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Sovereign Isle Is She

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All her choices have come down to one. There will be no flashing swords for her, (not that she really thought that would happen). But there will also be no stately marriage procession, no father to present her proudly to some new home. And as her mother predicted, she can neither force herself to the convent nor can she stomach the rough work of a servant.

Even if she wanted, those last two will not do. They will buy no commission for her brother, no food for her mother. They will keep no roof over the household.

Once she stops fighting and dragging her feet and sulking, she learns a great deal. (The books, she admits, are an excellent bribe. And in her heart of hearts she knows she was lost, fully trapped in the choice, when she walked into the room with the young man her mother had found. Men are a new and curious country, and she cannot resist learning.)

It is the confidence of the courtesans she does not understand. She has watched them for years and she still does not know their secrets, even after her mother’s teaching. Where they find their certainty, their knowledge that every male gaze is on them as they turn and laugh, sing and tease.

She wants to know. Has always wanted to know, just as she’s always wanted to read, to reach for words, to fit piece into piece into some grander design.

And so she comes to this. A choice to dress in silk, to let her mother twist her hair into loose curls. A choice to put on the tall chopines she has finally begun to master (two wrenched ankles and countless bruises later). To apply perfume, and do her best to find the look of interest - and slight disdain - her mother has taught her.

She stands, with her mother’s steadying hand, and they walk together out the door, into the gondala, to a place where men wait.

***

Nothing has prepared her for this night. She stands on the landing, and her mother nudges her carefully in the back, as a man comes up, says a few words. Minister Ramberti, and she remembers her mother’s comments, that he is Minister of Defense. That he is well-respected, reputed to be generous when pleased, and not cruel.

He has taken her elbow, and he is leading her away before she realises her mother must have somehow arranged this, that he’s called her mother by her first name. That he’d been waiting for them. For her.

She’s already off balance, uncertain, when she hears Livia’s “Lovely.” And of course it is Livia, she who Marco kissed, the day of his return, she who is the reigning courtesan of Venice. Ramberti leads her to the gaming table, and there, in the jangle and the noise and the pounding of her heart, she finds some hint of herself, and lets it free, in that “Unmistakeably.”

She has no idea what she’s done right, but she can tell - her heart, her mind, her body can all tell - that he is suddenly fixed on her, like a compass pointing north, in a way he was not before. Before she was a diversion, a momentary pleasure for the night. After, she has power. Possibility, at least. Choice, again.

There is the jarring discomfort of the religious, and then Ramberti is guiding her away, into a gondala, to a private palace. He puts her at ease, gently, talking to her of this thing and that, until they are walking through the door to the sound of voice and consort, and she takes in the room, the beat of Maffio’s poetry against her ears.

Most of it rolls over her, the language pleasant, but trite, but one line echoes in her ears, as her eyes settle on Marco. “Sovereign isle is she.” It’s that which gives her the courage, when she sees Marco for the first time since Beatrice’s wedding. To step away from what she’d wanted with him, and into something where she is no longer blushing maiden, but able to tease and then leave him in perfect silence.

She is still maiden, for an hour or two yet. But no longer weak, no longer demure, no longer blushing.

And when she laughs in Ramberti’s ear, making him smile and tighten his arm around her waist in delight, and Marco calls her out, his hurt pride making him peevish and restless, she is uncertain. Ramberti encourages her, quick words, but she cannot trust them - he’s known her only minutes.

But she walks, in careful steps, to the center of the room. Gives her courtesy to the doge and glances at the waiting crowd. And then, as her mind spins, she begins to find a way to something that may work. If she dares.

She eases into it, daring crudity mixed with metaphor, but when her “hearth, heart, and home to every prick” gets an appreciative laugh, she risks more. By the third couplet, she’s thinking of Beatrice, and of Marco, and of how she would rather be here than anywhere. That she is no wife locked away like booty, but a woman with a free tongue, with the attention of the most powerful men in Venice locked on her.

Their laughter, their pleasure, their delight in her - it all sets her free.

***

Alone with him, after the party has come to an end, she is clumsy and uncertain again. And yet, he is patient. Insistent, with her. And she sees his desire again there, and something fiercer.

She tries to be self-assured, confident, and when her fingers snag in her lacing, it all falls to pieces. She’s sure he’ll mock, or turn away. When he laughs - with her, not at her - there is hope in the room, along with her uncertainty.

It is far better than that. Touching. Stroking. Him showing her what he wants. And then his body, and hers, and the moment where everything opens up for her and her arms come around him. Another surprise in a night full of them. That she enjoys this, enjoys him, finds it pleasure, not just duty.

***

Three days later, she is invited to Domenico Venier’s garden, to meet and to mingle.

The offer, the expressions of interest, have flown in - men fascinated by her. Some, she knows, is because she is a new bauble new in a city delighted by novelty. But some is because of her. Her wit. Her words. Not just her hair or her breasts, things any woman might offer, but her choices.

She walks into the garden secure, ready, able to tease and torment. She is flush with turning Marco down, letting it be her choice, her power, when she comes to Domenico. And it is there that she feels the shudder of choice once again. His feet, his response, when she treats him with gentleness and care. Clearly, for all the bowing and scraping they do to him as one high in the family, there are few who give him such tenderness.

And she listens, as he gives her the keys to Venice, each of his words laying out who and what and how she might build choice upon choice. To give her the stability, the security, the possibility she wants. Not just success, not just beauty, not just jewels, but as much power as a woman can hold in this time and in this place. Power and wisdom.

***

It is a week later when she gets a note. Seven days into the new life she’s grabbed with both hands.

She has not seen Beatrice since her wedding night, since her own life became tied up in learning and becoming something changed and different. And yet, there’s a note, in Beatrice’s hand, saying “Rio della Toletta and Rio Malpaga. Thursday. Two o’clock.” She recognizes the intersection, a small canal between Beatrice's family palazzo and the Grand Canal. One that will be quiet at that time in the afternoon, when almost everyone is resting. She wonders how Beatrice is going to manage it.

Of course, she is there, waiting, wearing something somber and restrained, when a gondola slides to the edge of the canal. And inside is Beatrice, properly veiled.

“You should not be here.” She hates herself, as soon as the words are out of her mouth, for surely Beatrice knows that.

“I know.” Beatrice, ever the quiet one, is fierce, now. “They think I’m going back to my husband’s palace to rest.” And there’s a slight gesture, across her stomach, that makes Veronica guess. Beatrice simply nods. “My duty, yes. Sit. We have so little time.”

And so Veronica sits, in a sheltered gondola, the curtains pulled around, and the gondalier takes the long way round, the longest, slow and unhurried.

Beatrice talks. It pours out of her in a flood, her duty, her restriction, her husband’s expectations. That she leaves home to visit her parents, or to attend church, or for one wedding or another spectacle of a party. That her conversations are limited, restricted, to safe and civil topics. Children. Light gossip. Family matters suited to a woman of noble birth. That there is no one to talk to. That she is not supposed to talk much at all anyway, so it should not matter.

Veronica cannot even find how to answer, their lives have grown so far apart. And yet, when Beatrice asks her “How is it for you?” she cannot stop the smile, cannot stop the moment of choice showing on her face.

“It is new.” she says finally. “The best of my choices.” And then, because she cannot lie, not to Beatrice. “More pleasure than I'd dreamed, but..” She stops, but even this first week has taught her something already "I'm glad of my choice, but I wish there were more."

By then, they are pulling up to where Beatrice must get off. And she wonders, as she watches her friend walk away, what she should have said instead.

***

It is that conversation, those stolen moments with Beatrice, that make her watch her peers more closely. She had seen, already, the ebb and flow. Some jealousy, some jostling for power or attention, some posturing. But she begins to get a sense, in the summer of that year, of how these women are.

She has no idea beyond the gossip what they are like in private - and that just proves that gossip is a most unreliable source. This man compares her positively to that one, this other man does not. Both cannot be true. She makes men laugh, but she is not the only one. Nor is she the only poet, or even the best yet, though perhaps the most dedicated at making time for it.

She does not build friendships, exactly, with the others. Part of it is that some come and go too quickly. But part of it is that theirs could only be an uneasy alliance. And part of it is that there are no settled choices here. Civility, courtesy, cooperation are one thing. But she misses, deeply, the simple friendship she and Beatrice found as children. Her mother, the household, they are something, but they leave a gaping hole, as she flits from gathering to gathering.

***

It is Malta that shapes the rest of her year, her first exposure to the courtesan’s role as guide and advisor. She hears the whispers first, intent voices in the corner of this party or that glittering chaos, then broader comments. The young men are eager for acts of heroism. The older are cautious, having seen life and death and battle before.

Ramberti is somewhere in the middle. He barely makes time for her, for their Thursdays that have been part of the rhythm of her life since that first night, but he is always there, even if some nights it is sleep first, and passion later. And she teases out of him, gently, on the nights when he is mulling something over, the problems of Malta.

That the Ottomans are trying to hold it, that the Knights of Malta are fighting to save it. Have been fighting, for years. That it has come to a head. Venice had not given overmany soldiers to the fighting - nor ships - but that might all change, and they all know it.

All the men, and all the courtesans. From what she sees of the wives, they have no idea, they who see their husbands only in the well-controlled and civilized settings of home and formal function.

In the afternoons, before her long evenings, she begins to bury herself in the works of history, of trade, of geography, seeking to understand how what is happening now builds on what happened before. A sense of history, the pieces fitting together like words in a poem, sketching some larger concept.

Piece upon piece, like the bridges and palazzos and canals of Venice. Connection upon connection, like the links of alliance building towards safety, like the lines of a poem building towards meaning. Choice upon choice.