Just before dawn, while dreams softened his sleeping mind, Chiaro knew the truth.
He could never save Cesare. He knew this with the certainty of a prophet. Had always known it, even before he declared to Niccolò the sorcerer that Cesare should live. Cesare should have that choice, Chiaro insisted. Chiaro would help control the demons possessing Cesare, and deliver him through death, if necessary. But when dreams haunted his half-asleep mind, he knew his confident proclamation was empty, rang false. In reality, he could never countenance killing Cesare, then or now.
That day, when he met a dazed Cesare wandering through the ruins, it wasn’t pity that stayed his hand. Juan’s malicious taunts about Cesare’s fate had inspired pity, yes. But it was the brokenness he saw in Cesare’s eyes that stopped him. The hopelessness he saw mirrored in his own eyes, that no matter what he did, it would never be enough. Oh, how he understood it. If he was honest with himself, Chiaro had always known, even before he met Cesare, that no matter how many people he killed, nothing he did could save his father. But the resignation of a sacrificial lamb, facing the knife! At that moment Cesare had been beautiful, so achingly beautiful, tears enhancing the brilliance of his eyes, the pallor lending his skin a marble perfection. Perhaps he couldn’t be the one to run his fingers through that soft hair and kiss those tears away, but he couldn’t be the executioner, either. Not to this boy who offered up his throat, who embraced death with an agonizing mixture of despair and relief.
Then, the terror that stopped his heart, when Cesare jumped.
Chiaro didn’t remember how he raced down to Cesare’s side so quickly, even though he knew the fall should have been fatal. He didn’t understand the staggering relief he felt at the faint heartbeat struggling in Cesare’s ribcage. At least, he told himself so while awake.
Dreams told a different story. Of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he wanted.
Cesare’s skin had been so pale, so soft. The demons had peeled the clothing away from his lithe body, cradling it in the mockery of an embrace. He’d nearly rushed to Cesare’s side without thinking, but for the sorcerer’s warning that it was Cesare’s only chance at survival. So he watched as the darkness violated Cesare, flinching at every sound from the hoarse throat, every twist of the tortured body. The tendrils of demonic power held Cesare so possessively, like a jealous lover. The moans torn from Cesare’s throat were anguished, his waking mind insisted, but his dreams twisted them into something darker and far more sinister. Was it a dream or a memory that Cesare’s long legs, so shapely even then, spread just a bit wider, hips pushing up ever so slightly against the darkness that plundered his body? When those lips parted with another long moan, had there been a thread of drugged ecstasy mixed in the agony?
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. It was a sacrilege. It was desecration of everything holy, this coupling of demons and an innocent. But the infernal forces hadn’t stopped their work at Cesare alone. An insidious voice with a forked tongue whispered temptation in every breath, inviting him to look closer, to see just what kind of touch evoked this sound, that twist of hips. This angel was already a fallen one, his body given to the darkness just as his soul was promised. So what was one more act of desecration? What damage could he do if he touched that midnight hair or caressed the pale skin? If he plunged into the depth of that ravaged body that writhed as if enticing him to come take the demons’ place? And Chiaro was horrified at his own temptation to go and claim for himself that body, held displayed so invitingly, and turn those moans into screams.
Chiaro recoiled, feeling ill. He had never thought himself capable of such darkness, with impulses fitting more for a beast than human. But the desire to seize and conquer was so powerful, so overwhelming, that any desire to help and cherish and protect was all but eclipsed. Caught between the two, Chiaro did not – could not – move, even when the sorcerer warned him.
“It might be better to just kill him. This boy wanted to die with a human heart.”
Yes. Yes. And – no.
If Chiaro was capable of saving Cesare, he he would have done it that night, before the demons finished their work and left Cesare’s naked body curled up in an exhausted slumber. Or he could even have done it after, as Cesare slept, and granted him a quick and painless death. He did neither, because he was selfish. Because he was a coward. Because he couldn’t bear to let Cesare die, but he couldn’t dare to claim him, either.
All he could do was stay and watch with longing and then look away. Always, he couldn’t help being acutely aware of those dark eyes follow his every movement, yet he was unable to look back. Because he was afraid the answer might be yes if he asked, and then there would be truly no turning back. So he held Lucrezia instead, with all the gentleness he could muster, because she was small and fragile and a part of Cesare and it was okay to be gentle and loving to her the way he never could with Cesare. Because there was no reason (every reason) he shouldn’t want her (but he did, he wanted because she wanted and her, he could want). Because in her arms, he could chase away her nightmares and pretend he never had any in the first place.
So every night, Chiaro went to sleep praying he wouldn’t dream – and got up every morning wishing he’d never woken.