Stacks Image 55
flexible
flexible
An Excerpt from Prince of Shadows ...

It seemed to take forever for the friar to persuade our entry, by virtue of invoking many visions of saints and threatening the ire of the bishop, but we were finally shown into the darkened grand hall where an even more senior servant waited stiffly in her severe gown. She looked as if she had been born in it, and would die in it, but only after she’d destroyed the last of her enemies from sheer spite.

In short, she much resembled a younger version of my grandmother, and after a quick, cautious glance I kept my gaze fixed on the shadow-muted carpet underfoot.

“What is this?” she demanded. “You seek to intrude on the peace of the young lady for what reason at this unchristian hour, friar? And prate me no nonsense about visions and saintly motives, I know well the venal thoughts of men no matter what robes they wear.”

“What unkindness you have in your heart, signora! I shall remember you in my prayers as often as possible that you should know peace from some terrible suspicion. Why, I am a man of God! And I come on a holy errand for the lady Rosaline, who is soon to be my sister in Christ and therefore as dear to me as any sister of my blood. Surely you do not stand in the way of angels!”

She made a very unladylike sound of derision. “Fallen angels, belike.”

He crossed himself. Twice. “You cut me, dear signora. Yet I stand before you with the patience of a martyr, begging the gift of the presence of the lady – “

Friar Lawrence’s indignance was cut off by a wine-harshened, familiar voice. “Get out. You’re not needed here.” I risked a quick glance upward, toward the staircase where Tybalt Capulet was charging down toward us. His face was flushed and livid, and his dark eyes sparked with rage. “Out, I say! If I need a lecture from the church, we’ll get it from the cathedral, not from some threadbare friar! We’ve had thieves here, and worse; the last we need is you!”

Friar Lawrence straightened, and I remembered my submissive role just as Tybalt’s gaze sheared over me. “Thieves, you say? But this is proof! My vision showed me that the lady Rosaline needed counsel and guidance in this matter, the better to practice the holy virtues of forgiveness! Why, I felt the touch of the saints stirring me from my rest, kind sir, and one cannot argue with saints; I shall get no rest from them until I ease my mind that the lady is well and secure in her faith after such a shock.”

“Her family serves her well enough,” Tybat replied, and I felt the prick of alarm at the wintry cast of his words. “Begone.”

“Tybalt!” The name was said in whipcrack command, and from the corner of my eye I saw him react sharply, turning toward the balcony overlooking the hall. Since his attention was elsewhere, I too risked a glance, and found the Lady Capulet herself regarding us all with annoyance and distaste. “Such disrespect to the church will not be tolerated. My sincerest apologies, brothers. You may address your concerns to me, and not my nephew.”

Friar Lawrence did not hesitate to exploit the opening. “I come in haste, afire with purpose sent from heaven,” he said. “I must urgently see the Lady Rosaline on matters of a spiritual nature. I would of course be glad of your attendance, my lady Capulet.”

She hesitated for so long that I could feel the balance shifting beneath my unsteady feet, back toward Tybalt and his simmering violence, but then she gave one single, sharp nod. “Come with me.” Tybalt must have made to protest, because I heard her give an ice-cold hiss, and then say, “Nothing more from you this eve. Your uncle will hear of your misbehaviors. Your manners are no better than those of a drudge.”

In true noble fashion, she was less concerned with the state of her soul – or anyone’s – than with the appearance of rudeness to an institution more powerful on earth – never mind heaven – than the Prince himself. Tybalt stood back to allow Friar Lawrence to ascend the steps, closely followed by me; I admit, I took some satisfaction in passing so near an enemy in perfect silence, hidden in plain sight. If only I’d been able to lift a trinket or two, the moment might have been perfection, but the risk was too great. Better to steal on the way out than the way in.

We followed the drifting skirts of Lady Capulet – attended now by a covey of ladies-in-waiting, including the sour-faced woman who’d first braced us – down the candle-lit hall toward the room I knew to be Rosaline’s. She did not bother to announce herself. One of the servants opened the way, and the party swept like a storm inside.

I did not see Rosaline right away, only heard the intake of breath from Friar Lawrence. One of the ladies gave a faint cry – distressed, but hardly surprised.
I caught sight of Lady Capulet’s expression. It did not change by so much as a flicker.

I eased a few inches to the right, keeping my face as shadowed as possible as I risked a direct look at the scene ahead of us, and for a frozen moment all I could see was blood. Blood in drips and dribbles, staining the floor.

Rosaline was wedged into a cold corner, knees drawn up, night-gown bloodied from her split lip and the open cut on her forehead. It would take time for the bruises to form, but her left eye was already swollen, and the right side of her jaw distorted from the beating she’d received. She held her right arm tenderly, and I saw the bloody scrapes on her knuckles.

What sort of woman was she, to fight back? She’d lost, of course, and badly, but it was the sight of those wounded hands that made me feel as if I had lost my breath entire.

That, and the fact that she recognized me.

I saw her raise her head, and she met my gaze with her own, or at least half of it, and I saw the barely perceptible reaction that ran through her. There was an emotion there I could not fully understand – fear, of course, who would not be afraid? But something more.

I thought it might – impossibly – be gratitude.

“A fortunate thing that she is to be a bride of Christ,” her aunt said, “since His love transcends such earthly considerations as beauty. As you can see, the girl is inclined to be unbiddable at times, Friar.”

“Is such violent correction necessary?” he asked, and I heard a sharp edge to the question. “The girl is, after all, promised to the Church.”

“And it is our duty to ensure that she reflects well upon the house of Capulet,” her aunt said, with an imperious jut of her chin. She did not like being questioned so. “The scriptures tell us that a disobedient child should be corrected, is that not so? I thought you were summoned to tend to her spiritual needs, not her bodily ones.”

“Sometimes one entwines with the other,” Friar Lawrence said cheerfully, and moved forward to kneel next to the girl. He took the voluminous wool of his sleeve and wiped carefully at the cut on her head. “How fare you, my lady?”

“Well,” she whispered, and closed her eyes for a moment. “Well enough, I thank you.”

“Well enough to understand that you have been summoned to the glorious service of Our Lord?”

“At this hour?” Lady Capulet cut in, sharp as a blade. “Surely not. She’ll need at least a week to be presentable for the journey.”

Friar Lawrence stood, pulling himself to his full height, and bulk, with his hands folded in his bloodied sleeve. “A week, you say? To do God’s bidding?”

“God’s, or yours?” I risked a quick glance upward. Lady Capulet’s ale-colored eyes were far too sharp, her lips far too thin. She was suspicious of nature, and this miraculous visit had waked howls within her. It remained to be seen whether or not we would survive the Capulet hounds, if they had been set hard on the hunt. “I shall send to the abbess to confirm that this – vision of yours is inspired of God, and not from some lower place. You shall hear from me within the week. If your message proves true, you may have the honor of escort the girl to the cloister. If not, you may be sure that we will speak to the bishop and request his instruction.” The bishop, of course, was a Capulet born. Friar Lawrence had placed himself squarely in danger for my sake, but looking at Rosaline – who had suffered for my sake, as well – I could see no alternative. Her life hung in the balance of Tybalt’s temper, and her aunt’s indifference. I did not want to leave her here, risking more, but I caught a tiny movement from her. She had gently moved her scraped hand in a way that I knew was meant to warn me off.

So I bit my tongue hard enough to taste the metal of my blood, and kept my head bowed, my hands folded, as Friar Lawrence cooed his social graces to Lady Capulet, whose pursed mouth never loosened, and after exacting a promise that Rosaline’s wounds would be tended, led me out and down the stairs.

Tybalt still lounged there, spineless as a cat, and we were forced to edge by him toward the landing. I passed close enough to smell Rosaline’s blood on him, and the heavy, angry stink of his sweat.

I felt a blind, red urge to let fly all the violence within me. My hand twisted and ached with the need to draw the concealed dagger at my waist and plunge it deep into his heart, but the cold, calm part of me reminded me that Rosaline Capulet was no kin of mine.

No kin and never kind, she’d said.

The taste in my mouth changed from blood to ashes as we left the Capulet house, and the doors slammed and bolted behind us.

I was suffocating in the folds of my disguise, and wished desperately to free myself of it, but Friar Lawrence’s hand closed hard on my arm as I tugged at the ropes holding it closed. “Not here,” he said. “You were right to fear for her, but with God’s grace we may have saved her life tonight. Her lady aunt will not wish to have Rosaline murdered this night; they might be within their rights to so dispose of a rebellious girl-child, but they have not the liver for questions the church might bring. She’s safe enough, for now. But our pressing concern now must be intercepting the message she will send on to the abbess.”

“I will see to that,” I said. At least it was something to which my skills were well suited, unlike miming a biddable young postulant. “But what reply should we send in its place?”

“If you don’t wish to damage my newly-minted reputation as a prophet, I would suggest it say that I am selected to be the one to escort the Lady Rosaline to her joyous union with Christ. You might mention a saint and a vision or two, as well.”

I did not want Rosaline to be sent within the walls of a cloister, never to see her again, but perhaps it was the best for her; it was undoubtedly the safest. Here, in Verona, she risked her brother’s wrath, which might lead to worse than we’d seen tonight.

Jesu, I wanted him dead.

But I nodded beneath the suffocating weight of the robes, rounded my shoulders in submission I did not feel, and followed Friar Lawrence across the silent, dangerous city.