Prince of Shadows

9,418
05.03.2019

“A moment,” I said quickly, and sketched a quick bow for him. “I will follow directly.”

He saw the nurse, and his brows drew together, then rose upward. “Who comes there?”

A lie would be the only course open. “She is of the Ordelaffi house. A moment, sir?”

“Good Mercutio is not yet decently buried,” he said, and nodded. “See to her needs, then. I move slowly enough; you may catch up as you wish.”

He limped off, surrounded by his attendants; my mother, Lady Montague, and all of the women were clustered around the cart that now held my sister’s body, covered by a blue Montague cloak.

The nurse blinked at all the confusion, as if she’d paid attention to none of it until now. “Lord preserve, I remember when weddings were joyous things, without all this bloodshed. . . . Ah, me, the poor bride, ruined, all ruined, naught to do for it now but pray God forgive the sinners and . . .”

“Madam,” I said, a little too sharply. “Why do you seek me?” She was Juliet’s nurse, and thus no friend of mine. I did not know the girl, nor did I wish to; if she was making some plea and claiming family, I’d walk away quickly. Let Romeo explain this tangle to his father, if he could. I wanted no part in it.

“Oh, young sir, my, how handsome you are. Such eyes, foreign eyes, they seem. Women cast themselves to sea for such handsome—”

“Madam.”

She fluttered her fan and cast me a sharp look, much upon her dignity, and leaned forward to whisper, “I have a note for you, a sweetly folded thing that I urge you to keep about your person and your privacy, lest shame fall upon—”

“Oh, give it here.” I sighed, and snatched the small triangle of paper from her fingers. It was sealed with blank wax, and when I broke it and unfolded the shape, I found that there were no names either.

But still, I knew who had written it, and a slow whispering roar filled my ears as I read.

Confession is good for the souls of those who suffer.

That was all. I swallowed hard, one fingertip scraping over the flowing, confident shapes of letters. . . . This came from Rosaline’s hand, and the scent of her drifted up from the paper, or perhaps that was only my senses and memory playing tricks.

I folded it and hid it away, and bowed to the much-affronted nurse, who fanned herself most rigorously. “I am grateful,” I told her. “Do not linger on my account, madam; this place is made unhealthy for those with your . . . political advantages.”

“If you mean Capulets, sir, I will put one of them against six of your Montague buffoons, and take the change in hand,” she shot back, but she had sense enough to keep it a whispered remonstrance. “Come, Peter, let us home. There is much to do before tomorrow’s feast!”

She sailed away, a short and wide ship with much canvas laid on, with poor Peter as a rudder. I reached inside my doublet and felt for the crisp edges of the paper again, and the smooth wax. Confession.

Rosaline meant me to see Friar Lawrence, and quickly, or she’d not have risked sending Juliet’s nurse with the message. The old woman gossiped far too much for anyone’s safety. Rosaline’s own servants—as I’d already suspected—were loyal to her aunt, and not to her; she could trust no one else even as far as Juliet’s nurse.

If you go, something in me whispered—the rational piece of me that had always guided me toward caution where my cousin rushed headlong—if you go, you risk your life. Worse, your family’s honor.

I had risked my family’s honor nightly for years, crawling the rooftops of Verona. My grandmother had tacitly approved that, because it had pleased her to see me humiliate our enemies. But this was another kind of risk altogether—the risk of alliance with our greatest enemies.

Alliance with the ones who had just killed my sister.

If you go, that part of me continued, then take your dagger and put it in her breast, for revenge. Your grandmother would smile for that, even if you stretched a rope like that Capulet boy. And that also was true . . . she would approve of Rosaline’s death, and clap, and laugh.

The image sickened me.

I cast a quick look around. My uncle was gone already, limping homeward; his sycophants and favorites were clustered around, and he’d not miss me for some time. He’d assigned me guards, though, four of them, who bracketed me like walking statues as I headed for the cathedral itself. I thought of ordering them away, but my mother’s words had proved true: Our enemies had no respect for sacred spaces, and now I was virtually alone. If the Capulets had the stomach for a second course, they would find easier meat but a tougher sauce; I was in no mood to dance with them again.

Inside, the hushed vast cathedral held a sense of eternity; overhead, the ceiling vaulted high and clean, and the ever-present gray stone of Verona took the form of rows of huge columns marching into the dimness, while at the end, the curve of the main chapel exploded in color and light. A child was singing, coached by a patient priest, and his high, sweet voice rang like an angel’s from the shining marble floor. The cathedral was filled with penitents on their knees, and I did not know where to look for Rosaline.

The sound of my guards’ tread behind me echoed martial and warlike in these holy silences, and I turned to the one at my left—Paolo, a trusted aide of my uncle’s, and a fierce mercenary fighter. “I will go alone,” I said. “Wait here.”

“Wait?” He peered at me with frank puzzlement. “We go where you go, young sir. Your uncle takes no chances now with his sole remaining heir.”

“Stay here,” I said. “I’ll not tell you again. My uncle will not be head of the house forever. Think well on whom you would please for your future employment.”

Paolo’s eyebrows climbed, and he stared at me with fierce dark eyes a moment before he bowed a little, mockingly. “As you wish, sir.”

“You can use the time to pray,” I said. “Surely you all have much to repent.”

“Surely,” he agreed, and stuck his thumbs in his belt. “But we don’t have all year, sir, unless you plan to run off to holy orders.”

“Not likely,” I said. “I’ve much to confess, too.”

He laughed, a little too loudly for this place, and waved his fellows off as I walked on into the church. I was doing exactly what my mother had cautioned against; I had made myself an easy assassin’s target, and yet I had no sense of danger here. The cathedral felt cool, calm, and sweetly peaceful. I paused before the beautiful statue of the Madonna, and for a moment, the awful truth crashed upon me, and I staggered and fell to my knees.

Veronica was dead, so pitifully and violently dead, and for nothing. Her killer had died weeping, for nothing.

A plague on both your houses, Mercutio had cried, and he had been right.

I bent my head and prayed, most earnestly, for the soul of my slain sister. I had not loved her as much as a brother should, and she had not been the sister I would have wished, but she had not deserved to die in terror, killed at the hands of a boy barely out of his child’s smock. I prayed for it to stop.

As if God had answered, a dark-cloaked figure settled next to me on the marble, made the sign of the cross, and bent its hooded head. I recognized the scent of her, warm wax and flowers, and I breathed it in like a drowning man’s last gasp of air. I started to turn, but her hand grasped my clasped ones. “No,” Rosaline whispered. “For the love of God, stay as you are. We will be seen.”

As quick as that, her touch withdrew. Where her fingers had rested, mine felt seared and aching. “My sister is dead,” I said. I don’t know why; she would have known, of course. But I felt it needed saying. “I could not stop it.”

“I know.” Her voice was gentle, warm, and sad, all the comfort that I had craved from my own family but would not ever find. “Benvolio, I am sorry. My young cousin is dead also, justly, for her murder. Tybalt was his idol, and he the willing worshiper. Children killing children, for love of nothing but empty hate.”

I heard the anguish in her, and felt its twin in myself. Why was it only the two of us who seemed to see the uselessness? But I cleared my throat of its sudden tightness, and whispered, “Why did you send for me?”

The dark hood turned just a fraction toward me, enough that I saw the sliver of a pale cheek, a fine dark eye. “To tell you that there is something unnatural in this,” she said.

“Hatred is the most natural of things to men.”

“No,” she said. “Not hatred. There is a terrible thing at work here, and I believe it is hate disguised as love. Juliet is a quiet, biddable child; she is thoughtful and has always done as her parents wished. She made no complaints about the marriage to Paris when her father first approached him months ago; she seemed pleased at her good fortune, to be wedding a fine man such as he.”

“Yet she fell in love with Romeo.”

“It is not love,” Rosaline replied, and something dark in her voice struck a chord in me that shivered through my chest. “She scarce knows your cousin, yet she threw away her birthright, her life, for him. She is to marry Paris on Thursday, you know; she begins her married life in terrible sin, or worse—she will flee to join Romeo and throw our family into chaos. There is nothing good to come from this. It is all a ruin.”

I could not but agree; I wanted to think this admirable and fine, this passion of my cousin’s, but in truth it had seemed to distress him as much as pleasure him.

“It is something else,” Rosaline said. “If it did not sound like a madwoman’s rant, I would say that there is some dark sorcery in this.”

It seemed to me as if, in that moment, all sounds stopped in the cathedral, even the soaring song of the child; I heard nothing but the sudden pulse of my heartbeat, loud as a drum in my ears. Mercutio had said as much, in his dying deliriums . . . even the witch had told me he’d sought from her a curse. Love is the curse, Ben, love is the curse. Do you understand? He had sought some sign of comprehension in me, but I had not understood him, though I’d pretended.