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