Chapter Five

As I moved easily through the court with an outward confidence I did not altogether feel I noticed the others staring at me with inquistive eyes. I wondered how many remembered the little brat princess from eight years ago, and if so,did they recognise me now, all grown up. I smiled and nodded at all I passed and found it returned. These would be my family for always, is what I kept telling myself as I moved amongst them. You will grow close with them and soon you will forget all about your mama and papa and your five strong brers.It was easy enough to tell myself, but I knew it would not be so easy in reality - especially considering the circumstances I was there under.
I stopped by a fire where a few matronly women stirred something in a large bubbling pot. It smelled absolutely delicious. I felt a sudden nervousness rise in my chest. Yes, we were all of the same breed, but I was a foreigner, new and unknown. I was here to marry their King, and the only memories they had of me were as a little girl constantly seeking attention. In a rare moment of self-doubt, I panicked quietly. What if they all hated me? What if they rejected me? What would happen then? One of the women looked up from the laughing conversation they were having amongst themselves and saw me standing there. Looking more than a little bewildered, I imagine.
"Hi there," she called cheerfully. "If it isn't our little Queen!"
The others looked up then and their smiles joined hers and I couldn't help but give them one back.
"Come on over here then, little one," the first called, holding out her hand to me. "Let's size you up!"
There was nothing but warmth and friendliness in their faces and voices and I quite happily moved over, giving my hand to the first. They looked me over and oohd and aahd and smiled and clucked and I giggled and had a sudden memory of a similar group of women giving me a bath here years ago. Perhaps they were those self-same women.
"You think she's lovely? Her skin is very pale."
"Very lovely. But she's got fire in those eyes. Clopin'll have his hands full, I shouldn't wonder!"
"Now now, I'm sure she'll be a perfect angel. Won't you, little one?"
It was the first again. I felt drawn to her, mainly in part because she reminded me of my absent mother. She looked nothing like her mind, where my mother was small and fair, this lady was large and dark - but she had the same quality as my mother. That of being loving and tender, but ferocious and bossy.
I smiled down at her. "Certainly I will Madame. Providing he deserves it."
They laughed at that, and pinched me companionably. "Ooh, you'll be good for him, you will dear. He needs a bit of that cheek at the moment. Now listen, I'm Tante Marie to all here abouts and to you too, alright little one?"
"Alright Tante," I said meekly.
"This here is Josephina, Marguerite, and Sophie.You remember us, cherie, we'll watch out for you here till you settle in."
"I'd like that very much, Tante" my heart swelling with gratitude.
They beamed at me, the four of them, and I felt another great rush of emotion swoop over me. Tante Marie saw the mistiness and my eyes and embraced me compassionately.
"Poor little darling, you miss your family and your home."
I nodded my assent.
"Here now, you'll be allright. Clopin may take a bit of breaking in at first, but he'll be good to you. And you'll have us every time you need a little womanly reimbursement!"
They all chuckled at that, and I guessed it was a joke regarding their size for they were each of them large buxom women. Tante stood up, brushing her apron off.
"Come now, cherie. Let Tante Marie walk you back to your tent."
I tucked my arm through hers and we started back the way I had come. "Good now, we're away from all those busybodies," she chuckled good-naturedly. "I can have a word with you in private."
For some reason I felt a little apprehension with those words.
"Is there - anything wrong Tante?" I almost whispered.
"Well - not anything wrong as such. Just a few words of advice about your fella to get you started off right."
"He's *not* my 'fella'!" I said proudly. 
She heard the haughtiness in my voice and saw the tilt of my chin as I said it and responded with a little shove. "Hey now, that's foolish pride, little one. He's your fella whether you like it or not, you haveto start getting used to it."
"I've already accepted that, Tante," I sighed, "whether I like it or not. But I don't like him, not at all."
She laughed at that.
"Oh, you will."
"If you think I'm like all the other girls and will just fall in love with him, you're very badly mistaken, I'm afraid," I said quite crossly. She responded to that with a very loud burst of laughter.
"Oh no, little one. I know you won't. That's how I know you'll like him. You two are very similar in many ways and you'll get along wonderfully. It'll just be the case of you both swallowing your stubborness long enough to get the babies popping out!"
"Humph" was all I could think of to say to that.
"But it will be rough going for you to begin with, which is why I'm warning you against foolish pride. You don't want Clopin fooling around on you, and he will if finds you disagreeable enough."
"I don't care if he does," I said snappishly.
"You will when he starts. Believe me, girl, you will. I've no doubt you opposed this set-up? He was just the same. He tried many times to find a way out of it."
My blood boiled at that and she noticed the color rise in my cheeks.
"Now now, don't lose your temper. Honesty is the best way of opening this relationship, so you should know where it's at. He tried to get out of it, but when he found he couldn't, he accepted it gracefully. I know he will honor his father's wishes and he will be a good husband to you. Now the problem lies in his status with the women around here. The Court has several ladies men, and Clopey's definetely the sweetest of them all, so he's very popular. He hasn't been a chaste boy the past eight years, and the big reason for that is, apart from an insatiable appetite, is that he's constantly falling in love. Or thinking he is."
I remembered Harlan Trouillefou saying something along these lines eight years ago.
"Now when he truly falls in love, it will be for keeps.That's the kind of man he is. He'll never leave her side, and after seeing the look in your eyes, I've no doubt you're the one, despite how much you think you hate him now. Although - " here she paused, and eyed me critically. "I may be wrong. That's up to you, though dear. But you will have to make him want to stick around long enough to do it. His fillies have always been young and naive but the latest - well, she's a big problem. It's unfortunate it had to happen just before your arrival, but there it is. His latest amour is an older woman, and for once he was the one seduced. But she's causing him much grief now over you."
Marvellous. I'd been there a day and I'd already caused problems.
"She wants him to break it off and marry her, but he won't because he doesn't want to dishonor his father. So she's left him, in her way. She's been a terrible tart since, and very cruel to him, so he's quite unhappy at the moment though he doesn't show it."
I thought with discomfort that this woman reminded me of me hardly a year ago. I sighed. "Tante, is there anything for me to be positive about coming here? My future husband's in love with another woman and from what you've told me, he'll be running around with every lady here!"
Tante groaned. "Child, you haven't been listening. Clopin is always faithful to the lady of the time, he gets around because his heart is searching for the right one and he can't find her. He thinks this older, mature and sexy woman is her, and it isn't. If it was Clopin would've broken your engagement, whether it meant dishonoring his father or not. The fact that he hasn't is just a sign he doesn't really love her. She knows him well enough to realise this too, and it infuriates her. So she's tormenting him. I'm telling you this so you realise that you shouldn't close yourself to him. Be open, be warm and be accepting and he will realise Isabelle is not the woman he wants. Be cold and haughty and no matter how hard he tries to be faithful to you, he will find himself back in her arms and making a fool of you. No-one expects you to fall madly in love straight away, but at least make an effort to be friends."
I saw the sense in what she said and on impulse I stopped and kissed her vigorously on both cheeks. She grinned and tried not to show pleasure.
"There now, you'll be all right, girl. I'll leave you now. Just come to Tante if you have any worries. I know a few sgzany lullabies."
I laughed and embraced her again, and she turned and strode off back towards her own tent.
I was not as yet at mine, although I was sure it was just over the way a little.
I marvelled at how like an encampment the Court of Miracles was. It had its own streets, its own sections like. No sky, no greenery, no people apart from gypsies, and it was just like an underground village.
I saw several of the men looking at me and I smiled at them in an open, though not flirtatious way. Though my talk with Tante Marie had perhaps been not of my favourite subject matter, I still felt heartened that I had found someone to keep me company. I grinned down at Chester who could sense my improved mood and he smiled back.
As I rounded the corner where my tent stood, I saw an unexpected sight and stopped suddenly.
It was Clopin in his performance dress. Though multi-colored and bell-laden it looked well on him, and the sensuality of his face was enhanced by the half-mask he wore. There was a young lady with him and he was leaning in close to her face, whispering something to her that made her giggle. She was younger than he, though older than me, that was clear, so it couldn't be the one of whom Tante spoke. I had to smile at the sight, for it was such a typically Clopin thing to do.
I remembered how he had seen me the day before, wet and dirty, and how he probably though he had a nasty little scrag of a wife. They say you only get one chance to make one first impression. I don't believe that.
I walked towards them, putting on air of confidence,and as I drew closer it caught both their attention and they looked towards me.The girl's eyes widened then narrowed as she realised who I was and Clopin - his chin pratically hit the floor.He stared at me for several seconds while I revelled in his admiration. I knew it was so intense because he was comparing me with the image he'd seen yesterday: perhaps with the one from eight years ago. I had a glorious figure, with full round breasts and hips, and a small waist.Gypsy clothes seem designed to enhance feminine beauty. My hair was glowing with life and cascaded down my back like a golden waterfall. In England I would have been an outcast for it. Here, it was still definitely unusual, though not so much an object of rejection. 
My face - my face had since matured and filled out, my eyes were wide and my lips soft and sensual. I know for a fact I am not a great beauty, I merely have an interesting quality about me. It remained to be seen whether my odd looks and pale skin would appeal to Clopin, or if he'd be like the other men. But he was agape for only a moment before regaining his composure and gallantly stepping forward to take my arm.
"Good morning to you, Mam'zelle. I trust you slept well?"
"Like a dream," I responded with a wide smile, and I knew him to be surprised at that too, for he'd never, in our brief encounters, gotten such warm treatment from me.
"I came to enquire upon you this morning, I was rather surprised not to find you in your tent."
"Well m'sieu, you could hardly expect me to sit there in ignorance when a whole new world awaited me beyond."
He laughed agreeably. "True, that's true. Perhaps I should not be so surprised after all."
"No perhaps not. I, on the other hand, was quite surprised to not find you awaiting me at the docks yesterday!"
He pulled an exaggerated grimace.
"Aahh, Mam'zelle, a thousand apologies. I truly intended to be there, but as Jean-Luc explained, there was an emergency."
A thought came to me then, and tactlessly, I followed up on it. "An emergency named Isabelle, perhaps?"
He stopped abruptly and glared at me. Several emotions worked on his face - anger,confusion, apprehension. I had the decency to blush under his gaze. Just as abruptly he began walking again, pulling me along with him.
"I can see you've been talking with Tante Marie. She truly can put her nose where it's absolutely not wanted."
"It is not true then?"
He sighed and cast a weary glance at me. "No, I'm ashamed to say, it's true enough. I come to you with a broken heart mam'zelle. I can only hope you're woman enough to handle it."
That got my back up a little and I turned to face him as we reached the flap of my tent.
"M'sieu, I can assure you I can handle anything you throw at me and more besides!!! You'd just better hope you're man enough to handle me!!"
He laughed then, and a true spark of admiration entered his eyes.
"You are a treasure, ma cherie. I can see we're going to have much fun together."
I only cocked an eyebrow.
"Now now, mam'zelle, don't look so imperious! We both know this arrangement was not to our liking - but there's no reason we, two beautiful, intelligent creatures, can't get along. I for one I have no desire to argue with something so pleasurable to be with as yourself. So let me offer you my hand in friendship and loyalty always."
He extended his hand to me, and I was pleased he treated me as an equal.I was pleased he called me beautiful and said I was intelligent, though so far he'd had no evidence to prove it. I was thankful he did not know of the type of person I was in India, and I thought in a way - it's good, to be here in a new place where I can start afresh. I remembered Tante Marie's words and confessed to myself that perhaps getting along with Clopin Trouillefou would be nicer than setting up walls for him to knock down. I needed all the friends I could get, and where best to start than with my future husband?
"I will take that offer with much pleasure, m'sieu," I answered, and he beamed that stunning smile at me.
I reached out to grasp his hand but instead of shaking it, he pulled it up to his lips and kissed it warmly. The hot press of his mouth brought a flush to my cheek and I was too astonished to scold. He looked into my eyes before gently releasing my hand.
"I must leave now, ma cherie. I have to continue my work in the world above, before they grow restless and start crying for me."
I smiled at his easy conceit, but gasped when a miniature version of him popped out of nowhere and began to speak in a shrill voice:
"Is not for you they cry, big oaf! Is for me! Me!"
I laughed when I realised it was a puppet in his likeness.
"Oh is that so then?" Clopin demanded of little Clopin.
"Yes,when I perform you are merely scenery!"
"When *you* perform?? Oh really?"
"Yes they all cry "oh where is Puppet, that handsome devil?? Get the big ugly one off, we want only Puppet's golden voice, his magik storytelling, his - ow!"
Clopin had hit the little puppet with a small stick. Puppet rubbed his head in pain.
"Hush now! We grow weary of your bragging!!" Clopin scolded.
I could swear a pout passed over Puppet's painted features.
"Brute!" he whispered in a soft voice, and ducked his head when Clopin glared at him.
It was only simple child's entertainment but it had great charm. The Puppet became a living thing in his hands - and his mouth did not even move when Puppet spoke!! I was impressed tho I tried not to show it. Puppet retreated back into his hiding place (though I could not see where he could hide in Clopin's closely fitting garments!), and Clopin made me a bow.
"Until this evening, mam'zelle. And remember - if you need something you have only to ask for it!!"
He bowed to Chester also with a courteous "Monsieur" and that was it for me. Clopin Trouillefou was my friend.
"Until this evening then." I smiled at him and watched as he moved gracefully away, calling greetings and exchanging pleasantries with those he encountered.
Chester looked up at me inquisitively.I think even he had been impressed.
"Alright I admit it!" I grudgingly stated. "Life with Clopin Trouillefou may not be so bad after all. But I am still not going to love him!"
I went inside the tent and ate the rest of my roses.
 


I did not see Clopin again until the evening. During that time I had been rather stuck for something to do. I was reluctant to unpack my things as I guessed the tent I was in was only a temporary residence until I was married. When would that be? The sea voyage had been long and I had lost all track of time. I did not know even when my sixteenth birthday would be, or if it had already passed.
Chester, who had just flopped onto a pile of cushions, groaned audibly when I leapt to my feet and bid him come.
"Don't be lazy, sir," I scolded. "If my birthday is soon you must buy me a present!!"
He only snorted, unimpressed.
So once again we left the tent in pursuit of knowledge. Most of the gypsies had by this time moved up into the world to work their street art,or to shop. I spied some little gypsy children played in a corner of the Court, and moved over to them, Chester by my side.
They stopped and gaped when they saw me approach, not so much at me, as to the big tiger by my side. I doubted they had ever seen such a marvellous creature before. A few of the little girls backed away, nervous of this strange beast.
"Hello there!" I called. "How are we all today?"
A few of them answered shyly, the others not at all. They gazed up at me with their large beautiful eyes, and then at Chester. You must remember that the tiger is the largest of all cats, bigger even than the ferocious lion. When isaw I look down at Chester, I mean by only a few inches. But Chester was good-natured and sweet. He would not harm these children.
"You like my large friend?" I asked them agreeably.
"Will he eat us, madam?" one of the young boys piped up.
"Not at all. He is gentle as a lamb, more gentle in fact. He will not charge your bottom when you turn your back to him!"
I got a few giggles from that, and several of the little ones edged cautiously forward to look at both of us more closely.
"He is the largest cat I ever saw," said a little girl with large green eyes. "What made him so large?"
"Milk," I said. "He drinks always milk and it makes him large and strong. He can wrestle an elephant to the ground. Here, you may pet him if you like."
Chester subjected himself to this with very good grace. He sat on his haunches and patiently allowed the few brave to stroke all his lovely fur.
"What is an elephant, madam?" The first little boy said. I'd forgotten most of the children here wouldn't know of those animals.
"An elephant is like a giant mouse, grey of skin and big as a house! He has a nose that is like a long tube."
The boy eyed me suspiciously. "Is that a REAL animal?" he said. "It doesn't sound like a real animal to me!"
"It's as real as you or me." I told him. "They are very huge, and when they speak they say 'hrrrrruuuuuuuummmpppppp!!!!'"
"Oooooh," they all replied.
It was such a companionable scene, a group of brightly attired but raggedly dressed dirty little gypsy children and a giant of a white tiger sitting amongst them. Then there was me of course, in my brilliant red robes, and my fair skin, squatting on the floor, smiling. I looked above and around me at the Court, and remembered how it had reminded me of India eight years previous. It still did, in its way. The colorful people were everywhere, the tents and the scents of food and spices. If it wasn't that I missed the heat of India, the smells of flowers and the lush countryside. If it wasn't that I missed my family especially - I might have started to feel at home already. I was swept suddenly by another wave of homesickness, and I tried crankily to push it away. I wanted suddenly to be alone. There would be other oppurtunities to know my children better, to regale them with stories of India and it's ways and customs. I stood up and brushed the dust from my skirt.
"Tell me little ones," I said to the children, "could any of you tell me what date it is today, please?"
They looked confused for a second, and one of them ran off. The others looked amongst each other and then back up at me.
"We're sorry madam," the little girl with green eyes said. "We don't know what the date is."
I felt depressed suddenly."That's alright, little one.I will find out soon I suppose."
The child who had made the sudden exit returned then, breathing heavily. "Please madame," he said, "my maman says that today is the 24th of January."
I could feel my heart practically stop. The twenty-fourth! It was only two days away from my birthday and then I would be sixteen, soon to be married!
"Thank you, little one," I said, and rubbed his hair. I bid them goodbye, thought they asked me to stay and play with them. Chester pressed close by my side, sensing my reflective mood as I walked back to my tent. Once inside I sank down on the cushions and began working a piece of embroidery I had begun on the ship. I was aware now, more than ever, of the abrupt change that had happened in my life.
 


It was later that evening when Tante Marie showed up at my tent to take me to dinner.
"Come now, child. Gotta eat and keep your strength up!"
I was very glad to see her, that is certain, and eagerly took her arm. I told of the exchange between Clopin and myself that monring, and she squeezed my arm happily.
"That's the way, girl. You keep that up now, and you'll be happy here."
Chester ran on eagerly, his stomach growling. Once we reached the supper circle, I had a word with the man turning the spit, and he happily provided Chester with a large leg of meat. I saw many of gypsies look at Chester warily, but as he seemed so docile nothing was said.
I went to sit by Tante Marie but she told me I would have to sit with Clopin when he arrived, for he would want to present me to everyone there. I looked around, feeling a little shy all of a sudden. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and I felt a little lonely. I also couldn't see any of Clopin's family. I was aware that his brothers and sisters might have moved on and out of the Court, but it surprsied me somewhat to not see Delilah or Harlan anywhere. I whispered as much to Tante Marie, who looked at me shocked.
"Oh but of course child, you wouldn't know. Delilah been dead these last five years, Harlan these last two. Clopin's been king ever since."
I sat back, quite startled. Poor Clopin! I could only imagine how terrible it would be to lose your family forever, and then it occured to me that I had probably done just that as well. I almost felt sad again, but this time I determined to shove it away and went to get a plate of food. It occurred to me then I hadn't eaten anything except a few flowers since yesterday, and I took what I was given gratefully.
I felt a hand on my shoulder then and whipped around, startled, to find those mischevious black eyes flashing down at me.
"You have been giving your food, Herlikin?" Clopin asked me. I wasn't sure I liked the liberty he took of calling me by my first name but I didn't protest. I just nodded and allowed him to lead me to my seat.
He took up a huge plate of food for himself, and we all ate, talking companionable amongst ourselves, sharing laughter. All except for me, who sat silent with no-one to talk to. Clopin spoke mainly to those men nearby him, and I felt a little sulky and left out.
When both he and I had finished eating, however, he rose to his feet, and raising his arms addressed the Gypsies in a loud voice.
"My fellow gypsies!!" He called "As you know I have been your King these two years, and have not as yet taken a wife!"
"Not in name, anyway!" someone retorted and there was a shout of laughter.
Clopin took it with good humor, chuckling too. "Yes, if you want to see it that way!" he said, "but all that is about to change! By the end of this week I will be twenty-three - I will also be married!!"
There were many cries of approval over this, though they probably all already knew. I was very interested to hear Clopin's birthday was in the same week as my own.
"Now many of you don't know my beautiful bride-to-be, though I'm sure many of you will remember her brief visit here eight years ago, when her and her family of sgzany dazzled us with their tricks and acts."
There was murmured agreement during which Clopin winked down at me.
"In particular this little one astonished us, not only with her skill, but with her wit and brains. True, she was a perfect little brat - " thanks, Clopin - "but at least she will have good children!" What was this??? The others laughed and I realised it must have been a joke, though I didn't find it funny, personally. "It gives me great pleasure to think I will be making a life partner of her. I present to you now,your Future Queen - Herlikin-Elise!"
So saying he reached down and pulled me to my feet. I was caught off guard, and had to struggle to make sure I didn't lose my balance. I held face though, and tossed my hair back and smiled proudly at all those around me.
"Let's drink to this one then" Clopin shouted, and lifting up his mug, held it high. The others followed suit.
"To our future queen!" he called, and they echoed him before gulping back their liquor.
I noticed then that many of the young women glared at me disagreeably, and with envious eyes. No doubt they welcomed me quite a bit less than the others did,and I felt irritated. Why couldn't they go off and find their own men? Why should I become an automatic enemy over one man? I was careful to mask my frustration, however, and sat back with Clopin, who pulled me unforgiveably close to him. I did not want to make a spectacle of myself and resisted as best I could without being conspicuous, but his arm was firm around my waist, and my back pressed hard against his waist as we sat on the cushions placed there for our comfort. I could feel his breath on my neck as he spoke and it was a pleasing sensation, I'll admit. But I did not feel comfortable with this familiarity from who was, let's face it, practically a stranger. It made me think of what I would be obliged to do with him after our wedding night, and though I had no qualms at all about that act - I had always hoped it would be with one I loved. The thought of it being with Clopin, a man I barely knew, did not sit well with me at all.

The next day Clopin once again came to my tent.
"Good morning, little Princess," he declared, his movements as nearly always flambuoyant. He swept off his hat and made me a bow. I was not happy at his intrusion,but what could I do? I realised pretty quickly Clopin went wherever his fancy took him.
"Good morning," I replied grouchily, pulling my wrap up around my shoulders. He gazed at me for several minutes, a little smile playing on his lips,until I grew impatient and snapped:
"Did you come here for a reason, or just to stare at me?"
"My apolgies, Herlikin.I was merely admiring the paleness of your skin.It's very unusual amongst us here."
"I know, believe me I know!" I grumbled. "No-one ever lets me forget, I assure you."
He laughed at that. "No fear, Herli. You are no less beautiful because of it."
"Why thank you so much," I said with much sarcasm. He shook his head, smiling.
"Come then, my lady. I take a morning off to move your trunks to my tent."
"I beg your pardon!" I said, feeling scandalised. "We're not yet married m'sieu! I absolutely do not move in with you until then!!"
He threw back his head and roared, while I stood, much insulted at his arrogance.
"I'm not sure what it is that made a sgzany woman so picky about where she sleeps, but I assure you - among the gypsies we have no such quibbles!"
"I assure *you* I wouldn't were I to be with one I loved."
He stopped laughing and looked at me reflectively then.
"Ah, I see. Oh well. I'm sorry it's not to be that way Herli. And your things must still be moved in with mine before tomorrow."
He bent to lift one of my trunks.I stopped him.
"What do you mean 'by tomorrow'?"
He slapped his forehead with his hand "Of course," he groaned. "How would you know? Tomorrow, my dear," he said, taking my hands, "we get married."
I pulled my hand back sharply.
"Tomorrow?? But - but - it's so soon!"
"The sooner, the better - I can put you in a more comfortable situation for a start, and you can begin more fully settling into your new life."
"But - tomorrow - it's - "
"It's your birthday. I know. We're going to work the two celebrations into one!!"
My mouth dropped open slightly.
"How did you know?" I asked.
He shrugged "I have always known. I believe my father told me once. Anyway, enough talk. Time to move."

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


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