Prince of Shadows

9,227
05.03.2019

“What profit would it be if I did?” I asked him. “Trapped within the jaws of those who’d delight in my bloody slaughter? No. I seek only to see the thing done. I’ll take no risk. See you take none either.”

The friar was only a few moments rummaging for a spare, poorly patched habit; it fit me very badly, which was all to the good, as novice monks frequently were handed the rags. Belted soundly with rope, it swaddled me in heavy, smothering folds that smelled of incense and ripened sweat.

“The sword,” Fra Lawrence said. “You must leave it here. Even beneath the robe, it is too easily seen. You must exchange your boots for plain sandals.”

I did these things without complaint, though shedding my weapon caused me to feel more naked than removing any amount of garb. I had worn steel since I was old enough to be allowed out in a pack with my cousins to roam the streets. Tonight I was defenseless.

I am but a humble monk, I reminded myself. God is my defense.

That, and the reeking tent of robes I wore as disguise.

Fra Lawrence examined his handiwork and pronounced that I would do, if I remembered to keep my head decently downturned. “And never, never look up,” he lectured me sternly, or as could a monk who weaved side to side from the effects of stout wine. “You are simply there to look devout. Any hint of arrogance and I will be embarrassed, but you will be beyond any such concerns.”

I tucked my chin down, folded my hands in the voluminous sleeves, and tried to forget a lifetime of training to be a ruler of men. It was, I found, surprisingly restful.

We walked through the streets unmolested. One cutpurse slid greasily from the shadows, only to look us over in disappointment. Fra Lawrence made the sign of the cross to him with great good humor, and we padded on our way without further offense being offered. The robes seemed to weigh on me like armor, though it would undoubtedly be far less useful to turn a Capulet sword. I began to wonder whether perhaps I was being a bit too bold, but the chance to tweak Tybalt’s nose yet again was irresistible . . . and I needed to see that Rosaline had not suffered overmuch for my failings.

Though I would not admit that, to her or—God forbid—anyone else. I could only hope that Friar Lawrence would keep his silence—which, considering that his earthly family owed mine a debt, seemed safe enough. No one wished to risk the wrath of the Montagues, and particularly La Signora di Ferro. The thought of my grandmother descending from her chair like a decaying, shrieking devil was enough to lock anyone’s throat to silence . . . even a gossiping, ever-lecturing busybody like the friar.

Or so I had to hope, for the sake of my life. My grandmother would likely hiss and remind me that even a churchman might suffer a drunken tumble down narrow stairs, for the safety of the family. I was not quite so ready to resort to such tactics. I just knew they existed.

The walk was made in hurried silence; I had managed to impress urgency upon the good friar, at least. But it still seemed to take far too long, even at the rapid pace, and by the time he had rung the bell to summon a servant, it seemed sure that we were far, far too late to be of any help at all.

Friar Lawrence’s self-important godly bluster was enough to win us the courtyard, where a more senior servant confronted us with the peculiar mix of arrogance and deference that those who serve the rich always seem to have. He was hardly a hair’s difference from any of ten who haunted the halls of the Montague palace, waiting for any opportunity to impress their betters and oppress their lessers. I had never before seen the sneer leveled upon me, though. It wakened anger in me, but unlike most of my friends and cousins (Romeo in particular), I was not one to draw blood. I was the peacemaker, the reasonable calm in the storm.

I would take my vengeance later, coolly and anonymously, if it rankled me, but for now, my anger was fueled by the fact that the man was wasting our very valuable time, and I could see the temptation in Romeo’s tendency to wet his steel with those standing in his way.

Friar Lawrence sent me an alarmed glance, and I quickly looked down, hiding in the shadow of the church’s hood. My shoulders were stiff, and I rounded them, and folded my hands together into a penitent clasp within the sleeves.

Merciful saints, it was almost as stifling within these fragrant robes as in Grandmother’s evil lair.

It seemed to take forever for the friar to persuade our entry, by virtue of invoking many visions of saints and threatening the ire of the bishop, but we were finally shown into the darkened grand hall, where an even more senior servant waited stiffly in her severe gown. She looked as if she had been born in it, and would die in it, but only after she’d destroyed the last of her enemies from sheer spite.

In short, she much resembled a younger version of my grandmother, and after a quick, cautious glance I kept my gaze fixed on the shadow-muted carpet underfoot.

“What is this?” she demanded. “You seek to intrude on the peace of the young lady for what reason at this unchristian hour, Friar? And prate me no nonsense about visions and saintly motives; I know well the venal thoughts of men, no matter what robes they wear.”

“What unkindness you have in your heart, signora! I shall remember you in my prayers as often as possible, that you should know peace from some terrible suspicion. Why, I am a man of God! And I come on a holy errand for the lady Rosaline, who is soon to be my sister in Christ and therefore as dear to me as any sister of my blood. Surely you do not stand in the way of angels!”

She made a very unladylike sound of derision. “Fallen angels, belike.”

He crossed himself. Twice. “You cut me, dear signora. Yet I stand before you with the patience of a martyr, begging the gift of the presence of the lady—”

Friar Lawrence’s indignation was cut off by a wine-harshened, familiar voice. “Get out. You’re not needed here.” I risked a quick glance upward, toward the staircase, where Tybalt Capulet was charging down toward us. His face was flushed and livid, and his dark eyes sparked with rage. “Out, I say! If I need a lecture from the Church, we’ll get it from the cathedral, not from some threadbare friar! We’ve had thieves here, and worse; the last we need is you!”

Friar Lawrence straightened, and I remembered my submissive role just as Tybalt’s gaze sheared over me. “Thieves, you say? But this is proof! My vision showed me that the lady Rosaline needed counsel and guidance in this matter, the better to practice the holy virtues of forgiveness! Why, I felt the touch of the saints stirring me from my rest, kind sir, and one cannot argue with saints; I shall get no rest from them until I ease my mind that the lady is well and secure in her faith after such a shock.”

“Her family serves her well enough,” Tybalt replied, and I felt the prick of alarm at the wintry cast of his words. “Begone.”

“Tybalt!” The name was said in whip-crack command, and from the corner of my eye I saw him react sharply, turning toward the balcony overlooking the hall. Since his attention was elsewhere, I too risked a glance, and found Lady Capulet herself regarding us all with annoyance and distaste. “Such disrespect to the Church will not be tolerated. My sincerest apologies, brothers. You may address your concerns to me, and not my nephew.”

Friar Lawrence did not hesitate to exploit the opening. “I come in haste, afire with purpose sent from heaven,” he said. “I must urgently see the lady Rosaline on matters of a spiritual nature. I would of course be glad of your attendance, my lady Capulet.”

She hesitated for so long that I could feel the balance shifting beneath my unsteady feet, back toward Tybalt and his simmering violence, but then she gave one single, sharp nod. “Come with me.” Tybalt must have made to protest, because I heard her give an ice-cold hiss, and then say, “Nothing more from you this eve. Your uncle will hear of your misbehaviors. Your manners are no better than those of a drudge.”

In true noble fashion, she was less concerned with the state of her soul—or anyone’s—than with the appearance of rudeness to an institution more powerful on earth—never mind heaven—than the prince himself. Tybalt stood back to allow Friar Lawrence to ascend the steps, closely followed by me; I admit, I took some satisfaction in passing so near an enemy in perfect silence, hidden in plain sight. If only I’d been able to lift a trinket or two, the moment might have been perfection, but the risk was too great. Better to steal on the way out than the way in.

We followed the drifting skirts of Lady Capulet—attended now by a covey of ladies-in-waiting, including the sour-faced woman who’d first braced us—down the candlelit hall toward the room I knew to be Rosaline’s. She did not bother to announce herself. One of the servants opened the way, and the party swept like a storm inside.

I did not see Rosaline right away, only heard the intake of breath from Friar Lawrence. One of the ladies gave a faint cry—distressed, but hardly surprised.

I caught sight of Lady Capulet’s expression. It did not change by so much as a flicker.

I eased a few inches to the right, keeping my face as shadowed as possible as I risked a direct look at the scene ahead of us, and for a frozen moment all I could see was blood. Blood in drips and dribbles, staining the floor.

Rosaline was wedged into a cold corner, knees drawn up, nightgown bloodied from her split lip and the open cut on her forehead. It would take time for the bruises to form, but her left eye was already swollen, and the right side of her jaw distorted from the beating she’d received. She held her right arm tenderly, and I saw the bloody scrapes on her knuckles.

What sort of woman was she, to fight back? She’d lost, of course, and badly, but it was the sight of those wounded hands that made me feel as if I had lost my breath entire.

That, and the fact that she recognized me.

I saw her raise her head, and she met my gaze with her own, or at least half of it, and I saw the barely perceptible reaction that ran through her. There was an emotion there I could not fully understand—fear, of course; who would not be afraid? But something more.

I thought it might—impossibly—be gratitude.

“A fortunate thing that she is to be a bride of Christ,” her aunt said, “since His love transcends such earthly considerations as beauty. As you can see, the girl is inclined to be unbiddable at times, Friar.”