As deaths by the sword came, it was a quick and almost painless ending. But he fought it, trying to rise, failing, collapsing back to the cobbles. His sword continued to stab the air, trying to reach me, until his hand lost its grip.
He looked past me then, and I glanced back to see his compatriot rising dizzy from where Balthasar had struck him down. He was in no fighting condition, but he retrieved his fallen sword and sheathed it to show his peaceful intention.
And then Roggocio, with his fading last breaths, said, “Tell Tybalt that my murderer is the Prince of Shadows.”
It seemed as if the world stopped.
Few were close enough to hear or understand his ragged words, but I did, and Balthasar, and so did Roggocio’s companion.
I looked to him, and his eyes met mine, and widened.
Then he took to his heels, running.
“Get him!” I snapped to Balthasar. I’d forgotten the witch in the press of events, but now I saw her running as well, darting between fish carts and making for her own safety.
I had to let her go.
Tybalt could not learn the truth, or I was a dead man.
• • •
Balthasar was dogged, but while he was loyal and solid, he was no runner; Roggocio’s friend was as fast and lean as a greyhound set on deer, and as nimble. He used the crowds, carts, and obstructions to slow us, and within only a short distance I’d caught my servant and passed him, yet had not gained a step on the man running ahead.
The throng in the street was slowing me too much.
“Keep after!” I shouted to Balthasar, and turned sharply toward a stack of wooden crates beside a wine seller’s shop. I no longer feared excited comments on my acrobatic skills. There was far worse to be risked. I leaped and made the top of the first crate, then vaulted up to the next. From there, it was a leap to grasp the ledge of the roof, and I scrambled up, heedless of the birds that flapped in agitation at my boldness. Once on the low, flat roof, I raced without opposition.
The next building was built close, but still separated, and I sped faster and leaped the distance, risking a glance to the side as I did to see that Balthasar had fallen farther back, and the man we pursued still had half the street on us. He seemed to know where he was bound, which was worrying; I did not, and it was hard to form a strategy without a clear objective, except to catch and kill.
The next rooftop was more treacherous, littered with bottles left by someone who did their drinking in secret, and probably by moonlight; I managed to avoid them, and when I made the next leap, to a pitched tile roof, I saw that I’d gained on my target.
If I’d been thinking of my danger, I might have hesitated at the next jump, which was wider and to a higher point, but now I was fiercely committed, and I had forgotten caution. I could see that only half the next building’s length separated me from my quarry now. He’d run into a funeral procession, and though he was pressing through, to the outraged cries of mourners, he had lost his lead on me.
I put all I had into the dash to the edge, and launched myself into the gap, aiming for the next roof.
The rise was higher than I’d thought, and the gap farther, and as I realized I’d miss the roof itself, I saw that I would instead fall inside a small stone balcony with a closed door. There was no real choice to make; I braced myself, landed hard, and threw myself forward with my shoulder as lead.
The balcony door slammed back, and I stumbled into a bedchamber. No one was inside save an old woman embroidering by an open window; she blinked at me as if I were a phantom, and I did not wait to see what she might do, but moved out and into the hallway. It ran straight the length of the house to another balcony, the mirror of the one I’d landed on.
I burst out into the sunlight, put both hands on the hot stonework, and vaulted over and down. I landed hard, rolled, and ignored the aches and bruises, because only a few feet ahead was the bravo I’d been chasing.
He glanced back and saw me. His eyes went wide, and he dodged to the right, down another street and away from the choking crowds. I raced after, but I tangled with a fat old priest and went down hard enough to leave me bruised and dazed.
I shook the impact away, scrambled up, and dashed in pursuit.
He was just throwing himself through the doors of a laundry when I spotted him at the corner, and I ran after. My breath was coming in fast pumps now, sweat soaking my Montague finery; I smelled the strong soaps and lye of the vats, and saw him as he shoved aside a burly washerwoman and ducked behind some hanging wet bedsheets.
I yanked them aside. Another door. I plunged through and had just enough time to see that he’d decided to make a stand; he’d hoped to catch me surprised, and he almost did, but I knocked his blade up with my elbow as I spun, and drew a dagger with my left hand. He was fast, faster than I, and he avoided the slash and turned to run on.
I aimed and threw the dagger, but he veered and it missed its mark, merely slicing a wound in his arm and then ending its course in the wood of a barrel. I snatched it free as I ran after him.
Our pursuit burst out into the open streets surrounding the Piazza delle Erbe, to shouts and cries and flocks of pigeons making for the skies, and as I dodged the fountain, I felt a hand grab at my shoulder.
I spun, blindly striking with the dagger, and it was a lucky thing that Mercutio was just as quick, or I’d have opened his throat. That earned me an instant response as he stepped back and put a hand on the hilt of his sword. There was unreasoning black murder in his eyes. “That was ill considered,” he said. “What game have you flushed?”
“A quick and deadly fox,” I said, and pushed into a run as I shouted back, “If you’re going with me, keep your head!”
I did not think he would do it—he was more drunken now than he had been before, when he’d left me in disgust—but he laughed, and easily caught up and paced me. “You’re like one of those fellows who enters a tavern, claps his sword upon the table, and says, ‘God send me no need of thee . . .’ and by the second cup, you’ll draw it for no reason!”
I had little breath for it, but I grinned and said, “Oh, am I such a fellow?”
“You’re as hot a Jack in your moods as any in Italy, and as soon moved to be moody,” he said, and dodged a squawking rooster that fluttered in his path. “And as soon moody to be moved!”
He went on, firing quick and razor-edged barbs at me, and he was not wrong in most of what he said. I had a bad temper, a black one when it moved over me. I had quarreled with a man once for coughing in the street, and with a tailor—but not for wearing his new Easter suit before Easter. I could not remember the quarrel rightly, in this blood-hot moment.
But he was right: I was a dangerous man when put into this evil mood.
Roggocio’s compatriot was ahead of us, but not far ahead, and he was tiring, as greyhounds do when the sprint bids fair to become a longer footrace. Mercutio whooped and passed me, vivid with the joy of taking unthinking action.
And then I saw where the bravo was taking us.
Tybalt, his cousin Petruchio, and many more of his adherents than I cared to number, all lounging like a pride of lions in the shade of a portico. Tybalt spotted the running Capulet bravo and came to his feet, sinuous and graceful, and around him his fellows roused.
They descended the steps to meet the man I’d chased, who pushed through to Tybalt’s side.
“Stop,” I said, and pulled on Mercutio’s shoulder. “The odds are against us.”
“Well against,” he said. “But I thought you were on a hunt. Will you let your quarry slip away so easily?”
“By my head, the Capulets will have us if we are not careful.”
“By my heel, I care not,” he said, and bared his teeth in a fierce grin. “Come, Benvolio, you led me a merry chase. ’Tis a shame to end it with a coward’s retreat.”
He spoke to my anger, my fury, my fear. My blood was up, and though I knew it was wrong, though I knew it was disastrous, I let him draw me onward at a walk.
Even then, it might have been avoided; we might all have passed like wary ships on the sea, all our gun ports opened and glares all around. But then Tybalt stepped into our path and said, “Gentlemen, good evening. A word with one of you.” The speech was courteous enough, but his hand was already on his rapier, and there was fury in his face. The sight of him made the skin tighten on my back—not in fear, oh, no, but in utter fury. I could not see him without thinking of Rosaline, and bruises, and threats.
And Roggocio’s companion was urgently whispering in his ear. I knew what he was telling him. I knew it from the way his expression shifted from casual malice to something more intent—no longer a lazy cat toying with mice, but a lion on a wounded, limping deer.
He knew who I was, what I was.
And now it remained only what hay he would make of it.
Mercutio, ignorant of the undercurrents, said, “But only one word, with one of us? Couple it with something; at least make it a word and a blow.” Sweetly said, with a poisonous sting in its tail. He meant to provoke, and Tybalt scarce needed it . . . but he spared a second from his pleasurable contemplation of my doom to send Mercutio a scorching, dismissive look.
“You’ll find me apt enough to it, sir, if you will give me occasion,” he said.
I felt the darkness come on the day, despite the sweltering sun, and put a warning hand on Mercutio’s shoulder. He shook it free, and his tone took on a sharp, angry edge. “Could you not take some occasion without giving?”
Tybalt pointed at me. “You, I shall save for a later feast, for the insult to my house and to my sister. I’ve weapons enough to wound you when I wish.” He altered his aim toward Mercutio. “You consort with Romeo.”
“Consort? What does that make us, minstrels? If you would make minstrels of us, you may expect nothing but discord.” Mercutio tipped the still-sheathed hilt of his rapier forward, the better to drive home his insults. “Here’s my fiddlestick, then. Here’s what will make you dance.”
We’d already attracted a crowd of onlookers—idlers and fools, but a few well-to-do and even here and there a noble, surrounded by their own attendants, all bearing witness to this folly. Not even a folly—a farce; Tybalt knew he held the winning ground, and his gaze upon me said as much. These were merely the first steps in a deadly serious dance.