The Red Bull Tavern was neither illustrious nor depraved. Its stench was not rank, its patrons did not foam at the mouth and its food had very little cat in it, all things considered. By the same token, its walls were dank and dirty, the clientele who frequented it did not know how to spell their own names and it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between the wine and the muddy water which ran by its front door.
It was this tavern that Pierre and Herlikin had met in the previous night, and it was this tavern that saw the entrance of the Vicomtesse Ginevra de Vinceness, 'disguised' in a heavy brown cloak, flaring her nostrils in outraged disgust at all she beheld. The women with their hair coming unpinned and their dresses sliding haphazardly from their shoulders, the drunkards blowing bubbles between fat, red and cracked lips as they snored quietely on the tables admisdt alcohol and sizzling sausages. The disinterested glances her way, the raccous laughter, the smell of the commoner - alcohol, sweat and dirt - the language, the lewedness of feminine ankles propped careleslly upon table tops, toenails begrimed beyond repreive.
Ginevra swayed and touched lightly with a thickly gloved hand the doorframe where she hovered. A lesser woman might have found her courage waned and retreated quickly before nausea took hold, but Ginevra was sewn with stronger mettle and after a second, and reaffirming Lasalle's presence in a quiet, dark orange corner of the tavern, she lifted her chin and strode purposefully towards the bar. For once the admiring glances of men failed to please her; perhaps it was the obscence remarks muttered under breath - though none too quietely - and the hooting that displeased her. The fact that their pooled monies could probably only purchase one of the ruby encrusted slippers which hid under her skirts more than likely played a part also.
By the time Ginevra reached the bar she was a lemon ivory with fury, daring not to say a word in retaliaton, both wariness of being revealed and determinaton to not lower herself holding her tongue. Louis, the publican, continued only to polish a glass and laugh at some drunkard balancing a bottle upon his nose, and did not heed her quiet cough, or the suede gloved fingers which rapped imperiously upon the bartop.
Ginevra gritted her teeth. Intolerable! That a woman of her station and breeding should be so forced to enter such a disgreeable situation. She wasn't so sure she wouldn't knife the little witch after all. She rapped her fingers again, harder and Louis shot her a disinterested, wary glance.
"Can I help you?" he said to her roughly, eyes pivoting back quickly to follow the goings on of the young men, arranged in a circle with two of them playing tricks in the center.
Ginevra bristled, then managed to spit out "Show me to where Chaton is waiting"
She was interrupted by a shout of rude laughter from Louis and the other men, as one of the young gentleman received a mugful of beer in his face. The Vicomtesse's sholders knotted and she hissed in through her teeth, red spots dancing in front of her eyes.
"Sorry I missed that, what did you say?" Louis said in a voice which was both amiable and rude, turning to finally face Ginevra. Greeted with the black pools of her eyes, the smirk dropped from his face and he backed up a step, watching her carefully with raised eyebrow.
"I said, show me to where Chaton is waiting." Ginevra's voice fell like jagged glass and Louis' dark lips pursed as he hurridedly pushed a few fat glasses under the bar, tossed a rag over his shoulder and beckoned with a meaty finger for her to follow him.
Somewhat gratified by what she supposed was her superiority shining through and subduing the commoner, Ginevra swung out after him, expensive skirts swishing deliciously beneath the old cloak which hid them. She kept the hood firmly pulled over her pearl-embellished head and did not look to either side as she followed Louis through the uneven maze of tables and chairs to a narrow and rickety staircase in the far wall. Truth to be told, it was the vicious blankness in her eyes which had got Louis moving. The empty coldness which signalled, as he was taught, pure evil.Bad enough he had one with the evil eye in his back room, now he had one without a soul. What had he agreed to anyway - he hoped they'd finish their business up quickly and be gone with them.
Louis drew back amnd motioned with a grimy hand to the stair. "Up there. First door on your left."
Ginevra did not even glance at him as she swept forward to mount the steps leading above, creaking, water stained and hollow beneath her sharp heels. Louis watched her ascend, not missing the flash of gold beneath the lining of her cape, and then turned back to the bar with a shake of his shaggy head. Bad business, he could feel it.
At the top of the stair case the air lightened, though yet stained with damp, and only one tallow candle burned on a small table set a little way down the hall. The sound of the tavern below faded almost instantly, leaving a still quietness beyond. Ginevra peered into the darkness but could not see the end of the hall, then turned to the left as she had been instructed. The door there was open but a crack, a bright orange glow spilling out from behind it. Ginevra leaned forward delicately, turning one seashell ear to the crack, listening intently, straining in the dimness. She was greeted only with silence. One armed glided slowly forth, gloved fingers pushed ever so lightly against the stained, chipped oak and - an enormous creak broke the silence, the door's hinges complaining loudly as they were forced to move from their position of rest.
A light laughter erupted from the widened crack. Ginevra straightened, throwing her head back in something akin to alarm, but closer to indignation.
"Come in, Belladonna, I can hear you."
The voice was soft, strangely accented and definetely feminine. A far cry from the bestial snarls of the witch in the Town Square. Ginevra flared her nostrils and pushed the door open decisively, it gliding silently back to thud against the wall, and then she was unfastening her cloak, throwing it off her shoulders, revealing herself in a foam of purple skirts which filled the doorframe and spilled into the room, the tips of her glossy black hair almost scraping the roof. This grand entrance was not meeted with quite the awe it deserved; the room was scant and bare, a blazing fireplace in one corner, a table and two chairs in the other. And at one of those chairs - Ginevra's shining eyes blinked, growing used to the sudden illumination and the crackling heat of the room and squinted at her hostess, who sat and grinned at her from her seat.
She was so small! Were Ginevra's first thoughts. Just barely bigger than Rossignol, and he would doubtless outgrow her. Her hair was the same shocking red, and her eyes as bright but she sat calm and quiet, hands folded demurely in her lap, respectfully though brightly garbed and appearing doll-like in the wake of Ginevra's voluminous skirts and imposing height.
The little witch cocked her head to one side and blinked her colorful eyes at Ginevra in an inquistive fashion as the Vicomtesse hesitated, taking in what she saw. Finally, a scornful laugh broke from her pale lips and she strode forward, towering over the little gypsy woman who continued to only blink and look up at her.
"Seat yourself, Belladonna." The witch made a graceful motion with a twinkling hand, cheap bronze jewellery littering it exotically.
"Call me by that name again and I'll see you hung." Ginevra returned in the same collected, icy voice, before gracefully seating herself upon the small, rough chair.
The gypsy witch had made an agitated movement upon Ginevra's threat, but she was quiet and calm still, leaning forward a little way to bare her teeth in a type of smile at the other woman.
"You remember me then?"
"I remember you."
"You know why you are here?"
"I have my suspicions."
"My husband has a nice ass, does he not?"
Ginevra did not answer that, but narrowed her eyes at Herlikin until they were mere black bushstrokes on her smooth face. Herlikin's smile widened smugly at the reaction and she leaned back in her chair once more, crossing her legs and crawling one toe along the wall.
"He's the envy of most of our sex, dear Vicomtesse. I have more than one enemy for having him all to myself." Ginevra remained silent, watching Herli from cold, dark eyes, Herlikin's conversational tone grating down her breastbone. "I rather fancied that's why you saw fit to have your fat coachman beat him. The nerve of a peasant, making you wet your seat like that." Was the crudity affected? Ginevra wasn't sure. "Unless of course, you simply like things like whips and submission." Herlikin's green eye sparkled at her mischeviously from across the table as she closed one lid in a lewd wink. Ginevra sniffed in an amused fashion. Then she spoke.
"Or perhaps it was simply the fact I found his performance offensive, his ability sorely lacking and his impudence too far above his station, no matter the length of him."
Herlikin bristled and snapped "It's all in proportion too." Ginevra saw the means to overpower her and continued -
"How so cheap a performer could be the envy of your fellows is beyond my comprehension, but if he is 'all yours' as you say it is through no charm of your own, but that of the Devil through witchcraft. That much is clear."
Herli gritted her teeth and for a moment seemed about to fly at Ginevra, just as she had to Lasalle in the Square, but a second later and she calmed, shrinking it seemed - almost as though rage made her larger - and once again relaxed in her chair.
"Of course. My blood is romany, therefore I consort with your Christian Devil and dance naked by the Full Moon, taking pleasure from other women."
Ginevra glared at her. "Is that your confession?"
Herlikin paused, staring at the Vicomtesse intensely, trying to discern the emotion behind the question. Then she leaned forward, clasping her ringed fingers before her and holding Ginevra's gaze.
"What would it mean to you if I said I did not believe in your Christian Devil, that he and Hell and Heaven and your God mean nothing to me and I cannot worship them simply because I have no faith in them?"
Ginevra looked at her calmly and then replied. "It would mean you are a liar."
Sparks danced in Herlikin's eyes and her lips grew pale, but still she maintained her composure.
"Believe what you will. We're not here to discuss religion, but rather the law, in particular one administrator of it. I believe you know him rather intimately, shall we call it?" The smirk had returned to her face.
"And why do you believe that?"
"Because I have, in my possession, a letter addressed to this same gentleman from the Vincennes, intercepted on its way of being delivered to this same gentleman's hand by the Vicomtesse de Vincenne's young page who upon the barest baring of teeth confessed he was delivering a message for his mistress."
"You have read the letter, I suppose?"
The slightest smirk twisted the Vicomtesse's mouth.
"I know better than to suppose a woman of your depraved class could read. You are a liar."
"And yet, you are here."
The Vicomtesse was silent once more, leaning back against her chair and turning her sharp eyes to the wall. Triumphant of success, Herlikin folded her arms smugly and laughed.
"I imagine you would do much to get this letter out of my hands, eh?"
Ginevra's eyes flickered over Herlikin's bodice, but still she said nothing.
Herlikin looked down upon her bosom, and then ran her hands over it, as though searching.
"Now, now. Depraved, lying, lascivious witch though I might be, I am not stupid. The letter itself has been entrusted to a companion of mine, who has instructions to reveal its contents should I not return this evening. But you know," Herlikin rose to her feet, twitching her skirts and loosening the strings of her bodice. "You could search me if you like."
Her eyes were narrowed and sly, her smile sneering and her hip bent to one side. Herlikin was looking to antagonise, so antagonised had she been by the comments on her husband, and spurred on a little by perverse curiosity. A noblewoman who bedded every man she met - but only men?
The Vicomtesse only stared blankly at the gypsy woman for a few moments, vaguely discomforted but not understanding her implications until the strings of Herlikin's bodice were so loosened her breasts threatened to tumble out. A hot memory of the gypsy saying she took pleasure from other women flashed through her head and Ginevra drew her headback in revulsion, a dull red flush skimming across her cheeks. Herlikin's eyes bordered on gloating and Ginevra bit out harshly -
"I stoop to no such menial tasks. My guards are much more accomplished at searching gypsy women than I."
The smile ran from Herlikin's face and she snapped her bodice shut with a flourish before resuming her seat and tossing rose-scented locks back over her shoulder.
"Enough playing." The strange accent which skimmed over her words was sharp now, impatient, annoyed. "To business."
Ginevra was still, and raised an eyebrow.
"I am more than willing to give you back your letter, but I ask something in return. It is the merest trifle. It will cost you nothing."
Ginevra raised both eyebrows this time.
Herli shrugged and then continued. "Well - perhaps your pride. I will give you the letter back if you come to the Square where my husband performs, and apologise to him."
Rage pulsed so quickly through Ginevra's veins that she did not even relise it had propelled her to her feet until the gypsy woman was once again several heads below her. With flared nostrils and anger-widened eyes, the Vicomtesse did not much resemble the Madonna now; Herlikin rather thought more of the devouring Goddess Kali.
"Apologise? Apologise to you filthy scum? You say that I should apologise to your worthless bag of bones who will do France a favor the day he dies?" The words tumbled upon one another in their race to rush out and she nearly choked on them. Fury blinded her and her gloved hands scrabbled recklessly at the table top below her, as Herlikin gaped up in amazement and more than a little unease. "I'll do no such thing! Not a thing!"
"I'll reveal the letter! I swear I will!" Herlikin had jumped to her feet, temper easily struck alight by the insults to Clopin and the Vicomtesse's refusal to do as she bid. "To your husband! To your friends! To everyone!" Like a spoilt child she thumped a little fist upon the table and shook out her hair. Ginevra tossed back her head and sneered at her.
"Apologise? I? To you? I will do no such thing. But what I will do is hunt your people down one by one until I find this husband you hold so precious and then I will have his head! And if a few heads are lost until the right one is gained, then that is no loss, rather a favor to France."
Herlikin was as enraged as Ginevra now and the two stood facing each other off, one small and bright and impassioned, the other tall and pale and glowering. Fury danced on the air and fought with the heat of the fire and the room shrunk in on itself, trapping the two women in a bubble of pure energy.
"It will be your reputation!" Herlikin gasped out then hissed as Ginevra leapt forward, deigning to lower her face to the gypsy woman and spit out at her.
"Either return the letter to me, or I will see to it that every gypsy who passes through the Courts is hung. The benefits of being intimate with the law, shall we call it?"
"I'll do no such thing!" Herlikin exclaimed.
"Very well." Ginevra drew up and pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders again. "If that is how you choose it to be. We have no further business to discuss."
Leaving Herlikin sputtering angrily behind her, Ginevra left the room, storming furiously down the narrow steps and whirling out into the damp streets beyond, the chill of them startling after the raging heat of the small room. A second later and Lasalle joined her, disguised as he was in rough tunic and hose, tipping his cap hastily, then drawing back as though bitten when she turned to her with venom in her eyes.
"You were not successful, my Vicomtesse?"
"Come Lasalle, take me home." she snapped. "We've got much to do. This isn't over yet."
Meanwhile Herlikin had wiggled out the small window, having decided she would not pay for use of the room, and clambered shakily down the slick, rough walls. She waved agitatedly in one of the tavern windows to where Pierre sat earnestly drinking his beer, then snatched at his sleeves furiously when he joined her on the streets.
"What's wrong, what happened, are you pleased or angry, it's so damned hard to tell with you, Madame Passion!" he slurred dazedly at the dancing pixie before him.
"Come with me Pierre, we've got work to do. This isn't over yet!"
A half hour later a still-enraged Herlikin Trouillefou was storming through the rickety backstreets of Paris, now alone and cutting a sharp color against the black and grey of the night. She stomped carelessly through puddles and clutched her cloak tightly at her neck and gritted her teeth as her eyes narrowed in dissatisfaction. The drunk Pierre had offered no assistance and she was more than aware, despite her aggravated state, that her husband had probably awakened and turned the Court upside down in pursuit of her. That, of course, would lead to more gossip pounding hard across the air and sly, narrow looks her way as her 'friends' the women chattered how Madame Trouillefou knew only one way to please her husband....
Having worked herself into a fine temper, it was only too easy for this line of thought to further fan the flames. Herlikin's feet stamped out a drum beat, and the cowl of her cloak fell back, fiery locks spilling out over her shoulders. She moved fast and seemingly with purpose, the scowl of her face giving her an other-wordly aura. Intimidating perhaps, but the baser districts of Paris were littered with those whose depravity made them blind to gypsy women with sharp teeth. That night, Herlikin's fury made her blind to a dangerous situation she was usually cautious of avoiding.
As she rounded a putrid corner, espying her goal - the Bells and Motley Tavern - beyond, a shadow separated itself from the mural of those which streaked the ill placed bricks and slipped out silently after her, rapidly gaining on her heels, until the hem of her worn cloak was within hand's reach - then the trailing ends of her hair - then her neck.
Her pursuer pounced, one arm pinning hers firmly to her side, a large, black-gloved hand clasping her mouth shut. Panic lurched in Herlikin's stomach, exploding through her veins in a fierce cold as she instinctively threw herself back against her attacker, convulsing violently in a half-conscious effort to tear herself away.
It happened in seconds; then the familiar scent of the man struck her nostrils and she ceased struggling as he simultaneously loosened his hold.
"Dammnit, Herli!" Clopin's voice was sharp and angry above her, and had the odd quality of sounding as though it were soken through glass. "What the hell do you mean, wandering these streets alone at this time of the damned night? Are you really the pretty ninny they all label you in the Court?" Herlikin wrenched free from his arms and turned around on shakey feet to face him, knowing she should yell back, knowing she should slap him for frightening her, but realising only that her shoulders were beginning to shake and a second later hot tears spilled down her cheeks and Clopin's angry expression changed to one of concern as she turned to the gutter and vomited violently.Both hands moved quickly to support her by the elbows as she swooned and slumped against him.
"Clopin - " she gulped and clutched him with relief. "I thought - I thought - I thought - it was - it was - "
Clopin had hear her stammer like that once before, and thoroughly alarmed now he gripped her tight and breathed soothingly into her hair, until her sobs subsided and her trembling ceased.
"Come." he began to guide her gently away by the shoulder, scoldings and admonissions forgotten, both their tempers much sobered. "Foolish to linger out here any longer than needs be."
Meek as a kitten now, she could only nod and let herself be led back to the very appealing security of their subterranean home.
Ginevra de Vincennes set her teeth within her head and rolled her eyes venomously as her doddering husband tried to engage her in light conversation, the two having been unfortunate enough to run into one another as they followed their separate courses through the blank corridors of the Chateau. The meeting, swift as it was, did nothing to improve Ginevra's temper so that by the time she had shaken him from her, strode back to her apartments and on into her dressing room, the violence of her passion was such that a silver hairbrush was lurched savagely across the room, a rare moment of lost control.
Resenting the action, frustrated and unsatisfied, The Vicomtesse collapsed into the chair which stood at the vanity and let her face fall forward into her hands. Remaining this way for several moments, blinking against the small black, feeling the lashes of her eyes stroke against the palms of her hands, Ginevra breathed deeply until the racing of her blood slowed, and the tight brightness behind her eyes dissapeared.
Sitting up with straightened shoulders and her resolve now clear in her mind, she swept calmly out from her dressing room and summoned her footman by the bellpull.
"Tell Lasalle my coach must be ready first thing in the morning." she informed the footman sharply. "I am paying a visit of high importance to the Minister of Justice and it must not be allowed to wait longer than needs be."
Followed unnervingly by a sense of discomfort, the footman bowed out swiftly to deliver the message. It was nothing unusual for him to be glad to be away from her prescence, but especially so tonight. There had been a violence in her eyes, those cold pits of black marble, that had not been there before.
Bcak within her sitting room, the Vicomtesse sat regally before the fire whose vibrancy seemed dull in comparison to the raging flames of the small room where the Gypsy Woman had made her threats.
Threats which would come to nothing. The Vicomtesse's mouth twisted in a sneer; she not only had the will to make good upon her own -
- She had the power.