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The Borgias and the "New World"

First map of the "New World," unknown in the Borgia's time

A post, edited,  from 2012:

Showtime has Juan Borgia bringing presents to his father the pope from "the New World."   Though Roderigo Borgia had much to do with the future of the New World, this didn't happen. In fact, Juan's  repeated  reference to "the New World"  is one of several anachronisms in this episode.


Here are the facts:  though  Columbus "discovered" America the same year that Roderigo Borgia became pope, both went to their graves believing that Columbus  had "discovered" the spice islands, such as Ceylon and Borneo, that are east of India, but west of Europe. This is why  the islands south of Florida  were called "the West  Indies" and  their natives "Indians," labels that have stuck.  The "New World" was a phrase coined later, when persistent efforts to reach India finally made it obvious that  there was a land mass--portrayed as a long skinny island on the first New World map, featured above-- between Europe and Asia, namely North and South America.  (My second book, Da Vinci Detects, tells this story when it actually occurs, showing why two continents carry an obscure Italian's first name, which fortunately was  not something common like "Luigi" or Giorgio."  Can you imagine North and South Luigi?) 


The Borgias never knew about this.  They died too early to know.


What about "conquistadores," the soldiers Juan presented to his father as gifts from Spain? Undoubtedly, Columbus tried to bring Christianity to "the West Indies."  But "conquistador" means "conqueror"   a term that stems from Spain's later attempts to "conquer" the New World and its inhabitants.  Once they knew it was there.  So this, too, is an anachronism.


What about the cigars?  Columbus did bring tobacco back from "the West Indies."  So Pope Alexander could have enjoyed a cigar.  It is unlikely, however. It was an oddity, not a commodity, at the time. (Cigars are featured as an exotic luxury in my third book, Martin Luther, Machiavelli and Murder,  which takes place ten years later.)


Nonetheless,  Pope Alexander VI  had a great deal to do with the history of the Americas.  In fact, he is the reason  why Brazilians speak Portuguese.  He settled a dispute between Spain and Portugal over the "islands"  they each discovered, by choosing a longitude line to delineate their claims.  Spain got the better deal—everything west of Brazil, which sticks out into the Atlantic.  But Portugal got Brazil.  And Brazilians got Portuguese.  And but for the later Protestant Reformation,  all of us in America would speak Spanish.  Because Pope Alexander enforced the boundary he established  with the threat of excommunication from the Church.  (I capitalize "church" because there was only one, back then.)


The other glaring anachronism in this episode is the use of guns resembling muskets by the army of Il Moro, who rescues Caterina Sforza. ( By the way, this never happened.  See my blog titled, "Caterina Sforza: What a Woman.")  The first such weapons, "arquebuses," were very heavy, and  probably fired from the ground, like mortars.   And "arquebusiers"—squads of  footsoldiers armed with "arquebuses"– didn't exist in Juan Borgia's lifetime, at least not in Italy.


So Showtime was off by a decade or two, here and there.  So what?  It was five hundred years ago. The Showtime writers have succeeded beautifully in showing that the Borgias came to power at a colorful and critical point in the history of western civilization.  It's better history than you will find in most TV series.


If you want to know what really happened during the Borgia papacy  and have fun while learning it,  read my  e-mystery, "A Borgia Daughter Dies."  The murder mystery is fiction but the background history is accurate.  It's available on Amazon and Smashwords, for all e-readers as well as for PC's.  Enjoy.


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Did Cesare Borgia Kill Juan Borgia?

Believed to be Juan Borgia 

A post from 2012:


Did Cesare Borgia kill Juan Borgia?


In my  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, the first corpse is plucked from the Tiber by the same fisherman who found Juan's body, and became famous because. . . .well, enough of that. If you want to know, A Borgia Daughter Dies will tell you exactly what happened and when, in a fun way.

Cesare Borgia may well have killed  his brother Juan, or had him killed,  to escape from ecclesiastical orders and become the chief soldier of the papacy.  But no one knows for sure.  It's obvious that his own father suspected him, from the pope's  behavior at the time.  Ultimately,  Cesare either persuaded his father that the accusation was false, or the pope decided  to forgive his most competent son.  Pope Alexander VI  could forgive much, but it seems unlikely he could forgive fratricide, particularly since his love for Juan was made clear by the extremes of his mourning.  So I vote for Cesare's powers of persuasion.


It is very unlikely that Lucrezia had anything to do with Juan's murder, contrary to the Showtime miniseries. Juan did not threaten  baby Giovanni Borgia, who was born after Juan died.  And Juan didn't kill Lucrezia's lover, who was not named Paolo and was not a stable boy.  Cesare  did.  (See my earlier blog on this subject, if you want the details. Or read A Borgia Daughter Dies.)


But there were certainly other suspects.   The Showtime series could have blamed Caterina Sforza, who had vowed vengeance for Juan's treatment of her son. These events were fictional, but in real life Juan had botched  a siege of an Orsini  castle, and the Orsini were angry because  Virginio Orsini had died abruptly in the Castel Sant'Angelo, where the pope had imprisoned him for siding with the French army in the recent invasion.  They were sure Virginio was poisoned, and he may well have been.  Secret vengeance by killing a relative was part of the vendetta culture in Italy at the time, and the Orsini /Borgia vendetta dated back at least to the reign of the first Borgia pope, Calixtus III.  And the nine stab wounds, all over Juan's body and legs, suggest multiple assailants who wanted vengeance.  Cesare and Michelotto were killers, but they were rational and efficient ones.  Something that messy doesn't seem like their style.


There were also rumors that a wronged husband, father or brother killed Juan, who was definitely pushy, arrogant  and promiscuous. One thing is certain: it wasn't a robbery.  Juan's body still bore a rich purse when it was pulled from the Tiber. And the fisherman who found it became famous because. . . . Oh, right.  You can read  the story in A Borgia Daughter Dies.  I believe the first pages are free--you can easily  find the answer there. 




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Did the Borgia's kill Prince Djem?

Believed to be Prince Djem, with Lucrezia Borgia. In the  Borgia apartments, the Vatican 

Did the Borgias kill Prince Djem?

Prince Djem, portrayed in the Borgia Showtime miniseries, was the brother of the Sultan of Turkey.  He was a real historical figure, thought to be the turbaned figure to the left of Lucrezia Borgia  in this painting, found in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican.   But he was a middle aged man with grown children, who died later than shown in the Showtime series, and probably wasn't poisoned. However, he was widely rumored to have been poisoned by the Borgias–even though this was virtually impossible.


Showtime has seized on the rumor, put it in a different time frame, added a character to the plot who wasn't there (Juan Borgia), and turned rumor into fact. Great story, but very bad history.


Here's the real story:  The Sultan of Turkey was paying  Pope Alexander VI 40,000 ducats a year–an enormous sum–to keep Prince Djem a pampered prisoner, because Djem was a  threat to the Sultan's throne.  At some point, the Sultan offered the pope 300,000 ducats to do away with Djem entirely.  The Turkish envoy who carried this message was somehow compromised, and the bribe became public knowledge. Renaissance Italians loved to gossip, so the entire aristocracy–all of whom hated this powerful and capable pope–knew about it.  For this reason, when Djem died, the Italian aristocracy and eventually the  public believed the pope had somehow poisoned him.


But there are problems with this inference, both factual and logical. Facts:  Prince Djem was a hostage of the King of France, an enemy of the pope, when he died, many miles from Rome. And, despite the fact that the Vatican kept good financial records even in those days, there is no trace of those 300,000 ducats the pope supposedly received. Ivan Cloulas, a scholar of the Borgias who does not sugarcoat what they did, believes the symptoms Djem displayed are consistent with pneumonia.  All I have read about is abdominal pains–why not a ruptured appendix?  The fact is, being a hostage was not a healthy occupation, and  people died young in those days.  It is a stretch to assume the pope managed to poison someone despite a long separation in space and time from Rome.


But wait: Cesare Borgia had been a hostage with Djem, but escaped earlier. (A later episode of the miniseries portrays his escape.)  Conceivably Cesare somehow administered a long-acting poison before escaping.  But this conclusion  requires difficult assumptions– among them, that  Cesare was able to conceal poison, and actually had access to Djem when they were both prisoners of the King of France.


Setting aside the logistic difficulties, the pope's motive is very questionable.  Even assuming he was evil enough to kill someone in cold blood, purely for money (which I doubt), he had a guaranteed annuity of 40,000 ducats a year if he simply kept Djem safe.  Why would he give it up for 300,000 ducats, when he had no way of forcing the Sultan of Turkey to pay up, once Djem was dead? Christians then didn't trust Turks, putting it mildly.  Pope Alexander, a wily and intelligent man, surely realized that if the Sultan disavowed his 300,000 ducat offer as a forgery or simply refused to pay, there was no way to force the issue. On the other hand, if the Sultan defaulted on his 40,000 ducat stipend for keeping Djem safe and far away, all the pope had to do was threaten to send Djem back to Turkey to get his payment.


Pope Alexander may have been evil, but no one has ever accused him of stupidity.  It is very unlikely he ordered the murder of Prince Djem, and even less likely that he could have poisoned a prisoner of the King of France.


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The Borgia women

Believed to be an early portrait of Lucrezia Borgia, from "The Disputation of St. Catherine" by Pinturrichio, the Vatican, Rome 

A post from 2012: 

The  Showtime Borgia series shows the pope's current mistress, Giulia Farnese, teaming up with his daughter Lucrezia and  his former mistress Vanozza (Lucrezia's mother) to reform corruption among the cardinals of the Church. Did this happen?


Not a chance. It isn't even an accurate portrayal of these women, from what little we know of them.


About Vanozza we know this much: she was a former courtesan and the acknowledged mother of Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Gioffre Borgia, four of Alexander's nine acknowledged children.  She had three husbands, all of whom were chosen by Alexander to help her become (semi) respectable. If she and  Alexander still had a sexual relationship when Giulia was his mistress, they were very discreet about it.  She did not maintain rooms in the papal palace, and certainly did not take care of the infant Giovanni Borgia, whom no one acknowledged as Lucrezia's child (and who may not have been Lucrezia's child–see my blog, "Lucrezia pregnant in a convent?"). There is no evidence that Vanozza was a social reformer.


Similarly, we know little about Giulia Farnese, except that she was barely older than Lucrezia, reputedly the most beautiful woman in Italy (known simply as "La Bella Giulia" or "La Bella"), and the mother of yet another of the pope's children, a girl named Laura.


Showtime has built up La Bella Giulia at the expense of Lucrezia.  From what  we know about Giulia, she was timid and flaky. She was not off rescuing Lucrezia, as showni in the Showtime series, but instead visitng a sick brother at the time of King Charles VIII's invasion of Italy. She ignored increasingly frantic orders from the pope to return and was captured by the French army when she tried to do so. (Contrary to Showtime, Lucrezia was safe in Rome at the time.) The French king was chivalrous enough to grant her safe conduct without even demanding a ransom. Given the atrocities his army was committing at the time, she was very lucky.


The experience evidently rattled Giulia, however, who fled with her child when the French army later approached Rome from the south after capturing Naples. Pope Alexander never saw her or Laura again. In other words, after the middle of Season 2, even Giulia's presence is fiction.


Showtime assigned character traits to Giulia that really belonged to Lucrezia, who was bright and educated. Lucrezia was  fluent in Latin, judging by her library.  When she was still in her early teens, Pope Alexander acknowledged her intelligence and judgment  by having her painted as Saint Catherine of Antioch, dazzling the Byzantine Emperor with her knowledge and rhetorical skills. That's her above, wearing a turban and counting her arguments on her fingers, as Saint Catherine does in legend. Lucrezia is the center of this vast painting, a tremendous tribute. When she was older, Pope Alexander often had her sit with him when he held court, made her Governor of Spoleto (where she instituted various reforms), and even had her run the Vatican in his absence.


So if any of the of Borgia women could have reformed the corrupt cardinals, it would have been Lucrezia.  But she didn't, nor did anyone else until Martin Luther got things started fourteen years after Alexander died.  But that is another story

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Did the Borgias poison Cardinal Orsini?

Portrait of a cardinal, by Raphael 

A post from 2012: 

The Borgias may well have poisoned Cardinal Orsini.  But it didn't happen until years after the Showtime series shows it, and certainly not in the manner shown.


Here is the real story of Cardinal Orsini's alleged poisoning: in 1503,  Alexander had him  thrown in the Castel Sant'Angelo,  where he died abruptly without a mark on him.  The pope had his body displayed publicly, to quell rumors of poison. It didn't work.


Pope Alexander VI already had a reputation as a poisoner because he imprisoned many powerful Italians when he confiscated their land, which had once belonged to the papacy.  Many of his prisoners died abruptly and mysteriously.The Italian aristocracy, who hated the land seizures and Alexander, screamed "poison," as well as accusing the Borgias of many other nasty things, some of which  are likely true. But rumors that would have died abruptly in previous generations were preserved and "went viral," Renaissance style, because of a new invention: the printing press. Libel became fact, without careful examination.


The sheer number of prisoners who died while in Pope Alexander's custody is powerful support for the theory that they were poisoned. Modern criminal defense lawyers, however, would quickly shred the case against the pope. There is nothing to prove that Alexander ordered the poisonings, assuming they occurred. Why not suspect Cesare Borgia or his hired assassin Michelotto, who were known killers?  Or some underling who assumed he would be rewarded for eliminating the Borgias' enemies?  Were prisoners forced to drink the prison well water, and was it somehow contaminated?  The Castel Sant'Angelo is not more than 100 feet from the Tiber, which had been a sewer for centuries. Cardinal Orsini was middle aged, debauched and outraged at his imprisonment–might he have suffered a heart attack? Or died from one of the many natural causes that  constantly caused premature deaths in this unhealthy era?  It is all speculation.


Lucrezia Borgia's  reputation as a poisoner is largely derived from a 19th century opera by Donizetti, whose libretto is pure fantasy (as opera usually is).  Though some contemporaries labeled Lucrezia a poisoner along with the rest of her family, no one ever identified her supposed victim(s), much less a motive. Unquestionably, Lucrezia suffered guilt by assocation with her infamous father and brothers. She was no angel, but it's unlikely she was a killer.


For a fun and accurate history of the Borgias read my mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, which you can get here: or on Smashwords. Also available in paperback.  



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The Borgias and New Technology: Cannons, Muskets, the Printing Press and Incest Rumors

Arquebus from around the time of the Borgias

A blog from 2012: 

The Borgia miniseries has highlighted some of the technological advances of the Renaissance, to its credit. The writers haven't always gotten the details right, but they are good at showing the essence.


Take the advances in warfare of the time. The cannon figures heavily in the second season, for good reason. By the Borgias' time, iron shot and better gunpowder produced cannons  that could smash through city walls like dry bread. Yet they were still uncommon. So when Cesare Borgia began the systematic retaking of the Papal States with seventeen cannon in tow, he had the Renaissance equivalent of the atom bomb.


The Showtime  Borgia miniseries also touches on the first use of smaller guns. In the completely fictional scene where Il Moro rescues Caterina Sforza from the clutches of Juan Borgia, there is an equally fictional glimpse of Il Moro's army brandishing the forerunner of the musket, the arquebus. The guns look right but they are held wrong, and they repeat fire which is centuries in the future. The first arquebuses were more like mortars than muskets, meant to stand on a tripod or hook to a stationary object ("arque" means "hook"). They were heavy and unwieldy, so Il Moro's men could not have held them like spears. But the first battle featuring a squadron of arquebusiers happened right around that time, a portent of the future. So the Showtime series is right to showcase the arquebus.


Another Renaissance innovation was double entry bookkeeping, as noted by Lucrezia, Vanozza and Giulia in the completely fictional account of their campaign to end the accurately portrayed corruption of the cardinals of the Church.


The miniseries so far has not focused on the enormous effect of the printing press on the Borgia family, which came to power roughly sixty years after its invention. Rome had a number of presses by the time Alexander was pope, and his enemies used them effectively.


For example: the rumors of incest between Lucrezia and her father and brother had their genesis in a spiteful letter written by her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, to his cousin Cardinal Ascenio Sforza, complaining that the pope would not send Lucrezia to him because "he wants her for himself." The Italian verb, "to want," has the same ambiguities as its English equivalent. Whatever Giovanni Sforza meant, rumors soon accused the pope and his daughter of incest, then enlarged to include Cesare as part of an incestuous triangle.


In an earlier era, the rumors would have died out rapidly. But Roman poets–the yellow journalists of their time– sold sheets of doggerel about the alleged incest, which were a big hit with the Roman public. Written texts like the Bible had been revered for centuries, so people may have believed what was in print (much the way the public treated internet rumors in the early days).  And what was rumor went into the "histories" of the time as fact.


The Borgia miniseries has to date  ignored this nasty rumor, to its credit.  Ignoring the printing press, though–that's a big omission.



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Fact and Fiction about the Borgia family

Get it on Amazon and Smashwords 

A post from 2012: 

Since the Showtime Borgia series began I have been pointing out what is fact and what is fiction. (I know the difference because I worked hard to keep the history accurate in my historical mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies.)  The series has  strayed further and further from the historical record, and become stranger and stranger in the process. The truth about the Borgias is so dramatic and bizarre that it's hard to understand why Showtime felt it necessary to create so much fiction.


 If you want to learn  the true history of the Borgias  in a fun way, read my  e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies, which is getting great reviews on Amazon.  If you have any difficulty telling fact from fiction you can look at the Cast of Characters and Afterword at the back and sort things out right away. Get it here:


Season 3  so far is completely fictional, though Lucrezia Borgia did marry Alfonso of Naples. While there were undoubtedly assassination attempts on Pope Alexander–Caterina Sforza sent him a gift wrapped in blankets from a plague victim, for example- none came close to success until–well, I'll  save that for later. Suffice it to say, nothing happened remotely resembling  the poisoning and attempted stabbing we have seen in the past few episodes.(Did any one notice that Showtime has now killed Cardinal Orsini twice? Ironically, in the historical chronology he hasn't died yet.)


The characters no longer bear much resemblance to the historical figures, either. Instead, Cesare Borgia,  who was a sociopath, probable rapist and the worst of the family is being portrayed as a relative innocent, while the one innocent in the family–his sister Lucrezia, who was by all accounts an admirable and capable woman–has been turned into an incestuous whore. For shame, Showtime!



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Did Lucrezia Borgia poison the king of Naples and other musings

Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli

A post from 2012:

Hooray!  The Showtime Borgia miniseries actually features some real history in third season Episode 6, giving me something to blog about!


Did Lucrezia poison the king of Naples, though? Definitely not.  First, the King of Naples in 1499—when this episode supposedly occurs—died in France in 1504. Second, Lucrezia never acknowledged  baby Giovanni as her son—and he may not have been her son–so the whole premise for poisoning the king is fiction. (See more about that at  Finally, she and Alfonso, who were married in the Vatican (shocking!), never went to Naples together.


I resent that Showtime is  making Lucrezia into a villainess, and her brother Cesare into a relatively likeable figure.  In real life, it was the opposite.  Showtime is slandering a (relatively) innocent woman, and minimizing the conduct of a sociopath.


The rest of this episode, however, has a lot of truth in it.  The pope, not Cesare, initiated the alliance with France. But Cesare did bring the new French king a papal bull allowing the king's divorce, and did marry a French princess.

The French king did lend the pope an army to begin re-conquering the Romagna, also known as "the Papal States." This had been a papal goal for centuries. But the papacy was weak until Alexander came along, because of the "Babylonian Captivity" that took the popes to France and the "Great Schism" that created multiple popes who spent all their time excommunicating each other.


Pope Alexander maintained that his wars were for the papacy, not for the Borgias—a point the Showtime writers seem confused about.  Granted, it's  likely Alexander would have arranged for a permanent Borgia territory in the Romagna had he lived long enough, just as his predecessor Pope Sixtus "gave" Forli  to Caterina Sforza's first husband, Pope Sixtus' "nephew"/ illegitimate son.  But Alexander's ostensible purpose was laudable, from a papal perspective, whatever his ulterior motives.


One last note about this episode:  Caterina Sforza did send the pope a gift, wrapped in the blanket of a plague victim.  With real history like that, why do the Showtime writers keep making things up?


For a complete  and fun history of this period, the Borgia family and Caterina Sforza (among others), read A Borgia Daughter Dies , which is getting great reviews on Amazon, see   Versions for Nook/Apple and other miscellaneous e-readers are available at

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Borgia incest: fact or fiction?

Raphael's blond Madonna 

A blog from 2012: 


History reverberates with rumors that the Borgias-father, son Cesare and daughter Lucrezia–committed incest. The Italian aristocracy hated the Borgias and loved to start nasty rumors about them.  In my RealHistory e-mystery, A Borgia Daughter Dies,  I do my best to sort rumor from fact and fiction, showing the source of the incest rumors, and why I don't believe them.


Showtime could have taken the high road and avoided the rumors all together, since they are unlikely to be true. (See But judging from the preview to the third season, it appears Showtime is  taking the lowest of low roads: pretend there was incest, and blame it on Lucrezia. This is blaming the victim in the story.


The Borgia men did some very bad things–I've blogged about a number of them. In contrast, the worst we know about Lucrezia is that she may have had a baby out of wedlock. As  A Borgia Daughter Dies  shows, the probable father is known and it was not a family member, much less the fictional Paolo from the Showtime series. (See above post; also see .


The historical record shows  Lucrezia  as a charming and intelligent woman who was an excellent administrator–the pope actually made her governor of Spoleto, where she instituted various reforms, and had her running the papacy at one point.  It seems unlikely he would extend this level of trust to her if he were sexually abusing her.  She eventually became known as "the good Duchess" and was widely admired for her good works.  Why pick on her?


Guilt by association is  probably inevitable for the one good person in a bad family. Lucrezia's bad rep likely stems from a Donizetti opera, written several hundred years after she died, which (like most operas) bears no resemblance to historical reality.  She has been labeled a poisoner, but no contemporary or historian has ever identified her supposed victim(s).


In contrast, Cesare, Juan and the pope were surrounded with corpses. The pope regularly put enemies in the Castel Sant'Angelo, from which they soon emerged feet first, without a mark on them.  This is how he got labelled a poisoner. Though he may not always have deserved the label (see for example, at least we can see where it came from.



If you want to learn the real story of the Borgias in a fun way, check out A Borgia Daughter Dies,   which has persistently gotten 4 out of 5 stars on on Amazon,  after 160+ reviews.  It's also available on Apple ibooks, and for Nook on Smashwords.


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"A Real Work of Historical Fiction--Ten Stars!!!"

A blog from 2013: 


This reader understands what I as an author try to do--and enjoys it! I swear she is a total stranger to me.  



5.0 out of 5 stars Finally! A REAL WORK OF HISTORICAL FICTION!!!, May 17, 2013

Ignatza – See all my reviews
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This review is from: A Borgia Daughter Dies (Kindle Edition)
I wish there were a "plus" rating for Amazon! I love History – especially European and obviously church history. This book is only .99 on Kindle. It is worth the money. It is finally a work of historical fiction that doesn't just throw in bits and pieces of History but uses that History as background (and, I apologize, but I do not mean "background" as in what they wore or how they adorned their homes). BRAVO for the author!!! If you enjoy a good story and an intriguing and accurate historical background, spend the $.99!!! I downloaded a sample due to being unsure of "historical fiction" novels. I have a degree in History and I do not enjoy quasi-historical romance novels. I downloaded it around 1:30-2:00a.m. and couldn't put it down. I have not finished it due to it being early morning but I wanted to give the author props!!! I only happened upon it this morning while looking for something to read. Even if you are not a "history buff", you will enjoy this. Those of us who are "historical purists" will appreciate the author's intense research and clarification in the form of an afterward of the times when she strayed from the strict history. 10 STARS!!!


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