Francoise didn't move for the entirety of five minutes. The shadow of the tent was painted over her, and she posed like a statue in the corner of my vision.
Finally the flap of the tent was opened, and a young girl poked her head in. "Pardon, madame," she said, her words thick with a northern accent, "but you're needed at one of the fires. Your daughter's scraped her arm and is likely to bawl her head off."
"I'll be be right there," I said horsely, and stiffly got to my feet. Without looking at Francoise, I made my way out. The girl put her head back in the tent.
"I hope you're faring better, madame," she said hopefully to Francoise.
"I hope so, too," I heard her answer. "Oh, and would you do me a favor?"
"Of course, madame!"
"Give this little prisoner an airing out."
The girl emerged smiling, one of the wild roses now in her hand. She slipped it blushingly behind her ear, and bounded freshly in front of me to lead the way.
I could feel the pressure of the dark eyes still inside the tent.
I was greeted at the fire place with a wail of "Maman!!!" and comforted the sulky bundle with an unusual sombreness. I was somewhat relieved when Tante Marie appeared on the scene and scooped her up into massive arms for coddling. Tante Marie liked soothing the scraped arm of a child only marginally less then filling the belly of one.
Clopin was about in the city---earning money and withstanding the torture, whichever came first. I almost wished he were there so I could run to him with my woes - but I knew Francoise's prescence would rise between us like the beating of wings. Instead, I cheered myself with my 'friends' the women, gossiping about the men and volunteering an eternal string of remedies, charms, and proven methods. Anything I had to offer was brushed aside - I learned what I know in India, and although everything I knew was one hundred percent tried, tested and correct (at least as much as it could be), the arrogance of the Europeans forbade them accepting these truths. After awhile I snorted, tossed back my hair and consented to listen with a disinterested pout on my face.
After a long string of conversation on the topic of childhood illnesses had worn itself to death, Francoise found a proxy to invade my head again.
"You know, dear, the Rouen Bird could probably stand a little movement. And if I'm right, she'll be half out of her head from the smoke and the tent," Tante Marie commented, tossing aside a small bundle of stained cloth that she had been sorting.
"From what I've seen, that creature's already half out of its head---the only thing left is for its head to fall off," Sophie put in, grinning.
"If Clopin doesn't cut it off, first," Marguerite joked, and a splash of laughter ran through the ring.
"When that creature began to dance with you, dear, I turned to Georges and said, 'Imagine! To be cuckolded by a cuckoo!' And do you know what he did? He turned to me and said, 'And what do you take yourself to be, Miriana? A Russian firebird? You certainly burn the soup every night!'"
I smiled with polite strain and stood to leave. Nice to be the center of attention - when its on my terms. Abigail, who was sitting on the corner of one of the benches, calmly weaving a charm from leather, gave me a quick look. Wrapping the leather cords up, she stood with me, her wrinkled brown face crinkling even more at the eyes.
I walked off hurriedly - Abigail could see in deep, and I did not altogether want that kind of perception directed at me right then. But she caught up with me, hobbling quickly on her old legs, her soft hand on my shoulder.
"Here now, little one,you should let her out. Not anything more than a walk around, of course, and that carefully---but as much as incense is a healing thing, a little of this sewer air can't do her much harm. And I imagine she'll be a fair lot kinder afterwards."
"She's been perfectly kind," I answered, speeding up.
"Then," said Abigail, "you would do her the favor of letting her out, anyway. And I would let Clopin back into the tent."
"You notice too much," I retorted, stopping in my tracks. Her gentle, folded face creased into a warm smile. "No. I notice everything, little one. That's far better than noticing only too much."
I pursed my lips at her in an effort to look cross. "Abigail - it's not that I'm trying to keep her a prisoner, it's just - "
"I know. You're trying to scratch your way under that pretty facade she has. I can't say I blame you - there's a lot worth discovering there, I'm sure. On the other hand, you young chit, just be careful. There's an even greater lot that you might not be expecting - or wanting - to find."
"Fine, fine. I'll be careful. I'd better go back now and make sure she hasn't flown the coop," I said coldly.
Abigail let me be, and I returned with considerable apprehension to our tent, loaded with a bucket of hot water, some linen and scented oils. Francoise was comfortably sprawled out on the cushions, her face an indifferent mask, calmly plucking the petals one by one of the flowers on her lap. I hovered by the tent flap for several moments before finally, slowly, she raised her eyes to mine, and a smile pulled at her mouth.
"I thought you might like a bath." I said in a voice half snappish, half querying.
"Why, you're full of lovely gestures today, Herli." she said smoothly. "I wonder if there's something you want." One brown lid closed slowly in a playful wink to let me know she was joking. I gave her a grudging smile in return and came over to assist her. She moved slowly with the ache in her side, but with no less fluid grace. I poured the oils into the water and soaked the linen in it, wringing it out thoroughly, trying not to watch her as she pulled off her clothes, revealing inch after inch of smooth, brown musculature. It was nothing unusual. The women and I danced around naked in the baths tent without compunction. Closing my eyes, I picked up the wad of linen in my hand and moved around behind her, as she held her dress up against her front.
"I'll help you with your back." I informed her.
"I rather thought you would." was the amused response.
I sniffed a little, but laughed a little too, and pushed her short hair away from the back of her neck. It was rather dark inside the tent, and I pulled a candle stick a little closer so I could better see what I was doing, when I noticed a mass of faint marks spreading across the whole of her back. My initial thought was that they were marks made from the embroidery of the cushions she had been lying on, but as I massaged them with the linen they did not fade and, brow puckering in curiosity, I held the candle stick closer and touched them tentatively with my fingers. Scar tissue. Lash marks, spreading out from her spine and fanning into wings on both sides of her back. My mouth dropped open as I traced them in shock.
"Who made these?"
I could almost hear the dry smile in her voice. "An artist of an unusual ken."
"When?" I was still tracing the marks with my fingers, and her voice, when she answered, was low and husky.
"Long before the Bird."
I bit my lip and sighed. "But why?"
"To loosen my wings, perhaps. Although I think the intention was to clip them."
On a sudden ridiculous impulse I wrapped my arms about her waist under her dress and laid my cheek against her shoulder blade. I could feel the edge of the bandage against my fingertips. "No one could do that to you, Francoise. More fool he who tries." I could sense her smiling.
"How do you know it was a he?"
I spoke carefully. "An instinctive assumption, perfectly willing to be corrected if it should be wrong - "
She laughed softly and then took a breath. I held mine, my heart speeding up in anticipation, but at that instant there was the sound of canvas whispering against itself, and I felt an all too familiar presence enter the tent - and inhale sharply.
I realised how it must look, I with my arms around her and she with nothing on but a ragged dress held to herself, and I lifted my eyes apprehensively to where my husband stood with a dark frown on his face, arms folded across his chest. Damn it! I had been so close! With a quickness that must have indicated guilt, I moved away from her. "Clopin," I said hoarsely, then cleared my throat. He ignored me to address Francoise.
"You haven't stopped, I see." She raised a sharp eyebrow at him.
"What, bathing?" He frowned more deeply. "Oh, that," she said jokingly. "I haven't even begun." Clopin took a step foreward, towering over Francoise, who seemed truly vulnerable in her wet and semi-dressed state for the first time since I had known her.
"It would be wise to keep it that way."
"Words of wisdom from one who consults a puppet for advice?" There was an edge to her voice.
"Words of mockery from a guest in my home? A little romani honor would not go astray, Francoise."
She did not answer that one, just stared ahead with a dark intensity in her eyes. I was sure I had been about to reach somewhere with her. I realised she may just resent Clopin's interference as much as I did - although mine played a second to nervousness. Clopin continued to stare at her with something close to a challenge in his eyes. I took a chance and knelt down by her side.
"Are you alright to finish, Francoise?"
She nodded slowly and then Clopin's voice broke between us. "Get up, Herli." I dared to glare at him for a second, before returning my attention to her.
"I can stay if you'd like me to."
She shot me a look I couldn't interpret from the corner of her eye, but it was again Clopin who spoke, his voice no longer a warning, but a command. "Herli. Get up."
I rounded on him. "Clopin! Whatever you're thinking, you're wrong! Egotistical male, thinking everything is a competition! Can't you see you're only making things worse with this suspicious prowling around? It's your fault Francoise is in this position, now the least you can do is - "
Another step forward, and his arms fell to his side in clenched fist. "The least I can do would be what, apart from letting her stay in my home, put stupid ideas into your head, and moving out for her comfort, and now you want me to act as if nothing is going on?" I was about to say that nothing was going on when Francoise raised her head to look Clopin dead in the eye. "My dear Monsieur Trouillefou, a little romani honor should be expected when one comes upon a wounded and unclothed woman, too. So, to quote the dear old matriarchs of times long past---fuck off."
There was silence for a second in which I sat back and put a hand to my mouth, and gaped at Francoise. Clopin stepped back with his hands on his hips and an incredulous expression on his face, and she stared, unwavering at him. Suddenly, I began to giggle, hiccuping in the effort to stay quiet, and then I began to laugh outright. Clopin rubbed a big hand over his goatee, and he was grinning too, shaking his head. Francoise's mouth slowly bent itself into a smile as she watched me laugh from pure astonishment, and then her eyes swivelled around to look at Clopin again.
"Such language from a lady like yourself, Francoise, I'm surprised." Clopin said in gentle mockery, with a hand resting lightly on his chest. Francoise reclined back on the cushions, the dress shifting and baring her shoulders so they poked up high. "Surprise; A useful defence when in a position such as my current one." she said dryly. "Your wife seems amused at any rate."
My laughter had quieted to giggles again, but the look Clopin shot me was one of affectionate tolerance, not angry reproach, and I gladly took the hand he offered me, and let myself be pulled to my feet. "We'll leave the lovely Rouen Bird to her toilette, Herli," he said, placing an emphasis of irony on the word 'lovely' although it had no malice to it. "We'll be back soon, Francoise, and we'll bring supper."
"Don't rush on my accord."
"I assure you we won't."
"That's enough you two." Finally, I am the one in control. "Honestly, like bickering children!"
They both laugh at me as Clopin and I wander toward the tent flap. The tension has been loosened, for the time being. But it won't take much effort to pull it tight once more.
Was the day especially exhausting? Apparently so, for I looked wth great eagerness to our bed after we finished supper that evening. Clopin had put his foot down. He was staying inside the tent, and I was informed I couldn't do a damned thing about it. I didn't mind so much. I hadn't been aware how empty the bed was without him. My husband sat in his chair, long legs lazily up and his pipe between his teeth as he carefully painted the features on a small puppet. I pushed myself onto his lap for my kiss goodnight. Down besides his chair, Francoise was bundled on her cushions. I wanted to lean over and kiss her brown cheek, as I did to Colombine, but I did not want to be the one responsible for creating angst once more. I blew her a kiss instead, and her smile was crooked in return.
It might've been many hours later, or only a few minutes, I woke up to the sound of voices playing softly through the tent. My vision was blurry and the tent very dark but after a few seconds I noted that only one candelabra was still lit, shining down near the front of the tent, enveloping the two in a yellow bubble. I pulled the covers up a little way and peered over at them. From this angle the only one I could see clearly was Francoise.
"I hope you're throughly enjoying this," Clopin said.
"Of course I'm not. I'm going mad, Trouillefou. She's a nice distraction. Don't punish her for it."
"She's not a distraction. She's my wife."
"One could argue that in this case they're the same thing, but it's too late at night for witticisms. You give her a certain amount of freedom, and then you're shocked when she takes advantage of it. Make up your mind. Marriages are either about law or about whim---decide which is to be your focus, or in ten years you might be sleeping in a cold bed."
"There's a middle ground, Rouen. And you have little experience to speak of, for obvious reasons."
"Obvious reasons. Ah, yes! Obvious reasons! I have no family, or at least not one that I've mentioned in your presence. I'm not pretty. I'm not docile. I appear to be positively crumbling with age. And, oh yes! We musn't forget the most important one!"
He knew that he was being baited, and after a moment he gave in. "And what, in your opinion, is that?"
"That I'm mad. Stark, raving, upside-down screaming mad."
"Don't be melodramatic."
"Oh, I can maintain a certain level of stability. But wait and see what happens in two weeks, Trouillefou. I'll make a bet with you. If, in two weeks, I haven't gone insane, you can ask anything of me that you like---including leaving and not coming back. If, in two weeks, I'm a lunatic - " She paused. "- and if I continue to be one - cut my throat. Get somebody else to do it, if you like. Throw me in a back alley. Make it as covert as you like. But show me that much respect."
"Your bet is too morbid for me. I'll decline."
"Whichever way it falls out, I at least will keep my end of the bargain. It's just a matter of whether or not you'll have the guts to keep up yours. What happened to romani honor and compassion?"
Clopin sighed, and I heard the noise of him shifting position. "Fine. It's agreed. Are you the type to demand blood to seal a deal?"
"No." She herself settled back. "Too morbid."
They both laughed quietly. "But about your Herlikin."
"Stop teasing her, at least."
"I never tease. I provoke that which is waiting to be provoked."
"Then stop provoking her." The sarcasm dripped from his voice. I don't like it when he gets sarcastic - there's such a bite to it.
"I'll do my best. But she's such a serious little creature. She plays without having fun. Every look is a judgement. Every gesture is ballet. Every smile is a long, romantic story. It has its charms, but I can't help but laugh."
My heart feels like a rock in my chest, and I can feel my mouth pulling down in a scowl.
"Yes, she does all of those things. She's self-centered. She can be mean-spirited, jealous, overly flirtatious, and overbearing. Should I keep listing off ways in which Herli's not perfect?"
My heart thuds dully, and my eyes narrow to complement my mouth.
"She's a lovely girl after all is said and done, Trouillefou, but I wouldn't walk over coals for her."
Francoise leaned painfully forward, and I could see her face in the dim light. She smiled softly. The expression looked foreign on her face. "Then either you're a fool, or a very good man." She looked at what must be his stern expression and the wild grin returned. "Or, most likely, a lethal combination of the two."
"I wish you would stop tormenting me."
"And I wish you could enjoy it a little more. But have we reached a peace?"
"I think so. An uneasy one, maybe."
"That's the best you'll get when it comes to the Rouen Bird, Trouillefou. And, considering that I've beaten, mocked, and generally annoyed you, ---and considering that you, in retaliation, put a knife through my ribs - however unintentionally---I would say that it's quite impressive."
"Good night, Bird of Rouen," Clopin said wistfully.
"Good night, King of Paris," she answered.
I seethed helplessly for awhile before finally falling back asleep, Clopin's warmth on my back.
(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000