Work Header

The Nature of a Lady, or, All For Nothing

Work Text:

The nature of a lady could well be defined by what she, as a maiden, felt her future marriage would become. Either she was too jaded, stating with utmost certainty that she would simply be made to breed and abused, her treasures poured into foreign laps and the vessel of her heart run aground, forsaking all for fear of misuse...or else her imaginings were too much in fancy, throwing herself at all who dared speak her name in sweetness, thinking that the whirlwind state of tender romance and passion blazing with Apollonian fire would never temper, never end.




Olivia had always thought herself sensible in matters of the heart, taking up a sort of middling stance ‘twixt the two negative extremes. When eager suitors had flocked to the estate in droves, she had permitted herself to be wooed by neither shows of cocksure bravado nor simpering flattery. If a man wished to hold her heart in his hands, he would have to be patient, letting her offer it freely instead of travailing to take it by force. Her sweet Cesario, bless him, had been just such a man: doing so little to win her and succeeding merely by virtue of his apathy! Even now she grieved for the memory of that roguish and witty boy who had so deftly captured her affections, though nigh on three months had passed since she had first learned the boy to be a maid. Without doubt, Viola was as charming a sister as any Olivia could e’er have dreamed of calling hers, but the shadow of what was lost would forever linger about her eyes, like the last vestiges of a dream burned to flickering lightning by the morning’s waking: the image too faint to be called to mind, remembered only as having once existed in the deepest recesses of sleep.


And Cesario, if ever he could have professed to have existed in truth , was lost. Certainly he was not to be found in Sebastian-- and therein lay her current woe. She had been enamored of the face and not the man; the more fool she, to think like faces would beget like minds! Sebastian, for all that he was passing fair, was so dizzyingly eager to please her, so rash and thin-skinned-- Heavens above, but it did vex her. If Viola possessed similar proclivities for pettiness and righteous indignation, they had never made themselves apparent: so much the better. Olivia herself was but three years her husband’s senior, yet she could not help but feel older, painfully so, when she was made, yet again, to come between  him and her cousin Toby or her fool, and remind the peeved former that whichever of the latter had been needling him had done so deliberately, expecting and relishing just such a reaction. Again. In calmer times she could convince herself that her too o’er-hasty marriage might still resolve into the evanescent bliss they had shared ere the truths had been told, but those times seemed so very far away when she was forced to don the mantle of minder rather than wife.


Some unfortunately virtuous part of her felt shame for daring to enjoy days like today, when she was bereft of the dubious pleasure of Sebastian’s company. Really, the fault of the whole thing had been hers. She had been too impulsive, too willing to discard reason in lieu of her heart’s addled heat, and now she was paying tenfold for the error in vision and judgement. Perhaps it was for the best that she had never been wholly opposed to solitude; in this prematurely forced marriage to which she was bound, she now revelled in any chance to seek it.


The air had warmed with the lengthening of the hours, winter’s chill hand finally loosening its grip upon the world. To remain within door when she was so deliciously alone, when heat and sun at least began their glorious reign, would be a crime. Sebastian was visiting his sister and would not return until sundown. Casting dreary thoughts of matrimony aside, Olivia tightened her fingers about the strap of the old satchel wherein her charcoals, pens, and inks lay; she had some hours left to herself. The garden, she thought, was as good a place as any to spend them. Haply she would light upon some budding flower or skeletal bush, leaves yet trapped in slumber, to capture the interest of her parchments.


She could never shake the feeling that stepping into the garden was akin to entering another world. The trees, the hedges, the flowers (arranged haphazardly by an uncle possessed of all the willful fancy and distaste for order as befitted a child more than a man) spoke in ancient tongues to her sheltered ears, making a music of wild serenity found within no other hollow or crag of Illyria’s rock-strewn shore. It was a faint music, sooth-- all but inaudible even in the height of summer’s winds, but nevertheless, it imbued her with a peace beyond compare. As a child she had yearned (yet never dared) to climb those sprawling trees. Now, with but a score of years to her name, she was content to merely rest among them, watching the eternal passion play of shadows and light among verdant leaves, and letting her mind roam where it would.


So entranced was she in her musings that the presence of her fool passed almost entirely beneath her notice-- beneath , as it were, for she nearly walked over him, fighting to stay upright as the man’s leg narrowly escaped being trod upon, struggling to regain both balance and startled breath. As she cast her affrighted eyes downwards, though, it was precisely that presence, rather than the absurdity of the encounter, that began to disconcert her more thoroughly. She had seen so little of him of late: either he was below stairs with Toby and the serving-folk, or he was playing truant at Orsino’s court, or else he was off roving roads little travelled by any other man. A harsher mistress would have chastised him for his inconstancy, but she had never been such a one. Besides the which...were she to speak the honest words murmured insistently within her soul’s innermost depths, she would be forced to admit that here, too, she was partly in the wrong. With a husband and the governing of a still-stewardless estate to occupy her time, she had sent for the fellow less and less; he could hardly be blamed for seeking an audience elsewhere.


It was too easy to forget that the fool’s livelihood, and sometimes his very life, depended on those who paid ear and coin to his songs and quillets. Now, though, the man was silent, curled up like a cat beside a low stone bench resting squat and placid beneath a budding willow, seemingly fast asleep. For a moment Olivia felt her heart skip a beat, fearing he was dead, but the faint rasp of his breathing laid those ill thoughts to rest. Even assured of his verdure, however, the sight gave her pause. Though she had oft listened to Maria complain of finding the man asleep in the oddest corners of the manor at the oddest hours of the day, she herself had never been made privy to such behavior, and had, in her gentle way, berated her chamber-woman for speaking slander. The older woman, in turn, had pointed out with her characteristic indignant pragmatism that the basis of the fool’s profession was the speaking of slander, and as such, any who returned the favor was well within her right as an honest woman to do so. Maria’s words, not her own. By Heaven, but the woman had a tongue of acid hidden within that matronly outward seeming.


Carefully Olivia seated herself upon the bench, her drawing-box following suit beside her as she continued to gaze upon the fool. In good conscience, she could not chide him. He had not been sent for, was making neither trouble nor harm. No matter what Maria said, who was she to begrudge a man his brief rest? Besides, her curiosity had been piqued. A person made for a more interesting subject than any of the garden’s winter-spoiled flora, and the fool was the only member of her household that she had yet to immortalize in charcoal and ink. Strange, how he could still present himself as a diversion to her without having said a word.


“Your skill is too great, sirrah,” she murmured, lips curling amusedly upward as she began scratching out the lines and angles of his supine form onto the blank parchment. The thin charcoal warmed quickly between her fingers, the lines upon the page barely more than shadows, wisps of dust trailing darkness like the setting sun tracing the heads of the sea-cliffs. Nothing like the thick smudges marring the pinked cream of her skin, ever growing in size as the marks before her grew bolder, a rough-hewn whole taking shape from the connection of disparate parts. Scuffed boots, holes worn in their soles from years of travel. Shirt and trousers of rough flax and wool, hanging loose upon a wiry frame. A waistcoat as heavily patched as the long coat upon which he lay, its color lost beneath what seemed a lifetime’s worth of dust. The thick, curling hair that had intrigued her endlessly as a child; she had never seen so many shades of brown and red on one man’s head, and she wished she could imbue her pencils with oak and ember to capture that constantly shifting hue. Even so far removed from the boisterous child she had been as she now was, she still could not help but set the pencil down and move to crouch beside the fool, letting her blackened fingers brush through coarse auburn strands, tracing streaks of sun-bleached gold and faint threads of silver, giving her mind leave to wander down the path of years long dead.


She had hoped to be discreet, but the fool stirred almost immediately, bringing one hand up to his eyes and blocking both the sun and her face from view. Startled, Olivia quickly resumed her seat upon the bench, feeling her cheeks flush-- ashamed at the moment’s indulgence, so unseemly in hindsight. The fool, unperturbed, simply gazed at her, kaleidoscopic eyes a quiet gray, the skin beneath them shadowed like a day-old bruise. That gaze never left hers as he dragged himself into a sitting position, thin lips curling into what might have been a smile, were it not for the lack of familiar mirth in his eyes.


“Thou’rt not a dream,” he mumbled, apropos of nothing. “More’s the pity.”

“Why pity, I prithee?” Olivia dipped her head, praying the fall of her hair would hide the redness painted upon her cheeks as she surreptitiously put the half-finished portrait aside.

“Pity for myself, lady. Your countenance and caress would sing more sweetly in my dreams than the demons striving to usurp your place.” Dragging his upraised hand through his hair, the fool blinked hard: once, twice, as though trying to force clarity upon his vision. “I’d rather the tenor of my dreams go not so sour, lest that sourness come to plague my voice and bid it sing notes it ought never to touch.”

She laughed, despite herself. She had missed his sardonic humor more than she’d imagined. “I see thy wits have not followed thy body into slumber,” she said archly, raising one delicate eyebrow as she lowered herself, doing away utterly with self-consciousness, to the ground beside him once more.

The fool mimicked her expression, giving her a small, seated bow. “But of course, Madonna” he replied. “I am so rarely called upon to exercise both wit and body at once. One must take what rest it can while the other is bound to serve.”

“Bound to serve what , sir? Or rather, whom?”

“Bound to caprice, madonna.”

“And what’s she?”

“Mistress of all humanity’s more foolish aspect, by which we all together are bound.” Though his voice was the pure epitome of mildness, the fool grinned as he spoke, that one-sided, roguish grin that had been one of the few constants in her life. Suddenly she felt herself to be a young child again, doing all she could to draw that grin from him. Certainly she took as much pleasure now as she had then at seeing the dull gray in his eyes give way to sparkling blue, as the sun might banish mist and clouds from a morning’s sky. He was enjoying this game as much as she was, she thought. The sight shouldn’t have pleased her as much as it did.


“Dost thou call me fool, sirrah?” she demanded, travailing (and likely failing) to keep her own amusement hidden. “Prithee bear some charity to my wit!”

“As I am a fool too dependent on his wit, lady, do not ask me to separate on from the other. Any fool may have some wit. So may any wit be foolish.” Something in his smile turned sharp then; were he any man other than her fool, she might have called it dangerous, and couldn’t keep from shivering at the sight. “You, madonna, are no more nor less fool than I.”

“But a fool of...a different sort, wouldst say so?” she asked, faintly, unable to fathom why the step of her heart had so suddenly quickened.

“Ay, lady,” the fool demurred, pinning her with his strange eyes, abstraction slowing his words to a nearly whispered halt. “An’t please you.”


Silence stretched between them like thread gaping across a wound-- fraught with tension, yet unwilling to break. For once the fool seemed content not to bridge that yawning gap with music or more clever words, so Olivia left him to his peace, ignoring that niggling, unguessable thing within her heart that urged her to speak, to address what it was she had felt pass between them that so plagued her now. But...she could not, or perhaps would not, and instead forced her attention again upon her pencils, striving to keep her mind blank as she completed the first sketch from memory and began another. She only prayed the fool was as oblivious to her furtive glances as his heavy-lidded stare suggested...though, in truth, she doubted it. The fellow was too perceptive by half, all the more so for his skill at assuming utter invisibility in plain sight. So it was now. Had her eyes not actively been seeking him out, had her thoughts not been so set upon avoiding the image of him...she could easily have forgotten he was there. And it seemed increasingly likely that he had forgotten that she was there, too.


It was shameful to be so, really, but she was wholly discomfited by that realization. Throughout her life she had grown accustomed to folk taking note of her presence in a place, often recentering the brunt of the attention on her. As practiced as she was at ignoring those she cared not for, to be ignored was another matter entirely: a novel, yet highly unpleasant sensation, magnified by the fact that the man with whom she now kept company was possessed of the audacity to fall asleep in her presence. However irrational it was to resent the natural call of the body as it unintentionally snubbed her, she simply could not bear the sheer oddity of it all.


No good, she decided, came of bantering with fools. It was in their nature to addle and mislead, to make the heart quicken after things it never would have contemplated afore, and to feel no remorse at the doing-- Heavens, she sounded like some befuddled giglet, trying to talk herself out of love--! Love ? Or even mere lust? Inconceivable. ... Had she known from whence this sudden... attraction (for it could only be that, she knew of no other sentiment so devilishly inclined to play games with a lady’s affections) had risen, she might have done more to prevent its conception. As it was, she could scarce forbear staring at the man. Somehow he had charmed her-- brought her to this state of mental disarray, at the very least-- and the parts of her that rarely bothered with reason were determined to divine why.


The fool was no Duke Orsino, all chiselled and classically handsome like a statue of an Olympian god. Sharp features, hollow cheeks and eyes, a body thin and lean like that of a starved hound, and shorter than even Viola-- really, there was nothing so very remarkable about him at, perhaps, his eyes, which were neither blue nor green nor gray but some indeterminate mixture of the three. Surely some metaphor lay therein, regarding her inability to comprehend the man’s sentiments or intentions...if, indeed, he had any of note where she was concerned. ‘Twas doubtful, to be sure, but that, more than anything, drew her to him. Could it really be coincidence, that she had been ruminating upon the likings of her heart not an hour before?


He had heeded the book of her soul to the letter. He had given her nothing, done nothing, and in turn she had opened all to him. Entirely beneath her conscious notice, at that. Was attraction meant to be so cruel a thing, to steal over a woman’s imaginings with her none the wiser until she was too deep in thrall to return? It was not to be endured.


Heaving a frustrated sigh, Olivia put (slammed, really) her pencil down, setting the smudged parchments in the box as she turned to face the vexing fool fully-- hating how spoiled and childish the action made her seem, hating still more how powerless she was to stop herself.


“‘Tis unlike thee, to retire thus in the middle of the day.” Light. Airy. Revealing nothing, she hoped, of the petulance and turmoil eating at her, but the fool jumped as she spoke, and almost immediately she regretted having shattered the tenuous calm. Perhaps...perhaps endurance was not so horrid a thing.

“Middle of the evening, more like, but…’tis all one.” At least the fellow seemed to harbor no aggravation towards her. He seemed bemused, if anything: slower to wit than before, and for that she felt all the worse.


But the fool glanced at her sidelong, a small smirk quirking his mouth into that wry expression she knew so well, and that foreign ache of remorse, however gratuitous it had been, began to dissipate. “Besides the which, Madonna, if you say ‘tis unlike me, I daresay you know little of the habits of fools. And like them still less.”


Banter again, but...she could do it, could she not? Match wits with him, again, as she had not so long ago. No good might have come of it, forsooth, but anything was better than the wretched silence.


“Certainly I do not profess to be so well-versed in the habits of thee or others of thy... profession ,” she retorted pertly.

“How could you be, when you profess to disprefer that same profession? Your profession, if it were uttered, would be false on all scores.” He was all false innocence now: a greenish tint to his eyes that bespoke mischief, a gentle lilt to his voice that seemed perfectly and profoundly indifferent to her needling the legitimacy of his trade.

“Out upon thee,” she shot back, feigning the offense her sparring partner was apparently bereft of. “And thou hast not given me answer, good Fool!”

“What answer could I make, Madonna? You have given me no questions demanding answer of any kind.”

...That was one way to win an argument. “Thou hast caught me, well enough,” she admitted, smiling ruefully.

The fool’s own smile softened, losing its dryly mocking edge and veering more closely towards a genuinely pleased expression than aught she had glimpsed upon his visage to date. “‘Tis a catch well caught.” And he spoke in jest, of course he did , but just for a moment she allowed herself to imagine some deeper feeling behind the words, something better resembling the strange inclinations that had o’ertaken her, and from that meager hope the beat of her heart quickened anew.