“I must, or sicken and wither.” He said it with unlikely confidence, and took a bite of the bread. “Already my words are in her hands tonight. They’ll add to the chorus proclaiming my faithfulness. She will favor me soon.”
“Chorus . . . How many of these missives have you sent to her?”
“Six. No, seven.”
I stared at him as he spooned up the soup. I was hard-pressed to bring myself to ask the question, but I knew I must. “And did you . . . sign them?”
“Of course,” said the idiot, and missed his mouth with the spoon, spilling hot liquid all over his chin. “Ouch.” He wiped at it with the back of his hand, frowned at the bowl, and raised it to his mouth to take a blistering gulp. “I could not let her ascribe them to some other suitor. I’m not a fool, Ben; I know it was unwise, but love is often unwise. Your own father took a wife from England. What wisdom is that?”
I narrowly resisted the urge to cut his throat with a conveniently placed carving knife left on the tray in front of me. I took a deep breath and tried to blink away the reddish tinge across my vision. “Leave my mother out of it,” I said. Insults from Grandmother were one thing, but Romeo using my parentage to justify his own folly . . . “If the girl’s relatives don’t slaughter you in the streets, I’m certain that La Signora will order you manacled to a damp wall somewhere very deep, and have your madness exorcised with whips and hot irons. I’ll wager you won’t look fondly on your ladylove then.”
He was smart enough to realize that I was serious, and his drunken grin vanished, replaced by something that was much more acceptable: worry. “She’s just a girl,” he said. “No one takes it seriously.”
“Grandmother does, and so do many others. No doubt your fairest love has whispered it about the square as well.”
He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me closer, and his voice dropped to an intense whisper. “Ben, Rosaline wouldn’t betray me! Someone else, perhaps, but not Rosaline!”
I remembered her gilded in candlelight, watching me very levelly as I stole from her brother. She could have betrayed me. Should have, perhaps.
And she hadn’t.
“It doesn’t matter whose tongue wags,” I said. “She has servants paid to be sure she does nothing to dirty her family’s name . . . such as accepting poems from you. If her uncle hasn’t yet been told, it’s only a matter of time. It’s nothing to do with her. It’s how the world works.” I felt a little sorry for him. I couldn’t remember being that young, that ignorant of the consequences, but then, I was the son of a Montague who’d died on the end of a Capulet’s sword before I’d known him. I’d been raised knowing how seriously we played our war games of honor. “I pray you haven’t met her in secret.”
“She refused to come,” he said. “The verses were my voice in her ear. It was safer so.”
Safer. It seemed impossible for a man to be so innocent at the age of sixteen, but Romeo had indulgent parents, and a dreamer’s hazy view of responsibility.
“Your voice must go silent, then,” I said. “I’ll retrieve your love letters by any means necessary. Grandmother has given me orders.”
“But why would she send you to—” Drunk, it took a second more than necessary for the clue to dawn on him, and Romeo did a foolish imitation of shushing himself before he said, still too loudly, “I suppose the Prince of Shadows must go after them, being so well practiced in the art.”
“Oh, for the love of heaven, shut up!”
Not so far away, Montague and his wife were standing from table, as was my lady mother; we all rose to bow them off. As soon as they had achieved their exit, Romeo snapped back upright from his bow, turned to me, and took me fast by the shoulders. “Have I put Rosaline in danger?” He seemed earnestly concerned by it, an attitude that surely would not earn him praise from any other Montague . . . except, perhaps, from me. “Tell me true, coz; if they find my verses in her possession—”
“Sit,” I said, and shoved him. He collapsed into his chair with the boneless grace of someone well the worse for drink. “Eat your soup and clear your head. I’ll send for Mercutio. If risks must be taken, it’s better they’re shared.”
He spooned up soup, and gave me a loose, charming smile. “I knew you wouldn’t fail me, coz.”
• • •
Mercutio was a strong ally of Montague, but much more than that: He was my best friend, and Romeo’s as well. Mercutio had once refused to race off with my cousin, calling it a wild-goose chase, and Romeo had—rightly—declared that Mercutio was never there for us without also being there for the goose. In short, he was a brawler, a jester, and one other thing . . . the keeper of a great many secrets.
He kept mine, as the Prince of Shadows, and had for years, but his own secret was far more dire. He was in love, but his love, if discovered, would be more disastrous than Romeo’s failed flirtation. It was not simply unwise, but reckoned unnatural by Church and law alike.
I had never met the young man Mercutio adored, and hoped I never would; secrets of such magnitude were far easier to hold in ignorance. Romeo and I regularly sent notes to Mercutio’s family’s villa explaining his absences, pretended to be carousing with him while he slipped away in secret to a rendezvous. Upon occasion, when Mercutio was fully in his cups, we listened to his torment in never seeing his lover’s face in the light of day.
But those bouts of passionate longing were rare in him, and the Mercutio the world knew was a bright, sharp, hotly burning star of a man. He was widely admired for his willingness—nay, eagerness—to take risks others might call insane. Romeo and I knew where the roots of that dark impulse grew, but it never made us love him less.
This night, he might have knocked and cried friend at the palazzo doors and been granted an easy entry, but that was not exciting enough.
Instead, he climbed our wall.
The first I knew of his arrival was the sound of a fist pounding the shutters of my room. The noise not only made my servant Balthasar bolt to his feet in fright, it pushed me and Romeo to stand and draw swords. Romeo might be innocent, but he wasn’t stupid. Assassinations were as common in Verona as brawls.
I went to the window and lifted the catch, and then gazed for a moment in silence.
Mercutio laughed breathlessly as he dangled precariously over a three-story fall to hard stone. “Well?” he gasped out. “Stab me or let me in, fool; I’m seconds from testing my wings!”
I held out my left hand and took his, and pulled him over the sill. He turned his slithering entrance into a tumbler’s roll and bounced to his feet. There was a sense of trembling joy about Mercutio; I climbed walls purely as a matter of necessity, but he seemed to delight in tempting death. His cat-sharp face was alight, dark eyes wickedly gleaming, and he tossed his loose curls back from his face and saluted Romeo with casual elegance. “I hear there is dire trouble afoot,” Mercutio said, and took a seat at the table with us. He held up his hand without looking, and Balthasar—well versed in the ways of my friends—placed a full wine cup into it. “How unexpected that is!”
“How did you do that?” Romeo asked. He went to the open window and leaned out, examining the sheer stone wall. “Maybe you really can fly.”
“I had an excellent teacher,” Mercutio said, and winked at me. “Ben, did you know your too-sly servant is plying me with your best vintage?”
“Hardly the best. He knows better than to serve the best to the worst,” I said. “Montague has a front door; were you aware?”
He shrugged and drank deeply. “Boring,” he said. “Did you know that by my climbing walls in public view, half the city believes I’m the legendary Prince of Shadows? It greatly enhances my legend.” He sent me a sideways glance, acknowledging the irony. “And besides, how am I to keep in practice for these small intrigues if I simply walk up and announce myself?”
“By all means, use my family walls at any time to hone your skills. Should the hired bravos see you, you’ll also get practice in dodging arrows.”
“A benefit I will treasure. Now, whom are we here to conspire against?”
“Poetry,” I said. “Namely, Romeo’s poetry.”
“Is it that bad?”
“Inadvisably sent, at the least.”
“Oh, my,” Mercutio said, and smiled slowly, full of delight. “These verses must be scandalous. Stuffed with humiliating details, I presume.”
“Worse. They’re signed.”
He whistled. “Well. I salute you, Romeo. You don’t go halves when you plunge into the maelstrom. What else?”
“They’re inside the Capulet palace.”
Mercutio stopped whistling at that. Stopped laughing, too. He went as quiet as he ever did, although there was still a faint vibration in him; he was never completely still. “Surely retrieving them is not on your mind.” I’d burgled the Capulet house only a few months ago; there were unbreakable rules to my secret life, and one was to never visit the same enemy again after they’d been so badly embarrassed. Their smugness would have turned to rank suspicion. I would triple my risks.
“My grandmother says we must have them back,” Romeo said. “If they’re discovered, my name and the lady’s will be filthy jokes in the square. Worse, she’ll be punished. Badly punished.”
“A Capulet? Why do we vex ourselves with that? Never a Capulet born who didn’t deserve to suffer; I’ve heard all of Montague say it often enough.”
“Not Rosaline,” said Romeo. “She is kind, and good, and beautiful. You’ve seen her, Mercutio. Is she not wonderful fair?”
“Wonderful,” Mercutio said without enthusiasm. “Her eyes are two of the brightest-shining stars in all the heavens, et cetera. . . . Ben, good or bad, the girl’s a Capulet, and her danger is her own affair.”