Authors: Rachel Caine
meo and Mercutio were waiting for me in my room when I regained the safety of the Montague palace. Like Mercutio, I scaled the wall, which was a good deal easier for me than it had been for him, but I had practiced more, and with less wine in my belly. Still, it had been a long and exhausting evening, and I was well weary by the time I climbed over the sill and landed lightly on the carpets, not more than an arm’s length from where Mercutio had sprawled himself loosely in a chair, cradling a goblet that I suspected had been filled more than once. From the angle of it now, it was well emptied.
It took him at least two breaths to recognize that I was standing at his side. Once he did, he jerked himself upright, cup falling in haste, and threw his arms around me. “Fool!” he said, and roughly pushed me back to stare at my face. “Tybalt did not manage to puncture that wind-bladder you call a stomach, but I may. What manner of devil has gone into you, to do such things for a woman—worse, a
I looked past him to Romeo, who had also gotten to his feet, but somewhat more shyly. There was an uncomfortable light of hero worship in his face. “You survived it,” he said. “
you entered that cursed house, and escaped. You truly are blessed.”
“Lucky is not the same as blessed,” I said, and pushed Mercutio away as he opened his mouth to make some clever retort. “I’m not in the mood for games.” I sat in the chair he had leaped from, picked up the goblet, and held it out. My manservant, ever vigilant, filled it—but only halfway. I stared at him. He added a few more drops.
“Does she live?” Romeo asked anxiously. My cousin sank down on a stool near me, looking as earnest as an owl, if considerably less sharp-witted. “Rosaline? Is she—”
“She’s alive,” I said shortly, and quaffed my wine in a choking gulp. “Your poesy’s ashes and bad memories. We’ll consider this matter settled and done, and I swear to you, if I catch you spouting flowers at any other girl save the one your mother chooses—”
“But you must admit, coz, she
the fairest in all Verona, the sun to all the lesser moons. . . .”
I hit him. It came suddenly, in a rush of hot blood that brought me from the chair. Even before I knew what I planned, my fist was clenched and in motion, and the landed blow sent knives up my arm. I might have hit him again, save that Mercutio was on me, holding me back and wrestling me to the chair. My cousin was sprawled on the floor, blood crimson on his lip and fury shimmering in his dark eyes.
“This is your fault!” I shouted at him. “How great a fool are you, Romeo? I should—”
“Beat me bloody?” he demanded, and stood as he wiped the red from his mouth. That, more than Mercutio’s hold, sent a shiver through me as I remembered Rosaline’s split lip, her bloodied face, her desperately concerned gaze—concerned not for herself, but for me. “Love survives the scorn of others, coz. Even the blows of self-righteous relatives.”
“She doesn’t love you!” I blurted out, and threw off my friend’s restraint to climb back to my feet. “Mark me, Romeo: Put yourself at risk again and I will do worse than beat you bloody.”
“Temper, temper, my hot blade,” Mercutio said, and patted me annoyingly on the back. “He’s a fool, yes, but an honest one. Romeo, tell your coz that you’ll forget the girl and let’s part friends for the night. I have a love of my own waiting for my tender attention, and beautiful as you both may be . . .”
He batted his eyelids in a way that made me think ridiculously of my sister, Veronica, and I could not help but smile, a bit. He sent me a saucy wink and a purse of his lips, and I shoved him off balance for reprisal. “I’m not meat for your table, Mercutio.”
“But you sauce up so well,” he said, and arched his brows in comical consideration. “Very well, I leave you to the warm fires of your familial love.”
We clapped hands. He offered the same to Romeo, and a quick embrace. “Safe home, my friend.”
“Safe,” he said, and jumped theatrically up to the windowsill to offer us both a sweeping bow. “But most
not to home.”
He spoiled his exit somewhat by nearly slipping as he began his descent down the wall. I watched him swarm down the stone—not quite as expertly as I, but competently—and then he was gone, a shadow in the shadows. Our lunatic friend, off on yet another risky venture.
Behind me, Romeo said, “He’ll be caught one day. You know that.” Romeo was not speaking of the dangerous wall climbing; we both knew that if Mercutio was caught at that he would talk his way out, and his madcap ways were well-known in Verona. No one would think much of it. Romeo was referring to the much deadlier rendezvous our friend was off to make.
We had known, since we were all young sprouts together, that Mercutio was made of fire and fey grace, but as we turned from boys to men expected to do the duty of our families, Romeo and I slowly realized that there was more to our friend than that. I had found it out by chance, walking in on Mercutio in close embrace with a pretty young man a bit older than either of us. I’d heard of such things, of course, but never
, and I confess to a certain unsettled embarrassment that drove me from them—from Mercutio—for almost a week, before he came to see me and, with an entirely strange attitude of gravitas, asked what I intended to do.
You hold our lives in your hands,
he had told me.
You know what they would do to us. I beg you to remember that whatever you think of me, whatever sins I may commit, I am always your friend.
And as simply as that, the matter settled for me. Mercutio was Mercutio, whomever he loved, whatever he did. Perhaps, as the Church taught, it was a cursed perversion, but I was old enough to know that many in the city practiced far worse, and with far less love in their hearts. While I was not drawn to Mercutio in any way of the flesh, he would always be my spiritual brother.
I don’t know how Romeo discovered the same, but soon we realized that each of us willingly lied and contrived for Mercutio, giving him excuses for absences to see his lover. I had never asked any details, and had only the one glimpse, but Romeo knew more than I, and shared it with me; Mercutio’s lover these past three years was a young scholar named Tomasso, who was considering the priesthood. He was the third son of a poor merchant, hardly moving in our social class.
I would have said that Mercutio was in love with the risk, but I knew it wasn’t true; he was in love with Tomasso, as purely and passionately as (if far less demonstratively than) Romeo claimed to be with Rosaline. And it worried me. Mercutio’s family had already made a match for him with a girl he loathed; the wedding would be done within the next year, and I wondered what it would do to him, and to his love. I felt sorry for the girl, too. She was innocent of any wrongdoing, but she’d be punished all the same.
“He’s clever,” I said, and closed and barred the window shutters. “Mercutio will never be caught out. He fears only betrayal.”
“Not from us,” Romeo said. He cut a glance at me, and wiped a trickle of blood from his broken lip. “I am sorry, coz. But Rosaline
beautiful, is she not?”
“Yes,” I said. “She is beautiful.”
And then I retrieved my cup and demanded more wine, to wipe that admission from my mind.
• • •
woke to a pounding head and a mouth that felt as if grape stompers had made merry in it. My manservant had somehow wrestled me out of my clothes and into a nightshirt, and I was sunk deep in my feather bed. The twitter of birds beyond the window, and the cries of merchants in the streets below, told me that I’d slept too long, and gradually I realized that the pounding was not simply inside my skull, but upon the door of my rooms.
As I stirred and groaned, rolling on my side, a yawning Balthasar rose from his low, hard mattress near the hearth and stumbled to answer the call. I knew I was in difficulty when he straightened, swept the door wide, and bowed to his fullest.
My lady mother, Elise Montague, entered in a cloud of rosewater and the soft glint of gold, and paused at the foot of my bed as Balthasar quickly hurried to the shutters and opened them to admit more light. I winced as the brightness lanced through and bounced from the red-gold chain around my mother’s neck, and the dangling drops in her ears. Her hair gleamed rich as well, the color of ripe wheat, and as always it was smooth and perfectly dressed, held in a gemmed net that framed her still-lovely face to perfection. I’d inherited my foreign green eyes from her, though my hair and skin were Italian-dark; even after so many years in the healthy climate of Verona she seemed wan and pale, and very thin in her dark, elegant gown.
She regarded me with steady, cool assessment.
“Good day to you, Mother,” I said, and sat up. “Did I miss mass?”
“Yes,” she said. “And your absence was noticed. Are you well?”
“I have a sickness of the stomach.”
“Ah,” she said, and snapped her fingers without glancing toward Balthasar. He quickly grabbed an armchair and moved it beneath her as she lowered herself—a trick that only the truly rich and entitled could manage, I thought, without looking either awkward or foolish. “A disease of drink. That explains everything. Benvolio—”
“Mother, if you’ll remove yourself, I’ll make myself decent and call on you in your chambers,” I said. “I’m not a child.”
“No, you’re a man grown, and held to the same standard,” she said. “Your father was little older than you when we were married.” I knew. He’d been all of nineteen, and she had been seventeen, when he’d died on the point of a Capulet dagger. She’d been heavily pregnant, but not with me; I was already a healthy boy of almost two, and had the vaguest possible memory of him; my sister, Veronica, still in the womb when he perished, would have not even that.
I groaned and rubbed my forehead. “If you’ve come to aggravate my condition with talk of marriage—”
My mother turned her head and speared poor Balthasar with an utterly impersonal glance. “Bring food for him,” she said. “He’s of no great use to anyone in this condition.” She dismissed him with a firm nod, and he scurried to do her bidding. My rooms were, I thought, one of the few places in Verona where my mother could be assured that she’d be obeyed without question; even within the Montague halls she was still the excess widow, the foreign flower dragged into the toxic hothouse of one of the richest, most ambitious families of the city. Grandmother did not approve, and God knew, what Grandmother disapproved would never find much favor within these walls, or without.
So Balthasar and I indulged my mother, and let her act the part of the aristocratic woman she would be on foreign soils.
“I need to bathe, Mother,” I said.
“I’ll have it prepared,” she said with serene calm. “But you
talk to me, my son. We have much to discuss.”
This did not sound at all entertaining. I sat up, pulling the covers chest-high, and tried to look less like a wayward child, though I’d always be that in her eyes. “I am at your disposal, as always.”
A tiny hint of a smile woke a shallow dimple just by the edge of her lips, but it smoothed again almost immediately. “Have you given thought to the girl? She comes of impeccable stock, her family’s fortunes are secure, and they are eager to secure a match before she’s thought too old.”
“She’s fifteen,” I said. “And boring.”
“She’s appropriate, biddable, and presentable.”
“What of the Toretti girl?”
My mother gave me one of
looks. “She is no longer appropriate.”
“Oh, you just made her more interesting.”
“Benvolio, do not be flippant. The girl has been . . . compromised. Her virtue is in question.”
“The interesting ones are always questioned.”
“That is why I offer you the boring ones, my son. Believe me, in the end, they will be a benefit to you, and the
ones, as you like to call them, would be a millstone on your back. You’d never live down the gossip.”
“Cruel market chatter, worth less than a goose fart,” I said. “I care nothing for it.”
“You’d care if it came from the mouth of Tybalt Capulet,” she said, with unerring accuracy. “I am trying to protect you, my son. If not the Scala girl, then whom? You’ve already rejected the best candidates I could bring you. Perhaps the Church would suit you better.”
Since one of the core tenets of our faith was “Thou shalt not steal,” perhaps not. “I tried on a monk’s robe recently, and I didn’t favor it,” I said. “Is there no greater match to be made from another city? Or even from your mother country?”
“The last thing I would wish is to burden you with a wife so alien to you, and to this family,” she said. “You bear enough of that stigma already, which I well know. And I wouldn’t wish to exile a young girl so far from her home and family without good cause.”
“Am I not a good cause?” I asked, and I must have put some of Mercutio’s charm in it, because for the first time, my mother truly smiled. It gladdened my heart. She did not often do it; the English are a serious, quiet people, and she always seemed so guarded, even with me. I could well understand why. Love and war are the same in Verona. “I will bow to your experience, Mother, but perhaps a girl from Fiorenza, or Milan . . . ?”