Prince of Shadows: A Novel of Romeo and Juliet (26 page)

BOOK: Prince of Shadows: A Novel of Romeo and Juliet
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Palsied and starving they might have been, but they moved, melting away in scurries and leaps.

If I could not find my cousin by stealth, I would follow him with hired, hungry eyes.

Let him hide from
that
.

I sent a runner back to Montague for the loan of a brace of bravos; I would need them soon, I thought. While I awaited arrival of the bravos, my servant Balthasar reappeared. He made his way through the square and sank down upon the lip of the fountain next to me, cupping water thirstily. I bought an orange from a passing fruit seller, and he peeled and ate it like a starving man.

“Well?” I asked him then, as he seemed in no hurry to report.

Between juicy mouthfuls, he nodded. “I found her out,” he said. “She’ll meet you, but she’s wary, that one. And frightened.”

There was, I sensed, something my faithful servant was neglecting to tell me, but I allowed it; he would never put me into deliberate danger, so the detail would be a harmless one, something that might bruise me but never cut. “Where?”

“A place near the river,” he said. “Two hours hence, no sooner.”

I nodded, thinking fast; I’d promised my spies rewards, and this witch would require gold as well, to loosen her tongue. “I’ve rogues out hunting for my cousin. Stay here, and should any find him, send one of the Montague men to track the clue before you part with a florin,” I said, my gaze following a fat old nobleman with an overstuffed doublet, and a downcast child of a wife trailing behind. His purse was as overstuffed as his shirt, and he wore it as arrogantly as his codpiece—an accessory now fading from fashion, but still prominent on his generation’s loins.

I rose to follow.

“Master, where are you— Oh.” He had spotted the man, too. Balthasar knew me all too well.

“I go fishing,” I said, and set off after my fat, well-fed trout.

•   •   •

T
aking the merchant’s purse was a challenging affair, but gratifying, and the florins that spilled out when I counted them in a darkened alcove even more so. I now had funds to fuel my search for Romeo, who—considering the reports we began to receive—was ever more determined to evade me.

Beggars turned up, oh, yes, eager for florins, but the men sent to confirm came back with discouraging news—either the fools had identified the wrong young man, or Romeo, if he had actually been spotted, had quickly slipped away. One reported him near the cathedral, another near the river. Another still had sworn my cousin had been drinking and weeping in a wineshop half the city away.

It was not until the fourth of these beggars came looking for payment that I caught Romeo’s game. It was a fine one, and under different circumstances I might have enjoyed my cousin’s rhetorical response. Not today.

As the man stammered out his story of my cousin sighted in an unlikely spot, he not only avoided my gaze, as might be expected, but he patted at the stained, flat purse knotted to his rope belt. I listened to his story with half a mind, watching his fingers. They twitched, they patted, they stroked . . . and I knew.

I drew my dagger, eliciting a surprised intake of breath from Balthasar, and struck fast and accurately. Not for blood, but for money. I sliced open his purse, and out tumbled and rolled a bright gold florin.

“Did you pay him, Balthasar?” I asked, as the shocked beggar began scrambling after the coin, desperate to retrieve it.

“Why, no, sir, I would not. Not without proof of your cousin’s whereabouts.”

“Someone did.” As the beggar grabbed the coin in his shaking fingers, slapping away idle hands of passersby seeking to scoop it up, I took hold of a handful of his greasy curls and yanked him upright on his hams. “My cousin paid you, didn’t he? He knew what I’d do. He poured florins out and had you peddle me falsehoods.”

“Please, sir, please, I’m just a poor man; on my life, I meant no harm; I was only doing as I was bid—” He cowered, clutching the coin in death-grim fingers, and though I wanted to kick him, I shoved him away and wiped my hand in disgust. I just hoped his lice had not jumped to me.

“As you were bribed, you mean,” I said. “Go, then, tell your fellows that they’ll get no more from us. Take your gold and spend it, but expect nothing else from House Montague, lout.” I aimed a kick at him this time, but he dodged it—well used to that activity—and, clutching his bounty, he escaped into the crowd.

I had the taste of dust and metal in my mouth, and I could feel my skin going tight and cold. Balthasar, next to me, said quietly, “Master? What do we do?”

“Keep looking,” I said. “If you catch word of him, find me at the Lamberti Tower.”

“Sir—”

I shook my head and walked away. I scarce noticed the walk, though I avoided the worst of the street filth as I strode along. Balthasar must have dispatched a guard to follow—he’d scarce have allowed me to wander so—but I paid no attention to that, either. I turned the winding streets through the airless, hot afternoon. The red brick and tufa and gray stone caught flame in the light, making it seem I was walking through fire, and my only instinct was to get
away
.
To find a perch above, and see the world as small and harmless. There was a darkness closing in; I knew it. I felt it all around me, like dagger points pressing my skin.

The Lamberti Tower was the highest point in Verona, set in the middle of the Piazza delle Erbe, and I knew it intimately; the narrow stairs were familiar to me, and it was well that I’d chosen a time when the massive bell was silent, or I’d have been forced to wait for the peals to die. It remained quiet, and I raced up the winding steps as if I might leave my troubles behind. The narrow tower had a curious smell—new mortar and ancient dust. They’d but recently built it to its present height. There was yet discussion of building it higher, though so far the prince had rejected such talk as irreligious and harkening back to the Tower of Babel; it wasn’t wise to risk God’s wrath.

Irreligious or not, I wished the tower had been built even twice as high. Lofty as this perch was, it was still too close to the streets, the teeming people in the square. To my own looming defeat.

I leaned my head against the bricks and let the cooler breeze fan my face and dry the sweat from my hair. I felt a surge of hot frustration, and a traitorous bit of admiration. My cousin had learned well, it seemed; he’d mastered just enough of the arts of stealth and misdirection to evade me. I’d have been proud, if not for the cause of it . . . the girl. The Capulet girl.
Juliet
.

I knew my cousin. I could believe him so bent on passion that he would sacrifice his own life, but what of the life of the one he supposedly loved? Romeo would never sacrifice her so lightly, if it was a true passion. Likewise, he’d never butcher his family’s honor so openly.

But perhaps it was just, as they’d always said, that I misunderstood true passion, that my veins were full of cold, thin water. My mother had always told us that courtly love was a poet’s invention, designed to make the process of arranged marriage a more pleasant one; my sister and I had never been under any illusions of our place in the great order of things, or that our happiness should come before our duty.

How then was it my cousin, the heir, who forgot those same lessons to drown in the gaze of an enemy’s daughter?

Being at a height slowed my pulse and calmed my agitation, and here, away from the noise and stench and bustle of the piazza, I could finally order my thoughts. The reports that had come to us were useless, paid lies, but my eyes focused on each of the places in turn, and in my mind, I blacked them out as possibilities. Four reports. Four sections of town where he would
not
be, unless he was more twisty-clever than I’d ever imagined.

I noticed a curious thing. At this lofty vantage, the false trails formed a pattern, a very visible pattern . . . and in the center of it . . .

In the center of it stood the Chiesa di San Fermo, that unprepossessing little religious sanctuary in which I’d once hidden, and in which Friar Lawrence regularly laid his head when avoiding his monastery. If Romeo was—however impossibly—serious in his quest to join his course with Juliet’s, then they would need a churchman’s blessing, though doubtless her family would immediately seek annulment once it was known. But the damage would be done. Her marriage to Paris, and to most any noble of good birth or merchant of good coffers, would be finished. She’d be damaged goods, a burden and a shame to the Capulets.

Was this Romeo’s plan? Was it all an elaborate charade to entrap and ruin the girl, for the shame of her family? I might believe it of Mercutio, in his current black and bitter moods, but my cousin had ever been good-hearted and sincere in his affections, even when they were wrongheaded. He lacked the coldness of a schemer.

His behavior smacked of something else . . . some dark purpose moving pieces in a game I could not yet fathom, not even when viewed from such a height.

I had to find my cousin—if not before the vows were exchanged, then before he could ruin Juliet’s prospects. If she remained a virgin, the rest could be smoothed over with Capulet gold and influence, but once her maidenhead was breached, it was nothing like so simple; her cousin Tybalt was not the forgiving sort, and she would likely meet with a convenient accident, or worse. They’d be rid of her, one way or the other. I cared not, except that the consequences of it would rebound on another, less-favored girl: Rosaline would be their only marriageable asset, however flawed they saw her. They’d sell her like a second-prize cow at market, for the hastiest of prices.

It should not have bothered me, but I could not deny that it did.

My cousin might have outsmarted me, but the fact that he had directed us away from the chapel said ominous things to me, and it told me we had little time to lose.

I descended the tower’s staircase, and ran into Balthasar, who was panting and sweating from his run in the hot streets. “Master,” he said, and braced himself on the stonework as he whooped in jagged breaths. “We should withdraw to home.”

“Why?”

“The streets are abuzz with the rumor that Tybalt Capulet beat a servant girl and sent her running from his door for her life.”

“No news there,” I said. “He’s a heavy hand with his own sister.”

“There’s more,” my servant said. “It’s said that he beat her for carrying secret love notes.”

“Romeo,” I said, and felt the doom sink deeper. “To Juliet.”

“No, sir,” Balthasar said. “’Tis said it was a note from his sister Rosaline to
you
, master. Tybalt was apoplectic with rage. He called you a whoreson coward, to be making peace in the streets and sullying their honor behind his back. The rumors say he declares that if Montague will make war on Capulet women, he will make war on ours! And, sir, it was not only him; his ally Paolo Mazzanti was with him.”

That chilled me to the core, even as the oppressive heat of the day closed around me like a boiling blanket. I needed to see to the safety of my mother, and my sister, and even Lady Capulet. Tybalt’s fury was clearly beyond control.

And I could not help but wonder: If Tybalt had near killed a serving woman for carrying the note, then what had he done to its author? “And the lady Rosaline?” I asked, and did not meet Balthasar’s wounded gaze. “What news of her?”

“Locked up, it’s said.” He knew. Yes, he knew. “O sir, ’tis most unwise—”

“I know it is unwise; I am no infant,” I snapped. “Mind your place.” I’d rarely said it to him, and never with such a cutting edge of warning. “It was no love note, whatever Tybalt says.” She’d replied to the note I’d sent, I thought, the one warning her to have a care for her cousin. Rosaline might be sheltered, but for all that, she had a streak of hard practicality that mirrored my own; it would have been a careful missive, cloaked in the most obscure language.

It was only that it was directed to me, and not to Friar Lawrence, the safe intermediary, that alarmed me so deeply. What had she found so urgent that she abandoned caution, and was now caught for it?

Juliet, and Romeo. The friar conspiring with them, misled and dazzled by their passions. He had a soft heart, our friar; he had been sheltered from the raw realities of our lives, and did not reckon on the outcomes.

My heartbeat had sped fast, and I felt my muscles tightening; all my instincts bade me to rush to Rosaline and see for myself that she bided safely, but I forced myself from it. Disaster loomed on every corner now; it was Romeo I needed to stop if this was not to become a bloody farce.
War upon women.
Like all of our wars, it would be one of stealth, of assassins, of sudden and unpredictable violence. My sister Veronica’s wedding approached, and in the procession we would all be in the open, exposed, ready to be picked off at will by Capulet and Mazzanti, allied together. Yet the wedding could be neither delayed nor avoided; if our family did not appear, it would be an unforgivable insult to her noble bridegroom and his house.

“We must go within our walls,” Balthasar urged me, with great good sense. “Sir, Tybalt seeks blood for the insult to his house, now more than before. You cannot be caught out.”

I knew that, and yet I also knew that I was the only one with a slim chance of preventing much worse. “I will go,” I said. “But first, I will stop my fool cousin from marrying Juliet.”

If I’d shocked him by sending supposed love notes to Rosaline, this made him a gaping, widemouthed fool fit for a cap and bells. “Sir! It cannot be so.”

“We must make it not be so,” I said. “Now.”

•   •   •

I
arrived at the church and flung the doors wide, only to shock three wizened old women who had been on their knees in prayer. They did not rise—likely they could not, so easily as all that—but they cringed back from me as I strode inside. “Friar Lawrence!” I shouted, loud enough to ring from the walls. I swept aside the coverings on the confessional, but he was not there.

He was nowhere in the church, not even dozing on his narrow mat behind the curtain. The old women gaped at me as I searched, and finally one said, timidly, “Young sir, he has not been here for more than an hour.”

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