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One Winter's Night

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Belle was asleep and dreaming, but she woke up the moment the wagon stopped. For a minute, she lay perfectly still, breathing slowly and silently, just as she was taught to do, aware of the biting cold on the other side of the scratchy blanket that covered her. But then she heard her papa muttering to himself, which was something he wouldn't do if they were in trouble - really in trouble - so she gritted her teeth to prepare herself for the cold, pushed back the blanket, and sat up.

For a couple of seconds, a cocoon of warmth lingered around her. Then the night air dug its fingers into her scalp and she shivered all over. Sensing her movement, or perhaps hearing her teeth chattering, her papa turned in his seat at the front of the wagon, and looked down at her.

"Belle, go back to sleep," he said.

She tried blowing on her fingertips, which were suddenly pink and painful. "Are we there yet?"

Her papa thought for a moment. "Well," he replied at last, "we're here … wherever that is."

"We're lost."

"No, no," he assured her. "We're not lost. We're just--" He fumbled with the map, trying to smooth it across his knees; the wind kept snatching at it.

"We're lost," said Belle. Their horse, Philippe, lifted his head, turned to look at her, and nodded glumly.

Belle sighed and climbed to her knees so she could see over the side of the wagon. What she saw did not comfort her: Here appeared to be the crest of a low hill, surrounded by more low hills, rolling away in every direction toward a horizon she couldn't make out. She strained her eyes for some sign of habitation, some indication that she and her papa were not the only two people left in the world: a curl of smoke from a chimney, or perhaps a lighted window. Anything.

But the only light came from the stars. They glittered in endless swirls against the black dome of the sky. She had never seen so many in all her life, had never truly imagined that there could be so many, even though she'd read about them in books. The sheer number dizzied and dazzled her.

"Papa," she said, mostly just to hear another human voice in the darkness. "Papa?" she said again when he didn't reply immediately. She turned to find him hunched over the map, apparently lost in contemplation.

"Maybe we should have taken a right at that last fork…"

Belle crawled to the front of the wagon and hooked her chin over her papa's elbow. If she squinted, there was just enough starlight to make out the dark lines of the map. "Is this where we are?" she asked, following her papa's index finger.

"Somewhere around here, yes."

Belle studied the map. The thick squiggly lines were rivers, she knew, but the names were difficult to read. Usually she had no trouble deciphering her papa's messy handwriting - she often read his notes back to him while he tinkered in his workshop - but this was different; he must have scribbled this map in a great deal of haste.

"Is this the Marne?" she asked finally, pointing to one of the rivers.

"Yes."

"Where is Champs?"

"It's not on this map. Though I suppose it's somewhere over there." He gestured vaguely to the left.

Not on the map. Which meant they must be very far from home. Belle sank back onto her pile of blankets. The night air was suddenly heavy in her chest, as if each one of those stars was a pebble she'd swallowed. She hugged her knees and shut her eyes tightly. She wished she were at home in her own bed right now. She wished her mama were here. She wished…

"It will be all right, Belle." But her papa sounded the way he sometimes did when one of his inventions didn't work out quite according to plan. "I promise. We'll find someplace new to call home, someplace safe and quiet, where nobody knows who we are. We can start fresh. You'll like that, won't you? A fresh start? You'll make new friends…"

Belle shook her head. New friends wasn't the problem; it wasn't as if she'd known so many other children in Champs, after all. But Champs was their home. For the seven years of her life, it was the only home she'd known. Her bed was there. Most of her books were there. All her memories of her mama were there.

"Ah, Belle…"

She hadn't lifted her head, but she was sure her papa was looking over his shoulder at her. "It will be all right, trust me. You know why we couldn't stay, don't you? Why we had to leave in such a hurry?"

She nodded, even managed to smile against the back of her forearm when she heard Philippe's comforting whuff. She knew; she didn't fully understand, but she knew. Her papa had been a student at L'Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées, the new engineering school in Champs-sur-Marne. It had been a source of great pride for him - and for her, his secret assistant. Then one day he'd come home upset and preoccupied. She'd asked him what was wrong, but he'd only shaken his head and told her not to worry, which wasn't like him; usually he told her everything. They'd had a quiet supper together, and she'd gone to bed.

Late that night, her papa had come into her bedroom and shaken her gently awake. "I'll explain later," he'd said, forestalling her questions. "We must leave quickly and quietly. I'm going to saddle Philippe. Fetch your cloak and meet me in the stable."

Her heart pounding, she'd done as instructed; but she'd also snatched up two books - not her favorites, only the first two she'd found as she stumbled about her dark bedroom - and carried them with her. Her papa had frowned when he'd spotted their outline under her cloak, but he hadn't said anything. He hadn't spoken another word until they were well on their way. Until, upon turning back for one last glimpse of their home, she had seen the smoke rising from their chimney and started to exclaim, "Papa! You left the--"

He'd quieted her with an arm around her shoulders. Hugging her close, his cheek pressed against the top of her head, he'd tried to explain: there was someone at the school who'd wanted to use his inventions to do bad things, to hurt people. Belle's papa had tried to report the man, but no one had believed him. "I invent things to help people," her papa had said, "to make their lives a little easier. Never to cause harm. So I burned my notebooks. And now we're going to start a new life, someplace far from Champs. Someplace safe."

Safe. She didn't feel safe, with the cold wind trying to dig its way under her cloak and the whole vast dome of the sky bending over her. But they weren't there yet; they were here, wherever here was. There they would be safe. In their new home.

Belle lay back down among her blankets, her fingers instinctively finding the rough edges of the two books she'd managed to bring with her. She'd already read them both once since they'd left Champs; she wondered how many more times she'd read them before they arrived at wherever they were going. Probably quite a few, she thought sourly, if her papa couldn't find his way.

No, that was unkind. She had the best papa in the world. Her mama had said so before she'd left them, and Belle believed her. Her papa was a good, kind man and a genius - even if he was a little absent-minded sometimes.

She fell asleep with her hand resting on top of her books, rousing only briefly when the wagon began to move again. After that, she sank into a dream about her mama. They were walking together over hills that sparkled like glass in the starlight; the air was sharp but sweet, like cider, and Belle was neither cold nor tired nor frightened. "Where are we going?" she asked, but her mama only looked down at her, one corner of her rosebud lips curving upward, one eyelid lowering in a slow wink. It was a look Belle had seen before, and it always meant something good was going to happen. So she asked no more questions, only clung to her mama's hand and walked alongside her, trusting.

As they walked, Belle caught glimpses out of the corner of her eye, of fantastical figures as ghostly as her breath: dragons and ogres, witches and unicorns, knights in armor, brave maidens. Figures out of Belle's own books, and the stories her mama used to tell her before she was old enough to read. She wanted to see them more closely - up close, if she could, because she too was brave - but whenever she turned her head, they vanished.

Finally her mama stopped walking and pointed. "Look, ma petite."

She looked, and there across the frosted hills, over treetops and shadowed valleys, she saw a castle. It was a tiny thing on the horizon, which was just beginning to lighten, but the longer she stared, the closer it loomed, until she was able to make out turrets and courtyards, even the gleam of stained-glass windows. Belle had seen castles before, of course; Champs had its own castle, and the duke who lived there had the grandest library in all the land - or so she'd been told. This castle looked older than the duke's, and somehow … diminished. More than forgotten: repudiated by memory. This was a place nobody even thought about anymore, never mind visited or cared for. Sadness filled her chest.

She was about to turn to her mama, to ask her what place this was, and if it was really real or just something she remembered from a story, when the sun sprang up from behind the horizon. Light poured over the castle and across the hills and valleys, finding Belle and warming her cheeks. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes, and as she did she saw the clouds that were gathering over the castle. They were pink and gold in the early morning light, and they looked like a rose.

Then she was awake and blinking, with the real light of morning on her face. For a few moments her dream lingered and she sat up half-expecting to see her mama's face. But she only saw her papa and Philippe. They were looking at her.

"What is it?" she asked. "Are we…?"

At that moment she became aware of familiar scents: eggs and bacon frying, bread baking, wood burning in stoves and fireplaces. And she heard the jingle of bells as shops opened for the day, the sound of mats being shaken out, of shutters being flung wide. Looking up, she saw that they had come to the open gates of a town. A town that, like her, was just waking up.

At first glance there was nothing special about it; it certainly didn't compare to Champs, which, by this time of day, would have been bustling for hours. So she didn't say, Is this our new home? or even, Will we be safe here? Trying hard not to sound too worried or disappointed she said, "Are we going to stay here?"

Her papa was looking around too, while he haphazardly folded up his map and stuffed it into a pocket of his cloak. "Yes, Belle, I think so. For the time being, anyway." He didn't sound certain, just relieved. So she smiled at him, to let him know she trusted him, and she and Philippe both nodded vigorously when he suggested they take a look around anyway, and maybe find themselves a nice, hot breakfast.

And for the time being, Belle forgot about her dream.