No one except Mercutio, of course, though if that was who he was thinking of at that moment, I knew not. He seemed back to his usual merry self, full of mischief and sauce.
We were but moments from escaping cleanly when there was an imperative rap on my chamber door, and we all went still and quiet. Ignore it, Mercutio mouthed, but I shook my head, removed my mask, and went to answer the summons.
It was not a summons, however; it was a visitation. The knock had not come from knuckles, however bony; it had been the hard wooden top of my grandmother’s cane, and the old witch herself stood there, layered in black and swaddled in shawls. I’d rarely seen her standing, and never, never had she darkened my door. She was not alone, of course; no fewer than four attendants shuffled around her in the narrow spaces, hovering anxiously lest she drop suddenly under the strain. They were under the delusion that she was a frail elderly woman, but what I saw in her face was volcanic fury, and no weakness at all.
She stamped her cane on the flaggings with such force the echo silenced all other sounds, and glared at me under thick gray brows. “Well?” she demanded. “Do you mean to keep me waiting inhospitably on the step, like a rude churl? Or must I have your manners beaten into you?”
I stepped back and gave her a profound bow, and my grandmother doddered over the threshold, each stab of her cane an emphatic pounding, like coffin nails being driven deep. Her retinue followed, all in the same dreary black, even the footman, who by rights should have been liveried in Montague colors. The old woman detested bright things as much as she detested everything else.
The footman shut the door behind her party and stood against it with the obvious intention of keeping all inside. I did not protest. I was curious—too curious, perhaps—at what had winkled my grandmother from her blazing hearth.
She glared at us each in turn. “Take off those foolish masks,” she snapped at Romeo and Mercutio. Even Mercutio moved quickly to obey, and stood eyes cast down, clearly wishing not to be the reason for her appearance
He was not. She turned that dragon’s gaze upon me, instead. “I warned you,” she said, and stabbed an age-crooked finger toward my chest. “I warned you there would be consequences for misbehavior. Someone’s tongue wagged, boy. The three of you, in a tavern only a little better than a midden! Blows exchanged, and men sore wounded! Did you think the prince would not hear of it and summon your uncle—and you, fool Mercutio, your father!—to his presence? You’ve shamed us, and raised Capulet in his estimation, and that cannot be allowed.” Her watery eyes narrowed, and her lips tightened with it. “Montague must be seen to be of greater wit than mere tavern brawlers. If you would risk your skins on foolish games, then play one that favors us in the end! I hear you’ve taken it into your empty heads to sneak into the bosom of House Capulet. Then do so. Find a way to embarrass them in their own home. Perhaps seduce that less-favored girl cousin—”
“Rosaline?” Romeo asked, coming to alert like a greyhound spotting a rabbit to chase. “Did she not enter a convent?”
“Gossip says she never reached it,” Grandmother said, and a thin smile cut her lips. “Her brother Tybalt rode out to bring her back, since she ran to a convent of her own choosing rather than the one her family chose. She’s been kept close, but whispers say the Capulets wish to present happy families at their feast tonight, so she will be on display, and likely dancing. You wished to ruin the girl once, Romeo. This is the perfect time.”
“Ruin her?” He was taken aback, the innocent soul. “I never—”
“Men ruin women,” she interrupted him, “and that is all they do, never mind all the amatory nonsense. All you need do is lead her off alone. Surely that is no great challenge for your too-tender conscience. Now, go and goad the Capulets until they rise to the attack, and mark me well: If one of you is cut for it, I will not weep. A few scars are what’s needed to make you men instead of feckless boys!”
I could not stop myself. I said, “And if we are killed?”
“Then you are a martyr for your family’s honor, and there’s no better end for you,” she snapped back, and emphasized it with a crack of her cane on stone. “Go and humiliate the Capulets without spilling their blood in their home. I cannot count on your uncle to salvage our honor this night if you fail.”
She turned, and then, without any warning, lashed out with her cane and caught Mercutio on the thigh, hard enough to leave a bruise. His jaw tightened, but he said nothing. Grandmother glared at him with real menace. “And you,” she said, in a low and harsh voice. “You, pot stirrer, unnatural creature, redeem your reputation with either a sword or an heir of your blood, and do it quickly. Lead any of mine to your perversions and I’ll see you dead where your weak-willed father won’t. Keep your sword sheathed.”
Mercutio said nothing, but there was something glowing in his eyes that almost matched La Signora’s bile. He bowed his head, but neither she nor we were under any delusion that it was surrender. His gaze followed her as she hobbled her way to the door, and out, followed by her attendants.
Then he donned his mask again, and the malice was almost hidden behind it.
“If I heard rightly, your matriarch has given us orders to embarrass House Capulet,” he said. “And I intend to obey. What of you, Benvolio? Romeo?”
Romeo nodded, but the light in his eyes came not from mischief but hope. The only word he could hear from all that grandmother said was a name. Rosaline. I had a foolish boy and a man ridden by a demon as companions, and sad to say, Rosaline’s mention had affected me as well. Something within me had quickened, something I thought I had successfully rooted out.
This was gravely unwise. I could feel it now, a deep and uneasy tide within me that warned me we were embarking on a road that would lead only one way: down, into the dark. Grandmother would not weep at our scars, nor our deaths; Mercutio was bent on proving himself as violent a man as any in Verona. Romeo, my kind cousin, would be as easily led into trouble as he was into love.
And I, the responsible one, I knew I ought to put a stop to it, take whatever fury came roaring from the dragon’s mouth . . . but instead, a traitorous whisper in my mind said Rosaline’s name once more, and I knew that whatever doom was to come, I would go, and willingly.
• • •
We did not steal off in darkness, as was my usual habit; instead, we went to the Capulets’ feast in full view, masked and escorted, with torches lighting our way and warning off all footpads who might have tried us. Three young noblemen, eager for the feast and dancing. As fast as Romeo and Mercutio strode, I still led them. My heart pounded, but not from exertion; I had not thought to ever set eyes on Rosaline again, and if I had not I would have been well content that she was safe. If she was God’s bride, I could not be jealous of that, but now she was here, alive and real, and Romeo was extolling her beauty to a bored and restless Mercutio.
“I tell you, she has the fairest skin of any I’ve seen,” Romeo said, a little breathless from the pace I’d set as we walked the Via Mazzini. We saw other torches burning, other parties making their way to the Capulets’ stronghold; from the look of things, our arrival would be little noted. Some of those I spied, in the colors of the Scala, were ten strong or more, bringing along wives, daughters, sons, and distant cousins to share in the feast—perhaps even my possibly affianced, Giuliana. Capulet would spend coin on this, to be sure, but so he should to impress Paris with his daughter’s social prominence. A count of Paris’s status needed a wife he could present proudly.
“I will seek out Rosaline,” Romeo said eagerly, as we came closer to the street, and all the lurid lines of torches began to converge. “I know she will come away with me. All you need do is lure Tybalt, and ensure her ladies are likewise occupied—perhaps in dancing—”
Mercutio ruffled his hair. “So eager to deflower the girl?” he said, and jumped lithely away as Romeo rounded on him. “’Tis the job your grandmother set you, or missed you her message? Humiliate Capulet by showing that their precious convent-bound virgin is a trull. Unless you’d rather I do it for you.”
Romeo shoved him away. I could not see his expression behind his mask, but I imagined his scowl resembled the one that twisted my own face. “Enough,” I said sharply. “I am the eldest Montague, and there’s no reason for Romeo to risk his life for this. If Tybalt wants to wet his blade, better I be the pincushion than Montague’s heir.”
“Don’t,” Romeo said, and grabbed my elbow. “Ben, don’t. Grandmother may win her wars this way, but we should not.”
“Women’s wars are the bloodiest of all,” Mercutio said, and laughed bitterly. “A Capulet woman betrayed Tomasso to hang, and well I know it. I care not for their honor, nor for their safety. Your grandmother is right. To the wall with the Capulet wench, and let her maiden’s blood be the price they pay for what she’s done.”
I shook free of Romeo and faced Mercutio instead. “What demon infected you?” I said. “Suffering for suffering, is that to be our lives? Blood for blood? Blow for blow?”
“Measure for measure,” Mercutio said. “It’s ever been our lives, brother Ben, and if you did not always know it, then you are a bigger fool than I ever knew, and it’s well your cousin is heir and not you. Weak English stock has watered your good Veronese blood.”
He turned his back on me, and I made a convulsive move for my sword, but reason stopped me—reason, and the knowledge that Mercutio would say anything, anything at all, to goad those near him. Even his friends.
“It is a demon riding you,” I said, “and the demon’s name is grief. But push me again and I will push back, Mercutio. Mark me.”
He held up a languid hand. “I care nothing for it,” he said. “Come if you are coming. If you do not, I’ll seek out this Rosaline myself and prove her false to her faith and family before the bells next ring.”