The minutes that come between the public words and the chance for private discussion are as hours, measured by the insistent beating of her heart. She wishes to speak, yet she fears it. She does not know what she must say this time.
When the moment comes, it is not as she expected.
“Wait,” he says, forestalling her, and takes her hand again, leading her to the window and they look out over the city together. “You were on the point of taking your vows, I understand? Then pray as you would, for one night – and choose which vows you may take in the morning.”
That much she may agree to, easily. She breathes out, and nods. There are other questions, of course. She wonders what might happen if she dares to refuse. And she also must ask herself how much of her heart lies in solitary devotion and how much in the need to minister to the poor, to the hurts of this city. She inclines her head. “I will do so.” She realises, belatedly, she has not responded as she should, and adds: “Your Grace does me much honour. Do not think me insensible –”
He waves that away with a small gesture of his hand, and a smile. Then he talks of other matters, matters that are not the issue in hand – or not seemingly, but Isabella thinks she may understand him a little better now. He talks of the city’s problems; he speaks of the other prospective marriages made today, and of becoming Friar Lodowick who was, for all his falsity, born in a monastery, with God’s blessing. He is not in truth a Holy Friar, as she knows, but he is, he says, with amusement, almost a brother, perhaps.
She gathers her courage, and raises her head. “If that is so,” she says, making her own demand this time, “then a brother should also watch and pray before he takes his vows.”
The Duke halts at that, then gives her a small nod and another smile. “Why, yes, so he should.”
Isabella considers carefully what he asks and what he offers. Perhaps what he asks is blasphemy and what he offers only fearful penalties should she refuse, but she is inclined to see it otherwise and, whatever the truth, she has promised at least this act of contemplation.
It is both more and less than others might; some might call it a cold thing, but he lays at her feet a city in need; he asks of her that she help administer justice with mercy, to mend matters. He demands, indeed, everything but the first thing any other man would ask – if she reads him aright, and she believes she does. It is not so very far from that which called her here.
It is not, she thinks, as with Angelo who praised her mind yet only demanded her body in a vile ransom. Not even that – in the darkness of the night and the heat of desire any woman’s body was enough to please him. The Duke, she feels, would never make that mistake. His faults are here also his virtues: he would not trust the night’s disguising blackness, but would listen for the voice, however little was said, would trace his fingers over her face to read her features, touch the hands he had already held and would not be deceived by an impostor.
She does understand what is being asked – perhaps demanded yet again: that she be Duchess, a great benefactress if she chooses. When he is not here – and absence is intended – she is to hold Vienna in his stead. And she has, she has now found, a gift for argument, for reason and discourse. Is it right to hide that behind the silence of a veil?
Oh, God, she cries in the silence of the cell, is this the last and worst temptation, or has His hand led her through her calling here, to the place where she can do the greatest good?
She prays for longer, but it dawns on her slowly, with the morning, that she has already made her choice and taken her vow: she has given her hand in public, inadvertently and silently, but she will hold to any promise she has made.
And once she sees that – sees that her decision is made, as she supposes it had to be (though in the name of God one could refuse a Duke – she could refuse a Duke; she has been tested enough now to know her strength) – the future shifts before her, shaping itself into something new and unforeseen. Her mind is like a wild bird, beating its wings about inside at the prospect of unexpected freedom – or at least another sort of cage – and the fear that brings, but there are truths she is still sure of.
She will yet devote herself to God, if by another way. By remaining herself and devout she holds him to account. She will also devote herself to the poor and to works of charity. She will aim still to be both just and merciful – as she advocated from her powerless position only a few days ago. And if she will take these other vows, then she will also be a wife, and love a man: there is not the deceit or cowardice in her to be less than whole in what she does. Her passion and her purity are twinned emotions; a burning wick that runs through a candle.
She wonders again about what he said to her. Perhaps she was mistaken? Or perhaps – and this she could not condone – perhaps he loves elsewhere? She would not care for such deceit; that would be another blasphemy, another sin. Or perhaps he is cold, colder than ever Angelo seemed and does not love? (He is not, so she hears, inclined to women.)
He is not an easy man to fathom. It could be said her new lord also moves in ways most mysterious, but she can learn to study him and, for all her distrust of deceit, she never doubted that he meant her well. She wonders now, why and takes an odd comfort in that instinct.
They meet again, in the morning: an awkward meeting. She does not ask him if he prayed as she did, and he hesitates yet to press her for her answer. She smiles, though, as if reassured by that, and gives him her hand again and there’s no need to ask. And she has her answer also, for wherever he has been, it was somewhere cold; his hand is not warm and the cloth of his sleeve is damp. She wonders, too, how to answer his other question, if that it was. She is not quite ready to speak of it.
But that, she finds is easy too, for she holds to his hand for longer than she should; she kisses it, eyes closed and then she trembles at the strangeness of the world.
At the joining of their hands and what comes after, she learns that another of his vices is a virtue also. His habit of never taking the direct route, always the circuitous, to obtain what he wants is here for her an advantage.
She, next time, may be more direct.
She is Isabella – always – and now Vienna’s duchess, its fair and fearless advocate who will be beloved by a city as well as by a man.