The Golden Blaze
incest, weirdness

With its high-vaulted walls and dark, narrow stacks the library is the best place for romantic trysts. The woods are too wild, the stables too dank, the garage too seedy. One’s own bedroom, of course, is entirely out of the question; too many spyholes and passages between the walls, far too risky.

In her younger years Lucrezia would steal soft-footed into the stacks and slide the dusty tomes aside to spy on her brothers and their lady friends of questionable repute. She is above such behavior now; or rather, she has refined her methods.


Her stepmother’s paints and powders are in different shades than her mother’s. Giulia’s beauty fair and golden where Vanozza’s is dark, exotic. Her makeup and jewelry suits Lucrezia’s own golden fairness and she smiles demurely as she dusts Lucrezia’s cheeks with power, fastens her necklace around Lucrezia’s throat.

Lucrezia smiles at her reflection, dazzled. All the mirrors of her childhood, all the mirrors in her mother’s house, are covered with shawls.

“May I kiss you,” she asks, polite as Miss Porter’s could make her. Giulia pins diamonds to her ears and says, “Only if we are to be friends.”

“We are already friends,” Lucrezia says. And with a mental apology to her mother, she kisses Giulia’s smooth, scented cheek before she returns to admiring herself. Giulia meets her eyes in the vanity mirror, the mistress of her own reflection.


“I’m cold,” she says, in the night, in the shadows. Cesare sits up in the bed and peers blindly around the room. He cannot see in the dark, as she can.

Outside, the wind howls through the eaves. Whipping thin branches against the windows and whispering through the cracks in the walls. The chimes her mother hung in the trees are a constant pealing symphony.

“Lucrezia?” Cesare says, half-awake. She crawls onto the bed beside him and he lifts the covers and blankets for her, letting her slide beneath them, curling close to his body for warmth.

You’re a bad girl, she thinks, as Cesare wraps his arms around her, returning to sleep without a qualm. The wind is an accusation so she tucks her face against her brother’s neck and stops listening.

She is finally warm.


The senator calls for her in his booming voice and pulls Lucrezia to sit on his lap as she did when she was a child. Lucrezia is his favorite, his love, his only daughter and he indulges her as he never does his sons.

“Have you been a good girl, then,” he asks, as though she were six and not sixteen.

“Yes, papa,” she says, though it is not true. She has become a bad girl, a wicked girl, a rose with thorns and not a daisy to be plucked.


Vanozza dei Cattonei, who took back her maiden name when the senator divorced her, is unwell. That’s the story. Lucrezia believes it for her mother certainly seems unwell. She is beautiful still but it is a steely, dignified beauty where once it was lush and sensuous like a dark tropical flower. Her mind is quick still but it is full of dark imaginings and old stories where once it had the shark-sharp political astuteness of a Washington wife.

She wears dark, draping clothes and twines her hair with scarves and feathers. She keeps feral cats and wild birds and her fingers are stained from pomegranates and ink. She looks like someone who would live in a house made of gingerbread, deep in the forest, though in fact the house she got in the divorce is in a quite fashionable neighborhood.

When Lucrezia visits her mother kisses her cheeks and takes her hands to feel for her pulse. “Still strong,” she says. She touches Lucrezia’s spun gold hair and strokes her smooth skin. “Still beautiful,” she says. “Hold on to that.”

“You are still beautiful, too, mother,” Lucrezia says, for she is polite and it is true. Vanozza smiles, rueful, sharp. All the mirrors in her house, and there are not many, are covered with gauzy, lacy shawls that soften and darken everything they reflect. It has been so for all of Lucrezia’s life, though Cesare says he can remember a time when it was not.


When he is away she calls Cesare’s image in the mirror hourly and more than hourly. Just to glimpse him shouldering dark haired and dark eyed through snowy foreign streets brings her a palliative sense of relief.

She calls Juan’s image to see if he is still alive, each time bitterly hoping to see only her own shadowed reflection and the grey veil of the land of the dead.


“Is beauty a weapon?” she asks, disingenuous, and Giulia smiles. She is painting her mouth with a tiny brush. Coral coaxes, red compels.

“It can be deadly. Beauty is power, you know that,” she says. “Your mother must have taught you.”

Lucrezia lifts the glass stopper from bottle of perfume on Giulia’s dresser. The scent of a garden in the rain rises from the wand. Roses and lavender and something earthy and damp. She can almost feel the dew drops on the leaves.

“My mother believes her beauty is gone,” she says to the uncovered gleam of Giulia’s mirror.

Giulia strokes a brush through her hair and lowers her eyelids in a display of languid grace Lucrezia cannot yet imitate.

“Your mother has other weapons.”


Lucrezia puts on a dress, because good girls wear dresses, and brushes her hair, and dabs a minuscule amount of blusher onto her cheeks. She does not call up a vision in her mirror or coax the vase of wilting gardenias on her vanity back into full bloom because that is not what good girls do and she is being a good girl today. Or at least, she is pretending very hard.

She has toast and tea for breakfast because good girls do not drink black coffee and she sits on a chair on the porch with her legs crossed at the ankle reading a book. Alright, so it’s Anais Nin. Being a good girl when you’re not is exhausting.

When a splinter on the porch railing pricks her finger, the falling drop of blood turns the lily it lands on a deep purplish black. Not every part of her can be good.


Giulia taught her about mirrors and perfumes and how to shine by her own illumination but it is her mother who teaches her how to call a lover by painting her mouth red, the color of compulsion, and brushing her hair by candlelight, her mother who taught her to watch through the eyes of the portraits on the wall.

Lucrezia does not sneak behind bookshelves any longer; she peers through the reflections in the window panes, she opens the closed eyes of the paintings in the hall.

She calls Cesare’s image in the mirror. He is walking down a city street, wrapped in a raincoat and his own brooding darkness. She blows a handful of goose down against the glass and he feels a soft, warm wind tug at his collar and kiss his cheeks. For a moment he can smell Lucrezia’s hair. This does not surprise him; he was already thinking of her.

He thinks of her always.


In the garden, by the ornamental fish pond that freezes in winter and breeds mosquitoes in summer, is a weeping willow that used to know all of Lucrezia’s secrets. She would whisper them into its bark and feel her heart lift, unburdened by this act of confession.

When she was a little girl the garden was marvelous; the roses carefully pruned, the hedges manicured, the wild daisies plucked by hand from the lawn. She would wrestle on the grass, shrieking with laughter as her brother tickled her in punishment for some childish indiscretion. (Cesare, that is. She has several brothers but she always means Cesare.) But her mother let the garden grow wild in her illness and Giulia has not yet tried to tame it. The roses ran roughshod over everything else, spreading thorny tangles over lamps and statues, the benches and the gazebo where once there were outdoor luncheons.

Much of the enormous wild rose bushes are dead, but still standing in dry, withered knots, too entrenched in thickets of live thorns to be cut out.


“Giulia Farnese told me perfume is a bottled memory,” Lucrezia says, and her mother, too well bred to snort, makes a fluttering gesture of derision.

“Oh, indeed,” she says. “And I am certain that sort of twaddle works just fine for La Bella Farnese now, but it won’t work forever.” Her sweeping hand takes in the shrouded mirrors and faded velvet couches of her sitting room and ends at her throat, where she grips the strand of pearls the senator gave her on their tenth anniversary.

“I will show you,” she says, “something different.” And she pulls, snapping the strand and casting the pearls to all corners.

Vanozza pricks her finger with a golden needle and lets three drops of blood fall into the small ivory bowl Lucrezia holds. It is old and discolored, yellowish with time and dust and fingerprints and blood.

“This,” Vanozza says as she pours a stinking brown liquid into the bowl, “is power that will not fade.” The scent stings Lucrezia’s eyes. She presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She will not sneeze. She will not cry.

As instructed, she takes one of the fallen pearls from the table. Holding it over the bowl feels momentous; she glances up into her mother’s eyes and, at her nod, drops it with a sharp plink into the spell.

Immediately a thin, blue-grey smoke rises up into a wispy cloud between them. Lucrezia gasps in surprise and the smoke wavers, disturbed. Vanozza smiles in such a way that the wrinkles around her mouth are cast into sharp relief.

And she blows the smoke into Lucrezia’s face.


Her dreams are dark. She sees a light that flickers like fire but burns without color at the center of a clearing in a forest of black trees. As she turns she sees the three statues, rough, ancient, worn. As though they were formed over time by wind and water and earth and no hand of man.

They are crudely shaped but the subject matter is clear. She presses her hands to the bent back of the crone, the curved stomach of the mother, the straight limbs of the maiden.

This is the past, and the future. The trees begin to spin, flashing past like the poles of a carousel. This is all of time.

She falls.

There is a pounding that could be rain or could be her heartbeat. Cesare walks away from her, on a narrow path that leads deep into the shadows. She raises her hands to wave to him but they are covered in paint. Green, for daring what you ought not.

A falcon with Giulia Farnese’s face perches in an ornately wrought golden cage. Her wings are covered in jewels and she is unspeakably beautiful, but Lucrezia can see where the jewels cut into her flesh, bending her feathers to cripple her.

She stands in a hall of mirrors and in every reflection her body wears a different face. One is very young and one is very old. One is a carnival mask with ostrich feathers and faded silk roses. One weeps tears of blood.

If this is power she doesn’t want it. If this is her fate she will run screaming.


They do not see her leave.

Her father, his assistants and guards, even Giulia is blinded by the cloud of ambergris and shadow she pulls over her coat and hair.

There is no one to object when she runs out to the taxi, cutting across the lawn and getting clipped grass all over her shoes. She made a call from the kitchen while she was waiting and where she’s going no one will mind the mud or the grass stains.


Rain turns the streets to vast, shimmering mirrors of water that cast distorted reflections of the trees and the sky and the few unwary souls caught walking. Lucrezia barely feels the cold cutting through her jacket. Her hair pressed to her neck in unruly clumps under her hood, her shoes soaked through and squishing slightly with each step.

Cesare appears in the doorway. Her call must have caught him in a rare moment of relaxation; he’s thrown a heavy coat over his jeans and thin shirt, but neglected to put on any shoes.

He calls out to her when he spots her, bracing his hands on the doorframe and leaning out. Rain begins to flatten his hair.

Lucrezia stops on the edge of the curb, checks for traffic, finds none, and still doesn’t move. She stands on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, staring at her brother across the street. She’s wondering if she could make the rain stop. Probably; she thinks she may have caused it in the first place. An involuntary reflection of her heart.

She’s not wondering why she came here, to Cesare, because she knows perfectly well why, but she’s no longer sure it’s a good idea. She wonders if she cares.

Cesare’s impatience and concern finally outweigh his misgivings about walking the city streets barefoot and he leaves the doorway, calling to her again. Lucrezia can’t move for looking at him, for how it twists her heart. Rain slips past his coat collar and begins to darken his shirt. He steps into the street.

Something on her face must tell him of her distress (she’ll have to ask him about it; she can’t feel her own expression) because he’s halfway across and practically running by the time Lucrezia manages one step off the curb. She takes another without looking away from her brother’s face, feeling the inevitability of events crystallizing around her. The heel of her boot slips on a clump of wet leaves, there’s a sloshing sound and a smell of tree rot over the clean scent of the rain and her next step is a stumbling prolonged fall and she can’t get her feet under her but Cesare’s only two steps away. He takes them running and when he catches her his momentum nearly takes them both down.

They cling to each other, fighting for balance and Cesare is calling her name like an incantation but Lucrezia is drowning in the smell of wet leaves and the darkness of Cesare’s eyes and she cannot speak.

“Lucrezia? Lucrezia!?” and his face is worried and his feet must be freezing and her only answer is to kiss him. It’s cold and wet and her mouth is nearly numb but it’s a kiss, still. They’ve kissed before and Cesare doesn’t look particularly shocked but he can tell this is something different because he pulls back and isn’t smiling, still worried for her.

He tries ineffectually to brush her hair back from her face, accidentally pushing her hood down in the process. The rain now falls freely against her face and hair, dribbling lines of ice down her shirt. “Lucrezia?” he says again, and she gives him the only answer that matters.

“Yes,” she says. And she kisses him like the sky is falling. Like the lights are going out forever. Like they’re standing in the rain in the middle of the street on the edge of winter and this is all that there ever was or ever will be.



Her coat falls, a puddle of rainwater seeping into the floorboards. Cesare’s coat lands on a chair where it begins to drip, a steady sound that neither of them will notice.


Cesare’s hands tangle in her hair, the wet strands sticking to her neck, catching between their mouths. She turns the kiss wicked, bites at his lip, clicks their teeth together. Cesare makes a sound that could almost be called a growl and runs his hands down her back to pull her close.


The zipper of her dress is stubborn and she fights with it alone, hands behind her back, because Cesare is hesitating.

“Lucrezia…?” he says, like he’s unsure, suddenly and his voice trails off.

She hears the creak of stretching fabric. “Yes,” she says, like the answer to a question. The zipper finally gives.


Cesare has to peel her out of her dress, her stockings. Not a single inch of her is dry. They leave their clothes where they fall, Cesare’s shirt half inside out, and the first slide of skin on skin has them shuddering together, cold and clammy though they are. They kiss like it’s inevitable, a foregone conclusion.


She touches him without hesitation or surprise, like she’d learned his body from years of hugs and wrestling matches and spying and finds nothing now that she did not expect.

He touches her like she’s made of porcelain that is somehow miraculous. Living, breathing, golden perfection. He learns her body carefully, slowly, until she takes him by the hair and holds him down, takes what she wants. Leaves no question that everything he is, is hers.


The rain hasn’t slackened at all, pounding the thin windows with unflagging enthusiasm. They drag the blankets back onto the bed and lie beneath them, curling close less for the warmth than for the comfort of touch.

He kisses her, sweet and slow and deep, and says, “Lucrezia, my love, we do need to talk.”

Lucrezia sighs, and drags his mouth back to hers for a stolen moment.

“Yes,” she says.


Cesare is in business school but he lives in a dilapidated industrial loft with tar-sealed single pane windows and exposed brick and no water pressure like some kind of starving artist. Their father calls it boyish rebellion.

Rain plinks against the windows and dribbles down the wall in the corner, splashes into an otherwise unused cooking pot. The bare floor boards are freezing on Lucrezia’s feet as she creeps from the warm cocoon of blankets in Cesare’s shirt and a batik-printed robe she found on the floor, to make instant coffee over the stained kitchen sink.

She scurries back with the coffee steaming in two mismatched cups and Cesare rearranges the blankets over their shoulders so they can sit and sip the scalding, grainy liquid.

“This is terrible,” she says, wrinkling her nose. She keeps drinking it, though. It and the press of Cesare’s body beside her are the only available sources of warmth.

“You’ll get better,” Cesare says, smiling, and at her look, adds, “Or I could just go buy coffee, I suppose,” but he doesn’t, and neither does he insist they talk. Instead he puts on a record and they lace their fingers together and lie in bed, listening to Famous Blue Raincoat and the rain and hiding from the world.


Cesare kisses her bare shoulder once, and then again, lingering, before he rolls out of bed. She misses his warmth beside her with a visceral ache.

He dresses quickly in the chill air. Hopping into dry jeans and pulling a clean shirt from the drawer. He holds out a sweater to her, grey and stiff at the cuffs and obviously new. She shakes her head, pulling his shirt and some unknown girlfriend’s robe closer around her shoulders.

It is still raining, soft now, like a benediction against the windows. Cesare hesitates, fidgeting with the folds of the rejected sweater.

“Lucrezia,” he says, and stops. Starts again, “My love, we have to talk.” He sounds apologetic, regretful. He cannot look at her. We have to talk.

He means the sex, her boldness in pushing the question between them, the fact that they are siblings, but instead she says, “What if I told you that this world, the world that you see, was only a pale wash over the rest of things.”

Cesare frowns, laughs a little. “What, my love?”

“What if I told you that mother and Giulia Farnese and… and I… that we practiced a kind of cruel magic. Would you believe me, brother?”

He is frowning in earnest now. “Lucrezia,” he says, firm, prepared to chastise her like a child and not the woman he held in his arms.

“This is not a game, Cesare, I mean it,” she cries, but he is edging back, slipping away from her. There is a tiny hole in the neck of his Yankees shirt. Blue for cruel bargains.

Lucrezia takes hold of a loose thread in the blanket, of the maelstrom of light inside her, she takes a breath.

She calls the storm back.


Cesare drives her back to the manor. The road is wet and the pavement dark where it peeks through the carpet of bright leaves. Mist clings to the trees like shreds of ghosts and makes of the familiar turnings a mystery; the road to fairyland, or some darker place.

In her mother’s stories fairyland is a dark place, full of traps and terrors. In Giulia’s stories it is a bright court with dancing and feasting and games. Lucrezia is learning to see how both stories might be true.

They drag their feet up the cobbled path to the door, wrapped in their own separate dreads. Cesare has not looked at her once. She will not stand for this.

She touches his cheek, forces him to face her. “There is nothing,” she says, low and certain and resonant, “between us that we need be ashamed of.” She chose her borrowed shirt carefully and pink insists and he believes her.

He smiles, faint and crooked and all for her and he gives her hand a reassuring squeeze.

Lucrezia Borgia kisses her brother, lifts her chin, and walks into the house where she finds her mother and stepmother taking tea.

They rise to greet her as an equal.


The garden smells of leaf rot and overblown roses. The lawn squishes underfoot, mud and fallen leaves sticking to her shoes.

Lucrezia wraps her hand around one thorny stem, and where the drops of her blood fall the ground smokes slightly. There will be wild iris come spring.

Violet for brute force.


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