Lucrezia stands alone on the balcony adjoining her bedchamber and silently looks over Ferrara, the darkness surrounding her like the gentle embrace of a lover.
It has been two months since she learnt of his death—
She still cannot form 'Cesare' on her tongue. It is still too painful, bitter…
—but she still finds it difficult to absorb the fact that her restless, volatile, ruthless, and brilliant brother is rotting in some shabby burial plot instead of the elaborate tomb he once planned out to her on a silent dark night such as this.
"When I die, dear sister, I want my remains to be buried in splendour as befitting the almighty conqueror of these rebel, disparate states."
She feels his hands—those hands that had inflicted so much violence and pain upon others—tenderly ghost over her unbound hair. "I don't like all this talk of death, Cesare."
He lowly chuckled, causing his chest to rumble under Lucrezia's head pillowed just over his heart. "Would you prefer me to be buried in a foul bog like a common criminal?"
"No, of course not…"
"My dearest, you're the last person to flinch from the harsh truths of this cruel world. Has marriage to that loathsome lout, Giovanni, transformed you into a flimsy embroidered handkerchief?"
In response, Lucrezia drags her finely polished left index finger across his wrist deep enough for a small bloody line the width of a needlepoint to appear.
"It seems you a still the tiger underneath that prim veneer of yours."
A trickle of blood crawls down his wrist and into the cuff of his embroidered ceremonial gown.
"So it does seem, dear Cesare," she lightly murmurs, twisting her head up so she can look into his eyes. "Let me heal your wound."
Silently and unblinkingly, he holds out his wrist to her. Still not breaking eye contact with him, Lucrezia extends her pink tongue and slowly runs it across the light wound she inflicted upon him; his blood strangely sweet and metallic at the same time. Cesare's eyes are burning like beacons in the dark and she feels as if she will slide into oblivion there and then.
"You're quite the healer, little sister," he rasps as if he has been wandering in hot climates without sustenance for many years.
She cannot reply. All she can do is gaze back at him.
Lucrezia shivers and tightens the wrap around her shoulders. Yet, in an odd way, she wasn't surprised her brother died violently at a young age. A man such as her brother could never reach his dotage. There could have been no other end for the glittering phoenix that rose and set an inferno to everything he touched, other than being catapulted back down to earth as a smoky, reeking carcass.
He had killed their brother, her second husband—dear, sweet, innocent Alfonso—, and countless others, yet she still somehow loved him.
"I don't want to see you. I told my ladies not to let anyone in," said Lucrezia dully, her back to him.
"They know not to disobey me."
"Why are you still in mourning for that sop, Alfonso? It's been four months."
"I'm mourning for my dear husband who was murdered by you."
"You know that if I didn't strike first, it would be me lying under the stone slab your darling Alfonso now occupies," said Cesare brutally.
"So you say."
He came around to face her. "Why can't you look at me?"
"Because you disgust me."
Cesare wrenched her face up. "How dare you say such a foul thing to your own brother who loves you best?"
"I dare to say it because it's the truth. You were jealous of him occupying all my attention so you killed him!"
Cesare's face contorted into barely suffused fury. "I've killed lesser men for saying such things, you know, dear sister."
Lucrezia's chest heaved as she choked back a sob. "Then kill me! You'll be doing me a favour! Place those big hands of yours around my neck and snap it!"
She punched his chest. "If I am, it's because you've made me so."
He gripped her face harder. "Stop talking madness."
She struggled against him, her hands vainly hitting at his broad chest. Tears now fell from her eyes and she was no longer sure whether she was weeping for her dead husband or for her brother.
Cesare then snatched up her hands in his but she refused to cease her struggle. She spat in his face and he then threw her onto the bed that was just behind her, climbed on top of her and pinioned her down. Her face was wet with tears and she was sure her eyes were swollen. Her chest rose and fell as jagged breaths escaped her.
"Cesare, let me be…"
"I won't until you forgive me," he harshly whispered. "I won't set foot from this room until I hear from your very own lips, 'Cesare, my darling brother, I forgive you'."
"You will be waiting a long time," she shakily replied as more tears sluiced over her cheeks. "If you want forgiveness, why don't you seek out a man of the cloth? I have no such power to absolve you of your sins."
"To me you do. I need no priest—I need you."
Lucrezia tried to twist her head away so she could not see his burning, black eyes.
"Why do you torture me?" she moaned in her grief. "Why?"
His free hand stroked her face. "Lucrezia…since you barred me from your presence, I have been a starved, desperate man—"
"And since you deprived me of a husband, I have been a desolate, grieving woman."
His face loomed over hers, his eyes consuming her. "Does that man lying cold really mean more to you than me? I did what I had to. I had to strike first. He planned to kill me, you know."
Lucrezia let out a choked laugh that was tinged with bitterness. "Alfonso didn't have the nerve to kill you. Even if he did, he would never have succeeded against such a leonine and lethal man such as you."
"And what if he had succeeded in killing me? What would you have done? Would you mourn me for some scant moments and then beckon him back to your bed with a crooked finger and a seductive smile?"
Even amid her turbulent and confused state, his words stung. "How can you say such a thing? I'd never have allowed him back in my bed—I'd have…"
"You'd have done what?"
Lucrezia attempted to look away from his penetrating gaze but his iron hands locked her eyes to his. They had never shied away from the truth before, and she did not want to start now. She exhaled a deep, shuddering breath, and in a barely audible voice, she replied, "I'd have cut out his heart with a dagger."
Cesare's eyes flashed with some unidentifiable emotion. "Are you going to cut out my heart then, dear sister?"
Her eyes glittered with unshod tears. "Christ forgive me, but I cannot, I cannot…"
His grip relaxed. "Lucrezia…"
She was spent. "Cesare…" she gasped.
His hands caressed her face. "Hush, darling. You are with Cesare now. No harm will come to you, I promise."
Christ forgive her, but she could never stay angry and disappointed with him for long. All she could see was this magnificent, dark, vengeful angel, and even Alfonso began to recede into the back of her mind as she gazed upon the fevered eyes of her brother.
She raised a shaky hand to his cheek. "It seems I can't be sundered from you for long."
He grasped her hand that was on his cheek and showered it with frenzied kisses. "You will have no cause to be grieved against me, sister—I swear it."
And thus the man who broke a myriad of promises under the guises of a gleaming smile and sober platitudes, pressed a lingering kiss to his sister's damp forehead and said—for once—with utter sincerity, "I promise."
Cesare consumed her emotional landscape and left everyone else as pale wraiths in comparison. He was infused with darkness and cruelty—she was not blind or weak, despite what other people asserted to the contrary—but he was never anything but tender and honest with her. He made her senses spring awake as if she had been doused in flames; she saw the world with more clarity as he did not cocoon her like their parents; and she could never be fatigued or weary around him because they could banter for what seemed like an eternity on anything from the trivial to the profound.
It was as if they were two halves of a whole. Lucrezia was Cesare and Cesare was Lucrezia; they felt each other's pain and triumphs acutely. When he perished, she felt as if portion of her died too.
He may have been the devil to others, but to her, he forever would be her Phaeton who overreached the boundaries of the gods and was snuffed out in divine retribution.