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On His Terms

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She had agreed. He had told her his terms for marriage, and she had agreed to marry him. If she was unhappy, it was her own fault. She had agreed.

Iago had not wanted to marry Emilia. He had not wanted to marry anyone. He might have avoided it forever, he had not joined the army. But when his fellow recruits headed for a bawdy house after a long day of training, he needed some excuse to keep from joining them.

“I am to be married,” he said. “My heart is promised to another.”

The others had laughed. “Your heart, perhaps,” said one, leering, “but surely your other parts are free!”

He sighed with just the right amount of regret. “I have vowed to be true, and I am a man of my word.”

The recruit shook his head. “You are a better man than I, Iago.”

Of course he was. He was better than all of them.

“If ‘tis boys you desire,” another recruit began, but he got no further.

“Fie on thee! I’ll not stay to be insulted.”

“Go, then, and seek your sweetheart,” said the first recruit. “May you have as much joy of her as we shall find tonight!” And off they went, bragging of the things they would do to the women.

The idea disgusted Iago. It always had. As a child, he had not been alone in that. He and his schoolmates had learned the secret of conception and exchanged details in horrified whispers. But for the others, horror had turned to interest, and then to obsession. Every conversation came back to the same theme. It seemed they thought of little else than the day they would finally get beneath a woman’s skirts. The priests in confession refused to believe that Iago was not the same, and he spent bitter hours doing penance for thoughts he had not had.

He had seen the act once, when he was thirteen. He was cutting through an alley with a friend, when suddenly there it was. Two joined bodies writhing and scrabbling at each other like some hideous, two-backed beast bent on its own destruction. The alley echoed with the moist slap of flesh against flesh and groans like the damned in hell. Iago had wanted to vomit. He had to drag away his companion – no longer his friend, he could not be friends with someone who watched such a spectacle with a gaping mouth and a hand drifting toward his codpiece.

At school one day, two years later, the boys all crowded together to hear their leader tell of his tryst with a scullery maid. Iago stayed in his seat. So did one other boy. They accidentally locked eyes, and the other boy blushed and ducked his head. But then he glanced at the group and made a face. Iago thought that perhaps he had found a friend.

The next day, however, he peered into a darkened room and saw that boy and another locked in an embrace, gnawing at each other’s lips.

Iago had not found a friend. But he had found two people who would do his bidding in exchange for silence.

Over the years, he learned to fit in. He could crack lewd jokes, speak familiarly of women’s secret parts, cheer on others’ conquests. He could make other men think he was one of them. But he drew the line at actually doing the deed.

So. He was to be married. He needed to find this “sweetheart” before he was caught in a lie.

Iago’s lies had never been caught. He was proud of that.

He thought of all the women he knew of the appropriate age and class. There were not many. He had never seen the point in talking to them, with their heads full of fluff and marriage and their bodies no temptation. But there was one who had seemed somewhat sensible. Emilia. His father’s friend’s daughter. Two years older than he, outspoken, plain, beginning to despair of finding a husband. She would do.

That Sunday, dressed in his finest clothes, Iago paid a visit to his father’s friend. Emilia was there, and Iago made sure to throw his most charming smiles her way. She blushed and stole glances at him from beneath her eyelashes. Did she mean that to be alluring? He made himself react as if he found it so. He leaned toward her, nodded when she spoke, gazed at her when she thought he thought she wasn’t looking. Emilia’s father smiled knowingly, and at last he suggested that the two young people take a walk in the garden.

They had not been in the garden long before Iago noticed Emilia opening her mouth to speak. He rushed out a word of his own to catch hers. “I-”

“How-”

They laughed together at the mishap, exactly as Iago had planned. “Please, sir, speak,” said Emilia. “I will hold my tongue.”

“Nay, lady, speak you. I long to hear your voice again.”

Emilia smiled at that. “I only thought to ask how you find the garden.”

“Not nearly so pleasant as the company.”

Now Emilia blushed. “Think you so?”

“Know you not I do?” Iago grabbed Emilia’s hand and pressed it to his lips. “Dear lady, you must know how I have always admired you.”

“Sir! Such sudden boldness-”

“Sudden, say you? Sudden! When for years I have dreamed of no woman else!” He had not dreamed of her, either, but that he could keep to himself.

“Have you truly-”

“My dearest Emilia,” said Iago. Still clinging to Emilia’s hand, he dropped to one knee. “No longer can I hide my heart away. I must speak now. Wilt thou accept me as a husband? Say thou wilt, or I shall surely die!”

Emilia looked dizzy, as if she might fall, were it not for Iago’s hold on her hand. “I know not what to say-”

“Why, say thou wilt be my wife! Unless…” Iago looked up with terror in his eyes. “Art thou promised to another? O, my foolish tongue, to speak too slow to win my heart’s desire!”

“Nay, sir, there is no other,” said Emilia. She steadied herself, putting her free hand on top of Iago’s. “And if thou wilt have me, why then, I will have thee.”

Iago stood then, smiling so widely he thought his cheeks would crack. “Then let the banns be published at once, and we will be wed!”

“And I may tell my parents?”

“Ay, tell them! Tell the world! I wish all to know that thou art mine.”

Iago’s smile as he left his father’s friend’s house was much less wide, but much more genuine.

He returned the next Sunday. Emilia glowed with happiness, and once they were alone, she leaned toward him as if expecting a kiss. He did not provide one.

“Nay, dearest, I’ll not pollute thy fair self with foul doings,” he said.

“Until we be married,” Emilia said, with a sly twist of her lips.

“Not so,” said Iago. Behind his smoothly apologetic face, he gathered all his wits. This would be the true test of his plan. “Thou must know, my love, I am so chaste a man that desires of the flesh touch me not. Therefore, I shall touch thee not. Though our souls be joined as one, our bodies will remain as two.”

“Then… you do not love me?”

“With all my heart and soul I love thee! To see thee every day, to hear thee speak – could there be greater joy?”

“Yet you will not touch me? What kind of a marriage is this?”

Iago looked heartbroken. “Dost thou not wish to marry me? Must we tell all our family and friends that our news was a lie? That you are free to accept another offer?”

Emilia paled, and Iago smiled in his mind. Surely she would not wish to bear such a great humiliation, particularly when there were no other offers to be had. “I will marry thee,” she said at last.

There. She had agreed.

The wedding day came quickly, and with it, the wedding night. Iago was relieved to be free of well-wishers, then irritated to find that Emilia followed him into his room. “What dost thou here?”

“We are married,” said Emilia.

“Ay, married on my terms,” said Iago. “The next chamber is thine. Leave mine.”

“Am I not even to share thy bed? Not even on our wedding night?”

“Never, woman. Go!”

“Wherefore didst thou marry me?” cried Emilia. “Thou told’st me ‘twas for love, yet thou wilt speak to me so? Take care, the contract may yet be dissolved!”

Iago laughed. “Wouldst thou do such a thing, and prove thyself so undesired? Who then would marry thee?”

Emilia slammed the door in his face, but she sought no annulment.

As the years passed, they found a sort of peace. He would treat her kindly enough in public, and in private too if she pleased him. She learned to be obedient. She learned to hold her tongue.

Sometimes the soldiers spoke of her. “She must be excellent sport, to keep you from all other women,” said one.

“One would not think it to look at her,” said another.

“Her charms are not written on her face,” said Iago, letting his voice imply that he found charms elsewhere.

After that, the men watched her more closely. Iago hated them. He hated also the way she blushed and smiled under their eyes, the way she took to tightening her corset until her breasts bulged like a bloated corpse. “Do not shame me,” he would say.

In time, her smile faded.

The general held himself aloof from the soldiers’ gossip. Iago had been surprised to find that he liked the general, and even almost respected him. Perhaps it was because he too was different from the other men, marked out by his dark skin as Iago was marked by his lack of desires. Iago pitied him for not being able to hide, and envied him for not having to live a lie. He was pleased when the general invited him and his wife to supper.

Emilia was more than pleased to be asked to such a grand occasion. She took what seemed like hours to dress herself, and when Iago sniffed disapprovingly at her choice of clothes, she merely tossed her head.

There were others soldiers at the table. One was a newcomer, a Florentine who flirted with all the other men’s wives. Iago disliked him immediately, and set to watching him. He noticed that for all his good cheer, the Florentine barely touched his wine glass. Good. He could use that.

Iago turned his attention back to the general, and was annoyed to find him deep in conversation with Emilia. Her eyes sparkled. He laughed heartily at something she said. She touched his arm. Annoyance turned to anger.

“Your wife is a fine woman, Iago,” said the general as the guests made ready to leave. “I hope you will both dine with me again.”

“Of course, my lord,” said Iago.

“You honor us,” said Emilia.

“Methinks he would rather dishonor her,” whispered a voice. Another voice laughed.

Iago dug his fingernails into his hand to keep from screaming. There would be time enough for that when he and Emilia were alone.

“How could you?” he asked when they were safely home.

“What mean you, husband?” Emilia’s voice was wary, but her posture defiant. The evening had evidently awakened her valor.

“To play the wanton with the general – to make the company think me a cuckold!”

“I did not so!”

“O, did you not? Some other man’s wife was it, then, who did hang upon the general’s arm and thrust herself before his eye?”

“I talked with him, that is all!”

“Talked with him. And wherefore would you talk to him, foolish woman?”

“For you!” cried Emilia. “All these years, I have done nothing but try to please you! I thought if your general found me pleasant, he might do you some good! “

“You can do me no good by bringing me shame,” said Iago.

Emilia laughed bitterly. “What shame can I bring to you that you have not heaped upon me? The soldiers’ wives pity you for my barrenness, yet never once have I told them ‘tis only because you give away my wifely rights to men!”

Iago reeled back, his blood gone cold. “Is that what you think of me?”

“Why else would you have cozened me into marriage?”

“That is not your concern.”

“It is my marriage!”

“Your marriage on my terms. You agreed to my terms!”

“And every day I wish I had not. To die unwed would be better than to live with thee.”

“Know this,” said Iago. “I would hang before I’d lie with a man, yet I’d lie with the worst of them before I’d ever touch thy body. Tell the world that, if thou darest.”

Emilia fled to her room. The house filled with sobs that would have wrung pity from a stone, but Iago’s heart beat steadily on.

She had agreed. He was not to blame. She had agreed.