We could not win, and I knew it. It was madness, but Mercutio was in the grip of a long-burning fever, and he gazed at Tybalt as if he held the cure for his distemper.
“We’re in the most public of eyes,” I said to them both. “Let us take this to some private place, or else keep a cool head and go. Mercutio—”
He shook me off, and stepped forward to Tybalt. A more blatant challenge I could not imagine, and Tybalt did not back away—nor did he answer it, not yet.
“Men’s eyes were made to look,” Mercutio said, and swept his own gaze up Tybalt, and down, in a lazy and insulting appraisal. “Let them gaze. I will not budge for any man’s pleasure.”
Tybalt laughed, a flash of white teeth like the glint of a blade. “Marriage has changed you, then. I wonder how much. Can a woman make a man of you?”
Mercutio let out a sound that was as much growl as curse, and tried to draw. I held him back, even though my own blood beat hard at my temples, urging me to draw, strike, end him and the smirking bravo next to him. End the threat to my close-held secret.
I saw a distinctive flash of Montague colors, and for a bare second I allowed myself a surge of relief. I thought that Balthasar had arrived to back us—but no. Not Balthasar, and no bravos pushing toward us, nor allies rushing to our backs.
Romeo alone had joined us.
My wandering cousin had chosen the wrong moment to show himself, but having done so, he did not back away; after a hesitation, he came forward, hands outstretched and empty, a calm and almost angelic light on his face.
Well, I’d meant to find him. And I had. But a worse place of discovery I could not imagine.
“Well,” Tybalt said, and stepped off from Mercutio. “Peace be with you, sir; here comes my man.”
“I’ll be hanged, sir, if he wears your livery. If you run, he’ll chase you; perhaps that makes him your man. . . .” Mercutio was still trying to bait the Capulet heir, but Tybalt had eyes only for Romeo. If there had been fury in him before, now it was nothing but rage, absolute and tipping toward insanity.
“Romeo,” Tybalt said, and closed the distance between them quickly. My cousin should have reached for his sword, but he did not. His hands remained empty and open. “The love I feel for you demands no better term than this: You are a villain.”
Romeo spread his hands even wider, and his smile did not falter. “The reason I have to love you excuses such a greeting. I am no villain, and therefore, I’ll say farewell. You know me not.”
He tried to pass and come to us, but Tybalt was having none of peace now; he lunged and shoved my cousin back in an explosion of violence as sudden as it was inevitable. “This does not excuse the injuries you’ve done me and my house. Turn and draw!”
“I never injured you. I love you better than you can know, until you know the reasons.” Romeo’s face was . . . exalted, like that of a saint going to the cross. I felt sick at the sight of it, the unreasoning and unwavering purpose of it. “Good Capulet—a name I love as dearly as my own—be satisfied with that.”
He tried to embrace Tybalt Capulet, who backed away as if my addled cousin bore some plague. It was more shocking, in its way, than Tybalt’s assault had been, and while I blurted out Romeo’s name in warning, Mercutio drew his sword, and that sound, the sound of blade clearing scabbard, was the only thing in the world that rang in my ears—that, and the indrawn breath of the crowd around us.
Tybalt turned toward Mercutio, toward the real danger.
“That was dishonorable, Romeo,” Mercutio said. “A vile submission, to make peace. Come, Tybalt, rat catcher, will you draw?”
The crowd was pressed closer now, avid, and I could smell the sweat and fear and excitement like lightning in the hot, still air. I did not draw, not yet. The chance that we could still make away from here, and kill Tybalt at a less public time, stayed my hand.
So perhaps the rest was, in the end, my fault for the hesitation.
“Why, Mercutio, what would you have with me?” Tybalt asked, and made a rude gesture a man would give to entice a whore, so that there was no mistaking his meaning. The onlookers laughed, and Mercutio’s face turned a dead, awful white, while his dark eyes blazed with the flames of hell.
“Good King of Cats, I’ll have nothing but one of your nine lives, and if I do not like your behavior, I’ll beat out the rest of the eight. Will you draw, sir? Make haste, lest mine is at your ears before it’s out.”
Tybalt’s mimicry ended, and in a cold voice he said, “I am for you, then.” And he drew his sword.
It started slowly, with a tap of blades, humble as spoons clanking, but the two of them circled, measuring, and I saw that Tybalt moved like the cat we’d always named him . . . lithe and quick and deadly. Mercutio was a fine swordsman, precise and strong, but he’d had drink, and there was emotion in him now, fueling a too-hot fire, while Tybalt seemed cold as a man three days dead. Tybalt glided right; Mercutio stumbled to counter. It was clear who would win, if it came to a real fight.
Romeo saw it, too, and he stepped forward again. “Good Mercutio, put up your sword.” But neither of them heeded, nor even could heed, so focused were they on each other. I felt a terrible surge of hopeless anger—at Romeo, for stumbling upon this; at Mercutio, for setting himself on this black and futile course; at myself, for failing to prevent it.
Tybalt flung himself forward in a deadly fast attack, a simple and elegant thrust headed straight for Mercutio’s breast. Whether slowed or not by the wine, Mercutio still beat it aside, and riposted toward Tybalt’s bent thigh, a cut that would have opened a vein and left him bled as white in the gutter as Roggocio, had it landed.
But it did not. Tybalt, Prince of Cats, leaped free of it, growled, circled, and came back for him while Mercutio was off-footed, and scored a shallow cut along my friend’s right arm. Not much, just a thin red line to dampen the white linen sleeve, but it was enough to show that death was coming, and coming fast.
Romeo shoved me aside, and pulled his own rapier free. “Draw, Benvolio! We can beat down their weapons; we must stop them. . . . Tybalt, Mercutio—the prince has expressly forbidden this in the streets— Hold, Tybalt! Mercutio!”
I drew then, but it was too late, too late, too late. Mercutio attacked, and, drunken or not, blinded by his demons or not, he would have killed Tybalt with that blow had it landed, but it failed . . . only because Tybalt’s heel slipped on some wet mess in the street, and he was not where he ought to have been when the steel slid past.
Romeo, seeing that it was about to come to real blood, lunged in between them and spread his arms to face Tybalt. What he meant to do, I do not know; maybe he meant to take Mercutio’s place in the duel, or perhaps only to stop the fight. But it did not matter. Tybalt had already begun his answering lunge, and I felt frozen in place as I saw the steel glide forward, point and edge, toward Romeo’s breast. But Romeo twisted, and the lunge slid on, grazing his ribs as it went. . . .
To bury half the rapier’s length in Mercutio’s chest.
Mercutio’s lips parted, and he gave a little cry of surprise as his rapier fell from his hand to rattle in the street. Tybalt seemed equally shocked as he recovered, and yanked his blade free of my friend’s ribs. It slid out with a terrible sound, steel grating bone, and the blood that gouted out was the exact shade of Capulet livery, the same that Tybalt wore on his doublet and his cap, the same slashed into Petruchio’s sleeves and particolored hose as he rushed forward to pull Tybalt away. I did not hear what the Capulets said; my ears seemed tuned only to the sound of Mercutio’s tortured, hitching breaths, and the pulse of his blood flowing to the stones. I was there with him without feeling myself move or ordering my body to make the effort; he was falling, and I was there to catch him.
And with me, Romeo, pallid Romeo, his face blank with shock that his peacemaking had gone so terribly wrong.
Mercutio’s blood was foaming pink on his lips, but he was still talking. If a grimace counted as a smile, he smiled. “Benvolio, I’m hurt,” he said. He sounded surprised. “May a plague curse both your families . . . both . . . your . . . families. . . .” With the repetition, it took on the edge of horror. His eyes rolled wildly, and his weight went heavy in my arms. “I’m finished. . . . Is he gone? Escaped?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. My breath was coming too fast, the lights were all too bright around us, and my heart pounded in my temples like a drum. I tasted sweat, or tears, or both. “You will be fine.”
He flashed bloodied teeth in something too fierce, too painful to be a smile. “Aye, aye, a scratch, but ’tis enough. Where is my page?”
He had no one, as ever he’d had no one . . . none but two of us, kneeling in his blood, holding him up. Romeo grabbed a gawking boy and twisted his ear until he yelped. “Go, fetch a surgeon!” Then he tried to smile for Mercutio. “Courage, man. The hurt cannot be so much.”
“Not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ’tis enough; ’twill serve,” Mercutio said. He gave a bubbling, wet laugh that sounded too much like a death rattle. His breath smelled of blood. “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am not long for this world, my friends—” Pain struck him deep, and his body arched against us, fists clenching and trembling as if he fought off death like an enemy. His face screwed up under the agony, and suddenly his eyes opened wide, and he grabbed for my collar and pulled me close—close enough to feel his hot, fevered breath on my face. “A plague on both your houses; mark me, Benvolio; I am sorry. . . .” But whatever he meant, it skittered away from him under a new wave of pain, and when he collapsed again, loose in our arms, he had wandered into black humor. “A dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death . . . a braggart, a rogue, a villain that fights by the numbers . . . Why the devil did you come between us?” His voice went suddenly and unexpectedly childish and petulant, as he caught Romeo’s stricken gaze. “I was hurt under your arm!”