Susanna’s first warning was the echo of a familiar baritone. It had been two years since she’d last heard the sound of his voice, but when the faint echo of las came tripping down the hall, when more nonsense syllables echoed down the corridor growing louder and louder, and when there came rhythmic knocking on the door that burst open before anyone touched it, she wasn’t surprised at all to see Figaro in the doorway.
“Make way!” he sung out, and grinned at everyone in the laundry room as if he’d just stepped out for a minute. “Come see!”
“Figaro, where-“ one of the other women started to say, but Figaro grabbed the cloth from her hands and whisked it over her head like a veil.
“Come see, Norina, come see - the new Countess!”
The washerwoman was left sputtering as Figaro spun around to beam at everyone else. Susanna, for her part, dropped more than set down the the stack of shirts she’d just folded.
“So the Count’s found a wife?”
“The lovely Susanna, sharp as ever,” Figaro said, pressed a kiss to her hand before she realized he’d taken it. “Come and see for yourself! Turn out the castle, turn out the gardens, turn out the kitchen - the master’s back, with a lovely bride!”
And just like that he was gone, the sound of his humming resounding off the stone walls, leaving the door swinging on its hinges. Gossip, never slow to start in the servant’s quarters, quickly started to ripple around the room - What will she be like and him, really, married? and don’t be foolish, don’t think he’s going to be any different and you owe me on that bet!
The same tide of gossip inevitably rolled over her, in the form of one of her fellow servants. “What do you think she’ll be like?” the girl asked, eyes bright with the novelty.
Susanna frowned, although she tried to conceal it from the girl’s excitement. She shook out one of her dropped shirts more vigorously than necessary. Having one master was bad enough. Now two?
“I hate to say, Marietta, I forgot I was supposed to tell the future this morning. I have no idea what she’ll be like,” she said, folding the shirt again, and refused to expect any great change in Castle Almaviva.
A new post as the Countess’s lady-in-waiting was certainly a change.
Susanna’s first few moments in her new post were spent looking at the floor. On being shown into the spacious, airy bedroom, she followed her better instincts and Norina’s advice and swept down into a curtsey, not looking up until she was spoken to. The floorboards had tracked dirt on them. Someone would be taken to task for that.
"Please, rise," a soft, low voice said, and Susanna straightened up slowly, eyes rising. There was a cream-colored hem of a dress sweeping the floor in rich silk and brocade, richer than she'd ever touched. A corset holding a slim waist. Clear skin that put the cream of the dress to shame, and a full chest. She flushed a little, and met the Countess's eyes.
She was younger than Susanna had been expecting - only slightly older than Susanna herself - and she was looking at Susanna. Not through her like the Count’s diplomatic guests, or at her like all the Count’s friends who tracked dirt into the house and treated the servants like dirt or pieces of meat, but at her, with a warm little half-smile that almost made Susanna want to smile back.
"My dear, a present for you," the Count said to her, and took her hand, kissing it. "Susanna here is to be your lady-in-waiting."
"I see," the Countess said, and it was her turn to look Susanna over from head to toe. She raised her chin just a little, as the muslin of her dress tickled her neck.
"Thank you," the Countess said.
"Of course, it's only proper. She’s new at this, don’t expect much.”
Before Susanna could process the irritation that rose in her from that little comment, the Count turned to her. “Remember your duties, and make sure your mistress is satisfied.”
The Countess opened her mouth but the Count was already gone, back to his study. At the closing of the door Susanna's neck began to prickle again.
The quiet rustle of fine silk, and the Countess spoke. "What's your name?"
"Susanna, my lady." She met the Countess's eyes again, clasped her hands behind her back.
"Well, Susanna," the Countess said, “I confess I've never had a lady-in-waiting. What exactly are you supposed to do?"
"I'm supposed to attend you whenever you wish for anything. Help dress you, ensure your room is cleaned and your clothes organized, supervise the servants, and act as your secretary."
The mental commentary of you seemed to have dressed yourself perfectly well that followed didn’t have much bite in it.
"Quite a lot," the Countess said after a moment. She sat at her desk, leaned back a little. Was that a little sly smile? “And make sure I’m - ah, satisfied, I gather.”
"Yes," Susanna said, and just barely restrained herself from adding although I was under the impression your husband would be performing that job. The Countess looked as though she’d read the meaning of her smirk, though.
Dressing the Countess turned out to be easier and harder than she’d expected. She was sharp-witted, and, unlike most other nobles, proved to be actually interested in her servants. Susanna found herself lingering longer than was strictly necessary to chatter, hearing about her lady’s outwitting the old Doctor Bartolo, sharing stories of hew own from living in the servant’s quarters.
All the easy chatter between the two of them didn’t explain the way Susanna’s fingers wanted to linger on the small of her back, why her fingers suddenly become clumsy as she laced up the front of her lady’s corsets. If the Countess noticed, she didn’t say anything. Or - perhaps Susanna imagined the way Rosina sometimes stumbled in conversation as she tied the laces. Corsets naturally make the wearer short of breath, after all.
It was only peculiar that they did the same to the dresser as well.
“So how is she?” Norina asked, leaning in beside Susanna.
“The Countess?” Susanna asked, concentrating on the stain. It was almost out, a few more strokes of the lye and the linen would be as good as new.
“Of course,” the other lady said. “Is she as much of a doormat as she seems?”
Susanna scrubbed harder. “Talking like that could get you dismissed if anyone overheard you, Norina.”
There was silence for a moment, then the other woman laughed. “And you’d report me, would you? Two weeks of being a lady in waiting and you’re her little servant.”
The stain was out - there - and Susanna perched her hands on her hips and turned to face Norina head on. Whatever she saw in her face, the other woman stopped laughing.
“I was going to tell you not to talk about things you don’t know anything about,” Susanna said, “but I wouldn’t want to leave you mute. As for the Countess-“ she dried her hands. It gave her time to pause, and time for the other ladies in the laundry room to pretend like they weren’t listening in. “She’s fine. She’ll treat us fairly.”
Norina had recovered from her words. “Fair isn’t something you can promise easy,” she said, backing off. “I won’t believe it ‘till I see it. He’s bad enough.”
“What! do you think the Countess will go around taking us to bed?”
She had spoken without considering the words. A vision flashed through her mind - those delicate hands around her, a warm mouth inches from her own -
The laughter at her riposte dispelled the vision, and Susanna let it go reluctantly. It was replaced by chatter about the new page, the Countess’s godson. Susanna moved over to the landline and hung the nightgown up, and if the pins were driven into the fabric with an excessive amount of force, no one in the room said anything.
The new page turned out to be quite the handful.
“She is an angel, so beautiful,”
Susanna rolled her eyes.
“My devotion will ever be immutable.
Her eyes soft as a dove,
she seems to shine out with love.”
“That’s not a very good rhyme, Cherubino. Neither of them are good.”
The boy ignored her.
“She is a goddess upon whom I wait,
Far above my lowly state.
So delicate is her gait,
my every second she illuminates.
“Too many syllables!” Susanna said. “Really, dear, is that the best you can do?”
He flushed, set the guitar down. “Susanna, I’m trying - her beauty is far too great to be captured in any poetry-! And rhyming is hard!”
“On state? Well, I think you exaggerate . Perhaps your poem I should… dictate ? Or else your lovely song might only - irritate .”
Cherubino flopped across the bed. “How do you come up with rhymes so fast? I took the entire morning trying to write these!”
“Spend long enough around Figaro,” Susanna said, “and you’ll be doing it in no time.”
“He’d make fun of me,” Cherubino moaned, and covered his face with the pillow. “Oh, Susanna, what am I going to do? I must let her know how much she means to me-“
“You could tell her. Or I could tell her.” Susanna said. “I have half a mind that these past two months, you’ve been secretly asking me to give them to her. Why else would you keep on trying new poetry?”
Cherubino was silent for a moment, so Susanna knew she’d thrown the dart true, even if she hadn’t quite hit the center of the board. “Are they really so bad?”
“You have gotten better,” Susanna said. “But perhaps they’re a little...typical? Perhaps you should be more specific.”
“But that’s it, Susanna,” Cherubino moaned, and flopped over onto his stomach, burying his face into the bed. “Everything about her is so wonderful. How can I single out one thing? There is no poetry lovely enough for her.”
Susanna sighed, and sat down next to the heap of frustrated would-be poet, thinking about Rosina. “Stop being so dramatic, and choose something specific." More to herself then Cherubino, she muses "If I were writing a sonnet to her, I would write about-”
Her cleverness. Her kindness. Her devotion, even though the Count doesn’t deserve one whit of it. The way she cleans up after herself, though she has a castle of servants she could order to do it. Her grace, and the brightness in her eyes. The freckles dotted across her shoulders, her perfect breasts-
She jerked back to reality. Cherubino was staring at her with wide eyes, a smile dawning. “Dare I think,” he began in a teasing voice, “dare I think that you have the same problem?”
“Write about how she makes you feel,” Susanna said, and got up, searching for something to do to hide her flush.
“Well then, seems I must speak for both of us,” Cherubino laughed, and was out the door before Susanna could swat him.
Susanna grew familiar with the Countess, with my lady, with Rosina, the last most difficult of all. The barbs from her tongue she allowed free reign, and met with equally sharp parries from Rosina. The light in her eyes she sought to protect as well, but there were only so many indiscretions the Count could commit before she found Rosina, brittle but upright, sitting at her desk, and faced the question to which she could only answer yes. Some of the delight changed after that, and yet when the Count flitted away to Seville the two of them would talk into the night, when he left to hunt they caught Cherubino working at a new serenade and made him sing it through, when he disappeared for a few hours cards and chatter were the order of the day.
The nights were another matter. The Count had left for Madrid on government affairs, taking Figaro with him once again, and the castle was considerably quieter as a result. Susanna was brushing the powder out of Rosina’s hair, taking her time. Waiting for her to speak her mind.
Rosina folded her hands together, and Susanna set aside the brush.
“Susanna, is Cherubino uncomfortable here?”
“What,” Susanna asked carefully, “makes you ask that?”
“I know your little jokes are made in good fun,” Rosina said, “but he blushes like a maiden every time. It seems - excessive, to be embarrassed so severely, so often. He has been here close to six months, after all. I wonder whether something else is the cause.”
“Oh, if him blushing is a sign of discomfort, my lady- it’s not my jokes that cause him to blush in your presence!”
“Your presence,” she said.
The silence that followed was long enough for Susanna to wonder how much of a mistake she’d made. Then Rosina let out a soft sigh, picked up a quill from her desk. Drew her fingers along the feathers, lightly.
“I thought as much.”
She looked down, tapped her fingers with the quill.
“He’s told me many times over,” Susanna offered. “Almost every day a new love poem, a new song, a new verse.” She sits in the other chair, offers Rosina a little smile so she can see that she’s being sincere. “He’s practically tied himself in knots over it.”
“I wish you had said something to me sooner,” Rosina said.
“I would have a little detail cleared up, though,” Rosina said, and Susanna found herself under scrutiny from those twinkling eyes. “He comes to you for help on his love poetry?”
“He thinks I can help improve them, my lady,” Susanna said.
“And why is that?"
Susanna hesitated for a moment, but there was no graceful way to dodge the question. And, she realized, she didn’t really want to.
“Who better to come to, than someone who shares the same affection?”
Rosina leaned back in her chair, a small pleased smile breaking over her face.
“Don’t say,” Susanna forestalled her, and mimicked Rosina’s soft voice. “‘I thought as much.’”
“I will keep silent, then,” Rosina said. “But I must know, am I to expect love poetry from you as well?”
“I prefer to be more direct, my lady,” Susanna said. And as their little dance was over, she took Rosina’s hand in her own, and kissed the back of the delicate hand. A final thought occurred to her. “Besides, my duty is to make sure you’re satisfied.”
Later, when the entire servant’s staff complained about the torrential downpour, the overturned carriage that had kept the Count away for a week and the mud-soaked baggage it fell to them to clean, Susanna could only smile and bless the rain.
Susanna was in the wardrobe hanging up the last waistcoat rescued from the mud stains when the Count blustered in, grumbling about finding some scrap of poetry Cherubino had left about.
“Rosina, he’s trouble,” the man said. “If I catch him with one of the castle staff-“
“He’s under my protection,” the Countess said softly, and there was steel behind the words.
When the dispatch from Madrid came again - a month’s worth of business, sensitive negotiations with the ambassador from London - the Count retreated gratefully to the capital.
Susanna almost felt sorry for Cherubino. When the familiar knock sounded, she'd been reluctant to get up - after all, she was quite occupied - but Rosina prodded her, and so she'd opened the door. He'd looked at her, with her apron set aside - at Rosina, on the bed in her nightgown - at her with her hair out of its kerchief - at Rosina, lips ever so slightly reddened - and Susanna saw the exact moment when understanding dawned.
“Susanna,” he breathed out. To his credit, he seemed more impressed than anything.
“I told you, sometimes the direct approach works,” Susanna said. “But I will retire, and allow you your serenade in privacy. I’m sure it’s lovely.”
“More a speech,” Cherubino said. “And don't go." He took Susanna’s hand in his own, kissed it. "It's addressed to both of you.”
“What, me? I thought you only had eyes for her!”
Rosina hummed, and Susanna whipped around to look at her. Don’t you dare say it-
“I thought as much,” Rosina said, and her grave face broke down into laughter, and Susanna put her hands on her hips in mock exasperation. Cherubino embraced her from behind. “How could I not fall in love with you as well, Susanna - why, your fiery spirit, your sharp tongue-”
“Save it for Rosina,” Susanna said, and twisted out of his arms, although she made sure to smile at him. “But now I’m eager to hear.” She crossed to the bed, sat next to Rosina, who made room for her. “And you?”
“I can think of nothing else that would make me more satisfied.”
“My dear Cherubino,” Rosina said, “are you-“
Susanna really couldn’t resist. “-Cold? Why, you’re shivering so.”
Rosina gave her a look of remonstration, and Susanna was about to pull Cherubino onto the bed herself, but he surprised her.
“Cold? Why, perhaps,” he said, and placed Rosina’s hand over his chest. “Cold as a traveler alone in a snowstorm who has spotted a fire, thirsty as a wanderer in the desert who catches sight of an oasis.” His voice grew softer. “If I tremble it’s because I have been cold, and because I grow warm. It’s because I have wandered long in the dark, and because I approach the sun and the moon, and their radiance,” he kissed Rosina’s hand, met Susanna’s eyes, “can not but leave me moved.”
Susanna sat back, searched her mind for a way to reply, but couldn’t find one. It was Rosina who answered with a kiss.
“Bravo,” she said quietly, and Cherubino turned to her, looking a little dazed and soft and open, and smiled.