She should not have come here.
Quickening her pace, she walked on, clutching the precious package of seed cake tightly to her bosom. The sound of her satin heeled boots echoed through the dark empty alleyway, filling it with their staccato beat. The rain had stopped, thankfully, but the dampness hung heavy in the air, clinging to the soot covered stones of the buildings around her.
The alleyway was lit with only two gas lamps, their dim light only strong enough to cast dancing shadows on the walls. It wasn't enough to see the ground she was walking on, and several times she had stepped into puddles, ruining her expensive silk stockings and dampening the hem of her dress.
Straight ahead, she could see a dim flickering light. And surely that was the sound of people talking that she could now hear? Smiling in relief, she stopped and ran a quick hand down her dress, feeling the dampness of the velvet layers. Her hat, she was sure, was now quite the sight, the grand ostrich feathers probably drooping down in a most unladylike way. She sighed and resigned herself to her fate. The rain had ruined all her careful preparations for the day.
Starting forward again, she stepped into the square and was immediately assaulted by the smell of the place, a mixture of human and animal waste, and sooty smoke. Choking back a cry, she clapped a hand over her mouth and nose while her other hand felt frantically along her waist for the little gold chain on which her pomander hung. She grasped it and brought it to her nose, taking a few deep breaths in. Calming herself, she looked around and saw the source of her disgust, an open sewer just beyond her foot to the right. One more step in that direction and she would have ended up in it. She shuddered at this thought and hastened to make her way along the wall away from it.
Stopping to catch her breath in a little dark corner, she surveyed the scene around her. It was a square all right, but quite unlike any she had ever seen. Where were the grand fountains and lamps and rose bushes? This one had a big smoky bonfire in the centre and wooden stalls all around the other three walls. People were hurrying about on their businesses, traders and sellers jostling with each other, each trying to make themselves heard above the ruckus. She stood in the corner and watched them, mesmerized by the colour and the noise.
The women, she realized immediately, were not ladies. She could tell by their clothes, their manners, and their walk. The shabby dresses, in the wrong colours, and that hat surely, was from the London season five years ago. She realized that this was a market, one where the common people shopped. She had heard stories, from her father, about the dangers of these places and these people, especially to ladies like herself. Her heart began to beat faster and beads of sweat appeared on her brow. What was it her father had said? The poor and the gypsies were the burden of society, best to be ignored. They were prickly, ugly thistles amongst rose bushes. Tears came unbidden into her eyes and she blinked them away angrily.
Perhaps she should not have come.
A man walked by, almost close enough for her to touch him, a wooden tray around his neck ladened with brightly coloured fruits.
"Pippins! Orange Pippins for sale!
Shoppers crowded around him, all vying for his attention.
"Give me a dozen pippins, please!"
"Have you got any new plums?"
"What? Two pence a dozen! Robbery!"
Over the cacophony of sounds, she heard something else, something different. A man's voice singing a ballad. She could not hear the words, but the melody spoke volumes. His voice was unique, its deep timbre vibrating inside her head like a well tuned cello. She felt goosebumps form on her arms and shivered. Ignoring the crowd, she came out of her hiding spot, straining her neck to see over them.
He was a young man, about her age, dressed in the same faded shabby rags of the rest of the crowd. He wore a bright red silk scarf around his neck, which set off his dark wavy hair and eyes nicely.
The young gypsy held the fiddle under his chin and his head moved in time with the music as he played.
Finishing one song, he started another, the crowd clapping along with him and tapping their feet.
"Bravo, Mihai! Another!"
She smiled, repeating the name in her mind. Mihai. It sounded like the call of one of those exotic birds she had read about in her father's books.
Standing still in the middle of the whirling crowd, she listened to him, mesmerized. At one point, he turned in one of his pirouettes and she was sure he caught sight of her. His dark eyes grew wide and a smiled flashed across his face, lighting it up.
She felt her cheeks grow hot and stepped back quickly to her hiding place, her heart racing.
He finished a short time after, and she could hear him saying his goodbyes to his friends. Leaning out of the shadows as far as she could she managed to get a glimpse of him as he turned and began walking to her hiding spot.
He smiled, and made a mock bow, sweeping off his hat with a flourish.
"Mi'lady! You've come!"
She smiled, and the coldness seeped out of her. Taking off her gloves, she offered him her hand to kiss. His lips were soft and warm on her hand, and she shivered in spite of herself.
"Mihai!" she breathed, in a voice rapt with delight.
He laughed, a soft hearty laugh, the sound traveling up from the pits of her stomach to her chest, warming her. Taking her other hand, he pulled her gently to him, pulling her head onto his shoulder. Her hand crept up into his curls.
"Elizabeth! I thought that you wouldn't come," he whispered, his breath tickling her throat. She giggled and brought the other hand to his cheek.
"I will always come to you," she said softly. He turned in her arms to look in her eyes and smiled. Laying his chin back on her forehead, he murmured, "I know."
She leaned back against the wall, held tightly in his embrace and listened to the rhythm of his steady breathing. Her eyes closed and she smiled, wondering what her father would say, if he knew that a beautiful thistle grew in his very own garden.