It was dark before she could leave.
Something about being out after sunset felt strange. The gas lamps had been lit not a half an hour before, and the smog of the town blocked out the moon and the lights from the homes further up the street. Storybrooke after dark was eerily silent and lonely, and not at all as interesting as she’d expected it to be at night.
Belle slipped out of the back door of her father’s book shop, and hurried across to the tailor’s shop beside it. Maurice slept soundly upstairs in their small home. He wouldn’t realise she was gone for several hours yet, and she planned to be back before then.
The tailor, a tall and dark-haired young man named Jefferson, greeted her after only three light knocks at his door. He gave off a nervous energy, with a slight tremble in his hands as he beckoned her inside and locked the door.
“I’d almost given up hope,” Jefferson said, gesturing for her to follow him into the front of his shop.
Pulling her cloak tighter around her shoulders to fight off the night’s cold, Belle hurried after him.
“It took papa longer to fall asleep than I expected,” she admitted. “Have you been waiting terribly long?”
“Not at all. I did a little light reading while I waited, and--”
He hurried around the edge of a changing screen and came back with a flurry of golden silk. The low candle light made the dress look almost black. It flickered, casting dancing shadows over the long skirt, highlighting the ruffles and colour. It was a beautiful dress.
“The wait gave me a chance to make some last minute alterations.”
Belle reached out to stroke the soft taffeta, and frowned.
“But I ordered blue,” she said, desperate not to sound too petulant or ungrateful. “I never wear gold, it’s too… It’s not my colour.”
“Nonsense!” Jefferson insisted, dropping the heap of silks into her arms and ushering her behind the changing screen. “I had but a little of the blue taffeta left,” he explained as Belle stared at the dress in her arms. “Which, in a way, was fortunate. The gold will suit you much better, Belle. You’ll be the talk of the ball, I can assure you of that.”
Her cheeks flushed, but she set to work slipping off her simple skirt and petticoat. She’d never worn such a fine dress before, and she’d read that ladies more accustomed to fine gowns needed a maid to help them in and out of them. Belle hoped she wouldn’t need help getting in and out of this dress. She was used to tying her corsets by herself, but there were many ribbons to be tied into place and ruffles and frills that needed straightening. More than once she was tempted to call for Jefferson, until finally she felt the gown was on and in place.
“Jefferson?” she called, peeking around the edge of the changing screen.
He appeared a moment later, wearing his own outfit and a great smile. Normally, Jefferson favoured dark suits with silk cravats and gloves and a wide array of top hats. For Gold’s ball, it seemed, he would be wearing all white. Even the pin in his cravat and the buttons of his coat, which were usually gold, were a polished silver so pale that they themselves appeared almost white.
“Wonderful,” he said, clapping his hands together. He always had an odd, mad look in his eyes when a particular outfit had worked out just so. “There’s just one final thing we must do before we find our carriage.”
“Find our carriage?” Belle asked, following him into the back room. It was filled with great rolls of fabric in all colours and textures and patterns. Spools of thread scattered his desk around a shining new sewing machine, and there with his needles and scissors, were two masks.
Jefferson’s was white, and covered half of his face when he slipped it on. Belle couldn’t see the colour of her own until he held it out for her to take. She’d expected more gold, but instead her mask was deep red, edged with silk roses along the right eye.
It was all very fine. She couldn’t believe that her small payment for the dress had been able to afford her so much. Jefferson had offered to take her to the ball when her father had refused to let her attend, and there was no use in asking Gaston, but now she suspected he was helping her more than just providing her with a chaperone and carriage. Her money would not have stretched to the price of the dress alone, especially not when matched with such a lovely mask.
“Slip it on,” Jefferson said, tying his own with a white ribbon, “and take a look in the mirror.”
Belle hesitated for but a moment before Jefferson’s enthusiasm became contagious. She returned his smile and put on her mask. Her hair was pinned up into a large bun. She hadn’t had the time, or the skill, to fashion it into something more suited for a grand ball, but now she was glad. The ribbon of the mask would have ruined anything more intricate.
Turning to the mirror, the taffeta whispered across the hardwood floor until she stopped and saw herself for the first time.
She had never worn a bustle dress before. It ruffled and cascaded down the curve of her hips, and put her in mind of liquid gold as it rippled with each of her steps. The bodice was black, and the shoulders and neckline came down in a gentle curve which still managed to show off more of her chest than Belle would ever dare to normally. Even her arms were bare. Only her shoes were her own; a pair of leather boots which laced up the front. They didn’t match the dress, but the skirt and ruffles were long enough to hide them.
Belle brushed her hands down the front of the dress and fixed her mask a little straighter over her eyes. It covered only the bridge of her nose and the tops of her cheeks, but she still felt that a stranger looked back at her in the mirror. It wasn't what she'd asked for, but the dress itself was rather lovely. If nothing else, it would do her good to try something new, and wasn’t the whole point of a masquerade ball to not look like oneself?
“Oh, yes,” Jefferson said from the doorway. “That will do nicely.”
After putting on her own cloak -- a worn black thing which didn’t match the quality of her dress and made her feel underdressed compared to Jefferson -- the two of them left his shop in search of the carriage. Jefferson explained that, since her father would be just next door, he didn’t want to risk him hearing the horses or the wheels on the cobblestones. It was much better, much cleverer, he said, to meet the carriage elsewhere.
They met their driver a street away, outside the old town library, and Jefferson offered her his hand to help her inside ahead of him.
Her stomach was all aflutter when the carriage began to move. It finally sank in what she was about to do; what she was already doing. She was going to attend one of Storybrooke’s famous masked balls. Only an elite few in Storybrooke ever attended, the guest list full of the wealthiest in all the county.
The Mills family would normally be the hosts, but this year the ball was being held at the Gold estate; an even more exclusive event that poked and tugged at Belle’s curiosity. She knew nothing about the Gold family beyond what everyone in Storybrooke knew. The head of the family was elusive and infamously wealthy, and that was all that seemed to matter. When Jefferson mentioned that he had been invited, and offered to take her, Belle knew that she had to attend no matter what. Even if it meant being alone with a man and defying her father. Jefferson had been very kind to her. He’d offered to make her a suitable dress, and had finally relented after weeks of her insisting that she would pay him. She trusted him to see her there and back safely.
The Gold estate wasn’t too far from her father’s home, but it was situated in a much nicer part of Storybrooke. Away from the mines, the shops and the smog, the manor was situated at the end of a long driveway, beyond tall, wrought iron gates. Old oak trees lined the drive, blocking the view of the manor until it was upon them; looming high over the trees in the dark of night. Many of the downstairs rooms were lit, highlighting cracked pillars and crumbling baroque windows, but little else of the house was clear by the light of the moon alone.
Jefferson led her from the carriage to the grand entrance, with a pillared porch arching over the front doors. Music filled the air the moment those doors opened, and voices came from behind far off closed doors. From there, the butler that had greeted them took their cloaks and led them further into the lavish home.
It was hard to tell if the house was Georgian or Palladian. It had symmetry and pilasters, and painted ceilings in some of the rooms they passed, but there was an element of simplicity to the entryway. There was no furniture, nor portraits or ornaments, only faded wallpaper where portraits had once been.
Belle looked around as the butler led them deeper into the strange house. A group of people sat around a table in the room to her left. There was no light in the room but the flicker of a single black candle in the middle of the table, and the people linked their hands around it. Belle wanted to stop and watch, but some of the guests spotted her and a footman came to close the door on the scene.
She hurried after Jefferson and the butler, until they came to a set of doors where the music was the loudest. He opened them, and the plaintive strains of a violin filled the air. Couples twirled in time with one another, under the chandeliers of a ballroom that was so vast it needed two of them to light it. It twinkled with the flames of dozens of candles, casting flickering shadows across the masked dancers below. The band played on a stage at the far end of the room, and along each wall were smaller stages with all manner of other performers.
The Golds appeared to favour ebony woods and black or gold ornaments above anything else. The windows were shrouded in velvet curtains of black and gold, and between them were heavy tapestries reaching from floor to ceiling; each depicting scenes from a story which Belle did not recognise, and providing a unique backdrop for the performers.
Jefferson seemed to be more interested in looking over the crowd of faces, hidden behind masks of lace and gold and leather. Some masks were simple, others were curved into ornate shapes or animalistic in design, with frowns or beaks. It would be impossible to recognise anyone, Belle thought, but he still took in each guest. Belle herself was still captivated by the Golds’ unusual taste in entertainment.
On a short stage to her right, in a dress covered in black beads and coins that clinked as she danced, was a woman holding a candle in each hand. She twisted and dipped, bending her body backwards into impossible shapes as the violin and flutes played, and through it all the candles continued to burn.
Beyond her were jugglers and contortionists, a sword swallower and fire eater. A woman danced with a snake around her shoulders, and Belle walked a little closer to Jefferson. He led her past them all, closer to the band. It was as though he were in search of something, but he soon turned to her with a smile under his white mask.
“Would you like a drink, or should we dance?”
The room was so full and busy that Belle wasn’t sure where she wanted to start. She’d barely had a chance to take it all in before she was being asked to be a part of it.
Looking around, she spotted more dancers and places to eat, and statues that lined the outer walls. She shook her head and turned back to Jefferson with an apologetic smile.
“I think I’d like to look around a little first,” she said. “A house like this must have all sorts of secrets.”
Jefferson’s smile widened. “Of course! You ought to see his library. You won’t be disappointed.”
Jefferson had been right. Following his directions, the hall she walked was much the same as the corridor they’d entered through, with flaking paint and busts covered in cobwebs and dust. It wasn’t anything at all like the beautiful ballroom. She had no idea what to expect from the library, but when she found it, it was far nicer and so much more personal that she’d expected. It was the first room she’d found which wasn’t either ostentatious or decaying from disuse. She could believe someone used the library frequently and called it home.
Stuffed deer heads and antlers looked down at her from the walls that weren’t covered by high bookcases. Cabinets displayed pinned butterflies and moths, and artefacts that looked like they belonged in the home of an explorer, decorated every surface that wasn’t occupied by books. In the centre of the room was an old globe, beside a table with a map and two long sofas.
Belle walked in slowly, running her fingers along the spines of encyclopedias and classics and journals.
There were more taxidermy animals. Foxes and bats and owls stared with glass eyes out of their cases. And at the back of the room, beside a lit hearth, was a white bear. It stood on its hind legs, front paws raised, and roared silently at the empty room. The burning fire gave it the impression of movement, with shadows running across its stiff body.
Belle glanced around surreptitiously, then reached out a cautious hand to stroke the bear’s coarse fur.
“An arctic bear,” a voice said in her ear. She jumped and turned to find a man standing behind her.
“Beautiful creatures, aren’t they?” he asked.
Stepping back, Belle glanced around the room and then looked at the masked stranger more closely. She was sure she’d been alone when she entered. Few guests had ventured as far from the ballroom as she, and he was certainly a guest. He wore a suit of all black, shot through with gold thread, with a silk cravat and a waistcoat of gold paisley. His mask stood out the most. It was as deep a red as her own, with a frown moulded around dark eyes. All she could see of his face was the tip of a pointed nose and thin lips twisted into a smile.
Belle looked between him and the bear. “It looks terribly fierce.”
“Can fierce things not be beautiful?” he asked, stepping closer.
She fought the urge to lean back as he grew nearer. There was nowhere for her to retreat to but back into the white bear, and she had no reason to be nervous of him. Had she not wanted to go to the ball to meet new people, as well as see what was inside the manor?
“I suppose what one person finds beautiful, another might not,” she said, and the man in the mask smiled. He stopped just in front of her, barely an arm’s width away, and Belle wrapped her arms around herself.
“And the things that all people find beautiful?” he asked.
“Then they must be truly beautiful indeed.”
“And little else,” he reasoned, turning his attention up to the bear behind her. “It is the things few find beautiful that interest me.”
He was an odd man, Belle thought. He seemed unwilling to share more than that, but he stood so close that she could almost feel his nearness, as though he was pressing against her.
When the intimate silence stretched out between them, Belle realised he would not speak again.
“There is no exquisite beauty,” she quoted, making him turn his head towards her. “Without some strangeness in the proportion.”
“You’re a reader,” he said, as if he should have known. Maybe he should have, since she was there and not with the rest of the guests.
Belle nodded and moved away from the fire, closer to him. He didn’t move or look at her again. He was taken by the rest of the room; anywhere that wasn’t in her direction. She couldn’t blame him. The room was filled with so many oddities, Belle was sure they would both need a day just to take in half of it.
“Are you an adventurer?” she asked, feeling foolish the moment she spoke the words.
He turned his head to her, but it was impossible to see his reaction with half of his face hidden. All she saw was the blink of dark eyes and the slightest tilt of his head.
“My wife was the adventurer,” he answered with a strange coldness, pulling back. “These were her things.”
“I… I’m sorry.” She faltered, and a heat rose in her cheeks. She was only thankful that he was no longer looking at her. He looked over the rest of the room, from the candles burning low in their candelabras, to the shelves of souvenirs from around the world.
“This is all-- I mean, this is your home?”
He glanced at her, and the fire caught in the eyes of his mask in such a way that she could see he was frowning at her.
“Whose home did you think it was?”
Belle dropped her hands and played with the ruffles in her dress, trying to find the right words. She hadn’t meant to upset him.
“We have never met before,” she said as evenly as her nerves would allow. The calmness of her words seemed to surprise even him, if the way he straightened his shoulders was any indication. “How was I to know that you were a Gold?”
“A Gold,” he repeated drily, and didn’t give her a chance to speak before he showed his back to her and walked away.
She couldn’t say why she felt so compelled to follow after him. She should have left the library altogether and returned to Jefferson, but a small voice at the back of her mind told her not to let him go. And so she didn’t.
She followed him to the sofas, where her stood beside the globe in the centre of the room. The silk dress made such a loud rustle as she moved, he must have heard her following him, but he gave no indication that he had.
“Clueless little thing,” he muttered to himself, drawing lines with his nails across the globe’s map.
Belle frowned and stepped up to him. He was very rude, and ruder still if he was supposed to be her host.
“She must have been quite the traveller,” she said, trying to regain his attention, “to have amassed such a collection.”
Her attempts worked enough to get him to look her way, but he looked at her oddly, as if trying to discern her expression.
“Yes,” he said at length, the corner of his mouth flicked up into what she assumed was a smile. Whatever he had been searching for in her face must have pleased him. “I would have followed her to all corners of the world.”
He spun the globe languidly; so slowly that she wasn’t entirely sure he realised he was doing it.
“Do you like to travel?” he asked, and it was hard to ignore the spark of hope in his voice.
“I would like to,” she admitted. “But it seems unlikely now.”
“And why is that?”
“My father wishes for me to marry a man from the town. He has no desire to leave.”
His hand stilled on the globe, hovering over a portion of the Americas that she knew about only from the books in her father’s shop. He tapped his fingers, watching the movement of his own hand, and for a moment she thought he hadn’t heard her, until he glanced at her again.
“Don’t marry him,” he said simply, as if it were that easy.
Belle twisted her skirt in her hands and moved forward.
“I have little say in the matter,” she said regretfully. “I wouldn’t, if I could choose for myself.”
He looked at her, less fleetingly than before, and a heat pooled in her stomach with the way he looked her up and down.
“Is there another you would marry?”
She swallowed and shook her head. “No.”
Carefully, in case he should object, Belle stepped up to the globe and ran her fingertips lightly over the map. She traced an invisible journey, across the sea to Europe and down to Africa. It didn’t occur to her how close they stood until she looked up and found him watching her.
Belle took her hand away and smiled politely.
“If you’re a Gold...” she said quietly. “May I know your name?”
He didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t pause to think about it, or to turn his gaze away when she caught him staring. It surprised a laugh from her and she covered her mouth, but he only smiled in return. Her father would have called her rude, Gaston would have scowled at her and berated her for laughing, but the man in the mask only smiled.
“Shakespeare or Poe?” she asked from behind her hand.
His smile tugged wider.
“Very good,” he allowed, giving her no real answer at all. “And what may I call you, sweet one?”
Biting her lip in thought, Belle glanced over the shelves upon shelves of books. If he was going to keep up the guise of anonymity, hiding behind his mask, then so would she.
Her eyes fell on a worn copy of As You Like It, and she smiled.
“Rosalind,” she answered.
His smile fell. He didn’t strike her as a man who was easily shocked, but he took a step back, and the only reaction on his face was a flicker of white from the eye holes of his mask.
Had she chosen badly? Rosalind seemed a good character to name herself after, but perhaps he disagreed.
Regaining himself, Prospero turned to the library door, where the faint music of the ball could be heard drifting down the hall. He straightened, coming to a decision, and offered her his hand.
“Shall we join the dance, Rosalind?”
Belle pressed her lips together to keep from appearing overeager and smiling too brightly.
“I would like that.”