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I stood in the dark corner of my enemy’s house, and thought of murder.

In his bed, Tybalt Capulet snored and drooled like a toothless old woman. I marveled as I thought of how the women of Verona—from dewy-eyed maids to dignified ladies—fell swooning in his wake. If they could see him like this (a drunken, undignified mess in sodden linen), they’d have run shrieking to the arms of their fathers and husbands.

It would make a good, vivid story to retell, but only among my closest and dearest.

I turned a dagger restlessly in my gloved hand, feeling that murderous tingle working its way through my veins, but I was no assassin.

I was not here to kill. I’d come stealthily into his house, into his rooms, for a purpose.

Tybalt, the heir of Capulet, swaggered the streets of Verona and used wit like weapons; that was nothing new among our class of young cocks. He was never above offering insults, to low or high, when opportunity came. Today he’d offended my house. House Montague.

The victim was a serving girl. Insults to servants didn’t call for open challenges from those of my station, but still, it pricked me, seeing the self-satisfied grin on Tybalt’s face as he emerged from that rank little alcove where he’d reduced her to tears; I’d seen her run from him red faced, holding the tattered rags of her clothes together. He’d injured the girl only to prove his contempt for my house, and that required an answer.

It required revenge, and that was something that I, Benvolio Montague, would serve him—not in the streets, in open war, but here, in the dark. Tonight I was clad head to toe in disguise, and there was nothing about me to indicate my station, or my house. Tonight I was a thief—the best thief in Verona. They called me the Prince of Shadows. For three years I had stolen from my peers without being caught, and tonight . . . tonight would be no different.

Except that it was different. My hands felt hot and restless. So easy to drag a dagger across that hated throat, but murder spawned murder, and I didn’t want to kill Tybalt. There had been enough of that between our two houses; the streets ran slick with spilled blood. No . . . I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to knock him from his perch as the man of the hour.

I had the will, and the access. All that remained now was to choose how to hurt him best. Tybalt was the God-crowned heir of Capulet; he was rich, indulged, and careless. I needed to wound him where it counted—in the eyes of his family, and preferably in the eyes of all Verona.

Ah. I spotted a gleam as something caught the light on the floor. I crossed to the corner, where he’d dumped a tangle of clothing, and found the jeweled emblem pinned to his doublet—a gaudy piece in Capulet colors, one that would feed even a well-done-by merchant family for a year. No doubt he’d underpaid for it, as well; Tybalt was more likely to terrify honest men into bargains than pay fairly. I added the prize to my purse, and then drew Tybalt’s rapier from its sheath, slowly and carefully. It came free with a soft, singing ring of steel, and I turned it in the moonlight, assessing the quality. Very
fine, and engraved with his name and crest. A lovely weapon. A personal
weapon.

He did not deserve such a beautiful thing.

I sheathed it and belted it on, opposite my own rapier. As the heir of Capulet snored, drunken and oblivious, I pulled off my black cap and bowed with perfect form, just the way I would have been honor bound to greet him if we’d had the mischance to meet on the street. Under the breath-moistened black silk of my mask, I was smiling, but it felt more like a grimace.

“Good night, sweet prince, thou poxy son of a dog,” I whispered.

Tybalt smacked his lips, mumbled drunkenly, and rolled over. In seconds he was snoring again, loud as a grinding wheel against a knife.

I slipped out of the door of his apartments, past his equally dozy servant, and considered my exit from the Capulet palace. The obvious way was to return as I’d entered, but I’d come in during the height of the busy afternoon, carrying a box of supplies from a provisioner’s wagon. I’d spent the day admiring the brickwork of the Capulet cellars. Going out the same way was unlikely; the kitchen door was almost certainly locked and guarded now.

Out through the narrow gardens, then. Once I was beyond the wall’s high stone barrier, I would be just another bravo on the moonlit streets, making for my bed.
I went up the stairs, taking them two at a time; my soft leather shoes made no sound on the polished marble. I’d worn gray to blend into the ever-present
stone and brick of Verona; in the shadows, there was nothing better in which to disappear. Even here, inside the quiet house, it was a reasonably good disguise. I ghosted past murky squares of paintings upon the walls, and a candelabrum with two still-burning tapers (a true sign of family wealth); the tapestry at the top of the stairs was rich and very tempting to steal, but too heavy, and I had enough trophies already.

Upstairs was women’s country. Lady Capulet would have the largest and most lavish quarters, to the right—the grand palace was almost a mirror of my own family’s, in many ways. That meant the girls would have the smaller apartments to the left—the oldest, Rosaline, said to be studious and bookish, was probably well asleep by now. She’d have the far rooms, since she was only a cousin, not the lady’s own daughter. She was Tybalt’s sister, arrived in Verona only a few months before, and kept shut up hard in the palace. I’d heard a rumor she was nothing like her loathsome brother, at least; that was to her credit.

There was no servant on duty at her door, and when I tried it, I found it unlocked. A trusting lot, these Capulets, at least within their own walls. I slipped the latch and stepped quietly inside, only to find that the room wasn’t as dark as I’d hoped. There was a low-burning fire crackling on the hearth, and a candle flickering on the table. It scarcely mattered if the girl had left lights burning, as the bed curtains were pulled. She’d hear and see nothing through the thick coverings. I took reasonable care not to allow the floor to creak as I crossed it, and I was almost to the window when I realized that I had erred.

Badly.

Rosaline Capulet was not in bed. She was, instead, perched in a chair on the far side of the table, reading a slim book.

I saw her before she saw me. Candlelight dusted her skin with gold, and flickered in her large, dark eyes; her neck was swan-graceful, and her slender hands cupped the spine of the volume with care. She wore a simple lawn nightgown. I could make out the shadowed curves of her body beneath the white fabric. She had put her midnight dark hair into a long braid for the night, and was thoughtfully twirling one end of it as she read.

No one had warned me she was beautiful.

She saw me in that next second, and shot to her bare feet in alarm. The book thumped down on the table, and I expected her to scream the house down around our ears; it was the usual response from a maiden surprised in her chamber by a masked stranger. Instead, she took in a deep breath, then let it slowly out.

“What do you mean here? Who are you?” she asked. I was surprised by the steadiness of her voice. Her fists were clenched tightly, and I could see she trembled, but her gaze was clear and her chin firm. Not fearless, but brave. Very brave.

I put my finger to my masked lips in a request for a lower volume.

She didn’t respond, so I said softly, “You may call me the Prince of Shadows, lady.”

That sparked interest in her expression, and a new light in her eyes. “I’ve heard rumors. You exist!”

“Thus far.”

“I dismissed the tales of you as drunkard’s gossip. I’ve heard such an array of deeds I hardly know what it is you do.”

“Thieving,” I said. “That is what I do.”

“Why?” It might have sounded like a foolish question, but there was a sharp intelligence behind it, and I waited for the rest of it.

“You’re no starving beggar. Your clothes are too fine. Your mask is silk. You’ve no need of stolen gold.”

She was not only brave, but unnaturally self-possessed. Mine was the upper hand, but I was beginning to wonder whether that might last only a moment. “I enjoy taking from those who have too much,” I said. “Those who deserve to lose for their arrogance.”

She stood very still, watching me, and then slowly inclined her head. “Then it follows you stole from someone in this house. Whom did you make your victim this night?”

It was a test, I realized. She had her standards, and her favorites.

But I refused to lie, damn any consequences. “Tybalt,” I said. “He’s a bully and a fool. Few deserve a comedown more; don’t you agree?”

The tension in her relaxed. She didn’t smile, but there was a slight lift at the corners of her mouth, as if she felt tempted. “Tybalt is my brother, and a dangerous man,” Rosaline said. “You should take to your legs before he steals something more precious from you than you have from him.”

“I take your meaning, and it has wisdom,” I said, and gave her a bow cut even deeper than I’d given her brother, and a great deal more sincere. “You have a kind and generous spirit.”

“Never kind, and no kin of yours, sir,” she said. She sat down at her table again, and picked up her book, and pretended to ignore me. It was a good act, but I saw the tension crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Go quickly. I’ve already forgotten you.”

I gave her another bow, and opened the shutters to her window. Beyond was a balcony, overlooking the small walled garden; it was a startlingly lush Eden set in the heart of heavy stone. A fountain played in the center, sprinkling gentle music over the night. No bravos strolled in sight, though I knew the Capulets employed many. Tybalt hadn’t been in his cups alone this murky evening.

I climbed over the balustrade, clung for a moment to the edge, and then dropped the long distance to a soft flower bed below. Luridly flowering irises snapped and pulped under my feet, and the thick, sweet aroma clung to me as I raced forward. In a heartbeat I scaled the wall, dropped into the street, shook off the dirt and manure, and began what I hoped was a calm and untroubled walk toward the Piazza delle Erbe.

I’d only just removed my mask and folded it into my purse when I heard the smack of boots on stone, and two of the city watch turned the corner ahead, dressed in the livery of the ruler of Verona, Prince Escalus. Both bore heavy arms, as they should in the dark streets, lest their wives wake to find themselves widows. The men cut a course in my direction. When the moonlight caught my face, they slowed, and bowed.

“Sir Montague,” the taller one said. “You stand in danger here. You’re in Capulet territory, and walking alone. Unwise, sir. Very unwise.”

I stumbled to a halt, as unsteady as if I’d been into Tybalt’s wine cellar instead of his apartments. “So it would be, good fellows, save I’m not alone. Montague never walks alone.”

“Faith, he’s most certainly not,” said a new voice, and I heard footsteps approaching behind me. I turned to see the familiar form of my best friend, Mercutio, who doubtless had been imbibing, and heavily. He slung an arm around my neck for support. “Benvolio Montague is never alone in a fight while I draw breath! What now, you rogues, do you need a thrashing to teach you manners?”

“Sirs,” the guard said, with just a shade less patience. “We are the city’s men. A quarrel with us is a quarrel with the prince of Verona. Best you turn your steps to more congenial streets. Besides, the hour is very late.”

I let out a laugh that might well have been fueled by raw wine. “Did you hear that, Mercutio? The hour’s late!” It was the first line of a popular—not very polite—drinking song, and he instantly joined in for a rousing chorus. Neither of us was musical. It provided great theater as the two of us staggered in the direction of the Montague palace, drawing angry and sleepy curses from windows we passed.

The watchmen let us go with rueful shakes of their heads, well glad to be rid of us.

Mercutio dropped the song after we’d passed the piazza’s beautiful statue, the Madonna Verona, as armed soldiers stationed in front of the overblown Palazzo Maffei watched us pass. He didn’t take his arm from my neck, so he truly was drunk enough to need the support, but he had the sense to keep his voice down. “So? How fared your venture?"

I dug the jeweled emblem of the Capulets from my purse and handed it over; he whistled sharply and turned it in the moonlight, admiring the faceted shine before slipping it into his purse. “I have more,” I said, and drew Tybalt’s rapier, which I tossed up in the air. Mercutio—even drunk—was a better swordsman than I, and he snatched it out of the sky with catlike grace. He examined the elegant blade with a delicate brush of his fingers.

“Sometimes I think your skills come from a lower place than heaven,” he said very seriously, and patted my cheek. “The emblem we can sell, if we break it to gold and stones, but this . . .”

“It’s not for sale,” I said. “I want it.”

“For what?”

I smiled, feeling fierce and free and wild in ways that no one would ever believe of the quiet, solid, responsible Benvolio Montague. At night I could be something else than what my city, my station, and my family required. “I don’t know yet,” I said. “But I promise you it will be the talk of the city.”

-----------

The next day, Tybalt Capulet’s sword was found driven an inch deep into the heavy oak of a tavern door. Pinned to it was a ribald verse that detailed a highly entertaining story about Tybalt, a pig, and acts not generally condoned by either the Church or right-thinking sheepherders.

It was a good day.

It was the beginning of the end of the good days.



US/Canada preorder from:

Barnes & Noble | Booksamillion | Amazon.com | Indiebound | Hastings

UK preorder from:

Waterstones | Foyles | WH Smith

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I stood in the dark corner of my enemy’s house, and thought of murder.

In his bed, Tybalt Capulet snored and drooled like a toothless old woman. I marveled as I thought of how the women of Verona—from dewy-eyed maids to dignified ladies—fell swooning in his wake. If they could see him like this (a drunken, undignified mess in sodden linen), they’d have run shrieking to the arms of their fathers and husbands.

It would make a good, vivid story to retell, but only among my closest and dearest.

I turned a dagger restlessly in my gloved hand, feeling that murderous tingle working its way through my veins, but I was no assassin.

I was not here to kill. I’d come stealthily into his house, into his rooms, for a purpose.

Tybalt, the heir of Capulet, swaggered the streets of Verona and used wit like weapons; that was nothing new among our class of young cocks. He was never above offering insults, to low or high, when opportunity came. Today he’d offended my house. House Montague.

The victim was a serving girl. Insults to servants didn’t call for open challenges from those of my station, but still, it pricked me, seeing the self-satisfied grin on Tybalt’s face as he emerged from that rank little alcove where he’d reduced her to tears; I’d seen her run from him red faced, holding the tattered rags of her clothes together. He’d injured the girl only to prove his contempt for my house, and that required an answer.

It required revenge, and that was something that I, Benvolio Montague, would serve him—not in the streets, in open war, but here, in the dark. Tonight I was clad head to toe in disguise, and there was nothing about me to indicate my station, or my house. Tonight I was a thief—the best thief in Verona. They called me the Prince of Shadows. For three years I had stolen from my peers without being caught, and tonight . . . tonight would be no different.

Except that it was different. My hands felt hot and restless. So easy to drag a dagger across that hated throat, but murder spawned murder, and I didn’t want to kill Tybalt. There had been enough of that between our two houses; the streets ran slick with spilled blood. No . . . I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to knock him from his perch as the man of the hour.

I had the will, and the access. All that remained now was to choose how to hurt him best. Tybalt was the God-crowned heir of Capulet; he was rich, indulged, and careless. I needed to wound him where it counted—in the eyes of his family, and preferably in the eyes of all Verona.

Ah. I spotted a gleam as something caught the light on the floor. I crossed to the corner, where he’d dumped a tangle of clothing, and found the jeweled emblem pinned to his doublet—a gaudy piece in Capulet colors, one that would feed even a well-done-by merchant family for a year. No doubt he’d underpaid for it, as well; Tybalt was more likely to terrify honest men into bargains than pay fairly. I added the prize to my purse, and then drew Tybalt’s rapier from its sheath, slowly and carefully. It came free with a soft, singing ring of steel, and I turned it in the moonlight, assessing the quality. Very
fine, and engraved with his name and crest. A lovely weapon. A personal
weapon.

He did not deserve such a beautiful thing.

I sheathed it and belted it on, opposite my own rapier. As the heir of Capulet snored, drunken and oblivious, I pulled off my black cap and bowed with perfect form, just the way I would have been honor bound to greet him if we’d had the mischance to meet on the street. Under the breath-moistened black silk of my mask, I was smiling, but it felt more like a grimace.

“Good night, sweet prince, thou poxy son of a dog,” I whispered.

Tybalt smacked his lips, mumbled drunkenly, and rolled over. In seconds he was snoring again, loud as a grinding wheel against a knife.

I slipped out of the door of his apartments, past his equally dozy servant, and considered my exit from the Capulet palace. The obvious way was to return as I’d entered, but I’d come in during the height of the busy afternoon, carrying a box of supplies from a provisioner’s wagon. I’d spent the day admiring the brickwork of the Capulet cellars. Going out the same way was unlikely; the kitchen door was almost certainly locked and guarded now.

Out through the narrow gardens, then. Once I was beyond the wall’s high stone barrier, I would be just another bravo on the moonlit streets, making for my bed.
I went up the stairs, taking them two at a time; my soft leather shoes made no sound on the polished marble. I’d worn gray to blend into the ever-present
stone and brick of Verona; in the shadows, there was nothing better in which to disappear. Even here, inside the quiet house, it was a reasonably good disguise. I ghosted past murky squares of paintings upon the walls, and a candelabrum with two still-burning tapers (a true sign of family wealth); the tapestry at the top of the stairs was rich and very tempting to steal, but too heavy, and I had enough trophies already.

Upstairs was women’s country. Lady Capulet would have the largest and most lavish quarters, to the right—the grand palace was almost a mirror of my own family’s, in many ways. That meant the girls would have the smaller apartments to the left—the oldest, Rosaline, said to be studious and bookish, was probably well asleep by now. She’d have the far rooms, since she was only a cousin, not the lady’s own daughter. She was Tybalt’s sister, arrived in Verona only a few months before, and kept shut up hard in the palace. I’d heard a rumor she was nothing like her loathsome brother, at least; that was to her credit.

There was no servant on duty at her door, and when I tried it, I found it unlocked. A trusting lot, these Capulets, at least within their own walls. I slipped the latch and stepped quietly inside, only to find that the room wasn’t as dark as I’d hoped. There was a low-burning fire crackling on the hearth, and a candle flickering on the table. It scarcely mattered if the girl had left lights burning, as the bed curtains were pulled. She’d hear and see nothing through the thick coverings. I took reasonable care not to allow the floor to creak as I crossed it, and I was almost to the window when I realized that I had erred.

Badly.

Rosaline Capulet was not in bed. She was, instead, perched in a chair on the far side of the table, reading a slim book.

I saw her before she saw me. Candlelight dusted her skin with gold, and flickered in her large, dark eyes; her neck was swan-graceful, and her slender hands cupped the spine of the volume with care. She wore a simple lawn nightgown. I could make out the shadowed curves of her body beneath the white fabric. She had put her midnight dark hair into a long braid for the night, and was thoughtfully twirling one end of it as she read.

No one had warned me she was beautiful.

She saw me in that next second, and shot to her bare feet in alarm. The book thumped down on the table, and I expected her to scream the house down around our ears; it was the usual response from a maiden surprised in her chamber by a masked stranger. Instead, she took in a deep breath, then let it slowly out.

“What do you mean here? Who are you?” she asked. I was surprised by the steadiness of her voice. Her fists were clenched tightly, and I could see she trembled, but her gaze was clear and her chin firm. Not fearless, but brave. Very brave.

I put my finger to my masked lips in a request for a lower volume.

She didn’t respond, so I said softly, “You may call me the Prince of Shadows, lady.”

That sparked interest in her expression, and a new light in her eyes. “I’ve heard rumors. You exist!”

“Thus far.”

“I dismissed the tales of you as drunkard’s gossip. I’ve heard such an array of deeds I hardly know what it is you do.”

“Thieving,” I said. “That is what I do.”

“Why?” It might have sounded like a foolish question, but there was a sharp intelligence behind it, and I waited for the rest of it.

“You’re no starving beggar. Your clothes are too fine. Your mask is silk. You’ve no need of stolen gold.”

She was not only brave, but unnaturally self-possessed. Mine was the upper hand, but I was beginning to wonder whether that might last only a moment. “I enjoy taking from those who have too much,” I said. “Those who deserve to lose for their arrogance.”

She stood very still, watching me, and then slowly inclined her head. “Then it follows you stole from someone in this house. Whom did you make your victim this night?”

It was a test, I realized. She had her standards, and her favorites.

But I refused to lie, damn any consequences. “Tybalt,” I said. “He’s a bully and a fool. Few deserve a comedown more; don’t you agree?”

The tension in her relaxed. She didn’t smile, but there was a slight lift at the corners of her mouth, as if she felt tempted. “Tybalt is my brother, and a dangerous man,” Rosaline said. “You should take to your legs before he steals something more precious from you than you have from him.”

“I take your meaning, and it has wisdom,” I said, and gave her a bow cut even deeper than I’d given her brother, and a great deal more sincere. “You have a kind and generous spirit.”

“Never kind, and no kin of yours, sir,” she said. She sat down at her table again, and picked up her book, and pretended to ignore me. It was a good act, but I saw the tension crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Go quickly. I’ve already forgotten you.”

I gave her another bow, and opened the shutters to her window. Beyond was a balcony, overlooking the small walled garden; it was a startlingly lush Eden set in the heart of heavy stone. A fountain played in the center, sprinkling gentle music over the night. No bravos strolled in sight, though I knew the Capulets employed many. Tybalt hadn’t been in his cups alone this murky evening.

I climbed over the balustrade, clung for a moment to the edge, and then dropped the long distance to a soft flower bed below. Luridly flowering irises snapped and pulped under my feet, and the thick, sweet aroma clung to me as I raced forward. In a heartbeat I scaled the wall, dropped into the street, shook off the dirt and manure, and began what I hoped was a calm and untroubled walk toward the Piazza delle Erbe.

I’d only just removed my mask and folded it into my purse when I heard the smack of boots on stone, and two of the city watch turned the corner ahead, dressed in the livery of the ruler of Verona, Prince Escalus. Both bore heavy arms, as they should in the dark streets, lest their wives wake to find themselves widows. The men cut a course in my direction. When the moonlight caught my face, they slowed, and bowed.

“Sir Montague,” the taller one said. “You stand in danger here. You’re in Capulet territory, and walking alone. Unwise, sir. Very unwise.”

I stumbled to a halt, as unsteady as if I’d been into Tybalt’s wine cellar instead of his apartments. “So it would be, good fellows, save I’m not alone. Montague never walks alone.”

“Faith, he’s most certainly not,” said a new voice, and I heard footsteps approaching behind me. I turned to see the familiar form of my best friend, Mercutio, who doubtless had been imbibing, and heavily. He slung an arm around my neck for support. “Benvolio Montague is never alone in a fight while I draw breath! What now, you rogues, do you need a thrashing to teach you manners?”

“Sirs,” the guard said, with just a shade less patience. “We are the city’s men. A quarrel with us is a quarrel with the prince of Verona. Best you turn your steps to more congenial streets. Besides, the hour is very late.”

I let out a laugh that might well have been fueled by raw wine. “Did you hear that, Mercutio? The hour’s late!” It was the first line of a popular—not very polite—drinking song, and he instantly joined in for a rousing chorus. Neither of us was musical. It provided great theater as the two of us staggered in the direction of the Montague palace, drawing angry and sleepy curses from windows we passed.

The watchmen let us go with rueful shakes of their heads, well glad to be rid of us.

Mercutio dropped the song after we’d passed the piazza’s beautiful statue, the Madonna Verona, as armed soldiers stationed in front of the overblown Palazzo Maffei watched us pass. He didn’t take his arm from my neck, so he truly was drunk enough to need the support, but he had the sense to keep his voice down. “So? How fared your venture?"

I dug the jeweled emblem of the Capulets from my purse and handed it over; he whistled sharply and turned it in the moonlight, admiring the faceted shine before slipping it into his purse. “I have more,” I said, and drew Tybalt’s rapier, which I tossed up in the air. Mercutio—even drunk—was a better swordsman than I, and he snatched it out of the sky with catlike grace. He examined the elegant blade with a delicate brush of his fingers.

“Sometimes I think your skills come from a lower place than heaven,” he said very seriously, and patted my cheek. “The emblem we can sell, if we break it to gold and stones, but this . . .”

“It’s not for sale,” I said. “I want it.”

“For what?”

I smiled, feeling fierce and free and wild in ways that no one would ever believe of the quiet, solid, responsible Benvolio Montague. At night I could be something else than what my city, my station, and my family required. “I don’t know yet,” I said. “But I promise you it will be the talk of the city.”

-----------

The next day, Tybalt Capulet’s sword was found driven an inch deep into the heavy oak of a tavern door. Pinned to it was a ribald verse that detailed a highly entertaining story about Tybalt, a pig, and acts not generally condoned by either the Church or right-thinking sheepherders.

It was a good day.

It was the beginning of the end of the good days.



US/Canada preorder from:

Barnes & Noble | Booksamillion | Indiebound | Hastings

UK preorder from:

Waterstones | Foyles | WH Smith

Desktop and all none targeted content
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I stood in the dark corner of my enemy’s house, and thought of murder.

In his bed, Tybalt Capulet snored and drooled like a toothless old woman. I marveled as I thought of how the women of Verona—from dewy-eyed maids to dignified ladies—fell swooning in his wake. If they could see him like this (a drunken, undignified mess in sodden linen), they’d have run shrieking to the arms of their fathers and husbands.

It would make a good, vivid story to retell, but only among my closest and dearest.

I turned a dagger restlessly in my gloved hand, feeling that murderous tingle working its way through my veins, but I was no assassin.

I was not here to kill. I’d come stealthily into his house, into his rooms, for a purpose.

Tybalt, the heir of Capulet, swaggered the streets of Verona and used wit like weapons; that was nothing new among our class of young cocks. He was never above offering insults, to low or high, when opportunity came. Today he’d offended my house. House Montague.

The victim was a serving girl. Insults to servants didn’t call for open challenges from those of my station, but still, it pricked me, seeing the self-satisfied grin on Tybalt’s face as he emerged from that rank little alcove where he’d reduced her to tears; I’d seen her run from him red faced, holding the tattered rags of her clothes together. He’d injured the girl only to prove his contempt for my house, and that required an answer.

It required revenge, and that was something that I, Benvolio Montague, would serve him—not in the streets, in open war, but here, in the dark. Tonight I was clad head to toe in disguise, and there was nothing about me to indicate my station, or my house. Tonight I was a thief—the best thief in Verona. They called me the Prince of Shadows. For three years I had stolen from my peers without being caught, and tonight . . . tonight would be no different.

Except that it was different. My hands felt hot and restless. So easy to drag a dagger across that hated throat, but murder spawned murder, and I didn’t want to kill Tybalt. There had been enough of that between our two houses; the streets ran slick with spilled blood. No . . . I wanted to humiliate him. I wanted to knock him from his perch as the man of the hour.

I had the will, and the access. All that remained now was to choose how to hurt him best. Tybalt was the God-crowned heir of Capulet; he was rich, indulged, and careless. I needed to wound him where it counted—in the eyes of his family, and preferably in the eyes of all Verona.

Ah. I spotted a gleam as something caught the light on the floor. I crossed to the corner, where he’d dumped a tangle of clothing, and found the jeweled emblem pinned to his doublet—a gaudy piece in Capulet colors, one that would feed even a well-done-by merchant family for a year. No doubt he’d underpaid for it, as well; Tybalt was more likely to terrify honest men into bargains than pay fairly. I added the prize to my purse, and then drew Tybalt’s rapier from its sheath, slowly and carefully. It came free with a soft, singing ring of steel, and I turned it in the moonlight, assessing the quality. Very
fine, and engraved with his name and crest. A lovely weapon. A personal
weapon.

He did not deserve such a beautiful thing.

I sheathed it and belted it on, opposite my own rapier. As the heir of Capulet snored, drunken and oblivious, I pulled off my black cap and bowed with perfect form, just the way I would have been honor bound to greet him if we’d had the mischance to meet on the street. Under the breath-moistened black silk of my mask, I was smiling, but it felt more like a grimace.

“Good night, sweet prince, thou poxy son of a dog,” I whispered.

Tybalt smacked his lips, mumbled drunkenly, and rolled over. In seconds he was snoring again, loud as a grinding wheel against a knife.

I slipped out of the door of his apartments, past his equally dozy servant, and considered my exit from the Capulet palace. The obvious way was to return as I’d entered, but I’d come in during the height of the busy afternoon, carrying a box of supplies from a provisioner’s wagon. I’d spent the day admiring the brickwork of the Capulet cellars. Going out the same way was unlikely; the kitchen door was almost certainly locked and guarded now.

Out through the narrow gardens, then. Once I was beyond the wall’s high stone barrier, I would be just another bravo on the moonlit streets, making for my bed.
I went up the stairs, taking them two at a time; my soft leather shoes made no sound on the polished marble. I’d worn gray to blend into the ever-present
stone and brick of Verona; in the shadows, there was nothing better in which to disappear. Even here, inside the quiet house, it was a reasonably good disguise. I ghosted past murky squares of paintings upon the walls, and a candelabrum with two still-burning tapers (a true sign of family wealth); the tapestry at the top of the stairs was rich and very tempting to steal, but too heavy, and I had enough trophies already.

Upstairs was women’s country. Lady Capulet would have the largest and most lavish quarters, to the right—the grand palace was almost a mirror of my own family’s, in many ways. That meant the girls would have the smaller apartments to the left—the oldest, Rosaline, said to be studious and bookish, was probably well asleep by now. She’d have the far rooms, since she was only a cousin, not the lady’s own daughter. She was Tybalt’s sister, arrived in Verona only a few months before, and kept shut up hard in the palace. I’d heard a rumor she was nothing like her loathsome brother, at least; that was to her credit.

There was no servant on duty at her door, and when I tried it, I found it unlocked. A trusting lot, these Capulets, at least within their own walls. I slipped the latch and stepped quietly inside, only to find that the room wasn’t as dark as I’d hoped. There was a low-burning fire crackling on the hearth, and a candle flickering on the table. It scarcely mattered if the girl had left lights burning, as the bed curtains were pulled. She’d hear and see nothing through the thick coverings. I took reasonable care not to allow the floor to creak as I crossed it, and I was almost to the window when I realized that I had erred.

Badly.

Rosaline Capulet was not in bed. She was, instead, perched in a chair on the far side of the table, reading a slim book.

I saw her before she saw me. Candlelight dusted her skin with gold, and flickered in her large, dark eyes; her neck was swan-graceful, and her slender hands cupped the spine of the volume with care. She wore a simple lawn nightgown. I could make out the shadowed curves of her body beneath the white fabric. She had put her midnight dark hair into a long braid for the night, and was thoughtfully twirling one end of it as she read.

No one had warned me she was beautiful.

She saw me in that next second, and shot to her bare feet in alarm. The book thumped down on the table, and I expected her to scream the house down around our ears; it was the usual response from a maiden surprised in her chamber by a masked stranger. Instead, she took in a deep breath, then let it slowly out.

“What do you mean here? Who are you?” she asked. I was surprised by the steadiness of her voice. Her fists were clenched tightly, and I could see she trembled, but her gaze was clear and her chin firm. Not fearless, but brave. Very brave.

I put my finger to my masked lips in a request for a lower volume.

She didn’t respond, so I said softly, “You may call me the Prince of Shadows, lady.”

That sparked interest in her expression, and a new light in her eyes. “I’ve heard rumors. You exist!”

“Thus far.”

“I dismissed the tales of you as drunkard’s gossip. I’ve heard such an array of deeds I hardly know what it is you do.”

“Thieving,” I said. “That is what I do.”

“Why?” It might have sounded like a foolish question, but there was a sharp intelligence behind it, and I waited for the rest of it.

“You’re no starving beggar. Your clothes are too fine. Your mask is silk. You’ve no need of stolen gold.”

She was not only brave, but unnaturally self-possessed. Mine was the upper hand, but I was beginning to wonder whether that might last only a moment. “I enjoy taking from those who have too much,” I said. “Those who deserve to lose for their arrogance.”

She stood very still, watching me, and then slowly inclined her head. “Then it follows you stole from someone in this house. Whom did you make your victim this night?”

It was a test, I realized. She had her standards, and her favorites.

But I refused to lie, damn any consequences. “Tybalt,” I said. “He’s a bully and a fool. Few deserve a comedown more; don’t you agree?”

The tension in her relaxed. She didn’t smile, but there was a slight lift at the corners of her mouth, as if she felt tempted. “Tybalt is my brother, and a dangerous man,” Rosaline said. “You should take to your legs before he steals something more precious from you than you have from him.”

“I take your meaning, and it has wisdom,” I said, and gave her a bow cut even deeper than I’d given her brother, and a great deal more sincere. “You have a kind and generous spirit.”

“Never kind, and no kin of yours, sir,” she said. She sat down at her table again, and picked up her book, and pretended to ignore me. It was a good act, but I saw the tension crinkling the corners of her eyes. “Go quickly. I’ve already forgotten you.”

I gave her another bow, and opened the shutters to her window. Beyond was a balcony, overlooking the small walled garden; it was a startlingly lush Eden set in the heart of heavy stone. A fountain played in the center, sprinkling gentle music over the night. No bravos strolled in sight, though I knew the Capulets employed many. Tybalt hadn’t been in his cups alone this murky evening.

I climbed over the balustrade, clung for a moment to the edge, and then dropped the long distance to a soft flower bed below. Luridly flowering irises snapped and pulped under my feet, and the thick, sweet aroma clung to me as I raced forward. In a heartbeat I scaled the wall, dropped into the street, shook off the dirt and manure, and began what I hoped was a calm and untroubled walk toward the Piazza delle Erbe.

I’d only just removed my mask and folded it into my purse when I heard the smack of boots on stone, and two of the city watch turned the corner ahead, dressed in the livery of the ruler of Verona, Prince Escalus. Both bore heavy arms, as they should in the dark streets, lest their wives wake to find themselves widows. The men cut a course in my direction. When the moonlight caught my face, they slowed, and bowed.

“Sir Montague,” the taller one said. “You stand in danger here. You’re in Capulet territory, and walking alone. Unwise, sir. Very unwise.”

I stumbled to a halt, as unsteady as if I’d been into Tybalt’s wine cellar instead of his apartments. “So it would be, good fellows, save I’m not alone. Montague never walks alone.”

“Faith, he’s most certainly not,” said a new voice, and I heard footsteps approaching behind me. I turned to see the familiar form of my best friend, Mercutio, who doubtless had been imbibing, and heavily. He slung an arm around my neck for support. “Benvolio Montague is never alone in a fight while I draw breath! What now, you rogues, do you need a thrashing to teach you manners?”

“Sirs,” the guard said, with just a shade less patience. “We are the city’s men. A quarrel with us is a quarrel with the prince of Verona. Best you turn your steps to more congenial streets. Besides, the hour is very late.”

I let out a laugh that might well have been fueled by raw wine. “Did you hear that, Mercutio? The hour’s late!” It was the first line of a popular—not very polite—drinking song, and he instantly joined in for a rousing chorus. Neither of us was musical. It provided great theater as the two of us staggered in the direction of the Montague palace, drawing angry and sleepy curses from windows we passed.

The watchmen let us go with rueful shakes of their heads, well glad to be rid of us.

Mercutio dropped the song after we’d passed the piazza’s beautiful statue, the Madonna Verona, as armed soldiers stationed in front of the overblown Palazzo Maffei watched us pass. He didn’t take his arm from my neck, so he truly was drunk enough to need the support, but he had the sense to keep his voice down. “So? How fared your venture?"

I dug the jeweled emblem of the Capulets from my purse and handed it over; he whistled sharply and turned it in the moonlight, admiring the faceted shine before slipping it into his purse. “I have more,” I said, and drew Tybalt’s rapier, which I tossed up in the air. Mercutio—even drunk—was a better swordsman than I, and he snatched it out of the sky with catlike grace. He examined the elegant blade with a delicate brush of his fingers.

“Sometimes I think your skills come from a lower place than heaven,” he said very seriously, and patted my cheek. “The emblem we can sell, if we break it to gold and stones, but this . . .”

“It’s not for sale,” I said. “I want it.”

“For what?”

I smiled, feeling fierce and free and wild in ways that no one would ever believe of the quiet, solid, responsible Benvolio Montague. At night I could be something else than what my city, my station, and my family required. “I don’t know yet,” I said. “But I promise you it will be the talk of the city.”

-----------

The next day, Tybalt Capulet’s sword was found driven an inch deep into the heavy oak of a tavern door. Pinned to it was a ribald verse that detailed a highly entertaining story about Tybalt, a pig, and acts not generally condoned by either the Church or right-thinking sheepherders.

It was a good day.

It was the beginning of the end of the good days.



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