"Pierre!! Pierre Gringoire!" The slender, dark haired scrap's head shot up with a grin as he turned from the smouldering fireplace to greet his addresser, standing with a charming bow.
"Herlikin! What a truly inestimable pleasure!"
Herli stepped back and folded her arms, staring at the young poet with narrowed eyes and straight mouth. "Madame Trouillefou, Gringoire." she said drily. "I'll thank you to remember that."
Pierre laid a hand upon his chest and apologised. "I *am* sorry, Madame Trouillefou. The desire for the intimate honour of addressing you by your given name results in the unintentional verbalisation of it. Pray, forgive me."
Herli pursed her lips and looked him over with sharpened eyes, as the two stood before each other in front of the fireplace. He knew full well what she was doing - comparing him to her husband - and finding him lacking.
"Grotesque verbosity, you're no more a poet than I am a nun!" She'd snapped at him once, and he had never been able to resist the opportunity afterwards to laden his speeches with unncessary words. What was it Clopin had once elbowed him with, one night after too many drinks and both of them clambering upon a table to outwit the other - ah yes, "Cumbersome articulation, you're no more a poet than I am a priest!"
Gringoire chuckled at the memory as Herli finally chose forgiveness (she must want something, he grinned) and extended a glittering little hand for Gringoire to kiss - though his lips did not meet her flesh - Herlikin Trouillefou actively disliked being touched by strange men, and though the two had known each other for years, the fact she had not shared a bed with him, or given birth to him made him a strange man in her eyes. He'd learned that the hard way when one of those cheap baubles she wore cut a tiny gash beneath his eye after she pelted him a slap for laying a hand around her shoulder. Then of course Clopin had wanted to know what he'd done to deserve a slap - Herli could be a dangerous woman when she chose.
Herli's little outburst over his poetic skills had been indirectly influenced by her husband and his defamations of Gringoire's talent, he thought as Herlikin primly took the wooden chair by the fire he offered her, and then hoisted one from beneath a nearby table to join her. She'd come to the man she married as little more than a child, after all, and had grown into a woman under his guidance - it was only natural she reflect so many of his thoughts - and rebel against so many others.
"May I fetch Madame Trouillefou some nourishment to warm her belly?"
Again that deadpan stare from beneath the strands of red hair that forever floated in her eyes. Sharply drawings the cords that held the old cloak she was wearing together at her neck, she nodded curtly.
"Monsieur Tavern-keeper!" He turned with a flourish to the bar and strode up to it, slapping his hand against the wooden surface, and masking his grimace with a grin. Pierre knew full well the man's name was Louis. "Monsieur Tavern-keeper, two glasses of your finest vintage, make it the deepest crimson of a hue equalled only by the heart's own liquor, squeezed from the same grapes that garnish the vineyards of Dionysus, that happy fellow, that cheerful sport who taught all mankind - "
"Shut UP Gringoire." Herlikin snapped from behind him, pushing her cloak back from her shoulders and folding her legs. "I would like to be able to stomach the wine."
"As you wish, sweet Madame!" he turned quickly back to the bar and whispered. "Your cheapest, man, cheapest!"
Louis snorted and turned away to fetch the wine, used as he was to Gringoire's truly poetic state of empty purse and emptier pockets. Pierre brought the glasses back to where they sat and she nodded her thanks, waiting for him to sit down before raising the glass to her lips.
Madame Trouillefou and the Poet Gringoire had a type of affection for the other. Having met her through her husband, having met him at the Festival of Fools one year, Pierre had been somewhat entranced by her regality, amused by her peppery temper, and intrigued by her inter-racial features. Herlikin was amused by Pierre and his aspirations to poetry, she enjoyed his ramblings and the few moments in which pretentious verbosity was lifted and the entertaining and rather sweet young man was revealed. He saw her as a rather aloof and romantic figure of a sub culture odd enough to fire his words, a brilliant nymph dancing just beyond reach; she saw him as an oddity amongst his kind - a gadje unafraid of a rom - and on occasion, a useful one too - whether it be for the alleivation of the mundane or for the assistance in difficult tasks. The relationship did not extend beyond that superficiality, and neither had an interest in pursuing it beyond that either.
Pierre made a show of rolling a mouthful of wine around in his mouth, grimacing over it's sour taste and swallowing with a hearty "Ahhh." Herlikin, meanwhile, sniffed the liquid with a delicately wrinkled nose and took a tiny sip, pulling a face of distate.
"This wine is cheap!"
"Here, have mine!" Gringoire was ever the gentleman.
Herlikin, with a suspicous sneer, grasped his glass and pulled it towards her. "It is the same wine!"
"Then I'll take it back and yours too." He made a move to do so, rough white hands clasping around the two glasses, and moving as though to lift them. He was arrested by her cold fingertips scrabbling hard against his wrists.
"You will not!" Her eyes were flashing - Gringoire thought one should never take her at face value - half the times what she says is the opposite of what she wants.
"Very well, have both!" He released the glasses, sending wine slopping a little over the rough wood surface.
Viewing it as the final affront, Herli gritted her teeth and stood. "I will not!" With a toss of the head she threw the contents of both glasses into the fire.
Gringoire slumped back in his chair, incredulity widening his eyes. "I paid for that!" he exclaimed. Herli shrugged as she settled back down.
"Not very much, I'll warrant."
Gringoire rubbed a hand over his bare chin, and pulled his mouth down in an expression of sorrow.
"And so goes the way of the world, wherein a good man, kind and true, means naught in the eyes of a lady, if the weight of his purse does not reflect the acts of his virtue, wherein the best of intentions are greeted with a sneer and considered unequal in glamour to trappings of gold and pearls, bitter - -"
"Gringoire! Stop!" Herli had clapped hands over her ears, her posture contorted in exaggerated agony to the point where she'd bent her knees and brought her feet up to her seat. Pierre grinned, bright blue eyes sparkling cheerfully.
"Madame Trouillefou, I believe you are envious I have a gift your husband does not."
She threw a condescending sneer at him. "Delude yourself, Gringoire, you do not delude others."
He chuckled and pushed brown locks out of his eyes, loosening the scarf at his neck.
She lowered her feet to the floor once more and observed him a moment through lowered lids. "My husband would've belted me for tossing out paid-for wine like that."
Pierre shrugged, knowing it was yet another game of sorts, but knowing not to what purpose. "I am not your husband. But I can give you a belting if you'd like."
Outrage rose on her like sparks until she noticed the glimmer of mockery in his eyes and calmed once more. "Witticism does not become you, Pierre" she said drily, "You seem to always miss the 'wit' part of it."
"Herli! Touché!"
"Shutup for the sake of your mindless god, and allow me to get to the point before the evening grows too late."
He raised his hands in goodnatured defeat and sat back in his chair with a grin to indicate she should get to the point, the gap in his front teeth winking at her. Herli thanked him with an aristocratically raised eyebrow, then withdrew from her bosom a sheet of ivory colored paper, folded and decorated with a gleaming seal, black, fat writing printed carefully across the front. Pierre leaned forward a little in curiosity, squinting at the words with pursed lips as Herli nodded and held the paper out at arm's length, long fingernail tapping pointedly at the words.
"Tell me, is this letter going to the Palace of Justice?"
Pierre paused for a beat, eyes flying to hers over the top of the letter before laughing a little awkwardly and reaching out to take the letter from her.
"It's upside down." he explained, and Herli's cheeks flushed scarlet as she jerked back, scratching her shoulders uncomfortably against the wood of her chair. 'Check mate' Pierre thought before speaking out loud. "It certainly is, Herlikin my lovely friend. Le Palais de Justice on the Rue de Honneur, and it's addressed to - - "
Herlikin had recovered her dignity and whipped the letter back smartly with a shake of her hair. "Thank you, Pierre. I wanted only confirmation of the address."
Pierre grinned at her curtness and folded both arms over the table, leaning forward on them. "That's heavy, expensive paper, Herli, and all the words are spelled correctly. Can I ask how it came to your possession and why you wanted to know if it was addressed to a place by all rights you should be avoiding?"
Herlikin was tucking the letter back into her bodice, revealing a rather appetising curve of breast. 'That's why Clopin puts up with the attitude' he thoughty sassily, smiling politely at her as she rearranged her cloak over her shoulders, a smug smile set about her eyes.
"Certainly you can ask, Pierre." she said smoothly and he snorted and chuckled.
"And will you answer me?"
The word no was on her lips as she stood to go when she caught sight of the eager, interested gleam in Pierre's eyes. Clopin might not think much of his poetic skills, but he did think he was trustworthy. Furthermore, he could read and write. She cocked her head to the side and blinked at Pierre.
"I will tell you everything if you agree to write a letter for me."
He leaned back in his chair once more, surveying the small redhead from narrowed eyes, thoughtfully scratching his chin. "What sort of a letter?"
"Write it, and you'll find out."
He observed her for a moment, rubbing his nose and watching the bright eyes that bored into his carefully. She wouldn't reveal anything on her doll-like face, but afterall - how much trouble could one letter bring? He leapt to his feet with a grin and made her a sweeping bow.
"Madame Trouillefou, it would be my pleasure."
Her smile became large and flattering.
"Pierre." she said charmingly. "You angel."
He laughed at her much changed tone of voice and offered her his arm. After a long hesitation she took it, and they moved toward the Tavern's exit, ignoring the curious glances from the few patrons who'd watched the colorful pair's goings on with drunk bemusement. "Take me to paper and ink, and you'll have your letter, Herlikin. I can't wait to find out what all this is about."
As they left the dim orange of the tavern's light to the darkness of the street's beyond, he missed the wicked glint in her eyes.

La Belladonna,

I have in my possession information that could ruin you. If you do not know what of what I am speaking, ask the blonde page with the ruby ring. If you wish this information to be kept secret you will meet with me at the Red Bull Tavern this evening at eight. You will come in and ask the publican to be shown to where Chaton is waiting. There we will discuss this matter. You will come alone. To breath a word of this to a single soul will mean ruin for you and your name.

Chaton
 

Ginevra's eyes tore down the page for the fifth time before she wrenched it from her trembling fingers, leaving it to flutter onto the soft velvet red seat of her chair. She turned abruptly from the desk and once again began to pace up and down her drawing room in agitation. The letter had been brought in not a half hour earlier, borne upon a silver tray, sealed in unstamped wax, and addressed simply to 'The Vicomtesse'. The paper was a plain white sheet, cheap as was the ink and the letters, though neatly printed, bore the carlessness of the commoner. It was indistinctive and plain. The footman who had delivered the letter could tell her nothing beyond the fact that a young man, face mostly covered by a cloak to protect his head from the rain which had begun to pound down again, had handed the letter over, stressing that it was of the upmost importance and should be handed over directly to Ginevra.
A young man? She had questioned the footman - was he dark skinned? No. Did he have an accent? No. Was he very tall or lean? No. Then who was he? The Vicomtesse could not guess, unless the witch who was behind this was blasphemous enough to deck herself in the garments of men. Or worse - if she were enchantress enough to adopt another form. She shivered.
The Vicomtesse had stopped in front of her window seat once more, staring out into the dull grey of the late afternoon. The weak light threw itself over the richly colored draperies and cushions, rendering their hues paler and duller looking, as though worn with time and ill-use, though they were very new and well-cared for. With gritted teeth, the Vicomtesse withdrew from the alcove, snapping shut the draperies behind her, the reds and purples returning to their former splendour with hasty relief, the room warm and vibrant once more.
What could she do? What choices did she have? She could ignore the note and not give in to it's demands - but then, the Minister's letter could be revealed. She could keep the meeting, but take armed guards with her - but it could not be guaranteed the gypsy witch would not reveal the letter upon being captured, for attempted blackmail she would surely be convicted - but the Vicomtesse's secret would still be revealed. Oh - ! Then Claude would also be revealed, he who was believed to be so chaste and pure, ever virtuous, choosing for himself a life only of servitude and duty. He would detest her forever.
She could kill the gypsy witch.
She did not shrink from the idea, hers was not a mind to do so. Instead, she drew it closer, probing at its corners, exploring the possibilities. Alone, in the back room of a tavern - she could stab her, or poison her. It would have to be the latter. The former was far too untidy, and Ginevra did not relish the idea of a ruined gown. The Vicomtesse's eyes trailed over the setteé where Rossignol sat, playing sweetly upon a harp, singing in the clear, golden tones of youth, even as his eyes followed the Vicomtesse nervously. Beneath him, in the marble stones of the floor, was the elaborate gold chest, carved in the shape of a Unicorn's head, and bearing from it's brow a genuine Unicorn's horn - Henri had paid twice the worth of his estate for it (or so it was rumored) - and within that safe chamber, the Vicomtesse kept a number of deadly poisons. It would simply be a matter of choosing which one.
Rossignol's melody had trailed off with a sudden dischord - diabolus musica - and he was staring now at the Vicomtesse with his lower lip slack, his cheeks slowly draining of their color. She was frozen in place, seemingly gazing through him, and there was a predatory air about her stance. It sent a hundred chills shaking their way uncomfortably down his spine, and his blue eyes got rounder and rounder as she stood, silent and poised, hands clasped lightly together in front of her, her black eyes luminous.
The spell was broken suddenly as she turned away with a snap, and with trembling fingers, Rossignol attempted to resume his playing.
Ginevra had stumbled across the flaw in her plan - the gypsy witch would trust nothing from her. Not food, nor wine or anything else. To poison her she would have to clasp her by the throat, and force it down her nostrils. She would not even contemplate such physical activity - even if the rewards were a shuddering, foaming peasant, jittering into death. The Vicomtesse's imagination had painted the memory of Herlikin in demonic hues - she saw sparks within her odd colored eyes, flames snaking out from her bright, too bright, hair, and her skin from neck to toe was too warm, expelling an unholy heat over the Vicomtesse's lovely white hand as it rested on her carriage door. Such a violent, impassioned creature.
Perhaps it was the vividness of this recollection, the final exaggeration of pointed teeth and fiery eyes, that made the Vicomtesse pause where she paced and consider - the witch had been easily over powered by her man - she had attacked a defenceless boy - had written a letter instead of flying in through the window -
Slowly, a smile slipped its way onto her lips as she moved from her sitting room to the dressing room beyond it. Perhaps the evening could even have it's entertainments. She could not go alone, naturally - that notion was preposterous. But with Lasalle ever nearby, she could meet with the violent little witch and determine the situation.
Considerably cheered, the Vicomtesse seated herself at her dressing table and began to unpin her hair, it falling in glossy black waves over her shoulders and back.
A vision of gold and white appeared in the corner of her eye and she looked up with a gasp before realising with a hiss Rossignol's reflection in the glass behind her. He'd followed her in so silently - and for an instant had appeared as if - no matter. With a taunt smile she handed him the silver brush and he began to rapturously comb the long, inky depths of her hair, carefully pulling out tangles and laying it straight. She observed her reflection with a quiet satisfaction, pretending not to note when Rossignol's pink fingertips lingered at her neck and shoulders, instead loosening her bodice and rubbing scented oil over her neck, avoiding his eye.

Clopin slumped, panting and sweating, over his wife's breast as she ran loving fingers through his damp hair and whispered sweet words in his ear, before laying hot kisses over her shoulders. With a groan he pulled out and rolled off her, collapsing onto his back with a sigh and a smile, while Herlikin grinned and stretched with all the smug luxury of a cat in the sun.
That morning he'd awoken with heavy bags under his eyes, and a clanging headache which had made the prospect of doing battle with his wife over her previous evenings whereabouts very undesirable. For her part, Herli had been touched by her husband's aches and pains and had been very solicitous in caring for him. Nothing could awaken the tender in Herlikin more than the sight of his unshaven cheek and bleary eye, yawning to reveal a lion's mouth of teeth, and drowsily clinging to her to stay by his side. She'd fetched him very strong, very hot and very black coffee and supported his throbbing head on her shoulder while he drank it, and had then wrapped legs around his waist, supporting his back on her bosom, and massaged his forehead and temples gently with soothing herbs. By the middle of the day he'd begun to feel halfway human once more, but had begged off performing, lazily mended broken puppets as Herli busied herself with the feeding and bathing of four children, cleaning the tent and changing the bed linen to soft, crisp sheets strewn with lavender so as to be more comfortable for her over-indulgent husband.
"You do all of this every day?" he asked her at one stage as she scolded one brat, wiped the nose of another, stirred the stew bubbling at the front of the tent and wiped down the table under her husband's feet.
"You think today is bad?" was her terse response, and he'd laughed, though not umsympathetically, and gotten to his feet with a groan to sweep her into his arms.
"Then it is no wonder you're so very highly strung, my little kitten. You should be playing with me on the stage, or upon the streets."
"So the tent can fall to ruin." She retorted crossly, but he could recognise the desire to perform in her eyes, it was a feeling he knew well.
"Ah." he pressed warm lips to her neck. "When the children are older, you will be the prima donna of every play, dance and festival the rom should put on."
"Oh yes, I know that melody." she'd snapped and his kisses had grown more lavish.
"Do you know this one?" and he drew her in deep for a kiss, drawing the tiredness and bitterness out of her with the promise of a performance - of sorts - to come. He'd laughed quietely against her cheek. "I believe I've taught you well enough."
That was two hours ago. Now, Herli's eyes were soft and loving and Clopin grunted with satisfaction as he pulled her close to him, rubbing her cheeks, loving her quietely. They sighed together and laughed as well.
"You want your pipe?" she murmured against the base of his neck.
"Please, kitten."
She sat up naked and kneeling on the bed, warm and soft and pink, carefully filled her husband's pipe as he watched her from hazy eyes, reaching out an arm to scratch her lightly on the belly, running one rough, brown hand up to cup one breast, relishing the peach-like silkines of her skin, and then back down again. She clasped the pipe between her teeth, struck the flint and lit it, drawing in once, tossing a strand of red-hair back flirtily over her shoulder. Herli would normally not touch tobacco and constantly bemoaned its filthy scent, but in moments such as these she always took one ceremonial puff.
He took it from her,pressing his lips to her hand in thanks, and puffed happily away, grabbing hold of Herli's elbow when she went to move. She came back without complaint, snuffing out all candles but one, smiling and snuggling against his chest, and pulling a rug up about their waists.
"I'll have to change the bed linen again." she sighed with no irritation. "Tante Marie would call it a heinous crime, but I let it run out - no more babbies, not now."
He squeezed her tighter. "That is fair enough. Besides, there must be some years, and soon, when I can have you all to myself once more."
"Greedy boy" she yawned, and he agreed.
They lay together a long while in the warm semi-dark of the tent, cuddled comfortably into a satiated bundle until a light rumbling snore from Clopin started Herli out of her drowsiness. With a thudding heart she quickly and quietely untangled himself from his arms, hissing nervously when he almost awoke, and then dressed hastily, hoping she wasn't too late.
Encasing her feet in sturdy brown sandals, and once again borrowing Clopin's cloak, she dared to lay a quiet kiss on his rough cheek before darting hastily out to where Pierre waited for her.