The moment Desdemona opened the door to her chambers to find Emilia at the threshold, a troubled expression on her face and two bags in her hands, she knew that something was afoot. Taking a step backwards, she granted entry to her attendant. 'What happened? Is something the matter with my husband? Has Othello changed his mind about coming to me tonight?'
'No,' Emilia said, hurrying into the room with none of her usual adherence to propriety. 'Close the door.'
Startled, Desdemona complied. 'Then why are you back so soon? I – Emilia, whatever are you doing? I demand that you stop this instant.'
But Emilia did not heed her words. She had opened the drawstrings on the bags and bustling around the room, grabbing a few of Desdemona's more sentimental trinkets and stuffing them into it. 'Your husband still intends to come, and I fear what he will do when he does. You must not be here when he arrives.'
Desdemona sighed. When they had spoken earlier, she had made it clear that her first duty was to her husband, and his to her. 'I told you earlier that I will speak with him. He will understand that I am faithful and desire only him, and we will put the question of infidelity to rest once and for all.'
'He will not.' Stilling, Emilia took a deep breath. 'My lady, after I left you, I overheard a conversation that troubled me greatly. It appears that your husband is basing his suspicions on the fact that he found your missing handkerchief in Cassio's possession. He believes that you gave it to him as a sign of your favour, and he will not be convinced otherwise.'
That was the last thing Desdemona had expected to hear. Worried, she hurried forward, setting the bags aside and taking her friend's hands in hers. 'You don't believe him, do you? I know you think that I am too trusting, but even if I were untrue, why would I be so foolish as to give my lover a favour that could be traced back to me?' Then, frowning, she hit upon what seemed to her to be the most fundamental question of them all. 'But how did he get my handkerchief in the first place?'
Emilia's gaze dropped to the ground in an uncharacteristic display of shame, and her grip tightened around Desdemona's. In all the time Desdemona had known her, the woman had never once appeared cowed by anything.
'I am sorry, my lady, but it was me – or, rather, my husband. He always wanted me to get it for him, but I did not know why. If I had known, I would never have agreed to take it.'
Desdemona sucked in a breath. 'How could you betray me so?'
'You know I am not as idealistic as you are, my lady. I did not see any harm in it at the time, so I did not see why I should not gain my husband's approval by complying.'
'If what you say is true, then why should I believe you now? You have already deceived me once before.'
'Because my husband is nothing if not ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants,' Emilia said. 'You may think that I take pride in being mercenary, my lady, and to some extent, I suppose that's true. But there are lines that even I would never cross, whereas my husband… He wants to have your husband's ear, and he will get it, no matter what he has to do to you and Cassio to get it.'
'Do you think he is capable of murder?'
'I think they both are.'
Dread settled in Desdemona's stomach. There was nobody in Cyprus whom she could trust. Emilia had helped Iago to betray her, and no amount of arguing would convince Othello of her innocence. Even Cassio, who had always shown himself to be just and honourable, was out of the question; going to him would just be taken as further evidence of her guilt. She glanced down at the bags on the floor. 'You think I should run.'
Ever since her wedding day, Desdemona had been trying to shape herself into being the perfect wife, searching for the balance between her headstrong youth and the obedience that she and Othello both believed she owed him as his spouse. Now, however, it seemed that she was going to have to allow herself to find more of her old self again.
'I think we both should,' Emilia said, correcting her. 'If you don't flee, they will kill you. And if you do, they do even worse to me, and I know enough about what they're capable of that I won't even try not totalk. Besides, you wouldn't survive out there on your own; you've never had to.'
Desdemona took a step back, dropping her friend's hands and starting to pace the room. There was a shuffling sound as Emilia retrieved the bags and continued packing. It felt like she was standing upon a precipice. Stretched out around and behind her was life as she knew it: as an idealistic child, a dutiful daughter, and a newlywed wife. Ahead of her was nothing but clouds and uncertainty.
All she knew was that if she stayed, she would die. At least, out there, she had a chance.
Closing her eyes, she prayed that she was making the right decision. 'We will go to my uncle in Zagreb,' she said, turning and moving forward, starting to grab things herself. 'Othello will assume that we're trying to get back to Venice and will go straight to my father's house; he won't think to look for us in Croatia. My uncle won't be happy to see us, but he won't abandon me.'
Emilia nodded. 'We'll both have to change into something less noticeable, and we'll need to cover your hair; it stands out too much.'
'Should I cut it?' Desdemona asked. It had always been her most prized feature, and it was what her husband was most likely to describe her by.
'Maybe when we're on the road. For now, we don't have time.'
Before long, they were ready. For a moment, Desdemona hesitated at the threshold, staring back at her chambers for what would hopefully be the last time. It was odd to think that she might never see her husband again; that their last meeting had come and gone without her knowing it. But as she closed the door behind them and hurried off in the direction of the stables, she felt hope welling in her heart.
Maybe, one day, Othello would realise that Iago had been playing him for a fool, and it would be safe for her to return to him. But even if he didn't, she knew she was making the right decision. She had been willing to sacrifice so much for Othello, but even she had her limits.
She would have been willing to live for him, but never to die for him.
A/N: Written for the smallfandomfest (prompts: Shakespeare – Othello, Desdemona, making choices)