Prince of Shadows

9,229
05.03.2019

A short journey brought us to the back wall of the Capulet palazzo.

Again.

There was no longer any chance of an easy entrance to the house. . . . I knew well enough that they would be checking the faces of any man entering or leaving. No, this would require extraordinary stealth and effort.

At least the wall didn’t look especially difficult.

Mercutio gave me a sharp, knowing smile, and threw his arm around Romeo’s shoulder to steer him down the Via Cappello. “Go to the Via Mazzini,” I told them. “Right past the front gates. Go buy some wine and enjoy it, loudly, in the street.”

“We who are about to drink, salute you,” Mercutio said, with a flamboyant, cloak-rippling bow. He grabbed my cousin in a headlock when Romeo tried to break free. “You too, poet. Let’s be off about our business of making trouble, and leave Benvolio to his.”

Romeo struggled, but Mercutio held him until he signaled his surrender.

“Don’t hurt her,” he told me, so earnestly that I had to again hold back an impulse to cuff him for his assumptions. I was a thief, not a monster. “Please, Ben, promise that you will do nothing but take the verses. If you must punish someone, then let it be me. She bears no guilt in this.”

He was a bit of a fool, my cousin, but he had a good heart, even while he assumed mine to be blackened. “I will try to restrain all temptations,” I said. “Now go. Hurry.”

Romeo nodded to me, and Mercutio led him off to a riotous drink and—very likely—trouble of their own.

I reached into my bag and took out the black silk scarf, which I settled over my head and pulled low over my eyes; I adjusted the eye holes carefully to be sure I had a full range of vision before tying it securely in place. I took a deep breath, looked up at the wall, and allowed my gaze to wander, seeking out the telltale shadows, uneven patches, cracks—everything that would allow my fingers and toes a purchase. I disliked the ivy; it wouldn’t hold my weight, and no matter how careful I might be, the plants would betray marks of passage, and leave their signs on clothing.

But there was more, a subtle change to the wall itself. I’d come over it two months past, and now there was an addition, half-hidden in shadow at the top.

Knives. Blackened ones, deliberately hard to spot. If I had climbed to the top and put my hand out, the flesh would have been shredded and sliced. A dangerously clever trick, especially if, as I thought likely, they had poisoned the blades as well.

I needed another entrance—and the small gate set around the corner, in the shadows, was a perfect choice. It was meant for tradesmen and servants, and fitted with a well-oiled lock. I had packed my tools in a small padded bag, and it was the work of only a few labored breaths to pull back the metal tongue from its groove. No dogs patrolled within—the Capulets did not favor them, fortunately—but I knew I would face the prospect of roaming guards who had absolute authority and the will to do murder.

It was probably not good that I enjoyed the challenge of that.

I slipped inside the darkened gardens; I had not noticed on my last, hurried passage here, but the bushes were fragrant now with roses, and the blooms sagged heavy and fresh. The steady hushed fountain still played its peaceful melody. I kept to the shadows and moved over the polished marble walk to the darkness below the balconies. Rosaline’s was the one to my right as I faced it, and I began to study my chances.

I heard the scrape of boot on stone, and stepped back in a smooth, unhurried glide just as one of the expected roaming guards chanced to check the gardens. I credit my ability to stand stock-still to my grandmother’s long and endless lecturing; however I came by it, it allowed me to become part of the shadows, and the guard passed me by without a glance. He stank of bad garlic and even worse wine, but his stride was steady, and I had no doubt he was alert enough. I waited until he’d taken a turn behind a large flowering tree before I stepped out again. I’d run out of time. His wouldn’t be the only vigilant eyes here.

I leaped half my height up on the wall. The ivy was wet and slippery, but there was a hard trellis beneath, and I swarmed up it with only a slight rustling of leaves. I was grateful that the moon had buried itself in a pillow of cloud, as it made my ascent less immediately obvious. My gloves and rough clothes absorbed the splinters from the wooden framework I climbed, though I felt one or two bite deeply enough to penetrate. I paused in the shadow cast by the square edges of the balcony itself as I breathed hard, and listened.

The room was silent as the grave. This time the girl would be sleeping deeply.

I swung my legs up and over the balcony’s edge, and narrowly avoided tipping over a large vase full of cut roses; the thorns caught at my cloak and made my would-have-been-smooth arrival more comical than a troupe of mimes. I dropped below the level of the balcony’s lip as the moon emerged from its clouds, and carefully untangled myself before crawling through the billowing curtains and into the room.

It was reassuringly dark. The table where I’d last seen her was empty, though I smelled the smoke and hot beeswax from a candle but recently extinguished. Rosaline’s bed was large, but plain; it was shrouded with heavy tapestries of scenes of women doing moral things, and they were all drawn down. No attendant slept within the chamber. Against the far wall stood an entire wall of shelves, and more books than I thought existed in the city of Verona. I stood for a moment to marvel at them—that was a great deal of expense and indulgence, for a girl—and that moment was my downfall.

I hadn’t heard her move. Not at all. Yet on my next indrawn breath, I felt the ice-cold prickle of a blade on the back of my neck, and a lovely, calm, no-nonsense voice said, “The Prince of Shadows, yet again. I let you have one visit, my prince, but two casts grave doubt upon my honor. I think this time I will summon my brother, Tybalt.”

“Don’t,” I said, very quietly. “I come peacefully enough, on a mission to aid you.”

“Aid me?” She seemed amused, and no little mocking. “I’ve heard bravos boasting in the streets of making free with Capulet women. Have you come to prove yourself as bold?”

“It is not how I fight my battles, threatening women. Though I have heard your own house’s hired killers say they would take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s. What wall do you think they meant, for the maids?”

She was silent for a moment. I thought of telling her what had started this misadventure, of Tybalt and the Montague girl in the alley, but it seemed cruel. He was a brother to her, as much as he was a vile serpent to me.

“Turn,” she said. “Turn and face me.” A candle sparked to life in a rush of gold.

I did turn, because I wanted to see her face as well. Just to remind myself of what she was like. She was still wearing a nightgown, but this time she had donned a heavy mantle as well. A little disappointing, perhaps. I remembered how luminous she’d been, glowing through that fabric.

I bowed silently to her.

“Masked as always,” she said, and I thought she almost smiled. Almost.

“Will you ask me to remove it?” I asked.

“Perhaps. What do you want here?”

“Nothing too dear,” I said. “Love poems.”

She was far too intelligent for her own good, because that was all I had to say: Two words, and she knew. “From your height and shoulders, you’re not Romeo; nor would you be some hired sword sent for something so indelicate. You’d be the cousin, then. Benvolio. Did you come to rob from me, or kill? Surely killing would be simpler, to ensure I didn’t speak of it later.”

The mask might as well have been made of air. I felt utterly at a loss now. . . . What was there to do? Beat her? Threaten her? Already, I knew that Rosaline was not a woman to be intimidated, though she was no older than I was. Killing her was out of the question. I’d not kill a woman in any case, but it was a moot point; she held the dagger. Competently.

“As a formal introduction, I suppose it must serve,” I finally said, and bowed again. “Lady Rosaline.”

“Forgive me if I don’t offer my hand to be kissed,” she said. “Poetry? That awful drivel that Romeo has been sending me, I assume. I was hoping someone would have the sense to stop him.”

“As bad as that?”

“Your cousin reads by rote and cannot spell,” she said. “But his enthusiasm, at least, seems genuine.”

“Then there is no cause to keep it,” I said. “Give me the papers and I’ll be on my way.”

“I burned them,” she said, and tossed her loose dark hair over her shoulders as I frowned. “Do you think me a blockhead? Had anyone discovered I had made such nonsense a home, I’d have been punished, and poor love-struck Romeo hunted down and cut to pieces by my brother. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s just a foolish boy.”

I wasn’t used to women like this—unsentimental, brisk, brilliantly foresighted. I’d thought that a bookish aging virgin would have hoarded love poems to greedily warm her in the cold, but Rosaline clearly held her own source of heat. She radiated it like a bonfire, and beside it I felt very, very cold.

I cleared my throat, because I realized that I was staring like a boy in a brothel. “Your word on it?”

She smiled, just a little. “I am a Capulet, sir. Why would you believe my word?”

“Why indeed, but I think I would. If you gave it.”

“Then you have it.”

“Thank you,” I said. My voice was not quite steady, but her hand on the dagger was. “I believe our business is done, lady.”

“As done as may be,” she agreed. “Can you exit the grounds in safety?”

“I’m the Prince of Shadows,” I said, and smiled. “I can exit hell itself without a twitch of the devil’s tail.”

“You’re very close to meeting him.” She was not smiling, not even a hint of it now. Her eyes held shadows. “There is a racket of singing out in the street on the other side of the house. Take advantage of your distraction while you still may. The guards will be back patrolling in force soon enough, and I cannot risk myself to save you. You understand this.”