Prince of Shadows

9,402
05.03.2019

I nodded thanks to her, and slowly backed away toward the balcony window. Next to my left hand was the bookcase, and at the last instant, I pulled a book from it—the slender volume she had been reading when first I’d seen her. Rosaline gave a surprised gasp and lunged forward, but she was too late.

“Something to remember you by,” I said, and held it up as I backed onto the balcony. She might scream now, betray me to my death; I couldn’t tell her intentions, and I didn’t care to guess. I jammed the small volume into my doublet and swung out onto the trellis, climbing down with as much silence and speed as might be into the shadows cast by the balcony, then paused to take stock of the garden below.

Rosaline ventured onto the balcony in pursuit, and she leaned over, looking directly down at me. She said nothing, and neither did I, but there was . . . something exchanged, after all.

On a sudden and probably stupid impulse, I reached up and pulled up the mask. I needed her to see my face.

And she smiled fully this time. It was wary and cool, but I felt an odd, heated jump in my veins even so.

“A fair exchange,” she whispered. “Now you should go. Quickly.”

I could hear Mercutio and Romeo shouting drunkenly out in the street; they’d have drawn all the attention of the guards, but it wouldn’t last long. I kicked away from the wall, mindful of the flower bed below, and dropped the last ten feet into the soft garden grass. Gaining my feet, I sprinted for the door through which I’d entered.

At the last moment, I spotted the guard there, examining the locks, and veered sharply away behind a bush’s thorny protection. Upon her balcony, Rosaline was watching with tense interest, hands gripping the stone hard. I could almost believe she was afraid for me.

Almost.

Only one way out, then: up. I had seconds, at most, before the guard left the door and began a more aggressive search of the grounds, so I launched myself onto the wall and climbed fast. I fought for handholds as I swarmed up the wall, and achieved the sticky ivy-covered top.

Knives. I remembered at the last possible second as I reached out, and snatched my fingers back from the sharp edges. I was pinned on the wall, unable to go forward.

No, there was a way after all. The craftsmen who had embedded these deadly traps in the top of the wall had cheated the Capulets, just a little—they had left off where the ivy flourished near the corner. It was impossible to spot from the ground, but here at eye level I clearly saw the opening.

I rolled into it, gasping for breath, and balanced there as I looked back.

Rosaline was still there, watching me. I raised my hand to her, and she nodded.

And then a shadow grabbed her and dragged her back, off balance, into her room. A tall, male shadow. I saw the flash of an upraised fist, heard the smack of its landing, and her surprised cry, and then Tybalt Capulet came out to lean over the balcony’s railing. He gripped the balustrade with both hands, and gazed down tensely into the garden. “Guards!” he snapped. “Idiots, pay attention; someone’s been here! I heard my sister talking to him, and I want him found! Immediately!” He spun, slapping the curtains aside with such force they caught on an edge of the doorway, leaving me a clear view into the room.

A clear view of Tybalt advancing on Rosaline, grabbing her arm and twisting it until she cried out. “Was it him?” he shouted, and raised his fist. “Was it that damned thief?” She said nothing, which earned her an openhanded slap hard enough to leave a bloodred imprint on her fair skin. “I found his boot prints below your balcony last time, you jade. You helped him stain the Capulet name. What’s he here to steal this time, your maidenhead? Are you fallen so low?”

She had been implicated in my last robbery. I felt stunned and stupid for not realizing she would be, when I’d left such obvious trace beneath her balcony, and I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter, that she was a Capulet by birth, and the sworn enemy of my house. The blood that ran through her veins was the same as in Tybalt’s. Her father had killed mine, long ago.

It didn’t sound as convincing as it should have done.

I saw her looking over Tybalt’s shoulder, and her eyes grew wider as she realized I was foolishly lingering atop the wall. I could almost read the angry message in them. Go, fool. And she was right.

I sucked in a deep breath, tucked the book tighter into my doublet, and rolled off the edge, into the shadows.

I landed on my feet, knees flexed, and hardly paused to wince at the impact before I was running fast and light to the street that curved around the palace. I caught sight of Mercutio and Romeo running toward me, chased by a group of Capulet bravos no longer entertained by their antics, and darted the other way, slowing to allow them to catch up. Romeo, no great lover of exertion, was already out of breath, but laughing all the same in hitching gasps. “Did you . . . get the—”

“They are destroyed,” I said tersely, saving my breath for the run. My mind was not, as I’d expected, full of triumph and elation; it was replaying the determined, grim expression on Rosaline’s face. That was the look of a woman who knew pain was coming, or worse. “I swear if you write more I will break your arm.”

He sent me a sideways look, clearly shocked; I was not joking, and he knew it. This was no lark now, no May Day jaunt that we would laugh about later. This was deadly earnest.

“Lead them away,” I ordered him and Mercutio. “Go toward Ponte della Vittoria; you should be able to lose them and turn back toward the palace. On no account let them take Romeo.”

He nodded, grabbed Romeo’s sleeve, and hauled him off in that direction.

I veered in the other. “Where is he going?” I heard my cousin ask plaintively, though Mercutio would have little idea of my destination. I had only just decided on it, and poured on speed through darkened, narrow streets, lit here and there by glancing blows of moonlight. I could hear pursuit’s baying cries behind, but it seemed Mercutio and Romeo were drawing them away. That was good. I needed time.

The avenues took on menacing edges at night, and twice I narrowly avoided the grasp of cutthroats lurking in shadows for victims; the watch did a lazy business at this time of night, and the assassins knew it. I avoided one ambling set of guards, ducked down a narrow, fetid alleyway, and came out next to the Chiesa di San Fermo, where I knew I would find a friendly ear, and a safe harbor.

I slipped through the open doors, suddenly aware of the sweat soaking my body, of the pounding of my heart, and the heavy, silken silence within the thick walls. Only a few candles glowed, painting the arches overhead as I stopped at the font to pay respects. I bent knee to the altar and hurried as fast as propriety would allow to the front of the church, where a plump, tonsured monk was praying, or perhaps pretending while resting his eyes and snoring.

I leaned close to him and whispered, “Rise up, dear friar; I call you to glory.”

His eyes flew open, blinked, and widened in what I suppose might be taken for religious ecstasy—or, more likely, horror. He scrambled awkwardly to his sandaled feet, staring at the silent altar and the crucified savior, and then turned and saw me.

“Rogue!” he roared, and then remembered he was in the house of the Lord, and amended it to a hoarse whisper as he clapped me on the side of the head hard enough to make me see a glimpse of angels. “Villain! Sly-tongued devil of infamy— Oh. Forgive me, sir.” He’d realized who I was, after his first outburst, and cleared his throat to try to restore himself some dignity. “What is this, young master? You come into the house of God with such nonsense? You stand before the holy presence and—”

“Have you been into the sacramental wine again, Friar Lawrence?” I asked. He had been; it was obvious indeed from the eloquence of his breath. “Is that not a greater sin than a shoddy trick on an old man?”

He shook a fist at me, but kept his voice to a hissing whisper. “Old man, am I? Not so old that I cannot teach you manners again, as I did when you were just a tender child! What mean you, coming here at this hour?”

“I come in earnest,” I said. “Forgive me, but one of your flock is in danger, and I can only think you as shepherd must rush to the rescue.”

“Flock? Have I sheep to tend now, at this hour when the devil stalks?”

“Rosaline Capulet,” I said. “Her brother means to beat her, perhaps worse. If you might visit tonight, perhaps seeking after her well-being . . .”

“I have misheard,” he said, and cupped his ear toward me. “Did you say Capulet? Surely not, with such worry in your tone. What would stir you to such instincts, to betray your own?”

“I betray nothing,” I said, and now there was an edge to my tone, not the worry he’d claimed. “It’s none of my affair. Should it be any of yours, a timely visit might save the girl’s looks, if not her life.”

“She’s bound for cloister, my boy; looks are no great asset for her.” Still, he pursed his lips, and then sighed. “I go, then, but what shall be my excuse? How heard I her cries from here?”

“Why, good friar, surely God came to you in a dream,” I said. “And wished you to deliver his good tidings to his would-be bride of Christ.”

“If you prove to be God, young blasphemer, I shall need a great deal more sacramental wine than exists in Verona,” he said, but nodded. “Leave it to me, then.”

“So you may slip back into your wine-drenched prayers? No, Friar, I will come with you.”

He barked out a sharp, harsh laugh that ran around the empty church like a too-bold child. “I scarce think a Montague would be welcome,” he said.

“Monks have no family but that of Christ,” I said, and attempted to look saintly. “And a hooded robe conceals all else, so long as I keep my face humbly lowered.”

“Humble is not a word I think of when I consider you,” the friar said, but he was not objecting. One thing I knew of him: He liked his little intrigues. “But you, Benvolio, you have a cold eye. Swear you will not betray yourself once we are within!”