Prince of Shadows

9,405
05.03.2019

I had seen a caged tiger once, a beast brought by ship from India and destined for some grand palace; the thing’s brilliant beauty had impressed me, and so had its utter savagery. No mercy in those glowing, furious eyes, those bared fangs. To face it was to face death.

Mercutio was just such a tiger, alive with the desire to destroy everything in his path, for the sheer bloody sake of his own pain. I was afraid for all our lives, but I was most afraid of him, in that moment; there was something merciless and blind in him, something that required blood.

And oh, he claimed his due in that filthy tavern. I know not if he killed men, but if they were spared it was only God’s hand at work; by the time the crowd had fallen back from us, he was spattered with fresh red, and his dagger ran with it, and the floor was thick with writhing, groaning men. We had lost two of our own, fallen senseless, and I had two minor wounds; Balthasar limped from a cut on his thigh.

“Mercutio!” I shouted to him as we achieved the blessed sanctuary of the doorway. I could scarce believe we’d survived at all. “Mercutio, away, now!”

I watched him raise the dagger to his lips and kiss its bloody steel, sketch a mocking salute, and then jump lightly over the fallen foes to join us. In the brilliant sunlight, we were wine-stained, cut, bruised, and my heart still pounded from a sickening mix of exaltation and terror. I wiped my dagger roughly clean and sheathed it, then grabbed Mercutio by the shoulders. I felt the fine vibration of his body through the hard grip of my hands.

He was still smiling, but there was something entirely wrong in it.

“Do you wish death?” I said to him, and shook him hard. “You court it like a lover!”

He said nothing. Nothing at all. And I shoved him backward, threw a look at Romeo, who shook his head and wiped spots of blood from his cheek. “We must away,” Romeo said. “Now, coz. There are dead men to answer for, and best we not be here when the questions are asked.”

“I’m still thirsty,” Mercutio said. “And you never had your wine. We should go back.”

I cuffed him hard across the face, and for a moment I saw real confusion in his countenance, as if I’d woken him from a deep dream, but then he raised a hand to touch the raw spot where I’d hit him, and shook his head.

“What a sad thing,” he said, “when the sons of Montague have milk and water running in their veins.”

“Better water than that wine,” Romeo said. “Come, Mercutio, you’ve drunk too deeply already, for only that could explain what you’ve done. I beg you, let us see you safe home.”

“Home? To my wife?” Mercutio’s tone was so dark that I feared suddenly for that misfortunate girl’s safety. The friend I had known before his lover swung on the tree . . . that Mercutio could be as cruel as a gadfly, but it was all vinegar wit, no spite behind it. The venom in him now was new, and boded ill indeed. “After so long apart, do you long to see me gone so soon from your company, my friends? I thought you loved me well.”

“We do love you well, Mercutio, and you know that I would gladly die by your side, but this—this is black folly. Come away; come and have a quiet cup of wine in a congenial place. Will you?”

Romeo spoke so gently, so earnestly, that perhaps even Mercutio’s much-scarred heart was moved a bit. . . . He reached out and clapped a hand on Romeo’s shoulder. “Well, then,” Mercutio said. “Well, then, perhaps the loss of a florin is not so great a thing. But you, dear one, will buy the drinks.”

“One,” Romeo immediately replied. “One drink. And then safe conduct home.”

Whatever madness had taken hold of Mercutio seemed to pass, then; we wiped away what blood and stains we could, and found a quiet shaded corner. One drink turned to three before it was done, and Mercutio seemed in fine enough spirit—fine enough that when interlopers approached within a few feet of us on the other side of the screen, he bade us hush and listen. It was no mere underling, lurking near; it was the sour Capulet himself, walking attended by a dim-witted servant and Count Paris, a cousin of Mercutio’s and a relative of the prince himself. An earnest man, older than us, and in need of a wife, it would seem; rumor ran that he sought Capulet’s daughter’s hand in marriage. I heard only random moments of their conclave; Count Paris claimed that younger maids than Juliet had made happy mothers—a claim her father disputed, sagely, with the observation that those wed and bedded too soon were often marred by it. Eventually, they closed their business—apparently something of marriage, to do with the young Juliet—and moved on.

It was nothing to me, until Romeo said, “We need diversion, cousin.”

I looked at him, frowning, but not yet alarmed. We’d all had, perhaps, too much wine on too hot a day. Romeo lunged to his feet and hurried off, with Mercutio only a step behind. When I joined them, I saw Capulet and Count Paris walking off together, well satisfied, and the dim-witted servant was left struggling with a paper he had been given. Before I could stop him, Romeo fell into step with the fellow, looking over his shoulder at the paper he was scrying.

“God-den, good fellow,” Romeo said, and clasped his hands behind his back, the very picture of a polite young gentleman of Verona.

“God gi’ god-den,” the servant said, and thrust the paper out. “I pray, sir, can you read?”

“Ay, my own fortune is my misery,” Romeo said, and after some banter, he took the paper and read it. I hurried to join them, as he began to recite names . . . Count Anselme, the widow of Vitravio, Signor Placentio, Mercutio. Rosaline was on the list, though I well knew she was gone; so was Tybalt, and I assumed, though I had not caught their mention, that the Capulet household entire would be included.

“A fair assembly,” Romeo noted. “Whither should they come?”

“Up,” the servant said.

Romeo sent me an amused look and put a conspiratorial arm around the man’s neck. “Whither, again?”

“To supper,” the servant said. “To our house.”

“To whose house?”

“To my master’s.”

The man was duller than a bucket of pitch. Romeo almost laughed, but managed to contain it. “Indeed,” he said, “I should have asked you before.”

“My master is the great rich Capulet,” the servant said proudly, and puffed out his chest, as if absorbing the gold and status merely by attachment. “If you be not of the house of Montague, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine. Rest you merry!”

He darted on, intent on delivering his message, though I doubted he would remember half the names Romeo had recited to him.

Romeo stared after him thoughtfully, and I felt the first inkling of disquiet. “What, coz?” I asked him.

“Rosaline,” he said softly.

“She’s gone,” I said. “Gone to safety, far away. She’ll not be there.”

“And if she is?”

I threw an arm around his shoulders and walked him back toward where Mercutio waited. My thoughts whirled furiously, shouting in the dark cavern of my skull, but above all was the clear, bitter voice of my grandmother, reminding me astringently of my duty, and the consequences.

“I will go,” he declared. “It is a masked feast, I heard it said. I will go in secret. If she is there . . .”

“Coz, I said she would not be.”

“You could be wrong,” he said, and there was no levity in it now, only a calm certainty. “I will go, Benvolio. If she has been spirited off to the convent, then my love for her must fade, as God wills. But I will go, to see for myself that she is gone.”

“You risk your life for nothing.”

“No,” he said. “I risk it for an angel come to earth. And so would you, if you were not made of ice.”

He had no idea how much I burned within at that, hot as the devil’s breath; he had no right to take this risk. No right to love her so diligently.

No right to put me so far at risk, because I could not let him go alone, unguarded, into that pit of vipers.

Some of the anger came out in my voice as I said, “Then let us go to this masked feast. All the beauties of Verona will be assembled there. Look upon their faces, and you’ll think your swan a crow.”

I said this, but I did not mean it; there was no woman in Verona, however fair, who held the power of Rosaline, I thought—though Romeo had an appetite for beauty, and he’d have plenty to dine on at this Capulet party.

Mercutio, watching us with bright, malicious eyes, finished off his wine and dashed the cup onto the cobbles, where it shattered. When the merchant shouted, he threw a coin to him without looking. “What mischief are you proposing?” he asked, and flung his arms over our necks, more to sustain himself than to embrace us. “What amusements? And mention not any woman’s name, or I shall choke it from your wretched throat.”

“A fine amusement,” Romeo said. “But you must promise to be on your best behavior, Mercutio. If you hold your temper, it will be a great adventure, and a trick for the ages.”

I had never meant him to involve Mercutio in this folly. I was sickly aware that in doing so, he had raised the stakes of this game from merely dangerous to catastrophic.

“A trick?” Mercutio echoed, and gave us a slow, delighted grin. “You have only to lead me to it.”

• • •

Romeo and Mercutio had the bit between their teeth, and whatever misgivings I had mattered not. I gave up trying to persuade them, and instead hoped only to help them survive this adventure. Misadventure, more like.

That night, cleaned and dressed in nondescript finery, we stole out of the Montague palace without any colors to mark us, and took only a few servants, in case we had to take to our heels quickly. My mask was of an owl; Romeo’s was a cat, likely in mockery of Tybalt. As for Mercutio, he wore a fanciful gold thing, bright as the rising sun, but then he was—of all of us—the only one who had an excuse to be at the feast. “Being a distant cousin to the prince has its privileges,” he told us, as he tied on the gaudy thing. “Even the Capulets fear to slight my family, though they disapprove of my . . . friendships.” I wondered whether he referred to the one with us, or the one his family had tried so hard to erase. Poor Tomasso—he had vanished entirely from the memory of Verona, except in whispers. No one dared remember him.