t wasn’t until my grandmother summoned me to her chambers that I knew something had gone wrong. Badly wrong.
Into the smoldering, sweltering furnace I went, where my grandmother sat mounded in blankets and warmed by the blazing hearth. I was surprised to find that my mother was with her as well—not only my mother; beside her, looking fevered and mutinously angry, sat my sister, Veronica. She was all but married, and I had hoped to be spared any further contact with her until then.
At least she was sweating through her clothes as well, though she strove to look composed and elegant—a difficult thing when one’s hair clings in damp threads to one’s face, and sweat runs like a widow’s tears.
My mother did not sweat, though there was a faint glistening on her brow. She sat quietly, hands folded in her lap, and gazed at me with steady warning.
I bowed to her, to my grandmother, and threw Veronica a barely perceptible nod.
“Stand up,” my grandmother said. She looked pale and chill and half-dead, but her eyes gleamed with virile power. “Where is your cousin?”
"In his rooms,” I said, and was assaulted quickly by the conviction that I was wrong. I left it at that, because showing weakness would be like running from a lion. Sweat already beaded on my brow, and I could feel the damp patches soaking beneath my arms. Jesu, it was like the bowels of the devil in here.
She let me stew in silence for a full minute, and then snapped her fingers. A serving woman stepped forward out of the corner, eyes downcast, visibly terrified. She kept her shaking hands knotted in her apron.
“Tell him,” my grandmother said. The woman darted a quick look at my mother, who nodded encouragement.
She licked her lips, and her voice came softly, and faltering. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I empty chamber pots, and . . . and when I came to fetch it, young master Romeo was not there.”
“His manservant swears he’s within. You just didn’t see him.”
“No, sir, I . . .” She licked her lips again, and took in a deep breath, for courage. “Nobody marks my comings and goings. His chamber pot was under the bed, like always. I had to go all the way through. He wasn’t there.”
“Was his chamber pot used?” my grandmother asked. “Come on, girl; speak up. My ears are old!”
“Some part used,” the girl stammered. Her rough-scrubbed hands were white where they were pressed in on themselves. “As if he was there in the morning but no longer.”
My grandmother shoved her back in the shadows with a flick of her hand, and the girl was grateful for it. Then all the attention came back to me.
“He is not within these walls,” Grandmother said. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” I said. Better to admit it. A lie would only make it look worse.
“Your cousin has been out many times recently without you. Were you aware of that?”
"Some of it,” I said. My own voice had tightened up, and I tried to ease my tone, and the tension that had taken hold of my shoulders.
The heat, the intense heat was making me feel light-headed, and sweat dripped uncomfortably down my face. “I will find him.”
“Best you do, before something worse happens. Is he still on about that Rosaline girl?”
“No,” I said, which was the perfect truth. “He sees the wisdom of leaving Rosaline alone now.”
“Good,” Veronica said primly. “Loose-tongued viper that she is, she’d betray poor Romeo in a second. Look what came of her last gossip.”
My grandmother glanced her way, and Veronica shut her mouth, quick enough for her teeth to click together. “Did I seek your opinions, girl?” Veronica, I thought, had best watch herself. The temporary diversion did not last, because Grandmother’s attention turned back to me with the force of a shove. “Is it some other girl, then?”
I risked a lie. “I don’t know.”
“Pray God it is, and someone suitable,” she said. “You’ve been little use to me in the matter of Romeo, Benvolio. I am most displeased. Tell me, what do you believe your future is in this house?”
“Why, Grandmother,” I said, “I believe that it is whatever you decree it will be. But you have need of someone to avenge your wrongs and be your strong right hand.”
“Is that what you are, then, my strong right hand? The scriptures tell us, ‘If thy hand offend thee, cut it off.’ I warn you, boy: bring your cousin to heel and make him comport himself as befits the true heir of Montague, or there will be consequences. Grave consequences.”
My mother was uncharacteristically worried; I could see it in her normally unreadable face. She feared for me, and that meant more than Grandmother’s threats. I bowed my head. “I will find him,” I said. “May I have your leave to—”
“Go,” my grandmother said, and pointed her cane at me with an unsteady hand. “Find the boy. Tybalt Capulet sent a much distempered letter here complaining of Romeo’s behavior at the feast, and I think he means to scrape a duel if he can. Prevent that at all costs. We cannot lose Romeo.”
She burst into wet, red coughs, and I escaped quickly. But I was not the only one. My mother rose and followed, and so did Veronica.
“Bide a moment,” my mother said, once we were without the doors. She took a dainty linen square from her sleeve and dabbed at her forehead. “I am sorry, my son, but she is in earnest in her anger. Romeo’s betrothal will be announced soon, and his behavior must be seen as above reproach. His promised bride is of excellent family, and far wealthier than we are. You understand the politics of this.”
I did. Children of such houses were bought and sold for favors and profits, all under the cloak of the Church and tradition. Romeo and Mercutio, my sister . . . all affianced without consent, and I dangled on the precipice, fighting the drop. Rosaline alone had escaped that customary fate, but she was soon to wed Christ. Maybe that’s your escape, part of me whispered. Take on that suffocating robe for good. Priests may claim celibacy, but it’s the exception, not the rule. Yet taking the cloth would not free me from the family; far from it. They would expect preferment, and push me from priest to monsignor to bishop to pope, if they could. At least Rosaline could look to a future of prayer and study, if lucky.
“I understand,” I said. “But the old woman will be on her deathbed soon, at the rate she coughs up her blood.”
“She’ll die in that chair, ordering us about,” my sister said sourly. “Doubt that not. And she’s got venom enough to poison us all if she’s roused to bite. So be quick about your work, Ben. I have only a few days until I’m free of all this. Don’t spoil it for me!”
“What motive could I have for that?” I asked her, in too-honeyed tones, and she frowned. She knew all too well what motive I harbored. And what hatred I concealed under the smile. “Mother.” I bowed to her, ignored Veronica, and walked away with fast, hard hits of my heel on the floor.