Tatyana's Tale

Kralis Kromoben - The King's Mercy

"Guard!" I cried with barely feigned fright as I dropped my pack and ran to them. "Guard! You have to come! There is a riot, a terrible riot not far from here!"

All three pairs of eyes turned to focus on me, and I noted with satisfaction that the sword fell at least a foot. Clopin seemed mildly amused, the tall guard looked startled, and the fat one eyed me with wary disgust. I ran to the latter and grabbed his beefy arm urgently.

"There's a horrible row at the Goose and Grapes, sirs! Please hurry!"

With a forceful movement of his arm, the guard flung me backwards and onto the cobblestoned ground. I landed in an awkward, painful heap, accompanied by the ironically cheerful jingle of my jewelry.

"You stupid Gypsies are like a plague of rats, aren't you?" sneered the sword-wielder as I slowly untangled my bright skirt from my legs and got to my bare feet. So it doesn't even take Romany features and dark skin to raise their hatred, I thought with determined anger. So be it. Here I make my stand.

"But you have to go and break it up!" I protested, heedless of their mocking chuckles. "Wine bottles and ale kegs are broken and flowing freely, and poor Madame Darbois is losing all of her food to looters! Anyone who comes across the Goose and Grapes takes their fill! Her best wines free to anyone with a mug!"

The two ugly guards ceased their laughter, paused as the information I had given them sunk through the hard width of their skulls, and shot each other mistified, stupidly plotting glances. I breathed in deeply as that cruelly glinting sword fell to rest its point on the ground and both brutes totally turned their attention from the unmoving Gypsy man before them.

"Please go and help, sirs! It's terrible! Mass chaos!"

"We heard you, little girl, so stop your sniveling." ordered the rotund guard in a slightly distracted voice, and he gave his comrade a little tug on the sleeve. "You Gypsies crawl back under your rocks, and if we see you here again, we'll kill you."

With that, the two walked off, trying to seem as if the lure of gratis drink wasn't hurrying their steps toward a catastrophe easily turned in their favor. Their duty utterly forgotten in the face of personal gain, they disappeared down a side street within the space of a minute.

I breathed out a huge sigh of release and relief, and then I turned my eyes back to King Clopin, who was staring at me with mirthful curiosity plain on his narrow face. My heart jumped painfully and my breath caught in my throat as I realized that his attention was now focused intently upon me, that I was now standing before only him. I froze, my eyes as wide as a rabbit's caught in the sights of a crossbow, then swiftly dropped to my knees and bowed my head respectfully, puddling my skirt about me and hiding my face with a curtain of ribboned, wind-mussed hair.

"And who are you, Mademoiselle?" I heard him ask in that fluid, exotically delicate voice, and I cleared my throat nervously, staring at the ground.

"I am Tatyana LaRochelle, loyal subject of the great King Clopin Trouillefou." I answered quaveringly, and I raised my eyes a bit to see him squatting before me, ducking his head in an effort to see my face, his long, purple-clad legs bent and his stance reminding me of nothing more than some great, lanky frog. I would have laughed, had I not been severely distracted by those richly dark eyes delving into mine, by his sheer closeness, by my own encompassing awe.

"Clopin? Why, that's me!" he exclaimed jovially.

"I....I know." I said with more than a little confusion, and my tongue felt uselessly thick as I spoke.

He smirked, nodded. "There was never a riot, was there, ma petite?"

"Well...no." I answered. As nervous as I was, his sly smile was infectious, and I felt a twitch at my lips. "I made that up."

He paused, breathed in, then spoke in a slightly louder voice. "I do appreciate your aid, though of course I could have gotten out of that myself..."

"Oh, of course!" I agreed quickly. "I just thought...er, I wanted... I needed to help."

"My thanks." He nodded again, got halfway to his feet, and offered a hand to help me rise. Once I had shakily stood, he kissed my fingers with a smooth, chivalrous movement, and the warmth of his lips coupled with the slight brush of his goatee sent waves of icy, shivering pleasure along my every nerve. "Now, before those two dogs return, I had best be going."

With a warm smile that nearly stopped my heart in mid-beat, he turned and began to walk away. A moment passed before I could regain my breath, and when I did, panic once again welled up in my chest. He was leaving, and I had barely even spoken to him, hadn't told him of my desires...

"King Clopin!" I blurted quickly, loudly. I darted back to collect my travel-pack and then ran after him as swiftly as I could, all the while calling his name in a nearly embarrassingly frantic voice. He stopped and turned back to me with something like curiosity glittering deep within his eyes, and when I caught up with him, all I could do was concentrate on breathing.

"Yes?" he asked expectantly, and I put a hand to my laboring chest.

"Don't you wonder why a giorgio girl is dressed as a Gypsy?" I questioned, and he began his walk once more, forcing me to struggle along with his grossly larger steps.

"I assumed you either had uncommonly lovely taste in clothing," he said airily, "or that you were part of some street play." He chuckled to himself, a rich sound. "Or perhaps you actually like to be spat upon and taken for trash."

"It is none of those things. I am deeply in trouble, and I would request something of you, my king." I answered solemnly, and he briefly glanced down at me.

"What deep troubles could a girl such as you have?" His tone was not mocking, but his words were. A faint smile adorned his lips, and his pace did not slow. He did not take me seriously; I saw this plainly.

"Firstly, my king, I am not a girl. I am a woman of nearly twenty-two summers. And secondly, I-" My voice caught, and my heart jumped painfully. I cleared my throat and somehow forced the words from my mouth. "I want to join your Gypsy band."

Clopin's smile faded slightly, and he breathed in a very deep, slow breath. "You wish to join the Romany?"

"Yes." I said. I was never so sure about anything in my life.

He let the rest of that breath go in a long sigh. Finally, his steps shortened, and he focused a searching stare on my upturned face. "I don't think you realize what you ask."

"But I do, my king. I do." I assured him. "I'm asking to live in your mysterious court, to be a part of your Romany society. I'm asking to serve you as a true subject. I'm asking for a Gypsy life."

Clopin didn't answer for a long time, his face remarkably blank of emotion. "Then you do know what you are asking. And you also must know what an enormous request you make."

"Yes, I know. But this is my dream, and I want nothing more in the world than to be one of your kind." I told him, pleading, all the while praying he would listen to me. "Didn't my actions at Notre Dame prove my desire? And I know I could be a Gypsy- I have the costume, and I know the language, and here, look at my earring-"

He abruptly stopped walking and fixed me with a hard, steady stare. "And you think that is all there is?"

"What?" I asked, almost cowering.

"You think that an earring and a tongue and" -here he gestured vaguely to my dress with one long-fingered hand- "all of this make you a Gypsy?"

I swallowed hard and met his gaze, though it was agony. I struggled to collect my courage even as my entire body trembled under his powerful glare. "No, I don't. I also have a Gypsy spirit, and a Romany heart. I will gladly share your pain and degradation, and I will fight your enemies, for they are mine. I will serve you just as well or better than any other. I will contribute to your court and stay loyal to your causes." My sight had become blurred by hot tears, and I blinked them away. "That is a Gypsy."

The harshness of his expression softened, little by little, and the hard glint of his achingly beautiful eyes was replaced with a touch of empathy. He shook his head ever so slightly, his hands flexing at his sides.

"I would like to believe you, mademoiselle, but you must understand that I have a great responsibility to my people. I must protect them, whatever the cost." He once again began to walk, much slower this time, and I stayed beside him. "And I cannot tell you how many young giorgios have come to me begging this same thing you ask, because they are bored, or they want to rebel, or they want to escape their parents..."

"But I am different." I protested. I wanted to tell him of my poor father and my pathetic state, but the words simply would not come, would not form on my tongue.

"And well you may be." he conceded somewhat gently, and I looked ahead to see that we were approaching his multi-colored puppet wagon, bright and beautiful against a drab grey wall. "But I ask you to comprehend the risk. And you must see my position."

We reached the wagon, and he mounted the first step, moving to open the door. I stood motionless on the ground and tried vainly to summon the right words to convince him, to show him just how much I needed his aid. Without the Gypsies, I knew I was as good as dead. I knew that I might as well begin to dig my own grave alongside my father's, if I could find no new family. One tear escaped my eye, and I quickly brushed it away like the nuisance it was. I was ashamed to cry before my king, and I was terrified of the failure which I felt creeping up behind me like some gape-mawed predator.

"Please..." was all I could say, and Clopin stood in the doorway of his wagon, looking down at me with a regretful but firm expression.

"Look, Mademoiselle Tatyana, I will consider what you've said." He told me softly. "But as I consider, so must you consider. You must return home and think on what you truly want. You must think of your family and your craft, and imagine what will happen to those you love when you choose your fate." He smiled a bit reassuringly and nodded once. "You may think me cruel now, but perhaps you will thank me later. In any case, you must be what you are."

With this, he closed the door, and I nearly collapsed onto the street in grief. Go to my family, he had said. Return home. Be what you are. But he didn't understand, and I didn't have the strength to tell him - I had no home, and my family had been wrenched from me only days past. I possessed nothing, rejected by the Gypsies and struck down by the one they hated.

Without thinking, I too mounted Clopin's stairs and climbed to his door. I laid my cheek against the maroon-painted wood and felt a new wave of burning tears course down my cheeks, felt the sobs rise up and violently shake my frame.

"The guards killed my father in the marketplace... I can't pay for board or food... I am alone." I murmured into the door, clinging to it, weeping as I never had. "The evil judge won't give me justice... Without help... I will die."

I slumped there in silence for a few moments, and then I stepped back from the door as it slowly opened. Clopin stood there, his garnet eyes full of warmth, his exquisitely handsome face bearing a look of sympathetic pity, his arms wide.

"Why didn't you say so?" he questioned softly, and he gathered me into his embrace. I felt his hand smooth my hair, and I pressed my face against his tunic. "I am not without mercy, cherie. I didn't know you bore the weight of so much pain."

After most of my tears had subsided, Clopin invited me into the wagon and sat me upon his puppet-trunk, where I recounted my sad tale to him. I could scarcely believe that I, Tatyana LaRochelle, she who had adored Gypsies since the day she was born, was within King Clopin Trouillefou's wagon, meeting his interested gaze and speaking freely. It was astounding and marvelous enough that I had been comforted within his embrace as if I were one of his own, and now I could not help but wonder if I was merely the toy of some unreal, awe-filled dream. I looked around the small space of his wagon and took in every detail with wide, tear-washed eyes, perched on that trunk and sipping a small wooden cup of his spiced wine.

"I see now why you want to join us." Clopin commented over his own cup, nodding. "And I also see the spite you bear for the Minister of Justice. It is well-justified."

I wiped the last of my tears with the heel of my right hand. "I need a family, my leige. I am worthy of your tribe, and I will do anything to prove this to you."

"Well, then." He grinned widely and deliberately set down his cup. "What is your skill, Tatyana? What can you offer to the Court of Miracles?"

I let my gaze slip to the side, feeling a shy warmness tinge my cheeks. "I am...a poetess, Your Majesty."

"Really?" He pouted, an exaggeratedly teasing expression. "We have a few of those already. I'll need to hear a sample of your work."

I looked up at him quickly, startled. "Oh, no, I couldn't-"

"But you must." he prodded with a grand smile, and he touched my chin with one sable finger. "Think of it as an audition. Come now, I want to hear."

I hesitantly reached down for my travel-pack and began to work my fingers into its knot. I knew exactly which of my scrolls to read, even if my bashful brain reeled at the idea of reciting my private words to the sovereign of all Gypsies. I found that scroll and slowly unrolled it with trembling, icy fingers, my pulse pounding in my ears so loudly that I could hardly hear anything else. He watched my every movement carefully, his lips still curved in that enthusiastic smile.

"The noble wolf, with stance proud and head high

Obsidian eyes sparkling gem-cut and clear

His colorful, milling pack does spy

He guards them and keeps them and dwells ever near.

He is their fierce king, prepared for all strife

His teeth bared and glinting, his claws set to raze.

But in times of sun, he is merry and bright,

His laugh echoes life and his antics amaze.

This quicksilver king thus preserves his domain,

Facing danger with snarls and carousal with grins.

Ruthless when need be, yet festive in gain,

The haven he keeps holds his life's love within."

Clopin did not speak for a long, silent moment, and I looked up at him, flinchingly peering over the edge of the parchment. His smile had turned thoughtful, and after his pause, he let out a quiet chuckle.

"Well, I suppose you've proved your adeptness thoroughly enough," he commented, and I felt my blush deepen. He leaned back in his chair, retrieving his cup and drinking from it rather absently. I had the distinct impression that he was about to say something terribly important, and so I lowered my scroll to my lap and watched him eagerly.

"Mademoiselle, you've explained your case and shown your worth. And I have not the heart to abandon an orphan whose father died for my kind." He spoke quickly, his lovely, mysterious accent only adding more fluidity to his rich tone. "I am the King of the Gypsies, but also the king of the outcasts, and the forgotten, and of all those who have fallen victim to our minister's hateful policies." Clopin looked directly into my eyes, intent and honest. "And as such, I will do whatever I can to assure you a new life."

A half-sob, half-laugh erupted from my lungs, and I leaned forward to grasp his hand tightly in mine. "Truly, my king? Will you truly help me?"

"Yes." he answered seriously, and a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. I had been given my life back- I would survive, after all, and among those I had admired for years. Words cannot explain my ecstasy at that wonderful moment, nor can words encompass the flood of grateful relief that washed into my heart like jeweled light through stained glass. I thanked him and thanked him and then thanked him again, and he instructed me to meet him at the entrance of the graveyard that night, so I could descend into my new home.

And that was how the potter's daughter became a poetess, and how the poetess became an orphan, and how the orphan became a Gypsy. My adopted family has accepted me within their fold and taught me, aided me, and loved me as if I bore their blood, and for this I am exceedingly thankful. My 'nevo meripen', or 'new life', has been a gift of my beloved Romany and a blessing from my God.

© 1997 Rachael M. Haring