When Balthasar finally said, very tentatively, “Shall I bring food?” it occurred to me that our family would soon be down to dinner, and our absences would be very strongly, ominously noted. I could not bring myself to care overmuch, but it was Romeo who—surprisingly—did.
“No,” he said, and stood up. “Bring us water to wash off the dust. We’ll dress and go down.”
“Will we?” I asked him without looking away from the flickering light of the candle on the table. I’d been staring at it since it had been lit, and now it was a guttering nub. “Why?”
“For the same reason you forced us from that place,” Romeo said. “Because Mercutio is our friend, and Mercutio’s friends had best show themselves to be good and well-mannered sons. The family will protect us, but they’d best hold no doubts of our innocence in private.”
I was being shown a fool by my own younger, less responsible cousin. Without him, I might have remained immured in my apartments, hiding and brooding, and that would have occasioned comments—if not in public from the family, then in private amongst the servants, who would rattle their gossip about the town. And soon I’d be suspect as well. My own extended bachelorhood would be dragged out as proof.
Romeo was right. We had to show our clean, well-scrubbed faces and, when the music was played for us, dance most sweetly.
I could not forget Mercutio’s wild mood before dawn. Married and buried, wed and dead. Would they still wed him? Or would his family lock him away in some monastery, sworn against his will to holy orders—no, they dared not; he was their eldest son and must be made to run to heel. They’d marry him, and he was right: He’d hurt the girl, more now than ever before. Her family had been willing to sell her for position, as all girls of means were sold or bartered; they’d simply seek a better bargain now that Mercutio’s reputation lay in tatters, but marry her they would, and as quickly as possible. His father would demand it, to shore up the Ordelaffi name. I did not like to think on that unhappy wedding night. If it was consummated at all, it would be done coldly and ruthlessly. Mercutio had nothing in his heart now but ashes and gall, and that would make a bad marriage, a poisonously cruel one.
The certainty of seeing my sister at dinner made me feel sick with the desire to close my hands around her plump neck, but I rose, allowed Balthasar to dress me in appropriate clothes, and met Romeo in the hall, newly washed and berobed himself. He looked at me somberly, nodded, and the two of us strode into the dining hall together.
Conversation dimmed upon our entry, but we looked neither right nor left, heading steadily and calmly for our seats. They sat empty, awaiting us, and as we took our places servants quickly sprang into action to bring us wine and soup. I know not what flavor they placed in front of me, though certainly the cooks had labored for hours on the preparation. The wine and the soup and the napkin would, at the moment, all have the same inedible texture.
I ate mechanically, smiled when the occasion seemed to call for it, and made conversation with my mother, who watched me with unnerving focus. She was worried, I thought.
I did not look at nor speak with Veronica, who sat only a few places away. She, for her part, was busily whispering with our younger cousin Isabella. Their hushed giggles scraped raw on my nerves, but I resisted all the violent impulses that tried to move me, and smiled, and smiled, and smiled.
At last, someone spoke plainly, and it was my uncle. “Benvolio,” he said. He was several cups into the wine, and leaning on his elbow as he tasted the next, then nodded for it to be filled to the brim.
“This business today with young Mercutio,” he said. “I trust there is no truth to the rumors of his behavior?”
“Rumors, sir?” I stared at him, blank faced, daring him to speak of such things at the table.
He was not quite that drunk. “No matter, no matter. I was only concerned for the safety of my nephew and my son, who have spent so much time with the boy. Nothing untoward occurred, then?”
I laughed, and it sounded surprisingly carefree to my ears. “We have always been the soul of propriety, I assure you, Uncle. I know not what rumors are being passed, but you know that our enemies often try to blacken reputations in unsavory ways.”
“For cert, yes, but this comes not from an enemy,” Montague said. A pin would have made a sound of thunder had it dropped; somewhere far down the table, a fork clattered noisily as it fell on a plate, and there was a hiss of disapproval like a pit of snakes disturbed. “This comes from his own household.”
I shrugged. “Mercutio and his father have been at odds lately, as you know; it comes of having a strong-willed heir, as you do yourself, sir.”
He laughed, casting a proud and indulgent look on Romeo, who seemed dangerously silent. “Of course, of course. A high-spirited boy is a credit to any father,” he said. “But you should be more cautious with your friend. I do not wish to think ill of him, but your own reputations may suffer should these rumors persist.”
“They won’t,” I said. “It’s air and nonsense. Why, Mercutio’s to be married soon.”
Montague was more acute than the wine would indicate, because while he still smiled at me, he cut his eyes toward his son and said, “Romeo? ’Tis true, what Benvolio says?”
“Has my cousin ever been a liar?” Romeo asked. “You wound my brother, and in wounding him, I bleed.”
“Come now, fond as I am of you both, you are not brothers.” No, because if I had been born of his loins, I would be the heir, a fact that made Montague justifiably unnerved. Heirs had died at the hands of their cousins before, many times, to make new heirs.
“As good as,” Romeo countered defiantly. “Raised as brothers, and brothers in affection and in temperament. Call you him a liar, sir, you call me one also.”
“Smooth your rough tongue, my son, I asked only out of love,” Montague said. Romeo attacked his game bird with such single-minded ferocity I could only think that he wanted to pull something apart with his bare hands, and dinner was the least dangerous choice he might have. “Well, then, that’s clear enough. My dear? Shall we retire and leave our children to their amusements?”
He stood, and Lady Capulet stood obediently to leave with him; it was her place to go, whether she was hungry or not, sated or not. I wondered whether she had always been so content with that lot, so biddable. Surely not. Surely once, she had been young and afire with her own potential. Even girls dreamed of what they might do, did they not? I had no idea what they dreamed about, but I did not think it was a lifetime of being ordered, of walking behind, or enduring whatever was allotted to them without complaint.
Some women created their own worlds, like my grandmother. Some, like my mother, were trapped like flies in amber by their choices and lives. I had never been sure which of those extremes described my aunt.
We finished the dinner, Romeo and I, in apparent good spirits, dissembling as if our lives depended on it, which might have been the case. I had left stolen goods at Mercutio’s apartments. If he was of a mood to turn on me, it would be a simple thing—he had seen us there by the wood; I knew it. He knew we had watched Tomasso die, and done nothing.
I could not imagine that he did not hate us.
Try as I might, we did not, as it happened, avoid Veronica in the end. She and the insipid younger cousin trailed us back from the dining hall—it seemed a deliberate strategy—and I heard part of a whisper with Mercutio’s name, and that shrill, muffled giggle, and it broke the fragile hold I had on my own fury.
I rounded on her.
My sister, concentrating on her gossip, did not see me until it was too late to dodge. I grabbed her by the back of the neck and dragged her squealing around the corner, into a darkened alcove, while Romeo forced the cousin along down to the hall with a firm arm over her shoulders. “Enough,” I told Veronica in a voice that ought to have made her grateful she still breathed. “If I hear you say his name again—”
“You’ll what?” She struck my hand away from her, color burning hot in her cheeks. “Hit me, as you did Romeo? Beat me, as Mercutio’s father did him? Do you imagine anyone will allow you to touch me? I am an asset. You—what are you? An extra Montague, of little value. They can’t even sell you for a dowry.”
“They hanged the boy today, while Mercutio was forced to watch,” I said, keeping my voice low and vicious and intimate between us. “Someone dropped a whisper in the wrong ears, and I know it was you, Veronica. I know.”
“Oh, do you?” A smirk danced at the corners of her full mouth now, and she fussed with the lace around her collar, fluffing it into just the right shape. “As I hear it, the first complaint came from someone who chanced to see the two of them in carnal embrace behind the church itself. Someone you would never suspect, I’ll wager.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, and I tightened my grip on her shoulders. I saw a flash of panic in her eyes before the arrogance returned. “Make yourself plain,” I said. “I’ve no time for this, and you know I am out of temper.”
“A Capulet,” Veronica said. “A Capulet girl was the one who complained of their unnatural embrace to the bishop himself. Or so it’s said.”
“Which Capulet girl?” I did not believe her. I did not want to believe her, truth be told, and I saw the vinegar-bitter flash of victory in her eyes.
“The one Romeo is always bleating about,” Veronica said. “The plain one bound for the convent. Rosaline. And so, we are revenged upon her, too.”
I let her go and stepped back as if she’d caught fire. I wanted to believe she was lying; I did not want to believe that Rosaline, of all people, had been the one to do such a cruel and heartless thing. But she is devout, I thought. She plans for a life in the Church. She does not know Mercutio. All she would see is something ugly and venal and perverse, conducted in the dark. Small wonder she would be offended.
But it felt wrong to me. Very wrong.