Herlikin Trouillefou watched her husband perform from the cover of the large oak whose branches fanned out wide and dipped down low, enveloping in her a green darkness, hiding her features from those out in the glaring sunlight beyond. Her fingers twisted the leather cords in her hand, binding them into a pattern she knew well enough to not have to look as it formed, she was perched on the cool, rough stone of a fountain, chewing idly on a mint leaf, sneering at the parisians who glared at her chosen seat of rest. Her skirts had hiked up to reveal strong calves, and she swung them back forth and grinned at her husband's cavorting from his puppet cart, involved right now in a heated arguement with Puppet, or Papuszo, an arguement which ended abruptly when the small figure of cloth and wood leapt forward and clutched Clopin's long, romanic nose between its small hands. The children who watched jumped up and down delightedly, clapping their hands and laughing. Herlikin laughed too at the sight. Despite the fact that a gaje had refused to sell her a bushel of onions, that there were dirty dishes awaiting her at home and several gaje women in starched aprons with dirty necked children clinging to their hands glanced askance at her and her naked calves and shoulders, Herli could never feel sour for long when watching Clopin. Though she'd die then let him know (hence the shade of the tree) few things gave her greater pleasure. Now, Clopin had ducked down low beneath the stage and Puppet had slung a small bundle over his shoulder, announcing he was running away from his cruel tormentor. An abrupt whisper of canvas and the scenery changed to the countryside of France and Puppet began what was undoubtedly to be his long journey. Herli shook her head and tucked the leather cords away into her posoti, rubbing the two stolen onions as she did so. If she was going to head home, now was the time to do it. It could not be guaranteed Clopin would not notice her if his head was above the stage, and she could not bear the teasings she would get when he came home. "You adore me from afar then, kitten? I saw you watch with stars in those pretty glass eyes!"
A carriage rumbled into the town square, and she eyed it with interest as she hopped to her feet, heels bouncing hard against the cobblestones and her dusty skirts falling to her ankles once more. It was certainly a beautiful piece of work, headed by two gleaming black horses with impossibly strong torsos and immaculately decked out coachmen. A shining coat of arms adorned the door, from that distance she could just make out a deep wine red and a dusky blue. There was a pattern on it in white but she could not quite see what it was. She was reluctant to squint, and wrinkle her face (she would swear those two men outside the tavern had been admiring her for some time now) so her curiosity would have to go unsatisfied.
 At that second Clopin reappeared again, taking back Prodigal Puppet who had faced the much afeared loup-garou (who the children knew was Clopin in disguise) in terror and had decided to return to his kind benefactor. Herli sighed again and pushed a hand up and through her hair. Perhaps she could cross through the park. Or perhaps....the thought hit her with a rush of blood and she could feel a cat's smile curve her features...she could slip inside the cart and kneel in front of her husband....see how consummate a performer he really was.
The carriage had stopped several feet in front of Clopin's cart, clearly arranged so that whoever was inside it could watch her husband. She couldn't resist a tug of pride at that. The nobility might shun them, but they could not resist his talent. Clopin's story came to a halt and the children clapped eagerly, and several ran forward with whatever small coinage their little persons carried to slip it into the box attached beneath the cart's window. He and Puppet thanked them enthusiastically, Puppet bowing again and again, bending on over himself in a ridiculous fashion, then the soft red curtains slid shut. Herli prepared to dart across the square before they could open for the next show, but was startled back to the shade again when Clopin burst out the door of his cart to immediately address the surrounding parisians before heading full pelt into a jaunty song.'He's seen that lovely fancy carriage.' she thought with a smug grin. 'He's aiming for a little extra today.' She folded her arms and, feeling safe under the tree, watched her husband with open lasciviousness.
Usually, when pandering to the nobility, Clopin performed a rather generous mix of the childish and the lewd, the two quite often the same. Not today. A few highly eloquent witicisms, several love songs - some tender, some satirical. And not once did he "trip" over his long shoes or perform any other kind of slapstick; his body movement at all times was graceful and fluid. 'He's performing for a lady' she realised with an expression close to grimace, touched with amusement. Oh she knew it was an act calculated for a generous reimbursement from the faceless woman within the carriage but still - a year ago and his flirting bothered her not the slightest, nowadays it was somewhat - irksome. Clopin swooped down low into an elegant bow, hat swept from his head, and the surrounding audience clapped admiringly. Now, it was time to pass the hat around. Never look as though you need it, Clopin had often counselled her. Make it look as though its a treat for THEM to give you their hard earned wages. And he did, with a nonchalant smile that said "if you please".  His hat filled quickly as the gaje came forward with faces that wanted to smile, but were reluctant to for a gypsy. Finally Clopin turned with a flourish to the carriage window, and his most charming grin, his eyes flashing beneath the tight magenta mask that crowned his face.
"And you, madame - " he said winningly, a voice, an attitude that had not failed on a lady yet. "Would you honour me with a contribution?"
Herli thought she heard a slight sniff from inside the carriage. "And what is the contribution in aid of?" the voice was educated, rich, dry - and cold.
Clopin laughed, white teeth gleaming, his eyes never once leaving the woman within the carriage. "It is to keep me in the health which has kept you in thrall."
There was the rustle of rich fabric from within the carriage and a rather brittle laugh. "Then you have severely over estimated my interest. In future you will perhaps have the foresight to collect your monies before donating your talents. It would also serve you to remember your place, gypsy, and learn not to address your betters with quite so much presumption."
Clopin straightened, his belled yellow cowl sliding smoothly over his shoulders, his smile frozen in place. "One wonders then why one's betters respond to such presumption with so much tolerance."
The words the madame threw from the window had the same quality as small stones pattering against glass. "Corresponding with gutter life is always amusing, at the very least." Herli's hackles were up. The perfect snobbery of the voice, the haughty self-righteousness the words were uttered with - at *her* husband no less - she wanted for nothing more than to march up to the carriage and toss the woman's doubtlessly very fine velvet hat in her face. But she kept her place, clenching her fists hard in her skirts. Clopin would not appreciate any attempts on her part to fight his battles for him.
Clopin's jaw had tensed, his eyes were rock hard beneath his mask,but he held the woman's gaze, she comfortably sheltered by the cool dark of her carriage. Laying one elegant gloved hand against his chest he said with a mockingly wounded air -
"Ah of course, and it is sometimes difficult for gutter life to comprehend what pleases those who dwell in loftier abodes. But allow me the chance to prove I'm a cut above the rest - I am familiar with a fine piece of work, thoroughly modern and charmingly written - a short piece,a clever piece - a piece that is sure to please madame. It is entitled the very succinct 'La Belladonna' - perhaps the madame has heard of it?" Clopin wound up his little speech with a smug grin that bordered on a sneer, his eyes sly and knowing as he leant forward in a caricature of a palace minstrel.
"Lasalle!" the woman's voice was infuriated, one long-fingered white hand now gripped the carriage window, adorned in a jasper ring. "Lasalle, teach this insolent peasant a lesson for daring to address me like one of his street-whores."
Herli's teeth were gritted hard and she was digging her toes into the dirt between the cobblestones to keep herself from leaping forward and throwing a tantrum, but an instant later she'd fallen back in pure outraged shock - the coachman had leapt quickly from his seat and had whipped Clopin hard over the shoulders with his riding crop. Stunned and caught off his guard, Clopin fell heavily onto his knees, and the coachman took the opportunity to bring the crop down twice more. With a panicked shout, Herli burst forth from the shade of the tree and had bounded across the square, flinging herself wholeheartedly onto the coachman and whacking at him angrily with thin wrists. He drew off her husband, at first pushed back by the pure fury of Herli's attack, then, stunned, continued to retreat as several punches and kicks found their mark. Too surprised to respond at first, he could merely raise his arms to cover his face before remembering he was twice the size of this lunatic gypsy girl,and raised a fist to slam it down on her, just as Herli's mouth opened to find a chunk of flesh to sink her teeth into. Before either could happen, Herli's waist was caught up by two long arms, and she was pulled back, protesting furiously, to the shelter of Clopin's embrace. The crowds had gathered quickly, and were lapping up the free spectacle hungrily. Herli's hair had fallen messily into her eyes, and enraged and gritting her teeth as she was, struggling with her bigger, stronger husband, she was the perfect image of a lunatic, and the coachman eyed her warily as the audience tittered and whispered furiously.
"Calm down!" Clopin hissed at her urgently. "We'll be lucky if we're not arrested as it is."
Gulping back tears of anger, Herli gave up her struggles and slumped uselessly against his lanky form, stamping her foot one last time before falling still and glaring furiously at the coachman who mopped sweat from his brow and continued to eye her with caution.
Clopin's attention,though his arms were tight around his wife, had not left the woman in the carriage, his gaze stony and probing. A sneering laugh which broke from the woman's lips caught Herli's attention also, and she jerked around to face the noblewoman who'd just had her darling whipped.
It was quite a beautiful face that met her gaze, the marble whiteness of her flesh adding to the aloofness and distance of this woman. The eyes were to be envied - so large and richly black were they - but they were marred by their stoniness, made undesirable by their coldness. The hair, pulled into a silky cap over her head, was a glossy black, and would clearly not survive a week being washed only in rainwater, as Herli's powerfully thick mass had to. The woman's clothes were as richly colored as Herli's own - in deep hues of purple - but were made with the fabrics Herli could only dream of, and decorated with pearls and - they had to be rubies - lavishly. As she'd predicted, the most fashionable of velvet caps was perched on her head. But the stark whiteness of her, the pale lips and hard eyes - she may as well have been a statue dressed in clothes and posed to look alive.
Herli bit back the continuing waves of anger. Lord, WHY didn't Clopin do something, say something? How could he stand back and let this woman order him whipped, humilated like that? Clopin hated nothing more than to not be in control of every situation, and it was murder to her, to stand dociley there within the confines of his wiry arms.
The woman threw haughty words at them again carelessly. "I should have you and your harlot arrested for this offence. But you've kept me entertained at least, so I'll leave you go with that comfort. And here's my contribution to your continued health."
She nodded at one of her footman who obediently tossed a single sou piece at Clopin's feet, it spinning lazily around on one edge before tinkling to a halt. Herli bared her teeth again and tried to fling herself at the man, but Clopin held her tight and snug against him, his grip giving not an inch. Herli was aware of the woman's haughty gaze pass over her scornfully before making an aprupt gesture her coachman should get up into his place again. Herli's eyes snapped themselves sharply onto the woman, daring her to meet them, but she merely retreated into the shadows of her carriage again. As the coachman resumed his place, gathering the reigns and shaking his head once more, Herli's gaze wandered down over the door of the carriage and the crest which marked it. A red shield, topped with three blue castle pillars, and adorned in the center with a castle in white, headed by three white crosses. Three gold circles arranged in a triangle rested below the castle - simple and distinctive. Very easy to remember. And Herli burned the memory into her mind as the coachman clicked to the horses and the carriage rattled away, bouncing sharply over the cobblestones.