Prince of Shadows

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05.03.2019

“It is a sin to hate your father,” Friar Lawrence said, all unexpected. “And Mercutio tried to please him, as a son should do. Perhaps he could not curse him.”

“More’s the pity,” I shot back, “since no one bears more of the guilt.” I fixed the girl with my stare. “Continue.”

“He . . . he thought the Capulets were to blame, sir, and the Capulets were your sworn enemies; he wanted vengeance on them.”

“Then why did he cry ‘on both your houses’?”

“Because . . .” She hesitated, then shook her head. “Because the curse we forged named the Capulets, but also said, ‘the house who betrayed us.’ If that was not the Capulets, but instead someone else . . .”

“Then the curse would fall upon us both,” I said, and squeezed shut my aching eyes. What a tangle of pain this was, so many evil mistakes made, and such mounting consequences. “How do we remove the curse?”

“Remove it, sir?” She seemed startled at the question, and affrighted.

“Yes, remove it, before more deaths come from it, and for nothing!” I took her by the shoulders and forced her to meet my eyes; she flinched, and I remembered how unsettling some found the color of them. Why, I was but one step removed from sorcery myself. “How is it to be done?”

“If I tell you, I give you evidence you can use to damn me,” she said, quite sensibly. Friar Lawrence turned pale and crossed himself, no doubt realizing that he was guilty indeed of consorting with a witch. “You must swear I will not be punished for it. I only did as Mercutio asked.” I was well out of patience, and violence was a tool that fit well in my hand; she must have seen it on me, for she flinched and hurried on. “It was a three-part spell, sir, and all three parts must be destroyed before it can be ended.”

“What three parts?”

“One faith, one mind, one flesh,” she said, and looked away. “You saw the one in flesh. I drew it there myself.”

The inked inscription, the one I’d glimpsed on Mercutio’s breast. “The letters upon his skin.” She nodded. “Is his death enough to shatter it?”

“Yes. That link is already broken.”

“And the others?”

“Sir, please—”

This time I drew my dagger. “One time again I ask you: What of the others? Faith and mind?”

“For the mind, he wrote it down in his own hand,” she said, in a very small voice now. “The other . . . the other was cast upon rosary beads. Tomasso’s rosary, that Mercutio took from his grave.”

“How so?” Friar Lawrence was unexpectedly affronted by this. “I buried the boy myself, with his rosary in his hands. . . .” He paled even more, and crossed himself. “Merciful God, Mercutio did not desecrate the grave!”

“He unburied Tomasso, and took the beads,” she said. “And buried him again, with love. If that is desecration, good friar—”

“What else can it be called?” he demanded, but my mind was on Mercutio, digging by the light of the moon, and finding the corrupting body of his lover. No wonder his hatred had turned so poisonous as to infect those around him; I could not imagine the grief and rage that had driven him to it, nor to this.

“The rosary,” I said. “Where is it? And where is the writing of the spell?”

She shook her head now. “He did not tell me, sir; I only taught him. Where the things are now, I know not . . . but the rosary would have to be in Capulet hands; he meant it to be so.”

In Rosaline’s hands, if he believed Veronica’s story about Rosaline’s betrayal . . . yet it was Juliet who seemed to have given herself over to obsession. Juliet who seemed bent on self-destruction.

“You know nothing more?”

“Nothing.”

“Swear it,” I said, and pointed the dagger an inch from her eye. She did not blink. “Swear it now, upon your corrupted soul, witch.”

“My soul is not corrupted, but I swear it upon my soul, and upon God and his angels,” she said. “I know nothing more than I’ve said. If I could stop this, I would; Mercutio is gone, and vengeance is hollow. His spilled blood told me that, at least.” She smiled a little, through sudden tears. “He was not a bad man, you know.”

“He was a broken man, and he was my brother, and my friend. You need not tell me he was a good man, for I loved him,” I said. “And you should never have sent him down this dark path. You imperiled his soul.”

“So does murder,” she replied. “Yet no one shuns Lord Ordelaffi. Nor you, Benvolio, though you have blood on your hands.”

“Less than you would think,” I said, “and never but in the thick of a fight that might have cost me my own life. I am not Mercutio’s father.”

“You did not stop him,” she said, and met my eyes with level accusation. “You stood by and watched as Tomasso died, and Mercutio’s soul was torn in two.”

I had no answer for that, no clever riposte to give; I lowered the dagger, then sheathed it, and nodded to Paolo.

He drew his rapier. “I’ll kill the witch for you,” he said.

“No.” As he advanced, I backed to stand between them, and drew my own sword and beat his down. It was cramped quarters, between us; the ceiling was so low that my head cracked rafters when I moved unwisely. “Let the Church deal with her, or the prince, but I’ll not have her blood on our hands. Who knows what doom she might lay upon her killer?”

That set him back with a frown, and he nodded and backed from the room. I followed, ducking under the low doorway, and found Friar Lawrence behind me, tugging nervously at his habit. “That was well-done, young sir, very well-done,” he said. “I had no notion she was a witch, steeped in the black arts, I came only for her skilled medicaments. . . . Yes, yes, most proper you leave punishment to the city’s prince and the church elders. . . . I can give no evidence of wrongdoing, you understand. . . .”

“Why came you here?” I asked him. He seemed so uneasy it screamed of guilt, and fear, rank fear. “What medicaments did you purchase?”

“Nothing, sir, nothing harmful at all, only a . . . a certain draught, a vial of distilled liquor—”

“Liquor you can purchase anywhere,” I said. “What effect does this draught hold?”

“Benvolio, I would rather not say. . . .” He shook his head, but when pressed by silence, and the closing around of my guards, he said, “When you drink this liquor off, presently through your veins runs a cold and drowsy humor, and no pulse shall keep native progress . . . no warmth, no breath shall testify that you live. The roses of lips and cheeks fade to ashes, and the eyes’ windows fall like death. . . .”

“You mean it feigns death,” I said, speaking plainly, and he nodded, ducking his head well into the neck of his robe. “For how long does this likeness of death last?”

“For two and forty hours,” he said. “Most precise. And there are no bad effects; you awake as from a pleasant sleep. . . .”

He sweated in his guilt, and struggled to think himself innocent, as villains and fools so often do. At least the witch admitted her fault.

“Whom did you mean this draught for, then?”

“Ah, sir, that I cannot confess, for it is a great secret.”

I was all out of patience now. “Then give the bottle hence, and let it be crushed into the street, where it can do no one any harm!”

That is when he, overcome with pallor, said, “But I have already given it to she who will drink it, young sir, and for the love of God and your cousin, you must not interfere; you must not—”

I knew, then, what had already happened. It was dark now, full night, and too late, all too late. It was plain from his words that Juliet Capulet’s hand had received this dark poison—harmless though he claimed it—and that she would have already quaffed it. Why? To evade her enforced marriage to Count Paris, of course. She meant to feign death, and steal away to my cousin’s arms.

It was not a fool’s plan, after all. It was dangerous, yes, and it would earn Juliet and Romeo the enmity of both our families, but they might yet escape this curse together, and alive. . . .

And yet, if Mercutio was right, if there was a curse at work, surely it would not be so simple as that.

“Too late to prevent the course,” he said, his face round and pale as the moon above the dark cloth. “The potion is drunk. They will seek to rouse her for tomorrow’s solemnities but find her cold in her bed, and will bear her with much lamentation to the family tomb. No sin or blame comes to Count Paris, nor to the Capulets, and the keen lovers will have their happiness despite their quarreling families.”

“And what of Romeo? What if he hears of her death? I know my cousin’s mind in this, and it will not go well, Friar—”

“I have sent to Mantua, sir, with word for Romeo describing the plan. He need only wait a short time to collect his lady from her sleep; I will help him spirit her away before she wakes in the tomb.” He gazed at me with a mournful resignation. “Sir, I would rather not have done all this, but you know the lengths to which they have already gone; I feared—no, I knew—that young Juliet would end her own life, by any means necessary, to avoid Count Paris’s bed. What would you have me do, shield my eyes from her intention to self-murder and the gravest of sins? Or help the course of true love—”

“If it is true love,” I said flatly. “You heard the witch.”

“But, sir, if he thought Rosaline the author of his misery, why then would he send the curse to sting poor, innocent Juliet?”

It was a most excellent question, and it shook my convictions to their dry bones, but I had seen Romeo, seen the torment in him, the unwilling nature of his obsession. I did not believe that Juliet had found her happiness in this so-called love, either; it was a fever that would burn them to bones.