To Messer Francesco Guicciardini
Lieutenant-general, statesman, and historian
9 January 1527
Magnificent One. I have sent you this great pile of pages in order to provide a more faithful account of the final weeks of the year 1502, when that plague of mercenary warlords known as the condottieriviolently conspired against Duke Valentino and his father, Pope Alexander VI. As you know, my intimate witness of those events inspired my little pamphlet, The Prince; what you do not know is that there was considerably more to the entire matter than I have ever allowed. Hence I submit to you this lengthy “confession,” with the hope that you will not judge me--or attempt to write your own history--until you have read these pages entirely. Only then can you begin to grasp the terrifying nature of the secret I deliberately buried, let us say, between the lines of The Prince.
You will find here a narrative divided into four parts, all but one in my own hand. The exception is the account that precedes my own, authored twenty-four years ago by a lady I knew as Damiata. Over the span of scarcely a fortnight, this learned woman recorded in every particular a number of conversations and occurences that I am certain will intrigue you. She wrote not only to indemnify herself against the accusations that were made against her, but also to provide a last testament to her boy, Giovanni, although she intended that it be withheld from him until he was a young man of sufficient maturity to understand both the truth and the lies.
My dear Francesco, I should remind you that Fortune, that ancient goddess of malign fate who now reigns without compassion over this sad world, achieves her worst ends by relying on our own willfull blindness, as we proceed upon her twisting and obscure paths. When you read these pages, you will marvel at how cleverly Fortune led us on a perilous road to the Devil’s doorstep. And you will see how blind we remained, even as we stared into the face of evil.
Your Niccolo Machiavelli
Author of histories, comedies, and tragedies.
BE CAREFUL OF THE TRUTH
Rome and Imola: November 19–December 8, 1502
My dearest, most darling Giovanni,
We lived in two rooms in the Trastevere. This district of Rome lies across the Tiber from the old Capitol Hill, on the same side of the river as the Vatican and the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Gathered around the Santa Maria church, the Trastevere was a village unto itself, a labyrinth of wineshops, inns, tanneries, dyers’ vats, and falling-down houses that were probably old when Titus Flavius returned in triumph after conquering Judea; many of the Jews who lived there claimed to be descended from his captives. But our neighbors came from everywhere: Seville, Corsica, Burgundy, Lombardy, even Arabia. It was a village where everyone was different, so no one stood out.
Our rooms were on the ground floor of an ancient brick house off a narrow, muddy alley, with little shops and houses crowding in on every side, their balconies and galleries so close overhead that we always seemed to go out into the night, even at noon. I kept my books and antique cameos hidden, displaying nothing that might tempt a thief--or reveal who I had formerly been. But we whitewashed the walls once a year and always swept the tiles, and you never slept on a straw mattress but always on good cotton stuffing; there was never a day we didn’t have flowers or fresh greens on our tiny table--or wanted for bacon in our beans.
In the evening, before you slept and I went out, I would read Petrarch to you or tell you stories. That was what we were doing on our last night together--19 November, anno domini 1502. I showed you this bronze medallion stamped with a portrait of Nero Claudius Caesar, about whom I recited tales I had read in Tacitus when I was little more than a girl. Hearing of his crimes, you gave Signor Nero a very stern look and wagged your finger at his engraved visage, telling him, “Even an emperor does not have lice . . . lice . . . .”
“An emperor does not have lice?” I asked, which made you frown like a German banker, so I said, “I think the word you are reaching for is license.”
“Si, Mama, license. Even an emperor does not have license to be so evil.” Your sweet cricket voice was so grave. “Therefore, we shall punish Signor Nero. No dessert! His sugared almond will be given to Ermes.”
Do you remember Ermes, my eternal love? He was our darling Tenerife, who adored you as much as you adored him. When you said his name he wiggled his wooly rump and lapped at your precious hand with his little pink tongue.
Camilla sat on the bed with us, sewing patches on her skirt. She was my dearest friend and most devoted servant, who took you on a journey to the piazza in front of Santa Maria every day, when I could not go out, and slept next to you every night, when darkness freed me to do my business. Yourzia Camilla was not your real auntie, but she was my sister in everything but blood, and if one day I did not come home, I trusted her to keep you safe and see that you became a man. Thin as a birch and taller than I am, our sweet Camilla had a pale, grave face, her eyes and mouth dark smudges, which made her seem like a lovely ghost, though she was as strong as a Turk wrestler. She was born in Naples, and nature made her hair as raven-hued as I dye mine now.
I could describe every detail of that tiny room in the Trastevere, my most adored and most precious son, yet I could never describe the love that surrounded you there. And now I have no greater fear, than that we will become separated by an ocean of time, which no words can cross.
Perhaps all you will remember of me is that I did not come back for you.
An old Jew named Obadiah lived next door to us, above a noisy wineshop. He was a divine man, scarcely tall enough to look through a keyhole, who loved to discuss the works of Flavius Josephus and often arranged for me to purchase antiquities from dealers and cavatori--diggers--of his acquaintance. So when I heard the pounding on our ancient oak door, it was not at all remarkable to find Obadiah there, although I was surprised at his urgency. His face was always like a marvelous drawing on old parchment, all the lines carefully marked in sepia ink. Yet as I looked down at him peering around the side of our door, that yellowed parchment seemed to bleach out in an instant.
The three men were in our house even before poor Obadiah could sag and fall to the ground; they made certain we saw their saber and stilettos. But you weren’t frightened, nor was Ermes, who rushed at them even before you did, barking like a woman screaming until the man with the saber swatted him with his blade and our precious dog flew against the wall like a bundle of wool. A heartbeat later you collided with this man’s legs and at once he clapped his hand to your mouth and directed the tip of his blade at your little belly. The invaders had entered without a word, but now this man, who had only one seeing eye--the other was like a poached egg--said with a coarse Neapolitan accent, “We’ll slit the boy like a November hog.”
I wanted to say, “I don’t believe the man who sent you will permit you to kill his grandson.” But if your grandfather had sent these men, he was very shrewd, because they sufficiently resembled common thieves that I could not be certain they weren’t. So I had to say, “I’ll show you where my things are.”
The second man came around behind me and shoved the wooden gag in my mouth; it is a miracle he did not knock out my teeth. He tied the leather cord behind my head so tight that the knot felt like the butt of a knife jammed into my skull. The wood sucked all the moisture from my tongue and I could only watch as the third man gagged Camilla. I will never forget the look in her eyes just before he pushed her down on the mattress.
The one-eyed man had started out the door with you, clutching you to his breast, you kicking and flailing until he said, “Do you want me to kill your Mama?” Though you were not even five years old, you were clever enough to at once cease your protest. And by then you could see the body of dear old Obadiah lying outside our door, his shirt sopping with blood as red as a Cardinal’s hat. He had died trying to warn us.
For my part, I bolted to the door, preferring to perish in pursuit of you than share our beloved Camilla’s fate. I was not forced back into the room; after the second man grabbed me by the hair, he proceeded to drag me alongside you and his accomplice, pricking his knife into my ribs whenever I struggled. The flock of chickens that roosted on the balcony next door clucked and chortled as we passed beneath them.
It did not take us long to arrive at your grandfather’s residence, even though we circled around the back. As we came up through the garden mazes, the basilica and palazzo rose like mountains above us, lamps flickering in dozens of windows. Within moments we were inside that great edifice, glimpses of gilded furniture and new frescoes rushing past, the brightly colored patterns of the tapestries and Oriental rugs flying at me like confetti at Carnival. The entire house reeked of pleasure: smoldering censers, fresh orange and rose water, roasted meats, musk, wax candles and spilled wine.
Halfway through our passage two more men, hooded like monks, took you from your one-eyed captor. I could say nothing to you in farewell, merely issuing terrible, strangled sounds that nearly choked me, until I thought a merciful God would take me away. But of all the dwellings in this sinful world, our Immaculate Lord is least present in the house where you and I had just become captives.
Light from an open doorway burst before me, as brilliant as fireworks. Laughter leapt out at me as mercilessly as Caesar’s assassins when he entered the Senate. The room I was shoved into was the big Sala Reale, most of the floor transformed into a forest of brass lampstands. In a scene our Dante never thought to invent, two dozen or so women, on their hands and knees, crawled like pigs rooting for acorns, bare breasts swaying and naked white bottoms quivering, some squatting in an effort to retrieve the prizes--chestnuts--strewn upon the Turkish carpets. In accordance with the rules of the house, they were not allowed to use their hands or mouths--or even their toes.
The master of that evening’s quaint ceremony was your grandfather, Rodrigo Borgia, though the rest of Christendom calls him il papa: Pope Alexander VI. His Holiness was seated upon the raised wooden dais, behind a table covered with cloth-of-gold, the saltcellars arrayed atop it in a symposium of miniature gold and silver gods and goddesses. The silvered sugar desserts, in the shapes of deer, dolphins, unicorns, and lions, crawled among the little deities like the disgorged cargo of some confectionary Ark.
As I was dragged toward the master of the house, the men at the table stared with eyes reddened from the smoke, not a jacket remaining on anyone--they were down to shirts and hose, or breeches, all those bald or tonsured heads glistening. Your grandfather’s white silk shirt was so wet that it had become a milky membrane, clinging to his great chest and sagging old man’s breasts. His skull gleamed like a brass bowl, the rim of this vessel a fringe of gray-tipped chestnut hair that fell over his ears. I had not seen him in five years, but it was as if that time had been only an illusion.
Leaning back in his immense gilt chair, he offered me his scrutiny, his pupils as black and empty as the holes drilled in a marble bust. He tilted his head slightly, his magnificent predator’s beak pointing the way back out.
I did not have to be carried far, just around two corners. Once we entered your grandfather’s apartments, I even knew precisely which of these lavishly frescoed rooms would witness my travail. Called the Hall of Saints, it was empty save for a few chairs and sideboards; in the center remained a brazier, a small intarsia table and a single armchair, upholstered in scarlet velvet embroidered with little gold bulls, the symbol of your family.
Once I was tied upon this throne, I quickly received my first visitor, your grandfather’s master of artillery, Lorenzo Beheim--he of the treatises on dark magic and procedures to summon Satan. Beheim carried a wooden box such as physicians haul about. Placing this item on the table beside me, he opened it so that I could admire instruments that indeed looked like those used to explore the womb and extract a reluctant infant--tongs, hooks, picks, and pliers. As he brought the brazier closer, no doubt for his convenience when heating these devices, the reek of burning charcoal invaded my nostrils.
Having completed these preparations, he left.
Yet I was not entirely alone. The upper walls all around me were framed by massive gilded arches, and the painter Pinturrichio had filled each of the half-moon-shaped lunettes with tales of saints, their legends portrayed as extravagant ceremonies teeming with spectators. My chair had been placed so that I could look up at the lunette opposite the window, upon which the enormousDisputation of St. Catherine of Alexandria had been painted in gorgeous peacock hues.
This view allowed me to renew my acquaintance with some of your grandfather’s bastards. You see, Pinturrichio used all sorts of people at your grandfather’s court as models for the characters in this tale, though in the short years since he finished his labor, time and Fortune has altered so much about them. At the center of this glorious pageant was St. Catherine, presenting her defense of the Christian faith to the Emperor Maximinus and his colloquy of scholars. St. Catherine was a perfect likeness of your aunt Lucrezia, the present Duchess of Ferrara, her hair falling in flaxen waves, her puckered mouth as red as a cherry, her cerulean gaze fixed on a dream. This portrait was more real than life, because when I knew Lucrezia, if ever she was caught in a momentary thought, she would at once show her perfect teeth, a smile intended to draw one’s attention from the desperate hope in her eyes.
In my worst fears, my darling, you have come to know Lucrezia’s expression; but if this is so, then perhaps you have an image in an imperfect mirror of your Mama. Because it was often said, in those years when I was familiar with your family, that I looked enough like Madonna Lucrezia to be her older sister. I never thought so; your aunt’s nose was smaller, her forehead less broad, her eyes a lighter tint. But perhaps now I share with your aunt Lucrezia the same sorrowful hope.
No less real than Lucrezia’s portrait were the two figures at opposite sides of the scene. Your grandfather had intended his most cherished son, Juan Borgia, the Duke of Gandia, to serve as the model for the Emperor Maximinus. But Pinturrichio’s vision had been less clouded by sentiment and he instead made another bastard son, Cesare Borgia, the face of this all-powerful sovereign. At the time the painting was done, Cesare had been twenty years old; he was still a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church and he still had his sister Lucrezia’s delicate beauty. Yet Pinturrichio had given him a peculiar gaze, the dark green eyes staring down and away, fixed on something that could not be bound within the picture, as if Cesare were peering into a realm even the painter could not imagine.
Opposite Cesare, on the other end of the wall, Pinturrichio had placed Juan in the guise of a Turkish sultan, the sort of costume this most beloved son had indeed favored in life, a great linen turban around his head, his cape and loose trousers a tapestry of Oriental patterns. Juan was darker than his siblings--Cesare and Lucrezia are quite fair-complected--and in this portrait his gaze is predatory, a falcon’s angry yet wary stare. In life, if Juan ever looked thus, it was a pose.
My meditation on those fleet years that “carry us to death’s sharp spear,” as Petrarch would say, was at last interrupted by your grandfather. Beheim at his side, still in his sweaty shirt, His Holiness wore only sagging hose and scarlet slippers, the better to display his legs, which were still sturdy and well-shaped. He advanced to me with the graceful step of a much younger man, toes out as if his dance master were watching. Only when he was close enough to touch me could I see how much he had aged--the liver spots, the thin skin stretched taut over the great obstinate hump of his nose. But his lips were luxurious as ever, pursed delicately, as if he had just sipped a particularly fine wine and was trying to get the taste of it.
He nodded at Beheim, who removed a knife from the physician’s box. I prayed for a quick end. But Beheim simply cut the cord that held my gag. My mouth was so dry that I couldn’t spit out the wooden plug. Employing the point of his knife, Beheim gouged it loose.
Your grandfather leaned forward and stared at me with those obsidian eyes. “Damiata. I always knew where you were.” His voice was deep but his words always hissed a bit, a whisper of his Spanish ancestry, even though the Borgia family--your family, carissimo--has been in Italy for generations. The snake in the grass. Or the serpent in the tree.
His fingers flicked at my hair; this gesture was not a caress, but that of a stableboy examining the mane of a sick horse. “Dying your hair, hiding in some Jew’s tavern. . . .” He shook his head wearily. “I could have come for you at any time. Each breath you have taken in the last five years has been at my indulgence.”
“You are the prince of indulgences, are you not?” I said. Your grandfather sold forgiveness from the altars of his churches like a whore selling candles on the street-corner; the only crimes he would not pardon for a price were those against his person, or in aid of the Turk. “Perhaps you can even afford to absolve yourself. You murdered a blameless, dear old man at my house tonight. And your grandson’s dear little pet.” I did not want to tempt Fortune by speculating on Camilla’s fate.
I thought he would strike me. Instead he turned his back and looked up at Juan, the alla turca Duke of Gandia, as if beseeching this most cherished son to restore the flesh to his own moldering bones. After a time your grandfather’s heavy shoulders sagged and he turned his attention to the prophetic image of the son who yet lived: the Cesare Borgia who is now, as I write this, Captain-General of the armies of the Holy Roman Church, famed throughout Christendom as Valentino, Duke of the Romagna, the prodigy who threw off his Cardinal’s cap for a warrior’s helmet, the vanquisher of tyrants and the savior of all Italy. The son who will enable your grandfather, His Holiness Pope Alexander VI, to conquer the Kingdoms of the World without rising from the Heavenly Throne of St. Peter. Perhaps by the time you read this, that papal empire will have grown far beyond its present boundaries, to spread from the heart of Italy across all Europe.
Indeed, if all my present fears come to pass, perhaps Fortune has already made you heir to that empire. But if that is so, then the Borgia have told you nothing about me but lies, save where the truth is worse.
At last your grandfather interrupted his own meditation. “Juan was going to your house the night he was murdered. You alone were privy to that. You alone could have informed someone else.”
I had sat at this Pope’s table often enough, and observed his methods sufficiently, to know how well he crafted false accusations from undeniable fact. Having anticipated such an interrogation for more than five years, I replied, “If you are claiming that I betrayed Juan by revealing his route to my house that night, God and the Holy Mother know that it was far easier for his murderers to follow him from his mother’s house near the Esquiline, where he had dined, as half of Rome knew. And you know as well as any man that the Orsini and the Vitelli had their knives out for him.They are the very condottieri who would profit most if the Borgia were erased from the earth.”
Now, I should explain that we Italians have for several generations placed the very survival of our various states and principalities in the hands of these condottieri, a brotherhood of mercenary generals whose bands of thugs carry out, for a very dear price, the martial tasks the French king would assign to a vast army of men in permanent service, led by nobles who have sworn allegiance to him. Here in Italy, however, it is our fashion to hire the agents of our own destruction. These “soldiers of fortune” strut about like pimps in their suits of engraved armor, waging phony war among themselves only to pillage the livelihoods of helpless peasants, transferring their allegiances to whomever will offer the fattest contract. And the two families presently in command of this blood-sucking cabal are the Orsini and the Vitelli.
“You made Juan the Captain-General of the Holy Roman Church,” I accused my accuser. “An office for which he was entirely unsuited and which he in no way desired. And it was you who directed poor Juan to throw his soldiers into one hopeless assault after another on the Orsini fortresses around Rome, which were defended all the better by troops under the command of the Vitelli. Even a cloistered nun could have seen that Juan’s assassins were Orsini or Vitelli. Or both. But you did not pursue them, did you, Holiness?” If I expected an answer, it was not forthcoming. “You were too weak to reckon with your own son’s murderers. Instead you made use of them.”
My meaning was clear to him, though perhaps it will not be to you. The Popes who preceded your grandfather had surrendered much of the Church’s earthly domain, which at present occupies the entire middle of Italy and is known as the Papal States, to a host of tyrants large and small. Without the assistance of the Orsini and Vitelli, your grandfather and Duke Valentino could only dream of defeating this confederacy of despots. So they hired their former enemies, subordinating these condottieri to Valentino’s bold and clever command, and were thus able to reclaim the Papal States with a swiftness that inspired awe throughout Europe; we heard of these victories even in the half-buried alleys of the Trastevere. That is why your grandfather, having no wish to implicate his allies, found it far more convenient to accuse me. I had no soldiers for His Holiness to hire.
“You did not come to me when we found Juan.” Your grandfather’s back heaved a bit. “When you might have offered us these theories. Instead you ran like a housebreaker.”
“I was there when they found Juan. I waited beside the river. . . .” For a moment I walked into that memory and could hear the shouts of the fishermen. “As soon as I saw him, I knew you would demand my confession. Just as you expect it tonight.” I glanced at the instruments of interrogation in the box beside me. “And I knew even then I had a child in my womb. A child I would have spit in the face of Satan to protect.”
His Holiness turned, his words hissing more noticeably than before. “Henceforth the boy will enjoy my protection. Here, in the Vatican.”
I wailed and wailed, bereft of all reason, these words having gutted me more effectively than any instrument Beheim might have chosen.
Only when I had exhausted myself did merciful God grant me a certain calm--whereupon I found Satan’s eyes so close to my face that I could smell the wine on his breath. “Bene, bene,” your grandfather said. “I have opened a door and shown you my grief. A few moments of the pain that is for me unceasing. A shirt of fire I will never be able to tear from my breast.”
“I, too, grieve for Juan.”
He dismissed my grief with a blink. “You call the boy Giovanni. Of course I have also known that, from the day of his birth. But I don’t believe you are certain that my Juan was your Giovanni’s father.”
“He is the child of my womb and my soul. The Holy Mother and I know the father who put his seed in me.
“After the boy has been here a while, I will know the father,” your grandfather said, with no uncertainty. He nodded at Beheim, who once again displayed his physician’s knife.
On such an occasion, you are only wondering where the first cut will be. When Beheim sliced through the rope that bound my right arm to the chair, I presumed he intended to extend my limb in such a fashion that my song would begin with sharp, clear notes. Instead he cut the rope that held my left arm.
“It is in the box, Lorenzo,” your grandfather said. “Give it to her.”
I closed my eyes and felt Beheim’s hand between my thighs, no doubt in anticipation of pulling up my skirts. Against my will I looked down.
He had placed in my lap a little pouch that could easily fit in the palm of my hand. Fashioned of soiled red wool, with a long red string, it was the sort of charm bag that half the whores and procuresses in Rome carry about, hoping to obtain good fortune or cast a love spell.
“Look inside,” His Holiness said.
My hands trembling, I got in a finger and drew out a dirty paper card no longer than my thumb, also with a red yarn attached. This was a bollettino, which you do not see much in Rome--country people wear these little prayers around their necks. I could still distinguish the inscription, despite the untutored hand and cheap ink, which was not much darker than the stained paper: Sant Antoni mio benigno. Scrawled in some peasant dialect, it was a prayer to Saint Anthony, who guards against demons.
But when I turned over the little card I found another inscription, this in a practiced hand, in correct Italian and black Chinese ink: gli angoli dei venti. The corners of the winds.
I looked at the Pope and shook my head.
“Empty it,” he said.
The rest of the contents tumbled into my lap. Two fava beans, a little lump of gray chalk, a quattrino della croce--a coin melted into the shape of a cross; these were the sort of charms that might compel a man to fall in love with their bearer. There was one last item, however, that froze my hands.
I looked down at the miniature bronze head of a bull, no larger than a small bell, with big eyes, short horns, and a ring that seemed to grow from the top of the tiny skull, so that it could be worn as an amulet. It was an Etruscan antiquity, fashioned by the ancient race that preceded the Romans and lent its name to Tuscany. I turned it over, requiring only a moment’s scrutiny to find the tiny Latin inscription engraved on the back: Alexander filius. Son of Alexander. On the day Rodrigo Borgia had been crowned Pope Alexander VI, taking the name of a pagan conqueror instead of a saint, he had presented this token of love--and worldly ambition--to his cherished son.
“Juan…” The Pope swallowed as if the wine on his breath had returned to his throat. “He was wearing it that night.”
“He was never without it.” In a strange fashion, I hoped this would comfort Juan’s father.
“It was found at Imola,” he said, referring to an inconsiderable city in the Romagna--the Romagna being the northernmost of the Papal States, occupying a vast plain between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. Or I should say that Imola had been a city of little consequence, until Duke Valentino located his court there early this year. One heard that all the ambassadors, not only from our many Italian states and the rest of Europe, but the Turks as well, had gone there in supplication. Somehow Juan’s amulet had journeyed for five years, hundreds of miles across the length and breadth of Italy, to return to his father’s hands. In such fashion Fortune displays her love of cruel ironies.
I looked up. “If you have been watching my every breath these last years, then you know I cannot have transported it to Imola, even if it had ever been in my possession. I last saw that amulet a week before Juan was murdered. The last time. . . .” I had to turn away the images that waited for me, floating on a copper-colored river I never again wanted to cross. “I did not see it in that boat, either. Although one of the fishermen might have taken it.”
The Pope glanced at Beheim. “Those fishermen were examined with great care.” Perhaps there was a certain dreadful irony to this “care.” But if so, His Holiness’s face did not convey it. “My boy’s assassins ripped this from his neck.” His Holiness snatched the amulet from me as if I were its thief. “They took it as their trophy.”
“Surely the woman from whom you obtained this charm-bag can tell you who gave it to her.” I was surprised at the desperate pitch of my own voice.
“She can tell us nothing. The charm-bag belonged to a dead woman. It was found in her hand.”
“I presume someone recognized her… her body.”
His Holiness’s nostrils pinched, as if he had smelled the putrefying remains. “She inconvenienced us in that regard. Duke Valentino’s soldiers discovered her corpse in a field outside Imola.” I noted the formality with which he now referred to his son Cesare. “Absent her head, which has yet to be retrieved.”
I crossed myself. “Then the murderers presumed she would be recognized by someone in Duke Valentino’s household, if not your own people. Did she have scars or birthmarks upon her body?” I wondered if I would be expected to know these, still being familiar with the distinguishing marks of a number of ladies in our business.
The Pope studied me for several heartbeats. “I am sending you to Imola.”
“To examine what is left of her?”
His hand flew at me and struck the top of my skull so hard that the stars winked at me; he clutched my hair as though he wanted to rip my scalp away with it, forcing back my neck. “You will go to Imola and wait in lodging provided you by the Holy See.” The words seethed through his teeth. “You will wait there until you receive instruction from me.”
I looked into a satyr’s leering face, so close that our noses briefly touched. I could no longer smell the wine on his breath. Instead this was the foul, earthy stench of a long-buried corpse.
I thought: Hell smells like this.
After a moment the Pope released me, nodded again at Beheim, then left the room.
In the arch above the door where you entered a moment later, Pinturrichio had painted the Holy Madonna displaying her Child to the adoring saints. Your grandfather’s people had already dressed you in a little hunting costume, with a padded jerkin and red Morocco boots that reached to your knees. In your arms squirmed a dear Tenerife almost identical to our precious Ermes, licking at your face.
“Mama! Mama! Look!” you cried out like a carillon of tiny bells. An angel’s voice. “I have met my nonno at last and he has given me Ermes’s brother! In the morning we shall go back to our house and get Ermes and mend the cut those evil men gave him! I’m going to stay here with the dogs while you are away and receive instruction in fencing and riding!” You bounded into my lap and the fluffy Tenerife now licked madly at my face, eager for the salt in my tears. “Mama, nonno says we are all going to live here when you get back!”
I had hardly composed my sobs when I observed that your nonno had returned to stand behind you. His Holiness’s fleshy lips trembled as they drew a tauter line. “Now you understand why I have every conviction you will go to Imola and do as I say.”
“I understand,” I whispered, “that you have made your own grandson hostage to my obedience in this errand.”
Your grandfather nodded at Beheim, who gently tugged you from my embrace. At once I felt the pain of birth, when a mother first parts with the child of her womb. Yet I knew that if I clung to you, I would only frighten you.
It is through love, Plato said, that all conversation between God and man is conducted. Thus the vow I whispered to you was for God’s ears as well as your own. “I will come back and hold you again, my most precious darling. Soon. As soon as I am able. Until then you will be brave and do what you are told. And whenever you think of me you will know that I am thinking of you and how I adore you more than the love that turns the stars, and that is when you must smile for me. Even if it is a hundred times every day. Even if it is only once. Each time you smile, my heart will know it.”
You had no sooner left my arms than you offered me the first of those winsome smiles, sly and a bit sad at once, reminding me of your father. You turned and offered the second as you passed beneath the immense gilded arch that framed the Madonna and Child, the little dog in your arms peering back at me as well, his wide eyes lingering longer than yours.
Your grandfather did not witness our farewell. Instead, again he stared up at his own lost son. For the first time that night, I was alone with him. And I cannot say why, but I felt between us a communion so powerful that I sobbed, as though we were the last two mourners standing at Juan’s bier.
“The Orsini and the Vitelli are no longer in my employ.” The Pope’s voice was hollow. “Last month the condottieri met in a secret conclave at the fortress of La Magione and declared an armed rebellion against Duke Valentino, the Holy See, and our entire enterprise in the Romagna. Vitellozzo Vitelli has already attacked our garrisons in the same fortresses and towns I paid him so liberally to secure for me only months ago. Impicatti. The Orsini and Vitelli have betrayed their Heavenly Father no less than their Duke, their Pontiff, and the pledges they gave us.”
”So the condottieri are no longer useful to you,” I replied. “And now I am.”
The Pope remained fixed on Juan’s image.
“Five years, Your Holiness. That is how long you have husbanded your hatred, every day putting away a bit more, like wine in your cellar. But it will be a sour vintage if you believe I had anything to do with those men. Perhaps this unfortunate woman had a connection with the condottieri. Most likely she did.” My sigh was weary. “But if I ever knew her, it was not because of some mutual association with the Orsini or the Vitelli.”
The Pope spun about, his eyes as glaring as black glass in the sun. Yet knowing your grandfather as well as I did, I observed a certain subtlety of his expression, from which I drew the faintest cause for hope. I had seen this same doubt twitch across his face when he raised the golden chalice full of Christ’s blood on Easter morning in San Pietro; as often as he had sold God’s forgiveness, His Holiness could not be certain he would ever receive it, at any price. He could taste the stink of Hell on his own tongue.
And in the same fashion, he was not entirely certain of my guilt. If I could connect the condottieri to a faceless woman who was murdered while carrying Juan’s amulet in her charm bag, I might yet prove to him my innocence.
“Very well, your Holiness,” I whispered. “We have an understanding. I will establish myself in Imola, and wait there for your instruction.”
There is one final thing you should know about that night: Everything your grandfather told you was a lie, except for the Tenerife being our precious Ermes’s brother. I am all but certain that Ermes and the little dog His Holiness gave you came from the same litter, born two months before your father was murdered