There was tension in the Court of Miracles.
Debates had raged fierce as to whether the women hung had committed the crimes of which they had been accused. Those who believed them guilty declared the women had paid for their foolishness and they who made an honest living should stay out of it. Those who believed them innocent declared it was another example of prejudice on behalf of the gadje and something must certainly be done about it. Then they were those who considered the crime a possibility, but one the guilty parties - if they were such - were almost certainly driven to by the bastard gadje.
All rom wanted to know why Clopin had not been aware of the incident before it took place.
To this demand, Clopin could offer no satisfactory explanation; he had been taken as unawares as had they all. Rigorous questioning of his spies had turned up nought. Of this hanging, seemingly not a whisper had been uttered before the hour it took place.
Clopin was a popular King for the most part, and as the rom had milled together in a chattering herd in the Center when he announced in his distinct, strong voice that a meeting was to be held, most were willing to hear what he had to say and believe it. But all Kings have their adversaries,and though in Clopin's particular case they were few, they spoke loud and determinedly.The rom of the Court of Miracles were a close knit society, having had to survive as they did very much relying upon each other. The majority of its inhabitants had settled down as few rom did, had been in the Court for years and knew their neighbour's grandparents, children and children's favourite mongrel. A web of trust encased them firmly and solidly and anything, no matter how slight, which poked a whole in that shell, would doubtless cause unease.
Rom hangings were not unusual. Clopin and his men could not deliver all who passed through the Palace of Justice from the descent to death. What was unusual was that Clopin had not known of it. That nothing had been said, no effort made, no warning given. That three romni, effectively under Clopin's care whilst within the walls of Paris, had been walked to the scaffolds, and carried away from them. That they had been hung under accusation of a crime which no rom, despite the healthy underground chain of information which passed from kumpania to kumpania with the rapidity of fire, had heard of. The rom felt that somewhere there had been a breach of trust. Jilted lovers and jealous fellows took advantage of it, speaking over the top of Clopin as he attempted to soothe his people, demanding to know if Clopin had not known, as he claimed, of the hanging, why was that? Were regular spies not being sent out for some reason? Was something being kept from them? The repeated and loudly proclaimed questions stirred the most excitable of the others and awakened uncomfortable feelings of doubt within them. The Court Center rapidly became a bubbling stew of objections and questions, hurtled one at the other until the Rom were heatedly arguing amongst themselves, forgetting the reason they had come to the Center in the first place.
Clopin had exploded with frustration and rage inwardly, longing to throw his hat down and storm out, leaving them to slaughter each other. Times like this he wanted to turn the Court over to insanity, to make a mockery of the gaje palaces with Lords and Ladies and footmen and maids, to hang and torture at will, to have all subserviant to his whim - sometimes he wondered idly if it would work. More than likely, not. Not only because the rom would not tolerate it, but because Clopin himself couldn't. To build of the Court a place of give and take, respect and friendship - that was what Clopin could be proud of. It ensured his posterity, gave him opportunity to thumb his nose at the gaje and their boy-loving priests, their inbred Kings, continually fearing assassination. Where possible, the wrung necks of a few gaje was a good example too, proof that the society his people had built for themselves beneath the earth worked far better than the system above it, and that no matter their interference the rom were able to maintain stability and wield out justice effectively.
Having taken three or four deep breaths upon the stage-cum-gallows, Clopin had pushed his hat up high on his brown forehead and gestured widely at the sea of faces before him.
"Come, come, come, my friends!" his clear voice rose high above the babbling murmurs and the effect on the crowd was as when the curtains rose on the stage; the hush spread. "The loss of our sisters and wives is a great misfortune, and it is my suspicion they were falsely accused, but this should no cause dissention amongst us all. Why so secretive and sudden a hanging took place, I can, at this time offer no explanation. It may very well be some form of action is required, but I will need more information before I can make any decisions. I would ask that all of you be alert in the coming weeks, report back any rumors, new arrivals, gossip, information - anything that should come to your attention - to me, and leave me to deal with it. That is all."
Before anyone could comment, he tipped the brim of his hat down again and strode quickly from the platform, lanky legs leaping lightly down the stairs and out of the Court. The rom lingered moments, then dispersed, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Clopin's words had brought them back to the matter at hand, his abruptness had startled them, and there had no longer seemed reason to linger and argue; the situation was known and they had been given tasks to do. Those who remained dissatisifed, ineffectually attempting to stir up trouble once more, were told by tired wives with whining babbies and wrinkled old men who coughed into their beards and licked their lips as they headed toward the benches for wine, to do as Clopin said and investigate the matter, if they really wanted to do anything at all.
Back in his tent, Clopin had tossed his hat down and sighed wearily into his hands, the scent of paint and tobacco from his gloves almost stifling.
Herlikin's oddly colored eyes strained in the dim-light of her tent as she wound the leather cords over and under one another, twisting them into an elaborate, beautiful pattern. Similar examples of the craft were on display around her tent; a leather matt, embroidery on a satchel, cords - jewellery even. Herli had begun the craft during her second pregnancy, the binak conceived the day the sorely-missed Francoise had gone, when she'd been confined for the nine months of the carry and a further seven after the birth deep down below the world in the Court of Miracles. Since coming to the Court as a bride of sixteen, Herlikin had played a major role in almost every theatrical performance the Rom had put on; she considered it her compensation for not running wild on the streets, clumsily playing the lyre and performing stunts worthy of the term "witchcraft!" with her animal companions. There was so much Herli wanted to do and could not. But that year Mertshak had had to stage the play without her - some things Clopin remained firm on and performance of any nature during pregnancy - even if the babby was not yet visible beneath her skirts and petticoats - was one of them. Herlikin knew he had her health in mind, considering her past difficulties, but it had done nothing to cool the fire of frustration beating hard within her. After a heated tantrum in which pots, pans, and a much beloved unicorn statue had been hurled at her apologetic, but insistent, husband's head (the latter resulting in more impassioned tears when it broke) Herlikin had resigned herself to the inevitable and had spent the first month of the pregnancy storming about the Court in a sulk of restlessness. She'd refused to have anything to do with the other women until the relentlessly cheerful and terminally good-natured newcomer Vadoma had continued to poke her head into Herlikin's tent. Herlikin had relented and invited her in one day, with the goal of dropping a saucepan on her head, but that plot had been thwarted when Vadoma had seated herself with a plonk on the cushions, skirts spilling out around her, and had whipped from her posoti strips of leather which she had begun to bind. Herlikin had been eager to learn; it was a challenge that occupied her mind, eyes and hands all as well as being an artistic craft resulting in objects of beauty. Clopin had heaved a sigh of relief when he'd seen his peppery-tempered wife so constructively subdued, a sigh which had turned to one of annoyance as the preparation of his dinner was forsaken so that she might finish whatever pretty piece of work she had begun. Once or twice, as an act of protest, Clopin had sought his sustenance elsewhere, but Herli's wounded pride had proved a force to be reckoned with. And so, he had stated he would begin the dinner himself, burning a finger or two, spilling a jar of herbs, clattering pots and pans about until Herli, with an aggravated grimace, would toss aside her crafts and take up the dinner herself, with the haughty air of a superior whilst Clopin would smile to himself and recline upon the cushions. But Clopin had been called away an hour earlier.
Herli knew she should light more candles, and relieve the strain on her eyes, but she remained where she was, continuing to quickly plait the leather. To break her concentration would send her thoughts spiralling down less than pleasant roads. A week had passed since Clopin had held the meeting in the Court Center, and a gypsy man had been arrested, accused of being a part of the gang which had thieved the noblewoman. Odette, one of Clopin's most light-footed spies, had brought the news to their tent, and her husband had leapt to his feet immediately, putting on his hat and leading the way out, with the terse intstruction to Herlikin to remain where she was. And she had, her heart thumping hard and rising sickeningly to her throat. Her time with the moon had passed and she no longer bled. There was nothing to attribute the wave of nausea which had struck her to, nothing exception the emotion she felt most reluctantly - guilt.
She resented the guilt, invading her mind as it did and making her discomfort pronounced. That it distracted her from her home and her husband and her children, made her restless and irritable. She resented it also because she knew it was justly felt. That she was responsible for the death of those four innocent women, and the imminent death of an innocent man. Herlikin was not a soft-hearted woman when it came to the wide world. So long as she and her family were safe and happy she did not much care for the rest of humanity. Sometimes, of course, the happiness of her family depended on the comfort of the people around her - but, in the end, Herlikin far preferred a general content than otherwise.
For all of Herlikin's faults, she did not care to be responsible for the death of innocents. Love had cooled her callousness and she'd known the gentleman arrested that day, and that he had a young wife besides. She tugged at the leather in her hands too hard and twisted a finger. Yelping a little, she tossed the craft to her side and nestled back against the cushions, eyebrows knotting a little in worry. She couldn't relent now. She couldn't give in to the bitch aristocrat and let her win. Even if it meant - no, every fibre of her being screamed to hold fast. She *couldn't* kill every gypsy in Paris, it was a ridiculous notion. Herlikin should not give in. She would force the Vicomtesse to a surrender with her silence. What then, could be done about this one? Clopin would devise a means to save him, surely. He could do it so often, and they had had ample time on this occasion. Herli's soft, bejewled hands prowled around the the tassels and trimmings of the cushions scattered about her, feeling for the beginnings of the girdle she'd abandoned but moments ago. Every rom on the streets ran the risk of being falsely accused and arrested; she could hardly be held responsible if the other were unable to infiltrate the palace dungeons.
Yet her fingers fumbled as they resumed work, the weaving took her twice as long and the cords slipped time and time again. With a sulky sob she once again tossed the work from her, it knocking over a small brass dish of incense on its passage across the tent. The heavy scent of sandalwood broke onto the air and set about staining a elaborately patterened rug beneath it. Herlikin's head flopped forward into her hands as the kettle over the stove near the tent flap began to whistle shrilly. Sighing, she pulled herself to her feet, the single skirt she always wore in the tent (and was forbidden from wearing beyond it) hitched up and knotted between her legs, an old bodice from younger years before childbirth had swelled her breasts tied loosely in front, with nothing on underneath. It was bad manners for rom men to enter the tent where a woman lived, so Herlikin felt secure in her chosen dress, the sun and moon pendant she always wore falling into the cleft of her bosom, and her hair tumbling free and tangled over her freckled shoulders and back. Everything about Herlikin glimmered as she moved, not merely where the light caught on the bronze and brass of her jewellery, but from the paler sheen of the skin on her inner arms, from her odd-colored eyes, constantly moving and reflecting, from her hair even, as it snaked in on itself and danced restlessly on the air. There was an aura of barely-controlled life about her, as though everything she had the potential, and desire, to be was straining at the skin which contained it to be let out - ! To burst free from the ill-chosen body of a European romni-woman, born in the fifteenth century. Perhaps that was why Herlikin's eggs caught fire with such difficulty, and burned out with such rapidity; that crimson lifeforce raced through her veins with such restlessness it could not concentrate itself, and when it did it poured in too much for the fragile foetus to handle in its effort to escape.
As Herlikin bent to clean up the mess the incense had spilt over her rug and move from the kettle from the direct heat of the flame, condensation from the steam clinging like spiderweb to the Indian ornaments arranged nearby, Clopin returned.
He did tug at her hair or sit down, just strode to the center of the tent and whirled around, rubbing his goatee thoughtfully, gaze distracted. His typical actions upon arriving home when he had cause for worry. Herlikin turned around on her knees to face him, the bowl of incense still clutched in one hand, dusting the other off on her old skirt vigorously, peering at her husband with concerned eyes. After scratching his chin a moment more, then sighing once, he turned to his wife with a weary half-smile.
"Grofo was not in the Palace Dungeons."
Herlikin shivered a little. If the City Officials expected an uprising of any sort, prisoners were held elsewhere. She reached up to set the bowl back upon the table, then crawled towards her husband in the attitude of a cat as he took his seat in the large cushioned chair at the center of the tent, kicking off his shoes and placing his hat asides. He bent down to place a soft kiss on her lips, then leant back, pulling his tunic up and over his head, tossing it aside and folding his arms behind his neck as Herlikin rested her head on his knee. They sat in silence for a few moments as the stove flames crackled and Clopin's body gradually untensed, both of them mulling over this new development. After a spell, one of Clopin's elegant hands left its place behind his neck and moved to fondle Herli's head, pulling up strands of hair between his fingers and contemplating her quietely.
"We found out who the attacked noblewoman was." he announced suddenly. Herli sat up, looking up at him in sudden uneasiness.
"You did? Who?"
A wry grin twisted his mouth and his brows came forward to give him a curious expression of irony. "Why, none other than your friend, the Vicomtesse de Vincennes."
Herli's blood turned to ice and for a moment her breath stuck in her throat, but she did not hesitate. "de Vincennes? She has decided your humiliation was not enough, then?"
One black eyebrow shot up his forehead, the fine lines which had just begun appearing in the last year accentuated by the movement. "Is that what you think? One wonders why she would bother."
His deep black eyes bore into her, the only similarity to his wife's being the life that flickered within them - except that wheras in hers it was deepset and dark apart from their moments alone together, his sparkled forth always, carefree and secure. Herlikin merely stared back at him with her own bright pair, and said nothing.
Clopin chuckled a little and tossed his gloves away with sudden abandonment, before reaching down yo grasp his little wife by the arms and haul her onto his lap, hitching her skirt up even higher over her thighs, large hands slipping around her waist.
"Ah, kitten.....your poor husband has had a hard week of it, and I know you have too. Was it especially hard on you this time?"
Staring into his chest, Herli bit her lip and nodded just a little. His hands moved up to caress her shoulders warmly, his skin brushed bronze by the candlelight, hers brushed pink. "Little one." he said tenderly and nudged her head to tilt up to his. He met her in a kiss as his long fingers fiddled a little with the strings on her bodice. "I need you for a little while now, Herli." he said softly, bending his head to her neck. "It is always as though your time takes you a few steps away from me, this place I cannot go to. And now - now. I know that you are the only one I can trust without caution."
"Oh Clopin." Herlikin wrapped arms around her husband's neck and breathed him in deeply. Tears had unnerved her by darting up behind her eyes and threatening to break free, and she let Clopin's embrace cradle her securely for several warm moments before turning her face to meet his. "I need you too."
When she was eleven years old, Ginevra had been bitten by a horse.
Not just any horse, but the same thoroughbred black stallion given to her for her ninth birthday from the papa who had seen the same black depths in the horses' eyes as in his daughter's own. Ginevra had been riding since the age of seven and was no stranger to horses, but no friend to them either. The beasts were skittish and disobedient when the child was in the stables, with her sullen, white face and intimidating voice, and the magnificent stallion had been no exception.
As she had been taught to do, Ginevra was stroking the long, silken muzzle of the horse as the stable boys saddled him. Her eyes looked beyond the beast, outside at the wide stretches of green and gold, fields dotted with daffodils, the joyous beauty of it all skimming her eyes; it was the openess of it that enticed her, the prospect of galloping straight across it with noone to tell her to stop. Again and again her soft, white hand had risen to lay a harsh stroke along the horse's fine nose. It was exactly as she had been taught to do, and the beast had sensed it. There was no love emanating from the pretty white palm, as there was from the rough, brown ones of the stableboys, no consideration or fellowship, it was placatation, a 'stay still, beast, so that I can gallop you until your mouth foams". Agitated, he'd turned his head in a jerk, with the aim of tossing her hand from him. She slapped him over the jowls, and in retailiation he'd bitten the soft, fine hand.
The young Ginevra had not shrieked or cried out, but skittered back, clenching the rapidly swelling hand furiously, eyes blazing at the horse and teeth bared. The stableboys had rushed immediately to her aid, hustling the child up and out of the stables to seek medical care, but Ginevra, still a glare of fury pinching her features, had turned to fix one last gaze of utter hatred at the beast who trembled nervously beneath his saddle blankets.
The bite had not broken the delicate flesh, though the hand was a vivid purple for the next week before fading to a sick-looking yellow, but Ginevra had been unable to abide the insult. She'd ordered the horse whipped to death.
The stablemen loved the horses, but they knew a stableman who would not follow the orders of his mistress would not find a job elsewhere. They'd lashed the horse to the beam structure of the large, open stables on the di Cavalcanti estate one chilly, rainy day, and the Italian girl had been accompanied by her tutor to watch. The man chosen for the job was new to the Di Cavalcanti stables, but well learned to the cruelty of the aristocrat; still, the sight of the icy determination on the girl's face - a strange mixture of calm, venom and absolute righteousness - had caused a tremor to go through him and he'd averted his eyes hastily, hoping he would be long gone, or that the child would be married off, before she reached an age to take over the estate.
As the sky opened up and the rains poured down in the fields beyond the stables, the whipping had begun. Ginevra did not blink as the lashes were brought down again and again on the stallion's beautiful, shiny black hide and the horse reared again and again against his bonds. The flesh split and tore, like a jacket pulled apart at the seams, and the horse was whinnying in fright, foam dripping from his jaw, the whites of his eyes stark against the violent black of his coat. The stableman was sweating, and his tears were mingling with it, but he dared not stop, or even turn around, for Ginevra's round black stones bid his arm up, and down over and over.
The horse, frenzied by pain and fear into madness, reared up on its hind legs, and with a terrific burrst of strength, neck muscles bulging at the flesh, had snapped the bridle binding it tight. Outraged at the rebellion, Ginevra had risen to her feet and started forward, wrenching free from the quivering fingers of her tutor and had shouted for the men to catch a hold of the beast and bind it down again. Hearing the voice of his tormentor, the horse had kicked back in a panic, one brilliantly shod hoof finding its mark, pummelling the girl halfway across the stables. Finding a kind of courage in the horse's defence, the old stableman had taken up a cross bow and put an arrow through the beast's head, by this stage not caring if it meant his job. A hundred hurried hands had set upon Ginevra, and lifted her from the stables, leaving straw stained red behind them.
She survived of course, but the doctor had been certain. She would have no children.
Someone had neglected to mention this to Henri upon their betrothal.
It hardly mattered. The weaker, older man was far too absorbed in his own life to pay much attention to the cycles - or lack therof - of his wife. They shared they marriage bed but a scant, few times and other than that had let each other be. Henri had perhaps expected a child or two from the marriage, that was an important reason why people got married after all, but a couple of months with the cold, aloof tower or marbled feminity and he'd turned his attentions elsewhere. So frigid did the Vicomtesse appear to him in fact, that he had been somewhat surprised to find no trace of blood on the sheets after their first union - and then, not so surprised. He had said nothing, knowing he had been cheated, but unwilling to meet the challenge presented in the cold, stone eyes of the woman he had married.
Ginevra's mother, oddly enough, had felt a trange twist of relief that so convenient an excuse for sterility had provided itself. At ten, Ginevra's breast and hips had begun to swell,body hair had appeared, and menstruation had begun. But the cycles had been irregular and weak, pale red spots which flecked the linen placed to capture it for a day or so and then stopped. As though the lifeblood could not spare itself. Ginevra's mother doubted her daughter's ability to conceive. After the incident with the stallion, Ginevra became even more of the statue, reserved, cold, a shimmering form of flawless beauty with no warmth beneath it. Signora di Cavalcanti was fond of the thought that the horse had kicked the last of the life from her daughter, that she was as the undead, an imitation of the living, feasting on that of others so she might feel a part of it all. That was why the lovers came one by one, that was why the knowledge was grasped, from book to book. She hungered for human vitality, sought human life and warmth, feasted on human learning and sensation, swallowing it whole as her own.
At least, that is what Ginevra's mother believed.
Ginevra herself had not minded so much. There was never the spiralling sensation of the mood swings, no putrid red stains ever spread themself across satin and velvet, no crippling pains across her belly. She did not care for children, and did not care for losing her figure. She could take lovers to her bed at any time of the month she pleased, and did not otherwise have to worry about preventing conception. In all, the situation suited her very well.
From time to time she would be aware, halfway through her dreams, of an emptying sensation in the pit of her stomach, as though her womb were disinegrating and falling to dust within her, but these sensations were rare. Ginevra relished the fact her life was not interrupted by the oily, metallic scent of blood, or the lusty, demanding cries of a screaming child. Such things would of stood between her and her pursuit of fulfillment.
Fulfillment. The cup of satisfaction, at least, hovered within inches of her lips. The gypsy man who she knew was most certainly not the jongleur - far too short and round - had met whatever devilish god he worshipped that morning. And in the slight scuffle than ensued, outrage at the hanging heating the tempers of those who were otherwise cautious, several other romany had been arrested. Among them were the Vicomtesse's other three attackers.
A smile curved the Vicomtesse's lips, not quite reaching her eyes, breaking her from the reverie of her youth. Satisfaction, certainly.