The portly coachman Lasalle watched the back and forth stride of the small gypsy woman as she marched upon the Pont des Pêcheurs, growing impatient as first the quarter hour, then the half, drew round and passed on. The bridge, though small and of no import, marked an unstated boundary between the aristocrat and the commoner, dividing the two castes quite neatly and allowing themselves to break into smaller groups on their respective sides. Lasalle, his face red and sweating from the exertion of the walk to the bridge, watched from his side, cloaked dankly in the shadows between two graceful white houses.
'A horse would herald your approach.' The Vicomtesse had said 'You are to go on foot.' And so on foot he had gone, wincing and panting the whole way, his breeches sticking uncomfortably to his flabby thighs from the damp which had sprung up quickly. 'Make her wait.' His mistress had instructed him. 'But do not let her leave.' An icy smile had curved one corner of her mouth, and her eyes had hovered on an unseen point over his broad shoulders. "You're to teach her a lesson, Lasalle. See that you teach it well.'
Lasalle mopped his brow with a stained rag and squinted at the flame which leapt about on the bridge in irritation. The Vicomtesse's meaning had been clear, and free as the gypsy was from the grips of bestial fury she had possessed on their first meeting, he did not think such a lesson would be an unpleasant experience - on the whole, it would be rather the opposite. The gypsy paused in her stride, finally, and leant over the rail of the bridge, her small pointed face illumined by a round sliver of moonlight. She was not beautiful, like the Vicomtesse, but there was a vibrancy within her the Vicomtesse lacked. Ginevra de Vincennes had the perfect, still beauty of an icy lake, and was just as cold and frozen within, this frigidity extending upon those who would crack it. The little gypsy, on the other hand, fair crackled with a fiery energy that threatened to consume whatever was in her path. She was soft and - mouldable.
Lasalle grinned to himself, and lashed a hand over his sweaty upper lip, and continued to study Herlikin where she stood.
On the other side of the bridge, from the shelter of an overhanging roof, Clopin watched his wife no less earnestly. Seeing from the slant of her eyes earlier that evening that she had something in the works, he'd dropped a kiss upon her lips and told her he was going to the Centre for the evening.
He had gone, as he said, and positioned himself in such a way that the tavern exit was clearly visible. Hours passed, he ate alot, drank more, and began to feel he had perhaps been wrong in his judgement. But no - at about half past the eleventh hour, a small figure made her way hurriedly toward the exit. He would recognise his wife in any garb, even a long, thick black cloak. Well - the fact it was *his* cloak undoubtedly helped. She'd slipped quickly out, but not so quickly he hadn't caught her up just outside the Bells & Motley and stayed steadily on her heel as she'd darted quickly through the streets to the Pont des Pêcheurs.
He watched her determined, pointed little face pucker into a frown of irritation as the minutes ticked past, marching up and down across the cobblestones impatiently. Waiting for someone, of course. As Herlikin stopped her agitated pacing to lean over the bridge, gazing into the river below with the intense look that always indicated deep thought, hair whisking about her face in the breeze, Clopin sighed quietly and slumped against the rough bricks of the house at his back. He feared to see who she would meet.
A second later he started forward as a stocky figure came emerged into view, slowly but with no particular stealth. Still - he did not like seeing his wife approached from behind. Risking being seen, Clopin slipped out from the shadows and with very particular stealth, stole forward until he was at the steps leading up to the bridge, ducking behind the stone pillars which supported the rail. Peering upwards as the moonlight hit the newcomer, and Herlikin whirled around to face him, Clopin could not resist the dropping of his jaw as the red, rough features of de Vincennes' coachman came into view.
"You. Are not. Belladonna." Herlikin was too enraged to be frightened, the words slipping from her tongue in a hiss. Levelling her gaze at the coachman she recognised only too well, her body tensed tighter than a lute string, Herlikin sneered viciously. Lasalle eyed her warily, drawing to a stop a good few feet from the woman who balled her fists by her sides and watched him with the intensity of a hunting cat.
"My mistress instructed me to come in her stead and inform you she will no longer be doing business with you." His voice still husky from the long walk, Lasalle drew in a great breath and rose to his full height, towering above the angry gypsy woman whose very ferocity made him falter a little.
"Oooh, really?" Herlikin crossed her arms slowly over her breast, her voice heavy and hard. "Has your mistress forgotten the stakes at hand? Does she think a lifetime lived in shame more bearable than a single, brief apology? Does she think my threats idle?"
Lasalle, who did not know the details of the Vicomtesse's dealings with this peculiar woman, straightened his shoulders and blustered emphatically. "Considering we are two people alone on a bridge in the dead of night, one must wonder where the real threat lies."
Herlikin suddenly became aware of the situation she was in.
It flickered across her face for an instant only before being masked again. Fear, stark and illuminated by the Moon's light for an instant that was long enough for Lasalle to see. And when he saw it, it struck him that the little woman could stamp her feet and gnash her teeth as much as she liked - she was a small, defenceless gypsy woman alone in the middle of Paris.
She anticipated the action before he made it, nonetheless he managed to grasp hold of her streaming hair as she darted away at his advance, hauling her back to be met by scrabbling nails and shabbily sandalled feet kicking and scratching for all they were worth.
The screams dried in Herli's throat as terror convulsed her and she could only react in the basest of ways, her arms wobbling uselessly, then finally caving beneath the force of his, gripping her tightly by the wrists and throwing her back against the railing of the bridge. Now he was so close the fat of his gut pressed against her, and she could smell his putrid breath. Just as Herli found her voice, Lasalle was gripped from behind and thrown from her roughly, groaning as he hit the pavements.
Her senses told her that her saviour was Clopin, her instincts commanded her to run. Gasping as one who is drowning, Herlikin stumbled off the bridge, then ran as though the devil were at her heels, sheer panic propelling her onwards.
Back at the Pont des Pêcheurs Clopin glowered over the prostate Lasalle. The attack on his wife, though perhaps of her own making, had angered him to the point where his limbs stiffened and his vision skewered. He'd strode forward to grasp hold of the bastardly pig, wrenching his filthy form from Herlikin, who had reeled as though about to faint, then darted off to the streets beyond. His first impulse was to follow her, but the bloodlust he felt for the puffy, red man who struggled to his feet, who'd meant his wife harm of the worst nature, and the realisation such an opportunity would probably not present itself again, Clopin grasped Lasalle by the collar, glaring into his shiny face.
"I believe this is what the Jews refer to as 'an eye for an eye.'" he declared mirthlessly before bringing his fist down with a satisfying crunch on Lasalle's nose.
Herlikin paused to catch her breath as the Bells & Motley came into view. Crouching into a darkened doorframe, she pressed both hands down on her sternum and forced herself to breathe deeply, the sweat which clung to her flesh chilling as the wind blew past, and slowly, slowly her heart rate decreased and ceased to feel as though it would explode.
Clopin. He'd been there. He'd followed her. She could not go home to the Court. She could not. She panted a little and shook her head vigorously, clearing her thoughts. Pierre. She would go to Pierre and see if he had finished what she'd set for him.
It took a great summoning of courage to step out from the doorframe, and when she did she felt as naked as the day she was born. The nightsky was clear, but the wind was spooked and the scent of rain was in the air. Herlikin drew her cloak tightly around her, and, staying as close to the shadows as she could, once again sprinted down the streets.
After depositing Lasalle in the icy river which brought the near senseless man to his senses once more, Clopin had returned to the Court nursing split knuckles and an ominous frown. All the same, he'd not been terribly surprised to find their tent empty, and with a resigned sigh he'd fallen on the bed, hoping Herlikin had not met with more trouble. Running a weary hand over his face he tasted blood and groaned as he beheld the torn skin on his fists. Damn Herli. Why the hell did she do these things anyway? His temper rose as he thrust his hands into a bucket of water, sending a thousand raw nerves screaming in protest. Damn her.
Herlikin arrived at the rooms Pierre rented at a boarding house near the Red Bull out of breath once more, but rapidly returning to her usual humour. A peek in the door assured her of what she had feared: that this was a loose establishment, choked to the brim with hedonistic students determined to waste their incomes on whores and wine. Whores. She sidled down the entrance hall with a suspicious sidewards slant, the shabbily furnished parlour to her right revealing two such ladies behaving familarly with a couple of youths. The shabby yellow light spilling from the lamps illuminated their exaggerated features, the painted faces and breasts bursting from too-tight bodices, giving them the appearance of ragged dolls - or ornamented corpses. Slipping her feet from her sandals, Herlikin darted past the open room and down the hall silently, not wanting to be seen and mistaken for one. Pierre had told her his room was the last on the second floor, and cursing every creak which emitted from old hollow steps, Herlikin darted upstairs.
A gentle rap at the last door illicited no response, and Herlikin lifted the latch and slid the door back silently, glancing cautiously into the tiny room with its sharply slanted ceiling, filthy floors and murky window.
Wrinkling her nose at the stale odour and glaring with distaste at the sorry state of affairs young men are wont to let surround them, Herlikin dared to push the door back further, revealing Pierre huddled at a desk in the far corner, scratching frenetically at paper with an old quill pen, lost in his work, fingers stained black with ink.
"A-hem." The demand for attention was neither soft nor gentle, and Pierre leapt from his seat with a yell, thumping his head hard on the low roof above him. Herlikin snorted and did not bother to hide her smile as he declared an oath and clutched his cranium in both hands, hopping about in agitation and pain. "Working late, Pierre?"
"Herlikin!" Pierre ejaculated when he'd finished hopping. "Good God, you startled the very life from me. If you've taken ten years from my life and I never complete my masterpiece, I'll haunt you after my death, I swear it."
"Pish posh, Pierre, I knocked quite loudly."
"Do you expect an artist in the throes of creation to pay attention to the mundane goings-on of the surrounding world? Especially in the middle of the night when it's dangerous for solitary women to be out and about?"
Herlikin blanched a little, but only a little. "Speak not of such things now. The bitch is going to ignore us, as I thought. Have you completed what I set for you?"
Pierre threw up his arms in defeat. "It is only what I have been at work at all this evening. 'Hurry' you said 'do it quickly' you demanded 'I want it by tomorrow!' you insisted. Nevermind I have a thousand other works to concentrate on, nevermind these things take time and craftsmanship, never mind one cannot churn these things out like sausages!"
Throughout this tirade Herlikin had folded her arms tightly and rolled her eyes in disbelief. When Pierre drew finally to a close she leapt back with "Well, you're an artist and this is your craft - you should find it effortless!"
Pierre groaned and threw himself back into his chair, dropping his face into his hands. "Madame, you made specific requirements for this work, you forget the distress I have felt throughout this whole sordid affair, you forget it is late and I am tired."
Herlikin ignored him. "Well - is it done?"
Snatching up a piece of payment from the many which littered his desk, he tossed it in her general direction. She caught it and peered at the scrawling words. "There it is. It is a hasty, clumsy job, but it is done."
She thrust the paper back at him. "Read it to me."
He glanced sidewards at her, his eyes rimmed in red and hollowed, his chin and jaw speckled and unshaved. He *was* tired, she realised, wearing only a dirty white shirt and breeches, his face drawn and his hair tousled. Good. That meant he *had* been working.
"Herli - Madame Trouillefou - " he amended at her glare. "Let me attempt again when I am recovered. It is a poor work, rushed, badly structured, not terribly witty, and devoid of any subtlety."
"I did not ask for subtlety. Lack of subtlety is desired."
"Still, some might've been nice." he muttered petulantly.
"Does it get the point across?"
He sulked. "Yes."
"Then shutup and read it to me."
With a groan he did so, and Herlikin's smile grew wider than the cat whose whiskers are soaked in cream. As he drew to a close, Pierre chanced a glance at her and was suitably impressed: Not even Herli had borne such an expression of malevolent delight before to equal the one she wore now.
"Pierre," she purred with a gleam of wicked satisfcation "truly, your masterpiece."