Author's Note:

This fiction was a collaborative effort way back in the year of 2000 between myself and a girl I was somewhat involved with at the time, who used the handle 'Covielle' within the HoND fandom. We are no longer on speaking terms so I have not requested her permission to archive this fic here. I don't think she will mind.

The fic introduces Covielle's own original character, Francoise, the Rouen Bird, a strange and perhaps slightly transgendered woman, who develops an intimate bond with Herlikin. So be advised: this fic does contain fem-slash themes! Covielle did write another story that introduced Francoise, long before Herli ever appeared, but I think it's been lost to time.

I was always fond of this one, but as with all the others, it is much flawed.

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Prologue

There was commotion, commotion, and, of course, more commotion. Paris was always hurrying. One would've thought that the summer heat would reduce the buzz to a lazy hum.

Paris has always been a contrary place.

The marketplaces were infested with merchants and buyers and livestock. The normal merchants were flanked by impromptu carts, fidgety donkeys, and heavy- chested women holding baskets of merchandise out in the humid air. Lost children, lost goats, lost causes, and lost souls in general milled about in the crowd. This was not to mention the healthy underworld contingent: a pleasant bath of pickpockets, swindlers, cheats, spies, usurers, gamblers, murderers, and, worst of all, performers. Every corner had a puppet stand, a dancer, a singer, or some combination of all three. And among them, as a person familiar with Paris would expect, was Clopin Trouillefou and his curious wife. The two gypsies had found themselves a lucrative spot. Half in the shade, on the edge of the hubbub, placed on the one corner in the city that received something resembling a breeze. The two of them were exotic enough to attract an audience, talented enough to keep it, and innocuous-looking enough that numerous children had, apparently, been left in their care...or at least, in their thrall.

Clopin sweated desperately with the heat of acrobatics and purple cloth. The breeze kissed his face flirtingly, just enough to dry the beads forming on his jaw line. If this wasn't one of the best takes of the year, he would be lying asleep in the blissful cool of the catacombs that the Paris Romany called sometimes-home.

No such luck!

Herlikin watched her husband from the shade of the nearby eaves. It was his shift, and therefore her turn to passively beat the tambourine and enjoy his efforts. Somebody...who was it? Miria? ...had once commented that Herlikin bore a smug expression whenever she watched Clopin perform. She simply couldn't resist the pleasant feeling that the graceful, limber man was hers---and the joyful, sadistic knowledge that he was working his colloquial ass off.

"Faster, faster!" She chanted gleefully, shaking the tambourine. The children picked up the chant, and Clopin shot her a dark look as he whirled around at an increased pace. Harpy, he mouthed.

Finally, when his lanky limbs began to look seriously fatigued, she halted the tambourine, and he bowed, flopping down like a handless puppet. The little crowd applauded, paid generously, and began to disperse. The layers of people peeled off like the skin from an onion, until only a few children remained. Ah, wrong!---a few children, and one odd creature, leaning at a remarkable angle on the edge of a precarious wagon. Apart from one dark elbow casually placed on the wagon, he appeared to have no vertical support whatsoever. His legs were crossed loosely, and a pair of common brown hose revealed impressive musculature beneath. Despite the ungodly heat, he seemed quite content beneath a heavy, waist-length woollen cloak and a well-worn, wide-brimmed hat that hid his face. From the base of the hat emerged a single, slender, blood-red feather.

Herlikin raised an eyebrow. He hadn't moved, hadn't applauded, hadn't paid a cent...and, most disturbing of all, he seemed to watching her intently from underneath that brim. Now, if he had paid, that would be different. He could watch until his eyes fell out. But this, this was not the correct way to ogle the queen of the gypsies.

Clopin approached, peeling off his gloves and whipping back the sweat-soaked hat.

"Madame, you're incorrigible," he pronounced, dropping the damp hat over her eyes. Without humour she pulled it off, looking back at the leaning man. Clopin turned his brown neck and followed her gaze. As his attention settled on the cloaked man, the stranger deftly untangled his legs, and with an agile spring righted himself in relation to the ground.

"He's been staring at me," Herlikin muttered to Clopin.

"Do you blame him?"

"That's a very old line, love. Do you know him?"

"Not immediately," Clopin responded. The stranger folded his arms slowly, and the dark color of his hands raised Clopin's eyebrows, too. "But I suspect I will in a moment." The stranger approached at a steady pace, his posture straight and face still shadowed. And then, as he drew within ten feet of the couple, he stopped abruptly. A flurry of dust rose from under its sturdy boots.

Clopin and Herlikin folded their own arms simultaneously.

The stranger raised a hand to an invisible chin, in apparent contemplation. Then, after a moment, he gracefully touched his fingers to the brim of his hat, tipped it in salute, and struck a startling, contorted bow, his nose almost touching the dust. A small clump of uneven, jet black hair dipped out from under the hat, swinging like a pendulum.

"Clopin, dear, you won't mind if I tell you that I'm distinctly alarmed?" Herlikin hissed.

"He's almost as melodramatic as you," Clopin hissed back, nudging her with his ankle. He carefully returned the bow, at a more reasonable angle. Herlikin remained staunchly posed.

"Your Highness," the stranger intoned, in a queer, sexless tone. Then the hand ripped the hat off, and, before they could see his face, he leapt into a cartwheel. The cloak whirled out, and as the folds spread, ruby-coloured cloth was revealed between the seams. The stranger landed in a mad whirl of dust at Clopin's feet, and sprang up. For a moment, Herlikin's vision was closed off by the cloud. As it slowly settled, she took in the scene.

Clopin (now dust-covered) still stood, his arms folded tightly. Even tighter than his arms was the smile on his face. In front of him posed a tall, mannish looking---it had to be a woman---with a jackal's grin spread across her face. A sharp nose arched in accordance with Clopin's own, and skin even darker than his soaked in the sunlight.

"Hello, Francoise," Clopin managed.

"You haven't changed at all!" she cried. Clopin laughed weakly.

"Will I be introduced, or am I a stage prop in this little farce?" Herlikin jabbed. Clopin's expression grew grimmer as he turned to his wife.

"Madame, I present to you the Rouen Bird. Alternately known as-"

"Francoise, milady," the woman trilled, whirling around to Herlikin. She gracefully sank to one knee in the dust, and took Herlikin's hand. Still seemingly in her masquerade as a man, she lightly kissed the pale hand, and looked up into Herlikin's mismatched eyes. "...and may I say that you surpass the beauty that rumour has it you possess." The woman's own, coffee-black eyes glinted back...with only the slightest glint of fun.

"It's nice to meet you, too," Herlikin answered, defensively. Francoise smiled crookedly and rose.

"I was passing through, and couldn't resist the urge to drop by and pay your honourable husband a visit. We had an enchanting encounter previously, and I received such indulgent treatment that I would feign turn down the chance to meet again."

"How long are you here for?" Clopin asked quickly.

"Ah, you want me to leave already?"

Clopin didn't respond, which aroused something in Herlikin. "Stay as long as you would like, of course," she said herself. Francoise's grin widened, and Herlikin smiled in response. "The day that somebody calls the Paris Romany exclusive is the day that the sun goes dark."

"I would never question such an assertion," Francoise answered, her low voice dipping. "Likewise, I would never keep two such gifted performers from winning their bread. Until this evening, then," Francoise said, "Adieu." With a gentle incline of her head, the strange woman replaced her hat, turned on one heel, and strode away.

"Well," said Herlikin, watching the red feather vanish into the crowd.

"God help us," Clopin said.