AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Much like 'Herlikin', this fiction was written in 1999 and is subsequently HIGHLY flawed. I'm archiving it here because of the lovely people who continue to read these old tales of mine and enjoy them. Thanks, you guys! I never expected them to have such an enduring readership over the years – it means a lot.

Despite the fact I would tear this to shreds if I went over it with a red pen, I'm leaving it just as it was first written, as much to remind myself of how far I've come and of what not to do, as for sentimental reasons

-----

Life Is Boring

I've been married to Clopin for two and a half years now. For two and a half years I have woken up with him beside me, snoring lightly with his mouth open and one arm and one leg slung over my body. For two and a half years I've whispered my secrets in his ears, cried my tears into his chest and laughed my pleasure, and my love, on his lap.

What would I do without Clopin? Plunge off the precipice finally into madness, most probably. Either that or be in eternal disgrace of the harshest kind. Dungeons and dirty straw, and strange metallic objects with ugly teeth, that is to say.

Besides which, I'd be very lonely, and very very bored.

So having said all of that, why then am I glaring with frustration out over the Court of Miracles from my hiding place above the stage? Why have I run off and left my husband and two children alone by their lonesome selves today? In actuality, Clopin would guess where I am. But he knows how sometimes I need some time to myself, to sit and sulk for whatever reason the fancy has struck me. He doesn't mind, he likes to play with the children.

It's not Clopin I am frustrated, or bored, with. How could I be, he is what keeps me from getting too much so! It's life here, in general. They strike me as so many bees, my people the room, as they buzz around the Court of Miracles. Regimented, routined - following instinctual habits that are almost rehearsed. Even their most random movement has a pattern to it. Ah, there is Bethan now in harsh starched apron and diklo, and the fancy has struck her to move across and get an apple from Paolo. There she goes, mincing over the uneven grey stone I'm sure she dreams of whitewashing. And then, there is the disapproving stare at the few thin carpets strewn over parts of the floor near the vurdons. Pretty carpets, colourful and elaborately woven - but oh so very dirty. I used to amuse myself trying to follow Bethan's thought pattern as she observed everything she disapproved of. Here now, she stops by Paolo's fruits wagon, for there is a crease in the carpet and she bends over to smooth it out. And Paolo, who has been cheerily shouting with his back to her at the other men, now turns without seeing her and steps on her hand. She rises with a shout, and Paolo steps back in alarm to avoid her vengeful arms, and - there! He knocks over his wagon and the fruits go spilling everywhere, spilling out over the stones like the gifts of Spring from the arms of Demeter.

More than the two of them can bear - Paolo's fruits, his income, over the floor and getting trodden on and bruised. Bethan - good food, dirty floor - enough said. Shrilly cries and ominous rumbles as they begin to argue who was more at fault. Bethan, tall and thin and immaculate - Paolo, stocky and red and eternally sloppy. Once upon a time I would have wasted no time in skimming down the side of the wall, heedless of scraping my feet, and leaping over cold fires and children's heads to get in close to the action, to hear all the angry words being tossed backwards and forwards. Today I only sighed and glared harder. No, I could not have predicted the precise events leading to this altercation, but something always upset Bethan every other day, and Paolo was terribly clumsy.

Bah, Clopin or no Clopin, I may very well go mad after all.

I grip the moth-eaten and worn mauve velvet hanging which droops by my hiding-hole, and half slide-half climb down to the stage, and leap down from it, the impact jarring my dusty feet all the wall up to my knees. It's a pretty green skirt I have on today, and it's split up both sides to the knee. And for some strange reason, those splits never seem to close. I catch a few glances sliding up my calves from the nearby men, and wish Clopin were there to see it. That would be amusing, at least.

I sidle past Bethan and Paolo, and instantaneously they stop their bickering to glance warily at me - they expect me to stop and smirk, or throw in an inflammatory comment. I point my eyebrows at them and turn my back. After a second they resume the argument, and I gather up some of the fruits to myself - apples, an orange and a couple of plums - and bundle them up in my shawl. Now I smirk, and hurry away through the benches and vurdons to make my way back to the tent.

Clopin has both our babbies on either knee as he sprawls on the floor with his back supported by our bed and he's singing them a song in a foolish nasal falsetto to their babby delight as their chubby little hands wave about to smack him on the nose and tug at his goatee. He doesn't mind, just rolls his eyes and pokes his tongue out for them. They are near two years old now, our babbies, and sometimes it is hard to believe how quickly they have grown from being helpless warm bundles in my arms nuzzling into my bodice, to miniature people tottering about on awkward legs and laughing at their papa.

He laughs at me now, as I stride over and stand next to him, for once being the one to tower above, and he leans over and kisses my knee, his breath warm and lingering. "What's wrong with you, restless one?" he asks me affectionately as I pluck his hat from his head. I put it on, and twirl around, posing, so my skirts billow, flaring up and skimming over my calves.

"If you can guess, you may make love to me tonight." I say with haughty nonchalance.

Clopin sniffs. "A challenge, please! You're bored."

I mock a pout. "Does this mean I have to make love to you?"

He grins. "I'm hardly going to do all the work myself."

"Why not, you're the man as you point out so often. Men are supposed to do all the work."

"And women are intended to please their men."

Ooh! Without that touch of playfulness to his tone, I'd of been a cranky woman. But as it is, the game is a diversion.

"Only when they deserve it."

"Do I not work all day, every day, bringing you home gifts of jewellery and clothes, and the most important of all - money?"

"But you dictate how I spend this money; also the jewellery and clothes are your choice."

"As is my right."

"But not my pleasure."

"What has your pleasure got to do with it?"

My eye brows are arrows, shooting into the mess that is my hair. "A wife who is pleasured is more likely to give pleasure in return."

His eyes sparkle at me in a sly way. "You're given much pleasure, at the expense of a great deal of my energy."

"I'd rather have a diamond ring."

"I'd rather be a bachelor with diamond rings for more than one."

"Well you're not. You're married to me."

He bounces the babbies a little on his knee and glances up at me with a hint of a smile. "And you're married to me."

"Confounded luck."

"Cursed fortune!" He carefully scoops our babbies up and places them off to the side where they roll onto one another and chatter in their binak tongue. Scratching his chin he shrugs at me. "I suppose we shall have to make the most of the hand Fate dealt us."

I can't help the grin which spread across my face and into my eyes. "I suppose we shall."

Within a second he's bounced to his feet and wrapped lean arms around my waist. I have barely a moment to smile at him before he's burning me pleasantly with a kiss.

When the kiss is broken I rub my face on his chest and clasp my hands behind his neck while he begins to nuzzle at my neck. Besides us, the babbies gurgle and chatter and pull each others toes.

"Perhaps I can suggest a means of relieving your boredom?" He says to me softly.

"Perhaps. What did you have in mind?"

We're both smiling. "The surest means of diversion. An activity of the physical persuasion."

I tap his cheek scoldingly with a finger. "The children are watching."

He squeezes me tighter. "The children don't understand."

"They will ask questions."

"It will hasten their ability to speak."

"You should be a politician."

"You should be a national treasure."

Ah, flattery. With a laugh I give in. He's right, it does relieve my boredom.

-----

But only temporarily! Later I'm preparing our dinner while he sits up in bed, puffing away on his pipe in some strange puppetational musings, while I'm staring angrily at the chicken which refuses to become magenta, grow hair and walk out of the pot by itself. A pretty pass things have come to when I am looking to food to entertain me.

Clopin leaps off the bed and strides over to cuddle me.

"It smells wonderful."

"It's unseasoned."

"I meant your hair." he rubs his face in it and breathes in deeply. I elbow him in the ribs, and he backs off laughing.

"Will it be long?"

"An hour at least. I have only just put it on."

"Alright then, I'm going to go and sit with the men for awhile, I won't be too long."

I sniff and shrug. "Very well, leave me with my own company."

He moves up behind me to cuddle me once more, gracing my neck with warm kisses. "I won't be long. Don't worry, little one - the chicken will change colour one day. When you least expect it."

When I kiss him he almost stays again, but it's more the tone of my voice when I snap I have to watch the food then the words themselves which change his mind, and in a second his lovely lean form has danced out of the tent and off towards the Centre.

I'm left gnawing on my nails. I'm not surprised Clopin guessed what I was thinking about the chicken - he does that often. But it brings to mind the way Bethan and Paolo stopped their bickering at my approach, and looked at me expectantly. I feared predictability. I feared people being able to anticipate my actions, my movements, my responses. Clopin - well he was another story. If he had been unable to guess such things I would have feared that. But that the other Rom should know at my approach what I most likely to be doing - well, it was the very thing I had bemoaned of them that afternoon, wasn't it?

I supposed it was impossible to stay in one place for a long time and not become at least half-way predictable. Perhaps that is why I yearned often that Clopin and I could travel our country without having to become so staid and settled in the Court. I certainly enjoyed being Queen - I won't lie about that - but it was somewhat inconvenient, to have so many who relied upon us.

I'd noticed of course others had become accustomed to my outbursts and habits. For example - my love of the colour red. The greater percentage of my wardrobe was in some shade of this hue, from rose-pink to wine-red to cherry-burgandy. In the beginning, people had counted on this passion as an anchor - I was a new curiosity, with a bad temper and strange ideas, and the fact that they could count on at least one factor in my routine perhaps made them feel some level of control.

When I'd realised that I began to wear other colours - but irregularly. Just every now and then, when they got comfortable in my red skirts and bodices, I'd appear in a brilliant green which illuminated my eyes, or perhaps saffron yellow which clashed with my hair and made me vivid as a sunflower. But after awhile they even began to rely upon those sporadic changes, and my element of surprise was lost.

And now it seemed even my behaviour was becoming known to them. How very dull. I wiped my hands off on my apron in irritation, then yanked it off. The chicken in its pot simmered and spat, the heat rising off it and flushing my face. I held a hand in close, as close as I dared, and then leapt back when a piece of fat jumped onto me. With a sigh, I flounced over to the bed and picked up the small piece of polished glass I had. My face was much the same as it was two and a half years ago, except my skin was clearer and my cheeks fuller. The sun in France was pale and weak compared to that of India, and so my skin was actually somewhat lighter than it had been in my home country, my hair as well - which only made it a more vivid red, which in turn, made my odd-collared eyes more vibrant. I liked my colours. I was colourful compared to both gaje and Rom. I poked and prodded at my face, pursing my lips together, examining the length of my eyelashes, the tilt of my nose. I was thankful my face was free of freckles, though Clopin loved my freckled shoulders. I pinched my nose and ran a finger down it, and peered at the side of it. Was that a faint little spot there? It very well could be - and I knew what from. My mother had not had my nose pierced until I was twelve, but in India it was the custom. When I travelled to France to make my wedding to Clopin, she had decided it would be best for me to remove it. "It is not the tradition - they will not approve." she had said calmly to my protests, and

then hidden all my studs from me so I could not replace the one she removed. I had kept the one in my belly, but as that was often hidden beneath layers of petticoats, it hardly mattered.

Staring at this faint spot which could possibly be the mark left by my nose ring from two and a half years ago, I felt the familiar tickle of an idea finger its way up my spine and back down again. I saw my eyes widen and my mouth contort itself to a gleefully wicked grin in the reflection of the glass.

Should I?

Dare I?

What would Clopin say? What would the Rom say? What would they all think?

Now of all the things they expected - they would not be expecting this. Which made up my mind for me.

I tipped out small wooden boxes of varying sizes and patterns, spilling out jewellery of every sort - bangles and bracelets of bronze and silver, earrings beset with barely semi-precious stones, chains and charms and trinkets in leather and metal and beads. Finally, I found some pieces suitable for my intent.

A small gold hoop with a sharpened edge to it - the kind designed to pierce one's ear as a child.

For after the job was done - a small red rhinestone stud and a large pink stone inlaid in a cheap metal.

Hands shaking with a strange and rather unwarranted excitement, I dipped the gold hoop in boiling water for a few seconds, then settled myself up on my bed, propping the glass on the small table which rested besides it.

Bracing myself, I leant forward and pushed the sharp point of the hoop against my nose, in the same place where the faint mark I had detected earlier was.

I gasped out loud at the pain - a sharp sting which made my eyes water, but I pushed forward relentlessly. For some obscure reason I thought crazily of the night I had lost my virginity to Clopin - here was the same resistance, and the same pain - though on a considerably lesser scale!

But a second later the job was done, and I was giggling in triumph to myself as I wiped away a small spot of blood and admired my handiwork.

The hoop was just the right size, and curved around neatly. I had always liked the way this adornment had looked, on both myself and other women, and I liked it still. I wiped away another small spot of blood, then leapt to my feet and danced over to my cooking.

But tending to the chicken was no more pleasurable than it had been before - although this time for different reasons. Now I wanted to go out and have people see my new image. I wanted their reactions and I didn't want to wait.

And what of my dinner? A good Romany wife would never leave her stove lest her creation turn out less than perfect.

I suppose I am not a good Romany wife, I think with a gleeful malice. Oh woe. I shift the food from the fire's immediate attention, and lower the flames. My children, who have been sitting with relative quiet in one corner, playing with the small toys their papa has made them, are bundled up and out, clinging to one of my hands each, stumbling on their clumsy little legs besides me as I skip along with anticipation in my heart.

Luckily the Court Centre is always busy at this time of night, with Rom toing and froing, swapping wares, stories, advice, favours. I'm an old presence now, so I do not get stares and sidewards glances, although a few acknowledge me with a raised hand and smiled greeting as they hurry off to do their endless nothing. Nonetheless, I toss my hair back over my shoulder and grin openly - it will be only a matter of time. I catch sight of Clopin with a tankard in his hand, laughing with some of his fellows, one of the fires behind him illuminating his skinny form and making it appear more fragile than it really is.

Lena and Harlan too have caught sight of him, and they are straining at my hands to run over and fling their arms about his legs.

"Papa, papa!" Lena calls. Who would've thought a mouth smaller than a fig could make such a noise? At any rate, it catches Clopin's attention, who could never mistake the cries of his angel for another child. He sets down his tankard and bounds over the benches, cheekily untying the sash of Tante Marie's apron as he does so, and then sweeps both his little ones up, planting kisses on their cheeks and heads.

"Ah, my adoring little ones!" he exclaims in delight, then grins at me over their heads. "And my adored wife." I smiled up at him in return, taking a step forward to bend my head up for a kiss.

As he leaned down I saw his expression change abruptly, his eyes widen in surprise and his mouth fall open in a small 'o'. He blinked several times and then said -

"Did you get caught on something?"

"Whatever do you mean?" I asked innocently. He puts the children down on the ground and hovers above me before tapping the ring lightly with his finger.

"Don't play the innocent, this thing poking from your nose."

"Oh that!" I put a hand up to it. "This little thing?"

He looks at me dryly and his voice drips with sarcasm. "Yes. That little thing."

I turned quickly and moved towards the Centre, waving a nonchalant hand.

"It's a tradition from India, like the one in my belly. I felt that I needed to do it, to honour the rituals I was brought up with."

He's darting closely by my heels, reaching out for my elbow to stop me. "Oh-ho, and the fact it will turn all eyes on you didn't have anything to do with it?"

"You're just cross because it will divert attention from you!" I snapped back.

"What are you two bickering about now?" Tante Marie's jolly voice rolled its way to us, and a second later she appeared, garbed brilliantly in orange and red and beaming at my husband and I.

"We're not bickering." I said sweetly, and she rolled her eyes.

"Aye yah, I'll believe that perhaps when the sky next falls."

"It's due to fall next week the astronomers say." I told her cheekily, and Clopin holds my arm firmly as she swoops down to pinch my cheeks.

"Ah you young - " and then her expression changes as abruptly as Clopin's did.

"By all that is sacred - what is that?" she cried.

"It is a decoration for the nose." I said haughtily. "It is very common sight in India."

"It is pierced through your flesh" she exclaimed.

"Yes." I said patiently.

Tante Marie's lungs are large and her voice carried far and wide. Other Rom heard her, and gathered around to see what was happening.

"My word, look at that!"

"What has she done to herself?"

"Of all the unexplainable - "

"...No sense of propriety..."

I had to fight hard to keep the smile from my lips. Besides me, Clopin's face was grim and he gave me a glare of exasperation.

Tante put her hands on her wide hips. "Now, what is this, Herli? This strange jewel in your nose, what are you thinking?"

I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. "As I said to Clopin, this reminds me of my roots in India. The roots we all bear, I might add."

"It looks awful" I heard someone say quietly, and I raised my eyebrows challengingly and spoke out clearly.

"As the gaje say our diklos do. But we Rom are so much more tolerant."

The comment did not miss its mark and I saw several of them purse their lips and look to the sides. Clopin besides me gave a short laugh.

"Ah yes, the gaje - what was it you called them last week, Herli? Oh that's right - ignorant, ugly fools with no sense of culture?"

A titter ran through the crowd as I sneered at my husband. He winked at me and spoke to the crowd.

"Well, I believe all this attention might just wear Herli out, and it's past her bedtime anyway - "

"Yah, keep her fresh for bedtime, eh Clopin?" Renault grinned, and Clopin shrugged cheerfully.

"I deny you her prescience so I might enjoy it more. Say goodnight Herli."

I crossed my eyes at him, and obediently dropped a mocking curtsy to the group. Clopin chuckled and guided me away, scooping up the children as we did so, leaving behind us a mixture of murmurs, head shakings and giggles.

"Well, was it everything you were hoping for?" he asked me dryly, and I nudged him.

"Come on now, it wasn't so bad. I thought they took it rather well."

He sighed as we reached our tent, and pushed the tent flap back for me, gently propelling me inside.

"Little one, you don't understand - you don't know what they might be thinking - of me as well as you."

"They won't think bad things about you! They all love you."

He shook his head as I began to get undressed. "How do you know they don't see it as inability on my part to control you?"

I sniffed indignantly. "You can't!"

He cantered a stern look at me as I dropped my skirts and shook out my white petticoats. "Says you. You know I love you too much to try and subjugate you, you could at least show me so much respect as to not take advantage of it."

I paused in the combing of my thick, tangled hair, and uncrossed my legs, swivelling around to face him. There was no humour on his face or in his eyes, and his head was titled to the side, one hand on his hip, his body dark in the dim light of the tent.

"Are you so upset about it?" I asked him softly and he sighed again and turned, pulling his hat off.

"I'm not happy about it." He didn't say anything further, just got the children changed and tucked into their cribs, running large hands gently through their feathery hair, and speaking softly to them as they fell asleep.

I finished brushing my hair and untangling it all, then went to check on the chicken I had abandoned. It was almost ready, and I began to get the plates and cutlery out for us.

"Are you ready for your supper?"

He stood up, unbending his skinny legs and ran a hand through his long hair. "Yes, I'm ready."

I wrapped my arms around his waist as he came over to the table and kissed his chest. "Clopin, I'm sorry - I did not mean for it to reflect badly on you."

"I know, but you should've thought of it."

I squeezed him tighter. "Come now, I'm sorry. I'm sure they will all forget soon."

He raised his hands to my hair and began stroking it gently. "They will forget sooner if you take it out."

I pulled away from him abruptly and went over to put his dinner out. "No! It is harmless - it does nothing. It is simply an ornament I like."

"Herli, little things can set one apart as easily as big things."

"I like being set apart!"

"What, in a negative way? You like to be seen as a rebel and a trouble maker?"

I shot him a look. "You're going to make me take it out."

"I'm going to ask you too."

I touched the ring gently with one hand. "Just a couple more days, please Clopin."

He shook his head. "Yes and a couple more days will turn into a week, then a month, and so it will go on."

I handed him his dinner and we ate in silence.

-----

Colombine came bouncing in the tent the next day when Clopin had left for work after kissing my hand because he claimed the ring was off-putting. That hurt but I sniffed and let him press his lips to my hand with a look of superiority on my face. I was annoyed that something so small should come between us like that, but of course it had more to do with the fact that I had not asked Clopin permission to do it, and that I did not immediately take it out when he suggested he would like that. It wasn't enough he was master of the home, or of the Court, he had to be my master as well.

At any rate I was crossly scrubbing the dishes from breakfast and looking forward to rubbing scented ointment on my hands and putting my rings back on when I had finished, when my friend Colombine came twirling in, sending her green and yellow skirts flying daringly around her ankles.

"Ah, little bengali, I heard you've been mutilating that little face of yours!" she cried with a grin of glee. "Now let me see if we have to lock you up with that hideous bellringer!"

"The repulsive Quasimodo!" I cried in glee, cheered by the prescience of a friend who only encouraged by wickedness. I leapt to my feet and pulled my features into a horrible grimace, mimicking the lolloping gait of a crippled man. "He shall be my new consort! Together we will spawn ugly babbies to infest Paris!!" Colombine laughed and clapped her hands together.

"What a charming couple you would make, the bull-ringed woman and the hunch-backed man! Come here, let me see!"

I went up to her and inclined my head, pursing my lips, while she giggled and tapped a finger against the ring protruding from my nostril.

"Well, now, it's almost sweet." she said in amusement. "You say they all wear this in India?"

I nodded. "Aye, all the women do. It is a statement of fashion!"

"And I bet Clopin was thrilled."

I scowled and pulled my skirts from side to side. "Bah! If I had asked him first he wouldn't have a qualm in the world."

She clucked at me and pinched my cheeks. "Oh I'm sure it's not really that. But my, weren't they all talking about it in the Centre today!"

I flushed with pleasure over the scandal and puffed my chest out a little, and she shook her head. "I'm maintaining a tradition!" I cried.

She snorted, seating herself down on the cushions of our tent. "Sure, you are, Herli. And to be truthful, I am actually a man!"

I blinked at her cheekily. "No wonder you're so fond of kissing me."

She tried not to laugh and threw a cushion at me. "It's an excuse of convenience at any rate; it is true we Romany have our roots in India."

"Exactly" I sniffed and strutted in front of her, hitching my skirts up over my thighs and shaking my anklets flirtatiously. She stared at me in disbelief for a moment, and then shook her head hard.

"Admit it, you love me!" I said snootily and she put her chin in her hands.

"You get bored an awful lot, don't you Herli?"

I threw myself down on the cushions next to her, stretching out and resting my head on my hands.

"It is frustration; Clopin didn't love me last night."

She rolled her eyes. "Poor you. It has been a week since I saw Frederick."

I grimaced in sympathy. "My poor Colombine! How can you bear it?"

She waggled her eyebrows at me in a meaningful way and I laughed. We both lay in silence for a few moments, I scratching my belly and she running a hand through her curly hair, before she shot out a hand and grasped me hard on the wrist.

"Here, Herli, I want to be loyal to our ancestry too. Pierce my nose!"

I sat up in delight and threw my arms around her neck. "My convert, my convert! I am an influential queen!!"

She laughed and pushed me away as I scrambled to my feet and ran over to my jewellery box. I removed the ring from my nose and washed it off, before replacing it with the small red stud, then I grasped Colombine's head in my hands and planted a kiss on her nose.

"Brace yourself!" I told her as she wiped her face and wrinkled it at me. I grasped her chin in my hands and tilted it, as my mother had done when she pierced my nose for the first time, then ruthlessly pushed the hoop through.

"OOOOUCH!!!" Colombine screamed and slapped me.

"What, did you think it would tickle?" I snapped, and wiped the blood away with a corner of my skirt. "It looks wonderful!"

"Show me, show me!" I fetched the glass quickly and held it up so she could see. She stared at her reflection for a few moments then began to giggle hopelessly.

"Oh my, I love it!" she cried and I pinched her and laughed along.

"Come now," I got to my feet again and held out my hands to her. "Come along with me, let's go for a walk!"

"In the Centre, I presume?" she asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Where else is there to walk here?" I answered her with similar grin.

"Herli, one day you'll get me into real trouble." she claimed, pulling herself to her feet and shaking out her skirts.

"You asked me to do it, I was an innocent accomplice coerced into assisting you!"

She shot me a glance and sniffed again. "Of course, and I am actually your husband in disguise!"

"You are? Come here my darling! I missed you last night!" I threw my arms around her, and she pushed me away in terror.

"Herli! Sometimes I think you're in earnest when you do that!"

I grimaced at her and held back the tent flap while she twirled out of it and I followed her, twirling along. I fancy it was a rather colourful sight, she in her green and yellow and I in my red and purple, but then Colombine and I were always highly coloured.

As we reached the Centre, we finished our twirls and linked arms to skip in, struggling hard to wipe the grins from our faces, our hearts beating hard in our chests from anticipation.

We were in luck. There were no men abouts, but Tante Marie and her friends were there, as were many of the younger girls, the ones our own age. We were given glances and waves, but no one was close enough to see our new body art until we wondered up to Sophie and her knitting to comment on the intricate pattern she was weaving into it. She looked up at us with a smile which fell abruptly when she observed our matching nostril ornamentation.

"Oh my word!" she exclaimed. "Marie, come and look at this!" Tante Marie's cooking ladle was placed aside as she lumbered over to see what Sophie was exclaiming about. When she caught sight of the hoop through Colombine's nose she gave a shout and her hands flew up to her face. Her normally wide mouth was such a perfect round 'o' that I felt giggles grab me by the shoulders and begin shaking them.

"Benagli Chey!" Tante exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. "From Shaitan himself, I'll swear it on my dead Pierre! What are you girls doing?"

"Maintaining honoured tradition!" we said haughtily at once, and were more than a little surprised when Tante began to lay a series of slaps on our arms.

"None of that lip, wicked children! Herli, if you weren't a daj and a wife I'd have you over my knee! You too, Colombine!"

"I'll tell my husband on you!" I cried and she raised sharp eyebrows at me.

"I'm sure he'd be the next to give you a spanking!" was the retort I got.

"Now Tante!" Colombine cried. "You should at least let Herli explain why we felt it was important to do this!"

I stopped and gaped at her. "I beg your pardon!" I said, putting my hands up my hips and thrusting my bosom out.

"Tell them, Herli." Colombine said, with a widening of her black and green eyes. Tante's cheeks quivered and she put ringed fingers on her hips in a mimic of my stance, turning to stare down at me.

"Yes, tell us Herli."

The other young ladies had run up to gather, looking at me with great interest and glee. God knows, they'd be bored to death without me. I flicked my hair back over my shoulder and pointed my nose in the air.

"Very well, I shall! Allow me a seat, if you may!"

To my surprise, the women parted so that I could sweep through them, swishing my hips. I sat down regally; all the while my mind raced frantically with the spot Colombine had put me in. Now what on earth was I supposed to say? I had no idea why the Indians wore nose rings, except that it was tradition and everyone did it. Obviously, that was not good enough for these string bean housewives, and I made up my mind to stomp on Colombine's toe the next chance I got. Clopin would know what to do, but he was outside in his puppet cart, telling stories –

Ahh, telling stories. Well.

I cleared my throat and crossed one leg over the other, shaking my wrists so my bangles jangled and got everyone's attention.

Colombine's eyes twinkled as she looked at me smugly, and Tante's arms were crossed over her massive bosom as she pursed her lips inquisitively at me. The other ladies sat themselves down on benches or curled up on the sandy floor, pushing back curly hair and blinking at me curiously and challengingly with large eyes as they waited for me to enlighten them. I took a breath and began, jumbling the names, lying through my teeth, but capturing their attention wholly.

"Many years ago, before the Rom left our mother land of India, there was the Balibusha of the Eastern tribe and the Balibushi of the Western tribe. This King and Queen met one year in the rainy season, when all the Rom danced beneath the canopy of rainbows that gathered in the central valley of India, and it took no more than a glance for them to know their hearts were one heart, and their souls destined to be joined by their earthly bodies, for now and evermore, for you all know that sometimes a soul is divided into two, and reunited in each life that is lived."

I caught one of the girls nodding, her eyes alight with that hope so many young women know. I thought of Clopin, who I believed was the other half of my soul, and he spurred my words on.

"The king was tall and strong, and the Queen small and beautiful and both tribes agreed they would make the most wonderful union the Rom had yet known. And so, when the rainy season finished and the ground was green with the luminesce of emeralds, and purple clouds lay sighing with pleasure against the sky, the King and Queen were married and all the Rom joined hands and danced around them, each one dressed in a different colour of the spectrum, and any beyond the valley who saw, though that the rainbows had broken into many pieces and lay giggling on the earth."

Tante Marie's rude voice broke through the spell, and it was not only I who turned to glare.

"Pretty parmitscha! When will you reach the point?"

I levelled my gaze on her. "Patience is a virtue, Tante." I said smugly, and some of the other girls dared to hiss "hush" at her, and I continued with my tale.

"So the two tribes lived very happily in the Valley for many years, and their crops prospered, and their people grew in number and wisdom, and the King and Queen ruled over them with smiles and all agreed it was the happiest time in the Rom history. But then, one year, the Queen heard a weeping from the other side of the ocean, and she fancied she had heard these tears before. She ran down to where the blue waters sparkled on for miles, and called out to the tears 'why are you crying?' and the tears called back 'I am crying because I am your sister and I am trapped on the other side of the waters' then the Queen remembered her sister who had crossed the ocean many years ago with her tribe and she ran to her King and said 'My love, my sister is trapped on the other side of the waters and weeps for me because she is unhappy, what can I do?' The King felt a great sorrow contract in his heart, for he knew that he must let his Queen be happy and he said 'You must go to her and bring her back here so that her weeping may cease and she can live with us.' but the Queen was frightened and said 'What if what has trapped my sister traps me also?' but her courageous husband replied 'Then I will come and fetch you.' then he took from his belt a tiny sharp diamond and bent down to his Queen and pressed it through her nose and said to her 'Have all your women in waiting wear this, and let you never take it out. Let every city you stop in take in one of your women that she may marry and have women who will also wear such decoration. That way, if you become lost I can learn your trail by following the women who wear this ornamentation.' Then he kissed his Queen who let her tears fall into his beard, removed her golden crown and she set out with her women in waiting to cross the seas."

The centre was absolutely quiet. The smug look had fallen from Colombine's face and Tante Marie had sat down with her hands folded in her lap.

"A year passed, and then another and another, but the Queen did not return and the King's heart felt as though a spear had split it apart. He gathered together his men and they crossed the ocean and the King's heart healed a little to see his wife had been good to her word and had left behind a lady in waiting with a small stud through her nose, who had married and given birth to other girls. For many months he followed this trail with success from village to village, and for many months his heart healed a little more at the thought that soon he would reach his queen. But with the next village, the King felt his hairs turn grey, and his heart to lead, for there were no women who wore the ornaments in their nose, and no women in the village after that. But still he kept on, spurring on his men who followed him loyally, searching every village thoroughly for any sign of his Queen. It came so that he recognised his own people in some of these villages, and one day he stopped one of the women and spoke to her thus - 'I am your King, from the motherland of India.' and she bowed to him respectfully and he continued 'I see that you acknowledge me, then you must also acknowledge my Queen for who I am searching. She promised that all our women would wear in their noses a small jewel, so I might follow her path and find her, but I do not see this here.' the woman bowed to him again and said 'Sire, our people have become fruitful and multiplied, spreading all over this land, but the inhabitants of this country do not like the wearing of jewellery in the nose, and bid us take them out. There will be none of our people in this world who wear the nose jewellery anymore.' The King's heart broke once more, and his men were struck with fear at the lines which appeared upon his face, for he knew now to find his Queen would be a lifetime voyage. But he did not fear. Instead he called to him his loyal men and continued to ride through the country, stopping in every village to search for his Queen, meeting his people who one by one began to forget him and their sacred ties to India. One by one his men fell down dead, and so the years passed until it was only the King, riding endlessly, searching hopelessly for his lost Queen, for although he cannot find her - he knows she is somewhere in this world still - and he will not be allowed to lay at rest until he has found her once more. And this is why I wear this jewellery. It is to remind myself of our poor, lost King searching for his poor, lost Queen, and how if we had kept to tradition no matter the gadje, they would have been reunited many years ago." I finished primly, and uncrossed my legs, looking about me in satisfaction.

The young girls clutched hands and sighed with the sadness of bittersweet love, the old women stared thoughtfully ahead, their eyes misty - remembering days when they had perhaps longed for a man to love them in such a way. The silence hung in the air fatly for a few moments, before Tante dashed a hand across her face and cleared her throat.

"A-heeem. Well. Perhaps that changes things a little. There, there now Sophie."

Silly old Sophie was sniffling into her knitting, although I did not take it as flattery - she cried if the bread burned. I rose gracefully to my feet and made a little bow to the women.

"You must excuse me now, my friends. I thank you for your understanding."

I turned and walked away from the Centre, breaking into a run as soon as I knew I was out of their vision, and I did not stop until I reached my tent, where I flung myself into a whirlwind of cushions and laughed until I cried, and my belly ached with merriment.

-----

My giggles continued throughout the night, and caused Clopin much exasperation though I wouldn't tell him why I laughed. Eventually, my merriment was catching and he gave up his petulance over the nose ring and let himself be coaxed into bed with me, where we passed the night in pleasure.

In fact, so mutually satisfying was that evening that we both overslept the next day, and were rather rudely awakened by the young man Luc rattling at our door.

"Hie, Clopin! What kind of crazy spell has that wife of yours cast?"

Clopin woke up slowly and shouted groggily at the tent flap.

"You tell me, but you can wait until I'm up!"

"My wife has gone mad!"

"Then she can join my wife, and much happiness to both of them, go away!"

We heard Luc stomping away and Clopin wrapped a lazy arm around me.

"What have you done now?" he murmured against my hair. I thought for a few moments but nothing sprang to mind.

"I don't know, love." I yawned, and scratched his back. He groaned, then sat up with an effort.

"Come on, time to get up." he told me, and then pulled me out to my protests. I grudgingly got dressed, fixed the children and him their breakfast, then took the arm he offered me and we wandered towards the Centre, one child on each on our hips.

As we made our way, we caught sight of little Antoinette, Luc's wife, sulking miserably to herself down by the entrance of their tent.

"What spell have I supposedly cast upon you?" I called out to her cheerfully. She raised her head to us with a pout and Clopin let out an oath besides me as we saw she had a hoop through her nose. My eyes bulged and I remembered just in time I had my son in my arms, or I might've dropped him with the shock.

"My husband didn't understand!" she wailed. "I told him the story, and he said it was ridiculous!"

I almost said then that the story was ridiculous! But I bit back the urge and patted her on the shoulder. "Stand your ground, and wear it nonetheless!" I said to her and Clopin swore again.

"You'd do better to take it out, Antoinette, make your husband happy!" he informed her and I glared at him.

"How can you say such things?" I said and he frowned at me.

"Let's move on now, Herli." he said pointedly, and with a sigh I took my place besides him. As we continued to make our way towards the centre, a group of girls passed by us, giggling to themselves. Rosa, Lucille, Valentina and Elena were dancing in a flurry of petticoats and bangles, their bright hair bouncing around their shoulders, huddling their heads together. I cocked an interested eyebrow at them, which turned to one of surprise as they all lifted their heads to smile and wave at me - my, how uncharacteristically friendly of them! My mouth dropped open and I yanked on Clopin's arm suddenly as I caught sight of the variety of hoops and studs which decorated their nostrils. But it was too late, my husband had seen it already and he turned to me with a glower.

"Herlikin, what on earth have you been doing?" he said sternly. "Putting something in the water?"

I had begun to giggle into my son's hair. "I didn't do anything, I swear!" I exclaimed earnestly. "I don't know what the meaning of this is! I imagine I am just wonderfully influential."

He stopped and turned to me, pulling his mouth down.

"Herli, no games. What did you do?"

I widened my eyes at him luminously. "Clopin, I swear on our wedding vows I did nothing with any intention to cause such an effect!"

"Nothing with any intention? That means you did something and you know what it was."

"Clopin!" I pouted and pressed my lips against his chest, but he backed off.

"Lord, I'm going to have deal with all their men!" he groaned, and I tried to be sympathetic, but I shook with laughter.

It was perhaps not as bad as Clopin anticipated, so far it seemed only those we'd passed had been affected by my love story, and one more, whose gentleman had her ferociously by the wrist while she exclaimed they weren't married and he couldn't do anything about it. When she caught sight of me, she gave a shout and hurried over to pull me to her gentleman.

"Tell him the story, Herlikin! Tell him so he may understand!" she demanded. What? I could not remember half the story I told.

"No no!" I said earnestly. "It can only be told by you now; each woman is only allowed to tell it once!" She paused and a suspicious look crossed her features, but a second later it passed and she threw herself on her gentleman and began to let out the little parmitscha in a torrent of words.

Some of the nearby men gathered around her, and although she did not have the way with words I did, they listened carefully, frowning beneath their moustaches, and Clopin listened too, one big hand firmly on my waist. Finally he shook his head and began to lead me away.

"That story is not true, is it Herli?" he asked me quietly and I groaned in exasperation.

"Of course it isn't!" I whispered to him. "But how was I to know they would take it so seriously? Tante was threatening to get you to spank me!"

He grinned down at me wickedly, his black eyes sparkling.

"Perhaps I should take you back and spank you now?"

I stamped my foot. "Absolutely not!" He dropped a kiss on me.

"Half the time you enjoy it!"

"Shhh!" I hissed and looked about to make sure no one was listening while he chuckled above me.

Then I realised something.

"You're not angry?" I said, bemused, and jumped when he turned with an exaggerated snarl.

"Of course I'm angry, I'm furious! Furious I missed you telling the story the first time!" he exclaimed and began to laugh, sitting down on one of the benches and cuddling Lena before putting her down to play. I followed suit with our son then stood in front of my husband and ran my fingers through his hair, rubbing his cheeks and smiling down at him.

"You've started a trend, Herli." he informed me and kissed my fingers.

"I can't believe they took it so seriously." I muttered. The humour I'd had upon seeing Valentina and her friends had left me, though I couldn't say why. "They were only supposed to let me keep wearing it." I added after a few moments, and he shrugged and pulled me down on his lap, inclining his head to the outskirts of the Centre.

"Look there, Isabeau has joined the ranks as well." he whispered and I turned with a grimace to glower at bosomy Isabeau who sported a pretty blue stone in her nostril, flicking her head about proudly.

"They barely say three words to me, and now they're all emulating me!" I said crossly and stomped my feet on the ground.

-----

A short while later, Clopin left to do his work on the streets above, and I moved in and out of the Court to go about my daily business, washing our clothes, fetching food and minding the children. I was greeted with shouts from the men everywhere who asked what nonsense I had been filling the women's head with, and it was truly impressive to see how quickly the women adopted the defence of maintaining tradition, of remembering our mother roots, of doing something they honestly, truly, you must believe me darling did out of love for their own men.

Valentina with great delight took a pin and shoved it savagely through the nostrils of her young friends, as they squealed and clutched their noses tight, jumping up and down with jiggling bosoms before choosing a little jewel from the mass the women collected together to stick through their newly made hole. It was with increasing exasperation I went from one stall to another, glowering at them as they informed each other to be sure and only tell the tale once, and with a new twist - each mother had to pass it on to her first born daughter and so forth and so on, and each daughter might be allowed to tell her sisters. I shuddered to think what new features they would have added to it by the next day.

The fact I had brought this tradition to them was slowly forgotten as they gathered in groups and shrieked at any of the men who dared try and tell them to stop this foolishness. In fact, few of the men dared approach them now, so earnest were they in pursuing this madness, so ferocious did they become in numbers, threatening to cry, to fast, to not cook and clean if any of those brutes would dare stop them from paying homage to tradition.

I almost felt pleased I had indirectly inspired this assertiveness.

Almost.

The last straw was when Bethan marched in with a bag of rings she'd clearly collected during the day, hot water and a needle and announced one sou to have the job done professionally with clean instruments. Slamming down my basket of linen, I threw back my skirts and stomped over towards her, but my passage was halted suddenly by big old Tante Marie, skipping in with a jolly smile on her face, arresting me with one orange-cotton clad arm.

"Your story has been an inspiration, Herli!" she said happily.

"I've noticed." I said dryly, and turned to face her. She wore a gold hoop in her nose.

"TANTE!" I shrieked, and fell back. "Impossible!!" That old Tante Marie should do such an outrageous thing - it was beyond comprehension! Tante chuckled.

"I know, I have joined with the young women, but when I think of that poor old King - "

I turned and stormed out of the Centre, rushing back to our tent where I flew back the flap and kicked cushions across the floor.

Clopin, who had returned and was reclining on the bed, sat up and looked at me in some astonishment. Then, as I continued to mutter and throw things about, he began to laugh at me.

"Stop laughing!" I snapped and threw myself on the bed next to him.

"What is wrong, little one?"

"Ah, those fools out there!" I cried in frustration. "Believing false fairy tales, and taking them as their own. I created it! It was my tradition!"

He raised his hands up and shrugged. "But as you say, India is the motherland of us all."

I mashed the cushions beneath my fist. "That's not the point! They weren't supposed to like it!"

He began to chuckle again, and I grabbed his stomach. He caught me up by the wrists, and pushed me back as I struggled with him.

"It will pass, Herli!" he said soothingly.

"It wasn't supposed to catch on!" I cried. When he let me go I wrenched the jewel from my nose and threw it across the tent.

"That's what I think of you!" I shrieked irrationally after it, and Clopin covered his mouth with his hand to hide his smile.

I glared at him then pouted to the side, muttering angrily to myself, while he watched me thoughtfully for a moment, amusement shining in his eyes.

"You know what you are?" he said finally. "You're a little kitten, playing her little games and not liking it very much when they're played back on her. Your bites are more like kisses, your scratches more like caresses. And you're always doing things without expecting the consequences. You think you're very ferocious and daring with your tricks and whims, but I bet if I stroke you like this - " and here he reached out a hand and rubbed my neck, his thumb tickling my earlobe. " - you'll start purring again."

I pursed my lips at him and tried to keep glaring, but the massage felt lovely, and after a moment I crawled over to his side and cuddled up under his arm.

"I'm still angry at all of them!" I insisted crossly, and he snorted.

"Of course! Why, you only had them in a state of shock for a day, and then they all took it on very readily! Poor little kitten, once again unnoticed. Though I imagine that's why you took that jewel out - to be the odd one out again, hmm?"

I sniffed at him and lay my head on his chest. He ran his fingers through my hair and rubbed my shoulders before pulling me up by the arms to look him in the eye.

"You look nicer without it, anyway, Herli." he said truthfully. "And I don't have to worry about the tip of my nose getting caught in it." I giggled and let him pull me down for a kiss, melting into him for a lovely few minutes. When he let me go I snuggled my head under his chin and reached up a finger to curl it in his goatee. My bad mood had lightened and was improved further by a new thought which struck me and sent a tingle of anticipation up my spine.

"At any rate, I don't think they will like the rings through the lip!" I said cheerfully.

Besides me Clopin groaned.