“You are my brother! How is it that you don’t protect me with as much passion as your companions? They say women may fall when there’s no strength in men, you know! Perhaps my lack of moral quality is your fault.”
I walked away. Sister though she was, I didn’t much care for Veronica; girls were raised far differently, and separately, and what I knew of her I didn’t savor. The sooner she was married off, the better for us all.
I heard a rustle of fabric, and looked back to find Veronica hurrying to follow me. Her stiff skirts brushed the walls in a constant hiss. “Wait!”
“For what? I’ve nothing else to say to you.”
She raised her voice to a carrying, malicious volume. “That’s not what you whispered in my ear last night, brother. Why, the things you said . . .”
I swung around on her, and she quickly danced back out of reach, eyes bright and malicious. “Well,” she purred. “That begged your attention, didn’t it?”
“I’m warning you, Ronnie, sharpen your claws on another.” Despite the urge to strike her, I didn’t. Engaging with Veronica was a hazardous business when there were no witnesses to prove my case, especially should she make some outrageous accusation. I’d seen her make malicious sport of others, to their ruin; she’d never yet done it to family, but it took little to taint a man’s reputation, or a woman’s, and I would not take the risk.
She was terrifying, and she was not even fifteen.
I walked away, well aware she was still scurrying after me.
I slowed as I took a sharp right turn, and the hall vaulted upward into an open atrium, with the sun pouring down to spark sparse, precious flowers into bursts of color against the marble flagging. There was not so much risk here, as Romeo’s own father, the head of Montague and most often simply known by the family’s name, limped restlessly at the other end of the garden; from the look of him, his gout was bothering him yet again. I took a seat on a marble bench commemorating the death of some long-dead uncle or other.
Veronica drew to a stop, staring at me as her corseted breasts heaved for air. “You lack the grace of a gentleman,” she said. “Sprawling like a boy when a lady should be seated.”
“I would offer my place if a lady presented herself,” I said, but grudgingly moved over to make room for her huge skirts. She was wearing a dress too hot-tempered for the day, but my sister wished always to be noticed. Vanity before comfort. “You’ll be punished for avoiding La Signora’s summons. She enjoys her little lectures on morality, and she doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Veronica made use of her feather fan again, as if her hasty pursuit had made her faint with effort. “I’ll give a female excuse,” she said. “She dotes on them. It makes a girl seem pleasingly fragile.”
I cut her a glance. “You’re as fragile as a barbarian’s broadsword.”
She gave me a knife-sharp smile from a flutter of peacock tails. “I’ve yet to see a barbarian close enough to examine his broadsword.”
I was hard-pressed not to smile. Veronica could be occasionally—very occasionally—amusing.
“Did Grandmother summon you about Romeo?”
I frowned at her this time. “And if you avoided her apartments, how could you possibly know that?”
“Oh, her ladies gossip,” Veronica said. “Romeo claims to be perishing for love of the fair Rosaline, you know.” She added to that an overdone pantomime of swooning, so realistic that I had to resist the urge to grab her to keep her from slipping from the bench. Since I did resist, Veronica was forced to pull herself back upright with an ungraceful flailing of arms and legs.
My annoying sister might be worth something, after all. “You know Rosaline, do you not?”
Veronica looked cross, and the fan beat faster. “She’s a cow, that one. Fancies herself above us. She dresses as badly as a servant and pretends it to be some sort of virtue. She spends her hours reading, of all things. Even nuns don’t read. It isn’t decent!”
“Is she beautiful?” I knew the answer, but it was a question a man might ask who stood in ignorance. And I knew it would bait more information from my vain sister.
“I suppose she’s regular enough of feature, but she doesn’t bother to flatter it at all. One can’t be beautiful if one works so hard at being plain. Reading gives her wrinkles, you know, around the eyes.” Veronica loved to rain scorn upon a girl’s hair, or eyes, or skin, or stature, or figure . . . but seemed to have little to say about Rosaline at all. In her own terms, it was something akin to praise.
“But you’d say she’s pretty enough to keep Romeo spinning.”
Veronica snapped the fan together and batted me on the shoulder with it. “It’s Romeo. He’d swoon over a dancing bear if it wore a skirt. If you wish to protect him, tell his father to see him safely married off before some scandal of his bursts like a boil.”
“You sound much like Grandmother,” I said, which earned me another, more forceful blow of the closed fan.
“That is very cruel, Benvolio.”
“Kind!” I responded.
“Kind as the very devil.” She rose and stalked away, skirts brushing the servants out of her way as she went like dust before a broom.
A sister like Veronica, and a cousin like Romeo.
What had I done to deserve so much trouble?
• • •
Romeo failed to show his face at dinner, and his absence was noted, with chill precision, by his mother, Lady Montague. She asked me, rather too loudly, whether I had news of him. I responded truthfully that I did not.
My dinner was not made any more savory by the looks given me by my own mother, who seemed to feel that I should leave the table and go in immediate search of my cousin.
I kept my seat. No one specifically ordered me to the search, and I was well aware it was a fool’s errand. Romeo would appear if and when he wished. I’d been charged with his moral reformation only in late afternoon, after all. I could hardly be blamed if he went straying the same evening.
The nuts had been placed on the table, and my uncle Montague was well into his fourth cup of wine and loudly declaiming on politics when Romeo at last stumbled into the hall. I say stumbled as an accurate description; he tripped on a rug, skidded, and grabbed onto a servant to stay upright. The servant noisily dropped a tray containing the sticky remains of roast pork, and Romeo immediately pushed away, heading with speed but not precision toward the table. As always, he left damage in his wake.
“You’re not Veronica,” he said to me as he poured himself into his usual chair. “Ronnie usually sits there, and she’s far prettier company.”
“She’s out of favor with Grandmother,” I said.
“Ignoring her summons.”
He laughed with wine-fueled good humor. “Good for Ronnie. If we didn’t bow and scrape so much to the old witch, life would be infinitely sweeter.” Romeo balanced his chair up on two wavering legs, and spotted Veronica sitting at the far end of the table with our youngest and most disfavored country cousins. She looked mutinous and flushed, and Romeo gave her a drunken little wave, which she ignored with a lift of her chin.
I kicked the side of his chair, which made it wobble even more unsteadily; Romeo thumped it back down to four legs with more alarm than grace. “Attend me, fool. It’s not just Ronnie who’s in disfavor. Grandmother’s not well pleased with you, either.”
“She’s never well pleased with any of us, save perhaps for you, O perfect one,” he said, and waved a servant over. The servant in question had a strained, long-suffering look as he bent to listen. “Where lurks dinner?”
“It has been served, master,” the servant said. I didn’t know this one by name; he was new, I supposed, though he seemed flawlessly well trained. “Shall I bring you soup?”
“Soup and bread. And wine—”
“Water,” I interrupted. “Bring him water, for God’s sake and his own.”
“A traitor at my side,” my cousin said. The servant left, looking relieved.
“Where were you?” I asked Romeo.
He let his head drop against the high back of the chair. We looked similar, but I was taller, broader, and not as handsome. My nose had once been just as fine and straight, but a street brawl with the Capulets had done for that decisively. At least one maid had claimed it granted me character, as did the faint scar that cut through my eyebrow, so there was some benefit to my adventures. And, of course, my eyes. My eyes always betrayed my half-foreign ancestry.
“Hmmm. Where was I?” Romeo echoed dreamily as his eyelids drooped. “Ah, coz, I was in contemplation of peerless beauty, but it is a beauty that saddens. She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair, since she refuses to hear my suit.”
He was very drunk, and coming dangerously near declaiming his wretched poetry. “Who inspires you to such heights of nonsense?”
“I shall not cheapen her name in such company, but in sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.”
“We’ve all loved women, and almost always sadly.” Well, I reflected, almost all of us had done so. But that was another subject that needed no expression here. “We’ve survived the harrowing.”
Romeo, even drunk, was sensible enough to know that uttering a Capulet’s name at a Montague dinner table wasn’t sane. He left it to me to read between his lines. “Not I,” he said. “She cannot return my love; she’s vowed elsewhere. I live dead, Benvolio. I am shattered and ruined with love.”
The servant returned with a bowl of hot soup, which he deposited in front of Romeo, along with a plate of fresh bread. The soup steamed gently in the cool air, and I smelled pork and onion in the mix, along with sage. Romeo picked up the bread and sopped a piece in the broth.
“I see death hasn’t dimmed your appetite,” I observed. “Do you think to change the girl’s mind?”