Authors: Rachel Caine
Two months later
t was hot in my grandmother’s rooms, as it always was, no matter the season. A fire blazed in the hearth, and from the heat it gave off it might have been kindled by the breath of Satan himself. I’d shed my half cloak before coming, but even so sweat soaked through my hose and created damp, uncomfortable patches under the heavy velvet doublet. As I waited and suffered, a chambermaid put another log on the flames, and I felt sweat run down my face like tears.
The summons to attend my grandmother had come unexpectedly, and now I only hoped to escape quickly. There was no real chance of managing it unscathed.
She gazed at me with her most typical expression of assessment and disdain. Those of any generation younger than her own would never find entire approval, but I, at least, escaped with only her mildest contempt. Her eyes were sharp, bitter, the faded color of an ice gray sky, and her face was the texture of weathered old oak. Family legend said she’d once been beautiful, but I couldn’t believe it. She looked as wrinkled as an apple left too long in a dark corner of the cellar.
“I summoned you near an hour past,” she announced in her high, brittle voice, and coughed. A chambermaid rushed forward to wipe her lips with a soft linen handkerchief, then artfully folded it to hide the telltale bloodstain.
“My apologies, Grandmother,” I said, and offered her a very deep bow. “I was with Master Silvio.” Master Silvio was our blademaster, charged with teaching the young men of Montague the skills necessary for survival in Verona. Grandmother sniffed and dismissed my excuse impatiently with a wave of her hand.
“I trust you’ve improved,” she said. “There’s no place for indifferent blades on the streets with Capulet’s bravos always prowling for trouble.”
I smiled, just a little. “I’m improving, I think.” Not from Master Silvio’s tutelage; Mercutio had been drilling me in the finer points that Master Silvio, for all his reputation, still lacked.
“Do you think I summoned you to discuss your progress at men’s silly games?” She gave me an ice-cold, stern look. “It may interest you to hear your cousin has gone mad.”
“Which one?” Madness was always to be feared, but Grandmother’s meaning had less to do with devils in one’s head than her own expectations of our behavior.
She slammed the point of her cane on the floor for emphasis. “Who do you think, boy? The
one. Romeo. And I blame you, Benvolio.”
I stiffened my spine and tried to think what it was that I might have done to deserve that comment. I was often the one who ended escapades; I rarely started them. Such censure seemed unfair.
“If I’ve offended, I will apologize,” I said, and managed to hold her gaze stoutly, if not fearlessly. “But I know not how I might be to blame.”
“You are the oldest of your cousins, and it is your responsibility to present a good moral example.” She said it as if she had the slightest idea of what a good moral example might be. That alone made me want to laugh, but it would be suicidal at best. The stories told of Grandmother’s misspent youth were legendary. It was miraculous she’d avoided the cloister, or worse.
“I do my best.” I tried to imagine myself with a glowing halo over my head, like one of the gilded angels on a church wall, but from the snap of anger in her, I fell short.
“Are you mocking me, boy?” she asked sharply, and leaned forward in her chair with a creak of old bones and older wood. Her voice dropped to a poisonous hiss. “Do you dare mock
“No.” I truly meant that. No one sane offered her direct insult. No one living could claim to have survived it.
She sat back with a doubting grunt and a frown. “If not mockery, then that gleam in your callow face must be hate.”
Of course it was. I hated her. We all hated her, and we feared her, too. There was no one in our world more dangerous than my grandmother, the Iron Lady, La Signora di Ferro . . . no Capulet, no prince, no priest or bishop or pope could hope to aspire to such heights of loathing and fear.
But I’d never be stupid enough to admit it. “I am ever devoted to you, Grandmother, as are we all.” I was a good liar. It was a requirement for living in the palace.
She snorted, little misled. “So you should be, idiot. I sometimes think I am the only Montague still possessed of any sense at all. Weak men and foolish women, that’s what we have now.” She pierced me with that cold, alien stare again. “Your cousin is either mad or sinfully stupid, and it is your responsibility to stop him from making a mockery of his station and this house. He is the heir, and he
be kept in line. Is that plainly understood?”
This was the dangerous part of the interview, I realized; the old witch might overlook polite falsehoods, but she could smell an evasion like a vulture scenting rot. “With the greatest of respect, I am not sure such a thing is possible,” I said. “Romeo’s young. With youth comes folly; it’s to be expected.”
That drew a bitter bark of a laugh from her. “Oh, yes, you’re an entire
older than Romeo. Such a lofty perch from which to pass judgment, young man. But you’ve never been foolish; I’ll give you that much. You’ve got ice in your veins. I think you get it from your foreign mother.”
I’d have given my soul for ice in my veins just then. The overpowering heat of the room was like a hug from the devil. My doublet was soaked through, and I felt sweat running through my hair like blood. Sweet Jesu, the maid was putting another log on the fire. The room stank of hot flesh and the doggy odor of overheated wool, and the old woman’s sickly perfume.
And she should not have mentioned my mother.
“Romeo is not merely foolish; nonsense I can forgive,” she said after the long silence. “There are whispers that he writes poetry to an enemy’s wench. That is the very definition of insanity, and it threatens to make our house a laughingstock, and that is not acceptable.” Her aged, clawlike fingers tightened on the arms of her chair . . . no ordinary chair, that one, with its mismatched woods and heavy backing. She’d had it made when she was still a young Lady Montague, and legend said—I believed it—that she’d caused it to be built from the broken doors of her enemies’ palaces. Their villas lay empty now, inhabited only by shadows and shades, and she had made a trophy of their once-strong barricades on which to rest her backside.
We feared Grandmother for a reason.
Romeo, writing poetry. Knowing him, I could believe it, though he hadn’t told me he’d done something so foolhardy. “If such is true, he’s only fevered with infatuation. It will soon pass.”
“Pass, will it?” She shivered, snapped her fingers, and a maid rushed forward to place a fur-lined cloak over her knees as the fire sizzled on, melting me in misery. “And how if I told you that he was writing his scribbles to a
I couldn’t keep the surprise from my face. “What? Which?”
“Rosaline, I hear. The plain one.” She dismissed Rosaline with an impatient flick of her fingers; I did not. I’d met the girl that dark-drowned night months back. She was someone to be taken quite seriously. “If he’s fevered with love, his fever may well infect and sicken this entire house. I charge you to deliver him from this—you and the Ordelaffi boy, Mercutio. He’s sensible enough, and ever eager for a fight should it come to blades. One thing is certain: If there have been verses exchanged, you must get them back. It won’t do to have the heir of Montague made into a street joke.” She speared me with a significant, evil look. “I know of your nighttime ventures, boy, and I have allowed it because it suited me. Now you may run on my leash for a time. Get his letters from the girl. Quietly.”
Somehow, I found I was not surprised Grandmother knew of my secret career as the Prince of Shadows. “And if I don’t wish to be leashed?”
In the silence, I listened to logs sizzle and pop. The servants had all gone still and silent, their gazes fixed on me with avid interest. No one stood up to the old witch. I had no idea what had prompted me to, save the reference to my mother.
“Then, Benvolio Montague,” she said quietly, “you may yet come to the attention of Prince Escalus’s men. I hear they urgently seek a certain sneak thief.”
“You wouldn’t. It would humiliate our house, and my uncle.”
She shrugged. “Perhaps your uncle could use bringing to heel as well. But only do this for me, boy, and I’ll keep your secret. Your cousin protected, your own reputation unsullied—surely you can stretch yourself to the task.”
“Surely,” I said. She had me in a trap, and short of gnawing off my own limb I couldn’t hope for escape.
She took that as agreement, for which I was thankful. “And remember, from now on, you will be responsible for Romeo and any lapses in judgment. It’s been agreed.”
I did not want to be made responsible for Romeo’s misadventures. This week it was forbidden love for a cousin of our greatest enemies. The next fortnight might bring something wholly new and even more addled. I had no wish to be hovering at his shoulder like Grandmother’s notion of a guardian angel . . . but from the implacable look in her eyes, I had very little choice. Again.
I hoped that somewhere in the sweating shadows of this room lurked powerful angels of my very own, because disappointing La Signora di Ferro was a very dangerous game, even for a Montague of the blood. I was not the most favored child of the house—Romeo held that honor, as principal heir. I was the older one, the sane one, the stable one. The one born of a doubtful foreign mother.
The one to whom it fell to clear up Montague’s messes. Small wonder I took out my frustrations at night, in the dark, by stealing from those I hated. What other outlet could I have?
My grandmother sat back now on her throne of broken doors, and gave me what she must have fancied would be a reassuring smile. It would have made a demon shudder. “Then that’s done, and I’ll hear of no more nonsense about your cousin. Now, tell me, child, what gossip bring you today? What’s the talk of the square?”
My grandmother still lived for gossip, and we were all charged with providing it upon command. As a cousin, even a minor one, I had little to do but haunt the public spaces of Verona, seeing and being seen. Even though I had scant interest in market whispers, I could not help hearing them. “I’m told that the prince has a new mistress,” I said, and her eyes turned avid. “She’s said to be quite sophisticated. From Venezia, they say.”
“Pah, Venezia! The moral cesspit of Italy,” she said, but I knew she enjoyed that tidbit. “A woman no better than a whore, and he dares parade her before decent women! Have you met the baggage?”
I’d seen the fabled mistress at a distance; she had been carried through the streets in a sedan chair to mass, where no doubt she’d confessed all her sins and been forgiven. A pity that such forgiveness never extended beyond church walls. “No, Grandmother, I have not met her.”
“Good! It isn’t healthy for a strapping young man to be introduced to whores at your age, before you’ve even settled on a wife. Speaking of that, has your useless mother seen no progress on making you a match?”
My mother ignored insults aimed at her and shrugged them off, and I tried to as well, though on some very deep and quiet level I still felt the sting. I think La Signora thrust in the needle once more to see whether I would react.
I had not in years. Outwardly.
“She continues to review the candidates presented,” I said. She’d paraded several girls in front of me over the past few months, none of whom I wished to see again; the interesting ones, it seemed, were all tainted by virtue of being interesting. “I expect I’ll be married off and thoroughly bored within the year.”
“Good, good. All men’s blood runs too hot, and the apostle said that it is better to marry than to burn.”
Faith, I wished she wouldn’t talk of burning; the heat was killing me faster than a sword in the guts. When I bowed this time, sweat ran in a drip from my nose to the carpets underfoot. I half imagined I could hear the stone sizzling underneath as it soaked up the moisture. “I’m expected elsewhere, Grandmother. If I may have your leave?”
“Off to carouse with your useless friends, are you? Go, then. Go keep an eye on your bibbling cousin before he does something dramatic concerning the Capulet wench. Do you think she’s stupid enough to respond to him? I’ve heard she’s odd.”
I shrugged. “I hear she’s bound for the convent—overschooled. Belike she thinks it very flattering.”
“Until her father beats the nonsense out of her,” said my grandmother. “Of course, if he finds the letters, he may well dispense with the beating and just wall her up in the cellars, the way old Pietro Capulet did her great-aunt Sophia.” It was a favorite bedtime story of hers . . . the gruesome horror of being bricked up in a lavishly appointed room, with only a pitcher of water and a dagger for company. Once the water had gone, Sophia most likely would have sought the dagger’s point for her final comfort, but as a boy I had imagined her wasting to skin and bones as she clawed at the ice-cold walls of her prison. The dreams still haunted me.
I should not have cared if it happened to any Capulet; most of Montague would jeer and rejoice. But I remembered the brave, quiet girl Rosaline, bathed in candlelight, facing down the Prince of Shadows, and I found, to my shame, that I