“I will hear the tale,” he said.
It was, it seemed, not my place to tell it, as a smooth-faced courtier all dressed in black robes—a lawyer—stepped forward and bowed. “My prince, in last evening’s late uproar, an alarm was raised within the Capulet household while the lord and lady were absent. When servants answered this call, they found Juliet Capulet’s nurse dead upon the floor, and this man—a Montague—in carnal embrace with young Rosaline Capulet, sister to slain Tybalt and cousin to poor Juliet.”
The prince nodded, eyes still fixed upon me. “And who raised this alarm?”
“Rosaline Capulet, my lord.”
Put in such terms, it did sound damning. I looked behind me. The Capulets had formed a knot of red behind me, blocking the doorway, and Rosaline’s uncle looked murderous daggers at me. Behind him, the veiled figure of Rosaline stood very still, breath stirring the fabric that shrouded her face.
“And was the nurse murdered, then?”
“Well, my prince, who can say? There were no marks upon her, but a strong young man may kill an old woman by smothering, or by choking—”
“Were there then marks of hands upon her throat?” Prince Escalus asked. He sounded only mildly interested. “Or did her eyes show red?”
“Red, my prince?”
“A physician from Venezia gave a lecture—perhaps you might have attended it more closely—in which he said that one might tell a smothering by the telltale red stains left upon the eyes, as the veins burst within.”
The lawyer hesitated a moment, then bowed. “You are most wise, Highness, but there were no such discolorings that I have been told, and no sign of hands upon her throat.”
“Then there is no evidence that the young man smothered or choked the woman, only that she is dead. There has been a plague of death upon this town of recent days, and almost all within three houses: Ordelaffi, Capulet, and Montague. I understand Benvolio’s aunt expired in the night. Shall we suspect him of that murder as well?” The prince waved away the lawyer’s response before it was delivered. “No, the crux of the matter is that Rosaline Capulet raised an alarm. Why?”
“The villain was breaking her door, my prince,” Capulet said, and stepped forward. “To save her most precious honor, she screamed for aid, and aid was given, but not before this wretch slipped outside, came through her balcony, and began his assault, which was thankfully incomplete.”
The prince’s eyebrows rose, though his face showed little else. He turned his attention back to me. “I do not see your uncle,” he said. “Is there no one to speak for you, Benvolio?”
“I can speak for myself, my prince.”
“Then do so,” he said, and leaned back with his arms on the carved lion’s-head armrests of the throne. “I attend.”
“I must go back, with your patience, to the death of a young man hanged outside these walls. . . .”
I told the story, then, of Tomasso and Mercutio. I ignored the cries of protest from those who felt the tale too perverse for the fragile ears of the ladies, and grimly went on with it, to describe the anguish of Mercutio, his fury, and finally, his curse. “Romeo had never clapped eyes upon the Capulet maiden Juliet until he saw her at the feast where the Capulets would celebrate her betrothal to Count Paris,” I said. “Is it then sensible that he formed such a close attachment that he would marry her in only days? Or that he would linger in Verona past his exile to stay in her embrace, when he knew well his life was forfeit? Mercutio’s lover was ripped from him, and he wished to visit that horror upon those he saw as guilty—to make them feel that love, and that terrible loss.”
“If there is a curse, it follows there must be a witch,” Prince Escalus said. His brows had lowered again, into a frown now, and he rested his chin upon one closed fist. “Can you produce her?”
I heard a bustle from behind me, and as I turned to look, I spotted the bulk of Friar Lawrence pushing through with whispered apologies. He held up his hand as he came forward. “Your Highness, the witch is gone, but I can attest that I heard her speak of this curse to young Benvolio,” he said. He had clearly run a long way to be here; his face shone with sweat, and his body trembled as he sucked down whoops of air. I had never been so glad to see his merry face, even if it looked not so merry at this moment. “Benvolio set out to break the curse; I am sure of it. It is a sad truth that he was too late for his cousin Romeo and the poor child Juliet, who lay together in death, making it a bridal tomb. And too late also for your poor cousin Paris, who did no one any ill in this matter, but only stood between the lovers and so died for it.”
“This curse matters not in what the Capulets charge,” Prince Escalus said, and fixed that broody gaze on me once more. “Were you then in the Capulets’ palace, Benvolio?”
“Came you there upon anyone’s invitation?”
“Did you knock upon Rosaline’s locked door and try to enter?”
There was no help for it. “Yes.”
“Did you then scale to her balcony and enter in that way?”
“And did the Capulets truly find you in carnal embrace of this girl?”
“In embrace, yes,” I said. I could not rightly call it wholly carnal. There was too much of heaven in it.
“Then what possible defense do I consider? You agree to the plain facts of the complaint against you. You trespassed, and you compromised the honor of the Capulet girl. You are lucky indeed that the door fell to their servants when it did, or your penalty would be much harsher—”
“Wait!” There was a struggle behind me, surprised and distressed cries, and then a veil settled to the floor like a cloud as Rosaline struggled against her aunt’s grasping hands. “My prince, wait! Let me be heard!”
The lawyer stepped forward, shaking his head, and said, in a low voice, “My prince, this is not proper. The girl is bound for the convent, and women have no place to speak here!”
“Then there is no harm to her soul in letting her speak, nor to us in lending our ears,” Prince Escalus said, and gestured toward the Capulets. “Let her come forward.”
I drank in the sight of her as she pulled free of her family’s protection and stepped out to walk the distance alone. She was straight-backed and unafraid, head held high, and she exchanged with me a long, warm glance before settling gracefully into a low curtsy before the prince.
He bade her rise, and said, “What have you to add, then, my lady?”
“Benvolio Montague did not try to force my door,” she said. “I do not ask you to understand what occurred between us, but there was a curse, my prince, and it was working upon us both; even so, even with the madness of black magic driving him to me, he did not offer me any violence, nor any insult. I screamed to protect him, sir, and not to damn him.”
“Ho, this is a turn.” The prince sat up straight, and a buzz of whispers ran through the crowd—so many, I had not realized. They’d been slipping in quietly behind me, and now half the notables of Verona were gathered to see. “How so?”
“To drive him away ere I opened that door myself, so bespelled by the curse was I,” she said. “And to force him to find the object that fixed the curse upon us. Which he did, in Juliet’s rooms, and so shattered the evil.” She took in a slow, steady breath, and said, “I confess that we did kiss, Your Highness, but there was nothing of violence offered from it, and nothing but sweet comfort, for I love him, sir. I know he is the enemy of my house; I know that rivers of blood lie between our two families. But surely the deaths of our dear cousins must, in shared grief, work to end that anger.” She turned on her uncle and her aunt. “Did you not say that at the tombs you wept, and so did Montague? That the taste of this feud lay bitter on your tongues?”
“She is right.” A new voice, and an oddly frail one; my uncle’s normal strength was gone, and he leaned heavily upon his cane, and upon the arm of my mother, who stood beside him. “I have promised to raise a statue to the honor of young Juliet, and so Capulet has also sworn to honor my fallen Romeo. Are we then to deny a living love, whilst honoring a dead one?”
I searched my mother’s face for any trace of anger, but she smiled at me, and through her tears I saw a real and genuine happiness.
And then came the dreaded tapping of a cane, and the crowd swirled and parted in frantic haste, for tottering into the room, much supported by her anxious attendants, came the Iron Lady, my grandmother. She wore black, and all the layers of velvet and lace and veils made her look a charred corpse. Her face was eerily white, and her filmed eyes roamed the room, marking enemies, and settled their fiercest gaze upon me.
“Traitor to your blood and your line,” she spat, and raised her cane. “Half-blooded unnatural thing! My curse upon you, fool boy—look you, my prince, upon the face of that villain you’ve sought all these years, who foxed your guards and defied your edicts. Look you upon that lawless wretch, the Prince of Shadows!” She stamped the metal-shrouded butt end of the cane upon the marble, with enough force I thought the stone might crack, and the impact rang through the room like the tolling of a death bell. Shock waves went through it, and faces turned toward me, and then toward the prince. Half of those here had been victims of my crimes, and they waited only upon his reaction to cry my neck into a noose.
Prince Escalus, in turn, looked to Montague and my mother. I held out no hopes. For too long, my grandmother had terrorized our house; she had ruled with fear and hatred, and driven us all before her like leaves in a storm.
But now my uncle straightened his back and said, “My apologies to you, good prince, but my mother is unwell. Her mind has wandered these past few weeks, and she sees threats and phantoms everywhere, as the frail and elderly sometimes do. I beg you, pay no heed to her wild fancies. We will tend to all her needs in our home, and see that she never spreads such wicked lies again.”