“Fool!” I said, and pushed Mercutio as soon as we were far enough away to pull no more attention. “What do you mean to do, humiliate him? He is your friend!”
“And your cousin,” Mercutio said, “yet I see you’re no more fond of him just now than I. All that bleating over the girl, the girl, the girl. I’ve my own female, and they’re not of much use, Benvolio, not of much use at all.”
“Save for heirs,” I said. “And once you have them, surely you will be free to do as you please. . . .”
“Will I? Here, in this city of righteous, upstanding deceivers, heretics, monsters, and murderers?” He laughed, but there was wildness in it, and despair. “There is no freedom, Benvolio; you should give up that folly now. This city is made of stone, and the stones will press us down, and down, cutting off all light and hope until dark is the only light you will ever see; do you understand me?” He gripped me by my arms, searching my face intently. “Dark is the only light.”
I nodded, because in that moment his intensity made me both wary and sad. My friend suffered, most intensely, and I knew there was nothing I could do to take it away. “I cannot leave Romeo on his own,” I said. “He’s . . . not himself.”
“Who is?” Mercutio barked a bitter laugh, and wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm. “Are you his fretting wet nurse now, and he a mewling infant? Has it come to such a pass?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s come to that.”
He shook his head, still smiling that odd, intense smile, and shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “A pity, a great pity, that you have no backbone to stand straight to an old woman. A sick one, at that. You’ve disappointed me, Benvolio. I thought you more of a man.”
“A man keeps his vows,” I said. It was difficult to say it calmly, but I managed. “And you’re no stranger to quaking in fear before that old woman. You said it yourself: She’d humble Hercules and affright Hector.”
“True,” he said. “Well, then, keep to your useless vows. I’m to the tavern to find merrier companions. Your face could curdle vinegar today.” He took a few steps, then turned back toward me, sudden devilish pleasure lighting his face. “Did you hear? There’s rumor of displeasure between Count Paris and Capulet. Something about his affianced’s behavior. Perhaps someone succeeded in ruining the girl after all. It wasn’t me; was it you?”
“No,” I said. My throat felt tight, my brow suddenly sweated. A crowd of boisterous lads had pushed between us and the shadowed corner where Romeo was huddled in private whispers with the nurse. The Capulet nurse. I broke away from Mercutio, ignoring him as he called my name, and pressed through the bodies.
When I broke through to the cleared space next to the wall, I saw the fat haunches of the nurse, flanked by her thin servant, waddling away down the street. A tight knot of Capulet bravos lingered at that end, glaring toward me; going that direction, chasing their servants, would earn me a useless confrontation and accomplish nothing. She’d never talk to me.
And Romeo was gone.
I heard a sharp, musical whistle, and looked up. On the low roof of the overhanging building, I saw my cousin’s face looming over the edge. He gave me a mad smile and mocking wave, and disappeared from view.
I cursed the Montague colors I wore; there were too many eyes on me now to follow him to the heights without exciting notice. I could not afford to put it in common minds that I had such criminal abilities, and he knew it.
“Oh, no, coz,” I muttered. “Not so easily as that.” I looked down, then, to the crouched, motionless beggars who ever huddled in shadows and rags, begging mutely with outstretched hands. Anonymous beneath filth and matted hair—men, women, children, all rendered invisible, save when they had the temerity to pluck at the garments of the rich. Then they were beaten.
I made my way to where they dwelled in misery, and sank down into a crouch, eye level with half a dozen glittering pairs of eyes. I took out my purse and counted out silver, which I deliberately laid in outstretched, shaking palms. “A gold florin to anyone who finds my cousin Romeo Montague before the next hour is sounded. Go quickly.”
Palsied and starving they might have been, but they moved, melting away in scurries and leaps.
If I could not find my cousin by stealth, I would follow him with hired, hungry eyes.
Let him hide from that.
I sent a runner back to Montague for the loan of a brace of bravos; I would need them soon, I thought. While I awaited arrival of the bravos, my servant Balthasar reappeared. He made his way through the square and sank down upon the lip of the fountain next to me, cupping water thirstily. I bought an orange from a passing fruit seller, and he peeled and ate it like a starving man.
“Well?” I asked him then, as he seemed in no hurry to report.
Between juicy mouthfuls, he nodded. “I found her out,” he said. “She’ll meet you, but she’s wary, that one. And frightened.”
There was, I sensed, something my faithful servant was neglecting to tell me, but I allowed it; he would never put me into deliberate danger, so the detail would be a harmless one, something that might bruise me but never cut. “Where?”
“A place near the river,” he said. “Two hours hence, no sooner.”
I nodded, thinking fast; I’d promised my spies rewards, and this witch would require gold as well, to loosen her tongue. “I’ve rogues out hunting for my cousin. Stay here, and should any find him, send one of the Montague men to track the clue before you part with a florin,” I said, my gaze following a fat old nobleman with an overstuffed doublet, and a downcast child of a wife trailing behind. His purse was as overstuffed as his shirt, and he wore it as arrogantly as his codpiece—an accessory now fading from fashion, but still prominent on his generation’s loins.
I rose to follow.
“Master, where are you— Oh.” He had spotted the man, too. Balthasar knew me all too well.
“I go fishing,” I said, and set off after my fat, well-fed trout.
• • •
Taking the merchant’s purse was a challenging affair, but gratifying, and the florins that spilled out when I counted them in a darkened alcove even more so. I now had funds to fuel my search for Romeo, who—considering the reports we began to receive—was ever more determined to evade me.
Beggars turned up, oh, yes, eager for florins, but the men sent to confirm came back with discouraging news—either the fools had identified the wrong young man, or Romeo, if he had actually been spotted, had quickly slipped away. One reported him near the cathedral, another near the river. Another still had sworn my cousin had been drinking and weeping in a wineshop half the city away.
It was not until the fourth of these beggars came looking for payment that I caught Romeo’s game. It was a fine one, and under different circumstances I might have enjoyed my cousin’s rhetorical response. Not today.
As the man stammered out his story of my cousin sighted in an unlikely spot, he not only avoided my gaze, as might be expected, but he patted at the stained, flat purse knotted to his rope belt. I listened to his story with half a mind, watching his fingers. They twitched, they patted, they stroked . . . and I knew.
I drew my dagger, eliciting a surprised intake of breath from Balthasar, and struck fast and accurately. Not for blood, but for money. I sliced open his purse, and out tumbled and rolled a bright gold florin.
“Did you pay him, Balthasar?” I asked, as the shocked beggar began scrambling after the coin, desperate to retrieve it.
“Why, no, sir, I would not. Not without proof of your cousin’s whereabouts.”
“Someone did.” As the beggar grabbed the coin in his shaking fingers, slapping away idle hands of passersby seeking to scoop it up, I took hold of a handful of his greasy curls and yanked him upright on his hams. “My cousin paid you, didn’t he? He knew what I’d do. He poured florins out and had you peddle me falsehoods.”
“Please, sir, please, I’m just a poor man; on my life, I meant no harm; I was only doing as I was bid—” He cowered, clutching the coin in death-grim fingers, and though I wanted to kick him, I shoved him away and wiped my hand in disgust. I just hoped his lice had not jumped to me.
“As you were bribed, you mean,” I said. “Go, then, tell your fellows that they’ll get no more from us. Take your gold and spend it, but expect nothing else from House Montague, lout.” I aimed a kick at him this time, but he dodged it—well used to that activity—and, clutching his bounty, he escaped into the crowd.
I had the taste of dust and metal in my mouth, and I could feel my skin going tight and cold. Balthasar, next to me, said quietly, “Master? What do we do?”
“Keep looking,” I said. “If you catch word of him, find me at the Lamberti Tower.”
I shook my head and walked away. I scarce noticed the walk, though I avoided the worst of the street filth as I strode along. Balthasar must have dispatched a guard to follow—he’d scarce have allowed me to wander so—but I paid no attention to that, either. I turned the winding streets through the airless, hot afternoon. The red brick and tufa and gray stone caught flame in the light, making it seem I was walking through fire, and my only instinct was to get away. To find a perch above, and see the world as small and harmless. There was a darkness closing in; I knew it. I felt it all around me, like dagger points pressing my skin.
The Lamberti Tower was the highest point in Verona, set in the middle of the Piazza delle Erbe, and I knew it intimately; the narrow stairs were familiar to me, and it was well that I’d chosen a time when the massive bell was silent, or I’d have been forced to wait for the peals to die. It remained quiet, and I raced up the winding steps as if I might leave my troubles behind. The narrow tower had a curious smell—new mortar and ancient dust. They’d but recently built it to its present height. There was yet discussion of building it higher, though so far the prince had rejected such talk as irreligious and harkening back to the Tower of Babel; it wasn’t wise to risk God’s wrath.