Chapter Eleven

I left the tent rapidly and walked towards the Center, my heart pounding, and my cheeks flushed. A lot of the gypsies were there, talking and laughing amongst themselves, several playing instruments together, sharing food and the like. I crept past them carefully, and scurried to the back of the stage. I slipped behind the drapes and climbed to the little alcove Clopin had shown me a week ago. Once there, I threw myself down in the darkness and sighed deeply. 
I thought for a little while about the disagreement and I was truly sorry it had taken place.I knew I should've thought more about what would be considered acceptable dress here, but I had in part made it because it was what I was used to, and felt most comfortable in. I thought about India and the sun, and Chester and hoped he hadn't made things difficult for Clopin after I left. Then I remembered Clopin and the things he'd told me when we had sat here together. I wished then that I could go back and apologise but I knew my pride wouldn't let me. And that felt suddenly lonely, and I wanted desperately for someone to hold me. I fell asleep with an image of Clopin stroking my hair. 

I awoke several hours later with a deep feeling of anxiety, and hurriedly I climbed down, pulling aside the drapes carelessly, and running back to the tent. As I neared, I slowed down and calmed down too. I ran a hand through my hair and straightened my dress, then walked casually back. I saw that both Colombine and Clopin were sitting out in front of the tent, and I walked up to them, a large smile for Colombine on my face. 
She returned the smile and raised her eyebrows and waggled them. Clopin, on the other hand, just looked at me disinterestedly. 
"Enjoy your walk?" he asked with sarcasm. I didn't answer, just went inside. I heard someone behind me, and expecting it to be him, whirled around. It was Colombine. She came towards me, with her eyes gleaming. 
"He was very worried about you, you know," she whispered. "That's why I'm here. He came over to ask me if you knew where I was. He was practically in a panic, I think he thought you'd run off somewhere. Then about five minutes ago, he just calmed down and said he knew where you were after all. Where were you?" 
"He was truly worried about me?" I asked her in a hushed voice. She nodded vigorously. 
"You'd better believe it. Though he'd rather die than admit it. Where were you?" 
"It's a secret," I told her and she frowned. 
"Oh come on, Herli!" she said. 
"No, it's a secret place," I said stubbornly, and she shrugged. "Alright then. I have one of those too. Meanwhile, better step out and make your peace with your husband. Stop misbehaving." She gave me a playful slap on the rear and pushed me outside. 
He was still sitting there, displaying an outward calm, looking ahead and appearing not to have noticed me. I sat down cautiously beside him. 
"So what fascinating route did you take on this three hour walk?" he asked me dryly. 
"You and I both know I didn't go for a walk, Clopin." I grumbled. "Come on now - we agreed we wouldn't fight, remember? And - " here I took a big swallow " - if you're sorry then so am I." 
He shot me a sidewards glance. "And if you're sorry then I'm sorry too," he reiterated. 
"Oh for goodness sakes!" exclaimed Colombine who had snuck out to stand behind us. "Let's just say you're both sorry and have done with it! Lord!" and she strode off to her tent. 
We smiled at each other then, the ice broken finally. 
"Puhleeeease speak to that beast of yours about me, Herli!" Clopin said to me "He growled at me until I left, when you'd gone. Imagine! Booted out of my own tent by an over-protective tiger!" 
I laughed. "I'll try," I promised him. "How far away is the warm weather?" 
"Johannes believes the snow will start to melt in a few days time, despite what today's weather might suggest. As soon as it begins, you can go out, but there will still be a chill in the air. Make sure you wrap up warmly." 
"I will." I said. "I've also been thinking of taking up performing again," I finished in a rush. He looked at me. 
"Oh?" he said. "What did you have in mind?" 
"I don't know as yet," I admitted. "But there's plenty of things I can do." 
He pulled a face. "So long as it isn't dancing. And I don't advise you to take your big white monster up there." 
"I wasn't planning to. Though he will have to leave here at some stage, before he goes mad." 
"When the nights get warmer. You can sneak him up then. Not in the day-time, though. If you want money, Herli, I can give you some." 
"I don't want to take money from you!" I grumbled. He shrugged. 
"Alright then, if you can come up with something you think is good enough, you can perform. But make sure it's good, and different. Parisians are a critical audience and busking gypsy women are a very common sight." 
"I'm sure I can manage," I said huffily. And I was determined to do so. Like Geraud had said that day I arrived - I would dazzle them all! 

Sure enough, a few days later the snows began to melt. I couldn't express my relief when Clopin told me. I was so eager to see the sky and the sun and the trees and people again, I was ready to cry. He told me that he would take a few days off to show me around, but after that I would have to manage on my own. That was fine with me, and my restlessness increased by the minute. Finally, on the third day of March, Clopin decided I could come up. 
"You know, my audience will be very disappointed I won't be there today," he scolded me.,br> "Hmmm, I'm sure," I said, tying a scarf around my head and wrapping my cape around me. He raised his eyebrows delicately. 
"What, you don't believe me? Alright then - you most certainly will have to watch me perform." 
"With much pleasure, sir," I said, making him a little curtsy. "In fact, I can barely wait." 
"No need for sarcasm, sweetness," he said, hustling me out of the tent. 
"I was in total earnestness, darling, I swear," I said, widening my eyes innocently. 
I practically danced towards the exit. Clopin caught my cape to lead me another way. 
"Not through the tavern today, cherie. I don't need to get distracted." 
I only grinned and let him lead me away. I watched the way we went carefully, knowing Clopin would not be showing me again and again. We arrived at a ladder set in the wall. 
"Let me go up first, little one. I need to get the door open." He climbed up quickly, and perched at the top of the ladder, working the door a little, then pushing it open fast. I climbed up, and he helped me step through. I was somewhat surprised to find ourselves in a very cold, dank stone cellar. A huge iron door was set in one wall,but that was all I could see. 
I opened my mouth to speak, but he held a finger to his lips, a look of urgent warning in his eyes. He fastened the trap door quickly and quietly, then stepped to the wall. He pushed on a stone that stuck out a little way further than the others, and to my amazement a space in the stone wall opened, making a soft grinding noise as it did so. Clopin grimaced and looked through it cautiously, then we stepped through it. The door slid back,and I saw we were in a small dark alleyway. He grasped my hand and we ran down to the end of it, ducking into a doorway. He sighed once we got there. 
"That door is too noisy. I'll have to come up with a couple of the men and fix it," he muttered. 
"Why did we have to be so quiet?" I asked him. He grinned at me, his eyes twinkling. 
"That's one of my favourite exits, simply for risk value," he told me. "Do you know where we just were, cherie?" I shook my head, no. "We were in an unused dungeon in the Palace of Justice!" 
My eyes widened in surprise. I had heard plenty of stories from my fellow gypsies about the infamous court and the terrible things that happened there, under the judgement of the evil Claude Frollo. Clopin chuckled at my expression. 
"Don't worry, love. I could've handled any guards who might've heard us, but I try not to slit throats under such dangerous circumstances. Another notch against the gypsies we *don't* need." 
I nodded. "But how did it get there??" I asked him in a whisper. 
He shrugged. "I don't know. We've always used it to help prisoners escape, but now that cell isn't used anymore we use it to get in and out if we're feeling particularly adventurous." 
I whacked him. 
"So you thought you'd bring me through there on my very first day out?" 
"Relax. It's not your first day out, for a start, and the risk isn't that high, so long as one is careful." 
I glanced back down the way we came. I could see the wall we had exited from extended up high in the sky, but I was unable to see much of the building at all. 
"Come on," Clopin said, taking my hand again and leading me out onto the street. I noticed several guards milling around nearby as we walked out from the alley, and I felt a slight thrill of apprehension, but I realised in our cloaks we were covered,and would not be particularly noticed. 
I glanced back to look at the Palace of Justice. A formidable piece of Gothic Architecture, it was a dark blotch against the blue sky, ugly and intimidating. I shivered and turned away again. 
The snow hadn't completely melted away yet, and they were still piles of it here and there, like cold clouds on the cobblestone streets. The ground was wet from the melting water, and the chill in the air was fierce. But I couldn't care much. Once we were away from the Palace, I was too happy. The sky was a light blue, lighter than it ever was in India, and speckled here and there with white and gray clouds. Dark gray ones hovered low in the distance, a promise of rain to come. The sun was also paler than in India, and the glow it gave was soft and warm. 
I took deep breaths, savouring the air, and looked around me. The streets were bustling with people going about their daily business. Women in their bonnets and cloaks, carrying baskets as they shopped, gossiping in groups or calling out to children to stay by their side. The men stood out in front of the shops, discussing business or pleasure, or hurried off to appointments. Shopkeepers busied themselves with their displays or wares, calling out cheerful greetings to each other. Even though people appeared so busy, noone seemed to be in a great rush. The atmosphere was relaxed and comfortable. I was enjoying myself immensely. 
For a while we simply wandered the streets, exchanging small talk, Clopin pointing our various places of interest, or certain people with a story behind them. I stored everything away very carefully in my mind. I kept thinking to myself that Paris was going to be a splendid place to live - and as pleasant as my present company was, I was looking forward to exploring on my own. 
I was so thankful to be out in the air again, I could barely contain myself. I danced along the streets and sang under my breath, while Clopin laughed at my eagerness. 
"You like it, no?" 
"Oh yes! It's wonderful!!" 
"The good weather is here to stay. You can come up every day if you like." 
I squeezed his hand tight as we moved into the Town Square. I glanced up at Notre Dame, and again found myself awe-struck. I suddenly remembered something, and punched Clopin in the arm. 
"Ow! What have I done now!" he exclaimed. 
"You have to tell me the truth of the Devil in the Bell Tower!" I said. 
He grinned. "Ah, yes. I was wondering when you'd remember that. Well, cherie, I hate to disappoint you, but the truth is not all that exciting. It's true, Frollo keeps a poor deformed creature up there, but it is just an unfortunate boy, sadly born with a hideous visage. And he doesn't ring the bells. He's barely three years old! One of the priests does that. But the hunchback - for he is that too, as well as being hideous - lives in the belltower and none but Frollo ever sees him. I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up ringing the bells. What else can they do with him?" 
I pulled a face. "You're right. The truth isn't as exciting as the fiction. But it has its own thrill. How did Frollo obtain this boy?" 
"Ahhh... No-one but Frollo and the Archdeacon know the real answer to that. I believe Frollo is even under the impression no-one knows about the boy. But Clopin, King of Thunes, knows everything that happens in this city!!!!! Well - almost everything. As far as I have been able to find out, Frollo inadvertently killed the boy's mother, and the Archdeacon ordered he raise the boy as penance." 
"Then why is he kept in the belltower?" 
Clopin shrugged. "Because Claude Frollo is a cruel man and a hypocrite besides. Anyway, that's the true story. I tell a much prettier fiction to my audience." 
I thought for a few moments. 
"If you did it right, the true tale could be just as thrilling." 
He glanced at me. "You think?" 
"Why not? Talk in a deep and forboding voice, make the boy's mother a poor gypsy, persecuted for her heritage - have Frollo prepare to kill the boy before the spirits of Notre Dame stop him and sing a few songs. The audience would lap it up! I know I would." 
He stroked his goatee. "Hmmm...I'll think about it." 
We reached the other end of the square, and I saw around Clopin's cart a group of children were gathered. 
"Ah, it's my devoted audience!" Clopin told me. "How sorry I am to have to disappoint them today." 
We drew closer and the children turned aorund. They recognised his lanky form and dark face, even under the great cloak he wore, and they ran up to us, jumping excitedly. 
"It's Clopin!! It's Clopin!" I heard them cry as they danced around him. "What story will you be telling us today?" 
Clopin shook his head mournfully and smiled down at them. "I'm so sorry my little friends, but Clopin has no stories for you today. I have many things to do today. Perhaps tomorrow." 
A little cry of disappointment came up from the audience. Clopin mimicked them, pulling a terrible sad face and hunching his shoulders. They laughed at him and he smiled back. I saw the affection he looked at them with, and saw that other children, and several adults were beginning to make their way over. I went up to Clopin and touched his shoulder. 
"You know, you should perform for them, if they want it so badly." 
He shook his head. "No. I need to get you acquainted with the city as quickly as possible." 
"I've seen enough of it today to know my way around! I wandered around the jungles a lot in India and never once got lost! I can manage." 
He hesitated. "A city is different to a jungle." 
"Not so different. Besides - I would like to see you perform." 
He smiled at me, pleased. "Very well. As you insist, I am never one to disappoint a beautiful woman. And it looks as though there are many beautiful women waiting for me today!" he said, looking behind me. 
I glanced back and saw that the audience had grown greatly, and there were many young and pretty women, some with gentlemen, some not. I gave him a little shove and he chuckled. 
"Go out and watch, " he said. "I'll do this one for you, ma petite." He kissed my hand quickly, and pulled his cart out from its resting spot. The audience applauded happily, glad they were going to have a show. He swiftly unlocked the side door and dissapeared within, and I went to join the audience, standing as close as I could. 
Within a few seconds he appeared through his little door, in full costume dress, and with Puppet merrily waving to the children. Then it began. First there was a little argument with Puppet over who the audience was waiting to see, and Clopin came out the victor, thanks to his little stick. Puppet sulked, rubbing his head, and Clopin began his tale. 
It was the tale of the Devil who rang the Bells in Notre Dame. Clopin's voice was entrancing, with its rises and falls, the subtle nuances he put into every phrase. Several small Puppets appeared, skilfully manipulated as the tale unfolded - Frollo, the Devil, the Archdeacon. I was completely caught up in the tale, unaware of who was around me. Everything he'd said was true - he was a brilliant storyteller. But when he began to sing, my heart sped up, and I felt a burning flush sweep over my skin. His voice was magnificent, golden, passionate and perfectly beautiful. I couldn't have left if I wanted to. I could only stand and listen, giving myself up to that voice. 
The song came slowly to an end, and there was a short pause before the audience broke into delighted applause. The spell broken, I looked around me - the audience had practically doubled in size. I was amazed. Clopin, meanwhile, was the consummate performer. He bowed graciously, thanking the audience smoothly. Children tugged on their mother's skirts and were given coins to drop into the box Clopin has fastened below the window of his cart. Several of the adult performers walked up, dropping handfuls of coins in as well, particularly the young girls who blushed and giggled and moved quickly away when he thanked them, his voice low and sincere, his eyes seductive below his mask. 
Finally the last of them moved away and I went up to the window where Clopin leaned through, watching them with a satisfied smile as they all walked slowly away, many looking behind to see if another show was going to start, although Clopin had said this was the only one today. 
He smiled down at me, his eyes knowing and triumphant. 
"Well, cherie?" he asked, stroking the hand I placed on the window sill. 
I shrugged, and tried to appear nonchalant, though I could barely keep from smiling. "You were good, I'll admit it." 
He leaned down so he was on eye level with me. 
"The best you've ever seen, no?" 
"No. Alright - yes. You were." 
He straightened up and laughed triumphantly. "I knew I would be." 
I grimaced. "Alright, don't spoil it. Get changed and come out of there. You're even taller than usual. And I think your head is beginning to expand with all that hot air. You'll be trapped unless you move quickly." 
He laughed again and in a few minutes he rejoined me on the streets. 

The next day I went out with Colombine, who told me excitedly that it was market day, and that all the stalls would be open. 
Upon arriving at the markets I felt very much at home. I suppose markets are very possibly the same everywhere. Stall after stall of people selling their wares from far and wide, all set up in the town square. We moved in and out of the rows of shops selling fabrics, pottery and jewellery. Much of it was cheap and poorly done - but there were some beautiful pieces of true craftsmanship as well. 
Some of the sellers were gypsy nomads, in town for the day before moving on. Colombine knew several of them, and they greeted each other happily. We both of us spent a lot of time at the various jewellery carts, and I noticed Colombine's face was invariably smug each time we moved on. I guessed she was picking up various items that took her fancy and I smothered a laugh. She couldn't help herself. It didn't seem to matter - the stall keepers were so busy bartering they hardly noticed us, and there wasn't a guard in sight. I wondered curiously what things she had picked up and whether they were very pretty. 
We emerged from the thick of the stalls in order to sit down and drink from a nearby pump. Moving amongst so many people, pushed so close together had proved to be extremely stifling, and I was glad to relax and breathe in the still cold air. 
I looked over to my friend who was sitting in her black and white dress, grinning like a maniac. I leant over to her and whispered, "I know you took things Colombine, how did you do it?" 
She looked a little dismayed, then whsipered back, "I couldn't help it, Herli! They were so pretty! I'll show them you when we go back to the Court. I got some pretty things you'll like too. But Lord, don't tell Clopin! I nearly got caught the last time!" 
"Don't worry about it. Clopin said we should only steal necessities. Jewellery is a necessity, right?" 
She laughed. "Right!!" 
We were roused then by a commotion nearby. A couple of guards had arrived and were making their way through the markets, investigating anyone who looked even remotely Romany. A hobbling old man, covered from head to toe in old cloak was grabbed by one. He pulled the hood off to reveal the "old man" was in fact a young truant, furthermore when the soldier began shaking him by the collar,a variety of wares fell out of his clothes - jewellery, cloths, fruit and the like. At this stage more soldiers had arrived, and spurred on by the discovery of this thief, were making a more vigorous and aggressive search of any unfortunate in their path. 
Colombine and I stood up, feeling slightly uneasy. The boy was being pulled by the scrag of his neck, and the soldiers meanwhile were coming closer to where we stood. 
"Time to beat a hasty retreat, I think," Colombine muttered to me. I nodded. 
"Do you think we should try lending a hand?" 
I shot her a glance. "Lend a hand, how? Neither of us is prepared for something like that.What do you propose we do?" 
She shrugged and grinned. "Improvise?" 
I grabbed her hand. "Come on, let's go now, before they see us and discover what you have on you." 
That brought her to me. "Good idea. If anybody goes missing, we'll hear about it later. Clopin will organise something." 
We ducked silently down the first alley we came to, and then crisscrossed our way to Paquette's tavern, to make sure no-one was following us. Unlikely, but possible. 
When we got there we made our way quickly to the backroom,but before opening the trapdoor we paused and looked at each other. 
"Do you think we should have helped?" I asked, feeling a little guilty. 
She shook her head. "It wouldn't have done any good. The two of us may have been able to run circles around those nitwits in armour, but then we'd just be on the wanted list. Which means you'd once again be confined underground AND Clopin would be furious - with both of us. Anyway, that boy really was a thief. If anything really terrible happens to any of the others, the Court will do something. It happens all the time, you'll see." 
So saying we quickly flung the trapdoor up and disappeared within. 

The guards who assaulted the markets were evidently in a good mood, for only a couple of the genuine thieves ended up being arressted and dragged off to the Palace of Justice. But the soldiers had destroyed many of the traders' wares - pottery had been smashed, cloths stained and stalls broken. Working with the underground system I had yet to become aquainted with, Clopin sent them invitations to hide and repair their wares in another Gypsy stronghold - a ruined old chapel on the outskirts of the city. He would not have allowed them in the Court, for they were strangers and not Romanies. As for the boy whom Colombine and I had seen getting caught, Clopin was very angry with him. 
"That Gulliame will end up being hung, mark my words, Herli!" he told me when Pierre, his number one gentleman spy, had brought him the news. "This is the third time since coming to Paris he has been caught. The least he could is practice, if he insists upon stealing for a living. You know what to do," he said to Pierre, "and make sure it's very clear this is the last time we will help him. The next time he gets caught he must get himself out of it, or be hung." 
Pierre nodded and left. Clopin had several spies working around the city, all of them dark and unsociable creatures who came and went like shadows. There was Pierre and Lucille, the two best, then Jenessa and Marc, Paul and Odette. There were more, but I never saw nor heard from them. Clopin liked for all his bases to be covered, so there was rarely a time when he didn't know everything that was happening within the city. 

But apart from that, the Court continued much as usual. During the day it was even emptier than usual, for with the good weather more and more gypsies left, and several even packed up their tents and left the court altogther to travel during the spring and summer. 
I, for my part, was hardly ever within the Court either. I left with Clopin every day, and we would separate at the Square, he to perform, I to amuse myself. I'd return in the afternoon with enough time to fix supper for him, and we'd pass the evening pleasantly, talking over the day's events on our own, in the center, or in the tavern. 
Several times during the night I snuck Chester out, and he was overjoyed to see the sky again. I knew he would be even happier if I could get him onto some grasslands, but they were beyond the city and I didn't know my way well enough yet to take him there. He greatfully plunged into the river, for tigers love to swim, and we raced each other down the black streets. Within a few days he was looking better and far more content than before. 
Exposure to the elements darkened my skin somewhat, so I was not so pale as before, and I was very pleased. The mix of good air and exercise and good food helped me to put on a little weight, and I was very proud of my now even curvier figure. 
Colombine kept her word and taught me how to steal cleverly, pickpocketing and snatching things off tables whilst pretending to look at something else. She was delighted with me and told me I was the best student - and now all that was required was pratice. She was rather less delighted when I chose her tent to practice within, and when I heard a bellowed "HERLI!" from across the way I knew she had missed whatever little nick-nack I'd slipped into my pocket, or had counted the bangles on her wrist and found one missing. Between us we gradually amassed an enormous collection of cheap jewellery and pretty scraps of cloth, all of which we hid from Clopin, not willing to find out how he'd react. 
I soon grew very comfortable on the streets of Paris, learning how to avoid the soldiers, which taverns allowed gypsy patronage, and where the best places for shopping - and consequently performing - were. I still wanted to perform, but was working over an act in my mind. After watching Colombine (and she was an enchanting performer) I was more inspired than ever, and spent many nights in bed, the only time I had for thinking, or working on an act. 
But for the time being I was content to simply learn my city. I realised very quickly that a lone gypsy woman was an easy target for soldiers and bullies, but I seemed unable to pass such people without antagonising them. Consequently I got plenty of exercise in running and avoiding larger fights. 
It seemed worse when I was with Colombine. The two of us together were seemingly unable to avoid trouble, it was as though it came to find us. Clopin compounded it as well.The three of us spent a lot of time together, and combined we had a lot of adventures - but those are other stories I may tell you another time. 
My introduction to Paris had been the final breakdown of any barriers I had built. I was now full of life and energy, and could barely sit still. At one point I had some small concern I was not attending to my wifely duties like I should, but that was ridiculous. The tent was perfect, and meals were always cooked. The only thing that remained was my virginity. But Clopin did not press me to do anything, although often at night we would lie holding each other, and still we talked. Indeed, we grew closer every day, and I realised quickly I held him dearer than even Colombine. I could see he was as fond of me also, for it was my company he now preferred to all others and I gradually shared all my past misdemanours with him, and even told him a little of Raghu. In his turn he told me of his pain over his parents' deaths, his initial apprehension of running the Court, and even how he had tried to leave once before, as a means of avoiding our marriage. 
It made me laugh when he told me, but I quietened quickly. 
"Do you wish you had escaped it now?" I asked him softly. We were sitting on the riverbank under the bridge early one evening, watching the sunset. I was sitting with my legs crossed and he was sprawled out on his stomach. He rolled over to look up at me. 
"No," he said with a smile. "You'll do." I smiled back at him and let him take my hand. We sat in silence for a few moments and then he spoke again. 
"Herlikin - what does that mean?" 
"It's a name my papa made up. He took it from 'Hellechina'. It means the same thing." 
He grinned at me wickedly. "Little Devil?" 
"Yes," I said and he laughed. 
"Suits you. That's what your brothers called you, isn't it?" 
I sighed and felt a little sad. "Yes, it is." 
"I think, cherie, if it's alright with you, I'd like to call you that sometimes." 
I smiled down at him and tickled his face with my fingernail. 
"I wouldn't mind." 
"Splendid," he said, and leapt to his feet. "Come on, we'll go to the tavern. Colombine said she'd be there this evening." 
We hurried along as the streets grew darker, although I felt a little put out that he was apparently so eager to see Colombine. But then we were at the tavern, and the candles within threw out a cheery orange glow as the sounds of people singing and talking grew louder. 

© Harley Quinn 1999 
May not be reproduced without permission