Upon greatly abridging the barrier of sleep, morning seemed adjoined to the previous night. The surprisingly potent beams of sunlight shining through the bedchamber's windows were the first things Mercutio sensed, followed by the harsh sound of the door being forcefully swung open. He did not have time to rise to see who had entered before a rough pair of hands seized him and flung him off the bed.
The hard impact with the floor was accompanied by a sharp kick. Mercutio could feel his increasingly frantic pulse as he wondered whether it would be foolish to stand up when he would likely be struck down once more. He did not get the chance to deliberate this for long.
"Thou sluggish boy! How! Wilt thou be so insolent as to not rise and look upon thy father when he speaks to thee?"
Mercutio hastily lifted himself off the ground, though the aggravated bruises made it painful to do so. His father glowered down at him, searching for the first flaw to lash out at. The multitude of terrible events that haunted every corner of the family manor were all concentrated in that livid gaze and it took great effort for Mercutio to speak coherently as it pierced him.
"I cry your worship's mercy, sir," his voice was tremulous, but it likely pleased his father to hear every word dripping with submission and fright; a bold reply would only evoke greater ire as Valentine had proven before.
The ensuing silence only fed the tension. Mercutio knew he was not yet permitted to flee the room as he so desperately wished to; he scarcely escaped with a simple apology unless his father's rage was diverted to another victim.
"I intended no insolence," he managed to stutter. "Sleep did not come simply–"
The resulting blow made him stumble back against his bed.
"A most feeble excuse! 'Twill grant thee no pardon…"
Mercutio cringed, awaiting further punishment for his unknown crime.
"But I have not the time for thy base antics. Hie thee hence!"
Upon hearing these words, Mercutio felt a numb surge of relief. His father had other matters to attend to, which likely meant he would be gone for the remainder of the day and perhaps the evening as well. The sort of business his father engaged in during his absence had ever been a subject of curiosity for Mercutio. He certainly enjoyed some small dose of ease during these circumstances, but they seemed to bring great distress to the household.
His mother would weep for matters that Valentine never fully explained. Sometimes, the latter was able to mollify these troubles, at other times such efforts proved futile and Valentine would leave their parent's bedchamber looking greatly vexed and wearied. Mercutio had learned not to involve himself with such troubles; they were ephemeral, but turbulent, and his attempted support seem to exacerbate the distress.
These happenings were not the present quandary, however. Seizing his chance to leave before his father could consider otherwise, Mercutio scampered away into the hallway. Mingled voices of the household servants echoed from the lower levels. It was likely too late for breakfast and Mercutio doubted any food had been saved for him, nor would such actions be permitted, but this was no debacle. He had been denied nourishment for longer durations before; Valentine had taught him that slight hunger was better ignored and stoically tolerated. It was all punitive discomfort, and he needed not fear severe malnourishment. Nonetheless, Mercutio hoped that Valentine would purchase something for him to eat at the marketplace.
Mercutio glanced down the hall at his parent's bedchamber. The doors were shut, likely locked, and his mother was undoubtedly inside. He doubted she had left the room since waking in the morning; she rarely did so by her own will. Mercutio had always found this curious, unable to imagine why one would choose dull confinement, only to grow more displeased by company and further discontented with solitude. The paradox had existed from the time of his earliest memories, and its origin likely lay before then. Yet, some strange instinct drew the young boy to act against all he knew of it.
A serving girl answered the door when he knocked. Mercutio had seen her many times each of which varied minimally from the others. After giving him a short phlegmatic gaze, she beckoned for him to enter and closed the door behind them. There would be no greeting or smile. The quicker she could be rid of the boy, the sooner she could restore her mistress's contentment.
"Madam," she called. "Your son desires to see you."
The other woman was seated on an ornate chair, busied with a small vase of scarlet carnations. She appeared to be only a few years over thirty, yet she seemed to be carrying a myriad of hollow years far exceeding the proper count. Her flowers looked atrophied and no less wearied than their keeper.
"Good morrow to you, madam," Mercutio said hesitantly.
"Thy brother Valentine hath not yet returned?" his mother questioned; her gaze remained fixed on her carnations.
"I knew not of his parting," Mercutio replied, frowning.
"Ay, well 'twould be none short of a miracle if he had not left," his mother scoffed, indignantly. "'Ere the first ray of dawning was seen, he departed. Tis too great a courtesy to bid me farewell or impart to me the reason!"
A few petals drifted down from the blossoms, having been overly ruffled. Mercutio eyed them, crimson fans blending into white tips. He perceived them as tiny bloodied handkerchiefs, drifting desolately to the ground. Injury by profuse attention. He often wondered on the subject, and how it fared juxtaposed to the sting of neglect.
"Lest I be a fool, and thus the conditions befitting, thou hast no care for the matter but for thine own desire to do as Valentine has," his mother remarked, finally turning to look upon him coldly.
"Not if the matter does so displease you, madam," Mercutio said quickly, only to receive a glare of further derision.
"Did thy brother tutor thee on this falsehood? Or perchance 'twas our dear Paris. It matters not who thy teacher be. They shall be most pleased that thou hast the mark of a grand sycophant!"
Mercutio frowned. He had heard Valentine call Paris a "sycophant" before with apparent distaste, but the meaning had never been entirely lucid. Nonetheless, the term was clearly no form of approbation, though Mercutio knew not why he was deserving of it.
"Where is Catalina? I shall speak with her presently… nay, when? Go and tell her so!" his mother rose upon hearing her husband's voice echo down the hall.
"Ah, my name?" she muttered. "Marry, acknowledgement is most sweet when affection proves too great a wish."
As though remembering her son's presence, she turned to Mercutio and said resentfully, "Go as thou wilt please. I know well that thou dost not desire to loiter about here. Do as thou wilt, for what follows is not of my culpability."
"Fare you well then, madam," Mercutio said.
"Such would be to my content if it proved possible for either of us," came the solemn reply. "But prithee, do try not to further displease thy father."
Mercutio nodded, though he did not believe he could fulfill such a request. No sooner had he left and started down the hall than his father strode into the room, slamming the door behind him. The young boy chose not to stay to hear what matter had provoked such frustration. He doubted it was of unusual urgency and did not wish to risk being caught eavesdropping.
Instead, he scurried back to his own chamber and hurried to get dressed into presentable wear. He brought nothing with him other than the small wooden sword Valentine had given him. Gentlemen knew how to fence, and Mercutio had decided at the age of six that the time was ripe to begin learning the art. However, their aunt had nearly swooned upon seeing Mercutio struggling with a fully sharpened rapier, which he had retrieved by climbing atop a chair. The safer alternative consisted of a long rod and a makeshift handle constructed with various wooden parts. Valentine was now much more attentive in leaving his own weapon in places that were much more elevated.
To his great relief, he parted the house without being hindered. The autumn air was cool against his face as he strolled down the cobblestone path, allowing the trepidation to subside. No one would hurt him here; at least, no one had tried, though his brother often warned him of the numerous dangers in public places.
There was a group of boys in the public square reenacting an elaborate duel. As the last child fell over with a histrionic cry of "I am slain", the group gathered around the remaining victor, who grinned smugly upon his triumph. Upon seeing Mercutio his smirk widened.
"Wilt thou join us?" he called out.
"Why would I do so?" Mercutio yelled back.
The other boy took a few strides towards him.
"Thy brother would be much contented if thou wouldst do so," he said. "He did request that I ask thee to join us… and dost thou not desire to prove thy skill as thou didst fail to do when last we met?"
"I struck thee with five hits," Mercutio said indignantly. "Though thou didst refuse to accept it to be so, Tybalt."
"'Twas a good match," one of the other boys remarked. "Good sport to see."
"Improper nonetheless," Tybalt noted. "All five were in vain as they were of illegal make."
"'Each would have ran thee through proper or not in a true match," Mercutio retorted.
Tybalt shook his head in pity .at his uncouth acquaintance, which made the latter no less indignant.
"I could tutor thee on proper tactics, Mercutio," Tybalt offered. "If thou wouldst..."
"I desire no tutor," Mercutio snapped. "And I would learn better lessons from the rats thou dost feast upon."
A few of the other boys sniggered and a cold burst of umbrage flashed across Tybalt's countenance, but he soon regained his sublime smirk.
"Jest aside," he said. "Thou dost seem withdrawn from sport of late. What is the reason?"
"It does not concern thee," Mercutio said quickly. "Other tasks have taken the time for sport… important tasks; the likes of which exceed aught that thou couldst understand."
"Then, fare thee well with your most secretive 'important tasks'," Tybalt replied. "And it is mine own hope that perchance thy ill mood will end once they are done."
Mercutio scowled and marched off, leaving the Capulet children to their game. They were not fit to speak of his "ill mood", being so oblivious of its nature. Yet, he knew he could not explain the cause to them. Even if he did not so dread to speak of it, the mere thought of what his uncle and father would do to him if he dared to reveal a single word was truly terrifying.
At the opposite end of the square stood the grand walls of the city's cathedral with a series of steps leading to its lofty entrance. The area was relatively empty, as most of the crowds were concentrated near the marketplace, making it an ideal place for Mercutio to wait for his brother without being disturbed. There was another boy about his age sitting at the edge of the steps, reading a book and looking quite perplexed by its contents. Mercutio had seen him before though they had never spoken; he particularly desire to do so for that matter.
Mercutio drew his wooden sword and swung it at the air a few times. He thought not of the fanciful terms from the book of arithmetic which many seemed to revere, or the redundant rules of "dignified" duels. It seemed much more pleasurable to handle his feared "blade" as he would please. Life was too wrought with laws and decrees as it was.
The soft voice startled him, and Mercutio whipped around to see the boy with the book, holding up the text. His hands were shaking slightly.
"What dost thou want?" Mercutio demanded.
"There is a word here I have not yet learned," the boy answered. "And I need one who would define it."
"Why dost thou ask such things of me?"
The other boy seemed taken aback by Mercutio's tone. After taking a brief glance over his shoulder to assure that there was no one else he could pose his question to, he took a deep breath and continued.
"Mella is busied with other tasks," he said, indicating one of the serving women washing linens by the fountain. "And there is no one else to ask but thee…"
His voice faltered. Having made little progress with words, he stood silently and eyed the ground. To Mercutio's dismay, he showed no sign of leaving.
"Where is the word?" Mercutio sighed, deciding that the quickest way to be rid of this unwanted company was to satisfy the inquiry.
The other boy beamed.
"'Tis here," he said, pointing to his book.
Mercutio bent over to read the text and frowned.
"I know not the term," he said slowly. "Where didst thou find this?"
"In my father's study," the other replied, shrugging. "I misplaced mine own book and need another till I find it… but I know not half the words."
"'Tis a strange book."
"Thou know'st not what 'amorous rites' would be?"
"Nay, as I have told thee."
"Oh… I ought to have asked this before, what is thy name?"
"Mercutio Latini," Mercutio replied, frustrated by yet another question.
"I like thy name," the other child said.
He stared at Mercutio expectantly. Praying that this next exchange would be brief, Mercutio reluctantly conceded to common courtesy.
"What is thine?" he asked.
"Benvolio Montague," Benvolio seemed encouraged to continue after being asked his name. "How old art thou?"
"Near seven," Mercutio answered, petulantly. "Though I see not why 'twould matter to thee."
"I am six. Seven is a fine number too."
"I did not ask thee for thy age."
Mercutio glanced at the fountain to see whether the serving woman called Mella had finished her work at the fountain, hoping that she would take this irritating child away along with his senseless chatter. Unfortunately, this did not seem to be the case.
"Mella said that she shall be a while," Benvolio said, a trace of anxiety rising once more in his voice. "She is always busied with some task, but she said that I may follow her here… and Mother thinks it better that I do not remain within all day long. She says the sunlight shall benefit me… who brought thee here?"
"I came alone," Mercutio said shortly.
"Thou didst?" Benvolio seemed surprised by this response. "Mother forbade that I do so. She thinks it too dangerous."
"Valentine thinks that it is fine for me to do so at this hour."
"Who is Valentine?"
"My elder brother."
"What is he like?"
"Kind, I suppose."
"Ah." Benvolio said with a hint of sadness. "Mella hath told me that I had a brother as well, but he was born asleep and ne'er awoke… she said that I had a sister once too, though I cannot remember her. Now I have a cousin. He is named Romeo and he is too young to play. I attempted to speak with him once, and he spat at me. He does not speak well yet. He knows many more words now, but knows not how to handle them properly…"
Mercutio responded by turning away with a loud humph. This did not, to his dismay, discourage Benvolio who came to sit next to him on the stone steps of the cathedral.
"Dost thou know of any games?" the young Montague inquired, pushing a lock of dark curls out of his eyes.
"Nay," Mercutio replied irritably. "Why dost thou ask?"
"I had thought that perchance we could amuse ourselves with one, but we can discuss instead."
"What must we discuss?"
"I know not."
A period of silence passed between them in which Benvolio smiled nervously at his newfound acquaintance who looked about anxiously for his brother, tapping his foot impatiently against the lower step. To Mercutio's relief, they soon heard the gentle voice of a young woman calling Benvolio's name.
"Mella calls," Benvolio said, rising from the stairs. "I shall speak with thee anon?"
"Perchance," Mercutio sighed.
Benvolio grinned and turned to leave, only to return a moment later.
"Mercutio," his voice shook slightly once more. "May I ask thee one more question?"
"If it is brief," Mercutio said shortly.
"Dost thou think we are now companions?"
"I know not."
"Oh. Well… perhaps thou mayst consider it and tell me of thy decision later?"
"Ah… fare thee well then!"
"Farewell," Mercutio muttered.
With that, Benvolio skipped off after the serving-girl called Mella. Mercutio eyed him, wondering why he had not simply demanded that Benvolio leave earlier. Amongst the ceaseless questions and inane remarks, there was ever a note of diffident apprehension in the other child's words. It seemed cruel to be brusque when one so demure had grown bold enough to speak, but Mercutio knew not why this mattered. What would a few harsh words matter when the boy would only hurry home, perhaps weep to a mother who'd coddle him in return, and rest soundly that night, satiated and content.
Sharp words meant naught to pampered fools.
The smothering noon sunlight did not make the wait for Valentine seem any briefer. Of course, the growing hunger upon having been denied both breakfast and the previous evening's supper did not hasten what felt like hours. By the time his brother arrived, Mercutio was sweltering in his black tunic and particularly ill tempered.
"Where were…" Mercutio began irritably before drawing back upon noticing Valentine's scowl.
"How long hast thou waited here?" Valentine sounded greatly exhausted, as he came to sit by his younger brother.
"An hour, perchance." Mercutio replied.
"I had feared 'twould be longer," Valentine muttered shaking his head. "Still, I do believe 'twas indeed longer… and that it is rather a matter of thou being'st late. Thou didst not sleep after I left thee tonight."
He glanced about to affirm the safety of the conversation before adding softly, "I warrant that thou didst not awaken at an hour acceptable to Father."
"Ay, it was so." Mercutio admitted, eying the steps below him.
Valentine heaved a long sigh, clutching his forehead as though he was suddenly dizzy. After taking a few moments to gather himself, he rose from the stairs and beckoned to Mercutio.
"He shall be away tonight," he said. "Yet, his absence shall not endure long enough to condone imprudence. Come, let us return home 'ere more of the day is lost. Thou hast had thy fill of the sun and open air for this day… or if thou hast not, thou shalt make do with what thou hast been granted."
"Why does it matter if Father shall not be there?" Mercutio protested.
"Because I cannot trust thee to return home at a sensible hour on thy own charge," Valentine replied sharply. "And I do not desire to wander about every alley and path of Verona at the peak of night in search of thee when I will certainly have to cope with one of Mother's fits once more tonight."
"Valentine?" Mercutio asked hesitantly.
"Whatever is it now?" Valentine snapped.
"I do not suppose you have brought any food with you."
Judging by his brother's ill temper, Mercutio doubted that the response would be particularly agreeable. This was not the first occasion during which Valentine had grown cantankerous for seemingly no cause, nor was it the worst among others. These happenings had grown more frequent in the recent months; Mercutio was both dismayed and unnerved by the fact.
"Dost thou take me for a merchant in the marketplace?" Valentine groaned. "For lest it be so, I do not conceive any reason for thy inquiry."
"Pardon me," Mercutio said quietly. "'Twas an inane remark."
A sliver of remorse seemed to soften Valentine's glare, though it did not bring about any consoling words. He clutched his head once more and muttered a few indiscernible curses before continuing on the path home. Mercutio hurried after him, wondering what troublesome business Valentine had embarked upon in the morning. Perhaps it was better that he was not told of it.
Mercutio's father departed in the late evening, granting neither a reason nor a single farewell. The young boy thought little of it, simply locking himself in his bed chamber and busying himself with a book, waiting for Valentine. When the latter arrived, he was pleased to see that Valentine had emerged from his sullen phase, though he still appeared to have a slight headache.
"How fares mother?" Mercutio asked, after he had finished the few morsels of food Valentine had saved from the past two missed meals.
"Living and well enough, though she'd likely tell thee differently," Valentine said, taking another sip from the glass bottle he loathed. "She has been pacified such that I may leave her, and hope that the serving girls can cope with what will follow. Thou need'st not worry thyself o'er it whilst there are greater conundrums to be dealt with."
He titled the bottle to his lips, and upon realizing that it was empty, tossed it to the side.
"Zounds," he groaned, before turning back to Mercutio and frowning upon realizing his failure to censor himself; the younger boy found this quite amusing, but his smile quickly faded as Valentine's gaze grew grim once more.
"Mercutio," he said, sternly. "I have warned thee on numerous occasions against even the slightest misconduct during the upcoming stay in the royal household."
"I shan't be late returning home 'ere the departure," Mercutio recited. "Nor shall I be insolent to Paris, or any other of my superiors, nor shall I attempt to gain aid where only scorn will follow…"
"Thou hast proven thy ability to repeat my counsel by rote," Valentine sighed. "But such does not serve to convince me that a single word bears any weight to thee. Thou art not lacking in wit for one of thy age, but when fearful, thou canst be especially foolish in thy rashness. I can only attempt control, which I shall do, but I do pray thee to not resist my efforts as thou didst on the last occasion."
Mercutio decided it was wiser not to protest. He yawned and nodded, wriggling underneath the blankets.
"Valentine?" he said. "May I ask you a question?"
"Ay," Valentine said shortly.
"What are 'amorous rites'?"
Valentine paused as though debating between answers before finally saying, "We shall discuss this tomorrow. I am far too wearied for an apt explanation. Prithee, sleep."
"Good night," Mercutio mumbled, as his brother left for his own bed.
To Mercutio's dismay, Valentine was still "too exhausted" to explain the enigmatic term from Benvolio's book in the morning.