Rumplestiltskin blinked in surprise at the dove that had just landed on his work table. Doves had no business in the Dark Castle, generally speaking. This one, however, had a little bundle tied to one of its legs.
The bundle wasn't in possession of magic of any kind, so Rumplestiltskin decided it was safe enough to retrieve and examine. Upon opening the package brought to him by the dove, he found it was a letter.
Ogres have begun to invade my father's kingdom, and I know from my reading that you are able to defeat these creatures. Please, I beg that you would prevent the loss of life that another war against the ogres would cause. I beg that you would protect my father's kingdom from the ogres.
I know that my father will not even think to ask this of you until it is almost too late for ourselves, and far too late for our people. King Maurice is famously stubborn, and foolishly believes that our little kingdom has sufficient military might to drive off the ogres without aid. I may be only young yet, but I have my eyes open enough to know that the kingdom is ill-equipped to face the threat that lies before us.
Please help us. I do not wish to see families broken as my father conscripts soldiers from among our people to fight this threat. I am willing to pay whatever price you demand of me, if it will save our people.
With greatest respect,
Belle, princess of Avonlea and the Marshlands
Rumplestiltskin hummed thoughtfully. In truth, he had expected a message from the Marshlands over the matter, but not one so verbose – and he had not expected the message to come for another eight years. Eight years from this very point, the ogres would indeed have overrun the Marshlands, and Avonlea would be on the very precipice of falling.
"Help! Help! We're dying! Can you save us? We will give you all the gold in ours stores!"
That was the message that he expected to come to him, from King Maurice, on that day – a day when he would correct the king on his presumption that Rumplestiltskin would trade his magical services for something he could and did spin out of straw in large quantities. Yet here was a missive, sent to him by the daughter of the king rather than the king himself, and almost a decade early.
He was a bit busy right now. He'd just dismissed Zelena from his tutelage (she could hardly curse him into the Land Without Magic when that vital ingredient she would need to cast the curse was his heart) and convinced Regina to be his student – and she was going to need a lot of work. Then again, ending threats of ogres was how he'd gotten started. It wouldn't take him very long to deal with the matter. It was just the choosing of an appropriate price that was the issue.
Well, he'd just have to meet this princess and see what she had to offer. He really couldn't accept too many unnamed favours in trade, and for such a sensible request to come from a princess... well, it might restore his faith in the female of the species. Maybe.
Milah had been the first, Cora and Zelena the most recent. Those and all the ones in between had been utterly, wrenchingly, dreadful experiences, though in vastly different ways, and next he was deliberately going to be shaping Regina into a monster for his own purposes. Not the sort of person who would be able to restore anybody's faith in the strange sub-species of humans known as 'females'.
But what to do with Regina while he was gone on this errand? He wasn't about to leave her alone and unsupervised in his home. She'd stick her nose into something and break it. The object, that is, whatever she inevitably and invariably would stick her nose into. He really could care less if she broke her nose.
"I have business to attend to," he informed her. "It may take some time. You have the duration of my absence to take advantage of my stables and spend time with your horse. I'd best not find you've made a mess of the place though," he added sternly.
Regina's face lit up happily, and she thanked him briefly before she ran off out of the tower. The girl did love her horses. It probably came with having a stable boy as her True Love – even if the unfortunate lad was dead now. Cora really was a shockingly terrible parent, even more than she was a wretched human being.
Satisfied that Regina wouldn't be getting into anything important, Rumplestiltskin also left the tower. He, however, left by magic and went quite a bit further than simply the stables.
When there was a knock at the door, Belle looked up from her task in mild confusion. No one ever bothered her here, save for her parents, but it could not be either of them now. Her mother had died in the winter that had just passed – there had been ice on the steps, and Queen Madeline had not seen it in time to save herself from the perilous fall – and Belle's father was in his study, writing out orders to be sent to the knights that were sworn to him and his lords.
Belle rose from her seat and moved to investigate. Upon opening the door, however, there was no one on the other side. It must be the younger children playing games, Belle decided as a slightly rueful cant took up residence upon her lips. Knocking on a door and then running away.
At least someone could have fun.
Belle shook her head and closed the door again.
"Bit of a let-down?" a voice asked from within the room.
Belle jumped in surprise as she whipped around. There was a... man. Only not a man, for men did not have skin that was a sort of green and glittered as though powdered in gold all over. He was sitting on her chair and looking back at her, a smile on his face and a glimmer of mischief in his strange, dark eyes.
"Just confusing," Belle answered carefully. "I don't really get visitors," she confessed.
"Well, you've got one now, dearie," the man-who-wasn't-a-man said lightly. "You sent me a message."
Belle's eyes widened slightly then, as she realised just who was perched so neatly upon her chair, and she dropped into a low curtsey before him. "Dark One," she greeted respectfully, her head bowed.
"That's right, dearie," the Dark One confirmed. "And I must say, you've sparked my interest," he informed her with a smirk that she did not see. "What is this place, that you get no visitors?" he inquired. "Surely you're not locked in here, since you just answered the door."
"It is the library," Belle answered, and rose from her curtsey. "Well," she amended, "as near as my father has to one. This room contains the kingdom's records. Census, surveys, crop reports, tax reports, and so on. There are two books of legends, and from one of those I learned what little I know of you."
There were only three books in the room, bound with leather and set upon a shelf, and Belle had read the two books of legends some five times through, each.
"I have compiled the third myself," she added with just the smallest hint of pride, which quickly fled in the wake of ruefulness. "Though I admit, it is only a record of business transactions in Avonlea for the past ten years."
"Quite an achievement for one so young," the Dark One noted speculatively. "How old are you, little princess?"
"I am not yet fourteen," Belle admitted.
"Oh? That makes you about the same age as Princess Snow," the Dark One observed.
Belle nodded in agreement to that statement. "We have met once," she supplied. "At her mother's funeral. My family went to pay our respects and give condolences for her loss. She sent a letter of apology that she could not come to the funeral of my mother. The weather at the time made the roads quite impassable, and as my family was still in mourning, it wasn't appropriate that we attend the wedding of her father. We sent a letter of apology and a wedding gift though."
"Very interesting," the Dark One allowed with slightly bored neutrality. "But to the matter that brings me here," he said, and tapped a darkly-clawed finger on Belle's writing desk.
Belle nodded. "The ogres," she agreed. "Will you save my father's people?"
The Dark one smiled, but it wasn't a friendly expression. "I like that you do not question if I can," he admitted. "And I would be happy to, but all magic comes with a price," he informed her.
Belle cocked her head to one side as she considered that. "What price would you ask?" she questioned. "You are finely dressed, I cannot think you need for wealth."
The Dark One's smile grew wider. "You are a smart girl," he praised. "No, I'm not in need of wealth. I'm quite capable of making gold. As it happens, I find myself in need of an assistant. Someone who can keep notes for me, to whom I may delegate research tasks and who will see to it that my estate is clean and my tea served on time. As I have recently taken on a student, I will not have the time to see to these matters myself as I did."
Belle nodded in understanding. "With your permission Sire, I would like to pack and write a letter of farewell to my father before I leave with you," she requested.
"It will be forever dearie," the Dark One warned her.
Belle frowned slightly. "I do not think it is possible that I can live forever," she admitted. "But I will go with you, and be whatever you need me to be, for as long as I live, and if there is a way for me to live forever so that I can serve you forever, then I will accept it. In exchange, the ogres will never encroach upon Avonlea and the Marshlands again, even if the kingdom should fall to some other force, or the lands be traded to another kingdom. The land, and the people who live upon it, will be safe from that threat at least."
The Dark One grinned. "Deal!" he agreed happily, and produced a scroll with a flourish and a small puff of purple smoke. "A contract, to make it all nice and official," he declared, and plucked Belle's own quill from where it rested on her work table.
Belle stepped up to the Dark One, and her table, and accepted the contract from his hand. She set it down on her table and read it quickly through. She had taught herself to be able to read quite fast, and was fond of the pass-time. Far more fond of the activity than she was of tending her needlepoint. Then again, she was more fond of sneaking down to the kitchen and learning to bake bread (and kneading dough was very difficult when she had first begun such sneaking) than she was of tending her needlepoint.
Satisfied with the terms of the contract as she found them, Belle turned to the Dark One to take her quill from him.
His quiet, approving smile was quite different from the smiles, smirks and grins he had been wearing up until that point, and Belle thought that not many people were sensible enough to read the contracts he presented them with before signing them, if such was his reaction to her doing just that. Even if it made him wait a little, and he was surely busy.
"You have two hours to pack and write your letter," the Dark One said as he rolled up the contract and tucked it away in his jacket. "I will return for you at that time, and the ogres will be banished from your father's lands in the same instant you set foot upon my estate."
Belle nodded in agreement. That was what had been written in the contract. She curtseyed to her new master, collected her writing materials from her desk, and hurried off to her room.
Rumplestiltskin considered the little princess he'd just acquired while he set the enchantment over the lands of her father and waited for her to ready her belongings. She was a pretty little quandary of a girl. She wore no jewels in her ears or ribbons in her hair, save for one that kept the mass of curls tied away from her face at the base of her skull. Indeed, she wore no jewels at all that might signify her station. Her dress was not the large confection of a thing that he knew other princesses her age wore, covered with lace and beaded embroidery, but rather a humble-looking, practical thing that fell modestly to her ankles. The only thing rich about the dress was the weave of it. The ancient spinner knew quality at a glance, and simply styled and unadorned though it was, that dress was still a rich one.
And she was just entering her teen years. Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes at the realisation. He was going to watch this girl grow and go through the changes that females go through at that age. He was going to have to make sure she continued to have clothes that fit her as she grew.
Well, maybe Regina would be good for that, for a little while.
He'd have to prepare one of the rooms in his castle for her arrival. She was to be his assistant, and he intended her to be useful to him. Giving her a room in the dungeon, however tempting it might be, wouldn't be sensible. Besides, it was actually in the contract he'd had her sign. As she would be living under his rule for the rest of her life – which he fully intended to extend through magical means, if she proved to be as useful as he presently suspected she would be – he would have to meet her needs. It was his duty as her master to see that she had food, clothing, and kept in good health. The bargain was that she would never return to her father's kingdom, save that he might send her for some reason of his own, in exchange for its protection from the ogres.
Really, he was being almost ridiculously generous. Then again, he intended to get rather a lot of work out of the girl, and for the amount of work she would give him, meeting her basic human needs wasn't a great difficulty. He already had to make his own meals, and would have to feed his new student as well, so providing food for a third person was no great trial.
Perhaps he could even delegate the task of going to town and buying what things the castle needed to his new assistant. He would need to have a way to be sure she wouldn't run off though. It was possible that she would come back on her own, for the sake of the contract she had just signed with him, but Rumplestiltskin wasn't inclined to trust people too far out of his sight.
Something to keep her from being 'rescued' as well, as there were certain to be fools who thought he'd stolen the girl away, or enchanted her through foul magic of some sort. Well, he'd figure that out later. He wasn't about to let her leave his estate for the first month in any event, and he was sure he could make a suitable device in that time. He'd made others of equal complexity with but a flick of his wrist in the past, after all.
Presently though, he had half an hour remaining to ready his new assistant's rooms in. Sleeping quarters, bathing room, and perhaps a sitting room where she could indulge in her own private pursuits in the evening when her duties of the day were completed. Nothing as extravagant as the chambers of a princess, he was quite deliberate about that, but comfortable all the same.
Regina was nowhere in the castle while he was doing this. Just as well. He didn't much care for explaining himself at the best of times. His student would learn of his assistant when they met, and not before.
Rumplestiltskin checked the hour, and with one final, satisfied look about the quarters he had just finished arranging, he left his castle once more to fetch the girl. The princess who would now be his servant.
"Are you packed?" he asked the girl as he appeared in her room at her father's castle.
"Yes Sire," she answered. "And I have left a letter for my father as well, explaining our deal, so that he knows not to search for me."
"Whether he will abide by that is another matter entirely," Rumplestiltskin pointed out. "But you will not be held accountable for his actions on the matter, so long as you uphold your end of our bargain."
"Yes Sire," she replied.
"And your things?" Rumplestiltskin asked.
"I have packed everything that I believe I will need into this trunk," the young princess answered, and lay a hand on a hump-backed chest. Then blushed. "At least, everything I will need until I must take to needlepoint," she amended. "Though I am leaving behind my writing desk."
"Taking furnishings would be a trifle conspicuous," he agreed. Still, Rumplestiltskin thought that one single chest of belongings was not very much for a princess to be taking when she was leaving her home behind. Certainly there were dresses for which the skirts would take up the entirety of that space. Then again, this princess did appear to be inclined towards more practical clothing than the ridiculous party dresses her peers were never out of.
With a snap of his fingers, the chest vanished away to the rooms he had readied for his new assistant.
"You'll have a new writing desk at my estate," Rumplestiltskin promised, having already made those arrangements in his home. "Two, in fact. One at which you will perform the tasks I give you, and one that you may use for your own devices in the evenings. Now come," he bid, and held out a hand for the girl to take.
With little to no hesitation, and not even a flicker of fear, the child placed her delicate, soft little hand (with only one little callous upon one finger, from where she so diligently held her quill) into his own clawed grasp.
Rumplestiltskin held the hand gently, and let his magic wash over them and transport them to the Dark Castle. A place that was two weeks journey by coach from her home, though this was due more to the state of the roads, rather than the great distance. Not that the Dark Castle was really close to anywhere. It was very thoroughly isolated, but he liked it that way. Kept there from being too much riff-raff bothering him day in and day out.
"This is your room," Rumplestiltskin informed his young assistant. "Through that door is your bathing chamber," he continued with a gesture, before he moved to a different door. "And through this door is your sitting room. Through your sitting room you have access to the rest of the castle," he instructed as he led the way, giving her a brief, brisk tour of his home, which would now also be hers.
He showed her where the kitchen was. She was expected to make his tea, they'd already discussed that. He didn't expect her to cook, indeed he doubted that she could, but if she had any skill at all in the kitchen beyond the preparation of tea, then he would welcome her assistance there as well. He showed her where she could launder her clothing. He would not do it for her, did not particularly expect her to launder his, and certainly would not have her laundering for anybody else. Beyond these, he told her what each room was as they passed through it, and requested that she see to their cleaning only after she had served his tea in the afternoons, and before the evening meal.
"And this is the library," he presented with a frustrated flourish as he ascended the stairs of one of his castle's towers. "Full of tomes that are a hodge-podge of mixed up magic," he sneered. "And other, less muddlesome subjects as well," he allowed.
That said, he ushered her out of the room again, for she had a dumbstruck expression about her face that he was inclined to believe might cause her to not hear what he had to tell her.
"Your primary task, my little assistant, will be to collate the information in those books on magic into a more sensible form. Many of the authors jump about in a completely nonsensical way, for example, from writing about a transportation spell to a theory on how fairy dust works. Also... I only just made it while you were packing, and brought the books I'd had scattered all about the castle here, so it's horribly disorganised," he admitted with some small frustration. "Categorise the books, and then study the magic tomes. I want fresh works that contain all the information that they do, but by relevance. A book on transportation magic of every kind, another on magic that allows for communication, another for magic that heals, another for magic that kills, another for curses and another for potions, and so on. You see?"
"Yes Sire," Belle agreed promptly.
"That will be your task in the time from morning tea until after lunch," Rumplestiltskin said. "In the mornings before then, you will attend me in my work room. You will make notes as I dictate. You will also attend breakfast, lunch, and the evening meal in the main hall."
"The one with the very large table," Belle recalled with a nod when he gave her an expectant look.
Rumplestiltskin nodded, satisfied that she remembered the room from their tour thus far.
"When you bring my tea, you may share it with me, at your own discretion, unless I instruct otherwise," he allowed. "There are no other servants here, little princess. I have a clock-tower that will ring out in the morning, and you had best wake to it. I will show you my workroom tomorrow after breakfast, when you will begin your work for me."
"Yes Sire," Belle agreed and curtseyed respectfully to her new master.
Rumplestiltskin narrowed his eyes at the girl then, as a thought had struck him and it was intriguing enough to him to give it voice.
"Do you know my name, Princess Belle of Avonlea and the Marshlands?" he asked.
"No Sire," Belle admitted, and dropped her gaze to the floor. "In the only text of my father's kingdom where you were described, you were named only 'the Dark One'."
"My name is Rumplestiltskin," he divulged, "and I am able to hear my name from very nearly everywhere, should it be spoken aloud. Names have power, little princess, do not use mine lightly."
"I will be conscious of it, my Lord Rumplestiltskin," Belle agreed solemnly and gave another curtsey.
"Who is this?" Regina demanded, politely, the next morning when she arrived in the hall for breakfast.
"Princess Belle of Avonlea and the Marshlands," Rumplestiltskin answered carelessly. "My new assistant and housekeeper. In exchange for her services about the castle, her father's kingdom is protected from ogres. Belle, this is Queen Regina."
The child rose from her seat and curtseyed to the woman. "I apologise for not having been in attendance at your wedding, your majesty," the girl offered.
"You were in mourning at the time, I believe," Regina deferred uncomfortably as she took her seat at the table. She was approximately comfortable with certain aspects of royal politenesses, raised to it as she was (her father was a prince in his own right, after all), but she was decidedly uncomfortable with being reminded of her marital status. Still, she managed to wave off the apology with appropriate grace. "It's quite alright. Your wedding gift was lovely. Thank you for it."
The girl curtseyed again, then returned to her chair and resumed eating her breakfast.
"The two of you will have minimal interaction," Rumplestiltskin informed them both, before turning his gaze on Regina specifically. "Belle will attend me in the mornings while you're busy with your royal correspondences and your horses, and in the afternoons while you have your lessons with me, she will be busy elsewhere in the castle. I do hope, however, that Belle will be able to come to you if she has need for any... particularly womanly advice," he said with a grimace. "I may be knowledgeable in the field, but I cannot think any girl will be comfortable discussing such matters with me."
Belle ducked her head and said nothing, but that was quite confirmation enough.
Regina nodded in acquiescence as a faint blush stained her cheeks. She might have bitter feelings against Snow White, and she might have loved forcing her mother through that mirror, but Regina was far from heartless, and it would be heartless to leave the girl under the exclusive guidance of the Dark One in those times when she would need a woman to explain things.
The days passed enough that Belle was fourteen when Regina started coming and going daily from Rumplestiltskin's castle, rather than residing there as she learned from the near-ancient master. The woman was a queen, with a husband and a step-daughter. She could not long get away with constantly being present in the Dark One's castle, rather than her own. Belle was fifteen when Regina left the castle in the middle of the afternoon, rather than at her usual hour, and did not return again the next day, or the day following, or the day that followed that.
Rumplestiltskin took to leaving the castle to meet with a new student not long after.
"She's not likely to amount to anything," he told Belle freely, "but she has some small amount of potential, and she has agreed to give me a locket full of fairy dust in exchange for the lessons. Still, I'll not have another student in my castle again. They cause far too much mess."
Belle could only tuck a smile away at that last comment, for he was the one who collected treasures and trinkets like a male bower bird in the mating season.
Belle was sixteen when Regina returned to Rumplestiltskin for more lessons in magic. She was eighteen when Rumplestiltskin decided that he had nothing left that he wished to teach to Regina, and sent her back to her husband and kingdom.
All that time, Belle had slowly been learning magic as well. She was not Rumplestiltskin's student, not technically, and she only ever attempted to perform very small magic, and that very occasionally (she knew that all magic had a price, whether that magic was designated as 'light' or 'dark', and she was cautious of it), but nonetheless she learned.
He dictated to her what he had done with his potions, and what their result would be (or should be if it was experimental), so that she could record it for the tome she was compiling on the subject. She overheard a lesson or two between him and Regina when she brought the tea that signalled a break in whatever the queen was being taught that day. She read, extensively, on every magic there was for the sake of categorising each spell, method, curse and theory as Rumplestiltskin required of her.
When she had first laid eyes upon the Dark One's library, Belle had thought that there were more books contained there than she could read in a lifetime. She was finding herself to be somewhat disabused of that notion now. Then again, she had already taught herself to read in such a manner that was both very thorough and extremely quick even before she bound herself so.
She took a new book with her to her sitting room each night, desirous of a tale she could enjoy after her busy days. Sometimes, however, the book that she took from the shelves of the library to fill her evenings were not grand tales, but rather great texts, veritable encyclopaedias of knowledge. By reading them all in this way, Belle was also able to categorise each book correctly and appropriately shelve it the next day – and save for the books on magic, which she read over and over again to collect all the information from them for her work for Rumplestiltskin – she never read any book twice.
In four years she had read all but five books of Rumplestiltskin's incredible library. She knew, however, that he had still more books in his work room – and all of those were exclusively on the subject of magic – but she would not have access to those books until she had completed the sorting and compiling of those books on magic that were contained in the library that she presently had access to.
It was a task that she had almost completed, to her own amazement. Equally stunning to her was that, in four years, she had finally cleaned every room in the Dark Castle, save for Rumplestiltskin's private chambers, but he did not permit her into those any way. She had laundered all of the curtains too, though she had needed to use a little magic to safely take them down so that she could do so. Thankfully, he did not nail them shut again when she re-hung them, so they were able to appreciate natural light when it was available to them. Belle had even scrubbed the floors of the dungeons until they were spotless and gleaming, and transformed the gardens of the Dark Castle quite completely.
Belle was actually quite proud of the gardens, and particularly she was proud because she knew Rumplestiltskin also enjoyed them. When she arrived, it had been little more than a great tangle of weeds. Now, there were ornamental gardens with carefully sculpted hedges that lay between the castle and the gate; there was a vegetable garden that supplied the kitchen (and Belle had learned, in four years, how to make more than just bread and tea, which she was also quite proud of); there was even a part of the garden dedicated to the growing of straw and hay. The former was for her master to spin with, the latter was to help feed some of the few animals that Rumplestiltskin had permitted to be kept.
A ram for his wool exclusively, a pair of ewes that gave milk as well as wool, the lambs that came to these sheep in season that were killed for their meat and their soft downy pelts, and they had a dog that Rumplestiltskin himself trained to mind the animals and bring them in from the fields as needed. They even had a coop full of chickens – no roosters though, just hens, and the eggs they gave.
Yes, Belle was very pleased with her ability and industry since she had come to attend upon the Dark One.
Not only that, but she discovered that she admired her master. His sense of humour was sometimes dark, but that was hardly a surprise. His great neutrality though, that was far more interesting. The way he dealt with all people with such equanimity. He held all people in equal disdain, but helped them all just the same. For a price.
Her master, Belle had learned, was a great businessman, and his business dealings intrigued her. It was her intent, when she had completely finished with the library and its books, to begin to properly compile one of her own – a record of all her master's deals, if he would consent to share his history with her.
Most likely he would not, or at least, not easily. Belle knew this, as she had managed to wiggle a few stories out of him over the years – but only a very few. Her master was very private, and did not like to speak of the past very much at all. No matter how long forgotten or how recent it might be. There was no way that Belle could make a record of all his deals if he did not speak of them either; he had been making deals for centuries.
If he did not wish to speak to her of all of his deals from the past, then Belle could at least document those deals which he did tell her of, and those which had occurred during her service to him. It would certainly be interesting to read in retrospect.
Perhaps, if she asked very politely, those who came to the castle to do business with Rumplestiltskin might tell her of any deals made by him that had occurred before Belle had come to be in his service. She was certainly the youngest of those he dealt with presently.
Belle would also make a record of all the treasures that her master kept in his castle. Such a task would allow her to ask him how each trinket came to him, though she could not ask about every piece all at once, and she would be able to learn more of his deals that way. If he were inclined to answer her.
Occasionally he did already, but just as often he did not, merely glancing over at the object and giggling or sneering at it instead.
Rumplestiltskin had a good memory. No, he had an excellent memory. He remembered every deal he'd ever struck, every link in the chain that it was towards getting just that bit closer to reaching his son. He'd put every monarch on their throne in one way or another.
Without his help, King Midas would not have met his wife, dead though she was now. Cora most assuredly wouldn't have lived to marry Prince Henry, let alone birth Regina, without his interference. He had arranged the survival of King George as an infant when he became sickly; he had a hand in the birth of the late Queen Eva's mother; he provided King Leopold's father to his grandparents in a deal... and Aurora's mother wouldn't have been conceived without a potion from him. Such a shame Maleficent wasn't happy about some of the events that had followed that last one, but he'd been extremely discrete about the whole thing (as he always was), so she could hardly be upset with him.
Presently, the particular memory he was dwelling on was a date. A simple little date. Regina had, that first year that Belle had been with him, given the girl a birthday gift on the day the child had turned fourteen. A full six years had passed since then, and as Rumplestiltskin watched the sun rise, he knew the date to be that of his assistant's twentieth birthday.
She would be betrothed by now, if she had still lived under her father's care in Avonlea. Betrothed... and probably unhappy, given what he knew of the girl. Woman. After six years of exposure to her company, he knew Belle quite well by now.
The tricky thing was that, though he knew her quite well, he had no idea what she might like for a birthday gift. He'd never contemplated giving her one before. The first year she was with him, Regina had. That was how he knew the date, but after that... there had been no gifts. Regina and Belle had no interaction at all by the time Belle was fifteen, then the Queen hadn't been about for the girl's sixteenth, and it seemed utterly awkward to give a girl a seventeenth birthday gift, for some reason.
Probably because that was the age she would be expected to start considering looking at her suitors, and begin determining which of them she would grace with the honour of her hand.
Rumplestiltskin winced. He knew Belle. She'd choose literature over the company of any knight or courtier, and her father would have ended up choosing someone for her. Likely someone completely unsuited to her, but who was an ideal choice politically.
The prospect turned his stomach, and he was glad that she had called upon him before such an ill-suited fate could befall her.
Twenty, however... that seemed too significant to be ignored, somehow.
The bell of his clock-tower rung out, and Rumplestiltskin found himself recalling the day the girl had actually scaled that tower, taken to all of the gears with a greased rag, and even polished the bell. The only thing that had kept her from falling to her death had been the rope she'd had the good sense to tie about her middle and attach to the most sturdy of the rafters.
He'd had to reel her in from where she was dangling, but at least she hadn't gone splat. She'd proved herself to be very good help, and that was so hard to find. Belle had made herself quite vital to his own continued comfort. He even enjoyed her efforts to document and record – accurately – the history of his deal-making. It was quite pleasant actually, the way she drew out of him the dates on which he had made his deals, as well as what had been given and taken in turn; the magic or object requested, and its necessary cost.
She had even learned about his son, and his wife, and his entire sordid history. (She'd asked why he had a severed hand in his collection the first time it had twitched when she dusted it, and though he'd hardly given the story over easily or wholly at that time, eventually the entire sorry tale had followed over the course of the ensuing months.)
Rumplestiltskin, dressed already, moved down to the kitchen. There was the dough Belle had set on the mantle over the hearth, which had been banked the night before but not put out. As always, the dough had risen over night, and was now ready to be baked this morning. Rumplestiltskin turned it out into a pan, stoked the fire and set the pan in place so that the dough could become bread. While the bread sorted itself out, he went out to the chicken coop and fetched eggs. Scaly hands slid carefully under warm, feathered bodies and extracted warm, pink-brown eggs. He would leave milking the ewe to Belle though, and she had quite taken over all the cooking duties these days, unless he made special effort or gave her instruction to leave it to him for once.
"Good morning Sire," Belle greeted with a slightly-sleepy smile when he returned to the kitchen. The girl was never quite awake, first thing in the mornings. No, not girl. Woman. Well and truly a woman now. Still, she needed her first cup of tea with breakfast in the morning to wake fully.
"Good morning Belle," he answered her. "And... happy birthday," he offered.
Belle blinked – whether in surprise or an effort to drive out the sleepiness, he wasn't sure – and cocked her head to one side as she considered his words. Then a smile lit up her face.
Rumplestiltskin felt that the expression was quite literal, in her case. When Belle smiled, it was like the sun had come out from behind a cloud and shot a beam of light down specifically to illuminate her face, and nothing else. The whole world faded into a duller shade in comparison when Belle smiled. It hadn't used to be so, but as her features sharpened over the years, matured, her smile had become what it now was. Illuminating.
"Thank you Sire," she replied happily.
"Mm," he said and set the egg basket down. "Twenty today. I think that merits a gift from your old master, perhaps?" he offered. "What would the lady like? A new book?" he suggested.
Belle bit her lip. "A loom?" she requested, though she didn't look entirely certain of her request.
Rumplestiltskin could hardly but help to lift an eyebrow at that. He knew Belle. Knew of her voracious love of learning, her delight in books – be they works of fact, fiction or philosophy – and was surprised she had not requested a book. Then again, he did continue to bring back more books from his deals over the years, and she was only half-way through sorting and collating the magic books in his work shop (having finished those in the library). He supposed it made sense that she would ask for something he did not provide to her in plenty at all times.
But he also knew she took no delight in her needlepoint (she could do it well enough, certainly, but she didn't like it). Not that weaving was anything like needlepoint, not really, but still. It was an odd request from the girl. Woman.
"I would... You spin so much... I would like to see what your thread is like when it is woven," Belle confessed, and a blush tainted her cheeks as she dipped her head in an effort to hide it.
Rumplestiltskin smiled a soft smile. "I will weave you a cloak of my thread," he offered. "You need not ask for a loom to see it done."
Belle smiled a bashful, grateful smile for him. "Thank you," she said.
"It will take a while," he warned.
She nodded in acceptance.
"I will not be able to finish your birthday gift today," he admitted when she brought him his tea in the afternoon. "I must go to see King George. The son I gave him is dead, but still needed. This is a dealing that may actually take a few days of my time, as I will have to deal with more than just King George himself."
Belle set down the tea tray on the small table that was set aside in Rumplestiltskin's work room just for taking tea at. "I understand Sire," she said, and she did. Deals were important, and frequently had a time-limit on when they could be made. Her birthday gift was something that was entirely at his discretion to give her, and he was under no obligation to fulfil that promise at all.
Though the view of a loom, large and intimidating, half-strung as it sat in the middle of the room, was really quite wondrous to the young woman when she had sighted it upon her entry. Impressive as it was though, Belle thought she would probably still enjoy weaving as much as she did her needlepoint, which was little to not at all, however pleased she might be with the work when it was done.
Belle set about pouring two cups of tea, sure to add the two cubes of sugar and twist of lemon to her master's cup, which was how he took his tea.
"I will eagerly await your return, and the tales you will have of the deals you will make," Belle offered along with his teacup.
Rumplestiltskin smiled as he accepted the fine porcelain. "Don't wait too eagerly dearie," he instructed with a teasing smile that he only pretended to try and hide behind his cup, for he smiled over its edge rather than behind it. "I need more straw."
They grew a fair bit of straw now, but never anywhere near as much as Rumplestiltskin could spin, so Belle was often sent to town to buy more.
Belle smiled back as she poured a small amount of milk into her own cup. "I'll go in the morning," she promised. "That will give me time to check what the kitchen is running short of."
Rumplestiltskin nodded in approval. "Take the cart," he instructed. "I'm afraid I'll need the carriage, as I'll have to fetch the replacement son for King George – and be sure to wear the amulet I made for you."
Belle smiled as she blew lightly on her tea. "I never have it off my person," she said.
They did this every time. Rumplestiltskin had made the amulet in her first month living in the Dark Castle. It was enchanted to protect Belle from attack of both physical and magical varieties, and also to allow Rumplestiltskin to communicate with Belle, no matter where either of them were. It allowed him to find her, wherever she was – and he would know if she ever removed it from her person when she was outside of the castle grounds. That is not to say that she could not remove it, for certainly she could, he'd just know about it in the same instant it was off her pretty neck.
The seemingly simple little trinket ensured that she was able to travel safely, while also making it so that Rumplestiltskin could keep track of her. Because of its communication function, Belle kept it on even while in the Dark Castle, so that she could quickly attend to her master's needs even if she was cleaning a room on the other side of the estate.
"Good," Rumplestiltskin said firmly, and took a sip of his tea. Then he hesitated. "And you may invite Jefferson and his daughter for tea while I'm gone, if you like," he permitted, his words quickly delivered, as though he did not want to speak them. He took another sip of his tea.
"Thank you. If you are gone for longer than three days, then I might," she agreed.
Jefferson was one of Rumplestiltskin's rare associates that he actually... not enjoyed, Rumplestiltskin didn't really enjoy anybody's company (except maybe for Belle's, and that could be put down to simply being accustomed to her presence), but he tolerated Jefferson more easily than most everybody else.
Jefferson was someone to whom Rumplestiltskin made requests for items to be found, and then let him take as much gold in exchange as Jefferson believed equal to his efforts. With everybody else who did such errands for him, Rumplestiltskin dictated how much gold they would have in exchange for the items they retrieved and delivered.