R. ~1700 words. Lucrezia/Cesare.
The night is pale and moon-drenched, a cool contrast to the haze of candles and music inside. Lucrezia stands on the stone foyer of the courtyard and catches her breath; her chemise is sticking to her skin beneath her gown, and her breath is still hitching in her chest—made effortful by excesses of laughter in a palatial city that is trying hard to carry on as if all is well. It’s very Roman, really: she has been wearing black ribbons in her curled hair and her father has not been out of bed for a month, and still she nightly finds new spaces in her soul into which more gaiety can be wedged. Jubilation, for her, crammed into her mouth like sweetmeats. She brings a hand up to her mouth to steady herself, shaking her head slightly and touching the nape of her neck to make sure her hair is still coiled. Her fingers brush against the sweat at the base of her skull: the adage that ladies don’t sweat has never been one played to strength around her family; it is a myth, she thinks wryly, that her family relishes dispelling. Everyone sweats. Everyone wears the same skin.
A hand brushes against her wrist from the side, against her skirts, and she starts. She hadn’t seen—but of course, she hadn’t seen him at the feast for some time, and it would be a lie to say she is surprised to find him here. “Chezza,” she says with that pretended laughter still ghosting in her voice, “where have you been keeping yourself?”
Her brother steps forward, etched and shadowed in the moonlight, shadow seamless against hers. He shrugs. “I took a moment for business—”
“There’s always business,” she says, more tartly than she’d intended. The way the city has been speaking, she thinks, Juan could have been business; she is nearly tempted to look around to see if Michelotto is lurking here as well, but she knows Cesare well enough not to. Not when he is brittle, not when he is so fond of solitude—and not when he is looking at her like that, with no veils and nothing public in his eyes. There is something dark in his look, she thinks—but he does not talk about it, not the part that matters, the dark part. He hasn’t been, and she can only try him and tease the edges of those black moments, those moods. But not all of it is for the event; some of it, she feels, in the base of her stomach, already athrum, is for her.
“There’s always foolery, too,” he replies, “in excess, I think, tonight.”
“Tonight’s masque didn’t amuse you?” she asks lightly
He smiles, slow and razor-edged. “Which one?”
“Take your pick.”
“I’d exchange the Ferrarese ambassador’s place in tonight’s tableau for another?”
She laughs outright, somewhat startled, and his thumb moves in a rough circle against her wrist, slipping beneath the sleeve. “The Ferrarese ambassador is a fine, sad little man. I don’t see what you could possibly find amiss with him. He doesn’t even dance.”
“The Ferrarese ambassador has been breathing down your neck all night.”
Smiling, she withdraws her wrist. The ambassador had been—attentive, to her amusement, between dances; he had leaned in a bit too close, as shy men are wont to do, and spoke a bit too quickly, a bit too loudly, as if he’d wished to drown out the lute. She hadn’t laughed at him, and she will not laugh at Cesare, not yet. Biting the inside of her lip to brook her amusement, she says, “He’s a writer, you know.”
Cesare makes a quick, frustrated gesture. “They’re all writers.”
“Who?” she asks, and he glares, claps a palm to her palm and presses it to the wall. The conversation is a party trick; his hands are not, and they are not mannered, they do not, she thinks, know how to be. The stone is rough against her knuckles, the shape of his palm familiar against hers; she arches toward him and he bends the long line of his body over hers, leaning into the space her form leaves empty.
“Every man who looks at you.”
His breath is warm on her forehead, wine-tinged. She reaches out with her free hand, lighting on his waist. “You would not have me commissioned as muse, brother?”
“Not to men who write stories about whores.”
“All men write stories about whores. Whores and maidens, and I think we cannot expect poor Giovanni to be the exception.”
“What kind of muse would you be to such a man?” he asks and trails a finger over the curve of her cheek down to the curve of her mouth, thumb brushing the edge of her bottom lip. “Thaleia?” Down, hand skimming along her neck, she shivers and one finger etches a line of demarcation between her breasts. “Erato?”
“If you had learned the Bible as well as you’d learned the Greeks, you’d have been a better Cardinal,” she says, and he laughs sharply.
“Bless your acuity, sister mine. Benedicite,” he says, and presses a kiss to her forehead—something stronger than mere communion, lips lingering to breathe missives more evocative than ash against her skin.
She laces the fingers of her wall-trapped hand between his, and with her free hand pulls his face to hers, his lips in the air fingerbreaths before hers for a maddening moment before she seals the last of the space between them. His cheek is rough under her palm, and when she parts her lips, he kisses the top one first, soft as a benediction. He inhales her name into her mouth, again and again, until she traps his tongue between her teeth, tasting the remnant of the wine, unwatered; beneath it, familiar as the inside of her own cheek and revelatory with it. His hands are expansive and sloppy against her bodice, pulling against the ties and slipping beneath against the chemise. She braces a hand against his neck, her feet on the ground and her back to the wall, his knee parting her thighs. When he lifts his head—just for a moment, a breath—she catches his chin with her thumb, tilts his face down to look at her.
“You’re not drunk,” she says.
“I’m not Juan,” he retorts, and the air between them seems, ever so slightly, to thin. For a moment, they feel their brother—their shared brother—hanging in the air like a ghost, and watching.
Cesare’s look is wary and brittle, as it ever is with Juan, as it ever was with Juan; that much has not changed. The shape Juan takes up is still taken up. Inside, far from the masques and the lutes, their father still won’t get out of bed. She says the truth, then, impermissible and necessary: “Thank God.”
He shakes his head—just once; he has never liked to talk overlong of God, she knows—and she smiles, the last false smile of the evening tinted with surety, and he leans in and bites her lower lip, lightly, teeth grazing teeth. It’s not a kind kiss, but she swallows the curl of his lips and loves him in spite of it, for it. His mouth traces down the line of her jaw, the soft curve of her neck, pulling the neck of her bodice and chemise askew to kiss the divot of her collarbone. Her gown hangs at her elbow, and she sloughs one sleeve out of it, her elbow crooking around the back of his neck. His mouth is starved and close, but his fingers trace an impossibly light path over the expanse of her spine that is bared to the night air. She shivers and pushes him back.
I am, she wants to tell him, so glad of you. For all that they hold on their shoulders, the shared weight of loss and guilt, the things they pass back and forth every time they touch—she looks at him, knows him, and swallows her heart. Instead of speaking, she slips out of her gown and steps forward out of her slippers into the grass. The last ghost of the night drops with her skirts.
“Crezia,” he says, half in breath, as if he’s in pain. Her name sits in his mouth like one of his war wounds, deep as the blood, drawn from the inside out. “Sister,” he says, and he kneels, she kneels, the grass prickling softly against the bare soles of her feet. Then he says nothing at all, and the silence of the night speaks around them: his hand on the thin muslin of her chemise, the fabric ungentle against her breasts, shaped by his hands; shaped by his hands, she lies back, and he pushes her chemise up to her hips, baring the flesh of her stomach to the moon. “God,” she hears him whisper in spite of himself, words guttural and unchosen, and she clenches her fingers into the grass beneath her. God, she feels him breathe against her navel, his hands stark and strong and heated against her thighs.
The press of his lips is a sacrament, and his name keens in her throat before she remembers to bite it down, to hush it back. Bereft of words or speech or thought, she arches her back against the damp mosaic of grass and fabric on her shoulders, she stares at the stars with wide eyes until she could believe she is seeing them from the inside: not for the first time, and not for the last, she is impossibly bright and impossibly blind. The world is a thousand little lights and the world is her brother’s mouth and she does not speak it or see it but she feels it shine beneath her skin. It does not mourn, it does not bleed: it glows.
She closes her eyes (his tongue furled between her legs).
When she sees nothing else, it is always Cesare she sees.