Her son was born just as the sun crept above the horizon, and he came into this world with a bellow of rage that could be heard across the entire city of Rome. He did not quiet until the midwife placed him in her arms and he looked at her with eyes as dark as his father's, glittering with such life that Vannozza could think of no recourse but to adore him on sight.
Although Juan was the eldest, there seemed no question that Cesare was the favoured child, a dazzling reflection of his father, who, despite having risen to the greatest honour Holy Church had to offer, had no compunction about acknowledging any of his children. Of course, with such perfect children, who could have failed to acknowledge them, be he the Vicar of Christ or not?
It was only when Rodrigo--she could not think of him as Alexander--insisted on Cesare's entering the Church that Vannozza openly disagreed with him.
"He has not the temperament for the Church, Rodrigo. Surely you can see that even now."
He waved aside her words with one be-ringed hand, the Papal seal a blinding flash in the afternoon sunlight. "I suppose you will say that I do not have the temperament for the Church. And yet," he smiled, holding up his hands, "look at me now."
"You mean to make him your successor," Vannozza murmured. "They will never allow that. He wants to be a soldier, Rodrigo. That's all he ever talks about."
"And why should a cardinal not be a soldier? It will do us far more good in the Holy Land if there were more such."
And so Cesare was sent away to study canon law as his father showered him with positions in which he had no interest, and Vannozza pretended she did not see the envious looks he cast upon his younger brother, endowed with lands and power without the stranglehold of a red silk cassock.
When Juan was found floating in the Tiber four years later, Vannozza discovered Cesare in her private chapel, head bowed before the altar.
"I don't suppose," he said without turning, "that one can be forgiven for a sin one does not repent."
"You would know better than I," she replied. "But I do not wish to hear what you have done."
He looked at her, Rodrigo's features smoothed and sculpted into a face of astonishing beauty. "Mama, I did what was required. You yourself once told me that I would make a better duke than Juan."
Nostro Signore, she had. Vannozza crossed herself reflexively. "If you wish to blame me--"
"Mama, no." Rising, he took her hands in his. "You are to blame for nothing. You are the most wonderful mother a man could ever have wanted. This guilt, Mama, is mine alone. But I promise you I shall make certain you do not regret it."
It was at that moment that Vannozza realised how little she knew her son, how easily she had mistaken his twists of caprice for those of his father. For Rodrigo, there was nothing in the world, not even God's own word, that outranked his family. Cesare, it seemed, was ruled by no such scruple. But even knowing this, she could not love him less.
And, for that, she would atone for the rest of her life.
The Ten Commandments insisted that children should honour their parents. In none of those commandments did they mention brothers.
But that was not the knowledge that stole Lucrezia's sleep, that kept her pacing back and forth across the floor of her chamber. No, may God have mercy on her eternal soul, but she still loved her brother. In spite of all. She could not see him--one look at his face, at that smile breaking like the dawn in winter, and she would be lost once more.
He had killed Alfonso.
She knew that, as clearly as if she'd witnessed the deed herself. Cesare was the only person who could have drawn her away at that single, awful moment, and she'd returned to find her husband strangled in the very sheets where she'd left him.
And Cesare, she knew, would come to her, the very picture of innocence, but with laughter in his eyes. He had always been able to read her thoughts as if she were one of his books. Perhaps he might even apologise with tears standing in his eyes as he had wept before their father on hearing of Juan's death.
"You are thinking of me, I see." At the sound of his voice, Lucrezia straightened, fingers clenching to fists at her side. "Ah, sister, he was never worthy of you."
"Don't you dare speak of him. You will burn in Hell for this, and I will pray for it myself."
"No, you won't, Lucrezia bella," he whispered, the words tickling her ear. "We both know that."
Shuddering, Lucrezia ripped herself free and whirled on him. "Why, Cesare? What did he do? What did I do?"
"Cara mia, you did nothing. Aragon is the past. It is to France that we must look now."
"Is that all that matters to you?" Lucrezia spat. "Go back to your precious Louis, then, that hunchbacked toad! I can't bear the sight of him. Or of you."
To her surprise, he did not reply, merely bowed and, in a blur of black brocade, left her there. Lucrezia sank to the floor, tears spilling into her hands.
She would never forgive him. But she knew even then that nothing would change.
He was no stranger to men who lacked morals. His old master, the Duke of Milan, had been another such--no doubt Il Valentino had learnt a great deal from stories of Il Moro, including how not to make the same disastrous mistakes.
Il Moro had invited the French into Italy, but it was Cesare Borgia, le duc de Valentinois, Il Valentino, who had seduced them, insinuated himself into their highest echelons as his father had insinuated himself into the Papal See. It was a coup d'état of such monumental proportions that Leonardo could not help but be impressed by it. He was, after all, a man of observation above all other things.
And now Il Valentino himself had requested his presence, his skills, in his conquest of the Romagna territories. And Leonardo, who had no formal position in Florence despite his much-vaunted skills, was at least willing to entertain the idea.
That the duke had treated him well was beyond doubt--he had even, unlike most patrons, left him primarily to his own devices, trusting in Leonardo's capabilities. An unfortunate result of this, however, was that Leonardo had begun to hear rumours, and those rumours had made him question the wisdom of this appointment.
The first blow was struck at Cesena three days before the Nativity. Leonardo looked out from his window into the square to find himself staring at the body of a man who had literally been chopped in half. Beside him lay a piece of wood and a bloody knife.
It immediately occurred to him that, despite the convenient weapon to hand, it was impossible that a knife could have done the deed--this was an execution, and not a murder. Though he did not venture outside himself, the voices of the gathering crowd drifted upward and he learnt the man's name--Ramirò de Lorqua, Il Valentino's lieutenant-general. He also learnt, as he watched the crowd spit on the dismembered corpse and heard the laughter and cheers, that this was not a death to be mourned.
He had no reason to grieve for de Lorqua; he'd barely known the man, and his methods had been notoriously harsh. But it did not bode well that a lieutenant who had done little more than follow orders and carry out the will of his commander had met such an end. Leonardo, albeit slowly, began to pack away his instruments, sending them discreetly to Florence that his supposed patron might not notice.
In the end, he need not have feared. Valentino had too many other things to occupy his mind, as his enemies drifted closer, drawn by sweet promises of forgiveness, of alliance with the Pope and France. Redemption, indeed, if they only confessed their sins.
Confess, they did, and for it they died. Silently screaming, the garrotte wound tightly until it swallowed their breath in a house in Sinagaglia.
It was not the deaths themselves that troubled Leonardo--indeed, he'd seen his fair share over the years--but the manner of it. That Cesare Borgia did not forget a slight was known to anyone who had met him, but Leonardo was not a man to take unnecessary risks.
In the quiet hours of the morning on Epiphany, he slipped from his chambers and started on the road to Florence, toward the blank wall awaiting his brush. Perhaps this odd surge of conscience was a sign that, for the time being, he should turn to art of a different sort.
Death came to every man at his time. Pope Alexander VI--born Rodrigo Borja in some long-lost time--knew that as well as anybody, having hastened any number of others to meet the Reaper before they'd intended. But now that his turn had come, he begged the tall, razor-thin, grinning figure to stay awhile, just long enough that he might see his son once more.
He had no illusions about Cesare, not now. That he had once, he knew, and a lesser man may have regretted it. Not Rodrigo. His indulgence had created the greatest man in Italy. How many fathers could say that?
Another shape appeared beside the skeletal form, a young man with Vannozza's beautiful features, water dripping from his clothing. Rodrigo closed his eyes. Putruerunt et corrupti sunt livores mei a facie insipientiae meae.[i] That a father should be party to the murder of his own son was a sin for which he could never atone. But what choice had he? To accuse Cesare would have lost him another son, the son he could never deny.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus; cor contritum et humiliatum.[ii]
May God forgive him for his weakness, a father's weakness for the child of his own blood, who he loved so selfishly for his own reflection in those eyes. Such a beautiful boy, to hide such a heart. And now he would have no father to protect him.
Miserere mei. Miserere nobis. Deus, non despicies.[iii]
Much like the unicorn or the chimæra, the truly great man was only to be found once in many lifetimes--if, indeed, at all. Alexander of Macedonia, whose empire stretched so far into the vasty reaches of the East that perhaps he himself had not seen its borders. Cæsar, who had rewritten the history of the greatest empire the world had ever known, modelled it in his own image.
Were there others? Augustus, perhaps, although Niccolò couldn't quite convince himself. The Pax Romana was no small feat, as any man who observed the world in its current state could attest. But it lacked grandeur, it lacked that quality of thrilling folly, of turning one's eyes to the Gods above and daring to scale the very heights of Olympus itself.
And now, the name he had seen scrawled across so many letters and dispatches. A source of terror, fury, and wonder, his name a challenge to history and memory, who had crossed the Rubicon so many times Niccolò wondered if he'd ceased to notice. Unexpectedly young, painfully beautiful, and utterly treacherous. Cesare.
He had had no scruples, this upstart son of the Vicar of God, whose very birth was an affront to all that was decent and good. And he had won. Time and time again, cutting a shameless swathe across Italy and be damned to any who challenged him. Although Niccolò had grieved for the fair Caterina, the glorious Caterina, finally subdued at Forlì, he could not begrudge his admiration for the victor she had--according to some--taken to her bed.
The swift, meticulous horror of Sinagaglia--il bellissimo inganno, the beautiful stratagem--and the wicked genius of its inventor had imprinted themselves upon his mind so vividly that the equally meteoric fall of Il Valentino had caught Niccolò completely by surprise. He had seen the bodies of the Orsini with his own eyes, their swollen eyes frozen forever in horror at their own stupidity. How could such a man fail, except through the caprice of she who holds her sway over us all? La Fortuna è una donna. And no man could tame her.
Even this, even the ignominious word of his death, could not stem his worship. It was some indescribable confluence of features, daring and contempt, charm and sheer, murderous perseverance, something unquantifiable that even he, Niccolò Machiavelli, could not explain beyond christening it virtù.
And its very embodiment was Cesare Borgia.
Quem di diligunt, adolescens moritur.[iv]
[i] My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness.
[ii] The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.
[iii] God have mercy on me. God have mercy on us. God, do not despise me.
[iv] Whom the gods love die young.