La Mort Rit En Dernier

Chapter Five

Clopin was tired by his unusual and very long night. Yawning and lazily scratching his sides, he filled a tankard with beer and took a long gulp, rolling it around in his mouth before swallowing gratefully. "Ahh!" he sighed, and leaned against the stone wall of the Court.
As strange as everything was,he was already beginning to accept Columbine and Harley Quinn into his world. They stuck out like sore thumbs, true, and he wasn't sure if they were the type of people he could ever consider to be friends, but he no longer had to shake his head every time he saw Columbine's calm, determined gaze, or Harley's frenzied, gleeful smile.
He really needed some sleep. Psychopaths from the future or not, they didn't need to interfere in Clopin's sleeping time. Maybe he could sneak off to his tent and steal a few hours nap - that is if Mirage hadn't put something cold and wet between his bed covers again.
Just as he mustered the energy to lift himself off the wall and stumble over to his tent, two of his street scouts, Geraud and Guilliame, brothers, old and street smart, came rushing up to him. Their faces were white beneath their tans, their eyes wide and frantic. Frowning, Clopin turned to them questioningly, thoughts of his strange guests immediately entering his mind, as the thickly black-bearded gypsy men began hurridedly talking to their leader.
"We saw him as we were preparing to come under for the day, Clopin!"
"As pale as Death itself!! Grinning from ear to ear!!!"
"We bathed our faces before coming under, do not fear!! He looked with the Evil Eye! But we washed his poison away from us!!"
Clopin raised his hands, grimacing in irritation as they continued to speak over each other. "What, what what!" he cried, annoyed. "What is this superstition I am hearing, from two such men as yourselves, over thirty and many families behind you?"
The two men stopped for breath, and then Guilliame spoke again. "He was before us on the streets, walking out of the sun itself, Clopin! We knew he is not from our world, his clothes were strange and his hair unnatural!! His face was that of a skull, the visage of Death, and over his shoulder he carried the sack, filled with the Souls he has collected throughout the night!"
Clopin glared at the superstitious babble he thought belonged in the women's tents and then snapped at Guilliame. "So he walked out of the sun, but has been collecting souls all night, Guilliame? Make some sense, man!"
Guilliame stuttered, unsure, only knowing what he had seen. Geraud spoke up. "My brother speaks the truth Clopin! I saw it too! It was a Devil of some kind. You didn't see his eyes!!!"
Clopin again leaned against the wall, and stroked his brilliant black goatee thoughtfully. "Did this Devil have green hair?" he asked finally. 
The two men's eyes widened at their King, and they nodded, unable to speak.
Clopin moved forward quickly. "Very well. Tell everyone to have their eyes and ears open on the streets today. Thank you, you've done well."
The two brothers looked at each and shrugged. Clopin could be a mystifying man at times.

In Mirage's tent, the girls were having troubles of their own.
"You can't wear red!" Mirage told Harley for the fifth time.
Harley sat with legs crossed and arms folded, naked except for a thin cotton chemise, stubbornly on the floor. "I never wear any other color except red!" she said crossly.
Irea glowered at Harley. "NO good gypsy girl wears red before being married!!" she informed Harley snootily. 
Harley stuck her nose in the air. "I'm not a gypsy! And who said anything about *me* being good? I'm bad to the bone! Tell them Columbine!!"
Columbine looked vacantly over to where Harley sat. "Whatever you think, sweetie," she said lovingly, then turned back to contemplating her nails.
Mirage sighed and showed the green, patched dress to Harley again. "Look, if you wear red, everyone will think you're not a virgin!"
Harley looked up at Mirage in surprise. "But I'm not a virgin!"
Mirage sighed. "Yes but you don't want people to *think* that!"
Harley's brow furrowed. For a minute it almost looked as though she would give in. "NO!" she finally yelled. "NO NO NO NO!!"
Startled, Mirage dropped the dress on the floor, and backed up warily. "Goodness! Talk about unstable!" she muttered to herself. "Fine, fine, wear what you want!"
Harley gleefully pounced on the red dress she'd had her eye on from the beginning, and Columbine happily got up to help her into it. Harley ostentatiously struggled to get into a black bodice, but got tangled up with the laces. Sighing, Columbine helped her get her arms in the right way, and then laced it up at the back. Harley's blonde hair was pulled out of its pigtails and vigorously brushed out, and tied back.
"Oy, I feel weird!" Harley moaned.
Mirage smiled. "You look distinctly more normal," she told Harley, "no matter the red."
Mirage and Irea stood back to look Harley over critically. Despite the strange look in her eye, Harley was a pretty girl, with round, white cheeks, and forget-me-not blue eyes. Her smile was so ready and eager, that even Irea couldn't help responding to it a little, her liquidy black eyes crinkling a little at the corners.
Finally Mirage shrugged. "You won't fool anyone with that hair or that skin, but you'll do. I suppose."
"We could always die her skin with henna, like the gadje say we do to the babies we steal!" Irea put in wickedly. Mirage smothered a laugh and nudged her, as Harley, unaware of what they were saying, spun in circles, admiring the way her skirts billowed.
The smiles fell from their faces when Columbine slowly raised her eyes to theirs, and stared at them, without moving a single other muscle. Clopin had to be crazy to let these people here, in their home. Nothing made sense anymore. Irea and Mirage were friendly girls. They were accepting. They liked new friends. But befriending random persecuted street vagabonds was a distinctly different story to two costumed lunatics from the future.
If they really were from the future.
The two gypsies stood side by side, very similar but completely different with their colorful clothes and beautiful hair. Both had their arms folded defensively across their chests, and both made their expressions unreadable. Mirage chanced a look sidewards at Columbine who watched Harley adoringly.
"Do ya think Mistah J would like it?" Harley asked Columbine beseechingly.
Columbine rolled her eyes firecely. "If he stopped obsessing over himself long enough to look, Harls, yeah, I think he'd like it."
Harley looked sadly down at her dress, fiddling with one of its patches, thinking of the Joker. Why did it always have to happen this way? But then she thought of the handsome Gypsy man who'd rescued her from the terrible clutches of night shadows. He was sweet. He was cute too. He didn't wear a wedding ring.
"Is Clopin really the King?" Harley questioned eagerly.
Well this was a subject the Romani girls enjoyed. Mirage grinned at her. "He's the King of the Gypsies, if that counts for anything" she informed Harley. "He is not rich, except in talent. He has no fine clothes but his performer's garb. He has no subjects but for his friends. And he has no amazing court spectaculars to show, except for being able to drink more beer in one night than the entire French Army!!"
Irea laughed along with Mirage, as they gleefully thought of the friend they adored so much. Irea with a little pang in her chest. When would she get the courage to show Clopin how she felt? When she was sure he could be faithful to her, was the thought that followed grimly.
Harley looked down at her dress again and sighed. "He sounds super swell."
Mirage and Irea didn't respond. They didn't understand what she meant.
Harley began spinning again, singing softly under her breath. From where she sat, Columbine sat up a little. She recognised that singing. Harley was going to begin mooning again.
"I know a fella," Harley said dreamily. "A fella who puts the rest to shame! He's mighty tall and he's mighty beautiful, and he's smarter than all the smart guys put together. He's got beautiful white skin and delicious green hair and purple eyes so thick you could get stuck in them and not even care!"
Irea watched her carefully. Feeling about Clopin as she did, she'd immediately picked up on Harley's interest in him. Knowing Clopin's willingness to get involved with any woman eager enough, she'd immediately felt resentful of Harley but she could see now the girl was far too in love with this other man - this Joker who was apparently an enormous threat to them all - to think about Clopin too much. Alright, so she was insane, but a lot of the inhabitants in the Realm of Faerie were insane by mortal standards. Harley's smile was genuine, leery though it was. Perhaps she wasn't so bad after all. She glanced at Mirage and could see, by the way she'd tilted her head forward, and letting her hair fall in her eyes, that her friend was thinking the same thing. Damn the soft hearts of the Romani women! Why was it the Romany men who had the hearts of stone?
Columbine spoke up again. "Indeed, a "fella" who kicked you out, Harls. And may I remind you that it was *literal*?"
Harley stopped spinning again, and her face took on a curiously intense expression. "He *did* kick me out..." and there were the first traces of anger in her voice. "I tried so darn hard! I DID! Oh gawd, why aren't I ever good enough for him?"
Columbine sat up, eyes blazing. "It's got nothing to do with YOU, Harley!" she cried, and stormed out of the tent in a passion. 
Irea and Mirage exchanged uncomfortable looks. Alright they were the best of friends - but these girls were very - intense. Still, Harley's miserable pouting lips sparked some sympathy in them. 
"A man cannot live without his woman," Mirage said consolingly. "He will be back for you, I'm certain."
Irea looked at Harley's ample bosom, her sweet round cheeks, and seductively trusting blue eyes and thought the sooner the better.
Harley snorted. "He ain't gonna be back for little ole me! You don't know my Puddin! He aint' some dime-a-dozen, sub average, short, smelly old nothing nobody! He's - "
"The Joker," Clopin's golden voice finished for her.
The three women, startled,looked towards the tent flap, where the Gypsy King filled the narrow space. He entered, unsmiling for a change, bending his tall head to do so. Mirage grinned and pinched his backside, and he dropped his hat over her head, where it fell down past her nose. He was not in the mood for games, and this was the quickest way to stop her from beginning any. Clopin moved swiftly over to where Harley sat, noticing neither Irea's frown nor Harley's grinned. He sat and looked intensely at the girl. He'd been more than a little shocked at the sight of the red dress, unacceptable where her costume might of been, but the sight of Harley's cherubic face, free of makeup and beaming out in him a much less eerie fashion, put a smile on his face, and he did not feel quite so anxious for information as he had when he first entered.
"Harley," he addressed his strange guest. "The sun has risen over Paris. A few Romany scouts who check the city at night reported to me at first light of a strange white man they saw parading the streets. The man was carrying a sack, and the smiling. The sight of this man had these two old men, who've seen riots, executions and babbies born, running back here with their tails between their legs."
"That'd be Puddin!" Harley chirped. Clopin looked at her sharply, before leaning forward.
"Harley, if you know what your lover has planned for this city, I suggest you tell me immediately. In fact, I demand it."
Harley sat back and pouted. As cute as this fella was, she didn't much like him demanding for her to betray her one true love. She folded her arms and looked stubbornly at Clopin.
"No!" she said petulantly.
He looked at her incredulously for a moment. Apart from Mirage and Irea, he was very unused to women refusing him anything. Behind him his two lady friends watched interestedly. He turned his head to them and said sharply, "Leave us."
Mirage's eyes widened. "Excuse me, Clopin dearest??"
Clopin stood up, walked over to Mirage, picked her hands up in his and said dangerously, "Leave the tent, Mira."
Mirage gazed up into her oldest friend's eyes. She recognised the look there. Clopin had been refused something he particularly had not wanted to be refused, and he was growing angry. As much as she loved him, Clopin was a man, and he wanted his own way always. Mirage knew when to play, and when to back off. She shrugged crossly.
"Alright, but you're a bully."
He ignored her and turned back to Harley. Mirage grasped Irea's hand who was even more reluctant to leave than she was, and wrested her out of the tent.
"You can't keep things from us, Clopin!" Irea shouted back to the tent. Mirage nudged her and signalled for silence. They crept around a nearby tent and looked back at the one they'd just left. Sure enough, Clopin's head peeked out of the flap a moment later, looking for them, before retreating back in. The tent moved then, and they guessed he was kicking at the walls, in case they should be crouched out there. Once this activity ceased, they left their hiding spot and crouched close to the tent flap, listening to what took place within.

Inside the tent, Clopin stood over Harley who looked up at him unperturbed.
"You and your friends are a stranger to my land," Clopin said, quietly serious. "Your Columbine burst in on us, unannounced. Normally I hang people for that.You have been through the catacombs to our underground world. Normally I hang people for that. We gypsy have no reason and no need to trust any outsider. I have to conisder the safety of my people. Now you will tell me what this Joker has planned, or you will feel the repercussions."
Harley sniffled. Clopin's bullying was only making her feel more stubborn. She mimed zipping her lip, and shook her head vigorously.
Clopin's anger burst through his veins like a flame. No wonder her lover hit her!!!! And here she was, playing with the lives of every Gypsy in Paris!! Grasping her savagely by the arms, Clopin prepared for some physical persuasion when he saw the look on her face. It was one of dread, but one of resignation also. She was used to this kind of treatment. She wouldn't talk if he beat her up, and slapping her face was as far as Clopin could go in anger with a woman.
Siging, he let go her arms, and instead rubbed them soothingly. She peeked at him from under her lashes, hardly believing. Clopin smiled charmingly at her and ran a hand through her soft hair.
"Cherie," he said softly, "I don't want you to betray your lover. I admire the loyalty you have for him. But I appeal to your honor. You will remember I rescued you last night." He was still uncertain what he rescued her from, but the memories of night shadows were still fresh in Harley's mind. She sighed and looked up into Clopin's handsome brown face.
"Ok, back where we come from, Mistah J was pretty cross because the way he saw it, other folks through History were better known than he was."
He couldn't believe it had turned out to be so easy. The Gypsy King listened to Harley with furrowed forehead. Harley's nasal accent, in combination with her mordern jargon, was difficult to understand.
"So he decided, first he was gonna come back here to Paris and offer Frollo a way to bump off all the Gypsies!" He looked at her. "Er, I mean kill all the Gypsies."
At this Clopin sat up with a start and eyes blazing. Outside the tent where they were listening, Irea gasped and grabbed Mirage's hand who stared intensely at at the tent with lightly clenched teeth.
"Well, but Mistah J didn't just wanna kill Gypsies, cuz he wants to get the better of this Frollo dude ok? So what he's planning to do is kill EVERYONE in Paris."
Clopin sat back. This was ridiculous. "You'd better not be joking with me, girl," he said warningly. 
Harley looked at him indignantly. "No I'm telling you, that's what he wants to do! He's got this special gas ok, what it does if you spray it on someone, it makes you laugh until you die! And he's got like about a hundred tiny little gas bombs, and he's planting them all around the city! I'm serious! This is what he's going to do!!!!! That way, years later back in our time, people will open their history books to find out hundreds of people died with grins on their faces because of Mistah J, that is, The Joker!"
Clopin stood up and strode over to one corner of the tent, one hand rubbing his eyes. 
From their crouched positions outside Mirage and Irea looked at each other with gaping mouths and uncertain eyes. They could barely believe what Harley had just said either. In fact, everything that had happened since last night seemed like some kind of warped dream. Two madwomen had shown up, claiming to be from the future, and now they claimed that a friend of theirs planned to wipe out Paris? No, it was ridiculous.
"Do you really expect us to believe that?" Clopin said finally to Harley. Again Harley was indignant.
"Hell, yah! It's true! To be honest, I thought it was kinda harsh myself. Not something I would do, ya know?" Mirage shook her head, staring down at her purple skirts. "One man cannot wipe out an entire city" she whispered softly to Irea. "It's impossible" Behind them, Columbine spoke up in a dangerously soft voice. "You haven't seen Joker's Laughing Gas in action. It kills people in seconds. You don't know the Joker like I do. He will do this if he can." Irea and Mirage whirled around in terror. When they saw Columbine they stopped, and just stared at her, their eyes dull. What was happening here?
Back inside the tent Clopin sighed from where he stood with his back to Harley. "How does he release the gas from these 'bombs'?"
"By a remote control," Harley piped up. "What it is, it's this whacky little device that has a timer on it. Mistah J can chose whatever time he wants the bombs to explode, then he presses a button on the control, and they release the gas. I know he's planning to do it tomorrow morning."
Mirage stood up. Her heart was pounding hard in her chest, and she felt nauseous. For one of the very few times in her life, Mirage could find nothing to joke about. She pushed the tent flap open and strode boldly inside, heedless of Clopin's cry of anger. "We have to stop him," she said hoarsely.
Still seated, Irea's eyes were wet, and she had folded her arms and was gazing dazedly down at her striped skirts. It was too much to take in. She'd never encountered anything like this, not even in the Realm of Faerie.
Clopin finally stopped glaring. His face was still, and his eyes were cloaked. "Is he planning to attack the Romany at all?" he asked Harley.
Mirage realised what he was thinking and leapt forward. "Clopin, no! I know you don't like the Parisians, but you can't just let them all die!"
Clopin almost didn't answer, but when he saw the expression on his best friend's face he changed his mind. "Mira, you've heard for yourself, first from Columbine and now from Harley, what this man is capable of. How do you expect us to fight him if our people don't benefit in anyway? We'll lose our lives for people who hate and fear us."
From where she sat outside the tent, Irea's voice wandered in sullenly. "I can't believe you would really consider something like that, Clopin."
He looked away from them, swallowed and then looked up at Harley again. "Well?" he said.
Harley nodded slowly, her eyes wide. "Oh yeah. He wants to get EVERYONE!"
Clopin let out a long breath. "Then we have to do something."
Mirage and Irea nodded in slow agreement. But what? And why them? What the hell was happening here anyway?
Clopin looked at Mirage stonily. "You're staying here."
She narrowed eyes at him and prepared for a fight.
"You're joking." she said, scoffing. Clopin stared deadpan at her. "Be careful, Clopin, if the wind changes, you'll stay like that, and what lady will want you then?" she quipped.
Clopin leapt forward, and seizing her by the wrist, pushed her outside the tent. Irea scrambled to her feet and moved close to Mirage, staring at the strange new Clopin who looked at them with pointed finger.
"Neither of you are doing a thing. If this man is everything these women say he is, then it's far too dangerous!! You're staying here until he is safely out of the way. Dont' argue with me."
"You can't make us stay here!" Mirage shouted.
Clopin stared at her fiercely. "I'm the King, remember?"
It was an argument he seldom used, and only when he refused to be budged. Angrily, Mirage darted forward, kicked him hard on the shin, and then stormed away.
"Ouch!" Clopin cried, then looked sadly after his friend. "Mira!!" 
But she ignored him and continued to walk away. After a moment of hesitation, torn between her friends, Irea ran after Mirage, shooting Clopin a wounded look as she did so.
Blissfully unaware of the uncomfortable situation, Harley leapt to her feet. "*I* shall help ya!" she declared grandly "Ain't noone about who knows Mistah J better than me, and well - yer nice people and all," she smiled encouragingly at Clopin who gazed at her from behind stony eyes.
Columbine shrugged and went to stand behind Harley. "You're lucky for two reasons," she informed Clopin. "One, that Harley wants to help. Two, that Joker kicked Harley. Normally I'd just take Harley back to our time and leave Joker to his deeds. But Joker hurt Harley. I want to hurt Joker. And ruining his plans is the best way to do it."
Harley grinned at Columbine in a slightly befuddled fashion. "Now that ya mention it, that man of mine kind *does* deserve something of a whuppin', don't he?"
Columbine smiled down at her petite friend. "He sure does, Harls."
Clopin relaxed somewhat. Alright, the two women didn't have much to do with the madman's scheme, and they were prepared to help. He would let them. He would need all the help they could get. He was sorry Mirage and Irea were angry at him, but he would worry about that later. Looking at his strange guests, Clopin clapped his hands together determinedly.
"All right, let's get planning."

Mirage had continued walking at full speed with Irea calling for her to wait, until she had left the Court altogether and was up on the streets. She gritted her teeth fiercely, and squirmed in agitation. She didn't *care* if Clopin was trying to protect her, she didn't need his protection! And if her friends were in danger,then dammnit, she was going to help as well!!!!
She finally stopped her marching and flung herself down on the cobblestones in a dark and cool alley, wrapping her dirty feet in front of her. Relieved, Irea sat down beside her, her multicolored skirts mingling with Mirage's purple ones, their golden anklets tinkling softly.
"Goodness, Mirage, why don't next time you try to walk a little faster?"
Mirage didn't respond. Irea leaned a head on her shoulder. "It's alright, Mira." she said softly. 
Mirage dashed at the tears on her cheeks. "It's *not* allright Irs! I could not save a man from being hung, I could not find my parents, I couldn't even help Errol. Now that bully is trying to stop me from helping our people. They are our people too, Irea! He might be the King, it does not mean he has exclusivity."
Irea shrugged uncomfortably. She did not want her two best friends to fight. "At least he cares." she said cheerfully, and nudged Mirage in the side.
Mirage sighed. "Yes, that might be so. But we're still going to help" She looked intensely at her friend, one long lock of hair falling over her face. "Aren't we?"
Irea grinned at her, her black eyes sparkling. "Of course!!!"

The Vicomtesse de Vincennes marched stone faced down the Palace of Justice's stone steps. She had risen early, even before Frollo. Her rich maroon velvet gown stood out amongst the shabby armour of the night-shift guards, just making their weary way inside to be relieved of duty for the day. They stopped to look after her in some surprise, but she ignored them all, heading straight forward to her waiting coach. The coachman was leaning casually against the side, stroking the beautiful brown mares who pulled it, and chatting jovially with a couple of liveried servants. 
They snapped to attention, their eyes vaguely apprehensive, as their black-haired mistress approached them imperiously. She let her cold dark eyes, enormous in her pale face, wonder over each of them condescendingly, before finally coming to a rest on her servants.
"You two!" she snapped. "I have a job for you."
They bowed to indicate it would be an honor. She ignored them with a sneer. "Go out onto the streets and search until you find a small woman. She will be dressed in red and black, in the garb of a Court Jester. Her face will be painted white, and she will be covered from head to toe. You should recognise her instantly, but if not, she has an annoyingly high pitched voice. Find this woman, and when you do, bring her back to me, directly. Forcibly, if you must. There will be no need to tell the Minister about her. Do you understand?"
They nodded, their eyes lowered respectfully, their faces still and placid.
She looked at them savagely, then snapped, "Well, if you understand, go!"
They hastily moved out into the streets to begin their scouting, not even daring to silently question their mistress's orders. The coachman carefully helped the Vicomtesse into the coach, and she arranged her skirts carefully, carefully arranging the jasper ring on her finger.
As the coach started into movement, she stared blankly ahead, her jaw a determined line. The madman couldn't be trusted. Not at all. She had a feeling he was planning something far worse than the murder of several hundred Gypsies, and she was determined to find out what it was. Claude could play the fool, if he wished, but she wouldn't. Her eyes gleamed suddenly. Besides, he would be impressed if she discovered the truth. Maybe that annoying superior edge would drop from his voice afterwards.
A small, cold smile curved the Vicomtesse's lips.

Above, from his room, cloaked in an elaborate red velvet dressing gown, Frollo stared out at the city of Paris, smiling triumphantly to himself. God had sent the Devil, to Paris, it was true, but with him he had sent him, Claude Frollo, the means to do God's work, and send the heathen scum into Hell. Then Frollo could capture the Devil himself as he had come to earth in mortal form, and hang him in front of the good citizens of the city, to show that he could not be led into temptation.
Life was most excellent, the Minister mused, as he turned away from the window. Far below him, creeping in the eternal shadows of the Palace's enormous entrance hall, the Joker snickered and shoved an extra gas bomb for "good luck" into the vase next to the other one which quietly ticked there.
Twenty two hours to go.

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

On to Chapter 6!
 

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