Isabella looked down at Duke Vincentio's outstretched hand like a snake. His offer of marriage hung almost tangibly in the air between them.
She felt as if she'd been drowning in a cold mountain lake and just now fought her way to the surface to see the hope of the shore only to have her foot tangled in weeds was dragged down again. She felt as if she couldn't even see what direction the surface was.
She closed her eyes and asked Mary, Mother of God, for help in her time of need. As always, she felt the sweet relief of Mary's hand on her shoulder.
Her brother, Claudio, just now returned from the dead by Duke Vincentio's prank and no miracle, said, "Of course, she'll go with you. Isabella's just overwhelmed by your offer of marriage. Simple girl. Almost a nun." He smiled brightly at Isabella. "Sister, a word."
He pulled her to the corner of the room. He said, "How is an offer of marriage not good enough?" His fingers hurt where they wrapped around her arm. "It's bad enough that you'd have counted your virtue higher than my life and would have let me die rather than spend a night in Angelo's bed."
Isabella put the palm of her hand on Claudio's shoulder and pushed him back. "And as we well know, Angelo would still have executed you had I given him the cup of my body to pour out virtue and pour in vice."
"For which sin," Claudio said, his face pale and tight, "you begged mercy for his life."
Abruptly, he released her arm and held up his hands palms forward. "Peace, sister. Peace." He shook his head. "For whatever reason, your insistence on your virtue and subsequent mercy impressed the Duke, and he wants to make you a Duchess. You don't have to go back to your nunnery. Think of all the good you could do at Duke Vincentio's side. After all," he said, with that old wheedling tone from when they were children and he wanted something she had, "is not Eve meant from Adam's rib, meant to cleave to his side." He put his hands in a position of prayer, and then spread them apart, "not to go off and be apart from it."
She'd always given him that sweet or the toy. Whatever he'd asked for, she'd given. When he was hungry, she'd seen to it food was brought for him. When he shivered, she brought him his cloak.
Claudio's expression changed again. He loomed over her. "He's not some pagan emperor. You're not some saint like in those books you were always reading as a girl, about to be put to the rack to bleed milk. This isn't one of your silly fancies to talk to the Virgin Mary each day before you take your bread. I have a baby on the way and the Duke can see to our family's wellbeing." Claudio pulled his lips back in an imitation of a smile. "Mother Mary would want you to see my baby is provided for."
Isabella nodded faintly. She always gave in. She was rewarded when his smile turned real.
She took the few steps back to where Duke Vincentio was waiting. His hand was no longer outstretched. He had to have heard Claudio. Everyone had to have heard. She saw Mariana's look of pity and Julietta's fear that she'd say no.
Duke Vincentio was still wearing his Friar's robes. She missed Friar Lodowick. Duke Vincentio had been kind when he had been a friar. Now his face didn't look Friar kind. He looked like a Duke who could in quick succession threaten to have two different women marry men who'd wronged them and threaten to widow them in the same breath. He looked like a man who could have a man thrown in prison with a word.
Reason told her that she could temper him. Reason told her that her brother could use a powerful patron. Reason told her to say yes.
She opened her mouth to accept his offer. She could hardly draw a breath.
Her hand flew to her chest as if she could push air inside. Her palm found her cross laying outside the rough wool of her novitiate's dress. She found she could breathe again as she wrapped her fingers around it. She sent a prayer to Mary, who answered as she always did with a hand to Isabella's shoulder. Isabella said, "Your Grace. I need to pray over this."
"Of course," said Duke Vincentio. She could see that the idea appealed to him. He wanted to purchase a virtuous bride. Of course, she must pray.
"Julietta will pray with her," said Claudio.
"I will?" said Julietta. The black curls that freely escaped her cap bounced with surprise. Julietta had never been much a one for prayer, even when they were girls together. Before Isabella and Claudio's parents had died, and they'd started their separate life paths.
"You will," said Claudio. "No reason for Isabella to take the long trip out to that nunnery when she'd most likely be coming right back again, and she can't go to the Duke's palace without her family with her." Claudio raised his eyebrows at Julietta. "Who better than her new sister to pray with her and give her guidance."
"Oh!" said Julietta. "Oh, yes, of course. No one better." She skipped forward and wrapped a pretty silk clad arm through Isabella's. "We'll pray together." She'd always been affectionate. It was why Isabella had called her cousin once. Now Isabella supposed she was Sister Julietta now. An odd thought.
Mariana glanced at her newly acquired husband, Antonio. She looked at Isabella. "I will pray with you as well."
Isabella nodded her agreement at Mariana, who was already looking back to Antonio, as if hoping he'd miss her. She said, "Thank you."
Duke Vincentio took them all back to his palace. He showed Isabella the great hall lined with golden marble. He pointed out the tapestries on the walls showing lords hunting and great moments in history in warm brilliant colors. He led them up to his own private chapel on the family level. The pews were ornately carved from black oak and lined with sky blue silk with gold tassels. Those were Duke Vincentio's colors. His coat of arms was carved next to the cherubs in the wood. While Christ on the cross over the altar had gold for his crown of thorns and sparkling gems in his radiant halo.
She turned to the Duke. "Do you have a…"
"place where you can pray to the Blessed Virgin," said Duke Vincentio. He was smiling jovially. He thought he knew her. He pointed to an alcove in the wall where a statue of Mary, Queen of Heaven, was dressed in sky blue silk and wore a sparkling crown of silver and gems. Her eyes were kind. Mary's eyes were always kind. He said, "This was where my mother preferred to pray." He put his hand on Isabella's as if they were already married and squeezed it. "I'll leave you to your prayer."
Isabella knelt in front of Mary. She closed her eyes. She heard footsteps leave the room and the door close. She heard Julietta fling herself into a pew and sigh. She heard her get up and pace around the room. Isabella tried to clear her head. She tried to imagine the silver chalice of her soul as empty and waiting for an answer. She opened her eyes and thought, "Mary, what shall I do?"
Mary's eyes were kind. But Isabella's mind was too busy with fear and struggle. There was no answer.
"When you marry the Duke, will you lend me some of the crown jewels like you used to do with your ribbons when we were girls?" said Julietta.
"Julietta!" said Mariana. "She might not marry the Duke!"
"Oh, but Isabella, you have to," said Julietta. She came over and carefully knelt down next to Isabella. She placed Isabella's hand on her belly. "Feel how my baby is growing. You'll be his aunt. You'll be able to take care of him and see that he's well placed at court."
Isabella's fingers curved around the swell of Julietta's baby.
"It could be a girl," said Mariana. Her mouth was turned down and her skin was sallow. She looked as if she'd been ill. Isabella sent a prayer to Mary on her behalf.
"If I have a girl, then Isabella will see that she's dowered and married to an important man," said Julietta. "Please, Isabella, you have to marry the Duke. We could all live in the palace together. He'll give Claudio a position at court. He'll be able to pay Claudio's gambling debts."
"Now there are debts," said Isabella faintly. "When did gambling debts happen?"
Julietta rolled her eyes. "Not right now, but you know Claudio," as if that was an answer. Isabella wondered if she did know her brother, any more than she knew the once familiar Julietta. She wondered if she would have known them if she hadn't been sent away to live with the sisters of the Döbling Carmelite Nunnery after their parents died. She'd known them as children. She did not know the adults they had become.
Isabella said, "I could get to know my brother." She said it aloud to try it on. "I could do good."
"You could do a great deal of good," said Mariana. She sat down in the pew behind them and folded her hands. "Your plea for mercy saved my Antonio's life."
"Sounds as if he didn't want to be your Antonio," said Julietta.
Isabella pulled her hand away from Julietta.
Julietta crossed her arms. "Well, he didn't. As soon as found out that Marriana had lost her fortune, he stopped seeing her. At least my Claudio tried his best to marry me when got a child in me." She smiled softly. "He just wasn't very good at it." Her pretty hand flew to her sweet face and her once familiar dimples appeared. "The marrying part, not the getting me with child part. He was very good at that. His kisses could convince me there is a heaven, while his…."
"I don't think his sister needs to hear about that," said Mariana, standing up. "I know I don't." She paced over to the altar and lit a small candle. "There that's for thanks." She sighed and her breath made the flame dance. "You're right, he didn't want to be my Antonio, but I wanted him." She stared resolutely at the flame. Her hair was hidden under her sensible cap. She folded her hands in front of her. Isabella resisted the urge to get up and comfort the poor woman. She looked as if she had been very ill. Mariana said, "I want the virtuous man who courted me. When he broke our betrothal, the Duke did nothing for me. He didn't care that I had nothing and no one." She turned to look at Isabella. "He only bothered to get me my husband because of you."
"See, even the spinster doesn't want a cold lonely bed," said Julietta. She shook her head and her curls bounced. "I can't even imagine wanting to choose some cold nunnery over a bed warmed by a man." She bit her lip and put her hands on her belly. "Not to mention the children. How will you have children if you went to a nunnery?" A wrinkle formed between her brows. "Although, I suppose by miracle. Do you remember Cousin Anna, she…"
Isabella braced herself for a repetition of an old story.
Mariana rubbed her eyes. "I think our presence may be preventing Isabella from doing what she came here to do." She pulled Isabella to her feet. "Come with me. I'm sure that you need to either relieve yourself or eat."
Julietta giggled. "It's true. Ever since I passed the third month."
Mariana pushed her out the door and glanced back. "Isabella, I do think you could do tremendous good if you were to marry Duke Vincentio." She allowed no reply as she closed the door gently behind her.
The chapel was silent. Isabella stood up. She went to the altar and lit a candle to flicker next to Mariana's. She went back to kneel in front of Mary. She said, "It's true. I could be a helpmate to the Duke. I could fund charities. I could help the poor. I could see that the Duke balances justice with mercy."
Mary smiled at her kindly.
"Duke Vincentio could have saved Claudio at any time, but instead chose an elaborate trick. If I refuse him, how will he respond? What will happen to Claudio and Julietta? Am I meant to live my life for them?"
Mary smiled at her kindly.
"I don't want to be a wife or a mother. I want to be engaged in silent contemplation or do honest work with other women. I don't want," she looked at the richly panelled room, "this."
Mary smiled at her kindly.
Her mind was too full of clutter to hear an answer.
Isabella pulled her wooden rosary from her belt. She held the rosary's wooden cross to her forehead, "In the name of the Father," she held the cross to her heart, "and of the Son," she moved the cross to her left and right shoulders, "and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." She moved through her rosary: the Apostles Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and the Decades. The familiar repetition for each bead comforted her. Her own voice a droning rhythm in the quiet chapel as the world fell away.
It wasn't that the waters of her fate no longer enclosed over her head. It was that she no longer struggled against them.
She opened her eyes. There was an angel with her holding a burning spear. The angel pierced Isabella in the heart. The pain was so great it made her moan, and it was so sweet, Isabella could not wish for the pain to stop. She bled clear liquid from the wound.
Mary knelt down beside her and drew her gently to her feet. Mary said, "Come with me, Isabella."
They went to the door. The angel tapped it with the spear and it was gone. They went down the hall to a room full of the distractions of the world.
Duke Vincentio picked up a Queen from a chess board. He turned it in his fingers. He put it down. He paced to a desk covered in papers. He turned a few. He wrote something down. He turned away and resumed pacing.
Mary walked up to him. She reached inside his chest. She pulled out a silver chalice that was tarnished and blackened with use and years. "Isabella, what is wrong with this cup?"
"It's tarnished," said Isabella.
"Can you polish it?" asked Mary. She hold the chalice out to Isabella.
She took the chalice gently in her hands. It was heavy and took both hands. Isabella looked inside. The chalice was full of blood. She said, "No, it's full. He's using it."
"That wasn't my question," said Mary. Her smile was kind. She wasn't asking to be cruel or play a trick. She was letting Isabella come to the answer herself.
"No, it's not my chalice," said Isabella. She offered the cup back to Mary, who took it and pressed it back into Duke Vincentio. "I can only be responsible for my own chalice."
Mary pulled Isabella's chalice from her chest. It was exactly as Isabella had always imagined it. "When can you polish your cup?" asked Mary.
"When it is empty." Isabella looked into her own chalice. She saw her own self floating in the clear liquid within. But every time Duke Vincentio picked up a book or looked at a paper, she saw the self within the cup sink beneath the surface and struggle with the water. There was liquid spilling over the sides now and onto the floor. "But… it will never empty here."
"No, it can't," agreed Mary. She took back the chalice from Isabella. "I will carry it for you. You're tired." She offered her hand to Isabella. Together they walked out of the city. They went into the mountains. They came to a place where a stream flowed from a waterfall.
Mary said to Isabella, "Clean your cup." Isabella took her silver chalice back. It felt much lighter now. There was nothing inside it. She cleaned the chalice easily in the stream. It cleaned itself.
Mary placed both hands on Isabella's shoulders. A sweet fiery glow filled Isabella. Mary said, "This is the answer to your question."
Tears flowed down Isabella's cheeks. "Thank you." She opened her eyes and looked into the kind eyes of the statue of Mary. "Thank you." She stood up, still moving her fingers over each bead in her rosary.
She walked out of the chapel. She walked by the startled Julietta, who exclaimed, "Isabella!" She went by Mariana, who gasped and fell to her knees. Isabella paused and placed two fingers on where the wound still ached in her chest. She pressed them to Mariana's forehead and prayed to Mary for Mariana in her illness. She was glad to see health bloom in Mariana's cheeks.
She went down the hall to the room where Duke Vincentio had paced in her vision. He looked at her, startled. She said, "Duke Vincentio, you did not ask me to marry you because you want me for a wife. You don't need me to provide a word in your ear to be merciful. You already know what you need to do. You withdrew from your city and went to stay with a friar because you were seeking something. You've mistaken me for what you need as much as water."
"But," said Duke Vincentio. "The city is full of sin. They need correction, but I don't want to…"
"No," said Isabella. She held up her hand palm up with her rosary looped across it. "You know the answer."
Tears were streaming down Duke Vincentio's face. "I was looking for someone to take my burden so I could withdraw to a place apart." He said, "I withdraw my offer. Return to your nunnery." He was crying, which was only natural. She was too. "I'll endow it with funds, and only ask that a place outside may be set aside for me when I need to pray."
"You won't be allowed inside," she said.
"I know." He looked away from her and wiped at his tears.
She turned to her brother. She said, "Take me home."
He swallowed and tried to say something, but it came out as clear as Babel. She took his hand and walked with him down to the street. He kept looking at her and then down at the ground. She said, "Claudio, why are you looking at me like that?"
He looked down, again. "Because you're floating."
She looked down. She was floating. She stepped down so her skirts swept the ground. "Is that better?"
"Yes," he said fervently. She smiled at him and holding her hand to the place where the angel had wounded her, she went back to where she was supposed to be.