The air hung stiff with scents of perfume and the pale gardenias the Charmings were so fond of. With all the hundreds of people inside the ballroom, it had the temperature had risen exponentially despite the cool summer draft. Bae watched the swarm move from one side to the next, following Snow and David wherever they might go. Bae couldn’t see his father from the arching windows but Bae was certain he was cracking a deal with someone over a few flutes of champagne.
How dull. His father might have a penchant for balls, calling them a breeding ground for business opportunities, but Baelfire could never muster up the right type of energy for them. He liked people fine, but these people were all old and prim and proper. Not one other kid in sight because their parents cared enough about their psychological well-being to leave them at home. Not his father. Mr. Richard Gold had to make sure his son was safe, and the only way to do that was to keep him under watch.
Bae glanced around the room as an idea struck him. He wasn’t under watch now. He could probably sneak out and nobody would notice, far from prying eyes and gardenias.
With that brilliant plan in mind, the young boy disappeared through the open window. It was a short drop into one of the garden’s flowerbeds, and the fresh scents of summer air were worth any potential damage. Bae crept away from the scene of the ballroom, taking care not to step on any of the scarlet peonies.
He followed the sound of flowing water through moonstruck darkness, past walls of giant hedgerows and two neat lines of blue lilies. Roses surrounded him as he reached a large, circular stone fountain. Two gray angels stood in the center, pouring water from metal urns. On the other side, nearly obscured by the statues, sat a young woman. She was wrapped in an intricate gold dress, dark tresses spilling down her back. A pair of gold gloves had been abandoned nearby and she held something in her hands that Bae couldn’t quite make out.
He approached her, wondering what he should say, or if he should say anything at all. The woman turned to meet his eyes without so much as a peep from him.
“Uh . . .” he trailed off. Even in the darkness, Bae made out two clever blue orbs. “Sorry, I can leave.”
“It’s alright,” the woman replied, in an accent he couldn’t quite place. Was she a foreigner? “Would you like to sit down.” She tapped the spot next to her. Bae found himself following her suggestion.
It was a book, he realized. Her pale fingers wrapped around it almost lovingly. How could she read when it was so dark?
“Have parties not caught your fancy?” she asked, conversationally, even as she turned another page in her book.
“No,” he replied, snatched in a spell of shyness, twiddling his thumbs. Since that incident where one of his old classmates tried to kill him, he hadn't really spoken to someone without his father looming in the background. School had become an impossibility, and the servants never spoke much.
“I can relate,” she said. “Bit rowdy for my taste. I like the quiet. It’s certainly easier to read in silence.”
“What are you reading?” Bae looked down at the cover of the book but found that he couldn’t distinguish the title from the rest of the green background.
“Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,” the woman replied. “Heard of it?”
Bae wasn’t sure. His father preferred textbooks and memoirs to fiction, but the name rung a bell. “In a newspaper, I think.”
“He’s grown quite popular since his debut,” she said. Bae didn’t miss the way her voice tilted, as if she was excited at the prospect of sharing this information with him. “I’ve been following his work since I discovered Oliver Twist in a newspaper when I was twelve. He’s quite the character, but his writing is mesmerizing. I recommend it if you ever need something to read. Oh,” her face grew just a tad redder, “it seems I’ve gotten ahead of myself. My name is Belle. Belle French.”
“Baelfire Gold,” he replied, hoping his last name wouldn’t do any fear-striking. The woman didn’t seem the least bit effected.
“Pleasure to meet you, Baelfire.”
“You can call me Bae.”
“Bae, then.” Belle placed the book in her lap. “Do you enjoy reading?”
Bae scratched the back of his head. “Uh, well . . .”
Belle laughed a warm and playful thing and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Don’t worry, it’s a common sentiment. How do you pass your spare time, then?”
He considered her question, realizing now that he didn’t really have that much spare time. Besides that, he had no one to spend that time with him anyway. “I study most of the time.”
“A scholar,” Belle said, and Bae was surprised to hear the honest curiosity in her voice. He couldn’t remember the last time someone listened to him, really listened. “What’s your area of study?”
“Area of study?” Everything, he supposed. His father made sure he only got the best (solitary) education. “Botany, I guess.”
Belle glanced around the garden before pointing to a nearby patch of orange buds.
“Signet marigolds,” Bae said. “ Targetes tenuifolia .”
“Not really,” Bae replied. “Signets are pretty easy to spot since their petals are flat but their coloring is the same as any other marigold.”
Belle squinted at him in a futile attempt at a glare. “I’ll take that as a challenge. Alright, Mr. Botanist, what type of rose is that?” She pointed to a single rose at her feet. It must’ve broken away from the rest of the flower rows, now strewn across the red pebbles.
“ Rosa kordessi ,” he said, plucking the rose from the ground. “It’s pretty rare, but I’m not surprised the Charmings have it. They like these sorts of things.”
“Seems like it. Their gardenias are lovely and all but they nearly suffocated me in all their loveliness,” Belle quipped. She was laidback for a noblewoman if she even was one. Her dress couldn’t belong to anyone poorer than a baroness.
“Bae!” his father’s voice could be heard all the way from the edge of the gardens, anxious and frightened. That didn’t happen all that often anymore, but it reminded Bae that his father was human; that he was scared of something, someone. “Bae! Baelfire!”
Belle peered over the hedges. “Looks like someone requires your presence.”
“Right.” Bae stood, looking back at the woman over his shoulder. Her brow furrowed as if she was awaiting his next words. The rose’s stem had been crumpled between his fingers. The woman reminded him of a rose. Just as Snow White reminded him of snowdrops, and her husband of a dandelion. Belle, with her playful nature, her grace and apparent love of solitude, was a rose without thorns. He wondered if such a thing existed.
He offered the flower to her, and she accepted with a charming smile. “Thank you, Mr. Botanist.”
But she was nearly as bad at jokes as his father.
He flinched, said a quick goodbye to Belle, and then ran off toward the direction of his father’s voice. The winding pathways didn’t help. More than once Bae worried he had gotten lost, but he followed the bellowing cries and eventually came hobbling out of the gardens covered in twigs and needles from an encounter with a low-hanging pine tree. His father raced to him, coattails flapping behind him. Bae was suddenly pulled into a hug, blonde hair tickling his cheek.
“Hi, papa,” Bae said, patting him on the back. His father drew back, gazing down at him, taking his face in his hands.
“Are you safe? Did they hurt you?” he asked. Ten seconds in and he was already threatening bodily injury towards his non-existent captors.
“I’m fine, nobody hurt me,” Bae said, swatting his hands away. “I just got lost, that’s all.”
Snow and David hurried toward them, both dressed in white and gold. Their footsteps sounded like the ticks of a grand clock on the marble stairs.
“Thank goodness you’re safe,” Snow said, touching his arm. “What happened?” His father stepped between them, and Bae could only pray he kept his temper in check.
“What happened,” his father snapped, “is that my son got lost in that death trap,” he pointed toward the garden.
Snow’s stance turned defensive, though her voice remained steady. In the moonlight, she seemed fearless. “Well, I’m sorry that occurred, but I can assure you that there is nothing dangerous within our gardens unless you count the apple trees.”
“That was a quip,” David added, unnecessarily. “The apple trees are completely safe.”
“Well, for your sake, I hope that’s true.”
“Papa, it’s really alright,” Bae insisted, brushing the twigs out of his curly mane. “It’s my fault. I just wanted to get some fresh air and got distracted.”
“By what, Bae?” his father asked. He had calmed down now, but Bae knew that wouldn’t last. “What was so important that you ran into a garden full of potential assassins without a single person knowing.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s full of potential assassins,” Snow said, clasping her gloved hands together.
“Stay out of this.”
Snow’s own temper reeled its head. “Pardon me but I think you’re forgetting that we are your hosts.”
“And you seem to be forgetting who got you that mansion in the first place, dearie.” There it was. They were officially in the realm of his father’s no longer veiled threats. Bae considered telling him about Belle just to distract him but he opted for another approach that didn’t involve putting the woman in possible danger.
“Let’s just go home, Papa,” Bae said, grabbing onto his hand. His father squeezed his hand and slowly started nodding.
“Yes,” he said, still holding Snow’s indignant gaze. “Let us take our leave.” Bae pulled on his arm and his father reluctantly followed him. They crossed the pearly ballroom, not uttering a single goodbye. Everyone watched but no one dared speak. Bae didn’t blame them. The doors creaked open for them. Their carriage stood ready. As they passed the garden, Bae caught sight of a flash of gold. His father didn’t notice.
. . .
His father fired Miss Inora after a small incident at dinner. She’d overheard him talking about something and he didn’t bother trusting her enough to keep it to herself. Bae never heard from her again, but now he was governess-less and his father wouldn’t allow just anyone to teach him the basics of mathematics. At this rate, it would take forever just to get him to choose someone. Which was why Baelfire would choose for him.
Not outrightly choose for him, of course. He wouldn’t go to some random woman’s house and ask her to become his governess. For one thing, they’d refuse due to his association with his father. For another, his father would fire them even if they didn’t refuse. Baelfire needed to find someone suitable to deal with his father.
The image of a woman like a rose topped the list. He had no idea why. Belle was shown to be a lot of things in those few minutes they’d known each other, but Bae had no reason to suspect she could handle his father, what with the explosive temper and tendency to threaten bodily harm.
Nevertheless, when Bae walked into his father’s study that evening, it was Belle’s name that slipped into the conversation.
“What? The daughter of that washed-up old man? Has she even any qualifications?” His father sat at a large, rectangular oak desk. Two stacks of paper lay on the table, hanging at least half a meter above his father’s head.
“Well, I’m not sure,” Bae replied, glaring at the black and white Fleur de Lis patterns on the wall. “But, I think she’d be a good teacher, whether she has the qualifications or not.”
His father dipped his pen in a bottle of ink, letting the dark drip onto a clean sheet of paper. “How do you know so much about Miss French? I don’t believe you’ve met.”
“We did,” Bae said. “Once. A few weeks ago, actually. She seemed nice.”
“Most people in this world seem nice, Bae. That’s hardly a reason to appoint her as a governess.”
Bae feigned a disappointed expression, and his father grimaced, eyes flashing uncertainly.
“I suppose,” the man said, tapping the pen on the page absentmindedly. “It couldn’t hurt to meet Miss French for an interview.”
Bae was hopeful, though his mind told him nothing would come of it. His father would leave for an interview with Belle two weeks later, and for the first time in a long while, he left Bae alone in the mansion (with guards and maids, but that’s beside the point). When he returned, walking through the grand mahogany doors in his morning suit, he appeared disgruntled. For a second, Bae worried that Belle might’ve gotten on the wrong side of his father’s many temperaments.
Instead, his father said, in a quiet voice, “you have a new governess, Bae. She’ll be arriving next Sunday.”
. End of Chapter .