Credit go to afra_schatz for inspiring me and beta-ing so much of this for me. This fic is dedicated to you, lovely. ♥
i'll bite my thumb at thee
Characters/Pairings: Sean Bean/Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom/Miranda Kerr
Rating: PG-13 (as worksafe as a Shakespeare play, I promise)
Disclaimer: Didn’t happen, just the product of my imagination.
Summary: In the fair city of Verona, two warring families lived: the Montagues and the Capulets. The story of the boy of Montague and the girl of Capulet has been told many, many times. This, however, is not their story. This is the story of their friends; once called Mercutio and Tybalt, they are now named Viggo and Sean.
Warnings: Attempt at period-appropriate language, letter format, lack of explicit sex, major character death right in the beginning.
Notes: Plot from Romeo and Juliet, style and form from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a lot of references to Greek mythology, and inspired by the Hungarian version of the R&J musical. This fic is subtitled: ‘The author is a nerd and it really shows.’
Orlando Montague and Miranda Capulet: http://i.imgur.com/ROoxGwg.jpg
Sean Bean, nephew to Lady Capulet: http://i.imgur.com/gUG6srd.jpg
Viggo Mortensen, friend of Orlando and Dominic Montague, kinsman of the Prince of Verona: http://i.imgur.com/K13xCBl.jpg
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the long branches of hating foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their city’s strife.
The streets of fair Verona were in an uproar. It was but mid-morning, yet the air was filled with the baying for the blood of young Orlando, Lord and Lady Montague’s only son. Rumours abound that he had despoiled beautiful Miranda of the brown eyes, the only daughter of the Capulets. Leading the charge, growling like a guard-hound himself as he unsheathed his sword, was Sean, Lady Capulet’s nephew. Raw steel glinted jewel-bright; merchants shut their doors and mothers brought their children back home, for fear and rage was thick as miasma in the clear air.
There would be blood split on this day, whispered the citizens of the city. The Prince had laid down a decree—any member of the Capulet or Montague families who started a fight would be put to death. Even if they do not kill each other—and that was doubtful—none thought that the Prince would rescind his order. Though the Prince was kind, he had long been at the limits of his patience.
“Draw your sword, Orlando!” Sean cried. “Fight me if you have any honour left in you!”
“I don’t wish to fight you,” Orlando replied frantically, but he was ignored as his friend, Viggo of the Prince’s own household, pushed him aside.
“How rich are your words!” Viggo mocked. “Yet one must ponder: what does a merchant’s son know of honour?”
“Stand aside, friend of Montague,” the epithet turned into an insult of the highest measure from Sean’s tongue. “I have no quarrel with you.”
“Any quarrel you have with a friend of mine is a quarrel you have with me,” spat Viggo in rejoinder. “Do you only seek Orlando as a foe for you know his swordwork cannot match yours? Coward!”
Sean narrowed his eyes, sword slicing through the air. “Stand aside,” he growled.
“I will pierce your heart and carve my name in it, so to take it for my own,” Viggo drawled, and his mad grin was fearsome to see. “I will tear your mouth to pieces, so I will never hear poison spill from your lips again. Come now, Sean. Raise your sword and fight me instead!”
“A scion of the Prince’s house you might be, but you speak like a worm. And I will swallow you whole and spit you out!” Sean roared, taking three steps forward until he was nose-to-nose with Viggo. His voice shook through the air. Beside the two enemies, Orlando stared down at his hands, wondering if he could pry them apart by sheer strength.
“Enough! Enough, please, stop fighting!” he yelled.
Sean turned towards him, and Orlando shivered at the sheer rage he saw in those green eyes. He took a step forward, but Viggo was already darting forward, grabbing Orlando by the wrist, pulling him aside.
“There is no backing down from this,” his friend hissed, and the wild light in his eyes twisted the air in Orlando’s throat. “He means to kill this morn, Orlando; make no mistake of that.”
“I cannot kill him,” Orlando whispered. Was this the consequence of his marriage to Miranda? Was this what he wrought? How could such hatred and such anger be born of love? “He is my love’s cousin, and thus he is my cousin as well.”
“A merchant’s son he is, a King of Cats with claws that will only scratch but not kill,” Viggo said, and Orlando realised, with a sinking heart, that those words were meant as reassurance. Madness, all madness this was. How could they not see the love that he shared with Miranda? How could their hatred not fade immediately?
“Viggo,” he tried to say, but it was too late. Viggo was already pushing away from him, drawing his sword. The rasp of metal on metal was like Death himself sharpening his scythe, and Orlando stumbled back—just in time for relative safety as Viggo and Sean’s swords met.
“If ‘tis a duel with me you seek, Viggo, then ‘tis a duel you will have,” Sean barked.
“Nay, this is no duel! A merchant’s son has no place in duels,” Viggo replied, his sword pressing hard against Sean’s, trying to drive him back. “’Tis but a brawl, Sean, a brawl little better than those had by drunkards in a tavern!”
They flew apart, swords sliding against each other. Orlando watched as their gazes held for a long, breathless moment before both tossed away their swords. Viggo shrugged off his heavy coat, leaving himself dressed only in his white shirt, while Sean only drew his sleeves up to reveal tanned wrists. Out of the corner of his eyes, Orlando noticed the Prince’s entourage, immediately recognising both his and Miranda’s parents. He swallowed past the heavy weight in his throat.
“If you continue fighting, you will be put to death.”
“Aye,” Sean said, and in his rage his polished accent slipped away, revealing the true way he spoke. “Aye, and it will be a sweet death.”
Orlando knew not the meaning of those words, but he did not have the time to ponder them. Viggo and Sean dove at each other again, two palms slapping together. Their eyes were fixed on each other, their teeth bared like lions clashing together in the wide open plains of Africa. Sean pushed forward, and Orlando saw, suddenly, the glint of metal in his hand.
“No!” His body was moving before his mind could understand.
There was a blade underneath his arm. He could feel its chill. He could feel sick heat.
“Move, Montague,” Sean growled. Orlando turned to him, fierce words on the tip of his tongue, but the look in Sean’s eyes silenced him. The sight would haunt him for decades to come: eyes like green glass staring past Orlando, filled with emotions he could never find the words to describe.
“Get away from us, Orlando,” Viggo said. Orlando looked at him, and he withdrew his arm, stumbling away blindly, for all he could see was Sean’s eyes branded at the back of his eyelids and the red, red blood that speckled Viggo’s lips.
“Viggo,” Sean whispered.
“Sean.” Viggo tipped his head, and somehow, the smile on his face was both grotesque and beautiful. “You made me a promise, once.”
“Aye,” Sean said. He took his other hand—the one not wrapped around the knife driven into Viggo’s ribs—and curled it behind Viggo’s neck. “Aye, that I did.”
“Are you keeping it?”
“I won’t be staying like this if I’m not.”
Viggo chuckled. “I don’t think I can stand up any longer,” he said. Though his voice was a quiet whisper, all those on the street heard it. The sight of blood seemed to have killed all other noise.
Orlando glanced upwards to the skies. Strange, he expected to see the carrions circling.
“Alright,” Sean whispered. He laid his head on Viggo’s shoulder, and slowly he brought them both down to their knees, still pressed together. Sean sighed, and he let go of the knife. Viggo’s fingers were stained red by his own blood, and he sank against Sean as he pulled out the blade. He coughed hard, staining Sean’s tunic, but Sean seemed not to notice. His eyes were fixed onto Viggo’s, and he nodded again.
The knife glinted in the light as Viggo raised his arm. No, Orlando thought. No, no, it could not be. He darted forward, but he had only taken a single step before Viggo drove the knife into Sean’s back in front of the crowd’s frozen, horrified eyes. Sean did nothing to stop him. No, he seemed to welcome the blade, exhaling deeply, a heavy breath that seemed to be dragged out of his lungs and ridded his chest of all air.
Viggo pulled the dagger out, and let it drop to the ground.
“Oh dear Lord,” Orlando heard someone whimper, but he could not recognise the voice. He did not even know if it was his own.
“A plague on both your houses,” Viggo whispered. He raised his head, his hand buried into Sean’s hair, and he shouted those words: “A plague on both your houses!”
A cough wrecked his body, and Sean looked up. His hand traced the edge of Viggo’s jaw before he turned his head, glancing at Orlando for the briefest moment before he turned to stare at the Prince and the heads of the houses Montague and Capulet.
But Orlando’s eyes were drawn back to the two in the centre of this circle the crowd had made, as if they were iron and he was a lodestone. Viggo’s hands streaked red on Sean’s cheeks, and he tilted his head. Their breaths ghosted against each other. Sean coughed, shook, but he leaned forward. They kissed with iron in their breaths, drawn into their lungs by each other’s hands.
Orlando did not understand. This had begun in a manner that made him afraid, but still he understood. The hatred between Viggo and Sean was nigh legendary, for it had begun in childhood and followed them as they grew into men. Viggo, friend of Montague; Sean, nephew of Capulet; and all knew the hatred that lay between the two great houses.
But this, this was alien to him. Viggo and Sean were joined in the both perverse way, stabbed by the same knife, their shared blood staining the metal, mixed together until one did not know which drop belonged to one of Capulet’s house, and which belonged to Montague’s friend. They were joined by their lips, and it was so different from the sweet and gentle love he shared with Miranda that he could only stare, uncomprehending.
“Your hatred calls for sacrifice. It calls for blood,” Sean cried. He coughed hard, and it was Viggo’s hand that wiped the blood away. “Look at what your hatred has wrought. Let this blood wash away your hatred.”
“Orlando,” Viggo breathed. “Orlando and Miranda. They love without having to hate. They love without fear.” Sean made a sound against his shoulder, a mangled sob, and Viggo’s hand curled against his shoulder. He was so pale, his skin turned white and thin like paper, and Orlando knew he no longer had the strength to embrace. His heart clenched— even as he was dying, Viggo still attempted to have care of him.
What could Orlando give in return to such devotion? There was no way of stopping their deaths now. How could the meagre efforts Orlando made be enough?
“Let them love, please,” Viggo was obviously forcing the words out. “Let them live.”
“Let this be enough blood for your hatred’s price,” Sean whispered.
They looked at each other again. Sean exhaled, blood bubbling on his lip, and he shifted slightly. Slowly, he placed Viggo on the ground, his hand splaying across the wound on his chest before he lay down beside him. Viggo turned his head, his lips grazing Sean’s forehead. The scene was sweet, and it was grotesque, and Orlando choked back a sob as he watched their eyes close. He tore his gaze from them, turning instead to the crowd—Montagues, Capulets, and the Prince himself—and he saw in their eyes the same horror and incomprehension he felt filling his heart.
None could understand this scene where hatred and love tied so closely together that they refused to be sundered. The hands that pierced each other were the same that tangled together down on top of Viggo’s still chest. Orlando didn’t understand.
He could only hope that Verona herself heard Viggo and Sean’s last plea; that it would be obeyed.
Barely three days had passed since Sean and Viggo’s death; the bodies of the two whose death had so rocked the fair city of Verona were not yet interred to the ground. Orlando had not had felt time’s passing; no, for three days his attention was fully captured by the pile of letters, untouched except for the black ribbon tied over them to keep them together, that laid now in front of him on the table of his sitting room. Reaching out a hand, Orlando’s fingertips brushed the top of the pile, then the bottom, before he drew himself back and heaved a deep sigh.
There was a knock on the door. Orlando did not raise his head, merely his voice: “No one is allowed to come in but for my wife!”
“Then you have given me permission,” sweet, dulcet tones answered. Orlando stood immediately, and as Miranda stepped into the room, he took her immediately into his arms, pressing a kiss on her lips.
“I thought your parents will keep you away from me forever,” he said, heart lightening at the sight of her.
“They would have me hidden in my rooms until they finished negotiating my dowry with the Lady Montague,” Miranda said, and her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “But Orlando, you have forgotten: you have scaled my balcony so many times. How can I have not learned to use that same trick?”
Orlando laughed. Day by day he learned more of his love, and with each piece of knowledge she gifted him he felt his passion deepen. His fingertips brushed her cheek, and he noticed for the first time the shadows beneath her eyes. “What troubles you?” he asked.
“You have a sharp eye, Orlando; ‘tis true,” Miranda sighed. “I am afraid I come here to relieve myself of a sin I have done.”
“You can commit no sin in my eyes,” Orlando declared, yet his love did not smile.
“’Twas not for your sake that I first left my rooms,” she said. She pulled away from him, walking towards the settee and sitting down heavily. “I went to my cousin’s.” She lifted her eyes, and they were troubled. “’Tis a sin, is it not, to desecrate the belongings of the dead? I searched for his journal, for I know he kept one.”
Orlando’s heart swelled with love. He fell to his knees in front of Miranda, taking her white, small hands and pressing rapid kisses on the knuckles. “Oh, Miranda,” he breathed, barely able to keep himself from chuckle. “I am just as guilty as you are.” He turned, eyes falling, as they had for the past three days, on the pile of letters on the wooden table. “These letters are not mine. They belong to my friend. I know, that as the Prince’s kinsman, his letters now belong to the prince, but…”
“You are as curious as I am!” cried Miranda. “I wish to know… I need to know so badly…” She bit her lip, turning away.
“I thought for three days but I have found no answer,” Orlando said.
Viggo and Sean’s names hovered in the air, thick as miasma yet remaining unsaid, and Orlando knew not why. Surely their names were familiar things, easy on the tongue. Yet Orlando could no longer conjure Viggo’s smiling face. He thought only of the harshness of Viggo’s last plea, the blood that soaked his shirt and coloured his teeth a sickening red. He shook his head hard, but the images had been carved to the back of his eyelids, refusing to be dislodged.
“Perhaps the Prince and the Lady Capulet will wish to know as well,” Orlando asked, and he knew not if the question was for Miranda or himself. “We should, should we not, attempt to find out what we can?”
“There was only ash and blackened leather in the grate,” Miranda said, her voice pulling Orlando back to the present, away from cold ghosts to the warmth of her skin. “There is no sign of Sean’s journal. Even his quills were burnt.”
Had Sean known he would die that day, while the sun was high in the skies and the air was sweet with the scent of spring? Orlando took a breath, and though he knew the metal on his tongue was but pure imagination, he shuddered. Miranda looked at him, and her small hands cupped his face as she pressed a soft kiss on his forehead.
Then he reached out and pulled the ribbon’s knot free. His touch upon the last letter of the pile was reverent. Like a ritual he opened the envelope (it was without a seal, and Orlando felt his guilt lift from him a little— for surely Viggo wished for these letters to be read if he did not seal them?) and drew out the thick, heavy paper. Viggo’s writing was clear and dark upon bleached white, and Orlando stood, unfolding the letter and placing it on the table.
He glanced at Miranda, nodding without knowing why, and their eyes turned to read.
There, it has been done.
I have burnt the last of my letters to you, my friend, and watched with satisfaction as black words on paper turned to ash. Yet no longer had I tossed the last letter into the fire had I found myself at my desk once more, quill at ready with words dedicated to you. It is a difficult habit to break, writing to you; indeed it is a chore I find myself having no passion for. No, you exist in my mind, the eternal recipient of my letters. I write to you as how a child speaks to a friend whom only he can see. For you do not exist; you are Orlando, yet you are not, for you are the Orlando of my mind, far wiser and dispassionate than his real counterpart.
Forgive this beginning. I seem to have become maudlin now that my thirtieth birthday has passed me by. Great men have accomplished much by this age, yet I remain only Viggo, known only by his relation to Verona's Prince. What has been left for men for these latter-day times to accomplish? I do not know the answer. I know what you will say if you are here before me: love, great love, one that consumes the soul and lets there be meaning to life found in the sparkling, bright eyes of a sweet maiden. Ah, but I have met no such great passion, and I believe love is your domain, not mine.
Spring has come upon us. I stride out of the Prince's estate (never mine, perhaps one might say only not yet but I cannot believe them) and is met with the scents of new flowers in bloom. I shall bring you here this evening so you might rejoice in the splendour of the colours of flowers both wild and garden-kept as they are lit by the sunset. Surely you cannot deny that such a beauty exceeds your beloved Cate's? She is hoarfrosted, my friend, if only to your affections.
This morn my feet had taken me to the gardens, and I realised a cruel reality of the world: that there are no gardens without worms. (At last! I reach the motive of this letter.) The creatures of the Capulet have crept out of hiding as well, and their garish looks always do ruin the beauty of nature. They were led by the merchant’s son. Sean, I was told repeatedly his name was, yet I could only look at him and see a man unfairly raised by his aunt’s marriage to old Capulet to an aristocratic class. Did it not show how unworthy the Capulets were, that they had allowed themselves to mingle with those who were surely lower than they were?
I must break here for an interlude: I hold no ill will towards merchants or peasants. Indeed, the hard work of those who labour such that all of us might consume their efforts are well-appreciated in my heart. Perhaps I look for all excuses for my distaste towards Sean; after such long years, the reason that came most strongly to mind—that his features were simply unpleasing to my eyes—seems fragile and empty. I have grown far too used to hate, my friend, and too often have I wished that I am like you; you who is the sole son of the Montague house but who looked upon the Capulets with kind eyes unless provoked. Ah, I might disparage and tease you for your great passion and innocence, Orlando, but I hope to the bottom of my heart that you will not lose either.
I fought the merchant’s son, of course. Now I see your brows crease into a frown, but you might be gladdened to hear that it was not I who first sought battle: it was Sean. One of the servants of Montagues began the battle with words, his tongue blunt and harsh and honest. Capulets like little the bitter taste of honesty, and Sean’s temper flared immediately, drawing his blade with fierce words about the carrying of coals. (Such a ridiculous turn of phrase for one such as he! He should have found his calling as a constable -- elegant phrases suit him as well as them.) When a Capulet blade shone bright in the sun, how can my blade remain sheathed? I will not be defenceless against any attack.
Strange, Orlando, strange it was that Sean is a merchant’s son, yet his skill with the sword was greater than any else I knew. If Verona was ever at war, perhaps he would make a good soldier. Not a commander for he was too intemperate a man for strategy, with his habit of announcing his every attack with a yell. The King of Cats he truly is! The scions of Capulet are all dark-haired, yet his is gold. A sign of his true class, surely; do merchants not love gold beyond all else? Like a tomcat in heat he yowls with every thrust of his sword. How the Capulets can stand his presence at the dining table, I do not know. Nero’s horse was allowed, but surely it was better behaved?
The Prince’s guards broke up the fight quickly, of course, and the Capulets retreated from the scene with their tails between their legs. I returned your family’s servants back to your estate, my friend, and when I returned I received yet another sermon. How easily our good Prince smother the flames of passion with an irritated gaze and but a few words! I do not care to repeat them. I daresay, however, that those are effective words: indeed, I do regret my actions. Am I not a man? I am no cat to so easily answer the King’s call. My disdain of the merchant’s son will only be justified if I act my station and practice restraint. I am determined: no longer will I taunt or fight Sean. I swear now I will not. Let ink and paper be my witness.
Now I must stop my pen. The Prince calls for me, and after I will meet you; you who walks, Orlando; you who are real and breathing, not you who exist only on this page and in my mind.
The letter I wrote the day previous haunts me still. I did not lie about my encounter with the Capulets yesterday morn, yet what my words spoke but a fraction of the truth. Is not the withholding of truth a form of dishonesty? The good philosopher Kant implied in his teachings that a lie told for the sake of saving a life is an evil deed; do you think it true? O my dear friend, I hope fervently you will forgive me. Surely you already know that I have kept truths from you? Even if you did not, my own mind has been wrought into an instrument of punishment: yesterday’s events refuse to leave my mind. It is a worm, creeping into the tree of myself, eating the leaves of my thoughts until I am aware of nothing but its bite and its teeth.
I cannot keep my vow! It has been barely a day since I made it, but I cannot! My blood sings, Orlando, when I face Sean in battle. My heart beat like a drum in my chest. Surely you understand, you who are passion’s slave. There is no time when I feel more alive than when my blade meets Sean’s, when our teeth are bared at each other like lions. I am a cat indeed, not worth the title of a man at all! A day has passed and I have only spoken so briefly of our encounter, yet I can still feel my breath quicken at the memory of our swords meeting, steel meeting steel, hoping to bite.
Can a man love the hatred he feels in his heart? Will he ever be forgiven for seeking such a cold vice? Were that we were born in the times of knights! Our brawls would be battles then, sanctified by red and white roses on our lapels. Surely the joy Achilles finds in battle will find its mate in my heart when I raise my sword? Surely the great warriors of old would understand. If only I have a chance to speak to them!
Alas, I am no great warrior. Not even in Homer have I found words enough to express this wrenching desire that threatens to tear my being into two. Ah, Orlando, you are lucky indeed: language forms itself sweetly to shape your love, and yet it shies away like a bashful maid for talk of hate and brawls and fights. There is no glory in the clash of Sean’s sword with mine; I fight him not for the sake of country, not even for the sake of names. We are two branches of rival trees, and though I will not sunder myself from your friendship, with but a few words I can absolve myself from the poisonous thirst for blood that so ruled your house and Capulet’s. Yet I seek it. More unforgiveable still: I rejoice in it. No longer can I envision a spring where Capulet rats do not roam, and when my sword will not be raised to try to cut them down.
O Orlando, many a times you have spoken to me of the great passions of love, of the light the mere sight of beautiful Cate could bring to your eyes. Will you not admit that there is passion in hate as well? A vicious, cruel passion, aching not for the soft touch of skin but in the heated burst of blood; yet it is passion, nonetheless, passion that might drive a man mad. Surely I am a fool to seek battle thus. Between Sean and me, I am of higher birth, but my blood is as red and runs as hot. Our swords care nothing for the rights of birth. A blade can cut through a peasant, or a maiden, just as easily as it can cut through a kinsman of a Prince.
I must be mad. There is no other explanation. In this dark moment, I find myself hoping that this rivalry will never end; that I will always be able to be Montague’s friend, able to hate Capulets and do battle with its King of Cats without need for any explanation. My fingers shake and my words have become a scrawl upon this page. You speak often of the madness of love, my friend, but I say instead, in words you will never have a chance to hear: this is true madness.
Verona’s beaches are beautiful, Orlando. Its sands are in a shade of gold untainted by any thoughts of riches or greed. If Midas has seen them, I am certain he will reject Dionysius’s offer for the golden touch that so ruined him.
I have kept myself from my quill and inks for days. I had hoped that if I do not grasp so hopelessly for words, what I seek to capture will dissipate like mist, never again to perturb my mind. Foolish of me to try to busy myself with tasks and errands; it is nature herself, in her full unadorned glory, that now chases all thoughts of darkness and hatred from my mind.
I will buy a new piece of art; this I have decided. It will hang in my sitting room, and of all those who enter, only those who can formulate intelligent comments about the piece will be allowed to stay. Perhaps it is a fortunate state of affairs that you have been captured by Cate, my dear friend, or else I will have to turn you out from my company. Nay, I jest. Nothing will ever cause me to turn sweet Orlando from me; after all, what will you do if you do not have me as listening ear to your passionate speeches?
O but I have begun so badly! I am tempted to tear this letter and begin anew, yet I dare not for I know that if I stop my quill, I will not be able to pick it up again. Let me begin from this day’s beginning. After breakfast I received a letter from our mutual acquaintance, Signor W—. (He will call himself my friend, and I will do the same to him. Yet I call him ‘acquaintance’ here in these letters I will not send, for inadvertently I feel resentment towards him. Signor W— is in an admirable position, situated between two rival families with deep ties to both, yet he aligned himself to neither and watched conflicts with a dispassionate eyes. Many a times my kinsman had insinuated that I should learn from his wisdom, but his disposition is a strange thing to me. How can he swear friendship without feeling the same animosity as those whom he swears he loves?) Signor W— is hosting an exhibition of new arts from new and untested artists from Verona, and he wishes for my presence for he knows my eye for such things. I agreed; there was little but errands that awaited me today.
New artists are often said to be innocent and sweet, for their visions are unspoiled by the endless squabbles occurring within the domains of art appreciation. Signor W—’s handpicked choices are quite unfortunately lacking in that regard. They were but regurgitations of common sensibilities; as if they were all drawn by the same hand who sat himself in front of the great works of our days and days past and sought to copy them and yet captured none of their genius. They were all quite disappointing; all but one. It is this piece that I will now attempt to describe.
The subject is familiar; trite, perhaps. Verona’s golden beaches crowned by its sapphire seas with its tall, proud lighthouse in the distance are what the artist sought to capture. Yet it is no landscape, no mere attempt to render the splendour of nature in paint. No, the piece was most unnatural: the colours are stark and bright, the lines blurred and uneven. It does not soothe; it provokes. It pulls at my eyes until I see naught else but it. How can I explain the effect a mere piece of art has to you, Orlando, you who recognise beauty only when it takes the form of the fair sex, or in words? Words fail me even now as I looked at the piece captured within my own flawed memory. If you can only see it the way I do, my friend! It seems the artist has taken his seat behind my very eyes and looked upon that very beach. Nature’s wildness has been drawn to the surface by paints in the fashion I can only hope to accomplish.
I stood there staring for a long time. I know not how many minutes past; my head is too empty to note my own heartbeat. It is only a familiar, unwelcomed voice that interrupted my stupor.
“What ho! So the famed friend of Montague has come to pretend knowledge of the arts?”
It is of course the King of Cats, he who has found his way somehow out of the forest into civilisation without remembering his manners. My wits have deserted me in the sight of great beauty, because I found no quick reply on my tongue when he continued: “What an ugly piece you have set your eyes on. Fitting; for it is as ugly as you are!”
“Ugly!” I cried. “Why, you have betrayed your own lack of culture, unfair relative of Capulet! Can you not see the soul of art itself that shines through every brush stroke, every colour chosen? Nature herself would weep at the sight of this piece, for the artist has accomplished a rare thing indeed: he has captured her true likeness, without subduing it!”
My passion has taken the merchant’s son by surprise, and he gapes at me with an open mouth. I am triumphant indeed! Viciousness comes easily to a cat’s rough tongue; now I know how easily it is to silence the creature. Sean retreated from his presence, but my peace has been broken and I will not look at beauty while rage reigned in my heart. I left the exhibition, and by foot I travelled to the very scene the artist has netted so brilliantly. Nature has not changed the face she shows here—the beaches are still as tame as before—but I felt joy as never before, for I know now—I know!—that I am not the only one who seeks so desperately for the licking fire that hides within the edges of peaceful gold.
I must go now. I must own it. I do not care how much it will cost me. Even if Signor W— asks for a dragon’s hoard of coins, I will pauper myself to give it. O, I do hope no one has stolen it from my grasp—
If there are any gods left to grant wishes, I will ask— yes, I will ask! There is naught I wish for than for the ability to know if a piece of knowledge I seek will be to my advantage, or my ruin. O, Orlando, I fear I am destroyed. My heart is in turmoil, and all the peace I have written of but hours before is now lost to me. My friend, I wish more than ever that you are more than paper. I wish I can truly speak to you of this, but I cannot— I cannot! How can I speak to you of this when my own heart seems lost to me? No, I must not. I must confine myself to this paper.
Let me attempt to recreate the scene.
I returned to the Signor W—’s house and bought the art piece that moved me so, and when I received it, wrapped lovingly by his servants’ hands, I begged the good man to tell me of the artist’s name. I cannot live without the knowledge of a man whose work had touched my heart so, I told him. He was reluctant, but I pestered, and eventually I wore him down and he did. Oh, if only I had been wise and left him be! I will be haunted by the mystery, yes, but that is a better fate than this punishment for my curiosity than this punishment I have brought unto myself!
Even now my hands tremble at the revelation. The artist, the man whom I praised so highly and even now I cannot stop the compliments from issuing from my lips or fingers—the artist is the King of Cats himself! The merchant’s son! The most unworthy creature amongst all Capulets, if not all Verona itself or even the world! It was in his heart’s work that I saw my own beating, and I—
Oh, Orlando, I wished nothing more than to toss away the piece Signor W—‘s servants have wrapped so lovingly. Yet I found my fingers tightening on the edge of the frame. I do not remember the walk home. My mind was in turmoil, my heart cried out in pain—even now as I sit behind this desk, the sun long set and the candle burned down to almost a nib, I can find no true calm within myself. I had hoped, so hoped, that recalling the day’s events will bring me some clarity. Surely I was taken in by illusions? Surely I was most unjustly fooled? A man such as Sean, a man made for hatred, could not create such beauty!
These words pour from my own hand, but I stare at them, uncomprehending. I cannot deny that my deepest emotions have been roused by the mere sight of the painting. I know I must, for the sake of my own sanity if nothing else, but I cannot! There is no will within myself that will allow for it. I found my feet and hands conspiring against me: the painting now hangs in my sitting room. I placed it there myself. O my dear friend, surely you must think that I am a fool. You must, for I am foolish even to my own eyes! As I look upon the piece I still see my own heart even though I know the hands that have created it are unworthy hands, hated hands.
Is this a Capulet’s idea of a jest? Is this a trick? The merchant’s son has spoken so disparaging of his own work—if it is his work at all. No, it must be; Signor W— is neither a cruel man nor is he a liar. Could the King of Cats have found a simple man, a true artist, and bade him to create artworks in his name? These are ridiculous notions. I am the jester, not he. And yet… yet… O, my mind chases its own tail and ties itself up into a Gordian’s knot!
Events I have laid bare on ink and paper, but I have found no clarity. My mind struggles against all that my heart feels. I have become Verona herself, with my mind as Montague and my heart Capulet, and all of my being cries out in agony at this conflict.
I will find no rest tonight.
Have you ever seen the bright stars and the full moon on the witching hour? It is now night and the city is silent but for the soft breaths of sleeping creatures. Now is the time when all who lived on this Earth are joined in sleep. There are animals that prowl the night, of course, but even they are lit up by the stars and moon no matter how much they try to hide within the shadows. I wish I am one of them. The fierce owl riding the clouds will never be accused of having a heavy heart; and the quiet dormouse, creeping out of its lair under the cover of night, has no great worries to perturb her. Their home is nature’s own bosom and their food they catch themselves. Civilisation has done great harm to man: surely there was a time when humans have simple lives as these animals that I admire so.
Often I have wished to be amongst the stars. O Orlando, I know you will disagree, for it is within people that you find your joy. Though I enjoy the company of friends, I find tonight that friendship might become a double-edged knife at any moment, and I struggle now to avoid the blade that is aimed at my heart. How I wish to be amongst the stars now! They are cold and lonely above, never one touching another, and yet is not such loneliness also an escape from pain? If one does not ever allow any other to enter their heart, the borders of that fragile thing would never become like glass, smashed to pieces at a single touch.
I have always loved silver; that you know well. You have named it a dull colour, but within this soft metal is captured the light of the stars and the moon. These celestial bodies I love, yet like Icarus, I am drawn inexorably towards the sun; but unlike the great son of Daedalus, I fear that my wings will melt, and I will fall to my doom. Fall! o fall! How my own words now betray me now! Indeed, my dear friend, I have fallen. O Orlando, will you ever forgive me? I write now on this paper knowing you can never reply; you will never see these words. Yet let me cling onto the hopes that I might have your forgiveness, as foolish as it might be.
My dear friend, I know I must tell you what has happened today. Only when I form words around an event is it made real and true instead of something akin to a dream. Yet I am afraid, unbearably so—I am made a coward, for I do not wish for today to be real. O Dionysius, cruel god of wine and joy, will you not grant me the ability to erase any day from existence, or even from my memory? I wish to forget today. I wish to forget this turmoil that surges within me until I am left incoherent, language my dearest friend escaping from my grasp. I need to forget, but I cannot. Even now the memory creeps inside me, twists like thorny veins around the glass hidden in the depths of my chest. If I attempt to rip it out of myself, I fear that I will be left scarred, bleeding from the insides with wounds formed by thorns and shards.
Calm, self! I must be calm. Let me tell of today. I met the merchant’s son (o how difficult this epithet is to write now!) in the streets. We were alone, and for the first time in our enmity I was mute and left utterly at a loss of words. I looked upon him, and, oh, if only I am able to see nothing but the man I have hated for so long!
Sean scorned my silence, “Has the ever-loquacious friend of Montague lost his tongue? Surely crows mourn now that one of their numbers had been lost.” At the moment, I nearly thanked him for his harsh insults (it is indeed peculiar, the manner Sean spoke of my friendship with you, as if I am debased by it) for hatred was a poisonous creature, yet it was far less treacherous than confusion.
“Ho, King of Cats!” I cried in reply. “None will name you dumb if you do not speak! Nay, you will be marked wiser, for your words prove naught by your absurdity!”
“Absurd, you say?” Sean threw the words as if they were a fiery shaft meant to pierce my heart. His eyes were cat-golden, lightning bottled in his eyes. “No more absurd than a man who bought a painting made by a Capulet’s hand at one moment and throw insults at him the next!”
“Surely sweet Muse herself cannot escape the calumnious strokes of a grasping man?” I returned, my own words filled with the vicious dew of calamitous youth. “Her mercy allows an unworthy artist to behold her for even a night!”
“Rich words, friend of Montague, for one whose black brow’d nights have never been so touched!” snorted Sean, baring his teeth like a bear. “Why, ever are your words coarse!”
“A merchant’s son lecturing me on the coarseness of language?” I crowed, incredulous. “This must be the day where opposites rule indeed! Are the cats’ King’s lips unlike the sandpaper tongues of his subjects?”
Suddenly, Sean stilled. He stood there silent, his eyes boring into my own. I admit freely that I was disconcerted, for rarely have we ever simply looked at each other. When he moved, he did so with such speed that I yelped and did nothing as he pulled me to an alleyway near the street. (I am right in naming him the King of Cats for many more reasons than I knew when I dubbed him so; did not cheetahs and lionesses leap from stillness to great speed?)
His eyes bored into mine. My lungs refused to breathe, and at the moment, I believe we would burst into battle, this far away from other eyes. The Prince’s guards would take long moments before they found us, and my heart pounded heart at the mere thought of battle. At last! a chance that I might erase all thoughts and leave my mind to the mercies of my body! I parted my lips to speak, a cutting remark on my tongue to goad Sean into drawing his sword (I have forsaken my vow, but I have not forgotten it), but his tongue was quicker than mine.
“Do you only see me as a merchant’s son?”
My dear friend, my mind gropes desperately for the words to describe the sound of Sean’s voice, but even now I am left with emptiness. Not once have I heard him speak like this, and though I knew the small tremble I hear was worthy of mockery, I found myself only gasping. Cold fingers dug me and closed around my heart, and I felt like a butterfly, fluttering weakly beneath the pin of his gaze.
“You are also the King of Cats,” I answered. Now, my friend, I will write all I can about all that happens next without allowing thought to interfere. This is the only way I am able to do so, I fear, and I know I must write. Yet if I think, I will only drive myself into circles again.
Sean grabbed me by the shoulders and I struggled against him, another insult at my lips. “You have a silver tongue, but I wonder if you have ever been honest,” he growled at me and pressed me hard against the brick wall. Cold stone stole into my clothes and curled around my spine. I would have fought back, I wished to do naught else, yet Sean surprised me once more and he placed his lips to mine— nay, nay I cannot say he ‘placed’ them. He crushed our lips together and my teeth rocked from the contact.
I wished to bite. O but if I did!— yet my body betrayed me! It betrays me still! I found my lips parting; I found my hand cupping his neck, drawing him close. I felt his heartbeat beating alongside mine, a staccato beat that formed a violent melody. Can music soothe and arouse at once? Can such a thing as this be considered music? Sheep guts can draw out the soul of man from its confines, but what name could give for one heart’s attempt to escape the cage of ribs to seat itself beside another?
I am a fool; or perhaps I am not. Am I made a jester by fate, or by Sean? At the moment with my body against his, I expected contempt. Yes, even now I turn my head to the door and expect to see him there, leaning indolently against the door with an insult ready on his lips. Is that foolishness? I should know best, should I not, for am I not the jester of the Prince’s court? The image of Sean at my door fills my heart with hope. Even if I receive nothing but disdain from him, even if I return nothing but the same, I will wish to see him.
No, Orlando, I will not shy away from telling you what happens next between us. We rutted like animals against each other within the alley where any and all could have found us white-handed. He yowls like a tomcat in heat in anger, I have once said, but now I know that in arousal the noises he makes are far more delightful. Little gasps he made, heated breath against my lips, and I fear I have been ruined forever. Surely Sean has deliberately coloured his every exhale with ink and as I drew breath from his lips I found the sound scrawling across the insides of my lungs and into his mind. As much as I try to feel shame for this, I cannot help but admit that I have found a new home there—right there, in the filthy alley between the wall and Sean’s body.
O my friend, you have spoken me so often of love but why have you not ever warned me it can crush one like this? There is no sense in all that we have done, none whatsoever, and my hands shake even now. How can my heart betray my mind so? Even my love for the sound of clashing swords has not troubled me like this. I can already hear your voice now, my friend—‘Is love not the greatest of all things? What does hate and rivalries matter? Even Nemesis herself took interest in the fate of lovers!’ Ah, Orlando, if only fate has made me more like you. If it has made me for sweet and tender love instead of rage and battle, if my tongue is more used to speaking gentle passions rather than hate, if my hands curl more naturally around a lover’s body than a sword, I swear my mind will not attempt to bite its own tail now. Yet I am not. How can one day unmake a person and force them to dislike all that they have become! Will you ever understand this, my friend? I am no criminal, and I have committed no crime, but I find myself wishing that I am somebody else. I find myself regretting for but a moment my friendship with you. Ah, I am in the cruellest of binds! I cannot imagine sundering myself from you, or even from Dominic. Your friendships have been a harbour in the storms of my life for far too long. No, I will not linger any longer on what cannot be. Let me continue the tale to its inglorious ending.
Our last touches were gifted to our own breeches, and like a coward I fled the scene, but passion has brought cowardice into Sean’s heart as well, for I saw the quickness of his steps as he left towards the Capulet house. I did not return to my own quarters for a time; indeed, I write to you right here atop the tallest tree in Verona’s great gardens, with new-bought quill, ink and paper. I cannot return home; within my rooms lie all that defines me. The painting still sits in my sitting room. Should I remove it? Will pulling out the nail I have hammered into the wall with my hands eradicate this strange, inexplicable emotion I now feel towards Sean?
I must try it. Like ink Sean’s breath has spread within me, but surely it is only ink, and can be removed by water or blotting paper.
I have now returned to my rooms. I cannot escape it any longer. Forgive my terrible penmanship; I write not in my study or sitting room, but on my bed. Here is the great window that opens out towards the Prince’s gardens. Surely it is amongst these gently-tamed trees and well-kept blossoms that I belong. I am high-born, kinsman to a Prince, and like these hothouse flowers I will one day inherit I am naught but a man spoiled by all that he has been given in life. What affinity do I have with wild things? Even my swordplay seems made for dance and performance than for battle.
My heart is a foolish creature, and it has led me down paths that I should have never treaded for those footprints are ill-made for my feet. In the light of the day I find my eyes shying from the sun. I am no Icarus, no great hero of the old whose might in battle and whose affairs of love are writ in poetry and remembered for generations. I am but a man of Verona, aged and withered and unfit for such dreams and fancies.
Two days ago was the poisson d’avril, the first of April, the day of fools. Though my letters to you have carried the time, I had not noticed its passing. The Prince this morn told me over breakfast about the pranks pulled by the Capulet house (and your house as well, as you surely know) upon their servants, sending them on ridiculous errands. It was a small conversation, and I do not believe the Prince knows the boon he has given me. My eyes have been opened by his words.
Do you recall Chaucer’s tale, of the vain cock tricked by the sly fox? Ah, daylight is a blessing, for now I know I have been made into Chaunteleer with wool pulled over my eyes. The King of Cats has been misnamed; his trick was belated by a day, but now I see his bushy red tail. He has made me into a jest; surely in Capulet’s house he now crows over his victory over me. I have fallen into the trap as surely as any blind fool whose eyes are fixed upon the skies instead of the ground. Have I not already known the heat of his lips? Many a times we have kissed in taunt, and aye, I have always been the instigator of such mockery; after all, is there any greater mockery of another than in pretending intimacy? Now he used my scam on me, and like a fool I have always been accused of being, I was taken in by it.
Surely there is no greater fool in Verona than Viggo, kinsman of the Prince! How could I have ever believed he will ever feel the touch of softer emotions towards a man he has always derided as a friend of Montague? No, this was naught but a jest indeed; I know that full well now. A fool of April I have been made, little better than the men of old who clung to an outdated calendar after the Julian was made official. Long have I clung to mythologies and legends, venerating the great heroes of olden days for their valour and courage! Such things are ill-suited to this age, are they not? Our spirits as modern men are far more suited to well-kept gardens than wild forests; neat beaches with tame sky-like seas rather than the harsh crashes of waves in storms.
Farewell, nature, sweet and intemperate mistress! Only cities will have any hold upon my soul now. I have clung onto naïve dreams for too long. My heart I shall now sunder from myself. The Prince has long told me I must look upon policies and learn the ways of law; long have I thought his words to be mere nagging, but now I know it to be grand and true advice. Ah, Verona’s courts are my true home, and I have neglected them for far too long in my imprudence.
I will not remove the painting from my sitting room. It serves well as a reminder that I should not trust my heart’s speaking.
- “Calumnious strokes of a grasping man” and “vicious dew of calamitous youth” are both bastardised from Hamlet Act 1 Sc 3.
- “Black brow’d night” stolen from Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Sc 2.