It wasn't the plague, Micheletto was certain of that at least. Cardinal Borgia was coughing, he had a fever, a headache, and his throat was so sore he had to moan instead of talk. That was all miserable but if it had been the plague he would be dead by now.

But if it wasn't the plague then what was it? His talent was taking lives, not saving them. He had no idea how to nurse the Cardinal back to his usual, healthy, scheming self. It was dangerous to be sick, even if the illness wasn't the plague. Half the time, what the doctors' prescribed was more lethal than the illness. Desperation drove him to drag a kitchen maid into the Cardinal's bedchamber, hoping the girl's feminine intuition would provide some insight on what to do.

"I have no idea what to do," she said.

"No ideas at all?" Micheletto was desperate enough that a little bit of frustration showed.

"Not really. All my mother ever does when I'm sick is pat my head with a moist cloth. Maybe we could try that?"

He agreed. She filled up a basin with cool water and he sloshed a cloth around before laying it across the Cardinal's forehead. Little rivers of water ran down the Cardinal's face into his hair and onto the pillows.

"I think you're supposed to wring out the excess water," the maid said. "Make the cloth damp instead of sopping wet."

She really should have told him that beforehand. Cardinal Borgia removed the rag and threw it back in the basin, glaring daggers at Micheletto as he did so.

"Apologies, Your Eminence." He thought for a few moments. "Perhaps, your mother…?"

"My mother?" The girl asked.

"No. The Cardinal's mother. Perhaps we should get her?" He looked at Cardinal Borgia for a response.

The glare intensified, indicating no.

"A doctor then?"

"No." The Cardinal's voice sounded hoarse and he winced when he spoke.

"What would you have us do, Your Eminence?"

"Let. Me. Sleep."

They obeyed and he slept for more than a day. When he woke he called for water.

"Will you let me call for a doctor, Your Eminence?" Micheletto was practically pleading. The fever was still high and the Cardinal's eyes were bloodshot.

Another glare. "No."

The maid looked at him with wide eyes when he returned the cup to the kitchen. "Is he better?"

Micheletto shook his head. "He told me not to get a doctor. I'll be back." He headed for the door of the kitchen.

"Where are you going? He told you not to fetch a doctor."

"I'm not going for a doctor."

Lady Vanozza Borgia (was that her last name? He wasn't actually sure with all the rumors flying about) wasn't surprised to hear her son was sick. "His father was here, ranting and raving about how Cesare was supposed to meet with some diplomat or another from some unimportant province. I told him Cesare Borgia does not ignore his duties, no matter how distasteful he may find them. I suppose he told you not to send for a doctor?"

Micheletto nodded. "He also told me not to find you." Disobeying Cardinal Cesare Borgia was a risk and if he could get the Lady on his side, that risk might be mitigated. "But it's been three days and his fever hasn't broken."

"Just like his father," she muttered. "Well, come on." She gathered up her skirts and marched to the door, every inch a matriarch about to impose order on her chaotic family.

"Lady?"

"We're going to find a doctor."

There was something intimidating about women who know they can go against a Cardinal's wishes and get away with it. Micheletto followed her out of the house and onto the street without protest.

Cardinal Borgia was propped up on numerous pillows, his eyes red, puffy, and closed. They opened when the door clicked and his mother and the doctor, followed by Micheletto, stormed in.

"I understand you are sick, my son," Lady Vanozza said. She knelt by his bed and her hand stroked his hair. "Doctor Petrachio is the best doctor. He tended to Pope Innocent the 8th."

"And how well that turned out." The snarl still sounded angry even though the voice was scratchy. He glowered at Micheletto. "We will have words."

Something told Micheletto to expect more than words, and whatever that 'more' was, it would not be pleasant.

"You're too stubborn," Lady Vanozza chided. "Why didn't you send for me earlier? Why do you hate being seen by a doctor?"

"I don't need a doctor."

Dr. Petrachio pipped up, his thin voice interrupting. "There are several people who seem to loathe being seen by a doctor. It is not a unique feeling. People simply don't wish to acknowledge their illness. I can't tell you how many times I've heard widows wail, 'Oh, he never liked doctors. He never wanted to admit he was sick.'"

"Go away," Cardinal Borgia growled, pulling the blanket up around his chin, like a protective barrier against the obnoxious little man.

"Once I've inspected you, determined the nature of your illness, and prescribed a cure." Dr. Petrachio coughed. "Ah, perhaps the room should be cleared? There really isn't a reason for anybody else to be here…"

Micheletto followed Lady Vanozza out into the hallway and closed the door. They could still hear Cardinal Borgia's protests and Dr. Petrachio's condescending reassurances.

"What is your name?" Lady Vanozza asked suddenly, breaking the not-quite silence.

"Micheletto, my Lady."

"Micheletto what?"

"Corella."

"I don't want you minding my son's growls, Micheletto," she said. "He's stubborn and slow to ask for help. He needs someone to watch out for him, to care for him when he's too caught up to care for himself." It was plain she expected Micheletto to be that person.

He nodded. "As best I can, Lady."

"Thank you."

A few minutes later the door opened and Dr. Petrachio stepped out. They looked at him expectantly. He wiped his glasses on his shirt before looking at them like a frog with extremely large eyes. "Yes?"

"Is my son going to recover?" Lady Vanozza asked threateningly.

"Who? Oh! Oh, yes. Him. Madam, Cardinal Borgia has the flu."

"That's it? Just the flu?" While occasionally deadly, the flu wasn't nearly as bad as the host of other potential diseases the Cardinal could have suffered from.

"That's it." He patted his black bag of medicine. "There's nothing in here that would help cure him. However, I have heard of a new theory regarding illness and dirt: bathing."

"That's barbaric," Micheletto said. Nobody bathed; it took forever to heat enough water to submerge yourself, the effort of carrying that much water to a tub was tremendous, and then there was the difficulty of emptying the tub. Most people waited until it rained and then went for a walk, if they did that much. What the doctor was suggesting was radical.

Dr. Petrachio sniffed. "It is not barbaric. It will cleanse the body of dirt and other infectants. I have given His Eminence my suggestion. He is getting dressed now. My assistant will stop by later for my payment. Good day!" With a swoosh of his robes, he was gone.

Lady Vanozza stared after him. "I have heard rumors that my son employs a manservant with a talent for snapping necks. Do you know where this manservant is right now?" she asked, when the good doctor was out of sight and earshot.

"I do, Lady."

"Would he be able to do away with Dr. Petrachio?"

"I imagine he would follow the man, wait until they were alone, and then stab him."

"Just once or many times?"

"However many it takes. I imagine," he added. There was a moment of silence. "Should I fetch the manservant, Lady?"

She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "No. It's not Christian to kill merely because someone is annoying."

"I've heard of worse justifications."

She lightly smacked his arm. "I think we've given him enough time to dress."

Cardinal Borgia was dressed and scowling when they came in. He continued to scowl as his mother kissed his forehead and told him she would be back tomorrow. He scowled when she left. His scowl intensified when Micheletto hesitantly approached the bed.

"Should I have water heated?" Whether or not the practice of bathing was barbaric didn't matter. If the Cardinal wanted to take the quack's advice, Micheletto would see it done.

"You should do nothing except leave. Go home. I'll find you when I'm better."

"Your Eminence…"

"Go!" Cardinal Borgia winced when he shouted. "Leave me."

Being sent away hurt and the apprehension of how angry the Cardinal was lasted three days. Three days of waking up to the unhappy paranoia that he might not have a job anymore, that he might again be a masterless dog. Three days of feeling abandoned. Three days of misery.

The waiting ended on the fourth day. There was a knock on the door of Micheletto's apartment and the Cardinal, dressed in secular clothes and carrying a bag, entered.

Micheletto stepped back to let him in. "Are you well, Your Eminence?"

"I'm better. No thanks to that idiot doctor." He pushed the door shut and forced Micheletto up against the wall. "What the hell possessed you to go against my wishes and get my mother?"

"You were sick, Your Eminence." The hand on his throat squeezed and he turned his head to cough. "I am not a skilled nurse and thought your mother could provide better comfort."

The hand loosened, just a little. "You were worried about me?" Micheletto nodded and the hand on his throat relaxed. Cardinal Borgia kept him up against the wall. "No matter the justification, I cannot be disobeyed. I do not have the luxury of earning a reputation for forgiveness." He reached into the bag and withdrew a leather whip, identical to the one used in the Vatican's dungeon.

Micheletto hesitated. The first whipping had been a promise of loyalty. The intensity had been erotic and maddening at the same time.

This was punishment for being concerned. This was the physical manifestation of the Cardinal's displeasure. Rather than excite, the thought hurt. It was as if his loyalty was being rejected.

"No one ever said being my manservant was easy," Cardinal Borgia said.

"I didn't expect it to be easy, Your Eminence." He had to submit, if only because he didn't know what else to do.

Seconds later he was on his knees and grabbing the rough, wooden bedposts. His shirt stayed on but the thin cloth offered no protection from the whip. The leather bit into his flesh. Cardinal Borgia had improved since the time in the dungeon; the lashes were hard enough to hurt, but not brutal.

"Your loyalty is unmatched," Cardinal Borgia said between lashes. Micheletto had to strain to concentrate on the words. "But I would rather be feared than loved."

"What about both, Your Eminence?"

The whip came down. "If both could be felt towards me, I could only encourage the fear."

"But you would know both existed?"

There was a pause before the next hit. "I would. And I would be grateful for both." The whip struck again. "But as I said, I could only encourage the fear."

There was thud as the whip hit the floor. Cardinal Borgia pried Micheletto's hands from the bedposts and dragged him to the mattress where he tried to peel the bloody rag from his back.

The assassin instinctively fought to keep his shirt on. The fact that the whipping was over hadn't reached his brain and the shirt was his only barrier against the pain. Cardinal Borgia won the fight by ripping the cloth. He tossed it on the floor and picked up his bag.

By now Micheletto knew the whipping had stopped and he turned his head to see the Cardinal remove a small vial. He poured a little on Micheletto's back, rubbing the stinging ointment into the wounds.

"Men will more readily turn against a leader they love than one they fear," he said softly.

"You think I would betray you, Your Eminence?"

"Not necessarily you, but others would. We live in dangerous times."

"All times are dangerous."

"Yes, but these especially. We live in them." The hand trailed up to Micheletto's neck, which it rubbed for a second. "Be still. I'll be back.

The ointment numbed his back, easing the pain considerably. Curiosity made him sit up and wait for the Cardinal's return.

He wasn't gone long. He returned, carrying a wooden bowl filled with water and a clean rag. "So much for being still."

"The pain is easing, Your Eminence."

"I think you're goading me into beating you again." He pushed Micheletto back down and onto his stomach. "You didn't enjoy it though."

"I never enjoy unjust punishment."

"You see it as unjust?"

"I do, Your Eminence. But I'll still submit to it."

"That's all that matters." He dipped the cloth in the bowl, swishing it around until it was soaked with water. His hands twisted the material, wringing small waterfalls of liquid from the rag until it didn't drip anymore. "Did no one ever show you that?"

"No, Your Eminence."

The damp rag gently patted his neck and back, wiping away sweat and blood. "Now I have. Consider it repayment for the advice to always carry a second blade."

"No repayment was necessary, Your Eminence."

"Then consider it acknowledgement." When Micheletto frowned, the Cardinal continued, "I can only encourage fear, but I can acknowledge both."

It didn't make much sense to Micheletto, but he decided not to think about it. He knew where he stood with Cardinal Borgia and that was all that mattered.


Author's notes:

Writing fic for this fandom lets me exercise how much of Machiavelli I remember. I look through my copy of 'The Prince' for ideas. That bit about men turning on those they perceive as kind over those they fear, is from the chapter titled 'Clemency and Cruelty'.

One of these days I'm gonna write a comedic fic of these two, just to balance out the angst. I'm also gonna write a fluffy fic at some point, filled with rainbows, and unicorns, and a Catholic Church that isn't dysfunctional. That won't be for a while, I'm moving and that takes time and effort.

I want to take Micheletto home, hug him, fix him some hot chocolate, tell him everything will be fine, beat him up a little, and then hug him some more. This is completely irrational because a. he is fictitious/historical and b. he's a morally depraved, emotionally stunted, and capable and willing to kill me in my sleep. That still doesn't change anything.