Cesare was alone.
Micheletto was gone, had abandoned him. Lucrezia was ignoring him, weeping in her room ever since Alfonso's death. His father, who understood the reasons behind Alfonso's death, was nonetheless playing the disappointed father until the gossip ceased. Even his mother had taken Lucrezia's side, blaming Cesare for something that had been an accident – at least that was not how it was supposed to happen.
Cesare had wanted Alfonso dead, longed for it, planned for it, felt no sadness or remorse that he was dead. Lucrezia deserved more. Lucrezia deserved better than a weakling who had refused to stand up for her and her son. Lucrezia deserved someone who would willingly lay down his life for her or her child.
Lucrezia deserved Cesare.
Micheletto would have understood this.
And it had been self-defence, despite what everyone thought.
Cesare had taken satisfaction in being the one to kill Giovanni Sforza but he remembered the consequences of that killing, his father's subsequent anger. He'd had no desire to be the one to plunge his blade into Alfonso's body. This time he had made another, better arrangement.
Cesare had had Rufio standing ready to do the deed, thus keeping his own hands clean but Alfonso, the fool, had ruined it. Attacked Cesare, leaving him no choice to defend himself. And Rufio had done nothing to help - Cesare had temporarily banished him until his own rage waned and he could bear to ask anything of the man again.
Micheletto would have intervened, calmed the situation if he could, or been the one to kill Alfonso, even in public, if he could not.
If Micheletto had been at his side this probably would not have happened at all.
God, Cesare missed him.
He walked the gardens, peering into the chill night-air, alert for danger. He took his family's safety seriously. He would always protect them, even when they turned against him.
You will be naked, clean, and bloodless again, Cesare had told Lucrezia, and mine. He'd meant every word. Alfonso was dead and there was no point wishing it otherwise. The best strategy now would be to ensure Alfonso was the last unsuitable husband his beloved sister ever had to endure. To claim her, to swear his love to her.
Cesare had cleaned Lucrezia's face and hands but she had clasped her arms across her breasts when he'd tried to unlace her gown. "Get out," she had said and lay there, eyes vacant, staring at the ceiling. He didn't know how long he sat there, hurt by her dismissal.
Finally Rodrigo had arrived and made Cesare leave.
In Cesare's absence it was a maidservant who washed the widow's body clean. It ought to have been Cesare's hands soaping her breasts, squeezing a washcloth over her milky shoulders. It should have been his arms she was embraced in as he towelled her dry. But from that moment on she had acted as if he were as dead to her as Alfonso was, refusing to even acknowledge his presence.
What he should have said, Cesare reflected, was not only that she was his, but that he was hers. That he would be naked and vulnerable for her, that he belonged always and forever to her. He should have shown her the equality and respect no husband ever had or would.
Cesare paused, drew his sword, advanced towards the bushes. A rustle of undergrowth had caught his attention and he cursed the moon for hiding herself behind the clouds. He did not yet call for the guards, unwilling to make a fool of himself should the noise turn out to be nothing more untoward than a rabbit or a fox scavenging for food.
What – who - emerged from the bushes left him breathless.
"Micheletto." Cesare's throat was tight, the word forced out despite his fear that naming the phantom might make it vanish.
Micheletto inclined his head. "My lord."
"It is truly you." At the last, Cesare managed not to make it a question, for it was a foolish statement and a more ridiculous question.
"It is, my lord."
"You have come back," Cesare said, biting back the final words that he wanted to say. To me.
"I have, my lord."
The clouds parted and the moonlight let him see Micheletto more clearly, unchanged, solid, real. Cesare stepped forward and Micheletto met his gaze.
"You are here to stay?" Cesare asked, and he didn't know how he could bear it if the answer was no.
"Welcome back." Cesare pulled Micheletto into a hug. He held Micheletto a little closer and a little longer than was strictly necessary. "You are risen from the dead."
Micheletto nodded as Cesare released him. "My time in purgatory is over. I have learnt all I can and now I am reborn, and return to your service."
A half-shrug. "There was an assassin."
"No longer. But there is still danger, for you and all of your family." A moment of hesitation before Micheletto added, "For Lucrezia Borgia."
Cesare nodded fervently. "I know."
He found himself telling Micheletto everything, suspecting the man knew most of it already and appreciating that he did not interrupt.
Even as Cesare poured out his heart, how Alfonso's death had made him a pariah, how Lucrezia would not even look at him, his spirits rose. With Micheletto back where he belonged they would be much safer. Micheletto could accompany Lucrezia to Naples and guard her as she ruled, following Cesare's plans.
With Micheletto here once more, anything seemed possible.
Micheletto tipped his head. The moonlight fell onto his sharp features and Cesare was taken aback once more by the man's harsh beauty. "If you would permit it, I should like to converse with the Lady Lucrezia."
Cesare agreed at once. Micheletto had been her guardian at Naples once before, and she had trusted him as surely as Cesare did. She would not talk to Cesare but she might listen to Micheletto's quiet wisdom.
- - -
Dawn found Cesare sitting in the garden, half-dozing. He woke as someone approached, his hand reaching for his sword. It was Micheletto, he realised and relaxed – and accompanying him was Lucrezia. Her nightgown brushed the grass as she walked towards him, the hem wet with dew, and the deep red of her wrap made her skin look even whiter than it truly was. Her expression was stern and yet as she took a seat opposite Cesare, her lips trembled.
Cesare longed to reach out and touch the golden strand of hair that had escaped the loose braids but he remained still and silent, letting her make the first move.
Lucrezia glanced at Micheletto was standing at ease nearby. "Sit, Micheletto," she said and he looked to Cesare for acknowledgment before he obeyed, taking the chair that was between them.
Cesare was lost as to how to bridge the divide between them, how to begin a conversation once more; I'm sorry would be a lie and they would both know it.
"Do you think I hate you?" Lucrezia asked and Cesare shrugged, swallowed, looked away. It was entirely possible. She reached across the table, took his hand. Her skin was warm against his cooler flesh. "Cesare."
The softness in her tone made him meet her gaze.
"My love," she said, her voice trembling. "I cared for Alfonso. But I never loved him more than you. And I am angry, brother, I am still furious that your actions forced me to kill my husband to end his suffering. Part of me is still mourning his loss, the loss of the man I first fell for, if not the man he turned out to be. But I will not always be angry. I will not mourn for long. Yet I will always love you."
Cesare blinked away tears. "Lucrezia." He could not form further words, overwrought with emotion.
"You must give me time," Lucrezia went on, stronger and more assured now. "But never doubt my affection for you. I am clean, and bloodless, and I will be yours – and you will be mine. I ask that you have a little patience, and that you have faith enough in me and our love to wait a while longer."
Cesare nodded. "For as long as you need."
She squeezed his hand. "We will dine as a family tonight," she said. She got to her feet, Micheletto following suit.
Before he escorted Lucrezia back to her room, Micheletto looked to Cesare who gave him a wide smile and a nod of thanks. Whatever words he'd used to sway her, Micheletto had broken the ice and now Lucrezia's rage was thawing.
They would all be together again, and in his utter relief and happiness, Cesare gave thanks to a God he didn't believe in before turning his thoughts instead to give gratitude where it belonged. To his beloved henchman who had returned to him at last.