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Marcus van Heller

House of Borgia,book 2

CHAPTER 1

Cesare Borgia sat still and straight on his horse smiling wryly. Across the green plains of Romagna which surrounded the river Po, the city of Imola was humped behind its great, protecting wall. A siege would have meant a long delay in his campaign, possibly into winter. But Imola, like all the other towns he had taken since Louis had gone back to France after the fall of Milan, was coming over to him without pressure of arms.

He watched his lieutenant, Ramiro de Lorqua, in earnest conversation with the little delegation from the city. They had met to parley in a little group some several hundred yards in advance of Cesare's army which stretched in an ominously broad arc across the great valley. Away to the south the Etruscan Apennines shimmered and misted in the blue haze of summer. The weather was as satisfying as the campaign.

It was with the psychological cunning which Machiavelli was to take as example for his book, II Principe, that the Duke of Valentinois had contrived to triumph so easily everywhere he went. Romagna was, in fact, noted for its tyrants and it was merely habit and tradition which had brought citizens loyally around their despotic leaders in times of crisis. With the capture of his first city, Cesare had pardoned all the citizens who had fought against him and had forbidden his men to indulge in the usual postcapture assuaging of their lusts. There had been no pillage, no killing, no rape, no disorder. This he had enforced with the severity for which, when occasion demanded it, he was notorious.

The effect had been miraculous. Word had been allowed to spread of the good treatment received by the beaten populaces and, as if Cesare possessed some new and irresistible weapon, the common folk of all the cities in his path had denounced their tyrannical lords and flung open their fortresses to the Pope's son.

In front of the great army, Ramiro de Lorqua and his subordinates reined round their horses and sped back across the intervening space toward their chief. The councillors of Imola remained in a motionless group?a helpless, hopeful band almost surrounded by the mass of Borgian troops.

De Lorqua reined in beside the Duke. A grim smile of triumph flickered across his normally austere visage.

“The gates are open, Sire,” he said quietly. “Imola is ours. They will lead us across the moat into the city.”

“Good,” Cesare replied, briefly but with satisfaction.

He spurred his mount forward and the great army came to slow life behind him, following patiently in his wake.

“If it please God, no soldier of mine shall have to raise his right arm to fight again. He will be received like a visiting monarch and have to find his exercise in the brothels.”

De Lorqua laughed, a quick, unbelieving laugh.

“There is yet Forli to come,” he reminded.

As the towers and campaniles beyond the tall buff walls of the city became clearer, Cesare reflected on his advance. If all went well he should, in time, succeed to the title of Duke, a pleasing thought. His campaign, which had begun as a war to recover the temporal power of the Holy See in these areas where the barons refused to pay their taxes, had developed into a personal triumph, which?intelligence had it?was being talked of throughout Italy and beyond. Already the subjugated people?if one could give that title to a people liberated by an alleged enemy from despotism?were demanding that Cesare be made their permanent master and that they enjoy his protection forevermore. His ambition was fired and seemed likely to be rewarded.

But there was, of course, Forli, with that amazon of a Countess, who would doubtless defend it to the last, crying death to the enemy even as death shattered her heart?or, as was very likely?rapacious lust shattered another part of her anatomy.

Crowds were thronging the streets and the squares to cheer the invading army; flags and kerchiefs fluttered in the air and women of doubtful character hung their half-naked bosoms from the windows of establishments of doubtful reputation in a surge of welcome.

But the battle was not quite over. A councillor of the city joined the vanguard to warn that a captain of the guard with a body of troops had withdrawn to the almost impregnable citadel, swearing to surrender only when death claimed him.

Even as the populace waved and the women flaunted their waiting breasts before the eager arrivals, a cannon boomed out from the citadel and sent the crowds screaming and scurrying for shelter.

Cesare immediately trained a number of his cannons on the stark, scarred walls of the citadel and returned fire until the challenge had petered out for a while and he was able to direct the billeting of his troops and arrange a siege of the inner stronghold which still resisted him.

CHAPTER 2

Cesare stretched himself at ease on the red plush couch which had been put at his disposal. Around him, his principal officers shared with their leader the privilege of being the guest of the Chief Councillor of the city. Outside, the cannon was quiet, the citadel comfortably besieged. Full-scale assault operations could wait until tomorrow. The army needed rest and a little entertainment.

Throughout the city the brothels were doing fine, wine-flushed business. And any woman who showed herself willing was feeling the full pent-up strength following days of abstinence on the part of the visitors between her thighs. But, as usual, Cesare had forbidden violence. Any man reported stealing a citizen's unwilling wife or raping a reluctant maiden would be made an example of for all the town to see.

Within the mansion of the Chief Councillor, gypsy music was playing. A band of well-dressed nomads were strumming their guitars and tambourines. There was controlled passion in the music and in the dark, gypsy faces. There was ill-controlled passion, too, in the loins of Cesare's officers. This man, their host, had promised them, later, the full benefits of the high-class brothel which was virtually his harem. They were anxious to relieve this ache of longing in their lower regions.

Cesare toyed with his glass, sipping the rich, sweet wine with which his host had bolstered a magnificent meal. He was thinking of Lucrezia, wishing she were here, now, so that they could retire to a quiet nook and enjoy each other with the furious abandon of the days before he had left for the French Court. “How do you like my gypsy orchestra?” his host asked, leaning across from his neighboring couch.

“Excellent, excellent, but they look a little domesticated.”

“You mean they are well dressed, well fed? But of course. They have become quite famous these last few months. Everybody is paying big prices to have them play and dance. Their days of dirt and rags are over.”

He swallowed a glass of wine in one long draught.

“But if you talk of domestication, wait until you see Maria. Domestication! I'd like to see the man who could domesticate her. Violence, passion, sensuality! They ripple in her limbs when she dances, they reach to you from her breasts, they writhe in her buttocks. And yet she's not for sale. Oh, they've tried to rape her?many a man in torment. But she carries a stiletto and knows how to use it, they say. She's a proud one. I have to rush to my mistress in excitement after she's danced, and then I try to imagine she's the divine Maria who won't be bought.”

Cesare listened, idly swishing the wine in his refilled glass and letting the music flow in him. The old dotard, he was thinking; the thought that he couldn't have her would make him pay groveling homage to the ugliest old whore.

“Well, when does this proud creature deign to appear?” he asked.

“Immediately if you so wish it.”

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