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.
* * *
Excerpted from The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Ennis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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