Authors: Rachel Caine
“I meant nothing by it, coz; you know I love you as well as my own heart,” Romeo said, in as gentle a tone as I’d ever heard him utter. “But you wound me, and I wound you in turn. You think my love for Rosaline is a passing thing, and it grieves me you think me such a light-head.”
I took a breath and deliberately loosened my grip on the sword, but the fury inside me did not bank itself. “Brood on, then,” I said. “I care not. But if you even think of casting eyes on the wench again, I will do more than mar your looks. If you think La Signora will punish me, think on it again. She’d rather have a dead heir than a foolish one.”
He looked taken aback that I’d said it so directly, and more than a little afraid (of me, I think), but I did not stay to dispute with him. I stalked on, half cloak swinging, and although I did not grip my sword again, my right hand clenched tight for the need of it.
“Perhaps . . . perhaps some soothing wine, sir,” Balthasar suggested. “Wine, shade, some pleasant company . . . ?”
“Stop your mouth,” I said, and set out instead to find trouble.
• • •
t was a frustrating thing that trouble, being so kindly invited, failed to appear. Even the usual swaggering Capulet bravos took their boasts a different way as I approached. I never got close enough to deliver any direct insult, not even to a Capulet loyalist.
In truth, I was not sure why I was so angry at the Capulets, other than Tybalt. My own cousin was the root of my fury, and I’d already bruised him for it. There was a wildness trembling inside me that begged to let fly, and let the arrows fall as random as rain. Balthasar seemed worried. Well, it was likely sensible enough; I was in no fit state for any man’s company, even a servant’s—especially a servant, honor bound to cast his life ahead of mine, or futilely after. The anxious tightness of my man’s face gradually cooled my anger. If I drew him into needless and fatal trouble, I would be as foolish as Romeo.
We were walking the narrow aisles around the Basilica de San Zeno and making for the vivid, always busy Piazza delle Erbe, where the great mingled with the low, and the rich with the poor. I was a curious mixture of all . . . great in my name and my house, high and also low, in my half-English state. Rich with honor and position, and poor in purse, at least as far as my mother and grandmother knew; they tightly controlled the strings for all of us. The fact that I had a comfortable income from less honest means . . . well, that was nothing that needed to be confessed beyond the church walls.
I passed a small chapel, and on a whim paused and entered. It held a beautiful plaster Madonna and child, and small heaps of flowers—some fresh and fragrant, some wilted and dusty. I genuflected and bent a knee, with Balthasar quickly assuming a penitent stance behind me.
And then I prayed to the beloved Virgin for patience, guidance, and most of all, for my cousin to stop loving Rosaline Capulet.
Because if he did not, I genuinely thought I might go mad.
• • •
t is a signature truth of the world that when you court trouble, it tends to avoid you for sheer spite, but when you become reconciled to peace, peace behaves just the same. I left the chapel with a great deal more piety in my heart, well disposed to forgive an insult should one present itself to me . . . and naturally, upon turning the corner out of the chapel, I came faced with three louts wearing the colors of Capulet. No fine gentlemen, these; the coffers of our enemies had bought some low, dangerous men. They were decently barbered, but clearly had more experience with razors drawn across a throat than over a cheek. Their clothes were poor, and as yet clean of any fresh bloodstains, so they’d not been successful in baiting my fellow Montagues today.
Seeing me and Balthasar, alone and cut off from the support of our fellows, they clearly felt they’d been given a heaven-sent gift.
“Sir . . .” Balthasar began, but then subsided, because it was bootless. We were fish on their lines; that is to say, caught. With a resigned sigh, he began rolling his shoulders and limbering them for the fight. Being a servant, he was armed with a cudgel and a knife—a good knife, I had made very sure of that, but in a brawl with three murderers, the two of us were outarmed.
I stepped forward as they arrayed around us at the points of a killing triangle. “Peace of the day upon you,” I said, “if you’ll let us pass.”
The man I faced—the leader, it was easy enough to pick him from the pack—gave an evil leer that had little to do with a smile. He was a stout, swarthy fellow, hairy and sweaty, and he had one white, dead eye, with a scar dragged over his face to show where he’d earned it. He spit at my feet. “Dog of a Montague,” he said. “I’ll pass you through the gates of hell, slick as you please. Unless you make it hard on me, and then I’ll drag you through hot coals along the way.”
“He means,” one of his dimmer fellows said helpfully, “to make you suffer.”
“Yes, I did get the point,” I said, and gave him a little bow. “Most helpful.” I addressed myself to the leader of the gang. “I have just been to prayer, and I’ve no desire to fall from grace quite so quickly. May we not agree to hate at a distance just now?”
“Dog,” he said, very pleasantly. “Blue-bellied coward.” He spit at my feet again, coming nearer this time. Balthasar made an indignant huffing sound, and his hand rested on the hilt of his dagger. He was not so much offended by the insults as by the ham-fisted approach of their bearer.
“If you want to be effective, you might try something a child might not invent,” I said, still painfully pleasant. “For instance, you may say that my breath bids fair to knock down the cathedral. Or a helpful advisory that someone has stolen half my wits, which leaves me with none. Or—”
“Mongrel son of an English bitch,” he said.
I kept my smile, but it hardened and sharpened into a cutting edge. “Better,” I said. “But hardly up to the standards of your patron. Tybalt at least claims to have had her.”
“I had her screaming,” the Capulet pig said, and picked his teeth at me. “I’ll have you the same, fancy boy.”
I heard steel being drawn behind me, but I did not turn. I did not need to. Balthasar’s cudgel smacked with a dull thump, and I heard the muffled crack of bone. Metal clattered to stone, and one of the bravos let out a harsh yelp, before the cudgel struck again, this time with the distinctive sound of wood on skull.
The odds were now even.
“Then by all means, try and have me,” I said, still smiling. He yanked his blade free of its scabbard, and I drew my sword with an unhurried motion that brought it up into parry with a minimum of effort. I knocked his lunge out of line and continued the motion, straightening, feet settling into balance with the ease of practice. I’d been taught well, and thoroughly, since I’d been old enough to hold the sword—that was training all boys of status were given, if they were expected to survive. But more: Through Mercutio’s auspices, I’d been matched with brawlers, duelists, bravos with the same depraved blood instinct as these men. And, bloodied, bruised, humiliated . . . I’d learned.
I sidestepped with a flash of my short cape, confusing the line of my movement, and drew my dagger in the same moment. As he recovered from his lunge, I struck from above with the sword, below with the dagger. The sword plunged easily just below the ridge of his collarbone, angling down as the dagger found ribs and angled up. The dagger was merely surety. The two points almost met in his heart.
He stared at me, stunned as an ox after the hammer, and then looked down on his death. I pulled steel free before he could drag me off balance, and sidestepped the gout of blood that came after. He still had his sword, and I could not take my gaze away until he was down. I’d seen dead men kill the living before, when the living failed to pay due attention.
I wish I could say that I felt horror, or sorrow, or pity, but I did not. I felt . . . cold. In the icy space of survival, the lives of my opponents meant nothing more than opportunities. I might be spurred to fight from anger, but I was never angry when I fought . . . only careful.
So I waited until the life had left the man’s eyes and he fell to the cobblestones, kicked his Capulet-given sword to the side, and turned just as the second man drove Balthasar back at the point of his blade. Balthasar and I, we were old brawling companions; he knew when to engage, and when to step away, and as he did, I moved forward, sword ringing on the new opponent’s blade with a sound like the devil’s church bell. I stepped forward and forced the man off balance; he stumbled over a ridge in the cobblestones, and his shoulders hit the wall behind him. I held him there,
corps à corps
, and stared into his face. He looked afraid.
He ought to have been.
“Your fellows are dead,” I said. My voice was still pleasant, still calm. “Do you want to survive them?”
He nodded shakily. He stank of garlic and the sweat that streamed down his pallid face, and suddenly I allowed myself to feel a bit of pity. He was young, only a little older than I—a little younger than Balthasar. Perhaps he’d wanted a life of adventure and swagger; perhaps he’d only been earning bread for his poor widowed mother. I couldn’t know his motives, or care, but I still felt a strange kind of kinship with him in that moment.
“Rip off the filthy Capulet colors,” I said. “Leave them in the blood where they belong. Do it now.”
I stepped back. He gulped air, staring at the crimson on my blades, and threw his sword down beside his dead comrades. Then, with trembling fingers, he tore the Capulet insignia—clumsily stitched, probably by his own hand—from his jerkin and threw it on the street.
I lowered my sword and dagger. “A word of advice,” I said. “Leave Verona before Tybalt hears of this, or you’ll die less quickly than your friends.” I reached into my purse and retrieved a gold florin, and flipped it to him.
My manservant said, “And tell the other Capulet bravos that they’d best avoid my master from now on, unless they want to be served the same steel.” He, I noted, had not put away the cudgel, or the dagger.
The survivor took to his heels, clutching his Montague gold, and I checked the corpses to be sure they were, indeed, dead. Balthasar discreetly lifted their purses, but left their rosaries intact.
“We should go quickly,” he said, rising and casting an uneasy glance behind us. “Bodies on the very steps of the church . . .”
“Not by my choice,” I said.
“Would you like to explain that to the prince, sir?”
As always, my servant had an excellent point to offer, and I allowed myself to be hurried off in the opposite direction from where the Capulet exile had gone. A few turns away, Balthasar stopped me and took out a rough linen cloth, tut-tutted, and sponged spots of blood from my doublet and hands. I had already cleaned my blades, obsessive as a tradesman with his tools.
Now that the battle was past, I could no longer keep that ice-cold distance from what I’d done, and the face of the man I’d killed came back—vivid in every detail, down to the last coarse hair and the color of his one good eye, which had been a light cinnamon brown. My hands began to shake, and I felt cold, but it was unseemly for a son of Montague to be seen to be weak.
I said, without looking at Balthasar, “I have the need to confess.”
He betrayed nothing. I wondered how
felt, having felt his cudgel crunch a man’s skull. “Dangerous to go back, sir.”
“Then we go on, to the cathedral,” I said. “Now.”
• • •
had missed the morning mass, and was early for the noon, which was a good time to find Monsignor Giacomo in the confessional . . . but I found that it must have been a busy morning for sinning. At least ten aspired to cleanse their souls before me—four of them young ladies, accompanied by their ill-favored escorts. One went veiled, but her dress, and that of her lady-in-waiting, signaled her house: Capulet. It might have been the lady of that house, but the veil was not rich enough for someone of her status; Juliet was a small young lady, and this one was almost of Lady Capulet’s height. Therefore, it was Rosaline.
She stood patiently as she waited for confession, her no-doubt-bruised face concealed by her veil. Her hands were gloved to conceal the discolored knuckles. I saw her head turn to regard me for what seemed like a long few seconds, and then she went back to contemplation of the Virgin’s statue. Her escort left her to light a candle and pray to Saint Zeno, and Rosaline knelt in a rustle of skirts and folded her hands piously together.
“Wait here,” I whispered to Balthasar, and went to genuflect at the altar, then made my way to the niche where the Madonna waited, her marble face placid and full of peace. Her open hands offered the same, and I wanted it, badly, because the stress of taking a life tore at me, and the sight of Rosaline . . .
I knelt a few feet away from the girl and bent my head in prayer. There was a subtle, traitorous sense of comfort in being close to her, even here in sacred, peaceful space, even knowing there was no possibility of anything more between us.
“Are you all right?” Rosaline whispered, just for my ears, and I had to struggle to hold myself quiet, to not betray my surprise.
“You have blood on your neck.”
“It isn’t mine,” I said. I felt light-headed, hot, and my heart was suddenly beating too quickly. “I could ask you the same, my lady.”
She was so very still that she might have been marble herself, carved by the same master who’d made the holy statue. “A nun needs no beauty.” It was calm enough, but it wrenched at my heart. “But I will heal right enough. You must go, before you’re seen.”
She said it out of concern for me, but it was her own life in jeopardy, as well I knew; I’d receive a scorching rebuke from my grandmother, at worst, but Tybalt had already punished her viciously. Any other missteps could result in one of House Capulet’s famous
, so common to disobedient daughters. Easy enough to trip and fall on the steep, slick stairs, or suffer a sudden and fatal sickness. The world had no shortage of ways to die, for either of us.