"What happened to you?" they asked when Tybalt staggered into Verona, footsore and dirty, following an afternoon's hunting trip.
He only said, "Where is my manservant?"
They thought he was angry, and he was. Anger served well to hide his fear. When no one had seen his manservant, anger and fear were joined by relief, for he suspected the man had fled.
Fleeing was good. Fleeing meant he could tell everyone how his manservant had attacked him from behind, knocking him from his horse and leaving him to return to the city on foot. His family sent guardsmen out to search, but of course by then the servant was long gone -- which was exactly as Tybalt hoped.
That night he lay in his bed, shaking from head to toe. Of course the man had fled. Returning to Verona would have been a sentence of death, when the news he bore was that his lord Tybalt had attempted to leap a small ravine, and had fallen from his horse and broken his neck.
He told himself again and again that he had only knocked his head against a stone, and every time the lie grew hollower.
Tybalt had died. Now he walked again, and he knew not what it meant.
He asked his family's priest, in as roundabout a fashion as he could contrive, what it meant if a man died and lived again.
The priest gave him a long and pointlessly pious answer about the resurrection of the Christ, and a more useful one about Lazarus. "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live," the priest said, quoting Christ, "and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
This was comforting, but raised as many questions as it answered. "There are many men who have believed in Christ," Tybalt said. "And every one of them has died."
It could not be the resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment, for that day had not come, and he had no company of corpses in the street. Nor could it be that his faith was more perfect than any other's, for Tybalt knew his piety did not even merit the name of middling. The priest was still maundering on about scripture when Tybalt asked, "Is there any other force in creation that could retrieve a man from death?"
The priest's expression became grave -- and suspicious. "Black magicians have sought life everlasting throughout the ages," he said. "But this is blasphemy, and those who practice it will be consigned to the fires of Hell."
He had practiced no black magic neither. But a demon's touch was more likely than any special blessing from on high. Sick with fear, Tybalt tried to pray, but the words would not come. Instead he went into the streets and became drunker than ever in his life -- drunk enough that he stood on the Ponte di Castel Vecchio and thought of compounding his sins by throwing himself in -- drunk enough that he did not hear the man come up behind him, did not notice anything until the knife slid between his ribs.
When he woke from death a second time, he knew he was damned.
People began jesting about cats after his third death. That one was nearly too public: it was a brawl in the streets, during which Tybalt took a blade through the lung. His doublet was dark enough to mask the blood, and he threw off all offers of help, mustering every ounce of his will to walk away as if he had taken no more than a scratch. Then he found a cellar in which to hide himself and coughed blood onto the dirt floor until the world went black. When he woke, he crept back into the Capulet house, bathed and reclothed himself, burned the ruined doublet and shirt, and let the world think nothing untoward had occurred.
That was the year the plague came to Verona. For a time he thought himself proof against that ill, for he remained healthy while so many others fell. He drank and sang and swaggered through the city streets, mocking the priests who told him to have a care for the state of his soul. "If 'tis already damned, then as well I enjoy myself," he called drunkenly after one of them.
When the fever began, though, all his carelessness burned away like mist under the summer sun. He had recovered from mortal wounds . . . but against disease, he had not yet been tried. And it was the height of folly to assume this ability, be it blessing or curse, had no limit. They jested about cats, but did he truly have nine lives? What if it were only four, and this death would be his last?
He raved about it in his delirium; he knew because they told him afterward, thinking it nothing more than the madness of fever. Tybalt counted himself fortunate that the old woman they hired to watch him -- herself a survivor of an earlier plague -- habitually dozed off in her chair; she was asleep when he died. If his recovery was remarkably swift, others believed it simply a mark of God's mercy.
But after that, his little cousin Juliet dubbed him the Prince of Cats, and the epithet stayed. And Tybalt wondered how many lives he had left.
His fifth death came in the murky waters of the Adige. Tybalt thought he might have survived the wound he took on the bridge, but he never had the chance to find out; drunk and howling, he overbalanced on the parapet and went into the river. The Montagues crowed their victory all the more loudly when one of them saw him, stained and muddy, making his way back home. Had he drowned, they might have been exiled for it; alive, he was merely a laughingstock.
He had drowned, of course -- but he could not say so. A part of Tybalt wished he had stayed drowned, for the misery it would bring upon the Montagues . . . and the freedom for himself.
For the memory of each end stayed with him. The sickening crack of his neck, the cold steel warming rapidly in his flesh. He sought out an apothecary and bought poison to speed his way, but did not take it; rationality, asserting itself once more, told him that all he would get for his pains was another unpleasant memory. Instead Tybalt went to war, fighting for Verona in the fields of Italy. When he took a round to the head, it hardly mattered. In the chaos no one knew that he had died, and if he was covered in blood, who was to say it did not belong to another man? When a cannon-weakened wall collapsed atop him, by the time he crawled out from under it, there was no one around to see.
The madness of it consumed him for a time. He could have been happy in war, Tybalt thought, spitting in the face of death. But Verona made peace, and so he was sent home. To the streets that were neither barbaric nor civilized enough to hold such as him. Montagues stalked the piazzas, goading him with their presence, and yet if he died and someone saw it, that would be a different sort of end. One from which no hellish gift could save him.
Juliet found him lying in the garden one morning. "Oh!" she said when he sat up, looking at her bleary-eyed. "You startled me, coz. For a moment I thought you dead."
A chill crept up Tybalt's back. He remembered drinking, vomiting, drinking some more, stumbling home to the Capulet house with his feet weaving a braid across the cobblestones. Had he drunk enough to die of it? He could not say. Recovery from death felt remarkably like the ale-passion that afflicted him the morning after a carouse.
Had he died again, or not?
Seven deaths, or eight?
Juliet, laughing in sympathy, helped him to his feet. "You look as if you had rather be dead. Well, I am glad you are not. Come inside, King of Cats, and have a bowl of cream to cheer you up."
She had grown from a pretty child to a girl ready for marriage. There would be duels fought over her, if her parents did not act. Tybalt had heard rumours of a match with the Prince's kinsman; he hoped they were true.
He hoped suddenly that his lives would go on, so that he might be there to defend her.
In the end, what undid him was not his own death.
The detestable Mercutio, skewered on his blade. Tybalt did not regret silencing that slanderous tongue, but in death Mercutio silenced his own. Romeo, that milk-faced Montague boy, found new strength in the loss of his friend, and once again Tybalt fell.
Lying on the cobbles, his lungs filling with blood, Tybalt knew fear. Seven deaths, or eight? There was no reason to think he had nine lives; no reason but a jest. But for the first time since he woke from that cutpurse's knife, he feared the blackness ahead.
He could draw no more air. Tybalt's weakening body coughed its last, and he was gone.
A cat may die eight times and yet live. Tybalt did not know how many times he had perished, but when he woke from his eighth death -- or his ninth -- he knew his life in Verona was at an end.
Romeo had seen him fall; so too had Benvolio. Even before he woke in his tomb, it was clear this one could not be dismissed with falsehoods and a jest. Tybalt slipped free and disguised himself to hear the talk of the city: a brave son of the Capulets slain, and his slayer sent into exile. His lip curled to hear that Romeo lived, but not for long. That he too lived was of far greater import.
Eight deaths, or nine -- it hardly mattered. There was nothing for him here now; whatever lay ahead, be it one life or many, must find him elsewhere. All he had was what they had laid with him in the tomb: his sword and his dagger, a few minor gems. The latter could see him clear of the lands where he was known; the former would earn his way after that.
Leaving the city in secret, he did not hear the rest. The seeming death of Juliet, and Romeo's return. The Prince's edict in their wake. Tybalt would not have known how to live in a city where Capulets and Montagues met in peace.
With the hilt of his sword a familiar pressure under his hand, the King of Cats vanished from the tale.