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Their Parents' Strife

Chapter Text

1. Their Parents' Strife

Escalus pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long sigh. For the seventeenth time that morning, he regretted the day he had offered to review Aurelio's personal accounts. It was not that Escalus had no care for his brother's welfare; he and Aurelio had always been close, and Escalus, the elder by a scant year and a half, had looked after Aurelio for as long as both of them could remember.

However, as close as they were, there were marked differences between the sons of Prince Cesare of Verona. Escalus was a serious, scholarly young man, who might have been destined for a monastery had he not been his father's heir. Aurelio, on the other hand, was vibrant and sociable, popular with the ladies of Verona both before and after his marriage to the former Niccola Baldacci. Though he loved to spend money, he found it difficult to account for it, and had asked Escalus for help, as he had done all of his life. Escalus, playing his part in their old accustomed dance, had agreed.

It did not take long for Escalus to regret his decision. Aurelio's accounts were in such disarray that it had taken him all morning simply to decipher the notation in the books. Escalus suspected that it was time for another chat with Aurelio. It was a shame that Niccola had not been taught more than basic arithmetic; she was as level-headed as Aurelio was flighty, and might have been of use to him. But it was no use sighing over what could not be. Escalus stretched a kink out of his back and bent over his work again.

A light tap on the door of his study provided a welcome distraction. Escalus looked up and smiled as his beloved little sister, Donatella, entered the study. "How now, poppet?" he asked.

Donatella smiled a little at the old pet name. "Am I still thy poppet?" she asked. "I am a grown lady now. Nurse tells me that I must put away my toys and childish things now that I am fourteen and coming to my flower."

"Thou wilt always be my poppet, even when thou art an ancient crone," Escalus assured her.

Fourteen-year-old Donatella was ten years younger than her oldest brother, and had been preceded by two sisters who did not live long enough to be weaned. Upon meeting his third baby sister, Escalus had determined not to love her as he had loved the others so as not to cry when she died. He had refused to call her by name, and had called her his poppet instead, as if the inevitable loss of a thing might hurt less than the loss of a real sister. But, against all expectations, Donatella had not died. She thrived, and grew into a laughing, mischievous child who had stolen the hearts of both of her older brothers with no more effort than a sloppy baby smile. Though it was hardly appropriate any more, Escalus had never stopped calling her his poppet, and she had always taken it as a sign of affection from the brother she adored.

Donatella smiled at Escalus's words. "I am barely become a lady," she said. "There is more than enough time before I must think about becoming a crone."

Escalus blinked, surprised to note that she had spoken truly. He had not quite noticed it, but Donatella had grown up. She had chosen a simple cap that allowed her long, wheat-blond hair to tumble down her back, emphasizing her tall, slender figure and framing the creamy oval of her face. But her sparkling blue eyes remained unchanged, and Escalus was glad of that. She sighed, and a shadow flitted across her face.

"What troubles thee?" Escalus asked her. "I meant no offense in speaking of thee as a crone."

"That is not my concern," Donatella replied. "It is the consequences of being a lady that prey upon my mind now. Father has said that I am to be married."

Escalus sat up straight, Aurelio's accounts forgotten. "This is sudden news indeed," he said. "I knew not that Father planned for thy marriage already. These are joyous tidings!" But one look at Donatella's dubious expression made him regret that last remark.

"I should be more joyful," she said, "but I find myself apprehensive instead. I do not wish to leave thee and Aurelio so soon."

"It cannot be helped, if Father has decreed it," Escalus said. "And thou hast no cause to fear such a blessed state. Thou dost take such joy in our little nephew now, and soon thou wilt have children of thy own."

The mention of Aurelio's three-year-old son Paris put the smile back on Donatella's face. "Niccola has said that I might play with him a little before supper, and she will tell me things about marriage that every lady must know."

Escalus nodded. "That is well said. And what of thy old playmate – what was her name? The daughter of Umberto Algardi."

"Susanna," Donatella supplied.

"Ay, Susanna, that was the girl. She is married now, is she not? Thou canst seek advice and reassurance from her."

"May I?" Donatella's eyes brightened. "Father has said that I may not associate with Susanna now that she is Lady Montague. He has said that no member of our house should associate too closely with the Montagues or the Capulets, lest we be accused of taking one part or the other in their great quarrel."

Escalus sank back into his chair with a sigh. He had almost forgotten that particular edict. He himself rarely had cause to associate with either the businesslike Leonardo Capulet or the scholarly but proud Montague brothers, Tiberio and Lucio, and it had not occurred to him that Prince Cesare would extend his decree to include the young ladies they married. He put on a smile to reassure Donatella, gathered his papers together, and rose from his desk. Aurelio's accounts could wait, but Donatella's situation could not. "I will speak to Father about thy concerns," he told her.

Donatella flung her arms around him in gratitude. "Wouldst thou do that? Oh, dearest brother, many thanks!"

Escalus held Donatella close for a moment, as the realization struck him that his time with his baby sister would soon come to an end. "Dost thou know the name of thy intended bridegroom?" he asked.

Donatella shook her head. "Father has not told me yet. He says that the negotiations are not yet complete, and he does not wish to raise my hopes until the match is certain." Her voice wobbled a little as she spoke.

"I will ask Father on thy behalf. I, too, am curious." Escalus gave Donatella a final squeeze, and strode out of his study.

He did not have a chance to speak with Cesare immediately. The Prince of Verona was occupied with affairs of state for much of the afternoon, and it was only as the sun was beginning to set that he was able to spare a moment for his son. Escalus did not mind the wait, as it meant that he could spend the time with his father in a relatively relaxed, leisurely fashion, with cups of wine to facilitate conversation. And, indeed, it seemed that Cesare felt the same way, for he greeted Escalus with a broad smile and outstretched arms.

"Escalus, my boy, this is a fine way to begin the evening! Come, sit thee down, and speak to thy father of the cares of thy heart. Of that do I long to hear."

Escalus embraced his father, but did so with a certain amount of care. Cesare was past fifty, and his health had declined rapidly in recent months. Though his mind was as sharp as ever, his body was growing increasingly weaker, and Escalus sometimes had occasion to fear for Cesare's approaching mortality. Cesare lowered himself into his favorite chair with a great sigh, and Escalus signaled his page to pour them cups of wine. The page did as he was bidden, then left the room with a silent bow.

"How fares Verona, Father?" Escalus asked.

Cesare made a sound that was half a harrumph and half a cough. "The city is as prosperous as ever, despite the best efforts of the houses of Montague and Capulet to ruin the peace for all. I have only now managed to resolve a dispute between the retainers of those two houses that began some months past."

"Oh? Do they even remember the cause of the dispute?"

Cesare waved his hand in the air. "I know not. I believe that it involved the ruin of a fine cloak from mud splashed by a horse on the occasion of Tiberio Montague's wedding, but I cannot remember which family owned the cloak and which owned the horse."

"And yet the dispute was resolved in the end?" Escalus gave a snort of laughter. "One day, those two families will see that their entire feud rests on ground no more solid than this recent quarrel."

"I would lay no money on that blessed event coming to pass in either of our lifetimes." Cesare drank deeply, then gave a sigh of contentment. "But I have no desire to prolong my consideration of the thrice-cursed Montagues and Capulets. Come now, let us turn our talk to more pleasant matters."

That suggestion suited Escalus's purposes admirably. "Indeed," he said. "Since no subject brings as much joy as that of marriage, shall we speak of that for a while?"

Cesare's watery eyes sparkled. "Ay, that we shall. Hast thou come to tell me that thou hast found a bride at last?"

Escalus gritted his teeth, but put on a smile for show. He would not allow himself to be drawn into that particular discussion yet again. "Nay, I have not. I have come to ask about the husband that you have found for Donatella."

"Ah." Escalus had not thought that it was possible for Cesare to look even more pleased with himself, but the old man managed it. "We have completed the negotiations just this day, so I will tell thee. In a month's time, thy sister will be wed to a noble merchant of great wealth, a man of honor both in Verona and in other cities as well."

"Impressive. Does this paragon of husbands have a name?"

"He does. Perhaps thou hast heard the name of Giacomo Rinuccini?"

The smile froze on Escalus's face as he searched his memory. He knew who Giacomo Rinuccini was, of course. There were few in Verona who did not know the name of the city's wealthiest businessman, as legendary for his social prowess and bonhomie as for his vast fortune. But there was something else as well, though Escalus could not quite recall what it was at the moment. He had heard tales about Giacomo Rinuccini, tales that had left a sour taste in his mouth, but he did not remember precisely what those tales had been.

Of course, he could not share these twinges of misgiving with Cesare. The acquaintances from whom he had heard the stories were not men he could admit to knowing in his father's presence. There were days when Escalus wished that he could find the courage to admit his great secret to Cesare and acknowledge his friends, but his rational mind knew that such an act would be tantamount to suicide. And Escalus's death would leave charming, feckless Aurelio as the heir to the city of Verona, a position for which Aurelio had little desire and even less ability. As long as Escalus kept his secret, his life and the future of Verona were safe. But the rumors he had heard about the man destined to marry his sister were a part of that secret, and could also never see the light of day.

It was no use worrying about that now. He would simply have to investigate Giacomo Rinuccini on his own. Cesare had asked him a simple question, one that deserved no more than a simple answer.

"Ay," he said, and he was proud that his voice betrayed none of the turmoil he felt within. "I have heard his name. I am not well acquainted with the gentleman, but I know that Verona thinks highly of him for his wealth and outgoing nature."

"It will be no small thing to have such a man allied with our house," Cesare said, as a smile of satisfaction spread across his face.

"That is undeniably true. Will you tell Donatella, or shall I? I know that she is desperate to know the identity of her future husband."

Cesare chuckled fondly. "All in good time. It is not healthy for a lady to take too much interest in these affairs before they are properly settled. But I will tell her the joyful news myself, this very night."

Privately, Escalus thought that Donatella's interest in the identity of the man to whose bed she would soon be delivered was entirely appropriate, but Cesare was not a man to be swayed by such an argument. So he held his tongue, and nodded.

"I believe that you will find her in the company of Niccola and Paris."

"Wilt thou accompany me to deliver these tidings to thy sister?" Cesare grunted as he began the arduous process of rising from his chair.

Escalus waved away the servant who hurried over, and assisted his father himself. "By your leave, I should rather spend the evening carousing and finding such sport as may befit a young gentleman. I have already spoken with Donatella this day."

"Very well. Do as thou wilt. Well do I remember the days of my youth. But do not spread thy seed too widely, for thou dost not know what thou may'st reap."

"Ay, Father." Escalus prudently held his tongue concerning the details of the evening he had planned for himself. Instead, he made a graceful bow to his father and turned to leave. As he placed his hand on the door handle, he remembered that he had not yet discharged all of his duty to Donatella, and turned back to Cesare.

"Father, there is one more thing I would ask of you."

"Hm? Ay, what is it?"

"You have done well to raise my sister as a kind lady and a virtuous, and I am certain that she will make a fine Christian wife because of it. But may her virtue not receive its proper reward?"

Cesare snorted. "Speak plainly, boy."

Such a topic was delicate enough, even when the subject of the discussion was not his own sister, but Escalus gritted his teeth and spoke quickly. "I have reason to believe that Donatella fears the act of marriage. Since her wedding night is inevitable, might she at least be permitted to have conversation with such of her friends and playmates as have already been married? It would ease her fears and would therefore be a great kindness to your daughter."

"Is there aught concerning the affairs of women that she cannot learn from thy brother's wife?"

"She did speak to me most particularly of her playmate Susanna, who is now Lady Montague."

"Ah." Cesare was silent for a few moments, as he considered the implications of this. Then he shrugged, as if the matter were of no great consequence after all. "Donatella may do as she pleases," he said. "In a month's time, she will no longer belong to this house, but to the house of Rinuccini. Her affairs and friendships reflect on that house, not ours."

With that, Cesare motioned to his servant to accompany him, and swept out of the room. Escalus stood alone for a few moments. It was not the most gracious of concessions, but he had achieved what was important. Donatella would be permitted to retain her old friendships. For now, that would have to do.

Chapter Text

2. A Whispering Tale

Under the cover of dusk, a cloak, and a large velvet hat, Escalus made his way to the particular tavern where he intended to begin his evening. It was not the most gentle of establishments in Verona, as it was located halfway between the stews and the entrance to the Jewish ghetto, but Escalus and his friends favored it nevertheless. The proprietor had realized early in his life that there was steady business to be had in return for a certain discretion. Escalus suspected that the man disapproved most heartily of some of the arrangements and assignations that began in his tavern, but he never breathed a word of it, so as to retain his most particular customers and their steady flow of coin.

When he entered the tavern, Escalus was mildly surprised to see that the proprietor himself was behind the bar, instead of the serving knave who usually occupied that post in the evenings. Escalus gave the man a friendly nod, mentally revising his finances for the evening to account for the generous tip he intended to leave to ensure the proprietor's silence concerning his presence. Satisfied that he would still have enough money for his own entertainment, he moved to a table in a back corner where his friends had already gathered around pitchers of ale and wine.

The young men, sons of Verona's worthies and its rising merchant class, greeted him heartily and cleared a space on a bench so that he could sit down. Giambattista filled a cup of ale and pushed it across the table to Escalus. Escalus raised the mug in a silent toast, and drank, and the world immediately began to look more cheerful.

"I had begun to think that you would not come," Giambattista said with a look of mock reproach.

Escalus smiled at him. "How could I ever desert one as merry as thee?"

"Courteously," Giambattista replied with a wink, and the entire group of young men burst into laughter. Escalus joined in, for it was a well-accustomed jest. Giambattista had been blessed with a head of thick, dark curls and sparkling dark eyes, and he had won Escalus's heart and certain other portions of his anatomy a year previous at a feast at his father's house. Escalus had strained mightily against the limits of his usual discretion for two months before he had paid a visit to the boy's bedchamber and, as he learned immediately afterward, deflowered him. Out of respect for Giambattista's father and fear of his own, Escalus had left before dawn, easing the parting with honeyed words. Though they had not been lovers since, Giambattista had become a good friend.

"Thou hast a long memory," he teased.

Giambattista wiggled his eyebrows. "That is not the only thing about me that is long."

Escalus roared along with the others, then took a long, satisfying pull at his mug of ale. Giambattista, sensing that the jest was over, turned to Aldo, who sat next to him, and began what looked to be a serious flirtation. Escalus allowed his eye to wander around the tavern as he considered his prospects for the evening. He was in no hurry, and allowed his imagination to flow freely as he considered the selection of supple boys and lissome young men who lounged enticingly around the room under the watchful gaze of Verona's more open-minded apple-squires.

One boy, dark-eyed and dusky of skin in a way that suggested Egyptian blood somewhere in his ancestry, seemed a possibility. There was something about his posture that reminded Escalus of Giambattista, suggesting a momentary fantasy of enjoying his friend a second time with no thought of risk or consequences. He made a note of the boy in his mind, but contented himself with ale for the moment. The night was still young, and there was not yet any serious competition for the apple-squires' wares. Escalus turned back to his friends.

"And thus I learned that my father wishes to send me for a period of travel," Aldo said.

"Would that I could persuade my father to complete my education in such a fashion," Giambattista remarked with a laugh, hooking one of his legs over Aldo's. "Hast thou need of a traveling companion?"

Aldo smiled. "Perhaps. I shall speak to my father on that subject, but fear not; nothing will come of this until winter is past."

"Where wouldst thou go?" Escalus asked.

Aldo shrugged. "My father wishes to send me to Rome or perhaps to Venice, for he claims that those cities would offer me that expansion of mind that is proper in a young man of rank."

Escalus considered the possibilities. "I would envy thee the chance to travel to Rome, to behold the sights of the Eternal City, to walk in the footsteps of the Caesars . . . "

"You would think thus," Aldo chuckled, "you who will inherit this city upon your noble father's passing. But my heart is rather with Venice, where all the splendor of the world may pass one by in the canals or in the harbor. I could take ship from there and travel to Greece or to the Holy Land."

"Where the sun is as warm as the welcoming arms of the sultan's pleasure-boys," Giambattista added. The wine and ale appeared to be going to his head, and he would likely require some assistance in returning to his home. Escalus trusted that Aldo would provide that assistance. He distracted himself from the pang of jealousy that that thought called forth in him by turning around for another glance at the Egyptian boy he had been considering.

The boy had no customer yet, but seemed to have taken a distinct interest in the argument between a customer and an apple-squire bargaining over one of his fellows. The boy in question was fair and slender, but his face was marred by an expression of doubt and apprehension. Escalus could not see the customer's face, but was impressed at the opulence of the man's attire. The conversation behind him stilled as his friends noticed his interest.

Aldo's face distorted into a grimace of suppressed mirth as he swallowed his famous braying laugh. "God's blessed mother, see who has come to tarry with the underlings!" he cried. "'Pon my honor, that is Signior Giacomo Rinuccini himself, or ye may call me scabbed."

Escalus nearly choked on his ale. He had heard that the man who was to marry his sister had a penchant for comely whores, but he now realized that he had neglected to inquire after the sex of those comely whores.

Escalus whirled around to face Aldo. "Thou didst not say that the man took boys to his bed."

Aldo shrugged, still fascinated by the bargaining. "I did not know. I spoke true when I said that I had seen him in the stews, but it was always at the door of some reputable bawdy house or another, with a fair womanly jade upon his arm."

Escalus gave up on that particular line of questioning. He wondered if it might be prudent to mention to Cesare that he had seen Rinuccini bargaining over a boy whore if he took care to conceal his own involvement. Then he remembered exactly what Aldo had told him about Rinuccini and his whores, and he glanced again at the fair boy for whom Rinuccini was bargaining. What had been doubt and apprehension on his face had developed into outright fear.

This was too much. There was a tale behind this scene, and Escalus intended to discover what it was. He thrust his purse into Aldo's hand. "Go thou and purchase for me the favors of that boy that Signior Rinuccini will have. Be swift and sure, and do not let thyself be swayed by any other offer from the punkateero. I will have that boy, and that boy alone."

Aldo opened his mouth to ask a question, but Escalus gave him a small push. With one last puzzled glance, Aldo rose from the table and approached Rinuccini and the apple-squire. Giambattista watched this exercise with a frown of incomprehension.

"I fear that I do not comprehend all that occurs before my eyes," he said. "I had thought that you did favor the Egyptian, sir."

"Peace, be quiet," Escalus replied. "There is more at stake here than the various appetites of the body."

Indeed, at that moment, Signior Rinuccini turned around, and Escalus saw the piercing blue eyes set in the handsome, mustachioed face. A chill went down his spine when he realized that Signior Rinuccini had recognized him. Oblivious, Giambattista giggled.

"Zounds, I have it!" he cried. "You will show him for a nithing before God and his fellows. I commend you, sir!"

"By Jesu, wilt thou hold thy tongue, sirrah?" Escalus had no time to say more, for Aldo returned to the table with the fair boy-whore in tow. He returned the purse to Escalus, rather lighter than it had been before.

"Here he is," Aldo said, "and may your worship have good use of him, for all the bad use that I have gotten from that ill-begotten cocklorel." He indicated Rinuccini with a jerk of his head.

"I thank thee for thy pains," Escalus said. "Gentlemen, good e'en." He took the boy by the hand and made his way to the innkeeper, where he discovered that his purse held just enough coin to buy a bottle of wine, the use of a small straw-lined shed in the yard, and the innkeeper's silence on the matter. He allowed himself a small pang of regret for the pleasures he would forego, but then reproached himself that there would be many more evenings for pleasure, and what he would receive tonight would be worth ten times more.

"Wilt thou say thy name, boy?" Escalus asked a short time later. The shed was not large, but it was big enough that he could stretch out comfortably at an arm's length from the boy and look him in the face. The boy had wasted no time in stripping off his shirt, but Escalus had seized his hands in time to prevent him from unfastening his breeches.

The boy stared at him in amazement. "I am called Pino, lordship," he said softly. "Have I displeased your grace already?"

"Nay, thou hast not. And thou wilt not, for as long as thy britches remain on thy body."

"Ah." Pino gave a shy smile. "Your grace will have use of my mouth."

"For speech only," Escalus said. He took a pull at the bottle of wine, decided that it was acceptable, and passed the bottle to Pino. "Come, wet thy lips and throat, for thou wilt have need of refreshment ere I have finished with thee."

Pino looked apprehensive, but took a sip of wine anyway. Escalus was silent for a moment as he considered how best to frame his questions.

"Art thou pleased to be in my company tonight?" he asked. Pino looked puzzled for a moment, and then his eyes narrowed as he considered the possible ramifications of any answer he might give. Escalus let him think for a moment, then elaborated. "Wouldst thou have preferred thy original suitor?"

At that, Pino sucked in a small gasp. "No, your grace. I am well pleased here."

Escalus leaned in closer. "Thou hast some acquaintance with the gentleman, I see."

Pino nodded. He took another sip of wine, and then said, in a very small voice, "He has purchased the use of my body before."

"And thou didst not enjoy the experience?"

Pino managed a gasp of shocked laughter. "I cannot truthfully say that I enjoy any part of my life, your grace, but . . . there are moments that remain in the mind's eye longer than others."

"I presume, then, that the gentleman was one of those moments."

Pino nodded again. "The gentleman is hardly gentle, your grace. The first night I made his acquaintance, I had thought myself to be well steeled, for I had listened closely to the tales that my fellows told. But, when push did come to shove, as it were . . . " A shiver ran through Pino's body, and he fell silent.

Escalus choked down his own rising sense of unease, for there was still more that he wished to know from Pino. "Dost thou know if he deals thus with all of his bedmates? I know that he has been seen with bawds of the gentler sex – dost thou know aught of what passes between them?"

"Ay. My master keeps dames in his employ as well as youths, and some of them have become my friends. Maddalena was one of those who told me tales of the gentleman to forewarn me."

Despite the grim tidings, a spark of hope flared in Escalus's breast. If he could bring a female whore to testify against Signior Rinuccini to Cesare, he could warn his father without having to reveal his secret. "Where may I find this Maddalena?" he asked. "I would hear the tales that she has to tell."

Pino took a long drink of wine before he answered. "Maddalena tells tales to no man," he said, "for she is with God. Death lay with her shortly after the gentleman did, and now my master will suffer no more of his dames to tarry with the gentleman."

Escalus flopped back in the straw with a groan. He thought of Donatella, his pretty poppet, and imagined her in the hands of the man that Pino had just described. There had to be some way to convey such a warning to Cesare without revealing its source, but he could not think of one.

The straw rustled as Pino edged closer to him. "Shall I speak more, your grace?" he asked. "Or should I make show of the other talents of my mouth?"

Escalus started, having nearly forgotten how he had come to be in Pino's company in the first place. He gave the offer a moment's consideration, and ran a hand experimentally through Pino's dirty blond hair and down his shoulder. His fingers encountered the thin raised line of a whip-scar, and he shook his head slowly.

"I have had what I required of thee," he said. "I will go now, for I have much to ponder. Thou mayst remain here and drink the last of the wine, for I have better vintages in my own cellar." He gave Pino's hair one last stroke, then rose to his feet and brushed straw from his hair and clothes. He wrapped himself in his cloak and stepped outside into the night.

The evening was still young, and the tavern was full of the noise of conversation, but Escalus wanted nothing more than to return home. As he strode through the streets, he caught a glimpse of Signior Rinuccini leaving a different house, towing a girl and a youth behind him. Both looked to be roughly the same age as Donatella. Escalus concealed himself in a shadow, and the small party did not notice his presence as they hurried away into the night.

Chapter Text

3. Wedded To Calamity

Escalus spent much of the next day brooding in his chambers, turning over his encounter with Pino in his mind and searching for some way to make use of what he had learned. But he could find no answer that did not involve revealing his own involvement in Verona's secret world of ganymedes to Cesare. Such a revelation had occurred only once in Escalus's life, when Aurelio had come upon Escalus and a servant burrowing furtively beneath each other's clothing in a garderobe. Aurelio had laughed it off and promised never to reveal his brother's secret proclivities, but Escalus had still burned with shame for weeks following the event. And should Cesare find out, he reminded himself, he might well burn with actual flame.

His foul mood deepened over the course of the week. Every time that he caught sight of Donatella sorting through her clothes and jewels with her nurse, studying a book of prayer, or chasing Paris as he toddled in the garden, he thought of wounded Pino and the unfortunate Maddalena, and black rage descended upon him.

Donatella was not blind to her brother's sudden fits of mood, and made special efforts to soothe him. Escalus did appreciate the invitations to shared prayer or wine and the evening sessions of part-singing around a table, but even those pleasures took on a melancholy tinge.

"Wilt thou not tell me of thy troubles, brother mine?" Donatella asked him one evening as they sat together in the garden after vespers.

Escalus shook his head sadly. "There is naught that can be done to relieve them, poppet."

Donatella frowned, then leaned over to poke her brother in the shoulder. "If thou wilt not speak, then I am forced to speak for thee." She considered the issue for a moment, and then her face took on an impish expression. "Thou art distressed at the thought that thy dearest poppet will marry in a fortnight and a week, and that she will leave thee all alone with none but Aurelio and Niccola and Paris for company."

In spite of himself, Escalus smiled a little. "Thou dost not stray far from the target," he admitted. "I will miss thee."

Donatella giggled. "Well, stop there! I am to be married, not executed. When I am the lady of my lord's house, thou wilt be welcome at whatsoever hour of the day thou willst come to visit me."

Escalus wished with all his heart that Donatella's fantasy might be real, but he feared that it was destined to remain little more than a dream. "Beware of the promises that thou dost make rashly," he said. "Perhaps thy lord husband will have his own wishes in the matter."

"But thou art my brother," Donatella said. "Surely there can be no taint of impropriety in a visit with my own brother."

Her words seemed cool and rational, and Escalus might have been convinced if he had not spent that evening with Pino. Try as he might, he could come up with no reply that did not either give away his suspicions about Donatella's future husband or sound as though he had been reading too many outlandish tales. He gave a sigh, then smiled at her. "Perhaps thou hast the right of it, then," he said. "Perhaps I am nothing more than a doting brother who will miss his little sister terribly when she becomes a married lady."

Donatella put her arms around him, and he held her for a long time, wishing that he could protect her forever.

In a growing state of desperation, Escalus sought out Aurelio's advice later that evening. He did not divulge all of his suspicions, for he feared the looseness of Aurelio's tongue, but he did give the bare bones of the matter, and the fact that his suspicions had been aroused by an encounter with a boy whore.

"Ah," Aurelio said. "I see where thy problem lies."

"Hast thou any counsel in this matter?" Escalus asked him. "I cannot see how it is to end. If I make this encounter known to Father, then I will surely lose my life. But if I hold my tongue, then I know not what will become of Donatella."

"Perhaps nothing will become of her. Perhaps Signior Rinuccini is a man such as those who visit the stews to release their fouler passions, that they might act as courtly gentlemen in the confines of their own homes."

Escalus let out a snort of laughter. "I do not believe that, and neither dost thou. Come, how may this ill-starred marriage be prevented? We must discover a plan."

Aurelio thought for a while, gazing into the dregs of his wine, as if an answer might be lurking at the bottom of the cup. After a few moments, it seemed that he had indeed found some inspiration there, for his eyes suddenly sparkled. "Thy problem is merely that thou hast heard testimony from a boy," he said, "but how if thou couldst present a woman to tell the same tale?"

"The whore Maddalena is dead, and cannot tell any tale."

"She cannot be the only wench that the Signior has covered in his time," Aurelio said. "Thou must merely find another such harlot to tell the tale."

It was brilliantly simple, and Escalus had to marvel that Aurelio had thought of it. All the same, there was one aspect that gave him pause. "Thou know'st my peculiar foible," he murmured. "Dost thou think that I could . . . with a woman . . . even for Donatella's sake?"

Aurelio laughed out loud at that. "God's balls, brother, I am not telling thee to tumble the wench thyself! Thou need'st only ask her for her tale, as thou didst with that boy of thine. Look, I will help thee, for I am not unfamiliar with the pleasures offered by the bawds of this fair city."

Escalus could not quite stop a sigh of relief, but quirked an eyebrow at Aurelio anyway. "Does Niccola know?"

"Nay, she does not, and she will never know, an I have my say in the matter. I have kept thy secret; be thou so good as to keep mine."

It seemed a small enough promise, in exchange for Aurelio's help, and Escalus made it without a second thought, for Donatella's safety and his own.

Aurelio proved as good as his word. The next evening, he informed Escalus that he had sent the word privately around the stews that those women who had encountered Signior Rinuccini were wanted at the palace for a private conversation. "It may cost thee," Aurelio warned, but Escalus brushed that away.

"It is only gold," he said, "and there is plenty of that." It would not even be Cesare's money. As the heir to the city, Escalus drew a small stipend of his own, and he had inherited a small property just outside the city walls from his mother, which provided a few extra ducats for his comfort and entertainment. Try as he might, Escalus could not see a flaw in the plan. For once, it seemed that Aurelio had actually managed to come up with something practical. Perhaps there was hope for him yet.

Escalus's good mood lasted for two days. He had not heard from any of the whores in the city yet, but he assumed that they would find a way to send word to him before too long; Aurelio had made sure to mention the financial reward for any woman who responded to the call. His heart lighter than it had been in quite some time, Escalus once again set out to join his friends for a night of drinking and other entertainment.

As he strolled through streets warmed by the golden glow of evening, Escalus allowed his mind to wander a little. He wondered what had become of Giambattista's little flirtation with Aldo. Aldo did not love often, but when he did, he fell hard, and Escalus smiled a little as he tried to imagine how the young, fluff-headed Giambattista would respond to the kind of earnest blandishments that Aldo produced when he was in the grip of love. So absorbed was he in this image that he forgot to pay attention to his surroundings, and thus nearly fainted from the shock when a large, gloved hand came down upon his shoulder.

"A gentleman should take more care when walking the streets of Verona in the fading light," came a voice with a light, almost mocking tone. "But if a natural such as yourself chooses to walk in this district alone, with no men at your back, then by my troth, he has earned whatever return he may get from his foolishness."

The hand on his shoulder steered Escalus to the wall. As he moved, he saw the tall, elegantly dressed figure of Giacomo Rinuccini emerging from the shadows. Rinuccini's pale eyes bored into Escalus's, and there was a curious expression on his mustachioed face. He was taller than Escalus, and broader, and in the fading light, Escalus could see that Rinuccini was older as well, a man of at least thirty years. "Good even, sir," Escalus said, secretly pleased that his voice remained calm and steady. "Do you have some pressing matter that you wish to discuss?"

For a moment, the only answer was a slight increase in pressure as Rinuccini leaned a little harder on the hand pressing Escalus against the wall. Several small bones in his back ground painfully against the stone, and Escalus was about to warn Rinuccini of the foolishness of such an assault against his person when Rinuccini spoke first.

"A rumor has reached me that a selection of bawds known to ply their trade in this fair city have received a summons, bidding them appear at the palace and disclose certain of the privy matters of their trade." Rinuccini's eyes narrowed, and his voice grew soft and silky with threat. "This rumor cannot possibly be true, for I cannot imagine that such a wise gentleman as yourself would be so foolish as to try to disclose my secrets, careless of the greater secret that I guard."

"The greater secret?"

Rinuccini bared his teeth, though the expression was not quite a smile. "Do not forget, Master Escalus, that I have seen you in the same tavern where you saw me. I speak true when I say that, should you attempt to make use of the knowledge that you would gain from pressing my whores, I will be forced to divulge to the Prince your father precisely how you came by that knowledge, that it was not through a female bawd."

"You would not dare."

"Perhaps. But you would not dare to put it to the test."

Something inside Escalus shriveled up in shame, for he knew that Rinuccini had indeed divined his great weakness. He hoped that his sudden surge of panic did not show in his eyes.

"I have spoken with the Prince," Rinuccini went on. "The banns have been posted. In three weeks' time, I will claim the Lady Donatella as my bride. And you will hold your silence and continue your life, furtive and secret though it may be. I trust that we understand each other, being gentlemen of noble breeding and fine bearing."

Though shame blazed through him, Escalus kept the expression on his face neutral, and gave only a silent nod of acknowledgement. Almost instantly, the crushing pressure of Rinuccini's hand against his shoulder was gone, and Rinuccini touched his hat in a gesture of mocking respect.

"God be wi' you, sir," he said, and walked away into the lengthening shadows. Escalus waited until the man was gone from his sight before stumbling to the gutter and vomiting up the fine dinner he had just eaten. When he finished, he wiped his mouth on a handkerchief, turned around and returned to the palace. Somehow, the prospect of carousing with his friends had lost its charm tonight.

For a while, Escalus clung to the slender hope that Rinuccini's threats were mere words, that he could manage to warn Cesare in time and with adequate personal protection. But no matter how hard he and Aurelio tried, they could not persuade a single whore to speak to them about Rinuccini, much less appear at the palace to give testimony to the Prince. Aurelio could not fathom why his plan had failed. But Escalus, who had not mentioned his encounter with Rinuccini to his brother, suspected that the man had made threats against Verona's whores that outweighed the promise of a monetary reward.

Cesare spent the remaining time arranging the details of his daughter's wedding, which he shared with Escalus in the evenings. Rinuccini had a magnificent house in the city, and had spent considerable time and money to equip it with all the luxuries for its future mistress. Donatella would bring a substantial dowry to the marriage, and in return, Rinuccini's business connections would show special favor to the royal house of Verona.

"A laudable transaction," Escalus said. "Your business acumen is the equal of any of the merchants in our city, Father."

Cesare did not seem to notice the mild rebuke, but laughed approvingly. "Ay, that is one of the secrets to good governance, my boy. In days of old, a Prince might rule by the grace of God alone, and none could gainsay him. But these are modern days, and a ruler must speak the language of those he would command, the language of the ducat and the scudo."

A week before the wedding, a large caravan arrived in Verona from Mantua, carrying various relatives of Giacomo Rinuccini. His cousins, young Marullo and an older man called Matteo Borsa, who attended the court of the young Duke of Mantua, conveyed the Duke's greetings to Prince Cesare, while Matteo's son Claudio, a sharp-eyed boy of four, claimed Paris's beloved hobby-horse as his own, and refused to share the toy no matter how hard Paris wailed.

Somehow, in the midst of this confusion, Escalus found time to spend a few moments alone with Donatella the night before the wedding. There was not much that he could tell her, since his words would change nothing and accomplish nothing beyond terrifying Donatella. He did assure her of his eternal devotion. "Even after thou art become the mistress of the House of Rinuccini, thou wilt still be my own poppet," he said. "If thou hast any need or any desire, thou hast but to ask, and I will see it granted."

He had no time to say any more, for Donatella's nurse escorted him away, saying only that the bride needed her rest that night.

The next morning, Donatella donned a fine new dress of sky-blue velvet, and a large procession of family and friends accompanied her through the streets of Verona to St. Peter's church in the great piazza. Cesare had not permitted Susanna, Lady Montague, to attend her playmate, for fear of sparking accusations of favoritism from the Capulet family. However, he had permitted another of Donatella's friends, a merry, black-eyed girl by the name of Floria Piave, to serve as the chief among her maids for the day, for, though her betrothal to Lucio Montague was a matter of public record, she was not yet married into that household.

Despite Donatella's nerves, she maintained a regal composure during the brief wedding ceremony itself and the Mass that accompanied it. Afterwards, Giacomo Rinuccini escorted his new bride and her family to his house, where a sumptuous feast awaited them.

Though he was relieved to see that Donatella would live in comfort and plenty, Escalus found that his parting from her was painful, and he did not even try to dispel the cloud of gloom that settled about him as he went to bed that night brooding on his failure.

Chapter Text

4. Every Married Lineament

Escalus did not see Donatella very much in the weeks immediately following her marriage. On the one hand, this was to be expected; she was a married lady now, and was doubtless kept busy learning all the little tricks of running her new household in the day and entertaining her husband by night. And it seemed that married life agreed with her, for when she did appear at Mass on Sundays, she seemed as gracious and beautiful as ever. At times, Escalus allowed himself to hope that he had been wrong about his sister's husband after all, that marriage had calmed and tamed his ferocious appetites.

But on the other hand, Escalus wished that Donatella would at least send him a message. He missed her terribly, as they had both expected, and it nearly killed him not to know how she fared in her new home. Cesare's restrictions on undue contact with the houses of Montague and Capulet still stood, so Escalus could not ask Susanna if she had had word from her dearest childhood playmate. Instead, he sent a brief letter to Floria Piave, who had been Donatella's bridesmaid, asking her if she had had news of his sister. Floria replied that she had heard nothing.

There was no more time to send another message. Floria married Lucio Montague soon afterwards, at the height of summer, on a day so hot that even the flies did not buzz, and Floria's mother fainted in the church. Escalus did not attend the wedding, of course, but the event remained in his mind anyway because of the chaos that followed it.

Seemingly as soon as the wedding bells fell silent, the influenza began to spread through Verona. Some blamed the summer heat, and some blamed the Jews, but whatever the cause, the disease ran rampant. At Escalus's urging, Aurelio took Niccola and Paris to the countryside, but Escalus remained in Verona at his father's hand. Prince Cesare ordered a curfew and then a quarantine of afflicted homes before he, too, fell ill. Escalus called for the best doctors in the city, but Cesare was an old man, and his health had been failing even before the influenza. Escalus could do nothing but sit and watch as his father coughed his life away. He then assumed his position as Prince of Verona.

Fortunately, the influenza had been powerful. It killed its victims quickly and ran its course before too many citizens had died, and Escalus lifted the quarantine a mere two weeks after the epidemic began. He sent a letter inviting Aurelio to return to Verona, and included the news of Cesare's death, then addressed himself to the problems of governance that had arisen during the fortnight of influenza.

One of his first petitioners was Leonardo Capulet, robed all in black and quivering with rage. His wife and young son had been among the victims of the influenza, and in his grief, he had searched the city for someone to blame and had hit upon an unusual, though not unexpected, target.

"There can be only one answer," Signior Capulet thundered. "For my sorrow to have come so soon upon the heels of Montague's joy – she is a witch!"

Escalus raised an eyebrow. "Who is a witch, Capulet?"

"That girl, that succubus that Lucio Montague has taken to wife. Have you seen her eyes, my Lord? They glitter. It is uncanny. She has sent this plague to ruin me, claiming my wife and my heir so soon after she has brought festive merriment to the house of Montague!"

Cesare might have initiated prosecution immediately, but Escalus paused. While an accusation of witchcraft was not to be taken lightly, pursuing it would require a great deal of organization and expenditure. As far as Escalus knew, there were no reputable witchfinders in Verona, so he would have to locate one and bring him to the city. He himself would have to supervise the ritual interrogation and preside over the trial, as well as arrange for the execution that would be sure to follow. At any other moment, Escalus would have given the charge of witchcraft the gravity it deserved, but he had no patience at the moment, not with his father freshly dead and the governance of the feuding, epidemic-weakened city in his inexperienced hands.

"If Floria Montague is a witch, she is certainly not a skilled one," he said. "Witchcraft is a subtle art, but the influenza is not subtle. Scores are dead in this city, Capulet, my own father among them. I have never heard of a witch who brought such a wide-ranging disaster, especially when a simple feud was involved. Do you not think that I have better things to occupy my time than this senseless rage at a girl who has no cause to harm anyone? Be off, or I shall indict you for slander."

Capulet's face turned red, and he spluttered for a moment before he regained control of himself. He gave a stiff bow, then turned on his heel and marched out of the audience chamber. For a while, Escalus wondered if he had made an enemy he could not afford, but when he discussed the matter with Aurelio, his brother laughed it off.

"Nay, thy wisdom shines even through thy lack of experience," Aurelio said. "Thou dost not know what it is to have a wife and a son, so thou dost not fully appreciate the blow that their loss is to Signior Capulet. He is in a passion and seeks a target for his rage. 'Twill blow over in time, mark my words."

And indeed, after the single furious interview, Capulet made no more accusations of witchcraft against either of the two Montague wives. It appeared that Aurelio had a better grasp of social maneuvering than Escalus had thought.

Gradually, Escalus became more sure of himself in his new position. He learned the precise way to pitch his voice so as to project just the right paternal quality to calm a chamber full of aldermen, and was able to break up incipient violence in the streets before it reached unmanageable levels. Aurelio, his ear always pitched to the hum of the latest gossip, reported that the citizens of Verona felt secure under Escalus's leadership, though they did have their worries.

"Thou hast no heir," Aurelio pointed out. "For the moment, it is but a small matter, for thou art yet young and hale. But the people would see thee produce a successor before age or infirmity take hold of thee."

Escalus rolled his eyes. "Thou of all people shouldst know the difficulty of that task for me," he said.

"I do. And I will not betray thy trust. But think now on the future." Aurelio glanced away, but soldiered on. "Thou needst not love a bride. Thou needst only perform with her until she has produced a son. Couldst thou not rouse thyself a few times for the good of the city?"

"Couldst thou occupy thyself with a fair boy, Aurelio?"

Aurelio smirked. "If I had such a need as thine, I wager that I could rise to the occasion."

Escalus snorted. "Well, I will think on it. But I will promise thee no more."

Once again, Donatella provided a welcome distraction from Escalus's guilt-ridden contemplation of his own proclivities. He had noticed that the laces on her Sunday bodices had begun to spread, but had not found a way to inquire about that. But one Sunday in December, as Signior Rinuccini was distracted by a client, Donatella made her way to Escalus's side and embraced him.

"It has been too long, poppet," he murmured into her ear.

"I beg pardon," she replied, "for my time has been greatly occupied of late. But come and listen, Escalus, for I have joyous tidings for thee." She took his hand and placed it on her belly, and Escalus was amazed to feel the distinct swelling beneath her gown.

"Art thou -?" he asked.

"I am." Donatella's face glowed. "I am with child, and soon I shall have a swaddling babe to call my own."

This was what she had longed for, all that she had asked of the marriage that Cesare had arranged for her. Escalus could find no words to express his joy at the matter, so he embraced her fiercely for a brief moment before she slipped away to rejoin her husband. Signior Rinuccini threw Escalus a dirty look, but did not approach him.

The joy on Donatella's face when she spoke of her condition put Escalus's heart at ease. He allowed himself to relax a little, and even dreamed of the day he would first meet his new little nephew or niece. The anticipation almost made up for the loss of his boisterous evenings in the company of his friends, seeking out their particular form of entertainment. He had given up the outings upon assuming his father's crown, fearing the repercussions should the Prince's unholy tastes become public knowledge. He kept an eye out for likely boys to add to the ranks of the royal servants, but in the meantime, his evenings were lonely.

A fortnight after he had spoken with Donatella, he had new cause to appreciate those evenings spent quietly with a cup of wine and a book by the fire. A page in Rinuccini's livery was hurriedly ushered into his study, the first message that had come from that house since the wedding nearly five months before. "Speak, boy," Escalus commanded. "What news have you from my sister's house?"

The page made a hasty bow. "My Lord Prince, my mistress the Lady Rinuccini desires you to come to her side at once."

"How now?" Escalus asked, rising from his chair even as he spoke. "What is the matter? Say if it be well or ill with my sister."

"I know not, my liege," the page replied. "But I was bidden to bring you to my lady with all haste."

Frustrated, Escalus gave up the conversation. Calling for a retainer to escort him, he hurried out of the palace into the cold night air. He did not even bother to stop at the stables, for he did not wish to wait for his horse to be saddled. His poppet had need of him, and he would not deny her.

At Rinuccini's house, all was strangely silent. A tall man in a valet's livery, who introduced himself as Domenico, bowed low and escorted Escalus and his retainer to a receiving room, where he offered Escalus a cup of wine. Escalus paused, startled.

"Wine? What talk is this? I was told that thy mistress desired to see me. Where is my sister? What has become of her?"

"I know not, Prince," Domenico said. "She has been closeted with her ladies for the better part of three hours. I will make enquiry as to her welfare. In the meantime, will you have wine? My master's vintages are good, I assure you."

Escalus took a deep breath and suppressed the rage that boiled within him at this smooth, politely insolent man. "Yes, fetch wine. And thy master, too, sirrah. We would question our brother-in-law, who must surely know of his lady wife's condition, even if his servants do not."

Domenico bowed and left the receiving room. Escalus sat in a chair, but quickly found that he was too nervous to sit still. Though he knew the habit was shameful, he rose to his feet and paced. Giacomo Rinuccini had furnished his receiving room richly, though with few of the small ornaments that were fashionable for gentlemen of means. In particular, the room lacked a clock, though it boasted an elaborately gilded hourglass. Escalus could not know how long he paced, but the time seemed far too long.

After a while, a servant entered with a cup of wine. Escalus accepted the wine graciously, but considered that it had taken far too long to arrive. After the servant had left, carefully closing the door to the receiving room behind him, Escalus counted to twenty, then opened the door and stepped out into the entrance hall. There was a grand staircase at the far end, and Escalus walked slowly towards it, stopping short when he saw a large stain on the tiles at the base of the stairs.

It was that peculiar shade of reddish brown that almost cried out that it was blood. It had not been there overly long, but it had not been cleaned up, either. Something was happening that was more important than cleaning this particular stain. As Escalus pondered the implications of that idea, an older woman descended the stairs. She did not wear the livery of the house, but she carried a basin in her hands, covered with a bloodstained towel. Escalus could not tear his eyes away from that towel, and the woman noticed his gaze, and dropped as much of a curtsy as she could.

"You may go upstairs, sir," she said. "The lady of the house has asked for you."

Escalus took the stairs two at a time, and a page pointed him down the corridors to the correct chamber. Rinuccini was just leaving, and acknowledged his prince with a respectful nod, but no more than that. A physician ushered Escalus inside. Donatella reclined in a large bed in her nightgown, her fall of wheat-blond hair dark and stringy with sweat, her skin pale and clammy, with enormous rings beneath her eyes. One side of her face was bruised and abraded. When she saw Escalus, a slow smile spread across her face even as fresh tears dribbled down her cheeks. Escalus would have rushed to his sister's side, but the physician caught his arm.

"Gently, prince, for the lady is in a delicate state."

"I see." Escalus forced himself to walk the rest of the distance to Donatella's bed, where he sat on the edge and enfolded her in a careful embrace. She cried against his shoulder for a short time, and then he laid her back on her pillow.

"I have miscarried my child," Donatella murmured, her voice raw and husky with pain.

Escalus swallowed, but could think of no better words than, "I share thy sorrow, poppet mine."

"What will I tell the priest?" Donatella asked him. "For truly it was not my intent to cast the child from my womb, but it is through my actions that I have lost the babe."

Puzzled, Escalus frowned at her. "What, hast thou been dancing? I have not seen thee at any feasts in Verona."

Donatella shook her head. "I have done nothing that the learned physician has advised against," she said. "But I could not stop myself today, when I plunged from the top of the stairs to the bottom. As I lay stunned, the pains came upon me."

Escalus looked at the abrasions on Donatella's face and remembered the bloodstain at the foot of the stairs. He could see the connection now. He sighed, and shook his head at his sister. "The fault is not thine, poppet. Thou didst not hurl thyself willingly from the stairs. 'Tis but an ill chance that has led thee to these straits, and I am certain that God will permit thee to conceive again."

Donatella managed a little smile at that, and warmth spread through Escalus.

"But what of thy lord husband?" he asked. "I did see him leave this chamber, but surely he should be here at thy side to comfort thee and give thee strength in thy time of need."

Donatella's expression immediately became unreadable. "My lord husband keeps his own counsel," she said. "He did come to this chamber to ensure that I would live, and he will not blame me for this happenstance." She paused, as if she were considering her next words with some care. "The midwife did not tell me, but I believe that the lost babe must have been a daughter, for my husband did not seem much grieved. He has told me many a time that he will have a son for his firstborn. So perhaps this miscarriage is for the best. When I am healed, I will conceive again, and I will give my husband the son he desires."

She looked so hopeful that Escalus could not bear to say anything to disturb her. So he smoothed her rough hair away from her face, leaned over, and kissed her brow. "I am sure that thou wilt have many fine sons, and perhaps a daughter for thyself as well," he said.

The physician, who had been waiting at the door, entered with a discreet cough. "Lady Rinuccini must have her rest," he said, "for she has lost blood, and must regain her strength."

So Escalus bade Donatella farewell, and returned to the palace. No sleep did he find that night, for in his heart, relief at Donatella's survival warred with grief over the lost child and baseless fury at Rinuccini's calm acceptance of the tragedy.

Chapter Text

5. To Kill Your Joys With Love

Escalus did not hear much from Donatella for a few months after the miscarriage. He found that he did not have much time to worry about her, for Verona continued to occupy his days, and he had begun to locate a few willing and discreet pages to occupy his nights. Paris had begun to grow out of his babyhood, and was becoming a real little person, full of questions and curious about the world. The sight of his little nephew always raised Escalus's spirits, and he occasionally wondered whether it might be worth his while to woo and wed some inconspicuous, continent maid in order to beget a child of his own. But always after he pondered this idea, a better use for his time would enter his head, and he would forget all about the idea of marriage for a long time.

His glimpses of Donatella at Mass grew less and less frequent, and she no longer sought out Niccola and Paris to gossip with them after the service. She often appeared chastened, and twice her eye was blackened.

After the second such incident, Escalus sent his most discreet page to bear a message to Donatella's maids inquiring as to the normal hour that their mistress went to shrift. Upon receiving an answer, he went to the church and waited for her to emerge from the confessional. When she saw him, she let out a small gasp and dropped a curtsy, turning her face away, though it was covered by a sheer silken veil.

"Nay, sister, do not look away," Escalus said, as he gently took her chin in his hand and turned her face back. The veil hid the worst of the bruising around Donatella's eye, but Escalus knew what to look for, and he pressed his lips together when he found it. "Hast thou been clumsy on the stairs again, poppet?" he asked.

Donatella's eyes flickered toward the confessional and back again. "I fear that I may have been less than a gracious wife," she murmured. "But my husband has chastised me, and I will endeavor to correct the faults that merited the penalty."

"What faults are those?" Escalus asked, rather louder than he had intended. At Donatella's startled look, he modulated his voice somewhat. "I cannot think of aught that thou couldst have done to merit such punishment."

"It is no more than the law allows," Donatella retorted. "And what woman in Verona should know that better than I? Change the law, or set it aside, an thou wilt, for thou dost possess the power to do so."

"An it will bring thee comfort, I will do so straightaway."

Donatella laughed mirthlessly. "It will not avail thee," she sighed, "or me. The Holy Writ tells us that the husband is to rule over his wife even as Christ rules over His Church. No earthly lord may write a law that wields more power than the divine command."

"Is that what the priest has told thee?" Escalus would have gone to the confessional and challenged the priest then and there, but Donatella's hand on his arm restrained him. "Please, my brother, do naught, I beg of thee," she said. "Tell no one that we have spoken thus, and I will breathe no word of it to my husband."

"Art thou sure?"

"Ay, my mind is made up."

Defeated, Escalus retreated a step. "Wilt thou at least send word if thou art in need of aid?" he asked.

Donatella nodded silently, though she could not quite manage to meet his gaze. Flustered, she dropped another curtsy and hurried out of the church.

It was just after Lammas when a brief letter from Giacomo Rinuccini arrived at the palace. The message was short and to the point, announcing Donatella's second pregnancy and requesting that her family not smother her with attention. Though he had doubts about the last part of the letter, Escalus sent up a heartfelt prayer of thanks that God had seen fit to allow Donatella to conceive again after the grief of her miscarriage.

When he shared the news with Aurelio and Niccola, they were as pleased as he was. "I wager that this babe will achieve life," Niccola said, with such confidence that her husband and brother-in-law stared. "She is just turned sixteen years of age," Niccola elaborated. "I have heard that it is harder for very young wives to keep a pregnancy. A woman of sixteen years is riper and better suited to childbearing than a girl of fourteen."

"There is wisdom in thy words," Aurelio said. "Thou didst not bear Paris until thou wast sixteen years of age."

Their words heartened Escalus, and with a certain amount of caution, he began to look forward to becoming an uncle once again.

Like most virtuous wives, Donatella did not appear in public very often during her pregnancy. She attended Mass, and Escalus hoped that she was able to see her friends on occasion. No news of any incidents reached his ears, and he could only assume that this meant that nothing of note had happened. His next sustained opportunity to talk to her came during the holidays. Amerigo Neri, a respected member of the city's minor aristocracy, gave a great feast for Twelfth Night, and his guest list included the royal household as well as representatives from most of Verona's families of similar dignity.

Signior Neri was well known for hosting such gatherings every year, alternating between inviting the Capulets and the Montagues, so that neither family would have cause either to feel slighted or to encounter the other. This year he had invited the Montagues and their supporters, as well as Giacomo Rinuccini and his wife, who were well known to take no side in the quarrel. They had arrived early, and so Donatella was already at the party when Escalus arrived with Aurelio and Niccola trailing in his wake.

Donatella moved to embrace all of them as quickly as she could, though the bulk of her pregnancy made that difficult. Had they not been in a public place, Escalus would have wept to see her. She was animated and lively, her eyes sparkled and her dimples flashed. It was clear that she was taking great pleasure in her impending motherhood, and Escalus hoped for her sake that her child would provide some small comfort in what he was increasingly sure was an unhappy existence.

Donatella said something to Niccola that made them both giggle, and then she dragged her sister-in-law away by the hand. Escalus and Aurelio watched them go, and saw that they headed for a bench where Susanna and Floria Montague sat, both of them showing signs of pregnancy as well. The four ladies immediately bowed their heads together for a conference, and Aurelio laughed out loud.

"Afore God, I know not how the publishers of advice books earn a living," he said. "It is as clear as the dawn that a manual, no matter how rich or wise, would be but a hindrance here and not a help."

Escalus smiled, and would have replied to that, but Signior Neri had managed to make his way through the crowd of his guests to greet his prince, and the social whirl of the evening took over.

January passed without much incident, as always seeming especially gray and dreary after the festivities of the Christmas season. February arrived chill and raw, and it seemed that the sun did not rise at all in the week following Candlemas. It was the sort of weather that encouraged men to seek entertainment in the comfort of their own homes rather than brave the winter winds.

Escalus had found his entertainment in the company of the son of the head groom, a lithe, dark-haired youth of eighteen, who had proved as willing to be ridden as the horses his father cared for, if not even more eager. He bucked and grunted, rising to meet Escalus's every thrust and sighing with pleasure when Escalus reached beneath his loins to take him in hand. The youth's cries immediately went up nearly a full octave in pitch, and Escalus could no longer hold back, but spent himself in a rush of joy.

He had barely eased himself off of the youth's backside when there was a knock at the door. Quickly, Escalus shoved the groom's son beneath the covers, and called "Who is there?"

"It is I, Aurelio." Without waiting for acknowledgement, the door swung open, and Aurelio hurried into the chamber.

"Thou didst frighten me nigh unto death," Escalus grumbled.

Aurelio smirked. "Nay, thou wast dead before. I bided my time outside thy door, and that may prove my love for thee, my brother. But come now –"

There was a snicker from beneath the covers, and Escalus wearily pulled them aside so that the groom's son could breathe. Aurelio gave the youth a courteous nod, then turned back to Escalus and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"I have heard news from Rinuccini's house," he said. "A page in full livery did arrive at the palace but a few moments past."

"In the dead of night?"

"Ay. I offered him a cup of wine for his pains, but he refused and said that he must return to his master."

"The offer was well done, at the least. Did he deliver his message unto thee?"

Aurelio's smile grew even broader. "Ay, he did. Our dear sister Donatella, Lady Rinuccini, has newly been delivered of a son."

"Praise be to God!" Escalus cried, as the groom's son let out a whoop of joyous laughter. Escalus kissed him full on the lips, and then turned to embrace Aurelio. "How do they fare, our sister and our nephew?" he asked. The cold, raw weather was not always kind to mothers and newborns.

"The page told me that they were well. Donatella is weary from her travails, but she lives. And the babe is a strong and lusty boy – the page did say that his first cry could be heard through the closed door of the bedchamber, and his first act in the world was to piss on the midwife's hand."

Escalus laughed. "That betokens a strong soul, well bound to this world. I am glad of these tidings. When may we pay our respects to our lady sister?"

Aurelio shrugged. "As I know Signior Rinuccini, it will be at the babe's baptism. I suspect that he will not delay that ceremony, as it is the season for catarrh. He will not dare keep us from the baptism, so we will meet our nephew then at the latest."

"That is most excellent news," Escalus said.

"Dost thou forgive my intrusion upon thy night-work?" Aurelio asked.

"Ay, a thousand times. Now get thee to thy bed, that I may rest peacefully in mine."

Aurelio embraced Escalus once again and left the chamber. The groom's son took his cue and gathered his clothing swiftly, pausing only for brief congratulations before he, too, slipped away into the night.

The baptism was held on the Sunday after the birth. As it happened, Donatella's family were not only invited to attend the baptism, but Rinuccini asked Aurelio and Niccola to stand as godparents. Escalus marveled at the favor, but Niccola had her own thoughts on the matter.

"The child has need of a godmother," she said, "and I cannot imagine that Signior Rinuccini knows many ladies of honor besides his wife. If Donatella put my name forward, it would follow easily that my husband could stand godfather."

"And the choice will also affirm Signior Rinuccini's affiliation with our household," Escalus added. "I do not know that I am especially glad of that, but at least he admits our interest in his affairs."

At the church, they learned that Marullo, Rinuccini's cousin from Mantua, had arrived, and had also been asked to stand godfather. Marullo was a member of the court of the Duke of Mantua, and Escalus had heard many things about his brother ruler. He was not altogether convinced that such a man as would attend that court would make a fit godfather, but he held his tongue. Aurelio and Niccola dwelled in Verona, after all, while Marullo would return to Mantua within the week.

As Prince of Verona, Escalus was given an honored place near the baptismal font to watch as the priest formally welcomed the baby into the Christian faith. Since Donatella was still at home recovering from the birth, Niccola held the baby. When Rinuccini placed the child into her arms, Escalus was amused to hear five-year-old Paris turn to his nurse and assure her that Niccola was his own mother, and that the little interloper in her arms did not belong to her, so she would have to give him back.

To Marullo went the honor of announcing the baby's name, though Escalus was sure that Rinuccini was the one who had chosen it. At the priest's prompt, Marullo stood straight, and in a loud, clear voice announced, "He will be called Mercutio."

A murmur of surprise ran through the church, for it was an unusual name, though of a style that was currently fashionable among young parents in Verona. The priest, a Franciscan brother of English birth named John, did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary about the name, and gravely poured the holy water on Mercutio's head. Mercutio let out a squawk of surprise, but did not appear to be distressed by the touch of the water, as Paris had been. Niccola cradled him close for the rest of the ceremony.

Afterwards, Rinuccini invited the assembled guests to a gathering at his home, where he promised an abundance of food and drink to celebrate the arrival of his heir. Escalus accepted the invitation, partly out of duty as a royal guest at the baptism and partly out of a desire to see Donatella.

She was waiting when the guests arrived, seated in a large, elaborately carved chair, draped with a warm coverlet. A ruddy-faced serving woman in her middle years stood by Donatella, and Escalus assumed that this was Mercutio's wet nurse. But after Niccola returned Mercutio to his mother with a sisterly kiss, Mercutio started to fuss, and Donatella excused herself from the gathering. The servant helped her to rise and escorted her away. Escalus conveyed his congratulations to Rinuccini as quickly as he could, then knocked on the door through which Donatella had left.

To his surprise, the serving woman opened it. At first, she was reluctant to admit him, but Donatella gave him permission to enter. He was further surprised to see her seated comfortably in a padded chair, her bodice open and Mercutio nursing contentedly at her breast.

"Thou wilt have no wet nurse?" he asked.

Donatella favored him with a smile made warm by the pleasure of her child. "Nay, Ginevra will assist me in caring for Mercutio, but I shall give him suck myself, even as the Blessed Virgin did for Our Lord."

"One may have no better model," Escalus agreed. He gazed at the mother and child in silence for a while. Mercutio resembled a tiny, red, wrinkled monkey, just as Paris had done as a newborn, while Donatella glowed with the enchantment of new motherhood. In a short time, he had nursed his fill, and Ginevra swaddled him while Escalus helped Donatella to fasten her gown. When she was decently dressed, she held out her arms and received Mercutio, who gave his uncle a cursory glance and then fell asleep.

"He is a fine son, poppet," Escalus said.

Donatella looked up at him, her glance seemingly startled at first, and then becoming cold and hard. "Nay, Escalus. Not poppet, not any more. I will be no one's poppet."

Taken aback, Escalus could only blink for a few moments. "Why?" he asked at last. "Thou hast never objected before."

"I was not a mother before," Donatella explained. "But heaven has seen fit to bless me with a son, and afore God, I will protect him."

"Of course. That is no more than a mother's duty."

"A mother's duty," Donatella said. "Not the duty of a poppet. Not the duty of a mindless plaything whose only use is to be lovely to look upon and an ornament to the home. A poppet cannot protect Mercutio from his father, but a mother may."

Escalus felt sick to his stomach upon hearing the icy tone of Donatella's words. "Dost thou mean to tell me –"

"I do mean. Thou art acquainted with my husband's ways; I am sure of it, though I will not speculate concerning how long thou hast known. But since thou dost know my husband, thou wilt not be surprised to hear why I miscarried my first child."

"Thou didst fall down the stairs. Thou didst tell me of this at the time."

"Ay. And I told thee that I could not stop myself when I fell. I could not stop myself because my husband pushed me. And a man that will do such things for fear that his unborn child might be a daughter will not hesitate to turn his wrath upon his son."

"If thou hadst but told me of this . . . " Escalus's words came out in a choked, horrified whisper.

"It was too late. It is too late now. Rinuccini's son is born, and I may not take his son from him, so I will remain in this house and shield Mercutio as long as God gives me the strength to do so. And that is no task for a poppet."

"Is there no aid that thy brother might give, or thy Prince?"

Donatella nodded stiffly. "Ay, I would ask a boon of thee. Thou art not Mercutio's godfather, for Giacomo would not allow it. But I would beg of thee to watch over him, and over any children that may come after him, as if thou were. Perhaps he will need aid that I cannot give, and I beg of thee to give it when that day arrives."

Escalus inclined his head once. "I will grant thee this boon, my pop – my sister."

"That is well said. I thank thee for it. But now thou must go forth and be sociable, for that is thy royal duty. I shall see thee again."

Escalus kissed Donatella's forehead, and stroked his finger gently over Mercutio's soft cheek. Mercutio's lips moved a little, but he did not quite wake. With one final backward glance, Escalus left the room where his sister sat, but not his poppet.

He would never speak to his poppet again.