Prince of Shadows

9,247
05.03.2019

I took a step toward him, holding his gaze, and for all his bluster, all the vicious beatings he had given his son, this time he retreated. “Careful,” I said, low in my throat. “Speak ill of your son and it will go just as ill for you.”

He swallowed, looked away, and opened the door behind his back to edge away. “Take what you like,” he said. “I care not. Whatever remains may go in the midden, where it belongs.”

The sound of the door closing was a thunderclap of futile rage. I took a deep breath and smelled fear—his, not mine. He would be haunted, I thought; all his days he would be stalked by the ghost of the son he could not love.

The things on the floor were a jumble—broken wooden toys from Mercutio’s childhood that I set aside to be mended and given to others; a lute with three loose strings and a cracked neck; a dented goblet I well remembered in his hand. I stirred the pile, and found little else of value, but I bound it all up in the old carpet and made it a bundle to carry. I’d leave nothing for his father’s angry hands.

The niche was locked, but I was an expert at such things, and it yielded in only a moment. It seemed empty, but when I felt into its depths, I touched leather, and pulled out a book—a thin volume written in Mercutio’s own hand.

I sat down on the sill of the window, where I’d so often entered by climbing the wall, and lit a candle to read.

He had written of me and Romeo, and our adventures together as boys; he’d spoken also of the Prince of Shadows, but never even in the privacy of these pages identified him, only confessed his own involvement in selling on some of the stolen goods. I wondered whether his father had read this, but I doubted he had; he had not the stomach for truth in such searing measures.

Because also, Mercutio spoke of Tomasso. It was tender, and passionate, and equally it was tragic, because my friend had known always that there could be no happiness in his love, only disappointment and grief. Yet he had pursued it to the bitterest end, because it was love.

On the day of Tomasso’s murder, he had written only one thing, in writing that seemed jagged and hard.

He died this day. All that is good in me died with him.

From that day forward, the entries were shorter, and there was no hint of happiness in them; on the contrary, as the candle burned down and my eyes blurred with weariness, I met a Mercutio I hardly knew . . . a boy no longer, but a man forged into a weapon that cut on all sides, like a ball of sharp knives. Love had curdled to a black and furious hatred, and he did not much care where it struck.

I’ faith, I almost hate the Montagues as much . . . knowing they saw his death, saw my humiliation, goes hard. Hearing of Capulet guilt makes me think had I not been such fast friends with Montague it would not have happened.

• • •

Reading it drew the breath from me, and I felt faint and ill, and for a moment I put down his book, unable to read more. He struck me hard, and from the grave, and I knew it was just.

I read the rest of it quickly, numbed to pain now, and found the entry where he recorded his visit to the witch. On the next leaf he had inscribed what seemed a poem, and well I remembered his half-mad quoting of it . . . and at the end, the simple, dry words etched in the strange color:

CURSED BE THE CAPULETS. CURSED BE THE HOUSE WHO BETRAYED US.

This, then, was the second part of what the witch had said we should find . . . the curse, written in his own hand . . . and I realized that the ink, rusted brown rather than black, smelled strange and yet familiar.

Blood.

I flinched back from it, feeling the menace in those sharp strokes of his pen, the slashes of the letters. Here was the doom he had, all unwitting, cast upon not just Capulet, but Montague as well. A plague upon both your houses. He had thought to curse Rosaline and all her kin, but instead it had reflected back upon Veronica and Montague.

And Romeo.

I closed the volume, blew out the candle, shouldered the bundle of broken dreams, and carried it all home, where I set a flame to his diary and watched his curse burn to ash. Two-thirds of it was done, then.

But nowhere in the sad collection that remained did I find the third piece . . . the rosary that he had taken from Tomasso’s body.

I have given his things to the poor, and to the Church, his father had said.

The rosary would have gone to the Church.

• • •

The scribe assigned to Monsignor Pietro was young, and keen; upon forcing the lock on the study door within the monsignor’s private residence, I found careful records of all that had been received from House Ordelaffi. It revealed much about the nature of Mercutio’s father’s penitence; the tapestries I had seen removed were listed, and much of the plate and silver had ledger entries. The records listed a trunk full of Mercutio’s precious books he had acquired, and assorted adornments and religious articles of the young man, now gone to God’s keeping.

But it did not say where such things were stored.

I had resurrected the Prince of Shadows tonight, dressed in dusty gray and black and masked against recognition; the monsignor slept upstairs, in his soft bed, warmed by a woman who slept at his side, against all churchly conventions. His servants drowsed not so comfortably, nor so sweetly attended, but sleep they did, and my job was made easier by it.

I broke the lock on his storehouse deep in the basement with an iron bar, and within found a treasure house . . . gold, silver, precious gems, and jewels of all descriptions. It was a thief’s paradise, but I took nothing of it, though it clearly did little for the starving pious poor while languishing here. Another time, I might return and teach a rich man of God to love charity a little better.

I searched until I found a trunk emblazoned with the Ordelaffi symbol, and lifted the latch to find the remnants of Mercutio’s life valuable enough to be sold to the Church for his father’s indulgence.

It was a pitiful record. His silver comb was there, and a razor too fine to be of daily use; a collection of rings. His books, all valuable, even if venal in nature.

And a rosary.

I seized it, my heart racing, but my relief was short-lived; this was unmistakably the rosary given to Mercutio by his family at his confirmation; it bore the Ordelaffi seal, and was far too fine for a lowborn seminary student like Tomasso.

There was nothing else. Wherever Tomasso’s rosary had gone, it had not been left at Mercutio’s house, nor given to the Church. Mercutio’s widow, perhaps? No, having read the journal in Mercutio’s own hand, I could not see that that unfortunate young girl would wish to keep any mementos of their brief joining.

Then where?

I looked around the glittering storehouse of earthly treasures, and felt a frustration that drove me to kick the wall hard enough to leave a bruise upon my foot. I had no trails left to follow.

I turned incautiously, heading for the door, and a tilting pile of silver plates wavered and crashed loudly to the floor. I sprinted now, because no servant would sleep through such a racket; I just made it out and into the shadows beneath the stairs as a candle’s glow appeared, and hushed voices rose with suppressed excitement and fear. Two of the monsignor’s servants appeared, bearing cudgels; one had a knife in his belt as well. They examined the door of the strong room and exclaimed when they found the lock shattered; one ran up to alert the household, and the other peered inside, looking for sign of the thief.

I kept to the shadows, hid my face, and stayed as still as flesh might stay. The dull gray of the cloak blended perfectly in the darkness with the stones, and unless they thrust the torch into the space, the illusion would hold. But it would be unhappy hours before it would be safe enough to move, never mind flee, and I knew my muscles would ache first, then cramp in red agony before it was done. I would survive it. I had survived worse, and longer.

But this time . . . this time, luck was not with me.

The servant who peered into the room was not as dull-witted as he seemed. He backed away from the door, looked around the narrow space, and then thrust his light into the shadows where I hid. Instinct bade me to turn and fight, but I stayed silent, frozen, holding even my breath until the candle retreated. I dared let out a slow, trembling whisper then, but then the cold point of a sword pressed my chest, and a voice in my ear said, “Hold, villain, or die.”

I was caught.

After all this time, the Prince of Shadows was caught.

• • •

I was bound at the hands, and the crowd of murmuring servants placed a rope around my neck that was meant to be a halter but felt uncomfortably like a noose, and I was led upstairs, then pushed down on my knees while the hastily roused monsignor donned robes and slippers to come see this intruder. They had not yet unmasked me when he finally arrived, red faced and furious.

“Call the watch,” he told a servant, who ran off with alacrity. I saw the monsignor’s mistress peeping over the banister from upstairs, clearly eager to see the coming events. More eager than I, by far. I calculated my chances; they were not so bad as they appeared, because the servants had been inept at knots, and I had already worked my wrists looser within their bonds. Still, their stoutest man held the rope halter that had been fitted around my neck, and I would need to rise quickly from the ground to deal with him before he could tug me off balance and turn halter to noose, in truth.

The monsignor paced back and forth, staring at my masked face. “Are you the thief known as the Prince of Shadows?” he demanded. I said nothing. “Come, lout, speak, or have you no tongue? Has Veronese justice already stripped you of it?”

“Shall we unmask him, Monsignor?” the servant holding the rope asked.

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, and gestured vaguely toward me as he paced. “When the watch arrives we will denounce him and turn him to the prince’s justice. This villain will hang by the morning! You dare, you cur, you dare to rob God?”

I had two choices, neither attractive . . . first, wait silently to be unmasked, or second, take action—however unpleasant—to ensure I would not be immediately recognized.

I chose the latter, and said, “I robbed no one, sir. I carry no gold, nor silver, nor precious jewels. You, though . . . you have taken such things from the poor, and hidden them away for yourself in the name of Christ. Is that theft, or blasphemy?”