A half hour later the two gypsies were safe beneath the streets of Paris in the Court of Miracles, Clopin striding on ahead and Herli trailing behind, sulking furiously. He threw open the flap of their tent, holding it open for her despite his annoyance, then tossed his hat angrily upon his work table before lifting his hands to his head and letting out an exasperated sigh.
"Herli, you have once again astounded me with your idiocy."
She was on the verge of tears and kicked angrily at a rickety wooden chair, sending it thudding against the table and knocking her husband's hat to the ground. "That's the last time I ever defend your honour!" she shrieked back, and flounced to the back of the tent, folding her arms and glaring at him sideways.
He followed her. "Don't you realise what might've happened?? You put your foolish little self in danger over nothing!"
She stamped a foot on the ground. "Nothing?? She insulted you! She, with her silks and velvet masks and coverings, living in a glass palace high up on an unclimbable mountain, and she dared to insult you - - !" The excitement of the day proved too much for the highly strung queen and she burst into tears, hiding her face in thin, little hands. Clopin was immediately sorry and moved quickly to her side, pulling her into an embrace as tight and protective as the one on the street that day.
"Here, now kitten, don't cry." he said soothingly, long hands pulling themsleves through her hair. "I'm very flattered you leapt to my defence. But I truly think you should leave such heroics to me in the future."
She'd been determined to resist his comforting, so ungrateful had his response to her bravery been, but after an outburst she liked nothing better than to have his large, warm hands soothing her, and his breath tickling her cheek. She let her arms break from their fold and turned to him, still sniffling somewhat pitifully while he looked down at her with a tender amusement. "But I like to be a hero."
He grinned. "You do a marvellous job,but honestly - attacking nobility - even the servants of nobility? Herli, that's flirting with the gallows."
She rested her cheek in the palm of his hand, shrugging with an obstinate pout. "I don't see how you could stand there and let it happen - that vicious, nasty, spiteful bitch."
He laughed at her final words and she felt her shoulders untense somewhat, grinning back up at him, before wrapping her arms around his neck. "She probably did it only because you stirred something in her loins she'd rather not be stirred by a dirty, brown-skinned gypsy." she said emphatically. He shook his head briskly.
"I'm not sure if thats flattery or not - at any rate, kitten, you needn't think I liked standing there and taking a beating across the shoulders. But to do something - out there, in the open of broad daylight with not a useful weapon to my name apart from a quick wit? Suicide!"
She pulled down on his neck. "You could've knocked that fat coachman to the stones."
"Oh yes, and be arrested the next time I went out performing. I'm not exactly the every-man, little one."
Still she pouted and he kissed it away gently. "And what would happen to you and the children should anything happen to me?"
Her eyes were wet as she blinked them at him contritely, and a second later she murmured an apology. He squeezed her tight. "Of course you are forgiven - the mere fact that you were watching my performance is more than enough to satisfy me." he grinned down at her triumphantly and she grimaced and stamped her foot. The very thing she had tried to avoid and now look! Clopin held her back against his forearms, eyes twinkling merrily. "So what part did you enjoy the most, kitten, my 'child's entertainment that no grown person could bear'?"
"Bah! I was merely passing by!"
"Ooh of course!" he intoned knowingly as she tried to push his hands away and he clung firmly to her waist. "Merely going about your duty when lo! By pure coincidence your adored husband should just happen to be in the town square performing, and of course you stopped to watch for you could not help but do otherwise, so entrancing do you find the simple sound of my voice!" He was laughing, and with a resignated air, she gave in to the mood and let her struggles pull them both down on the bed.
"I was watching Puppet!" she cried out insistently, laughing as he began to nuzzle her in earnest, before leaping back with a look of feigned shock on his long features. Before he could say a word however, Puppet appeared, perched jauntily on one of his glove-sheathed hands. "Here! I told you!" the little miniature's voice was shrill in its triumph. "All these years and I am the one she truly loves!"
"Papuszo!" Herli flung herself onto the little puppet and planted kiss after kiss on his small painted mouth while Clopin's mouth dropped open in outrage. He pushed his wife away then rounded on his wooden look-alike, shaking one long finger furiously. "You then! You would let my wife make me a cuckold?"
"She had no protests! On the contrary, she very much enjoys the feel of a well-formed piece of wood!"
Scandalised, Herlikin leapt forward with a gasp, putting a hand over Puppet's mouth, before turning to her husband's amused shout with a sharp slap over his shoulders. He gasped outloud and she remembered too late the events of earlier, kissing his shoulders apologetically. "Here, you'd better take this off." she said, her voice much subdued, tugging gently at his parti-colored tunic.
"You just want an excuse to get me undressed." he proclaimed, wincing, but obediently raising his arms above his head and let Herli pull his tunic off. The welts had risen, red and angry looking, but no flesh had been broken. Herli traced a finger along them gently, but even that was enough for a hiss to escape between Clopin's teeth. She sniffled and climbed onto his lap, tears ready to break once more as he stroked her hair gently with slight confusion.
"Whats wrong, little one?" he asked softly, and she clung to his arms in frustration.
"I hate it that she can get away with it, that she could do that and noone says a word against it!" she cried. "You should've kicked that coachman to Kingdom Come!"
He chuckled wryly and kissed her forehead. "The wounds will heal, Herli. So will my pride."
"It's not good enough!"
He shrugged, a taunt muscle in his cheek betraying any nonchalance he assumed. "It will have to be."
"You're a king!"
"Of beggars and outcasts, scoundrals and whores."
"Of the Rom, people of honour and decency and kindness!"
"Not in their eyes."
There was silence between the two as she mulled over these words, and he ran a finger down her cheek, letting go of her with one arm only long enough to pull his mask off, then wrapping it around her again. She pouted. "I hate them."
He sighed. "I'm not overly fond of them myself, Herli, my lune." he caught her face up between both hands and made her look into his eyes. "But we shouldn't let their spite dominate our world, kitten. You are mine and I am yours and right now, that's all we should be concerned about."
She hadn't finished sulking, but his strong fingers rubbing the back of her neck soon distracted her attention and she leant up to kiss him. Several minutes later and he was tugging her dress loose, lowering her to the bed then jumping up in astonishment as the stolen onions rolled from her posoti. Coming as they did - seemingly from between her legs - he was a trifle bemused. "Is there something you're not telling me, Herli?"
She laughed outloud on the expression on his face, and momentarily forgot the noblewoman and her marble eyes.
Meanwhile the noblewoman with the marble eyes had forgotten her brief encounter with the gypsy royalty, and was reclining restlessly on a lounge embroidered lavishly in gold thread. Against the opulence of her dress and with the backdrop of marble tables,gold candlesticks and velvet draperies the lounge was made quite ridiculous. Each individual item when taken out of this room was a work of pure art, craftsmanship stunning to behold,. But carelessly lumped together as they had been and the result was garish. Perhaps it was this optical offence that made the noblewoman fidget where she sat, though the pageboy by her chair sang as sweetly as any choirboy. The noblewoman herself had impeccable taste, but the design of this room had not been at her discretion. Nor was the dress she wore one she normally would. But it had been chosen to antagonise one who favoured simplicity of dress as a reflection of humility of mind. She had not achieved her desired result and was in a venomous mood consequently. Perhaps that was why she'd chosen to antagonise a simple peasant performer - as he appeared to her - a half hour earlier. Or perhaps it had been the way that peasant's eyes had fixed themselves upon her, dark and deep, and sending a shudder down her neck. If the noblewoman could blush, surely that peasant's gaze would of turned her cheeks scarlet.
Her favoured glass of warm red wine had not been awaiting her on the sideboard when she returned to these rooms, and after an icy glare which had left her maidservant bereft of an explanation had dismissed the girl immediately, commanding the footman to turn her things out with her. The girl, who had dissolved into tears, hiding her face in raw-red hands pleaded ineffectualy for her position back, supporting as she was two younger siblings who'd feel the winter months hard when they came about. The tears were wasted; the noblewoman merely allowed a slight sneer of disgust that such a lack of dignity should be in display before her, the girl in her simple smock of blue and dirty white was escorted out, and the footman swept the floor after her. The noblewoman settled back against the cushions, the desired wine in fine cut crystal cradled between her elegant hands, and gazed discontendedly into the drink's depths.
The noblewoman was the Vicomtesse Ginevra de Vincennes, renowed among her caste for her sharp eyes, and sharper tongue. The women who moved in her circle teetered at the edge, fearful of saying what might earn them a verbal scalding, her servants threw themselves into disarray trying to keep things in order for her,and so keep their positions secure. Her own husband avoided her wherever possible, allowing the smaller chateau in the Bois de Vincennes to be at her disposal, a situation she did not find disagreeable. Despite the mercilessness of wit, the Vicomtesse was both a beautiful woman and a charming one, and infuriated as she had been by her arranged marriage, had not found herself at a loss for male companionship; she found her husband to be both a weak man, and an unstimulating one and had had no quibbles over breaking the wedding vows.
At thirty seven, lack of exposure to sunlight and near obsessive skin care left her free from wrinkles. Her averseness to childbearing meant her figure was still that of a young woman, and as yet no grey had touched her head, although she had a beautician on hand always who knew how to rid oneself of such markings.
She leapt to her feet sharply, her fine skirts rustling angrily about her and swept on and into the next room, a beautiful dressing chamber filled from head to foot with elaborately embroidered tunics, fine hosery, fur lined capes and beautifully moulded shoes. All the trappings of a gentleman. Ginevra had paid a rare visit to her husband's home, the great Chateau de Vincennes, in accordance to a meeting they had arranged. Henri was late. Ginevra was furious. She sat herself down before the marble topped vanity, the great gilded mirrors stretching up before her and turned her head slowly from side to side, her eyes widening to discern any flaws there. Satisifed there were none, she carefully unpinned the velvet cap from her head and looked intently down her parting where her hair was pulled sharply down to either side of her head, and fastened in an elaborate plaited bun at the nape of her neck.
She caught her own eye in the reflection and paused, the tauntness of her shoulders relaxing in a sigh as she mulled over the events of that day.
She and Claude had not spoken in the last week, not since their last - difference of opinion - and she had felt the lack of companionship sharply. She had wanted Felicio Coleccico arrested on a minor offence - inebriated behaviour on the streets - and had been refused. She knew of the sicilian's exploits, Lasalle had told her of his cavortings these last three nights, and of the curses he had railed upon her head in as many taverns as would admit his drunken gait. She did not care for how long he was put away, so long as it was another blotch upon his once shining, golden head. Anything that would make life just that touch more difficult for him. But Claude had merely glided silkily to her side, one smooth,cold hand carressing her white cheek and explained that Coleccico had remained within a tavern at all time, that noone had come forth to complain, that he had, therefore, absolutely no reason to arrest the down-on-his-luck poet. She'd wrenched away from his touch with eyes that flashed venomously, before pointing out that lack of evidence never prevented Claude from arresting his 'beloved gypsies'. He'd frozen, as purely lined and still as a statue, and then in an icy voice had explained as one would to a child that as all gypsies were inherently evil one might be sure that any crime they were accused of had surely been committed, perhaps if not at that time, then certainly at a time in the past, or one still to come. It had been a flawed arguement, as usual, though he was convinced otherwise, and she'd whirled on her heel and stormed out of the Palace of Justice, returning immediately to her chateau. Claude would bend the rules for his pet hatred, but not for an obnoxious, cowardly poet who'd been caught out in his game. Not to mention that he found the entire fiasco - amusing. She could see it in the barely discernible curve of his mouth, the mocking glint of his eye whenever he caught her glancing at her reflection, not to mention the way his mouth slid over the nickname "Belladonna". It infuriated her, yet at the same time she was loathe to forget how, at the outset, he had mused "Belladonna - an apt name indeed."
For the last week there had been no contact between the two, and her rage had grown steadily at his stubborness, his refusal to send her an apology, his total lack of communication. Finally, she had dressed today, provocatively in finery to challenge his aescetic tastes, and had arrived at the Palace unannounced. He had greeted her with flawless civility, welcomed her amicably and with a triumphant gleam in his eye. They had sat, sipped wine, and not spoken. She was unsure exactly what she had expected, but she was not being satisfied, whatever it was. Finally, she had broken the silence.
"Well?" she'd demanded of him.
He'd raised an artistocratic eyebrow, glancing at her over the rim of his glass. "Well, what?"
With a sharp tinkle he'd replaced his glass upon the table and steepled his hands. "Are you still tormenting yourself over that sicilian poet? Really, Ginevra, I'd of thought a woman of your intelligence would of left such trivial matters behind her by now."
She left the meeting unsatisfied.
A hesitant tap at the door of the dressing chamber distracted her out of her reverie, and knotting her fine black brows together, staring at her reflection in a deadly manner, she let out a slow, and impatient "What?"
The maid she'd sent for to replace the other until another could be appointed to the position crept in, a voluminous dress cradled carefully in her arms, peeking meekly at the Vicomtesse from under the lace ruffle on her cap.
"Please, Victomesse, I've brought the things you asked for."
The Victomesse rose swiftly, an irritated sigh escaping her lips. The young maid rushed quickly to help her out of the dress she was wearing and into the new one she'd brought,a beautiful deep purple silk one, worked all over in darker purple silk thread in a charming pattern of flowers. It was not so grand as the one she had worn, but there were few dressmakers of high-fashion who could find its equal in line, color and pattern to flatter the Vicomtesse. A net of pearls was fastened over her hair, and straightening the jasper ring on her finger, the Victomesse swept masterfully past the girl, who drew back hastily, and on into the drawing room. She stopped upon entering and glared at the unoccupied chairs.
"My husband is not here yet?" she snapped and the manservant at the door jumped, and raised his brocaded shoulders gently.
"The Vicomte has not arrived, Vicomtesse, no."
Lip curling, eyes narrowing, she gathered up her skirts and made for the door.
"Go down and tell Lasalle to get the coach ready." she snapped at one of the manservants who bowed and ran out swiftly to obey, then turned to the other.
"You can tell the doddering old fool I tolerated his hideous decor for as long as I was able; if he wishes to see me, he can come to my chateau." she turned to walk out, then could not resist throwing spitefully over her shoulder "Like all the others."
As the door snapped shut behind her the manservant relaxed visibly, shrinking at least three inches, and mopped his brow in relief.
Lasalle the coachman, a stocky, red faced and highly pompous gentleman of forty with bow legs , had hastened to the Vicomtesse's bidding and had the door of her carriage open and waiting as she swept out the wide front doors of the Chateau de Vincennes, her purple skirts washing silkily around her ankles, her forehead still creased with a venomous scowl. Used to the Vicomtesse's dangerous moods, he merely offered her a callous, but well scrubbed hand, into which she silently slipped her own soft, white one, and assisted her and her skirts into the carriage. Bowing politely and daring to offer a tight smile he said with an attempt at charm -
"Will the Vicomtesse be going directly home?"
She stared out into the forest beyond him morosely. "Where else is there to go?" she muttered.
He bowed slightly again, despite his best attempts to look dignified the gesture came across as fawning, the expression on his face sycophantic.
"Perhaps the Vicotmesse would care for a brief drive around Paris?"
A slight frown flickered over her features, and Lasalle prepared to beat a hasty retreat, but a second later she agreed.
"Very well then."
"We will, of course, avoid the Town Square."
Another frown, and Lasalle, used as he was to her moods, wondered if it would simply be better to hold his tongue, it was so much less stressful.
"Why would we do that, Lasalle?"
Adopting an attitude of surprise Lasalle countered "Why, so the Vicomtesse does not run the risk of being accosted once more by the gypsy vermin."
The gypsies - she had forgotten them. With a sneering smile, the Vicomtesse's flickered from the murky green of the forest to Lasalle's watery blue ones. "If I remember correctly, Lasalle, it was you who was accosted."
Lasalle's red face grew even redder, but his attitude of subserviance did not change. "For the Vicomtesse's honour, I would suffer the same again." he lowered his eyes.
The sneer on her face grew. She saw directly through him, though he probably fancied himself very believable. As his eyes raised up once again, she changed the sneer into a smile and nodded at him. "Let's go, Lasalle."
He hoisted himself quickly into the driver's seat and clicked to the horses who started off immediately at a brisk pace.
The Vicomtesse gazed at her reflection in the brilliant red of the ring she wore and remembered the gypsy peasant's fine long legs and how gracefully they moved. But then she remembered the dark brown of his skin, the fact that he'd been born in the gutters and had only sunk lower with time and a shudder of revulsion shook her. Such a pity the little harlot had appeared out of nowhere, like the witch she probably was, and stopped the beating the peasant had undoubtedly earned many times over. The Vicomtesse felt another shudder pass through her at the memory of the girl, tiny and vibrant, baring her teeth like a rabid dog. She should've had the two arrested, but at the time it had amused her to do otherwise. Still, being gypsies, Claude would hardly object to their arrest at some future date - ah Claude! Settled in the midst of her velvet cushions, enveloped in the darkness of her carriage and not glancing once out the windows of her carriage at the beautiful cacophany of colours and shapes in the countryside surrounding her, Ginevra grimaced and felt the clutch of loneliness and boredom around her heart.