The rest of that day was chaos. Well, the whole day was chaos, but the rest of it, after Gaston fell and the Beast and his castle and his servants transformed back, was chaos of a sort she would never have imagined. She kept herself out of the way, mostly, and watched, and thought.
The castle had always been grim and dark, but also very gothic, the sort of place that one might imagine appearing in a Horace Walpole novel. True, it had been terrifying that first night, but after she had a room and met the servants and figured out that the Beast wasn’t going to eat her or ravish her immediately, it had turned into a thrilling place to explore.
She supposed she was now, in a sense, a heroine fit for one of those tales. But she didn’t have a tragic enough history for it, and wasn’t pretty enough, and was a tradesman’s daughter instead of either a poor peasant or an orphan or an impoverished noblewoman. In the ordinary way of things, tradesman’s daughters did not get novels written about them. Certainly not gothic romances. And it was hard to imagine oneself a gothic heroine in a castle filled with statues of cherubs.
They were beautifully carved cherubs. But they were insipid. The gargoyles had had character. And they were old friends by now, and they were gone.
She stood by the window and watched people arrive, while the Beast—his Royal Highness, Duke Louis, they called him—greeted people. It was all a jumble: what happened, so glad to see you are safe, grown into such a fine young man, what sort of enchantment makes everyone forget the heir to the throne and a whole castle for over a decade, will the magician come back, what are your orders your Royal Highness?
A man in livery—Lumière, she realized, from the voice—handed her a cup of tea and she thanked him. “And how are things for you, being human again?”
“Oh, ma chère mademoiselle, it is wonderful!” Lumière said with a wide smile. His face, she noted in some surprise, was almost exactly the same as it had been when he was a candlestick. “To have actual hands—to be the right size for the tables and chairs and doorknobs—to look out the door and know that I could leave if I wanted to—” He started, eyes widening. “Of course, you need not worry that I wish to leave his Royal Highness’s employ, but when one cannot even go to town for one’s half-day off, it gets a little monotonous, no?”
“Oh, I understand, Lumière,” Belle said. “Things wouldn’t be the same without you, or any of the others, but I couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to leave now that they finally can. How are the others? Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Babette, the rest?”
Lumière shrugged. “Cogsworth, he is as he ever was—happiest when he has something to fuss over, eh? Now he is worrying that our standards have slipped and the magic may have done some damage to the castle.”
“Standards?” Belle laughed. “What a strange priority, at a time like this! Hasn’t he taken any time to enjoy himself now that the curse is broken?”
“I am sure he has taken some time, yes,” Lumière said, “but it is not his half-day off. And besides, he is right. This castle, it is one of the main dwelling places of the Royal Family. Ten years under a curse or not, if anything is not up to standard when people of importance show up, we will all be shamed.”
“Important people?” Belle asked. “What about them?” She gestured to the elegantly-dressed man and his young son currently bowing earnestly to the prince.
“Them?” Lumière shook his head. “Local gentry, nothing serious. In fact,” he squinted at them, frowning, “it is a little hard to tell after so long, but I believe that is Monsieur Dubois! He is certainly not worth an audience with the duke, I must speak to the footmen at the door. Mademoiselle.” He bowed to her with a click of his heels, striding off with a frown on his face.
Belle watched him go, eyebrows rising. If a man like Monsieur Dubois, who from the look of him had spent more on the clothes he was wearing than her father’s house was worth, was not important enough to merit an audience with the—with his Royal Highness, where did that leave her?
“Belle?” said a soft voice she didn’t recognize.
She looked up. It was Duke Louis. Somehow, it was easier to remember that he was a Royal Highness when she was looking at the strange human face. He was handsome—far better looking even than Gaston—so she could not complain at the change, but it would take some getting used to. “Your Royal Highness,” she said, curtseying, hoping she did it right. It hadn’t mattered that he was the master of a castle when he was a Beast who often went on four legs instead of two.
“Belle, please don’t,” Louis said. He looked … lost. As he had never looked when he had fur and fangs.
She held out a hand to him. “Of course not, if you wish it,” she said. “How are you … doing?”
“I don’t … I don’t know,” he said. He glanced around, but there was no one there, although she could hear the servants bustling through the halls. “I thought—my parents weren’t here when I was transformed, just myself and my tutor and the servants. My tutor … I don’t know what happened to him. I tried to send word, but nobody could get through the forest. I thought maybe they were kept out, but if that were so, they would set the court magician to break the spell. I knew I was pent up here, but … I thought the reason no one came to me was because they knew, and were ashamed of me. That they had abandoned me like this. That they didn’t want me. And now I find … now I find that nobody outside the castle remembered me. They didn’t know I was here. They didn’t know there was an enchantment to break.”
“Does that make it better?” Belle asked.
He huffed a humorless laugh. “Is it better to be purposely abandoned, or forgotten by one’s own parents? I know it wasn’t their fault, the enchantment was strong.”
“There’s a difference between knowing something and feeling it,” Belle said. She put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. It was so much smaller than the Beast’s shoulder had been.
“Yes,” Louis said. “With the enchantment broken, they should remember me.” He swallowed. He had never been this nervous when he was the Beast—or at least, never that she had seen. But they had never talked of family, his or hers, under the enchantment. “I’ve also sent out a messenger to Versailles. Just in case.”
“Better to be prepared, no matter what the breaking of the curse did,” Belle said.
“What about you, Belle?” Louis asked. “Do you remember me? From before?”
Belle nodded. “Not you, specifically, but this castle, yes. When I was a girl I knew that we lived near a castle,” she said. “My father worked closely with the architect installing some of his devices the last time it was renovated. He took me with him a few times, and I played hide and seek in the rooms where they were storing all the furniture and paintings during the work, and read books in the library. I remember giggling under a sheet, waiting for Papa to find me. At least, I do now—I didn’t, for the longest time. I never thought about it, even when you showed me the library. I’d been there before. But I didn’t remember it.”
“I wondered,” Louis said. “I wondered why you never asked what happened to the Royal Duke, even if you didn’t know I was he.” He bit his lip. “How … how are they? My parents? My brothers and sisters?”
“There are … there are rather a lot of Louis, in the nobility,” Belle said. “And I was just a girl when the enchantment was cast. I’m afraid I don’t know which one you are?” Although it was most common in the Royal Family. But surely, if her Louis were a son or grandson of the king, the court magician would have noticed his disappearance and fixed it.
Louis frowned, as if shocked anyone could not know him. “I am Louis-Josèphe Xavier de Bourbon, Duke of Burgundy, son of Louis the Dauphin and Maria Josepha of Saxony, grandson of King Louis XV.”
“Oh,” Belle said faintly, and gathered her courage. “Your grandfather King Louis still lives and reigns,” Belle said carefully. That was the only good news she had to give.
“Really?” Louis smiled. “I’m glad—he must be so old, by now! What of my parents?”
“The Dauphin and Dauphine both died of consumption, one after the other, several years ago,” Belle said.
At first, Louis did not seem to understand what she was saying. Then his face crumpled and he seemed to collapse in on himself. He swayed on his feet, and then one of the footmen was there with a chair for him to set down on. Sultan, who had been nosing around the room smelling things now that he had a nose to do it with again, came whining to his master and nosed at his hands. Louis gripped his ruff.
“Go get Mrs. Potts, please,” Belle told the footman. She didn’t recognize him as a human; if he was still a candlestick, she’d know. She shook her head. Mrs. Potts would know what to do. The footman nodded and scurried off.
Belle sighed, remembering how she’d felt when her mother died. But at least she’d had Papa, still. If he were the Beast, she would hold him and stroke his fur, but she wasn’t sure she was allowed to hold Louis, the royal Duke, the grandson of the King. He looked up at her, lost as he had been when she returned to find Gaston killing him, and her heart broke. Royal Duke or not, he was still her Beast. She leaned over and wrapped her arms around him, sliding her fingers through his hair and pretending it was fur. She closed her eyes as he began to cry.
“Oh! My poor dear!” Mrs. Potts came bustling in; Belle recognized her by her voice and the ribbon in her cap, which was the same color as the paint on her teapot had been. “What a poor reward for breaking the spell! That’s right, you just cry your eyes out, and when you’re ready, we’ll have a nice hot bath and some fresh clothes all ready for you, your highness. And for you too, Mademoiselle,” she said, addressing Belle.
Belle started; none of the castle’s servants had ever referred to her that formally before. But then, they hadn’t called the Beast by his titles, either.
Mrs. Potts joined her on the Beast’s other side, rubbing his arm and making soothing noises. Belle didn’t know how long they stood like that, the Beast crying, Belle holding him, Mrs. Potts clucking like a mother hen instead of a teapot or a human, Sultan shoving in to be part of the circle. But eventually the tears lessened, and Mrs. Potts handed him over to the hovering Lumière, to be taken up to his rooms and handed over to his valet. Mrs. Potts escorted her back to her own rooms, where there was indeed a bath waiting, along with a tall, plump woman Belle was surprised to recognize as Madame de la Grande Bouche. All the others were much larger, now they were human. La Grande Bouche was smaller, though her presence was no less than when she had been a large wardrobe.
“How long do you think it will take for the King to be notified and send someone?” Belle asked. “It’s at least two days’ journey from here to Paris, and then two back. What do we do while we wait?”
“If the enchantment’s broken, they should remember us again,” said La Grande Bouche. “They won’t need to wait for our messenger to get there.”
“And even if they do, the messenger isn’t going to Paris, he’s going to the nearest Royal Mail station—there’s one in the village,” Mrs. Potts said. “And from there, they can send the message via a scrying spell. They should already have received it, in fact, and can send word back the same way.”
“But the village doesn’t have a Royal Mail station,” Belle protested. “Hasn’t for years. It was shut down.” Probably about the time they’d have forgotten there was a royal castle in the area, she realized.
“Oh,” Mrs. Potts said, taken aback. “Well. Well, the next one is just twenty miles down the road, he should still get there and get it sent before nightfall. And then they’ll send a message back the same way. In the meantime, we support his Highness, and make sure the castle is all set to rights after ten years as that dreadful mess and the damage the villagers did—I shouldn’t like to be them when the king hears what they did.”
“I am glad they’ll be punished for what they did—and I hope that if Gaston didn’t die in that fall, he learns the depths of his bad judgment,” Belle said. “But they didn’t know he was the king’s grandson—they thought he was just a beast. I hope the king is not too hard on them.”
La Grande Bouche pinched her lips and said, “Well, I think they shouldn’t have treated a Beast that way, anyways. And I doubt the king will be in any mood to hear excuses, and good for him.”
Belle didn’t say anything further. Certainly, she remembered her horror and the empty void in the pit of her stomach she’d felt as she’d been locked in the cellar while her neighbors formed a mob to storm the castle and kill her friends and the man she loved. And she wanted them punished! But they were also her neighbors, men and women she’d known all her life. If they’d never been close to her, neither had they been bad neighbors, until that one last horrible day. Without Gaston whipping them up to it, they’d never have done it. And Gaston was probably dead. And they hadn’t known they were attacking a royal duke; it seemed unfair that they should be punished for it.
But they hadn’t needed too much persuasion, either, she remembered. And, after all, was a Beast any less valuable a man than a Royal Duke? Not so, to her; and Rosseau's Discourse on Inequality would argue that the Beast was closer to the state of nature and thus less corrupted by the flawed social contract imposed by the rich and powerful, and so at least as valuable as a Royal Duke, if not more so. But she still did not wish anyone dead or tortured or … whatever it was they did to those who dared attack royalty.
“Will that be all, Mademoiselle?” Mrs. Potts asked, drawing Belle from her thoughts.
“Oh—yes,” Belle said. “I know you must be so busy, please don’t let me keep you.”
Mrs. Potts curtseyed and left discreetly as La Grande Bouche helped her into the bath to wash off the sweat and grime from the day's events.
Belle sighed as she felt herself relaxing. What a day. The frantic trip home to save her father, facing down the crowd, getting thrown in the cellar and locked in, breaking out, the even more frantic journey back to the castle, heart in her mouth, sure she was going to be too late … it all melted away as she sat in the hot water. After she finished washing, she sat back in the copper tub, closing her eyes. She was hungry, but it was so nice not to move, to just … sit here, quietly.
“Mademoiselle?” La Grande Bouche said quietly.
“Hm?” Belle said, looking up at her.
“Mademoiselle, his Royal Highness asks if you will be joining him for dinner in his apartments.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Belle said, stifling a yawn. Much as she wanted to just go to bed, tonight of all nights was not a night to leave the Beast—Louis—alone.
She spent the night with Louis. Not … not in the way of a man and his wife, or mistress, but as a friend, holding his hand as they fell asleep and being there with him when he woke in the middle of the night panicked that it was all a dream and he was a beast once more, and that his parents were here to condemn him for it.
Belle's heart fell. She loved the Beast, but the Beast—Louis—clearly did not.
She hoped she could learn to love Louis the man, for both their sakes. Or, perhaps, it would be better not to. She could not imagine the King of France allowing his grandson to marry the daughter of a tradesman when he might make an alliance to benefit France.
The next morning, Mrs. Potts asked for an interview, and began explaining how the household had worked ten years ago and asking Belle to make decisions on what was to be done now.
"But why?" Belle asked. "You never did before."
"The castle was running in a rather … simplified manner, under the curse, as there was so much we couldn't do as household implements with no hope of resupply," Mrs. Potts said. "And also, before you were a guest. Now you are the Duke's love, and whether you become his wife or his mistress, that means you have a say over the way his household is run."
"But I know nothing of running a household this large!" Belle protested. "Truth to tell, I don't even know how to run a household of my own station, at least not well—mother died before she could teach me."
"Then it's high time you learned," Mrs. Potts said. "And better you learn from me, who is on your side. You'll be thrust into very high politics, my dear girl, and there will be many who wish to see you fall so they can replace you."
Belle took a deep breath. When she said she wanted adventure, this was not the sort she'd had in mind. One never thought about what 'happily ever after' meant, and in this case, it seemed to mean managing the details of a rather large household. She tried to think of the questions she needed to ask, only to realize she didn't even know that.
She was saved by the sound of feet running through the corridor outside, and Chip's voice laughing, and Sultan barking.
Mrs. Potts' face clouded over. "That boy," she said under her breath. "I knew I'd regret letting him have his run of the castle as a cup … excuse me, mademoiselle." She got up and went to the door, and Belle could hear her scolding Chip for being above stairs and out of the servants' quarters.
Belle almost protested—she certainly didn't care, and she would bet Louis didn't either. But if Louis' family came to visit … better Chip learn now, gently, from his mother.
When Mrs. Potts came back, Belle asked her a question. "Mrs. Potts, forgive me if this is personal, but Chip made me wonder. Did you—any of you—age while you were under the curse?"
"No, mademoiselle," Mrs. Potts said. "Everything was the same when we changed back, right down to the hole in my stocking that I hadn't had time to mend yet. Chip was a child when we were cursed, and he didn't grow at all—not just physically, for he couldn't do that as a teacup. But mentally, emotionally, he's still the child he was." Her face clouded over. "I only hope the curse has done him no harm, and that he'll age normally, now, and not be stuck a child forever."
"I'm sure he will, Mrs. Potts," Belle said. "But what about his Royal Highness, the Duke? He couldn't have been an adult ten years ago, could he?" She had a vague idea that the Dauphin and Dauphine had both been relatively young, when they died, and old enough to have a grown son did not count as 'young,' in Belle's books.
"Oh, he grew," Mrs. Potts said, "but then again, at least he was still a living being, and not a piece of china or metal or wood, like the rest of us."
"Then how old was he when he was cursed?" Belle asked.
"He had just turned eleven," Mrs. Potts said.
"Eleven!" Belle exclaimed. "I knew he must have been young, but I had not thought him a child. And how old is he now?"
"Assuming we have not lost count on the calendar, these long years, he will be twenty-one in two weeks."
"And he grew up as a Beast, not as a man?" Belle asked. "Why was an eleven year old child alone? I know you and the others have been good to him, but why was he not with his parents, his tutors, his governesses, his nannies?"
"Children of the royal family are often without their parents," Mrs. Potts said, "for it is not good for them to be at court, and prey to the less-noble courtiers. His Majesty gave the Duke into the care of the Duchess of Tallard when he was small—she had been His Highness's father's governess, you see—and then after her death, His Majesty created a household for the young Duke, with the Duke de la Vauguyon, in charge as the gouverneur des Enfants de France. There were several fine and good men and women to guide and raise His Highness. But on the day the Enchantress came, there had been a court function that required their presence in Paris. His Highness was supposed to go, but he had been ill, and so they left him here with his tutor."
"And what happened to his tutor?" Belle asked.
"No one knows, my dear," Mrs. Potts said. "It was all so very confusing—everyone in the castle has a different account of that day, and none of them match up. When we woke up as we were, the tutor was gone and his Highness was a beast, and we could not send for help. We tried—but even if we were not servants, we were rather small and even then his Highness was rather … larger than he had been. And in any case, we none of us were fit to give him the kind of education a Prince should have had."
"That, at least, he could have gotten some of from the castle library," Belle said.
"How?" Mrs. Potts said. "With his claws, he tore more pages than he turned. And then he gave up. And none of us had the sort of hands that could hold a book and turn pages." She shook her head. "He was so lost, so frightened and determined not to show it. He became quite wild—not through any essential flaw in his character, but merely because there wasn't much for him to do but brood or rage or hunt for his supper." She sighed, lost in her memories. "All we could do, and it wasn't much." She shook her head. "Any more than that, and you'll have to ask him directly, mademoiselle, if you'll pardon me. And these household accounts won't do themselves, more's the pity, now our clerk is no longer a record-book."
The rest of that day passed rather slowly. Belle sat with Mrs. Potts until her head began to swim, and then she sought out her Beast. He looked more like a Louis, this morning, dressed in clothes befitting his station, in rooms that had magically been repaired to their former splendor. The slashed portrait looked as if it had been painted yesterday. The furnishings were all perfectly repaired and in their proper places. This could not have been done by any servants, however industrious, in such a short time; this must have been part of the castle's restoration from the effects of the curse. The table on which the rose had stood in its glass case was empty. Louis himself was standing out on the balcony, face turned up to the sun.
"How are you feeling?" Belle asked. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him. She'd rather enjoyed the kiss they'd had when the curse broke, and it would be nice to be able to do it and focus on it.
"Tired," Louis said. "Confused. Sad. I feel like there is a hole inside me—I thought being human again would fix it, but it hasn't. I've spent the last ten years telling myself that someday my mother and father would love me again, and this whole time they've been dead."
"I'm so sorry," Belle said, feeling slightly guilty. Here poor Louis was, grieving his family, and she was thinking about kissing him!
"It's not your fault," Louis said. "And yet, it seems ungrateful—they've been dead for so long, and I haven't seen them in longer, and I have everything I wanted: I am human again, and you chose me. And somehow, the sun never felt this … warm, when I was a beast."
"I'd think it would take a while to learn how to be a man," Belle said. "You never were one, before. You were a boy. Most people get years to transition between the two; you got a decade as a Beast, instead. And it doesn't matter how long ago your parents died, you only found out yesterday. I'd be worried if you weren't grieving, frankly."
"I suppose," Louis said. The silence stretched out between them, not quite awkwardly, but neither was Belle as comfortable as she would have been when he was a Beast.
"How did your valet get clothes to fit you so exactly on such short notice?" Belle asked, eventually.
"My wardrobe seems to have shrunk with me," Louis said. "Not that I have so very many clothes; it was difficult to keep me outfitted, as I grew, for we couldn't send to get cloth. But he's been muttering for ten years about not knowing what the latest fashions are, so it's just as well I haven't got much—it will all have to be replaced when we get to court with whatever they're wearing now. Your clothes, too, I suppose."
"Well, we can cross that bridge when we come to it," Belle said. "I do like pretty clothes, but I've never been able to figure out fashion, so your family will have to help."
"I'm sure they will," Louis said. "I'm sure they will love you as I do."
Belle smiled but made no reply. Louis might believe they would, but Belle had read enough novels to know what nobles and royals usually felt when one of their own formed a serious attachment to a commoner, and it was not love. But Louis was off-balance enough—was it better to warn him, now, of how his family might react, or give him time to get used to being human again, first?
"What happened to the rose?" she asked, to give herself time to think.
"It disappeared," Louis said. "So did the mirror. Along with every other trace of the curse. Even the damage I did." He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers as if he still expected claws to pop out. "I think I would feel better if the damage was still there," he said thoughtfully. "To have everything back as it was makes it feel as if the curse was a dream—as if I went to bed one day a child, suffered a very intense nightmare, and woke up a man. It's very … I don't feel as if this body is fully mine. I keep being startled when I look down and see my hands and feet, or when I happen to glance in a mirror—it's hard to remember that this is my body, and not some stranger's."
"I've been having a hard time remembering who you are, myself," Belle said. "My first thought on seeing you is 'where is my Beast'? You are very handsome, now, but I liked how you were before, too. And I was used to it."
"Did you like me as the Beast better, or do you prefer me now?" Louis asked.
Belle considered this carefully. "When you were a Beast, I liked your strength and the attention you put towards controlling yourself. I liked the soft feel of your fur under my fingers, and the way you felt so solid against me. Now that you are human, I like the how handsome you are, and being able to really clasp hands as we did last night, instead of me holding your paw."
Louis smiled held out his hand; Belle took it, and they twined their fingers together. "It will take some getting used to," she said, "but I think we'll manage. What I love about you is you—the person, not the body it's housed in. You're brave and strong, but you're willing to admit when you're wrong. You can be serious, but you also enjoy a good snowball fight. Whether we are sad or happy, we can do it together."
"So you don't care what I look like?" he asked, lips twisting.
"I do," Belle said. "I do care about that. But if appearances guided how I feel about people, I'd have married Gaston before Papa ever got lost in the forest."
Louis made a face.
"Exactly!" Belle said. "Appearances matter, but in the grand scheme of things, I don't think they are very important to one's general happiness or wellbeing. I love you, no matter what you look like, and I assume you would love me even if the enchantress came back tomorrow and turned me into a beast."
Louis laughed. It was much lighter than his rumbling bass had been as a beast, but then his chest was much smaller now. "I would, no matter what sort of beast she turned you into. Well, perhaps not if she turned you into a squid or an eel or a fish, that wouldn't work out very well, would it? Then we would have to be very good friends, or something, instead."
Belle blushed. "You might be right, at that." She reached up to kiss him—that was nice, he was just the right height for it now. And it was definitely better when they were not interrupted by magic and servants and the like.
The sun was drawing low in the sky when a carriage with the royal crest rolled up to the front gates. One of the footmen had notified them, and so Belle and Louis were there in the front hall to greet it.
Lumière had all the footmen lined up in perfect order. For all that Cogsworth seemed fussier, even he had nothing to point out when he cast an eye over them.
Belle had just enough time to be nervous when the doors swung open and Lumière announced their guest. "His Grace Paul François de Quélen de Stuer de Caussade, duc de la Vauguyon!"
The Duke was a plump man in his thirties or forties, richly dressed. "Oh! Your Royal Highness, it is so good to see you again! I only wish your father and mother could have lived to see this day!" There were tears in his eyes as he hurried to Louis, embracing him.
"So do I," Louis said, returning the embrace. The next few minutes were full of tears and more emotions than words.
"Oh, I have missed you!" Louis said at last, drawing back from the older man. "Belle, this is Duke de la Vauguyon, he was one of my menin—that is, one of my children's court." At Belle's blank expression he explained further. "Grandpapa gave us courtiers he could trust to treat us honorably and well and give us experience of the ways of courtly life, without exposing us to the intrigue and immorality of the actual court."
"That seems sensible," Belle said. She curtseyed. "Your Grace." But he paid her no mind. She hadn't expected much attention, not to the daughter of an artisan, but it still burned to be ignored so completely.
"But where is your tutor, your Highness?" the Duke asked. "Should Father Baptiste not be here at your side?"
"I don't know where he is," Louis responded. "He disappeared when the curse was cast."
Duke de la Vauguyon was taken aback. "Then who has raised you? Who has tutored you? Who has been here for you?"
"The servants did what they could," Louis said awkwardly. "And Belle has been here for the last several months—she's the one who broke the curse."
Duke de la Vauguyon sagged. "I am so sorry, your Royal Highness, that you should have been so abandoned. It was not by intent—if it had been in my power, I would have been with you through it all even if you could not have been saved from it. And now you are a man, with none of the accomplishments you will need to go about in society."
"Louis is a good man," Belle said, bristling. "What he doesn't know, he can learn. Character matters more, and he's got that."
"And you are?" the Duke asked, looking down his nose at her.
"I am Mademoiselle Belle Arnaud," she said.
"She's the one who broke the spell, Paul," Louis said.
"That is to your credit," Duke de la Vauguyon said. "May I enquire as to mademoiselle's family?"
"My father is an artisan," Belle said. "Monsieur Maurice Arnaud. He was one of those who designed the upgrades to this castle, a few years before the curse was cast, in fact."
"I see," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "And your mother?"
"My mother was Charlotte Martin, and her family are printers in Lyons." Belle raised her chin and looked the duke in the eye, daring him to comment on her humble origins.
"Ah," was all he said. "And, may I ask, your Royal Highness, was it the standard way for a young woman of grace and intelligence to break a curse?"
"She said she loved me and agreed to marry me," Louis said, which wasn't quite how Belle remembered it but was close enough. She would marry him. She would be happy to marry him, if it was allowed.
"I see," the Duke said, with a pained look on his face. "Again, your Royal Highness, I wish I could have been here with you, and we could have found you someone more suitable to break the spell."
Louis drew himself up and frowned at Duke de La Vauguyon, looking more like the Beast than he had all day. "Belle is a remarkable woman, with great courage and intelligence and determination and wit."
"Of course she is," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "I am sure she is quite an extraordinary woman. But there are extraordinary women of your own class, more suitable to your rank and station. That is all I meant."
"And would any of them have learned to love me as a Beast?" Louis asked.
"For a chance to be your wife or mistress, they'd learn to love you as a sea monster," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "And I have no doubt that some of them would have learned to love you as a Beast without knowing your true identity." He got an odd expression on his face. "Indeed, some of them might like you better as a beast," he muttered under his breath.
Louis looked confused, but Belle bit back a giggle. The library in their small town was small, but rather more thorough than she suspected some of the fathers and mothers of the town would have preferred, if they had bothered to check. Then again, the strictest of them forbade their children to read novels altogether, and thus had no need to care what was available. In any case, she understood the reference, and would have to explain it to Louis later. Much later. In private.
"But in any case, I am sure your grandfather will want to meet Mademoiselle Arnaud," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "And he is greatly anxious to see you again, dear boy, as soon as possible. Monsieur d'Avignon, the court's sorcerer, has put an enchantment on the horses and carriage so that they might travel twice as fast as normal. We shall not make it to Versailles tonight, but we should still leave as soon as possible."
"We are packed, and can leave at any time," Belle said. "Louis' valet and my maid are also ready to go, if there is room for them in the carriage. But I must send word to my Papa and tell him where we are going."
"You must invite him to come," Louis said.
"We will have neither room in the carriage, nor time to wait for him to be ready," Duke de La Vauguyon objected.
"Then he can follow us," Louis said.
"Very well, send your note. Then let us away!" the Duke said.
Belle was fascinated by the carriage. And the spell, and the horses. "We must be going thirty miles an hour, or so!" she exclaimed, as they reached top speed. "How are the horses doing it without collapsing?" Because the carriage was not light, especially not with the three occupants, plus servants, plus luggage, and even a horse without a rider could only travel perhaps fifteen to twenty miles in an hour.
"I am not sure, but I believe the spell affects their hooves," Duke de La Vauguyon said, "so that the ground travels more quickly underneath them. They are not running at thirty miles an hour."
"But they are running," Belle pointed out, "and they can't possibly keep it up for very long. Surely it is better not to wear them out too early?"
"There will be changes of horses along the way," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "The spell is not on the horses themselves—animals being tricky things to enchant—but on the carriage and its harness, so we may change horses as often as need be."
"Ah," Belle said. "That makes sense." She thought about leaning outside the carriage to see what the horses did, but she wasn't sure how far outside the carriage the spell extended. And she wouldn't want to get hit by a passing tree branch at thirty miles an hour. "It must be more than a transportation spell, though; at this speed, there are no springs in the world that could make our journey this smooth." Springs were difficult. Carriages and wagons jolted one so severely. As he got older, Papa spent more and more time thinking about ways to make them more comfortable to ride.
"I am no magician to explain it, mademoiselle," Duke de La Vauguyon said, and if his manner towards her was not cold, it was not warm, either.
Belle settled back in her seat. The carriage bench was richly upholstered, and wide enough for three to sit comfortably. There was only her and Louis on this side, with Duke de La Vauguyon across from them. She moved closer to Louis, and leaned up against him, as they had done in the library when she read to him, or gathered on the floor in front of the fire. He gave a contented sigh and twined their fingers together. Duke de La Vauguyon ignored this.
Sultan laid on the floor by their feet, gnawing on an old bone.
They changed horses once before nightfall, and spent the night in a chateaux that Belle would have called grand before her time at the Beast's castle. The next morning they started out quite early, and after changing horses twice were at Versailles by noon. The Duke apologized for not giving them time to change or freshen up, but the King was quite anxious to see his grandson.
Belle looked around curiously as they were shown through the halls of Versailles. It was as much grander than the castle, as the castle was grander than her home. She would appreciate the chance to explore, if the King did not try to separate her from his grandson.
They were shown into a glittering salon. There was a small party gathered in a seating area, with an elderly man in sumptuously embroidered clothes in the center. At his left sat a younger woman dressed with a magnificence Belle had never imagined possible, holding his hand; she couldn't be the queen, for the queen was dead. Perhaps the infamous Madame du Barry? At his right was seated a youth in the gawky stage of late adolescence who looked very much like her own Louis. This was presumably his younger brother, who had become Dauphin on the death of their father. The Dauphin—was he still the Dauphin with his elder brother returned?—was alone, his Austrian wife nowhere to be seen. His face was deathly pale, but his eyes lit up at the sight of her Louis. Four younger children, two boys and two girls, sat on an adjacent couch, but their stares were more curious than hopeful. Louis had been gone for a decade, and they had probably been too young to remember him well.
A footman announced them all formally, and they all—Louis included—bowed to the king. The formality did not last long, for the king called for his grandson and Louis ran to him and embraced him. There followed many tears and hugs and exclamations over how they'd all changed. Eventually, the reunion gave way to more practical matters. Louis—her Louis—introduced her to his family.
The elderly man was indeed his grandfather the King, and the woman was indeed his chief mistress Jeanne du Barry. The oldest of the youths was Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin and the Duke of Berry; the younger boys were Louis-Stanislas, Count of Provence, and Charles-Philippe, Count of Artois. The girls were Marie Clotilde and Elisabeth. Belle privately thought that the royal family needed a little more variety in the names of their sons. And then she realized, uncomfortably, that she did not know the proper form of address. Her beast was a "Royal Highness." Was that specific to his place as Dauphin (if he was still Dauphin), or applied to his brothers and sisters as well?
They were seated again, and the court magician was invited in, a portly man wearing a thick wig and carrying a cane, though he didn't seem to need it. Belle wondered if it were a magic wand, disguised as a cane, or merely a matter of fashion. His name was Jean-Michel d'Avignon, and he apologized profusely to her Louis. "My dear sir, your Royal Highness, I am abjectly humbled by my failure in your case. It is the greatest failure and regret of my life—"
"Yes, yes, we've heard you, now get on with it," the king said testily. "You can't change it now. What I want to know is, is he safe now? Will there be any lasting effects?"
At this Monsieur d'Avignon brought out a scrying-glass and examined Louis and herself minutely through it, before pronouncing them fully free of the enchantment. "That is usually the case with such things, sire," he said. "Once an enchantment such as this is broken, the magic in it is gone forever. Of course, the effects of the ordeal upon one's mind and character, those are often permanent, and that I cannot say."
"Are you any closer to finding out who attacked the Royal Family in this way?" the king asked.
"Alas, your majesty, I am not," Monsieur d'Avignon said, bowing obsequiously to his master. "In such cases, the longer the time since the enchantment was cast, the fewer traces of the caster, and it has been ten years since his or her work was done. Unless his Royal Highness has some remnant of the spell that lingered, which I may examine?" He turned a hopeful glance at her Louis.
He shook his head. "No, nothing. The rose and the mirror she gave me both disappeared when the castle turned back, and everything and everyone was as they were before. Except me; I aged as a beast, as the servants did not, and I kept that age when I returned to humanity."
"Oh," Monsieur d'Avignon said, crestfallen. "That was no doubt done on purpose, to protect the identity of the magician. I suppose that one so cunning and powerful would not make such an amateur mistake."
"No doubt," King Louis said dryly. "In any case, I wish to hear how you came to fall under the spell, and what has happened to you for the last ten years. Monsieur D'Avignon, you will stay; perhaps there will be some detail that will aid in your investigations."
Louis—her Louis, she must either learn to call him Louis-Josèphe or go back to calling him Beast—told his story. Although she knew most of it, it was the first time she had heard it all in this order, and many of the details were new to her. He gave the most detail about the very beginning of the enchantment, and its end, glossing over whole blocks of time in the middle. He was quite glowing in his description of her courage and kindness, and Belle blushed.
It took quite some time, and refreshments were served in the middle. It was a light meal with as many courses as the castle had provided, but with more delicate fare. Belle supposed that when the chef had real human hands, it was easier to do precision cooking than when he was a human transformed into a stove.
The king and Monsieur D'Avignon interrupted a few times for clarifications, and the younger children with oohs and ahs at particularly exciting parts (Elisabeth, in particular, was taken with the battle against Gaston), but for the most part they let Louis-Josèphe speak undisturbed. At last the story came to a close, and Louis-Josèphe picked up the tea he had mostly neglected during his tale.
"I don't believe it," Dauphin Louis-Auguste said. "You were always the kindest, the most generous of us; I don't believe you would have thrown out a beggar woman on a stormy night."
"More to the point, what the devil would you have been doing answering the door?" King Louis said. "That's what footmen are for, and they would've sent her along to the kitchens or the stable or something. Out of the rain but not bothering the family. And what happened to Father Baptiste? He was not a great magician, but he could certainly recognize an enchantress in disguise. And it is quite the coincidence that this enchantress happened to show up on a night when you were as alone as you've ever been in your life. This was not some random witch out of a child's tale come to teach a lesson. No, this was targeted."
"But Grandpère, Louis-Josèphe was only ten," Princess Marie Clotilde said. "Why would an enchantress want to hurt him?"
"And how was he supposed to find a woman to love him if he couldn't go out and nobody knew he was there?" Princess Elisabeth asked. "Was he supposed to marry a servant?"
"He was the heir-presumptive," Madame du Barry said. "And at ten, he would have been easier prey for one with a grudge against the crown than his father or grandfather. And I doubt very much he was supposed to find anyone at all. Much more thorough revenge if he didn't, and was a Beast forever, and then our memories were restored."
"You are, as always, quite perceptive, Madame," Monsieur d'Avignon said. "I have been focusing my efforts upon magicians with a grudge against our country or our King—or who could be bribed by those with such a grudge. Such a curse, with such far-flung ramifications—how many thousands of people had to have their memories tampered with? That was no small feat!—it is simply unbelievable that such power should have been enlisted simply to teach a boy a lesson. If that were the aim, there are far easier ways to go about it."
"Not to mention that if it were truly about my brother's flaws, they would have been hard-pressed to find any," Dauphin Louis-Auguste said. "Beyond those of youth in general, I mean."
"Keep us advised as to your progress, d'Avignon," the King said, and the magician left with many deep bows and regrets about his inability to be of more service.
"That foul witch," Dauphin Louis-Auguste said. "I hope he finds her. There is no punishment too severe for making us think Louis-Josèphe dead these last ten years."
"Dead?" Belle asked. "In the village, we had forgotten about him entirely—and the whole castle!"
"Yes, well, I do not know what it matters to a peasant who their lord is, so it would have been no great matter to wipe that knowledge clean away," said Dauphin Louis-Auguste. "We, on the other hand, were Louis-Josèphe's family. We loved him dearly, and it killed my poor parents when they thought him dead!"
"I am not a peasant," Belle said, holding on to her temper firmly with both hands. "I am bourgeois. And if the castle's specific occupant mattered little to the village, the castle's existence mattered a great deal to our economy. The village was devastated when the enchantment was cast; it affected every class and trade of people. There was a very real loss of income and status—too much to forget or just not notice. And yet we did!"
"You merely lost income," Dauphin Louis-Auguste said. "We lost our brother."
"You can call it lost income," Belle said. "I call it children going hungry because their parents can't afford to feed them because the nearest market for their goods was gone."
"Yes, yes, I'm sure it was all very poignant," King Louis said dismissively. "The question is, now we know he's not dead, what do we do? You can't have failed to notice he's spent the last ten years with no education at all. He isn't fit to be king; he isn't fit to be Dauphin. And I'm sixty-two years old, there's no telling if I'll live long enough to see him properly educated."
"He's the eldest," Dauphin Louis-Auguste said. "It is his right."
"He could always renounce his claim and, I don't know, go into a monastery or something," du Barry said. "Though it would be something of a waste." She eyed him up and down, with much the same look in her eye that the village girls had when they looked at Gaston. "I don't suppose you have any sort of religious vocation?"
Louis-Josèphe shook his head. "I haven't even been to Mass or confession since the curse was cast," he said. "With Father Baptiste gone, there was no priest in the castle." Belle knew this, of course; she'd lived in the castle for months and that lack had been part of what made it so strange, beyond the Beast and the talking candlesticks. But she'd never quite let herself imagine what ten years with no confession, no absolution, no worship might be like. She herself wasn't terribly observant, but religion was one of the few things she had shared with the others of her village.
Louis-August sucked in a breath. "Well," he said, "we shall have to fix that. My confessor, Abbé Soldini, will be at your disposal."
"Thank you," Louis-Josèphe said awkwardly.
"It is his right to be king after you, grandfather," Louis-Auguste said, "and I have no doubt he will do a better job than I. He was always the handsome one, the brave one, the smart one, the kind one. How many times did you and my parents lament the king he would have made? Well, now you have him back."
"You have been the Dauphin for ten years," Louis-Josèphe said, his voice low, as close to the Beast's voice as he could achieve in his smaller chest. "I do not wish to supplant you or deprive you—"
"It was I who supplanted you, dear brother," Louis-Auguste said. "I have no great desire to be king." He gave a curious smile.
Belle was not sure she believed him, but he went on before she could press him on it.
"Besides, you yourself did not rule directly for the first part of your reign," Louis-Auguste said to his grandfather.
"The situation was entirely different," the King said dismissively. "I inherited the throne at age five; there was a regency. Your brother is already of age."
"You left the business of running the state to your first ministers for several years after the regency ended, though," Louis-Auguste pointed out. "Surely my brother could do the same until he is ready to take up the reins of government. It would give him time to learn."
"Belle is very intelligent, and well-read," Louis-Josèphe put in. "And very sensible. I am sure she will be a great help, grandfather."
"Sensible? Hah!" King Louis said. "I've never met a sensible woman under the age of thirty—and damned few sensible men of that age, either. And I'm sure she's read a great many novels, but those hardly prepare one for ruling the greatest nation in the world!"
"No, but the Encyclopedia, The Wealth of Nations, and The Social Contract might," Belle pointed out.
"Rousseau? God help us, another Enlightenment wit," the King said. "Providing you've actually read it." He peered at her.
"'Laws are always useful to those with possessions and harmful to those who have nothing; from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much,'" Belle said. "Or, if you prefer, 'as soon as any man says of the affairs of the State "What does it matter to me?" the State may be given up for lost.'"
"Hm," King Louis said. "Well. Well, knowing things out of a book doesn't prepare you for the reality of court life, and dealing with all the nobles who want something out of you."
"No, that is where novels such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses come in," Belle countered.
Du Barry snickered. "Oh, my dear Louis, that is better preparation than all that damned Austrian mademoiselle's convent schooling."
"Austrian mademoiselle?" Louis-Josèphe asked.
"Your brother Louis-Auguste is married to an Austrian arch-duchess named Marie Antoinette," Belle explained. "She's not popular, and they haven't yet produced offspring."
"Auguste is married? Louis-Josèphe said. "But he's only eighteen!"
"I inherited directly from my great-grandfather because my father and grandfather died before he did," King Louis said. "And in the last decade, I saw my heir and my heir's heir both die. I'm not taking chances. Though your brother is failing in his duty—you've had her two years, boy, there should be at least one child out of her."
"Grand-papa," Louis-Auguste said, hand over his face, looking younger than his eighteen years, "please don't."
"In any case, if you're to be king, my boy, you'll need a wife and some heirs, as well," King Louis said, turning to Louis-Josèphe. "Don't think the Austrians will be too pleased with their arch-duchess not being in line to be queen, but perhaps if we marry you off to an Austrian they won't mind? Although perhaps it would still be better to marry from a different royal house—spread things around a bit more."
"Grandpère, I am going to marry Belle," Louis-Josèphe said firmly. "She broke the curse!"
"Don't talk nonsense, you can't marry anyone unless I say so," the king said. "And the very idea is absurd, boy, she's a fine girl no doubt but she is a commoner, and you are to be king! Unless you renounce all your titles—and the income from them—and go into exile. No, no," he said, frowning, "I couldn't allow that either. What if your children or grandchildren raised an army and came back to try and depose the rightful king?"
"Oh, but don't worry, dear," Madame du Barry said, "You could still be his official chief mistress. Far less bother, with almost all the perquisites. All the luxuries you could want, and none of the politics."
"I'd rather have the politics and statecraft than the luxuries," Belle said.
"Well, then you could be your man's Madame de Pompadour," du Barry said. "She had all sorts of salons and political influence. Though I do warn you, even as a mistress and not a queen, the nobility will never accept you, because you're so low-born. They may kiss your hand, but they'll snicker while they do it. If you intend to keep hold of your Louis, best develop a thick skin."
"I've never been popular before," Belle said, "I don't see why marrying—or not marrying—would change that. But I've no desire to be any man's mistress. Not even a king's." Though she wasn't quite sure of that; the idea gave her a sinking feeling, but was that because of the idea's own merits, or merely because of the way her parish priest had always carped on female chastity being the source of female worth? Belle was a faithful Catholic, but she had always been much struck with Voltaire's arguments about the insidious ways certain of the more superstitious elements of the religion could be used to manipulate people. The question was not what would old Father Serge say, but how did she feel about the idea? What did she think? It would, after all, be her life. She'd kissed her Louis enough to know that that part of a mistress' job would be quite enjoyable, and he was a good man; she trusted him. It was still a relationship that could be broken so easily; that people would be trying to break. Was that the kind of adventure she wanted?
"True, it can be a short-lived position," du Barry said, "not much security in it. But that's why you make sure you get lots of presents, so that if he tires of you, you will have something to live on until you find a new patron. I know the priests do go on so, but it's a good life. I like it. And you can leave a man you don't like far easier than a wife can."
"I've known Louis as a man and as a beast," Belle said. "In both cases, he was good and true. I doubt I'd want to leave him. As for the life of a mistress, well, I'd imagine success rests a great deal on one's ability to manipulate men and please them in the bedroom. I'm sure there's a great deal of skill involved, but my talents are largely those of the intellectual, not those of the coquette. I'd much rather focus my abilities on things I already know I'm good at."
"This would all be so much easier if we had morganatic marriage, as the Germans and Russians and English do," Louis-Stanislas said.
"Well, we don't," Louis-Auguste said.
"Morganatic?" du Barry asked.
"They allow a noble to marry a commoner, but agree that the children can't inherit any titles or entailed property, my dear," King Louis said, patting her hand. "It's like a secret marriage here, except since they specify what the children can't inherit, you can do it while the woman is still of childbearing years." He smiled fondly at his mistress; it was the nicest expression he'd had for anyone since Louis-Josèphe had told his story.
"That would seem to solve the problem, though," Princess Marie Clothilde said. "Louis-Josèphe gets his bourgeois girl," she said it with a sideways glance at Belle, "Louis-Auguste will go back to being Dauphin while Louis-Josèphe is king and will become king after him. The Austrians will be pleased, because Marie Antoinette will be the mother of the future heir."
Belle didn't care if she were Queen or not. In fact, she'd really rather not be. It sounded nice in romantic tales, but there would be too much she didn't understand, and too many people who would despise her for rising so dramatically above her station. As to keeping the Austrians happy, she didn't care one way or the other. The alliance with Austria had only brought France the shame and debts that came with losing the recent war against Britain and Prussia. But it was evident the King Louis did care. She bit her tongue. Her parents had raised her to speak up for herself, but in such exalted company it was probably better to speak only when she absolutely had to.
"You are the king, grandpapa," Princess Elisabeth pointed out. "Why can't you just make a law?"
"It is not our custom," King Louis grumbled. "I don't like aping those damned Prussian freaks, or those English barbarians."
"The Russians do it too, Grandpapa," Louis-Stanislas pointed out.
"They are worse than the English," King Louis said.
"Oh, but grandpapa, she did break the spell," Princess Elisabeth said. "And saved him from a marauding peasant! Surely that deserves a reward!"
"An estate and a title and a position as mistress-in-chief should be reward enough for one of her station," the King said severely. Belle bit her tongue.
"If she is ungrateful enough to think that too paltry, then a pox on her!" the King concluded.
"I don't think it paltry," Belle said. "But surely a reward should be something one actually wants? And I don't want an estate, and I don't want to be a mistress. I want a secure foundation of equality between myself and the man I love, and I want a chance to use my talents to their fullest with interesting work. Whether that is as queen or commoner matters little to me."
The king scoffed at her.
"In any case, it is getting quite late in the afternoon," Madame du Barry said, "and if I am to dress for dinner, I must do so now. Will we be having dinner with the court, or in my apartments, my dear?" she asked the king.
Belle blinked, at the idea that she could dress more splendiferously. But apparently she could.
"With the court," King Louis said. "Too many rumors going around as it is. None of you children, though," he said. "They don't know Louis-Josèphe is back in Versailles, and I would like to keep it that way until we can make any formal announcements. As to Mademoiselle Arnaud's future place in the royal household—if there is to be one—we shall see." King Louis gave a firm nod, and levered himself up from his divan. "You, Louis-Josèphe, will stay here out of the way until I have decided what to do." He turned and marched toward the door. Madame du Barry followed him out of the room, giving Belle a wink as she went.
Louis-Josèphe watched them go, then turned to his brother Louis-Auguste. "Are you sure you do not mind?" he asked. "I really don't care one way or the other about being king—I've assumed since the enchantment was cast that that was the end of it. And you've got so much more experience and training, while I do not."
"Also, if you were not the heir, it would be easier for Grandpapa to swallow the idea of you marrying some common … mademoiselle," Louis-Stanislas commented.
Louis-Auguste had a wretched look on his face. "You were always the better one, in every way," he said. "I don't doubt that's still the case, now that your virtue has been sufficient to break a curse." He got up and followed his grandfather out of the room.
"Louis, wait!" Louis-Josèphe said. "That wasn't what happened—it was Belle's virtue, not mine—!" It was too late. The door had closed behind him. Louis-Josèphe sagged in his chair. Belle took his hand.
"Why did Madame du Barry wink at me, as she left?" Belle asked.
"She probably sees you as her natural ally," Princess Marie Clotilde said. "She's a commoner too, you know, or she was before Grandpapa elevated her so she could be presented at court."
"Well, and if you get to marry Louis-Auguste, and he becomes Dauphin and then king, that means Marie Antoinette gets cut right out," Princess Elisabeth said eagerly. "And du Barry hates Marie Antoinette, because Marie Antoinette hates her, and rules the faction of the court that tries to shut du Barry out of everything."
"I see," Belle said. "Why wasn't Dauphine Marie Antoinette here today? As a wife instead of a mistress, you would think she'd have a greater right to family counsels."
"Well, but she's Austrian, you see," Louis-Stanislas said. "And there's no telling what she might report back to her family, so until she fully acclimatizes and becomes one of us, best not to air the dirty laundry where she can see it."
"She'll never be 'one of us' unless Louis-Auguste stops snubbing her," Marie Clothilde said. "As long as she's obviously on the outside, why should she be more loyal to us than to her own family?"
"Besides, Grandpapa likes du Barry better," Louis-Stanislas said. "He wants her in on everything. He even brings her to meetings of his advisors, sometimes, and she hates politics. It's because he wishes she were more like Madame du Pompadour, but that's not going to happen."
"But Madame du Pompadour was included in his councils?" Belle asked, curious. Was that a role she could take on? It would be an adventure, certainly;
"Yes," Louis-Stanislas said. "And people still talk about her salons and her diplomatic overtures, and how she tried to get Grandpapa to reform the government so that it was more like the Enlightenment ideals."
Belle spent the next while asking every question she could think of about how the court worked, and the role of the mistress-in-chief, and the role of the queen, and what the various factions were and what their aims were. Louis-Josèphe listened to it all, and asked the occasional question.
Eventually, Duke de La Vauguyon returned with a few of the other menins, and supper was served. The menins were courteous to her, when they deigned to notice her, but their focus was very much on Louis-Josèphe and how they thought his sadly-neglected education ought to be remedied.
Belle sat in a window seat in the bedroom they had given her and stared out at the dark shadows outside. All of her doubts and fears seemed to press down on her like a tangible weight, and she wished for nothing so much as her father's company, or perhaps a chat with Mrs. Potts or Lumière. La Grande Bouche had tucked her in, along with much cheerful gossip about what all this looked like from the servants' perspectives, but Belle had tossed and turned for a while before getting up again. She was exhausted; the day had been beyond full, but her head was still spinning, and she couldn't sleep.
A knock roused her from the half-doze she'd fallen into. She got up and made her way into the sitting room, to the main entrance to her chambers. "Who is it?" she asked.
"Belle, it's me," Louis-Josèphe said.
Belle sighed in relief and unlocked the door to her apartment. They'd been in each others' company all day, but not able to speak candidly, and she missed him.
Louis-Josèphe was still dressed. "I hope I didn't wake you?" he said, somewhat awkwardly.
"No, I hadn't gone to bed yet," Belle said. "Let me light some more lamps." She gestured for him to sit while she lit lamps and candles, till the room was filled with a soft glow. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Overwhelmed," Louis-Josèphe said. "There's so much to learn and do. They're going to have a formal ceremony in a few days, re-instating me as Dauphin. I'd like to turn it down—honestly, between the two of us, my brother is far more qualified than I am—but every time I suggest it, Louis-Auguste goes pale and leaves the room, and Grandpapa starts talking about sending me to a monastery. I don't want to go to a monastery, but I don't want to be king, either. He's worried about coups—he says you can't have deposed monarchs or pushed-aside brothers lying around, because they're magnets for plots and treason."
Belle considered this. How often had she read stories about disaffected or disinherited men raising rebellions against their brothers or cousins or whoever had replaced them? Still. There was a crucial logical flaw in the argument. "If you were being pushed aside, he would have a valid point. But there is a difference between a man who wants the throne being prevented from getting it, and souring all his ambitions, and a man who doesn't want the throne voluntarily stepping back from the position."
"I've tried telling him that, but he won't listen. Says it doesn't matter what I want, what matters is that it would be an excuse for anyone who didn't like my brother to use me as a figurehead."
"That might be true," Belle said. "But surely there are ways around it?"
Louis-Josèphe shrugged. "And what about you? What do you think of everything?"
Belle sagged in her chair. "I am thinking that much as we love each other, our fates might not lie in the same place."
"Belle!" Louis-Josèphe said. "But I love you!"
"And I love you," Belle said. "I don't want to leave you, but you are going to be king, and I can't be your queen. And even your mistress—I'm too lowly born to truly be accepted. I want to be able to read my books and talk with interesting people and spread great ideas. Perhaps even write a book of my own! But to do that in your circles, I would need to be accepted, not merely tolerated. And then there are the balls and parties and things."
"But you like dancing," Louis-Josèphe said.
"I love dancing," Belle agreed. "But there's a lot of difference between what we did, just the two of us, and a formal ball where I'm the odd one out and people gossip about me behind my back. I've had quite enough of that in the assemblies in my home town." Louis-Josèphe opened his mouth. "You've never experienced it, so don't tell me I don't know what it's like."
He closed his mouth, and considered.
"I think we could make it work," he said, "and if we can, you'd have far greater scope for your talents and intelligence here, than if you went back to the village."
"I hope you're right," Belle said, looking down at her hands. "I'm just … so far out of my league, it's not even funny. Somehow, in books this is all very exciting, but it turns out in real life it's just nerve-wracking."
"Yes," Louis-Josèphe said. He tilted his head diffidently. "Would—I miss us sitting together, as we did when I was the Beast. I know that things must be different now I am a man, but could we…?"
"Oh! Yes, of course," Belle said. She got up and moved to the same sofa he was on, leaning against him. She sighed. He wasn't quite as warm and cozy as he had been when he'd had fur, but it was still much nicer than sitting alone.
"You know, Madame de Pompadour wasn't that much greater than you, in social rank, before she caught my grandfather's eye," Louis-Josèphe said.
"She had connections, and years of experience and reputation as a leader of a salon before that point," Belle pointed out. She'd made sure to get all of Madame de Pompadour's history from Louis-Josèphe's brothers and sisters, and from la Grande Bouche who had been there for it. "Also, she got along well with your grandfather's wife, they were fast friends. If I tried to be the next Madame de Pompadour, you would have to marry, and what if she didn't like me? She would have a lot of power to make my life miserable. And there is already Marie Antoinette, who hates the very idea of a king's mistresses having any power or influence at court, and I doubt she'll have any great love for either of us now that you are displacing her husband—and therefore her and her future children—from the succession."
"This would all be so much easier if Louis-Auguste were the older one," Louis-Josèphe said. "Maybe we'll get Grandpapa to agree to a morganatic marriage after all."
Belle sighed. "Maybe."
Louis-Josèphe did have to go back to his own chambers eventually, and after that Belle found it much easier to go to sleep. It still felt far too early when Madame de la Grande Bouche flung open her curtains to let in the morning sunlight.
"Oh, my dear, it is so wonderful to be back at Court!" exclaimed la Grande Bouche as another maid arranged a tray for Belle to eat breakfast in bed. "So much has happened, since! It will take me ever so long to keep up—I felt like quite a country cousin!" The other maid bobbed a curtsey and left.
"I know what you mean," Belle said. "Grande Bouche—that can't be your name, can it?"
"It's a nickname," the large woman said. She had an armful of fabric over one arm, which turned out to be a dress Belle recognized, but which had been significantly altered since she last saw it. She spread it out and continued her work on it as Belle ate. "I do have a big mouth—as a girl, I wanted to go into the opera, because my voice is very loud. But I was never quite good enough, and I didn't have the connections in the theater to make it. So I went into service, and amuse myself and my fellow servants by singing for them. Servants should have fun too, you know."
"Of course," Belle said. "But I was wondering if you would prefer to be called by your real name?"
"Eh," la Grande Bouche said, "My parents called me Marie, but there are always at least half-a-dozen of us anywhere we go; devotion to the great Lady Virgin is all well and good, but when it means you call for someone and half-a-dozen heads turn, then it isn't so nice. Grande Bouche is me, all mine, there aren't any others like me."
"Truth be told, I'm thinking of keeping on calling Louis-Josèphe 'Beast' for the same reason," Belle said.
"The Royal Family and their 'Louis'!" la Grande Bouche said. "It's a nice name, but when you have to start adding numbers to keep up with who's who!"
"I know!" Belle said, "and those are only the kings!" She shook her head and sighed. "Can I trust you not to go spreading things around?" She knew her maid had always talked a lot with the rest of the servants in the castle, and that she didn't mind, but this was different. At the castle, she could trust everyone to be on her side, or at least the Beast's. Here … she'd read enough novels of the aristocracy to know that would not be the case here.
"Of course you can, Mademoiselle!" la Grande Bouche said, plopping herself down on the bed. "It's nice to be here and have all the gossip, but I know where my loyalties lie. You should have heard some of them, talking about us, as if it was our fault that horrid Enchantress put a spell on us that lasted ten years. As if we were rubes and country bumpkins to boot, just because we weren't here at Versailles!"
"Good," Belle said. "Because I need some advice, and I don’t have anybody else here I could trust. They're going to make the Beast the Dauphin, again."
"Really?" her maid said in some surprise, looking up from the dress. "He's a dear, really he is, but he's got no idea what court life is like—even as a child, he was kept away from it. He'll be eaten alive!"
"And so will I, most likely, if we're not lucky," Belle said.
"Oh, of course," la Grande Bouche said, nodding. "You can't marry him, if he's going to be king someday. What do they want to do with you?"
"Nothing's settled yet," Belle said, "but they've been talking about chief mistress."
"When he's in a position to have a chief mistress," la Grande Bouche pointed out.
The older woman smiled a touch patronizingly at her. "Well, as an official position, a maîtresse-en-titre is something only a king can have. I mean, any man can have a mistress, but to have her presented at court with an official position and recognition of what he is to her and she is to him? That's reserved for the king. Everybody else is supposed to pretend their mistresses don't exist, but that's one rule the king can arrange to fit himself."
"And they all talked like it was something I could do immediately," Belle said. "What am I supposed to do, just sit around warming the Beast's bed and waiting for the old king to die so I can kick Madame du Barry out of her apartments and become the new queen's enemy, whoever she turns out to be?" She shook her head.
"Well, no, probably not," said la Grande Bouche. "No, they'll give you a title and some lands as thanks for your service, and everyone will pretend they don't know you and his Royal Highness are together, and you do what you want, and we see what happens when the King dies. And, you know, dear, you don't have to be the queen's enemy—Old Queen Marie and Madame du Pompadour were great friends and close confidants. Make His Royal Highness pick someone you get along with, and you should be fine."
"Oh," said Belle, sounding relieved. "That sounds a lot more doable! So I could have time to figure out what I wanted—if I wanted to be a mistress at all, let alone chief mistress with a place in the court."
"You'd do an amazing job, Mademoiselle, but it isn't for the faint of heart." La Grande Bouche tied a knot in her thread and bit it off. "There! That's a little more in the current style, so you won't be embarrassed to go out, today." Seeing that Belle had finished eating, she whisked away the tray and got her into the newly-remade dress, before sitting her down at the mirror to do her makeup and hair.
"And don't you worry, I got a tutorial from Madame du Barry's hairdresser about a current style I can do relatively easily," she said, opening a box Belle was surprised to see contained starch. She shouldn't have been surprised; she knew it was the style among the rich and the nobility, and almost everyone she had seen here at Versailles powdered their hair, but somehow Belle had not thought that meant that she would have to.
"Oh, please, no powder," Belle said. "I wouldn't know myself when I looked in the mirror, and besides, I think it a terrible waste, all the flour and starch that is used to powder wigs and hair."
"No?" la Grande Bouche said doubtfully. "Everyone does it. You'll look funny, if you don't."
"I'll look funny if I do," Belle said. "And what's worse, I'll feel funny. I know it's the fashion, but in the right dress and hairstyle, won't I be stylish enough without it?"
"I suppose." She sighed and put the powder away, picking up a brush and a handful of hairpins instead. She must have set it up before waking Belle. "And the dress isn't bad for being made over from a ten-year-old style, if I do say so myself."
"You must have been so busy, getting all this done," Belle said. "Thank you!"
"We wouldn't want them to think they were right about us, now would we?" la Grande Bouche said with a laugh. "You're going to be the belle of the ball and outshine them all if I have anything to say about it. And I did have help, you know—the king wants to make sure nothing embarrasses his grandson."
"And a country-bumpkin bourgeois savior would be an embarrassment, I suppose?" Belle said, trying not to be bitter about it.
"To these stuck-up aristocrats? You bet. Now," she said, stepping back to admire her handiwork, "you should be put-together enough to go out and be outfitted for your new station."
As it turned out, Belle didn't see Louis-Josèphe at all that day. Madame du Barry arrived soon after Madame de la Grande Bouche was finished and swept Belle off to her modiste for new gowns, and while the hours spent looking at fabrics and designs were interesting and fun—and du Barry had lots of interesting gossip about the major players at court that would be quite helpful—it was a struggle to reign in the designs to clothes Belle would feel comfortable wearing. Du Barry's tastes were … incredibly extravagant. They made a nice picture to look at, but did not seem like they would be comfortable—or practical—to wear. The new gowns would not be ready for some time, but they did take a few of the gowns supplied by Madame de la Grande Bouche to be re-fitted in a more modern style.
"After all," du Barry said, casting a critical eye over the gown Belle was wearing, "your maid worked wonders in the time she had, but it's best to leave such things to professionals. Madame Bernard will be understanding that it is an emergency, just this once, and she is terribly discreet."
They returned to the palace in time for Duke de la Vauguyon to whisk her away to protocol lessons—and it was only half-an-hour into those that she learned the King had decided to make her a countess, as a reward for saving his grandson.
"But didn't Madame du Barry tell you?" the Duke asked, surprised. "She should have known; the King decided late last night."
"No," Belle said. "We discussed fashion and current happenings in the court."
Duke de La Vauguyon sniffed. "Ah. Gossip. Of course, why should I have expected her to stick to the important matters?"
Belle bristled. "I think knowing where the unspoken alliances are and who is friends with who—and who is fighting—will be important to know, if I am to deal with any of these people."
"Perhaps," Duke de La Vauguyon said dryly, with a twist to his lips that he did not think so. At any rate, the ceremony to recognize her Beast as Dauphin would be in three days' time, and at the reception afterwards, she was to be created a countess, and then (if she made a good impression on the Austrian princess) Marie Antoinette would introduce her formally and she would be presented at court.
"And given that du Barry has spoken in defense of you, you cannot imagine the maneuvering it took to get her Royal Highness to even consider presenting you as her protégé," Duke de La Vauguyon said, "so you will be suitably deferential and courteous and charm her into agreeing, yes?"
"I'll do my best," Belle said. She'd much rather have Louis-Josèphe's sister-in-law on her side than against her. Even if she was Austrian.
"Good," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "Now, you are to meet her privately in her apartments this afternoon, and then return to your own for dinner—"
"Where will his Royal Highness the Dauphin be eating?" Belle asked.
"With the court, where you cannot until you have been presented," Duke de La Vauguyon said. "I'm sure he'll come to your chambers this evening as he did last night," he said with a sour look on his face.
Belle considered pointing out that she and the Beast had never engaged in marital activities either before or after his transfiguration, but decided there was no point to it. He would believe what he liked, just as Gaston did, just as so many men did. It was part of why she liked her Beast so much: he was willing to admit when he was wrong.
"In any case," Duke de La Vauguyon said repressively, "you will need to be on your best behavior with her Royal Highness, and so you must know all the proper protocols. Please let us continue." It was not a request.
Belle sighed but made no protest. Curtseys and rules of precedence were far more boring than a good book, but she really did need to know these things, if she was to stay with her Beast.
Belle curtsied carefully to Her Royal Highness Marie Antoinette, (for the next two days) Dauphine of France. It was hard to do in skirts with such wide panniers. Her father had never paid attention to the fashion of their social betters, but perhaps he should. The structure needed to produce such volume was quite ingenious. Belle had learned how to walk in it, but the depth of the curtsey needed now was a bit much. She greeted the Austrian arch-duchess with all the courtesies Duke de la Vauguyon had drilled into her. Marie Antoinette responded with all the right phrases, much more gracefully than Belle had managed, even with her German accent.
"These skirts are ridiculous," Dauphine Marie Antoinette said, when the initial pleasantries were over and the two women were seated on couches adjacent to one another. Despite her words, she was dressed in a gown with wider paniers than Belle's own. It was a rich red, with a low neckline and lace at the sleeves. Her hair was powdered, the grey an odd contrast with her youthful face. "I don't blame you for being awkward in them. One of my hopes was that as queen, I could set the fashion away from the dreadful things. The polonaise style is much more to my liking."
Belle blinked. That was a style a bourgeois woman such as Belle herself might wear, with a slightly shorter skirt (so one could walk and do business in it) with the overskirt kilted up to allow for greater freedom of movement. "I've always found that a very practical style, Madame," she said.
"Oh, I don't care about that," Dauphine Marie Antoinette said with a wave of her hand. "Although it is better for walking in the gardens. No, I just don't want to have to worry about banging into walls and the sides of doorways. I know it's such a low-class style, but surely with the right lace and satin one could really do something with it."
"I'm sure you could," Belle said. "I'm not much up with the fashions at court, I'm afraid. Do you have to be queen, to set fashions?"
"No, but it helps," Marie Antoinette said. "Particularly given how attached some of the old sticks-in-the-mud are to the fashions of their youth. They say they don't want anyone to mistake them for a peasant. I say, of course, nobody wants that, but surely there is a way to be fashionable without running into things all the time and needing to go through small doors sideways!"
"Oh, I agree with that completely," Belle said.
"Madame du Barry likes the old style, as well," Marie Antoinette said. "You went shopping with her, this morning? You will end up with the widest skirts of anyone in the court!"
"Her taste is more extravagant than mine," Belle said. "I am sure I could not equal her magnificence even if I wanted to."
"I hope you held yourself to a reasonable standard for your class?" Marie Antoinette asked. "It is only right and proper to preserve such distinctions."
Belle bit her tongue rather than say what she thought about that. Even quoting Rousseau might be too much; her options would get a lot narrower if Marie Antoinette didn't like her. "I did manage to hold things more to my taste and less to hers, but it was a struggle."
"Of that, I have no doubt, my dear," Dauphine Marie Antoinette said. "The woman is gauche. So crass! She doesn't know her place! I am sure she is very good in bed, but I do not know why that means she must have a place at court with the respectable women and I certainly do not know why that means the King must shower her with expensive gifts! Or listen to her policies, on the rare occasions she has any—the woman is neither intelligent nor educated."
This began a rant on the evils of Madame du Barry, which had the air of long-rehearsed grievances. Belle didn't have to do anything but sit and listen. Marie Antoinette believed du Barry's inferior birth and infamous past as a prostitute—not just a genteel mistress to rich men, but in an actual brothel—should prevent her from having been presented at court at all. Marie Antoinette resented the money King Louis spent on du Barry, because it should be spent on the actual royal family and not such a hanger-on. (On this, Belle partially agreed. Du Barry was far too extravagant, and Belle did not like knowing that the lavish gowns and jewels she wore came out of the taxes her father paid. On the other hand, having seen at least parts of the great Palace of Versailles, and learned even such a small part of the royal family's lifestyle, she thought they were all too extravagant and it was no wonder France had such financial troubles.) Marie Antoinette's third and final grievance was that the king listened so much to such an illiterate peasant and not to her, a well-read and intelligent princess and his own daughter-in-law.
"I agree that it is a shame the King is so influenced by someone with so little education," Belle said when the Dauphine came to take a breath. "But there isn't much point complaining about it—it's the way things are. If complaining about her and snubbing her were going to make him realize his mistake, it would have worked by now—if you want him to listen to you, maybe you should try being easier on his favorite?"
Marie Antoinette heaved a dramatic sigh and rolled her eyes, and despite her powdered wig it was suddenly quite easy to remember that she was only seventeen. "That's what mother says, in all her letters," she said, every inch the adolescent with a grievance. It was just the way one of the village girls might have complained about their mothers. For a brief second, it was difficult to remember that the woman in question was the great Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.
Belle had a twinge of conscience. The alliance with Austria, of which Marie Antoinette was the most tangible reminder, had been very advantageous to Austria but not to France. Perhaps she ought not have done anything that might lead Marie Antoinette to greater influence, now or in the future?
"But enough of Madame du Barry," Belle said, "Tell me of yourself. This is the furthest I've ever been from home—what's Austria like?" People generally thought well of those who showed interest in them, and Belle needed all the goodwill she could get. Besides, if Belle stayed in or near Versailles with her Beast, Marie Antoinette would be a major player as the wife of the Beast's younger brother, even if she was no longer the Dauphine.
The Dauphine brightened and talked of her life growing up in the Austiran court, fifteenth child (out of sixteen) of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was very interesting, and her accent deepened. Marie Antoinette had an eye for the absurd, and her description of her proxy marriage in Vienna, before coming to France, had Belle in stiches. Marie Anoinette's brother, the Archduke Ferdinand, had stood in for her future husband. (Belle found the whole idea of proxy marriage, along with marrying so young, to be some of the odder customs of royalty.) But after the proxy marriage, Marie Antoinette's tales petered out and she began to fiddle with her bracelets.
"And how do you like France?" Belle asked.
"Oh, the countryside is very beautiful," Marie Antoinette said. "Versailles truly deserves its reputation as one of the best palaces in the world, though there is much of it that could be modernized."
"Yes, it is very beautiful." Belle noted that the Austrian had said nothing of any of the people in it.
"I just wish they would stop hounding me so about children," Marie Antoinette said. "Perhaps that is a bright spot in all of this, Louis and I being disinherited now that the enchantment on the Duke of Burgundy has been broken."
"You haven't been disinherited," Belle protested. "You're still in the line of succession, just … bumped down a place."
"Yes, until the new Dauphin marries," Marie Antoinette said. "And then he will have children, and each one is another place down the line. And all of this—giving up my home, my family, going to this awful place where no-one likes me, not even my husband—will have been for nothing for I will not be able to serve Austria as Queen."
Belle bit her tongue. Trying to serve Austria as queen of France was quite wrong, and for that reason if no other she was glad her Beast would be taking his brother's place.
"But at least they will stop pestering me about children, and sharing Louis' bed," Marie went on.
"You don't … share his bed?" Belle asked.
"Of course," Marie Antoinette said, a surprised look on her face. "I thought that was common knowledge? That the marriage has not been consummated? They certainly gossip enough about it, what a shrew and an iceberg I must be that Louis has not done his duty in me."
"No, I hadn't heard," Belle said. "And that sounds like very cruel things to say."
"Oh, it is!" Marie Antoinette said. Eager to share her story with someone who might be on her side for once, she spilled her story. A young girl married to someone she'd only ever seen in a painting, still young enough that while kissing was exciting, she had dreaded the idea of doing anything more than that. Being slightly repulsed by the cold hands and fumblingly light touches and wet mouth of her new stranger-husband, and not able to hide it. "But he was very nice, that first night," Marie Antoinette said wistfully. "When he knew I didn't want to, he stopped and left, and I was so relieved, and I thought he was very good. How many men would stop there, on their first night with their new bride? And I thought, I will just need a little time to get used to this, before we will lie together as husband and wife should. But the next day, he snubbed me as too Austrian, and he has never stopped. And his hands are still too cold and his kisses still too wet."
"Oh, that sounds terrible," Belle said. It wasn't her experience—she enjoyed kissing the Beast, and was looking forward to more than that in the future. And she was almost disappointed at his newfound lack of fur, which she had had idle daydreams about, before his change—it had felt so sensuous to rub her cheek into, she'd wondered what it would feel like rubbing … other places. But then, she'd been twenty-two, almost twenty-three, when she and the Beast met, and she'd had time to get to know him. Marie Antoinette had been fifteen, and alone, in a new place. Really, the way these royal families arranged things was nothing short of cruel.
Marie Antoinette looked up at Belle with a grateful look in her eyes. "You know, that's the first time anyone's done anything but chastise me for failing in my duty?" she said.
"The fact that some people can be terrible doesn't mean I have to be," Belle said. "There are a lot of things people do to one another that just aren't right. There are lots of ways our society is terribly unfair. You shouldn't have been asked to marry him without meeting him, first, and deciding if you could live together and have children together. And you shouldn't have been married too young to be ready for the marital bed."
"I was fifteen!" Marie Antoinette protested. "I wasn't a child!"
Belle thought back to what she'd been like at fifteen. "No, but you weren't quite an adult, were you?" she asked. "If you were now meeting and marrying Louis-Auguste for the first time, wouldn't things be different?"
"Oh, yes," Marie Antoinette said. "Yes, things would be much different now."
"Then pushing you to marry so young was counterproductive, wasn't it?" Belle said. "If they'd waited even a few years—although most people would still say that seventeen is too young to be married—they'd have gotten what they wanted."
"And if they'd waited long enough they could have married me to Louis-Josèphe, instead of Louis-Auguste, and I would not now be pushed out of line," Marie Antoinette reflected. "Louis-Josèphe has no table-manners, but he is far more handsome than my Louis is. That might have helped, too."
"He can't help the table-manners," Belle said defensively. "For ten years he had paws and claws, instead of hands and fingers!"
At that, the Dauphine asked her what it had been like in an enchanted castle, and listened in fascination until it was time for her to dress for supper with the court, and she left, offering Belle the use of her personal library and assuring her she would help cover for any gaffes Louis-Josèphe made.
Belle wandered through the library as Marie Antoinette dressed. It was mostly music and music theory, but with a good leavening of history. Belle found a work she hadn't read before and thanked the Austrian princess profusely before retreating to her rooms for her own supper. The book was a good one, a history of the Byzantine Empire by Sieur Charles du Fresne du Cange, which she had wanted to read for years but never managed to track down a copy. It kept her quite happily occupied for the rest of the evening until it was time to go to bed.
Her future might be uncertain, but it was always easier to face with a good book in hand. And the court intrigue she faced could never be as bad as that of the Byzantine Empire!
The next day, the Beast appeared at the same time Madame de la Grande Bouche came with her breakfast. "May I join you?" he asked. "It's the only time I've got free all day."
Belle kissed him, briefly, mindful of la Grande Bouche behind him. "With two days until you are reinstated as Dauphin, there must be a lot of work to do to prepare," Belle said. "And I'm sure they'll keep me busy all day—there is so much social protocol to learn! I missed you, yesterday, and I'm so glad you came."
"I missed you, too," the Beast said. "How was it?"
So she told him about her day, the fittings with du Barry and the lessons with Duke de La Vauguyon and the meeting with Marie Antoinette and the book she'd read. The Beast answered with a few details of the meetings and lessons he'd had. "There are so many people I have to be introduced to," he said, "and they stare so, as if they expect me to grow fur and claws at any moment."
"Honestly, I'm not sorry I've been kept away from the main court," Belle said. "I'm sure they'll stare at me, too."
"I wish we could have just stayed at the castle, with Cogsworth and Lumière and Mrs. Potts and all the rest," the Beast said.
"So do I!" Belle said. "We were happy there. But if we can't go back, we'll have to figure out how to be happy here."
"And that means being king one day," the Beast—his Royal Highness the Dauphin, Louis-Josèphe de France, Duke of Burgundy—said with a grimace.
"It's a better life than a lot of people get," Belle pointed out.
"Still doesn't make it something I look forward to," the Beast said. "I really am going to need your help. It's not that I don't know things, it's that I don't even have a framework to put them into, so even when they explain I am totally lost."
"I'll help in any way I can, but that will probably get better on its own, over time, as you learn more," Belle said.
"They say I'll just have to let my ministers run things, when I am king, and that I should just keep on whichever ones my grandfather has at the time of his death," Beast says, "but in that case, why bother to have me at all? Why not just give the job to my brother, who could actually do it?"
"I'm sure your grandfather's ministers have lots of experience," Belle said. "But sometimes all that means is a lot of time spent being wrong. The last few decades of your grandfather's reign haven't been good for France, and I don't know whether that's him or his ministers, but I would be wary of just keeping things the same."
"What do you mean, they haven't been good for France?" the Beast asked.
"Well, for one thing, France is facing a great financial burden," Belle said. "The country's tax system is a relic of the middle ages, terribly unfair, and designed to give advantage to the nobles while putting most of the burden on the bourgeois and the peasants. This leaves the country short of cash, and necessary projects like roads are left undone. Meanwhile, the Royal Family spends money like water, draining the treasury. Even worse, your grandfather has allied us with Austria and entangled us in several very expensive wars in which France has spent money and blood extravagantly, for little or no return. Austria has benefitted, but we have not. If the nation were a business, it would be in danger of going bankrupt through mismanagement. But nobody here at Versailles seems to care."
"Surely they must, if things are so bad?" the Beast said plaintively.
Belle shook her head. "King Louis showers money and jewels beyond belief on Madame du Barry, and the only person who objects is Marie Antoinette, and she only because she wishes the money were spent on her instead. And she openly told me that her job as the future queen was to work for Austria's benefit, not France's. This is seen as business as usual."
"Ugh," said the Beast. "Well, I can't do anything to fix any of that right now."
"No, but if I were you I'd be getting ready to do so," Belle said. "Problems like that don't just go away overnight. I know your grandfather will have his own ideas for your education, but if I were you, I'd start reading up on economics and modern taxation schemes and the like. Adam Smith is a good place to start, and Rousseau, and Voltaire."
"Could we read together, like we did at the castle?" the Beast asked wistfully.
"Of course," Belle said with a smile. "Of course." She got up and sat down next to the Beast, snuggling against him. "And it can wait for another time. We'll be so busy in the next few days. Let's take this morning just for ourselves."
"Talk about something other than politics?" the Beast said, cheering up.
"Yes," Belle said. "Or maybe," she paused. That kiss had been awfully nice, and they hadn't had time and energy for more. "Or maybe … not talking at all." She reached up and drew his head down to hers, and their lips met in a kiss. While she did miss his soft fur (and perhaps she always would), as a human their relative sizes fit together much better.
It was a very nice kiss.
Epilogue: two years later, in 1774, King Louis XV died of smallpox. Louis-Josèphe ascended the throne as King Louis XVI, but a much different Louis XVI than his brother would have been. On inheriting, he worked swiftly and decisively to reform France's financial system. He cut back the expenses of the royal family, and eliminated the aristocracy's tax-free status. With the revenues, he paid down France's debts and invested in better public infrastructure. During his reign, there was a gradual reform of the governmental and judicial systems along Enlightenment principles. Although there were periodic clashes with one or another group of nobles, none of them were able to rally their entire class, and so the Beast (and Belle) were able to play the nobles against the bourgeois and the peasantry, and thus maintain a balance of power that never (quite) led to revolution.