There was a flurry of activity and a rapping at the outer doors of the Dark Castle.
“Oh yes,” cooed Rumpelstiltskin, twirling his hands in glee. Belle set down the trinkets she had been dusting and glared at him sideways. She knew him too well—he was only pretending to have forgotten whomever or whatever this is, and that only served to further pique her curiosity.
“That’s right. The serfs—the Parishter family, if I am not mistaken—the wedding is today.”
“A wedding?!” Belle dropped her feather duster (she had a feeling she was only moving the dust around anyway) and gathered her skirts, running to join him as he walked to the door. “Are we going? Why didn’t you tell me?” Unable to keep the hope out of her voice, she hurriedly tried to dust off her dress and finger comb her tousled curls. As much as she had grown to love the quiet peace between them in the castle, or the lazy afternoons he allowed her to roam his beautiful gardens now the weather was getting warmer, Belle longed to go further, to see her master’s lands, to accompany him on one of his trips perhaps.
Rumpelstiltskin paused in the doorway, bringing her up short before she almost ran into him. He steepled his fingers and cocked his head, uttering an airy giggle as he made both her and the party at the door wait on his pleasure.
“Oh no, I’m afraid we won't be invited to the nuptials, my dear. We wouldn’t exactly be welcome there anyway, would we?”
“But…but they’re your lands…your people.” She couldn’t conceal the wretched disappointment in her voice.
“And you were hoping to escape the Dark Castle, even for an afternoon? Hmm?” He spoke lightly, as if it was no matter, but Belle could sense the sudden tension between them. He lifted an eyebrow, his gaze challenging her.
Belle cast her eyes down, biting her lip. It was true, she wanted to leave; she had made no secret of how much he missed her home, or of her desire to see the world. However, she didn’t know if it was more dangerous to have him believe she was eager to get away…or risk revealing that while her heart yearned for adventure beyond the pages of her books, she didn’t want to leave him.
He curled an unexpectedly gentle finger under her chin, raising her face to his. Ever since they had returned from Sherwood Forest he had been risking occasional touches like this, as if she was too interesting a specimen not to examine more closely. He was always so careful, as if she was made from the finest fragile spun glass. Belle bit her lip harder to keep its tremulous quiver from giving her away, and met his eyes.
He searched her face, confusion flitting across his expression momentarily, before he dropped his slight hold on her chin and stepped back, his features once again inscrutable. He straightened his leather waistcoat and lifted a hand in the direction of the entranceway.
The great doors swung open. Rumpelstiltskin’s expression contorted into a mask of false cheer. He rubbed his hands together in glee when they were greeted by a little group of villagers, much more somber than Belle would have expected for a wedding party.
But they were very much a wedding party: in the center a fragile young bride stood clasping a small carpet bag in front of her with trembling hands. She looked to be few years younger than Belle herself and was clad from head to toe in white muslin. A thin layer of lace veiled her features, it was faded with age, fraying at the edges, but mended carefully, Belle noted. They were poor, but had pride. This girl was loved. Her ladies in waiting clustered around her like a human shield. A group of younger girls waited back by the gates, wildflowers woven in their hair, gripping each other as they watched from a distance. From the girls at the gates to the wedding party on the doorstep, fear rolled off them in waves.
A groom shifted restlessly, unmistakable rage in his eyes, his friends with his hands on his arms as if to hold him back. He was a farmer, Belle guessed, his face youthful but his build strong. His muscled arms rippled through his thin linen shift.
A weeping mother sought succor in the arms of an older man whose expression revealed his identity: Belle saw in his reddened eyes the despair of her own father the day Rumpelstiltskin had led her away from him.
The father of the bride wrung his hands. “G-goodday to you, sir.” He bowed low.
Rumpelstiltskin did little more than tilt his head in acknowledgement.
They were respectably, if simply, dressed. Poor, but far from impoverished. Rumpelstiltskin had once told her that no one went hungry in his lands. Belle frowned, completely confused. Had something gone wrong at the wedding?
She looked to her master, but Rumpelstiltskin looked as if this was all to be expected. Indeed, he looked completely unfazed.
Belle’s eyes narrowed. “Why are they here?” she muttered. “Is it some kind of wedding tax?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He declined to elaborate. “Now hush, child, I have guests.”
Child?! Belle fumed.
Rumpelstiltskin’s grin widened as he cackled quietly, radiating calm confidence and sordid glee. She knew this look, he was perfectly happy to be intimidating these poor people, what was he up to? What could he possibly want with such miserable-looking serfs?
The gaggle of ladies hung back at the command of the bride’s father. Only he, the groom, and the mother accompanied the bride. She reluctantly detached herself from the other women and took her father’s hand as he led her over the threshold into the castle.
Now that she was closer, Belle could see the girl seemed even younger than she had first appeared. She was as white as a sheet, and shaking.
“What’s the matter?” Belle exclaimed, unable to keep quiet any longer.
Rumpelstiltskin ignored Belle completely, and the villagers, after a furtive, curious glance at her, followed his lead.
“Come in, come in!” he crowed. His good cheer only seemed to grow with the obvious discomfort of the villagers. The groom, his bride and her parents stepped over the threshold. An invisible barrier arose, forbidding any others from following.
Questions from the men, sobs and sighs from the women, and angry exclamations from the groomsmen all erupted in a tumult from the doorstep, once Rumpelstiltskin was no longer looking at them.
Rumpelstiltskin merely lifted a hand, and the door slammed heavily closed.
An uncomfortable silence fell as Rumpelstiltskin circled their four guests, nearing the bride until he stopped in front of her. She whimpered softly, looking like her legs were about to give out at any moment.
Belle gasped as Rumpelstiltskin reached for the young woman. She leaned back against her father with a low moan of fear. Her groom tensed, his strong hands flexing as if he wanted to throttle the interloper, but he stayed in place.
Slowly, carefully, Rumpelstiltskin lifted the wedding veil until he had a clear view of the girl’s face.
“Beautiful,” he murmured, stepping back. “What’s your name, dearie?”
Belle’s stood frozen to the spot, a fluttering of fear in her stomach.
“Yahira,” she whispered.
“Have a seat, Yahira.” He ignored everyone but the girl.
He used magic to pull out a chair from the long table, seeming to enjoy the young bride’s startle at the screech of the chair legs on the stone floor.
Belle opened her mouth to chastise him, but her master’s eyes flicked to hers, just briefly. She closed her mouth.
Nonetheless, she held out her hand to Yahira when the young bride wobbled on her feet trying to obey Rumpelstiltskin’s command. Belle led her to the chair and helped her to sit. Ignoring Rumpelstiltskin’s amused smirk, she fetched another chair for the girl’s mother, placing it right beside the bride.
The woman looked to Rumpelstiltskin, taking a seat only when he nodded slightly. She reached out to her daughter and the two grasped shaky hands. The father moved around behind them and placed a supportive hand on his daughter’s shoulder. The groom paced up and down, his expression as black as thunder. Rumpelstiltskin watched him for a moment, tapping a blackened fingernail against his chin, before erupting with another high-pitched giggle that startled the group’s already frayed nerves.
“Mrs. Parishter, perhaps you would assist my maid in bringing us all some tea.”
Belle’s mouth fell open. For just a moment she had clean forgotten she was his maid. It had been many moons since he had treated her thus. Some days she did nothing but lounge in her library or wander in the gardens, and he never spoke a word of reproach as long as his basket of straw remained full and she brought him his tea.
Frowning, she gathered her skirts, a quick nod indicating she would obey—for now. Rumpelstiltskin had all manner of strange dealings with people and she had learned better than to interfere. Well, mostly. Before she left for the kitchens, Belle leaned forward and placed a gentle hand on Yahira’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart, everything is going to be all right.”
Rumpelstiltskin snorted, causing the girl to jump again. She gazed up at Belle in surprise, and the faintest gleam of hope glowed in her face.
Rumpelstiltskin dismissed Belle with a flick of his hand. Taking Mrs. Parishter’s arm, Belle hurried off to the kitchens before Rumpelstiltskin could reprimand her. Her feet clattered noisily on the spiral staircase, and she hoped every loud echo would let Rumple know that while she may not yet have challenged him in front of these people, she was most displeased.