On the battlefield, Benedick had shared bedspace with many men and a few women, both smelling, usually, of unwashed armour, gunpowder and old sweat. Some had kicked, some had elbowed, some had called out in their sleep. Claudio had been plagued with nightmares that left him silent and shaking, but also had an excellent memory for the crudest, funniest poetry, if they’d both found themselves awake. The prince, he had discovered on one particularly cold campaign, when royal custom had fought with the freezing wind and lost, snored. Not loudly, but persistently, and had complained that a sleeping Benedick resembled some unholy cross between a limpet and an octopus.
Marriage, Benedick thought, was an eminently practical solution to many of life’s problems. Beatrice was far easier to sleep with than any of them, giving warmth, comfort and -in no small quantities- entertainment. A little inclined to kick on waking, but warm and soft and smelling considerably better than any of his brothers-in-arms.
It was pleasant, too, to imagine this stretching out forever. Years of it, of knowing that there would always be this, this woman in his bed, himself wrapped around her. In ten years, twenty, thirty, a hundred, god willing, he could be woken up in the small hours by some owl’s cry, and find Beatrice there waiting for him. In the small hours, they could talk like drunkards, rambling, meaningless, honest, until one or the other fell asleep to the lullaby of sweet nonsense.
“I’m sure, as a rich widower, I would marry again, and quickly,” he said, nuzzling at the back of her neck. “Or not-- many women would offer their sympathies without any ceremony. ‘Poor Benedick,’ they would say, ‘how lonely he must be, how I must comfort him?’ And thou? Assuming, of course, that thou didst not die of grief at my passing, what pale imitation second husband wouldst thou have?”
“Oh, I would have learned from my mistake. Though I’ve no doubt many, many young men-- young and handsome men-- would be sure to call on me before thy body was even cold, hoping that my earlier poor choosing was a sign of character, rather than a single tragic mistake.” She laced her fingers over his where they rested on her stomach. “Since I am a fool but once, I would have none of them to husband, though perhaps I might let them make their bold attempts. Listen to their poetry-- they would all be fine poets, of course, or believe themselves to be. I’d let them do their best to persuade me to the, ah, marital bed…”
“‘Tis a shame neither of us can be widowed while the other lives,” Benedick said. “We could have such entertainment in it, and then at the end of each day, we could make our way back to each other and report our adventures.”
He felt her laugh, the slight shaking of her body, and let the moment drift. Their house was far enough from Messina that the only sounds came from their own estate, the orchards and olive grove. It dropped away to the sea at one side-- too shallow for most boats, but deep enough for the local fisherman and, Benedick suspected, the less ambitious smugglers. In the distance, he could hear the sound of an open shutter banging against the wall and some night creature crying mournfully.
The noise of their shared breathing was louder than both. The even rhythm of it soothed him, gave him the pleasant nonsense thought that perhaps they always breathed like this, matching each inhalation, even when they were apart. That maybe they always had. He wondered if Beatrice had fallen asleep again, and if he should join her, when she stirred slightly.
“Thou couldst be a young widower yet,” Beatrice said. “Women can be young, and die still.” She shivered against him. “Men are called to war and women to their lying-in, and both can be bloody battles.”
Her words jarred him out of the slow drift of his thoughts and Benedick tightened his arms around her instinctively.
“Hero’s mother, Isabella...” Beatrice said. “I was young, but I remember when it happened. I thought at the time it was a poor trade, that small screaming thing for her. Now, of course, I love my cousin more than my own heart, but then…”
For a moment, every battle he had ever fought in danced across his mind, a brief moment of smoke, mud and noise, and he pulled her closer. There had been babies, sometimes, the offspring of camp followers or some officer’s mistress. Sometimes wrapped up and taken with them, sometimes sent home to their families. Sometimes left in the field, buried with as little ceremony as the soldiers.
Benedick stroked her arm with one hand. In the dark, with no prompts of expression, it was harder to speak. To know if he should offer comfort, distraction, sympathy or silence. Beatrice shifted, reaching up with her free hand to hold his. She squeezed it tightly for a second, then relaxed, but kept it held there. “Isabella…” Benedick said. “She was much like Hero, I imagine? Sweet of nature, virtuous, modest, kind?”
“Yes,” Beatrice said, “Hero is very much in her image.”
“Well, then,” Benedick said, keeping his voice light, easy. “Thou hast no need to fear. Surely, Beatrice, thy nurse made sure thou knew thy stories? ‘Tis common knowledge that only the good die young, taken to Heaven before this world can corrupt them.” He raised his hand, still holding hers, and kissed the back of it. “A sharp-tongued witch like thee is doomed to live forever, a curse upon her poor long-suffering husband and a torment to any man or woman foolish enough to marry one of thy children. A normal woman might die, but not a harpy like thee. Echidna bore forth Cerberus, Scylla, her gorgon daughters and more. Thinkst thou thou wilt do anything less?” He nuzzled at the back of her neck. “As if death would risk your companionship, Lady Disdain. Cruel mistress. Vicious virago…”
“Vicious virago? Really, you talk like a tuppenny playwright.” Beatrice sniffed and turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. The shutters were closed and the candles snuffed, but he imagined her sketching his face in the dark, judging his expression with a complex equation based on his choice of words, the tone of his voice, the degree to which he curled his body around her.
“A tuppenny playwright?” He relaxed, the words coming more easily now that she’d let him find their usual rhythm. “What, like the ones that ply their trade by the docks, selling cheap sonnets to sailors?”
“Mmm, or in back alleys, giving soldiers epic poetry, two at a time.”
“Thou art a foul wench,” he said admiringly. “No wonder I love thee so. No wonder thou lovest me.”
“Somebody had to,” she said. “How could I, in good conscience, leave thee to freely roam about, troubling any poor unfortunate woman who might pass by with thy wicked tongue?” She paused, and then repeatedly, louder, “I said, ‘thy wicked tongue?’ Husband, even a poor playwright should know how to take his cue.”
He leaned up to kiss her and she pulled him further over. “There,” she said, breathless. “Now, good sir, maybe thou shouldst make thy grand entra--”
He rolled her on top of him before she could finish speaking, reached up and covered her mouth with one hand. “Zounds, every word out of thy mouth is a challenge to my love for thee in one way or another. Promise, if I take my hand away, thou wilt say nothing else until the morning?”
Benedict moved his hand away and Beatrice put on a virtuous expression. “Nothing else, husband?” She said. “Art thou sure? Not one word? Not yes, or now, or…”
Leaving Beatrice in the morning -any morning- presented certain challenges. Challenges Benedick could overcome, building up a resistence to her surprisingly cheerful morning moods, the pretty appetite she broke her fast with, the sight of her getting dressed, her hair going up off her shoulders in a way that demanded it come down again and…
And then she had changed, so that his difficulty now was leaving her like this; awake, but sleepy, soft and warm and curled up still in their bed, the sheets half kicked off to tangle around her legs. Cruel, he thought, and heartless, especially when he had to take the journey in to town at her request.
Still, the road to Messina was not overly long - a few hours by horse, not much different on foot, and a fair bit longer by carriage due to the state of the roads- and he couldn’t deny the odd, surprising satisfaction of going along his lands. Their lands, the property of Beatrice’s late parents, now being given purpose again. It had never been allowed to fall into utter neglect, Leonato taking his responsibility as caretaker too seriously for that, but neither had it been looked after as tenderly as it could have been.
Once on the main road, he made his way into Messina quickly and headed to Leonato’s -and now Claudio’s and still Hero’s- home.
To his surprise, he was greeted at the entrance by Claudio himself. “Hast thou been demoted to footman now?” Benedick said.
Claudio laughed. “I was on my way to see you,” he said. “I have letters for you, several, given to me to pass on to you. The governor's house is far easier to find than your small hamlet.” He nudged Benedick, who rolled his eyes. His house was far from small-- indeed, at present they were looking to fill it, re-establishing the quarters to their former state.
“My home may not be quite so grand, yet, as your own,” Benedick said, “but it has the virtue of distance. I need not ask my wife’s family to excuse us both after supper, if we desire an early night and an earlier rising.”
“Marriage to Beatrice has not yet softened your tongue.”
“No, for she keeps it sharp, and has the perfect whetstone for just such a task.” Benedick leafed through the letters and found one in a familiar hand. Better to grasp the nettle, he thought, and opened it, reading through it quickly and occasionally wincing.
“Bad news?” Claudio said.
“A letter from my mother,” Benedick said. “Wondering why I am so reluctant to allow her to see my wife, at my lack of filial devotion, my determination to see her die alone and in poverty.”
Claudio looked sympathetic. “Your marriage must have come as a shock to her. Perhaps she could be persuaded to come here?”
Benedick gave him a horrified look. “Bite your tongue, cousin! My mother is well kept by my brothers, and my sisters had the good sense to marry well, if not quite the sense to marry distantly. Do not misunderstand me, Claudio, I love my mother, and am very grateful for the lessons she taught me. Persistence, endurance and the importance of a clear path of retreat. Besides, she is much given to pilgrimages these days, so I need only wait and I’m sure God will guide her to us eventually.”
“Coward,” Claudio said. “Admit it, you fear the battles if your wife and mother meet and become enemies.”
“Worse! I fear the battles if they meet and become allies,” Benedict said. “There is a careful balance in our household, Claudio, two forces of equal strength kept in check by each other, with the occasional intrusion of a common enemy to unite us. I cannot chance some unwise treaty being formed to disrupt that.”
Claudio conceded the point with grace. “Still, your wife is lucky to have your family so far away. I am outnumbered at every turn here. I may not be at risk from any mother-in-law, but you will concede that Beatrice is easily as fearsome as the worst of them, and as protective as any lioness.”
She was, Benedick thought, momentarily enchanted by the thought of it. His Beatrice as a lioness, protecting her cubs… he wondered if he could have a portrait made up of her like that, but no, better to wait until the child was born.
Her child. Their child. He smiled at the thought of it.
“Is Hero about?” He said. “Beatrice gave me a letter for her, and I have news for you both.”
“Yes, of course,” Claudio said. “I had wondered why Beatrice was not with you. By choice, I think she’d spend as much time with Hero as I do.”
“She has the older claim,” Benedick said.
“As Hero has to Beatrice. Will you then concede your bedchamber to her?”
“For your sake, Claudio, I would not. Keeping company with me has not softened my wife’s constitution, and Beatrice could return to me after a night with her old bedfellow with her spirits unblunted. After so long without the challenge of Beatrice’s good company, yours, I fear, would lack the strength to depart.”
They found Hero in the main room, giving directions to her staff. Hero’s father had offered Claudio a good position in his service-- the Governor's second, a position suitable to a man of Claudio’s birth and ambition, which Claudio had accepted without any hesitation. It was a good position, and no bad thing for him to have the chance to find his strengths in peace, and meant that Hero’s new duties as a wife were largely swallowed up into her old ones, managing her father’s household.
But more than that, it kept Hero close to her father, close to her kinsfolk. There was nothing in their attitudes to make Benedick remember those dark days, nothing to make him think the matter anything but entirely forgiven and forgotten, but still. The Prince could have found a place for Claudio in his court-- had offered, Benedick suspected, at least as often as he had offered a place to Benedick himself-- and yet here Benedick and Claudio were. Not in the cities of their births, or the household of their prince, but here in Messina, living in the homes their wives had brought them to and kept them in.
“Benedick!” Hero said. Her smile was bright, as whole-hearted as ever. “Is Beatrice with you? I have not seen her in-- well, weeks.”
“Beatrice was not able to leave our home,” Benedick said. “She has extended her usual invitation to you, and I add my own to it.”
”How is my cousin?”
Benedick thought of how she’d been when he left her. “Not unwell, not ill. In her usual spirits, or possibly more so. I come as her humble messenger.” He passed her over the letter. Hero grabbed at it quickly and Benedick saw manners war with want and triumph. She held it, unopened, and said, “She is well, though? And you yourself, happy in your new home?”
“As blissful as you are in your old,” Benedick said.
“Marriage has not calmed your wit any, I see,” Hero said.
“Could marriage to Beatrice ever? The greatest claim I can make is that after we wedded, we were ourselves doubled.” Tripled even, he thought, and grinned.
Claudio laughed and shook his head. “Perhaps it’s for the best that your new home has good land around it, if only to give your neighbours some measure of peace. Come, though, you said you had news for us both?” He moved to stand next to Hero, his arm around her waist.
“Good news, I trust?” Hero said, leaning in to Claudio and for all her delicacy, Benedick was reminded of the solid, reassuring presence of one of the giant cart-horses he’d seen once in Belgium, brought by its owner to calm the nervy, anxious nature of his own thoroughbreds. The delightfully incongruous image of it pleased him and he made a note to share it with Beatrice when he returned.
Benedick shrugged, making a show of its casualness. “Some would say, though others would most strongly disagree. In all honesty, I cannot say which of my enemies or my friends would claim joy in my news, and which fear.”
“I cannot think your news so important, if you are so slow to tell us of it,” Claudio said. “Surely, if your announcement had any significance, you would have—" He dodged Benedick’s playful kick, spinning Hero between them as a shield, laughing. “Come on then, cousin, make your announcement!”
“Beatrice is with child,” Benedick said. He was grinning, he suspected, like an idiot, like the men he had mocked so often in the past -proud of their virility, as if fathering a child required any great skill or strength- and he stood by his mockery. What they had done took so little skill any dog could do it. He, however, had married Beatrice, which was no small feat, and had then been welcomed into her bed without any hint of cold duty -with, on the contrary, frequent encouragement and occasionally loud commands- and their child was clearly the product of two people, both blessed with natural talent, diligently putting their skills to work.
“So quickly?” Hero said, then put her hands over her mouth. “I mean-- oh, this is good news. And you two, you are-- my cousin is well? You said so, but-- the child does not weigh heavily on her?”
“Barely any weight, at present,” Benedick said. “though God willing, more to come. I am assured on all sides that she is in excellent health, with no worse effects from carrying than can be expected, and better than many.”
Indeed, since the news had started to spread --their household, though small, had voices loud enough to match their own-- he had had many people offer advice, congratulations and occasional sympathies to him. The speed at which the news had spread to their neighbours and the deep subtlety with which they had let Benedick know that they knew had demanded that Benedick make this trip quickly, before Beatrice’s family found out through gossip and rumour.
He returned home surprisingly alone, Hero having decided that she needed at least a day to gather suitable supplies for her visit. Beatrice met him at the entrance, her hands on her hips.
“One thing, husband,” Beatrice said. “I sent thee in to Messina to bring me back one small gift, and yet thou bringest me nothing. Truly, has our love already begun to fade from newly-bloomed to fallen leaves, that thou dost neglect me so?” She shook her head sadly. “Poor me, so quickly--”
Seeing no reason not to, Benedick gave into his urge to kiss her, interrupting her speech. Beatrice, he judged, felt much the same. He kissed her until he heard a loud cough, and detached enough to see the Sofia the housekeeper standing there. "I fear thy chaperone has found us," he whispered, loudly enough to make Sofia snort.
"Oh, thou art a poor choice as a companion," Beatrice said, pushing him a little away. "Leading me astray when I should be at my books."
Regretfully, he stepped back. “Hero will be here within the week,” Benedick said. “Thou mightst ask me for but one thing, but Hero would bring thee all the wealth of Messina as early-reward for thy labour.”
“Indeed, my lady,” Sofia said, leaping in before Beatrice could reply. “As early as it is, we have much to prepare, and it’s best to do as much now, when the work is small, then at the end when it will…” she paused, and looked at Beatrice with the experienced eye of a farmer assessing the worth of a calf, “when it will grow fair large,” she said, firmly.
“Peace, good Sofia,” Beatrice said. “I shall be diligent, and take myself away from such wicked distractions.” She patted his cheek. “And thou, Benedick, surely thou shouldst be at your desk.” He raised an eyebrow and she laughed. “My family is few and near. Thy family is many and far, and have waited longer than mine to hear news such as this.”
As quickly as rumour travelled, it would take longer to reach the capital, and likely longer still to reach Don Pedro himself. Even if it made its way through the layers of courtly armour to reach him, the prince was no stranger to escape, battling his way free of the constraints of dutiful etiquette to take up a role more suited to his nature-- as a diplomat, or head of his father’s armies, or even just the day to day work of consolidating his place as future king.
Besides, writing to the prince now would serve as suitable distraction from his more unpleasant duties-- writing to his family. Even now, their letters still arrived offering congratulations with more satisfied mockery than Benedick could have managed, to the extent that he wondered if they had been preparing for this day for years. Even his youngest-but-one sister, his favourite, had managed thirty pages of elegantly scoffing script.
“Thou art writing to the prince?” Beatrice said. She lifted the letter off his desk and read over the first few lines. “Surely thou canst wait until the baby is born before thou shoutest the news to such high quarters.”
“He’s at least two months travel from us,” Benedick said. “I want to make sure his laughter is long since spent before he can visit.”
Beatrice gave him a strange look and leaned back on the desk, putting the letter down behind her. “Why should he visit so soon? Surely the news that a new-married wife is carrying her husband’s child is not so shocking, even amongst royalty.”
“The news that I may soon be raising a legitimate heir might be,” Benedick said, smiling at her.
She looked at him and frowned slightly. “There’s something more to this. I know thee well enough to know that thou only spendest this long on thy words when importance dulls thy wit.”
He shrugged dramatically and leaned back in his chair, marshalling his thoughts. “It is a terrible burden,” he said, “to have married a rich wife. Nonetheless, if money and land are the price I must pay to have thee as my own, then I will sacrifice myself to it.”
“Thy courage does thee credit,” Beatrice said.
He acknowledged this with a half a smile, then said, “I have known for many years that if I should marry, I should marry money. My parents had more fruit than land, and I was a late enough harvest to have small claim on any of it. My talents as a soldier are--”
“--Are at least half as good as thou dost claim, which still makes them twice the worth of any other man in the King’s army,” Beatrice said.
“If I am ever taken to court, promise to speak not one word in my defense,” Benedick said. “The judge would have me hanged and crowned both before thy mouth was shut. Still, while I may have gained honour, my honour has never lent itself much to the acquisition of money. I have been as comfortable as any man could be on the battlefield, more than most, but I have never made any gold on it that I could take home with me after. Thou bringst far more security to our futures than I do,” he said. “Thy uncles, the holdings left by thy parents...” He hesitated, uncomfortable, then added, “Many people have complimented me on the wisdom of marrying you.”
Beatrice looked at him and he tried not to look away, then she came over, moved his chair back a little further so she could sit on his lap. His hands went round her waist automatically to hold her steady. This morning, he had watched her put her hair up, too impatient to wait for her maid. Her hands had darted about her head, pinning it up with more care to thoroughness than beauty. His hands itched to undo it, to loosen the tight twists and reshape it into something softer.
“I am yet to be complimented on the wisdom of marrying thee,” she said. He opened his mouth and she held up a hand to stop him. “Many have commented on my luck, my great good fortune in having my uncle take such good care of my dowry. Some have even said how blessed I was, to have so great a soldier to lay skillful siege to my stone defenses.”
“If the Prince called me up again, I would make every plan for my return-- Odysseus would think himself idle in comparison, but I would not leave you, leave our family, adrift if it happened. I’ve no doubt you could hold a twenty-year siege as well as Penelope, but I’ve no desire to see you so tested. My fortune is all in myself and my friends. I would gladly spend both on you, to penury, if you would let me.”
“Many soldiers march off to war, and come home again after,” Beatrice said. She took his hands and held them both, making him look her in the eyes.
“But not all of them.” She kept him pinned with the lightest hold of her hands, with her steady gaze. “And if I should not-- or I drown in some flood, if a horse throws me or I eat bad eels, I want surety that my children’s inheritance is set. That the loyalties I have, are bound to my children.”
He could see the understanding in Beatrice’s eyes. They widened and she stood up, the sudden movement almost tilting his chair back. “Thou wouldst have the prince as godfather to our child,” She said.
“He offered once. As a joke, in the unlikely event I should ever need one, but I know him well enough to believe-- Beatrice?”
“I had not-- Benedick, as much as thou lovest me, I ask thee not to ask him.”
“Don Pedro is a friend to your family. You are not strangers, not distant acquaintances. I thought you friends, even,” Benedick said. He reached for her hand to pull her back, but she avoided it, crossing her arms.
“We were. Are. As I am a friend to my cousin’s husband, now, but Benedick, I would not see my child left to either of their care.” Beatrice looked at him, sincere, pleading.
“I would trust them with my life, Beatrice-- I have,” Benedick said. “Both of them have saved my life and have been true companions to me. If we had a son, I would rather Claudio teach him his sword than any in Europe. And the prince-- more than the strength of his connection, Don Pedro would see all care given to him and no opportunity denied.”
“And if we have a daughter, I should trust in Claudio’s unceasing good judgment in her raising?” Beatrice said, the words tumbling out quickly, unwillingly. “In the prince’s gentle mercy?”
“Thou thinkst-- thou canst not think he would neglect her welfare in any way,” Benedick said. “Claudio would love her as if she were his own daughter.”
“I cannot trust in his consistency,” Beatrice said. “I cannot forget-- he was cruel when he was hurt, Benedick. When he thought himself mistaken in Hero’s nature…”
“When he thought himself betrayed,” Benedick said. “When he thought-- Beatrice, Hero was all of peace to him, everything war and duty made him put aside. When he thought that a lie, thought--”
“Thought my cousin a whore,” Beatrice said. “Thought her so lacking in honour, she should be given less care than a sheep at slaughter. When the prince showed such mercy to his traitor-brother, but to my cousin, whose crimes an they had been true were of a far less violent nature, he would have seen her as devastated and destroyed as any battlefield you ever torched.” She bent her head, her arm uncrossing and going to the back of her neck, then she looked away, past Benedick. Beatrice was usually as loud in her anger as she was in her joy-- open, clear about it. Her hands on her hips as she yelled, or sketching elaborate patterns in the air. This closed-in pose was nothing like her usual self and it hurt him to see it.
“Thou offered no objections to Claudio when they married,” He said, more to break the silence than anything else.
Beatrice looked back at him, met his eyes briefly before her gaze scuttered away. “No. My cousin loves him so. And I believed -I believe- that now, he’s knows Hero beyond reproach, and that he regrets his actions deeply, but I can’t-- that his nature could let him act in such a way. Benedick, she was so cold when she fainted. I thought-- and even if she’d lived, what would have happened to her? What could she have done? How could he have thought it, when thou didst not?”
“Beatrice-- in all honesty, thou knowest I would not have challenged him, if thou hadst not asked me. If I was not already in love and out of reason.”
Beatrice’s smile was a wry thing. “Thou wouldst not have challenged him if you loved me not, but neither wouldst thou have challenged him, if thou believed me not.”
“Love, that is not to my credit,” he admitted. “I would have let his words stand unchallenged, despite my doubts.”
“No, but ‘tis far easier to be a coward to our friends than our enemies,” Beatrice said. “And even should I doubt thy honour, I doubt not thy mind. Thou saw clearly, but Claudio… I doubt his heart, I doubt his mind-- I doubt him. Loving me, thou wouldst have avenged my hurt. Loving Hero, he avenged himself on her.”
The words came out of her like a lanced boil. He should have known this, Benedick thought, should have guessed-- should have begun to marshall his counter-arguments before this. Instead he was flailing, reaching for an explanation that could reach her. “Beatrice… The three of us were so close, still, to our battles. Claudio and I had followed the Prince from one to the next, and then this last, brief, uncivil war… Don John’s betrayal, those men who followed him-- they were much in our minds. In the Prince’s heart, still, no matter his joy at war’s swift conclusion, in Claudio’s, who had known them before.”
“And must my daughter’s honour rest on his goodwill?” Beatrice said.
“I would give our children the greatest protectors I could muster,” Benedick said. “‘Tis no small thing, Beatrice, to offer them such surety against any harsh fate that might befall us.”
“And I would give them the greatest I could trust,” Beatrice said. She held herself stiffly, her fingers tight around her arms. The urge to comfort her, soothe her was strong, but he doubted she’d welcome it. “I would rather they be with cool constancy than warm fickleness.”
“I fought beside them,” Benedick said, helplessly. “Fought, slept, ate-- a single rash judgment does not hold more weight with me than the years before.”
“Men are fortunate. Their honour can only be lost. We women, we can have ours lost or taken and must depend on our protectors to salvage it.”
“And who wouldst thou have instead?” Benedick said. He looked down at his half-finished letter. “I… will not ask him, if thou wish it not,” he said slowly, “but I would not deny him, if he offered.”
“‘Tis hard to deny a prince,” Beatrice said. She uncrossed her arms and moved within reach, one hand coming to his shoulder. He covered it with his own. “And unwise,” she added unhappily.
“‘Tis harder still to deny your kin,” Benedick said. The moment stretched out, dragged itself heavily between them.
“This may all be for nothing,” Beatrice said eventually. “I-- let us not put grief into our victories before they are won.”
For once, Benedick let her words go without challenge.
As often as Hero visited, or Beatrice visited her, it was not an easy task to catch her alone. She was with Beatrice, or Claudio, or her father- or at least, her maids. He was aware of time and opportunity passing and Beatrice grew somehow more evasive as each day, any slowness brought on by her added bulk more than compensated for by her quick tongue and quicker wit.
In the end, he was able to succeed by the cheap measure of telling Beatrice that Hero’s next planned visit was a day later than it was. Claudio being tied down by his duties, Antonio had come with her, but on hearing that Beatrice was away from the house inspecting the vineyards to determine how much could be saved from their sad neglect, he chose to find her and offer his enthusiastic amateur expertise.
It took little time to speak of his concerns- Beatrice’s concerns. So little, in fact, that Benedick was aware that it had been his own reluctance as much as lack of opportunity that had prevented him from doing so before.
“I will speak to her,” Hero said, firmly.
“I wish you luck in it,” Benedick said. “The force of my heart lends strength to my reason, but Beatrice’s heart is of at least as great a strength as mine and her arguments are not without merit. I could make a good case against sentiment or logic, perhaps, but not both.”
Hero picked up her embroidery slowly, tightening the cloth on the hoop and finding her needle. “Beatrice has many virtues. I hardly need to speak of them to you. And most of her faults are not secret to us either. My cousin is compassionate, generous. When she forgives, she forgives without any lingering bitterness or condescension.” She caught his sceptical expression and smiled at him, and Benedict caught a glimpse of what had drawn Claudio to her. It was bright and clear as the sunlight, and so sweetly joyful that it warmed him to be the cause of it. “My lord Benedict, grant that I may know her a little better than you, having known her all my life, when you have known her only a portion of yours. I am not blinded by my affection for her. The difficulty lies with the fact that Beatrice, too, sees everyone she loves with clear eyes. She forgives us our weaknesses and petty spites for she has a generous heart, but she does not forget.”
“Are you so sure then, that you can make her see him as you do?” Benedick said.
Hero’s hands were graceful as she began to stitch, precise in her movements. Her gaze fell somewhere through her work. She didn’t take the joy in words that Beatrice did, Benedick realised, but she was just as aware of the use of them, choosing them carefully. “Claudio proves himself to me everyday,” Hero said. “I married him with faith that he would. I love him enough that I can give him all my days to prove his love for me, his regrets, his faith in me.” She looked up at him. “If I ask, Beatrice will do the same, out of the love and trust she has in me.”
“If she asked, I’d cut out my heart for her,” Benedick said honestly. “But I would much rather she didn’t, for it would hurt me greatly to obey.”
“I would not have my cousin pay for her fear in regret,” Hero said. “You should have faith in me too, dear Benedick. ‘Twas not your trap that caught Beatrice.”
After so long waiting a reply, Don Pedro’s letter was rushed, and by his own hand. Benedick recognised it from hastily scrawled out orders-- the letters tripped over each other with the careless of someone who could rely on scribes for any fair copy. It opened with an apology-- the letter was sent from Florence, where at the request of his parents he was-- had he known fatherhood would come so quickly to Benedick, he would naturally have-- message should reach Benedick before too long, God and the seas willing-- excellent food, Benedick would be jealous, but--
“Canst thou read it?” Beatrice said, looking over his shoulder. “Sofia’s chickens have neater script!”
“Ancient seers could see the future in the flight of birds,” Benedick said. Beatrice shifted beside him, stretching her back slightly, kept upright by the difficulty in returning to her feet if she sat. The letter ended as he thought it would.
“I remind thee of my earlier promise-- necessity dictates I remain at court, but some proxy could stand in my place. If thy wife will allow me, I will gladly honour my earlier vow,” he read. “Or if not, trust that I shall give as much honour to…”
He leaned his head against the curve of her belly and passed the letter up to her. “The prince’s reply. He knows thee as well as I.”
She made a small hmm noise, taking the letter and reading it. “He offered to marry me once,” Beatrice said.
Benedick twisted in his seat. “What? When?”
She patted his arm soothingly. “Peace, husband. Clearly, I did not accept.”
“Was he--” sincere? Benedick shut his mouth before he could insult her or Don Pedro, and searched for a different way to ask it. “He said nothing of this to me, ever.”
“Events distracted him, I suppose,” Beatrice said. “This was before he and Claudio played Cupid for their distraction.”
Then? He had asked then? Benedick shook his head. “Did he intend me as a consolation for thee?” he said.
“Perhaps,” Beatrice said. She grinned at him. “I said he was fine enough for my wedding, but of too rich a stock for my wedded life, and that if I should marry him, I should have a second husband for my daily use.”
“‘So it is to my benefit, then, that I am of a more ordinary cut,” Benedick grumbled.
“‘Tis certainly to thy benefit that I know my limits,” Beatrice said. “I lack the will to be a quiet queen and the arms to be a loud one.”
“Then I suppose thou art well cast as the loud wife of Sir Benedick,” he said. “Shall I take up my arms to prove it?”
“An they can stretch round me,” she said, looking down at herself. “Knowest thou that Hero spoke to me?”
“She said she might. I did not ask her to,” he added cautiously, “but she knows thy heart, whatever mood thou mayest show her.”
“Hero asks for things so rarely. ‘Tis hard to deny her when she does.” Beatrice looked at him unhappily.
He could persuade her now, Benedick thought. Convince her to take his judgment, Hero’s-- to act, and he realised with a certain amount of dismay that, even believing in his own case, he would not press her to it against her own conscience. “She would not begrudge the the actions of thy heart,” he said. “Nor would I.”
She looked at him and smiled, the tension easing from her shoulders. “Marriage has softened thee,” she said. “Come, love. ‘Tis late, and your reply to the prince can wait.”
The early morning sun seemed unnecessarily bright in his eyes as Benedick rode home at as sedate a pace as he could manage. As eager as Beatrice’s family were to welcome him when he travelled in to town -hungry for news, now that Beatrice could not travel down with him- he was as eager to return, he was as eager to return home. When he had awakened, he had congratulated himself on escaping the worst of his excesses - that, despite Claudio’s words, and Leonato’s, and Antonio’s, he was not so old as all that, not quite so in his dotage.
It seemed, though, as if age had brought a measure of sneakiness to all his vices. Instead of having the decency to confront him on waking, his aching head had lurked, concealed, until his horse was saddled and he was on the road. He regretted not taking Leonato’s offer of his carriage, or even to stay longer.
Still, his own frailties aside, it was a beautiful morning. Early enough that the harsh heat of summer was still put off. The early haze disappeared and was replaced by the steady hum of bees at work and his horse idly munched at flowers as they made their slow way back to his home.
The gates were open. His horse picked up her pace as they went through, eager to be home now they were so close and he let her have her head.
There was no-one in the courtyard, so he took his horse to the stables and found Marco there, saddling Beatrice’s own preferred mount. Marco, brought in to help with the horses but more to appease the housekeeper, had taken to his new role with enthusiasm and moderate skill.
“Has Beatrice set you to exercise this horrible creature?” Benedick said. “Put Luce here away first.” he held out his reins to Marco.
“My lord, you’re back!” Marco said. He was wearing his good clothes, Benedick noticed. Perhaps Beatrice was sending him into town. “I was just coming to fetch you,” Marco said.
“I did say I’d be back this morning,” Benedick said. “Is my wife so impatient to see me, she thought to send you to bring me back sooner?”
Marco grinned, then straightened up, chest puffed out like a bantam. “My lord, ‘tis my honour, my true honour, the highest… to be the first to congratulate you on the birth of your son.”
For a moment, the words sounded, but made no sense, then Benedick staggered back. “What?” Benedick shook his head, at a loss for words. “A son?”
“A healthy boy, of a good weight, my aunt says.” Marco grinned at him, as proud as if he were the new father. “He’s with Lady Beatrice now. If you’re here, I should go into town for a wetnurse.”
Benedick nodded, turned and walked to the house, concentrating on keeping each foot moving.
The nurse sat on a chair outside their bedchamber, head down. Asleep, Benedick thought, until she jerked her head up.
“Beatrice?” Benedick said, keeping his voice low. “Is she...” He stopped, words drying up on his tongue.
“She is healthy and well,” the nurse said. “I had thought most ladies of her rank are a little more delicate, but God and St Mary blessed her.” She sniffed, as if Beatrice had disappointed her by being resolutely robust.
Benedick nodded. His mouth felt dry, words sticking in it, as he went into their room.
Beatrice was sitting up in their bed, leaning over the crib placed next to it. She looked tired, drawn, but not unhappy. Pale, Benedick thought, but not worryingly so. All at once, his words came back to him. “Art thou so impatient,” Benedick said, “That thou couldst not wait for my return?”
“And what good wouldst thou have been? Unless I am much mistaken, thou hast no great expertise in this matter,” Beatrice said. “Besides, the matter was fast, far faster than I had been led to believe.” She smiled at him and he could see the relief behind it.
Benedick sat next to her on the bed, careful not to jostle her, and looked in the crib. The baby --his son!-- was asleep, wrapped up in swaddling clothes.
“He looks so peaceful,” Benedick said. “Art thou sure he’s thine?” He brushed the baby’s cheek with one finger and tried to remember if his younger siblings had been this small when they were born. He was sure not.
“His father hath assured me so,” Beatrice said. “Later perhaps, thou wilt see more of our nature in him.”
“I am fortunate in this, as I am in many things,” Beatrice said. “Perhaps-- fortunate enough to risk fear for reward.” She leaned against him, one hand around his waist, her head on his shoulder. “My uncle can stand as proxy for Don Pedro,” she said. “And Claudio and Hero can stand as themselves.”
In the crib, their son stirred. He opened his eyes and looked for a moment oddly, utterly disgruntled-- as if Beatrice and Benedick had failed him profoundly in allowing him the indignity of his situation. He made a fussing, whimpering sound, stopped, and tried again with more success, his voice rising into a cry.
“There, thou hast thy proof,” Beatrice said as the nurse bustled in the door. “Our son indeed.”