PASSION PLAY

 

Autumn 1512

 

The rain fell in sheets all day. The countryside was soaked, the river swollen to overflowing, the road - such as it was - a quagmire. The armsmen and servants did nothing but grumble as their horses and the mules of the baggage-train stumbled and slithered; the loads were drenched through. Michelangelo took savage comfort from the fact that everything this blighted nobleman had brought back from Naples would be ruined by the water, although in reality he had very little idea what the mules were carrying. It would be only justice, he thought, for the man's amassed riches to be deluged out of existence; no punishment was too severe for the one who had dragged him away from Rome at just this crucial time.

The Sistine ceiling was almost finished; only a few final touches remained to be added - the work of a week, perhaps, or ten days. Throughout the Pope's recent campaign Michelangelo had worked every day, every hour, falling asleep on top of the scaffolding and waking, brush in hand, to continue until nights and days had blended into one another and he no longer knew the difference between daylight and dark. Now that, by God's grace, victory over the King of France had been concluded, the ceiling would be revealed as part of the thanksgiving celebrations - and there could be no celebration without it. Why, therefore, had His Holiness sent him off on this sudden and unexpected commission for an almost unknown nobleman?

The minor nature of the proposed task annoyed and insulted him. There was the ceiling to be finished, and Julius's tomb in St. Peter's - and this commission hardly seemed the matter of urgency the Pope had implied when he had ordered him to Genoa. They had almost seemed to become friends in recent months, and now Julius was sending him away. He could only imagine that he had erred in some unforgivable way - perhaps in seeing and understanding a weakness in Julius that no-one else had recognised. His punishment was to travel to Genoa with His Holiness's younger brother and execute a commission to design statuary for a country garden.

He knew little of Domenico della Rovere and liked even less. Of the six children of Raffaello della Rovere, Domenico was the only one who had chosen to have little to do with Rome or politics, contenting himself with managing his family's estates in Liguria and living the life of a wealthy merchant in his home town of Genoa. He was the third son, two years younger than Giuliano who had become Pontiff as Julius II and much like him in height and appearance although of a less pleasant disposition. Julius had a fearful temper and a reputation as a tyrant, but this Domenico was boorish and brutal with none of his brother's refinement or intelligence. Julius was a clever and charismatic man, Domenico merely a bully.

Riding some distance ahead, Domenico was just as wet as Michelangelo. Swathed in a grey hooded cloak, his shoulders slumped in misery, he made a pathetic figure. Michelangelo, hardened to the vagaries of the weather by his robust childhood and apprenticeship in the marble quarries of Carrara, rode upright, his back rigid, never seeming to notice the rain that fell in rivulets through his hair and beard and found its way through cloak and tunic to chill his skin. He was now in his late thirties, a strongly-built man of more than average height, with direct blue eyes and brown-blond hair that lightened when the sun reached it. Caring only for his work, he had never troubled to acquire the more complex social graces and therefore had fewer friends than rivals.

He had little sympathy for Domenico, who had chosen to ride when he - and the entire caravan - might have travelled by boat down the river. The discomfort, therefore, was Domenico's fault entirely - but they would all reach Ostia in due course, and in Ostia the della Rovere held a fortress that commanded the mouth of the Tiber. It was to Ostia that Giuliano had retreated during the pontificate of his arch-rival, Rodrigo Borgia, and from Ostia that he had returned in triumph for the first Conclave of 1503.

Domenico's itinerary called for a night to be spent at the fortress before taking ship for Genoa; it would at least be a chance to dry out and fill one's belly with a decent meal and a draught of wine, and Michelangelo had to admit to a certain curiosity regarding the fortress, about which he had heard conflicting reports.

Domenico's horse stumbled; its rider wrenched the reins around firmly and by main force pulled the creature back onto the treacherous pathway. Silently Michelangelo commended a fine piece of horsemanship; it seemed as if it might be possible to respect Domenico after all, if only for his skill with horses. That he could never like the man was certain, but Julius had not commanded that and therefore the deficiency need not trouble him.

 

The sky was the colour of mud by the time they reached Ostia.

Michelangelo noted that Domenico dismounted only with the help of a groom, and was immediately ushered into the gatehouse of the fortress. Being a landed nobleman and brother to a Pope and a Bishop obviously held a great many privileges, not least of which was that one need not stand out in the rain any longer than was necessary.

The servants, all of whom seemed familiar with the fortress and their duties, dispersed with similar speed. Michelangelo followed the line of grooms and their charges through the courtyard of the fortress to the landward side of the great defensive towers, unburdened his horse and waited, patiently, for a groom to come forward and take charge of the animal. He slung the bag containing his few belongings over one shoulder and wondered - not for the first time - exactly what his status in Domenico's household was to be.

"Master Buonarotti?" Domenico's own groom, the one who had helped his master down from his horse, was at his shoulder.

"Yes?"

The young man smiled. "My lord requires you to attend him in the gatehouse immediately, Master. The doorway on the left there - you see it? I will care for your horse," he added, taking the reins from Michelangelo's hand.

Michelangelo nodded, reaching over to pat the horse's neck appreciatively. "Thank you," he said.

The groom smiled again, and the smile was the kindest and warmest he had seen for many days - a confiding and generous smile. So here, at least, was one ally; one servant of Domenico's who was prepared to be friendly. It was a start.

He trudged back across a cobbled courtyard trodden with yellow mud by horses and men alike, and pushed at the open door of the gatehouse. An armsman inside scowled at him, and Michelangelo was aware that he must present a disreputable and draggled spectacle.

"My lord Domenico sent for me," he said, defensively.

"You are Michelangelo Buonarotti?"

"Yes."

The armsman gestured towards an inner door. "That way," he said.

Michelangelo shrugged off the man's hostility and crossed to the door, the other side of which was a short flagged corridor leading to an open archway. In the air was the scent of woodsmoke, and as he approached he was able to see Domenico's hunched, cloaked figure bending close to an open fire.

Michelangelo set his bag down on the floor by the archway. Domenico did not seem aware of his presence.

"You sent for me, my lord?" he asked, folding his hands respectfully.

Domenico turned rapidly, as though startled by his voice. His features were fine, aristocratic beneath a shock of unruly greying hair, his eyes a weary but still indulgent pale blue; it was not the face of Domenico, but that of Julius.

"Holiness!" Astonished, Michelangelo crossed the room in a single movement and had actually taken Julius's hand to kiss before he noticed that the ring that bore the papal seal was missing. Belatedly he realised that every single one of the trappings of his exalted rank in life was absent; God's viceroy was dressed richly but unobtrusively in a rust-coloured short gown and looked exactly like any other man of the same age and similar noble birth.

"Do not kneel, my son," Julius said, and his tone was mildly self-mocking. He stepped back, and seated himself carefully on a hard wooden chair placed in front of the fire. The hand that Michelangelo released lifted and pulled back the grey hood and cloak and discarded them. "I have had cause to deceive you, Michelangelo, and a great many other people besides. I felt a desire for your company, and to be away from Rome for a time. My brother's arrival was too good an opportunity to miss; there may not be another chance like this - perhaps for a year or more."

"But Holy Father ... " Michelangelo had not risen, although his posture had relaxed. The flames of the fire had already begun to warm him, and he could feel the chill leaving his skin. From this vantage point, too, he could look up into Julius's face and read there the words that remained unspoken.

"No," Julius told him, sharply. "Not here. Here I am neither Julius nor Giuliano. Here I am Domenico. The servants - the few that I trust - see Domenico. You see Domenico - do you understand? Address me in any other way and you will spend what little remains of your life in the Sant' Angelo!"

"Yes, H - my lord. But ... your brother?"

Julius smiled a clever smile. "In Rome," he explained. "Living my life, while I live his. Julius is in retreat - resting, reading, occasionally even praying. He sees no-one but his physician."

The knowledge of the threats he had uttered against the physician's life was tempered by the look of amazement that had transfigured Michelangelo's face. He had always known that the artist had an innocent, even naive, view of the world, and his astonishment at these simple if somewhat dangerous manoeuvres was a delight to behold.

"But ... why?"

Julius watched him with sad, compassionate eyes. "Because I choose to enjoy your company, Michelangelo, away from all other distractions. Because I have just come close to losing my life at the hands of my enemies, and because you have almost completed the ceiling. Because it is time that you and I learned to be friends."

"Then the commission in Liguria ... ?" A sudden hope that he would not have to waste his time decorating an obscure provincial garden eclipsed every other consideration; his eagerness was almost comical.

"A fiction, but I doubt that troubles you too much. While you are here you will produce some drawings for me to give to my brother, who can then decide the work is too expensive for his purse. No," he went on, more thoughtfully, "we will not be sailing for Genoa with the baggage train tomorrow; we remain here, in Ostia. After tomorrow there will be no-one here to question either my identity or my business. As for you, you are the honoured guest of the house of della Rovere and will be treated as a man of rank. If there is anything that you want - anything at all - it will be provided for you without question. I have given instructions for your comfort." He glanced across the red glow of the fire to where Michelangelo still knelt. "You're half-drowned," he said, concernedly. "Go to your room and make yourself comfortable; we'll speak again in the morning, when we have both rested."

 

Julius had not exaggerated when he spoke of Michelangelo being treated as a man of rank. The bedchamber to which he was conducted was on the highest level of the fortress, with arrow-slit windows on the seaward side looking out across water that in fine weather was the legendary blue of heaven and, to the landward, larger casements overlooking a sculptured garden. Everything had been supplied that would have been supplied for a visiting nobleman, and in addition a chest of clothes, both fine and plain, was placed at his disposal. Servants ran thither and yon chivvying the fire and bringing him wine and meat.

Although hungry and cold, Michelangelo ate sparingly; he was deeply troubled. Eventually he gave up any attempt to finish his meal, poured pale, straw-coloured wine into a silver goblet and sat by the fire watching his damp boots steam, his thoughts lost in a maze of Julius's creating.

Since he had first become aware of Giuliano della Rovere's existence some twenty years earlier, at the home of Lorenzo de'Medici, his life had scarcely been his own. That had been in the spring of 1492, when Innocent VIII was Pontiff and Giuliano was Cardinal della Rovere, the man who had funded and sponsored Innocent's candidacy in the conclave of 1484. Giuliano then had been a strong and vigorous man under forty years of age, Michelangelo a tall, thin, fair and unsophisticated seventeen. It was Lorenzo who had encouraged the talent for sculpture that outshone even the considerable abilities of the other young artists who studied in the Medici Garden; it was Lorenzo who had brought to the attention of the Cardinal the clay head of a satyr modelled by his protege and suggested to Giuliano that a young man of such talent needed a patron.

All had seemed simple enough then - Cardinal della Rovere was the best-known and respected connoisseur of sculpture in Rome, and with such a wealthy patron an artist could expect to eat well and live comfortably and devote all his time to the creation of beautiful objects; he was not reduced to scratching for a living amongst decorators and carpenters. Unfortunately even Giuliano, the supreme tactician, had misjudged the duplicity of Rodrigo Borgia and the weakness of his own supporters, with the result that Rodrigo had become Pope on Innocent's death in 1492 and, shortly afterwards, Giuliano had accepted exile in Ostia and Liguria as his safest option. However his claim to the Throne of Peter had been made good in 1503, when he was elected on the first ballot. His strength as a warrior was needed more than ever once the sum total of the Borgia's machinations had become apparent. Almost as soon as he was elected, Julius had gone to war - leading his armies personally, never sparing himself in battle - and had eventually succeeded in retaining and uniting the wayward papal states.

Not without cost, however. Wounded at the Siege of Pisa, Julius had returned to Rome to die. Michelangelo had found him at midnight in the Sistine, a candlestick held aloft in a hand that trembled as he examined the centrepiece of the ceiling; the Creation of Adam.

Michelangelo was aware then that their enmity for one another had altered - unless it had done so earlier, when he had gone to Julius on the battlefield and begged for permission to return to his work; or earlier still, when Julius had come to him as he lay ill in the insanitary hovel Julius chose to call a house fit for an artist. But in the Sistine, that night - close to one another and to God - the huge gulf between their stations in life had seemed to vanish entirely. They had been on equal terms at last; Julius had dragged himself up the scaffolding - one hundred steps, floor to ceiling - to study and understand the work Michelangelo had created. When weakness had overtaken Julius and he could have fallen to his death, Michelangelo had caught him and lowered him gently to the platform, gripping his hand and looking down in horror at the spreading bloodstain where the gash from a French sword had re-opened in Julius's side.

Michelangelo got to his feet, refilled the goblet from a perfect rock-crystal flagon, and looked out across the twilight garden.

He remembered setting down the candlestick and staring at Julius, more afraid than he had ever been in his life; terrified that this man would die there and then and leave him without a patron - without his only friend. If he ran for help, Julius might die alone; he might try to rise, and pitch headlong seventy feet to the floor below. If he waited, Julius might still die - untended, unshriven, alone but for this one incompetent servant, this artist whose hands were powerless to heal. If he moved Julius, he might hasten the man's death - and yet there was really no choice. Move him he must.

He recalled the care with which he had closed the grey silk robe around Julius's still form, knelt and positioned himself at the man's side and then, in a movement both strong and gentle, lifted Julius in his arms. He had paused a moment to secure his grip on the unconscious man, then turned and begun to count off, slowly, one by one, one hundred steps to the floor. He had not dared to hurry; to slip with Julius in his arms would have been catastrophe. He had not dared to call out. His duty was simply to bring this man safely to the ground, bring him down to where others who understood wounds and illness could tend him - and yet it felt not so very much like a duty and more like a privilege.

The rain had not ceased. It would not cease until morning, he was certain. At this time of the year sullen autumn storms roared and thundered around the coastal towns for days at a time until the roofs were stripped from the houses and the crops were flattened in the fields. Those fishermen who were safe at home would grieve for the catches they had missed and the friends they had lost; the pious would fill the churches and pray for better weather. Michelangelo watched the sky, and his mind mixed and blended the greys and purples of its rich palette of clouds.

Julius had lived, although no physician could understand why or how. He had approached the doors of death, and Michelangelo had been so unwilling to allow him to pass through them that he had gone in person and dragged him back. After Julius's life had been despaired of and the physicians' treatments had all failed, Michelangelo had gone to him and reminded him, quietly, of his obligations. Julius had hauled himself up from his death-bed, ridden ashen-faced to Pisa and made an end of the French King's threat once and for all. He had driven the French from the papal states and returned, triumphant but exhausted, to Rome. His ceiling was all but ready for him on the day of his return, and yet he had not been to view it and nor had he harried Michelangelo over its unfinished state. Instead he had acquired a still greater dignity, a serenity that enabled him to wait in patience for the work's completion.

And one week later Domenico della Rovere had come to Rome on his way from Naples to Genoa, and the result had been a spurious commission to design statuary for a garden that probably existed only in Julius's imagination. If these events had a meaning, Michelangelo felt, he must wait until Julius chose to explain. Julius had expressed a desire for his company, to the exclusion of all others, and had gone to extravagant lengths to secure it; the desire for such intimacy, such companionship, had existed in Michelangelo too, longer than he cared to own. Nevertheless it would be unworthy - dangerous - to assume that the need for closeness held the same connotations for Julius that it did for him, and however much Julius seemed to need him it was only - could only be - as an artist whose skills would add perpetual lustre to his name.

The straw-coloured wine tasted of the summer; it called to mind innocent days in the Medici Garden, when he had loved little Contessina de'Medici for her vitality and humour, and Lorenzo for his strength and erudition. In those days he had not loved Giuliano della Rovere at all; in those days he had scarcely noticed that Giuliano existed. Now - since the Sistine - he knew that Giuliano was at the very centre of the world, and that if that centre were to be removed, that heart cut out, he himself would be as good as dead. There was no longer any possibility of life without Julius; one desperate night in the Sistine had taught him that.

 

The rain ceased at dawn. Michelangelo slept little; the bed was cold, the fire smoky, the room entirely too huge for his simple tastes. He dressed himself as soon as there was enough light to examine the contents of the chest, pulling on tan-coloured hose of good quality and a soft leather jerkin. His boots were not completely dry but he stuffed his feet into them anyway, then left the bedchamber to explore.

Here and there servants of various degrees scurried about attending to their duties. Almost without exception they smiled at him but did not speak, and neither did he. He had received the distinct impression that he was at liberty to wander wherever he chose, to enquire into anything that took his fancy, and to call for any item or service however impossible, yet he did none of these things. In due course his footsteps took him towards the kitchens where he was invited to break his fast in company with the higher servants, none of whom appeared to have any better notion of his status here than he had himself, and who exhibited a tactful absence of curiosity. He accepted with alacrity, and was served with fresh bread and fruit and small ale; a simple and satisfying repast.

After the meal the groom Roberto approached him, smiling.

"Master Buonarotti, if my lord has given you no orders for this morning would you care to view the gardens? They are considered especially noteworthy, although, since the storm-"

Michelangelo hesitated. "I ... should attend my lord," he said, cautiously, feeling curious eyes turning in his direction; he was acutely aware of the unspoken questions about his identity that must be present in many minds, and he cursed Julius silently for placing him in this ambiguous position. He had no idea how to behave as a servant, nor any real notion how he should conduct himself as a guest, and he was sure that the servants sensed his unease.

"He'll send for you when he's ready," Roberto told him, aware of his discomfort. "See the boy at the lower end of the table? He's my lord's valet, and if he's here you can be sure Domenico is still asleep."

The artist turned grave eyes on an exquisitely beautiful youth of about fifteen years, and for a moment longed for a piece of marble in which he could discover that perfect, angelic face. He dismissed the thought with difficulty, and turned back to Roberto.

"Thank you." With considerable dignity he rose from the table, gave thanks for his meal, and followed Roberto from the room.

 

The morning reached Julius somewhat later, after a sleepless and unhappy night. The wound in his side was almost healed, but it was recent enough to have made the long ride from Rome both unwise and uncomfortable. His valet brought him food but he hardly noticed what it was and barely tasted it, contenting himself with a glass of wine while the servant helped him dress. It was always a relief to be able to wear the same sort of clothes as other men; merely changing into some rich but plain costume had often been all the disguise he needed to avoid detection when for one reason or another he had found it necessary to travel around unobtrusively.

Fortunately Domenico's tailor had good taste; a short gown of soft green velvet over a silver doublet suited his mood admirably, though he grunted with pain as he bent to haul on the grey boots. The physician, damn his soul to purgatory, was in Rome with Domenico, and he would have to find his own cure for this pain that had stolen his sleep.

"Are you finished?" he snapped at the valet - and then regretted his temper. The boy had never attended on a nobleman of such rank before; if his fingers shook and he misplaced things it was not to be wondered at.

"Are you ... finished?" Julius asked again, schooling his voice to tolerance.

"Yes, m-my lord."

Julius nodded. "Then go and find out whether the baggage train has left yet," he instructed.

The boy bowed, dropped what he was carrying, picked it up again, bowed again and scurried off.

Julius threw open the door that gave onto the flat roof; in the days of his exile he had spent a great deal of time pacing this roof, looking out across the sea or talking - plotting - with his great friend and co-conspirator Ascanio Sforza. Ascanio had been exiled too, and theoretically should have remained at his family's holdings in the Romagna, but had found ways to travel to the coast and consult with Giuliano, just as Giuliano had found methods of travelling unobserved to visit Ascanio. In those days, too, the strong resemblance between Giuliano and his younger brother had been of considerable assistance in his deceptions.

This morning the sea - which the previous evening had been the colour of an open sewer - was the same blue as the sky, a heavenly azure. On the horizon he could see the triangular brown sails of fishing-boats, and closer to shore a merchant vessel, heavily-laden, was making its way south. Coming from a sea-faring family, he watched the little ship long enough to experience a genuine regret that he had wasted so many hours in preparations for fortifying this place when he could so easily have taken ship and found himself anywhere in the world. If he had been a less ambitious man, perhaps ... and yet that ambition, which had cursed him, had at least been of some benefit to his country. He had united the people and driven off an invader from the north, and he had done so almost against the wishes of the people themselves - almost to spite them.

He leaned on an embrasure, letting the bracing sea-breeze play havoc with his hair. Just as well the valet had laid out good, warm clothes for today - despite the sunshine there was a chill in the air, and he was sensible enough of his own health to know that he had already taken too many risks. He had no desire to die just yet; not when he still had so many ambitions left to be fulfilled.

"My lord?"

He turned. It was the little valet; he must learn the boy's name, he told himself. "Yes, er ... what are you called?"

"Giovanni, my lord. My lord, the baggage train is leaving now - they were already on their way when I got there. Do you want them stopped, my lord?"

Julius's eyes closed briefly, tolerantly. "No. I just wanted to be certain there had been no delay. Where is Master Buonarotti this morning, do you know?"

"Gone with my brother, my lord - your groom, Roberto. Roberto took him to see the gardens."

Julius nodded, dismissing the lad. Of course, he thought. In a nobleman's castle, full of great finery and every luxury money could buy, Buonarotti would choose to mingle with people he understood and to look at natural rather than man-made treasures. There was a simplicity, a directness, about Michelangelo that he envied; the man had one firm and inalienable purpose and that was to create beauty. Nothing else mattered to him in the least; all he cared for was releasing from blocks of marble the figures that slept there - and Julius had forced him to turn his art in a different direction and to paint a ceiling. That was either an act of supreme arrogance - and he was more than prepared to allow the possibility - or it was a visionary act; an act of love.

He could not deny that, either.

He had strolled slowly along the ramparts after dismissing Giovanni, and was now looking down into the gardens. A flight of unprotected stone steps led down at this point, and Julius contemplated them with some trepidation. In his weakened state, they were no easy proposition, and yet his pride would not allow him to summon Giovanni to help. He would have to go back through the building and down the internal staircase, which was at least provided with a handrail.

As he turned away, the sound of voices reached him from below.

Two figures emerged from an avenue of cypress trees, talking animatedly. The shorter by half a head and younger by ten years he recognised as the groom Roberto; the older, taller man was unmistakeable in any company.

"Buonarotti!" he roared, and had the pleasure of seeing both men stop suddenly in their tracks.

Michelangelo spun round. "My lord Domenico." He bowed, and Roberto did likewise before turning tail and departing, apparently afraid he would be scolded for neglecting his duties.

Michelangelo approached the bottom of the steps. Julius, looking down at him, noticed that the upturned blue eyes were reflecting the colour of the sky to perfection and that there was an unforced smile of greeting on the man's features.

"Your arm, Master Buonarotti," he requested, firmly but duly sensible of the irony involved; he was perhaps the most powerful leader in the entire world, but to descend a flight of steps he needed assistance. "I can no longer run around these walls as easily as I once did."

Michelangelo was at his side in a moment, offering the required arm. Julius rested most of his weight on it, his free hand reaching out to the stone of the wall for balance. Step by step they descended, slowly, in companionate silence; they were of much the same height, and despite his recent injury and ensuing illness Julius was strongly-built. More importantly still, he had retained that robust humour and determined enjoyment of life that had made him the leader he was. At the bottom of the stairs, however, he showed no sign of wishing to relinquish Michelangelo's support, and thus they continued to walk down the cypress avenue where the foliage was still lush and fresh after last night's rain.

"That was not how you brought me down from the scaffolding in the Sistine," Julius remarked, evenly. It was the first time he had alluded to the incident of his collapse.

"No, my lord."

Julius stopped, and keen blue eyes were trained on Michelangelo's face.

"You carried me, I think?"

The artist's eyes lowered modestly, and he shrugged. "Yes."

Julius nodded. "No easy matter. And if you had not done so, I would not have been alive today. France would own our city - and our ceiling."

His voice was harsh, his tone dismissive, as though he was discussing some trivial matter of business.

"There would be no ceiling, Holiness," Michelangelo said softly, and Julius noticed his error but did not chide him for it. "It would not have been finished."

"Ah." They moved on a little further, into a grove where the branches of the trees met overhead and light was filtered through the thousand different greens of the leaves. His own calm surprised Julius, and Michelangelo's presence at his side reassured as it had never done before; all his machinations had their justification in this moment. "I thought you might feel that way." His death would have stopped Michelangelo's work; it did not surprise him. The coming of the French was neither here nor there to the artist, but the death of his patron ... He stepped across the path and eased himself down onto a stone seat under a vine trellis, shielded on all sides from any possibility of overlooking. "I have ... bullied you into doing something you had no wish to do," he observed, without trace of regret in his tone. "And yet you hold no malice?"

He glanced up, watched the emotions cross Michelangelo's face; he could identify and name every one, he knew this man so well.

"No, H - No, my lord. I have never borne you any ill-will - except, perhaps, when you struck me."

"Sit beside me, Michelangelo." It was an instruction of the sort Michelangelo found himself unable to disobey. His lips curved into a half-smile of acceptance as he complied.

He had never understood why so many of his Roman acquaintances - such as Giovanni de'Medici, Contessina's brother - felt the need to abase themselves in Julius's presence; tradition demanded a certain measure of respect, but when all was said and done Julius was a man of flesh and blood like any other.

On the other side of the path from the seat a low rose-bush grew; it had suffered in the storm of the previous night, and the ground around its roots was scattered with petals the colour of pink pearls. Its fragrance reached them where they sat, shoulder to shoulder.

"I have a design in mind for your brother's garden, my lord," Michelangelo told him, his voice even and resonant. "A fountain, surrounded by figures."

Julius's eyes closed as he leaned back against the wall. "I shall be interested to see the drawings," he said, sounding more at ease than he had in many years. "I believe I should have exchanged every privilege I have ever known in my life for the ability to paint and sculpt as you do. I envy you, Michelangelo - your life is so much simpler than mine."

"I ... have been fortunate," demurred his companion, softly.

"Indeed. Lorenzo's patronage was a great boon to you. I remember seeing you at the Medici Garden the first summer you were there; you were very thin, I think, and your hair was a lighter colour. How old were you then? Sixteen?"

"Seventeen. You were there with Cardinal Sforza." Ascanio Sforza, the cousin-by-marriage and last remaining ally of Giuliano della Rovere. Ascanio was the only one the Borgia had not, somehow, managed to remove; he had survived into Julius's pontificate, to succumb to a wasting disease at the age of only fifty.

"Even he found it more difficult to speak to me than you have," Julius mused. "Did it never strike you as odd that all doors should be open to you? You wander in and out of my court just as you choose, with considerably greater ease than my closest friends. You have had freedoms and privileges I have allowed no-one else."

He opened his eyes, saw the bewilderment in the other's face. "The ceiling..." Michelangelo said, incoherently.

"The ceiling was merely the excuse," was the mild response. "If it had not been the ceiling, it would have been something else. The tomb, perhaps - although your work on the tomb takes you too far away from me. No, the ceiling was only the means of bringing you into my household and keeping you there so that I would know you were always nearby."

"But ... why?"

"Why?" Julius sounded scandalised that such a question should ever be raised. "Michelangelo, when we love we do not look for reasons; surely you have realised - surely even you must have understood - why I kept you so close? Perhaps I was uncertain of it for a time, but you have always had the power to see through me; you know me better than I know myself. What I feel for you is the love of a lover. You have known that for some time, I think."

It was said so simply and directly that the terrifying nature of the words was disguised; a truth as strong as marble yet as fragile as glass that had lain unacknowledged between them for a long time was now taken up, examined, and shared. Julius's calm radiated through him; that new calm, that had followed on from all the rages, all the battles between them, spread like a cloak around his shoulders and gave him comfort.

Michelangelo shrugged again, and Julius felt the movement. "I was blind, Holiness, until Tessina de'Medici opened my eyes. She wanted me to love her, and when I could not ... Women have never ... " He paused, calmed his nerves, began again. "She taught me that the Sistine ceiling was something greater than both of us; that it meant as much to you as it did to me, and not only because you were concerned with your own glory. I don't have the words," he added, uncomfortably. "As you reminded me, I'm no poet. I'm a craftsman, and from a poor family ... "

"Your background is irrelevant," Julius told him, reassuringly. "The fresco was the means of making us equal. A wealthy background can be as much of a burden as poverty, you know - I'll admit the della Rovere have acquired a great deal of money and property, and not always honestly, but we are still fishermen at heart. My family is no more noble than your own - merely more ambitious. If I had not been so ambitious, for myself and for my people, I could have spoken to you like this twenty years ago - when I first knew that I loved you."

He looked into Michelangelo's face, but the artist's eyes were lowered and he was unable to read them. For a moment he doubted the wisdom of his declaration; he had expected it to be accepted and returned - indeed, he had never entertained the notion that Michelangelo Buonarotti could refuse him this or anything else. Uncertainty was foreign to Julius; his whole existence had been a prolonged procession of confidence followed by progress and success. He had banished every trace of fear from his heart, except when it came to matters concerning Michelangelo. The Florentine was the only person alive with the capacity to hurt Julius, and the hurt he could inflict with a word or a gesture was unendurable; he had the power to condemn Julius to a living hell.

Slowly and resolutely Michelangelo twined his fingers around Julius's hand, lifted it to his lips and, still without meeting his gaze, kissed it. Julius's free hand flew immediately to Michelangelo's hair, resting there, stroking softly, comforting the younger man. The confusion, the terror Michelangelo was experiencing were the identical counterparts of his own; there could be no more dangerous course for either of them than to give expression to this love, and yet that course was inevitable now that Michelangelo had accepted him.

That a man in his position should take a lover was not precisely unknown; the Borgia, after all, had sunk so low as to father a child on his own daughter. Male lovers were rarer but certainly not despised, although as a rule they tended to be pretty youths of good family and unquestioned - and expensive - discretion. If it were merely a matter of sexual expediency he could have chosen otherwise long before; no, it had always been that least convenient of emotions, love - ridiculously misdirected, perhaps, but faithful and enduring as in any balladeer's song.

"Discretion," he murmured, huskily. "I beg you, discretion. So much of my work is incomplete."

The tension in Michelangelo's shoulders eased suddenly and he released the hand he held, his head lifting slowly and proudly until his gaze met Julius's on equal terms. Two pairs of intense blue eyes communicated sentiments that words uttered in daylight could never hope to capture, and it was Julius whose resolve weakened first. His hand stroked smoothly down Michelangelo's cheek before withdrawing, and as he turned away his spine straightened and his chin lifted in unmistakeable triumph.

"There will be time," he said. "It's why I brought you here."

"I know." Realisation had dawned only slowly; the possibility that Julius might one day come to care for him in this way had been banished from Michelangelo's thoughts so firmly that it had only been with the greatest of difficulty that he brought himself to believe it.

"Leave me to think," Julius told him, decisively. "Find Roberto, take two horses from my stables, ride out along the coast. Spend the day amusing yourself, however you choose. Rest. Dine with me this evening," he added, less of an instruction than an invitation.

Michelangelo stood, obedient to his lord's wishes, and bowed slightly.

"Send the valet Giovanni to me."

"Yes, my lord."

Michelangelo had taken three or four steps down the path when the old, imperious Julius called out to him again.

"Buonarotti!"

Michelangelo turned. The older man's features bore a smile of such overwhelming joy and satisfaction that he could do nothing but emulate it, a grin of huge delight splitting his usually serious countenance and returning Julius's radiance measure for measure. Then, with a decisive movement, he was gone from sight and Julius sank back against the wall, his mind spinning ecstatic cartwheels.

He had almost left it too late. He had always felt that there would be time, and that one day he might perhaps be able to speak to Michelangelo as a lover, but he had so nearly miscalculated! If that Frenchman had succeeded in his aim, if the sword had cut a fraction deeper than it did, he would have lost his life on the field of battle; a hero, perhaps, for a while, but a man who in his private dealings had proved himself a coward. Women had never held any attraction for him; that was why he had not resisted his father's decree that he enter the priesthood. Raffaello della Rovere had bought bishoprics both for Giuliano and for his younger brother Bartolomeo; when Raffaello's brother Francesco had become Pope, Giuliano had been elevated to the college of Cardinals. Thus, although he had little or no inclination towards the religious life and very little faith, he had at least been protected from any family pressure to marry and produce offspring, a task to which he was even less suited than to the priesthood.

The acquisition of power, however, had demanded greater and greater discretion. There had been boys in the past - carefully selected for their loyalty - with whom he had enjoyed brief liaisons; none since he had first set eyes on the tall, fair, adolescent Michelangelo Buonarotti. He was sometimes tempted to wonder whether Lorenzo's recommendation of the boy hadn't been as much cynical as altruistic, prompted by a desire to discover the truth about Giuliano's preferences. If so, he had been sadly disappointed; Giuliano had expressed an interest in the young man's work, and then, for various reasons, had not seen Michelangelo again for several years, during which period Lorenzo had died.

It had made little difference. Since that first meeting with Michelangelo he had been completely and utterly lost.

And now …

Now, most of his enemies were dead. Now it was almost safe to declare himself to his love, although the most elaborate deceptions were still required. If their connection was ever suspected he himself might be safe, but Michelangelo would be at risk from attackers and assassins paid - at some remove - by the King of France. Only here at Ostia could there be any measure of security for them; only here could they at last be equals.

"My lord Domenico?"

Absorbed in thought, he hadn't noticed Giovanni's arrival. He turned abruptly.

"I'm sorry, my lord, were you sleeping?"

Julius shot him a withering look, a look that suggested that he had not ... quite ... reached the age where men fall asleep during the day.

"No. I was thinking."

Giovanni coloured, aware that he had been tactless. "You sent for me, my lord?"

"Yes. Can you read?"

"Yes, my lord, a little."

"Good; fetch a book, then, and read to me for a while."

 

To Michelangelo the day seemed endless; Roberto did his best to amuse him, suggesting places of interest to visit and trying to make entertaining conversation, but it was not until well after noon that Michelangelo seemed to recover his composure slightly. Then they found a tiny inn and drank rough wine together, and Michelangelo watched with an artist's fascination as the innkeeper's three small children ran and played in the yard, chasing chickens and tormenting an elderly ginger-and-white cat. He drew a piece of charcoal from one pocket and began sketching the smallest of the children on the broad tabletop, turning the boy's mischievous little face into that of a miniature saint.

Roberto watched him, astounded by the facility of the sketch. Michelangelo noticed his interest, and smiled.

"Not even his mother would think of him as a cherub," he remarked to the groom.

"Are you here to make a fresco, Master Buonarotti?"

Michelangelo shook his head. "No, Roberto. I'm a sculptor. I'm here to make decorations for my lord's garden."

Roberto smiled. At least he had a reasonable story to take back to the kitchens, now; a story that was better than the one he and his brother had decided on for themselves this morning - better, perhaps, but not as true.

As they left the inn, the owner's wife came out with a bucket of water and a cloth and scrubbed every trace of the sketch from the tabletop, glaring after the two as they mounted and rode away.

 

The dinner that evening consisted of some traditional Genoese fish recipe, simply prepared but served on silver dishes. The pale wine that accompanied it was apparently a particular favourite of his host's; Julius drank with obvious enjoyment, but not to excess.

"It's the wine of Riomaggiore," he explained, noticing the way Michelangelo's eyes followed his every movement as he poured. The servant attending them - young Giovanni, the valet - had been banished to a small bench beside the fireplace until summoned, and he was currently engaged in watching the lutenist whose playing had formed a gentle, civilised background to the meal.

Michelangelo smiled. He had never before had cause to regret that he had no small-talk; he'd seen Giovanni de'Medici's guests at table often enough to know that the nobility seemed to enjoy the exchange of scandal as much as the food they were eating, but he had no scandal to offer. Julius did not seem to notice the omission, however.

"You're not at ease here," he observed, sympathetically, certain the music would make his words inaudible to the two servants.

"It's a fine house," Michelangelo told him, dismissively. "But ... I don't belong in fine houses."

"Oh? And where do you belong?"

Michelangelo's eyes dropped like those of a child expecting a scolding; he avoided Julius's penetrating stare.

"Where I cannot be." The words were so low as to be almost inaudible. The silence that fell was eloquent of frustration and exasperation.

When at length Michelangelo found the courage to lift his head again, he encountered on Julius's face the visible equivalent of his own anguish. The older man's steely blue eyes held all he ever wished to see of pain and distress, a grief unequalled since the French had driven him in ignominy from the gates of Pisa. Julius was not accustomed to being thwarted.

"And if it were possible?"

Michelangelo turned away. "But it is not possible," he said, reasonably.

Julius's brows rose. "You are an expert on what is and what is not possible?" he asked, sardonically. "At any rate, you would rather be in a place where the walls do not close in on you."

"Yes." A half-embarrassed laugh.

"And where there is no tyrant to force you to decorate ceilings?"

Michelangelo's resistance dwindled suddenly as he became aware of the effort his host was making on his behalf. He reached for more wine, felt his body begin to relax somewhat, made some attempt to meet Julius half-way.

"I have learned something about tyrants," he said, mildly. "They are not all arrogant and vainglorious."

"But most of them are," Julius told him, good-humouredly. "I should have let you go and build that bridge in Constantinople; the Sultan would have taught you something about tyrants - although no doubt I should have had to go to war with him in order to get you back."

Michelangelo's head tilted to one side and he regarded the older man quizzically. The words had been spoken lightly enough, but they carried the weight of steel; Julius's eyes were dark and haunted, his straight back and squared shoulders eloquent of the intent. Michelangelo did not doubt that he would have declared war on the Sultan if he thought it was necessary.

Julius cleared his throat noisily, breaking the tension of the moment.

"Give me your arm," he commanded, rising abruptly from the table. "I want to show you my library."

 

Giovanni lit them down the dark, cold passageway, moving a few paces ahead like an ignis fatuus across a marsh. Julius leaned heavily on Michelangelo's arm, moving slowly, conserving his strength - and not ashamed, now, of needing help. He would be strong again, and soon, but it would be foolhardy to try to do too much while he was still so weak.

The library was a wide, gloomy chamber with a low ceiling, a room with no elegance or grace of proportion whatever. As Giovanni lit the candles and withdrew, bowing, Michelangelo gazed in awe at the chained books on their lecterns around the walls; thick volumes whose fine leather bindings and gold leaf gleamed softly in the candlelight.

Julius detached himself from the supporting arm and crossed the room to a small cupboard set against one wall. Michelangelo moved to the nearest lectern and bent to study the open pages of an illuminated psalter.

"This is so fine!" he exclaimed, involuntarily. "The colours ... "

Julius grunted his annoyance. "It's French," he said, dismissively. "My uncle sent me on an embassy to the French court; that was a gift to me from the King. This is what I wanted you to see. Come here and hold out your hands."

Obediently Michelangelo crossed to his side and lifted his hands. Julius caught them impatiently, shaped them, and then placed into them a blue glass bowl the size of a man's head, covered with raised white figures representing mythic gods and goddesses.

"It was made for Caesar Augustus," Julius told him, almost reverently. "These are the ancient Roman gods; Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo and Diana. You have called me 'barbarian', 'conqueror', even 'Medusa'. Do you understand at last that I am none of those things by inclination? Does a barbarian own an object such as this?" His hands covered Michelangelo's on the bowl; his eyes sought the artist's, and found them brimming with tears the same colour as the deep blue of the glass.

"No," he replied, unsteadily. "I was wrong, I know that. You became what you had to be."

"Beauty such as this could not have saved Rome," Julius went on, in a tone that chided him gently for his past insults. "Strength can only be met with strength. Art cannot hope to thrive when every man must struggle for his own survival." He smiled his most charming smile. "It's a piece of wisdom you might care to carry back to Lady Ridolfi de'Medici in exchange for her 'opening your eyes'."

The sculptor's gaze dropped and he had the grace to look embarrassed. Even when Tessina had virtually given him chapter and verse on Julius's feelings for him he had still been too stubborn to believe her; he had been unable to swallow his pride enough to effect a reconciliation before Julius rode off to war - to the almost certain prospect of a sudden and horrible death. Michelangelo had gone to the market place to watch the procession leave, and it was then that he had begun to discover for himself the truth that lay behind Tessina's words. Julius had halted and turned to direct at him over the heads of the crowd a look whose full and eloquent meaning was only now becoming clear.

Understand me; unless I fight this war you will no longer have the freedom to create beauty.

That expression - half-reproach, half-caress - was on Julius's face again as he detached the glass bowl from Michelangelo's trembling hands and restored it to its cupboard.

"Are you still afraid of me, Michele?" he asked, gently.

Michelangelo shrugged, his mind already so bruised and shocked that it failed to register the endearment.

"Of course," he said. "You are ... "

"Domenico della Rovere," was the firm reminder. Julius took his hands again, a fingertip moving lightly across the calloused palms. "There is nothing to fear; I have always protected you, and I will continue to do so as long as it is within my power. And if I should send for you tonight...?"

"I'll be ready."

"Because I order it?"

The artist pulled his hands away defiantly. "No. Because I wish it."

With those words, Julius knew that he had won. In a society in which words were so often the instruments of duplicity it was more than pleasant to be able to converse plainly and simply with one who meant every syllable he uttered and whose meaning was as clear and direct as a mountain stream. He nodded slowly, drawing away from a moment that had suddenly become too intimate.

"If you'll assist me, my dear Buonarotti, I believe I may be ready to attempt those endless stairs again. If I were any weaker I think I might permit you to carry me."

Michelangelo was back on safer ground now. He breathed more easily. "If you ask, I'll do it - gladly."

"I know. That is the reason I don't ask. I've noticed how difficult you find it to refuse me anything, my friend - oh, you may argue and dispute, but you always give way at the last. Such power is dangerous, Michele; think how easily I could use it to destroy you - except that you are probably the last person I would ever attempt to destroy."

Arm in arm they had reached the door. Michelangelo tugged it open, and outside discovered Giovanni, his eyes smudged and dark from tiredness, shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother Roberto. Both sprang to their feet, moving readily and swiftly to escort the two older men towards their apartments; the boys were silent, respectful and obedient to a fault, their dark gazes filled with a warmth Michelangelo recognised but could not, immediately, interpret.

If Julius leaned against him more heavily than was strictly necessary, it hardly seemed to matter. If the arm that he wrapped around his patron's waist gripped with greater familiarity than the situation demanded, it harmed no-one. Their progress was slow up the wide, winding staircase, and Julius was grateful indeed for Michelangelo's attentiveness and support when every step became a purgatory, every move a new agony. At length, at the head of the stairs, they parted with a simple and conventional valediction whose very words - like so many that they spoke to one another - seemed to hold a thousand times their ordinary value.

"Good night, my lord Domenico."

"God be with you, Buonarotti."

Michelangelo stood and watched as Julius turned away, and did not move or release his held breath until the chamber door had closed behind him.

 

The hours dragged by at funeral pace: Michelangelo did not undress, although he removed his jerkin, opened his shirt and discarded his boots before sitting down in front of the fire with a goblet of wine and watching the faces in the flames.

If I should send for you tonight?

"Am I merely a bed-boy?" he asked the fire, more confusion than anger in the thought. Raphael of Urbino had told him that all artists were harlots, selling their souls and their services to the highest bidder. He had acknowledged the sentiment without believing it of himself. What was he to believe now? And Raphael was beautiful, too; almost as lovely and delicate-featured as the little valet Giovanni. A handful of years ago either one of them would have thrilled his blood, inspired him to write sonnets to their beauty, but now - although he still appreciated their attraction - there was no man alive who could eclipse Julius in his heart.

No, he was not a harlot - not even a bed-boy. This night, this situation, had been as much of his own seeking as Julius's. There was irony in it, too; the high-born prince of the church and the common stonemason both brought to their knees by the same overmastering passion - the one that made them hostages of one another, lovers who yet had scarcely touched.

Love takes us in strange ways, Tessina had said. It's a language of the blood; it's neither cold nor indifferent, it's either agony or ecstasy - sometimes both at once.

When - where - had she learned such wisdom? Where had she found the insight to discover what he had been too stupid, too preoccupied to see - that Julius loved and wanted him? And if he asked her, could she tell him?

If I should send for you tonight …

The tone had been so gentle, so affectionate. Michelangelo felt a heat rise in his body that had nothing to do with the proximity of the fire, a burning that sought for consummation in the touch of skin against skin, a tension from which only his lord could now release him. He closed his eyes, imagining those slender patrician hands moulding his flesh as easily as he moulded clay, sculpting him as he sculpted marble, shaping him at will.

"Master Buonarotti?"

He opened his eyes onto the tender, concerned face of young Giovanni, who had entered the room so softly Michelangelo had been unaware of his presence.

If it had crossed his mind to be ashamed or embarrassed by his half-aroused condition, Michelangelo banished the thought instantly. That look in Giovanni's eyes explained itself suddenly and without fear of misinterpretation as the sympathy of a fellow-sufferer; one who also loved both deeply and impossibly, and who understood him in every particular.

"My lord begs you to attend him, Master Buonarotti," the valet whispered softly.

It was the summons he had been praying for. Michelangelo stumbled to his feet feeling ungainly and clumsy and most of all unworthy and turned towards the door, somehow not in the least surprised to find Roberto waiting outside with a lighted candle. The door to Julius's chamber stood slightly ajar, and as he crossed to it in a few purposeful strides Roberto caught at his arm.

"Master Buonarotti ... we guard the door. All night."

Michelangelo turned and looked at him. Giovanni had moved in close to his brother's side, and instantly the equation had two halves and was complete.

It's my misfortune to love the impossible, he thought, Tessina's voice filling his head. But if so, I am not the only one so cursed.

"Thank you," he said. They were petty, inadequate, debased words, but they were all he had to offer.

Roberto nodded, as though he sensed that to speak again would be improper somehow, coarse. He lifted the candle higher, spilling its silver light to the very foot of the bedchamber door, and stepped forward, ushering Michelangelo into the dark, silent room beyond and then withdrawing discreetly, closing the door firmly behind him.

 

Velvet darkness filled the room and clustered in the recesses of its high ceiling. The only light came from the fireplace where the flames rose like prayers towards heaven; silhouetted against their red-gold dance was a tall figure, slightly stooped, attired in a fine lawn nightgown and a grey silk robe.

"So, you are here," Julius said, almost coldly, straightening his shoulders but declining to look his visitor in the eye.

"As you commanded," was the humble response.

"I did not command you." The older man's tone was acid, as though at the eleventh hour he had begun to despise himself for what he apparently needed. "I believe," he added, struggling to calm his rioting senses, "I may have begged."

"Yes, Holiness."

Julius turned and looked at him then, studying the man as he would have appraised some fine blood stallion. In the firelight Michelangelo's skin bore a golden sheen; the open lacings of his shirt displayed to full advantage the broad, muscular chest with its dusting of dark hair. Years of toil in the quarries and his long apprenticeship and labours on Julius's behalf had turned the slender, quick boy of the Medici Garden into a powerful man whose physical presence had become a necessary drug to his patron. There had been many times when Julius had longed for the gift of artistic talent; he would have sold his soul to the highest bidder for the skill to commit to paper or stone the set of his beloved's shoulders, the strong curve of his arms, the willing intensity of his expression.

"Buonarotti," he said, hoarsely, "you will kindly do me the honour of remembering that I am a man and not a title. You know as well as I do that I'm quite incapable of carrying out my threat to have you imprisoned in the Sant' Angelo - not to see you every day would be a torment I could hardly endure - but I urge you, I beg you, put out of your mind the ... the display, the ceremony." He paused, his expression anguished. "You know I was never made for a priest; I was born with a sword in my hand - I am a soldier. If I mouthe empty prayers and mindless platitudes it is because the people of this land expect that in their leaders." His broad shoulders slumped, as though from the effort of delivering this tirade. "If I were the man of God those superstitious peasants believe me to be I should scarcely contemplate imperilling my immortal soul in order to share a night of pleasure with you, Michelangelo, and yet that is exactly what I propose to do. And," he added, more mischievously, "no doubt my mortal body as well. I don't imagine you'll be a gentle lover."

Only the last part of this long dissertation registered with Michelangelo's numbed mind.

"Your wound!" he said, worriedly. "You're still weak, perhaps we should not..."

"We shall," was the forceful response. "Providing that you are willing, of course."

"Willing?" The repetition was dazed, automatic. "All my life ... "

Stunned that the idea that he might choose not to consummate their relationship had even entered Julius's head he threw himself to his knees and clutched the older man's right hand between fingers that could easily have crushed the bones to powder, his lips touching the fine, smooth skin. Julius pulled him close, rumpled his hair distractedly. "Your lovers," he asked, the breath catching in his throat, "have they always been boys?"

"Always."

"And mine ... until now."

Michelangelo clung to him, afraid, aware that an impasse had been reached. He did not know how to take the next step forward, how to bring about the consummation his body and mind sought with such urgency.

"What ... do you expect of me?" he asked, lifting his head to look up into Julius's eyes.

Unexpected strength seized him, raised him to his feet, filled his arms with silken warmth wrapped around a body only marginally less strong than his own. For all his added years and the burden of his ill-health Julius was still a man to be reckoned with. Michelangelo's arms were accustomed to slender, nameless youths; he made the adjustment with humble delight. Long fingers skimmed across the coarse fabric of his sleeves and encountered the sweat-beaded triangle of chest where the shirt fell open, toying fascinatedly with the cluster of dark hair, then slid sensuously upward to stroke across the heavy muscles of his neck.

"In this ... " Julius faltered. "In darkness, when we are alone ... be my master."

A moment of incredulity, as the import of Julius's request became clear; a moment in which Michelangelo cursed himself for his stupidity and blindness, and then the light of understanding dawned. He had asked himself time and again what he could possibly have to offer a man of Julius's stature and quality, but now he saw as though in blistering daylight the desire of this powerful, dominant ruler to be overpowered, dominated, ruled. Julius's life had brought him every luxury he had ever craved but one - the pleasure of submission. How fitting that he should select as a lover the one man he could trust never to take unfair advantage of this singular weakness.

His arms closed around the older man in a demanding grip and his mouth caught Julius's with a savagery he had not known himself capable of, forcing immediate capitulation. There was no resistance, not even momentary; it was as though Julius's bones had turned to water. He hung in the circle of the stonemason's embrace, his hands burning into Michelangelo's arms like a torturer's fleshhooks, his mouth responding with an avidity that drained the rest of his body of strength or willpower. The duel - if duel it was - was a decidedly uneven contest; Julius's knees buckled, and almost without loosing his hold on the other man's lips Michelangelo swung him up into his arms, noting with an uneasy part of his mind how much weight had dropped from his frame since his injury, and turned with him towards the canopied bed.

"You are still so weak," Michelangelo told him, breath caressing the older man's lips. "If I should hurt you ... Without you, my life would be empty."

Silk-clad arms twined around his neck. "Do not fear for me, Buonarotti," chided the old, sardonic Julius. "Fear for yourself. You are about to abandon your chance of Heaven."

"Heaven is nothing to me," was the simple response, "but you are everything."

"Then Contessina de'Medici was right," Julius told him, between searing kisses. "You are in love with me, as she tried to tell you."

"And you with me, as she also tried to tell me."

"Devoutly."

Michelangelo shouldered aside the bed curtains and deposited his burden on a high bank of creamy pillows, ending a particularly searching kiss with brutal abruptness as he drew back, his broad hands caressing the smooth pillar of Julius's throat.

"I should model you as Jupiter," he said, raggedly. "He changed his shape to make sport with mortals." His hands bunched the flimsy cloth of the nightgown and tensioned it, his eyes challenging those of his autocratic lover.

"Everything is possible, Michele. Everything is forgiven."

Powerful hands ripped the nightgown from neck to hem in a single dramatic gesture. Julius shivered briefly, although not from cold. He freed his shoulders and arms from the imprisoning fabric and reached for Michelangelo, drawing him down onto the bed, his hands and lips wandering beneath the younger man's shirt to explore the muscular chest.

"You are no mortal," he chided, easing the shirt from his lover's body and revelling in the touch of hot, naked skin against his own. "Perhaps Vulcan, the smith-god; the only one of the gods who was Jupiter's equal."

"Or his master?"

"Or his master."

Michelangelo's fingers sought the puckered scar-line that ran diagonally across Julius's belly and hipbone. In a sudden movement he blazed down to bite at one flat nipple, nursing it between his teeth, devouring the delicate flavour of soft flesh that hardened at his touch. Julius caught his wrist, diverted the hand from his belly, guided it to cover the firm, slender column of silken steel at his groin. He took it, stroked carefully, almost respectfully, his mind spinning with images of the awesome power this man wielded; power that now lay at his mercy. He could destroy Julius, use him in any way he chose - but he chose instead to give him pleasure.

"Beautiful," Michelangelo whispered, releasing the nipple to seek Julius's mouth. Urgent hands plucked at the fastenings of his hose as he levered himself into a kneeling position. "Beautiful," he repeated. "Like the finest, smoothest marble that falls away beneath the chisel - strong and yielding and with a life of its own. I could make this moment live forever in stone."

He pulled back, discarded his small-clothes, and tugged away the torn remnants of Julius's night attire, carefully matching his body to the older man's, groin to groin, hard flesh to hard flesh, an ache of unfulfilled desire thrusting through him as he attempted to wrap every inch of his beloved lord's body in his all-encompassing embrace.

"No man alive can pay the price of such beauty," whispered the man beneath him, long-stifled need banishing anxiety. "What will you do with me?"

"What we have both done with boys," was the growled response.

Julius gasped acquiescence, his head dropping back, his throat stretched as though to an enemy's fangs.

"Yes," he breathed, abandoning himself to the touches that thrilled across his skin and leeched his resolve. "Yes."

Michelangelo's strong body dominated him, surrounded him, protected him and transported him to a world in which there were no differences of rank or class; a world in which nothing existed but the two of them and the needs and desires they shared. Michelangelo loved him as he had dreamed of being loved, filled him until he could take no more, satisfied him as no conquest ever had, left him weak and helpless and exhausted but triumphant.

Afterwards, clinging together on the storm-tossed sea of pillows, there was time at last for the promises and endearments that had been suppressed for twenty painful years; promises and endearments they were still whispering when, towards dawn, they fell asleep.

 

Giovanni wriggled from his brother's arms at daybreak to seek out the servants' privy. The wooden floor outside Domenico's bedchamber was no harder than his usual bed in the kitchen but it was certainly colder, even with Roberto to cling to, and duty and an irrepressible curiosity had kept him awake far into the night despite his exhaustion. Although he and Roberto had not been able to love one another during the hours of darkness as they so often did, they had lain close together and whispered their own treasured endearments, relishing the occasional soft exclamation of delight or surprise that reached them from beyond the heavy oak door. At length, when silence fell, Roberto gathered his brother close to him.

"My lord Domenico is a very happy man tonight, little brother," he whispered affectionately.

Giovanni was troubled. "Why must we always call him Domenico when he is really Giuliano?" he asked, ignoring the lips that nuzzled at his ear.

"Because everyone else believes that he is Domenico," his brother replied, his tongue flickering briefly inside Giovanni's ear.

"Except for Master Buonarotti?"

"As you say. Just think, Giovanni, how difficult it must be for them. You know how people scorned Rodrigo Borgia for what he did, and some would say this is just as bad. I know the Holy Father tried hard not to love Master Buonarotti, and I'm sure he fought against it too - they're both so proud. Lady Ridolfi de'Medici's servant told me once that our master struck Master Buonarotti with a stick because he refused to obey him ... and yet tonight they're together as lovers."

"For the first time," Giovanni mused, smiling in secret delight as he contemplated the scenes played out behind the firmly-closed door.

"Yes ... " A slight wistfulness touched Roberto's tone. Though he was content with his love for Giovanni and would never have contemplated taking any other lover he was human enough to envy the two older men the delightful discoveries they had made about one another, the thrill of a new love that would live to grow old. "I think Master Michelangelo Buonarotti has come into our lives to stay," he said, with satisfaction.

Certainly, reflected Giovanni as he picked his way between the wet fronds of fern and the ruined glory of overblown roses, Buonarotti seemed to belong at Giuliano's side. The murmured exchange at the dinner table the previous evening had reached his acute young ears, and he re-examined it in the light of the love he now knew existed between the two older men.

Where do you belong?

Where I cannot be.

And if it were possible?

But it is not possible.

He glanced up at the ramparts of the fortress wall. Giuliano, restless and overwrought, was pacing the battlements with his eyes on the seaward horizon, oblivious to Giovanni's presence or to any other intrusion. The valet concealed himself behind a sculptured hedge and watched, captivated, as his master paused, the breeze playing capricious games with his ruffled hair and the grey silk robe that hung beneath a heavy fur-lined cloak, his feet bare on the cold old stones.

If there was any man alive who could make the impossible possible surely it must be Giuliano della Rovere with all his wealth and power. Hadn't he beaten back the French invaders? Hadn't he bullied a sculptor into painting a fresco? Surely there was nothing in the world a man like that could not do?

Except, perhaps, this one thing. He could not make it possible to share his life with his lover.

Find a way, Holy Father, Giovanni prayed silently, watching the still figure against the pale sky. Find a way ... and find a way for us, too.

 

Michelangelo appeared in the open doorway, a brocade bedcover slung like an antique toga around his otherwise naked body. His eyes on his lover were possessive and concerned yet he remained still for a long time, merely watching Julius watching the sea. At length he stepped forward and, with new authority, folded the older man into an embrace that was all passion, capturing the bruised mouth beneath his own with cautious respect and deepening the kiss to accommodate an eager response. It was an exchange of equals, of two men who at last understood both mastery and submission. The night had been Michelangelo's, the dominance then entirely his. Now, with daylight, he surrendered his fate into Julius's hands and in silence acknowledged his lord's rights over him.

Their lips parted but the embrace held. Julius ran a fingertip over his lover's mouth, caressed his bearded cheek and chin.

"Michele," he said, tenderly. "Beloved."

The epithet startled its recipient, as though it had no place in the daylight world. He had no coin in which to return it; all the words he had ever known fled like thieves from the strongroom of his brain, tumbling over one another in the rush to escape. He inspected the emptiness and found only one word that could encompass the gravity of his feelings - the word he had uttered again and again in his sleep since he had first acknowledged his need for this man's touch, and in speaking it he knew he was at last abandoning separateness and placing himself for Eternity in his lover's care.

"Giuliano," he breathed, half afraid of the sound. Then, encouraged by the dazzling warmth of his reception he repeated it with more confidence. "Giuliano."

Julius responded by pulling him closer, initiating a kiss that penetrated deeply into him, cherished and caressed him as any lover his beloved since the beginning of time. As the kiss ended he loosed himself from Michelangelo's embrace, laughing gently.

"As soon as I am stronger," he said, self-mockingly, "I shall demonstrate to you how it feels to be vanquished by a barbarian."

Half-embarrassed, Michelangelo looked away from the knowing blue eyes.

"It's cold," he said, "and you scarcely slept. Will you go back to bed?"

Julius smiled gratitude for his concern. "No, not now," he said. "I have promised myself, my dear Michelangelo, the unusual honour of being dressed by you this morning. Will you help me into my clothes and then fetch my valet to shave me?"

Possessively Michelangelo's fingertips stroked across his cheek. Julius's lips brushed lightly at the hand as it passed.

"If I should refuse Your Holiness's order ... ?"

"I'll have you executed, you scoundrel. Ah, Michele ... If only it could always be like this."

There could be no possibility of a reply. Prayers to a God who did not exist could scarcely be relied upon to produce a dramatic change in the world's ways and permit them to remain together always without fear or fault. Michelangelo made no attempt to answer his lover; he merely pulled him close, guided him back into the bedchamber, and closed the door.

 

The high clifftop overlooking the sea had seemed an ordinary enough place when Michelangelo and Roberto rode there the previous morning. Now, with the mist clinging to the inland valleys and the sun beginning to burn a path across the water, it had taken on an almost mystical quality. The air was sharp and cold, but the three riders saw no need for hurry; indeed, Roberto was positively dawdling at a respectful distance out of earshot of his two masters, aware that their conversation had taken an intimate turn.

Julius's face was pale and his expression pained; after the long and uncomfortable ride from Rome he had passed a fitful night and a restless day, then had spent his second night at the villa as the willing conquest of a man fifteen years younger than himself. Age and pain were beginning to catch up with him; only a punishing stubbornness kept him in the saddle.

At length, observing his exhaustion and no longer prepared to ignore it, Michelangelo reached for the reins of Julius's horse and pulled it to a halt at a high point which overlooked the road to the fortress.

"Enough," he said, brusquely. "You must rest, Giuliano."

Julius glared at him, his eyes cold chips of sapphire. "You dare to instruct me?" he grated, between pain-clenched teeth. "By what right?"

Michelangelo's chin lifted in defiance. "By the rights of a lover," he responded, formally. "Rights which Your Holiness has chosen to bestow on me." The words challenged denial.

Julius scowled at him mutinously, the moment grown suddenly hostile between them, then shrugged good-humouredly.

"Very well. For once I lack the strength to argue with you. But ride close beside me in case I fall."

"You? Fall?" Michelangelo was incredulous. "You would die before you fell from a horse. You have too much pride."

A weary chuckle greeted this remark. "Hmmm. How well you know me."

The hoofbeats of a galloping horse became audible in the distance, growing closer by the second. Leaning heavily against Michelangelo's shoulder, Julius peered into the mist to try and discern what manner of person would be travelling at such a speed so early in the morning. Michelangelo felt the shock of recognition as the sudden jarring of the hand that clamped his arm.

"De Grassis?" Julius breathed, unwilling to believe his own eyes. The black horse and its black-and-gold clad rider were still some distance away, but the shapes they made in the morning sunlight seemed familiar.

At his side Michelangelo turned sharper, younger eyes in the same direction and was able to make out the pale, black-bearded face of the Captain of the Papal Guard.

"Is it him?" his lover asked, an unhealthy pallor stealing what little remained of his vigour.

"Yes." The answer was given with sinking heart; Paris de Grassis riding from Rome at such a speed could only be bringing ill news to his master. Michelangelo did not doubt for one moment that the man - second-in-command of the Papal armies - was the harbinger of retribution.

"You, groom!" the autocrat cried out close to his shoulder. Roberto, alert to his master's call, spurred his horse forward and halted it in the little glade where the two waited.

"My lord?" The urgency in Julius's tone and the startled look in his eyes communicated themselves to the young groom filled him with alarm.

"That man on the road is Master de Grassis, the Captain of my Guard. Go after him and bring him here at once. Hurry!"

Roberto reined his horse sharply, spun it around, and rode along the edge of the escarpment to where a perilous, narrow thread of track dived down towards the lower road. His animal's faltering, careful footsteps as it descended were slow torture compared with the thundering gallop of de Grassis's mount and after a moment Julius looked away, unable to bear the sight a moment longer.

"Will you help me to dismount?" he asked, in a most collected tone.

Michelangelo swung down from his horse and secured it to a nearby sapling. He took the reins of Julius's mount and bent his back as the grooms did, easing the rider down from the saddle; Julius's weight against his shoulder was welcome and now almost familiar, and as he rose he slid his arms around his lover in a brief, reassuring embrace before assisting him into a sitting position on the sloping top of a large, smooth rock.

Julius winced from the effort, looking up into concerned blue eyes that offered no hint of criticism, merely sympathy. He took Michelangelo's broad left hand between both his and contemplated the strong fingers absently.

"If I am needed ... " he said. He did not have to complete the sentence. If necessity took him back to Rome now, now of all times when so much was just beginning …

Michelangelo put the thought from his mind determinedly. If it was ended, it was ended; neither he nor anyone else could change that.

 

Heavy minutes later the scratch and slither of hooves on the steep path reached them; Roberto and his mount appeared at the lip of the ridge, the doom-black shape of de Grassis and his horse close behind. Defensively Michelangelo moved closer to Julius's side as the envoy dismounted and crossed the clearing towards them. Roberto remained with the horses, soothing the black animal with gentle words, stroking its neck.

Paris de Grassis sank to one knee in front of Julius, seized and kissed the hand held out to him, the gesture prompted on both sides by force of habit and a genuine affection.

"Holy Father," he said, his voice a breathless rasp. His head lifted and he acknowledged Michelangelo. "Buonarotti. I would have given fortunes not to bring this news to you today."

"De Grassis," Julius said, his tone a welcome. "It must be grave news to bring you here at such a furious pace. Is my freedom at an end?"

De Grassis lowered his eyes, unwilling to witness the pain he knew his words would cause.

"Your brother, Holiness. Yesterday evening, as he dined, he was stricken with a seizure. Your physician was sent for and bled him immediately, but he thinks he cannot live. The lord Domenico is unable to speak or to move - even to close his eyes." The messenger paused, gathered his wits, and spoke less raggedly. "Holy Father, what do you wish me to do if he dies?"

Julius looked at de Grassis a long, long moment, staring down deeply into the brown eyes of the man who had been at his side throughout all his campaigns, who had more than once saved his life on the field of battle, and who had been witness to his desperate need for Michelangelo's presence.

"Your arm, Michele," he said, softly. "Help me to rise."

Silently Michelangelo obeyed, but his hands were shrugged off as soon as Julius was on his feet.

"The physician is certain he will die?" Julius demanded sharply.

De Grassis, rising also, nodded. "Yes, Holiness - perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, but soon."

Julius acknowledged the answer curtly. "Very well. Buonarotti, de Grassis, wait here. I need a moment to think."

Turning his back on them he walked away several paces to where the trees thinned out and the land hollowed away towards the sea. Standing on a level platform of rock, his hands folded behind his back, he stared out across the ocean and faced his teeming thoughts.

His brother Domenico was a boor; there was no other word for him. An uneducated farmer whose only useful attribute was his appearance, his death would scarcely be noticed. The man's poor wife, worn out with incessant childbearing, had slipped from life some years before. Her tomb - by an inferior hand - bore marble effigies of the five infants who had pre-deceased her and the one whose unwillingness to be born had brought about her death.

Domenico would be no loss, either to his family or to the world - and yet he had provided an avenue of escape for his brother that would now no longer be available. Now, when it was more important than ever that it remain open, the door to freedom was closing.

Discretion, I beg you. So much of my work is incomplete …

He had spoken those words to Michelangelo only a day ago. Then it had seemed that they could return to Rome, their love a well-concealed secret, and resume the lives that imprisoned them both. When he had spoken those words, there had seemed to be no alternative course open to him. However the pain of his wound had reminded him that he had almost died from the Frenchman's sword-thrust; with Julius dead on the battlefield that work would have remained incomplete.

Only the gilding of the chapel ceiling was unfinished, and Michelangelo's art needed no such embellishment. He cursed himself for a Philistine that he had even suggested it.

Below in the town a church bell chimed, the sweet golden sound rising towards him through the cold morning. His own generosity had paid for that bell. It reminded him briefly of the life that had ended with the first touch of Michelangelo's lips on his.

If Julius were to die, could not Domenico live?

 

De Grassis turned to Michelangelo, whose eyes never left the stern figure silhouetted against the sky.

"Master Buonarotti," he said, in a low voice, "I have had the honour of His Holiness's confidence. I know why you are here - and how many years you have both waited for this time."

It was an apology, a vote of sympathy. Michelangelo's hand closed on his shoulder and his head nodded briefly, words impossible in the agony of uncertainty. That they both, in their separate ways, loved this man and would die for him was no longer in any doubt, and this identity made them allies if not friends.

 

At length Julius turned and beckoned. "Michelangelo."

His lover was at his side within seconds, but the older man turned from him and resumed his detailed inspection of the horizon.

"One night," he said, regretfully. "Twenty years of sighing and dreaming, and one night as lovers." There was a bitterness in his tone, although his words were calm, almost wistful.

"There will be other nights," Michelangelo assured him. He leaned closer but took care not to touch him, not recognising this fragile mood.

"In Rome? I wish I thought it possible." He paused, still not turning. "Answer me truthfully, Michele; how much do you love me?"

Michelangelo's reply was vehement and unhesitating. "More than life. More than art."

"More even than that blasted chapel ceiling?"

"A hundred times more."

"And if I were not ... ?"

"A hundred times more still," was the emphatic response.

Julius turned now, stared up into blue eyes that glowed with all the fire of Michelangelo's unquenchable spirit. "Without money, without power, away from Rome and frescoes and marbles and palaces and princes, it would still be the same with us?"

Michelangelo shook his head. "No," he said, firmly. "Not the same. It would be better."

"You would have me give up everything I have worked for all my life in order to spend what remains of that life in poverty as your lover?" Julius asked him, sardonically.

Crestfallen, Michelangelo glanced away - not soon enough to hide the grief that crossed his face.

The older man nodded. "Hmmm. As I thought. De Grassis!"

The messenger hurried over, his face a study in sympathetic concern.

"Holiness?"

Julius reached out a hand which closed around de Grassis' upper arm, his fingers biting deeply into layered dark velvet. He steadied himself against the Captain, took a deep, fortifying breath.

"Be sure you organise a splendid funeral for me," he said, shakily. "No matter where I am in the world I shall hear about it. I suppose," he added, in a lighter tone, "Contessina's wretched brother will be my successor. He's made no secret of wanting to."

Michelangelo spun around, seized him by the shoulders, tore him away from de Grassis and all but shook him, a sacrilege that in any other man would have earned a death warrant.

"What are you saying? What do you mean?"

Paris de Grassis looked from the calm expression of his lord to the shocked countenance of the stonemason, and permitted himself an indulgent smile.

"I think, Master Buonarotti," he said, "I will be riding back to Rome alone."

 

"But where?" demanded Michelangelo, later. De Grassis had gone - with tears and kisses at the end, pledging himself to Julius's service to his last breath - and they sat side by side on the hill above the fortress watching a small merchant vessel flying the della Rovere pennant as it negotiated the harbour entrance.

"Does it matter?" Giuliano asked lazily. "To the East, the South ... As far as what is in my personal treasury will take us, and further by whatever means we can. Any della Rovere ship will take us to Genoa, and from there ... " He shrugged. "Venice, Constantinople ... onward to China, like Marco Polo. Will that please you?"

"To be where you are pleases me," Michelangelo told him simply, taking his hand.

Giuliano grinned at him, the weight of his many responsibilities dropping from his shoulders almost perceptibly. "Perhaps I was wrong about you," he teased. "Perhaps you really are a poet. I hope you are still as fond of my company a year from today when we are two alone and friendless in some unknown land."

"Not two," his lover corrected. "Four."

"Four?"

"Roberto and his brother," Michelangelo supplied. "They must go with us. You've seen how devoted they are to you - it would be a poor reward to leave them behind."

"But Michele - the brother is only a child. There would be no place for them with us."

"There's no place for them here, either, Giuliano," Michelangelo told him, framing his face between large, capable hands. "They are lovers, too. Or did you know that when you set them to guard our bedchamber door?"

"No, I didn't know it then, but I know it now." He stared past Michelangelo's shoulder to where the groom stood with the three horses, and knew a twinge of envy. Love that begins at twenty has time to grow and change and deepen with the seasons; love that begins at fifty must be encompassed in a few short summers. The loyalty of the two young servants was explained, and must now be returned.

"Just as you wish, my love," Giuliano acceded with unfamiliar meekness, giving himself up to the warm rain of kisses that fell on his upturned face.

 

* * *

 

Several weeks later Michelangelo sat, propped against their gradually reducing pile of baggage, on the deck of a shallow Arab boat as it drifted under slow stars down the river Euphrates. Giuliano, exhausted after many days' weary ride across the stony tracks of Asia Minor from Constantinople, lay asleep, his head in his lover's lap, his body swathed in a cloak of dusty Tyrian purple. He had worn himself out haggling in half-remembered classical Greek with the two dhow owners before paying them from the dwindling store of della Rovere gold eagles for this passage into the Gulf of Persia. At Michelangelo's side Giovanni sat, hunched into a ball, his head pillowed on a folded jerkin of his brother's, sleeping cat-like and half alert.

It was Roberto's watch; the three older men had arranged to stay awake in turns, never trusting for one moment the two Arab brothers - at bow and stern in the boat, silent, watching for lights along the nearer shore - not to throw them overboard and divide their belongings between them. Beneath the cloak, Giuliano slept with his drawn sword under his body; a long Arab dagger bought in Constantinople was never far from Michelangelo's side.

Roberto turned from the brazier that glowed red in the waist of the boat. He had been heating the blade of his own dagger to mull wine for himself and Michelangelo; although the days in this godforsaken land were hotter than the eye of hell, the nights had a chill that could slice a man to the bone. The wine hissed in the jug, a gentle sibilance in the silence, as Roberto thrust the blade into it. Swiftly he poured a measure into a goblet and held it out to Michelangelo, unwilling to risk by so much as a word disturbing the sleep of their beloved comrades. In the stern of the boat the Arab heard the slight sound, and his white teeth bared in a smile somewhere between amusement and menace.

Michelangelo nodded his thanks, and Roberto grinned back. In the weeks that had passed the dividing lines between master and servant had blurred beyond recollection: Michelangelo the sculptor fetched water and built fires for cooking; Giuliano, once lord of so much that was powerful, tended the small illnesses and minor injuries that befell them; Giovanni, like some spirit of goodwill, helped them all to smile when it would have been easier to cry and had given them, day after day, the courage to go on. Roberto had been invaluable in every way; buying and selling horses, purchasing provisions, choosing the safest places to sleep. Since the day when they had stood on the cliffs above Ostia and watched Paris de Grassis ride away to Rome to perjure his soul by burying Domenico della Rovere as Julius II they had grown closer through adversity, becoming not merely a group of men who travelled together but a family whose individual members cared for and protected one another.

Michelangelo looked down at the sleeping man, and ran the fingers of his free hand through his tangle of greying hair. Giuliano had given up everything - wealth, position, power - for love of him. Sometimes it seemed incredible that he had chosen to do so, and yet when he thought about it he knew that had the situation been reversed he himself would have discarded such unnecessary burdens for the privilege of spending the rest of his life with this man, wherever and however that life lay.

He glanced up sharply and saw the expression on Roberto's face as he looked from the two of them to his brother and back again. It was an expression of absolute inner peace and contentment: in a hostile land where they understood very little and where enemies were at every hand, it was possible to know this serenity only because they were all together; because they had made good their escape from a world where love such as they knew was at worst a sin and at best a joke and embraced instead a world where they were at liberty to be themselves. Giuliano, despite the weariness that clung to him still, seemed ten years younger than on that day in Ostia, his strength and confidence building with every day that took him further from Rome among people who did not know him.

Yes, it was possible to be happy like this, Michelangelo mused, turning adoring eyes to his sleeping lover. And more than merely happy. This, surely, was the ecstasy Contessina had spoken of when she bullied him into facing the truth. Had she ever imagined that her sharp and perceptive words could lead to this strange, magical result? Well, perhaps she had. He would like to have seen her once more, just to tell her that she had been right; but perhaps, somehow, she already knew.

He lifted his head again, and the bright moon picked out blue tears that swam in his eyes. Roberto met his gaze as that of an equal and slowly, understandingly, nodded his head. Although no word was spoken, the meaning was clear between them. For lovers such as theirs, the world was well lost.

 

* * *

 

From thy fair face I learn, O my loved lord,

that which no mortal tongue can rightly say;

the soul, imprisoned in her house of clay,

holpen by thee to God hath often soared:

 

and though the vulgar, vain, malignant horde

attribute what their grosser wills obey,

yet shall this fervent homage that I pay,

this love, this faith, pure joys for us afford.

 

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Rime 83,

"Veggio nel tuo bel viso, signor mio",

translation by J.A. Symonds

 

* * *