Marquise Renée de Montréville was a lady way ahead of her times. Maybe it was the Norman or Celtic blood in her veins that made her long for Scandinavia. "She does pretty much as she likes," they said. A lady of rank, not bound by any social conventions... she came to Elsinore on a diplomatic mission and would gladly have returned to her estate near Rouen if it weren't for his sake. The cold and moist climate, the provincialism of even the courtiers, the lack of a jeu de paume where she could have swung her racket... it was for Polonius that she stayed, that clever twentyish page who hastily rose to the rank of chancellor and became right-hand man to the Crown. Now she had a reason to stay and it was the little cuff on her left ring finger, then her expanding waistline, a joke that "if it's a boy, we'll give him a fancy Mediterranean name like Laertes..." a joke that would, that winter, become a true fact, hailed among the outcry and scandal of even the royals (and that in spite of the half-German chancellor being one Polonius Olufssen!), like... "who names their child Laertes?" Queen Gerda, or Gertrude as she preferred to be called to keep up appearances, had had a boy that winter as well, a crown prince, a sickly and pale little thing who survived against all odds and in spite of the difficult childbirth leaving her barren and little Amleth --Hamlet-- an only child. The half-French lordling, on the other hand, had roared so loudly upon breathing for the first time that he could be heard throughout the palace complex. A hot-blooded little brat with a racket or a wooden sword in his crib to relax himself... It was ironic, even more ironic than naming him Laertes, that the unsexed foreigner had four children, only two of which survived, while the more feminine Queen only brought up Hamlet and Hamlet alone.
Her marriage and motherhood did not stop Madame Renée from staying unsexed and dynamic as always. She had a jeu de paume created in the palace gardens of Elsinore and taught her always hot-blooded, passionate heir to play tennis, in fact. She wrote her own memoirs and a series of essays on the parallels between Norse and Classical mythology. Only two of her children survived, the first and the last: the Chancellor's lady was taken away by a burning fever when little Ophelia was merely a fortnight old. The name Ophelia had Renée muttered in her dreams, clouded by fever and blood loss; she barely got to know her youngest daughter to hold her for an instant and name her. Two children whose lord father was too busy with notions of statescraft and who would be raised in both Norse lore and dreams of sunny France, like their lady mother had once longed for the dark North once upon a time. Now it was Laertes's turn to stand for, to defend his little sister with wooden sword or racket in hand, that adorable little light-elf or moon-child already betrothed in the cradle to the Crown Prince himself. Laertes would ensure, as long as his warm heart throbbed with youthful passion, that she would never get hurt, come hell or highwater. They were siblings after all. Half French and half Scandinavian, but themselves at heart at the end of the day. The day would come when the tall stripling would be parted from her, to see the world in general and France in particular, the land of sunshine and colour, of fencing and tennis, and worry in foreign lands about his little sister's welfare back at home... but still, as long as both of them were children, he would stay by her side, or rather in front of her; there was nothing to worry about.
When he left Belmont, the estate where he had been born and raised, to study at Padua University, little did he know about the ways in which his life was going to take those twists and turns and he would return three decades later, after three decades during which the Belmont shire had never heard of his whereabouts, with a wooden left leg from the knee downwards and a commoner, orphan, freckled camp wench for a wife. And that he would have to call the old lady out and have his way, two young people's wills outweighing the stern matriarch's... including the wish that he'd married Desdemona, that rightish councilman's only daughter who had spent every summer in his company until he left for university.
They were both only children, so good friends that they merely saw one another as siblings. All that flower-chain-making and berry-picking and swimming in the lake and studying together? Right what any good pair of best friends would do. Even if the village children derisively called them "the fiancés," since a boy and a girl who are not blood-related and doing what friends do are usually the target of such raillery. And the sobriquet even became more meaningful when, on some summer evenings, under the pretext of seeing how the children were doing, her lord father frequented Belmont and the company of his lady mother, and they talked about how well Desdemona and that Cassio boy got along and what a gain it would be for both dynasties, the old money and the new, to tie the knot once both children came of age.
Yet only the Fates know how things will unfurl and often disturb the plans of mortalkind. Expelled from university due to a drunken brawl, having made the wrong kind of friends --he had always been awkward in the company of his fellow men, being more used to female company--, fearing the reaction of his lady mother, a sixteen-year-old Cassio resolved to enlist in the military of a foreign state, of Desdemona's birthplace for some reason, as an officer. Within only two years of his peacetime service, he made his way up and held the rank of lieutenant and was aide-de-camp to his commanding officer, the legendary Noble Moor, General Othello. And also witnessed, at a society event, the debut of a Desdemona in full bloom, clad in green silks and golden locks cascading on her brocade sleeves. The awkward stripling under the flag became a dashing gentlemanly officer in the ballroom, as if the real Cassio only needed female company to come to light, and that of his childhood friend to be the catalyst for this transformation.
She was delighted with the Moor vividly telling her those thrilling wartime yarns, and he was as pleased with her as she was with him. No matter the contempt of high society, these two were to be husband and wife, cream and chocolate, leather and lace. She loved Othello more than just as a friend or ersatz sibling; that mutual admiration gradually turned to excitement, to compassion, to something else that proved she was no longer a child. And Cassio had helped his General to put his feelings into words --somehow, the Noble Moor was the awkward one with ladies and confident with men!--, becoming even closer to his role model --another outsider standing at first on his own who had carved himself a proper name--, the crowner being him standing tall and proud as the best man at their shotgun wedding; only to make her happy, knowing his commanding officer would make her feel like Cassio himself never could.
And what was the result of this marriage? Well, not of the marriage, but merely of having that drink before that changing of the guard... that had made all the difference. Once more, he fell into the same old snare that forced him out of university; now the second time even deeper fallen from grace, having lost both a well-earned place under the flag the trust of the one he idealised the most. This second time he asked the General's General of a lady wife, his childhood friend, to bridge the gap between both men. The result? When he was forgiven and reinstated at last, young Cassio --about to turn twenty-- had to witness his beloved commanding officer, crying Phlegethons of sorrow from his usually stern dark eyes, stab himself through the heart and fall, staining the covers and nightshirt with blood and tears, on the lifeless form of a lilywhite, purple-lipped Desdemona whose life Othello had ended himself in vain, waylaid by deception that she had betrayed him... with Cassio himself. The lieutenant reeled and fainted at the sight of this tragic spectacle, both from heartbreak and blood loss; having himself escaped an ambush from his own role model and commanding officer, yet losing his left leg from the knee downwards, which put an inglorious end to a promising military career.
Luckily, there was Bianca. Even though the wench got into a bit of an argument with him over that strawberry handkerchief --which he had suddenly found in his room and, recognising the pattern, was about to give back to Desdemona--, she came in the wounded lieutenant's hour of need, fetching a surgeon to tend to his wounds and helping in the healing process herself. Even though that scoundrel Iago --who prompted that fatal strong drink three days before-- escaped, though the military, fulfilling young Cassio's first and last decree as Governor of Hussif, finely combed the castle and its environs in pursuit of the scoundrel, who had ostensibly vanished into thin air. Let the scoundrel flee, he is none of our concern right now.
And now it all is worlds, ages, eons away. A pair of decades more have passed at Belmont, and his one and only girl is unfolding like a golden rose, also under her stern grandmother's care. She most certainly takes after her lord father, except for her late mum's wistful smile and the pluck she displays every now and then when climbing up the rooftops or cross-dressing as a boy to sneak into the village. Little Portia is being taught everything from fencing, tennis, and horse-riding (straddling like a man) to law and the literary classics; after all, Cassio will never take a second wife after Bianca, and spends these golden days devoted to the care of the estate, his aging lady mother, and his promising only child, whom he has named his heir. She will never share Desdemona's fate, that's for sure. This unsexed heiress will be raised like a boy, like a lordling, and never debut in high society among corsets, frills, and petticoats.
That sharp pain in his left side again. One day, sooner or later, he tells her, I won't be here anymore. You must find a spouse worthy of yourself, and not marry for love. Remember that fairytale about the three caskets?
The least ornate, leaden one was the good one, she replies with that innocent, childlike smile.
Well, you will be the princess of that fairytale. One day, this broken heart will kill me, and you must find a spouse worthy of yourself, not one who can bruise your flesh or break your own heart, or bring you to an untimely grave.
"Thus, test the two joined in the bind;
if one heart should the other find!
The whim is short, the rue is long."
She looks into his eyes with that serious, precocious look that unusually clever children have when they perceive an adult, especially a caregiver, is talking to them about serious matters of adulthood.
One decade later, when on his deathbed, upon breathing his last and before the reading of the will, the one-legged and broken-hearted Lord of Belmont will show her the caskets and make his only daughter and heir promise, hand on heart, that she will not marry for young love and put all her suitors, which will surely stream in from all over Europe, to the test that proves that there are many fools in silver lace and that all that glitters is not gold. And she will find the right one at last; a clever and bold stripling, both student and army officer, the spitting image of her father when he was a young man, will pass the fateful test-interview with flying colours... and the fairytale will surely mirror the tragedy when Portia takes Bassanio for a consort, won over through his clever liveliness, no matter if midlife or an untimely demise, caused rather by illness than by violence, puts that full stop at the end of "happily ever after."
They were crown princesses of both the clan and the realm, or technically Goneril was, being an instant older. The twin daughters of the late Queen Rhiannon had had a quite pampered childhood; often tricking their courtiers into dressing in each other's clothes and playing they were one another, either for prank, scapegoating, or both purposes. "Regan?" No, I'm Goneril, in fact. Regan parts her hair to the right, and I to the left! (Only both of them know that they switched hairstyles once in a while!)
At least until a new queen came to the Caer and turned their lives upside down. Lady Aoife, a stepchild herself of a lesser earl, was soon the consort of King Llyr; but if the presence of a stepmother --a young and lovely, fire-haired new queen-- drawing all attention that was theirs by right proved disturbing... but even more proved the increase of Aoife's girth until, when springtime came, there was a third princess in the Great Hall. Not to say that Cordelia, with that puffy little face and that mop of fire-red locks, wasn't adorable --as all infant children are and were-- but her two older stepsisters had become practically invisible. Metaphorically, not literally. Which left them far more time to conspire together and cook up even more sinister pranks, far more serious than the usual jests of children.
Now Queen Aoife is lying in state, peaceful as if asleep, though her chest is not heaving and her face is pale as the moon; while King Llyr is riding off to battle against the heathen from across the seas or to pay them their danegeld. Little Cordelia is being cared for by a nursemaid, her aunt from the earldom, at the borders of the realm. Only the raven-haired twin princesses, Regan and Goneril (or Goneril and Regan?), smiling in their darkened hearts deep beneath their mourning veils, know what a whimsical prank it's been to put that twig of hemlock in their stepmother's drink of mead. One little girl winks her right eye, while the other winks her left: only they know as well which is which... and still they are thick as thieves, bound by blood, shadow, and poison... time will come when this bond is rent and one of the raven-haired princesses, as young women, will play exactly that same lurid prank on the other, but for now they do not know; let them enjoy their for now regained rightful place...