"Della Rovere has been having secret meetings," Cesare told Micheletto. Not so secret that whispers of them hadn't reached his ears, of course. He squeezed the wet cloth over the dragon's scales, and gently rubbed at Micheletto's shoulder. Two grooms had been commandeered from the stables to take care of the Dragon of Rome, to feed and muck him out. The men gave the dragon only the most essential of attention though, for, like everyone else, they were terrified of the beast.
Everyone, that was, but Cesare and Lucrezia. Cesare felt only pity and a hint of guilt over the dragon's presence. Micheletto had taken the brunt of the spell meant for Cesare and the enchantment had turned him from man to beast. Still, Cesare believed, his faithful servant remained beneath the creature's skin.
Cesare damped the cloth again from the bucket at his feet. He found it relaxing to talk to Micheletto, and people tended to leave him alone in the dragon's pen. The pen itself was a hastily constructed stable without doors, with a sturdy wooden fence to the rear and left side, a stone wall to the right, and a heavy gate at the entrance that one flick of the powerful tail could bring down. It spoke to Micheletto's loyalty that he didn't escape to wreak havoc – though he sometimes took a midnight flight to go hunting.
"I don't know what he's up to, but I shall find out. I wish you were still human, Micheletto. You were always my best spy."
Micheletto made a noise, part growl, part purr. Dragons sounded like no other creature on earth.
"Perhaps the enchantment will wear off," Cesare said, trying to comfort him. "There is always a way to break a spell. We must be patient."
Another dragon bark.
"Yes, I know it's easy for me to say. I'm not the one living in a stable."
There was a musical laugh and Cesare turned to see his sister picking her way through the soiled straw.
"Do you understand him, then?" Lucrezia asked, dropping her skirts back to her ankles as she reached them.
"I like to think I do. I think he understands me." Cesare gave Micheletto a quick glare. "Though despite my instructions, he stole another ox last night, and we had to recompense the owner. That's why he's chained up." A heavy iron chain was around one slender dragon ankle and fastened to the stone wall, with plenty of slack. It was more symbolic than practical. Cesare didn't doubt that Micheletto could bring down the entire wall if he wanted to.
Lucrezia ran a hand along Micheletto's snout, which made even Cesare nervous. "Do we not give you enough to eat, dear one?" she asked. Micheletto gave a gentle exhalation of steam.
Cesare glanced at the heap of bones in one corner of the pen. "He's costing us a small fortune to feed. But the French King sent us a letter of such goodwill that our Holy Father feels our dragon is yet worth it."
Lucrezia nodded, still petting Micheletto. Then she bit her lip and her expression darkened. "Cesare, I have to tell you something." She looked around, assuring their privacy.
He dropped the cloth and moved closer to her, wiping his hands on his shirt to dry them before he placed them on her shoulders. "What is it?"
"Despite our darling dragon's protection, father still plans that I should marry Giovanni Sforza. He arrives tomorrow." She shook her head, her lower lip trembling.
Cesare knew this. He hated the man already, for the marriage would take his beloved sister away from him. It hurt him to see Lucrezia so distressed by the prospect. "Sis…"
"I…I read my cards last night," Lucrezia said, clutching at his shirt front when he made to protest at this outlawed practice. "Magic is in my blood, and surely in yours. I have the right to use it just as our father has the right to use your dragon."
"And what did the cards say?" He almost didn't want to know, because if it were good news she would not be distraught. For his part, Cesare was leery of magic. It was unquantifiable and dangerous. Of course religious faith was the other side of the same coin. He might be a Cardinal with a witch for a sister, but Cesare preferred steel over spells. Yet if Lucrezia believed in a prediction then he must, too.
Lucrezia raised her head to look at him, eyes shining with unshed tears. "He will hurt me," she whispered. The tears began to flow and she wept, "He will hurt me."
Cesare grabbed at her, pulling her to him. He hugged her tightly, trying to cover as much of her as he could with his arms and hands, clutching her as if he could make her a part of him. If she were in danger from an arrow, then he would shield her with his own body, with his own life. He would die for her without hesitation. Unfortunately, Sforza was not an arrow. He was part of Rodrigo's plan for strengthening the family's power base. Even if the pope could be told of the prediction (impossible, given the penalties for practising the dark arts), he'd likely discount it.
Several minutes passed before Lucrezia nuzzled her head against his chest. "Cesare?" she asked, her voice muffled against his clothes.
He released her reluctantly. "You shall not marry him."
"Father will not call off the wedding."
He would. There must be something, some hint of cruelty or betrayal, something that would turn Rodrigo against Lord Sforza. Again Cesare cursed Micheletto's dragon form. He needed information and quickly.
There were other ways to deal with a problem of course.
"You will not marry him," Cesare intoned solemnly. It was an oath and Lucrezia understood. She nodded and wiped her tears away on the back of her soft velvet gloves. She tiptoed to kiss his cheek and then, hitching her skirts once more, left the dragon's pen.
The expected delegation from Pesaro never arrived. Rodrigo sent Juan with some soldiers to look for them, and a messenger to inform Giovanni's cousin, Caterina Sforza. The tone of the message implied more anger than distress at the groom going missing.
"We will not be disrespected," Rodrigo swore, pacing his office and wagging his finger.
Cesare opened his mouth to suggest that perhaps something had befallen Sforza and his companions, but he caught himself in time and kept his mouth shut. If his father believed that Lord Sforza had reneged on their agreement, so be it.
He'd had to lead Mass that morning, and Cesare was still wearing his cardinal's clothes. Nonetheless, he made his way to Micheletto's pen. He hitched up his robes, as Lucrezia had her skirts, and made his way to stand by the dragon's head.
"Giovanni Sforza is missing," he said. Micheletto blinked one inhuman eye at him. "Our father is very angry."
The dragon rumbled and huffed out a small cloud of steam. Cesare made to reassure him. "I, for one, am not."
Micheletto tipped back his head and coughed. Cesare took a step backwards, worried that Micheletto might accidentally set him on fire. A second cough and then Micheletto leaned down, putting his snout almost to the floor, and gave a retch.
A human skull rolled across the stone floor.
Cesare's mouth fell open. He made the sign of the Cross, mostly out of habit. Recovering his wits, he kicked the offending item under a pile of filthy straw.
"Micheletto! Is that…how did you?" He bent to examine the chain and found it had slipped free of the dragon's foot. The cuff and chain were undamaged, but were not securing Micheletto at all. In a hushed tone, Cesare asked, "Did you eat Giovanni Sforza?"
Micheletto tipped his large head to one side and blew three small smoke balls into the air. If a dragon could be said to grin, he was doing so.
For one moment Cesare was shocked that the dragon had committed murder until he gave himself a mental shake. Micheletto had killed for him when he was human. Clearly his servant was still keen to carry out his duties whenever he could. Other people would not understand, though. Least of all his father, fuming at Sforza's disappearance.
Cesare fetched the key from a hook by the stable and unlocked the metal cuff, fastening it once more around Micheletto's ankle. It seemed to hold fast, but if the dragon stretched his foot like so…well, if Cesare were in danger, he would want Micheletto to fly to his rescue, and he didn't intend to make the restraint any more secure. He put the key back where he'd found it.
"I wondered if you went hunting again last night," Cesare said, patting Micheletto's hide. "Of course that's impossible, since you were chained up here." He gave a wicked smile.
Micheletto huffed again and gave a rumble of agreement. Cesare retrieved the skull and brought his heel down upon it several times, shattering the bone into unrecognisable pieces which he tossed amongst the rest of the animal skeletons.
"You do understand me, then," Cesare said over his shoulder, as he made to leave the pen. Micheletto bowed his head once, and small lick of flame issued from his mouth. Cesare nodded and went on his way. Of course Micheletto understood him. He always had.