“Let me tell you about Italy,” the Pope says, reclining in bed with his mistress. He runs a hand up her leg, beneath her rucked up hem, and her head falls back against his shoulder. He turns his head to kiss her cheek, open-mouthed, and speaks against her skin. “This is Italy.”
Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere is unsure to what or whom he is referring. La Belle Farnese? The two of them together, the antithesis of what the church should be? This entire scenario, with the three of them representing fractious principalities, by turn allied and opposed but always bound together by the land of Italy?
“Good Cardinal.” Giulia Farnese lifts her head and fixes him with a heavy-lidded gaze. “Won’t you join us?”
He’s outraged. Appalled. He had thought the Borgia Pope could sink no lower, that there was no further way for him to profane the Holy Seat.
His body doesn’t listen, taking him to the edge of the bed. There he hesitates, but the Pope’s mistress reaches out and pulls him down next to her. Her fingers make quick work of his heavy robes, pushing them off his shoulders to pool red on the cream sheets, like blood against skin. The cleric is always in red now.
“Rome,” Alexander says, and takes his hand, “is at the centre of everything.” He presses their joined hands to both their chests in turn then places them upon Giulia’s knee.
It strikes the Cardinal, with his hand held there, skin to skin to skin, that they both feel right. Their skin is cool, as is his. He has brushed against La Belle Farnese, been kissed by the Pope; he knows they are as warm as him, as warm as any human. But it makes sense in this dream.
“But Rome cannot balance on its own.” Alexander’s fingers describe circles on the back of his hand and up Giulia’s body. “There must be support.” She captures her lover’s hand and pulls his arm over her body, leaving his hand between her and his enemy, and reaches out to that enemy. “Otherwise we will fall.” Della Rovere shuts his eyes and knows the pattern of her fingers on his face only by touch, retracing the same circles along her side and over the Pope’s arm, binding them together, despite their antagonism.
There are words in the loops and overlaps, he is sure, just as there is meaning in the lines of their bodies together. He opens his eyes and sees more than Giulia Farnese.
“You are –” Italy? Rome? The Church? The words falter in his mouth, not enough, ill-fitting in more contexts than he can comprehend. He kisses her instead, and hopes she can taste his meaning.
His world will not fall with the Borgias. The everlasting glory of the Church will far outshine their stain. He will make sure of it.
That is not his first thought.
Bizarrely, the first notion to cross his mind when he wakes is to wonder what became of that heavy silver pendant he used to have.