A near miss. Very near. But still, a success. I told myself that he could not have seen me, and even if he had glimpsed some part of my face, he could never have associated those features with those of Benvolio Montague.
With my bag full of treasure, I sought out Mercutio.
He was not asleep. I’d thought to catch him still abed, but he was up, dressed, and prowling his rooms restlessly. When I climbed in his window he jumped like the cat I’d startled, sword half drawn, and sheathed it irritably at the sight of me. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for word of your corpse! Don’t you know better than to do this alone?”
For answer, I held out the bag. He swore at the heaviness of it, and dumped the treasure out onto the bed. It was better than I’d expected. In the dim room where I’d pilfered it, I hadn’t been able to assess quality, but these were fine indeed, the last vestiges of a once-wealthy family. He whistled as he held up a ruby as large as a robin’s egg. It had a heart of fire in it that made me shiver, and suddenly I felt that I’d made a mistake, a large one. These were jewels that would be difficult to dispose of safely—too recognizable, like the sword.
“This could be cut down,” Mercutio said, examining the ruby, “though it would be a pity to ruin such a thing. Look you, how the light catches in it, like blood.”
“Exactly like blood,” I said. “We need to be rid of these things quickly.”
“And this?” He held up the sword, admiring the watered steel. “I could have a goldsmith mount another hilt on it. Shame to waste such a beautiful blade.”
“Make sure the goldsmith keeps his mouth well closed,” I said. “There’s a rope in this for us if he doesn’t.”
“Isn’t there always?” Mercutio opened a secret door in the wall of his room and put the things within, locked it back, and hung the key on a chain around his neck. “It will take time, you know. Not even I can work miracles. I’m not the Christ of crime.”
“Heathen,” I said. He pursed his lips and blew me a kiss. “Were you truly dressed out of worry for me? It seems unlikely, I think.” He sank into a deep armchair, one long-fingered hand pressed to his forehead to hide his eyes. I did not need to see them to read the dejection in his body. “Trouble in your sinful paradise, my brother?”
“What would you know of sin?” he shot back. “You’ve cold milk in your veins when it comes to love; I know it.”
I thought, unwillingly, of Rosaline, but I said, “I had a naked woman kiss me tonight while I was rifling for these little trinkets.”
That surprised him enough that he took his hand away from his face. “Naked.”
“As sinful Eve,” I said. “And quite a willing mouth on her, too.”
I shrugged. “Best to get on with the job, I thought.” Though there had been a drunken moment when I’d considered something much different, in wild and exotic detail.
“Disappointing.” He put the hand back in place again. “We’ll teach you how to use a woman yet. Granted, I have only a little experience in that way, but more than you, I’d wager.” He laughed a little, but it sounded like gallows laughter to me. “I’m to get more, it seems.”
I sat down opposite him, suddenly worried that this was not merely Mercutio’s usual dark moods. “Tell me,” I bade him.
“My dear and sainted father has decreed that I soar too high to remain free, and so I am to be caged,” he said. The bitter taint in his voice chilled me. “Caged and hooded, jessed and trained to the perfumed hand of a lady. But no matter how you tame a falcon, still they will hunt, will they not? Hunt, or die.”
“What’s this talk of death, my friend? Of cages?” Surely his father, whatever he suspected, would not put his own son to a public trial for the crime of sodomy; that would forever tarnish his own name. Were they discovered, my own offenses would be puffballs and nonsense beside it.
“I put it to you plainly: I am to be swiftly married off,” he said. “Married and buried, wed and dead. ’Tis no accident the words rhyme so well.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “And ’tis no surprise, as they’d published the banns—what brings on this dark—”
“Dark and lark, love and dove, hawk and handsaw, I am not fit for this, Benvolio; I am not fit—do you not see it?” He was weeping, I realized with a start; he angrily swept tears from his cheeks and glared at me as if I were the cause of all his suffering. “I will hurt her, this soft bride of mine; I cannot help it—I am all the wrong shape, you see? I may be forced, as she may be forced, but both of us will bleed for it . . . but blood is all that families require, marriage blood, maiden blood, proof of cruel love. . . . She is too young; she cannot understand what I am, what I feel, what I know of myself. I am to hurt her, and she is to hurt me. And it comes on us fast as plague.”
It was clear to me then. “There is a date set.”
“Two months hence,” he said miserably. “Two months. And Tomasso weeps and will not see me, and there is naught I can do to make any of it less vile. We have been wed in heart for five years, from the moment we first clapped eyes on each other, and now it is broken, broken as my heart. I know I will hurt this girl, in revenge. It is not a pretty thing, but the thought of her sickens me, and I cannot . . . I cannot—”
“Run,” I said, and leaned forward to lock gazes with my friend. “Take the money you’ve been paid for the gold and jewels thus far, pay for passage to some friendlier place, and take Tomasso away. There is a way out, Mercutio. You must take it.”
“Now you thieve for me, instead of your whims and honors?” He laughed softly, and shook his head. “I might steal away, but Tomasso—he is too afraid, I think. Verona is all he knows, all he loves besides me. I have begged him to go; we could be pilgrims on the road to perdition, but he will not have it. You have a generous heart. I love you for it, but my own heart is bound here, too.”
“Then refuse,” I said. “Refuse the girl. Refuse the wedding.”
“I would ruin her more by doing that than if I blooded her,” he said, “and you know it. A marriage promise broken stains the girl, not the man who refuses her. She would be doomed. It would destroy her, and her father’s honor.”
He was right. We lived in a world that lived and breathed honor, and a promise was a bond that we broke only with dire consequences. A lesser man than my friend would not care a fig for the girl, or her family, but Mercutio wasn’t so shallow. The world was a bundle of spikes and razors, and any move he made would cut deep. Better to sacrifice Tomasso, and a love that could never be acknowledged, than to make the innocent suffer.
That did not make it any less painful.
“If you change your mind,” I said, “my gold is yours. You know this.”
“I know,” he said, and clapped hands with me, then embraced. “I know.”
I kept company with him until just before dawn, then slipped away in the gray. I came home to a bed well warmed with hot bricks, and a sleepy servant who put it about that I was abed with a summer’s ague, to buy me the morning to rest.
I slept ill, and dreamed of blood and a woman’s wet kiss, and candlelight gleaming on skin and shadow. Dark eyes that challenged as much as they welcomed.
The next day brought fate, and doom, and death with the dawning.
• • •
The first I knew of the trouble was a hammering on my door. I’d slept a bare two hours, perhaps, and Balthasar even less; he went yawning and red eyed to admit Romeo.
“Sir, your cousin is not well—” Balthasar tried to stop his onward rush, but Romeo simply swept him aside.
“It’s Mercutio,” he blurted, and threw the covers back on my bed. “He left me in the market after mass, and I saw him being followed, and I think the servant was from his own family’s house. Get up, Ben. Get up!”
I did, grabbing for whatever clothing came to hand—a wrinkled linen shirt, hose that had seen better days. I did not bother with a doublet, only threw on a leather jerkin and loose calf-length trousers like a laborer. “Change,” I ordered him. “No Montague colors. Balthasar, get him something less noticeable. Do it quickly.”
Balthasar scurried off to the chests to find something as Romeo began to unbuckle and untie his Montague doublet. The hose would do, being dark. I took away his too-recognizable dagger and sword and substituted a good but plain set from my stores. We dressed quickly, in charged silence, all too aware that we might be too late. If Mercutio was being stalked, it would be better if it were a straightforward enemy who wished to plant a sword’s point in his chest . . . but if someone from the Ordelaffi household was on his trail, something darker was brewing. He never allowed a servant to trail him, hadn’t since his childhood; he’d allied himself with us both from nature and from necessity, to avoid his family saddling him with such a hindrance. It was new, and worrying, that they felt the need to eye his comings and goings.
We dashed down the hallway, past startled servants, and at the door we came face-to-face with my sister, Veronica, and her giggling cadre of scheming, vicious friends, who were arriving fresh from the market. One of them, I noticed, was one of the Ordelaffi girls, a cousin of Mercutio’s.
Veronica stepped back and fanned herself, and her friends goggled at us with a fresh wave of muffled laughter. “Well,” she said. “It seems too early by far for a costumed ball, and why you would go as peasants . . .”
Romeo pushed her out of the way, and Veronica gave a shrill squeak of alarm as he darted past. She turned on me, furious at the slight, and her eyes narrowed. “Going to find your dear friend?” she asked. The giggling of the girls with her stopped as if it had been severed by a blade. “His family seeks him, too. Wherever could he be, do you think? What might he be doing so early in the morning, hidden in the trees?”