It's three weeks until the smell starts to leave the air. It takes much of their winter firewood, but Belle reminds the town that staying warm is less important than staying alive. Her prince is a wise leader now, gentled by his experience as the Beast and humble enough to admit that the plague, this invisible horror, terrifies him. When the people hear even their prince is afraid, they listen to her.
The pyre of bodies burns for days, crackling through the night with a sick orange glow on the outskirts of town. They'd hoped it was just them, then hoped it was only France, but there's nothing else left. No one travels between towns now: no pedlars, no musicians; no word.
When the villagers begin to fall ill, Belle goes to the library with their symptoms scrawled on a piece of paper. She finds books about plagues on the second shelf, ninth section, third row, and she reads until the candles are stubs and dawn crawled over the horizon. Bits of this and parts of that disease match but she couldn't put a name to this horror. The villagers bleed from their ears before they die and when the blood stops a clear fluid follows.
She spreads out the anatomy charts on the floor, mixing Greek with Roman, adding in the wisdom of German physicians and the secrets of the Moors. She's no doctor, but she's better at finding the secrets of books than the villager healer and once the healer succumbs, Belle's what they have.
She can't do anything for Paris or Marseilles, but she can keep her village alive. They impose quarantine, separating the sick from the healthy and her heart hardens with every sobbing child they strip from their parent's arms. There's nothing to be done, no cure, barely any palliative care. They boil willow bark, something she found that eases pain, and feed the sick spoonfuls of the bitter brew until even that doesn't help.
Some die quietly in their sleep but most die whimpering and coughing up froth tinged pink. The Moorish book mentions that disease can travel on bad air, so they keep the windows open and cover their faces. The servants are so brave. When her prince insists on caring for his people, all of them help him.
They lose one, then another, Babette and her sister, Cogsworth, half of the gardeners, but the castle's losses are light. The town holds more ghosts than lives by the time the pyre goes out.
She moves them into the castle, better to have everyone in one place and there are too many children who need looking after with their parents gone. Mrs. Potts is busier cooking than she's ever been and luckily there's still some food. Belle makes a list of everything they traded for; and some of it's going to be a hassle to procure, like salt.
Her geology book suggests some might be in the mountains. They could try for the sea, but for now they ration. Pepper is worse. The last of that's going to be the last they see and she packs some away in the back of pantry, just so she'll remember what it looks like. Maybe they'll find a way to find seeds or perhaps they'll reach the East again.
They can't give up.
Candles they can make. Lamp oil will be harder, but candles are one of the more pleasant tasks. Fat stinks as it's rendered, but the dipping and pouring is pleasant and with their candles she can read away the nights.
The vast bulk of what they need to know weighs on her like the stones of the castle. There's no stone mason left in her village. The castle was built by travelling architects, centuries past, and even maintaining it is going to be a great challenge.
"We need apprentices, apprentices for everything we're going to need in the future. Architects, stonecutters, builders, carpenters"
The villagers, her people, look at her blankly. What are apprentices without masters? Many of them can't read; she can't possibly teach them all.
So they begin with reading. Each night, every night, they read. Some, mostly children, pick up the words faster than others, and she can send them to read on their own. Tales of adventure and wonder are last in her neverending stack of books, but she makes sure the children read those. Tales open the mind and they'll need that.
Winter passes and spring dawns with hope. Farming is one of the few areas where they have knowledgeable leaders and with fields sown, the nightly reading session turns to languages. They may be the last island of humanity and they need to keep that alive. Humanity needs to be cultivated like flowers and wheat.
Riders search in all directions when the snow melts and find dead villages, the bodies rotted where they fell because no one was left to bury them. Did the castle protect them? Did they burn the bodies fast enough? Was it the masks they wore over their faces?
Belle doesn't dare send a rider to Paris, not yet, best to let the crows and rats do their work for another year. She won't risk a life to know what she already knows.
After French, they learn Latin. Latin is an old tongue, one that survived the death of her empire and she deserves to live on in the new world. Belle teaches herself Greek, muddling through words and letters that hold the secrets of the ancient world. Spanish wasn't too difficult, so much like French, and Latin roots make the tongue easier to grasp.
She dreads that she'll have to tackle German. Four books in the hardest tongues sit on the highest shelf: Chinese with her pictures, Arabic that goes right to left and has the curlicues she'll never be able to do correctly with a quill, Japanese and something called Hindi, which doesn't resemble words as she knows them.
Someday, she'll open each of them and see if she can make words from the pictures. There are more books in each language, books that travelled from places that they may never be able to reach again in her lifetime, and she owes it to the people to read them. Knowledge cannot be lost.
While there's food and the work isn't too difficult, order holds. When they determine through scoured maps that the only salt lies deep in the earth, thirty miles to the west, discipline starts to break down. All of them will need to mine, because they need the salt to survive. Salt keeps their meat better than smoke and though the air is sweet now, winter is coming.
She lies in bed with her prince, staring at the ceiling and wondering how they can enforce what needs to be done without becoming cruel. They try to lead by example, taking shifts in the mine each day, but the fear's worn off and some men think they could be better leaders.
Some are sick of reading and living their life through old pages. One of them even calls her books musty and has the gall to then suggest they burn them over the next winter. Biting her lip keeps her temper, but Belle avoids the ignorant man for a day or two. She doesn't even tell him that if her books were musty, they'd burn badly. He'd know that if he took the time to read what's in front of him, to know and understand the incredible thing that's been given to him.
Talking can't rule a nation and she can't expect all of them to be intellectuals and understand that they're stronger together. Her prince suggests, when she cannot, that they let the malcontents go.
"Give them food, let them find a horse in the next village. Perhaps they will find what they seek." He only half believes.
She can't even make herself speak and nods. Out there, without books, what can they hope to accomplish? If they don't farm, there will be no bread and the three who want to leave have never farmed. They could gather and hunt, but without knowing which plants to eat or how to preserve meat, they don't have a chance.
She can't will men to live, nor do more than show them the way. They have to choose knowledge and some do not. People leave in trickles, like water sloshing over the side of a bucket from the well. There are bursts of discontent when the tasks get hard but the full larders of the castle make it difficult to imagine life somewhere else.
Her prince is still the prince of most, and though 'your grace' falls by the wayside as they sweat through the mines together, men listen when he talks. More importantly, men listen when he listens to her, when they all speak of books and truth. The women, bless them, take to learning and bring the books to the children.
Belle walks through the courtyard, surrounded by Aesop's fables in Greek, the thoughts of Plutarch and Plato in debate behind her and a discussion of architectural theory and how they're rebuild the town. They read Shakespeare together and a few of the children begin acting out the parts. Some are better than others and one winter they have their first play.
Snow flies through the trees outside, thick like insects. Surrounded by candles, with ragged costumes, children recite their lines with great feeling. She likes to think that they know what they are saying, that all the reading has been worthwhile. Some of them were butcher's boys, the washerwoman's girl, or the tailor's son: all children of farmers and labourers who may never have touched a book, let alone read the classics, if the world had continued.
Their castle is no nation with ships and an army. Their little world has none of the grandeur of the old, but they have the words to build with, which are more precious than stone. Words that are open to all, pages that can be read and reread until the books are so worn they must reprint them.
The winter the printing press begins its work in the cellar of the castle is the first season of a new world. Chip, grown tall and handsome, announces that the first book will be his. A work of history, their history, since the world ended and their new one began.
They argue names for their country, because they're no longer France.
"Librum," Lumière suggests, his hair long since gone white. "We are a nation built on this library, are we not?"
The history of Librum, pieced together with scraps of diaries and the memories of all them, is the first book they print. She holds it to her chest, inhaling the smell of fresh ink, eyes closed.
The night, while everyone else reads and reminisces, Belle returns to her stack of books, sets aside those on architecture and medicine and lifts an old, brightly bound volume. The pages promise a tale of knights, of warrior maidens who rode dragons into the air, and none of it's real, none of it important, but tonight, it's hers. Tonight, she can step back from the real world.
Tomorrow she'll try Chinese.