What could we do, then? Romeo and I each had our reasons for moving with him to the officious Capulet servant at the door ticking names from his invitation sheet. Mercutio gave his own, and waved at the two of us and named us country cousins. The servant frowned, but passed us in; Mercutio was a distant cousin of the Prince as well as Count Paris, after all, and no one wanted to be accused of slighting the potential bridegroom’s relatives.
Within the low-ceilinged hall, torches blazed, throwing a cheerful glow over groaning tables of food and drink pushed far against the walls. I’d not ventured into this space before, during my explorations of the enemy’s household, and my eye was caught by the grand silk Capulet banner fluttering on the wall, embroidered with the family’s crest and motto: We repay all. It was a clever enough turn of phrase, and it meant they paid debts and swore vengeance with equal vigor.
I was busily thinking of all the ways I might use that arrogant flag against them. I might steal it and use it to drape a donkey—yes, a donkey carrying a drunkard dressed in Capulet colors through the town square. The image made me smile, and I marked it down for later use. The ridicule would madden them, and Tybalt in particular.
My smile faded, because in the middle of the bright whirl of masked and anonymous strangers, I saw a girl’s straight back, high-held chin, and the graceful rise of her neck. She was too tall for common fashion, and her mask was plain white with only a small sparkling of red crystals to brighten it. She did not need much ornamentation, I thought. The dress she wore was also plain, and demure—it would not have been wrong gracing a dowager, and was well suited to a girl destined for the nunnery.
But despite its best efforts, her costume did not make her plain.
Rosaline stood against a pillar near the edges of the room, smiling politely and refusing all offers to join in the dancing; she held a small cup of wine, but I did not think she was drinking.
I was not the first to spot her. Mercutio was. He swept toward her without hesitation, sketched an elaborate bow, and kissed her hand with perfect gentility—and did not release it. He bent close, and I saw his lips move beneath the mask. I saw Rosaline seem to draw back against the pillar; whatever he had said, it had repelled her.
Romeo stood next to me, sighing. “I wish I had not come,” he said. “You have dancing shoes with nimble soles; I have a soul of lead that stakes me to the ground so I cannot move. I cannot see her.”
I realized, with a jolt of surprise, that he had looked right over Rosaline, the very girl he idolized so . . . and surveyed the crowd with all the joy of a mourner at the grave.
Mercutio had still not released Rosaline’s hand, and I could see the paleness of her knuckles as she struggled to pull free. His lips were moving near her ear, but as I watched, she finally tore her hand from his and edged past, disappearing into the crowd in a whirling flutter of skirts.
I felt unaccountably hot and flushed beneath the mask, and my fists had clenched tight. But I held myself still as Mercutio came back to us, still eyeing the crowd with a glitter I did not like. “Come, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance,” he said, and pushed my cousin a little. “You are a lover; borrow Cupid’s wings and soar with them above a common bound.” Another push. Romeo pushed back.
“I am too sore pierced with his shaft to soar with his feathers,” he said, and whatever else he said I lost, because I saw Rosaline again through the crowd. She was turned toward us, staring not at me, I thought, but at Mercutio. I could not read her expression past the mask, but she seemed to me disturbed.
Romeo and Mercutio continued to quarrel behind me—or rather, Romeo to insist he was done with love, and Mercutio to mock him with long-winded talk of dreams. I edged away from them, moving slowly so as not to attract their interest, and entered the dance that swirled in the center of the room. The older men and some of the women sat and watched the merrymaking, and I nodded and offered my hand to a passing young girl masked as a deer; we made our steps, and I handed her off to another man in rich Capulet colors, with a mask of bloodred and gold. Tybalt. I recognized the arrogant set of his jaw, and looked away in the hope he did not likewise know me. He did not seem to, and the dance passed on, steps and claps, turns and hands briefly clasped as the musicians sawed and brayed on . . .
…and then, suddenly, my hand was on Rosaline’s palm, and we were turning slowly, like petals in a lazy wind, and our gazes met and locked. Her lips parted, but she did not speak. So neither did I. When the measure was danced, rather than release her, I pulled her to the side, and she came, most willing.
“You should not be here,” she whispered. Her voice was low and urgent, her eyes fierce behind their covering. “If my brother spies you—”
“Do not let anyone lead you off alone,” I told her. “Promise me that you will not.”
“Mercutio already tried,” she said, and studied me with what I thought might be a frown. “I am no fool, to be so lightly ruined. What’s planned for me?”
“Nothing good,” I said. “Capulet seeks retribution for its losses today, and Montague will try to strike first—why are you here?” It came out more passionately than I had meant for it to, and more vexed.
“No fault of mine,” she said. “I was safely in the convent when Tybalt came to remove me; the abbess would have refused him, but he threatened to do great violence if deprived, so I agreed to return. They’ll send me on to their own choice of holy order soon. I only am put up here to provide a plain ground for Juliet’s brilliance.”
She did not sound bitter, I thought, only resigned. Like Mercutio, I was holding to her hand, but she did not try to pull free. If anything, her fingers tightened on mine, to the point of pain.
“Can you not try again?” I said. “Slip away, find a place they will not look . . . ?”
She shook her head slowly, never looking away. “The arm of my family is long, and there is no hole into which they will not reach. Best if I do not risk others for my own selfish purpose. Whatever comes, I will bear it.” She blinked, then, and glanced away. I followed the look to Mercutio, who had his head bent to listen to another young girl—a more distant relation, but still Capulet blood. “Your friend . . . I know he has been sorely tried, but he seems so greatly changed from what I remember.”
“What did he say to you?” I was aware of the dance moving behind us, of sharp glances from some of the older guests toward us; we could not be seen to linger. “Did he—”
“Look after him,” she said, and slipped her hand free of mine. “There’s a darkness in him that will spill out, if it has not already. Another reason I should withdraw to the peace of my rooms, and thence to the convent. This is my cousin Juliet’s triumph, after all. I would not wish to draw from it.”
“Rosaline . . .” I said her name, and heard the gentleness in my own voice; I saw the answering flash in her eyes, and heard the intake of her breath. I took another step to bring us closer, but I did not touch her. Not again. “God be with you, if I cannot.”
“And with you,” she said. I saw a quick, silver shine of tears over her eyes, quickly blinked away. “And with you.”
Then she turned and was gone, weaving her way out of the heady crowd.
I felt cold, suddenly, as if the only source of heat in the room had gone with her, and the hair on the back of my neck prickled with sudden alarm, for I saw Mercutio had disappeared as well . . . gone into the shadows with the tender young Capulet cousin. Mercutio nursed a wicked and sincere hatred, and there was little he would not do to avenge his lost lover.
Then I saw Romeo.
Juliet Capulet ought, by all rights, to have been on the arm of her suitor Paris, but the count had gone to greet his more powerful relative, the prince of Verona, who had arrived with much flourish in the hall. The disruption had broken apart the dancers, and all eyes were trained toward the prince and his party, not toward the blushing, inconsequential girl in whose nominal honor this feast had been devised.
And the girl, small and sweet and looking more child than woman in her gown and mask, was staring up into my cousin’s face. His unmasked face, for he’d pushed the covering up, and she had likewise displaced her own, and I saw the expressions on them both: rapt. An almost religious ecstasy, something beyond mere attraction. It verged into the profane.
Romeo had ever been a follower of Venus, but this . . . There was something new in his face, his eyes, in the bend of his shoulders toward hers, and the clasp of their hands. I saw it mirrored in her, blinding and beautiful but also dangerously fanatical.
Worse: I saw Tybalt had seen it, too. I was close enough by to hear him mutter to Capulet, “Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe—a villain come in spite to scorn us.”
Capulet was no fool; he spied my cousin immediately and said, “Young Romeo, is it?”
“’Tis he, that villain Romeo,” Tybalt spat, and pushed forward with his hand on his dagger. I tensed and felt for the familiar hilt of mine; it was worthless to start a brawl here, but I couldn’t let a Capulet murder my cousin without any attempt to foil him.
I did not need to put myself on the point of Tybalt’s knife, for his uncle drew him back sharply. “No,” he said. “Verona brags of him as a virtuous, well-governed youth, and I would not for the wealth of all the town do him harm here.” His words were honey, but his expression vinegar; he was thinking of the politics of the matter, and of the prince’s royal presence in the very room. “Be patient and take no note of him.” Tybalt made a rough, low sound of protest, and tried to pull free, but his uncle’s grip tightened to steel. “It is my will. Show a fair presence and put off these frowns. It ill becomes a feast.”
“It fits when such a villain is a guest; I’ll not endure him!” Tybalt said.
“He shall be endured!” Capulet said, and twisted the young man’s arm. “I say he shall. Am I the master here, or you?”
“You,” Tybalt gritted out from between his teeth, though his red-faced fury was plain beneath the mask. “’Tis a shame.”