Read Romeo's Ex Online

Authors: Lisa Fiedler

Romeo's Ex

For my Auntie Kiki
Who was, and is, like Rosaline,
“Rich in beauty.”
1
Grazie …
for everything!
 
And, as always, for my daughter, Shannon,
“ … the hopeful lady of my earth.”
2
 
 
VERONA, ITALY, 1595, SPRING
I
n a small cottage belonging to the Healer, Lady Rosaline did occupy herself with the business of tidying shelves and cupboards. With great care she arranged the multitude of jars and flagons containing herbal ointments and medicinal liquids.
The Healer was not presently about, having gone off near three hours past, with her satchel, to the home of an elderly man who had come screaming that his grandson's leg had been all but chewed off by a pair of wild dogs. Lady Rosaline did not doubt for a moment that her mentor would find some way to save, if not the child's limb, at least his life. No physician, nor surgeon-barber, nor dentist was more proficient in the art of healing.
Being alone in the Healer's cottage was not unusual for Rosaline. She had been visiting the place since her childhood and had learned much from the wise and gentle woman. There were those who feared the Healer, called her “charlatan,” and “witch,” but Rosaline understood that the people who shunned her friend were simply ignorant.
For years, the Healer had been her teacher. The old woman felt blessed to share her knowledge with a pupil so intelligent and insightful as Rosaline. More than anything on God's green earth did Lady Rosaline wish to learn the miraculous ways of the healing arts. Indeed, she prayed daily to the Almighty in heaven to grant her the intellect and the tenacity to see it through.
Now Rosaline opened a small jar and sniffed the greasy salve within it—the potent scent stung her blue eyes. “For burns,” she said aloud, as though testing herself. “Also useful in treating resistant rashes”—she smiled to herself—“and protecting one's roses from aphids.” She replaced the jar and was reaching for another when of a sudden there came an urgent banging upon the door.
“Ho, is anyone within? I beg thee, help us!”
Rosaline rushed to the door and flung it open wide. There on the doorstep stood a handsome young man; he was lit by the soft glow of a torch secured in an iron sconce on the cottage's outer wall. Rosaline knew at once who this gentleman was. He was about her own age, sixteen years. She had seen him before, from a safe distance,
of course. Odd, this close he did not look to be the monster about whom she had so long been warned. In fact, he was quite beauteous, e'en as he struggled to support the weight of his wounded companion.
The injured man was some years older and in a sorry state. Unable to stand on his own legs, he leaned heavily against the handsome one. His nose bled, and his left eye was swollen shut.
“Beaten?” asked Rosaline, stepping out into the pool of light cast by the torch.
The unharmed one did not answer her at once. Now that she was visible in the glow of the torchlight, he could only stare at her, somewhat stupidly.
“What hath happened?” she demanded, more loudly. “Was this man beaten?”
“Beaten, aye.”
“What is his name?”
“He is Petruchio. Or just Trooch, to his fellows.”
Rosaline quickly wound her arm around Petruchio's waist. Together, she and the gentleman dragged him into the cottage. Petruchio's left arm hung limply at an odd and fearsome angle.
“Are you the Healer?” the handsome lord asked as they hauled Petruchio toward a low table near the window and lifted him onto the wooden surface. “Marry, you are so young …”
Rosaline ignored him as she tore Petruchio's tunic to reveal his bare chest, already crimson and bruising to
purple. The gentleman stepped backward to give her room as she began her careful examination, running her hands over Petruchio's torso, pressing ever so slightly here and there. He let out a low groan but remained motionless.
“Broken ribs—three, perhaps four,” she pronounced, more to herself than the onlooker.
Now the arm. Rosaline moved fleetly to the other side of the table for a better look. The sight made her gasp! His shoulder had been dislodged from the socket.
“Hand me your dagger,” she instructed Petruchio's friend.
The young man's eyebrows arched in horror. “Think you to cut it off, lady?”
Rosaline frowned at the idiocy of the question. “The dagger,” she repeated, and her tone brooked no argument. He withdrew the knife and handed it to her.
Rosaline leaned over Petruchio. “My lord,” she whispered, willing her voice to be sweet, calm. “My lord, I bid you open your mouth. Just a small bit.”
Petruchio's eyes fluttered, his lips parted.
“Excellent, sir. Now, here is your friend's dagger. I would have you clamp your teeth round the handle—firmly, aye. Like that. Very good.”
Rosaline closed her eyes and placed her hands gingerly upon the patient's shoulder. She applied only a whisper of pressure at first, prying as gently as she dared.
“Aaaagggghhh …”
“Bite down, sir. Bite down!”
Rosaline executed her next movement so quickly that the onlooker was not even sure she had acted at all until he heard the noise that followed. 'Twas a roar of profound agony that ripped from Petruchio's lungs as the lady deftly slammed the damaged joint back into its place.
And in the next heartbeat the noise changed to a low hum, a murmur of gratitude and relief Petruchio opened his eyes and sought those of his savior; she gave him a serene smile. With his teeth still gripping the dagger, Petruchio smiled back.
Rosaline stood and collected several small bottles and a clean cloth. “Tell me,” she said, addressing her patient's friend, “what villain is responsible for this man's condition? Should we summon the constable?”
The nobleman said, “I think not, lady. 'Twas the constable who did pummel Petruchio.”
Rosaline froze, the cloth she would use to clean the abrasions poised above her patient's swollen cheek. “Be this man a criminal?”
“Nay. Poor Trooch here is merely an unfortunate rogue who was caught dallying with a comely wench. As it happens, the wench is the constable's wife.”
Rosaline's mouth dropped open in disbelief “Never say thus!”
The young man nodded. “The constable saw fit to punish him for his trespass, not with the letter of the law but with his meaty fists.”
For nearly half an hour, Rosaline carefully purified the
wounds and applied the healing salves. Then she used long scraps of clean muslin to securely wrap his midsection.
“Tis the best I can do for his ribs,” she explained. “They will heal in time.”
The gentleman was gazing at her in a way Rosaline found most disconcerting. He said nothing, just stared. Rosaline turned her back to the man, whom she was beginning to suspect was a simpleton. “He should not be moved from here tonight.” She began to clear away the bloody pieces of cloth. “Collect him on the morrow, after noon.” She peered over her shoulder at Petruchio's friend. “Do you understand?”
“You are exquisitely beautiful.”
Rosaline pursed her lips impatiently. “That, sir, is irrelevant.”
“Not to me. To me it is most relevant.”
Rosaline sighed. “Very well, then. I thank thee for the compliment. Now, you'd best depart so that Pooch …”
“Trooch.”
“So that
Trooch
may rest.” Rosaline gathered the jars of ointment and headed for the cupboard.
“Your name, lady?”
For a moment, Rosaline considered telling him the truth of it—that she was a Capulet. What smooth reply might he have to that? she wondered, smiling. But all she supplied was “I am Rosaline.”
The man's eyes seemed to light at the sound of her name. “Magnificent. You shall be hearing from me, Lady Rosaline. You may depend upon it.” With that, he turned and took three long strides to the door, where he turned back before stepping out into the warm spring night.
“And if thou art wondering,” he said in a silky tone, “the name of the man who hath fallen in love with thee this night … it is Romeo. Romeo of the house of Montague.”
But Rosaline already knew that.
S
uch a season as this one Verona hath ne'er known.
It is the year of our Lord 1595, summer.
A fervent heat has settled upon the city, baking the trodden dirt in the market square. I am comforted only by my own whimsy: the belief that in such heat, all manner of magic is possible, for men cannot think straight, and women dream chilly dreams. In the orchard, the defeated fruit falls to the warm grass, and the smell of it is lush and dangerous.
Equal to the heat is the hatred in which the city simmers; 'tis a selfish conflict begun long before this summer. A feud so great that it has carved a chasm of anger, like a moat, around the city of Verona. Beyond our orchard-fringed borders, Italy is a country drenched in
the sweetness of painting and poetry. There are Venezia, Firenze, and countless mountain villages where goodness thrives and strangers embrace, calling one another brother and friend. But here in Verona, we greet our neighbors at sword point and demand to know
che casa?
What house?
Montague or Capulet?
Stranger still is the fact that the origin of this feud is long forgotten. What is known to all is this—two households, thought to be alike in dignity, behaving with no dignity at all. Montagues spit upon Capulets, and Capulets, in turn, hurl stones at Montagues. Violence begets violence, and each generation has been bred to carry the scars. The feud is our inheritance. We, who are thought to be noble, separate ourselves from the rest of the citizenry by the fire of our loathing, and the city at large suffers in its wake. It disgusts me, truly.
For I am half Capulet, by my mother's blood. Here in Verona, all of my Capulet ancestors have been born and died for centuries. (My father was born I know not where. Nor do I know where he now lives or if he lives.) So by birth this quarrel belongs to me. And if I must lay claim to it, I am determined to derive a measure of amusement from it. Such is the thought from which is born this morning's folly.
I tiptoe past my mother's chamber and slip into the pale dreamlike gloom of dawn. On a dare set forth by my elder cousin, Tybalt, I go forth to trespass upon lands believed unholy by our kind: Montagues' garden! For
tonight our uncle Capulet shall throw a grand feast, and Tybalt has goaded me into pilfering the flowers which will adorn the banquet table.
I go now to meet our cousin Juliet—'tis her lord and father, my own mother's brother, who will host the evening's celebration. Juliet is my dearest friend, although she is younger by two summers. She is thirteen now and not nearly daring enough for my taste! For this reason, I have exacted from her a promise that she will join me this morning and sneak onto the lushly planted grounds of our enemy.
O, how bold! To decorate the Capulet tables with perfect blossoms stolen from the soil of our sworn foe!
 
'Tis an hour until sunrise. Around us, most of Verona slumbers. Juliet and I walk in the thickening heat of very early morn. But the heat is nothing compared to the excitement, for 'tis a most audacious errand we undertake at this shadowy hour.
Juliet is excited, but mostly afraid, unaccustomed as she is to doing anything e'en remotely improper. The smile she tips in my direction is filled with trepidation, but she struggles to summon her wit.
“How is it, dear Rosaline, that even in such heat, your hair remains unrumpled? Mine is already damp enough to wrinkle into angry ringlets.”
Sighing, I bite back a smile and lift one shoulder in a
dainty gesture. “I apologize, if my perfection offends thee. 'Tis not my fault that I am flawless!”
To this quip, Juliet flutters her pretty lashes and presses her palms together in pretend prayer. “So true, cousin, so true! Mayhap thou wouldst at least attempt to humor me by breaking a sweat?”
Jules and I continue on our way, laughing as loudly as we dare. We do not wish to call the attention of our sleeping neighbors. As we walk, I roll the sleeves of my gown to my elbows, the soft linen creasing easily in the crook of my arm. Then I unlace the cording at the neckline of my dress—one firm tug and my shoulders are bared!
“Roz, that is scandalous!”
“No more scandalous than this mischief we are about,” I remind her. “God's truth, it is so hot that I am a mere moment from removing my garters and hose! These clothes are more constricting than the rules we ladies must abide!” Playfully, I lift the hem of my skirt and tease, “Mayhap it shall become the fashion!”
“And mayhap the Capulets and Montagues will one day call a truce!”
“Neither seems likely,” I admit, glancing at my shoulders, pale and delicate in the jewel-like half light. “But 'twould be nice, wouldn't it?”
“Which?”
“Both. Amity in Verona between the Montagues and Capulets, an occasion to be celebrated with nothing less
than the ceremonial baring of maidens' wrists and shoulders!”
“How dost thou come up with such silliness?”
“I am merely wishful, Jules. The fighting, the hatred, it all tires me so. My honored mother was taught to hate all Montagues as hotly as does her brother, your lord and father. Of course, she is not the sort who hates outright. She cannot e‘en bring herself to hate the husband who abandoned her. Still, e'en my gentle lady mother does regard with a wariness near to fear all who be aligned with the house of Montague.”
“The Montagues,” says Juliet. “A pox on them!”
She says so with such rancor that I must laugh. “You say thus, but know not why, other than that you have been taught it well.”
“Aye, 'tis true.” My cousin sighs.
“Bitterness hath been bred into your being, like that sable hair with its auburn streaks, those emerald-colored eyes so like your father's.” I take her hand and squeeze it. “And just as you've been taught to be grateful for such beauteous gifts, you are told to cherish the hatred, to make it your own. But truly, what reason have you or I to hate a
name
? A lineage, a particular curve of the mouth, a tone of voice, a certain shade of skin, or shape of face? Especially since I know not what did first bring about the hostility.”
“'Tis a sound point to make,” Juliet replies with a frown. “I have oft asked my Lord the cause of the quarrel, but on every occasion, he's swiftly changed the course
of conversation. By the blood of all who have died in its wake, I swear I do not think he knows.”
“And still you hate all Montagues?”
“I do, for I must. I am Capulet's daughter, whose legacy is hate. Often, I think I am nothing if not dutiful.” Juliet sighs. “And often, I fear I am just nothing.”
Before I can chide her for such thoughts, she asks, “What of you, Roz? Dost thou despise the Montagues?”
“I know only one of them personally,” I admit. “And in truth, I find him quite bothersome.”
“Because he is a Montague?”
“Because he is a pain in my backside. But in my heart, I understand that the same heat that blisters the brow of a Montague does coarsen the complexion of a Capulet. That is a lesson, is it not?”
Juliet considers this a moment. “What is the name of this bothersome Montague?” she inquires.
“Romeo.”
We are nearing the farthest boundary of the Montagues' land, fringed with fig trees and long, lacy wildflowers mimicking the blue-tiled spires of the house in the distance.
The house of Montague, an edifice of stone and mortar and fury.
And the dwelling place of Romeo.
He is without question one of the handsomest men in Verona. He is energetic, clever, good-natured. But despite his undisputable goodness, he is most irritating.
And that is because good Romeo, heir to the fortune of the house of Montague, professes to be in love with me! Ridiculous, that, for Romeo does not e‘en know me. My acquaintance he did make only one month ago. Ever since, he has taken to following me round Verona. He lies in wait for me in the market square, in the village, e'en outside the confessional at Saint Peter's, and accosts me with promises of undying love.
'Tis comical, of course. He does not realize that I am kin to Capulet. Were I to tell him so, he might rethink his supposed affection. Although it is just as likely this romantic boy may think it twice the thrill to be in love with his greatest enemy. How am I to know? What I do know is this: He smothers me with his fondness! I marvel that his teeth have not rotted from the sugared sweetness of his vows.
We arrive at the Montagues' border. I reach up and pluck a fat fig from a graceful branch. “The enemy's harvest,” I remark, contemplating the fruit. “It looks most tasty.” I roll the dark prize over in my palm.
Juliet eyes the fig with interest. “I have heard old Montague spends dearly to water his land. Clearly, 'tis a successful enterprise.”
“By all means then, cousin, indulge!” I toss the fig; she makes an effortless catch, as though she is secretly dying to taste it. “You are as Eve in Eden,” I tease. “Partaking of forbidden fruit!”
“I have never been this wicked,” she whispers earnestly, pinching the fruit. A glistening smudge of its juicy flesh darkens her fingertips.
“Taste it!” I urge.
I sense my young cousin is struggling with a temptation far greater than figs. In the next moment, she has popped the thieved fruit into her mouth. She savors the plump sweetness.
“Good?”
Juliet nods. “This sweetness is unrivaled. 'Tis as though its sugar goes direct to my blood.”
“That, cousin, is the taste of triumph.”
With a grin, I take her hand, and we walk toward a most magnificent flower garden. Centered there is a grand marble fountain with a large oval pool. In the middle stands a statue of a slender nymph fashioned of pink-white marble veined with gray. Her hair flows in a solid cascade of shimmering stone, and her torso is wrapped in a tunic, carved with folds. A stream of water glistens like diamonds in the fading starlight as it pours from a tilted urn cradled in her arm.
I remove my small dagger from its soft leather sheath against my hip and with it begin to cut the heartiest blossoms that surround the fountain. Juliet, who is too cautious to carry a blade, pulls the plants up by their roots.
For a moment, I am so overwhelmed by the flowery
scents I do not hear the footsteps on the hard-baked earthen path.
“Roz!” whispers Juliet. “Someone approaches!”
“At this hour? Impossible.”
But she is correct. I hear the sound of whistling coming from behind a tall privet hedge. Juliet gasps, dropping the broad handful of lilies she's collected. The whistling grows clearer. I grip the stalks of my flowers so that they bleed their cool nectar into my palm.
Juliet's eyes are round with terror. This playful prank has become suddenly a dangerous quest. There is no telling what sin a Montague guard might choose to deliver upon us.
“Hide!” I command. “Quickly.”
Without a second thought, Juliet flings herself behind the fountain. I bend to retrieve her lilies then make to join her, but the toe of my slipper catches in the hem of my gown. I stumble, landing on my knees on the stone-scattered path. In the next moment, squinting across the shadowy distance, I see not a guard but Romeo himself, rounding the corner of the hedge. My only hope is that in the dimness, he will not know ‘tis I. But Romeo, it seems, has committed my very outline to memory. He stops a moment, then hurries toward me. A more awkward circumstance I have ne'er known.
“Rosaline?” He smiles. “Ah, my sweet Rosaline!”
“I am no one's Rosaline but my own,” I mutter, rising from the ground with as much dignity as I can muster. I
consider righting my neckline but realize, from the way Romeo is staring, that it is already too late for modesty.
“I am as honored as I am stunned, dear lady,” he says with a gallant bow, “to find thee here awaiting me.”
“Awaiting you?” The humiliation is unspeakable. He believes I've come in search of him! “Nay, sir, I—”
“In truth, 'tis most satisfying to know that you have at last sought me out.”
I hold up one hand to slow his approach. “Good Romeo, sir, you are quite mistaken.”
He hears me not, but takes my hand and presses the knuckles to his lips. “'Tis the answer to my greatest prayer,” he whispers. “After weeks of my pursuing you, you come now in search of me.”
I gasp at his assumption. In fairness, though, I cannot fault him for thinking thus. What other reason could he imagine for my appearing uninvited in his garden?
He smiles. “Please do not turn bashful on me now!”
Such dancing eyes hath he, such lovely hair, and what a handsome smile. And yet, his assets work no magic upon me.
“Come, m'lady, there is a gardener's cottage behind that hedge. We can seclude ourselves there and—”

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