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the heart of a man

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Heavy and hard is the heart of a king - king of iron, king of steel
The heart of the king loves everything, like the hammer loves the nail
But the heart of a man is a simple one - small and soft, flesh and blood
And all that he loves is a woman

Vannozza di Candia, Contessa dei Cattanei, knew what she was getting into when she became the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia.

She did not become the crown jewel of the Spanish court without cunning enough to navigate the treacherous waters of politics. Bowing to kings and princes was protocol; but bowing to a Valencian bishop with one eye on the Cardinal's red and the other on her bosom was a gamble. It was a gamble she hoped would pay off, because she had so much to gain and very little to lose.

When one is a whore - for however lovely she dressed and however cultured she spoke, she still laid with men for money - one learns to tolerate the stench of the gutter. Rodrigo was the first man in a long time who didn't mind the smell.

He was everything then that he is now, simply younger and more untried. She let him back her into a secluded corner of a palazzo in Seville, taste just enough of her to know how badly he wanted her, and went home to her husband to demand a separation. Theo was a farmer, as far into her debt as he was to the Crown, and rather than risk her wrath (and knowing she had the ears of much of the Court), he agreed.

It wasn't that she didn't love Theo; in truth, she loved him too much. She had become a courtesan to pay his debts, to ensure they didn't starve. Every day was full of desperation - when would it ever stop, the money and the hunger and the filth that always seemed to touch them? Rodrigo Borgia, with his dark eyes and beautiful smile and the gold that seemed to materialize wherever he touched, was her salvation.

She had assumed it would be easy, but being the mistress of a clergyman required a different manner of cunning, and she set herself to the task. She had her children, their children, to think of, and for them, she swore to bend heaven and earth.

She never had to work to keep Rodrigo's interest. Where other men's eyes would wander and attentions wane, his stayed constant. He certainly took other lovers, as did she, but it was always honest between them. If he had wanted to abandon her, well, she had no legal claim on him - men of God cannot marry, and he could not break that rule as he did all the others.

It mattered not; none of the women ever rose higher in his esteem than her. So it went, until La Bella Farnese.

A widow, young and lovely and Italian to the core - a lovely ornament to have upon the new Pope's arm. One untainted by the scandals of the Spanish court - for Vannozza has land and children and money, but she will never, ever be Italian. She could spit for not thinking of the possibility. She is angry at the lies, not at the lust.

And so she takes herself to Villa Orsini, to meet this woman who has so besotted both her beloved and her daughter. She finds Giulia is an impeccable hostess. The widow Farnese orders a delicious luncheon spread out for Vannozza and pours the wine herself. She is wearing a beautiful green gown, one that highlights her red hair and pale skin, with a snood of pearls and strands of them around her neck and wrists.

Rodrigo does have excellent taste.

Vannozza, however, is not without her own weapons. She has decided to wear a bright scarlet gown to set off her dark hair, and leave it in loose curls. She wears a gold medallion inset with Spanish rubies and inscribed with the Borgia bull, just to remind Giulia they both know whose company they keep.

"Contessa," Giulia says, with a nod of her head. "What may I do for you?"

Vannozza could laugh. There are a great many ways she could respond to that.

Anger. Suspicion. Regret. Jealousy. Outright demands that La Bella Farnese abandon her liaison with Rodrigo. A plea that she stay out of the lives of Vannozza and her children. Tears, possibly, questions of what she intended to use her influence for. It depended upon what would prompt Giulia to tell her the truth - which is why Vannozza considers carefully before she responds.

"What you may do, Giulia Farnese, is make the same promise to me that our Rodrigo has made."

Giulia raises an eyebrow, sipping at her wineglass. "Our Rodrigo?"

"Disbelief does not suit you, Madonna. You know perfectly well whose bed he left for yours and whose children he sired. He belongs as much to me as he does to you, and of course, we come second to God."

She sits under Giulia's scrutiny, because she has said nothing that is not truth. Vannozza does not want to make an enemy of this woman, not when having her as an ally is not only personally useful (because Lucrezia does adore her), but will gain her much more information about the goings-on in the Vatican. Juan is useless when it comes to political gossip, Cesare skeptical about its necessity, but having the ear of Giulia Farnese could be powerful indeed.

"We do indeed," Giulia finally says. "That you acknowledge the existence of my claim upon him surprises me."

It surprises Vannozza as well, truth be told, and she takes a bite of fig before answering.

"You carry great import with Rodrigo as of late. He has given you care of this villa, entrusted you with our daughter, and lavished you with all the gifts at his command. It would be foolish not to acknowledge this."

"One thing you have never struck me as, Contessa, is foolish."

She nods in acceptance of the compliment, and they continue the meal. Roast birds and warm bread and stuffed olives and small pastries appear and disappear, and they speak of other, unimportant things to establish trust and commonalities. Finally, Vannozza waves off a servant trying to refill her wineglass and regards Giulia.

"Rodrigo told me something, when I first discovered your liaison. I would like you to tell me if it is true, or not."

Giulia freezes, but nods. "All right."

"It was, I would like to impress upon you, the one thing that could appease my temper. He lied to me, and I do not tolerate lies, but he told me that you were in need. Were you truly?"

Giulia's hand steals to her throat, a nervous, frightened gesture that tells Vannozza all she needs to know, but she waits for the woman's answer.

"I was - desolate. My husband was cruel, and treated me just as cruelly. I have very little family left, and my husband left a great many debts. Without Rodrigo, without his support, or his kindness, I do not know what would have become of me. Does that answer your question?"

Vannozza reaches across the table, extends her hand and Giulia takes it cautiously.

"I became a courtesan in Madrid to pay my husband's gambling debts. I loved him - I still do - but he just burned through money faster than I could sell myself for it. When I met Rodrigo, he told me that the one thing he could not abide was to see a woman in desperation. It seems it tears at him now like it tore at him then."

"And so he helped you," Giulia says softly.

"He helped me. As he has helped you," Vannozza answers. "I would rage if you were any other woman, if you were simply a new harlot he became too besotted with. It will happen, you know. His head is easily turned by a beautiful woman. Knowing you were as concerned for him as I would be a great comfort."

"Then we are allies, Vannozza di Candia? As two desperate women who both love Rodrigo too much to allow him to fall to ruin?"

"I believe we are."

Giulia squeezes her hand, then withdraws. "Then I will hear your request. What would you have me promise that you had Rodrigo promise, so many years ago?"

Vannozza fixes dark eyes on Giulia's blue. She can see the scrutiny makes the other woman nervous, but she cares not.

"I care very little for what you and Rodrigo do within the confines of your bed, but if it affects me and my children, I will begin to care a great deal more. The thing I ask you, Giulia Farnese, is this: do not lie. There will be no secrets between us."

Giulia's answer, when it comes, is soft and underlain with steel.

"I can see why he loves you above all others."

"Is that a promise?"

"Yes, it is. We are allies, and there will be no secrets or lies between us."

Vannozza smiles. Perhaps La Bella Farnese will prove herself worthy of the trust of the Borgias. She will have to wait and see.