As I am man, my state is desperate for my master’s love...
Viola paused on her way up to the duke’s chambers, the evening posset on the tray and looked down the corridor, towards the drawing room.
The hour being late and the household mostly asleep, Cesario had been bidden to fetch a night-drink from the kitchen for his lord. The cook – none too pleased to be woken so late – yet knew better than to abuse his master’s favourite for the disturbance. And, passing through the house on her return journey, Viola heard something bump against the wall.
Yes, there, again. A solid noise and out of place in the darkness of the manor house.
There shouldn’t have been anyone in here at this hour, past midnight, when the court had retired many hours ago. The only reason Viola was passing this way was because it was a shortcut from the kitchens to Orsino’s quarters – through the dining room, then up the side staircase to his study where he sat, burning the candles as he lingered over books of poetry and treaties of land management.
Frowning, she took a step towards the drawing room and heard a groan, deep and masculine, and the resonant rumble of voices.
Now curious, she put the posset tray on a sideboard and briskly stepped along the corridor to the folding doors, slightly ajar.
Peering in, she saw a single candle guttering on the low table, and two bodies, pale and bare upon the settee. She glimpsed the curving gleam of a long thigh shifting in the candlelight, hands gripping, hips thrusting—
Viola pulled back, her cheeks burning, as one man grunted and the other laughed, then murmured something too low for her to hear from the door.
Not that she had any desire to hear what they were whispering to each other.
Silently retracing her footsteps back down the corridor, Viola took the tray up to her lord’s chamber, knocked and entered.
Orsino looked up from the book of poetry he held. “You took so long, Cesario, I thought you might have gotten lost. I was well prepared to come and search you out.”
“Forgive the delay, my Lord. I had to...check something before my return.” She placed the posset on the desk beside him, and began retreating to the chair where she sat and studied while he did his work.
Her wrist was caught in a firm and surprising grip, and she looked down into eyes grown still and watchful.
“Your cheeks bloom by candlelight, my boy, roses as fair as ever were seen on a maiden’s cheek.” The tone was light, but there was a darkness about his expression. “Had you an assignation by night, boy?”
“No, my lord!”
But as she thought of the two in the drawing room, coupling on the chair in intimate congress and dropped her gaze.
“Not my assignation...”
Understanding lit his expression from within. “Ah. Someone else, then?” A wry twist touched his mouth. “You were witness to such, then?”
“Yes.” She felt no need to elaborate...and yet... Releasing herself from his grasp, she took her seat. “Is such...common in Illyrian courts?”
His eyes followed her as she sat. “Common? No. But done.” Seeing her expression, the duke hesitated, before his expression softened. “For some men, a marriage is solely of succession – a wife to wed, to bed, to bear heirs – nothing more. In desire, their tastes lie towards their own kind.”
Viola thought of the court, of the masculine household, and wondered.
“It is not my taste.” He smiled as she startled. “Your question was writ clear, Cesario. You could not have spoken it more loudly had you shouted it from the window.”
“My lord, I did not mean insult—” She swallowed the protest.
“My boy, none was taken. You asked in innocence, I answer with knowledge. There may be no secrets here, should you so wish to speak truth.” She averted her gaze, discomfited by his frankness when her own identity stood shadowy between them, a veil she could never lift. More than seen, she felt him lean forward, to ask some question, speak some wisdom—
The candle flickered, sputtering in the sconce with its last light. She started, and saw him draw back, as though the leaping shadows had warned him from his question.
When he spoke, it was with a jocular tone, light and soft. “And so we are interrupted by the hour; our slumbers call us forth! No, leave the tray, my boy. Just...know yourself safe here in my realm. Rest well, and give you good night, Cesario.”
The words were gentle, and she held that tenderness to her heart, close and cherished. “Sleep well, my lord.”
In her quarters, Viola closed her door and leaned against it, hearing again Orsino’s last words.
Know yourself safe here....
He thought her like the two downstairs, a man desiring the attentions of other men. And yes, as Cesario she was indeed as those, preferring men. Yet she was not merely Cesario, but also Viola, and as such her desire for Orsino would be expected, considered commonplace.
Caught between what she appeared to be and what she was, Viola let out a sob, half-laughing at the ridiculousness of her situation. As either man or woman, had the duke asked her capitulation, she would have given it without hesitation, and been his – wholly, entirely, completely.
But it would not – could not – be.
Love was beyond her; then let service be her due.
Home from a hunting trip by one day in advance of expectation, Orsino consulted with his major-domo as to the whereabouts of his wife.
“In her chambers, my Lord.”
His breath stumbled in his throat. “In sickness?”
“In health, my Lord, so far as is understood. But she asked not to be disturbed before the evening meal – by either guest or servant.”
“Then as I am neither, her will holds still.”
He assayed a smile for the man, who’d served Orsino’s household during his bachelor days. But a curiosity sharpened within him at Viola’s request for solitude. She was not a woman to confine herself to her chambers, but took an active interest in the land and its management. And he, beguiled and bewitched husband that he was, encouraged her in her role as true and active mistress of his estates.
This retirement was new – and disturbing withal.
His wife was true as steel, the mettle of her loyalty tested against Orsino’s fruitless and foolish desire for Olivia. Viola had served him true in her guise as Cesario the courtier those three months before their marriage; she would not not serve him false three months agone. And yet...betimes Orsino supposed a wistful longing lingered in his wife’s eye as she looked upon the court attending them.
With a suspicious heart, fear laying a groundwork of distrust, Orsino went quietly into their chambers, making no noise, lest he disturb his wife at whatever she did.
The outer chamber was empty and no sound assayed from the bedroom. Nevertheless, Orsino took a quick look in, and found it silent and still – and one of Viola’s day-dresses flung over the coverlet, discarded.
His heart pounded like the beat of a galley drum, a steady cadence that cut through thought, temperance, and reason.
What did his wife out of her garments, requesting uninterrupted quietude, and Orsino gone late?
His hand trembled on the handle of their office door. Then he flung it open, striding in.
His first thought was why did his brother-in-law stand by his desk, fingers black with spilled ink that even now slid across the woodwork to drip upon the floor? What did Sebastian here? Then his eyes marked the long, pinned-up braid of hair, and his mind ordered itself, the hazed mist of rage clearing somewhat. Yet still his tongue tangled in his words.
“Good my lord!” The answer was instinct, he’d have sworn on it, for his wife and courtier startled at her own words, and blushed across her cheeks and down her throat. It would spread down to her bosom, tinting shoulder and breast with a bright flush – a thornless rose which Orsino teased would deepen with his kisses when they lay together in bed...
His hand closed about itself, the rush of his desire as swift and rough-ridden as the driven boar he’d hunted.
His wife had dressed as a man – as the courtier Cesario. He should chide her, should demand her complaisance as his wife, his woman...yet in the privacy of their rooms, asking no disturbance, desiring no-one should see, she had yearned for the disguise she had worn so successfully for a three-month. And, looking at her, Orsino understood he had not missed Cesario, because Viola was not only his wife but his courtier.
Like lightning strikes the tree, he saw and understood: two aspects of one soul – one body to take action, one mind to will, one voice to speak. It was a twinning of her soul that echoed her twinned bloodline with her brother. Viola and Cesario, one and the same, and if Orsino had not missed his courtier, she had.
Beguiled husband and bewitched man, indeed, to bid such leniency for his wife in her twain.
She stood watching him, her teeth worrying at her lip, waiting for his response.
“Do you trespass about my business, Cesario?”
She started, eyes wide, before a cunning gleam entered within. Wife or courtier, man or woman, no fool she. “Only what is within the compass you have granted me, my lord. I do but oversee your books...”
“You do but stain my desks and my carpet with your ink.” He stepped up and took the small and smeared hand in his, lifted it to his lips before she pulled it away and wiped it on her doublet. “Do you deny me, Cesario?”
“Only your wife, my lord.”
He drifted his thumb across her lips, watched her lips tremble as her breath fluttered across his skin. “And yet, my Viola is also here, is she not?”
“Yes.” Her gaze lifted to his, almost defiant in the lift of her chin – the boldness of the youth who served in his court, the determined honesty of the woman he married after her deception. “You are married to both a maid and a man, my lord.”
“A maid?” His palm pressed lightly over intimate parts clothed in velvet hosen, his fingers rubbing seam against softness. “I think not.”
Her clear and clever gaze held his as she surged her body against his touch – indeed, no maiden, here, but a woman aching, as her husband likewise ached. In fierce desire, Orsino claimed his husbandly due in possession of her mouth, and backed her up against the desk, the better to feel her move against him.
She broke away, though her arm remained hung around his neck. “I come to you in man’s disguise, my lord. A habit of habit, hard to set aside.”
“And have I demanded your skirts? Required your paints?” Orsino pressed his forehead to hers. “If my expectation has made my wife a prison, I recant me of my unkindness. I said once to my courtier Cesario that he was safe. I say it to him again. Know yourself safe here.”
“My lord, I am your wife, you could command obedience—”
“And would in command lose that which I value greater – her trust.”
Her breath drew slowly, expunged a sigh, and her body relaxed against him. “And in return, I’ll hold Cesario here, between us alone, for no other witness to behold.”
“A private courtier and a public wife. If that is so your wish.”
“We are not wholly private, given over to our own pleasures. Duty comes and calls and we must answer as the birds answer the sun.”
Still she nestled in his arms, and Orsino’s blood and body rose at her pressing. “Duty, you say?”
“One of many.” The smile quivered in her voice, as her fingers teased at his hosen, raising him up.
“Ah, then let it not be said that I derelicted one jot of my duty...”
He swept her up, youth and lady all in one, and carried her from the study to their bed, to do dutiful joy and joyful duty with his wife, his courtier, and his heart.