Prince of Shadows

9,246
05.03.2019

And I stumbled on, moving the other direction, through predawn streets boiling with roused, confused citizens all telling dire tales of war, murder, treachery, and assassins.

A plague on both your houses, I heard Mercutio whisper, and give that mad laugh.

“You have your revenge,” I told his shade, which seemed to stalk me in the dark now. I felt dizzy, and there seemed no goodness in the air I gasped in. “Let it be, my brother; please let it be, . . .” But the ghost was not Mercutio, not him in whole; it was made of grief and fury and rage, and it knew no measure or mercy. And so it drove me straight on, through the chattering sleep-dazed crowds gathered by lantern light, through the Piazza delle Erbe and the fountain topped by the serene Madonna, into the streets past and toward the Capulet palace. There was a fell tension in the air, and I saw Capulet adherents fighting Montague on every corner, wildly shouting, “Murder!” and “Assassin!” without knowing anything of what had occurred.

Someone ran past me crying that the moon had turned to blood behind the clouds, and another screamed that Lord Ordelaffi had hanged himself from a tree in his orchard, and I stumbled on, anonymous in my gray clothes.

The Prince of Shadows. This was my realm, then, this confusion, for it seemed to me that the sun would never shine again on fair Verona.

The Capulet door was barred, but as I approached it a servant fled through the front, taking with her an apronful of precious silver. Chaos and disaster, and all the world gone to ruin . . .

Turn back, something screamed in me, but the heat inside urged me on, on, into the hall, past Capulet men and women who were too affrighted to challenge my purposeful steps. One man braver than the rest tried to bar my way, but I drew my sword, and he retreated. Juliet’s door was open, and her nurse lay senseless on the carpet beside her curtained bed, one hand clutching her prayer beads.

Rosaline’s door was shut and locked from within.

I banged my open hand upon it. I did not speak, because I knew she was there, as she would know I was without; I could feel her nearness beyond that barrier, pressed against it. I could almost feel the sweet whisper of her breath upon my face.

“No,” she said. Her voice sounded choked and desperate to my burning ears, and I pounded again, more urgently. “No, Benvolio, for God’s own love, no, you must go; we must be stronger than this; we are the last two of our houses in this generation; if we die—”

If we died, the curse would be satisfied. Perhaps. Or perhaps it would only spin on, seeking ever more distant relations to ruin. But did not all mankind narrow back to a common root, of Adam and Eve? Would Mercutio’s curse carry away every living soul, in the end?

“I care not,” I said. My own voice sounded a stranger’s to me. “I care not for death, or doom, or curses; I care only for you, Rosaline, and I know you feel the same; I know—”

“The curse,” she said. I heard tears, and I also heard the key trembling in the lock, as if she had taken hold of it to turn. “There must be a way to break its hold over us. You must know a way!”

She pulled out the key and threw it away; I heard the clatter of metal on stone as it slid over the floor. I put my eye to the keyhole and saw her there, leaning against the door. Only a small, pale portion of her face, and a lock of her hair, but it was enough to drive me to desperation. “Please,” I said. “Please open the door, Rosaline. You know you cannot keep me out for long. I can pick the lock. I can climb the wall. I can open the shutters.”

“You won’t,” she said. It sounded weary now, and heartsick. “You won’t, because you are not such a man, Benvolio; you are an honorable man, and you will not do it. You need me to let you in, and it rips me in two that I deny you that mercy.”

“They are dead,” I said. “Romeo and Juliet. Both dead. Count Paris, my aunt, Mercutio’s father, all dead this night. Can we not find some comfort in all this?”

“Comfort in each other’s bodies, heedless of consequence. And how will it end?” she asked me. “With poison? Daggers? A rope for you and a cellar-dug grave for me when my uncle rages at my betrayal? There is no peace in it, Ben. Not until the curse is done. It must be broken. We must break it.”

“How?” I sank down to my haunches, resting against the solid bulk of the door, and my cheek pillowed against its hard surface as I gazed within at that tiny vision of her face. I felt hot, angry, desperate, and infinitely afraid—afraid of what I might do, equally afraid of not heeding my desires. “I have no way to find the rosary—”

“What rosary?”

I realized that she had not heard the witch’s confession—nor had I told her all of it. I had supposed she knew, since she had been at the priest’s house, but she had been looking not for the rosary, but for Mercutio’s diary—a diary I had already burned.

She did not know.

“The curse,” I said. “It is in three parts. One on Mercutio’s flesh, now broken. One in his own hand, in blood, in his diary. And the third placed upon a rosary that he took from his dead lover’s grave. I thought it was with the church, but I did not find it there.”

“A rosary,” she repeated, and there was something dull and strange in her voice. “I had a gift of a rosary, sent here to me. It came to me in secret, the way Romeo once delivered his love notes. I thought it was only another of his gestures.”

“Where is it?” My heart leaped within me, but at the same time, a terrible dark urgency was rising. The curse knew its danger, and the unreasoning fever increased, demanding that I batter down the door, shatter all resistance, do whatever must be done to be with the one I loved . . . if love this was. “Rosaline! Where is it?”

“I—I gave it away,” she whispered. “Ah, God, God, I cannot bear this, Ben; my soul cries out for you and I die every minute we are apart. . . .” Her voice grew softer, because she had moved. I peered through the keyhole and saw her crawling toward the key.

She would let me in. I had only to wait. Part of me rejoiced in unholy abandon, and part of me despaired, because I would never have the strength to stop. If Rosaline fell, I would fall with her, and we would both burn.

“Rosaline,” I said. Her hand was on it now, trembling with eagerness to pluck it from the stones. “Rosaline, in God’s holy name, where is it?”

Her head turned, and she rose on her knees with the key cradled in both hands as tenderly as a nun might cradle a cross. She closed her eyes and swayed, and my whole body took flame at the sight of her barely concealed beneath the linen shift she wore, with the candlelight gliding over her like a lover’s hands. . . .

“Juliet’s nurse,” she said. “I gave the thing to Juliet’s nurse, who had broken her own rosary. I gave it as payment for taking you a message. I meant it a kindness, but what have I done?”

I remembered the old woman, collapsed in Juliet’s room, with her hands clasping prayer beads. It was only a few steps away, only a little distance, but I could not move. My flesh was married to this door, and all my will could not force me from it.

She must have known that all my resistance was fled, for Rosaline’s eyes opened, and she stared toward the door, toward the keyhole through which I peered.

“Forgive me,” she whispered, “but I know of no other way to stop myself.”

She took in a single deep breath, and then screamed.

This was no maiden’s cry, soft and tentative—it was a full-throated, awful sound that broke through all my drugged, cursed longing and shocked me, just for a moment, back to myself. Back to the Prince of Shadows, who knew that discovery in such circumstances meant death.

As she knew.

I heard the Capulet servants rousing below—even though they had fallen into disarray, her cry had rallied them, and they’d be up in only a few heartbeats to her defense. I would be cut to pieces on the stairs, or in the hall, and the curse would be well satisfied. Rosaline, knowing her cry had brought my death, would find a way to join me.

A plague upon both your houses.

“No,” I said, and forced myself up, back, away. Even then, I could hardly bear to tear my gaze from that keyhole, from the distant view of Rosaline clutching the key to our mutual destruction. “No!”

Two steps back, then three, and then I broke and ran for Juliet’s room.

Her nurse was not sleeping, but dead, eyes wide and staring, mouth agape—like my aunt, her breath had been stopped in the night. Her hand gripped the rosary with pale savagery, and I ripped it free and slammed the door on the startled faces of the arriving armed servants, then turned the key.

I had little time. They would break down the door if needed, and already they shouted for a heavy ram. The rosary felt cold in my hand, ice-cold, and slick as bone; menace clung to it like the miasma of death, and I felt Mercutio’s shade again in the room, avid and furious.

“No,” I told him. “Enough!”

Juliet’s fireplace still held dull red embers. I shoved in more wood, grabbed hold of a lantern, and crashed it into the mess; the oil spewed out, and the wood caught with an eager rustle that quickly became a roar.

The door shivered beneath the hit of something large—a bench, perhaps, carried by willing hands. It would not hold.

“Be at peace, my friend,” I said, and I thought of Mercutio as I had known him best in life—laughing, sharp, brilliant, and tender when no one watched. I thought of the glimpse I had once had of him in embrace with Tomasso, and the purity of the passion in his face. “What a scourge is laid upon hate, and heaven means to kill our joys with love. Let it be finished.”

I kissed the rosary, and tried to fling it into the fire.

It clung to my hands.

No.

I gave a raw cry of fury, and shook them, but the rosary had wrapped tight and would not loose me. There was a filthy kind of life to it, as if it did not want to perish any more than I.

I heard Rosaline calling my name, chanting it in a wretched, broken voice. I heard the doom in it, the despair. If I did not give in to this, it would kill her, too. It would take away the only reason I had to draw breath. I knew this as if Mercutio whispered it in my ear, and when I turned my head I saw his shade there, bending close. Bound to this rosary ripped from the hands of the dead.