Herlikin awoke the next morning with a faint stickiness between her legs. Raising her head, which felt heavy and dull, blearily from the pillows she lifted the sheepskin and linen coverings to peek her face beneath. The tangy metallic scent of blood smacked her nostrils and she let her head slump back on the pillows with a tired groan. Before she could muster the energy to clamber from the bed, however, Clopin awoke beside her and immediately turned to where she lay. Herli langoured in his kisses for a few moments and then stopped his hand.
"It's my time with the Moon." she explained to his questioning look and he echoed her groan of moments before and lay his head down on her bosom. They lay in silence for a few moments, Herli's fingers idly stroking his hair, until with a sudden burst of energy, Clopin leapt up and hopped out of bed. Herlikin was slower to rise, already the waves of nausea had begun their trawl through her stomach, but once up she was very quick to swallow a large mixture of red wine and herbs. Clopin looked at her bloodstained thighs with curiosity as he always did; he was not frightened or repulsed by the bleeding as other men were, though perhaps even he didn't understand it, but Herli knew he would never have dared to look with any of the women who had come before her. The attitude towards menstruation was becoming increasingly superstitious and fearful; Clopin had mentioned once how the men had spoken of the dangers that lay within the blood.
"Now, what ridiculous nonsense is that? If there were no blood, there'd be no babbies!" Herli had scoffed disdainfully and Clopin had jerked his thin shoulders up and then down again.
"They think that blood not used to give life can only bring death."
"Rubbish!" Herli had snorted again, but had found herself no supporters amongst the women. Sometimes she wondered if they were truly all of the same blood; her upbringing had taught her an entirely different respect for her fertility - such as it was - and Herlikin was once again a frustrated outsider, certain of her own truths just as her female companions were certain their blood made them marhime.
She left the tent to bathe, wrapped thickly in her robe and wraps of wool, and delighted in the sensations of hot, soapy water poured lushly over her breasts and belly. Then she went over the events of the previous evening.
The words of the Vicomtesse danced in her belly admidst the cramps, making her feel even more ill at ease. "I will see to it that every gypsy who passes through the Courts is hung." The Vicomtesse's words. They hung in the back of her ear, repeating themselves in a rumbling echo which grew steadily sharper, the woman's icy hard eyes boring into Herlikin's very heart, seeing the doubt there. She must've seen the tremor in Herlikin's hand, heard that faint stammer in her voice as she'd laid down her ultimatum for the Vicomtesse to consider. That is why she threatened what she had. The Vicomtesse was more astute than Herli had given her credit for. But what she claimed to be able to do was impossible, no mortal man would hang just anyone on the words of a mere woman.
Then again - Herlikin was not entirely convinced of Claude Frollo's mortality.
Herli scrubbed the unease from her breast and shook her head vigorously, clambering out of the bath as the water rushed off her in a torrent. It was impossible. They could not hang anyone, not even the rom, for no reason at all. Herli pulled a piece of linen between her legs and fastened it firmly around her waist, then rubbed jasmine oil over her breasts and belly, sprinkling it on her hair. It was an empty threat, the empty threat of an empty woman fearful of her reputation, over confident in her power. Herli had nothing to worry about. She would contact the Vicomtesse again in a week's time, enough time for the vicious bitch to come to her senses, then she would get her husband's apology. Herlikin left the bathing tents and hurried back to her home, humming pleasantly underneath her breath. The pain had subsided, she was clean and warm and dressed cheerfully in green, better still - she was certain of success. Close by. Clopin was just putting the final touches on his performance garb, pulling on his belled shoes, when his wife danced into the tent again, sweet scented and smiling and he leaned back in his chair and grinned at her.
"Better, sweet kitten?" he questioned, holding out an arm for her to snuggle under on his lap.
"Mmmm." she agreed, pushing her head beneath his chin. "For now, at any rate. Must you go out today?"
He chuckled into her hair. "Yes, I must. That is, if you would like to eat for the week."
She sighed resignedly and stood up, holding out a hand to him. "Miss me."
He winked at her, and took the hand she offered, standing. "I always do."
He pulled her into his arms for a kiss, and she reveled in the lean strength of his arms about her, her few moments of weakness were always spent like this. Then he was gone, bowing out of their tent with an exuberant flourish of his feathered hat, and she listened to the pad-pad of his shoes as he danced out of the Court, with a small smile.
The day idled by uneventfully. She fed her children and bathed them, telling stories to her two youngest, seeing her two eldest off to play with their companions in the Court Center. She cleaned the tent and set her two babbies on the cushions there to play with each other, pausing a moment to observe her son Clopin, who was telling the most remarkable stories to his binak, with a wondering look. Then she set about preparing dinner. Carrots, turnips, potatoes and bread for herself. The same, with the added luxury of beef, for her family. Clopin had insisted the children be raised on meat. At least he had not forced her to it.
"...no longer did the gentleman fret, for he had found the truest love with the doe, who was the most beautiful creature the gentleman had ever laid eyes upon. They lived together in the forest, and after a year of joy the doe gave birth to their child, a blessed son whose forehead was crowned with a single beautiful horn of ivory..."
Ahvel clapped his hands and laughed in delight, as he always did when Herlikin reached this part of the tale, an old indian paramitsha, and her son Clopin petted his binak's hair. Herlikin smiled from where she sat at the stove and took a breath, preparing to continue. Before a word could leave her lips her husband swept into the tent, wrenching his mask from his face and turning to her with intensity furrowing his brow. Ahvel had leapt up to greet his papa with delight, and even the younger Clopin had grinned and waved a small hand. But Clopin, who usually tore his children into his arms and immediately began play with them, only ran his hands through their dark hair distractedly, then rubbed an agitated hand on his chin, sighing.
"What's wrong, love?" Herli was slightly alarmed by his demeanour, watching him cautiously where he stood in the center of the tent, hand on his chin, the other on his hip and frowning hard. He started, her words drawing him back to his surroundings and then sighed once more, coming over to the cushions she sat upon next to the stove, running a hand through her hair.
"Three of the women were hung today." he informed her quietely, and Herli's hand froze in midair over the stove. A second later and she regained her composure, moving the vegetables from the direct flame, clinging to the handle of the pan tightly so as to disguise the tremble in her hands.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked quietely and Clopin knelt down beside her, massaging his forehead, pulling his pipe out of a concealed pocket.
"It was entirely unexpected." he explained. "There had been no announcement, no warning. All of a sudden, three romani were led up onto the scaffold, the Minister made a short statement, and the stools were kicked out."
Herlikin was silent for several moments, glad she was turned mostly to the stove so that her husband could not see her face. The flames from the small fire caused a slight sweat to break out on her upperlip.Behind then Ahvel was clambering off the cushions to come and sit on his papa's knee and pull his goatee, but Herlikin turned sharply and told him to stay where he was. Her son fell back with a start and looked at them in confusion, pulling on his toes with a pouting lower lip as his binak crept up to his side to watch his parent's with dark eyes.
"Who could believe a crowd could gather so quickly?" Clopin's voice was bitter. "The square was full to the brim in moments, all of them jumping over one another to move in closer and feast their eyes on purple faces."
Herlikin took a breath, and leaned back against the cushions. "Was it - was it anyone we know?"
Not noticing the tremor beneath her words Clopin wrapped an arm about her shoulders and puffed unhappily on his pipe. "No, thankfully, lune. Just three unhappy romani women."
Herli gasped a little and turned to her husband, burying her face in his chest, clinging to his tunic doggedly, inhaling a breath to take in the sharp scent of his perspiration. "But - but why? Why were they - " she drew up short and Clopin pulled a consoling hand through her hair,cradling the base of her head, a little bewildered at her distress, so much greater than normal when greeted with a gypsy hanging, but not questioning. He was too agitated over the events of the day, the hanging he had not known about.
"Robbery, or so the Minister said. Apparently they theived a noblewoman's carriage, in company with four rom - so you can now imagine, the hunt is on for these idiot men, and their fate will be doubtless the same."
Herlikin's head swam and she sat back. She had to change the linen between her legs. The blood flow was heavy and it was making her light-headed. The women who were hung - it had to be coincidence. They must've been in the dungeons for a week at least. It was coincidence. Clopin ran a blackgloved hand through his hair and then looked at his wife curiously, clenching his pipe between his teeth as he yanked off his gloves and tossed them over his shoulder.
"What's wrong, kitten? You're as white as a doppleganger. Are you so distressed by my news?"
No. She wasn't. She never was. She was ill, that was all. "No, love, have you forgotten already I am bleeding?"
He clucked sympathetically and cuddled her once more before rising to his feet and shaking off his gloom to smile at his sons and leap onto the cushions beside them. They raisied their arms in a cheer from where they had curiously observed their unusually sombre parents. He pulled them into his arms and kissed both their faces as Ahvel tugged at his ear and Clopin smiled at his papa.
Herlikin turned the beef, watching the bright red of it turn slowly grey, then brown, its juices hissing and sizzling in the pan as the fire worked busily away beneath it. The cramps had begun to set in again, stirring nausea within her belly.
Ginevra de Vincennes hummed a little melody beneath her breath as she read over the slim volumes of poetry which had emerged from within her fingertips in happier days. The day had been, so far as the Vicomtesse was concerned, an immense success, and the week coming could only promise more of the same very pleasing results. It had been worth it, seeing Claude before she had intended, going to him as opposed to his giving in to her. And hadn't the snideness on his lips been stolen away when he had discovered her motives for coming? Hadn't the triumphant light flickered and died within his steel gray eyes when she had stood before him, her face as smooth as the marble Madonna in the Cathedral, and explained quite simply, in cold, impersonal speech, the nature of her visit?
Wasn't that, in a way, another victory for Ginevra?
Ginevra's mouth twitched in the effort to withold the smug smile from her face as Rossignol's fingers tinkled with incomparable loveliness over the strings of his harp once more, the notes as pure and fine as crystal shimmering on the air between them, his round blue eyes fixed on her with a slavish intensity of desire, of fear. She did not cast him even a sidewards glance from beneath her lids, but perched on the edge of her setteé, her breath rising in short gasps as Rossignol's melody crescendoed, travelled upwards in ever lightening scales, the curve of the Vicomtesse's breast over her bodice, the smooth white slope of her neck and the moist shimmer of her black eyes from beneath her lowered lids spurring his melody onwards. A delicious victory. The kind of victory she once would of celebrated in words, sparkling wit and irrisistably charming meter, the clever rhymes which aroused in so many both admiration and envy. In Italy - ah it would of poured from her before she could stop it. The Vicomtesse's fingers twitched and she gasped again, a sharp intake of breath she silenced in grasping her round lower lip with her teeth. Her fingers twitched again, the deep burgandy of the jaspar flashing a brilliant red and entwining her hands in her velvet skirts she forced herself to settle back against the cushions. Let it come, let it come, don't force it, like in the old days. They would just come.
It was coming. The words were there, swimming around just behind her eyes, blurry yet. Let them form, let them take shape and then transpose them to paper. Ginevra di Cavalcanti was not a dead woman yet. The Vicomtesse took another breath and sat forward calmly, her black lashes resting gentle against her cheeks. Calmly she reached for the quill in its ink stand, ever by her hand, and shook the tip gently against the bottle, so that the ink would not drip. Calmly, she reached with her other hand for the paper which rested ever by the ink. Another breath, the gentle whisper of velvet skirts and the soft chink of pearls knocking against knots of gold, and then the Vicomtesse opened her eyes and lifted quill to paper.
The nib broke, tearing a great smear of ink across the ivory white, rendering both useless. For a moment the Vicomtesse sat, transfixed, her eyes widening as they they devoured the flesh they were set in, and then she let out a cry of agitation and swept the paper from the desk, her twitching fingers finding their way to the shining cap of hair, tangled themselves in the net of pears as the Vicomtesse gazed hollowly at the golden oak of the table before her.
Rossignol's melody had fallen once more to less ambitious efforts, more subdued chords, sweet still and charming, but lacking the euphoria of the previous. Ginevra pulled her hands from her head, straightened her skirts and the large jaspar ring upon her finger, and reflected over the day's events.
She had arrived at the Palace of Justice early, as she had planned, and had immediately demanded an audience of Claude Frollo. The guards knew her; she was something of a regular guest to the Palace, and certainly a powerful one, and had at once gone without question to notify the Minister of her arrival. She had felt more than a little sour to be informed that the Minister was receiving no guests that morning. Boring into the guard's watery brown eyes with her marble-hard black ones she had told him to inform the Minister that it was a matter of etreme emergency regarding the romany, and that to send her away without having seen justice done would not set the aristocracy of Paris at ease; they were all in danger.
He had hesitated a moment and then bowed out, leaving the Vicomtesse alone in the echoing depth of the great hallway, its old gothic pillars and twisting staircases twirling out around her.
Barely five minutes passed before the guard returned once more, hurrying down the wide marble stairs to where she waited, and following him regally, a towering vision in fine black velvet, the icy pallor of his face gleaming slightly in the gloom which deepened as the stairs rose, was Claude Frollo.
The one man in the entirety of Ginevra's life who had held her attention, captured it, in fact. The one man who could be said to wield an iotum of true power over her person. Who could influence her thoughts and actions,as much as anyone could influence them.
Who impassioned her and who had brought her to the heights of the deepest ecstasy she had ever known, who had infuriated her and sent her plummeting into the depths of the most intense anger she had ever experienced.
She was not here as his lover on this day. She met the perfect gray of the gleaming eyes set deep within his skull calmly and without outside emotion. Her gaze followed his unflinchingly as he descended the stairs to stand by her side and when she held out her hand for him to take it and incline his head gracefully forward, it was with all the quality of an indifferent stranger following the motions of propriety. He'd arched a gray eyebrow and looked at her with a tight mouth before dismissing the guard and gesturing they should adjourn.
"Now, Vicomtesse de Vincennes, pray tell whatever is this emergency you speak of?" he'd questioned her as they drew into a large slate grey room, hung sombrely with burgandy drapings and ornamented scarcely with heavy dark-oak furniture, pale light filtering weakly through heavy leaded windows.
'Vicomtesse de Vincennes'. Ginevra kept the sneer from her mouth. Behind fastened doors they had always been very much on a name to name basis. Beneath his question there had been the barest skim of mockery; he thought she had devised this ploy as a means to see him, to be near him, smelling the dusky scent of books and wine, to listen to the words in their icy-gray tones fall neatly from his mouth, to see - to see the sculpted face and hands, fine and elegant, bone white with the skin pulled tight and fine. The cruel joy she had experienced when she'd replied had been difficult to keep hidden.
"Have you any gypsy women in the dungeons at present, 'Minister Frollo'?"
He'd started just sligtly where he stood with his back to her, slihoutted in front of one of the tall, silvery windows, one hand outstretched lightly on the back of a chair so that the two great rings which adorned it shimmered slightly in the half light. Having not received an answer Ginvera strode forward, her deep violet skirts rustling before her, and had stopped just short of him, knowing the heavy scent of her perfume must waft forward and dance beneath his nostrils. "Minister Frollo, it is of the greatest importance you answer me, if you please. Have you any gypsy women in the dungeons at present?"
He'd turned to her then, his face as impervious and rockhard as her own and had inclined his head forward slightly.
"Our dungeons are always choked to the brim with the most depraved of humanity; as such there is always a gypsy woman or two within them."
There was a curiousness deep set in his gaze and Ginevra thought quickly.
"Two? Perhaps three, even?"
He finally faced her front on, turning his whole, lean body to face hers and had steepled his fingers in front of him, thin fingertips meeting and melting together.
"Yes. Three, even."
"A group of gypsy thieves accosted me and my carriage on the roads just beyond the border of my chateau last week. I am in search of the guilty ones - three women and four men. May I trouble you to bring these women before me so that I might determine whether they were amongst those who attacked and robbed me?"
Claude Frollo's fine gray eyebrows had shot up in his head, the pale flesh of his forehead folding tightly over them. But he only blinked once and nodded in acqueisiance.
Their shoes had padded swiftly together in a pulsing tempo as they made their way through the corridors and into the Court House. The guards were summoned. Instructions were given. Scant moments later a group of five dirty, frightened and confused romani were brought in and told to line up before the noblewoman and be sure to stay in their place.
Blinking their eyes against the harshness of the light they had all but forgotten during their stay in the putrid straw of the Palace of Justice's dungeons, they had clawed at their rags and held them together, half turning to each other in the need for solace, whispering harsh prayers to the spirits as the Vicomtesse de Vincennes towered before them, an imposing vision in dark violet and amethysts, shimmering and splendid as the goddess from the old tales.
Frollo cleared his throat politely at her elbow, and made a sweeping gesture with a slim hand
to the women in the docks before them.
"These women were all brought in within the last week, Vicomtesse. I am assuming that the incident was recent?"
Ginevra nodded curtly, not so much as turning her head to him but continuing to stare at the five dark skinned women before her. "Last week."
Claude sniffed softly and ran a critical eye over the sleeve of his long tunic before dusting it off lightly. "Why ever did you not come to us immediately?"
Ginevra ignored the smug tone of his voice. "They threatened my life. I was frightened."
Noone, hearing the flat, expressionless voice those words were uttered in, would have believed her.
"Ah!" Frollo proclaimed in a soft tone of understanding. "I see. And are the women who accosted you before you today?"
The barest hint of a smile ran over Ginevra's white lips. "Of course."
"Of course." he echoed breathily by her ear and she stabbed him a look.
"The three in the middle" she proclaimed sharply, and the guards leapt forward to wrench the other two away, to push the three unfortunates forward who cried out in confusion, raising their hands in distress at having their bare arms touched by a man, who turned wth red rimmed and watering eyes to where the Minister and the Vicomtesse stood, stone still and glaring at them with outraged expressions on their sharp faces.
As the Minister made the accusation in a cold monotone they cried and wept, denying it of course - she had expected no less from them - and pleaded for mercy. Again and again they claimed they had not even known each other prior to incarceration, that they did not know the Vicomtesse, that they were innocent of this crime!
The Minister's lip curled as he listened to what was certainly lies and then agreed to Ginevra's quiet whisper that sentence should be carried out immediately.
Ripped from the flagstones, the women were led to the Town Square, the Minister and the Vicomtesse following in Frollo's large, looming carriage, and she had watched with the gleam of satisfaction in her black eyes as the women were bound tightly, the nooses were set in place and the stools one by one kicked out from under their feet, their legs wresting helplessly at the air for long, heavy seconds before ceasing to move at all.
Then she'd turned with concealed delight to where the crowd had gathered, filling the Square, all of them gazing in wonder at the hanged women, gossip already caught its light and spreading like wildfire.
Ginevra opened her eyes once more and smiled again from the warmth of her setteé as Rossignol paused in his playing and silence broke the air. Yes, the day had indeed been a success.
And there were yet four men to be found.