She's just a girl.
That's what Rumpelstiltskin tells himself as he asks for her as his price. Even a beloved daughter means little to the needs of a people on the losing end of war - and against the ogres, to boot. That she realizes it sooner than her menfolk speaks well of her intelligence, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn't dislike that.
It will be lonely, in his castle. Better that she has the smarts to entertain herself, he thinks. He certainly won't go out of his way about making her new life palatable for her; in fact, he's already picturing how that precious golden dress will look after a night spent on the floor of his dungeon. And after a week. And a month. And whatever rags are left over after that.
He's scheduled to turn a shabbily-dressed servant girl into a princess, a few years from now. Can't help but be curious about how the process will work in reverse, can he?
An experiment. Nothing more.
And if this girl accepts her fate with her chin raised high... Well. Rumpelstiltskin is curious about how long her pride will keep burning, too.
(Hopefully long enough to warm her through the following nights, he thinks, tittering a little.)
It takes a longer moment than usual to find the fear in her eyes. It's hidden deeper than it should be, and layered over by relief that he will get rid of the ogres and - is that curiosity? No matter. There's the familiarity of fear as well, and he trusts that better than any promise of loyalty now that she's entering his service. The girl is his, whatever her inner thoughts, and Rumpelstiltskin knows his next line already.
"It's forever, dearie," he tells her, making sure the terms are clear.
He's not above a clever trick, to get what he wants, but he won't abide someone whining about it under his own roof. It's the plain truth, for this girl.
She nods, if stiffly, and lets him lead her out of the room.
Just a silly girl.
Rumpelstiltskin reminds himself of that over and over, those first weeks after he's brought his new maid to the Dark Castle. She's just a girl missing her home, wishing herself anywhere else, coming to the understanding that she's made a deal she didn't quite understand.
He could sympathize, truly. If the wretched little thing weren't ruining his nights.
The blame is his, of course. How he forgot to specify that he needed silence even more than dusted rooms, he cannot fathom. He's of a mind to send her back to Avonlea, if not for the nagging doubt that she might be doing it on purpose.
She's a smart one, this Belle. Maybe not that smart, but he cannot be sure, can he?
So every night, Rumpelstiltskin grits his teeth and suffers through her sniffles. It's not as if she shirks her duties or hides away in her cell during the day, which means he can't rail at her for breaking their deal. The girl is useful enough. She makes the tea and brings some light meals when the mood strikes him to have something to eat. Simple fare, so far, for it's clear the girl has never seen a stove from any closer than ten paces away, but she doesn't shrink from her chores.
Her cookery might not be the finest, but it's edible at least. Must be all the practice she's getting in-between, feeding herself on the days he can't be bothered to sit at the table for a half hour.
So he has his maid; the public rooms of the Dark Castle are now gleaming clean, and he hasn't needed to conjure straw into his basket since her arrival. She isn't even afraid to cross ways with him, when necessary, and she speaks, even if only to mutter an irritated 'you're welcome' when it hasn't even crossed his mind to thank her.
It wouldn't be bad, not bad at all, to have this live little thing around - if it didn't have a home of her own, far away. Impossibly far, and well she knows it.
("It's forever, dearie," he'd said, and he'd meant it.)
So she works during the day, a streak of dirtying gold running up and down his castle, the hems of her skirts sodden and muddy. Rumpelstiltskin waits for her to complain, to demand a better fate, or at least an adequate uniform, just so he can deny her any unnecessary comfort. But she doesn't ask, and instead he finds himself thinking of them unasked.
How is he to conduct an experiment if the conditions aren't what he expects?
But no. The girl agreed to be his servant, and she knows too well that her lot could be worse. It's not such a heavy burden, to take care of his state, when magic does the worst jobs. She hasn't a harder duty than to keep the floors clean, and the worst mess she's had to deal with was after she'd nicked her own palm at the cutting board and bled all over the vegetables she'd meant for his dinner.
Rumpelstiltskin found out, of course. Human blood, so recently shed, has magic no water can wash away. He'd sent the plate back, untouched, refusing to explain his behavior despite her questions. He'd thought of offering to heal the wound, too, before he reasoned that it mustn't hurt too much, if she wasn't already crying over it.
Because this girl can cry. Oh yes, she can! As soon as her chores are done, she'll sequester herself in the dungeon and cry and cry and cry.
He'd forgotten, how many tears a female could conjure up.
But she's sneaky, this one. Won't wail or blame him to his face. Won't give him a reason to complain. It's always this, just this sniffling, unending and unhappy. Rumpelstiltskin wants to know what sorcery she's done, that he can pick up on her little cries all the way to his spinning wheel. (None, of course; but the drafts still carry the bedamned sounds to his ear.) It drives him mad, her crying. Makes him miss his silent, lonely castle, with its cobwebs and the rising dust. Anything is better than a sobbing girl in his dungeon!
He should march up there and... and...
Yell at her?
Scare her out of her wits, once and for all?
Have her sniffling night and day, instead of letting her believe her anguish is unheard and so best spared for the privacy of her downtime?
Hardly seems to his advantage, to do that.
So Rumpelstiltskin grits his teeth again and tries to ignore the sound. It's hopeless, of course, but until he figures out how to give her some comfort without actually looking like he's giving in, he's stuck.
He's starting to regret bringing the girl here, that's for sure.
Stupid, naive girl!
Rumpelstiltskin sees red for a moment, once he realizes his maid - his maid! - has defied him as thoroughly as to help the man escape from his cell. She's gone and allowed some stranger to take off with one of his possessions! Unwittingly, perhaps, but it's still her fault.
And does she quail and plead for mercy?
Of course not!
Better that there's no other servants around, or she'd single-handedly whip their minds into a revolution. Her father should have sent her to lead his army, instead of dressing her in pretty clothes and keeping her close to hold his hand.
(And such a pretty dress, it had been. Why won't she ask for some decent clothes!)
But no. The one thing she has asked from him, was to keep her friends and family safe. Nothing for herself! Not even now, when she should be on her knees before him!
(And kiss his feet, too? No. Not that.)
But there must be a punishment.
Three hundred years, and nobody has ever disobeyed him this baldly. Never! That won't do. Can't do. What did she believe would happen, once he discovered she'd stolen away his prisoner? Hasn't she heard the cries of pain, washed the bloodied cloths? How does she think he'll respond to any thievery, and thievery it is, to untie his prey and let him go!
And why, oh, why hasn't she run away along with the thief? His anger becomes slippery while she stands there, facing him as no one has dared in decades, trembling a little at his fury, but she still stays. There may be the fate of her people in the balance, and she's smart to understand he'd take his payment for her defection on their backs, but duty alone would have her cowering away from him, begging for his forgiveness.
Proud to the end, this girl, even in her tattered dress.
Rumpelstiltskin thinks of breaking her. Has a vision of her skulking around the darker corners of his castle, scurrying away from his eyes, yet blind and deaf to anything but his orders. He can do it. He should do it.
(He remembers a man scurrying away from the jeering around him.)
(He remembers a man brought to his knees.)
He snarls at the girl (at the insolence of his own memory) and speaks his judgement.
Oh, she'd make a fine messenger dove for his collection. Would read his messages before setting into flight, too. Probably would stick around stubbornly until he edited his phrasing to her pleasure; he's seen how she frowns at a badly turned sentence.
Or he could turn her into a reading lamp.
But he needs a maid more than he needs another trinket.
Even if she cries too much.
Such a curious girl, indeed.
The girl should be exhausted, after he's dragged her all the way to Sherwood Forest and back, and instead she's standing in front of him with an elated look on her face. She's smiling, too. And touching him. And telling him he's not as bad as she'd thought.
Her words are sincere, to his experienced ears. The girl actually means what she says. She could have set fire to the castle and he wouldn't be as shocked. What is wrong with her?
Unable to think of an answer while they're in the same room, Rumpelstiltskin soon leaves her to her new treasure. Belatedly, he hopes she can't tell he's just called in every book in his possession and arranged them into a library while they went up the stairs. If he thinks too much about that decision - about rewarding her when he would have punished her that very morning - he'll have to think about what she's done to deserve it, about how she stalled him before he could make a grave mistake.
The thief had a child coming, and it's Rumpelstiltskin's belief that a man deserves to be a father, even if he's stolen and lied (and worse) to keep that child safe.
He wouldn't have felt guilty, if he'd killed Hood before he'd known about the babe. It's not his fault if the man couldn't come clean and ask for help - or, Rumpelstiltskin corrects in all honesty, bartered for it. But it's... better... that it happened this way.
And all because his maid is a brave little thing, if terribly naive.
The girl actually believes that he spared a thief because of mercy. Mercy for himself, perhaps! For the thought of children made orphans through the foolishness of their parents can make him squirm as little else.
But Belle sees only his actions, and judges him by them.
Naive, indeed. It's the intent that matters.
But he'll keep his strange little maid, and Rumpelstiltskin has the feeling that he won't be listening to her nightly cries anymore. (Now that is worth the lost wand!) Then there are these new smiles from her; he'd like to keep those as well. Perhaps add a bit of conversation when he doesn't mind hearing someone else's voice.
Those are not part of their arrangement, but rather a new indulgence of his. Makes sense that he'd pay her for them, doesn't it?
Smiling a little himself, he conjures the dress he's had ready for more than a week, and, thinking of their trek through the woods, new shoes as well. He finally has an excuse to give them to her, and after the thick cloak he gave her for their trip, she won't see anything strange in the offering. Some changes must be made, though. Rumpelstiltskin frowns at the dull brown of the skirts - a reminder that she's a servant in his household now - and with a pass of his hand it blares into a bright blue.
The color of her eyes, he thinks.
Because that's the strongest memory that comes to mind, today. The look in her eyes once she decided he was worth a hug.