Belle had a feeling things were going to go from bad to worse that day. Her father had actually taken her by the hand and asked her to be with him in the war council today. This was an unheard of request, the only times she'd been asked to attend the war council were when they needed yet another scribe making notes, which hadn't happened in months. There just weren't enough plans to require scribing. To make plans, one needed hope for victory.
Her father hadn't asked her there for her skills, that much was obvious from the tone of voice, the resignation in his bearing. He needed her support. As a daughter. He'd rarely let it show, but Sir Maurice was the type of father who would indulge his daughter right up unto the point where the rest of the world could see it. Keeping her at a distance in public was part of what protected her, if people knew how very dear she was to him, the first target in any attack would, always and inevitably, be Belle. That he wanted her by his side now was a sign of just how bad things had gotten. The last barricades must be near to falling. Perhaps he thought he'd this was their last day on this earth.
It was possible. Times had gotten so desperate he'd called upon the Dark One, hoping to make a deal that would save their little village. You never made a deal with the Dark One if you had any other choice left. To call him in was to invite a devil to your doorstep. This was the state of things. A merchant prince with one walled city, a few scant farms, no militia to speak of, they were doomed if they couldn't find some aid. Every mercenary band for leagues around was either already employed or engaging in much more profitable highway robbery. Anything was better than fighting ogres.
She had heard that the Dark One always asked a terrible price, but that those who came to him rarely had the luxury of refusing. He would come at their weakest moment, offering a glittering thread of hope...Tied to a monstrous obligation.
She wondered what would be asked of them. Her father's life? Belle shuddered to think of losing him, and even more knowing that she'd be immediately shoved to some corner while various men tried to claim her inheritance, simply because she'd the misfortune of being born the wrong sex.
Or if they didn't toss her aside, she'd be shackled in marriage to whoever proved most 'worthy' of ruling, no matter what she might say. Heaven forefend the girl might have a mind of her own, perhaps even skills learned out of necessity, no, she would be the little wife. Not that her current arrangement was much different, but her betrothal was just that, an arrangement with no wedding planned, and by appealing to her father's soft heart she hoped to delay nuptials long enough to find some means of escape.
Perhaps the Dark One would claim their land as his as the price for keeping it safe. Would he make beggars of her and her father? Set them up as puppet rulers, subject to his cruel whims, ready to take the fall should the citizenry revolt?
No, more likely he'd claim all of it, and Belle would be forced to wed far below her station to some landed lord older than her father, or maybe (a more appealing notion, in her heart of hearts,) she'd go become Lady In Waiting to one of the more well off kingdoms daughters. Midas had a girl near her age, perhaps she would be wedding soon and setting up housekeeping in one of the minor palaces, and it certainly wouldn't do not to have at least one well bred lady to gossip and sew with the young bride. No princess was without such ladies, and if it weren't for the long-ago luck that had earned her father land as well as fortune, she'd already be one such.
There, she had found a suitable option. Belle resolved that, providing she still had any type of freedom when this day was done, she would present herself to Midas' daughter as a potential Lady In Waiting. If the princess found her too low born for the role, she'd petition for a less exalted position, careful in how she would disclose her familiar troubles. If nothing else, she might hope to win by wit and daring what birth and protocol would deny her: a measure of control over her own destiny.
For one thing, acceptance to the service of the Princess would all but dissolve her rather inconvenient betrothal to a scarce created knight who cared more for what she looked like than who she was. A more suitable match would be made, and if love would still never enter into it, it would be the choosing of a young woman with a heart inclined to keeping harmony in her court, rather than buying military or financial security.
So Belle flipped through the piles of her father's correspondences, having taken on the role of secretary some years ago. Abigail, there was the name she was searching for. A letter should be penned sooner rather than later, she might not have the time, depending on how events fell out.
How best to word it...
It took several discarded sheets of parchment tossed onto the fire, and one overturned inkwell, before she finally had a satisfactory missive.
Your Royal Highness Princess Abigail,
It is with great humility that I write to you this day, seeking from Your Highness an indulgence, if only of your time. My father, Sir Maurice, who your esteemed house may remember from Your Highness' own coming out gala, having been involved so deeply in the supply of the furnishings for the garden terraces; has of late fallen on hard times, owing to the ongoing war.
There is a possibility, one that I hope to find false, that Sir Maurice takes his duties as a ruler less seriously than he does those as a father. I could not bear the thought of him sacrificing the welfare of our lands in order to spare me hardship. I fear that I have become a burden to his house, and seek that I might free him of the obligation of my care and proper marriage, as is required in order to ensure the land in safe keeping. Were he not possessed of a daughter requiring marriage, he might appoint an heir from those he trusts best, with only the good of the people involved, not my maiden's heart. I understand your own father has given many promises regarding your own future, and hope that I might find a sympathetic ear to my worries. I do not think my father is willing to look at the big picture where I am involved, as evidenced by his choice of betrothed for me, which reflects more on a desire to keep me close and safe than it does on making a beneficial match. Like it or not, I am his only child and heir, and that he picked a husband for me who is neither a match for my person, or a strong ally to our lands, speaks for his inability to see sense where I am involved.
It is with this in mind that I ask for your consideration of myself for a position in your household. I have been raised in such a way that I should be more than sufficient to serve as Lady-in-Waiting, or if that is not pleasing to Your Highness, as a simple lady of your retinue. Were I to be in service elsewhere, it would be possible for my father to look to the people he governs, and seek a better alliance than one high spirited daughter might make by marriage. I would not write this letter if I believed you would not show wisdom in this matter, even if it were only to advise me to send my inquiries elsewhere. It is understandable if this request is deemed presumptuous and ill mannered, and for that, I beg your forgiveness. Know simply that I am, and shall always be,
Humbly your servant,
Each careful flourish of the quill had to capture her very best penmanship, for secretarial work was only the least of the duties of the role she had put herself forth for. When finally she'd signed her name, Belle could feel her heart racing like a fluttering swallow. It seemed an eternity to wait for the ink to dry, all the while her ears trained for the slightest footstep that would summon her to her father's side.
Her hand trembled as she affixed the seal, her mother's from before she was wed, the roundel and rose slipped and leaved. The Lady Rosalind left little enough for her daughter, and Belle felt a kind of ironic mischief in using her mother's maiden seal in her attempts to avoid a distasteful marriage. Finally, the task complete, Belle set aside the letter, and went to dress fit for the war council. It wouldn't do to show up in this ink-stained gown, not when she was being observed by her father's closest advisors.
As a simple economy, she'd never had any personal servants from the time she was old enough that her governess was dismissed. Her father had encouraged this thrift, while also insisting she learn to command his household as her late mother would have. Because of this, her rooms were tended to with much less formality than the rest of the fortress, a maid kept the fires stoked and chamber pots cleaned, but Belle would have to call someone to draw her bath, or else do so herself. She lay out her own clothes, and brushed them clean so they needed laundered infrequently. If her meals weren't taken with her father, she'd steal down to the kitchen herself and have what the servants were having. She would probably venture by on her way to the council for some dried fruit, now she'd thought of it.
This tended to put some of the newer employ off, and the nobles as well. The lady of the house, begging a bit of toast and a bottle of lemonade from the cook? In a greater house, it wouldn't be tolerated. But the old servants knew her from when she was small, and if their service was never anything but perfectly proper, there was a hidden warmth when they said "Yes, my lady," and lingered over "my" rather than "lady."
However, it was "my lady" she would have to be, today. With that in mind, she picked a golden gown with the fashionable beaded neckline she'd flushed at the first time she saw, but because she would be damned if she was going to look like a trophy, she wore only a single pearl on a chain, and was brushing her hair when a discreet knocking sounded on her door.
"Yes?" She called out, cleaning the brush and tossing the locks into the fire. One could never be too careful, letting bits of hair lie around was said to invite magical disaster, and that was the last thing she needed today. They'd already invited one such creature, after all.
"Your father has called the council to assemble, and wishes your presence anon, my lady."
"I'll be along momentarily, then."
There was a slight cough. "I was also asked to remind you that your fiancé will be present and may ask you to walk with him when the meeting is adjourned." It was obvious that the servant knew this message might not meet with quite the same enthusiasm as the previous, he sounded nearly embarrassed at the words.
Belle's eyes rolled without any prompting from her brain. Of course he would. Where her father was understandably reserved with his protectiveness, Gaston was positively possessive. And while that would be tolerated in some men, he compounded the problem by being an utter bore. She'd never had a single conversation with him worth the recalling. Well, so long as he wasn't going to push for setting a date for the wedding, she would tolerate the man. He was a brave knight, and attractive by the conventional standards, but by the gods, she wanted to at least be able to talk to her husband about something of meaning.
She could only hope that Princess Abigail would accept her, as it wouldn't do for a lady of her retinue to be wed to anyone of as low rank as a landless knight. She left the letter sitting on her desk, a promise to herself that she wouldn't give up when she could take action to direct her future.
'When I get back from this meeting, I'll pack a bag and be into the stables before Papa can think to set someone to watch me.' That decided, she dismissed the servant with her thanks and went to meet her father.
She was the first one into the room, her father pacing beside the table with the map spread upon it. He looked up when she entered, and it hurt to see the look on his face, torn between relief and fear. Immediately, Belle went to his side. "Papa, what's wrong, you look dreadful. Have things really gotten so bad?"
Sir Maurice could only sigh and shake his head. "Too soon to tell as of yet, my girl, but I fear we're lost. There just isn't anyone who can stand up to those beasts."
"But what about-"
"Oh yes, but he isn't here, is he? Half the gods bedamned treasury promised him, and not even a word of response." Maurice's face fell. "Belle, I'm afraid you won't have anything like a proper dowry, or even much of a wedding, assuming we live."
Well, that was one more thing not to worry about, if Princess Abigail accepted. And even if she didn't, there were other royal families she could petition. There was no need for him to worry about her future, she could see to it herself. Belle grasped him by the hand. "Papa, you should know well enough that any man who would be bothered by that isn't worth my heart. We'll find a way, you'll see."
A sad smile crept into her father's eyes, and he stroked her hair fondly, as if imagining a happier future. "I hope so."
There was just no way to break it to him that she was perfectly willing to take care of herself, and he could just deal with the land as a ruler, and not a father. She opened her mouth to make an attempt nonetheless, but his advisors had begun filing in, and Belle took a position at his father's side, pulling a history from the table to leaf through.
Reports from the front were coming in at regular intervals, and with each new messenger, there was a hope and dread that it would be the Dark One himself. She'd finished the history, an account of the first Ogre Wars that she suspected left out more than it told, when the word finally arrived that changed her fate.
"Sir, there's news from the battlefield. Avonlea has fallen." Belle nearly dropped the book from her hand, felt her knees begin to tremble, and looked to her father and her intended for some sign they had a plan.
That more than answered her question.
"If only he had come."
Belle bit her tongue as her father snapped back, it was a useless exclamation, but better than silence. Good gods, had it really come to the point she was almost willing to defend Gaston?
"Ogres are not men."
Unspoken was the fact that men could be negotiated with. Men could be bribed. Men were all her father had ever had to deal with in his time. This was beyond his abilities, this was beyond his knowledge. The defeated way in which he fell into his seat broke Belle's heart, and when he claimed the Ogres unstoppable, that very history she'd been reading told her it wasn't so. Someone could stop them. They had already written, all that remained was for a response to arrive.
"He could be on his way right now, Papa." She patted his hand, trying to give that last bit of hope. But he wasn't listening. Again, she thought of the letter on her desk, and Belle was going to mention it when a pounding on the door sounded. Her heart leapt. "It's him, it has to be him!"
Her father rose from his seat, and Belle clung to his arm, barely daring to hope. "How could he get past the walls?" Again, she bit her tongue, to simply say 'magic', and let that suffice would be a rude remark, and she knew better than to disrespect a ruler in front of his advisors. "Open it!"
Swords were drawn, and the doors unbarred, and Belle held her breath as the assembled group peered into the hall, only to find it empty. Had they been mistaken? Had that been a catapult launching, a drawbridge slamming?
"Well that was a bit of a let-down."
Everyone whirled, and Belle was struck by a thought she'd never dare voice. That's him? But, he's just a man? Oh, there were the long black nails, the green gold skin, and yes, he'd just appeared from thin air, but Belle had never expected the Dark One to be sitting in her father's throne like he belonged there, and to look so very... normal.
Well, no normal man would swat away a sword in such a manner, and really, what was Gaston thinking, drawing a blade on the one they'd begged for help. That was no manner in which to treat a guest, especially one who could rightfully be called the most powerful being in all the lands. Oh, gods, she should be playing hostess, or doing something besides staring. He'd said he'd help them, and... what?
"My price, is her." The Dark One wasn't even looking at her, simply pointing one blacked fingernail. Gaston immediately put an arm out to keep him from her, and it was no shock the words from her father's mouth were denial. Nor was it a shock when her intended brought up the engagement.
What did shock her was the way the great and powerful Dark One turned away and declared he wasn't looking for love. Turned away, as if he couldn't show his face when he made that declaration.
There was something in his manner, the way he attempted to make a mock of the word love, which was false. He knew something about love. That much was obvious. Why else would he be the one to bring up the word? It was not as if marriage and love were inextricably linked, after all. No, he'd been the one to make the association. And he wanted a caretaker? She could do that. She'd be doing so anyway, should she marry. It wasn't that much of a price to pay. She was just one woman. Surely her father would-
"Get out." There was murder in her father's voice, and Gaston's hand trembled almost imperceptibly when he pulled Belle back, out of the path of the creature who had named her the price of their salvation. "Leave!"
"As you wish."
Watching him leave, their hope for survival, her people, her friends, her family, Belle thought to the letter once more and made her choice. "No, wait."
He stopped, turned, a smile on his face. Belle extricated herself from the grasp of her betrothed, went to stand, alone, and nodded her head. "I will go with you."
"I forbid it!" Had she a blade, she'd have put it to Gaston's throat for those words. How dare he, they were not yet wed, and never would be, now.
"No one decides my fate but me." She was sorry to have to hurt her father this way, but Sir Maurice would never make this choice himself, no matter how obvious it was this price was very little to pay. "I shall go."
"It's forever dearie." The light tone made forever seem, well, not long at all. Perhaps it seemed so, to one such as he. Well, she could manage that. If. If.
"My family. My friends. They will all live?" Staring the Dark One in the eyes, she had to know.
"You have my word." And he bowed his head to her, and for a brief instant, she thought she saw something hopeless and sad.
"Then you have mine." It didn't need a second thought, there was something behind that manic facade, something that had been hurt before. "I will go. With you. Forever."
"Belle!" Maurice's voice choked on his daughter's name, speaking far more of his love for her than any words or gifts could ever show. "Belle. You cannot do this." He might have dropped to his knees and begged, she knew, if it were possible. "Belle, please. You can't go with this," He paused, glancing over her shoulder as she reached out to reassure him. "Beast."
She knew already that the only beasts she needed worry about were the ogres, and not even they would harm her now. Yes, she would be leaving her childhood home behind, but at least it would be standing after she left.
"Father. Gaston. It's been decided." She said, taking a long breath. She remained standing strong, though her nails cut vicious half-circles into her palms.
"You know," The voice was right behind her, each word bringing her new master closer. "She's right. The deal. Is struck." A hand came to rest on her waist, not possessive, not, thank heavens, lustful, just guiding. "Oh," He said, almost an afterthought, "Congratulations on your little war."
His hand never left her as he lead her out, and the last thing that Belle was able to think of as she crossed the threshold, leaving everything she knew behind her, was that someone was sure to find the letter on her desk. Hopefully, the contents would ease her father's heartache at letting her go. It wasn't the way she intended to say goodbye... but she'd done the right thing.