“You’d best be off home, Mercutio,” I told him. “A bath would serve you.”
“Many things would serve me,” he said. “But none so well as a Capulet on the point of my blade.”
“Too hot for that, and the mood hotter still,” I told him. “If you will not go home, then will you not come with me? Balthasar is on errands, but I’ll order a bath for you, and a bed. You can sleep in peace under our roof.”
“Can I?” he asked, and drew in a sudden, wrenching breath. “I would much desire the peace of a dreamless rest, but, Ben, I will confess to you as I cannot to those hard-mouthed
priests: I cannot sleep, in peace or out of it. I shut my eyes and Tomasso’s face is before me, or worse . . . he is not dead, and I cannot release him to his rightful rest.” He ran a hand over his face, wiping sweat, and I noted how it trembled. “He haunts me. He lies beside me, and will not speak; we are parted but not parted enough. How then may I sleep, unless wine weighs me down into the dark?”
He sounded as broken as I knew he was, and it made me cringe; weakness in our world drew wolves. “Come, then,” I said, and clapped him firmly on the back to brace him. “A bath, and a safe and solitary bed in a place where your ghosts cannot find you.”
“Your grandmother will take it ill.”
“My grandmother may take it as she likes.” Brave words, but he was right: She would resent that I sheltered Mercutio under her roof. Even decently married, and with a rumored babe on the way, he would never be beyond gossip. “It’s too bright a day for trouble.”
We might have escaped that trouble, save that in that last moment, Mercutio spied Romeo.
My cousin rounded the corner from the cathedral, walking with brisk, purposeful steps. I spotted him in the same instant, and noted the vivid, almost religious ecstasy of his smile; he was bestowing it upon the low and high alike, and making no effort to cast a careful eye upon his surroundings. My cousin, the strutting young peacock, was kitted in his finest, and he glowed and glimmered in the warm light like some hero of legend.
It was not a day to be making himself so obvious a target. He’d not even bothered with a single retainer to follow behind and keep the knives from his back. If my grandmother was right, Capulets would be sharpening their blades for just such an opportunity.
Mercutio saw none of that. He saw only a chance for rough play, and before I could stay him he lurched forward, shouting too loudly, “Signor Romeo, bonjour! That’s a French salutation to match the French cut of your breeches, sir, and where hid you last night?”
Romeo’s ecstatic smile faded. He did most ardently want to avoid the scene, but could not, so he pasted on false cheer and came toward Mercutio, with me following behind like a reluctant old uncle. “Good morning to you both. What do you mean, hid?”
“You gave us the slip, sir, the slip,” Mercutio said, and waggled his finger. “Your cousin’s been eaten with worry.”
“Pardon, good Mercutio.” Romeo bowed. “My business was great, and in such a case as mine, a man may strain courtesy.”
Mercutio laughed and likened courtesy to curtsies, and lifted invisible skirts to deliver a mincing little illustration of it. “I am the very pink of courtesy,” he said, and got in my cousin’s way as he tried to bow his way onward.
“Pink for flowers?” Romeo’s smile fixed, and was growing cold. This was a turn I did not much like; it was a taunt, a very pointed one. That earned us a murmur of disapproval and a scorching look from a passing old dowager and her entourage.
It also earned Romeo Mercutio’s shove. “Just so!”
“My pump is well flowered,” Romeo said. It was the sort of jest a gentleman might make only among close company, not on the streets in full hearing of passersby. It was also cruel, harkening as it did to Mercutio’s enforced marriage—a subject with which our friend was as much anguished as angry.
I stepped forward, but I might have as easily stepped between two men bent on duel. They ignored my intervention.
Mercutio laughed, and snapped teeth. “I will bite you by the ear for that.” He threw a heavy arm around Romeo’s neck, snake-quick, and locked him in embrace. “Come, is not this better than groaning for love? Now you are sociable; now you are Romeo. This driveling love of yours is like an idiot that runs up and down, the better to hide his toy in a hole.”
That earned us more angry glares, for it was too close to vulgarity for the public, and Romeo caught the hint quickly. “Stop—stop there.”
Mercutio tried to go on, and I was sure he would plunge us into real trouble, but then a fat nurse separated from the oncoming crowd, attended by a servant, and headed toward us with purpose. I nearly remembered her swollen, heat-pinked face; she huffed as she approached, and whisked the air vigorously with her fan. What now? I wondered, because I saw Romeo freeze in place like a schoolboy caught with a stolen apple. He writhed free of Mercutio’s headlock and shoved us both away.
“Go home,” Romeo said to me. “I’ll follow anon.”
I placed her, then, this overstuffed woman; she was Capulet, the nurse who sometimes hovered near young Juliet when the girl was allowed the freedom of the air. I had seen her quaffing large wine cups at the feast. “Coz . . .” I took Romeo by the arm, and he shook
me off. The servant walking behind the nurse—a Capulet, though without the identifying colors—half drew his dagger as he looked at me, and I released my hold. “Come with us.”
“I said I will follow,” he said, and turned back to the nurse.
Perhaps, if I’d been alone, I’d have dared force the issue, but Mercutio was already offering more insult, in form of an offensive good-bye to the fat old nurse, and I could see her face purpling with outrage. Two of the city guard turned toward us and headed in our direction, and all I could do was grip Mercutio’s elbow to draw him away, and leave Romeo to his intrigues.
“Fool!” I said, and pushed Mercutio as soon as we were far enough away to pull no more attention. “What do you mean to do, humiliate him? He is your friend!”
“And your cousin,” Mercutio said, “yet I see you’re no more fond of him just now than I. All that bleating over the girl, the girl, the girl. I’ve my own female, and they’re not of much use, Benvolio, not of much use at all.”
“Save for heirs,” I said. “And once you have them, surely you will be free to do as you please. . . .”
“Will I? Here, in this city of righteous, upstanding deceivers, heretics, monsters, and murderers?” He laughed, but there was wildness in it, and despair. “There is no freedom, Benvolio; you should give up that folly now. This city is made of stone, and the stones will press us down, and down, cutting off all light and hope until dark is the only light you will ever see; do you understand me?” He gripped me by my arms, searching my face intently. “Dark is the only light.”
I nodded, because in that moment his intensity made me both wary and sad. My friend suffered, most intensely, and I knew there was nothing I could do to take it away. “I cannot leave Romeo on his own,” I said. “He’s . . . not himself.”
“Who is?” Mercutio barked a bitter laugh, and wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm. “Are you his fretting wet nurse now, and he a mewling infant? Has it come to such a pass?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s come to that.”