The Deal is Struck-Prologue
"Fancy meeting you here, dearie," chirped Rumplestiltskin from his perch upon the stone ledge of the balcony. He reclined there—nearly one hundred feet above the forest treetops—as casually as if he reclined on a chaise lounge. Regina threw her shoulders back to mask her surprise. Even when expected, the monster never failed to catch her off guard.
"I take it you got my message," she replied, her voice dripping with the practiced seductive saccharine she employed in all her negotiations. Her voice had a magic of its own, transitioning easily from sultry, to authoritative, to dark brutality. Men never failed to crumple under its power. Unfortunately, Rumplestiltskin was no man.
"Indeed I did," he answered with his typical sing-song tones. Whereas her voice served as an appeal to the lustful urges of men, his mocked all suppositions of pride and power. "I would have come sooner, but this is my busiest season. All the young princelets and princesslets are coming of age and finding true love"—he could never utter those two words in a civil tongue he so detested the idea—"And that makes for a lot of desperate times."
Regina smiled and batted her long eyelashes. "And, you are the master of desperate measures."
He swung his legs off the ledge and onto the balcony dipping into an over-exaggerated bow. "At your service," he sang. His voice suddenly dropped to a low and murderous tone as he rose slowly, "So, whatever reason you've called me away from my business had better be worth my time."
He held his hands behind his back and glared down the ridge of his nose at her as he stepped into her sitting room. Even in her world of grays and blacks, his gold skin and warm brown leather overcoat appeared dark and ominous.
"I've asked you here to give you the one thing I know you've wanted from me all these years." Holding two silver goblets of wine she sauntered over to him and offered him one, which he refused. A pity, it was excellent wine. Then again, trust was not numbered amongst Rumplestiltskin's vices.
"And what's that?" he asked. He seated himself on her gray settee crossing his legs at the knee.
"My congratulations," she paused to register the faintest hint of surprise on his face. "On being the most powerful sorcerer in all of the Enchanted Forest."
His wickedly manic sneer was enough evidence that he was pleased. "You've finally come to my way of seeing things, eh?"
Regina opened her eyes wide, her full lips forming a girlish pout. "Oh, yes. You've beaten me at every turn. I find I am quite outmatched—for now," she added erasing all pretense from her feminine features.
"For always, dearie," he muttered savagely through his clenched teeth.
Regina gave a little shrug and sipped her wine. "Perhaps," she admitted.
Rumplestiltskin could do very little to unsettle her these days. She was accustomed to all his faces: his seething murderous fury, the deathly quiet of his sinister ire, and his manic condescending mockery. While his peculiar charm might wither other enemies, she stood firm. Even so, she could not best him. As the Dark One, he was too powerful. There was some truth in what she had conceded.
"You didn't summon me to hear me gloat. Come, what have you? What leaneth so heavily upon the royal brow?" He rolled his tongue to accentuate her status as royalty, a status she had kept, but never earned.
"I want to make a deal, naturally." She patted the corners of her mouth with a small white napkin. His patronizing attitude dissolved like sugar in hot tea.
"Oh, and what did you have in mind?"
"A simple trade, really. The rule of this world for the next."
Rumplestiltskin threw his head back and laughed. "Quite simple, yes." He stood and walked around her, speaking softly into her ear, "And, you can manage such a delicate exchange? You think you can maintain your position as queen without my help? Because, I should think if you could, one little princess running around in the woods would hardly pose a threat."
His low chuckle rang in her ears like an arrow striking the center of the target. "How is dear Snow?" he whispered.
"You don't think I can do it?"
"No!" he cried as his amusement broke free into a high-pitched squeal of laughter. He grew suddenly calm. "No," he repeated solemnly.
She defiantly placed her hands on her hips, "Your presence in this world is the only reason I have not already succeeded."
The little imp placed a hand over his heart, he sank back onto the settee, and thrashed about as if convulsing. He paused, his feet in midair, glanced her way and asked, "Am I still me? Has the curse been broken?" He threw his gold-flecked hands with their blacked nails in front of his face, "Ah, well, another time, maybe." He laughed again and did not stop.
Regina shouted over his laughter, knowing he was listening to her every word. "It could be done. My powers in this world are surpassed only by yours. Were you to find your happily ever after —or unhappily I don't care which—elsewhere, I could seize this world and bring it to its knees."
"And, what makes you think I would ever, ever, allow the affairs of this world to carry on without my," he paused for effect, "intervention?"
At last, she thought. "There are many worlds to conquer, Rumple. And, many worlds in need of a master who would rule with an iron hand. Some with magic…some without."
He grew very still and sat upright on the couch. His hands clasped in front of his face and his elbows rested on his knees. "I am well aware, Regina. And, all of them are useless," he spat the word.
She sighed and turned her back on him, casually fiddling with some trinket on her vanity table, "I don't know. Have you explored them all? There is magic which we do not possess in our world. Magic that can turn back the sands of time. Magic that can reunite the dead with the living."
The tension in the room began to crackle with electricity like the air before a summer storm. Regina had struck the tender chord—the only chord left in his black heart. Now, she must tread cautiously or risk invoking the Dark One's wrath. Few alluded to the mysterious disappearance, and presumed death, of Rumplestiltskin's son and lived to boast of their recklessness.
Her meaning fully comprehended, she sliced the silence in two. She redirected, "Why be the master of one world, when you can dominate them all—save one?"
"You'd need a portal."
"Yes," she conceded with a smirk.
"I have plans to accompany Jefferson on an excursion to Wonderland."
"And, I take it, he won't be coming back?"
Regina shook her head with a wicked grin. "He'll have to make other arrangements for his return trip."
"I see. Why not keep the portal for yourself? Why pass it on to me?"
Regina took a few powerful steps towards the sofa. "Let's just say I'm invested in the people of this world."
"And, what would you want in return for Jefferson's wee magic hat?"
"Have you finished it?" she asked.
He raised his eyebrows, pretending to be oblivious. "Finished what, dearie?"
She had no qualms naming it aloud, "The Dark Curse. The one you used to swear would end the happiness of everyone." The time had come when Regina was willing to sacrifice her vengeance against Rumplestiltskin if it afforded her the massive victory she so desperately coveted over Snow White and all her followers.
He grimaced, "Not yet."
"Those are my terms: the hat for the curse. This world for the next."
Rumplestiltskin thought about it for only the briefest of moments before growling, "Deal."
Regina smiled in triumph. She sauntered back to her vanity table to fetch a pen. As she signed the contract Rumplestiltskin had conjured, she mentioned casually, "There's one particular concerning the hat which may interest you."
His over-large eyes narrowed to mere slits. "What's that?" he asked with a sharp edge in his voice.
"The same number who travels through the portal must return. I suggest you find a traveling companion. Someone you won't mind leaving behind should you wish to bring back a souvenir."
She heard him exhale sharply through his nose. "I find companions are in short supply."
"Then bargain for one. It wouldn't be the first time you traded in human life. Isn't that little Cinder-girl due soon?"
He nodded, "Yes, but I have no interest in strapping a squalling infant to my back."
Regina stuck out a hip and gave it some thought. She tapped her chin once before saying, "There's a little village right on the edge of ogre territory that's been under siege for weeks. I could refer your services to them. Perhaps you could choose a traveling companion from their party." For once, the spark in his eyes did not make her cringe.
It suited Rumplestiltskin to keep his presence hidden for a time. Nothing satisfied the remaining fragment of his soul more than to delay salvation until the last possible moment. He had arrived in the small armory no less than half an hour ago. However, he had not made his attendance known, taking great delight in the frenetic council between Lord Maurice and his military toadies. He watched in amusement as sweat and tears mingled on Maurice's brow before dropping off the end of his nose onto the large map spread out across the table.
Regina was right; he needed another person to travel through Jefferson's portal. Although Baelfire had likely been dead for over a century, Rumplestiltskin would gladly rend the boundaries of the afterlife to tatters to retrieve his son. If need be, he would douse the fires of the netherworld and set the heavens ablaze. Still, in order to be reunited with his son and return to a land where magic would restore his powers and immortality, he would need a body to leave behind.
Aside from needing someone to take Baelfire's place, he would require a servant in the land without magic. Without his magical abilities, even the most basic chores could take up valuable time. He would have none to spare for such humble occupations while he searched, first for the magic that could reunite the living with the dead, then for a gateway to the land the boy had traveled to, and finally for the soul of the boy himself. The choice must be made before the curse was completed. Once Regina had it in her possession, the time would not be long until its execution. He wanted to be nowhere near the Enchanted Forest when that torment was unleashed.
Rumplestiltskin scanned the room searching for the perfect person to enlist into service. He needed someone who was easily commanded and overpowered but would serve him well. The journey into the unknown promised unforeseen challenges; therefore, he must choose someone strong in both body and spirit. There was no telling how long it would take to complete his quest. It was likely that he would be forced to suffer the presence of this person for years, even decades. So, he felt it necessary to select someone whom he could fairly tolerate without turning them into a roast duckling.
He considered the candidates within the room. Lord Maurice was out of the question. Rumplestiltskin could not spend more than five minutes with a warmongering dolt who crumpled under the slightest adversity. Some of the advisors seemed fairly competent and more than placating; however, their age counted against them. Long past their prime, they could not endure the unexplored magical wilderness. For a moment, he considered the young knight, Gaston. Despite his apparent bravery, adventurous spirit, and physical health, Rumplestiltskin quickly dismissed him for the proud look in his eye. Gaston was looking to play the hero for the glory of his own name. The little champion would no doubt take the first opportunity to overthrow his master. Of course, he would not succeed; but, then Rumplestiltskin would be compelled to destroy the lad and select someone else to accompany him.
A flash of gold caught his eye. A young woman, dressed in a shade of yellow the color of a coin in the afternoon sun, entered the room and rushed to Maurice's side. Her brow was furrowed, and she clutched a book, The Anatomy of Magical Beasts, to her chest. The book spoke of her intelligence, for not many young women found pleasure in such prodigious research. The young girl opened the book and pointed to a page.
"If we positioned our archers on top of the ridge they could safely aim for the eyes of the ogres, Papa."
"They're blind, Belle! Ogres hunt by sound and smell." Maurice raised his voice in despair, "What good will it do to aim for sightless eyes?"
"Just listen to me! It's their only weakness—we could defeat the ogres without any more of our men dying out there!"
Her voice was strong and sure, but Rumplestiltskin watched as Maurice took her by the elbow and gently guided her away from the conference with a pained expression on his face. With some effort, Rumplestiltskin stifled his laughter. The girl chaffed under the guiding paternal touch of her father. Her mouth was set in a grim line. This beauty was no fool, despite being the daughter of one. The men of course, saw her only as the glittering jewel of the local aristocracy. They ignored her completely on this serious matter. A shame, she could have saved the entire village.
Belle, as the girl was called, refusing to be shut out, clapped the book shut and edged her way back towards the table. The news arrived. Another nearby village, Avonlea, had fallen. Maurice sank into his chair overcome with grief wailing, "Ogres are not men!"
Rumplestiltskin nearly revealed his presence in the room with a peal of laughter. Of course ogres were not men! He pitied the village that was led by such a brainless and inarticulate man. With what moving speech did he inspire his troops to provoke the ogres into battle? How had he managed to propel his people into the third Ogre War? The creatures were violent, blind, brutes, but not prone to wage battle. If left to themselves, they kept to the solitude of their swamps and hunting grounds.
All war is born of fools, he thought to himself. And the wise profit from the carnage.
Maurice continued on, lamenting about the delayed arrival of the hoped for help. The aging lord was weak and had begun to crumple. No army stands for long once its leader has fallen. Belle rushed to her father's side, refusing to give in to hopelessness, "He could be on his way right now, Papa!"
Rumplestiltskin made his decision. He would have the girl. She was bright, capable, and strong spirited. Despite being belittled and ignored, she did not sulk, but attempted to fortify others. She was not self-seeking nor was her pride easily injured. These were qualities of which he could easily take advantage.
He fired a simple knocking spell at the door and drew the attention of the small group. Rumplestiltskin slipped from his vantage point in the corner and took a seat in the lord's throne-like chair.
"Well, that was a bit of a letdown," he called. They were so easily fooled.
He quickly offered his services and named his price. He relished the outrage which erupted across their faces. Oh yes, the villain had come to steal their precious gem. The gallant peacock of a knight, Gaston, flourished his sword and threw a protective arm over Belle, shielding her from the monster's gaze.
"It's her or no deal," he stated. Rumplestiltskin smiled to himself as he headed towards the door. Young Belle looked like a prisoner testing the strength of her iron chains. Chivalry needled the girl.
It was no surprise when she called out, "No, wait!" He turned to find her blue eyes were fixed on his as she vowed, "I will go with him."
He turned on his heels. Gaston, a mere yapping dog, howled, "I forbid it!"
Maurice bellowed, "No!"
Belle made herself heard, probably for the first time. She turned to her father and supercilious fiancé and said, "No one decides my fate but me."
"It's forever, dearie," Rumplestiltskin cautioned.
"My family, my friends—they will all live?" she asked, confirming the terms.
"You have my word," he promised.
"Then you have mine. I will go with you…forever."
As she said goodbye to her father, no one noticed the sudden quiet rising from the battlefield. With a nod of his head, he had cleared the territory of the ogre army, transforming their ranks into beetles. "Congratulations on your little war," he scoffed.
Belle seemed relieved, as if she had escaped a fate more appalling than the one she had just accepted. How unfortunate she had found her freedom by indenturing herself to him for all eternity. Rumplestiltskin vaguely hoped that the afterlife into which he tossed her was at least halfway pleasant. What a pity to remove her from this world where she could have done much good if given the opportunity.
He placed a hand on the small of her back, escorting her in the fashion of a gentleman to which she was accustomed. Whereas before she had assessed him with some modicum of objectivity, she now rankled at the polite offer of his arm. Rumplestiltskin smiled at the silent rebuff. He handled no one with kid gloves. It gave him satisfaction to know Belle would neither expect nor appreciate such conduct from him. They would get on well without having to keep up the pretense of civility.
A/N: Thank you for choosing to read True Magic! I hope you enjoy it! Please, feel free to post your comments and reviews. Even though the story is "complete" I would love to hear your thoughts.
Thank you to all the Oncers who voted and helped True Magic win "Best Multi-Chapter Fanfiction" in the 2013 Once Upon a Fan Awards!