It wasn't love, it wasn't even physical need. Cardinal Borgia could have had any woman in Rome, the only exception being nuns and even some of those would succumb to his charms. What it really came down to was domination; Micheletto could take any punishment the Cardinal dished out and ask for more. As a result the Cardinal worked out whatever frustration he was feeling and Micheletto got to taste the whip, a feeling sweeter than any candy.
This time was different for two reasons. One was that the Cardinal had shown up at the door of his apartment. He had forced his way inside the one room hovel and all but demanded submission.
Micheletto figured Juan Borgia had done something stupid. The middle Borgia brother was little more than a thug in nobleman's clothes and his misdeeds were a source of constant frustration to his older brother. The Cardinal always wielded the whip with more force whenever it was Juan who annoyed him.
The second difference between this time and all the rest was that the Cardinal didn't want him to leave. Usually after their power plays Micheletto was dressed and gone in minutes. Now, he moved to exit the bed and cold fingers wrapped around his wrist.
"Stay," Cardinal Borgia said. "I didn't come all this way to kick you out of your bed."
Micheletto stayed but he didn't lie down. He sat on the edge of the bed, uncomfortable and wishing the Cardinal would leave. Power struggles and the sex that came with them were fine when it was just that and nothing else. But the pause after the sex? The quiet where you just enjoyed the feel of a warm body next to you? Micheletto had never been comfortable with that. It made him feel vulnerable.
His unease must have shown because His Eminence snorted. "My God, you never relax do you? None of those I've shared a bed with have ever accused me of being selfish. Be calm."
"That is easier said than done."
A snort. "You can kill with your bare hands, slaughter a woman after you sleep with her, and enjoy the hardest lashes of the whip. Yet, someone asks you to stay with them and you panic. That's odd, you know." A sigh. "Stay with me for my sake. I need to know that somebody is on my side and pushing to my pull."
"I am always on your side, Your Eminence."
"Many times it feels like you're the only one who is." For a few moments they were quiet, the only sounds coming from outside the apartment. The landlord argued with his wife and there was a smash. "You live in a hovel."
"It's all I need, Your Eminence." There were three pieces of furniture in the room; the bed, a chair where his spare clothes were folded, and a table. Everything on the table was related to his trade. Small vials of various poisons, the garrote wire and his sword, were all neatly laid out. If he had anything else he wouldn't know what to do with it.
"Is there something under the mattress?"
"Tell me, how does one become an assassin?"
"One must learn to use various weapons and to mix poisons. And the imagination should never be ignored."
"Almost anything can be a weapon if you use it improperly. If you strangle a man with a boot lacing it becomes a weapon. Crack his head open with a chamber pot and cut his throat with a sharp pottery shard."
"The various uses of chamber pots," Cardinal Borgia said sarcastically. "Why do you only become talkative when the conversation turns to your job?"
The tone stung a bit but Micheletto didn't let the hurt register. "Other men speak of their work. The carpenter is enthusiastic about his trade. The tailor about his."
"The first time we met you told me you didn't have a kind. Now you compare yourself to a tailor and a carpenter."
"I don't have a kind, Your Eminence."
Micheletto hesitated before answering. The conversation had turned down an awkward path and they were walking among broken branches and pinecones in bare feet. "But sometimes one can't help but consider what might have been."
The Cardinal nodded. "I often wonder 'what if'. I've come to the conclusion I would be happier if I were a goatherd. Or if I only had one younger brother."
So Juan was the reason behind this impromptu visit. "A goatherd, Your Eminence?"
"Imagine it: rolling green hills. The soft bleating of goats. Warm sun, blue sky. Puffy white clouds and the entrancing possibility of meeting a shepherdess. It's an attractive picture."
Micheletto decided not to tell him the truth; that goatherds froze in the winter, starved in the summer, were poorly paid if they were paid at all, goats were mean, and shepherdesses were usually without charm. Sometimes you had to leave a man his delusions. "Very attractive."
"How did you become an assassin?"
The question was an uncomfortable one and he had been hoping the Cardinal wouldn't ask. "My father told me that if I killed a man, I could keep whatever money and jewels he had on him. If I didn't kill him, he'd beat me."
"Not much choice there. What did you spend the money on?"
"Sweets, Your Eminence."
"Children like sweets."
"Chil…you were a child?"
"Nine, I think. He beat me anyway, for leaving my knife in the man's gut."
"His gut," His Eminence said dully.
"It would have been easier if I had been tall enough to reach his throat. If you crush the windpipe it makes it harder for them to scream."
Cardinal Borgia rubbed his eyes. "You're insane."
"I never claimed to be otherwise, Your Eminence." He hoped that was the end of the Cardinal's inquisitiveness and was disappointed when the next question came.
"Why do you enjoy the whip?"
Micheletto looked away. "There are some men who find the whip more pleasurable than the feather and the shackles more pleasant than silk."
"That's not all." A hand snaked up and grabbed his hair, pulling his head back. "You can lie to Della Rovere, you can lie to the maidservant, you can lie to anyone else. But I've put my trust in you and You. Will. Not. Lie. To. Me." Each word was punctuated by a painful yank. "Understand?"
"I understand, Your Eminence."
Cardinal Borgia released him. "Good. Now, answer me."
Micheletto rubbed the back of his head. "When you sin, penance is required."
"I told you not to lie."
"It's not a lie, Your Eminence. I break the Sixth Commandment, and many others, regularly."
"I absolve you. Say three Hail Marys and one Lord's Prayer. Do you still want the whip?"
"For the physical pleasure."
"Is that all?"
Micheletto shifted uncomfortably. He didn't like talking about himself and the conversation was so personal it was frightening. Eventually, Cardinal Borgia's intense stare wore him down and he confessed. "When you're the last person someone sees, when you take other men's lives and end them easily, it's a lot of power. The power gets…" he didn't want to admit it, "overwhelming. Sometimes you want to cede power to another. Sometimes you have to."
"The need to let someone else take control."
He nodded. For a while there was silence and he hoped the Cardinal was done asking questions.
There were no more questions but the touch of soft skin against his neck made him shiver. "Your Eminence?"
The thumb brushed against his spine and the tips of the new scars. The wounds were fresh enough that he gasped for breath.
"Did that hurt?"
"It wasn't supposed to. There are ways of letting someone else take control that don't involve pain." Micheletto fidgeted and tried to escape, but the Cardinal gripped his wrist and pulled him down until he was lying on the bed instead of sitting up.
Briefly, the assassin considered grabbing the knife under the mattress, giving the Cardinal a taste of sharp metal, and getting the hell out. It would almost be worth the nobleman's displeasure. He couldn't move, the other man's arm was wrapped around him, and the feeling of helplessness was worse than feeling of leather. He was trapped.
"This is bothering you isn't it?"
"It is not a familiar feeling, Your Eminence."
"It's supposed to be gentle."
"I know the word in its hypothetical meaning, but not in practice."
From outside the apartment there was another crash and yelling. Cardinal Borgia scrunched up his face in disgust. "Your fellow tenants have saved you from a night of gentleness. There is no way I'm staying here while that is going on." He sat up and released the assassin.
Micheletto took that as his cue to escape and rolled out of bed. He was dressed in a matter of moments and handed the Cardinal his clothes. "That was the landlord, Your Eminence."
"Does your landlord not permit nightly visitors? Is that why you're so eager to get rid of me?" The pants were laced, the shirt slipped on, and the Cardinal crossed the distance between them. His gaze was intense and unforgiving. "Or do you not wish me to visit your bed, nor visit mine?"
Micheletto met his eyes and didn't look away. "Either bed is not the problem, Your Eminence."
"So there is a problem." A smirk appeared. "Did I pry too much? Don't tell me, I already know the answer." He put a hand on Micheletto's neck and rubbed it, his fingers once again grazing the scars. "Too bad. The whip is supposed to hurt but you don't flinch from it. So I have to find something that does hurt."
Whatever cruel game this was, Micheletto didn't like it. "Your Eminence…"
"Trust me," Cardinal Borgia said suddenly. "You trust me to wield a whip, why do you not trust me to be kind? Do you think me incapable of it?"
"It works better if you are pitiless."
"What works better?"
"This." Micheletto pointed to the bed, and the boots the Cardinal had yet to pull on, and the whip. He didn't know how else to put their arrangement.
The smirk turned into a grin; evidently the Cardinal was pleased to have unnerved his assassin. "You mean you like it better." His hand dropped and he sat on the bed to pull his boots on. "Poor Assassin. You'll just have to learn to trust that I won't hurt you too much."
When Cardinal Borgia opened the door to leave they could still hear the shouts of the landlord and his wife. "Can you afford to move to a place with a quieter landlord?"
He could afford to move several times. Working for Cardinal Borgia left him with more money than he knew what to do with. "This place is centrally located. I can be almost anywhere in Rome within a few minutes."
"So you can afford to move. Do it. I'm not coming back here." As if reading the assassin's mind, he grabbed his collar and pushed him against the wall. "And I will be displeased if you don't move." He didn't wait for an answer but let go and disappeared down the stairs.
Micheletto slumped to the floor and kicked the door shut. This new factor in the power game was disturbing and for the first time in a long while he felt fear. Not trepidation, not the exciting feeling of anticipation for the whip, just fear. He might be able to beat the Cardinal in a swordfight, but when it came to mind games the Borgia family had a monopoly. And that was exactly what those questions hand been; a mind game.
A loud accusation of infidelity filled the apartment building and the rickety wooden door did nothing to stop it from invading his room. At the very least, he thought, he finally had an excuse to move.
Author's notes: I don't know anything about apartment leases in Renaissance Italy, so we're just going to assume that breaking one would be difficult and require a damned good reason. Like an order from a Cardinal.
I once asked a friend, "How do you torture someone who is too kinky to torture?"
She replied, "Find a way to screw with their head. It's more of a challenge anyway."