"A mistake?" Claude Frollo repeated in disbelief, lines of suspicion sharply creasing the folds beneath his eyes.
Ginevra almost flinched under his searching look. Almost.
"A mistake." She repeated firmly. "I have erroneously identified the three gypsy innocents you have currently awaiting their sentence, as three who attacked and robbed me some weeks back."
A curious murmur ran through the rows of officials, law upholders and observers. There was no private meeting on this day; the Vicomtesse had ridden into Paris at a time she knew Frollo would be sitting in the Courts. She had waited - patiently, even - as cases were heard and judgements passed, until her own was called up. In front of so many - not merely the aristocrat but the commoner as well - refusing to release men declared innocent by the only "witness" to their supposed crime would seem odd.
Frollo's familiars were not without their own hypocrisies and prejudices, but none shared the Minister's obsessive passion to exterminate the Gypsies from the landscape of Paris. Like most hypocrites, Frollo truly believed in his demeanour of virtue and piety. To him, Gypsies hung, whether guilty or not, was a favour done to the country. Yet he had enough awareness of his assumed image to not let it slip. Unless another came up to accuse the Gypsies of a different crime, they would have to be set free.
Ginevra stood impassively on the stand as Claude steepled his hands and glowered. The quiet of the courtroom was steadily overcome by curious whispers, the scuffing of impatient shoes against the floor and the rustling of papers. Frollo's hesitation was uncomfortably conspicuous, but he held his gaze with the Vicomtesse. She returned it in kind. For several long moments, he searched her face, creases furrowing his brow. Finally, the smoothness of her complexion was broken. She raised one eyebrow in a question
Claude clapped his hands down on the bench abruptly.
"Well, then. Far be it from I to doubt the word of so honourable a woman as yourself. Permit me, however, to parade the men before you one final time so that you may be sure of your testimony in this instance."
Ginevra's mouth curved upwards on one side. "Of course."
Orders were given, guards marched out. The minutes stretched on while the onlookers murmured excitedly amongst themselves. Ginevra sat down, deliberately looking beyond Frollo to an elaborately tapestry depicting the Fall of Troy, the men spewing from the wooden belly of the horse, it's carved legs already stained in red, to overcome their enemies. She could see from his jaw, as her eyes rushed over him and to the wall that he was gritting his teeth beneath his translucent flesh, and she revelled in the thought.
The doors were pulled back, and the guards re-entered, three scruffy, dirty Gypsies amongst them.
"Line them up." His words were clipped. The men, their blood rimmed eyes and bruised necks livid splotches of colour against their blackened flesh, were arranged before the Judges' desk. Ginevra assembled her features to an expression of concentration, and glided smoothly from her chair. She strolled before the men who stood in despairing complacence, pausing before each one to eye him carefully. The courtroom was silent once more as she made her inspection, a silk kerchief held delicately at her nose and Frollo grasped the arms of his great chair so hard the wood creaked. He knew her well enough to know when she was putting on a show. He had seldom seen her perform so well.
Finally, she whirled on her heel and settled herself down calmly once more, an expression of ingenuousness meeting Claude who spoke from between his teeth.
The brusque inquiry earned him more than one raised eyebrow.
Ginevra shrugged gracefully.
"These are not the men. My conscience cannot rest easy until they are freed."
Not ten minutes later she was handed back into her coach while the three Romany, blinking their eyes at the harsh light of day they had not seen in over a week, stumbled out onto the pavement. She watched them from the window as her coach rattled down the street, her lip curling slightly in disgust. Such a shame they'd had to be set free. Still - the look on Claude's face had made up for it. She chuckled a little and arranged her white hands on her skirts. She supposed she'd have to make it up to him. They turned onto the road which would lead them beyond Paris and back to her Chateau, and her smile fell as she observed the sinking sun and reflected on the rendezvous that awaited her.
Herlikin leaned against Pierre's grimy window sill and watched the Sun set. A blazing orange-red, he crept below the line of houses which lurched into the street directly opposite her. Once it disappeared behind them, the Sun was set for all she knew. She could not watch him sink down into the earth to exchange a kiss with the Moon as she rose. One hand crept up to fiddle with the pendant around her neck. The Gypsy men had been released. Pierre had huddled in the back of the Court all that day until the Vicomtesse had arrived, then scurried out to bring the good news back to his cohort. For Pierre, the worst was over. He'd agreed to accompany her to the bridge that even to ensure no harm came to her, but his mood was exceedingly cheerful, and the worried frown which had been etched on his forehead the last couple of weeks had lifted. He was jovial - at least until he learned Herlikin had removed all alcohol on the place.
"She could have someone waiting to kill me!" Herlikin had barred the door when he attempted to leave. "I'll need you at your most able!"
For Herlikin, on the other hand, the worst was beginning. The men had been freed unharmed, and trusting all went well tonight, her acknowledgement of the Vicomtesse's existence could all but cease.
And then it would be home to the Court of Miracles, and Clopin.
Herlikin hunched over a little further and stared gloomily at the stained sky, its mixture of dyes all running into each other and spreading over the horizon. Clopin. She wasn't sure how much he knew, but she was certain it was enough to cause trouble between them. In trouble - that she could handle. She spent her life in and out of trouble. But for something to come between her husband and herself...it was a thought that frightened her.
And if anything could come between them, partial responsibility for the death of innocents was surely such a thing?
Her eyes grew hot, and she discreetly lifted her hand from her pendant to wipe the tears away. She didn't want Pierre, sprawled out in the room behind her, to know she was on the verge of crying.
She raised her eyes to the sun once more for a last glimpse before it slipped behind the houses. The last golden glimmer as He vanished seemed like a wink.
Her motives had seemed justified at the beginning. Surely as justified as the Vicomtesse's had been - and yet her penalties seemed far more harsh. Her people had been hanged, to release the poem or letter now would surely result in yet more death, and her relationship with her husband could suffer a blow - a mortal blow - from this whole affair. Behind her Pierre shifted from his chair with a groan and went to cut himself some bread from a dry, stale loaf amongst the ink and papers on his table. Why hadn't she confided in Clopin from the beginning? It was the old story - she'd wanted to prove something. She wasn't even sure anymore what that something was.
And what would the Vicomtesse's suffering be? Apart from the snickers of a husband she despised anyway, she would have no punishment. She had sent innocents - knowing they were innocent - to the gallows instead of apologising for unjustified brutality carried out at her orders. A simple apology had been too much for her to muster. And what price had she paid? One or two weeks discomfort over the possibility of public humiliation?
It didn't seem much.
Vincennes would never be held accountable for the deaths she had caused, not ever in this world. Her word would never be doubted, or her motivations questioned. Even the gadje god preferred those who did evil to innocents in his name above all others.
And Herlikin would go home to an angry husband.
Herlikin sighed and gave her head a brisk shake, clearing it of the other mess in readiness for the confrontation that night.
The Moon was full and white, illuminating the streets. There'd be fewer cutpurses and cutthroats out this night, due simply to the silvery light which washed over the roads and houses, slipping into the crevices between the flagstoned paths.
Clopin stared at it steadily, probing the tip of his dagger with one, long finger. So. Herlikin was up to some sort of trickery involving de Vincennes. Had Herlikin's involvement been the motivation for the Vicomtesse to start a private war against the Gypsies? Or had Herlikin got involved afterward, trying to be a hero of some sort?
Hmmm. That last possibility didn't fit Herli very well. Not that she wouldn't help if she could and was asked, but to adopt the guise of Avenging Angel by herself - no. It was more likely Herlikin had tried some clumsy attack in revenge for himself, and found the massacre to be the Vicomtesse's counter-attack.
Clopin puffed out a fog of breath and drew his cloak tighter around him, letting the hand with the dagger enclosed in it drift to the stones to trace lazy patterns in the dust. Either way, the damnable woman was in trouble - and a great deal of it as well. She should know better than to single headedly go up against a woman with more power, more influence and less heart.
Much of his temper had cooled now - after his encounter with the noblewoman's coachman, Clopin had not trusted himself to seek his wife out. Hurt, anger, fear, all had congealed inside him until he was sick to the stomach and pounding his fists against the walls of the Court to release the frustration he didn't want to turn on her.
And now, here he was. He'd gone through the motions of the day, still hurt, still angry and still worried, to find himself sitting outside on the streets in the dust, gazing balefully at the moon which eyed him back in an unperturbed way.
He gritted his teeth and slapped a hand against the cobblestones, every angle of his body taut and quivering with the need to release its pent up energy. Damn her, the silly bitch. Rarely did Clopin think of his wife in such coarse terms. Why couldn't she of said something to me? How could she let this happen to us? No wonder she had been so jittery this last week. Why does she put me through this?
He knew it wasn't deliberate. Brusque though Herli could be, she was not inclined to the suffering of innocents. And whatever she had tried to accomplish, she could not have anticipated the Vicomtesse would take the course she had. Stubbornness, pride and fear had probably silenced her when the situation got beyond her control. Clopin frowned in thought and absentmindedly touched a finger to each broken knuckle on his left hand, wincing a little with each poke.
So, now what to do? Drag Herli home by the hair and beat her soundly? That's what half the men in the Court would suggest. Even his father would approve of that. But it was out of the question. Clopin could handle ribbing about his leniency toward his wife, but he wasn't about to start treating her in a way that felt unnatural. He certainly could not tell the others about her part in all of this. Oh, she was damnably stupid, and she deserved punishment, but the others would not see it in the light he did. He did not want to lose his wife. He ground his teeth together and hoisted himself to his feet. So he would end up covering for her. Dammnit. He tipped the brim of his hat down lower over his forehead and began the walk home, scuffing his shoes against the pavement.
The glimmer of the Moon turned his head in her direction once more; she'd risen high now, the hour was very late. Herlikin had been gone almost an entire day, afraid to return home no doubt. She was probably hiding out with Pierre until she'd completed whatever fool crusade she'd set out upon. At least, he hoped she was.
A grim smile passed over his lips and he gripped the folds of his cloak tightly. Should he kiss her when she returned, or strangle her? Hell, why shouldn't he do both at the same time?
When the hour of twelve struck, heavy blue clouds had rolled across the sky, shutting the Moon's light out like a snuffed candle. The streets were pitch black and silent - a hoarse cough of a beggar or the hiss of a cat breaking the darkness at infrequent intervals. The entire city seemed tense and poised, awaiting the arrival of some fearfully anticipated stranger. The air was static and humid - the dark clouds heralded a storm.
Herlikin huddled on the Pont des Pêcheurs close to the railing, listening to the water burble below her. The cowl of her cape was pulled down close around her face, and she crouched down a little way, trying to blend in with the balustrade. The small dark lantern she carried was hidden beneath her cloak; she did not like the idea of the Vicomtesse approaching her in the dark, being able to see her and Herli not knowing she was there. She shivered at the mere thought.
Behind her in the streets, on the nearest doorstep, Pierre squatted like a beggar, worn old cloak pulled tight around him, watching the bridge intently, hoping he was invisible in the gloom.
Herlikin had been waiting on the bridge for close to a half hour. Her eyes had since become accustomed to the dark, and she could make out the large hulking figures of houses cut out against the sky. The bridge around her. A faint glimmer on the water whenever a cloud pulled momentarily back. On the other side of the bridge a dull golden light, so dull Herlikin wasn't sure if she was imagining it, drew steadily closer. She stayed where she was.
The city seemed to draw in its breath. Then let it out slowly in a rumble of thunder.
A heel struck the stones of the bridge and Herlikin stood up with a jerk. The Vicomtesse drew up, the dark light from her lantern hitting the lower half of her face and bronzing it, her black eyes glittering at Herlikin in the silence.
Herlikin squared her shoulders in response, meeting the glare though she doubted the Vicomtesse could see her clearly in the midnight. There was no other sound for a few heavy moments except the faint tinkling of water beneath them and their own breathing, quiet and concentrated.
"Well?" Ginevra spoke first, snapping the air with the tersity of her question.
Herlikin, secure in the cloak of night, merely raised an eyebrow in response. "What?"
The Vicomtesse lowered her head. "Your men are free." She hissed quietly. "What of my letter?"
For a moment as reckless as a wild horse, Herlikin considered turning on her heel and disappearing off into the storm, leaving the Vicomtesse under her control still.
The moment passed. The Vicomtesse had never been in her control.
The sky undulated with a rumble of thunder once more as Herlikin undid the laces of her cloak and reached into her bodice, withdrawing the letter, still pristine in its envelope, its corners sharply creased. The thunder receded and silence lifted Herlikin's hand over the railing of the bridge. The heavens were torn open just then as lightning thrashed across them, and Ginevra's eyes widened with a gasp she could not contain as the letter tumbled from Herlikin's fingertips, plummeting into the water below.
They stood in the darkness staring at each other for several long moments, the tension in the air infecting their bodies as though it had no room elsewhere to move, poising them as taut and tight gallow ropes. The silence grew deafening.
Then, just as both women took a slow step backwards, the skies opened and the rain hammered down, drowning out the quiet, stabbing the pressured air and soaking them both to the bone in seconds. They did not turn, or take their eyes off the other as they backed off the bridge and it was several seconds more before they both hurried off down the streets in their separate directions.
Beneath the rushing waters of the Pont des Pêcheurs, Vicomte Henri de Vincennes' letter snagged on a stone, and was torn in two.
Clopin had been drinking in the Bells & Motley instead of going back to the Court, and stepped outside when the crowded tavern became too humid to bear with the liquor swirling around inside his head. The rain was continuous and heavy; he ducked his long form beneath the small overhang of the roof, leaning against the glass panes of the window, and squinted out into the darkness, broken occasionally by a flash of lightning, the thunder deafening when the rain wasn't.
Clopin sighed and tipped his tankard to his lips, ale washing down his throat to pool in his gut uneasily. He lifted a hand in front of his face and waggled his fingers about. Ah, well. He wasn't too drunk yet. He could sit out here for a while and let the wet air revive him, then go inside to notch up the intake. He shot a glance over his shoulder into the tavern. The glass of the window was warped with age, and the frolicking figures inside seemed preternatural and fae, distorted as they were, the orange lights hallowing them. He turned back to the night. It was far more real.
But no - ! In the distance, a quivering dull light floated in midair. A will o'the wisp! A fairy sprite, dancing about in the rain! It was coming closer, too! Clopin stood up straight and narrowed his eyes, trying to sharpen his vision. The light flickered and went out, and Clopin's brow creased in puzzlement. But a moment later it flared into life again, closer still, and his jaw sagged in amazement.
A dripping wet Herlikin emerged from the storm, looking fearfully at the husband she'd spotted in the glow from the tavern.
Clopin tipped his hat up on his head and pinched his nose. For a moment he was confused - had the sprite turned into Herlikin? He shook his head briskly, clearing it, and realised the "sprite" had in fact been the lantern she held clutched in both hands. The black cloak she wore had effortlessly melted into the dark night, making her all but invisible out on the streets. He stepped out to greet her, folding his arms over his chest.
He glowered, and she trembled, not quite daring to meet his eyes while his glare challenged her to do so. The rain pooled about their feet, coursing in rivulets over their cheeks and shoulders, and into Herli's eyes as she lifted her head, soothing the sting behind them.
"It's over." she said softly.
"Is it now?" His voice was cold.
She nodded and let her gaze drop to the cobblestones once more.
"Does this mean you're coming home now?" He continued in the quiet, vaguely taunting voice that always chilled her. "Now that you've decided to stop punishing me for whatever it was I did to justify you risking your life, worrying me half to death and endangering the Court." His voice rose a little sharply, the taunting replaced completely by anger. "Well, what if home doesn't want you anymore? What if home is sick to death of your tantrums and your foolish games and idiocy?"
Her face crumpled, but she still did not look at him. "Please do - "
The backhand surprised them both. He certainly hadn't intended to hit her, but the next instant his arm had lashed out and he had felt the sting of bone against his hand. He hadn't hit her hard, nonetheless she stumbled backwards, then turned in a huddle as her shoulders began to shake.
She took a step away, but he caught her up and crushed her to his chest as she sobbed. The rain grew heavier, beating the brim of his hat down and clouding the streets darker, and he coaxed her toward the tavern and their home beneath, wrapping a sheltering arm about her shoulders as she clung to his waist.
The Vicomtesse's bedroom was vast and chilly when she arrived back at the Chateau. The fire which had been left crackling for her had long since smouldered out, leaving barely warm ashes in its wake. Long shadows elongated the chairs, deepened the walls and stretched the bedposts to their very limit. Even Rossignol, whose creamy cheek rested peacefully against the satin embroidered cushions of her armchair, appeared remote in his slumber.
Rain slicked and water spotted, her silk dress made an uncomfortable slippery sound as she strode across the carpet, her breathing slightly strained, loose strands of hair clinging to her neck and tangling into her eyelashes. Setting her lantern to one side, she seated herself before the mirror of her dresser, lifting her hands to uncoil what hair remained in its setting.
They froze in midair as she caught her own eye in the mirror.
Her hair was wild and disbelieved, tossed around her face like a whore's after a night's work. Her gown, fine and beautiful at the beginning of the night, was now ruined by the furies of the Heavens. Her hands trembled as she dropped them to her face, gingerly walking them around her eyes. The dim light was causing thin creases to be shadowed in her flesh, splaying spots over her hands, lines down her neck.
A shudder coursed its way through her body violently, and she quickly pushed herself away from the dresser, scrabbling at her clothes, wrenching them from her to collapse in a sodden heap at her ankles.
Rossignol stirred and murmured against the lace ruffle of his sleeve, and she slipped quickly into her dressing room, emerging moments later in soft burgundy velvet wrapped up to her neck, combing her wet hair out over her shoulders. Rossignol rubbed a dimpled hand against his bleary eyes and quite suddenly sat up, turning to face the vision of his Mistress soft and unfocused in the frugal light. He narrowed his eyes and peered at her curiously; there was something amiss about her face. Somehow, it seemed thinner, more drawn. He was mute as she noticed his gaze and matched it with her own, widening his shining blue eyes beguilingly causing the curl of a smile to lift her mouth.
"Come with me, my Rossignol." She whispered against the stillness of the sleeping house. "Sit by me while I compose a letter."
Obediently he clambered out of the chair, hurrying to follow the swish of her skirts as she moved into her sitting room, her lone candle bending to light others as they went, until the shadows were all banished and the room throbbed with a warm, orange glow. Rossignol settled down upon his footstool and cushioned himself against her leg as she sat down, noting the way the fabric clung to her damp flesh beneath.
The Vicomtesse's throat was constricted as she opened her writing desk and readied the quill. She had won back her peace of mind, but at what cost? Claude would not be looking kindly upon her actions that day. In fact, she had no doubt but he was at this time damning her name to the most scorching levels of Hell. If there had been distance between them earlier this month, it was surely widened now. And would take a considerable feat on her part to breach.
Yet she had done the right thing. She could not have let that poem become available for public consumption, nor the letter she had written to him - and surely he would understand that? After all, his own image would suffer considerably if such a torrid affair came to light. In a way, she had done it all for his sake.
Well - not truly. But he needn't know that.
The tightness across her breast lightened, and she dipped her quill into the inkwell, her eyes glimmering faintly. First - to reassure him the events of the Court had not quelled her passion for him at all. Once communication was restabilised, a simple explanation of the Gypsy witch's interference would smooth over any misunderstandings. All that remained then was to extend a civil invitation for a weekend at the Chateau - and he would be hers once more. It was only a matter of time. She could bewitch him into her arms again easily - a scented curl of hair, a sidewards glance, the push of her breast against a pearled bodice - he had never been able to resist. And of course, never could he ignore her greatest gift -
Sneering, she brought the quill to the page:
My dearest Claude,
I fear that I have somehow offended you by insisting the innocent be set free onto the city this last eve, and I wish to make amends. While I am in complete sympathy with your noble desire to rid our fair city of the vermin which infests it, I am also in empathy with your wish to always maintain true justice for those under your law. To allow those men, whom I knew to be innocent, to hang - would not only have brought damnation on my head, but by extension yours also. Acting on my word which I had learned to be false would make you as guilty as I.
How could I let such a thing happen? Let me be damned one thousand times over, but never let my love suffer through my own folly and misguidance. I would sooner have all the curses of Hell brought down upon my head than see you, my darling, my heart's every desire, steered down the path of sin by she who should only wish to be with you on paths of virtue and purity...
A faint sheen of smugness swept the corners of her mouth. 'What is this lamentable pack of lies, Ginevra?' she could already hear him intone. Words of passionate pleading would fall on ears deafened by self-righteousness now, affording him a few satisfied moments at his hold over now. Lamentable packs of lies would pique his curiosity, and from there...
Rossignol yawned and pressed his head into the Vicomtesse's lap, rubbing his cheek against the velvet of her gown perhaps a little too deeply. She took no note, but pressed her thighs together and continued to write on determinedly, revelling in the twisted phrases that poured forth upon the page, her heart rapidly brimming with a perverse desire embodied by her words.
Miles away in Paris, far beneath the streets, Clopin and Herlikin fell as one onto their marriage bed, their fevered kisses and bitter tears all the words they needed.