“Cousin, think! He is the prince’s own close friend and relative! You will not only humiliate your uncle; you will earn us the prince’s enmity for all time. You will destroy Montague, and for what? A girl, a girl barely of an age to bleed, much less know what she—”
He struck me. It was not a love tap, either; it was a full blow, delivered fast and strong and without any warning at all, and I was rocked back a step, but only a step . . . but as I brought up my own fist, he pulled his dagger, and the needle point aimed straight for my throat.
I stopped short, balanced on the balls of my feet with my neck a bare inch from the tip of the blade. There was a very dark, antic look in my young cousin’s eyes, something that I thought was eerily akin to Mercutio’s black moods; I was far from sure that he would not spike me straight through if I dared move. It would mean his life, but I was beginning to think, considering what I had seen this night, that Romeo no longer cared a fig for his life, or mine, or anyone’s, save this Capulet girl’s. I slowly took a step back, and some sanity came into him; he looked a bit ashamed as he lowered the dagger, though he did not sheathe it. “I warn you: Do not speak of her so,” he said. “I love you well, Ben, but I love her more than any creature on this earth. If it were not blasphemous, I would say I love her more than God and man alike. No, I may say that. I must say it, and if God must damn me, then let it be done.”
I winced, because even the boldest man did not tempt God so. “You don’t know what you say. I beg you, Romeo, for your life’s sake—”
“Beg away,” he said, and finally sheathed steel as he turned his back on me. “I should kill you, you know. I should at least cut out your tongue so that you can’t betray us before we can be wed in the sight of God.”
“Wed,” I repeated. He meant to climb it, then, this ultimate pinnacle of madness. I felt numbed. He had not threatened me so much as simply expressed aloud his logic, but in it was no room for the love we had always borne each other as brothers. I was simply a barrier to his desires now, one to be minimized, or destroyed if necessary. “You really mean to wed her.”
“Juliet,” he said, and turned back toward me. He held my gaze with that wild martyr’s look and beatific smile. No saint had ever seemed so exalted, nor so bent on self-destruction for the sake of his ecstasy. There was nothing sane in it, and nothing that could be reasoned to. “Her name is Juliet.”
“Romeo . . .” I said it gently, the way a man will address a strangely feral dog, and held up my hand in a gesture of peace. “Coz, I know you love her; it is plain to the blindest eyes. But I beg you think what you are doing to yourself—”
“I care not.”
It was a bitter pill, but I swallowed it, and said, “Then to her. Do you imagine for a moment her family will stand for such an insult? They’ll murder you, and the girl—at best, Juliet will be disgraced, spoiled, unmarriageable. And if you believe that Count Paris will not avenge the wrong done him—”
“I don’t care,” he said. “Christ forgive me, Benvolio, but there is nothing in the world for me but her, and nothing for her but me, and if I cannot have her, better I am dead, better we are both dead, better the world is dead and our dreams with it. Do you understand?” He wanted me to, desperately, but all I saw was a man in a sweated fever who was making no sense. “I can let nothing stand between us. Nothing, and no one.” He pulled in a breath. “I don’t wish to do it, but if you think to betray me, I will betray you first. The prince would do anything for a man willing to identify the Prince of Shadows.”
I did not believe it. He was my cousin, my brother, a bond as unbreakable as my heart to my chest . . . but I read the intention in his face, the determination and anguish in his eyes. He could not mean it, and yet he did.
I stared at Romeo in silence for a long, long moment, and then said, “You’re mad.”
He gave me a twitch of a smile, but it did not alter the truth of what was in his face. “If this is madness, then I would rather die mad than live sane.”
I backed away from him then, in defeat, and went back to my own apartments. I felt sickened and cold, and there was a bitter metal taste in my mouth. When Balthasar began helping me remove my clothes I realized I had sweated them through. He clucked his tongue as he took them. “It’s a wonder you’ve not caught your death of ague,” he said. “Terrible vapors out in the night.” He took a closer look at my face and frowned. “Master?”
I shook my head, and he found a heavy robe to drape around me. I still felt chilled inside it. “I need to take a message out,” I said. “I cannot go myself. Will you see it delivered?”
“Have I ever failed you?”
“Never,” I said, and sat down at the writing table to draw out paper and ink. I wrote quickly, sanded it, folded it, and sealed it with wax—but without the Montague marks—before handing it to him.
He glanced down at it, then up at me, eyebrows raised. I had written no names—neither inside nor out.
“Rosaline Capulet,” I said, very quietly. His eyebrows climbed higher, but he said nothing, only nodded. “Be most extremely careful.”
“Leave it to me,” he said. “Will you expect an answer?”
“I hope,” I said, and sat back, frowning. “I hope that I do.”
FROM THE HAND OF BENVOLIO MONTAGUE, TAKEN BY BALTHASAR, HIS MANSERVANT, TO FRIAR LAWRENCE BEFORE MATINS, AND THENCE DELIVERED BY THE FRIAR TO ROSALINE CAPULET
From your brother in Christ,
I am deeply concerned for the soul of your fair cousin, whose devotion to her most dear Lord is wavering; I believe she may be tempted by one who means to lead her astray. I pray you, watch for her safety and lead her to the paths of righteousness. I will likewise guide my wandering brother back to the fold.
Go with God’s love, and my own.
FROM THE HAND OF ROSALINE CAPULET, DIRECTED TO BENVOLIO MONTAGUE, CONFISCATED FROM HER SERVANT BY TYBALT CAPULET. NOT DELIVERED.
From your sister in Christ,
Alas, your warning has come too late, for I find that my innocent cousin’s true faith has been corrupted, and in its place a dangerous heresy has taken vital root. No words of mine will be sufficient to sway her from this false doctrine, though she knows she risks her immortal soul.
I urge you, do all you can to prevent this false prophet from further corrupting her sweet and trusting soul. I dare not entrust this to the friar’s delivery; he intrigues too closely with my cousin for my comfort, and may not bring this to you. I beg you, act swiftly to prevent what may be tragedy. I can do nothing but pray you succeed.
Walk carefully, and with God, beloved brother in Christ.
If only I had thought to write a letter also to Friar Lawrence, explaining in bare words the risk, all might have proceeded quite differently . . . but that is my sin of overbearing caution, and no one else’s. Romeo barred me from his rooms all the next day, but I thought him penned up inside; his manservant swore it was the case. It wasn’t until my grandmother summoned me to her chambers that I knew something had gone wrong. Badly wrong.
Into the smoldering, sweltering furnace I went, where my grandmother sat mounded in blankets and warmed by the blazing hearth. I was surprised to find that my mother was with her as well—not only my mother; beside her, looking fevered and mutinously angry, sat my sister, Veronica. She was all but married, and I had hoped to be spared any further contact with her until then.
At least she was sweating through her clothes as well, though she strove to look composed and elegant—a difficult thing when one’s hair clings in damp threads to one’s face, and sweat runs like a widow’s tears.
My mother did not sweat, though there was a faint glistening on her brow. She sat quietly, hands folded in her lap, and gazed at me with steady warning.
I bowed to her, to my grandmother, and threw Veronica a barely perceptible nod.
“Stand up,” my grandmother said. She looked pale and chill and half-dead, but her eyes gleamed with virile power. “Where is your cousin?”
“In his rooms,” I said, and was assaulted quickly by the conviction that I was wrong. I left it at that, because showing weakness would be like running from a lion. Sweat already beaded on my brow, and I could feel the damp patches soaking beneath my arms. Jesu, it was like the bowels of the devil in here.
She let me stew in silence for a full minute, and then snapped her fingers. A serving woman stepped forward out of the corner, eyes downcast, visibly terrified. She kept her shaking hands knotted in her apron.
“Tell him,” my grandmother said. The woman darted a quick look at my mother, who nodded encouragement.
She licked her lips, and her voice came softly, and faltering. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I empty chamber pots, and . . . and when I came to fetch it, young master Romeo was not there.”
“His manservant swears he’s within. You just didn’t see him.”
“No, sir, I . . .” She licked her lips again, and took in a deep breath, for courage. “Nobody marks my comings and goings. His chamber pot was under the bed, like always. I had to go all the way through. He wasn’t there.”
“Was his chamber pot used?” my grandmother asked. “Come on, girl; speak up. My ears are old!”
“Some part used,” the girl stammered. Her rough-scrubbed hands were white where they were pressed in on themselves. “As if he was there in the morning but no longer.”
My grandmother shoved her back in the shadows with a flick of her hand, and the girl was grateful for it. Then all the attention came back to me.
“He is not within these walls,” Grandmother said. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” I said. Better to admit it. A lie would only make it look worse.
“Your cousin has been out many times recently without you. Were you aware of that?”
“Some of it,” I said. My own voice had tightened up, and I tried to ease my tone, and the tension that had taken hold of my shoulders. The heat, the intense heat was making me feel light-headed, and sweat dripped uncomfortably down my face. “I will find him.”