La Mort Rit En Dernier

Chapter Nine

The Vicomtesse had arrived in a frightful mood back at the Palace of Justice. She stormed through the doors the guards hastily pulled open for her, then stood glowering in the center of the large entrance hall, her pale face mirroring the smooth coldness of the bare walls. She turned to one of the guards violently who looked in some surprise at the small purple bruise next to the Vicomtesse's mouth.
"Search the palace!! Everywhere! Anything unusual you find, bring it to myself and the Minister immediately. Do you understand?" 
The guard saluted respectfully, then gestured to a few of his men to assist him. Then the Vicomtesse marched up the wide marble steps, through the maze of corridors, and down to Frollo's personal sitting room. 
Frollo raised his eyebrows delicately at her clearly furious state and gestured she should take a seat and calm herself. In no mood to be subservient, the Vicomtesse refused, and stormed over to the tall leaded window, glaring out of it and into the dusty streets of Paris below. A few Parisians still milled about the Parvis, asking the Minister for answers to this strange plague that had knocked down so many and without explanation, and she glared down at them in disgust, foolish, superstitious idiots that they were. Why didn't Claude send out his guard to tell them to go home? 
Frollo looked at the Vicomtesse's silent stony back and rubbed his chin. He wondered what had happened to infuriate her so. Smiling slyly to himself he glided silently up behind her and placed skeletal hands on her shoulders, massaging them gently.
"Care to tell me what's troubling you, Belladonna?" he whispered against her cheek, and she shivered a little at the sensation of his breath against her face. Moments like this reminded her of why she put up with the man's arrogance, his magnetism and sheer charisma were incredible.
She sighed and dared to lean her head back against his shoulder. "Those lunatics have brought trouble with them, Claude, I can feel it," she said in a monotone.
He laughed softly. "You should not concern yourself so. On the morrow once they have finished their work, we will arrest them and hang them."
Ginevra did not dare to tell Frollo she had revealed that plan to Harley Quinn. She had underestimated the girl's stamina and brightness and reluctance to reveal this lack of insight played as great a part in her silence as fear of Frollo's anger.
Frollo's voice, when he spoke next, was cold with anger. "Of course the Fool has caused considerable trouble in the streets today, something that was not a part of the bargain. The people are demanding an answer, but I cannot give them one until tomorrow."
The Vicomtesse's lip twisted. "I did warn you, Claude, that the man was unstable."
There was no answer except a tightening of his thin hands on her shoulders. She could imagine the thin, straight line of his mouth and his narrowed eyes at her last comment, and slightly nervous, she pulled herself free and walked over to the chair she had previously declined, sitting up straight in it, and daring to glance back at The Minister, her white face faintly shining in the thin,pale light that seeped through the tall windows. He had turned to face her, and standing as he was directly in front of the window, the light behind him, she could not see his facial expression, and she did not like it. Twisting one of her rings around her finger, she stood up. "I wish to return to my estate, Claude."
She felt, rather than saw, his eyebrows shoot up and his mouth purse. "Do you, my dear? You will abandon me in my time of need, with a maniac loose on the streets, slaughtering the good citizens of Paris?"
Bile rose in her throat. "A maniac you sent out, Claude."
"To do a job quite different to the one he is currently doing. You will not stay and offer your support?"
She stood silent for a long moment, considering the options. If she left, would this be the end of everything between them? Would he ever again ask her to visit when her husband went away, to sit and drink fine red wine and discuss politics, poetry, art, history? Would they ever laugh again over the ignorance of the commoners, secure in their superiority? Or would she, Ginevra, be forced to languish around a manor house that for all its opulence and excessive trappings seemed more bare to her than the vacant stone walls of this palace? Perhaps she should stay.
But no! She was not one of Claude's pathetic mistresses, hell-bent upon their own destruction. She had no desire to stay here and await whatever the madman had planned. She was going back to her estate. Taking a deep breath she spoke: "Claude, I have no wish to remain in this city and watch you create a fool of yourself. I am leaving immediately."
She raised her chin and looked at him defiantly, daring him to answer. After a moment, he raised a hand in condescending resignation and turned back to face the window.
With her lips more pale than usual, the Vicomtesse marched out of the room and headed towards the wide staircase that would lead her out of the Palace. A guard hastily bowed to her as she approached and humbly interrupted her.
"Excuse me, Vicomtesse, but upon following your instructions we uncovered these objects down in the Entrance Hall."
She paused, glaring at what he held in his hands, two round objects, green and purple, and bearing the visage of the lunatic Claude had let loose on the streets. With a sneer she jerked her head back to the room she had just left. "Show them to the Minister."
He bowed and she continued her march.
Outside, the wind was whipping more fiercely still, and black threatening clouds hung low over the city. Strands of her hair coming loose with the force of the wind, she gazed in exasperation at the dark sky, as Erik helped her into her coach.
"We're going straight home, Erik," she snapped. "Immediately."
He bowed to her and climbed up into his seat, urging the horses on with a click. The Vicomtesse stared out at the dark, intimidating Gothic monstrosity that was the Palace of Justice, even blacker against the dark sky, and her heart was heavy within her.

"Don't go away, toots, I want to forget you exactly the way you are!" Joker laughed, blew Irea a kiss, then flounced out of the house, leaving Irea and the little girl lying on the floor, still tightly bound, with a laugh and a blown kiss.
Irea gritted her teeth against her gag and wriggled furiously against the ropes which cut into her wrist. Probably drawing blood, she thought with a grimace, but did not cease her struggle. She had to get free!! Get free and back to the Court of Miracles, and somehow stop that maniac. The two dead bodies nearby her were repulsive to her, and she wished to get away from them. The little girl, in shock, simply lay stock still on the floor, her bloodshot eyes staring blankly in front of her. Irea's wrists and hands were small, and although the ropes were tied tightly, continued struggling and finally managed to push them down a little way over her wrists. Calling out in mingled frustration and pain, Irea continued to struggle, jerking her arms almost out of their sockets as she forced the ropes down further over her hands.
With a last fierce push, the ropes were off completely, and almost crying with relief, Irea sat herself up and wrenched the gag from her mouth, licking her dry lips. She pulled her numb legs in front of her and whacked them hard to bring them to life again, and fumbled with the ropes that bound them, her hands now free and able to utilise a simple spell to loosen the knots.
Then it was time for the little girl. Irea tore the bonds and gag from her, but she only hung limply in Irea's arms, barely moving, still staring ahead vacantly. Irea slapped her face, and shook her by the shoulders, but the child did not react. Irea sighed and slumped down, rubbing her aching shoulders as she stared at the child. She had to get out of here and fast, but she couldn't leave the child frozen like this. Irea did not know what was wrong with her, but she thought it was perhaps a spell Joker had put on her, and she was reluctant to leave an enchanted child unattended. Groaning at her foolish heart, she finally picked the child up, heavy in her slackness, and stumbled out of the house with her, ducking down quickly by the door to make sure no nearby Parisians saw her, a gypsy, exiting a gadje house with a babe in her arms. She certainly didn't need them to go in the house and discover the dead bodies within.
The street was deserted, and the sky was an angry black, a few fat splotches of rain hitting the cobblestoned street, and plonking onto Irea's head and bare shoulders. Running hastily down the cottage's small stone steps, Irea took up the streets as fast as she could.

As the rain began to pour down heavier and the wind screamed and bent the trees, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame the hunchbacked bellringer tugged on the cords of the bells to announce a Mass hastily called by the Archdeacon. The greater population of Paris filled the aisles and knelt in prayer. Not all of them were entirely sure what was going on, but rumors of enchanted deaths and murderous enemies attacking the city had spread like wildfire, and the Archdeacon had called the Mass to placate the people and prevent a panic. Minister Frollo was not in attendance: he stood still by his window, watching the rain, and glad the Archdeacon had acted so he would not have to.
Outside on the wet streets, Columbine spotted Irea carrying something large, and clearly heavy, as she stumbled over the loose stones of the streets. Narrowing her eyes, Columbine ran gracefully up to the girl, who shrieked as Columbine darted in front of her. When Irea saw who it was, her black eyes narrowed. After her encounters with The Joker, she firmly did not trust anyone associated with him, and she backed away from Columbine who only stood staring expressionless at her, glaring at the woman.
"Have you seen him?" Columbine barked at her and Irea started and continued to glare, her lips firmly shut. Columbine gave a short nod of her silky head. "You have. What are his plans?" Then she glanced at the stunned child in Irea's arms and sneered. "So gypsies stealing babies is a true story?"
That got Irea talking. "This child is under enchantment from your murdering Joker!" she shouted over the wind to Columbine. "He is going to slaughter the children of my people! You've done nothing to stop him!"
The mention of children caused Columbine to frown. She did not hold with hurting children. Irea shivered, her wet clothes clinging to her, trying to keep the child's head covered, but although soaked to the bone, Columbine stood still, heedless of the wind and rain, staring straight ahead in thought.
Finally she looked at Irea. "Then we had best act fast, if we're going to stop him." Irea stared at her, uncertain whether to believe her. Columbine held out her arms. "I'm stronger than you are, give the child to me." After a moment of hesitation, Irea handed the little girl over to Columbine, and the two women took up running through the streets, back towards the Court of Miracles.

Down by the river, Clopin had a protective arm around a shivering Mirage, as the Rom gathered with their sacks, and hessian cloaks wrapped around their bodies to keep out the rain. One by one, the sacks were emptied into the river, all of Joker's bombs bobbling cheerfully on the surface, their smiling faces leering up at the Rom who clung to one another and sang softly that the dark magik in the bombs would be rendered useless. The rushing water swept the round balls quickly down the river, taking them speedily out of the city. A feeling of triumph and peace swept over the Rom as they watched them go, and they turned to each other with smiles on their dark faces, wives cuddling close to their husbands, the men shaking hands as the tension was broken and they laughed cheerfully, despite the cutting of the Autumn rain. 
Mirage and Clopin were not at peace. Worry for the still absent Irea tugged at both of them, and they clung to each other for comfort. As the Rom agreed it was time to go to the taverns that allowed Gypsy patronage for drinks and celebratory meals, Mirage turned her head to Clopin, her mouth pulled down at the corners and her eyes sorrowful.
"Where is she, Clopin?" she asked him softly, and he pulled her head to his chest.
"We'll find her, Mira, don't worry," he said soothingly. "Leave the people to their celebration, we don't need to worry them. We'll go back to the Court and see if she has returned there, and if not we'll hunt the streets until we find her." He squeezed Mirage's cheeks. "We'll even break into the gadje homes if necessary!"
Mirage grinned up at him, and the two turned away from the Rom and made their way through the streets to their underground home.

Harley crouched in a doorway, soaking wet, shivering and very cranky. Of all the luck!! It would have to pour down like Armageddon just when she was out and about and looking for her man. This was useless! No-one told her medieval Paris was BIG. How was she supposed to find Mistah J in this labyrinth?? There was only one thing for it! She would just have to trot on off back to that old Court place and demand an explanation for the weather. Then that sexy Clopin could just take her back out on the streets and help her look THEN she could convince Puddin' that Paris in the fifteenth century was small potatoes! Everything would be hunky dory consequently. Yee-hah!

 Her mood considerably lightened, Harley leapt out from her doorway,just as the Vicomtesse's carriage rattled past, spraying mud all over Harley's dress. Harley pouted and glowered after the carriage. This had been the worst trip ever!

Frollo glowered out at the raging storm, clutching one of Joker's bombs in his skeletal hands. He had been a fool to trust the madman! No matter - his soldiers were on the streets, hunting him down at that very moment. A little sooner than he had anticipated, but he couldn't allow the lunatic on the streets any longer, that had been proven. He rather thought his people would be placated by a public hanging in the morning.
As for Ginevra - Frollo grinded his teeth in fury. Insupportable woman! That she should dare to walk out on him - still. She had been correct about The Joker. A fact he was sure she would secretly gloat about if she knew. Perhaps the best mode of action would be to leave her to calm down for a few weeks and then leave this unpleasant incident behind them.
Frollo steepled his fingers and observed two of his soldiers splashing through the rain soaked streets in pursuit of the madman,trying to shelter their heads. They would find him. Where on earth could a lunatic like that hide?

Joker hummed the WB cartoon theme as he splashed happily through the muddy earth in the graveyard, heedless of his lovely white spats getting dirty. Hmm...was it a fashion mistake to wear spats with Cuban heels? But then, he'd never followed the social norms. And he had enough style to pull it off.
He arrived at the large stone sarcophagus, put the sack he carried on the ground, cracked his knuckles and shoved the lid to the side. He'd visited the Court of Miracles back in the twentieth century. A huge cavern, filled with rotting artefacts, and heaped skulls, haunted by the ghosts of long dead Gypsies. Joker had liked it very much, the smell of damp and the chill of lost spirits on his neck.
Joker lowered his lanky form in, pulling his sack in with him. This was going to be lots of fun. And one couldn't deny the lovely symbolism behind it too. Death of the next generation - death of the Gypsy future, so to speak. Cackling cheerfully, Joker moved quickly down the long tunnel, like a demonic skeleton, then tap danced his way down the stone steps into the Court.
Lanterns had been left lit for the children who'd gathered collectively in the Court Square to play, young girls holding their baby siblings close to their bosoms as they'd seen their mothers do, and several pairs of moist, dark eyes turned their way apprehensively towards Joker, blinking guiltily, afraid the return of elders would lead to spankings for running wild like wildebeests. When they saw it was no elder they knew, but a tall, frightfully thin very white man with the visage of Death on his face, they gaped and looked at him nervously. They were naturally suspicious of outsiders, and this man gave off a strange impression of menace and madness.
But Joker was not fazed by their fearful looks. Pulling out three of his Joker gas bombs, he began to juggle them cheerfully, moving his way into the square as he did so. The children blinked at him again, but his laughter, now taking on a considerably lighter and friendlier tone, his smile, the way he danced as he juggled intrigued them, and they turned to watch him as he made his way into their midst. As he moved amongst them, he swept a cap off one, a shoe off the floor, and his gun from his breast pocket, and swept them up with his bombs, juggling them all without hesitation.
"Step right up, folks!" he shouted to the children. "And witness the wonder of the one and only Joker! He's brought a treat for all you kiddies with him today, but get up close or you'll miss out."
A few of the children had begun to giggle at his funny manner of speaking and after an initial hesitation, they began to creep closer to him. Joker felt like the Pied Piper. Wasn't that a French story? Joker ceased his juggling, letting all the items fall to the floor with a clatter, and bowed to the children who smiled and pushed hair from their eyes. 
The gun fortunately had the safety switched on, but when one dirty footed boy slipped forward to retrieve his cap, he picked it up curiously, glancing at the Joker to see if he would be scolded. When Joker only smiled at him encouragingly, he darted back to his place with cap and gun, fiddling with the strange new object with protruding lower lip. Joker threw back his head and laughed, then beckoned to a particularly beauitful young girl with large green eyes, who nursed her baby brother in her lap. Smiling shyly, she handed the baby to a friend, then crawled forward to Joker who tousled her hair and pinched her nose and asked her if she liked dolls.
After she nodded, smiling and still silent, he produced a doll from his coat pocket, in Harley's likeness, and tossed it to her. She caught it, and backed up to her place, cuddling the doll close. With a bang the doll exploded, sending multi-colored confetti raining down on the heads of the children, who after a moment of shock began to laugh, and dance under the stream of paper.
Joker grinned over it all, rubbing his hands with glee.
He was having fun already!

Thunder raked the now black sky, followed quickly by blinding bolts of lightning. Visibility was difficult, and the rain streaked down savagely. Clopin and Mirage spotted the three huddled figures lifting the lid of the sarcophagus as they splashed through the graveyard, desperately trying not to step on any of the tombstones, and gave a shout. "Irea! Irea!" Mirage called frantically as she recognised the shaggy head of her friend who looked up with a start.
Slipping in the mud, the two Rom raced over to their friend who ran forward to meet them, laughing in relief. They slammed together in a group hug, and, looking down into Irea's sparkling black eyes, Clopin wished for once that Mirage wasn't quite so close. He swept the two girls up into his arms and squeezed them tight as they hugged one another, thankful to be reunited, the two girls trying desperately to talk over the top of each other, just as though everything were normal. Next to the sarcophagus, Columbine watched with narrowed eyes through the sleeting rain, still clutching the shocked child in her arms.
Looking up at her, Clopin realised something serious was in the air, and explanations and hugs could be given later. Putting his lady friends down, he nudged them towards the sarcophagus, and Irea ran ahead of them.
"Come on!" she shouted above the wind. "The Joker will already be down there!"
Clopin and Mirage exchanged frantic looks, and Clopin's long legs quickly caught up with Irea as he grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. "What do you mean? The Joker is down there with the children?"
Irea detached herself from his grip which rubbed painfully against her wounded wrists and nodded.
"He wants to slaughter them all!!! We have to hurry!!"
Her heart racing, Mirage helped her friend push aside the lid of the sarcophagus and the five were quickly underground, pushing the lid back into place.
"WAAAAAAIIIIITTTTTT!!!!!!" a familiar high-pitched voice shrieked, and a second later Harley threw herself into the grave, screeching as she fell heavily down the stone steps, a second before the lid was shut.
"Harley!" Columbine all but dropped the child she was carrying, who was quickly rescued by Clopin, and darted down the steps to help the sopping Harley to her feet.
"Oy vey!" Harley moaned. "Man I'm gonna be sore tomorrow!" She looked up around her at Columbine, the three gypsies and the little girl and gave a lopsided grin. "Hey, the gang's all here! Where's the fire?"
Mirage pointed ferociously at Harley. "The 'fire' is your lover wants to slaughter our children!"
Harley blinked. "I didn't know you were a mother!" she said to Mirage.
Mirage paused for a beat, then with a roll of her eyes,pushed her way past the two women, earning herself a death stare from Columbine and a bewildered expression from Harley, and then they were all moving quickly down the tunnel, wondering what carnage they would find and hoping to find none.

© Harley Quinn, 2000 (harley_quinn@cheerful.com) May not be reprouced without permission.

On to Chapter Ten!

Graphics by WebVoodoo!