Chapter 19: Forbidden Fruits
The hour was late when they arrived in Rome, their way lit by the light of flickering torches. The streets were empty, no one greeted them or stared in curiosity. So quiet it was, so muted the conversations, that the only noise to be heard was that of hoof beats.
There was no one there to greet them at the Vatican residency except for the guards. Cesare lifted the sleeping Constanzia out of her bed in the carriage, and carried her to her old room, still the same as it was the day she left it. The remainder of the party dismounted, yawning, handing reins to grooms, their only thought was of bed and a hearty breakfast in the morning.
Cesare grabbed Carmilla’s arm as he emerged from the coach. “See to your lady’s comfort before you retire. There is a room next to hers for the wet nurse and a cot for you in her room. I don’t want her left alone without my say so. Did you pack a bag for her needs?”
“Yes, my lord,” Carmilla bobbed a brief curtsey.
“Good. Make sure she eats when she wakes, and that the baby is brought to her. I will be in my rooms, and if anything happens, you are to tell me.” He watched as the girl left. She was loyal to her mistress, but perhaps it was time to find one that was loyal to him—without upsetting her too much. Constanzia would not hesitate to fire Carmilla’s replacement and bring her back into her service—and to hell with what he wanted, she’d say.
He was bone tired when he finally returned to his room. When had he last spent so long in the saddle, anyway? His manservant removed his boots and after that he ordered him out. He poured himself a glass of wine, wondering again if he’d done the right thing, when he heard a light tapping on his door.
Lucrezia, dressed in her night clothes, let herself in. “Brother,” she said, and came and sat on his lap.
“Hello, sis,” he said, tightening his arm around her waist, “Why are you up?”
“I heard talking, and the horses, besides, since I became a mother I’ve become a light sleeper. I listen for Giovanni even in my dreams.”
“Hmm,” he took a glass and poured some wine for himself and a glass for her.
“Brother, why was Constanzia’s room prepared? I saw the servants in their yesterday cleaning and changing the linens. Do we have a visitor from Genoa?”
“Constanzia has some back to Rome. I sent orders ahead that preparations be made and rooms readied for her and the wet nurse.” He looked at Lucrezia to see her reaction.
“But why? You just went for a visit to be godfather for her son’s baptism. Why has she come back, Cesare? She would not have left her husband.”
“Her husband took suddenly ill and died. I brought her back here to be with family. She is ill with grief, but she is young, and will recover. It will take time, but that is no matter. She is a very wealthy widow now, and if she decides to re-marry should have her pick of suitors. When young Marco comes of age, he will come into a very large inheritance. I have seen to it that neither will ever want for anything. And now I can raise my son as I see fit.”
Is that it, Cesare, she thought, is it about your son or could you no longer bear losing his mother? Was getting rid of Calvino Pallavicini so easy? What will you say to Constanzia when she is no longer an invalid?
“Your son?” she asked gently, knowing his reply. He nodded, looking into her eyes and seeing that she guessed more than she was saying. “How is my cousin, then? She was so fond of Calvino; she must be taking this very hard.”
“She is suffering from grief and melancholy, plus the effects of birth. I am eager for her to be well once again, but keep telling myself I must be patient.” He made to pour another glass of wine, but she stayed his arm.
“And who is comforting you, brother? I know how much you love her, yet you cannot have her, as much as you want her. Therefore, let me comfort you. Let my arms soothe you until you can hold her again.” She took his face in her hands and drew him to her. She took his lips, tasting the wine he had drunk.
At first he responded, kissing her back unthinking, then he pulled away. “No, we must not do this, sis.”
But she would not let him go. “Is this truly so great a sin, between a brother and sister who love each other? You sin with Constanzia; she’s even born your child. No, why not take refuge tonight in my love for you. We Borgias hold secrets, many secrets, let this be one we hold between the two of us. I just want to comfort you, my brother, my love.”
“Just tonight then, just this once,” he warned and began to pull her robe from her shoulders. When her nightshift joined it on the floor, he lifted her up and lay her on his bed.
How different she was from Constanzia. Her skin was white as alabaster and her hair spun hold, while Constanzia was the color of pale gold honey, and her cloak of hair the color of chestnuts. Lucrezia helped him remove his clothes, then he lay beside her, burying his face on her shoulder.
“I am so afraid she will not love me,” he whispered to her and Lucrezia wondered if Cesare’s hand could be found in Calvino Pallavicini’s early demise.
She pulled him close to her as his hands and mouth explored her, his forbidden country. Was this what this what it was like when he made love to Constanzia? She remembered LaBella telling her that men were not very original when it came to making love to one woman or another.
She did not care; she gave herself over to him. If, in this night, she was committing the greatest sin of her life, she would revel in it, surrender herself completely.
She gave a soft groan as he entered her and began to move. “Oh, Constanzia, my little love,” he whispered in her ear. “Lucrezia”, she wanted to say, “My name is Lucrezia,” but for some reason she did understood.
He collapsed when he finished, resting on top of her. She did not know what he was thinking, perhaps he felt more guilt than she did. She knew they had wanted each other, knew his love for Constanzia had nothing to do with her. This was something they had always wanted, a thing she could give to him to assuage his grief.
“You should go, sis,” he said softly, “I just heard the guard walk by. All anyone has to do is look at you to know what you have been doing, and they must not guess it was with me.”
She sat up and pulled her clothes from the floor and put them on. “All right, if you wish me to leave, I will. I did not expect to be dismissed so quickly, Cesare.”
“Say rather that I am taking precautions. Any suspicion of this might find me banished and you in a convent. I would not have that happen to my Lucrezia.”
The next morning, she found him in Constanzia’s room, some of the lines of worry that had been there the night before erased from his handsome face. Constanzia was sitting up, holding their son, complaining that she had no more milk.
“But my love, for almost a week you could not nurse him. He has a wet nurse, but he is in your charge and no other’s. See how he smiles at you? He knows you are his mother and he is glad to be in your arms. Do not fret, little love, our Marco is healthy and happy.”
Constanzia let Cesare kiss her, though the look on her face was unsure. He manipulates her, Lucrezia thought, he convinces her to think what he wants her to think. I wonder if he caused her maid to bind her breasts so her milk would dry up more quickly. He can’t want her to have a child again, not this soon! Or does he?
“I hope I will see you tonight at dinner, you have been in your bed long enough.” He stood up and kissed Constanzia’s hands and said, “I love you, my sweet girl.” He bowed to both of them and left the room.
Was that for me, thought Lucrezia, is he declaring his love for her or telling me that last night will never happen again? He was so passionate; yet why did he call me “Constanzia?”
“Lucrezia, is it only me, or does he scare you sometimes, too?”
Lucrezia took the spot Cesare had vacated and took Constanzia’s hands in hers. “What do mean, my dearest?”
Constanzia sighed. “Sometimes I think he plays a game that only he is aware of. When I found out Calvino had died, I could still nurse my son. Now, my milk is gone. Something happened to me, it was as if I had fallen into a deep sleep, and I’ve only now wakened. The trip from Genoa to Rome might well have been a dream. And I’ve had such frightful nightmares, and I don’t know why.”
“Because your husband died, surely it was because of that!”
“No, these dreams started later. Cesare has been so attentive, has hardly left my side, but I have so much trouble remembering things. I went to the funeral, and the graveside services, but after that I fell asleep again, it’s as if I didn’t wake up until now. I don’t even know why I’m here, I had thought to stay in Genoa and keep Marco away from Vatican politics, but here I am.”
Lucrezia put her arm around her shoulders. “Well, does it help to know that I am glad you’re here. Father has determined that I should marry again. Sometimes I think I’d like to, but I’m not so sure. What about Giovanni? What if I can’t take him with me? There are some of the noble houses that will not tolerate the presence of a bastard child, and if I am forced to leave Rome, I will have to leave him behind, and I can’t bear it.”
“You can leave him with me,” Constanzia said, “I will take him. I’ll raise him alongside my little Marco. We’ll make sure that if you can’t bring him with you, he can at least visit with me and my son. I am the widow to the heir of a noble house, I’ll play that card and they’ll have to let you see him whether they want to or not.”
She came to the family table that night dressed in black silk woven with gold threads, a black veil pinned to her hair. She held her head up during the meal, taking in the condolences and the questions regarding her health. After the meal she retired to her chambers, but if she had hoped to be alone, she was disappointed.
Cesare dismissed Carmilla and the wet nurse for the night. He put his silky lips on her bare shoulders, and started to unlace her gown.
“No,” she said, “You can’t, I’m in mourning.”
“Ah, but I’m not willing to wait any longer.” He finished with her dress and pushed it off her shoulders. The rest of her garments fell to the floor, along with the black veil.
“I can’t, you can’t make me. Cesare, I don’t want to.”
He stood and smiled while he removed his clothes. “Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle. I’ve waited a long time for this, and I don’t think I want to wait any longer.”
She burst into tears as he took her into his arms.