Yes, this is a new chapter! Yay!
The three gypsy men, all of whom were tall and dark-haired with flashing black eyes, led us up an incline through the trees.
Erik said quietly, "The Roma are very hospitable, but I wouldn't have brought us here if I had known they were camping nearby. I hope this goes well."
"Why?" I whispered back. "They won't harm us, will they?"
"Probably not," Erik said. "The Roma's strongest method of attack is exile."
Nadir said, "I suppose they don't use those knifes in their belts?"
The three Roma all had weapons; there was a bow in the tallest man's hand and a full quiver slung over his shoulder. He glanced back at us, an amused glint in his eye.
Erik scoffed. "The Roma are hunters, and a nonviolent people with a strong code of honor. They consider outsiders to be the barbarians, not themselves. And I don't blame them, especially after having met people like Linnet and the Inspector."
He said, more loudly, "I don't suppose you're taking us back to your camp?"
The tallest Roma man answered in a completely different language; I was at a loss to determine what he had said.
"Ah," Erik said, as if he had understood. "I see. Thank you."
I stared at him as if he had sprouted donkey ears. "You speak their language? You never told me that."
"I did live with the Roma for a long time," Erik pointed out. "But not with this group, of course. Their dialect is slightly different from the Circusmaster's people, but I can pick out important words."
"Well, what did he say?" Nadir asked.
"We are going back to their camp," Erik pronounced, his voice bright. "They've invited us to a feast."
Wonderful, I thought. At the rate we're going, we'll never get to Italy.
When we reached the top of the hill, the guides came to a halt, and the tallest gestured to Erik, indicating that he come forward.
Erik calmly stepped up next to them.
The tallest Roma began speaking to him in their language. Erik nodded periodically, listening to the unintelligible babble in silence. The four of them were silhouetted against the red-purple horizon. Soon it would be night.
Nadir said, very quietly, "I've heard that the gypsy people despise outsiders. It seems a little odd that they're inviting us to a feast, don't you think?"
I agreed; I had no idea why we were following them. It seemed to me like we were making a small mistake.
"I know," I said, turning a little so the Roma couldn't hear us. "But Erik knows what he's doing. We'll just have to trust him."
"Whenever I trust Erik," Nadir sighed, "I always seem to end up in a multitude of troubles."
I tried not to laugh. "Oh, then you are definitely with the wrong people. Trouble seems to follow me everywhere too. By the way, if the Roma are truly inviting us to a feast, we should be a little happy – we won't have to cook tonight."
Nadir shrugged uneasily. "Yes, I suppose that's true."
We waited in silence for the incomprehensible conversation to end.
Erik broke away from the group after a few more minutes and came back to us.
"They said they're unsure whether or not their leader will allow guests tonight. They want us to go down with them to their camp and show ourselves to him. He's picky about outsiders. They only invited us because they said that the woman in our group looked weary."
"I do?" I said, taken aback. "Well. I thought you'd be the one who looked weary, not me. Do you want to go?"
Nadir shifted from foot to foot, waiting for Erik to answer.
Erik looked at him. "Well, I don't mind. I think it would be interesting. I'm sure that the food will be good; the Roma are excellent cooks. What do you think, Nadir?"
"Are we sure they're trustworthy?" Nadir said. "And what about the carriage? I know we hid it well, but they might find it…"
"I doubt they're thieves," Erik said. "Besides, they think everything belonging to Gajes – people who aren't Roma – is unclean. So even if they did find it, they wouldn't take anything."
Nadir took a deep breath, steeling himself. "Then let's go."
"Irene?" Erik said.
I nodded. "Yes. Let's go."
The camp was only a few hundred yards from the bottom of the incline, but by the time we had almost reached it, the sun had nearly set. Ahead of us, the Roma men were walking very quickly indeed. Nadir shot me a look of perplexity from behind Erik's back.
Erik caught this, and smiled in amusement. "The Roma people do not like to travel at night. They think the spirits of their ancestors are walking."
His voice was lowered to a whisper, but I could have sworn that the Roma men had heard him – the tallest one flicked a glance over his shoulder at us and frowned.
"Perhaps I should keep my explaining to a minimum," Erik said, and fell silent.
The Roma men walked faster.
After a few more minutes, the trees slipped away behind us, and we stopped in front of a large clearing. It was surrounded by beautifully decorated wagons, each lined up end-to-end; a large green and gold one with purple trimming blocked my view of the rest of the camp.
The tallest Roma man turned back to us, and said, in perfect French, "Please wait here while we speak to our chief."
The three men slipped away between the wagons, and I realized that there was singing coming from the center of the camp – and what sounded like a violin, rising high and dreamy above the chirrups of crickets.
It was cold; I shivered, cursing myself for forgetting to grab my cloak from the carriage.
Erik unwrapped the blanket from around his shoulders and draped it around mine. I glanced up at him.
"You'll catch a chill," I whispered. "You're still healing."
"I'm fine," Erik whispered back. "Besides, you haven't been sleeping well lately. It wouldn't do if you got sick and left Nadir and I to fend for ourselves."
I smiled at his little joke; Nadir made a little noise of amused disagreement.
And a Roma man stepped around the side of the wagon.
He wasn't one of our guides; he was taller and thinner, with hair like light honey. Behind him was the Roma man who'd spoken to us earlier.
The light-haired man looked at us with piercing eyes, then turned his gaze on the other Roma.
He said something I couldn't hear – the other man nodded.
I leaned into Erik's side, wondering what the two were talking about. I felt grumpy. It was rude to speak in different languages when other people were present. Nadir seemed to feel the same way; he frowned slightly, the corners of his eyebrows dipping down, and raised his chin.
The light-haired man stopped speaking and turned to us. "It seems that tonight I will be entertaining guests."
His voice was clipped and foreign; his perfectly formed French was bombastic. I stared back at him, noting the slight ferocity in his eyes – this was not a man to be trifled with.
Erik said nothing, but he tensed a little, and I felt the arm around my waist ripple with muscle. I decided it was time to speak up, as the light-haired man – was he their chief? – was saying nothing further, and Nadir hadn't even deigned to reply.
"If you'll have us," I said. "Bear in mind that we did not ask to be entertained."
The chief laughed, surprising me, and took a step forward. "Joran told me that you and your friends appeared to be in need of help. Because I am a kind man, I am offering my camp to you for the night."
"Our belongings?" Erik said. "We left them up at our camp."
"Your carriage will be brought down here, if you like," the chief said. "I'll tether the horses myself."
Erik looked at me – I looked at him, but Nadir was the one who spoke. "Thank you. That would be very kind."
"Then, if all is settled," the chief said, "I welcome you and yours to my camp. My name is Landon."
"Irene," I said. "This is Erik, and this is Nadir. Thank you."
The chief bowed theatrically. "You may enter."
We did. The wagons were merely the outside of the camp: inside of them, lined up like so many round white hats, was a row of circular tents. A huge bonfire flung sparks into the air in the center of the camp, and between it and the tents were the Roma.
The women wore long, colored skirts of green and blue and yellow, with shawls around their shoulders and ribbons in their long dark hair. The men were dressed similarly to Erik and Nadir, but they lacked cravats and jackets and only wore linen shirts, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows. They looked at us, all of them, as we entered, and suddenly I was quite aware of my messy, half-pinned hair, and the state of my grass-stained skirts.
The chief looked back at them, hands on his hips, smiling. He seemed proud of his people, and I was not surprised. They were healthy, tall, intelligent-looking, and every man and woman and child was as clean as a whistle. I wished for a long hot bath and a hairbrush.
The chatter, which had died away as we'd arrived, began again. A few children ran up to gawk at Erik and Nadir and I, wide grins spreading over their faces at the sight of us strange people.
A tiny girl with huge dark eyes tugged at my hand, and I squatted down to listen to her.
She didn't know French; she said a long string of unintelligible syllables into my ear, grinning with a generous mouthful of shining white teeth.
Erik said, above me, "She said she likes your hair."
"Oh," I said, flustered and inordinately pleased, "thank you. Thank you very much."
Erik translated this – the girl glanced shyly up at him and away, her dark eyelashes fluttering bashfully over her cheeks, and said something else.
"What did she say?" I said, wishing I knew her language.
Erik squatted down next to me. "I think she wants to know if you're my wife."
"Tell her not yet," I said, smiling. "Tell her you haven't asked me yet."
"I'll tell her," Erik sighed. "But it makes me sound rather like a coward."
The little girl laughed when Erik informed her of this, and patted me on the shoulder with a thin hand, nonsensical syllables pouring from her mouth.
I smiled. "I think she's trying to comfort me."
Erik was laughing; he shook his head. "She just said that since I'm such a – oh, how do I say this – since I'm so slow to ask for your hand, you should look around while you're here and find a quicker man to take my place."
I snorted, and eyed the girl with a measure of admiration. She blinked at me, her cheeks flushed with happy amusement, and continued to pat my shoulder. "Goodness, she's a feisty one! Tell her thank you, but no thanks. I'm happy with the man I've got."
"Would you like something to eat?" said a voice from above me.
I looked up to see Joran standing to our right, and realized that something smelled wonderful. It was the tantalizing smell of fresh meat laced with aromatic spices, mixed with the smell of hot bread. My mouth watered.
"Yes," I said, "thank you. We would love to."
The little girl said something to Joran; he smiled and shook his head.
"This is Hanna," he said. "My youngest daughter."
Hanna curtsied, smiling widely, and I got to my feet and curtsied back.
"A pleasure to meet you," I said. Erik nodded in agreement.
Joran, smiling nearly as widely as his daughter, translated this for her. Hanna beamed and said something back to him, her high-pitched voice excited.
"Hanna would like to show you the best place to sit," her father said. "If you don't mind, of course."
"I would be honored," I said, and smiled at her.
After Hanna had shown me the best log to sit on, and given me the nicest chunk of meat, and told Erik to ask for my hand in marriage as soon as possible, she went away to find me something to drink.
Nadir sat down next to us, followed by a very pretty young woman with curling dark hair, her eyes a peculiar shade of blue-green.
"This is… Aryiane?" he said, looking to her for confirmation. "I think that's what she said. I can't understand a word of this language."
Aryiane said something back to him, fluttering her lashes with every word. Erik snickered.
"What?" Nadir said. "What is she saying? I think…" he blushed, "I think she likes me."
"You could say that," Erik said, grinning. "I am not going to tell you what she said; it is completely inappropriate."
He said something back to Aryiane: she widened her eyes at him and fell silent.
"What did you say?" I said, gnawing on my chunk of meat. It was delicious; it tasted of salt and spices. A thin stream of hot juice ran down my chin. "And do you have a handkerchief? This is messy."
"I said I spoke her language," Erik said, digging in his pockets for a handkerchief. "Here you go."
He accepted a stick of meat from Hanna, who had returned and was dancing around the three of us with glee. She shoved a wooden cup at me; I took it, setting it down on the log (it smelled like whiskey) and smiled at her.
She smiled back at me, her teeth shining, and danced away.
Nadir was trying to talk to Aryiane; she laughed at his weak attempt to repeat something she had said and patted his knee. Nadir smiled politely, moving her delicate hand away from his leg with caution. He seemed a little uncomfortable.
"You have quite the admirer," I said, wiping grease off my face with Erik's handkerchief. "She seems very interested in you."
"Too interested," Erik put in. "Very much so."
Nadir grimaced at me. "Oh, stop it. She's obviously drawn to my handsome physique and snapping wit."
"I'm sure," I said, laughing, and accidentally inhaled a piece of meat.
As Erik pounded me on the back (rather unhelpfully, I might add), Nadir put down his stick of meat and scooted farther away from Aryiane, who was edging closer and closer every minute.
When I finally regained my breath, I told Erik to stop pounding on me – which he did – and pushed at Nadir, who had moved so close to me that I was nearly crushed between him and Erik.
(Erik didn't seem to mind this, but I did. I enjoyed my personal space.)
Aryiane pursed her lips and stared insolently at me.
I stopped shoving uselessly at Nadir – who had absolutely refused to move – and stared back, startled. "Why is she looking at me like that?"
Erik chewed off a bite of meat from his stick. "I think she thinks you like Nadir."
I had let out a cry of confused, distraught horror. Nadir looked at me, shocked. "Am I that disgusting?"
"Er, no," I said, fishing madly around for something to say. Erik was laughing silently next to me; I could feel his shoulder shaking against mine. "No, Nadir, that's not at all what I meant! Clearly, she likes you! She must think you are very handsome."
Aryiane, who seemed to have caught the thread of conversation, laughed and said something to Erik.
Erik stopped laughing and said something back.
Aryiane answered; I picked out Nadir's name from the rush of syllables.
I twisted around to look at Erik. "What are you two talking about?"
"She said that she sees the root of the problem now," Erik said. "She said that Nadir is very attractive. Then she said that she wants him to dance with her."
"Is there something wrong with that?" Nadir inquired. "Your tone is foreboding."
"It seems that in this particular Roma group," Erik said, grinning, "dancing with someone of the opposite sex is tantamount to asking their hand in marriage. Or… something like that."
I rolled my eyes at Erik and looked at Nadir. He had flushed a bright purple color as he digested Erik's word. Behind him, Aryiane was fiddling with the ends of her hair, smiling broadly.
"Er, no thank you," Nadir said, turning back to Aryiane. "I am quite happy being single. I… adore it. Erik, for the love of God, translate what I just said!"
Aryiane had taken Nadir's answer to be one of approval – she snatched his hands in hers and tugged him to his feet. Nadir resisted, but it was clear he was going to lose, for the fiddler on the other side of the bonfire had struck up a rousing, foot-stamping tune and Roma throughout the camp had leapt up to dance.
Erik was laughing again. "Too late," he told Nadir, "I think she's gotten the best of you on this one. See you in the morning!"
Appalled, I said, "Erik – please – save him!"
But Nadir was being pulled away into the gathering crowd of Roma, and within a few seconds, both he and his beguiling siren were gone. The fiddle rose high and piercing into the air; the crowd surged forward around the bonfire, and the dancing began.
I looked at Erik. "Well? I can't dance this, but I'm sure you can. Why don't you go find a partner and-"
"Really, Irene," Erik said, appalled himself. "No. Won't you dance with me?"
"I don't know any Roma dances," I said.
Erik grinned again. "I do. And you can ignore what Aryiane said; I made it up. She did want Nadir to dance with her, but the tradition part… The tradition part I added on myself."
"Oh," I said, realization dawning. "Oh. Oh, Erik, you brute! Poor Nadir… He's going to be traumatized the entire night!"
"Forget about Nadir," Erik said, rising to his feet. "He'll be fine; he's been around me – and women – before. Please dance with me? I'll teach you the steps."
"Oh, alright," I said.
Erik was right; the Roma did know how to throw a feast. The smoke from the fire stung my eyes and got into my throat, but I did not care: Erik was a marvelous dancer.
My feet flew; my blood pounded in time with the driving, mad music; it felt as though I was on fire with happiness. Erik, who'd gotten into the spirit of things, spun me around in the midst of the Roma; sweaty faces flashed by in a rush of flame and giddiness.
I twirled for a heart-stopping moment, my hair spinning out around me, my skirts rippling around my ankles; and then found myself back in Erik's arms, laughing.
"Do that again," I said, trying to keep my voice steady, but it was difficult because I was shaky after the long spin. "That was fun!"
Erik chuckled and kissed me instead. I closed my eyes.
The fiddle was suddenly singing inside of me instead of in the air: a low and wrenching tune of love and loss and love, love, love.
When the dancing died down around midnight, I sat down on the nearest log and caught my breath. I had been dancing off and on all night; the chief had asked me for the last round, and seeing as I didn't want to offend him, I had accepted. Erik nodded at me and told me he'd see me in a moment.
I glanced around the camp, trying to catch a glimpse of his dark head, and finally spied him next to the fiddler. Perhaps he was going to play; I hoped he would. Hearing Erik play anything was always a lovely treat.
And yes – the fiddler handed over his instrument with a grin, and Erik tucked the fiddle under his chin.
The first notes were pure and lovely; I let myself fall into the music with a sense of abandon, knowing that wherever Erik would take us would be somewhere beautiful, and the notes poured from the fiddle like a stream of gem-like colors.
It would be difficult to describe the effect Erik's music had on people, or to describe the music itself, so I will suffice it to say that a few Roma actually wept. By the time Erik was done, there were tears pricking at the corners of my own eyes.
After the applause, Erik crossed back to me and took my hands in his warm ones. "Was it any good?"
I could not believe that he was asking for my approval. "Was it good? Erik, if the angels didn't weep... It was gorgeous. Splendid. Lovely."
"Oh," Erik said, and smiled. He sat down next to me, and smiled some more. "I am alright, I suppose. Yes, I am good, aren't I?"
"It's nice to know you won't be getting a swelled head," I said, poking him. "I hope we won't have to sleep in the carriage."
"Carriage?" inquired a foreign voice. "No, my guests will be sleeping in our extra tents. We have cleaned them especially for you. But perhaps you could play one last song?"
It was the chief, and he was speaking to Erik. Erik nodded. "Very well. But nothing sad."
"We do not like sad songs," the chief agreed. "Play something… happy. And tell your other friend that he must stop running away from Aryiane. She is becoming insulted."
"Right," I said, getting to my feet. "I'll handle that."
Nadir was somewhere in the forest; I had seen him sidle away between two wagons a minute or so earlier. Aryiane, after a long minute of searching, had espied his hiding place and darted into the trees after him. Dimly, I could hear Nadir's voice rising above the Roma's conversations – it seemed he was trying to fend Aryiane off.
Well, I had handled women crazed with bloodlust – I could certainly handle a woman crazed with love.