Prince of Shadows

9,243
05.03.2019

Friar John searched quickly within his robes. “I could not send it—here it is again.” He handed over the sealed message with an apologetic smile. “Nor could I get a messenger to deliver it back, so fearful were they of infection.”

“Unhappy fortune,” Friar Lawrence said, and his distress almost crumpled the note in his hand. “This letter was no simple greeting, but full of import, and neglecting it may do much damage. . . . Friar John, find me an iron crowbar and bring it hence.”

“An . . . iron crowbar?” Friar John’s mystified face would have been funny to see in any less dire situation.

“Yes, yes, go!”

“I will go and bring it.”

He left, much speeded by the obvious distress of Friar Lawrence, and I came out behind the screen and put the mug aside.

Friar Lawrence met my eyes with mute horror for a moment, and then said, “I must to the monument alone, then—within three hours will fair Juliet wake. She will be angry that Romeo does not come to greet her, but I will write again to Mantua and keep her here, in my cell, until Romeo comes.”

No more sunny smiles, no more all will be well . . . he was afraid now; I could see it in the tight lines of his eyes and mouth, and the wretched washing motions of his hands.

“I will go with you,” I said.

He did not look so much relieved. His thoughts were far from me. “Poor living corpse,” he said softly. “Closed in a dead man’s tomb.”

I prayed she would not wake to know it, but already I could sense the darkness of the day spinning darker still.

QUARTO

5

It was a cloudy night, with no kindly moon to light the way; out of respect for the friar, I had shouldered the weight of the crowbar and shovel he had demanded of his fellow. The lantern in his hands should have shed enough light for us, but the path was narrow, and the friar’s robed bulk blocked out most of the glow.

Yet he was the one who grumbled. “Saint Francis be my speed! How oft tonight have my old feet stumbled upon graves. . . .” He froze suddenly. We were well close now to the graveyard, and to the grand structures of the tombs. “Who’s there?” I prayed it was not the watch; carrying tools of grave robbing was yet another hanging offense in Verona, and here was I, well equipped for a crime I did not intend to commit.

But instead, I heard a familiar voice out of the darkness. “Here’s one, a friend, and one that knows you well.” Balthasar! My servant approached, and I peered around the friar to see the calm set of his face. Friar Lawrence put down the lantern and threw his arms around the man.

“Bliss be upon you!” he cried, and kissed him on both cheeks out of sheer effusion . . . but then, as he pushed Balthasar away to arm’s length, his gaze went past, and his face paled. “Tell me, good my friend, what torch is yonder that vainly lends light to eyeless skulls? It burns in the Capulet monument.”

“It does, holy sir, and with it is my master Romeo,” Balthasar said, and I closed my eyes for a moment in sheer relief. All will be well. Despite the lost letter, despite Mercutio’s curse, Romeo had found a way to Juliet. The friar’s optimism had been sound, after all.

But Friar Lawrence did not sound reassured. “How long has he been there?”

“Fully half an hour, sir,” Balthasar said, and I understood that was too long a time.

“Go with me to the vault.” He was speaking to me, but Balthasar had still not glimpsed me behind the friar’s bulk, and he stepped quickly back.

“I dare not, sir. Master Romeo thinks I am gone, and he menaced me with death if I stayed.”

“Stay then,” Friar Lawrence said, and pushed past him. “Fear comes upon me. Oh, much I fear some ill unthrifty thing. . . .”

Balthasar called my name in surprise as I came after, carrying the tools, but I had no mind for him in that moment, until he caught my arm and delayed me. “Master, wait. . . . As I slept under this tree, I had a dream—a dream that Romeo and another fought, and Romeo slew him. . . .”

I thought he had dreamed of Tybalt, but before I could say so, I heard Friar Lawrence cry out, and none of that mattered any longer. I dropped both crowbar and shovel with a clatter and followed the bobbing light of the friar’s lantern down.

I slowed when I saw the blood.

“What is this?” the friar asked, in a trembling voice. “What is this blood that stains the entrance of this sepulchre?” He was right. The blood was fresh, still red and glistening, and two swords lay entangled together in the dirt, but only one was well smeared with crimson. That sword at least I knew: It was Romeo’s. I bent to pick it up, but before I could, Friar Lawrence leaned into the tomb, which held its own guttering flame, and cried out in such a voice that I started to my feet again. “Romeo! O, pale—who else? What, Paris, too, and steeped in blood? Ah, what an unkind hour is guilty of this terrible chance. . . .”

Count Paris and Romeo, both dead? But only Paris must have suffered a wound. I tried to force my way past the friar, but he blocked the doorway, and now he said, in a terrible hushed voice, “The lady stirs.”

I froze, and heard her soft voice, much softened by sleep and the drug, say, “Friendly friar, where is my lord? I remember where I should be, and there I am, but where is my Romeo?”

There was a noise from behind us, rocks rolling under approaching feet, and I clapped a hand on the friar’s shoulder in warning.

“Lady, come you from that nest of death and contagion. . . . A greater power than we hold has thwarted our intentions here. Please, come away. . . .” He took a great gulp of breath when she did not answer. “Lady, thy husband lies there dead, and Paris, too. Come to me. I’ll get you to the sisterhood of holy nuns. Stay not to question, for soon the watch will patrol—come, come, good Juliet. I dare no longer stay—”

The sound of her movements stopped, and there was a terrible silence, a silence that seemed to me to be filled with unvoiced screams, and then the girl said, in a dreadful soft voice, “Get thee hence. I will not go away.”

I heard a distant clatter. Men walking on the rocks, armed and armored. I tugged hard on the friar’s shoulder. “We must go,” I hissed at him. This was a terrible thing, and our presence here would demand questions we could not answer. “Come away, Friar, quickly! She’ll be safe enough; the watch is coming!”

The girl’s voice, through some eerie trick of the tomb, followed us as we escaped into the night, with Balthasar quick behind us. “A cup, closed in my true love’s hand? Poison has been his end . . . and no friendly drop to help me after? I will kiss your lips, and hope some poison hangs on them. . . .” The frantic anguish in her voice twisted at me, slowed my steps, and I turned back to stop her, but Friar Lawrence’s hand grabbed for mine.

“You cannot,” he begged me. “A Montague, present at such a scene! Come; the watch will save her; they are moments away!”

From behind us, in that torchlit tomb, Juliet whispered, “Your lips are warm,” and I shuddered as if a ghost had riven straight through me. Now I plainly heard the clatter and calls of the watch as they closed in. “Noises sound. I must be brief—oh, happy dagger, this is your sheath. There rust, and let me die—”

Romeo’s dagger. She hadn’t waited for the poison on his lips to finish her.

I heard her cry out, just a little, as the dagger found its place.

Friar Lawrence let out a choked, desperate sound, and now it was my own turn to hold him away, push him forth.

Juliet Capulet was a suicide, and so was my cousin, and Count Paris murdered beside them. Mercutio’s curse, made flesh and evil intent.

I felt my body flush suddenly with an unnatural heat, and sweat began to pour from my body, dampening my clothes. I felt as I had always when facing my grandmother—roasting in discomfort, aching to be elsewhere . . . no, not elsewhere.

I knew where I needed to be. My body bent that way, like a compass to true north. In the blink of my eyelids I saw Rosaline’s face, and I felt the press of her lips on mine like a ghost’s promise, and I wanted . . . no, I needed her. Fire was a pleasant warmth in a hearth, but it could also burn down a house, and that was what I felt: a fire raging beyond control, beyond sanity.

I breathed, and breathed, and breathed, and behind us I heard the watch coming to discover the dead.

Balthasar hesitated, and then said, “I will delay them, sir,” and before I could think to stop him, he was scrambling back the way we’d come, and drawing away the pursuit.

“They cannot find you here, young Montague,” Friar Lawrence said. He pushed me on my way. “I will explain all that occurred here. Go.”

I heard them catch the friar and drag him back, and as I achieved shelter behind another set of tombs—ironically, the graceful marble lines of the Montague death house, where lay my sister only newly arrived—here came a new line of torches and lanterns, and well-dressed nobles roused from their beds to see the horrors that awaited them. Prince Escalus, and with him Capulet and his wife. I was too far now to hear all but the loudest of cries, but Lady Capulet’s screams could have sundered a heart of stone.

As I stole away, feeling bruised and broken inside, and drawn like metal to a magnet toward the emptied-out Capulet house, I passed my own uncle hurrying through the streets to join the lamentation. He looked wild-eyed and not himself, and I grasped the arm of his manservant, Gianni. “Where is my aunt?” I asked. She was too strong-willed; she’d not have allowed herself to be left behind in such extremities.

“Oh, sir, great tragedy tonight—your aunt’s breath stopped, and none could rouse her. She died of grief, sir, for your cousin’s exile, and now they cry that Romeo is dead, and Juliet, and Count Paris, too; is it true?”

My aunt, dead in her bed. I let go of him, too numbed to feel much. “It’s true,” I said. “Be careful of him. Too many have died already, and I fear the shock may undo him.”

Gianni nodded and hurried after, anxious for my uncle’s health in such disasters.