Chapter Seventeen

"Sorry to interrupt her Royal Highness's Royal Court of Personal Gratification, but his Royal Majesty, her Kingly Husband, desires the honor of her Royal Company in the Royal Tent."
I took a running leap and bowled him over, pinning him to the ground. "Oh very funny, Royal Oaf!! But the laugh's on you, for being the Queen, I refuse to walk such dirty ground! You will have to carry me back, wriggling on your belly, while I sit on you."
He only stared at me for a moment, before easily pushing me off and pinning me under him.
"I'm very much afraid the laugh's on you, my love, if you have got such notions into your head that you think I will do that!" I loved it when he called me his love - although he hadn't said he loved me I could pretend he did when he said that. So I just grinned at him stupidly and Colombine gave a groan behind us.
"If you two are going to get all kissy and touchy, could you *please* go back to your own tent to do it?"
Clopin kissed me swiftly and got off me. He helped me up and made a great show of dusting me off, paying particular attention to whacking my dress on my derriere.
"Alright, that's enough!" I scolded him, and with a hearty wave to Colombine who grinned at us cheerfully, we were going back, me clutching my precious parcel in my hands, laying my cheek on it and smiling blissfully.
"What's that, Herli?" Clopin asked me curiously. I clutched it close and grinned wickedly at him.
"It's mine!" I said.
He rolled his eyes. "Obviously. But *what* is it?"
"Fabric!"
He looked at me sharply. "I hope you didn't go up and steal it."
I feigned insult. "Absolutely not, my only darling. I paid good money for this. Good brass money!" and I stopped and laughed so heartily my sides ached. Clopin just stared in bewildered astonishment at me, and shook his head.
Before we reached our tent, however, we were interrupted. It was Pierre and Marc, two of the Spies within the Court, and they showed more emotion than I'd seen before as they panted, running up to us.
"We found soldiers in the catacombs," Marc said solemnly, and Clopin's face immediately grew severe.
"Is that a fact? Where are they now?"
"Tied up in the Square. They came down from the entrance to the Tavern. It's just the two of them. No others. We threatened them with torture and they caved immediately. They followed a few strange-looking girls out of curiosity. No-one else knows where they are."
I gulped. I had an unpleasant idea the 'strange-looking girls' had been myself and the others. Oh if only we had been more careful, more observant!
I fearfully told Clopin what I suspected as we hurried along to the Square, and he groaned and glared at me.
"Damn it! Can't you be careful when I tell you to be careful? Why are you so damned stubborn?"
"I'm sorry!" I snapped back. "I didn't know there'd be soldiers there. How the hell would I? Don't be angry at me. You've done worse."
He sighed. "You realise what I'm going to have to do with these soldiers?"
I nodded, and moved closer to him.
We reached the square, and up on the stage were the two soldiers, trussed and gagged, and nearly wetting themselves with fear. I recognised our friends from the brawl at the tavern a few weeks ago. I realised they must've returned in pursuit of gypsies, and with disgust I thought they deserved everything they were about to get. The other Romani were gathering at the bottom, looking up in interest. They guessed Clopin's identity, and began struggling at their bonds. He, meanwhile, bounded light-heartedly up on the stage and addressed them flamboyantly.
"Well gentlemen, I imagine you know who I am?"
They nodded, their eyes wide and wary.
"And I imagine you also are aware that this is my land, my home, my sacred territory?"
They nodded again, this time more slowly.
"And as you are trespassers in my land, I imagine you think it fair I treat you according to the rules of my land, no?"
They made no movement this time. He meanwhile, moved between them and leaned on them companionably.
"Ahh, but there may be a chance for you. If it can be proved you bear the people under my rule no ill will. What say you to a little test, my boys?" And he plucked a gag from one of their mouths.
"You're nothing but gypsy scum!" the soldier cried, in an attempt to be brave. "Frollo will find you and hang you like the dogs you are!! You're scum, scum!" Clopin just looked at him steadily and the man fell silent. Clopin shook his head sadly.
"How rude! I shudder to think what his friend might have said!"
The crowd laughed, and looked on eagerly. Out of the corner of my eye I could Isabelle watching the proceedings with great interest. She had grown even more voluptuous since coming back to the Court, and there was a very peculiar expression on her face I did not like at all, but I forced myself to turn away and return my attention to my husband.
"Well I guess you boys have made your decision. My friend's - the nooses, if you please."
A few of the Romani came forward and fixed the nooses around the soldiers neck. More and more aware of their situation, they struggled harder against their bonds, the bigger of them beginning to cry, and I almost pitied them. The one whose gag had been removed began to cry out he had been only joking, he was actually a great friend to the gypsies, and had come to join up with them. These lies, however, only made the crowd more anxious for his neck to be wrung, although Clopin played with them a moment longer.
"You declare that you wish to be a truant?"
"Yes!" the man sobbed.
"And that you will recognise me as your sovereign leader?"
"Yes!"
"And you will serve me always and turn your back on Frollo?"
"Anything!"
Clopin scratched his chin. "Weeelll - it's tempting. But I'm afraid we're a peaceful people" - he winked to the crowd who cheered - "and we have no use for soldiers. Too bad." He yanked the lever that would release the trapdoor.
"No wait - " the man began, but was cut off. Despite their previous enthusiasm, the crowd gave a little gasp at the violent ending, before staring in morbid fascination, as the bodies twitched and then became still.
Only I watched coldly, and Clopin too, with an almost sadistic expression. I glanced across at Isabelle and was sickened to find a very sadistic smile on her face. I almost felt the hypocrite, but I knew Clopin and I were detached because we believed the deaths were right and for the greater good. Isabelle's expression told only of a morbid love of the violence, and I wished again she was no longer in the Court.

After that, eyes were kept peeled. The Romani were more on their guard than before, for we were aware now that the hunt was intense. Large rewards were offered for the King of the Gypsies and his wife and minions. Both Clopin and I were rather proud of the fact that Frollo was expending so many efforts in our capture, but we remained relatively cautious. He told me I had to remain within the Court, and he burst a blood vessel every time I snuck away. Likewise I feared for him. I hated him leaving, and would anxiously await his return, although I showed nothing. We argued about it often: who had the right to leave and who should stay hidden, why, what were the dangers, you can't tell me what to do etc., etc. Inevitably we ended up laughing at the end of these arguments, it being practically impossible to stay angry at each other for long.
I slaved away hard with my velvet, growing well-pleased with what was beginning to form beneath my hands. In the quiet corners of the Court I resumed my acrobatics, my juggling and the other skills I had been noted for in India. I convinced Renault, one of the Court's better musicians, to teach me to play the lyre, and I practised hard at it for many hours, growing more pleased as my skill grew.
I also became a regular visitor to Abigail's tent, not least because of her animals. For hours I could see with Chantal, the snake on my lap, or Jezebel on my shoulder, sing with any number of the parrots, and gently stroke Celeste, the silver-gray hare, while she regarded me calmly. Abigail also was a source of great comfort, having much wisdom, but a very youthful outlook on life. I feared sharing nothing with her, and found her very company greatly soothing. Abigail was pleased me and Clopin were now on the right path, but she urged me to tell him how I felt, which I still could not do. 
"Child, how do you not know he feels the same way?" she asked me. "And furthermore, do you expect to find out without making the first move? You and Clopin both can be as stubborn as mules when you wish to be, one of you has to take a chance."
I grumbled and rearranged myself on the cushions, so that I might hold all the little mice in my skirts, watching them chase one another and sniff at the strange fabric curiously.
"I don't know, Abigail. I just can't. Not yet. I imagine I will. But when I'm ready."
"Now you listen, you shouldn't wait. Who knows what tomorrow holds? You should grab your opportunities while they are open to you."
"Nothing will happen to Clopin or myself, Abigail. We have plenty of time!"
"Ha! Oh, the arrogance of youth!" she said with dry humor. "You'd do well to listen to the wisdom of the old! How's that big beast of yours?"
"Who, Clopin or Chester?" I asked with a laugh, and she joined in.
"Well, Clopin I've already enquired after. We'll move on to Chester now."
"He's becoming unsettled again. I try to sneak him out at night, but with Clopin practically resorting to tying me to the bed at night to keep me there, it's hard to get him out. And he refuses to go with Clopin. He went with Colombine a couple of times, but he'd rather me, and we both would really like to go back to the countryside again." I sighed. She nodded sympathetically.
"Keep him under for a while, girl. I don't know why exactly, but he's had a peculiar aura lately. Best not to take needless chances. Speaking of needless chances, I know what you've been getting up to with expensive velvet and what you're planning. You be careful. I'm sure you think it all seems like great fun, and it will be, right up until they lead you to the gallows."
I laughed a little. By now I was used to Abigail knowing all that was going on. I was not entirely sure how she knew, but I had seen true magik before and so did not worry too much about it. "Don't worry, Abigail. I will be very very careful. No-one up there will recognise me anyway. Besides, I must do this. It's itching me on the inside, tickling my brain. I wonder how much longer before the man hunt is relaxed?"
She shook her head and looked troubled, a rare expression for her. "There's trouble mounting, both up there and down here. Clopin and his cronies took one risk too many this year, which is why pressure is more intensified. I've warned him again and again, but it seems the lot of our people to have some kind of mass war with the gadjes with every King's reign. There's some bad air down here. I'm keeping my eyes out. I don't trust that witch Isabelle, but she's skilled enough to mask her mind from me."
My interest was piqued now. "Isabelle is a witch?"
She nodded. "Aye, a wicked and unfortunately, very clever one. Hard to say if she is a traitor though. There are other more desperate than she."
"Do you think she cast a spell over Clopin?"
She laughed at that. "No no, she is not so vulgar as that, at least not yet. So long as she could control him through the loins, she didn't need to do anything like that."
I mulled over this new revelation for a few moments. "Isabelle knew that I had not had relations with Clopin prior to her arrival. I feared Clopin had told her, but could she learn it through her craft?"
"It's possible. You should ask him if you want to know for sure, however."
"Hmmm.... I don't want him to think I don't trust him."
"But if he did tell her, why would he be offended by your question?"
"But if he didn't, he certainly would be!"
"Well, it's up to you. Does it really matter now, is what you should ask yourself."
I got up and returned the mice to their home, then dusted off my skirts.
"Clopin will kill me for coming home smelling like mice again. Chester will love it! He likes to eat mice. He hunts them. He is like my father. Rolling in the dirt with me, and then seriously seeking his prey. Well, my father never sought prey. He sought audience. The same thing, perhaps. I remember my father taught me some magik. Will you teach me magik, Abigail?"
"Hmmm....I'll think about it. I think with a little guidance we could awaken some skill in you. I'll have a think about it tonight and ascertain what type of skill it is."
When Abigail said she would have a think, it generally meant she would go into some kind of magikal trance which would allow her to see all things, or something like that.
I went over and hugged her. "Thank you. I would love that."
She grinned at me amiably. "Alright now, better go back to that tent, before your husband brings the Court down shouting for you."
I laughed and scooted out, skipping cheerfully down the way. I stopped when I saw Jean-Luc coming out of a tent, wiping his brow, looking amazingly distressed. He didn't see me, and stopped, burying his face in his hands.
"Jean-Luc, whatever is the matter?" I enquired, more out of curiosity than concern. I didn't know him very well.
He jumped at the sound of my voice and looked at me guiltily.
"Herlikin! I - that is - it's - it's nothing. Nothing is the matter."
I laughed at him. "Then stop looking so distressed. Anyone would think Shaitan himself had arrived to collect your soul."
He was pale, and looked at me anxiously still. But I could not trouble myself to worry about it too much, and continued my cheerful way home.
Clopin awaited me, a frown of thunder on his face. I laughed at him, and tossed him a cloth.
"Here, wipe that expression from your face! I've not been out, only to Abigail's."
He came closer and then wrinkled his nose. "I can smell it. Mice! Damnit Herli! Well, there's nothing for it. I'll have to get you out of those clothes."
He lunged for me, and I squealed and ducked out of his way. He chased me for a few minutes more before I allowed myself to get caught (falling over had nothing to do with it) and stripped, and then flung me down on the bed before he joined me.
After we made love I told him that Abigail was going to teach me magik and he groaned.
"Marvellous. Exactly what I don't need. I'm going to tell her not to bother."
I whacked him.
"You wouldn't dare! You have no right! I can learn magik should I wish!"
"Believe me, cherie, I have had enough hexes put on me by amateur witches to very much want to avoid another!"
I sat up and leaned over him, cooing sweetly. "But why would I want to put a hex on you, my only darling?"
He pulled a face. "Only darling besides that big tiger of yours. And Colombine, I've heard you call her darling. Little Esmeralda has also been darling several times, and..."
"Alright alright, you make your point. What should I call you then? My only husband?"
"I should damned well hope so!"
I laughed and cuddled him. "My darling limping fool?"
"You're the only one whose been limping out of the two of us. As for "Fool", I'm not the one who nearly got arrested and hanged for a piece of fabric."
"Alright, don't get agitated. I was only calling you by name after all."
He sighed and sat up, shrugging me off. "I can't handle this criticism!" he said in mock despair. "Either you hold me sacred or you hold nothing at all!"
"Except this," I said, making a dart for where he was most sensitive. He caught my hands just in time, and slapped them, shaking a finger at me.
"Naughty naughty! And to think this abuse all began because I wanted you to distinguish me from the others in your life."
"Alright - my only love," I said tenderly, wrapping my arms around his neck.
He looked at me in interest, and I sat back when I realised what I had said. He was about to speak when I interrupted. "Let's go on an adventure!!"
He looked disappointed and tried to speak but I silenced him with more words, leaping up from the bed.
"Come on, I have a wonderful idea in mind! Let's go! Let's go now!"
"You and your adventures!" he muttered irritably. "I'll probably have to carry you home. Anyway, what am I talking about? You're not allowed to leave the Court."
I threw his clothes onto him and then began to pull my own on. "Don't you say that! I can leave if I feel like it!! Besides, I'll have you, you big strong brave man, to protect me!"
He raised an eyebrow. "You can't change my mind that way. You also can't change it by putting clothes *on*. You might have more success by taking them off again."
I threw his cloak at him. "Come on. Let's leave. If you don't want to come I'll go on my own."
He sat up and frowned at me. "And I'll drag you back down and beat your bottom raw!"
I poked my tongue out "You had better come with me, in that case. Not that I need you. I can hold my own up there as well as you."
He snorted. "Yeah, right. You couldn't even handle two overweight soldiers!"
"I was doing fine until I tripped! Besides, that was not the only nor the last time I had a run in with similar gentlemen, so let's not open our mouths too soon!"
He narrowed his eyes at me, and began to get dressed. "Well cherie, since you're insistent upon defying me, all I'll say is I hope your luck doesn't run out."
"It won't," I said confidently, but he did not look so sure.

Within a few minutes we were making our way out of the Court. Jean-Luc was again looking anxious as we passed him in heated discussion with Renault. I noted with some interest the disdain and irritation on Renault's fate as Jean-Luc pleaded with him over something. Again I raised an eyebrow, but I did not ask Clopin if there was anything troubling the young man.
Feeling rather adventurous, I suggested we take the exit from the Palace of Justice and Clopin quite happily took me up on the offer. After that I led the way through the dark streets to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, eagerly rushing up its stone steps, and about to push open the heavy doors, when Clopin pulled me back.
"What are we doing here? Are you going to pray to be less opinionated? Perhaps to stop arousing the interest of public officials? Perhaps even that you'll have mercy on your poor husband and obey him for a change. Or Perhaps - "
I shoved him. "None of that! I just want to see if, being not of the Catholic faith, I burst into flames after I cross the threshold."
He threw his arms up in the air. "Of course! I should've known it would be something as nonsensical and illogical as that! What was I thinking??"
I only grinned at him and pushed the large door open, sneaking in, although the street was deserted. I tiptoed on the large black and white marble floor, my heart beating quite rapidly within my chest. The reason I had given Clopin was not entirely true, but I was curious about what it looked like within. I respected the Church as a sacred place, but had no particular reverence for it. Nonetheless, I paused once inside, looking around me surreptitiously, and then jumped when Clopin lay a hand on my shoulder. It was his turn to grin.
"Satisfied? Come on, let's go. We have no reason nor need for this place."
But emboldened by my success, I grasped his hand and led him to the stone steps, ignoring his protests.
"Let's look through the huge windows at the top! I want to see what it looks like from so high up!"
I ran up the stairs, and despite himself he followed. "I can't believe we're doing this," he muttered. "Wandering around an empty, cold stone cathedral of all places. I can think of a dozen positions I would rather be in, all of them requiring complete nakedness!"
I laughed as I darted up before him."Don't you think it would be very romantic at the top? The beautiful fluted columns, carved statues, the dark, the view of Paris, a man and his wife alone together - "
"In the House of God! Brilliant, Herli. I can't think of anything more romantic or damning."
"But that's where it's wonderful to be a gypsy. We don't have to worry about that!"
I snuck a glance behind me and saw his face piqued with new interest.
"That's very true. I've obviously been listening to the sermons of wandering monks too much. Wait, I'm right behind you!"
Beginning to get slightly out of breath, I continued on doggedly. The more active and stronger Clopin overtook me, laughing triumphantly whilst I waved a feeble fist at him. Finally we had reached the top, and rushed down the beautifully structured corridors, gazing at the enormous carved windows. The sight was breathtaking, and we both of us gazed out at the dark city, lit in only a few places by still burning lights, entranced and smiling, while a cool wind whipped around us gently.
"Admit it, it was worth it" I nudged him. He shrugged.
"Alright, but I've done this before."
I slapped him hard. "Liar! You have not! Don't you ruin this for me!"
He chuckled. "Alright, alright, I'm sorry. My eyes were virgins to this view until you brought me up here. We viewed it the first time together." He pulled me into his arms. "You're right. It's very romantic." He smiled down at me and we began to kiss. Feeling wicked and both of us slightly nervous and apprehensive in our risque choice of setting, we burned with desire, and he propped me on the stone ledge, wrapping my legs around him.
"Don't let me fall!" I whispered.
"God, I'd rather die," he murmured back.
"God has nothing to do with it," I giggled. Then I felt something brush against my skirts, and startled I looked down, catching in the moonlight a small and hideous face. I gave a panicked scream and pushed Clopin away, jumping down.
"What, what is it?" he asked me worriedly. I threw myself on him, trying to hide my face.
"It's true, it's all true!" I shrieked "We're being damned to Hell for fulfilling our desire in a sacred place!!"
"What are you babbling about?" he asked me in bewilderment. "Calm down, you hysterical female!"
He shoved me to one side, and catching movement in the shadow of one of the columns we had just been near, he moved forward curiously. My first instinct was to pull him back, not wanting my husband to be dragged to hell by a devil, but then I realised that for a devil it was very timid and quiet. I didn't know much about devils but I had always been under the impression they were noisy and rude.
Clopin moved forward, holding out a hand, and the thing shuffled from the shadows, in a desperate attempt to get away from him. We both of us gave a startled gasp as the moonlight fell on it then, to see it so misshapen and grotesque. Then Clopin gave a little laugh.
"Why, you silly woman! It's just the little boy that bastard Frollo keeps up here. Poor boy, you have scared him more than he has scared you!"
I felt very indignant. "I did not see him well! How was I to know??"
Clopin just laughed at me, and tried to coax the boy to him, who cowered and hid his face from us. I had a terrible feeling suddenly that I had perhaps not been the first to scream at the sight of him, and I felt very guilty. He was just a poor boy after all, and I knew better than many to not judge on appearance. So feeling contrite, I also moved gently forward and called to the boy. He refused to come closer, hiding his face, and I thought - no creature has such instinctive awareness of it's own appearance. Someone has been telling this boy he is not fit to be looked at. And I frowned at the thought. Boldly, I strode forward and picked the boy up into my arms.
He gave a cry of fear and tried to break from my grasp, and he was amazingly strong, I can say that. But I held him tight and turned his face to mine, smiling at him in a friendly fashion, and after awhile he stopped his struggles and sat looking at me, tears in his little child's eyes, confusion and apprehension written on his face.
"There, there now," I soothed him, wiping the tears from his arms with my sleeve. "The shrieking witch will shriek no more - "
"Thank god" Clopin muttered, clearing his ears out.
"Shut up, Clopin!" I snapped at him, and returned my attentions to the boy, sitting down and settling him in my lap. "I am sorry I frightened you so. Do you understand what I say? How old did you say this boy was, Clopin?"
Clopin turned to me from looking out over the city, wrinkling his brow. "About three years, I should think. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less."
He kneeled before me and the boy who gaped at us both in awe. I liked the inquisitive expression on his face, and he was so placid and gentle-looking I wondered what had first led me to jump in fright from him. I rather fancied we were some of the only people he'd ever seen so close before, but his fear was beginning to dissipate, and I rubbed my hands soothingly over his head, examining his face in the moonlight, wandering down the path of fancy.
"There now, you are not so ugly after all," I said caressingly. "In fact, your face is rather sweet. You shouldn't be up here. It is no place for children. Would you like to come home with me?"
I wasn't sure how accustomed the boy was to speech, and so was uncertain how much he understood, apart from my gentle tone, but I continued anyway. "You can play with other children where I live. You have red hair, like me - " 
I noted Clopin was shaking his head vigorously. "Ooooh no, ohhh no you don't!"
"What?" I asked him.
"Absolutely not, so get the idea out of your head immediately! This boy stays where he is!"
"But the tower is dark and cold and there is nothing for children here!"
"Well, I don't care!"
"Heartless truant!"
"Look, I'm very sorry for the boy's plight I'm sure, but he has always a roof over his head, clothes and food. He has more than many gypsies have!! First and foremost of all, any children we raise will bear my blood. Second - this boy belongs to Frollo. I don't need the heartache it would cause!"
"Some heartache! Frollo keeps him up here like an animal!"
"I don't mean Frollo's heartache!! It's not our place to remove him. I have to think of the Romani children first. I have a responsibility. It's all very fun to steal and tease soldiers, but this is courting disaster."
I sulked, but could see the validity of his points. On reflection I did not know truly what to do with a child, and what's to say the Romani would welcome him anymore than the gadjes did? The child meanwhile had grown calm beneath my gentle hands, and had looked from one and the other of us as we spoke. I could see quiet intelligence in his eyes, along with sweetness, and I smiled down at him. In a brief moment of illumination he smiled back at me, and his face became truly beautiful. I cuddled him and smiled, liking the feeling of a small body in my arms. Clopin watched us, disapproving, one eyebrow raised.
"Please, don't let your whimsy allow you become more attached than you should, my love. The boy would require a lot of care and attention, and I'm not sure you're ready to give so much of yourself to another."
I glared at him angrily. "I give myself to you without complaint, do I not? Always my time, my bed, my food and my care!"

(c) Harley Quinn 1999
(harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
May not be reproduced without permission.
 

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