Vannozza dei Catanei had known love and loss in many guises, but there were few more agonising than the knowledge that her daughter was suffering beyond her reach, behind the walls of St. Peter's where she could not enter by Rodrigo's edict.
The woman who was no longer her rival glided over her threshold, one of her servants reaching out like clockwork to take her discarded cloak.
"How is she?" There was no need for names between them. "How much does she know?"
"That her son's father is dead. That it was suicide." Vannozza had to pause before she could speak the words aloud. "Or, rather, that it was made to look like suicide."
"Murder." Giulia Farnese's hands were cool in hers. "It was not His Holiness. Of that you may be certain."
Vannozza exhaled the breath she did not realise she had been holding. "I would not think so ill of Rodrigo but he did marry her to Giovanni Sforza." The name was spat, an epithet of sorts.
"And dissolved it."
"Only because the Sforza turned on him. What," Vannozza asked, turning her eyes upon the opaque grey gaze of Giulia, "would he have done had they come to his aid? Would he have left Lucrezia in the hands of that boor?"
"It is not for us to think on what might have been." Her eyes now followed Vannozza's through the open door in the direction of the Vatican. "And Cesare?"
"He would never hurt her, not like this. Not for all the world." She had sometimes wondered, in the secret reaches of her heart, at these two children of hers. Lucrezia seemed to be the only person Cesare trusted now. "He was helping her; we both were. Which leaves..." She could not speak his name. She could not name her son a murderer.
Their gazes met now. "She may well already know."
Vannozza closed her eyes, fingers twitching against her rosary. "He is still my son. And her brother. And yet..." There were shadows in Rome; they clung like leeches to the Vatican walls. "It's consumed him. Just as it consumed his father."
"His Holiness will come, Madonna Vannozza."
"Of course he will. She is his treasure and he will tear up the very streets of Rome to see her smile again." She caught her breath on a sob. "But it will not bring back her Narcissus."
Despite being closeted in the scriptorium, her mind full of numbers in perfectly matched columns, Giulia Farnese was not ignorant of the happenings in the Vatican. Quite the contrary.
Of course, a falling chandelier in the bedroom of the Gonfaloniere of the Papal Armies--empty though the title was these days--would have caught the attention of the blind and the deaf. Leaving the latest ledgers in a neat stack, she made her way to the chambers that no longer echoed with the cries of a hungry child. It had been a masterstroke, that single thread of sound designed to draw His Holiness like the Sirens drew Ulysses. Her normally far-sighted lover was blind to all things that concerned his dynasty.
Lucrezia was seated by the window, a book in her hand. A glance at its pages informed Giulia that it was Ovid's Metamorphoses. "You called him Narcissus."
The Pope's daughter looked at her with eyes red-rimmed from days of weeping. "He was. If you had known him, Giulia Farnese, you would understand."
"Was he beautiful, then?" She took the young woman's hands in hers. "Not so beautiful as you, my dove. No-one could be."
"He was to me. He was my light in Pesaro. The only light. Snuffed out here in Rome." Eyes blue as the summer sky looked into hers. "You know, don't you?"
Giulia nodded. "I spoke to your mother. She worries for you, Lucrezia. No doubt she will even more when word of your brother's...accident...reaches her."
"It need not." The eyes were summer no longer, but chilled like the ice on the Tiber at Christmas. "My father is sending Juan to Spain. He thought it best."
"Your mother will agree. As I do." Anywhere but Rome, she suspected, would meet Vannozza's approval. "You should see her, Lucrezia."
"Of course. I meant to, but..." She looked down at the book, a shamefaced child again. Giulia was certain that it was not relief she felt. "She was only trying to help me, you know. I think she understood. My father was forbidden too, a man out of her star and against the laws of God. For different reasons, but that doesn't matter."
"She understood, dearest. She hurts for you--all mothers do for their children."
"Does she hurt for Juan?" The words were sharp, hurled like daggers wrongly aimed, and Lucrezia's lips began to tremble again. "I shouldn't have said that. It's not fair to my mother."
"Tell her yourself. It will do you both good, I promise." Reaching out, she slipped her arm around Lucrezia's shoulders. "A few moments earlier, I'm told, and your brother would have died. Was that what you wanted?"
The girl seemed inordinately interested in her own elaborately patterned skirts, the book forgotten in her lap. "I don't know what I wanted, Giulia. I wanted to hurt him. I knew I couldn't hurt him as he'd hurt me, but I had to try, you see. I couldn't bear it, couldn't bear the sound of him going on as though nothing had happened, as though my heart hadn't been ripped out." At that last, she took a shuddering breath. "He can't possibly understand. Juan cares for no-one but himself."
"You're wrong, my dove. Juan cares very deeply, but he hates that he does. He knows your father loves you best of all of his children, and that Cesare would bring you the moon on a platter if you bade him. Do you think either would do the same for him?"
Lucrezia sniffled, dabbing her nose with a handkerchief. "I daresay there is some comfort in that. Petty comfort, I know."
Giulia smiled. "There is no sin in petty comforts. Just, please, keep from killing him in the future."
In the end, Lucrezia Borgia (briefly but no longer negli Sforza) discovered that petty comforts were in their own way sufficient.
She met her brother's eyes without fear, daring him to speak his suspicions aloud before their mother. Cesare had guessed, of course--how could he not, knowing her as he did? She remembered the fair Ursula's husband, found bloated in the Tiber, and even her own, for whom humiliation was sweeter than death. No, Cesare understood as he always did. He would not say a word, not unless she spoke first. It was as it had always been between them, reading one another's faces like books. No wonder Juan envied them.
And now Juan was gone. The pain had not faded, exactly, but it seemed as though a weight had lifted from her heart. That, and her prayers every night for Paolo, buried where he belonged, on the hillside beneath the olive groves. She could even imagine the sun upon him, gilding him as it had in the woods beside Pesaro.
It was not the absence of pain, but it was peace. And that would be enough for now.