I leaned against the stone wall to suck in the clean, cool air. I imagined I could see steam curling up from my sweat-soaked clothes, as if I’d escaped like Shadrach from the fire.
I looked in the direction of the low sound, and saw a shadow lurking near the conjunction of the walls. A stray bit of sunlight from a high, barred window picked out skirts too rich for a servant’s, and a gleam of a jewel on a headpiece.
It seemed my fair younger sister wanted speech with me. The day wasn’t yet trying enough.
“Honest women don’t hide in shadows, Veronica.” I let my head drop back hard against the stone. The ache of the impact temporarily drove away my sweaty discomfort, but not my sister . . . almost fifteen, vaguely pretty, and as deadly as a snake.
“I’m hiding from her, of course. She wishes to instruct me on the nature of wifely duties.” Veronica grabbed me by the collar of my doublet and pulled me around the corner, into the shadows. She let go with a sound of disgust. “Ugh, are you poxed? You’re as sweaty as a laborer!”
“Shall I go tell her that you need no instruction on wifely duties? I imagine you could write a philosopher’s pamphlet on the subject already.”
“Pig!” She tried to slap me, but I caught her hand an inch from my face.
“I won’t pretend you are pure as the Virgin if you won’t pretend to care. If you are set on avoiding Grandmother, why come here at all?”
“Mother was concerned. She sent for you an hour ago, and bade me find you.”
“As did Grandmother. Which would you obey first?”
Ronnie snapped open a feather fan and batted it with great energy. “Did the old witch talk about me?”
“Why would she? She’s made you a fine match. You’re no longer of interest.”
“She’s marrying me off to an old man!”
“A wealthy old man,” I said. “In ill health. You’ll be a fortune-heavy widow before twenty, with a long future of dalliance before you.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ll not be the one he’ll paw in the marriage bed.” She eyed me over the fan with wicked intensity. “Or perhaps you’d prefer that, Ben. Given the company you keep—”
I pushed her against the wall in a flash, and she hardly had time for a startled squawk before I sealed her mouth with my palm. I put my lips very close to her ear and said, “Before you run your clever tongue about my friends, remember the boy they hanged last winter. Claiming someone a sodomite is no joking matter, Ronnie. Say it again, and I’ll swear to teach you better manners.”
She shoved me back with sudden, furious strength. There were spots of red high in her cheeks, and her eyes glittered, but she lowered her voice just the same. “It’s the same penalty for me if they hear you jesting about how expert I am in wifely duties! Or perhaps they’ll take pity on me and put me in a convent’s cell, where I shall never see the sun again. Or did you forget?”
“No,” I said. “Neither should you.”
“You are my brother! How is it that you don’t protect me with as much passion as your companions? They say women may fall when there’s no strength in men, you know! Perhaps my lack of moral quality is your fault.”
I walked away. Sister though she was, I didn’t much care for Veronica; girls were raised far differently, and separately, and what I knew of her I didn’t savor. The sooner she was married off, the better for us all.
I heard a rustle of fabric, and looked back to find Veronica hurrying to follow me. Her stiff skirts brushed the walls in a constant hiss. “Wait!”
“For what? I’ve nothing else to say to you.”
She raised her voice to a carrying, malicious volume. “That’s not what you whispered in my ear last night, brother. Why, the things you said . . .”
I swung around on her, and she quickly danced back out of reach, eyes bright and malicious. “Well,” she purred. “That begged your attention, didn’t it?”
“I’m warning you, Ronnie, sharpen your claws on another.” Despite the urge to strike her, I didn’t. Engaging with Veronica was a hazardous business when there were no witnesses to prove my case, especially should she make some outrageous accusation. I’d seen her make malicious sport of others, to their ruin; she’d never yet done it to family, but it took little to taint a man’s reputation, or a woman’s, and I would not take the risk.
She was terrifying, and she was not even fifteen.
I walked away, well aware she was still scurrying after me.
I slowed as I took a sharp right turn, and the hall vaulted upward into an open atrium, with the sun pouring down to spark sparse, precious flowers into bursts of color against the marble flagging.
There was not so much risk here, as Romeo’s own father, the head of Montague and most often simply known by the family’s name, limped restlessly at the other end of the garden; from the look of him, his gout was bothering him yet again. I took a seat on a marble bench commemorating the death of some long-dead gouty uncle or other.
Veronica drew to a stop, staring at me as her corseted breasts heaved for air. “You lack the grace of a gentleman,” she said. “Sprawling like a boy when a lady should be seated.”
“I would offer my place if a lady presented herself,” I said, but grudgingly moved over to make room for her huge skirts. She was wearing a dress too hot-tempered for the day, but my sister wished always to be noticed. Vanity before comfort. “You’ll be punished for
avoiding La Signora’s summons. She enjoys her little lectures on morality, and she doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Veronica made use of her feather fan again, as if her hasty pursuit had made her faint with effort. “I’ll give a female excuse,” she said. “She dotes on them. It makes a girl seem pleasingly fragile.”
I cut her a glance. “You’re as fragile as a barbarian’s broadsword.”
She gave me a knife-sharp smile from a flutter of peacock tails.
“I’ve yet to see a barbarian close enough to examine his broadsword.”
I was hard-pressed not to smile. Veronica could be occasionally—very occasionally—amusing.