She just settled her hands on his shoulders and giggled, his laughing eyes and light grip soothing rather than deepening the edge of anxiety. This was Cesare—not just another man but her brother and constant companion, comfortable and natural. She'd never felt as much at ease around anyone else, could not believe that she ever would.

As soon as her heels touched the ground and Cesare tied the horses, Lucrezia seized his hand, the shape familiar even through their two sets of gloves.

“This way,” she said, taking a few steps backwards. Cesare walked after her, surrendering to her tug on him without resistance. She need not even have caught his hand—but she did not release it. Lucrezia turned around, heading down the half-remembered path, Cesare following unhesitatingly. The sunlight scattered down through the foliage, surrounding them in a green glow, warming her hair and arms. When she looked over her shoulder, she saw it glittering over the gold on Cesare's robes and cross and ring, gleaming chestnut in his dark hair. “This part of the forest reminds me of home--that little wood by Mother's villa,” she said, as lightly as she could.

Cesare glanced around, as if only then noticing the scenery. “Does it?”

“And no husband, no castle, no servants. Just us.” Lucrezia looked straight into his eyes. “How long have we been walking like this? It feels like I've been holding onto your hand forever.”

“You have,” he said. “You nearly pulled off my finger when you were five days old.”

Lucrezia knew the reminder for what it was.

“Lies,” she retorted. “Jofrè couldn't pull that hard when he was five years old.”

“Jofrè has a gentle soul.”

She laughed, then turned her attention back to the path. Here, it widened into a large clearing, surrounded by trees in a near-perfect circle, the green-tinted sunlight turning to clear, unfiltered gold. Lucrezia felt golden herself, radiant. She reached for his other hand.

“This is what I have missed the most, you know.”

Cesare's fingers tightened on her, eyes wide and, after everything, startled. “Me?”

“One touch of your hand, and I … I feel like God smiles down on me.” She released one of his hands, reached out for him, let her hand rest against his heart. She could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest. Lucrezia dropped her eyes to his cross, running her fingers over it. “I feel almost holy.”

“Lucrezia,” he breathed.

She looked back at him for a moment: just a moment, because she only had time to tip up her smiling face before he kissed her. There was no hesitation this time, no chaste kisses slowly turning passionate, only their mouths pressing together, quick and greedy. Lucrezia didn’t care that her own kisses were sloppy, that when she turned her head to try a different angle, taste some corner of his lips she might have missed, she bumped his nose or clacked their teeth. She could feel his panting breath against hers, his heart pounding against her hands clenched in his robes, his hands on either side of her face. She felt her own dizzying pulse, the dull sweet ache that went with it, heavy in her breasts and between her legs. She wanted, she wanted him closer, wanted him more. Lucrezia tugged at his robes and grinned, sharp and triumphant, at Cesare’s laugh. His hands settled on her hips, pulled her close against him, close enough to feel the warmth of his body if not much else; she twisted her arms around his neck, pressing still closer.

“Lucrezia, Lucrezia,” he whispered between kisses, whispered into her mouth, chanted her name like a prayer. Every time, Lucrezia ached more, craved the touch of his lips against hers, never enough, never quite … she felt as much monster as saint. She could devour him.

His mouth slid away. Lucrezia gave a cry of protest even as she gulped down air, a cry that shifted to a moan as he kissed his way to her jaw and then down her throat; this time, his teeth bit lightly on the skin of her neck. Lucrezia, more dazed than before, arm hooked about him, tangled her fingers in his hair and tilted her head back. He licked into the hollow of her neck.

“Cesare.”

He stopped, mouth hovering just above her.

“Yes?” he said, voice breathless.

Lucrezia’s eyes opened. She hadn’t meant--don’t stop, she wanted to say, don’t you dare stop, but her head cleared a bit and she saw him straighten up to look at her properly. He was so much taller, he’d needed to bend down to reach her neck. He must be uncomfortable … Lucrezia lifted her gaze to his face, colour high in his cheeks, eyes black but for a sliver at the edges of his irises. The thought slipped away.

“What is it?” said Cesare.

“You are so beautiful,” she said thoughtlessly. Her brother squeezed his eyes shut, and Lucrezia dropped her arm, reached fumbling fingers to the front of his robes. The buttons were small and neat, difficult to unloop.

Cesare’s hands closed on her wrists. “Lucrezia--”

“Am I?” she demanded, not resisting his grip.

Cesare blinked several times. “Beautiful? Of course you are.” He bent his head down. “You know that.”

Lucrezia kissed him, daringly letting her tongue stroke his lip. Cesare made a muffled sound, but she jerked her head back.

“As beautiful as your lady in Rome? The one you danced with at my wedding?”

“She is a shadow of you, sis,” he whispered. Lucrezia smiled, satisfied, and lifted her face again, but he only said, “Or should I be jealous of your groom?”

“Who?” said Lucrezia.

Cesare laughed hoarsely. “We are Narcissus,” he said, dropping her wrists to strip off their gloves and drop them to the ground, bare fingers sliding together. Then he walked behind her. Lucrezia felt a jolt of alarm, remembering Sforza taking her that way, but Cesare touched nothing but her hair, unhooking her net and casting it carelessly aside. Her hair fell down her back, heavy and still twisted to fit in the net. Cesare caught his breath, then she felt his hands in her hair, shaking it out.

It was strange, that something so simple, so ordinary, could feel as wonderful as the rest, but it did. Lucrezia shivered, goosebumps rising on her skin, langour and chills at once creeping along her limbs. She leaned back against him, pleased to hear his gasp, to feel one of his arms sliding about her waist.

“Am I as beautiful as Giulia?” she said.

“More than anyone, my love.” Cesare pushed her loose hair aside and kissed the side of her neck.

Lucrezia could hardly breathe. She still managed to say, “But I have freckles.”

He laughed into her shoulder. “I know,” he said lazily. “Here--” She felt the brush of his lips, then his tongue darting out-- “and here, and here--”

Lucrezia’s stomach tightened. I am going to die, she thought, right here. Despite everything she’d been told about young men, everything her own marriage had taught her, Cesare was plainly in no hurry. She was. Lucrezia turned around, found little of her own sharp urgency in his expression, only that soft, awed look he got sometimes. That alone had sometimes awoken a warm, pleasant ache in her body, but it wasn’t enough now.

She grasped the front of his robes again and pushed him against the tree behind him, enjoying the surprise on his face, the way it turned to hunger, even before she pressed up against him, licking and nibbling at his mouth. She made her way down his throat, mimicking him, his breath shuddering under her lips. That was better. His hand slid up from her waist, stroking her through the layers of fabric, brushing the underside of her breast. With a small frustrated sound, he ran his fingers through her hair, tugging her even closer. Then his hand drifted further down, tracing down her neck to her breasts, half-covered by her bodice and cloak. The skin there still prickled; Lucrezia’s teeth scraped against his neck, buttons snapping off his robes and clattering on the forest floor.

“Lucrezia,” he said, voice thick.

Where did you think this would end, brother? Lying miserable in our beds again?

She stepped back and unbuttoned her cloak, tossing it down beside her hairnet. Then she lifted her chin, smile turning challenging. “You can’t be comfortable.”

Cesare stared at her, lips parted and swollen. Then, without looking away, without even a shift in his expression, he said, “No.” His hands went to the remaining buttons--shook too hard to do it gracefully, she saw with satisfaction, though her own trembled against her laces.

He stopped struggling with his robes, his shift bared almost to the waist. She could see him through it, in shifts of the thin fabric: nothing she had not seen before, seen last night, and yet--and yet. Lucrezia gazed at the familiar line of shoulders and torso, lean as Sforza was square. He would not be so heavy: but she knew that already, didn’t she? She imagined him lying over her again, as he had that day in his bed, so many times before in the courtyard or garden, remembered the comforting weight of his body, wished she could know for certain that it would be like that again. Better. But she couldn’t quite push memories of her husband out of her mind.

Lucrezia didn’t even realize her hands had stilled until she felt Cesare’s over them. Suddenly nervous, she lifted her gaze to his. Her brother’s eyes were dark and steady.

“Let me,” he said quietly, and she rested her fingers against his wrists while he pulled at the laces, frowning in concentration.

Lucrezia swallowed. “I told you once that I would never love anyone as I do you.”

“I remember,” said Cesare, again in that strange deepened voice.

“I have not changed my mind,” she said, wetting her lips, “but … I did not understand.”

He pulled out the last lace, the sides of her bodice falling free, leaving only her chemise and corset. Then he looked up. “Did not understand what?”

“That someday I would love you more.” She pulled her arms out of her sleeves, too impatient to wait for him to unlace those, too, then tossed the bodice aside and stepped forward, hands against his chest. The shift was almost nothing; she could feel every twitch of skin under her fingers, beneath that the shape of bone and muscle. Consideringly, she tapped her fingers against his heart. “You love me.”

“More than life,” he said, and she could hear a tightness in his voice, feel it under her hands. Yes, definitely better. Urgent once more, she yanked at the string to her chemise until it gaped open and Cesare’s eyes flicked down. Seizing the moment of distraction, she snatched at his robe and unbuttoned it the rest of the way, until the red cloth was as loose as the black had been the day before the election, when they lay laughing on the grass and he said he loved her above God.

Cesare caught her face between his hands. “Lucrezia, you must understand--”

“More than your life?” she interrupted.

He closed his eyes, then opened them again. “More than anyone’s,” he murmured against her mouth, the words themselves a kiss. “I would die for you.” He kissed his way to her ear, caught the lobe between his teeth. Lucrezia gasped. “I would kill for you.”

“You shall kill me, soon,” she said.

Cesare only laughed. Lucrezia pushed him away to kneel on the cloak, knees cushioned by her skirts. She looked over her shoulder and lifted her eyebrows, letting her mouth curve into the slow, expectant smile Giulia had taught her.

She had never seen a man move so fast. One moment he stood a foot away, silent and startled; the next he’d scrambled down to kneel opposite her, hands pulling her towards him and then pushing her chemise off her shoulders almost before she knew what had happened. That might have reminded her of Sforza, but there was no ripping, the chemise already so loose that it fell easily to her waist; and Cesare’s hands were gentle on her. He stroked her skin down to her breasts until she arched against him with a sobbing breath. Lucrezia traced the lines of Cesare’s face, his close-trimmed beard rough against her fingertips, his look of desperate adoration thrilling her as much as his fingers rolling her nipple. She ran her fingers through his hair, reached for his shoulders beneath his shift, anywhere she could reach.

He took his hand away just in time. Lucrezia, heedless of her own weight, of everything, kissed him so frantically that he lost his balance and fell backwards, her body toppling over him. Cesare made a muffled sound; Lucrezia blushed and disentangled her skirts from his legs.

Cesare didn’t get up, just shifted to lie on his side, pulling her down beside him. Her embarrassment melted away; they were face-to-face now, smiling into each other’s eyes, unable to help it. The ache deep inside her beat an unsteady pulse, sharpening when he leaned down--just a little, now--to plant maddening kisses from her collarbone to her breasts. Lucrezia had touched them, sometimes, before, but it was not like this, nothing was like this. Between her legs, she felt each flick of his tongue over her nipples, hotter and heavier with every moment, felt like she might die if he continued, and would certainly die if he stopped. So she held him close, hands in his rumpled hair, looking down at his head at her breast, and scarcely able to believe her own eyes even as she squeezed her legs together under her skirts, made small whimpering sounds she couldn’t hold back.

Finally, she tugged his head up.

“Cesare--I can’t--I want--”

His breath was ragged on her face. So he liked that, too.

“Lucrezia,” said Cesare, sounding very nearly anguished, “please--

They stared at each other. Cesare lifted a shaking hand to her face, touching his thumb to her mouth. Shivering, Lucrezia realized he was waiting for something. For her leave. Not Sforza, she’d known he was not Sforza, but--permission?

“Yes,” she whispered against his hand, and kissed his palm. She’d never thought one word could mean so much. “Yes.”

She moved to lie down, but Cesare caught her about the waist and pulled her towards him. Lucrezia froze, bewildered.

He brushed her right shoulder, the touch light, almost tentative; she scarcely felt it. Lucrezia glanced down, breathless at the sight of his long fingers against her flesh, but when he drew his hand away, she saw what he did: streaks of mottled blue and fading purple, still marring her shoulder and back. She’d forgotten. Lying down, fully, on this rough ground, his weight over her--that would hurt. Perhaps.

But he had thought of it. And she knew Cesare did not mind … the other way, though Sforza always crushed her beneath him. Lucrezia’s lips trembled into a smile. She pressed closer, kissing him; now she could feel how much he wanted her, and she wasn’t afraid at all.

They sat up, Lucrezia and then Cesare, his cross still dangling haphazardly over his chest. With careful fingers, she lifted it over his head and set it neatly aside, on the discarded hairnet, a rich splash of crimson and gold against white. He looked down at himself, one hand clutched in the loose red satin, then shrugged out of his robes, Lucrezia helping push them off his shoulders before he tossed them aside.

“Come here,” he said quietly, lying down again.

Lucrezia took a deep breath. This is my Rubicon, she thought, and felt not a trickle of regret. She wanted him. She wanted this. Nothing would ever be the same again.

She laughed and crawled over him.

Chapter Text

Never, in his most forbidden imaginings, had Cesare expected to find himself flat on his back in the Pesaro woods, lying between his sister’s thighs, both of them laughing. He couldn’t help it. He’d been so impatient to touch her again that his shift still covered him from collar to calves, while Lucrezia’s skin flushed and prickled under his hands--but only to the waist, since she had yet to remove her heavy skirts. She was straddling him, he’d never been so aroused in his life, and neither of them knew what to do with one another’s clothes.

Another time, he might have been annoyed; but he was happy, they were happy, so instead they laughed. They were still grinning when Lucrezia bent down and Cesare pulled her the rest of the way, kissing with her hair falling around him and his hands tight on her hips. Well, on where her hips should be. Mostly his hands closed on velvet pleats.

She lifted her face, expression full of mingled hunger and bewilderment while Cesare simultaneously pressed against her and tried to make sense of her skirts. He’d never been with a fine lady before; her laces looked like a maze.

Lucrezia plucked at his shift, laughter still edging her voice. “I want … what do I …”

“Here--”

Awkwardly, they shifted around, tugging at their clothes. Lucrezia quickly gave up on her skirts to help yank his shift up, though she did more to hinder the process than assist it, running her hands over every stretch of exposed skin. The familiar-strange touch burnt through his last scraps of hesitation even before she started squirming over him; he thought he might die by the time that he managed to wrench the shift over his head. But manage it he did, biting back the sounds that rose in his throat, his sister’s breath louder in his ears than his own. Free at last, he dragged her down to kiss her, Lucrezia eagerly bending under his grip, their tongues stroking together, her breasts pressed against his chest, the curve of her back smooth and yielding under his hands. Her acquiescence could not have been clearer had she screamed it.

Perhaps she would.

He had to see her. When she arched down again, Cesare buried his hands in her hair and pulled her head up, staring intently into her face. Her mouth came away red. The blood from his bitten lip, of course, his blood, their blood. It should have reminded him--horrified him--

His breath caught. He’d never wanted her so much. He’d never wanted anyone so much. She was flushed and impossibly beautiful and her hair tumbled over his fingers like gossamer. Then her hips pressed down. Cesare moaned--smiled--and Lucrezia smiled with him, her bright mouth curling again, as gloriously happy as he’d ever seen her.

Their hands jerked at her skirts. There, there, he couldn’t see but he could feel her, her small legs spread over him, her skin caressing his. Lucrezia braced herself against his shoulders and Cesare slipped his hands under her skirt, curling his fingers around her leg. She was warm and soft, and so, so close. He could be inside her in an instant. Right now.

Lucrezia whimpered.

Not yet. Soon. He slid his hands up her thighs, feeling her tremble above him, breath panting out through parted lips. Her head was flung back, her eyes closed.

“No,” he said, hoarse. “Lucrezia. Lucrezia, look at me.”

Her lashes lifted, eyes as dark as any Borgia’s.

“Cesare,” she gasped, then cried as his hand stroked up. “Cesare!”

After Sforza, he’d doubted whether she would find her pleasure this time. But she was so near already, damp under his fingers, almost sobbing--

He was so near. She touched him and Cesare shuddered. “Lucrezia, please, I need, I can’t--”

She looked at him in a haze. Then her heavy-lidded eyes widened, cleared. “I…do I…?”

“Whatever--whatever you want--yes--”

He had to help her, of course. She might as well have been a virgin bride; something there tugged at him, but he was too far gone to follow that line of thought. The world narrowed to Lucrezia sinking down on him, fluttering around him almost immediately, eyes flying wide as she cried out. Not just pleasure. Shock, but Lucrezia moved against him and what remained of his shredded faculties dedicated themselves to matching the uneven rhythm of her body, until she understood. Yes, yes, like that--Lucrezia--my God--my love, Lucrezia, yes, at last--sis--

He neither knew nor cared if he’d spoken aloud. Probably he had. It didn’t seem to matter now. Lucrezia kissed him as she rocked down, so incoherent that he could scarcely make out his own name, chanted like Hail Marys, like her name sanctified in his mouth. Ecstasy shivered over his skin, her mouth and voice and body driving him higher and higher--soon, soon, and he meant to bring her too, but she didn’t need it. Her scream ripped up his spine, he felt her fall apart around him; with a few more strokes, he joined her there, spent in her worship and his own pleasure. They lay slumped together, dazed and sated.

“Cesare,” Lucrezia breathed, her weight shifting. She curled against his side, head on his shoulder. It was all he could do to stroke her hair while she traced aimless lines over his chest. He had never been one to stay in a woman’s bed, afterwards, but he felt no inclination to move. This was no bed. And she was not a woman he would never see again, to be sent discreetly away, she was his--she was Lucrezia. He’d lain comfortably in her bed many times, without even touching her, or like this, almost, leaning together and touching her hand or hair. Besides, he doubted that he could walk just yet. Why should he bother? He was happy here, body slack with satisfaction, Lucrezia as close as he had ever desired, his desperate longing for her no longer haunting him. Cesare ignored the air wafting over his bare skin and twirled a curl between his fingers, refusing to think further.

Lucrezia stretched against him with a low hum of contentment. She turned her head to kiss his shoulder, breath sighing out.

“That was wonderful,” she said.

It had been awkward and fumbling and uncertain;--and, well, yes. Nothing could compare, no pleasure in the moment nor satisfaction afterwards, no other woman. He had long known that he did not love anyone as he did Lucrezia; now he could not imagine desiring anyone as much, either. There could not be another who received and gave him pleasure more readily, anyone so exactly suited to him, so much his own. Still, Cesare thought vaguely, he would have to do better next time.

Next time?

Lucrezia gave a soft laugh. “I did not expect …”

“What?” said Cesare. It could be anything, considering.

Her head tilted back, fingernail grazing over the base of his throat. For a moment she said nothing. Then she moved again, draped her half-bared leg over his, as if she would be closer still.

“There was no pain,” she said wonderingly. “None at all. Only … only pleasure.”

His hand stilled on her hair. He would use a dull knife, Cesare decided: someday, when Sforza paid in full. Flagellation could not begin to suffice.

“You thought I would hurt you?”

“Never,” said Lucrezia, without even a fraction of a moment’s hesitation. When he looked down at her, her eyes were clear and guileless. “Not on purpose. Not like him. I only worried that, perhaps, for women there is always some discomfort in … this.” She gestured at their tangled bodies.

Cesare had never felt quite so helpless. Rage flared in his chest, and then, just as quickly, transmuted again. “You expected that, and yet--you--” He remembered her, the day before, kissing him awake, running her hands over him, sulky and taunting when he sent her away.

Lucrezia shrugged. “I wanted you.” 

He’d known that; they would not be lying here now if he had not. But he had never imagined that she wanted him in the face of fear. He should have thought of it. She was fourteen and knew nothing but servant’s tales and Sforza’s brutality; of course she’d been afraid. And, nevertheless--Cesare remembered her shoving him against the tree, her restless hands, her final cry of ecstasy.

“Lucrezia.” He buried his face in her hair, as he had done so many times before. He knew he should say something else, something as perfect and articulate as any speech he had ever delivered. A man did not receive such a gift in near-silence. But the words dried in his throat; and, already, desire crept on him again.

Reluctantly, he detached himself from her, just enough to prop himself on his side and look down at her. His thumbs rubbed over her cheekbones. “My love--”

Lucrezia closed her eyes and smiled, her face smooth and serene. Then a small wrinkle formed between her brows. She lifted her eyes to his face, gaze not quite troubled, but uncertain. “And, Cesare, you--” She blushed. “Did I … were you pleased?”

Cesare almost laughed. Instead he leaned down, careful to hold his weight off her, tipping his forehead to her temple. He whispered, “Did I not sound pleased?”

She shivered. “Yes.” Slipping her arms around his neck, she grinned. “I just wanted to be sure.”

His eyes ran over her: her slender, half-dressed body, curls spilling around her sunny face.

“You were everything I desired,” he said frankly. The words should have been more difficult, should have sat heavy on his tongue, tormented him with guilt and regret. But they slipped out easily. She had been all he desired; she was still. His sister, his--lover? How could he give up either?

What have I done?

But Lucrezia was smiling, unshadowed by any grief, and the thought slipped away, replaced by a stronger one.

Mine.

Between oblivion of his agony and remembrance of his pleasure, indeed! Cesare could almost have laughed. Poor Llull, wasting such devotion on God. They would make better use of it. Lover and beloved, brother and sister, his and hers, however it was; he would never give her up.

*****

Lucrezia had not laughed as much in two months as she had in the last hour. She laughed when they fumbled over their clothes, and then when she lay contentedly in Cesare’s arms, and now as she fumbled again, trying to make sense of her bodice. Her wretched brother laughed too, from where he sat on a stump, quickly buttoning his cassock over his shift.

“I hate you,” she grumbled.

Cesare grinned. She hadn’t seen him smile like that, easy and untroubled, in years. “See if I help you now.”

Wrinkling her nose, she bent to pick up their various accoutrements. She had no idea how her net fastened, really, so she gave up on that and started searching for Cesare’s buttons, instead.

“You lost six of these,” she said triumphantly, holding them out. They both glanced down at his robes. If not quite so obvious as the unattached flaps of her bodice, the missing buttons and accompanying tears in the fabric would still be impossible to miss.

He lifted his brows. “I think you mean that you lost them, dear sis.”

Lucrezia felt colour rushing up her cheeks. “Well, it is your own fault. No, don’t stand up yet.” She fastened his mozzetta and lowered the cross over his head, then fiddled with the placement over his chest. Try as she might, she could not get it to cover the last few missing buttons.

Cesare stood up. “The mantle should cover that. You, though--” His smile shifted in some intangible way, as much in the warm flick of his eyes over her as the set of his mouth. He brushed his hand over her hair again, lifting it off her neck, fingers running under the strands sticking to her still-sweaty skin. Lucrezia had supposed she would be content for hours, days, but at that, her heart started pounding again, a quick tap-tap in her throat, heavier in her chest. Her lips parted.

What would he think of that? Should a lady desire again, already? Well, she told herself, what did it matter? A lady certainly should not take her brother to her bed, or for that matter, watch him take other women to his bed. She’d done that for two years and never once cared what anyone but Cesare might think of it. Besides, Cesare had never concerned himself with the propriety of Lucrezia’s conduct, either. He wasn’t just her--lover? that was a strange thought. But he was Cesare still.

She forced herself to speak. “Have we been mauled by bears, do you think?”

“Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid,” said Cesare. “We would need scratches for that.”

Lucrezia smiled and adjusted his mozzetta. She’d watched shamelessly as he recovered his shift and pulled the crumpled white fabric back over himself, her eyes lingering on the marks she--she!--had left on his skin.

“Yes, of course,” she murmured, smoothing the velvet over his shoulder. Nobody else would see it, except perhaps some servant or another. But she would know. She could not quite say it, but her glance flickered up, sly and complacent. Cesare’s hand closed lightly about her neck. Unconcerned, she said, “Perhaps we were fleeing a nest of vipers, then.”

His thumb ran over her pulse. “They must be related to the one that startled Lord Sforza’s horse.”

“Undoubtedly,” Lucrezia said, laughing even while craving burned under her skin once more, not quite as sharp or hot as earlier. Now, though, she knew exactly where it led, nothing like the trifling satisfaction of her own fingers, and--no, they had not even finished dressing. Tonight? No, they could not escape the servants in the castle.

She scowled and combed her fingers through his tangled hair, trying to restore some order to it. “Oh, dear. You look positively wild, Cardinal.”

“And you, Lady Lucrezia,” he returned with one last careless stroke of her throat, eyes dark but good-humoured. He dropped his hands to the flaps of her bodice. “Though perhaps less so if we can manage this.”

Lucrezia held the flaps together while Cesare threaded the laces through the eyelets, frowning in concentration. He had not Sforza’s hard clumsy hands, but they were larger by far than hers or even Francesca’s; his long fingers struggled with the laces and tiny holes, constantly brushing over her own hands. She relished each touch, yet there was something ordinary in it, familiar and commonplace. Your cross is crooked. Your cap is falling off. Let me adjust your sleeve. I can mend your tunic. They had always been peculiarly domestic together, a comfortable intimacy they never repeated with their brothers. Children of the Church, playing at marriage.

Another thought came swiftly on the heels on that one.

“Cesare,” said Lucrezia, eyes widening, “am I your mistress now?”

The strings jerked tight. “What?”

She squeaked.

“I beg your pardon.” He loosened the laces until she could breathe again.

“I was only wondering,” said Lucrezia. “Would it be another word? The only other one I could think of was concubine, and that did not seem right at all.”

“Holy Mother of God.” He tied the laces in a neat, if lopsided, bow, then caught her face between his hands. “You are my sister, Lucrezia.”

“Your sister, and--?” She searched his face. “Shall we go back to pretending we are nothing but loving family? Shall you never know me like this again?”

Cesare flinched, but his voice was firm, his hands strong on her face. “Yes … no. Listen to me. That is exactly what we are. We are family--and we love each other.”

She laid her hands over his chest, the mozzetta soft under her fingers. Unsteadily, she said, “I am yours, now. You are mine. We are not like other brothers and sisters. We are different.

“Yes.” He smiled down at her, stroking loose curls out of her face, then pressed a sudden kiss against her mouth. Lucrezia, reassured but still uncertain, wrapped her arms tightly around him, laying her palms against the comfortable solidity of his body, his warm, living skin. For one terrible moment, she had felt as if everything she’d gained could be snuffed out in an instant, that he might disappear into smoke. She kissed him back, feeling every ridge and dent in his lips, the snags where his teeth and hers had torn at them, his quick breaths.

They parted, and Cesare tipped her chin up.

“You are Lucrezia Borgia,” he said, “the Pope’s daughter and my beloved sister. The man who calls you anyone’s mistress will lose his tongue. As for you and I, we are what we are. I love you. We belong to each other. That is all.”

The ground seemed to steady beneath her feet. Lucrezia smiled.

“We shall be like--” Abelard and Héloïse? But they had been parted forever, had they not? She tried to think of something happier, at least something Biblical, but instead-- “Mars and Venus?”

He laughed aloud. “Children of Jupiter? Oh, why not? They suit well enough.”

Sanguine once more, Lucrezia cheerfully picked up her cloak. On their way back to the horses, though, Cesare glanced at her and frowned.

“What is it?” she said.

“You must have a lover, sis.”

Lucrezia stared. “What are you talking about?”

“We can invent some sort of incident to explain this,” he said, gesturing vaguely at their hair and her bodice. “Your horse bolted and eventually you fell. It will do for most of the servants--but not your maid. She will know.”

“Oh! I must invent a paramour?” The idea amused her; she had always been good at stories. “Shall he be small and fair and rather plain? No, I would never have a plain lover. He must be handsome in a Venetian sort of way. Delicate. A merchant, perhaps, or an artist. Or a poet!”

Cesare raised a brow. “You met a Venetian poet in the woods of Pesaro?”

“Hm.” Lucrezia considered. “Very well. He would have to be somebody who lives here, or nearby, wouldn’t he? Yet he must be obscure enough that Francesca would never have heard of him. A farmer?”

“Leave it a mystery,” said Cesare. “You had a tryst with an unknown lover and fear Lord Sforza discovering it. That is all she need know.”

“And my brother the cardinal helped arrange this tryst?”

“I am very understanding.”

Lucrezia giggled. Then, as they reached the horses, she sobered. “Cesare?”

“Mm?”

“A story for Francesca is one thing.” It occurred to her that she had enjoyed watching him with his women, not just the game of it all. She did not think she would like it now. “But I do not want another lover, not ever. I don’t want anyone but you.”

Cesare stilled. He stepped closer, just as he had before her betrothal, his intent face and tall, scarlet-draped figure bending down to her, blocking everything else out. Lucrezia, flushing, glanced from his eyes to his mouth, and back again.

“Believe me,” he said, voice dropping to a low whisper, “from this moment, I will kill any man who touches you.”

After all the anxiety over Sforza, it should not have been comforting. But it was. Lucrezia smiled.

“Even if I have to burn down all of Rome to do it,” he added. He grasped her hands, eyes wide, mouth unsmiling, earnest. She would have thought him nervous, were he anyone else--but not Cesare. Not around her. He caught his lip between his teeth, then released it. “Lucrezia.”

A different kind of anticipation drummed in her blood. “Cesare?”

“I hardly--I cannot--”

He was nervous. His fingers grasped hers so tightly that she would not have been surprised had they gone numb. Instead, they felt warm in Cesare’s cold grip. She looked up at him, his tangled hair, pale face, dry stammering mouth above all the gleaming regalia of his office. Beside them, Bucephalus snorted.

“Yes?”

“You are married,” he said. “I am betrothed to God. We are brother and sister, of full blood, and our father is the Pope of Rome.”

Lucrezia drew a sharp breath.

“Wh-what are you saying?”

He stared at their linked hands. “We can never marry. But there is no other like you.” Then he lifted his gaze, and his tone fell still deeper. “I swear that there will be no others, for you or for me. Do you understand? Do you accept?”

She could have cried, smiled, laughed; tears burned behind her eyes and joy bubbled in her throat. But instead she just looked into his eyes, as solemn as he.

“Yes. Yes,” she said, and kissed his fingers, held them against her cheek. “I swear before God, Cesare, I shall love only you, and willingly give myself only to you, and ...” She swallowed. “I have no sword, and no Micheletto, but I shall count anyone who tries to take you from me as my enemy.”

They kissed, mouths open, hands still clasped between them. 

Lucrezia whispered into his ear, “You are my husband, now.”

Chapter Text

Micheletto neither believed nor disbelieved the lady Lucrezia.

As a rule, he trusted nothing but the evidence of his own eyes and ears. He had never seen Valentino influenced by any man; but then, Lady Lucrezia was not a man. Micheletto certainly had seen Valentino shed the layers of cardinal and consigliere around his sister, sheathe his sword to devote himself to her, abandon the plots and schemes of Rome to accompany her, even now, with Giovanni Sforza hobbled. If anyone could sway him, it might very well be her. Therefore he withheld judgment until he could speak with his master himself.

The opportunity came a day after Lady Lucrezia boasted, almost confidingly, of her sway over her brother. The cardinal and the contessa had ridden out again, and Micheletto, left to his own devices, spent much of the day moving the groom’s body further from the castle. No need for the Borgias to trouble themselves over a trifle. He made his way back from a convenient mountain spring not long after Valentino’s and Lady Lucrezia’s own return, and immediately sought out the former.

“Ah, Micheletto,” said Valentino, leaning against the battlements, remarkably unperturbed by either Micheletto’s absence or Lady Lucrezia’s mishap. Micheletto had already heard about her fall by the time he reached him; between Sforza and the horse, he expected to find his master in a black humour, but Valentino greeted him with a quick smile, as near to friendly as Micheletto had ever seen him. “There you are. I have a task for you.”

Micheletto instantly took in the slant of his master’s shoulders and back, always held too rigid for the quick, agile combat they both favoured. Now he saw ease in every line of Valentino’s body, from his comfortably bent leg all the way to the tension that had disappeared from around his eyes and mouth, leaving him almost his age. Something, clearly, had pleased him. The news from Rome? Perhaps Cardinal della Rovere had been crushed--but this morning, Valentino seemed more highly-strung than ever, and he’d already received the letters by then. What else? He’d met with Lord Sforza, but that certainly seemed unlikely to brighten his mood.

“Yes, your Eminence?” Micheletto did not frown, but he was puzzled, an emotion he rarely experienced and never relished. Mysteries he disliked, surprises he avoided. Assassins and ignorance of others’ motives mixed poorly. Idly, he noticed that droplets of water clung to Valentino’s neck and hair; he must have bathed.

“Lord Sforza has committed an insult against my sister and my family that must be repaid.” Valentino straightened, a trace of his usual wary stiffness falling over him. “Once he is no longer necessary to us, it shall be.”

Micheletto nodded. So Lady Lucrezia had not misjudged her influence--or her brother shared her priorities, but he thought that unlikely in this matter.

“You must discover all there is to know about Pesaro: the fortifications, the placement of archers, every stone of this place, if you have to go over with it a lady’s comb. For everything you already know, find ten things more.”

“Yes, your Eminence.” Was he thinking of battle? It seemed a peculiar sort of vengeance: not bloodless, but calculated, distant, nearly impersonal. More like something one of those old men in Rome would think up than the impetuous Valentino.

“And,” added Valentino, “meet me in the courtyard tomorrow at dawn, near the fountain. I fear--” he waved his hand-- “these other concerns have dulled my edge.”

Micheletto nearly smiled. “I will sharpen our weapons.”

“Mm. I must be equal--no, superior--to a seasoned condottiere by the time I return to Rome. I would not risk my sister’s tears over it, but there has been an insult to our mother that cannot go unpunished. Do you understand?”

Condottieri, pah. Valentino was already superior to most of them, weaknesses, cassock, and all. But Micheletto had heard all about the insult to Lady Vanozza at Lady Lucrezia’s wedding, of course; they all had. And he understood about mothers.

“I have not seen Baron Bonadeo,” he said. “What is his size? His strengths?”

Valentino grinned. “He is large. Clumsy, I hear, but powerful.” He lifted a brow. “Arrogant.”

“Good.” Micheletto considered his master’s frame: tall, broad enough through the shoulders, lean. He would never be an ox of a man. He was strong, however; and fast, graceful, shrewd. He would be better still by the time Micheletto was done with him.

That night, he caught what little sleep he required, then drifted through the halls, thinking. He could not believe that some future clash of armies, if Pope Alexander emerged triumphant from his current troubles, had gone so far in quieting Valentino’s rage. And while he could accept that Lady Lucrezia enjoyed remarkable power over her brother, he did not believe that it extended to soothing him altogether, in a matter in which she herself was concerned. The prospect of avenging Lady Vanozza seemed more likely; yet Micheletto had closely observed his master for months and rarely seen his mood brightened by prospects, rather than actual achievements.

The more he considered it, the more he felt convinced that something else must have happened the previous day. The other servants seemed to have noticed nothing beyond Lady Lucrezia’s bedraggled appearance. No other letters, no messengers, nothing unusual in Valentino himself. It matched up exactly with their account; but of course it would. Micheletto expected nothing less of his master. And they had been entirely alone; if they’d privately received good news, nobody would know of it. A secret courier, perhaps? Lady Lucrezia’s stallion might have been startled by an unfamiliar horse. If not, then it could only be some realization or scheme of their own, one they meant to keep secret.

Micheletto frowned. Valentino had betrayed none of the nervous excitement that preceded Sforza’s fall, only satisfaction and determination. In that case, they must have already accomplished whatever it was, not only without Micheletto’s aid, but without him suspecting anything. Frankly, it seemed unlikely.

As dawn neared and the servants began to move about the castle, Micheletto stopped Lady Lucrezia’s maid in the hall. She flinched, wide-eyed in the dim light of her candle--just a stub of tallow--but neither gasped nor backed away.

“What is it?” she said. “I need to warm my lady’s room.”

“Cardinal Borgia is spending the morning in the courtyard,” said Micheletto, watching her closely. “He did not think Lady Lucrezia would wake early, but if she does, tell her where he is.”

“Oh! yes, of course.”

That message had been Valentino’s. Now Micheletto added, “And he hopes she suffers no serious effects from her accident.”

Francesca looked blank, then amused, her smile nearly conspiratorial. “Don’t we all? Well, we must wait and see.”

“How long?”

“That depends on the cardinal, I suppose,” she said, shrugging. "However long he permits her to go on, and then another month or so, to be sure.” Then she frowned, a different idea seeming to cross her mind. “She is not hurt, if that is what he means. There is not a bruise on her, except my l--” She bit her lip.

“Her horse must not have thrown her badly,” said Micheletto. “Or she knows how to fall.”

Francesca’s face softened. “This one is gentler, I think. Now if you’ll excuse me--”

She hurried past, slipping into her mistress’ room. Without her candle, the shadows closed about him once more, comfortable and silent for a few more minutes.

So. Lady Lucrezia had a lover. Well, it certainly explained Valentino’s unconcern: at least, it did and it did not. He must know of the affair; for that matter, he must be party to it. Plainly he had conspired with Lady Lucrezia to conceal her tryst. A strange thing for a brother and sister to arrange together, Micheletto thought--though perhaps no stranger than their continued residence here. Valentino and Lucrezia would be Valentino and Lucrezia. Still, he would not have expected Valentino to sanction an affair; from all that Micheletto had seen, he was a proud, jealous sort of man, and he looked at his sister as other men of the cloth regarded the Virgin. Micheletto had long suspected Valentino would have rather seen her in a convent than married. It was disturbing to think that he had misjudged him so far.

Or had he? He saw Valentino before him once again: entirely at ease, body relaxed, ready smile touching his eyes. All that because his sister had a lover? Impossible. Perhaps Micheletto’s first suspicion was right, and the man came bearing good news from Rome.

He put it out of his mind for the morning, gladly throwing himself into his master’s practice, pleased to be of use once more, more pleased than he would ever admit to hold his knife to Valentino’s bare throat. He dreamed of the day when Valentino progressed far enough to do the same--not just for a moment, but properly disarming him, drawing blood. Micheletto’s own blades rarely troubled a hair on the cardinal’s skin, but he was careful; Valentino would not be. And for now there was the dull pleasure of his master’s pulse beating at the edge of his knife.

Valentino’s breath hissed out between his teeth, neither gasp nor growl. When Micheletto released him, his face betrayed no hint of fear or anger, or even alarm: only annoyance, and that at himself, though Micheletto could easily have cut his throat. He knew he never would; it seemed that Valentino knew it, too.

The pleasure was not so dull, after all.

His master gave a disgusted scoff. “I have grown soft.”

“One blade is never enough,” Micheletto said, and handed him a dagger.

Valentino nodded. “Again!”

It was Micheletto who called an end to the session--though not tired, himself, his master was covered with sweat. He carefully reminded him that it would not do to push himself too far all at once; if he strained his muscles, it would take longer to recover than to build his strength gradually. Valentino looked as if he might argue, then wrinkled his nose and left to wash himself and change his clothes. He sent Micheletto with an explanatory note to his sister.

Micheletto did not see why he could not have simply explained Valentino’s absence to her, but then, he did not pretend to understand the tie between Valentino and Lady Lucrezia. He knew only that it was; and in any case, he had not lived this long by questioning men like Cesare Borgia.

But no. There were no men like Cesare Borgia.

He found Lady Lucrezia surrounded by her women, all sewing. The others seemed dour, even the young ones, and unfamiliar; though Micheletto took little account of women, he thought he would have recognized anyone from the Borgia retinues. These looked Romagnol, anyway: no doubt Sforza spies, or as good as. But if Lady Lucrezia realized it, she didn’t care. She smiled as she bent over one of Valentino’s cassocks, her needle darting in and out of the satin with her brother’s easy grace, her face good-humoured and clear of her usual anxiety. In fact, she reminded him of nothing so much as the smug yellow cats that prowled about Rome, basking on the sun-soaked ruins, lapping up milk, terrorizing pigeons.

“Cardinal Borgia asked me to give this to you, my lady,” Micheletto said, handing her the note.

Her smile widened as she read it, somehow turning even more feline. She tucked the note into her sleeve and picked up her needle once more. “I see. And how fares my brother’s progress?”

Micheletto’s eyes flicked from Lady Lucrezia, small and delicate, to the spiritless women about her. “The cardinal has a quick hand with a blade. If you will excuse me--”

“No, you must stay. I am nearly finished,” said Lady Lucrezia. “If only his hands could run as quickly through his rosary, then, he would be quite perfect. Is it not so?”

One of the younger women flushed.

“I cannot say, my lady.” Micheletto did not believe that anyone would call Valentino a perfect priest, no matter how quickly the rosary passed along his fingers. He entertained the mental image for a moment, then banished it.

“I suppose the Holy Father would not, either.”

He stayed silent. Valentino’s devotion to the Pope passed Micheletto’s understanding almost as much as his devotion to his sister.

After a few minutes of empty chatter, Lady Lucrezia bit off her thread with a flash of white teeth. The Borgias were lucky in their teeth, Micheletto thought dispassionately. Even the Pope had most of his.

“Here it is,” she said, nearly gleeful as she ran her hands down the buttons. “Take it to my brother and tell him all will soon be mended.”

Micheletto suspected that he would be delivering more than a repaired cassock; he knew it when Valentino started at the sight of his robes. But Micheletto only repeated Lady Lucrezia’s words.

Valentino sighed. “My sister overestimates herself,” he said, but his slow smile touched his lips regardless. “No, that is not a message for her!”

The days that followed settled into a regular pattern. Early in the morning, Valentino would practice his swordsmanship with Micheletto, then examine the troops while Lady Lucrezia attended to her husband and conferred with the seneschal and cooks. Afterwards, they broke their fasts and settled any remaining household matters together, then walked about the grounds, holding hands and talking in low voices. Micheletto kept a discreet enough distance that he rarely heard what they said, or understood much when he did hear. Later in the day, they would leave Micheletto and everyone else behind, riding out alone regardless of the weather--more than once they ran in laughing, their cloaks and hair dripping.

Micheletto closely observed Lady Lucrezia, but she never looked more dishevelled than a ride in the woods could account for. And if she seemed in high spirits whenever she returned, she seemed in high spirits constantly, forcing her women--and brother--into impromptu dances, humming to herself as she ambled around the castle, teasing Valentino.

One day, Micheletto caught sight of them running around the fountain, shouting at each other in Catalan. If not for their laughter, he would have thought them quarrelling; as it was, he wondered if they’d gone mad. But as he draw nearer, he saw the truth of it--Lady Lucrezia had stolen the cardinal’s biretta, and held it high above her head while Valentino chased her. When he finally caught up with her, he easily seized her smaller body, wrestling the hat out of her grip. There the game might have ended, but while Valentino was distracted replacing the biretta, Lady Lucrezia shoved him into the fountain. He grabbed her waist as he fell, and yanked her in after him. Both screamed with laughter, clinging to each other in their sodden finery a moment before clambering out.

Micheletto watched them from the shadows, curious but unobtrusive. They rarely noticed him, and when he did make his presence known, they seemed not to mind it. Valentino’s rage remained extinguished; he regarded Micheletto with trusting unconcern, while Lady Lucrezia greeted him with a bright smile and often a brush of his arm or shoulder. He felt, peculiarly, as if it were actually Valentino who touched him, as if her light hand were as much an extension of Valentino’s as Micheletto’s own. A different sort of right hand: not his tool, but--something else. Micheletto felt a strange solidarity nonetheless.

Four days after Lady Lucrezia’s first tryst, he noticed her sneaking around the courtyard while he and Valentino fought. Micheletto said nothing; his master needed his practice, and Lady Lucrezia’s presence always put an end to anything but her. She would be a distraction--but it struck him that, for the second time, he had helped her conceal something from Valentino. It was not a habit he meant to continue.

Thankfully, she kept quiet as the two men practiced, and even when they paused, Valentino striding over to the fountain to pour water over his head and shirt. Micheletto let himself watch a moment, then forced his gaze away, glancing over at Lady Lucrezia.

She had crept out from behind the wall. Now she leaned against it, staring at Valentino--her brother--with flushed cheeks and parted, smiling lips. Micheletto saw her tongue dart out to wet her mouth, saw his own appreciation in her face, wholly undisguised. It was not a look that women generally directed at their brothers; nor was it one that could be easily mistaken, least of all by Micheletto.

This, he had not considered. Did Valentino know? Was he--Micheletto looked back at his master, still turned away, running his fingers through his wet hair. He could hardly blame her. This pampered woman-child’s desire was no less forbidden than his own; it was his own. He imagined it, growing up with Valentino, adored by Valentino, and could not have said whether he more envied or pitied her.

“My lady,” he said loudly.

Valentino jerked around, face lighting up. “Lucrezia! How long have you--oh, never mind.”

Twirling her unbound hair around her finger, she said, “I did not mean to interrupt,” and nodded at Micheletto. “You must keep practicing, brother. I am not distracting you, am I?”

Valentino just laughed. But even in plain sight, Lady Lucrezia remained silent and still, on that day and the others which followed. If Valentino’s concentration weakened at first, he quickly recovered; Micheletto thought it over and decided it was good practice for the future, when his master might find himself amongst any number of distractions.

Often she brought her work, needle piercing cloth like a knife into flesh; perhaps she could handle a stiletto, Micheletto thought, and put the idea away. Instead he quietly asked her to pace back and forth, or walk over to the fountain, or make a sound of some sort, or even start talking to Valentino. Lady Lucrezia frowned, then understanding leapt into her face, quicker and sharper than he expected. Micheletto would ask his master where she was and what she was doing, or she would clap, cheer, chatter away--I am not sure if I want so fine a horse after all, Cesare, and I hear that Cousin Joan may be coming to Italy.

She ran up afterwards, the first time.

“I should wring your neck,” Valentino said, but he was laughing and bent down to accept her kiss. It was quick, light, a sister’s kiss, and Lucrezia’s gaze rarely anything it should not be, but Micheletto did not doubt what he had seen. Nor could he miss the lingering grasp of her fingers.

“Not just mine,” said Lucrezia. Brother and sister both turned to Micheletto, their unlike bodies moving together, like puppets controlled by the same hand.

“And yours, Micheletto,” said Valentino. Both of them grinned, both warm, and he would have gladly stuck his head in a noose had they wanted it.

The days passed, each very much like the others. Micheletto knew this time could not last long, nor did he wish that it would, but for now, he was content. Valentino and Lucrezia walked in a world of their own making, smiling, happy, master and mistress of all they saw; that, Micheletto felt deep in his bones, was as it should be. And they were generous with their happiness. When he stood in the light, their smiles included him, their conversation reached out to him at unexpected moments--isn’t that right, Micheletto?--Lucrezia kissed his cheek and Valentino clasped his shoulder. If they were at the heart of the circle they had drawn about themselves, they had drawn him in, as well.

Micheletto’s dreams changed: not only Valentino’s blade at his throat, or whip at his back, but Lucrezia’s small hands curling around daggers, vials of cantarella. He dreamed of them separately and together, one moment students and siblings, the next masters and lovers. And he woke to them, to himself, caught in their orbit, caught in them, part--however distantly--of what they were.

Most of the servants seemed not to see what passed before their eyes. They all walked more easily, except when assigned to Sforza’s room, talked above terrified whispers, ate more heartily; but still, Lucrezia and Valentino remained my lady and my lady’s brother to all but her maid. Francesca, sharp-eyed and quiet, privy to the Lord knew what secrets, slipped into saying our lady and even, now and then, the master. He did not correct her. She must guess, as he knew, that to serve Valentino was to serve Lucrezia, backwards and forwards; but still he watched, ready to strike at any hint of betrayal.

It did not come. To all appearances, Francesca loved their mistress and remained convinced that she had a lover, whom the cardinal was helping her hide from the world. Micheletto knew better than to dismiss her information out of hand, but he found it increasingly difficult to believe. Alone, he continued to catch glimpses of Lucrezia staring at her brother with eager hunger; she might be satisfying herself with another, as Micheletto did--or--

He did not leap to either conclusion. Sooner or later, he would see the truth with his own eyes. Then, he would know, and not an hour sooner. But it did not come as he expected.

Micheletto was slipping through the courtyard, unnoticed, where Valentino and Lucrezia wandered side-by-side. They looked very much cardinal and contessa today, the former in his robes, the latter in one of the fine red gowns she favoured, this one a bright, orangeish colour. It was so near to Valentino’s scarlet, so near to Valentino, that Micheletto could not see where skirts become robes; brother and sister blurred together, a bright splash of blood against the dull rock.

Valentino bent his head down; Lucrezia was saying something, Catalan, scarcely comprehensible through her heavy accent and giggles--Micheletto thought it had to do with the Duke of Gandía and a race. Whatever it was, Valentino whispered back to her, mouth against her ear, and they burst out laughing.

There was no lover.

He could not say, exactly, how he knew for certain then, with no proof, and not before or after. But he knew it. There were no others for them, no room for others: only Valentino and Lucrezia, and Micheletto watching over them.

Chapter Text

“Forty-four, twelve.”

Lucrezia ran her finger down the page, then turned to the next.

“There!” she said triumphantly. “Friendship.”

Amistat, Cesare wrote down. He sat at Lucrezia’s desk, doublet thrown over a chair, her assorted oils, jars, ribbons, and combs scattered around him. He’d pushed most of them aside to make room for pen and paper: one page half-covered in his own scribbling, their father’s letter propped up and wedged between several bottles of perfume.

He glanced over his shoulder. Lucrezia lay sprawled out on her bed, Blanquerna in her hands. Together, they were deciphering the Pope’s letter much more quickly than Cesare could do alone--although it might have proceeded more quickly still if they kept their attention on their respective tasks, instead of looking at each other every few words. Well, it hardly mattered. There was no hurry.

Lucrezia smiled when she saw him watching her. She twisted a loose curl around her finger--an old, familiar gesture, which had taken on an unmistakable meaning over the last two weeks. Cesare forced himself back to the letter, squinting at Burchard’s cramped hand. “One hundred and four, eight.”

Lucrezia, flipping idly through Blanquerna, turned back several pages. “Between.”

By the time they finished, twenty minutes later, Cesare struggled to concentrate and Lucrezia could hardly stop yawning. But her eyes were bright and alert as she read over his transcription.

“You should be embarrassed, brother,” she remarked. “I think your penmanship is even more atrocious than when you were at Pisa. But what is all this about new friendships with old friends? He must mean Spain, mustn’t he? Castile?”

“Aragón, I think,” said Cesare. “And not Spain. Naples.”

Lucrezia read through the letter again. “Oh, I see. Yes, it must be. Who is he sending to arrange the alliance, though? It almost looks like …”

“Juan,” Cesare said.

They exchanged another look, this one appalled. Lucrezia sat up. “Even Papa must know that Juan’s strengths do not lie in … diplomacy. Why did he not send an ambassador?”

Cesare wondered, himself. “There must be a matter he did not trust to anyone outside the family.”

“Or the Neapolitans would not negotiate with anyone else,” said Lucrezia.

“Also possible,” he said, moving his chair around to face her and resting his arms against his knees. He saw Lucrezia’s brow furrow even as a slow, quiet alarm crept through him, driving torpor away. “I cannot imagine what circumstances would require it, though, except--” His throat went dry.

“Marriage,” said Lucrezia, eyes wide.

They both glanced at the door. It was closed, and solid wood, but one could never be too careful in the Romagna, in Pesaro. She slipped off the bed and walked to the door, snatching up her keys as she went, then opened it, peering both ways.

“Oh, Micheletto!” she said.

Cesare strode over to join her. Micheletto hovered in the shadows outside Lucrezia’s room, hand resting on the dagger at his belt.

“Are any of the servants nearby?” Cesare asked.

“Not at the moment, your Eminence,” said Micheletto.

Lucrezia lifted her chin. “See that they stay away. My brother and I are discussing family matters of the utmost importance. We must not be overheard by anyone we cannot trust.”

Micheletto’s eyes shifted from Lucrezia to Cesare, who nodded.

“Yes, my lady. Your Eminence.”

They shut the door as Micheletto turned to pace the length of the hall. Lucrezia bolted the door, but did not move, staring down at her hand on the panel.

“It must be marriage.”

“An alliance would be stronger with it,” said Cesare, more cautiously.

“And it would explain Juan’s presence. They must wish to meet him personally.” Lucrezia turned to him, hand against his chest and eyes lowered. “If this all depends upon the impression that Juan makes--”

“God help us,” said Cesare.

“I can hardly even imagine him married,” Lucrezia said. She looked up, pursing her lips. “Much less to Naples.”

Cesare could hardly help laughing. “Has Naples offended you, sis?”

“No, but I have heard the stories about King Ferrante. Juan may be provoking sometimes, but he deserves better than that.” Her fingers tightened on the cloth of his shirt as she drew nearer. “Are we to bind ourselves to a man who stuffs the bodies of his enemies and sets them around a dinner table?”

“We will bind ourselves to whomever is necessary for our survival,” Cesare said, and touched the side of her neck. “You have better reason to know that than any of us.”

She nodded, some of the worried lines smoothing into resignation. “But King Ferrante? His family--”

“His family is the royal house of Spain.” Cesare wrapped his fingers around her hand. “Think, Lucrezia. Once Father was nothing but the younger son of a cardinal’s sister. He would never have dreamed of seeing his son married to the great-niece of his king, but now--now, anything is possible. He could ally our family with Naples and Spain all at once. Between Ferrante, Ferdinand, and the Sforza, his papacy might be secure.”

“Oh!” She caught her lip between her teeth, thinking it over while Cesare tried not to notice. “So you favour the match?”

“I have no say in it.” He shrugged. “I never do.”

Lucrezia smiled at that. “You argued against Lord Sforza, did you not?”

“For all the good it did.” Looking down at her, he could still see the last fading marks Sforza had left on her. He felt his failure all over again, a sickening lurch in his gut. But his sister slipped her arms about his neck, not a trace of recrimination in her face, her fingers threading into his hair. Cesare could do nothing but kiss her until his hands shook.

He forced himself away. This could lead nowhere, he reminded himself, not within the walls of the castle.

“I know you dislike it,” she said dreamily--he blinked--“but I am happy Father chose you for the priesthood.”

Cesare instantly thought of Ursula Bonadeo. But Lucrezia had never shown the slightest inclination to guard herself from him. I love you, she’d said as soon as she could babble out the words, clambering into his lap, wrapping her arms about his neck, toddling after him, I love you best, I love you most. And now she declared herself dozens of times a day, in word or deed: whispering into his ear, laughing at his side, crawling into his arms when she could and watching him with a greedy, possessive look when she could not. He might have warned her to be more reserved, more discreet, reminded her that they must not be discovered--he might have, but he did not. Drunk on their happiness, on Lucrezia, he could only pretend not to notice until he had her alone.

At any rate, his station was the least of the barriers they had cast aside. Lucrezia herself never seemed to regard it as anything but a matter of pride and convenience.

“Why do you say that?” he said, frowning.

“You are the firstborn. You would be heir, instead of Juan, if you had not taken the cloth.”

Even here, resentment burned in him. “I know that.”

“And you would be in Naples now, arranging your marriage to an Aragonese princess.” Lucrezia lifted her chin, both defiant and uncertain. “Cardinals have gone to war before, led armies, here, and in Spain, and I am sure elsewhere. But you can never be sold for an alliance as I was, as Juan and Jofrè will be.”

Cesare gave a low, humourless laugh. “No. I was sold to the Church, instead.”

“You agreed to it, did you not?”

“As much as you agreed to Giovanni Sforza.” He could scarcely remember receiving his first office. He had known his Latin better than what he was doing. “Father commanded; I obeyed. I was a child, Lucrezia.”

Lucrezia lowered her gaze. “Very well. I shall be sorry for your sake.” Then she pressed his fingers against her mouth, thumb rubbing his ring. Cesare swallowed. “But in my heart, I am still happy about it.”

“If I were duke,” he began, and let his fingers brush her cheek. Lucrezia closed her eyes. “If I were duke, I would find a way, my love.”

“I would rather have you here, a priest, than a duke in Naples,” she said. Her lashes lifted, eyes a steely grey in the candlelight. “This way, nobody but Father can take you from me. Perhaps I am selfish, but …”

He grinned, leaning down to her. “Perhaps?”

“I should not like to see you as another woman’s husband.” Lucrezia caught his face between her hands and kissed him. “You cannot blame me. You looked like you might murder Lord Sforza at my wedding.”

“I thought about it,” he said lightly.

“Do you wish you could marry her? Juan’s Neapolitan princess, whoever she is?”

“God, no.” Cesare stroked her hair out of her face. “I have no desire for a wedding, Lucrezia. And I doubt she is a princess in any case.”

“Not a princess? What are you talking about?”

“All of Ferrante’s legitimate daughters are married or nuns, and his granddaughters are infants. This one must be a bastard.” Cesare tapped her nose. “Like us. No doubt Juan is delighted.”

She laughed out loud. “Poor Juan. I will never understand why it troubles him so much. He has more as the Pope’s bastard son than half the lordlings of Italy. Well, the King of Naples does have an illegitimate daughter, if I remember correctly. Do you think she is the one?”

“Undoubtedly. Sancha, Sancia, something like that.”

“Sancia d’Aragona Borgia. I like the sound of it.” Lucrezia smiled up at him, lifting her brows. “Shall you marry him to her?”

Cesare did not know whether he found the prospect more appalling or amusing. “Let us hope not. It would be a scandal if our dear brother stabbed me at the altar. But it’s not likely. Your wedding, I think, was my punishment. The Holy Father will want everything perfect for Juan.”

“Of course,” she said, frowning. “Still, if there is a wedding, I am sure Father will expect you to attend. He will send for you.”

“He will send for every Borgia in Italy,” said Cesare, but his fingers tightened on her. “This letter demanded nothing. It is only information. The next, however--”

Lucrezia’s eyes rounded in dismay. “The next one will summon us to Rome. This is the end.”

“Hardly that, dear sis. It is an obstacle, no worse.”

“An obstacle?” she repeated, incredulous. “You know that as soon as we reach Rome, you must take up your duties again. The Pope shall insist upon it. He may very well be too angry to let you out of his sight, Cesare. He certainly will not permit you to return with me! And by then, my husband may be walking again. He--”

“Lucrezia! Listen to me!” He caught her chin between his fingers. “Do you believe that I would abandon you to this? My own sister? Do you think me so feeble a brother? A man?”

Calming a little, she shook her head. “But what can we do, if the Pope forbids you? You must know that he will.”

“I know that it is probable,” Cesare allowed. His thoughts rushed this way and that, plans formed and rejected in an instant, ideas tumbling together. But one emerged clearly. He jerked his head at the door. “In that case, Micheletto shall accompany you back to Pesaro. He can manage the likes of Giovanni Sforza.”

“Micheletto? Well … yes, I suppose he can.” She breathed out, her stiff body loosening in his arms. “Do you not need him, yourself?”

“In consistory? I pray not.”

She laughed.

“And I will come for you. I swear, Lucrezia.”

“I know,” his sister said, and gave him a stern look. “You must promise not to risk yourself, or the papacy.”

“I will come,” he said again.

Lucrezia just shook her head, pressing herself against him. She locked her arms around his neck, eyes intent. Cesare, after one glance, licked suddenly dry lips; he meant to say something about the servants--Micheletto--something, but when Lucrezia lifted her face to him, all thought of discretion fled his mind. He leaned down to meet her halfway, slanting his mouth over hers, sliding his hands down to her waist. Everything was familiar now, even more than before; their lips pressed together, urgent, but without awkwardness or desperation. When he ran his tongue over her bottom lip, Lucrezia’s mouth parted unhesitatingly. She hummed low in her throat.

Then she broke away. Trailing one hand down from the back of his neck to his chest, she paused to stroke the bare skin of his throat.

“Your heart is pounding,” she murmured. Her lips curved.

“Is it?” Cesare reached for her neck. He did not have to feel her pulse; he could hear her quick pants, see the rise and fall of her chest. He took a deep, steadying breath.

“In Rome, everything will be different,” said Lucrezia. “We are always watched, always … there is not much time left.” She looked over at the door. “And I think Micheletto knows.”

“I do not pay him to be unobservant.” Cesare scarcely knew what he said, but he pulled her away from the door, Lucrezia kissing him as he walked back, pleasure fierce and bright under his skin. At the edge of her bed, he turned to knock Blanquerna onto the floor. He had only ever lain with her outside, in the forest. In fact, he had not lain on her bed since …

Her bed. This was where Sforza had brutalized her. That board, right there, was where she had struck her head. This--

Lucrezia only laughed under her breath. “Has poor Ramon offended you, brother? I found him quite inspirational.”

“Mm?” He searched her face, but found nothing but lazy, cheerful desire. They would make better memories, he decided: another kind of wedding night. He reached for the sash to her robe, fingers easily untying the loose knot.

Lucrezia moved away to slip her arms out of her robe, tossing it over his discarded doublet. “Oh, yes. Particularly the twenty-ninth meditation.”

“I fear,” he began, and paused, arrested by the curve of her body under her thin white rail. “I fear I have not committed them to memory.”

“For shame, Cardinal.” She walked back to him, her smile and glance full of promise. When she reached him, she began to unbutton her rail. “ ‘You need not speak to me; but make a signal with your eyes, which are words to my heart, when I give you what you ask me.’ ”

Cesare looked at her, impossibly beautiful, hair tumbling over her bare shoulders, skin gilded in the candlelight, under his hands. Her eyes were clear, unshadowed, hints of himself about her parted lips and cheekbones, a mark that would never fade. But the bruises were nearly gone.

“Cesare,” whispered Lucrezia. His thoughts must have been stark on his face; he no longer bothered to hide them from her, not alone. Cesare did not say anything, but he smiled, drew her close, pressed his lips to her throat.

She moaned.

Cesare pressed a finger to her lips. “Shh. We must be quiet.” He lifted an eyebrow, smile sly. “You do not wish to shock poor Micheletto, do you?”

Laughing, she grasped fistfuls of his shirt and shoved him onto the bed. “I would not dream of it.”

*****

Within ten days, the next letter had arrived, directed to both of them. Lucrezia took one look at Burchard’s cramped hand and blanched, handing it to Cesare. Mindful of the servants, they only exchanged one unhappy glance before he broke the seal.

Lucrezia picked at her breakfast while Cesare read.

His eyes widened, either in pretense or real surprise.

“What is it? Is there bad news from Rome?” she said.

“No,” said Cesare. “Well, not exactly. There is to be a wedding in the family, sis. Our brother.”

“How wonderful.” She took a gulp of wine. “I hope Juan will be happy at last.”

Cesare all but threw himself in the chair at her right, tossing the letter down. Not just startled, she thought; angry. He leaned his face against his hand, fingers over his mouth.

“I doubt it,” he said finally.

“What do you mean?”

He jerked his head at the letter. Lucrezia snatched it up, scanning the lines. Then she lifted horrified eyes.

“Jofrè?”

Chapter Text

“Jofrè?”

The Pope patted Lucrezia’s cheek. “You will understand our reasons in time, child.”

Words had always tripped off her tongue around her father, light and merry, or entreating, or childishly angry, but never guarded. Now, ensconced once more in the papal apartments, she considered her response with care.

“I am a married woman,” she said, smiling as gently as she knew how. Alexander’s eyes were still damp; he had wept so joyfully when she woke him that, despite everything, Lucrezia could not resent him. “I have not been a child for months, Father. I know that you--we--need allies, and Naples is the greatest state in Italy. The only thing I do not understand is why you chose Jofrè for this marriage? He is a child, even more than I was.”

Alexander gave her one of his shrewd looks. It reminded her so much of Cesare that Lucrezia felt like she had seen something out of a dream in her waking hours; she took a relieved breath when her father strode over to the window, hands locked behind his back.

“He is little more than a year your junior.”

“But young for his age,” said Lucrezia.

Alexander inclined his head. That, she thought, might be as near to apology as anyone was likely to get.

She pressed on, “He still plays with dolls.”

“So did you.”

“I played with him. You have other sons, Father, and nephews, all of them men and not boys. Yet you offered Jofrè, instead?”

He gave a heavy sigh, then turned back towards her, regret clear in his expression. He put his arm about her shoulder, leading her towards the door. “Nephews would not do for the House of Aragón, not when there are sons to offer.”

“Yes, but--”

“Cesare cannot marry.”

“Of course not,” she said fervently. “And Juan?”

“Juan will be Juan.”

Despite her best intentions, words slipped out of her mouth. “Cesare was right, then.”

He stopped just before the door, the lines of his face turning stern and rigid. In that instant, grey hair still rumpled, shift plain and wrinkled under his robe, he managed to look every inch the Pope of Rome. Lucrezia felt the change as much as she saw it, a stab of loss. Was that what Cesare had felt when he saw her again, deeper and sharper? Alexander would be her father again, genial and affectionate, but the girl she had been was lost forever.

“Speaking of your brother--”

Lucrezia impulsively grabbed his sleeve. “You must not blame him! It is my fault that he could not return. He was afraid you would be angry, he told me so, but I--I could not do without him. After my husband’s accident, I was so overpowered that …” She dropped her eyes. “I should have been stronger. It did not seem, though, that you needed him urgently, and he managed everything at Pesaro so well!”

In truth, they had taken control of Pesaro together, Cesare overseeing the armies and the city at large, Lucrezia the servants and much of the castle. They lived more like lord and lady than she ever had with Lord Sforza, who reserved all authority to himself. He certainly did not trust his Borgia wife with any matter of significance; Lucrezia had often felt less like a wife than a dog of questionable breeding. It was only after Sforza’s fall that she became what her marriage had made her: contessa of Pesaro.

“Mm,” said Alexander, voice noncommittal.

Lucrezia peeked up through her eyelashes. He still seemed distant, but thoughtful rather than enraged. “Even my husband said so.”

“Even your husband? Has Cesare offended him?”

Silently, she cursed herself. “Oh, no! But Lord Sforza has an Italian pride. We seem very foreign to him, and--well--scandalous, a little. You understand how it is, Holy Father.”

“Too well.” He looked at her, grave and wistful. “We would wish that you had been spared that knowledge.”

Lucrezia smiled. She had known how the Italians regarded her family long before Giovanni Sforza ever laid a hand on her. They all had. Juan would fly into his rages, throwing rocks at the Roman children who taunted them, even at passing dogs or cats when he could not get at their tormentors. Cesare and Lucrezia played stealthier pranks, for a time, but quickly withdrew into the narrowing circles of their family; they knew they could trust no others long before they knew what marrano and puttana meant.

“Impossible, I fear,” she said, and softened the words with a kiss on his cheek. “Cesare was as gracious as I have seen him, but Lord Sforza is not inclined to think well of any relation of mine, much less … well, Cesare is very Spanish. Very Catalan, my husband said. After his accident, though, when I nursed him and Cesare took command of Pesaro, he--Lord Sforza--was so impressed that he told me he had misjudged us both, and he wanted Cesare to hear his confession.”

She beamed up at her father’s startled face.

“Cesare has been in the confessional?” Alexander lifted his brows. “And we doubted he even brought his robes with him.”

Blood flooded her cheeks. With a sharp, searing clarity, she remembered the last night in Pesaro, Cesare’s robes crumpled beneath them, cross still dangling about his neck. She had--

She forced her mind away. “Oh, he did. I had to mend his cassock,” she said.

Alexander burst out laughing, still the good-humoured father of her memories. Impulsively, she embraced him, then left him to dress, ordering his attendants into his room.

Alone in the outer apartments, Lucrezia sank onto a chair beside a wide window. Light danced along the Spanish tiles the Pope had installed, shone in the paintings hanging on the walls, filled the room with life and colour even before she pulled the curtains aside. Below her, she could see people bustling through the streets of Rome, the papal guard gleaming in the sunshine, robes of red, purple, black, even brown, sweeping over the steps of the Vatican. Through the thin walls, she heard murmured conversations, laughter, pomp-filled announcements of some dignitary or other.

Lucrezia closed her eyes, relishing the moment in perfect stillness. Lord Sforza had complained about the foul air of Rome, but to her it seemed purer than any mountain breeze, bright and clear. She felt cleansed by it: by the Vatican, by home. Nothing could return her to the girl she had been, but here, at least, she was no longer some trammelled beast, either. She was Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of the Pope and Giovanozza dei Cattanei. In Rome, everyone knew it.

She allowed herself another deep breath, the layers of contessa and Sforza sloughing away. Then she rose, smoothing down her skirts, and strode out of the apartments, looking for Cesare.

She found him laughing with a woman, his anxiety of the morning apparently vanished. In his black clerical garb, he nearly blotted her out; Lucrezia could make out little but hints of a slim, elegant figure. A full two seconds passed before she recognized her, more by her low laugh than face or form.

“Mother?”

Cesare and Vanozza both stilled, then turned towards her, the happiness in their faces brightening. A few other people glanced her way as they passed through the hall, but Lucrezia ignored them. The air seemed to breathe new life into her memories; the clasp of her mother’s hands, the words in her voice, more alive and present than Sforza’s cruelties--even before Vanozza spoke. Lucrezia did not dare move, afraid she might dissolve into hysterics right there.

“Lucrezia!”

Cesare and Vanozza exchanged a glance, and he ushered both mother and sister into the apartments. Then Vanozza’s arms came around her, familiar, real, her grip painlessly tight.

“My dear girl,” she whispered. Her voice firmed. “Let me see you, Lucrezia.”

Lucrezia lifted her head. She had expected to weep; she thought she might have wept, there in the hall. But here, safe with her family, she had no tears. She smiled at her mother, every feature just as she remembered, even the worried furrow of her brow.

“I have missed you so much,” said Lucrezia. “We both have.”

Vanozza smiled. “Look at you. You are a woman already.” She caught Lucrezia’s face between her hands, searching her eyes. “And you are happy?”

Lucrezia glanced over Vanozza's shoulder at Cesare. He was smiling at them both, more about the eyes than the mouth. She could not help but think of the life they had briefly carved out for themselves: walking through the gardens, lying in each other’s arms, discussing the affairs of Pesaro and the papacy, deciphering letters, Lucrezia watching him fight and Cesare watching her dance.

“Happier than I have ever been,” she told their mother.

“Thank God.” Vanozza turned slightly, maternal anxiety taking in Cesare, as well. They drew closer, near enough that she could touch both their faces, her dark eyes flicking from daughter to son and back again. “Thank God. A mother should not have favourites, but--well, I shall sleep better with the two of you here.”

Lucrezia kissed her cheek. “And so shall we. At least, I hope so,” she said, with a scolding look at her brother. “Cesare keeps dreadful hours away from Rome.”

“Cesare.” Vanozza sighed. “You know that--”

“For my part,” he interrupted, “it is a relief to bring Lucrezia home, if only to see that she eats properly. Without you managing her, Mother, she scarcely touches any meat or vegetables.”

“Do not listen to Cesare, you know how fussy he gets.”

“And she sometimes misses entire meals,” said Cesare.

“He is a liar, too.”

Vanozza examined her. “You do look thinner, my love. Have you had any of your fevers again?”

“No, Mama,” she said dutifully, falling back on habit without thinking. She felt a flash of guilt; she had not so much as thought of Djem in weeks. Certainly she had not since Cesare’s arrival in Pesaro: perhaps even since her wedding.

Her mother raised a brow, then glanced at Cesare. He shook his head.

“I have not seen her ill.” He smiled. “Just careless.”

Lucrezia wrinkled her nose at him.

“Well,” said Vanozza, “you must return to Roman habits now, both of you. I shall see you plump again, Lucrezia--in fact, it seems there is to be a feast at my home tonight.”

Cesare and Lucrezia looked at each other.

“It seems?” she said. “Has someone seized the villa?”

A muscle in Vanozza’s cheek twitched. “Sancia d’Aragona proposed an … intimate family dinner with all the Borgias in Rome. She wishes to meet her new family away from the Vatican. She has already paid her respects to the Pope, of course. He approves of her, I believe.”

“If she is halfway presentable, he would,” said Cesare.

Vanozza gave him a level look. “I see that Lucrezia is not the only one who has grown careless, Cesare Borgia. Mind that sharp tongue of yours. This is Rome, not Romagna.”

Cesare pressed his lips together, then nodded.

Is she pretty?” said Lucrezia.

“Oh, handsome enough,” Vanozza said. “Dark, slender. More Neapolitan than Aragonese, I think, but she should fit in the family well enough. Juan is bringing her to the villa tonight.”

Vanozza’s tone did not change, but she glanced at Cesare again, their expressions profoundly unimpressed. Although Lucrezia had seen her mother and brother share that quick, unspoken understanding many times before, she herself rarely more than half comprehended them. Now it was like a veil had been torn from before her eyes. She saw the shades of suggestion and impatience and suspicion, and felt not excluded, but closer than ever before, akin to her kin.

“Juan? Then his negotiations went well?” she said, careful.

Cesare turned towards her, plainly not fooled, amusement in the twitch of his mouth and lift of his brows. Their mother’s steady gaze was harder to read.

“It seems so,” said Vanozza.

Cesare flicked a speck of dust off his robes. “Has he--”

The door to the Pope’s chambers opened. He emerged, dignified in his vestments, trailed by the children who attended on him.

“Papa!” said Lucrezia.

“Holy Father,” said Cesare.

Vanozza said evenly, “Good morning, Rodrigo.”

“So you have returned, at last,” Alexander said. He could have been addressing any one of them, but Lucrezia knew--they all knew--who he meant, even before his gaze narrowed on his son.

“We left as soon as we received your letter,” Lucrezia said quickly. She hardly realized she’d spoken until the last word left her mouth, voice dropping to soothing tones without a thought, only the instinct honed over the last several months.

She and Cesare exchanged a quick glance.

“Indeed,” he said. “Our bags were already packed when it arrived, and Lord Sforza’s permission gained. His injury, of course, was too severe for him to join us.”

“My husband means no insult,” added Lucrezia. “He still cannot walk.”

She struggled not to smile. Cesare, thankfully, kept his expression blank under their father’s penetrating gaze.

“He must have had a bad fall,” said Vanozza.

“Very.” He might have recovered more rapidly if not for the flagellation, administered by the meekest priest Lucrezia had ever encountered, a little Franciscan. If Sforza’s shouts were anything to go by, however, it had been painful nevertheless.

A giggle rose in her throat. Lucrezia bit down on her lip.

“Regrettable,” Alexander said briskly. “Well, these things happen. Cesare, now that you have finally rejoined us, we wish to hear more from you of Florence and Pesaro. We would know all those details that we are sure you did not commit to paper.”

Cesare bowed his head. “Of course, Father.”

There was something in the gesture that Lucrezia did not quite like. That was silly, of course. However forward and outspoken he might be, whatever he might say in private, she had never seen him anything but respectful towards their father. He was everything a son should be: loyal, dutiful, eager to please. He always had been. Certainly he had always bent to their father’s will. That should be natural, and yet it troubled her now. Cesare, a man of such pride and such soaring spirit that he could scarcely bear to submit himself to God, should not give way to anyone. It hurt her own pride, in some hazy way, to see it.

“Lucrezia--” Alexander’s voice softened, the change so abrupt that Lucrezia nearly flinched-- “you must be tired after your journey. You can settle into your rooms while your brother explains himself, or perhaps visit your … other friends.” His gaze flicked away from Vanozza, the meaning clear. Cesare, to Lucrezia’s relief, looked irritated--on either their mother’s account or his own, or possibly both. “We hope to see you rested and in good spirits this evening!”

Lucrezia hesitated, reluctant to leave Cesare to face their father’s wrath, but he gave a small nod. Their mother touched her arm.

“Come, Lucrezia,” Vanozza said. She kissed Cesare’s cheek, Lucrezia the Pope’s; then the two of them left together, mother and daughter once more.

Chapter Text

Cesare had always thought of himself as Lucrezia’s protector. His fear for her, her happiness and safety, far outweighed what little anxiety he reserved to himself. Certainly he had never once expected her to protect him. Even in Pesaro, this much had not changed. Yet when the door closed behind her, it seemed like dropping a shield; he felt oddly exposed, vulnerable to attack.

Perhaps he was. If the Pope favoured Juan most of all, he adored Lucrezia, and could be swayed by her in small matters. But Cesare had no intention of depending upon his father’s changeable affections, or hiding behind his sister’s skirts. Ignoring the unpleasant heaviness in his chest and gut, he kissed the Pope’s ring.

“Your Holiness, I--”

“Speak to us of Pesaro,” Alexander demanded. “The circumstances must have been extraordinary, to merit such a long and sudden absence.”

Cesare almost laughed. It can be a secret, Lucrezia had whispered to him, but she had rather understated the matter. He brimmed over with secrets, so many by now that, even after several weeks’ expectation of this moment, he scarcely knew where to begin or what to say.

“Yes,” said Cesare, “but you know that much already, Father.” The Pope gave him a sharp look. “At first, I meant only to stay two or three days, but Lord Sforza’s accident altered my plans. I felt certain you would agree the opportunity was not to be missed.”

It took all of his self-command to keep his face still under his father’s close examination. Cesare did not dare swallow the sudden lump in his throat.

“Perhaps, perhaps.” Alexander strode over to him, displeasure deepening the lines of his face. “But that does not explain why you travelled there without warning or leave when we have need of you here.” His hands closed tightly about Cesare’s shoulders.

“I told Lucrezia that I would visit her,” Cesare said honestly. He did not look away. “Since I was already north of Rome, it seemed the best time to fulfill my word to her. And I knew of nothing urgent here. I would have left in an instant had you summoned me.”

Alexander searched his eyes, then sighed, and released him with a small shake of his shoulders. “What possessed you to promise such a thing?”

Cesare permitted himself a faint smile. “Your daughter, Holy Father, could wring concessions out of a saint, and I am anything but that.”

Alexander, turning away, only laughed: and that was enough. Cesare knew himself forgiven. Forgiven, or more likely, his explanation had satisfied his father so far that the offense required no forgiveness. Neither as Rodrigo Borgia nor Pope Alexander had he ever been a forgiving man.

“True enough,” he said, still chuckling. “And you have always been wrapped around her little finger.”

“I am afraid so,” said Cesare. He could only hope that the Pope never realized how much. After weeks of heady pleasure, the kiss on her bed seemed impossibly, ridiculously innocent, but even that would be an outrage to their father. The rest … he would be lucky to escape with excommunication, while Giovanni Sforza could violate her nightly and nobody would say a word. “But I would not have stayed as long as I did, had the circumstances not been what they were.”

“Lord Sforza’s accident.” Alexander glanced back at him, arms folded. “Lucrezia tells us that you managed her affairs while she was overpowered by this regrettable incident.”

Cesare bit down on a smile. So Lucrezia had corroborated his lies before he even thought of them. Of course she had.

“I did what I could,” he said, and hesitated. It was a risk: but he had never shied away from danger, and felt no inclination to yield to cowardice now. “May I speak frankly, your Holiness?”

His father, frowning, inclined his head. “That is our wish.”

“I regretted neither Sforza’s fall, nor the consequences of it. That made my decision for me, but even before it occurred, I had some idea of extending my stay. I did not wish to leave Lucrezia alone with him.”

The Pope stiffened. “He mistreats our daughter? He dares?

“He dares little,” said Cesare, hating himself. “He is not a man of spirit, you understand.”

“Ah.”

“Still, he is unpleasant enough in his way. I am not satisfied with his conduct towards my sister. He is not at all the husband I would wish for her. For that matter, I would not wish him on my cousins, or any other connection of mine--but Lucrezia most of all. The man is a snake.”

“A suitable metaphor,” murmured Alexander, striding over to the window. He tapped his fingers against the wall of the alcove, then sighed. “We feared it might be the case. What is this conduct that so offends you, my son?”

“It is less that he thinks poorly of her than our family in general. Our people. He talks of Catalan blood tainting his heirs over dinner.” Cesare paused. “Since he seems scarcely to distinguish Castile from Aragón, I suppose we can hardly expect him to tell the difference between Valencia and Catalonia.”

The Pope gave a short laugh. “We abandoned that fight long ago. King Fernando--nay, all of Aragón is Catalan to the likes of Giovanni Sforza.”

Cesare contented himself with a nod.

For several minutes, Alexander stared out of the window, features set in a mask of displeasure. At least, he said, “Lucrezia told us something of this. We hoped … but that is no matter. This occasion was not unusual?”

“Not at all,” said Cesare. “He is cold at best and generally boorish. His gratitude seems to have improved him a little--a very little.” His mouth curved into a thin smile. “He told Lucrezia that he forgave us our blood. Father, I endured more insults in three days at Pesaro than three months in Rome. I can only imagine what Lucrezia has suffered. I found her utterly miserable.”

The Pope closed his eyes. “We thank you for your frankness, Cesare.”

“Will you send her back to Pesaro after the wedding?”

Alexander turned to look at him, his face pale and haggard. “Is her husband a danger to her?”

Her husband was an invalid. And if he did recover quickly enough to attempt another violation, Micheletto would kill him.

“No,” Cesare said.

“Then we dare not insult him thus until this crisis has passed. Cardinal della Rovere has been the guest of Ludovico Sforza of late. We cannot risk our alliance with the Sforza except in the direst need.”

Cesare had not truly expected anything else. Still, failure tasted bitter in his mouth. Unable to think of a single decorous reply, he nodded.

“You are Giovanni Sforza’s confessor?”

“I was, for a time,” said Cesare. “No longer, I hope.”

Alexander hummed under his breath. “Of course not. But it speaks well of his opinion of you. If you and Lucrezia have managed to endear yourselves to him, then this time may not have been wasted. That was, of course, your intention in such a long absence from our side?”

“My intention was to seize the opportunity that presented itself,” Cesare said, voice steady. He was not, in general, as convincing a liar as his sister; she would be proud of him now. “Now there are Sforza servants and Sforza soldiers accustomed to obeying commands from--” From a Borgia, he thought, and finished, “From the Church.”

“A worthy cause,” said the Pope dryly. A humourless smile pulled at his mouth. “Very well. We shall continue in our plans, and once our family is no longer in danger, we shall see about welcoming our son-in-law to Rome. I am sure he will understand that we cannot bear our daughter’s absence forever, given the proper inducement.”

“Let us hope so.”

“Is there reason to doubt it?” Alexander said. “He would appreciate a palazzo in Rome, surely.”

“I don’t trust him,” said Cesare. “Neither as husband to my sister, nor ally to you.”

Alexander snorted. “And you think we do?”

“I have lived under his roof. I have heard his confession. Believe me, the man is a vile, faithless snake.” With an effort, Cesare kept his hands from curling into fists. He cooled his voice. “He would betray us in an instant.”

“He will suffer for it if he does.” Alexander caught Cesare’s shoulder again and turned him towards the door. “Our distrust of that family is bottomless. However, they can be depended upon to know their own interests. What does Giovanni Sforza gain by breaking his contract with Rome? Leave him to his convalescence.” He squeezed his arm. “You have greater concerns now, with a busy day ahead of us and Lady Sancia’s feast tonight. Take an hour’s rest from your travels. Wash, change into your robes, then return to your rightful place at our side.”

I am your firstborn son. My rightful place is in armour.

“Yes, Father,” said Cesare.


Inevitably, Cesare spent the day in the Vatican, either meeting with other cardinals and bishops, or standing beside the Pope. Church business kept them occupied into early evening, Cesare getting more uneasy as the day wore on. Alexander could not mean to miss Vanozza’s feast, could he? A punishment, perhaps, for their defiance at the wedding?

Weighing that possibility in his mind for several hours, Cesare at last dismissed it. That was not his father’s way. Alexander tended to the grandiose far more than the petty, and never to the reckless, except with women. With Sancia d’Aragona’s hand in the evening’s entertainments and an alliance to be finalized--well, Cesare could not imagine that Alexander would risk his papacy over a wedding party. No, he was simply being himself: postponing their departure to cram business into every corner of the day. The Pope could arrive late if he wished.

Cesare tapped his fingers against his wrist. The satin of his sleeve itched there, against the bare skin. His imagination, perhaps. He had worn his robes as often as not over the last fortnight, without a moment’s discomfort. For that matter, he had lain naked on them, and felt nothing but Lucrezia--Lucrezia around him, Lucrezia’s legs pressed against him, Lucrezia’s hair brushing his skin, Lucrezia’s fingers grasping the chain about his neck. But then, the satin could have been homespun wool and they would not have noticed.

Cesare’s concentration faltered. For a moment, he scarcely saw the sea of red before him, scarcely felt anything but frustrated desire. He had not touched her since that night. The Pope’s letter came the following day and they left as soon as they could, travelling slowly with her retinue of servants and attendants. They could only be brother and sister now: as they were, but also less than they were. He remembered her, flushed and gleaming in the candlelight, and--

He looked at his father. Their father. Cesare pushed the memories out of his mind and focused on the drone of Ascanio Sforza’s voice.

“And on Thursdays …”

Cesare drummed his fingers again. His robes still itched.

Eventually, of course, the Pope concluded his affairs for the day and they set out from the Vatican, too late to change clothes. Alexander would sooner be parted from his life than his regalia, so it scarcely mattered to him, but Cesare would have preferred something more comfortable, less conspicuous. Less clerical. He need not be cardinal tonight, but son, brother, Borgia.

Yet here he was, Cardinal Borgia still. Cesare shifted under his cassock and mantle. Cut precisely to his measurements, they never seemed to hang right, too loose and bulky to fit the lines of his body. He felt at once gracelessly large and shrunken, swallowed up in scarlet. He might be more than himself in these--Pesaro had taught him that--but he would always be less, as well.

Cesare looked at the Pope, who dozed beside him, then turned to stare out the window of the carriage, into the dull twilight. Metaphor, metaphor. It had been an evening like this when Cesare first acted to protect the papacy, while Alexander and the cardinals talked circles around metaphor. He preferred plain dealing: straightforward truth and barefaced lies, Lucrezia’s kisses and Micheletto’s blades.

Cesare moved again, collar tugging at his throat. He glanced at his father again. How could he possibly think that Cesare was suited to a life of contemplation and prayer? The endless machinations and petty vendettas of the Vatican? Cesare, of all people--

Rows of light caught his eye, on either side of the carriage. They must be approaching the villa. He nudged Alexander, who jerked awake, fully alert.

“At last,” he said, as Cesare helped him out of the carriage. “We could eat a horse!”

“Not a Neapolitan one, I hope.”

Alexander laughed. “No, indeed not.”

He smoothed down his robes, then adjusted Cesare’s over his shoulders, like a--well, a father. They were almost worth it, for that: and both bemused and gratified, he watched Alexander straighten his cross for good measure. With an approving nod, the Pope turned towards the villa. Cesare took a deep breath. This was the path to his father’s favour, he reminded himself, and his destiny, for now. If he proved his worth within the robes, someday he would throw them off.

He followed Alexander through the gates.

Within the villa, they found that the feast had yet to begin; they had arrived earlier than expected. As they passed through the halls, they heard remote voices: the guests, indistinct murmurs rising to the familiar shape of their language as Alexander and Cesare drew nearer to the central hall. Various distant relations drifted between rooms, admiring artwork and talking idly.

On the entrance of the Pope, the cousins immediately paid obeisance to him--and, Cesare realized uncomfortably, to the cardinal, too. Accustomed to contempt cloaked in courtesy as he was, so much deference from his own flesh and blood unsettled him. It rankled to see a Borgia grovel to anyone, even him.

Alexander accepted it all as his due, but then, he had spent several decades as the object of Borgia ambition and the source of their comforts. Cesare did not blame him, but he had no intention of enduring another ten or twenty minutes of Eminència this and Eminència that from relations he scarcely knew. He made his excuses to the Pope, deep in conversation with his cousin Adriana, and left in search of nearer relations.

At one of the doors to the main hall, a woman’s laughing voice accosted him.

“Cesare Borgia, is that how you greet all your kin? Or are we now beneath the notice of the Cardinal of Valencia?”

Cesare stiffened, turned, then smiled at the sight of a tall, attractive woman of twenty-eight, brown-haired and dark-eyed. “I didn’t see you, Isabel.”

“I can believe it,” she said. “You looked as if a pride of lions were chasing you.”

“More like a herd of bulls.”

Isabel grinned. She was no Llançol or Milà third cousin twice removed, but Alexander’s niece, the daughter of his brother Pedro Luis, the first Duke of Gandia. Cesare scarcely remembered his uncle, who had died escaping Rome after the passing of Pope Calixtus. But he knew his cousins very well. Pedro Luis had left his title to Juan and the care of his progeny to Alexander, whose diligence and affection ensured that his own children regarded Pedro Luis’ as very little short of older siblings.

“Look at you,” she said, and flicked his shoulder. “Little Cesare, a cardinal. And I could scarcely credit you as an archbishop.”

“Nor could I,” said Cesare ruefully. Then he frowned. “I must be six inches taller than you, cousin.”

“Perhaps, but to me, you will always be the little boy crying on the Santa Catalina.”

“I did no such thing.” He pushed the door open, and the two of them passed into the central hall, gleaming with light, but so crowded by sundry Borgias that he could make out little beyond the tables.

“You were four years old. I suspect I may remember that time more clearly than you.”

“For which I count myself fortunate,” he said, nodding at some passing cousins by marriage, who bowed deeply. “It is not a fortune that my mother shares. She swears that I did not shed a tear all the way to Spain.”

Cesare felt her steady gaze on him as he searched for Lucrezia. When he looked back at Isabel, she just lifted a brow.

“Your mother dotes on you. She would swear the sky was orange if it made you smile.”

“Hardly,” said Cesare. “She corrects me to this day. This morning, to be precise.”

Isabel laughed again. One of Alexander’s multitude of great-nephews looked their way, flushed, and genuflected. Cesare would have been more annoyed if not for a suspicion that the gesture was directed at Isabel as much as him; family gossip had it that Alonso Borgia, a year his junior, was enthralled by one or both of the Gandia daughters. Cesare himself had never shared that infatuation, though he liked his cousins personally, and considered them handsome. Too much his sisters, he would have said, but though both resembled him more closely than Lucrezia, nobody could be more his sister than his own. And yet--

And yet.

Cesare let out a breath, shook hands with a second cousin on the Milà side, nephew of the redoubtable Adriana. Pedro de Milà simply congratulated him on his elevation, smile sympathetic, and went on his way.

“Speaking of doting mothers,” Cesare said, “where is your sister?”

Where is mine? he thought irritably. Every glimpse of fair hair turned out to be one of the handful of cousins who shared it.

“Oh, Jeronima isn’t here.” Something in Isabel’s tone, a certain reserved distaste, caught his attention. He looked at her. “You must not have heard. My lord Cesarini has her with child.”

“Again?” he said thoughtlessly, then winced. “Forgive me. Pray convey my congratulations to her.”

Isabel inclined her head. Her sister had borne nine children in eight years, four of whom still lived: a girl and three boys, healthier than their delicate mother.

“There is nothing to forgive. It is what I said when I heard, as well. The last nearly killed her, and this … ” Isabel shook her head, mouth pressed into a thin line. “It goes badly already. He has a mistress, he has sons, what more does he want?”

Cesare, thinking of Lucrezia, said cautiously, “Is Cesarini unkind to her?”

“I think not,” said Isabel, “but she would never say. He seems cordial enough, and he is not a foolish man. He must know that our family would have his blood for it.”

He glanced around, saw their various relations standing or drifting in small groups, gesturing or laughing, caught the low murmur of their conversations--Valencian, of course. It struck him that not a single person in the room hated him, as far as he knew. And if Gianandrea Cesarini had mistreated Jeronima, every single one of them would be prepared to see him suffer for it.

Sforza’s time would come.

Chapter Text

The Pope clearly wished for Lucrezia to visit Giulia after she left their apartments. With Vanozza stiff and proud beside her, however, she thought the call could be delayed until after the banquet, and instead spent the rest of the day with her mother, helping with what few preparations remained. Now she stood at Vanozza’s side, smiles fixed on both their faces.

“Vanozza, my dear, you have my deepest sympathies,” said one of the innumerable Jofrès, a second or third cousin several times removed. “I was shocked when I heard, absolutely shocked, and so were we all. Were we not, Ippolita?”

His wife, a colourless Florentine lady, nodded. She, at least, did not ooze smugness as he did, only disinterest. Lucrezia, her smile unwavering, bristled. What right had some remote cousin to condescend to any of her family? He would be nothing without Alexander: why, he was not even a Borgia, not truly, just a Llançol who found it convenient to bear the name of two popes.

Before she could speak, her mother laughed.

“Your sympathies? Why--forgive me--but for what?”

They all stared. Even Lucrezia could scarcely keep her countenance.

“Few women are as blessed by Fortuna as I,” Vanozza said calmly, “and for that matter, few men either.”

“Yes, of course,” said Lady Ippolita, bewildered.

Lord Jofrè said, “I would not go that far, perhaps, but it does my heart good to know that you are contented with your lot, Lady Vanozza.”

“Contented to become mother to two dukes and a contessa in a matter of months? Indeed I am. And of course, there is--”

Vanozza glanced past them both, her smile warming. Lucrezia followed her gaze just in time to catch a glimpse of scarlet through the milling cousins. Unconsciously, she took half a step forward, breath stilling in her throat.

“My son the cardinal,” said Vanozza, nodding in his direction.

Comprehension widened Lady Ippolita’s eyes. “Oh! We heard about Cesare’s elevation. May we congratulate you?”

“Of course. We are all delighted for him, naturally.”

Only force of habit kept Lucrezia from a coughing fit. It had been dreadful. The Pope’s approval, for once, meant little: Cesare withdrew into one of his blackest moods, too somber to smile even at her; Lucrezia, distracted by Djem’s sudden death and her engagement and indisposition, understood little but loyally sulked on Cesare’s behalf; Juan repeated that it was a fuss over nothing; and Jofrè did not even understand the difference between bishop and cardinal. Vanozza consoled Cesare as well as she could, but maternal attentiveness could only go so far. In the end, Alexander alone felt anything better than indifference over the matter.

“Speak of the devil and he appears,” said a cheerful voice behind her.

Lucrezia almost jumped, then started again when she turned to see the source of the voice. “Bernardo?”

“Good evening, little cousin.” Bernardo grinned down at her; he was very tall, black-eyed and handsome like most of the Borgia men, but considerably nearer by blood: the eldest of her uncle’s children. Some ten or twelve years older than Cesare, he had lived in Spain for most of Lucrezia’s life, and even in Rome, never much bothered himself over her or his own sisters. She liked him nevertheless.

“Good evening!” she returned. “You move like a cat. How many hearts have you stopped so far?”

“No more than a dozen.” He nodded at Jofrè and Ippolita, then bent down to kiss Vanozza’s cheek, a distinct gleam of mischief in his eyes. “Aunt Juana.”

Vanozza gave him a reproving look, but accepted the kiss. “I have not heard that name in a long time.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Bernardo unrepentantly. “I should have said Aunt Giovanna, of course. But no, it is Vanozza, yes? Vanozza de … it would not be Castañeda here, now would it?” Bernardo took Vanozza’s hand between his own, smiling all around. Lucrezia noted with satisfaction that Lord Jofrè and Lady Ippolita looked uneasy. Glancing past them, complacent dislike flashed to pleasure: Cesare was making his way through the increasingly crowded hall. Though slowed by questions and congratulations, he headed directly towards her.

She waved. Cesare, draped in red satin, gloved and beringed and listening to a great-uncle, caught her gaze, smiled, lifted his hand. Beside her, Vanozza and Bernardo continued to speak, but she could not have guessed at their words had her life depended on it. As soon as Cesare extricated himself from their uncle, Lucrezia moved towards him.

She hadn’t seen him since she left him with their father; if the interview had gone badly, she thought they would have heard, but she had no real idea what the consequence had been. And since his arrival at Pesaro, he had never left her for so long. Even now, in the heart of their family, with no need for him to shield her from anything, she wanted him at her side. She’d felt peculiar all day, uncomfortable and lonely, constantly turning to search for her thoughts in his eyes or whisper confidences, only to remember that he was gone, trapped in the Vatican. Not so far, she reminded herself, but far enough; and, whatever he was doing, she’d known he must be unhappy in it. She did not wish him free, but--

Cesare’s hands closed about hers. They smiled at each other, a tightness in her shoulders fading. The set of his mouth softened.

“Lucrezia.”

“Brother.” She accepted the brush of his lips on her cheek: so little, and still the closest touch for days. He had not truly touched her since the night before they left Pesaro, when she took him on her bed again. On his robes. Lucrezia adjusted his cross, blood quick in her veins, her throat. She’d been steadier then, her fingers tugging him up by the chain until he kissed her, her hands sliding to his hair, satin slick under her knees.

She felt her lips part and glanced up. Cesare gave her a single intent look, his thoughts clearly following the same path as her own, gloved fingers tightening.

“My dear Lucrezia!”

Another set of lips pressed against her right cheek, softer, feminine. Lucrezia had scarcely noticed the lady at Cesare’s side. Now recollecting herself, she turned towards her. She was handsome, not as much as Lucrezia, but with her oval face, heavy, elaborate braids of deep brown hair, and large dark eyes, she looked much more like Cesare. A stranger might have mistaken her for his sister, instead.

Lucrezia forced a smile. “Isabel. How are you? Is Signor Matuzzi here?”

“I am very well. My husband was indisposed,” said Isabel, brows lifting and mouth solemn. There, at least, she did not resemble Cesare: her eyebrows were sharply angled, her upper lip so narrow that it all but disappeared into the full lower one when she pressed them together. The laughter in her eyes was not so much like him, either.

They all knew that her husband, a papal functionary who had been just good enough when she was only a cardinal’s niece, cowered before all the Borgias--Isabel included. No doubt the prospect of an entire crowd of them quite overpowered him. Cesare and Lucrezia, exchanging a knowing glance, murmured their sympathies.

“Thank you,” said Isabel.

“And Jeronima? I have not seen her.” She would, in perfect honesty, have preferred to see Isabel’s sister, whom she had always liked better. Jeronima, though she had not so firm a character as either of her siblings, possessed a sweeter nature than either. Before her marriage, she often dedicated hours to Lucrezia’s amusement, cloaking small corrections in games. Even afterwards, she did not forget her, but paid long visits to the villa, laughing over Roman gossip with Vanozza and dancing with Lucrezia; though her marriage and children consumed much of her time in recent years, she continued to write affectionate letters full of cheerful news and advice. It was almost like having a sister of her own.

Isabel paused, then said, “Also rather ill, I am afraid. She hoped to see you again.”

“Then we must visit her,” Lucrezia said.

Cesare fiddled with his ring; he was hiding something. “Is she well enough to receive callers, Isabel?”

“I think she would enjoy it.”

“We shall see her, then,” he said, but he still frowned. Lucrezia took his arm, and when they moved forward, just behind Isabel, he bent down and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Jeronima is with child again.”

Lucrezia stared up at him, wide-eyed. “Did she not just bear one?”

He nodded. “Three months ago. Isabel told me--”

Ahead of them, Isabel’s voice rang out. “Bernardo?”

Cesare straightened, his gaze jerking up. Bernardo, standing by--and undoubtedly taunting--Lord Jofrè, turned with a slight smile.

“Ah, my sainted sister. I will take that exclamation as delight and not horror.”

Behind him, Vanozza sighed. Lucrezia, uncertain and uneasy, shifted nearer to her own brother, whose sudden frown faded when he looked back at her, a sympathy of discomfort lingering in his face. His fingers, lying over her arm, tightened. Of course, she thought, Bernardo would not feel the same affection for Isabel or Jeronima, but she felt uncomfortable nevertheless. She could not imagine Cesare greeting even Juan so coldly.

“It was shock, brother. I never thought anything would lure you from the shores of Valencia,” said Isabel, regaining her composure. She did not say and the women of Valencia, but Lucrezia could not think of any of them failed to hear it. “But you may take it however you like. You always do.”

“Of course! I am a Borgia; I always strive to make the best of every circumstance. I urge you to follow my example, little sister.”

“Oh, I doubt my husband would permit that,” said Isabel. “Even he has his limits.”

Lord Jofrè and Lady Ippolita stared. Lucrezia, stifling a giggle, saw Cesare’s mouth quirk.

“Children,” Vanozza murmured. She shook her head. “I can see that the last decade has not changed your quarrelling.”

“I was thinking the same, Mother,” said Cesare. “I could almost imagine myself a child again.”

Bernardo’s gaze lifted from his sister to his cousins, faint sneer widening into a genuine smile. “Cèsar? Is it truly--this cannot be my little cousin Cèsar, surely?” He laughed and strode forward to clap Cesare’s shoulder. “My God, look at you. A man grown, and a cardinal! My felicitations, cousin.”

“Thank you,” Cesare said. Lucrezia released his arm and he absently rubbed his wrist, beneath his sleeve. “How many years has it been?”

“Too many!” said Bernardo, embracing him. He reminded Lucrezia of nothing so much as a well-meaning bear; he was a few inches shorter than her brother but much huskier. Cesare, always particular about touch, awkwardly clasped Bernardo’s arm and retreated to Lucrezia’s other side. “I came to Rome three, almost four years ago, but you were not here.”

“He was studying in Pisa,” Lucrezia said. For two years, she’d had only letters from him: frequent, affectionate, crammed with stories and endearments, but nevertheless, words alone. She missed him bitterly, even in her happiest moments; constant misery was not in her nature, yet rarely a day passed when she did not think of him. She could not imagine enduring such a separation again. Not now.

“Ah, yes, I think Jeronima mentioned that. So I must not have seen you since my uncle summoned you all back to Rome.” Bernardo laughed again. “How old were you, Cèsar, seven? Eight?”

“Cesare,” said Isabel. “They have not been Cèsar and Lucrècia for ten years.”

Bernardo’s only reply was to grin at Lucrezia. “Ah, Lucrècia. I meant to congratulate you, as well! I heard that you were married.”

Lucrezia and Cesare both stiffened. She forced herself to smile. “Thank you.”

“I can see that it agrees with you,” Bernardo added approvingly. He considered her. “You are blooming with health and beauty, cousin. But perhaps there is another reason for that?”

Lucrezia suppressed a shudder. “Oh no,” she said, just as Cesare snapped out,

“Absolutely not.”

She would never bear a Sforza child. Cesare had promised her that; and if he had been too late, she could turn to her mother, or Giulia. But he was not. Her courses, never more welcome, had come three days earlier.

Bernardo and Lady Ippolita looked startled. Vanozza’s smile did not waver, but Lucrezia could see her brows knit together. Fear ran cold down her spine: of all the people who must not know, must not guess, their mother came second only to their father.

Isabel’s sharp gaze seemed to catch something of her alarm.

“You are young yet,” she said, her tone sympathetic. She rested a hand, unusually gentle, on Lucrezia’s shoulder. “There will be time for that.”

“Then you are a proper Borgia,” said Bernardo, “and it is all good looks and charm.”

Despite herself, Lucrezia laughed. Even Isabel, standing between Bernardo and Lucrezia, smiled, though something about the way she held herself away from her brother made the six inches between them look like the Adriatic. Yet side-by-side, Lucrezia could see that Isabel resembled Bernardo much more than Cesare, or even Jeronima. A chance of blood, but--

“Where are the Duke and his Holiness?” demanded Lord Jofrè, visibly uncomfortable. “And Lady Sancia and that godson of mine, of course?”

“If I know my brother,” said Cesare, “planning a grand entrance. There may be trumpets.”

They all laughed. No sooner had they stopped, however, when the hubbub all around them quieted; the voices fell silent, and the many small circles of relations and hangers-on fell back into two rows. There were no trumpets, but two armoured men marched through the door. In a clear, resonant voice, one said,

“His Holiness, Pope Alexander VI, and His Excellency the Duke of Gandía, and the most illustrious lady Sancia, Duchessa of Squillace, and the honoured lord Jofrè Borgia!”

Lucrezia watched her father stride down the human aisle, smiling and nodding; he seemed in a splendid humour. For a moment she felt a warm glow of pride at his elegance and grandeur; she could not imagine any other man appearing to better advantage, or doing more honour to his office. Then, behind him, she saw Juan and Jofrè in their best finery, walking on either side of a graceful young woman.

Lucrezia’s eyes narrowed. Sancia was pretty, very pretty--smiling--her dark eyes lively and amused, as if she knew something nobody else did. She did not look wicked, just … complacent, perhaps. Had she already betrayed Jofrè with his own brother?

I betrayed my husband with my own brother. But that was different. Lord Sforza had been harsh, brutish, nothing like sweet little Jofrè. If he had been, she would not--

Well, Lucrezia did not know what she would have done. She would have still loved Cesare above all others, still desired him, too; how could she not? He was the other half of her soul. But without Sforza’s cruelty, she might not have understood it, or dared reach for so forbidden a happiness. Cesare, certainly, would not. They would have respected such a husband. What excuse had Sancia d’Aragona?

Only, Lucrezia thought uneasily, that she was a woman, and Jofrè a child.

“It seems we need not fear any opposition from Naples,” Cesare muttered into her ear. “The lady looks like a cat in a dovecote.”

She stifled a laugh. “And who are the doves?”

Vanozza signalled for the servants to begin ushering the other guests to their seats, and sending for food and drink. If she retained any acrimony towards the Pope, her exquisite sense of courtesy veiled it; she greeted him warmly and kissed both her sons, and Sancia.

“Lady Sancia, we do not believe you have met our other children,” said Alexander, gesturing at Cesare and Lucrezia.

Sancia kissed Vanozza’s cheek and turned to them. In a rich voice, she said, “No, I have not had that honour.” She smiled at Cesare, her gaze direct and appreciative.

“This is our eldest son Cesare, the Cardinal of Valencia,” Alexander said.

Sancia bowed, looking up at Cesare from under her lashes. She was wicked, Lucrezia decided, heart beating a furious pulse beneath her ribs, blood rushing fast and burning to her head, her legs, even her toes and fingertips. And Cesare would be her husband, had he not been denied his rights--if he had his way--if he--he would be hers.

Lucrezia hated her.

“And our daughter Lucrezia,” the Pope said, with a proud smile, “the light of our life.”

“Lady Lucrezia,” said Sancia, taking her hands and kissing her, “I have heard so much of you from your brothers.” She flicked a bright glance at Cesare. “Your other brothers, of course. I do hope we shall be friends.”

Lucrezia could not force the necessary agreement out of her mouth; she could not even force a smile.

“We will be something better,” she said. “Sisters.”

Her head felt strange: hot, and light, dizzy, her breath coming quick, a dozen impulses wild in her brain. She scarcely heard the continuing introductions, something, something, our beloved nephew and niece. Bernardo and Isabel. He must have known of Bernardo’s arrival, but that did not matter. Even Isabel did not matter: what was some physical resemblance and family affection to Sancia d’Aragona? Lucrezia wanted Sancia dead, or disfigured, or shamed--and she wanted her to leave happily with Jofrè--and she wanted Juan to take her away, to satisfy her with some kind of discretion--and for one mad moment, Lucrezia wanted everyone to know what Cesare was to her. She wished she could mark him in some way, or he, her.

No, no, it must be a secret. She had promised that, and anything else was impossible. Lucrezia took a deep, cooling breath, then braced herself and glanced up at her brother.

To anyone else, he looked very much as usual. But Lucrezia, who understood him better than anyone else, instantly saw the change in him, all the infinitesimal changes. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and in his arm, too, beneath her hand (when had she reached for him again)? He smiled, a little, but his eyes were wide and dark, the set of his shoulders rigid. Deeper colour crept into his cheeks.

He was angry.

Relief dazed her almost as much as hatred. She could not quite help a little sigh; Cesare looked down at her, thin smile fading to a graver, softer expression. As they made their way to the head table, behind their parents and Juan and Sancia, she murmured,

“I believe I have the answer to my question.”

Cesare scowled at Sancia's back. “I am no dove.”


The actual banquet passed with agonizing slowness. It was a success, as far as Lucrezia could tell; everyone complimented Vanozza on the arrangements, and everyone seemed delighted by Sancia. Vanozza, of course, had the sense to divide Juan and Sancia, placing Adriana, Isabel, and Jofrè between them, so no hint of scandal touched the proceedings. Unfortunately, her foresight had not extended to Sancia’s attentions to Cesare, hindered only by his own concealed but emphatic distaste. Lucrezia had never seen him so pious; he crossed himself, wore his robes like armour, and spoke of his vows at least four or five times. More than once, Lucrezia and Isabel nearly choked on their wine. Bernardo just appeared amused, and Alexander, surprised and pleased.

In justice to Sancia--little though Lucrezia felt inclined to it--she knew very well how to behave. She did nothing shocking, but charmed the Pope, flattered Lucrezia, and flirted only lightly with Cesare.

“You must translate for me, Cardinal,” she said, as most of the Borgias made easy conversation in Valencian.

Juan glowered at him, though Cesare, with Lucrezia on his left and Sancia directly across from him, didn’t seem to notice. Lucrezia could not imagine it would have changed his response, except perhaps out of sheer perversity.

“Translate?”

“I do not speak Catalan,” said Sancia, with a rueful twist of her mouth. “I wish I did, but my father--by which I mean my brother--prefers Spanish.”

Bernardo gave her an irritated look.

“Oh,” Lucrezia said sweetly, “is it so difficult to understand? I have never found it so, but of course, we all grew up with Valencian. Jofrè, you know, was born in Xàtiva, like the Holy Father.”

“I didn’t know,” said Sancia. “Do you remember it, my love?”

Jofrè shook his head. “I was only three when Pa--his Holiness brought us back to Rome. Cesare and Juan told me enough stories that I can imagine it, though, and I’ve heard Valencian all my life. I can translate for you, Sancia.”

She smiled warmly. “How sweet of you! I can see that my happiness is assured, marrying such a delightful young man.”

Jofrè bit his lip and blushed. Cesare and Lucrezia exchanged frowns.

“I pray that it is,” said Cesare.

“Lady Sancia,” Lucrezia said, “I have not yet heard your plans: Cesare and I only just arrived in Rome. Shall you sweep our brother off to … Squillace? Where is Squillace?”

Unperturbed, Sancia said, “I have no idea. I will, of course, be guided by my husband.”

“Well,” said the Pope, “you must remain with us for a few months, at least.” He bestowed a gentle smile on the beaming Jofrè. “We would not lose our son so quickly.”

“Your will is ours, Holy Father,” Sancia said.

Lucrezia very much doubted that. She did not trust Naples, or any of its inhabitants--least of all Sancia d’Aragona, who she watched carefully as Alexander held forth. Cesare, at least, paid no mind to any of it, listening to their father with his usual all-consuming attention.

Bernardo, on her left, leaned towards her. “Have you slipped cantarella into her soup, little cousin, or are you merely attempting to will it into existence?”

“Hush, she’ll hear you,” Lucrezia murmured, though he had pitched his voice so low that, under the cover of the others’ conversation, it seemed doubtful. Disregarding herself, she said, “Sancia is very pretty, is she not?”

“Yes,” he said agreeably.

“Is she as beautiful as--” She hesitated, flushing. “As Isabel?”

“I am not the one to ask on that point. Isabel is my sister.”

“Does that blind your judgment?”

“No,” he said, “but you may have noticed that she is not my favourite person. She is not even my favourite sister.”

“You cannot tell whether she is pretty or not because you dislike her?” Lucrezia thought, unwillingly, of her husband. His contempt for her had been matched only by his lust. She flinched. “You are a rare creature, cousin.”

Bernardo laughed under his breath. “Oh, very well. We Borgias are all of us incomparably beautiful and corrupt.” He gave a careless shrug. “I do not believe Sancia d’Aragona can compete on either count.”

Chapter Text

Giulia Farnese caught Lucrezia in a perfumed embrace.

“Lucrezia! What a delightful surprise!”

“Not very surprising, I hope,” said Lucrezia, letting her arms wrap tightly around Giulia’s back. She rested her chin on her friend’s shoulder, eyes hot with relief. It had been so long since she had a friend, uncomplicated by anything else: passion or resentment or suspicion. It had been so long since she found friendship in another woman at all. All the others she had lately seen, she disliked or could not quite trust or, in her mother’s case, regarded with more admiration than camaraderie.

“I did hear of your arrival,” Giulia said, stepping away.

“I would have called on you yesterday, but …” Lucrezia hesitated. The banquet had been Vanozza’s and so Giulia had not been there: of course, but she felt no need to rub it in. In truth, Lucrezia preferred to avoid all involvement in her father’s affairs of the heart. She loved her father, and she loved Giulia, and naturally she loved Vanozza; she would not be caught between one or the other.

There was no embarrassment in Giulia’s look, nor rancour either. “You must have been exhausted from your journey.”

“Yes.”

“I have longed to see you again, my love. I worried, we all … but let me look at you.” She caught Lucrezia’s face between her hands. Her smile did not fade, but her eyes widened. “You are happy in your marriage?”

Lucrezia did not shrink from her steady gaze, shift uncomfortably, anything: but only just. Giulia had a shrewdness of her own, not as focused as Vanozza’s, but quick and bright. And if she were Lucrezia’s friend, she was the Pope’s consort first.

In Pesaro, Lucrezia did not know what she could have concealed. In Rome, it was easy to laugh.

“Very,” she said. “I promise, I am perfectly content.”

“I can see that,” Giulia said affectionately, reaching over to cup her hand against Lucrezia’s cheek. She searched Lucrezia’s eyes, her own gaze thoughtful, warm. Then she turned a little aside, towards the servants hovering dutifully against the wall. Those she sent on errands, one for flowers, another for sweetmeats, a third with a letter to her brother Angelo; then she closed the door behind them and drew Lucrezia over to a soft seat in the sunlight.

“Oh, thank you.” She meant to remark on some small changes to the room, a new painting of Saint Helena, but Giulia forestalled her.

She said, “Tell me about your lover.”

Lucrezia flinched. Too taken aback to even attempt a denial--for a moment, even to breathe--she just stared.

“Why, Giulia Farnese, what … what nonsense you speak! My husband ...”

“I have met your husband, Lucrezia.” Giulia dropped her hand, smile wistful. “Forgive me, but I do not believe that Lord Sforza could inspire such complacence in any woman. And I flatter myself that I am an excellent judge of men.”

Swallowing, Lucrezia stared down at her hands. If Giulia guessed--if she--

“You must not tell my father.”

“His Holiness?” Giulia’s eyes went wide. “I would not dream of troubling him over such a matter!” She grinned, leaned forward, mischief lighting over her face. “You must tell me all about it. Gossiping over an affair, my dear, is half the joy of having one!”

“I cannot say who he is,” she said, blushing, “even to you, Giulia.”

“But is he tall?”

Lucrezia laughed helplessly. “Yes. Very tall.”

“And is he fair or dark?”

“Dark,” said Lucrezia, then reconsidered. She could easily have led her astray, continued the story she’d hinted to Francesca; but she did not wish that. She wanted to confide in Giulia, as much as she could. “At least, more than not. He has big dark eyes and black eyelashes and dark brown hair.”

“He sounds handsome,” said Giulia, with a fond look.

Lucrezia nodded fervently. “The handsomest man in Italy, I am sure.”

Giulia laughed. “Of course he is. Is he young or old?”

“Young, very young.”

“Not like Lord Sforza,” said Giulia, still sharp-eyed.

Lucrezia shook her head, twisting her rings. “No. Nothing about him reminds me of Lord Sforza, nothing at all.” She thought back to the hours she had spent, watching Cesare fight with Micheletto, quicker and more graceful by the day. “He is rather slender,” she said, “but strong and fast, and not afraid of anything. Yet he is always gentle with me.” Gentler than Lucrezia wished, at times. She would not have her brother touch her without love, of course; she could not imagine such a thing. But even with him beneath her, within her, surrendering in her arms, she felt a--a reserve, a barrier. And his restraint cracked enough that it was not suspicion alone. Cesare withheld some part of himself from her, still.

“He loves you, then?” said Giulia.

“Oh, yes.” What a question! She almost laughed. Always tripped dangerously near to the tip of her tongue. “He says--”

Dear sis, he said, and my love, a litany of reassurance; even Lucrezia and sister, in his mouth, became endearments. And if those failed to soothe her, during the long nights alone in her bed, the long hours of separation here, there were others to call to mind. As much as I love you?--I shall cut his heart out with a dinner knife.--I love you. You know that.--Blood of my blood, soul of my soul.--I would die for you. I would kill for you.

Giulia gave her a thoughtful look. “Men,” she said carefully, “say many things, Lucrezia.”

“Other men,” said Lucrezia, knowing it would not convince her. To Giulia Farnese, she must seem a callow, credulous girl still, scarcely less innocent than at her marriage. Giulia could not know that she had seduced her brother and conspired with him against her husband. She could not know what a ridiculous suggestion she had made. The very idea that Cesare might not love her! Cesare, her own brother, with his perfect, unhesitating adoration from Valencia to Rome to Pesaro: she could not even conceive of it. Nor would Giulia, if she knew of whom she spoke. “Well, it does not matter.”

Giulia raised her brows. “No?”

“No, because I love him.” Lucrezia smiled into Giulia’s worried blue eyes. She tried to think of something to soothe her, not at all sororal. “Giulia, I love him so much, more than ever--ever I thought I could love anyone. I would do anything for him. If he wanted the moon, I would try and seize it for him.”

He did want the moon. And their lives were such that Lucrezia, his sister who loved him, who desired his happiness above any but her own, could only hope that he did not get it.

“I understand,” said Giulia. “Better than you know, my love.”

Lucrezia, tightening her grip on Giulia’s other hand, said, “Swear to me that you will not repeat what I have said.”

“To your father? I already promised that.”

“To anyone!” Steadying herself, she managed to lower her voice, to sound less like an errant child. “Father would separate us. Juan would kill him. If my husband discovered it …” Lucrezia shuddered. 

“That would indeed be a disaster,” Giulia said, “but I think you have forgotten someone, Lucrezia.”

“What do you mean?”

She touched Lucrezia's face. “Your brother Cesare.”

Lucrezia absolutely froze.

“I cannot say that I am very much acquainted with him, but I know the two of you are close, closer than either of you are to Juan or Jofrè,” Giulia went on, expression unreadable. “I should think the cardinal would have an opinion on this matter as well.”

It had been Giulia, herself, who once advised her that she could depend on her intelligence. Lucrezia had never expected to use it against Giulia. But in an instant, she gathered her wits. 

“Oh! yes, of course. He would be angry, too,” she said feebly.

Giulia lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Lucrezia.”

Blood beating a hurried pulse in her chest and throat and head, Lucrezia dropped her eyes.

“You need not lie to me. I love you dearly; I want to help you.”

“Cesare knows,” Lucrezia blurted out. “He was there; he saw everything. It is as you said, Giulia. We are very close; we have always confided in each other. I know about his lover in Rome, and he knows about mine in Pesaro.”

“He did not say a word of this to the Pope,” said Giulia.

“Cesare would never betray me. He …” Lucrezia bit her lip. “Well, if I am completely truthful, my brother has done more than keep my secrets. He helped me tryst with my ... friend.”

“Oh!”

She did not dare release her panic, even as she settled into the comfort of the familiar story. “Cesare would take me out riding every day, into the woods by the castle, and I would meet my lover there. Then Cesare left us to ourselves for a few hours, and kept watch for spies and intruders.” Unblushingly, Lucrezia said, “Forgive me for trying to deceive you, Giulia. I am not a very good liar, but I have been so afraid, not only for my sake but my brother’s.”

Giulia, sighing, gazed down at their clasped hands for a moment. “I wish I could tell you that have built up these fears out of nothing.”

“Father would be angry at me,” said Lucrezia, “but ... it pains me to say it, but he loves me more than Cesare. I think he loves my cousins more than Cesare. A minor transgression in me, or Juan, or Jeronima, is a great sin in Cesare, and this is far more than that. Our father would be enraged if he knew what Cesare has concealed, what Cesare has done. He might never trust him again.”

That, at least, was no falsehood. Lucrezia had not thought very much of the risk before coming to Rome; now, hemmed in by secrecy and intrigue, she could see what had been so plain to her brother. They risked everything.

“Would you now choose differently, if it were in your power?” Giulia said, adjusting one of Lucrezia’s rings, just as her mother used to.

Lucrezia thought about it, imagined what would have happened had she left Cesare to his shame and caution. In some ways, they had not changed so very much. They would still love each other, still chase one another around courtyards, still walk arm-in-arm in the gardens, still murmur confidences. There would even be kisses, light and quick, Cesare lying in her bed at a careful distance. But he would never whisper at last into her mouth, press kisses down her throat, stroke her body into delight; she would never exchange pain and humiliation for laughter and pleasure, so close that even with his lingering reserve, that she knew nothing could ever tear them apart.

Lucrezia lifted her chin. “No. I regret nothing.” She looked Giulia directly in the eyes. “Do you?”

Giulia looked surprised for a moment; then she laughed. “Any woman of my age has regrets. You will have them yourself, someday. But no, I would not alter any of my choices, were it in my power, not even the greatest of my sins. I would sooner wish the world different than myself.”

“And I,” said Lucrezia, struck.

“Very well, Lucrezia.” Giulia smiled. “I swear by the Virgin that I will not speak of your ... affair of the heart, as long as it does not imperil this family.”

“Thank you! Oh, I knew you would understand, Giulia Farnese.” Lucrezia kissed her. “And it is such a relief to unburden myself of all these secrets. I love my brother dearly, but I could not help wishing for a woman’s guidance, for a friend and confidante of my own sex. I have missed you.”

“And I, you,” Giulia said warmly. “Now, tell me, what are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Cesare is taking me to call on our cousin,” said Lucrezia. “She is ill with another child.”

Giulia’s mouth pursed. “One of his Holiness’ nieces?”

“Yes, the younger one. I do not like the elder as well.” She hesitated. The words had slipped out, nothing remarkable, but they sounded strange and petty around Giulia.

If Giulia thought so, neither her face nor her tone gave it away. “Lady Girolama is the general favourite, I believe.”

Lucrezia nodded, brows still knit together. “Giulia?”

“Yes, my love?”

“You told me once that women should not hate each other.” She lifted troubled eyes. “In particular, I think, that we should not hate each other over men.”

“We should not,” said Giulia in a firm voice. “We all do what we must to survive this world, and there is no justice or benefit in condemning one another for it.”

“I wish I did not dislike any other women,” Lucrezia admitted, “but I do! I know not how to change my feelings, Giulia.”

“Who is this woman?”

“There are three,” said Lucrezia dismally. “And all of them because of men!”

She peered up at Giulia, feeling every bit the girl she still looked. Giulia did not seem appalled, at least.

“Tell me about them,” she said.

“Well, one cannot be trusted, I am certain of it.” Lucrezia might not have hated Sancia d’Aragona had she not flirted with Cesare before his siblings’ eyes. However, she thought that probably she would have, for it could only have been someone else; she felt the insult to Jofrè as well as to Cesare, and, however unknowingly, to herself. “The second, I scarcely know. The last … oh, even I can see that it is petty and nonsensical.” Her teeth pressed into her lip. “I all but confessed it already. I dislike my cousin Isabel.”

Giulia frowned, more in bewilderment than judgment. “Lady Isabella? Girolama’s sister?”

At the banquet, it had felt peculiar to hear her name in Valencian. It felt odder still to hear her cousins’ in Italian.

“Yes,” she said, uncomfortable, but unwilling to make a fuss over it. “Isabel is the oldest of us after Bernardo. My uncle, I think, did little for his children, and then he died, so it was Papa … my father who took charge of their upbringing. They were almost like older siblings to us.” Lucrezia glanced down, smoothing out some wrinkles in her skirt. “Well, Bernardo and Isabel were to Cesare and Juan. Bernardo remained in Valencia when we came to Rome, and Isabel is so much older …”

Giulia’s mouth twitched. “As old as I am?”

“I did not mean that! Only … oh.” Lucrezia could not help returning the smile. “You are teasing me, Giulia Farnese.”

“Only a little.”

“Well, I think Bernardo is about thirty, and Isabel a little younger. Seven- or eight-and-twenty. She married Signor Matuzzi when I was still very small.” She shrugged. “Jeronima married, too, but she was different, warmer, more sisterly. I am very fond of her.”

“Some women are difficult to love,” said Giulia, “just as some men. Do not blame yourself for it, my dear.”

“I would not, if it were only that.” Lucrezia rose and walked over to the window, pushing the curtains aside to brood over the city. “The only time I have seen my cousin without resenting her, Giulia, was at the banquet last night, and that only because I discovered that I disliked another lady more than I do Isabel.”

She heard a crinkle of silk.

“You said that a man is involved in all this? Your lover?”

Lucrezia shook her head without turning around. “My brothers! They would conceal matters of state and family from me, but they talk freely with her, as if she were more their sister than I am. And she looks more like them, acts more like them.”

“I will admit, Lucrezia,” said Giulia, “I do not know your cousin well, but it is difficult to imagine a woman who behaves like both Cesare and Juan.”

Despite herself, Lucrezia giggled. “Well, not Juan as much.”

With another rustle of silk, Giulia’s light footsteps drew nearer. She did not force Lucrezia to look at her, but slipped an arm about her waist.

“You are your brothers’ only sister, and the apple of all their eyes. You cannot doubt that. Does she know of Cesare’s lover, as you do? Would he conceal an affair for her sake?”

Lucrezia laughed again. “Oh, no. Nothing like that.” She looked up into Giulia’s calm, understanding face. “I knew it was silly.”

“You must judge that for yourself,” said Giulia. “There is a great difference, you know, between not hating other women, and loving them. Some women are your friends; some will make themselves your enemies. Most are neither.”

“Then what must I do?”

Giulia’s smile looked almost sad. “Understand, my love, that not all women deserve your trust. Cruelty, malice, heartlessness, deception: these are not the sole province of men. Often women exploit each other, sometimes for a man’s affections or the protection of his name, sometimes for security, sometimes for nothing more than power. Do not make yourself vulnerable to such women. You can extend understanding without trust, without even affection.”

Lucrezia nodded.

“Trust and affection do not always accompany each other, either,” Giulia added. “We can like people whom we do not trust. More importantly, we can trust those whom we do not like. People often improve on acquaintance, yet rarely become more trustworthy.”

“I suppose not.” Thinking of Francesca, Lucrezia straightened. “But trust can be earned.”

“It can and it must,” said Giulia. “You are a Borgia. You need friends, you need allies among women, but choose them wisely. You have a kind heart and a shrewd eye, Lucrezia. Think of where you might place your trust. Think of where you might offer friendship. What is gained or risked? What is lost to resentment? When is it safer to keep your distance? All of these things, you must consider.”

“Yes, Giulia.” Lucrezia’s head ached. “You think that my rivals might … improve on acquaintance? I should try and make friends with one of them?”

“Are they rivals?”

Lucrezia paused. She could almost see their names in ink, though she would never have been so careless as to write them down. Sancia d’Aragona. Ursula Bonadeo. Isabel Borgia. She had met them all, Sancia and Ursula once, Isabel times beyond counting. Sancia she could scarcely tolerate and had reason to distrust: but Cesare disliked her, as well. Ursula …

“I am not certain,” Lucrezia said slowly. Of the three of them, Ursula alone had possessed Cesare’s heart, if only for a little while. Yet Lucrezia felt that she disliked her the least. The baronessa had been in her train at the wedding, pleasant, a quiet sympathetic presence among strangers. Lucrezia remembered her as a murmur of reassurance, solemn eyes and thick fair hair. And she remembered, too, that first time with Cesare, his hot whisper: she is a shadow of you, sis. As far as she could tell, he had not spared a thought for Ursula Bonadeo since then.

As it should be, thought Lucrezia, but--poor Ursula.

She did not know her, of course. Perhaps Ursula had not truly cared for him; perhaps it amused her to seduce a cardinal; perhaps she sought only a diversion from her boorish husband; perhaps she saw nothing but the lure of the forbidden and a handsome face, with no interest in the mind behind it. Perhaps she would not prove amiable, after all, or even if she did, would betray Cesare on a whim. Giulia had said trust was more important than sympathy, had she not?

Trust was more difficult. If she set aside sympathy, set aside little annoyances, even set aside Cesare, who wanted none of them … well. What remained, then, but loyalty? The real question must be, where she did she stand to risk the least? to squander the most? In whom could she expect to find character, fidelity, solidarity?

That was not difficult at all. Lucrezia had heard the answer all her life.

Chapter Text

Cesare found his sister with Giulia Farnese, both of them giggling over something. He could not begrudge it, when Lucrezia looked so happy, but neither could he regard them with anything like pleasure. He knew it pained his mother.

“Excuse my intrusion, Lady Giulia,” he said, with what civility he could muster. “I was looking for my sister.”

Giulia’s smile was considerably more gracious. “And you have found her. Lucrezia told me that you intended to call on Lady Girolama together.”

“Jeronima, yes.” Cesare glanced at Lucrezia, surprisingly quiet. She looked not uncomfortable or concerned, as she often did when he and Giulia were in company together, but shamefaced. He did not think he had been that disapproving. “I hope I did not interrupt something important, sis?”

Lucrezia laughed again, blushing. “No, no.”

Giulia’s gaze flicked past Cesare, to the door he had closed behind him; her servants stood guard just outside. “We have been exchanging confidences, as ladies do,” she declared. “And not only ladies, I hear?”

Cesare stared at Lucrezia. Surely she had not--to Giulia Farnese, of all people--

“You need not pretend to ignorance, brother,” she said. Ignorance? What? How on God’s earth could he …?

Then, remembering Lucrezia’s maid, he understood. At least, he thought that he might.

“Giulia knows all about my friend in Pesaro. I would have no secrets between the three of us,” Lucrezia went on, her smile sweet and entirely unembarrassed. Cesare, impressed, almost returned it before remembering himself. Whatever collection of half-truths and blatant falsehoods she had assembled, he did not mean to ruin it now. Small, harmless lies had always come easily to her lips, but this was something grander, more audacious.

Cesare frowned at Giulia. “Lucrezia, was that wise?”

“I would never betray Lucrezia, your Eminence,” said Giulia, curling her fingers around Lucrezia’s. “Nor, from what little I saw of her husband, can I blame her. I understand all too well the trial of a repulsive husband.”

“Giulia is my dearest friend, Cesare,” Lucrezia said brightly. “I had not the heart to deceive her.”

Giulia gave her a sympathetic look. “I am sure it must be difficult for you, to be parted from your young man so soon. I cannot replace a lover, of course, but you may always depend upon me.”

“I knew that I could.” Lifting her eyes, Lucrezia added, “The two of you are my greatest consolations.”

“You honour me, sis,” he said. “I am surprised you have not forgotten a mere brother!”

“Our brothers are always in our thoughts, Cardinal,” said Giulia. Had she any? Most likely: he remembered a Farnese from Pisa, one of Giovanni de’ Medici’s companions.

Lucrezia’s placid smile edged toward a smirk. “Well, I confess that Juan and Jofrè are not always uppermost in my mind.” She rose and walked over to him, kissing his cheek. “But your place is secure, Cesare. I will always be grateful for your discretion in this.”

“As are we all,” Giulia said.

“On that happy note,” said Cesare, taking his sister’s arm, “we must beg your leave, Lady Giulia. Our cousin is expecting us.”

“Oh, yes. Lucrezia, my love, I hope you will pass my best wishes to Lady Girolama.”

“Of course,” Lucrezia said. “Good day, Giulia.”

“And Cardinal Borgia? I would speak with you when you can spare a moment.” Both siblings stared at her. Giulia, perfectly serene, added, “The matter concerns his Holiness.”

“Then I am sure Cesare will be eager to hear what you have to say,” said Lucrezia, voice as steely as their father's.

Unable to gracefully escape, Cesare gave a slight jerk of his head. “I shall, when I am not preoccupied with more urgent affairs. If you will excuse us?”

They walked out together, the door closing behind them. As soon as they passed out of earshot of the servants, Lucrezia glanced up and burst out giggling, hand over her mouth.

“I wish you could have seen the look on your face, Cesare.”

“I should wring your neck,” he said, but in so light a tone that not the most cowed altar boy would have taken it seriously.

Lucrezia certainly did not, laughter still bright in her eyes. She toyed absently with her cross.

“You always say that, and you never do.” Her thumb ran over the pale skin of her throat.

Cesare swallowed and looked away. “Speaking of your … recent confidences, did you say a word of truth to her?”

“Why, of course. You need not fear, Cesare,” she said, her grip on his arm tightening. Despite his better judgment, he returned his gaze to her face--upturned, mischievous, almost as if she were the girl she had been. “You truly are my favourite brother.”

“I have never felt any doubt of that, sis.” Nobody walked nearby, but he lowered his voice nonetheless. “What possessed you to speak of it? To her?”

Sobering, she said, “It was not my doing. Well, it was, but I did not intend it. She knew as soon as she set eyes on me.”

Cesare slightly revised his opinion of Giulia Farnese’s abilities. “She did? How?”

“My face betrayed me,” said Lucrezia. The brief hint of melancholy vanished from her face. “She did not believe that Lord Sforza could inspire such … high spirits. Believe me, I did not say anything of consequence: no name, or profession, or homeland, or anything of that kind. And I must go to confession now; I have rarely had to think or speak so quickly.”

“You were in rare form,” he said, smiling down at her. “Well, then, you must try to be less happy, Lucrezia.”

She elbowed him through his robes. “I think you lied to me, Cesare.”

As they walked, the halls grew more crowded: various minor functionaries and ecclesiastical princes nodded or greeted them, guards stood at attention, servants scurried about. Cesare drew her closer.

“I? Never.”

“Weeks ago, you told me that you did not like or dislike Giulia. But I believe that you do dislike her.”

Cesare sighed, and dropped his voice still further. “I do not think of her when I can avoid it. In her company, obviously, that becomes impossible.”

Lucrezia frowned.

“I am sorry if it troubles you,” he added. “I know that she is your friend, but for our mother’s sake, she will never be mine.”

He meant no criticism by it, but she winced. “At first, I felt the same way, but Giulia told me that women should not hate each other.”

Now that, Cesare thought, was exactly what he expected of Giulia Farnese. Not subtle, not particularly clever, but enough to influence the Lucrezia-that-was--sheltered, innocent, sweet, with little experience of intrigue, and none of women beyond her female relations and attendants. Of course, he’d seen from the beginning that Giulia wasted no time usurping Vanozza’s place with his sister as well as his father. He had not, however, understood how. Vanozza said something about a necklace, but acquisitive though Lucrezia might be, her affections would not be bought with a trinket. But neatly turning her resentment to guilt, then ingratiating herself with displays of generosity and extravagant affection: that he could imagine swaying her, even now.

“How noble of her,” he said. “When our father discards her as he did our mother, we shall see how she stands by that principle. For now, you may as well love her as not.”

“I shall; I do,” said Lucrezia firmly. She looked uneasy, however, and fidgeted with the hem of his sleeve, neither of them attending much to the small fretful movements of her fingers.

As if from afar, Cesare realized that he was angry. Not at Lucrezia, of course, never at Lucrezia. Not in the way that he generally thought of anger, either: a wild burning rage, flashing hot or contained to a sullen smoulder, but always a matter of fury and passion. This was quiet, almost gentle, a cool resentment that scarcely intruded on his thoughts. Giulia Farnese could not compare to Baron Bonadeo, or Giovanni Sforza. He certainly felt not the slightest inclination to carve her heart out. And he would never have dreamed of raising a hand against his father. Yet--

“And you?” Lucrezia said.

He thought of his mother, bearing herself with as much dignity as she could muster, until finally humiliated beyond all endurance. She’d screamed in the Vatican, wept within the walls of her villa. Cesare’s lips thinned.

“I am not a woman,” he said. “You may do as you will. I shall hate her with a clear conscience.”


Their cousin Jeronima, always the opposite of her sister, lived quietly in the Cesarini villa just outside Rome. In her stronger days, she spent hours elsewhere, often sitting with Vanozza or Isabel, or paying her respects to her uncle the cardinal. Pressed by him and Isabel, she even attended the occasional masquerade, emboldened by anonymity, though her bright hair inevitably gave her away. Still, her temper inclined to the retiring, and only more so in the last few years, with children filling the nursery and another always in her belly. She rarely left the villa now; Cesare had not seen her since his father’s coronation.

Inside the villa, a servant took Cesare’s mantle and Lucrezia’s coat. Otherwise, all was quiet. He felt a prickle of alarm; Lucrezia glanced around uneasily.

“Where is the master of the house?” Cesare said.

“My lord Cesarini was called away, your Eminence, on a matter of … urgency,” replied the servant, face inscrutable but for a faint curl of his mouth. Disapproval or scorn? It hardly mattered. If even the servants dared question their master’s conduct: well, who would see more? “However,” he added, “Lady Isabella arrived about an hour ago. She and Lady Girolama are expecting you both in my lady’s chambers.”

Cesare and Lucrezia looked at each other; he could see her swallow.

“We will take ourselves to her,” he said, moving forward. He reached back to take her hand, and Lucrezia’s fingers curled tight in response, like when they were children. He strode through the halls, past the gloomy, silent servants, ducking his head under low arches with Lucrezia’s skirts swishing behind him, her grasp pressing his fingers together. When they were all children, he thought; in those days, even Bernardo was a boy still.

The servants at Jeronima’s door bowed and opened it.

Cesare had expected to find their cousin ill. The moment he and Lucrezia stepped into her chambers, however, he knew Isabel had understated the matter.

Jeronima lay quietly in her bed, gaunt despite her pregnancy, back propped up by pillows. She looked nearer to forty than thirty, much less her actual six and twenty, the bones of her face and hands sharp beneath her skin. Long fair hair hung limply over her shoulders, not just darker than Lucrezia’s, but dull, damp, sticking to her neck and forehead. Her features looked shrunken, except for her eyes, enormous and black in her colourless face. Beside her, Isabel sat wiping her forehead, while a trio of maids hovered anxiously by the wall.

Lucrezia gasped.

“Our cousins have come to see you, little sister,” said Isabel, voice so soft that he would scarcely have known it for hers.

Slowly, Jeronima lifted her eyes. She smiled and held out a hand. “Cesare. Lucrezia.”

Lucrezia rushed to her side, clasping the hand.

“Good afternoon, Jeronima,” said Cesare. He leaned down and kissed her clammy cheek. “How are you?”

“Tired,” Jeronima said. Worse than that, he thought: lines of pain drew her brows together, etched themselves around her mouth. “But let us speak of better things.”

“I missed you at the banquet,” Lucrezia told her, thankfully steady after the first shock. “It was absolutely dreary without you.”

“From what Isabel says, it would have been dreary in any case,” said Jeronima. Her voice was low but clear, not breathless. Some of the anxiety coiling in his gut receded. “I was sorry not to see you, though.”

“Well, it makes no difference. I am here now, and Cesare, too.” Lucrezia glanced up at him; he stationed himself at her side, between her and the bed.

“You were so small,” Jeronima said vaguely. She could have meant either, or both of them; Cesare frowned and met Isabel’s eyes over her sister’s head. Her face was somber, strained, but not surprised. He lifted his eyebrows and she gave a small nod.

Lucrezia said in a despairing voice, “Were?”

Jeronima laughed. “You are a child still.” Her gaze sharpened, fixed on Lucrezia. “Or no? Your face has changed. Your eyes.”

“I fear I will not grow taller,” said Lucrezia. “Isabel quite towers over me, not to mention Cesare and Bernardo.”

Has he come? Cesare mouthed.

Isabel shook her head. Did he even know? Bernardo had arrived but lately, and though his antipathy to Isabel did not extend to Jeronima, he was unlikely to enquire after either of his half-sisters. Still, he had always regarded Jeronima with at least a modicum of brotherly affection. At the least, he should know that she was ill. If Lucrezia--

Cesare thrust the idea away. It was too appalling to contemplate.

“--occurred in your life, Lucrezia. I hear so little,” Jeronima was saying. Her hands laced together over her blanket, fingers long and spindly.

“I am afraid there is not much to tell. You know of my wedding, of course.”

“All the world knows of your wedding,” said Isabel dryly. “Of course, nobody could fault you, Lucrezia. You looked lovely and virtuous, and conducted yourself better than anyone else present.”

Cesare could only wish that would preserve her reputation. He knew better. It had certainly done nothing to divert Giovanni Sforza’s outrage from her. And it was ten years since he first heard her called the little whore, within weeks of their arrival in Rome.

“Rumour never cares for such details,” Jeronima said. The lines creasing her brow had smoothed out.

“I fear not,” said Lucrezia. “Well, then I was married, and I had a castle to manage, as much as my husband permitted.”

The tight set of Jeronima’s mouth softened into an incredulous smile. “Permit?”

“Your husband thinks to permit a Borgia to do anything?” Isabel said. “I hope you disabused him of that notion.”

By instinct, Cesare and Lucrezia turned towards each other. His lips quirked; Lucrezia’s lifted into a grin.

He said, “Lord Sforza had an unfortunate accident. He is in no position to allow or disallow anything, at the moment.”

Isabel stared at Lucrezia, who only patted Jeronima’s hand, a perfect image of purity and decorum. Jeronima herself laughed again, more weakly. In her soft voice, she said,

“Before or after you arrived, Cesare?”

“Afterwards, on a hunting trip. I was not present, of course, so I did not see him fall.”

“Regrettably, I am sure,” Isabel murmured.

“Isabel, really.” Jeronima shook her head. “Cesare is a priest, not a brute. However desirable the outcome, I am certain he did nothing but pray for Lord Sforza’s recovery. Is that not so?”

“Of course, cousin,” said Cesare.

“He was very eloquent,” Lucrezia added. “He even heard my husband’s confession, and that took some time. Lord Sforza is a pious man, but I will say in confidence, not a virtuous one.”

The maids, well-trained, gave no indication of their presence, but he felt certain they were listening. He felt certain that Lucrezia knew it, too.

“How peculiar.” Jeronima shifted in her bed with a grimace. When Isabel half-rose and Cesare moved forward to help her, she shook her head. Beads of sweat stood out on her face.

“Not as peculiar as it ought to be,” said Isabel, settling back into her chair. She dampened another cloth and wiped it over Jeronima’s brow. Her sister just sighed. “Of whom could the same not be said? The impious, I suppose.”

“We are all sinners.”

Cesare frowned at his hands.

“Yes, dear cousin,” said Lucrezia, “but some of us are so much more sinful than others!”

Isabel laughed; so did Cesare, despite himself. Jeronima blinked several times, her gaze drifting from Lucrezia’s face to some point past her shoulder.

“That reminds me …” They all waited, but she only stared into the distance. Then she focused on Lucrezia once more. “You are happy, now?”

“Oh, yes.” Lucrezia brought her other hand around to clasp Jeronima’s thin fingers. Her smile was very determined. “I am with my family. How could I be otherwise?”

“Yes,” murmured Jeronima. She leaned back against the pillows, turning her head to glance from Lucrezia to Cesare, then the other way, looking at Isabel. Whatever she found in their faces seemed to console her; she tilted her head back and closed her eyes. “Lucrezia. Little Lucrezia.”

Cesare saw Lucrezia’s lip tremble: just a little, but he knew in an instant that she could not be as calm as she appeared. He laid his hand on her shoulder, the muscles tight under his fingers. With a grateful look, Lucrezia said,

“Yes, Jeronima?”

“The wedding … your husband … oh, I do not know what I mean to say.” Jeronima shook her head. “Take care to amuse yourself.”

“You are free from your husband here, but no longer a child. You cannot spend all your time in Rome attending on tiresome family affairs,” said Isabel quickly. “Is that not what you mean, sis?”

“Yes. I think so.”

Lucrezia stiffened further. Yet her composure did not otherwise waver, and in a light tone, she said,

“Cesare was helping me improve my horsemanship, but he cannot spare the time now.” He opened his mouth, ready to--somehow--find the time, but Lucrezia smoothly continued, “I thought I might ride out to the places I have missed in Pesaro. I should like to go to my mother’s villa without the banquet daunting us, and to the woods by St Cecilia’s Abbey.”

“How pretty,” said Jeronima.

Isabel said, “So I hear, though I have not been there myself. It belongs to you, Cesare, does it not?”

“Well, I--”

“Yes, he is cardinal benefactor of the abbey,” Lucrezia said. She took a deep breath. “Perhaps you could accompany me, Isabel.”

Chapter Text

Cesare lifted his eyebrows, perfectly aware that Lucrezia had never much liked Isabel; certainly, she had never before sought out her company. Isabel herself looked even more taken aback.

“I?”

“That would be wonderful,” said Jeronima in her sweet voice. “And Isabel is a magnificent horsewoman.”

“Even better!” Lucrezia declared, though her eyes narrowed slightly. Cesare could not imagine her angry at Jeronima. Isabel? If Lucrezia had never liked her, she had never resented her, either. It seemed almost as improbable that she would do so now, over something so trivial. “You could help me, Isabel, if it is not too much of a inconvenience?”

“No inconvenience at all,” Isabel said blankly. “At least, not if you intend to go tomorrow.”

Lucrezia nodded.

Cesare could not escape the conviction that he had missed half of a conversation. Well, at least he felt certain that everyone but Lucrezia had missed it too. What was she plotting?

Jeronima managed to smile at Isabel and Lucrezia. “I hope you will often enjoy one another’s company.”

“No doubt we shall,” said Lucrezia, “now that I am a woman.” Her voice was steady, her eyes, her smile, everything.

Isabel tilted her head to the side, studying her. “I would always welcome your company, Lucrezia.”

“Thank you.”

“Although,” Isabel added, “it is true enough that you are not what you were.”

“She is Lucrezia Borgia,” said Cesare, voice harsher than he intended. He would sacrifice anything, anyone, if he could return her innocence to her: not gladly, perhaps, but willingly. Yet he loved her no less: rather the contrary. She was still Lucrezia, still a Borgia, still his sister, more akin to him by the day. Part of him shuddered away from that, horrified that he had corrupted her after all, desperate to preserve what remained. And part of him delighted in it, the affinity they’d always felt flaring to life, the certainty that he could depend on her abilities as well as her loyalties. Together they had outwitted Giovanni Sforza and all of Pesaro; now there was the Pope, their family, Rome, and then--all of Italy? The world? Why not?

“So I am.” Lucrezia smiled up at him. “And so I shall always be, if I marry a thousand times.”

“Yes. The daughters of our family are Borgias first, and anything else afterwards,” said Isabel. “We make for poor wives.” She reached over to grasp Jeronima’s hand, her own strong and sturdy over her sister’s. “Except you, my love. My poor Pietro could complain, but never your lord Cesarini.”

Jeronima’s lips curved, eyes dull. “Men judge these things differently.”

“No,” said Cesare. “The Holy Father has only praise for you, cousin. Even”--Bernardo was on the tip of his tongue--“Juan says not a word against you. Nor do I.”

“Poor Juan,” Jeronima murmured, but her gaze looked brighter. “I know you would not, you and Juan, my brother, my uncle. We can depend on you.”

Cesare almost cautioned her not to place too much trust on Juan’s shoulders--nor, in a different way, on Bernardo’s. Had she seemed a shade stronger, he would have. Instead he bit his tongue.

Isabel dampened the cloth again and wiped Jeronima’s face.

“The sons are Borgias first, too,” said Lucrezia, looking at Cesare again.

“Of course,” he said.

Jeronima plucked at her blankets, fretful. “I would see all of us together again. At such a time … in times such as these, nothing should stand between us.”

Some estrangements, he thought, ran deeper than self-preservation. Jeronima, with her gentle, forgiving nature, would never understand that; she always wished for everyone she loved to also love one another. It had never been so, even in a family as affectionate as theirs, even during the quieter, happier years in Valencia. Bernardo and Isabel were constantly at odds; his long-overdue legitimization had not made him less resentful, nor Isabel more tolerant. The older cousins bullied the younger, the only occasions on which Cesare troubled himself over Juan. They had been little closer than Bernardo and Isabel, if less quarrelsome, before they came to Rome.

“And nothing shall,” Lucrezia said fiercely.

Jeronima’s eyes closed. “If it is God's will.”

“You are exhausted, sister,” said Isabel. She rose. “We will let you sleep.”

Jeronima was already shaking her head. “No. I am tired, but it is only the child.” She reached a pleading hand towards her sister. “Do not leave me here alone, Isabel.”

Cesare stiffened, meeting Lucrezia’s worried eyes. Where was Cesarini? If he had misused Jeronima--all the more while she was sick and weak, carrying another one of his children, when he had four by her already and God knew how many bastards--

“No, of course not,” said Isabel soothingly. “I told you I would stay until this evening. I only thought to take Cesare and Lucrezia to the nursery. You know how fond she is of children.”

Jeronima’s face brightened. “Oh, yes, she must see them!” Then she took a deep, unsteady breath. “The two of you can go see Giulia and Aurelio and Alessandra. Cesare must stay.”

“I?” he said, bemused, just as Lucrezia exclaimed,

“Cesare? Whatever for?” She blushed and stood up. “Not that there is anything remarkable in confiding in him. I will leave you to your secrets, Jeronima.”

Isabel, abruptly, seemed very tired. “I believe there is something particular that Jeronima wishes to ask him.”

“Yes,” said Jeronima.

Lucrezia leaned down to kiss her. “I hope that you soon regain your strength, Jeronima. I will beg Saint Ramon for your recovery, and the Holy Father for his prayers.”

Isabel kissed her as well, not speaking, and left with Lucrezia. Cesare seated himself on the abandoned chair, a light contraption that he thought he recognized from Xàtiva. His robes caught on his boot. He kicked irritably at them until the satin settled loose and shapeless about him. His cousin, he noted with some gratitude, didn’t seem to notice; she was staring at her hands. 

“Jeronima, do you remember what you meant to ask me?”

Slowly, she lifted her dark eyes.

“To hear my confession,” she said, “before I die.”

Cesare stared at her. He felt himself flinch, so violently that the chair teetered beneath him; felt his own eyes widening, more in strain about his lids than anything else; felt his lips parting, nausea twisting his stomach in visceral revulsion. Each seemed to occur of its own volition, not by his choice, scarcely even real.

“No,” he said.

“You need not pretend,” said Jeronima. “Even Lucrezia must know.”

It is not certain, he wanted to say. None of us can know what Fortuna’s whims may be. Yet looking at her, so ill already, with worsening months ahead of her, he could not believe she would survive it.

“I can send for another priest.” He heard his voice, abrupt, cold. Cesare cleared his throat. “You are not on your deathbed yet. We can find someone more experienced, more devout. I am not worthy, Jeronima, not for you.”

“You are family,” she said quietly.

Cesare tugged at his collar, high and tight, constricting his neck. “My father, then. He has his weaknesses, but he is a true man of God. And as the Pope, he can forgive any sin you may have committed.”

“No, he … the Virgin … no, no.” The lines between her brows deepened. “I would not trouble him. It must be you.”

“It must not!” Cesare sprang up, too agitated to sit docilely in Lucrezia’s chair. He strode to the end of the bed, his back to her, fingers crumpling his trailing skirts--skirts, like Lucrezia dressing up in Vanozza’s gowns as a little girl. These fit him little better; he was no more a priest than Lucrezia was their mother. Hearing Sforza’s confession, well, that had been a different matter altogether: pretense, and vengeance, and the creeping realization that his robes brought him a kind of power, after all. Why should he care if that absolution meant anything? But it would not suffice for Jeronima.

“I am cardinal in name only,” he said. “I have no vocation, I have broken my vows times beyond counting, I have committed acts so unpardonable that I would not be surprised if I were dragged down to hell at this moment.”

“Cèsar,” she said.

He turned towards her.

“Come here.”

Unable to refuse her, he returned to the chair.

“You have never had any inclination for the Church,” she said, “even as a boy. We all know that.”

“Then--”

Ignoring him, she went on, “It was my uncle’s will that set you on this path, not your own. You would never have surrendered your birthright by choice. It was … he should not have … Juan, he is no Israel.”

Cesare blinked several times. “What?”

“Yet, your benefices must console you. How much do you have? Ten thousand ducats a year? Twelve?”

“Sixteen,” he said, entirely bewildered.

“You spurn the money of the Church, hm?”

He flushed.

“No. Votes, palaces, horses, servants. Gifts.” Jeronima patted his hand, her smile wan but deepening the papery creases around her eyes. “Willingly or no, you are a prince of the Church. A servant of God.”

“That may be,” he replied, “but it does not matter. My soul is tainted, Jeronima; I corrupt everything I touch. I cannot absolve you.”

Jeronima looked mulish, her soft, worn features as determined as Isabel’s or Lucrezia’s. Or Bernardo’s, he supposed.

She said, “I have not wronged you.”

Cesare frowned. “No, of course not.”

“Then I do not need your forgiveness, only that of God, through you.” She lifted her chin, and now something about her reminded him of his father. “You are but the instrument of his absolution, Cesare. The virtue is in him, not you.”

“And the qualities of the instrument are besides the point?” He gave a short laugh. “One might wonder why we take vows at all.”

“Is that your great sin, little cousin?” said Jeronima.

He fell silent.

“You love wealth too much? Rich food? Women? Or is there something that might distinguish you from every other cleric in Rome?”

Incestus,” he said, without even thinking. His breath caught in his chest, burned. What had possessed him? He could scarcely bring himself to pronounce the word in Valencian or Italian; he had thought Lucrezia indiscreet to mention a lover to Giulia Farnese! Yet Giulia would live many years yet, in all probability; Jeronima, infinitely more deserving, would be dead in weeks.

She stared at him. “Unchastity? That is all? Have you seduced a nun?”

Mouth dry, he nodded. Then he shook his head. “Not a nun.”

Jeronima made an odd noise in her throat: it might have been chiding, or--more likely--laughter. “Oh, Cesare.

She was sweating again. He walked over to the bowl of water and, stripping off his gloves, held a cold cloth against her forehead. Now he could feel Jeronima’s skin hot and clammy, as Isabel must have.

“At times you are such a Borgia, cousin,” said Jeronima. She smiled up at him. “And at others, you condemn yourself to hell over bribery and dalliances.”

“You should sleep,” he said, though she seemed no worse than before. And to judge by her conversation, her mind was clearer than before, if anything.

“Not yet. My sleep is not … restful. Ah, my head is quite cool now, thank you.”

Once again, he returned to the little Dantesca chair. Jeronima held out her hand, the feeble motion almost as peremptory as Lucrezia could be, somehow. Cesare hesitated, then permitted himself to close his fingers about hers. Long but not bulky, his hand still blotted hers out to the wrist.

“Well, I am glad that is settled,” said Jeronima.

Nothing had been settled. He thought it, almost said it, but now that he felt her hand small and shaking beneath his own, the fever smouldering under her skin, it did not seem so important. What did it matter? He could not believe that Jeronima was not destined for paradise, if such a place existed. If confessing to him brought her peace of mind, well--how could he deny that to a dying woman? His cousin, almost his sister?

“Jeronima,” he said.

She managed to press his hand, her eyes steely. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

Cesare took a deep breath. “What are your sins, my daughter?”


Jeronima’s sins amounted to some impatience with a maid and her children, and what she termed wrath. She blamed Cesarini for her condition--as well she ought, but Cesare managed to bite his tongue and listen. If her husband had only waited to claim his rights, he might not have doomed her and their child. She feared death, she did not wish to leave her children and her family for all the glories of heaven, and she resented Cesarini.

He deserved more than that: again, Cesare closed his mouth on his true thoughts. Carefully, he reminded her that not all anger constituted a sin; it could be just and righteous as easily as not, and hers did not strike him as heedless, uncontrolled wrath. Nevertheless, she knew her own heart. If she felt it to be a sin, he would prescribe a penance.

She was falling asleep before she finished the three Ave Marias he set her. Quickly, he rose and reached towards her, fingers an inch from her mouth. He could feel her breath puff against his palm.

Ego te absolvo,” he murmured, and picked up his gloves. As he left, he glanced over his shoulder one last time. Jeronima lay peacefully in bed, hands folded, the lines of strain on her face smoothed out. This time, it seemed, sleep did bring her rest or, perhaps, he had. Cesare shut the door quietly behind him.

As he made his way to the nursery, he found Isabel hovering in the hall, delivering orders in a low, decisive undertone to a pair of guards. She broke off, mid-sentence, at the sight of him, and strode towards him with her hands clenching and unclenching in her skirts. In Jeronima’s room, she’d tried to hide her anxiety; now it was clear in her face.

“Cesare! Is Jeronima--”

“Asleep,” he said. He laid a hand on her shoulder. “I heard her confession first.”

“Good. She has been fretting over it,” said Isabel. “I told her she could send for anyone she wanted--and my uncle would come, surely--but she did not want to wait. And she does not trust anyone outside the family.”

“Wise,” Cesare said, “but not like her. Has her illness changed her so much?”

Isabel’s mouth hardened. “Not in itself. She has come to believe, however, that she cannot depend upon any others.” She glanced meaningfully at the Cesarini servants; Cesare understood.

“Nobody has offered any cruelty?”

Isabel gestured around the silent halls. “How? Nobody is here. I come as often as I can, and some of the nearer cousins visit now and then, but the rest of the time, she lies alone in that room.” She gave a helpless shrug. “Her thoughts prey upon her. She is too weak for any real distractions.”

“Her conscience, at least, should trouble her less now,” said Cesare. “She was resting peacefully when I left her.”

“Thank you. She has not slept well in days. I … I cannot express … we are grateful.”

“If I must be shackled to the Church, I should be able to bring some measure of tranquillity to the ones I love,” he said.

Isabel grasped his sleeve and looked into his face, tall enough that she only had to tilt her head up a little. Her gaze was steady, solemn. “Cesare, we all know that you should have been my father’s heir. The Duke of Gandia. To this day, I do not understand why my uncle disinherited you. You are the eldest son. By rights, Juan should be the cardinal.”

Cesare imagined Juan sitting at Jeronima’s side, listening to the trivial qualms of a dying woman, Juan praying in red satin. He nearly shuddered.

“Forgive me,” said Isabel, “but thank God that it was you!”

Cesare just nodded. He was not selfless enough to feel anything like gratitude on that point; but right then, he could not wish Juan in his place, either.

“My sister, I am sure, will return to keep Jeronima company, as will I, when the Pope can spare me.” He glanced past her, but saw nothing. “Where is Lucrezia?”

The nursery, Isabel told him, with a quirk of her mouth; unlike Jeronima and Lucrezia--and Cesare himself, for that matter--she was not fond of children. She left to sit with Jeronima while Cesare headed to the nursery.

He paused in the doorway. Lucrezia sat near a window, laughing, little Alessandra Cesarini bouncing on her lap. She was the most beautiful of Jeronima’s children, and the only one to inherit her fair hair, almost white at this age.

“Up!” said Lucrezia, lifting her into the air. Alessandra giggled. With the child in her arms, sunlight gleaming over their pale gold curls and her blue gown, Lucrezia looked even more of a Madonna than usual.

Cesare, leaning against the doorframe, smiled. “Pinturicchio should paint you again, sis.”

“Cesare!” Lucrezia leapt up, then glanced guiltily at the cradle on the opposite side of the room, where a nursemaid hovered. Alessandra twisted around, no doubt to see what had interrupted her game.

“Up,” he insisted.

Cesare walked over to the two of them, a little soothed by Lucrezia’s warm look. “Is she as angelic as he looks?”

Alessandra reached for his cross.

“Not quite,” said Lucrezia, just as Alessandra tugged at the cross, scowling when it did not come free. She yanked harder.

“That is quite enough sacrilege from you, young woman,” Cesare said, and took her from Lucrezia. Alessandra’s hands fumbled at his face, Lucrezia laughing softly.

“Up!”

Cesare swung her into the air, the child’s weight nothing. Her cherubic face broke into smiles, even before Lucrezia drew closer and tickled her feet.

“No, Lu,” Alessandra said authoritatively. “Stop that.”

She said, “May I kiss you, then?”

Alessandra considered it, tiny mouth pursed, Cesare and Lucrezia grinning at each other over her head. Then she nodded. “One kiss.”

“Oh, you strike a hard bargain,” Lucrezia said, and pressed her lips against Alessandra’s cheek. “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

She giggled and reached for Lucrezia's hair.

“You will learn to be less stingy with your kisses,” said Cesare, highly amused.

“Or perhaps she shall take the cloth,” Lucrezia said, “like you, Cesare.”

He turned to stare at her. She was smiling, mouth sly and eyes laughing. At his look, she just lifted her brows.

Alessandra yawned.

Passing her off to the nursemaid, Lucrezia quickly sobered and drew Cesare over to the window. She laced their hands together.

“What did Jeronima ask you?”

“I cannot say,” he told her; that would be sufficient.

Sure enough, she paled, her eyes wide. “Confession?”

Cesare nodded.

“Is she … will she … ?”

He did not reply; he did not need to. Lucrezia blinked away tears.

Alone, he would have kissed her. But here, painfully conscious of the presence of Cesarini servants, he could do little but step closer, tightening his grip on her hands.

She laid a palm against his cheek. “You look exhausted.”

He was, deep in his bones. Less than Jeronima, but weary all the same. Cesare pressed his lips to her forehead. Then he leaned his brow against hers, Lucrezia clutching at his robes. He could feel her breath ragged on his skin.

They looked at each other, maids receding into insignificance. Lucrezia was his sister, he reminded himself. His family. Why should they not embrace?

With a harsh gasp, she pressed her face into his shoulder. Cesare rested his chin on her hair, hands at her back, holding her to him. Close, too close. Not close enough. For one wild moment, he wished them back in Pesaro.

Cesare closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia could hear Juan and Sancia from her bedroom. She lay awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering who claimed these unbearably thin walls as his own stroke of genius. The floors, too--Juan’s rooms were directly above hers. It did not matter so much before her marriage, when he confined himself to brothels, but now that he had a proper mistress, she could not imagine why her father had placed them so near together.

Moonlight shone, dull but distracting, over her bed. Her braid itched against her shoulder. The blankets were too heavy. Her shift had tangled under her back. In the distance, but not anywhere distant enough, Juan groaned loudly. Lucrezia even caught the sound of Sancia’s laughter.

She flung her head back, holding her pillow around her ears. Now she heard nothing but Juan and could scarcely breathe.

Grumbling to herself, Lucrezia replaced the pillow and buried her face against it, hands over her ears. She’d spied on Cesare, of course, but that was entirely different. It had always required a certain amount of effort, watching and waiting and clambering up to his window. This could not be avoided.

Juan was louder than Cesare, too. He groaned and grunted and laughed and rattled furniture, like Sforza. Cesare kept quiet: quieter than she would have wished, at times. Even alone in the woods together, he was all murmurs and quick breaths, gasping his pleasure into her throat or mouth. He never cried out, as she did. She treasured his shudders, her name in hoarse chanting whispers, the nameless way he looked at her, but sometimes she wondered--she could not help but feel--

Well. They both knew she had all but dragged him into this, step by reluctant step. If not actually unwilling, he … no, no, she could not doubt that he desired her. Not at all. Yet she also could not help suspecting that he did not desire her as she did him. She always wanted him: when he approached her, when he touched her, looked at her, when she thought of him, when someone mentioned his name. Anything. Often enough she dwelt on other matters, but it never left her, just quieted to a distant hunger in the back of her mind. She’d wished for his caress even in the Cesarini nursery, tears in her eyes and her cousin’s children in the very same room, Jeronima herself dying not far away--wished for it more than ever.

“Yes!” cried Sancia.

Lucrezia flung her blankets aside and sat up. There were some things nobody could be expected to endure. She put on a robe, scarcely bothering to secure the sash, unbraided her hair, seized and lit a candle. From there, she made her way to the staircase leading to the apartments above hers, shadows flickering in sharp, twisting shapes along the walls. She met her first obstacle upstairs: guards posted near the door.

“Who’s there?”

Lucrezia stepped quickly into the light. She knew that to look at her now, she could be the child-bride who had slept through her wedding festivities not three months ago. Only Cesare and Vanozza saw the change in her.

“Lady Lucrezia?” the guard said in some bewilderment, hand dropping from his sword-hilt.

She rubbed her eyes. “I must see my brother. I had a terrible dream.”

They stepped aside immediately, though she made sure to sniffle a few times as she passed. Her back to them, she continued through the dark, echoing halls, oddly desolate without the usual bustle of servants and priests and dignitaries, until she reached her brother’s bedchamber.

Lucrezia closed his door behind her.

“Cesare?”

She could see his robes flung over a chair, shift crumpled on the seat. His cross hung just as carelessly from the back of the chair. She couldn’t find Cesare himself until she approached the bed; he lay naked under his blankets, asleep. She hadn’t been sure if he would be, with the hours he often kept, though she couldn’t be surprised. After they returned from the villa, he’d spent hours closeted with their father and the other cardinals, and the rest of the day on Church business, emerging dull-eyed for supper. He met her with the faintest of smiles, and ignored Juan’s jibes and Giulia’s existence altogether. Even their father drew only slight attention.

Lucrezia stumbled over his boots. She kicked them aside and sat on the edge of the bed. Cesare was not curled up on his side, as usual, but lay flat on his back, blankets pulled up to his waist, and hands folded over his stomach, just like Jeronima had.

Lucrezia’s skin chilled. The thought came to her: someday, he would die. Jeronima would die, and her father would die, and Vanozza, Juan, Isabel and Bernardo, everyone, and sooner or later, he would follow them.

She felt a scream rising in her throat. Lucrezia took a deep, uneven breath, shrugged off her robe, and climbed more fully onto the bed, leaning on her elbow. Near enough to feel the warmth of her brother’s body, she reached a hand to his bare chest, stroked up until she felt the strong, steady beat of his heart. Under her fingers, creeping to his shoulders, his skin was warm; his head, turned sideways against his pillow, moved a little.

Lucrezia stared down at him, so familiar, even under the strange altering lights and shadows of the moon. It heightened every contrast: sharpened the planes of his face, softened the curve of chin and mouth, turned his skin pale and his hair nearly black, lashes stark against his cheek. She had always considered the two of them the handsomest in the family, but she thought him particularly beautiful under the moonlight.

With a sigh, she slid her hand to his face, along his jaw. He mumbled something, opened his eyes, saw her fingers near her neck.

Cesare jerked away, eyes wild, hand seizing her wrist. “What on God’s earth--” He looked up and saw her. “Lucrezia?”

“Peace, brother,” she said, laughing. “There are no assassins hiding in the curtains.”

Without a word of warning, he curled his fingers around her neck and pressed his lips to her throat. Lucrezia tilted her head back, closed her eyes; a familiar, hot combination of pleasure and anticipation ached under her skin and tingled over it. He must feel that, the rush of her blood under his mouth, her short breaths. If he did, he felt no need to tell her so.

“I would not put it past Micheletto,” Cesare said, and laid his head back on the pillow. He did not, however, remove his hand from her neck. That was reassurance enough; she settled comfortably against him, unperturbed by his light grip.

“I would not put anything past Micheletto,” said Lucrezia. She smiled down at him. The moment of alarm past, he looked drowsy again, his tangled hair starting to curl around his face. He must have been too busy for the oils they both used to tame their hair. “I did not know you would wake up, Cesare. You should go back to sleep, if you can.”

“If I can?” he said, his voice the slow careful drawl she only heard at his sleepiest. Unwrapping his fingers from her neck, he reached for her hand and held it high against his chest. “Is there something to prevent me?” He briefly pressed her fingers to his mouth. “Other than you?”

“Yes, that is why--” She paused, listening. In fact, she hadn’t heard Juan and Sancia since she came to Cesare’s room. Perhaps they had gone to sleep at last, although it seemed sadly improbable. “You cannot hear Juan from here?”

“More than I would prefer,” said Cesare. “I can hear him if he shouts for me--or anyone else--but he has privacy enough.”

Lucrezia grimaced. “No, he doesn’t. I hear everything in my chambers, even though I am so much further.” The walls of Cesare’s room did not look any different from hers, but she supposed they might be thicker. “How unfair!”

“Most things in life prove themselves unfair, sis. The virtuous die and the wicked prosper,” he said.

“You must not die,” said Lucrezia. She brushed trembling fingers over his face. “Promise me.”

His mouth curved. “I should not think there is any danger of that.”

“Promise me.”

Cesare stared up at her. “Why do you say that?”

She hardly knew. Lucrezia just shook her head, refusing to look away. She stroked her hand to his neck; under the light pressure of her fingers, he turned his head towards hers and captured her wrist again.

“Lucrezia,” he murmured, “how could I possibly die?”

“Fever.” Her head tipped down further, so near that their noses almost brushed. “Like Djem, and now Jeronima. Or the sword: someone could send an assassin after you. Even Micheletto sleeps, or perhaps he will make a mistake when you practice together. What if someone poisons you?” She searched his eyes.

“What if anything?” said Cesare. “Let us hope that the earth does not open up and swallow us whole, but who knows? It might happen.”

Lucrezia giggled. “That is rather improbable!”

“As is a fever felling me at eighteen, or Micheletto misjudging his aim,” he said. “You must not indulge in such imaginings, sis. We are young and strong, and we shall live for many years yet.”

Cesare shifted, stretching. Lucrezia had noticed his nakedness the instant she saw him, but she felt conscious of it all over again, his body beneath her with nothing but the blanket and her thin rail between them. She suppressed a shiver, eyes dropping to his mouth. The air itself seemed heavier, filled with her rapid breaths.

She desperately wanted to kiss him, to taste him, bring them both that first rush of shared pleasure. Then there would be his hands on her back, breasts, legs, as she stroked his body; the five days since the last time felt like a chasm, but it was not so long that the memories had faded in the slightest. She wanted--oh, she wanted everything.

Yet something kept her motionless, even her hand stilling. Lucrezia lifted her eyes back to Cesare’s, large, black, hungry. His pulse beat fast and fierce under her fingers. What was she doing?

Waiting, she thought.

Cesare caught her face in his hands and with a sharp tug, closed the last few inches between them. His lips pressed against hers, warm and lingering, her hair catching painfully in his grip. Lucrezia felt light-headed. Her hand slipped down to his shoulder, ran over his skin; eagerly, she kissed him back.

Yes, yes. They broke apart for air, his intent gaze quickening her blood as much as his kisses. She moved aside as he sat up, then herself rose to kneel before him, their heads level. She just brushed her mouth over his.

“I missed you,” she whispered. “Every hour that we have been apart. Every moment.”

“My love,” said Cesare helplessly, usual eloquence gone. He ran his fingers through the hair hanging over her shoulder.

“Do you ever think of me?”

His eyes widened. For a moment, he just looked at her, entirely devoid of words. Then he gave a short, incredulous laugh. “My God, sis, have you lost your wits?”

“Do you?” she persisted.

“Yes, of course.” Cesare leaned closer, a breath away from her mouth. Lucrezia lifted her eyes to his, unable to help or hide her sudden deep blush. “Always.”

He pulled her close and kissed her again. Lucrezia, more than reassured, caught his lip between hers and flung one arm about his neck, lifting her other hand to his face. She almost whimpered when his tongue stroked her mouth, and then when he stopped to lower his mouth to her ear. She could feel the heaving of his chest, rapid hot breaths on her cheek. “I thought of you in consistory, Lucrezia,” he whispered. “I sat there in my robes, and remembered the two of us on them--”

A sin, surely. She shivered, but her skin burned. Ever since their first time together, desire flared quickly in her, more than ever before, now that she knew the pleasure that lay beyond it. Yet in Pesaro, with that desire satisfied at least daily, it rarely rose to its old starved intensity. Now the craving returned to her, worse than ever before with the days stretching on and the memory of him within her, his hands bringing her ecstasy.

“I am clean again,” said Lucrezia recklessly, “and healed.”

Cesare caught his breath, staring at her. His hand slid up her waist, over her breast, to the right side of her neck. Lucrezia closed her eyes and swallowed.

“Are you certain?” he said.

She scooted a small distance back. Unlacing the cord at her collar, she tugged the sleeve of her shift off her shoulder. Lucrezia looked up at him, her lips parted, and Cesare ran his fingers over the revealed skin, clear and unmarked.

“Lucrezia?”

“I pinched myself this morning to be sure.” She met his eyes. “Yes. Although, perhaps you are too sleepy--”

Cesare grinned and shoved her, just like he’d done countless times before. She laughed aloud as they both tumbled down onto the bed, her head cushioned on his spare blankets, his hands flat on either side of her, bracing his weight.

“Never,” he said cheerfully.

“Is that so?”

Cesare settled more fully over her, no heavier than she remembered, just enough to anchor her to the bed. Lucrezia slid her hands over his shoulders, his body reassuringly solid, and laughed again.

“Hush,” said Cesare. He kissed her.

She bit down on his lip, lightly, and dug her nails into his skin, her moan muffled in his mouth. As ever, she did not hear any response, but she felt it in his silent smile--and between her thighs, too.

He liked that, Lucrezia realized. He’d never said, even when she marked him that first time, and she’d never seen the others--

She kissed him hard, no longer laughing. Her other hand she buried in his hair, holding him close, fingers carelessly catching on tangles. Cesare dragged his mouth down to her jaw and then her neck, breath harsh and tongue hot against her throat. Awash in pleasure, Lucrezia tilted her head back, eyes squeezed shut, hands blindly kneading his back. She felt him press against her and spread her legs further, constrained by her shift.

Cesare pressed frantic kisses down to her bared shoulder. Mumbling her name into her skin, he jerked her loose shift down. Lucrezia struggled to help him, pulling her arms out of her sleeves, and bit down a cry when he kissed the curve of her breast. She could feel his tongue and teeth on her, his fingers on her other, still-covered breast, circling her nipple through the fabric.

“Cesare,” she whispered, and somehow managed to yank the shift up to her knees. She wrapped her legs around him. “Cesare, please.”

“Yes!”

Cesare lifted his head. “What the--”

They both stared in the direction of the sound, and then, in dawning horror, at each other.

Juan shouted again.

“Sancia,” said Lucrezia. Despairingly, she added, “It’s been hours. I have not slept the whole night.”

“Perhaps--”

Sancia cried out.

“Oh, God,” Cesare said, and dropped his forehead to Lucrezia’s shoulder.

“Juan, yes, yes, now--”

“I have half a mind to go to his room this instant and make them stop,” said Lucrezia indignantly. “We should.

With no other choice, they moved apart, Cesare on his side, Lucrezia sitting up. She adjusted her shift.

“That depends,” Cesare said. Extricating himself from his blankets, he rose from the bed and walked over to his chair. Lucrezia, in some what bewilderment, watched him put on his own shift.

“On what?” she demanded.

Juan and Sancia both screamed.

“On how much of Juan and Sancia you wish to see,” said Cesare, returning to lie down beside her.

“None.” Lucrezia grimaced and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I had not thought of that.”

“We will speak to Father tomorrow,” he said. “Even he must see that Juan’s pleasure cannot take precedence over your rest. You should be able to sleep in your own room.”

With a quick jerk of her head, she glanced over her shoulder. “You don’t want me here?”

“I don’t want you driven here, no.” He reached a hand out to the hair tumbling loose down her back and toyed with her curls. Lucrezia’s skin prickled, but the sharp edge of dissatisfaction faded, a little. Cesare’s hand stilled, a lock between his fingers. He stared at it as if it contained all the mysteries of God. “I want … it doesn’t matter. That is impossible for both of us.”

“What is it?” said Lucrezia.

He stroked her hair again. “I would have you with me, always.”

She smiled and said, “Here?”

“Yes,” Cesare said thickly, and added, “In my bed, in consistory, on our father’s errands, in the confessional. Everywhere. I wish we were never separated at all.” He gave a short laugh. “Our mother could tell you that.”

“Mother!” Lucrezia twisted around to face him. “Does she--”

“No. She knows only that I love you, and miss you when you leave me.” He shook his head, rubbing the back of his hand over his eyes. “When you go. Forgive me. I am too tired to speak sense.”

Juan and Sancia continued to squeal like rabbits. Cesare’s lip curled; she covered her ears, making him laugh under his breath. After a few seconds, he pulled her hands away.

“You should put your robe on.”

Lucrezia blinked. His shift, her robe … she couldn’t think that he had been overpowered by sudden modesty. The servants, she realized. He was thinking of what they would see--he intended her to sleep here. She quickly rose, pulled the robe over her shoulders and belted it at her waist, then laid down beside him, hand on his chest. Without excitement running in her veins, tiredness swept over her.

“I never leave you.” Lucrezia rested her cheek against his arm, looking up at him. “And I am here with you tonight.”

“Yes.” Cesare brought her hand to his mouth. Then he turned his head to face her. “I cannot … I must see you, sis.”

She did not pretend to misunderstand. Lucrezia stroked her thumb over his chin, desire just at bay. “And I, you,” she whispered. “Tomorrow.”

“It must be away from the Vatican.” Eyes distant, he absently kissed her fingers. “And any other prying eyes.”

“You will find a way,” she said, sleepily confident.

“Of course.” He dropped her hand to his shoulder, fingers still interlaced. “I am hearing confessions in the morning, but--”

“Hearing confessions!” Weary as she was, she laughed. “Has our father nothing more pressing for you?”

“My punishment, I think, though he would not call it that.”

“I thought he had forgiven you,” she said.

“There is nothing to forgive,” said Cesare. “He thinks he comprehends my reasons--and I suppose he does, after a fashion. The worst of my decisions, as far as he is concerned, was promising to visit you at all.”

She shook her head. “I may never understand him.”

“Nor I. Nor he, us, for that matter.” He managed a slight smile. “But he knows that I love you, if not the extent of it, and he understands love well enough. This is only a matter of pride. He could not let insubordination pass without at least some trifling inconvenience.”

Curling closer, she said, “And afterwards?”

“I was going to oversee some repairs at St Cecilia’s, but it isn’t urgent. I can--” He hid a yawn, not very well.

“Oh, I think it is.” Lucrezia touched her fingers to his mouth. “I shall expect to find you there when Isabel and I ride out to the abbey. Have you forgotten?”

Cesare just nodded, kissing the top of her head. In another minute, she felt his body slacken, his breath slow and deep against her hair. Lucrezia closed her eyes and followed him.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia’s dreams tormented her, as if determined to make her deception a truth, until a particularly unpleasant one jolted her awake. She woke gasping for air, sweat trembling over her skin, and knew instantly that she was not alone. She could feel the warmth of another body beside her, a man’s body. His bearded chin rested against her shoulder; his arm, flung over her waist, imprisoned her. Lucrezia lay stiff and cold, waiting for the worst.

Somewhere in her foggy mind, she felt a trace of bewilderment alongside terror. He did not move at all--he must be asleep--but Sforza never touched her in his sleep, never. His leg … how had he endured the journey? The surprise was the worst of it. She had never dreamt that she might still be in danger from him. If she could not find safety in Rome, then where--

Rome. She was in Rome, with her family. She and Cesare had left her husband to recuperate in Pesaro, six days ago now. She had …

Lucrezia took a slow, deep breath, held it in her lungs, exhaled. The hectic beat of her pulse faded. Still, panic lingered in her throat and stomach. She fumbled for the hand lying over her hip. In the dark, she traced the line of flesh and bone: long, narrow fingers, skin smooth with youth and health, short nails. Cesare had never learnt to stop biting them. And yes, there: Lucrezia’s thumb passed over the shape of a cardinal’s ring.

The last traces of nausea vanished. She clung to her brother’s hand. Cesare, it was Cesare. Who else? What other man would reach for her as he slept, wrap himself around her like a child with a doll, rest his head on her shoulder? She lay in his bed--she had come to him--she’d nearly given herself to him again, right here.

Cesare stirred. She released her grip on his hand, but not fast enough.

“Lucrezia?” he mumbled.

“I am here.” Lucrezia stroked his hair with trembling fingers, comforted by the messy curls taking shape under her hand, familiar from her earliest memories. As a boy, his hair always hung in ringlets to his shoulders, since Vanozza refused to have them cut or oiled. Lucrezia would yank on a curl, then dash away into the gardens while he chased after her, shrieking in delighted outrage when he tackled her to the ground. Even in her more sedate moods, she would touch his hair to draw his attention, make him lie his head in her lap when he looked tired or she wanted to fuss over him.

She’d never tried to touch Sforza’s. She hated even the occasional brush of his thin greasy waves over her flesh.

Cesare lifted his head, no more than a shadow in the darkness. “What are--is--” His hand touched her forehead, soft between calluses, pleasantly cool and dry against her sweaty skin. “You feel warm, sis. Are you feverish?”

“Only my imagination,” said Lucrezia. Exhaustion crept over her and she closed her eyes. “I see him in my dreams, Cesare.”

“Djem? Sforza?”

She just nodded. As he sank back beside her, she turned on her side and pressed her face into his shoulder. She might have wept, but she was too tired. Lucrezia felt his kiss against her hair and no more.

She slept fitfully the rest of the night. Juan and Sancia continued to entertain each other at intermittent intervals; her dreams remained unpleasant, if less alarming; and even Cesare, as restless as herself, managed to disturb her. When she finally abandoned the effort and rose from his bed before dawn, he had already left. She found a note, of course, affectionate and discreet. It told her nothing; she slid it under her sleeve, anyway.

Lucrezia picked her way through the dim chamber, emerging to turn and quietly close the door.

“Lucrezia?”

She almost jumped. Instead, Lucrezia whirled around, her breath caught in her chest, hot and painful.

“Lady Sancia!” Behind her eyes, alarm warred with dislike. She placed a hand over her still-pounding heart. “Forgive me, I did not expect to find you here.”

“Nor I, you,” said Sancia, dark eyes amused. She glanced from Lucrezia to the door behind her. “But plainly it is I who should beg your pardon, Lady Lucrezia. I thought only the duke and the cardinal slept in these rooms. I must have misunderstood.”

“No, this is Cesare’s bedchamber.” Tired enough that tears sprang readily to her eyes, Lucrezia scrubbed at her face. “I had dreadful dreams, so when I woke, I left to find my brother.”

“You poor thing,” Sancia said. Lucrezia thought she could still catch a thread of laughter in her voice; she certainly doubted her sincerity. And Sancia betrayed not a trace of the self-consciousness that Lucrezia felt, both of them standing between Juan’s and Cesare’s rooms in nothing but shifts and robes.

Resentment built in her breast, almost choking her. Lucrezia smiled through it. “I am very well now. If--”

“Surely, though, you are rather old to run to your brothers?”

She had not said anything about Juan, Lucrezia thought, distaste cooling to hatred. Even her lingering guilt over it faded; she could feel her eyes narrow. She blinked and forced her smile to widen. “I am but fourteen, Lady Sancia.”

“Are you not married?” Sancia pressed.

Lucrezia gave a clear laugh. “I suppose I am! Papa arranged it all for--oh, I scarcely know. Something to do with armies and castles and Cardinal della Rovere. But that is all. Lord Sforza does not regard me as a true wife, and I do not think my family does either.”

“How remarkable!” said Sancia. “But perhaps you are young for your age, like my dear Jofrè.”

She, too, smiled, eyes warm and laughing. Lucrezia grinned back, instantly convinced that anything Sancia saw or heard would pass straight to her brother in Naples. In all fairness, she could not condemn her for that; Lucrezia would do the same in Sancia’s position. But she felt no inclination to be fair, and so disliked her more than ever. She was not in Sancia’s position. She was a Borgia, and this interloper could not be trusted.

“Perhaps,” she said naively. “My father and brother would not let him consummate the marriage.” She thought of pretending that she did not know what the word meant, but decided against it. Giulia had once believed her that innocent, before her marriage, but Sancia would not.

Sancia’s grin turned sly. She laid a hand on her shoulder. “How tiresome for you, dear Lucrezia.”

Lucrezia, thinking of the previous night’s embraces, interrupted by Sancia herself, just managed to maintain her composure. She drew her eyebrows together.

“Did you not seek comfort from your brother, Lady Sancia?” she asked. A malicious impulse led her to add, “When you were my age, that is?”

“Oh, no!” Sancia glanced around, but the dark yawning hall remained quiet. Nevertheless, she turned to walk down the hall, the light pressure of her hand on Lucrezia’s shoulder propelling them both forward. They walked side-by-side past Cesare’s rooms, Lucrezia too polite and too careful to challenge the unspoken command.

“Alfonso would only have laughed at me,” Sancia was saying, “and if you had ever heard my brother laugh, you would know why that was a prospect to be avoided at all costs.”

“Oh, his voice is unpleasant? I am sorry.”

“His voice defies human description,” said Sancia. To Lucrezia’s astonishment, she looked fond.

“Lord Alfonso is close to you?”

Sancia shrugged. “As close as any young man can be to his bastard half-sister, I suppose.”

Lucrezia thought of Bernardo. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. “My brothers and I are all bastards.”

“Oh? The duke said that you had been legitimized, the four of you,” said Sancia, looking down at her. Her face, though friendly, gave nothing of her private thoughts away; she dropped her hand only to wrap her arm about Lucrezia’s elbow.

“Yes,” Lucrezia said. She felt rather suffocated. “Juan cares about that. It never signified much to Cesare and me. We are still illegitimate in the eyes of the world. Even I know that much. The nobility here in Rome call us half-bred Spanish bastards when they are feeling kind.”

“How unoriginal,” said Sancia. “They say the same of us in Naples, even my own cousins. I think I will fit very well here. As soon as some baron or count calls me a Spanish whore, I shall feel myself quite at home.”

Lucrezia stared at her.

“I am sure you have heard that before, little sister,” Sancia said. “We should be frank with each other, we bastard daughters out of Aragón.”

Unsteadily, Lucrezia said, “I do not think you will have to wait long. A baron said those words of my mother.”

“Lady Vanozza?” Sancia raised her eyebrows. “Spanish with that name! Or is she merely tainted by association?”

“No, she was christened Juana in Toledo.”

Sancia gave a short laugh. “She’s Castilian? I would not have imagined that.”

“Yes. The baron insulted her at my wedding,” Lucrezia said. She felt satisfied, in some obscure way, at the widening of Sancia’s eyes. “He was a stranger, though. No Borgia, or Lanzol or Milà, would dream of such a thing. Your own family insults you thus?”

“Not Alfonso, of course. Our cousin Ferdinand, however, is a terrible prig.” Lucrezia heard the clatter of armour not far ahead of them; Sancia blithely ignored it. “At least, he is when he chooses to be. I have heard tales … well, I will not despoil your innocence altogether. At any rate, it is hardly the place of a man who marries his own aunt to judge.”

Lucrezia’s mouth parted in shock. Her suspicions, lulled for a moment, crackled to life again. “His aunt? And yours?”

Sancia nodded. “She is very young, younger than any of us--my father’s half-sister. Yet I still feel that is rather too close, even for our house, for Spaniards. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Lucrezia firmly. “An aunt? It seems unthinkable. Are there not laws?”

“Too many to count,” Sancia said, “but anything can be set aside for popes and princes. Your uncle, Pope Calixtus, insisted that a bastard could not inherit a kingdom or a duchy, and yet my father is King of Naples, and your brother Duke of Gandía. And your other brother--”

“Cesare?” Lucrezia’s voice sharpened. “What about him?”

“He is a cardinal. That was just as forbidden once, but the Pope wished him in the College of Cardinals, and so he is.” Sancia gave her a speculative look, torchlight flickering oddly over the sharp lines of her face. “Speaking of Cardinal Borgia, the two of you seem on very warm terms.”

“Of course. He is my brother,” Lucrezia said.

“Your favourite brother, I think.” In less fraught circumstances, Sancia’s smile might have been disarming. She halted. “I do not believe I once saw you leave his side at the banquet. I was starting to wonder if the two of you ever parted, or if you might be connected at the hip!”

Lucrezia, tired of prodding, tired of the complications of Rome, simply tired, said, “Had you arrived earlier, you would have seen it. I stayed with my mother all day and most of the evening, while Cesare was here in the Vatican.” At Sancia’s startled expression, she relented. “But yes, he is the dearest to me of all my family. We have always been particularly close. Why do you ask?”

“I wished for your advice,” said Sancia.

Lucrezia thought she might be too weary for this conversation. “My advice? I am only … on … Lady Sancia, how could I possibly advise you?

“With regard to your brother,” Sancia said. “Cardinal Borgia, that is. I have the impression that he dislikes me--no, you need not argue with me. I always trust my instincts. I hoped that you might know the reason for it, and how I might gain his favour.”

“His … favour?” said Lucrezia blankly.

Sancia laughed. “You misunderstand me! I wish to be friends with all my husband’s family. I would not make an enemy of his eldest brother before even speaking our vows. Have I offended the cardinal in some way? If anyone would know, surely it would be you.”

Lucrezia, meeting her lively eyes, thought that she had understood her perfectly. She did not believe for an instant that Sancia had nothing more than friendship in mind.

“I …” She stepped away, taking advantage of the opportunity to disengage her arm, and smoothed down her robe. “We do understand each other, Cesare and I, but you must know that there a things a man does not confide in his younger sister.”

“Then he has not mentioned me?”

Lucrezia shook her head. “Never.” She hesitated, then looked back at Sancia, her friendly smiling face unreadable. “But if you must trust your instincts, you should know that Cesare is very much our elder brother. He is the oldest, not Juan.”

A line formed between Sancia’s brows. “Yes, his Holiness mentioned it. I am afraid I do not see …”

“He protects us, and holds our interests dear.” Lucrezia folded her hands, oddly reminded of the hours she had spent watching Cesare fence with Micheletto, the servant instructing the master. Sometimes, he would slip out of reach of Cesare’s blades, and sometimes he would turn fierce, stand his ground and hold a knife to his throat. In every fight, Micheletto always said, there was a time for both. Evade where you are vulnerable, your Eminence, and stand firm when you have the advantage.

Sancia still frowned, unenlightened. “Oh?”

Lucrezia’s slippered feet straightened, shifted further apart. “Not Juan’s, you understand; he is nearly Cesare’s age, and they have always been rather at odds. When it comes to me, however, and Jofrè--well, Cesare is fond of Jofrè.” Eyes steady, she added, “And discretion.”

Sancia looked taken aback, then amused. “A prudish Roman! He takes his vows that seriously?”

“I would not call him prudish,” Lucrezia said, truthfully enough. “But if you would enjoy my brother’s favours--I beg your pardon, his favour--then you should remember that. Oh, it is nearly dawn! I have been so interested in improving our acquaintance that I forgot the time. Forgive me, sister, but I must return to my chambers before my maid raises an alarm over nothing.”

She kissed Sancia’s cheek.

“Goodbye!”

Lucrezia hurried past a new group of guards, providing the same explanation that she had given to the others; she had long ago discovered that a falsehood should be simple and consistent, if she meant to be believed. She all but ran down the staircase, her thoughts a tangle. Sancia could not guess the truth--or if she did, she could not know--and if she said anything, who would believe her?

Lucrezia groped for the door to her chambers, then shut it behind her with a satisfying slam. Nobody, surely.

In the bedroom, her maid responded to her noisy entrance with a respectful bow, then returned to her task, sanguine as ever. She was already shaking out Lucrezia’s favourite yellow gown.

“I have unfairly maligned you, Francesca,” Lucrezia said, and laughed. It sounded hollow even to her own ears.

Francesca glanced up again, plainly more concerned. “Are you ill, my lady?”

“No,” said Lucrezia. “I am only a liar.”

“My lady?”

Lucrezia flung herself onto the bed. She stared up at the canopy for several minutes, hands clasped over her stomach, feeling distinctly queasy. Perhaps Sancia had been as frank as she seemed, and only wished to seduce Cesare. Only! After three days in Rome, that had become the eventuality to be wished for?

Lucrezia turned her face into her pillow, making a muffled noise of disgust. No, never. If Sancia d’Aragona thought to take him from her, she would soon discover her mistake.

“Lady Lucrezia?”

“Don’t concern yourself.” She sat up, nerves soothed by the near-solitude of the room, the half-familiar surroundings. She had only lived here for a short while before her marriage, but still, everything was hers. Lucrezia leaned back on her hands. “And Francesca?”

She laid out the gown. “Yes, Lady Lucrezia?”

“If any members of Lady Sancia’s household should speak to you, tell them nothing, no matter how trivial it seems. Unless they ask about the … the consummation.” That had been a foolish lie, Lucrezia thought. In the moment, she’d said whatever came to mind. Now she was saddled with a story that anyone might disprove. “I told her that my family forbade it.”

“I’m sorry, my lady.” Francesca helped her off the bed. “I don’t remember any consummation.”


The Pope’s children generally broke their fasts with him, at his request--which was to say, his gently-worded command. Therefore Lucrezia, unwilling to worry him and unable to think of an excuse, all but dragged herself to Alexander’s apartments. By now she wished for nothing but sleep.

She arrived just behind Cesare, who greeted her with a vacant smile that vanished as soon as they walked through the door. Lucrezia held onto his arm, the two of them moving in laborious concert, as if each step were an act worthy of a hero. It certainly felt like it. Pale and heavy-eyed, they picked at their food and scarcely responded to Alexander’s and Giulia’s pleasant greetings.

When the Pope began talking about the alliance with Naples, both children stared blankly. He might as well have been speaking of the New World for all that Lucrezia understood.

Cesare mumbled something noncommittal and frowned at the goblets in front of them. Lucrezia followed his gaze. She was thirsty, but they looked so very heavy.

“What is wrong with the two of you this morning?” Alexander demanded. “And where is Juan?”

Lucrezia and Cesare burst out laughing, the shrill edge unmistakable.

“Sleeping, no doubt,” he said.

Their father frowned. “He cannot be drunk so early.”

“Drunk on his lady, perhaps,” said Lucrezia. She giggled again.

“Besotted,” Cesare said, “as it were.”

Alexander set his knife down with a distinct clatter. “Lucrezia, such language ill-becomes you. And Cesare, what--”

Giulia’s eyes flicked between the two of them. It didn’t seem very important. She murmured, “Your Holiness, they’re exhausted. Look at them. Lucrezia, when did you last sleep?”

“Last night,” Lucrezia said airily. “Why, it must have been all of three hours.”

“Thanks to our brother,” added Cesare. “I gather that the task of entertaining Jofrè’s bride has fallen to Juan? We can assure you that he has taken his duty very seriously, for once.”

Lucrezia managed to raise her goblet to her mouth. The wine revived her, a little.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “He entertained her all night.”

“The lady Sancia?” said Giulia, brows furrowing. “And Juan?”

“One might think he would at least wait until the wedding,” Cesare said, “but my brother has a way of descending below my lowest expectations.”

Alexander closed his eyes. “Cesare.”

In his most dignified tones, Cesare said, “He is my younger brother, and the Duke of Gandía, and I should speak of him with more respect.”

“We know,” Lucrezia added, obscurely pleased.

“Then you should remember it, both of you,” said Alexander, though his eyes were fixed on his son. “Your ill temper is … pardonable in the circumstances, but we will not have discord at this table, nor in this family, least of all at the present. The alliance with Naples is a matter of the utmost importance and your brother has secured it for us. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father,” she said, suppressing a sigh. Naturally state concerns weighed as heavily with him as indulgence of Juan. Lucrezia could not have said whether she felt more annoyed or consoled by it.

Cesare slouched in his chair. “Yes, of course.” His robes were neatly pressed, but he managed to make them look rumpled. With an impenitent gulp of wine, he said, “Forgive my intemperance, Holy Father. Perhaps, in the interests of family peace, you might consider building thicker barriers between our apartments?”

“Between Juan’s and mine, at least,” said Lucrezia.

Both Alexander and Giulia blinked.

“Juan’s and yours?” said their father. “There is already a floor between you. We understand the inconvenience, but we are not made of money.”

“Nevertheless,” Cesare said, “she hears more than I do. We are not architects, we cannot explain the reasons, but so it is. Surely Lucrezia’s rest is as great a matter as Juan’s … diplomatic efforts?”

“I only slept at all because I fled to Cesare’s rooms,” said Lucrezia pathetically. Seizing her chance, she added, “And Sancia only left Juan’s this morning. I saw her when I returned to my own.”

Cesare looked at her sharply. Lucrezia gave him a small smile and fixed her eyes on her father.

“She had no shame at all! She did not even apologize. I thought her very impertinent, Father. I wanted only to sleep, and she stood there talking at me and asking me questions. She very nearly scolded me for going to Cesare’s room, as if it were my fault!”

The Pope covered his face with his hand, his sigh audible even through his fingers. He rubbed at his forehead. “You did not relate any private family concerns, we trust.”

“Of course not, Father.” By now somewhat alert, Lucrezia chewed on her bread. “She mostly asked about Cesare. She wishes for a more intimate friendship with you, brother.”

Cesare choked on his wine. Giulia watched him, unsmiling but plainly amused; Alexander roared with laughter.

“Make friends with the lady, Cesare,” he said, “at least until the wedding--but as a man of God, eh? You need not mind your brother’s affairs that closely.”

“It would be easier, your Holiness,” said Cesare tightly, “if we did not hear them.”

“Yes, yes, but while della Rovere’s trumped-up--” Alexander snapped his fingers, looking pleased. “Ah! That puts us in mind of a solution. Cardinal della Rovere’s palace lies in our possession, but in your absence, little of its worth has made its way to our coffers. As you might imagine, we were not inclined to trust any of the cardinals to oversee a matter of treasure. They’re magpies, the lot of them.”

The door opened.

“Who are magpies?” said Juan amiably, strolling over to his customary seat at the Pope’s right hand.

Lucrezia did not resent Juan as Cesare did, in general. Oh, she could not think very highly of his abilities. She had never admired him, or confided in him, or turned to him with her childish troubles. Neither had she dragged him into her games--called for him to chase her--begged him to help her with her Latin--plotted pranks with him--sat in comfortable silence together. In her dim memories of Valencia, it was Cesare always at her side, sometimes a guide, sometimes a faithful disciple, but always, always there, her companion in their quiet little world. Juan, the boy-duke, lived a life apart, running off to play with swords, laugh or fight with their cousins, pulled away to learn from his own masters. Still, there could be no rivalry between the two of them, the Pope’s favourites. If their father indulged Juan more, he loved Lucrezia best, without expectations or conditions. She was content with that.

She knew it must be different for Cesare. Lucrezia’s place in her father’s affections was not diminished by Juan. Cesare’s was. Yet Juan loved her; she was never one to turn away love, wherever she found it. Often she felt really fond of him; she knew Cesare did, too.

This was not one of those occasions. Lucrezia could scarcely keep herself from glowering as she ate. Cesare, his eyes narrowed, didn’t bother.

“The College of Cardinals, it seems,” Giulia was saying, plainly anxious.

Juan looked across the table at Cesare. Chewing absently, he said, “Can’t say I see the resemblance.” He gave a short laugh. “In fact, you look dreadful. Has something soured your milk?”

Cesare and Lucrezia exchanged another long glance. When she opened his mouth to speak, the Pope forestalled her.

“Juan.” He cleared his throat. “We are, ah, delighted to hear of your virility, but perhaps you might prove it out of immediate earshot of your brother and sister. We would request a certain amount of discretion.”

“My … ?” Juan stared at Cesare and Lucrezia, incredulous. “You went tattling to the Pope?

She lifted her brows. “We spoke to our father.”

“It may shock you,” said Cesare, “but some of us would prefer to sleep at night.”

“Without being questioned by your mistress,” Lucrezia put in.

Juan laughed again. “Find one of your own, Cesare. It’ll put you in a better humour.”

“He does have one,” Lucrezia said crossly.

Cesare snapped out, “I do not.”

“Celibacy, eh? Well, that suits the priest.” Juan’s grin widened. “The duke, on the other hand …”

Lucrezia suppressed the urge to throw her roll at him.

“The duke would expose his sister to all his perversions,” said Cesare. “Are you sure you are a Borgia, Juan, and not a Malatesta or Baglioni?”

She almost laughed, but Juan sprang to his feet, eyes flashing, hand flying to his waist. “That insult demands an answer.”

Alexander covered his eyes. He looked as if he would cover his ears, as well. “Juan, sit down.”

Juan’s face flushed crimson. “Father, did you hear him?” He leaned down, hands flat on the table. “You can offer your apology freely, brother, or I’ll beat it out of you--if you really are a man under those robes.”

“Raise your hand against me,” Cesare said, straightening, “and I shall prove it to you.”

Lucrezia hid a smile behind her glass.

“I said, sit down!”

They all turned, a little sheepishly, to the Pope. Juan sat; Cesare remained upright, as if braced for sudden attack; and Lucrezia, thankfully received no share of their father’s glare. Alexander inhaled, hands tight on the end of the table. Before he could lambast either or both his sons, however, Giulia Farnese’s mild voice cut through the silence.

“Your Holiness,” she said, “Juan’s arrival prevented you from finishing your explanation. You had a solution to these domestic troubles?”

“Ah. Well.” Mollified, he patted her hand. “As we were saying, Cardinal della Rovere’s palace must be stripped of its gold, silver, jewels, silk, anything of significant value. Now that you have returned, these things shall be be sold for the benefit of the Church.”

“The Church,” said Cesare blankly.

Lucrezia felt no more enlightened. “That is very well, Father, but what has our return--”

Alexander frowned, and both closed their mouths.

“We entrust you with this task, Cardinal Borgia,” he continued, serene once more. “You will personally oversee the reclamation of della Rovere’s treasure. We would have you established in the palace itself. You and your sister shall reside there until the work is finished.” He paused. “Perhaps longer.”

Cesare and Lucrezia could only stare at him, struck silent. Juan was not so afflicted.

“You’re giving him a palace?

With a regal wave of his hand, Alexander said, “Every cardinal in the College has a palace. Why should not our son?”

“It suits the cleric,” murmured Lucrezia.

Cesare often talked of her innocence and purity. Yet, as always, he grinned at her gentle malice, his first real smile of the day, and spoke before father or brother could respond.

“You have always expressed so much interest, brother, in what is appropriate to my calling,” said Cesare. He lifted an eyebrow. “I should think you would be delighted.”

Juan ignored them both. “He runs off for three weeks and the consequence is a gift worthy of a prince?”

“He is a prince,” Lucrezia said. She smiled back at Cesare, laying her hand over his, and felt a light squeeze of his fingers in response.

“What in God’s name are you--”

Cesare shook his head. “Blasphemy, brother? Before the Holy Father?”

Juan looked nearly apopletic. Lucrezia, relieved and delighted by the prospect of their own residence--a palace in Rome!--could not understand it. Surely Juan did not want his brother and sister near enough to complain. And Cesare so rarely received favours from their father. Why should Juan begrudge him this once?

It was Giulia Farnese, of all people, who said, “Cardinal Borgia is a prince of the Church, your Grace.”

Cesare had too much composure to start openly, but she felt his hand twitch under hers. He frowned at Giulia, more perplexed than annoyed. Juan’s scowl deepened, though he didn’t even look at her.

She gave a light, ladylike cough. “It may seem … peculiar, if he does not live according to his rank. Romans attend to these things. They may believe that Cardinal Borgia does not have his Holiness’ trust or favour, which is of course untrue.” Giulia smiled at Cesare and Lucrezia, then at Alexander.

As if she had not spoken, Juan burst out, “Treasure, palaces! Is this how you reward failure, Father?”

Alexander’s face darkened, brows lowering into a scowl.

“You would know,” said Cesare.

“Cesare,”  Lucrezia hissed. Her fingers tightened on his hand. When he turned to her, she gave him a scolding look, but could not resist adding, “He has not failed at anything.”

“I beg your pardon, Holy Father.”

Alexander inclined his head. “We choose to attribute this to your present weariness. When you have finished eating, you shall receive confessions and then take a siesta. We expect to hear no such intemperance from you afterwards. You shall not find us so lenient again.”

Lucrezia smiled.

“As for you, Juan,” Alexander said testily, “do not forget that Cesare is a cardinal and your elder brother. You should show more respect for his age and rank. Remember that had matters been otherwise, you would wear his robes and he, your armour. Do not make us regret our choice!”

Cesare and Juan, wide-eyed, mumbled agreement. Shortly thereafter, Cesare excused himself to head to the confession box.

Lucrezia waited a few minutes, then followed him.

Chapter Text

The dark, blank walls loomed over him, closer and more suffocating than cells in the Castel Sant’Angelo. If the intent was to shut out worldly distractions, it succeeded only in replacing them, forcing God’s mortal servants into contemplation of discomfort and boredom. Hot, tedious, cramped, with no company but his own thoughts--he might as well be in purgatory already.

Cesare leaned his head against the back wall and closed his eyes. Exhaustion hung over his mind like a veil, turning his thoughts slow and unsure.

Surely he had received enough confessions for a lifetime.

Light footsteps approached. Cesare sighed, just as a woman ducked into the penitential compartment.

“Good day, my chi--” He straightened so abruptly that he nearly hit his head. “Lucrezia?”

His sister, arranging her skirts, only smiled and knelt.

“What are you doing?”

She clasped her hands. “I would be absolved of my sins.”

“Oh God,” he said.

“Cesare!” Laughter trembled in her voice. “If you must blaspheme, this is hardly the place for it.”

“Never mind blasphemy,” said Cesare. “You wish for me to absolve you, sis?”

“And who better?” Through the lattice, he caught the brief upwards flicker of her lashes. “Would you rather I entrusted my secrets to another?”

“No, of course not,” he said. On the point of demanding what sins she could have committed, the possibilities paraded before his mind. He, her brother who loved her, who desired nothing more than her happiness, thought her the best part of himself, could not believe her innocent before God. And it was his own doing. Giovanni Sforza had destroyed her innocence, but no more; it was Cesare who had corrupted her, drawn her into his own sin. “But I--”

I am not worthy, he almost said, like he had said to Jeronima. Again, he silenced himself. He knew already that it weighed no more with Lucrezia than their cousin. But Lucrezia was not Jeronima.

As if hearing him, she said, “You would hear Jeronima’s confession and not mine?”

Cesare flinched. Well, she would confide her misdeeds either way; she always had. She might as well soothe her conscience at the same time. He breathed in, and to his own surprise, felt cleansed.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

She smiled. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

It was all he could do not to stare through the latticework. He forced himself to gaze at the blank wall opposite him, the narrow shafts of light falling through the cross. “I am listening, my”--anything but sister stuck in his throat--“daughter.”

“I have told a great number of falsehoods.”

“How many?” he said.

“I--I hardly know, Father. Of late, I have deceived so many people. I lied to … forgive me, I must think.” All trace of humour had fled her voice. “I told Giulia Farnese that my brother helped me meet with a man other than my husband. Oh! I suppose that is a sin too.”

“It is generally considered as such, yes,” he said, as solemn as he could manage.

“Then I confess to adultery, as well. I also injured, that is, I participated in a plot to injure my husband.” She paused, then added without much remorse, “It succeeded.”

“Oh?”

“And I lied to conceal all of this. I hid the truth from my mother. I told my father, the Pope of Rome, that I was overwrought by my husband’s accident, when I helped plan it, and felt nothing but relief and--and satisfaction. I also told the Holy Father that I could not manage a household without my brother’s assistance, which is not true. I described my lover to Lady Giulia in such terms as to deceive her further, though they were not strictly false, and suggested that my lover resides in Pesaro, while my brother’s has been in Rome, which is untrue.” She stopped, breathless.

“Is this the extent of your falsehoods?”

“No,” she said sheepishly. “I went to my brother’s room last night, because I overheard an assignation that prevented me from sleep, and because I wished to see him alone. I told several people, including Sancia d’Aragona, that I was restless after a bad dream.”

“A permissible lie, surely,” said Cesare.

“Perhaps,” she replied, “but I also told her … I pretended that I did not understand the reasons for my marriage, although I do. I encouraged her to believe that I am still a virgin, although I am not. I said I was shocked by relations within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, although they do not trouble me in the slightest.”

Something like real fear jolted in his chest. “This arose naturally in the course of conversation?”

“Perhaps,” said Lucrezia tightly. She turned her face towards him; her hand rose, then dropped back into her lap. “The entire conversation seemed unnatural to me. She said that she was accustomed to disapproval, even from her own cousin, but since he is married to his aunt, she does not feel that he has room to judge. And she asked me what she must do to win your favour. She thought that--she said that she thought I would know, since we are so close. Cesare, what if she discovers the truth? What if she already has?”

His throat dried; he could hear her breath, quick and uneven as she drew nearer to the lattice. She laid her fingers against it.

“It may be nothing,” she added, and her voice cooled. “Or rather, it may be only that she wants you. I know she does. You know it. We all saw how she behaved at the banquet.”

Cesare had seen it. Sitting among his family in his cardinal’s robes, Jofrè immediately before him and Lucrezia at his side, he’d been at once insulted and embarrassed, and furious to be placed in such a position. He dared not offend Sancia d’Aragona before the wedding, but he did not believe that anyone might suppose him pleased at the attentions, least of all Lucrezia. Even setting other considerations aside, he could not think his sister would misunderstand him so far. She knew him better than anyone. --There, at least, Sancia’s judgment had not led her astray.

“We did,” said Cesare in the same tone. His hands clenched, fingers closing on his robes. He turned to her. “Sis, you spoke to her, not I. How did she strike you? Did she seem more suspicious or … ah, predatory?”

Lucrezia laughed under her breath, sour mood passing as quickly as it had arrived. “Predatory, I think. She suspects me of something, but whether it is that I am a spoilt child, or cleverer than I look, or actually capable of seducing my brother, I cannot say.”

He was utterly speechless.

“For all that I know,” she went on, “Sancia could think me a likely murderess, or a fool. But what if she was warning me? What if she was threatening me?”

Cesare paused, then set aside the matter of seduction--seduction!--for later. “Tell me everything she said.”

Lucrezia had an excellent memory. If she could not recite the conversation word-for-word, she managed to deliver a clear, coherent summary of its main points within a few minutes. Cesare, though he preferred to judge on the evidence of his own eyes and ears, did not doubt her account for an instant.

“None of that sounds like a threat,” he said finally. “It does not even sound like a bargain. Nor idle curiosity, either.”

“Then what?”

He thought over the entire account, weighed the different probabilities in his mind. “Sancia is no true Spaniard.”

Lucrezia’s eyelashes lifted. “What?”

“She may call herself Aragonese, but she was born in Naples, bred in Naples, to a Neapolitan mother. She is not familiar with us, or our ways.”

“As Spaniards? Or Borgias?” she whispered.

“Either. Both. We are different, all of us, and she’s shrewd enough to see that. Think of what she has done. She seduced Juan. At the banquet, she won over our father and most of our family. Now she tries to gain your friendship, and find some way to approach me while probing at any oddity she can find.”

“To her, there must be a great many oddities,” said Lucrezia. She searched his eyes. “That is all? She is her brother’s agent?”

“Undoubtedly,” Cesare said. “Spy, ambassador, courtesan, whatever suits the purposes of her house, or perhaps simply her brother. I do not know them well enough to say.”

Lucrezia’s frown broke into one of her old sunny smiles. “I would do that for you.”

As would I, he thought, but only said, “God forbid.”

“And what if she suspects us? What if she tells--”

He lifted his hand to the lattice, an inch away from his sister’s mouth. As if he had touched her in truth, she fell silent.

“She has nothing to tell. Trust me in this, my love,” Cesare said. He dropped his hand, tilting his head down to look her in the eye. “Sancia will not speak.”

Lucrezia hesitated, then nodded.

With a sigh, he straightened, but could not bring himself to draw away. He cleared his throat. “Have you any other sins to confess?”

“No,” she said instantly. She blinked. “Well, I am guilty of the sin of lust, but you knew that already.”

His breath caught. Once again, he could not speak, could only stare at her, kneeling opposite him, eyes lowered. Draped in blue and white and gold, she looked the very image of purity.

“I suppose we both are,” said Lucrezia, “but it is different for me.”

“What do you mean?” he managed to say.

Her eyes flicked up, then down again.

“You need not--I understand--I … I know that I desire you more than you do me.”

Cesare gave a strangled laugh. “That is not possible.” Now he thought of her ridiculous talk of seducing him, and last night, do you ever think of me? The latter he had taken for sleepy nonsense. “What--”

She looked at him, something of his own desperation in her eyes, and worried her lip between her teeth. Her hand, still resting against the lattice, curled into a fist; he tried to think of anything except tearing out the thin strips of wood with his bare hands.

“I cannot see you without wanting you, Cesare,” she whispered. A blush spread over her cheeks, but her eyes did not waver. Cesare, silent, the quick rush of his blood stealing all rational thought, could not look away. “When we are apart, I wish you at my side. When we are together, I wish you in my arms. And when you lie with me, I … I cannot think of anything but you. I cannot command myself, as you do--you have control, restraint--but I can withhold nothing from you.”

That much he knew. Despite Sforza, despite their other tie, despite all of it, she gave herself to him without reserve, always. Anything pleased her, everything; she came to ecstasy so quickly, so readily, that he felt drunk on it by the time he found his own. He might have wondered if she truly felt it, were she anyone else. But she was Lucrezia, Lucrezia who might fool everyone else but not him, who unhesitatingly clutched him to her, wrapped herself around him, moaned or sobbed or screamed. Though often he had to cover her mouth, he liked to hear her; while he had his strings of endearments, Lucrezia only cried his name, and he never wished for anything else.

Now, part of his mind told him to step carefully. The other part told him that nobody would notice some small harm to a lone confessional; nobody would dare notice. He could--

He drew a ragged breath through his teeth. “Lucrezia.”

“Do not say it is all in my mind. I know better. I was the one who--I am always the one--”

“Lucrezia, listen to me.” Cesare bent near to her, as near as he could, forehead brushing against wood, her gasps warm on his face. “I ache for you. Surely you know that.”

“Now?” said Lucrezia. She looked taken aback and sounded pleased.

He hesitated, then disregarded caution. “Constantly. When I sleep, when I wake, when I think of you, when I see you. I should not desire you, sis, and yet I long for you, more than I can say, in more ways than I would ever dream of asking.”

“Why not?” she demanded. “I am not one of your doves, Cesare!”

He would die before this conversation was through.

“Look.” He flattened his fingers on the lattice, opposite her hand. His own completely blotted hers out. “I may not be Sforza or Bonadeo, but I am half again your size, do you see? How many times have I put my hand around your neck? I could strangle you.”

Lucrezia scoffed. “You would never.”

“Of course not,” he said. “Not willingly. I could hurt you, though, without intending it, without even realizing it, if I did not mind myself. Any man could.”

She stared at him, lips parted. Cesare’s fingers closed on the wood; his knuckles brushed against her palm.

“I would sooner deny myself than hurt you, Lucrezia. You are my sister, still. And I am not Sforza. I would not see you bruised again. I would do nothing that might ever remind you of him.”

“Cesare--” Apparently unable to finish her sentence, she pressed a kiss against his folded fingers.

Cesare touched her mouth, running a fingertip over her lips. As if from a distance, he saw his finger tremble over her trembling mouth. He could feel the soft curves and narrow ridges, feel her breath shudder against his skin. She shut her eyes, then opened them again, pupils flared out. Her colour was high in her cheeks, her chest rising and falling in time with their quick pants. His imagination raced.

“Yet I would have you at this moment, were it possible,” he added.

Her eyes widened. “Here?”

“Yes, now, here, in this miserable little box, if I could reach you.” His voice lowered, as hushed as a prayer. “Never think that I do not desire you, more than any man ever could.” With one last brush of her mouth, he dropped his hand.

Lucrezia inhaled deeply, still flushed, but all uncertainty washed from her face as if it had never been there. At last, she smiled.

“I did not know where I was when I woke in the night,” she said. “I was tired … and my dreams … but as soon as I touched your hand, I knew it was you.” Thoughtfully, she lifted her fingers to her mouth. “How could I not? We have spent our lives together; Lord Sforza is a cruel stranger. I know no touch so well as yours. You could never remind me of him, brother, not while I have my reason.”

Cesare knew he was born with a stain on his soul, bastard of a Borgia priest that he was, tainted by his father and his family before he drew his first breath. In less than twenty years, he’d only added to it, lust and greed and simony and something like murder, and--and incest. Yet he felt the burden ease. He smiled back.

“You came for absolution, sis,” he said, “but it seems you would absolve me.”

Lucrezia laughed. “Of what? A better nature than my lord Sforza’s?” Then she sobered. “Are my sins forgiven?”

He tilted his head to the side, amused. “Do you regret them?”

“I regret that they are sins,” she said.

“Will you commit them again?”

She gave him a reproachful look. “Cesare! You know I must!” Then, catching his grin, she tossed her head. “As soon I can, in fact.”

Cesare nearly choked. “My God, Lucrezia.”

“Well?”

“Three Ave Marias and a Pater Noster before bed, young lady, and a penitent heart.”

Lucrezia lowered her eyes and murmured her contrition.

Cesare, feeling somewhat more sacrilegious than usual, sketched the sign of the cross in front of him. “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”

She looked up with a bright face. “Thank you, Father.” As she rose to leave, she paused with her hand on the wall.

He said quickly, “I will see you after our siestas?”

At the same time, Lucrezia asked, “Cesare, you shall come to me today?”

They both laughed.

“I will be at Saint Cecilia’s,” he promised.


“We are blessed by the cardinal’s presence here.”

The cardinal in question tried not to fidget. The abbey had been long neglected by a series of cardinal-protectors even less suited to the priesthood than Cesare himself. He had not believed it possible, but his brothers in the cloth, like his brother in blood, always managed to disappoint. And as far as he could tell, the others did not even struggle against their shackles, content to ignore them and live as princes. Hypocrites, the lot of them.

That, at least, was not one of his sins.

Cesare said, “Sadly, abbess, the business of a cardinal is overwhelmed by the management of men. Our spiritual duties are all too easily forgotten.”

“But your contribution to the abbey and its restoration is much appreciated,” she said earnestly.

He inclined his head and she talked on as they walked, effusive thanks trailing into laments over the lack of good novices.

“Not that we have not some very good girls, but few of them can hold a note.” The abbess sighed.

Lucrezia, he thought idly, would have been welcome here. Welcome, but unhappy. She was too bright for a nun’s habit, too full of spirits and fond of luxury--but would that have been worse than Sforza? Well, it hardly mattered. They had laughed about Lucrezia taking the cloth, but it could only ever be a jest. Their father would never have permitted it; he needed alliances too much to sacrifice more than one child to the Church.

Distantly, Cesare remembered Ursula Bonadeo at Lucrezia’s wedding, slim, fair, unhappy, like a shadow of his sister’s future. Libera me.

Lucrezia was free now, he reminded himself, safe and happy. Happier than not, at any rate, more than Sister Lucrezia could have been. He imagined it, Lucrezia shut up in a convent, all her glorious hair shorn, exuberance stifled to decorous whispers. They might be together, but only locked into the same prison--at best praying together, hands folded and consciences clear, while the hunger he had then not dared name ate at them. This was better.

And after the wedding?

He put that out of his mind. Taking leave of the abbess, he made his way to the nearby village. There he found his sister and cousin, the latter haggling with a fruitseller while Lucrezia watched some girls of her own age playing with children, by the looks of them farmers’ daughters. At the first “Eminence,” she spun around, face alight.

“Brother!” Lucrezia hurried towards him, hands outstretched.

“Have you slept, sis? You look more rested,” he said, kissing her. Firmly, he stifled the urge to do more than touch his lips to her cheek and clasp her hands. They were in public, a stone’s throw from his own benefice, watched by a dozen and more strangers.

“Yes. Did you?” She seized his arm, her grip proprietary, and led him back towards Isabel. “You do not look quite as inclined to set something on fire.”

“The abbey is safe from me,” he said, and pinched her nose.

“Cesare!” She jabbed her elbow into his side. Cesare, safe under three layers of shapeless cloth, only laughed.

Isabel glanced up. With an air of decided reluctance, she cut her bargaining short; she alone shared Alexander’s mix of extravagance and parsimony. Cesare suspected he should be honoured she’d given up the fight for his sake.

“Yes, very well.” Isabel counted out coins. “My man will be here in the morning to retrieve them.” She turned to Cesare. “Good afternoon, Cesare.”

He kissed her cheek as well, and felt nothing. Or rather, something, but a purely fraternal something. She looked like his sister. If she were, and Lucrezia his cousin ... Cesare tormented himself with the possibility for a moment, then cast it off. He would still be a priest, Lucrezia still married; and he could not wish her any less his own.

“Not an unpleasant surprise, I hope,” he said to Isabel.

“Never,” said Lucrezia stoutly.

Cesare did not trust himself to look at her. He looked nonetheless. They both smiled.

“Not a surprise at all,” Isabel said. “Lucrezia told me you would be here to escort her back to the Vatican through Santa Maria in Portico. Your new home, I hear?”

He looked at his sister in some surprise. Though past any astonishment at Lucrezia’s glib lies, he had not known her to tell Isabel anything.

“Yes, his Holiness insisted on our remaining there for a time.”

“He wants Cesare to see that it’s sacked properly,” Lucrezia told Isabel, her manner conspiratorial, almost friendly. She had their cousin’s elbow caught firmly in her own, Isabel on her left and Cesare on her right, both towering over her as they walked through the village.

Isabel laughed. “Is that the word the Pope used?”

“Ah, no,” said Cesare.

“Of course, he also wants us to cease complaining about Juan. Our apartments are all so near, and the walls so thin, that we none of us have any privacy.”

“Only my uncle,” Isabel said, “would consider a palace the most convenient solution to his domestic problems.”

Cesare and Lucrezia laughed.

“That is the Borgia way, is it not?” said Lucrezia. “Everything or nothing.”

Cesare added, “We are not about to complain.”

Isabel’s shrewd dark eyes flicked from one to the other. “I should think not,” she said, with a touch of melancholy.

Lucrezia pressed her arm. “You do not mind, do you, Isabel?”

“I? Oh, no. I think you children have acted wisely--and that you are children no longer.” She sighed. “There are so few years between the four of you, you cannot know what it is to see you all grown up so quickly. Cesare a cardinal, Lucrezia a woman, Jofrè married!”

“If it comforts you,” Cesare said dryly, “Jofrè remains very much a child.”

“He still plays with my dolls,” said Lucrezia.

Isabel pressed her lips together, looking anything but relieved. “Then why--”

Not far away, someone gasped. Isabel ignored them, but Cesare and Lucrezia, insatiably curious, glanced up. A woman stared at them: to judge by the half-empty basket in her arms, she had been too preoccupied distributing alms to notice them until that moment. Cesare himself, absorbed in Lucrezia, and too a much lesser degree Isabel, might have passed her in total ignorance of her presence, if not for that small noise of surprise. He could not, however, fail to recognize her.

Only long habits of concealment kept his horror from his face.

“Cardinal,” stammered Ursula Bonadeo.

Chapter Text

“I … I had no expectation of seeing you here,” Ursula said. “I heard you were away from Rome.”

Lucrezia had often imagined what she would feel, meeting this woman. Isabel looked on Cesare as a younger brother, and adored her meek little husband; Sancia’s overtures irritated him; Ursula, though, Ursula had nearly been his lover. She would have been, had his whim and his promise not taken him to Pesaro. Perhaps it was as he said, and she had never been more than a substitute for Lucrezia--still, he had chosen her.

Lucrezia studied her. Ursula stood taller than she did. Her hair was darker, duller, but still very fair, and she wore it in a net of white pearls, exactly like Lucrezia’s. Ursula’s features did not resemble hers at all; even the light eyes were much larger, wide and colourless. Something of her expression, though, reminded Lucrezia of her own spiritless reflection during those early days in Pesaro.

She felt, at once, determined that this woman should not threaten her happiness, and terribly sorry for her. As far as Lucrezia knew, Ursula had no family worth speaking of. Her husband seemed a boor, perhaps as bad as Sforza. She’d had nothing when Cesare turned away from Lucrezia at the wedding, and in all the turmoil of the moment, set eyes on a slim, pretty girl with light hair and grave eyes. Then, for a little while, everything had changed.

You poor thing, Lucrezia thought, you shall not have him.

She felt no great fears on that point. Just from the stiffness in her brother’s arm, she could feel his discomfort; a glance at his blank face told her he must be unhappy. And she could not seriously believe he would turn from her now. Cesare certainly betrayed not the slightest desire to detach himself from her. If anything, Lucrezia thought he might have stepped closer.

“--the marriage to Lady Sancia,” Cesare was saying.

Lucrezia realized she’d dug her fingers into his arm. She relaxed her grip and dredged up her warmest, brightest smile.

“My brother was kind enough to amuse me in my husband’s dreary castle, and escort me here for the wedding,” she said. “Oh! you have not been introduced to our cousin, have you? Isabel, this is Lady Ursula Bonadeo, Cesare’s particular friend.” She beamed up at him. “Lady Ursula, our cousin, Lady Isabel Borgia, niece to his Holiness.”

They paid the appropriate courtesies to each other, Isabel plainly bewildered, and Cesare more so.

“I am honoured that you remember me, Lady Lucrezia,” said Ursula.

Lucrezia laughed. “You were at my wedding! I could forget nothing of such a … memorable occasion.” Now entirely confident, she released her brother’s arm to take Ursula’s hands. Lucrezia smiled into her eyes. “But you must call me Lucrezia! Any friend of Cesare’s, you know, is a friend of mine.”

“I thank you, La--Lucrezia,” said Ursula. “And I hope I may be Ursula, to you.”

Lucrezia cast one mischievous glance over her shoulder. Cesare stared at her. Isabel, if not quite disapproving, looked uneasy. Well, she could not imagine that any of Bernardo’s lovers had ever crossed his sisters’ paths.

She squeezed Ursula’s hands. “Of course,” she said happily. “I think we shall be very good friends.”


Isabel had, thankfully, retained enough presence of mind to send Cesare after the horses. For several minutes afterwards, Isabel, Ursula, and Lucrezia talked together amicably enough, less awkward among just the three of them, though hardly easy. Now, with Ursula gone, Isabel made no attempt to conceal her feelings.

“Lucrezia, what were you thinking?”

Part of Lucrezia felt inclined to cringe under her cousin’s suspicious eyes. A rather larger part denied any such impulse; she lifted her chin.

“What do you mean? She was kind to me at the wedding, and Cesare--”

“Yes, Cesare.” Isabel’s hand gripped her elbow. “He is the relevant point here, is he not?”

A chill rippled down Lucrezia’s spine. She only kept her composure with an effort. So soon after Sancia’s interrogation, she had not expected another, as if some divine law of fairness must prevent it. Isabel discovering the truth might be even worse … mightn’t it? No. Isabel was a Borgia. It would not be so bad as the Neapolitans discovering it, the Aragonese--though Lucrezia did not think that a family in the habit of marrying aunts to nephews could pass judgment! Yet if Isabel knew …

Oh, dreadful, nevertheless.

“I don’t understand.”

Isabel lifted a brow, like Cesare often did, intent behind an uncharacteristic mild look. “I have known you since you were a baby in Lady Vanozza’s arms, Lucrezia. I have not known you, however, to express the least affection towards anyone who occupies your brother’s attention. He spoiled you terribly, doting on you as he did.”

“I love my parents, and--”

Isabel waved her free hand dismissively. “Anyone other than a Borgia, I should say. Perhaps.”

Lucrezia felt a sudden, terrible suspicion that Isabel knew she had not liked her, and perhaps even why. She fought off a blush.

“When you were five years old,” Isabel added thoughtfully, “you formed a grudge against Master Francesc, who taught Cesare his languages. You used to glower at the poor man every time his back was turned.”

She wasn’t sure what that had to do with anything. “Did he offend me?”

“He offended your idea of how much time your brother should spend amusing you,” said Isabel. A faint smile touched her lips. “Master Francesc, you understand, felt that time could be more profitably spent with Castilian and Greek and Latin. And Italian, of course.”

“Oh, him. He was always taking Cesare away and droning on for hours!” Lucrezia said. “I listened through the window. And Cesare told me it was all very tedious.”

“Be that as it may, you are not generally fond of other figures in his life, much less … well.” She gave Lucrezia a meaningful glance.

Petulantly, Lucrezia wished she had invited someone else to accompany her, someone too sweet and candid to question any kindness she chose to bestow. But Jeronima lay sick with her baby, and Giulia and Vanozza saw too much. She scarcely knew any other women.

“I suppose not,” she said.

Isabel sighed. “We are not close, Lucrezia, but we share our name and our blood. I would hope you know that you may depend upon my loyalty.” Matter-of-factly, she continued, “If you have some particular end in mind, you had better tell me.”

“I do know it,” said Lucrezia, dropping her eyes.

They walked on in quiet, if not altogether comfortable, silence. Then, voice low, Lucrezia told her:

“My father says that we should hold our enemies even nearer than our friends.”

“Ah.”

Lucrezia looked up into Isabel’s face, but it told her nothing. For several moments, neither of them spoke.

“The poor girl looks like a beaten dog,” said Isabel at last. “I would not count her as an enemy, myself. Is it only that she is your brother’s lover?”

“She is not his lover!” Lucrezia snapped.

Isabel raised both brows, this time. “It is the way of brothers to take lovers, little cousin. You may as well accustom yourself to it.”

Pressed beyond all endurance, Lucrezia lost her patience. “Did you accustom yourself to Bernardo’s?”

She had the slight satisfaction of seeing Isabel look surprised.

“Bernardo’s? Good heavens, why should I care what he does? He has never cared in the least for me.”

“Nor you for him,” Lucrezia pointed out.

“Oh?” Isabel tilted her head. “Your memory must be very good, Lucrezia, to recall events that took place before you were born.”

Naturally, Lucrezia did not remember when the breach between her cousins had formed. She had never even much wondered. It struck her as wrong for a brother and sister, Borgias, to dislike each other so much, but not something that required explanation. They were not like Cesare and Juan, all rivalry and clashes of personality mixed with occasional affection; it was simply their way. Bernardo and Isabel would be Bernardo and Isabel, as Cesare and Lucrezia would be Cesare and Lucrezia--so exactly, neatly opposite that she could only accept it. Now she did wonder what had happened between them, those two eldest of the Borgia bastards.

With a shrug, Isabel said, “That is not the subject at hand, however. These things are a different matter altogether when you are close, as my brother and I are not.” She lowered her voice, eyes suddenly merry. “Jeronima used to be frightfully jealous of my poor Pietro.”

“Jeronima!” Lucrezia giggled despite herself. “You are funning me.”

“No, no! She used to give him the most ferocious glares. She tried, at any rate, but of course she was Jeronima still, and Pietro is the mildest of men. It was like a kitten hissing at a mouse!”

They laughed together. Then Isabel, with a contemplative look, said,
“Of course, she need not have troubled herself. My chief affections and loyalties will always lie with my sister, my family.”

Lucrezia could only imagine what Pietro Matuzzi thought of that. But then, he was Pietro Matuzzi; no doubt he thought whatever Isabel told him to think. She almost envied her, though she was not sure she would like so meek a husband, herself. Compared to Sforza, however, he could only be infinitely superior.

And compared to Cesare, infinitely inferior.

For no reason that she could see, her thoughts leapt from there to Jeronima. Jeronima, last of Pedro Luis’ disregarded children, sweet and dutiful and unflaggingly affectionate. Alexander and Vanozza, Isabel, Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan, even Bernardo, none of them could help but love her. Yet few of them loved her best. And the Pope had other nieces, his children other cousins, Bernardo--well, he had another sister, little though he cared for her. If at least some affection subsisted between him and Jeronima, she had not been his companion on the long road to Valencia and back, through all the marriages and maneuverings and twists of fortune. She had been Isabel’s; and now she lay dying.

Lucrezia opened her mouth to say something: condolences, reassurance, anything. A glance at Isabel’s cheerful face silenced her. If she were not thinking of it, why remind her? If she were, why injure her further? Lucrezia would be speaking for her own peace of mind, not Isabel’s.

“I am glad you came with me today,” she said, and laid a hand on Isabel’s arm, still linked with her own. “It is a great comfort, you know, to have my family with me.”

Isabel stared at her. After a moment, she smiled.

“So it is,” she said. “Now tell me, cousin, what you intend for that poor woman of Cesare’s.”

“I would be her friend and confidante,” said Lucrezia, “but for quite a different reason than you suppose.” Almost truthfully, she added, “I do not care what affairs she may or may not have had.”


Cesare managed to restrain himself until Isabel committed Lucrezia to his care. I must go to Jeronima, she said, so I shall leave the two of you to sack your palace in peace.

He even stayed calm as they rode into the wood near Saint Cecilia’s, saying little beyond murmured commonplaces--responses to her own. It was only when she halted, insisting that they dismount, that she saw his mask falter. She could not quite read the emotion beneath it, but she knew it was there.

Lucrezia almost smirked. Instead she smiled at him after he tied up the horses, said something which she herself did not much regard, and drew him deeper into the woods. She had become a creature of forests, Lucrezia thought; she felt more at ease already with the trees sheltering them, light filtering through leaves, little sound beyond a light breeze.

As always, Cesare followed her without resistance, but as soon as they were beyond anyone’s observation, he hissed,

“Have you lost your mind?”

Lucrezia only laughed. “You have shown great resolve, brother!” 

“What in God’s name possessed you to befriend Ursula Bonadeo?”

“I am sure she could use a friend,” said Lucrezia. “She looked so lonely! I would not question your lady’s virtue--”

“She is not--”

“--but I would not be surprised if that were not a large part of the reason for her devotion to good works. One must do something, and I must say she did not strike me as a great letter-writer or poet.” She beamed up at him, his hand still clasped between hers.

He stared, then laughed under his breath. “No, I think not. And what sort of friend shall you make, dear sis?” His voice lightened further. “Will she find poison in her cup or only on your tongue?”

“Neither, of course!” Lucrezia opened her eyes wide. “I must be the sweetest, most trustworthy companion.”

“Ah,” said Cesare, looking shrewdly at her. “What are you plotting?”

“I did not think of it as plotting,” Lucrezia protested. “I did not think of it at all until I saw her there. I really do pity her.” She caught her lip between her teeth and was hard pressed not to smile again, merry with triumph, at the immediate flick of his lashes downward. A familiar warmth stole through her blood, unhurried. They had today, and anything that might be arranged in the palace, and … anticipation had its own pleasure, didn’t it?

“You pity her enough to--” She saw his face change, all at once, understanding flashing into his eyes, the part of his lips and clench of his teeth. “Bonadeo.”

Lucrezia sobered. “You delayed more business than Father’s in Pesaro.” She gazed steadily at him. “But not, I think, for much longer.”

He drew a sharp breath between his teeth, almost a gasp. “Lucrezia, you cannot! The baron is a dangerous man. A seasoned condottiere.”

She touched his ring, lightly. “Not as dangerous as you.” At the look on his face, she would have gladly abandoned the conversation to step closer, slip her arms around his neck, press slow kisses over his mouth. Instead she persevered. “Cesare, you see peril where there is none. Of course I do not mean to confront him myself. I will simply hear what his wife has to say. I trust she is permitted female company?”

“I believe so,” he said, tone still reluctant, but she could see his eyes narrow in thought.

Lucrezia pressed her advantage. “Baron Bonadeo wants you dead, brother. Surely you would know what passes under his roof.”

He said nothing for a few moments, brows knit. Then he focused on her again and, freeing his fingers from hers, caught her face between his hands. “You will take no unnecessary risks.”

“I promise.”

Cesare leaned his head down to hers, Lucrezia smoothing down the front of his robes. She could feel his breath against her forehead, then his lips, the kiss quick and light, just grazing her skin. Benediction.

“I told you,” she whispered, “that I would do for you what Sancia does for Prince Alfonso.”

His laugh made him sound more like himself; under her hands, his chest rose and fell in steadier rhythm. “I did not expect it within the next day, sis.”

She smiled at him. “Nor I!”

One of his hands slid from her cheek to her neck, his thumb rubbing over her pulse. Though the day was warm, she shivered.

“You will not do all that Lady Sancia does,” he said in a low voice.

Lucrezia gave way to temptation and kissed him, his response so easy and immediate that nothing else seemed to matter very much. “No,” she agreed, entirely happy.

For a long moment, they just stood there, kissing in the shadow of the trees, soft greenish light filtering warmly down. Then she said, smiling, that it was too pleasant a day to dwell any more on such things, and they sat under a tree, Cesare’s back against the trunk and Lucrezia reclining sideways into him. Braced by his arms around her waist and his shoulder under her cheek, she gazed up at the glimmering green canopy, less joyous than simply, superbly content.

For now, nothing troubled them, no matters of family, or state, or the Church. She breathed in, breathed out, everything idle but her hands, which grasped his arm, playing with his sleeve. When she was very, very calm, she said,

“Do you think we are doomed?”

She felt his laughter ripple through his body, rustle her hair. “Doomed? By whom?” He pressed a kiss against the top of her head. “God?”

No, Lucrezia thought, God smiled on them. She knew it; she could feel it.

“Fate.” She twisted around to face him. “Fortuna.”

“No,” he said, brushing a few strands that had escaped her net. “Fortuna may, at a whim, toss obstacles in our path, or not. We may conquer them, or not.”

“That is what you truly believe?” said Lucrezia, but she had already heard the answer in his voice. She’d heard others speak with that utter conviction, but rarely him.

His gaze was steady, intent. “I believe we can do anything, if our abilities and our will are strong enough, and Fortuna does not altogether turn from us. Even if she does, that is misfortune, not doom. Why would you think so?”

Lucrezia searched his eyes, uncertainty clouding her happiness. “You have read your Boccaccio, your Petrarch. You know the stories they tell. Young love is always doomed.”

Cesare looked at her. Then, without a moment’s warning, he tumbled her to the ground. Lucrezia laughed as she fell, all her worries startled out of her mind. She tipped her face up to Cesare, who had allowed himself to fall with her, as usual holding his weight on his arms, the strange braced by the familiar. He kissed her, mouth careless and generous over her face and down her throat. For once lazy, Lucrezia tilted her head back, kissed him back when he returned to her lips.

She hadn’t thought it would be like this. Not after days apart, and days as long and difficult as these had been. Pleasure washed over her, a sweet, giddy rush.

Kissing his way along her jaw, he flicked her earring aside. He was still smiling.  

Cesare murmured into Lucrezia’s ear, “We will make our own stories.”

Chapter Text

 Lucrezia stretched out luxuriously. Her skirts, crumpled and disarranged, were still drawn up to her knees. She didn’t seem to notice, even with a cool breeze blowing over her half-bared legs; she just glanced upwards.

I don’t think the sun has moved,” she managed to say, and laughed.

Cesare dropped his head on her shoulder, trying to catch his breath. Lucrezia’s heart still thudded a quick, pounding beat. He smiled to himself and flopped onto his back beside her.

He squinted at the patches of sky above them. “A little. Perhaps.”

With someone else, he might have been embarrassed. But Lucrezia was--God, Lucrezia. She’d said, once, that they were like Adam and Eve, formed for each other. Not by God’s hand, surely; he could not believe that God smiled on this, whatever she thought. Yet he felt it, too. Something else, some twist of Fate or Nature, must have shaped him for her, and her for him. He could scarcely bear to leave her in bed this morning; she sought him in the confessional. He could not endure another day without her; she said you will come to me today? Here, lying over her, he’d felt starved and parched both, struggling to restrain himself as his body urged him to take and give and take; she said urgently, hurry, Cesare, now, now.

He took a deep breath and turned his head to look at her. Lucrezia smiled back, languid and serene, entirely shameless still. Well, why not? They’d never been embarrassed of anything with each other. The rest aside, they had spent too much of their lives together for that. He could remember holding her hair back when she was ill, when--

What are you thinking of?” she said, laying a hand against his cheek. He kissed her wrist, adoration tangled up in force of habit.

The night that Juan switched your glass with Mother’s,” said Cesare, with more honesty than tact. “You were what, nine?”

Lucrezia stared at him, then laughed. “Ten. I spent a wretched night, and morning too. What made you think of it?”

Only that we have shared every part of our lives,” he said. His eyes ran over her face, every feature beloved and familiar, more than his own. “There is nothing to hide or pretend. We already know everything there is to know.”

She smiled and nestled into his side. “We have never had secrets between us,” she said comfortably.

Even where they should, he thought, but could not feel. More concerned by the breeze than decorum, he pushed her skirts down and leaned in the few inches necessary to kiss her. Lucrezia parted her lips, pressed her mouth back, hand over his chest.

For a few minutes, they just lay there, talking a little of nothing in particular between lazy kisses. Cesare felt entirely at ease, even in his robes, and Lucrezia looked happy. For the moment, it did not seem that anything else could be more important. Even when he sighed and said they should at least look at the palace, and they both rose and dusted themselves off, the pervading sense of contentment did not fade.

Lucrezia frowned and adjusted his mozzetta, then his cross. “There!”

Cesare looked her over. She was flushed, bright-eyed--nothing could be done about that, nor would he have tried were it possible. He straightened a crooked earring, her necklace. About to smooth down her hair, he looked at his palms and changed his mind.

You have a few lumps here and here,” he said, pointing, “and there, tuck that into your net.”

She glanced curiously at his hands, but complied. “Am I presentable now?”

Very.”

Lucrezia smiled and lifted her chin; the gesture could have been playful, or childish bravado, but these days she had a dignity about her that prevented it. She had an air of authority, too, quiet, but so decided that he could not imagine Queen Isabel more regal.

Show me your hands, Cesare,” said Lucrezia, the steel in her voice unmistakable.

In an instant, he wanted her all over again. Not like before, like--like … he scarcely knew. His imagination, usually fertile, left him only with an image of Lucrezia enthroned, and himself armed at her back, or presenting gifts at her feet. The picture was not new: far from new, though he never permitted himself to dwell on it. A pleasant dream, certainly, and nothing to do with desire.

Yet desire clogged his throat. Obediently he extended his hands to her, ignoring the parts of his mind that urged him to seize her or kneel before her or, somehow, both. Lucrezia's fingers, folding around his own, looked even smaller than usual, delicate and fragile. Once, he'd chased her and shoved her and yanked her by the wrist with a boy's rough carelessness; no harm had ever come of it, but of course he'd been small himself. He learned to be careful as he grew. These days he could snap her bones in an instant.

His sister, unconcerned, turned his hands around to examine the palms. Cesare did not know whether he wanted her to see or not, but powerless to resist, his hands lay pliant in her grasp.

For a moment, she simply stared. Earth stained his palms in streaks of green and brown, smeared to his wrists. Cesare hadn't thought of that when he tumbled her down onto the grass, but then, he hadn't thought of much at all. By that point, he'd been so desperate for her that he didn't trust himself to lay a finger on her skin. And now he had dirt under his nails and ground into his hands. He must have … he didn't even remember that. He'd have bruised her, had he—

Lucrezia lifted her gaze to his, eyes shining, her entire face as bright as if he'd just presented her with a parure of emeralds. She pressed her lips to his hand.

Cesare tried without success to reign in his thoughts. “Lucrezia—”

You must have torn the ground,” she said gleefully, and actually turned and looked. “You did! See, there. And I suppose those dents are from my feet.”

That he remembered with perfect clarity: Lucrezia beneath him, spreading her legs even before they had their skirts up, then her thighs trembling against him. She'd locked her arms about his neck—not a caress, just clinging to him, head flung back, body rocking in perfect rhythm with his. Cesare. Cesare. Cesare.

Cesare smoothed the earth with his heel, his skin hot.

Oh!”

He glanced up at her.

I have only just realized,” said Lucrezia. “That was the first time—that we—” She coloured, too.

Eyebrows rising, he smiled at her. “Hardly the first.”

No,” she said in a low voice, and tugged his gloves over his fingers. Her head tilted down for the task, enough to hide her face a little. “The first like that. Like … husband and wife.”

Even then, it took him another moment to understand what she meant. Oh—yes, of course. Before, the livid bruises had never been far from his mind, nor her descriptions of Sforza's attacks. She'd talked of the punishing grip of his hands, his bulk suffocating her, his grunts as he thrust; every detail was seared into Cesare's memory. For him it was natural to touch her gently, pull her over him, bite back any sounds; but it had also been necessary.

Until today. He hadn't thought of Sforza at all, not for a single moment. He hadn't thought of anything except the two of them, together. Apparently, neither had she.

Cesare touched Lucrezia's chin, lifted her flushed face up. His thumb ran over her mouth; her lips parted on a smile, eyes fluttering closed.

He kissed her, because he couldn't help it. “Husbands and wives do all the same things as everyone else,” he murmured, scarcely knowing and certainly not caring what he said. Desire flared in him: not the sudden frenzy of before, charring all reason, but a familiar growing hunger. He kissed her once more, gloved hand sliding down her throat. Distantly, he felt Lucrezia's arms about him.

Cesare forced himself to step away and inhaled.

Breathlessly, she said, “How would you know?”

When he stared at her, uncomprehending, Lucrezia gave a laugh of sheer delight.

Well, you are not married,” Lucrezia said. She picked up his ring and biretta from the ground, where he'd tossed them before he sat down. With a frown of concentration, she pushed the ring onto his finger, struggling with the glove. He tugged it up over his knuckle, feeling the shackles of the cardinalate close over him once more. His sister, however, smiled to herself. “Not in the eyes of the Church. I cannot think you would care to watch husbands and wives together—or do you?”

No; that is not a taste I share with you, sis,” said Cesare dryly. He put his hat on. “But people do insist upon confessing to me.”

Lucrezia giggled. “What a trial.” She adjusted his robes again, then his hat. “There! You look a proper cardinal now—and nobody need be any the wiser. We had a palace to see, did we not?”

The palace of Santa Maria in Novicella looked exactly as he'd left it, after he'd given the orders for various objets d'art to be delivered to his mother.—The rest might be sold, but he saw no point in triumphs that could not be shared about the family. Of course, he'd left before much else could happen; as Cesare and Lucrezia walked through the quiet halls, they saw paintings stacked together, urns and busts in wooden crates, all the symbols of the cardinal's wealth spilling haphazardly around. A thin layer of dust lay over the furniture. Cardinal della Rovere's servants had, of course, been dismissed, and it seemed the Pope had simply left a guard until Cesare's return. Even their steps echoed in the cavernous silence.

There was something eerie, he decided, in the utter stillness of this place. Anywhere else, it would mean danger, and he kept bracing himself, expecting an attack of some sort. Nothing short of an invasion could get past the papal guard they'd passed at the door, but Lucrezia was with him, and—

She cleared her throat. “The cardinal is very extravagant, is he not? He always struck me as an ascetic sort of man.”

I imagine he regards himself as such,” said Cesare, helping her up a staircase. He hadn't come this way before. Neither had the Pope's men, it seemed; the art, the rugs, the hangings, the furniture, all remained in perfect order, as if merely waiting for their master's return. “There is no righteousness quite like the hypocrite's.”

So I see!” Then she bit her lip. “And I knew it already, really.”

They both looked at the elegant rails and columns, torn between contempt and approval. Rodrigo Borgia, whatever else might be said of him, never lacked appreciation for beauty, and Cesare and Lucrezia had absorbed their father's sensibilities with his language. Neither of them, however, had much time for self-righteousness.

Well,” Lucrezia said, “at least he was tastefully extravagant.”

Cesare laughed. “Shall you mind living here, my love?”

She had opened the door to the principal bedchamber. Pausing on the doorstep, she glanced at him over her shoulder with one of her intense looks, impossible to misread. She smiled slowly.

No,” she said.

His mouth dry, he followed her inside. The room seemed dull and dreary, even after Cesare threw open the curtains. The bed, though thankfully cleaned, was dark and plain. A handful of tarnished candle-holders might not have been touched in a year or more. He counted at least three crucifixes and a glowering Virgin on the walls, along with an altar opposite the door. There could be no escaping the Church here.

Lucrezia wrinkled her nose. “Will you sleep there?”

I think not.” He remembered the body of that girl, the spy, her blood soaking the cloth and dripping down. He wasn't normally squeamish, but between one thing and the other, he could not imagine getting any kind of rest here. “We can get rid of all this.”

The painting, he thought, might fetch a good sum. It was beautiful, if dour.

Lucrezia followed his gaze. “She's lovely,” she said. “Do you think Signor Botticelli painted her?”

I doubt it. His are usually fair. A student of his, perhaps …”

They wandered out, chattering about della Rovere's various acquisitions, investigating the other rooms and trying to envision them different. There would be servants, of course, once they took up residence, so convenience and discretion must be considered as well as pure aesthetics. Neither of them had any intention of abstaining from each other in what might be their last weeks together for—months, perhaps more. Happily, they found an open, airy set of apartments for Lucrezia, adjoining some narrower rooms that Cesare found inoffensive.

Except the cherubs,” he said, flopping down on the bed. They were excellent cherubs, but they also frolicked directly above the bed. “They look like they're watching me.”

Lucrezia grinned and lay down beside him. “I have never seen so many cherubs and angels outside the Vatican. Who would have supposed that Cardinal della Rovere would so admire them?”

They considered the ceiling, hands folded over their stomachs. Without thinking, Cesare said,

I doubt his admiration is theological. Micheletto says that della Rovere is rumoured to prefer—” Belatedly, he remembered that, despite everything, he was speaking to his younger sister. He closed his mouth.

Oh!” said Lucrezia. Then she frowned. “How does Micheletto know that?”

He knows everything,” Cesare said lightly. “He is like Machiavelli, in his way.”

Neither Micheletto nor Machiavelli knew everything, of course. But they both knew a great deal, from their own observations and from their far-flung nets of associates. Unquestionably they heard more than Cesare did, shut up in consistory and confession.

She turned her head to face him. “Would either of them be flattered by that?”

No, I should think not.” Cesare smiled at the thought. After another moment's contemplation of the ceiling, he said, “I shall have them painted over.”

You should order the gilt removed first.” Lucrezia's fingers tapped idly against her bodice. Cesare watched with some fascination, then fixed his eyes on the ceiling. He still craved her, but the grinning cherubs, at least, kept desire somewhat at bay. He forced himself to attend to the conversation.

I'll see if it is worth the expense.”

Mm. And, Cesare, if Papa means us to strip the palace bare and sell everything—is he that short of funds?”

He thought of explaining the various demands on the papal treasury. Instead, he said, “Yes.”

Then I cannot imagine he will pay to have it furnished again. If his situation is so dire, in fact, I don't think he can afford to maintain the palace at all.”

No,” said Cesare. “I shall.”

You!” Lucrezia bolted upright, wide-eyed. “How?”

The same way that every other cardinal does.” He plucked at his robes. “Did you think I receive nothing but the Holy Father's approval? I do have revenues.”

She blinked. “I suppose you must. I never thought of it. Will it be enough?”

Valencia alone gives me sixteen thousand ducats a year. I should hope so.”

Oh!” Lucrezia lay down again. “That's more than Zaragoza, isn't it?”

I believe it is. Of course, our father has been securing benefices for me since we lived in Valencia. I scarcely knew what one was when he started.” Even he could hear a familiar sullenness in his voice. He forced himself to smile. “Father has his own ways of showing affection. There is always enough money.”

Well, that is a relief. What do you use it for?”

Clothes, horses, servants, manuscripts.” Cesare nudged her. “And my sister has a fondness for pearls.”

Lucrezia gave a rueful little grin. “She does, indeed!”

The remainder I usually give to Mother for her household, or directly to Father.” He laughed under his breath. “A fraction of your dowry, dear sis, but it will suffice.”

Now that you mention it,” she said slowly, “I suppose I have my allowance from Lord Sforza. I could—”

Absolutely not.”

Lucrezia lifted her hands up, admiring the rings on her fingers. An emerald flashed in the afternoon sunlight; gold and pearls glowed warmly. “I have suffered enough for it. Why should I not take what I can?”

That made a troubling amount of sense.

Take whatever you like,” he said at last. “Buy your gowns and shoes, pay your maid's wages, anything that pleases you, as long as it is not in my charge. I want nothing of his.”

I understand.” She scrambled up again. “Brother, I think I may be ill if I look at these cherubs any longer. Let us see if the cardinal has a library.”

He laughed and followed her. It was only then, as they walked, that the significance of his own easy assurances crept on him. Cesare had understood from the first that the gift of the palace came with the expectation that he would maintain it with his revenues. No other possibility even occurred to him; his father had been quite clear that he meant for Cesare to take charge of the place as cardinal. That did not diminish his gratitude at the prospect of escape, from Juan, from the Vatican, and with Lucrezia, too. Affairs could not have transpired more favourably had he planned them—though for once, he had not.

Now, he felt his thoughts shifting. He had never before allowed himself to even wish for a household of his own. Now his mind lingered on it. In Pesaro, he and Lucrezia had played at master and mistress of the place; here, it would be truth. Everything arranged to their preferences, under their authority, the servants in his pay: a life wholly their own, with no dependence on anyone's patronage. He would provide everything, for her, for them. With a single careless gesture, it had become possible, if only for a few weeks. From the moment they took up residence until she left, they would be like—

Like—

I think this is it,” said Lucrezia, pushing a nearby door further ajar. Sure enough, they found themselves in a small sunlit room, lined with bookcases. On the far side, a round table was stacked with more books, a few haphazard papers, and an inkpot. She drifted over to look at the contents of the table, while Cesare examined the shelves. As he and Lucrezia both favoured literature over art, he intended to seize any unfamiliar volumes.

After a few minutes, he scoffed in his throat.

Is there nothing interesting?” said Lucrezia, still at the table. “Hm. Law, law, philosophy, law, philosophy. Not a poetic soul, is he?”

I think Aurelius is his idea of poetry,” he said disgustedly. “Everything else is theologians and canon law and—every word is Greek or Latin. No Italian, no French, no English, no Spanish.”

No Catalan?”

Cesare gave a short laugh. “No, none of that either.” He flicked his fingers against the nearest spines. “The Church can keep it.”

Lucrezia, perched on the table, smiled down at the paper in her hand. “I have some Italian here.”

Oh?” He walked over to her, curious. “What is it? Dante?”

Not quite.” She passed the paper to him, mouth still quirking.

Cesare's eyes quickly skimmed over the lines jotted down in clumps of words and phrases, plainly meant to organize the writer's thoughts rather than represent them. A few caught his attention. Simony. Il Valentino—bastard. Farnese woman? The whore. Gandia? The girl? Other boy, Vatican. And then, triple-underlined: Notorious and public lechery.

Well,” said Cesare, returning the leaf of paper to her, “it is more interesting than law, I'll give him that.”

We do seem to be endlessly fascinating.” Lucrezia frowned. “Really, though, I would be something more memorable than the girl.

“You are,” he assured her. “Think, della Rovere scarcely saw you before Father became Pope, and fled before—” Every instance that sprang to mind, Djem's arrival or the wedding, could only remind her of the year's griefs. “He does not know you.”

Sometimes I think that no one does.” Lucrezia lifted her eyes, her gaze steady and somehow vulnerable. “Except you.”

No comforting lies came to mind. Cesare took her hand. Had any others been there to see, they would have thought the gesture chaste enough; they knew nothing. Every look, every word, every touch, bound him more tightly to his sister, deepened everything he felt for her. Of course he knew her, he who was companion, confidant, protector, brother-lover. Of course nobody else could. Staring at their interlaced fingers, he thought that this had taken them beyond the most sympathetic understanding.

Lucrezia's hand was starkly pure against his gloves.

He said, “It may be so. You keep your own counsel, my love.” Half-laughing, he added, “Am I not enough for you?”

Cesare, I—” She caught his expression. Pinching his shoulder, she said, “You are a fiend. I can't think why I love you so much.”

Cesare grinned and leaned down to kiss her. Lucrezia readily lifted her face up, the moment's melancholy replaced by a radiant smile. He did that, Cesare thought. He could still bring a smile to her face, after all she'd suffered, all he'd done. The impossibility of satisfying his father, Juan's failures, their cousins' quarrels, even the slights to his mother and Aragonese plots, faded to almost nothing.

I will make you happy,” he whispered into her temple.

Lucrezia's arms slid about him. “You already do.”

She didn't release him even when he straightened up, just glanced over her shoulder at the table, then at the shelves behind them. “We must bring our own books,” she said absently.

Cesare, control over himself fraying, ran his finger down the line of her throat. “Blanquerna?

Lucrezia shivered. “Of course! Though”—her hands slid to his shoulders as she hopped off the table—“I was thinking of something more …”

Poetic?”

Yes! Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio … and you have all those manuscripts. I am sure they can't all be law.” She wrinkled her nose. “Or Greek and Latin. You used to love that poet of ours, the … oh, I can't remember his name. The morbid one.”

Despite himself, he laughed. “That does not much limit the possibilities, Lucrezia.”

It was all love and death—March! Ausiàs March.” She beamed.

Ah, yes.” Cesare leaned down. “I need no other help from your love,” he murmured, “except that your eyes show me you love me—”

“—anything surer of you I cannot know, nor do I need more to be happy.” Lucrezia, a bare inch or two away, stared up at him, her breath quick on his face. Della Rovere's paper, still clutched in her hand, fluttered to the ground; she touched a finger to Cesare's mouth. “I know that one.”

Without thinking, he caught her finger between his teeth. Lucrezia swallowed, and when he touched his tongue to the tip, she flung herself at him so hard that he stumbled back into the table. She kissed him as if they hadn't lain together an hour ago, while Cesare simultaneously licked into her mouth and fumbled for purchase, knocking a pile of books to the floor. His hands closed on her waist. Giving up on any attempt at finesse, he pressed her tightly against him. Lucrezia's fingers threaded through his hair all over again, body yielding and mouth demanding.

Through a haze of yes Lucrezia yes yes my love Lucrezia, he felt the table teeter under their combined weight. And now he noticed the edge pressing uncomfortably into the back of his thighs.

Wait,” he panted. “Lucrezia, wait.”

Her fingers tightened on his hair, eyes fierce. “I'm tired of waiting.”

Cesare faltered, then forced himself to straighten up and push them both away from the table. Equanimity somewhat restored with his balance, he nudged her towards the nearest bookcase.

Patience is a virtue, my love,” he murmured between kisses.

Is it?” With a look of pure mischief, she reached for him. Cesare's breath hissed out between his teeth; he seized her wrist and held it above her head.

Lucrezia just laughed, tangling their fingers together. He looked at her there, her head tilted back against the rows of laws and treatises, her mouth swollen, skin flushed all over: and above her, their hands pressed against the bookcase, his glove blood-red over her pale skin, their rings gleaming in the bright light. Beside them, a bust of Saint Augustine gazed indifferently at the door.

Triumph ran liquid through him, potent as their mother's wines. He slid his other hand up to her breast; Lucrezia gasped, but he felt scarcely anything through three layers of cloth. With a low sound of frustration, he returned his mouth to the hollow of her throat, tasted the soft skin there.

Cesare felt her draw a shaking breath.

Mm.” Lucrezia's other hand ran restlessly over his chest and shoulders. As if she had heard his thoughts, she said dreamily, “The cardinal could not bear the thought of you in the College. Imagine if he knew we were here, like this.”

For a moment, he did imagine it: the Pope's bastard son, a cardinal—with his sister—in della Rovere's pious sanctuary. Usually the thought of discovery, what might be thought of Lucrezia, might happen to him, filled Cesare with horror. But now he laughed. And when he raised his head and saw Lucrezia's smile, at once sweet and vindictive, there was nothing to do but kiss her feverishly, hoisting her up against the shelves, his thigh between her legs.

Lucrezia, after a moment's surprise, gave a small moan and pressed down on him, freed arm hooking about the back of his neck. Her eyes squeezed shut.

No.” Cesare hardly recognized his own voice. “I want—sis—Lucrezia, look at me.”

Lucrezia stared into his eyes, lips parted.

Cesare, you—don't you—are you …?”

“Are you?” he countered. Lifting her skirts, he had his hands on her thighs before he remembered the gloves. He couldn't touch her; he couldn't take them off. In a burst of passion-soaked inspiration, he said, “Give me your hand.”

What?”

He grasped her hand and placed it just above her knee, then slowly drew it upward, her fingers tracing a line that pebbled her flesh. He could see it, if not feel it, and a different sort of excitement raced through him. All his other encounters, with Lucrezia herself and the others who came before, had been ... straightforward. He'd never—

She blushed a deeper red: not embarrassed (he knew all the signs of that, rarely as he saw them), but surprised, unsure. “I … Cesare, I …”

His mouth against her ear, he said quietly, “You have done this before, hm?”

Well, I—” Lucrezia lifted heavy-lidded eyes. “It's not the same. I want you.

Cesare kissed her shoulder. “I am here,” he whispered, urging her hand upwards. His ring brushed over her skin and she gasped, eyes wildly dilated. “Here with you.”

Her fingers slid under her skirt. Then she was shuddering in his arms while he pressed his lips everywhere he could reach, teeth and tongue where he dared, hands running over her. She never took her eyes off him.

Cesare—”

He bit at his lip, the last of his restraint crumbling. “Lucrezia, I—I need—”

Yes.” She kissed him hungrily and helped shove his robes up. “Yes. I want, I want more, I want—Cesare—”

With a teasing stroke of her hand, Lucrezia wrapped her legs around him, guiding him inside her. And then there was nothing else. Even her voice was a distant murmur urging him on, until she cried out. Her ecstasy rippled through him, all but engulfed him. Through the haze of pleasure, he thought—

Again

He caught her face between his hands. He had to see her, had to … he … Cesare stared at her, unable to string words together, searching for every flicker of pleasure, angling himself so that her eyes flew wide and her mouth fell open.

Oh,” Lucrezia whispered, then: “oh.”

She smiled, and he thrust them both into oblivion.

Afterwards, he must have left her, lowered her to her feet. He noticed none of it, nothing but her body in his arms, lax with satisfaction, and then as he came to himself, her fingers wiping his brow. She was kissing him gently. Only then, as his mind cooled and his reason asserted itself, did he grasp what had just occurred.

More than once he'd desired her afterwards, soon afterwards, but he had never acted on it. He could not bear the thought of--of imposing himself on her, demanding more than she already gave, coercing her in any way. She'd had enough of obligation in her bed, endured the brutal duty of her marriage. She would never face that from him. And now he'd taken her twice, once against the wall. The wall of della Rovere's study, no less. He had scarcely even touched her, except to ... but she'd wanted him. That could not have been clearer. He had not been alone in his pleasure; he'd brought her to ecstasy thrice, in the space of an hour. Why should he regret that?

I love you,” said Lucrezia, happiness bright and clear in her voice. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

No reason at all, Cesare decided. He returned her kisses, hand against her cheek. “And I,” he said thickly. Even the words seemed insufficient. 

He straightened up, Lucrezia releasing her grip on him with decided reluctance. She smoothed a hand over her gown and gave a small laugh.

Oh, look there.” She pointed at the floor; the paper on which della Rovere had scribbled his thoughts lay torn beneath their feet. Lucrezia bent down to pick up the nearest scrap. “Il Valentino. What is that?”

I am, I think,” said Cesare. At her bewildered look, he shrugged. “They called me il Pamplona at Pisa.”

Oh, when you were Bishop of Pamplona? I see.” Lucrezia looked at the paper again. “So Valentino is …?”

Valencia. Quite unpronounceable, you see.”

Lucrezia giggled and crumpled the paper in her hand. She tossed it aside. “They may call you whatever they like, Cesare Borgia. You will never be anything else to me.” 

Chapter Text

“I like your family,” said Sancia. She stretched out on the bed, lazy and satisfied.

Juan laughed from where he stood near the window. “All of them?”

“More or less.” Disinterested in clinging to any scraps of modesty, Sancia made no attempt to cover herself, but propped herself up on her elbows and studied him. He was an attractive man, Juan Borgia: young, and very much his age, but a man nevertheless. And any man who could fuck her on her father’s table had character enough.

He glanced curiously at her.

“I enjoy beauty,” Sancia said, “and the whole lot of you have that. You didn’t tell me you were all handsome.”

Juan looked as if didn’t know whether to be flattered or suspicious. “Well, yes,” he said, and fumbled at the laces to his doublet. “Everyone says my father is a fine-looking man, and he’s past sixty.”

“Your mother, too. It is a great comfort to me.”

“What?”

“I wouldn’t like an ugly child. And it’s not uncommon for children to resemble more distant members of their families. Cousins, grandparents.” She smiled. “Aunts and uncles.”

Perhaps that sweet little boy could father a son on her, but Sancia doubted it. And the brothers all resembled each other: did it really matter if the seed came from one or the other? 

Juan grinned back at her. “It’s always a possibility.”

Without a hint of a blush, Sancia sat upright and folded a bare leg. “There were some plainish cousins, of course, but there always are. And your siblings look like something out of one of Signor Botticelli’s paintings.”

“Jofrè and Lucrezia? I suppose so.”

“Jofrè is a perfect angel,” said Sancia fondly, “but I meant Lady Lucrezia and the cardinal. They could be a pair of saints.” She tilted her head to the side. “A pair of something, at any rate. Do they ever part?”

“Of course.” Juan rolled his eyes. “They’re close, that’s all. Cesare is a priest and Lucrezia, a girl. A married one, now. She’ll return to her husband soon enough.”

“Will she? He cannot be much of a husband,” said Sancia, “since the marriage is unconsummated.”

“Unconsummated?” Juan burst out laughing. “What gave you that idea?”

So Lucrezia was lying about it. Sancia hadn't been sure. “Your sister told me so.”

“Lucrezia? You must have misunderstood. Giovanni Sforza is not the sort of man—” Then he frowned. “Actually, I did hear something … I don't remember the details, but Father and Cesare were talking about it the day after the wedding. Something about the wedding night and Lucrezia's age. But Cesare and Mother were always complaining about the marriage; I didn't pay any attention.”

Sancia smiled. She could almost see Lucrezia Borgia before her again, the round girlish face, the cool eyes. Certainly she looked young, and scandalized enough by Sancia's ways. “I see. And Lord Sforza did not come for my wedding? Lucrezia said that it was Cardinal Borgia who travelled with her.”

“A whim,” said Juan. He laughed again, but it sounded sour. “My brother went off to Pesaro without a word to anyone. Perfect Cesare! You should have seen the look on my father’s face.”

“I see.” Sancia swung her legs off the bed, pulling a shift over her body. “You don’t like them, do you?”

Juan shrugged. “They are family. Nothing else matters.”

Sancia cast a quick look over her shoulder. “And yet?”

“My sister,” he said, and hesitated. “My sister is a sweet girl, by herself,” he said at last, “like a … a doll. Quiet and pretty and gentle and smiling all the time. I am fond of her, Cesare is fond of her, my father, my mother, everyone.”

She reached for her robe. Lucrezia, highly-strung and hostile, had not struck her as anything like a doll—but it was not strange that a doting older brother should think so. “So it is the cardinal you dislike?”

“Yes,” he said, then: “No. Without her, he can be … tolerable enough, sometimes.” Juan looked very young as he scowled at the floor. “But jealous. He's always been jealous of me.”

“The burden of seniority,” she said lightly.

His head snapped up. “What do you mean?”

“Surely it is the nature of younger sons to envy the elder.”

Juan stared at her for a moment. With a sullen look, he said, “Cesare is not a younger son.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don't you remember? He's the f—the eldest.”

Both Alexander and Lucrezia had told her so. Sancia widened her eyes. “Oh, the Pope disinherited him?” Judging Juan's expression, she decided flattery would not go astray. “Well, I am sure he deserved it—or his Holiness saw some extraordinary virtue in you, Juan Borgia.”

He seemed hopeful for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Cesare was two years old. I was little more than an infant.” Reverting to his usual self, Juan gave a short laugh. “The Holy Father, you know, is like the Almighty: he gives and he takes away as it pleases him.”

Sancia heard what he did not say: that the Pope might return Cesare Borgia's patrimony as arbitrarily as he had stripped it from him. How strange! Alexander had struck her as both affectionate and canny; why would he deprive a boy so young of his inheritance? Were such things common in Spain? In the Italian states, that was the stuff of which wars and fratricides were made. Perhaps, if there had been a mother's family to placate—but no, not with the same mother, and she a courtesan out of Toledo.

Stranger still, the cardinal did not appear to be in any sort of disfavour with the Pope. While his Holiness treated Juan with an exuberant affection she had yet to see directed at his eldest, it had been Cesare at his right hand, not Juan. She saw less of Cesare than any of the others because he was so often shut up with the Pope. Until now she had thought nothing of it. Of course the clerical son would be more involved with the concerns of the Vatican than the ducal one; of course the Pope could do more for a son in cloth than in armour. Again, she heard Juan's grumbling voice: perfect Cesare.

She had been right about younger sons.

“I see,” said Sancia. She suspected she saw more than Juan had any idea he'd said.

“Why are you so interested in Cesare?” Juan said suspiciously.

“Cardinal Borgia and Lady Lucrezia? why, because they dislike me,” said Sancia, in the frank way that often hid much of her thoughts. “I am not here to make enemies of your family. Lucrezia in particular—his Holiness dotes on her. She could easily turn him against me, could she not?”

Against Naples.

“She might,” said Juan. He returned to his belt, plainly losing interest. He would have been disastrous in the Church, but seemed scarcely more suited to affairs of state. Then again, Sancia had not chosen him for his mind.

“And I so abhor being disliked,” Sancia added. “I cannot think why your sister should hate me.”

More sympathetic, he said, “They dislike the marriage—it might be that. They might just hate Naples. It could be anything.” Juan paused. “She, that is.”

Sancia lifted her eyebrows.

“Well, Lucrezia's always been under Cesare's thumb. She thinks whatever he tells her to think. As long as he hates you, she will, too.”

She thought back. Even if Lucrezia were exactly as she presented herself, that had not been meek, either at the banquet or in the hall before the brothers' apartments. Certainly she did not seem to be dominated by anyone. That last parting jab about Juan and Jofrè—Sancia did not believe for a moment that Lucrezia's sudden malice came from the cardinal's influence alone. In all likelihood, she swayed him as much as the other way around. But Juan, an affectionate older brother and envious younger one, might choose to believe otherwise.

“Then it is Cardinal Borgia I must conquer,” she said carefully.

Juan still smiled, but his eyes narrowed. “If you want Lucrezia's good opinion? Yes. But don't bother with your usual tricks. His most righteous Eminence doesn't dally with whores.”

Fine words for the son of one. With the ease of long habit, she ignored the insult. “What is the world coming to? A devout priest!”

“This week,” said Juan. He leaned against the wall, knocking a crucifix askew. It seemed as though he would have liked to leave it at that, but could not resist adding, “He has always been a sanctimonious prude, if you ask me. At any rate, Lucrezia says he's having a fit of celibacy.”

“Lucrezia?” Sancia said, nearly laughing. “What, he tells her about his—?”

Juan snorted. “They probably tell each other about their bowel movements.”


As it happened, his most righteous Eminence was not at that moment confiding anything in his sister. Nor, however inextricable they might seem, was he in her presence at all.

Bernardo Borgia considered his cousin.

“Well, Cèsar,” he began, then stopped. “No, you must be accustomed to the other by now. Cesare.”

“Whichever you please,” said Cesare, but he looked uncomfortable. “It matters little to me.”

Bernardo doubted that, but shrugged it off with a chuckle.

“You are thinking of the banquet? I was only provoking my sister,” he said. “The next time I see her, may it be many months hence, I shall call her Donna Isabella and see how she likes it.”

Cesare's brows drew together; belatedly, Bernardo remembered that Isabel had cultivated the two boys, Cesare and Juan. Since she lived in Rome with that mincing husband of hers, no doubt they all remained on good terms.

“Speaking of your sisters—”

“No, no, little cousin, I will not be scolded by you.” He glanced at Cesare's clothes. Where the Pope had always seemed equally at ease in a priest's robes or a prince's silks, Cesare looked far more comfortable in his plain black leathers, a dagger at his waist. He was wasted on the Church, that boy. “Ah, but I cannot call you that now, can I? I think you may be taller than I am—and a prince of the Church, too.”

Cesare grimaced.

“I should be more respectful to the purple, I know! It would be easier to remember if you wore it, of course, but as my dear sister will tell you, I am a mannerless boor.” He grinned. “Very well: I will not be scolded by you, Cardinal, unless one of your Roman friends drives me to confession at swordpoint.”

“I have no Roman friends,” said Cesare.

“No? Surely you have … henchmen, of some sort, to perform all those disagreeable tasks that must not soil a man of God.”

“Oh, servants?”

Blinking, Bernardo said, “I cannot say that I would trust the well-being of our Holy Mother Church to servants.”

“I have a man who has … more than earned my trust. He assists me very ably in matters that must not trouble his Holiness.” Bernardo raised his eyebrows, and Cesare smiled. “Some men of God are more soiled than others.”

“True,” said Bernardo. “He sounds an indispensable companion. Not a friend, then—or not a Roman?”

“Neither.” Cesare stared into his wineglass, even more unreadable than he had been as a boy. “And, forgive me, I do not pay him to drag the impenitent before indifferent priests.”

Bernardo shouted with laughter. “I see you are no more suited to the cloth now than you were as a child. You really must cultivate a veneer of hypocritical piety, cousin, if you mean to make a creditable priest.”

“I will never make a creditable priest,” Cesare said. There was something bleak in his voice, but less despairing than determined. In that, Bernardo heard the headstrong yet dutiful cousin of his memories, one moment eager to please, the next absolutely set on his own way, and sometimes both at once. He was Cèsar still—Cèsar grown nearly to manhood, sharp-eyed and withdrawn. It would have been better to discard him as Bernardo had been discarded by his own father, leave him to make his way in Valencia with Borja connections and a little money. Cesare, Bernardo suspected, could make something of himself in any situation. But Rome, though it may have brought power and wealth to their family, had not been kind to them.

Bernardo stood to refill their glasses. He’d been fond of his cousins in Xàtiva, the boys too young to turn rivals, the girl eminently charming. He did not trouble himself greatly over children, but when he encountered these ones, he found them just old enough to be interesting; it was no bother to correct Joan’s grip, ask Cèsar after his studies, tease Lucrècia as only a four-year-old girl could be teased. He liked Lady Juana, as well. Without so much as breathing his father’s name, she regarded him with a sympathetic maternal interest that soothed his pride rather than ruffling it. And now?

Vanozza, new name notwithstanding, remained very much the not-quite-aunt Juana that he remembered. The boys—he did not know, yet, if his uncle meant to keep him here, but if so, Bernardo needed to reacquaint himself with the Pope’s sons. He’d only bothered a little with Juan, who had grown into a harmless enough but trivial young man, interested in drink, women, and display, in that order. Bernardo, with a vastly greater experience of all three, foresaw little trouble and little value in him. Cesare, however, might yet grow into his youthful promise. He might nearly have done so.

Bernardo smiled and sat back down. “I will admit, it has always been difficult to envision you in the Church. I can’t imagine you confiding in cardinals and bishops.”

“No,” Cesare said. “Certainly not.”

“But then, your temper is not … confiding. There is that invaluable manservant of yours, of course.”

“Eloquence is rather wasted on him. He does what I command. The only—” Cesare paused. He gazed into his glass again.

“It’s not poisoned,” said Bernardo.

Cesare was startled into a laugh. “No? Are you certain?”

“If I were to try my hand at that, I assure you that you would not receive an invitation. It would be foolish to thin our ranks.”

“Yes,” Cesare murmured. He took a sip, then tore at the bread in front of them. “We are Borgias, you and I. Who can we trust in this city but other Borgias?”

“Some more than others. I’ll gladly take you, cousin, over … that godfather of your brother’s, say.”

“Lord Jofrè? He is a supercilious fool,” said Cesare. “Harmless enough and he married well, but—” He shrugged. “A distant relation in any case. It is better to look near.”

“That may be easier for you. My nearest kin are my sisters.” Even Cesare must know that Bernardo and Isabel would not reveal the smallest secret to one another. He’d been at the banquet; Bernardo remembered him standing behind Isabel with Lucrezia.

Ah. Lucrezia. Perhaps that explained it. Cesare and Lucrezia had been close as children, as much inseparable friends as brother and sister. Bernardo thought little of seeing them together for nearly all that tedious evening, because he had always seen them together. Lucrezia walking away mid-conversation to greet her brother, Cesare whispering as they stood together: it was so exactly them that he scarcely noticed. Yet in the normal course of affairs, that childish camaraderie should have long since faded, with Cesare drawn into the Church and Lucrezia groomed for marriage—actually married. Plainly it had not. Cesare’s idea of how a man regarded his sister would be very different from Bernardo’s.

“And not all of us have your good fortune in sisters,” Bernardo added.

Cesare choked on his wine. Bernardo raised his eyebrows.

“You are not unwell, I hope?”

“No,” Cesare managed to say. He cleared his throat and straightened, his expression very nearly martyred. “Speaking of your sisters—”

“Oh, God,” said Bernardo.

Cesare soldiered on. “You should visit Jeronima.”

“Only Jeronima? I expected a sterner exhortation, Cardinal.”

“You should also visit Isabel,” Cesare said, “but I have no expectation of that. Whatever the quarrel between you, it has never encompassed Jeronima. She would like to see you.”

There was an unmistakable sharpness in his tone, less chiding than urgent. Something else must be at work here, something more than an eldest son’s meddling—and more important, perhaps, than a mere niece.

Bernardo said, “You are very certain of that.”

“I am. I have seen her. She is with child.”

“Again?”

“Again,” Cesare said grimly.

“He should acquaint himself with some whores. How many children has he already?”

Cesare gave him a steady look, impossible to read; despite himself, Bernardo felt unsettled.

His cousin said, “How should I know? I have not enquired after his bastards. My only interest is in Jeronima.” He paused. “He has had nine by her. Four living.”

Bernardo counted back. Jeronima was six and twenty now, eighteen at her marriage. “They have not been married nine years.”

“It does not take a year to bear a child.” In a suspiciously neutral tone, Cesare added, “Their names are Giulia, Aurelio, Ippolito, and Alessandra.”

“Two legitimate sons? Are they sickly?”

“No,” said Cesare. “More robust than Jeronima, I would say. But she is handsome still, and Cesarini is not a man to deny himself.”

Bernardo’s lip curled.

“Nor is he a man to attend on a sick wife,” Cesare said. He frowned. “She is ill and miserable. If her husband will not do his duty by her, at least her brother should.”

“Cèsar,” said Bernardo, “no doubt you mean well. Inheritance or no inheritance, you have the temper of an eldest son—I understand. I am one myself.”

Cesare lifted his brows. “However?”

Bernardo knew how ill he, at that age, would have taken what he was about to say. Watching his cousin closely, he said, “How many years have you? Seventeen? Eighteen?”

Apart from a slight narrowing of the eyes, Cesare’s expression did not alter. “Nineteen in April.”

April was months away. “Eighteen,” Bernardo said firmly. “I am thirty years old. I have managed my own affairs since you could speak. I shall manage my sisters, too, as I see fit. Son of the Pope or not, I will not answer to a boy, do you understand?” Lightening his voice, he added, “When you have had a woman or five, I might change my mind.”

Now Cesare looked properly indignant. “Of course I have—I only just ye—” He bit his lip and broke off.

“Outside a brothel, pardon. Any stripling can pay a whore.”

“She is not a whore!”

Bernardo stared at him. He had meant to provoke a response, but whatever he might have expected, it was not this. Stifling a laugh, he said, “She?”

He’d known Cesare kept a secret, and likely many. This? A lover need not be a secret at all. Even Cesare, with the deadly seriousness of youth, must know that. Unless … hm. A smaller matter than he had imagined; or perhaps a greater one.

“Any of them,” Cesare said hastily. “I am not Juan. I do not pay women to share my bed.”

Undoubtedly true; undoubtedly a weak diversion. He would not be concealing his lover—a particular lover, whatever he said—if he had not something to hide. And Cesare might not be his brother, but as Rome had scarcely blinked at Juan’s flagrant liaison with a Neapolitan princess betrothed to Jofrè, there must be more to the affair than its existence. No polite arrangement, this.

“Forgive my misjudgment, then,” Bernardo said. “My uncle seemed persuaded that kept your vows of celibacy.”

“As I said, I do not see the need to trouble my father over … details,” Cesare said. Somewhat regaining his composure, he added with some irritation, “This is all Juan’s doing, in any case. He assumed it from something Lucrezia said, and was too amused to let it rest. I wouldn’t paid him any mind, if I were you.”

“The Pope would be disappointed to hear that. I understood—just an impression, mind you—that he was delighted you seemed to have accepted your position so far.”

Cesare met his gaze and said, “There is no need for him to hear it, is there?”

Bernardo smiled. “No, of course not. Well!” He rose to pour again and clapped Cesare on the shoulder. “Tell me about her, cousin.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We are men together, after all!” Bernardo gave a low laugh. “You needn’t fear the servants, they have a half-day. Your lady is a pleasanter topic than Cesarini, surely?”

“You gossip like a fishwife, Bernardo,” said Cesare.

“I am surprised Isabel and Jeronima did not tell you that. They could never keep a secret from me,” Bernardo said in his friendliest tones. “At least not any that might concern me. Ignorance is such an unattractive quality, you see.”

Cesare, by his hunted expression, did see.

“Does she have a name, this woman?”

“I cannot tell you,” Cesare said, voice still even, but less calm than tightly controlled. “Not as a matter of caprice; I cannot tell anyone. I—her reputation would—”

Bernardo scrutinized him. “More than a warm body in your bed, hm?”

“Yes.” With a touch of desperation, he blurted out, “You wouldn’t understand.”

He had never sounded more his age. Not unkindly, Bernardo said, “I know it seems that way. A first love—I am not so much older that I cannot remember being eighteen and enraptured with a pretty girl.”

“It is not like that. She is not even ...” Cesare frowned. “Well, I—that does not matter. You needn’t concern yourself. It is not likely to affect you in the slightest.”

“Not likely?” Bernardo just shook his head. “Very well, I do not ask for a name. But if you are risking the family over a woman, with reputations at stake, then I would have at least some information. I can scarcely grasp it, to say the truth. You, of all of us; and who knew anyone in this city had a reputation to lose?”

He flushed. “Well, we—she does.”

We? That altered matters, perhaps. “A nun?”

“No! Why does everyone think of nuns?”

“Abelard and Héloïse, I suppose,” said Bernardo. Cesare winced. “Who else have you told?”

“Jeronima, a little.” With a distinct note of reproach, he added, “She did not press me.”

Bernardo almost laughed. The visit to Jeronima, which he had always intended to make, some time or another, gained rather more interest.

“No one expects celibacy of priests, or it seems, chastity of women. Why should anyone care?”

“It is forbidden,” Cesare said flatly.

Yes, Bernardo thought with some impatience, forbidden by vows that neither he nor anyone else much regarded. But there was something in his cousin’s voice, a somber conviction, that kept him from saying it. Perhaps Cesare merely infused pathos into a sordid entanglement. And considering his character, perhaps not.

“Not a courtesan, then?”

Cesare looked appalled. “No. A lady. And a lady I would not see spoken of as”—he hesitated—“others have been.”

Lady Vanozza. The confusion began to clear. The Juana de Castañeda of Bernardo’s memory, consort of the cardinal, a lady of great beauty and intelligence in her own right, had always been regarded with great respect: a respect very much shared by her eldest son. Even in Bernardo's short time in Rome, however, he’d heard her called names he would not direct at a stablehand, much less a lady. Of course, Vanozza was not only a former courtesan, but a Spaniard. Cesare’s lover would not—

Bernardo stilled. “Some Roman matron, I suppose?”

“No.”

Easier to milk a viper for milk than Cesare for information. In general, his reticence likely served them well, but... Bernardo caught an exasperated sigh behind his teeth.

“Spanish?”

Cesare hesitated. “Yes.”

“But living in Rome, I assume.”

“Yes.”

A Spanish lady of good reputation in Rome, and that assuming him truthful. Bernardo suspected his cousins did not concern themselves much with such things, as a rule; he did not, himself. Yet he felt a decided impression that Cesare, however resentful and terse, had not lied. 

We are Borgias, you and I. Who can we trust in this city but other Borgias?

“Older than you? Younger?”

“Younger,” Cesare bit out.

A Spanish girl of good reputation. Another piece fell together. “Her father would not be pleased, were he to find out? I presume he has not.”

Cesare looked faintly ill. “No. It would be unthinkable. I cannot imagine what he would do to me.” He swallowed. “Or to her.”

Vaguely, a picture formed: his cousin, usually levelheaded for his age, carried away by an infatuation for the daughter of some Catalan or Valencian nobleman, embarking on an affair because he was a Borgia, but a careful and discreet one, because he was Cesare. That certainly explained some of his anxious secrecy, but not anything like all. Even if he did ruin the girl, Bernardo doubted these Italians would think any worse of him than they already did. Such things happened every day; what was so pedestrian a matter next to the rumours of orgies in the Vatican and deals with the Devil?

“Well,” said Bernardo, “he will not hear of it from me. Keep your secret, cousin; I see no harm in it.”

“How gracious of you,” Cesare muttered.

“But tell me one thing more.”

He took a gulp of wine. “What?”

Bernardo grinned. “For all this trouble, I hope she is handsome.”

Cesare stared at him; then a smile tugged at his lips. “Very. The handsomest woman in Italy.”

“Of course.” Bernardo lifted his glass. “It would not do for Juan’s mistress to outshine yours, would it?”

“She is not my mistress,” Cesare said sharply—very infatuated, Bernardo noted to himself—“but Sancia d’Aragona is nothing to her. Nothing like her, in appearance or anything else.”

Questioned openly, his voice had been cold and even; now contempt bled through every word. So he disliked the woman who brought alliance with Naples. Lucrezia, Bernardo remembered, did as well; she’d looked like murder at the banquet. That might be more intriguing than Cesare’s erstwhile dalliance.

Still, Bernardo Borgia had never been one to abandon his quarry.

“Oh, so she is fair?” he said, with just enough amusement in his voice to make it more teasing than suspicious. Cesare rolled his eyes.

“Yes, yes, small and pretty and very fair.”

The corner of Bernardo’s mouth twitched. “A Spaniard, very fair? By nature?”

Cesare grinned outright. “No.” Affection lay as heavily on that single word as distaste had on the comparison to Sancia. Yet Bernardo heard none of the wild passion or simpering folly of men in the throes of infatuation; Cesare looked and sounded less like a newly enthralled lover, and more like a man speaking of someone he knew well and liked a great deal. Bernardo felt a flicker of alarm. “Not entirely. Her colouring is rather like Jeronima’s.”

A small, pretty, golden-haired, well-born Spanish girl: she sounded very like Jeronima indeed. Jeronima, who used to wash her hair with a lye that kept it the white-gold of her childhood. Jeronima, over whom Cesare had scolded him and whose husband he hated. Jeronima, who had known Cesare from his infancy, and always doted on him and Lucrezia in particular. Was it possible—?

Bernardo felt as ill as Cesare had looked earlier, when they spoke of the lady’s father. Pedro Luis was dead, of course, and good riddance to him, but he might very well have mixed falsehoods in with the truth, made her younger rather than older. If Cesare had seduced Jeronima—Bernardo’s mind shuddered back from the thought. But he was not squeamish. If Cesare had seduced her, or even she him (still less did Bernardo wish to consider that possibility), it would be her uncle who stood in the place of a father. Cesare would face his father over it, and Bernardo himself. And her husband, of course, should Cesarini discover them—that would be the end of a valuable alliance. Even if Cesarini discarded Jeronima and Alexander expelled Cesare from the Church, they were well within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity. The Pope would never grant permission.

It is forbidden, Cesare had said, in a tone which admitted no argument. God, what else had he said? He’d talked of her ceaseless pregnancies, pointedly listed her surviving children … her children. Jeronima had written with particular joy of her youngest, lovely and golden-haired—like Jeronima, but also like Cesare’s sister. The girl would be one or two years old now; Cesare, halfway to nineteen, could very well have sired a child then.

Nevertheless, Bernardo could scarcely comprehend it. Cesare and Jeronima? Jeronima?

“Yes, Jeronima,” Cesare said. “Or Lucrezia’s, if you cannot bear a reminder of your sisters’ existence.”

Bernardo drained half his glass. “You take a very great interest in Jeronima’s welfare.”

He must see that child, he thought.

“Of course I do. She is family.” Cesare lifted his eyes and blinked, then met his gaze with a particularly inscrutable smile. “Jeronima and Isabel have been like older sisters to me. I would be irresponsible and ungrateful if I did do what I can for them.”

Bernardo breathed again. But he could not be certain. It explained so much; too much.

“And,” said Cesare, “if you have pried enough into my private concerns, I must ask again that you visit her before her condition progresses much further.”

“I think I will,” Bernardo said. “The victory is yours, cousin.”

“Somewhat Pyrrhic, I feel.” Nevertheless, Cesare looked relieved. He rose to his feet.

“Ah, but any victory must be celebrated.” Bernardo stood likewise. “As I managed to more than equal your presumption, I hold no grudge. In fact, I admire your circumspection and strongly advise you to continue in it. I myself have no intention of breathing a word of this unpleasant conversation.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the wine, as well.”

“Nothing but the best for a Borgia,” said Bernardo, shrugging. He lifted his glass. “To you and your lady—whomever she may be.”

Chapter Text

Lucrezia nibbled on a sweetmeat.

“Are you certain you do not want any?” she said doubtfully.

“Yes, thank you,” said Ursula.

They sat in a pretty, white and gold room in the palace of Santa Maria in Novicella; Cesare and Lucrezia had removed there only that morning. As soon as he left for the Vatican, Lucrezia sent a friendly note to Ursula Bonadeo, informing her of their new residence, and hoping she would feel welcome to call some time or another. She had not, however, expected to see her within two hours.

Ursula glanced around. “Lady Isabel is not here with you?”

“She lives with her husband,” Lucrezia said. “Oh, at the moment, you meant? I left her with her sister, my cousin Jeronima.”

“I see.” Ursula seemed scarcely able to meet her eyes. Though healthy in body and fashionably clothed and coiffed, there was something forlorn about her, almost frail. Shadows carved out the lines of her face. “Your husband does not join you here?”

“No,” said Lucrezia, determinedly cheerful. “He cannot travel. He had a hunting accident just after Cesare arrived.”

Ursula stiffened. “I—I hope he was not seriously injured?”

“He will recover.” Remembering Ursula's sympathetic glances at the wedding, Lucrezia shrugged. “Eventually. I am sure you understand that it is not always disagreeable to have one's husband confined, or gone.”

Ursula's face turned away, eyes lowered and lip caught between her teeth. She worried it for a few moments before saying, almost apologetically, “My husband just returned from Ostia, though I believe he means to make another journey soon. The solitude, I confess, is … not unpleasant.”

“I know exactly how you feel,” said Lucrezia, with perfect honesty. She forced a bright smile. “For now, it is a delight to have so much space to myself—well, to my brother and myself, but he is often away.”

Ursula's colourless gaze skittered up, then down. “The Church occupies a great deal of his time, I suppose?”

“Yes. Well, our Holy Father does.”

“Of course,” said Ursula, brightening a little. “It was his Holiness who sent him away, was it not? On Church business?”

Lucrezia selected a piece of marzipan, carved into the shape of a deer. She bit off its head. With great fortitude, she did not roll her eyes when Ursula winced—really, other considerations aside, she could not imagine Cesare with so fretful a creature. He didn't even like high-strung dogs.

She thought over the matter with the seconds bought by the now-decapitated doe. To go by her mother's letters, Cesare had been wholly and instantly infatuated with this woman from the moment he turned away from Lucrezia and set eyes on her. Perhaps that should have suggested something to someone—but it had not, of course. No doubt he'd pursued Ursula with his usual singlemindedness until their father sent him to Florence, and he sent himself to Pesaro. To Lucrezia.

“Yes, though I cannot tell you the details,” Lucrezia said. “He visited me afterwards.”

Ursula gave a small, uneven nod. “The two of you had only just arrived when we met?”

There was no point in lying about that, Lucrezia decided. She could easily discover the truth.

“After a manner of speaking. We came to Rome the week before that—four or five days earlier.”

Ursula's expression, which had briefly cleared, grew troubled again. Lucrezia suppressed a sigh. She should have foreseen this.

Not for a moment had she imagined that Cesare might return to Ursula when they returned to Rome; for one, she knew perfectly well that Ursula had never been more than a substitute for Lucrezia herself, and for another, he never paid much attention to other women around Lucrezia, even when she was little more than a prattling child. She doubted that Ursula Bonadeo could ever tempt him less than at the present, when he had Lucrezia at his side and all he desired from her.

Or all he would ask, she thought crossly. The other day, when he took her under this very roof, she'd thought of nothing except pleasure; in retrospect, certain things had become clear to her. She'd heard that men could not always—that they required time—and while Sforza sometimes forced her several times in succession, she thought it must be some perverse facility of his. Therefore, the fact that Cesare never laid with her more than twice a day, many hours apart, and often enough only once, did not offend her; she had not thought him capable of anything else. Now she knew better. They could have spent more time together than they had actually done, if Cesare—without a word to her—had not decided against it. It seemed he'd decided against other things, too; Lucrezia hadn't even known that it could be done like … like that. With a shiver, she remembered his body pressing her against the shelves, gloved hands on her bare skin, voice whispering hoarsely, I am here with you.

She remembered, too, the same hoarse whisper, earlier the same day: I long for you, more than I can say, in more ways than I would ever dream of asking. He'd said it was because he feared hurting her, but that was nonsense. He hadn't bruised her in the study. And if he had, what did it matter? They'd always bruised each other, their hands poking and shoving and clinging. Such things happened, in the ordinary course of life. But it did seem, sometimes, as if Cesare would bar her from that—would rather see her enshrined on an altar than living.

Ursula, as absorbed in her own thoughts as Lucrezia, murmured something about how invaluable Cesare must be to the Pope.

“He is. He spends hours at the Holy Father's side,” replied Lucrezia, forcing her mind back to the matter at hand. Whatever Cesare might have once felt for Ursula, he felt it no longer. That, at least, did not concern her. And Lucrezia, secure in her absolute primacy, had not troubled herself over any other danger Ursula might pose. Yet she should have realized that Ursula would notice so abrupt a change.

Cesare should have, too, but he could be foolish about this sort of thing. Lucrezia expected better of herself. Ursula would have seen a passionate lover depart and an indifferent one return. Lucrezia remembered his startled displeasure at Saint Cecilia's, Ursula's shock; plainly, that had been their reunion. He hadn't sought her out, spoken to her, seen her at all. Lucrezia, it seemed, had wiped all thought of Ursula Bonadeo from his mind.

Despite everything, she smiled.

Ursula said, “In Pesaro, did the cardinal seem … distracted?” At Lucrezia's startled glance, she added, “He left so much behind in Rome: the rest of your family, and the Curia, and—and all his friends. But perhaps he formed new friendships while he was away.”

Lucrezia's quick apprehension could not fail to grasp so obvious an implication. Not only had Ursula noticed his disinterest, she suspected that he had found a new love in Pesaro. It would be easiest, wouldn't it, to let her believe that? It was near enough to the truth to explain everything, far enough that she would not guess what had actually occurred. So easy; and yet, looking at Ursula's anxious, unhappy face, she hesitated.

“Why, Ursula Bonadeo,” she said, “I believe you are asking me to betray my brother!”

Ursula's eyes went wide. “Oh, no! I did not mean—I would not—”

“I like you a great deal, but not that much.” She grinned. “I pray that you will forgive me!”

“I beg your pardon,” mumbled Ursula.

“I was only teasing you. Cesare and I always snoop on each other and carry tales, though we should regard anything said in confidence as sacred as confession.”

“Of course,” Ursula said, still uncertain. “Anyone can see how fond you are of one another. It's charming.”

“Thank you. I do love Cesare dearly, though I never see as much of him as I would like,” Lucrezia said in her most purely sororal tones. Her smile widened. “I am sure you could say the same—being such an intimate friend of his.”

Ursula blushed. “I … I do not know what he may have told you about our friendship.”

“Oh, everything,” Lucrezia said. “Cesare always tells me everything. We are very close.”

Rather taken aback, Ursula said, “Then you know that I am—”

She was the woman he had almost taken as a lover in place of his sister, then discarded and forgotten. Whatever she suspected, it could not be as devastating as the truth.

“That you are his mistress? Yes.”

“Oh no!” Ursula cried. “I am not—I have not—”

Lucrezia lifted her eyebrows, and Ursula's colour deepened further.

“I have not wholly betrayed my husband and my vows,” she said. “It is true that I allowed the cardinal certain … liberties, which I should not have done. It is a great sin, I know.”

“I am sure it is not so great as that,” said Lucrezia.

Ursula, looking anguished, said, “I permitted him a kiss.”

“A kiss?” Lucrezia took another bite of marzipan. “How shocking!”

She thought back to the first time Cesare had kissed her as a man and not a brother—she'd cajoled him into it, of course, and could not understand why he apologized afterwards. She felt not the slightest remorse even when she did understand, clinging to the memory as a spot of light. Nor did she regret kissing him awake by the pond, or slipping into his bedchamber and provoking him until he kissed her with greater ferocity than anyone had done before or since. The next day she gave herself to him gladly and freely; and the day after that, when they rode out again, she kissed him before he could even set her on the ground, arms about his neck and feet dangling in the air. Lucrezia had laughed out loud, they both had, even as his arms shifted to brace her weight against his body and her fingers ran through his hair. She'd felt a clear and brilliant happiness that morning, undimmed by shame, by any uncertainty or anxiety at all. Then they'd unlaced each other's garments with eager hands, and been happier still.

A great sin, she supposed; greater than Ursula, tormenting herself over a kiss, could imagine. And she must not imagine it. In an instant, Lucrezia made up her mind.

“I hope you do not blame my brother for neglecting you,” she said earnestly.

Ursula's eyes widened. “Blame him? No, of course not.”

“You can believe me that he is the best of men”—Lucrezia gave a self-conscious little laugh—“though I am his sister!”

“I do not doubt it,” said Ursula, smiling.

“He does not mean to be inattentive, truly, it is only the Church and the wedding and our cousin being so ill—” Genuine tears sprang to her eyes and Lucrezia blinked them away. “I will tell you a secret about him, if you promise not to repeat it.”

Ursula's usual intensity gained a touch of curiosity. “I would not betray a confidence.”

“I knew you would not.” Lucrezia reached over to squeeze her hand. “Well, Cesare is the cleverest of all of us, as anyone with eyes can see, but he cannot keep two thoughts in his head. No, it is quite true! Even when we were children, he would forget everything else when we played together, but when he was studying the law, he might as well have been in China. To this day, I must snap my fingers in his face to get his attention.”

“Are you suggesting I snap my fingers at a cardinal, Lucrezia Borgia?” Ursula said, looking amused.

“No-o,” said Lucrezia, “he would not care for that at all.” Not from Ursula, at least. “But you can trust that when he was with you, he had no thought of anything else.”

Ursula's gaze settled on her, pale and shrewd. “And when he is not?”

“Cesare is an affectionate brother, and a loyal son, and a warm lover,” Lucrezia said, “but above all else, he is a Borgia. Family always comes first with us. I can promise that the good of the family, the safety and honour and advantage of the family, take up the greatest share of his thoughts. That is what occupies him when he leaves your side.” She hesitated. “And no, I do not believe he thinks of you then. Nor any other woman outside the family. You needn't fear rivals.”

Ursula laughed under her breath. “It sounds as if you are my rival, Lucrezia—you and your family.”

Lucrezia giggled with her, though her heart raced so fast that Ursula's features swam before her eyes. “Oh, nonsense! It is only that we are foreigners here and have only ever trusted each other. There can be no contest.” Willing her hands steady, she thought that it was not quite a lie. There could be no contest between Ursula and the Borgias.

“Perhaps,” Ursula said, her voice slow and thoughtful, “if your family—forgive me. It is not my place.”

“No, no. We are friends. You need not guard your tongue with me.”

Ursula hesitated. “Well, I know little of these things, but perhaps if your family granted your trust to others, and … and were not quite so foreign, it would be easier for you.”

Lucrezia stared at her in sincere surprise. Recovering herself, she said, “You cannot be much older than Cesare, so I suppose you do not remember.”

“I am sorry, I do not quite follow …?”

“You would not remember what happened when my father's uncle died,” said Lucrezia. “I don't remember it myself, but Cesare does, a little, and our mother and cousins, and many of the servants. Our great-uncle, Pope Calixtus, passed on not long after I was born.”

Frowning, Ursula said, “He was an old man, was he not?”

“Oh, yes. He was old and he died; and then my father's brother died, and our nurse when she went to the market, and Spanish merchants, and any Spaniard unwise enough to leave their houses, or whose houses were burnt down. My father helped elect the new Pope and had his favour, so he was secure enough, and able to send us safely back to Spain, but—” Lucrezia shrugged. “It was not the sort of thing that encourages trust, even for those of us who do not remember it.”

“The nurse?” said Ursula, as if she could grasp nothing else.

“Yes. She was murdered in plain sight, in the street.”

“A woman? Did nobody see? Surely—if they had—”

“A Catalan woman,” Lucrezia said coolly. “They did not care. It will all happen again when my father dies. We are already filthy Spaniards, or Jewish dogs, or faithless Catalans, as the occasion fits. It does not matter what we do. What your husband called my mother, at my wedding, I have heard since I was a little girl—of myself, my cousins, as well as Mother.”

Ursula looked stricken. “I am so sorry.”

“Oh! I do not blame you in the slightest. I am the last person to dream of holding you responsible for what others have done, only because you are Roman.” Lucrezia's laugh positively tinkled. “I only wished you to understand—to understand us, understand my brother. I would not have you feel slighted that he does not confide in you very much or seems standoffish at times; he cannot help being slow to trust, and presently very distracted by family matters.” Most of Lucrezia's falsehoods had some truth to them, as always; now she added recklessly, “You will find him different after the wedding. And someday, I am certain, he will trust you as he does me.”

Ursula first smiled with relief; then frowned; then turned her head away, as if she did not know what to feel.

“Perhaps,” she said, voice thick, “it would be better if he did not. He is a cardinal and I am married. He should not—we cannot be—”

Lucrezia laughed again, much more heartily. “What nonsense! I think of you as next thing to a sister already.” Taking a deep breath, she said, “But let us talk of something besides brothers and lovers and husbands. Are you certain you do not want a candied almond?”

Ursula, on further consideration, decided she did want one, and they talked for another hour of charitable endeavours and horse-riding and the lye Lucrezia used on her hair.

“Without that, it would be about the colour of yours,” said she, flirting with danger. “Would you like the recipe?”

Ursula seemed tempted, but she shook her head; her husband would not allow it. His death, Lucrezia thought, would be a blessing to everyone. She contented herself, true to her intention, with turning the conversation away from him. However, her ingenuity was nearly exhausted by the time Ursula left; for all her sympathy, she really had little in common with this solemn, sternly pious young woman. She promised to call on her at her villa as soon as she could manage it, all the while thinking, as soon as Isabel could manage it. She did not intend another tête-à-tête.


Thankfully, Ursula left just in time to miss Cesare's return from the Apostolic Palace; after the fact, Lucrezia realized she likely had hoped to see him. Well, it was for the best.

Cesare had already changed out of his robes when he walked in, his stride easier and more graceful than she ever saw it in the Vatican. A tightness about the eyes and mouth, however, betrayed him; Lucrezia, more irritated than not a few moments before, felt her annoyance fade into concern.

“What have you been doing to yourself?” she chided.

They kissed, very decorously under the eyes of the servants, and she sent for wine.

“I am sure you can imagine.” He threw himself into the chair beside her, though not before snatching up a marzipan bull. Lucrezia laughed.

“I almost ate that one, but I thought it might be unlucky to devour the symbol of our house.”

Cesare, munching on one of the horns, glanced at the reminder of the bull. He shrugged and bit off the head. “I didn't see you in the Vatican. What have you been doing? besides avoiding your favourite sweetmeats?”

She ran her tongue over her teeth. “Not quite avoiding.”

Predictably, his eyes dropped to her mouth, but of course nothing could happen here. Even had he considered it, at that moment a servant arrived with the wine, and frustration crept over Cesare's face. She retained just enough of a grudge to enjoy that.

“I spent an exemplary morning, I will have you know,” she said loftily. “Isabel and I went to see Jeronima. Last time, you remember, she was too feverish to really talk, but she seemed better today.”

Her brother's attention snapped back to the conversation. “Thank God.”

“She even walked around a little.” She didn't realize her fingers had twisted together until Cesare reached over to separate them. “I still have not seen her husband. He must be there sometimes, must he not? It is his home, after all.”

“The Cesarini are wealthy. He may prefer another, inside the city.”

Lucrezia scowled. “Well, he should be there. It is his doing, after all. I think I hate him.”

“You will find no disagreement from me,” said Cesare. He took a sip of wine. “Except that I do not merely think it.”

That soothed her frayed temper. Their opinions rarely differed. Although their mother used to say that disagreement was only natural—yes, Lucrezia, between brothers and sisters, too—it felt wholly unnatural to them, something troubling and wrong. As children, encountering an intolerable divergence of thought, they would argue it out until they fell back into harmony. Juan sullenly insisted that she always took Cesare's side, and later on that she had no mind of her own, or some nonsense, but the truth was that both of them preferred the comfort and familiarity of accord. In any matter but the most urgent, she was not sure she would even know how to argue with him.

“Let me see. Then I set about making myself comfortable here, but a visitor interrupted me,” she said, fortifying herself with a sweet almond. “An acquaintance of yours, brother.”

“Oh?”

“Ursula Bonadeo.”

Cesare stared at her. “Ursula? What did she want with you?”

“She came to further our friendship, and of course to pry information out of me.” She repressed a giggle. “You have been very inattentive.”

“Ah,” said Cesare, brows knitting together. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Ursula noticed the … alteration in your behaviour,” Lucrezia said. Despite the very real danger, her vacillating mood settled on mirth. She grinned, more than a little smug. “Indeed, she could hardly fail to notice.”

Cesare laughed outright. “I should have thought of that,” he admitted.

“As should I,” said Lucrezia.

They glanced at each other, conscious of the servants passing in and out of the room.

“I told her that you had been preoccupied with family concerns, and would be so until Jofrè’s wedding.” She cleared her throat. “I also told her that she should not doubt your affection, but family affections come first with you--with all of us.”

“They do, indeed.” His fingers closed about hers. “So I remain devoted to her, do I?”

“Yes,” she said firmly. “Your neglect gave her some silly idea that you had found a new lover in Pesaro.”

Cesare’s hand tightened.

“I could not bear to see her torment herself over that, so I explained about the wedding, and Jeronima, and our family. I think I consoled her; I hope so.”

“As do I,” he said, voice and eyes grave. “I cannot myself--”

Footsteps passed by the door: servants again. Cesare exhaled through his teeth.

“I understand. I am less likely to betray you than you are to betray yourself,” said Lucrezia. “It is better this way.”

He leaned over to kiss her cheek. “I am in your debt, sis.”

“So you are. I must think of a way for you to repay me.” Her eyes danced. “You can start by giving me half of the bull.”

Cesare looked down at it in some dismay. “You’ve already eaten all the rest of the marzipan.”

“It was a very disagreeable conversation, brother,” she said. “And marzipan is my favourite.”

Grumbling, he broke off the legs and handed them to her. She chewed slowly, relishing the sweet almond flavour and Cesare’s eyes on her. She knew he wanted her still, and the sheer impossibility of it, here and now, only made the knowledge more intoxicating than usual. So did Ursula, of course; Lucrezia could not help but feel pleased that she seemed to have driven his would-be mistress out of his thoughts all over again. That pleasure lurched into desire when his tongue darted out to sweep sugary crumbs off his lip. They stared at each other, cheeks flushed.

She had looked at him thus many times before, and nobody had noticed. Nevertheless, she forced herself to glance away.

“Did you spend the whole day with Father?” she asked, pleased at the serenity of her voice.

“No,” Cesare said, just as steady. “Bernardo invited me to eat with him. He said he wanted to know me better.”

She relaxed. “Oh, Bernardo. What did you talk about?”

“You.” He smiled at her surprise. “Not by name. He believes me to be in love with Jeronima.”

“Jeronima!” It was so ridiculous that she scarcely knew whether to laugh or cry. “He will not believe it once he sees her. Will he see her?”

Cesare, looking grim, said, “Yes. I can only hope he puts himself to the trouble before she dies.”

Lucrezia flinched. It was one thing to know, another to hear it put so--baldly, as if Jeronima had died already, and her continued existence were a mere formality, a funeral yet to be arranged. “She has improved, of late.”

“Then perhaps he has time.”

A knock came at the door. Lucrezia almost welcomed it, now; a servant entered with a note for Cesare, then withdrew. As he read through it, frowning, she caught just a glimpse of the handwriting.

“Another lady?” she said, more tartly than she intended.

Cesare flicked her cheek. “Yes, and all your fault, dear sis.”

“Mine!”

He rose to his feet and passed the letter to her. Puzzled, she glanced down at the signature: Giulia Farnese. She simply reminded Cardinal Borgia of his agreement to meet with her, which she was sure Lady Lucrezia remembered if he did not, and hoped he would reply immediately with the particulars of when she could expect him at Montegiordano.

“How …”

“Presumptuous?” said Cesare, with a cold laugh.

Clever, she thought. Very clever.

“Deft,” she said. “When will you see her?”

He shrugged. “Sooner or later.”

“Like Bernardo will Jeronima?”

Her brother looked at her sharply. “Giulia Farnese is not dying, as far as I know.”

“Jeronima would not let us tell anyone. Bernardo does not know”--she tapped the note--“just as you do not know what Giulia wishes to tell you. You might as well hear what she has to say.”

“I will,” he said.

“Soon?” At his long-suffering expression, Lucrezia folded her hands in her lap. “I truly wish it.”

Cesare sighed.

“It must be a matter of great importance, for her to go to so much trouble,” she said. He hesitated, so she added, “And she is a connection of the Gaetani. Who knows what she may have heard?”

“You cannot persuade me that your motives are entirely practical, my love,” said Cesare.

Lucrezia lifted her chin. “Well, what if they are not? I love Giulia, and I love you more. If forced to choose, I would always choose you, Cesare, you know that. Yet I hope I need never make that choice. I hate to see such enmity between you.”

“I do not choose to come running when she summons me,” he said. “That is hardly enmity.”

“You delay your own advantage out of spite. That is.” Lucrezia gazed at him earnestly. “Mother herself would scold you for it.”

He laughed under his breath; this time, she noted with relief, there was nothing chilly about it.

“The reasons I gave are true enough. It is only practical,” she pressed. “And it would make me happy.”

Cesare glanced at the note, then back at her. His mouth twitched. “I may be able to spare the time tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” In that moment as much sister as lover, she sprang out of her chair and flung herself at him, pressing kisses over his face in total disregard for what anyone might think of it. It was nothing she had not done countless times before. Cesare laughed, as usual. “You really shall go see her?”

“I would carve a man’s heart out for your sake.” He smiled down at her. “I suppose I can tolerate Giulia Farnese for an hour.”

Chapter Text

“The doublet, your Eminence?”

Cesare hesitated, then shook his head. “No. My robes.”

He ignored the startled looks from his servants, faithful Spaniards well-acquainted with his habits. The cassock he buttoned up to his throat, collar tight and high, until it nigh suffocated him. His mozzetta settled over his shoulders like pauldrons, the golden chain of his cross around his neck. Cesare adjusted the cross and fastened it to his breast, then frowned down at his mirror, at once reassured and disgusted. The figure in the glass looked a very proper priest, a man of God armoured for the battles within the Vatican. Not much like him, of course, but that could not be helped. He would be cardinal today.

Why endure such a burden, and reap none of the benefits? No. This little authority was the weapon he had been given, so this was the weapon he would wield. If Giulia Farnese wished for a confrontation, she could face the Cardinal of Valencia.

He strode into the Palazzo Montegiordano as soon as the Pope could spare him, curious despite himself.

“Lady Giulia,” he said. “You had a matter of Vatican business to discuss with me?”

Giulia, alone in a spare but bright apartment, rose with a smile and walked over to him, few obstacles in her path. Cardinal Orsini’s treasures had, at least, gone to enrich the Pope’s coffers rather than his mistress.

“Ah! I hoped you would come, but did not dare expect it,” said Giulia, her hand outstretched. Cesare had not come for niceties and almost said so, but she did not offer the hand. “Cardinal Borgia.”

To his mingled horror and gratification, she knelt and kissed his ring. But where some women might have flung out lures, Giulia simply rose again, wincing.

“Forgive me. My knees are not what they once were,” she said, so brisk that one source of suspicion ebbed away. “Well, I must confess, your Eminence, that I asked you here under false pretenses.”

“I will attempt to contain my shock,” said Cesare. “What do you want?”

Giulia sighed and led him into the apartment, returning to her lounge and gesturing at one of the handful of chairs scattered near it. None of them looked comfortable.

“I prefer to stand.”

“Very well.” She lifted her eyes to him, as unreadable as his mother was transparent. “Please close the door. I reduced my staff for the day, but I would not have this conversation overheard.”

His curiosity piqued despite himself, Cesare complied. Before he could repeat his inquiry, however, Giulia said,

“Tell me, Cardinal, have I offended you in some way?”

Cesare had prepared himself for all manner of barefaced impudence. This, however, so surpassed his expectations that he could scarcely speak. Indeed he could scarcely credit that he had heard it at all.

“We both know the answer to that question,” he said frostily. “You are not witless. Do not insult my intelligence or your own by pretending otherwise.”

Giulia sighed. “I know that you dislike me. I do not know the reason.”

“Neither do I,” said Cesare.

She blinked at him.

His jaw set, he continued, “I do not know if it is because you are a noblewoman, or a Roman, or simply because you are my father’s mistress.”

“Ah,” she said, her air gently melancholy. “I feared as much.”

“I hope you will not now claim to be surprised.”

“Surprised?” She appeared to consider it. “No, I would not say that. Disappointed, perhaps. Yes. I could argue with you, of course, try and convince you of my worth and fidelity, but I see now that it would accomplish nothing.”

Cesare lifted a brow. “Oh?”

“To hear his Holiness speak, one might think you had emerged fully-formed from his head,” said Giulia. “But you did not. You have a mother. Your heart and your loyalties lie with her.” Without any change of expression or tone that he could detect, the melancholy deepened. “As they should.”

“Yes.” He disliked agreeing with her about anything, but even he could not contest that point. He honoured his mother as well as his father; he always had. It might be the only commandment he had ever taken to heart. “What did--” What did my father say about me? He could not lower himself to ask, all the more because Giulia plainly meant him to.

“Yes, Cardinal?” She spoke, as usual, in a mild, languorous voice entirely unlike his mother’s brisk one.

He scowled. “What did you intend to say to me? That alone? If so, I will take my leave now.”

Still unflustered, she said, “I pray you will not. That was a matter of curiosity. I asked you here because I have … I have certain concerns about one we both love.”

“My father?” Cesare shook his head. “You already admitted to that falsehood, Lady Giulia.”

“Your sister,” said Giulia.

His throat dried. Yet, strangely, he did not feel the numb panic he had with Bernardo, but the same anticipation that always quickened his blood before a swordfight, an awareness of imminent danger and triumph. He certainly did not feel any obligation to tell the truth as far as he could, as he had with his cousin. Cesare stood very straight, shoulders squared and eyes narrowed. She could try whatever she liked. If she threatened Lucrezia, she would not survive the day.

“What about her?” he said.

Giulia turned a little away, which he took as victory. For a moment she covered her mouth.

Pure theatrics.

“You know that Lucrezia confided in me certain details of her new friendship,” said Giulia delicately. “She confided in you, as well.”

“I was in Pesaro. I could hardly fail to notice.”

Giulia dropped her hand, but only to clench it at her side as she walked up and down the length of the room. “Pesaro! This mysterious lover she tells me she left there … the whole entanglement worries me. She is young and reckless, and her husband is a dangerous man. If he discovers it--if anyone discovers it--”

“I certainly will not be the one to break her confidence,” Cesare said.

“Nor I. That is not required for discovery! If his Holiness had fewer preoccupations--her servants must know--”

“Only one,” he replied.

Giulia gazed at him, eyes thoughtful. “The lady’s maid, then. Is she trustworthy?”

“As much as any Italian, when it comes to Spaniards,” he said.

He had the small satisfaction of seeing a twitch mar her jaw.

“You have bought this girl's silence?”

“She knows where her interests lie.” Giulia frowned, plainly still perturbed. Cesare relented far enough to add, “Regardless, she does not know the identity of Lucrezia’s lover, so there is little she can reveal.”

She began pacing again. “You are certain?”

“Quite.”

“Thank God. Yet that is only one danger. I guessed the truth after one glance at her. A single mistake … and Lucrezia is in a strange humour. I cannot guess what she will do.”

He imagined not.

“No. I do not believe--” Giulia turned on her heel, facing him with her jaw set. “Let me speak plainly.”

In his most gracious tones, he said, “You may.”

Giulia’s mouth tightened. “I can believe that Lord Sforza drove Lucrezia to find solace in another. I can believe it all too easily! But I do not believe that a girl like Lucrezia would be in such high spirits during her first separation from her lover.” She pressed her smooth, pale hands against her skirts. Cesare could not help suspecting her concern might be genuine. He flattered himself that her annoyance certainly was.

“Perhaps you do not know her as well as you believed.”

“And perhaps her lover followed her to Rome.”

Cesare’s pulse, already quick, gave an unpleasant jolt. He held himself still, but something must have showed on his face. Giulia gave a nod of satisfaction.

“I thought so. I have watched her. She is not always so cheerful. Only when she returns from her time with you, Cardinal.”

He regarded her with cool distaste. “So this is your idea of plain speaking, Lady Giulia. What do you imply? I tire of your insinuations.”

“And I tire of your folly,” Giulia said crisply. “You needn’t glower at me. Affection may have led you to indulge this infatuation of hers in Pesaro, but here? Rome? How could you be so foolish? The Pope would be furious with both of you if he discovered the truth. And, heaven forfend, if Juan does--Lady Sancia--surely you comprehend what a disaster this might create!”

In that first terrible moment, he thought the breath had been knocked right out of him. In the next, he felt something horribly near to relief. Yet even as he stared at her, dumbfounded, something tugged at his mind.

“Of course I understand,” he said. It might create a disaster? Ha! Mere outrage would be the least they might fear from their father. How peculiarly optimistic. How peculiarly … unperturbed. She did not even seem very much surprised. Cesare’s mind raced. “Nevertheless, I will not deny Lucrezia what little happiness she can grasp.”

“And what happiness will she enjoy once she hears the filthy names the Roman gossips will fling at her? I know how they are.”

“I imagine you do.”

Giulia flinched. But she said calmly enough, “I would not have Lucrezia’s reputation smeared in that way. I am called the Bride of Christ.”

“A gentle way of putting it. My mother was the Spanish whore.”

“I am sorry,” said Giulia, face softening.

“They say the same of Lucrezia.”

She looked more shocked at that than anything else.

“What names can they cast that they have not already?”

“You are not witless, either,” Giulia said. “You cannot believe that. Whatever may be said now, it will be infinitely worse if real scandal touches her. You must see this. Can you not understand that I speak out of love for her? For her sake, cease this--this lunacy! I do not doubt your affection, but it is sorely misplaced in this instance.”

“That may be, or may not.” Gambling on a suspicion and a hope, he said, “Whatever the case, I told you I would not betray her.”

Now Giulia glowered, face flushed. “Keeping her secrets is a far cry from abetting her dalliances! and under the noses of all Rome!”

Cesare managed not to look too reassured, all the while feeling as if his bones had turned to water. “One dalliance. The situation is difficult enough without exaggerating it.”

Her flash of indignation faded as quickly as it had arrived. She sighed, shoulders slumping. “You will do nothing?”

Though almost giddy with relief, he realized that she might make trouble yet.

“I can do nothing,” he said, “except speak to Lucrezia. You are right, at least, about the need for greater discretion.”

Cesare could hear the catch of her breath. Her face broke into a brilliant smile, and for a moment he thought he could almost see what had charmed his father and sister. He frowned.

“She may see reason, or she may not. If you understood me better, Lady Giulia, you would know that I never make promises I cannot fulfill.”

“I hope to,” Giulia said solemnly. Before he could step away or snap out a cold reply, she continued, “We cannot escape each other, you know.”

That much he knew to be true. He waited.

“I am not your mother.” Her mouth curved. “I do not wish to be your mother. I know you are beyond the age where you might be guided or influenced by a woman such as I. That task I gladly leave to Lady Vanozza--who has my utmost respect for it, I might add.”

Cesare almost smiled.

“Nevertheless, you and I are both of us bound into this family. I am Lucrezia’s friend, and honoured to be the Holy Father’s consort. You are his son, his firstborn and most highly regarded child.”

He started. “I beg your pardon?”

Giulia looked him straight in the eye. “Lucrezia he loves, but sold for an alliance. It is the same with Jofrè. Juan plays at soldier. You are the one he places at his right hand.”

“That is because I am the eldest, not--”

She was already shaking her head. “It is because he sees himself in you. He sees too much of himself, perhaps. You are not the Pope.”

“Thank God,” he muttered.

Giulia laughed. “Still, do not think he fails to recognize your gifts. Trust one who has his ear. He sets you on the path that his own uncle set him, because he knows what you are, because he believes that you can accomplish what he himself has done. It would be the same were you the second, third, fourth child. That is why he requires you at his side.”

Cesare’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you telling me this?”

“So that you understand why we should not be rivals,” Giulia said. “The Pope respects our judgment above anyone else's, depends upon us above anyone else. His other children will leave, sooner or later, to Spain and Romagna and Naples; you and I shall remain. We can serve him better if we are not at odds. And we have enemies enough outside this family without fighting amongst ourselves.”

Still suspicious, he said, “Perhaps. What are you suggesting? Friendship?”

“No.” Her infuriating calm had settled once more over her face, into her smile. “A truce, let us say: a cessation of hostilities, and the possibility of cooperation when it comes to the interests we share.”

“My father and sister.”

Giulia nodded.

Two months ago, he would have immediately and scornfully refused--perhaps even two weeks ago. Now, however, he juggled so many dangers that he could not resist a moment’s consideration. Giulia, shrewd behind her lady’s graces, with sway over his father and influential connections, could be a dangerous enemy if she chose to make herself one. As an ally, or something like it--at least until Lucrezia escaped her eye--

He thought of his mother again. Already she had lost her lover, her daughter, to this woman’s machinations. He could not betray her. But would it not go worse for her if Giulia discovered the truth? If he could hold her at bay--

“Do not answer now,” said Giulia. “Think on it for a few days, if you will. And, forgive me, but I know the Lady Vanozza must be uppermost in your mind. You might seek her opinion.”

Cesare, though he often sought his mother’s advice, had not intended that. He never spoke of Giulia to her. He was loath to do so now, all the more when he could not tell her most of the reasons weighing with him. Yet perhaps she should know.

His thoughts leapt to Lucrezia. He could still see her before him, yesterday, faint melancholy shadowing her face. I hate to see such enmity between you, she had said, and urging him to see Giulia today: it would make me happy. Indeed, her joy at his acquiescence had surprised even him. It pained her, this rift; he pained her.

Cesare sighed. “I will consider it. And now, if you can excuse me, I have business elsewhere.” With a quick jerk of his head, he turned to go. He was already halfway to the door when she spoke again.

“Cesare.”

Exhaling, he lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “Is there something else?”

“If I were you, I would take care to attend all meals and family gatherings with your father.”

He turned to stare at her. “What do you mean?”

“Your brother Juan,” she said, “doubts that your affection for Lucrezia can fully account for your recent absence. He does not suspect Lucrezia herself; he believes you must have found a lover in Pesaro. He would have the Holy Father believe it, as well.”

“What, between convincing him of my clerical conduct?”

“That was last week.” Giulia’s usual solemn look turned somber. “Juan is no longer Juan alone.”

Sancia. 

Cesare pressed his lips together. “I see.”

“I promised Lucrezia, you understand, that I would not inform his Holiness of her attachment, but I told the truth as far as I could.”

Without warning, a fog of weariness settled over him. Only sheer determination kept it off his face. “And what truth is that?”

“Why,” said Giulia, “that I believe there is nothing you would not do for her, and anyone should be able to see as much. That considered, a short detour in Pesaro with no real consequences is a very small thing.” She paused. “His Holiness, if I may say so, pays more credence to my opinions than Juan’s. Still, for Lucrezia’s sake, you would do well to remain in his good graces.”

He very nearly thanked her. Pride and loyalty froze the words in his throat, but he knew what she had told him, and why. Information and intercession alike were favours, the sort of favours he could expect if he accepted her offer--and not only for himself.

Cesare gave her a slight bow. “Good evening, Giulia.”


In the shadowed light of her candles, Lucrezia looked spectral or angelic: he could not decide which. A creature beyond mortal reach, whichever it was.

Her shout of laughter shattered the illusion. “Giulia thinks I brought a lover from Pesaro?”

“Your Venetian poet clearly had no idea what awaited him when he met you in the woods,” said Cesare.

She crossed the room to climb onto her bed, where he already lay sprawled out. “I think he must have followed me here. Poets are not known for their good sense.”

“Not this one, it seems. The two of you have been very indiscreet. For shame, Lucrezia.”

She giggled again, stretching against his side. Here she was entirely human, real. Cesare blew her hair away from his face.

“And Juan thinks you left one there,” she said.

Cesare sobered. “Or Sancia does.”

Lucrezia wrinkled her nose.

“A better suspicion than the alternative.”

“I suppose. Ursula fears that you have, but I think I persuaded her that she still holds your heart. Isabel believes that, too. Jeronima?”

“Knows I am not celibate,” said Cesare, “which our father apparently does not. Mother will still suspect Ursula, I believe.”

She held up her hand, ticking names off her fingers. “Papa, Mama, Giulia, Ursula, Isabel, Jeronima, Sancia and Juan … oh, Bernardo! He thinks it is Jeronima, poor man. And Micheletto knows the truth.”

They turned their heads to look at each other. Unable to help themselves, they grinned.

“This is terrible,” said Lucrezia.

“We might as well juggle with fire,” Cesare agreed.

She persevered. “I have invented more lies since we came to Rome than I think I did in all my life before.”

“Ah, there I fear we must disagree. You underestimate yourself! The last year, perhaps.”

Lucrezia jabbed him in the ribs.

“Agh! Peace, sister, peace.” He rubbed his side. “For my part, I have talked so much and so quickly that I tire of speech altogether.”

“And I.”

They lay in comfortable silence for a few moments. Then Lucrezia reached up to brush his hair away from his face, her gaze sobering.

“You are not too tired, I hope,” she murmured.

He kissed her.

Chapter Text

After Cesare left to hear Giulia, Lucrezia summoned Micheletto.

“My lady,” he said, a strange haggard fixture amidst the splendour of the palazzo. Though too impenetrably enigmatic to look surprised--to look anything--bemusement all but wafted off him.

“I wish to go riding. You must accompany me,” she announced.

“I?” said Micheletto.

“Yes, unless my brother has commissioned some urgent task.” Taking pity on him, she said, “He attends on the lady Giulia at the moment. And my other brothers are so tiresome! They talk of nothing but Sancia d’Aragona. I shall go see my mother and have some proper conversation.”

He bowed to her. She did not believe for an instant that she had fooled him. Micheletto was no Ursula, nor even a Giulia or Alexander.

Accompanied by him, Lucrezia rode out of the city, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face. She would freckle, but she did not mind it so much now. All the while, she chattered at her brother’s faithful henchman, secure in the knowledge that anyone who might threaten her would die in the attempt. Micheletto scarcely responded, but she did not expect him to.

Only after they had passed out of anyone’s hearing, into the forest, did she permit any change in her manner. She called for a halt and dismounted, with his help.

“Micheletto,” she said, “I am sure you realize that I led you here for a reason.”

“Yes,” said he.

“I must ask you a question, one I dare not mention before my brother.”

He simply stared at her, eyes almost inhumanly bright.

“Is he truly a more capable swordsman than the baron Bonadeo?”

She might have imagined it, but she thought she caught a hint of relief. “Yes.”

“He would win in a fight? Any fight?” she pressed.

“Almost certainly,” said Micheletto, without emotion.

Lucrezia studied the leaves underfoot, touched by glints of orange and red and gold. The brightest snapped and crinkled underfoot. “Almost. I dislike that word.”

“There is little certainty in these matters.”

That she knew well enough, from his mock duels with Cesare as well as her romances. A stone, a moment’s distraction, a careless mistake--anything could change everything. “And if the baron were to get the better of Cesare?”

Micheletto gazed at her for a moment. “I would kill him, my lady.”

Satisfied, she nodded. “Then we have nothing to fear.”

“From the baron? Yes, nothing,” said Micheletto.

She understood him perfectly well. Setting that aside, Lucrezia took a deep, steadying breath. “And Cesare will see that he renounces his insult, or pays for it.”

Micheletto inclined his head.

She glanced over her mare’s back at him. “He insulted me as well as Cesare. It was my wedding. She is my mother, too, and she came for my sake. I want to see her avenged with my own eyes, but I--” She shook her head. “It would be too dangerous. I cannot wield a weapon, and I have no Micheletto.”

Though she was not sure she would put much past Francesca.

Micheletto’s empty look gained a certain shrewdness. “You wish to take part?”

Lucrezia nodded. “I wish … well, it does no good to dwell on the impossible. But I would have Cesare think of me when he defends our mother. I shall present him with a gift, a very particular gift, which you must procure for me, Micheletto.” She bestowed one of her sunniest smiles on him. “I know that I can depend upon your judgment in this matter.”

“My lady,” he said blankly.


Lucrezia’s days had settled into a regular, easy pattern. She broke each night’s fast with her father, brothers, and Giulia; she received guests, most often Ursula Bonadeo; she avoided Sancia and attended on her mother; she visited Jeronima, bedridden again but in good colour. What time she could spare from all this she spent with Cesare, whenever possible, walking in the gardens and whispering all the gossip she had heard--she called it gossip. Cesare called it information.

She rather liked that. Even more she liked his close attention to everything she said, without any pretense to indifference. For her part, she listened avidly to his accounts of his own long hours in the Vatican. She did not find it half so dull as he did himself.

Of course, she spent her nights with Cesare, too. Often they talked as they sprawled together in her bed; often they did not talk very much at all.

Day or night, she felt happier than she had been in a long time. Happier, she sometimes thought, even than the girl she had been before her marriage. No sorrow tainted her contentment then, but nothing pushed it into joy, either. What could a sheltered child know of either?

Certainly Jofrè could not, she thought with some uneasiness. Through the weeks of preparation for the wedding, he remained as innocent and placid as ever, still dependent on Cesare’s advice in games, still eager to play dolls with Lucrezia. He had no place in their family’s games of power and marriage, no place in marriage at all.

“I am afraid for him,” she admitted to Cesare one night, reclining wide-awake in the bed--his, this time. She hadn’t bothered to wait for him. Now he rested quietly against her thighs, relaxed but not dozing.

He would have replied immediately, once, consoled her with some soothing nothing. Instead he lay silent for a moment, then shifted to look up at her.

“Jofrè is not a woman,” he said at last. “He cannot be misused as you were, whatever Naples might intend.”

“You believe they do intend something? Some mischief?”

Cesare sat up and turned himself around to face her, folding his legs. “When does Naples not intend mischief?”

Despite herself, she laughed. “I suppose Sancia is no Lord Sforza.”

“And our father insists that they remain here in Rome,” he said. “He has not quite thrown Jofrè to the wolves.”

Unlike me, Lucrezia thought, but did not say. By his expression, Cesare’s mind had followed the same path.

“For now. But they will go to Naples sooner or later, will they not?”

He reached for her hand, grip tight and fingers cold. “Yes.”

He was afraid, too. Not for themselves, very much--but sweet, gentle, oblivious Jofrè in such a place? She could scarcely imagine it. But she could not have imagined her marriage, either.

“At least he has time,” she murmured, unsure if she meant to comfort herself or him. Another thought dashed into her mind. “Is the marriage to be consummated?”

“Yes,” Cesare said, voice tight.

“Is he even--” Surely they had long passed the point at which the subject could embarrass them. Yet they both looked down uncomfortably, staring at their clasped hands, cheeks flushed. Lucrezia straightened and forced herself to finish the question. “Is he even capable?”

“Yes. I believe so. I hope so, for his sake.”

“For his?”

“He shall not always be a child. Someday he will not wish to be known as the impotent Borgia. And if he proves incapable on his wedding night, it shall never be forgotten.”

Lucrezia flinched. She had not considered that. “I wish he had gone into the Church, not you!” she cried out. “Then he would be safe.”

Something wry, not quite a smile, touched Cesare’s mouth. “The Church is hardly safe.”

“I have not heard that Cardinal della Rovere has the stuffed bodies of his enemies set around the dining table, or a pond full of flesh-eating eels,” she said.

He did smile, then. “I will grant him that much.”

“And he would be free from this … this farce of marriage.” But a clutch in her belly, and the dance of candlelight over his face, reminded her of just who would have been sold to Naples had Jofrè been spared. They would not be here now if Cesare were not a prince of the Church. “Does he know what is … expected?”

He looked grim. “I--Father meant to allot that particular task to Juan. I spoke to him instead.”

“Did he understand?” she pressed.

“No,” said Cesare, then corrected, “Not wholly. We can only hope he understood enough, and that Sancia can manage the rest. At any rate, she knows what she is about.”

“Oh, yes,” Lucrezia said, suppressing a sneer, but not quite able to eradicate all malice from her voice. Sancia’s knowledge must indeed be vast. Perhaps more than Cesare’s, though she knew better than to say so.

He grinned at her. She could not help but smile back.

“Leave the future to itself, my love,” he told her. “For now, I daresay very little will change for Jofrè at all.”

She nodded, and still uncertain, moved close enough to crawl into his arms and lay her head on his shoulder. She could feel his breath stirring her hair, the living warmth of his body against hers and all around her, one hand holding her close and the other stroking her back. His touch soothed her as much as his words. Lucrezia sighed.

“I fear for Jofrè,” she said softly, “and for Jeronima, and for y--you and I. But I am happy. I have never been so happy.” She lifted her head to kiss him, comforted even more by the brush of their mouths, but seeking no more. Cesare did not deepen the kiss, either, just sighed into her mouth. When she drew back, he said nothing, but looked at her as if she had given him the sun. As if she were the sun.

Lucrezia laid back against him, head tucked under his chin. She would suffer anything, she thought, as long as this remained at the end of it.

Cesare pressed his lips against her hair. “Nor I.”

For several peaceful minutes they stayed like that, wrapped around each other, the thin material of his shirt and her shift no barrier at all. Fiercely, Lucrezia refused to dread the separation that drew nearer with each day. She would have time enough for that when it came. Tonight, she would prefer any thought to that.

“If the Neapolitans do ill by Jofrè, I shall do ill by them,” she announced. “I will put arsenic in Sancia’s wine.”

She could feel his laughter under her ear.

“Cantarella, dear sis, not arsenic,” said Cesare. “The taste would give you away.”

She committed that bit of information to memory. “Oh, of course! How could I be so silly?”

“Perhaps not poison at all,” he said, more seriously. “But if they harm him, they will die.”

Lucrezia burrowed deeper into his arms, content.


Despite the weeks of anxious preparations, despite Lucrezia’s own anxieties, the day of the wedding came unexpectedly. She had thought of it as a distant event, regrettable and inevitable, but no part of the eternal now of her daily life. But only a few days later, as they all broke their fasts with the Pope, Giulia said to Cesare,

“Shall you officiate tomorrow, Cardinal?”

“No,” he replied, brusque but no worse. “Ascanio Sforza has that honour.”

“Ah, the Vice-Chancellor, of course.”

Lucrezia smiled, delighted at their cessation of hostilities. She knew Cesare had consulted with their mother, and though Lucrezia had not herself been present, she could guess from his air of guarded civility in place of the open antagonism he used to direct at Giulia. It was exactly what she had hoped, and privately she honoured Vanozza for what must have been a painful decision. She could not imagine what she would do in such a situation; she could not even imagine being in it.

The conversation moved on. Only then did she realize what had actually been said. Tomorrow. The wedding was tomorrow! She had known the date, of course, but she had not thought--

Somebody said her name. She glanced up.

“I am,” Cesare was saying.

“Lord Sforza was in no state to travel,” said Alexander. “Naturally, we considered her eldest brother the most appropriate person to take his place. You will remain with Lucrezia until the celebrations begin in earnest, Cesare. It would not do to leave her exposed to any impertinence.”

“Of course.”

One part of Lucrezia’s mind exulted that, whatever their father believed, he clearly did not guess at the truth. The other part, however, recoiled. Tomorrow, she would watch as Jofrè became a married man--of twelve. Even her own marriage seemed less obscene. Jofrè had not a hint of a beard and still spoke in a high boyish voice. She’d at least had her courses first.

Cesare’s face revealed nothing, but he pressed her hand under the table. Lucrezia, smile unwavering, clung to him.


 

The next day dawned clear and lovely, unconcerned with the travesty playing out beneath its sunny skies. Lucrezia woke up early and glowered out of her window until Francesca came to ready her for the wedding.

They had planned her attire with care. She shared the Pope’s concern that, absent Lord Sforza, she might not be properly honoured as contessa among the nobility of Rome; indeed, it had occurred to her long before, though the churchmen knew better than to affront the Pope’s daughter. Beyond that, she hated the thought that Sancia might outshine her, even today. Francesca entirely shared her feelings, thanks to a bitter rivalry with Sancia’s Neapolitan maid. Accordingly Lucrezia stepped into a beautiful new gown of green satin, threaded with gold; Sancia’s silver would be nothing to it. She waited patiently while Francesca tied on her sleeves in neat bows, pushed the Sforza emeralds onto her fingers and fastened an emerald and gold cross around her neck, tucked her hair--oiled and brushed into submission--inside a green, pearl-studded hairnet.

Lucrezia regarded her reflection with pleasure. She looked very well indeed, and not so young as usual. Although it often suited her purposes to seem a child, she did not truly care for it, least of all beside beautiful women of the world. There was something older and harder in her face today. And they’d soaked her darkening hair until it gleamed like sunshine. The reflected Lucrezia smiled back at her, pretty, elegant, assured.

Francesca brushed a few stray strands of hair off her dress.

“Lady Sancia won’t hold a candle to you, my lady,” she said, in tones of the utmost satisfaction.

Lucrezia smiled.

She smiled even more when Cesare, deep in conversation with Micheletto, glanced up as she walked down the stairs. His eyes widened; he pressed his lips tightly together.

“Lucrezia,” he managed.

“How dashing you look, brother!” she said brightly, and directed her smile at Micheletto. “Does he not?”

Micheletto opened his mouth, then shut it again.

Cesare just shook his head. “Do not torment him for my sake. As long as you are not embarrassed to be seen with me--”

She tossed her head. “Have I ever?”

“No,” he said, holding out his arm and smiling down at her. “Well, you had better keep your distance from Lady Sancia. It is her wedding-day.”

Neither of them mentioned Jofrè. Not now. But they had resolved together to keep their spirits high. Still talking and laughing together, they swept out of the palazzo in perfect good cheer, and determinedly kept it up all the rest of the day. And indeed it was very long. The processions, and parades, and epithalamia, seemed to go on forever; the sun beat down on them; Sancia cast smouldering looks at Juan and flirted with every man in her vicinity, except Jofrè himself--though she amused him and spoke to him kindly. Lucrezia, good-humoured by nature, was hard-pressed to remain so through the hours of the celebrations.

By the time they withdrew into the cathedral, they gladly sank into their appointed chairs. Neither, to their very great relief, had a part in the final procession--they’d suggested that Vanozza and Giulia take their places, instead. Giulia and I long to see the family at peace, Lucrezia said, striking where she knew her father to be weakest; Cesare added, it would mean a great deal to my mother. And the Aragonese were not such hypocrites as to raise a fuss when Sancia’s own mother had been a dancer. Alexander had given way without protest.

Lucrezia watched through narrowed eyes as Sancia knelt, resplendent in silver and pearls.

“She is too beautiful,” she said under her breath. “I hate her.”

Cesare murmured, “If you hate beauty, dear sis, then you must hate yourself.”

She looked at him, not quite able to repress a smile. “Must I love her, then?”

“No.” Cardinal Sforza was talking to Sancia, asking her to take Jofrè--more childlike than ever in his finery--as her husband. Cesare watched for a moment, then said, “What you see has perished, consider perished.”

The phrase tugged at her memory. “There was a poem, wasn’t there?”

“Yes,” he said. “Catullus.”

Lucrezia knew Catullus. She said softly, “Soles occidere et redire possunt: nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux, nox est perpetua una dormienda.”

This wedding meant the end of more than Jofrè’s childhood.

Chapter Text

“Go, go,” said Jeronima. She waved a fretful hand at her sister. “I would not have you sicken for my sake;—you look dreadful. You need sunshine and fresh air. Ride to the monastery again, or some such thing.”

Lucrezia and Isabel exchanged worried glances over the bed. Jeronima, though clear-eyed and lucid, had not eaten or risen today. Without fever, her face was pale and hollow-cheeked. Her hair, shorn about her shoulders, hung dry and brittle despite their best efforts. The doctor had ordered all her golden locks cut off a fortnight ago; she’d seemed better afterwards, more energetic, but Cesare—and therefore Lucrezia—doubted that such a measure could help for long. Jeronima herself had wept bitterly.

The child, at least, prospered. Yet none of them could rejoice in the slight distension of her belly, starving the body around it. What was another Cesarini infant to the life of his Borgia mother?

“Perhaps tomorrow,” Isabel said.

Earnestly, Lucrezia added, “Dear cousin, anyone with eyes must see that you are in pain today. We shall not leave you to suffer it alone. Not unless you wish solitude.”

She'd seen Gianandrea Cesarini all of twice since her return to Rome, once arriving as she left the villa, once stopping on his way downstairs to pat Jeronima’s hand and hope she would feel better soon. Isabel and Lucrezia had stared murder at his back. But that was a week ago now. The villa had fallen quiet once more, but for the shuffling of servants.

“I can send for Father Bonaventura,” said Jeronima. “Indeed I shall. It comforts me to have a man of God nearby—not that you do not! But I must confess.”

Lucrezia’s heart wrenched. “You confessed this morning. What more—”

A light patter of feet approached the door: a maidservant, and then a man’s heavier step.

“The Cardinal—if my lady Girolama can receive him—”

“Never mind that,” said Cesare, stalking past to kiss Jeronima’s forehead.

“Speak of the devil,” Isabel murmured, but she looked near as relieved as Lucrezia. Jeronima clung to his hand.

“I must confess,” she insisted. “And you must have some respite from this, the two of you.”

They still hesitated.

Cesare, somberly clerical in his black cassock, met Lucrezia’s eyes. “I will stay with her. You have my word.”

After a few more protestations, she and Isabel withdrew, closing the door on Jeronima’s feeble Father, bless me. They walked through the villa in companionable silence, then outside. Isabel winced as the sun struck their eyes; she’d scarcely left Jeronima’s side since early that morning.

“Do you have a destination in mind?” Isabel said indifferently.

Lucrezia smoothed down her skirts, mind a tumult. “I promised Ursula Bonadeo that I would visit her at home, but I really cannot bear her company alone. She is very … worthy, it is—”

A smile just touched Isabel’s mouth. “Who could have imagined that Cesare’s mistress would prove so tediously virtuous?”

Lucrezia had given up correcting her. Despite all their worries, she giggled. “Not I!”

“Very well,” said Isabel. “We might as well pass an hour or two keeping your word while Jeronima unburdens her soul.”

“Thank you,” Lucrezia said, tone fervent. She called out for Micheletto, certain he must be lurking nearby, and when he emerged behind them, ordered him to accompany them. “I do not expect the baron to be there at this hour, but I should not like to encounter him alone,” she told Isabel. Her gaze flickered to Micheletto. “I cannot imagine my brother would like it, either.”

He silently helped her onto her horse. With the taller and more athletic Isabel already in the saddle, he mounted his own and rode after them.

Lucrezia and Isabel found Ursula alone but for a handful of servants, near as blank-faced as Micheletto himself. Though dismissed quickly, she had no doubt but that they listened to every word which passed.

“My dear Lucrezia,” Ursula said warmly, kissing her cheeks. She pressed Isabel’s hands. “Lady Isabella.”

Isabel had not invited her to call her anything else. She replied in a pleasant enough voice, “Baronessa. I hope you are well?”

“Oh! yes,” said Ursula, but she glanced away. Unusually, her face was powdered, and she held herself with a certain stiffness that Lucrezia recognized. Guilt twisted inside her.

Ursula ushered them into chairs, talking idly of the weather and the convent and the health of their relations.

Isabel said, “We have just come from my sister.”

“Is Lady Girolama any better? I pray daily for her health.” In anybody else, it might have been exaggeration. Not Ursula.

“It is difficult to say. She suffers,” said Lucrezia. “But we thank you.” She took pity on her. “Cesare is with her now, but we cannot stay long.”

“Of course.” Ursula had placed all three of them out of direct sunlight, her own face shadowed. She sat very still, a contained intensity about her. With a restless flutter of her hands, she said, “I imagine his presence comforts her.”

“Let us hope so,” Isabel said. “He is her confessor.”

Ursula flinched. At first, Lucrezia could not think why that should trouble of her—of everything Cesare had done or considered, hearing Jeronima’s confessions must be the most purely good. It took her a moment to realize that Ursula likely did not care to be reminded of Cesare’s calling. She would regard it as a serious impediment, perhaps as serious as her marriage; no doubt she cared more about his vows than he did himself.

Well, she could hardly care less.

“I am sure it does,” Lucrezia said.

“It must be a relief to her,” said Ursula hastily, “to have such an affectionate family about: both of you, and Cardinal Borgia, and his Holiness, and all the rest.”

Lucrezia instantly thought of Bernardo. Looking at her cousin’s compressed lips, she felt certain Isabel had, too. But perhaps it was true enough. If Jeronima had not all the family she ought, she retained at least some who would never abandon her.

“Yes. And it is a lovely day, too,” she said, wrenching the subject with little tact but great determination. “For all our cares, we enjoyed the ride here. The air is so clear, and I love to feel the sun on my face.”

Ursula picked up the hint. “So do I, though I cannot often enjoy it. My h—my skin freckles terribly.”

“So does mine,” Lucrezia said, laughing, “but it does not trouble me very much any more.” In lighter moods, Cesare would press his mouth to each small blemish over her cheeks or shoulder. Even in graver humour, he liked them.

“Now that you are married? That is very sensible of you.” Ursula sighed. “I confess, I have not yet been able to purge vanity from my soul altogether.”

Lucrezia blinked. From childhood, she would run to her brother with each new gown, twirling around and demanding do I look well?  She still did. And he still replied, You are beautiful. You know that.

“Oh, I can be vain enough,” she said. Her hair lay coiled in its net, but tonight she would unwind it and admire the waves loose about her shoulders, while Francesca combed oils through to keep them soft and tame. Still later, Cesare would stroke his fingers through it and over it, catch the weight of it in his hands, shiver when a curl brushed over his face or shoulders. And love aside, she enjoyed seeing her hair in the glass, long and thick and shining gold around her pretty face. “But not over my skin.”

“In Valencia,” said Isabel, real fondness in her voice, “she and Cesare would spend hours outside, without a cap or hat, and run about like wild things until they burned.”

“You, Lucrezia?” Ursula said, startled.

“Yes, I confess it. I was a very naughty child. How cruel of you, cousin, to betray me!”

Ursula laughed. “You and Cardinal Borgia have always been close, then?”

“Yes,” said Lucrezia. “Always.”

Isabel, glancing about the spare room, managed a smile. “He used to scold her nurse for not attending to her fast enough. On the Santa Catalina, when my uncle sent us back to Spain, nearly everyone else turned seasick, Lady Vanozza and the nurse worst of all. Cesare would hold Lucrezia for hours.”

“Why, nobody ever told me that,” Lucrezia said indignantly. “Not even Cesare.”

“He was only four years old. I doubt he remembers.”

“How charming,” said Ursula. “I cannot imagine the cardinal as a boy, somehow.”

Isabel’s eyebrows rose. “He is a boy still, as far as I am concerned. But then, I am much older than my cousins.”

“You are not thirty, surely?”

“Eight and twenty,” Isabel said. Ursula frowned. “Fourteen years older than Lucrezia, here, and she is not even the youngest.”

Ursula, with a determined air, turned to Lucrezia. “You grow up quickly in your family. So you will be fifteen soon?”

A little confused by all this, Lucrezia said, “I am not sure I would call it soon. Our birthdays are in April—Cesare’s and mine.”

“Oh, I see. The difference is nearly exact, then.” Ursula’s brow knit together. “Cardinal Borgia is … you said four years older, Lady Isabella?”

“Yes, eighteen,” said Lucrezia, glancing from one to the other. Isabel’s face seemed suspiciously neutral. Tiring of a maneuver in which she had no part, she added, “Much younger than your husband, I think?”

Ursula sighed. “Yes. My lord has been an experienced condottiere for many years now.”

“I had heard that,” she replied. “Will he fight in any more battles? Surely he must tire of them.”

“Someday, perhaps. I cannot say.” Ursula looked at the door, her meaning clear.

Isabel flicked a speck of dust off her riding skirts. “Men of that kind never tire of war. Is that not so, Lady Ursula?”

“I fear it is. But I do not know.” Ursula lowered her voice. “He tells me as little as any husband could, in truth. Why, he leaves for Velletri tomorrow, and I know not why, nor what his business may be, nor what day he means to return.”

And she would not be permitted to step out of doors, Lucrezia knew, for as long as he chose to absent himself. Even Sforza had not tyrannized over her so far. It would be a mercy, to free her of him. Yet even as she smiled sympathetically and clasped Ursula’s hand, the guilt clenching in her belly deepened. It was not for Ursula’s sake that she had waited and planned for this moment. Ursula believed them her friends, in whom she might confide so small a detail without thought.

What had Giulia said, all those weeks ago? That malice and deception did not belong to men alone? Often women exploit each other. Do not make yourself vulnerable to such.

She need not have feared, Lucrezia thought, and felt sick.

They heard the pounding of hooves, loud male voices. Ursula sprang up and rushed to the window, hand flying to her mouth.

“My husband!” she said, dread in every line of her body.

Lucrezia’s conscience wavered. It would be for the best, surely?

“Perhaps we should leave,” said she. Lucrezia did not fear this great condottiere—not in Rome, with the protection of her father’s love, and Micheletto hovering somewhere near. But no doubt Bonadeo would be disagreeable, and Ursula herself might suffer.

“No, no. There is no need.” Ursula returned to her seat and determinedly chatted until booted footsteps stamped towards the door, heavier than Cesare’s had been. They could make out a man’s voice, the words not quite distinguishable until the door opened. Lucrezia glanced quickly at her cousin. Isabel, who could be very superior when she wished it, looked haughty.

“Yes, yes. Wife!”

Lord Bonadeo strode in, as large and clumsy and repulsive as she remembered from the wedding. She let herself remember, hugged to herself the insults to her mother and her brother, things that no man of honour would say of any bride’s relations, be they Malatesta or Manfredi.

The moment his eyes fell on Lucrezia, the baron transformed. She could think of no other word for it. In one moment, he swaggered and sneered; in the next, his features twisted into something she would have sooner expected to see on a mask at Carnaval than a human face. The whole set of his body stiffened into hulking menace, wilder and somehow colder than Cesare's stifled rages.

“You,” he spat.

Lucrezia lifted her chin.

“Husband,” Ursula said, hurried and strained, “you must remember Lucrezia, the Pope’s daughter, and the Count of Pesaro’s wife.”

He only glowered. “That marrano bastard sniffs around my wife, then sends the little whore.”

Though expecting no better, Lucrezia still caught her breath. She felt as if she’d been slapped in the face. By a mailed hand.

Isabel rose with magnificent contempt. “Lucrezia,” she said icily, “who is this … person?”

“The husband of my friend,” said Lucrezia. The unspoken regrettably ran under her voice.

Bonadeo looked Isabel up and down. “Hm. What is this one?”

“A—a relation—”

“I am Lady Isabella Matuzzi,” Isabel said, unflinching. “I beg your pardon, Lady Ursula, but the air does not suit me. Pray excuse us. Lucrezia, come.”

They swept out together. Once outside, Lucrezia looked up at her cousin, and burst out,

“I want to be like you when I am grown.”

“You are grown,” said Isabel, “if not done growing. None of us are. But thank you, it is a lovely thing to say.”

“How do you—” The insult of it all still choked her. “How do you hear such things, and dismiss them?”

Isabel called for their horses. “Surely you have heard them before.”

“Not alone.—Without Cesare, I mean.” Lucrezia bit her lip. “Nobody calls him a whore.”

“No,” Isabel agreed. “A priest may lie with whores, but he cannot become one. In your brother’s presence, you may look to him for protection. But even the most devoted brother cannot always be with you. Sooner or later, you learn to face such insults and hold yourself above them.” She smiled, just a little, at Lucrezia’s dismayed expression. “At your age, I was new to Rome and could scarcely lift up my eyes. It will come with time. Only do not forget that we are women of intelligence and spirit, you and I, and Borgia women too.”

Lucrezia nodded with the solemn attention she usually reserved for Mass. “Who explained this to you?”

“Your mother,” said Isabel. “She told me that I would be reviled here, as a Spanish woman—a Catalan woman—for the rest of my life. And she told me to remember that we are Spaniards, and we have pride of our own. What is a Roman thug playing at soldier to us? To you, daughter of Christ’s vicar on Earth?”

“Nothing,” Lucrezia said, more because she thought it to be true than that she felt it. Her mouth firmed. “Nothing at all. I am Lucrezia Borgia.”

“Lucrezia! Lucrezia!”

Startled, they both turned around. Ursula, heedless of the eyes of the servants--Micheletto had led the horses over--came running out, fine skirts bunched in her hands. She staggered as she reached them; Isabel had to brace her by the shoulders.

“I could not—” Ursula took several deep, ragged breaths. “I could not let you leave without begging your pardon. I am sorry, more than I can say.”

“I do not blame you in the slightest,” said Lucrezia, with perfect sincerity.

“No … yes … you must pardon it.” Ursula’s hand grasped her arm, so tight that Lucrezia could scarcely feel her hand. “Forgive me. I have no right to demand anything of you after so grave an insult. But you must not speak of it! If anyone were to hear—”

Cesare.

“You refer to my brother,” Lucrezia said slowly. Isabel waited, silent and guarded—leaving this to her, she thought.

“If he fights my husband—no, he cannot! Surely you understand what would result? I convinced him to forget the insult to your mother, but with you, Lucrezia, it would be a different matter. We all know it would! For his sake, I pray you, pardon this insult.”

Ursula, she thought, did not know Cesare at all.

Not without sympathy for her terror, Lucrezia said at last, “I know my brother’s temper. I would never say anything that might put him in harm’s way.”

Ursula almost sagged with relief. “Thank you, thank you. I hope I shall see you again, in better circumstances. Perhaps after my husband leaves for Velletri.”

Almost without thought, Lucrezia’s mouth curved into a sweet smile. “I am certain you shall.”

“Thank you,” Ursula said again.

“Forgive me, Lady Ursula,” said Isabel, “but we really must leave you now. My sister is waiting for us.”

“Oh! yes, of course. Forgive me.” She kissed their cheeks, then retreated to the door, while Micheletto—whose presence, and indeed identity, Ursula had not seemed to note—assisted Lucrezia and Isabel onto their horses. Once safely out of earshot, Lucrezia said,

“Now that I think of it, what in heavens’ name was all that talk of age? Why should she care how old I am, or you, or Cesare? It changes nothing.”

Isabel, steady and assured on the saddle, looked amused. “How old do you think her?”

“Why, I have never much thought of it. Twenty? Perhaps a little more.”

“I suspect five and twenty would be nearer the mark,” she said. “Old enough to feel uneasy about a liaison with a boy of eighteen.”

“A man of eighteen,” insisted Lucrezia.

“Yes, but I did not choose for her to know that.”

Lucrezia gave an incredulous laugh. “She knows it very well, I am sure.”

“Are you?” Isabel glanced back, in the direction of the villa. “You saw that it troubled her.”

“Well, yes.” Curious, Lucrezia looked over at her. “Why should you wish to trouble her, though?”

“They are not well-suited,” said Isabel calmly. “The episode we just witnessed makes it abundantly clear, does it not?”

“Yes,” Lucrezia admitted.

“I think we both realize that her understanding of his character is … imperfect, at best. If Cesare thinks her anything but a pious, high-strung lady of moderate good looks, his is no better.”

Cesare had thought her Lucrezia, as near as he could manage—or at least felt it. Considering the matter, she decided that was near as great a misjudgment as Ursula’s. About to reply, thundering hooves from a short distance ahead caught her attention. She peered ahead.

“Is that not Cesarini livery?”

Isabel drew a sharp breath.

“Micheletto,” Lucrezia ordered, “stop him.”

He had galloped ahead almost before she finished speaking, halting the horseman in his tracks. She could just see the latter reach into his saddlebags and pass a note to Micheletto, then wipe his forehead.

Micheletto wheeled around, returning to them while the other horseman waited.

“From the Cardinal,” he said, and passed the note to Isabel. Lucrezia had already recognized the hand as Cesare’s.

Trying not to feel offended that he had written to Isabel rather than her, she paused to think why. The horrible realization flooded her mind just as Isabel’s eyes went wide, her face bloodless. She crumpled the note.

“It’s Jeronima,” she said, and kicked her heels into the horse’s side. “Hurry!”

Chapter Text

“Find Gianandrea Cesarini. Bring him to us if you have to drag him by his hair,” Lucrezia told Micheletto. “And send word to the family.” Forgetting her uncertain horsemanship, she galloped after Isabel.

Her bones felt nearly liquid by the time she reached the villa, just in time to see Isabel rush inside. Drawing on some hidden reserves, however, she paused only a moment to lean on her mare. They found the servants somber or anxious, and no sign of Cesarini.

She heard Jeronima before she saw her—great rasping, sucking breaths, more wet than dry, as if she were drowning on air. Lucrezia nearly staggered behind Isabel, frozen in the doorway, who then rushed to her sister’s side.

Lucrezia inhaled, composing herself, then walked over to stand at Jeronima’s other side, beside Cesare. He had Jeronima’s thin hand clasped between his own, a cloth—damp—draped over one wrist. Silently, she took the cloth from him and dipped it into a nearby bowl of cool water, wringing it out and holding it against Jeronima’s face. Though hot to the touch, her skin was very pale, like bone, and her lips tinged with blue.

“Is—Isa—”

“I am here, little sister,” Isabel said, holding Jeronima’s left hand to her cheek. “I am here. I am here.”

Jeronima took another hoarse gulp of air. “Sis … sister.”

“You needn’t speak. We understand,” said Isabel, her voice as soothing as Jeronima’s had once been, when they were children and frightened.

Lucrezia dampened the cloth again. She couldn’t think of what else to do. Cesare seemed scarcely to know, either; they looked at each other, helpless, he stroking Jeronima’s hand and Lucrezia, her forehead. For several minutes they heard nothing but Isabel’s murmured assurances and Jeronima struggling for air.

Jeronima herself stirred.

“Where?” Her eyes moved constantly, bloodshot and unfocused. “Where—Ces—ar—i—”

“I am with you, cousin, as well,” Cesare said quickly. “I absolved you, remember. And gave you the Viaticum. Your soul is clean.”

A thin breath whistled out. “Y...es. Hea...ven?”

He paused. Lucrezia, glancing over her shoulder, saw her brother as anxious and uncertain as a child, as she felt herself. But Isabel did not hesitate.

“Soon,” she promised. “All your pain will be taken from you, and your virtue rewarded eternally. We will pray without ceasing for your soul’s release—his Holiness, too.”

Cesare’s mouth firmed.

“You shall have rest when you wish it,” said he, “and joy when you did not. You shall see your father at peace and your mother, and Grandmother Isabel, and her brother freed from his cares. Angels will deliver your other children from Purgatory.”

Jeronima blinked, slowly, as if took more strength than walking would have, yesterday. “Cer-tain?”

“Yes,” Cesare said, in a tone of the most perfect conviction.

Her eyes closed. Though her breath still shivered in and out, and pain contorted her face, she seemed a little less tormented. But Cesare and Isabel looked like death themselves.

In the distance, something crashed. Lucrezia hastily whispered that she would see what had happened, feeling an utter coward. Before she could, however, heavy booted footsteps thumped towards the room. The third time that day: but they could not hope for luck.

Isabel stiffened. Encouragingly, she said, “That will be—”

The door was flung open; a man staggered through. But it was not Gianandrea Cesarini.

“She lives?” gasped Bernardo.

All but Jeronima stared. His own gaze, however, fixed on the woman in the bed. He took a few more unsteady steps forward, then turned his eyes to Isabel in silent desperation.

“Yes,” she said at last. Leaning towards their sister, she raised her voice. “Jeronima, can you look? Someone else has come to see you.”

By the time Jeronima managed to lift her heavy lids, Bernardo stood at her bedside, next to Isabel.

“Br...brother?” She could not smile when she struggled for each breath, but nobody doubted that she would have, were it possible.

Bernardo laid his hand over Isabel’s and Jeronima’s. “I am with you, sister.” Glancing up, he added, “We all are.”

Not Cesarini, Lucrezia thought. Perhaps it had been lucky after all, Bernardo coming through the door instead. What comfort might Cesarini offer? A husband who troubled himself less than a resentful half-brother who lived in a different country and had not seen her for years.

“Like—” Jeronima coughed.

“Yes, just like we used to be,” said Isabel. “Here we are, you and I”—she spared a brief glance for her brother—“and Bernardo, and Cèsar and Lucrècia too, as if we were boys and girls together once more.”

“You shall be a girl again,” Cesare told Jeronima, now steady, “and free from suffering.”

She sighed in relief. At least, Lucrezia thought she did. It was difficult to tell, difficult to even know what might comfort her. She felt useless, neither sibling nor priest; she had never imagined this moment, never imagined that she would be present for it. And yet—

I am a Borgia. My place is here.

“just like when we sailed back to Valencia,” Isabel added, "but better, a hundred times better, a thousand. You remember the Santa Catalina?”

Jeronima croaked, “T—Ti—”

“Yes,” said Bernardo, “Aunt Juana was there.”

“She became so dreadfully seasick—you remember, Jeronima?” Isabel said, eyes bright. “Lady Vanozza and Juan, and Lucrezia’s nurse, they all did, but she was with child, as well.”

“Poor Mama,” said Lucrezia.

“I only had it a little,” Isabel continued evenly, “and you and Cesare not at all. You were so young yourself, but you tried to take Lady Vanozza’s place as well as you could. You comforted Cesare when the last of the shoreline disappeared—you were the one who realized he thought Uncle Rodrigo had died as well as Papa and Pope Calixtus. The rest of us felt certain he must be too young to properly understand anything that had happened, but you sat him down and explained, and watched over him and Lucrezia, and let him hold her when I said he was too small, he would drop her.”

Lucrezia glanced at her brother. He managed a very slight smile.

“I would never drop Lucrezia. You knew that, Jeronima, didn’t you?”

Jeronima mumbled something.

“I should have done more,” Isabel said, still in that unnaturally calm voice: talking for the sake of talking. “I have not your hand with children, sweetheart. When the nurse recovered, you stayed with her to help—and to keep Cesare from pestering her too much—and she told me you deserved sainthood.”

“I am sure you did,” added Lucrezia. She bent and kissed Jeronima’s hot cheek, then wrung out the cloth again.

“She would call you Mama Girolama. Cesare, of course, informed her that Lady Vanozza was his mother, you were his best cousin. Perhaps I should have been offended! But even then I could not disagree.”

“Nor I,” Bernardo said. “Aunt Tecla insisting on bringing me to the port of Valencia to welcome everyone. I was furious, but Jeronima, I saw you walk after Lady Vanozza, perfectly steady. All your hair was falling down, but you only attended to Cesare, encouraging him to come down with you. I remember thinking that it might have been easier to just pick him up—he could hardly walk in a straight line after weeks on a ship—but of course it would have injured his pride. And then and there, I couldn’t help but like you.”

“I remember that,” Cesare said suddenly. He looked directly at Jeronima. “I hadn’t been sick, but on the gangplank, I thought I might be. You told me that I was not ill, I had only become accustomed to the sea, and must accustom myself to land again. And you told me I was too strong and brave to fall, but if I did, you had my hand. So we walked down together and—and then we were smothered in jasmine?”

Jeronima made a louder wheezing sound that might have been a laugh.

“Aunt Tecla,” said Isabel. “Her favourite poet once compared her to jasmine.”

Bernardo forced himself to something like his usual lightness. “Poor March, he knew not what he wrought!”

“Her house did always smell of jasmine,” Lucrezia said, straining. “I remember that. Jeronima, you brought us all to visit her—or Mama did, but you shepherded us all together. Juan sulked about something, and he sulked more when Aunt Tecla pinched his cheek. And Cesare looked like he was being martyred. Bernardo and Joan did, too, until they left to do—something.”

“To race his favourite horse against Joan’s,” said Cesare. “Bernardo told me that Juan and I couldn’t come, we would only be in the way. And you scolded him, Jeronima. But when he fell off his horse—”

Bernardo laughed. “Isabel laughed at me. Not you, Jeronima. You fussed over me as if you were my mother.”

Lucrezia could not help looking over at Isabel, not sure what she would say. At a single glance, she knew she would say nothing at all. Isabel’s free hand was clenched into a fist and pressed against her mouth, her eyes squeezed shut. That did not stop tears from streaking down her face; she turned her head away.

Bernardo gave nothing away, but he must have seen. “At that age, the injury to my pride hurt more than the one to my leg, at first. I had to pretend I wished you away. But you refused to leave me, and the pain grew worse, until I could do nothing but cling to you like Cesare and Juan used to. I saw the bruises later, but you didn’t make a sound, except to call me brother, and tell me it would be over soon. You would not even hear my apology—and I did not often apologize for anything. Isn’t it so?”

Isabel just shook her head. Bernardo, a little hesitantly, laid his hand against her stiff back, just below the shoulder.

“Yes,” said Lucrezia and Cesare firmly.

Bernardo's voice softened. “I remember staring at your arm, thinking that I had not disliked you since I first saw you walk off the Santa Catalina, but now—now, I loved you as my sister.”

They talked on, back and forth, Bernardo reminiscing in his low, pleasant voice, aided by Cesare and Lucrezia’s dimmer memories. Soon Isabel recovered herself enough to speak again, relieving her younger cousins. They none of them mentioned Rome, or any part of Italy, anything good or bad that occurred after their father and uncle sent for them once more.

A new thought intruded. Lucrezia dropped the useless cloth in the bowl and tugged Cesare a short distance away. Both of them exhausted and pale, they pressed their hands together.

“What is it, sis?”

“The children,” whispered Lucrezia. “Should they not see her before—”

“Like this?” They both glanced at Jeronima, withered in her bed. With undoubted great effort, she had turned her head to the side, eyes fixed on her brother and sister, hovering close as they repainted the past. “She does not wish them to remember her this way.”

“Alessandra will not remember at any rate,” said Lucrezia. “If it would comfort her to have them near—”

“She has not the strength. Yet they will be frightened. You could go to them, Lucrezia, explain what has happened. What will happen.”

Stomach twisting, she turned her gaze back to Cesare. “Do they understand any of this?”

“I did, when our uncles died—enough to fear for our father, as well. God knows what Giulia and Aurelio must believe.”

She swallowed. “Yes, of course. I … perhaps I will be of more use with them.”

“She wishes nothing more than all of us here, in harmony. You have helped give her that.” He kissed her forehead. “It is a terrible burden to lay on you, I know.”

Lucrezia’s fingers curled into his robes. “It must be done. God help us all.”

She half-suspected he had sent her away to spare her, or—in that dreadful hour—even because she had really proven herself useless, but the task proved as terrible as he warned. Alessandra chattered uncomprehendingly. Her older brother Ippolito, Jeronima’s second son, seemed too young to understand much more. At four, he was just the age Cesare had been, but he’d always been lovably dim, and could only shrink back as Giulia screamed that Lucrezia must be lying, they were all lying, and Aurelio cried, voice high and helpless. Eventually Giulia subsided into tears, and Lucrezia could only hold them all, not even trying to console them—not now, not yet. She wiped away the boys’ tears, kissed Giulia’s dark hair.

As she left the nursery to return to Jeronima, she nearly walked straight into the latest arrivals. This time, she did not even consider Cesarini, though neither did she expect to see Juan, accompanied by a tall, hooded figure draped in rough wool. With a closer glance at the latter, she understood.

At last, tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Papa!

Her father shoved the hood off his head and held her tightly.

“Jeronima?” Juan said, sounding nervous. “Is she truly—”

“She cannot live much longer.” Lucrezia straightened, stepping out of the Pope’s embrace. “It would comfort her to have you with her, I think. Both of you.”

Juan gulped. Alexander only nodded, and they climbed the stairs together. Bernardo and Isabel’s mingling voices only just hitched at the sight of them. Jeronima stirred a little.

Alexander drew a harsh breath. He strode forward, drawing a chair beside Bernardo and Isabel. “My poor girl.”

Jeronima did not speak, her breath far quieter than it had been, but still laboured. Her eyes, however, fixed on the Pope.

“Ego te absolvo ab omnibus censuris, a peccatis,” he murmured, “in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” He sketched the sign of the Cross over her brow.

She closed her eyes again. For another quarter of an hour, they all talked to her, Alexander, Isabel, Bernardo, Cesare, Lucrezia, even Juan, who could not say much more than I am sorry, Jeronima, I really am, I always liked you best. But Jeronima did not open her eyes again. Nothing much changed except a slight curve to her lips as they all gathered around, the Pope praying over her and promising his protection to the children.

She smiled, still, as she fell asleep. In a few minutes, she was dead.

“Jeronima?” whispered her sister. “Jeronima? Jeronima!

Isabel—dignified, self-contained Isabel—flung herself over Jeronima’s body, sobs torn out of her throat like the howls of an injured beast. Lucrezia just stared numbly at her cousin’s corpse, shrunken before its time. Her face already reminded her of a skull.

She couldn’t bear to look, either at the wreckage of Jeronima or wailing Isabel. Lucrezia turned back to Cesare, burying her face in his shoulder.

Jeronima was gone, she thought. She would never return—never shake her head at Isabel and Bernardo’s quarrels, never fret over Cesarini, never laugh over gossip with Vanozza. She could never say goodbye to her children, slip off to a Vatican masquerade, anything. Her hair would never grow back.

At that trivial thought, Lucrezia burst into tears. No, Jeronima had not gone, wandered off on a whim. She was dead.

The rest of the room might as well have been in Purgatory. Lost in her own stunned grief, she could only hold onto her brother and weep, body shaking with the force of it. A long moment passed before she even realized that Cesare clung to her as much as she did him, his fingers digging into her back, all that tall upright figure shaking in her arms. He pressed his face into her hair, breath ragged; he was crying, too.

She could not even have said how long it was before she felt Cesare lift his head. Juan was shaking him, or trying.

“Cesare,” he hissed. “Cesare.”

Isabel’s outcry had risen near to screams. When Lucrezia forced herself to look, she saw her still huddled over Jeronima, arms wrapped about the limp body.

“Come away, child,” said Alexander sternly.

“Isabel! Isabel, for God’s sake--you know Jeronima would want--” Bernardo started to say, then broke off as she ignored them both. Instead, he wrestled her off the bed, Isabel fighting like a tigress all the way.

“Should we … do something?” Juan whispered.

Cesare and Lucrezia glanced at each other, uncertain. Juan was staring at their cousins; she surreptitiously wiped Cesare’s eyes, he running his thumbs over her damp face.

“No,” he said at last.

Bernardo had resolved the problem in true Bernardo fashion: he wrapped his arms so tightly about his sister that she could hardly move. Though she still struggled, with muffled sounds of grief and rage, slender Isabel could not prevail against the strength of Bernardo’s broad, sturdy frame.

“Cesarini will suffer for this,” said he, voice low. “Listen to me. He will pay.”

The fury seemed to drain out of her; she went near as limp as Jeronima. Bernardo loosened his grip to something very like an embrace, tears on his own cheeks.

Isabel took a shuddering breath. “And if he does not?”

“He shall. I promise you, sister.”

They’d fought bitterly for the length of the Lucrezia’s memory, with a malice as ready as Cesare’s companionship. It chilled her, brought up to depend on the sanctity of the family: a Borgia could always turn to another Borgia, if nobody else. Yet Bernardo and Isabel, brother and sister, allowed themselves to be divided by an estrangement as deep as it was unnatural. She’d never thought to see them reconciled in any degree.

Yet in that instant, she felt no surprise. They had both loved Jeronima. Everyone loved Jeronima, except Cesarini.

And Cesarini was not a Borgia. Bernardo and Isabel could sulk over their grudges for as many years as they liked; in extremity, they remained Borgias to their fingertips. Bernardo had proven that today. Or perhaps Jeronima had. But for her family, she would have died alone, in fear.

A different sort of chill crawled over her skin. Shivering, she reached her hand towards Cesare’s; without hesitation, his fingers laced through hers. The Pope had moved to embrace Bernardo and Isabel, gently ushering them away from the bed. Cesare’s other hand rested on Juan’s shoulder, solidarity doing the work of affection. Without a word, they three moved forward to join their father and cousins. They were all Borgias, every single one of them. In the end, they stood together.

Nothing, Lucrezia decided, mattered more than that.

Chapter Text

Without discussion or command, they drifted downstairs. Alexander kept one hand on Bernardo’s shoulder, the other on Isabel’s; Juan trailed after them; and Cesare and Lucrezia followed hand-in-hand. All of them shaken and subdued, the younger generation looked to the Pope.

Alexander’s eyes settled on Isabel, who moved like a weathervane in a stiff breeze. He turned to Bernardo.

“I need hardly remind you to stay near.”

“No, sir,” said Bernardo. “I will take my sister to Matuzzi.”

In the ordinary course of things, Isabel could not bear to be spoken of as if she were not present. Now she gazed at a nearby Turkish rug, looking as if she heard not a word. Lucrezia supposed she very probably had not.

The Pope said, “Good. Cesare, you must ar—”

They all turned at the arrival of a servant, who had barely managed to open the doors before Gianandrea Cesarini stumbled in. Lucrezia caught a glimpse of Micheletto—she thought she did. In another moment, she would have shaken her head and laughed at herself. She should have known he would not fail. In this one, she simply stood with her father and brothers and cousins, and fixed her gaze on Cesarini. They all did, even Isabel.

“I hope in the future you will send another servant for me, Cardinal,” said Cesarini. Damp, rumpled hair fell over his eyes, like a wayward child’s. “I quite dislike that one. Very strange, and rough too! He pulled me right out of my chair—dumped water over my head—my doublet is ruined, quite ruined. And from a servant! Really, he puts me in mind of some wild mongrel. Have you none more presentable?”

Bernardo and Isabel tilted their heads, curiosity touching their frozen regard. Lucrezia felt nearly as cold herself.

“Cesare did not send him. I did,” she said. “Your wife required you.”

Cesarini frowned. She had the decided impression that he’d never spared her a moment’s thought before.

“Girolama? She is not suffering much, I hope?”

“No,” said Isabel. “Not at all.”

A deaf man would have recognized the danger in her tone. Cesarini took a step back, finally observing all the gathered family.

“Your Holiness, forgive me, I did not see—” His brow furrowed at the sight of Bernardo. “I don’t believe we’ve met, but you look a Borgia. Are you a relation of my wife’s?”

“I was her elder brother,” said Bernardo. He paused. “Brother suffices. She had no others.”

“Had?” Cesarini’s eyes widened. Unsteady on his feet, he fumbled towards nothing in particular, hand landing on Cesare’s shoulder.

“Girolama cannot be—is she—”

Cesare shoved the hand off.

“Our niece has passed to her eternal reward,” said Alexander, blending dignity and disdain as only he could. “We spared time from pressing matters to comfort her in her last moments. Now, if you will excuse us, we must return to the Vatican.”

Cesarini blinked several times. “What? Oh—yes—of course.”

“Juan, Cesare, you will accompany us.”

“No!” It slipped out of Lucrezia's mouth before she could think. The fingers tangled with Cesare’s gave an involuntary squeeze, almost a spasm. She couldn’t keep herself from repeating, “No.”

Everyone but Cesare stared at her.

“I think I should remain with my sister, Holy Father,” he said quietly.

Alexander’s gaze flicked to Lucrezia, and gentled. “Ah, yes. You must rest, my dear. Cesare, take her to your palace.”

He nodded.

The Pope, as graceful in brown wool as the finest white satin, swept off.

“Your Holiness!” called Cesarini.

Alexander managed to exude impatience without so much as turning around. “Yes?”

“The child—?”

“Dead with his mother,” Isabel snapped out.

Silent, the Pope continued on his way. Juan, who shared his flair for contempt if nothing else, stalked after him, jostling Cesarini as he passed.

Bernardo said, “You must content yourself with the four already in existence.”

Lucrezia did not trust herself to say anything at all; Cesare’s lips were compressed into a thin line. Dimly, she realized that her hand ached. They’d laced their fingers together so tightly that their rings dug into each other’s skin. She had not even noticed until that moment.

She only gripped his hand harder.

“Speaking of the children,” Cesare said at last, “they have just lost one of their parents. Perhaps you might favour them with the company of the other?”

“Ah. Yes, perhaps … have they heard?”

“I told them,” said Lucrezia.

He gave an uncomfortable nod. “Thank you, um, Lady, um, Lucrezia. They took the news … well?”

All four cousins stared at him.

“Their mother is dead,” Bernardo told him.

Isabel flinched.

Mumbling something about Pierluigi, Cesarini fled—not in the direction of the nursery, but none of them had seriously expected that. Bernardo, Cesare, and Lucrezia all glanced at each other while Isabel stared at the floor once more, hands curled into fists.

“Isabel, come with me. I will see you home,” said Bernardo. He prodded her forward, but she did not move.

“I hate him,” she breathed. “I hate him.”

With a single exchanged look, Lucrezia and Cesare moved towards her, the former taking her hand, the latter clasping her shoulder.

“Of course you do,” replied Cesare soothingly.

She lifted her gaze to his, then to Lucrezia’s.

“And the other one. He called us—you—Lucrezia—shall we say it?”

Cesare frowned, concern settling more deeply over him. “Perhaps a medic—”

“No,” Lucrezia broke in, “we went to see Ursula Bonadeo. Her husband … happened upon us.”

“Bonadeo? Did he hurt you, either of you? No, I see that.” He searched Lucrezia’s eyes. “Yet he did something—said something? What was it?”

She lifted her chin. For a brief instant, Lucrezia doubted herself. Ursula—but Isabel’s ravaged face, the furious devotion in Cesare’s, settled her resolve. Ursula was nothing to them.

“He called you a marrano bastard, Cesare, and me a whore.”

“What?” Bernardo exclaimed. “This—whatever his name—he said that to your face? And Isabel’s? With Jeronima dying?”

Cesare said nothing. His face spoke for him.

“Yes,” said Isabel. “I hate them all.”

Lucrezia fixed her eyes on her brother. She possessed many weaknesses, and indulged most of them. But she did not sway from a path once she set herself upon it.

She said, “At least Rome shall not be troubled with him much longer. He goes to Velletri tomorrow.”

“You are certain?” said Cesare intently.

“Ursula told us of it.” She pressed Isabel’s fingers. “Cousin, you really must return home. Think of your husband. If Father spoke truly, and I am sure he did, Signor Matuzzi must have been run ragged at the Vatican today, and when he hears of Jeronima, he will fret himself into a terror over you. You know he will.”

Isabel's brows drew together. “Pietro.” 

Cesare, with a twitch of his jaw, set Bonadeo aside. “Yes, Isabel. Jeronima is beyond your care, but Matuzzi depends upon you, upon your strength. Surely you would not leave him to worry.”

“Yes—that is, no.” She squared her shoulders. “I would not. I must return home.”

“Your brother will accompany you.”

Isabel blinked several times, seeming scarcely to know who Bernardo was. “You may,” she told him finally.

With little more ado, the cousins left Cesarini to what passed for grief with him. Bernardo and Isabel rode off to the Matuzzi villa, while Micheletto appeared out of wherever he’d been hiding and helped Lucrezia onto her mare. The actual grooms kept a safe distance.

Cesare laid his palm against the mare’s neck. “You can ride? You seemed unsteady, earlier.”

Not such a hypocrite as to say she was well, she only replied, “I can.” He looked worse than she felt. “Did you know Isabel would—?”

He shook his head. “I am not surprised. She does not love by halves.”

“None of us do.” Her hands trembled on the reins. She would not cry again, Lucrezia promised herself. Not here, not yet. “In her place, I would have screamed for days.”

“Lucrezia—”

“Promise me that I will not have cause for it.” She reached down to his tired face. “Promise me you will not die.”

He caught her hand and kissed it. Then he laid it against the saddle, still caught between his.

“We are mortal, sis,” said Cesare. “We shall all of us die. But it will not be soon—I can swear that much to you.”

On the periphery of her vision, something stirred: Micheletto. Lucrezia nodded.

“And you, Lucrezia—” His fingers tightened. “You must guard your life as dearly as mine. If anything were to happen … I would not long survive you, do you understand?”

She stared down at him, chilled and warmed all at once. A sin, a terrible sin: but she had long doubted that she could be to him what he was to her.

“Yes,” Lucrezia said. She managed to smile, just. “I promise.”


The sun was setting among the hills by the time they reached the palace. Lucrezia felt weary enough—and Cesare, though too proud to lean on her, set one foot ahead of the other as if will alone drove him onwards. Before he could slump into one of the chairs still placed haphazardly around, she set her hands on his chest.

“Go to bed, Cesare.”

He shook his head. “You cannot think I will leave you. Not today.”

“It has been longer for you than for me,” she said. At his obdurate expression, she sighed. “I will go to sleep, myself—soon.”

With all the familiarity of fourteen years' companionship, Cesare narrowed his eyes.

“You have my word. But we both know that you need all your strength and all the rest you can find.” Lucrezia wheeled around. “Is that not so, Micheletto?”

His soft boots only just whispered against the floor as he emerged from a shadowed pillar. “Yes, my lady.”

“Now you turn against me, too?” Cesare said, but absent any real rancor. “Very well—but see that your mistress rests as well, Micheletto.”

He bowed.

Lucrezia, following Cesare to his apartments, helped him with his cassock. She kept the brush of her fingertips as light and sororal as possible. Yet a sudden jolt of desire ran hot through her. She felt it, felt peculiar. Death had come very near today. It would come again tomorrow, for Bonadeo or … for Bonadeo. She wished she could hold him as close as their separate bodies would allow, wrap herself around him until there was no separation left and the pleasure of it drove all else away.

“There,” she said softly, draping robe and shift over the nearest chair. She pulled his blankets over him, nearly to his ribs.

Cesare mumbled something.

“Go to sleep,” said Lucrezia, and bent down to kiss his forehead. In the space of a minute, his breaths turned slow and deep, lines smoothing out. His head fell to the side, cheek against his pillow. She smoothed down the ends of his hair, already starting to rebel into curls. Her heart beat a hard, painful pulse.

I love you, I love you.

For several minutes she stood there, hands cold and still, staring at him until she could scarcely bear it. Smoothing her skirts and hair, she hurried downstairs.

“Micheletto,” she said, “do you have it?”

“Yes, Lady Lucrezia.” From within his jacket, he extracted the gift she had commissioned, carefully wrapped in leather.

Unwrapping it, she examined the etchings. As ever, Micheletto had served them well. The shape of the laurel leaves, the elegant fall of a tunic, the light elegant shape—all looked exquisite. She returned it to the wrappings and held it tight.

“You will not take your eyes from him tomorrow,” said Lucrezia. To her horror, her voice trembled, high and weak. She could feel tears on her cheek; somehow, she had not yet shed them all. She pressed her first against her mouth.

“Yes,” Micheletto said. He cleared his throat, rough voice rougher. “I would sooner carve out my own heart than fail his Eminence.”

She drew an unsteady breath and nodded, another sob in her throat. Half-defiant, she said, “I will not shed a tear before him tomorrow. It would distract him, I know.—He must not see me cry.” Then she covered her face and wept in earnest. Even she could not have said if it came from grief or fear, or both.

Micheletto stood a short distance away, a silent yet oddly reassuring presence. After several minutes, he said,

“You should also sleep, my lady.”

Without a touch, he managed to usher her back upstairs. Francesca sprang up.

“Lady Lucrezia! Why, whatever—” She saw Micheletto in the doorway and scowled. “How dare you trouble my lady’s peace? The master will have your head for it, mark my words.”

Lucrezia could not help but smile. “It is not Micheletto’s doing. My cousin has died.”

He had already vanished. Francesca made sympathetic noises under her breath, washing Lucrezia’s face and stripping off her jewelry and outer gown. Lucrezia herself felt engulfed by sudden exhaustion. She dropped her gift on a nearby table and had closed her eyes almost before she crawled into bed.


He woke early, well before dawn. His mood had not changed from the previous day—nothing had, but for a mind now clear and alert, restless energy coursing through him. He dressed without sending for his man and slipped out of his private apartments.

For nearly an hour, he sat perched on a balustrade, staring down at the near blackness of the courtyard, listening to distant murmurs. Rome never fell silent. Even as a child he had noticed that.

Enough prevarication. He was a child no longer—a boy who could rely upon conviction in the marriage of justice and nature. They could not expect justice from a world that showed itself, daily, to be anything but. If that made him a heretic, then a heretic he was.

Vengeance would not achieve itself. And he would have it today, for himself, his family: and most of all, for his sister. Once more he thought through the plan while the morning’s twilight encroached, servants beginning to move about the house as the sky faded to a deep, dark blue. He did not require any assistance—not really. But there would be a certain comfort in having it. He felt nearly certain that he would.

At dawn, a servant brought him the expected note from his sister. A request for his presence: or rather, a command. He smiled and left to meet her.

“It took you long enough,” she said crossly, though accepting his kisses on each cheek.

“I would avoid some suspicion,” he said. She looked composed today, stern and fierce, but he could see that she had been crying again.

She straightened. “Then you did mean it.”

“I did,” said Bernardo.

Chapter Text

Micheletto, per his orders, woke Cesare early. The latter felt a remote flicker of amusement as he dressed, Micheletto’s eyes politely averted.

It passed. He had very little to be amused about for the present. Perhaps later.

“My sword,” he said under his breath. Then he glanced around. “Where is my dagger?”

Micheletto hesitated. Cesare, startled and displeased, stared at him.

From the doorway, Lucrezia said, “I have it.”

He turned quickly around, though he knew his sister’s voice too well to mistake her for anyone else. Cesare had thought to let her sleep—to spare her, at least, a painful farewell—but despite her loose hair and nothing more formal than a white robe over her shift, she looked alert and determined. He promptly discarded the idea.

“Lucrezia. What do you mean?”

She stepped forward, one arm behind her back. “Mama is my mother as well as yours, Cesare. The baron insulted her at my wedding. He insulted both of us to my face. I … I would accompany you, if I could.”

“You know that is impossible.”

Lucrezia paused at the table beside him, where his scabbard had been carelessly flung down.

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

She laid down a small, metal-tipped sheath, and picked up the scabbard, holding it flat on her hands. Gilded by the moonlight, face stern, she might have been a goddess. “Here is your sword. Seize vengeance for yourself with it.”

Confirmation, communion, confession: at none of them had such awe stirred him. Silently, he accepted the sword, belting it around his waist.

She took up the little sheath, a dagger’s handle just visible.

“And with this, strike it for me,” murmured Lucrezia. Then she gave a sly half-smile, purely her own. “A gift from your mother’s daughter.”

“Your favour, sister?” He unsheathed the dagger, lifting it closer to examine the etching on the sharp blade. The engraved lines formed an image he could only term delicately grisly: a woman in a stola, stabbing herself in the heart. Cesare drew a quick breath. “Lucretia.”

“Think of me,” she said, voice shaking a little.

He caught her hand. “I always think of you.”

Lucrezia smiled, a radiant Diana again. No, not Diana: Minerva or Victoria or Bellona. “The gift is not decorative, you understand. Micheletto commissioned it for me.”

“Micheletto?” Still clasping her hand, Cesare turned to glance at him. He lifted a brow. “More secrets? Need I fear that you will abandon me for my sister?”

“No abandonment of you could ever serve me,” said Lucrezia warmly. “Micheletto understands that, do you not?”

He bowed his head.

“So you conspire for my sake. I can hardly say whether I should rejoice or tremble at such an alliance.”

“It is your own doing,” she said. “You told him to obey me as he would you: and so he does. After all, our interests must always be the same.”

Cesare just laughed. “True enough, dear sis.” He sheathed the dagger and fastened it to his belt. “Thank you. Your honour and our mother’s shall not go unavenged, I promise you.”

Her fingers tightened, nails and emeralds digging into his skin as they had yesterday. Now, however, Lucrezia released his hand with dry eyes. She lifted her chin.

“Fortuna go with you, brother.”

Resolve settled into perfect wordless conviction. He kissed her cheek and headed on his way, Micheletto preceding him into the hall. But when he reached the doorway, Lucrezia cried out,

“Cesare!”

Cesare turned. Before he could ask a question, she had rushed into his arms and kissed him, arms wrapped behind his neck. He bent his head down into the kiss, splaying one hand against the arch of her back, the other about the base of her throat. For an instant, nothing else existed at all, only the shape of her body, the brush of her hair over his skin, her own skin warm and smooth, and beneath it her pulse beating quick and strong and alive. Their mouths pressed together, as hard and yearning as before they’d known each other.

They had always known each other.

“Lucrezia,” he breathed, utterly disregarding Micheletto just behind them.

She stroked her fingers over his face, settled them against his chest. Solemn-eyed, Lucrezia said,

“Return to me victorious.”

In that moment, he could have slain Mars. “I will.”


It was Isabel who resolved the one remaining obstacle, by the simple expedient of writing to Cesarini. She apologized on behalf of her brother and herself—

“I can apologize for myself,” said Bernardo, peering over her shoulder. “If I wished to, which naturally I do not. A Borgia never admits to mistakes.”

Isabel, of course, understood. In true Isabel fashion, she shoved him away. “Not meaning it, which happily we do not. Or do I speak only for myself?”

He smiled. “No.”

—and attributed their conduct to the first moment of grief. If they could be of any service to the lord Cesarini in the grief they all must share, they would be honoured. Isabel waited until mid-morning to send the note: it would have been longer, but for her conviction that Matuzzi would wake soon.

“Secrets, sister?”

“Always,” said Isabel.

He understood when Matuzzi ambled into the courtyard, though he guessed well enough before. They had met but once or twice. Likely he would not have remembered the man’s name but for Jeronima’s letters. She, with the Borgia determination that had run deep under her gentle ways, always managed to throw in information about Isabel and Matuzzi in her accounts of their uncle, cousins, and life in Rome. Only she had held their branch of the family together, linked one to the other. And Jeronima—

Bernardo’s throat burned. He scarcely knew how Isabel, so much closer to their sister, had recovered anything like composure. He thrust the thought away and fixed all his attention on this other brother-in-law.

Pietro Matuzzi was a small man, made smaller by a hesitant, unassuming demeanour. It pervaded every aspect of his being, expression, carriage, everything but his elaborate clothes. Today he wore black for Jeronima, but she herself had written, with a sister’s affection, of his taste for garishly bright silks. Bernardo could believe it. A harmless little peacock. He might have thought him like Cesarini, in fact, only without that fatal streak of selfish complacence: but when Matuzzi looked at Isabel, his plain freckled face brightened like a pilgrim at a shrine.

It remained solemn, however. He clasped Isabel’s hands. “My love! I hoped you might sleep—have you eaten?”

“ ’Tis early still,” said Isabel. She turned to Bernardo. “You shall stay and break your fast with us.”

He understood as Isabel had understood, and bowed.

“As you command!”

“Oh! my lord Bernardo,” said Matuzzi, wide-eyed but polite. “Forgive me, I did not notice you there.”

Bernardo, a large man standing little more than a foot from his sister in an open courtyard, could not imagine how anyone might have failed to notice; but he did not doubt him.

“I am flattered you recognize me at all,” he said.

Matuzzi flushed. “Well, the Lady Jerónima had a good hand for—” He broke off with an anguished expression.

A small but genuine smile touched Bernardo’s lips. Matuzzi said the name as if it were Castilian, but he did say it.

“No, Pietro,” said Isabel softly, “we would not have her forgotten.”

“She always included sketches in her letters,” Bernardo said. “So she drew me, as well? Ah, of course she did. Well, shall we go in?”

The meal could not be anything but awkward. Isabel, as if compensating for the day before, maintained a steely composure; Matuzzi scarcely knew where to look; Bernardo felt himself an intruder, but persevered. Guilt had kept him from his duty to one sister, and now she lay dead. Habits of estrangement would not do the same with Isabel. And they had at least this one last task as brother and sister to Jeronima. Of course, he might have waited, but Matuzzi, meek and uncertain, could do little just now. Bernardo would not abandon her today.

In fact, other company might serve her well—and provide a witness for what followed. After breakfast, he said,

“Have you heard anything from our cousins?”

Isabel lifted her eyebrows. “No, though it is early yet. Why do you ask?”

“I thought they could do with company today, if it would not be a burden to you.” Under her suspicious look, he gave a bland smile. “Lucrècia, at least, and perhaps Cèsar.”

“Cèsar? Does he—” She paused. With a faint softening of her expression, she laid a hand over her husband’s arm, curled about her own as they all walked together. “Dearest, forgive me, but I must ask you to leave us. Family matters: you understand.”

To Bernardo’s surprise, Matuzzi did seem to understand. Years of companionable marriage to a Borgia must have honed even his instincts; he released her arm, kissed her, and all but fled. He remembered to summon his servants after him, however, and Bernardo’s estimation of the man rose a notch.

“What does Cesare know?” Isabel demanded.

Bernardo replied, “Nothing more than the others—at least, not from me. I cannot answer for what he may have guessed. You know as well as I that he’s the clever one.”

Frowning, she walked through the open courtyard in silence for a moment. “He has an remarkable understanding, I would say: nine-tenths of the time he outwits those twice or thrice his age without effort, and the last tenth he arrives at conclusions so dazzlingly wrong that one knows not where to begin. There is something very odd in the way he thinks, what he sees and what he fails to see. I do not know.”

“I owe him an apology, at any rate,” said Bernardo, “or as near as I come to one. Still, Jeronima was not his sister, and he is young yet. This must be managed by the two of us, or myself alone.”

Isabel’s jaw tightened. “The two of us.”

“Very well.” With a glance at her, he said, “I still think Cèsar and Lucrècia should come, if our uncle can spare them.”

She thought it over.

“Yes,” she said at last. “Lucrezia for certain—and Cesare if you can find him.”

Bernardo snorted. “Find him? I’ve scarcely seen them apart on good days, never mind a bad one. Is he hiding?”

Isabel was not a great liar, had never been. Weighing each word, she said, “He might be with his lover.”

The horror of the last day had driven Cesare’s love affair out of his head. Now he thought back to the scraps he’d extracted out of their cousin, more puzzled than he had been at the time. Not Jeronima, of course; seeing them together, seeing her, made that perfectly clear. He had acted only as a devoted brother—the brother Bernardo should have been.

“You know who she is?”

“Ursula Bonadeo,” Isabel said promptly.

Bernardo blinked. “He told you her name?”

“No,” she said, “but he could hardly conceal it. We met by unfortunate chance.” Distaste coloured her voice. But Isabel found nothing wanting in an adoring and pliant husband; perhaps she alone of the family condemned such things.

“Then you have seen her.” His gaze flicked her way. “I suppose a small and fair and staggeringly beautiful girl?”

Isabel, no doubt preferring to think of family indiscretion than death, tilted her head to the side, brows furrowed. “Fair—yes, and very slender. She is rather tall, however. About five and twenty, pious. He could do better.”

“Ah,” said Bernardo. “You disapprove of the lady and not the transgression. Is there something terribly objectionable about her?”

With a marked lack of enthusiasm, she said, “No, not at all. She seems a very model of virtue.”

He barked a short laugh. “An unlikely match for our Cèsar! What does he see in this paragon? Or she in him, for that matter?”

“Beauty,” said Isabel, shrugging. “He was alone after Lucrezia’s marriage and trapped in the Church—and Ursula was there, passably pretty, passably inappropriate. She has a husband, of course, a noble Roman tyrant many years her senior, who has the charm of a mad boar and scarcely better looks. Any dalliance would defy him, but one with a young and handsome Spanish cardinal? What could be more forbidden? She knows nothing of Cesare’s real character, I assure you.”

“And he little more of hers, I imagine.” Better this unfortunate lady than Jeronima, regardless. Isabel’s account only somewhat matched Cesare’s, but that did not surprise him. “I suppose it is not impossible that he would admire some sweet, docile creature. He’s always adored Lucrècia.”

Her dull gaze lifted, gained a touch of asperity. “You do not know Lucrezia very well, do you?”

“No,” he admitted freely. “Perhaps I misjudge her. She did look as if she might try to poison Sancia d’Aragona at Lady Vanozza’s banquet.” Then his eyes narrowed. “Absent I may have been, Isabel, but Jeronima kept me informed. Do you truly expect me to believe that Cèsar would leave Lucrècia the day after a family death for some trifling mistress?”

Her head turned away. “He imagines himself in love. He might.”

“He loves no one half so much as the family, and Lucrècia most of all. There’s something else. Something you have not—there was something, I saw ... ” He traced memories back to Jeronima’s bedside—he had noticed little but his sisters at the time; the one time he glanced up, it’d only been to see his pain writ large, the Pope’s face anguished, Juan’s lost, Cesare and Lucrezia clinging to each other. Nothing there. Afterwards, with Cesarini … before Cesarini? No, after, after, when Isabel’s grief-shattered mind drew a straight line from Cesarini to the stranger who had insulted Lucrezia. Bonaven … Bonadeo.

The very name of Cesare’s lover. Cesare’s married lover.

He goes to Velletri tomorrow. Ursula told us of it.

Bernardo jerked around. “Cèsar is trying to kill her husband? Today?”

Isabel’s face told him all he needed.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” he hissed.

“It is not my doing,” she returned, very nearly herself. “I did not insult Lady Vanozza at Lucrezia’s wedding, nor call Lucrezia a whore and Cesare a marrano to our faces. I have nothing to do with this affair but accompanying Lucrezia.”

“Nothing?” said Bernardo skeptically.

“I may have turned a conversation between Ursula and Lucrezia towards the fact that Cesare is but four years Lucrezia’s senior. He has not even come of age.” Isabel pursed her lips. “I may also have worked in a reminder that he is a priest. Ursula would care about that.”

He opened his mouth, but words failed him. Gathering his thoughts, he said, “He’s man enough for a bored noblewoman’s indiscretion. But—did you not—”

She cut him off. “Bonadeo called Lady Vanozza a Spanish whore at Lucrezia’s wedding, then challenged Cesare to a duel. That was before the insult to Lucrezia in person. What would you have him do? What would you do, if it were—Jeronima?”

“I would kill any man who said such a thing about either of you, or Lucrècia,” Bernardo replied. “But I am thirty years old and I know my way around a sword.”

“So does Cesare. Consider that Jeronima did not understand every aspect of our family, and she did not choose to share all that she did understand. You do not know Cesare; you remember Cèsar. You do not know any of them here.”

“Nor you?” said he, swiftly.

She hesitated. “I was not a child when I returned. If I have changed, it is only to become more myself.—I am Isabel still.”

Bernardo laid a hand on her rigid shoulder. “And will you be yourself tomorrow?”

“As much as you,” Isabel replied. She looked him in the eye. “Bring Lucrezia here, brother. At the very least, I would rather see Jeronima’s jewelry in her hands than Cesarini’s coffers.”


They could have sent a servant, but neither Bernardo nor Isabel wished to command their cousins. Bernardo, too, felt a certain discomfort at his own ignorance; he would like to observe them for himself, not only through the windows of remembered children and remembered letters. At the very least he could observe Lucrezia, by far the easier prospect. Yet for his own reasons, he hoped most of all to find Cesare there.

“I am Bernardo Borgia,” he told the haughty servant who demanded his name. “I am here to see my cousin, Cardinal Borgia.”

The servant sniffed, sent an inferior underling with the message, and upon the underling’s return and a brief conference, addressed Bernardo far more graciously.

“His Eminence is away on an urgent matter of business, but my lady Lucrezia will receive you, if it pleases my lord.”

“It does,” said Bernardo.

Following the servant through the palace, he looked around curiously. If not exactly in disrepair, it certainly seemed to be in a certain amount of upheaval: here he saw an elegant and shining hall, just as he expected, there a room stripped bare, piles of art or treasure just visible through the railings of stairs and balustrades. It had been della Rovere’s palace; such a gift, if he knew anything of his uncle, would not have been given freely. Consigning the cardinal’s wealth to the Church must be a monumental task. Still, it was luxury enough for a reluctant priest who could not take vows for years yet—and for a girl of fourteen married to a petty lord in the Romagna.

The servant led him onto a large balcony, jutting past the roof, where Lucrezia sat under the full glare of the morning’s sunshine. A propped-up parasol shaded her eyes but not her hair; the latter hung loose about her shoulders, shining white-gold as Jeronima’s once had, while a maidservant combed through it.

“There you are, Lucrezia: my favourite cousin!” he announced.

She turned her head to smile up at him. “I thought Cesare was your favourite—oh! Francesca, mind the comb.”

“It tangles when you move, my lady,” said the maid, less pert than decisive.

Between this girl and that bizarre, unkempt man of Cesare’s, Bernardo wondered where they even found their servants. The doorman’s condescension seemed quite normal by comparison.

“You, Cesare; it is all the same, I think.”

Lucrezia smiled, but with little of her usual animation. Close, he could see the redness in and around her eyes, her nose a little pink and swollen. Her hands were twisted together in her lap. “I suppose so.”

Bernardo caught a dimly familiar acrid odour. He wrinkled his nose. “My God, what is that? Was della Rovere concealing a gateway to damnation? Or merely a sulfur pit?”

Her weak smile dissolved into a real giggle, as he had hoped.

“ ’Tis only lye, my lord,” said the maid.

“Lye? You mean, soap?”

“For my hair,” Lucrezia said, “to keep it light.” Her mouth pouted into a sulky moue. “You cannot think it would stay this colour without some help. I am as Spanish as you.”

Bernardo laughed openly and tweaked her nose. “Ah, vanity. Now I remember where I smelled it before. Jeronima used to—” He stilled.

A Spaniard, very fair? By nature?

No, Cesare had said, half-laughing, and even then Bernardo caught the odd shift in his tone, from the adoration of a lover to an easy, familiar affection. Her colouring is like Jeronima’s.

“Oh! I am sorry,” Lucrezia cried. “I did not mean to remind you.”

He stared at her, wild-eyed. In that instant, he felt as if he’d never seen her: Lucrezia, little Lucrezia who had been Lucrècia, his cousin lisping her first words in Xàtiva. Lucrezia with her light eyes and pale skin and hair bleached nearly white. Lucrezia, perhaps not the greatest beauty in Italy, but certainly a very pretty girl. Lucrezia and Cesare, always touching and whispering as he remembered, unsevered by time. No, closer still, for in those days they had welcomed company, but now they held themselves apart, like Sicily peering at the peninsula.

And he remembered Cesare, indignant even for a young man in the throes of infatuation. She is not my mistress!

Surely not. Surely—

Cesare had choked on his wine, talked of her father with such evident dread that Bernardo almost pieced it together, found Jeronima instead. Close, too close, and yet not close enough.

“No, no,” he managed to say, “I would not forget my sister.”

His sister. The flat conviction in Cesare’s voice.

It is forbidden.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia's brows knit in concern. “Is Isabel any better?”

Looking at her, Bernardo could see nothing more than that, no betrayal or secret misery. She’d sobbed into Cesare’s shoulder when Jeronima died, clutched his hand all the rest of the day. And he thought nothing of it. Cesare and Lucrezia being Cesare and Lucrezia.

Bernardo said, “A little. She pretends to it.” He seated himself beside her. “I cannot say if she avoids weakness before me, or anyone at all. We have not been good friends, Isabel and I.”

“It must be difficult for you both,” she said sympathetically. “I cannot imagine what I would do without Cesare as my dearest friend.”

He swallowed the dryness in his throat. “Is your brother here?”

“No,” said Lucrezia, “he had an errand away from Rome. He should return tonight. Did you have business with him?”

“Yes, I think so.” Bernardo slouched back on the bench, shielding his eyes. “I confess, I was not a good brother to Jeronima, either; and now she has gone, and I can make her no amends. Yet I hope, at least, that I may prove a better kinsman to you, Lucrezia.”

Her eyes opened wide, shock unmistakable. That, he thought, might be worse indictment than anything else. “Why, I … I should like that—like to be better acquainted.”

“Yes. I feel that I know you very little,” he said, “except that you are unhappy in your marriage.”

“I am very happy,” Lucrezia protested.

“Here.” He paused. “With Cesare.”

Her bewilderment broke into a radiant smile, sweet and unaffected. Right then, she really might have been the greatest beauty in Italy.

“Yes.”

Bernardo took a steadying breath. Whatever else Cesare might have done, he had not forced her. Now, mind cooled to reason, the very thought struck him as preposterous. Yet the thought that Cesare had taken advantage of her at all seemed scarcely less so. No sister could have asked for a more resolute protector or more companionable playfellow. Had he, even then?—impossible! What had he been, six, seven, eight? Bernardo could still remember them playing with dolls together.

No, he recalled, not quite. Cèsar drew the line at dolls. Instead, he happily joined her with his toy soldiers. This is Queen Violant, Lucrècia explained, solemn as only a very small child could be. She pointed at the mounted warrior in Cèsar’s hand. That is Gonçal the knight. He keeps the fairies from eating her.

Bernardo only laughed, amused at the grisly innocence of such small and angelic cousins. Yet it had always been that way with them: Lucrècia a little queen reigning over their games, Cèsar devoted to her. Nothing he’d seen of them in Rome altered that impression, nothing in Jeronima’s letters. He remembered few details from the correspondence of ten years ago, something about the children disliking Rome, an opinion he entirely shared with them. Beyond that, nothing. Certainly he would have noticed if she’d hinted anything like this, anything—

He could feel his composure fraying again.

“Yet I fear,” Bernardo said, “that you shall leave us soon.”

The light went out of her face; he could describe it in no other way.

“Yes. I must return to my husband.”

“There is no danger, I trust.”

She shook her head. The maid, kneeling to comb out the ends of Lucrezia’s long hair, just gave a small tsk.

He forced himself to laugh. “Of course, Cesare might very well escort you all the way to Pesaro, if you asked. Isabel tells me he has a fair hand with a sword.”

“Very fair.” She moved her hands, loose in her lap, then dropped them once more. Her eyes closed. “He would do anything I asked. Our father needs him in Rome, however, so I must not ask. He has spared enough time for my troubles already.”

Cesare, Bernardo remembered, would fight a duel today. He studied Lucrezia, noting a delicacy about her pale face and limp hands that he had not often seen in her, even as a child: not weakness, but a certain fragility, like a clock wound too tight. He could only imagine what her feelings must be at such a time, in such … circumstances. In truth, he could not imagine them at all. His mind staggered before it.

Bernardo inhaled. Nothing could be done until, if, Cesare returned. For now, he set aside the matter of—God above, he could scarcely think it!—the matter of incest.

“I believe Isabel would appreciate your company today,” he said, with what passed for tact with him. “And neither of us care to think of you alone in this place. Once your maid has finished abusing your hair, I hope you will return to the villa with me.”

Slowly, she opened her eyes. “If Isabel wishes for me, I shall come.”


Lucrezia had expected a restless night. In fact, she slept deeply; she dreamed. She dreamed of Cesare with a sword through his heart, or a dagger in his belly, or his throat slit. Each time, she rushed to him, trying to staunch the blood, and each time she failed. He died in anguish, sometimes angry, sometimes frightened, cursing her or clinging to her, his blood all over her hands and gown.

She thought of little else until Bernardo’s arrival. He and Isabel, she reminded herself, not only feared the loss of a sibling; they suffered it already. Jeronima had not even been granted the quick death of her nightmares. For their sake, Lucrezia set aside her fears as much as she could. Not much: but she at least tried to attend to what Bernardo said as his carriage rolled through the streets of Rome.

His grief, however, kept him much quieter than usual, apart from a few unconnected questions. He asked about Juan and Cesare, and a little about Lord Sforza, and how she had come to live in Cardinal della Rovere’s palace instead of her own apartments. After a moment’s consideration, Lucrezia thought the story might lighten his spirits, so she told him about Juan and Sancia, and how she had to hide in Cesare’s rooms to escape and complain to the Pope the next day. Bernardo laughed, if only a little.

“So he gave you a palace?”

“He gave it to Cesare—after a fashion—and sent me with him. My father did want the place stripped bare by someone he could trust, but of course he wanted peace at the breakfast-table most of all. You should have seen the look on Juan’s face!”

Bernardo smiled faintly. “Your brothers did not expect it?”

“Oh, no. Cesare was very surprised. Pleased, of course, but surprised. Juan—well, he has always envied Cesare.”

“I cannot say I noticed that,” said Bernardo.

“In Valencia? I do not remember. It seems as if everything has always been the way it is now.”

“Everything?”

Lucrezia smiled to herself. “Almost everything.”

He looked away. “What cause has Jo … Juan to envy Cesare, in any case? It is Juan who received the title, the estates, the Pope’s favour.”

“Well, Cesare is cleverer, even Father sees that. He is faster, too, and a better horseman … better at everything. He almost never makes mistakes. Juan—I think he hoped Father would punish Cesare for coming to Pesaro, so that for once … ”

Drumming his fingers against the door, Bernardo said, “What brought him there, if your father did not send him to you?”

“I did,” said Lucrezia, not bothering to hide her satisfaction. She was relieved, in truth, to encounter questions she could answer honestly. “Before my marriage, I made him promise to visit me, and when the opportunity arose, he kept his word.”

“And your husband?” He glanced back at her, a faint, unfamiliar reserve about him. “I have an idea of his character from Isabel. We know you cannot have been happy.”

Isabel, and Bernardo with her, could have only the faintest idea of Lord Sforza’s real nature. Lucrezia intended to keep it that way.

“Not very happy,” she admitted, “but we all must play our parts. What about my husband?”

“Did he not protest Cesare’s presence?”

Both cousins stared at each other in intense and very sincere confusion.

“No,” Lucrezia said at last, still bewildered. “Even Lord Sforza could not object to a visit from my own brother. Why should he?”

“Ah, of course,” said Bernardo, after a long pause.

By now unsure as to what his questions tended, but suspicious, she went on, “In any case, he had an accident not long after Cesare arrived.”

His mouth quirked. “A happy accident?”

“Very happy.” She could almost wish herself back in Pesaro, away from all the bother, the questions and glare of all the world’s eyes and too-sharp perceptions of her family. She would wish it, if only she could have Cesare with her, and could ensure that her husband never recovered. But he would recover, and Cesare must not leave their father again. She sighed and assembled her wits once more. “I ought to have sent him back after that, I suppose.”

“No doubt you had your reasons,” said Bernardo.

She smiled, a little sweet and a little sly. “I enjoyed his company and I did not want him to go.”
She had not thought of those early days in weeks. Now her mind drifted back: that sunlit day by the pond, their reflections trembling in the water, Lucrezia leaning down to kiss him awake and Cesare’s first easy response. Her hand against his heart, the sharp longing in her body, kneeling uncomfortably before him and too delighted with their hesitant kisses to care. Cesare’s forehead against hers, voice stripped of composure or command: Shall you send me away?

Her eyes burned. She’d sent him away, this morning, perhaps to his death. No, Micheletto had said—he would not permit—Cesare would not die, he wouldn’t.

“All the reason you required, eh?” Bernardo said, sounding almost like himself.

“I am a Borgia.” That was answer enough.

Her cousin’s expression softened. “Yet he shall not be there when you return. And your husband … I hope there is no danger?”

“No,” said Lucrezia. “He can be cruel enough in speech, but his temper is very phlegmatic. I manage him easily enough.”

“Thank God.”

They fell into silence after that, Bernardo evidently lost in thought. If he truly had his fears from Isabel … what could she possibly have told him? She knew nothing of Sforza beyond whatever disagreeable impression she formed at the wedding. Bonadeo likely left more of one.

Her mind returned to the duel, and she fumbled for her rosary. Cesare would not have prayed for his own sake. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen. Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentum—


“How are you?”

Lucrezia and Isabel spoke at the same time; both managed to smile and embrace. Lucrezia, much smaller than her cousin, pressed her face into Isabel’s shoulder. She might have wept, had not Bernardo been there. She was here to comfort Isabel, she reminded herself. Drawing on her remaining reserves of strength, she straightened and withdrew far enough to clasp Isabel’s hands.

“I am so very sorry,” she said.

“As am I,” replied Isabel. “The loss is not mine alone.”

Yes, Lucrezia thought, but it is yours most of all. You loved her best. No one suffers this as you do, just as nobody would suffer as I, should Cesare—

She pressed her lips tightly together until she could command herself again.

“Of course. Every Borgia mourns with you, Isabel.” She glanced at Bernardo. “I know, we all know, that there is no place for discord or disunity at such a time.”

She spent the next several hours with Isabel, sometimes sitting with her, sometimes walking outside, though the sky grew duller and more deeply overcast through the day. Lucrezia did not try to entertain or distract her; she did not have that much in her. They simply talked, of Jeronima and trivial matters and Cardinal della Rovere and whatever else came into their heads. Bernardo, so far true to his intentions, remained near them all the morning. Isabel’s husband flitted in and out, a fussy but affectionate presence, listening to the flow of Valencian without interruption. Unlike Cesarini, he recognized Lucrezia on sight and addressed her by name, though he had seen her no more frequently.

Around midday, a note arrived from Cesarini himself, a reply to an apology Isabel had written earlier that day. Lucrezia stared at Isabel even before she broke the seal.

“You apologized to him? To Cesarini?”

“I was intemperate,” said Isabel calmly.

Lucrezia turned to Bernardo. “You were here? You agreed to this?”

“Isabel hardly requires my assent, but I did not object, no. The family—”

“The family should see him punished for how he treated her!” Lucrezia rose to her feet, shaken and incredulous. She pressed her trembling hands against her skirts. “He might as well have killed her. He ought to be executed.”

“Executed for what, Lucrezia?” said Isabel, reading over the note.

“A man may avail himself of his wife as he wishes,” Bernardo added. “Jeronima was his wife; he violated no laws. You will understand that when you are older.”

She had thought of Sforza in weeks, either. Lucrezia drew a steadying breath. “I understand that perfectly well, thank you.”

“Do you?”

She scarcely heard him.

“So. No law prevents a man from forcing himself on a sick wife just delivered of a dead child— only decency. Are we to let it pass? Shall you?—her own brother? My brother would have already run him through.”

“Your brother is hardly a model of fraternal devotion,” Bernardo said.

Lucrezia waved that aside. “I meant Cesare.”

Before he could reply, Isabel said, “Stop condescending to her, Bernardo. Lucrezia, sit down. We have our reasons for wishing to remain on good terms with our brother-in-law.” She folded the note.

Lucrezia belatedly remembered herself. She returned to her seat.

“I beg your pardon,” said Bernardo.

She deigned to nod, though she did not apologize herself. She regretted nothing but troubling Isabel.

“We promised Jeronima that we would care for her children,” said Isabel, slowly. “Cesarini is their father. We cannot afford a total estrangement. Now do you see?”

Lucrezia frowned; it only deepened when Isabel handed her the note. Cesarini accepted the apology, and gratefully begged assistance with the organization and distribution of Girolama’s minor possessions. He himself felt no interest in gowns and silver boxes, but should it all be sold? Perhaps Giulia and Alessandra would wish for some of it in the future, or Lady Isabella herself? He really knew nothing of such matters. And if her brother wished to accompany her, he would appreciate a man’s company—

Lucrezia crumpled the paper.

“I do not believe it,” she said. The more she thought about it, the less sense she found. “Bernardo I cannot be certain of, but you, Isabel? You would not forgive this for anything, much less children.”

Isabel and Bernardo glanced at each other.

“There is something you have not told me.”

“Clever girl,” said Bernardo.

Isabel laid a hand over hers. “I suspected you would realize. Yes, there is something we have not told you, and that we cannot tell you, and I have not forgiven Cesarini. I would gladly pour cantarella in his sugar!”

“Not sugar,” said Lucrezia, without thinking. “It does not mix with cantarella.”

Both her cousins stared at her.

She flushed. “Micheletto told me that.”

“Micheletto?” Isabel said. Her hand was cold.

“Cesare’s manservant—well, his friend—well—I hardly know how to describe him. He knows all about that sort of thing, and real weapons, too. They used to practice for hours in Pesaro.” She could feel herself babbling. “Cesare has him guard me at times.”

“I believe the correct term would be ‘assassin,’ ” said Bernardo.

“Whatever one calls him, he is Cesare’s protector and mine,” Lucrezia said firmly. “My brother trusts him implicitly. And when I joked about how tempted I had been to poison Sancia’s sugar, he said not to mix cantarella and sugar, because it would take her a week to die, and the pain would make her certain to reveal me.” In her voice, it sounded odder, colder, than in Micheletto’s. She shook her head. “Never mind. It was only a jest; I would not poison Sancia even if I knew how.”

“Of course not,” said Isabel.

Lucrezia looked from one to the other. “I understand that you cannot tell me,” she said. She felt herself frozen, and beneath it, as if every part of her shook, even her bones rattling. “We all have our secrets.”

Bernardo closed his eyes.

“I cannot …” Lucrezia’s nails dug into her skin. “Forgive me, Isabel. I would accompany you, but I do not think I could meet him with civility. Whatever your secret, I would betray its existence in an instant. I should return home.”

“Certainly not,” said Isabel. She cupped Lucrezia’s chin, studying her face. “You look exhausted, my dear. You must sleep in my chambers, at least an hour or two.”

“I …”

Isabel’s fingers tightened. “You have borne as much as you can, today.” Her hand dropped and she kissed her cheek. “Bernardo, take her upstairs.”

She was very tired; it washed over her, as if unleashed by Isabel’s acknowledgment. Lucrezia nodded, and accepted Bernardo’s offered arm.

“I did not mean to question you so harshly,” he said as they walked. “I have been somewhat preoccupied.”

“That is very natural,” said Lucrezia. Even her elbows felt limp. “You have endured a great deal, as well. Or is it another secret?”

“A great … shock, I should say.”

“I am sorry. I hope it passes, for your sake,” she replied, scarcely knowing what she said or how he looked. She crawled into Isabel’s enormous curtained bed and fell asleep as soon as she closed her eyes.


 

Lucrezia woke to the sound of murmured voices, swishing fabric, and a light clink of metal.

Cesare.

She sat upright, looking wildly around at—Isabel’s bedchamber, of course. It was large but stark: no paintings, hangings, nothing but light grey papering over the walls. Servants carrying chests and crates passed in and out of the open door, past a square, functional sort of vanity. Isabel herself sat at the vanity, pearls and gold chains strung over her hands. Bracelets and rings lay in piles around an old mirror.

“What is the time?” Lucrezia asked. She rubbed her eyes. Had she slept into the night? Past the very moment of—

Isabel turned about, draping the necklaces over the silver jewel-box before her. “The twenty-second hour.”

“It seems later.” She shook her head. “How did … how are you?”

“Better,” said Isabel. Addressing the servants, she said, “Leave us.”

They bowed and withdrew one-by-one. Isabel simply watched until they had all departed, then rose to close the door and dragged a chair over beside her own.

“Come, sit down.”

Lucrezia climbed out of bed, shaking out her crumpled skirts as well as she could. She still felt disoriented, dazed.

“Lord Cesarini—?”

“He was very civil, for him. Unfortunately, he suffered a little indisposition before we left and was forced to retire. No doubt it will pass.”

“He cannot suffer a quarter of what Jeronima did,” said Lucrezia. “I hope he is very uncomfortable for a few days, at least.”

“I imagine he will be,” said Isabel. “Lucrezia, I must ask you something, and I beg you to answer me honestly.”

Lucrezia’s guard rose. She kept her eyes on her skirts. “Yes?”

“Has Cesare gone to challenge Lord Bonadeo?”

Her head jerked up. Concern marked Isabel’s face, rather than anything like anger or alarm or surprise. Absolute silence fell about them, standing alone together in this high, spare room. Lucrezia had clung to her composure through the entire long day, but despite the four hours of rest, she felt herself waver. Not trusting herself to speak, she nodded.

“I thought he must,” said Isabel, almost to herself.

Lucrezia burst into tears.

In an instant, she felt Isabel’s arms about her, Isabel’s hand stroking her hair. Lucrezia hiccoughed into black satin.

“Cesare has always been good with a sword,” Isabel murmured, “and he has been training with this assassin of his, you said?”

“Y-yes.” The word scratched her throat.

“I imagine he has improved.”

Isabel did not sound warm; she did not sound as if she even attempted reassurance. Her voice was even, reasonable, almost cool.

“Yes.” Lucrezia steadied, a little. “Yes, Micheletto says … he ... ”

“Micheletto is with him now?”

“Yes. He promised—if anything happens, that he will—”

“Cesare would not care for that.”

Lucrezia could not help but imagine Micheletto knocking Cesare aside to stab Bonadeo, imagine Cesare’s outrage. It startled a laugh out of her throat.

“No. But I could not bear for him to die. I could not …” She lifted her head, knowing she must look splotched and childish. “You are stronger than I, Isabel. I would be screaming for blood in your place.”

“Ah, well.” Isabel handed her a handkerchief. “Wipe your eyes, Lucrezia, and come sit here. I want to show you something.”

She scrubbed at her cheeks. “I cannot think how I have any tears left.”

“Sorrow has no horizon,” said Isabel, tone brisk despite the words. She settled into her chair. Lucrezia, curious despite everything, sat beside her.

“What should I see?”

Isabel lowered the lid on the jewel-box. “This was bound shut, you observe, here and here. It could not be opened without trouble.”

“Yes, I see that,” said Lucrezia. “Is that what weighed on her conscience? She was hiding something?”

Isabel’s mouth curved into a slight, sad smile. “A very slight something. But for Jeronima, it might well have been a sin.”

She set the necklaces aside and opened the box again. Among the rows of rings, some ornate, many small and delicate, she withdrew one of the former: a wide ring of silver or white gold filigree, dominated by a large black stone, oval-shaped. Beautiful, Lucrezia thought, but much too large for Jeronima’s slender hands. A man’s ring.

Her eyes widened. “Had she a lover?”

“Oh, no.” Isabel set the ring in her hand. Lucrezia held it up to the light; the band looked pale golden one moment, silver another. “I gave it to her.”

“You!” She stopped examining the scrollwork to stare at her cousin.

“Yes. I had it from Grandmother Isabel. She commissioned it for our grandfather, but he died young, and she kept it all the years afterwards.” Isabel’s wistful smile turned wry. “She told me to give it to my husband.”

“And you gave it to Jeronima instead?”

“Can you imagine my Pietro wearing such a thing?”

Lucrezia turned her attention back to the ring, elegant in design, severe in colour, striking and tasteful. Her lips twitched.

“No.”

“In all honesty,” Isabel admitted, “I had no desire to give Pietro anything when we first married. By the time I did, well … his preferences are what they are.”

Bright and gaudy, Lucrezia did not say.

“I hoped that Jeronima’s marriage would be more to her liking than mine,” said Isabel. “I gave it to her, for her husband, whenever one should be chosen. In the event, of course, Pietro proved far worthier than Cesarini. And Jeronima hid the ring away.”

Lucrezia turned it over in her fingers, rubbing her thumb over the fine metalwork. “I never heard her speak a word against him.”

“No,” said Isabel. “She would not hear him insulted, even by me. She denied him nothing else. It is a small thing.”

“Perhaps she did not think it to his taste, like you with Signor Matuzzi,” Lucrezia said. She did not believe it, herself.

“That would not weigh with her. I believe ... ”

Their eyes met, blue and brown. Distantly, Lucrezia remembered that Jeronima’s eyes had been brown too, like her brother’s and sister’s, and Cesare’s and Juan’s and Jofrè’s. In the blurry mirror, however, Lucrezia might have been Jeronima.

“She did not consider him worthy,” said Lucrezia. “In her heart, she knew what he was.”

Isabel replied, “Resented him, at the least. And that would have weighed on her. She kept something for herself, after all.”

A ring. Not even a diamond or sapphire, not even pure gold: a small treasure, as family heirlooms went. But it had meant something to Jeronima. It had meant something to Isabel before her, and their grandmother and grandfather before that. A ring could mean a great deal, when it came to marriage.

She thought of the ruby gleaming on Cesare’s hand, even when he shed cassock and biretta and cross for a lord’s leathers. Every moment of every day, married to the Church.

Isabel closed Lucrezia’s fingers over the ring. “You must take it now, Lucrezia.”

“I am the Lord Sforza’s wife,” she said with difficulty. “I would never give this to him, never. It should go to Giulia, for when she marries, or Alessandra.”

“The Sforza are faithless cowards. This sham of a marriage will end sooner or later,” said Isabel. “Perhaps then you may have some choice. I shall save other pieces for my niece.”

Lucrezia did not trust herself to speak. She just nodded.

In the end, Isabel provided a delicate silver chain on which to hang her gift. Although their long-dead grandfather seemed to have been a slender man, at least in his hands, the ring remained much too large for Lucrezia. In return, she unclasped her cross and dropped it into one of the piles of jewelry.

“No, no, Lucrezia—”

“It came from Lord Sforza,” said Lucrezia.

“Oh!” Isabel moved it into a smaller pile. “Then it shall do very well for Giulia one day.”

Lucrezia spent the rest of the day helping Isabel organize Jeronima’s property. Anything that had come from the Borgia coffers, gowns or jewels or even books, Isabel pressed on Lucrezia. She demurred at first, but realizing that anything in her possession could not be sold for Cesarini’s benefit, she soon stopped. It might be a petty revenge, but at least it was something. She could distribute it around the family in any case.

If nothing quite took her mind away from Cesare, this at least kept her from tormenting herself all of that long day. Rain splattered more and more heavily, a cloudy dark dusk fell, and Lucrezia finally returned to the palace. It was empty. Micheletto had dismissed all the servants but the most necessary, and Lucrezia the remainder before she left; Cesare had not returned. She supposed she could take some little comfort in the fact that Micheletto remained absent, as well—but he would not leave Cesare. More probably Bonadeo had not yet reached Velletri.

Lucrezia undressed herself, fumbling with hooks and laces and ribbons. Finally reduced to a shift and the Borja ring, cold against her skin, she picked up a candle and headed down the staircase. Her slippered steps echoed in the hollow silence. She curled into a window and waited.

Chapter Text

Master and servant entered the house quietly.

Cesare had cut Bonadeo’s throat in a tranquil rage. Now, his heart raced. Only at this moment did it really settle on him that he might have died tonight. He had known, of course, but not truly believed that it could happen. He was eighteen, quick and strong and fearless; what harm could a lumbering boor like Bonadeo do to him? Yet a single misstep, and—

His skin chilled. He needed to see Lucrezia. Cesare glanced around, scarcely hearing Micheletto’s murmur that he’d sent the servants off until midday. If he died, Lucrezia—who would protect Lucrezia? She’d be a widow in all but name. And more grieved than many public ones. He would sooner die as Caesar than continue on without knowing her alive and safe. What might Lucrezia do? He thought of her namesake, etched on his dagger, and shuddered.

Cesare shook his head, as if it might jostle the thoughts loose. His breath came quickly.

Even in the dim light of the guttering candles, Micheletto looked suspicious. “Your Eminence?”

“Yes, very well,” he said. “Where is my sister?”

“Asleep, most—” Micheletto broke off and stiffened.

Cesare glanced up. He saw nothing, but after a few seconds heard the faint shuffle of footsteps in the distance, and then her voice. “Cesare?”

He turned. From deeper in the long hall, she emerged, little more than an indistinct woman in white. Something glowed at her hand, a candle.

“Lucrezia,” he breathed.

The candle lowered. He hesitated, somehow indecisive after a very decided evening.

“Cesare!”

At her cry, the hesitation snapped and they were running towards each other, Lucrezia sharpening into herself in the moments before they caught each other in their arms. They kissed wildly, Cesare sliding his fingers down the soft pure curve of her body, Lucrezia’s hands fluttering over him, chest and shoulders and face. No: trembling.

He lifted his head and simply allowed himself the pleasure of looking at his sister, all the familiar perfection of her. An unruly plait gleamed over her shoulder. Even in the low light, he caught a certain sharpness in her face, heaviness about the eyes. Though stripped down to her shift and a white robe, she clearly had not slept. She clearly had understood what might happen.

Lucrezia lifted her unsteady hands to his face, brushing his wet hair out of his eyes. Her own did not waver.

“Is he dead?”

Cesare nodded. He’d meant to give her the knife. Instead, his arms tightened about her and he pressed his face into her hair. All else seemed impossibly remote, distant memories of another man’s life.

“I felt the life go out of him,” he whispered. He was shaking.

Lucrezia simply held him, hands against his back. She kissed Cesare’s throat, her lips pressing against his damp skin. At the slight flick of her tongue over his pulse, Bonadeo fled his mind. Everything fled his mind, compressed into blind lust. He could not think for wanting her. He could not feel, beyond the dizzying need to thrust into her, at this instant. His fingers pressed against her hips, hard enough to bruise.

Cesare forced himself to step away. His skin shivered.

Lucrezia was smiling, as serene and pristinely lovely as a painted Madonna, and still he wanted her. He did not—could not—resist as she took him by the hand and led him back the way he had come, towards the main entrance.

“It was your life or his,” Lucrezia said in a firm voice.

Micheletto remained near the door, unobtrusive as ever. But he gave Lucrezia an approving nod before discreetly disappearing down the hall, her candle vanishing with him. Cesare, all but consumed by the heady rush of his own blood, hardly noticed.

He said something, he knew not what, and she looked over her shoulder at him. He did notice the flush over her skin, and reddish streaks on her white robe. He must have blood on his hands, yet. Blood in her cheeks, blood smeared on her nightdress. Blood everywhere, his and hers and Bonadeo’s. He couldn’t touch her. Not tonight.

“How long have you been awake? You must be exhausted,” he said.

“No, not at all,” said Lucrezia. “Isabel made me rest this afternoon. You have had none at all, have you?”

Cesare had not slept, true; and he had never felt more awake.

“I am filthy,” he said at last. He could feel cooling sweat over his skin and under his wet hair, which soaked his neck and tunic. He had yet to wash his hands, and the leather smelled faintly unpleasant—he would have noticed that already, but for Lucrezia.

“Yes, I thought you might like to wash,” Lucrezia replied. Unperturbed, she led him upstairs to his bedchamber, lit by tall tapers despite his long hours away. He should perceive something in that, he knew, but she stopped him by a bowl of water, and unfastened his cloak, and—

It was nothing. In the last week alone, she had done far more with him than remove a brother’s sodden cloak. She had done them many times over and would do them again; he could not deceive himself on that count. Yet at the merest brush of her hands, his breaths came so harshly that they resounded in his ears. She must hear, must realize—surely?

If Lucrezia understood his thoughts, she gave no sign of it. As calm as before, she unfolded one of a pile of cloths, dipped it in water, and began to wash his face and neck. Cesare scarcely dared move. But when she tugged at the laces to his doublet, he pushed her away.

“I am not a child,” he said sharply.

Lucrezia stared at him. She seemed more surprised than anything else, but hurt too. Now he felt monstrous in addition to everything else. Where he’d touched her, a dab of blood smeared her sleeve.

“I have blood on my hands.”

Her face softened. “Cesare—”

“No.” He dampened another cloth and scrubbed it over his left hand, the one that had held the dagger. The white cloth came away dirty and bloody.

“Oh!” Glancing down at herself, Lucrezia’s eyes widened at the blood staining her robe.

“You see?” he managed to say.

“Yes.”

Without another word, she marched towards the door connecting their chambers and disappeared beyond it. Half-sick and somewhat relieved, Cesare continued to wash his hands, blood-stained left and sweaty right. He did not so much as pause until they stung, scrubbed nearly raw. He dropped the rag into the pink water and jerked on the straps of his doublet, the wet leather incalcitrant. Only after he had finally wrenched the whole thing open and tossed it aside did he note the vague alarm prickling over his skin. He looked up.

Lucrezia sat on his bed, leaning on one hand, legs folded almost demurely to the side. She had draped herself in spotless white again, some gauzy thing that he could nearly see through, falling off one smooth shoulder. Her hair, unbraided, tumbled to her waist in loose curls; she combed the fingers of her other hand through the pale waves, her smile at once provocative and knowing. Cesare’s throat went dry, his skin hot. She must have slipped back into the room, watched him while he was distracted, just as she had slipped into his borrowed bedchamber months ago, and watched him from behind the screen. Just as she always did.

How she managed it was the least of his concerns. He’d never seen her more beautiful or less angelic—not even that night in Pesaro, when she gave up hiding to approach him with blatant lust and he, for one brief, searing minute, abandoned all restraint. He didn’t take her then, and yet came nearer to losing all command over himself than any time before or afterwards. Now—

Cesare swallowed, resolve worn to a frayed thread.

“Lucrezia.” His voice sounded low, unnatural. “You should … you should go, sis.”

Dimples creased into her cheek. She swung her legs out over the edge of the bed and slid off, walking straight towards him. Absurdly, he felt the same admixture of alarm and anticipation as he had in his borrowed bedchamber, unsure if he posed a danger to her, or she to him. Her hands on his chest might well have burned through his thin shirt.

“I am not myself tonight,” he told her.

“You are always yourself,” said Lucrezia softly. Her face hardened, without dislodging her smile in the slightest. “And I am not a child either.”

Cesare almost laughed. “Indeed not.”

“Nor am I a dove or a doll. My bones will not break if you touch me.” She lifted her chin up. “I will not break.”

He looked into her eyes, unflinching grey in the candlelight. Something—he could not have said what—settled in his mind. Cesare unhooked his scabbard from his belt and set it aside, then held out the sheathed dagger.

Now Lucrezia seemed slightly apprehensive, but she was a Borgia. She did not shy away from such things. Her hand closed on the leather, her other on the hilt. Inhaling deeply, she unsheathed the dagger she had given him.

He hadn’t thought to clean it. Likely he would not have washed the knife even had he thought of it. Some part of him wanted her to see it, see that the insult to her, to their mother and their family, had been repaid in blood.

She stared at the blade, the dried smears over the engraving of Lucretia. Her hand shook, then tightened on the hilt, turned it about. He hadn’t noticed, at first, the figure etched on the other side in a few spare lines—a man, another Roman, crowned with laurel. Blood streaked over Caesar as well.

Lucrezia gasped. Wide-eyed, tremulous, she whispered, “He died by this. Not the sword. It was this—was it not? You challenged him, and you fought, and you … you …”

“Yes,” said Cesare. “I cut his throat.”

She flinched.

“Forgive me,” he said. It might have been for the brutal honesty of the reply, or for killing a man, or even for raising his voice to her earlier. Scarcely knowing what he did, he knelt.

Absolve me.

Gazing down at him, lips parted, Lucrezia returned the dagger to its sheath and set it aside. He grasped her hand, knowing his grip must be too tight yet unable to help himself.

“Cesare.” She trailed her hand along his jaw, a beneficent queen. “I sent you with my blessing. You killed him with my knife—on my behalf. There is no blood on your hands that is not also on mine.” Her fingers traced over the rest of his face, as if she did not know it as well as her own, nourishing the fire in his veins. He seized her hand and pressed frantic kisses down to her wrist, where her own blood raced.

She knelt as well. Putting her arms around his neck, she said fiercely, “You could have died.”

“I know.” His nails dug into her waist; he hadn’t even noticed reaching for her. Cesare kissed her, lingering over her. “I know.”

For a moment, she just slanted her mouth back against his, running her hands over his chest and shoulders, the scrape of her teeth like—like her, nothing else. His grasp tightened still further.

Lucrezia, however, rocked back on her heels. Solemn-eyed, she studied him, something elusive and vulnerable in her face.

“I think you love me, brother,” she said at last.

Now Cesare did laugh. “You know I do.”

“And I love you,” said Lucrezia, still grave. “You could have died, but you did not, you were victorious, and—and—”

Her voice wavered, but her intense gaze did not. Through the haze in his mind, it struck him that she, too, seemed trapped in a strange humour, nearly fey.

“Lucrezia?”

He could see her swallow. “You have promised yourself to me, and I have given myself to you, but there is another thing—there is something that we have forgotten.” Lucrezia reached for his hand. She slipped the cardinal’s ring off his finger.

For the moment, alarm held lust at bay. “What are you doing?”

Lucrezia stroked her thumb over the bare finger, the lighter stripe where his ring blocked out the sun.

“I love you,” she said again. “I swear—” She glanced about the room, her gaze settling on the bloody knife for a flicker of a second before returning to him. “I swear it to you by our mother’s honour and our father’s blood. I love you above all others, and I always shall, and there is nothing I would not do for your sake.”

“Lucrezia, I—”

“Close your eyes,” said Lucrezia.

“What?”

“Close your eyes!”

He obeyed, and her fingers retreated from his. Cesare heard a rustle of fabric and faint metallic clinks. She took his hand again, tilting it this way and that, as if searching for something. Then, with a small noise of satisfaction, she slid his ring back over his finger.

Cesare, utterly bemused, opened his eyes. The ring, though very much the sort he would have chosen for himself, was not his own. He held his hand up and stared at the black stone, the gleaming filigree. He had seen this before—not often, but enough to recognize it.

“This was our grandfather’s,” he said. By luck or blood, the ring fit him easily—but everyone who remembered old Jofrè de Borja said that Cesare resembled him, in face and figure. It seemed so.

“Isabel gave it to me.” Lucrezia clasped her fingers in her lap. “For my husband.”

He might have been fighting for his life again. His heart pounded, every inch of his body vibrantly alive, a loud rushing in his ears. And yet he found himself saying the most insipid, improbable thing possible.

“Do you remember what I studied at Pisa?”

She looked as bewildered as he had felt. “Civil and canon law.”

“Yes.” His voice was hoarse. “Did you know that if a man and a woman consent together, the ring and vows alone bind them in marriage? The Church does not wish for unblessed marriages, but by precedent and decretal, they are marriages nonetheless.” His ring rested still in her palm. Cesare closed her fingers over it. “Alexander III declared that if the parties concerned say I receive you as mine to one another, they are married as solemnly as if blessed by a priest.”

She had called him her husband before. Once before. But that had been in Pesaro, far from the claims of Church and family, and without ceremony—in the impulse of the moment.

Lucrezia’s furrowed brows smoothed; a tremulous smile curved her lips. She laced their fingers together.

“I receive you as mine,” she said.

Releasing her hand, he strung the cardinal’s ring onto the chain coiled beside it. The ring, large enough to wear over his gloves, would never fit his sister’s small hand. She frowned at him, puzzled.

Cesare rose to his feet, pulling Lucrezia up with him.

“I will give you a better one,” he whispered, “but for now—” He turned her around and pushed her hair aside. Shivering, she tilted her head forward; he clasped the necklace about her throat. And with that, his resolve shattered. He hauled her back against him, pressed lips and tongue to the side of her throat, slid his hands up her body.

After everything, Lucrezia gasped. She couldn’t help it, the day’s fear and grief and satisfaction and lust and love all blending together, more intoxicating than any wine. His shallow breath on her skin, the sudden eager caress—desire pooled heavily in her belly and between her legs. She bit down on a moan.

No, not tonight, not yet.

Lucrezia disentangled herself from his embrace and turned about.

“I receive you as mine,” said Cesare, naked triumph in his eyes.

Her own breath came quickly. Meeting his gaze, she said, “I would have a proper wedding night.”

With that, he drew her close once more, leaned down to kiss her. His lips were parted, hard, his hands sliding and stroking all over her, her skin thrilling everywhere he touched. The gauze of her nightdress might well have been nothing, the linen of his shirt scarcely more than that. Uncertain what she most wanted, she could only thread one hand into his hair, clutch his shoulder with the other, press insistent kisses back against his mouth.

This could not be a true wedding night. They knew each other too well and too often, grasped at familiar pleasures without the awkwardness or uncertainty of those first few times. Yet Cesare did seem different tonight. Himself, always himself, but—yes, different.

“Lucrezia, Lucrezia.”

His fingers dug into her skin. Not rough, but not gentle either, something more urgent and demanding. And when they parted for air, Cesare looked at her with the sort of desperate hunger Lucrezia always felt.

The realization struck like fire. He touched her for his own pleasure. He desired her too much for those traces of reserve, of careful restraint—he—

Excitement skittered through her. Lucrezia liked these touches, she always did, but she did not intend to lose herself so soon. So many times he’d held back while she dissolved in his arms. Now it would be the other way. More than enjoyment alone: power and anticipation and, and more.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

Cesare hesitated, teetering on the edge of his own precipice. When he opened his mouth, Lucrezia covered it.

“Do not tell me what I desire. Do not wrap it in any of your pretty words.” She caught his face between her hands. “Cesare. What do you want?”

“You,” he said at last, voice rasping, eyes black and wild and starkly honest. “I do not care how.”

Her answering smile did not so much seduce as promise. As she kissed him, she unbuckled his belt, then yanked his shirt loose. He immediately tossed it over his head and stripped off the rest of his clothes while she watched, not bothering to remove her own. Desire burned low in her, a hot steady blaze. She pressed herself against him when he returned to her arms, smiled again at his shuddered breath, broke their kiss to glance at the bed on the other side of the room. The length of his bedchamber, crossed daily, looked an impossible distance.

With a rough groan, Cesare picked her up, her legs dangling over the side of his arm. Lucrezia shrieked and then laughed while Cesare lowered them both to a thick carpet not far from the fire. He pressed his mouth to her throat and she tilted her head back, not even thinking of comfort, trailing her fingers over his bare skin. He retained just enough sense not to mark her neck, always exposed; with a hiss of frustration, he dragged kisses to her shoulder.

He was everywhere, lying over her, heavy between her thighs, lips and tongue on her skin, hands pinning down hers. She could do nothing but feel, feel the weight and strength of his body, the pleasure in her own—the pleasure in having him like this, near mindless over her.

She’d thought of it—them, together—as giving herself to him. She had no other words for it. But in reality it seemed far more that he gave himself to her. Lucrezia desired; Cesare consented. Willingly, to be sure, but—

His teeth grazed her shoulder, his hands slid to her breasts, and she shivered. He was more than willing, tonight.

“Cesare,” said Lucrezia, as he kissed towards her collar. “Cesare!”

Cesare lifted his head, cheeks flushed, mouth swollen. His fingers slid off her wrists. For a moment she just stared at him, then remembered why she had stopped him.

“Let me—” She tugged on the drawstring at her neckline.

He shifted off her, but before she could do more than prop herself up on her elbows, Cesare closed his fingers on the edge of her shift and tore it down the middle.

Lucrezia gasped. Then, half-painting and half-laughing, she drew him back over her, pulling her arms out of her useless sleeves. The fine chain about her neck twisted uncomfortably; she pulled it straight by the dangling ring and smiled up at Cesare.

“No fine words, Cardinal?”

He flung necklace and ring aside. “I am no cardinal tonight.”

All levity died at the first touch of his lips to her breast. Lucrezia tangled her fingers in his curling hair and forced herself to inhale, exhale, one after the other.

“Oh—” Despite her best intentions, her thoughts scattered. She shifted restlessly beneath him.

Cesare made an inarticulate sound. “I need—I want—”

“Yes!” she said, so eagerly that he smiled before sinking himself into her. Lucrezia rocked against him, this pleasure a familiar one, jolting through her. He kissed her mouth and throat haphazardly, Lucrezia dug her heels into his thighs and her nails into his back. He was saying something, too incoherent to make out more than a few words until his hands gripped her tight, discomfort and delight blurring into a litany of sensation.

“God, Lucrezia, God, God—”

He couldn’t think, could hardly breathe. All the world had narrowed to Lucrezia, her body, her soft moans, her. Release hunted him, urged him to take, take, take, less bliss than scorching ecstasy.

“Lucrezia!”

Cesare stared down at her, senses hazily returning. He did not even need to ask if he had satisfied her. He knew he had not. Yet Lucrezia, far from dissatisfied, looked delighted. She brushed her fingers against his face, stretching out complacently on—on the carpet. He’d taken her on a rug.

“I did not—” He slipped his hand towards her and Lucrezia slapped it away. She sat up, a slow smile curving her lips.

“Never mind,” she whispered. “I’m not done with you yet.”

All thought came to an abrupt halt.

Gracefully, she rose to her feet, casting aside the remains of her shift like Venus emerging from the foam.

“Come to bed,” she said.

Chapter Text

Cesare had woken with Lucrezia in his bed more times than he could count. At eight, twelve, a newly-returned sixteen, he often opened his eyes to his sister sprawled beside him or curled up under his blankets. On more anxious nights, when she had an unpleasant dream or felt particularly troubled, he would find her pressed against him, so close that their legs tangled and he had to spit long hairs out of his mouth. If he slept on his side, as he frequently did, he might very well meet dawn with her arm flung about his waist and soft nightdress brushing his back.

He didn’t mind. She never joined him when it would have proven awkward: watched, at times, but did not interrupt. Besides, he denied her nothing, even long ago before he grew accustomed to her embraces and clinging hands. And during those earliest days in Rome—the earliest that he remembered—he found himself clinging right back, fingers tightening around hers when she grasped his hand, reaching for her after his own nightmares.

So when the pale glimmer of morning twilight first drew him out of sleep, Cesare sleepily recognized Lucrezia’s cheek against his back. He felt no surprise, nor anything at all except easy contentment. In fact, he blinked at the window for a full minute before he realized that they lay in their palace and not their mother’s villa. Lucrezia’s room, he thought vaguely, and just as vaguely, found it odd. In general, they preferred it, but—

He glanced down at the hand limp over his ribs. Even in the thin light, he could make out a faint discolouration at her wrist, yellow and oblong. In an instant he jolted out of hazy awakening. Memories flooded his mind, a long blur of passion and ecstasy and laughter. He couldn’t even remember how many times he’d had her. Or she, him. Neither—both. His fingers tearing her gown, clenching into her sheets, snuffing the last candle with a low laugh. Lucrezia’s hands on his skin and her own, her whispers, moans, cries. She’d screamed by the end. They both had.

This—he could not think this what it had once been, children seeking comfort in the dark. They had … his thoughts recoiled from the vulgar. That wasn’t Lucrezia, nor he and Lucrezia together. Bruised, deceitful, adulterous, incestuous, that much he might reluctantly acknowledge: but not sordid. They had loved, that was all, until utterly sated and spent. And at long last they crawled into Lucrezia’s bed and fell asleep together.

No, not sordid. But if he could not altogether banish the sense of familiarity, he knew this to be different. His body felt satisfied still, hours later. If a certain purity lingered, childish innocence certainly did not. By belated instinct, he shifted away from her.

Lucrezia stirred.

“Cesare?” she mumbled into his back.

He studied the bruise on her wrist. He should leave, Cesare decided. Had he not proven that he could not trust himself, even with her? Particularly with her? He ought to apologize and return to his rooms. Probably burn the sheets, for good measure.

“Yes, my love?”

He had never been what he ought.

“Where are you going?” The bruised hand curled into a fist, pressed against his chest.

“Nowhere,” said Cesare. Settling back, he straightened out her fingers and laced his own through them. Yes, he should leave—and he should not have desired his sister at all, nor loved her so greatly at all—and at the least, he should not have permitted her to feel as he did. He could have kept her at arm’s length, corresponded less often when apart and detached himself when together, forbidden her intrusion into every part of his life, something. He had not.

Weariness swept over him again; it had been a long day and a longer night. He closed his eyes.

After a moment, Lucrezia spoke again.

“Bonadeo didn’t leave a scratch on you.”

Cesare smiled to himself. “No.”

Without warning, she pressed her lips against his back, which still stung a little. Last night he hadn’t much noticed.

Lucrezia giggled against his skin. “I did.”

Shifting around to look at her, he released her hand and stroked his own down her cheek to her throat. She looked comfortable, lazy, and immensely pleased with herself.

“Are you more dangerous than a condottiere, sis?”

Her smile managed to grow even more satisfied. “Perhaps.” Lucrezia’s gaze lifted from his face and she touched his hair with a laugh. “You look like you’ve been attacked by wolves.”

“So do you,” he said, mouth twitching. Her wildly disheveled curls tumbled every which way.

Cesare and Lucrezia grinned at each other and kissed drowsily. Slinging their arms about each other, they drifted back to sleep.


All night, Bernardo’s thoughts leapt between his sisters, his cousins, his brother-in-law. He did not intend to stray far from Isabel, for now. Jeronima was dead and beyond help. Cesarini would soon be likewise. Lucrezia and Cesare, presuming that he had not died in the duel—

Bernardo nearly tasted bile. What little he’d been able to extract from Lucrezia had eradicated all doubt, leaving nothing but the vague consolation of her willingness. And that, if preferable to the alternative, could only alarm him in another way. No poison, no vigilance would solve this. He strained for a solution, but each seemed more impossible or disastrous than the last. If he told his uncle … no. Alexander’s quick temper would reveal the secret to every ambassador in his court, if he believed it at all. And his papacy was already fragile, della Rovere courting the Milanese or even the French. The family could ill afford such a scandal at such a time. No, that must be the last resort. This required delicacy, secrecy—neither of them qualities which he possessed in any great degree, but which his cousins had cheerfully exploited. The necessity was to their advantage, not his. And yet he could not leave them to—

At that point, his vocabulary usually dried up.

He had only one real choice, and he knew it. Accordingly, Bernardo put off the inevitable. He joined his uncle for breakfast, scarcely touching his food; Cesare and Lucrezia, to the Pope’s annoyance and Juan’s evident satisfaction, never appeared. The women, Giulia and Sancia, looked thoughtful until talk of the evening’s celebration distracted them. Loitering for as long as he could justify it to himself, Bernardo finally left in early afternoon and headed for the Palazzo di Santa Maria in Portico.

The papal guards refused to let him pass until Cesare’s unkempt manservant appeared. Micheletto, wasn’t it? Did he know—? He’d told Lucrezia about poison.

“The cardinal has retired for a day of meditation,” said Micheletto.

“Meditation? Cesare?” Bernardo squinted up at the windows, nearly all of them curtained. “I have a family matter of urgency to discuss with him—provided he still lives.”

Several of the soldiers frowned. Micheletto regarded him even more coolly than before, then said,

“Wait here.”

Bernardo did not much appreciate receiving orders from a servant. Not just any servant, of course; the man was an assassin, if Lucrezia had not lied—about that. Plainly she had lied about a great many other things.

With no real alternative, he remained where he was, and five or ten minutes later, Micheletto emerged.

“His Eminence will see you,” he said, and gestured for the guards to let Bernardo past. They walked through the half-stripped halls, quiet but for the heavy thumps of Bernardo’s boots on the floor. Micheletto himself made no sound at all, and Bernardo neither heard nor saw any other servants; the whole place seemed asleep. His skin crawled; he felt—not afraid, of course, but uneasy.

Leading him upstairs to the private apartments, Micheletto pushed open the door to a cluttered antechamber.

“Don Bernardo, your Eminence—my lady,” he said, and retreated the instant Bernardo walked inside.

He’d rather hoped to find Cesare alone; that would be easier. Instead, Lucrezia lay on a long, low chaise, stretched out in her dressing gown, hair falling in a curly, tangled mass over one shoulder. Half-propped up by pillows and her elbows, she stared at him in some bewilderment. Her face looked different, harder than usual—still lovely, still young, but not childlike. Cesare himself lounged on a tall bench behind her. Though marginally more presentable in boots, trousers, half-tied shirt, and open doublet, his hair hung in the same tousled curls around his face.

Bernardo glanced around the chamber. His first impression of clutter, he realized, hardly did justice to the project underway. The room was crowded with valuables: fine chairs and tables, books bound in leather and gold, marble busts and statues, several painted lutes, enormous paintings draped with gauze, piles of gold coins, elaborately carved chests. It seemed an eminently suitable setting for them.

“How magnificently decadent,” he remarked.

“Both of us have only just awoken,” Cesare said, which Bernardo had no difficulty believing. “I hope it is very urgent.”

“Less to you than to us—my sister and I,” replied Bernardo. “Isabel believes, I assume correctly, that you met with a certain Roman gentleman last night. Baron … I beg your pardon, the name escapes me. Your lover’s husband.” He glanced at Lucrezia, who looked unconcerned. Either she was very understanding, or their plotting approached the Byzantine. “She would be comforted, you understand, to know that you are alive.”

“Oh no!” Lucrezia sat up, drawn out of her lethargy. The movement tugged at her robe, pulled one of the sleeves a little awry. Bernardo noticed a small bruise on her shoulder, then another on Cesare’s neck, and promptly wished he had not.

“I meant to write to her,” she said, absently adjusting her sleeve, “but I … I forgot.”

Cesare and Lucrezia glanced at each other, their conspiratorial smiles alarmingly familiar. He’d seen those exact expressions on their faces before, dozens if not hundreds of times. They’d always had secrets, their little schemes and confidences, childish mischief. And now—what? Deeper secrets, more convoluted schemes, more dangerous mischief. Was that it? Did they lie together and think it little different from the rest?—altered in degree, but not kind? Did they … when had catapulting oranges at the unwary become a hidden incestuous affair? How?

“She was not too alarmed, I trust,” said Cesare. “Well, since you are already here—”

He sighed and picked up an overturned chair at one end of a small, exquisitely painted table. Watching with horrified fascination, Bernardo’s gaze drifted from the chair to the alquerque board on the table, where a game had evidently been in progress. A few tokens lay piled on either side, the rest still on the board, either in their original positions or haphazardly placed with no noticeable strategy. On the other side of the board, he saw a tray of marzipan, not yet stale, and a drying, half-eaten nectarine from a nearby bowl of fruit. The interruption very evidently had taken place no more than a few hours earlier.

It might have been anything. To Bernardo, however, the explanation was blindingly obvious. He swallowed.

“Sit down,” said Cesare.

Lucrezia laughed and added, “You look like a vulture, cousin, hovering there. You needn’t make yourself uncomfortable.”

Bernardo sat. Trying to remember the prior conversation, he managed to say, “Isabel assured me of your ability, Cès … Cesare. I do not believe she felt any doubt until your absence at his Holiness’ table this morning. Of course, Lucrezia did not appear either.”

“Papa must have been displeased,” Lucrezia said, frowning. “But it is only that we were so exhausted.”

“I am certain you were,” said Bernardo.

“He will understand once I explain.” She rose to her feet, shaking out her robe. “I must dress and write to them both. I beg you to excuse me, cousin—brother.”

She slipped out of the room. This, Bernardo knew, was his opportunity; he dreaded raising the subject before Lucrezia herself. Yet the words died in his mouth.

“Your manservant,” he found himself saying abruptly. “Is he an assassin?”

With a quick glance, Cesare slid off the bench and walked around to Lucrezia’s chaise, slouching against the pillows. “Yes. I told you about him before.”

Bernardo scarcely remembered. “Do you know that he talks to your”—sister stuck in his throat—“to Lucrezia about poison? Isabel and I nearly fell over when she started lecturing us about cantarella.”

Cesare laughed, affection warm in his voice and face. If Bernardo had not known better, he would have seen nothing suspicious in it at all.

“Did she?” said Cesare, with a look of decidedly fraternal amusement. “What did she tell you?”

“Not to mix it with sugar,” Bernardo said.

At that, Cesare frowned. Half to himself, he murmured, “Why would she …”

“I gather she made some jest about poisoning Sancia d’Aragona, and he—er—enlightened her on the subject.”

“Ah,” Cesare said, relaxing.

“Presuming she told us the truth. I am starting to suspect that she is not quite so honest as she appears.”

Cesare grinned. “Not honest at all. She could sell the Tiber to King Fernando.”

Bernardo did not think he had ever heard anything less lover-like. In fact, his cousins’ behaviour seemed altogether nearer the ties of family than of desire, an easy, natural affection that would have not gone amiss between any brother and sister. Cesare certainly looked and sounded more brother than forbidden paramour. That, in itself, troubled him; if they had rejected the fact of their blood relationship in pursuit of their lusts, convinced themselves that they did not truly feel themselves family, pretended to be something other than what they were—well, that would have been bad enough. But they did not pretend. They acted less as if they willfully transgressed the boundary between siblings and lovers, and more as if they utterly failed to notice its existence.

He inhaled. How long would it be before Lucrezia returned? He must speak.

“Forgive me,” said Cesare, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his thighs. “I meant to tell you—”

Bernardo could not believe that either of his cousins would actually reveal their secret to him. Nevertheless, a flicker of hope animated him. “Yes?”

“I am very sorry about your sister,” Cesare said. He studied his hands. “More than I can express. She was, I think, the best of us.”

Bernardo blinked. But of course, there was no reason for his cousins to alter their behaviour around him; they did not know.

More sincerely than he intended, he said, “Thank you.” His tongue felt thick and awkward in his mouth. “The truth is that I was a failure by way of a brother, as you tried to tell me. Jeronima and I corresponded—I have her letters—but it is not …” He lifted his eyes with an effort. “Not like you and Lucrezia. I scarcely knew her; you could not say that.”

“No,” said Cesare. In a dry voice, he added, “I know Lucrezia very well.”

Bernardo suppressed a grimace. “Naturally.”

For several moments, they sat in awkward silence. Neither looked at each other, nor at much of anything else. Finally, Bernardo said,

“I grieve, of course. But not as Isabel does.” Bernardo chose his words carefully. “I am in an easier position than the family in Rome, I suppose. I cannot imagine what you would do, were it your sister.”

“There are many mischances which may befall a man in this world,” Cesare replied, shrugging. “No doubt I could find one of them.”

Bernardo’s eyes widened. By this point, he felt convinced that he understood even less than he had before.

“Suicide is a black sin,” he said unsteadily, and braced himself. “Blacker, even, than incest.”

Cesare jerked upright, attention fixing on Bernardo with a mouser’s sudden watchful alertness. His glance sharp, he said, “What are you suggesting?”

Bernardo’s hesitation snapped. He rose and stalked about the room. “For God’s sake, Cèsar, have you lost your senses? What could possibly have possessed you—what—of all the women you might have defiled, you chose Lucrècia? Your own sister!”

Cesare sprang up as well. “I did not—”

“This is all a misunderstanding, is it? Do you think you can talk your way out, again?”

His cousin’s voice was little short of a snarl. “I think you know no more of us than you did of Jeronima.”

Bernardo halted. Cesare, resolute, remained near the chaise, arms folded, standing at his full height. Bernardo, who still half-regarded his cousin as a boy, felt a distant discomfort that Cesare was in fact taller than he. A sword and a dagger hung from his belt—no doubt the same he had used to kill a man the night before.

“Do not bring my sister into this.”

“You did,” Cesare retorted.

True enough, though Bernardo had no intention of admitting it. “And what knowledge could possibly explain this? Justify this? You are her older brother! You should be her protector, her defender, not—my God, she is fourteen years old. Fourteen! Not even a woman.”

“Enough of one to be sold off to that pig Sforza,” said Cesare coldly.

Their insistence that Lucrezia could not possibly have conceived, and some vague gossip he’d heard from Aragonese acquaintances, had given him the impression that the marriage remained unconsummated. Now he thought of Lucrezia’s fury the day before, when he tried to fob her off with platitudes about marriage. There were, after all, other ways to avoid a pregnancy—though in his experience of eighteen-year-old boys, they did not bother with such things, and rarely thought that far in the first place. But then, in his experience of eighteen-year-old boys, they did not fuck their sisters, either.

Bernardo felt the ground slipping beneath his feet. “Who—” He meant to demand, but even he could tell that he sounded more confused than anything else. “How long—did she—did you—”

Cesare’s expression cleared a little. “No,” he replied. “That was Sforza.” His lip curled as he spoke.

They had only begun after the marriage, then. He hadn’t taken her virginity. Another infinitesimal consolation.

Bernardo fell silent, trying to integrate this new information. In the meanwhile, Cesare strode over to a table near the door, fiddling with an undoubtedly priceless vase.

In the end, Bernardo thought, he really only had one question. Regaining his voice again, he managed to croak it out.

“Why?”

Cesare studied the vase. Even once he raked his hair back, Bernardo found no revelation in the profile of his face, nothing but a vaguely abstracted expression.

“I am told,” Cesare said at last, “that I held her as a newborn baby, just a few days after she was born.”

Bernardo stared, incredulous. “You think that makes this more acceptable?” 

“No,” said Cesare. “I do not remember it. I do not remember holding her on the Santa Catalina. I do not remember when we first came to Valencia, except the smell of jasmine. I cannot remember a time when I did not love her above all else. Above the family, the world, God. I remember nothing of any time when I have not lived for her, when I would not die for her.” Setting the vase back on the table, he lifted his eyes. “Do you understand? I will do anything she asks and count it a pleasure.”

Bernardo felt, absurdly, that he should understand. Yet the pieces still could not fit together.

“I know you have always loved her,” he said, “but love does not require this.” His jaw set. “Cesare. You are the Cardinal of Valencia, the firstborn of the Pope of Rome. You hold the greatest diocese in the Corona d’Aragó, you have youth, wealth, influence. No woman in Italy would turn you away. You could have any woman you desire—as many women as you desire, beautiful and cultivated. Claim one of them: all of them, if you must. Anything rather than this.”

“I commend you, cousin,” said Cesare, after several moments’ silence. A slight, humourless smile played about his mouth. “It is not everyone who can render that prospect so utterly unappealing.”

“There are many more beautiful women,” Bernardo persisted, though by now he felt as if he might as well dash himself against the Alcázar de Segovia.

Cesare looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. “Lucrezia is perfect.”

Exasperated, Bernardo said, “Lucrezia is pretty. She has flaws enough. Freckles. Her chin recedes.” It sounded ridiculous even to himself. Incest aside, no man would be driven from his lover by a laundry-list of minor imperfections.

“So does mine.” Now, Cesare ran a finger around the edge of a dusty silver bowl, then frowned at the smear on his skin. “It comes from our mother’s side, I expect.”

Bernardo bit the inside of his cheek. “Thank you for that reminder.”

Cesare, with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow, simply dusted his fingertip off. Bernardo’s teeth clenched.

Some degree of remorse would not go amiss.”

“I regret nothing,” said Cesare.

“And your—” Bernardo shook his head. “What do I even call her now?”

“My sister,” Cesare replied. Neither his tone nor his expression so much as flickered. He lifted his eyes. “The same blood still runs in our veins. We share our family, our father and mother. If that disturbs your sensibilities too much, ‘Lucrezia’ should suffice.”

“And your sister regrets nothing?”

“Nothing,” he said firmly.

“How could you possibly have—how—” Bernardo forced his tongue into compliance. He demanded, “Do you have any explanation at all? Why, of all the women in the world, all their beauty and fascinations, you chose your own sister? In the right course of things, fraternal love does not become this, not under any circumstances! And it can hardly be desperation. Rome is full of desirable women: cortigiane oneste if you hold yourselves above the others.”

“Like my mother?” said Cesare, voice biting.

Bernardo paused. “Noblewomen, then. You had one of those, did you not? Bonadeo’s wife.”

“No.” He shrugged again. “I might have, but I went to Pesaro instead.”

And in Pesaro, he had found Lucrezia. Lucrezia, unhappy, to go by what Isabel had guessed and Lucrezia herself all but admitted. Yet the one did not follow from the other. Unhappy wives had affairs with their husbands’ friends, stewards, servants. Not their brothers. And brothers certainly did not console unhappy sisters by—he cringed.

Suddenly Cesare stepped forward, skirting a table piled with heavy illuminated tomes, until he stood only a few feet away.

“Very well,” he said. His fingers curled into his palms, eyes blazing in his pale face. “Tell me that somewhere in Italy, or Spain, or any other nation, exists a woman I could love as I have loved Lucrezia. Tell me that there is a woman who could understand me half as well as she does. A woman who would know me as I am, and not as the world or my father or anyone would shape me. A woman who would see my true nature without fear—see the mark on it—share it. Look me in the eye, Bernardo, and tell me there is any woman who is so much my own soul. Then I may consider it.”

Bernardo, taken aback, found to his own dismay that he could not even meet his cousin's gaze. He felt as if he had seen something not meant for his eyes, peered into their bedchamber.

“I never thought you so fond of yourself as that,” he said at last. In truth, he had not thought Cesare fond of himself at all, even as a child.

Cesare’s voice cooled to its usual matter-of-fact tones. “I am sanctified in her.”

Bernardo hardly knew where to look. He had expected—he didn’t know what he had expected. What could be expected when a man set off to confront cousins not yet of age about incest?

Not this.

Was it Cesare’s way of justifying his lusts to himself? Did he truly feel … nobody could doubt that he adored her, he always had, but … did she herself—how had he even prevailed upon her to—why?

“This is not sanctity,” Bernardo muttered.

Before he could add anything else, or Cesare reply, the door flung open and Lucrezia swept inside. Incongruously, she wore white, something loose and simple that did make her look very nearly holy.

“There—I sent Micheletto with the notes,” she announced. Stepping over several piles, she made her way to the chaise. “I hope you have not been too uncomfortable, Bernardo. This room is wretchedly cluttered just now.”

He could not even speak, as unsettled by her blithe unconcern as Cesare’s insolence. Lucrezia glanced between them, an expression of apparently guileless confusion settling over her face.

“Is something wrong? I hope I have not interrupted some great matter?”

“No,” said Cesare. He walked over to her, hand resting lightly on her arm. “You are never unwelcome, dear sis.”

She smiled. “What were you talking of, then? Or did the two of you pass my entire absence in sober contemplation?”

Cesare laughed; with her arrival, his entire being seemed to lighten. Lucrezia, dull and short-tempered the day before, looked cheerful and at ease. It was impossible, Bernardo found, to cast himself as the protector of her happiness.

That broke his stupor.

“Not contemplation,” Cesare was saying, “but—”

“Incest,” said Bernardo.

Lucrezia looked sharply at him. Everything about her, features, set of her shoulders, gesturing hands, stilled. Scarcely opening her lips, she said,

“Close the door, Cesare.”

Without a word, he obeyed. Lucrezia, no longer resembling anything like an angel, laced her fingers together just as the Pope often did, her eyes hard. The door slammed shut. 

Despite himself, Bernardo started at the sound.

Cesare leaned back against the door, one hand resting lightly at his waist, where his dagger hung. Unease crawled up Bernardo’s spine. Even with his terrible discovery, he had not thought of them as anything but young cousins of whom he was fond. Their affair he regarded as a terrible mistake, a sin even he must deplore, but not so much as to substantially alter his ideas of them. Now, he looked at Cesare not as a young relation nearly grown, but a potential threat: both taller and leaner than he was himself, a dozen years younger, armed while Bernardo had only a knife in his boot. He had willingly marched into Cesare’s empty palace and confronted him over a matter that could easily destroy him.

“What do you wish to know?” said Lucrezia, voice lower and colder than he had ever heard it. 

“What do you think I wish to know?” he snapped back.

He’d already cast himself into the spider’s web. There was no way to go but forward.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia smoothed down a fold in her skirts, even that small gesture performed with an economical grace. Her voice, however, was petulant. “You are being very disagreeable.”

“I?” The last of his patience evaporated. “I know not how your brother has persuaded or compelled you, but—”

He did not know, truly. He did not understand. He did not understand any of it, at all. Cesare might speak of love all he liked; how could he of all people have led her into this? It made no sense, fit no more than a square did into a circle.

Cesare drew a sharp breath and stepped forward, hand tightening on his dagger. “You dare suggest—”

“Cesare,” Lucrezia said.

That was all. Cesare, however, immediately halted; and Bernardo faltered back into his first confusion. If either of them held sway over the other, it was Lucrezia, it had always been Lucrezia. Nothing he’d seen in the years since, nothing he’d heard from Jeronima or any other relation, altered that impression. And here, now, man and something like woman, they remained the same. One word from Lucrezia and a blade might well have swung in Cesare’s path. Yet he had lured her into … he had …

“If you were anyone else,” snarled Cesare, “you would die for such an insult.”

Lucrezia, more sanguine, said, “You know us better than that, surely.”

He did, he did. The last jagged piece slid into place.

“I have—misunderstood,” he said slowly. His mounting horror rose still higher. “Forgive me, Cèsar. I fear I misjudged you.”

Cesare stared at him. But Bernardo turned away, towards Lucrezia, who remained stiff and cold on her chaise. No doubt she was warm enough between her brother’s sheets.

“I did misjudge him, did I not?” he asked, his tone half-mocking, his raised eyebrow more so. Lucrezia only returned him a look of regal disdain. “Come, Lucrèc—Lucrezia, you might as well confess the whole now. This is your doing, not his. Isn’t that so? It is you who … ” He couldn’t even finish the sentence.

She cast a quick glance at her brother. “It was both of us.”

“This is not a sin that one can commit alone,” said Cesare.

Lucrezia’s mouth curved into the same radiant smile as yesterday, her eyes shining. Not speaking, she rose and stepped around the various treasures towards Cesare. He closed the remaining distance with a few quick strides, the two of them now directly in front of Bernardo. Again, he could not help feeling that he intruded on something he should never have seen—that he insulted decency more by observing them than they did themselves. Nor could he help observing that they stood between him and the door.

He opened his mouth to speak, he hardly knew what, but Lucrezia prevented him.

“That said,” she went on, “you are not mistaken in … essentials. It has certainly been my doing far more than Cesare’s.”

Cesare frowned down at her. “No, Lucrezia.”

Crossing her arms, she glanced from Cesare to Bernardo, then back to Cesare, her jaw set. “It was I who first spoke, who urged this every step of the way, who—you must admit to that much. Left to your own devices, you would not have touched me for years. Perhaps ever.”

“I admit nothing of the kind,” he said indignantly. “I took the first step.”

“You certainly did not!”

“At the villa,” said Cesare. “Before the wedding.”

“Oh, I see.” She considered this for several moments. Then she shook her head. “No, you cannot claim it for yourself. I asked you!”

“You did not ask for that.”

Bernardo heard and watched all this with a sort of horrified fascination. Bemused into silence, he knew not whether he was witnessing a lovers’ quarrel or a sibling one. He felt uncomfortably that, subject aside, it sounded very much more like the latter.

“I had to argue you into it,” Lucrezia persisted. She and Cesare had both turned to one another, disregarding Bernardo until she glanced over at him. “I had to argue you into everything. That is what Bernardo meant. Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said, and then scowled. He had no intentions of being drawn into this utterly bizarre dispute. “This, this sin—there can be no other name for so great a wrong—what could even have tempted you into it? What could have led you to tempt him? Your own brother, Lucrezia!”

Cesare, more indignant than ever, opened his mouth.

“It does not feel wrong. It feels perfectly natural,” said Lucrezia. “Natural, and right. Can love be a sin?”

“Yes! Yes, it can!” If Cesare and his dagger had not been there, Bernardo might well have shaken her until her teeth rattled. “Adultery, sodomy—”

“Oh, those,” Lucrezia said, her sangfroid untouched.

At this point not only appalled but utterly exasperated, he looked her straight in the eye.

“For God’s sake, Lucrezia,” said Bernardo, deliberately roughening his voice, “do you think it’s not incest if he fucks you on his knees?”

She blinked. “How could he possibly—”

“Leave,” Cesare said softly. His face had turned expressionless, his hand dropped from his dagger. The other rested on his sword. His face was expressionless. “Now.”

Lucrezia grasped his arm. “No, Cesare, he cannot.” With a glance at Bernardo, she drew her brother a short distance away. They conferred in murmurs, inaudible but for one ominous phrase from Lucrezia.

“What if he speaks?”

Cesare gave him a look of deep contempt, almost loathing. After a minute or two, they returned to their previous position between Bernardo and the door.

“Finish what you came to say,” Cesare snapped. “And Borgia though you may be, do not insult Lucrezia again if you wish to keep your heart.”

This much he had expected, insofar as he had considered the risk at all; he could scarcely think. Bernardo turned his gaze on Lucrezia. She herself seemed intrigued as much as insulted, and defiant; she lifted her chin.

Nothing could be gained here, Bernardo realized. Cesare was infatuated beyond all reason, and had never been anything less than devoted to her; Lucrezia feared nothing in his presence. He must get her alone. And discover whom she might have confided in. She was not a reserved girl.

“I beg your pardon,” said Bernardo, with something like sincerity. Yet he could not prevent himself from adding, “I cannot imagine what came over me. I only meant to add that our Holy Father expects your presence at the festivities tonight, both of yours. ”

“What festivities?” she asked.

“The celebration of the wedding,” he said, “and hopefully the continued survival of his papacy. Did you forget that it is to be held tonight? And he will particularly wish to see you as much as possible, Lucrezia.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “More than usual? Has he a reason?”

“Your imminent departure, I imagine.”

They both tilted their heads, identical for all their differences.

“What do you mean?” said Cesare.

Bernardo was not above a slice of vindictive pleasure. “His Holiness received a letter from Lord Sforza. He expects Lucrezia to depart within the week.”

She turned white. Cesare flinched, then steadied her and grasped her hand.

“Micheletto will accompany you,” he told her urgently. “You know that at the merest hint of … there is nothing to fear.”

“Yes.” Taking several breaths, her usual cool resolve settled over her. “Yes. Of course. I am the lord Sforza’s wife. I must return to him.”

She did not sound resolved; holding hands, dread alive in their faces and voices, they reminded Bernardo of nothing so much as frightened children. Whatever discomfort he might have wished on them, it was not this.

“What has he done?” he demanded.

Lucrezia, still clutching her brother’s hand, gave him a scornful look. “Nothing that any husband might not—as you so kindly informed me.”

Now entirely befuddled, he said, “I told you what?”

Cesare ignored him. “What does it matter? He knows too much already.”

Lucrezia nodded.

“How very reassuring.” But Bernardo’s eyes were fixed on Lucrezia.

“My husband has his rights,” she told him, “the same that Lord Cesarini did. Have you forgotten already what you said to me yesterday? A man may avail himself of his wife if he wishes. And however he wishes, I suppose.”

“The man is a brute,” said Cesare: all of five words, and each brimmed with rage. “He may be valuable for that moment, but someday he will bleed for every bruise.”

Bernardo thought of Jeronima’s wasted body. He did not consider Cesarini a brute, exactly: rather a man so vapid and so consummately selfish that he did not realize his own cruelty. By all accounts she had been dangerously ill when she conceived; they all knew he must have demanded her as soon as her miscarriage passed—forced her, in deed if not in name. Even Lucrezia understood that.

Especially Lucrezia. His gut churned. And a dim picture began to form in his mind. Lucrezia, little more than a child, not only forced to bear the attentions of a man any reasoning woman would find abhorrent, but mistreated by day as well. Lucrezia, alone in misery, until her brother arrived to keep his promise. Cesare, confronted with such atrocious treatment of the sister he had always loved as most men loved glory and gold.

It did not explain all. But it explained something.

“I cannot betray any of this, at present,” he said in a low voice. “You must realize that. Any scandal—and we all know my uncle’s temper. He has no discretion.”

They studied him. After a long moment, in which the very air felt so heavy that he could have touched it, Lucrezia said,

“And in the future?”

Bernardo had risked too much to bother with falsehood now. He’d never been much of a schemer in any case.

“I know not.”

They looked at each other. Reaching some silent, Cesare-and-Lucrezia accord, both stepped back.

“You may leave,” said Cesare.

Bernardo replied dryly, “Thank you. I trust I may depend on the company of your pet assassin henceforth?”

Cesare lifted an eyebrow. He only said, “Of course.”

“How delightful. All these Romans get so tedious. Well, until tonight.” Bernardo headed towards the door, then paused, glancing over his shoulder. “Lucrezia?”

She lifted her eyes to him. “Yes?”

“Isabel and I hoped to keep your suspicions at bay, yesterday. I was lying. Cesarini shall pay for what he did: and so will Sforza.”

With that, he walked out of the antechamber. 


Pope Alexander, whatever else might be said of him, hosted magnificent celebrations—never more so than when it came to his children.

“You surpass yourself, uncle,” said Bernardo, after he paid his respects. “No one could find anything wanting.”

Sancia d’Aragona certainly did not; he nodded at her, laughing gaily with some of her Neapolitans, and Jofrè smiling at her side. The Pope beamed all around.

“Then we have accomplished all we hoped! But you are not dancing, nephew. Surely our Roman beauties are not beneath your notice.”

On another evening, they would be anything but. Tonight, he had greater concerns than flirtation.

“I confess, I am rather tired,” he said. As surreptitiously as he could, he searched the room for his cousins. There, Cesare, joining Sancia’s circle. And Juan headed in their direction. Cesare leaned down to whisper something to Jofrè, who then turned to Sancia; the two of them joined the dance, as did Cesare with one of Sancia’s ladies. Juan, disgruntled, spoke to the woman nearest him and all but dragged her into the set, a good distance from his mistress.

Bernardo almost smiled. But it faded when he saw that the man next to Cesare—a puppy likely his own age, and nearly a foot shorter—danced with Lucrezia. The exchange of partners would pair them together, without any cause for suspicion.

He sighed, both disgusted and impressed.

“Who are those dour folk?” he asked. He jerked his head towards a cluster of sober men in black, observing the proceedings with no apparent interest in participating in any of them. “I rather wonder why they came.”

“Who? Oh, yes,” said Alexander. “That would be the ambassador of Queen Isabel and his entourage.”

“Ah, Castilians.”

The Pope grinned. “Indeed.”

“Lady Juana is Castilian, I think?” he said suddenly.

His uncle looked suspicious. “Yes. Toledana.

“Well,” said Bernardo, “that explains Cèsar.”

Their gazes both turned towards Cesare, all in black, scarcely speaking to his partner. Alexander burst out laughing. Even Bernardo grinned.

He caught sight of another black-clad figure.

“I see our own Isabel,” he said. “Excuse me, your Holiness; I must pay my respects to my sister.”

Pietro Matuzzi, restored to garish pinks and greens, greeted him enthusiastically; Isabel accepted his kisses on her cheeks with cool civility, which seemed very much the same from her.

“My cousin Elionor looks lonely,” she told her husband. “You should dance with her.”

Pietro looked uncertain. “I do not like to leave you alone, my love.”

“I am not alone—Bernardo is here, and he does not wish to dance. Do you, brother?”

“No,” said Bernardo.

Pietro dutifully trotted off, and Bernardo just shook his head. He wondered, sometimes, about the nature of their marriage. Isabel had never conceived; even Jeronima assumed her barren, but he never felt quite sure, himself. He could easily believe that the fault lay with so girlish a husband.

“Where is Elionor?” he asked.

“I have no idea.”

Bernardo chuckled and allowed Isabel to lead them through the press of the crowd, nearer to the head of the line. She knew her way around better than he did, and readily abused their name when anyone proved recalcitrant. From there they had room to breathe freely, and stood near enough to make out their cousins’ faces.

Isabel fanned her face. “Nobody can say we did not receive her properly,” she murmured.

“Sancia? No. She looks as pleased as a cat in butter.”

“Good,” said Isabel. “I hear that her brother holds her in high esteem.”

They fell silent, watching the dancers, Bernardo wondering how he could even broach the subject to her, and if he dared. At the exchange of partners, he braced himself. Yet he could not help shifting his gaze to Cesare and Lucrezia. The latter he could not yet see; Cesare, dull and solemn with his chosen partner, was smiling now, his face animated and steps light. At a turn in the dance, Lucrezia proved bright and laughing, shining with happiness. They danced, impossibly graceful, and their eyes did not waver from one another. The respectable distance between them, hands only just brushing, made their infatuation all the more blinding. Bernardo could hardly believe no one else saw it.

He glanced at his own sister. She, too, watched Cesare and Lucrezia, expression inscrutable.

“As you see,” said Bernardo, “he lived.”

“Yes, he already deigned to inform me of it,” she replied. “He was unharmed, too, Lucrezia tells me.”

He supposed Lucrezia would know.

Isabel, reading or misreading him, said, “She could hardly wait to boast to me of it. I might have thought she’d struck the killing blow herself, if I did not know otherwise. But she is always very proud of anything he accomplishes.”

“Has he many accomplishments of this kind?”

“Apparently he crushed the disputants at his laureate. She was nearly insufferable for a week,” said Isabel, affection touching her voice.

Bernardo watched Cesare’s hand settle on Lucrezia’s waist. Prescribed by the dance, and yet—and yet.

“How long was he at the university?” he asked.

“Two years, I believe. Yes, he returned two and a half years ago, and left for Perugia two years before that. He moved to the university at Pisa at some point—I do not remember the reason.” Isabel gave him a sharp look. “Why do you ask?”

“Two years,” said Bernardo. He nodded at Cesare and Lucrezia. “It is difficult to imagine them apart so long. Yet now she is married.”

“Yes,” Isabel said, “that separated them for all of two months.”

He gave a short laugh. “True enough. Yet they endured it before?”

“When he left for Perugia, one might have believed him going to his gallows. Their letters must have stripped a forest. Still, they knew that time would come to an end. Now—well, this marriage will not last forever, but I fear Lucrezia does not believe that. She will break her heart when she goes.”

“Or he will,” said Bernardo.

“Very probably.” Hesitating a moment, Isabel’s gaze flicked between him and their cousins. Finally she said, “Have you ever seen them with other companions, beyond acquaintance or duty?”

Bernardo tried to recall. Nothing came to mind. He’d heard that Lucrezia was friendly with Giulia Farnese, Cesare had his assassin, both were fond of family, but those did not strike him as anything like companions.

“No.” Then he did remember something. “I asked Cesare, but he seemed scarcely to know what I meant.”

“He may very well not,” Isabel said. “They have had no companionship but one another's.”

“They never grew out of it?”

“By eighteen and fourteen? No.” Isabel considered them; Cesare and Lucrezia seemed oblivious to the entire room. “What reason have they to change? Besides, they have the habits and affections of years with them now. And there is a great deal of vanity in it, of course.”

“Vanity?” he said, puzzled.

“They do not look it, and often do not act it, but in character they resemble each other a great deal,” she said. “Whether in Valencia or Rome, they like each other so much because they are alike, now more than ever.”

Tell me there is any woman so much my own soul.

Bernardo swallowed. “Yes, I see that.”

“I cannot imagine her life in Pesaro,” Isabel murmured, half to herself.

He wished he could say the same.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Bernardo knew he should have expected nothing from the celebration. He dared not appear too unlike himself, which meant dancing with every passingly handsome Roman, Neapolitan, or Spanish lady over the age of fourteen; he dared not reveal anything, which meant confining his questions to polite inquiry; and he refused to let Lucrezia out of his sight, which meant he could not retire all the long evening. He knew he danced, spoke, yawned under the eyes of Borgia spies. Not all Cesare’s, but that assassin of his would be somewhere.

He allowed himself but one exception to his general circumspection.

Though Bernardo had not known his sisters as well as he ought, he knew them well enough at Lucrezia’s age, when they all left for Rome. And he knew the cousins remaining in Valencia, some of them girls of thirteen or fourteen or fifteen. Lucrezia might be remorseless and devious, infinitely more so than he could have imagined, but he remained convinced that her circumspection must have failed somewhere. Vanity alone would demand that much.

Moreover, even with him, she had adhered to the same twisted frankness as her brother. He could recall very few outright falsehoods from either, only contorted truths—deceptive, to be sure, yet as near to veracity as circumstances allowed. She’d let details slip: cantarella, dread of her husband, the careless admission that she had kept Cesare with her for no other reason than that she wanted him there. It seemed she wanted to confess, or at least to speak. She expressed not the slightest degree of penitence, true, but Lucrezia was not one to settle for her own admiration. She had been clever, and would not bear her cleverness going wholly unacknowledged. She must have confided something, in someone.

Bernardo hoped.

There was Lady Vanozza, of course. Cesare and Lucrezia loved and respected their mother; the baron’s body floating somewhere in the Tiber proved that. As far as he knew, Lucrezia had kept few secrets from Vanozza at any point. But that had been before that husband of hers cut her childhood dead. Vanozza plainly did not know of that, and however she might respond to her daughter seducing her son, Bernardo could not believe that she would not respond at all. And truly he could not believe that Lucrezia would have admitted any part of the affair to her—their—mother. Even had her lover not been her own brother, surely she would prefer a different sort of confidante. Someone younger, more companion than authority.

Not far distant, Giulia Farnese drifted away from her last partner. Bernardo’s eyes settled on her, narrowed. She was considerably older than Lucrezia, of course: about his and Isabel’s age. Too much older, too much … the Pope’s mistress, to be the sort of friend Isabel had said their cousins lacked. Yet might it not be more probable that Lucrezia would confide in her sophisticated mentor than another young girl or a guardian?

Giulia, less lively than the lover decades her senior, sank into one of the few chairs. Bernardo seized the moment and a glass of wine, walking towards her.

“Lady Giulia.” He offered the glass.

With a rueful smile, she accepted it. “Thank you, Lord Bernardo. I am not so young as I once was.”

“None of us are,” he replied, “and I would hazard that none of us ever possessed such élan as his Holiness. But Bernardo will do well enough. I am nothing more than another Borgia bastard.”

“That is a very great nothing in these days,” said Giulia.

She startled a laugh out of his throat. “True enough. ’Tis a golden age for artists and bastards. Still, you are my aunt in all but name, are you not?” Bernardo slanted a glance at her. “I hope you will not stand on formality with me—with us, my sister and I. We neither of us desire it.”

“Thank you,” she said again, in the same manner, a gracious, reserved mildness that obscured all hint of her own thoughts: approaching vacuous and never quite there. But perhaps his partiality misled him. “I would not wish to take liberties.”

Bernardo followed her gaze; after a moment’s uncertainty, he caught sight of Cesare, near enough to see but too far to hear. Though he stood with his sister, head bent down and Lucrezia whispering into his ear, he was at his most aloof—stiff, solemn, and annoyed. He nodded acquiescence to whatever she had asked, then with more determination than pleasure, headed towards a small crowd of women. Bernardo could no longer make out his expression, but Lucrezia seemed scarcely more satisfied. However, by the time they joined the dance—several couples apart—both were smiling and talking with their respective partners, a tall dark man and a slim fair-haired woman. Bernardo supposed they seemed sincere enough to strangers.

“Ah, my cousin might take it that way?” Now that he thought of it, Cesare scarcely acknowledged Giulia’s existence at all, and then only with the utmost reluctance. “Yes, of course he would. You must forgive him;—he is devoted to his mother, you understand.”

Giulia inclined her head. “I do. Cardinal Borgia and I have reached an accord, I believe, but not so much of one that I would impose on his good graces.”

Cesare had precious few graces, Bernardo thought. And nearly all seemed on display for the benefit of his partner.

“I see,” he said. “Forgive me, do you know the identity of that lady there, the one dancing with Cesare?”

“Lady Ursula Bonadeo,” replied Giulia, “wife of the baron Bonadeo. I have not yet seen the baron himself.”

Bernardo imagined not.

Lucrezia must have sent Cesare to allay his previous lover’s suspicions. Another wrinkle he had not considered. No doubt they had not considered it either, at least not Cesare. Lucrezia—only God knew what passed in her mind. He could be certain of little but the fact that he, in common with all of Rome and most of Italy, had grossly misjudged her.

He glanced back at Giulia. She was watching Lucrezia, unreadable as ever. Forcing himself to a modicum of caution, he made light conversation for the next half-hour, to which she responded in kind; she was an engaging woman in her way. Her manner blurred reserve and delicate charm, too dignified to invite impudence and too warm to be off-putting. Statelier than Vanozza, he decided, but without the forthright intensity he admired in the woman he would always consider his aunt.

He wished she were here. Perhaps she did not wish it; perhaps she remained in disgrace from her and Cesare’s revolt at the wedding. He wished he could relinquish this burden from his clumsy hands to hers. He would, had it been anyone but her own children, and damn the consequences. God, why could he not have remained in ignorance another week? Lucrezia, returned to Pesaro, would have remained an innocent child to him, Cesare a clever young man guilty of nothing but the same resentment Bernardo felt himself. His own mind, unsuited to the abstractions of theology and ethics, would never have been called upon to observe and judge a situation so beyond his understanding.

Bernardo rubbed his eyes, tired.

As the set came to an end, he turned to Giulia and said, “You have scarcely taken your eyes from my cousin. Do you worry for her?”

“I worry for her happiness,” she replied, surprisingly frank. Lucrezia was beaming up at her partner, hand resting on his arm.

“As do we all.” His eyes narrowed. “Should we have any particular cause for concern?”

Giulia hesitated. “She is not so lighthearted this evening as I am used to seeing her.”

“She does not anticipate her departure, I imagine. Pesaro is a dreary place for a young girl.” His eyes returned to the dancers, contemplating them. Cesare had vanished; he must have made his escape already. But then, seducing a married woman while entirely enthralled by his sister seemed likely to strain even his abilities. “Or perhaps it is her lover’s absence.”

The languid serenity of Giulia’s face did not alter in the slightest. Neither did her mild tone.

“If you have any care for your family, you will mind your tongue, Bernardo Borgia.”

“I do not blame her,” he muttered. “We all know that husband of hers is a boor.”

She cast a quick glance at him. “What do you know?”

“Few details,” said Bernardo. “But her brother is angry, and that suffices. My own sister …” He was not a womanish sort of man, no Pietro Matuzzi. Still he could only blink in silence, waiting until his eyes and voice no longer threatened to betray him. “You know of my sister’s situation, I suppose?”

“Lady Girolama?” Giulia’s lips compressed, the strongest sign of emotion he had yet seen in her. “Yes. She was a model of womanly virtue, I understand: obedient and long-suffering.”

“She had no solace,” he said bluntly. “I do not wish her life on Lucrezia. I fear only that my cousin may have chosen her solace unwisely.”

“Ah,” said Giulia. “That may be, or not. I cannot say.”

Bernardo lifted his eyebrows.

“She is very young. Girls of her age often make poor decisions in these matters, but not always.”

“You cannot say,” he said, “or you will not?”

“I could provide little more than an imprecise description,” replied Giulia. “Even if I knew more than that, I should not reveal it. You have my utmost sympathy in your grief, Bernardo, but I will not betray Lucrezia’s confidence.”

Bernardo might have pressed her further, but a sudden jostle from passing Neapolitans prevented him. As he stepped back into place, a familiar voice said,

“Good evening, Lady Giulia. Oh—and to you, Bernardo. I did not see you there.”

Bernardo jerked about.

“Cardinal Borgia,” said Giulia.

Cesare, sparing little more than a moment’s glance for Bernardo, regarded Giulia with somewhat less unfriendliness than usual. “If the evening’s gaiety has not wholly exhausted you, perhaps you would honour me with your hand?”

Even she looked taken back. “I … well, I—yes, of course.”

So civil a request appeared to have exhausted Cesare’s reserve of polite nothings.

“You may trust that I will not crush it,” he said dryly, though without any particular malice. “Excuse us, Bernardo.”

With that, he led her away, head bent down to listen to her, as he had with Lucrezia—but not the lover. By accident or design, they crossed paths with the Pope and Lucrezia, whom they followed into the dance; Alexander’s complacent expression left little question as to the cause for Cesare’s invitation. Yet the latter, if not fierce with joy, conducted himself pleasantly enough, smiles slight but not artificial, his general manner attentive.

“They make a handsome pair.”

Bernardo started, again.

“Oh, did I surprise you, cousin?” said Sancia. “Forgive me.”

“I have never been caught off my guard in war,” he replied, smiling, “but in a ball-room? It occurs constantly.”

She laughed. “Then I shall blame you and not myself. I trust I am not taking too great a liberty? Some of these Spaniards look at me as if I were an unrepentant Magdalene.”

This dance, he realized, also demanded an exchange of partners. Alexander smugly traded his daughter for his mistress—an arrangement orchestrated for his own benefit, no doubt, and no doubt satisfactory to all concerned.

Bernardo returned his attention to Sancia. “Only the Castilians, I assure you.”

“And my dear brother,” she said, nodding at Cesare.

“Half Castilian.”

He counted her choked giggle, less practiced and more appealing than usual, as a victory. “Oh yes, I forgot about their—our mother. I have not seen her at all.”

“She does not care for such amusements,” said Bernardo. “Not at present, in any case.”

Sancia’s eyes widened in understanding. “Ah, naturally.”

“I hope you have not been neglected,” he said.

“Not at all. The Roman gentlemen have been very attentive—and my husband, of course.” Her smile broadened, dark eyes twinkling. “He retired some time ago. He has not quite the full Borgia vigour, as of yet.”

Bernardo nearly laughed. “The Borgia vigour?”

“You all have such spirit and endurance, such … vitality,” she said, with a frankly admiring glance. “Look at his Holiness, dancing the night away where men half his age falter. Cardinal Borgia and the duke are very young, of course, but you would all shame my dear Alfonso.”

He could not see her lover, though he felt a perfect certainty that Juan remained alert, amusing himself in some fashion or another. Sancia herself gestured at the quartet of Alexander, Giulia, Cesare, and Lucrezia.

“Oh, we are pleasure-loving upstarts, the lot of us,” said Bernardo. “Our worst enemies would grant that—and I am sure you have perceived it, as good a friend as Juan has been to you.”

“My brother certainly enjoys life,” she replied, her complacent smile and lifted brows impossible to misinterpret.

Bernardo nearly flinched. He could not help saying, “And your sister.”

Sancia looked startled, then thoughtful. “Does she? Yes, I imagine so.” Her brows drew together. “I cannot say for certain. Lucrezia is not so easy to know as the duke.”

Even before, he could not have quibbled with that. “Oh? I must defer to you there, since I have known them from infancy. Why do you say so?”

“She seems canny for her years,” Sancia said, “and yet childish—candid and yet there is something opaque about her. For all her chatter, I believe that she keeps most of her thoughts to herself.”

In concert, they both glanced over at Lucrezia, talking earnestly with her brother as they danced.

“To herself and Cardinal Borgia, that is,” added Sancia.

Bernardo did not trust himself to speak. Whatever instincts had absented themselves from the ball-room before returned in full force now. Danger drummed through him, tingled in his skin.

“Perhaps so,” he said at last. “She has not a confiding temper; neither of them do.”

Sancia watched the dance, her gaze more shrewd than flirtatious now. “Neither of them—yes, I think you must be right. It is almost funny. From a distance, one would not know them for brother and sister at all.”

Even his bones seemed to clamour warning. “No, they do not resemble each other.”

“Not in person,” she agreed. Her frown deepened. “Yet in company, one could not think them anything else. Their expressions, gestures, their manner entire, the very phrases they speak, all are so very similar, even for brother and sister. I do not resemble my brother half so much, nor you your sister. Why, they move alike. You can observe it if you watch carefully; look at how elegant they are together, there. Sometimes I wonder—”

He dared not even fear. “They are not secretly twins, I assure you—though I have almost wondered myself, and I remember Cesare carrying Lucrezia about like a bag of grain.”

“Then they have always been thus?”

How did one judge a terrible crime that wronged only its perpetrators? that in revelation, could ruin them all? He looked at his uncle, the Pope of Rome; looked at his cousins, happy and graceful; looked at Sancia d’Aragona, pretty and pleasant daughter to the clever monster on the throne of Naples. Perhaps she felt a natural curiosity; camaraderie among kin might seem odd to one of that bloodthirsty family, all else aside. And perhaps—well, she was a Trastámara.

And he was a Borgia.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Poor Juan became the odd one out from her first words. Has he not mentioned that?”

Sancia smiled. “Once or twice. But family situations can be …” She waved a hand. “Fraught with complication, let us say.”

“Indeed,” said Bernardo. “Well, you need not doubt him in this. They never change.” He watched Lucrezia return to her father, thought of a small girl tucked away in Xàtiva. “Perhaps none of us do.”


By happy coincidence, neither Sancia nor Lucrezia attended the Pope at breakfast—the latter visiting her mother, the former still abed.

“I cannot think why,” Jofrè grumbled.

Juan clapped him on the shoulder. “Perhaps she’s tired, little brother. It was a long night.”

Bernardo’s troubles did not prevent him from enjoying the sudden frozen composure on every other relation’s face. Isabel, who had accompanied him after what he suspected to be a difficult morning, developed an abrupt fascination with her cutlery. The Pope cleared his throat. Cesare, plainly unimpressed, turned to Giulia.

“I hope your letter contained good news?”

A single leaf of paper lay folded beside her plate. Giulia blinked once, twice.

“Yes. My brother Alessandro has been appointed to the bishopric of Parma.”

“Your family’s seat, I believe?” Cesare reached for a roll of bread.

Colour touched her cheeks. “Yes. He has already expressed his gratitude to the Holy Father, of course”—she nodded at the Pope, who smiled graciously—“but he could not help writing to me of his boundless respect for His Holiness … and your Eminence, naturally.”

“Oh, naturally,” said he, reaching for his wine.

Alexander jerked upright.

“Where is your ring, Cesare?”

Everyone, even Jofrè, looked at Cesare’s hand. He did wear a ring, fine enough, but the black stone would not have been out of place on the merest lordling’s finger. Certainly it bore no resemblance to the rubies and gold of the princes of the Church. And whatever Cesare’s sartorial choices, Bernardo could not remember seeing him without submission glittering on his hand.

“My sister took it,” Cesare said, brazen honesty surpassing even Bernardo’s expectations.

The Pope stared at him. “And might we enquire what possessed her to do such a thing?”

“Extorting a gift.” He shrugged. “You know how she can be. I shall recover it from her.”

Bernardo, no longer completely senseless with shock, felt a trickle of reluctant admiration. Whatever Cesare’s many sins, none could say he lacked nerve. All of it wasted on the Church, too. Well, the Church and incest.

Alexander laughed. “See that you do. If you could remind her, then, to choose objects of less sanctity to hold hostage—hm, what is this?”

As a servant entered with a note for the Pope, Bernardo glanced at his sister. The others had already lost interest, attention dissolving into their conversations, but Isabel’s gaze remained fixed on Cesare’s hand. She stared at the ring, all colour drained from her face.

“Bernardo! Isabel!” Their uncle’s voice cracked out.

They both started.

“Your Holiness?” said Isabel.

Alexander waved the note. “Did you know of this?”

Brother and sister frowned, puzzled.

“Didn’t you hear? Your brother is ill,” Juan said cheerfully. He popped a berry into his mouth. “Seems there’s justice in the world after all. There must be some pious Latin for the occasion—Cesare?”

Est mola tarda dei, verum molit illa minutim,” said Cesare.

Bernardo didn’t dare laugh.

“I have no brother,” he said, lifting a brow. “At least, of whom I am aware. With Father, one never knows—do we, Isabel?”

She smiled slightly.

“Your brother-in-law,” said Alexander, with plainly fading patience. “Gianandrea Cesarini. He has a fever of some sort: a painful one, it seems. They do not believe he will live.”

Isabel’s jaw set. “How dreadful.”

He liked her, Bernardo realized. Isabel, whom for years he had cordially hated. It’d become almost a game for him, drunk on resentment. Perhaps they both were, until united by their terrible loss and terrible revenge. Yet he liked her, would have liked her all along—his only sister now—

“It may, however,” Alexander said, “take him some time to die.”

Cesare stiffened. Even Juan straightened out of his slouch, brows knit.

“It must have come on suddenly,” said Isabel. “He seemed well enough when I last saw him, the day before yesterday.”

“You called on him, did you not?” Alexander searched her face, then Bernardo’s, his own features grim. “His family, our allies, will demand an explanation. A young man in good health does not fall to his deathbed without reason. Did you see any signs of illness?”

They shook their heads.

“A small indisposition. Nothing significant,” she said.

“In fact,” said Bernardo, “he invited us. Lucrezia will tell you that; she saw the note.”

The flash of his cousin’s black and silver ring caught his eye. Cesare, sipping thoughtfully at his wine, set the glass down.

He murmured, “Did she?”

Chapter Text

Lucrezia gazed through her window, her thoughts cool and still. She loved the city at noon, seeing so many bustle here and there, hearing the mingled voices and dialects. This too she would miss.

“Close your eyes.”

She nearly shrieked at the sudden sound, the hand over her eyes. Yet she knew her brother even in that instant before he spoke.

“Cesare, what are you doing?”

“Close your eyes,” he insisted. “I have a gift for you.”

“A gift?” Smiling, Lucrezia obeyed as she turned around. After everything, perhaps her forthcoming departure ought to have filled her last days with dread. Instead, she found herself cramming as much enjoyment as possible into the cracks of these last days. Jeronima was dead and Cesare had killed a man and soon she would return to Sforza: yet still she smiled. She did not even cheat, waiting until Cesare’s hand straightened out her fingers, then pressed something into her palm—round and metal.

She guessed even before she opened her eyes. When she did see what he had presented, however, she burst out laughing.

“It isn’t a competition,” she said.

Two rings lay in her hand: one, a large, gleaming white pearl set high on a band of twisted gold, the other heavy and handsome with a black stone, very like their grandfather’s on his own hand.

“Of course not,” said Cesare. Almost absently, he played with her loose hair, sliding his hand under the weight of it—he had cheerfully abused his fraternal privileges to surprise her early in the morning. “You never wear the same jewels everyday. It might be suspicious if you always had the same ring with you.”

It seemed an odd way of phrasing it. But with his hand brushing her neck and jaw, the observation fled her mind. She could feel herself flushing: not in embarrassment, just the rise of blood towards his fingers.

“I would never have thought of that,” she told him frankly. At the moment, it was all she could do to think at all. Lucrezia lifted her head, colouring all over again at the consequent slide of his skin on hers, tender at her throat. He’d kissed her there last night, exactly there; he almost always did. It seemed he took a particular pleasure in her neck, her hair, far beyond the aesthetic. Nothing to the other, yet a nothing that thrilled over her skin, familiar small pleasures. There was a comfortable domesticity in that—the knowing of them.

Cesare’s eyes flicked down and he stepped closer; then, lips tightening, he stopped. He lifted his gaze, still stroking her hair.

Thickly, he said, “If you are ever in danger—”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“When you leave, when you return to him.”

“That is why Micheletto comes with me. Have you changed your mind?” She repressed the flicker or fear. He must not see—he would only needlessly fret, and she could manage Giovanni Sforza.

“No, certainly not.” He inhaled, his other hand cold against hers. “Here, let me see if they fit.”

Cesare slid the pearl onto her finger. Though a little larger than her other rings, it was not so loose as to fall off or slip awkwardly around; and it gleamed on her hand, lovely and shining. Smiling, she thought that even had it been an ordinary gift from brother to sister, from anyone, she herself could not have chosen anything she would like better.

“How beautiful,” Lucrezia said, which sounded so trite that she promptly gave way to impulse and kissed him, threading her own fingers through his hair. She felt his breath catch—that was almost her favourite part of kissing him, the first unhidden pleasure in the very air they shared, and then his mouth parting in easy acquiescence. Mine, mine, I receive you as mine.

She did not voice the words. In truth, she did not quite dare, at this hour, the palace crawling with servants. But Cesare would feel the shape of them on her lips: he did, his hands pressing against her skin.

They parted for air; with a rueful smile, he slid the other ring onto her other hand. She laced their fingers together, smiling down at the paired stones.

“I think I like this one better,” she declared.

Cesare kissed her hand, so quickly that she could almost have doubted it had happened. “I would not have you defenceless, ever again.”

Lucrezia, admiring her rings, at first did not much notice this. When she stopped to repeat the sentence in her mind, however, the sheer peculiarity of it cut through her haze of determined enjoyment.

“I do not understand.”

Glancing up, she saw him swallow. Then he disentangled their fingers to hold her hand in his. His thumb ran over her knuckles, over the ring. And the black stone slid aside.

Lucrezia’s attention snapped to her ring. Even now, she could scarcely make out the hinges, disguised among the rest of the setting. But she could see very well what the stone had concealed: a small compartment, filled with white powder.

Her eyes went wide. “Is that—”

She knew what it was.

“Yes,” he said.

“How did you…?”

“Micheletto,” said Cesare.

“Yes, of course.” Lucrezia drew an unsteady breath, searching his expression. “Cesare, you … you wish for me to … to—”

“No!” He caught her face between his hands and tipped his head down to hers. “I pray that you never feel a man’s life end at your hands, my love. Micheletto shall accompany you, for your protection. Yet if anything should happen …” He lifted his head, not breaking from her gaze. “The choice will be yours. That is all.”

A terrible choice, she thought. But not so terrible as what Sforza had done to her, might do again. It was always better to have a choice.

“How much is this?” she asked at last.

“Enough to kill a man,” said Cesare.

Lucrezia looked at the other ring, the high set of the pearl. “And in here?”

“Less. He might survive it, but it could still stop a boar in its tracks. If you need any more—” He grimaced, unable to help himself. “Well, you shouldn’t need more than this. If you do, Micheletto …”

She nodded, hardly knowing what to say, or think. It was almost sweet, after Cesare’s fashion. He understood about choices, her brother—understood her.

Sliding the stone back into place, she splayed her hands against his chest, lines of watered silk criss-crossing her skin. He hadn’t changed out of his robes; he must be delaying Church business.

“There is no one like you, Cesare.” Despite herself, she smiled. “What other man would think of such a bridal-gift for his sister?—coordinated with her changes in wardrobe, too.”

She dared not say more.

“Then you accept?” He laid his fingers against her cheek.

Lucrezia looked up, into his eyes. She wished she need not. She wished she could safely return without poison on her fingers and an assassin at her side, wished she need not return at all. But family had its price, and her father needed an army. And they had gone too far to turn back now. They would never again be the Cesare and Lucrezia playing in their mother’s garden.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. She kissed him again. “I love you. Whatever comes of this, my marriage and Bernardo and all of it, I will not regret anything, I will not—you know that. You know I love you.”

“Yes,” said Cesare, his eyes gentle. His thumb stroked over her cheekbone until, without warning, he pulled her into his arms and pressed his face into her hair. “I know.”


Lucrezia thought of absenting herself from the palace, spending every waking moment in such company that no one but Cesare could find her alone. It would serve Bernardo right if he had to live in dread until she left.

“Speaking of murder,” Cesare had said, “I almost forgot. Our noble cousin will no doubt come sniffing around today.”

She’d laughed. “What has that to do with murder?”

“Cesarini’s,” he replied, to her astonishment, but church bells rang and he rushed away before he could explain.

Lucrezia decided that she could extract the details from Bernardo as well. She would not hide from him; besides, she suspected that without Cesare about, it might be easier to make herself perfectly clear. Consequently she amused herself in her apartments for the next hour or two. Bernardo arrived to find her not only at home, but embroidering a gown for the youngest of their Llançol cousins, and perfectly willing to see him.

“No doubt you know my reason for coming,” he said as soon as her maid withdrew.

Lucrezia bit off a thread. “Both of them, I imagine.”

He had wished without hope that the other would not arise, fatally—ha!—complicating his position as it did. For the present he could only pretend not to have heard.

“Lucrezia,” said Bernardo, almost plaintively, “last night alone, I could have betrayed you a dozen times and more. Your father, your sister-in-law, the lady Giulia …”

“Sancia?” Her eyes jerked up. “What did she have to talk about?”

“Nothing of importance,” he replied, voice deliberately light. “Some compliments to the men of the family, some confusion about you—and Cesare, naturally.”

“What did you say?” she demanded.

“That would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

She only stared at him. Bernardo sighed, then relented.

“I told her a sort of truth: that the two of you are very close, and have been so from infancy. As I said—I could have encouraged her suspicions, had I chosen to. I did not.” He paused. “If I were to betray you to anyone, little cousin, it would not be Sancia d’Aragona. She is not family; you are. You can trust me that far.”

She dropped her eyes to the little gown beneath her hands, her fingers knotting thread with quick, practiced grace.

“How can we trust anyone?” Lucrezia sat her work aside and rose. She paced aimlessly as she spoke. “It would not be politic to betray us right now; you have admitted that much. Perhaps your … affection inclines you to keep it among the family even in the future. Do you not see why that would be as much of a disaster for me?”

“You would be separated in either case. Yes, I realize.” No less than disaster for any infatuated girl under twenty, he supposed. “At first—”

She read his expression before he could form the words.

“No! You do not see at all.” Her hand pressed over her mouth, the other gripped the back of her chair. Recovering her composure, she said, “Have you forgotten already, Bernardo? Cesare is my brother.”

“Hardly,” he said, without much thinking. But then—ah.

“He is not some lover to be mourned and forgotten. If I lose him over this, I lose him in everything.” Lucrezia looked him straight in the eye. “You know what we have been to each other, always. You should know what we stand to lose.”

Dozens of times since his return, he’d remembered them as children. Almost without exception, he’d seen them as children, Cèsar and Lucrècia grown in body and mind but not being. Cèsar and Lucrècia with their games and mischief and secrets, whispering together even in full company. They seemed so much the siblings and friends they had always been that he could not see the differences. He had been wrong; yet, incestuous lovers though they might be, he did not think the appearance of their old easy camaraderie a disguise. They probably called each other brother and sister in bed.

Bernardo suppressed a shudder. “You would lose a great deal,” he acknowledged.

“Cesare suspected this would happen,” she said. “He tried to warn me in Pesaro.”

Pesaro. The root of it at all, and still almost completely shrouded. Standing up, he walked over to where she stood.

“What happened?”

Lucrezia turned her head away. “Nothing that concerns you.”

“Cousin.” He laid a hand over hers, part reassurance, part holding her in place. “I am not your enemy. I have decided nothing as yet. I am only trying to understand how this can be—what led you to this. What happened in Pesaro?

She did not turn back to him, but did not fight his grip, either. For long seconds, she simply gazed away, and he feared he would have to press her harder—Cesare might return at any moment. At last, however, she spoke.

“You will never understand what it was like.” The blank mask of her face remained smooth, as composed as a doll. Yet she was not a doll; she was his cousin Lucrezia, a young girl, and one never notable for reserve or restraint. “I do not believe any man could.”

“Your husband? He mistreated you as—” He broke off, not wanting to remind her of the sword in her own hand. Too late, of course.

“As Lord Cesarini did Jeronima? More or less. Perhaps I should say more and less.” Her prominent upper lip pressed down, flattened the lower. Otherwise she did not so much as blink. “He is not so … thoughtless, he can be considerate when he thinks of it. Or he can be cruel. It depends on what mood happens to strike him.”

Bernardo’s hand tightened on hers. He could think of nothing to say.

“I will not say that anything could be worse than what he did at night,” said Lucrezia, “but the days had their own kind of misery. He scarcely spoke to me, and then only to condemn my conversation or my silence or my expressions;—or, most of all, my blood. He wants heirs by me and insists they will be tainted by such a mother.”

Fourteen, he thought numbly. She was fourteen years old.

“Within a month, I almost believed him.” She gave a small shake of her head. “Oh, not about our family. I am proud of who we are, proud to be Spanish and Catalan and Valencian, proud of what we have accomplished. He can never take that away. Yet I started to feel there must be something wrong with me, to make him behave as he did. I had only a maid to tell me anything different, you see. She is a kindly soul, but … ” Lucrezia shrugged.

“You were lonely,” Bernardo said. The word sounded grossly inadequate. “More than lonely.”

“Yes.” At last, she turned her face back towards him, serenity unfaltering. “The solitude of it—that is what no one understands. And we need the Sforza arms; I could not speak of what happened even once Cesare arrived.”

He took a deep breath. Almost he would rather hear of Sforza’s misdeeds than what must come next.

“So Cesare came to Pesaro.”

“He promised he would, but it had become easy to doubt such things.” Lucrezia gave a short laugh. “To doubt even my own recollections. Yet he came.” The humourless laugh faded into a small, very genuine smile. “My husband has not touched me since that day.”

“Your brother discovered what Sforza had done?”

“No.” Her smile, her entire expression, softened. “He knew at a glance that something must be wrong.”

“Of course he did,” said Bernardo.

Lucrezia lifted her chin. “Yes. Cesare saw that I was miserable, that I had changed. He scarcely slept until the accident; he would drink with Lord Sforza until he—my husband—collapsed, or insist on playing games deep into the night, or … anything to keep him from me.”

“And Sforza suspected nothing?”

“Perhaps. It was only three or four days.”

Bernardo’s eyes narrowed. “The accident, I assume, was nothing of the kind?”

“Yes. We planned it together.” Lucrezia gave another shrug. “Micheletto managed the details; I comforted him while the doctor set the bone.” This time, her sudden laugh was girlish, almost a giggle. “Cesare prayed.”

He snorted. “And enjoyed it, I’m sure.”

“Almost as much as hearing his confession,” she said.

“Sforza confessed to Cesare?

“He seemed to think a cardinal could absolve him more thoroughly than a friar.”

Bernardo said, “No doubt he was thorough. What penance did he set?”

“Flagellation,” said Lucrezia brightly.

He nearly laughed. With something very like regret, he forced himself to force himself to return to the darker matters at hand. “This was before…?”

“Yes. No.” She made a careless gesture with her free hand. “In the middle, I should say. I had convinced him by then.”

Humour died a quick death, strangled in his throat. Bernardo braced himself. “Why?”

“I wanted him.” Her gaze did not waver, clear and hard. “I wanted … I loved him, we love each other. I wanted a more complete love, that is all.”

“That is all?” he said incredulously.

“Something I chose, for myself,” said Lucrezia. “Everything else has been chosen for me, for us. Who sees any sin in that? Marriage is of God, the Church is of God. It matters not that we never chose them. I did not choose my husband, not even to decide between the Holy Father’s choices; I was not consulted in any way. I saw him for the first time at the wedding, and there my wishes mattered so little that I was not allowed my own mother’s company. I would not have seen her at all if not for Cesare. And then my marriage—that was godly?” She stared at him with flushed cheeks, bright eyes.

“No, of course not,” he said. He felt certain of that, though he did not think about religion enough to know the reasons.

“There is no sin in what I endured,” countered Lucrezia. “It is virtue, rather, to submit to the will of one’s father or husband, however harsh it may be. It is virtue to suffer with meekness and patience. Any good priest will tell you that.” She paused, then added, “Your sister lies dead of virtue.”

Bernardo flinched. “We are not speaking of Jeronima.”

With a scornful laugh, she said, “Indeed not. Her brother never came for her. And of course she never sought anything but submission. I am not Jeronima.”

Shame and anger flashed through him. Only with conscious effort did he prevent his hand from bruising the tiny one caught in his. No doubt she sought to distract him. A childish trick, really.

And true nonetheless.

“I wanted love and joy all my own,” Lucrezia was saying. “Yes, and pleasure too! Why should I care that the world calls it sin? The world would have me spend my life in suffering until it killed me.”

“You would have me consider that your sole choice?” he demanded. “Uncomplaining misery or incest? I do not blame you for taking a lover, even were your situation less terrible—only for the one you chose!”

Her lashes dropped. “Who else could it be?”

Nearly sputtering, he managed to burst out, “Anyone! Anyone at all, Lucrècia.” He recovered himself a little. “Do you mean to say that your distress was such that you would have seduced any man who cared for you?—done it for a chance at some relief, some affection, of your own choice? Is that what happened between you? You chose your brother because … he was there?”

“I could say so.” She withdrew her hand, but made no attempt to back away. For a long moment she remained silent. Then she lifted her eyes, intensity in every line of her face: anxiety, too. “No. My circumstances only led me to act on what I felt—had long felt.”

Bernardo’s tongue felt thick in his mouth. Again, he thought: she was fourteen. Cesare, eighteen. “How long could you possibly …”

“Since he returned from Pisa. I don’t know how long it has been for him; I do not believe he does himself. I was first, I think.” She gave a nervous giggle. “I used to watch him in bed with his women.”

His lips parted, all sound frozen. She—he—what on earth?

“Cesare knew of this?”

Lucrezia grinned. “Yes. I made certain. It amused him, amused us both. I would make something clatter after they finished, so he would hear, and then run, and he would chase me until he caught me, and—it didn’t seem odd. Not then. A game we played, nothing more.”

“A game,” said Bernardo faintly.

“I practiced kissing on him before my wedding, and I still did not understand,” said Lucrezia. “Afterwards, in Pesaro—I knew then. And I knew he felt what I did; surely it would have seemed peculiar to him had he not?”

“Yes,” he began, then stopped to think, then thought again. “My God, Lucrècia, I don’t know.”

“Well, he did.” Serene once more, she went on, “You say I seduced him, and I have said it myself, but it was not like … I knew nothing but what I had seen, and then what I suffered from Lord Sforza. I could not have seduced a satyr. Cesare desired me as I did him. At first we both denied ourselves, closed our eyes to what we felt, and then he did not want to corrupt me or some nonsense. I persuaded him to give himself to me, told him that it could be a secret—but I did not make him do anything he did not wish to.”

“You are very certain,” said Bernardo.

She hesitated, then gave a decisive nod. “Yes. It seemed inevitable, in a way. We always knew we loved each other; at Pesaro, we knew we desired each other; and we chose this knowing what it meant. Ask him if you like. He will say the same.”

“No doubt,” he said.

Lucrezia fixed him with a sharp glance. “Be sensible, Bernardo. If your sister regarded you this way, you would have felt very differently than Cesare did. Imagine what what you would do if Isabel proposed such a thing?”

Bernardo nearly gagged. “I have not the slightest idea,” he said, indignant in his entire soul.

She smiled. “You see?”

“I will thank you never to mention that again.”

“Of course,” said Lucrezia graciously. “Speaking of your sisters, however, I believe there is another matter to discuss while you consider all of this. Something to do with Lord Cesarini?”

“Your brothers must have told you.”

“Cesare said he had been murdered,” she replied, “but he provided no details. No one could deserve it more, but I do not see what it has to do with me.”

He felt akin to a fish wriggling on a hook. “He somewhat overstates the case. My brother-in-law lives, for now.”

“That isn’t like Cesare,” she said. “Did he misunderstand?”

No, he thought. Cesare understood very well.

“The doctors have despaired of him, even his family. He is as good as dead,” Bernardo told her.

Lucrezia scowled. “Poison? I certainly did not—” Her eyes went wide.

Trying to delay the inevitable, he said, “A natural conclusion in the circumstances: one his relations are sure to draw. His Holiness mentioned his concerns on that point, since we had just paid a call to him.”

“Did he?” said Lucrezia.

“Of course, I assured the Holy Father that Cesarini himself invited Isabel to visit him. You remember that, Lucrezia; you saw the note when it arrived.”

She considered. “It was a very trying day. I confess, I do not remember much with any sort of clarity.”

“Well,” Bernardo said, “thankfully the servants involved will also remember.”

“I imagine so. She pays them very well.” She added, “Let us hope the Cesarini will be persuaded by the words of your sister’s own servants.”

“If Isabel were to be implicated—”

Lucrezia’s eyebrows rose. “I am fond of Isabel, of course. It would be dreadful.”

They considered each other in silence. How ridiculous, Bernardo thought, to study the weaknesses of a girl scarcely out of childhood, not yet born when he was her age. How more ridiculous to find so very few of them.

“You are a splendid viper, little cousin,” he said. “You must forgive me for underestimating you! Still, I do not believe for an instant that you would leave Isabel to be accused of murder—whatever you might wish on me.”

She tilted her head to the side, eyes thoughtful. “I do not wish you ill, cousin, but you understand me very poorly indeed if you think I would shrink from anything for Cesare’s sake.”

“Or your own?” he asked.

Her mouth curved into a tight, closed smile that reminded him of no one so much as her brother.

“Isabel is not the only one who would fall under suspicion of murder.”

Bernardo could not help but laugh. “She is the only one who would care. If I must leave in disgrace, what does it matter? My life and my heart are in Valencia.” That drew too near to subjects he did not mean to discuss, least of all with her. “You may trust that my sister’s welfare is my chief concern.”

“As my brother’s is mine,” she said sweetly.

Before he could think of anything to ram through the impasse, a sharp knock came at the door. Lucrezia, frowning, rose.

“Come in.”

A manservant entered.

“I said I was not at home to anyone but my cousin,” she told him.

So much for his luck in finding her here, Bernardo thought, amused. If not quite a trap, he’d walked into the next thing to it. He felt abruptly convinced that she could have seduced any number of satyrs had the whim taken her, whatever her ignorance.

“Forgive me, madam,” said the manservant, “but the Lady Isabella demands to see her brother or you. She has been most urgent and she will not leave.”

“Oh, of course. Bring her to us.” The servant, much relieved, departed, and Lucrezia glanced over her shoulder at Bernardo. “Did you expect her to follow you on your errand?”

A sliver of hope touched him. “Oh no,” he said. “I feel certain she comes on another matter entirely.”

Chapter Text

Isabel Borgia was a forceful woman, but not a reckless one. Cautious by temper as well as choice, she tried to consider all possible elements of a situation before she acted—even if doing so could not affect the outcome. Therefore, after she saw the wedding-ring on Cesare’s hand where his cardinal’s ruby ought to have been, she said nothing and returned home.

It might mean little. Without doubt, Lucrezia loved Cesare above any other man. And he was as much Jofrè and Isabel de Borja’s grandchild as any of the rest of them. She could well have considered him the most appropriate recipient.

Isabel’s thoughts returned to the previous evening, the celebration of little Jofrè’s nuptials. Bernardo, an appalling flirt in general—particularly in his circumstances—had paid only the most perfunctory attention to any woman not related to him. Of those, he’d only spoken to Isabel, but his chief interest had plainly been in Lucrezia. Lucrezia and Cesare. Nor, she remembered now, was it the first time he seemed intrigued by their cousins.

In her mind she saw the ring again, the gleam of stone and metal. It fit Cesare’s hand easily, as easily as it must have once fit the grandfather he resembled. And he’d quite readily admitted that Lucrezia had taken his cardinal’s ring.

Isabel’s mouth dried. She herself had never suspected them of anything improper, as such. She’d seen only what anyone who knew them must see: a rare intimacy in childhood, undiminished with the passing of time. But to Isabel, who loved her own sister more than anyone else on earth, that meant little. An oddity, nothing more. An oddity, too, which could be explained by temperament and vanity and alienation.

Her thoughts had rarely progressed beyond that point; she’d never been very interested in children. Now and then she felt a flicker of indistinct concern over them, but not often—chiefly in those middle years, when Cesare was all but a man, Lucrezia still a child, and the two of them devoted as ever despite a long separation. Every time she witnessed Lucrezia’s ecstatic response to one of Cesare’s very frequent letters, she felt again that trace of alarm. There was such excess about them, everything they were in themselves and to each other. Isabel could not imagine them confined by anything; yet Cesare studied for the priesthood and Lucrezia would soon marry. Close as they were, she feared they must be destined for misery.

Still, with Lucrezia so young, she could not suspect anything else. And she did not believe for a moment that there had been anything else at ten or twelve. But perhaps it had laid the foundation nevertheless.

Undecided, she dwelt on the matter for the next hour, veering from one possibility to the other. In her heart, she welcomed the preoccupation, something significant enough to focus the frantic whirlwind of her thoughts. This could be dangerous, very dangerous, but at least it distracted her from herself. She determinedly thought about her cousins until Bernardo arrived.

As soon as he stepped through the door, he said, “How are you, sister?”

He looked at her in, to all appearances, genuine concern. She would have thought his guilt burned up by now, at least in respect to her. Isabel, rarely for her, knew not what to think about this continued burst of fraternal dutifulness. Fortunately, she did not need to think about it.

“Well enough.” She dismissed the various attendants and servants, walking over to close the door. For good measure she dragged a chair in front of it.

“Isabel? What are you doing?”

She could almost have laughed at his expression. Not quite.

“Lower your voice, brother,” she said. “I would not have this conversation overheard.”

Bernardo stared at her, still bewildered. “What do you mean?”

Isabel retraced her steps, nearly reaching a small table on the other side of the room, upon which rested a polished harp. In her house, the instrument proved little more than an ornament, since neither she nor Pietro played; it had been her sister’s. No chance purchase either, but a rare gift from their father. Jeronima, always so much sweeter than Isabel, had treasured the present and practised until her fingertips grew sore: first out of duty and then real enjoyment. She used to play sweet slow songs for Isabel, soothing her fits of temper or exhaustion: first in Spain, then in Rome until she weakened too much.

Isabel remembered, distinctly, Jeronima playing the harp in the corner of Bernardo’s sickroom. Like Isabel, he pretended not to care, but he went to sleep smiling. She wondered if he thought of their sister whenever he heard a harp like this one, as she did.—It was among the handful of Jeronima’s possessions that she had kept for herself, not for Lucrezia or Alessandra or Beatriu. Isabel could not discard it, far more Jeronima to her than the embalmed corpse.

She nearly jumped when Bernardo touched her shoulder.

“Isabel?” He folded his arms and scowled, somehow still managing to hover fretfully. “Is something wrong?”

“I beg”—your pardon, she meant to say, but something in her balked. However faithful he had proven in the wake of their sister’s death, she could not bring herself to apologize to him. At any rate, he was right about Borgias and apologies. “It is nothing.”

He narrowed his eyes, but contented himself with, “What conversation do you mean? I came to see if you were well, not to weigh matters of state.”

“Not state,” said Isabel. “Not yet.”

“Well?” he demanded.

Feeling all but suffocated by the harp on one side and Bernardo on the other, she stepped a few feet sideways and cleared her throat.

“Bernardo,” she said, “you asked me last night about Cesare and Lucrezia.”

His face, generally open, went blank. In a cautious voice more suspicious than anything else could have been, he said, “Yes.”

“It was not the first time. You seem preoccupied by them and”—she made a small gesture—“their natural affection. Have you a reason? Is something wrong?”

“Well, they’re far more interesting than either of the others,” said Bernardo. True, but unconvincing. “And it is remarkable to see a brother and sister hold so tightly to childhood friendship, when their lives take them on such different paths. I do not believe I have ever seen even a pair of sisters, or brothers, so close.”

“Charming, isn’t it?” Isabel kept her eyes on him.

“I suppose.” He frowned; plainly he possessed some information she did not. “More curious than anything else. I cannot understand them. Neither is selfless in the slightest, yet they seem utterly devoted. You must have noticed.”

“Many times,” she said, “as long as we have lived here.”

“I can’t think Rome alone …”

“You were not here,” she said sharply. “You have no idea what our lives have been.”

His scowl deepened. “I know very well—”

“Knowing is not understanding,” said Isabel. “Returning to Rome was difficult enough for me, a woman grown, and Jeronima, and we knew already how it would be, we remembered. But our cousins were children, all less than ten years old, hated by virtually every person they encountered, called insults they could not yet understand, and very much alone. Other children hated them and the rest of us were much older, or infants.”

He opened his mouth again, bull-headed as ever, then stopped. “No doubt it was a terrible experience,” he said at last. “Yet it does not answer for … Joan is nearer in age to both of them. They have no such intimacy with him.”

Isabel shook her head before his voice trailed off. “Cesare and Lucrezia are not Juan. They understand one another—they were confidants, companions, before they set foot on Italian soil again. They have never been close to Juan. He used to prefer the company of our younger cousins, remember? Pere, Joana.” She gave him a steady look. “Lluís.”

He flushed. “True enough,” he said, clearly prepared to expostulate more.

Isabel cut him off. “Even in Valencia, they generally kept to themselves. You should remember that. And in Rome, they had only each other.” She paused. “Juan had no one at all.”

Bernardo winced, as well he might. In her youth, Isabel had dearly loved Cesare and Juan: not like Jeronima, of course, but a great deal for her. They’d been sweet children. Now they retained little more than traces of those boys, Juan in brief erratic flashes, Cesare affectionate and gentle towards none but a few women of his blood. And while Cesare, who had grown up reliablle and clever, still held her affections, Juan regularly proved himself a selfish, silly, almost vacuous young man. Rome had been harshest to him.

“His temper is far livelier and more sociable than theirs,” she said. “Not just Cesare’s.—Lucrezia is much more taciturn than she seems. But Juan looked outside of the family, to anyone who would have him. He found little beyond drinking companions and women of ill repute.” Isabel cleared her throat. “Not reputable courtesans, you understand.”

Bernando had never possessed any sense of delicacy. “Whores.”

“Well, yes.”

“I noticed that much,” he said.

“It is difficult not to notice. But Cesare and Lucrezia never bothered with that. They turned inward, to each other. At first, Lucrezia would scream whenever the nurse took her away, and sneak after him at all hours. Cesare scarcely spoke, except to her. They looked like kicked puppies when anyone but my uncle separated them. Even then, they remained together as much as they could.” Despite everything, Isabel smiled. “They would sit together and whisper during Mass.”

Bernardo’s eyes narrowed. “And that is how they became like this?”

“I suspect so,” said she. “They—adjusted to the changes, in time. Lucrezia in particular came to forget any other life. It helped, in some ways, that my uncle and Lady Vanozza kept their children sequestered in the villa as much as possible. It was safer, you understand.”

By his grimace, he did understand.

“Of course,” she said reflectively, “they were very isolated there, just as Jeronima and I had been with Lady Adriana. Juan would have sold his title for a little liberty, and I saw Cesare and Lucrezia grow closer with every year that passed.” She met his eyes, unflinching. “And they drew together even more when he returned from Pisa. So, yes, that is how they became what they are. It is not at all incomprehensible, you see.”

“I suppose not,” said Bernardo.

She shrugged. “Even without seeing them change, I do not think their intimacy so great a curiosity as you seem to find it. Think of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica.”

Now he actively cringed. “They are nothing like that.”

“Oh?” Isabel kept her face and voice tranquil. “Jer—I heard that Lucrezia considered taking vows, not long ago. I believe her principal motivation was to join her brother in meditation and prayer, as Saint Scholastica did.”

He shuddered. “You don’t know what you are saying, Isabel.”

“Ah,” she murmured. “Incest, then?”

“What?” He started so violently that he stumbled over his own feet. Regaining his balance, he did not say anything else for several seconds, and then only, “Isabel—how … what do you mean?”

“I was quite clear, I believe,” said Isabel.

Bernardo looked horrified, eyes nearly wild, fingers digging into his own legs. Yet not surprised, she thought: not altogether. After a moment, he glanced around, as furtive as a thief caught in the silver.

“No,” Bernardo said at last. He squared his shoulders. “I do not suspect; I know.”

She swallowed. As much as she could see the progression, draw its outlines for him, the flat truth of it still flustered her. Cesare and Lucrezia, those oases of sense and proper feeling among Alexander’s children, committing incest. Adultery too, now that she thought of it. Perhaps. It depended on the particulars.

“They fear discovery,” Bernardo was saying. He’d been talking all the while, a nervous sort of babble in the background of her mind. Isabel focused her attention on him once more.

“Naturally,” she said. Remembering that first encounter with Ursula Bonadeo and the following predatory friendship, a faint smile touched her mouth. “That explains a great deal. I suppose you confronted them?”

“Of course,” said Bernardo indignantly.

Isabel suppressed a sigh. “What did they say?”

“They find it perfectly natural! Neither of them have any shame whatsoever,” he said. “The worst of it is that they act like … like—”

“Lovers?”

Bernardo shook his head. “No. Like brother and sister. The last time I saw them together, Cesare had his hand on his dagger half the time, and then they started arguing about which one of them was the more responsible, as if they’d stolen a pastry. He laughs about her hair. Outside of themselves, they treat the whole matter as a … a lark.”

This aligned so exactly with Cesare and Lucrezia as Isabel knew them that she winced. Nevertheless, her dry voice didn’t alter. “How uncivil. They might at least have the courtesy to pretend that they regard the change as a matter of gravity.”

“They don’t think they have changed,” he replied. “Not from what they have been here, at any rate. By your account, perhaps they do not entirely err. But they are both of them vastly different from what I thought.”

Isabel could only imagine.

“Lucrezia is … childish in some ways,” he went on. “Not many. And she has a cold streak. They both do, but she’s more calculating than Cesare. Far less fragile than she looks. Nothing seems to trouble her, except her husband.”

She stiffened, even as respect softened the horror in her brother’s voice.

“You were right, Isabel, that I misunderstood her. She’s fearless. And Cesare was ready to kill me more than once.” Bernardo paused, with another furtive glance around. “Their assassin follows me everywhere now. He might very well be here right now.”

For a man of war, Isabel thought, he could be very naïve. Her endurance was dwindling to its end.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said impatiently. “Lucrezia would never let Cesare kill you.”

Bernardo’s brows furrowed into a frown, more surprised than angry. “You are not … did you know?”

“No,” said Isabel, “but I should have.”

Her brother just shook his head. “Well, he does what she wants, true enough. In fact—” Colour crawled over his face. “This entanglement is not Cesare’s doing, not principally. It is Lucrezia’s.”

Isabel was scarcely listening.

“Yes,” she murmured, “it would have to be, wouldn’t it?”

The affair must not be revealed, she thought, frowning at the Turkish carpet under her feet. Indeed, she would not wish it revealed. Bernardo could rant and rave as he wished, and return to Valencia; she must continue on in this miserable place. Nor did she believe that a passion built on lifelong intimacy would be easily broken, least of all at its very beginning. That too depended on the particulars, she supposed.

“Isabel!” he burst out. “You don’t approve of this, do you?”

“I do not know what I feel, as of yet.” Isabel returned her gaze to him. “This ‘entanglement’—how long has it existed, in practice?”

“No more than a few months, I believe,” said Bernardo. “It began at Pesaro, not long after he arrived.”

“And do you know the … nature of it?”

“I am not altogether certain,” he admitted. “They have both insisted that she cannot possibly be with child. Moreover, when I lost my temper with them, I made a—a rather vulgar remark.” He reddened further. “Lucrezia had no idea what it meant.”

“Hm,” said Isabel.

“I would do something,” he went on, almost fretful, “but the circumstances at present … it would be ruinous. And Lucrezia was with us when Cesarini’s note arrived; she hinted—more than hinted—that she would not admit to it unless I promised to keep their secret. You see, she has no remorse at all.”

Don’t be more gullible than the Lord made you, she nearly told him. Instead she contented herself with:

“Of course not. Lucrezia is a Borgia, and we regret nothing. Is it not so?”

Rather to her surprise, Bernardo shook his head.

“We apologize for nothing,” he said, tone and expression as somber as she had ever seen him. “That is not the same. Everyone has regrets, decisions we would rather have not made, mistakes we would take back.” She nearly started when he added, “I do.”

Considering what little she knew of his private life, she said, “Tecla?”

“Never,” said Bernardo fiercely. “No—I meant you, and Jeronima.” He paused. “She was more your sister than mine, I know. But my sister nonetheless. I should have known that she suffered. She had a gentler soul than either of us. No matter what her life, it would have been crueler to her than ours.”

Isabel knew that. She hadn’t known he did. “Yes.”

Her brother’s lowered eyes lifted to meet hers. “I failed her utterly. Yet I wrote to her, I sent gifts, I … I treated her with some kindness, however insufficient. I wronged you most of all.”

There was very little she could say to that. Only dimly did she remember a time when they had lived in anything like accord. Their circumstances had been humbler then, the two of them ignored by their father but for payments—very moderate payments—to the elderly cousin who oversaw their care. No doubt he would have preferred to abandon them to their maternal families, as he did Jeronima in her first years, but inconveniently, Bernardo’s and Isabel’s mothers had been Valencian courtesans of the lower sort, without family or fortune. Still more inconveniently, neither woman long survived her child’s birth, and Pedro Luis’ paternal failings did not extend to letting his children starve. Or perhaps it had been his brother’s doing, even then. Whatever the reasons, he kept them tucked away in a village not far from Xàtiva, comfortable and wholly ignorant of another half-sister.

They had never been peaceable, not even then, but she thought they’d been close enough. She retained more of an impression than anything else, young as she had been then, but she could recall a few bright fragments: Bernardo rolling his eyes behind the nurse’s head, Isabel determinedly following him up trees and into streams to prove she could be just as brave and daring. But when she was still a small girl, their father summoned her from Valencia and Jeronima from Mantua, legitimizing both of them, while Bernardo remained a bastard in Xàtiva for years more. None of them ever knew the reason for it, nor very much cared, and the next time she saw her brother, he treated her with sullen contempt or ignored her altogether.

Isabel, not of a temper to bear either, went out of her way to provoke him, a compliment returned in equal measure by Bernardo.—Despite his lazy charm, he was no less proud and willful than she. Then, after their uncle sent fourteen-year-old Isabel back to Valencia with her younger sister and cousins, quarrelling and insults became as much habit as anything else—almost playful beneath very real anger. Certainly neither of them had anything peaceable about them now.

She thought of a vial pressed into her hands, Bernardo making easy, pleasant conversation. Let me pour you more wine, brothers, she said; her true brother lifted his brow, Isabel nodded a little, and he fearlessly drank every last drop in the goblet while Jeronima’s husband gulped down his own. And then Cesarini retired (“something must have disagreed with me”) and—

“I am not Jeronima,” she said. “I suppose I have not been entirely blameless myself.”

They both smiled a little. Then, brisk once more, Bernardo asked,

“What of this business of Lucrezia’s? At worst I would not have left you to shoulder full responsibility for what we did. She must be convinced, but there’s no talking to her with Cesare nearby. And no talking to him at all.”

“My uncle said he will require Cesare all day tomorrow,” said Isabel. “Some task to do with the French ambassador; he must be handled with delicacy and tact just now.”

“Then only God knows why he wants Cesare involved,” Bernardo replied, “but very well. I shall do see her tomorrow and do my utmost to persuade her. And you?”

She studied her hands for several moments. “I will also speak to her, I think—on another matter.”


The moment that Isabel walked into Lucrezia’s apartment, she could see that Bernardo had failed. He looked frustrated, Lucrezia determined.

“Isabel!” Lucrezia exclaimed, holding out her hands, polite friendliness falling over her face like a curtain. They kissed each other’s cheeks. “Giuseppe said that you insisted upon seeing us. Has something happened?” Her eyes narrowed. “Is Cesarini dead?”

After a quick survey of their cousin, plainly determined to perform her usual role, Isabel decided that Bernardo must not have shared any part of their conversation. A piece of discretion not very much like him—or perhaps it was? She did not, after all, know him that well.

“No,” said Isabel. She dared a moment’s glance at the necklace around Lucrezia’s neck: a simple chain, definitely unlike her, its pendant hidden beneath her gown. “I came about some of your jewelry.”

Bernardo’s heavy brows furrowed.

“My jewelry?” Lucrezia repeated. She appeared every bit as genuinely bewildered as he. “What interest could that have—”

Realization widened her eyes, but not quickly enough. Isabel had already stepped over to her and slid a hand beneath the chain about Lucrezia’s neck. The hidden pendant dangled over her palm: a ring, its ruby glowing warmly in its elaborate gold setting. A cardinal’s ring, in fact: the very one that had been missing from Cesare’s hand this morning. Another sort of wedding-ring, Isabel thought.

“You should return this to Cesare,” she said, neither warm nor cold. “His excuse for its disappearance at breakfast was most ingenious, but the Pope will notice a continued absence.”

“Oh, yes. I forgot about it,” said Lucrezia, glancing down at her hands. She wore two rings of her own, neither of which Isabel recognized: one a large black stone like their grandfather’s, ill-suited to the delicate blue silks she wore, and the other a lovely high-set pearl. “I did mean to do it. I shall as soon as I see him again.”

She talked in a quick, studied variation on her usual easy chatter. Isabel, severely frank with herself, did not know if it would have fooled her had she not grasped the truth. She hoped not.

“She knows,” Bernardo told Lucrezia, his manner more weary than brusque.

Her face froze. “You—”

“Bernardo did not inform me of anything, if that is what you feared,” said Isabel. “Not intentionally, that is, but his behaviour was so suspect that I came to my own conclusions. He is not—I mean no insult, brother—a man of great subtlety.”

“I have never pretended to be anything else,” he replied.

Lucrezia’s gaze darted from one to the other. “That is the real reason you came? Then say what you like, but it shan’t alter my feelings in the slightest degree. I have done nothing wrong.”

Bernardo made a strangled sound. His eyes all but bugged out of his head and his skin turned so red that, at any other time, Isabel would have feared for his health. Or his sobriety.

“Nothing?” said she, calmly.

Lucrezia looked thoughtful. “Well, I have told falsehoods.” She faltered a bit. “A great many. We both have—but that could not be helped. Nobody must be allowed to discover the truth.”

“True enough.” Letting the ring drop, Isabel retreated a few feet, enough to give Lucrezia her own air and space in which to stand. She’d always had a feline sort of temperament, pleasant when it suited her, fierce and angry when trapped. “However, you have forgotten something, I think? You betrayed your marriage vows.”

Lucrezia scoffed. “Vows to Giovanni Sforza!”

A slight movement caught Isabel’s eye. Bernardo, visibly uncomfortable, was shifting his weight.

“An undeserving specimen, I grant you,” said Isabel.

“There is no wrong in that.” Lucrezia did not even bother hiding her scorn, eyes cold and lip curled. “Why should I trouble myself about it? Everyone betrays marriage vows, except you, and I had no choice in making them.”

Nor did I. But Isabel cherished no illusions about what she would have done, had Pietro not been Pietro. The most she could say was that it would not have involved Bernardo.

“Then you and your brother have …” For the first time, Isabel felt a trace of embarrassment. She cleared her throat. “Known each other?”

“Well, yes,” Lucrezia said, without the slightest change in tone.

Bernardo, thankfully, contained himself to a grimace. Isabel had not really expected a different answer, but it still took her a moment to compose herself. This might not be natural, she reminded herself, but it made a terrible sort of sense that once they came of an age to feel desire, they would feel it for each other. It was not even unheard-of in these days; at least Lucrezia’s liaison sprang from something more than pure hedonism.

Though hopefully that played a part as well.

Isabel kept her voice even. “Often?”

This exhausted Bernardo's small supply of restraint. Whirling about, he snapped, “Good God, Isabel! Why the devil should we care if it’s once or half a dozen times?”

She could almost have covered her eyes; he meant well, but—! As she had feared, their cousin’s expression hardened.

“Oh! half a dozen,” said Lucrezia carelessly. She smiled. “Last night.”

Even Isabel could not speak for a moment.

“And two more this morning,” Lucrezia added, with a vindictive glance at Bernardo.

He recovered himself enough to glower. “I’m surprised you can walk.”

Now she regarded him with unconcealed distaste.

“Cesare is careful,” said Lucrezia. She smiled again, with teeth and no warmth. “It will come as a shock to you, Bernardo, but not all men think of nothing but themselves. Some even consider the feelings and comfort of women.”

In an instant, Bernardo’s indignation transformed into white-faced rage, his hands clenching. He took one furious step towards her.

Nothing could happen, with Isabel there; and she did not really think anything more would have happened, had she not been. He was not that sort of man. But Lucrezia shrank back.

Isabel and Bernardo both stilled. He looked horrified.

“Lucrècia, I—”

Isabel held up her hand, shaking her head at him.

“That is quite enough, both of you,” she said, voice firm but pitched low. She walked back to their cousin, each step a soft, deliberate thump of her boots. Once Lucrezia met her eyes, Isabel settled a hand on her shoulder, the touch so light that she only just brushed the silk of Lucrezia’s gown. Looking down at the golden head, she felt a dizzying familiarity; felt, almost, that she walked through her own memory. She had done all this before.

Not here, though. Not with Lucrezia. She had thought that particular trial confined to the span of Jeronima’s life—but there would always be another Cesarini, and Giovanni Sforza huddled outside their grasp in the Romagna. Even had he been near, his connections must be indispensable to the family’s survival where Jeronima’s had been merely useful.

And yet, she thought, she would gladly pour Cesarini’s wine down Sforza’s throat, and damn the consequences.

Isabel smiled at Lucrezia. “Perhaps you could show me your chambers? I have not seen them yet, and they must be more private. Bernardo can find something improving to read, I’m sure.”

Lucrezia blinked several times, startled at her proximity but no worse. “Yes, the library … ” She looked around and flushed, ashamed of the moment’s weakness as she had not been of committing several of the worst mortal sins before the age of fifteen. Isabel respected that, after a fashion. Lucrezia would always be a fiercer sort of creature than half this family.

“You needn’t mind Bernardo,” she said in the same even tone. “He is like a puppy—he means well, but doesn’t always think before he acts.”

“I have not left yet,” said Bernardo. For once, he’d had the sense to follow her lead, and kept his voice light.

Lucrezia straightened up. “I am not afraid of you,” she told him defiantly. “That was only … habit.”

It took all of Isabel’s self-command to hold herself steady. “Not a habit with Cesare, I trust?”

“No.” She gave a low, strained laugh and turned back towards Isabel. “We are different together, our best selves—you must know that. One touch of his hand, anything at all, and it is like God sits in the room with us.”

Bernardo winced.

“I see,” Isabel murmured. “Well, I truly would prefer to speak to you alone, so please let us retire to your chambers. Bernardo—”

“Take myself off, eh?”

Lucrezia was already pulling Isabel to the opposite door, presumably leading into her private chambers. She stopped to glance back over her shoulder; in another of her mercurial transformations, she look once again confident and indomitable and sly. “You really should take advantage of the library, Bernardo. I always do.”

Uncertain, he said only, “Thank you.” 

By now he seemed more bewildered than anything else. Isabel spared a moment’s pity for him; her brother lacked neither will nor intelligence. He’d recognized what nobody else had seen, recognized his own mistakes. For all his failures with Jeronima, he had tried to amend them with Lucrezia, still young, mild, just beginning to fumble at power. He’d set himself the necessary task of protecting her and protecting himself from her—the task which faced Isabel now. But already, he was no match for Lucrezia Borgia.

Isabel could only hope that she would be.

Chapter Text

Lucrezia led Isabel into her bedchamber, then halted and whirled around. Her shoulders were set, her lips compressed, her fingers pressed flat against her skirts.

“I suppose you will demand an explanation,” she said. Annoyance edged her voice: lighter than with Bernardo, but unmistakably present.

“Demand? No. I don’t imagine you could be forced to confess anything I do not already know, or could not guess,” said Isabel. “May I sit down? My knees, you understand, are not as young as yours.”

Lucrezia blinked.

“I … yes, of course.” She gestured at a nearby chair, not far from the heavy bed. “How—”

Isabel walked past her, sat down, smoothed down her skirts. Then she folded her hands and looked at Lucrezia. She was tall enough, and her cousin so little, that it did not put her at too great a disadvantage.

Lucrezia, bravado startled out of her for the moment, stared at her with wide, anxious eyes. “You don’t approve, do you?”

Isabel considered. “No.”

“You shall betray us, then?” She drew a harsh breath. “You will—I should have known nobody else would see!”

Isabel looked at Lucrezia, golden hair falling loose around her face, small and frightened and determined. So often she’d wished that Jeronima had the strength to lock her door against Cesarini, to at least find some joy outside his villa, reach out her hand for—anything. But if anything had been Bernardo, she had no idea what she would have done.

“I do see,” she said.

“If you intend to separate us—”

“No,” said Isabel. “I once thought that would be wise, but that time has long since passed. You have your hooks in each other now.”

“If I could make you understand,” said Lucrezia desperately.

“I do understand. I understand better than you, perhaps.” Isabel had grown accustomed to holding onto her composure under any circumstances. It stood her in good stead now. “You were alone—”

Lucrezia interrupted her already. “It isn't that.”

“If you will permit me to finish?”

Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded.

“You were alone here,” Isabel told her. “For almost as long as you can remember. Your father and mother love you, but the love of a parent is not companionship. Juan cares for you in his way, but his way is superficial and selfish. Jofrè is more of a child than you have ever been. But you had Cesare, who loves you, and understands you, and likes you, as you are. Just as you do him.”

Lucrezia swallowed. “Everybody knows that much.”

But her face looked almost wistful. No doubt she really did wish to confide in someone, somewhere in that tortuous mind of hers. Any girl would long to speak of her first lover, and expansive, friendly Lucrezia more than most—even were this some trifling affair. At any rate she had never cared much for discretion; that must be Cesare's doing. What a secret to keep!

Shrugging, Isabel replied, “What I know, then, is that you have been utterly infatuated with each other since you were children. And once you grew old enough to feel more than that, you did. Have I struck near the mark?”

After a moment’s uneasy hesitation, Lucrezia nodded, a bare jerk of her chin. Gathering herself, she walked over to the bed and perched on the edge.

“How old was that, may I ask?” said Isabel.

Lucrezia’s fingers began to twist together; with a determined look, she stilled both hands, clasped them on her lap. “Twelve.”

“Nothing of this occurred then, I trust?”

“No,” Lucrezia said quietly. She flushed. “That is—no.”

Isabel waited.

For nearly a minute, they sat in silence, Lucrezia’s expression sullen one minute, fretful the next. In the end, though, she levelled a defiant look at Isabel.

“I suppose it makes no difference now.” Her eyes dropped. “Well, I had already started to—to notice boys, young men. The handsome ones. Not often, but now and again, in a trifling way. You know how it is.—Servants, mostly. I hardly saw anyone else.”

“Then?” Isabel prompted.

Lucrezia seemed hardly to notice her, her eyes distant. The suspicious hardness all but vanished from her face, leaving her more herself than Isabel had seen her all day: not a child, not quite a woman.

“Cesare came home from university, and I ran out to see him. I had missed him so much, even you cannot know how much, and then he was here. He was so different—he had his beard, and he’d grown so tall and handsome. His face was … him, of course, but he’d lost all the roundness.” She smiled. “He looked almost a man. He and Papa would talk about Church matters I did not understand, and Mama would ask him what he thought about all manner of things. I couldn’t stop watching him.”

It was very much as Isabel had expected. She still had to examine her hands for a moment.

“I thought he might be too—superior, too preoccupied with the world to bother about me any more,” Lucrezia went on. “Like Juan. Silly, of course, since he wrote to me all the time, but I still worried. It didn’t matter. He treated me just as he always had. You know; you were there.”

“Yes.” Isabel took a deep breath. “Very well. As for the present, I hope you will prove as truthful.”

“I hope I may,” replied Lucrezia, which seemed frank enough.

She thought back to the conversation with Bernardo. Then, against all expectation, she smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Six times?”

With a startled giggle, Lucrezia flopped back on her bed. “No.” She turned her head to look at Isabel, still anxious, but her smile mischievous. “That was the night of the duel.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

A flush crept over her cheeks and she narrowed her eyes. “I don’t see how that is any of your concern.”

“In perfect honesty,” said Isabel, gaze steady, “it is my chief concern.”

Lucrezia stared at her, face and body motionless. After a long moment, she said, “Bernardo never asked about that.”

“It is not always a matter of the uppermost concern for men,” Isabel said dryly.

She sat up again. “It is for Cesare.”

“I assume—” Even Isabel’s composure had its limits. She coughed, feeling herself flushing, and rose to her feet as gracefully as she could manage. “Whatever your private feelings, I gather you did not recognize them until he came to Pesaro. Your situation there must have been dire. I assume you do not pretend to regard each other as … other than you are, or something of that sort.”

Lucrezia looked offended. “He is my brother! How could I look into his eyes and think him anyone else?”

“Forgive me,” said Isabel. She took deliberate steps towards a beautiful statue of the Madonna, and paused to examine it. “I had not considered that, ah, detail.”

“I’m surprised Bernardo did not tell you that it is all my doing,” Lucrezia said, resentment faint but unmistakable. Oh, Bernardo; how could he have handled her so poorly?

Isabel touched the Madonna’s carved veil with a steady, careful hand. She could not allow herself to falter, not in the smallest part. “He did, and if he had not, I would have guessed as much. Yet there are many reasons you might choose this, beyond inclination alone.” She turned back to her cousin. “You are at an age when it is natural—”

“Natural to imagine myself in love with my brother?” she said scornfully.

“No,” said Isabel. “To exercise your will, or at least to wish for it. For some modicum of power, all the more when you have had none.”

“Oh!” Lucrezia glanced away, brow furrowing. Then she met Isabel’s eyes with a rueful smile. “Yes, perhaps. It is not why I chose this, though. I would not use Cesare that way.”

No, Isabel thought; only others. She wondered if Ursula Bonadeo had received her husband’s body yet.

“Then why did you choose it?” she said.

“I told Bernardo already,” said Lucrezia. “I wanted him. I had wanted him for years, I was simply too innocent to understand what I felt. Until Lord Sforza.” She brooded over that. “He tore my innocence from me. I don’t mean my virtue. I—I could never be what I’d been before. All in the space of a night.”

Nothing but the chair stood between Isabel and Lucrezia. Still, she picked her way carefully over to the bed, sitting beside her cousin. And she thought of Lucrezia after Jeronima’s death, her fury when Bernardo pretended to believe they had no cause for complaint. Yes: Lucrezia had lost her innocence in more ways than one.

“Like Jeronima?” she said in a low voice.

Lucrezia nodded. “Yes. I had not … I did not fully understand myself before my marriage, but I knew that I loved Cesare more than any man I might ever marry, that I liked nothing better than making him chase me and catch me in his arms. I desired him, and after my marriage I knew it, and instead I had only a husband who treated me like a dog. Then—”

Despite herself, Isabel winced. But it was very much as she had suspected.

“Then Cesare was there,” said Isabel.

Lucrezia’s face brightened. Indeed, her entire being seemed to brighten.

“Yes. He was—” A giggle escaped her, and she covered her mouth like the girl she was. “Tormented.” Sneaking a brief glance at Isabel, she added, “It didn’t amuse me then, at all. It is only thinking back … I had longed for him for two years, and there he was all but flagellating himself over his own feelings.”

Another small piece slid into place. Yes, that was Cesare.

“I had to show him my bruises,” she added.

“Sforza beat you?” Isabel veered back to horror. She struggled to recover herself. “And you used that to overpower your brother’s scruples?”

“Yes,” said Lucrezia smugly. “Well, I do not know if I should say scruples. It was all about my reputation and what people would say of me, not … I knew he felt what I did. He knew it. I had only to convince him that he would not hurt me.”

Isabel considered her. She did not know if she had ever wished to ask something less.

“Did he?”

“I beg your pardon?” Puzzled, Lucrezia blinked; then she blushed. “Oh! You mean that. No. I thought he might, that it might always be—but no, not at all. It was lovely.” She looked straight at Isabel, defiant again. “It always is.”

“That is a great relief to me,” said Isabel.

Lucrezia frowned, searching for any hidden meaning. But there was nothing to find. She smiled again.

“The first time—”

Isabel braced herself.

“You won’t repeat any of this?” Lucrezia looked very anxious and very fourteen.

“I promise,” said Isabel. “It was uncomfortable?”

“No!” Lucrezia shook her head almost violently. “It was wonderful.” Surprising them both, she laughed. “And awkward. We only half knew what we were doing. No other man but Lord Sforza has touched me and Cesare had never been with a lady before.”

Isabel lifted her brows. It seemed unlikely that he would tell such a blatant, easily discoverable lie. Cesare might use falsehoods, but not pointless ones. Perhaps Lucrezia merely imagined a comforting fiction.

“Oh?”

Lucrezia laughed again. “The others were not ladies, Isabel. I know; I watched.”

Isabel had not thought her eyebrows could rise higher. “I beg your pardon?”

“Bernardo did not tell you about that?”

“No,” said Isabel. “I feel certain that I would have remembered.”

“Yes, probably.” Lucrezia’s expression turned pensive. “I would watch him in bed with his women. You needn’t look so shocked; he knew about it.”

“That does not make it less shocking,” said Isabel, but she had recovered her composure.

“In any case, when we—well, we had so much clothing to manage, and I had bruises all over my shoulder and knew hardly anything, and Cesare was so unsure…” Lucrezia’s gaze skittered up. “You won’t tell him that I told you?”

Isabel shook her head. “I gave you my word.”

“I knew it would not be like before,” she said, colour heightening, “but I never imagined that any part of it could be … well, silly.”

“Silly,” Isabel repeated.

“Yes! He was in his robes and I—have you seen my brown riding gown?”

Isabel could not have cared less about Lucrezia’s gown. Her memory, however, helpfully illustrated it in her mind. “It has a small bodice with laces?”

Lucrezia nodded. “Yes, it was that one, and I could not get it off. Nor could Cesare; he was lying down to keep the ground from touching my bruises, so of course he couldn’t see anything. By then we wanted each other desperately, too, so it should have been dreadful, but instead we laughed.” She grinned. “It was so absurd. There Cesare was, flat on his back, and I, trying to crawl over him, but we had forgotten to take off his shift, and our legs got tangled in our skirts, and we just laughed and laughed!” Sobering a little, she added, “I had imagined it a thousand times, but never like that—never that we would be laughing together.”

The last of Isabel’s concerns quietly died.

“You always are,” she said.

“Yes.” Lucrezia’s eyes fixed on her, the hope in her face unmistakable. “We have only changed in ourselves, not together. Bernardo doesn’t understand.”

“I expect not.” Something in Isabel, obscurely pained, would have liked to turn away. Instead she looked her cousin in the eye. “The world, however, will see it as he does, or less kindly. Have you anything to fear?”

“I have many fears,” she replied. “Most of them about Cesare, but my father, my mother, Giulia, my other brothers … even my cousins.” She gave Isabel an arch look, her expression for once more teasing than mocking. “But I suppose you mean discovery. Most of those nearest to me know a little.”

“Wise,” said Isabel.

A flicker of vulnerability passed over Lucrezia’s face again. “Do you mean that?”

“Of course,” said she. “A little truth goes a long way in a deception. It is almost always better to satisfy others’ curiosity than leave them to wonder and suspect.”

“Yes!” Lucrezia exclaimed. “That is what I have always found. Except when Cesare talked to Bernardo. It amused him to lead Bernardo to—down a wrong path, but he gave him enough to guess the truth.”

Isabel looked away, heartily wishing that everyone about her would stop presuming that she would have her sister cut out of her own history. But Lucrezia was not the worst offender, and now not the time. Still, it required a moment to still the words on her tongue.

Collected once more, Isabel returned her attention to Lucrezia. “He had more motives than entertainment, I believe, or even distraction.”

Lucrezia frowned. “He has said nothing of that to me.”

“Nor to me,” said Isabel, “but I think we both know that your brother is not always the best judge of his own motives.”

She laughed under her breath. “Oh, yes.”

My brother,” Isabel continued, “told me that Cesare often pressed him to see Jeronima. It was in the course of one of those conversations that their discussion of his lover—of you—took place. Cesare saw Bernardo that day with the intention of putting Jeronima in his mind. I do not believe he thought of his deception in that light, but …” She shrugged.

Lucrezia thought over that, head tilted. Then she sighed. “That sounds exactly like him.”

“He said too much, of course,” Isabel added. “He does not judge these things so well as you do.”

Moreover, she thought, he too had wished to speak of it to someone. Cesare, brilliant and forceful, could seem far more than four years Lucrezia’s senior, but in reality he remained a boy of eighteen, thrust into manhood ahead of his time, forced into a life he hated, severed from the only person he adored, and altogether under the thumb of his father. Yet he had proven his own man in the end, reached out a hand for his own happiness. A silent revolt, but a more comprehensive one could hardly be imagined. And it had placed him in the grip of a first and forbidden love, with no choice but to hide the very defiance it entailed.

No doubt their situation also grated on Lucrezia; they shared pride as well as most else. But Cesare’s dignity would protest more loudly; a discarded heir could not help but feel differently than a discarded daughter. At any rate he was the more reckless of the two of them, and a lifetime of submission had yet to reconcile him to it. Bruised pride, anxiety over Jeronima, and yes, the chance to lead Bernardo astray— it had made him that bit more careless than he should have been.

Lucrezia gave a long-suffering sigh. “It is true. He does think of the future, he perceives and understands things that no one else sees. But he also misses the ones that anyone could see! You cannot imagine how poorly he managed the situation with Ursula.”

Shock, dismay, fear had all dulled to a gentle discomfort. Isabel listened with some fascination.

“What did he do?”

“Nothing!” Lucrezia shook her head so hard that her elaborate plait nearly whipped Isabel’s neck. “Nothing at all! He did not call on her, write to her, anything. That day when we met her at Saint Cecilia’s—that was the first time she had seen him since our return. Naturally, she was troubled and confused, and trying to understand what had changed. I had to excuse Cesare to her, soothe her fears, persuade her that he had no other lover, and pretend to be shocked while she tortured her conscience about letting him kiss her, once. Can you imagine it?”

After everything, Isabel laughed outright. “No,” she said, “but I would have paid a great deal to see it.”

She wrinkled her nose.

“He danced with her at the wedding, did he not?”

“Not until I told him to,” Lucrezia said indignantly, and Isabel only laughed all the more.

Settling back into her necessary role, she said, “You have no fears about Ursula, then? Or his other women?”

Lucrezia looked startled. “I have not thought about it. If he does … attend on others, after I leave, I would not wish to know. I don’t think I would even like to watch them, now.”

For her own peace of mind, Isabel pretended she had not heard the last sentence.

“And while you are here?”

Her smile was unmistakably self-satisfied. “I do not believe he attends to much of anything when I am with him.”

True enough.

“And what of the future?” Isabel searched her cousin’s eyes. “This marriage will end some way or another, but what about when you marry again?”

Lucrezia’s voice firmed. “I will never marry again.”

“You must be practical,” Isabel said. “Your—”

“No,” she snapped. Without seeming to notice, Lucrezia shifted a little further away on the edge of the bed. “Everything else in my life is made up of what is politic and practical. I will have this—now—”

“Perhaps,” said Isabel, voice calm, “but you have thought beyond the present alone, have you not?”

Lucrezia’s flash of anger faded, as it so often did. “No.”

“Now, you are trying to deceive me. You needn’t bother.”

“I am not,” she insisted.

Isabel, her face hardening, caught Lucrezia’s necklace once more. At last, she let her tone sharpen. “You wear his ring about your neck, Lucrezia! He has yours on his hand for all to see. I do not doubt that you have exchanged vows of some sort. Do you think me blind? This is very little short of marriage. It would be marriage, were the pair of you not thrice violating the law.”

Lucrezia flinched, then turned her face away.

“You know that, I think,” Isabel said, very softly.

Even in profile, she could see all uncertainty drain out of her cousin’s face. Lucrezia wrapped a hand around her bedpost and jerked around to stare at her, eyes cold.

“Perhaps I do.” One of her shoulders lifted. “What does it matter? Our promises lie between the two of us, not you. The future will be whatever it will be. And I will not grovel to you or to Bernardo because I have snatched a few weeks’ happiness, whatever the result.”

“We are not your enemies, Lucrezia.” There had never been any other way that this conversation could end. Carefully, Isabel reached over for one of Lucrezia’s hands, delicate in her larger one. She was built like a bird, Lucrezia, a fragile sparrow or dove.

Lucrezia did not return the light squeeze of Isabel’s fingers, but she did not withdraw, either, only watching her through suspicious and confused eyes. No bird, to be certain. A little cat, perhaps, uncertain whether to sheathe her claws or slash out.

Isabel sighed. “All the marriages in our family seem to be for the family, or within the family. Grandfather and Grandmother, Joan and Isabel-Lucrècia, Tecla and—” She broke off.

“Aunt Tecla?” said Lucrezia, now entirely bewildered. “Did she not marry a Vilanova?”

“Yes, for the family. Her uncle arranged that as my uncle arranged ours,” Isabel said. “Never mind that. I wish you to understand me, Lucrezia. I do not approve; I cannot approve. But I cannot condemn you, either.”

Lucrezia lifted up her eyes. “You mean that you will not reveal any of this? Not now or in the future?”

“Yes. You have my word.” She smiled at her; now Lucrezia’s rings pinched her fingers as she grasped Isabel’s fingers.

“And Bernardo?”

“I can manage my brother,” said Isabel.

Chapter Text

La Bella, Vanozza once told her son, lacked scruple but not sense. She could be trusted to know her own interests—and little else, but her interests lay with their family, for now. Giulia would make a valuable ally and a dangerous enemy.

“She summoned me,” Cesare had said, still indignant. “If not for Lucrezia, I would never have gone. Nor would I have stayed, had she not raised … concerns about her.”

“Do not forget that Giulia Farnese has some wit under all that hair,” replied Vanozza. “She struck at your weakness.”

“Lucrezia is not a weakness,” he said sharply—but he'd listened nevertheless, and turned civil towards Giulia. Or at least not openly hostile. When she wished to offer confidences, he heard her. When she annoyed him, he bit his tongue. He'd buried his resentment as far as he could.

That was, perhaps, not very far. After hours of obfuscation piled on duplicity with the French ambassador—a filthy little weasel—Cesare could not have less desired an interview with Giulia. Fortuna, however, rarely cared for any of his desires but one.

“Cardinal!”

Cesare, hurrying out of his father's apartments, halted in place. He itched to change out of his robes, withdraw into his palace and let his fears rest. Or share them, at least, with the one person he could unequivocally trust.

Swallowing a sigh, he turned around. “Lady Giulia.”

She smiled, face as smooth and inscrutable as always. “Might I beg a word with your Eminence? I would hear your judgment on a matter of Scripture. It quite escapes my understanding.”

“Very well,” he said, not believing her for an instant, nor persuaded that anybody else would. It did not matter, he supposed, as long as appearances were maintained. But deceit that did not deceive always annoyed him. He followed her in poor humour.

In the high, airy chamber where she'd had her portrait painted, she stopped and ordered out all the servants. He could only imagine what it looked like. Then he did imagine, and suppressed a shudder.

“We have a disaster to avert,” she told him. A line creased her forehead, which said more than her tranquil voice.

“Several,” said Cesare. Then he frowned and added, “We?”

Giulia ignored that. “It is your cousin.”

“I have many cousins.” But certainly two in particular sprang to mind just now. “Do you mean Lord Cesarini? We can do little enough about that.”

“No,” she said, almost impatient. “I mean Lucrezia. Lord Bernardo knows of her attachment. He spoke to me about it at the wedding celebration—in public!—asking questions about her lover.”

“And what did you tell him?” Cesare asked evenly.

“Nothing,” said Giulia, “but to exercise discretion.” She gave a steady look. “You knew that already, I think. It was then that you interrupted us.”

“Yes.” He hadn't known, at the time, what she meant, but in retrospect he could guess well enough.

“Then you know that I did not betray Lucrezia, or even your own part in this,” she said. “Although he is a Borgia.”

“In name and blood—yes. As much as Juan.”

Giulia smiled. “Indeed.”

“I commend you for it,” Cesare told her, not entirely facetious. “In any case, Bernardo already spoke to me of his suspicions. He has promised to mind his tongue, for now; we can ill afford a scandal. And, of course, he is in no position to condemn Lucrezia for a passing indulgence.”

She did not look particularly comforted. “As for that—his Holiness is not pleased with his rashness.”

Isabel’s rashness, he suspected. The Pope, who since before Cesare’s birth had paid close attention to his nephews, nieces, and young cousins to several degrees of remoteness, must suspect it likewise.

“I would not term that indulgence,” said Cesare.

“No,” she agreed, “but he has weakened a valuable alliance. The Cesarini may not revolt, but with Lady Girolama and the lord Gianandrea dead, there can be precious little binding them to us.”

She paused there, and for a moment he still wondered what it had to do with Bernardo’s flirtations. Only a moment.

“Unless there were another marriage,” he said.

Giulia inclined her head. “A betrothal, perhaps.”

“I cannot imagine Bernardo married,” said Cesare. “His Holiness has proposed various matches before, but my cousin will not hear of it.”

Softly, she said, “Could you have imagined Jofrè married?”

Cesare almost flinched. An intolerable weakness, before her.

“I grant you that,” he said, longing for Lucrezia. “Well, if we must endure our betrothals, so shall he. When will he receive the happy news?”

She gave a delicate shrug. “The Holy Father has not yet decided whether to arrange an advantageous marriage or banish him back to Spain for his intransigence. His explanation for Lord Cesarini’s … illness will no doubt decide the case. His Holiness intends to receive it tonight.”

“That will come as a surprise to Bernardo,” said Cesare. “He was not anticipating a solitary interrogation any time soon, I think.”

“Not solitary,” Giulia told him. “Your father does not care for secrets within the family, except his own. Least of all in this case, where all but perhaps Lucrezia know the truth. He demands the presence of every member of the family this evening, to hear and to speak. A more general—colloquy.”

A colloquy of murder! He could have laughed. Instead he demanded,

“In the Vatican? With prying ears behind every door?”

“No.” Giulia lowered her eyes, less demure than decorous. “At the Lady Vanozza’s villa.”

Cesare stilled. Every muscle in his body stiffened, without any intent on his part—it was not as if he could contend with Giulia Farnese through size or strength. “You and the Holy Father, and my brothers and cousins, all in my mother's home?”

“Not I,” she said. Her glance flicked up briefly. “I would not impose myself on Lady Vanozza. Lucrezia, however, must attend. You remember—Bernardo insists that she can give proof of his innocence.”

“What innocence?”

Giulia said nothing, but gave a faint smile. Sympathy, maybe, or understanding.

He thought of Lucrezia’s clear expressions: anxiety, pleasure, resolve. Though not particularly tormented by desire at the moment, he felt a sharp need for her. For her with him, at his side through this farce, his sister. Or he, her brother, at hers—she had more to face than he.

“I will tell her,” he said.

 


 

 

Lucrezia felt half-dazed, her mind stuffed full of wool, as she led Isabel to the library. Bernardo waited for them there, but did not appear to have availed himself of any distractions. He paced back and forth, utterly devoid of his sister’s sangfroid, his boots thudding against the floor.

“Calm yourself, brother,” said Isabel. “Lucrezia and I have reached an understanding.”

His gaze flicked between the two of them.

“An understanding about Cesare and Cesarini alike?” he said. “You persuaded her that quickly?”

Even that brief interchange was sufficient to break through Lucrezia’s stupor. Could she trust even Isabel? She thought she could—trust her to stick to her word, at any rate, and in general act in the best interests of the family. Yet that trust felt more like an obligation than anything else. A greater obligation than she would have ever wished to owe anyone.

The realization settled on her, heavy in her gut: so incalculable a debt might never be paid.

“No,” Lucrezia said shortly. “Isabel has promised me secrecy.”

“Naturally,” said Bernardo, “but—”

“Indefinite secrecy,” Isabel told him. Her expression remained as calm as it had been in Lucrezia’s bedchamber—or calmer. She had looked startled now and then.

Bernardo stared at his sister. “Have you lost your senses, Isabel? What could possibly have—”

“What could possibly be done?” she demanded. “Do you think the consequences of scandal would disappear even were France burned to ash? We will always have the eyes of Christendom on us. We will always have no recourse but our loyalty to one another. And there is no severing the ties of blood, even if I wished to try.” Isabel’s mouth curved into a smile, faint and inscrutable. “You should know that already, Bernardo.”

For an instant, he looked as if he might snarl back at her. Instead, he glanced at Lucrezia. “So you persuaded my sister.”

Lucrezia thought back. Isabel had asked for explanations, certainly. She had listened, unlike Bernardo. Yet it did not feel like persuasion.

“I told her only the truth,” she replied. “And Isabel knew most of that already—did you not, cousin?”

“I guessed it.” Isabel’s long fingers smoothed down her skirts. She made her way across the room, pausing to gaze at the bust of Saint Augustine as she had gazed at the Madonna in Lucrezia’s bedchamber. “They are very little that they were not already, Bernardo, as I suspected yesterday. I should have seen what that was, to be sure, and interceded long ago—but I did not.”

“I cannot believe this,” he said incredulously. “You mean to countenance this … this …”

“I mean to accept the inevitable,” said Isabel. “I do not waste effort on wrongs that I cannot change.” She cast a quick glance over her shoulder, at Lucrezia. “Much less those that harm no one.”

Bernardo scowled at the floor.

“And you,” he began to say to Lucrezia, then stopped. He seemed to have no idea how to continue.

She decided that she had expended enough patience on him. “You will excuse me if I do not choose to be judged by murderers.”

He flinched. Isabel did not—but then, she’d always had more steel in her soul.

“Speaking of which,” Isabel said dryly, turning about, “might we enquire after your intentions on that front?”

Lucrezia paused, reluctant to abandon her lone trump. Moreover, though she had no difficulty believing that they might have struck at Cesarini in their grief, she could not quite see how it had happened. For one, he still lived, certain though all considered his death. A sudden violent act should result in a sudden violent end. This was slow and lingering, like a fever. Indeed it could and must pass for fever.

That reminded her of ... something. She could not quite recall. Well, they must have used poison. She remembered Isabel’s murmur that Lord Cesarini had suffered some indisposition towards the end of their visit;—oh, no doubt he had! Yet she also remembered Micheletto saying that even poison usually killed quickly, unless administered over a long period of time, or unless something went wrong.

“Is it certain that he will die?” she said at last.

Isabel hesitated.

“Yes,” said Bernardo.

“He has survived this long,” Lucrezia persisted. “How can you be sure that he will not overcome this … malady?”

Isabel and Bernardo exchanged a quick glance, so quick that in other circumstances, she might have missed it. Her skin chilled.

“Unless—” Dread crept over her like a living thing, tightening its bands about her chest and throat. “Unless there is a reason he lingers on, and you know it. You expected it.”

Even as she spoke, she thought wildly: it couldn’t be. It couldn’t. It made no sense, still. They hadn’t the time for a gradual poisoning, not if it followed from Jeronima’s death. And if they intended a slow torment, how could it be a mistake?

“Perhaps we did,” Isabel said.

“What of it?” added Bernardo. His heavy tread took him to his sister’s side. Though Lucrezia knew he could never love Isabel as a man, the gesture—and his glower down at her—reminded her forcibly of Cesare. She was shaken, despite her best intentions.

Isabel had not lost her composure. Lucrezia would not do so, either.

“I may not be a murderer,” she said, “but I am not wholly ignorant. Poison kills swiftly, unless some error is made. Therefore, you must have erred. Yet, if you intended this, you did not err at all. It is impossible!”

Impossible, but for an intentional error.

Bernardo gave a short laugh. “Hardly.”

“Lucrezia,” said Isabel, in nothing like her usual firm, steady tones. Her voice wavered on a breathless note; her hands curled into tight fists at her sides, all that self-command splintering at last. “Lucrezia, it is nothing to what my sister suffered. You know that.”

She did know. She did. But her head was so light that she couldn’t think about that, could hardly focus her eyes on them, distinguish brother from sister.

“Cantarella,” Lucrezia breathed. She reached for the table. Cesare must have forbidden the servants from the library: the books were still scattered, della Rovere’s note still crumpled on the floor. She could only make out half a word: Valen. Valentino, Valencia, Valencia that was their home in name and Bernardo’s in truth. Was this what he had felt when he discovered her secret?

“Yes, yes, cantarella and sugar,” Bernardo said impatiently. “Now that that has been clarified, can we—”

“You did not know about that.” One of the few books she and Cesare had not dislodged crashed to the floor. “You want me to remember, do you not? I do! You, one of you, jested about cantarella in his sugar. But of course it was not a jest.” How could she have been so innocent, still? “I told you what it would do, what Micheletto …”

Micheletto murdered. She’d known that, even at Pesaro. But he was a weapon in his very being. Bernardo and Isabel were family.

“You betrayed me,” she whispered.

“You needn’t dramatize yourself,” Isabel said coolly. “It was not a confidence. We betrayed you no more than you did Ursula Bonadeo.”

Lucrezia forced herself to focus on her familiar features, so much like Cesare’s and Juan’s. But more like Bernardo’s.

“No,” she said, “not a confidence. Merely something I said in the belief that it would not be used against me. Yes, it was just like Ursula—I did betray her trust.”

“Then you hardly have room to judge,” said Isabel.

“She is not family!”

Both her cousins stilled.

“And given the opportunity, you would do it all over again, would you not?” Lucrezia demanded.

Bernardo shrugged, horror fading into mere annoyance. She would have welcomed that, in other circumstances. Now—?

“Yes,” Isabel said fiercely, “of course we would. The nearest thing to another chance at vengeance would be Giovanni Sforza, and believe me that if he dares come to Rome, we will do for him as we did for Cesarini.”

“He must not …” Lucrezia shook her head, touched in some corner of her heart despite murder, betrayal, everything. But only a corner. “You need not have used the one method I knew of, spoke of. You need not have used anything at all! Least of all now. You have exposed us all at the worst possible moment.”

As soon as she stopped speaking, she realized what she had said. She flushed, but did not recant.

“That depends on you,” Isabel said.

Bernardo, ignoring this, scoffed in his throat. “Fine words from you, little cousin.”

Isabel held up a hand; though he looked nettled, he fell silent.

“We do not expect you to lie, as I must lie for you. On the contrary, we depend upon your frankness. You need only report what you actually witnessed. Lord Cesarini invited us to his villa the day he fell ill, just as you saw.”

“You made sure of that, did you?” Lucrezia said.

“Of course,” said Isabel. She sighed. “I did not wish for you to be complicit in this. We hoped Cesare would come with you and be witness, but of course he had his own vengeance to wreak that day.”

“It was a duel.” Her voice sounded thin and petulant in her ears. She hardened it. “Fair and honourable. Not like poison.”

“A fair and honourable duel with his assassin at his back? Oh, of course.” Isabel’s own voice had returned to normal: steady, calm, reasonable. It reminded Lucrezia of Micheletto himself, more than Bernardo or Cesare. “At any rate, we still tried to keep you out of it. We sent you to bed, you remember?”

She did remember. She’d been so angry at their easy forgiveness—what looked like forgiveness. And she’d been so tired, between grief for Jeronima and fear for Cesare. She let Bernardo lead her to Isabel’s chambers, slept for hours, and when she woke, it was to Isabel with Jeronima’s jewel-box.

She wept, Lucrezia remembered; rest had stolen away exhaustion, but not dread. And Isabel held her, assured her in that very same voice that Cesare would not die, that the worst thing that might happen would be embarrassment if Micheletto had to do his work for him. She’d handed her a handkerchief to wipe her face and given her their grandfather’s ring.

Lucrezia almost faltered.

“Yes,” she said flatly. “Is that it, then? If I do not reveal his invitation, and let people believe that the end of it, then you will—”

Isabel cut her off. “No. My word of honour is not conditional.”

At that, Lucrezia felt even worse, more uncertain. Exposure of their murder, even if deserved, would be a disaster for the entire family—her father and brothers most of all. Until this moment, she’d never seriously considered it. And her own secret must be nearly as terrible in the eyes of the world; Isabel’s own wrongs did not wipe out that debt. Yet if they meant to keep her on the periphery of this, they’d certainly failed. And somewhere, a man was dying in agony because of her offhand comment. A petty, cruelly selfish man to be sure, but nevertheless …

Someone knocked at the door. Lucrezia glanced up, startled and alarmed. The library should be safe from intruders and eavesdroppers. Before she could respond, however, the door opened and Cesare walked in.

Lucrezia exhaled. Not since he arrived at Pesaro had she felt more relieved to see him.

“Sister.” He walked over and kissed her, very properly, on the cheek. Bernardo and Isabel still looked uncomfortable.

They deserved that much.

“I heard that you had called on Lucrezia,” he said to Bernardo and Isabel. “You have not troubled her, I trust?”

“Isabel knows, Cesare,” said Lucrezia. “She has promised me that they will not betray us—at least as far as that is concerned.”

He gave them a cold look. “Oh? Should we anticipate other betrayal?”

Suddenly, it seemed absurd: the four of them standing there, brother and sister set against brother and sister. Borgias all, squabbling over sin.

“I should not think so, no,” Isabel said.

“Brother,” said Lucrezia, “did Father not require you all day, after all?”

“He tired of French nothings,” Cesare replied. He flicked another glance, this one less readable, at their cousins. “And now he has additional concerns. He insists on seeing all of us at dinner.”

“Very well,” said Bernardo. “There is nothing odd in that.”

Cesare, never in good humour after a day as cardinal, scowled. “At my mother’s house.”

All three of the others stared at him. In the end, Isabel—clearing her throat—spoke first.

“Is Lady Vanozza aware of this?”

“I have told her everything,” he said.

They should have known that; he always did, except when it came to Lucrezia. But this time, it was Isabel who flinched.

“Then we will attend on her tonight,” she said. “And we must take your leave if we are to prepare. I imagine Lucrezia, too, will wish for some time to consider the evening.”

“Cesare, Lucrezia.” Bernardo nodded at both of them. “Until tonight.”

With that, they walked out of the library, together.

Lucrezia fumbled for the nearest chair and all but fell into it. She pressed her hands against her throbbing temples.

“Lucrezia?” Cesare instantly knelt beside her, seizing her hand. “Lucrezia, what is it? Did they threaten you? Or—”

“They poisoned him,” she whispered. “Lord Cesarini. It was them.”

The alarm in his face faded to caution. He dropped his eyes to their clasped hands. “Ah. Yes. I meant to tell you.”

“No.” Lucrezia returned his grasp, tightened it further until he winced. “They mixed it with the sugar, so that he would suffer.”

At that, he caught his breath, then rose to his feet, not relinquishing her fingers. “Did they? I had no idea they knew so much about poison.”

“They didn’t,” she said miserably. “I told them about that. I had no idea they would … it was a jest, Cesare, and they—”

He stroked his thumb over the back of her hand, the gesture comforting, but almost absent-minded. A frown drew his brows together.

“How did you know about the sugar?”

“Micheletto told me.”

“Micheletto!” Now he did not seem distracted at all, his eyes wide and angry. “Why was he … ah, Bernardo did mention that. You were speaking of Sancia with Micheletto, yes?”

“Yes. It was only a …” She couldn’t bring herself to say it again.

“A jest,” he finished. “So our cousins seized the opportunity for a more protracted revenge?”

Lucrezia nodded. Gently, Cesare tugged her to her feet and caught her face between his hands. His fingers rubbed at her cheeks—she couldn’t think why, until she realized that she must have wept.

“You knew nothing of what they intended,” he told her. “This is not your doing in the slightest, Lucrezia.”

“If I had not spoken—”

“Then Cesarini would be dead already.”

She knew that. They would have murdered him without her information or with it; she had only provided the method. But what an only.

Lucrezia was crying in earnest now: not loudly or passionately, but neither of them could stop the tears spilling down her cheeks.

“I never imagined that Isabel—”

“She was grief-stricken. She is, still,” he said. “Bernardo as well, in his way. And she may have learnt caution, but it is in neither of their natures. They heard you and acted without thinking. It will not happen again.”

Lucrezia curled her fingers around the fabric of his robes, comforting herself in the soft velvet and the smooth twists and curves woven into the satin. His hands were warm against her face, his eyes earnest.

“Isabel said it will,” she told him, “if Lord Sforza comes near her.”

“Well—Sforza,” said Cesare. He cleaned her face again. “You cannot expect me to condemn her for that. I suspect your little maid would do the same, given half a chance.”

After everything, she laughed. “Very probably.”

Chapter Text

Bernardo had never regarded Vanozza’s villa as anything but warm and welcoming. Now, gazing up at the familiar walls and square pillars, he suppressed the dread rising in his stomach. At worst, he could always return home; he meant to return home.

Not in dishonour. Least of all when the Pope’s own children had committed a far greater sin.—Greater in the eyes of the world as well as his own, surely, if not the Church.

Isabel joined him, elegantly somber. Her husband was nowhere to be seen.

“Kept Matuzzi at bay, did you?”

She considered the house, shading her eyes against the low sun. “He prefers not to involve himself in family quarrels.”

“Wise.” He offered his arm, and they made their way towards the main entrance to the villa, saying little. To their mutual relief, Vanozza embraced and kissed them both.

“Come here, the pair of you,” she said, leading them to a little hall which she had always reserved for intimate family gatherings. This would not be like the last, every Borgia in Italy summoned to acknowledge the alliance with Naples. He thought he might have preferred that, though this at least felt less suffocating, with its line of windows overlooking the courtyard.

“Lady Vanozza,” began Isabel.

“Not a word,” said Vanozza firmly. “You have been very foolish and this is no childish prank, but there will be more than enough time for that later. For now it is best to say that I am happy to see you reconciled at last, if not for the circumstances of it.”

Bernardo and Isabel glanced at each other. Neither of them had agreed to a reconciliation, admitted anything more than vague regrets, yet neither could deny it. Bernardo, certainly, could not have said that he disliked his sister any longer. He disliked her high-handed ways at times, yes, found her alarmingly hardened to any corruption that did not threaten her or hers, certainly. But he liked her. In any case, he could not help feeling that clinging to their estrangement would be a greater insult to Jeronima’s memory than spitting on her grave.

“We are far too old to hold on to childhood grudges,” Isabel said.

Vanozza smiled. “Oh, positively ancient.”

“We have been spending a great deal of time with Cesare and Lucrezia,” said Bernardo. “They have a way of making one feel ancient.”

Her brows rose. “Do they? I cannot say I ever noticed, but perhaps I would not.”

It was to be ordinary chatter, then.

“Have they arrived yet? Or any of the others?”

“Only Lucrezia,” replied Vanozza, “and she has been here for two hours at least. She spends whatever time she can spare with me, now that she is to leave so soon;—she knows I dread it.”

She dreads it, Bernardo thought. He almost said as much, but remembered that the full horror of Lucrezia’s marriage was part and parcel of her great secret. Again, pity mingled uncomfortably with distaste.

“As do we all,” Isabel said. “I do not quite like seeing her grow up so quickly. But perhaps Lord Sforza will take up his place in Rome soon.”

“If the rumours I hear have any truth in them, we can only hope so,” said Vanozza.

Bernardo could not have said if he hoped for it or not. He did not wish to make a habit of murder. He confined himself to a bland,

“He would be a fool to stay away.”

“Would he?” said Isabel.

Bernardo looked at her. He’d thought the adamant of her composure, today, near as shocking as anything else. But suddenly he could see it broken in a dozen places: the upwards tilt of her voice, the stiffness of her hands at rest in the folds of her skirts, the very lack of expression in her steady gaze. At eight and twenty, the skin about her eyes remained smooth, whether she smiled or frowned. She held her narrow shoulders like a soldier.

Absurdly, he thought: But I am the soldier.

“The Holy Father,” Vanozza said, managing to bite out each word with perfect decorum, “can do little enough for him in the Romagna. Rome has far more to offer.”

“Rome!” cried Isabel. “What has this wretched city to offer anyone?”

Something in Bernardo twisted in sympathy. He would have liked to reach out, comfort her in some way—be the older brother to a suffering sister that he ought. He could think of nothing, however, beyond perhaps an awkward pat on her shoulder. And he feared she might fly apart if anyone tried.

“Rome has been very good to our family,” Vanozza said. Her dignity did not waver; her tone did, a little.

Bernardo could not look at either of them. With a slight, joyless smile directed at no one in particular, he turned away, wandering towards the windows. He would give anything, he thought, to be anywhere else. And his soul to return to Valencia. Home, with Tecla in one house and Àngela in the other, and his own in Gandia, all the family, friends, the life he knew.

“Oh, very good,” said Isabel, bitterness in her voice so raw that even Jofrè could not have missed it. “It has made my uncle a Pope and my sister a corpse.”

Vanozza said, “Isabel—”

Bernardo’s fingers clenched. He lifted his eyes to the window, indifferent to the scenery, but forcing himself to look at something. Anything.

He almost started. At the edge of the fountain, a woman sat trailing her fingers through the water, her face turned away. Lucrezia, of course, though he recognized her more by the glimmer of golden hair, captured in its net, than anything real. In fact, her small frame struck him as peculiarly unfamiliar in that moment, some strange element in the way she held herself. Not slumped, but not her usual straight-backed vitality, either. Even her clothes were odd, mousy brown instead of the vibrant reds and blues and greens he’d grown accustomed to. She was leaning over the water, her air melancholy.

Well, it was not as if she had no reasons to be so. Likely she thought of her return to Pesaro, to that husband of hers. A man as bad as Cesarini, or worse. Perhaps Lucrezia, too, would soon find herself with child. Again, and again, and again—

Her hair gleamed in the afternoon’s warm sunlight, and he remembered lying in bed, the slash of agony as they set his broken bone and he clutched the hand in his. The hand that belonged to that coddled Mantuan sister of his, sneaking out of her lessons to sit with him. She made him practice all the new dances with her, her bright hair swinging around like Àngela’s—he could almost smell the bitter scent of the lye again, hear himself laughing at her. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! he’d said, and Jeronima just wrinkled her nose at him and retorted that he should know.

When their uncle summoned the others back to Rome, she wept, swore she would write and extracted his word that he would, too. And he had, though never as well as she did herself. He could all but feel that, too, the weight of the promised letters in his hand, pages covered in her narrow hand, sketches of fine buildings or scenes she found amusing. Or that she thought he would: no doubt she’d found precious little amusing in the end. The end. He had not known, he truly hadn’t, but he should have—she hadn’t wanted him to know, to worry, but he should have. It would have been generous to call her a shadow of her former self in those last moments, her body wasted and swollen all at once, dark eyes sunken in her face and all her hair shorn. But she’d had enough life in her to say brother? Even the low whisper managed to carry emotion—startled, affectionate, relieved. She hadn’t expected him there. She hadn’t thought he would come.

In the courtyard, he saw Lucrezia’s bent head straighten up. She sprang to her feet and he could see her face, for a moment as sombre as he’d suspected, then stilling into surprise, then alight with joy. She picked up her skirts and rushed towards something beyond his sight.

He had very little doubts about what that something must be. Sure enough, a blur of blood red from the left resolved into Cesare, running to her like a child in full cardinal’s regalia. He swung her up, Lucrezia laughing and clinging to his shoulders as he lifted her clear off the ground.

For once, Bernardo didn’t feel disgusted at—what they were. He didn’t feel very much of anything but regret.

“That means nothing,” Isabel was saying. “I hate this place. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it—”

“Then come home.”

Bernardo started at his own words, dropping into the air like rain on dry ground. Perhaps Vanozza and Isabel did, too; they certainly fell silent.

He turned away from the window, back to his own concerns. The women were staring at him.

“Don’t be absurd,” Isabel said at last.

“How so?”

She looked taken aback—of course she did. But more than that: almost frightened.

“Difficult as it may be for you to believe,” she told him, “I love my husband. This is his home, and so it must be mine.”

He couldn’t read Vanozza’s expression. She said nothing, at any rate, merely watched him.

“Difficult, but not impossible,” replied Bernardo lightly. “And you say I speak of absurdities, sister! as if Matuzzi would not follow you into the ninth circle of hell.”

At that, Isabel softened for a moment, her husband’s devotion some consolation for the loss of their sister’s. But only some. Her face tightened again. “He serves the Pope. This is nonsense. Pray do not speak of it further.”

Before Bernardo could respond, a servant opened the door and announced Alexander and Juan. No Jofrè, Bernardo noticed—and no Sancia. Wise, but it spoke of the gravity with which his uncle approached this. He would not be quickly fobbed off.

To his surprise, however, Alexander greeted them all with his usual heartiness.

“Bernardo, my boy—my dear Isabel,” he said, with a genial clasp of the former’s shoulder and the latter’s hands. His glance flicked past them, so quick that a slower observation might have missed it. Bernardo almost checked behind them to see if anything was the matter, but the faint quiver of the Pope’s mouth gave him away.

Alexander compressed his lips, composure recovered. “Vanozza. Thank you for hosting us this evening.”

In a voice dryer than any desert, she said, “You honour me, Holy Father.”

Juan came forward. “Mother.” He kissed her. “Isabel, you’re looking well. Bernardo, you … aren’t. You look dreadful, actually. Not some miserable contagion, I hope?”

“Really, Juan,” said Vanozza.

“Thank you, cousin,” Isabel told him. She glanced around. “Did Cesare not come?”

“He went to fetch Lucrezia,” replied Alexander. “We saw her as we were coming in. They should be here in a moment. Shall we go into dinner? They know where to find us.”

He offered his arm, and Vanozza, back so straight and stiff that it seemed she might snap in two, accepted it. Even Juan shifted uncomfortably before following them in.

Bernardo and Isabel trailed behind, hoping to catch sight of their other cousins before they all sat down together. Sure enough, they heard the door open and close, and a murmur of voices, before footsteps hurried behind them.

“Bernardo, Isabel,” said Lucrezia breathlessly, echoed by her brother. After her shock and horror a few hours ago, he’d expected to find her chilly, at best, and Cesare likely worse. Instead she behaved very much as usual, they both did. Not as open and friendly as they’d once been, perhaps, but they were not that to anyone but each other.

The four of them talked lightly, meaninglessly, as they made their way to the little dining hall Vanozza maintained for family occasions. A fire at one end, a long and simple table at the other, now laid out with dishes and delicious food. Vanozza ushered them into the appropriate places: Alexander at the head of the table, with Juan at his right hand and Cesare at his left. Lucrezia instantly claimed her place beside Cesare, while Bernardo and Isabel, not much inclined for separation tonight, seated themselves beside Juan. The arrangement put Bernardo directly opposite Lucrezia—the witness and the accused, he thought, lips twisting.

Their relations’ good spirits lasted throughout the meal, Alexander’s and Juan’s in particular, which only deepened the silent tension pervading it all. Cesare and Lucrezia were so studiously neutral that he could not determine anything that they felt. He could not help wondering if they knew it, themselves. At any rate, Lucrezia scarcely touched her food.

Bernardo and Isabel themselves, weighed down by anxiety and something like dread, nevertheless ate heartily. They were not Jeronima, whose nerves had often overturned her appetite—or Lucrezia, pushing rice about her plate. Neither of them had ever been overburdened by delicacy of that sort.

After the servants took the dishes away, the Pope nodded at Cesare.

“Give the order.”

Cesare left; they could just hear him saying something in a low voice, undoubtedly to his assassin. Michele? Upon his return, all joviality fled Alexander’s face. Lacing his hands together in front of him, he fixed his eyes on Bernardo and Isabel.

“Now,” he said, “let us discuss the murder of Gianandrea Cesarini.”

Juan sighed and laid his arms on the table, leaning his head against one hand. Bernardo couldn’t see Cesare and Lucrezia’s hands at all; no doubt they were holding them under the table, or something equally puerile. Isabel had hers folded on her lap, like a girl facing an irate governess.

“He is not even dead, your Holiness,” said Bernardo.

Juan snickered. “Yet.”

A frozen glance from Alexander silenced them both.

“The murder of Gianandrea Cesarini,” he repeated. “The two of you, Bernardo and Isabel, were seen entering his house the day that he fell ill. His servants all saw you. You made not the slightest attempt to conceal your presence.”

“We had no need to conceal it,” said Isabel coolly.

The Pope glared at her. “The two of you have broken a valuable alliance during a time when we need our allies more than ever. What have you to say for ourselves?”

Bernardo glanced at his sister. Before she could speak, he said in his most placating tone,

“As we told you, Holy Father, Lord Cesarini requested our presence that day.” He took a deep breath. All of their plans could not determine this moment. But he was not a man to run from risks.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Your Holiness’ daughter,” said Isabel, “can affirm it. She saw Cesarini’s note asking us to come.”

Alexander turned his eyes on Lucrezia. “Is that true?”

She betrayed none of her new hardness, looking uncertainly about. If anything, she seemed her old childish self—almost anxious. Her gaze skittered from Isabel to Bernardo to her father.

“Lucrezia?” he said.

She nodded.

“We would appreciate details in this matter,” he snapped.

Unease trickled up Bernardo’s spine even before he could relax into relief. His uncle rarely spoke sharply to Lucrezia—he was not sure he could even remember another time. Alexander could be nigh impossible to read when he wished to be so, but this, this meant danger. Bernardo swallowed.

“Cesare had business early that morning,” Lucrezia said, “so I was all alone in the palace, and very unhappy over it all. I decided to go and visit Isabel to see if I could comfort her, now that Jero—now that Jeronima had died.” Grief clogged her voice. With her left hand, she covered her mouth. “Forgive me.”

The Pope’s face gentled a little. Even Juan’s lips trembled. He dipped his head down, hair falling over his face

“You are doing very well,” Cesare told Lucrezia. The gentle, reassuring tone sounded entirely fraternal. It might very well be so. Or not. “Keep going.”

She managed a weak smile. “The note came around midday. He wanted Isabel to manage Jeronima’s personal property, and Bernardo to come with her. If I recall correctly, he found the arrangements a great bother and wished for a gentleman’s company.” Her voice flattened out as she spoke, anger settling in the lines of her mouth and eyes.

That, at least, was undoubtedly sincere.

“Is this what they told you the note contained?” Alexander asked, still suspicious.

“I read it,” said Lucrezia. “Isabel let me see it.”

“They did not invite you to come with them?”

She shook her head. “No. I was—I was angry with them.” At that, Alexander leaned a little forward, as much curious as skeptical. “He had her with child again while she was still feverish with the last. I was furious that they could forgive him already, when he repented nothing. Or, if not forgiveness, that they could even interact with him on a friendly basis. Bernardo went because Cesarini wanted company! And Isabel because he found the arrangements so trying.

Pausing, she sipped at her water.

“The man’s a dog,” said Juan. “Nasty underbred thing.”

“Overbred, I should say,” Cesare replied.

Juan laughed. Bernardo and Isabel dared not, though Alexander seemed scarcely to hear them. He did not take his eyes off his daughter.

“Well,” Lucrezia said, “they told me that they still loathed Cesarini, but wanted to remain on good terms with him for the sake of Jeronima’s children. And I said that—”

Bernardo held his breath.

“That they could do as they liked, but I could not face him with civility, myself.”

“So you returned home,” said Alexander slowly.

“No. I had slept poorly. I was very upset about Jeronima, and worried about Cesare—” She broke off.

Alexander frowned. “Cesare?”

They both looked uncomfortable, and Bernardo scarcely knew what to say, himself. To his surprise, Juan came to the rescue, in his own inimitable fashion.

“Didn’t you hear, Father?” He snorted. “Turns out Cesare’s a man under those robes after all.”

Cesare rolled his eyes.

“A duel over a woman’s honour? Very Roman of you, brother.”

“A duel over our mother’s honour,” Cesare snapped.

Vanozza, silent and inscrutable through all of this, turned to stare at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“That baron who insulted you at Lucrezia’s wedding, Mother,” he said. “I … reprimanded him and he challenged me to a duel, which I won.” He narrowed his eyes at Juan. “Taking a life does not make one a man. I did my duty and preserved our honour, that is all.”

Juan and Vanozza both opened their mouths. Alexander, raising a hand, forestalled them.

“The late baron’s failings are not the matter under discussion.” With a sigh, he laid his fingers against his cheek. “Lucrezia, continue.”

She swallowed. “Well, I knew Cesare was to fight Baron Bonadeo that day, so I had passed a dreadful night when I slept at all. They could see that I was exhausted, and Isabel let me rest in her chambers while they went to see Lord Cesarini. They had returned by the time that I woke up. Isabel was in the room, dividing up Jeronima’s jewels, and we talked for awhile.”

“And what subjects did this conversation touch?”

“Oh! Cesare,” said Lucrezia. Cesare himself smiled at her, and she suddenly laughed under her breath. “Isabel assured me that the baron could not possibly win the duel.”

“Thank you, cousin,” he said dryly.

“A clever man might defeat an opponent with twice his speed and half his years,” she replied. “Bonadeo was not a clever man.”

Before Alexander could lose his patience altogether, Lucrezia added, “We also spoke of Jeronima. Isabel gave me her ring, the one Grandmother Isabel gave to her. Then I went home to wait for Cesare.”

They exchanged another glance, this one lingering. Bernardo looked fixedly at the Pope.

“You see, uncle—your Holiness—we had no reason to conceal ourselves. Likely he told his servants to expect us.”

Alexander scowled down at his beringed hand. After several long moments, he said, “We trust that you are not perjuring yourself for the sake of your cousins, Lucrezia?”

Her eyes opened wide. “I would not lie!”

Both of her brothers stared at her. She coloured.

“Not about murder, Papa.”

Alexander gave another heavy sigh. “How unfortunate.”

Bewildered silence fell over the room. Even Vanozza looked puzzled. And when the Pope raised his head, his eyes burned in his face, pale except for the spots burning high on his cheeks. His lip curled.

Isabel unfolded her hands to reach for Bernardo’s. He closed his fingers around hers.

“Not for a single instant,” he bit out, “have we doubted that one of you murdered your brother. Now we doubt it still less.”

Juan, rubbing his forehead, groaned. “My head aches already. Father, that makes no sense. If Lucrezia is telling the truth—and I cannot believe that she invented all of that—then they only went to Cesarini’s villa because he asked them to come. He asked for Bernardo specifically, you said?”

Lucrezia nodded.

“That is … the opposite of a murder plot! Unless Bernardo decided he might as well kill him since he was there?” Juan turned to Bernardo. “Did you?”
“Good God, Juan,” said Cesare.

“Cesare,” Alexander said, voice near as tight before, “if it is not too much trouble, pray do not add blasphemy to the other sins under discussion.”

“Forgive me.”

“As for you—” The Pope’s angry gaze settled on Bernardo once more. But now a peculiar icy calm lay over him. “We know your character, nephew. Bold, direct. Your first instinct, no doubt, was to stab him through the heart. But you have a fine mind, a soldier’s mind. You would have had the sense to restrain that impulse.”

Bernardo hardly dared speak. His uncle, however, clearly waited for a response.

“Yes.”

“You know how to turn situations to your advantage,” Alexander went on. “You have often done so for King Fernando, to your credit—have you not?”

“I believe so,” said Bernardo, uneasy.

“Indeed, Juan’s suggestion would be perfectly likely for you.” He pronounced each word with knife’s-edge precision. “You have spent your life snatching up whatever opportunities fell in your grasp. We can readily imagine you finding yourself with a chance at revenge, and seizing it without hesitation.”

Gripping Isabel’s hand, he said, “Very well. I—”

“Spare me any more of your lies,” Alexander snarled.

“Your Holiness—”

“Silence!” Alexander smacked the table. “How foolish do you think I am? This is not opportunism! It took forethought, planning. Oh, I still see a fine understanding in this. Understanding of a very different order, and not the cleverness that amuses at court, either. The sort that produces great competence, strategy—a mind precise and deliberate, accustomed to planning their actions and considering all elements of.the circumstance before ever executing them. Someone who would have prepared the way at each step.”

This time, nobody spoke at all, the silence thick and heavy as smoke. None of them looked at Isabel. None of them looked at anyone, except Cesare and Lucrezia, who cast anxious sideways glances at each other.

Juan’s clear voice cut through. “Father, it sounds like you speak of some Saint John the Baptist of murder.”

“Juan!” muttered Vanozza.

“That can’t be any of us.” Juan’s glance went around the table. “Well, perhaps Cesare. He’s always scheming something.”

“Thank you, Juan, but I am not inclined towards murdering my relations,” Cesare said. He gave a thin, humourless smile. “And as you have already observed, I was busy killing someone else.”

“Well, yes, but then who else—” They all saw the moment that realization settled on him, widening his eyes. He bent forward to peer past Bernardo. “Isabel?”

“Indeed,” said Alexander.

Chapter Text

Without hesitation, Bernardo snapped out,

“That is absurd.”

Isabel could not smile, not really, but her mouth curved. He meant well, this brother of hers. How had she never seen that?

Juan looked uncertain. He’d always admired Bernardo. But her uncle did nothing, said nothing, without utter conviction. He now regarded her coolly.

“Less absurd than Lord Cesarini troubling himself to conciliate with you,” he said. “You overreached yourself, Isabel.”

“The letter was from him, Papa,” persisted Lucrezia. “I saw it!”

Another one of this family with a good, faithful heart. And no doubt her brother’s child in her womb, sooner or later, but never mind that. She might take her time deciding where to place her loyalties, but she held to them to the bitter end. Isabel had considered that. Just not quite enough.

“No doubt,” Alexander said, before returning his attention to his niece. “Someone must have written to him, to prompt that invitation. Someone who knew his habits well enough to arrange for Lucrezia’s visit to coincide with his reply.”

Lucrezia’s eyes widened; if Isabel had not known better, she would have thought her utterly shocked.

“No, that cannot be.” Her voice soared into shrill insistence. “I told you, Father, it was Bernardo who suggested that I go to comfort her. Isabel did not send for me.”

Bernardo said firmly, “She speaks the truth. I brought Lucrezia to the house, not—”

Alexander spared him a frozen glance. “Oh, we do not doubt that you were your sister’s willing tool. You may be assured of that.”

Isabel said nothing. There was, after all, nothing to say.

Again, the Pope fixed his piercing gaze on her. “Only you, Isabel, had the will and the ability to execute such a scheme, in such a manner.”

Everyone stared at her, though but one in surprise. The dread past, she felt only tired, very tired. What did it any of it matter now? She had her revenge, its thin and bitter satisfaction, and little else. Bernardo, though dearer to her now than since earliest childhood, could not fill Jeronima’s place. Nor the children. Not even Pietro.

Darling Pietro. He should never have married her, married anyone like her. He would have been happier in some villa in the country, with no greater concerns than crops and livestock.

“Will you tell us we are mistaken in this?” her uncle demanded.

Isabel lifted her eyes up to his, unfaltering. “No.”

Juan caught his breath. Nobody else responded, not even the Pope. His frown just deepened—everyone kept staring—she did not quite understand. She only realized that he expected something more when he slammed his fists on the table. It shook violently enough that everyone but Lucrezia flinched back.

She, of course, would be hardened to such things. Jeronima, with her weaker brute, had been.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” snarled Alexander.

Isabel’s brows rose. “What is there to say?”

Sputtered seemed too mild a word for the violent working on his face and mouth. “You—you—you have risked everything! Our family—our safety, our—all for petty revenge!”

Cesare’s expression remained ambivalent, but he stirred in his father’s direction.

“Murder is many things, Holy Father,” he said, “but surely petty is not one of them.”

Alexander ignored him. “Did you think for a moment of the consequences? Of anyone else at all? Of your sister?”

That jarred her out of her apathy. “My sister! I thought of nothing else!”

“She would never have wanted this,” said Vanozza. “You must know that.”

To everyone’s surprise, Bernardo gave a short bark of a laugh. “We have never pretended to conform to Jeronima’s wishes. Why should we? That she would not say a word against that man does not diminish our outrage on her behalf. Your Holiness, some offenses must be answered. Not everything can wait for a politic moment!” He paused, his gaze sweeping around the table, Vanozza to Juan. “I could not wait. You say my temper is too reckless for this, but I can assure you that it was I who first raised the idea. If one of us must be condemned, let it be me.”

“Oh, you are,” the Pope replied, icy again.

Isabel looked at Bernardo. Not Jeronima, but her brother still. She cared for him, in an uncertain way very unfamiliar to her—not something easily defined, but she wished him happy. He was happy, away from here: might be happy again. He had the aunts and uncles, cousins, Tecla and Beatriu. So much to lose. She’d never meant him to shield her.

“No,” she said, and lifted her chin. “It all transpired as you perceived, uncle. I had already thought of how I would avenge Jeronima, before Bernardo said a word. It was I who offered our apologies to Lord Cesarini, early enough that his response would be observed. It was I who sent Bernardo to bring Cesare and Lucrezia as witnesses. But Cesare had his own vengeance to deliver.”

“It is not the same,” Lucrezia said quietly.

She inclined her head. “No. It is not. Lord Cesarini never slighted me; I do not believe he ever gave me a second thought. He simply used my sister to her death. Well, it was I who tasked Bernardo with acquiring cantarella in secret. ’Tis easily done here. I reasoned that even if the Cesarini doubted the testimony of our own cousin, they would not wonder at you believing your daughter, Holy Father.”

With a twitch of his jaw, he said, “Then you misunderstand the state of affairs greatly. It would be better to have no wits at all, than to misuse them as you have. They might believe us satisfied, but that will not hold them to their alliance. We have never needed our friends more, Isabel, and you—you could not have served della Rovere’s interests more were you in his pay!”

“I cannot imagine she is,” said Juan. “Not that he would soil himself with a Catalan spy, anyway.”

Everyone just blinked. Then Isabel said,

“Well, Bernardo and I left for the Cesarini villa in plain sight, knowing that Lucrezia could defend us. He distracted Cesarini with conversations, jests, but I—it was I who slipped the poison into his wine. It was even I who mixed sugar in with it, so his death would not come easily. I wanted him to suffer.” Her glance settled on Lucrezia. “Forgive me.”

“We both committed the murder,” Bernardo insisted. “We agreed how it would be. Isabel may have plotted the details, but my hand and my will were with her at each step.”

“You need not quarrel over your precise shares of guilt,” said the Pope tightly. “We are content to blame you and your sister alike. And as the responsibility lies with you both, so must the remedy be.”

“The remedy,” Bernardo repeated, tone blank. Had Isabel troubled herself to speak, hers would have been little different. “Death cannot be undone.”

Everyone seemed bewildered, Isabel noted. Everyone but Cesare and Vanozza. They knew something the others did not, or guessed at it.

“You have destroyed a valuable alliance,” Alexander told them, each word as clear and heavy as the tolling of church bells. “Therefore, we require a new one to compensate for the loss, a friendship sealed in marriage.”

“Marriage!” cried Bernardo. “No. You may cut my throat if you wish, but I will not marry.”

Alexander raised his brows. “You consign the duty to your sister? Very well.”

Even Vanozza looked taken aback, and Cesare. Juan and Lucrezia both blinked at their father.

“What?” said Bernardo.

Isabel felt as bewildered as all the others. “I married long ago—at your Holiness’ will, no less. How could I possibly …?”

“Marriages can be annulled,” said Alexander grimly. “Matuzzi was a good enough match for the Vice-Chancellor’s niece. Now, we may look higher.”

Something in her had died with Jeronima. But she was a living woman still: the sudden thump of her heart in her chest, the pulse of blood in her head and throat, told her that.

“No.” Her voice trembled, and for once she did not care. “No, no. You cannot—”

“We are the Pope of Rome,” he said, the even tone more menacing than any shout or snarl. His eyes blazed in his pale face. “Do not presume to tell us what we may or may not do.”

“You are the Pope,” she repeated. Her throat ached, as if torn by splinters of ice. “Yes, you are! You have realized all of your hopes, and Jeronima is dead, and—will nothing satisfy you?”

Her cry rose high and shrill into a thick silence. Around her, nobody quite knew how to respond. Juan stared down at the table, a desire to be anywhere else radiating from the very line of his body. Cesare and Lucrezia looked uncomfortably at each other. Vanozza gave her a sad smile. Bernardo raised his hand, seemed as if he might drop it, then wrapped his arm about her shoulders anyway.

Aside from a slight tightening of his mouth, Alexander’s expression remained frozen in place.

“We have tolerated your insolence on account of your grief. You should not try us farther.”

Perhaps prompted by Lucrezia, perhaps his own tangled loyalties, Cesare began, “Father—”

Alexander lifted a hand. “Not a word, Cesare.” His eyes did not leave Isabel. “Each one of us does our part for the sake of the family, whatever that part may be. Even those of us who do not risk the welfare of the entire family in unconscionable crimes. We all make our sacrifices, and so must you.”

She gave a short laugh. “Indeed we do! Who at this table has not shackles on our wrists and blood on our hands?”

Her quick glance around the table took all of them in. Juan, whose fortunes could be snatched away in an instant, all contingent on a duty he knew he could not fulfill. Cesare, his own affections turned against him, prodding him into a life of hypocrisy and empty performance, at its best antithetical to his very being. Lucrezia, ripped from those she loved and thrust, while still a child, into a marriage of terror and torment. Bernardo all but leashed, sometimes left to run a little ways, but always yanked back in the end, a corner of his life hidden and the rest dictated to him. Vanozza—well, Vanozza was the purest of them all.

“Nonsense,” Alexander said. “Do not try and consign your guilt to any other person. Except your brother.”

Recklessly, she replied, “You speak of family and sacrifice, but it means only that all of us and whatever small joys we have may be sacrificed on the altar of your ambition. You have forced Cesare into his robes and Juan into armour and Lucrezia into a joyless marriage and tossed Lady Vanozza aside like a rag. Why should a mere niece expect anything better? You only deigned to see Jeronima in the hour of her death—”

She could feel Bernardo flinch, but he kept his arm about her.

“Not another word!” thundered Alexander. “You have trespassed on our patience by every means possible, beyond what we would tolerate from our own children. You will—”

“But we are not your children,” she said. “We are objects of pity and charity to be made useful, to—”

“If you do not wish to spend the rest of your life in the remotest convent we can find, you will be silent!

Isabel pressed her lips together.

“Pietro Matuzzi is a faithful servant to us, and to the Church,” he continued. “Your marriage has no fruit. The annulment will be a simple matter, and we shall arrange for a more prosperous alliance. Are we understood?”

She said nothing. Bernardo’s fingers dug into her shoulder—some part sympathy, perhaps, but he had his own reasons to loathe this.

“Are we understood?”

His precious Madonnas could not have been more immobile and soundless.

“Speak!”

“Am I not to be silent?” she said.

Lucrezia and Vanozza sighed. Cesare, with a low groan, pressed his fingertips between his brows, just above the bridge of his nose. Likely a headache. He’d always been plagued by them.

“You are to do our will,” replied Alexander. He might have been commanding her to open the curtains. “And our will is that you marry.”

“I will never renounce my marriage—never!”

“Your Holiness,” said Cesare, “is this really productive?”

Alexander settled a hard stare on him. Vanozza, however, gave a smile without appearing to realize it—slight but approving. And perhaps relieved. As if she knew …

Isabel’s outrage chilled.

Lucrezia said quickly, “May I speak, Father?”

It took the Pope a moment to soften his glower enough to look at her. “You may.”

“Forgive me,” she said, scarcely daring to raise her gaze from the table, “but it hardly seems practicable to marry Isabel out of any kind of urgent need. After all the difficulties of arranging my marriage, and Jofré’s, we know how slow and tedious a process it is. With Isabel, too—well, for one, she would require a dowry, and we have not another fortune to spare. And …” She did lift her eyes, now, directing an appealing glance at Cesare.

Bernardo forestalled him before he could speak.

“The circumstances are hardly comparable in any case,” he said. “Isabel is nigh on thirty years old.”

“And barren,” said Juan.

Everyone, even his parents, stared. He shrugged.

“We all know it’s true. Who would want to marry her?”

“Thank you,” murmured Isabel. Now she understood the purpose of all this, or she thought she might. She remained a tool, but one of a different sort. This was a cause for resentment, not horror.

“Besides,” Juan went on, “Matuzzi does not breathe without her leave. I don’t think he would agree to an annulment, unless you told him to, Isabel.”

Bernardo just shook his head. Isabel herself could not feel very offended—least of all with such greater menaces at hand, but even in the ordinary course of things. Juan would be Juan.

“Matuzzi aside,” her brother said, “we should all be able to see that a new marriage for Isabel would be a far more difficult prospect than Lucrezia’s or Jofré’s were. It would take time.”

“And time is the one thing we do not have,” said Cesare. “You cannot seriously mean this, Holy Father.”

Alexander listened to them all in impassive silence. Isabel smiled a little.

“Truly, I am grateful for such a … forceful defence, but it is not necessary.” She addressed herself to her uncle. “Of course you do not mean it, except as a last resort, do you? This is all for my brother’s benefit, a splendid Borgia performance to force his hand.”

With a start, Bernardo dropped his hand from her shoulder.

“I will not marry,” he said.

“You must and you shall,” replied the Pope. “It has only ever been a matter of now, or later. And it must be now.”

“No.” The bald refusal fell as heavily as Isabel’s denunciations. He wet his lip. “Not now, that is. Later—perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” Alexander repeated, looking as if he might burst into flames at any moment.

Even Cesare and Juan seemed unable to quite believe their ears. Lucrezia, though, studied Bernardo with slightly narrowed eyes. Not angry, but thoughtful, which must be more dangerous.

Isabel sighed. He really was a terrible keeper of secrets. Almost she wondered how he had managed it so long. But she knew the answer: at home, others had managed it for him, and here—he was not often here. Until now, what could raise suspicion on such a point? For his sake, she prayed he would leave soon. And for Cesare and Lucrezia’s. Yet she would miss him.

What a thought! Jeronima would be delighted, if she knew.

Perhaps she did. She must. Her death had accomplished what her life could not, and she … she would be smiling on them, free from pain, sitting pure among the holy. Sant Jerònima—the heresy would horrify her.

Vanozza, more solicitous than any of them deserved, rose to her feet.

“Pardon me, Holy Father,” she said, with only the faintest note of irony, “but I must make arrangements for the night. Do any of you mean to stay, beyond Lucrezia?”

“No,” he said brusquely, just as Cesare replied,

“If I may, Mother, I shall.”

That Alexander paid no attention to this dissent, Isabel thought, said everything they needed to know of his mood.

“Of course,” said Vanozza. She walked, slow and graceful, around the end of the table and past Isabel. But just as she passed Bernardo’s chair, she paused and frowned at him. “You will follow your sister’s lead in murder, but not marriage?”

He twisted around to look up at her. The movement struck Isabel as absurd in a way she could not quite define. Only polite, yet not a position in which Bernardo, somewhere between Cesare and Juan in height, could often find himself.

He seemed to feel it so, a shade of his usual lazy smile touching his mouth.

“A time to hate, and