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Comforts of the Household Gods

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The Dark Castle is an enchanted castle. This is not the part that is surprising to Belle; where else would Rumpelstiltskin live? Surely at his word the stones themselves had leapt atop each other to build him a fortress. What is surprising is why he would need a housekeeper; why that wasn’t even a kind lie for some other reason to bring a woman to his empty home. Wouldn’t enchanted castles clean themselves?

They don’t, she soon learns. They’re worse for cleanliness than her own home, which had been in the middle of a war and most of the scullery maids had fled with their families over the northern border. Muddy soldier boots and a lack of scullery maids were not a good combination, especially when Belle and Cook were two of the very few women left in the castle. The first footman had been very unimpressed when it became his responsibility to clean the great hall and council room. (Nobody had much sympathy. There was a war on. Everybody did their part.)

So Belle is not a spoiled princess, unaccustomed to keeping a household going; she too had done her part, every part she could from under-cook up to war adviser. She had managed stretching estate staff as she had managed stretching soldiers on the front lines.

Here, in this silent Dark Castle, there are no other staff. She is everything from parlor maid to housekeeper. The grounds, at least, seem to take care of themselves; the gardens are weeded and trimmed into perfect shapes, the pathways are tidy with shining white pebbles, same as the castle itself is built with.

For the more domestic matters, however, Belle is convinced that half the dust she wipes up is magic residue. No ordinary house dust accumulates that fast, especially when the windows are nailed shut.

The kitchen is where she first realizes that the castle is enchanted, on her first night. The giant kettle, suspended on the hearth arm, does not show the least inclination to boil water for tea, no matter how long she waits. Her new master will be getting impatient, she is sure, and it would not be beyond him to turn her into something horrible.

She waits another few minutes and sticks a finger in the pot. The water is still, impossibly, cool. He is most certainly going to turn her into a snail, or curse her with stomach cramps for all her days, or...

“Please,” she pleads quietly. “Please, kettle, boil water, please.”

And instantaneously, the kettle of water reaches a merry boil. Belle stares at it a moment, then grabs a cloth and pulls it from the fire. She pours the water into a teapot, the tea leaves swirling about inside. “Please, tea leaves, do not stew,” she asks the pot, placing it on a silver tray with cups and sugar lumps already waiting. She nearly trips on her unweildy, useless skirts as she dashes up the stairs to the great room where Rumpelstiltskin awaits, his expression amused. No doubt he finds the princess reduced to a serving maid funny.

Maybe it is. She missed the joke years ago. Trading one walled fortress for another and bringing her calloused hands with her is hardly a downward move; at least now, she knows she has actually done something to make a difference, not just push the inevitable back by a few more days. The thought puts strength in her spine and raises her head.

The winter is long; Belle wonders if there are farms nearby, and how the townfolk fare. She hopes they were prepared: no one made preparations for her. There are no jams or preserves in the cupboards, no pickles, no cellar with barrels of apples and potatoes. When she broaches the problem to Rumpelstiltskin, he merely snaps his fingers, and the larders are full.

“Where does it come from?” she asks him.

“Magic, dearie, I would have thought you would have guessed. The purple smoke is usually a dead giveaway,” he responds, preening, as if she were a wide-eyed child.

“You misunderstand.” She points to a wheel of cheese. “Cheese is made from milk, from cows or goats. It has substance. Nourishment. Purple smoke comes from a cheap hex that witches sell children in the marketplace. It has no substance or nourishment. You might, perhaps, be able to live on magic, but I certainly cannot. Nor will I take food from people around your estate, if you stole it from their stores.”

Rumpelstiltskin gives her an appraising look, and she crosses her arms. She may now be a servant, but as the head housekeeper and the steward had once reported directly to her, she knew that it did no one any favors to not be straightforward about working in impossible situations.

“My, my,” he says, “aren’t you particular.”

“I’ve overseen the logistics of food for both a palace and an army. If I can’t manage a household of two, then I’ve truly become feeble-minded.”

“I would not dare think such a thing of you, my lady,” Rumpelstiltskin says mockingly. “But I do not steal. I am, in fact, meticulous in my accounts, as you are well aware. And the food is not created from magic. I have a deal with a merchant in the southern lands. We trade food for healing potions.”

“Excellent,” says Belle, allowing herself to run a hand over the jars of fruit preserves, the dried figs, the eggs, the bag of flour. “If I find a magical cheese, I shall leave it in your bed to rot, and probably talk at you all night. Now, do I have to come to you every time I run out of milk?”

“Unnecessary.” He walks away, going back to spinning, no doubt. “Just ask for what you need and it will be there. You only have to say please.”

Really, she thinks, she should have guessed that.

*  *  *

As a small child, Belle had never had monsters under her bed. Night terrors, yes, soothed away by her nurse, and dreams of dark figures at her window wanting to whisk her away (and of all the lucky girls in all the worlds, she gets to have her bad childhood dreams come true.)

She has been at the castle for awhile, long enough to have decided there is conclusive proof: something is living under her bed.

There is nothing under her bed. She has checked, multiple times, both during the day and by candlelight at night. But the snuffling and sneezing and growling noises keep growing more noticeable every night. Finally, one night, she sits up and lights a candle. There is a complaining growl. “Alright. I know you’re there. Are you a trick of Rumpelstiltskin’s? Or something else?”

The soft padding of animal feet walks across the rug spread over the stone floor; she can’t see anything, but she sees the carpet move as if something has stepped on it. Then her bedclothes dip, an almost-round indentation a bit bigger than her hand can spread. Cautiously, she reaches out, and feels the top of a furry head, and ears. “Can you talk?” she asks.

In response, she gets a deep purr. She feels soft round ears, and rubs them. “I don’t know what you are, but you... well, you haven’t eaten me yet, anyway. I’m sure Rumpelstiltskin would be displeased if you did.”

It jumps up on her bed, walking in a few circles before dropping in a heavy sprawl at the foot on her bed. It sounds like there is a tail whipping around, hitting the bedpost once or twice before it settles.

Belle sits up for a little while, but if the invisible animal, whatever it is, hasn’t climbed out from under her bed and eaten her yet, it probably won’t do so while sleeping in her bed. Somehow comforted by the presence, by the warmth at her feet, she actually falls asleep.

“Is there a beast in the castle?” Belle asks Rumpelstiltskin the next morning as she lays out their breakfast.

“In front of you, dearie, do you need spectacles?”

“You’re  not a beast,” Belle responds automatically. “No, I mean an animal of some sort. But invisible. It’s been staying in my room.”

“Oh, that, ” he answers. “A king wanted an enchanted leopard. My first try didn’t work out as planned.”

“Leaving aside the fact you never bothered to tell me about it, you enchanted a leopard. To do what?”

“It was supposed to talk. Instead, it turned invisible and I lost it.”

“I found it. Do you want it back?”

Rumpelstiltskin shrugs elaborately and cuts into his sausage. “Whatever would I do with an invisible leopard? You can have her. Just don’t go running at night or you’ll look like prey.” He chews, and swallows. “More than usual, anyway.”

Belle sets down her fork. “I do not look like prey.”

“You went running into my grasp, didn’t you? Try not to tell the leopard to eat you, no matter how tempting the idea is. She understands words even if she can’t speak.”

“Well, it’s good to know that I can count on at least one soul in this castle to be polite,” Belle responds, and finishes her breakfast.

*  *  *

Maybe the leopard starts everything, or maybe Belle just begins to listen harder for her footsteps and hears so much more. There is murmuring in some of the upstairs galleries; not words, not even what she feels is communication, just... something is awake. The tarnished suits of armor, the portraits on the wall, the little useless tables, they all seem to know she is there.

It should be unsettling. It isn’t; it’s comforting.

She finds that the things she uses most murmur the strongest; the hearth arm, always with a pot of stew or kettle of water waiting to be asked to boil on it, seems to offer her a warm greeting every morning, and she welcomes it. The more she cooks, the friendlier the pots become, whispering to the fire to flicker in another direction so that they can simmer rather than boil when Belle gets distracted and supper is at risk of burning. The iron cookstove, too grumpy to allow her to cook on it at first, gradually becomes compliant and gives off an even heat, after she talks to it and tells it stories of Cook’s banquets for a month. And then she makes perfect omelets, which are entirely underappreciated, but that isn’t the point.

Out the kitchen’s back door there is an herb garden that the snow never touches; perhaps it is the lee of the house and perhaps underground there is some sort of warm spring, but the soil does not freeze. She hesitantly plants seeds that she asked one small cupboard for, and among the tangle of plants already there, she whispers to them the hopes she once had of visiting all the faraway lands she had read of, and of all the adventures she had hoped to have. Belle knows little of herbs, just what Cook had taught her (always have basil, rosemary, tarragon, mint, and oregano near to hand) and a few things helpful (chamomile and vervain teas were good for peaceful sleep, bee balm or aloe for burns, comfrey or violets for bruises, yarrow for bleeding.)

The little garden is perhaps the friendliest of anything she has met yet, and certainly the most cheerful, unless Leopard treads on some fresh growing thing. The feline follows Belle often, but in a house of magic she does not dare give her any name beyond what she is: names are their own magic, and with a name she summoned Rumpelstiltskin, after all. She doesn’t wish to invoke anything more.

Three months on, as the winter is melting away, Belle wonders why it is called the Dark Castle when the house itself is so friendly to her, curling into her touch like Leopard when she wants to be scratched behind the ears. The house is friendlier than Rumpelstiltskin, who has gone from being bizarre and theatrical and sometimes cruel to merely bizarre and theatrical. He is a strange housemate, but he talks to her in human speech, something she does miss.

That is not to say he is any more understandable than the suit of armor upstairs.

“Why do you have so many things? You can’t have traded for all of them, or if you did you didn’t get much of a deal. Like those wooden dolls, downstairs. What could you possibly sell them for?” She looks up at him as she sweeps the tower stairs.

“Detritus of the world, dearie. All magic has a price, and it isn’t always mine. World’s bigger than me.” He darts a sly glance her way. “For most people, anyway.”

She rolls her eyes. “You are not my entire world. But I know that magic has a price. Everything that happens causes something else, not just magic.”

“Quite right. And sometimes people who dig in dark places bring entire mines down on their heads.”

There is a meaning in his words, somewhere. He never says anything directly. “And you pick up the wreckage afterwards?”

“If it’s shiny. If it’s interesting. If it might be useful.” He shrugs.

“Am I wreckage?”

Rumpelstiltskin pauses in grinding something to powder with his mortar and pestle. “Not if I can help it.” He resumes his work. “This castle is a safe place. Only one thing here is able to harm you.”

“And you wouldn’t,” Belle says softly. Of all the people she had ever expected to hurt her somehow, he would have once been at the top of the list; after her first night in the dungeon, he had given her one of the best rooms in the castle, and then had never once laid a hand on her, as she might have expected from an evil master. Even her father had never been so self-restrained, when impatient with her.

Studying his spellbook very intently, Rumpelstiltskin replies, “I was referring to the possibility of food poisoning. I still have my doubts about a princess in the kitchen.”

“We’re not dead yet, are we?” Belle asks, emphatically sweeping the dirt into the air, to drift to the floor below.

That night, the candle burns low as she sits up late reading, Leopard sprawled on the bed beside her and taking up most of it. “I don’t know what to make of him. Of this place. Any of it.”

Leopard lets out a long huff of a sigh. Belle scratches her side. “He doesn’t need a housekeeper, not really. He doesn’t want me in his bed. I can’t even truthfully believe he just wants companionship; we barely have conversations. At least the house likes me, I think. I just don’t know what I’m here for. Why I was chosen.”

The candle sputters out, and Belle sets her book aside. Leopard shifts, and lays her head on Belle’s thigh. Belle takes this as a sign to stop asking existential questions and go to sleep.

*  *  *

Spring is arriving; Belle opens the castle’s front doors wide to sweep the entrance hall clean of winter’s dried mud, to let the air come in and breathe life into the place. She hums as she works, and there seems to be an echo; perhaps it is the stones, perhaps the doors. They are pleased at the change in seasons. She lays a hand on the broad wooden beams of a door.

We are glad you came.

There are no words, but she yanks her hand away anyway. It was just an impression, somehow. Tentatively, she places both of her hands flat against the door, closes her eyes, and rests her cheek against the sun-warmed smooth oak. There is the barest memory of sap, of soil, of sun; the searing fireworks of magic. A slow sort of mourning as the hinges grew stiff with disuse; an open door is welcoming and lively but a closed door is asleep, so much sleep, for so long. And then, the sense-memory of rising sap.

Belle pulls away, feeling like she has just been told some old, long story. We are glad you came. And she can somehow correlate the time of her coming with the fresh memory of new sap and reaching for the sky.

The castle of the feared Dark One is glad that she is there, and it was not glad, or particularly awake, before she was there.

She sits down on the castle’s grand front steps. She is no one. A rough princess from a slip of a kingdom, now a housekeeper, and the grand, enchanted castle has changed for her.

Belle doesn’t even have magic.

She wonders about it until evening, when they eat together. “Rumpelstiltskin,” she starts, not sure how to explain, “your castle is enchanted.”

“Oh, dear, whatever shall I do?” he asks, voice high with mock concern.

Other than swatting him on the arm, she ignores him. “The castle is... aware, somehow. Awake. It... talks to me. A little.”

“And do you talk back?”

“Naturally. I was taught manners, unlike certain other people, and asking nicely does seem to help things work better.” She pauses. “But I don’t know why. There’s nothing magic about me. Why should me doing anything or being here make it talk to me?”

He steeples his fingers and leans back, contemplating her. That sort of gaze had unnerved her, when she had first arrived, but now she didn’t mind: it was as if he was paying her the same attention he would a valuable item, or a lucrative deal. He doesn’t look at things he thinks are worthless in that way.

“Magic,” he says, “has a way of making things... more in accordance with themselves. It’s a harsh tool, one that magnifies qualities that are strong and eats away at those that are weak. Things that are subjected to it become more aware of what they are, and then simply... more aware. And life is magic, love is magic. Those are the strongest magics of all, because they make more of themselves, rather than less. Magic built this castle, and has touched every part of it, so it’s a bit more awake, as you called it, than other places might be. You don’t need to be magic to make it do what you want, you just have to be kind to it. It listens to you because you listen to it.”

“So you listen to it too?” Belle asks.

He scoffs, the serious moment broken. “Gods, no, it would never shut up. If I wanted to listen to chatter all day, I already have you. I just tell it what to do, because unlike you, I do have magic.”

She takes a bite, contemplating this. “That’s a bit rude.”

He gives her a look as if she just passed a comment on night being dark. Yes, it’s dark, it’s night, dearie.

“You know,” she says, “the castle likes me more than you. It’s been happier ever since I arrived. You should be nicer to it, or it might run off with somebody else.”

“No need,” he answers, “you’re staying with me forever, after all. You can be the nice one, and then it won’t sprout chicken legs and leave while I’m away.”

“Didn’t that happen to a witch up north?”

“Not exactly. But we don’t talk about her.”

*  *  *

Rumpelstiltskin is away on a trip. Belle has opened up all the castle doors to get fresh air to blow through, which he would never stand for if he was there, and she tidied his room and put his shirts in hot water to soak for a bit, and took a book and an apple out to the orchard to read in the sun just because she could. But by the evening of the second day, she is feeling a little lonely. There is no rustle of human life, no talking, just the endless murmur of the house to itself. It is comforting, to have that presence, but it’s not a conversation.

Belle sits at his spinning wheel, wondering what he’s doing.

Probably annoying people into apoplexy and the desire to strangle him.

He’s really quite the bastard.

And nobody gets his jokes. They don’t take the time. They don’t really listen. They can’t tell when his words mean something and when they’re simply so much midden.

She pushes the wheel, watching it spin slowly. There’s no thread wound on to it, and even if there were, she would probably snarl and break it; spinning hadn’t been something she had had time to learn, not even with wool. This wheel is old; it doesn’t even have a foot treadle. Belle picks up the spindle, shiny with years of handling. And then she nearly drops it.

It speaks to her, like the door did, in memories of senses. Fear; a cabin, dark and smoky, filled with grief; a gradual numbing with loss after loss; a grip on the spindle as if it were the only thing left and maybe it was; I will not let anything more be taken from me; power not rule but to be autonomous; magic curling like black silver; I am alone, I have lost all that matters, no one could ever love me, not ever.

Belle’s hands are shaking. She puts the spindle down.

For years, for however long he’s been spinning, that is what Rumpelstiltskin has been pouring into his wheel? That is what truly listening to him is?

No one could ever love me.

She stands, and goes to make a pot of tea. She returns with it just as the doors fling themselves open and Rumpelstiltskin comes striding in, a merry smile on his face. “You made me tea, did you? Can you predict the future now, as well as commune with architecture?”

Belle takes another cup from the cupboard. “I made me tea. But I might be persuaded to share.”

“Would a little token of my thoughtfulness do? I brought you something.”

“Did you?” She tries to be arch, but can’t keep the smile off her face. His eyes dance a bit at her smile, but then he’s always a bit impish at others’ uncertainty. She can see him holding something behind his back.

“Uh-uh!” He waves a finger at her. “Tea first.”

She pours his cup, then sits on the table. “Well?”

He pulls out a delicate porcelain doll. “I know you’re a bit old for dolls, dearie, but this one’s magic. You were so curious about magic the other day I thought you should have some of your own.”

Belle takes the doll from his hands. It’s lovely, nicer than the dolls she had as a child, with a sympathetic curve of her perfectly pink lips that makes her seem less haughty or vacant than many of the other dolls Belle had seen. “What does it do, magically, then?”

Rumpelstiltskin shrugs. “No idea. Possibly eats and drinks on its own, maybe helps its owner dodge housework. Maybe don’t put it next to your bed at night, just in case it sucks out your soul. That’d be some magic, there.”

“Rumpelstiltskin.”

“Yes, dearie?”

“I’m sorry, because I’m happy you thought of me, but this is a terrible present.”

“I’m the Dark One, Belle, not Father Christmas.” He slurps his tea. “Shall I bring you a live baby, next time?”

“You absolutely shall not. Nor a dead one, for that matter, while we’re on the subject.”

“A little hat for Leopard?”

“Amusing as it would be, I think it would injure her pride and then she would shred all your clothing.”

“I’m just going to have to take you shopping on the other side of the world, aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid so. It’s the only way to save your shirts.”

“Well, I’m not likely to strike fear into the hearts of mortals if I go larking about in a pair of leather trousers and nothing else. I have no choice. But it will be on one of my shorter trips, mind you. I can’t have the house grow legs and wander off while you’re out.”

“I will ask it most politely not to,” Belle says, and grabs Rumpelstiltskin’s hand, squeezing it and startling him. He never knows what to do at any contact with her. He is going to take her to the other side of the world, because he’s awful at gifts.

Maybe he thinks that no one could ever love him.

But maybe she could.

A chewed up dead bird appears on Belle’s lap and Leopard’s proud purring echoes around the hall. Rumpelstiltskin chortles, and reaches out a hand to feel for the invisible feline.

“I get all the best presents,” Belle declares, and she could swear the house is laughing, deep within its stones and mortar.