Prince of Shadows

9,411
05.03.2019

“You’re lying,” I said. “You soul-rotted little villain, you lie. You’re the one who bent the bishop’s ear and blamed the Capulets for it.”

Her lips curled into a perfect bow of satisfaction. My clever, evil little sister, so good at twisting her words. “Your companion was a liability to the house of Montague with his behavior,” she said. “Bound to be caught eventually. Now he hates the Capulet wench for betraying him, when before he might have seen our quarrel with them as some game of chess, bloodless and adventuresome. I did you a favor, brother, binding him closer to us. I did him a favor. Don’t think Grandmother wouldn’t approve. It was her own idea.”

It had the breathtaking cruelty of something the old witch would order . . . betray Mercutio’s secret love, use the Capulets as scapegoat to bind the bitter, wounded boy closer to the Montagues. Politics at its most brutal.

“La Signora might have given the order,” I said in a voice just above a whisper, a voice I could hardly hear over the mad thudding of my pulse and the red rush of blood in my ears. “But she used you as her puppet, sister.”

Veronica lifted her hands in a gesture of utter indifference. “I am a woman. I must get used to being used.”

“You’re not a woman. You’re a child playing at things you don’t understand.”

“I’m as much a woman as you are a man, Benvolio! I’ve my blood for a year now! And soon I’ll be wed and bedded, and breed more allies for this house. What use are you, then? Another excess boy?” She shoved past me and rejoined her silly little cousin, and the two girls swept down the hall in a hiss of silk and a cloud of floral perfume.

That evil should smell so sweet . . .

“What quarrel was that?” Romeo asked, once I’d come back to him. “To do with Mercutio?”

“Malice,” I said. “And one day, she’ll feel the scorpion’s sting of it on her own back.” My tone was so dark that he gave me a sidelong look of concern. “I’ll go in secret tonight, to see that Mercutio’s well cared for.”

“Then I come, too,” Romeo said.

I did not have the heart to tell him no.

• • •

Slipping into Mercutio’s rooms was an old-established routine for me, but teaching Romeo my methods was less simple, and the Ordelaffi household was on edge, to complicate matters. We did manage, but it was a near thing, and on clambering sweaty and trembling through the window we found Mercutio’s rooms dark and silent. No lamps lit. No sign of life at all.

“They’ve sent him away,” Romeo said in a harsh voice. “Ben, they sent him away!”

“Or worse,” I said. I found a candle striker and lit one of the half-melted tapers on the wall sconce. The light was thin and feeble, but it served . . . and I found Mercutio’s bloody clothes in a heap nearby, piled in a way that meant a servant had not been allowed to attend him. There were drops drying on the floor. Romeo took the candle and followed me, holding it high enough for me to suss out the thinning trail, and it led us past the undisturbed bed, to the pallet where Mercutio’s manservant would have laid his head, in better days.

But tonight, huddled on it was our friend.

He’d had no care—not even the rudest. He lay in his smallclothes, smeared with blood, face swollen and near unrecognizable. Romeo and I said nothing for a long moment, and then I looked at my cousin, and he nodded and lit a second candle from the first. He left me with that light, and moved off. When he returned, he held a basin of water and a cloth. The water was clean, at least, as was the rag. Mercutio groaned when we helped him sit against the wall, but he did not try to resist as I sponged the worst of the crusted blood from his eyes, nose, and mouth.

Once cleaned, he did not look much improved at all. His eyes were swollen shut, his nose clearly bent, and while he had by some miracle not lost teeth, one had gone loose. Two fingers were broken, and Romeo reset them and helped me bind them fast for healing.

When Mercutio finally spoke, it came slow and slurred and dull. “Did they leave him there? In the tree?”

“Rest easy,” I said. “Friar Lawrence has seen him decently laid to rest.”

“He was brave,” my friend said. It was as if he were on a far distant shore, the words coming but dimly. “You saw, Benvolio. He was brave when they took him.”

“He was,” I agreed. It was suddenly hard to speak, and I had to look away, into the shadows, and not at his beaten face. Grotesque as it was, I knew it was only a small reflection of the pain within. “Most brave.”

“I would have died with him, you know.”

“I know,” Romeo said, when I did not. “You fought for him, Mercutio.”

“And I will never stop fighting for him,” he said, still in that cool, impartial, dull tone. It was not defeat in his voice—it was the opposite: a conviction so overwhelming that it was simply fact, requiring no passion to vindicate it. “I will find who betrayed him. I will have my vengeance, come the devil himself between us.”

I felt a chill crawl my spine, listening to him, because I knew he meant it. He would dig like a terrier until he found his rat, and crushed it.

But the rat was my sister, and beyond her, my grandmother.

His enemy was Montague.

There was a doom coming on us, and I could feel it as strongly as the prickling of the air before a storm. Better his father had sent him away, I thought, and it was a terrible thing, a traitorous thing, but true.

“Come,” Romeo said, and shouldered Mercutio’s sagging weight to help him rise. “A hot cup of wine, and your bed, and cold compresses for your bruising.”

“What a little mother you are, Romeo,” Mercutio said, and laughed. It was an awful sound, empty as a pebble rattling in a cup, but it died as soon as he sank down wearily into his bed. I fetched the wine, and Romeo the compresses. As I fed the wine into my friend’s swollen mouth, he caught my wrist in his broken hand and squeezed. He did not even wince at the pain he inflicted on himself. “I beg you, Benvolio, do not leave me tonight, else I may find a dagger a better friend than you.”

“You’ve often said my wits were sharp as any dagger,” I said, and forced a smile, though I did not think he could see it through those swollen eyes. “There’s no need for a poor substitute.”

“We will not stir from your side,” Romeo said quickly. “You have my word, as Montague.” He said it with pure sincerity, and I had to bite back a wince. What value did our words have, as Montagues, now? “I am sorrowed for you, Mercutio.”

“Sorrow,” Mercutio repeated, and let out a slow, weary sigh. “There will be sorrow enough soon, so that every mouth in Verona can chew a rancid feast of tears and bile and hate.”

“Think on that tomorrow,” Romeo said. He sounded unnerved now, just as I felt. “Tonight, you must rest and heal.”

“Tomorrow, and all the days after,” Mercutio agreed. He let out another sigh, as if giving up his ghost, and made a pathetically small whimper as Romeo pressed a cool compress over his swollen eyes. “Tomorrow, for my enemies. Tomorrow, for blood. Tomorrow, for the wretched living. Tonight is for the sainted dead.”

I got him to drink some wine then, and his shivering slowed as the feather bedding crowded close around him. When he finally slept, Romeo looked at me and said, soft enough not to wake him, “Was it the Capulets who struck at him so, do you think?”

He had not heard Veronica’s confession, nor guessed at it; he knew only that we’d quarreled.

“I think whoever did will soon regret it,” I said. I hated my sister, and I feared the selfish, cold chit, but she was still blood, still family. I should lie for her. I should lie to protect the Montague family and Romeo from his own better nature . . . and yet, I could not bring myself to it. “The truth, like blood, will out.”

I took the key from Mercutio’s neck. I tested the door and found his apartments locked from the outside. That was good; it meant Mercutio’s lord father had decreed his son be abandoned to his wounds and demons at least for the night; not even the most loyal of Mercutio’s servants had dared sneak back to his side. I left Romeo at the bed and opened the secret compartment where Mercutio had taken possession of the jewels, gold, and sword I had stolen the night before; those I put into a leather bag.

“Where are you going?” Romeo asked in a charged whisper, as I swung up into the window and checked the street below. It was the dregs of the night now, when even criminals stole off to their straw beds. “You promised him you’d not go!”

“I’ll come back,” I said. I lifted the bag. “If they search his rooms and find this, he’ll swing like Tomasso, and so may we. I’ll take it to a safer place. If he wakes, say I’m gone to the jakes. It’ll be true enough.”

I slipped out before he could object, swarmed down the wall, and went at a quick, light pace through the warren of streets to the public jakes located near the river. It was a foul place, and no matter how carefully I stepped, the ground was soft and wet and stank of effluence and rot, but that was all to the good.

I held my breath as I came to the bog house, with its wooden seats over the pits; I tied a thin silken rope, one of several I had hidden on me, to the buckles of the bag, and lowered it into the filthy liquid, then tied it to a rusty hook below the seat. I’d hidden things here before, and disposed of others. No sane man searched a waste-filled midden for treasure. It would be safe enough until I retrieved it—or not. I did not greatly care now, as long as it was not found in Mercutio’s possession, nor mine.

I came back to the Ordelaffi house before the blush of dawn rose, and slipped back in with more ease than I’d had when dragging Romeo along. I found my cousin asleep with his head pillowed on the bed next to Mercutio, whose face was still hidden under compresses. I kicked off my filthy boots and left them by the ruined, bloody clothes, and found a pair that fit me well enough from my friend’s closet. Then I changed out the compresses and drank wine and fought off my own exhaustion until I heard the rattle of a key in the door.