"What ?" She gasped, as though she misheard me. Whatever she had expected me to say, it sure as hell hadn't been that.
"Ever since I got here, I've constantly heard about your father, but I've never seen him in the castle, and you never talk about him. You never tell me anything about your life before you came here, but I am... curious. You came out of nowhere Belle, and its like... I know you don't belong here. Not in a bad way, I swear," I insisted, catching a flash of hurt in the midst of her shock, desperately trying to justify my outburst.
"It's just that... you're smart. You're kind. You're clever and selfless and compassionate and forgiving. So, I just really want to know, how someone with all of that potential, could end up here. I picture someone with your talents... travelling the world and teaching other people to see it the way you do. Doing something purposeful and meaningful with their lives. Not-"
"Adam please just stop." Her plea pulled me from my absorption only to notice with dismay the sudden wetness of her cheeks.
"You don't know what you're talking about, okay? I'm not any of those things." She insisted, voice thick with denial, denial that baffled me. Did she truly not know her own worth?
"But, Belle, you are. I've travelled the world, been to so many places and seen so many things, but I've never ever met a person quite like you before. You're so kind, so persevering. You see things in such a different way that you've made me see them as well-"
"Adam, STOP!" She screamed. I shrunk away immediately, alarmed by her eruption. What had I done wrong now?
"You... you don't mean any of that! You don't know me! I'm not selfless, I'm not this wonderful person you've just described! I've done horrible things too! I've been petty and selfish and self-absorbed. I've been cold and cruel to the people who love me! I've kept secrets and lied and... ruined lives! So... so don't sit there with stars in your eyes telling me how I don't deserve to be here! This... this is exactly where I deserve to be! I earned this, by doing what I did! This is the punishment I was always meant to have!"
She was so angry. Panting and red-faced and it left me completely winded. So rare was it for her to lose her temper like that, my mind honed in on the words she'd used. Punishment? She deserved it? What did she mean she deserved it?
"Belle I... I don't understand. What did you do? What could you possibly have done to deserve this?" I asked her bewilderedly, truly not believing a word the girl had said. How could she be selfish? How could she have ruined lives? None of that fit into the image I had in my head, of this perfect, caring loving girl. I refused to believe I could be wrong again. No. I had seen her kindness. Her generous acts of forgiveness and love. There was no way I was wrong!
She glared at me.
"Oh, Adam, you don't understand! And I can't make you! Just forget it!" She gritted furiously, launching abruptly to her feet. No, I can't let her walk out on me again!
"Belle, don't," I pleaded, propelling across the table to clasp her wrist before she got away. She looked down at me guardedly as I lay awkwardly sprawled across the wooden surface. Why did she always have to run?
"Don't leave Belle, please. I'm sorry, alright? I'm sorry if I offended you or anything! I genuinely only wanted to know about your father!"
Her face transformed in a heartbeat. One minute it held ire and irritation, the next it was shrouded with uncertainty and doubt. She looked so suddenly... deflated, like all the fight had been drained right out of her. After a moment of tense silence, she flopped ungracefully back on her chair, letting out a sigh that nearly matched my relief.
"My father?" She whispered, her gaze a thousand miles away from the candlelit library we both took sanctuary in.
I knew I had to be careful with what I said next. I felt like I was stepping on eggshells. "Yes, I mean, I've shared so many things with you. About my life and my childhood and how I came to be... like this. But, when it comes to you... there's nothing. Why don't you ever talk about yourself? Don't you trust me?" I questioned quietly, trying and failing to keep the vulnerability out of my voice. I guess we weren't such great friends after all.
"Adam, this isn't about not trusting you." She whispered weakly, her eyes shifting to mine in time for me to see her sadness. I didn't want her to be sad, but my thirst for knowledge was nearly overwhelming me. Despite my earlier promise that I wouldn't push her for answers and instead would wait for her to be ready, this day had taken its toll on me. I needed something.
"Just, tell me something... anything," I begged, desperately capturing her gaze in my own, refusing to let it go. I so wanted to understand. "Tell me how you came to be in the castle. Tell me how you met Gaston. Tell me where your family is. Anything. You don't have to keep secrets from me. Remember what you said, about me being able to talk to you about anything? Well, you can talk to me too. I promise I won't tell anyone just... just let me in."
I couldn't stand the vacant look in her eyes. Though she was here in this room with me, she could have been anywhere. I didn't know if she was deep in thought or if she was reliving all the memories I had just pleaded with her to share, but I wanted her to come back to me. I wanted her to trust me like I trusted her. Hesitantly, I reached out and clasped my hand around her smaller one before she could recognise and pull away. Her skin was so soft and supple. Perfect. Just like her.
"I can't answer any of those questions without telling you about my father," She murmured quietly, almost as though she hadn't meant to say it aloud. I sat up eagerly.
"Then tell me about him. Tell me where he is or-"
"Would you like to meet him?"
I was excited, there was no denying it, I practically bounced on the balls of my feet as I followed Belle through the halls of the castle.
She's finally introducing me to her father!
I had so many questions, and perhaps, if I couldn't get the answers from her, her mysterious parent would be the next best thing. I could ask him of his origins. How he and Belle ended up in this castle. Why I had never seen him and Belle in the same room before! Who knew, perhaps there was even a chance he would enlighten me to the strange connection between Belle and Gaston. As a parent, wouldn't he himself be concerned about what his daughter had been doing? Why was he letting it continue?
So many questions.
I was a little concerned as I recognised I was being led right towards the castle hospice, but only until I remembered that he was supposed to be sick. But, how long had he been sick? It was months ago that Belle had received the letter regarding her father's worsening condition, which had led to her little misadventure in the woods. And who knew how long he had been here before then? Just how sick was he? Was it terminal? Was it contagious? No, he wouldn't be here if he was. I was sure there was some rational explanation for all of this and was glad Belle had her back to me as she walked to the hospice doors for I was practically shaking with anticipation. She knocked.
A surprisingly young girl with tightly tied blond hair and a rigid face pulled the door open. She was dressed in a long white robe, but she looked far too young to be a nurse. An apprentice, perhaps? Either way, her stony face grew even more sour as her eyes met Belle's. Before either of us could say anything, she tisked in disgust and started to rant.
"I sincerely hope you have a letter, otherwise there is simply no excuse to be bothering us this late! It's past visiting hours! You know the rules!" She snarled before Belle even spoke a word. Letter? Why would Belle possibly need a letter to enter the castle's hospice? Had the rules changed since I was last here?
Surprisingly, Belle matched the nurse's contemptuous look and scoffed at her rudeness; they clearly weren't the best of friends.
"You know Gaston gave me full visiting rights for the remainder of the week Santana, he told Doctor Youdull two days ago. Please just let me through," She snapped impatiently. The girl's upper lip almost curled over her top teeth as Belle said Gaston's name, before sinisterly twisting into a rotten smirk. Her squinty eyes were completely cold as she looked Belle over condescendingly.
"Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid Doctor Youdull has already retired for the evening. Without him here to verify your story, I can't let you in without permission," She cooed mockingly. Belle clenched her jaw. I had rarely seen her so angry.
"Get out of my way Santana! Stop acting like you own this whole hospice! Doctor Youdull must have told you about Gaston giving me permission already, he always does. Now move!" I almost retreated at the sheer ferocity of sweet Belle's reply. Her outburst was so out of character, but she had been acting strangely from the moment I mentioned her father. Was she just misappropriating anger meant for me?
The nurse's body went completely stiff, her eyes nearly spitting fire as her teeth clashed together.
"And maybe you need to stop acting like you own this whole damn castle!" Santana hissed, shaking with outrage as she took a step towards Belle as though to intimidate her. Neither of them was even acknowledging me.
"You think just because Prince Gaston lives between your legs that you have the right to order me around and go wherever you please?! Get the fuck off your high horse you unworthy little-"
"Enough!" I yelled, unable to bear any more bile from this rancid girl's mouth. She turned her glare on me, before recognition and finally fear stole across her face.
"Your Majesty!" She squealed in surprise, flushing a deep red in embarrassment. I may not have known the reason for her hostility towards Belle, but I didn't care. Belle was my friend and I wasn't going to stand here and listen to this insignificant woman insult her. I glared right back.
"She asked you to move. I would suggest doing so, unless you would like me to see to it you be moved from this entire kingdom." I told her coldly, before remembering how little Belle approved of me using my status to force others into submission. Well, I had to draw a line somewhere. Blatant disrespect would not be tolerated, weather Belle liked it or not. But considering how little she seemed to like this girl, I hoped she wouldn't hold it against me. I took a peek at her from the corner of my eye, to see her looking completely unconcerned. Well, at least she wasn't angry.
The same could not be said for the girl before me, as her left eye twitched and she breathed in deeply. It was almost as if she was considering denying us access despite my threat, but after shifting her scornful gaze between us several times, did she finally relent.
She moved out of the doorway with an impatient huff, and I gestured for Belle to go in first just so I could glare at the girl until she lost her nerve and scampered off.
I'll be getting her name later.
"What was that about?" I asked as Belle headed towards a small desk in the centre of a relatively empty entryway. She picked up a quill and signed her name on a long scroll of parchment, sharing a small smile with the man standing behind it as he nodded to her and passed her a lit candle on a plate. She thanked him quietly before leading me towards another door.
"She doesn't like me," Belle told me shortly, as she opened the door and walked right through. I was a little surprised neither of us was stopped or at least asked to wear masks, but it only made me believe that her father's condition couldn't have been that serious.
"Yes, that much I noticed, but why? Why was she so against you being here?" I inquired as I followed her down a thin, sparsely lit white stone hallway. There were no windows, only doors lining both sides. Doors that most likely hid sick patients behind them. We passed a few people headed towards the entryway, but was barely spared a glance. Belle must have been a regular visitor here.
"Your guess is as good as mine. She's had it in for me from the first day I got here. I suppose she just doesn't like me getting 'special' treatment." She commented, stressing 'special' as though she believed her treatment was anything but. I didn't understand.
"You heard her, its passed visiting hours. But as long as I have permission from Gaston I can come here pretty much whenever I want. I guess she resents me for it. I really don't know." She remarked flippantly, but my mind raced. Placing a hand on her shoulder, I used my grip to turn her to face me.
"Why would you need Gaston's permission to visit your own father?" I asked her, completely perplexed. Just a moment ago, I was relieved that we wouldn't have to wear masks to visit him, but now I was truly questioning the stability of this man. Why would she need to seek Gaston's permission to see her own sick parent? Was he dangerous? Violent? I sought her face for answers but she averted her eyes, a small pool of colour lighting her cheeks as though she was caught doing something she shouldn't have. Finally, she looked up at me, her sad little smile making me frown.
"You'll understand everything, Adam. Once you meet him." She assured me quietly, before taking me alarmingly by surprise by grabbing my hand. She turned and pulled me onward. I followed blindly, almost all thought forgotten as I stared at our interlocked fingers.
What is this feeling?
Finally, Belle stopped at a heavy wooden door. It looked the same as all the rest, except for the three thick metal bolts sealing it shut. I watched in confusion as Belle slowly pulled apart all three locks, and had just enough time to wonder why those things would be there in the first place, when Belle pushed it open.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw.
It looked more like a suite than a hospital room. With a fairly large amount of open space to walk in. There was a bathtub in the corner, as well as a lavatory, two large windows shining a tiny scrap of night light through two sets of metal bars, and a rather hefty looking wardrobe against the far left wall. But to my right, the least and most surprising of all, was a bed. With a man sleeping inside it.
The man was short, that much I could tell even though half his body was covered in sheets. He had a softly wrinkled face, a small tufted of fuzzy white hair and a rather thin looking mouth covered by lips that looked bitten and chewed on more times than was healthy. He was rather pale and thin, but that wasn't the most alarming thing. No, what surprised me the most was that he was strapped down.
His arms and legs were both bound to the metal railing of the bed. Thick leather restraints chained him as he slept rather peacefully before me. Noticing how odd it was, I took a closer look at his hands, only to see that they were too covered in thick leather gloves, tied tightly around his wrists and pinned under the restraints, making it impossible for him to escape. What..?
"Its so he doesn't scratch his skin during the night," Belle's voice came out of nowhere, scaring me to high heaven. I jumped and spun, noticing with surprise that she had been lighting candles in the room this whole time. My cheeks flared red at having been caught staring, but... at what?
If this was her father, why was he tied down? I thought he was sick, not...
"Hi, Papa," She whispered to the man, setting the candle down on a bedside table before taking a seat on a chair by his side.
"I've brought someone here to meet you. His name is Adam, and he's my friend. He's a prince, like Gaston, but don't worry, he's not like him. He really wanted to meet you." She spoke so softly, looked upon him so tenderly. I watched as she leaned forward to lightly brush a few strands of stray hair away from his damp forehead, all the while staring at his sleeping face with so much gentle adoration. It would have been a sweet sight, if my chest hadn't been constricting.
The locked door. The large barred windows. The restraints. All of it reminded me of my grandmother. The feeling I felt when I first laid eyes upon her feeble form quaking in that metal chair completely engulfed me, and I found myself struggling to breathe. I took several long deep breaths to calm myself while Belle was distracted, but the panic was all consuming. I felt sick, like the air was too thick to breathe in. Finally, all I could manage to do was choke out one single word.
"You said you wanted to know why I was here. Why I never talk about what my life was like before I came here. Well, it's all to do with him." Her voice was sad and drained, her eyes never leaving her sleeping father's face as though she weren't even speaking to me at all.
I didn't understand.
"Take a seat," She insisted quietly. I was glad she wasn't watching me because my hands were shaking. I tried to behave as casually as possible as I pulled a chair away and sat, so we were directly opposite each other. The bed where her father lay the only thing between us. It felt like miles.
"If you really want to know, then I'll tell you. But I warn you now, it's not a particularly pleasant tale, and, well... you might not want to be friends after you learn the truth about me." She turned upon saying this, exhaustion and resignation looking me dead in the eye. Her words sounded ridiculous, but she was completely unwavering in her conviction. Not capable of scrounging a response, I merely nodded, and she began to speak.
"My mother came from a wealthy family. Don't ask me too many questions about them, I don't really know much. All I know is that she had three brothers, five sisters and two completely overbearing parents. They had plans for all their children; big plans, apparently. But their plans for my mother were interrupted when she met Papa.
"She always told me the first thing she ever noticed about him was his hands. How they were dry and cracked and brittle, but they were working mans hands. Hands of a man who loved his work, and loved it when his work brought joy to others. He was selling little inventions by the roadside, and when he saw her, he reached up and presented her with a gift. A little toy bird that pecked up and down. And she was so grateful for it, something made by those hard working hands... that she loved him from the very start.
"But, apparently, her parents didn't find the beauty in his work quite the way she did. They wanted her to marry some rich duke, and they didn't care if she didn't love him or if she loved someone else. All they thought about was continuing the glory of the family name. When she refused to leave my father, they gave her an ultimatum; she brake all ties with Papa and marry the duke, or they would disown her, and leave her with nothing. She told me it was one of the most difficult choices she'd ever made in her whole life, but she chose Papa.
"Well, they were true to their word, and forced her to leave their home with nothing but the clothing on her back. But it turns out, that was really all she needed. You see, she had a ring. A gift given from her great-grandmother before she passed. And it broke her heart to part with it, but she always said how important it was to build your future, not sit wallowing in the wreckage of your past. So she sold it, her and Papa moved to the kingdom of Blé, bought a farm, and had me."
"You grew up on a farm?" I asked her suddenly, temporarily forgetting my anxiety attack over my curiosity. I didn't know why I hadn't guessed it. Her ease around animals and how willing she was to throw herself into manual labour, even when it wasn't required of her. It suited her perfectly, and another piece of her puzzle slotted into place. She gave me a sparkling smile.
"I grew up... learning how to tend wounded animals and harvest fruits and vegetables. We milked cows and sheared sheep and were chased all around the paddock when we went hunting for eggs. There was so much joy and laughter in my home Adam, you just can't even imagine. My Papa, he wasn't a particularly big or strong man but he was tenacious, got any work done, no matter what it was, and my mother... she was so... gentle. She cared so much, about everything. Me, Papa, the animals, the people in our village; everyone loved her, but I did the most. Every evening after a long days work, she'd sit down by the fire, put me on her lap and read me a story.
"She loved reading, our little cottage was filled with books. She could read me a story I had heard a thousand times and I'd still be on the edge of my seat with every word. She made the journey exciting, you know? Because that's what she said always mattered most. Not how you started, or where you ended up, but the journey you took across your life to be who you were always meant to be. I loved her so much. I loved my Papa too, don't mistake me, but... she was our heart."
Her eyes sparkled with a beauty that took my breath away. She really did love her mother. But a cold feeling of dread consumed me as her smile melted from her face, only to be replaced with brimming eyes and a trembling, quivering bottom lip, "So when we lost her... it was like we lost our hearts as well."
I swallowed harshly. She was in so much pain.
"Papa and I... we didn't know how to function on our own, without her in between us, guiding us. We just... completely broke down. Stopped talking, stopped spending time together. We worked on the same farm, shopped in the same market, ate at the same table but it was like... we were strangers. I know my mother would have been ashamed of us for how we behaved, but... I didn't know how to live without her, and neither did he. She was so important to the both of us, that, after she passed, it felt like I was the one who stopped living. I didn't know how to reach out to Papa any more. And I'm sure that's how he felt about me so... we didn't try.
"And things went on like that for years." I could feel her shame and regret that she had allowed her relationship with her father to deteriorate after her mother's passing. I wished I could offer some words of comfort, but, really, what could I possibly say? The confusion as to why she was speaking about her father like he wasn't right here in the room with the two of us was still heavily confounding me, but I knew now was not the time to ask questions. So I didn't say anything. Merely looked on sympathetically as she continued with her story.
"So, a few years passed, and things stayed the same. Then, one year, the village got word of a particularly harsh winter soon to be befalling us. Our village, it mainly consisted of old couples and families with children. There were no strapping young men, and my father was worried that we wouldn't be able to collect enough firewood before winter fell. I was shocked one morning, to hear him bashing about in one of the old barns. It was where he use to do all of his inventing, but he had shut the whole thing up after Mama passed. I was... rather stunned that he had chosen to go back in there, but I didn't disturb him. He stayed in there for four straight days, only coming out to eat or sleep. I wanted to ask him what he was doing, but, we still weren't really talking so... I kept quiet, and waited. Then, one afternoon, he called me in. He sounded... really excited... which was a first, for years. I never could have guessed what was waiting for me in there.
"It looked like a monster. A huge clunky device. A complete mishmash of different objects all stuck together. And before I could even ask him what it was it was supposed to be, he gave me a demonstration. He lifted a thick chunk of wood and put it on the machine, and then pressed a button. And before my very eyes, this... monstrosity... shred the whole log into perfect pieces in a matter of seconds. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!"
I gasped, she didn't mean..?
"The woodcutter in the boiler room?" I asked excitedly, but she held up her hand to hush me.
"I'll get to that," She told me shortly, indulging me with a small smile, just enough to shut me up. But honestly, I could not wait to hear more. That machine was a work of pure genius, and her father had made it? I looked at the sleeping man before me with new eyes, almost as though I expected him to bounce up from the bed and introduce himself, but he remained blissfully unaware of our presence as Belle began to talk again.
"The machine was amazing, and he used it to cut everyone's wood for that whole winter. The entire village hailed him a hero because of it, and I was... so proud of him. He used to make little inventions all the time but hadn't made anything since we lost her. I thought, that maybe... this was what we needed. A sign that we could possibly... start moving on from our grief. I told him how proud I was, and how happy I was that he was inventing again, for he loved it so. And he looked at me and smiled and... I had my Papa back."
She beamed, tears in her eyes. But her happiness, as quickly as it appeared, vanished.
"After that, every year he used his machine for our wood as well as the neighbours. He was famous for it, at least in our little village. So, when word came to us about an inventors competition being hosted in the kingdom of Ingenieur, where the winner of the best invention would receive a big bag of gold as well as an audience with the king, everyone was encouraging him to go, including me." She grimaced, and I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of Silas hosting a competition before. What could have been the purpose? Was Silas really the reason she was in this castle? Obviously, everything that was happening in her story was before her father got sick. I looked at the older man again, and barely contained myself from asking Belle to hurry it along, just so I could understand why all of this made sense.
"He was gone for five days, and to be honest I was getting a little worried about him. He hadn't sent word back to me and I didn't really know how long the fair was supposed to last. I was seriously considering going after him by the sixth day, but he did return. The smile he had on his face..." She sighed reminiscently, her lips quirking indulgently while her eyes spoke a different emotion.
"He won?" I questioned, not at all content with her silence. I fiddled with my fingers to hide my eagerness, nervousness, anxiety and impatience. I so badly wanted to know everything. Now I was so close, to wait another minute felt like complete torture.
"Hands down," She declared with a proud grin.
"Everyone was so happy for him, they even threw him a little celebration party. He looked like he couldn't even believe he had won, and had this... completely bizarre look on his face the whole night. I could tell there was something he wasn't telling me," Her smile slipped again, and she broke eye contact to stare at her father's face once more.
Please tell me. Please tell me. Please tell...
"At the end of the night, after the party was over and we finally made it home, I asked him if something was bothering him. He was happy, I could tell, but he also seemed... nervous about something. It seemed like he had been avoiding me all night, even though he had been right beside me the whole time. He hadn't really answered any of my questions about what this kingdom was like, or how his audience with the king went, and I just didn't understand why. He told me to sit down at the table, and took a seat beside me, and then he took my hand and made me promise not to say anything until he was finished.
"Well, it turned out, that to everyone's surprise, the king himself was at the competition, not only to observe, but to judge it. Apparently, it was all a scheme orchestrated by him to hunt down the next big invention that he could build and sell to other kingdoms overseas. And he was so impressed by my fathers' work, that he not only offered him the winners prize, but he also offered him a job."
How unlike Silas. I had never heard of him doing anything like that before. Could it be that business was slowing while I was away, or had he truly been looking to expand the reach of his empire? I could certainly see why Belle's father's machine would have been so appealing. It did the job of ten men in a third of the time. Selling such an invention to other kings and wealthy men would certainly make Silas a healthy profit, and the picture of why the two of them were here became all the clearer. But still... she didn't sound happy.
"There was only one catch," She muttered quietly, her gaze cast down to her cloaked knees. I couldn't help myself.
"Which was?" I asked, trying not to sound like I was rushing her to answer, even though I was. Why did she look so suddenly put out? She sighed, resigned and moulded a frown.
"We had to move."
She sounded miserable.
"Obviously, the king would want my father as close as possible, so he offered him residence in his kingdom while Papa built machines for him. He was so nervous when he told me, it was like he was expecting me to burst into tears or scream at him or something. And honestly, I kind of felt like doing both. He was asking me to leave. Leave the place I had lived all my life. Leave my friends, leave my animals, leave the only place in the world that still held memories of my mother. I... I couldn't believe him. But... I knew he wanted it. It was what he'd always wanted, to be an inventor. He put his dream on hold to be with me and my mother, but now was his opportunity. And I could tell... this wasn't a decision he had made lightly. I knew he'd miss the village every bit as much as I would, but he wanted to do it. And he couldn't, without moving to Ingenieur. I hated that he was forcing me to make this decision, but I knew... I knew if I told him I didn't want to leave, then neither would he. He would stay with me, and spend the rest of his life dreaming about what could have been. And that's exactly why I agreed."
She let out a long sigh, shifting her arms to rest her elbows on her knees and lean her chin against her clasped hands. I couldn't tell if her sudden demeanour was due to regret, or sadness. Judging by our current situation, I would guess the former.
What had happened?
"We stayed in this castle in the beginning. The king planned to move us into a cottage on the edge of the village, but it had been unoccupied for years, so we were given two rooms while it was being fixed up. I spent most of my time hiding, trying not to let my father see how sad I was. I was homesick before the first week passed, but he was acting as though he had finally gotten his life back. I'm ashamed to say a part of me resented him for it, but I knew how much he suffered after my mama died. If doing this job was what finally made him smile again, then all I could really do was hide my sadness and be there for him, like he had always been for me. It got a little easier once I found the library."
I chuckled at that, couldn't help it, knowing how much she loved it in there. But I was becoming perturbed by the range of emotions dancing across her face. The flickering candles around the room only made it more difficult to guess what it was she was truly feeling. The shadows pranced all around her, shrouding her in darkness. Was it an omen of what was to come?
"That place was my sanctuary long before I thought I needed one. I was amazed the first time I stumbled upon it. There were so many books, but the room looked like it hadn't been used in years. I was even worried I wasn't supposed to be in there, but nobody ever stopped me. I spent hours in that room, while Papa was off discussing matters with the king or perfecting designs for his machine. He tried to encourage me to come out and interact with people, sit at the dining table for dinner since the king had offered us a place there, but I was too nervous. I wasn't used to all of this. I missed the simplicity of my village, this place was far too grand and polished and I didn't feel comfortable here. The only room I did seek comfort in was the library, but that changed to, the day I met him."
"Who?" I asked, even though I had a feeling I already knew. There was but one significant other who had yet to be introduced to her story.
"It was the first time I caught someone else in the library. I went in after lunch only to hear... moaning. I thought someone might be hurt," She laughed at herself, and I couldn't help but share her embarrassed smile. "But of course, instead of calling out and asking if anyone was there, I decided the best idea was to follow the noises. I could hear groaning and books being knocked off the shelf and I genuinely assumed someone might have gotten hurt. It never once occurred to me it would be anything else. So I walked up the steps to the second level and searched through rows of bookcases and... that was the first time I saw Gaston. Saw more of him then I would have liked to."
Even in the dark shadows of the room, I could see the red in her cheeks, she surely must have been innocent before that day, to have that kind of reaction. I was quite taken with her blush, but she pushed herself forward before I could embarrass myself by saying so.
"He caught me, I know he did. In that split second when I was far too stunned to move. The girl didn't notice, she was a little too... distracted. But he saw me. And I ran. I didn't know who he was at that time. I knew King Silas had a son who was coming of age, but I didn't know what he looked like and... I could never have imagined I would have caught him doing that. Anyway, I was so embarrassed I didn't even want to go back in there, for fear of the same thing happening again. But it wasn't long after that Papa announced that our new home was finally ready, and I was more than happy to leave. The day we were packing up our belongings and bringing our bags down to the carriage, I was walking down the hallway when someone called out to me. Not by name, but I turned anyway, and I saw him coming straight towards me.
"Again, I didn't know who he was, back then he was just some man I had caught in a highly intimate position. I thought that he was angry with me but... he wasn't, even then I could tell the way he looked at me wasn't... angry." She shook her head, eyes closed. Her grimace told me everything.
"He told me he couldn't stop thinking about me since the moment he caught me staring at him. I didn't know how to react. We were in a small deserted hallway and he had me up against the wall, and I was so embarrassed and nervous that I couldn't think of a single thing to say, so I just stood there in silence while he went on about how beautiful I was and how he'd been searching the whole castle for me and how it was like I had vanished into thin air. I told him I had to leave, but he just put his finger against my lips to silence me. He asked for my name, and stupidly, I gave it to him. I may not have known he was a prince, but he was still twice my size and intimidating. I had never been spoken to the way he spoke to me that day, and I just kept praying that one of the servants would walk by or my father would come up to see what was taking me so long. I kept telling him I was in a hurry and had go, but he just... completely ignored me. He was so arrogant. Even back then. And I couldn't stand to listen to some of the things he was... proposing. He was acting like I should have been grateful to have captured his attention, and he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that I definitely was not. And then... then... he leaned down to kiss me.
"Now, I'd never been kissed before, never done anything... before him. So... when I saw him leaning down... coming right towards me without my permission or consent... the only thing I could think to do was... was..."
"Was?" I asked, literally hanging on the edge of my seat. Her face scrunched together, and her teeth snagged her plump bottom lip as she flushed ripe cherry-red.
"I kneed him."
I cringed, barely containing myself from covering my manhood. I was astonished by Belle's audacity. Even without knowing he was a prince, that was a pretty audacious move to make. I could only imagine how angry Gaston must have been. Honestly, the parallels between Belle and Gaston's first meeting, and how I had first met Marie simply astounded me, but there was one thing that surprised me even more. She still looked guilty about it.
"I didn't know what else to do!" She defended, clearly catching my look of distress. Slumping in her seat, she ran an agitated hand through her hair before gripping at it tightly. "I had never been in that kind of position before! No man had ever looked at me that way, let alone made those kinds of advances. Thinking back, there was probably a lot of other things I could have done but... at that moment... with how panicked I was... I just... reacted. I ran down the hallway while he was on the floor, and I didn't look back until I got to the carriage. I didn't tell my father what happened, I just hoped that I would never see him again. The first of many foolish things I hoped for." She sighed regretfully.
I wondered what she meant by that. Obviously, that would not be the last time she met Gaston, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had made her pay for that at one point or another, but now I was even more curious. She left to live in the village, so how did she get back here?
"The cottage was lovely, really really beautiful. It was surrounded by flowers and lots of open land. There was a barn for my horse, and Papa had his own barn where he could build his machines. I was excited to be back in a familiar environment. I thought... that this village would be exactly like my old one, and I could make friends and finally get back to some kind of normality. I had been there a matter of days before I realised how stupid that was."
"What do you mean?" I interrupted another breathing break. There was a strangely sour look on her face, as though she was trying not to be angry, but realised she was failing. Her eyes met mine as her left eyebrow twisted. She looked at me expectantly, only I didn't know what she was expecting.
"Really, Adam? You really can't guess why the people in that village would have been less than welcoming towards us?"
Her words confused me. Why would the villagers dislike her? The old man in the bookshop had said his neighbours had done some horrible things to her, but he never explained why. What had Belle and her father even done before they moved from the castle? The way Belle told it, all she had done was keep to herself while her father started building his machines for the king.
"One of your father's inventions was in the boiler room. Does that mean that all the men who worked cutting the wood before..?"
"Yes." She confirmed my theory before I even finished the words, and looked completely miserable for it.
"My father never meant to hurt anyone. He built that machine to make peoples lives easier, not to lose people their jobs. But clearly, the villagers didn't quite see it that way. A lot of men lost their livelihood because the king decided they were disposable, but obviously, my father was far easier to blame than the king, so... we were hated before we even stepped foot in that village."
"Did they do something to you?" I demanded to know, ready to charge straight down to that cesspool if they had. I wasn't going to admit to Belle I had a little piece of this puzzle already, but if any of them had hurt her specifically... well... I wouldn't be held accountable for my actions. She looked surprised by my sudden rage, but her face gave nothing away. She shook her head quietly.
"Not physically. Not at first. We were still under the king's protection at that time after all. It was more... the way they behaved around us. The snide looks and the whispering and the way they spoke to us... like we were dirt. Some of the women tried to give me a chance to redeem myself in their eyes, but they quickly lost interest when they realised I wasn't at all interested in sowing or... gossiping about the most eligible bachelors in the kingdom. The only person in that village I could really talk to was Monsieur Bernard. He owned a bookstore down there, the first person I had met in a long time that shared my passion for them. He hired me as his assistant even though I doubted he needed the help. He was probably just excited to have someone to talk to, he wasn't really accepted either, thanks to his 'odd' profession. But he was a wonderful man. I miss him sometimes." She murmured with a sad smile, her voice so soft and affectionate when talking about the merchant. Why did she miss him? Why had she never returned to the village? What had those bastards done to her?
"But the rest of them..." She shook herself, "they shunned us. The strange thing was Papa didn't even seem to notice. He was just so happy, finally doing what he had always dreamed of doing for a living. And when I asked him how he managed to not let it get to him, he told me that the only person he needed in his life was right there in front of him. That he had his family, and that was all he needed. And I realised how right he was. So what if the villagers didn't like us? So what if they didn't accept us? I had my Papa back. After years of being completely unable to reach him, I had him back. I had a friend in Monsieur Bernard, a job, Papa was making good money as well and... he was finally happy. We were happy. And for the first few months... everything was perfect.
"And then it wasn't."
My heart squeezed as her gentle smile collapsed. Her gaze sought her father, who had yet to make a single acknowledgement that we were in the room. I braced myself for the worst.
"It started with little things at first, he'd put something down and then... forget where he put it. Or... we'd be in the middle of talking and... he'd just... forget what we were talking about. Little things. Things that happened to everyone. And I didn't think that it was such a big deal... until... the little things started getting bigger.
"Dangerous tools left on the floor. Boiling water kept on the stove. Sometimes he would say something that... made absolutely no sense at all. And when I asked him about it... he acted like he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. I knew something was wrong but... I ignored it. I told myself that it was just stress, just the stress of his new job. That he hadn't been a professional inventor in over seventeen years and all this work was simply overwhelming him, and as soon as he got back into the swing of things, everything would be normal again. But I was wrong.
"One time I was at the bookstore when I started hearing laughter coming from outside. It was a market day, so all the villagers were in town, and it sounded like all of them were out there, laughing. Normally, I would have ignored it, but, I just really wanted to know what was supposed to be so damn funny. So, I went outside, fought my way through the crowd, and there he was. Papa," She choked, eyes brimming with a single layer of tears she quickly tried to hide away. She rubbed a rough hand down her face, and downcast her eyes as she continued to talk as though I were no longer in the room.
"He was hysterical. Standing in the centre of all of the villagers, screaming at them. Demanding to know who they were and... where he was. They were laughing at him! No one tried to help him, no one tried to talk to him, they were all just... enjoying the show! I ran up to him, put my hands on his shoulder and called out his name, and the second he saw me, he seemed to calm down. Then he looked around and asked me what was going on. I should have said something then. I should have told him something was wrong. I should have taken him to the hospice and... and tried to get him some help. But I didn't. I was too afraid. I had finally got him back. We were a family again, he was happy again, and... I felt like... if I admitted there was a problem and said it out loud... it would make it real. I would ruin everything. So I kept quiet. And that was the biggest mistake I ever made."
She sniffled, big wet tears cascading down her cheeks no matter her obvious efforts to prevent them. I couldn't help but stare, her pain so potent it was drawing me in, searing its way through my whole body. What she was describing, it sounded familiar, I had heard of such mental disabilities before, but almost couldn't believe it had happened to her father. It wasn't very well known, and I couldn't fault her for not understanding what was happening. My eyes flashed to the sleeping man. Why did she look so guilty? What had she done wrong?
"One night, I was walking home from work, when, off into the distance, there was this... massive explosion. I knew it was him. I knew it was him before I even saw it. Everyone took off running towards the blast, and what I saw..." She shut her eyes, her breathing hoarse, "His barn. The one where he built all his inventions... it was... completely destroyed.
"I kept praying that he wasn't in there. I ran all around the house screaming for him, begging him to answer me. But I knew... I knew..." She whimpered.
"One of the men who had run towards the blast called out for me, and I went running out and... there he was. Papa. He was alive, but barely. They pulled him out from under the barn door, and it must have shielded most of him from the blast but... his hands...
"I spent weeks in the hospital, waiting for him to wake up. A lot of the minor cuts and bruises had healed, but his hands... The doctor told me there was a chance he would never be able to move them properly again. And I knew he'd be devastated. Inventing was his life, and to be told that he would never be able to do it again... it would crush him. It was all my fault."
"Belle..." I began, determined to deny her claim, but she spoke right over me.
"No, Adam, it was! If I had told him what was going on! Told him how forgetful he was becoming! Warned him about how unsafe it was to continue building those heavy machines, he never would have been in that barn that day! I kept quiet because I didn't want to ruin his dream and in the end, I ended up doing exactly that!
"When he finally woke up, and I explained what had happened, and he looked at his hands... it was like a part of him broke that day. And that was only the beginning." She huffed heavily, eyes closed and another tear fell.
"After that, everything just... seemed to fall apart. He became... completely detached. He'd walk around the house, mumbling to himself, saying things that didn't make sense and... sometimes he'd even say hurtful things. He didn't act like my Papa any more, it was like a stranger was slowly taking over his body, and I was losing pieces of him with every day that passed. I wrote letters to the king, explaining what had happened while he was in the hospital, but I never got a reply. I hired a nurse to look after him during the day, so I could go to work, but after the first few weeks, she quit. Moved to another town. No one else would take the job, no matter how much money I offered, and I knew he couldn't be left in the house alone so... I resigned. Stayed home and tried to take care of him. But I was in way over my head.
"I should have anticipated how the villagers would react." Her face twisted. In the midst of her grief and all of her guilt, a blossom of anger was blooming beneath the surface. What had they done to her?
"The first time I brought him out with me after the explosion, they acted like we had the plague. Women hid their children, merchants refused to serve us, all I wanted was to buy some food for us to eat, but it was clear they didn't want us there. They were using my father's accident as an excuse to justify their hatred, but they never wanted us in their village, and now they wanted us out even more. I took him home after people started throwing things, and I cried through the whole night. There was no one there to help us. No one there for me to talk to or to lean on. I had no one. Only him. And I didn't know how much longer I could keep him with me after the first letter came."
"Letter?" I questioned, not daring to reply in anything louder than a whisper. She nodded sadly, gaze firmly fixed on her fingers. Her cheeks were still glistening, and I could tell just how difficult this was for her to talk about. A strange thought interrupted my focus as I considered: maybe I was the first person she had told this story too. But surely that couldn't be right, right? She was close with Mrs Potts, with Lumière, Fifi and even Fife as I had observed. Surely she must have told one of them about all of this. Of course, her distress was understandable but... she did seem awfully upset. Could it be..?
"Have you ever heard of Maison De Fous?" She asked me quietly, looking so rough and hollow as though too tired to express emotions. Opposingly, I gaped in awe. She couldn't mean...
"The mental asylum?" I choked. That place was the stuff of nightmares. A 'hospital' that housed some of the most sadistic and crazy of criminals as well as people who were considered too unstable to stand in society. I had heard horror stories about some of the things that place did to their 'patients', and though I was in a mind that some of them most definitely deserved it, I was equally appalled that Belle's father could have been considered by that place. So far, it sounded as though he hadn't done anything wrong. And with Belle there to care for him, how could they have possibly known about his mental state?
"Apparently, they had received several letters about an unstable man causing a great deal of distress amongst the innocent villagers of the town of Peu. I was... astounded they would do something like that. Yes, I knew that they didn't like us, and now with my father's condition we were considered bigger freaks then we were before, but I didn't expect that. The letter stated that I had been given a warning and if I could not keep this 'menace to society' out of the public eye, that they would come and they would take him from me. After that, it was clear I couldn't take him into the village again. I paid a little boy to bring us groceries behind his mothers back, but I couldn't leave, not with this threat hanging over my head. So I didn't.
"I was suffocating in that house, Adam. Most days I couldn't even go outside. I had to keep the curtains closed because the sunlight upset him, and so every day was just me, sitting in the dark, watching a man I once knew as my father pace around in circles and spit insults at me. I wrote letter after letter to the king, begging for some help, some advice, but he never replied. And with neither of us working, it wouldn't be long before the money ran out.
"I was failing. I couldn't get him to eat, or wash. He'd scream at me every time I tried to put him to bed. I had to barricade the door close and listen to him call me all kinds of names before he finally passed out. There wasn't a single second of the day I had to myself. I barely scraped enough time at night to feed the animals I had left, but other than that, that cottage was my prison. What was once something so beautiful and freeing had mutated into something awful. And I didn't think it was possible for it to get any worse. But of course... I was wrong."
More tears fell. At that point, I wasn't sure if they were hers or mine. Her despair weighed so heavily on me, so much so that as eager as I had been to hear her story a part of me now considered begging her to stop. I couldn't stand seeing her in so much pain. But I asked for this. It would be selfish of me to stop her now.
"The second letter came some time early in the summer. This time, the villagers had complained about our antisocial behaviour. Apparently, they weren't happy that we were hiding ourselves away, even though they were the ones who wanted us to leave in the first place. I didn't know people could act like that Adam. Where I came from, in my village, everyone was so kind and considerate. We were welcoming to strangers, we accepted and embraced one another. Maybe what happened to Papa was always going to happen no matter what we did or where we went, but I knew. I knew if we had stayed in our old village, they would have helped us. My family had lived there for years, and there was no way they would have treated us like we were a disease to be feared or a nuisance to be rid of. The second letter ended with a reminder that I had one last chance. And if one more complaint was made they'd come and take him from me whether I consented to it or not.
"I didn't know what to do Adam. I felt like I was drowning. I was watching the man who raised me deteriorate into nothing and no matter how hard I tried, nothing I did was good enough. And it got so bad... that I started to think... that maybe... maybe... I'd be better off... without him."
She sobbed. I could only watch.
"I hate myself for it, believe me, I do. But I couldn't help myself from thinking that maybe it would have been better if he had died in that explosion. Because at least then, I could have mourned him properly. Instead of spending my days locked away with a stranger that looked and sounded exactly like him, but wasn't my papa. And the more I thought about it, the more the thoughts turned into fantasies. I pictured myself, picking up a quill and writing to the asylum, telling them to come and get him. I pictured packing up a bag and leaving at night, just so I wouldn't have to listen to my own father call me a 'dirty little whore' ever again. He was the one who was sick, but I felt like I was losing my mind. I just wanted it all to stop."
"Belle," I interrupted urgently, not liking at all where this strand of thought was going. She looked so sunk into herself, rocking in her own embrace I doubted she had even really heard me. How could I tell her it wasn't her fault? That she had done the best she could with the circumstances she was given and she had no reason to hate herself. I was tripping over my own tongue in my haste to bring her back to me. I was never good at giving comfort. What could I possibly say?
"I... Listen, Belle. I know you blame yourself, but... I'm sure your father wouldn't have blamed you. It sounds like you did the best you could and... even if a part of you resented your father-"
"I hated him, Adam."
The conviction of her words stunned me silent.
"I hated him."
"He took me from my home. Dumped me in this strange place with these awful people and he... left me there! He left me! With a stranger. Who didn't even remember my name." She cried as though the tears had been trapped for years, and clutched to her chest as though physically pained. I couldn't help the overwhelming pity I felt for her, but the second she saw my expression, she jumped from her seat.
"Don't!" She screamed at me, with so much ferocity and sadness I was nearly balled backwards. Shockingly, her father didn't so much as twitch.
"Don't pity me! How could I do that?! How could I think such things?! He was my father! The man who raised me! Who stayed with me even after years of ignoring him and pushing him away! He took care of me when I was too weak to fend for myself, and now it was my turn, I couldn't handle it? I resented him because it wasn't my job to take care of him? Because he wasn't my responsibility? How could I have been so selfish? To wish my own father dead? How could I?!" She screeched, tugging at her hair in desperation. She fell back on her chair and began sobbing violently into her knees. I felt so helpless, watching her. I wanted to get up and hold her, to comfort her and take her pain away, but something told me the best thing to do was to simply let her cry it out. Maybe it was the clever side, or maybe it was the cowardly side, but either way, I listened.
I sat there with my fists clenching the wood as she cried her pain and wept years of misery. Is this what she meant when she told me she deserved to be here? Did she consider her servitude penance for nearly giving up on her father? If so then... how could I convince her she was wrong? No one could have prepared themselves for the things she had gone through, and she had gone through them alone. It must have been torture for her to watch the only family she had left disintegrate whilst caring for the shell that was left behind. The similarities between this man and my grandmother even, made me look at the beauty with a whole new level of respect. I could barely stand to be in the same room with my grandmother, so great was my fear to stare into those deep, empty eyes. Belle had stayed with him. And it was clear how much she despised herself for even considering giving him away, but her guilt only exposed how truly loving and selfless she was. It would have been easy to give up on her father, but she didn't. She was brave and she stayed. Why couldn't she see that?
Her hysteric sobs cut me deep. Her sadness and her loss, it was singing from her soul in the most devastating of ways. I had never seen such anguish, and it pierced me so that I cowardly looked away. I instead chose to stare at the man who she had fought to protect. He sounded like a great father, and a part of me mourned the fact that I would never get to meet the man she described. But, now, I was only left wondering...
How had she ended up in this castle, with her father receiving what looked to be luxury treatment while she received whatever treatment Gaston believed she deserved. There was but one piece missing from this harrowing puzzle, and in order to get it, I had to let her cry.
Eventually, her convulsive sobs began to relax into silent weeping. I could see the heave of her chest as her small frame shook, and wanted more than anything to know what to say to make it better. But I highly doubted that any mere words could have healed the scars left on her soul.
How difficult it must be, to look into the eyes of a person that you loved and see only your reflection staring back at you.
It amazed me I had never considered her experiencing anything like this. She always seemed so cheerful and positive. How had I been so ignorant of her loss?
Finally, only the gentlest of whimpers could be heard from her. When she raised her head from her knees, her cheeks were so flushed with red blotches and tear stains it looked as though she had wept a lifetime of sadness in just a few minutes. I couldn't quite place the emotion in her eyes as she used the back of her hands to wipe away the evidence of her misery, but her frown remained as she whispered a simple, "I'm sorry."
"No, don't apologise," I insisted at once, with a conviction that surprised even me. "You've got nothing to be sorry for Belle. You have every right to cry. What you've been through... its enough to break even the strongest of men. But you never broke. You're still here, smiling and loving and standing by your father's side. I... can't tell you how much I respect you for that." I told her honestly.
She sniffled heavily, before she ladened me with a confusing stare and muttered, "So, you don't hate me?"
"Hate you?" I gasped in alarm, "Belle, why would you possibly think I could ever hate you?"
Her eyes held such overwhelming shame I almost begged her to look away. Why would I hate her? Because she experienced a moment of weakness like every other person? I may not have known just how deep those scars had run, but I would never judge her for it. When she hugged her legs tighter into her chest and tilted her head to the floor I thought I might not be getting an answer, when...
"You told me you hated your parents for what they did to your grandmother, keeping her locked away like a dirty little secret. I thought... you might not want to be friends any more... once you found out I did the exact same thing-"
"Belle, don't you dare!" Her head shot up at my sheer ferocity. Before I knew it I had pounced from my chair and was charging towards her. She quivered up at me fearfully when, without any forethought at all, did I drop to my knees before her. Her fear turned to astonishment, but I didn't let it distract me. I needed her to hear this.
"Belle, you are nothing like my parents. My mother... she hated her mother for forcing her to marry my father, which forced her sister's suicide. She blamed her for it, so naturally, when her mother started losing her ability to function on her own, she begrudgingly took her into our home but was determined to make her as miserable as possible. But... by then, it wasn't just about how much she hated the woman.
"Years of grief and a loveless marriage made my mother a bitter, selfish person. Hiding grandmother away from the public was as much out of vanity as it was out of spite, and my father went along with it only to avoid an argument. You... you are not like them. You didn't keep your father hidden because you were ashamed or... because it made your life easier, you did it to keep him safe. And I hate the fact that you had to do it all alone. But you're not alone now. You have friends here, people who love you. You h... you have me. And no matter what you think or say, I will always hold you in the highest regard because... someone like you... doesn't deserve to be hated. Most especially not by yourself. Understand?" I told her like an order. And even though I was the one on my knees, she submitted. She nodded frantically, with the most watery eyes and peppery cheeks on anyone I had ever seen. She stared deeply into my eyes, and even though the pair held such sadness, I could have sworn I caught the faintest barest hint of a smile.
"Thank you, Adam," She whispered, reaching down to squeeze my hands. "Thank you."
We stayed in the following silence for quite some time. I had made it back to my seat at some point, though I didn't remember when. I let her drift into her own mind while I dwelled on all these strange emotions boiling in my stomach.
I had almost let something slip just then, when I was telling her how much I respected her. I had felt something, something twisting in my stomach and boiling in my throat that I had no words or explanation for.
But that wasn't the only thing I was dwelling on.
Twice, today, I had ended up on my knees, and the only other person in the world I had ever knelt before was my father. I had been taught to do so before anyone of lesser rank would be a disgrace to me and my family name and yet... I was not dishonoured.
What an odd feeling it was.
I had lived by my father's philosophy for two whole decades. Let it dictate every thought and action I made. But something strange was happening to me, something that had started from the moment I laid eyes on this broken little beauty.
I was making my own choices. Fixing my own mistakes. Thinking my own thoughts, and listening to them.
Who would have thought, royalty kneeling before servants? But I felt no shame. In actual fact, after everything that had happened today, I believed I felt a sense of pride.
You always told me I had to be my own man someday father. Well, look at me now! Are you proud of your son? If you aren't, I don't care! Do you hear me?! I! Don't! Care!
You may have raised me to be a king, but you never taught me how to be a man, but I'm learning without you now. And no matter what you or mother ever said, Alex was the one who was right. Being a man is far more important than being a king. I just wish you would have taught me how to be both. Perhaps then, I might have been proud of you.
I looked at the father sleeping peacefully on the bed, arms and legs strapped down and hands bound in tight concealing gloves.
You did a wonderful job of raising your daughter sir. You're the kind of father anyone would be proud to name as their own. And even though you can't tell her, I know you're proud of her as well. But I promise you, I'll do everything in my power to make sure she never feels so alone again. You have my word as the future king of Fairalia. You have my word.