Pope Calixtus, kindly as an uncle, makes for a stern and pious patron. Should he discover Vanozza, his favour might dry up in an instant, and all their hopes with it. Rodrigo knows this; Vanozza knows this.
(She knows most of his thoughts; they have few secrets. He cannot marry, but by now they are as much husband and wife as lovers.)
So they hide their—arrangement? Understanding. Vanozza lives in a villa outside of Rome, comfortable for her, peaceful for him, both their reputations secure. They keep themselves discreet, more than either have attempted before. He is forty, she well into her twenties, neither of them such wayward children as to demand that the world shape itself around their love.
Rodrigo visits as often as he can—not as much as they would like, but enough to settle into something like domesticity, carefully tucked away. In her own time, Vanozza manages her household and servants, buys the little luxuries that she once considered a waste, invests her money in a few inns. There’s an odd pleasure in that, overseeing an enterprise without a fear of disaster. If she fails, what does it matter?—Yet she does not fail. She has good instincts for this sort of thing, quick judgment of character and ability, perceiving in an instant what must be rewarded and what discarded. She soon sees a return on her money, and then much more. She is safe and wealthy and happy, secure in the life she wants, has always wanted. There is nothing to catch the Pope’s eye.
Nothing, until Vanozza tells Rodrigo: she has conceived.
He is not the first man to share Vanozza’s bed, but the child he plants in her belly is her firstborn. Rodrigo’s firstborn, too—somehow—but it matters less to him. He has young cousins, and nieces and nephews too. To his brother’s children he acts more as a father than Pedro Luis himself; the eldest remains tucked away in Valencia, but Rodrigo takes care to write avuncular letters nearly as affectionate as the hugs and jewels he bestows on the little girls. Vanozza has no one of her own blood—no one at all—hasn’t since the day Juana de Castañeda sailed from Castilla with her first protector.
There are ways to end a pregnancy. But Vanozza does not consider that. She wants this child; she dreads a miscarriage, a stillbirth, the fevers that sweep through Rome each summer. There are so many ways for death to strike infant or mother. For a time, she fears too that even if they both live, Rodrigo will hide the child away in some peasant village as his nephew was hidden.
To his credit, Rodrigo looks appalled at the very thought.
“He is a Borgia,” he says firmly. “Our son.”
“Or daughter,” says Vanozza.
Rodrigo, far from dismayed, smiles at the prospect. But he prefers females of any age—his women to his colleagues, his nieces to his nephews, his sisters to his brother. Vanozza to anyone. He would like a girl to spoil. And great men need wives.
“Or our daughter.”
The child will be Spanish, Castilian and Valencian: but Roman, too. That must not be forgotten. Rodrigo, past the first shock, thinks already of the future. A daughter will be Octavia or Lucretia. A boy—Caesar.
The baby comes screaming into the world on schedule, a healthy boy. Vanozza’s son, their firstborn son. Rodrigo isn’t there, busy with the Pope’s business, but she dutifully calls him Cesare. Cèsar, to the aunts and uncles and cousins around her, for he is not born in Rome.
Soon after she discovered her pregnancy, Pope Calixtus sent Rodrigo on an urgent diplomatic mission to Aragón. Even Vanozza had little idea of the details, but Rodrigo seized the opportunity: he ordered a separate passage for Vanozza on the same ship, pretended to be a stranger—she could hardly keep from laughing, despite the seasickness—and sent her to his family before heading on to the royal court.
She feared they might dislike her, condemn her as a whore and her child as a bastard: but this is not Rome. They received her with the utmost respect as a favoured son’s consort, and treated her kindly according to their natures. Rodrigo’s aunt Caterina fussed until the birth; her own children followed the family fortunes to Rome long ago.
“I never thought to see Roderic’s child,” she told Vanozza tearfully. Joana, one of Rodrigo’s sisters, laughed and extricated her.
She said, “We Joanas must stand together.”
In fact, they never call her Joana. Just Juana. She hadn’t realized she missed it.
So if Rodrigo is not there, shut up with ambassadors in Barcelona, he has ensured that she has others about her: Caterina patting her hair and crying over the baby, Joana praising her fortitude, the childless sisters laughing when Cesare’s tiny hands close over Beatriu’s finger. Joana’s grown children, Jofrè and Isabel-Lucrècia, congratulate her on a fine strong son, and Jofrè’s wife—another Joana—strokes a gentle finger over Cesare’s cheek.
“He is a lovely baby,” says Isabel-Lucrècia, herself increasing.
Even Jofrè’s little boys peer, fascinated, into the cradle.
“He has hair,” Joan points out. “Anna didn’t have hair.”
Cesare does have hair, fine black tufts over his head. Neither Rodrigo nor Vanozza have black hair—surely they will not think—but they do not think it. Tecla, wafting so much jasmine that Vanozza nearly sneezes, says that he reminds her of Beatriu when she was first born. She had black hair at first, too, and that way of blinking all around, and curling her hands into fists as she slept. Vanozza looks at Beatriu, relieved; she resembles Rodrigo the most of his sisters, and the glossy brown of her hair is exactly the same.
Vanozza is relieved, too, that Cesare manifestly prefers her to all the others, the wet-nurse and doting aunts and curious cousins. He wails when she leaves, quiets at the sound of her voice when he quiets at all, sleeps most readily in her arms. He does not much like kisses, but when Vanozza sings to him, he stares wide-eyed at her face and relaxes. Her heart beats with a fierce, painful joy; she has loved before, but never as she does this perfect son of hers, this Borgia child she brought into the world. For now he is hers, her very own.
Rodrigo, daring not to jeopardize the negotiations, leaves Barcelona over a month after Cesare’s birth. But he covers the two hundred miles to Valencia in five days, and finds her in Tecla’s gardens amidst the smell of jasmine and lavender, their child in her arms.
He kisses her and gazes down at the sleeping child. In shape and number, everything appears as it ought to be. He looks very much like any other Borja at that age, as Rodrigo supposes he must have, himself. Only then does the knowledge really settle in him, sharpen to reality: his son. He has a son.
“You are both well, my love?” he asks, voice hushed.
“Yes, yes.” She smiles down at the baby. “I have recovered and he is perfect.” The smile turns to a rueful grin. “I must warn you, his voice could cut through steel. You will hear.”
She nods, and carefully settles Cesare into his arms. Rodrigo can feel the warmth and weight of their child’s living body, see him breathe. He stares into the small sleeping face.
“I can do the most for him in the Church,” he says, thinking it through. “And the firstborn should follow his father, should he not?”
Vanozza laughs under her breath. “Save your schemes until he can speak.”
The baby stirs, making one of his incomprehensible infant sounds as he wakes—grumbling, Vanozza suspects. Then Cesare, who dislikes any change in the routines that govern his life, opens his eyes to a stranger’s face. He screams.
Rodrigo just chuckles and returns him to Vanozza. She murmurs in a soothing voice, Castilian, until Cesare’s cries subside to a low wail, then sends for the wet-nurse.
“I understand what you meant about his voice,” says Rodrigo, still in a good humour; his nephews and nieces did the same, at first. If he does not blame himself for his absence, mandated as it was by Pope and king, he will not blame a baby, either. He rubs his ears. “He should make a powerful orator someday, at any rate.”
Vanozza shakes her head.
They spend another fortnight in Valencia, chiefly in Xàtiva and Gandia. Rodrigo, second only to the Pope in family pride, is received warmly by his sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins in various degrees of remoteness. He argues with Tecla about poetry, laughs at the few silver strands in Beatriu’s brown hair, admires Joana’s grandchildren and wishes joy and long life to Isabel-Lucrècia. He even plays with the boys. Roderic, his namesake, is all but swept off his feet, six-year-old Joan delighted. And he leaves for a few hours to see a nearer young relation, his brother’s son Bernardo—a boy of ten all but discarded by his father until the births of two more children made secrecy impossible, and then merely disregarded. Vanozza cannot bring herself to leave Cesare for so long, but her heart goes out to the boy. That might have been Cesare’s lot, had Rodrigo been other than he is.
On his return, Rodrigo joins Vanozza, arms about her waist as she rocks the cradle.
“Cesare will have my name,” he says softly, “as will any others after him. He will know me as his father. And he will have all that I can grant him.”
She has only just sung the baby to sleep; she dares not cry. Instead she smiles, and turns her head to kiss him.
“Your nephew, is he—?”
Rodrigo sighs. “My nephew is a Borgia, as much as Roderic or Joan or—Cesare. I would have him properly brought within the family.”
“Shall you take him to Rome?”
“No,” says Rodrigo, after a long pause; he must have considered it. “Bernardo is clever, but straightforward, reckless. Rome would not suit him. And at this age, in his circumstances, it would be more cruelty than kindness.”
“I see that.” Vanozza tries not to think of what Rome may be for her son. “Yet one of you must take charge of him.”
He sighs again. “I shall speak to Tecla.”
She feels a faint stirring of surprise; amongst his sisters, Joana is his clear favourite, and clever Beatriu near to his heart. Of course he loves Tecla as well; he loves anyone who shares a drop of his blood, much less all of it. But Tecla, though kind, can be tedious, and her understanding does not surpass the ordinary. She is the eldest of them all; perhaps that weighs with him.
Whatever the reason, he spends several hours shut up with her. Vanozza, leaving Cesare to the sharp eyes of his nurse, walks outside to enjoy the pleasant Valencian sunshine; May has come and gone, taking the last remnants of a cool spring with it. After a few minutes, she happens across Isabel-Lucrècia and Joana de Montcada; the sisters-in-law cheerfully accompany her.
“You know, I hope, that the Pope will not hear of any of this,” Joana tells her. “Cardinal Borja explained it all.”
“I thank you,” replies Vanozza, her smile warmer than her words.
Isabel-Lucrècia squeezes her arm. “We think of you as one of our own, Juana, and of course Cèsar—we always protect our own. And we would hate to add to his Holiness’ cares, would we not?”
They all laugh; and they weep when they part, not long afterwards. The Vice-Chancellor cannot remain in his homeland without cause, unless that homeland is Rome. So Rodrigo and Vanozza take leave of his family, then separate to make their way to the port—Rodrigo accumulates his entourage towards Algemesí, while Vanozza, Cesare, her servants, and some guards travel straight to Valencia.
On the ship, by necessity, Rodrigo scarcely acknowledges Vanozza’s or Cesare’s existence. As Vanozza dislikes the sea and chiefly remains within her own quarters, there is little difficulty in this. Cesare, however, does like the sea, despite his general fretfulness, so now and then she forces herself to walk on the deck with him, focusing on his smile and waving hands rather than the bottomless, endless waters all about them. One time Rodrigo nods politely at her; another, he speaks to her in the friendly way he does everyone.
“Your son, I apprehend?—a handsome boy,” he says, nodding at Cesare. “What is he called?”
“Cesare, your Eminence.” She will rip her liver out before she calls him Cesare dei Cattanei, secrecy be damned.
“A fine name.”
And that is that. For once, she counts herself fortunate that his duties kept him away during the birth and in the weeks afterwards; Cesare, if he recognized Rodrigo, would instantly betray them. But he does not yet know his father.
She is grateful to set foot on land, though Rodrigo has already left for the Vatican. She knew he would; they arranged it all weeks ago. And she feels more grateful still to set foot in her own villa, received by her own servants, her son in her arms.
They have returned to Rome; and Cesare is Cesare in truth.