“I should have been born a man,” Cesara tells him, bunching and unbunching her skirts in her lap after he has broken the news of her impending marriage.
Rodrigo fights the urge to grit his teeth. Such actions were not becoming of the vicar of Christ. “The Lord God made you just as you are for a reason, Cesara. It is not our place to question His will. And Giovanni Sforza will treat you well, and make you happy-”
Cesara snorts disdainfully, and folds her arms.
Rodrigo sighs, sitting back in his seat, and studies his daughter. She is his third daughter out of four, fifth child out of six (seven, if you count Goffredo, which he does not), but he has never had a challenge quite like her before. Maybe he should have known to expect a different experience with her due to her differing looks - whilst Jeronima, Isabella and Lucrezia had all inherited the strawberry blonde hair of his mother, Cesara had been born with hair as dark as Rodrigo’s had been before it had bleached white with age.
She had been born wild, or so it felt - she was not content to sew or sing or play the harp like her sisters before her had been. Instead, she spent half of her childhood slipping away from her nursemaids to play with the boys outside in the dirt. In the end, Vannozza had given up - instead, Rodrigo had given her a pony that was as wild as she was, and thought that would be the end of it. Children, he had been reliably informed, sometimes just needed a way to channel their excess energy.
If possible, Artemis - the named that Cesara had picked for the filly - seemed to replenish Cesara’s inner fire. She would flat out refuse to sew until she had seen and cared for her steed, and when Artemis was bred by Vannozza’s prize stallion, she had insisted on being present for and helping with the birth of the new foals. When she had emerged the next day, filthy, stinking of hay and beaming like the happiest child on earth, Rodrigo had given up on turning his daughter into a lady as La Rosa had done years before, and decided that as long as Cesara would keep on smiling like that, then he didn’t care what she did with her time. It wasn’t like girls particularly needed any education, really - she would still find a husband because of her family name.
Rodrigo had foolishly thought that as he promised his eldest daughter’s hand (Jeronima ashes now, and Isabella dead to him because of it) to a bastard Sforza that the hard part was over. But then Vannozza had reminded him that despite the fact he now sat upon St Peter’s throne, he still had to tell Cesara about her betrothal.
“I’m not a virgin,” she says bluntly after a moment of glaring at him ineffectually.
Rodrigo tenses, but forces himself to relax. He really should have seen that one coming. “Who?” he grits out, trying not to let the images of his little girl being deflowered flash behind his eyes, and failing miserably. If they had hurt her-
“I’m not telling you,” Cesara replies, and sticks her chin out obstinately. “You would just hunt them down, and that would not inspire much faith in your papacy.”
She’s not wrong, but damn, does Rodrigo wants to do it anyway. “How long ago?” He snaps, “How many times?”
Cesara rolls her eyes, “Twice. Last year. I should still be tight enough for this Sforza, worry not.”
Rodrigo closes his eyes, kneads his forehead. Somehow, he had imagined that once he had been crowned, dealing with his family’s problems would be much easier, compared to being the representative of Lord God on earth. He had been decidedly mistaken.
“Who else knows of,” he gestures towards her sharply, “this? Other than the- the other-”
She takes pity on him, thank the Lord, and doesn’t make him say the words. “I told Lucrezia, of course,” Of course, thinks Rodrigo, having expected nothing less. Although his two daughters were as different as night and day, they had a bond unlike anything he had ever seen before. They told each other everything. Rodrigo would bet that Lucrezia knew the name of Cesara’s lover. “And Agapito knows, but he found out after the fact, so you cannot punish him for not preventing it.”
Agapito he hadn’t expected, but he probably should have. Cesara and Juan’s master secretary had a closer relationship than Juan and Agapito did - he was, Rodrigo thought sadly, more of a father figure to his daughter than he was. But that was to be expected; after all, he had told his three youngest that they were all his brother’s get, and that he was nothing more than an uncle to them. But he was the pope now. He could legitimise them now, and nobody would be able to say a word, as they had similarly been silenced by Innocent’s own bastard son.
“They are both sworn to secrecy?” He raises an eyebrow.
“Of course,” Cesara says, as if he should have known better than to ask.
“Good,” he gathers his thoughts, looks down at his pristine white gloves, “this changes our plan for you to hold off consummating the marriage until we could be sure of Sforza’s usefulness. If we were to annul the marriage, then you would probably need to be examined to confirm you were still a virgin. As it stands… you would fail it.”
Cesara twists her lips, and looks longingly out the window. “I don’t have to marry him. Lucrezia is desperate for a husband. Give her to him, so you can pull this whole charade later on, and I’ll take her Don Gaspare, or whatever his name is.”
“That is not the deal we came to with the Sforza,” Rodrigo says, steepling his hands together. He can feel a headache coming on. “It was specifically your hand that we promised, not Lucrezia’s, as you are the elder. And Don Gaspare is no longer Lucrezia’s betrothed - she is unattached. Now she is the daughter of a pope, she can do far better.”
Cesara stares at him for a long moment with her striking blue eyes, before a smile twitches on her face. “You’re going to offer her to Naples, aren’t you? Play both sides of the rivalry? This way, you have a daughter in Milan and one in Naples. Whoever wins, you still come out on top.”
Rodrigo blinks, surprised she had worked it out with so little information. But, he chides himself, Cesara is sharper than an ordinary women, or an ordinary man. There are cardinals and kings with duller wits than she. “Indeed.”
“Holy father,” she says, leaning forward - and oh, how his heart skips a beat to hear her call him father, even if it is just because of his new title - her dark hair curling just above her shoulders, “why can we not swap the marriages? Lucrezia goes to the Sforza, as they are the ones you have promised a daughter first off, and you can annul if the political landscape changes due to her maidenhead being intact. I go to the Aragons of Naples. Why should they specifically want me?”
Rodrigo looks at her then, really looks at her. She is a youth of eighteen now - no, not a youth, a young woman, filled with beauty, no matter how unconventional. She wears the darker dresses she has always favoured, but now her full breasts press against her bodice, and the contrast makes her porcelain skin shine like a pearl. Her dark hair is cut short, from when she had sheared it off herself at ear length the previous summer when she had announced it was too hot to wear her hair so long, and after Vannozza refused to do so for her. It had been her crowning glory, and Lucrezia had wept when she saw her locks on the floor of their shared room. She was never going to give in without a fight, he thinks with a sigh.
“You would assent to the Aragon marriage?” He asks knowingly, “Or would you find another way out of that?”
Cesara huffs. “I do not wish to get married,” she says frankly, “you know that. I have made no secret of it. But if… if it is between me or Lucrezia going to Naples, then I will go, because I have heard that Alfonso di Calabria is a worm. Lucrezia deserves better.”
A surge of filial pride rises in Rodrigo’s chest quite unexpectedly. He knows Cesara’s loathing of being tied down anywhere, be it a place, a role or in another’s bed, and her deeper, more private fear of having children, or rather, of dying in childbed and losing her body to pregnancy. A marriage would make those two fears of hers come true, or at least, come closer to truth than they would be if she remained unwed. But he has two unmarried daughters, and he must use them both if his papacy is to unite Italy. For her to volunteer to take the worse of the two husbands…
“We are proud of you, Cesara,” Rodrigo says before he can stop himself, and she smiles at him in the way her mother used to, so many years ago.