Romeo and Mercutio continued to quarrel behind me – or rather, Romeo to insist he was done with love, and Mercutio to mock him with long-winded talk of dreams. I edged away from them, moving slowly so as not to attract their interest, and entered the dance that swirled in the center of the room. The older men and some of the women sat and watched the merry-making, and I nodded and offered my hand to a passing young girl masked as a deer; we made our steps, and I handed her off to another man in rich Capulet colors, with a mask of blood red and gold. Tybalt. I recognized the arrogant set of his jaw, and looked away in the hope he did not likewise know me. He did not seem to, and the dance passed on, steps and claps, turns and hands briefly clasped as the musicians sawed and brayed on …
… and then, suddenly, my hand was on Rosaline’s palm, and we were turning slowly, like petals in a lazy wind, and our gazes met and locked. Her lips parted, but she did not speak. So neither did I. When the measure was danced, rather than release her, I pulled her to the side, and she came, most willing.
“You should not be here,” she whispered. Her voice was low and urgent, her eyes fierce behind their covering. “If my brother spies you – “
“Do not let anyone lead you off alone,” I told her. “Promise me that you will not.”
“Mercutio already tried,” she said, and studied me with what I thought might be a frown. “I am no fool, to be so lightly ruined. What’s planned for me?”
“Nothing good,” I said. “Capulet seeks retribution for its losses today, and Montague will try to strike first -- why are you here?” It came out more passionately than I had meant for it to, and more vexed.
“No fault of mine,” she said. “I was safely in the convent when Tybalt came to remove me; the abbess would have refused him, but he threatened to do great violence if deprived, so I agreed to return. They’ll send me on to their own choice of holy order soon. I only am put up here to provide a plain ground for Juliet’s brilliance.”
She did not sound bitter, I thought, only resigned. Like Mercutio, I was holding to her hand, but she did not try to pull free. If anything, her fingers tightened on mine, to the point of pain.
“Can you not try again?” I said. “Slip away, find a place they will not look -- ?”
She shook her head slowly, never looking away. “The arm of my family is long, and there is no hole into which they will not reach. Best if I do not risk others for my own selfish purpose. Whatever comes, I will bear it.” She blinked, then, and glanced away. I followed the look, to Mercutio, who had his head bent to listen to another young girl – a more distant relation, but still Capulet blood. “Your friend … I know he has been sorely tried, but he seems so greatly changed from what I remember.”
“What did he say to you?” I was aware of the dance moving behind us, of sharp glances from some of the older guests toward us; we could not be seen to linger. “Did he – “
“Look after him,” she said, and slipped her hand free of mine. “There’s a darkness in him that will spill out, if it has not already. Another reason I should withdraw to the peace of my rooms, and thence to the convent. This is my cousin Juliet’s triumph, after all. I would not wish to draw from it.”
“Rosaline – “ I said her name, and heard the gentleness in my own voice; I saw the answering flash in her eyes, and heard the intake of her breath. I took another step to bring us closer, but I did not touch her. Not again. “God be with you, if I cannot.”
“And with you,” she said. I saw a quick, silver shine of tears over her eyes, quickly blinked away. “And with you.”
Then she turned and was gone, weaving her way out of the heady crowd.
I felt cold, suddenly, as if the only source of heat in the room had gone with her, and the hair on the back of my neck prickled with sudden alarm, for I saw Mercutio had disappeared as well … gone into the shadows with the tender young Capulet cousin. Mercutio nursed a wicked and sincere hatred, and there was little he would not do to avenge his lost lover.
Then I saw Romeo.
Juliet Capulet ought, by all rights, to have been on the arm of her suitor Paris, but the count had gone to greet his more powerful relative, the Prince of Verona, who had arrived with much flourish in the hall. The disruption had broken apart the dancers, and all eyes were trained toward the prince and his party, not toward the blushing, inconsequential girl in whose nominal honor this feast had been devised.
And the girl, small and sweet and looking more child than woman in her gown and mask, was staring up into my cousin’s face. His unmasked face, for he’d pushed the covering up, and she had likewise removed her own, and I saw the expressions on them both: rapt. An almost religious ecstasy, something beyond mere attraction. It verged into the profane.
Romeo had ever been a follower of Venus, but this … there was something new in his face, his eyes, in the bend of his shoulders toward hers, and the clasp of their hands. I saw it mirrored in her, blinding and beautiful but also dangerously fanatical.
Worse: I saw Tybalt had seen it, too.