Prince of Shadows

9,239
05.03.2019

He interfered with his own servant’s unmasking of me to stride forward and give me a blow with his closed fist. Priest or not, he had a powerful arm, and I rocked back on my heels and blinked away painful sparks. I tasted blood, dull on my tongue.

His servants, as expected, took this as a sign, and instead of ripping away my mask they closed in, fists flying as they screamed curses upon me for my insolence. I hunched in to try to ride the blows, but soon I was on my side, and the rope had been pulled tight. Air had become a frantic struggle, and I was all but senseless when I felt fingers tugging at the silk knotted around my face. It was wet with blood, and the knot had been pulled small; I heard them cursing as their fingers slipped from their grip, but finally, one of them managed to peel the cloth away and bunch it on my forehead.

I kept my lids shut. The blood would mask me, and my nose was already swelling; now I looked like a hundred Veronese youths, noble or peasant, save for the striking color of my eyes.

The monsignor struck me again, a hard blow but an openhanded slap this time. “What is your name?” he demanded. I lay limp and silent, and judging from his voice he turned away toward his men. “Do you know him?”

“He looks a bit like one of the Montagues,” someone ventured, but another jeered it down.

“Nothing like him,” that one countered. “Not with that nose. No, more like one of those Capulet soldiers.”

Another argued that I seemed the son of a barber, another still an apprentice carpenter. I stayed limp and let my mouth gape open to further disguise the shape of my face.

And thus affairs stood when the watch arrived. The monsignor confessed to them that they had apprehended a sneak thief, who might even be the Prince of Shadows; he presented them with the bloody mask to confirm it. The watch captain took hold of the halter rope, frowned down at my battered body, and rightly decided that I was no great immediate threat. He tried to pull me to my feet, but I kept myself slack, despite his kicks and curses, and finally he ordered one of his men to pick me up. The rope was taken off my neck, though my hands remained bound. Loose, but not loose enough.

“Tell the prince that I will be most pleased to attend his execution and spit on his vile corpse,” said the monsignor, in the true spirit of Christ, and then we were on our way out of his residence, into the quiet night-drenched streets.

I bided my time. The soldier carrying me had tossed me over his shoulder, and as he marched on, I gently slid his dagger from its sheath at his hip, reversed it, and carefully sawed through the bonds holding my wrists. Even then, I did not stir—not until we neared the vast stretch of the Maffei palace. We were close to Lords’ Square, and from there it was but a short walk to Prince Escalus’s residence at the Palazzo del Podestà, where they would present me and, bloody or not, he would know my face in an instant.

I had lulled my man into false security; his hand was loose upon my back, and he had not felt my hands liberating his dagger. I shifted my weight off balance as he took a step, and he staggered, dropping me to my feet.

I landed running, and made speed across the courtyard and into the nearest alley. I knew it well, and knew also to jump in the dark for handholds near the junction of two walls; I swarmed up quickly, dagger held between my teeth, and pulled myself up to the roof tiles, where I quickly froze flat, listening to the shouts and alarms below. The watch ran past, then stopped a short distance away as they milled about in confusion. Sleepy householders cursed them and slapped closed shutters, but the soldiers began to hammer on doors, seeking me within the walls. “Go up, you fools!” snapped their commander. “He likes the roofs!”

There followed confusion, but one of the householders below professed to a ladder, and went to fetch it.

I needed to move, but I knew that if I chanced it, they’d spot me below; the clouds were thin, and moonlight fell hard. This roof was simple and exposed, and the slope of it too sharp for me to stay hidden as I climbed toward the peak. Once they’d caught sight of me, they’d not lose me again so easily.

And that was when an ill-dressed youth slouched in a cloak and an extravagant, though limp, hat appeared at the end of the alley and called out, in a rough and oddly high voice, “Thief! A thief, running that way!” He pointed down the alley, even as the soldiers were settling the ladder against the roofline. I crawled forward, ready to push it off, but it wasn’t needed; the soldiers took to the chase with great enthusiasm, pouring in the direction the boy pointed, though the last of them had presence of mind to grab the young man by the scruff of the neck and shake him hard.

“You’d best be telling the truth, boy!” The soldier cuffed him, shoved him backward, and ran to join his fellows in chase of a phantom.

I made quick use of the ladder—since it was there—and ran toward the boy, who was shaking off the blow and rubbing his chin. Moonlight fell on his face as his ill-fitting hat slipped off and unleashed a tangle of thick, dark hair. . . .

And that was no boy at all.

Rosaline.

I did not spare a moment for thought, or for shock; I grasped her arm and propelled her at a run in the opposite direction from where the soldiers had gone. Beneath the cloth, her arm had a different feel from that of a young man—less of muscle, yet somehow still strong. Ahead was the Church of Saint Maria Antica, and I tugged her that direction. My heart was racing with more than the excitement of the chase, and I’d forgotten my bruises and hurts, though they still ached, unremarked.

I pulled her into the shadows and brushed off the ridiculous hat, which drifted down toward the cobbles. Against the rows of white tufa and reddish brick, she seemed taller now, and oddly at home in mannish dress, though her hair tumbled wild over her shoulders. She was breathing quickly, and her eyes caught and held the shimmer of the moon. So did her parted lips.

I was holding her too tight at the shoulders, I thought, and loosened my grip to something gentler. “What are you doing?” My voice came out low and rough, and I thought the watch would hear the violent pounding of my heart, even as far afield as they’d wandered. “Don’t you know what you risk, stealing out so dressed?”

She plucked at the too-large linen shirt. “I took them from the laundry,” she said. “Faith, these hose feel very strange. . . .”

What was strange, and dizzying, was seeing a woman’s shape so plainly and audaciously displayed, even in the shadows. I struggled to keep my eyes fixed on her face. “How come you here?”

“I followed you,” she said, with calm assurance. “Well, to be more fair, I followed your captors when they dragged you from the priest’s house. I thought you might go there.”

“You thought— How? Why?”

She smiled a little, but it seemed grim. “Women are buried in their houses, but we talk; there’s little else to do. I asked my maids to tell me gossip of the Ordelaffi, and the fount flowed now that Tybalt is gone and they no longer fear him so. . . . I learned Mercutio’s father had already disposed of his son’s possessions, and that some had been sent to the monsignor for the Church. I thought Mercutio might have left some clue as to the curse within some writings.”

“And you thought what? That you would try your hand at thieving it?”

“Do you think I would be a bad thief?”

“I think you would be a novice,” I said, “and novices are caught and hanged every day. If they’d found you to be a girl, it would have gone far worse for you. Women may be buried in their homes, but there is a reason for it: to keep you safe—”

“Safe?” Rosaline raised her chin, and her lips set themselves in a firm, straight line, as did her brows. “Safe? You know nothing about us, Benvolio Montague. We live our lives in terror, not in safety—terror of our fathers, who may beat or kill us with any reason or none at all. . . . Terror of the men we will wed, having scarce set eyes upon them before that moment and yet expected to submit to all they ask . . . terror of other women whispering rumors that destroy us, with no defenses possible. You have swords to defend your honor. We have nothing. Safety?” She pushed me back, and I stumbled on a loose brick. “Give me a sword, and I will make my own safety.”

“You don’t know how to use it,” I said, very reasonably, I thought. But she only glared.

“And if I were taught? Trained? How then?”

“Swords are expensive—”

“Give me a trade and I will earn my own!”

This night had taken on an unreal cast, one that made me think I was dreaming, and the dream had gone very, very wrong.

I heard distant voices ringing out, and stepped forward again to drive her deeper to the shadows, then snatched up her discarded hat and slapped it down on her head. “Put up your hair!” I whispered, and she did, twisting it together with quick economy and securing it thus. I stripped off my cloak—even plain as it was, it would be something the watch looked for—and left it discarded on the ground.

Then I drew her behind the church, into a darkened doorway that was little used, and kept barred from within. “There was nothing at the priest’s house we needed.”

“You’re bleeding,” she said, and her hand touched my cheek. “They beat you.”

“A painful disguise, but better than to be recognized.” I did not mean to do it—truly I did not—but somehow my hand touched hers, closed around it, and I lifted her fingers to my lips.

I felt her shiver all the way through.

“I will see you home,” I said. “Surely they will remark on your absence soon.”

“They will not. All are in mourning for Juliet. . . .” She paused, watching me, and frowned again. “But Juliet is not dead, is she? I wondered. I saw Friar Lawrence, and he only half listened to my confession today; he is behind this plan, is he not? To sneak Juliet away?”

“If all works,” I said. “But if there is a curse, and I think there is, then surely this too is doomed to fail. I know not how it can, but perhaps the witch gave the wrong potion, or the friar gave her too much, or she wakes too soon—a thousand things, and none of them we can prevent. But you must go home, Rosaline. With Juliet dead, to their thinking, you are their bargaining chip. They will not waste you on God, but spend you on Paris.” I touched her chin and raised it, very gently. “You were calling for your own sword a moment ago. Why show fear now?”