Everyone in Rome had a secret to keep, if not from his enemies, then surely from his friends. The Vatican’s halls were filled with whispers of trysts and cabals. And Lucrezia, always so curious, longed to know more than anyone was willing to share. So hidden from view, she listened. Cesare, of course, would have disapproved.
“All substances are poisons; it’s the right dose that discerns a poison and a remedy,” Micheletto told her, pressing the rotting corpse for more liquid.
Lucrezia watched, both fascinated and appalled. Four nights ago, the unfortunate hog had been poisoned. Micheletto had slit its abdomen open and had sprinkled its guts with more arsenic. As the animal had putrefied, he had collected the fluids that tickled from the cadaver. Fluids they would let evaporate now until only a dry powder remained. Mixed with the ground seeds of the poison nut, Micheletto explained, this was La Cantarella, the queen of poisons and the poison of queens.
“How would one dispense it then?” Lucrezia asked, thirsty for knowledge and an innocent smile on her lips.
“Ah,” Micheletto nodded, “there is a vessel for that.”
He handed her the poison ring.
It was Assumption Day and the pope had ordered a banquet to celebrate the ascension of the Virgin Mary. Della Rovere’s mood had already been spoilt before he was summoned. Rodrigo Borgia’s parties were well known to begin with a ceremonious and well-feigned display of decency while ending in the chaos of fornication and excess. Nothing Della Rovere was keen on partaking in. Yet as things stood, with the French in Naples and Borgia’s deposition a vain endeavour, he wasn’t given much choice. But being dragged out of his palace and escorted by Borgia’s no good bastard was simply outrageous.
“And what the devil is all this about? Why was I asked here?” he shouted as Juan pushed him into the papal quarters.
The door shut behind him. Borgia, evidently bored, slouched in an armchair. “Games? Must we?”
“Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but what is this regarding?” he replied, acid-tongued.
However, Borgia wasn’t fazed. “Why, the future of course, our future.”
“There is no such thing,” spat Della Rovere.
“Ah,” Borgia exclaimed, followed by a dramatic pause. “Now this is where you are wrong, Cardinal. Trustworthy sources told Us you hid a little secret in the lovely town of Savona? Quite unexpected, really, for We had always thought you… otherwise inclined.”
“So,” Della Rovere challenged. The muscles in his jaw clenched together as he tried not to let on anything. “What about it?”
Borgia’s smile was mocking him, “Why, We brought it here, of course.”
Overwhelmed by shock and bitterness, Della Rovere exhaled. “How very unfortunate,” he stated dryly.
“For you,” Borgia corrected.
Della Rovere forced a submissive smile. “Indeed.”
“Now,” said Borgia. “I hear poisoning is all the rage nowadays. And then of course there is gossip.”
“Now,” Della Rovere mimicked, unnerved. “I would know of neither.”
Borgia stroked his chin, seemingly lost in thought. “And how very right and proper for a personage such as yourself. But say, if you happened to be aware of those things, you would be willing to… unburden yourself to the Holy Father?”
“I suppose, I would,” Della Rovere resigned. After all, he reasoned, this wasn’t his little murder plot.
Borgia clapped his hands in glee. “So?”
“So,” admitted Della Rovere sourly. “If I were aware of such things, which I am not, I would tell Your Holiness that… let’s say… it may not merely be the Virgin Mary ‘ascending’ tonight.”
Apparently searching for words to continue the charade, Borgia sighed deeply, then finally replied, “I wonder… what colour the Virgin Mary would be wearing?”
“Red,” retorted Della Rovere, exasperated. “So, about the –“
“Oh yes, the secret,” Borgia interrupted him. “We shall bring it to the banquet. Nicely wrapped, of course.”
Horrified, Della Rovere’s face paled. “You mustn’t.”
There was Borgia’s haughty smirk again. “Oh, but We insist.”
Knowing he was trapped, Della Rovere choked. Because if there was one place he didn’t want to see his daughter it was at one of Borgia’s filthy orgies.
Cardinal Cesare Borgia was set up to die between complet and laudes.
It wasn’t a misguided idea, Micheletto found. Kill one son, then the other; without doubt a stroke of fate the pope would not survive. How Lucrezia Borgia came to know about this, he could imagine. Surely the same way she had learnt of his existence, by spying and eavesdropping from dark hidden places. He could also imagine the pleasure his Master would take in whipping him if he ever found out that his fair and innocent sister had succeeded in persuading Micheletto to instruct her in the delicate art of poisoning. At the time he had not asked for the purpose of his lessons. But now word of a conspiracy to murder his Master came from the papal quarters, throwing light on her request.
It was almost endearing, Micheletto thought. The little minx, so determined to save her much-adored brother. There was a morbid curiosity though. While he had no illusions about the purity of the Lady Lucrezia’s soul, would she prove as relentless as his Master? Micheletto decided to let things run their cause and take corrective action only when necessary. In any case, the world would bear one less Orsini after tonight. But who was counting?
The festival was incomparable for richness with anything heretofore seen in Rome, the city of religious pomp. Juan fitted right in, Cesare realised. In a suit of gold brocade, at his neck a string of the finest pearls, he presented an ostentatious contrast to his own scarlet robe that admitted of no ornaments.
“Who would have thought Della Rovere was capable of producing a daughter. And a sufficiently pretty one at that,” Juan smirked.
Cesare looked over to the right side of the room. The girl was a bit younger than Lucrezia. A widow already, she was dressed in black, her dark hair pinned up demurely.
“Tired of our brother’s wife already?” Cesare enquired a bit distracted as he scanned the hall for Lucrezia. “You know, father would be frantic if you sullied the girl’s honour.”
“I’m aware,” Juan rolled his eyes, exasperated at the warning. “Don’t bed the apple of the good Cardinal’s eye.”
“Great,” Cesare applauded. “If you can quote the rules, then you can obey them.”
There, he finally found her in the northeast corner. Glossy blonde curls adorned with shimmering pearls caressed her face and a sumptuous gown of white silk with golden embroideries ensheathed her figure.
“And you, dear brother, lusting after our sister again,” Juan taunted.
She was engaged in a lively conversation with Giuliano Orsini, Cesare observed. Apparently laughing at something he said, Lucrezia blushed a little and threw her hair back. The plunging neckline of her dress revealed porcelain skin. The bastard, Orsini, stared at her breasts blatantly as she handed him a goblet of wine. Cesare detested this sight. He gnashed his teeth in anger and grimaced in disgust.
Not taking his eyes off Lucrezia, he rejoined angrily at his brother’s dig, “Why would you say that?”
“Because I missed the way your eyes sparkle, when you’re paranoid,” Juan replied sweetly, looking at him.
All of a sudden, something about the scene changed. Orsini emptied the chalice, a moment later, his knees buckled. Micheletto swiftly emerged from the shadows. He let Orsini lean on him, hauled him back into the dark with him. Lucrezia, who was just breathing heavily a moment ago, lowered her gaze, smiling contentedly. Cesare stared in disbelief.
“Right,” he murmured vaguely. “You’ve got to excuse me, dear brother!”
“Right?” Juan yelled after him, seemingly confused. Meanwhile, Cesare rushed over to their sister, enclosed her upper arm in a tight grip and finally dragged her out of the room.
It took a moment for Juan to shrug off his brother’s strange behaviour. When he did, he found Della Rovere’s daughter standing next to him. She too must have witnessed the scene.
“Well, at least one in your family has an idea of decorum,” she said most seriously.
Maybe there was a pinch of mockery in her voice. Juan couldn’t decide. On the other hand, it was well known that she had a special trust in clergy.
“Cesare?” he laughed.
“But then,” she went on, unimpressed. “What can one expect from a courtesan’s offspring?”
“I know, right?” Juan replied smugly. “And your mother emanating from a family of thugs on the wrong side of the river is so much more… urbane.”
When he turned to her, he found her glaring at him. Satisfied, he discovered that he had been right before. She was pretty. Sort of. Her eyes were grey, her lips pale and her arms crossed over her chest defensively. A challenge, but potentially entertaining.
“Now,” he smiled, dismissing their bad start. “Would you like some wine?”
As she composed herself, her look got less hostile. Yet her reply was monosyllabic and provocative: “No.”
“Would you like to dance?” he asked.
She shook her head with a quizzical smile, “Not at all.”
Juan threw his hands up in pretended despair before he continued their banter, “I’ve heard, you would have rather thrown yourself into the sea than being taken by the Borgias.”
She nodded seriously yet amused at his dramatics, “Indeed.”
“But, Donna Felice,” he answered contemplatively, “what if it was only one?”
Offended but not surprised by his rude attempt at enticement, she laughed.
Lucrezia had never seen her brother that angry. He had dragged her down the hallway then pushed her into papa’s private oratory, all the while raging on and on about how she had tainted her pureness, how she would go to hell like he would, how incredibly disappointed he was.
This definitely wasn’t the outcome she had been looking for. Lucrezia was petrified with horror.
“… and your dress!” he finally shouted, before, to her shock, he grabbed her and ripped it apart endways.
Memories of her first night in Pesaro welled up. She fought them violently. And at last, he was silent. Lucrezia just stood there, the silk hanging down in rags, tears rolled down her cheeks.
“But what if I’m not innocent?” she said quietly; words, meant to hurt and soothe him at the same time.
Cesare simply stared at her half naked form, saying nothing.
“Will you love me less?” Her voice shaking, the tears ran freely now.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally fell on his knees. He kissed her hands, and begged and begged in despair, “I’m sorry. Forgive me, my love.”
As he buried his head in her lap, surely ashamed, Lucrezia realised that he also cried. Feelings of relief and triumph came over her. A little smile on her lips, she decided, she would prolong his suffering.
“I did it for you, Cesare!” she whispered what he wanted to hear least. “I wanted for us to be equal.” Her small hand stroked his hair while he was clinging to her desperately. “So that you could love me, Cesare,” she paused before delivering the final blow, “not adore me.”
As he looked up to her, she caressed his cheek, indicating that he may rise.
“Will you love me, brother?” she quivered, her voice like the child’s she claimed she no longer was. And she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
It was all impulse really. Tugging at fabric, taking off clothes, her mouth on his, sweet and soft at first, then harder, more greedily. He nibbled and sucked at her lower lip, his hands kneading her behind, pulling her closer to him.
“God is good,” she sighed between two of his attacks.
“God, sis?” Cesare paused, refraining laughter.
“Of course!” Her eyes wide and faithful, she nodded seriously.
Tenderly, he brushed a lock of golden hair out of her face. “How about the Virgin Mary?” he teased her and planted another kiss on her lips.
“She too,” Lucrezia said, a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.
“I shall thank her then,” he laughed hoarsely. She giggled lightly and kissed his neck when he lifted her up and carried her to the altar.
“There,” he smiled, sitting her down, “the most perfect sacrifice.”
Lucrezia, crossing her legs behind his back, pulled him closer between her thighs.
“Love me?!” It was half question, half demand.
“I do, I will,” Cesare promised as he pinned her down on the altar and he did thus.
Perhaps it had been the lewd crowd in the banquet hall, people gorging down food, drinking, yelling and sweating. Otherwise there would be no good explanation why she had followed him here.
“There,” he stifled a caustic laugh, “that’s the Cardinal Borgia for you, taking our sister to a very sacred place.”
From a secret passage behind the oratory, they spied through holes in the wood panelling. Felice felt Juan’s erection pressing against her back, while his hands made their way down her neck and past the jewelled cross, the only thing her father had ever given her. When she closed her eyes at the sinful scene, all she could sense was his heavy breathing in her ear and his hand touching her breast.
“That’s enough!” she snapped.
A pleasurable feeling, however so brief, was immediately suffocated by guilt and sickening thoughts of her late husband. She broke free from him. To her surprise there wasn’t much resistance. Instead, he followed her outside sheepishly.
“Out of all the things,” she said as they leaned against the wall next to each other, “I hoped this was merely a rumour.”
He replied mockingly, “We would hate to disappoint.”
For a second there, she thought she saw a glimpse of insecurity spread across his face. Despite the ridicule, he appeared dejected. Could it be that what they had witnessed was new to him as well? And after all, he hadn’t forced himself on her when he had the chance. Perhaps there was some sense of decency left. She surely hoped so.
“Maybe you are not as awful as they say you are,” she volunteered as they walked back to the banquet hall.
History might not remember Juan Borgia for his intelligence and his morals, but then other than his sister Lucrezia, Felice Della Rovere knew she wouldn’t be praised for possessing sprezzatura either. Compassion and grace, however, she could aspire to.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he sneered. “It could ruin my family’s reputation.”
Nobody, she thought, would have to take credit for the Borgias’ eventual fall. Not even her father. With all their secrets revealing, they did pretty fine by themselves.
“Well, you must excuse me! I guess, I’ll have to look for some cheap whore for tonight then,” Juan grinned, looking at the crowd. “Plenty of those around.”
“Yes,” she affirmed quietly. “Plenty of those.”