To Love a Borgia

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The Road to Rome

Chapter 17: The Road to Rome


The Pope was but a ghost of himself. He had stood silently, tears running down his cheeks while Ascanio Sforza performed the funeral rites. It had barely registered with him when Cesare told him he was leaving the College of Cardinals—he may as well have said nothing at all. He wondered if his father even knew what he had told hm.

The blessing he begged for when he left had been merely perfunctory, the sign of the cross made absently. Pope Alexander had retreated so completely within himself that Cesare wondered if he could ever emerge. He must eventually, Cesare thought, there was too much that he meant to do, and when command of the army came to him,

He had not looked back when he rode out to meet Micheletto, could not bear to see the shrunken figure that had become his father. Cesare shook his head, Juan had been the favored son, but he had not deserved it. He was not worthy of the deep mourning that Roderigo Borgia had plunged himself into. Juan had conducted himself like a Spanish grandee. He enjoyed his position, but put very little effort into learning the trade of soldier. Juan, in short, prided himself on looking like a soldier, without putting the effort into gaining the knowledge it took to be one.

“Did I ever have any affection for him, once I learned his true nature, that is?” Cesare had tried for too long to gain his father’s favor, but Juan did not have to try. Perhaps now, his father would see him as he truly was—or would he see him only as the son who failed in his duty to be the man of the cloth he had been expected to be?

Too late for that now, Father, he thought, I’ve become my own man at last. And with that realization, he discovered it was a fine day for riding, and he felt as if a burden had been slipped from his shoulders. Micheletto should meet up with him soon, and with Pallavicini gotten out of the way, he would remove Constanzia and their son back to Rome, where they should have stayed in the first place.

Micheletto was waiting for him by the roadside, half a day’s ride from Genoa. Cesare rode up to him and said, “How did your errand go in Florence?”

Micheletto drew two vials from his pocket. “It cost fifty ducats, but if it works as the apothecary said, it will be well worth it.” He held up one bottle, “This will resemble the appearance of an illness that the ships bring in from Genoa. There is nausea and cramping, accompanied by a fever and overall weakness. The longest any have been known to survive is three days. You can administer opium,” here he held up the other vial, “and it will ease the symptoms while the poison is working in the body. You can present it to them and say you have heard of this illness and that opium is known to provide relief. When do you wish me to have it given to him?”

Cesare took the vial of opium from his hand and slipped it into his doublet. “The day after the christening. The feasting should be over by then and it might appear that there was something in the food that made him ill. A bad meat or fish would be likely. Just make sure you leave no witnesses, no one to associate you with this.” Cesare looked at the bottle of opium, already picturing himself providing it to Constanzia or the doctor. Simple.

“I never leave traces, your Eminence,” Micheletto said.

“I am Eminence no longer, just ‘my lord’. I have relieved myself of the burden of being cardinal for good. Now we can begin our real work, Micheletto, we will see the armies of Rome furnished with cannon, with the soldiers she needs, stocked and well trained. Rome will be vulnerable no longer, once her armies are in my hands. The Vatican will find the funds that we need, both for defense and expansion. My brother was incompetent, I am not. My hands are no longer tied, so now I can act as I will.”

“Are you sure, my lord, that your father will give the armies to you? If there is suspicion hanging over your head…”

Cesare dismissed his concerns with a gesture of his hand. “There is no one else, he will have to give it to me. Until then, I will do what I can and without the interference of my brother. Father is unaware of anything but his own grief, in time, when Rome is in need of her armies, I will take command. In the meantime, let us take care of the other matter. We will eliminate Calvino Pallavicini, and bring my cousin and our child back to Rome.”

The reception rooms of the Pallavicini were bright and sunny. The statuary and decorations reflected the mercantile roots of the house of Pallavicini that had made its fortune. There were three fine paintings, classical in nature, of men in ships plying the seas.

Cesare was greeted warmly by Calvino Pallavicini. “Cousin, I am glad to see that you have come, Constanzia was hoping you would be little Marco’s grandfather.” He kissed Cesare warmly on both cheeks, “Come you must greet your cousin.”

Cesare held out his arms for Constanzia. She had not yet lost all the baby weight, and her curves were sweetly rounded. She looked healthy, happy, and contented. He drew her into his arms, holding her tightly, but not that it would arrange her husband’s suspicions. He kissed each of her cheeks, then her lips. My little beauty, he thought as he looked at her.

He held her at arm’s length, a look of mock severity on his face. “Did you name him for that Venetian fraud?” he asked, trying to hide his smile, “You always did say that you believed in him.”

“I still do,” she said, and the room burst into laughter, “You have always been jealous of the fact that I admired him. Come, I will take you to see my little Marco.” She curtsied to her husband and led him from the room to her chambers.

Carmilla dismissed the other maids when she saw them enter the room. She swept up little Marco and handed him to Cesare. “Marco Calvino Rafaello Pallavicini, your nephew.” At a signal from Constanzia, she left the room.

“My son,” said Cesare, looking at him with wonder in his eyes. This was not his first son, nor would it be his last, but to him the tiny bundle he held in his arms was perfection—and all Borgia. He carried the baby over to the bed and sat down, motioning Constanzia to sit next to him.

She lay her head on his shoulder, “He’s beautiful, is he not, our little Marco? I wish Uncle were here to give him his blessing.”

“He would not even recognize him, my love,” said Cesare sadly, “Juan has been killed and he has eyes and ears for nothing but his grief.”

Constanzia lifted her head. “Killed? How?” When did it happen? Did you…”

“No, my little love, I did not do it, though I am perhaps grateful to whomever did. He was found in the Tiber, with nine stab wounds and his throat slit. His money and clothes were untouched, so it was not a robbery. I suspect there was a new woman, or maybe one of long standing and he was found out by a jealous husband or lover.”

“And so now you will sit at the head of Rome’s armies, it is time. I am sorry that Juan was murdered, but I cannot say that I am sorry he is dead. I’ve always wanted for you what you wanted for you, Cesare, and now I am glad you will have it. Uncle would give me a severe penance if he heard me say that, but it’s true. The army is now in the hands of the better brother.”

Marco started to fuss, and Cesare helped her undo the top of her dress so she could nurse him. He was proud as he watched the baby suckle vigorously, surely this would be a child that would grow to adulthood. He might have to maintain the name “Pallavicini” or perhaps he would adopt him so that he would be the “Borgia” that he should be. There would be no cleric’s cloth for this child unless he wanted it, and as many toy soldiers and horses as he could shower upon him. He only had to take care of his father.

The Pallavicinis liked to entertain, and supper that night was a taste of what the baptismal feast would be tomorrow. Constanzia wore a blue and gold striped gown, and sapphires set in gold circled her throat. Clusters of sapphires dangled from her shell like ears, a gift, no doubt, from her doting husband.

His loins ached as he looked at her. He could probably have just about any woman in the room that he liked, but the only one he wanted was the enchanting creature who sat beside him. Was it going to be hard to claim her from her husband? He had not wanted her to marry, had not wanted her to leave Rome, but it was his father’s will and he could not circumvent it. Once her husband was gotten out of the way he could take her back to Rome—whether she willed it or not.

He held his son proudly in front of the baptismal fond as the priest performed the age old rite. It was only with great reluctance that he handed him to Calvino, being careful to pretend that he did it willingly.

The baptismal celebration was a more elaborate version than the dinner held to greet him the night before. There was a larger number of guests, more dishes, and a large variety of wines from around the Mediterranean. There was a French variety that Calvin seemed to favor, while Constanzia drank a Spanish red that had been a favorite of the Pope’s. Good, he thought, drink your Spanish red and don’t touch your husband’s French, or I will have to resort to drastic measures to ensure you don’t meet his fate.

He held his breath as it appeared that Constanzia was going to take a sip out of her husband’s glass. Someone called her name, it distracted her and she set it down. The page swiftly picked up the glass and refilled it, and set it by her husband’s right hand. Good, Micheletto had found his aide, it was a pity the poor boy would be dead before morning.

Constanzia retired early from the table, she was still not wholly recovered from childbirth and needed her rest. A few women followed her, but most remained and there was dancing and music until late. A pretty girl with red hair kept appearing on his arm during one particular dance with an invitation in her eyes, but alas, this was not the night for romancing. It was best that he remain alone this night, for tomorrow he would surely be needed.

Calvino was struck ill as he rose from the breakfast table. His gentlemen were summoned to his side as he was taken to his bedchamber, and put to bed, his cries and groans painful to hear. Rafaello stood by his bedside, but he would not allow Constanzia to attend him.

“No, my love,” he told her, “You must tend to our Marco. Later, when I am better, then you come to see me.”

Rafaello put his arm around her and kissed her cheek. “Go,” he said softly, “My brother’s pride will not let you see him like this. Later, I will come and fetch you myself. Go, my dear sister.”

Cesare sat on her bed, holding his son. When she came into the room, he saw the tears on her face and pulled her down beside him. “You must be patient, sweet cousin, and wait for him to get better.” He handed Marco to her, watching as she held the baby close to her bosom.

“I don’t think he’s going to get better, Cesare, I saw death in his eyes. He’s not sick, he’s been poisoned, I know it, I can feel it. Do we Borgias not know about poison, our weapon of choice?” She stood up and went and placed the baby in his cradle, then came back to him, looking for comfort. I thought he employed a taster, I thought nothing came to the table unless it was safe.”

“Who would want to poison him, my little love? Does your husband have many enemies?”

“Oh, always. I did not realize how complicated the shipping business is, how intense the competition. If Calvino dies,” here she gave a little sob, and Cesare waited patiently for her to go on. “Marco, the heir, is only an infant, it will take eighteen years before he is even close to being ready to assume his father’s position. Rafaello knows little about the business, but I’ve encouraged him to learn more. It’s not right that he should be shut so completely out? Calvino listened to me, not at first, but I managed to convince him that his brother is more than an idle poet and painter. He became willing to teach Rafaello when he saw how willing his brother was to learn. And I’ve been learning, too, just in case something like this happened.” She slumped over and began to cry in earnest.

Cesare put his arm around her and pulled her close to him. “Don’t worry my little deer,” he said, using his pet name for her, “I am here, I will take care of you and watch over you. Maybe the doctors can do something for him and all is not lost.”

But not likely, he thought with grim satisfaction. Micheletto told him this poison had no antidote, and was fatal each time. All he had to do now was wait.

Calvino lay in his bed in agony. His stomach was cramping horribly and every muscle in his body seemed to scream in pain. He needed to rest, to sleep, if only for a while. Fatigue was making the pain worse, and he could not get the relief of sleep.

Cesare and Constanzia came into the room. “Oh, husband,” she said, stroking his sweaty forehead, “Are you any better? Please tell me!”

“I told you not to come in here, my love,” he said, “Are you not willing to obey me?”

“I am a Borgia, my darling, we pay no attention when we are told to do or not do a thing,” she kissed his forehead, alarmed at how hot it was.

“As soon as I am well, I am going to have to do something about that, aren’t I?” He made an attempt to smile, but even the muscles in his face were a source of agony.

“I have something that may help ease your pain. I was told it was very effective in situations like this.” He pulled the vial from his pocket, “A few drops of this is very effective for pain. With your doctors’ permission, I will administer some.”

“Do as he says,” Constanzia said when the doctors objected, “If it will help the pain and help him rest, what harm will it do? Do it, give him some, Cesare, he needs relief.”

A glass of water was brought, and he poured in a generous amount of the opium. Not enough to kill, that could come later, but enough to render his cousin’s husband unconscious. He handed the glass to Constanzia, and she helped Calvino drink it.

He threw some up, but enough stayed down, for soon his eyes grew heavy and he fell into an opium sleep. Asleep, some of the tension was released from his face so that his muscles seemed to relax.

Constanzia kissed him, and led Cesare from the room. “Is he going to die, Cesare? Don’t lie, please tell me the truth.”

“He is going to die, my love, you can see it in his face. Did he make arrangements for this in the wedding contract?”

“Yes, one hundred thousand ducats, plus my son will be the heir of House Pallavicini when he comes of age. He will be appointed a male guardian who will represent him until he comes of age. Why do you ask me this now?”

“Because I am preparing for the worst, and I am watching over you and our child. One hundred thousand ducats is not enough, you need at least twice that. And I am the only guardian he will have, he is, after all, my son.” He pushed her down gently on the bed. “I will call your maids and have them ready you for bed. You also need to eat; you have not done so since breakfast. You must keep up your strength, for your own benefit and for our son’s.”

His loins were aching, he wanted to make love to her. She seemed so beautiful in her grief and anguish, but he knew he must wait. He was afraid she wanted to stay in Genoa—thank God Rafaello could not marry his brother’s widow without dispensation from the Church. Still, there was something that he could do and in the morning he would discuss it with the younger Pallavicini.

He met with Rafaello in the privacy of his brother’s office. “I have something to tell you which might help you find a glimpse of happiness from this tragedy.”

“Go on.” There was a shrewd look in Rafaello’s eyes, which pleased Cesare.

“What if I told you I am going to turn you from the impoverished second son to the head of the Pallavicini empire?” Cesare gave him his most sincere smile.

“I’m interested in what you have to say, so far that is.” Rafaello responded.

“I am taking Constanzia and Marco back to Rome. I want five hundred thousand ducats for Constanzia’s widow’s portion,” he held up his hand as Rafaello started to object, “This will be in exchange for Marco’s receiving his cash inheritance when he is twenty-one. The rest of your brother’s holdings will be given to you. It’s a bargain if you think about it—all of us will benefit.”

“What if my brother would not want it?”

“Look, Rafaello, Constanzia thinks you a capable young man. What you don’t know about the shipping business, you will learn. My young cousin has connections to the Vatican, he will be well provided for. You will have the life you never dreamed you would have. If you want to take your nephew into the business, that will be up to you. I intend that he have a relationship with you—that he knows the family of both his mother and his father. I am having an agreement drawn up that will make you a wealthy man, you will be able to find the wife of your choosing, instead of being lucky to find a bride at all. Do we have a deal?”

“Yes, but I think you’re foolish to give up Marco’s interests, but I am sure both of his families will see him well provided for.” He stood up and extended his hand to Cesare. I can hardly refuse your offer, now can I?”

Cesare stood up and shook his hand. Now Pallavicini, hurry up and die, he thought, I want to take Constanzia and my son back to Rome.


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