Storm After the Calm
Clopin was still asleep when I woke, and I had no desire to wake him up after the night before. Nor did I have any immediate desire to seek out Francoise. I couldn't quite work up the bravado. I kept seeing that mask curve around Clopin's face, and the pale sheen of his skin. I wasn't looking forward to the ribbing and double entendres that would inevitably come from the others, either. I lay still by my husband's side and watched him for a few moments, snoring softly, his brow lightly puckered. He was so handsome and I loved him so much, but I couldn't get the scent of Francoise out of my head. I slipped out of bed, glad he had been unhappy enough to not wrap his arms around me when he'd finished the night before, and stole over to my trunks. I dressed quietly---the least fantastic elements of my wardrobe. I took one of our more unremarkable blankets and wrapped it about my shoulders, and pulled my bright hair up and back under my seldom-worn diklo. Thus armed, I steeled myself and walked out into the Court.
It was less crowded than I had thought. Many were taking the opportunity of the cool morning above to take care of city business...by mid-afternoon the catacombs would be swarming again with people escaping the heat. I made my way across the great enclosure, absent-mindedly trying to decide what fire to sit at. My mind was cloudy with sleep. At last I found one that had been abandoned by its makers, and was now inhabited only by a mangy dog, one of the creatures who lived in the Court and fed off of scraps and sympathy. I scratched behind its ears, and it whined softly. Breakfast, children, and conversation could wait. Staring into the coals was as much as I could muster.
After about five minutes, the dog stopped whining and lifted its head up. It scrabbled to its feet and cantered away.
"Well, he at least knows what's good for him," Francoise said, and sat down beside me. She wasn't wearing the scarf this morning, and her hair hung jaggedly down. The red feather, though, dipped from behind her left ear. She clasped her red-gloved hands. I turned my face back to the fire, uneasy. "Good morning."
"Dressed rather humbly today, aren't we, Madame Trouillefou?" The hint of a smirk crossed her face.
"I dress like I want to." Madame Trouillefou. I didn't like the sound of it.
"As well you should. But such a modest outfit will hardly raise the rates on the streets. One has to show skin in this weather, or go hungry..."
"You don't seem to reveal much, but I don't see your ribs sticking out," I countered.
"That's the third option. Wear so much of a costume that they take pity on you."
"Pity? On Francoise de Rouen?" I asked, with an edge.
"You'd be surprised," she said, the s trailing off.
I looked over at her again. Her eyes were focused on the fire, and her long neck craned to place her face close to the fire.
"Is the indomitable Monsieur Trouillefou awake, or are we husbandless?"
"He's still sleeping."
"He must look quite adorable. Does he sleep with his mouth open, or closed?"
"You know what they say about men who sleep with their mouths open..." she said.
I waited a moment. "No. I don't."
"They breathe less through their nose."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. This creature was so much less threatening than the crazy beast of the night before. They were different things...they only seemed to share the same body.
Francoise unclasped her hands, circled her right wrist in towards her, and produced an apple. She circled her left wrist, and produced the small, well-worn dagger she had played with before.
I watched her core it, with one swift, swivelling cut, and then bite into the hard red surface, her long-hinged jaw taking almost a third of it away. She glanced over at me. "I've always had a mad appetite."
"Even when you were a child?"
"Did you have any siblings?"
"The better question would be 'did you have any parents'? To which the answer would be long, complicated, and uninteresting. As for you...you look to be a much better legend than I."
I looked at her odd frame, the wild set of her eyes, the red feather, and the gloved hands, and doubted it. But I didn't have anything else to do, so I told her about India, about Paris, and about me. Whenever I readied to stop, her eyes continued to bore into me, asking a question I didn't know and might not want to answer, so I would pick up again and continue on with my tales. I told her of days when I had been less than a pleasant person. All the while she listened intently, her wide eyes trained on my face. The dagger flipped rhythmically between her hands, and she spread her legs, bent over like a smith's bellows.
When I finally trailed off into something resembling an ending, and her eyes finally flickered off of me, she ceased the movement of the dagger, the blade pointing up to the dark ceiling. "Well, an exotic past to fit an exotic lady. And not a half-bad dancer, either."
"I'm not generally that inspired."
"As inspired as what?"
I frowned. "As last night."
"Ah. Yes. You danced in front of the circle."
"And with you."
"Me? I retired early last night, madame. You're mistaken." Her face was clean of any guile. Something in me sank a notch. Damn masked performers, always so smug about retaining separate identities. My father had been the same.
"With the Bird, then."
"Pardon?" I blinked several times and sat up more straightly.
"The Bird, I mean. Can never resist a good pair of legs."
"I think, maybe," I managed, "that it went a little too far."
"Well, if you don't want it to cause you trouble, I advise you to purchase a large cat. It can't abide cats. Unless, of course," she grinned, "they're Indian kittens." She leaned forward on her elbows, an exaggerated, suggestive smirk on her face.
Barely a second later my heart began to thud hard again, and I took a short little breath. The smile alone was enough to reawaken in me the powerful attraction I had felt for her - it - both of them - the night before. I remembered her watching me dance with those dark, dark eyes, and the press of its thighs against me when we danced together. This was beginning to get confusing. I loved only my husband, but Francoise was seductive in more ways than one.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Clopin. The look in his eyes was very wary. I attempted to smile in a modest, winning way, and the edges of a smile crept into his own face. "Good morning, love," he said. "Conversing with our obnoxious guest again?" He walked over to Francoise.
"Good morning, Your Majesty. Come to retrieve your wife?"
"Yes," he said, sounding genuinely playful. "Apparently she's still mine, despite the best attempts of certain beasts."
"Like what, Trouillefou? Surely the rats here aren't that amorous. And the dogs seem unfriendly at best."
She swept her right leg so it bent his left knee, forcing him to jog forward a few steps to keep balance.
"I was thinking, actually," he said, placing a hand on her shoulder, "of birds." Then, pushing her shoulder down, he launched into a beautiful flip that took him over the fire and landed him by my side. I laughed and rubbed my head against his leg, relieved by his mood. Then I turned over to Francoise. A blank look was frozen on her face, and her eyes were focussed intently on a point three feet directly behind my chest.
She blinked once, slowly, and opened her mouth. After a deep swallow, she rasped, "While your skills in acrobatics are impeccable, Trouillefou...your timing is not." Then she drew her right hand out from under her bent torso. For a moment I noticed nothing...then I saw that the red of the gloves was darker than it should have been. Her left hand reached back under, and she winced as she drew it out again. Clasped shakily within it was the dagger, coated with a fine sheen of blood.
(c) Covielle and Harley Quinn 2000