* * *
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."
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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