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2.gifClopin's mouth was warm on mine, and the tang of wine was sweet. He pulled me up against him, and the flesh beneath his tunic yielded softer than it had ten years ago, or even five.
"I'll see you this evening." He said once we'd separated. "I'll be home come sunset."
I patted his rear. "Don't get distracted in the tavern. Your lovely figure will fall to ruin."
He raised his nose in mock-disdain."Madame, I will not be disparaged by your shrewish demands. Better to fall to ruin than run to fat, eating potatoes and pastries and other such gluttony as is placed before me within these walls."
I shrugged and assumed an expression of innocent concern. "My 'demands' are made in only your best interest, my dearest. But if your concerns extend to what you eat as well as drink, perhaps a diet of abstinence can be arranged. Water, grains and vegetables. You'll be a new man in a week."
He snorted and grasped me by the hips. "I'm a man and I am a king, and therefore I shall sup on meat and mead. Besides, a similar staple has not helped your hips any, mmm?"
I pulled away and slapped him across the chest. "That's no fault of my eating habits, and you've four brats to show for it, fool!"
His laugh was triumphant, and I cursed myself for letting him provoke me so. "And a decidedly more sumptuous wife than she was at sixteen, enh?" I raised a hand to slap his cheek, but he grasped my wrist and wenched it quickly behind my back, leaning down to kiss me again as he did so. "A feast now instead of an entree." He laughed and I pinched his nose with my free hand. He was only teasing, and I knew it, piggish though he sounded. Long evenings spent rapturing in those hips of mine was more persuasive of a gratified appetite than anything he could say. 
He ran his hand over the brim of his hat, and with a typically cheeky grin, eyes crinkling at the corners, he was gone.

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I cleaned the debris leftover from lunch with a warm sensation in my lower breast, humming quietly in the shadowy silence of the tent. The Court was quiet and lifeless with the early afternoon, most everyone snoozing after their midday meal, or up in the streets above, shopping or working. My children were occupied elsewhere - my babbies playing with the other babbies and my elder two pursuing their own activities. I was alone, and in the sort of temper that would not allow me to behave constructively - not to dance, nor sew, nor shop (which I should've done early that morning when the fresher goods were still available). As such - my meandering thoughts took me down paths better left untrod.

Restless and aggravated, I left the Court and I left the tavern and I wandered the streets until I came to the river, a few yards away from a small cluster of Romany and their vurdons, so that I felt safe. Then, from my bodice, I withdrew a slender, scarlet feather, wrapped carefully in silk.
Had it really been ten years? It did not seem that long, though the gods knew they had taken their toll. Back pains had been plaguing me for a good while now, and the breasts which had so proudly resisted suckling two sets of twins were finally beginning to give in to nature - though only just. Still - so clear was the memory of coffee brown eyes, a rippling tunic of splendid colour and the scent of cloves, that it might've been just last week.

I pressed my lips to the feather, and trailed its end over my eyelids, a wave of memories washing through my body, causing that strange, warm tingle which always prompted a shiver. Damnit, what was wrong with me?  This wasn't normal. I loved my husband. He was my other half, my dearest friend. I could no longer truly conceive of a life without him, except for one that was lonely and dim. Before our marriage the very notion of needing a lifelong companion was alien, and foolish. I had wanted to live alone as no woman ever really could, without a legacy of rumours following her anyway. But Clopin and I had grown together and fallen in love. He allowed me as much freedom as he could bear - which was considerably more than other men - we had been through a thousand ordeals together and wound ever closer. We had a home and a family and I was happy with him. I loved him more than I loved life.

But I also loved Francoise.

It was impossible. It had to be. How long had I know her, anyway? Two weeks? You couldn't fall in love with someone in two weeks. Never mind I had seen neither hide nor hair of her since. Besides, how could someone love two people at once? Especially when that someone was I - a woman who found it hard to love at all. 

But I loved her.

Oh, and of course - her sex. She was female, like myself, never mind what appearances might suggest to those who didn't look carefully. It was perverse to love her, unnatural, obscene, bizarre, wicked, no matter whether you were Gadje or Rom. A woman could not desire another woman. It wasn't normal.

I mashed the feather into my breast, letting my head fall forward so that my hair hung about me, shielding my wince of pain from any onlookers. I had never been normal. Had never wanted a husband, or children. Had never really liked anyone. Never felt desire. I had been startled and frightened when I'd fallen in love with Clopin, when I had yearned for him in my bed as well as my heart. But Clopin - he was surely an exception. My soul mate. I had not expected it to happen twice.

But it had.

When I had lived in India we had met many sorts of peoples on our travels, from many different corners of the world. Every so often we would encounter a man who called more than one woman his wife. Dark and quiet, usually veiled, they walked together in a line. Two, mostly. But sometimes three or four. I remember at the age of twelve being suitably impressed when one such man and his wives - just two - stopped with our troupe and I spoke with them though my maman had told me not to. But those were in the days when I was a true chit of a child, and I suppose she feared me being rude. They did not talk much when their husband was near, but when he went off with the men they turned into regular gossipers. It did not take much wheedling to get them onto the subject of their marriage. Yes, it was very common for their people to marry more than oncey. No, it was only the men who were allowed to take more than one wife. No, they did not marry for love.
"Although we have come to love each other as dearest of sisters." The younger wife said, wrapping her arm around the elder who smiled down at her.
Then, I did as my maman had feared, and was rude.
"Do you all bed together?"  I asked it with feigned innocence, hoping they would laugh it off as a childish blunder. They did not know me - and so they did.
"No, no." The elder wife said. "He calls us as he has need of us. Separately."
I was thankful they found the question amusing for my maman had taken to beating me soundly at my slightest offences, because my papa would not. But the question had been irresistible, and as I watched them over the days they stayed with us, whispering in each other's ears, linking fingers and laughing softly - I had wondered. 

In a way it had not surprised me I could feel as I did for another woman. It was just unexpected. On the whole I found neither men nor women desirable in that sense. I had to know and care very deeply about someone before such feelings were stirred within me. Francoise had done it, as Clopin had.

'A minor infatuation' I had told myself in the weeks after she had left. 'A moment's curiosity.' 'A childish whim' I repeated them like a mantra in the following months. 'It will pass. You will forget her. You love your husband.' Which was perhaps the most horrible thing of all - I love Clopin. My feelings for him are not cast beneath the slightest shadow of doubt. 
But my feelings for that woman would eventually not be denied.
That kiss - the one glorious, heated kiss we had shared on a dim and chill morning, haunted me. She'd pulled me against her and I'd been weak at the knees for the first time in years. We had been alone at the outskirts of the city, with the fields stretching on forever and the sun not yet up. Her mouth had been so warm, so responsive, something I had not expected. I'd stood on tiptoe and she had bent down. Our breasts had pressed together and so did our hips. I'd wanted her to have me in the middle of the road. And afterwards I had rationalised the experience, convincing myself the kiss did not mean what a kiss from Clopin would. That it was just a need to have this difference in me recognised and acknowledged. 

I'd hated myself for trivialising it like that. For denying what it had meant to me.
 


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Heavily pregnant with Chinja and Ahvel, I'd sought Abigail's counsel. She had known from the first moment I'd danced with the Bird what my feelings were. She had known and she did not approve. 
"I'll tell you from the start." She'd said without looking up from her little stove, or even greeting me after I'd entered. "I know what you're here for, and you had better be careful. I won't be helping you pick up any pieces if you cause a mess."
I'd been hurt. The only other time Abigail had shown me such rancour had been in the months after I'd first given birth, where I had become savage and impossible to deal with. I'd sat down silently in the midst of embroidered cushions and the scent of jasmine, watching as she stirred whatever little brew it was concocting there. Finally, she'd sighed, pushing a strand of her silver white hair back over a bony and wrinkled shoulder and turned to face me.
"I'll give you this: You're not the first among man or woman to know true love for more than one at once. You won't be the last."
I swallowed, and ran ringed hands over my protruding belly, hoping my unborn babbies were deaf to this exchange. "And the other?" My voice was hoarse.
She stared at me for a long moment, her fathomless black eyes boring into mine. "No. Not with that, either."
Any relief I felt was sullied by Abigail's foreboding gaze. Perhaps I had not been the first, perhaps I would not be the last - but it was wrong. That much was clear. Wrong even to Abigail who had lived longer than most and seen a great deal more than most would.
"The important thing - " She'd gotten creakily to her feet, hobbling over to sink down beside me. " - is to do nothing about it. Not if you love Clopin. Not if you value your life as it is. She would not care to have you about with her. And she would not give you the sort of love you crave."
I'd wiggled away from her, sulky and angry. "What can I do about it? I'm quite sure she'll stay away deliberately and I'll never see her again."
"Better that way." She'd declared. "And damnably sensible of her. There's a great deal about Francoise de Rouen you don't know, young madame, and a great deal she'd rather you not know. Apart from anything else, she is like Clopin and would not understand. Most would not understand. It is not believed one could have love for two."
Tears seared my eyes, and I'd shut them quickly so they would not spill out and humiliate me. "Don't breathe a word to Clopin. I warrant he suspects something of this nature, but to confirm his suspicions would needlessly hurt him. She is out of your life. Don't dwell."
"I don't!" I almost shouted. "But I can't help how I feel!"
"Sha! Don't speak to me in such a way, child." Abigail scolded. "Did you expect an easy solution?"
I was crying openly by that point, miserably pulling the scarf knotted below my breasts up to wipe my eyes. "Why is it wrong to feel like this? Why is I who has to suffer it?" Ah, yet another to add to my long list of Ways I Did Not Conform. Ways In Which I Shamed Clopin. Ways In Which I Were Different.
Abigail leant back against the cushions and lace, shrugging her frail little shoulders. "You would not suffer so much if you could be satisfied with the love you have."
"I AM!" I was desperate to be understood, and I knew if Abigail's insight could be blinded by her prejudices, there could be noone else who would. "I would not exchange my life for anything. But I wish that - " I trailed off, feeling helpless and ineffectual. Nothing I wished could ever change the reality.
"You wish you could have it both ways." Abigail stated succinctly. "You always were too rambunctious for your own good."
I spoke through gritted teeth and desperation. "It is love I feel. It is not a passing fancy, it is not curiosity, it is not dissatisfaction. It is love. I love them both."
Abigail stood up again, dusting off her old, worn skirts. "Well, you can't have them both." Her voice was sharp. "So you had best decide quick which one you're going to have. And I'll tell you this - only one can father your children, and only one can give you, without fear of consequences, his complete love. Only one can provide you with a stable home and a reasonable idea of where tomorrow will lead you. So seeing as how you're already married to him, I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry to go blundering over the countryside, no matter how romantic you may think it would be."
For once I left Abigail's tent in more torment than when I had entered.
 


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I wept by the Seine while Rom nearby hammered away at their crafts and their Romni chattered over their pots and children, paying me no heed. My hair was pinned neatly up under my diklo, a long cloak covered me from view. I was quiet and my head was bowed. I was not noteworthy of attention today and I doubt many recognised me, although I recognised many of them. I had left the Court to dwell in thoughts I normally swam far away from, turning on my heel whenever they dared rear their head. Misery was all they could bring me, misery and regret and the ever pounding longing that a hundred things might've been different. It would not do to attract attention, for tears would surely call astonishment and rumours. After all, I was Herlikin Trouillefou, Mistress of a Molten Frigidity. I could freeze you in your tracks only to incinerate you later, or so I'd been told, and perhaps I was just a little above my station in life. The sight of me weeping into my bodice whilst clutching an unassuming little red feather by the river would be far too rare an item of gossip to go ignored. Then somehow, in someway, that little item of gossip would find its way back to Clopin, and he would know. Of course, he would know. I couldn't do that to him.

I truly was happy with him. The regret I felt was not because I had stayed with him in the Court. It was something I could almost not define, a quiet little wistfulness the world did not behave in a different fashion. For Clopin, for Abigail, for my fellows, for everyone - it had to be one or the other. And it was such a situation that required the participation of all involved to work differently.
Participation I would never get. I held the feather aloft so that its vibrant red fronds caught the afternoon sunlight. Many a time, in reckless moments of emotional torture such as this one, I had envisaged the three of us together in one home, and I had known it would never work. Not that it could ever be possible. But even if - well, perhaps if Clopin and Francoise were entirely different people. But then, I probably wouldn't love them in that case, eh? For a woman such as I, staying with Clopin had been the best choice, although not the only one. Francoise could not have tolerated me for very long, even if - even if she had been growing fond of me before she left, as I liked to believe. 
I was not like the other women of the Court. I did not crave a stable home and a certain future, and babbies and babbies and babbies. The thought of wild wanderings on the road appealed to me. But she could not have tolerated such an intrusion on her independence, even if that had been something of an invitation hovering in the air of her challenge that early morning. And besides - I felt Abigail was right when she said Francoise would withhold love and affection from me. That was something I could not tolerate - at least when I wanted it.

 My gaze wandered down over my knees to where my toes peeked from beneath my skirts, clad in sandals and wiggling against the earth. Feet that had longed to roam once upon a time, and still felt the urge now and then. I had been tempted. Tempted to follow her in my night-dress and bare feet and see where the road would lead us. It was a temptation that would not let me lie, and a year later I did set out on the road. Francoise was not my driving motive - at least, not that I was aware of.
But I hoped, deep within the very depths of my being where I scarcely dared look, that our paths might cross.
I often wondered afterwards if it had been this hope that had led the fates to play me the torture that followed, a punishment for my wicked thoughts.  I would not have left Clopin, did not even consider it. I wanted only to satisfy that longing ache to see if she were well. Surely being in love did not deserve such brutalisation, even if the object of my affections numbered two? The desecration of my body, the defilement of my spirit - I never could understand why I had been led to such a thing, unless it was the culmination of a lifetime's disobedience.
And our paths never did cross.

Just as I gradually let go the lie about my love, I gradually let go the certainty I would see her again. Any rationale - she would have to come to Paris again, someone was bound to bring word of her, France was not so big after all - grew feeble with the acknowledgement she would not let herself be seen again. It was not an easy acceptance, and it had not stopped hurting, but I supposed she had her reasons.

There really wasn't anything I could do. Resignation to fate was not behaviour characteristic of me, but without it my pain was only deepened. It would be foolish to peter out my days in such a way when there was so much more to take joy in. Yet I could not always escape the lure of memories -  the frenzied swirl of a dance, strong thighs or a warm, and finally yielding, mouth - and I had learned it was better to give in to those moments whether they lasted a second or a week, than resist.

Tears quietly drying on my cheeks, I tucked that beloved old feather back into my bodice, and pulled myself heavily to my feet. My lower back complained with a scream as I dusted the grass from my skirts, and then I was turning back for my home, the Court, nodding to those Romni I recognised and ignoring the others. The Court had come to life once more, bustling with activity, noise and warmth. I smiled a little readier to those I passed, and waved to fat old Tante Marie where she huddled with her companions near the big fires in the Centre. I could see my two youngest huddled up with the other children; Ahvel in the midst of action as always, and Chinja typically scowling to one side.  They would be heading home presently for their supper, which I supposed meant I should be getting started on it.

The tent was quiet and dark, the scent of roses and incense heavy on the air. I threw back the flaps and shook them out, and lit it up quickly so that it would be fresh and homely for my family when they came home.

I folded Francoise away with the feather, wrapped in silk and sealed with a kiss, pushed down deep to nestle next to a dark eyed, worn leather bird mask. The chest was shut and wrapped beneath silks and cushions, and I threw it one last, tender look before turning to the husband who appeared as if from nowhere suddenly, throwing off his hat with arms wide and outstretched, beaming into the tent and lighting it, and me.
"I have returned." he declared grandly. "You may rejoice."
I laughed, mocked a swoon, then leant up for a kiss, closing my eyes to brush away the last remnants of feathers and dust.

I love you.
 

© Elise Archer (harley_quinn@cheerful.com) May not be reproduced without express written consent.
 


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