Lucrezia had only understood what she felt, what she truly wanted; had only been able to put a name to it, after the strange, almost other-worldly nature of what was not quite a flight, and was definitely and thankfully not a flight into Egypt, but was, on the other hand, quite certainly not a planned journey — or at least not one of a sort she had ever envisaged.
She would not have been on foot, for one thing. She would not have been walking, and so on display; she would not have been relying on the resources of her body, for another; she would not have been seen garbed in a single trapping of vulnerability.
(She was not sure, with her brother's man, with this strange bodyguard — assassin — her mind whispered, and she knew it to be only half of the truth; she was not and could not be herself, not if she really was vulnerable at all, no matter how she might appear.)
She had given Rome back its water, after all. Could she not walk even among disorder and panic without fear?
But it was not herself she was afraid for.
They were not fleeing, no, that implied something too hurried, too out-of-step with the terrifying calmness that surrounded them, something that would have glared against the cool stone-greys and faded blues of clothing that shrouded them even in the clarity of a harsher and more dawning light — but nor were they proceeding, it was in no way a procession.
Here was no panoply and ceremony such as she had become used to, only fear; and it was after that moment in the grey dawn, her first time of being afraid, truly afraid, not for herself or her family's fortunes, but for her child, that she began to see with the eyes of her mind and her spirit, and no longer her heart alone.
Only after that clear, cold, stone-washed moment of understanding what it meant to be the mother of a Borgia as well as the child of the Borgia Pope, only then had she understood what she had become, and the selfish purity of its nature.
To be a Borgia meant to love more deeply and hate more fiercely than any other mortal being alive; so much she had always known. It was only that she had never excepted to see both things so clearly in another's face, a reflection of all she had ever expected she would one day feel, and had never quite realised she felt already.
The love and fear and furious relief in Cesare's eyes, when he found them all again, the conflagration of so many and such strong, too-strong, emotions that he wore almost as a love-token, a jest, on his leather sleeve, now burning openly in his perilous eyes.
She had never seen him like that before, and she did not need his embrace to tell her that he had felt those things for her; for her and not only for her, but for her child, the child that Rome whispered to be theirs, and might as well be — and God above, merciful Father, but though she had loved her Narcissus, she would have felt no shame at having that rumoured parentage be the truth.
It was none of that which had dizzied her; spun her world too fast, almost alarmed her in the seconds before she understood, before she remembered nothing she had suspected or seen before, but only recalled a line from Plutarch —
He, too is Alexander.
Her brother and the man he had sent with her, to protect her and to kill for her and to save her in whatever way he had to; who had carried her child through the streets as though he had a right to such care — and Lucrezia realised that he did, of course he did, because he was as much Cesare as she was, just as that battered and tarnished and bloodstained — and fratricidal — soul of Cesare's was integral to her brother's tangled, loving sense of family and protection, so too was his shadow a part of it.
His Micheletto — and oh, how many times had she heard that, and thought nothing of it? 'My Micheletto' he would say, speaking of him, and Lucrezia thought that they must all be deaf, as well as blind, not to hear the love, the admiration, the possessiveness in those two words.
Micheletto his servant, the man they whispered was without a heart; he was Cesare too, and she, who had too much of heart, and felt it bleed within her so often, she too was Cesare, and the child the three of them were now passing between them, like some strange reaffirmation of a promise she was sure she had not made, that was their outward symbol.
Her child had become the bread and wine of her brother's transubstantiation, and that blasphemy, in that moment while they stood in the small room, was the truest and purest thing she knew.
It was her Credo, it was her new-born, always-present faith; it was her staff and her sandals and her scallopshell, and this was her pilgrimage, this life in her arms that she was passing from her and to men of blood and sin and hatred, this was her communion.
Tria juncta in uno, she thought, and almost laughed. Mind and heart and spirit, and did it matter who laid claim to which?
She was a heretic, and she was at her most devout, and she, too, was Alexander, and what did any of it matter, any more? She could sit upon her father's knee, and beg for a treat as a child might, and sit in his chair and issue commands, and where did the difference lie, after all? This was the reality, this was a truth she could profess without debate, this was knowledge in its finest and purest form; the look in her brother's eyes; the blood ingrained into the darkened lines at Micheletto's wrists, that were not dirt at all, but something that was both less and more clean.
The eyes of her mind and her body and her heart had opened, and the grey of the morning light was a dazzlement and a wonder, and the tears that filled her eyes were not of the relief they must have assumed, though it was, it was, it was utter relief, true relief, sweeping over her in overwhelming thankfulness, and it tasted clean and salt and this, she thought, this is how a sea-change feels, and it is God-given, and I will fight to the last anyone who dares to tell me otherwise, or tell me I am wrong, or that I cannot, or that I am forbidden. I have passed beyond such things, and I am not afraid.
But in Rome, it was wiser not to admit to things that were known, and wiser still not to admit one knew them, and to dismiss all rumours as no more than that, and wear them lightly and take advantage of that knowledge while everyone found quieter, more respectable words for the reality that each day brought; for the look in Cesare's eyes when he first saw her naked body; the tone of Micheletto's voice when he said "my lord"; the holy terror, like the dove descending, that was bringing them all together and yet still kept them apart.
Lucrezia wanted to rend the veil of the temple of respectability that they all still clung to, and she could not do it alone, try as she might to bring it about.
He mother warned her, as far as she could; never suspecting that Lucrezia was doing more than playing one of her dangerous games. Micheletto had no heart, after all, and how could her passionate mother, who knew more of matters of every secret heart about her than any other woman in Rome, how could she divine those things which consumed him? In Vanozza's world of flame and light, he was the shadow at the corner of the eye; he was the intimation of a void that she chose not to concern herself with yet — though she had gladly chased it away from the side of the Holy Father when it took the form of della Rovere and his ambitions.
No, her mother did not see Micheletto, not with the eyes of her deliberately blind spirit, nor with her mind or her own heart and body, and it was better, Lucrezia thought, that it should remain so.
Whether she saw the other shadow in Lucrezia's light; whether she acknowledged this new truth about her dark son and his secret loves as she had so many others, Lucrezia did not know, and preferred not to be sure. She wanted her mother to love her, if not approve of her; but she needed to be sure that her mother still loved Cesare more than she would ever give him either her approval or her understanding — for if she even suspected his hidden truths, he would never know either of those unconditional parental gifts again.
Cesare had lost too much, had allowed them all to take too much from him: in the name of their family, in the name of love, in the destructive opium-tainted wake of Juan, he had lost more than Lucrezia thought he could ever bear to admit to himself.
She could bear it for him, she knew, and thought that whatever poison was in that remaining wound of loss, Micheletto applied himself to drawing out; his heartlessly, ruthlessly loving support one of the few constants in her brother's aloe-bitter, alum-arid life.
Love comes from the mind, she thought. Love comes from the spirit. But it resides in the heart.
They needed her, as she needed them.
A sword could not be constructed from one unbeaten log of unpurified metal.
Lucrezia knew of the violence of love — had thought she had felt it, once, when her Narcissus had come to Rome to find her and their child — she knew more than she wanted to of its passion, thanks to her mother and her father, thanks to the honesty of Giulia Farnese. She knew of its delights, and the pleasure her own body could offer and feel, and the sweetness of both those gifts coming together.
She knew that love could lead to hatred — and turn to it, as well.
She had not been a child for a long time, whatever her family longed to believe, and she had felt as much sensual satisfaction when she knew her brother would carry out his promise to the Lord Sforza's doomed heart as she had the first time she had cried out for simple, lustful enjoyment, shivering through that newly-Edened bliss in her unlettered lover's arms.
She would find none of that in her brother, who had long since tasted and relinquished the sweet as being unsuited to his palate; still less in Micheletto, who saw nothing that a woman might offer a man save perhaps the long-lost, fleeting reverence of a boy for the Madonna.
She would never have power.
But she would have equality.
And she would give them what they both lacked, she would give them the love that could not exist without a heart.
Mind and spirit and the body which is the heart, she thought, and smiled.
They were Alexander far more than her father could ever be, and they would rule the known world, and their son, who was more their son than he could ever, really, have been that of her beloved Narcissus, her loving Paolo who could not read or write, and had been killed for that as much as he had ever been killed for loving her; her son, their son, would come after them, and Lucrezia, born to love, would ascend the throne that was made for her; non-corporeal and all the more powerful for it.
Tria juncto in uno, she thought, and stood naked in her brother's rooms, waiting for the eyes of his body, as well as his spirit, to fall on her.
She would have and give what she desired.
She gave it a hundred times, after that night of decision. To Cesare her body and the delight he found in it, and brought from it, delight and pleasure and sheer transcendental ecstacy that was unlike anything that any other man would ever conceive of.
To Micheletto, who felt no desire for her in corpore, she gave all that she had come to realise family meant, the right to pick up their son (no longer her son, but theirs) when he fussed or complained; the right to growl-croon silly little songs from his own childhood, little bubble-silly words that no longer stung her or roused her into weeping or anger as they made her remember other words, and a night where she had hoped for a death, and had stood by her son's cradle and half carol-chanted them as a prayer to vengeance—
My mother said, now go to bed...
I'll have to lock you in...in...in...
The love and the vengeance of a child, hers had been back then; the surprise at the feel of callused fingers touching her own; the hopeless, passionless grief that had led to only one more desire; that of a death that would come in fire and metal agony.
Micheletto never sang such things.
He grumbled out a low mutter in which a tune was scarcely recognisable, half-hammered words from a battered and dented and unpolished memory.
And once, recalling the terrible time after Paolo's death, Lucrezia, too tired to soothe even this son that she loved, and her milk drying and aching and refusing to replenish its life within her, Lucrezia heard her brother, who knew courtly ways just as well as he knew the labyrinthine mazes of the church, Lucrezia heard Cesare, her brother-lover, singing, softer than either she or Micheletto could ever have been; and she knew who slept beside her on the side that she had come to think of as Cesare's; who it was who had taken his place on her left side, the heart-side, protecting all that she was, while Cesare stood awake in the night, and sang to please none but himself and a fractious child.
Resvelliés vous et faites chiere lye
Tous amoureux qui gentillesse amés;
"What are you doing, my lord?"
The body-heat, the protection, was gone from her side entirely now, the bed had shifted, and she opened her eyes.
She could see the scars on Micheletto's back in the candlelight, the scars that told his love for her brother more clearly than any words that this man, who still owned so very few words, borrowed or otherwise, might have ever found.
For it was Cesare who wielded the instrument that gave them.
Love's whips, Lucrezia thought. She had heard a story, long ago, of her father giving the task of a stripped body and a silken rope to the Bella Farnese; and that Giulia had knelt naked upon her veiled and mock-virginal bed, and lashed her own body; though not in penance, not cunning artificer Giulia. She had flagellated her white skin into lust, and slowly, and lingeringly, and under the Pope's eyes, and never into pain.
Lucrezia had not needed to see that, or even to be told of it, to know it was true.
But there would never, as there were not now, have been such games between the two men to whom she had given her heart and her joy of all delight.
There would have been no falsehoods for her two hypostases.
Micheletto would have cried out, when he was struck. He would have cried out, just as she had heard him do at other times, times when she had watched, and heard, and felt roused herself to that almost unpalatable height of desire where only sound could give ease: times when she never sought to gentle her brother, as she might have, should it have been her body, but only watched over them both, lest they fall too far; just as they always watched for and guarded her.
Their love had begun in blood and chains and a dark prison; with an agreement that was darker still and a vow that had nothing to do with any sacred right, and yet was far more holy than many a pressing of lips to the Papal ring; it had begun years before. It had nothing of silk to it, still, nothing tangible of the spider-strong softness that made up so many bonds, nothing save Lucrezia's unbound hair, when it covered them both and she ran her hands over the hardness and scars and knots of bodies that were all male and all death-dealing and all hers and all each others.
She knew their hands, apart and together; she knew them even blindfolded, and even at those times when they have made her guess, and she was tormented by the longing for her release; she knew each one of them even to the merest tip of a ring-finger, she would know them stripped of flesh and bleached by sea-salt and sun and sand; she would know them amidst scuttling crabs and sea-wrack, or prisoned in amber.
"Singing, I'm told." Cesare's voice did not lighten into teasing for his Micheletto, as it always did for Lucrezia. It darkened, deepened, it denied his killer-lover nothing, not even that strange peace of mind which she already knew, long before they found this balance and became the scales upon her measure-strand, that their sudden bouts of violence and death brought to them.
She remembered what she had been told, after her battle of wills against her father, holding her son's life as the price between them for the granting of God's Grace, remembered that it was Cesare who had endured hour after hour of baby Giovanni's squalling, and without complaint.
She turned her head on the pillow, and smiled at them, even though they were not looking at her.
"Esbatés vous, fuyés merancolye,
De bien servir point ne soyés hodés."
Lucrezia hummed the tune in soft counterpoint, half-muffled against the soft silk of sheets and feather pillows and the spun-gold of her hair, and smiled.
"The bed grows cold," she said, and they turned to look at her, with their son between them, and she roused herself to sit up, letting her hair fall past her shoulders and down her back, her breasts exposed and pink-pearled in the dim light, the sheets pooling around her waist. "Lay him down, now that he's only fussing for more of your attention, and come to me, because I can fuss to more purpose, and, I'll have you bear in mind, louder, true? And not as shrilly," she added quickly, because Cesare would take any opening for mockery, and not run, but dance with it, and she was not, this time, in the mood for such games. They belonged to summer heat, or spring sun, or winter candlelight, and secret jests made in the faces of all those watching. Not for this bed.
Micheletto never laughed, even at her most childish pouting, her most obvious games, and Cesare always would, and Lucrezia knew that the rumours of Rome would never touch this, even if all declared it to be a sacred truth.
They were one, and they were three, and they carried their choices more lightly than they ever had their denial of them. Giovanni's birth, and Juan's death, and the blood-tainted souls she had taken for her own, and all of it had led to this; the entirety of a circle, the perfection of a whole, the dazzling toss upward into the air of angels that was the globe and ball of their existence.
And she doubted none of them, and none of it, and she lay back amidst all her silks of hair and bed-coverings and heart's beliefs.
And her eyes were open.