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Drops of rain spattered the graves like hailstones. In the Forli Castle, there would have been feathered pillows and soft mattresses, but Micheletto didn’t miss them. That was not how it was to be for him. He would have felt awkward faced with all the pomp and circumstance, expecting the sharp angles of his body to cut the fine sheets to pieces.

What he did miss as his one-time lover’s hands caressed his flanks, as their mingled breath steamed in the night-air, was something infinitely more dangerous. “Is he eminent?” his mother had asked, and Cesare Borgia was that all right, a larger than life presence that was not diminished by the flaws and weaknesses evident to the Micheletto’s knowing eyes. Cesare was not yet cruel enough for the game he was to play, not if he wanted to win. The lingering ghosts of mercy and justice would have to be banished first. Micheletto could not fault Cesare for that, not when it meant that he was needed. After all, Cesare was cruel enough where it counted; the slow, devious quirk of his mouth always sent a heady rush through the assassin, a dark excitement coiling in his belly at the memory of their first meeting. The scars on his back still tingled, sometimes. Cesare would carve his own path with whatever weapons he chose, and Micheletto would follow him to that glory and terror and beyond. There was no choice to make.

Micheletto gasped and swallowed the rain that ran down his face. Soon the hunger of his body would be sated, but the the sickness in his soul would continue to gnaw at him like at an old bone. The question was, was this a weakness of Cesare’s also? Was love? Lust was a different matter. All of his master’s skills in negotiation would no doubt be needed when it came to Caterina Sforza. They said that she was more a man than a woman. After having ensnared him, would she push Cesare around, have her way with him? Surprise, delight, grudging surrender; the emotions were easy to imagine on his master’s expressive face. Perhaps Cesare would turn the tables on her. Perhaps he would take her on a table. But Sforza was an old player and not stupidly inclined to mercy; whatever her game, she was playing to win. It was best to have the horses ready.

The aftermath of their lovemaking was cold and left him hollow. It had been a necessity to kill one more phantom, cut one more tie. To be apart from everything made it easier for him to be what he was and needed to be. He hoped they wouldn’t return here, but he knew that if his master asked that of him, he would obey without complaint. Micheletto had thought the cardinals wore their fire-red robes to lend an impression of life to the pallid and dusty creatures within, but Cesare was a flame he couldn’t resist. It was a Borgia tendency, he’d heard, to love and to burn and to turn to ruin, and that suited him just fine.

He run a hand through his hair, didn’t bother to straighten his clothes, and started towards the castle. Something told him he would be needed soon, and he’d long ago learned to trust such instincts. That the same instincts were whispering him of the cardinal’s soft skin and his harsh hands was a curse he welcomed with the elation of one already damned. Cesare Borgia could well be the death of him, but many more would die by their hands before that. Some things were certain. Cesare would change the future wielding his sword and his cross for the Pope, and after the Pope, who knew? Micheletto would be the shadow kneeling at his feet, the quiet knife in the dark.

A tiny smile stole to his face like an unwanted visitor. There was nothing for it. Even his mother had liked Cesare.