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Moving Graces

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There is still something heart-stoppingly sacrosanct about the act of removing Isabella's veil even though Angelo knows it is now no more than a lay square of cloth, no longer a faith-vested shield of her virginal beauty; and she, the wife of man and no longer the betrothed of Christ, a truth writ in the dark hollows under her eyes, the stoic creases at the corners of her lips. The transformation is one he has tracked both warily and jealously over the intervening weeks and months since their marriages, hand clasped in his wife's as they watch Isabella raise her face for her husband the Duke's kiss before the altar, sitting with his head bowed over his plate while the happy couple holds court together at the head of the table. It is true that there are some things about her that have not, cannot change; her gown might be wrought of silks and brocades but it is still muted and grey, the rosary at her belt might be amber and gold but the beads are still well thumbed-over and warm from her fingers. But now she is even less his than the day she first walked into his office, alight with faith and fury, and it has eaten at his soul like rust, like rot.

Angelo pulls the veil free at last, tugging it down her shoulders and letting it fall away onto the bed (her husband's bed, their marriage bed, oh God above). Isabella's great mass of bronze hair shines dimly in the candlelight and when she lifts the dark fans of her lashes her eyes are bright and patient as she waits for him to claim her. She has already made her choice with her fingers on his wrist, leading him down the darkened corridor away from the feast where Vincentio presides, drunk on wine and his own cleverness, for she has ever known her own mind and has never been afraid to reveal it to him; but he (coward that he is and has always been) has never been so brave –

He takes a breath and lifts his hand to begin pulling the pins from her hair, one-two-three, letting them fall to the carpet. The heavy coils of her hair begin to slip down her neck, spilling free down her back; and she before him like a goddess, like Aphrodite, the glory of her hair covering her like a warm halo of light.

A loud roar of laughter breaks through their quietude, drifting up from the raucous multitude in the great hall on the floor below. Angelo's hands still briefly on Isabella's hair and she holds her breath, face turned away to watch the door, hands rising involuntarily to clasp together at her heart. They wait there together, his eyes fixed on the line of her jaw, the twisting curve of her neck, and when she is quite certain that no one is coming she turns back to him and he brushes his thumb up along her jaw with languorous slowness, fingers tucking a stray curl of hair behind her ear. She closes her eyes, a sigh or a shiver escaping her lips, and he drops his forehead against hers and for a moment they stand there in silent tranquility, pressed so close he can feel the rabbit-fast thrum of her heart in her breast.

"Will you leave me, when this is done?" she says, voice low, fingers curling into the hollow of her throat. "Will you have me and then throw me at my husband's feet, abandon me to his mercy?"

"Never," he says.

She smiles a little at that, sad and pensive. "And I thought you would have been quite happy to do so once," she says, "ruin me and make an example of me in the name of your own twisted justice. Lo, how the times have changed."

Angelo closes his eyes. "Not happy," he says, breathing in the scent of her, "never happy, Isabella."

She laughs a little, shaking her head. "To think that I actually believe you."

"Why?" he says. She draws back and looks up at him, and he says, "Not why you trust me – but why will you come to me now, if not then?"

She thinks this over and says slowly, "Because, I think, I have nothing to offer you that hasn't already been taken from me. We are equals now, in our want, in our need." She pauses, lips quirking with amusement. "Besides, my lord, you're in my home and my room now – I rather think you are coming to me and not the other way around."

Angelo smiles. Isabella reaches for him, eyes steady and sure, forefinger hooking in the knotted strings of his short cape. He lets out a shaky sigh as she loosens it and lets it slide to the floor and then he wraps his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. Her small hands grip him at neck and in the small of his back, holding him desperately close, and together they move backwards towards the bed.