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the repeated image of the lover destroyed

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Cesare washes her clean with gentle hands: careful, so careful, but bloody still. They are a match, the two of them. Borgia in blood twice over, hands stained beyond the help of water or forgiveness; perhaps their souls are the same.

Numb as she is, the truth of her thoughts slides between her ribs like a blade. She shies from it, but it follows her as his touch does, stroking a cloth over her skin as though he thinks she will ever be clean again.

“Easy, sister,” he soothes. His voice is hushed, as careful as his hands, nothing more than a low murmur as he works. She does not want to be soothed—does not deserve it—but her body betrays her. Her brother’s touch is the truest comfort she has ever known, and it damns her now as it always has.

Shivering, she subsides. If only her thoughts would quiet as easily. Instead, she sees Alfonso’s face, slack and gray, etched with pain. Instead, she hears her own voice, bright and bitter as poison: only a Borgia, it seems, can truly love a Borgia.

And look what such a love has wrought, she wants to shout, but she cannot. It is as true now as it was then, that first night in Cesare’s bed. It is immutable; eternal. This is simply the cost.

“Blood will out,” she says, voice cracked and half-hysterical. “It always will.”

If Cesare hears her, he does not answer. Lucrezia cannot bring herself to care. She lies quiescent, body limp and boneless as Cesare shifts her onto her back and eases her into his arms. Such a terrible, tender strength in him. She wants to flee from it. Wants to crawl inside the cage of his ribs and live there forever. Always wanting, always hungry: a madwoman at a feast she knows will be her death.

He carries her from her chambers into the darkness of the palazzo, past shuttered rooms and servants who know better than to meet her eyes, on and on until he reaches the wing set aside for guests. A laugh bubbles and dies in her throat. She keeps him like a secret even in her own thoughts. She has no visitors, save her mother and her brother. Who else but family would be guests in Lucrezia Borgia’s house?

Cesare’s bed is as foreign as it is familiar.

I am a stranger here, she tells herself. A widow and a killer.

It is only half a lie.

She shudders as he peels away the layers of her bloodstained gown, dropping it carelessly on the floor as if it were sackcloth instead of a thing of velvet and silk, fine enough to feed a poor family for a year. It does not matter; she will never wear it again.

“There,” he croons, terrible, tender. “It’s alright.”

And that, oh, that is the most wrenching truth of them all.

All Cesare does that long, awful night is hold her.

She trembles in his arms, and he takes it for grief. Rage, perhaps.

And true enough, there is grief, and rage, and more besides. Horror, and a hideous creeping shame, but beneath her skin is an unquenchable ache. It is a hunger that grips her like a fever, shaking her in its jaws like a wolf with hapless prey. Lust, wholly wicked, but divine all the same. Alfonso lies dead by her own hand. One touch of Cesare’s and God comes rushing back.

Touch me, she wants to beg, touch me, touch me, forgive me, please

But the shame stills her tongue, and she sees Alfonso’s ashen face in the darkness each time she closes her eyes, and so she swallows down the words. She is a vile creature, to long for such things in the wake of death and betrayal. She does not beg; he does not touch her. The hours pass with agonizing slowness.

As the night drags on, her mind seems to splinter. Her skin throbs; she aches; she burns. If Cesare does not touch her— if he does—

Let me die, she prays desperately, feverishly, entreating a god who has long since abandoned her. Make it stop, she pleads, but of course it does not. Her thoughts are shattered and sharp, like slivers of broken glass. Everything refracts.

God has turned His face from her; God is cradling her close. She begs and prays and rages at herself, and then at last, at last, sleep drags her down into welcome oblivion.

The low cadence of Cesare’s voice follows her as she slips away, reverent and possessive on the syllables of her name, over and over until they become the bones of a faithless man’s prayer.

Lucrezia, he says, Lucrezia, Lucrezia

She mourns.

Rome watches her performance with hungry eyes, rumors swirling through the streets like smoke. The people come out in droves to gawp at her in her veils, twice wedded and now widowed, two bodies in her wake. They shout at her in the streets as her carriage rolls past and mutter baldly in the pews until St. Peter’s church is filled with the susurrus echo of their gossip. Her father’s holy city is so very fond of scandal.

She killed him; no, her brother did; he killed himself, fell on her brother’s blade to escape her; no, it was poison, surely; Il Valentino keeps his sword sheathed in his sister’s palazzo, didn't you know?

The last comment draws a smothered laugh, somewhere behind and to her left. She does not turn to see.

Her brother sits in the pew beside her, closer than propriety would dictate, and pays no heed to the rumors. Where their Holy Father is all sorrow as he presides over the funerary Mass, Cesare’s countenance is serene. And why should it not be? He could not abide Alfonso, thought him weak-willed and foolish. He is not worthy of you, sis, he told her once, twice, again and again in the weeks following her escape, over and over until it was a familiar refrain. Each time she let silence answer for her; what use was there in reciting lines they knew by heart?

He is not worthy of you, Lucrezia.

Of course not, but what man is?

A mummer’s farce, as hollow and awful as the scene before her. Cesare is so close. It would take nothing at all to lean into his warmth, to let Rome see her as she truly is. Nothing at all to feed the chorus of scandal that bays for her blood, desperate to sink its talons into her flesh. Nothing at all to tame such a beast and bring it to heel, gentle its savagery until its teeth are bared not at her but instead at any who would dare judge her.

Her fingers clench in her skirts. She was marked from birth by the stain of her Borgia blood, the bastard daughter of a whore and a Spaniard, golden and fair but tarnished all the same. Why should she resist?

The slightest shift—

Silk rustles as it slips through her fingers. She smooths it with careful hands, and keeps her spine perfectly straight. Her expression does not waver.

She focuses her gaze on the glory of the high stained glass windows, and listens to her father lament Alfonso’s sad fate. She does not think about the rage in her husband’s eyes when he begged her for death. She does not count Cesare’s breaths, in and out, a rhythm she can feel in her soul.

In, out. In, out. It steadies her as surely as it condemns her.

The Mass drags on, but she is resolute. She will not give in.

The days pass quickly after that. Alfonso is buried. She wanders the palazzo with Giovanni in her arms. The city is open to her now, but Rome holds no allure—in the walls of her one-time prison she can at least cling to the veneer of privacy. Her mother visits; her mother leaves.

Her father is consumed with the business of the papacy, more fervent in his scheming than ever now that his vision aligns with Cesare’s. And Cesare—

Her brother is gone. He did not wish to leave, but she did not ask him to stay. He would not have stayed even if she did, she knows. Even now, with Alfonso’s ghost between them like a shade from some ancient tragedy, she can read him; his empire would not wait.

The conquest of Forlì set not just the Romagna but the entire peninsula on edge. There is a wariness to the lords of Italy now, and greedy watchfulness in the French court. Naples fumes and seethes in the wake of Alfonso’s death, but even they dare not move against Rome. No, no, everyone waits to see what this new Caesar will do.

They are fools if they cannot see it, she thinks, rocking Giovanni as he fusses. They call him Caesar already, and wonder what it is that he seeks? Fools, and fools again. He has the title; now he will carve himself an empire to match.

She had no forgiveness for him when he left her with a kiss on her cheek. Nonetheless it lingers on her skin, warm with promise. Perhaps he thinks to sunder Italy as they know it for her sake.

She thinks again of the beast, the scandal that always nips at the heels of the Borgia bull. Giovanni whimpers, fussing, fussing. She thinks of Alfonso, how quickly his solicitousness turned to resentment; how readily he threw her name against her. Alfonso, bloodied from Cesare’s sword. Alfonso, bloodied and begging her for death.

Steeling herself, she thinks of her first husband. The cruelty and viciousness, his determination to beat every sliver of hope from her, to punish her for the crime of her blood. Would any other wife have suffered so? Half his pleasure seemed to come simply from knowing he could do as he pleased with the daughter of his most hated enemy.

Perhaps that is what Italy deserves, to be torn apart at Cesare’s whim and remade according to his design. Perhaps he will offer it to her, the way he once offered her a knife in lieu of her husband’s heart.

Perhaps she will let him.

He was not worthy of you, Lucrezia.

Of course not, brother, but what man is?

He sends her letters from his campaign. The Romagna, Florence, Venice. It is going well, he tells her. Soon all of Italy will bow before them. All his love, sis. Always.

She does not need his missives to know he has tasted little of defeat since he set out from Rome. Her father visits her, something like contrition in his eyes as he bounces Giovanni on his knee. He has not apologized; will not; cannot. To apologize would be to admit that this affair has grown beyond his control. This empire will be his to rule only by the grace of his son: it is Cesare’s name their enemies curse, Cesare’s name the gossip mongers fear to speak. Cesare’s name the soldiers shout as they grind the old order to dust beneath their feet.

Aut Caesar aut nihil, they chant, like a paean, like a hymn. Aut Caesar aut nihil!

Alexander Sixtus is an old man, filled with ambition yet terrified of what his dreams have wrought. He seeks her mother’s counsel and looks to his family for comfort. She is his beloved daughter, but she has no comfort to offer. All she has is guilt, and ambitions of her own.

What did she want, before she knew that life was not half so kind as her childhood led her to believe? A husband? Children? No. It is simpler than that. She wanted to be loved.

Stop lying, some dark corner of her heart whispers. It is the vile part of her that hungers so, the shadowed home of every sin she has committed. Stop lying. Admit it.

She wanted Cesare; she wants him still.

The truth cuts her now as it did when he carried her to his bed, but this time, she embraces it. Her father is old and frail, and he could not protect her. Would not protect her. Cesare has wounded her, there is no denying that, but every promise he has made to her, he has kept.

She plucks Giovanni from her father’s arms and presses a kiss to his cheek, her mind made up.

When she falls asleep that night, her dreams are full of Cesare’s voice, her name a prayer for which no other words exist: Lucrezia, Lucrezia, Lucrezia.

Months pass. More letters arrive. She does not tell him of her decision, but her brother has spies aplenty, and furthermore, he knows her. He knows her as no one else ever will.

Soon, he writes. Soon, sis.

But soon is not soon enough, she finds, and so she begins to pen missives of her own. They play Héloïse and Abelard, letters full of love and a terrible longing, the toothsome hunger that burns through them both.

It is new and strange, this open affection. She trusts his couriers, but it is so easy for correspondence to go astray, be seen by prying eyes, fall into enemy hands. Cesare has decided it worth the risk, but then, she has always made him reckless. Lucrezia is the one who cautioned them against scandal, who pulled away and again until she could pull away no longer.

She is done retreating. Let Cesare carve out his empire— she will be waiting for him when he returns.

She walks the streets with guards in tow, and does not flinch from the whispers. They cannot touch her now. She buys fresh fruit at the market, gives alms to every beggar she passes, and revels in the warmth of the sun on her face.

Her mourning black fades to gray. She dons deep colors, then, blues and greens and rich, royal purples. Yellow, creeping in like spring, and gold. And then at last: red. Wine red, blood red. Borgia red.

Everywhere she goes, the whispers follow her. Everywhere she goes, she smiles to hear them.

Little more than a year: that is all it takes to pacify Italy, to unite warring, disparate states under a single banner, to bind them all to the papal throne.

Cesare rides through Rome’s great gates, triumphant, Caesar at the head of his armies. She watches from her balcony as he parades through the streets, the roar of the crowds very nearly deafening.

Some part of her, buried deep, knows that it is an impossible dream. It cannot last. But this is his gift to her—always her, only ever her—and she does not care if Rome burns in the end. Let it, she thinks, vicious, serene. She will be greedy while she can, and damn the consequences.

He comes to her smelling of blood and metal. She greets him in the doorway, presses herself against the hard planes of his armor without a care for the delicate silk she crushes between them. His mouth is ravenous, devouring; she cannot get enough.

Cesare strokes the pale line of her throat, tangles his fingers in the golden fall of her hair, and breathes her name against her lips, the same litany that has stalked and comforted her in dreams.

“Lucrezia,” he says, “Lucrezia.”

Her name, as he presses her back onto the bed. Her name, as he strips them both to the skin and buries himself inside her. Her name, gasped and reverent as they come together, wicked and holy—

Her thoughts splinter into mirror shards once more. God is here; there is no god, only this, only them; no, no.

If there is a god in Rome, it is the wolf that suckled those two furious brothers, passing down hunger instead of milk. The city is full of starving, grasping fools, supping on rumor and misfortune. On scandal, she thinks, and smiles.

They lie panting in each other’s arms, naked and clean. Not bloodless, no, but it makes no matter. She was born in blood, and the beast that has hunted her for so long has at last been brought to heel. She has tamed it with truth, laid out a feast and stroked its fur until it loved her. The city sings for her now, the same psalm her brother has whispered for so long.

“A question for you, Cesare.” She curls a lock of his dark hair around one finger, tugging gently. When was she last gentle with him? He tips her chin up, drawing her gaze to his.

“Yes, my love?”

“You are a prince in truth, now, I take it?”

He grins. “Machiavelli would argue I have always been a prince.”

She swats at him, delighted. Too long, she thinks. Far too long since it was gentle between us. A year and more, truly, for any sweetness she found before Alfonso's death was tempered by the knowledge of all that was wrong in her marriage. Now, though—

He groans, exaggerated, and then catches her hand, presses a kiss to the tip of every finger. “Why do you ask?”

“Mmm,” she says, “no reason.” Still a madwoman at a feast she herself has laid, but perhaps this wedding banquet will not end in tears. Have they not proved they can conquer any challenge set before them, so long as they keep each other close? “I simply wondered if princehood prevents a man from kneeling.”

The grin that spreads across his face this time is sharp and fierce. Feral, though this beast she need never tame; it has been hers from the first.

“Never,” he says, and she knows it for a vow. A prayer, as fervent and divine as the sound of her name on his lips. He kisses her, hard and fierce, and then kisses her again, trailing past her breasts, her belly, her hips, until at last he groans into her cunt.

“Mine,” he snarls, reverent and rapturous and utterly hers. “Lucrezia, you're mine.”

“I am,” she says, panting, writhing beneath the blistering press of his mouth. “Yours, brother, always.”

And oh, oh, it is true.

Ave Lucrezia, ave, ave