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"She's a fine girl." The nervous words from Sir Maurice distract Rumpelstiltskin, momentarily, from watching Belle among the dancers. "A fine girl."

A peace offering? Rumpelstiltskin's eyes flicker briefly to the man to his right, but quickly return to Belle. She looks resigned, stepping and dipping among the fusty courtiers. She outshines them all in her striking gown but, then, she would still have done so in her shift, wouldn't she? He almost smiles.

"A magnificent woman," he agrees, with his best attempt at gallantry. He cares not for his wife's father, but Belle loves him still. It distresses her to have husband and father at odds, forcing her to choose a side in the battle for her own happiness. There's been harm enough, and cutting wit will not serve Rumpelstiltskin here. For tuppence, he'd curse Sir Maurice with flaming boils for defying him, but that would upset Belle, and so it shall not be done.

Rumpelstiltskin plucks a small piece of bread and puts it on his tongue, half-aware of the garlic and cheese that flavour it. Startling, unfamiliar. He allows it to linger in his mouth and spread out through his senses while he devotes his full attention to the dance once more. Belle gives him a pained look, half-pleading to be rescued from this minor trial. Strange - he would have thought that she would like to dance, to shine among the stuffy wives of King George's court.

"It's said that you hold rich lands," Sir Maurice begins, with the wavering tone of a man uncertain about where his conversation is going. Rumpelstiltskin graces that with a slight nod. Yes, his lands are rich enough. Fertile pasture in the mountains, and his favours permit Odstone a prosperity and comfort more usually associated with a larger, merchant town like this one. "But no servants?"

"Not a one." Rumpelstiltskin remembers himself, remembers that the man is trying to make peace for Belle's sake, and turns to regard Sir Maurice. "Your daughter wants for nothing," he said, though not without a note of warning. "Whatever she desires, she need only mention." Such as a visit to these ungrateful people, who hold her in suspicion instead of thanking her for her sacrifice. Rumpelstiltskin is not surprised by any of it, but it angers him. For his wife's sake, it irks him. For his own... well. He's never sought to earn anyone's gratitude when he can command their fear instead. "Magic is a cruel master, Sir Maurice, but a mindless servant."

The man's eyes widen at the mention of magic, and Maurice looks quickly down at his plate. He has eaten little more than Rumpelstiltskin himself, though he made more of a show of filling his plate as the dishes were passed down from the King. Foxglove and wine will keep that old heart ticking away in good time, Rumpelstiltskin is certain. King George's physician will have said as much, the powder buying Belle's father a new lease of life. It is more than he deserves.

The mingled flavour of herbs and strong cheese sours in Rumpelstiltskin's mouth, so he washes it away with a gulp of wine and returns to watching his wife. As one tune ends, Prince James makes his way down to the floor, accosts Belle with a smooth bow, and announces that the blossoms of his father's court must be lonely for the want of menfolk. Rumpelstiltskin snorts into his cup and ignores the sharp look that Sir Maurice sends his way. One can be too respectful of royalty, of rank and of blood, and the blood in the strapping prince is even less royal than Rumpelstitlskin's own. It always makes him smile to look in on the sheep farmer's son, so skilled at arms and loyal to the man he calls father.

Loyal to the death.

The dance chosen is hardly the sort to engender inappropriate passions, but Rumpelstiltskin finds his lip curling as he watches Belle take the Prince by the hand. Belle pleads silently with Rumpelstiltskin for rescue, as James leads her to the front of the lines to make their respects to the King, but for all that he would like to snatch her hand away from the oaf, he wants to see his little wife dance. He tries not to tease her as he offers a look of sympathy, but he wants to smile. There's such simplicity in the way she moves herself, and observing her sweet composure in the crowd makes Rumpelstiltskin tingle all up and down his spine. Later on, when this farce has played itself out to a natural end, she will allow him to shatter that composure; smear the lip paint into the caking powder with kisses; bury his face between her thighs and taste her through the new frilly silk until she begs for more than the flick of a tongue to satisfy her. His tongue strokes the roof of his mouth, which waters in anticipation of his delicious wife.

Besides, he thinks, propping his chin on his hand as the dance begins, Prince James's inclinations most definitely do not lie with slight young women in silk and pale powder. He's not above making use of the effect that he has upon such creatures, though, and Rumpelstiltskin regrets that he is unable to make out their conversation as the dance carries the pair away from the high table and towards a change of partner. What would a prince say to tempt the wife of a beast into betrayal?

He sees them share a broad smile together before they part company. Glancing down, Rumpelstiltskin finds that he has shredded his wedge of feast bread into breadcrumbs upon the platter. He pushes it away in disgust and sits back; crosses his legs at the knees and makes himself appear perfectly at ease. Let the young fool go and fight his dragon. He might even survive, and then George will find him a maiden and a kingdom to marry whether he likes it or not.

Slipping into the room from a huddle of waiting figures, the dukeling presses his way through the dancers, grim-faced, to place himself in Belle's path before the next partner can stand to face her. There's only a mild commotion as the displaced courtier steps aside. No-one much argues with a duke's son, even one who has angered a king. Rumpelstiltskin scowls, leaning forward intently, and reaches with a little magic to be sure that he catches the words that the jilted fool clearly means to say.

"You bed that and call it honour?" Gaston sneers, as he passes back to back with Belle. He barely bothers to conform to the dance, instead twisting to make certain that Belle hears him, and to see her reaction. Rumpelstiltskin clenches his fists to keep from flattening the boy with a fireball there and then. She wouldn't thank him. "Demon's whore."

Rumpelstiltskin snarls and jumps the table, landing easily and plunging into the dancers to drag the dukeling away from Belle. No-one will call her whore, no-one; his rage is white hot, searing his thoughts to a blazing purity of purpose. He forces Gaston to his knees with a hand at his throat, ready to snap his thick neck; to plunge thumbnails into his eye sockets; to fill his veins with some cold and screaming agony of a lingering death.

Instead, he remembers Belle, and that this is her enemy. He should be dealt with in the manner that she sees fit, and his treasure of a wife disapproves of satisfying cruelty. Rumpelstiltskin manages to focus his eyes upon Sir Gaston's darkening face, and spittle flies from his lips as he offers the boy one chance of undeserved mercy.

"You're a mindless fool from a long line of mindless fools, boy, and I've known them all." And he'd gladly kill Gaston a dozen times over as proxy for all of them. All of them! "Apologise to her if you want to live!"

He doesn't know whether he's relieved or sickened when the boy chokes some two word apology around the constriction at his throat. Rumpelstiltskin shoves him away with a growl, making sure that he goes down hard enough to crack his head among the rushes. There is uproar. King George is bellowing for order, the dancers are trying to flee and to watch the spectacle at the same time, and Belle cries out sharply...


Rumpelstiltskin turns, trying to see clearly through the blinding rage. He sees a dark robed, hooded man toss a great handful of powder into Belle's face. She inhales it, chokes on it, blinded. Rumpelstiltskin stares, taken aback by the aura that surrounds the expanding cloud of dust and magic. He doesn't recognise it, can feel the chilly strength of it closing about Belle like a coffin. It obscures his view of the mundane world for so long that he does not see her clothing unwind about her; he only sees her try to hunch and cover a sudden nakedness, curling in on herself in an agony of humiliation and fear. Tossing dumbstruck watchers out of his way he drops to his knees just as Belle does, reaching for her, his first thought to cover her, hide her away from so many prying and unkind eyes. To snatch her away to safety.

He snatches back from her instead, barely keeping himself from revealing how it burned to put his flesh near to hers. It burned, and the magic that shrouds her mocks him, crawling as it dissipates beneath his skin. He wants to retch.

He wants to kill everyone. Not only those watching but those within a hundred miles of his trembling wife.

It's Prince James who sweeps in, sliding to his knees at Belle's side and dropping his long cape over her before brandishing a shiny sword against all comers.

Between the Prince's anger and the sight of his wife's tears streaking through the clinging dust, Rumpelstiltskin finds the will and reins in the vengeful beast.

Prince James calls for his guards to bring the fleeing attackers alive, and Rumpelstiltskin sends his senses flying after them, after the new information, and finds the shapes that pounding footsteps and naked terror make in the world. Three shapes. The reek of fear is slightly less on one of them, the one tainted with the magic dust.

Smiling at the Prince, Rumpelstiltskin quietly closes his fist and ends the other two while he makes sure the third cannot flee. Waits to feel them fall, to savour their death throes before he lets go.

"We only need one, dearie."

Belle reaches for him, seeking a husband's comfort, and Rumpelstiltskin pulls back before her skin can brush against his. He would sweep her up in his arms if he could; carry her home, comfort her and promise her anything - anything - in recompense for this.

But he cannot touch her, not here, and instead has to watch the hurt fill her already tear-filled eyes.

It's all that Rumpelstiltskin can do not to close his fist once more and destroy the world for her.