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Bedfellows

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Beatrice's arm is heavy about her waist. A small thing to note on a morning much like all other mornings for almost a year past. It makes Hero smile, though, in the sunlight stealing in through the gaps in the curtains.

Ursula will be along soon, to throw back those same curtains and call their names and chastise their laziness as she does every day. Then Margaret will come to pour the water, and she and Beatrice - Beatrice, who is always sharper and less jovial at this early hour - will trade barbs until Ursula scolds and chases Margaret away. Then Hero and Beatrice will wash and help each other dress.

Beatrice's humour will improve once they break their fast, and she will entertain everyone at table as she always does, and for the rest of the day it will go on like this. There is always laughter when Beatrice is present.

Beatrice, with her sharp tongue and quick laugh, Beatrice who is so, so clever - this is the Beatrice Hero knows by daylight.

In bed, in the dark, in the time between lying down and sleeping, Beatrice is enough to make her weep.

When they lie together, bare toes touching and their arms entangled, Beatrice whispers sweet things in Hero's ear, sweeter things than she would ever speak to anyone else. Only Hero is permitted to know this woman, this Beatrice-by-moonlight.

Beatrice's fingers are as nimble as her tongue, and night time sees her employ both with surpassing dexterity.

Hero was shy at first. Shy of her older, wiser, bolder, confident cousin who had come to live under her uncle's roof. Hero was growing up, though, and needed a companion, and Beatrice was there, and was as sweet to Hero as she was brazen with all others. Hero was shy and uncertain in the beginning, but did not remain so for long, as Beatrice drew her out of herself.

They are only maids, Beatrice speaks in mocking whispers, and what does a maid know of the marriage bed? Such innocent maidens can know nothing of adulterous ways.

But this must be sin, Hero decides, no matter how clever her cousin's reasoning. This must be sin, Beatrice's lips on her face and belly and thighs, the thrill at every touch, the sweet pangs found on Beatrice's tongue, this must be sin.

Hero knows what lust sounds like - laboured breathing in the dark, when she breathes and sighs like no virgin ever has. Lust tastes of the sweat between Beatrice's breasts. It tastes of salt and the feel of it is the heat of bare flesh on flesh.

And Hero, who is in love, after all, and still, in truth, a maid, wonders that she can still blush when she is teased about Count Claudio.

It has never occurred to her that she might not marry. It will be Claudio, or perhaps she will marry the prince instead. Her father would have her a princess, and Hero thinks she could come to love the title. Whichever the man, he will teach her things Beatrice never will.

For now, though, it is Beatrice's love she knows best.

Maids know naught of the marriage bed. But men, Beatrice says, know naught of the maiden's bed.

Perhaps this is why Beatrice swears never to fall in love, Hero whispers to her bedfellow one night. Beatrice laughs. She will never marry.

A man who loved Beatrice would have to love a woman with far more wit than he could ever hope to claim for himself. Such a man, Beatrice says, would be but a half-wit to her whole, and she could never marry a dullard.

Hero wonders, though.

Beatrice is a woman like any other. Hero knows this (who else but Hero could know this?) despite her cousin's many claims to the contrary.

When the prince and his company return from war, Hero has her answer - she will marry Claudio, and the prince has decided on seeing Beatrice wed also. Hero doesn't mind the venture - she has heard her cousin speak of Benedick. Beatrice might be half in love with the man already - Hero knows this, if Beatrice does not.

But when the revellers have all sought their beds, Hero finds Beatrice waiting for her beneath the covers, not a single taper lit.

She will be Count Claudio's wife, Beatrice says. Sweet young Hero will be no more. Beatrice will miss her.

Her mourning seems in jest, but it is, at least a little, in earnest. This Hero knows her Beatrice too well.

If she would find a husband of her own, Hero suggests, they might be old married women together.

But no, not together, else their husbands become lonely and jealous, Beatrice laughs, and Hero laughs too, and kisses her mouth. It is a night for revelling, after all.

They will be maids a little longer yet, she reminds her cousin, stroking her golden hair.

A few mornings remain to wake with Beatrice's arm heavy about her, and Beatrice's bright curls tangling with hers on their pillow.

Beatrice's hand steals along Hero's ribs. She is determined to tease, now. Melancholy cannot live in her for long.

A little longer, yes. And though it be too long for Hero's Count, she says, it should never be long enough for her.

Hero believes it. Whether she marries or dies a spinster: in Hero's mind Beatrice will ever be a maid at heart.