It is late afternoon and papal galleys are becalmed under a scrubbed blue sky. They had left Piombino with the dawn, pushed on by a temperamental wind that changed its mind too often for comfort, until it deserted them entirely, leaving them to drift like dreamers rocked on a gentle sea. To starboard, the Tuscan coast is a thick charcoal line on the horizon. The two vessels are separated by a hundred yards, Pope Alexander behind, Cesare, Duke Valentine, in front.
Despite the cold, Alexander, swaddled in furs on deck, is greatly enjoying himself. A magnificent trip this has been, a pope embraced by his people, from hermit monks with stinking breath to hosts of pretty women eager to kiss his robes and hang on his every word. He could happily have stayed longer, but Cesare, as ever, is pushing the pace. Alexander would relish another sunset over the water, though it could scarcely rival the one that had accompanied them into Piombino harbor five days before. Despite a lifetime in ill-lit rooms thrashing out Church politics, this bear of a man still has wonder in him when it comes to nature and had watched entranced as the sun descended slowly into the sea, like a giant red-hot metal disc pulled by some powerful lodestone beneath the surface. Such delight he had felt at his own flourish of poetry! He should leave Rome more often. Even the Prince of Christendom deserves a little leisure amid the burden of work.
On the galley in front, Cesare is less even-tempered. Italy's most feared warrior is not at his best on water. When the weather is benign he is uncomfortable with the infinity of emptiness, and when the wind rises, slicing the sea and making the deck lurch beneath his feet, his stomach lurches with it. To be at the mercy of his own gut is a humiliation that can easily shade into aggression. What he needs is a little danger to get his nerves singing louder than his innards.
He crosses to the port deck, where the captain is standing, studying the western sky. He places himself next to the man, bracing his legs and resting one hand on the rail in unconscious imitation. "What do you see out there?"
"Nothing, my lord. Only weather." Burned bronze with a bush of black curls, the man looks as if he has been hewn out of a trunk of Indian ebony. If it wasn't for the papal insignia on his back, one might take him for some kind of infidel.
"What weather? There is none. If it stays this calm we will be stranded here all night. Why aren't we using the oars still?"
"The oarsmen are tired. They need a rest," the captain says, his eyes never wavering from the horizon.
The air is still, not even a hint of breeze. Apart from the lazy slap of water against wood, it feels as if the world has stopped moving. Cesare falls silent, squinting out into an endless nothing. His only experience of such stillness is the anticipation on a battlefield before the first cannons are fired. Could it be that there are sails somewhere out there, just beyond his eye's reach? Is that what the captain is seeing?
These last days his thoughts have been running on piracy. Stories of how the citizens of his new state of Piombino and the island of Elba live in constant fear of attack from infidels, descending out of a clear sea, overrunning villages, slaughtering the men and carrying the screaming women and children back to their ships. Years later one might hear of children taken in this manner coming up for sale at the slave market in Venice and finding their way into a house where, through the mist of time, they would recognize the lilt of a mother's lullaby or words of the Lord's Prayer, though by then they worship only heathen gods. At this point in the retelling, his father's eyes had been glistening with pity. Cesare, in contrast, had been boiling with fantasies of revenge.
My God, how he would like to take them on. To slice open their pagan Turkish bellies and set fire to their sails halfway to Constantinople. If their galleys were to appear on the horizon now, they would see what even a handful of Christian warriors could do. He has already studied the guns mounted on the hull, knows their range and capacity, and has quizzed the crewmen on the business of aiming over water. He would like to see the damage done when a cannonball rips through a wooden hull. Had not his namesake Caesar taken on a whole Egyptian fleet and sunk it into the depths? Or was that Emperor Augustus? Recently his grasp of history is becoming blurred inside the accelerated creation of his own myth.
"Do pirates sail this far south?"
"We are in no danger, Duke Valentine. The papal galleys are built to outrun anything on the sea if the men put their backs to it."
"We wouldn't stand and fight?"
"Afraid of a few infidels?"
"Fear is not the issue, my lord," he says evenly. A ship's captain shares command with no one, and he is finding it hard to conceal his dislike for this young papal bastard who thinks he knows better than everyone around him. "It is the value of the cargo we are carrying."
A cockroach skids across the boards close to their feet. Cesare, an expert at detecting criticism in compliment, stamps fast, relishing the crunch.
"Why don't you steer closer to the shore and launch the rowing boat? Corvetto can't be far away. My men and I could be back in Rome by morning."
"It is not safe, my lord. The coast here has hidden reefs. The boat could be blown onto them."
"By what? The sea's as flat as a nun's chest."
"Now, yes," the captain says, his attention also on the deck and the sight of a second cockroach scuttling wildly. "But in these waters it can change without warning." Behind it comes another, and another.
"Your vermin have good sea legs," Cesare says angrily as his boot comes down again. "Or maybe they too are bored with waiting."
The captain, ignoring the insult, lifts his eyes back to the horizon and moves off quickly down the boat.
Has he sensed it already, this man who knows the sea better than the body of a best-loved mistress? What is it? A certain tang in the air? A muscle movement of water in the distance? Or perhaps the cockroaches have told him, for God often gives unexpected gifts to His most despised creations.
Whatever it is, he knows they will not outrun it on the manpower of these oarsmen. He has never seen such a scrawny bunch of galley slaves. He sends a message to the sailor in the crow's nest to unfurl a flag requesting that the Pope's boat make up speed to join them. It would be safer if the two vessels were closer together.
Alexander registers the jolt as the oars start dipping and pulling at the water. He has been halfway across Italy in his thoughts, traveling with his daughter as she moves from town to town, her smile seducing everyone she meets. His sweet Lucrezia. It has been only a few weeks since they took leave of each other, but already her absence is a wound inside him. My God, her husband had better appreciate her or he will send an army to get her back.
The galley is picking up speed, and he turns to watch the oarsmen at work. From the raised deck he can make out their bowed heads and shoulders, hear their grunts, almost feel the stretch and heave of muscle and sinew. The fleet had been in dry dock when the late decision was taken to do part of the journey to and from Piombino by boat (Cesare's whim as ever), and his Master of Ceremonies had spent hours fretting about having to pull men from Rome's prisons to make up the bulk of the labor. Poor creatures. Even criminals who serve their Pope deserve to keep their arms in their sockets, he thinks. I shall bless them all when the trip is over. He, who would stitch up a dozen cardinals if he could bleed more money out of them, has always had a soft spot for those manifestly weaker than himself.
But it is not the moment to dwell on tender feelings. A slap of wind on his cheek pulls his eyes toward the horizon. In the west, where once there had been a spotless sky, a glowering band of cloud is now rising, heavy with rain. It is moving rapidly, lifting, spreading, darkening, so that even as he watches the low winter sun is swallowed up inside it. The temperature is dropping and the water is now an iron gray, the surface whipped up into flurries by the worsening wind. As the agitation grows the galley starts to roll under his feet. He braces himself against the rails. How fast the change! It is as if Neptune has filled his giant cheeks, and with one enormous breath is blowing a fully formed storm over the rim of the world.
His chaplains are already at his side, hurrying him toward the deckhouse as the first raindrops hit, fat as bird shit, soaking everything they touch. Above their heads a jagged line of lightning slices the sky. He grips the rail tighter. He is a man who knows about storms at sea and the havoc they can wreak. On a journey back from Spain as papal legate twenty—no, surely it must be thirty—years ago now, his fleet had been not far from this same coast when the water had started to rise and hiss and he had watched helplessly as his companion galley was blown toward shore only to be smashed like a bunch of kindling twigs on a submerged reef of rocks. For months afterward in his dreams he could hear the sound of the wind mixed with the screams of drowning men. The Lord had gained a brace of churchmen and courtiers that day, may their souls rest in peace. He can still recite most of their names and see a few of their faces. God damn Cesare's impatience, he thinks. It is the disease of youth to mistake speed for strategy. They should have stayed in Piombino for another day rather than giving in to his insistence on returning to Rome.
"Get your men under cover." On the boat in front the captain shouts to Cesare as he moves past him to reach the wheelhouse. "I need the deck clear for the crew."
"I told you we should have used the oars! We could have been halfway to Rome by now," Cesare spits back, the mast above them creaking under the whip of the wind. "How long will it last?"
"As long as the Lord decrees," the captain mutters, making a rapid sign of the cross as he turns in to the force of the gale.
In her room in the ducal palace of Urbino, Lucrezia's feet hurt. When she walks her soles burn and when her toes are released at night they still feel pinioned together. The pain is more than the bondage of fashion; her wedding dowry shoes, twenty-seven pairs of the finest perfumed Spanish leather made from a template of her feet, each one hand-sewn, gilded, jeweled, perfumed and shipped from Valencia, had arrived too late to be fitted and tested before they were used.
It would be better if she did not dance so much. But how can she resist? She, who loves to glide and twirl and skip through feasts and celebrations night after night, so applauded that after a while her partners fall away, clutching feigned stitches in their sides, to show off her grace and stamina. No, Lucrezia Borgia must dance; it is one of the joys of her life. And more than that, it is what is expected of her.
Perhaps if there were fewer miles between festivities. In the twelve days since they left Rome they have visited almost as many towns and are still only halfway to Ferrara. It would be a punishing schedule even in the best weather, for this is not so much a journey as a campaign trail, the Pope's daughter conquering city after city with charm rather than cannons. In the beginning, she had wrapped herself in furs and battled the freezing air. Those first days it had been snowing—snow in Rome!—and she had been amazed how people flocked out to see her. She had waved and smiled and smiled again. If they could brave the weather then surely so could she. But the snow turned into heavy rain and ugly sucking mud, so that recently she has retreated to her litter. It is comfortable enough on the open roads, but when it comes to the slopes of the Apennines and towns like Gubbio and now Urbino, the steep winding paths have her lurching and jostled until her bones have started to protest.
She settles herself into the cushioned window seat in this latest bedchamber. There is a fire in the grate and tapestries on the walls. How delicious to be warm again. Outside, she hears the traffic of chests pulled along flagstone floors. It takes an age to settle the household of courtiers and servants who travel with her. Tonight's accommodation is particularly magnificent. The palace of Urbino is famed through Italy as a treasure-house of the new culture. They will have precious little time to appreciate it, she thinks with a small sigh. The trunks will barely have been opened before they must be packed up and loaded again, and this evening will merge into all the others, an orgy of goodwill and gifts, bowing, kissing, sweet words, compliments and of course dancing. Her feet sing out in sympathy. She longs for a day when she can sleep later than the dawn, or pass a few hours reading or washing her hair; the chance to be alone, sullen, even sad for a while.