Veronica screamed in frustration and fear as she was buffeted by brawlers on either side; the guards around us were hard-pressed to defend us. I drew my sword and lunged over a guard’s shoulder, burying the point cleanly in a Capulet soldier’s chest. They had roused all their allies against us, and hired more bravos; they had opened the treasury in order to hurt us, and hurt us they had. So far, none of their blades had reached beyond our guards, but the cobbles were already wet with blood, and bodies fell to my left under a strong assault. I pivoted in that direction, drew my dagger, and slashed with it to parry the attack of a hired man. He grinned with the excitement of hot blood, and of all that there was to notice, I was oddly struck by how good his teeth were . . . and then I beat tempo on his rapier, one, two, three, and then a pivot and riposte in quarto, and my sword slid between his ribs and out his heart, and he was down, grimacing now.
But the next attacker caught me in the side—a glancing blow that gouged off flesh and hit rib, but a hit nonetheless, and the tenor of the brawl had changed around me as Montagues rallied and fought for their very lives. Women were screaming, and I saw blood on Veronica’s dress; I had the fleeting thought that she would be very cross, but then two Capulets came at me, and I sorely missed the quick blade of Mercutio, and Romeo and Balthasar on my right hand. Alone, I was vulnerable, and I felt it never so much as in that moment, with blood running hot from my side, and every lunge, thrust, and parry seeming to take more strength than the last.
There was renewed shouting, alarms being beaten, and just as I was forced back and knew I was overmatched, the watch’s men crashed into the lines of Capulet bravos and sent them running. The Capulets themselves were not so fainthearted, and a few stayed to fight, but only one tried for me. I beat him back until the watch could take hold.
In the aftermath, I leaned against a cool stone wall and caught my breath in gasps. My body shook with effort, and now that I had the leisure, I felt the wound’s sharp ache. But the blood, though free-flowing, was nothing fatal, and I turned to look at my family.
My mother was safe, still ringed by guards; with her huddled her maids and my aunt’s party. But my mother was fighting to be free of the restraints, and for a moment I did not understand, until I saw Veronica standing alone, facing a lissome Capulet boy no older than she. He was mayhap a minor cousin, a page to his illustrious uncle, or perhaps he had even served Tybalt at table.
I did not know his name. All I knew of him was that he had my sister’s right hand in his—a hand that held a small jeweled dagger—and that, as she collapsed against him, he cradled her as if he were surprised by her sudden drop.
I do not remember leaving the shadow of the wall, nor pulling the young boy away from her; I remember only my mother kneeling beside her, and Veronica’s bewildered eyes peering up into mine as her hands restlessly traveled over and over the Capulet dagger that lay buried in her breast.
I turned on the boy, hauled him upright, and shoved him hard against the wall with my dagger aimed for his eye. “Why?” I shouted. He looked as smooth skinned as my sister; surely he was even younger than she, hardly allowed out of his schoolroom. His Capulet colors fit him badly, as if he had not had time to be measured for them. We pull children from their nurses to fight our battles, I thought, and it was eerily clear and cold in my mind. The boy was afraid, and so he should have been.
“I did not mean . . .” He licked pale lips. There were tears in his eyes. “Sir, please, I did not mean to hurt her, but she stabbed at me. . . .”
I did not move. Kill him, my grandmother’s voice shouted in the back of my mind. Why do you hesitate? Your sister’s blood is on his hands, struck down before the church on her wedding day! No one will judge you wrong!
I lowered the dagger, though I kept hold of his throat. “No more,” I said. “Tybalt is dead. Romeo is gone. My young sister lies dying. It is enough. Go and tell your war-making uncle that before I write it in your own blood.”
His eyes widened. “You . . . you mean to let me go?”
“Swear to lay down arms against my family, and go free.”
Suddenly his young, pale face twisted into a wolf’s smile. “Coward,” he spat. “Unnatural brother, who loves his sister so little. I spit on your family, and I spit on your coward’s oaths!” He was still afraid, but he knew there were Capulets watching, Capulets who would carry tales of him back. Like me, he was trapped by Verona itself, in the web of our ancient hates.
But I let him loose, and pushed him into the arms of the captain of the watch. He frowned beneath his shining helmet, and said, “You give him to me?”
“For hanging,” I said. “For murder of my sister. I stand witness, and so is my mother and all these here. Let Capulets be seen for the villains they are.”
“Coward!” the boy cried. His voice cracked, though, and his eyes were wild now. “You will not even avenge her! Coward!”
I raised my blade to eye level. “This crimson stain on me is Capulet blood,” I said. “Blood of honest and brave men, though they be enemies. I would not sully it with yours, boy.”
He shrieked as they led him off. There was no doubt of his guilt, and though the Capulets roared in protest, and would hasten to the prince for appeal, the boy would swing, and justice would be done.
I did not care.
Veronica still lived, by some evil miracle; my mother’s trembling hands touched the hilt of the dagger in her breast, then drew back, then touched again. Around us, voices cried for surgeons, but no surgeon could physick her back to life. She was dead, yet still suffering.
“Benvolio,” she said, and her voice was weak and small and lost. “Benvolio, my dress, my dress is stained—”
I took her hand in mine and knelt beside her. “Hush now; it will be cleaned. ’Tis not so bad as that.” I put gentle fingers on her cheek. She wept, though I am not sure she knew of it. It made her look so much like a frightened child. “Rest awhile now. The surgeon is coming.”
“That boy,” she said, and squeezed my hand tightly for a moment. “Wretched Capulet boy, did you see him? I only meant to frighten him away; I never thought he’d strike me. He was pretty. So pretty. I thought— Do you hate me so much, Benvolio?”
“No,” I said softly. My hate was dying with her. “You are my sister, Veronica.”
“I should not have betrayed your friend,” she whispered, and more tears rolled from the far corners of her eyes, wetting the hair above her ears and the fabric of her headdress, with all its precious pearls. “I did it for no reason, except to show I could, that I had power over another. . . . It was cruel of me. . . .”
“Hush. Mercutio is gone. He aches no longer.”
“Then I will meet him soon, and he will accuse me in the eyes of God,” she said, and gripped my hand so fiercely I thought bones would break. “It feels like a curse on us; don’t you think? For what I did. I should have been better, Ben, I should have— Please say you love me, for pity’s sake, say—”
“I love you,” I said, but it was too late; her last breath fled, and her face relaxed its tension. Her eyes looked toward heaven, but not with anticipation—rather with dread. Young as she’d been, my sister well knew her sins, and how grievous they were.
Friar Lawrence came with the surgeons, and my sister received last rites dead on the bloody cobbles, twenty steps from the door of the church where her withered old bridegroom waited in vain for his vows and his bridal rights. I could hear his querulous voice raised in protest, demanding satisfaction of my uncle. And my uncle, ever practical, demanding return of the dowry.
I hated Capulets and Montagues alike in that weary moment, and all I could think of was the fevered peace I’d felt in Rosaline’s arms, and on her lips.
But if that had been foolish yesterday, today it was impossible.
• • •
Capulet had argued that our bravos had started the brawl, and Montague argued otherwise, and my uncle presented his dead niece and grieving sister to the distempered prince of Verona, who levied a harsh fine on both and hanged the Capulet boy who’d delivered the death blow. It was done swiftly before dark in the piazza, so that justice could be seen to be done. I took no pleasure in the death of another child, but my grandmother had bestirred herself for the occasion, and she smiled an awful smile as she watched, and clapped her palsied hands in delight as he danced on the rope. I found myself standing next to my uncle as the old crone was loaded into her litter.
“Malicious old woman,” my uncle said. He sounded as disgusted and weary as I felt, and he leaned heavily on the silver-headed cane he carried against the debility of his gout. “This business is done. Come. We have much to discuss.”
“Women grieve,” he said, and fixed me with a sharp, dark gaze. “It is women’s work. Men must be about men’s business, and now that Romeo has failed us, you must be my strong right hand. You did well, giving up the boy to the prince’s justice; a less canny man would have simply killed him, but you showed sense, and cast the blame squarely on Capulet. You’re no hotheaded fool, like my son.” He clapped a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Come, boy. There are plans to be made to take advantage of Capulet disarray. They have bloodied their noses finely today, and their coffers grow empty; Juliet’s marriage to Paris in two days will seal their fortunes more securely, but first they must lay on the feast tomorrow for the betrothal. We will need to speak to the greengrocers, the butchers, the spice merchants—any who owe us favors must be made to understand that Capulet should be offered the worst of their wares, at the best of prices.” He smiled and squeezed my shoulder. “Foolish games, foolish games, but it is the life we lead. Walk with me.”
I would have done, but just then, a fat old woman came huffing through the crowd—a nurse, and one I recognized. Behind her trailed a tall, mournful beanpole servant. I watched the woman’s progress, and realized with a shock, as her gaze fixed upon me, that she meant to upbraid me in the presence of my uncle.