Belle’s curiosity couldn’t keep her out of the main hall for long, after the last visitors left. She wielded a broom in her hands, but Rumpelstiltskin knew the look of her when she actually intended to work and when, as right now, the broom was only a prop to excuse her presence.
“Oh, hi!” the girl said, as if surprised to find him at his spinning wheel. “I didn’t know whether you’d left with... um.”
Rumpelstiltskin raised his head. He had discovered that where spinning did still keep the more unwelcome musings away, conversing with his maid actually distracted him by replacing those thoughts with her little observations and the memory of her quick laughter.
It was impossible to stew in darkness, when Belle’s kindness shone so bright.
Didn’t mean he had to answer her unasked question, though. “Not at all, dearie,” he told her, ignoring her curiosity. “There’s no escape preparing dinner for two tonight. And no mixing up the boiled eggs with the raw ones this time!”
Belle bit her lower lip. “That was the one time,” she muttered, then a little louder, “and I did apologize.”
“Hmph. Apologies don’t clean yoke off silk.”
She raised her head proudly at that. “No. I do.”
Rumpelstiltskin tittered. He couldn’t help himself. Her spike of anger reminded him of a kitten taking its first swipe at a nearby dog. Utterly useless, yet intrinsically adorable.
The idea of his helpless maid standing up to the Dark One always filled him with amusement. Clever girl otherwise, or he’d have bored of her stubbornness long ago; but not so clever as to realize that his boredom would have been her ticket back to Avonlea and her tall suitor’s arms... or perhaps into a more advantageous marriage, if she showed an interest in that.
But instead Belle was interested in tales of his travels and everything he’d seen in his long life, and her questions would sometimes open his eyes to some detail he hadn’t considered before.
As long as she kept him entertained, Rumpelstiltskin pushed off the day he would find an excuse to get rid of her.
“Oh ho! Keeping track of your victories with the household chores, are we? I admit. I’ve seen worse jobs at handling delicate fabrics.”
Belle eyed him with distrust at the praise.
“Well---” Rumpelstiltskin rose from the bench, rubbing his hands together. “Since you’re set to remind me what a hardworking caretaker I have employed, why don’t you do your job and deal with that thing?”
Belle’s eyes followed his pointed finger to the end of the table. Her head tilted in confusion at the sight of the mass of cowskin and reed tubes, and she frowned when a moment passed and she still couldn’t recognize it. “What in the world is that?”
Rumpelstiltskin laughed. “Well, what else. The price for a deal, of course! Not quite as pretty as the other one present in this room-” he made a short bow of acknowledgement in her direction “-but let’s not judge its worth by its appearance, shall we?”
Belle gave a distracted nod. “Is it magical?”
Her eyebrow jumped in surprise, and she ventured closer to examine the rare object. “It’s from another world, then?” she chirped hopefully. “Like what Jefferson brings you?”
Rumpelstiltskin snorted. “Oh no. It’s quite common in the isles to the north of the Enchanted Forest. I’m shocked you don’t know them, dearie. Next in line for the throne of a port city, and you show such ignorance!”
“I’m not ignorant,” Belle protested. At his raised eyebrow, she explained, “We just didn’t truck often with Northerners. Papa said...” Abruptly, she cut herself off, glanced off to the wall before facing Rumpelstiltskin again. “I mean, Papa decreed there was too much risk involved.”
“Called them beasts, didn’t he?” Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes burned black for a moment, but then he shrugged and the dangerous edge dropped from his expression. “And then he wonders why no one comes defend him from the ogres!”
His laughter made Belle grind her teeth.
Because he was right.
If Avonlea would have stayed in good relationships with her neighbors, instead of treating them publicly as barbarians, they would have sent support, experienced soldiers above all. They might not have needed to call on the Dark One when their own resources failed.
She never would have met him. Never come to live in the Dark Castle. Never witnessed such feats of magic that she doubted had been seen by other human eyes. Never would have broken her betrothal to Sir Gaston.
She would be a wife already!
Belle let out a nervous laugh. If she was meant to regret the chain of events that had brought her to work for the Dark One instead of marrying a hero of the people, Belle couldn’t find it in herself. She could only answer for her own choices, and her conscience was clean.
“You still haven’t told me what this is,” she reminded Rumpelstiltskin, brushing a finger against the pipe closest to her.
“A heirloom, of course!” Rumpelstiltskin practically vibrated with enthusiasm. “Very old. Very precious!”
Belle eyed the condition of the... well, the heirloom, for lack of another name. After her months in the Dark Castle, she recognized a layer of dust across the room, and that was no layer. That was a thick cover, and it would have gotten into every crevice too. Her only description for Rumpelstiltskin’s ‘precious’ acquisition was grimy.
Compared to the treasures displayed around the castle, it made for a poor addition to the Dak One’s famed collection.
“What does it do?” she asked, thinking it might hide its value under that unimpressive appearance.
Rumpelstiltskin lifted a finger into the air. “Music!”
Belle did brighten at that word. It seemed like ages since she had heard a song that didn’t come from her own lips or the cursed harp stashed in one of the upper rooms. “Oh! Can I listen to it, please?”
A snicker was her answer. “Oh sure,” he told her, “as soon as you learn to play it.”
Her eagerness deflated. “I see,” she said, brow furrowing at the notion, trying to picture how the strange object might function as a musical instrument. “Is it really that good?”
Rumpelstiltskin lifted his shoulders in a careless gesture.
“Then why did you deal for it?” Belle pressed, curious again.
He gave a short laugh, twirling his hands in the air. “An old treasure, long past its prime. Once beloved but now forgotten because a lung sickness demanded that its owner left it aside. Fitting price to buy a few more weeks for the old man, don’t you think?”
It was indeed an old and dusty instrument. However, upon closer inspection, it revealed years of tender care, with several stitches and small repairs done to it.
“And it was left here,” she asked, suddenly sad (what would it be like, to be so cherished and then tossed aside?), “in exchange for a few weeks?”
Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes turned graver. “The man is dying, Belle. Got here carried on the shoulders of his youngest grandson.” He had come closer, and now flicked a black fingernail against the tip of one of the pipes. “Even I can stretch life only so far.”
“He might have been more at peace with an old friend at his side,” Belle protested, touching the soft bag-shaped cowskin.
“But he didn’t want peace, dearie.” Rumpelstiltskin tutted in a scolding sing-song. “He wanted to see his first great-grandchild born. He has a chance now.”
Belle considered that. The Dark One was known for demanding a high price for his potions and spells, and they did most often take the form of priceless objects. But sometimes, out of whim or a method Belle thought she might be knitting together, he asked instead for something dear to the supplicant’s heart.
An unused baby blanket, in exchange for a goat that would give milk in stead of a dead mother. A tiny locket, to show a girl where her sweetheart was buried in the battlefield. A copper wedding ring, to take away a mother’s memory of watching her son trampled under a cart. Bittersweet wishes, all of them. The chance to mourn properly without additional stressors.
Or to take along a last lovely memory to the underworld,
“Does his choice meet your approval now?”
Her cheeks heated. “...I didn’t know.”
“No. You assumed.”
Belle refused to apologize when Rumpelstiltskin hadn’t explained the facts from the start. What else had she been left to do, but to assume? “Did he give you his thanks?” she asked instead.
His huff reminded her that no one thanked the Dark One for making them a deal. In most cases, Belle sided with the petitioners; Rumpelstiltskin took as much as he gave, and did it with a smile on his face.
But in this case...
Belle thought of a man who had lived for decades, yet might have been forced to miss the start of a new generation by a few days.
Before she could dissuade herself, she had come to Rumpelstiltskin’s side, lifting to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Rumple.”
His wide eyes stared at her for a long moment, then blinked rapidly. “Whatever,” he said, retreating back to his post at the spinning wheel. “Just take that thing away and find some place for it.”
“Next to the golden harp?” she asked cheekily, thinking of the contrast this would make against the elegant piece of art that sometimes played by itself - just to come to a halt if Belle came to watch. It would be fun to see its reaction to a roommate of so much humbler origins.
“Might take her down a notch or two,” Rumpelstiltskin agreed, mirroring her smirk.
The joke was on them.
Harp and bagpipe - Belle had finally found the name in an encyclopedia - started to practice their duets at three in the morning, and wouldn’t stop until someone had clambered down to the music room and clapped.
“You said it wasn’t magical!” Belle complained at breakfast after the third night, handing him a quick toast and a jar of preserves. If Rumpelstiltskin wanted something more ellaborate, he should have made sure his maid had a full night’s sleep. “But I certainly didn’t wake up in the middle of the night to play it, and neither did you!”
Rumpelstiltskin tapped his fingers against the table. “So it was old enough to absorb the castle’s magic...” He grinned. “Such a great deal I made. Sometimes I amaze myself!”
Belle narrowed her eyes. “Can’t you do anything?”
Rumpelstiltskin didn’t seem affected, of course. Belle had started to doubt that the man needed sleep at all. He looked at her curiously.
“The concert at night! Can you stop them?”
He deliberated for a moment. One hand came up, then the other, both held as apart as his body allowed. “Yes and no, dearie.”
“Yes, I can send them away. Banish them to the Infinite Forest, for one.”
“And how long would they last without someone caring for them?” Belle asked, shaking her head. “Keeping gold clean is not easy, you know, and I want them silent, not broken.”
Rumpelstiltskin chuckled. “Then give them what they want: an audience! But do it on your terms.”
“With scheduled visits?”
Belle followed his advice, promising to come to the music room three times a week. “And I’m not coming always by myself,” she promised herself. Rumpelstiltskin might not know it yet, but he was on his way to becoming a true connoisseur of music in the Northern Islands.
“What has you grinning so, girl?” he asked now. “I thought you and that harp disliked each other.”
“But now we have a friend in common,” Belle explained. The bagpipe might not be completely sentient, but it did play soft tunes for her after she had finished cleaning it. “That makes us friends too.”
Rumpelstiltskin scrunched his nose at that thought. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
Asking how he would know was a low shot, so Belle saved it for a more suitable occasion. Instead she drew herself straight. “Watch me and learn,” she said.
And had to blink when she did feel his eyes follow her.