Prince of Shadows

9,240
05.03.2019

“Because I have no sword, nor any weapon at all,” she said, and took in a slow, deep breath that moved parts of her that should have been bound tighter. I was so distracted with this notice that I almost failed to hear the rest, as her voice dropped still lower. “And because I think I do not love Paris, but . . . another, and if Mercutio’s curse has worked so deeply upon our two cousins, if they die, surely it falls upon me next. And upon you.”

I had not thought so far ahead, and I felt an icy shock at her words, as if she had plunged me into a fountain in winter . . . because she was right. Mercutio had cursed our houses, and not one person he held guilty. If the curse indeed had struck Romeo and Juliet, and forced them into this ill-considered love, then what would happen next?

Did it account for how I could not forget her, even if I applied myself . . . not her face, nor her voice, nor the way she had looked lit by candles the first night I saw her? That image would not leave me, and it—being honest—was the last thing I saw each night before sleep carried me off, and the first I thought of upon waking. Was it a curse? If it is a curse, I die cursed, and happy, I thought, and almost said so. Only the biting of my tongue kept me from it.

“Do nothing to draw attention,” I told her. “Keep your cloak close about you, and your head down. If anyone calls to us, let me speak; you may pretend to be worse for your cups, if you like, but say nothing. Your voice gives you plain away.”

“I’ve heard youths with voices higher than mine!”

“Not with your height,” I said. “Quiet. And keep you close.”

It frightened me, walking with her down the dark streets toward the Capulet palazzo. . . . I had ever been with men abroad in the evening, and what few women ventured out were hardened veterans of the streets, well able to care for themselves. She was . . . different. And keenly my responsibility. “How got you out?” I asked.

She lifted one graceful hand, and I pushed it quickly back into the shadow of her cloak. Those hands, too, would give her away. “I waited until a group of tradesmen delivered supplies for the kitchen,” she said. “It was near dark, and the men were milling about readying for Juliet’s procession. No one paid me mind.”

“Getting back inside will be different,” I told her. “You cannot climb that wall, and even if you could, you could not climb to your balcony.”

“I can,” she said. “I am not weak!”

“Forgive me, but I do not think your needlework has well prepared you for—”

“I ride,” she shot back. “To the hunt. I have helped spear a boar. My father—”

Such pleasures were normally reserved for men, and I was surprised to hear that the Capulets had allowed a girl so much, but then I remembered that her father was dead, like mine. Unlike me, she had known hers; he must have allowed her beyond what convention and propriety said was right. And she was right: She was no weakling, not if she had faced down a maddened boar bent on escape.

“Well, boar killer,” I said, “then we will try.”

She was far stronger than I expected, for a housebound young woman; I wondered whether she still, in secret, practiced the exercises her father would have made her take to fortify her arms and legs for the hunt, and the weapons she would have to bear. She could not, as I could, climb a wall with a running start, but when I climbed first and gave her the first handholds, she pulled herself up more competently than I expected.

“Careful,” I told her in a whisper, from the top of the Capulets’ wall. “There is—”

“I know,” she huffed back, a bit waspishly, and I smiled down at her and offered her a hand for the rest of the way. Once she was crouched beside me in the single ivy-covered spot of safety—and her balance was only a little unsteady, from effort—I braced myself, took her hands, and lowered her slowly down into the dark corner of the garden.

“Can you make your balcony?” I whispered down, and she looked up, face cool and calm in the moonlight, and nodded. I tried to think of some good-bye, something other than what I ached to say, and I settled for the lukewarm, “Be most careful.” I think the tone of my voice betrayed me, even so.

“And you,” she said, and her own sounded soft, almost a caress. Then she smiled at me, a full and carefree urchin’s grin, and made her way to her safety.

For my part, I waited a bit longer, watched her climb to her balcony and slip inside, and then eased down from the wall and ran back, quickly and quietly, to the monsignor’s household. Why would they fear my return, when the city watch had carried me off to meet the prince’s justice at the end of a short dangle?

I let myself in as before, made my way down to the still-broken stronghold, and this time I took away as much gold as I could comfortably carry.

Then I piled it in the doorway of the Church of Santa Maria Antica, with a note scratched into the white stone beside it: Alms for the poor.

Then I went home, to an uneasy few hours of sleep.

• • •

I slept like the dead until I was roused by impatient servants; my uncle had business for me to do in town, and I received the instructions from him, only barely aware of what I had agreed to do. At least I was dressed and decently barbered, though the steadiest of hands could do nothing for my swelling nose and spectacular bruising, which occasioned much exclamation when I presented myself to my uncle’s chambers.

“Well, this won’t do,” my uncle said, frowning at my aching face. “I can scarce recognize the boy myself. Very well, rest, Benvolio, and lay some poultice on those bruises; you’ll do me no good bearing my messages out looking so ill used. A Montague is meant to win the fight, you know!”

“But I did,” I said, and bowed respectfully. He waited, head cocked, for more explanation, but I did not give it, and he finally let out a frustrated sigh.

I listened to the man’s hasty lecture about how I should comport myself, to reflect honor upon Montague. I suppose he had thought that since Romeo had received these lectures as heir, I had been spared too many of them, but I’d endured hours of sweating, hellish torment in my grandmother’s chambers listening to much of the same. I well knew what was expected of me, and in fact, the bruises upon my face were a testament to how much I valued the honor of House Montague, though he could not know it.

It had the fine benefit, though, of freeing me to my own devices for the day—and a portentous day it was. Friar Lawrence’s account had claimed that if all went well, Juliet Capulet would wake today in her tomb, and my cousin Romeo would be there to joyfully greet her and see her swept away. A triumph of love and devotion.

Perhaps I was too much of a cynic, but I could not see it happening so. Mercutio’s dire words in his journal haunted me, and so did the frantic desperation of the witch who’d crafted the curse on his behalf. If hate could move mountains, then the mountain was still moving, and we could only watch, helpless, as it collapsed upon us.

I had been all but ordered to keep within Montague’s walls, but I had never cared for being penned up, and by the time the evening Angelus bell had rung I was moving through the streets. It seemed Verona continued untouched by the upheavals of the past week—all the deaths, the tragedy, the drama had passed by the common folk, whose lives were full of their own troubles. I bought a roasted leg of pork to eat as I walked, and made for Friar Lawrence’s cell.

He arrived after the service had finished, out of breath but smiling for all that; he greeted me warmly, clucked over my wounds, and hummed a merry—though scandalous—tune as he ushered me within. “All’s well, all’s very well,” he told me. “Romeo will have received word in Mantua and hastened here, and even now he should have entered the tomb and gathered his love in his arms, to ensure her waking goes from rest to paradise itself.” He seemed so very pleased with himself, I thought. “And then they will be safely off together.”

“To what?” I asked him. “Two youths with no funds and no family?”

“Love will sustain them.”

“Hard coin would sustain them better,” I said. In my purse I had some of the monsignor’s gold, rescued from his vaults. It was not right to keep it for myself, but a donation to the poor was a just and good use for it. “You must have been plotting to meet them, Friar.”

“I will see them soon,” he said, and accepted the heavy gift with a smile. “Your cousin will be most grateful, young master.”

I had no time to question him about the time, though; he poured himself a cup of ale and drank it thirstily, and pressed one upon me that I sipped without savor, though it was the best of the abbey’s stock. “Friar—” I was ready to broach my concerns of Mercutio’s curse, but he held up a hand to stop me, one ear cocked toward the hallway.

“Hush, I have a visitor— Here, stay there, and silent!” He pushed me behind the only coverage in the room, a small screen, and I stood there clutching my mug of ale and felt foolish for coming.

Another voice, as hearty as Friar Lawrence’s, called out, “Holy Franciscan friar! Brother, ho!”

“Well, this same should be the voice of Friar John!” my friend boomed, and I heard the two men give fraternal embrace. “Welcome from Mantua. . . . What says Romeo? Or, if his mind be writ, give me his letter.”

I peered around the corner of the screen, and saw a monk as thin as Friar Lawrence was round; he was older, with wisps of white hair circling his tonsured crown. He had a beaming look on his face that clouded over as my friend spoke, and by the end of it, he was as penitent as a tardy schoolboy.

“I went to find a barefoot brother of our order to accompany me to Mantua,” he said. “And I found him here in the city visiting the sick, but the searchers of the town, suspecting that we were both in a house of infectious pestilence, sealed up the doors and would not let us go forth. So, you see, my passage to Mantua has not yet begun.” He spread his hands in helpless apology.

I watched the hard truth dawn on my friar’s face. “Who bore my letter, then, to Romeo?”