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The Three Rosebuds
"I have wonderful news," Vivien told her Gypsy parents by the campfire after breakfast. "I've decided to take a husband."
Striving to look joyful, she clasped her hands to her yellow blouse. The words had been more difficult to say than Vivien had expected. Even harder was her effort to show a happy expression, the smile of a woman in love.
Her parents exchanged a glance that was more disbelieving than delighted. Reyna Thorne stood clutching a stack of tin plates, her knuckles gnarled with the rheumatism that had pained her of late. A short man with the build of a bear, Pulika Thorne sat on an overturned crate, his crippled leg stretched out before him.
The yellow and blue caravan at the edge of the camp gave them a measure of privacy from the band of Romany. A short distance away, children ran laughing past the painted vardos with their tall wooden wheels, past the men who sprawled by the sun-dappled brook, past the gossiping women who gathered up the dishes and pots. The aroma of spices and cooking drifted on the summer breeze. In a nearby orchard, apple trees hung heavy with fruit, the branches drooping over the stone wall beside the narrow dirt road.
Her father struggled to his feet with the aid of a thick oak stick. Watching him, Vivien felt a familiar helpless constriction in her breast. The horrifying injury to his leg the previous year had sapped him of strength, though his spirit hadn't dimmed. He could still spinenthralling tales, his wide mouth smiling, his teeth glinting. He could make Vivien shiver at his stories of enchantment and laugh at his jests until her sides hurt.
But his eyes weren't twinkling now. A puzzled concern on his weathered features, he regarded his daughter. "A husband, you say? But only Janus has been courting you."
Vivien brightened her smile. "Yes, Janus," she said, forcing her tone to savor his name when she wanted to spit it out like a bite of green apple. "He wishes me to be his wife. Isn't it wonderful?"
Her mother released a little sound of distress. "Oh, Vivi. That one?"
"He's a swaggering fool," Pulika said flatly. "You told me so yourself when he joined our camp."
"That was before I knew him," Vivien said with a romantic sigh. "Just look at him. He's so very handsome."
She turned her starry gaze to the stocky man who stood in the meadow among the picketed horses, currying a dapple-gray mare. As always, she ignored a crawling sensation on her skin. Everything about Janus repelled her, from his cocky manner to the gold buttons that flashed against the gaudy red of his vest.
A fortnight ago, their wandering band had met up with his group, and Janus had persuaded them to travel south to Devon. Each evening, in a circle of some forty caravans and tents, the dark-eyed Gypsy had singled her out for attention, He liked to talk about himself, to hoard all the attention, to challenge the other young men to feats of strength. Vivien had spurned his attempts to impress her with his prowess. She had no interest in his games, only in the ancient epics and legends being told around the fires.
Until she'd discovered Janus owned something none of her other suitors had possessed. A sack of gold guineas.
In a swirl of purple skirts, Reyna set down the plates on the wooden step of the caravan. "That one is trouble, mark my words. He boasts only of his own importance."
"Listen to your mother," Pulika said. "She's a good judge of a man."
"Look at who she married," Vivien teased.
But for once her father didn't smile. Nor did Reyna, who moved closer to her husband and regarded Vivien worriedly.
Reyna Thorne was small-boned and dark-skinned, no bigger than a fluff of eiderdown, Pulika often said. When Vivien had grown to be a head taller than her mother, taller even than her father, she had hunched her shoulders, feeling awkward and unfeminine beside the daintier girls of the Rom. But Reyna had told Vivien to stand proud, for she was like a beautiful willow among the more common reeds.
Reyna had always been her staunch advocate. Until now.
Now she looked so distressed that Vivien fought the urge to shift her bare feet in the sun-warmed grass. Always, they had been closer than other families, for she was their only child, the daughter born to them in middle age. Because they were so much older than other parents, she felt the fierce desire to provide for them all the things they couldn't afford since her father's injury—meat for the cookpot to give him strength, a brazier to warm the caravan during the winter so that her mother's joints wouldn't ache, new clothes and more blankets and soft pillows.
"Why did Janus not come to me himself?" her father demanded. "He shouldn't hide like a coward behind your skirts."
"I wished to talk to you first," Vivien said. "I feared you might object."
"Might?" Pulika hobbled forward a few painful steps and leaned on his makeshift cane. "Of course, I object. Am I to give my beloved daughter to a man who cannot make her happy?"
"Janus will make me happy." Or rather, she would be happy to know of her parents' comfort, Vivien thought resolutely. "I wish to marry. To know the happiness of having a husband and children."
"You are but eighteen summers," Reyna said. "There is time yet to choose."
Vivien shook her head. "I'm much older than the other girls. Were you not fourteen when you and dado wed?"
"Indeed so," Reyna said softly. She and Pulika exchanged a look of affection that somehow made Vivien feel left out, lacking in some vital part. If only she could find such a love herself.
A dream slipped past her defenses, the yearning for a hero like the one in the gorgio book she had once found in a rubbish heap, the pages tattered and stained. Her father had taught her to read signposts and handbills, and she'd deciphered the tale of knights and fair maidens. But that was only a story, Vivien knew. Reality was pledging her life to Janus, cooking for him and mending his clothing, letting him touch her in the dark of night....
Reyna placed a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Love is a fire in the heart. And you, I think, have not found that with Janus."
Those wise almond eyes saw more than Vivien wished. "I've found everything I want," she insisted. "Don't forget, you gave me the right to choose my own husband."
"We thought you had the sense to choose wisely," Pulika chided.
She touched his fingers curled around the stick, feeling the warm sinews and rough skin, the hand that had soothed her when she'd scraped her knee and whittled toys for her as a child. "Oh, miro dado, you wouldn't trust any man who would take me away from you and miro dye."
Pulika scowled. "You're right, I don't trust Janus. Tell me, where did he get that sack of gold he flaunts before everyone?"
"At the fair; his horses brought a higher price than anyone else's."
"Bah. He likely stole the gold from the gorgios. That's why he insisted we hasten southward."
Vivien had wondered uneasily about that very thing, but she refused to consider it. "Should we roam a thousand roads, I wouldn't find a better husband," she said. "Janus has agreed to take me without a dowry, and to share his gold with both of you. You'll want for nothing in your old age."
Pulika's face went rigid. Gripping the stick, he straightened, though putting weight on his leg must have pained him. "So that is what all this talk of marriage is about. You think me a helpless cripple."
Reluctant to injure his pride, Vivien hastily said, "I didn't mean that. Yet no longer can you climb the apple trees at harvesttime or find odd jobs in the villages we pass. It grows difficult for you to rise in the morning to see to the horses. If you and miro dye had enough money, you could live easier—"
"No. You will not sacrifice your life for us."
"It's no sacrifice. I'm happy to wed Janus. I, want to have children, to give you grandchildren." She turned beseeching eyes to her mother.
But Reyna's plain, careworn face looked troubled. "Your father is right. We cannot bless such a marriage."
Refusing to accept failure, Vivien resolved to act the besotted bride-to-be over the coming days. She would make a show of being in love with Janus. Though her insides curdled at the prospect, she would cater to his whims, hang on his every word, gaze adoringly into his lustful eyes. She would do it for the sake of her parents, for she knew no other way to provide for them.
A sudden cacophony drew her attention. The half-wild dogs of the Rom rushed out of the camp, snarling and barking as they did whenever a gorgio merchant on horseback or a farmer with a wagon laden with hay passed by. Today, an elegant black coach drawn by four white horses rattled down the dirt lane. A coachman in crimson livery perched on the high front seat, and two footmen clung to the back.
Vivien stiffened. Carriages were seldom seen on these winding back roads; the wealthy gorgios kept to the main thoroughfares where traveling was easier and inns more prevalent. Should they encounter Gypsy wagons, they drove swiftly past, disdaining the Rom as if they did not exist.
But this coachman drew on the reins, and the carriage halted near the encampment. Vivien wondered angrily if their wagons were trespassing on property belonging to a local landowner. She despised the gorgios for claiming all land as their own. They asserted their right to the very air and water and fruits of the earth, as if God had created the world for them alone.
She also had a fierce, unforgiving reason for hating the gorgios. One of their kind had set the deadly trap that had lamed her father.
A footman leapt down and lowered a step. With a flourish, he opened the door of the coach. An old lady with a halo of white hair emerged, small and dainty in a gown of sky-blue, her wrinkled face bearing a gentle smile.
In her wake appeared another woman, her round figure encased in yellow silk and lace, her face plump and rosy, and her eyes merry beneath the yellow turban crowning her head.
Lastly, a dignified woman stepped to the ground. Tall and elegant, she had a pinched mouth that looked as if she'd bitten into a crab apple. Her fingers were curled clawlike around the ivory knob of a cane.
They were ancient, these three gorgio rawnies. They stood like a row of statues in the lane, the breeze fluttering the ribbons on their fancy hats and wafting their perfumes with the richness of cultivated flowers.
Men abandoned their discussions, women ceased their gossiping, children stopped laughing. For a moment, only the shrill yapping of the dogs broke the silence. Baring their yellowed teeth, the animals formed a ragged line separating the ladies from the Gypsies.
Three pairs of gorgio eyes surveyed the gathering. Vivien found herself standing up straight and rigid, glaring at the outsiders. They gazed with disdain at the large circle of caravans, the iron cooking pots bubbling over the fires, the half-naked children creeping forward for a closer peek at the magnificent carriage. She would never flinch from these—
Then she did flinch.
In a flash of movement, the tall woman swept her cane toward the snarling dogs. "Be gone!"
Though the stick failed to make contact, the pack scattered in an instant. Recognizing her authority, they lowered their barking to a growl and slunk away to the outskirts of the camp.
Vivien bristled. Who was this stranger to frighten their dogs?
She parted her lips in fury when a big hand closed around her arm and she looked into the unnatural paleness of her father's face. "Stay here," he said in an undertone. "Wait with your mother."
Vivien emphatically shook her head. "These gorgios don't belong here. I'll tell them so—"
"This is a man's business. For once, you will hold your tongue."
His unexpected harshness raised rebelliousness in Vivien, yet something in his haggard features alarmed her. Now was no time to provoke him, anyway, not when she had to convince him to approve her marriage to Janus. Her throat taut, she nodded, watching as her father limped away.
Too small to see over the crowd, Reyna climbed onto the caravan step. Striding to her mother' s side was a husky man with bulging muscles and a swarthy, overconfident face with an elaborate drooping moustache.
Regarding Vivian with a smoldering intensity, he lifted his bushy eyebrows as if to ask if she had spoken to her parents yet about the marriage. She answered him with a noncommittal shrug.
A fire in the heart. Turning away from him, Vivien subdued her unfulfilled yearning for a storybook love. She must be practical about marriage, rather than chase after dreams.
At the front of the throng, the tall lady gazed down her nose at the Gypsies. "I am the Countess of Faversham," she said in a voice that pealed like a church bell. "Is there a man here called Pulika Thorne?"
Mutterings of surprise and curiosity swept the crowd.
Puzzled, Vivien glanced at her mother, but Reyna watched the ladies intently. What could this gorgio rawnie want with her father?
The multitude parted, and he hobbled forward until he stood face-to-face with the countess. He bowed, the red kerchief at his brown throat waving in the breeze. "I am Pulika. We will speak alone."
Lady Faversham nodded crisply. "Come, ladies."
As she led the procession to a spreading oak tree across the lane, she hardly used her cane at all, in sharp contrast to Pulika, who leaned heavily on the rough oak stick, his slow gait piercing Vivien's heart anew. That gorgio woman probably didn't even need a cane. She used her fancy walking stick as a frivolous complement to her long, skinny form.
The footmen hastened to bring three stools from the coach, which they placed in the shade for the ladies to sit. Pulika remained standing proudly, and it enraged Vivien that they didn't offer a seat to a crippled man. Lady Faversham planted the tip of her cane in the earth and began to talk to him. Giving a sharp shake of his head, he said something back. Vivien couldn't discern their words, but it didn't appear to be a friendly discussion.
"What do you suppose they're saying?" she whispered to her mother. "Dado hasn't done anything wrong. Perhaps Zurka stole another chicken for his stewpot."
"Mmm," her mother said distractedly.
Reyna's face had gone pale, her brow crinkled with something oddly akin to fear. Her gold bangles chiming musically, Vivien caught her mother's brown arm. "Miro dye, what's wrong?"
"Go inside," she whispered, indicating the vardo. "Quickly."
"But if that lady is accusing dado of a crime, I won't allow it."
Janus took hold of her elbow. "Such a spirited filly needs a husband to tame her."
Vivien recoiled, for a man was forbidden to touch an unmarried girl, even his betrothed. Then a suspicion struck away all other thought. "It's you they're after. You'll let my father take the blame for gold that you stole."
Grooming his thick moustache. Janus laughed. "These gorgios have no quarrel with me. Perhaps you should go and see for yourself."
Was Janus telling the truth? There was amusement in his gloating, black gaze, a sneering enjoyment she didn't understand ...
|Chapter 1 The Three Rosebuds||1|
|Chapter 2 A Hard Bargain||20|
|Chapter 3 Lucy's Plan||31|
|Chapter 4 A Bribe Rejected||42|
|Chapter 5 The Mantrap||55|
|Chapter 6 The Forged Letter||68|
|Chapter 7 A Dangerous Game||83|
|Chapter 8 Stolen Goods||97|
|Chapter 9 A Fire in the Heart||110|
|Chapter 10 The Motherless Girl||119|
|Chapter 11 The Rosebuds Revealed||133|
|Chapter 12 A Handful of Stardust||148|
|Chapter 13 An Uneasy Truce||158|
|Chapter 14 The Duchess of Covington||169|
|Chapter 15 Hidden Scars||180|
|Chapter 16 Vurma||190|
|Chapter 17 The Gypsy Visitor||204|
|Chapter 18 Something Dreadful||216|
|Chapter 19 Meeting with a Spy||230|
|Chapter 20 The Sinister Monk||249|
|Chapter 21 After the Fireworks||264|
|Chapter 22 In the Linen Closet||277|
|Chapter 24 Letter from a Thief||310|
|Chapter 25 Grace's Betrayal||325|
|Chapter 26 Dance in the Darkness||338|
|Chapter 27 The Secret Letters||347|
|Chapter 28 The New Caravan||362|
Posted November 24, 2001