When the priest reads their vows, the Latin falls into familiar cadences in her ears. Latin is always a promise; with her hands knotted together, she can nearly pretend that this is a promise she wants to make. She is not asked to speak, not for a very long time. With her lips shut, she only listens and waits for it to feel sanctified, waits for the moment of clarity in which the promises she is making shall feel real to her. She waits, time slows, and the moment does not come.
The church is utterly silent: she cannot hear anything but her own breathing, fluted in and magnified around her under the veil. The veil, too, is familiar, if crested with diamonds, if not chosen by her. It floats around her and she casts her eyelids down, lashes veiling her vision twice-over. Blindness shall be a luxury.
When the Duke, her husband, Vincentio kisses her, though, she casts her eyes upward. For the first time, she cannot believe she sees heaven through the painted beams above her. It is only a ceiling: a beautiful lid.
She stands at the edge of his bed—their bed, and the Duke—she must get used to calling him Vincentio—smiles, eyes raking appreciatively over her nightdress. “Come here,” he says, and she sits by him.
When he bids her—you could take that off, you know, he says, smile curling round the edges, wine-sated and self-pleased—remove her nightdress, her hands freeze. She does not shake, but for a moment her bones will not permit movement.
He chuckles. “All right then,” he says, brushing a thumb against her cheek, tipping her chin up to look at him; she drops her eyelids like a fresh veil as he tugs at the strings that close her neckline, hiding her sight as the gown drops from her shoulders and Vincentio invites her to lie back against the pillows.
Her husband copulates with her, and her body twitches in a manner embedded in the blood, a thousand miles away from her rational and willing mind. He is skilled, she thinks dispassionately; she was told as much before. Her brother’s companion, Lucio, confiding in his cups, whorehouse stink on his skin. Vincentio cups his hands along her body in practiced paths and her skin reacts, her flesh ripples, and she watches herself with closed eyes. He drives himself into her and she sinks her teeth into her lip: she will not cry out, for good or for ill. She will not cry out his name.
There is blood on the sheets when it ends. Not much. She steps out of bed, warm feet on cold stone floor, and draws her nightdress back over her head, soft white cloth seeming rougher than her new-feeling skin. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she takes her freshly tangled hair in her hands, plaits it back into smoothness. Vincentio sits up, leans in, drops an idle kiss on the back of her neck.
“How long shall I stay away from the court, do you think?”
She looks over her shoulder. “Don’t stay away at all. You can’t afford to leave Vienna again.”
“But I thought—” A brief, wounded expression passes over his face. “I thought I ought to take time for you, my Isabel, my wife.” He draws his fingers down her arm; she feels them press through the fabric. “I never made it to Poland, you know. We could take a carriage, see the snow—or somewhere warmer, travel all the way to Italy, to Spain.”
“You need to love your state first,” she says. Her voice sounds cool to her own ears, sensible. “More than me, more than marriage. The people want to see you at its head.”
“I suppose so,” he replies, and smiles at her with broad white teeth. “My clever wife. My good wife—you’ve such a spirit for sacrifice, dear one.”
She slips beneath the sheets, pressing her silent cheek to her pillow. Vincentio, she is coming to realize, is an effective mover, but conclusions seem to lie somewhere beyond his reach.
He leaves. Day after day, he leaves and she stays; he works and she rules the household with ruthless efficiency. She makes neat incisions in the chaos and directs the housekeeper to make routines of them. He leaves, she stays, the world orbits around the pinpoint she gives it, storms around her—and there, at the center, it is very quiet.
She is used to quiet, has sought it out year after year, but here it falls on her restlessly and heavily, like the fall of the skirts of her new rich gowns. She sits in the courtyard, which is already fading to brown, the wind cool, with a shawl around her shoulders and a Bible in her hands. It is Revelations that captivates her these days, with its dreams of locusts and fire and ending. St. John’s prophecies speak of a world unraveling and Isabella places a palm flat against her abdomen. Her stomach curls in on itself with a hunger bigger than flesh, to which she does not give name.
He leaves, but he returns, fur at his neck and cap on his head and always leaning in toward the cheek she has not yet learned to offer him. His voice rings loud in their halls, even when their discourse should be private.
“Escalus is giving me some trouble,” he says, “pushing and requesting, but the people, after so much upheaval, I don’t think they can stand for much more—”
“You need to be strong,” she tells him. “Look what happened when you weren’t.”
For a moment, she thinks she has overstepped her place. Wife is a place, after all, in a way that maiden never was, and the voice with which she speaks now does not ring out so pure as once it did: not with more than one maidenhead lost at her bequest (but she does not think of such things, she has not prayed for Mariana of late, she has not even found time or words to pray for herself). But Vincentio looks at her indulgently and she keeps talking, for she does not like that look, but it does not quell. “The people have their scarecrow, but that does not need you to give them lenity in its absence. Rather look to be just and lawful.” She reaches out, touches his sleeve. It is the first touch she has given him, the first she has offered. She does not know if he understands the distinction, but he certainly understands her fingertips: her touch has power, she has been told as much before, if not by him, by those who had more to lose . “Make yourself a man to be relied upon.”
He has not been a man to be relied upon, as she knows, as the public knows, as Lucio—for all that he is bound to Kate Keepdown’s warm and sullied bed—knew and tipped into her brother’s ear who passed it with free words to hers; the Duke has ever been a man of laxity. The Duke, her husband, now places his hand over hers. “Suppose it is time for a bit of new varnish now that I have a respectable wife and a respectable reinstatement—should be easy after the cock-up Angelo made of it all—”
He looks at her swiftly. “Very sorry, dear heart. I know the deputy does not have your favor.”
It is not my favor he lost, she thinks; it is not my illusions he shattered: it is how we met. “I bear no ill will toward Lord Angelo,” she says, and her hands, beneath the table, dig into her skirts. “I have said as much.”
It is the first time the name has passed between them, and it hangs in the air for the rest of the night—by her ear, by her consciousness.
Vincentio parts her thighs, indecorous, and thumbs her breasts, and she closes her eyes, lets her throat tip to the ceiling, he does not mind the closure of her lids, for the amount at which she is not looking passes him by entirely—
Angelo’s face is emblazoned on the backs of her eyelids.
She jerks them open with a gasp that makes Vincentio smile. Now it is he who shuts his eyes, and she keeps her eyes fixed on a point beneath his chin, where a vein pulses rhythmically as he strains and grunts. She watches him all the way to the end.
That night, lying side by side, she broaches the subject of further reform in the fornication laws. With his sweat drying on her skin, she feels her tongue drying out before she can speak of lechery; she speaks, instead, of punishment, of trials and sentence and, in carefully chosen words, of death.
Fair, she thinks, and just.
It is not fear, she thinks, it has never been fear that has led her to stop up her access to the world: it is the way her stomach gapes inside like a pit at the promise the world has to offer. An empty promise, a devil’s promise, brokered palm to palm and lip to lip in clasps bridging ale and wineglasses; she understands the world, and it is sordid. Yet it is hers now: Vincentio plucked her up like an apple and placed her in the world’s mouth, and she thinks, she knows, that he still believes he has served her.
Before she has stepped out of her new doors in earnest, though, she receives a visitor. Mariana. Mariana before—before anyone, she catalogues, shaking off any hint of expectation. The other woman, with her wide young eyes, still young for all that she is Isabella’s elder, leans in and kisses Isabella on the cheek, loops her arm in Isabella’s, leans in as if for all the world they are sisters, they are flesh. Isabella does not shrink away; she stands like a caryatid against the fragile, adoring weight Mariana lays on her.
In the courtyard, Mariana asks: “How fares your marriage?”
“Well,” Isabella says, obliged to ask “and your own?”
“Oh.” Mariana’s large eyes grow larger. “Isabel.”
Isabella waits, and Mariana leans in. “I did not tell you then,” she says, “not when you were to take orders, not when you were—you know—when you weren’t going to be wived. But, oh, Isabel, that night—” Her hand is tight on Isabella’s arm, painful. “When he cried out for you, he touched every inch of me.”
The back of Isabella’s throat feels dry. She swallows, throat harsh against itself. “These are private discourses,” she says, but Mariana shakes her head.
“We are near kin, I think.” Her eyes meet Isabella’s, something sly and sharp—slowly, she says, her tongue lapping delicately against the backs of her small white teeth, each precise consonant rich with the remembered savor of memories Isabella has no will to share, lovingly.
“But since—it’s not the same.”
“It is the same—” Vice, Isabella doesn’t say. This is a sanctified act, for all that it will never be sacred: the sweat and the presumption of hands, these are not profanations, she must learn to wear them like veils.
“No,” Mariana says softly. “Not at all. He doesn’t turn his face to me.”
Isabella’s voice is harsher than she expects when she replies: “When you first went to him, you went veiled, you let him take you in the dark. What makes you think aught has changed?”
The slyness in Mariana’s eyes sharpens, for all that they widen with something like sympathy. “Poor Isabel,” she says, reaching out to stroke the exposed expanse of Isabella’s hair. Isabella chooses not to flinch. “There is such a vast difference. I felt it that night—felt as if we could have changed skins, could have merged.”
Beasts, Isabella thinks, reflexively, assuring the twist in her belly that it is disgust.
“It was like communion.” Mariana nearly smiles. “True communion, no wine, no wafers. Blood and flesh, just like the original.”
“This is blasphemy,” Isabella says sharply, and they are silent. Leaves crunch beneath their feet, but the pulse of her blood in her ears nearly drowns the sound out.
She visits the prison with Vincentio at her side. He speaks of reform, of new laws, his speeches legalistic, his words her own. She nods quietly and takes note: of the cell blocks, grey and even and too familiar to her by far.
“I hate to leave you,” he says, sounding greedy with proximity. She bows her head—he kisses her forehead—and pushes him back.
“But you must. Go,” she says and smiles. “Go and make these laws truths.”
She does not go in. Outside, near the gates, she sits on a bench and, in spite of herself, remembers—recollects herself nearly into blindness, even when the gate creaks open.
Her head jerks up.
Between its unlocked jambs, Angelo stands with no little surprise on his face. He is the first to speak again: “I’m sorry,” he says. “Duchess, now.”
“You don’t need to use the title.”
He arches a dark brow and does not question it. “Isabel,” he says, and her name resonates low in his voice. “What make you here?”
“I make nothing,” she says steadily. “Only memory.”
“Indeed.” He sits beside her on the bench. There is a healthy expanse of cut stone laid bare between them, yet she can still feel her skin prickle at his proximity. “You know,” he says, voice very, very light, “every man in there has a family. Every man in there, rapist and murderer and drunkard and petty thief alike: they all have at least one woman who longs to plead for them.”
“You believe that?”
“I know that.”
“You would not pardon them?”
“God,” he says, nearly laughing, “no. I would not pardon one.”
Whether he has moved at all, she cannot tell; still, he feels suddenly, instantly, closer to her. “You regret my brother’s life?”
“No,” he says, and looks at her. “Perhaps I should thank you for making it easy.”
Ease, she thinks, has never been a part of it—of them, or anything around them. “In what way?”
His shoulders hunch in slightly, but he does not turn away; his eyes look as if they are drinking in her face. “You were the first and last compromise that ever tainted my principles,” he says, “and you compromised every one.”
Unbidden, she feels blood rising to her cheeks. “You have never known me,” she says, and it feels like a lie.
“Not so well as I would have liked,” he says, and she makes herself shrink away from him, for his hand is on the bench between them and the air between them feels sharp; she swallows his words like glass ground into wine. “Still, I would have given up my life at your bequest, at your husband’s—”
“I would have let you wield the executioner’s blade in your own two hands.” His eyes drop to those hands, and she laces her fingers together tightly in her lap, nails digging into her palms.
“I pled for you,” she says, her voice barely audible even to her.
“True,” he says. “Why?”
It hangs in the air between them, fruit on a bough she does not want to pick. “Because it was right,” she said. “Just.”
“I would not call my living justice, these days.”
She pauses. “Yet your blood would have been on my hands all the same. Even when Abhorson swung the ax—the blood would have fallen on me, Deputy Angelo.” His name fits with odd, maddening comfort into her mouth. “I did not wish it.”
“Selfish,” he says, and when she looks fast at him, he is smiling very thinly.
“You are franker than you once were.”
“We passed pretense long ago.”
So we did, she thinks, and thinks of Mariana’s accounts—the press of his hands on her imagined waist, the skim of his mouth over her imagined flesh. Or very nearly, and her cheeks are bright again and he is looking close and looking hungry and he stands.
“My blood is yours to command,” he says. “Still.”
She watches him leave, fingers clenched against each other. When he is gone, she moves her fingers stiffly apart and looks at her palms, where she has marked lattices of skin against skin.
The marks fade almost too quickly before her eyes. That night, Vincentio takes her, and she spreads her unmarked palm against his shoulder and tries and tries to erase the print of them: the inevitable foreignness of his flesh covering her own with warmth she will be able to wash off.
Afterward, she tells him, “You should fund works in the prisons. It’s not fit for men to live like animals.”
“Even if they’re bad, evil men?” he teases, reaching out and drawing a finger between her breasts, and she jerks back as if he has scalded her.
“I thought that’s what justice was,” she replies, standing with her feet on the freezing stone floor. At the door, she looks back over her shoulder. Lounging on his pillows, he grants her a last smile.
“I’ll try to remember.”
She goes with him when he writes the bill of reform, watches him sign; he signs it and seals it and immediately reaches out for her hand, pressing his mouth quick and half-open against her knuckles when she offers it. “It’s done, dear,” he says.
Escalus clears his throat, casting his eyes down tactfully. “My lord Duke.”
“You’ve an appointment.”
He leaves her with a promise to see her at home, brushes out in a whirl of ermine as she sits herself down on the notary’s velvet chair. The room clears out in his wake, all but one: “You linger, Deputy,” she says.
“I have no need to follow the Duke, and he has no inclination to give me his ear these days.”
“Do you blame him for it?”
“No.” He gets up, walks to the window, looking out. “I do not. But,” he says, casting his eyes back toward her, “I have the true ruler here.”
“You don’t suppose—”
“Are you ruled by Mariana?”
“Don’t be a fool.” He looks at her, palm placed against the windowsill. “It’s not because you’re wife to him that you hold command. The skills you hold are uniquely yours.”
She stands, walks over to the window. Vienna waits beneath, orderly and cobbled and greying beneath the November sky. Cold breathes in around the edges of the glass. “How do you suppose?”
“Vincentio’s beliefs are tired watchdogs, and yours—” The space between them is never as vast as she gauges it. He reaches out with a tentative hand, rests it for just a moment on her waist. “Yours do not sleep.”
“You idealize,” she says, and his hand drops away. “You’ve something of an idolator’s sensibilities.”
“You don’t understand.” He turns his face back toward the window, to the city. Winter in the air, before them; her skin, beneath her heavy gown, her grey silk cloak, is warm in spite of the season, she notes and wishes that she could rebel against it. “I once believed you were a saint.”
“And then you would have made me a sinner.”
“I would not have made you,” he says almost angrily. “I do not think I could have touched you.”
Her palms itch with the longing to prove him wrong. He walks past her—impossibly close by, in the little space she takes up—and out the door, and she lays them flat against the arctic glass, cooling their instincts. He is gone, and she is alone in the room, trapped in solitude with parchment and quills and the prickly feeling of power.
That night, she thinks of the promises that have taken deep root in the blood, and God help her (o God indeed) she lets her hands spread over a new-imagined canvas, her exposed shoulders recalling the windowpanes as she shivers in the poorly-warmed air. Vincentio moves basely inside her and she thinks herself divinely above him, tilts her throat back and gasps in earnest, and it’s only when he laughs, half-choking a half-formed word that is half her name and half a grunt, that she opens her eyes and sees him there.
If she were to articulate the word (the name) trapped beneath her tongue, it would, she knows, not be Vincentio. She stares at the ceiling and bites it back and back again, heart adrum in her chest. The beat does not belong to him, but nor, she thinks, to her anymore.
Her prayers have a name, her prayers have a face, and every one of them day by day is for her own soul: it hangs on the precipice as if her husband put it up for decorations. She wears her rosary thin between her fingers, wears the Aves thin in her voice. Yet these are not the only chants that reverberate in her memory; Vincentio kisses her cheek goodbye for a weekend and she waits for nightfall before she brings another pattern to the fore.
She remembers the way. Some months ago he gave her a litany of directions to repeat back until they became pattern ingrained in her, gave her an hour and a promise and a look of impossible hope that shattered through the crafted wickedness for just one clarion moment. Now, though undirected, she remembers it; now, left alone to retrace steps she never took the first time, she finds her feet tracking a faultless path to this little door. She has never been here; that was a privilege, once. This is new.
“Mariana,” comes the sharp voice from behind the door, “not here, I said to you—”
The door opens, her wrist perched in the air before she can knock again.
He stares at her, as still as if he'd been carved there. She steps inside, tapping snow off her shoes onto the floor, silent. His arm reaches around her, pulling the door shut, and stays there, by her. She steps in and there is no space to speak of between them.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, soft and harsh and inches from her mouth.
She has never been in this house, yet it wears the expectation of her in its shadows; she can feel it. Can feel him: in the space, on a precipice shaped like her, already. His house, and somehow, unrequested, hers. She places a palm against the warm hollow of his neck, drunk on her own heartbeat, her fingers shaking as she lays them down, and he makes a sound like an animal in a trap, low and lost.
The space is little and then it is gone, swallowed between his mouth and hers.
She leans into him, into it, he is wrapping his arms around her body in a maddening vice, his starved hands pulling at her clothes, but beneath it all, as she slides a palm beneath his tunic, she feels him shuddering, shaking.
“Tell me why you’re here,” he says, a hand trapped between them, thumb working in circles against the curve of her breast, a thigh coming to entangle between hers. She is a wife now, she has told herself, she is a woman of the world, and she knows—but this she does not, and she comes to him blind as any falcon with clipped wings. He is hard against her, breathless against her, the rasp of his breath and the keen of his voice belong to her, and she tangles her fingers in his hair, inhales hard; his hand slips lower and lower, grazing flesh beneath her dress, the bowl of her stomach and the bone of her hip. “For the love of God, tell me.”
“Justice,” she says softly against his lips, and his revelation becomes hers: for she says it and it becomes, then, true.
She will hold him in her hands like the scales.