Prince of Shadows

9,412
05.03.2019

“True,” I said—also without enthusiasm. “But there is Romeo’s reputation to consider.”

“Ah, me. How many of these florid declarations did he pen?”

“Six,” I said.

“Perhaps seven,” Romeo amended. He sounded properly abashed about it, as the night wore on and his wine did not. “It was not wise, but she is beautiful. I love her entirely.”

Mercutio gave me a look. “Stab me and save the Capulets the trouble. Isn’t Rosaline the bookish one?”

“Yes. It’s possible she never even read his scrawlings, only burned them.”

“That would have been eminently sensible,” my friend agreed. “But I suppose we have to be sure, if your grandmother requires it.”

“If m’lord Capulet discovers them, he’ll make a mockery of our family, even as he punishes his own.” I loaded the title with all the scorn it deserved. Capulet was no lord; not a drop of noble blood flowed in his veins. To be fair, none coursed through Montague veins, either . . . but in Verona, the merchants counted for more than the merely wellborn.

Mercutio traced the fine silver decoration on his goblet with a fingertip as he considered the issue. “She was destined for the convent anyway. It might be enough to dispatch her there immediately before her disgrace is common market gossip.”

“Capulets are not known for their restraint. Remember the lady Sophia? Better for all if these damning letters are put to the fire. To be sure of that, we must find them.”

We fell silent. Mercutio reached for the pitcher on the table and splashed more wine into his cup.

“Her rooms face the garden,” Romeo said. “There are two balconies. Hers is on the right, as you face it from the wall.”

We both looked at him with identical expressions of surprise, and to cover his sudden embarrassment, Romeo held up his hand for a cup. Balthasar handed him one. When I started to protest, he showed me a water jug.

Good man. I didn’t need Romeo’s wits wandering tonight. “And how would you know?” I asked. “You swore you were not alone with her.”

“I can climb as well as you.”

Mercutio batted him on the back of the head. “A Capulet wall? And when did you perform this miracle?”

“Last week.”

I was sickened that Romeo had performed this little folly after my theft from the palace—which meant he’d done it in triple the danger. It had been sheerest luck he’d escaped.

“And if they’d caught you?” I drew my thumb across my throat. “Capulets have a great many bravos employed who’d take delight in carving your skin away slowly. There’d have been a bonus for them if they delivered it as a single pelt. Capulet might have it made into a carpet, and sent it to warm our grandmother’s feet.”

“I love Rosaline,” Romeo said. “One risks anything for love.”

Mercutio gave him a disbelieving stare, then turned to me. “You actually let this infant out in the streets, Ben? On his own?”

“He’s an innocent, not a child.”

“Yes, you’re right. I’ve known toddlers with better sense.”

Romeo’s cheeks were ruddy now, but he managed to keep his tone steady. “Are you going with us or not?”

“It’s better than another evening of watching my sisters embroider.” Mercutio finished his cup and tossed it to Balthasar, who caught it out of the air with the ease of long practice. “Well? The hour’s late; any decent woman will be abed by now. The moon’s in your favor tonight; since Romeo fancies himself so expert in wall scaling, he should see how the expert does it.”

Romeo had chanced on my identity as Prince of Shadows last year, after the theft of an expensive golden chalice from the vaults of the Utteri palace. It had been bad timing and worse luck that he’d been slinking back from a disreputable night, and run directly across my path as I limped through the door with a badly sprained ankle, and my prize. He’d wrapped my ankle, hidden the chalice, and lied about my late return when asked—all without a trace of shame or guilt. But he’d asked no questions, and I’d told him nothing about other adventures.

There were times—though not many—when my cousin was worth his trouble.

“Get ready,” I told Mercutio and Romeo. I’d already donned a muted dark blue tunic and hose, plain and unmarked with any family emblems; the boots I’d chosen were likewise of average quality. I could have passed for a visiting merchant easily enough, so long as no one looked too closely at my face. A muffling cloak and my silk mask would take care of that.

Mercutio had also come prepared for nighttime skulking; there was no trace of his usual bright golds and greens, and he looked oddly subdued in plain brown. He pulled a cap from his pocket and pushed it down to cover his hair.

That left Romeo, who still wore Montague colors. We both gazed at him for long enough that he finally scowled. “What?”

“We are about to do something astonishingly dangerous and quite possibly foolish,” Mercutio said. “It might be best if they couldn’t identify you from the distance of, say, the far end of a crossbow.”

Romeo fairly blushed at that, and I was reminded that he wasn’t yet so much a man as still a boy—man in the eyes of the law, yes, but it would take time to teach him the responsibilities of that right. He ducked his head and nodded, then turned away to rummage in my chest for something else to wear. We weren’t much of a size, but the plain shirt and vest he chose were close enough. Balthasar brought another cloak, this one of coarse black fabric, with liberal stains. It was good enough to disguise a multitude of shortcomings.

“You shouldn’t do this,” Balthasar muttered to me under his breath. He wasn’t much older than I, and although it was rare for master and servant to be friends, I counted him as close as Mercutio. He kept my secrets. Mercutio’s, too, for that matter. “Stealing’s not a job for a group of half-drunken young fools. You know that.”

“They won’t be with me,” I said. “Mercutio and Romeo make fine distractions.”

Balthasar took in a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “Sir, I know you’re one for risks, but this—in the house of Capulet, again . . .”

“The Prince of Shadows has always stolen from the best houses in Verona,” I said. “He’s taken earrings off a sleeping duchess. What difference? It’s all risk.”

“The other times were for revenge, and profit,” he said. “This is for family. And it’s different. They’ll be watching for you.”

Balthasar had been in on the secret from the beginning. My first thefts had been vengeful boyish fun, nothing more—a dare, when I was only ten, from the troublemaking Mercutio. I’d stolen a pendant from one of his aunts who had beaten him for impertinence. I’d been happy to scale the wall, sneak into her rooms, make off with the pendant, and sell it in the markets. Mercutio had pocketed the money. Compensation for his humiliations.

My thieving had expanded over time to right many, many wrongs, and Balthasar had known all.

Over time, I had developed a taste for stealing. It was an art that took nerve, skill, agility, and strength; it also took instincts, good ones, to know when something was possible, and when it was not.

Now Balthasar was voicing the warning that rang in the back of my mind.

“They say things about this girl,” he told me. “This Rosaline. She has the eye of a witch.”

“I’ve seen her. She’s no evil eye in her.”

Balthasar snorted, which conveyed better than words what he thought of my judgment of women. “Only witches have so much to do with irreligious books.”

I cuffed him on the back of the head, but lightly. “Even so, you don’t think I can sneak past a woman? Don’t be stupid. I’ve done it a hundred times.”

“Not with this one,” he said. “Not a Capulet witch. I don’t like it, sir. I don’t like it at all.”

In truth, I could understand, but it pricked me hard to think that any servant of mine feared a Capulet. “Well,” I said, “the Prince of Shadows has his tender amorous heart set on acquiring stirring love poems this evening. And possibly a jewel or two.”

He shook his head and gave me a look of disgust. “You’re going to swing one of these days,” he told me. “If you’re lucky. Maybe tonight, the Prince of Cats will get his claws around your throat instead.”

Tybalt Capulet, Prince of Cats, had been named so by Mercutio in a jest that had less to do with his grace and cruelty than it did a ribald play on words. If Tybalt caught me, my ravaged corpse would be found nailed to the same tavern door where I’d skewered his reputation.

I felt a breath of chill, and shook it off as I pulled my cloak tighter. “Perhaps,” I said. “He must catch me first.”

• • •

Mercutio was, of course, my partner in crime. . . . He was an expert in distractions, but having the clumsy, still half-drunken Romeo along was even better. The narrow, uneven streets of Verona were dangerous in full daylight, where footpads and knock-heads lurked in shadows and blind archways. In moonlight, the villains were ever bolder, but even they hesitated to tangle with armed groups. We made sure they saw and heard us as we sauntered over the streets. It helped that Mercutio had a donkey’s singing voice, and used it to bray the bawdiest drinking song he knew; Romeo and I bawled out choruses as we strode up the hill.

There was a dizzying sameness to the streets of my fair city, even to natives—all the walls were cut from the same stone, faced with marble, broken only by frescoes and the faded colors of mosaics in the half-ruined ancient walls. Verona was not a lush place; the verdant gardens of the rich were walled up from prying peasant eyes. Even from the bell tower of the basilica, it was hard to spot any sign of trees, or even bushes . . . just pale stone, marble, and clay tile roofs.

Crossing the Piazza delle Erbe, we saw another group of armed young men, these very obviously wearing the colors of Capulet, but they gave us no trouble. Had we been in Montague colors, we’d have brewed a fight, but they only shouted recommendation of the nearest wine shop and continued around the fountain. One of them bared his pockmarked backside at the placid face of the marble statue—ancient, though known as the Madonna because of her great beauty—until a shout from the watch guards sent them running and hooting on their way. By this time we had gone quiet, slipping like ghosts through the shadows.