There is a moment, Antonio knows, when he could have turned his current predicament from tragedy to mere misadventure. Several, in fact. Perhaps had he chosen soon enough, he might have been spared the sight of the person he has come to value most in the world staring past him, while bestowing a besotted gaze on a bride he barely knows.
It has been some time since Antonio has found himself capable of making anything resembling a smart choice.
So here he sits, supposed guest of a Duke he suspects would still as soon execute as entertain him. The servants of the estate assure him he is not under arrest, though the frequency with which they come plying refreshments or inquiring after his comfort make it clear he will not be able to slip away at this point without causing some commotion.
He thinks he preferred imprisonment. This time, there is no hope Sebastian will come to rescue him from this ordeal, unless it is to say goodbye.
Instead, it is Sebastian’s sister he finds waiting for him, when he is finally escorted to one of the drawing rooms. He does not recognize her at first, with her short hair tucked beneath a pearl-studded velvet hood, while the bodice of her gown reveals a figure he can scarce believe the Duke’s livery kept so well-concealed. Then she smiles, warm and eager and just the slightest bit unsure all at once, and his heart breaks anew with the knowledge he will never see that look on Sebastian’s face untinged by guilt again.
“When your official pardon has been granted,” she says, as though she already holds the authority to make such promises (although perhaps she does; she certainly carries herself with a duchess’s confidence), “both Illyria and Messaline will wish to honor the great service you have done. A naval commission, perhaps…”
Under other circumstances, such an offer would satisfy even the grandest ambitions of the boy who spent his days haunting the docks of Genoa until the Undine’s captain took pity and hired him on. Alas for Antonio, his dreams have only grown more unattainable since. Nor he is such an ignorant commoner that he cannot sense the poison mingled with this honeyed wine: at best, an excuse to keep him from land and possible scandal for months on end, while still forcing painful reminders on him at functions where the royal court may be present; at worst, an opportunity to dispatch him to a hero’s grave, where he can trouble no one else’s happy ending.
“Thank you,” he manages, “but--”
Viola appears neither surprised nor offended. “A reward, then, at least. For all you have endured and sacrificed, to bring me a happiness I thought impossible.”
He wants to declare he cannot be so easily bought. More importantly, he wants it to be true. But if he must seek new fortunes and some measure of peace elsewhere regardless, neither pride nor his meager purse will speed the way. Besides, it is not Viola who deserves his scorn; she, at least, is trying to set things right, and man enough to face him while doing so. “Your brother spoke often of your unparalleled kindness and generosity. In this, I see, he did not misspeak.”
“I will pass your words along,” she tells him, thereby affirming Sebastian’s descriptions of her as “the clever one” as well. “You’ll be leaving shortly?”
“As soon as I can gather provisions and my crew.”
“Then before you go, there is one last favor I must ask.” Seeing the mixture of disgust and apology in her expression, he braces himself. “The Countess’s former steward also wishes to depart with all due haste. If you would see him safely to your next port of call, you will be handsomely recompensed for your trouble.”
By now, he would agree to almost anything to be about his business and on his way. An impatient servant will be a trifle by comparison. “Consider it done.”
She studies him a moment longer, as though on the verge of some final remark, then stands at attention and fires off a crisp soldier’s salute.
He returns the gesture, and takes his leave.
All this and more, Antonio could bear, were it not for Malvolio’s favorite grievance: his mistreatment at the hands of his erstwhile employer. She should have known, he gripes, that his efforts at wooing, however misguided, were sincere; that he would never have risked such humiliation had he not placed his unconditional trust in her wisdom and fairness. To be summarily dismissed as mad, after years of loyal service...
“Enough!” Antonio snaps one day about three-quarters into the voyage, cutting off yet another endless litany of the tasks Malvolio remains convinced only he could possibly have performed to Olivia’s satisfaction. By now, he suspects, he knows the Countess’s likes and dislikes better than her husband. The brief compulsion he feels to pass along this intelligence in the hopes of receiving some favorable response merely makes his temper flare hotter.
If Malvolio detects any warning in this sudden curtness, he gives no sign. “Are you suggesting, Captain,” he sneers, not hiding his clear skepticism at the legitimacy of Antonio’s claims to the title, “I have not been wronged?”
“You wronged yourself,” Antonio tells him, in a cold, bitter voice he barely recognizes as his own. “Nobles don’t think that way about the likes of us.” He holds up a hand, forestalling Malvolio’s indignant sputter before it can coalesce into an objection. “I know; you consider any comparison between us absurd. But that’s the point. They don’t. Even when we devote every waking moment to their happiness, when we would give what little we have and more for a single kindly gesture--” Even when you have him in your arms and your bed, stripped of all that separates you, and he’s begging creation to draw out this moment forever, until you graze your teeth along his hip and every word but “love” fails him… “We’re just...fixtures to them. Interchangeable. And when we become inconvenient, they replace us without a moment’s regret. If you’ve persuaded yourself otherwise, then you are mad.”
Malvolio’s mouth hangs open. Antonio doesn’t bother waiting to see whether he finds his voice, grabbing him by his cravat until the two of them are nose-to-nose. “One more word about the Countess Olivia,” he snarls, “and I’ll throw you overboard myself.”
With that, he sends Malvolio stumbling across the deck, and stalks off in search of some private corner where he can scream or beat his fists (not cry; he will not cry) before he has to face his crew as a reasonable man again.
Whether anything else he has said resonates, he has no idea. Malvolio’s company remains unpleasant as ever, although his queries are more frequently relayed secondhand, and accompanied by the occasional “please.” But at least there is no further talk of the Countess, or anything to do with Illyria for the remainder of the journey.
He cannot say he has found happiness; he does not seek companionship. But he is, at least, beginning to believe that he can live out his days in quiet contentment.
Naturally, this is when fate sees fit to send an apparition out of the past and through the door of his office, in the form of a comely young man in fine clothing.
“Sebastian?” he barely stops himself from gasping in time. In truth, the stranger bears little resemblance to Sebastian: hair too dark, eyes too blue, frame too slight. They share only a certain confidence in their step, and a smile as though they mean to make the whole world their friend, no matter how many rejections they might suffer or blows they might be dealt. Apparently, that is more than enough.
“Bassanio, at your service,” the young man introduces himself with a bow. “I hear you are the man to see when one has a business venture in need of support?”
“Among my acquaintances, yes,” he says, with caution.
Bassanio stares up at him, all guileless enthusiasm. “Then might we become better acquainted?”
He should say no: dismiss the boy with a curt injunction to return when he has proven himself through hard work and sacrifice. Who cares if others mock his sudden lack of Christian charity, when more than his immortal soul lies in peril?
Instead, he hears himself say, “We might.”
The venture proves unsurprisingly ill-advised, as is Bassanio’s ever more central presence in his social circles as the months and years pass. But Antonio is older now, and if not wise enough to cast off temptation, prudent enough to keep his desires locked away. He urges Bassanio to look on him as a “kinsman,” waters his cups when Gratiano drags them from tavern to tavern, and strives to ensure his expressions of affection never cross the bounds of close friendship, even when Bassanio responds so ardently it is all he can do not to declare himself before the assembled congregation of St. Mark’s at Sunday High Mass.
So when Bassanio comes to him one deceptively sun-drenched morning, singing the praises of a certain Belmont heiress, he is not undone by betrayal this time. He mouths the proper words of encouragement, claps the would-be bridegroom on the shoulder with only the minutest hesitation, and hastens them both off to the moneylender before he can think twice. Whether blinded by love, or taken in entirely by the performance, Bassanio suspects nothing.
Sharp-eyed Shylock, alas, is not so easily fooled: “And you call me blasphemer,” he hisses, as Antonio puts pen to their bond.
Antonio ignores him. He has already borne the worst. As difficult as he finds it to take the prospect seriously, a pound of flesh seems a trifle by comparison.
Bassanio greets him with a fierce embrace, too swift to allow for embarrassment, or his wife’s intervention. Portia, for her part, grants him a regal nod like the goddess of wisdom she is portraying, but with a sly smile as she lifts her head.
“Do join the other guests in the garden, signor,” she entreats. “I think the company will be to your liking.”
He finds the garden populated with all manner of fantastical beasts and beings, chattering in small groups, or applauding the musicians, or admiring the illuminated blossoms, or tiptoeing off in pairs to shadowy corners of the grounds. But he has eyes for only one: a tall, raven-clad figure with matching mask, standing at the edge of the gathering. Despite the disguise and the intervening years, he would know that stance anywhere.
Before he can unfreeze, the familiar gray eyes behind the mask mark him. He manages no more than a few steps toward the manor, but the man moves as though possessed of real wings, and he quickly finds his arm caught.
“Antonio,” Sebastian murmurs, as if no time has passed; as if they are still on his ship, and he is waking from a nightmare to Antonio’s soothing ministrations.
A thousand possible replies fly through Antonio’s head. Only one matters. “Where is your wife?”
“At home, with my sister,” says Sebastian, disregarding the cruel tone. “She and the Duke have...an understanding. And I--” His free hand clasps Antonio’s other arm, forcing him to meet his anguished expression. “I have spent every moment since your departure cursing my foolishness.”
Antonio wrenches himself away, gaze averted. “I cannot bear another disappointment.”
“Nor I!” Sebastian cries. It may be Antonio’s imagination, but the music seems to miss a beat, then resume more loudly, as though providing cover. “And what disappointment could be greater than another moment apart? Venice, Illyria, the open sea, the depths of hell...it doesn’t matter, as long as I am with you. And…” Here, the urgent tremble in his voice gives way to outright fear. “If you’ll still have me.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Antonio spots Portia observing from afar, wearing the same sly grin from before: whether pleased by the reunion or the potential elimination of a threat, he cannot say. Thank God she was not born a man; Alexander’s empire would be but a footnote compared to her reign.
He turns his attention back to Sebastian. “Then I am, as ever, your servant.”
Sebastian breaks into a dizzying, relieved smile. “No,” he says, pushing back Antonio’s mask as he pulls him closer. “Until my debt is repaid, if it takes me the rest of my life, I am yours.”
Casting aside his own mask, Antonio surrenders into the kiss.