Chapter 11: Bittersweet Goodbyes

Nadia brushed her hand through the grass, savoring the sweet green scent in her nostrils. She'd never been this far out of the cities limits before. From this hilltop she could see the city sprawling before her in dull grey waves. But around her the birds called out and the leaves on the trees rustled in welcome. Life seemed so much simpler from here.

Sighing, she laid back in the grass and gazed up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds drifted in the endless blue and she watched them float by lazily.

"Ah, Ma Cherie, the world lays before you. Do not get lost in the clouds." The tall, skinny form of Clopin thumped down beside her.

"I will not become lost." She said firmly, rolling over onto her stomach.

Close by, Emilian was being coaxed up a tall oak by Marco. The agile young prince was swinging delightedly from a topmost branch, yelling down insults. Esme was already halfway up the tree herself, adding her shouted encouragement to the mix.

"Besides, to be lost in the beauty of the sky would be a blessing, not a curse." Nadia said, pulling up blades of grass and tossing them aside.

"Is it not always a child's dream to be lost among the stars? You can no longer afford to be a child, dearest Nadia." Clopin voice was more serious than she had ever heard it. She glanced up at him, squinting against the sun. He sat staring out across the city of Paris.

"My father would have said the same." Clopin glanced at her quickly, flashing his bright smile.

"Your father was a wise man." He shuffled a little so that he was facing her as she pulled at the grass. "He would not wish you to carry your grief."

Nadia shifted a little but said nothing. The thought of her father's recent death pulled hard on her heart. Even here in this beautiful forest, among her new friends.

"He would want you to remain strong. To build a new life here, with your brother." Clopins seriousness surprised her and she inhaled deeply to calm herself.

"I know what my father would expect. I do not mourn for myself." She met his eyes and swallowed the grief she had briefly let escape. "I mourn for my brother. He believes himself strong but I am his twin. I know he struggles with his anger."

"Then you must lead him back from that ledge with your joy." He said simply.

"What are you two whispering about?" Marcos voice called out as he jumped to the ground. He made his way towards them, face red and flushed from his exertions, but still handsome. "Do not bother with him, my dear. He obviously does not know how to show a young lady a good time."

He ruffled her hair with one of his hands and gazed down the hill.

"Is it not your first time in the forest?" She nodded once and he laughed. "Then there is much to be done! Come child!"

With that he turned from her and began to sprint down the hill. He allowed gravity to pull him forward before launching into a neat cartwheel. He landing in a rough ball, giving himself into the tumble down the hill. He landed flat on his back with his arms outstretched. He called out loudly in delight and was joined with a laugh by Esme, who followed him down with a much less graceful tumble.

Clopin got to his feet beside her.

"Find your joy." He said meaningfully. Then with a quick wink he followed his friend and cousin. Emilian stood beside her now. He eyed the steep, grassy hill doubtfully. Nadia watched him for a moment before grinning widely.

"Don't tell me you're afraid." With a quick laugh at the scowl on his face, she launched herself down the side of the hill.

XXXXXXXXXX

The hills of the countryside were almost the same now as they had been when she was eleven. Nadia pulled up the grass absentmindedly. She could hear Esme somewhere behind her, halfway up a tree. Nadia traced the streets of Paris, her eyes resting on Notre Dame.

Her memories lined every curve of the city. She'd lived her entire life along its streets. To even consider leaving it made her heart ache with a sadness she did not know she could feel.

But consider she must.

Only two months had passed since Emilian had been banned from the streets of Paris. Clopin had tried to keep him busy, by assigning him extra guard duties. But nothing could distract Emilian. He had been moody and brooding since the Feast of Fools. She could hardly hold a conversation with him. Their emotional link was as strong as ever though, and she could feel his unhappiness flow off him in waves whenever he was near.

"Now why did you drag me all the way out here?" Esme called from her perch in the tree. Djali circled the trunk, munching grasses occasionally. "We haven't been here in years. I missed it."

Nadia said nothing, she shrugged her shoulders halfheartedly and continued to uproot the grass. Behind her she heard some crackles and a loud thud. Then Esmeralda was beside her, arm around her shoulders in a warm, comforting embrace.

"You're leaving us, aren't you?" She said quietly. It took a minute before Nadia could respond.

"I think I'll have too…" She looked into Esme's eyes, pleading silently. Esmeralda pulled her in and let her bury her head in her shoulder. She stroked her back comfortingly but she didn't deny Nadia's claim. They sat in silence until the sun turned orange and began to set.

Nadia pulled herself up and rubbed stray tears away with the back of her hand.

"We should get back." Esme nodded in response and took Nadia's hand. Together they walked down the hill towards the city.

Half the court had been dismantled while they were gone. The end of spring usually meant that the visiting gypsies, those who had settle just for the winter season, would begin their journeys once again. Nadia had seen it happen every year.

This year she would be among them.

Saying goodbye to Esme, she wandered through the travelers preparing to leave, and towards the more permanent part of the court. The tent she shared with Emilian was pitched in its permanent spot, among those gypsies who could claim themselves born and raised in Paris. She traced the crimson folds of fabric with her eyes, trying to picture it anywhere else. It was impossible. Sighing heavily, she pulled back the flap and stepped inside.

As expected, Emilian was laying back on his cushions, eyes closed. Nadia knew he wasn't sleeping. He just spent most of his time pretending too. She seated herself next to him on the edge of his bed.

"Emilian." He did not respond to her, but she knew he was listening. She opened her mouth to continue, then closed it. How was she supposed to tell him her idea? Deciding it was best to get it over with, she closed her eyes and said it quickly.

"We must leave Paris."

Emilians eyes snapped open and stared at her.

"You can't be serious, sister." He pushed himself into a sitting position. "Leave Paris? Leave our home? For what? To where?"

"We could go to Spain? Or join a group of travelers?" She leaned against him and took his hand. "You could perform again. If we left the city, you'd be free to go about as you like."

"We are finally safe here." But she knew he was considering it. He stroked her hair absentmindedly.

"We've been safe for way to long." She turned to him with what she hoped was a wicked and mischievous smile. "Let us explore the world beyond the walls of Paris. We can return when it is safe for you again."

Emilian scanned her face, looking for reluctance. She held his gaze, pushing her thoughts towards him. Hoping he would come to the right conclusion. Finally a smile broke across her face and he pulled her into their first hug since that disastrous night. She let herself melt into the hug, allowing her brothers joy to fill her. When they broke apart he jumped to his feet. More active than she'd seen him in a while.

"If we are to go, we must start preparing. We're already behind, but I'm sure it'll be fine." He dug through a pile of clothes on the floor until he found his green vest. He pulled it on as he talked, brushing through his hair with his fingers. "I'll speak with Nori. Perhaps we can join his caravan for the summer."

Nori was a traveler who visited the Court of Miracles ever few winters. His group traveled and visited with all the major gypsy settlements. They would trade rare goods from England and Spain and Portugal. Staying for a winter season then heading out, carts loaded with goods from Paris to repeat the process.

With a quick kiss to her forehead, Emilian disappeared.

Sighing heavily, Nadia collapsed into the cushions of Emilians abandoned bed. She stared up at the canopy of the tent, trying to memorize its shape. Without meaning to, she drifted off to sleep.

She woke abruptly to Emilians reentrance. A wide smile was still firmly in place. He took a seat beside her, and she stared up at him from where she lay, too comfortable to move.

"What did Nori say?" She asked, though the glint in his eye told her all she needed to know.

"We leave at first light! Nori said he would be glad to have our talents on the road. We make for Spain upon the morning, sister!" He pulled her up into a bone deep hug, before pulling back, holding her at arm's length. "We should begin packing. There is much to do."

He stood, and surveyed their belongings in the tent, making mental note of what needed to be done.

"We should inform Clopin." Nadia said quietly, pulling her brother from his mental calculations. He turned to look at her, a frown tugging down the corners of his mouth.

"Yes," He hesitated a moment, before making up his mind. "I should go. I'll explain. Could you pack up what you can?" He glanced at her for confirmation. She hesitated a moment. Part of her wanted to be the one to explain to Clopin. To hear his advice and take comfort in his knowledge. But it was Emilians right. He was the reason they must leave and he had the right to tell Clopin himself.

She gave him a quick half smile and a nod. He dropped a quick kiss on her forehead and was gone from the tent once again. Sighing deeply, Nadia stood from the cushions and stretched luxuriously. Without waiting, she began to collect all the most important of their possession and stacked them in the middle of the tent.

When she was done, she looked gazed at the small pile. It contained only a few changes of clothes each and most of her jewelry. What was left in the tent would be scavenged by the others.

Emilian had still not returned when she was finished. Deciding not to wait, she pulled back the tent flap and headed to the center of the court. Many groups had finished their preparations to decamp and had begun the process of getting well and truly drunk.

Nadia passed through the crowds, a fond smile growing on her face. The court had been her home since she was eleven. The path she followed had been walked by her a thousand times. She refused to believe it would be the last. In a year, maybe two, she would be back inside these halls again. When it was safe once more for her and her brother. It would become their sanctuary, just as it had all those years ago.

She broke though the crowd of tents and people and headed absentmindedly toward one of the more dimly lit tunnels. The catacombs beneath Paris stretched endlessly before her. This tunnel was cooler than the vast hall of the court. The noise of the crowd muffled to a distant murmur. Nadia ran her hand along the cool stone as she walked, paying no attention to the direction her feet took her.

The tunnel she followed opened up into a wider stone chamber. Great stone alcoves lined the walls, decorated with well-worn stone angels and demons. She knew that some of the gypsies worshiped here, though she had never seen the point herself. Staring into the stone faces around her now, she could almost feel the magic they evoked.

"I hear you shall be leaving us." A familiar figure detached itself from an alcove to her right, lingering in the shadows. A large purple hat hide his face but there could be no mistaking his figure.

Nadia turned her back to Clopin and wandered up to the nearest alcove. She didn't respond. Only traced her fingers across the wings of one of the angels, mind racing. How was it he always appeared when she thought of him? It was almost as though he was summoned to her by the power of her thoughts.

Several minutes passed in silence.

From the corner of her eye she could see him, still standing in shadow, unmoving as the stone around them. Finally she spoke, keeping her eyes firmly on those of the stone angel in front of her. Its face had been carved with a firm frown, as it plunged its stone dagger into the chest of the demon before it. The lines of its eyes set in the solid knowledge of its duty.

"We have no choice." She spoke barely above a whisper, but it carried across the chamber.

For several more minutes there was no reply. Reluctantly she turned to face him only to find that he had left his spot in the shadows and stepped into place before her.

His sudden closeness caused her to inhale suddenly. He stood only inches from her, staring down at her beneath the sweeping brim of his hat. A small frown line had formed between his eyes, which gazed down at her unblinkingly.

All words had escaped her mind, her body focused only on the sudden tingling energy she felt coursing through her at his nearness. Never before had she felt it this intensely. Her chest seemed suddenly to be filled with hollow swooping air that caused her fingers and toes to tingle with nerves and excitement and something she could only identify as a deep and sudden desire.

She didn't speak and neither did he. It was as though they both understood that any words would break the spell of the moment. Without taking his eyes from hers, Clopin lifted his hand and delicately traced the line of her jaw with his fingertips, leaving a trail of fire on her skin. His fingers came to rest curled under her chin.

With only the briefest hesitation, he tilted her chin, bringing her lips up to meet his.

His lips were light and warm against hers. The kiss was soft and gentle, more questioning than demanding. After a moment he pulled back and returned his gaze to her eyes. His fingers remained curled under her chin.

"Return to me, Ma Cherie." He said simply. Then without another word he turned silently and disappeared into one of the adjacent tunnels.

Nadia stared after him, bringing her finger up unconsciously to graze her lips. She could still feel the warmth of him against her.

A muffled cheer from the direction of the court brought her to her senses. Emilian would be looking for her. With one more glance at the tunnel Clopin had departed down, she turned and headed back through the stone passage toward the court.

XXXXX

Nadya and Emilian hovered towards the back of the group, which clogged together at one of the exits to the Court. Nori stood in front of the group, bellowing commands and establishing order. Clopin stood beside him, face blank of all emotion. Nadya felt her stomach give an uncomfortable lurch each time she looked at him, but her eyes could not stop finding their way to him. She had said nothing to Emilian about what had transpired the night before. Instead, she had spent a sleepless night gazing at the canopy of their tent, listening to the soft growl of Emilians snores.

"Nadya! Emilian!" Esmeralda called, appearing around the corner, Djali on her heels. She raced up to them, throwing her arms around Emilian in a tight embrace. "I was hoping I'd catch you before you leave! I didn't want you to go without saying goodbye." She released Emilian, kissing his cheek quickly before pulling Nadya into a bone cracking hug.

"I brought this for you," Esme said, releasing Nadya and pulling out a well-worn stack of fortune telling cards. "Nuri asked me to give them too you. As a going away gift. She said you could use them well in Spain. The Spanish love to hear their fortunes be told."

Nadya took the packet of cards and held them to her chest.

"Please thank Nuri for me," She hesitated a moment, before reaching into her sack and pulling out the gift she'd reserved for Esme. "I wanted you to have this."

Esme took the offered gift with wide eyes.

Her mother's purple scarf was almost transparent, except for the moon and stars pattern, threaded in gold. The silk rolled through Esmeralda's fingers like liquid.

"You can't expect me to take this." She said gravely, pushing the scarf back at Nadya, who raised her hands to push it back.

"I need to you take it, Esme. Keep it safe for me. Until I return." They locked eyes for a moment longer, before Esme nodded grimly and hugged the scarf to her, eyes shining with unshed tears. Nadya blinked back tears of her own, pulling Esme into another tight hug.

The crowd began shuffling forward in parties of two and three, exiting discreetly for the outer world. When it was their turn, they waited at the bottom of the steps, their path blocked by Clopin. He looked down on them solemnly for a moment without speaking. Without warning, he pulled Emilian into a quick, tight hug. When they separated, he put his hand on Emilian's shoulder and looked between them.

"Always remember, the Court of Miracles is your home and you will always be welcome." He spoke to them both, but his eyes met Nadya's with such an intensity she wondered if the others noticed.

"All clear." An anonymous voice called down the stairs. Clopin stepped back to allow them to pass. Emilian wrapped his arm around her shoulders, giving her a nervous grin, and together they ascended the steps.

"Be safe, ma Cherie." Clopin whispered as she passed him up, so quietly she was sure she was the only one who had heard.

Her last glance back showed Clopin and Esmeralda framed by the arch of the steps. Esme waved, a soft smile on her lips. Clopin gave her a brief crooked grin, his eyes never leaving hers. She could feel the weight of his stare on her back as they climbed up the stairs and out of sight.